The Man at the Long Table…

It’s not as if he ever came from a background of any distinction.  His history is entwined in the dirty little world of back alley stabbings, dealing out mean and vengeful deaths to the ‘enemies of Russia’.   In his KGB past he is rumored to have been a spy, his obsession to have been untraceable poisons, and his methods to have included blackmail.

Alone, he has occupied this chair for twenty-two years.  That’s twenty-two years of absolute power.

That’s twenty-two years in a bubble – twenty-two years only hearing what he wants to hear:  flattery, concurrence, justification.

For most of those years no-one has suggested he is wrong: no-one dares.  The few who have been brave enough to withstand the lethal gale of his power are long gone – consigned to oblivion in all but the minds of those they left behind.

Their minds, and his.

Each new atrocity committed in his name, every life his actions have caused to end before its time is arrayed before him on the long table while his sycophants watch from far off, wondering how they strayed so close to the flame, wondering by what means they can ever escape.

He is sixty-nine now.  Do they want the chaos he will leave them when the bubble of that black heart bursts at last?   Will he have anything to leave?

There are good reasons why civilized, democratic countries limit occupation of the highest office to one, maybe two periods of four or five years.  The longer one person remains in power the thicker the walls of his mediaeval castle keep  will grow, the fewer the people who will be allowed to oppose him, the more isolated and deluded he will become. 

Feeling all those atrocities committed by his hand festering in his brain, weighed down by the burdens of his advancing years and ever more anxious to justify it all by the execution of his Grand Plans of Empire his mind becomes deformed, his health begins to fail And more and more he sees the urgency of his mission.  

Vladimir Putin, dangerously insane.  Will he burn the whole world?  Or will someone have the courage to stop him?

A Meeting on Praed Street

She is sitting by the window and far away in her thoughts when the voice intrudes, asking quietly…

“Excuse me, it’s Eve, isn’t it…?”

She is sitting by the coffee house window, staring out at Praed Street and the passers-by who hurry against the rain.   Hoods and high collars, hunched shoulders, plastic hats of clear polythene.

“…Eve?”

A peach-mac’d mother bent over a recalcitrant child, controlling her anger:  brollied partner standing by, impatient.   Two young Chinese men arm-in-arm, running and laughing…

“It is Eve, isn’t it?”

The smell of rain, that rustle only a wet coat makes, the persistent voice:  there is something familiar in it.  She turns to acknowledge its source, reluctant.   “I’m sorry?”  

“I’m Paul.”   He is standing across the table from her, one hand resting, two fingers, on the bleached wood surface, looking down on her;  “Paul Ferryman,”  He says.    Then, when she does not answer:  “You don’t remember me!  I’m sorry if I disturbed you.  I must be wrong…”   His hand leaves.

“No.   No,”  She says quickly,  “No, I don’t think – that is, you aren’t wrong.”  She doesn’t wish to be impolite.  “How are you, Paul?”  This is awkward; so awkward!  

“It’s been…oh, lord, how many years?  You look sensational!”  He laughs and the sound rings in her remembering like a peal of bells.  “Eve!   After all this time – who’d have thought of it?”  Then he remembers himself:  “Oh, look, this might not be such a welcome surprise.   I have to return to a meeting, so I won’t embarrass you any more.”

She lies.  “You’re not embarrassing me,”  Wishing she could return his compliment, she adds,lamely:  “You don’t look so bad yourself!”

“How I wish that were true!”  He says;  “But you!  You’ve scarcely changed at all. Do you still dance – is that your…?”

“No.”  She cuts in quickly,  “No, I haven’t worked in years.  I still practice, that’s all.”

He says nothing for a moment.  His eyes are clouded with memories, yet he sees into her soul as well as ever.  

 “You’re sad,”  he empathises, stepping back,  “I’m intruding on your melancholy.”   He produces a silver case from beneath the folds of his coat.   “This is a business card,I’m afraid, but the number reaches me. Maybe we could meet up sometime?  Have a coffee together, ‘do lunch’?  If you don’t hate me too much, that is?”

His card is on her table and he is gone, leaving a last brief smile in his wake.  Perhaps he will get his coffee somewhere else, she thinks?  Hate him?  No, never that.  Her last sight of him, striding away down Praed Street oblivious to the rain, awakens emotions that have lain dormant for a long time.  

