Never Look Back

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Chapter 18

Next Friday was the one-year anniversary of our friendship. When I asked if Odera was celebrating me being an ass or if we were commemorating that she had survived the year, she just nodded. While Odera was noncommittal about providing an answer to that question, she had no difficulty telling me where the celebration was to take place. The Watchtower.

You had to be somebody to obtain a reservation at the Watchtower and I was less than nobody on most sliding scales. Power brokers, one-percenters, entertainers and the city’s elite, enjoyed weekend access to the trendy and chic Watchtower where no nuance was too small and a prodigiously stacked reservation book ensured maximum dining impact. Deirdre, one of Odera’s contacts at City Hall, conveniently left her alone in the outer office for a few minutes over lunch. Odera helped herself to the Mayoral assistant’s telephone, whose number showed up on the Watchtower’s call display. Odera said the Mayor would not be joining them but she hoped their party would be treated as guests.

Every-so-often Odera exposed me to urban culture as if I was a Rocky Mountain hillbilly stumbling into town for supplies. Tonight was one of those nights. I tucked these thoughts aside as I braked beneath the entrance’s aluminum awning. My motorcycle’s exhaust pipes popped like gunshots when I revved the engine before shutting it down. I wrapped a fiver around my keys and tossed them to the parking valet.

Odera scowled at me from inside the glass doors, either too well-bred to comment on my antics or too cagey to reward me with a complaint. When she rose from the chair to greet me, the slinky emerald gown she wore shimmered and shook. A floor-to-knee slit let her calves flash in and out of view, while up higher, red-tinged hair fell in rolling waves framing her face and throat to land on her collarbone and lower. The emerald gown backlit blue eyes that twinkled like sapphires. That’s why men wore tuxedos — so women would wear evening gowns. And then I noted an irony. A gown’s ultimate success is directly proportional to how quickly men pictured slipping it off a shoulder and inversely proportional to the length of dinner conversation.

“I vote to change casual Fridays to formal Fridays,” I said when she offered up her cheek.

“I suppose that passes as a compliment in your world.” When I returned from the cloakroom, she slid an arm through mine. “You have the shoulders to dignify a tux. Try not to destroy the image by talking too much.”

“How about I just chomp a grass stalk and spit tobacco juice?”

“Try not to be you. Does that about cover the bases?”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

We stopped in front of the maître de, a slip of a man who wore a pencil-thin Inspector Clouseau moustache. He appraised me with judgement prejudicial to motorcyclists. His scrunched-up expression reminded me of someone four days after he had eaten two pounds of cheddar cheese.

I said, “Bruce Garland, reservation for two.”

The maître de skimmed the page with his finger. “Is it G-a-r-l-a-n-d?”

Not waiting for an answer, he began a second pass. Perhaps he expected me to slip him a twenty as an apology. I’d hang him from a cloakroom hook first. An elbow jammed into my ribs, followed by a look cautioning silence. Odera leaned forward holding her sequin handbag to the side of her mouth inviting secrecy befitting the nobility of the maître de’s booking dukedom.

“May I count on your discretion?”

“Of course, Madame. At zee Watchtower, discretion eez assured.”

I considered mocking the booking Duke’s phoney French accent while Odera paused as though measuring truthfulness.

“We fooled the photographers with separate vehicles, but one can never be certain. They’re a crafty breed with spies everywhere.” A distinguished elderly couple stepped through the front doors. She viewed them dubiously and lowered her voice another octave. “May I be forthright?”

“But of course. Photographers, poof!” deplored the Duke imparting a finger-opening gesture. “Zay are a despicable lot. A scourge. Unworthy of those zay chase.”

“Just so. May your staff be trusted?”

“I trained zem myself,” he declared puffing up his partridge chest.

“Well, if they were trained under you, my worries are lessened. Mr. Koontz and I would so enjoy a quiet evening out of sight of those who seek reward for discovering his presence,” cast Odera and clasped a hand to her mouth in self-reproach.

“Messieurs Koontz! Forgive me for not recognizing you.”

The little fraud used the plural of ‘mister,’ which earned a squint from me. The Duke must have interpreted that reproof as an objection to him speaking what he thought was my name. He tried to fake a mortified expression.

“Forgive me, ah…”

“Garland,” reminded Odera.

“Yes, of course,” hummed the Duke putting a checkmark beside the proper entry. “Please, follow me. Staff will be sworn to secrecy. Answerable to me should zay break trust.”

A bow and royal arm sweep bid us entrance into his fiefdom.

“We shall dine happily if you alone safeguarded our evening.”

“Of course. A table beneath the chandelier?”

The table he referred to sat in the middle of the room. Batted eyelashes and a sultry gaze known to flat-line male brains into swooned compliance accompanied Odera’s next words. “That may do communally, perhaps, but I was hoping for a more intimate evening.”

“Ahh, yes. Zaire’s a table for two nearby.”

“That’s very kind of you.”

After seating Odera, he crossed the dining room imitating Rue Paul strutting down a fashion runway, heel toe, heel toe, one hand resting on his hip, the other held high, snapping his fingers to catch the captain waiter’s attention. I should be at home working, not playing Russian roulette with the boss’s daughter. A mixture of pride and humility sautéed lightly in friendship’s zesty desire, rollercoastered my thoughts up and down and around. To break the spell the gown had cast over me, I studied the dining room aristocrats.

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