(A Joe and Neb post)
Once it was clear that Neb would survive her ordeal and the arrow had been pried out of her shoulder, the tiny woman was moved out of the admittedly creepy basement medical center and into a bare bones hospital room on the second floor. It didn’t have much, but she didn’t need much past time to heal and her thyroid medication.
And her torc, which now sat on the floor next to a weird-looking box that served as an adaptor for the electric outlet it was plugged into. Once the thing was charged and she could wear it again, her heal rate would be much faster, but for now she was stuck here, doing it the normal way.
“We really have to stop meeting like this.”
The statement was punctuated by a mirthful chuckle as its originator stepped into the room. Having changed out of his ‘mission attire’, Joseph Kerr was now sans mask and clad in a long sleeved turtleneck paired with black jeans.
“Apologies for disturbing your rest but someone couldn’t wait to visit.” Emphasizing on the noun, Joseph looked pointedly towards his right from which an orange blur rushed onto the bed. The Jester smiled in amusement as he silently took in Carmine’s attempt to smother Neb with her cuteness.
Neb laughed as the cat curled up in her lap. For a moment she felt almost normal, and was reluctant to let that moment, nor the cat go.
“So weird seeing you in normal dress, man,” she said as she pushed away the book she was slowly translating. She was about to ask where Flag was, but suddenly she didn’t want to know. She wasn’t ready to think about him yet, and the woman stared at the top of the cat’s head to hide her fleeting discomfort. “What happened with Bran? Did we run him over with the plane? I couldn’t see.”
Hiding his discomfort at the topic behind his smile, Joseph reached out to stroke Carmine for a few second before replying in what he hoped passed for a mirthful tone.
“I wish I could give you a play-by-play but truth is I didn’t see much either; I was far too preoccupied with the flight controls during that moment. Maybe Flag would be able to fill you in better. Don’t worry though, as far as I recall, Bran got out pretty much unscathed, which is unfortunately more than I can say for you.”
At the last part of that statement, Joseph’s expressions turned serious.
“I’m sorry that you’re in this bed because of me. Don’t get me wrong, it means a lot to me that you’ll always have my back, just like I’ll always have yours.” Joseph paused to squeeze Neb’s hand gently and let out a small but warm smile before continuing.
“I’m just really sorry that my lack of foresight and improper planning got you hurt. This would never have happened if it had been Carmen leading the mission; she always plans for everything.”
Neb bristled, and whatever warm feelings had been growing in her heart went cold. She narrowed her eyes at him. “Is that so?”
The woman knew it was an innocent statement but it struck a nerve nonetheless, and she sat up as straight as her injuries would allow.
“I did everything that could have been done for this heist.” she said angrily. “Bran’s been a fuuking nightmare that I’ve been trying to avoid because I knew his basement was going to be full of crap. There was no way to know how much unless you were Bran himself, so that’s why we sent in the drone. That’s why we shut off the power. That’s why we waited until we knew he’d be at a function. That’s why we cased the place as much as we could when we laid the explosives. That’s why I sent the first book in with a tracer. This-”
Neb pointed the wrappings on her arm, “-has nothing to do with lack of planning. This happened because Bran’s insane, apparently also has a teleporter, and that you didn’t listen to me after I told you a million times that Bran is whacko. Would you have listened to me if I was Carmen?”
Then she fell back on her pillow and exhaled. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have gotten you into this. I took every precaution I could to keep the two of you safe, but I didn’t count in your lack of battle experience. That’s on me. I’m sorry.”
She closed her eyes. “I can’t wait until I’m out of this business.”
Joseph paused to let the weight of her words sink in. He had not anticipated such a passionate response from Neb and many of her points stung home.
Gathering his thoughts, he began an honest and measured response.
“Let me first state unequivocally that I do not blame you for anything. Second, you may have been team leader but I was the senior agent on the team. It was my responsibility to ensure safety for the team and I messed up.”
Joe paused again to stroke Carmine and gather his thoughts.
“Yes, you did do everything you could on your end, but I could have done more. There were other, more dangerous gadgets I could have brought that might have helped us but I didn’t; You rightly pointed out that I failed to account for his insanity, foolishly believing that as an ACME he would have a strict ethos that we could rely on. That’s on me, for being stubborn.
More infuriatingly for me, I failed to make a plan B; and having worked with Carmen, I should have known better. It’s part of why she’s the best, you know; she always has a plan B, and C, and D, and well, you get the idea. She has the ability to plan for every outcome in any mission or heist. That’s why she’s such a great leader, and why I trust her so implicitly.