Memories.   

With a sigh of resignation she rises from her table, goes to pay her check.   

Six weeks after that meeting Paul Ferryman finds a message on his ‘phone.   ‘I Can’t keep pretending this hasn’t happened.  Are you in town Saturday?  I’ll be at the Arbor Cafe at eleven o’clock – you know, stay twenty minutes, that sort of thing?  If you can’t make it, don’t worry.’ Her voice is clipped and unemotional; so unlike the Eve he remembers.

He replies with a text, simply:  ‘OK.’

She is late, though not by as much as twenty minutes.   Wearing a simple green dress of a shade she always favoured in their long ago days together she sweeps towards the pavement table where he waits, and once again he wonders at an elegance that is timeless.  He worshipped her once, idolised her – an alabaster creature of unnassailable grace and beauty.  Life has taught him since, given him ample occasion to rue his mistakes.  He was so young.  They were both so young.

“Hi, it’s so good to see you.”  She greets him, before adding in an undertone as she sits, “I nearly didn’t come.”

“I’m glad you did,”  He says.  “I hesitated too.”    A waiter appears.   He orders coffee, a cake he remembers she used to like.  “What are we doing?”  He asks.

She makes a small, open-handed gesture.  “I don’t know.   Seeing you again was nice. I wanted to talk, I suppose.”

He grins,  “Reminisce?  There are things I prefer not to remember.”

“Then those are the things we’ll avoid!”  She decides.  “Do you live in Harliston?”

“Not quite.  My firm opened an office here and I moved back to Brickley just before Christmas.  You?”

“Yes.  Do you remember Alice?”

“Alice with the teeth?”

“Oh, that’s cruel!  She had them corrected, anyway.   I live in her street now…”

And they talk,  They speak of this and that, of who among their once-shared friends remain close, who is still near, who has travelled far.  Who has gone before them…

“You haven’t eaten your cake,”  He accuses her.

She is apologetic,  “I hope you aren’t offended.   They’re a little too sickly for me, these days,”  Then she says:  “Dad was only doing his best for me, Paul.”

“I thought we agreed not to go there,”  he admonishes her.  “You want to, though, don’t you?”

“That’s what this is about, isn’t it?  You were so angry, the last time we were together.   We didn’t have a break-up; not properly,  We couldn’t.”

“And you want closure.”

“I suppose I still want to know why. No goodbyes, no parting scene, you just left!   The next thing I heard, you weren’t in town anymore.”

“I was on the morning train.  I couldn’t stay near yet apart from you.  He banned me from seeing you, effectively.  He told me I wasn’t good enough; he’d set his sights high for you.”

“And you didn’t fight for me?”

“He had all the weapons, Eve.  You were too young – we both were.   I knew you couldn’t make an enemy of your father for me, just as I knew he would break us up if I stayed.  I had nothing to offer; no right to take you away from everything you had.” He adds reflectively,  “I wanted to though, I admit that.”

“We were children.”  Eve fixes her gaze on her lap, brushes absently at her skirt in a demure gesture he remembers.  “Those were such different times, weren’t they?   I think I would have gone anywhere with you that day, if you had asked, but I wasn’t strong enough on my own.  I couldn’t make myself choose.”  She sighs.  “So, what are you doing with yourself these days, Paul?  Are you still married?”  

“Yes.”

“Then I’ll return your question.  What are we doing here?”

“We’re talking.  We’re laying old ghosts.  Isn’t that all?”

“Is it?”  She says miserably.  “Why didn’t you just walk past me the other day?  Why did you leave that card?”

“Why did you dial my number?”  He counters; then, more gently:  “What do you want me to say?  How long is it?  Thirty years?  Do you want me to admit that not a day’s gone past when I haven’t thought of you, if you were happy, if you were well?

“But you married,  You got married very quickly.  I heard.  You’re still with her, I take it?”

He strives for a smile.   “Yes, in a manner of speaking, I suppose we are.  Perhaps that’s why I’m here.”

“You must love her?”

“I must, mustn’t I?”

“Tell me.”

“You’re right; I married very quickly, and for the wrong reasons.  I was angry, I suppose, with the hand society dealt me, something I was too  young to change.”

“Poor woman!”

