The Romancerlizer(s)

 

 

Four O'clock, Valentine's Day.

Robert McCall was sitting at his private table at O'Phelan's. It was late afternoon, in the time between the late lunchers and the early diners. The fire was still burning merrily and he was enjoying the comfort of the restaurant and his private table.

Pete was hurrying about the restaurant, placing red silk hearts and fresh roses on every table. There promised to be a full house tonight, as the restaurant was booked solid for the festive evening. Jeremy had been left in charge of the bar, and had been the one to serve Robert his coffee.

Robert was reading the newspaper, trying not to become too annoyed at the lateness of his friend and colleague Mickey Kostmayer. He had sent Mickey out on a fact-finding mission, gathering information having to do with one of his latest clients.

He turned a page of the paper. He would give Mickey another hour, and then it was off to home to put the finishing touches on the meal he was preparing for his date that evening.

Robert smiled to himself, Margarita was a librarian, a widow, whose proper demeanor was belied by a quick wit that had piqued his interest when he had been researching an article he was writing about the end of the Cold War. They had been seeing each other for four months now, and her spirited Spanish heritage had, more often than not, entranced Robert in many and varied ways.

Margarita had planned their after-dinner agenda and as she had kept her ideas a secret, Robert was not certain if he should be happy or dubious about the evening.

Well, the beginning of the night would be perfect - if he had any say about it. If only Mickey would arrive soon. He needed to get to his apartment to prepare properly.

Robert caught a glimpse of Mickey's harried face at the window of the restaurant as he rushed to enter. Robert nonchalantly turned another page of the newspaper as out of the corner of his eye, he saw Mickey make a beeline toward his table.

Robert looked up. "You're late, Mr. Kostmayer."

"I know," Mickey said breathlessly as he threw two large shopping bags under the table and pulled off his jacket.

Robert looked at the bags and raised an eyebrow. "Been shopping?"

"Yeah, Valentine's Day gift shopping and I'm disgusted."

Jeremy brought a cup of coffee to the table and placed it in front of Mickey, who looked up and nodded his thanks.

"I've been buying the same thing for women for Valentine's Day since I was sixteen and every year I try to come up with another idea and every damn year I can't think of anything else and I wind up getting the same thing," Mickey said without stopping to take a breath. Then he picked up the hot coffee and gulped down half the cup.

Robert folded his paper neatly and put it aside. "Let me see. What do you get?"

Mickey grumbled and, a little embarrassed, opened one bag and took out a giant, red heart shaped box of chocolates.

Robert shook his head, "The bigger the better, I suppose is the thought."

"Well, yeah, it goes with this." Mickey said defeated. He opened the other bag and took out a large stuffed bear wearing a heart that said, 'Will you be mine?'

"Lovely," Robert said flatly.

"It worked on Jeannie, my first girl friend - really well," Mickey grinned, "and I keep thinking that if it was successful once, well..."

"But, is it still successful?" Robert asked doubtfully.

"Varying degrees, but I am sick of it. I'm too old for cute." Mickey grabbed the bear by its throat and twisted the stuffed animal's head off. He threw the dismembered toy into a shopping bag. "Hey McCall, you know about this stuff. What do women want for Valentine's Day?"

Robert laughed, "I'm certainly not a bear and big box of sweets man. I'm more the roses and champagne sort. The fact is, you determine what the lady would like and every woman is different."

"Well, Ollie is different." Mickey sighed.

Robert looked confused. "Ollie?"

Mickey smiled. "It's short for Olivia - she hates the name. And boy is Ollie ever different. Did I ever tell you about how she..."

Robert held his hand up to stop Mickey from finishing his story. "Please, not that way! Different in what she likes."

Mickey looked blank. "Like what?"

Robert leaned back in his chair, he pulled absentmindedly at his earlobe. "Well, what kind of jewelry does she wear?"

" Huh?"

"What kind?" Robert stared at the vacant look on his friend's face. "Loud? Flashy? Small and understated?" he prompted.

Mickey shook his head. "Uh, I can't say."

Robert sighed, Mickey wasn't going to make this easy, on either of them. "Does she wear any? Have you noticed?"

"I think so," Mickey grinned evilly. "I know she likes bracelets."

Robert chose to disregard Mickey's implication. "So get one with small stones that match her eyes."

"Matching? Like how?" Mickey leaned his head on the table with what looked like pure exhaustion.

"The color, Mick."

"Jeeze, color? I don't know. Brown - ish?" Mickey said into the top of the table.

Robert chuckled knowingly, "Never noticed the color?"

"Not really." Mickey sat up. "Come on McCall, I'm not the type of guy who does a lot of eye gazing."

"Earrings can be a good alternative. Tell her you think her ears are dainty, graceful seashells. Are her ears pierced or not? I know a good jeweler..." Robert began to take out his address book from his breast pocket.

"Pierced? I couldn't even swear she does have ears."

Robert grimaced at the answer.

"I mean," Mickey added quickly, " I don't know whether her ears are pierced. That information was never that high up the list of things to find out." He smirked at Robert. "If you know what I mean."

Robert shook his head in disgust. Young men today, he thought to himself. "Wonderful," he murmured.

"Well, what other kind of things do you do that work? You know, high class stuff."

Robert shook his head in amusement. "My friend, the point of Valentine's Day is not to 'get' something from a woman."

Mickey winked and nodded salaciously, "Yes it is."

Robert looked dour, "Perhaps that is why you have failed so abysmally."

"I wouldn't say abysmally." Mickey said but he grimaced as he peeked into the shopping bag that held the now headless bear.

"Mickey, the sentiments of the day should be romance, in accordance with the true history of Valentine's day."

"True history? Right." Mickey said doubtfully.

Robert folded his arms comfortably across his chest and began to speak, "In 5th Century Rome, mid February was traditionally the time of the Lupercian festival, an ode to the God of fertility and a celebration of sensual pleasure, a time to meet and court a prospective mate."

"Right, I got that, sensual pleasure."

Robert acted as though he hadn't heard.

"The Pope at the time, Pope Gelasius outlawed the pagan festival, but he was clever. He had to be, it was quite a popular bacchanal. He replaced it with a similar celebration, although one deemed morally suitable. He decided upon a 'lovers' saint to replace the pagan deity Lupercus. He chose the martyred Bishop Valentine as the patron saint of the new festival."

Mickey drank some more coffee. "Wait, Valentine was a martyr? A real saint? Really?"

