Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Love and betrayal

Arthur had been sitting in his car for what seemed like an eternity. His beat up silver Ford Taurus idled, burning gas and releasing toxins into the air in the otherwise beautiful suburban neighborhood. Birds chirped and the sun was overhead in its full glory. Aside from his junked up car on Sycamore Street, the scene was something you might see in a painting. Or an Ansel Adams photo.

Arthur’s decision to sit there, or rather his indecision causing him to sit there, was beginning to weigh on him just as much as the original reason he had come to this house he had been to a thousand times before. Usually, though, he just pulled up, jumped out, skipped up the stone steps and rang the bell. Usually he had no reason for trepidation. Today was different, though.

What Arthur had just learned less than an hour ago changed everything. So much, in fact, that it seemed like he learned it a lifetime ago. And now everything that had made sense to him while he was eating breakfast this morning seemed like a lie. When you find something you had complete faith in isn’t the truth, it makes you wonder if anything you “know” is real or if it’s all an elaborate scheme designed by a cruel God to simply mess with your head.

So Arthur sat. And he thought. And he smoked. And he talked to himself out loud, preparing for a conversation he was none-too-excited about having. He prepared for conversations like chess masters prepared for matches. He was writing a “choose your own adventure” book out loud, imagining all the responses his accusations may have and how to properly reply to those responses. Thinking. Smoking. Talking to himself. Trying to work up the nerve to get out of the car, walk up those stupid steps and ring that God damned bell for what may be the last time.

He thought to himself how odd this must look to the neighbors passing by. His car being there wasn't odd in and of itself, even if it didn't fit in with the Lexuses and BMWs. The oddity was in the fact that he was sitting in it. And talking to himself. He chuckled at this thought before moving on to the next: He was kind of surprised no one had approached him. Or even called the police. He must look like a lunatic.

One more cigarette and then he was going in. One more song and then he was getting out of the car and walking up those steps. He had to do it. He couldn't wait any longer. There was no point in delaying the inevitable.

Arthur took a deep breath, reached outside the car window to open the door from the outside — the only way it opened — stood up straight and slammed the door shut — the only way it closed. He took purposeful steps around the front of the car, past the nicely manicured shrubbery lining the sidewalk, and up the steps. Another deep breath. A stick of gum. And he rang the bell.

As he waited for the inevitable confrontation that came with every one of these visits to commence, he noticed the neighbor’s 19-year-old daughter out for her morning jog. He tried not to make eye contact with her, but he always failed miserably. She smiles warmly enough, but he knew she was just being nice. She was, after all, half his age. He smiled back and then turned towards the door again. Just as he reached for the doorbell a second time, he heard the click of the lock and watched the doorknob as it turned.

The door flung open and Arthur was face to face with Renita, yet again. Each time he saw her, he understands why he was initially attracted to her. Unfortunately it took him ten torturous years of a failed marriage to learn that a great rack and a round ass do not make a solid relationship. Plus she just sounded like a bitch. That wasn't something he just noticed now; it is something he always thought.

“Jesus Christ, Arthur! You smell like a fucking cigarette factory!”

“Nice to see you too, Nita.”

“You’re late again.”

“Don’t want to break my perfect record.”

Arthur stepped back as Renita exhaled her customary sigh at his smart-ass remarks. He still hadn't found a way to tell her that she had garlic breath in the morning. Of all of the things she could do with her mouth, brushing her teeth was not one of them. At least not on a regular basis.

Renita was just about to turn and yell back to the kitchen when Arthur reached out and touched her shoulder. She stopped instantly because Arthur hadn't touched her in years. It wasn't that he didn't want to, it was just that he didn't.

She whipped her head around to scream at him for touching her for the first time in years, but her expression melted from pure anger to deep concern as soon as she looked into his eyes. Arthur was not a crier. He rarely showed any emotion at all. So that is why the small pools of what could only be tears welling up at the base of each of his eyes made her stop.

For a few brief but uncomfortable seconds, she stared at his face looking for an explanation and he kept looking past her with an emotional gaze that was foreign to her. She wanted to say something completely inappropriate and unnecessary, but she just couldn't. For the first time in a very long time, Renita actually gave a shit about Arthur’s feelings. She just had to find out what was going on.

