April Carlisle ran up the steps to her walk up in Parkside, Washington DC. She was still marveling at the fact that she owned the three-story building, with a basement garage. Even though it had been less than eight months, it was already home, in every sense of the word.
She had a small garden in the back, enough for Max, her adopted black lab, to frolic in. Although ‘frolic’ was too strong a word. More like “fertilize”. She’d learned that Max was prolific in his production of manure, and could fart like no dog – or human – she’d ever come across, when he was in the mood. And then look innocently at her as if to say, “Who, me?” It made her want to smile and also to open every window.
He was lolloping along next to her, trotting contentedly, sniffing the older trees along the road and constantly glancing at her, to make sure she was still in view. She was supposed to run with a leash, but April almost never did. She felt it was just wrong – Max would never bother anyone, and it gave him valuable sniffing time.
She stopped on the steps of the building, catching her breath and testing her heart rate via her FitBit. 120 beats per second. Not too bad for a 32-year-old woman, who didn’t get to run as much as she wanted these days.
Work had been hard recently. While she was not on an active case right now, she was helping out by doing research for another case while also mentoring a new recruit, Morgan. Morgan was from San Diego, and he held promise.
Things were tense at work since the disappearance of one of Ingrams and Associates’ top field agents, Desirea McGee, – a friend and co worker. Desirea had been working on a case involving the son of “Movie Mogul” (that’s what everybody called him), who had studios in China. Mogul was looking to retire, and was grooming his son to replace him. However, his son had women-relationship problems, erectile dis-function and a host of other issues. His father had approached Ingrams to see what could be done and Desirea had been injected into his life as his principal assistant. It seemed like a very simple job – seduce the boy, show him that he was a man, build up his ego, and set him up for the new job.
But it proved to be anything but simple. First, Desirea had discovered he had a huge submissive streak, courtesy of his childhood nanny, who had not only been a tremendously bossy woman, but also given him his first sexual experience. As if that wasn’t enough, she then discovered he had repressed transvestite tendencies. Her work was cut out for her.
Four weeks into the mission, Ingrams got a message from her saying she was going to take a trip with him, a mystery vacation in the family private jet. Then she just went radio silent. They couldn’t trace her phone. They heard nothing from her for three weeks. Everyone was growing very concerned. The son had also vanished, the plane had not landed anywhere that Ingrams could find, and so - with reluctance - they’d handed it over to the FBI for further investigation.
April worked for a clandestine intervention agency, called Ingrams & Associates, named after their founder, CEO and original field agent, Jessica Ingrams. Ingrams was a private agency that went out of its way to not advertise and not have its business known. They were hired by large corporations, government agencies, and occasionally private individuals. They provided a truly niche service, offering covert assistance to high value individuals who had issues occurring in their lives that most people would seek counseling or treatment for. But Ingrams’ clients, weren’t people who would even admit they had a problem, let alone seek treatment for it. Some of their cases included a spy who had come in from deep cover and had emotional problems over what he’d been forced to do, but could never ask for help. When a Military Chief of Staff from a small second world country who was suddenly outed as being gay, and he had no where to turn, but still held the codes to the country’s arsenals, it was Ingrams and Associates that was brought in. Sometimes it was more personal, like when a man’s wife and close friends thought he’d enjoy some group sex and started without him, he learned - after he’d seen them el-flagrante - that he wasn’t that keen on it.
Ingrams would research the target, deduce his or her situation and then embed one of their highly trained field agents into the situation, who would enter the target’s life clandestinely, evaluate the issue at hand and then do whatever was necessary to help that person through their issue. Sometimes they could try to solve the issue, or they might just produce a way for the person to function and move forward.
Often the issue was relationship based – an ego bruise, confidence rattled, a relationship damaged beyond repair, and the field agent would do whatever it took to bring the situation back under control. There was often a sexual component to the work, and all Ingrams field agents knew that, accepted it, and did their damndest to be the very best at what they were.
April had often joked with her friend Megan that Ingrams Field Agents were a “cross between James Bond, Mae West and Sigmund Frued. With a dash of Jason Bourne, for sex appeal.”
Ingrams had a large support team for their agents, and had internal groups for research, cover development and a room full of high tech gadgets that would make Q’s eyes pop. As you’d expect for a group that often charged upwards of a million dollars per engagement for their services.
There was little love lost between Ingrams and the FBI, who tolerated their existence - barely. The FBI was more interested in the missing son than a missing agent of an agency that they would have shut down instantly if they could.
Everyone at Ingrams was on high alert, thinking of plans to find Desirea, and suggesting new approaches every day.
The entire company was on edge, and Jessica Ingrams was not helping things by getting annoyed with people over slight issues. Dermot, her right hand man, and the number two person at Ingrams, was spending a lot of time soothing ruffled ego’s and reassuring people that ‘they’d find her. By god.’ His Scottish accent had come out far more in the last three weeks, indicating the stress he was under. Dermot was nearing sixty-five now, an older Scot with a shock of white hair and a perpetual white trimmed beard. He’d been in the US for years and word was he’d once been a psychologist at the CIA.
April felt useless. She was mentoring the new recruit as a favor for her friend Megan, who was running the training section after she had married. No running around, screwing the entire world for Megan any more. The company book was 3:1 that she’d be pregnant within two years.
As she sat on the steps of her house, watching Max ‘check email’, as she referred to his actions, when he was sniffing the same old locations, and then dropping his own scent, the door to the next building opened and she looked up into the smiling face of her neighbor, Kim McGhee.
Kim was an imposing tall red head, like April. Statuesque was the word. Kim was also a transgendered individual who had been assigned as a male at birth but who identified as a female, who made a living from doing female impersonation of famous celebrities. Kim’s Cher was legendary. They’d met and bonded when April had first moved, in – Kim had inherited the place from her father and moved in when he died. They’d even ended up comparing blowjob technique one drunken evening, involving tequila and Baileys Irish Cream. Kim had declared that a superior blowjob was made up of three parts, “Knowledge and experience, enjoyment of the act, and the feelings for the person you are doing it to.” April was taken aback, but then felt it necessary to keep her end up, and agreed, adding “how important it was to keep teeth out of the equation.”
“Morning April. Nice day, for a change,” said Kim, in her breathless southern drawl. Kim was raised in Knoxville, and it showed in her accent.
April grinned back at her. “Bit dressed up for a Sunday morning?” she inquired. It was true, Kim was wearing a sheath dress that showed off her figure and silicon touchups to fullest advantage.
Kim rolled her eyes. “Yeah, baby doll. There’s a pride march later today. Gotta go fly the flag. Someone wants to tell me which toilet I can use again.”
April laughed. Kim was more female at times than she was. There was no way anyone was going to mistake Kim for a man.
“Have a good one. Don’t get arrested. They’ll never know what to do with you,” offered April, pushing herself up and looking round for Max.
“C’mon Max. Time for a shower.”
Max came bounding up to the steps, and stopped to sniff at Kim, ever hopeful for a treat.
“Go on Max. Maybe later,” said Kim, rubbing his head. Kim had twice dog sat for Max when April was on a case, and they were firm friends.
Disappointed, Max wagged his tail anyway, and then turned and followed April inside, where she was holding the door open.
An hour later, a freshly showered April was curled up with a steaming hot coffee, engrossed in the latest Lee Child novel on her iPad, when her cell phone interrupted.
Pausing only to bookmark her page, she picked up the phone.
“Hey Dermot,” she answered, knowing who had called before even glancing at the phone. April made full use of assigning specific ring tones to people. Dermot came up with Colonel Bogey, the theme from Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
“Unfortunately not April. Nothing new to report.”
“Yes, quite. However, we do have a wee case here for you. Something just came in and it looks fairly cut and dried, and you are free, soooooo...”
April smiled to her self, with a small amount of happiness. Finally, something constructive to do.
“I’ll be in in an hour, ok?”
“Great, see you there.”
Case protocol meant she couldn’t ask for details over the phone – it was onsite only. And Ingrams worked twenty four / seven, so there’d be someone there to talk to. Dermot himself probably – both he and Jessica were pretty much living at the office these days.
Within ten minutes, April had fed Max and gotten into her new Porsche 911 pulling it out of the basement garage. Her beloved Nissan convertible had finally run out of steam, and she’d gone all out in replacing it. A convertible black Porsche 911 – the same make and model as bad boy writer Hank Moody, played by David Duchovny, in Californication, one of her favorite TV shows.
Since it was a nice day, she put the top down, and roared off towards Ingrams.
When she arrived, the tension and stress seemed to have gotten deeper. There was an atmosphere of grim resignation. Desirea had been gone three weeks and some within the building had started to write her off.
Dermot looked tired as he ushered April into his office. He was more unshaven than usual, and his shirt looked rumpled and slept in. There were three different cups of unfinished coffee on his desk.
“Dermot, you don’t look good. When was the last time you were home?” asked April, concerned.
“I don’t ... I think it was Thursday? What’s today?”
“Dermot, you HAVE to go home. You know better than anyone that burning yourself out here isn’t helping Desirea any,” replied an even more concerned April.
“I’ll go after this. Promise. Scouts honor.” Dermot proved he’d not lost his sense of humor, much to April’s happiness. He even did the three fingered salute.
