I SAT IN my swivel seat for a second relearning how to breathe and fighting down the nausea. I told my stomach to stop being such a baby. We were on the ground, for Gods sake. I could always insist on renting a car for the ride homethough I knew I wouldnt. Id never be able to live with myself if I let my fear get that much of an upper hand. Fear was like cancer in remission. If you gave in to it, even by an inch, it would flare up again and eat you alive.
Jason stopped at the open door and looked back at me. You are coming, right?
I nodded. The nausea was past. I could breathe again. It was cool. Okay, that was a lie, but it was the best I could do.
Jason came back to stand and look down at me. I couldnt quite read his expression. It really scared the shit out of you to do this, didnt it?
I shook my head, then shrugged. I finally said in a voice that was way too breathy for comfort, The runway is kinda small, dont you think?
He bent down and kissed my forehead again.
I looked up at him. What was that for?
Being brave, he said, and he looked serious when he said it. He offered me his hand.
There was a time when I wouldnt have taken it, when I would have seen it as a sign of weakness, but Id grown up a little since then.
I took his hand. He squeezed it and gave me a smile. This smile was one of the reasons I was on the damn planethe smile that said he understood how much it had cost me, and thaTHE understood me in a way that a lot of people didnt. We would never be real boyfriend and girlfriend. Wed never be each others sweetie, but Jason got me in a way that some of the men I was dating didnt. And I tried my best to understand him.
I realized as he led me down the narrow aisle hand in hand that it wasnt just Nathaniel who considered Jason one of his best friends.
Jason went first down the little folding steps, bent sort of backward, to help me. That was a little more help than I probably needed, but then I was wearing heels.
A man met us at the bottom of the steps. He was average height, more bald than hair, in a nice suit. Not as nice as the one Jason was wearing, but it wasnt a bad suit.
Mr. Summerland, I didnt expect you until tomorrow. He was smiling until Jason helped me down the little stairs in my heels.
Im not one of the Summerlands, Jason said. He said it as if the confusion wasnt unexpected.
The man looked at Jason, then at me, as Jason helped me down from the plane. The man winked at him. Of course not, youre Mr. Smith?
I was finally on solid tarmac, yea! Why dont you make it Mr. Allbright, its more original, I said. I thought I was making a joke.
The man began to scribble down Allbright on his clipboard. Of course, Mr. Allbright, were glad to have you with us.
Jason sighed. She was making a joke. The name is Schuyler, Jason Schuyler.
The man crossed out Allbright and wrote in the right name. Whatever you say, Mr. Schuyler.
Crap, Jason said under his breath.
Whats going on? I asked.
If I was a Summerland, why was I coming in tomorrow?
The man looked puzzled, buTHE played along in whatever game he thought we were playing. Your bachelor party, of course. Youre getting married at the end of the week. Your brother arrived yesterday with his fiance.
Look, I am a distant cousin of the Summerlands. I got mistaken for the twins all through school. My name really is Jason Schuyler. This is my friend Anita Blake. Im here to visit my family.
Of course you are. It was clear he didnt believe Jason, but at the same time very clear thaTHE would repeat whatever lie Jason spouted, and swear to it in court afterward.
I take it the Summerlands are big shots around here? I said.
The biggest, Jason said.
The man with the clipboard looked from one to the other of us. The bride-to-be is already in town. Her bachelorette party is tonight.
You invited? I said.
He looked flustered. Of course not.
Then how do you know so much?
Ive been helping get the guests settled, he said, and sounded indignant.
Fine, but we are not guests.
Of course not, and if asked, I havent seen Keith Summerland. He will arrive tomorrow as planned. The man seemed pleased with himself as if hed said a smart thing. Then he walked away with another wink.
I looked at Jason. We are speaking English, right? I mean he does understand what were saying, doesnt he?
You have to know Keith to understand the mans problem. It would be like him to come in a day early with another woman. Hed probably bring the stripper in personally.
A wild child? I asked.
He thoughTHE was. I just thoughTHE was a dick.
Do you really look that much like him?
Yes. He said it flat and unhappy. I look enough like them both to make this visit even harder. The media will be all over this wedding.
But theyre like local celebrities, not national, right? I mean, it wont be that bad.
Do you know who Governor Summerland is?
I stared at him. Youre joking.
The governor that theyre thinking about running for president is this Summerland?
Yep, Jason said.
I dont watch TV or read newspapers much, but even I know who he is.
If his eldest son is getting married this week, the media are going to be everywhere, and I look like his twin. We were always getting confused for each other in high school.
You cant look that much alike.
