Josh awoke just as the sun was barely visible on the horizon, creating a weak but growing glow into Barb’s bedroom. He looked about and saw the long line of discarded clothing that trailed from the bedside back to her front door as he sat up and tousled his hair with both hands. The night with Barb, while totally unexpected, had been an incredible reminder of what they had once shared, at least on a purely physical level, when they had once been a couple. Josh had no idea if this seduction was Barb’s indication that she wanted to give them another shot in the long term, or if had merely been a one-time thing, in the heat of the moment, so to speak. If she was half as exhausted from their evening as he was, then Josh had no problems letting her remain asleep. He slipped on his jeans and his old beloved T-shirt commemorating a long-ago concert from his undergraduate days and looked at Barb as she lay half-exposed in the tangle of linens.
Even as she slept, he found her incredibly attractive and sensual, and truly hoped that he had not drawn her into the morass of this thing he and Ben Harper had found themselves entangled in at the moment. Josh would never forgive himself, despite her assurances to the contrary, if he had done anything to put her in harms way…to have disrupted her seemingly content and uncomplicated life by imposing on her to try and conceal his movements from the goons on the loose in town. It was bad enough that the weight of the Mastersons rode on this scenario, which Josh admitted was not his direct responsibility. But as to Fred Dillard, Josh could not shake the feeling that he was at least partially responsible for that. Sure, he reasoned, Fred might have been caught in the cross-fire anyway if this group after the Crespi files were as relentless and lacking in compassion as Ben suggested. But Josh certainly did want to add Barb to that tally list.
As the sun began to rise higher in the morning sky, and illuminate Barb’s bedroom in magical tones of gold and yellow, Josh looked over to see his phone vibrate on the kitchen counter where he had left the device the night before. He padded across the dining area to the kitchen as the phone trembled and skittered on the granite surface and retrieved it before it moved itself off the counter and onto the floor like some insect on a journey home. Josh looked at the screen, but even before he glanced down, he already knew what he would see;
Josh…all is set. Meet me back at Uncommon Grounds in 30 if you are still onboard. Will assume you are unless I hear back from you otherwise. Ben.
Josh sighed with resignation, knowing there was no turning back now and he walked slowly back to where Barb was still asleep after slipping on his shoes and the light jacket he had been wearing from the night out. He sat on the edge of the bed and gently touched her shoulder, quietly arousing her from her slumber. She looked up with half-open eyes and smiled as Josh placed his open hand lightly on the side of her face.
“You leaving?” Barb asked with a croak of sleep still in her voice.
Josh just showed her the text from Ben and she looked up at him with concern and that look of deep endearment he knew well from her from well, based on their close relationship. She grasped Josh by the collar of his jacket and pulled him close, kissing him softly, then long and deep.
“About last night…” Josh began…
Barb put a finger to his lips to cut off anything further.
“And you are wondering if this was just last night or something more for us?” she asked.
Josh shrugged and nodded.
“Seems like a reasonable question…”
Barb looked deep into his eyes and Josh felt the depth of her real anxiety for him and what he might be facing in the next few days, or however long it was that this so-called plan of Ben Harper’s might take to implement and eventually resolve.
“Truthfully, Josh? I have no idea at the moment. Why don’t you go do what you need to with Dr. Harper and then we can talk, OK?”
Josh was not sure if this was just a delay on her part to avoid what could possibly be a very awkward and uncomfortable conversation, or if she was worried that he might not come out of this thing alive and that the whole situation between them might be a moot point. Neither gave him a good feeling inside, but at the moment, Josh figured this was the best approach all around. In fact, he did not even have a good answer at the moment as to what he wanted with Barb. Being with her was an exhilarating experience, for sure, but he also did not want to implode a very good friendship at the expense of an intense, and perhaps purely physical relationship.
He thought back to how painful and sad it had been when they had called it quits before, and he did not want to go through that again. If they both wanted something more, he agreed that a future and more intimate conversation needed to be had before moving ahead. If last night had been just a one off, they both needed to acknowledge that as well. But at the moment, Josh also knew he needed to focus all his energy and concentration on whatever it was that Dr. Harper was setting in motion. He did not want to be distracted, though he would never frame it in those terms as he was worried it would come off sounding too cold and unfeeling to Barb.
Josh nodded and took one last long gaze at her body and face before kissing her goodbye just in case the worst that faced him was realized. As was her natural inclination, Barb somehow seemed to picking up on Josh’s thoughts—a trait he had never ceased to be amazed at dating from when he had first met her at Pragmore.
“Just come back in one piece, Josh Redmond. All else can be negotiated down the line. Don’t you dare take any unnecessary chances, regardless of any assurances you get from Ben Harper. OK?”
“Deal…” Josh replied as he felt a heavy tightness squeeze around his heart. He kissed her fingers and arose to head into town.
“Oh, shit, Josh!” Barb exclaimed as she began to get out of bed, “what about your car? It’s back at the café!”
Josh gestured for her to stay put.