“What have you got for me?” April enquired, settling into the plush visitor’s chair opposite Dermot’s desk.
Dermot handed her a thick folder, with a coffee ring on it.
“Here. Unusual one, this one. You won’t be going in under cover. The client knows who and what you are. You are there to help her understand what has happened. Basically, she is the CEO of a public company, and her husband suddenly went off the rails. He left her and reversed his sexual identity entirely. There are some repercussions – he dumped the shares he got when they divorced and some other group now controls her company, so while she’s still ostensibly in charge, she’s pretty much got nothing to do all day but dwell on what she sees as her husband’s betrayal. She wants answers. She’s asking us to help give her some.”
April leafed through the folder quickly, absorbing what she could on a cursory glance.
“Why us? Why not some other psychologist or psychiatrist?”
“Well, because she thinks there is more to this than a simple repressed sexual identity. She’s got some wild hair up her ass that there’s something else going on. We are not only therapists; we are trained investigators. We kill six birds with one brick, so to speak.”
“I see. OH! This is in England?” exclaimed a surprised April, having just found the dossier page of the client, one Rachael Hicks.
“Yeah. You’ve never worked there, have you?” drawled Dermot.
“No. I’ve worked with the bureau there once, when I did that thing in Berlin, a couple of years ago, but I’ve never been to the UK before. Exciting!” said April, brightly.
Ingrams & Associates had small offices in various countries – England, Israel, South Africa and Japan. Each was only staffed with support personnel, although it was an aim for Ingrams to recruit field agents for each specific office. So far they had only managed to get two field agents in the Japanese office but this was mainly because of lack of resources to scout recruits. Scouting possible recruits for such a secretive and specialized agency was extremely difficult. Extremely. Part of Megan’s new job was to help in just that.
“The guys there have been briefed. They know you are coming. The head guy is Mark Scholtz. If you remember, he was the guy you liaised with on the Berlin job. While the client knows who you are, you are still going in as a PA to her, to contain propriety within the company. No one else there needs to know who you are or what you are doing. Go read the documentation. I’m going to go home and get a shower.”
April was already engrossed in the documentation, and nodded vaguely at Dermot, as he rose and walked towards the door.
“Er ... April?”
“Think you could do that in your office?”
“What? Oh, sure. Yes. Sorry,” burbled April, standing up, gathering up the folder and feeling embarrassed.
Six days later, April was sitting in her kitchen, having coffee with her next door neighbor, Kim.
“England??” exclaimed Kim, “I love England. Specially those English men. Oh, the accent. Makes me weak at the knees.”
April grinned, “Yeah, it does kinda go straight to the emotion center of your brain, doesn’t it?”
Kim looked into the distance and said, dreamily, “I knew this one guy ... British as they came. Accent, attitude, everything. He could make me hot just with a word. Made me feel like an animal in the sack. I wish that had worked out...”
Then she snapped back to the present and smiled at April, saying, “But you get to go there. Home of the hot accents. Lucky you. Go find a man for me... ?”
“Oh I’m sure I’ll find a few,” replied April, smiling herself. She’d never been to England before, and had spent the morning looking up the difference between England, Great Britain and The United Kingdom. England was one country. Great Britain was all the countries on the main island – England, Scotland and Wales. The United Kingdom was England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
She’d also done her research, and had already communicated with the London office, to request follow up background details. She was about as ready as she was ever going to be, and had spent the morning packing.
Max had sensed she was leaving the moment he saw the luggage come out. Several times before, April had left him in the care of other people while she went into the field – the last two times Kim had looked after him, and he was fast friends with her small dog, Cleo.
Kim knew some of what April did – not all the details but enough to know she was a field agent for a covert agency, and that she left for weeks at a time. She knew enough not to ask any more questions. Kim was nothing if not discrete when it came to her friends.
“You all packed? Got an umbrella? You gonna need one, girl,” Kim stated emphatically. “If there’s one thing England knows how to do, it’s rain.”
April laughed and they clinked coffee cups.
April’s flight over was uneventful – she watched TV shows on her Ipad and when she got there, customs and all the rest took time but wasn’t a problem. She was traveling on her own passport for once, and was unconcerned about any issues. She was too busy having a great time, listening to all the accents around her. It was like an episode of Downton Abbey mixed with Monty Python, two of her favorites. Her delight at being there was evident, and she was determined to make the most of her time there, even though work would come first.
As the plane banked to come into land at Heathrow, she could look down and see the patch work of the green farmlands, mixed with small clusters of housing neighborhoods. But best of all, they came in from the East, and came over the top of London. She could look down and see the River Thames, and Tower Bridge, the Shard and other London Landmarks. She was more than a little excited.
She was met after customs by someone sent to pick her up. Two men from the London office where there to greet her – it was a new experience to have her real name on a piece of paper, held up in the arrivals hall.
“I’m April,” she said, approaching the first of the two men. He smiled at her, and offered his hand.
“I’m George Piper. This here is Dan Boutrous,” he said, gesturing at the brown good-looking man behind him. George was a large man, rotund and slightly balding. He wore a rumpled suit and looked like a door-to-door salesman. April would soon learn this appearance was a façade; George had an unexpectedly quick mind, and could mimic any local accent the UK had to offer. He was the ultimate blend in man.
His companion, Dan, was younger, slimmer and obviously there was something far east in his ancestry, but he was just as quick on the uptake. A London lad through and through, April would eventually learn his accent was West London, although he could put on a posh accent at the drop of a hat.
“Let me take your bag, Miss April,” said Dan, showing a mouth full of perfect white teeth when she smiled. ‘So much for the idea that British people all had bad teeth, ‘ she thought.
“Where would you like to go first Miss Carlisle?” asked George, “Your hotel or the office?”
“Hotel,” said April, emphatically. “I desperately need a shower and to freshen up.”
“No problem,” said George. “You get the bags, Dan.”
Dan immediately bristled. “Why do I always have to get the bags, you daft old pillock? Why is it always the brown boy who has to carry them? You’re havin’ a laugh at my expense.”
“Because I’m the smart one, that’s why,” answered George, smoothly. “I’m the brains, you are muscle. Well, one muscle. Half a muscle.”
April got the idea that this was a practiced shtick. These two obviously knew each other well and were invoking something that April had heard about but never actually experienced, namely the British way of showing affection by basically being extremely rude to each other.
It was a strange thing – lots of cultures with British roots had this peculiar trait – Australians in particular. The more insulting they were to you, the more they liked you and the more they expected you to just hand it back. It was a tricky thing for an American to navigate, to understand when that was appropriate, and when it was not. To an American, calling someone a ‘daft cunt’ was the ultimate insult. But in England, it was almost a term of affection. No other culture in the world had better and more interesting ways to be rude to each other. Plus, it all just sounded so classy with a British accent, at least to her ears.
April found she was booked in at the Ritz. The Ritz! She was staying at The Ritz. In London! How cool was that? She couldn’t stop craning her head at all the landmarks they were passing by – Tower Bridge, The Tower of London, Piccadilly, Nelson’s Column, it was all passing by her. Living history. She almost squeed a bit when they went past Buckingham Palace.
The Ritz was everything she had expected – April had stayed in some nice hotels in her time, and while the Ritz wasn’t the best appointed or most modern – definitely not the most modern – there was just something about it that screamed class.
She took a quick shower, stashed her clothes and raced back downstairs, too wired to be too tired, even with the jetlag. She’d traveled before and knew the jetlag would come at some point, the trick was to let it happen on her schedule.
She found George and Dan in the bar, having a quick pint. George saw her coming and downed his almost instantly, leaving Dan to chug his as fast as he could, but still slow compared to George’s apparently infinite capacity.
“Come on boy, let’s be havin’ you,” he said, impatiently, making a show of looking at his watched as he glanced at an amused April. “We haven’t got all day here for you to sip it in.”
Dan finished his beer, slammed it down on the table and burped loudly.
“Ahhh, champion!” he exclaimed. “Shall we go then?”
The trio exited the lobby and climbed into a black cab. She looked at George, inquisitively and he just shook his head and said, “Better this way. Plus, driving across town at this time of day is a non-starter. A recipe for flying off the handle and being majorly upset with humanity in general.”
The trip took almost three quarters of an hour, and April kept waiting for the inevitable cab driver chat she’d heard so much about, but the driver himself didn’t say a word.
The conversation with George and Dan was enlightening, dealing with Brexit, the current state of the Monarchy, various thoughts they had about living in the USA and, of course, the weather. You can’t sit in a London Cab and not talk about the weather. It’s practically a local law. Nothing of consequence was said regarding the task at hand; this was, after all, a public place.
Eventually the cab dropped them off at the corner of Pentonville Road and St. John Street, in the borough of the Angel Islington, located in north London, where Ingrams and Associates had their UK based offices. George was careful to point out to April that the Angel tube station was just across the road, “just in case, pet”, as he put it.
They went into the building via a side door and walked up the stairs to the second floor. Another difference, she noted. The Brits have a ground floor and then the floor above it is the first floor, unlike the US, where the ground floor IS the first floor. April suspected there would many such adjustments to get used to over the next few days and weeks.