“Ali?    I don’t think I’ve ever made her regret my mistakes.  But there,”  He hesitates as if he has a Rubicon to cross with his next words:  “When we parted thirty years ago, my energy died where love was concerned.  So were you to ask me if I love her…”

“That’s tragic!”

“No, I suppose I do love her,in my way,”  He retreats behind his coffee cup,  “Anyway, now it’s your turn, woman.  I heard not a breath about you.  Are you with someone?”

She too will find the props on the table helpful.  She can toy with them and does so – her cup, then the cake she refused that now seems so tempting.  “Maybe I will just have a bite of this?” She will not look at him as she speaks.    “I did marry.  I met someone in London in a show I was working on.  It didn’t last.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m not!  You have to stop apologizing for things, especially my inability to hold my marriage together!   He started cheating and I ran out of reasons to stay.   We divorced, in the end.”  She adds reflectively;  “Same diagnosis as you, I suppose – were we ever really close?   Anyway, that was a long time ago.  I’m promised to someone, so I’m not really free.  What a horrible word that is – ‘free’!  What does it mean?”

“In this case, I’d say it means there’s a ‘but’ in there somewhere?”

“Which is another horrible word; one I use too often.  Circumstances have changed, can I say that?   I’m not sure if I should keep my promise, Paul.  I’m not sure I can live up to it, you see.”

“Because?”

“Lots of reasons.”  Her eyes at last agree to meet with his, for she can no longer hide that same melancholy he detected in the coffee bar on Praed Street six weeks before.  “I’m not sure I’m capable of giving someone the depth of love they will need.   Perhaps I’m like you, my energy for love is dead?  You said that so well, you made me think…”

“Is he still around, your father?”

 “He died two years ago. We hadn’t spoken for some time before that.”  She reaches across the table so their fingers may touch, a gentle invitation he takes, and their hands join. 

“I’m sorry,”  She whispers;  “Sorry for all the hurt he caused you.  I wish we’d kept in touch somehow, or things had been different.  I just…”  She shrugs, smiles;  “…wish.”

He says, quietly, that he would join her in that wish, and  he asks, quietly, what she is doing with the rest of her day; has she plans?  When she replies in the negative, he asks if he could spend her day with her.  She says, gladly, that he may.

Come evening, as they wait for the taxi that will take him home he wants to know if she will join him tomorrow, or the day after that, and she bites her lip before she asks:   “Paul, will you tell your wife about today?”

He nods.  “I won’t hide it from her.  I don’t think it’ll surprise her  too much.  We’ve been huddled together on a raft of deception for a long time, now.  She’s been seeing someone I’m not meant to know about. It might even be a relief to her if I wasn’t quite so intensely loyal.  The climb to the moral high ground might be rather less steep.”

Three weeks pass:  three weeks of stolen encounters, some short, some longer, the precious minutes of which they count, and fill with new memories.  With each new tryste another bridge is crossed, another precious affinity revived until their harmony is such that although they both fear it, there is a conversation that can no longer be postponed.   

This Saturday, this epic meeting day, they greet each other familiarly with a kiss, and walk together beside the river which divides their town.   He knows it must be his obligation to speak.

“How long can we go on like this?”

She turns to face him.  “Do you want to stop?”  There is a plea in her eyes which speaks for her better than words.

“No.   No, I don’t!  Every time we part it feels like a little piece of me dies.  I feel closer and closer to repeating the mistake I made all those years ago.  Listen, Eve, I’m not the only one with a life to dismantle here.  If I asked you to come to me, to break with this guy I don’t know, go somewhere so we can both start afresh…If I asked you?”

Her face betrays her troubled heart.  For an age, it seems, although she must have turned her answer over in her mind again and again, she delays her reply:  “I would do it.  I would do anything you wanted me to do.  You know that.”  She puts her hands on his shoulders,  “But think, darling, please?  You have a marriage, someone who’s been there for you for a long time.  Think of her, too?”

“I have,”  He takes a deep breath.  “I told you I wouldn’t deceive Ali.  She’s (he chooses the word carefully) aware of you, and all you mean to me.  She’s been surprisingly understanding, really.”

“Meaning?”

“We’re still together, in much the same sense we’ve been for the last ten years.  We share the same house and greet each other when we meet.   But I don’t think she’ll be surprised if I vacate my half of it.”