That’s not a knock on you. You’re shaping up to be a capable and great leader in your own right. If anyone should be contemplating stepping away from the grand ol’ game, it’s me, not you.”
Sighing, Joseph Kerr took a seat on the chair that was beside the bed and looked at Neb with a melancholy expression.
“This ‘business’ as you call it, was never a mere vocation or a means to earn a living for me. It’s equal parts artistry and challenge, a game where the test of skill is in itself the real prize. I’d like to believe that it’s the same for Carmen as well, and I’d like to think that’s the reason VILE has never been about the loot.
Sadly, the game’s changing, and I’m not sure I can change with it. I’m cut from the old cloth, the old breed of grifter; I identify with the days gone by when a thief wasn’t just a petty criminal but a skilled professional with a code of honour; the cops used to be more honourable also, sanctity of life was acknowledged and upheld by both factions.
These days, that concept seems to have become foreign. Criminals these days are scum and cops turn to violence and killing all too readily.
Maybe I’m too idealistic, maybe I’m just too stuck in the past. What do you think?”
Neb’s face softened and she exhaled slowly as she put her hand on Joe’s. “Oh Joe….”
She paused as she sorted through her two timelines for the correct one, then readjusted herself in bed.
“Thieves were always petty criminals. Carmen made an alternative through the sheer force of being Carmen, and by ACME’s willingness to hold their fire. This game is an anomaly. It only exists around Carmen, and it will likely disappear when she does. That said, even within the official teams, not everyone will play straight. Never assume that just because someone is ACME or VILE that they’re safe. No one is truly safe, Joe. You have to look out for yourself, always.”
The woman removed her hand and rubbed her shoulder. “As for stepping away, if you’re enjoying yourself, there’s no need to. Her game suits you well, so with a boost of survival instinct, you should be fine.
Me… I was never really a thief. I stayed with VILE to hide and provide background support as a grateful refugee. I told Carmen as much. She thought it was funny… I think.”
Neb’s voice lowered and her gaze slowly drifted out the window. She’d never truly gotten over Carmen’s disappearance in her first life. It wasn’t something she’d admit to, or even think about. The master thief was supporting her even now, with this care, in this safe house, and Neb was grateful for it, for all of it, yet the sharp sting of betrayal of the trust remained, and in her second turn she’d subconsciously distanced herself because of it.
The familiar ache rose again and the woman changed the topic. “If I could have gotten those books from Bran legally I would have, but he’s a f*cking jackass that buys up every damn thing I need and doesn’t share, so he left me with no choice. I was tempted to send someone else, but this is my thing. I’m not going to get someone killed for my thing. I either do it myself or not at all. Flag came along because....”
She didn’t want to think about why he came. It probably wasn’t good.
“-I have no idea, but I wasn’t going to say no. I needed the help and I knew he could take care for himself.”
She turned back to her fellow with a shade of guilt. “I asked if you wanted come because the Carmen stuff has been slow and I thought it might be fun for you, you know? You were already helping me with the book tracker and the origami robot thing. I knew it was more dangerous than your usual job, possibly something Carmen may not have even attempted due to the lack of precise knowledge of the house, but…”
She paused before going further, not wanting to rehash what had already been said. “You were a tremendous help. I’m sorry I almost got you killed.”
The woman lapsed into silence again as she pet the cat on her lap, not at all sure she deserved its comfort.
As much as Joe would have loved to argue the point about the history of the fine art of grifting and gentlemen thieves, Neb’s last statement and her seemingly forlorn look silenced him.
It was at times like these that he was reminded why he was originally drawn to the young woman; he recalled how he had chanced upon her all alone in a corner of the old headquarters, alone and lost, unsure of what this new life would hold for her. She needed a friend, a guide into this family of thieves; he was taken it upon himself to be that friend. Maybe that was what was needed here, not a mission debrief, not an apology, just friendship.
With a small smile, he reached over to stroke Carmine before letting his smile bloom into warm, welcoming grin.
“Don’t worry about it. It wasn’t the first time we’ve worked together and hopefully, it won’t be our last.”
After a brief pause of amiable silence, Joseph continued, attempting to switch topics.
“So about those books, never really took you for a bookworm. What’s the deal with those?”
Neb’s mind went blank and she stared dumbly at him. She’d had a whole explanation rehearsed for if Joe, or anyone for that matter, asked her why she was risking her life for some old books, which would not reveal her carefully guarded secret, but now, of course, it was gone.
