First Night: The Conflict Between Hope and Cynicism
Story by Dr. Lee Brazil
Foreword and Epilogue by:
Written by Ron Breazeale, Ph.D.
All Rights Reserved
December 18, 2019, 9:16 A.M.
Heathrow was busy as always. Perhaps a bit less because it was a Wednesday morning. And their luggage actually arrived with the flight. Given the frequent meltdowns that the airport had had with its luggage systems, Lee was surprised. Lee’s bag, “the thing,” as Liz called it, was always easy to find on the belt. It was bright red and bigger than most. Liz always complained that Lee packed for a month when he was only going for a week.
The taxi stand also wasn’t as busy as they had expected. The stand attendant was missing. Lee saw a free taxi and headed for it, pulling “the thing” behind him.. He didn’t see the car. He just heard Liz shout, “Lee, look out!”
He glanced to his left and instinctively jumped back, landing on the suitcase. A nondescript black sedan whipped past, narrowly missing Lee. The driver from the taxi Lee was trying to reach yelled, “Bloody fool,” and offered Lee a hand up. Liz was at his side.
“Are you all right?”
“I’m okay. I’m fine,” grumbled Lee, dusting himself off.
The driver took their luggage and loaded it into the back of the taxi, still muttering, “Bloody fool,” under his breath. Lee wasn’t sure whether he was referring to him or the driver that had almost run him over. He didn’t ask.
The Thistle Marble Arch was, of course, near the Marble Arch at Hyde Park. They had stayed there years before. An older hotel with a lot of wood and overstuffed furniture. The small lobby had an adjoining bar and restaurant. It reminded Lee of the Parker House in Boston.
“Sir, do you require assistance with your luggage?” asked the clerk.
Lee wasn’t listening. He was still thinking about the airport. The driver hadn’t sounded his horn and didn’t stop. He had quickly disappeared into traffic. “Sir!”
“No, no. We can handle it,” said Lee, shaking his head.
“Where are you, Lee?” asked Liz.
“I’m here, right here,” said Lee, raising his voice and giving Liz one of those don’t-ask-any-more-questions looks.
But Liz, not to be deterred, said, “No, you aren’t. You’re thinking about something.”
Liz could always read Lee’s face. Lee pushed the elevator button. It was stuck. He pushed it again and then banged on it and finally the light came on.
“Did you see who was driving the car that almost ran me over?” The door of the elevator rattled open. No one was in the elevator. Lee and Liz stepped in and Lee pushed six.
“No, I didn’t. The windows were like those of a limousine.”
“Privacy glass all around,” said Lee.
“Yes, I assume so. What are you thinking?” But Liz answered her own question. “You’re thinking it wasn’t an accident, right? And it’s got something to do with Jennings and the package you may have to pick up.” Lee hesitated. “Well, I don’t know.” He shook his head. “No, I’m sure it was just me. My peripheral vision is not very good anymore.”
The elevator door, with hesitation, opened on the sixth floor. Room 625 was halfway down a long hall. Lee tried to herd Liz down the hall quickly.
“Stop pushing,” Liz objected. “What’s the rush?”
Lee gave up and walked at Liz’s pace. He opened the door. The room was small, but had all the basics, two beds, a television, a vanity, a desk and a couple of chairs. Lee double-locked the door and checked the windows to make sure they were locked.
“Do you mind, Mr. Paranoia, if I take a shower, or do you want to check the bathroom first?” asked Liz with a smirk.
“Very funny. I’m fine. I’ll just start unpacking.” Lee threw his bag with some effort onto the bed near the door.
“She’s right. The damn thing is heavy,” he mumbled as he started to unzip the bag. “Maybe I just wasn’t looking.”
Lee pulled out the black silk suit he loved and started shaking and beating the wrinkles out. Sometimes that worked, other times it looked like he had backed over it with the car.
Liz had just turned the shower on when the phone rang. Lee picked up the receiver. Before he could speak, the caller spoke.
“Yes, this is Dr. Brazil.”
“Mr. Smith asked me to inform you that you are to go to the Fusiliers Museum, her Majesty’s Tower of London, at three thirty tomorrow afternoon. Do not be early or late. You will receive instruction from the museum’s ticket agent as to the package’s location.”
“Can you tell me … ” But the line went dead.
Lee returned to his unpacking. “It wasn’t Smith or Jennings. I would have recognized their voice. The caller had a British accent,” Lee mumbled to himself. “Brilliant. Most of the population has a British accent. We are in London, dummy.” Lee laughed at himself. “This whole thing has really got me rattled.” Lee continued the conversation with himself. When Liz emerged from the bathroom, Lee was still talking to himself while lying on the bed, thumbing through a guide to London restaurants.
“So what are we doing for dinner?” asked Liz.
“Indian, I think. I’m not sure I have a real urge for kidney pie or steak and potatoes,” said Lee looking in Liz’s direction. “Indian is always the safer bet in London.”
“Great. I’m hungry.” Sensing Lee’s objection, “It’s been hours since we ate.”
