“So, Doc…” Josh said after a brief moment of silence to let his whole story sink in, “is this like one of those bad movie cliché moments, when if I am having second thoughts, you say I know too much?”
Harper chuckled and smiled for the first time since he had launched into the narrative of his past with his former student.
“You always did have a dry sense of humor, Josh. But, no. I have an idea to possibly end this mess once and for all. I think that you’d make it go much more easily, but if the whole idea of what I have laid out is too much, just say so and that will be the end of it.”
“Just like that?”
“Assuming I can trust you at your word to keep this under wraps, then yeah…just like that. It’s up to you.”
“Your plan? Dangerous?”
’Harper shrugged and waggled his hand briefly in a gesture of ‘maybe’.
“To tell you the truth, Josh…I guess it could be, but perhaps not as dangerous as doing nothing and having you wonder if those unsavory fellows that are following you around these days are not more of a threat to your safety.”
Josh looked off through the window as the sun was just setting over the horizon beyond the bare limbs of the beech and hickory trees that made up most of the town’s tree population. The story that Dr. Harper had laid out did not give him the warm fuzzies at all, but on the other hand, being stalked and possibly being targeted by the two goons in town was a much worse option. How was it, he thought, that when all he had wanted to do was get back to his art and restore his health, that he had fallen into a scenario out of a really poor imitation of a Jason Bourne film.
“OK, Doc…” Josh finally said as he looked back at his old professor and exhaled deeply, “I guess I am in. You said something earlier about me being a real decoy?”
Harper grinned thinly as he nodded and threw back the last of his tea, now stone cold in the delicate cup he was holding.
“Tell you what, Josh…let me make a couple calls first. Just to firm up some additional assistance we would require to make this plan have its’ best chances of success, and then I can sit down with you and lay the whole thing out. If at that point you still have reservations, you can walk away. No hard feelings, no guilt, no nothing. Also…it will give you some more time to really think over what you may be getting yourself into…despite the depths you are in already, OK?”
Josh nodded and shook Harper’s offered hand before leaving the coffee house to ponder it over. Even though he did not have anything with him at the moment that his “shadows” might be interested in, Josh could not help feel his eyes darting in every direction looking for vehicles or pedestrians nearby that might look out of place or foreign. Harper’s background had certainly put him on edge and Josh could feel his creative side dreaming up all manner of scenarios that were possible, even if not probable. As he looked around and felt his pulse quicken, Josh had to laugh at himself. All he was, in reality, was an artist. How was he even going to recognize anything out of the ordinary if it even was there?
He sat in his car and just let the engine run for a few moments as he tried to reason out where to even go. Going home seemed foolhardy. But where else was there to go? After some thought, he dialed up an old colleague from Pragmore Graphics and Design—his old firm—with whom he had stayed in contact with after resigning his position there. Barbara Delmont had been a good friend then and had remained so after all this time, being the key person in his life that had been instrumental in him getting some help when his health began to deteriorate while he was still working at the graphics outfit. Like himself, Barbara was a very gifted artist, but had long ago resigned herself to the corporate world. She still did her own stuff on the side, and it seemed, at least to Josh, that this was enough to keep her from being eaten away at by her corporate duties as he had become.
He did not want to put his good friend in harm’s way as well, but perhaps he could talk her into meeting him someplace very public while he waited on Dr. Harper’s call. He had not seen Barb in some time, though they talked regularly through phone or e-mail. He hoped a request of the blue like this to get together would not cause her undue curiosity. Leaving his car running, Josh dialed up Barb and figured he would just wing it.
“Josh! Wow…what a nice surprise! I was just thinking about you last week and had been meaning to give you a call.”
“Yeah…I went over to the Pinecliffe Gallery a few weeks ago and saw that new exhibit of yours they have set up.”
Josh had been so consumed with everything that had been going on, first with the discovery of the secret passageway in his new home and what he had discovered there, and now how that had all snowballed into his pseudo-partnership with Dr. Harper, that he had completely forgotten about the gallery. It was his first real serious foray back into his artwork since having left Pragmore.
“Oh, yeah…the Pinecliffe exhibit…what did you think?”
“Would I want anything else from you, Barb?”
“Hardly. It was…well, Josh…”
“Let me have it, Barb. I can take it.”
“Oh, sorry…guess I was giving you the wrong impression. I’ve known you a long time, Josh, and have looked at a lot of your portfolio, both finished and in progress, right?”
“You have indeed…”
“Got to tell you, Josh…that exhibit is like nothing I have ever seen from you before. I am not sure if the experience at Pragmore did it or you finally getting the incentive to leave once your health took a nosedive, but that exhibit is incredible!”
“I mean it, Josh. The depth of composition and colors and emotions the paintings evoke really touched me. It’s like…I dunno…like there is something in you that has gotten reborn.”
Josh could feel himself blush at the praise.
“That’s great, Barb. I’m glad they spoke to you.”
“But it sounds like you did not call me up for an informal review. What’s up?”
Josh swallowed hard. Barb had always been able to read him, even on the phone. He considered handing her some BS story about his call, but in the end, he knew she would see right through it—if not now then when he saw her in person. Besides, Josh knew he was a lousy liar. Might as well lay it on her…either she would play along, or she would just think him being overly melodramatic and letting his imagination run wild.
“It’s that obvious?” he asked.