She was shown around the facility by Dan, after George politely mentioned he had some things to attend to. There was a conference room, several offices, a scaled down operations room, - similar to the one back in the US -, an equipment room, complete with workshop, and two rooms with researchers in them. And the kitchen. The tiny kitchen, barely big enough for a table, two chairs, a fridge and the inevitable tea kettle.
April was amazed at how tiny the whole operation was. This entire facility would fit inside both conference rooms and the bathrooms back in Washington. The rooms were relatively old, with steps up and down into rooms, and while everything was clean and well cared for, it just reeked of old.
When she stuck her head into the operations room, everyone turned to look at her, and she saw George in there, cup in hand, deep in conversation with someone. He’d seen her and nodded, raising his cup to her, and went back to his conversation.
Eventually she was shown into the office of the head of operations in London, Mark Scholtz. Mark was approximately ten years older than April. Thinning hair on top, glasses, clean-shaven, somewhat non-descript, but with interesting style choices. He was wearing a blue pinstriped suit, purple shirt and glaring red and orange tie. But it was his eyes that were the thing that stood out. He wore glasses for close up reading, but the moment he lowered them and turned them on you, it was like having laser beams fired at you. There wasn’t anything particularly striking about his eyes – they weren’t deep blue or a strange color; it was just you felt like he was giving you his full and undivided attention. There was stark and obvious intelligence behind them. It was unnerving at first, but after a while, April began to find it tremendously flattering.
They’d met before, when April had worked a job in Berlin, and Mark had been her point man in the city. The job had only taken three weeks, for her to come to the conclusion that the Olympic athlete she’d been hired to work with, who’d declared that he was considering a sex change, was entirely bullshitting the world. He’d actually had an injury that was going to stop him competing on the world stage, but he’d become addicted to the limelight, and this was his way of grabbing some of that spotlight again.
The Olympic committee in Germany had called in Ingrams to see what could be done, and it had only taken April a week to get into bed with Hans, and discovered there was no gender confusion going on with him. At all. Quite the opposite.
Even though she’d had to inform the committee it was all bullshit, she’d spent two more weeks “being sure”, because you didn’t get to fuck a gold medal winner very often, and also because the training to win a gold medal had also carried across into the bedroom. He was one hell of a sexual dynamo and she hadn’t actually been laid properly in months, not where she didn’t have to do the work.
Mark had understood completely; he’d found his own little Helga and spent a week in cottage on the Austrian border himself, once the task was completed.
“Hey April,” he said, sitting back in his chair, grinning, “how’s tricks? You ever hear back from Hans?”
She smiled broadly back at Mark, settling down in the seat in front of his desk, leaning back and putting her feet up on his work space.
“Oh, he’s married now. Two kids. I dare say they are both in training as we speak, ready for the 2032 Olympics, knowing him.”
Mark chuckled. They’d had a few days at the end of the job and spent it checking out beer halls in Berlin – they were old drinking partners and were both very comfortable with each other.
“I hear you are married now, yes? How’s that?” asked April.
Mark shrugged. “Has it’s ups and downs. She is the one though. No question. One night with her and I knew.”
“Good for you,” smiled April back, genuinely pleased for her friend.
“So, the Hicks job. Interesting one,” he said
“Yeah. You know, I’ve read all the material, but I still can’t understand why she came to us?” asked April, quizzically. “I mean, why not go to a normal counselor? Why us?”
“To that, I honestly don’t know. When she contacted us, it wasn’t so much a request for help as an order. She’s quite ... direct. It doesn’t encourage a lot of back and forth. I gather she regards us more as a service bureau than anything. I would have dug deeper but that’s really you Johnnies area. Didn’t want to step on any toes, did I?” Mark hammed up the last sentence in an upper class British accent.
April chuckled back at him.
“Well, then I’ll ask. What’s the process here? I don’t think I’m going to need any special equipment. I’m still going in under an alias – I spoke to my people and put together a small plan for this. While she may know who I am and why I’m there, others won’t. She’s still the CEO of the company, even if she doesn’t have the real power. She doesn’t want or need the stigma of a therapist sniffing around. She’s already lost her husband under very shitty circumstances; she doesn’t need any more issues. So, I’m going in as her new PA. That gets me close to her, and lets me see her in her natural habitat.”
“Yeah, we got the preliminary mission specifications from Dermott a couple of days ago. I’ve got you a cover set up, and I’ve got you booked into a nice little pub hotel down the road from her main residence. The idea is that you will car pool with her – that’s how you Americans say that, isn’t it? Car Pooling?”
April gave him a lop sided half smile and the single finger. Mark had teased her unmercifully about being an ‘uncultured yank’ when they were in Germany. Generally, a few choice comments about the rest of the world not speaking German because of US involvement tended to stop that, but she was now currently in the belly of the beast, so to speak. She needed new ways to respond to this. Perhaps just ignoring it was best.
“OK. So, she’s located ... where? Wellwyn?” she asked, hesitantly, trying to work out how to pronounce it.
“Yes. Wellyn. It’s hard to know how to say it unless you grew up here. Hertfordshire county. About half an hour north of London. Lovely area. I did my degree in that area you know. Here.” Mark pushed some documents across his table to April, who pulled her feet down and leaned forward to pick them up. Ingrams had a policy of never allowing documents to leave the office unless it was absolutely necessary, so she had to get a new set.
“Looks nice,” she said, leafing through the pictures. “Nice place she lives in.”
“Yes, it’s actually just south of the town, off the Great North road. Close to a city center, but still countryside. She got the land for a song and built a nice faux Tudor place there. You are staying a little further down, at the North Star Pub, which has hosting facilities. There are company offices a bit further north, but the major factory is in Sandwich, in Kent – quite a large facility, about three hundred and fifty people.”
“When do I meet her?” asked April, looking up from the documents.
“Four days from now – next Monday. We wanted you to get over the jet lag first. It’s a bugger, I know. Spend some time getting to know the city. Go do touristy things. Study the documentation. You know. The usual,” said Mark, waving his hand at the window.
“The ‘usual’?” said April, playfully scornfully. “With you, that would involve a lot of beer and being rude about the local inhabitants.”
“Yes, well,” coughed Mark, sitting up straight and trying to smother a smirk. “Probably best to go easy on that. Home turf and all that.”
April just smirked right back. “My turn now, right?”
“If you think you can, by all means. Anyway. Go sleep. I know you want to. Pick up a phone on your way out. It’ll be programmed with local numbers you need, and it’ll work anywhere in Europe. Jessica’s new rules mean two phone calls a day, plus the tracking app will be on continuously. If you want to call our ops room in the morning, and your guys in DC in the evening, that would work. We are all in constant contact anyway, and it’ll enable you to talk directly to Dermott and hear if the situation changes with Desirea. In the meantime, go learn your cover. You can take those docs with you. We are a little less ... intense than our colonial cousins in terms of having to keep everything on site, you’ll find.”
April grunted, got up and picked up the documents. If they wanted to be laxer, she’d take advantage of it. She already knew that although she had a cover – PA, coming from a divorce in the US for a change of scenery, though she was still using her real name, a first for her in operations. They’d talked about it back in the US, and since the target knew who she was, no one could really come up with a reason for using an alias; it also made it much easier for traveling, car rental and so on. So, with a shrug, April decided she was going to be April Carlisle for the foreseeable future. It would make a nice change for her to be herself for a change.
She left the building after picking up her phone and decided she was going to take the Tube, a new adventure for her. She studied the tube map and worked out how to get from Angel Islington to Green Park. Taking the Tube in London was an experience, but even then, it wasn’t that different from taking the L in Chicago, or the metro in NY, or even the BART in San Francisco. Same weary people, all crammed in. Same heat. Same mix of people who just want some personal space and who don’t have any. Just more expensive until you get your Oyster card, which April had been warned about so that was the first thing she did.
The next few days were almost a blur for April. She did touristy things, and took a double decker bus tour to get her bearing, she went to the British Museum, she went to the Natural History museum, she went to the Tate Gallery, she did the London Eye and wandered through the history of the Tower of London. She saw the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, which she decided was overrated, but it is what tourist do. She shopped on Oxford and Bond street, discovered the tourist trap that was Carnaby Street and she ambled down the Kings Road, checking out all the small boutique clothing shops, as well as all the antique stores. She strolled through Covent Garden market and bought weird and wonderful cheeses at the Borough market, just south of London Bridge. She also bought some more work clothes, ready for the upcoming mission. The weather was quite spectacular, and London felt like the best mix of old world charm, and modern convenience she’d ever seen. It was expensive though – April was constantly doing pound to dollar conversions in her head anytime she bought anything, and was just as constantly wincing when she realized what the actual cost was.
She made her two phone calls a day, using the usual identification code - counter code ritual she’d used so many times before while on an operation. There was no news about Desirea, and the calls to the DC ops room were usually short and somewhat morose. She got the feeling they were beginning to accept that the worst had happened.
In the evenings, she studied her briefings, and sat in the bar at the Ritz, chatting to the barman and flirting with traveling businessmen.
All too soon, Monday rolled around, and April packed her bags and new purchases, and checked out of the Ritz, regretfully looking back as the cab took her up north, out of London and into the green lush landscape of rural England.
