A Turn of the Cards. Chapter 15. La La Love You

alex face optimistic.jpg
A Turn of the Cards
Chapter 15.
La La Love You
by Rebecca Anderson

Sex alleviates tension. Love causes it.
– Woody Allen


 
I flew back to Logan with a mountain weighing on me. Sunhee and I were seated in different rows, so I couldn't talk to her, and as a result I had too much time for reflection. I tried to distract myself by listening to The Magnetic Fields on my mp3 player. Because it held hardly any songs I listened to You and Me and The Moon, Long Vermont Roads, The Flowers She Sent and the Flowers She Said She Sent, and Take Ecstasy With Me, over and over. I loved that the little player was like an infinitely rewritable mixtape, and I made a note to myself that I should aim to develop something better, that held more music — maybe an mp3 player with a small hard drive? It could hold thousands of songs. I wondered how expensive that would be.

I rolled other ideas around in my head with each song. I had thought, before the weekend, that all I needed to do was take down Arun. Then I'd have settled my deal with Grieves, and made my peace with the law. I would have taken the money I had remaining, and gone on to find a more normal life. If you could call the life of an unintentional transsexual normal.

Coles's revelations about Alice had changed that. I had known something was off about Alice — Lucy and I had discussed it, and of course Sunhee had sent me the photocopy of Alice's ID.

My new deal with Coles, made at McCarran, was that I would contact him as soon as Alice made plans to meet again. "If you can get her to admit to espionage – perhaps to stealing from your friend Peter Johanssen – that will be all we need."

Coles had given me two hurdles to jump instead of one. I thought I knew how I might deal with Arun, but I wasn't sure at all how to deal with Alice.

At Logan I had no luggage to collect, so I made sure Sunhee got a cab before me, then tumbled into one myself. Boston was cold. There had been an early, heavy snow, and while the place looked pretty, the air was icy. I was pleased to be home all the same. Vegas had taken a lot out of me emotionally.

Now that I knew Arun wasn't the mastermind behind the whole operation I was oddly sympathetic to his plight. When I landed at Logan there were four new voicemails from him, and when I arrived back at my apartment he was waiting in his car on the street out front.

"Alex," he called as I got out of the cab at my place. I turned to deal with him. He'd got out of the car, and was crossing the street. "Alex," he called again, like he needed reassurance it was actually me. I wondered how long he had been waiting.

"Hey, Arun," I said. "How goes it? Saturday was weird, wasn't it?"

"Weird, and damaging," he said. He was close enough now, on the sidewalk, that I could see him more clearly. He was in pretty poor shape, hadn't shaved, maybe hadn't even showered since Saturday. I had never seen him like that before.

"Are you okay?"

He seemed to consider this for a moment before answering.

"Yes, I'm fine." He wasn't in such bad shape that he could think I believed him, but I didn't say anything in return. "Listen, I need you to get that money from the Bank of America account at Porter Square."

"You have a key to the box, right?"

"Yes, but I think I'm being followed."

"What?" I made a show of looking up and down my street. There was snow all over the sidewalks, and it cast a strange reflection from the moon and streetlights on the trees above. I had no doubt at all that Arun was being followed. By Grieves, at least, but if Grieves was right, probably by other people, too. "By whom?"

"Several people."

"But you're okay? We're okay?"

"Yes. But we're tapped out of free cash, we have to go back to the reserves."

"Arun …"

"Yes?"

"I gave the Porter Square money to Alice."

"To Alice? Why the fuck would you do that?"

"She told me …" I didn't exactly know where I was going with this. I had planned something different, but that had been supposed to take place in Vegas, not Cambridge, and Sunday morning, not Monday night. Now I was having to improvise.

"Told you what?"

"She told me you were being watched." Based on what Coles had told me, I thought it might seem credible to Arun that Alice might have done that.

"I thought you and Alice weren't on speaking terms?" Arun said.

"We made up."

"So that still doesn't explain why you gave Alice that cash."

"She had … a very specific need for it. She told me you knew about it."

"You didn't think to check?"

"Well, you know. You and Alice. I thought …"

I was being catty. That's such an old and sexist word, but it's how I was acting. Throwing Alice's treachery in Arun's face. If I had felt sympathetic toward him earlier, I certainly wasn't showing it. It occurred to me at the time, though, that this was the longest one-on-one discussion I had ever had with Arun.

Arun put his hand over his eyes for a moment. When he put it back down he looked like a defeated man.

"I don't suppose you have any other cash?"

"Not on the East Coast."

"Oh, Alex …" He slumped a little, and turned to go. He took a couple of steps, then squared his shoulders, turned and looked back at me. "You still in love with Alice?"

"No."

"Neither am I. Good luck, Alex." He turned away, again.

"Arun. Wait."

He turned around again, and stood in the middle of the street.

"I'm sorry," I said. I genuinely was.

"Sorry for what?" He seemed puzzled.

"Sorry about Alice," I said.

He shrugged. "Even Alice is sorry about Alice," he said.

He walked to his car. I stood and watched as he drove away, then turned and walked upstairs.