“Really, Josh? You have to ask?”
He thought back to the days that he and Barb had had their brief fling when he had first come to Pragmore. It had been intense and exciting and Josh had never experienced a relationship in his life that he had had with Barbara Delmont. It was like a supernova that was destined to flame out from burning too hotly, too quickly, but at the time neither of them had cared. However, as time went by, they both realized that it was not a relationship that would have any true staying power for either of them. That deep down, they both were destined to go in different directions. But even with all that passion and fire, even after it dimmed and was finally extinguished, both Josh and Barb had remained close friends.
Before Josh’s health began to fade while still at Pragmore, he had been there for Barb when her life shattered after her parents were killed in a massive gas explosion at her childhood home; one that was finally attributed to unlicensed and illegal fracking nearby. Barb had been devastated at the time, and to this day still counted Josh as the one person in her life that kept her afloat to come out the other side of the disaster in one piece. So, when she returned the favor of pushing Josh to finally go to a doctor when it was apparent to everyone around him that he was now the one falling apart, Barb merely saw this as quid pro quo.
Before launching directly into the reason for his call, though, Josh thought it wise to side-step that and check in on Barb’s personal life, as what he was about to ask might impact those around her now.
“Before I tell you, Barb…I need to ask a few questions, OK?
“First of all…how are you and Stephanie doing?”
About two years ago, Barb had, to Josh’s mild surprise, but not total amazement, announced to him that she had fallen in love. And fallen hard. The surprise, though, was that her new love interest was a woman. Thinking back over her sensuality and sex drive when they had been together, this did not knock Josh off his feet as it had her other friends. To Josh, it seemed just a natural progression for her and he was surprised, but not dumbfounded.
“It did not take.”
That was all that Barb said.
“So sorry, Barb. You two seemed so good together.”
“I thought so too, but one day I woke up and…well…just was not the relationship for me anymore.”
“Just like that?”
“Oh…I guess I had sensed it coming on for a while, but had been trying to ignore it. You know how it is…just figured it was a low ebb that would pass.”
Josh did. Just like what had happened to the two of them before they mutually called it quits.
“You have no idea, Josh. When I met Steph, I had been pondering the whole lesbian thing for a long time, and it sure seemed right.”
“But then I just woke up one day and was honest with myself. I was missing the company of men. Both sexually and otherwise, Josh.”
“Sounds like she did not take it too well.”
“To say the least. Much rancor and high emotion and vitriol. Like you said…high drama. I tried to explain to her that I suspected I was in fact bisexual, but…”
“Did not go over well, huh?”
“No…not at all.”
“Solo for now, but feel much more comfortable that I seem to have identified myself sexually once and for all. But why did you ask?”
“Barb…I have gotten myself into a bit of a mess as of late, even since leaving Pragmore. I need a slight diversion tonight. And don’t freak out…just looking for a friend to talk to. I hesitate to get you even tangentially involved, but if there is anyone I could ask this of I knew it would be you.”
“I…uh…well…I will be honest here. I am a bit in the cross hairs of some unsavory people at the moment. I am waiting to hear back from Dr. Ben Harper, my old college history professor…did I mention him to you ever?”
“Only about a million times, Josh…”
Josh chuckled lightly appreciating her sense of humor all things considered.
“Right…right…anyway, as bizarre as this may sound, tonight may not be the best time for me to go home…at least until I hear from Dr. Harper…and I was wondering if I could impose on you for a bit while I wait?”
There was silence on the line.
“Barb? You still there?”
“Oh…sorry, Josh. Yeah, I’m still here, it’s just this all sounds so ‘007-ish’. And coming from you that is a pretty wild assumption.”
Josh smiled to himself as he thought back on all the talks the two of them had gone through when a couple, with Barb telling him how he needed more excitement in his life. He needed to expand his horizons. He needed to break out of his shell.
“I know…I know…I still remember all those late-night talks of ours.”
“Yes, Josh, but somehow I sense this is way beyond what I was suggesting at the time. At the time, I was thinking more of our sex life…”
Josh felt himself blush again as he recalled all the experimentation that Barb had talked him into in that regard. To this day he had never regretted any of it, as he closed his eyes and remembered those times easily.
“Barb…I am afraid this may be a bit more complicated than that. If I have not wigged you out with just a very superficial overview on all of this, would you be willing to meet me somewhere—somewhere very public, with lots of people—and I can fill you in if you are interested. And if not…just say so…”
“So, Josh…you call me up with some borderline paranoid story of being chased by some unknown people. Then you need to wait for this mystery call from Ben Harper. You need to meet me in a very public place to wait. This is not a sexual come on…unfortunately for me. And from what I can infer, may involve a fair amount of real danger…not John Grisham or Lee Child danger, but actual, real danger. That about cover it?”
“Seems like you’ve got a handle on it.”
Barb laughed out loud.
“And after all that, you think there is even the slightest possibility that I would say, ‘Gee, Josh, sounds interesting and all, but no thanks, I’m washing my hair tonight?’”
“You’re a regular Robin Williams tonight, Barb…”
“I will take that as a compliment, my friend. Anyway, my point is that after all that there is no way—absolutely no way—you could talk me out of this now.”
“You sure, Barb? All joking aside, this could be dangerous…”
“Yes, Mr. Bond…dangerous you say…where and when, Josh?”