Miranda Sparks’ wonderful life

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Chapter 1

«My name is, Miranda Spikes. I am 25 years old. Okay, place of residence:…»

— Excuse me!?

The lady in the grayish, knitted dress, tore her head away from the book and looked at me.

— Yes, ma’am?

— In the column «Residence», should I indicate where I currently live or where my ancestors live?

— Okay, let’s see. — I gave her the bank. — Where you currently live, that address, write it down.

— That’s great. Thank you.

The lady smiled and went back to her book.

«Well, let’s see…»

«Residence: 90/38 46th Street, Ottawa, Ontario. What’s next? Place of work: ARTNOVA Design Studio».

— Um…» The lady looked up again. — I’m sorry again, but why would I write on your form what I do for a living?

— This is so we can order professional literature for you later, ma’am.

— Oh, I see. Although…

— Ma’am, write what you think is necessary. This is only a survey, no one will use your data for greedy purposes.

— I don’t doubt it.

Half an hour later, I ran into the library, on the corner of 10th Street and Maria Blu-Sae Avenue. Its building resembled the local café, with large glass windows and colorful marketing posters about events and courses in foreign languages. For me personally, the library is a bookish place. And books are unique in my life.

For the last couple of years, I’ve devoted myself to the majestic mission of reading 100 books on various topics. Whether it’s even a hard science book or a dystopian novel by a little-known creator. Reading for me, quite an entertaining process. If the book is boring and not fascinating, then I can read it for weeks, if not months. If a book kept me in suspense from beginning to end and never ceased to amaze me, I would swallow it in a few hours.

In two years I read only eighteen books, for which I didn’t spend a cent, thanks to the library. I didn’t have a specially prepared list, but still, from time to time I kept an account of what I had already read, in my own notebook.

Now I picked up the novel Nine Monkeys, by Paul Rivers. I just walked over to the rack of books, and when I got to the middle of them, I pulled one of them out. Anyway, naturally, I directed my attention to it, just because of the attractive blue cover. When I read the title of the book, which had monkeys under it, I realized that I might have to renew it at the library, and more than once.

Before I checked out the book, the librarian handed me a questionnaire, which I was now filling out with particular care. I spent a good few10 minutes on it, though there were only5 a few questions in the questionnaire. I got hung up on the fourth one, which asked, «What kind of books do you like? This was a difficult question for me, because I could not impartially assess what I had read. Well, I didn’t choose books by preference, either. So, I entered the last book of poems by Mike Lewis that I read, gave the questionnaire to the lady in the knitted dress, and took a book with monkeys, and left the library.

It was February, but the sun was shining so brightly that it felt like spring had arrived. I glanced at the watch I wore on my right hand, and walked briskly toward the subway station. It was seven past four, which meant that I still had two hours left in my supply before the whale show, which I meant to watch after buying some popcorn.

The subway ride from the library to my house was only minutes20, and I had to walk another minute5. From time to time I stopped at Starbucks to buy my own favorite cinnamon latte with a puff of cinnamon creamer. It took me an extra seven minutes to get home. And so it was every weekend.

I decided to skip the coffee now, and headed straight home. I was living in a high-rise, on the fourth floor, in a two-room apartment with one bathroom and a studio kitchen, together with my friend, Miranda Morgan. At this moment, she was not at home, as she went to shoot in Australia, and will stay there for at least a week. By the way, Miranda is not a model, but a photographer, and quite famous.

— Miss Spikes, there’s a letter for you. — Frank-the concierge at our building-stopped me when I opened the front door and strode briskly to the elevator.

— Me? I walked over to Frank. — Thank you.

— What are you reading now?

I tucked the letter into the inside pocket of my bag and turned the book in my hand and looked at the man.

— Roman.

— Fascinating? It looks like a children’s book.

— Maybe. I just got it from the library, so I don’t know if it’s exciting or not yet. Thanks again for the letter, Frank.

The man nodded back at me, and I stepped into the elevator.

Aunt Jo called me just as I took off my cherry-colored wool coat and hung it up in the hallway.

— Yes?

— Hello, Violet! — My aunt had the soft, purring voice I’d grown to adore.

— Hello, Auntie.

— I finally got through to you. You’re not ignoring me, are you?

— No, you don’t!

— When loved ones avoid communicating with their relatives, it is very bad.

I went to the refrigerator and took out a bottle of water and took a big sip.

— Uh-huh.

— Yesterday I sent you an invitation to the fundraiser. You got it, didn’t you?

— Just now.

My current viewing of the white whale show flew by.

— That’s good. Then I’ll tell your daddy you’re coming. And keep in mind, honey, if you don’t show up, it might upset someone. And we don’t want that, do we? Do we?

— I figured you out.

— I’m sure that’s exactly what it is. See you soon, then.

— Uh-huh.

After talking to Aunt Jo, I ate a cheese sandwich and drank a glass of milk. I didn’t like cooking or cleaning, but every once in a while, I made an exception, like yesterday. It was a nice feeling to wake up in the afternoon and walk into the living room and see the clean dishes in the kitchen and things neatly in their own places, not lying on the floor or the couch, as they usually did when I worked.

My father helped me to buy this apartment, although I gave the bulk of the money for it myself. I have a well-paid job, so I managed to save some money, but unfortunately, it was not enough to buy the apartment. At that time it was ashamed to ask my father for money and it seemed to me that the apartment was not worth the effort. But at this point, after living here for almost four years, I thought my modest apartment was almost heaven on earth.

Later, after a while, Miranda came to live with me. We’d been friends since high school, so when she was in trouble, specifically without a roof over her head and without a job, I offered to let her stay with me. Since then, we have been living together. I didn’t give her my bedroom and put her in the living room. Although in reality, I still lived alone, since Sue was always on the road because of her work.

At one time, when my friend was dating a mannequin, I had to stay in my father’s apartment, so there wouldn’t be any terribly uncomfortable moments. One day, I came home early from work and found the couple making love on the table. After that, I probably couldn’t eat at the table or look my friend in the eye for a month or so, much less Miranda.

I didn’t bring enough people over myself, because I liked to be alone from time to time. And I didn’t have enough friends to invite them all here.

As for the apartment itself, it could be described as «small, moderate, but cozy. It was small because all three of its rooms were twelve squares each, because of which I was constantly hitting something, just passing from one room to another. What made the apartment moderate was the missing interior details and the ancient, shabby furniture that Miranda and I had bought at a local yard sale. For the sofa, upholstered in natural wool and sea wave color, my girlfriend and I went all the way to the suburbs, splurging on a cab just to see it. And then we had to pay for its delivery. But this sofa, perfectly fit into the living room, along with the walls, painted in paint with a gray-silver color. About the blue kitchen set, Miranda and I had a separate story. We had to take it in pieces because at the time we didn’t have the money to buy it all at once. We had to deny ourselves almost everything for the sake of one more chair or plate.

But we did have a big dining table, by the French designer Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann, which I had brought from my father’s house. It was the table where, later on, my friend and the mannequin man had sex.

Also, Aunt Jo did not stand aside, she gave me for the housewarming party, a large closet made of reddish wood, which at the moment stands in my room, right in front of the window.

And Miranda brought into our apartment, beautiful curtains with thin gold braid stitched at the bottom, and a coffee table, on which, food stands more often than on the dining room table. Well, you can see why now!

But our apartment was cozy only because every time the sun rose — and we lived on the sunny side — there was a pleasant feeling of light and warmth. And those who visited us said how much they liked our apartment, precisely because it was so sunny and bright.

My good friend from college, Bill Riley, helped me choose the neighborhood and the place. He was the only person I knew who worked as a realtor. So who else could I turn to but him?

In general, my idea to move out of the luxury house, into a separate two-room apartment, many relatives and acquaintances, perceived as a joke. And afterwards they said that I was insane and that I would not last forever. Now, only from time to time, someone, well, in passing, mentioned my action. Though, remembering my past shenanigans, a lot of people were happy about that change.

Because at this point, I was living a quiet and measured life, and there was no one to agonize over it. Amen!

Chapter 2

The first time I ran away from home was when I was fifteen.

It wasn’t exactly an escape, just a trip with friends, for a few days to the lake. We agreed not to say anything to our forefathers, so they would worry and all that. It’s not uncommon that after that, I got the first number from my parents. My mother later wept and cried over me for a long time, and my father called the parents of the other kids to keep it quiet.

My high school years, in fact, were the wildest and most reckless. Back then I thought it was cool to smoke a pack of cigarettes a day and run out my bedroom window at night to go out with Bobby Miller.

I also loved to embarrass people with my actions or words. For example, I called my history teacher a «complete imbecile» during class and threw a notebook at him as I left the room.

At one time there was a video that I shot on my phone of a music teacher making out with a British teacher. I even posted flyers about it all over the school. Later, when it turned out that I had done it, it was hushed up, because my father sponsored both the school and the basketball team. My dad was always covering my ass for all sorts of things.

As for the appearance, here I was generally inventive.

At fifteen, I dressed like a young puttana: short skirts, high-heeled shoes, and fishnet tights. I wore very bright colors, liked piercings, and changed my hair color with constant frequency. By the way, there was one harsh case, because of which I was almost expelled from school. Even though my father sorted it out, I was still later shunned and even feared.

The thing is, I set Margaret Wilson’s hair on fire in chemistry class because she was spreading nasty gossip about me. She ended up being taken to the clinic with minor first-degree burns.

To say that my father was furious at the time is not to say anything. I was suspended from school for a month and not allowed out of the house. Even just going out for a walk around the house was forbidden. After that incident, I was routinely pointed at and looked at with judgmental eyes by everyone in town.

And later my mother became ill. My father came home less and less often. And I turned into the quiet one. Bobby and I broke up a year before graduation, and that was when I quit smoking and stopped being so provocative. I took off all the earrings on my own body and started dressing more modestly, discarding the short skirts and replacing them with sports tights and sweatshirts.

When the time came to decide on an institute, I told my father that I was going to be a doctor. Then my grandfather, my mother’s father, who lives in Germany, came to visit us. He was a professional neurosurgeon, who performed a huge number of successful surgeries and earned great respect among his colleagues. At the moment grandfather is already retired and from time to time, travels to different symposiums and conferences, where innovations in medicine are discussed. But he is still recognizable and authoritative, even in the eyes of the younger generation.

My grandfather was proud of my professional choice and began to pay a lot of attention to me so that I, too, would become a professional neurosurgeon. We spent hours at a time, exclusively in discussions. I promised him that I would become the best doctor in the world and cure my mother, and he said that everything can be only if you believe in it. And I did. But it took time to reach those heights, which unfortunately my mother didn’t have.

