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By Ray Garton
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1990 Ray Garton
All rights reserved.
A flame hissed to life in Gerard Brady's dark bedroom. It was sucked into the end of a cigarette, then blown out. The cigarette's ember glowered like a furious eye, flaring brightly for a moment, then dimming, but remaining watchful.
Rain spattered the curtained windows and wind mourned around the corners of the house.
Gerry (as he preferred to be called) watched the reflection of the cigarette's red glow in Rita Brand's eyes as she lay in bed beside him. He could still taste on his lips the rum and cigarette flavor of her kisses. He didn't smoke and he did not favor rum, but the taste was not unpleasant. It was familiar. Safe and comfortable.
Gerry had a great fondness for things safe and comfortable. He clung to them, held them close.
But sometimes he felt—as he did on this night—that this felt too comfortable, because he found himself, once again, wanting her to stay with him until morning.
Lightning illuminated the room and he saw Rita smiling at him.
"What's wrong?" she asked after the thunder.
"You're not smiling. I'm smiling,"
She stroked his arm.
"I'm smiling now," he lied.
Rita moved closer, lifted his arm and put it around her shoulders, sighing, "God, I'm glad it's Friday."
"Do you have the weekend off?"
"Mm-hm. Promised the kids I'd take them to the movies, thought maybe I'd go down to the Horse and Carriage and let someone serve me drinks for a change." The sound of the rain took over for a moment, then she asked, "What're your plans for the weekend?"
"I've got to write some letters. I'm having brunch at my uncle's house tomorrow. And I have to make sure everything is ready for Sunday."
"What's happening Sunday?"
"We're opening the new restaurant in the store." He silently chided himself for the smug what-do-you-think tone of his voice.
"God, Gerry. That store. I suppose the letters you have to write are business letters?"
"They're the only kind I write," he chuckled.
He could feel her head shaking slowly against his arm as she said, "You work too much."
"So you've said."
Rita put her mouth close to his ear and said softly, "Why don't you just let it lay till Monday? Wouldn't you like to get out for a couple of days? / know! I've got this friend, see, who gave me a key to his cabin on the Severn River. He said I could use it anytime. Whatta you say we go out there and just kick back? How about it?"
"Can't," he said, putting his hand on the back of her head and kissing her on the cheek. Gerry swung his legs over the edge of the bed and stood. "I'm getting a brandy. Would you like something before you go?"
The burning red eye hovering in the dark flared angrily for a moment and Rita blew the smoke hard from her lungs. "No, thanks," she said flatly.
Gerry heard the rustle of the covers and the jostling of the mattress as she got up. In a flash of lightning, he saw her smooth, bare back, her straight shoulders and firm ass. He grabbed his robe from the chair by the door and slipped it on as he left the room.
The rust-colored carpet was warm and cushiony beneath his bare feet as he went downstairs, through the living room to the small bar in the corner. The dying fire in the red brick fireplace gave the room a soft pumpkin glow.
It was an orderly house, almost feminine in its neatness. Everything was carefully placed on shelves, tables and in drawers, all the wall hangings were perfectly straight on their hooks and all surfaces were clean. He wasn't compulsive about it; it came naturally.
Rita, who was the only person who visited the house with any regularity, did not believe he did the cleaning himself. She often accused him of employing a very efficient cleaning woman. "No man is this neat," she often said.
The truth was, the house never got messy enough to make any real cleaning necessary. He was the only one living there, although it was big enough for three people, maybe four. He never had parties or dinner guests. He washed dishes as he used them so they wouldn't pile up, dusted and vacuumed every Sunday, and sent clothes out to be cleaned twice a week. It was a policy he adhered to in every facet of his life: You don't have to clean up any messes if you don't allow any messes. Whenever anyone tried to sway him from this rigid policy, Gerry simply reminded himself of the messes he'd had to clean up in the past – in every facet of his life – and simply smiled and nodded.
He opened the cabinet below the bar, took out the brandy, removed a snifter from the rack overhead and poured.
Gerry had lived in the house for over nine years. Before that, he'd lived in Baltimore with his uncle and aunt, Frazier and Lillian Brady.
Frazier owned a chain of department stores called Brady and Dunlop. Peter Dunlop had died when Gerry was six years old and Frazier had taken over the entire business. It was one of the few remaining successful department store chains; many had lost their business to shopping malls. Brady and Dunlop stores, however, were shopping malls. They were huge and held everything a shopper possibly could want, including restaurants, soda fountains, styling salons and gourmet grocery sections.
The business began as a small clothing store owned by Frazier's father. When he died, Frazier inherited it, took on a partner and began, as he put it, to "update" the chain. Back then, Frazier and his first wife, Emily, had lived in a small tract house in a suburb of Baltimore. Now he and Lillian lived in what was, by any standards, a mansion.
