Still Life With Shadow
He held his breath to avoid the sour-sweet smell of dried vomit and piss surrounding the entrance as he glanced down at the paper he held in his hand to double-check the name; a formality, really, for he had memorized the directions after rereading them so many times. The name on the paper and the name peeling on the canopy matched -- Donavan's -- so he pulled open the battered door and stepped inside.
The only light in the room glowed from the neon beer signs on the perimeter -- an ostensible attempt to conceal the chipping paint and cracked wood paneling -- making distinguishing between the smattering of patrons difficult, at best. But running lineups had always been his strong point, and he quickly spotted his target: a solitary figure hunched over the last stool at the bar under a sign now advertising "Mil Li" rather than Miller Lite thanks to a busted bulb.
He strolled to the back of the bar and eased down onto the stool next to the hunched man. The man looked for all the world like someone who wanted to drink alone -- and like someone who was used to getting what he wanted.
Up close, even the darkness did little to mask the deep lines and gaunt features of the man, who seemed to close in on himself when he sensed the new presence next to him.
He felt the man on the stool next to him tense at the sound of his voice, but he made no acknowledgement. Better not to -- it was enough that he was here; to do or say anything more would be to tip his hand.
The hunched man still hadn't moved when the bartender returned with his drink, but as he lifted his glass to take a sip the hunched man turned to look at him.
"Welcome back, Mr. Stone," Jack McCoy said, tipping his glass to the former prosecutor.
"Counselor." Ben tilted his glass in acknowledgement and took a drink.
The Scotch was surprisingly good for such a dive, and Ben had to credit McCoy with finding good liquor, at least.
"So who sent you to track me down?" McCoy's breath was damn near toxic and his speech was slightly slurred, although his drink-bright eyes remained alert. Ben was afraid to guess how much the other man had already consumed.
"What makes you think I was sent to track you down?" Ben tried to keep his tone light, but he didn't believe for a second his companion would fall for it.
He was right. "Let's cut the crap, shall we?" Jack said. "Prevarication doesn't suit you, and frankly, I'm too damn busy getting drunk to muster the energy."
"All right." Ben nodded in acquiescence. "I stayed in touch with Adam while I was gone. He needed a favor."
"And just what is your assignment supposed to be?"
McCoy looked, Ben thought, like a man who was doing his best to appear disinterested -- and failing miserably.
"I believe Adam's instructions were 'try to talk some sense into him.'"
"Son of a bitch," Jack muttered, almost under his breath, and took a drink. Then he continued, louder, "What I do on my own time is my concern, not his. Adam needs to mind his own business. And so do you, now that I think about it."
Ben shrugged and downed the rest of his Scotch. Jack's resistance surprised him not in the least, but he wasn't about to let one rebuff throw him out of the game. McCoy didn't know that, though, so Ben played along. "Fair enough. If that's the way you feel about it, I'll leave you to your drink." He stood and turned to go, then paused. Time to pull out the trump card. "Just one more thing, though, Mr. McCoy -- who do you think she'd come after first: you, for drinking your life away; or me, for letting you get away with it?"
McCoy's head snapped up and his expression hardened. "Go to hell."
"I've already been to hell, sir, and it wasn't a pleasant experience."
"You've been in Europe," McCoy scoffed.
"On some days, it's hard to tell the difference."
McCoy gave him a long, inscrutable look, then inclined his head toward the stool beside him. "Sit down, counselor, and I'll buy you another drink."
"Bartender! Another Scotch for my friend here. And one more for me, as well." He turned to face Ben. "So what brings you back Stateside? You can't tell me you flew thousands of miles just as a favor to Adam."
Ben smiled pensively. This visit was supposed to be about salvaging the professional life of Jack McCoy, not loosing the personal demons of Ben Stone. But if he lied, he had a feeling the other man would be able to tell. So he settled for a safe middle ground: avoiding the question. "The romantic life of an expatriate is a lot more romantic from the outside," he hedged. He paused for a few moments and stared into his glass, considering. "It was time to come home," he concluded. More than time.
McCoy nodded, and both men fell silent for a few minutes. Ben decided to let the silence reign; McCoy would talk when he was ready. And sure enough, it was Jack who broke the silence again.
"So you think she'd be on my case, do you?"
Ben stole a glance at his companion, but he was staring down into his glass. The answer's not there, trust me. "I think she'd be disappointed to learn that you've been spending your off-hours drowning your sorrows in a bottle, yes."
"And all of a sudden, you're the resident expert on Claire Kincaid?"
McCoy's voice had increased in both pitch and volume, but his eyes remained fixed on his Scotch.
"No. But Mr. McCoy, I knew her well enough to know that she'd be mad as hell to see you moping around and wallowing in self-pity."
"'Wallowing'? Is that what you think I've been doing?" McCoy's formidable eyebrows arched skyward in disbelief.
Ben had to suppress a smile; McCoy's reactions were almost as predictable as Old Faithful. "It's been over two months. How long are you planning on doing" -- he waved his hand to indicate the general atmosphere of their surroundings -- "this?"
"As long as it takes," Jack replied grimly.
"As long as it takes for what? To self-destruct? To drink so much for so long that pretty soon the pain only stays away if you have a glass in your hand? Is that what you really want?"
