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By Brian Freemantle
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1989 Brian Freemantle
All rights reserved.
Janet Stone let the word echo in her mind the way Hank had always said it when they'd made a mistake: deep down and echoing, like the sound of a bell, with all the emphasis at the end. And then let it chime again and reverberate again, waiting for the memory to hurt. There was a pang but not a bad one and she was grateful. It had taken too long—far too long—for her to get this far, being able positively to think about it without breaking down, without actually having to leave a room. So it was getting better: a necessary test.
She'd soon have to leave this room, though: she was ready for a lot of things, but not quite yet for Harriet Andrew's ritual assemblage of Washington glitterati, a melee of teeth-flashing gabble and spilled drinks and furtive hands. She should have known better, of course. She and Hank had nearly always found an excuse to avoid coming. Testing herself against the pain of memories, Janet forced another recollection. Hank hadn't called them melees. Menagerie had been his word. Janet thought the description was fitting; she was in a menagerie of performing human animals being watered and fed: doubtless, as she understood inhabitants of menageries did, they'd further perform by mating before the night was out. It was an impromptu intrusion and Janet thrust it irritably away. She could never allow herself reflections about sex: the subject—the very thought—was more tightly locked out and forbidden from her mind than anything else. How could it be otherwise? What could there be—who could there be—after Hank?
Janet gazed around, seeking a doorway from the cage in which she felt incarcerated. It was not Harriet's house. It was a four-story brownstone on Dumbarton Street that Harriet's father had bought when he was seconded from the Bank of England in London to the World Bank in Washington and had afterwards retained as the undoubted investment it was. The main living room area stretched the entire length of the book-lined, low-lighted first level and there were ornately metaled and overhanging balconies at either end, reached through floor-to-ceiling windows. Both were open and Janet began to maneuver through the crush towards the one directly overlooking the street, but she halted almost at once. This wasn't the way to escape: this was scurrying into an even smaller cage where she would be isolated in a more restricted area among people interested only in their own audiences, which were audiences she had no wish to join, and their own voices, which were voices she had no wish to hear.
From her hostess's command post near the bar, a permanent mahogany bunker where a hired-in black-tied waiter plied gallon jugs of booze, Harriet caught Janet's eye. Harriet was wearing a designer skirt tight enough to have revealed her underwear if she had been wearing any, which she wasn't, and a low silk blouse which her nipples puckered to show she was not wearing a bra, either. The makeup had not started to melt yet and the naturally blonde hair was still in comparative order, bubbled like fairground candy-floss around a fine-nosed face that was too long to make the style successful. Harriet shone an enameled smile and made a circular motion with an extended finger, as if she were stirring something, and Janet nodded and stirred in the opposite direction in a sign-language promise to circulate. Maybe someone would have talked to her if she'd bothered with as much makeup as Harriet or left her knickers in the underwear drawer or made an effort to get her hair professionally fixed before coming tonight instead of relying upon that morning's shampoo in the shower. More things forbidden to reflect upon, she thought.
Janet, who knew Harriet to be the closest friend she had in Washington—perhaps in the world—angrily stopped the drift of her thoughts. Harriet had simply tried to help by inviting her, like a lot of other people not as close had tried to help, in other ways, to get her out of the pit of despair in which she'd buried herself. Now she was struggling to emerge. And it was important to avoid self-pity. What had happened hadn't been anyone's fault: hadn't been avoidable or preventable. Dear God, how she wished so much had been avoidable or preventable! Self-pity again: careful, she warned herself.
She really did have to get away: find a quieter part of the cage at least. Claustrophobia was beginning to tighten around her, so that it was physically difficult to breathe, the first stirring of familiar panic she'd hoped to be over.
The gap was near the door, which was what she wanted anyway, a tiny oasis (were there oases in menageries?) kept vacant by the passing inrush of new arrivals. Cradling her barely sipped drink, a sweet punch Janet suspected might be too strongly laced with something like tasteless vodka from the gallon-bottle on the mahogany bar, she set out on her escape, turning and twisting and smiling her apologies through the crowd in between. Twice as she moved through she felt an apparently solicitous hand on her ass and once someone openly groped her left breast before she could get by.
Janet concentrated entirely upon reaching the space she'd identified and ignored the fondling, so it only took seconds to get through, but when she looked up the empty space wasn't empty any more. It wasn't possible so late to change direction; besides which, there wasn't anywhere else to go: The entrance now was jammed with a group of new arrivals, kissing greetings and discarding coats and dispensing presents and gesturing with booze contributions to prove their right of entry.
"Oh!" said Janet.