 

~o~O~o~

 

As I climbed our steps they were slippery, but I was glad to be careful of the ice. It felt somehow reassuring. Even while the steps felt treacherous, the experience felt solid, real. There was no secret government agency involved in the weather — at least so far as I knew. For the time being I was done with the FBI, the CIA, Treasury. I was back in the real world.

Finally I got to the door. All the lights were on inside and out, and I could hear music — Outkast, if I recall correctly — and I threw the door wide open and traipsed snow all over the mat.

Pete stuck his head around the doorway from the living room, into the hall. He beamed at me.

I had never been so glad to see Pete as I was then.

I somehow managed to leap up to hug him, in such a way that he lifted me off the ground entirely, and I wound up with my arms and legs wrapped around him. It was spontaneous, something that just seemed right. And yet, almost as soon as I had unwound myself, and stood, with his arms still around me, I knew that I had gone too far. It was too intimate. Too normal. Too sexual. Too heterosexual — if I had actually been a girl. But I wasn't, so that made it …

"So hey," he said, suddenly awkward. "Good job."

"Excellent job, I think." I smiled, searching his face, to see whether I had really gone too far. He was smiling, but there was some uncertainty there, too. I had broken the standoff we had been so studiously observing since the night he rejected me, and now everything was fragile again.

"I feel bad I didn't come back on the same flight as you. But thanks for the jet, that was good."

"It was safer," I said. "No sense in taking more chances than we have already."

I could feel this awkward gulf opening between us, from me being too physical. When I thought back on it the next day I thought maybe I should have left well enough alone, but at the time, me being me, tone-deaf to how to deal with relationships, my idiot-savant-in-reverse self decided to press on.

I had to know where Pete stood.

"Hey, Pete," I continued, after a brief awkward pause.

"Yes?"

"So, you and me, just then."

"Forget about it."

"What if I don't want to forget about it?"

"Uh …" He seemed even more uncomfortable. Alarm bells should have gone off in my head, then, but there was something perverse in me that decided I had to know the truth, regardless of the consequences.

"I love you, Pete Johanssen." There. I had said it.

If there's something I've learned over the years with Pete, it's that confronting him with raw emotion was a really bad idea. Like a lot of guys I've met, he finds it extraordinarily difficult to deal with what he might characterize as "mushy stuff." It's kind of juvenile, I know, but it seems from talking with my girl friends that it's hardly uncommon.

Anyway, as soon as I said "I love you" it was like he'd had an electric shock, and he stiffened up and even jerked a little.

"Ah, Alex … Alex …"

There was a long pause while I waited for him to finish his response. Eventually it became clear that he actually wasn't going to. Both of us faced each other in the hallway, close enough to kiss and yet seemingly a million miles apart emotionally.

"You don't love me."

"No. Yes. I mean … Alex, I don't know, it's complicated."

"You slept with me. I mean, we've slept together several times."

"Yes. Yes, but …"

My heart felt like a small lump of coal. Why had Pete been so overwhelmingly helpful? Why had we been so close again lately? We had been friends, with an edge. Friends, maybe more, but … There was this 'but' — 'Yes, but …'

Was it just that I didn't measure up to his idea of what a partner should be?

That had to be it.

We stood facing one another and neither of us said anything for at least thirty seconds. For Pete and I, that was a long time to be silent. I tried to work out what was going on in his mind. He looked concerned, anxious even. All I wanted was some small sign of reassurance. But none came.

"Godammit, Johanssen, I loved you, you prick." I waited about a second for him to respond, but he was standing there with a kind of look of panic on his face. Whatever he was feeling, it didn't seem like he was feeling love. I was a curiosity. We were friends, but he'd only slept with me when we were drunk, and when we were sober, I wasn't good enough.

I'd never be good enough.

I turned around and headed for the front door. He didn't say anything, and I didn't look back.

 

~o~O~o~

 

I spent the night at Susan's. She was understanding, but I was pretty much inconsolable. How had I allowed myself to think that Peter Johanssen, of the Norse god looks, enormous intellect, and great integrity, could possibly be interested in an in-between, underdeveloped, sexually ambiguous oddity like me? I must have been delusional.

Susan tried to cheer me up. She pointed out that our trip to Vegas had been a big success. Sure, I still didn't know how to pay off Coles, or whether I was in the clear with the Treasury Department, but we had executed a plan, and done it well.

It still wasn't enough to make me feel better.

"Fuck it," I finally said to Susan, after a few hours sobbing. I was all cried out, back in that state of relief that only comes after a good cry. "Fuck men. Fuck him."

"You know you still want to be friends," Susan said. "You'll still want that, when you've had some distance. But it's going to be hard."

"Well, I'm going to have to move out," I said. "I can't stay in the same house with him."

"You can stay here a few weeks, until you sort it out."

"Thanks." I went to bed.

 

~o~O~o~

 

Coles didn't wait long to call me. It was Monday lunchtime. I had slept late, and was only just showered, so when he suggested we needed to talk about Alice and my promise, I was able to stall him until early afternoon without telling any lies. "I'm only just up," I said. He gave me an address at Copley Plaza and told me to be there no later than 2pm.

I borrowed some clothes from Susan's closet, and caught a cab downtown rather than drive from Susan's. The address turned out to be a bland little office building just off the Plaza. The name Coles had given me was "Birchfield Associates," which could have meant anything.