The North Star Pub turned out to be a nice place – recently upgraded but still historic. She was welcomed and shown her room, which was nothing special, but more than sufficient to her needs. The en suite bathroom was cramped, obviously having been added later, but the shower was hot and the water pressure good, and at the end of the day, what else do you need, besides a microwave and a coffee maker? And she had both.
That evening, she wandered down into the bar – all lightwoods and mismatched great chairs, around smaller tables. There was even a fireplace, currently unlit.
She ordered a pint of cider – having discovered that England was currently experiencing a resurgence of cider, a particular favorite tipple of April’s, and she was slowly working her way through all the new flavors, to find those that were her favorites. The number one favorite so far was Pear Cider, although the Lemon Cider – which she’d only found in bottles at a specialist pub in Camden – was a strong contender.
The barman, a older man with a ruddy complexion, grey thinning hair and somewhat unshaven finished up serving another couple and wandered back to where April was sitting at the bar.
“Anything else miss?” he enquired, somewhat gruffly.
April had been examining the food menu and said, “What would you recommend?”
The man looked at her, and then said, “Do you like fish? The fish and chips are actually pretty good. The cook here has his own batter mix that’s a little different...”
April folded the menu and gave the barman her number six megawatt smile, the one that said, ‘I want you to think I am grateful and right this very second, you are the center of my world. But don’t think I’m falling in love with you. I’m a reserved person.’
“Thanks ... I’m sorry, what is your name?” April figured if she was going to be here a while, getting to know the locals was a good plan.
“I’m Bernie,” he replied, “I would shake hands, but I’ve just spilled Guinness all over mine and it’s a bugger to get off. You’d just get sticky.”
“Hi Bernie. I’m April. I’m going to be staying here a while. New PA job down the road.”
“Ah, the occupant of the Millwall room! Yes, I heard you were coming. I had no idea you’d be an American though. Tell me, what is the thinking on Donald Trump? I mean, seriously... ?”
Bernie was poking fun gently, and April could feel it. She decided to return in kind.
“Well, we in the states felt that the world was getting boring. We wanted to shake it up. So, Donald Trump. How much more shook up could we get? It’s a gamble every day that someone might tweet something bad at him, and he would respond with nuclear weapons. How much less boring is that?”
She said it all as innocently as should could, being as earnest as she knew how. Bernie stopped and just looked at her, trying to decide if she was having him on or not. After a second of very obvious consideration, he just nodded and said mock seriously, ‘Yeah, thought so.”
Both looked at each other before April cracked first and started to giggle. Then Bernie joined her, had a good laugh, and then he looked her over, appraisingly.
“I think you’ll do just fine. You’ll fit in here no problem. An American with a sense of humor. Will wonders never cease!”
She raised her cider at him, in salute, and took a sip.
“So a new PA eh? So, if you are here, you must be working her Her Nibs, down the road? Ms. Rachael, right?”
“Yes, that’s right,” said April, putting down her pint and considering her position. This was a prime opportunity to get some local background. “You know her?”
“Oh we all know her round here. She’s quite popular. We were all a bit suspicious when she pitched up and started building that big old mansion she lives in, but she’s been pretty decent to everyone round here. Donates to the local church, even lets them hold their fete in her paddock, which is pretty good. She even puts up a big old marquee and does the baked goods judging. She’s quite the queen bee, but really nice with it. Even comes in here a fair bit. Her and that fella of hers – well, until he jobbed off.”
“Jobbed off?” queried April. She could tell that she’d be doing a lot of this kind of questioning while she was in England.
“You know. Pushed off. Done a runner. Taken off. Shoved off. Left her.”
“Oh. Right. Yes, of course.”
April pondered how to phrase the next question – she didn’t want to come off too nosey.
“So you know them? She’s my new boss. What can you tell me? And her ... what do you, say, bloke? Is that right?”
Bernie smiled a big wide grin. “Close enough. Actually, now that I think of it, why are you here? I mean, lovely woman and all that, but you are American and as a PA I would imagine a local would be more...” he trailed off, obviously realizing what he was saying could be taken offensively.
“Oh, you know. Family connections. My mother is a friend of the family. I’ve just got through a messy divorce and really needed a complete change. She needed a new PA. It’s what I used to do back in Florida, so, we all thought, why not? It’s not forever – I’m only around while her regular PA is on a sabbatical for a couple of months. It gives me a chance to get away and take stock of life, you know?”
It was her carefully worked out cover – it was all true about the PA. She’d been with the company for eight years, and she’d been given a surprise two-month sabbatical, to give April a way to slide into the role. The ‘divorcee on her own’ was her own touch.
Bernie nodded, and then saw another person at the bar, who he hurried off to serve. He returned two minutes later and picked up the conversation.
“Makes sense. I’ve been through it me-self. Wasn’t fun. You have my sympathy. So, what can I tell you about Miss Rachael? Yeah, we all call her that. I’ve no real idea why. Well, she’s gentle, got quite the accent. Tough as nails underneath though. The general contractor who did the interior of her place comes in here, regular, like. And he told me stories where she just wouldn’t let up on him. Made he redo the kitchen twice, because it ‘wasn’t up to her ladyship’s standards’.” Bernie made air quotes as he said the last.
“Her fella – Major of some kind. Some Guards or other I think. I never really did know what he was in, when he was in the army. A man’s man, that one. Strong guy, too. We did the tug of war every year at the fete, and he was always on the winning side. Never afraid to get his hands dirty. I can still see him standing outside puffing on that pipe of his.” Bernie smiled.
“The one affectation he had. That pipe. I mean, who smokes a pipe in this day and age? But he’d do it every time he came in. ‘Only time I’m allowed, old chap’, he say, and then stand outside with a pint. It didn’t matter if it was pissing down, he’s be out there with his pint and the pipe and an umbrella.”
“She disapproved, of course, but she loved him, so she let it slide. You could see it. They held hands when they went on walks. They made a big thing about snogging under the mistletoe, you know what I mean? She was one loved up lady, no question. You know, now I think about it, it’s all damn queer, as the major would say. They were very in love. Quietly, like. Not loud or showy, apart from the odd snog, as I say. Just there for each other. They’d come in on New Year’s Day, and sit there, her with her white wine and him with a pint of bitter, and just ... be - Together.”
Bernie was leaning on the bar, with both elbows, staring off into the distance.
“Now that I think about it, him running off like that. I mean, it’s just weird. We never did get the whole story – just that he’d met someone else and legged it. She hasn’t come in since, poor moo.”
April knew a lot more than Bernie did – she’d read the dossier. But it was still interesting to get the outside perspective.
The basic story was that Rachael Hicks, and her husband Lee, had been happily married for almost thirty years. They’d met when her husband to be, Lee, had been a Lieutenant – or Leftenant, as they pronounced it here – in the Grenadier Guards. She’d been an administrative chemist working for Pfizer at the time, and they’d met at a coming out ball for one of Rachael’s distant cousins. April had been amused to read that debutante balls actually still happened in the UK, where the upper class held coming out parties for their maturing girls – usually right after they’d returned from finishing schools in Switzerland or wherever – to ‘be presented to society’. In actual fact, it was for the parents to advertise their offspring as marriable age, and to expose them to all the eligible bachelors, who would dance with them, and decide who to call on later to get a date. This still went on with the more well–to-do, old money and blue blood families in the UK, as it still does in the deep south of the US.
Rachael hadn’t been sufficiently high born to have her own presentation, and she didn’t care anyway. But her cousin was a distant relative of someone at some point who had some blue blood in them, so she was presented, and that’s where Lee Hicks and Rachael Hooper had met.
It had been kismet. They dated for almost eighteen months before he popped the question. Lee Hicks had been career army, and was in for the long haul.
And all had been golden. There had been no children; Rachael had an equestrian accident when she was nineteen that resulted in an emergency hysterectomy. They exercised their interest in children by supporting and volunteering for multiple child related charities. Lee had even managed to persuade the army to allow children to come in for the Make a Wish Foundation, and had shown up at some events with a tank, for kids to ride around in.
Rachael went on to form her own pharmaceutical research company – Coladia -, and then, when she actually got a couple of drugs past testing with the MHRA – the British version of the US Food and Drug Administration – she moved into manufacturing. She’d built a state of the art facility in Sandwich, in Kent, very close to a Pfizer factory, in order to poach employees from them, she’d cheerfully explain to anyone who asked – and to several who didn’t ask.
Then, a year ago, cracks started to appear. Suddenly Lee – now retired from the Army, with the rank of Major – had meeting after meeting. He got home late a lot. He wasn’t around some weekends. It had snuck up on Rachael – she’d been working hard on a new wonder drug that was designed to bring coma patients out from their slumbers, and it was showing real promise – and he’d been a little vague about what he was doing. Lee was retired and was on the board of two different security companies in London; they held an apartment in Chelsea, so it wasn’t that unusual for one or both to spend days and nights in the city.
He’d grown increasingly distant, and Rachael had belatedly noticed, mentioned that she thought they should take a holiday when she was done with testing, perhaps skiing? Lee had replied that would be nice, and then nothing more was said.
Rachael was getting more and more concerned, and one Friday she returned to their house to find Lee had moved out. Not just moved out, but cleaned out.
