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Chapter 21

The entrance to Catherine’s villa was majestic; it had an imperial presence to it.

“I can see the Roman connection, all right. No wonder Ken organized that.” Nancy mused.

“He’s never seen this, Nance,” her hackles rose at the mere mention of his name. “I’d never let him know where I live.”

“That’s strange...” Nancy frowned suddenly, her mouth hanging slightly open in dismay, “...I know that, of course I know it... but now I think about it, he somehow gave me a real impression that he’d been here... told me how it looks... just like this,” she stood back and gestured with her palms.

Catherine felt an explosion of anger within, which she bottled; then, a ridiculous thought sparked in her mind, “When did you get that impression, Nance?”

“I’m not sure... it’s just dawned on me... I don’t know... maybe... maybe two weeks ago? Can I come in?” Nancy tagged the timid request onto the end of her statement.

“Oh... of course, yes, of course. Sorry Nance... so sorry, I got side-tracked.”

As they made their way from the foyer into the double-volume body of the house, Nancy’s head swiveled in an unceasing scan and she issued a procession of disbelieving exclamations.

“I’ve only just got home myself, Nance; I hope you don’t mind but I grabbed take-out,” Catherine apologized.

“Of course! Don’t be silly,” Nancy hated the idea, she despised take away food.

Catherine opened the microwave and bunged the boxes in.

“Why not look around while I heat it and shower. The entertainment center’s in the corner, put anything you like on, if I’m not down yet, come upstairs when you’re ready.”

While Nancy went off exploring, Catherine ascended the stairs for a quick shower. She needed to do this, to have Nancy there as a backup yet feel alone and little isolated… a mind-game to beat the fear and madness overtaking her.

As the water cascaded over her, she was contemplating the two-week estimation of Ken’s insight.

It had been around two weeks earlier that Jacky had complained of a sleepless night. Catherine could remember having slept particularly deeply on that occasion.

Jacky had insisted that she had felt a presence enter their room, where it had lingered throughout the night. Jacky was not normally like that; superstitious, so it had struck Catherine as odd at the time;

“There was a lot of activity, constant small noises,” Catherine recalled Jacky complaining. “I couldn’t quite figure out where they were coming from. There was definitely no wind.”

“It must have been your mind playing tricks,” Catherine had proposed.

Then Jacky had said something that had sent a pang of guilt rushing through her; “I was sure that I could smell the scent of a man, Cath. It really got me spooked so I checked the security board... nothing.”

At the time her guilt had been unfounded, back then Catherine was still only planning infidelity.

A few days, after that incident, Catherine had given Ken a greeting hug and Jacky had caught a whiff of the scent on Catherine’s clothing. Her nostrils had flared and her eyes had widened with recognition. “That’s exactly the smell, Cath! I could swear it’s the same smell that was in our room the other night.”

Jacky had proceeded to interrogate Catherine regarding the scent, but she had disregarded it; “I’m in contact with a lot of people in a day, Jacks.”

Perhaps it was the improbability of it, but Catherine had somehow not linked these coincidences; even under the heat of her shower they now gave her a shiver.

As she toweled off, she called down to Nancy, “All okay?”

“All fabulous.”

“I’ll be down in 2”.

Dropping a T-shirt over her head, the flotsam of evidence kept washing through her mind, and she waded deeper into the waters of her recent delirious sedative-induced dementia.

She was positive that Jacky had remarked several times about the same recurring scent on each occasion Ken’s phantom had come to haunt her.

“This is a palace!” Nancy was still overwhelmed.

“Thanks, Nance. I picked it up half-built from a divorce auction. Those were days...” Catherine reminisced, “Shew... I had to stretch the company’s budget to the limit to secure it—not really ideal, but there was no other way. We very nearly didn’t make it.”

“You started Kaplan from here?” Nancy guessed.

“I didn’t actually start it here, no. The place we started in was a real dive with cracked walls and roaches. You name it. It was horrible. I’ve got some photo’s somewhere that I can show you. Wine?”

