Big Brother Is Watching


avi2_icon.gif hampton_icon.gif

Scene Title Big Brother is Watching You
Synopsis Wolfhound gains a new pair of eyes.
Date February 1, 2021

“No, I didn’t send it, because for the fiftieth time, it’s automatically deposited every month as it has been for the last three years. Just because you don’t look in the account or understand how to use online banking doesn’t mean it’s not there. Christ, woman.”

The tall burly man stands outside the brick building that is the Bastion, waiting for someone to come open the door and let him in for his 9 a.m. meeting. “I apologize, but c’mon, Gwen, I’m not some deadbeat dad, no matter how much you want to paint me in that light. And stop talking shit about me to the girls, will ya? The other day, Reilly asked me what a bimbo is, and I’d really appreciate-”

Hampton Dartwell sighs as the phone beeps at him, indicating the call was dropped. His thumb slides over the screen, past the picture of Cruella de Vil meant to represent the caller but stops short before pressing redial. The phone is slid into his pocket, and he reaches to rap on the door to let someone know he’s outside waiting.

The Bastion
Phoenix Heights

February 1, 2021
9:01 am

When the metal-framed glass doors at the guest entrance to the Bastion open, Francis Harkness’ bewildered face is the introduction that Hampton gets to Wolfhound. “Hiii…” he says with a look to the left and right, one shoulder edged behind the door as though it were a shield, standing at a 45-degree angle to peer around it.

“We’re ah, you need to make an appointment. Our number is on the uh, the internet listing? If you had a verbal referral I can…” Francis trails off, looking back through the door, then to Hampton again, “I can get you a card?”

Dartwell was biding his time squinting at the sky for the past few moments, so he turns to look at the man guarding the door. One brow tics upward, and he pulls out his phone to squint at the day and time there, murmuring to himself for a moment.

“Nope. Yep. My secretary should have emailed you — well not you you — probably about three weeks or so, most likely to, uh,” he smiles faintly, “Major Epstein? About a visit today. I know you’re not Epstein, but I can meet with anyone on the upper management team or senior officers, whatever ranking system you got here.”

He steps forward to offer a large hand to the younger man to shake. “Hampton Dartwell, Deputy Director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance. You know what that is, kid?” Despite calling Francis ‘kid,’ Hampton’s tone isn’t a threatening one but instead colored by a certain smarmy warmth that comes with assuming (wrongly) that everyone will like him. What’s not to like?

“Oh! Shit! Yes!” Francis yelps, and it becomes immediately clear that Wolfhound may benefit from more dedicated staff for precisely this purpose. A glaring hole in their operation with Hana gone. “Yeah, yeah, sure, sure, sorry.” Francis holds the door open to let Hampton come in, then lets it go to close softly on its own behind him.

As Hampton walks into the spacious, industrial-themed lobby, Francis holds up one finger. “I’ll go get him, I think he’s in his office upstairs. Have a seat over in the lounge,” Francis adds with a motion through an open doorway into a recessed lounge area with an untended bar. “I’ll head up and get the Boss.”

“Well, good,” Hampton says genially, smile broadening as Francis opens the door to let him in. “I’d hate to have to fire Margie after all these years, what with her conjoined triplets needing surgery and all.”

This is all said in a deadpan as he enters the lobby, glancing around; there’s an appreciative look for the bar like he might regret not having made the appointment for the afternoon.

“Does he make you salute him when you enter his office?” he asks Francis out of curiosity as he lowers himself into one seat. “This is just the second paramilitary place I’ve had the pleasure of visiting. The other one was something else. Think that lot got all got their training on Call of Duty videos and nothing else.”

Some people might think that about Wolfhound, too. At times. Though for all the rough edges on many of their officers, the facility Hampton settles into feels less rough-around-the-edges. It still maintains a subtle hint of impropriety, what with the full bar in the lounge, but it’s a playful impropriety. It’s also extremely Epstein.

“Sorry if you’re looking for Get the Fuck Out anonymous it’s anywhere but here,” is the first thing Avi Epstein has to say the moment he comes around the corner from the stairwell into the lounge. From across the room the displeasure in his posture is already palpable, hands on his hips and brows furrowed.