“Come on, honey, it’s too early. My body says we should still be in bed,” Lee yawned. “It’s only 6:00 A.M. back home.”
“But it’s almost noon here,” Liz countered. “How about room service?”
“Sure. Do what you would like,” said Lee, losing interest in the conversation.
Liz ordered a steak sandwich and chips. Meat and potatoes sounded good to her. Lee’s stomach wasn’t ready for anything more than coffee. He was still thinking about the airport.
After lunch, they took a nap — or at least they tried to. Liz knew it was against all the advice about jet lag, but she did it anyway. Lee closed his eyes, assuming he would not drift into sleep, but he did. He dreamed. He was in a Coast Guard station. The sign read Jacksonville Beach Station. He was standing next to a door marked Radio Room. He could hear through the door a distress call that was coming in. He opened the door and stepped inside. The radio operator was busy responding to the call. He didn’t notice Lee’s presence. Over the static, a man’s voice could be heard. “This is The Enchantress. We are in trouble. We are off the coast of Charleston. Our position is . . .” The static distorted the rest of the message.
“Repeat,” said the Coast Guardsman.
The man complied again, but the message was still garbled.
The Coast Guardsman requested The Enchantress to start a long count so that the exact position of the ship could be ascertained. The man’s voice started the count. “One, two, three, four . . .” In a minute the count was taken up by a child’s voice. “Eight-four, eight-five, eight-six, eighty-seven . . .” The tones got weaker and weaker. Soon the child’s voice faded out completely.
“We have dispatched Search and Rescue. Hang on. We’re coming. Please continue the count.” But the only sound from the radio was static. Lee woke up. “What the hell is happening to me?” Lee mumbled to himself. He had found an old newspaper article in the Winterpool Gazette’s archives the week before. The Enchantress had disappeared off the coast of Charleston in 1963. The Coast Guard’s Search and Rescue squad, which had been immediately dispatched, along with Navy vessels found no sign of the 59-foot yacht or of three adults and the two children who were aboard. Lee tried to make sense again of why he was having these dreams, but couldn’t. My God, I’m having the same dreams as my patient. I’m losing distance. I’ve got to get out of this business. Lee tried to go back to sleep, but he couldn’t. When he would start drifting off again, the distress call would just replay itself in his head. He finally got up and decided to wander down to the concierge. It would be a distraction. Lee needed a distraction. He engaged the concierge in a conversation about the new restaurants in London. At the concierge’s recommendation, Lee booked a six o’clock reservation at the Cinnamon Club in Westminster which, according to the concierge, offered “a constantly evolving menu designed to reflect an ethos of innovation and creativity.” Traditional Indian food would have been fine with Lee, but why not something new? The concierge insisted it was the place to go.
When Lee returned to the room, Liz was just waking up.
“Want to take a walk?” asked Lee. “We can get some exercise and fresh air before we head for the restaurant. Maybe see a bit of the park, and then we can catch a taxi or the tube.”
“Boy, you’re full of energy,” said Liz, trying to find her reading glasses, which apparently had fallen off the nightstand. Lee waited. “But a good idea,” said Liz. “I think that might take my headache away.” “I want to walk by the U.S. Embassy — well, as close as we can get these days. It’s still under heavy security after the last bombing.”
“Well, if they’re trying to blow it up, I’m glad we’re not that close to it,” said Liz, smiling.
It was sunny and warm, at least by Maine standards, in the low fifties. Rare weather for late December in London.
Their efforts to reach the embassy located at the edge of Hyde Park were thwarted by police barricades, so the couple gave up and entered the park through the Marble Arch and walked toward the Italian gardens. Lee had noticed a man in a long, brown trench coat had been a few yards behind them since they had left the hotel. Maybe he was just out for a few rays of sun before winter. But when they turned toward Paddington Station to catch the Underground to Kensington Station, he was still behind them.
The station was crowded with families who had taken in the unusually good weather and were returning home. Lee pulled Liz through the crowd toward the train.
“What’s your hurry, Lee?”
“I don’t want to be late,” said Lee with a nervous smile.
“Relax, we’re early. And I want to look at those handbags over there,” said Liz, pointing to a small shop on the other side of the station.
Lee gave her another tug. “You can look when we get to Kensington.
They’ll have shops there.”
Liz resisted. “I’m not sure they’ll have that bag.”
Lee caught her eyes. “Liz, come on, now!” he said with force. She realized something was happening. She followed Lee’s lead. The platform for their train was jammed. Lee pressed their way into the crowd, hoping they might disappear from view, but the man in the brown trench coat was still there, just a few feet away, waiting for the same train.
When the train arrived, Lee shoved their way into the car. They passed a number of empty seats and moved to the opposite end of the car.
“Hey, Lee, here are two seats.” Liz started to sit down.
Lee yanked Liz out of the seat. “No, I want to sit by the door.”
“Jesum crow, Lee, take it easy with my arm. What is wrong with you?”