Once at the office I was quickly ushered to a small meeting room, where Coles and another two men were waiting. Coles introduced the guy in the suit next to him, as FBI Agent Willis. Another man was sitting at the far end of the table, next to a large equipment carry case. Coles introduced him to me, as well, but I didn't catch his name. I did catch a reference to "tech," and to FBI. At the Casino Coles had told me the FBI thought Arun was working with Russians, but here they were anyway, wanting Alice Kim.

Agent Willis outlined the FBI plan: if I could wear a wire, they would follow everything. I must have seemed dubious — I'd seen a lot of television and movies where the person wearing the wire comes off badly.

Coles must have sensed this, because he tried to reassure me. There was, he promised, no risk to me. They were not planning to swoop on Alice while she was still with me. That would come later — assuming she said anything to incriminate herself.

I wasn't sure I could trust Coles, but I felt a strange sense that maybe I owed him after the way I had tricked him in Vegas, and besides, I did want payback at Alice, for her lies, and for her theft from Pete.

"Okay," I said.

"Okay?"

"Okay, I'll do what you want."

"No skipping out on us this time," Willis said. Obviously Coles had told him what had happened in Vegas.

"That's enough, Carl," Coles said to Willis.

"So what now?" I asked.

"Bob?" Coles was talking to the man next to the hard case on the table. Bob pulled out a small piece of wire with what looked like a band aid attached to it, and approached me.

"Excuse me, he said. "May I?"

I nodded, and he lifted up the edge of my sweater, and began to fumble around on my upper abdomen.

"Would it be easier if I took this off?" I asked, and he nodded. I looked over at Coles. He had seen me near-naked before, in the corridor at the Bellagio, but I wasn't in a hurry now, and there seemed no need of a repeat performance. Coles nodded, and he and Willis left the office.

"You're with the FBI?" I said to Bob. I was having trouble keeping up with all the arms of government involved in catching Alice and Arun. I took off the turtleneck sweater I had borrowed from Susan, and then the camisole I had underneath it, until – from the waist up – I was only in my bra.

"It's a joint operation," Bob the tech said. He fumbled around a little and attached the band aid part of the microphone to my skin just above the flower in the middle of my bra. Then he ran the wire tail for about 2 inches down my thorax. The wire tail was sheathed in a clear plastic covering, and the whole arrangement, circular sticking band aid and tail, looked like a kind of Frankenstein daisy. I put my camisole back on, and then my sweater, and even though the sweater clung closely to my meager curves there was no evidence I was wearing anything other than my clothes.

Bob turned to his hard case, where a couple of LEDs glowed, and asked me to say something. I helpfully replied, with maximum intelligence, "What?"

Bob nodded, satisfied.

"I thought the FBI and the CIA didn't get on that well?"

"We cooperate when we have to." He walked to the door and let Coles and Willis back in.

"You ready to call the curious Ms Kim?" Agent Willis asked as he entered.

"What do I say?"

"Tell her you need to see her?"

"Why? I mean, she'll want to know why."

"Weren't you guys friends?"

"That was a long time ago," I said. It felt like forever ago.

"Well, tell her you have money for her. That would work, yes."

"After Saturday night?"

"You saw Kapoor last night, right?" Willis said.

I wondered whether the CIA or FBI had had my place under surveillance. "Yes, but he didn't give me money."

"Do you think she knows that?"

"I don't know. Maybe. Maybe not. Arun seemed like he didn't want to go to her to ask for money."

"So tell her Kapoor gave you money, to give to the team, for a new job on a Casino. That's what you guys do, right?"

"Wait," I said. "I'm confused. I thought you wanted me to get Alice to talk about her role in hacking Pete, and everything like that. What does that have to do with hitting another Casino?"

This time it was Coles that spoke. "You just want to see her. Can you think of another way to arrange it?"

I could. I pulled by cellphone from my purse and flipped it open, then looked at Coles for approval. He nodded.

I punched in the number, hit connect, and held my breath while it rang. Would Alice take a call from me? I expected it to go through to voicemail.

"Alice," I said, when she finally answered. "Thanks for answering. Listen, I –"

I waited while she interrupted to say hello, then continued. "Alice, I saw Arun last night. He was in a pretty bad way. Have you seen him?" I was pretty sure what the answer was going to be.

"No. Not since we got back."

"He said some things. I don't want to repeat them over the phone. Can we meet?"

We agreed to meet at the Somerville Public Library. It was pretty much walking distance from my old place, and a quick drive from Susan's. I hung up and Coles gave me the thumbs up.

Coles and Agent Willis walked me to the elevator and then stood on either side of me as we descended to the basement car park. It was a little intimidating, and I said so to Coles.

"My apologies, Alex." He moved about a foot further away from me.

"So, I asked Agent Bob back there earlier. You guys —" I indicated Willis, and then Coles, "— don't usually work together, right? I mean," I said to Coles, "you're not supposed to do things in the US, that's the FBI's job."

Coles flicked his eyes to Willis before he answered me. "We've been invited to collaborate. There's a big part of this investigation that is also going on overseas, but it's best that you don't know anything about that, for your own safety."

