I’m working on the book again, trying to get some of the characters and plot unstuck in my mind, and decided to do this as a character study for the main guy, Ted Duffy. For those of you who’ve written fiction, have you ever tried something like this? And how does this sound? This probably won’t end up in the book, but by the end, I felt as though I’d gotten inside Ted’s head a bit more. And, I know this is very long. You’ll earn karma points if you slog through it. 🙂
I hate talking to strangers about myself. Well, that’s not exactly true. I have had to do it a lot more than I used to do, and it’s gotten easier, but still… it’s not my favorite thing.
It’s boring being a character in a book, you know? And if it is ever published, what do I have to look forward to? If I’m lucky, I’ll occupy the attentions of enough people to encourage my lord and master, the great author, to think up another story to put me in, and then I’ll have another run.
The work must be done. It must be done and all the tricks to avoid starting eventually have to be unmasked and ignored.
The beginning of the new year is as good a time as any to make promises to myself. Most of my promises are bullshit, and I know that about me. But I can’t let my self-deceptions keep me immobilized. So, the work must be done.
The feeling I have brings up an image of a cat, muscles twitching and bunching, feet feeling for purchase, something to push off of. You know the look of coiling springs when a cat is about to launch itself at something? That’s how this feels. We all have our own rituals. One of mine is to read good writing, sometimes for days, and letting the ideas and the words wrap themselves around something inside and get it excited.
So it is when the work must be done. I find words like these and use them to pull me back to the chair, fight the resistance with action, ignore my own whining, and pounce.
Hello again, “Running Girl”. Let’s go do interesting things to each other, shall we?
Over the years, I’ve found one rule. It is the only one I give on those occasions when I talk about writing. A simple rule. If you tell yourself you are going to be at your desk tomorrow, you are by that declaration asking your unconscious to prepare the material. You are, in effect, contracting to pick up such valuables at a given time. Count on me, you are saying to a few forces below: I will be there to write.
I’m dealing with three things at once. I’m feeling a little guilty about it, too.
One is that we’re getting ready for a party tomorrow. Superficially, it’s to celebrate a wedding anniversary and a retirement (her’s, not mine yet, dammit) and an excuse to go to the wine store. But really, it’s just a big ol’ wet kiss to the fact that we’re both still alive. It always comes down to that for all of us in the end, you know.
But the advice to finish what you start applies to the writing work. I am working on the book. I haven’t been talking about it, because i found out that if I was talking, I wasn’t writing. But I haven’t done much yesterday and won’t today.
Yesterday was due to the third thing, which is the aftermath of that annoying little blood clot in a tiny part of my brain that is still making itself felt. Yesterday was a day it was making itself felt, and I wasn’t able to get out of the chair much. Today I feel great. It seems to go like that. So today is party prep, tomorrow is the party, and then “Running Girl” is going to feel my hands all over her again.
Hmmm. Come to think of it, maybe I shouldn’t wait. 🙂
What’s happened so far:Ted’s old love, Miriam, is on the run from some seriously bad people and fears she’s been betrayed, as well. She has no where to turn. She decides she can only find Ted and throw herself on his mercy, knowing he probably won’t be happy to see her, given that she abandoned him and ran away without a word. She’s run across the country by train and car, appearing across the street from the old mansion he’s restoring in the middle of a epochal thunderstorm. While deciding whether to knock on his door, having multiple second thoughts about doing this, she’s knocked down by a nearby lightening strike and nearly drowned by the heaviest rain she’s ever experienced. With her last bit of strength, half conscious, she staggers up onto his porch and pounds on his door. He doesn’t recognize her at first, but then does.
She looked like a body that had been dragged along the bottom of a river, hitting sunken debris along the way and had been thrown up onto the porch and then groomed with a blowtorch. Her hair was plastered to her head and the face— which had an angry bruise on her forehead and the right side — was shockingly unrecognizable in the reflection from the glass of the front door. Water collected at her feet and she shook with tremors of shock and cold. She felt light-headed and sick at her stomach. A pool of red, blood diluted by rainwater, was growing at her feet.
After staring at her for what felt like hours—but was only a couple of seconds—his expression changed. He focused on her eyes, and his narrowed. Then, his face shifted from confusion to shock when he realized who it was standing there. His mouth opened and closed like a fish’s. He opened the door, but still couldn’t speak.
“Hi, T-t-ted,” Miriam said through chattering teeth, feeling her legs start to wobble. It sounded like someone else was talking. No food and not much sleep for nearly three days, and now electrocution, shock and hypothermia. She had the odd sensation of floating up near the porch light, watching herself and Ted facing one another. She looked half-dead, and her spirit had almost left her body, in fact. Her knees buckled and her eyes rolled back as she fell forward.
Just before she blacked out, she felt his arms catch her and inhaled the familiar smell of him. The vague ache she’d felt for many months escaped her like an exhalation of stale air held inside for far too long. “Oh, God….” She heard someone say in her voice from far away.
She felt arms catch her, hold her up. Then everything went dark.
Sunlight wormed itself through a gap in wooden shutters and crept across the floor until it found Miriam’s face. Like warm fingers, it traced the outlines of cheek and jaw, caressed the bruised face and lit the fine hairs on her cheek. A light breeze ruffled sheer lace curtains with edges embroidered in silk, and gradually nudged the shutters open. More sun brightened the room, and the spring aromas of warming earth and flowers began to fill the room.
