“Good morning, Miss Foster. Are you feeling better?”
Amos’s genial voice sounded from the panel in the room as she lay in bed and stared out the window. Brooke turned to face the little green light and smiled gently. “Much better, thanks. How’s…” She trailed off, smile disappearing. “How’s Mister Ilyin?”
“I believe that last night upset him more than he let on,” Amos replied. That’s not the answer she was looking for, but… well, she suddenly found herself pondering this.
She got up from bed, and reached for the box of clothes. She slipped on a set of black panties and a black bra, before taking out a flattering pair of form-fitting jeans and a loose tunic top. “This has gotta be at least a hundred bucks I’m wearing,” she murmured to the reflection of herself in the full-length mirror.
“Three-hundred and twenty-seven dollars, actually.”
Brooke grimaced. “Oh my god, why?”
The wall panel made a sound that bore a suspicious resemblance to a chuckle. “We spare no expense here.” Then: “You’d better hurry downstairs, Miss Foster; the water taxi will be coming in an hour to take you back to Anacortes and Master Ilyin wishes to share a meal with you before you go.”
“He’s downstairs now, at the south patio.”
The south patio was a beautiful layered deck, flowing out from the house and down the steeper incline that this side of the hill provided. The planking of the deck wove around a few old evergreen trees, and planter boxes overflowed with lupines, blanket flower, blue columbine, more Japanese maples and other leafy ornamentals. While disused over the years that Ilyin had been changed, it was spared from his bitter outbursts.
Brooke peered out the door and saw him sitting cross-legged at one end of a gorgeous patio set of redwood burl cleared of pine needles and other plant detritus and set with a single place setting at the other end. He was reading something on his tablet, or doing some kind of work, when he noticed her step out.
“Good morning,” he said, setting the tablet down on the table. “Feeling better?”
She took her seat across from him. “I am. Thank you for, uh… for getting me.”
“I was mad, but I wasn’t mad enough to actually let you swim the channel,” he said with a little smile that creased the corners of his eyes, but the smile faded. “I’m… sorry that this turned out to be such a miserable experience for you.”
Amos came along and served her a plate of pancakes, hash browns, bacon, and poached eggs. A mimosa poured in a champagne glass soon followed.
Brooke stared at her plate, thinking. When she looked to Ilyin, he was looking elsewhere and thinking too. It was a long, tense silence between them, and she started poking at the potatoes with her fork – moving them around more than arranging a bite of food to raise to her lips.
She thought about the case she was supposed to be solving; she thought about this woman, about Gary Patel and Orcasoft. What would happen if Ilyin never returned to normal? Would he be able to go back to his work? Would he be carted off to a military facility someplace and poked and prodded for the rest of his life? When his money ran out, where would he go?
“You’ll be paid the going rate for your work, plus ten percent,” he said. “And everything you’ve been given, take it with you. It’s yours.”
The man has been living alone for two years, surviving off of Amazon and chartered deliveries. Brooke realized that she and Martin were probably the first people he’d spoken with, let alone played host to, since his transformation.
“Amos should have told you that the taxi will be arriving at about ten o’clock,” he continued, still avoiding eye contact with her. “It should be a -”
“I can stay for one more week, then I have to go home and take care of my midterms.”
“You’re in school?” He frowned. “You should be home studying. Midterms are important.”
“My dad’s been a P.I. since before I was born,” she replied with her own distantly wistful smile. “I know criminal studies pretty well.”
“So… you’re staying.”
Brooke nodded resolutely and met his blue gaze. His eyes weren’t so hard as before; penetrating, yes, and she supposed that it was a Russian intensity thing. But the anger was gone, and he was trying very hard to be affable for her. “I will. Because I’ve got a job to do here, Mr. Ilyin.”
He flashed his perfectly straight pearly whites, and watched as Amos brought out his breakfast on a push cart: several pounds of potatoes, a half-dozen Kielbasa sausages, and most of a loaf of black bread toast, each slice slathered with butter. “Please, call me Jack.”
“You know, about that… isn’t Jack the guy who climbed the bean stalk, not the guy who lived at the top?”
He cocked a brow at her, grinned, and pointed his spoon – a serving spoon, mind – in her direction as he hunched over the table. “OK, that’s crossing a line, Miss Foster.”
“Crossing a line, Brooke.”
She threw her hands up. “It was an honest question!”
They sat and ate for a while in contented silence, trying to hide their smiles. When they were finished, Jack reached up those massive arms, lengthening himself skyward, and let out a long, satisfied sigh. “It’s… good to have company again,” he said. “Real company.”
“You used to be quite the entertainer, didn’t you?”