"But that first time, in Vegas, you were alone, I think."

"Maybe, maybe not." Coles said. "Besides —" he exchanged looks with Willis again, "— there are things the CIA can do that the FBI can't. We have programs that aren't subject to the same oversight."

"It's still illegal," I said.

Coles shrugged. "I think you're a patriot, Alex. We're getting the job done here."

I had never even considered whether I was or not. We were out of the elevator and walking toward a large SUV.

"What kind of programs?" I asked.

"You know I can't tell you that," Coles said. "But let me put it this way. If the FBI had carried you, upside down, through a Casino, you'd probably have sued."

"I might yet."

"Knock yourself out." Coles said, as he opened the door of a GMC Envoy and ushered me in. "I think you'll find it's a lot more trouble than it's worth. This is a new era, Alex. There are a lot of bad guys out there. A lot of programs are designed now to be deniable. The FBI will take care of Alex Kim. But I want things from someone else, and the FBI isn't allowed to do what's necessary." He nodded to Willis. "No offense."

Willis shrugged after he climbed into the SUV. I was sandwiched in the rear seat between him and another FBI agent I hadn't been introduced to. "Besides," Coles said through the open door of the SUV, "it's not like negotiating with the North Koreans is really working for us, is it?"

"You know," I said to Coles, "I always thought 'oversight' was an odd word to use in the context of Government Committees that review spending programs." I said. "Used as a noun, the word means overlook something in the sense of not seeing it. You know, missing something is an oversight. As a verb, we use it to mean looking at something carefully. Maybe the use of the word isn't an accident. When you say oversight, are you using a noun or a verb?"

Agent Willis rolled his eyes.

"Alex," Coles said, as he closed the door of the SUV. "It's a pleasure working with you. But seriously, you think too much."

 

~o~O~o~

 

Grieves called me on my cellphone after the SUV had exited the carpark and was heading across the Charles. Another agent whose face I couldn't see was driving all of us to the rendezvous with Alice. All the agents looked pretty much alike - short hair, thick neck, black suit jacket — but I felt like there was something familiar about this guy.

I was grateful for the call from Grieves, both because I was wondering what had become of Arun, and because I welcomed the distraction from the forthcoming meeting with Alice.

"Agent Grieves. How are we?" I could see Willis recognized the name.

"You met with Arun last night." Grieves said.

"I did. He wasn't a happy camper."

"His backers met with him today."

"And?"

"We arrested the two of them immediately afterward. Mr. Kapoor has agreed to turn State's Witness for us, against them."

"That's good, right?"

"Yes, that's very good. We still don't have their boss, but we're working on that."

"The boss — I guess they will try to kill Arun."

"We're expecting that, yes."

"So you'll, like, put him in witness protection or something?"

"I can't talk about that, Alex."

"No, I guess not." I looked past the FBI agent, out the window. We were travelling along Mass Avenue. On the street was a group of people, around my age, probably students, perhaps on their way home from classes at MIT. They all looked cheerful. I suddenly felt so much older than all of them. How simple my life as a student had been.

Here I was, all growed up, suddenly. It didn't feel the way I had imagined it might. It felt lonely, and incomplete.

Grieves was still talking. "I wanted to thank you, Alex."

"So we're good?"

"Your, um, creative disposal of your winnings was difficult for us."

"But legal." I wondered if I should have Tom on this call.

"Yes, legal. Very clever. And not such a bad outcome, all things considered."

"You're not recording this call, are you?"

"No. This is a personal call, to thank you. I will make an official call about the conclusion of our interest in you to your lawyer, Mr. Robicheaux. And you will, eventually, get an official letter."

"Thank you."

"We have your deposition. It's possible we may need you to testify, but we have Mr. Kapoor, so we may not."

"Okay. I hope not."

"I can't promise. We'll see. Have the FBI and CIA been decent in their dealings with you?"

"You know about that, too? I thought you guys didn't talk." much as I had softened toward Grieves, I didn't feel like telling him I was wearing an FBI wire at that very moment at the behest of the CIA.

"In the world of money, Alex, everyone talks to everyone. We mightn't like one another much, but everyone always seems to be eating each other's lunch."

"They're okay, I guess."

"Call me if there's anything I can do."

"You're awfully nice, for a Government Agent."

"Not all of us are J. Edgar Hoover. Good luck, Alex. I hope never to see you in a professional capacity again."

"Thank you. You too."

We had arrived at the Library. I flipped my phone closed.

 

~o~O~o~

 

It turned out the driver of the SUV that took me to the library was the agent who had been with Coles in the Casino in Vegas. I had seen his neck and back in detail, while slung over his shoulder. He pulled the car around the corner into Winslow Avenue, out of sight of the library entrance. After looking around for a few moments he turned around in the passenger seat. "Are you good?"

"I guess so," I said. I was never going to forgive him for carrying me upside down in the Casino, but I tried to keep my voice level. While this excitement was a welcome distraction from thinking about Pete, I was actually nervous as hell. It wasn't that I expected the meeting with Alice to be dangerous: I didn't even consider that at the time. But there was something about knowing I was wearing a wire that made me sweaty and fidgety. I was sure Alice would notice. I felt guilty, even though I had nothing to feel guilty about. Alice was the guilty one.