The woman with many names and many secrets lay on her back under a fluffy white down comforter in a large, iron-framed Victorian bed with the head against a wall, in a corner room. On either side were two windows facing the morning sun. A third window in a wall to her left faced west, shade-dappled by a giant maple tree. All had two sets of shutters, top and bottom, all but one were closed. The latch on that one had not been secured tightly and it was through a slowly widening crack that the the sun and spring air pushed in and insistently pulled her from the darkness.
She stirred, images of herself floating up from the depths of a well toward a small circle of light above running through her awakening consciousness like fragments of an old movie. She delayed opening her eyes, her mind momentarily free of thought in that moment suspended between one world and the next. The warmth of the sun on her bruised skin was welcome and healing, and she savored it, content to pause and let her senses return.
Like an engine that had been flooded, her mind turned hesitantly and with effort. It was still muzzy and fitful, too rebellious to focus on any one thing at first. But as the moments passed, it gained strength and she pushed through the last of the water in the well and came back to herself, and knew she was safe.
As she had done as a child waking on a lazy Saturday morning in her mother’s house the kibbutz in the lower Gallilee, she played the waking game, kept her eyes closed and explored with her skin and nose and ears. Flowers bloomed there, too.
She was warm, that registered first. She was covered in something soft and light. She heard birdsong washing in through the window, and sniffed the clean scent of spring. Her ears strained to hear beyond the twittering chorus, and heard a car’s engine and the swish of tires on a street that wasn’t too far away, to her left. A bell in a nearby church sounded nine times. She didn’t consciously count the strikes, but as usual, some part of her brain just took care of that and reported it to her. This filled her with relief; perhaps she would be OK after all.
Her body began to remind her of less pleasant things: a dull ache from her forehead and the side of her head brought back the desperate struggles days before in Henry’s house, 3,000 miles away. The skin on her forehead also felt tight and hot, like a burn. Her right hip and thigh ached. She felt the lump over her eye, wincing at the pain that conjured up. She ran fingers lightly over her temple and felt the swelling and the harsh stubble of scorched hair. Her head was splitting; she remembered the lighting strike. A slight tingle and numbness in her fingertips made her rub them together, and sharp stabs of pain from two fingers told her of damage there.
After cataloguing the injuries, she pushed them away and opened her eyes. She saw a large room with tall windows, wood trim and a pleasant feeling. Turning her head to both sides hurt, but she took in the dimensions of the room. A big wooden door, closed, was directly opposite the foot of the bed. She sensed, rather than saw, the windows behind her. The shuttered window to her left let through the moving shadows of leaves from a large tree. There was a wingback chair and ottoman by the bed on her right, and a wooden antique dresser with a marble top and beveled mirror in a tall frame sat beside the door. The room was probably 15 or 20 feet on a side, and had the look and smell of being recently repainted, or remodeled. Everything looked too smooth and fresh to be as old as the house looked from the outside.
Miriam —that was her actual name, she reminded herself—tried to sit up but the heavy bruise to her hip and thigh had stiffened. She remembered the confusing last few hours in the rain and dark. A fragment of memory of herself at Ted’s door. A shaky image of a drowned and burned woman distorted in beveled glass. An old woman patting her cheek. A train ride. A long drive to get here. Hiding in a closet. A beating. It was all mixed up and confusing.
With a second effort, and grunting against the pain, she pushed herself up to a sitting position. She lifted the white comforter to see that she wore men’s pajamas. Lifting her hips, she slipped the elastic waistband down and saw a wrap around her thigh, the edges of a purple and red bruise peeking out from the edges. Higher up, another bruise from the corner of Henry’s counter top remained, but was darker and hurt less. Still, everything hurt, even her hair. She closed her eyes again, moaned and slumped back against the carved wooden headboard, the comforter falling down to her waist.
Alarmed, she pulled it up under her chin wondering if anyone else was there, watching.
She was alone and relaxed, but her eyes fell on the chair next and saw jeans, a sweatshirt, sandals, a bra and some lacy underwear laid out there, apparently for her. With one last suspicious glance around, she slid legs out from under the covers, dropped her feet gingerly to the carpet, limped to the chair and dressed. The things didn’t fit too badly, which made her absently wonder who had picked them out and put them there—and who had undressed her, washed her, dressed her wounds, and put her to bed. She was grateful, in any case.
She limped over to a closet door and peeked in. Nope, no women’s clothes in there, and there was nothing feminine on the dresser. It had the feeling of a guest room, then.
She walked slowly—testing her muscles, wincing at each step—to the western window, unlatched the shutter and looked out. It was one of those exquisite mornings in early spring where the air is soft and shares your relief that winter is finally over. The storm had gone, leaving a scene bright and washed clean like a morning at the beginning of the world. The sun blazed down on flowers bobbing in the breeze around foundations of houses across the street, and the whole scene looked so wholesome she couldn’t take it all in after what she’d been through. She closed her eyes again and leaned on the window sill, breathing deep the clear air and scents of blooms. There was a lilac somewhere near sending its fragrance up on on currents of air.
Turning, she stretched out her stride to loosen up her stiffness more, and made it to the door in seven slow steps. The door, solid, substantial oak like the rest of the room’s wide trim, sported old-style brass hinges and a doorknob with an elaborate filigree pattern pressed into it. She listened at the door for a moment. Hearing nothing but with habitual caution, she opened the door a few inches and saw a wide hallway with doors— to other bedrooms?— another hallway to her right, at right angles to the one she was examining. In the same direction was a set of stairs leading to the floor above. At her end of the hallway, opposite the door, a wide staircase lead down.
