Lacey sat in the cafe, bags from the big city stores sitting on the floor at her feet and on the banquette beside her. She ordered a pot of Earl Grey and a raisin scone from the waitress and took her daily planner out of her handbag. She checked several items off a list in the planner and thought about what she would do for the rest of the day. Lacey had finished her shopping this morning. After tea, she would take her purchases back to the hotel and head out again. She had the afternoon free. She mulled over her options. Go to a museum? See a movie? Take a walk through the Botanical Garden? The April day was a nice one, warm for the time of year and sunny. Museums and movies were really much better on rainy days. Yes, she decided, the Botanical Garden would be quite enjoyable. They were having an exhibition of tulips just now. The photos in the brochure she had picked up had caught her eye with their rainbow colors as she had scanned the rack at the tourist center in the train station when she had arrived the previous evening. She had also picked up a brochure for the ballet, which she would attend this evening. Lacey took the brochures out of her handbag, laid them on the table, and put her planner into her bag. She picked up the pamphlet for the Garden to check the price of admission. The brochure for the ballet was a keepsake for her to take back home and put in her scrapbook. She had a scrapbook for each trip she had made to the city over the years.
Lacey had traveled two hours by train into the city the evening before and had stayed at a hotel near the park. She had saved all year for the trip, setting aside small amounts from her weekly pay, working summers in the office at the campground, babysitting on the weekends for neighbors. It was her one indulgence in a life of moderation and abstention. She worked as a secretary at the local grade school. The job paid enough to cover necessities for Lacey, her mother, and their two cats. Lacey’s mother was “sickly,” a self-description that Lacey suspected just meant lonely, bored, and possibly agoraphobic. Mother never left the house. Lacey’s father had walked out long ago, and her mother had counted on Lacey to take care of her. Mother required so much of Lacey’s time outside of work that she could develop no deep female friendships, let alone any romantic relationships. Lacey was what her mother called a home body. Lacey was sure that, given the chance, she would have been anything other than a home body. These annual trips to the city were the one indulgent thing Lacey allowed herself. Her mother had objected the first time, but gave up when Lacey insisted.
Lacey’s favorite pastime was reading. She stopped in to the village library at least twice a week. Lacey read romance novels of all types, from historical to modern to supernatural. She loved mysteries, too, and read detective fiction, cozy mysteries, and thrillers. Lacey read fantasy and science fiction as well. She read anything and everything that would take her out of her real life. Reading fictional adventures helped her deal with her decidedly unadventurous life.
One of her favorite characters was Miss Marple, who thought that villages were quite interesting little microcosms of the world at large, but Lacey disagreed. Village life was dull. Well, except for that time several years ago, when the Townsend girl, Sally, had gotten pregnant and wouldn’t say who the father was. Speculation and gossip ran rampant for a while, but Lacey was pretty sure she knew who it was from a few furtive looks she saw pass between young Sally and a local business owner. Lacey kept her suspicions to herself, but when the baby developed a very distinctive, deep dimple in his right cheek, she knew her suspicions had been correct. The people in the village never acknowledged it outright, but the butcher’s wife, who had had four children in five years, never had another one after that. She also bought herself a brand new car to take her, and Sally Townsend, too, to night school. People behaved rather cooly toward the butcher after that, but they still bought their meat from him as he was the only butcher in town and, after all, there was no need to punish the wife and children for the man’s sins.
After having decided on her afternoon activity, Lacey looked around the cafe at the other customers, wondering what their lives must be like and what their plans might be. The 60-something woman with the mass of steel gray curls was clearly waiting for someone. She turned to the door every time it opened, letting in a new customer. Her wait ended when a younger woman, carrying a baby, came in and the older woman jumped up, ran over and covered them both in kisses. There was a man in the far corner, wearing tortoise-shell glasses, reading a newspaper and ignoring his coffee.
The man at the table next to Lacey was writing in a small notebook. He, too, had looked at the door each time it had opened, but not in an obvious way.
One time he looked up, he caught Lacey’s eye. Pointing to the ballet brochure, he said, “Oh, that company is quite good. I saw the ballet two nights ago. You should definitely go see it.”
“I have tickets for tonight,” Lacey answered.
“Enjoy yourself,” he said. He smiled at Lacey briefly, and went back to his writing.
The tables here were set close together and Lacey’s eyes drifted down to the notebook in which the man was writing, but, close as the tables were, she couldn’t read what he had written. Her eyes came up to find the man looking straight into her face, appraising her, it seemed. It was odd. He looked like he was summing her up. His frank look lingered longer than Lacey found comfortable and she turned away. The man went back to writing. Lacey wondered if maybe he hadn’t been looking at her at all, but had simply looked up, unseeing, from his writing to search for the correct word. The principal at the grade school Lacey worked at had this habit. He’d stare off into space while composing a letter or school bulletin and Lacey had always found it disconcerting and would make up errands to run or would go to the cafeteria to brew a cup of tea whenever she found the man staring right through her in the small office they shared.