He’d left a letter saying he was filing for divorce, his lawyer’s name – not someone Rachael had ever heard of before – and asking her to ‘respect his decision’.
Needless to say, she hadn’t. Rachael just wasn’t built that way, to allow thing to run away with them selves as they had. She was a woman who required resolution. She was a scientist at heart, and she had to know why things were the way they were. Her first move was to try and contact Lee directly, and, when he ignored her phone messages, texts and emails, she tried his lawyer. After some back and forth, with her lawyers demanding something from Lee personally – anything – that indicated he was part of the proceedings, it had become apparent that his lawyers didn’t know where Lee Hicks was currently located either. They reluctantly informed Rachael that while he had left strict instructions on his requirements, they’d not heard from him in some time. Even though they’d been paid.
Once she understood that, she immediately got a PI group on the case.
The report she’d gotten back was disturbing, to say the least.
Major Lee Hicks was now ‘the property’ of a couple who were both semi- professional dominants, living in Surrey, who ran a domination-based business out of their home. There were pictures of him wearing a spiked collar, waiting on both of them. There were pictures of him being sexually dominated and tortured, and then being chained up at night. He was humiliated, and made to wear maids’ outfits, among other thing.
Rachael was horrified and appalled. She had never seen a hint of any submissive tendencies before. No fantasies, no bedroom games. He was the archetypal man’s man, till then. She’d gone to see a psychologist, to see if it could be explained, and it had been, in terms of “this is a man who’s had to be in charge and the boss for so long, and just needs to be ordered around now.” It was a well-known diagnosis – April recognized it for what it was instantly, and agreed that latent submission often came from being held to a position of responsibility too long.
Rachael didn’t like it, but she understood enough to let him go. She finally had the evidence that he wasn’t the man she had believed him to be for so many years, and so she, with extreme reluctance, let it all go. She let the divorce go through and started to try and make a life without Lee.
But then a real kicker had come, professionally.
There was a hostile buyout of Coladia. Rachael owned twenty-two percent of the stock of her company, which was the largest single block of stock but it was still not a controlling interest. Her company was public, which meant the other seventy-eight percent was owned by lots of various interests – hedge funds, private individuals, the whole gamut of stock investors. Lee Hicks owned eight percent himself, which he’d left the marriage with.
The shock had come when two investment companies had mounted a control effort, gathering up almost thirty percent of the available stock, driving the price up. And Lee joined with them! Their twenty-eight percent, added to the eight percent Lee owned, meant they owned thirty six percent of all available stock. It was more than enough for the board to be turned over, and several board members – not to mention the chairman of the board – replaced.
Effectively, her control over her own company ended overnight. While a CEO is the CEO of a company, his or her decisions have to be ratified by the board, and the board has the ability to fire her. The new board wasted no time in convening an emergency meeting, and instructing her to abandon development of the new coma drug, since ‘there was no market’ and, instead, concentrate research in the area of cold remedies. She protested that the cold remedy research area was a dead end – no one had made progress in that area in years, and the response was “all the more reason – we’ll have a clear shot at the market”. With bad feelings, Rachael had complied, but she worried for the future of her company.
This new event, coupled with the events of her husband suddenly leaving, not to mention his complicity in the change of corporate control, was enough for her to ask for help. She was alone, worried, her ego was at an all-time low after her husband left her for a sexual fantasy she had no clue he harbored, and she knew she needed help. She considered carefully how to go about it – and contacted Ingrams.
And here April was.
“You ever see anything ... not right?” she asked Bernie, trying to make the question innocuous, and failing. She saw the question on his face and added, quickly, “I only ask cos she’s my new boss. Want to be sure I don’t put my foot in it, you know.”
It wasn’t really a reason, but it was enough that Bernie’s face softened, and as he levered himself up, he said, “Not really, no. I mean we all have foibles, right? I’m sure they fought like the rest of us do with our spouses. We never saw it though. He was a perfect gentleman, even when he went through nicotine withdrawal. You know what that can do to a man. But no, never a raised word, from either of them. Not done at their station in life, is it?”
At that moment, the food arrived, and April took the opportunity to smile a ‘thank you’ at the server, wave at Bernie, who had moved on to serve other customers, and turn her attention to the food.
Bernie was right. The fish and chips were good.
The next day found April up and ready at eight thirty. The pub didn’t offer breakfast, and she was somewhat hoping that they’d have time to stop off and grab something on the way. She called in to the Ingrams’ Camden office, and then was ready to be picked up, sitting out front of the pub, drinking coffee she’d made in her room.
At eight thirty sharp, the black four-wheel drive Ranger Rover pulled up to the pub, and April walked outside. The driver leapt out of the car, and ran around the back to open the door, and April hopped up – the car was a surprising distance from the ground – and slid into the back seat.
Seated next to her was Rachael Hicks.
“Good morning,” smiled Rachael.
“Yes. Good morning to you,” replied April, brightly. It was imperative to give a good first impression if she was to enter Rachael’s confidences. All the documentation and analysis confirmed that Rachael liked bright people, with go get ‘em attitudes. The more dower you were, no matter how brilliant, the less she wanted you to be in charge. She was firmly of the opinion that subordinates take their tone from their leaders, and she was all about leading.
“It’s nice to meet you,” said April, offering her hand. Rachael smiled back and shook her hand, a firm grip, three shakes and done. You can learn a lot about someone from their handshake, and not just by whether it’s firm or not. The length, if they disengage first, if they instigate it or not, their surprise if you offer it first – all of these things tell you something about the person you are meeting.
Rachael had just confirmed everything April had read in her dossier – a self-made woman, no time for frivolity, very much in charge of her life, but ready to make time for new people – everyone started with a blank slate with her, regardless of what others may have said about them first. You had the opportunity with her, it was up to you to take it.
Rachael’s eyes flicked towards the driver, when she said, “Tim, let’s stop and get some breakfast? The Benedictine?”
She turned back to April and said, “I know the pub doesn’t do breakfast and you must be starved. Are you settled in alright? Over the jetlag? This weather must be quite different from Arizona? Oh, but you live in Washington now, isn’t that right?’
April gazed back at Rachael. She was being told that Rachael did her homework too, in no uncertain terms.
“Yes, the weather here is a bit Seattle-y, no question. But then Seattle is all lush and green, like it is here, so it’s definitely a tradeoff. I’m fine on the jetlag – I got in a week ago and am over it. And breakfast sounds like a great plan. I could eat a horse!” April tried to sound off the cuff – accepting what Rachael had said without confrontation or acknowledgement.
Rachael looked April over critically and then said, “I’m sure that won’t be necessary my dear. You look like you probably eat Yogurt for every meal. Oh wait, no, it’s Yo-gurt with you colonials, isn’t it?”
She stressed the ‘Yo-gurt’ pronunciation, since the British pronounce it “yog-urt”.
April smiled back. She was being needled, but in a very nice way.
“Indeed. I do try and to make sure that I demonstrate my accent at every available opportunity though. I mean, it’s definitely ‘A-LU-minum’ don’t you think?” April exaggerated her accent. “And people really enjoy my southern belle,” she added, in a pronounced southern accent.
Rachael laughed, clearly and with delight, showing perfect white teeth. No visible fillings, noted April.
“Oh my dear, I like you. I think we are going to get on famously,” she chuckled back at April. “And you aren’t alone, with the accents, darlin’. I’ve read books, you know, like,” she said, with an over the top Liverpool accent, where ‘books’ was pronounced ‘Boohks’.
April laughed back.
“I used to date a guy from the Whirral – just south of Liverpool,” Rachael explained. “When we were young. He was a never ending source of taking the mickey.”
April was pleased. The first ice-breaking hurdle was over.
They stopped for breakfast, and Rachael was soon chattering away with April, like old friends. She was easy to like, noted April. She did wonder if this was the way she presented herself to everyone though. April was somewhat of a special case – it was almost as if Rachael was doing her best to actively like April, given what April really was, and what she was there for.
They discussed work – how that was going to work. As April was going to be Rachael’s new PA, she was going to be expected to actually ‘get the job done’, as Rachael put it. April took that in her stride, explaining that actually, she was looking forward to it. It was something she enjoyed a lot – trying on someone else’s life when she went under cover. She had to learn how to be something entirely other than herself, she explained. It was like being an actor, but more so. She was more than up to the job, she assured Rachael, and it would be very beneficial for her to observe Rachael in her natural work habitat.
April could tell that Rachael was curious about her – about her work and life – but was restraining herself from asking too much. April respected that. She, in turn, found Rachael to be bright, outgoing, a very gentle sense of humor, and very smart and insightful, particularly about the people who worked for her. She had this way of being able to reveal to you what she thought about people, without outright stating it – it was a gift. She couldn’t help but think that had life turned out differently for Rachael, she would have made an extremely good Ingrams field agent. She had that mental toughness and self-reliance, plus the confidence to actually make decisions on the fly that all good agents needed.
They danced a little around the issue at stake, as to why April was there. Rachael did ask, “So, how does this work? Do I need to get a chaise lounge in my office? I’ve always wanted one, you know. Always had my eye out for one, but it never really seemed to happen. This would give me an excuse.”
