T H E C O N S P I R A C Y
Verity Marlowe's life has spiraled into a haze of alcohol and self-pity following the death of her husband. The State Department considers her a security risk, but when terrorist violence erupts overseas, they have no choice but to call her back on assignment.
Michael Strait has lied to Verity about his profession, his feelings and his past. Can she believe him when he insists that the only way to save her life is to trust him? In a high-stakes game of international terror and million-dollar payoffs, someone is determined that she should die. If Verity trusts the wrong person, it will be the last mistake she'll ever make.
Verity Marlowe spent the first hour of the twenty-first century arguing with her dead husband. She had not previously been in the habit of seeing ghosts or communing with visitors from the other side of the veil, but then, until Sam's death six months previously, she had not been in the habit of consuming large quantities of vodka either.
At the time of Sam's appearance in her living room, the glittering Millennium Ball had just descended safely in Times Square, none of the world's major computer systems appeared to have been eaten by the Y2K bug, and Verity was contemplating the unwelcome truth that the world was still spinning safely on its axis. Since Washington DC hadn't been blown up either by terrorists, religious fanatics, or computers, her life seemed unlikely to come to a conveniently swift end.
Verity considered this a major bummer.
Not quite drunk, she squinted at the TV and wondered what she was supposed to do with herself for the fifty or so years that she could statistically expect to continue living. The prospect of filling so many more years was utterly daunting. Heck, she couldn't even decide what she was supposed to do with herself for the rest of the night.
It was at this desolate moment that her former husband materialized right in front of her TV screen. He was scowling, missing sections of his torso, and fuzzy around the edges, but it was unmistakably Sam Marlowe. In life, her husband had been the gentlest of men. In death, he had apparently become a great deal more aggressive. He interposed himself between Verity, slumped on the sofa, and Dick Clark babbling cheerfully from the TV set, and gestured toward her with a combination of contempt and anger.
You look like shit, he said by way of greeting. His body parts kept coming and going, but his voice sounded remarkably steady. Firm and deep, just as it had been in the good old days, before he was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor growing on his brain, wrapping around the cortex and strangling all that made him wonderful.
Verity was hurt by Sam's rudeness until she realized he was merely a figment of her own grief-stricken imagination. She might be drunk, but she wasn't quite drunk enough to accept that Sam's ghost was really in her living room, wafting like a celestial ping-pong ball between the pseudo-antique floorboards and the molded plaster ceiling.
She couldn't think why her subconscious had come up with such a peculiar creation until she remembered that the ghost who appeared to Scrooge was called Sam Marlowe, and she'd watched a re-run of A Christmas Carol only a few nights ago. She was relieved to have found a reason -- other than weeks of steadily increasing alcohol intake -- to explain why her mind was playing such weird tricks.
"Go away," she said, averting her gaze from the fuzzy outline of Sam's face. "You're not here."
If I'm not here, then I can't go away, can I?
"Oh, please." She slumped deeper in her chair. "You sound like a character from Alice in Wonderland."
Sam chuckled, but without mirth. Do I? That always was one of my favorite books, you know. It's a pity people read it when they're kids and rarely go back to it later on, when they could really appreciate it.
In life, Sam had been an English lit professor at George Mason University. In death, he apparently retained his interest in the Victorian writers. Verity watched him, reluctantly fascinated, as he continued to float up and down in front of her TV.
Sam stared back at her, then sighed. I guess you're not in the mood to talk about Lewis Carroll. What's up with you, Veri? You're too smart to throw your life away just because I'm dead.
Anger knotted her stomach, powerful enough to make her shout. "You shouldn't have died. You were too young to die! There's no possible reason for what happened to you. You were such a good, kind person. Oh God, Sam, I can't bear it that you're gone." Tears poured out of her eyes, ran down her nose, and dripped into her mouth. It had been months since she'd cried, but the choking sobs didn't feel healing. On the contrary, they induced a strong urge to puke.
Sam's features faded, then coalesced into a giant frown. And I can't bear it that you've become such a self-pitying slob. For goodness sake, Veri, snap out of it. Can't you find some more useful way to honor our marriage than to drink yourself into oblivion every night?
"No, I can't. I like the way I'm mourning you just fine. And if you're a manfesh-- manifesh-- Oh shit! If you're popping out of my sub-conscious, I wish you'd bury yourself back under whatever mental rock you just crawled out from. Go away! You're not the sweet Sam I remember."
But your memory isn't very good right now, is it? How many brain cells do you think you pickled in alcohol over the last week?
"Oh shut up! You know what? You're a real pain in the ass now that you're dead." Verity reached for her glass and realized it was empty. She staggered to her feet and made her way into the adjoining kitchen. Clearly she hadn't drunken enough to numb the pain of Sam's loss and this uncharming creation of her sub-conscious was the result.
She'd wanted to be semi-sober for the end of the world, if it happened, but it had obviously been a mistake to sit down in front of the TV without her emergency supply of vodka right on the coffee table. A big mistake. She should have learned by now that life was always better when you had a generous supply of chilled martinis nice and handy.
