Anna Nesmith believes she has it all–a great marriage, a dream job and a home of her own. When a State Department investigator begins asking questions, Anna’s ordered world implodes. Frank Caburn is man to the bone and manufactures testosterone like Frito Lay does chips. Instantly attracted to Anna, he is determined to make her his own–if only she can pick through the emotional rubble to find her bruised heart can love once again.
Anna heard the insistent tattoo of the brass doorknocker as she emerged into the hall. She put her eye to the viewer. The porch light was faint, wobbly in the wind and sleet. She could make out few details. In an aside she thought tomorrow’s news would be all about the damage to the cherry trees. The man had his muffler wrapped around his face almost to his eyes, and those were enigmatic. She saw his hand come up to the knocker again. She opened the door a crack. “Yes? May I help you?”He unwound the muffler from his face. “Government business, Mrs Nesmith. I have a few questions. May I come in?”Clara-Alice hovered nervously behind her. “What did he say?”Anna took her mother-in-law’s arm. “Give me a minute to find out. Now, be a dear, and put the kettle on for tea.”
Anna turned back to the door, still cracked open and allowing in freezing air. “Sorry. Show me some identification.”
“Sure thing.” Teeth chattering, he pulled off a leather glove, slipped his hand into his inside coat pocket, and produced his wallet. He flipped it open to reveal his photograph and ID. “State Department.”
Anna felt a sudden weakness envelop her. Kevin worked for the State Department. “Has something happened?”
“Not that I know. We’re doing routine security checks on our couriers. Mrs Nesmith—Anna—your given name is Anna, right? In case you haven’t noticed, I’m freezing my buns off out here.”
“All right, come in, but don’t drip on my kilim rug.”
He looked at her with a sense of frost and frustration. “Sure, Okay. Where would you like for me to drip?”
The wind died abruptly, as if pausing for breath. He stepped inside and closed the door behind himself and not at all gently. Next he unwound his muffler, dropped it to the floor and wiped his feet on it.
Anna stepped back. Oh great! Another person with attitude. “That looks awfully like cashmere,” she said of the muffler. Cold was coming off him in waves reminding her that she was barefoot and entirely naked beneath the caftan.
“Yep, early Christmas present.” He pulled off his other glove and stuffed both into a pocket then shrugged out of his overcoat. There was an antique coat tree in the foyer. Sans invitation, he hung his coat on it. Sleet was sliding off the coat onto the floor—but not the rug. Anna affected not to notice.
“You let him in…” came accusingly from behind.
“This is my mother-in-law,” Anna said to the man. Damn. She’d seen his ID, seen his picture—but had paid not one whit of attention to his name. “Clara-Alice, would you get a towel for the gentleman.”
“No. I’ll watch him. You get the towel.” The look on her face said she was ready to hit one or both of them over the head with a tire iron or golf club.
“Fine, watch him. Answer his questions, too.”
Clara-Alice paled. “What questions? About what? I don’t know anything.”
“Me, either,” Anna said and left the two of them standing the foyer. She went into the guest bathroom, buried her face into a wad of towels, and screamed. I don’t want to do this anymore. God help me, I don’t. Why, oh, why couldn’t Kevin acknowledge that his mother was an affliction on their marriage? She sat on the edge of the cold porcelain tub and pondered her past and her future because the present was too awful to contemplate.
“What’s going on with you?” said the man from State, standing in the bathroom door. “I heard a funny noise—sounded like a muffled scream.”
Anna stood. “Nothing is going on with me. I’m having a bad hair day.” She shoved the towels into his hands and moved past him, down the hall through the dining room and into the kitchen. The kettle was sputtering steam and singing. She put Lipton tea bags into cups and poured in the boiling water. The steam felt good on her face.
“Does the old lady have dementia or something?” Caburn emerged into the kitchen drying his face and head. Finished, he draped the towel on the back of a chair, ran his fingers through his hair, smiled and looked at Anna as if he’d known her a lifetime. Next, he was looking into the stainless steel fridge, taking out the half-and-half, trying to be casual, wondering what he had stepped into. Nothing in Nesmith’s file had prepared him for this pair of loonies. He understood about old people going off—his grandfather had. But a beautiful woman? Going into the bathroom and screaming her head off? That was scary—Virginia Wolff scary. Or Maybe Ayn Rand, who wrote wonderful books but lived dead evil—using people. He was half-way through Atlas Shrugged. Maybe he could finish here, go home, pop a beer, put his feet up and read another few chapters. That is, if he didn’t get killed by some fool driver on icy slick streets.