This place must go on in all sorts of directions, she mused, intrigued. There was no one in sight, but she smelled coffee—her drug of choice— bacon and other incredible kitchen smells. Her stomach lurched and rumbled, reminding her that she hadn’t eaten for a long time.
Time to go downstairs. After all, she mused, blushing a little at the thought, it was probably Ted who cleaned her up, bound her wounds and put her to bed last night. He’d gotten to meet her then, in a manner of speaking. The thought was not entirely unpleasant.
She walked toward the stairs that lead toward the smells of breakfast, taking in the details. Her near-photographic memory was both a natural gift and part of her training. Very little escaped notice and was filed away automatically. A part of her brain noted details, such as a paint can left in the hall corner, a look of recently finished walls and floors, new oriental carpet runners in every direction–and she could smell fresh paint and plaster. She could tell that this had been a major restoration. There were plaster walls, oak trim everywhere, and a marquetry floor with two or three kinds of wood. The Ted she remembered could never have decorated this on his own, so he had either hired someone pretty good, or there was another woman in the picture.
To her surprise, the latter thought sent a mini-tremor of jealousy through her. She shook her head.
“Hardly have a right to be jealous, do you?” she scolded herself under her breath. “None of your business now.” She clamped down on the emotions that had stirred and started down the stairs, her lips set in a thin line. “We’ll see what’s what, first.” Little red spots remained on her cheeks.
The plush pile of the carpet runner down the center of the stairway silenced her footfalls. She moved deliberately, holding onto the railing next to the wall, unable to reach across the width of the stairs to touch the other railing. It was a long way down—13 steps, she noted automatically. At a glance, she logged the number of spindles in the railing—26—and that one halfway down was slightly turned. She corrected that to match all the others on her way past.
The enticing aroma of coffee got stronger by the time she reached the bottom, but the stiffness in her legs made it slow going. By the time she neared the bottom, though, she was moving more purposefully. She paused on the last step to look around and listen, sniffing the air, then stepped down onto a matching area carpet on more fine wood flooring. Normally unimpressed with wealth, she was becoming aware that this place, while old, had “good bones,” as her father would have said. The place exuded 19th Century quality without shouting about it.
She stood for a moment at the bottom of the steps where a long central hallway widened as it stretched to the right and left. She took a few steps to the right and passed a large room with pocket doors partially opened, and then another larger room in the front of the house. A short hallway led to an outside door on the right. On the left were doors closed on spaces she couldn’t guess the uses of, and then another front room, this one obviously appointed as a library with floor-to-ceiling bookcases and a fireplace with an elaborate carved black marble mantle. Wingback chairs flanked the fireplace, each with a round side table of oak in an older style. A built-in window seat stretched across the front, with more bookshelves built in underneath.
To the left, at the end of the room that would easily hold two of her last apartment, was another set of nine-foot-tall pocket doors. She stepped over to the center and moved them apart with surprisingly small effort, as they were probably 300 pounds of thick old wood each. But the balance was so good that they slid apart easily. She stepped through into a dining room. An antique table of highly polished dark wood stretched half of the length of the room, with ten high-back chairs of matching color and style tucked neatly all around, four on each side and one at each end. A matching sideboard sat in the back corner, and another marble fireplace, slightly smaller that the one in the front room and faced with white, veined marble and bright brass andirons, sat in the middle of the outside wall, flanked by a pair of eight-foot-tall bay windows. Even with no lights burning, the room was ablaze with sunlight.
Stepping to a side door, she opened it and found herself back in the hallway, near the stairs she’d descended a few moments before. She heard the clatter of dishes down the hall to the right, and saw someone move across a doorway.
She took a deep breath and moved toward the sounds and the smell of coffee and food. The coffee would help with the headache and she couldn’t resist the allure of the aroma any longer.
At the threshold, she stopped again and watched Ted’s back as he worked on something at the stove. A kitchen table to the right was set for two, and more sunlight was bursting into the room from another big bay window beside it. A lanky chocolate Lab had caught her scent already, and raised his head and was watching her from his spot under the table. He unfolded himself from the floor and ambled over, tail wagging like he’d known her all his life.
She scratched behind his ears and looked up, realizing Ted hadn’t heard anything yet over the music of a radio he had on.
He looked different around the edges, but the same at the center: A little thinner, perhaps, but with some grey at the temples that hadn’t been there a year ago. The hair was shorter. He was humming along tunelessly like she remembered, something that sounded like a mixture of an old Stones tune and a little Count Basie, and completely unrelated to the song that was playing. She smiled. Typical. He wore a short-sleeved yellow polo shirt and khaki slacks, well-worn moccasins and no socks.
His arms were tanned and looked better muscled than she remembered, as did the shoulders that looked broader and solid under the shirt’s fabric. The back of his neck was ruddy from the sun. Overall, he was in better shape and had lost the flabby, disheveled, half-crazed look of his life in New York. There, he’d lived mainly on adrenaline, beer, coffee, cold pizza and vending machine food and more beer. Whatever else had happened, moving here seemed to have been good for him. She approved.
A bright red cardinal landed on a branch of a small tree just outside the window, looked sharply around a few times with a combative manner, and sounded the penetrating clear call notes that warned any competitors that he was master of this territory now.
