hard to find
Lara had never let herself be bound by convention. She figured if she left it alone it should show her the same respect. And if it wouldn't, well, she had ways of getting respect. For instance, it was probably shocking to keep an ancestral estate the size of Croft Manor up only with some landscapers and a butler, but Hilary had never said a word about it to her from the time she brought him home; and it was hardly any of anyone else's business, was it?
She'd been out of the country from before the age of sixteen until after twenty-one when she came fully into her inheritance. She'd never been to the estate in all those years, so she was willing to take Daddy's solicitors with her the first time, which turned out to be very fortunate. The representative who met her at the gates arrived with a limo, a lockbox, a briefcase full of papers, a lot of keys, and a semi-automatic.
"What's that for?" She said, putting her hand close to her hip just in case.
"It was all in your father's orders, Lady Croft," said the man, and bowed.
She found out why when they punched the code into the second automatic box inside the gates and the main doors swung open, and blew apart with enough force to behead an overgrown topiary on the front lawn with flying bits of glass and wood.
The solicitor pulled out a walkie-talkie, murmured just on the edge of hearing, but she didn't pay attention because she was watching the leaping flames in the great hall through the remains of the fan window. "Did you call the police?" She said.
"No, Lady Croft. Just some reinforcements."
The ten-man team in unmarked black who arrived in two unmarked cars were able to tell them there were no nasty surprises inside beyond the initial charge wired to the door. Actually, on inspection Lara discovered something smelly which might once have been cheese in the back of the refrigerator, which was unplugged; but nothing more which was actually potentially fatal. As the solicitor reported, though she could see for herself, all the bedrooms but one were perfectly habitable. But he wouldn't blame her, he said, for not wanting to sleep here tonight.
He said, "I can recommend a hotel."
"Not local," she replied firmly.
So the keys divulged, among other secrets, a very large garage, and a Mercedes which was about twenty years old but in perfect condition. And that night she arrived very late at the most quietly elegant five-star hotel in Bath.
She called room service, because she hadn't eaten since breakfast, laid out her silk pyjamas, and put her suitcase of just clothes into the bottom drawer of a very nice dresser. Her other suitcase, filled with items of a more sensitive, dangerous, and valuable nature, went in the closet. Lara sat on the edge of the bed, pursing her lips and looking in the mirror and stomping until she could be quite sure it wasn't even twitching anymore on the urge to phone for a plane ticket back to Peru.
The knock on the door was sharp, precise, and politely muted. She opened it to find a young man with a strong chin and close-cut hair wearing white gloves and a tuxedo on the other side, with a room service cart. He bowed, once, as precisely as his knock. "Lady Croft?"
"I'm Hilary Hind. I'm the head of service staff on duty tonight, and I wanted to take a moment to welcome you personally. I'm a great admirer of your father's work."
For a moment the world tilted. When it stilled again she was smiling at him, and he had pushed the table all the way into the room and half-finished spreading the cloth and removing the covers.
"I hope I'm not presuming too much by taking the time to greet you. When I recognized your name on the ledger, I simply--"
"Not at all," she said. "I'm a great admirer of my father's work as well."
Lara didn't get the awkward laugh she expected. He seemed to sense she wasn't joking: as he poured half a glass of blush wine, his eyes flickered up and he smiled gently. "I've read a few of your personal publications as well."
She shrugged deprecatingly, "I don't intend to really enter the field. I'm not a scholar. I only wanted to polish up the notes I found--fill in a few gaps."
"Of course," he said. "But not everyone would have the knowledge necessary to fill those gaps." Another little bow, as he stepped back from the table. "If there's anything you need, please mention my name when you call the desk."
"You say you're not a manager?" She said, going to the door to see him out (and bolt it behind him) even though her stomach was growling.
She surprised a little chuckle out of him. "Not yet."
There was a highly polished decorative mirror on the wall opposite her open door. Her eyes caught a flicker of black ducking back around the corner, though her face didn't register it. "Just a moment, please, I forgot my purse," she said, backing up into the room again. When she was out of the line of sight of the mirror, she mouthed slowly, "Come here."
He impressed her monumentally by moving forward completely naturally. "How many ways out are there?" She said in an undertone, opening the top drawer of the dresser and closing it again.
"From outside?" He whispered.
