Between Charlotte’s present job and her Dad’s willingness to follow Uncle Sam’s directives wherever on the globe they might take the family, she had lived and traveled in numerous locales. For fifth birthdays, most children are hoping for a pony or a backyard party with friends or, if so lucky, a trip to Disney World or some other suitable amusement venue. Charlotte spent most of her fifth birthday in a student union tethered to her chain-smoking babysitter, a German exchange student at the Université de Bourgogne in Dijon where her mother had taught. Days spent with Elissa and her clove cigarettes notwithstanding, the constant upheaval meant that Charlotte could find the familiar and move with ease no matter where she found herself. London was a particular favorite, if for no other reason then for Harrods’ meandering Food Hall and the extra helping of foreignism brought on by cars with right-hand drive.
Though she had only lived here briefly after college, Charlotte’s knowledge of London from both street-side and tube was as thorough as her knowledge of any. For all her well-traveled qualifications, however, she had never heard of The Wellesley.
She assumed it was nearby, given the lack of any other qualifying information in the note. A restaurant, or maybe a pub. A pub named for an Irishman in the transit station named for the place in which said Irishman roundly defeated France’s tiniest general was certainly apropos. Charlotte began strolling along the outer perimeter of the station, looking for signs of a Wellesley. She kept both hands thrust firmly into her pockets as intermittent blasts of the January air followed her from the entrance. She was careful to pay attention to everyone within a twenty-foot radius, a reflex conditioned by years of her father’s insistent reminders.
The smell of frying food caught her attention, and in the wall opposite her position she noted a drab green metal awning with large letters: “COOPERS.” And under that: “For a fresh approach to the traditional pub.” Instinctively, or perhaps because the dinner served on the plane had been barely distinguishable, she followed her nose. As she drew closer, she was able to read the makeshift banner hastily tacked over the entrance in much smaller handwriting: “THE WELLESLEY.”
The Wellesley, formerly Coopers, was a basement bar in a train station. As such places were typically built, this one was more spacious and welcoming by comparison. Charlotte had to deliberately navigate the steep stairway on her descent thanks to her functional yet impractically styled Prada winter boots. Still expecting from years of sense memory to be overcome with a cloud of smoke upon reaching the interior, she was instead met with its stale, ghostly afterimage. No amount of legislation would ever get the stink out of London’s dankest watering holes.
One face turned as she descended. A middle-aged man with smooth and rugged features, and an astonishingly full head of hair. He looked nothing like the transient or the indigent that Charlotte sawscattered throughout the rest of the room. Without acknowledging him, she took a seat at the bar, leaving one empty between them.
“No one is expecting this meeting,” said the voice, low and soft and tinged with the same Slavic lilt as the one from her voicemail. “No need for secret code words or handshakes.” Charlotte turned her head and strained her eyes. He had a boyish face; probably not as old as the lines declared.
“That’s good to know,” she replied coolly. Be vague, Dad had always told her. Play along but not so much that they know you know. Let the other person play their hand first. It was not unlike running a con.
“You would not remember me,” he continued, turning toward her on his stool. “Your father and I worked together many years ago when you lived in Moscow.”
Dad moved them there for a couple of years after Charlotte was born. She was too young for memories, but remembered a sense of oppressive cold. Dad had remained active in Moscow for years even long after they had moved to France. Not exactly a Mother-and-Ivan relationship, but close to it.
She focused her attention on a tattered bar menu, still yet to make eye contact. “You realize that it says ‘Coopers’ over the entrance,” she said, feigning impatience.
She noticed him smile. “I know,” he sighed. “I did not know they change the name.”