She heard the powerful song from outside and watched him, comb flashing angrily, and felt the pride and challenge of his brash music of survival go through her. She did not realize Ted had turned at the cardinal’s call, as well, and had caught sight of her from the corner of his eye. He put a skillet down and turned the gas flame off. He switched off the radio and turned and stood, waiting. His face was not unfriendly, but impassive.
She turned her head as the music stopped and looked into his eyes for the first time in more than a year. She opened her mouth once, then closed it.
The silence stretched.
“Hungry?,” he said, turning back to the stove.
All she could do was nod once, suddenly shy and tongue-tied, then realized he couldn’t see her. The lab bumped her hand with his head, wanting her to pet him some more. When she didn’t, he sniffed her fingertips and touched them with just the tip of his tongue.
Ted pointed to the table with his hand and arm outstretched, without turning. “Why don’t you sit down. I’ll get things together. And—“ He paused, turning from the waist up and looking at her a long second “— we’ll eat.”
As he dialed up the gas flame under the skillet, he started whistling that tuneless tune again.
She nodded to his back, felt foolish, then walked over to the table and sat at the end so she could watch him. The dog escorted her, side pressed against her legs slightly.
Ted put eggs and bacon on a platter, poured juice and two coffees, put it all on a big tray and carried it to the table. He put a glass of orange juice in front of her and the platter in the middle of the table. Abandoning any pretense or etiquette in sudden, ravenous hunger, she pulled the empty plate in front of her, grabbed the platter and scooped eggs and meat onto it, then slices of toast while he poured her coffee. He moved to the other end of the table and pulled the platter to his side and helped himself. He put the pot of coffee halfway between them.
Miriam made the food disappear with efficiency. He watched in fascination as so much food went into such a small person so quickly. She ate one helping without looking at him, chewing. He pushed the platter back to her and she loaded her plate up again. She drank the juice and coffee gratefully, then poured another of each. Ted ate without a word passing between them, finished and sat back, sipped coffee and looked out the window while she ate. His thoughts were tripping over themselves.
He had seen her the night before, of course, but she looked more like the accident victim she was than the remarkably restored woman at his table. He hadn’t been affected by her nakedness in the ways he would have been at almost any other time. Besides, Rose had been there and helped clean Miriam up, bandage her wounds and get her into bed. Rose had picked out the clothes.
He reflected on that scene, wondering if he’d have been as composed and business-like if Rose’s ex-husband had dropped in out of the deluge, babbling incoherently, the way Miriam had talked in her delirium as they worked on her together.
Not bloody likely, he knew. He’d have been more likely to stop the yammering of the man by putting a pillow over his face and holding it there.
But not Rose. She was full of surprises, that one.
But the woman he’d once loved to the point of insanity, the woman who had run away without a word, was sitting at his table.
He felt equal parts anger, intense relief, and an odd flutter of the heart.
In the silence, Rose walked into the room. She had been standing in a side doorway and neither of them had noticed. She’d heard most of what they’d said, enough to scare her. Walking over to Ted, she put a hand on his arm and left it there.
She looked back and forth between Miriam and him, frowning.
“What does all of this mean?”, she said. Ted felt a quiver go through her body and he pulled her to him.
“It’ll be OK, Rose. Miriam here is a federal agent, and she’s got enough artillery in the back there to take down anything,” he said. But we may have to leave soon. It might be safer that way.”
She straightened and looked up at him, then at Miriam.
“If it’s that bad, then let’s go,” she said. Calm. He looked at her for a second, and then laughed.
“You are one interesting woman,” he said.
“I’ve got to get something from my car first, and then we can go,” she said.
She would deal with whatever had happened, would happen between Miriam and Ted. She at least knew her own mind and heart, now. What his choices would be would be his.
But this other thing was much more frightening, what she overheard about the woman that was after Miriam to kill her. And maybe Ted.
“What will be, shall be,” she said to both of them.
Che sarà sarà. ‘What will be, shall be.
She’d heard it a number of times from an elderly Italian diplomat at the UN, where she had worked for a few years as a translator. He was in his 70s, but had charmingly tried to seduce her with attention and invitations to quiet conversations with wine and walks and talk of the world and of books and music.
He was generous and courtly and gentle, and showed genuine appreciation for her beauty and brains. Or, at least, that’s how he made her feel. She ate it up, but always turned down his gentle propositions to come to his bed with blushing good humor. The old rogue graciously accepted her refusals, sighing as he kissed her hand, invariably murmering “che sarà sarà”
“You have broken my heart, but I am only delayed, not deterred,” he would say, every time. She adored him, but never relented. The last time they met, she asked him why he made such an effort when he knew she would say no.
“Ah, mia cara Rosa,” his mellow, deep voice slipped back forth from English to Italian. “—A name never blessed another so well as it does you, and I mean that most sincerely.
“A woman is always a woman first. She is a woman before she is a mother or wife. And there is nothing more beautiful, no matter her physical gifts, than a woman who is loved for her truth.
“It is only then that she blooms like the rose and spreads light and happiness all around her. Women are wonderful beings, and I do what I do so that the world has more love in it, not less. I do what I can…’ and with this, he always finished with a shrug and a very Italian palms-up gesture of resignation.
She remembered clasping his thin hands in both of hers and kissing him on the cheek with great feeling. He was a hopeless chauvinist and still saw women as best suited for motherhood, but it was hard to resist the charm and genuine admiration and desire he projected.
The last image of him was as she walked away and looked back. He stood in a doorway, tall and thin, impeccably tailored as always in a $4,000 grey suit, blowing her one last kiss, waving with a rueful smile. If she did not have a ticket for the train, she might have turned back.