She was gone, two months before my graduation. She was gone, and with her came, from each of us, something alive, filling that void with unbearable pain. I couldn’t eat or sleep, and I turned into a recluse. My father drank routinely and stayed away for long periods of time, leaving me alone in the big cottage, which became torture for him and me. The memories of my mother were so colorful and vivid, and I imagined that she was still with us. That she was sitting beside me, pressing me against her, humming a familiar tune from her youth, as she had done before.

It took me a long time to start living a normal life. My dad and I were pretty much done talking. All our discussions lasted no more than a minute, where either of us would just say hello and go off to our own place.

And later came a period when I started traveling a lot, trying to find my newest self. During my prolonged absence, my father perked up, as if someone had replaced him. He, out of the blue, began to insist that I come home, and routinely told me that we should be a family now. And when I came back, he started telling me how I needed to live my life. I was under constant control. Because of this, I was again throwing everything away and going to another country to be away from him and his unnecessary tutelage. We quarreled a lot, we did not listen and understand each other enough. As I packed my own suitcase, my father hired people here to find me and bring me back.

At one point, when I went with the volunteer movement to India, the military came to our camp and took me against my will to some base, where I sat, in a damp and dirty room, for three days. Then my father’s men came and took me back home.

We fought wars for a long time, trying to get through to who we were when Mother was still alive. And the war between us would still be going on if I hadn’t given up. I was tired of running around and finding things that weren’t clear. That’s why I decided to put the brakes on what was still left, namely, my own father. He was just as miserable as I was. We were the cause of our own loneliness, so only we could help each other.

For my father’s sake, I reincarnated into an obedient daughter who did not rebel and did everything she was told. I went to college and devoted myself to the family business. I became a British lady and almost embroidered a cross.

I was routinely talked about in high society and invited to social gatherings. My father would walk with me proudly into society, and I would walk beside him uncomplainingly.

But everything changed after I met Mike Norland. For the two of us, it was love at first sight. He told me I was the most beautiful woman in the world, and I said, «He’s an intolerable liar. Our affairs were not perfect, but we adored each other wholeheartedly, and that was completely enough for us.

I met him in late fall in New York, at a party thrown by what later turned out to be a mutual acquaintance. In March, I introduced Mike to my dad. It was not the reaction I had hoped for, for that same evening, Dad told me that I had to break up with Mr. Norland immediately. He knew very well that I wouldn’t do that. That’s why he started pressuring me, telling me that he would spare no expense or effort to make sure we weren’t together anymore.

And again the war began.

At first, it was all the little things, like zeroing out my credit cards and sounding off that I was no longer his daughter. Then, things took a more drastic turn. My father got Mike fired, from Molose-Hole Construction Company, where he had worked for over a year5, as head of public relations. It was totally expected and in the spirit of my dad, so we weren’t surprised or upset. Mike almost immediately managed to find a job in a small design studio, which was engaged in the design and creation of kitchen sets. Only not in Ottawa anymore, but in Toronto. I, on the other hand, got a job as a secretary in a law office, with Mr. Harry Peterson, a divorce lawyer. Through this job, I learned to make very solid coffee and to be a little more aware of people.

Mike and I rented a small but nice apartment on the edge of town. When we moved in, all we had was a bed and a shabby wood table. But even without looking at all that, we were recklessly happy.

Every day began with Mike and ended with him. I adored him madly, as if he were my air and my universe. I learned how to make his beloved pasta bolognese and long walks in the evening. And everything would have been fine except my father found us. And he did what he always did — he hired people to take me, against my will, back to him. I bit and scratched and even begged them to leave us alone, but they didn’t care.

I wasn’t able to get in touch with Mike until I was in my father’s office. I asked him to give me a little time to work things out peacefully. But Mike said he had to talk to my dad himself. He wanted him to accept our business so we could have a relaxed marriage. But before that could happen, he had to get my dad’s approval. And I couldn’t talk him out of it, which I regret at the moment. But the past cannot be undone, and the mistakes that have already been made cannot be undone.

Mike died, August 28, 2010, at 10:50 p.m. He lost control, the police station told me. His car was found off the road on the way to Montreal. He hit a tree and the forceful impact caused a brain haemorrhage, which resulted in Mike’s death at the scene.

I had to be there to identify him, a few days after he was found. It was the worst horror of my life. To see his unmoving face and know that he wouldn’t look at me again. That he wouldn’t tell me how much he loved me, or kiss me. Without Mike, life made no sense at all. I could stay awake for days at a time, just sit by my bed with his picture on it and sob silently. I wanted to scream from the unbearable pain and longing for him. It almost made me climb the walls.

A couple of times I tried to commit suicide, but every time my father brought me back. When I was already in the clinic, I would open my eyes and see his pale, worried face, which was what I hated most of all at the time. It annoyed me to have someone with me all the time. Whether it was my father, my friends, or my relatives, no one would let me be alone. I knew they did it because they adored me and feared losing me. But I couldn’t live in a world where Mike was no longer there. I couldn’t just rip the love that was hurting my heart right now out of my chest. After another attempt to make ends meet, my father sent me to a private clinic, where I stayed for a little over a year. And then he took me to my grandfather, because he realized that it was still hard for me to forgive him.

There I found peace and practically stopped sobbing at night. The pain wasn’t gone, it was just a reminder that I was still alive, and that I had to go on living, just for the sake of Mike’s memory. On weekends, my grandfather and I would go fishing. The rest of the day, I helped out at the children’s center for the autistic unhealthy. A little later, I signed up for a web design course. And after finishing it I got a certificate and left Devonshire for Ottawa, where I live now. There I got a job and a little later bought my own little apartment.

Dad and I communicated, but not like we used to. I was done blaming him for Mike’s death. After all, he really wasn’t to blame for it. Just then, I needed someone to blame, at least some of the pain I’d felt. And that someone was my father. He knew how I felt, so he took all the heat for it.

At this point in our family, things were slowly getting better. We agreed to a peaceful coexistence, where as much as we could, each of us tried to be less intrusive in the other’s life. From time to time, I did my duty as a daughter and went out with Dad to show all his partners and acquaintances that we were doing fine.

In general, «peace and friendship and bubblegum.

Chapter 3

— Take it, it’s for you.

I handed Frank a box of cookies.

— Tommy. — He pronounced and placed it carefully on the table.

— These are pink cookies. I don’t know if you like them. My aunt brought them back from France yesterday. I don’t really like sweet things myself, maybe you’ll like them!

— Thank you! Are you going somewhere now?

— Yeah, for the fundraiser. I think I’ll be gone until9.

— Shall I call a cab for you?

— Oh, no, you don’t! I’m supposed to be picked up.

Frank looked at the computer monitor.

— Then, totally maybe it’s up to you!?

I leaned against the table and looked at the dark car Frank was pointing at.

— Most likely. Well, I guess I’ll be going, then. And don’t forget the cookies.

— You can rest assured, miss, I certainly won’t forget them.

Cousin Patricia, Aunt Jo’s oldest daughter, came to pick me up. In May, she was supposed to turn twenty305, but because of her short stature and childlike face, she wasn’t supposed to be more20 than that. Patricia, had reddish, naturally curly hair, a firm heel, and a tough temper. She was not one of the people I was intimately acquainted with. I knew as much about her as Mr. President knew about me.

Also, Patricia worked in my father’s company. For more than 12 years, she had been hunched over for him and was probably the only one in our family who never got into scandals. According to Aunt Jo, her eldest daughter, most like a man, because of her own business acumen and rigid ways of working. And it also bothered my aunt that her thirty-five-year-old daughter was still single.

I glanced sideways at my cousin, who was rapidly typing something on her phone as we drove to a fundraiser her mother was throwing.

In general, charity for me is like buying hot dogs for bucks50, but giving for them70. And to do it as if those bucks20 helped change the world. Seriously, that’s exactly how it looks. Until one day you step in someone else’s shit and realize that the good is good and the ugly is still there. And no matter how hard you try, you can never make the world the way you want it to be. So you get discouraged and lose enthusiasm, but you’ll still keep leaving bucks20, because your conscience is clear and you’re morally satisfied.

Now, I just brought with me, just the bucks20. And it’s not because I’m stingy for life. No, it’s not! The reason was more banal than you could ever imagine. It’s just, it was all I had. There were two days before payday, and if this event, say, for example, on Thursday, I would not be stingy, and would donate, his honestly earned three hundred bucks, for such a good cause.

In general, if you’ve ever been to this kind of event, then you may remember those old ladies, dressed in luxurious furs, who leisurely dash from one acquaintance to another. At first, you are struck by them, then you look closely, and somewhere in the third minute, you begin to recognize in this lady, one of your own relatives. Like, for example, I saw my Aunt Jo as soon as I entered the small room of the local art museum on the 3rd floor.

— Thank goodness! I was beginning to think you weren’t coming.

— Hello, auntie!

When she hugged me, I thought I could even taste the sweet taste of her perfume in my mouth.

— Your father, no way, is a great man! Now Arbiter Ramsey was able to come, even though he said he wouldn’t be here a few days ago. I wasn’t the least bit taken aback when I found out it was because your father was coming. I always knew that Henry, which, incidentally, is my father’s name, would be a great success in his business. But not like this! I couldn’t even dream of that. It’s a shame, of course, that Claire left us so soon. She was a saint.

Nothing disgusting was ever said about my mother. Everyone knew her as the beautiful, cheerful, and kind spouse of Mr. Henry Spikes. Which, evidently, cannot be said of me.

Almost every seat in the auction hall was taken. So I slowed my pace as I spotted an empty chair, in the right row, off the small improvised auction stage.

— Where are you running to, young lady?

Behind me was an old lady in a perfectly tailored peach-colored tweed suit with a thin string of pearls around her neck.

— Nowhere, madam. Please, come in!

Such prim girls, always trying to cut in line. Because, you see, they have been through a lot more than you have, and also, in the rules of good upbringing, it is considered bad form not to give way, a person older than you, a seat. Which, in principle, I — a young, well-mannered lady — had to do. Specifically, I had to let an old lady into the empty seat I was claiming.

In order to finally sit down, I now had to drag myself across the room, cursing my apologies as I passed other people who had already taken their seats. As I made my way to a free chair, I banged myself in pain. The nasty, throbbing pain in my knee reminded me of when, as a child, my mother had gently treated my scrapes and sores. I swiftly wiped away the tears, so no one would see them. I did not want to become another victim of gossip mongers, or simply inquisitive individuals who loved to discuss such displays of helplessness in their own small circle, with a glass of local French wine.