The vodka bottle stood in its appointed spot in the center of the fridge. A no-name brand, bought in the convenient 1.75 liter size. Usually by this stage of the night Verity dispensed with the unnecessary hassle of pouring the vodka into a glass, but in honor of the new century she decided to go formal. And, truth to tell, the knowledge that Sam's ghost was right there in the kitchen watching her was somewhat inhibiting. Even though she knew he wasn't real -- wasn't even there -- chugging vodka straight from a bottle so large that she needed two hands to hold it seemed ... demeaning. And this Sam, unlike the real Sam, would be more than likely to tell her in no uncertain terms what he thought about people who tried to solve their problems by slithering into the bottom of a bottle.
For some reason there didn't seem to be any glasses in the cupboard, so she helped herself to a coffee mug instead. She scooped ice cubes into the mug and added vodka. As a concession to the fact that it was now morning, she checked in the fridge for orange juice to make a screwdriver. What could be healthier than orange juice? Except that there wasn't any orange juice. Not much of anything else, either, unless you counted a few unpleasant-looking objects, none readily identifiable, that she was reluctant to touch for fear of what she might then discover adhering to her fingers.
Giving up on her momentary health kick, Verity raised the coffee mug to her mouth. A wave of nausea swept over her as the ice cubes chinked against her teeth, so intense that she barely made it to the bathroom in time to throw up. When she finally finished retching, she sat back on her heels, too weak to get up.
Sam floated into the bathroom, materializing out of a large pink shell on the wallpaper above the sink. You're a real mess, aren't you? His words were harsh, but his voice sounded gentle, kinder than it had done earlier.
She started to yell at him to go away, then gave up. She slumped against the wall, too tired to stand. "Yep, I guess I'm pretty much of a mess. But I'm hurting, Sam." She drew in a shaky breath. "I loved you. I miss you so much."
I loved you, too.
"I want to stop hurting. What can I do to stop the pain, Sam?"
Stop chugging vodka and take back your life. Return to work. I can't believe you've been on leave of absence for six months already. You should be worrying about your boss. Good old Dick-the-Prick. You know he's so insecure he'll be doing anything he can to undermine your position.
"I can't worry about Dick Pedro and what he might be doing," Verity protested. "I'm in no shape to go back to work. I have a demanding job, in case you've forgotten. If I screw up analyzing the incoming intelligence from India and Pakistan, there could be a real disaster."
Stop drinking and you'll be in fine shape for working.
Her teeth were chattering. "I can't go back to work. Don't suggest that again."
"Okay, but at least get some sort of a social life going. Call a friend and arrange to have lunch. Go out on a date. And -- one last time -- quit with the drinking.
The idea of dating a man who wasn't Sam almost made her throw up again. Either that, or the prospect of stopping drinking scared her to the point of nausea even if the suggestion did come from a dead man.
"You always did have obnoxiously simple solutions to difficult problems," Verity said, closing her eyes so that she could listen to Sam's voice without having to watch his chest fade in and out of existence.
That's one of the reasons you loved me. You were the one who could make an international incident out of choosing between french fries and baked potato. Remember?
Her breath caught in the middle of a sigh. "I remember everything about our marriage."
Far from being impressed, Sam made an annoyed clicking sound. It's time to move on, Veri. Our marriage is over. Finished. Dead.
"No!" Her eyes flew open. "Our marriage isn't dead as long as I'm alive."
Sure it is. You're trying to breathe life into a corpse, and it isn't going to work. Tell me, when was the last time you actually picked up the phone and spoke to a friend?
"I ... don't remember."
Of course you don't. It was too long ago. You haven't checked your answering machine for weeks. You haven't spoken to your mother since Christmas Eve--
"She's gone on a cruise with her church ladies," Verity protested.
Okay, but have you spoken to anyone at all for the past week?
"No," she admitted. "You're the first."
And you can't exactly count this as a normal conversation. Seeing as how I'm dead.
Verity pounded her fist against the bathroom wall. "Stop it! Don't use that word. Don't keep reminding me that you're dead."
But I am dead. And you need to accept that fact.
Sam was right, of course. The knowledge settled like a leaden weight in the pit of her stomach. For six months, she'd been trying to avoid facing reality and it wasn't working. Her heart pounding, Verity confronted the bitter truth that Sam would never again sit across the dinner table, laughing at his own bad jokes. He would never again try to convince her that she loved baseball, or steal all the buttery pieces of popcorn when they went to the movies. He would never again make love to her. And unless she wanted to waste the rest of her life having drunken dialogues with a phantom, she would never hear his voice again.
Using the wall as a support, she slowly dragged herself to her feet. "I need to stop drinking, don't I, Sam?"
Yes, of course you do. That's why I came back.
She turned away. "I'm scared, Sam. I don't think I can face life without you when I'm sober."
Sure you can. You never had a problem with alcohol before. You can do it, Veri. Make me proud. His face blurred, blending with the fishes on the bathroom wallpaper until there was nothing to be seen.
Verity gave a frantic cry. "No, don't leave me, Sam! Please don't go!"
Silence was her only answer. She tugged open the bathroom door, but there was no sign of her husband in the hall. She looked for him throughout the entire house, in every closet and in all the drawers, since ghosts could presumably fit into very small spaces. But like most other things in her life these days, her search was a failure. Sam was gone.
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