The memory warmed her still, and she found herself wryly hoping he was still up to his own tricks. She was sure he would be, even with his nurses on his death bed.
What will be, shall be. She felt herself smiling, wistful.
Time enough to sort this out later. She had a business to run, and with a last glance and a smile back at Ted, she turned, nodded slightly to Miriam, and headed down the hall to the kitchen and the back where her car was parked. Her purse. She’d left it there last night. She found herself humming the old Doris Day song, based on the phrase as she went.
“Wait.” Miriam’s voice called from behind her. “I’ll go with you.” Rose paused and Miriam was soon beside her, the Glock in her hand.
“I’ll explain it all to you later, but I need to go with you. And this—“ she raised the gun and showed it to Rose —“is necessary.”
Ted was standing in the hallway, just outside the door to the study by the front entry, the Lab by his leg. He just nodded to Rose and the two women walked down the long hallway toward the kitchen. The sight distracted him and he was full of conflicting emotions all of a sudden.
When Ted tried to remember what happened next, he always had the feeling that it was happening to someone else.
Last installment for a while. I’m working on later chapters, and am realizing these earlier ones need some editing, which I don’t have the time to do now. I’ve posted this before, but made a few tweaks today and decided to repost. -H
Her name was Rose Tyler, like the 10th Dr. Who’s traveling companion.
This Rose was from New Jersey, though, and was part owner of a bar and restaurant in the old mill. She moved to Mossy Creek from a working-class neighborhood after a bad marriage ended. She’d worked as a translator at the UN. No one could learn more than that. Several had tried.
She had the air of someone who had been let down too many times. While she was friendly and exchanged sometimes vulgar banter with regulars, her eyes were always a little watchful and wary behind the smile.
Ted read her that life had not been one that lent itself to easy fantasies. More than one half-drunk male customer had learned some choice New Jersey words, too, if he laid a hand on her.
He met her the first day he was in town, listened to her conversation and quickly placed her origins and attitude. He kept his distance at first, but found that he ended up there a few nights a week after working on the house. He didn’t share much of himself, either, and resisted enough of the ways the locals had of prying without being rude. He and Rose had both been let down too many times, and each had learned to value their privacy. They circled one another, closer and closer, without words.
After a week of almost daily visits and neutral pleasantries, though, he hurried to lunch more than he used to, and she looked up and smiled when he came in, a little more than was really required. That made him happy.
On a sleepy late April afternoon, he was later than usual, held up by an argument with a painter about an estimate that had ballooned out of control. By the time he got to the Mill, he was hungry and grumpy.
The parking lot was empty, as was the bar. Rose had her back to the door and was cleaning glasses, listening to music on a stereo and obviously lost in some private thoughts. Ted recognized the song she had on, one of his favorites, “Suite Judy Blue Eyes,” by Crosby, Stills and Nash. The lyrics at the beginning were wafting around the dark corners of the old room:
It’s getting to the point Where I’m no fun anymore I am sorry Sometimes it hurts so badly I must cry out loud I am lonely I am yours, you are mine You are what you are You make it hard….
She was somewhere in her early 40s, but was fit and curvy, and her partner in the business was the chef. Ted discovered eventually, and to his delight, that Ronald already was involved with Elliot. Elliot lived in Pittsburgh where he was a TV producer, and commuted on weekends.
Rose wore a simple black skirt that flattered her hips and legs, and a starched white blouse. Her sandy-blond hair was tied up in a bun and held with a carved wooden pin, but some hair escaped confinement in a borderline wild way that he thought was charming. As she turned to put the wine glasses into the overhead rack, she turned slightly and her breasts strained against the fabric in a way that he approved of completely. He noticed she wore a plain gold chain necklace with a small cross that rested in some cleavage that was showing. He noticed that more this day because the second button was undone more than usual. He smiled to himself. Not that he hadn’t noticed her before, but that day he realized that his interest in her was something that needed to be admitted. He realized that he had stopped just inside the bar’s door and was staring, just as she caught him out of the corner of her eye, saw how he was looking at her and slowly lowered her arm smiled.
At that moment, the song slid into the next to the last stanza —
What have you got to lose? Chestnut brown canary Ruby throated sparrow Sing the song, don’t be long Thrill me to the marrow Voices of the angels, ring around the moonlight Asking me, said she so free How can you catch the sparrow? Lacy, lilting, leery, losing love, lamenting Change my life, make it right Be my lady
They both laughed at the same time. And then did what two people do at times like that: they pretended the moment hadn’t happened.
“Hey there,” she said, a little too brightly, “I was wondering if you were going to be in today. The usual? ”
Ted tried to move, but only managed to bump into one of the chairs at a table near the door, nearly knocking it over. He fumbled it back upright, feeling as clumsy as a teenager at his first prom. Rose seemed amused.
“Um, yes. Let’s start with an Ayinger. And could you ask Ronald to whip up a corned beef platter?”
“Of course,” she said, slight color tinging her cheeks, fumbling a bit herself as she put the order through on the computer to the kitchen and filled a frosted glass with the Bavarian wheat beer.
She slid the beer across the counter and leaned in against the inside edge with both hands.
He caught a whiff of her perfume and noticed a strand of hair dangling by one ear. It suddenly got a little harder to breathe.
“How’s the work on the house going? Still fighting with Harold about the painting bill?”
Nothing was secret in this town, especially if you were a barber or bartender.