Her mind raced as she tried to pull together another ironclad alibi, but perhaps the truth would serve even better.
“It’s for immortality,” she said flatly.
Joseph blinked at her in confusion. “You mean like a lasting legacy as the world’s greatest book thief? Or were you planning to write your own series of best sellers so that we’d always remember you?”
“Nope. I mean the real deal. Live forever. Or not really forever. Forever is a long time and I don’t want to be here when the sun eats the planet. Maybe like, a thousand years, or a few hundred. Depends how it goes.”
“You seem to have good faith in being able to achieve it. Given what we’ve seen in our line of work, maybe you’re onto something; who knows? I just have one question really,” Joseph looked Neb straight in the eye and before continuing in a soft but firm tone,
“Have you thought this through properly?”
“Yeeeeeeeeeeessssss?” Neb answered with a cocked eyebrow. She didn’t mean to be rude, but she chafed at having her judgement questioned again. “I wouldn’t have gone anywhere near Bran Flakes’s house of horrors if I wasn’t serious about- Wait...”
Something Joe said cut through her indignation and she squinted at him. “What do you mean, ‘what we’ve seen’?” What have you seen?”
“Not the point. And you missed the point of the question too. I wasn’t questioning if you were serious about trying to pursue this, I know you better than that. I want to know if you thought about ALL the ramifications of becoming immortal, or at least living on for hundreds, if not thousands of years?”
Joseph paused and placed a hand on Neb’s shoulder.
“I know I can’t stop you from pursuing anything you’ve got your heart set on, but as your friend, I don’t want you jumping into this with tunnel vision and literally living to regret it later.”
Neb frowned at the dismissal of her question. Any other brushes with the paranormal the man had had could hold useful information, and she made a point to press the issue later. Now she cocked her eyebrow at him as she tried to suss out exactly what was going on here.
“You sound like you’ve thought a lot about it…” she answered hesitantly, “Like, a real lot.”
She studied him a moment longer, then leaned in conspiratorially, “Are you immortal?”
Joseph let out a hearty laugh at Neb’s query.
“If I was, I wouldn’t have been dodging every time someone tried to take a shot at me.”
Looking at the scar on left arm, Joe’s expression turned oddly sentimental.
“Nope. I’m a hundred percent mortal, and I’m perfectly content to stay that way. You, on the other hand, seem to have other ideas.”
Neb stared at his scar. It all went the same way, right down to that, she thought dully. Her absence had changed little to nothing, unless Olga was still at large. That was something to ask Flag about. Later.
“Jeeze, Joe, we got to get you a suit of armor,” she replied with a weak laugh. “Although I think we got a guy who wears armor as his thing. VILE Knight. Is he still around?” she added in a bid to change the subject.
“You mean Sir Vile? If I recall, I read something about his status while Patty and myself were shutting down the old base; something about going on sabbatical when the boss put a stop to the whole ‘messing about with time’ business. Pity that, he’d make a natural casting choice for some of the plays we’re supposed to do next season.”
After a brief moment of chuckling at something to himself, Joseph turned his attention back to Neb.
“Speaking of messing with time, why is it you want to be immortal again?”
“Again? I haven’t managed it the first time yet.”
Joseph responded with a deadpan look. “Funny, I thought jokes were my schtick.”
Carmine responded with a snigger which earned her a raised eyebrow from the Jester. “Et Tu Carmine?”
Being met with only more sniggers, Joseph shook his head before turning his attention back to Neb.
“Seriously though, in this Jester’s humble opinion, the whole immortality idea is overrated.”
It had been a dumb joke, but it had also knocked her partner just enough off track to make her comfortable again.
“Well you’re in luck there, mate. Just don’t go running too hard in the opposite direction,” she replied with a smile. Then, once again, something Joe said gave her pause, and she truly began to suspect the man of hiding supernatural endeavors of his own. “What was that about messing with time?”
“Didn’t you read up on VILE history as part of your training? Anyway, the gist of it all is that a few years back, Carmen tried to take the game to the next level by using a time travel device to steal items from history. Eventually, after a few misadventures, both ACME and VILE came to the agreement that time travel was too risky and both sides banned the use of time machines. Come to think of it, don’t know why ACME had a time machine to begin with. Huh.”
Filing that last thought away for later, the Jester turned his attention back to Neb.
“Anyway, it was all before my time. If you want the juicy details, you’ll need to ask someone else. And yes...I know you’ve been trying to deflect”
Joseph stuck out his tongue in an impish gesture before continuing.
“So just out of utter curiosity, what kind of immortality does the book promise in the first place?”