“Nita, I need to talk to you before I talk to the kids. This is something that is really important.”

She just kind of nodded without changing the look on her face and then slowly walked out to the porch and closed the door behind her. Arthur half-expected Renita’s husband Frank to throw open the door and say something stupid, but Frank was in Italy on business. At least, that is what he told Renita. Sometimes she had a heart, but that did not stop her from sounding like such a bitch.

“What’s the matter Arthur?”

Arthur sat down on the patio couch and motioned for Renita to sit next to him. It was obvious that he was entering uncomfortable territory, mostly because he wanted Renita to sit next to him. After she slowly sat down, Arthur looked at the floor, took a deep breath and then started to cry.

"Talk to me, Arthur, please," Renita said hurriedly. Concern wrinkled her brow and she absently rubbed his shoulder. Arthur stared over her head through the window to the living room. A wracked sigh rattled his body.

"Well, I was out with my friend, Ford, and he gave me this towel because of a new bypass..."

"You're such an asshole!" She slapped his arm and crossed her hands in her lap as all empathy left her.

"Come on, Nita. You know I deal with stress with humor," Arthur replied half-hardheartedly.

"Yeah, that's what I used to love about you. You and your stories. And they got old after awhile, especially when I couldn't tell the difference between stories and the truth. And frankly, I think you lost that ability, too. So lost in your own little world."

Arthur focused on a photo on the wall inside the house. Inexplicably, it was a photo of the family on it. Not of Renita and her new family, but of their family. Back when they were happy. It was a vacation they had taken to North Pole, NY to visit Santa Claus. Arthur had flagged down another young family to take a quick snapshot. It seemed odd to be taking a picture in front of the North Pole wearing shorts and sunglasses, but it was a happy time. Arthur's smile was genuine, with his arm draped around his older daughter's shoulders. Renita was holding hands with their younger daughter who seemed eager to run off an pet the reindeer. Renita had just a hint of baby bump, from the child Who Would Never Be.

Why did Renita have that picture displayed in a house where she lived with Frank, a successful world traveler with no resume other than having family money? Was it for the girls, or to remember the days when she was truly happy? At any rate, those were the last happy days in their family. Did it all fall apart because of the loss of the baby, or was Arthur's growing morose about life in general and fits of daydreaming the cause of their drifting apart?

A loud thump and girls giggling from inside the house broke his reverie. He turned his gaze back to Renita, who was quickly losing patience with him. That look of exasperation would soon be followed by a voice two octaves higher than normal conversational tones. And then Arthur would do the same thing every time the situation arose: avoid confrontation and bolt. Really, what was the use of arguing when you were never going to win? He took another deep breath and tried to begin again.

"Renita, I have a serious problem. I'm going to need your help. I have no idea what to do."

"Do about what?" she asked, again recognizing the pain in his face as something real. Her hand went back to his shoulder absentmindedly. Arthur could feel the warmth of her hand radiate through his skin and through his body. Despite the last couple years, he would always love her in a way that couldn't be put into mere words. It gave him courage to know that somewhere, deep inside, she still had some feelings for him. She was the mother of his children and would always be a part of his life.

“Well, Nita,” he began. “You know I've been online dating … ”

“Jesus Christ, Arthur,” Renita jumped in. “Are you seriously sitting here on my porch crying over some stupid bitch?”

Arthur breathed. He expected that retort. He knew he was going to have to lose a few pawns before getting to any of the important chess pieces in today’s conversation.

“So,” he continued. “A while ago I met this girl online. Nice girl. Pretty. Our age. Lives here in the city. Divorced. Has two kids. Steady job. Can form full sentences. You know, every guys dream.”

“Okay …” Renita’s patience had grown very thin and Arthur had to think his moves very carefully.

“So we've been chatting,” he said. “And you know on my dating profile I don’t use my real name or photo. I don’t want some psycho stalker chick to find me and force me into a threesome or something.”

Renita stood and headed for the door.

“Wait,” Arthur said. “Really. I swear to God, this is important. To me. To you. To the kids.”

Against her better judgement Arthur’s former wife sat back down on the porch couch.

“So we've been chatting …”

“Get to it, Art,” Renita said forcefully.

He swallowed hard and reached for a cigarette then remembered that he wasn't welcome to smoke at “her house.” He hated when she called it that. It used to be “their house.” But those were different days a million years ago.