She shook her head sharply and jerked her head to the fire escape. "Here it is," she said in a conversational tone, ducking into the closet and swinging the more valuable bag over her shoulder. She unzipped it and thrust her hand in to wrap around the handle of a loaded handgun.
His eyebrows were rising higher and higher, his mouth cemented in a thin line. "There's no other way," he hissed, but it was what she expected by then. She got the window open with a minimum of noise, glanced down at the deserted parking lot, and gestured him out ahead of her. She only had to gesture twice.
Outside on the fire escape she whispered, "Get cover, and my advice is blend in very well inside. I don't know if they saw you." She turned back to the window without waiting to see if he'd followed her advice. She had time to hope he would be all right, but not time to make sure of it. Not now.
She eased up to the side of the frame. Her blood hadn't been pumping like this for--weeks. Not since her little run-in with the renegade arm of the Ministerio de la Historia Nacional at the Bolivian border.
They were easy to get--she could hear the first one coming, and he hadn't made it to the window yet in five seconds, but two were in her line of sight when she looked around the frame. She took them both, dodging a glass-shattering bullet that made it rain over her head, but sustaining no worse injury than scrapes on the palms of her hands from the brick. She'd expected a third, for some reason, but she prowled round the room quickly, and rifled their pockets not very thoroughly and found nothing.
She raced down the fire escape as silently as she could. She was going to be off for the Mercedes, at least to scout it out, but a hand descended on her arm. She spun around with her elbow up and only avoided knocking out her friend the head of service staff because he stumbled when he dodged, and fell onto the ground all the way, thus avoiding her hair-trigger knee as well. She stared for a second, then offered him a hand up. He wasn't wearing the white gloves anymore, but the white tuxedo shirt gleamed in the darkness. "Sorry."
"You're all right," he said, amazed.
She smiled grimly, and said, "This isn't the first time I've run into thugs like these. Just the first time in England."
Lara could see a stream of questions scrolling left to right through his eyes, but in the end he just nodded shortly and gestured behind him. "Staff entrance," he said, "I've got the key. I can get you a change if you like and let you out a different door. I have a bike I rode here, if you need it. You shouldn't take the car you arrived in."
Lara just stared at him.
"There might be more of them," he said. "Unless--are there?"
She said, "Have you ever considered being a butler?"
"How are you on self-defense?"
"Self-de--" he said cautiously, paused and visibly gathered himself. "I'm competent at tae kwan do. I've studied some aikido and judo."
"All right," said Lara. "Lead the way. Have you ever considered being a butler?"
And that was how she found Hilary.
Hilary kept house for her very comfortably, and with some more training--particularly in weapons--was even able to help Lara keep in shape. But they started to run into difficulties right away when she had a new security system installed.
It wasn't something she'd ever had to think about before, but the cursed things weren't so very difficult to hack. They suffered five break-ins in as many years because of the vulnerability. A switch to a new provider brought workers to install the wiring, one of whom she saw propositioning Hilary so forcefully that he was forced to use his aikido.
And Lara kept making enemies, and the attempts kept coming. She tried to hire someone of her own to do the programming. He ran at the first whiff of breaking the law--"Isn't he supposed to be a hacker?" She said to Hilary.
She found the ones she hired who took the law less seriously didn't have quite Hilary's strength of loyalty, either. When she tracked down a "firm" of hackers for the purpose, they ended up orchestrating an elaborate inside job for a buyer who, it turned out, had offered them even more than she was paying. The fact that the break-in was supposed to take place when she was from home didn't endear the firm to her.
So she went back to a large and reputable security systems firm, and spent a good deal of time at their corporate offices smiling gently and not-so-gently at people, and watching, watching, watching vainly for signs of trouble. It was getting so she disliked to leave Hilary at home alone, not so much because he couldn't care for himself as because every time she came back, some disaster or other had likely as not destroyed her bedroom, and without her there to insist it wasn't necessary, he'd exhausted himself fixing it, leaving her temporarily without a sparring partner.
She was at her wits' end, but had shelved the problem for lack of anything better to do, when she got a letter in the mail addressed to Daddy.
It hit her like a punch in the gut.
That kind of thing always did.