Neb stared at him.
We had time machines? And we hadn’t been used to stop Hitler? How could anyone have a time machine and not try to stop a tragedy with it? Unless you were Flag and didn’t give a damn, but then why the hell hadn’t he just used the machine to go home instead of all that other crap? And why did ACME have one?
Probably to stop Hitler.
The woman rubbed what short, grey hair was still left on her head, then glanced at the man watching her expectantly beside the bed.
The answer to his latest question ran through the heart of her secrets and she thought to throw him off again, but he was like a dog with a bone. Even if she shut the conversation down, it was bound to come back again, and she couldn't help but be curious by now. Neb exhaled a sigh of defeat.
“Alright Joe, this might be the painkillers talking or I might be reading too much into your words, but I’m getting the feeling there’s something you want to tell me about immortality?”
Raising an eyebrow, Joseph began in a slow, measured tone.
“First off, I am genuinely curious as to what kind of immortality the book promises. Is it the type whereby you never grow old or the type whereby you won’t die but you’ll still grow old? Because in my opinion, it would suck being stuck as an old man for hundreds of years.”
Joseph let out a dramatic shiver as he continued somewhat lightheartedly.
“Can you imagine sufferings hundreds of years of arthritis and dementia? I’d much rather be locked up by ACME, thank you very much.”
The Jester’s tone then shifted to a more serious one.
“More importantly though, say the book gives you the ability to stay young forever and never die; that’s a double-edged sword right there. Sure, you’d have all the time in the world to do things, but you’d have no one to truly share them with; you’d never be able to have meaningful relationships because everyone else would grow old whilst you stayed eternally youthful.”
Joseph paused slightly for dramatic effect before carrying on painting the disturbing picture.
“You’d be able to accomplish many things, but I’d imagine they’d lose their meaning to you after awhile; it’d probably get boring and tedious waking up everyday. You wouldn’t be afraid of anything anymore since nothing could kill you but that would also take the fun out of life since there’s no danger of yours ending.”
Looking Neb in the eye, Joseph smiled warmly before finishing.
“You’re free to believe what you want and do what you think is best, but in my personal opinion, what makes us human is our mortality; the very awareness that we will eventually die one day, could eventually die at any time. Mortality is what makes us cherish relationships, make memories, love the people we love, be driven to accomplish something, be prompted to be kind and helpful; all because we know we all have a limited time and need to make the most of it. To live without that? That isn’t living anymore, that’s just...torture, a never-ending purgatory of futility and boredom.”
The small woman remained silent throughout, clenching and unclenching her fists as she repeated over and over to herself, He’s just trying to help, he’s just trying to help. After all, it wasn’t his fault he had to make assumptions when she wouldn’t give him any solid information. There was no way for him to know how much sorrow and anger was wrapped up in her decision when she didn’t wish to show it. Still, she felt the need to respond, so with careful deliberance she picked up the cat on the bed and held it close as she lay back on the bed.
“I told you I didn’t intend to stay more than a thousand years,” she replied wearily as she gazed at the ceiling. “Immortality doesn’t necessarily mean invulnerability. In my case, it won’t. It will be a constant struggle to maintain it, and to be honest, my heart’s not fully in it. But I’ll pursue it the best I can, for reasons I can’t tell you.”
Neb half turned to him them. “And what’s wrong with befriending someone you know you’ll outlive? We do it all the time, with our elders, with our sick. You’re doing it right now, with me. I don’t have much time left unless I make this work.” She gestured to the book on the floor. “It won’t give me forever, but I don’t need forever. I just need time. Time enough.”
Seeing that Neb was set in her decision, Joseph decided to leave her in peace, but couldn’t stop himself from leaving one last parting shot. “It is not death that we should fear Kid, it is not living life to its fullest and cherishing every moment while we can.”
Smiling, the Jester donned his mask once more and left with Carmine in tow, vanishing into the secret halls of Stone Harbour.
Neb stared blankly at the door he'd left from. “What the hell...?”
It was as if he hadn't heard a thing she said after the word ‘immortality’, not even the sizable hint that she'd finally dropped that she was dying. Something about the subject of eternity had triggered the man so much that he'd been compelled to pontificate, but why remained a mystery. The lot of it left her unsettled, and Neb squinted suspiciously at the door the jester had left through.
I bet he is immortal. I mean, why not? Given what we’ve seen in our line of work... she thought as she fished her book off the floor with her good arm. “He could have at least let me keep the cat.”
TO BE CONTINUED!
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