Willis got out of the car and let me out. I walked around the corner without looking back. Then I stood on the steps of the library for about ten minutes. No sign of Alice. I began to consider sitting on the steps instead, but they're quite shallow and there didn't seem to be a way to do it with any kind of dignity.

Just as I was beginning to think she wasn't going to show at all, the silver Mercedes I had seen that day in Watertown pulled up beside the Eglise Baptiste Church, and Alice got out. I walked down the short path from the steps to the street to meet her as she crossed.

We exchanged pleasantries, but briefly. Hanging over both of us was the knowledge that Arun was gone, but neither of us wanted to address the subject first. We both stood for a moment, silent. A teen boy walked between us, and I crossed the sidewalk so we could talk more easily.

"You talk with Arun?" I asked finally.

"No. You?"

"He came to see me last night. He was upset."

"Well …"

"Alice … I know what's been going on."

"You know what?"

"About where the money came from. What it was used for."

She didn't seem surprised. "You've always been smart, Alex."

"Obviously not smart enough"

"What else did he say?"

I decided to go out on a limb. "He told me the truth about you." She couldn't know that wasn't true.

"The truth."

"About who you work for."

"You know where the money comes from?"

"No, I mean who you really work for. Sunhee Koh told me part of it, but I didn't connect all the pieces. Augmented AI. China. North Korea? All that."

"Yes."

"Pretty much everything you ever told me was a lie, right?"

"Not everything," she said. For a moment I almost wanted to believe she had some kind of remorse. Was the look on her face an indication that she had valued our friendship? Or was it just guilt at having been caught out?

"We were friends, Alex," she said.

"You steal from your friends?"

"Everyone steals, Alex."

"Not me."

"You steal from the Casinos."

"It's not stealing."

"That doesn't make it right." She shuffled and glanced back at the Mercedes. I could see she was about to leave. "So, was that all Arun said? There wasn't anything else?"

"Did you set everything up? The team, me, everything?"

"Some of it. Some of it was Arun's idea."

"What about planting the Trojan on my computer?"

"What about it?"

"That was you, too, right?"

She looked back at the car again, almost like she was asking permission.

"Alice, you owe me. You can't just –"

"Yeah, it was. It was me. I needed to get something."

"Get something?"

"Have something to trade."

"So you stole Pete's algorithm. You stole all his stuff."

"Yes."

"I honestly don't know how you could even admit that. And, you know, not feel ashamed."

She shrugged, which made me crazy.

"Seriously, Alice."

"I didn't mean to hurt you, Alex. It was just something I had to do."

"You said 'trade'. Trade for what?"

"For my brother."

"Your family lives in Connecticut. I didn't know you even had a brother."

"I do. He doesn't live in America."

I had no idea what she meant by that. I was going to ask her, but two young women were walking past with strollers, and by the time they had passed I realized that it was probably best if I didn't know too much more. Clearly I didn't know Alice. I never did, and I probably never would.

Behind Alice, outside the church, there was that same silver Mercedes I had watched her get into with Arun, all those months ago in Watertown. I had no doubt that behind the tinted windows of the car was the same older man. Perhaps he was her handler, as the CIA guys liked to call such men. He was probably what Coles and Willis were really after. Perhaps he was the closest thing Alice had to a father. Who knew? I assumed the parents in Connecticut were just cover. Did she have a real family, somewhere?

"So Alice …" I had what Coles and Willis needed — an admission of espionage. I was going to say goodbye, but I wasn't quite ready. It wasn't that I found it difficult to dismiss her. It was that I wasn't ready, myself, to go.

"Alex." She reached out to touch my face. I let her, but it didn't feel like any special connection between us. I thought back to that time we had met at a party, a few long years earlier, when I had been in love with her. There was none of that now. I wasn't sure I even really knew her at all.

And yet she said, "I do love you," and when she did, her hand on my cheek, it rocked me. Not in a good way. The falseness of it tore at me. I felt a chasm opening up, into which were falling all the good memories – such as there were – from our times together. Listening to the Magnetic Fields in the car on the way to Crane Beach. Dinner at the Italian place near her apartment. Singing along together at Rocky Horror. Lounging around her living room talking about our plans – or lack of plans – for the future. Painting each others toenails. It all tumbled in, until it was all gone. There was just Alice and I, an Alice I didn't really know, standing on College Avenue, with a big silver car behind her waiting to take her wherever it was that I would never know about.

She dropped her hand.

"You killed people, Alice."

"I didn't kill anyone."

"That's sophistry. You had them killed … Lucy. Dan."

"I didn't kill Dan. That was Arun's thugs."

"Lucy, then. Lucy, Alice. For fuck's sake."

"I didn't have a choice. They made me do it."

"Who's they, Alice?"

"It's not important. There's nothing you can do."

"No, there's not. Lucy and Dan are dead."

We both stood, silent, for a few moments. I couldn't tell what was going on in her head, but as I thought about Lucy and Dan I had a sudden feeling I was going to cry. I didn't want to do that. I had no shame in crying, but I didn't want to cry in front of Alice.

"Goodbye, Alice," I said.