“Harold’s been sniffing paint fumes too long,” Ted said with a wry smile, gratefully sipping the ice-cold liquid and wiping the foam from his lip with the napkin she’d put by the glass. “But I think we’ve finally got it settled. That’s what I was just finishing up. He says he’ll be done with the upstairs bedrooms in a couple of days, and that’s about all there is to do. He’d better be, too. The decorators are coming Monday to hang curtains, put the carpets down and make it all pretty and such.”
“I’ve been waiting to get an invitation to see the place, and I’m tired of waiting,” Rose said. “When can I come over and see if I approve?”
He was very aware of her proximity, and his hands felt like he was wearing boxing gloves. Picking that sandwich up was going to be a problem.
“Harold just had his deadline moved up. Give me two days. How does Thursday night sound, around 7 for a dinner? I’ve learned to be a pretty good chef since living alone.”
“I’d love that. But it’ll have to be a little later, after nine. Ronald closes up Thursdays for me anyway. Would that work? I’ll bring the wine. We just got a very nice Sirrah in from California, and I’ve been wanting to try it out.”
They talked for a bit about a wine and cheese tasting in the restaurant later in the week, and about the house. The feeling between then had subtly shifted, and both were aware of it and felt comfortable, and excited, although neither said it out loud.
Other customers came in and they broke off the conversation while she took their orders. He ate his sandwich. The dim, aged stone and wood atmosphere of the bar was comforting. It had been absorbing such moments for nearly 200 years.
Another old song was playing, a quiet instrumental he couldn’t quite place. He was tired, but found he was thinking about Thursday night with anticipation. He leaned on the bar and watched the bubbles rise in the liquid in his glass, bits of foam clinging to the sides. He took another sip.
He felt Rose’s presence return from the other side of the bar, which was in a “U” shape around a central wooden support beam and cash register. His awareness of her was of a rustling sound of cotton, a sensation of heat and a fragrance both subtle and disturbing. Rose was looking at him with an expression he hadn’t seen in a while. A nice one, one that hit him right in the male part of his brain. She was resting her hands on the bar, and moved one hand with a bar towel in a slow, back and forth motion. The surface was already spotless.
Her fingers drew his eyes for some reason. Part of his brain registered mild surprise at that. His heart beat a tune he hadn’t heard in a while. There were many things about Rose that he liked looking at, but what he looked at just then were her fingers. He was a connoisseur of such things.
It’s just like you can never mistake a girl’s knees for a woman’s. Young girls might have perfect skin and no signs of wear and tear, but experience in life is underrated when it comes to beauty. For one thing, there’s the confidence. That’s a real plus. That and no giggling.
And their knees aren’t as nice as a woman’s. These things matter to a man after a while, if he’s paying attention.
Rose’s fingers…. were not pudgy, young-girl fingers, but …womanly. The kind that comes after living a little. The kind that know what to touch, when to touch, and how long to touch; when to grab and hold on, and when to let go. Long and slender, with well-trimmed nails with a clear coating. Languid, graceful, with the beginnings of a few wrinkles. Hands that had seen hard work, but would just as naturally cradle a baby or slide beer across a bar.
All of this flashed through his fatigue and beer-mellowed mind in less than two seconds. Her fingers absolutely mesmerized him.
God, the raunchy truth of it was that he loved women and women’s bodies. The whole and the parts. They fascinated him. And it had been a long time since he’d thought much about that. Too long.
He reached out without thinking about it and took her hands up in his, and held them.
“You have lovely hands,” he said.
Wow, he thought. How original.
She appreciated the impulse, if not the dumb delivery. She laughed and flushed. That was a good sign, wasn’t it?
She stammered a little and managed an “oh, they’re so dry”. But she didn’t pull away. After a second’s hesitation, she rubbed her fingertips on the palm of his hand and moved her hands inside his, and then clasped his hands with an intensity that surprised him and stole any words he might have uttered.
“I’m feeling warm,” she said with a nervous laugh, and looked a little unsure. But in a flash, her body was still and her large, dark brown eyes looked right into his with a serious, but twinkly look. He had the giddy feeling that he was falling into them.
“I wonder why?,” she said.
“I’m feeling pretty warm myself.”
He actually blushed, probably for the first time since he bumped into Linda Vogel’s new boobs in the sixth grade. But he wasn’t in the sixth grade any longer, he knew what he wanted to do and, what’s more, that Rose wanted the same thing. The realization sent an electric shock clear down to his toes. She smiled a little at the corners of her mouth and tilted her head to the side a little, watching him.
Without quite realizing he was doing it, he found his fingertip gliding over the fine hair of her forearm, on the way to other things. He didn’t care who else was in the bar, even though they were alone. The feeling of her was electric to his fingers and he was aware of every detail. She leaned closer, her eyes closing a little.
Then the phone rang. Her eyes opened slowly, regretfully and she gave a little shrug that said ‘what are you going to do?’.
No more for now.
But soon. Soon.
They smiled at each other knowingly as she answered the phone, which was right behind the bar next to the cash register. He softly kissed the back of her free hand, which he still held, gathered his things and stood to go. Her throat flushed and her eyes darkened and softened. She stopped listening to whoever was on the phone.
At the door, he paused, half-turned and looked back, and pantomimed that he would call. She nodded and her smile lit up her face. Her eyes lingered on him, shining, but a little troubled, too. Then they cleared. Her lips mouthed the word “Yes.”