He pretended to be me on a date with my girlfriend. She caught on, eventually. He took a beating for me once from some of the guys at school. Id smarted off, and they found him first. He was hitting on a girlfriend of mine again. Pretending to be me.
And he got beat up for it? I said.
Very karmic, I said.
Jason nodded, actually looking happy. We had our bags on the tarmac and the pilot was asking for a return schedule when we were joined by a man who, though well dressed in a nice conservative suit, had thug tattooed across his forehead. Metaphorically speaking.
The suit was tailored well enough that if I hadnt been looking for it I might have missed the bulge on his hip. But I was looking, and I knew a gun when I saw it ruin the line of a suit. The Browning did not ruin the line of my suit jacket. For such a big gun it was strangely invisible under my little jacket in its new sideways holster.
I actually moved in front of Jason. Just automatic. After all, I was packing a gun, and he wasnt. The conservative thug didnt even look at me. He had attention only for Jason.
The girl gets back on the plane.
The girl has a name, I said.
What I dont know, I cant lie about. Please, Keith, dont do this.
I am not Keith Summerland. Do I have to prove it?
Keith, stuff like this isnt funny anymore.
Do you want to see my drivers license?
The man finally looked puzzled. What?
Call up the governor, or his wife, or even Kelsey, tell them that Jason Schuyler is just trying to visit his family, and you wont let us leave the airport.
The muscleman looked at Jason. Keith, I thought this kind of shit was over.
Jason got out his wallet and flashed his ID. I got confused with them both in high school, too.
The man looked at the ID, like he was really studying it. He looked at Jason, then got a small flip phone out of his outer jacket pocket. This is Chuck, Id swear its Keith, but Im looking at an ID for a Jason Schuyler. He said uh-huh a lot, then closed the phone and handed Jason his ID back. Im sorry about this, Mr. Schuyler. The governor says hes very sorry about your fathers illness.
Yeah, my father is dying of cancer, and instead of being able to see him in peace, Im going to get stopped by every piece of media from here to the hospital. Jesus, if Id known about the wedding I might have held off a week.
I touched his arm. You couldnt have done that.
I know, Jason said, what if he died this week? I think he tried to make it a joke, but it fell flat and bitter.
I am truly sorry about the misunderstanding, Mr. Schuyler. We have limos waiting for the guests to arrive; if we can drop you anywhere to make up for the difficulties, just say the word. The limos have dark glass, and weve had lots of the brides friends arriving. The media has stopped hounding the limos, because the interviews all sound the same.
And if I take a taxi theyll wonder why Keith is with a brunette that isnt his fiance, and why hes not in a limo, Jason said.
Chuck shrugged massive shoulders. That did occur to the governor.
Fine, drop us at the hotel.
But wont us getting out of a Summerland limo sort of add to the confusion? I asked.
Chuck looked perplexed, as if I was forcing him to think about things that werent usually his business. Hed been perfectly comfortable shoving me back on the plane. Forcing Keith to be a good boy. But figuring out what to do with an identical cousin who wasnt close enough to be included in the wedding, that was beyond him.
Well take the limo, and get a taxi to the hospital. I dont know what else to do, Jason said.
Ill call the press secretary from the limo, Chuck said. You guys look enough alike that it could be a real problem. If the media think youre Keith and are cheating with this chiquita here, itll get ugly.
Youve called me girl, now chiquita. Chuck, you are not winning brownie points with me.
He gave me a look that clearly said he didnt give a damn, and who was I to complain?
This is Anita Blake; shes my very close friend, Chuck.
Girlfriend? He made it a question.
Jason nodded. Im bringing her home to see my dad before he dies, that put it in perspective? Jason squeezed my hand as if to say, Just agree with me. I wasnt sure I disagreed, or agreed, so I just stood there and let Jason handle it. It was his crisis, not mine.
Chuck nodded and gave me a much more respectful look. Im sorry, Miss Black.
Its Ms. and its Blake, I corrected.
He blinked at me, then said, All right, Ms. Blake. I didnt understand that you were more than agirlfriend. Im sorry, I didnt mean any disrespect.
Yeah, you did, but my ego doesnt bruise that easy, Chuck. I admit to making his name sound a little choppy at the end.
He frowned at me.
Jason squeezed my hand again. Lets just get us to the hotel as quietly as possible. I want to go to the hospital today, just in case.
Chucks face managed to look truly sympathetic. Your dad that bad?
They gave him weeks to live, but Id hate to be in town and miss him by a day.
Then lets get you in the limo, Mr. Schuyler, Ms. Blake. He put a little irony in that last part, and when he bowed to match, he flashed the gun on his hip. I realized hed unbuttoned the jacket so Id see it. Like a vampire that wanted you to see the fangs. Wanted your fear.