I remembered Arun's words the night before. 'Even Alice is sorry about Alice.' What was it like, pretending to be someone else? I had pretended to be something else, but throughout it all, I had been me, whatever that had meant at the time. I was still – as much as I could be – authentic. I finally knew that. I wasn't quite a full woman yet, I definitely wasn't a man, but I was Alex. Alice was verifiably a woman, definitely smart and beautiful, and yet utterly phony. Who was she, really? I didn't know her. Arun didn't know her. Did she know herself? Was the Alice she was, the Alice she had thought she would be, when she started out?

"I'm sorry," she said.

"I would like to believe you," I said. "But I have heard a lot of 'sorry' recently. Besides, I think this falls under the heading of 'strictly business,' and I know how you feel about business."

She looked at me with an enormous sadness in her gorgeous dark eyes and I almost wanted to believe she was sorry. But then she crossed the street to the Mercedes without looking back. As she opened the rear door I caught a brief glimpse of the older man in the back seat, but only for a moment. I imagined he was the one Coles wanted to do extra-judicial things to. Then the car moved off into traffic further down College Avenue. A hundred yards down the street I saw a dark blue Chevy Suburban pull out and begin to follow the Mercedes. Through the windscreen of the Suburban as it passed I thought I saw the face of the agent who had driven me in the GMC earlier that day, but I wasn't sure.

Then Coles himself was at my side, with Bob the FBI tech. They ushered me into their Crown Victoria, parked around the corner on Park Avenue near where the GMC had parked earlier. The tech started to remove my microphone as we drove through Davis Square. Even though it was warm in the car I shivered a little once the microphone was gone.

And then I cried. I cried like I had done in the Wholefoods, great wracking sobs.

And then I didn't feel anything any more.

Coles and the FBI agent who had been with me in the SUV debriefed me at the Agency's office back at Copley Square. Coles was professional and methodical, and it was over quickly. The FBI guy offered to arrange another car to take me home, but I elected to catch a cab, again. As I was walking to the elevator I turned back, briefly, to ask Coles what was going to happen to Alice. And then I realized that he wouldn't tell me the truth, even if he knew, and that in any case it didn't matter. That part of my life was over, now. A few years later I accompanied Beverly to the courthouse for her long overdue divorce hearing, and she described her emotions to me as we walked out, and her description reminded me of the way I felt as I walked out of the CIA office. I felt like I had just divorced my youth. It felt clean, final, done, but it felt kind of hollow, too. Not so much a victory as a scoreless draw.

 

~o~O~o~

 

I had come back home, to begin packing up my stuff. Mercifully nobody else was home. Just coming through the door was traumatic enough. It had been my home for more than 5 years, and although I knew in my heart that Susan was right about needing to leave, I got pretty emotional thinking about all the good times Pete and I, and even Talia, had had there. My head said 'leave,' but my heart said, 'I'm going to miss this.'

As I walked into my room the first thing I saw was a print of the photo Pete had taken on the roof of Alewife, the one we had been using to encrypt our messages. It reminded me, yet again, of what we had had together, and what I was leaving.

Over the years I had accumulated a lot of crap in my room, and as I stood in the doorway I contemplated just putting it all in a large pile and setting fire to everything. Perhaps that would get Pete's attention.

I tried to shake those ideas out of my head. Love makes you crazy. I did love Pete, I really did. It's what made moving out hurt all the more. But Susan was right, I needed to leave if I had any hope of preserving our friendship. And Pete was the best true friend I'd ever had.

I packed my old Japanese chest full of some books and CDs, which was a mistake. While the chest was beautiful to look at, with elaborate carving on the panels, the damned thing weighed about five times what I did. I tried grasping it by the handle at the end, but I could barely budge it. I emptied out a bunch of books, into a cardboard box, and left the chest half-empty. Then I threw the Alewife photo into the top of the chest.

Then I turned to my clothes. I had stashed all my old 'guy' clothes in some plastic bags about two years earlier. Those I wouldn't be needing. I took them to the door of the room. I planned to drop them at Goodwill on the way back to Susan's house.

As I stood in the doorway I heard the key turn in the front door lock. I turned, and saw Pete enter. He saw me, and froze, but then he walked toward me.

"Hello, Pete."

"It's good to see you, Alex. I was worried."

"You didn't call."

"I didn't know what to say. I wanted to call. I started to, a couple of times. I guess I didn't know how to tell you —"

We stood facing one another, maybe ten feet apart. I suddenly found it hard to look him in the eyes.

"— Look, Pete, I know I'm just the fake girlfriend –"

"That's not true." He took two steps toward me, and I held up my hand, palm out in a 'stop' gesture.

"Don't interrupt, please. I know it. You know, I'm okay to take to meetings with investors, and I know you probably like me in some way, but we both know I don't measure up on the girl front. I mean, you deserve more. I'm leaving, okay?"

Reaching back, I tried to drag the chest through the door. It was still incredibly heavy, and I could barely lift it.

"Don't" Pete said. "Alex –"

I was crying then. The chest was too heavy, and I dropped it on my foot. I couldn't even bring myself to look back at Pete. How could I have been such an idiot? To fall in love with my best friend? I turned back to my bed, and threw myself on it, sobbing.

