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Deb glanced over the news headlines and sighed. The world in its turmoil.
“And me in mine”, she murmured. “I wonder, what day it is?” She had to check her phone. The digital display read Tuesday, November 30. She rubbed her forehead and stood where she was although her mind raced faster than the speed of light it seemed.
Somehow or another we made it through Thanksgiving. All of us. She couldn’t quite piece it all together in her mind. At least not yet. Susan had been released. Their visit had gone very well. They’d been just like two sisters; they were so close to one another. The time passed and the horror of what had happened to her couldn’t lessen their love. They had spoken of the good things in life that could come. About how good God had been to both of them through the bad times and the good. They shared their gratitude that Susan was still alive. They had even fearlessly and joyfully made a ‘pact of hope’ for 2022. Secretly, Deb was also grateful that she hadn’t had to explain all the juicy details of what was happening in her home life, particularly in her relationship with Mark.
It turned out that Susan was just thrilled to see her and for them to get to spend some time together again. She was staying with a cousin now who possessed some medical training. All that had sounded like a Godsend. And it was! She really believed it was a miracle. As Deb was thinking back over these things a smile began to form. But, then, it faded away just as quickly as it had appeared.
It was time to get down to the nitty-gritty. She and Mark. She and Dave. Tessa and Mark. Then there is the lunatic man in the truck. Everything had changed. Life would never be the way it used to be.
Suddenly a man’s voice, obviously used to charming American women with his beautiful French accent, addressed her from behind.
Deb carefully put her smile in place before turning to now face . . . Alex!
“The basic rule is simple. If the woman is married, you should say ‘madame‘”, she emphasized, “even if she were a widow: once married, always ‘madame’. Only if she isn’t married should you say ‘mademoiselle’. Bonsoir, Alex.”
His dimples were adorable. “Merci beaucoup for the French lesson”, he slightly bowed. “But … you have been standing here looking like you are so far away. Are you lost in a fantasy?”
Was Alex following her? She had known it was him before she had turned around. Now holding his gaze eye to eye, she played it as flirtatiously as he while keeping her meaning direct and no-nonsense.
“Not a chance sweetheart. I make it my business to know where I am and I am aware of those around me at all times.”
The twinkle in his eyes answered for him. He liked her. He liked her a lot. Her self-assurance and the ability to think on her feet on the spot impressed him.
When Alex had approached her, she had been standing outside Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse Restaurant. It was expensive. Dressy casual, but chic. True, as he had remarked on, she had been deep in thought before entering, but that’s what she had chosen this place for – to collect the cobwebs in her head and maybe spin “humble” out of hers as Charlotte had in the storybook. It was great food, good atmosphere, but what were the odds she’d run into him?
“Is this just a coincidence?” She cocked a brow at him “Us happening to be here. Now? Did Mark put a tail on me?”
He was still smiling. Mr. Charm. “Take it easy, mon cher. I meant no harm”, he responded. “I liked you the first time I met you, Deb. As for being here now, I could hardly be here earlier as they only serve dinner and bar; later and I’d miss Happy Hour.” He gave her the royal dimple treatment. “Could I join you? Buy you a drink?”
“Miss Happy Hour? Wouldn’t that be tragic?” She enjoyed his obvious annoyance that the old charm wasn’t working before granting him a reprieve, “I’d be delighted for you to join me, Alex, thank you. Follow me”
Inside the restaurant, she moved with easy grace and confident assurance. She didn’t wait to be shown to a table. Deb could feel his eyes on her as she led the way.
She obviously knew her way around and was comfortable here. This place hadn’t been in her file. Alex was silently re-evaluating his assignment. She led him to a reserved table by the windows. “My table. I always ask to be accommodated for the view.”
As they were seated, the waiter appeared with her steak dinner. Alex raised his brows, but Deb’s gaze remained steady and her smile in place. The staff obviously knew this patron well. The waiter was addressing Alex, “How may I serve you, sir?” Alex said, “No food, s’il vous plaît. A Ruth’s Manhattan would be perfect. Deborah? Would you–?”
“No, no thanks. I don’t drink. But you, do feel free, and I’d love refills on the tea, please?” The waiter nodded and withdrew.
When the server was out of earshot, Alex leaned toward her. “In answer to your question earlier … no, Mark didn’t put a tail on you.” He leaned back and continued. “However, the people we work for did.”
She licked her lower lip but otherwise, there was no shock, no upset at his revelation. “And who are these ‘people’ you work for?”
He ignored her question. “You are in grave danger. You’re smart, mon chéri. You must understand that the mere fact that you’re Mark’s wife makes you a target. There is a rapist-murderer on the loose.” Ah! Now there was the shock in her eyes.