— Excuse me sir, may I…

Next to a vacant chair, sat a man, in a gray-blue three-piece suit, who was reading the newsletter of the current auction when I approached him.

— Yes, of course.

He had to get up from his own seat so I could get through.

— Thank you, sir. — The man nodded his head courteously in response to my reply, and began again to examine the lots on display for the day.

I, too, picked up the ballot as I sat down, and almost shrieked in surprise when I opened the last page.

«What the hell!» — I wanted to say when I found out in the last lot, my mother’s beloved brooch my father had given her, in honor of their third anniversary of marriage.

Well, nothing for yourself, a turn of events!

Chapter 4

20 The $500 that was in my purse now seemed like a pittance. Because the original price of my mother’s brooch was 500 bucks, not 20.

At the auction, there were a lot of people who I knew well, and who also knew me. I could have asked one of them to buy my mother’s brooch, but as luck would have it, all those people were sitting very far away from me at the moment. There was no one in front or behind me who I could ask for such a favor.

I began to shiver nervously as the last item was brought onto the stage. A small brooch, in the shape of a bee, made of white gold and studded with dark diamonds, which my mother adored so much.

— No… no… no… no! — I kept repeating.

The auctioneer pronounced the initial price, making it clear that the bidding had begun.

— 700. — Raising the sign, the lady in the black velvet dress said.

— A thousand bucks! — The man in the third row answered.

With each bet, it felt like my heart was clenching desperately in my chest. I needed to do something, but I didn’t know what to do. My father had acted inappropriately in putting my mother’s thing out there without telling me. I was very angry with him, but that anger did nothing to help me at this point.

— 2000! — The old lady to whom I had given up my seat not so long ago clicked.

— 3500.

I almost jumped up in surprise when the man sitting next to me said resoundingly:

— 5,000 bucks.

I turned in his direction. It seemed that, at the exact moment he said it, something was finally beginning to make sense to me. Specifically, my only chance to get my mom’s brooch back.

— 5500!

— Sir!» I grasped the sleeve of my neighbor’s jacket.

The man looked at me in surprise.

— 5,500 times! — the presenter pronounced resoundingly.

— Sir, please buy back this brooch!

— 5500 two!

— This thing is very dear to me. It once belonged to my mother. If you help me, I promise I’ll give you double the value for it!

— 6,000! — I heard the painfully familiar voice of my own father.

— Me-my name is Violet Spikes and I’m Henry Spikes’ daughter. I don’t know if you know him! But please believe me, I’m not some crook or whatever they call me. Sir, I really need that brooch, but I’ve only got a buck20 on me. — To be sure, I took it out of my purse and showed it to my friend. — I didn’t know Mom’s brooch would be on display right now, please believe me!

«What else can I say to this man to get him to help me?»

I was desperately gnawing his eyes, trying to figure out if I could get through to him or not.

— Six thousand, two! — the booming voice of the presenter sounded.

— Ten thousand! — Raising his sign, my neighbor said.

For the first time in my life, I wanted to hug someone as badly as I was hugging this man right now. I took my hands off his jacket and looked gratefully in his direction.

— Thank you, sir!

— 12,000. — It was my father.

— 12,000 ra…

— Fifteen thousand! — the neighbor answered at once.

— Fifty thousand bucks! — my father kept up with me.

My rescuer looked at me questioningly.

— 100,000. — Without waiting for my answer, he said.

I saw a lot of people in the audience starting to look in our direction.

— 200,000!

Apparently my father put my mother’s brooch up for sale, so that he could buy it back himself. But I don’t know why I didn’t want to lose to him at this point. I was well aware that the promise I had just made to the man sitting next to me was beginning to take an unsafe turn. Because even without looking at a good income, I could not afford a brooch for 200 thousand bucks. But at this point I had other things on my mind. Like letting my dad know that I was playing against him?

— Ma’am? — My neighbor turned to me.

— Do you take checks?

The man grinned.

— I accept. 250,000 bucks!

— 250,000 one! 250,000 two!

— 300,000 bucks.

I didn’t seem to want to overcome it at the moment, but I shouldn’t have gotten so carried away. After all, 300,000 bucks was my ceiling, which I could no longer jump over.

— Sir, I think you and I are going to have to slow down.

— Convinced?

— 300,000, one.

— I’m afraid so.

— But it’s your mom’s brooch!

— I know.

— 300,000, two.

— But should I stop there? — We looked each other in the eye. — 350,000!

There was an uproar in the hall.

— Sir, I don’t have that kind of money! — I whispered.

— 400,000 bucks! — my father bellowed.

I imagined his face, scarlet with tension, and grinned bitterly. My neighbor was about to raise his sign, but I stopped him.

— Don’t. I am grateful to you for responding to my request. But now I ask you to slow down.

— 400,000, one.

— Ma’am, I’m afraid it’s a matter of principle. — He made me feel uncomfortable. — 500,000!

I saw Aunt Jo standing up from her seat next to my dad, and she looked in our direction. We met her eyes, and then she sat down again and said something to my dad.

— 500,000, one! — The host’s voice sounded an octave higher than before. — 500,000 two!

The whole room fell silent, waiting for the next bet.

— Please, Daddy, don’t do this. — I pleaded with my eyes squeezed shut.

— 500,000, three! Sold to the man at number 205!

There was applause.

— Congratulations, you finally made it!

I was a little worried when I said those words.

— So are you.

Now that everything was behind me, I was relieved. Never had a charity auction been as exciting for me as this one. People began to rise from their seats to continue the evening over good wine and dancing in the museum’s large banquet hall.

Well, now it’s time for me to settle up for a huge thank you!

Chapter 5

— Here’s my card. — With a trembling hand, I pulled a small piece of paper from my purse with all my contact information written on it. — Call me when you feel comfortable, so I can keep my promise. I am very grateful to you for believing me and redeeming my mother’s brooch. Thank you, sir!

— I couldn’t help you, Miss…» The man looked at my card in his hands. When a young woman asks for help, a man shouldn’t stay away. Thanks to you, this evening doesn’t seem so sour to me now. Here, in case you need my help again.

I took his black platinum card and ran my eyes over it.

— Mr. Moreau? Right?

— That’s right.

— It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Moreau!

— Likewise, Miss Spikes!

— I apologize for dragging you into this adventure. I’m really sorry that you had to spend so much money on such a little contrivance.

— It’s okay. It was kind of fun. It’s not every day that you get something really valuable, like this brooch.

We were standing by the champagne table, which we approached as we walked out of the auction hall. My lifeguard was eight inches taller than me, if not more. I was standing with my head held high, and my neck was starting to hurt.

The man was not only tall, but also quite good-looking, so many of the ladies present, threw intrigued looks at him. I was a little taken aback myself when I finally got a good look at my neighbor, after the tension had finally subsided in my whole body. Apparently I was so used to ignoring the people around me that now any of them became, in my eyes, impersonal.

The first time I met Mr. Moreau, all I could see was a gray-blue three-piece suit. And for some reason I thought he was, like, over the age of 50. Even after I clutched at his hand and begged for help, I still didn’t pay any attention to his appearance. Now that the invisible shroud of excitement was out of my eyes, I could finally get a good look at the man. His dark-blond hair, hazel eyes, light stubble, and straight, aristocratic nose. All in all, there was a man standing in front of me who, on my friend Miranda’s «Attractiveness» scale, could get nine points, if not all10.

— Means Henry Spikes, your father!?

— Yes, that’s right. Do you know him?

Mr. Moreau took a small sip of champagne from his own glass.

— This is inevitable if you are a major partner in a large company like Spikes & Spikes.

— The truth?

— Yes, ma’am. — The man leaned toward me a little. — And since you’re his daughter, I’ll give you some advice. Don’t ever try to stop me again. It’s not my policy to give up before I get to the end, even if the risk is great.

I didn’t like what he was saying.

— Would you like to say that I am very impulsive?

— Is it?

— I would call it determination.

Mr. Moreau grinned and placed his own glass on the table.

— So be it! At this point, ma’am, please excuse me.

— Oh!» I got a little confused. — Yes, of course. It was very nice to meet you, Mr. Moreau.

— Me too, Miss Spikes! And me!

The man looked at me again and, with a slight nod of his head, strode confidently toward the center of the banquet hall.

Chapter 6

Heresy. All is heresy. A deception of untainted water.

At this point, I was lying to everyone. My dad, Miranda, Aunt Jo, my personal therapist Brenden Cooper, and even our concierge, Frank. And they all believed my heresy.

In fact, I was in pain. Reckless, to the point of clinking in my own tiny bathroom, where no one would see my pain. In all four years, I didn’t show it to others. It was only my pain, my torment, and my punishment.

After Mike’s death, my life was transformed into theater. I put on different masks in front of people and played my part. And after another intermission, I would lock myself in the bathroom of my own apartment and indulge in self-torture.

Mr. Cooper, the psychologist hired by my dad, even though he looked like a man who believed in me. Still, from time to time I noticed doubt in his eyes. Maybe if I was a little more candid, then I would be able to tell him what was happening in my life and my soul. But how could he know that? A man with a beautiful wife and two little kids! He lived in a world of happiness and domestic harmony. While I was living in misery and spiritual anguish.

Mr. Cooper loved to repeat, the only word he liked to use was «lingering depression. In just one hour of our meeting, he said it twice20. Apparently, in his mind, that’s exactly how it looks. Part of the reward for me was that he didn’t dig deeper into the very essence of the difficulty. And that annoyed me.

To be frank, I was annoyed by everything. People, whether they were close to me or strangers. The things around me, the weather on the other side of the window, the sounds, the voices, even the silence made me furious. I could hold this feeling inside me for a long time, until I was alone with myself. That was my therapy and I needed nothing else. Over time, this life became the norm for me. I smiled when it was necessary, and afterwards I returned to my empty apartment, took off my mask, and transformed into myself.

If anyone had seen me in those moments, they might have thought I was no longer alive. I sat naked in the bathroom for a long time, my knees pressed against my chest, listening to the soft murmur of the tap water. I devoted that time to my main symphony of life — a melody moving from unbearable pain to serene emptiness. After a few hours in the bathroom, I was exhausted and broken, moved to my bedroom and lay awake for half the night looking up at the night sky, not thinking about anything.

Miranda would come back, and I’d start my own play again. I got up in the afternoon, put on my business suit, ate one milk sandwich, pretended to be late, and left for work. I did all this so Miranda wouldn’t ask me any questions. What my friend didn’t know was that I didn’t actually work at a prestigious company. That I had never even applied there in the first place. Neither my loved ones nor my father knew that either. They believed in my heresy. Several times one of them dropped me off at the head office of ARTNOVA Design Studio. But none of them bothered to check to see if it was in fact true. They smiled, telling others that I was working at a lovely job where I was designing websites for various companies. They believed the heresy I made up and were happy. In fact, I only had the occasional part-time job at a small greeting card design firm that did work online.