“Nita, I like this girl. A lot. In fact, I’m afraid I might be in love,” Arthur blurted out.

Renita, contain her exasperation, asked, “So why is this a problem? I've been trying to get you to find someone for years. The kids and I want you to be happy. And really, Frank would feel so much more at ease if you had a woman in your life that wasn't me.”

“Well, there’s a problem,” Arthur jumped back in. “See, I’m not the only person online that uses a fake name and photo. And this girl also used a fake name and photo.”

“So, what? She’s ugly?” Renita asked in that same bitchy tone Arthur so despised.

“No,” Art began again, feeling his pawns fall one by one but knowing still that he had this chess match in hand. Again, he expected Renita’s response. “No, she’s gorgeous. In fact, she looks a lot like you.”

Arthur paused, hoping Renita would take the compliment. Or blush. Or smile. Or do anything other than what she was doing, which was glaring at him with that tone of voice that made him want to bolt.

“Anyway,” he said, “We finally had a chance to meet for coffee this morning. Our first meeting. And I get to the coffee shop and your sister was there. And she was the only one there. And I thought, ‘well this is awkward’ but decided to kill time waiting for ‘Jessica’ by talking to your sister.”

“Yeah, that does sound awkward, but it hardly explains the crying,” Renita snipped.

“So you sister tells me she’s waiting for someone. Someone she met online,” Arthur said, his voice trailing as if it was afraid to come out.

Renita’s words were nearly unintelligible. “Oh. My. Are. You. Wait. You can’t be. Screw this. Screw you. You cannot date my sister. There’s no way in hell.”

“But,” Arthur butted in.

“No buts,” Art. “This is not even something you should have considered. I can’t believe you came to my house to even. I can’t. Oh, you've got some nerve, mister.”

“I told you, Nita, I think I love her,” he said.

“No,” Renita said — in her bitch voice.

“I’m not asking permission, Nita. This isn't something I planned for. But … I don’t know.” Arthur’s voice trailed again. He wasn't sure if he had any pieces left on the chessboard, but he felt he had won nonetheless.

Renita sat back down on the patio couch and grabbed Arthur’s hand. He jumped a little because he was definitely not expecting it. He looked up and he could see that Renita had a very serious look on her face. He knew he had no more moves left, but he also knew what her next move was going to be.

“Arthur, Sara is not part of this. She knows nothing of the Bureau and she knows nothing of our mission. We are already damn lucky that the Chief let us walk away from our assignment without any repercussions. If you start bringing in people who have no idea…”

“I know! I know! What about Frank! He doesn't seem to have any kind of real job, yet he is never around. He’s not Bureau. So what gives?”

“None of your business, Arthur. And you know it! You cannot bring Sara into this. You could get my sister killed and I won’t let that happen.”

Arthur knew Renita was right. Renita was let off the mission, but Arthur was still left trying to pick up the pieces and close the case. It was part of the agreement that allowed the two of them to escape a real relationship that developed over a long-term assignment. It happens from time to time, and it always ends the same way.

“Arthur. What is going on with Petra?”

“I’m not sure.”

“What the fuck do you mean, you are not sure? You’re only job is to catch him in the act and then turn him over to the Bureau!”

“I think he skipped town. I lost him last week and I have not been able to find him since.”

“Arthur, why are you such a screw up? You used to be one of the best agents we had. You could find anyone and then help create an air-tight case that would put the bad guy away for a long time. You can’t even keep up with the world’s most dangerous diamond smuggler anymore? Arthur, he’s the one who has been financing a big chunk of these terrorist cells in the United States.”

Arthur always hated it when Renita would bitch at him about how he did his job. He didn't have the heart to tell her that he lost track of Petra right around the same time that he started talking to Sara. He wondered if it was not a coincidence, but he had no proof. Then there was the very real problem of him being in love with Sara.

Sara was always around, but Arthur never paid much attention to her. His job was to form a partnership with Renita, which obviously went very well at first. Sara was just the little sister who was always there. It wasn't until he saw her in that coffee shop that he actually started talking to her and realized how funny and interesting she really is. She didn't have that bitchy voice either, which was a bonus.

“Arthur, you need to forget Sara and get back to finding Petra before someone else dies.”

