"You will feel your own reflection sliding along the eyes of those who look at you. You are no longer insulated, but I suppose you must touch life in order to spring from it."

- F. Scott Fitzgerald

CHAPTER EIGHT

If the prism of one's own life and sum of experiences is truly skewed, Raymond supposed there was solace in a reaction shared.

Fortunately, he never deluded himself or bought into the notion of Elizabeth playing a part outside of an emissary. The scope of Isabella's findings offered little in the way of surprises. Nonetheless, it was the flip side of the coin that put him in direct contact with a predicament far more daunting than conceived. A repeat exercise of forgiveness of testing the pre-established boundaries morphed into a salvage operation.

How had it come to this?

Isolating locations to attack, perimeter studies, clocking when parties entered and left day-to-day with specific focus on 'who', and then finally arranging for the perfect extraction – what she managed to achieve without anyone being none the wiser was a credit or would have been to her resolve if the cost wasn't the destruction of her spirit, her character and the light he cherished and revered so much. Whereas Dembe's light reflected structure, stability, and direction, hers contained the power of actualization.

Exposure to his world was meant to further impress upon her the concept of perseverance, rising above and prevailing upon rather than succumbing to.

She was meant to facilitate his re-emergence from the darkness.

Now, he was the one grasping for both an understanding of why and a strategy to rescue her, a mode of bringing her back into the light. Given the depth of her descent, recovery was uncertain, a generous interpretation all elements considered. As if navigating the substantial waters weren't enough, there were also legal obstacles, but those ranked low on his periphery. Between the cache of transcripts, documents, and surveillance material, none proved more distressing than the image he couldn't bring himself to either relinquish or look away from.

Two people were sitting close at a park table, one adult and one child.

On the surface, the scene appeared innocent – ordinary and normal. Therein was the problem. Evaluated individually or collectively, those descriptions were rare commodities in his arena, less common than trust and true friendship. Upon deeper study, the identity of the subjects inspired the horror and dejection dominating the living room.

Agnes and -

Her.

She was the mystery sitter.

The sequence of photos that followed relayed the full story. A pair of men followed Katarina into the comfort station and didn't emerge until several hours later, not of their own volition by the way. Preceding that, Agnes entered to find -

He shuddered at the thought.

What happened to his Elizabeth? What happened to the young woman who stabbed him in the neck with a pen because he didn't comply with her demands?

One could classify him as a creature of habit. She, by contrast, was just a creature. She was unknown, dangerous and still fundamental to his very existence.

How had they become so estranged?

Was he responsible for her transformation?

Don't blame yourself, my love.

He heard her voice as clearly as he felt her slender hand.

It's not your fault.

Whenever he was upset or troubled, Josephine would begin at the base of his scalp before traversing to the right spot between his shoulder blades. She knew exactly how to comfort him. He looked up to find Isabella kneeling before him. One of her hands was on his knee, the other found his wrist. She was saying something, except he couldn't focus on her words.

Hickory as it sizzled and cracked balanced him.

There are limits, even for people like us – especially for people like us.

He'd given her the benefit of the doubt at every turn. As a result, she took his presence for granted – she assumed he would always be there. Did she have reason to believe otherwise? Like it or not, he was in part responsible not because of some facts she was desperate to acquire and failed to, but in neglecting to teach her one key principle: repercussions.

Consequences.

Yes, he had a way of expressing his disappointment and occasionally even anger with her, but she never had to take a step back and ask herself the really difficult questions because he was so quick to act and defend her in the face of any and every indiscretion. His dedication and commitment to her provided insulation from the world, its cruelty, and her own growth.

Love wins.

Maybe it did once.

All depends on which variant or definition of victory was in play.

But not now. Love opened the door to pain and suffering.

The stakes were too high to chart a safe course.

If she was capable of putting Agnes in the crosshairs and upon discovering the risks taking no measure to extract her from the situation, there was no telling who else would similarly be drawn in. Immediately, he thought of the child sleeping upstairs. Validation was never something he needed or sought out. Affirmation, on the other hand, was increasingly vital. That many people wanted him didn't automatically translate into his being needed. Every now and then, it was nice to be reminded or rather assured that he was.

Elle was an intelligent, thoughtful child.

It wasn't lost on any of the adults on the premises, him especially, that she clung to him more so than usual. Yes, she missed him, and he missed her greatly – they were making up for lost time. Given her nature, the sole indicator was what she didn't say as opposed to what she did express vocally. He and Isabella agreed that they would sit down and together tell her that he was sick when the time was right, remarks prefaced with little need to worry because he would be fine. Was it possible in the meantime that Elle already knew or suspected there was more to his asking her to be brave awhile longer?

Dembe and Isabella were among the select few that truly knew and loved him.

They needed him.

Others did as well, but as means to a different end for some which he reconciled with.

The degree in which Elle needed him surpassed even theirs and vice-versa. Being with her, holding her, reading to her, sharing a laugh – activities attributed to normal people with regular lives – transported him to another place and time where he had it all and there were far more tomorrows ahead of him.

That promise lingered.

Responsibilities to others demanded his attention still.

He could no longer compromise their safety by sparing Elizabeth.

"I'm so sorry, Papa."

Isabella's voice registered.

Returning her glance, he loosened his grip on the dreaded photo and smiled sadly. "It's not as if I expected a different outcome. It's just..."

"I know, and I'm still sorry. You're disappointed, and I don't blame you. She's been lying to you and working against you for months." She elaborated, lightly squeezing his hand. "Mr. Carter was instrumental in my getting all of the pieces together. He knew what I needed without my having to ask. He's unconventional as you told me and very thorough. Together, we reviewed these tapes, screen grabs, permit applications. We spoke with a number of people who were at the park that day as well. Across the board, their accounts were all the same – a little girl was having a nice time with her grandmother. No one noticed either the men who followed her inside or her state of disarray after what happened."

