Death and Taxes
Ophelia had said it once, and she would say it a thousand times. She hated New York winters. Normally it wouldn’t be an issue, living in the Georgian South as she did, however duty would inevitably call.
She had worked hard to land her job, and she loved it with all her heart. Her masters in environmental science enabled her to be the warden of a local wildlife preserve near her hometown, something she took very seriously. However, once every quarter she was expected to attend a meeting for the US Fish and Wildlife Service to provide them with updates on her recorded samples and specimens, as well as keeping abreast of new technology and practices that could impact the wellbeing of her local ecosystem.
Unfortunately for her, that meeting always took place in New York. It was convenient for most of the big wigs that would attend the meeting, and therefore it was convenient for everyone else. Ophelia didn’t own enough warm clothes to touch the chill that inevitably set into her bones, and since it wasn’t feasible to walk around with an electric blanket, she resigned herself to intense suffering.
Alright, so maybe she was a little bit of a baby. She was born and raised in the southern sun, sue her.
She’d shacked up for most of the day in her hotel room, which was unusual for her on any normal day. Ophelia enjoyed walking around and sightseeing, but it was just too doggone cold. Her meeting was set for four in the afternoon, and she intended to spend every moment beforehand snuggled up in all the blankets she could find.
The meetings were scheduled by region and tended to go on for a good few days. This evening was the first one of a series, and the focus would be funding. Everyone’s favorite subject. Ha.
The location for the meeting was in Manhattan’s financial district on what was probably the thirty second floor, or something else equally terrifying. Ophelia was, as always, on time and dressed appropriately. She wore a professional looking white button up blouse tucked into black leg hugging trousers, topping it off with an emerald green blazer that set off her eyes. Her other, longer, warmer jacket was safely tucked into her bag.
The meeting had started late, however, much to Ophelia’s dismay. These already tended to run a bit over, and she had an appointment with a hot bath and a bottle of wine. The cause was, ironically, the holder of the meeting. His name was Simon Lachlan, and he was the regional financial coordinator for her area. They had locked horns many times on budget issues, and she was convinced that they would never see eye to eye. She was already braced to dig her heels in over the course of the meeting, but was quite surprised when he showed up ten minutes late.
And very sweaty.
Sixteen sets of eyes looked up from their phones and/or quiet conversations when the door opened and he quickly walked in, muttering his apologies. He hastily took his seat at the head of the long table and began setting up his laptop with the digital projector.
Ophelia raised a brow at him from her position just a few seats down on his right. Were his hands shaking?
Simon had only just gotten the projector to show the first slide when the door to the meeting room swung open once more with a soft click. Once again, all eyes swiveled to the door, including Ophelia’s.
She stiffened visibly in her chair as recognition swept across her expression.
Gray Taylor strode into the room, looking for all the world as though he belonged in the meeting. Ophelia had a strong suspicion that this was most certainly not the case. His eyes met hers, and as recognition touched his own expression, he greeted her surprise with a cheeky smirk.
He took the empty chair across from her, and Ophelia shifted in her seat as she became the subject of his attention, gazing at her intently from across the table. There was a subtle challenge in his eyes, and it unnerved her. She wasn’t used to being caught by surprise like this. The only time it ever seemed to happen was with him.
Why are you here?
The last time she’d seen him, he was asking questions of her that she didn’t want to answer. And she hadn’t. In fact, she vividly remembered leaving him with hardly a word at a table in a hole in the wall beignet shop in New Orleans some months ago. She didn’t have a reason to think he was here for her, but his presence was a bit disconcerting nonetheless.
Hell, maybe he really was supposed to be here. Perhaps he had some kind of stake in government funding. Stranger things had happened.
Distracted, she realized she’d started to click the pen in her hands agitatedly, and she quickly set it down on her legal pad, folding her hands in her lap instead.
Simon spoke up, and Ophelia only tore her eyes from Gray’s when Simon decided to wrap up the meeting early. He hadn’t even started.
Before she could object, Gray interjected, questioning the abrupt ending and offering to cater the gathering. Frankly, she questioned it as well. Gray’s appearance be damned, her livelihood had a stake in this meeting. They were here to talk about the year’s funding, for f-cks sake. The others in the meeting rustled in objection as well.
“Mr. Lachlan, we can’t postpone the meeting. With all the other regional meetings left, we won’t have time to reconvene.” Ophelia’s smooth southern tone drifted down the table to Simon, though he hardly noticed her. He was too busy staring at Gray.
The sweaty man began to wring his hands. “Uh.. um, well..” He paused and swallowed compulsively, looking suddenly around the room. He seemed to lock eyes on the wall of the room that was made entirely of floor to ceiling windows, apparently mesmerised by the view of twilight approaching. For a long, increasingly awkward moment, he said nothing.