"Alex," Pete said gently. He had sat on the bed beside me, and he ran his hand through my hair. "It's alright."

"No," I sobbed. I turned my head from the pillow to look at him through a mass of hair. "It's not. I've fucked up our friendship. I've fucked up my life. I've fucked up everything. I don't expect you to –"

"Stop" Pete said, as he held a finger to my lips. He brushed the hair from my eyes. "Take a deep breath for me."

I did. It helped.

"Keep breathing." He brushed my hair again. "If I want to say something, will you stop interrupting?"

I nodded. Then I started to say something, but he put the finger from his other hand on my lips.

"Don't talk. It's okay."

I wanted to say something, but I didn't know what.

"There's nothing fake about you, Alex," Pete continued. "You're the most real person I know. And you're the most beautiful person I know. I'm not …" He paused for a moment, but he held his finger up to keep me quiet again. "Wait, please …

"I'm not very good at dealing with some things," he continued, "but that's not because I don't love you. I have some hangups of my own."

It took me a few moments to process that he'd just said he loved me.

"I haven't been very good to you," he went on. I started to protest, but again he put his hand to my face to quiet me. I liked the feeling he gave me when he did that. He was looking me right in the eyes, holding his hand to the side of my face, with his other hand smoothing back my hair. It felt very soothing, and I started to relax.

"I'm not going to make excuses about how hard it's been for me. It certainly hasn't been as hard for me as it has for you. I'm sorry I asked you to come to that dinner as my girlfriend … Except I'm not really sorry."

"I'm not really a girl," I said.

"Could have fooled me," Pete said, smiling.

"Watashi wa dare wo baka ni shitakunain yo," I said.

"Translation?"

"I don't want to fool anyone."

"I know that."

"I don't know what I want," I said.

"I know what I want," Pete said, with a gentle smile.

"What's that?"

"You."

"What?" I tried and failed to sit up. It wasn't possible unless he moved off the bed.

"Alex, I've been really struggling. I'm sorry I haven't behaved better. Part of me thinks you're the most gorgeous woman I've ever met, and the smartest, and the sweetest, and … I'm not very good at this compliments thing, am I?"

I didn't know what to say. He kept stroking my hair.

"Remember our discussion that night on the roof of the Alewife T?"

I sniffled. "That was weird."

"You know what I was trying to talk about?"

"I had no idea. I still have no idea."

"I was trying to tell you I was falling in love with you," he said. "But, you know, I sucked at it. And I was terrified, because, well, you know … I felt like if I said anything, it would be jumping catastrophically, not falling gracefully …

"Wait. That's fucked up." He paused, and took his hand from my face. "Another part of me remembers you as Alex, guy Alex. And you know, I liked what we had together as friends. And we still sort of have that. But it's different now …"

He finally got off the bed, and stepped back to take in more of me. I could see him weighing some things in his head.

It was a few moments more before he spoke again. "Anyway, I love you. And sometimes I look at you and I just want to jump you. But then there's been this thing in my head that says to me 'I'm not gay.' And now I just don't know. Because, you know, the woman that I love has a penis."

"Um …" I really didn't have a clue what to say.

"So I guess that makes me gay, right? Except you are a woman. I know that. I think you know that now, too, don't you?"

I didn't have to think about that. I'd made my mind up about that back in Lincoln when I explained my life to my parents.

"Alex Jones," Pete said. "Alexandra Jones. You are mine. Okay? I'm going to have to work at a few things — "

Despite the limitations of the bed I managed to leap up on Pete before he said something else stupid, and he lifted me up. We waltzed around the room for a few moments, him holding me up, me with my legs wrapped around his slim hips, both of us kissing each other madly.

"Shutup, Pete Johanssen. Just shut the fuck up, unless you're going to tell me that love part again."

 

~o~O~o~

 

A month later Pete and I were on the road in a rental car from Los Angeles to Lincoln, the hard-core way with only one overnight stop. In the back of the rental we had Grandma Rousselot, who was too old to fly now. She had blankets and pillows and seemed happy enough, but we stopped every two hours for bathroom breaks. It was probably safer to do that anyway, since Pete and I swapped driving duties regularly and were less fatigued as a result.

Introducing Grandma to Pete at her home in Pasadena had been stressful. I had never anticipated I'd be in the position of bringing a boy around for her to meet. And Pete was almost double her height, and even with poor eyesight she could see that, and she did this double-take when she first opened the front door that was comical. Pete was uncharacteristically nervous on meeting her, and I think he found the house, which was full of Japanese-style furniture and designed for more petite frames than his, difficult to relax in. But then over dinner Pete had proceeded to charm her, and I knew she liked him, and he liked her, and I was able to relax.

After dinner Pete had gone out to the car to retrieve our bags and then take a shower, and while he was doing that Grandma and I had a brief conversation about some of the things that had happened, and she wigged out a little bit when I mentioned the CIA and FBI. Then I told her about giving money to Dan and Lucy's families, and about introducing Lucy's father to Tom, to see whether something could be done about his immigration status. As I told Grandma Rousselot, it turns out that — if you have enough money — immigration to the US is actually pretty easy. Mr. Huang would have to leave, briefly, but then he could return, and since he had more than $900,000 in assets (his own, not the small amount of money I had given the family) and he planned to start a new business, the Government would give him a visa without any problems. Life is different if you have capital.