“Murderer? He’s killed someone?”
Alex looked as if he knew he’d just dealt her a hand from a deck with no jokers. “Yes. Yes, he did.” He held her eyes.
Nothing else was said, as their server was back setting down their drinks. When he had withdrawn again, though, she questioned, “Who?’
He answered slowly as if he was now the one lost deep in thought. “Oh ~ he attacked two other women …some pretty young things. But they had no resemblance to Susan. Nor Tessa.” He sighed. “Nor you. But that doesn’t mean—“
She cut him off. “So-oooo. He has a problem with blondes — and he fell off the wagon so to speak?”
“Fell off the wagon?”
“You said they had no resemblance to Tessa, Susan or me. I assume that means they weren’t blondes?”
He had to admire her natural tendency for navigating tough emotional assaults. Priceless and so delicious. “He has a mission, mon ange. And, it’s not just that you’re all blondes, we know that much. The other two were dark-haired, yes, and also beautiful. One was an Asian woman, the other an Italian.”
“Which one did he kill?”
His answer took her aback. “Both! The Italian and Asian women were raped, then killed. We think Susan would have been number three but he was interrupted. Remember? Susan confided that someone had started pounding on her door, yelling her name while she was being attacked.” Deb winced and he reached across for her hand, but she withdrew it and placed her hands in her lap. Alex knew this was hard but she had to hear it and know that she had to start counting herself as a possible victim, too. “That interrupted him! He fled out a back window. The police arrived and so on.” He sighed, but pressed on. “Then there was another victim, a blonde that resembled you three. He left her for dead but she survived. Maybe. Not everyone has strength — or faith — like you and Susan.”
Deb looked like she was going to be sick. “Do you need a break?” She shook her head
“I don’t believe in coincidences Deb. Tessa… Susan… you… all bear a remarkable resemblance to one another. He appears to be focusing only on blondes now, or that may be a red herring. We’re still working up the profile on our unsub, but his targets now are unmistakable.”
Silence fell between them like a curtain as Deb processed this unexpected meeting. Alex was here to warn her. He had said, ‘he’s on a mission”. Those were his words. And he seemed to think there was some connection between the six of them, her and Susan, Tessa, the blonde that was left for dead, and the two dark-haired women that were … that were murdered! And the connection wasn’t that they were blondes. What did they all have in common? And what in the world was an unsub? Alex must think I’m smarter than I am. She started to ask him, but then he shocked her again by breaking the silence himself with a change of subject.
“What’s going on with you and Mark?”
She shook off the emotional daze. Trying to keep a poker face, she answered his question with questions of her own. “What makes you think anything is going on? What makes it any of your business, anyway?”
Even as she put the questions to him she was realizing and thinking, ‘I still don’t trust this man. Not all the way. Not yet. Even though she knew he was partnered with Mark. Hah! As if that was a good vouch for… — Anger lit up her next thought ~ ‘They’ve put a tail on me?‘
He sipped his drink slowly, He was good at his work and the vibes coming from this blonde bombshell told him he was losing here. ‘How can I get her to understand I’m on her side?’ he wondered.
“Look”, he ventured, “Mark’s got his ways, okay? But I’ve grown to really care about him. He is a good man. I’ve become close to him. I know the story about his father. About the pills and all that. About how he got mixed up in the undercover worlds of politics and – however you want to term it – the mafia biz.” He paused watching her response.
Her fuse was already lit. She didn’t hesitate in firing back. “Politics and mafia biz! Is there a difference?”
He glanced around to be sure no one was making their tables into ringside seats.
“Pardon me if I’ve grown bitter and cynical”, Deb was careful to keep her voice low, “but I’m currently appalled with most politicians and —” she stopped abruptly as he laughed.
“Haven’t we all? That’s a whole new subject in itself. Let’s stick to the one at hand. Mark’s carrying some kind of a burden he’s not shared with me yet—“
It was her turn to interrupt. “Must you know all his personal business, Alex? Are you married to him, too?” She finished with an affectedly coy smile.
He finished the last sip of his drink and said calmly, “Yes! Like you, mon renard rusé ~ I make it my business to know where I am and those who are around me at all times.”
“What did you call me?”
“Thought you knew French? ‘My sly fox’.”
Deb gave him an apologetic smile. “Touche. …Well, let me think. What can I tell you that you don’t already know? Maybe that we’re living in a three-story house? That’d be his story, my story, and her story, too. I find it rather cramped for my liking.”
He gazed back cooly. “Sure about your count? There’s another story, Isn’t there? Your ah, doctor friend? Dave’s his name, I think?”
Deborah bristled again. She thought that maybe she was wrong. He didn’t like her at all.