Twice a month I visited the library and took a stroll to the pool, at least to relieve my boredom. Since not enough people went to the library at nine o’clock, it was the same with the pool. I told Miranda I was going to work, but in fact I was in one of these places. There was a peace and quiet that allowed me to be alone. In the library I mostly slept and only occasionally read one of the books I took with me. Hence the small number I read. When people came, I went to the park, ate one ice-cream or continued to sleep on the bench. On several occasions I was naturally approached by the police, so I had to keep my passport with me at all times. If I had been taken to the police station for a few hours, all my relatives would have heard about it. Then my heresy would have been exposed, which means I had to say that I do not work and never worked at the design studio «ARTNOVA». After one uncovered deception, would have been followed by another, and so everyone would finally realized that in fact I was leading everyone astray, almost years5. And maybe after that they would have put me in a hospital to help me cope with my own spiritual pain. But that’s exactly what I didn’t want. That’s why I hid behind masks. It was the only way I could survive in their happy world and stay alive. Maybe at some point I would become ordinary. Or maybe I would just end it once and for all. It was up to me to decide, and that meant I was the only one who had to fight.

In my soul I am a lonely warrior and everyone calls me nothing.

Chapter 7

— Take it away! I don’t need it anymore.

Miranda returned now in the evening6, and right from the threshold, she handed me the languid bag in which her friend always kept her equipment.

— What do you mean?

Miranda sat down on the couch, folded her arms across her chest, and looked at me sternly.

— Straight up. I know I’ve said it often enough, but now was really the last time I took a picture for someone.

— Again!?

My friend jumped up from her seat and ran over to me.

— I’m serious Val!

— What now?

I got tired of holding the bag and put it on the floor.

— This time, it’s definitely over!

— The end of what, Sue? Work? Travel? Or photos? To what directly!?

— All Val. I’m tired of working with people who criticize me all the time and who keep repeating that if they had taken Stefano, they would have been finished in two days. What’s disgusting about being a bit of a perfectionist in my business? Just a couple of days and I would have given them the great footage. But Mr. Paczynski, damn him, told me they only had a week left before their magazine would be stitched together. What’s that got to do with me? They could have told me right away, or called me earlier. How hard can it be, Val?

I took my friend by the shoulders and put her on the couch.

— That’s easy. But let’s you calm down for the moment, and we’ll relax and sort this whole situation out. All right?

Miranda glared at me a couple more times before she finally nodded her head.

— Well, the first step is over. — I sat down next to her. — So, how many days did you work for Mr. Paczynski anyway?

— This 5is from the moment I arrived in Australia.

— And how much was paid for you?

— For days6! But I wouldn’t return the excess to him, because his interference in the shooting process, greatly damaged my nerves. And there is still a fee for that.

I shoved my friend unhappily.

— Miranda!

— What about Miranda? You know how much those people piss me off. They’re always trying to impose their views on me. After all, I’m the photographer here, not them!

— Mr. Paczynski, as your client, has a right to make his point.

— Not him! That hog only knows where to eat. Do you know how nauseating it is when your interlocutor, with his mouth full, tries to say something else for you?

I made a disgruntled grimace.

— No, but I can imagine.

— Believe me, it’s even worse to see it with your own eyes. I almost twisted a few times right there. By God, Val, I won’t work for their magazine anymore. That’s my word of good faith to you!

— Well, that’s fine, we’ve dealt with that. Now explain to me, why do you have to give up your favorite case because of this?

Her friend got up from the couch and paced from side to side.

— Since this has been going on, it’s not the first day. I’m tired of people like Mr. Paczynski. I may like my work, but only because I can tell my story, not just another dose of sameness. It’s very hard to work for glossy publications and think the way they want you to think. That’s why I’d rather find another job than be a grayish mediocrity.

I had to take my deepest breath to continue this conversation.

— Dear Miranda. — I got up from the couch, too, and walked over to my friend and hugged her tightly. — You’re one of the hardest people to call, but you’re one of the hardest to call! You’re the only person I know who’s catchy, vibrant, and spitting your own originality. To me you are special, you are a person, just not fully disclosed. That’s your mystery. Many people underestimate your talent, creating things even more fascinating than others. Personally, I appreciate that about you! Seriously. From time to time I think your energy is enough to light up an entire major city for a couple of years to come. — I opened my arms and looked into Miranda’s face. — And you know, I’m sad to hear you say something like that. It turns out that I, too, am a grayish mediocrity who makes other people’s wishes come true.

— Sorry.

— It’s okay, it’s better to call things by their proper names.

— You know what I wanted to say.

— Naturally! We’ve known each other for years. So Miranda, I will say this, not because I’m your friend and someone close to you, but as a casual observer. You’re an excellent photographer who makes amazing things out of the ordinary, like this table or… — I spread my hands so that my friend knows what I’m talking about at this moment — or this teapot! You have everything you need. Oh, no, wait, you don’t. You have no patience.

— Hey!

— But that’s just the way it is.

Miranda strode over to her own bag, still on the floor, and scratched her head cheerfully and smirked.

— Are you sure?

— Completely.

— Do I have to break my own word of honor again?

— If it makes you feel any better, I haven’t taken your «honest» words seriously for a long time.

Miranda blinked her green eyes in surprise.

— And for how long?

— Since the day you swore not to eat any more meat.

That was eight years ago and my friend only lasted a week without him.

— So long ago!? Eh, not mind-boggling then!

My voice cracked a little when I said:

— Now I hope you won’t just give up on what you really love. So pick up your bag and keep working the way you always have.

— You’re right. I’ve been through so much for this, I can’t just give up.

I turned my back to Miranda so she wouldn’t see the tears coming, and quickly wiped them away, sat down on the couch, and turned on the TV. My friend picked up her bag and put it in the hall closet and joined me. Some kind of cooking show was on, but I hardly listened to anything they were saying.

«Mike, my sweet Mike! I’ll never forget you!»

Chapter 8

The café across from the huge Global City Business Center was probably the only place that made the best pork cutlets in all of Otawa. It was hours5 of evening, and the sun had already disappeared, leaving behind, bright pink streaks in the sky. It was now drizzling in the afternoon as I left the house. It did not bode well for a sunny day. At two o’clock in the afternoon, as I walked out of the library, I was very much taken aback by this change in the weather. I was halfway to the park when I got a call from Mr. Moreau. The man who had bailed me out at the auction, a little over two weeks later. But my father did not mess around and on the very next day, sent me $500,000, which I was going to give right away, to his savior. We agreed to meet him, in the very same cafe across from Global City.

I decided to get there early to enjoy my favorite cutlets and vegetable salad. Mr. Moreau arrived in his own silver car when it was almost past 10six o’clock.

«I’m here!» — I wanted to yell after he entered the cafe. But the man had already seen me and was heading toward my table with determination.

— Good evening, Mr. Moreau!

I got up from my seat and extended my hand to him, which he immediately shook.

— Hello, Miss Spikes!

My lifeguard now looked rather austere, in a black blue suit, with a single-breasted jacket with two buttons, a snow-white shirt, and a silk gray tie.

A young waiter came up to us and Mr. Moreau ordered just water, thereby causing my stomach to feel uncomfortable after eating the meatballs.

— I won’t beat around the bush. Here are some of the remedies I promised you.

I took an envelope out of my purse and held it out to my savior.

— I’m sorry Ms. Spikes, but I will not accept these remedies.

His cool tone forced me uncertainly to remove my hand from the envelope.

— Is it because the whole amount isn’t there?

— No, that’s not it.

— Then what is it, sir?

The man put his elbows on the table and intertwined his long fingers together as if he were preparing to tell me a terrible secret.

— The thing is, I have a little problem, and to solve it, I need your help, Miss Spikes.

— Quid pro quo? Right?

— That’s right.

— Fine, have it your way. — I took the envelope and put it back in my purse. — What am I supposed to do?

— It’s no big deal. All I need is for you to help me find one person, but without anyone knowing about it.

His words puzzled me.

— You didn’t get it? I mean, aren’t there private detective agencies for that?

— Just answer, «yes» or «no»!

I took a small sip of the dark tea from the cup in front of me and looked at Mr. Moreau in confusion. He coolly removed his hands from the table and leaned back in his chair.

— If I say no, will you take the funds?

We met eye to eye, and I saw how serious it was.

— I don’t like to repeat myself twice, Miss Spikes.

— That means you won’t take it. In other words, if I have no conscience, then I can safely leave you at this moment alone, without funds?

He lit up his cheeks.

— You are free to do whatever you want, ma’am.

— Thanks for that.

I was torn between several thoughts. On the one hand, I could really give up and just dump the man. On the other hand, I had given him my word and kept it, so I could just abandon the funds and walk away with an unharmed conscience. But there was another one, my sincere desire to help him, just as he had once done. After all, I am not required to move mountains!

— Is that it?

I didn’t want to be indebted to him.

— I agree. But if I can’t fulfill your request…

— Nothing Ms. Spikes. I’m sure that for you specifically, it will work out even better than it did for these same detectives.

— I wouldn’t be so sure.

— And for nothing.

His words got me thinking.

— Who is this person I’m supposed to find?

You know, that weird motif that plays in the movies when there is a moment of unraveling the mystery. So that’s what I’m experiencing at the moment.

— Mike Norland.

Chapter 9

— If this is your idea of a joke, Mr. Moreau, I can assure you that it’s not funny at all.

«Absurd! Some kind of madhouse! It can’t be!»

The usual pain cramped my whole body at the mere mention of Mike. I couldn’t get enough air, as if someone had cut off the oxygen. I didn’t see a single tear run down my cheek until it dropped onto my blue turtleneck.

— Do I look like a joker to you, Miss Spikes?

I felt like I was in a «Prankster» program, only that kind of you know, fierce. I could see how serious Mr. Moreau was when he talked about Mike. But how could anyone believe such a thing?

— I don’t know. But I’m not going to listen to this nonsense anymore. — I jumped up from my seat, intent on walking away from the man, but he got up, too, and grabbed my arm. — What?

— Go back to your seat. — Mr. Moreau gave me a stern order as he turned me back to our table.

— Don’t tell me what to do. Let me go!

— Only when you’ve relaxed and listened to what I have to say to you.

— Good… Great!

He let me go, and I sat in my seat.

