By Luke Beling
I was biting into a smoked salmon sandwich, watching my shadow, when Pretty walked up to me. I wouldn’t have looked at her if she hadn’t spoken. My shadow made me appear bigger than I was, and by moving in specific ways, my rail-thin arms became bodybuilder-like.
“That’s a nice tie.” She said as she furled it in her fingers, then pulled it tight. Choking on the sandwich, I tried to spit it out, and it landed a big gooey mess on my black, shiny penny loafers.
She immediately let go of my tie, and patted me on the back, giggling. “Oh, I’m sorry, Honey. Didn’t mean to scare you, you poor thing.”
I examined her face, and I began choking again. I’d never seen skin so soft and rich with a beautiful olive tint that made her blue eyes look like rare opals in a museum.
She touched my arm, and an electrical shock buzzed through my body.
I wiped my sleeve over my mouth, cleaning the little bit of dribble from my cowboy mustache.
“Howdy,” I said, making my voice sound solid and deep.
She shook my hand. “I’m Pretty. I think I’ve seen you here before.”
Her palm was delicate. I held it until she pulled it away. “Yeah, I come here for lunch almost daily. I work just around the corner.”
I tried to keep eye contact, but looking at her felt uncomfortable and exhilarating.
“And where does such an important-looking man like you work?” Her accent was southern, but I couldn’t tell from which state exactly. Though I’d studied and perfected the Texas Drawl for my current undercover assignment, I was from Minnesota, naturally pronouncing O’s and A’s longer than the I-90.
Pointing to the grassy hill above and behind Sam’s Fish Shop, I cleared my throat, “See that blue roof over there, just below the hill.”
Pretty followed my finger, and with meticulous movements from her head, she seemed interested in locating the exact building I was pointing to.
“I normally carry a pair of binoculars, but you’ve caught me empty-handed today.” I laughed nervously, hoping she’d find my comment funny. But instead, she kept staring at the hill with a serious expression. I felt more comfortable gazing at her with her eyes turned from mine and hoped I could keep watching her until my lunch break was over.
“What does such a handsome man like you do for a living?”
My heart accelerated as she turned around to look at me. Though my facial expression felt strained, awkward, and uncomfortable, I pushed my chest out and straightened my neck. Nobody had ever called me handsome.
I had five job narratives prepared and memorized. Judging by Pretty’s red lipstick, tight pink dress, and zebra-skinned handbag slung over her shoulder, I thought the wall street trader would impress her most. Glancing at my watch, I realized I only had ten minutes before my break was over.
“I’m a stock trader.” Standing, I furled my mustache in my fingers, trying to appear important. “I’m afraid I do need to get going, though. Shall we meet again?” My confidence surprised me.
Pretty’s face softened with a beautiful smile and glow. She grabbed my hand and squeezed it. “That would be wonderful. But I don’t even know your name.”
I’m not sure I’d ever felt my heart beating so fast. Stammering, I replied, “Melvin.” All my years of training, disarmed by this beautiful creature in the blink of an eye. I hadn’t shared my real name with anybody in years. I tried to recover. “But most people call me Pete.”
Her eyebrows furrowed into a neat V shape.
I laughed nervously. “It’s a long story.”
“I like Melvin,” she said, smiling, squeezing, and rubbing my bony knuckles in her fingertips. “Lunch tomorrow? Same time? Same place?”
“Wonderful. What do you like to eat? My treat.”
“Oh, you don’t have to do that, Melvin. I know how to feed myself.”
“No. No. I insist.” I pushed the tops of my fingers into her palm, and she squeezed tighter.
“Well, only if you let me buy the next day?”
I hadn’t had much luck or experience with women, so I wasn’t sure whether to take her offer or keep insisting I buy. Then, the thought of kissing her flashed through my mind, and I almost acted on it.
But my radio beeped. Pretty’s hand fell to her side as I let it go and gave her an awkward side hug, “Sounds good, Pretty. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
When I entered my low-lit office, I saw a sticky note attached to my computer. “Come see me immediately.” I read it with a whisper, then turned to see Colonel Higgs glaring at me from behind his glass window.
“You’re five minutes late, Soldier.”
I pressed my hands against my thighs and stood unsteady. “Sorry, Sir. Won’t happen again.”
“Where were you? You realize the importance of this mission, don’t you, Melvin?” Higgs’ sharp stick-like eyes pointed at me with piercing anger.
Making eye contact with him while I spoke was challenging, so I centered my eyes on a small mole just above his left eyebrow. “The line at Sam’s was rather long today. I’m very sorry, Sir. But rest assured, this mission is my highest priority. You have my word.”
As I sat down at my desk and resumed my algorithmic coding, the prevention of World War Three didn’t seem as crucial as before I’d left for lunch. Instead of studying the numbers and letters running across my screen, I replayed the earlier moments with Pretty. The data on my monitor was a haze. As I strained my eyes to study it, the rapid transmission of information contorted into the shape of Pretty’s face. With a slow raising of my head, I peered over my workstation and was relieved to see Higgs in a tunnel of work. I opened a private search window. I typed Girls named Pretty in Dripping Springs, Texas.
“Melvin! Get in here immediately!”
My index finger drummed on the mouse, closing the window on an inappropriate image.