The waitress came with her Earl Grey and scone and Lacey sat enjoying the well-deserved refreshment after a morning of shopping. As she took the last bite of her scone and reached out for the teacup, the man at the next table stood up suddenly and knocked into her table, causing some tea to slop out of the cup onto the saucer.
“I’m so sorry,” he said, turning back to his table and grabbing a napkin. He lifted her teacup, placed his napkin on the saucer, and placed the cup back down.
“That ought to soak it up,” he said, smiling down at her.
“It’s fine,” she said. “I was finished, anyway.”
He looked at her again, a tad longer than was socially acceptable, and then strode briskly out the door. Lacey watched him go. As he stepped out onto the sidewalk, a car pulled up and two men got out, took her new acquaintance by both his arms and guided him into the back seat of the car. The man did not struggle, but Lacey had the feeling that he was not going willingly, either.
Lacey looked around the cafe, but no one else seemed to have seen what had just happened. She shook her head. It was nothing. She was imagining things. She paid the waitress, gathered up her belongings and left the cafe. Two people entered as she was leaving, and she held the door open for them. She noticed the man with the glasses, who had been ignoring his coffee, get up from his corner table and stride over to the table she had just vacated. He lifted her tea cup and looked at the soaking wet napkin in the saucer.
Back at the hotel, Lacey inspected her purchases. She emptied all the store bags out onto the bed and went through her new things. The receipts went in a pile near the pillows to be sorted into her wallet. She unpacked the new computer tablet first, putting it on the desk and plugging it in to charge the battery. Lacey smoothed out, refolded and rearranged her new things and found a space in her suitcase for them. She folded the shopping bags and placed them on the desk next to the tablet. As she turned back, she saw something red in the pile of receipts on the bed. She pulled out a miniature version of a Swiss Army knife, bright red with a tiny white cross on a shield. Where in world had this come from? She hadn’t bought it. Lacey turned it over in her hand and saw that it was a USB stick made to look like a Swiss Army knife. Perhaps it was from the computer store, a freebie tossed into the bag at the register. Cute, she thought, and she tossed it in her handbag.
She took her daily planner out of the bag went through the receipts, writing in the planner and adding up the money she had spent. She had to be careful not to overindulge. One receipt was not a receipt at all, but a handwritten note on a piece of paper torn from a small notebook.
“Take the USB to the ballet tonight. Meet me in the hall at intermission by the door to the west side loge seating. It’s important. Political bombshells. People in high places. I’m not a spy, I’m a journalist. Please.”
Lacey stared at the note. How did the note get in her bag? How did the USB stick get in her bag?
The man at the cafe! He did it when he bumped her table and spilled the tea. It was a distraction. He knew those men would show up outside. He knew the guy with glasses was watching him. The man really had been sizing her up in the cafe, deciding whether to trust her.
“Oh, my gosh!” she said aloud. She looked at her reflection in the mirror over the desk.
“Oh, my gosh?” she asked her reflection sarcastically. “Not exactly the vocabulary of the smart dame sidekick in a suspense novel.”
She paced back and forth between the desk and the window and had a good debate with herself. This could not be true. Real life is not cloak and dagger like a suspense novel. Besides, why was the man carrying around a USB stick? Why didn’t he just save the information to the cloud? Lacey wasn’t actually sure how the cloud worked, but she thought journalists and spies didn’t have to meet in cafes or at the ballet or in back alleys anymore. Isn’t most espionage and, for that matter, most journalism done online these days? Maybe the cafe man didn’t want to put the information online where it could be hacked. Can they hack the cloud? What the heck is the cloud, anyway? That doesn’t really matter, Lacey decided. He gave her a USB stick, and that was that. But what if he doesn’t show up at the ballet tonight? What was she supposed to do, then? Could a person simply walk into a newspaper office and demand to speak to the editor-in-chief? Maybe it was a joke. It could be one of those reality shows. Maybe there wasn’t anything on the USB stick.
Fortunately, she had the means to answer that question. Her new tablet had a USB port. She plugged the stick into the port and double clicked the icon when it appeared. There was one file on it. It appeared to be a news story. She scanned the words of the article. Wow! Political bombshells, indeed. She disconnected the stick and stared at it. Okay, she decided. If she was going to do this thing, she was going to do it right.
She went to her suitcase and took out an item that her mother, being extremely paranoid, had ordered online a few years ago.
“You need it,” her mother had said, “In case you get robbed.”
“Who would rob me?” Lacey had asked her mother. “I don’t look like I have over five dollars on me.”
“Just take it.”
Lacey always packed it to appease her mother, but she had never used it. It was a tubular circle of Spandex material with zippered access. She placed the USB stick into the tube’s secret compartment, stepped into it and pulled it up to her waist, tucking it under her shirt.
Lacey picked up the phone and called the front desk.