"I'm not a drunk, if that's what you're suggesting." Jack gave Ben a shit-eating grin. "I'm availing myself of the therapeutic values of alcohol."
Ben ducked his head to avoid letting Jack catch him smiling. "Nice try, counselor. But I thought we were cutting the crap."
Jack bristled. "Fine. Then perhaps you'd like to share with me why, if you cared so damn much about her, you didn't come back for her funeral? How dare you traipse around Europe for two whole months and then prance in here to tell me how I ought to grieve?"
"Oh, you think you have the corner on grief for Claire's death?" Ben snapped, unsettled by McCoy's turning of the tables. "You think you were the only person who cared about her? She had family, friends, other colleagues ... sir, you were not the end-all and be-all of Ms. Kincaid's life."
Jack's pique deflated instantly. "As she was so fond of reminding me," he said.
Ben cocked his head and half-grinned at Jack's look of consternation; somehow, he didn't figure McCoy for someone who conceded too many arguments. He turned back to his drink and took a long swallow, then continued quietly, "Mr. McCoy, people lose people every day. And your righteous martyr in sackcloth and ashes act is wearing thin."
Jack snorted. "Don't patronize me; I'm not buying it. After all, you're hardly in a position to talk. Last I heard, you left the DA's office as the consummate martyr -- on the altar of morality and duty, no less! And I hear you fancied yourself quite becoming in sackcloth." McCoy glared at him long enough for his words to sink in before adding, "Or were you just running away?"
Ben opened his mouth to protest, but the truth of McCoy's words overcame him and forced him silent. While he had packed his bags, he told himself he was leaving New York for a change of scene, a sabbatical to get his priorities in order before he returned to reassemble what was left of his life. Drifting aimlessly through Western Europe, he had told himself this was just a means of getting his feet back on the ground. Waking on untold mornings with the sticky-sour film of last night's alcohol coating his mouth, he told himself this wasn't forever; it was just a vacation. And on most days, he even believed himself. But McCoy was right - he had been running away.
Until the day the phone rang.
He had been asleep, and the jangling of the phone reverberated in his skull. Grumpy at being roused from his slumber, he planned on giving the person on the other end of the line an earful.
One awful sentence later, he became a man on a mission.
His future, once so cloudy, now lay ahead of him with terrible clarity. Although he could not outrun it, he could at least delay its arrival. And so this time, he didn't dwell on the loss, didn't stop to drown himself in misery; instead, he hurriedly packed his bags and hit the road. For her.
Still running, yes. But now there was a purpose to it. He wondered if he could make McCoy understand.
He turned to meet Jack's eyes. "You asked me how I could have stayed in Europe after Claire died." Jack nodded, indicating he should continue.Ben cleared his throat, took a deep breath and went on. "I was over there for almost two years, and I had nothing to show for it except a perpetual hangover." He half-smiled at the memory. "I visited some of the most beautiful places on earth and all I could think about was my sorry state of existence. Then one morning I got that phone call, and somehow....." His voice trailed off as he struggled to come up with the correct words. Finally, he shook his head and tried another angle. "I had this crazy idea that coming home would mean accepting her death, but while I was away I could keep the part of her life she spent with me in suspension somehow. That's why I stayed away so long; so I could visit all the places in Europe I thought she'd have loved to see. Funny thing was, I ended up seeing them through her eyes. It was like ..." Ben paused, considering how best to articulate the immense feeling of peace that had settled over him during his pilgrimage. After failing several times to come up with a means to do the experience justice, he continued, "It was like nothing I can describe. Incredible."
"Where did you go?"
"The usual haunts -- London, Paris, Rome, Venice -- and some out-of-the-way places I happened upon. Did you know," he smiled, "that there's a sweet shop just past the train station in Prague where you can get the most amazing animal-shaped confections? There was a zebra in the front window, made out of white and dark chocolate, that she would have loved."
Jack laughed. "She wouldn't have thought twice about eating it, you know. She'd have admired it for a moment and then dived right in."
Ben nodded wistfully. "With gusto."
He drifted among thoughts of Claire until he realized McCoy's gaze was fixed firmly upon him.
"You loved her." It wasn't a question.
Ben sighed again. How to describe his feelings for his former assistant? Respect, certainly. Admiration for the way in which she carried herself, definitely. Concern for her well-being, most decidedly. But affection, tenderness, the desire for her happiness ... only in the most platonic, chivalrous sense. Nonetheless ... "Yes, I suppose I did, a little. She was ... remarkable."
Jack laughed, a little half-chuckle. "I think we all did, a little. Even Adam."
A long look of understanding passed between the two men. Then Jack gulped down the rest of his drink and stood on somewhat wobbly legs to leave.
Before he turned to go, he rested his hand on Ben's shoulder."Thank you, Mr. Stone," he said solemnly.
"For bringing her back to me for a few minutes."
Ben opened his mouth to reply, but then simply nodded instead and offered his hand to Jack. McCoy grasped it firmly, and the barest hint of a smile crinkled the corners of his mouth.
"Take care of yourself, counselor," Jack said.
"You too, Mr. McCoy."
Ben watched as the other man strode toward the entrance, then finished his drink in a long sip. After staring down into the empty glass for several minutes, he threw some cash down on the bar and walked out into the waiting darkness.