Someone in the room cleared their throat, and a woman in the back piped up, “Mr. Lachlan?”
With a sudden primal shout that made everyone in the room jump, he sprinted shoulder first into the nearest window with all his might, shattering the glass outward.
They could all hear his scream as he plummeted over thirty stories.
The shock in the room was expressed in many different ways. One woman screamed in horror, a few were too shocked to even move, and most ran to the unbroken windows to look down, punctuating the alarm in the room with exclamations of disbelief. A few people had their phones out, calling emergency services.
Ophelia, initially shocked beyond words at the turn this day had taken, had risen to her feet, though she didn’t remember doing so. Her bright green eyes were wide, and her lips were parted in disbelief. All she could do was turn, and stare directly at Gray.
Now, Ophelia Fraye was no stranger to death. It didn’t scare her. Her life was.. complicated, and her hands weren’t exactly clean. Still, that didn’t make the fact that a man had just willingly jumped to his death right in front of a room full of people any less jarring. Every single person in the room was shocked. Except for one.
Ophelia wasn’t an idiot. She could connect the dots easily enough, but that didn’t mean she understood exactly what had just transpired. Only that Gray had definitely played a part. She had to admit, whatever he had just done.. it was clever. It had happened in a room packed with people, and not a single one of them would single him out.
What’s your story, Gray Taylor?
“...He was going to cut funding.”
Ophelia blinked, coming back to herself. Was that.. had he just made a joke? Caught off guard by the blasé remark, she pressed her lips together to hide the incredulous smile that fought for room on her face. The sound of distant sirens from hundreds of feet below them filled the room, and a flurry of frigid air was beginning to seep the warmth right from her bones. It gave her a tiny shiver, which seemed to clear her mind a bit.
“Well. Then, that was probably for the best, wasn’t it.” She spoke loudly enough for only Gray to hear. Ophelia bent down to reach for her purse, but paused when Gray spoke again.
“Not exactly what I had in mind for our first date..”
She glanced up at him for a moment with guarded eyes before straightening, her purse in her hand.
“No..” She secured her bag over her shoulder and levelled an audacious gaze upon him. “Me either. I was expecting marginally less questioning from law enforcement. Not your best work.” She tsk’d and gave a short shake of her head before walking around the table toward the door, but passing close by his chair.
“May I have a word?” She murmured to him in passing. A moment later, she heard his chair scoot from the table and knew he would follow.
She didn’t go far, only outside the meeting room door, where there was less freezing wind and more comfortable seating. She knew police were probably only minutes from barging in to take statements, and who knew how long that would take.
She didn’t sit just yet, though she dropped her purse onto a plush three seater that was situated against the wall and waited a moment for him to catch up.
Once he rounded the corner, she fixed her bright gaze upon him. “Fancy seeing you here, Gray.” A half smile tilted her lips. “I see I’m not the only one who wants to jump out a window when you show up.”
Her tone was nothing but sass, but the gleam in her eyes said otherwise. She was curious.
Gray laid out his own pleasantries with a charming smile, almost but not quite rising to her impudent bait. It seemed to Ophelia that Gray was a very measured man. It would probably take quite a bit to make him boil over. Not even a man throwing himself from a window thirty two stories up had had much of an effect on the unflappable man.
Then again, Ophelia was convinced he’d somehow had a hand in it. It would explain the distinct lack of surprise.
He could hear her unspoken question hanging in the air, and the answer he provided was merely a keyhole view into what she suspected was a grand hall of secrets and questions gone unanswered.
“Mr. Lachlan was having some financial troubles. Very common reaction, this.”
Ophelia’s half smile melded into a thoughtful purse of her lips, her clever mind working through the many dots that could be connected. With his answer, he’d admitted to some knowledge of Mr. Lachlan’s stressors, and also that he hadn’t been surprised at the outcome. Both of which she’d known or assumed.
“Mhmm. Well, his untimely demise is going to cause me some financial troubles, I can tell you that. He was the financial coordinator for my livelihood, Mr. Taylor.” Her southern accent dropped her Rs, making his last name sound smooth and easy on her lips.
It was apparent by the light, amused lilt of her voice that she was hardly torn up over Simon’s death, despite what she said. “Not that he didn’t cause me a fair share of troubles while he was still with us, that is.”
Her tone wasn’t accusatory. Not really.
In the short silence, Ophelia overheard someone in the meeting room talking loudly about police in the building. They would soon be accosted by the boys in blue for statements. Ophelia sighed lightly before meeting his eyes, not a difficult thing to do, and murmured with not just a small peppering of sass, “Well, New York’s finest will be here for us soon. Are you gonna confess?”