The sound of Epstein’s voice evokes a chuckle from the visitor, who rises immediately, if a little slowly given his robust physique.

“So that means I’m welcome, I take it!” Hampton says, his basso voice filling the space easily. He certainly must have been told to use his indoor voice a lot in classrooms and libraries and living rooms and department stores as a child.

Maybe sometimes as an adult.

This is his indoor voice.

“Hampton Dartwell,” he says, ignoring the arms akimbo stance and that brow furrow to stride forward with a hand out for shaking. There’s something in his expression that suggests his name means something to the other man, something more than just the name in the signature line of an email. “It’s an honor. I could have probably sent one of my associates to do the honors, but I wanted to pop on over myself, given the givens. How the hell are ya?”

Avi’s jaw sets crooked and though he takes Hampton’s hand, the handshake itself is an aggressive fuck you sort of thing. “Nobody told me you’d be coming,” Avi says through clenched teeth with a feigned smile. “Been a long time, Hammy.” He disengages from the handshake briskly, fingers rolling together as if expecting to need to get some grease off of them.

“The fuck’re you doing in my neck of the woods?” Avi asks on second thought. “Why’re you making appointments if you just want to roll by and stick your ass out the car window at me? And—” Avi’s expression tenses. “Why’re you smiling?

“Check your goddamn email maybe more than once a month, Epstein,” Hampton says dryly, but if there’s any exasperation there, it’s hard to read in his broad features and easygoing smile.

The smile does disappear for a moment, as the man presses his lips together as if to feel his smile, to determine its purpose in being present, now that it’s been called into question.

“As much fun as a full moon might be,” he sounds uncertain of that, “I’m actually here on business, not to just annoy you, Avi. Hard to believe I know.”

He retrieves his wallet from his pants, and a business card from within that to proffer to the Wolfhound.

“Deputy Director of Justice Assistance these days, which means, well.” Dartwell shrugs. “Permits and contracts and all of the things you need for Wolfhound come through my office, as well as any additional funding via grants and the like.”

“Oh fuck you,” Avi says casually with a little bit of a recoil, as if quickly slotting into place how the infamous Hampton Dartwell wound up on his doorstep. In spite of that, Avi isn’t trying to get him out of the Bastion. Instead he’s just ambling past Hampton toward the lounge’s bar.

“Between me, you, and Abe Lincoln’s bare ass… who the fuck did I piss off to get someone with a personality of a barnacle attached to my outfit?” Avi asks as he circles around the bar, grabbing a bottle of vodka off of the backboard. “Because there’s no way this didn’t happen because—oh that son of a bitch.” Avi slams the bottle on the bar, then grabs a can of tonic water from the mini fridge. “It was fucking Lazzaro, wasn’t it? That bald son of a bitch.

“Better a barnacle than a menopausal badger,” Hampton bitches back, though it’s still said with that indelible smirk he always seems to wear. “You got enough kids working under you, surely one of them can give you an edible or something to mellow you out some. The gummies are pretty good, actually.”

He finds a place to lean, hands tucking into his pockets as he watches Epstein at the bar. “Lazzaro isn’t setting my appointments for me, Avi. I took the job with Justice Assistance after blowing out my knee. I could’ve had someone else in the office do the audit, but I like to take a project or two so I’m not just pushing the paperwork and polishing my brass.” He nods to the other man. “Pretty sure you’re the same in that regard, even if you should probably be sitting in a recliner and cashing in your pension checks by now.”

He tips his jaw toward the vodka bottle. “You making two of those? And for the record, Vincent is a bald son of a bitch, but I’m glad he’s our son of a bitch.”

“Yeah,” is Avi’s blanket answer for absolutely everything Hampton said, delivered with such flat noncommittal energy that he might as well have been asleep. But so it goes with Avi, the blanket yeah defense mechanism.

“I should be in Arlington.” Avi says in a sudden dark turn, mixing himself the vodka and tonic. “But some fucking people insist on dragging me back every single fucking time. I’m pushing seventy and look at me, sitting here playing GI Joe with people young enough to be my fucking grandkids.” He considers the drink, fishes out a colorful umbrella from under the bar, and then slides it down to Hampton and goes about making another.

“Pretend I spit in that,” Avi says with a swirl of his finger in the direction of Hampton’s drink.