Robert frowned, "You should know all this better than I do. You were, after all, brought up in the bosom of the Catholic Church."

Mickey grinned, "I left most of the studying to Nick, but I gotta say, I don't remember the nuns talking about any pagan celebrations. I would have remembered that!"

"Quite," Robert glowered at Mickey. "Anyway," he sighed, "Saint Valentine was beheaded for helping young lovers marry against the wishes of the Emperor Claudius who ruled from 41-54 AD."

"Losing his head over love, eh?" Mickey joked

Robert smiled, "You'll like this next part. Before his execution, Bishop Valentine himself had fallen in love with his jailer's daughter."

Mickey smirked and shook his head, "No, the nuns definitely didn't mention anything about this!"

"Listen here, the interesting point is that the poor condemned man signed his final note to his lady love, 'From Your Valentine,' which is the self same phrase that has lasted through the centuries. The aim of the day is loving intent, not animal passion."

"There's a difference?"

Robert sat back in his chair, "Mickey, you know the difference. Stop playing the dunce."

Mickey shrugged. "I suppose so, but still. What kind of things have you done to celebrate Valentine's Day?"

Robert was thoughtful for a moment and then he shrugged. "I've run the gamut I suppose. I try to take my prompts from the lady herself."

"Once I was with a lovely lady, a psychologist. She was a down to earth sort, and brilliant. I thought that a classic romantic evening would be appreciated by her. It was an evening of black tie and champagne." He smiled wistfully "We went dancing in the moonlight. I even felt the urge to sing to her. " Robert sighed, "It was worth every effort, just to be rewarded with her smile. Yes, for me the memory of that smile, her eyes shinning, the happiness in her face that I knew that I helped place there..." Robert fell silent for a moment, "All worth it."

"Ollie would kick my butt if I ever tried to sing to her." Mickey muttered. "Black tie? Nope. Not her style at all." Mickey suddenly perked up. "I know - classy! I can get us a nice hotel room, one that has a Jacuzzi! Yeah!" Mickey became excited with his idea, "and I can pay for the adult channel."

"Lord no!" Robert admonished.

"Right! You're right," Mickey corrected himself, "I'll take the time to pick out a really hot movie and rent it for the night."

"No, no!" Robert bellowed. He looked around at the - fortunately - empty tables that surrounded them. He cleared his throat. "For God's sake, think of it from the lady's point of view. Women want romance."

"That's my idea of getting down to romance." Mickey answered, "A Jacuzzi would show her I was working hard on the idea of a good time, or working good on the idea of a ..."

"Mickey," Robert interrupted and tried to explain slowly, "it's not what you do - but that you do it from the heart. The lady can then realize that you care about her, and her feelings.

Mickey scratched his head, "I'd try, but the idea of black tie? I don't know."

"You're missing my point. When I was in Angola and Valentine's Day came around, black tie and wine would not have been appropriate. People were dying, life was hard, and supplies were impossible to get. The stench of death and illness permeated everything."

"Angola? We're talking about Lauren?" Mickey asked, "Doctor Demeter?"

"Yes," Robert sighed, "the lovely, dedicated healer. She always said that carbolic soap had become her perfume, since she had to use it to disinfect everything she used, from washing the floors to washing her hands. It was almost impossible to get anything special into our base camp to give her for Valentine's Day. But I did manage, by almost moving heaven and earth, to procure a bar of lilac scented soap. She had often told me that she missed the smell of the lilacs that surrounded her home in Sussex.

"I presented her with a small package that contained one invaluable bar of lilac scented soap on Valentine's Day." Robert looked away, trying not to let Mickey see the emotion that welled up in him. He cleared his throat, "I think that small gesture meant more to her, to us both..."

Robert finally got himself in order and chuckled, "I must admit, both of us were the nicest smelling people in Angola the next day."

"Both?" Mickey asked with a mischievous glint in his eye. "So, according to you, I've been going about Valentine's Day ass backwards!" Mickey suggested.

"A crude way of putting it," Robert said, "but I would agree."

Mickey slumped down in his chair and signaled Jeremy for a refill of his coffee cup. The afternoon felt like it was rushing past and he was supposed to meet Ollie in a few short hours. More than anything he didn't want this Valentine's day to end the way so many others had. It was time to get some real help. He often relied on McCall's ideas, he trusted the man and admired his sense of style. "You know, thinking back, I have had some really bad Valentine's days."

"No! Whatever do you mean?" Robert asked, mocking him.

Mickey ignored the sarcasm. "Well, not counting the years when I was up to my neck in something nasty cooked up by the Company, there haven't been many successful Valentine dates in my life. Apart from Jeannie of course." Mickey smiled at the memory.

"I think you must be exaggerating," Robert said, "I'm trying to remember some of the stories you've shared with me over the years. It can't always have been so bad. I'm sure I only remember one unhappy occasion that you have told me about in the game of love."

Mickey snorted in disbelief, "Game of love? More like open warfare if you ask me. Take last year, I'd been dating Juliet for about four months but with my schedule I'd seen her maybe six or seven times. We'd been out to dinner and then we went back to her place. We were sitting on the couch and things were getting interesting when there was this loud banging on the apartment door. Next thing I know she's throwing my clothes at me and screaming 'My husband! My husband!' Damn, I didn't even know she was married."

Robert casually put his hand over his mouth and tried not to laugh out loud.

"Then she opens the door and lets in this huge, angry gorilla. He wanted to beat the crap outta me so I had to deck him. Then Juliet jumps me and starts hitting and scratching, screeching that I've hurt her Bob. I ask ya McCall, who ever understands women."

Engrossed in his tale of horror, Mickey never noticed that Robert was trying very hard to stifle his laughter. "There must have been a year when things went right?" Robert managed to choke out, finally.

Mickey thought for a moment, "The year I took Shelly to Vermont started out okay. I borrowed a friend's cabin, bought lots of deli, lots of wine. Just the thing for a romantic weekend."

Robert resigned himself to one of Mickey's lurid stories. "Well? You haven't mentioned this before and I get the impression this is going to be another tale of woe. What went wrong this time?"

"It snowed for three days and then it took another three days for anyone to come and dig us out. We ran out of wood, so I had to go out and get some more so we didn't freeze to death. Then Shelly started complaining." His voice went into a high pitched whine, "She was cold, she was hungry." In his normal voice, he said, "I went out and damn near froze my butt off shooting a rabbit and she wanted to hold a funeral service for...' His voice whined again, "The poor bunny!" Mickey shook his head at the memory. "We had to spend most of the rest of the time in bed to keep warm."