“Clara-Alice was in the Pentagon on 9/11.” Anna answered. She loathed this type of bureaucrat that the Patriot Act had let loose on ordinary citizens. She didn’t think the Act concerned people much any more, but in the nation’s capital it was alive and well. She held her tongue on that score because she was anxious about what the visit meant for Kevin. Everything in this city was political and above the fold. The rest of the inhabitants were worker bees, seldom on anyone’s radar. Now, Kevin was in a spotlight of some sort. It couldn’t be good and she didn’t think it routine for anyone from the State Department to come knocking on her door in the worst of a winter storm. Or putter around in her kitchen as if he owned it, either.
The man exhaled. “That was bad.”
“Still is,” Anna said while fishing for a teabag with a spoon. She poured in the half-and-half. So much for a year at Le Cordon Bleu where one brewed tea in a porcelain pot, allowed to steep at least three minutes, then gently poured it into delicate cups; warmed cream added if desired. “I’m sorry. I didn’t catch your name. And, I’m sorry about your scarf.” I’m sorry about 9/11, I’m sorry Kevin isn’t home, I’m sorry Clara-Alice is so difficult; and I’m sorry I can’t cope anymore. God, are you listening?
“No harm done. It’s Francis Caburn. Frank or Caburn will do.” He noticed an array of liquors on a sideboard, inspected the bottles, then chose a decent scotch. She had made three cups of tea. So. One was for him. He could use it. He was chilled to the bone. He poured a generous measure of scotch into Anna’s tea, hesitated over his own cup. Regulations be damned, and who was looking? He’d need it to sort through the god-awful mess Nesmith had left behind.
Anna watched him add whisky to their teas. Oh! He was too much.
“Make yourself at home, why don’t you?” She stepped away from the granite counter out of his personal space and the faint hint of Old Spice.
“Thanks. I will.”
“I was being sarcastic.”
“I could tell.” He gave her forgiving grin. “I’ll take the old lady her tea. You might want to find a pair of socks or something, your feet are blue.”
Clara-Alice appeared in the kitchen door. Caburn took her arm and gently turned her around. “I was just bringing you a cup of tea, dear heart.”
“You really know my Kevin?”
Geez, the old woman listened around corners. He’d have to keep that in mind. “I do.” In name only and only by the files in his briefcase, but 9/11 hung over the old lady like a dark cloud. If Caburn’s instincts were right and they usually were, the dark cloud had girdled the entire household as well. What a shame.
When Anna returned, she wore blue snuggies on her feet and a knee-length sweater over the caftan, belted at the waist.
“We can do this at the kitchen table, if that suits,” offered Caburn. “It’s warm in here.”
Anna shrugged. She sat. He put a tea in front of her, and took a seat across from her. She took a sip. It was ambrosia. Le Cordon Bleu notwithstanding, never in a thousand years would it have occurred to her to add scotch to tea. Still, she couldn’t let him get away with it. “You’re being very forward. Do you always go into people’s kitchens, snag their liquor, and pass it around? How do you know a person even drinks?”
“You look like you need it. So does the old lady.”
“What is routine about you coming to our home? Usually Kevin gets a memo or a letter when it’s time to recertify his security clearance, He goes in for a polygraph, answers a few basic questions and that’s it.”
“Sometimes that’s the way it happens, sometimes not.”
Caburn knew interviewing Anna in her own surroundings put her at an advantage. The rules were to first bring some discomfort to the situation, which he considered he’d done by barging into her house as if he owned it, but maybe not. Second rule, become a best friend. The idea being that the interviewee would be more forthcoming. He did the best he could with the situation at hand. In addition, he had a bad, bad feeling these women didn’t have a clue. Nesmith’s mother was loose as a goose and the wife wound as tight as a tripwire.
“This is a beautiful kitchen,” he said, looking around. “State-of-the-art.” All the appliances were stainless steel, the counters a pebbled granite. “Is that one of those new-fangled convection ovens? My sister has been hinting around for one for months.”
