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Clandestine Affairs, Part One
[Short Story; Fiction]
The piercing, shrill ring of the phone cuts through the pitch black silence of my hotel room, pulling me out of a deep slumber. It echos two more times as I stare at the alarm clock on the bedside table. It’s too early for this.
I rub my eyes and grapple with the receiver. “Hello?” I answer while I try to get rid of the crust that had collected overnight in the corners of my eyes.
A chipper voice on the other end greets me. “Good morning Ms. Pierce, this is your wakeup call. Shall we send your coffee up now?”
I don’t remember scheduling a wakeup call, let alone coffee, but decide to just roll with it. “Yes, that would be great. Thank you.”
“Of course, Ms. Pierce, and if you need anything else we are just a phone call away.”
I sit up in bed and contemplate opening the curtains, but ultimately decide I’m not ready for that. My internal clock is telling me it’s one o’clock in the morning, but my bedside clock reads six-fifteen. I pick up my iPhone and let the soft glow of the screen lull me awake. I scroll through headlines and images and stories and tweets until a soft tap on the door interrupts.
A voice calls through the door. “Room service, Ms. Pierce, shall I leave it at the door?”
I wrap myself in the provided soft terrycloth robe and open the door, inviting the man to wheel in the cart that contains fresh coffee, small pastries, and a bowl of fruit. The cherry danish calls to me.
“Thank you,” I say as I hand him some cash I collect from the dresser.
He grins and tells me I can call if I need anything else.
I open the newspaper situated on the corner of the cart while I pop a berry in my mouth. I turn the page and a small piece of paper falls to the floor.
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Exactly three hours later, I am sitting in Claridge’s Bar, with a flat white and the Crushed Avocado on the way. My eyes are still puffy, so I keep them hidden behind my Prada sunglasses. No one seems to notice or mind.
I intentionally choose a seat that allows me to see the entrance, so I’m not caught off guard. Wishing I could have just ordered room service, I study my surroundings. One bartender, prepping his supplies for the day. One couple, seated at the corner of the bar, sipping coffee and whispering what I can only guess are sweet nothings to one another. Concierge passing by the entrance, directing those coming and going. It’s quiet, at this early hour, and I wonder what I’m getting myself into.
A server delivers my meal and as I break the yolk to let it spill across the avocado mash, the man I am waiting for walks through the door. I nearly drop my knife but try to desperately play it cool and not look at him or in his direction.
He nods to the bartender as he approaches my table. “Espresso?” I hear him ask.
I slowly take a bite, in an attempt to act normal. Nothing to see here… nothing to see here… Thank goodness for these sunnies, I think. He takes a seat at the table next to mine, facing my direction, his back to the entrance and bar.
“Keep eating,” he whispers, as I smile and nod as I would to any neighboring table. He takes an envelope out of his breast pocket and places it on the table, tapping it twice with his left index finger. The bartender brings him the espresso. He quickly sips the roast, pulls out his wallet and leaves more than enough cash on the table to cover his bill. He sits back, looks at his phone for a moment, then gets up to leave. He tips his hat in my direction, tells the bartender to keep the change, and leaves.
I barely enjoyed three bites before he was gone.
Before the bartender comes to clear his demitasse, I quickly take the envelope and have another bite. No name — just a plain, cream-colored envelope that can’t contain more than a sheet of paper, or two. I debate on opening it immediately, or taking it back to my room for some privacy. Who knows what’s in it, or how I’ll react, so I opt to take the latter path, sliding it in my purse to deal with after I finish my egg.
Thirty minutes later, the coordinates I received in the envelope lead me to Queen Mary’s Rose Garden, entering through the Chester Road Gate and pausing by the map. I glance down at my phone and realize I’m at the meeting location, so I turn my body toward the map and scan my surroundings from behind the dark lenses of my sunglasses. A woman is approaching from the same entrance and as she reaches the map, she stands next to me.
“Lovely morning, innit?”
