Pieces of Silver
Jeremy Piggott felt the sneeze approach as certainly as he had felt the cold itself coming: an onrushing tide of mucus that was irresistible, although he tried his best to suppress it. He patted desperately at pockets, knowing the wet mess of his handkerchief would not be there. He had discarded it in disgust on his way here; thrown it into a bin on the street.
Oh god, what could he DO?
As the last and biggest wave broke, frantic inspiration betook him to snatch his hat down over his face, just in time to control the explosion. Reprieved, he mopped the copious residue with the hat before hesitantly replacing it on his head. His vision cleared. The young woman across the table from him, with an expression on her face which was difficult to read, was proffering a paper serviette.
“Oh t’anks. B’oody code.” Jeremy said. He took the serviette and blew his nose noisily. The café was crowded – people noticed. “Right! Bus’ness.”
Producing a large envelope from his briefcase, Piggott passed it to the woman, who opened it carefully, avoiding wet fingerprints.
“Dis is who you’re involved wib. His nabe is Mahennis Bourta, and he’s Moroccan. Nice, middle incomb flabbily, father wab a chemist: they moobed to Lyon when he wab very young, so there’s little to fide in the Borth Abrican connection. Seebs to have been recruited at udiversity, trained in Afghanistab.”
Alice Burbridge, for it was she, studied the photograph with her dark, searching eyes. “Bourta’s his real name: no aliases?”
Piggott nodded. “He seebs to be a facilitator, a’d maybe a bit of a policeban. He does what he says he’s doi’g at the moment: helpi’g to discober what was on dat piece of paper.”
“He can’t get to the photograph?”
Piggott shook his head, reaching for another serviette which an understanding waitress had thoughtfully placed in a glass in the centre of the table. “Nobe.” He blew his nose with great thoroughness. “Bud he may be able to tap into the chain furber down. We hab the boy under surveillance. Maybe, just maybe, he can find a way in. Whad’s he said to you?”
“He says he can.” Alice pursed her lips. “These people are serious professionals. If he says he can I’m inclined to believe him. I’m worried for the boy.”
“The girl too. There are two ob them now.” Jeremy caught Alice’s surprised look. “Oh, nothi’g to worry about – well, nothi’g new. She’d the one who compode the picture, we believe. Our operative’s got her covered too. Thi’g is, we aren’t sure if the Amadhi are aware of her: obviously we’d rarber dey weren’t.”
“So far as I know they have no idea as to the identity of the boy, and no-one has mentioned a girl.” Alice frowned. “If you don’t mind, Jerry, I will worry, just a bit. I know what they do to girls when they have no other use for them.”
“Which is why you should be watching your own back, Alice, But carry on doi’g what you’re doi’g for the mobent. We don’t want to hab to pull you out, yet. Just try to gib dem as little as possible. Now, take a look at the seco’d photograph.”
Alice started then quickly recovered herself as she turned over the sheets, revealing a photograph of a man entering a restaurant. Though taken from some distance away, the likeness was undoubtedly that of Yahedi: “He was at the meeting.”
Jeremy availed himself of another serviette. “He’b dangerous. Watch out for hib. De point ibs, Alice, we know he’b in town. We strongly suspec’ he’s the trigger man. If he and Bourta get together – they’re old associates – if you even see them together you’re to bail out, do you understa’d? Don’t hang around, get yourself to a safe house and call the boys in. We’ll take it from there.”
“Fine.” Alice nodded: “Is there anything else you particularly want from this Bourta guy?”
Jeremy was thoughtful. “I dink I want to know the sabe things they do. I want to know how the b’oody hell this boy and his girlfr’e’d managed to bugger up a professional assassinatiob wib a sheet of A4 and a bird. I want to know who else is involved, apart from your rocker person, and what they’re after. So if the Prince and his Amadhi know more than I do about that, I’d like to be up to speed.”
Jeremy sat back and sipped his coffee as Alice read through the notes he had given her concerning first Bourta, then Yahedi. She memorised the important parts carefully, page by page. Of Bourta: “Oh goodness! He’s into that, is he?”