April gave a lop sided smile, and then said, more seriously, “If you want. It really doesn’t matter. Whatever makes you comfortable. All we really need is some prolonged time to talk privately, over the next days and weeks. I need to get inside your head, and figure out what you need help with, if anything. I mean, you seem pretty together to me this morning. You need to decide what you want to tell me, and what I can help with. For me, this is unusual, to be able to talk about the issues head on. I’m used to having tease them out and use investigative methods to figure it out, then decide what the best thing to do is. So I’m learning a bit here, too.”
Rachael looked at April earnestly, considering. She took a mouthful of toast and chewed, reflecting on what to say.
“Well, the façade is just that, really. I mean, you have to get on with life, don’t you? My mother taught me that. She went through the blitz as a young girl, in west London, out by Staines. That whole ‘keep calm and whatever’ meme that went around a couple of years ago? That’s what ‘being British’ is all about, at root. When life throws things at you, you have to pick yourself up and keep going. My hurting is done behind closed doors. I may be a figurehead at my own company now, but my people still need to know their boss has it together. I can’t afford to publicly fall apart. I’m sure you get that.”
April nodded in agreement. “Of course. And doubly important, bearing in mind our gender. I’m very cognizant that women in business have to work that much harder than our male counterparts. We can’t afford to be human, sometimes.”
“Ain’t that the truth, sister,” replied Rachael, raising her water glass for a chinking-of-glasses.
“But,” added April, choosing her words carefully, “what happened, Lee leaving as he did, that coming as a surprise to you, well, that has to impact your life? You may not be able to cry in public, but you do need an outlet for that. You need to grieve for your marriage. You can’t move on properly until those feelings are dealt with.”
Rachael sighed. “Well, yes, quite. I ... I don’t know April. I don’t think I’m quite ready to confront all of that yet. Maybe in a little while.”
“Well, we have nothing but time, Rachael. It’s why I’m here, we can take our time,” April said, as reassuringly and calmly as she could.
Rachael gave April a glum smile and looked away and carried on with breakfast, not saying anything else for the rest of the meal, her body language signally very clearly that this topic was over for discussion, at least for now.
The rest of the day went fairly quickly. April checked out her new office, learning about her new duties. It was a standard administrative office – she got to meet the four VP’s that reported to Rachael, and tried to get a feel for how things were run.
The day passed and right before she was due to leave for the day – internally debating whether she should just order an Uber to get herself back to the pub, or try working out the local public transport - she was surprised by one of the nameless men who ran around with clipboards.
“April Carlisle?” he intoned, reading from the clipboard that everyone seemed to have in England.
She looked up and nodded.
“Sign here please, miss,” the man said, holding out the clipboard.
“What’s this for?” she asked, taking the papers.
“You need to sign for the car. Can’t let you have it without you signing, I’m afraid.”
“Car?” asked April, puzzled. “I don’t think...”
“Say’s right there, miss,” he said, tapping the paperwork. “One MG F, leased by Coladia, for Miss April Carlisle, for the use of.”
“I have a car?” asked April weakly. This was a surprise.
“Yes miss. Can you sign? It’s outside the front. I have the keys here. I just need a copy of your driver’s license and we are all good to go. The company is picking up the insurance. You can drive a manual gearbox yes?”
April nodded, taken aback. She opened her bag, dragged out her driver’s license and then went to the photocopier, and made a copy.
She signed the documents, handed it back to the man, and he handed her the keys.
“It takes normal petrol. Remember to drive on the left. Have fun miss.” And then he was gone. She looked at the keys in her hand, and gathered up her bag to go in search of her new car.
It was parked almost directly out the front gate. Dark Blue, convertible, and definitely the MG shape she’d seen in pictures, though rarely in the US. She got in – laughing at herself for first going to the wrong door – and just looked around. It was a nice car. Small, but it felt like it was going to be fun.
It was a total surprise, but a really nice one. This mission was going to be fun, she decided. Doing her best to remember to ‘drive on the left’, repeating it to herself like a mantra, and only stalling the car three times before she got back into the swing of using a clutch, she set up her phone with google maps and drove slowly back to the pub. The car didn’t handle as well as her Porsche did, back in DC, but the fact she had a convertible at all was nice, even though pulling back the roof was a manual operation.
She made a point of sending a text to Rachael, to say thank you for her thoughtfulness.
The next two days passed. April was slowly getting to grips with the job and learning about events that were coming up– and also trying to get some time to talk to Rachael. Rachael was a busy lady, that was obvious. For some one who was not actually totally in control of her own company any more, she sure had a lot of meetings and things to do. She had back to back meetings all day, so anytime April felt she was starting to get somewhere in terms of finding out what Rachael was actually feeling, another meeting was due.
Rachael definitely had a façade though. She kept almost everyone at arm’s length. She indulged them, and gave enough of herself that they thought they were getting the real deal, but it was clear to April that Rachael was hurting, and shielding herself. She was professional, somewhat funny and dry in her observations, but she never volunteered what she was thinking without being asked directly, and even then, what she said was very carefully filtered. It was all very British, but it still didn’t ring quite true. Rachael wasn’t a phony, but she wasn’t genuine either.
April had no doubt that this was probably Rachael’s normal modus operandi – good business people never show too much, but she worried that Rachael was masking her own feelings so much. She felt that Rachael was shielding her feeling from herself as much as from the rest of the world.
April remained puzzled as to why she was there at all. So far, what she’d observed was something that any competent therapist could help her with. There were many ways to keep a therapist’s visit quiet and private. Why had Rachael reached out to Ingrams and incurred the gigantic cost? Even though Dermott had intimated that Rachael suspected more was at root, nothing had been said to her directly – at least not yet.
One of the best things about being Rachael’s PA was complete access to Rachael’s schedule, both public and private. She noticed there was nothing set for the next evening, so she made dinner reservations at a terrific Italian place in St. Albans – She’d discovered that the Brit’s didn’t use Yelp that much – she’d discovered they didn’t use Craigslist either. Their replacements seemed to be OpenTable and GumTree.
When the day was done the next day, she walked into Rachael’s office, where she was examining the genetic structure of a proposed drug on her computer, and announced, “Dinner. Tonight. I’ve made reservations, so get yourself together.”
Rachael looked her, with a fathomless expression. April kept it light, but firm. “We leave in ten minutes. It’s a great Italian place.”
“April, I don’t know...” she ventured, before April cut her off, ruthlessly.
“Nope. I know. The therapist says so. Get your shit together. We goin’ OUT.”
Rachael stared back, a bit taken aback.
“Look, Rachael, being here is great and all, but my time is expensive. You know that. I can’t help you unless we get some quality time together, and you open up enough to actually tell me what is on your mind. Otherwise I may as well just go home and get a tan. We need to talk about Lee, about what happened, and how I can help.”
It was a calculated risk, but she needed to push Rachael a little. At the very least, her reactions give April a good data point.
“I ... yes, I suppose it’s time. I’ve seen enough of you now that I trust you are the person I need to speak to.”
Interesting. She’d been examining April the same as April had been reviewing her. She really would have made a good agent.
She casually mentioned that a little while later, over dinner, and Rachael’s hand flew to her mouth, and then she said, hesitantly, “Do you really think so?”
“Oh yes, no question,” replied April, a fork full of Cornish hen on its way to her mouth.
Rachael blushed, and then said quietly, “but ... all the rest of it ... the education? The, um ... abilities. You know. In the bedroom...”
April chuckled. “It’s a job Rachael. You use the best tools to solve the issue. We are trained to review the situation and respond to it with the best we can. We don’t go stampeding to the bedroom on meeting someone, but on occasion, it’s necessary. And if we are going to do it, we do it well. That’s one of your motto’s, isn’t it?”
Rachael blushed an even deeper shade of red. “I wasn’t really thinking of that kind of situation when I use that motto, April.”
But then, after a moments consideration, she looked April right in the eye, and said brazenly, “But yes, I suppose you are right. I mean, I certainly never held back with Lee.”
And there it was. The opportunity was being presented, the door opened a chink, and April jumped on it.
“Things were good, with Lee I mean? In the bedroom?”
“Oh yes. Well, for most of our marriage. They tapered off at the end. I thought it was just me, working too hard, and him having projects in the city. But till then ... well ... I lived by the adage ‘wife in the living room, cook in the kitchen and ... well, you know ... in the bedroom. Nothing particularly was off limits. It’s not like he hungered for something I couldn’t or wouldn’t give him. Oh, we weren’t swinging from the chandeliers, or him getting off with me doing the pool boy or anything. Nothing like that. Just, if either of us wanted something, we could talk about it, and find a way to make it happen in way that was ... safe, if you know what I mean.”
“A non-threatening way?” suggested April.
“Yes, exactly. I don’t mean safe as in boring, I mean safe as in no threat to our relationship.”
“So, what happened?” asked April, directly, giving the floor to Rachael, but not before making sure that there was no one on either side of their booth. Doing this kind of thing in a public place was a risk, but the other side of that coin was that often the people doing the confessing relaxed a bit, because, well, it was public, right? How far would they go? Obviously not too far. It was public. And in lots of situations exactly the opposite would happen. They would reveal things they never would in private.