Grandma thought that was excellent. "I don't approve of your methods, Alex, but you have done a good thing." Grandma's Uncle, my great-great Uncle, had been locked up in Rohwer Relocation Center in Arkansas in World War Two, so she was all for rights for immigrants.

It was getting late, so I promised to have a longer talk with her over the weekend when we got to Lincoln, and I went to bed in the spare room. Pete and I had separate twin beds, but that was okay, since both of us were exhausted.

We made it to Lincoln without too many dramas, apart from constant stops and Grandma having a brief argument with Pete about foreign policy. I decided I needed to teach Pete that it was impossible to win an argument with Grandma. My only other anguish during the trip was that I knew we had to do the drive again, on the way back.

On Thanksgiving morning I got a hug from Pete, and performed the most appropriate ritual I could think of for a Thanksgiving morning. I got the Daruma out of the bag I had transported it in, and carefully inked in the remaining eye. I think Pete was a little mystified about the whole thing, since I didn't tell him what the goal was that I had achieved, but Grandma was delighted.

Susan and I helped Mom with the food while Pete, Tom, Dad and Grandma discussed economics and the rise of China and heaven knows what else in the living room, and then we all sat down to Thanksgiving lunch. I looked around the table, at the people I loved most in the world, and felt loved.

And I think I felt about as whole and complete as it's possible for a pre-operative transsexual to ever feel.

The End

 

~o~O~o~

 

Author's note: I apologize for some of the diversions in this story. Not all herrings are red. Not all Russians are mafia members. Not all North Korean spies are named Kim.

 

~o~O~o~

 

Notes and disclaimers
Firstly, many thanks to Geoff (especially to Geoff, without whom my writing would meander wildly and be full of split infinitives), and to I.O. and Wren for editing and proofing. It's not a small task to undertake on a story this long, and I very much appreciate them taking the risk with this story.

Thanks also to Jayne and Liz for assistance with the Japanese translations. My Japanese was never good even when I lived there, and it's amazing how much I've forgotten.

This is a work of fiction, although some of what's written here actually happened to some people, and some of it happened to me (although nobody I know involved in this stuff was ever beaten up, much less killed). Senator Geary, Garry Karpov and John Mantonelli, like everyone else in this novel, are fictional characters, not based on real people. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

The Children's Chance Foundation is, alas, fictional, but there are plenty of other good kid's charities you should give your money to.

There is a real company like Gene Systems Inc. (but not named that), and somebody like me might have worked there in a similar role at one point, but like most novels the bits of fact that do exist here are unrelated to what goes on in the real world. Command Dynamics is fictional, as are the companies VegasJet and Augmented AI and Gene Systems Inc. To the best of my (and Google's) knowledge, no such companies exist in the fields described here.

There is a company similar to Whitwell called Griffin Investigations (although it filed for bankruptcy around the time I began writing this) and it used to keep The Griffin Book, a list of suspected card counters, that was used by the casinos to expel perceived card counters, and two MIT/Harvard teams in particular, but nothing in this story is based on any actions or inactions by Griffin or its employees — Whitwell is a completely fictitious enterprise.

The strategy for bringing down the Casino computers bears a resemblance to three hacks I know of on security companies, but is otherwise complete fantasy.

More than one security company provided face-recognition software to major casinos during the period in which this novel takes place. While the Harvard/MIT teams did resort to disguises (including dressing as women) to evade detection, none of them, to my knowledge, had plastic surgery, except for one transgendered participant who transitioned long after leaving that team.

Obviously the Treasury Department, FBI and CIA are real, but the characters portrayed here are not. It's unlikely that the FBI and CIA would collaborate in the way mentioned in the story, but drama sometimes requires an extension of reality.

The Harvard Square Homeless Shelter is real, and it deserves a lot more support than it gets, especially considering how much wealth there is in Cambridge. I've used the real name of the Shelter, but of course they subsist on money and services from more ethical sources than I've depicted here, and nothing in this story is intended to cause them harm.

If you are at all interested in the real story behind MIT and Harvard card counters, I recommend avoiding Ben Mezrich's Burning Down the House, and instead reading the interview with John Chang at: http://www.blackjackforumonline.com/content/interviewJC.htm, which has the benefit of brevity.

I was never part of an 'official' MIT or Harvard team, but I have a friend who was. In real life, the most I have ever won personally in a single day playing Blackjack is only $12,500. And it was the result of a reckless self-destructive binge, and I'll never do it again. I also lost more than that once, after I got divorced a few years ago.

Don't try this at home, kids.

~o~O~o~

The Magnetic Fields
If you're unfamiliar with the work of Stephin Merrit and The Magnetic Fields, here's a BC-appropriate song, "Andrew In Drag" from their most recent CD.



If you liked this post, you can leave a comment and/or a kudos!
Click the Thumbs Up! button below to leave the author a kudos:
up
111 users have voted.

And please, remember to comment, too! Thanks. 
This story is 8886 words long.