Still shaken from her earlier thoughts, Catherine reached for her juice-stick to calm her nerves.

“I brought a red.”

Catherine continued as she uncorked a chilled white. “I got this place nine years ago,” she was pleased to talk about anything other than her current problems.

Her rise through the ranks of the advertising community was a local legend of which Nancy was familiar.

Rumor had it that her late grandfather had bypassed all contenders in his last will and testament, gambling on the fine character and astute mind of his favorite granddaughter to make good with the winnings of his life’s work. It had cleaved the family like a ripe melon but his gamble had paid handsome dividends.

Where rumor and fact diverged, lay in Catherine’s subsequent actions. The moment she had turned a profit from her inheritance, Catherine had maintained her personal commitment to reimburse those whom she estimated to have forfeited from her gain.

Catherine had recently branched her company’s purely above the line advertising into below the line contracts too. Ken had convinced her to take on PR functions as well, believing that the three disciplines were indivisible in the modern world.

They toasted everlasting friendship, the clink of fine crystal wineglasses ringing crisply.

“We’d grown too big for the dive. The moment I saw this place, I had to have it" Catherine continued filling Nancy in on the accurate details of the legend. “I moved Kaplan in downstairs and don’t tell the IRS, but I moved into the upstairs.”

Her comment produced their first mild chuckle; tonight, Catherine needed light and calm.

“Working from home was great, but eventually we outgrew this and we needed a proper commercial environment. That was two... two and a half years ago.”

“It sure is magnificent, Cath. You can be very proud of it. Hail Caesar and all that...”

“I see...” Catherine was trying to make light of it, playing along, “...that you’re still fantasizing about my Roman fetish.”

“Don’t be silly, Cath. I’m sorry... shew, that was out of taste, I didn’t even mean it that way at all. It’s just. Wow! All of this is really breath-taking... it kind of just came out.”

Nancy was trying to find the right moment to fill Catherine in on Ken’s manic behavior and obsession with talking to her; saber rattling about pulling the account.

With insight from her Saturday dinner with Catherine, Nancy had had a better grasp and had tried to intercede; “Pulling the account seems very harsh, Ken. They’ve delivered, the staff are hitting the objectives in her absence... it’s punishing her for being off sick.”

“Actually Nancy, this has got fuck all to do with you!” Ken had never sworn in front of her before—much less at her. His door slammed behind him.

“Then why the fuck do you come and talk to me about it?” She’d screamed after him.

Yanking her desk draws open, she’d tipped her personal items into a bag and was midway through a resignation email when Ken had reappeared with a post-cloakroom attitude, cheerful and acting as if nothing had happened.

Twenty minutes later he’d convinced her to stay, but his vulgarity had cost him a twenty percent salary hike and an apology; “Sweet words,” she’d thought, “…his sweet words and his foul balms.”

From Russia, his obsession had continued; her phone rang off the hook with all manner of poorly cloaked excuses, each punctuated with his real reason; “Kaplan call yet, Nance?”

Eventually Catherine found the courage to ask, and Nancy filled her in, downplaying and softening where she could to reduce the stress.

“Actually Nance, I’ve been thinking long and hard about the situation. You’ve seen the revenue your account means to me... this has been a hell of an expensive mistake, but I’m going to have to walk. We’ll survive, but we’ll have to dig deep and probably cut some positions at first,” Catherine fidgeted, “…the price of experience, I guess.”

“We’ll still be friends,” Nancy couldn’t argue the rationale.

“Damned sure we will!” Catherine insisted.

Their eyes met and held.

Catherine’s confidence waned as the thought of the things she still had to disclose came rushing to mind, “Always... I hope.”

“Always!” Nancy agreed.

Nancy had seen Catherine’s aversion to Ken’s name when she’d earlier mentioned it, so she’d omitted to mention his latest call. With him in Russia, the time zones put them some distance apart; he’d just woken, very early Wednesday morning in Moscow, it had been late afternoon in Silicone Valley.

