The doorbell rang, which was odd: his friends didn't bother with the bell, they either banged on the door or just walked in, and it was too late in the evening for salesmen.
Patrick didn't bother going to get his old service pistol out of the lockbox: he'd been retired too long for any of that nonsense. He put his sandwich down on the paper plate and went to the door, pulled it open.
A familiar-looking young man stood on his porch. At first Patrick couldn't place him...
The young man said pleasantly, "Hello, Frank."
Oh. "I haven't been 'Frank' in a long time, Chuck. I'm retired."
"I know. Now-Frank wouldn't tell me where to find you, I got your address from the Bureau's computers. It wasn't all that difficult. It's appallingly vulnerable technology."
"They still have me on file?"
"You get a pension."
"Of course I do." Patrick nodded. "Well, are you coming in?"
"No, you're coming out. Walk with me."
"Chuck, I'm seventy-two, my legs aren't what they used to be—"
"We'll go slow. Promise. We can rest anytime you need to." He looked up at the evening sky, where the first stars were beginning to appear set into the darkening blue. "It's such a lovely night."
Patrick thought about it for a moment. He was already going to have to call in and report the contact, so why not? "All right. But give me a minute to grab my jacket. Wait there."
"All right, Frank."
Patrick made his way back into the bedroom, pulled his Diamondbacks windbreaker from its hanger, and put it on. He got the lockbox down out of the closet, took out the pistol, stuffed it into one of the front pockets, cursing his paranoia all the while.
Chuck was waiting patiently on the porch when he returned. As Patrick pulled the front door shut behind him, the young man said, "Ready?"
"As I'll ever be."
"Your pace, Frank."
They made their way down to the end of the driveway. In years past, on his walks, Patrick would turn right and head uphill towards the shopping center; this time he turned left, down the hill towards the park, where he knew there'd be benches he could rest on before heading back.
"So how have you been?"
"Not bad. Worked in counter-terrorism for a while, until they closed the department. Got transferred out here to the field office in the restructuring. Mostly tobacco smuggling interdiction after that. Retired about fifteen years ago. Didn't see the point of moving back to Virginia, though. Liked the house enough, liked the area."
"It's nice. Good skies."
"Oh, yeah. They've got waste-light ordinances. You can see the Milky Way some nights without a lens." He glanced at Chuck. "Well, I can. You can see it all the time."
"My eyes are well-designed. Watch your step." A root had pushed up one of the blocks of sidewalk concrete just enough to create a tripping hazard: Chuck took Patrick's elbow while the old man stepped over it.
"How have you been? What have you been up to?"
"Oh, the same. Trying to learn things. Paying attention. Waiting."
"How many Franks? Since me..."
"Five, including now-Frank. You're the oldest that's still alive, actually. Frank before you had a heart attack during a bingo tournament at the home, two months ago."
Patrick looked at him. "You visiting us all? Doing a sentimental tour of the Franks?"
Chuck laughed. "Something like that."
"Is it a farewell tour?"
"No, no." Chuck shook his head, and the laugh petered out. "At least I don't think so. I expect not; I've still got things to do. If I left now it'd defeat the whole purpose, Frank. It'd have been a waste of time."
They reached the end of the sidewalk; the park was across the street. There was no traffic. Chuck took Patrick's elbow without a word, carefully led him across. Once they were on the other side, Chuck asked, "How's the legs?"
"There's a bench over there..."
It was a nice one, wrought iron and weatherproofed hardwood, donated by someone in memory of someone else. Patrick settled onto it with visible relief.
"I'm not tiring you out too much, am I?"
"No, no." Patrick looked around. It had been a while since he'd come down here, more than a year. He felt silly: it was only a block from the house. "Good to be outside. Good night for it."
"It really is," Chuck nodded sagely.
"Well, you came all the way out to Arizona from... well, wherever it is you are when you're not meeting the Franks. You must have something you want to tell me."
The sky was a deep dark blue fading to black in the East, full of stars. Patrick had learned a lot about the sky when he was Frank, but it had been a long time before he'd exercised that knowledge. He instinctively started checking off constellations.
There was a rectangular area where the stars were missing; no lights, just black. He looked back at Chuck, at the sky, at Chuck. "Is that them?"
"It's happening now ?!"
"Do they know? I mean, has anybody noticed?"
"A whole lot of astronomers. They made their calls, of course. I'm monitoring the traffic. Most of them weren't in on it until tonight, so it's fairly entertaining listening to the government types manage them."
"And does the government know where you are?"
Chuck laughed out loud. "Oh, no, and they're freaking out. Now-Frank is on a helicopter headed for Cheyenne Mountain, he thinks he's about to be fired."
Patrick shook his head. "Well, shouldn't you, I don't know, go tell them something? I mean, that's why you're down here isn't it? To liaison?"
Chuck looked at his watch, back up at the sky. "I've got a minute."
"I don't get you. I mean, I've never gotten you, but especially now. It's all going down, finally going down, and you're out here on a bench in Arizona talking to a retired agent who's been completely irrelevant for years."
"You're not irrelevant, Frank. It was always as much about this," he pointed first to himself, then to Patrick, then back to himself, "about relationships, as much as it was about the official contacts. You're part of this. Still. All of you. I wanted to make sure you understood that."
"All right, if you say so."
"Really amazing things are about to happen, Frank. Everything's about to change. Everything. And you helped make that happen."
Cold chills ran down Patrick's spine.
"Good things, Frank. Good things. I promise. You all can be so paranoid sometimes."
"I don't know what you mean..."
"Well, you didn't need to bring the gun, for one thing. But then you knew that. You felt guilty getting it out of the box, didn't you?" Chuck punched him lightly on the shoulder. "How long have I known you?"
"A long time. Forty years? Forty-five?"
"And it's happening now." Patrick still couldn't wrap his head around it. He'd gotten used to the idea that it wouldn't happen, not for him, not in his lifetime.
Chuck looked at his watch again. "Yeah, right now. In fact, I've got to go. Got a telescope?"
"Used to. Gave it to my grandson."
"When you get home, call him. Tell him to set it up. There'll be a lot to see tonight, Frank. It's a school night, but he'll want to stay up." Chuck stood up and took one last look at the sky before offering his hand to Patrick. "It's good seeing you again."
"You too, Chuck." They shook hands solemnly.
"Can I help you up? Do you need help getting home?"
"No, no, I'm all right." Patrick put his hand on the back of the bench, used it for leverage to pull himself back up onto his feet. When he turned back around, Chuck was nowhere to be seen.
He fished his phone out of his pocket, pushed a single number, pushed dial. After a moment, he said, "Timmy? It's Pops. Do you have the Celestron set up? ...Good. Go put on a sweater and head out there, some interesting stuff going on tonight." Patrick looked up at the starless rectangle. "No, you'll see it. Don't worry about the book. And tell your Dad to drive over to Hawthorne park and pick me up. We'll be working late tonight. Okay."
He hung up and dialed another number: this one not autodial, this one from memory. "This is Patrick Fulton. I'd like to speak to Rafferty, please. Code word 'Emblem'." There was a short pause while he was connected. "Yes sir. I'm doing fine, sir, thank you. Our friend just came to visit me. I suppose you've gotten some other calls like this tonight? ...Yes sir. Well, he's on his way. Any minute now. ...Yes sir. Good luck, sir."
Patrick hung up. It'd be a good ten minutes before Mike showed up with the car to pick him up; by then there would probably be reports on the radio. It would be a long night of looking up, one more night being Frank, after all this time.