Someone else. That hurt. Renita always blamed the Portland incident on Arthur, even though it wasn't his fault.

“Uh huh. Look, Renita. I cannot help but think that Sara has a connection to this.”

“Bullshit Arthur! That would mean our cover is blown and everyone is in deep shit. You, me, the kids ... everyone! You break it off with Sara and you get back to your damn job!”

"Renita, I'm serious. She seems to know things that she has no right to even speculate, much less know in detail." Arthur paused a moment. "She knows about Project Doppelganger."

"What? Are you fucking serious? What did you tell her? It had to be you. She's not that smart. For God's sake she doesn't just play the dumb blonde, she wears it like a badge."

"All I'm saying is that she knows that Saddam was whisked out of Iraq just before the hanging and replaced with a body double. She knows the U.S. did it. And she thinks he's hiding somewhere in Canada."

"Wow. That's a little too close for comfort." Renita sat up a little straighter, suddenly filled with worry for her little sister. Sara was the better looking of the two sisters, but although she was graced with the same brains as Renita, she preferred to play dumb and let her looks and charm ease her travels through life.

"It's all her deductive reasoning coming into play."

"Deductive reasoning? She writes children's mystery novels! I don't they're really that deep, Hardy Boy. I'm betting you let something slip with all that smooth pillow talk of yours. Trying to impress her, I bet, with all your dangerous adventures. Such a manly man," Renita replied derisively. The octaves were starting to pitch again leading to the escalation that Arthur was trying to avoid. Sometimes, though, he was a glutton for punishment. And today was just one of those days.

"She is under the impression that Frank is an operative, and not for us."

"Don't let your hatred of Frank taint an otherwise good man."

"Come on, Nita. You're smarter than that. You were the brains of this operation. Did you ever vet the guy before you jumped into his bed?"

"That's not fair. It was over between you and I."

"I've got some info from one of our moles in Europe. He is of the same impression." Arthur continued. As much as he would love to give her the old "I told you so," he was seriously dreading having to expose her new husband for the fraud he really was.

"Bullshit." Renita said angrily. She leaned her body away from her ex-husband and crossed her arms. She was prepared to battle him if he stepped across the line in the sand one more time.

"Francois believes that Frank is a mole for the other side. How else do you explain his frequent trips abroad? He's got no job that I've ever seen and he says he's got family money. Yet anytime he's asked about that family, he's evasive. And it's Francois coming up with this, not me. You remember Francois?"

"Oh...Yes. I remember Francois." Renita said softly, She smiled a bit and fingered the necklace she had worn since her field days in France before the kids were born. Sometimes you just had to give all for God and country. Lord knows Francois had given her a little religion. Arthur had been furious, but at the time their relationship hadn't progressed to where he felt it should be. She was sowing her wild oats on Uncle Sam's dime while trying to keep it safe.

"Yeah...Anyway, maybe you should slip one foot back into the game and get the background on Frank. If I do it, it will seem more like revenge than actual intelligence."

Renita nodded silently. He was right. If Arthur was the one doing the digging, she'd hate him forever and stay blind to the nagging questions she'd had about Frank in the back of her mind. It always seemed so astounding that Arthur could see through the lies for the truth so easily. Maybe it was because he was such a skilled liar himself. Renita's stance toward Arthur softened. He was right. Of course he was right. She should have checked out Frank's story especially since he never invited her or the kids to any of his travels around the globe. Even their short honeymoon was only to the Poconos. Frank's excuse was that he'd seen enough of the world. He just wanted to spend some time with his new wife in a hotel room.

Arthur took Renita's silence as an affirmation of his revelations. He stared out over the neighborhood. It used to be his neighborhood. He remembered when he first saw the bungalow and knew immediately that Renita would love it. She would make it into a nurturing nest for their new family. Now years later, he'd been pushed out of that nest and had to learn to fly all on his own. He felt like an outsider on the tree-lined street with a rusted out jalopy and last year's haircut. Still, it was the best place for his daughters. They didn't need to live in the roach infested apartment behind a less than reputable bar. They didn't need to see what happened in the shadows after last call, and they didn't need to watch their father studying the bottom of beer mugs. He glanced out at his wreck of a car, wondering how many people were taking note of his infiltration into their slice of paradise. That's when he noticed it.