“I still don’t really know. He just ... stopped responding to me. It was really fast, over five or six weeks. He was working in the city and commuting, and being home with me on the weekends. He stopped talking about the project he was working on. I could feel him pulling away, and I was busy. I made a point of saying we needed a holiday, and then when I came home and told him, he just...”
Rachael was trembling; tears were close to the surface. April could quite see why she put on the façade.
“It’s ok Rachael. No judgment here. I just need the facts.”
“That’s it though April. I don’t have any facts. He just made his announcement, packed up and left. He didn’t even look me in the eye. Why would he do that? I don’t understand how he could? Did our life together not mean anything to him? How could he do that to me? Am I that horrible? Was I working that hard? Did I ignore him that much? And then ... when I found out what he was doing. I mean, April, you are a woman, how would you feel to find your husband had hidden this side of himself over the years of your marriage? So effectively there was no hint. At all.”
April gave Rachael an empathetic expression, and reached out her hand to cover Rachael’s.
“I don’t know what I’d feel, Rachael. I know I would want answers, though.”
“Well that’s it, April. I want answers. That’s why I hired Ingrams. I want you to find out why he did what he did. Because ... I don’t think it’s right. Something is wrong. I just cannot believe that he suddenly switched his desires to be some slag’s bitch.”
The last was whispered emphatically. There was no debating the passion in Rachael’s voice. She emphasized the word ‘slag’, and April, having never heard Rachael even come close to swearing, understood a few things more clearly. Rachael’s revulsion at Lee’s current situation. And the fact that she’d not let go inside at all.
“The thing is, I’m just so confused. He hid this from me. Something so big in his personality – he hid it so completely. It just wasn’t there. And now, he’s left me to fulfill some kind of desire I never saw a hint of. He was a Major in the guards, for god’s sake. You don’t get to be a Major in the guards by secretly fantasizing about being some dirty whore’s bitch. You just don’t. And if he came back now, I have no idea what I’d do. Part of me wants him desperately, but part of me is repulsed by what he seems to want in his life. It was never part of our lives – NEVER. I mean, I know you say ‘for better or worse’ in your vows, but still ... I don’t know what I feel.”
For April, this was a watershed moment. It was clear that Rachael was still very much in love with the man she married. She was confused by who this man was now, and didn’t understand how she could have missed the signs. She assumed there had to have been signs. There had to have been. And she missed them.
One of the critical questions that is asked in therapy, when someone has been mistreated is, “if they came back, what would you do?” because that starts the process of resolving what the wronged person actually wants. You can’t move forward without knowing what you want, and while that’s often hard to get to – most of the time, the answer is some variation of “I want it to go back to what it was”, which is almost never viable – it at least kick starts the process.
That’s really what a therapist is there for. To initiate the process of coping with the situation as truly exists. Many patients live in a form of denial, where they perceive the situation as far simpler than it might be. Therapy allows some degree of exploration of feelings, and figuring out why events may have happened, so the patient can understand what occurred and avoid –at least try to, anyway - similar situations in the future. Therapy is mostly about developing coping mechanisms with the patient, and getting them to look forward.
The healthiest thing a patient can do, in April’s experience, was to be planning what their vacation was going to be a year in advance. That indicated a settlement of life and desire, which is the ultimate aim of any therapy.
Rachael still hadn’t come to grips with what had happened, that much was clear. She had no understanding of why, and without the why, she wasn’t going to progress much. At least though, she was asking the right questions.
“And, honestly, April, if he did need all this...” she spread her hands, expressively, “ ... stuff... , why couldn’t he come to me and ask me for it? I mean, it’s not what we did, but we were partners. We told each other everything. Well, I thought we did. Obviously wrong about that,” she ended, bitterly.
There were real tears in her eyes now.
“Why April? You are the expert. Tell me why. Why didn’t he talk to me? Why didn’t he give me any clues? Where did all this come from?” she beseeched April.
April took a deep breath. Rachael was coming unglued.
“Rachael, I don’t know. I wish I had the answers for you. Everyone is different. What drives Lee, what he needed out of life, what he felt was important, that’s unique to him. Once our basic needs are satisfied, the remaining needs are always specific and unique. The thing you have to remember and understand is that you didn’t fail him. There may have been something he needed, that for some reason he couldn’t discuss with you, but that’s him – not you. You cannot know what is in someone else’s mind if they don’t tell you or at least expose those thoughts in some manner. If he gave no hint, then he gave no hint. You cannot beat yourself up because you aren’t telepathic.”
Rachael stared back at April, eyes full of tears that were almost shed but not quite. She was at least listening, April noted. That part was good.
“Something crucial went wrong, obviously. But you doubting yourself like this benefits no one, least of all you. I understand why you wanted us now. You want me to look into this? See what was in his mind, yes?”
Rachael nodded, mournfully.
“Ok, I can do that. I don’t know that I’ll be able to give you a definitive or satisfying answer, and it may well be that your situation is irreparable. We may well be in a situation where we have to start preparing for the future, alone for the time being.”
Using “we” instead of “you” in sentences like that made the person going through the issue not feel so alone. They knew that you would be with them, through the thick and the thin. This was all ‘Analysis 101’ for a good therapist, but it was an interesting point of view for April, who – while highly trained – had never actually had this kind of direct conversation before.
She needed to give Rachael something to move towards; some degree of resolution of at least her own feelings, if not the situation in total. For her part, she suspected that Lee had hid his feelings all those years because of what Rachael – and his career - needed him to be. But saying that right now wasn’t going to help Rachael’s situation. If anything, it would make it worse.
Rachael nodded at April, a little more under control. She picked up a napkin and dabbed at her eyes.
“Damn. Didn’t do the waterproof mascara today. Do I look alright? I’ll bet I look like a raccoon, don’t I?”
The weak attempt at humor meant that Rachael’s moment of lack of control had ended. April nodded at her, grinning broadly.
“Best looking raccoon I ever saw!” she pronounced, firmly. “Seriously, how do you do it Rachael? You look outstanding. You look at least ten years younger than your age? What’s your secret?”
“Clean living and a fish diet,” muttered Rachael, quietly.
“Sorry?” asked April.
“Private joke. Never mind,” said Rachael. “Actually, I walk a lot – I have a machine at home for when it’s raining. I try to keep out of the sun and use sunblock when I am out. I skip a meal every so often. And I’ve been blessed with great genes. And great jeans.”
She slapped the jeans she was wearing that day, which fitted her perfectly. Not in a ‘sprayed on’ kind of way, just that they form fitted and emphasized her slim shape.
“Well, give me a sample of your blood sometime. I need your genome analyzed.”
“We can actually do that you know. At the labs. I’ve been considering it as a possible new revenue line. 23andme has proved there is a market for that kind of thing.”
23andme was the website based in the San Francisco area that would break down your genome, from a DNA sample you provide, and give you details on what you were genetically susceptible to and your lineage.
“Interesting...” replied April, noncommittally.
April’s next question had to be raised delicately. She took a sip of the wine, and said “Rachael, I need to ask you something. It’s personal, but it ... well, it matters.”
Rachael, also taking the opportunity for a sip, nodded.
“Do you have anyone to talk to about all this? A friend? A confident? Have you spoke to anyone, to any degree about this since Lee left?”
Rachael snorted. “You are kidding, right? Who am I going to talk to? My mother? My father? I can’t talk to his parents, since they are both gone. I highly doubt his brother is going to want to hear about his current activities. I have a few school chums, but while we talk, we don’t talk about this kind of thing. Most of that conversation is about new handbags or lunch at Harvey Nicks. We don’t tend to go into much detail about bedroom activities, or if we suspect our spouses are shagging the help. Although, to be fair, I’m fairly sure some of my school friends aren’t above that kind of behavior themselves. Nothing like killing a friendship when you launch into a ‘aren’t all cheaters scumbags’ to a bunch of people round the table who are all cheaters themselves, no?”
Rachael gave a moment’s consideration, then carried on. “Obviously I have to talk the lawyer – and that was embarrassing enough. He’s an old family friend. God only knows what he thought, but I can at least trust he won’t tell anybody. And then there’s the private investigator I got to look into this mess. He assures me that professional etiquette means he can’t say a word. There were some questions from the board, obviously, once Lee sold his shares. Particularly those who were forced out. They came to me asking why Lee would do this to them. We know them all, obviously. I was at a loss to explain to them why Lee would team up with these vultures.
“I mean, what can you really say in that situation? I wasn’t about to hand out personal details of that sort. While it seems really shallow, I have a standing here. I run a company and I’m responsible for the livelihoods of over four hundred people. If I fail tomorrow, they all fail. I can’t be seen to have had a husband who now gets his kicks by getting whipped. I know all about ‘to each his own’, but people talk, you know. Even those most outwardly progressive and tolerant of people snicker behind your back. And trust me, April, they don’t think more highly of you when you can’t keep you husband satisfied, which you know is how some of them would look at it even if they wouldn’t say it out loud.”
Rachael was a little worked up, and took a sip of her wine to steady herself.