So was Janet, at her gauche reaction to his getting there ahead of her. "It was just that ... nothing ... I'm sorry," she stumbled, still awkward.
He smiled, unflustered, and said: "We can't both be sorry. Not when neither of us know what we're apologizing for."
"I didn't think you were apologizing," she said. It had been so long! She felt lost.
"I wasn't," he said. "But you seem disconcerted, so if I've done something wrong I will."
Janet knew she was flushed, red-faced. "It was just that I thought this part of the room, so near the door, wasn't occupied." She wished everything wasn't coming out so badly.
The smile stayed, a reassuring expression. "You too?" he said.
"I don't understand," Janet said, thinking in relief that she did, but didn't want to make any more mistakes.
"I was looking for somewhere to hide," he said. "Well, not hide exactly: to get out of the way."
Janet smiled herself, feeling further relief. "Me, too," she admitted.
"You didn't come with anyone either?"
"Or know anyone?"
"I know the girl whose party it is, Harriet Andrew," conceded Janet. "She's a close friend."
He looked beyond her, unhurriedly and appearing really to look, not just shift his attention casually. "Quite a bunch of people," he said.
"Harriet gives these sorts of parties often: gets her name in the social columns even."
He didn't seemed impressed. "You come to them all?"
"Oh no!" said Janet at once. "I haven't been to one for a long time." The last occasion she had been with ... she started to remember and then stopped, blocking off the reminiscence.
"I don't think I fit particularly well here," he said, coming back to her and smiling again.
"I don't think I do, either," she said.
"You caught me."
"I wasn't trying to steal your space." He grinned. "I was making a break for it."
Without being aware of it happening, Janet realized she had relaxed: the words were coming easily and the claustrophobic girdle wasn't tight around her any more. She said: "I guess I was doing the same thing."
"That was before I found someone to talk to, of course."
"Me, too," she said again. Janet assured herself that this wasn't flirtation or anything like the sort of conversational foreplay going on everywhere else: it was simply nice—relaxing like she had already decided—just to talk and come back to some sort of social normalcy she had for so long denied herself.
With noise battling noise all around there was a moment of silence between them. He said: "So as we're talking I could stay."
"I don't want to keep you," she said, immediately retreating into the pit where she felt at home.
"OK," he said at once, going backwards himself.
"I'll probably leave as well," she said.
"Why don't we leave together?" He shrugged a no-big-deal shrug.
"Why not?" she said, answering the shrug as well as the question.
"My name's John," he said. "John Sheridan."
"Janet," she responded. "Janet Stone."CHAPTER 2
Dumbarton was jammed, as it nearly always was, cars tight against each other: some were even pulled in off the road, between the trees and parked halfway into driveways, completely blocking the pavement. The thunderclaps of party noise came out above them through the open balcony windows.
Sheridan said: "Being a neighbor of Harriet Andrew could seriously damage your peace of mind."
"She's a very good person," said Janet, defensively.
"I'm sure," he said. "You friends from England?"
"You're very observant."
"The accent is pretty obvious," said Sheridan.
"Yes," said Janet, answering the question. "We read at Oxford together." She hesitated, feeling as uncomfortable as she had back at the house. "I came by cab: there's a rank on Wisconsin."
"My car's that way," he said, falling into step beside her.
They had to maneuver around several obstructing vehicles. Always he politely stood back, deferring for her to go first, and never once reached for her hand or her arm on the pretense of helping her, not even when they had to go over a cross street. Wisconsin Avenue was brightly lit compared to the side roads and very busy, cars and people ebbing and flowing in both directions and with shops and bars and cafes open on either side. Sheridan turned towards M Street and announced: "No cabs."
Jane looked towards the deserted rank and said: "They're along here all the time."
She started down towards the intersection and again he went with her. At the junction they looked both ways along M Street: there wasn't anywhere a taxi showing a for hire light.
"Not really your night," he said.
"It won't take long, really."
"Would you like a drink?"
Janet had been expecting such an approach from the moment he began walking with her and had the polite refusal already rehearsed, work she had to do at home, which wasn't actually a lie because Monday's lecture—the slide of the Lebanon into utter anarchy—was still only half written. She saw from the clock in the bank window behind him that it wasn't yet eight. She said: "Thank you," not knowing why she'd accepted.
"I don't know Georgetown particularly well," he said.
"There's Nathan's," she said, nodding across the road.
He stood away from her while they waited for the lights and made no move to cup her arm when they went over. As he held back for her to enter the bar Janet saw three cabs in convoy coming from the city, their flags lit. Nathan's was crowded, but as they entered two people got up from a table near the door, so they were seated immediately. She asked for scotch and he said he'd have the same. When he came back with the drinks he said: "Cheers." Janet said "Cheers" back, unsure what would happen next.