“It was any excuse to host a party. Everything from wine tastings to private concerts, all right here. Patel used to come over and we’d spend days hashing out this or that thing. We’d talk new hires, tasks, code…”
“Sounds like you and Patel were close?”
“We were both MIT dropouts,” he said, shoving an entire piece of Kielbasa in his mouth. “We knew that voice recognition and machine learning were what everyone was talking about at the time, and so we started working on what would become the AMOS technology. Google has that little box that talks to you – Amazon and other people have them now too – but we had the robot.
“Gary… I caught Gary embezzling money three years ago. He gave me some goddamn sob story about his parents getting sick, so I believed him and decided not to take him to court. He didn’t try anything again, but it wasn’t the same.”
Brooke winced. She’d heard story after story liked this from her father. There were only two reasons anyone committed crimes in this world, he always said: for passion, or for money. While Jack had been a jerk, at least he didn’t do anything unlawful? He didn’t steal, at any rate.. “That sounds pretty rough.”
“I put a lot of trust in him. As a friend, as a business partner, and as a co-creator of the AMOS system.”
“I can only imagine the betrayal.”
Jack narrowed his eyes at the trees. “Betrayal. That’s a good word for it.”
Later, Jack insisted that she take the rest of the day off and enjoy the grounds. He invited her to use the pool, spa, or sauna, but she declined, not having a bathing suit.
“Amos,” he called to the nearest little green light, “Contact my man in Friday Harbor. Have him find a swimsuit for Brooke.”
She found his change of heart agreeable, though there were still doubts lingering in the back of her mind not about how genuine it was, but how emotionally sustainable it was. Jack had spent two years brooding in solitude, plotting his revenge, but simultaneously confined by the helplessness of his… condition. How long would it be before he had another outburst? Before he decided that this was all a waste of his time, or that she was only there to take advantage of his lavish hospitality? Brooke wanted to believe that she’d gotten through to him, especially what with getting him to finally talk about the situation, but at the same time, she wasn’t going to hold her breath. She’d seen it happen too often to count on it this time.
The two of them spent a few hours strolling around the perimeter of the island, cloaked by tree and fog, and talked. She asked about the AMOS system, he asked about the private investigation business; she asked about his Russian grandparents, he asked about her classes at school. He seemed very pleased that she was getting good grades.
“So your art collection came from your grandparents?”
“My grandfather was an art collector in the 60’s, and managed to acquire quite a few Russian pieces in spite of the communism. But it was the communism that eventually forced him to leave for the states – the party wanted to ‘nationalize’ the paintings. He managed to bring a Chagall, an Ivanov, Valetovas… and several Malevichs with him.”
Brooke didn’t know the first thing about art, but it was interesting to her nonetheless. “How much is the collection worth?”
“The last appraisal put it at about two and a half million.”
She balked. “Two and a half… million.”
Jack nodded and stopped. She stopped too and looked up at him; he was rubbing at his beard. “You know, I’ve been thinking if there was something I might do to prove that I am as changed a man as I claim to be. Prove to you, but also… prove to myself.”
Brooke said nothing, just kept her eyes on his face as he sorted through his words.
“Amos!” he suddenly called. “Can you hear me from here?”
They were about thirty feet from the nearest green light, but it still managed to hear.
“Amos, pick a children’s charity – any charity, I don’t give a damn – and tell them they can have one of the paintings.”
Brooke’s eyes flew open.
“Which one would you like to donate, sir?”
“Let them pick.”
“Of course, sir.”
Jack turned back to her with a little twinkle in his eye. “How’s that sound to you?”
“I… Color me surprised!”
He laughed. “You know, that felt good. That felt really good.”
“I’m glad, Jack. I think you’ll find that making amends is good for the soul.”
“You know, you’re damn mature for your age. If I wasn’t your client, I’d…” he trailed off, and rather deliberately it seemed.
He waved a big hand dismissively. “Nevermind.”
Brooke eyed him for a second before continuing on alongside him, his great long strides slowed down so he wouldn’t completely out-pace her. But he stopped again.
“How would you like to see the view from up here?”
She remembered when he’d picked her up and slung her over his shoulder, and just how high up that was. She wanted to say no, but something compelled her to say yes. Something equal parts frivolous and risk-taking. When was the next time that she’d get to literally stand on the shoulders of giants?
“I don’t like heights, but… OK,” Brooke relented. “But if I even begin to feel like I’m going to fall, then that’s it.”
Jack just nodded and knelt down. He didn’t grab her this time, but instead set his hand out, palm up in open invitation. She sat down in it, suddenly acutely aware that he technically had his hand on her ass, and hoped that he didn’t realize it either. Soon, though, she was lifted to his shoulder, and with a protective hand pressing her knees to him she looked out through the trees and spied the water.