"Well then," Robert said, "knowing you and your taste, that wasn't such a disaster."

Mickey scowled at him, "We ran out of any good feelings toward each other when we ran out of something else too." He saw Robert grimace in understanding.

"Come on, you've got to have an idea of what I can do for Ollie that's different. What d'ya need to know about her to get an idea to give me?"

Robert leaned back in his chair, prepared to concentrate, "What does she do? Does she have any hobbies? How did you two meet? That sort of thing."

"Okay... We met a month ago, at the Down State Medical Center - where she works."

Robert looked up alarmed, "You got hurt? Is she a nurse?"

Mickey began to smile, "Nah. It was when I was checking out those autopsy results for that case you were working on - remember? The one where they thought the old lady had been killed for the inheritance money? You thought the medical examiner might have been paid to look the other way and not report the true cause of death."

"Oh yes, I remember now. You broke into the records and copied the original files for me."

Mickey nodded, relaxing back into his chair. "I met Ollie there, she was working late - in the morgue.

It was Robert's turn to lean his head in his hands. "Oh Lord Mickey, how do you find these women?"

"Hey, she's a trained technician, and she's a knockout. Five seven at least, stacked, a body like a brick house. Must be from lifting all those dead weights around all day. Anyway, she's nice too. When I told her why I was there she offered to help me. She doesn't like her boss and when I told her I worked with the Equalizer she was very impressed." Mickey wiggled one brow and smirked at Robert.

Mickey saw Robert's look of resignation as he asked, "Does she have any hobbies? And let me warn you now, if you tell me taxidermy, I am giving up right this minute."

"Taxidermy? Why would you think that? No Ollie likes bikes."

"Ah, an athlete?" Robert relaxed in his chair, a bit, "She must be very fit if she cycles around Manhattan."

"Not that kind of bike. She rides a Harley. She likes messing around with motorcycles."

"Motorcycles and a morgue attendant, why doesn't that surprise me? When you see her, what do you usually do?"

Mickey felt a wicked grin forming, but the warning in McCall's eye stopped him from making the obvious reply.

"We might get something to eat or see a movie then we go back to my place. She's Italian and her parents are kinda protective so she shares a place with her sister."

Robert looked out of patience, "Well, would she like a sweater or something to wear?"

Mickey snorted, "She tends to wear leather a lot because of the bike." He thought for a moment, visualizing something that would make McCall blow his fuse. "Hey! Maybe she would like a pair of thigh length leather boots with stiletto heels?" He tried his hardest to keep a straight face but in the end McCall's look of horror was too much for him and Mickey choked with laughter.

"Only kidding, McCall."

"Thank goodness for that. Well, how about dinner at a good restaurant?" Robert suggested, "Where do you usually go to eat?"

"We've never been anywhere fancy, a couple of decent diners. Ollie isn't very adventurous - with food," Mickey corrected hastily. "A fancy restaurant might be nice for a change." He spoke thoughtfully. "The problem is that all the good places will be booked solid by now."

"I might be able to help. A former client of mine runs a very nice French restaurant called, Le Rivage on 46th Street. He still owes me a favor or two."

"Great... Er ...It will be a good table won't it? Not by the kitchen or the john or anything."

"My dear fellow," Robert answered suavely, "of course not. I'll call him now."

Mickey watched while Robert walked over to the bar. Jeremy handed him the phone and he made a call. Then he dialed another number before returning to the table.

"A table will be ready for eight o'clock tonight and I hope you don't mind, but I took the liberty of talking to a jeweler friend of mine too. He has a very nice gold bracelet you can have if you wish." Robert took his pen from his breast pocket and wrote an address on a page of a small notebook. "This is his address and I'm sure your young lady will like it." Robert seemed to hesitate.

"Something bothering you?"

"Hmm.. it's just that the restaurant is not like your usual eating places, don't forget to remind Ollie - I'm sorry - I can't get used to calling a woman Ollie. Is there any other name you use?"

Mickey's mind went into overdrive - he couldn't tell McCall what he usually called her. "Er... not really.

"Well, don't forget to remind her to dress up - this is a nice place and I wouldn't want her to feel uncomfortable. If she knows you at all, she won't be expecting anything up market."

"Yeah, I'm more of a beer and pizza kinda guy. That's okay, I think she'll like going somewhere classy for a change."

Robert looked down at Mickey's shopping bags, "What did you plan to do with the chocolates?"

The joker in Mickey made him offer, "You can have them for your date if you like." Seeing Robert's look of distaste he added, "I'll guess I'll eat them myself. So, what're you doing this evening? And who's the lucky lady?"

"I happen to be preparing a very nice romantic dinner for two at my apartment. Margarita has told me that she is arranging something very special for our after dinner destination. I'm looking forward to that. I think."

"Margarita? I haven't met her have I?"

"No you haven't. She works in the library and I met her while I was doing some research."

Mickey moved closer to Robert. "I dated a librarian once. Talk about doing the Dewey decimal system..." Mickey began thoughtfully.

"Please, Mickey - spare me." Robert looked at his watch, "I need to get moving, I still have a few errands before tonight." Robert motioned to Pete that he wanted his coat.

"Okay." Mickey got up from the table. "And thanks - I'll be by tomorrow morning with the information I was supposed to get today. I'll let you know how it went."

Feeling happier than he had all day, Mickey left O'Phelan's. He checked the time - he ought to call Ollie and tell her about tonight. And he'd go by that jewelers and collect the gift McCall had arranged for him.

 

 

Olivia del Rosa looked at her reflection in the mirror for the twentieth time. And for the twentieth time she tugged vainly at the hem of the black dress she was wearing. If only Mickey had given her a little more time she would have been able to go out and buy something to wear for tonight. As it was, she had had to borrow this dress from her sister and Ria was shorter by at least three inches.

Realizing she had to make the best of it, she checked her makeup - it had been a while since she had worn that either. She looked in the mirror again, it was no use, she needed a second opinion.

Opening her bedroom door, she walked across the hallway and knocked on the door. Without waiting for an answer she opened it and went in. Her sister was sitting on her bed with her foot propped up in a towel while she painted her toenails.