“Who in God’s name is this?” On Colonel Higgs’ computer screen was a picture of Pretty holding my hand. Thankfully her face was unrecognizable, turned away from the camera.
“Where did you get this?” I stammered.
Slapping his hands on his desk, he knocked the mouse onto the floor, splitting the plastic casing into two.
I stepped back, afraid of where his rage might take him.
“You spilling secrets for a ride down the Mystic River, Mel? Don’t lie to me, now, Soldier.”
“She’s an old cousin of mine. Haven’t seen her in a while.” I made sure to speak quickly, giving him little opportunity to detect any faltering in my voice. That’s how they’d trained us. Speak fast with eyes locked on a single target.
“Cousins? You’re sick, Melvin.” Colonel Higgs blasted his index finger onto the screen.
I refocused my eyes on the mole above his eyebrow. “She’s always been very affectionate, Sir. Such a wild coincidence to see her at Sam’s today. I haven’t seen her since she returned from Vietnam.”
“Teaching English as a Second Language,” I blurted out, cursing myself in my mind.
“There’s still a lot of commies in that country. You know that, right?”
“Don’t worry, Sir. She’s a patriot.”
“Cousin or hooker, you compromise this mission, and I’ll chain you up myself. Hear me?” Higgs clicked on a blue file icon in the corner of his screen, and the photo disappeared.
“You see the latest? Know what it means yet?”
I removed my glasses, squinting, and got closer to his screen. It was the same data I’d got lost in moments earlier. “Not yet, Sir. But give me a few minutes, and I’ll decipher it.”
That night I couldn’t sleep, thinking about Pretty and the photo on Colonel Higg’s screen. I would’ve noticed a drone flying near us, even the low-noise ones emitting less than 71DBs. She didn’t deserve that kind of disrespect, somebody spying on her, on us. I opened my safe, read the instructions on how to load my M18, then set it on top of my briefcase so that I wouldn’t forget it in the morning.
Ten minutes before my lunch break the following day, I lied to Higgs, “I need to adjust our wireless connection, Sir. Communications are lagging every so slightly. I’ll have a look, then head to lunch.”
My gun was in my satchel. I felt the barrel tip digging into my spine as I jogged the path to Sam’s. When I stopped to catch my breath and remove the gun in the shade of a giant oak tree, I looked around to see if anybody was following me. Satisfied, I shoved the pistol into my front pocket and reached Sam’s before the line was more than a few patrons.
I almost tripped, losing our salmon sandwiches, when I saw the back of Pretty’s head. She sat on a faded red bench, watching birds and squirrels fight over seed. Setting the food gently to the ground, I repositioned the gun, then made a final round with my eyes.
“I hope you’re hungry!” I shouted in my deepest voice, startling her as she jumped up, almost hitting her head on a branch.
“You frightened me, Melvin! How wonderful to see you again! Pretty tugged on her short, tight blue skirt, making it difficult for me to keep my eyes from her luscious thighs.
“What did you get for lunch?” Her question interrupted my gaze, and when I lifted my eyes, I knew she’d seen me staring long at her legs.
“Smoked salmon sandwiches. Is there anything else?” I managed.
“My favorite! Come and sit next to me, Melvin.”
My arms began shaking, and my feet felt like lead as I started slowly towards Pretty. She was even more beautiful than the pictures I’d framed in my mind.
When I sat down, she grabbed my hand and stroked her fingers back and forth over my knuckles. “I’m so glad to spend a little time with you today.”
I wanted to look at her but felt I might not be able to talk if I did. “Me too,” I said, staring at my polished Penny Loafers.
“Any big trades today, Melvin?” Pretty nibbled on her fish sandwich like it was caviar, with small, slow bites.
Buying time, I shoved the food into my mouth, holding up my hand. Politely, Pretty looked away. As I followed her eyes, I noticed two men wearing in-ear radios walking toward us with their hands in their coat pockets. I focused on my shadow, ensuring they couldn’t detect that I’d seen them. The way the sun angled onto my body made the outline of my shoulders appear as round boulders. I slipped a hand into my pocket, gripping the gun, feeling the trigger on my index finger.
“It’s her! Now. Move-in! Move-in!”
“Melvin!” Pretty’s sandwich fell out of her hand as she hurled her arms around me.
The men pointing their guns at us were part of the security detail from my office building. “Mr. Blakeman, this woman is not who you think she is.”
Pretty’s grip tightened, and I could feel her tears soiling my chest.
“I don’t understand,” I said, pulling the gun from my pocket, hiding it behind Pretty’s stomach. She must have felt the end of the barrel against her because no sooner had I removed the gun from my pocket had Pretty snatched it from me. She fired it in less than a second, killing both men with two perfect shots between their eyes.
Before I could say a word, Pretty pushed the gun into my temple then spat onto my shoes. “Salmon? I hate Salmon almost as much as I hate democracy.”
South African born, Luke Beling, left home at 19. In 2007, he graduated from Campbellsville University with a BA in English.
Luke has had several short stories published in journals and magazines, including: Quiet Shorts (2012), Eyelands Flash Fiction (2019), Academy of the Heart and Mind (2021), New Reader Magazine (2021), The Salt Weekly Magazine (2022), and Impspired Magazine (2022).
Luke is the director of tennis for a private club on the Big Island of Hawaii and an indie-folk singer-songwriter.
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