Lee didn’t respond. He was watching the man in the trench coat. The man boarded the train and moved to a seat in the middle of the car. Just as Liz was about to sit down again and the doors of the car were starting to close, Lee gave Liz another yank, “Changed my mind,” he said, as he pushed her through the closing car doors and onto the platform. The man in the brown coat moved toward the doors, but it was too late. The train was gone and so was the man.
“What was that all about?” said Liz, sounding disgusted. “You’ve been dragging me around like that old leather briefcase of yours.” Lee sighed. “I’m sorry, honey. But I don’t like being followed, and that guy was following us.”
“Well, we can catch the next one.”
“No, I think we should stay near the hotel and not go to the Cinnamon Club. Remember the Mahal? It’s just around the corner on Edgware.” They had gone there the last time they were in London. They, Dru included, had loved the food and the place. It was one of the oldest Indian restaurants in London. Avant-garde it was not, but relaxed and friendly it was, which is just what Lee and Liz needed.
The restaurant wasn’t crowded, and the waiter showed them to a small table by a window.
“Who do you think would have had us followed, Lee? I thought in this new age of technology they would do something with a satellite or a microchip.” Liz paused. “Unless the guy in the trench coat was supposed to do something that a satellite couldn’t do.” “Like what?” asked Lee.
“Like keep you from picking up the package.”
“I have no idea, but I’m sure it does have something to do with the damn package I’m supposed to pick up tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” said Liz with surprise. “How do you know that it’s tomorrow? How do you know you’re supposed to pick the package up anyway?”
Lee avoided her eyes. “They called me while you were in the shower.”
“Oh, Lee. I have a bad feeling about this. It’s all starting over again.”
Lee rubbed the tip of his hook against the palm of his hand. “Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m just letting my imagination get away with me. But why would the man in the trench coat … ” Lee stopped and looked at Liz. “Good grief, it does sound like a spy novel. Why would he try to get off the train when we did?”
Liz shook her head with conviction. “Oh, no, I don’t think it’s your imagination. But what can we do?”
“Follow instructions, I guess.” Lee looked at Liz. “Do you have any better ideas?”
There was silence again.
“No,” said Liz softly. Lee stared out the window. It was dark. Only a few people on the street.
“After that year in Boston,” Lee’s voice was soft and deep. “I’m just surprised, I guess, that they even let me on the plane.” He did not look at Liz. “We don’t need any more trouble.”
They ordered. The food came. They talked some about Dru and her boyfriend and how serious things seemed to be getting. They talked about Val, the friend that Liz was meeting in London for the shopping trip.
“So, what about tomorrow?” asked Liz.
“Three-thirty sharp. ‘Don’t be early, don’t be late,’” said Lee with a cadence. “The Tower of London. The Fusiliers Museum. These folks do have a sense of humor.”
“I’m not laughing,” said Liz, as she finished the last bit of goat milk ice cream.
“I know,” said Lee with disgust.
Their walk back to the hotel was brisk, with the dark and the way the temperature had dropped. The winter cold in London always seemed to get through the heaviest of clothing. Lee recalled that most of his visits to London had for some reason always been in the winter. He kept turning and looking back, but there was no one on the streets now.
When they arrived at the hotel, the lobby was deserted. There was one man at the bar. A large man, dark skin, well-dressed. He looked in their direction as they boarded the elevator.
The room seemed cold. Liz turned up the heat. They both began their preparation for bed, although neither assumed they could sleep. But this was what they were used to doing at this time of the evening.
Liz broke the silence. “When are we going to talk about this more?” “I don’t know what else to say. Sleep late. Have brunch here, and I’ll go over to the Tower early. I’ve never seen it. Maybe I’ll take the tour.” “Lee, if you’re going to act like a tourist, I’m going.”
“Well, damn it, Liz, that’s what we are . . . and you’re not going.” “I’m going,” said Liz, giving the don’t-waste-your-time-arguing-withme look.
“Okay, okay. Let’s just get this thing over. I’ll pick up the friggin’ package and drop it off and be done with this whole thing. At least I hope I’m done. I didn’t realize this business with Jennings would be a life sentence.”
Liz put her hand out. Lee took it. They turned off the lights and tried to sleep. In a few minutes, Lee was up checking the door. Double-bolted, but no chain. He rolled his suitcase over and wedged it in between the door and the bureau. Someone would have to wake the dead to get through the door now.
Lee drifted in and out of sleep. He dreamed of the man with the brown trench coat. Lee was pulling Liz through the crowd at Paddington Station, the man in the coat in close pursuit, reaching for Liz. When Lee awoke, he had pulled Liz onto his side of the bed.
“What is it?” Liz asked with alarm, pulling herself away from Lee and fumbling for the canister of pepper spray she had placed on the nightstand before turning out the light.
“Nothing. Just a dream. It’s okay. We don’t need the pepper spray, at least not right now.”
“What?” asked Liz again.
“Go back to sleep.”
Morning finally came. “The thing” was still wedged between the bureau and the door. No one had tried to enter the room in the night.