Her eyes brim:  “Are you asking me?”

“To live with me, yes, that and more, if you want? I mean, will you – could you do that?”

“Of course!”  She draws him close and they kiss as passionately as teenagers, then crease with laughter as a boy no more than twelve years old scooters past offering advice.  “Please!  Get a room!”

Thereafter for a while they say nothing, wandering aimlessly, arm in arm, along the riverbank until they find a park bench where they can rest and watch the river.   “Goodness!  Where do we start?”  She says.

In a week or two Paul has found a little flat close to his work which they both agree upon, and they furnish it together.  Ali, Paul’s wife, has exhausted her fount of patient understanding, so he has moved into this new home, where Eve will join him on a day that she has set.  Much of their time is spent together now, fulfilling the demands of the missed and neglected years.  Both are as happy as their moral sense will allow.

No time at all, it seems, elapses before the morning when Eve moves in.  She will wait for him at a corner near their favourite bookshop at eleven am.  

“Leave room in the back of the car.  I’ll still have a bag or two, I expect,”  She advises him happily.

A little after ten o’clock on the appointed morning Paul is dancing with anticipation, his emotions turning somersaults more becoming a man half his age.  The knowledge that within the hour he will be embarking on a new life after so many unhappy years so excites him he finds the inaction of waiting intolerable.  The bags she mentioned would be heavy, would they not?  He supposes there might be extra things she needs, weighty items not accounted for, awkward burdens unsuitable for carrying through the streets.

As the minutes tick by Eve’s imagined burden grows greater, until his mind’s eye sees her struggling that half-mile to the bookshop under a Sisyphean load.   It does not occur to him that in such exigency she might simply get a taxi – no, he must help!  He tries to call her, only to find she has not switched on her ‘phone, so ignoring their arrangement he gets into his car and drives to her house.  After all, what can be wrong with picking her up outside her door?  He need not go into the house, if there is any chance the person she is leaving is there, and anyway, she has never made reference to them actually living together.  It has been, from the little she has divulged of her relationship, a stilted, rather distanced affair.

Ten-thirty sees him drawing up before her house.  There is little chance, he tells himself, she has already left, so all he need do is wait.  Minutes elapse:  five, ten….

The front door opens.  Paul climbs from his car, advances, ready to help.  The plangent whine of an electric motor reaches his ear.   

At first he thinks the doorway must be empty, that the door has just swung open, improperly latched. Then he looks down; he sees the ramp that covers the steps, the handles bolted to the walls.  He sees the pair of weary  eyes that are fixed on his midriff somewhere, the wheels of the chair, the fingers playing on the keyboard that make up the rudiments of a voice – a cold monotonous voice:

“Is it you?  Are you the reason she is going?  What is your name?”

In horror he retreats the few steps that will take him onto the street,  a guilt that has yet to find a name compelling him to glance right and left, as if he is afraid of being seen.   Eve, carrier bags in hand, is rounding the corner, not four houses down.  She stops when she sees him.  The voice, now behind him, repeats:  “What is your name?”

Eve raises the bags a little to support her explanation.  “A bit of shopping.  Some food for…”

“What is your name?”  An electronic accusation, not a question.

“Before the accident,”  She says helplessly,  “I could have coped.  I could have, before then.  Before  us.”

The street is suddenly so, so long.  She is very far away and the sky is darkening:  “It’s going to rain soon”, she says.

© 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.

Strings

Melissa: This story stands on its own, but readers might be interested in my first encounter with Melissa, which can be found in story-form here,

Melissa arches her back, stretching bare flesh against the quilting of her lounger, the better to observe a frisbee player on the beach.   “He’s quite the Greek, isn’t he?”

I grin at her,  “Periclean?”

“A ‘First Athenian’?  More of an Achilles, wouldn’t you say?”   She lowers her Ray-Bans for a closer inspection, “Fine physical specimen, valiant in battle, but none too bright.”  Her eyes follow the arc of the beach toy as it flies to the waiting hands of Achilles’ almost equally statuesque companion, a curvaceous auburn-haired beauty in one of those white bikinis best described as’ just legal’ and held together by lots of string,  “Run him past me again?”

“Kapadopoulos, George.   Aged thirty-two, from Thessaloniki, where he’s the CEO for most of the hotels – the big ones, anyway.”