— It’s a matter of principle, Miss Spikes. I wouldn’t have approached you otherwise.

I wanted to laugh in his face so he could see how absurd those words sounded.

— Yes, it’s the most important thing of all! And I was puzzled why you didn’t go to a private detective agency. And that’s right, who in their right mind would want to find a man who died more than a year4 ago.

Mr. Moreau sucked in a resounding breath.

— That’s what I thought too. But Mr. Norland is alive, and I can assure you he doesn’t have a scratch on him.

He must have been mocking me. How else could I show him that I didn’t like this conversation? Everything that was going on here was starting to piss me off. How could this man claim that Mike was alive when I was looking at his dead body with my own eyes?

— Apparently we are talking about very different people, sir.

— On the contrary, Miss Spikes.

I grabbed my head and said resoundingly:

— This is just absurd. Mike is dead! He’s gone! I was at the lineup and his funeral. I saw him! I saw his bloody face. And you! You’re telling me at this moment that he’s alive!? How can you believe that?

I could have been a little more hysterical, but I held on as best I could. I could feel the nausea coming on. I started to feel feverish and a little shivering. All I wanted was to end it all.

— I can substantiate this for you.

«Please don’t!»

— What for?

My voice trembled.

— Then Ms. Spikes that I need to find it as quickly as possible.

— I… I don’t understand…

When I touched the cup of tea, I almost spilled it on the table. I clenched my body and lowered my eyes, as the treacherous tears were ready to come out.

— Mr. Norland didn’t just trick you, and believe me, that’s just the tip of what he’s done. You’re the only person he trusted, which is why I came to you for help.

— It’s…“ — a tear fell down — „impossible! If… — another one — … he were alive, he would surely find me. We could have been together for the moment. He wouldn’t have stabbed me.

— I know. And yet he did it, Miss Spikes! Two days ago, I made some inquiries about his death, and almost everything cleared up.

I sniffed audibly and looked at Mr. Moreau.

— What specifically?

— About Mr. Norland and your father.

I almost clicked «Absurd!» once again. My rescuer turned out to be a really scary person who knew all my pain points.

— Dad? What’s he got to do with it?

— There’s no proof yet, but I think there will be soon. Your father may very well have helped Mr. Norland to fake his death. It’s a theory so far, but it makes a lot of sense.

— No, my father… What? He’s obviously not the best father in the world, but he wouldn’t do that to me.

Mr. Moreau pulled out a small envelope from an inside pocket and handed it to me.

— That’s all I have so far.

I took the envelope with trembling hands and opened it, pulling out some pictures. It took me a few seconds to recognize Mike. It was him, only he had a small beard and slightly lighter hair than when we were together.

— And what is that?

— Photos taken three days ago.

— Three… days? I don’t get it! Where was it made?

— Egypt. Mr. Norland has been there for a month, maybe more. My man is watching him all the time.

I stared at Mike’s smiling face again, and it ached in my chest.

«He’s alive. Mike is still alive!»

— In other words, do you understand where he is at the moment?

I finally finished sobbing and pulled myself together.

— Yes.

— What am I good for, then, for you?

— Since you are the only one he can believe.

Mr. Moreau loosened the knot of his tie and leaned back in his chair.

— He used to believe, but at this point I’m not sure. What did he do for you anyway?

— A better question is, what didn’t he do!?

It was so different from the Mike I’d known. Was I really so blinded by love that I couldn’t see what was going on behind my back?

— Look, I find it hard to believe that any of this is true. So let’s stop torturing each other and deal with all of this.

— Oh, great. Mr. Norland, has appropriated for himself a significant portion of the assets, from my company and your father’s.

I was amazed at the similar news. Oh, my God! Mike’s a crook.

— This is abracadabra!

— As unfortunate as it sounds. It makes no sense for me to lie for you, Miss Spikes.

— That’s true! But how could an employee of a construction company have appropriated for himself the documents of my father’s medical research company?

— It’s simple. Mr. Norland had you! It’s not the first time he’s tricked his way into these kinds of companies. But your father is not a foolish man. Apparently, he found out about everything and tried to stop Mr. Norland from his plans. But here you are, the only daughter and heiress to a large fortune in the Spikes family. In you he saw his own only chance to get what he wanted and you succumbed to his charms. I have it on good authority that a large sum of money was given by your father to Mr. Norland just before he died. So it could be said that your father was the one who helped him escape. At the moment, Mr. Norland has some papers that I’d like to get back for myself. And I hope you can help me with that.

I watched the expression on my rescuer’s face, but he was too serious for me to think what he said was a lie.

— It seems true, and I wish for you to believe it. So let me think a little, Mr. Moreau.

Exactly for that I need time. I have to digest all the information I have received now, since this request is already personal to me.

— I’ll give you two days, no more. If you decide to assist me in this matter, call me at the number I gave you.

I knew that I would probably spend the next two days crying bitterly in my own bathroom and at the level of my thoughts eating myself up inside.

— X-okay.

— Then I hope to see you soon.

It seemed inevitable by now.

— I… I promise to think hard about it.

Mr. Moreau stood up from the table and with a nod of the head, left the cafe and got into a silver car, disappeared, as if he had never been there at all.

There’s a great line from a song: «Fate has turned back on me. So that’s exactly what I saw. A big ass to my fucking fate, which only pretended to be sick. Although, in fact, I myself was responsible for everything. If it was exactly as Mr. Moreau said, then I was really in deep shit, up to my ears.

If I had an icy heart at the moment, I think even it would have cracked. But Mike and I were not Kai and Gerda to help each other find the happiness that now seemed forever buried in the empty grave that had been meant for my dead boyfriend. I felt so fucked up that I would have liked to drink myself to death and forget myself somewhere where no one knew me.

Wow, what a week it’s been! How about a little fun?

Chapter 10

At one time, everyone really thought I was a rich bitch. I spent a lot of money on clothes and parties, went out with bad guys, and went to villas in other countries. I liked that kind of life and didn’t care about anyone else. Everyone at school was scared of me and immediately admired me. I even claimed the prom queen crown, but never made it to the prom. No matter what you say, I certainly didn’t pull off the title of Cinderella.

In the ’90s, my father’s company was one of America’s top medical equipment companies, so everyone in town knew our family by sight. My ancestors were honored and loved, while I earned the status of an obnoxious girl by getting into fights at school.

But no matter how bad I seemed, I still managed to be the first in my progress among the school’s honors students. I was taken to various Olympiads and competitions, where I took, if not first, then at least second place. And after that I would come home with loud cries for my dad to see me and tell me that I was good. But my father for all this, there was not enough time. And if I did show him my awards, he still said it wasn’t enough. I was not beautiful, educated and smart enough for him from birth. My father kept repeating that he needed a child, his only heir. But my mother was never able to give him one. That’s why I was picked on so much. Naturally, my father adored me, but not with the love I would have wished for. From time to time, when he was making important deals for his company, I managed to get a piece of his love for me. Whether it was a firm hug or words of praise for me. Still, it wasn’t enough for me.

Maybe it had something to do with my relationships with guys. But every time, I dumped them after 3 sacred words. I wasn’t hurt, and I didn’t feel bad after the breakup. I basically went on with my life like nothing ever happened. My exes were very angry and many of them even threatened to execute me so that I would go back to them. But I didn’t go back, I started dating another guy from our school. I always did that until I met Mike Norland, my one and only love. I gave my whole self without reserve to that relationship. I thought I’d lost him forever, and it turned out he was the one who left me for fucking money. And I’ll tell you this: «Being abandoned is even worse for me than losing my lover forever.

I don’t know why, but I believed what Mr. Moreau said. Even though I was still having a hard time accepting all the information about Mike, I still dared to find out the truth, whatever it was. I was still in pain. I’m very weak emotionally. My heart is not giving me peace and it’s already very lingering. It’s time to live a normal life after all, but only after I’ve figured it all out.

Yesterday I had the courage to call Mr. Moreau to tell him that I would help him. I had to lie to Miranda and my dad about sending me on a business trip.

— Just think, web designers also have business trips! — And what are you going to do there, in Algeria? Create a virtual panel?

— No, I’m peeing for a seminar.

— Seminar? Can I go with you?

I panicked at the time, and maybe that would have given me away, but I pulled myself together and paid her off with an oath to bring her whatever she wanted. Miranda, of course, took my words very seriously and wrote me a big list of things I just had to bring her from there. At this point this list was in a notebook, folded in two, in my bag on my lap. I was told that the main cover would be a small event, for programmers and information technology professionals. So that neither my father nor even Mike could figure out what the hell I was doing in Algeria.

Upon arrival, a bus picked me and a couple of other people up, and the impromptu forum participants were taken to a four-star hotel in the heart of the capital. I was put up in a single room, more like a spacious living room, in one of my father’s houses. That’s a lot of room for me alone and lonely.

It was mind-boggling, but I didn’t feel like sobbing, and I didn’t feel the usual pain in my chest the whole time. I sat up, thought about Mike, and, feeling nothing but the urge to eat something, got up and took a shower.

The lovely and smiling Frances Gilmore, who was both our tour guide and local entertainment host for the duration of our stay, came to pick me up at 1 p.m. local time. Our entire group was gathered in the hotel restaurant to be fed various delicacies. I was the only one of the group who was quiet and relaxed. Even the process of eating an apple dragged on for a full minute.20

During the meal, I was able to get to know all the members of the forum. So sitting next to me at lunch was Catherine Blanc, an employee of a big computer company called Molose Corporations. She and her roommate, Bill Davis, were working together on IT technology, which they were arguing about with Martin Hall, the young kid sitting across from me. Sitting next to Martin was Scotty Young, a prominent programmer and online gaming enthusiast. He had Wright Walker and Lizzie Brooks in his chat room, who also happened to be specific players. Gary and Diane Hughes, a domestic couple, were also present, and they sat together, occasionally asking each other things while they stuffed their bellies. And finally Eric Russell, a handsome blond man with a regular American grin and two30 teeth. Eric reeked of his stifling toilet water from a meter away, and I had to turn away from him to Catherine as he sat, to my left.

— Francis, do you know where I can buy a month’s worth of decorations? These. — Asked Miss Gilmore, Diana pointed to her own phone.

— Honey, why ask the tour guide about it?

— Since she must know all the local markets. Jamie asked me to bring her crescent-shaped earrings. So if you have any ideas on how to find them more quickly, I’m all ears. — Gary was expressively silent in response. — Which was a good point.

— You might find them at the local flea market, Mrs. Hughes. We’ll be there tomorrow afternoon.