But when she gathered herself together again she read it, and it turned out to be from an old friend of his--a superficial how's-it, an apology, a little facile marveling that a whole fifteen years had passed without a single word, and then the meat of the letter: a few very aged newspaper clippings and a xerox of something longer about "the sacred caves and temple of the Solada," which were located, apparently, in the Yucatan. And then there was a tangled and vague reference to a book he'd found.
She decided she'd better visit the man in person.
The address turned out to lead her to a Priory School for boys in Devonshire--located in a stately manor about the age of her own, but which had probably not been shot to bits and rebuilt quite so many times.
The Dr. Bellinger she wanted seemed to be the Headmaster. She found the office thanks to directions from a few boys of various ages, all crammed into identical navy blazers and black and gold ties. The outer door was open, and the desk of a secretary--MS. K. BLACKMAN--deserted. She walked soundlessly across the thick carpet. The sound of voices within stopped her from rapping on the inner door.
"The government does not look lightly on these matters, young man. You will not tell me how you got into the computer system, but we know it was you, and rest assured, we will find out. You have been given an unparalleled opportunity to study here which you have squandered with no sense of gratitude whatsoever!"
"I didn't do anything," said a defiant, younger voice. "Nothing you could ever trace."
"That is what concerns you! That you cannot be caught! And still you deny it! Let me tell you that theft of information is still theft and breaking and entering a computer network is still breaking and entry. What you have done is not only illegal, but wrong. How many chances have you been given? --How many?"
There was a kind of silence. Lara backed up to the outer door, and crossed the room again with heavier footfalls. She didn't stop before rapping sharply on the inner door, didn't wait before opening it: "Dr. Bellinger? It's Lara Croft."
The gathering storm clouds on the face of the gray-haired little man dispelled markedly when she gave her name. "Lara?"
"I'm Dr. Croft's daughter," she said, coming into the room. A slim and wiry young man who looked no more than fourteen or fifteen was sprawled insolently in a chair, his back to her.
"You may leave us, Mr. Fry," said the little gray-haired man. "We will continue this conversation before the evening meal, after I have made a call to your parents."
The small form was still, then shot up and whirled scowling out of the room, vibrating with tension like a coiled-up spring. Lara's main impression then was of freckles and dark ginger eyebrows dominating a thin, fox-like face, and what looked like the beginnings of tears in his eyes.
"Close the door behind you," said Dr. Bellinger, just too late. Lara closed it.
"I know this must be a shock," she said politely, though she was feeling a little less sympathy than she might have, "but I wanted to tell you in person. My father passed away." She figured if she played the conversation right, she might learn more about the computer misdeeds of the fox-faced little boy.
And she was right.
His story was everything that she'd hoped: an extraordinarily bright boy, on scholarship, uneven marks due to problems with "applying himself," and older than he looked--one year from graduation. He'd sabotaged the school network multiple times for pranks with apparently effortless ease, and had somehow from a computer they thought not connected to the network (when he was grounded from it for a previous crime) managed to alter Dr. Bellinger's desktop, as well as those of some of his other instructors, to display "an obscene message." The most recent prank had been of strikingly more serious nature because the boy had accessed, through the school network and their connection to the Internet, some government database. The leak had finally been traced back to the school, but nothing could be proven about the boy's guilt.
The book reference proved less exciting. A glance at the source's name in the back was enough to tell her the thing was a fantasy. "Kirke was totally unreliable as a scientist," she explained regretfully, tracing the engraving of a "sacred artifact" with a fingertip. "Which is why it's surprising to many people that he was able to have so much published, not just in his own field. He wasn't even an archaeologist--his education was in marine biology."
"Totally unreliable, you say?" said Bellinger.
"No one knows if he was remarkably unscrupulous or just really crazy," she says. "Since he also had quite a reputation in the field of the occult, however, I'm more inclined personally to the latter explanation."
"I'm sorry the trip was a waste for you," he said to her as she left his office. "And I'm sorry about your father. If I'd known..."
"No, it's no trouble," she said honestly, with a real smile.
Lara found the boy the same way she'd found Bellinger's office. Banned from the computer lab, he was sure to be in the library, said two boys in a row, each with a prolonged look at her chest. To the library Lara went.
"Hello," she said.
The boy looked up suspiciously. "Hello."
Lara went for the direct approach. "My name's Lara Croft and I hear you're very good with computers."