“Really?”  Melissa sounds approving,  “Wealthy family?”

“Nope!  Beach bum.  He married the money, five years ago.   His wife is heiress to the Playton Beach fortune, he runs the hospitality arm of her Companies.  Does it quite well, actually.  Turnover up twelve percent year on year.”

“Didn’t she choose well?”  Melissa says, watching the lithe redhead at unself-conscious play;  “Rare to discover such perfect judgement in one so young.”

“Oh, she’s not that young:  forty-fifth birthday next week.”

Melissa growls at me,  “That girl is not forty-five!”

“No, she isn’t.  But that girl is not George’s wife.”

“You see?”   Melissa purrs.  I am watching a moment of charming intimacy between the pair on the beach, as they laugh and they kiss, but I am more aware of Melissa’s beaming smile;  “You see, my darling, why I’m so fond of you?  You’ve been doing your homework again, haven’t you?  I uncover my Achilles, you discover his heel!”  She sits up,  “Shall I give it a dry run?”

I shrug noncommittally, or so I hope.   “No harm in it.”

If ever there is pleasure to be gained from watching another human being, it must surely be from watching Melissa.   Each step in the soft sand is carefully  placed as she walks to the seashore, hips swaying not too much, ash-blonde hair flicking like thistledown in the breeze.  I am spellbound, as I never fail to be; but my attention is as nothing compared to the organ-stop eyes of Achilles.

It will be a while before she returns, time in which I will half-sleep in the sun, and reminisce upon  the day when my good friend Jorges first introduced me to Melissa; days of cold, winter car shares, of lingering debt.  How far have I come?  How far have we come, for I owe all this to Melissa.  And where is Jorges now, I reflect?  When did we last meet? 

Shortly my Melissa will return – she will have swum, she will have responded, laughing, to a child who splashes her, or a young male who risks a pass and is instantly rebuffed.  Only when she feels she has played the tamed warmth of the waves to her full advantage will she leave the water, skipping up the white sand, to me.

She slips onto the lounger beside mine with something between a sigh and a breath, finding the straw in the Pina Colada I ordered for her.    “He was watching?”

“Of course!”  I reassure her.   “His eyes were rooted on you all the way down to the water, and all the way back.  He dropped the Frisbee three times. Now he’s looking at me.”

“Is he sizing you up?”  She stretches, letting those besotted Kapadopalous eyes feast upon every inch of leg before she crosses her right foot over her left knee, making a pretence of examining a toenail.   “Oh, sweetie, he doesn’t think you present much of a problem!”

“I wonder what Jorges is doing these days?”  (Sorry, my  love, but I am curious).

“Jorges?”  Melissa sounds surprised.  “Why do you ask about Jorges?”

“I haven’t seen him in years.  Technically he still manages you, doesn’t he?”

Melissa gives me a long look,  “He gets his ten percent, darling.  And you, my sweet, you ask for nothing!  Now; business!  Our Achilles – is he hooked?”

“I should say so,”  I tell her,  “The girlfriend’s looking worried.”

Melissa purses those delicious lips and considers this for a minute.  “Who’s the girlfriend?”

I sigh.  “Ah!  As there are ointments, so there are flies.  She is, apparently, Lavinia Defries, Larry Defries’s most adored.  She seems to have slipped the marital bridle for a day or two.”

Sighing, Melissa sucks her straw deeply,  “Indeed she has.  When we say ‘lots of money’, darling, what do we mean?”

“Awash with the stuff.  In Larry Defries’s case, about four hundred million.  At one point, he was reputed to be the richest man in Argentina.”

“Was?  What happened?”

“He moved to Italy.”

So Jorges, Jorges who has no input, Jorges-the-never-seen, gets ten percent!  I profit hugely from my  relationship with Melissa, yet I cannot help that quiet inner voice – where is my ten percent? 

Melissa is asking:  “What do you think, can you flush Lavvy out?  Look at all those strings you’d have to untie, not to mention the dozen or so others Larry’s lawyers will find for you?”

I would not refuse her:    “If you want me to, I’ll try.”

“I don’t.  It’s too late in the season for a full-scale operation, and she’s a little bit above even your vaunted league, my darling.  We’ve done well this summer.   It’s time to go home, I think.”