“Obviously this lot he was approached by – the people he sold his shares to - were opportunists of the worst kind. They found out Lee was gone, and went to him and offered him ... well, whatever he asked for. They own the shares now. Interestingly, my man couldn’t find a deed of sale. We still don’t know what was exchanged for the shares. They were worth just about eight million pounds, so why he’s in the situation he’s in right now, I don’t know. He should be a rich man. Instead, he’s...”
She couldn’t bring herself to say it.
“I can only conclude that this – what he’s doing now – is what he really wants. He has the money to do whatever he wants.”
She took another deep steadying breath.
“But in response to your question, no, I don’t really have any one to talk to about this. Not like this; not like how we are talking now. To be honest, it’s a relief to get it off my chest. To think you might be able to help me get some answers. Already I feel better than I have for weeks just having you here and knowing you are here to help.”
April considered what Rachael had just said, then moved onto her next set of questions.
“What did he get from the marriage, Rachael? What did the divorce give him? I didn’t have those details...”
“He didn’t get any of the company apart from the shares he already had. I didn’t have to split mine with him. There are documents he had to sign to get that eight percent in the first place that exempt the company from any divorce situation. It’s a common thing, apparently. He got half the accounts, probably about a million in total, and the house we have in Spain. He didn’t ask for anything from our place in Wellwyn. Which was strange, all by itself. Or maybe not, if he planned an entirely new life. I really can’t say.”
Rachael shrugged at April.
“Wait, what? Nothing? Nothing at all? None of his military history? Nothing?”
“Nothing. It’s all still there. I moved it all into one of the spare bedrooms. It’s like a shrine to him now. I keep that door firmly closed, let me tell you. I don’t have the heart to just throw it all away. One day he’ll want it, I’m sure of it.”
“That’s quite strange behavior. Hmmm...” said April, thinking hard to herself.
“The thing is, April, I just feel that there’s something wrong here. Something is just not right about the whole thing. I never saw any hint of this kind of ... desire, with Lee, in all the years of our marriage. And we knew each other. We talked, we shared, we exchanged. We were a true partnership. I just can’t believe this was a part of him all that time. It’s so ... so alien to who I knew him to be. I know this is going to come off as a silly woman who is grasping at straws, who won’t face the future, but I have to know. I have to know what happened, what was in his mind. I have the money, you have the skills, and I don’t care if this costs me half a million or a million. What is my peace of mind worth? So now you know. This is why I wanted Ingrams. This is why I wanted you.”
Rachael was extremely firm on the last few sentences. She was brooking no argument. April nodded slowly.
“I know of Ingrams because I’m friends with Armand Rouch – we met a few years ago at a corporate retreat. He encouraged me to reach out when I mentioned that I what happened with Lee, and that we had a hostile takeover so soon after.”
April grimaced. That explained a lot. Armand Rouch represented one of Ingrams greatest moments, and also one of their worst. Armand Rouch was the French chief negotiator at the United Nations. He was one of France’s most trusted ministers. He, and his trophy wife, Natalia, were on assignment in New York, when it came out that Natalia was having an affair. Armand was old fashioned, and did not subscribe to the modern French attitude about affairs, which was to turn the other cheek. He was quite vocal on what he called the destruction of the family unit, due to slovenly attitudes on fidelity, and when it came out that Natalia had fallen for the charms of her Yoga instructor, Armand was distraught and quite unstable for some time.
This was noticed at the highest level, and because of who Armand was, there was no way he was going to seek help. So help was sought for him, via Ingrams & Associates. Desirea had been the agent assigned, and she had done the analysis, and determined that basically Armand needed to get laid. So she decided to do just that – attempting to seduce him, only to find that someone else had already got there first.
Desirea discovered her rival for Armand’s affections when she was invited to a threesome with him. She accepted, if only to get the chance to get closer with him. It was quite a shock to find another woman who had the same sexual abilities that Desirea had. It seemed this must have been a very high-class escort, until Ingrams started to look into her past, and discovered she was supposed to be an Art Curator at a local art gallery. And that she had been dead for three years.
At this point, they handed the case off to the DGSE, the French secret service. It turned out that the woman was actually a Russian agent, hoping to access his connections, or at the least, have enough on him for blackmail. They successfully turned her after they evacuated her son, mother and brother from St. Petersburg to French New Guinea. She then sang like an opera singer, giving up her controller, his boss, the ring she worked with and all sorts of details, like where she was trained and who by. The seduction of his wife had been part of the Russian operation, to put Armand in a situation where the femme fatal could successfully seduce him.
Someone at the DGSE had thought it a great honor for Desirea to be awarded the Legion of Honor for her role in discovering this plot. Jessica Ingrams had been both tickled pink to think one of her agents would be awarded something as prestigious as this – it would go a long way to smoothing things with the American government, something she always seemed to need to do – but also aghast at the idea, because if there was one thing a secret agency doesn’t want, it’s publicity, no matter how good. In the end, the presentation was held a night, with only twenty people in attendance, in Paris. It was never mentioned again.
Armand left government service, and, on learning what Ingrams was and how they had tried to help, came to deeply admire them. He was now on their board of directors, in fact.
So that explained why Rachael wanted them, decided April. She’d tell Dermott all about it in their nightly call, after dinner.
“Well, it’s good to know we get good references,” said April, in a light hearted way.
“If you need closure – and I know I would -, I’m sure there is at least something we can do.”
For the rest of the dinner they discussed less emotional matters. April diverted Rachael into talking about her latest research, a subject she grasped gratefully, lecturing for the rest of the meal.
That night, April called into Ingrams’ operations room in Washington DC as normal, once again being pleased that she was able to talk to them in middle of their day, though at the end of hers. They could work on any requests she had while she slept, with the results available to her on waking the next morning. In some ways, it was the ideal set up.
“Hey April!” Dermot almost shouted, when she had given the counter sign and been connected to the ops room. He had to shout, there was a lot of noise in the background.
“THEY FOUND HER!” Dermot did shout this time. “We found Desirea!”
“Oh thank god,” sagged April, sitting down hard. She was in her room, and was looking out over the beer garden of the pub, watching people drink their pints and smoke some ‘fags’, as they called them over here.
“Tell me everything,” ordered April, excitedly. “Now.”
“Wait ... have to...” the noise went down in volume over the phone. “Right, that’s better. Had to leave the room. Lots of very happy people here. Desirea was found this morning, by a state cop in Alabama. They were both found, tied up and unconscious, in a deserted house near Mobile. They’d been drugged, and neither Desirea nor Thompson’s son remember much. They were taken in Miami, and she’s definitely been sexually abused. He has too. She’s intact though. The current thinking is that this was a kidnap of opportunity, possibly for money. We don’t know why they were left alive or why they were abandoned at all. It’s been hypothesized that the kidnappers had transportation problems and just didn’t know what to do with them. Either way, she’s in a hospital in Mobile as of today. Jessica is on her way down there now.”
April released a huge breath of air.
“Oh thank god.”
“From your lips to the almighty, April. Amen”
“So, follow up?”
“Oh yes. We are working with the FBI closely on this one, following their investigation. There are many relieved people over here April, let me tell you.”
“Oh I’ve no doubt. It makes you think though, Dermot. What we do is dangerous. We keep forgetting that, but it is.”
“Indeed. Speaking of that, how goes it at your end?”
“Well, finally got Rachael to open up a bit today. She’s not really on any path to recovery at this point. She’s still hung up on what happened, on Lee’s new lifestyle. She’s convinced that there’s something fishy going on.”
“What do you think?”
“I would agree there are things that don’t quite look right, but the concept that someone engineered all this is a bit much to swallow right now. I can totally understand the suppression of the submissive aspect of his personality, which means when it does come out, he overcompensates for its having been suppressed and it becomes more consuming than it might have been. I think there must have been some trigger or other, but I don’t know much more than that. It doesn’t seem very likely that this was organized though. At least on first blush.”
“Hmmm, I suppose not. What’s your next move?”
“Well, she wants me to look into where he is now, see if I can’t give her some sense of what happened and why. She’s been unable to her self – she’s too close and wouldn’t know the right questions to ask anyway, which is partly why we have been invited to the party. I don’t think she’s going to move on much beyond that initially. She’s had a hell of a blow to the ego and needs some repair. Normally in a situation like this, I’d give her an eight pack of condoms and pack her off to Vegas with the instructions not to come back till they are all used, but that’s not going to work here. Her sense of her position in society won’t allow her cut loose like that.”
“So ... what? Male agent? Seduction night?”
“I tend to think that might be what she needs in the short term, but only the short term. It would do her self-image the world of good, but won’t do a thing for her need to know what really happened. Rachael is an intellectual and a scientist. She needs things to add up. She feels she missed signs that should have been obvious and he blow to her intellectual self-image is as deep or deeper than the blow to her sexual self-image. And, if we do decide to get her laid, we can’t use any of our guys. They all have American accents and she’d smell that coming a mile away. No, if we do this, I’ll have to find someone local. I would do it myself, but Rachael is a flaming heterosexual, there’s no doubt of that. Any approach I made would be rebuffed and we’d lose all the ground I’ve gained so far.”
“Seems fair enough. I’m sure Mark can guide you in that area.”
“I need to track Lee Hicks down though. See what he can explain to me.”
“How are you going to get an intro?”
“How do you think Dermot? I think I need a spanking...”