His face brightened. "I'm Brice," he said. Then, without more than a hint of pride, "I'm the best."
"Let's talk." She took a seat. "You like it here?"
He rolled his eyes. "I used to like it all right. But I think you have more personal freedom in Communist China."
"How old are you?" Lara asked.
Brice said, looking steadily at her as though he could pry out the meaning of her questions if he stared straight in her eyes: "Seventeen."
"How do you feel about the law as it applies to computer hacking?"
"I might have a job for you."
And that was how she found Brice.
From just having a butler and a personal hacker, Lara didn't necessarily think she would be hand-picking the elements of--well, a family. Of sorts. Naturally, not a very conventional one.
But, well: after Brice's enthusing on the subject of landlines, supercomputers, and the complexity of wiring had been going on for a few months, and Lara had given him a chequebook, for God's sake, and he had already built several supercomputers and started experimenting with remote-controlled robots, it was Hilary who told her what he was hinting for.
Tired of going through Daddy's notes, which she had been cross-referencing, Lara locked them in a box in the library, hid the box, and made for the gym. She found Hilary there doing one-armed push-ups. After a bit of a warm-up she leapt onto the lower of the uneven parallel bars, turned a few flips, and catapulted herself to the upper one.
"Hilary," she said. "What do you think of Brice?"
He finished a set with his left arm and switched to his right. "I think he was an excellent choice. You were lucky to have found him."
Lara paused, dangling by her hands with her feet stretched above her head on the bar. "Mmm, yes. Very lucky. You get along?"
At that point, of course, they'd only known each other a few months. "He's a very lively young man," said Hilary, which Lara took as a bad sign; he wasn't so much younger than Hilary, who'd only been nineteen when she took him in.
But then when Lara said, "He keeps coming looking for me and starting the most extraordinary conversations, and then never coming round to the point. Half of what I come away with is technical knowledge I have hardly any use for and the other half are stories which as far as I can tell don't have anything to do with anything."
Hilary had stood up and begun a series of hamstring stretches, but he stopped. "Ah."
She hooked her elbows over the top bar, standing on the bottom. "'Ah'?"
"I believe I know what he's hinting at," said Hilary in what sounded like an apologetic tone.
She raised her eyebrows eloquently.
"A space to himself--"
"But he's got a room and I've built that workroom; and he didn't want the basement--"
Hilary shook his head. "Something more... separate. I fancy... a small mobile structure on the grounds--"
Lara switched her grip on the upper bar, threw herself into the air and did a few more flips. She stopped at the height of one, balancing in a handstand with her legs in a split until she could feel the burn in her biceps. "Yes?"
He sighed and wiped his face with a towel. "I believe a... small trailer would do the trick."
"A trailer." She did another flip or so: keeping her legs splayed interfered with her momentum, and it was necessary to achieve a certain relaxation to turn a flip in the first place. She curled into a ball and somersaulted to the floor. "Brice told you this?"
Hilary came over to offer her a hand towel, then kicked the floor mat back into alignment while she patted her face. When she was done with it, she automatically draped it around her neck before she saw that he was holding out his hand for it. He moved across the room and hung it on a towel-rack with careful, graceful economy of movement. "Not precisely," he said. "Not in so many words."
She hadn't known they were having much in the way of conversation at all. She looked consideringly at the back of Hilary's head, then his profile as he bent over the rowing machine. He wasn't looking at her. She smiled.
Brice talked to her about Hilary too. In fact, Brice talked to her about everything that came into his head, and she probably knew more about his childhood than about Hilary's--although Hilary was, she had discovered after all, her closest friend.
After she bought him the trailer, which they instantly christened The Winnebago although it wasn't one, he spent many happy weeks arranging all kinds of computer machinery around the circumference of the limited space, and she spent hours helping him, too. He liked the "help" although he was perfectly competent to do it by himself because that way he had someone to talk to.
"Would you plug that into that," was a typical instruction, usually followed by "No, not that--the blue one--" and then he'd usually give up and do it himself. "Take on an entire armed battalion of foot soldiers with a bowie knife, two hand guns and some rope," he sighed, "but give her a USB cable... ."
"Very funny," said Lara, who had always had trouble finding room in the Winnebago for her legs, what with all the trailing cords and sensitive equipment.