"Where's your husband?" he asked, abruptly.
"How ...?" she began and then stopped, following his look towards her hand. Janet steeled herself to utter the word. Gazing directly across the table she blurted: "Dead." She paused and then said: "He's dead." She'd confronted it before, of course: to herself at first, staring into mirrors in their empty apartment, needing to convince herself it was true and not a bad dream, saying: "Dead, dead, dead ... Hank's dead," but this was the first time to a complete stranger. Something else that did not hurt as much as she'd expected.
Janet waited for an insincere "I'm sorry," but instead he said: "How long?"
This was going beyond anything for which Janet had prepared herself. Clip-voiced, gazing down into her untouched drink, she said: "Ten months ... ten months and two weeks ..." There was another pause. "... And four days. It was a Friday."
"How did he die?"
Janet swallowed, deeply, and said: "I don't think I want to talk about it."
She shrugged, lost. She said: "I just don't."
"You should," he said.
Suddenly angry, Janet said: "Don't give me any of that 'you'll feel better if you talk about it' amateur psychology ..." She leveled her hand beneath her chin. "I've had that sort of crap up to here!"
"I wasn't going to give you any sort of amateur psychology crap."
Deflated, Janet demanded: "What then?"
Now he shrugged. "It just seems odd that if you loved a guy that much you want to lock everything away. You might as well take the rings off and pretend it never happened."
"It's not like that at all!" she said, still angry.
"If you say so."
"What sort of remark is that!"
"A backing-off sort of remark," he said. "I was out of order and now I'm embarrassed. Would you like another drink?"
"No!" she said. Then, quickly, "No, thank you."
"You want me to say I'm sorry?"
"That's up to you."
It sounded as if he meant it. She said: "What about you? Wife, I mean?"
"There isn't one."
"Why not?" Janet said, trying to hit back with the unsettling sort of directness that he had shown earlier.
The shoulders rose and fell once more. "Never the right person in the right place at the right time."
"For the moment I can't remember the movie that line came from," said Janet.
Sheridan lowered and raised his head in acknowledgment. He said: "It just never happened, I guess. You sure about that drink?"
On the street outside the For Hire lights bobbed and dipped like leaves in a stream. Janet said: "Just one more."
Janet watched as Sheridan made his way to the bar, properly studying him for the first time, deciding he was a difficult person about whom to form an instant impression. He was inconspicuous in stature and in demeanour and in the way he dressed—abruptly she realized he was wearing a collar and a tie and a muted suit while everyone else at the party had been laid-back casual—but he appeared in no way nervous or uncertain. Rather, the reverse. People parted at the bar and he was served almost at once, despite louder shouted demands, and people parted again for him when he turned away. Janet stayed intent upon him as he returned, concentrating upon detail now. He was a lean man, the skin almost taut over high cheekbones and a sharp, aquiline nose and there was some hint of discoloration to his face, as if he had spent a lot of time in the sun. She could not discern any beardline and wondered if he'd shaved a second time before going to the party. There was a slight sag of puffiness beneath his eyes, which had no positive color but seemed to her like a tweed, a mixture of browns and greens, and his brown hair was just lightening into gray at the sides and oddly at just one temple, the left. On the small finger of his left hand—the hand with which he proffered her drink—he wore a ruby-stoned ring and because his arm was extended she could see a thick, heavily calibrated Rolex watch. He repeated: "Cheers," and she raised her glass back to him in response.
"You were leading the inquisition," he said.
Janet was glad of the lightness. "So?" she asked.
"I work for the government."
"Saying that in Washington is like declaring you're a coalminer in Pennsylvania or brew beer in Milwaukee," said Janet. She allowed the pause. "Or maybe hinting at something sinister."
Sheridan smiled, unevenly because he did not appear to have bothered with any dental correction, and said: "Nothing spooky about me ..." He gestured vaguely over his shoulder, towards the city, and said: "State Department. You know Foggy Bottom?"
Janet nodded, thinking how close the State Department headquarters were to a Georgetown he'd earlier said he didn't know very well. Whether or not he visited Georgetown was hardly any business of hers, she thought. "Must be interesting," she said, wishing as she spoke she had managed to avoid the cliche.
He shook his head. "Not at my lowly level," he said. "General analysis. Long reports that take weeks to prepare and weeks to print for nobody to read."
Excerpted from Betrayals by Brian Freemantle. Copyright © 1989 Brian Freemantle. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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