The following is a chapter from my book Not Exactly Innocent. It’s a chapter where I detour a bit to have some fun with regional language, and with men sitting around giving each other a hard time – but it’s also one in which I toss some pro-life activism into the mix. I am pro-life, pro-marriage, and pro-family, and I hope that comes out in all my books. But in Not Exactly Innocent, much of the book revolves around bioethics, from the questions of the proper boundaries of scientific research, to the dangers of being disabled in a world awash in euthanasia advocates. The book is now available on Kindle. I’m aiming to have a trade paperback edition available soon, after we get some design details worked out.
This is the second book in the MI5 1/2 series, but I wrote it so it should be fine as a stand-alone book. It is crawling with spoilers for Not Exactly Dead, though, just so you know. The third book in the series is Not Exactly Allies.
25 – The Coffee Break
Leandre Durand and Henry Rochester rendezvoused at a coffee shop downtown, if you could call it a coffee shop, to swap notes. You could get coffee there, certainly, and pastries, not to mention cholesterol-drenched sandwiches, but it somehow didn’t seem to rise to the title of coffee shop. By some odd chemistry, it drew almost all men. Being temporary-bachelors-by-assignment, they found it surprisingly comfortable. And since the locals called it a coffee shop, they called it that, too, somewhat against their better judgment.
They didn’t have many notes to swap, unfortunately. Durand’s uncle was not turning up as hoped. Other leads were not panning out. New leads were not coming in at an encouraging rate. The FBI’s Harold MacAvoy still wished that they would go home, and was probably petitioning various governments to that effect. All in all, they’d had better investigations.
But they’d been at the game a long time and had long since learned to relax and stay hopeful. So they ordered coffee plus a cinnamon roll, nearly plate-sized, to split between them, and settled in for some mental gymnastics to keep their minds sharp. Sometimes a little bantering jarred something loose. And if it didn’t, it left a man feeling up to the task ahead of him. That was the theory, anyway. (Or the most believable excuse. Quite frankly, they enjoyed banter for its own sake.)
They felt slightly conspicuous ordering one over-sized bun and sharing it, but this small eatery had become a regular rendezvous spot, and they’d learned that the regulars, even the instructors from a karate school down the street, almost never ordered a cinnamon or caramel roll each. Seeing karate instructors getting their pastries split up and dished out on separate plates had made the maneuver all right. You couldn’t accuse those fellows of being unmanly, or having weak appetites. Not even in your wildest dreams. Still, it seemed an odd way of doing things. The owner of the shop didn’t seem to mind, though. He seemed to expect to have to wash two or three plates per pastry purchase. Of course, if one made insanely large pastries, one might reasonably expect to make concessions to practical-minded patrons.
Perhaps practical was the wrong word for most of the patrons. It almost implied stinginess, and stinginess was definitely not the order of the day. Henry, at least, had learned to be amused by the size of the tips left to the waitress and the shop owner. There was a game about it, he thought. On his third visit he tried leaving a moderately oversized tip and found it scored him points with the regulars. A radically large tip, he suspected, would have been deemed a foul.
It was the little things in life that could give the most satisfaction, he decided. Like sussing out undeclared sporting events, learning the rules without help, and becoming a tolerably good player in the eyes of the veterans of the game. As a spy, a man got a lot of practice at it, but it never seemed to lose its luster. This variation, this particular game, had the added advantage of costing a pittance. So many undeclared men’s sports could get horribly expensive in a hurry.
Henry realized there was another side to this. With a money man’s grasp of the value of small amounts adding up over time, he’d made rough calculations on how much the shop owner and waitress likely took in, in tips above and beyond what ought to be expected for the size of the average tab. The owner’s calculated risk in slightly undercharging for the food and service appeared to be coming back in spades. Plus, the regulars clearly felt a sense of investment in the place. An interesting business plan, Henry thought. Risky, but well suited to the sort of man who ran the place, he decided. It would take a skillful hand to keep this sort of business in the black, and Henry appreciated the apparent success of the place. He also liked the waitress’s new car. She’d earned it, no question. She was perceptive, and took care of the details that made a place like this go.
There had been a shift, Henry and Durand noted, in how the locals had come to respond to them over time. The place had always been friendly – uncomfortably friendly to their European sensibilities – but now they’d been taken in, more or less, as compadres. Under some circumstances, this would be bad for undercover agents. But under the present circumstances, they couldn’t see what the harm would be.
It was fun, too, albeit sometimes over-familiar fun.
Today seemed a case in point. Everyone was in a talkative mood. This wasn’t unusual, in and of itself. But what Durand failed to appreciate before he opened his mouth was that the conversation had become general, with everyone feeling free to join in on any topic presented by anyone. This, of course, is prone to happen, at least in waves, in a certain type of American coffee shop.