She held his gaze easily, a challenge within her own. Ophelia had always been the tall girl of the group, in almost every situation. She’d been teased about it when she was a kid, but now, as a grown woman? She enjoyed it thoroughly. There was something about a strong woman, both physically and mentally, that seemed to throw men off balance. The fact that she was nearly eye to eye with Gray Taylor’s tall stature was something she was sure he wasn’t accustomed to.
He couldn’t look down on her.
"Confess? To what? being distracted by the beautiful woman that wanted nothing more than a word? Have Mercy, dear Ophelia."
There it was again. That challenge in his eyes. Ophelia didn't know exactly what to make of it, but it made her want to rise to the occasion.
Really, there was nothing for him to confess to. He hadn't done a thing. Hadn't even lifted a finger. It was truly impressive. More than anything, Ophelia was a curious creature, and she could sense the fortress of secrets hidden behind the steel of his eyes. The hidden knowledge, the hows and whys of it all, drew her in. She was interested. No small feat.
She gave an amused smile in response to his words, though the light ding of the elevator reaching their floor quickly cut off their conversation. Ophelia watched as Gray's entire demeanor changed with the arrival of the NYPD. It was as though a mask had been pulled over his face; a mask of a shocked bystander, mirrored by the dozen or so other people still in the meeting room.
This guy. He was a pro.
Gray moved, brushing what would seem to be a compassionate, comforting hand across her arm, and took a seat on the rather corporate looking couch she'd set her purse upon. Ophelia followed him with her bright eyes, taking in the professional at work. He really was good. If she hadn't known any better, she would have thought he was just as disturbed and flustered as most of the others in the meeting room.
As the officers entered the meeting room for statements, a couple branched off to take theirs. Ophelia saw them coming, and lifted her purse from the couch so she could take her seat beside Gray. She was close enough to his side that she could tell he'd recently showered. She could smell the light scent of his shampoo.
Ophelia didn't lay it on as thick as Gray (she didn't trust her own acting skills), but she did her level best to banish the amusement of Gray being questioned by the police from her face. He gave short and direct answers to their questions, ever the good citizen.
Ophelia wanted to mess with him. Just a little.
"And you, miss?"
"Ophelia Fraye." She reached into her purse to extract her ID. "I work for the EPA."
The officer took down the information on their IDs before glancing up at Ophelia again. "Can you tell me what happened here?"
Really, her acting skills were sh*t. But her desire to fluster Gray motivated her to do her best. She swallowed hard and shook her head at the officer's question, looking for all the world as if she were completely unnerved.
"I.. I don't really know. We were just having a meeting, and then he just threw himself right out of the window." She paused, and feigned a look of mild realization. "Though.. he only did that after Gray had come into the room.." She turned her head to look at Gray, her expression the embodiment of innocent curiosity. "Gray, do you have any idea why that is?"
With her face turned from the officer, she couldn't hide the mischievous, amused gleam in her eyes from Mr. Taylor.
The man didn't miss a beat. He picked up right where she left off, taking her bait and running with it. Playing along with her little taunts as though it had been rehearsed.
Gray brought a gentle, comforting arm around her shoulders and drew her in compassionately, as though she were truly shaken. If this situation had actually shaken her foundations, she thought, the kind gesture probably would have helped. As it was, he was simply milking the situation, knowing his actions would taunt her as she was taunting him.
One thing was for sure. He gave as good as he got.
Ophelia allowed him to draw her in, her side flush with his. Tucked under his arm, she could only listen with well disguised admiration as he lied fluently to the officer. As he spoke, however, she realized he was turning the tables back upon her. Catching her in her own game.
"What did you say to him, Ophelia? He was so upset. I know you didn't mean it."
With a look of feigned, innocent surprise, she blinked her bright eyes at Gray, glanced quickly to the officer, and then back to Gray. "Y-you know about that?" She murmured to him quietly.
The officer glanced up from his notepad and raised a brow before sharing a brief look with his colleague. "What phone call are you referring to, miss?"
Ophelia looked up at the officers, then back at Gray. "Well.." She looked at the floor, worried that she might break and begin to laugh. "I spoke to him earlier in the day over the phone, and.. well, he told me that he'd found out about you and Mrs. Lachlan. He had a nannycam set up in the living room.. he said he saw everything." She got quieter toward the end, trying to disguise the quiver of a laugh threatening to break out as simply being upset.
“He told me he confronted you about it.. and he said you got angry. Very angry.” Ophelia peeked sideways at Gray, the barest hint of a grin touching her lips.
They were definitely going to get in trouble. They were already too deep into their silly game. The trouble was, neither of them backed down from the other’s challenge. Ophelia figured that she just might be even later for her date with that bottle of wine and her bath if this went much further.