Outside, he felt like a schoolboy again, lighter than air. The sun was a little brighter and the birds were singing. He could feel the stock market rise, except it wasn’t the stock market.
Ah, life, he thought, giddy as a 17-year-old after his first kiss. What a grand thing it is.
The British Airways jet with Das aboard hurried up and away from the simmering city, as eager as its passengers to find its natural frigid, silent and pure habitat five miles above. In minutes, it reached its cruising altitude and leveled out, the endless brown wrinkles of the Earth’s dry crust creeping past far below. The pilot radioed position and altitude and let the autopilot steer the nose unerringly toward London.
The crew relaxed and called for coffee. The co-pilot winked at the dark-skinned flight attendant who brought it, making sure the captain was looking away. She smiled and leaned to the left to give the captain his coffee. As she did, she felt a hand slip up her skirt and almost giggled. Then flashed a mock-angry glare at the copilot. Wait until we land for that, the look said.
The captain pretended not to notice, and thought of his son in London, wondering if he had gotten to school yet, and then whether the co-pilot and attendant’s affair would become obvious enough that he would have to take some action. That reminded him of his own dalliance 20 years before with another black-eyed beauty, dead these many years in a car accident. The memory of her still hurt after all these years. He hoped these two beside him had a happier future.
As the plane cruised toward the North Pole and Heathrow, a man slept fitfully in a darkened bedroom a few miles north of Vancouver, Washington. He snored, one foot twitching under silk sheets.
Henry Bourchier’s house was silent save for the ticking of a hallway tall clock. A full moon glowed in a black sky upon which shards of stars glittered and danced. The house squatted in a woodsy development of fat, cheaply-built boxes financed with creative mortgages.
The homes were a splatter of faux-French country styles, pseudo-Victorians, and utterly bland modernistic pretensions with concrete and glass walls trimmed in wood-grained vinyl siding. Each was a discrete distance from its neighbor—set at angles and with strategic hedges and plantings to maximize privacy— so that each was just barely visible through trees. The housing market was still dead there, and most of the houses were worth a fraction of the debt the fools within carried. Appearances were important, though, and it was still possible to pretend they were well-off, even those who had lost their jobs two years before and were merely squatting until the eviction notices were enforced. Everyone knew who they were.
More than one resident lay staring in the dark, fear slithering into their ears like worms from the shadows.
Struggling dwarf ornamentals from a bankrupt garden center, more aliens in this wilderness land, clung guiltily to the margins of the lawn. Douglas firs, so tall they seemed to touch at the tips, marched hundreds of miles into the unforgiving mountain crags beyond, looming over the suburban intruders below with deep-green, powerless resentment. The trees swayed in the nighttime breeze. Air muttered around the black trunks and rough bark. A few yards into the forest, where needles lay in thick carpets, noises of the civilized world gave up and disappeared.
A paved driveway led from a country road to Bourchier’s faux-villa. His was safe from the predations of bankers, though, because he was one of the predators. His home was also better-built than the others, and both factors gave him great satisfaction. His bank held the mortgages on a few of his neighbors’ houses, but he did not concern himself with their worries. He had lawyers and a corporation and other, worse men behind him; they did not.
He was also a thief in the traditional sense, although these days the two occupations were almost the same thing. Money and debt were the least of his worries, or so he thought. His dreams were free of the living nightmare that would momentarily rip his brief, shallow, amoral life apart.
Two cars sat on virgin concrete in front of the three-car garage: a midnight blue BMW and a small SUV.
Bourchier drove the BMW between the house and the suburban Vancouver bank where he was vice president—and secret money launderer for Seattle drug bosses and other, even more shadowy connections.
But he did like nice things. Oh yes, he surely did.
His silk pajamas boasted a label from an exclusive Seattle boutique that catered to those who equated price with quality because they didn’t know any better and had too much money to care. The bed sheets and cover were of similar impressiveness, as was nearly everything in the house. Some of it was even good. He hoped his expensive tastes were just inconspicuous enough to avoid tripping any wires at the IRS.
He was careful.
Unfortunately, he made mistakes. Little ones. But wires had been tripped. He wasn’t as careful — or nearly as smart — as he believed he was.
His mistakes were exposed by a former employee he’d slept with. Unfortunately for him, and still seething with anger after he dumped her, she started sleeping with a small-time drug dealer and appliance repairman. The two were busted during a nooner in a motel room one weekday afternoon.
She’d offered information about Henry in exchange for leniency. The local DA, who was hoping to get noticed at higher levels, let her off with a suspended sentence and a blow job, but bounced the information up to the US Attorney. They’d both gone to Stanford Law, and he hoped his old classmate would overlook certain personal failings in the drinking and carousing departments, and rescue him from this backwater job.
Details of Henry Bourchier’s life had been filling electronic files in Seattle, Portland and Washington for six months, like little flakes of snow drifting against a door until millions of them push the door down.
Initial interest led to secret spot audits, which yielded enough to get a referral for further investigation — all done as silently as an owl swooping down on an unsuspecting rabbit.
He slept, serene, although his slumber had also been given some chemical assistance.
A Treasury agent, on loan to the FBI interagency task force, roamed the home after putting a little something harmless in his drink. Henry believed she had come to his home from the bar, and after going to a shooting range, for a little frolic between the high-priced sheets. He also thought coming here had been his idea. She had made sure that no one else knew she was there.
Eleanor—that was the name she gave Henry— spent two hours examining the house inch by inch, and found piles of cash, many, many piles, hidden in nylon duffels in several cleverly concealed compartments around the house.
