Collier called me the following afternoon with the details for the party on Friday where he was planning to make his big announcement. Nate confirmed that the list of RSVPs included a whole shedload of senior people from the Review as well as most of Collier’s associates in Boston society and, as an added bonus, the BPD Commissioner who had miraculously ended up on the guest list meticulously prepared by Sophie-as-Maria-Gambourne. Hardison was onsite for the evening too, playing venue AV technician, but I spotted Lucille parked a little way down the street and realised, once I had the earbud back in, that Nate, Eliot and Parker were pretty close by as well.
Feeling like an incredibly fake Jackie Kennedy in the Shoshanna crepe wrap dress that Sophie had insisted I get new for the occasion, I managed to hang onto Collier’s arm and get introduced to a lot of very nice literary and artsy-type people without making a complete ass of myself. It took two odious hours before the stage was fully set, as it were, but finally Sophie-as-Maria took the stand on the small podium at the front of the room to introduce Collier formally for the announcement.
I gave him a peck on the cheek for luck and applauded politely with the rest as he went up, beaming that megawatt smile around the room.
‘Here we go,’ Sophie said quietly, arriving at my side. ‘It’s all in the timing.’
It’s a good thing she thought to stand by me, because I’d have entirely forgotten the part about making a discreet exit in favour of exploding into totally inappropriate laughter as, instead of the supposedly-planned campaign launch slideshow to stirring music, the screen behind Collier lit up with all the files that uncovered his theft from the Review’s paper submissions and, as an added bonus, the fact that he’d apparently used his position at the journal to cheekily shift about a hundred grand in “campaign funds” from the Review’s donation coffers. As if that wasn’t enough, because Alec Hardison had to be the overachiever, the speakers blared out a recording as accompaniment to the visuals – it sounded like Parker had provided the voice over talent – announcing the real author of each essay or critique as it appeared onscreen along with the meta data confirming the date and time of the scan or image.
The last thing I saw before Sophie whisked me out of a side door was Collier’s aghast expression and the police commissioner rounding on him with a firm clear of his throat. Hardison met us on the stairs and we bolted at top speed for Lucille, bundling inside just in time to hear the police scanner come to life as a car was summoned to the building for an arrest related to mass fraud and theft, or something similarly official-sounding.
Even better, we drove back to park up just opposite the venue entrance and opened the side doors of the van to watch as Collier was summarily escorted out in handcuffs by a gruff-looking detective while the cream of Boston’s literary scene watched in aghast amazement amidst lots of head-shaking and muttering.
He looked up just before being shoved into the back seat and a look of utter bafflement crossed his face as he took in the sight of us; Nate idly leaning with his hands in his pockets, Sophie perched on the chair in the back, Hardison and Parker up in the front grinning out of the same side window, and me standing with my back to Eliot’s chest as he wrapped an arm around my shoulders, leaning in to kiss my cheek.
‘There,’ Nate said to me in a low voice. ‘Watch and you’ll see the exact moment he clocks it.’
‘Not to mention the moment his heart breaks,’ Sophie added with a smirk.
I hid a grin and turned to let Eliot pull me properly into his arms, tilting my head up to give him a real kiss and yes, well, maybe I made a bit of a show of snuggling against him after that but it felt like I’d earned it. There was an instant’s glimpse of Collier’s jaw dropping open in horrified realisation and then he was gone, into the car and being driven away.
‘How much we get him for?’ Hardison asked.
‘Five million,’ Sophie supplied. ‘He had it, but not liquid, and couldn’t get it fast enough for the campaign “deadline” so opted to “borrow” it from the Review, always with the plan of replacing it of course…’
‘That and the IP violations’ll clean him out and land him a chunk of time,’ Nate said smugly. ‘The editors and trustees will lead the charge on that one I expect, given the Review’s reputation; they’ll want to make it clear it was the action of the man, not the magazine. All the real authors get settlements, public retractions and apologies, and Mister Collier can work on his essay prose from a jail cell. Come on, let’s go before someone starts paying us any real attention.’
‘I think I see why you love this job,’ I commented once we were back in McRory’s and Nate had slipped off to make the call to the client. ‘I’ve been top of the NYT Bestsellers list five times now but that look on Collier’s face was better than all of those put together.’
‘You did well for a pretty involved first-time grift,’ Sophie said. ‘Might make a Rebecca Silver out of you yet!’
‘Nooo, thank you…I think I’ll stick to playing occasional spare bimbos if you need them,’ I said firmly, grimacing and downing the shot of bourbon in front of me. ‘Well, and cheerleading for the team hitter, of course.’
‘Damn right.’ Eliot hooked an arm around my waist and gave me a kiss. ‘Gotta get you a uniform for that, huh?’
I thumped him for being a pervert while Sophie and Hardison snickered and Parker squinted in confusion, but fortunately Nate was back before she could formulate the inevitably awkward line of questioning.