After his usual “Any word from Cath?” he offhandedly mentioned; “I just woke from another really vivid dream about her.”

“Come to think of it,” Nancy thought, “That’s why I assumed Ken saw this house... he mentioned dreaming about it, described it perfectly.”

Chicken a la Chong,” Catherine was knocking the microwave warmed and batter-encrusted apparitions out of their Chinese takeout cardboard boxes onto delicate Meissen porcelain.

Nancy cringed but faked a polite anticipatory smack of her lips.

After the first mouthful, chewed with long teeth, she realized her folly and was pleasantly surprised by the flavour.

During dinner, Catherine tackled the subject she’d invited Nancy around to discuss; “I’ve got something to say that’s a bit awkward...” Catherine’s looked slightly ashen with stress.

“More awkward than a giant cock?” Nancy tensed, “How much worse can it get?”

“Well... funny you should mention it,” Catherine was relieved by Nancy keeping it light. “Seriously... it’s something I’ve got to tell you...”

Nancy saw her stress and reached across the table, taking Catherine’s hand and holding it; “You’ve killed someone, right?”

“No... it’s the value of our friendship; I have few friends, and they’re precious to me. I consider you a friend.”

Nancy squeezed her hand, affirming the same sentiment.

“We’re both adults, Nance. I’m positive you’ll understand... I don’t want to injure our bond.”

Catherine took a long and deep draw on the juice-stick, studying Nancy’s expression.

Nancy was holding her breath, her face growing flushed, infected with trepidation for the big and building disclosure of great import.

“I’m... uhhmm... when I was twenty-five I’d had enough of men’s lies... abuse. I’m... well, Nance, I’m gay.

Nancy’s long-held breath came out in a whoosh;

Sheeeeuwww!!” And she started to laugh... doubled over with hilarity and relief, “I thought you were going to tell me something important, Cath... got me all worked up... I’m gonna give you a good spanking, my girl!”

A relieved Catherine did as she was told, stood up for a smack and Nancy stood with her, wrapping her arms about Catherine’s neck and looking into her eyes;

“Why would I care? Why would it be any of my business?” she asked plainly. “What gives you the notion it’s a secret?”

“I give it away?” Catherine asked, surprised.

“No... not to just anyone, but... come on... I didn’t fall of the turnip truck yesterday. You and I are pretty close; when you talk about your partner and not your husband or boyfriend... well...”

“Well... I can’t go around talking about my wife... can I?”

“You’re married?”

“Not yet... in this mad state you never know if it’s going to be annulled at the next election.”

They laughed, laughed as old friends who hadn’t known one another very long.

“So you knew I was a lesbian all along? A dirty dike.”

“Such ugly words, Cath. You’re neither.”

“So that’s out the way. A real relief... next disclosure you’ve sort of figured out... yes, I have a lover... been with her five years. She’s a little... she’s a bit jealous.”

Catherine had described how they’d met and the circumstances that they’d endured through the years. It opened the path to discuss the predicament her liaison with Ken had her in, the threat Ken posed in terms of coercion, in terms of any hint of blackmail.

“He knows about Jacky, I told him.”

“He’s kept it quiet... not that it’s something he’d talk to me about anyway.” Nancy confirmed. “Ahh... That’s why the big cock,” she started to laugh good humoredly, “a cock and boobs.”

And Catherine joined her in hearty laughter.

“Anything he can do, I can do better,” Catherine cracked.

“Well... guess it’s truth or dare evening over at Catherine’s house,” Nancy suggested. “Truth from me? I’ve had the fantasies too... of being with women too. Just never been in a position or bothered to act on it.”

“So happy Nance... so happy you understand.”

They’d sat down in the open plan lounge.

“No... Thank you for trusting me. Why not show me a pic of this lucky girl. She’s not about to come through the door and scratch my eyes out?”