“Yes. I used to enjoy cooking.”
“What’s the difference between a convection oven and a regular oven?”
“It cooks faster.”
“That’s it? So does my microwave.”
Anna almost smiled.
Getting there, Caburn thought.
A gust of wind rattled the windows. Caburn observed Anna as she glanced for a long moment toward a pair of French doors that led to the glass and wood sunroom. It was sheathed in ice. She took another sip of scotch-laced tea and exhaled. “Something is terribly wrong, isn’t it?”
Oh, yeah, thought Caburn. Way wrong. “What makes you think that?”
“You. Did you think I was dumb as a rock? A State Department person…you are an investigator, aren’t you? What is routine about knocking on my door in the middle of a winter storm? In ten years no one from his department has so much as sent us a Christmas card. So your visit means trouble—or a conspiracy.”
Caburn forced a nice smile, his second best. “It’s nothing as elegant as a conspiracy.”
“Kevin is in trouble. You might as well tell me. It would explain a lot.”
“Really? Like what?”
“Nothing I can put my finger on—just a feeling. So, spill it. Because coming to our home is not routine, poking your nose into my fridge is not routine and pouring whisky into tea is not routine…”
Caburn watched her face, could almost see her brain flexing. “Are you getting wound up again?”
“Yes, I am. Eight to four-thirty. Those are regular government working hours.”
“Those are your regular work hours. My department works 24/7.” He took out a notebook and pen. Caburn would have preferred to use the small tape recorder, but left it in his coat pocket, lest its appearance undo the small measure of balance she had managed. “Do you feel up to answering a few questions?”
“But that’s just it. Why ask me anything? Kevin is the courier—not me.” Anna tried to read him, taking in the military short haircut, the lived-in face with a light beard stubble that was all the rage among men these days; the full lips that pursed when he was trying to compose his thoughts. He was certain of himself. He was soft spoken as if he knew he did not have to shout. People listened to him. The charm and empathy he displayed toward Clara-Alice was probably part of a cultivated persona.
Anna had a sudden and curious feeling of her body suspended in in space; a miniscule human island anchored to nothing beyond a wisp of cloud. She discovered her cup was empty. That was it. The warm scotch on top of an empty stomach. That undid her equilibrium.
“Mrs Nesmith… Anna—? Are you with me?”
“Yes. A little scotch-fogged, I don’t usually drink hard liquor in my tea.”
“Do you know where your husband is right now?”
“Making a courier drop is all I know.”
“So, he doesn’t mention where he’s going before he goes.”
“You know he’s not supposed to do that. But, I can usually figure out where he’s been.”
“Oh? How do you do that?”
“If he brings me a box of Swiss chocolates, I guess Switzerland. Once he brought me a black pearl. I thought Japan. A good piece of leather or a pair of Clarks suggests London. Hermes scarf says Paris. Oh, he once brought me a set of carved amber animals—so I figured the Baltic States. Five yards of a fabulous, intricate patterned silk said China. I had one of the wing chairs in the living room upholstered with it.” She closed her eyes, thinking. “He brought me a replica of a Mayan…” she started to say a Mayan fertility goddess, stopping herself before it slipped out. It was on her bedside table. Before she and Kevin made love, she always touched it for luck. “—a statuette of some sort.”
Caburn had heard enough. Hoping to ease out of gifts and get on with it, he said, “I’ve read about the Mayans—lots of bloody sacrifices. Even the Mayan king sacrificed his blood—” Caburn stopped. His memory was hitting on a date with a girl who worked at the Smithsonian. She had blabbed the entire evening about Mayan Civilization, the Long Calendar and painted a visual picture of the Mayan King sitting on a stool in all his feather and gold finery and cutting with a stone knife the underside of his own penis, a sacrifice to a sun god. He had not kissed her goodnight or returned her calls. He shivered and crossed his legs beneath the table.
“Are you still cold? Shall I turn up the thermostat?”
“I’m fine. It’s just the customs of primitive societies always leave me cold. Not cold, cold—”
“I know what you mean. It’s like the Aborigines in Papua New Guinea who eat the brains of their loved ones, become ill, and die. They called the disease kuru. The Aborigines kept presenting with something like Mad Cow Disease until a veterinarian discovered the similarity between kuru and scrapie—an infectious disease in the brain of sheep.” Anna shuddered. “That put me off red meat for weeks.”
