Upon entering his restaurant, Robert McCall removed his winter greatcoat and took a moment to look over the patrons of the establishment. The fireplace was lit and the soft glow of candles and indirect lighting made the room cozy and welcoming. He tried to sense if the customers were contented or if they were just eating, their minds on feeding and then leaving. Tonight, the tables were filled with people who were pleased, except for one woman alone who studied him as he walked in. But then she did the same to the next man who entered the restaurant so he assumed she was waiting for someone who was late.
Lynne took his coat as he greeted her. Although he was considered a silent partner in OíPhelanís he did contribute certain ideas to what he felt made a good eatery. A coat-check person did a lot to add to the feel of a fine welcoming restaurant. People could take their seats sans covering, feeling unburdened by the outside world. That was his theory at any rate.
He strolled through the crowded restaurant to his reserved table. Jeremy smiled at him from his position behind the bustling bar. Robert nodded back, pleased that the young bartender seemed to have everything well in hand. He sat down as Pete, lovely and competent lady that she was, appeared at his elbow.
"Do you want anything special tonight, Robert?" she asked as she filled the water glasses.
Her voice was casual, but he could detect a small note of excitement. Every time he asked for a double place setting at his table, Pete took it to heart and thought he must be on a date. For some strange reason his having a happy social life made her giddy.
"Nothing over the top, the lady joining me is an old friend."
"Oh heck," Pete deflated a bit, "An old client? One day one of us is going to get lucky and find someone who doesnít have a problem of some sort."
He chuckled. "Iíve had, and still have, a healthy assortment of friends, thank-you-very-much. You shall hear no complaints from this old war dog."
"I know. I can only imagine what kind of stories you could divulge if you were the type to kiss and tell." Pete sighed and held the water pitcher with both hands. "Do you want anything from the bar until she shows?"
"I suppose something light. White wine, you choose."
Pete nodded and left. Just then, he noticed Beth Magee enter the restaurant. She looked as scattered as ever. Her blonde curls were loose from their hairclip, her arms filled with packages and her overlarge totebag falling off her shoulder.
A grin spread over her face when she spotted him, but he observed it faded a little as she looked around the room. Lynne held her hand out for Bethís coat and a few moments of silent comedy ensued as Beth struggled to take it off while trying not to drop her packages. Robert thoroughly enjoyed the slapstick. It had been far too long since Beth had been around to charm him.
He stood to welcome her.
"Hi Robert," Beth said breathlessly when she got to the table. She remained standing, as she attempted to smooth her hair into some sort of order.
He placed one quick, chaste kiss on her cheek and pulled the chair out for her. "Please sit," he said. "Itís lovely to see you."
And by Jove, he realized, it was.
A bright grin shone on her face as she sat. "Josh says to tell you hi. Heís with me half the year now and weíre having the best time." Her eyes misted. "I canít tell you how grateful I am that you managed to get the judge to let me have partial custody of him. His dadís family is as bad as ever, but Josh is old enough to see that the stories they told him about me were Ė well Ė not the truth." The grin faded again. "Iíll never forget how you helped me Robert, no matter what else comes up."
"No matter what else?" Unease piqued his thoughts. "What else is going on?"
A nervous laugh and shake of her head was the answer. "I didnít mean anything." She passed her hand over her face to push at her hair. "You know me, I talk and donít think about what Iím saying first." She forced a laugh and shrugged, "Scatterbrained as usual."
Something was bothering her but Robert knew that it would all come out in its own good time. Beth was far too garrulous to keep quiet about anything for long.
Pete again appeared at the table, this time bearing his white wine and two menus.
"Would you like cocktails?" Pete asked, all professional smiles.
Beth looked up at Pete, took a menu and nodded. "Stoli straight, please."
Pete raised an eyebrow at Robert. "Would the gentlemen like something else from the bar, something with hair on its chest?"
"No, thank you Pete," Robert said, amused. "Beth Mackie, Iíd like you to meet Pete OíPhelan, the co-owner of this place with me."
A confused look flashed on Bethís face as she shook Peteís hand, then she turned to him. "I didnít know you owned a restaurant. Maybe I donít know that much about you at all really," she said under her breath. By the end of the sentence, a shadow of something had crossed over her face. Robert nodded at Pete who shrugged at him and left for the bar.
Beth was biting at her lip and Robert knew that the reason she called him for this meeting would soon spill out. He sat back and waited for it to happen. He had all night.
A prickle on Robertís neck alerted him that he was being watched. He didnít know how that worked, but he had long ago learned to listen to whatever psychic abilities he had. Trying to be casual, he glanced around the room. All the patrons seemed intent on their food or in conversations, but he caught furtive eye movements from the single woman he had noticed when he entered the restaurant. She seemed to be miming a casual glance at him, but when their eyes met for a moment he saw her color a bright red, and hastily look away.