I thought about our whole itinerary and began to think about how to find Mike in a town like this. In that case, Mr. Moreau gave me the number of a certain Señor Francisco Salido del Pozo. He worked as a private detective and knew where my beloved was at the moment.

— Violet! Isn’t that your name?

We were sitting on a bus going to another hotel where a seminar was to be held when Mr. Russell sat down with me.

— That’s exactly right.

— And I’m Eric.

We shook hands, and I turned away from him immediately. I’d have to tell the man not to choke so much.

— It’s a beautiful city, isn’t it?

— Uh-huh.

— I have been here so many times, but its beauty still fascinates me.

I pretended to be drowsy from the traffic on the bus, and apparently Mr. Russell saw that, so he finished talking to me. The whole time we were driving, the smell of his toilet water kept me from enjoying the ride.

The impressive size of the lobby of the five-star Olympic Plaza Hotel was a sight to behold. It was like entering the palace of a sheikh himself. It was picturesque, bright and tasteful, all done in the best traditions of a prestigious hotel. As I walked across the shiny marble floor, my sandals slid gently but made no sound. People were arriving, checking in, and just strolling through the spacious hotel lobby. Life was buzzing everywhere, discussions in various languages, and it was easy to tell the difference between a guest in a regular room and one in a suite. In all this mass, Mr. Russell somehow managed to find me and followed me like a little dog.

— Miss Spikes, this way.

I had just managed to get rid of Eric when Frances called out to me, pointing to a bulky door, behind which was a small conference room with a shield, a projector, and several chairs upholstered in reddish velvet.

— Position yourself in a way that is comfortable for you.

While everyone was taking their seats, I approached our guide.

— Francis, excuse me, but can I step outside for a minute, I need to make one principle call?

— Yes, of course. The seminar doesn’t start for another half hour, so you can go about your business in the meantime. If there’s anything else you need, come to me right away. I’ll be sitting in that corner over there.

We both looked at the last row.

— Thank you.

— You’re welcome.

I found Señor del Pozo’s number in my phone book rather quickly, and immediately dialed it.

— Hello? — After a short ringing tone, I said. — Is this Senor Francisco Salido del Pozo?

— Señorita Violet?

The detective’s voice had a pleasant accent that swallowed some consonants.

— That’s me!

— Monsieur Moreau told me about your trip to Algeria. Where are you at the moment?

Señor del Pozo referred to Mr. Moreau in the French manner because he was, in fact, a native Frenchman.

— I’m at the Olympic Plaza.

— Where?

Apparently he didn’t hear me, so I said it louder:

— At the five-star Olympic Plaza Hotel.

A small silence ensued.

— Mr. Norland is at this particular hotel at the moment, senora.

My heart was beating at a frantic pace.

— Where exactly? Can you tell me?

I looked around to see Mike at last.

— He’s currently on the 46th floor.

It’s going to be very hard, kind of an accident to be there.

— What about you? Where are you at the moment?

— I am currently in room 303 in the same hotel.

— Then, may I come up to see you, Señor del Pozo?

Once again, a short-lived silence.

— Si, senora, you can.

— In that case, I’ll be with you shortly.

I reset the call and walked to the elevator, not understanding why my hands and feet were shaking so much. I heard the sound of the elevator arriving, and when its doors opened, I stepped in with the other people and pressed the third floor.

«Welcome to the operation Miss Spikes!»

Chapter 11

What was I experiencing?




Or maybe I was trying to realize what Mike had done?

I don’t know. I didn’t want to think about it. In my life, there was a lot of that going on together. At this point, I wasn’t smiling or sad or even bursting into audible laughter or crying. I was just a bystander, my realization that Mike was alive and that he was actually a regular crook. Yes, I adored him, but that love was a deception that transformed my wounded heart into a punching bag. My feelings were swinging from side to side like a pendulum. I sat in a seminar and tried to figure out what it was that I was feeling. No matter how hard I tried, it wasn’t like that.

— It’s mind-boggling, isn’t it?

Eric’s voice brought me out of my thoughts. I’d completely forgotten that he was sitting next to me.

— Uh-huh.

It really is mind-blowing! I don’t know myself and my feelings.

— In the past year, this young man talked about the newest online game.

I looked at Mr. Davis, who was giving us a presentation on new developments in the web environment. He was a tall man, thin, with narrow-rimmed glasses on his eagle nose and a bald head. His voice was quite sonorous, but even he could not shout out my thoughts.

And so again I came back to my thoughts.

How should I behave when I see Mike? What would I say to him? Would I feel the feelings I’d been harboring all these years again?

But there was no answer. I honestly tried to imagine our meeting with Mike, his face, and the likely environment. I couldn’t get myself in the mood, so I sat and fidgeted in my chair.

— Not interesting for you?

I turned to Eric, and the suffocating scent of his cologne made me shiver.

— Why is that? I just don’t like to sit in one place for a long time.

— Ah, I see. Same problem.

— The truth?

I had to act surprised.

— Especially when I have to wait for a long time at the airport. This is the height of my patience.

Mrs. Hughes, sitting in front of us, turned halfway around to face Eric and shushed him softly. I don’t know why, but it made me smirk. In my head, I said, «Thank you,» to Diana. Because I wasn’t in the mood to have a conversation with Eric at the moment.

A few minutes later an SMS from the detective arrived.

«Mr. Norland in the elevator.»

I nervously tucked the phone into my purse on my lap and looked around confused. I needed to make sure I didn’t miss my own chance to meet Mike, but how was I supposed to do that when I was sitting in a seminar? In truth of the matter, this event was just a cover, but I still felt bad for the speaker. Damn the upbringing!

My phone vibrated again.

«Are you there yet?» — I read and quickly dialed the answer, «Not yet.

I bit my lower lip and glanced toward the door.

«It’s now or never!»

As I got up from my seat, the look on Eric’s face spoke volumes for him. He certainly didn’t approve of my behavior, but I didn’t care anymore. I cautiously, ducking a little, walked around the rows and quickly made my way to the exit, hiding behind the door.

«What am I doing?» — I didn’t really hit myself on the head as I huddled against the cold wall as I walked out of the conference room.

«He’s on the first floor,» came from the detective.

Everything was very fast-paced. I felt sick at the thought of Mike. I tried to pull myself together and move forward, but it was like my legs wouldn’t listen.

«So Violet! This is your only chance to find out the truth. So get it together already!»

After I told myself off, I had to take one last deep breath and walk unsteadily to the hotel lobby. Now that I knew the detective’s face, I had no trouble finding him out at once. He was standing near the front desk, flipping through a magazine.

To be sure, I imagined Mike’s face in my head, so familiar and my favorite. I was so caught up in my ideas that I didn’t see the lady walking toward me. A collision was inevitable, because I was in the clouds, and at the same time the lady was rummaging through her own bag, not noticing where she was going. Her belongings flew a few meters forward after our collision, which left even me with a small tube of lipstick on my cheek.

— Oops! Sorry…

My cry was answered in French, and so quickly that I could barely catch a word or two. My French was not as good as my German, so I had to jog my memory and remember a few phrases.

— Excuse me. — I said in French and started running around the lady picking up her things that were scattered on the floor.

Her grumbling lasted until she stepped away from me, casting a hateful glance in my direction. Here’s a thank you for you! It’s not my fault she doesn’t look where she’s going! After all, I’m on a mission of principle.

«Oh right! Mission!»

I turned around to go to a safe place where I could see my ex-boyfriend, but before I could take a step I ran into someone. I looked up and faced the eyes that hadn’t left me in years.5

— Mike!?

And that was it, the abyss. I collapsed right in the middle of the crowd of people, into the arms of an ex-lover. It was the same feeling as if I had sat on a stained bench, and not anywhere, but in the middle of town.

So, now let’s take our seats according to our purchased tickets and watch the mentor movie «How to Get Attention or One Bad Day by Violet Spikes»!

Chapter 12

I like to dance, especially when I’m cooking for Mike. There’s a soft clang of the knife on the wood chopping board. Pasta and vegetable salad are coming up for dinner. I stand in the kitchen wearing a reddish apron and slice tomatoes. From the living room comes the voice of James Blunt. I catch the beat and start dancing. The chorus comes on and I sing along:

— You’re great. You’re great. You’re gorgeous, it’s true. I saw your face in the masses. And now I don’t know what to do, since I’ll never be with you.

It’s already6 on the clock. Mike’s not due back from work until seven o’clock. I dump the sliced tomatoes into the frying pan and turn down the heat.

— Okay, now noodles…

It is a moment of my happiness, my love and boundless joy. I’m bustling around the kitchen with a glass of Chardonnay and enjoying the hustle and bustle. Everything is so perfect, it feels like a dream come true.

What else can I wish for? I love and am loved, I have an excellent job, a comfortable apartment, and every day I smile and am truly happy.

I dance out of the kitchen and through the living room to the bathroom to get the laundry out of the washing machine. My thoughts are occupied by my father and his words. He didn’t want me and Mike together. I remember the days when I went against my father’s vision, principles and standards. Nothing’s changed, I’m still the same. If only he could accept Mike into the family, I think that idyll would scare me. There’s no such thing as the perfect one. When everything is so great, at some point there’s going to be a breaking point.

I take out my own boyfriend’s black T-shirt and hang it lovingly on the dryer. This love is very crazy, very powerful for me. I’m ready to tie Mike down and not let him go anywhere, just so we can be together all the time. I miss him even when he goes to another room. Apparently I’m a «Mike addict,» it’s mind-boggling how he hasn’t run away from me yet.

Early eight o’clock, dinner is ready, and I’m sitting on the couch in the living room, watching Kevin Paris’s cooking show and taking another sip of wine from my glass. As the door opens, I jump out of my seat and run to meet my lethargic boyfriend. As usual, he opens his arms for me and presses me firmly against him. At this moment I am happier than ever. There he is — my man. I will never give him up to anyone.

— I missed it.

Mike kisses me on the top of my head.

— I’m a baby, too.

We stood in the hallway with our arms around each other to feel like we were together again. I could have stayed like this forever, but Mike was tired and hungry, so I had to let him go first.

— Guess what’s for dinner now?

I smile with all my two30 teeth and take the bag from him to put it back.

— Pasta.

He guessed, as usual.

— How do you do it?

Mike takes off his coat and walks over to me, kissing me lightly on the lips.

— That’s what I wanted to ask you!

— Me!?

— Yeah. — He takes my face in his hands and our lips meet again, only this time in a dizzying kiss. — I’ve missed you desperately. — He says into my lips and kisses me again.

— Are you hungry!?