Gerry's mother died while giving birth to Gerry and Frazier had taken him in. When Gerry started school, he was given his own living quarters: a larger bedroom, a bathroom, a study and a small room with a television and stereo, all adjoining on the second floor of the three story house. It had been a home within a home, so private that moving into a place of his own had never crossed his mind; he had a place of his own.
Frazier never pressed Gerry to get a job, but he insisted the boy get a good education. After high school, he sent Gerry to Johns Hopkins, where he got his masters in business administration and fell in love with Trish Cameron.
The week he got his degree, Frazier took Gerry for a drive. They went to Annapolis, where Frazier was opening a new store later that year. On the way, they talked about sports, the news, trivial things. Then Frazier got serious.
He was a tall imposing man who, then fifty-three, had a head of silver hair thicker than most men half his age. He had a generous smile, but when he wasn't smiling his mouth turned downward on the ends, giving his firm square-jawed face a dark look.
He had been smiling that day as he drove his Mercedes from Baltimore to Annapolis, chewing on one of the long narrow cigars that he never lit, but when the small talk was over—and it was always obvious when small talk was over with Frazier Brady—his mouth pulled down and his sparkling hazel eyes narrowed.
"You've done well, Gerard," he said. "I'm proud of you."
"I'm sure you know that I've been planning to use your talents—and you do have talents. You're a sharper businessman than many twice your age. Otherwise, I never would have provided you with such an education."
"I'm putting you in charge of the Annapolis store, Gerard." He said it in the same tone in which one might say, I'm going fishing next weekend. "It's one of the smaller stores, as you know, but I want it to expand. I want to see it grow. It will take a good deal of dedication on your part, but I'm sure it's nothing you can't handle. Or else I wouldn't be giving it to you."
Gerry smiled and said, "I appreciate that, Frazier." Actually, he was thrilled, but an excited and enthusiastic response would not be well received by his reserved uncle. He was thrilled because the job was coming at the perfect time—just before his marriage to Trish.
"Of course," Frazier went on, "you'll need a place to live near by. You wouldn't want to drive back and forth every day. That would waste time."
Frazier pulled the car into a long driveway at the end of which stood a new-looking, freshly-painted brown and white house. It was two stories tall with a beautifully tended yard in front and a two-car garage.
"So, Gerard, I took the liberty of having a home built for you." He nodded his head toward the house before them. "It's big enough for a family, should you decide to marry that, uh, young woman."
Gerry had not yet told Frazier of his engagement to Trish; he knew his uncle did not approve of her. She lacked the sparkling social and financial background that was so important to Frazier. This usually bothered, even angered, Gerry, but at the moment, he did not care. At that moment, everything felt perfect. His position at the new store and the beautiful house seemed to fit into his life like the last two pieces of a difficult puzzle, the final cogs in a brand new, complex timepiece that could now tick along smoothly. Nothing, it seemed, could move those pieces, those cogs, out of place.
That was when he lost Trish.
Gerry tilted the snifter back and drank the brandy in two gulps. It washed away that last dark thought like water washing smudges from a mirror.
The faint shadows of tree branches blowing outside the window danced through the dimly lighted room like ghosts.
As he poured another drink, Gerry heard Rita's hushed footsteps on the stairs and looked up. She was wearing blue jeans and a baggy white sweatshirt and her purse was slung over her shoulder.
"I've changed my mind," she said. "I'd like coffee before I go."
"Coming up." He put his drink on the bar and started for the kitchen.
"I'll make it." She brushed by him. Her voice sounded chilly, distant.
Gerry nervously ran his thumb over his lips, drumming the fingers of his other hand on the bar.
He'd known Rita for nearly four years. They saw each other twice a month, sometimes three. She was a cocktail waitress at the Horse and Carriage Saloon. On the rare occasion he dropped in there for a drink, he treated her no differently than the other waitresses, none of whom he knew. Rita was the only woman, and one of the only people, Gerry saw socially. For the last two years, she had been trying to steer their relationship in a different direction. She wanted to see him more often, and under different circumstances. Although he did not let it show, her efforts had been working. He'd felt it tonight when he'd come close to turning to her in bed to say, Why don't you stay tonight? We can go out for breakfast in the morning.
That would be breaking the rules, though ... the rules he had, without consciously realizing it at the time, set up for himself seven years ago. Gerry wanted very much to stick to the rules. It was safer that way. Safer and infinitely more comfortable.
The only problem was, he didn't know if he could remain safe and comfortable if he continued to see Rita.