Yes, you’ve rumbled us – you’ve broken our cover, exposed our racket, whatever.  We perform a very valuable service for the private client.   In return for a generous fee we guarantee their wives, husbands or voters won’t learn about that night of stolen bliss, that extremely awkward business deal or the little undeclared interest which is at the foundation of every worthwhile government contract.   

‘B********l?

Alright, you can call it that, but we prefer to think of it as insurance, and the wealthy vacationers on these tropical beaches have yielded no less than fourteen very gratifying premiums this summer.  With my developing talent for research and Melissa’s unerring nose for those harbouring a personal skeleton in their closet we have been very successful, and between us become extremely rich ourselves.  But in turning down this fifteenth potential client Melissa is wise; she warns against dealings that involve the very high rollers.  Their teeth, she insists, are too sharp.

We will be leaving on the morrow, so for once we spurn the beach bar’s more extravagant temptations and head back to our hotel.  There we relax in the Ocean Lounge and watch the more determined sun-worshippers drifting in from the beach.  George and Lavinia are amongst this gaggle, but we have already excluded them from our portfolio.   They are not of interest.

At about eight, I decide to go to our room, shower the sand from between my toes, and pack ready for tomorrow’s flight.   Melissa, not disposed to move as yet, dismisses me with an airy wave:  “I’ll be up soon, darling.  It’s deliciously cool now; I might walk a little.”

The corridor to our suite is on the fifth floor.  I am strolling along it when a door to my right is opened and an elegant hand grips my wrist firmly enough to pull me inside.

“Hi!” says Lavinia, who is still wearing half her white bikini,  “I wonder if you can help me?  These strings are tied so darned tight I can’t undo them.”

This must be my night for meeting astoundingly beautiful women, because the next woman I meet, about two hours later, is astoundingly beautiful.  It is Melissa, but unlike the a.b.w of my previous encounter, she is fully clothed,

“Two hours, sweetie;”  She says, in a mildly censorious tone,  “That’s something of a record, even for you.  I take it you decided to override my decision?”

“Think of it as a little bit of private enterprise,”  I reply, emboldened by recent triumph;  “In lieu of my ten per cent.”  I produce the mini recorder from my shirt’s concealed inner pocket:  “I taped the complete transaction.”

Melissa cocks an eyebrow,  “How felicitous of you.  Who do you envisage benefiting from your discretion?”

“I thought the young lady herself:  save her the expense of a marital tiff?”

“An inspired choice, sweetie.” She turns away, so I assume the issue is closed.  She never sets any great store by my fealty to her, after all.  Business comes first.  “You’d better pack,”  She says.  “Be careful in the bathroom.”

I find this remark curious, although I do not question it then.  Five minutes later, when I do visit the bathroom, I discover the explanation for myself.  Stretched out lifeless on the floor with his neck twisted to an unnatural angle, George Kapadopoulos is not looking his best.

“My lord, Mel, what happened?   What’s he doing here?  I take it he’s dead – he certainly looks it.”

“Very dead, darling.  Such a silly boy; he tried to seduce me.  It was quite flattering and I was tempted, knowing you were humping Lavvy so inelegantly just up the corridor, but something had troubled me, and I did a little research:  your speciality, I know, but for once you missed something…”

I frown at her,  “Where are we going with this?  Melissa, we have a dead body in our bathroom!”

“We are going towards sweet little Lavinia, who I suspect has gone one better and filmed your entire ‘transaction’, because she, whose septuagenarian husband is divorcing her on the lea side of a prenup, needs money.  All that play on the beach this afternoon when we thought we were doing the assessing, our intendeds were watching us.  They have been for most of the season, apparently.  Lavinia was teaming up with Gorgeous George to offer us some ‘protection’.  Unless we pay her a certain amount which she doesn’t seem to have nominated yet, she and George will bust us on social media and back it up with a couple of criminal charges from the local fuzz, who are extremely amenable, I understand.  When George imparted their plans to me I was naturally upset.”

“So you killed him!”

“What else could I do?  Any other course of action would have resulted in considerable financial loss.”

“Well, if ever we were going to be busted, we’re busted now!   I mean, if we got lucky and managed to smuggle George out of our bathroom, what about Lavvy?  She’s very much alive and kicking, I can assure you of that, and she’s not going to be pleased!”