I smiled sweetly at him. Your hands are a little big for a thirty-two, arent they, Chuck?
His own smile wilted around the edges. It gets the job done. BuTHE sounded uncertain, as if my reply didnt match the box hed put me in. Fine with me. I liked it when muscle underestimated me. Made it easier later if later got bad.
Jason didnt push me into the back of the limo, buTHE made sure I didnt linger trading clever repartee with Chuck.
The big man asked, What hotel?
Jason named it.
Chuck said, leaning in the doorway of the limo, Damn, thats the same hotel the wedding guests are staying at.
Its the best hotel in town, Jason said.
Chuck nodded. Yeah. He gave me a look as he closed the door. It was the first look from him that didnt think piece of ass. Which meanTHE was brighter than he looked. Id have to be careful not to underestimate ol Chuck.
Why was I worried about him? Answer: he was a thug. Id been working with the police too long not to know one when I met one. What was a presidential hopeful doing with someone like that?
Dont tease him, Anita, Jason said as the limo started. We rode out of the hangar and down a separate drive, a little distance from the rest of the main airport.
Sorry, I said, Im not sure I can help myself.
Try, for me. He patted my hand, but was already looking out the window. It was worth a look. There were wooded mountains rolling out, and out, like layers of soft dragon spines curled everywhere.
For a few minutes I forgot about thugs and politicians and just looked at the mountains.
Its beautiful, I said.
Yeah, Jason said, I guess it is.
You guess? I motioned at the mountains. There were hotels and fast-food places tucked in near the road, but it wasnt close enough to ruin the view. A river cut along the left-hand side of the road, all silver shallows and sparkling rapids, set in all that green, all those trees. This is prettier than the Smokies in Tennessee.
Well, its the Blue Ridge Mountains, he said matter-of-factly.
I had a smart thought. You grew up here, so its not spectacular to you, its just normal.
Yeah, and have you ever noticed where its beautiful, theres a lot of pretty, but not a lot of jobs. Unless you worked for the university.
University? I made it a question.
University of North Carolina at Asheville. Jason didnt seem to want to talk about the scenery. Okay, I could stay on track.
You dont seem surprised that the Summerlands have someone like Chuck working for them.
Theyve always had someone like him working for them.
Why? I asked.
He looked at me. Dont do this, Anita.
Dont do what?
Dont play cop. Just let it be.
You know something.
Let me see my father, Anita. Let me see some old friends. Let me just try and keep out of the Summerland family mess. I dont want any part of them. Okay?
Tell me why they have muscle and Ill let it go.
What did Chuck think he was doing at the airport? he asked.
I frowned at Jason. He thoughTHE was keeping this Keith from bringing in another woman just days before his wedding.
I frowned harder, and then the light dawned. Hes their cleanup man.
Why does their cleanup man need to be armed?
Why are you armed?
I dont go out of the house unarmed, I said.
Jason gave me a look. Maybe Chuck is as paranoid as you are.
Jason knelt on the floorboard of the limo at my feet. He took my hands in his and gazed up at my face with a look of pure begging. Please, please, God, let this go, Anita. I will do anything, you name it, if you will just not poke at the Summerlands. Because of the wedding and the family resemblance we are going to have enough trouble.
He laid his head in my lap, and said, Please dont make more trouble, please, dont make this harder for me. Please.
I said the only thing I could say. Okay, Jason.
He raised his face up and flashed me that infamous smile. It wasnt his real smile. This was the smile Id seen him use on customers at Guilty Pleasures when he was trying to part them from their cash. Jason didnt want cash from me, he wanted peace. Id have rather shoved a twenty down his pants then let go of the niggling feeling that there was something wrong with the Summerlands. Something that needed an armed cleanup man. Something beyond a womanizing son. But I did for Jason what I wouldnt have done for almost anyone else. I let it go.
If Chuck of the too-small gun would leave me alone, Id leave him alone. I wasnt here as a marshal. I was here to help Jason say good-bye to his dad. Id just keep repeating that over and over, no matter how many clues I tripped over. The question was, clues to what?
None of my business. Id promised Jason, and it really was none of my business. Unless the Summerlands turned out to be evil vampires, it would never be my business.
I went back to looking at the amazing scenery on either side of the road. There was no bad view. Jason was back to looking out the window, too, buTHE didnt seem to be seeing anything special. I thought the drive into Asheville, North Carolina, was one of the prettiest drives Ive ever been on, but then I hadnt grown up looking at it all. I guess you get jaded about anything you see every day. Was I jaded about zombies and vampires? Maybe. But the mountains were pretty.