She paused suddenly and looked away. "Because there were gaps in the official findings, more field work was required."

Among present company, only one person had extensive training in forensics which meant -

"The interior images, you took them?" He leaned forward, covering her hand as it rested on his knee with his free one. "You retrieved hair, blood samples, and paint chips from the scene."

Isabella nodded.

Shaking his head, he continued. "That was risky, Bella. Too risky."

"But necessary. Don't worry, Papa. I can take care of myself. Besides, I…I didn't go alone."

"Who went with you?" Dembe asked.

"It's not important."

"Isn't it?"

"By comparison, no." Raymond intervened. "But I am curious."

"Baz. I called him, and he went with me. Heddie was kind enough to stay with Elle."

Raymond surmised as much. Given all that transpired in recent months coupled with evaluating all pieces on the chess board, he thought it was more prudent for Dom to reap the advantages of high-level security in its purest form. No one was more qualified in that regard, he thought, than Baz who retooled and expanded his base operation independently.

"So long as you were careful...You're here now, that's most important."

"Mr. Carter insisted on documenting the scene himself, but given that the precipitating crime took place in a ladies' restroom I thought my going in was the best option available. It wouldn't raise alarm or call for more attention."

"You're correct, as usual." He chuckled.

"What are you going to do?"

"I don't know." Squeezing her hand, he leaned back into the chair cushions and focused on the fireplace, captivated by the sudden onslaught of pine. His mental gears turned as he weighed potential approaches.

"You're allowed to be angry."

The assertion itself didn't surprise him so much as its source. He turned to Dembe as he crossed the room. There was contrition in his posture, but to what end?

"She's on my side. Didn't you say that to me hours earlier?"

"I was wrong."

"Yes, you were. You know my stance on this issue, Dembe. When it comes to Elizabeth, or anyone we allow ourselves to love and fully commit to, we're often rendered blind to what's in front of us. New or long standing. Trust, on the other hand, isn't so easy to repair or get back once it's gone or forfeited as is the case. You believed that I forgave her last year, and I suppose to a degree I did because it was something I felt I had to do at the time which ultimately brings me to our conversation from earlier today. Because I trust you, I'm more inclined to listen to and take to heart rather than dismiss how you see things. There's a place within you that makes it possible for you to trust her that doesn't exist within me anymore."

"I'm trying to understand, Raymond. Yes, you keep things from her, but this - "

He scoffed. "At least we agree on something. While I don't understand her motives, I do know that certain excuses stop working after awhile. What she does or doesn't know about me is irrelevant."

"I agree."

"So, what do you propose then?"

"Talk to her. Try reaching out to her, as I asked her to do for you once."

Wait.

When was that request made, he wondered.

Isabella spoke first. "I won't bother to ask about the timeline, so instead I'll ask this: 'Why?'. Why should Papa be the one to initiate anything when she's on the wrong side of the equation? Why are you continuing to defend her?"

Seeing the fury in her eyes as she stood, control of the situation spiraled.

"Bella. Dembe. Please, stop." Raymond implored, but neither heard him.

The pair's demands quickly overlapped.

Who constructed what observation, he couldn't ascertain.

Like her daughter, Isabella represented the best of both worlds. Where she most resembled him was in her conviction, how she never wavered once an opinion or belief was formed and defended it fiercely. Per standard events, he would proud, but he feared that quality would prove to be their undoing. Making that concession hurt like hell, but they couldn't afford to come apart now as doing so would, from his perspective, serve no one's agenda but hers.

They had to stand together.

Isolating him defined success.

He refused to give or appear to give her any satisfaction.

Sinking further, he closed his eyes, lifting one hand to his temple and massaging the area in a circular pattern with his fingertips while clenching the other into a tight fist. While not loud in the way of volume, both thankfully mindful of Elle, their voices resounded nonetheless.

"Elizabeth isn't a bad person. She's - "

"Confused, again? Fine. Despite her training, education, and experience in the field, she can't think for herself. The delineation she operates from doesn't involve being able to separate truth from fiction. Papa and whoever happens to show up are her measures."

"That's why I think there's a chance he can still reach her." Turning to him, Dembe continued. "Raymond, she'll listen to you."

"She hasn't listened to me thus far. Why would she start now?"

"Because you love her. You need to remind her of that, and maybe she'll come to a similar realization herself."

"She already has, or she..." He trailed off, lowering his hand from his temple and leaning forward, staring at the embers.

I love you. That's what I wanted to say. That's what I wanted you to hear.

"Elizabeth did once. Last year, before what was supposed to be my execution."

"You never said anything. We could've talked about it." Dembe offered.

"I wanted to hold onto that moment, preserve it, and prolong confronting the reality of what she'd done. Here we are a year later, confronting what she's become."

"One factor's cleared up. You're not meeting her at a location out of our control." Isabella argued.

Raymond shook his head. "That's not an option."

"Why?"

"Because this is your home, yours and Elle's. Bella, I can't risk her coming here - "

"And I can't risk anymore harm coming to you!"

"Raymond won't be unprotected, Isa."

"It doesn't feel that way to me." Isabella gave her father a hard look before turning to him again. "I'd love to hear how she explains this lapse of judgment. If an ulterior motive presents itself..." She gestured to the locked corner cabinet. "She'll second guess acting on it."

The silence between them stretched as their eyes remained locked. There was no mistaking or misunderstanding her expression. She was both resigned and immovable, depths of resolve and a protective streak mirroring his own.

With no alternate path in sight, there was only one move to make.

"Dembe, call Elizabeth."