Melissa touches my arm, reminding me, if I needed to be reminded, of the peculiarly hypnotic effect she exerts upon me,  “It’s all being taken care of.”  She says reassuringly,  “But for both our sakes,  I think you should take your bags and check us out of this hotel now.  Do that for me, will you, sweetie?”

“What about you?   How will you manage?”

“Don’t worry, just go. I’m culpable here, darling, not you.  You needn’t be involved, as long as we keep our distance from each other for a while.   At the airport tomorrow, check in on your own.  We’ll travel separately.  Come to the Bayswater flat when you get to London.  That’ll be our rendezvous.”

Melissa is intent upon taking the blame, and who am I to argue?  In matters such as these (though none so grave before) she holds all the cards.  She is cool, level-headed and intuitively brilliant.  So leaving her, however reluctantly, I trot down to settle our account at the desk and declare our intention to check out.   And there, in the hotel foyer, like a beacon from the past, is Jorges!   I spot him as he is walking through the inner lobby towards the stairs.  I call out to him;  “Speak of the devil! Jorges!”    

My one-time car share turns to acknowledge me but doesn’t.  Instead, he silences me with a quick warning finger to his lips, then begins his ascent to the next floor.   I understand instantly.  This is a very serious matter.  Jorges is going to help Melissa to clear things up.  Jorges is earning his ten per cent!   

A lonely night spent at the airport, alternating between a bar and a hard plastic seat, allows me plenty of time for reflection.  I am grateful to Melissa for protecting me but the evening’s events do beg certain questions: did she call Jorges to help her dispose of the body or was Jorges already there?  George’s neck had been cleanly snapped and such things take great strength.  In her place, I could not have done it, whereas Jorges, who is heavily built, probably could.    Come to think of it, he had to have been nearby, obviously:  England is eight hours away.  Has he been lurking here all season; unseen but ready, should an emergency occur?  If so, what does that say about my role?

 I do not see Melissa again that night, nor is she at the airport when I check in.  The plane is crowded, making movement without drawing attention to myself quite difficult, nonetheless I check throughout the passenger accommodation at one time or another, exhaustively enough to be sure Melissa is not on board.  Now I am like an anxious swain, beside myself with worry and insecurity: has she taken a later flight, or run into trouble?  Have I left her to fate, failed her?  Has she, for that matter, left me?  Oh, why did I mention Jorges’ name, back there on the beach – and why, oh, why did I make that remark about ten percent?

So anxious do I feel for my dearest Melissa, having landed in London, that  I find it hard to maintain my composure through customs, and even harder as I take my turn for a taxi from the rank.  My decision to head straight for the Bayswater flat is a distinctly uncool one, but in my distraught state of mind it makes sense, to me, to await her return in the comfort of one of our private spaces.

I like our apartment in Bayswater, it is furnished in the style of Louis Quinze, with exquisite oriental hangings that testify to Melissa’s impeccable taste.  When I relax there I have to pinch myself to remember that the over-mortgaged house Melissa once helped me to burn down was worth less than the furnishings and textiles in its salon alone.

My taxi delivers me to the door.  My key card buzzes me through.  Our apartment is on the ground floor so it is only a short step across the hall.  I enter, hang my coat on the stand and walk the short passage which has bedrooms (four) on either side and the salon at the end.  I step into the salon…

At first I try to persuade myself I have fainted:  this is a dream – it must be a dream.   To discover that Melissa is here before me is surprising enough, but it is as nothing – nothing – to the sight of the companion who sits beside her, holding her hand!

George Kapadopoulos is holding her hand.

“You’re dead!”  I tell him, foolishly when I can find my voice.  He must already know.  He doesn’t look dead.  He does look very pale, and quite – well – friendly, I suppose.  His face is fixed in a smile of greeting.

Melissa positively beams.  “Darling, did you have a good flight?  You two haven’t been introduced yet, have you?   This is George.”

George rises, albeit slowly, to his feet.   His eyes are glassy, and he does not speak, but he does extend his hand.  I take it.  It is cold, very cold.

“You must forgive him,”  Melissa says;  “He hasn’t really recovered yet.  He’ll be right as rain in a day or two.”

“Hello George,”  my tongue is very definitely on autopilot,  “How’s your neck?”