Catherine was jubilant, euphoric to have the burden off her shoulders. If she could play this right with Jacky, the three of them could become friends. Catherine obliged Nancy’s request and went upstairs to get her iPad with lots of pics.

As she reached the threshold of her darkened bedroom she hesitated, suddenly afraid to leave the light and Nancy’s presence.

“Ridiculous!” She admonished herself and resisted the urge to snap a light on. She crossed the shadow-drenched room by the light of the full moon streaming through the window. The room was peaceful, devoid of any negative impulse.

The battery on her iPad had recovered to thirty percent so she unplugged it and made her way back to the lit stairway.

“How much time have you got?” She called, descending the marble steps.

“All night. You’ve must have a lot of pics.”

Nancy detected a hint of plea in Catherine’s voice—the poor girl still rattled and wanting to stretch company

Catherine laughed.

Nancy knew it didn’t matter how late she’d get to bed, her only commitment the next day would be to Ken, and, in the Moscow time zone, he’d be asleep well into her afternoon. She had anticipated an all-nighter and had organized Jo, the security administrator to cover for her.

“She looks lovely. What’s her name?” Catherine took the liberty of flicking on into the album.

“Jacky....” There was affection in Catherine’s voice.

“Are these modelling shots?” The photos looked too professional to be snaps.

“Yes—pics of pics in her book. She used to dabble... now she’s on air-crew so there’s no more time."

“Well that explains how you can have me to dinner,” Nancy winked. “How long’s she away for?”

“Till Thursday morning. She’s not really jealous... well... no more than a man would be.”

“A man would be jealous of me visiting his girlfriend?” Nancy poked fun.

“True,” Catherine conceded. “But then, they are rather naïve, aren’t they?”

They laughed a lot more as they flipped onward through the albums, some photographs of Catherine’s former male lovers.

“Jacky doesn’t mind this?” Nancy inquired.

“That they’re men? Or that they’re in the book?”

“Both, I suppose.”

“She’s also had boyfriends before, so there’s no room for complaint. In fact, she never had gay inclinations; they only came dealing with a situation with a photographer. She really doesn’t like men much. She’s got a real issue.”

“It’s sad.”

“And you...? Got a love of your life?”

“Alas... lost.”

“Oh dear.”

“Years ago... I’m well over it. Drunk driver.”

“Oooh, no,” Catherine grimaced, “the other evening?”

“Uh-huh... bad girl. You gotta stop that nonsense.”

“Sorry mom... I really don’t do it much, was just the company.”

“Enough of that already... You were going to tell me about her lack of jealousy... All these pics of lovers, and, shewee girl, you have some taste!”

“She doesn’t mind the pics they make me who I am, she says.”

“Mature... good. Nothing worse than a skeleton in a cupboard; it begs for blackmail.”

Nancy’s sober words catalyzed Catherine’s mind; she had to make it right with Jacky, she had to come clean about Ken. She’d make it her first priority come Thursday.

“Whatever the consequences,” she thought, “...they can’t exceed having a man like Ken holding a gun to my head.”

She told Nancy of her intentions;

“I didn’t mean it as a judgment.”

“I didn’t take it as one, Nance.”

“How will she take it?”

“Honestly... I don’t know. Probably not good... but it can’t be worse than this. I can’t live like this.”

“I’ll be here for you.”

“Thank you,” Catherine rose. “Coffee?”

“Please. I must use your facilities.”

“Straight up the stairs into the bedroom, use the en-suite,” Catherine could just as well have directed Nancy to the guest toilet on the ground floor and closer, but she wanted Nancy to feel like family.

Downstairs alone, she felt comfortable, not a hint of paranoia anymore. “Thank God,” She sighed softly to herself. “The nightmare’s over, it’s over!”

That night the two friends lay together, embracing like sisters; in Catherine and Jacky’s bed.

There’d be no need to tell Jacky about it—it was meaningless. If Jacky asked, she’d not deny it, but there was nothing to report.

She was certain Jacky would see it that way.

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