“So, mon vieux, I have been wondering. You have not, I hope, made the mistake of calling your wife homely?” Durand said to Henry, over-innocently.
“I beg your pardon?” Henry said.
“But I have been studying the differences between the British and the American Englishes, and it seems to me that the word ‘homely’ stands to be one of the most dangerous in the language to an Englishman who marries American,” Durand explained. “To you, you would use it to say how wonderful and warm was her personality. To her, she would hear you saying that she was not good looking, perhaps even somewhat ugly. I warn you, my friend, it will be the cause of much misunderstanding, if you are not careful.”
“I’ll bear that in mind,” Henry said.
A very observant person, and Durand was in this case a very observant person, would have noticed that Henry was now chewing his food slightly more deliberately than before. His eyes had also acquired an odd, distracted look around the edges. Durand suppressed a grin.
“Of course,” Durand said, “then there is the problem of ‘blue funk’. Not that it is used often, but to you, if your wife declared herself in a blue funk you would want to rush to her side to protect her from whatever was scaring the wits out of her. But she would not be scared at all. Merely depressed. Perhaps you would be well advised to go to her comfort, but you would be ready for battle and she would merely want a hug.”
“Or not,” a nearby customer said. “When my wife is in a blue funk, as she calls it, she means she’s depressed all right. But also grumpy and out of sorts, and warning me to steer clear because she wants to claw somebody’s eyes out, and might not be able to stop at mine.”
Durand was surprised, and Henry astounded, that someone had just leapt into their private chat. But Durand was determined to not let it ruffle him. “Ah, you see! My point exactly. It is hard, my friend, to realize that English is many dialects, and not one language. It is very hard, because for the most part the same words and phrases are used. Only, they are used to mean different things. It is alarming, really, how easy it would be to stir up the most atrocious trouble with the most innocent utterances.”
“You’re a lot of help,” Henry said.
“But he has a point,” a man said. “Don’t mind me,” he added, as he pulled up a chair at the next table and sat down. “But I teach history. Specialize in World War II. Some historians like to think that the Allied effort nearly capsized over the use of the word ‘table’. Personally, I can see where it caused some hard feelings and some confusion, but I like to think we weren’t actually at risk of losing because of it.”
“Oh, but I had heard of this. In school,” Durand said. “Refresh my memory.”
“That translates into ‘I’m bluffing’, by the way,” Henry volunteered.
The history teacher laughed. “I figured as much. Anyway, when Americans say they want to table something, they mean that they want to put it to one side until tempers can cool off or more information can be gathered. Much of the rest of the world uses ‘let’s table that’ more or less as equivalent of ‘putting something on the table’. That is, they mean it’s time to stop monkeying around. Time to hammer things out. The poor Americans kept trying to let people save face or buy time, and kept inciting near fistfights instead. Bloody mess, really.”
“Then there’s the word ‘spinster’,” another man said. “Where I grew up in Canada, it just meant an unmarried woman. Period. A fellow could, and should, ask a woman he’s just met if she’s a spinster. Saves chasing the married ones, you know. You never saw such shock on a woman’s face as when I moved down here and asked away, like always. Some sort of insult is it, eh?” The man looked around and appealed for help. He was met mostly with laughter.
Durand studied Henry’s face. “Oh, no, my friend. Tell me that you have not told your wife that you are glad that she is no longer a spinster?”
Henry made a show of checking the time as if he suddenly realized he was late for an appointment, and excused himself. He could be seen pulling his phone out of his pocket as he went through the front door.
Durand turned to the history teacher. “The poor man. He had no idea at all, really, how difficult are the details when one marries outside one’s culture. And now that his wife is away on a business trip, he has all this time on his hands to fret, you see?”
The history teacher laughed. “What I see, buster, is that you guys are probably good friends now, but that you’re pushing your luck. Some day he’s going to-”
“Hey, there you are,” a man said to Durand from the front door, with just his head stuck through. “You aren’t missing your uncle again, by any chance?”
“Not that I can say, but one never knows with my uncle,” Durand replied smoothly.
“Well, I just came from walking past the Egyptian Theater, and there’s a guy with lots of wild white hair, he looked kinda like that photo you showed us, I think, maybe; and he’s just looking at the façade and saying stuff that sounds like deelishu and sharmin and I don’t know what all. I don’t know any French, but it sounded kinda French. You might want to check?”
“Merci. I will,” Durand said.
“Gotta go,” the reporting party said, and ducked back out.