This was expected, and blueprints obtained from the architect were of great help. The SUV was hers, and it carried what she needed. She lugged identical nylon duffles from in from it, each holding many, many new bundles of cash impregnated with electronic “fairy dust” that turned each bill into a radio transmitter. She exchanged the treated currency for the old bundles, which she wrapped in plastic using disposable gloves, and packed them in the zippered bags. It took several trips to complete the exchange, but finally the SUV had nearly $300,000 stowed under the rear compartment’s floor where the spare tire usually rode.
The rear floor of the SUV held another bag that held Eleanor’s other tools: a shotgun, a new Glock 20 10mm auto with a 15-shot magazine and laser sight; a Glock 17 with ammo. An older, compact Sig Sauer 1911 pistol in it’s holster rested on top. The latter was not government-issue, and was untraceable. She usually wore it tucked at the small of her back, and while it was a bit heavy fully loaded (almost two pounds), and only held seven rounds, it was both a last resort and a throwaway if thinks got seriously fucked.
She left the weapons in the SUV, took the Sig and a travel bag from the back seat and went inside to do a final cleanup tour and change. Henry would wake up refreshed, if somewhat confused and with no memory of the time just before he took the drugged drink. She planned to leave no clues that she had been there. The stuff she’d slipped into Henry’s drink wouldn’t wear off for a while longer, she decided, glancing at a wristwatch and feeling pleased with her work.
A grandfather’s clock — an 1800s Philadelphia model restored at great expense — struck 2 a.m. from its post in the front room. She didn’t know when she’d have the chance again to get clean — and the work she’d just done had been hot and she was starting to notice her own odor— so she took a quick shower in a spare bath.
She checked Henry to see if he was stirring and, hearing only low snores, decided she could pause for a few moments. She donned panties and bra and a silk robe from her travel bag. The silk was warm for it’s weight, and it packed in very small package. Her dark hair, still damp from the shower, tumbled over the collar.
She put the Sig on the counter and looked through Henry’s extensive liquor collection. She mixed a Godmother, a favorite—an expensive Italian amaretto and a couple of fingers of A-list vodka in a tumbler, added ice, and swished it around in the glass until it was cold. The sweet aroma of apricots and almonds touched her nose as she sipped, and she savored the burn of vodka as it slipped down the back of her throat. She padded silently to the family room across a wide tile area that led to a sliding glass patio door and stood looking out. Another sip.
The floor-length white robe swayed from the curve of breast and hip like something from a 1930s Hollywood film. Tall and full-figured but trim, she glided with a natural, sensuous grace that could turn heads even in Monaco’s casinos. In fact, on one assignment, she’d done just that. No one expected someone that looked like she did to be as deadly as she was, which came in handy more than once.
The kitchen waited in gloom. Vague shapes of appliances and counters and hanging pot racks—all seldom used—were just visible. Before her, the double French patio doors framed a deck with a gas grill, outdoor chairs and a table still shrouded in their winter plastic covers. The moon lit a few yards of grass, bleaching it of all color. Shadows of the fir forest fell across the lawn halfway to the deck, as the moon was fairly high in the sky. The edge of the woods was as black as a mine shaft. She stood close to the door, sipping her drink and soaking in the scene. The moonlight draped her form in the same pale aura as the lawn. Her pose in the window conjured a marble statue of some long-forgotten Greek goddess.
The tall clock ticked softly in the background. She held the glass below her lips in one hand, with the other arm folded across her waist. She swirled the liquid in the glass with small movements, taking a sip every so often. It was the first quiet she’d had in weeks, and the liquor and the moonlight lulled her into dreaminess.
The drink was almost gone by the time the clock behind her bonged three times, the sudden sound filling the room. The SUV was packed, her gear was stowed, and the vehicle was fully fueled. It was time to get dressed. Henry would be waking soon wondering what had happened. By that time, she would be miles away.
As the last echoes of the chimes died away, a whisper like a feather touched her ear, but so faint she was not sure she heard it.
She took a final sip of the drink, tipping the glass up to get the last of the sweet, golden liquid. She sucked a piece of ice into her mouth and crunched it between her back teeth, enjoying the shock of cold and the noise, just like when she was a little girl.
A shadow flitted through the air beside her. Before she could react, an arm clamped around her throat like a steel hawser, cut off her air and pulled her back, off-balance. A vice crushed her wrist and pulled her hand and arm painfully up between her shoulder blades. In the same moment, the unseen hand and arm turned her body over and her bare feet were kicked out from under her.
The floor rushed up at her in slow motion. She heard a wet crunch and felt a sickening hot jolt as her forehead bounced on the cold tile. Pain exploded behind her eyes and shock surged through her body. A knee jammed in the small of her back, knocking the air from her lungs. She felt her cheek pressed into the cold floor and smelled blood and male sweat just before a wave of nausea rippled through her and a reddish-black mist filled her vision.
“Bring ‘er,” a voice snapped from somewhere in the fog.
Eleanor gasped for air as the weight lifted from her back. In almost the same second, a hand clenched into her hair and pulled her to her feet, the other arm still pinned painfully at her back.
The room whirled. She vomited as spikes penetrated into her brain.
The hands controlling her shook her like a rag doll. She was dimly aware that her unseen master moved out of the way of the puke and then yanked her down the darkened hall through a doorway into Henry’s bedroom. Her legs rubbery, she felt like she was out of her body and flying along like a leaf in the wind….