"Ria. What'd you think?" Ollie turned around, modeling the outfit. Maria del Rosa looked up and then just stared. Ollie shifted uncomfortably. Finally, she couldn't bear the silence and her sister's stare any longer, "What is it? do I have a smudge on my nose or something?" she wailed.

Ria got up and came closer. "Not that I can see."

"So why are you staring at me?"

"You look great. I was just remembering the last time I saw you wearing a dress. It must have been at Nonna del Rosa's funeral."

"I was sixteen when she died - I'm twenty six now. It can't be so long since I wore a dress. Can it?"

"You'd better believe it! So where is Mickey taking you tonight?"

"To some fancy restaurant, in Manhattan."

"Wow - lucky you! I get to go to the club in Jersey with Joey, his brother and his date."

"I don't know if it is lucky - I feel nervous. What if I make an idiot of myself?"

Ollie felt her sister's arm go around her and was comforted both by that and the words that followed, "You won't. Non fare il pirla Ollie, don't be silly. Mickey wouldn't have invited you if he thought you would behave like a klutz."

"You think so?"

"I know so." Ria looked slyly at Ollie, "I take it you won't be coming home later?"

"After I spent so much time getting ready - I hope not! Why do you want to know?"

"Well... if you're not coming home, maybe I can get Joey to stay over."

"Just don't let Mama know." They both said at the same time.

 

 

At nine pm in Robert's apartment, candlelight flickered and soft Brazilian music surrounded the two people in the dining room. Robert watched as Margarita sat back and smiled at him.

"This evening has been perfect, Robert," she said, her voice warm, "How do you know how to prepare Bobó de Camarão?"

He was happy to hear that she was so pleased. "The shrimp was easy enough, but the Yuca Cream was a tad rare here in Midtown." Robert smiled.

"Well," her eyes were shining, reflecting the candle light, "it was delicious and I am flattered that you tried so hard to find a Bahian dish that I never had before."

"Have you ever been to Brazil?" Robert asked as he encompassed her small hand in his.

Margarita laughed, "No, no. Arthur and I barely had enough money to send the kids to college and pay the mortgage. An NYPD sergeant doesn't make that much." She smiled sadly, "And the little that we had managed to tuck away was eaten up when he got sick."

"Perhaps I should take you to Brazil on your next vacation." Robert said softly.

Margarita's eyes got large. "Never! I mean, I'm a good Catholic girl! The scandal of traveling with you to South America would bar me from the ladies auxiliary at my church! And my friends would have a field day tearing me apart - out of jealousy."

"Ah, Margarita," Robert said, "think about it. It would be a wonderful trip. I will even get you your own room, to make your church lady friends feel better. Please think about it." He suddenly, more than anything, wanted to travel to points south alone, with this marvelous woman.

She laughed deep in her throat. "Yes, I can assure you that I will think about traveling with you to exotic places. It'll never happen in real life - but I will dream about it."

As she sat at the table, Robert regarded Margarita's face bathed in the light of the candles. He had been attracted by her smile the first time he had seen it in the library, but now in the soft flattering light, Robert realized that he also adored her laugh lines.

Margarita was easily in her fifties, a small boned woman with short, curly, black hair that was beautifully highlighted with gray. Robert knew she had been married for nearly thirty years to a highly decorated sergeant in the NYPD. That she had managed to keep her family together and thriving when her husband had suffered a series of heart attacks only made him admire her more. Her husband had died three years ago.

Robert had been a regular visitor to her section of the library for weeks and hadn't even noticed Margarita until she put one of the best essays of the cold war in front of him: Horowitz's The Rise and Fall of Project Camelot. She had pointed to the paper, nodded her head and said, "Use this as a source for your article." Then she smiled.

Yes, Robert had become smitten with her laugh lines immediately. He lifted her hand gently to his lips and kissed the back of it. Even though her skin was naturally olive colored, Margarita blushed and looked down in embarrassment.

"Oh, you flatter me."

"Not at all," Robert murmured and turned her hand over. "I adore you." And then he softly kissed her palm.

"Whoa lover!" Margarita slipped her hand away from him, and patted her chest, "Oh, my heart is racing. Please, let me clear the dishes up, and then we will start the second half of tonight. My gift to you."

Robert shook his head. "No, my dear, leave the dishes."

"You know I can't. I have to at least, put them into the sink. You know us librarians, we have to put everything in their proper place or else we feel as if chaos will take over."

She turned her back on Robert and carried most of the dishes away.

Robert sighed and watched her hips sway as she walked into the kitchen. He picked up the wine goblets and followed her to the sink. He put the glasses down and stood behind her as she filled the basin with warm soapy water.

Her head came just up to his shoulder and Robert leaned against Margarita and rested his chin on the top of her softly scented hair.

She leaned back against him and sighed. "This is what I miss most about married life," she murmured.

"This?" Robert squeezed her shoulders.

"Yes," Margarita softly said, "I really miss having a man drape his arm around me as I'm doing my chores or just passing by." She shook her head, "The little touches."

After a moment she took a deep breath, moved away from him and wiped her hands on a dish towel. Then she turned to face him. "And that is something you are very good at. Doing all the little gestures that makes a woman feel..." she looked into his eyes, "special. And I mean that."

Margarita reached up, and placed her small warm hands on either side of his head. She pulled him down toward her and kissed the sides of his jaw and worked her way to his mouth.

When they came up for air, Robert murmured into her ear, "Would you care to stay here tonight?"

"No! No!" Marguerite pulled away, a fiery gleam in her eyes. "Do not try and seduce me sir!" she protested, "I've spent a good deal of time and effort preparing the second part of this Valentine's evening. You won't sweet talk me out of it."

Robert gave in with an exasperated groan, "I wouldn't dream of it."

"Go get your jammies," Margarita said with a lilt to her voice, "I told you to pack an overnight bag. We are going to end up in my house tonight - after my surprise!"

"Are you sure? After all, your family isn't particularly fond of me."

She chuckled, " It's just that since they're all grown up, they worry about me alone in that old house. I think my kids are coming around to liking you."

"I don't think so." Robert said

"I do," she insisted. "They were a little wary about what you do, you know - the guy with the strange newspaper ad, 'Odds Against You?'" Margarita grinned, "They thought that you were trying to use me." She moved back closer to him, and hugged him quickly and laughed, "You gigolo, you!"

"I don't think I'm quite trusted yet," Robert pulled his earlobe in embarrassment. He wasn't sure that he should tell her, "Ricardo did a personal search on me yesterday. I was informed of it by my sources."