“You’ve done enough in all of this, Barb. I have no idea if these creeps might have spotted us last night, though I am guessing not or otherwise we might have gotten a visit last night. I’ll take a look around to make sure no surveillance is obvious, then call for an Uber. Safer for everyone that way.”
Barb fell back onto the bed, not completely satisfied with his decision, but it was not like she thought she could come up with a convincing argument to change his mind. Despite her concerns, Barb found herself fast asleep again only moments after Josh had disappeared from her condo, her last conscious thoughts praying for his safe return, though like Josh, Barb Delmont was hardly the praying type…
Josh arrived at Uncommon Grounds a bit before the 30-minute timeframe that Harper had suggested, even including a thorough look around outside Barb’s place and having his Uber driver take a roundabout and circuitous route into town. The woman who had picked him up had glanced at Josh quizzically as he directed her on what felt like an unnecessary and wasteful set of turns and switchbacks and illogical loops, but in her long work with Uber, she never questioned her clients—even with requests that seemed odd, as long as it was not putting her or her vehicle in harm’s way. And when Josh offered her double her quoted rate just to humor him, she shrugged.
“It’s your money, pal…”
Josh sent the fee via Paypal and then handed over a generous tip in cash as well.
“Thanks for the indulgence, Sylvia…” he said, picking up her name from her ID.
“Anytime, my friend…” she replied with a smile as she drove off, never ceased to be amazed at the variety of oddballs and eccentrics that she met every day in this gig.
Josh found Dr. Harper seated in the far rear of the café where they had met previously when Josh had leaned of Fred Dillard’s death. He just nodded casually and joined his mentor at the small table, wending his way past just the two or three occupied tables between the entrance and where Harper was seated.
“Last chance to change your mind, Josh,” Harper whispered as Josh took a seat.
Josh just fixed him with a look that needed no reply.
“OK…OK….just making sure. You make sure no one was on you today?”
Josh nodded, relaying his strategy for staying out of sight the night before, and how he had made his way to the café, using a lot of the techniques that Harper had taught him already.
“Very good. You may have the makings of a spook, yet, Josh…”
“Thanks, but unlikely. I may look calm and collected on the outside, Doc, but looks can be deceiving. This is a one-time deal—I hope—and then all I want is to get back to the life I was planning on after resigning from Pragmore.”
“Fair enough,” Harper replied. “I’m just having some fun with you. No offense intended.”
“None taken. So, everything is all set?”
“As much as can be, Josh.”
“Look…this is not meant to freak you out, but for all the times I was involved in specific operations in my youth with the agency, I found you can only plan out so much. Inevitably unexpected situations arise and sometimes you have to adjust the best you can, mostly on the fly.”
Josh nodded silently, feeling yet another unwelcome ball of worry gnaw at him in his chest. He would have joked with Harper that that sounded like a really cheesy movie cliché, but at the moment, his sense of humor seemed to be far away and besides, he was pretty sure that Harper did not mean, nor would be see the levity in what he had just said.
Harper sighed audibly and then launched into what he and his contacts had designed and begun to put into action to try and end this mess once and for all—hopefully including the end to this European cabal as well. However, though he was well aware that these organizations often would just sprout new incarnations, even if the principal head was decapitated from the original snake. There was simply too much money at stake, Harper knew, to assume eliminating one den of vipers would put an end to the whole business.
Josh listened intently as the professor laid out the plan and all the contingencies and possible variations that they might have to employ if the original strategy, as he had suggested earlier, got derailed by unforeseen circumstances. What Harper did not reveal, was just how vulnerable Josh might be if some piece of their plan went horribly wrong. He had assurances from his old partners that the strategy had a good chance of succeeding as mapped out—over 70%--which might not sound so good to an amateur, but in the realm of his old days, Harper knew this was about as good as you could hope for.
Josh seemed fully on board, even after his summary of the plan, and Harper was sure the young artist did not need any more suggestions into his highly honed imagination of that figure. Perhaps it was not completely fair to hold this back at the moment, but in his experience working with new and very green operatives, Harper had learned—the hard way—that too much information was often worse than holding back a bit. Point in fact: Harper recalled the one operation he had been a part of in Venezuela back in the 1960’s. The bureau chief made the decision to make all known to the whole team, including the rookie, Pete Geller, who had just come on board. Geller, like Harper himself, was idealistic and ambitious, and to this day Harper felt that decision had been ill-advised, leading to Pete’s abduction and subsequent horrific and macabre torture and murder. Even now, Harper was plagued from time to time with nightmares of that incident as he was the one to find Pete’s remains deep in the jungles of Sierra Imataca outside Tumeremo.
Josh sat patiently as Harper went over the scenario several times until he could recite the plan fluidly back to him.
“I know it seems overly anal, Josh, but trust me…you will thank me later if you have zero questions or any ambiguity of what to do when and where and how.”
“Sure, Doc…you ever see that old World War II era film with Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin, Telly Savalas, and Jim Brown, “The Dirty Dozen?”
Harper nodded remembering the scene Josh was referring to in which Lee Marvin had his entire team repeat the plan over and over, ad nauseum, until he was sure they all know it by heart.
“Then, I guess all that is left is to put this thing into action…”