Jeremy nodded seriously: “Not all fun and frolics, is he? The only time anyone got close to making a case stick on him was after he butchered a prostitute in Italy. He managed to wriggle out ob it with a stro’g alibi, but we know he did it, id’s sort ob a signature ob his. He can’t hab sex without it – and I saw photographs ob the girl afterwards: it was grim viewing, I can tell you.”
Did you get anything on the Arab?”
“The one at the meeti’g?” Jeremy pulled another envelope out of his pocket, extracted a photograph. “Is this him? Dis is frob a separate file we hab on the Prince.”
Alice looked at the photo and nodded: “Think so. It’s not very clear.”
“No. He keeps in the background a lot. He’b one of the Prince’s personal frie’ds, quite wealthy. Mohammed Al Fait; better known as Marak. English education. Got his money as a mercenary soldier, back in the African wars, and was possibly in Bosnia too. He’s a strange one.”
“Deep into mysticism, heads up a little spiritualist sect of his own – The Portal, I think it’s called – meets each month in Cairo. An unusual combidation, dat – Arab mercenary and spiritualist.”
The meeting over, Alice Burbridge returned Jeremy’s envelope to him and rose from her chair. Her brief handshake would have seemed to anyone who chanced to see it the natural conclusion to a business meeting, perhaps a deal. She would leave first, Jeremy watching her tall figure as it melted through the crowded bar. Then he would call for the check. Through the window beside their table he saw her make the street, huddling her coat around her against the onset of April rain. Instinctively he scanned road and pavement to see if anybody else was watching her departure, but there was no sign she had been followed. He suppressed a small shudder; a premonition maybe? It was a sensation he had felt before and did not like it: yet there was nothing he could do to help or protect this woman – she had made the choice to live with danger – thrived, excelled within it. If she had run one risk too many, if she had said one wrong word or stepped, however unknowingly, out of line, she knew what the price would be.
Jeremy Piggott sighed a fatalistic sigh, because that was the nature of the game they both played. As he prepared himself for the seasonal gale that was blowing outside he realised his hat had stuck itself fast to his head.
At around the time of Alice’s meeting with Piggott, Peter and Lesley were lounging in the college library with browsers at full stretch. Peter had European History galloping around in his head; Lesley was unashamedly checking out the Dolce and Gabbana homepage. An item in the Microsoft news section drew Peter’s attention.
“Wow! See this? Adrian Hettman’s dead.”
“So?” Lesley did her best to sound bored. “Like, who was Adrian Hettman?”
“He was big cheese at Hettman-Patton: American tech giant – into the hardware for integrated defence systems. Building a factory near Bristol next year. There’ll be some cool jobs!”
“Riveted is what I am. And Adrian Hettman is the cheese thingy of Hettman-Thingy, right?”
“You know, I get to learn a little more with you every day? How snuffed he?”
“You’re just dying to know, aren’t you?”
“Heart attack. Found dead in his hotel room in New York. He was sort of a hero for me when I was into tech stuff. I had his picture on my wall. Jeez Les, he was fifty-four! He seriously didn’t look it.”
“Surgically enhanced: they’re all at it. I’m depressed now. Do you think I’d look good in these?”
A few days after this Peter dropped by the church of St. David’s, hoping to catch his father ‘at the office’. His actual motive was an attack of financial embarrassment not unrelated to the higher costs exacted by Lesley’s companionship, but between college pressures and work he realised he hadn’t actually talked to Bob Cartwright in the best part of a week, despite sharing the same roof. In childhood Peter had often helped his father, performing some of the menial duties necessary to his Living. He had grown into St. David’s through Sunday School, learning the craft, as it were, at the pulpit. Now he rarely took any interest in religious affairs: almost never came to the Church, or plied the streets with the Parish magazine.
“Dad, the ‘Big Issue’s’ got better street cred.”
‘St. David’s’ was an unimposing structure, wedged between commercial buildings like a bride at a football match. A couple of sad saintly statues gazed down from alcoves, a meek spire poked apologetically from the roof. Nevertheless its brick blandness attracted a loyal band of worshippers, more, maybe, to hear Bob Cartwright’s inflammatory sermons with their appalling jokes than out of a duty to God.