Margarita's voice became hard. "Rico did what?"

"I can understand why he did it," Robert hurried to soothe her. "He's a policeman and he can get this kind of information easily. He cares about his mother."

Robert watched a few emotions play over her face and finally she smiled. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that he would look out for me."

Robert went to put his arms around her but she bolted immediately and laughed, "Oh no you don't. Come on, get moving. I've made reservations for us."

"Reservations? But we just ate," Robert protested.

"Not a restaurant. My surprise for you." Margarita picked up the box that held his Valentine's gift to her, and hugged it to her chest. "And later on, when we're alone, I'll put on the beautiful, hand painted, silk robe that you bought me."

He opened the closet, took out his greatcoat and handed her her coat. Robert lifted one eye brow, " Promise?"

Margarita half smiled, half smirked, as she slipped her coat on, "If we both play our cards right You betcha!"

Margarita pulled on Robert's arm as he adjusted his scarf. "Come on! I left my gift to you in the car. Robert, can I drive the Jag tonight? I want our destination to be a secret."

Without a moment's hesitation Robert spoke. "No. I have seen you drive, love, and I would prefer to get to our destination in one piece."

"Grouch." Margarita said, then she smiled. "I had to at least try. Let's go. I'll give you the directions as you drive."

 

 

Telling the cab driver to wait, Mickey sprinted up the steps to the apartment building where Ollie lived. He thumbed the intercom and she answered almost immediately. "I'll be right down, Mickey."

Less than a minute later the outside door opened and Ollie stood in front of him. Mickey was aware that he was staring in stunned surprise and it took a while to see that she was staring at him too. He looked down at the black chino's, dark gray shirt and dark gray jacket he was wearing and realized that Ollie had never seen him dressed in anything but denim before.

He smiled at her, "Wow, you look beautiful," he said, making sure his voice was as deep and seductive as it could get. He held out his arm to her, "Shall we go?"

She relaxed slightly and smiled, "Okay."

The taxi ride to the restaurant took twenty minutes and Mickey spent most of the trip openly ogling Ollie's black nylon, clad legs. He had seen her legs of course, but he had never realized they were quite so shapely. He knew she had seen his fascination - she had smiled to herself. She would probably think of a way to tease him later - he hoped.

The restaurant was everything McCall promised, the service was attentive without being pushy and the food and wine were excellent. Not, Mickey admitted wryly to himself, that he was an expert. He had talked Ollie into sharing some oysters and champagne to start, and the waiter had brought twelve freshly opened shells resting on a bed of ice.

After a little bit of pushing Ollie had eaten with gusto, adding pepper and lemon juice to the shellfish and swallowing them with their salty juices. Mickey was surprised to see they had finished the champagne just as the last oyster was consumed.

The light from the candles on the table reflected in Ollie's deep brown eyes and added red highlights to her raven hair. Slightly flushed from the wine, she looked so beautiful that Mickey was suddenly speechless. She saw him staring and said, "What is it? Have I got something stuck between my teeth?"

Mickey grinned back at her, "No I was just thinking how beautiful you were."

Smiling, Ollie leaned towards him and whispered, "You're so full of shit, Kostmayer." Then she sat up and hooted with laughter. "How am I gonna hold my head up at the next meeting of the Harley owners club - now that I've eaten in such a swanky place!"

Mickey entered into the joke, taking a small gift wrapped box from his pocket he passed it over to her. "You'd better not let them see that either then."

Excitedly, she tore the paper from the box, her mouth opening in a large 'O' but no sound coming when she saw the bracelet inside. Mickey took it from her and fastened it around her wrist. Finally she managed to pronounce a few words. "Oh, it's real gold and everything!"

Mickey felt strangely proud of himself as he noticed that her eyes were sparkling and she seemed happy. All at once, she fumbled in her purse and pulled out a small package. "I got these for you," she said shyly.

Mickey opened the wrapping to find a pair of the softest kid leather gloves he had ever felt. "I know you wear gloves a lot and I thought you would like them. A guy at the club makes them. I had to guess the size so I hope they fit."

Mickey slipped the gloves on and they fit like a second skin. Taking them off he admired them, "They're just right. Thanks."

Ollie was smiling but there were tears in her eyes. "Gee, Mickey. This has been the nicest night I ever..." She sniffed and dabbed her eyes with a napkin, "Oh, my eye makeup must be all over the place," Ollie said, " I'd better hit the can, uh bathroom, and fix it."

When Ollie stood, for some reason Mickey felt that he should too. Ollie noticed the polite gesture and kissed him warmly as she passed.

 

 

A half hour later, driving through unfamiliar territory, Robert was getting annoyed.

"Margarita!" Robert barked in exasperation, as he made yet another left turn, "Do you have the slightest idea where we are, and do you know when or if we will ever get to our destination?"

"Oh, be quiet, Robert. Why don't you just park here until I get my bearings?"

The street they pulled up to was garishly lit with neon lights winking, "Merino's Bowling - Family and Group Rates Our Specialty!" There were people scattered all around the entrance to the alley.

Margarita turned in the seat and lifted a package from the back. She beamed at Robert. "I want you to open your present now."

"What now? In the middle of nowhere?" Robert couldn't help but feel off center. What madness was Margarita thinking of? "What is going on?"

"Robert, you never permit yourself to have fun or loosen up. Open your present." She pushed the gift onto his lap.

He looked at the bright paper covering the box. "I must disagree," he muttered, "I do have 'fun'. Lots of fun, in my own way."

"You have knight-in-shinning-armor fun."

"What?"

She sat back in her seat. "You only permit yourself quiet, dignified fun. I don't know if you got that from your father or from the way you chose to fulfill your profession."

Robert was about to protest but she held her hand up. "Now, now, I'm not saying anything insulting. I am saying that knights-in-shinning-armor sometimes make a point of never leaving the round table to mix it up a little with the common folk."

She patted his arm. "Arthur was like that too. He never wanted to look as if he was anything other than the great and honorable policeman. He loved and respected his badge and the oath he took, to protect and serve."

She began to run her hand up and down his arm, slowly, sensuously. "I care about you, you know. I know what it's like for a man who has taken the path that you have. It's hard on his family, but Robert, I know it's harder on you."

Robert sat quietly, gazing at his date. Margarita had been able to cope with a life of everyday uncertainty and fears for her husband, one of the most active street cops in New York City. He suspected that she was a woman who could understand his life like no other woman he had ever met.