Ophelia truly thought she’d gotten him with her fictional twist. She really did. However, it quickly became obvious that she had greatly underestimated Gray’s ability to think quickly on his feet. As hard as Ophelia had tried to utilize her meager acting skills, it was apparent that she would be outmatched by Mr. Taylor in this situation.
Clever, clever man.
Ophelia listened as he spun his tale, expertly weaving through the details and peppering it with a fine display of ‘genuine’ concern for the situation at hand. And then..
Oh no. She wasn’t gonna make it. He was too good, and the situation was fast becoming far too ridiculous. She pressed her lips together and looked at the floor, locking down on the bubble of incredulous laughter that was threatening to undo her. Her heavy, dark hair slid over her shoulder as she looked down, hiding her face from the officers.
He wraps up his version of the story with flair, and punctuates his monologue with a sweet kiss to her cheek.
‘Best date ever.’
She is undone.
The bubble of laughter that she had been wrangling got the best of her, and she broke with a peal of the most out of place, delighted laughter you could imagine. Her shoulders shook with it, and the two of them were completely had.
She’d tried her level best, but she had no choice except to concede to Gray, the absolute pro. Ophelia had the feeling that he did this sort of thing quite often. His prowess was something she hadn’t come across before, and it was exciting. He was exciting.
Ophelia was too caught up in the hilarity to have seen the look the officers gave one another, nor the short, clipped conversation that preceded one of the burly men taking her none too gently by the arm and hauling her to her feet. Her laughter quieted down once she was on her feet, but the absolutely delighted, mischievous smile that she threw Gray over her shoulder spoke volumes. There was no regret.
She barely managed to snap up her purse as she was hauled toward the elevator, and she caught the sight of Gray being similarly brought to his feet as well. She looked over her shoulder at the officer. “Are we being arrested?” The elevator dinged, and the both of them were led inside.
“Not if you come willingly. We’re taking you both in for further questioning.”
Ophelia rolled her eyes. Judging by the grip on her arm, ‘willingly’ was a subjective word. Their ride in the elevator was quiet, and their trip together in the back of the squad car was equally silent, save for the quiet, amused smile that Ophelia couldn’t seem to banish. This whole situation was completely ridiculous, and so unlike her. Apparently, Gray was the type of man that made her want to step from her comfort zone.
When they arrived at the police station, they were both brought into the back, to a large, communal cell for individuals that hadn’t been processed yet. There were three other men already in the cell in varying states of street clothing, two of which looked more like they needed to be in handcuffs as they paced through the large cell like caged animals, watching them.
Ophelia and Gray were led into the pen, and given a short explanation that all the questioning rooms were busy. Then, with an intimidatingly loud click, the door was closed and locked. Ophelia had never been arrested, nor taken in for questioning.. but this still didn’t feel like it was on the up and up. If they were here for questioning, shouldn’t they be in, say.. a waiting room or something?
She glanced over at the men on the other side of the cage, looked to Gray, then walked toward the opposite side and sat down on the uncomfortable metal bench. Her purse had been taken from her when they arrived, along with the jacket inside of it.
The two men watched Ophelia hungrily, and she suspected that they had probably been in here for a day or two. Judging by their hard eyes, she didn’t think they were simply here for questioning.
To Gray, she offered a slightly rueful smile. “You know, I get the feeling that those officers didn’t like us much.”
Gray crosses the span of unforgiving concrete between them and takes a seat beside her, though he was nowhere near the relaxed man he'd been back in the meeting. She could feel the tension emanating from him across the short distance between them. He was taut in the shoulders, and his gaze was restless.
Though mistaken, she felt sure that the reason was because of their current predicament. They would probably be stuck in this cage for the rest of the night, and he was undoubtedly annoyed. It had been a very silly and uncharacteristic thing for her to do, but it had just seemed like such a good idea at the time.
Despite the tension clear in his lean frame, he still lightly joked with her about the Ashley Madison incident, making her chuckle quietly.
He turned to look at her with an amused smile, and she wanted to say something about how clever he'd been back at the meeting, but a dark chuckle from the other side of the cage abruptly drew both of their attention.
She couldn't see Gray's face, but whatever he did, it shut the guy up. At least momentarily.
While Ophelia was sure she could handle any problems these men might give her, she was still glad she wasn't stuck in here by herself.
"You know, I'm fairly certain this isn't normal."
She nodded, leaning back against the cinderblock wall with a sigh. "You've got that right." She smiled a little, glancing sideways at him. "I probably should keep my bright ideas to myself next time, huh."
She clasped her hands loosely in her lap, idly rubbing circulation back into her palms with her fingers. It was chilly. "I'm sorry if you had places to be tonight. I didn't expect we'd end up caged like this."