"I might not know all about you, Robert," Beth said. Robert concentrated once more on his dinner companion, "But you helped me, believed in me when other people thought I was just a paranoid woman. How you went out of your way to make sure I was safe and rescued me from the assassin," her eyes began to well up, "makes me believe in you enough to risk telling the truth."
Robert noted her complexion had gone a little gray. "Tell me, what is bothering you and how can I help?"
Just then, Pete returned and set Beth's drink down. A good bar owner knows when to become scarce and Pete vanished right away
Beth cleared her throat and seemed to scan the room. He noticed her eyes catch for a moment on the single woman at the other table.
What the devil was going on?
From the corner of his eye he saw the other woman stand up, throw money on the table and pivot towards the door.
"Oh God," Beth muttered and propelled herself off the chair towards the woman.
Robert stood up, his hand already in his pocket cradling the butt of the light, but accurate .22 he always carried there.
"Dinah, wait!" Beth called out.
The other woman ran from the room, bumping into tables and patrons. Robert was quick to follow as the two left the restaurant; neither had stopped to get their coats.
The door of OíPhelanís had just swung closed behind him when Robert spotted Beth talking to the woman. They had stopped mid-sidewalk in the freezing night air. The few pedestrians passing by glanced at them but moved on. The sharp wind reminded him that he had not stopped to get his coat either and Robert found that the bitter cold increased his frustration. He waited a moment, then lost patience and approached the two.
"Dinah, I told you it wasnít him," Beth was saying, her voice urgent.
The unknown womanís back was towards him, but she was visibly quivering.
"I was so certain that he was McCall, damn. I had hoped that tonight would finish this. I canít take this waiting for the second shoe to drop anymore."
"Ladies," Robert said, keeping his voice gentle.
Beth looked at him; she was shivering from the cold and her lips were already blue. Her companion, shoulders sagging, turned to face him. Robert saw that there were tears on her face and her eyes were haunted as she stared at him.
He took a step away from the women. He did not want either one to bolt. "Let us go back inside. Itís far too cold to stand here."
"Not him," the woman said her tone that of sorrow, and shook her head. "Oh God, what do I do now?"
"We go back inside," Beth said. She lifted one hand to stop him from coming closer and took her friendís arm. He hurried ahead and opened the restaurant door to let the women in. Beth mouthed a thank you when they passed him in the doorway.
Pete was there, her expression tense with worry as the two women walked to his table. "Whatís wrong?" she whispered to him.
"No idea yet, " he answered. "Please bring us three brandies and coffee. Once we warm up, Iím certain Iíll find out what is going on."
Pete nodded and gave him a searching look. "Let me know if you need me."
"I shall." He approached his table and stood, waiting for Bethís permission to sit.
"Dinah, please, talk to Robert. Heís a good friend and I trust him. He saved my life, in more than one way. You've read the articles on him. He helps people. He can help you. I know it."
He saw the other woman, Dinah, nod her head. "Might as well," he heard her say, "Iíve got nothing left to lose."
Beth looked up at him, her large eyes pleading. "Please, Robert, sit."
As he seated himself, he managed a long look at Dinah. She was in her early forties, tall and angular. Her brown, pageboy hair was streaked with gray and she wore little make-up, but managed to seem sophisticated. Even in her emotional upset she had an air of a woman sure of herself. He recognized the type: strong, opinionated and, if a friend of Bethís, probably a fellow journalist.
Beth cleared her throat. "Robert, Iíd like you to meet a colleague of mineó"
"Iíve spent the last twenty years frightened shitless by a man who told me his name was Robert McCall," Dinah interrupted.
"Itís not an uncommon name," Robert said, keeping calm, "any number of menó"
"Someone who was a Company spook in South East Asia in the late sixties?" she hissed at him as she wiped at the tears on her face.
He kept his surprise repressed and his gaze cool. "What in the worldó?"
"Any other Robert McCalls in your business?" Dinah had matched his stare and her red-rimmed eyes held his, challenging.
"Dinah," Beth said, "Heís not the Robert McCall whoís been threatening you for all these years. Calm down."
"How can I calm down?" Dinah swung her bag onto the table and began rummaging deep inside it.
Robert did not like that this angry, shaky, woman was groping for something. She could be looking for anything: a weapon, a knife or mace. He again put his hand on his own gun.
With a sigh, Dinah pulled out cigarettes and a lighter. Hands shaking, she jerked one out of the pack and stuck it in her mouth. Then without using it she threw the lighter back in the bag and laughed a harsh bark. "I stopped smoking years ago, but every time I have to live through this again, I need the taste of tobacco. Remembering Vietnam brings me back to lusting for every one of my old, bad habits of youth."
After a moment of thankfulness that she was not going to be violent, Robert wanted her to get to the topic that interested him. "What makes you think the Robert McCall you met in Vietnam worked for the Company?"