“Either you’re no good in your line of work, or you already know all about Dave and you’re baiting me for Mark or whoever it is you work for — maybe his father! Careful, gumshoe, I’m no cold fish,” She stood then and leaned over the table toward him. “Let me tell you one other thing. I’m not your chérie, nor your cher. I’m not even your amie. And I’ll not have my personal feelings and relationships used against me. You got me, Monsieur?
To her annoyance, he looked positively – ahem, excited.
Alex let out a soft whistle. “Whew, our rose has a thorn. Once again, take it easy. And I am your amie. Anything I’ve checked out was for your and Mark’s benefit.” He chose to ignore her eye roll. “Please believe me. You and Mark will have to make your own decisions as all this progresses but—“
She was impatient. “As what progresses? Look, these past few weeks I’ve tried to act like everything was fine at home with my kids. I made excuses for Thanksgiving so that Mark and I didn’t have to put on a show. It was miserable! Mark didn’t even show back up at the house. I assume he spent his holiday with Tessa. Dave had gone to his parent’s home having found out that Mark brought me back from Florida.” She stopped. Alex seemed tense. “What?”
“Did you let Dave know anything about Mark working undercover? Or me?”
Why did men always think only of themselves? “Oh puh-leeze!” she retorted. “What would I tell him? That you and Mark are both members of a black-ops outfit … let’s see – Alpha Males, Inc.?”
He was almost bouncing in his seat grinning like a hyena. “Would you?”
“No, of course not. Tell him about your undercover what? I mean. . . I’m beginning to wonder if I even know what I mean anymore. Alex, this is quite a journey I’m on, okay? In the last year, I’m feeling like I’m on a roller coaster. On the way up the first hill, I was lulled into a sense of happiness. Then we went over and it just hasn’t stopped. I loved my husband – and now–” she turned away to get hold of her emotions. She also realized she’d just said loved, not love.
He said softly, “Please, mon–, Deb, sit down. Come on, sit. He reached over with a handkerchief and instead took her hands which she had begun clasping and clinching. Tears did want to sting her eyes, but she couldn’t cry.
“I-, I found a note and some pictures in Mark’s desk drawer,” she said, her voice catching. “Something he had written about me. And um, a picture and letter Tessa had written for him. His gun was missing from the drawer. I had been going to confront him and really try to talk to him, you know?”
Alex nodded sympathetically. Somehow that made her even sadder.
“But when I topped the stairs, I don’t know, I just kind of froze up at the thought of it. I went into our bedroom and he was asleep. I don’t know how long I stood there watching him. Wrestling with what I’d read and that picture of his ‘pretend wife’! I’ll ask you now. What is all this ‘pretend’ bit? Did my husband or did he not marry that”, she hesitated and then said, “that girl?” as though it was the worst name she could hang on human or animal.
Alex’s next words were measured. He’d have to be careful here with how much he could divulge. “Tessa thinks they are married. But we staged it. Mon cher, he couldn’t marry her while you and he are still legally together. Could he?”
Deb pulled her hands from his and shot back, “Well other men have certainly done it! And are serving prison time, I might add. Do you know I’d found the receipt for the rings? Her rings? Why? Why would he even pretend? Oh, I get it. yeah, Alpha Males, Inc. has NO single agents … just you and Mark. And, well, they couldn’t use you, you’re gay!”
Alex thought, ‘Good. This poison’s been building a long time. It needs release.’ He smiled, “That was funny”
Deb hung her head. “No, it wasn’t. Okay, it was. But I apologize for saying it. It was snarky. I ask God’s forgiveness and yours.”
He seemed genuinely touched. “Wow. I don’t think anyone has ever asked my forgiveness before. For me, nothing to forgive. I’d have said a lot worse. In French of course!” They both laughed.
Alex said, “I probably shouldn’t tell you this, and it’s up to you whether it makes any difference to you personally, but here goes. Why did he pretend? Because she’s in a position working in the government and if something happens to her, not even necessarily rape and/or murder, that could put so many people and your nation in danger. Yes, it’s important to protect you and others, but Tessa is key. I can’t tell you certain things. But we had to have an inside man that could get close to her and find out if she’s working undercover for someone else. And for reasons important to our having any chance of stopping the danger, Mark was the only man to use. That came from a very top-level person in the U.S. government, not Mark and not even our boss.”
Deb looked glummer than ever. “So they wreck our marriage and he’s a genuine American hero. Can they give us separate medals for both our homes?”
Alex smiled. “You may have a career in dark humor.”
“May I ask one more question? Personal?”
“Was it a pretend honeymoon too?”
Alex cleared his throat as their server stepped up to the table to ask, “Will there be anything else?”
Alex looked at Deb and then lifted his glass. “Better bring me another one.”
to be continued.