"Well, I know who I'd rather have at my side in a fight," he said.
"Oh?" She said, raising an eyebrow, playfully dangerous.
Brice's head popped up from behind the table, fox face split in a large, transforming grin, glowing through its freckles. "Hilary," he said mischievously, "he can do both."
Lara laughed. "Not an entire battalion."
Brice shrugged. "Two armed thugs, twenty armed thugs, it's all the same to me."
"I do know what to do with a USB cable," she added.
Brice said, voice muffled by a thick tangle of cables, "So does Hilary."
She gave up.
She wasn't at all prepared for him to ask her with studied nonchalance, "How long has he been with you?"
Lara bit her lip in thought. "About six years," she said cautiously.
"Oh yeah? 'Dja pick him up at the employment agency? Some kind of... national butler registry?"
"Hadn't you better ask Hilary about that?" She said.
There was a little silence from behind the table. It might have been because he was preoccupied or it might have been because he didn't know what to say. "He doesn't...exactly talk much. About himself."
This wasn't counter to Lara's own experience of Hilary. And she knew he treated Brice with a kind of mental distance, like an older cat dealing with a puppy. What is this alien creature, right? Right. Well. "He's reserved," she said, "Maybe they teach that at butler school."
"No, really? I mean did he really? Go to butler school?" She could hear the eyes widening.
Lara laughed. "No, not really. I mean, I don't know what he ever learned about it, but I picked him up in a swanky hotel, working floor manager."
The teased spikes of Brice's carrot hair appeared first, then the thick caterpillar brows, then his sparkling eyes. The rest of the face stayed hidden. "What, really? Black tux?"
"White blouse? Ruffles?"
"Waistcoat? The works?"
"Mmm-hm," said Lara, watching him out the corner of her eye. "And those little white gloves." Her left hand made a bracelet around her right wrist.
Brice's face was blank for a moment--eyes glazed, unless she missed her guess. Then he muttered, "Whoa." She turned her head away to hide a smile and her speculations.
No theorizing in advance of the facts, Daddy, I know... .
When he said, "He never wears all that around here," it was in an accusing tone.
"The unconventional household," Lara apologized. "It wouldn't really fit."
"I guess you're right." The conversational break stretched for about five minutes, in which Brice explained USB to her again and started on the specifics of T1. Lara was sitting on the floor now, in the one mostly-empty space, doing yoga-poses while she listened to stretch her legs without kicking anything. "Hand me that memory," he said, pointing at the little narrow table around the wall of the Winnebago. She caught it between her toes and dropped it into her lap, then passed it to him. "Thanks."
"He's a neat guy," said Brice. "Did you know he studied Zen?"
Lara blinked and suppressed a little twinge of betrayal. "No. How did you? I thought he didn't talk about himself."
Brice shrugged, "He wasn't, really. He just let it slip."
"Ah." She could see that, now he said so.
"But I wonder about his Super-Butler shtick, y'know," he complained. "It wouldn't kill him to open up a bit. Let someone get to know him."
Lara twined her ankles behind her neck and took her weight on her hands, lifting the rest of her body off the floor slowly. "Maybe Hilary's reserve is part of his personality. Maybe he doesn't peel that away just to satisfy someone's idle curiosity," she said in as off-hand a tone as she could muster.
Brice looked somehow both older and younger when he was really angry. His skin turned deep red behind the freckles and he stood up abruptly and glared down at her over the table. "It's not idle curiosity," he said. "All right? I like him! And I want to be his friend!" There was silence. His mouth worked and no sound came out. Then he found the words to say, "And--! It's not like--like--there's that many people out here to be friends with, you know?"
She finished her count of one hundred before she took her legs from behind her neck. And she said, "Hmmm. Brice."
"You say you like Hilary and want to be his friend. That you're not just curious."
He sounded irritated: "I already said that."
She smiled. "So you know that, and now I know it. But maybe Hilary doesn't know it."
She left him alone with his thoughts.
It was a huge relief for someone of her height to step back out of the Winnebago into the sunshine, where she could stretch her legs as much as she liked. She looked down. A thermos of tea was sitting on the ground next to the step on top of a neatly folded linen napkin. Lara picked them both up, smiling to herself, and went into the house.