Hampton moves closer, reaching for the glass and then levels a more steely-eyed look at the older of the two. “You’re so full of your shit but I think you even believe it sometimes,” he says — the genial tone is still there, along with some amusement, but all the flattery has seeped out.

“You can retire,” he says with a shrug. “No one’s stopping you but your own goddamn ego. Admit it, Avi. You don’t want to let go because you either think no one else can do it or you’re afraid of what will happen to you if you stop.”

Despite the fact he’s supposed to be pretending the drink’s been spat in, he takes a sip — apparently not too worried that this is an unprofessional behavior on his part while on the job. He hit unprofessional when he called Epstein a badger, he’s pretty sure.

If only the man wasn’t so irascible and provoking.

“Someone else’ll do it if you quit. You’re grooming them well enough from the looks of it. So is it door number two?”

“It’s always door number two.” Avi says as he finishes mixing his drink, sloppier than the other one. “Twenty years ago I put my fucking son in the ground and I knew that the only way they’d get me out of that gig was at the end of a bullet. Then the fucking country blew itself up to spite me, and I got roped into this.” Avi tips back his drink. “This? It’s all someone like me has left. But you know as goddamn well as I do that they don’t make people like they used to.”

Setting his glass down, Avi shakes his head. “These kids are good, but when push comes to shove there were only ever two people in this operation who would do whatever it took. Gitelman’s gone, so that leaves me. If I leave one of these kids to run the show, they’ll try and moralize what we do. They’ll lose the thread, and when it comes down to the wire they’ll hesitate to pull the fucking trigger.”

Avi looks down into his glass, watching an ice cube crack down the middle from the contrasting temperatures. “But maybe that’s just door number two talking.”

The younger of the two men listens, then decides he needs to sit down for this level of angst. Hampton finds his seat again, loosely holding his glass on the armrest, letting Avi talk.

For all that Hampton likes to talk and has the voice for it, he can actually listen.

Eventually, Avi comes to the end of the spool, and Ham glances down into his own glass, then back across the room to where the other man stands by the bar. “They don’t make people like they used to,” he agrees finally. “And maybe that’s a good thing.”

He raises the glass to take another swallow, the ice clinking against glass as he brings it back down to the armrest. “The assholes who blew up this country, they weren’t these kids’ generation but yours and mine and every monkey in the evolutionary line leading up to that point in history. We do need to pull the trigger on the assholes, make no mistake. But the fact that these ‘kids,’ after everything they’ve been through, have the decency or mercy in them to moralize, to hesitate?” He lifts his shoulders. “I call that a goddamn miracle. But I do see your conundrum.”

For the first time in a long time, Avi Epstein is speechless and not by choice. Hampton’s point is a good one, and it comes to a conclusion Avi would have never on his own. He’s simply too close to the matter, and his perspective too tainted. He takes a long sip of his drink, then leans against the bar and looks at Hampton more pointedly than before.

“The fuck’re you doing here, Hampton?” Avi asks with less venom in his voice than his choice of words would suggest. “Really?” Though he implies a double meaning. He doesn’t, for a moment, think this conversation is one born in a vacuum. But a spy is always paranoid of ulterior motives, no matter how long they’ve been out of the game.

“You pop up here out of thin fucking with some flimsy-ass story about a bum knee…” Avi moves his drink aside. “You could’ve had any desk appointment you want with your seniority. I can count the number of people in Washington with your tenure on one fucking hand.” His eyes search Hampton’s, narrowing as they do. “Why Wolfhound?”

Snorting, Hampton glances down at his knee and back up at Avi with a cocked brow. “For the record, I do have a desk appointment, and a rebuilt knee. The boss is retiring soon, so it’ll be just director soon, not deputy. Not that I give a shit about titles.”

He rattles the ice in his glass, looking into it for a moment, before lifting it and finishing it off in a hard swallow. “Why am I here? Maybe because I sense you circling the goddamn drain. Figured you’re going to get yourself killed one of these days and that if I wanted to know you at all, it’d better be sooner than later, because I don’t know if you’ve got a later, these missions you take.”