‘She’ll be here in an hour or so. Well done,’ he added to me with a wry expression. ‘Your micro-expressions were barely convincing, and I’ve seen better body language control from an Alzheimer’s patient, but clearly Collier’s infatuation with you carried the day, so…’
‘Nate!’ Sophie started batting at him in protest at that matter-of-fact delivery but I let the giggle slip out as I rather agreed with the verdict; I was never going to take up full-time occupation as a professional con artist, even if I appreciated the skillset in other people.
‘No, no, Soph, he’s right, I was pretty awful, not to mention I spent most of the time torn between wanting to laugh or slap the mark round the head. I think you’ll have to stick to Parker as your star grifting pupil.’
‘I think that’s an excellent idea,’ Nate said, so I smacked him on the arm on principle, but we were all chuckling by now so there wasn’t much feeling in it.
After another round the pub door opened to admit a very nervous-looking young woman who turned out to be Kassidy Cooper, so Nate went to do the wrapup with her. When he slid the large cheque across the table – courtesy of Karl Collier’s “campaign donation” which Hardison had already vanished via a series of shell accounts and god knew what else – she clapped a hand to her mouth and started crying.
‘Oh dear.’ Sophie started to get up but I beat her to it and slid into the chair beside Nate, to his evident surprise.
‘Kassidy?’ I asked as gently as I could. ‘My name’s Tess. Tess Fisher.’
A few watery blinks and then she boggled at me.
‘Tess – the Tess Fisher? The novelist?’
‘Yep, that’s me.’ I indicated Sophie as she took the other chair. ‘Meet Rebecca Silver. Well, the inspiration for her, at any rate.’
That got an outright double-take, so I nodded to the table and indicated Eliot.
‘And that’s Jackson Steel. Or, again, the model for.’
‘Oh my god!’
‘You can’t tell anyone,’ I added, with what was meant to be a conspiratorial wink but probably came off more like an uncontrolled facial tic.
‘That’s – that’s amazing! I had no idea-‘
‘Your essay was amazing, Kassidy.’ Probably better to get her back on-topic. ‘I’m crappy at non-fiction but someone with your way with words…you can really do something with that. You should do something with that.’ Getting out my phone, I hit send on the two emails I’d drafted earlier with Hardison’s assistance. ‘There. I’ve just introduced you to two agents that my agent knows on this side of the pond who specialist in socio-political commentary work. Once the Review issues those redactions I have a feeling they’ll be pretty keen to talk to you.’
She burst into fresh tears, rambling gratitude and appreciation to me, to Nate, to the coasters on the table, to the hanging lamp and pretty much everything else in the general area, but Sophie got her calmed down and after a few more minutes we were able to get her moving out of the bar. I tried not to guffaw inappropriately when she confirmed that the first thing she was going to do – after depositing the cheque of course – would be to quit her job slinging fries at the fast food restaurant so she could have more free time to write and actually work on her degree.
‘That was very sweet,’ Sophie said to me once the girl was gone. ‘Bit risky though, isn’t it, sticking your neck – and name – out there?’
‘I suspect Miss Cooper will be a paragon of discretion,’ Nate observed with a chuckle, but actually raised his glass to me with something vaguely akin to a genuine smile. ‘But yes, it was…a nice thought. For Bimbo Number Two.’
After I offered to pour his whisky into his hair as recrimination for that, and we’d all had a few more drinks, Eliot and I went home and wound up on the roof garden, curled up together on the big hammock while the breeze from the river took the edge off the warm springtime evening.
‘Can hear your brain creaking,’ he said after a few minutes. ‘Still thinking about the job?’
‘Not really.’ I snuggled under his arm a bit more, smiling against his shirt at the feel of his fingers lightly stroking between my shoulder blades. ‘Just…thinking.’
I felt rather than saw his smile against my forehead.
‘Just…I mean, two years ago I was sitting in my house in Islington banging my head against the table because I was so stuck on writing a chapter I got desperate enough to call Sophie and randomly fly to Boston.’ With a small sigh, I constructed a shrug. ‘The worst case of writer’s block I ever had, and it wound up…here. Hanging around with the Avengers, helping some kid writer get something like justice, and…’ my own smile sort of snuck out without me having any say in the matter ‘…now I’m in a roof garden hammock with my new muse, the love of my life, who could kill Chuck Norris with his pinkie…’
That got a rumbling laugh and Eliot gave me a squeeze, nudging my nose with his.
‘Love of your life, huh?’
‘I know, I know.’ I grinned up at him. ‘Cheese ball, remember?’
‘Told you, ain’t nothing wrong with cheese.’ He leaned down and gave me a long, sweet kiss. ‘I’m pretty damn glad you got stuck on that chapter, too.’
‘Well, I hope there are plenty more.’ I sighed happily and breathed him in. ‘Chapters, I mean. And jobs.’
‘There will be, darlin.’ He tucked my head under his chin and laced our fingers together. ‘There will be.’
fin (for now)