I nod and wait. She sets her briefcase down and digs into her purse, pulling out her phone to snap a photo of the map. She walks away, leaving the case. As she disappears through the gate I notice I am alone, so I take the case and walk through the garden toward the Japanese Garden Island to make my way to Baker Street.
Before I know it, I’m back to my room, safe and sound. I let out a sigh of relief as I set the case on the bench in the entry of my suite and open it.
An iPad. I unlock the screen and a video pops up, inviting me to press play. A shadowy figure sits in front of the camera, illuminated from behind by a bright light. I can’t make out any of his features. He begins to speak.
“Hello Ani. I wish we could have met under different circumstances. You need not worry who I am, just know I have our best interest in mind. In the case, you’ll find another envelope situated in the back pocket. Please open it now and find the instructions for the next step. Happy hunting, my dear.”
The video fades to black and I peel back the brass clasps of the envelope to find the details for my next move. This feels like an eternal scavenger hunt — at this point, I don’t know if I’m into this life and wish I could back out… but I fear it’s too late.
I secure the brunette bob wig in place and smear a burgundy stain across my lips. I take one last look in the mirror to inspect my outfit — designer threads head to toe, to keep up a certain appearance, so I don’t look out of place when I arrive at the bank. I take my black satchel and I’m on my way, unable to quell the butterflies erupting in my belly. I’m so close, I tell myself, as I exit the hotel.
It’s uneventful getting to the safety deposit box being held behind two locked gates, and when I set my satchel on the large mahogany block situated in the middle of the room, I notice the camera in the corner of the room. I avoid looking at it directly but know my sunglasses keep my gaze secret and I scope out the rest of my surroundings as I wait for the manager to bring me the box I’ll be unlocking momentarily.
I look at my watch, tap my fingertips on the wood, and try to appear impatient, as if the manager is holding me up from my next appointment. I take out my compact mirror and pretend to touch up my lipstick but I’m really reviewing what’s situated behind me — another locked door. I act surprised when the manager enters the room with the box, quickly securing my mirror and lipstick in my satchel and clasping my hands together while she situates everything in front of me.
“Have your key, miss?”
“Of course,” I say, showing it to her.
“Shall we, then, here we go,” she says, sliding hers into the left lock as I slide mine into the right. She turns hers and waits for me to turn mine. Once it clicks, she takes a step back. “Take your time, miss, I’ll be just outside the door.”
I thank her and wait for her to leave the room before I open the lid of the box. Inside, I find a small black box alongside yet another envelope.
I open the lid of the box to find an ear piece. I stare at it for a few moments before opening the envelope. The contents of the envelope surprise me. There are two items. A polaroid photo with a name scrawled across the bottom (Jack Burns) and a small glass vial with a powder.
I secure the earpiece in place and press the button. Greeted by a millisecond of shrill feedback, I almost lose my footing and grasp the table in an attempt to stay calm because I know I’m on camera. I take the photo and place it back in the envelope. As I contemplate my next move, my thoughts are interrupted by the same voice from the video.
“Hello Ani. Do not say anything, do not react. If you understand and agree, take the envelope and place it in your purse now.”
“Ani, I need your acknowledgement. Place the envelope in your purse.”
Ultimately, I do what I’m told. That’s why I’m here.
“Good, good. Now, Ani, I want you to close the box and let the manager know you’re finished. I’ll wait.”
I do what I’m told. I open the door and the manager smiles. “All done, miss?”
“Yes, thank you.” I insert my key to lock the box and she takes it from me to secure it in the wall, locking it once it is in place. I thank her again and she leads me to the lobby.
“Is there anything else we can help you with today, miss?”
I hesitate, giving the man on the other end of the earpiece to lead me.
“Tell her no and thank her again, Ani, and exit the building.”
I do what I’m told.
Once I am outside, the man instructs me to walk back to my hotel. As I round the corner near the hotel, the voice comes back.
“Okay Ani, you’re not going into the hotel. I trust you have everything you need with you. You can acknowledge now by saying simply yes or no.”
I do what I’m told. “Yes.”