He took a sip of the brandy, set it down and went into his office behind the stairs. Opening the bottom drawer of his desk, he took out the box in which he kept some cash handy. He removed five twenties, replaced the box, closed the drawer and went to the kitchen.
Rita was taking a mug from the cupboard as the Mr. Coffee gurgled busily on the counter.
Gerry slipped the cash into the side pocket of her purse by the sink.
She slammed the mug onto the counter and glared at the purse, then at Gerry.
"No," she said, snatching the money from her purse and throwing it onto the breakfast table.
"Rita," Gerry said quietly, picking up the bills. She did not let him go on.
"Not anymore, Gerry."
"Please." He moved toward the purse again but she stepped in front of him.
"Why?" Her cheeks were tense beneath her brown eyes. Her honey colored hair was still mussed and he could see spots of grey above her lined forehead. She would turn thirty-eight next month—he knew that only because she'd told him a couple of hours earlier—but the years were not unkind to her. Rita was an attractive woman with a beautiful body.
"Because," Gerry said hesitantly, "I want to."
"No. No, I don't think it's because you want to." She turned from him and took her mug to the coffeepot and filled it. "I think it's because you feel you have to."
Gerry leaned his hip against the edge of the counter and stared at the money in his hand.
"We agreed that I would—"
"That was years ago, Gerry!" she snapped, spinning around to face him. Coffee sloshed from the mug to the floor. "What are you afraid of? Why do you insist that this be a business relationship? After four years?"
He reached out to put the bills back in her purse, but her next question froze his hand in the air:
"Is it because of your fiancee? Trish?"
He turned to her slowly.
She closed her eyes and turned away from him.
"I'm sorry," she said, taking the lid from the sugar bowl and spooning some into her coffee. "I ... heard. That's all." After taking a sip, she faced him again and said, "No, that's not true. I asked around a little. I thought it was pretty weird that the only woman you ever seemed to spend any time with was me. The town hooker. Well ... one of 'em, anyway," she chuckled.
"Did you tell anyone that I—"
"No, no, I was discreet. Nobody knows you're a regular customer. That's just it, though, Gerry, I don't think of you as a customer anymore. I don't want to! Granted, I don't know you that well, but I've known you for so long, it just seems ..." She shrugged and took another sip. "If you're scared I'm getting serious, or something, you don't need to be. You're not my only customer and I'm not gonna stop working so we can ... I don't know, go steady, or something."
Gerry reached around and massaged the back of his neck, not looking at her. He did not want to get into this conversation, but he saw no tactful way out of it, no safe way out. He decided to let Rita speak her piece.
"Are you afraid that's gonna happen to me? What happened to her, I mean? Because if you are, I can tell you right now, it won't. Because, I mean, my ex-husband is too stupid to blow his own nose without reading instructions first, he's sure not gonna come back and –" Her voice dropped to a breathy whisper. "– well, kill me like that." She nervously paced the length of the kitchen for a moment. "I don't want to take your money anymore, Gerry. I mean, I could use it, god knows. I'm still raising three kids, you know. But I don't want it. For money, I fuck, and that isn't what we do anymore. It's ... nicer than that. I don't want to put a leash on you, or anything. If you're afraid to get too close, that's fine, although I think seven years is enough time to ... well, you know ... loosen up a little?" She stepped toward him and gently placed a hand on his chest. "Can't we just be friends for a while, at least?"
Trish had said something like that one week after they'd met. Things had moved awfully fast in those first seven days and they were walking into her apartment—stumbling, really, because they didn't want to let go of one another or stop kissing—and she suddenly pushed away from him gently and whispered, "Wait. Just ... hold it a second. This is too much too soon, I think. Can't we just ... get to know each other a little before we start getting so carried away? Can't we be friends for a while?"
... be friends for a while?
... friends for a while?
... friends ...
Gerry reached around Rita and tucked the money into her purse again.
An iron fist was clenching tighter and tighter around his bowels and he was afraid that, if he allowed it to continue, he would throw up.
"I'm sorry, Rita," he said quietly. As he turned and left the kitchen to go back to the bar, he said, "If you want to know anything about me from now on, I wish you'd just ... ask me. I may not answer you. But you can ask me. The way I am may seem strange to you. Eccentric. Weird. Maybe even unhealthy. But ..." He felt a tremble in his throat and kicked back the rest of the brandy to wash it away. "... it's the way I am. And, uh, if you don't mind," he whispered, turning to see her watching him from the kitchen doorway with concern, "I'd rather you didn't bring up Trish anymore. At all."
The wind moaned some more and a few leaves slapped wetly against the large living room window. Lightning flashed and thunder, closer now, rolled above them.
Excerpted from Trade Secrets by Ray Garton. Copyright © 1990 Ray Garton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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