Mike’s lips move from mine to my neck, and I pull my head back and close my eyes in pleasure. I feel as good as I’ve ever felt. His hot breath tickled my skin and a blissful grin appeared on my lips. I run my fingers through Mike’s hair and pull them down gently. His lips make a small path to my collarbone-it feels so good, it makes my knees tingle.

That night we sat down to dinner exclusively at the clock10. I was very happy, and that happiness, afterward, tortured me every moment I spent without Mike. The beautiful memoirs echoed in pain. I hated them and adored them. They were on constant rewind in my head. Closing my eyes, they brought me back to those times and kept me from remembering every touch, word, or gaze.

— Violet… Violet…

Mike’s voice sounded in the darkness, calling to me, asking me to come back. I heard him, and I walked toward him. It had always been that way, ever since the first day we’d met.

Little by little, the sounds that surrounded me began to reach me. After you faint, you want to fall back into that darkness, because it’s the only way to escape reality.

«Mike’s alive,» it sounded in my head as I opened my eyes and looked ahead of me. The man who’d let me believe he was dead and left me alone to suffer the pain of love lost forever was now standing over me with his furry head bowed.

— Are you awake!?

The familiar voice sent shivers through my body. I pulled myself up in my seat and put my arms around my shoulders. It looked like it was someone else’s room, so there was a good view of the city from the window, and I was also sitting in bed at the moment.

— How do you feel?

I looked at Mike. He’d changed, a lot. His hair was shoulder-length and practically blond, he had a beard, and the glow in his eyes that I’d seen every time we were together was gone. I couldn’t help but reach forward and put my hand over his face. He pressed it tighter with his warm hand and sighed heavily, closing his eyes.

— You’re alive. — I wheezed with excitement.

— Yes, alive.

He looked at me, and I didn’t know what to say to him. Everything was so confusing and hard to make sense of. My thoughts swirled around in my head in a frantic whirl. I wished I could just hug him and run away from here. This man meant so much to me, but he had caused me so much pain that I didn’t know what I was essentially feeling at the moment. I looked at him, but I no longer saw the familiar and desirable face that I adored so much. He had become a stranger to me.

I turned away from him as tears welled up.

— Hey!

Mike took me by the chin and turned me toward him. I tried not to look at him, tears running treacherously down my cheeks.

— Please don’t cry. — There was a familiar pain in his voice, and I looked up in surprise. — That’s it, baby. That’s it, look at me.

— Mike…

His name sent a wave of pain through my body, and I threw the blanket aside with a sob, got up, and clung to him tightly. The familiar feelings overwhelmed me, and I started sobbing profusely.

— Oh, Violet! I missed you, too. I’m sorry, darling. I’m sorry…

I clung tightly to his shirt, which was damp from my tears.

— I… I… thought you were dead. Why is that? Why is everything like this?

— Forgive me. I am so sorry for you.

— I thought… I thought… God, you’re alive. How can that be?

I pulled away from him and sat next to him, looking more intently into his face. He tucked a strand of loose hair behind my ear and then ran his hand down my cheek.

— Sorry.

He was so close that I couldn’t believe I’d already lost him once.

— Alive! — I exhaled as Mike took my hands. — But how?

— It’s hard to explain.

He stroked my hand with his huge finger, as if asking me to calm down.

— I’m not rushing anywhere.

— Not now, baby. Are you slowing down here?

— No. At the AZ Hotel.

Mike smiled guiltily at me and got out of bed.

— How long have you been in Algeria?

— Denek. What about you? Where have you been all this time?

There was hesitation in his gaze.

— I can’t tell you everything yet. It’s really hard, just to explain. How long will you be in Algeria?

Here it is, the 1st bell warning me to be careful what I say.

— One week.

— That’s way too little, baby. Did you just come here to rest, or do you have business here?

I got out of bed and fixed my light yellowish dress.

— Both. Especially to see you with long hair.

Mike took a step toward me and put his hands on my shoulders.

— Can I ask you something else?

— Uh-huh.

— Did you come here alone?

— One.

I don’t know why, but I wanted to say «I’m not alone. I was afraid to tell him that I still couldn’t forget him. That for the last few years5, I’d been avoiding people like crazy, indulging in our memoirs, shutting myself away in my own little apartment. He probably remembered a completely different me, one who often laughed and enjoyed life. A colorful, concrete, ready for any adventure lady. But not a dried herbarium in her place.

I’d lost my luster over the years5, and my fur was too shabby for me to just lie to Mike. Anyone who could see me at the moment would tell me how pale I was, and how unkempt my clothes were. To those close to me I had become very skinny, almost transparent, playing a constant silent game, as if I had been reincarnated as a fish. My blank face without paint, resembling an unstained leaf and indifferent attitude toward everything that was going on were all part of who I was now.

Everyone knew the reason, but no one tried to talk to me about it, not even my father. It was as if they were afraid I would snap and run to chop up my wrists. And I wanted to share this pain with someone who would hug me and let me finally get all the shit out that had been building up inside me for years. But there was no one willing. Miranda was always on the road; it’s hard to reveal your soul to someone whose life is more of a rushing waterfall. My friend was very busy with her own life; she was active, energetic, in constant motion, while I sat in a corner. I couldn’t admit to her that I was unhappy when she was so happy and fulfilled. Well, it’s not in my nature to complain about life.

I would naturally like to look better and more confident in front of Mike at this point, so that he would think that I had survived everything that had happened between us.

— Oh so!?

I saw that this was the answer he was waiting to hear.

— Yes, one.

Mike looked me over from head to toe with an attentive eye.

— You’ve changed a lot.

— I know.» I mumbled back.

— I’m sorry again Val, I’m really very sorry for the way I disappeared back then.

— The truth?

I grinned ironically. If he was hoping to get away with an apology, he didn’t know me very well.

— Listen, let’s meet up with you tomorrow night. And I’ll answer all your questions.

— Where?

— Where is more comfortable for you.

I reflected on my own hotel, but I also remembered the detective.

— Is there a restaurant in this hotel?

— There is. But it’s very crowded.

— So? Is there some sort of inconsistency in that?

Mike ran his hand through his hair excitedly.

— No, I just wanted to talk to you in a more casual setting. But if you really want to meet in a restaurant, I don’t mind.

— What time is most convenient for you?

He pulled out a cell phone from the pocket of his dark pants and, after quickly typing something, shoved it back in.

— В5. Normal?

— Yes.

I went to the nightstand by the bed to get my bag.

— Violet!?

Swiftly throwing the strap over my shoulder, I turned around.

— What?

— You will come, won’t you?

— Naturally. I have to find out why you did what you did.

— And you will find out, I promise.

— I don’t doubt it. I’m sorry, but I have to get back to my business.

We uncomfortably started waving our arms as we walked to the door.

— Are you sure you don’t need an escort? You’re still pale…

— Oh no, that’s not necessary. There’s nothing wrong with me. I really am.

— Great.

— Bye.

He looked at me with a long gaze.

— See you tomorrow, Violet.

I smiled at his forgiveness and left the room.

«What the hell was that?»

Chapter 13

Some people like the rain in the summer, explaining it by the fact that after it passes, it becomes fresher. Some people like to bask in the sun under its colorful and scalding rays. There are people who like to walk outside and feel the light breeze on their own skin. There are a lot of people like that, but I’m not one of them. The rain gives me a migraine and my hair gets frizzy, and when the rain passes, the road turns into a swamp for me and my shoes get dirty. I rarely go outside, so on the only days I do get out of the house, I am greeted by sunny weather. It makes me wrinkle, my skin dries out, and in the light I start to notice the loose, unruly hair on my head, and I always feel like it’s trying to fall on my face. It’s a terrible feeling. It’s the same with the wind, yes it’s nice, it blows me blue, but it ruins my hair, and from time to time little grains of sand hurt my eyes and even get in my mouth.

To put it bluntly, I am not a pest. I’m not capricious or rude, I don’t have any of those things in me. I’m just very absorbed in every second of my life right now, and it forces me to become more sensitive to what’s going on around me. For the most part, I’m definitely irritable, but not so much that I live like a grumpy grandmother who has a dozen cats in her apartment and swears profusely as she walks past a couple kissing. In some ways I am even happy, and this can be explained by the fact that I never thought to register on some blog or forum dedicated to lowlifes losers and post about how miserable I am. To me, that’s an indicator.

I correctly perceive the one I am at the moment, and I regard my condition more quickly as temporary, which can be completely overcome.

The worst part was that I realized at this point that not only did I no longer love my ex-boyfriend, but that he turned out to be such a jerk. It was natural to believe that after all these years he would fall down and repent and beg me to forgive him, shedding bitter tears. He didn’t know that I’d been aching and pining for him like an idiot all this time. But I expected more from our meeting, because we were so close. Weren’t we?

I fully deserve at least a clarification. Let it be heresy to help me live on, I will accept it whatever it may be. I really wish things could go back to the way they were before. But without Mike’s help, I’m not sure I can find myself the way I was before. That’s why it’s important to end this love story in the end, in the end, in the end and in the end. I have to do it. No, I have to do it!

I walked down the eighth floor hallway toward my room. It hadn’t been the most pleasant day of my life, not because of my meeting with Mike, but because of the migraine that had been haunting me all day. I know it sounds unconvincing for such a statement, but I decided so, and with this, as unfortunate as it sounds, nothing can be done now. Stubbornness along with stupidity is not the best cocktail at the end of this fucking day, so I’ll just go to bed so that tomorrow would be easier.

I didn’t turn on the lights when I entered my own room, so I felt safer. I needed a shower that would wash the remains of the day from my skin and hair. I undressed as I walked to the bathroom, leaving a trail of sandals, my dress, and my underwear behind me. I had had enough of getting rid of these things, as they didn’t allow me to feel free.

I stood under a strong head of cool water in the shower stall. I needed the water to keep me from feeling my tears running and tasting salty. I grabbed a sponge and began angrily rubbing my arms, legs, stomach, and breasts with it. All of my actions were very vigorous, as if I were having a fit of anger or self-loathing. I felt dirty, as if I were in someone else’s skin. It pained me that the only man I had ever adored had abandoned me in such a subtle way. He had traded my love for means, and that hurt even more. How hard it is to think of yourself as nothing, in the eyes of a man to whom you have given all of yourself.

Clutching the sponge firmly in my hands, I slowly rolled down the shower wall. I was shattered and wrung out with powerlessness. After a few minutes, I still managed to get out of the shower and into bed. Curled up, shaking from the cold, I closed my eyes and counted to10. It helped me calm down when I needed it. My psychologist, Mr. Cooper, told me to do this counting to avoid any sensory outbursts, and I only used this technique against insomnia. It worked for me.