He smiled at her, "You are a wonder, my heart."

"Ohh," she teased. I have a pet name! Just what I like to hear. Okay, open your gift now."

He picked the box up and began to tear the paper off. When he saw what was inside he looked at her in surprise. "Shoes? Not anything at all like I would have expected! " He examined them closely in the light from the street lamps. "Purple and green colored too? Rather different!"

Margarita laughed. "Not just ordinary shoes!" She opened her door, "Bowling shoes! Come on, we're going bowling." She left the car before she could hear Robert's reaction.

Robert sat looking at the shoes. Bowling? Bowling! Was this her special surprise? He opened his door, and got out.

"Bowling?" He shouted over the top of the car, "Surely you are joking Margarita?"

"No." She shook her head.

"Hey Margie!" a woman called out from the entrance of the bowling alley, "We were worried you weren't going to ever get here! Come on."

"That's my friend, Cyn," Margarita said. She turned to the woman and waved, "We're coming!"

Robert noticed a marked change come over the woman at the door when she saw him. She smoothed her black hair and size forty, bright orange bowling shirt and started to glide toward the Jag. When she got to Margarita's side, Cyn asked, her voice deep and sultry, "So, this must be your date?"

Margarita laughed. "Cyn, turn your motor off. If you wiggle your hips anymore, you're going to throw your back out again."

Cyn smiled and shrugged, "Worth trying." She chortled and extended her hand to Robert. "Hi, I'm Cynthia. And you're?"

"Robert McCall," Robert said as he walked around the car and took her hand.

Cyn looked at Robert closely. "You know," she said, her voice once again deep, "Say the word and I'll dump my date and we can go off together."

Margarita laughed, "Your date? You and Jerry have been married for thirty-six years, and have three kids and four grandkids!"

Cyn flashed a huge grin and admitted to Robert, "I know. But, jeeze, all you have to do is say the word and he's history!"

Margarita laughed, "Oh, oh! I think she means it!" Then she took Robert's arm and they all walked to the entrance of the Bowling alley.

 

 

Mickey and Ollie were having a great time talking as the waiter appeared and took away their empty plates and glasses. At the beginning of the meal, Ollie had told Mickey that she wasn't sure what to eat so she had let him order for them both. For the main course he had chosen Canard au Poivre Vert. He seemed to remember he had eaten that once with McCall. He had accepted the sommelier's suggestion of wine to accompany the dish though.

Mickey sat back in his chair and looked around. It was habitual. A face at a table on the left, registered in his subconscious and he stopped and looked back. Across the room a man and woman were having dinner. Mickey looked again - it was him! What the F was Serge Olegsky doing in Manhattan?

Mickey saw that Olegsky had aged in the past two years, his hair was white now and he had put on weight. As always, he was dressed immaculately in a dark, three piece suit.

Mickey's mind raced furiously, he never thought he would see Olegsky again, not after their last meeting in Vienna. It had been two years ago but the memory was as clear as day. Two of his men had been killed and he had been wounded and left for dead by the KGB team led by Olegsky.

The next course arrived. While they ate, Mickey kept his attention split between Ollie and Olegsky. He was afraid Ollie would notice his preoccupation, so he made sure her glass of wine was kept filled. He drank sparingly, he wasn't sure what was going on and he needed a clear head

The chance to act came just has he finished the last mouthful of his main course. Ollie had told him how good the food was, but his mind was elsewhere. Olegsky rose and after a word with his date, an attractive older woman, he made his way to the restrooms. Standing and throwing his napkin on the table Mickey muttered "I'll be right back."

Mickey entered the men's room cautiously. Olegsky was good and if he had spotted Mickey he might well have set a trap for him. The room was brightly lit and Mickey noted that the area by the sinks was empty. There were two occupied stalls, one at either end of the row. Mickey figured that Olegsky's training would have him take the one at the far end. Propping himself up against the wall Mickey waited and sure enough a few moments later Olegsky opened the door.

Just then, the man in the other occupied stall opened the door. Mickey shouted at him, "Get outside now!" as he shoved Olegsky back to the toilet. With a look of horror, the bystander ran from the restroom.

Mickey pinned Olegsky against the wall his arm across the agent's throat, and quickly patted him down. He found nothing, no weapons at all. Carefully, Mickey loosened his grip enough for Olegsky to croak out, "Misha Kostmayer! Fancy meeting you here! You didn't strike me as the type to eat in high class restaurants."

"I didn't expect to find you here either," Mickey growled back, " What happened? Did they run out of food in the KGB dacha?"

"I'm not with the KGB anymore. Didn't Control tell you?"

Mickey slammed him back up against the wall with unnecessary force, "What are you telling me?"

"I've defected, I don't work for KGB any longer." The man's high pitched voice sounded sincere.

"Why should I believe that? The last time we met, I promised I would kill you if I ever saw you again."

"You did, Misha, I remember. But I was working for your government even then. Why else were you left for dead? Who do you think called for backup to get you out of Vienna?"

Mickey sagged back against the other wall, he was suffering from information overload, but he was listening to the older agent. "Explain yourself."

"In Vienna, I had to follow my orders, even though I had been working as a double agent for a number of years. I am sorry your friends died but I could not save them and keep my cover. You know, these things happen. Your wound looked fatal and so I pretended you were dead and when I was clear I sent help to you. When it was known you had survived, I became suspect, so I defected. I have a new name and identity. Why else am I free to walk around this city? Control will verify all that I tell you."

Mickey stood back to let the older man out of the stall, Olegsky walked over to a sink and turned the water on. By the time he had dried his hands there was a nervous fumbling at the restroom door. They both looked in that direction and a waiter peeked in nervously.

Olegsky moved quickly, with both hands he reached to straighten Mickey's collar and then he ran a gentle hand over his hair.

The waiter looked at the two men, shrugged and closed the door again.

"Thanks for nothing - they think I'm gay now." Mickey spluttered.

"So? It was lover's quarrel and now it has been resolved." Olegsky smiled calmly.

"I'm not sure anything has been resolved."

"You are still young." Olegsky sighed, " You will understand one day."

"I will never understand how the end justifies the means." Mickey spoke indignantly.

Olegsky studied him thoughtfully, "Maybe not. I know it is Valentine's Day, and I would guess you are entertaining a special lady. Why don't we declare a truce for tonight? You can check my files with Control tomorrow."