Dinah laughed again, then shuddered violently. "Because he told me. He made goddamn sure I knew his name and who he worked for and how far-reaching his influence was." As she spoke, Robert could see her coloring intensify and he recognized hysteria in her voice. He began to think that a public restaurant was a bad place to let her talk. But in a moment she took a deep breath, closed her eyes and seemed to calm down. "He whispered his name to me as heÖ" Her eyes flew open. "Whenever I close my eyes, I see Vietnam and that rainy day. Itís just beneath my skin, scratch me and itís Vietnam and what happened there." Tears began to flow down her face, but she didnít acknowledge them.
Pete came to the table with a tray. Robert noted that her mouth was set in a hard line as she placed coffee and brandy in front of each person. She must have heard a little of what was being said. Pete had told him, many times, that she was glad she had joined the Company in late í72 and had never been forced to serve in the Vietnam conflict. The seeds of the disease that killed her beloved husband Mark, had been planted within him on that continent.
Pete said, "You need something to eat. Tell me when, and Iíll be back with some food."
"Thank you," Robert said and touched Peteís hand as she passed near him.
He turned his attention onto Dinah. "No other man by my name was an agent of the Company during that time period."
She smirked. "And youíre so sure, because?"
He could not tell her. Classified. His career at the Company, all of his titles and influence were top secret. "I know. It is a fact. Letís leave it at that."
For a long moment there was intense silence at the table. Beth picked up the cream and poured some into her coffee. That seemed to remind Dinah of the glass and cup in front of her. She gulped the brandy and grimaced hard. Three sugar packets were counted and she put that in her coffee along with a generous dollop of the cream and sipped.
"You look like you havenít eaten in a while," Robert noted.
"Iíve been scared shitless ever since I read Bethís article on you Ė OK, on Robert McCall, the mysterious ex-government man who has contacts with the police and enough know-how to take down an attempted assassination in this city." She discarded the unlit cigarette into her bag. "Since I read that, I knew Robert McCall was here, near me and not afraid of anyone knowing it. I even managed to remain calm when the Senatorís man broke into my apartment and read me the riot act. But he only blackmailed me, didnít do anything to me like he Ė you Ė Heck, like McCall did. But since McCall was in the city, I knew that the bastard would pay me another visit soon. And I couldnít stand the waiting."
All the information was coming out too quickly; Robert didnít understand much of it.
Beth was all eyes and ears, visibly excited to be in on a story. "What Senatorís man, what are you talking about?"
Dinah shook her head. "No, since your friend here isnít my Robert McCall, then thereís no need for either of you to be involved."
But there was bloody hell good reason for him to be involved! An imposter was using his name, bandying it about. Robert weighed what to do next. Should he challenge her now or wait until Beth was nowhere around? As much as he liked her, Beth was not the type of person he would trust with his secrets.
"MsÖ?" He realized that he had not been given her full name.
"Dinah Morris," she offered her hand. He felt cold radiated from it but she didnít seem to care. "I usually answer to Dinah." Another deep stare was directed at him. "Itís so strange, I know so many bits and pieces of information about Ė you, or about the man who called himself Robert McCall but, even though Iíve been trying to collect information on him for all these years, I could never get my hands on a picture. The face I remember is of another man." She shook her head vehemently. "Crap, Iím all messed up now."
"Ms Morris, Dinah, I am quite interested in your problem. If someone had been using my name or my identity, I am indeed involved."
"Wow!" Beth gushed, "This has all the makings of a great story! Vietnam and international identity theft." He saw Beth hesitate a moment when she noticed Dinahís angry expression. "No, well, I mean I know itís your story, Dinah. I mean I know that, but Ė wow, itís a hell of a scoop!"
Dinah lifted off her seat as if she were on fire. "Thereís no story! Iím outta here. Thanks for your time, Mr. McCall, Iím sorry to have mixed you up in this." She managed a smile, "And thanks for your concern, Beth, Iíll see you at the paper tomorrow."
With that, she lifted her bag up and rummaged inside it again. Robert had heard a heavy thump when she set it down on the table. It was a sound of something solid and metallic. If Dinah thought she would be face to face with a man she had feared for so many years, chances were good she had a weapon with her.
Once again he palmed his own gun still hidden in his jacket pocket.
Dinah laughed, a hint of hysteria in her voice. "Sorry, I donít have any small bills. Beth, pay for me and Iílló,"
"No need," Robert let go of his gun and lifted his hand in a wave of dismissal. "Itís taken care of."
After the bag was hefted on her shoulder, Dinah nodded. "Thanks," then she turned and sped around the tables to where the coats were stored. At the coat check stand, Lynne glanced at Robert for his approval, then handed a coat to Dinah.