“Excuse me, please,” Durand said to the history teacher. “My uncle, bless him, has a tendency to get lost.”
Durand kept his face in a pose of neutral long-suffering patience, but his heart was pounding. Perhaps his careful cultivation of the story of a senile uncle who wandered off at odd and inconvenient times would pay off after all. Certainly Oncle Auberi would likely find the Egyptian Theater delightful. Durand himself held a less charitable view of the structure, finding it, in his considered and cultivated opinion, not quite in keeping with the neighborhood, not to mention too audaciously fake. But Bec, almost certainly, would find it delightful.
Durand set off with high hopes. As he walked, he kept fingering his phone, but in the end decided against calling Henry. For one thing, it wasn’t quite cricket to worry a man to death about his wife and then immediately ask for help from him. For another, the more he thought about it, the more it seemed he’d rather do this little chore by himself.
Durand found that several people who worked at and near the theater had noticed an enthusiastic and unkempt old man. Durand pulled out a picture of Bec. Yes, that’s him, the people said. Almost everyone pointed in the same direction, too, when asked which way he’d gone. That was good.
“He got into a van,” they added.
This was not so good, especially when no three descriptions of the van sounded like the same vehicle. Still, that everyone thought it was a boxy sort of vehicle was something. Or, if hard pressed, a worried nephew could try to convince himself that it amounted to something.
Durand didn’t deceive himself for long. Really, he was back at square one, only with feathers in his mouth, as it were. Like an unsuccessful cat after a bird, he’d caught mostly air and the bird was flown.
There was a ruckus down the street. A woman was shaking her fist at two teenage boys and yelling. “I am not a murderer!” she screeched, adding obscenities and threatening to get the boys arrested or sued or something. The boys were standing their ground quietly. One was writing on a clipboard. It looked like he was making checkmarks.
Durand hurried over, mystified but concerned. “Excuse me, is there some sort of trouble?” he asked politely.
“Oh, yeah, duh,” the woman sneered, her voice and her body language belittling Durand.
“I’m sorry, sir, if we upset you,” one of the boys said. “We’re doing an experiment for psychology class. We’ve got twenty teams of kids walking around, wearing these t-shirts, and seeing what sort of response we get. Joe and I have only been at it twenty-five minutes and we’ve already been yelled at five times, had seventeen “Way to go!” responses, and had to run for our lives twice. And that’s just from the small percentage of people who’ve bothered to notice the shirts. Most people tune out messages worn by teenagers.”
“Yeah, we’ve studied that all by itself,” the other boy said. “People get tired of being offended, and it affects their brain. Wild, huh?”
The t-shirts were printed with a simple question: “Seriously – would you rather be pregnant for nine months or the mother of a murdered child for the rest of your life?” That was it. No artwork. Just words, in a plain typeface that added no drama to the message.
Durand turned to the irate woman. “But, it is such a simple question? And, if I may say so, such an obvious one, madame, that should be asked by every woman, if she is so heathen as to get pregnant out of wedlock. Or, indeed, if she is married but belatedly is worried about an inconvenience. What can possibly be the reason to be yelling?”
The woman started to say something, but gave up. She stared at Durand, uncertain what to do next. His eyes were steadier than hers, and it unnerved her.
Durand turned to the boys. “Please, my friends. Did you desire any further information from the woman?”
“No, sir. We’ve got her down as ‘defensive’ and ‘hostile’ and ‘loud’ and ‘responding with obscenities’. I think that covers it. And, oh yeah, she’s in the ‘jumping to conclusions’ list, along with everybody else on the planet. This question doesn’t necessarily have to have anything to do with abortion, you know. Everybody assumes it does, but if you think about it, it doesn’t have to. I think it’s really interesting that no one seems to be able to think things through once they get ‘abortion’ into their heads. Nobody. Either side. Even you.”
“You are being unreasonable on that last point, I think,” Durand said. “Of course it might apply, as an example, to a situation where someone shoots a woman in the abdomen and the baby dies but she lives, but that is too unlikely to warrant consideration under the circumstances, no? It is reasonable to assume it means the parent-requested feticide, surely? Or abortion, if you wish to use the more common but sadly neutered term. It is a billion dollar a year industry, just in this country. You cannot go anywhere without encountering it. Of course it is what should come to mind, when you are talking about pregnancy and murdered children in the same sentence.”
The boys grinned. “Man, you’re breaking through all the barriers. Cool. Most people can’t think things through, or speak their minds without getting furious. Really they can’t.” The boy with the clipboard somewhat triumphantly checked off a box.
“Can’t or won’t?” Durand asked.