Mickey looked at Olegsky, trying to judge whether he could trust him or not. What he had said did sound right. With a sigh, Mickey nodded. "Okay a truce, I'll check out your story tomorrow."

"Thank you, Misha. Now I think it is past time we returned to our lovely ladies."

"One more thing, Serge."

"Yes?" The other man turned questioningly.

"Don't call me Misha, it gives you away. My name is Mickey."

"Thank you, Mickey." Olegsky said nodding, "I will do that."

When Mickey got back to the table Ollie was looking a little concerned. "Are you all right. Did something happen in the restroom?"

"No, nothing special. I met an old friend."

A waiter arrived at the table then with a silver ice bucket containing a bottle of vintage champagne. Mickey was puzzled, "I didn't order another bottle."

"No sir, the bottle was ordered by the man at the table on the far side of the room." He pointed towards Serge Olegsky. Mickey turned and Olegsky lifted his glass of red wine in a toast.

The sommelier poured the sparkling wine into long fluted glasses, Mickey sipped the champagne; it tasted wonderful! It must be the good stuff.

The waiter was about to leave when Mickey stopped him, "Could you take a couple of glasses to the man who sent the wine and tell him I would like him and his lady to drink with us."

"Of course, sir. No problem."

Mickey watched and waited until the glasses of sparkling wine had been deposited on the other table. Olegsky lifted his glass and saluted Mickey and Ollie. Mickey knew then that a bargain had been sealed and a truce declared.

 

 

In Merino's loud, noisy and laughter filled bowling alley, Robert sat surrounded by Margarita's friends, and he was having a fine time. Because of his skilled hand eye coordination, honed by years of weapons training, he had bowled almost perfect games all night. Jerry, Cyn's husband, had already offered Robert a slot on his own bowling team and had given Robert one of his extra bowling shirts to wear.

So there Robert McCall sat, at a quarter to midnight on Valentine's Day, dressed in green and purple shoes, wearing a bright orange bowling shirt, sipping beer and kicking back with the guys. The bowling ball Margarita had helped him pick out, rested at his side.

"Pray God, no one I know, ever hears about this," Robert said into his cup of beer.

It was Margarita's turn to bowl and she grinned at Robert as she picked up her bowling ball. She had run to the ladies room just as soon as they had entered the alley and had emerged from it moments later attired in loose fitting jeans and a loud orange, satiny bowling shirt of her own. Robert had to admit, even in that getup, Margarita was a very appealing woman.

Suddenly Robert felt a familiar tingling on the back of his neck. It was his sixth sense that always told him when there was something amiss in his vicinity. Although he couldn't understand how there might be danger in a family bowling alley, he had too much respect for his intuition to dismiss it now. His 'gut feelings' had saved him too often for him to not take heed.

Subtly, without making it obvious, Robert scanned the alley.

The crowd had thinned out somewhat, but there were still a good number of people around. He glanced at the concession booth. It was just about to close down and there weren't many people near it, but there was a young man with a long coat standing beside one of the vendors. The young employee of the alley looked pale as the man wearing the long coat spoke to him. Robert looked over at the "Drinks" booth. There was another young man standing there, wearing a similar long coat, and the vendor of that booth also had a frightened, sickly look on his face.

Robert was already on his feet, fingers tightly inside the bowling ball, walking toward the first booth as he muttered, "Bloody hell, a robbery."

Just as one holdup man drew a sawed-off shotgun from the folds of his long coat and turned to point it at the people in the closest lane, Robert came from behind and without a moment's hesitation, smashed his bowling ball against the back of the robber's head.

The criminal fell without making a sound. His partner noticed the fall, and confused, stood still for a moment. Instinctively, Robert aimed and released his bowling ball. It sped across the highly polished floor and knocked the second gunman's feet out from under him.

The robber flew backwards and fell on his behind. He lost hold of his gun, which sailed through the air and landed front of one of the remaining league teams still playing. The team members all looked at the gun.

Robert shouted, in his loudest, most authoritarian voice, "Cover these men, they tried to rob the place. And someone, call the police!"

One by one, the people in the alley crowded around the two felled gunmen, and then sat on them as a group effort.

Robert looked on and smiled at the people of the bowling alley. "Mind you, still let them breath," he admonished them.

Margarita ran up to him and looked at the foiled robbers, looked at the shotgun that Robert had picked up, then looked at Robert, her mouth opened in amazement, her eyes tight with worry. "How did you know...? How did you do this...?"

She closed her mouth, and then hugged Robert hard. "Are you all right?" she asked, her voice muffled by his neck.

"Quite all right love." He pulled her closer into his arms. "Quite all right now, indeed."

 

 

Ollie pushed the glass dish away and sighed happily, "That was the best ice cream I have ever eaten. And for a nice Italian girl, that is saying something." Mickey caught her hand, lifted it to his lips and brushed a gentle kiss across her knuckles. Her cheeks colored at his gesture. "This is the best Valentine's Day date I ever had. Thank you."

"Did you want coffee here or at my place?"

Ollie gazed at him, "Is coffee the only thing on offer?"

Mickey smiled his most seductive smile, "How about we get out of here, find a cab and you can tell me just what else you had in mind?"

Ollie stood in one fluid movement, "You got yourself a deal, Michael Kostmayer." She checked her watch, "There's a few minutes left to Valentine's Day. I suggest we make the most of it."

 

 

February 15th

Christ! Mickey thought, it was almost four o'clock already!

He drove down the street for the third time. There still wasn't anywhere to park. It amazed him that McCall always seemed to manage to get a parking spot right outside his home every time, but it always took him ages to find anything within a three block radius.

Mickey was just considering moving a block further away when he saw a car pulling out of a spot. Luckily it was big enough for him to park the van easily. He wasn't up to any major maneuvering today - there had, after all, been enough maneuvers to carry out a full scale assault last night.

Ollie had been very, very happy with her Valentine surprises and she had thanked him profusely - beginning in the cab on the way back to his apartment. Ask any New York cabbie, and every one of them would tell you that he had seen everything that you could imagine happen in the back of his cab. But Mickey had caught a look of sheer amazement on the driver's face at what Ollie had been attempting.

McCall was right again, women really appreciate romance.

As Mickey parked the van, he remembered that they had gotten back to his apartment some time after midnight. Mickey was sure they hadn't slept until at least three. He sat for a moment and rested his head on the steering wheel. He was exhausted. Ollie had been insatiable and she had nudged him awake at seven with sweet requests and then again at nine. He was sure if she hadn't had to leave to go to work, they would still be in bed now.