Oh, man! What had he started? He liked his steaks rare. He had to ask: “If the meat is well done, does that kill the uh…kuru?”
“I guess not. Only the women and children ate it. The men in the tribe stayed healthy. I had to research it for a senator when the USDA stopped cattle shipments from Canada.”
Caburn was seriously irked at himself. He had allowed the conversation to wander too far off track. He checked his watch and saw that it was now almost seven-thirty. He was starving and he wanted to stop and get takeout before he went home. Not beef or lamb, though. Maybe chicken or shrimp.
“Could you drink another cup of tea?” Anna asked, moving from the table to the kitchen counter. “I’m going to have one.” She poured bottled water into the kettle and plugged it in. Leaning against the kitchen counter with her arms crossed, she asked: “Do you have any more questions?”
“Just a few, I need to get going before the roads ice up any worse. Don’t take this amiss, but I think you are one smart lady—you know—to figure out all the places Nesmith carried dispatches.”
“Carried?” Anna came on full alert.
“Sure,” Caburn said, trying for a cool recovery. “Carries going out, carried coming home.”
Anna nodded, picked up where she’d left off, but skepticism coated the words. “There are only one-hundred-ninety-five countries in the world, more or less—depending upon revolutions or protests for independence—not counting Taiwan. Kevin has been a courier for fourteen years, so I think he’s probably been to most of them.”
It wasn’t easy to impress Caburn. It was something that she could pluck data out of her memory as if were ordinary, like a family recipe for lasagna or pound cake. “One-hundred-ninety-five countries. You think one person in a thousand would have that kind of info on the tip of their tongues?”
“Geography teachers would. A Senator from the Midwest asked for the data; and how much the US gave various countries in loans, grants, or foodstuffs.”
“And you remembered?”
“It’s my job to remember. Anyway—the dollar amount was in the billions—and most of the loans have been forgiven. I remember that.”
“Whoa. No wonder we’ve got a trillion dollar deficit. Not to mention my salary has been frozen.”
“Mine, too,” admitted Anna. The kettle began to hiss. She unplugged it and poured the hot water over fresh teabags. She put both cups on the table, and the carton of half-and-half. Her hand hesitated near the bottle of scotch; then she put that, too, within Caburn’s reach. “I don’t believe anything we’ve touched on has to do with what is going on with Kevin. He is coming home, isn’t he?”
He met her look head on. “Yes, he is.”
“When?” She watched his face for any telltale tics, his eyes shifting away, signs that he was lying. She saw none.
“In a few days, a week at the most.”
“You know his schedule, but you can’t tell me what he’s done; what kind of trouble he’s in?”
Caburn lapsed into silence for a few seconds. His instructions were to put off the inevitable as long as possible. He hated not telling her. Worse, he hated seeming shifty. He could tell she was desperate to know. He figured her women’s intuition told her whatever trouble Nesmith was in was going to change her life. The sleeting rain, relentless, continued. He could hear it pelting the windows.
“A few years ago one of Kevin’s colleagues was caught smuggling heroin.”
“No. No, it’s nothing like that.” It was much worse—for her anyway, but Caburn was relieved that her mind was going down that path. It led to a cascade of possibilities and he was certain she would rotate through each one of them, from robbery to kidnapping by terrorists.
He offered her a small smile. “Has Nesmith brought you anything interesting lately?”
Anna looked inward. “No. Nothing.” He’d even forgotten her birthday.
“What do you think that signifies?”
That he doesn’t care anymore. “That he’s not going places where he can shop, or he has a quick turnaround. If he comes home and sleeps for seventeen hours straight, I think he’s carrying to Iraq or Afghanistan.”
“How many bank accounts do you have—if you know?”
“It’s just a routine question.” He poured cream in his fresh tea, passing on the scotch.
“Does Kevin get asked that?”
“Sure. And, as far as our records show, he’s always been open and honest.”