The boy marked off another box. He started to give Durand a thumb’s up sign, but at that moment both boys seemed to remember that they were currently supposed to be dispassionate researchers. They exchanged sheepish glances and pulled themselves up, getting sober and adding at least five years to their apparent ages.
“So you have what you wanted of the lady, yes?”
“Then you will be leaving, madame,” Durand said.
She left, looking confused and angry.
Durand shrugged. “Guilt can be so noisy and unpleasant,” he said. He pointed to the clipboard. “You may put me down for, what did you call it? ‘Way to go’?”
He walked away feeling somewhat bolstered by having made a stand on a basic moral issue concerning the protection of innocents.
But Auberi Bec, his own naïve and innocent relative, was still lost, still in danger.
Durand’s mouth definitely still tasted of feathers.
A bit further down the sidewalk he started to feel ashamed of himself. The irate woman had been hurting and clearly she had been fed lies about the options available to her after abortion. He sent up a prayer that someone with a warmer heart than he had displayed would cross her path and set her straight on a few things.
Just then, he saw her again, looking alone in a cold sea of unseeing humanity.
“I didn’t mean me,” Durand said, quietly.
He paused and watched. No one taking over for him, he said, “But I don’t like her. More precisely, I dislike her.”
No one taking over for him even after that, he walked up to her.
“My apologies, madame. I behaved atrociously back there, and you may kick me in the shin if it makes you feel better. I am sure I deserve it.”
She stared at him: uncertain, hurt, a bit scared, a lot curious.
“It is not that I didn’t mean what I said back there, you understand,” Durand said, “But I stopped halfway too soon, before I got to what is truly important, and I let my anger at other people spill over onto you. There is no excuse for that. I am sorry. I can see that you are hurting, and the last thing you needed was for an oaf to appear. I regret my oafness.”
Despite herself, a corner of the woman’s mouth flicked upward.
Durand wished he knew his way around Boise better, specifically that he’d personally checked out the people who worked in post-abortion ministry. Most people in such ministries were quite warmhearted and sensitive and properly grounded, but a few of the people in that line were in the ‘with friends like that, who needs enemies?’ column, and he didn’t want to accidentally feed this struggling soul to any of those.
He looked up and down the sidewalk. He didn’t remember any churches close, but perhaps that was just as well; sometimes a church building shut off conversation with someone who had been fed lies about churches, or who had experiences with those that had abandoned Christ as He is and instead embraced something unholy and false. For that matter, not having checked out the local churches himself, he didn’t know which would help her soul and which would mislead her. A bad church, in his considered opinion, was worse than no church at all.
Not knowing what else to do, he searched faces for a woman who had the same sort of inner glow as his wife. A group of three women and four teenage girls caught his eye. They looked like wholesome people in every good sense of the word. They were modestly but colorfully dressed (playfully, in a couple of cases) and they were laughing up a storm. Good laughter: joyous, warm, bubbly, spontaneous, like Perrine’s.
“Forgive me, ladies. I am in need of some assistance,” he called out, just loud enough to draw them toward him. He turned to the woman with him and whispered, “Let us see if they are as nice as they look, or only superficially so, shall we?”
He was pleased to see that the eyes of his little flock of approaching strangers held intelligence and a proper wariness behind the outward innocence. No babes in the woods, these. Thank God.
“If you please, ladies, I am at a loss at how to go about this, so I hope you will forgive me if I am out of line, if that is how you say it? I am sure it sounds quite an odd thing to ask strangers, but if you met a woman who was suffering after an abortion, what would you tell her?”
To his surprise, six members of the little group flicked their eyes to the seventh, with a look he hadn’t expected and wasn’t sure how to decipher. The seventh said, “Funny you should ask that. I tried twice to commit suicide after my abortion, but finally tumbled to the fact that God forgives you if let Him. You really can put it behind you, or at least the worst of it. The memory stays, but the wound heals, if you truly repent of what you’ve done, and renounce it, and turn to God. I’d tell her there was hope.”
The woman with him flinched at the mention of God, but the little group of women and nearly-women stood quietly, exhibiting a willingness to forgive, an openness to sweep a hurting soul into their embrace.
Durand turned to his adopted sinner. “At the risk of being thought rude for saying so, this lady seems to have more peace at heart and more solid footing than our unnamed friend. If the woman who is hurting after an abortion wishes to stop slipping on gravel all the time, so to speak, perhaps…”
He stopped talking. The women had made eye contact and something was passing between them. The hurt woman scanned the faces in front of her, faces that were used to being joyful. And something clicked.
Durand, fond of making astute observations, started to say something, but caught himself. Far be it for him to try to upstage God, at work through godly women.
The females were all starting to cry. He left.