Change

“Good to see you, Steve,” I said, making a small effort to sound like I meant it. I cast my swaying angel a final, longing glance before bringing my attention to bear on the man before me. “You look… different.”

His shoulder-length blond hair had been buzzed close to his scalp, a sure sign that he had enlisted. On top of that, he had packed on an impressive layer of muscle that bulged against his t-shirt. But those were not the only changes. There were dark bags under his blue eyes and his fingers twitched slightly when he let his hands hang by his side. He was still half a foot taller than me, but something about him felt smaller.

“You too,” he replied with a tight smile. “You look all grown up and successful and it‘s only been, what, five years? But enough chatting out here, let’s get something to eat.” He took my arm and steered me back the way I had come.

“I thought we were eating at McTaggart’s,” I said, looking back over my shoulder.

“Change of plans,” he muttered. Seeing my look of confusion, he laughed nervously and added, “Nothing serious. I just remembered this great French place after I called you. You’re gonna love it.”

“Sure.”

Steve didn’t strike me as someone who knew any French places, much less a great one, but I let it go. Instead I focused on adjusting my anticipated therapy from Beamish to Beaujolais. A man has to have priorities, after all.

“Do you mind if we walk a little faster?” Steve asked after looking behind us. “I… uh… they only hold tables until the reserved time. If you’re late, you’re out of luck, you know? Come on, let’s make this light.”

“It’s already yellow,” I pointed out. “Let’s just wait -”

But he had already stepped off the curb and broken into a run. I have no idea why I chased after him, but I did. Maybe all that strangeness had piqued my curiosity. I’ve always liked a good mystery.

After we reached the far sidewalk to a chorus of car horns and shouted expletives, Steve seemed to relax a little. I tried to ask him what was going on but he cut me off to let me know the restaurant was only a bit further. Since it was obvious he wouldn’t talk until we were somewhere more private, I decided no to push the issue.

“Here we are,” he announced as we came to a stop in front of Le Vieux Bonhomme. Steve pulled open the door and waved me in ahead of him, though his gaze was focused on the direction we had arrived from.

“I think they’re closed,” I called back over my shoulder after finding the interior dark and devoid of customers.

“No worries, I know a guy here.” He took me by the arm and guided me deeper into the restaurant. I was about to mention that I didn’t smell any food being cooked when a janitor appeared and locked the door behind us.

“What the hell is -”

“I’ll explain in a second. Through here, quick.”

I was so confused and out of sorts I let him push me through the door that led to the kitchen. As I tried to continue on Steve grabbed my wrist and pulled me back to the door.

“Your second is up,” I said. “So talk.”

“We were being followed.” Steve was staring through the window at the front door as he spoke, so I did the same. “They already had the pub under full surveillance. It wouldn’t have been safe to talk there.”

“But you only called me an hour ago,” I said before catching myself. “Wait. Who the hell are ‘they‘?”

“Listen, I’m in a lot of trouble and I need your help.” He still wasn’t looking at me and it was starting to piss me off. “But first I needed to prove to you how serious this is.”

“Well, you have my attention.”

“Good. Now watch this.” He pointed a finger at the front door. I noticed it trembled. “Two people are about to show up. My money is on a man and a woman. Easier to pretend to be on a date that way. Their assignment is to find out what I know and then kill me.”

“You’re joking.” Now I was really ticked off. “You’re wasting my time. I have work to do, so if you‘ll excuse me…”

“Just wait. They won’t be long.”

He sounded so certain that I didn’t move. It was completely, totally crazy, but I kept my eyes on the door. Several seconds passed before I realized I was holding my breath.

“Come on, Steve. This is -”

Fists pounding on the front door pinched my lips together. Sweat began pooling in my armpits as the janitor moved to answer it.

“Don’t worry, he’s my guy,” Steve said, nodding in the janitor’s direction. “He’ll tell them the place is closed and that we went out the back door.”

I watched as the scene played out exactly as Steve predicted, swallowing nervous lumps with great difficulty. The man and woman at the door were visibly upset by this news and tried to push their way inside but the janitor insisted that they went around. My heart was clawing at my throat, attempting to escape through my mouth.

“That proves nothing,” I whispered after the janitor locked the door again, my voice suddenly hoarse.

“Let’s have a look out the back then, shall we?”

I followed in his wake, my thoughts colliding like drunken frat boys. We stepped between silver racks piled high with dishes and over a bucket of dirty water, a mop resting within reach against the wall. At the rear of the kitchen another windowed door awaited our arrival.

“It’s one-way glass,” Steve said as he pressed his nose against it. “The staff like to check for crazy hobos at night before they take out their garbage.”

We waited in silence. Steve had grown calmer by the moment while I found that my mouth had gone dry and my palms were slick with sweat. I realized that while I had abandoned my comfort zone, we had taken up residence in his. This did nothing to soothe my nerves.

I stuffed my hands in my pockets and tried to figure out how I had got there. I found it difficult to remember what I had been doing at my desk that morning; something to do with the Japan deal, maybe.

Then my thoughts went blank once more as the man and woman I’d seen out front passed by the door, less than two feet away from us, with guns drawn.

The End

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