“Good. You’ll find the mark sitting at the cafe approximately two blocks north of where you stand now. You will sit at the table next to his and order a latte. Read the book you brought and await further instruction.”
I do what I’m told and locate the cafe, take a seat next to the man from the photo, and order a latte. As I wait for the coffee, I open my book and settle in. The latte arrives, I take a sip, and that’s when Jack speaks to me.
“Interesting read you got there, lass,” he says. His eyes sparkle.
The voice from the earpiece emerges again. “Engage in small talk and get close enough to execute your order. I will speak to you again when you walk away.”
I realize he is watching me — watching us — and I know I have to follow through. I do what I’m told and engage. I flash a smile and I know he’s hooked. He invites me to join his table within minutes and I slide over. I tell him I’m visiting an aunt and enjoying the sights. He asks me what I’m doing later and I tell him I can be talked into something interesting, if he has any ideas. Finally, he offers to buy me another coffee, and I say coyly, “only if you’re having another.”
Jack excuses himself to order and hit the restroom, and I await the server anxiously knowing this is the moment. The coffees arrive and he is no where in sight. I take the opportunity and dump the vial into his drink and give it a gentle swirl. I’m adding a sugar cube to mine as he returns. “What did I miss?”
I tell him it was rather boring without him, giving him a little bump of confidence, to keep him engaged. He takes a drink and the voice in my ear comes back.
“Once he has two more sips, you’re going to invite him to come back to your hotel room. Do whatever it takes to get him to join you and do it quickly. You have approximately thirty minutes before it renders him useless.”
I take another sip and lean across the table. “Do you… do you want to get out of here?” I ask in a quiet, sultry tone. I turn up the heat and lean a little closer, grazing his leg with my foot beneath the table.
His eyebrows raise and he smiles. “Absolutely, lass, where would you like to go?”
“I’m staying just around the corner.”
“I’m definitely good with that,” he says as he places five pounds on the table. “Let’s roll.”
And we’re off.
Thirty minutes was not a joke. Jack is lying in my bed, his shirt on the floor, completely useless. My lipstick is smeared and my wig nearly came off. Time to invest in a more secure disguise, I suppose.
The voice comes back in my ear, startling me. “Now, Ani, you can respond this time. Is everything going according to plan?”
I nearly forgot I was wearing the earpiece still. I hope they didn’t hear the lead up to this moment, but I’m sure they did. I have to bury the embarrassment deep down because… I’m just doing my job. This my job, I remind myself.
“Ani, please acknowledge.”
“Yes, we’re on track.”
“Good. Now, take any of his belongings and put them in your bag. In twenty minutes, your phone will ring, and you will be on your way. We’ll take it from here. You can put the earpiece in your purse and await further instructions.”
I sit for a few moments, letting my thoughts run wild. I fix my lipstick and wig, change my clothes, and get my things ready for departure.
Twenty minutes later, the phone rings.
“Hello Ms. Pierce, your car has arrived. Your flight leaves in two hours. Everything you need is already in the car, so please take your purse and anything important,” she says with emphasis, and I know what it means. “Please make your way to the lobby within five minutes. We will handle the rest, thank you for your service.” She hangs up before I can say anything and I simply do what I’m told.
I slide into the black car waiting for me outside the lobby and am surprised to find a man sitting in the backseat. When he speaks, I realize it’s the same man from the video and the earpiece.
“Hello Ani. It’s nice to finally meet you in person.”
“You too,” I say with slight hesitation. “And you are…?” I ask, eager to find out who has been leading me on this hunt.
“Charles.” He pulls an envelope out of his breast pocket. “This is for you, for your services today. Your next assignment is also inside. Should you accept, you will simply call me when you land at your next destination.” He hands me the envelope and a plane ticket. “The arrangements have been made, you just need to show up in Barcelona and we’ll handle the rest. I trust you understand?”
I nod, taking the envelope and ticket. I sit back and gaze out the window as we drive toward Heathrow. Is this really my life now?
No one ever saw Jack Burns again. I still wonder why he was the mark, but I know better than to ask questions.
I just do what I’m told.
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