I was awakened by a pushy knock on the door. It was very bright in the room because of the glaring sun from the window when I opened my eyes. There was another knock, and I had to crawl out of bed to get to the door.

— Yes?

In my sleep, my voice was hoarse, so maybe they couldn’t hear me at all.

— Miss!? It’s Francis.

When I heard the familiar voice of the guide, I immediately opened the door.

— Good morning.

— Good morning, Miss Spikes!

Her friendly smirk made me a little angry. Maybe it was the way I felt disgusted!

— How did you sleep?

— It’s okay.

There was a look of surprise in Frances’ eyes, apparently because of my displeased tone.

— A bus will be here at one10 o’clock, which will take you to the local markets. — I twisted at her words. — Not good for you?

— No, it’s okay.

I squeezed a smirk out of myself.

— Convinced?

— Uh-huh.

— The general assembly will be at half past ten in the hotel lobby. It’s almost nine o’clock at this point, in case you want to go with all the other participants.

— Naturally. Thank you for you. — I swallowed audibly. — Be in the lobby by 9:30. Oh, that’s great.

— Does that mean you will go?

— Yes, I will.

— Then I won’t take up your time.

— Thanks again.

Frances smiled sweetly before I closed the door. I’d always loved traveling, no matter where it took me, as long as it was food. At times, of course, it depended on the company I was traveling with and the destination, but still, in all travel, there was that pulling road ahead that made my heart pound furiously in my chest. So I can safely say — the best remedy for a disgusting mood, for me, is a trip.

I didn’t wash my head, I just put my hair in a high ponytail. I brushed my teeth quickly, packed everything I needed in my bag, and took my phone and left the room. As I rode the elevator down to the bottom floor of the hotel, Miranda texted me, worried about my health as usual and asked how long I would be in Algiers. Then I got another text from her about our neighbor, Mr. Nice Ass-as her friend called him-that he was now back in his apartment.

Miranda had been madly fond of him ever since he moved into the apartment across the street from us two years ago. In her friend’s eyes, the neighbor was a «first-rate hottie,» though there was one «but» that made her sigh for him and not accept trying to get to know him in person anymore. The whole thing was that the neighbor had a dog. What do you know Miranda does not like dogs, so the main aspect in selecting a partner, she first finds out there is pets in his house or at least the possibility that it will appear. Only then begins to act and show enthusiasm for the man. For her it really is very important! She sighed audibly every time she thought about our neighbor — a handsome man, and I felt sorry for her in those moments. More than once I’d seen the light in her eyes light up when I heard footsteps outside our apartment door. Miranda paced around the room, looking for a reason to come out and talk to him, but she usually gave up with an audible sigh and sat down on the couch, occasionally glancing at the front door. It was a sad picture I’d watched more than once.

I myself did not see anything so fascinating in my neighbor, for me he was just a man living, on the contrary. On the contrary, I liked his dog, a golden retriever, and with a characteristic kindly gaze, like any dreamer of a furry pet, I saw him off with an outstretched hand.

My psychologist, Mr. Cooper, had suggested many methods of getting rid of the emptiness inside me during our conversations, among which was to get a dog, but because of Miranda I never did. So to make up for what I wanted, if you can naturally say so, I enjoyed watching my neighbor’s dog. She is very cute and at one point I was lucky enough to meet her and her owner in the elevator going upstairs and she licked my hand. I then ran my fingers cautiously over her wet nose until her owner could see and looked into her kind, big dog eyes. They were everything I’d been missing in my life, specifically love. Then I thought about not asking my neighbor to temporarily leave his dog with me? It’s just that he was on constant trips just like Miranda — I didn’t follow him, I was just curious where he was letting the dog go while he was gone, that’s all. But we never talked to him so I could just ask and he’d give me his own pet without a second thought.

We are strangers to each other, neighbors to each other, and neither of us pretends to be more than that, at least I certainly am not eager to start a conversation with a man who looks more like a civilized hipster with a womanizing heartthrob tendency. He was the type of good-looking man for Miranda, not for me. The neighbor was very fickle in love affairs, to say nothing of his stay in his apartment. It’s not my place to judge him for his life; it’s everyone’s choice, so it’s not up to me to judge who should exist in this world.

This man also dressed very surprisingly, maybe it had something to do with his frequent absence from his apartment! Honestly, I did not think about it enough, it was just that he always wore not clothes, but some worn-out rags, and that, despite the fact that he lived in a fairly expensive neighborhood. A married couple on the eighth floor often looked at him squeamishly as they rode in the elevator with him. But about any specific smells from his neighbor, he didn’t have any. Seriously, that really struck me about him, because no matter how torn his clothes were, the man himself smelled like a wood-musky smell, the kind that made me feel safe and strong. Mike liked fresh scents such as mint, and it seemed to me that there was no other scent I could like as much as this one, but I realized that this was not the case the moment I first encountered my neighbor.

My neighbor is an ugly man who makes me look down and nervously rub my coat sleeves while we stand in the elevator or open our own apartment doors together. These are always uncomfortable moments that make me feel like an awkward sixteen-year-old girl. But compared to Miranda’s reaction to this man, my condition is just a paltry attempt to show my real attitude toward him. In fact, I was generally more disinterested than a sighing or embarrassed blushing fan of a heartthrob. So I didn’t reply to Miranda’s text about him, and I got off the elevator and headed for the group.

Chapter 14

After spending two days in Algiers, I realized an interesting thing — it’s great to go to such places together with a group of like-minded people. It’s fun! I had never imagined that a trip to the market could be such an «exciting» experience. Judge for yourself:

1. Yesterday Mr. Russell had been drinking heavily and suffering from a bad hangover, but he decided to go with the others, because it was boring to go around town alone. And that would have been all right, but after half an hour of jolting on the bus, he got twisted right on Miss Blanc.

2. Ms. Blanc, in turn, launched into the kind of profanity that even in a South American port, not only would not have been uttered, but their ears would have been covered.

3. When we were in the ancient town of Kasbu, our guide, Miss Frances Gilmore, apparently did not look where she was going and the result was several abrasions on her knees and a dislocated finger on her right hand.

4. And finally, one last thing. Ms. Hughes became dizzy as she and her husband strolled for several hours through the local market. She made a dramatic gesture with her hand, first throwing it up and then placing it against her forehead, shiny with sweat in the sun. Her oohs and gasps sounded so theatrical that I let out a chuckle every now and then.

The result: a great time and an uplifted mood from either the fucking jinx or the curse of our group. Specifically thanks to the current start of the day, I was ready for the evening. Yesterday, Senor Salido del Pozo called me at eight o’clock in the evening because I hadn’t done it myself. I had to report back to him, even describing the room I woke up in. I don’t know why, but the fact that the detective was somewhere near where I’d met Mike made me feel uncomfortable. I was somehow terrified and uncertain about the next day.

Right after the bus brought the group back to the hotel, I texted the detective as I made my way up to my room. A few minutes later, the phone rang.

— Hello?

— I’ll be with you in a few10 minutes.

— Great.

This was not a meeting of two not bad acquaintances, or of unfortunate friends; it was a well-planned plan between accomplices in a common cause. Señor del Pozo, with deft hand movements, fastened a wiretap device to my light blue sundress, as if I were being sent on a mission of special difficulty, in which, quite possibly, I might have died as a fighter in the process. Ugh, I was very worried. It seemed to me that I was going to be found out, that the wire was visible, and that I would somehow give myself away, either by word or deed, and it would be all over.

— Don’t worry.

The detective looked so reassuringly confident in my eyes that I involuntarily gave in to it.

— What if I never find out where these papers that Mr. Moreau needs are located?

— I’ll answer honestly for you, senora. No one expects that from you. We simply do not exclude the possibility of using your help, so try to get him to talk, but without affecting Monsieur’s activities or your cooperation with him.

— I thought about it. I don’t know if I should make promises to you that I’ll do everything because you said so…

— Then don’t give it to me. Just do whatever is probable.

— Great.

We exchanged understanding glances and left the room together.

— You won’t be far away, will you?

— Sí, señora. Mr. Norland is not a man for you to fear.

I nervously licked my dry lips and clutched the silver clutch tighter in my own hands.

— I know, it’s just that we haven’t seen each other in so many years that I think our past relationship with him was just an illusion. He tricked me, señor! It’s hard, as you can imagine.

— I understand, senora.

— You know…?

— Yes?

— I’m just worried… what if he finds out? What do I do then?

The detective frowned his thick black eyebrows.

— What is there for you to do? I think in that case you have a very great advantage over Mr. Norland, señora.

— Advantage?

— Yes. You were duped, weren’t you? Right? — I nodded my head as we entered the elevator. — Oh, señora! Then it’s easier than it could be!

— Are you saying that I should stick to the story of «abandonment»?

— What is an «abandonment»?

I shook my hair with my hand.

— This… means I’ve been abandoned.

— Ah! Yes, that’s exactly what’s going to bail you out.

— Not good advice, you know? — I exhaled audibly. — Oh, I have not been. I know, señor, it’s not the time to be crying at the moment. This is stupid!

— Not dumb senora, it’s very principled.

— For whom? For me?

— And to you as well.

The detective was right; I need this meeting more than Mr. Moreau did. I need the truth-a bitter, ruthless, painful truth, but a truth nonetheless.

— Great.

We parted as soon as we left the hotel. I got in a cab to the Olympic Plaza with my eyes closed to clear my head. I thought about Mike, about the happy days we’d spent together more than a year4 ago, and tried to think of anything that might give away his deception. It seemed to me now that the hugs he’d given me had been as false as his kisses. The words of love had lost their own meaning and were filled with bubbles of foolish hope.

Jesus, Mike, what are you wearing? What did you get yourself into? And for what?

Chapter 15

The restaurant was really crowded, just like Mike had said it would be. He had also reserved a table for the two of us in the private area, apparently not wanting anyone to witness our conversation.

I saw Mike as soon as I sat down in my seat, but instead of watching him walk directly to our table, I grabbed the wine list with shaking hands and put my head down.

«Wimp! What a wimp you are, Violet! Get it together already!»

He was wearing a gray suit and a white shirt. His blond hair was pulled back into a ponytail, leaving only a permanent little beard. Mike didn’t look as handsome as I’d thought he’d looked when we’d first met, and he’d lost the social glamor that had given us our once high-society mannerisms. We had changed, and so had our feelings for each other, as I had hoped we would, because I wasn’t going to go back to him.

— Hello, Violet!

His voice still evoked old feelings in me, though. I lifted my head from the wine list and looked at the young waiter at our table.

— Chateau Palmer 2001, please.


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