Entering the main door Peter nearly collided with a woman and her child.
This was unremarkable in itself (a steady trickle of visitors might pass this way on a Wednesday afternoon, Bob’s day for a ‘surgery’ ) had there not been something about this couple which stuck in Peter’s mind. The woman, though she was middle-aged and malnourished, her features underscored by the heavy lines of experience, had an aura of energy about her, deep sadness, febrile hope: the child following in her wake,although he was very, very young, reached for Peter’s hand and grasped it, fleetingly, as he passed by. When they had gone, Peter stood in the aisle for several minutes, overwhelmed by the emotions emanating from those two people.
He discovered his father in the sacristy.
“Who were they – the pair who just left?”
Bob looked puzzled. “Pair? No ‘pairs’ been in for more than an hour, old lad.
Just Marilyn Glossop.”
“Wasn’t she the car accident woman?”
“That’s her. Lost her husband and two children. Tragic lady.”
“And she still has faith.”
“Brilliant, isn’t it?” Peter’s father smiled, sadly. “Or it would be. But I think maybe faith, for Marilyn, is just the bit of flotsam she clings to. Like her new partner – they cling to it together as they cling….look, son, I shouldn’t discuss my parishioners’ personal lives with anyone, not even you. What do we want then – a few pieces of silver?”
“Notes will do, Dad. Just notes.” Peter did not know quite from where his words sprang – even what compelled him to say them. “If you have her ‘phone number, Dad, you should call her. Tell her before – I don’t know – before she does something. Tell her she has the child she needs – it’s a boy, and it’s in her now. Tell her that.”
Once the words were out he recoiled, anticipating his father’s reaction – annoyance, amusement, sarcasm? No, none of these.
“Now there’s an odd thing. I was worried, too. Something about the things she said…..” Bob came to himself. “So, it’s fortune-telling now, is it? Or gynaecology?”
Peter shifted uncomfortably. “You don’t seem too amazed.”
Bob smiled gently: “Well, it’s a bit of a surprise. Sometimes, I’ve found, faith manifests itself in odd ways. But it is faith, nonetheless. And I will ‘phone her, son, just as soon as you’ve bled me dry for another week.”
In the process of delving into his wallet, his father raised the matter of a new Bishop appointed to the Diocese.
“Ronald Harkness. He’s going to drop in tomorrow: address the foot-soldiers, pep-talk, and all that. He wants to meet you.”
“Me? Why would a Bish want to meet me?”
“Haven’t the faintest. It’s most peculiar. He was quite insistent: something about engaging with the family as well as the churchman; didn’t seem to be worried that Lena is away, though. Perhaps he’s measuring you up for a collar. Ten-thirty. Can you make it?”
Some cruel twist of malevolent fortune directed Melanie’s feet to the Esplanade that morning. Of late she had taken to avoiding the wild days when she and Peter had once loved to walk to college this way together, with salt spray in the air and the gale whipping waves to flagellating fury against the sea wall.
So why today?
So why today, when Peter was there, facing the storm, and Lesley was with him, rapt in him, staring out to the Rock as she had once done, lost in the moment – lost in each other?
She had never seen Lesley looking as disordered as this, with her naturally silky hair frizzed around her face, careless of clothes rumpled about her; or Peter looking so tall, so broad of shoulder, so happy. There was no mistaking the change, no mistaking the fondness in Lesley’s eyes as she turned his face to hers, or the lingering sensuality of her kiss.
Her original destination forgotten, Melanie spun on her heel to walk, to half-run away from the thing she had dreaded seeing, and could stand to look upon no more. As she staggered through her crumbling world, as she blindly went from street to street she fought back unreasonable tears – why was she so angry? Why should she want to cry? Was it not inevitable this would happen? To know Lesley was to love her, and now Peter clearly – oh, that look in his eyes! – loved her. Yes, loved her: and that was that. They were bloody made for each other, weren’t they?
Later, much later, she returned to the Esplanade. Sitting beneath the burden of her guilt in the shelter where she and Peter had rested together so many times, Melanie gave way to all of her jealousy, all of her pain, and broke her young heart.
© Frederick Anderson 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.