“Hello,” she said, cheerfully, “I read in the information pamphlet that I can buy things in the hotel that I’ve forgotten. Is that so? Yes, thanks. Do you have any USB sticks? Wonderful. Could you send three of them up to my room? Thank you so much.”
When the woman from housekeeping arrived, Lacey tipped her and then got to work. She sat down at the desk, logged into the hotel’s Wi-Fi and searched for a copy of the US Constitution. She copied and pasted the text into an online translation software program, changing only the First Amendment so that it would appear in bold font, and then translated this into Russian, Swahili, Peruvian, and Klingon. These she copied and pasted one after the other into a word processing program and saved it as a .pdf file labeled “Pulitzer Fodder.” She put the .pdf file on each of the USB sticks.
She put one stick in the nightstand drawer tucked into the pages of the Bible. The second stick went into her coat pocket. She got ready to go to the Botanical Garden. She took the third stick down to the lobby and asked the desk clerk to put it into the hotel safe. Then she went off to the Garden to look at the tulips.
As much as she tried to act casual, she failed miserably, and she knew it. “This is the last time anyone is going to ask you to be a spy,” she thought, “Pull yourself together.”
Everyone around her looked suspicious. She was sure that woman in the blue jacket was following her and the guy with the glasses looked familiar, too. Was he the one from the cafe this morning? It was absolute torture, but she strolled through the park for most of the afternoon, looking toward hundreds of different varieties and colors of tulip without her brain registering any of them. She walked back to the hotel and on the way stopped in to a restaurant and bookstore. She wandered around the shelves, picking up books at random and trying to figure out if she recognized anyone from the tulip exhibition here in the shop. The guy with the glasses was here! And, she was sure now; he was the one at the cafe this morning not drinking his coffee. Lacey bought a book and took it over to the restaurant section. She took her coat off, hung it on the coat rack in the corner, and sat at a table. When the waitress came, Lacey ordered a turkey sandwich, carrot slaw and mineral water. She flipped through her book, looked up suddenly, went to the coat rack, reached into the pocket of her overcoat and felt around inside. She took the coat from the rack, went back to her table, draped the coat over the back of her chair, sat back down and read her book until her food came.
After her meal, she picked up her belongings, shrugged into her coat and walked toward the door, where a man wearing glasses bumped right into her. He apologized profusely, holding her by the elbow as he did so, and asked if she was okay. She assured him she was fine. He held the door open for her and she left the shop, hailed a cab, and went back to her hotel.
In the taxi, she reached into her coat pocket. The USB stick with the faux information she had put there was gone. She smiled.
Back at the hotel, she went up to her room to change for the ballet. She checked the Bible in the drawer of the bedside table. The second USB stick was missing. It looked like they, whoever they were, were covering all the bases. Good thing she was, too.
Lacey changed into her outfit for the ballet, a full skirt with slit side pockets, a short embroidered tunic and a blazer. She put her money and credit cards into the Spandex waist band along with the real USB stick. Lacey had brought along a small evening bag as part of her outfit for the ballet. She put a lipstick, some tissues, cab money, and her ticket to the ballet into the evening bag and went down to the lobby, where she asked for the third USB stick that had been in the safe all afternoon. She put it into the evening bag and took a cab to the opera house, where the ballet was being performed.
She thoroughly enjoyed the first half of the ballet. She knew it was sold out, so she could relax. No one could get to her during the performance. Near the end of the first half, she reached under her tunic, took out the real USB stick and put it in the slit pocket of her skirt, ready for the hand-off.
Lacey started getting nervous during the applause at the end of the first half. She had to get this part just right. It had to look real to the bystanders, and the timing was critical. She walked out of the auditorium and along the corridor, following the signs to the west side loge seating. As she walked down the corridor, she saw the journalist from this morning, on one side of the hall. He was standing near a pillar and a small alcove. She veered slightly toward him, scanning the crowd for danger, and saw Glasses Man walking toward her. Glasses Man had not yet seen the journalist. He was concentrating on Lacey. She faltered in her step and the journalist noticed. He saw Glasses Man and turned his head so as not to be seen. He stepped back into the shadows of the alcove.
Lacey walked toward Glasses Man, stopped dead, looked shocked and gasped. Glasses Man grabbed her evening bag and made his way quickly toward a door marked “emergency exit.” Lacey didn’t react to his having taken her bag and when the alarm sounded and all eyes turned toward the escaping man, Lacey walked quietly over to the alcove.
The journalist looked beaten, mentally and physically. He had a black eye and a cut lip. He looked sadly at Lacey and said, “I’m so sorry. It was for nothing. I shouldn’t have gotten you involved.”
Lacey smiled at him and said, “Are you kidding? That was the most fun I’ve ever had in my life.”
She took the real USB stick out of her pocket, handed it to him and said, “I believe you wanted me to hold this for you?”
He stared at Lacey.
“You look like hell, by the way. And you owe me a new evening bag,” she said.
He threw his head back and laughed.
© 2019 Liza Cameron Wasser