Beth watched the door close after her colleague and then turned to him, her face flushed. "Well, that was sure quick. Do you think sheís afraid Iíd steal her story?"
A one-track mind, that was Beth's problem. Robert sipped at his coffee. "I think sheís been going through a hell of her own for far too long to think about writing about it." He caught her eyes. "But it is her story and I think it is up to her how to handle it. Promise me youíll leave her to it."
"Dinah came to me after I wrote that article about John Parkerís foiled assassination attempt. I mentioned that he had been Equalized by Robert McCall, like you said I could, and she picked up on it. She asked me so many questions about you that I asked a few questions of my own. When I finally finagled some of her story out of her, I just knew the Robert McCall she was so afraid of wasnít you. I planned this meeting, so she could see she was mistaken."
Beth was picking up a head of steam about it all. Always a bad sign. She was the type to go off on a tangent on her own and wind up in trouble. Not good.
"I expect that sheís had a bad time of it." He made sure to show no interest in the subject.
"Oh boy, did she ever. All these years she was afraid of a Robert McCall. She was sure that you were going to kill her if you recognized her tonight, but I told her to trust me Ė and you. I told her that. She didnít want me to be involved but I insisted so she could see you and then it could all be cleared up!"
Bethís eyes took on a large luminous look. He would have to stop her interest in this right away. If he had been the man who had threatened Dinah Morris in the past, then Beth would have led both women into ruin. Even when she realized she did not know that much about him, she still revealed everything.
Beth had a good heart, but not much guile.
"Do you respect her?" Robert made his voice gentle.
Beth seemed taken aback. "Yes, I do. She was one of the first women journalists to be accepted as an equal in the field. Without her and other women in the sixties fighting for our rights, well, I wouldnít be working at the paper reporting on anything but garden parties or the social beat."
"How about personally?" He turned his attention to his brandy, letting the warming liquid roll over his tongue.
"Well, yes to that too. Sheís been great to me, kind and helpful. Sheís a little hard-nosed, but after all these years as a reporter, I can understand that." She stared at him. "Are you trying to make some sort of a point or something?"
"Sheís been under pressure and has made a mistake about the source of that pressure. If you are at all fond of her, Iíd suggest that you leave her to work this out herself."
"But, Robert, sheís in trouble. I know it!"
"I do not suggest you turn your back on her, but as you said, Dinah is a hard-nosed woman. If she is as tough as you say, she might once again keep her mouth shut and not ask for help."
Beth bit at her lip again as she seemed to think over what he said. "Right, I can see her claming up again."
"I suggest that you donít mention this night again. But, and this is important Ė," Beth was hanging on to his every word, " Ėyou need to be there for her, should she feel the desire to talk, but donít press the subject. I can see her refusing to speak about it again if you do. When she feels comfortable discussing the topic, then we can both try and get her to come to me for help."
"But if sheís in danger?"
"Sheís been in that danger for twenty years, I doubt anything will happen in the next few months."
"But Robert, I canít Ė."
"But Beth, you must. You must be cool and stalwart, a shared character of the best reporters. They have the ability to listen, and in that way, they get all the information."
Beth looked unsure. "But donít you think that I should dig around?"
"Absolutely not." He tried to keep his frustration out of his voice. "Dinah would know that you were working on her turf. You said yourself sheís an old hand at this. What if you contacted one of her sources? Sheíd hear about it right away and would never feel confident about sharing her story Ė or byline Ė with you."
"Yeah, I guess." Beth leaned forward, her voice excited. "But I want to do something."
"Be there for her. Be her friend and colleague. It is her story, as you said. When she needs to share it with someone, make certain you are the person she goes to."
"ButÖ" Beth sat back, visibly disheartened.
"Beth, this is the best way to get the story and help a friend who desperately needs your assistance. And it is the only way to get the respect of the others in your profession. If you take on her story and get her creditó,"
Beth started nodding, hard. "Youíre right. Respect is crucial to me. Other journalists have to understand that, although I got my job with my fatherís influence, Iím keeping it because of my own talent. That fact is very important to me and my career."
"So keep your eyes and ears open, but let her come to you. And then I shall help as much as I can."
Beth gave him a misty-eyed smile and reached over the table to pat his hand. "Youíre such a good friend, Robert. Youíre right. I need to be restrained about this but still vigilant."
He studied her face. She seemed to be sincere. He breathed a mental sigh of relief. If he could keep her clear of Dinah for a while, it would be better all round.
The menus were still on their table. He picked them up and handed one to her. "Shall we order, Beth? Please bring me up to date about Josh. Have you any pictures?"
A warm, happy expression spread over her face. "Josh is so great. And yes," she grabbed for her bag, "Iíve got loads of pictures. We went to the shore for two weeks this summer, and heís so bright for his age. We were talking andÖ"
Robert motioned Pete to take their dinner order. This was going to be a long night.