George looks as if he might be about to fall down, so I step in to restore him to his seat.  The look I give Melissa as I do so can leave no room for doubt.   “Ask away, Sweetie,”  She says.

“Well, first of all, how did you get here before me, and a very close second, how come he isn’t as dead as he was the last time I saw him?  Oh, and a supplementary, what has Jorges got to do with it, and why isn’t he here now?”

She smiles benignly, instilling the seeds of renewed confidence in me.   George is still smiling, which disturbs me slightly:  is his head sitting a little crookedly?  “We’ll start with Jorges,”  Melissa says,  “Because that’s a simple answer.  I’ve got him safely pinned down in Hampstead.   He’s quite comfortable there.”  She takes a sip of the red wine she always has near her when we are in this apartment;  “Now I have to tell you a little story.  Get yourself a drinkie, darling you may need it.

“I am not as I appear.  Does that sound too dramatic?”

“A bit,” I concede, pouring a whisky.  “Explain?”

“I come from a very old family.”

“Ah!  I thought there was a little Slav in your blood. Those adorable gypsy eyes of yours – Esmeralda eyes.”

“Close,”  Melissa says.  “My family was not always appreciated as it should have been.  We were nobility; we were owed respect.   Instead, we were driven from our homeland, condemned to wander the world as exiles.  This makes us very cautious.”

I have stopped pouring.  Melissa has barely mentioned her family before, apart from once alluding to her mother “This family…”

 “Certain of our practices attracted criticism,” she allows herself a whimsical smile,  “And we were a touch on the primitive side at times, it’s true.  But we changed.  Yes, we changed.”

I am settling on a chaise, drink in hand and starting to think the unthinkable.  “What changed?”

“Certain appetites,”  She purses her lovely lips, “ that made us easy to trace, easy to hunt down.  It has been a tortuous road.  Even my Grandmother, the twelfth Countess, found sunlight quite injurious for a while.”

“And now?”  I say, heavily.

“Oh, she finds it easier to live below ground.  I am three hundred years younger than her and I don’t suffer from the sun at all; nor does Jorges.  Science is a wonderful thing.”

“Jorges is…?”

“Oh yes!  Really, darling, what did you think I meant when I said he gets ‘ten percent’?” And you see, we are all quite warm-blooded now.  It isn’t difficult to appear normal when you can manage to eat a little food now and then, or take a drink or two.”

I am trying to remember the last time I saw Melissa with food, “You’re still not completely…”

“Completely mortal?  Bless you no. Each of our clients this season was persuaded to donate – I still need my little ‘fix’ now and then.”  She pats George on the arm.  His head turns slowly in her direction;  “Jorges and I had quite a feast last night!”

“Yet you still beat me home?”

“Private transport, shall we call it?  Not used often, and not without risk;   The Marchioness was almost shot down once by a French hunter just outside Le Touquet, .but yesterday was an exception.     Now, about you…”

“What about me?   Did you take your percentage out of me?  I don’t remember any biting.”

“You always compliment me on the passionate depth of my kisses.  You even say they make your mouth sore, at times.  Either the tongue or the back of the upper lip is favoured.”

“I haven’t bled, Melissa!”

“We’re like mosquitos, sweetie.  We seal the wound.  Now, after your debacle with George and his pretty mistress, I’ve decided it’s time you went out on your own.”

The true horror of what is happening overcomes me.  “Stop!  Stop, please, my darling!  I made one mistake – just one!   Don’t push me away!  I love you!”

“Oh, now who’s being dramatic?  Love?  It’s hypnotic suggestion and it passes in no more than a day. But no, I’m not dispensing with you, because you’re very good.   On the contrary, the family is always growing, so we’re opening up the Heidelberg apartment for your use.  I have shared our blood with you for years now, and in the next few days you will discover how to extract your own ten percent.  You will enjoy it!” 

Melissa squeezes George’s hand,  “Meanwhile George, who  as we discovered yesterday is also very, very  good, is my new recruit.  He shall learn from me,  and you will teach a new companion your wizardry.   You must meet her.”

Melissa makes no move or any detectable kind of summons, yet there is a vibration, and I feel it, too.   In response to it the salon door opens, admitting a graceful figure in a dress of bridal white who crosses the floor and melts onto the chaise longue beside me.

“Hi again!”  Lavinia says softly:  “No strings this time, huh?”

© 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.

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