Laukkonen still looked skeptical, but he folded his arms across his chest, frowning ever so slightly as he considered what Bottereau had said. Then he shrugged.

“All right,” he said. “All right, I’ll give you your three or four months — hell, I’ll give you six! But the interest rate’s going up. You do understand that, don’t you?”

“Yes,” Bottereau sighed. “How much did you have in mind?”

“Double,” Laukkonen said flatly, and Bottereau winced. Still, it wasn’t as bad as he’d been afraid it might be, and what Manpower was promising him would still be enough.

“Agreed,” he said.

“Good.” Laukkonen stood. “And remember, Arsène — six months. Not seven, and sure as hell not eight. You need longer than that, you damned well better get me a message — and a down payment — in the meantime. Are we clear on that?”

“Clear,” Bottereau replied.

Laukkonen didn’t say anything more. He simply nodded curtly, once, and walked out of the bar, picking up his bodyguards on the way.

* * * * * * * * * *

“Have a seat, Herlander,” McBryde invited as the sandy-haired man with the haunted hazel eyes stepped into his office.

Herlander Simões sat in the indicated chair silently. His face was like a shuttered window, except for the pain in those eyes, and his body language was stiff, wary. Not surprisingly, McBryde supposed. An “invitation” to an interview with the man in charge of the Gamma Center’s entire security force wasn’t exactly calculated to put someone at ease even at the best of times. Which these most definitely were not for Simões.

“I don’t imagine it made you feel especially happy to hear I wanted to see you,” he said out loud, meeting the situation head on, and snorted gently. “I know it wouldn’t have made me happy, in your place.”

Still, Simões said nothing, and McBryde leaned forward behind his desk.

“I also know you’ve been through a lot, these past few months.” He was careful to keep his tone gentle and yet professionally detached. “I’ve read your file, and your wife’s. And I’ve seen the reports from the Long-Range Planning Board.” He shrugged ever so slightly. “I don’t have any kids of my own, so in that sense, I know I can’t really understand how incredibly painful all of this has been for you. And I’m not going to pretend we’d be having this conversation if I didn’t have a professional reason for speaking to you. I hope you understand that.”

Simões looked at him for a few seconds, then nodded once, jerkily.

McBryde nodded back, maintaining his professional expression, but it was hard. Over the decades, he’d seen more than his share of people who were in pain, or frightened — even terrified. Some of them had had damned good reason to be terrified, too. Security specialists, like cops the galaxy over, had a tendency not to meet people under the most favorable or least stressful of conditions. But he couldn’t remember ever having seen a human being as filled with pain as this man. It was even worse than he’d thought when he’d spoken to Bardasano about him.

“May I call you Herlander, Dr. Simões?” he asked after a moment, and the other man surprised him with a brief, tight smile.

“You’re the Center’s security chief,” he pointed out in a voice which sounded less harrowed than it ought to have, coming from a man with his eyes. “I imagine you can call any of us anything you want!”

“True.” McBryde smiled back, easing carefully into the possible, tiny opening. “On the other hand, my mother always taught me it was only polite to ask permission, first.”

A brief spasm of pain seemed to peak in a Simões’ eyes at the reference to McBryde’s mother. It obviously reminded him of the family he’d lost. But McBryde had anticipated that, and he went on calmly.

“Well, Herlander, the reason I wanted to see you, obviously, is that there’s some concern about how what you’ve been through — what you’re still going through — is likely to affect your work. You’ve got to know the projects you’re involved in are critical. Actually, they’re probably even more critical than you realize already, and that’s only going to get more pronounced. So the truth is that I’ve got to know — and my superiors have to know — how well you’re going to be able to continue to function.”

Simões’ face tightened, and McBryde raised one hand and waved it gently in a half-soothing, half-apologetic gesture.

“I’m sorry if that sounds callous,” he said levelly. “It’s not meant to. On the other hand, I’m trying to be honest with you.”

Simões gazed at him, then shrugged.

“Actually, I appreciate that,” he said, and grimaced. “I’ve had enough semi-polite lies and pretenses out of all those people so eager to ‘save’ Frankie from how terrible her life had become.”

The quiet, ineffable bitterness in his voice was more terrible than any shout.

“I’m sorry about that, too,” McBryde told him with equally quiet sincerity. “I can’t undo any of it, though. You know that as well as I do. All I can do, Herlander, is to see where you and I — and the Gamma Center — are right now. I can’t make your pain go away, and I’m not going to pretend that I think I can. But, to be brutally frank, the reason I’m talking to you is that it’s my job to help hold the entire Center together. And that means holding you together . . . and recognizing if the time ever comes when we can’t do that anymore.”

“If the time ever comes?” Simões repeated with a heartbreaking smile, and despite his own training and experience, McBryde winced.

“I’m not prepared to accept just yet that it’s inevitable,” he said, wondering even as he did if he truly believed that himself . . . and doubting that he did. “On the other hand, I’m not going to lie to you and tell you I’m not going to be making contingency plans in case it does come. That’s my job.”

“I understand that.” For the first time, there was a flicker of something more than pain in those hazel eyes. “In fact, it’s a relief. Knowing where you’re coming from, and why, I mean.”

“I’ll be honest with you,” McBryde said. “The last thing I really want to do is to get close, on a personal level, to someone who’s in as much pain as I think you are. And it’s not as if I’m any kind of trained counselor or therapist. Oh, I’ve had a few basic psych classes as part of my security training, of course, but I’d be totally unqualified to try and cope with your grief on any sort of therapeutic basis. But the truth is, Herlander, that if I’m going to feel confident I understand you, and the security implications you present, you’re going to have to talk to me. And that means I’m going to have to talk to you.”

He paused and Simões nodded.

“I don’t expect you to be able to forget I’m in charge of the Center’s security,” McBryde continued. “And I’m not going to be able to promise you the kind of confidentiality a therapist is supposed to respect. I want you to understand that going in. But I also want you to understand that my ultimate objective, however we got where we are, is to try to help you stay together. You can’t complete the work we need completed if you fall apart, and it’s my job to get that work completed. It’s that simple. On the other hand, that also means you’ve got at least one person in the universe — me — you can talk to and who will do anything he can to help you deal with all the shit coming down on you.”

He paused again, looking into Simões’ eyes, then cleared his throat.

“On that basis, Herlander, let’s talk.”