"Hey, Renita, when did you start letting the kids draw in the street with chalk?"

"What? Never. They stay in the driveway behind the gate. And really, don't you think they're a bit too old for chalk drawing?" Renita watched as Arthur jumped to his feet and jogged to the curb. He looked intently at the ground then back up to the house. Renita frowned and followed him to the road.

"This is an Iranian assassin's mark and it's pointed directly at your house," Arthur said solemnly.

"What!?! But the Iranians have been our allies for nearly 15 years. Even that Whack-A-Mole  Ahmadinejad was our ally through all that bluster. Why an Iranian symbol?"

"I'm not sure, but all I know is that it's here and you're in danger."

Standing in the middle of Sycamore Street, Arthur closed his eyes and took a deep breath. With his eyes still closed, he began pointing. At the ground. The house. Down the street. In the air. Then he opened his eyes and barked at Renita.

“Kids. Bags. Car. Now. We need to go.”

Renita barked back, “Arthur, the girls and I have a good life here. And if we run now, we’ll always be running. And the kids don’t even know …”

A bullet flew past Renita’s head.

“Nita! Now! Forget the bags. Just get the kids, get in the car and go.”

She ducked and ruan to the door, stopping at the threshold and turning back to Arthur, still standing upright in the middle of the tree-lined street, gun drawn and eyes closed again as if he’s trying to listen intently.

“Not without you,” she said to him, suddenly realizing that she needs him in her life as much as he always tells her he needs her.

“Go now. I’ll be fine,” he said calmly.

As Renita ran inside to grab their two children and take them to safety, Arthur spotted a rifle scope sticking out over the top of a hedgerow three houses down. He took a shot and the scope disappeared. A split second later, he saw the well-manicured head of the young neighbor girl he saw earlier droop from the side of the bushes.

“I should have seen that coming,” he said to himself. “It’s always the good looking bitches that fool me.”

Another shot, this one aimed at Arthur — and connecting with his left forearm.

“Fuck. Where did that come from?” he said out loud before seeing an open window at the neighbor’s house and a familiar scowl inside it.

Gushing blood from his arm and heading for cover behind his Taurus, Arthur yelled into his former home, “Nita! Hurry up! Oh, and Frank’s not in Italy, by the way.”

No longer seeing Frank’s countenance in the window, Arthur scanned the neighbor’s home. But instead of seeing Frank, he saw Sara peering at him, gun drawn.

Another shot rang out, missing Arthur, but flying by so close, it singed his cheek.

“I hate killing people I like,” he thought.

The garage door opened and Renita’s Audi A4 peeled from the landing. She flew out the driveway, nearly striking Arthur’s car. Flinging the passenger-side door open, she yelled, “Get in!”

“Can’t, Nita. Gotta take care of some ‘family issues,’ “ he yelled back.

“Dad!” The girls yelled in unison.

“Just go,” Arthur yelled. “I’ll meet you at the rendezvous.”

As the A4 took off down the street, another shot came from the neighbor house, striking the side of the sedan, but not hitting anyone.

Arthur stood up straight, took aim and shot Frank dead center. His ex’s new husband fell from the second-story window, landing lifelessly in a juvenile apple tree at the front of the Smith’s home.

“Frank!” A woman’s voice bellowed from the home - as Sara appeared in the window.

Wasting no time, Arthur took out his potential new mate, as well.

“I hate killing people I like!” he screamed at the heavens, once again standing in the middle of Sycamore Street.

Squad cars simultaneously appeared from the north and the south, boxing Arthur in.

“Put your weapon on the ground and your hands in the air,” one of the patrolmen demands Arthur.

He complied, dropping his government issued Glock 23 gently to the ground.

“I’m a federal agent,” he explains to the police, reaching into his inner jacket pocket “Just let me get my ...”

Not taking any chances, the cop fired a shot at Arthur, hitting him cleanly in the shoulder.

Arthur fell to the ground, bleeding profusely as the police surrounded him.

“At least the girls got away,” he mutters.

Looking up at the cop who shot him, Arthur squinted.

“Petra,” he whispers faintly. Reaching for his gun, Arthur is shot again, dying instantly.

“For now, Agent Canterbury,” Petra said. “They got away for now.”

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