Hampton lifts the empty glass toward Avi, not so much in a toast as a gesture. “It’s impressive, honestly, for a man your age. Color me impressed. So, yeah.” He shrugs his broad shoulders, setting the glass down on the table nearby. “When it was time to come check how well your group has dotted their i’s and crossed their t’s, I could’ve sent one of the millennials to do it, sure, but I figured why not come and see it in person myself? I try to take a project or two each year, keep my shit relevant, so I took this one. You don’t like it and want someone else? You’ll have to talk to my superior, and she’s a bigger pain in the ass than me. Trust me. You think Lazzaro is bad?” He scoffs, shaking his head.

Avi scoffs into his drink, then just pounds the rest and sets the glass down on the bar. “Lazzaro isn’t all that bad, I’m a free fucking man still when he probably could’ve strung me up by my fucking ankles after what happened at Liberty Island. Just my luck a bloodbath accidentally unearthed a fucking messyc onspiracy.”

Leaning against the bar as if he were here to listen to Hampton’s sorrows, Avi stares across the divide at him. “So I’m your fucking pet project? Because you’re, what, a goddamn fangirl?” He can’t help but choke out a laugh at that, followed by a muttered, “For fuck’s sake.”

“How’s this going to work, Dartwell?” Avi asks with a wave of one hand across the bar. “Because the sooner I sign whatever paperwork you want and you get off my doorstep, probably the better for both of us.”

Something flashes across Hampton’s face that might be a look of actual hurt. It’s only there for a second, before he raises his brows and shakes his head slightly.

“You’re probably right about that. Would that it were so easy, pal, or I’d be out of your thinning hair in no time,” he says. “I’ll need to take a look at your books, do some interviews of the ‘kids,’ as you call them, maybe sit in on a briefing or two. Make sure you’re running things the way you say you’re running things when you report to Washington, make sure one and one don’t make three somehow.” He lifts his shoulders, then spreads his hands, like there’s nothing he can do about it. “It’s just bureaucracy. You know how it works. Gotta get through the red tape and assholes like me to get the contracts and any extra funding or loans.”

He looks over his shoulder to the lobby where no receptionist sits. “I’d normally probably schedule some appointments in with a receptionist or administrative assistant or secretary or whatever they call them these days, but you don’t seem to have one, and you certainly don’t check your email. Who should I talk to about that?”

“Dunsimi,” is Avi’s monosyllabic response, his attention focused down into the melting ice at the bottom of his empty glass. “She’ll handle all the whatever-the-fuck needs to happen and make sure its done right.” It seems a business-as-usual vibe from Avi, until he leans forward against the bar, closing some of the distance to Hampton.

“But so help me God, if I get one whiff that this is some kind of shakedown… or if somebody in KC is trying to pull this operation away from me…” Avi’s jaw clenches, eyes locked on Hampton’s, “all those stories about how un-fucking-stable I am will seem a whole lot more true.”

As if emphasizing that point, Avi flashes a cheerful smile and slowly leans back to his more neutral position behind the bar. “But it’s great to have you here, Ham-bone.”

Ham’s ice clinks in the glass as he drains whatever’s left of it, then sets the glass down on the nearby table. “No one is trying to take your operation from you, Epstein. If there’s a problem with how you do things, we’ll let you know so you can remedy it. It’s basically an accreditation process,” he explains, suddenly sounding a little tired, like he’s talking to a petulant school boy who should know better rather than someone older than him (who should know better).

“When we pulled the country back together with spit and band-aids after the war, we didn’t have a lot of options and we tended to look the other way if anything was done in a manner that wasn’t strictly kosher. And you and I know that sometimes you gotta be unorthodox to get shit done.” Hampton shrugs his broad shoulders, straightening and about to leave.

“We’re not quite past that point, but with a new administration coming in and after some of the shit that’s happened in the past couple of years, we all need to shine our shoes and straighten our ties, make sure that what’s on the books and in our reports isn’t completely mythological but based at least a little on the truth,” he continues, his voice a few degrees cooler than it was at the start of the conversation. “I trust your organization to have its shit together. If it doesn’t, you’re damn lucky it’s me in the position I am so I can help you make sure it does instead of someone else.”

He lifts a hand as he turns for the door. “I’ll be in touch with Dunsimi.”

After Hampton is gone, Avi slouches down toward the bar, lowering his head and running a hand through his hair as he does.


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