I see.” But she didn’t really. She watched Caburn’s hands. He scooped up the teabag in the spoon and wound the string around it, and placed it on the saucer. He had nice hands, long fingers with well-kept nails and no wedding band. He poured in the half-and-half, then picked up the bottle of scotch. He held the lip over her cup. She nodded and he poured just enough to float on top of her tea. He put the bottle aside. Neither spoke again until they had each taken a few sips. The man was playing her. She found this a little daunting. Sooner or later he was going to have to tell her about Kevin, about the investigation. She decided she would not volunteer one more jot of information until he actually asked a straightforward question.
“You were telling me about your bank accounts.”
“We have a joint household account. Then we each have our own personal account. Clara-Alice has her own account, her pension, but we don’t let her pay for anything.”
“How does that work? Your paychecks, finances, I mean.”
“Just like yours, or anyone who works for the government. We never see our paychecks. They’re direct-deposited into our personal accounts. Then we transfer funds from our personal accounts to the household account.”
“But suppose Nesmith writes a check on the account, then you do the same—how do you keep from having overdrafts?”
Anna looked at him steadily. “You’re either a dinosaur, or you’re playing dumb. We don’t write checks. We use our ATM cards.”
“I guess I’m a dinosaur. I write checks for my car payment, rent, and cash—whatever.”
“Well, we don’t. Our mortgage, car payments, utilities are all auto-withdrawn. Even our car insurances.”
“And this is the only home you own?”
“You must be joking.”
“A lot of young married couples have vacation homes.”
“We’re not so young. I’m thirty-four. Kevin is forty.”
“And, no children—right?”
“No—no children.” A deep sadness washed over her face, leaving it drawn, and she looked down at her hands wrapped around the tea cup.
Uh oh. Caburn thought of a string of expletives that he could not mouth in front of this woman. But he suspected that when she learned the truth about her husband she would be cleft in two. “Does he call you—say from whatever country he’s in, just to check in, see how you’re doing?”
“No. Never. He leaves his cell and his Palm Pilot in his car. He does often e-mail me from the VIP lounges. That’s where he has to wait until his flights are called—so he uses the courtesy internet to alert me as to when or what time I can expect him home.”
“Has he emailed you, say in the past three or four days?”
“Have you ever gone on a dispatch with him? Or met him at the end of run—say in London or Paris?”
“Well, that wouldn’t be against the law, you know. A courier makes his delivery, and if he doesn’t have a return pouch—or he has to wait for it—he can take a day or two off—meet his wife or girlfriend. It happens.”
“Not with us. I have a job. We can’t leave his mother for more than overnight. And that’s only if our neighbor stays over. She’s…”
“—Not well. Right. I understand.” Caburn drained his cup, and returned his pen and notebook to his pocket. “I think that will do it. I appreciate your time—and the tea. If I need anything else, I’ll call first.”
Anna gave him a curious look. “But why not just wait until Kevin returns?” She wondered how sensitive the documents Kevin last carried had been. Wondered too, if he had been put in harm’s way, but dismissed the thought. Frank Caburn’s laid-back demeanor didn’t augur for that possibility.
“That makes more sense than you can possible know. I’m going to suggest it to my boss.”
She walked him to the door, waited while he shrugged into his overcoat. A very fine vicuna, Anna noted. His picked his muffler up off the floor and shoved it into a pocket.
As Caburn opened the front door the lights blinked. “Oh, Lord, if the ice brings down the lines, we’re in for it.”
“Well, safe traveling,” Anna said, and shut the door firmly—against the wind, the sleet, and Frank Caburn.
The brass knocker sounded. Anna opened the door to him again.
“I forgot. My hat blew away. If it shows up in the neighborhood, would you hold onto it for me?”
“Yeah. It’s a very nice hat.” He started to say more but a gust of sleet-filled wind slammed into him.
Anna closed the door and shot the dead bolt. She leaned against it for a moment. Oh, Kevin—what have you DONE?
A South Alabama native, Jackie Weger has been writing novels off and on for thirty years. She enjoys destination travel–going to new and strange places, meeting the natives, learning their customs, their foods, how they survive good times and bad. She lived part of one winter with trappers in the Louisiana Swamps, volunteered at a sister of Mercy Mission in Colon, Panama–and had one of the most interesting conversations in her life with an old man and his dog as they sat on a bench waiting for a train in the Village of Versailles. Jackie loves books, coffee, tea, cats, gossip and all things Southern.