Mickey was certain McCall was going to be angry, he had promised to get the information to him this morning. "Oh well," Mickey muttered to himself, "I'd better get the shouting over and done with." He pushed himself out of the van.

The cold, fresh air did a lot to wake him up and by the time he had covered a city block Mickey was feeling better. As his head cleared, it occurred to him that he had turned all his phones off last night. He hadn't wanted anything to spoil his evening with Ollie.

McCall was really going to be angry with him.

 

 

Robert checked his watch. Four o'clock already! He walked faster. He was trying to think of a decent excuse to give Mickey. He was supposed to have met him this morning but he couldn't leave Margarita any earlier than he had. He was feeling quite chipper and though he could only find a parking space three blocks from his apartment, it still couldn't cast a pall on this fine day.

He turned the corner to his building and didn't see Mickey's van parked anywhere. Although that didn't mean much, Robert knew Kostmayer used public transport as much as he used his vehicle. Mickey also liked to walk miles for fun and for a type of meditation. Robert laughed to himself. His friend would never admit to any inner contemplation, but Robert knew that to Mickey, physical exercise equaled a sort of religion.

Robert smiled. He used to be that way himself, years ago. His night with Margarita reminded him that the physical part was as important as the intellectual element of his life. He promised himself to try and remember that bit of wisdom.

He ran up the steps to his apartment, gripping the box that held his wonderfully, tastelessly colored, bowling shoes, and the outrageously loud bowling shirt, that now belonged to him - permanently.

He and most of the people from the bowling alley had spent hours at the precinct house, tying up all the loose ends of the capture of the robbers. Two of the bowling teams had issued official invitations for him to become an honorary member. The people from the alley had been very generous with their thanks.

Unfortunately, Margarita's son Rico had been on duty and he himself had put Robert through some very harsh questioning. Robert chuckled outright with delight as he remembered Margarita's protective stance in front of him as her son tried to yell at Robert for putting his mother in danger.

Margarita was a marvelous woman. She had been protective of him in front of her son, and then later on, when they were alone, she had been the quintessential, physically loving female.

A glorious woman really.

When he finally reached the top floor, he unlocked his door and looked around. Mickey wasn't there. He must have left when Robert hadn't been at home for their meeting. Robert again tried to think of a proper sounding excuse to relate to Mickey for being late. Telling him the truth would simply be too embarrassing. It would seem like bragging, both for the story of the foiling of the robbery and the rest of the night with Margarita.

Robert checked his answering machine. No message from Mickey. Good.

He really had to clean the place up. The last of the dishes were in the sink and the remains of the burned candles looked horribly out of place in the daylight. But first he had to change out of his suit. He was just about to get out of his trousers when the doorbell rang.

 

 

When Mickey reached McCall's, he was surprised that the Jag wasn't out front. Maybe for once McCall hadn't been able to find a parking place so close to home. Great, Mickey thought, as he ran up the three flights of steps, he's gonna be even more upset.

After Mickey pressed the bell, he let his head rest against the wall outside McCall's door while he waited for it to open. He could hear McCall moving about inside and was content to put off the confrontation for as long as possible.

"Just a moment!" he heard through the door.

That was strange, McCall sounded almost flustered. Mickey shrugged and smothered a yawn. Ollie had been very inventive last night, teaching him a thing or two. Mickey remembered he had listened, fascinated, when she had begun to explain something called the dead man position.

It had almost made a dead man of him all right.

After a full minute's wait, the first tendrils of worry began to creep over Mickey, "Hey, McCall - you okay in there?"

What the hell was McCall up to? He had his finger on the bell ready to push, when the door opened and McCall - looking unusually flushed - stood to one side to let him in.

Hey, McCall, why'd ya keep me waiting outside for so long?"

"No reason, Mickey." Robert turned on his heels and went into the kitchen. "I'll make some coffee."

"Good." Mickey sank down onto the couch, it felt good to be still for a moment. He closed his eyes and listened to the sounds McCall was making in the kitchen. It sounded like he was washing a shipload of dishes.

The noise was soothing and he was just dozing off when a mug of coffee clinked onto the glass coffee table.

"Are you all right, Mickey?"

"Yeah, I'm fine - just a little tired, is all."

Suddenly Mickey sat bolt upright, "I just remembered! I saw Serge Olegsky last night at the restaurant."

Robert settled into the side chair. "Yes, I knew he was in New York - didn't I mention it?"

"No, you didn't," Mickey said darkly. "I cornered him in the restroom and nearly killed him. Did you know he had defected?"

"Well... I found out he was a double agent not long after you were shot. I wondered how you had got out alive and I did some digging. He had been working for the Company for at least five years. He gave us some good intelligence."

"You know, McCall, it would have been nice if you had told me about it. I could have taken him off my 'TO DO' list."

"I do apologize." Robert aimed a half smile at him.

Only slightly mollified, Mickey sat back. "Well, Olegsky explained himself before I hit him, so there was no damage done."

McCall sipped his coffee, seemingly preoccupied with his own thoughts. Finally he asked, "How was the food?"

"Great, Ollie really enjoyed herself. We had oysters and champagne and then duck in a fancy sauce. We had a great time. Thanks."

Mickey looked more closely at Robert, there was still something going on he wasn't quite sure about. Robert's eyes were puffier than usual. "How was your evening - you have a good time too?"

Robert shrugged nonchalantly, "It was very nice, very nice indeed."

"So what was her surprise for after dinner?"

"What?" Mickey saw a pained smile play over Robert's face.

"You remember, you told me Margarita was going to surprise you with the evening's entertainment. If it was anything like mine, I'm surprised you're still walking."

When Robert didn't answer at once Mickey looked around. Something had struck him as being out of place when he entered the apartment and he still couldn't work out what it was. Then it hit him. There were glasses and dishes still on the kitchen counter. McCall was neat to the point of obsession, he would never have left unwashed dishes - unless...

Mickey crossed his hands behind his head and lay against the couch back, "So...Just got home then, McCall." He smirked.

"If you must know, yes." Robert muttered, his eyes flashing a warning signal.

"You didn't answer my other question." Mickey was enjoying putting Robert in the hot seat - for a change. "What was the surprise?"

Robert fixed Mickey with an icy stare, "If I tell you and one word gets out, Mickey Kostmayer, I will come after you. You can be sure of that!"

"Yeah, yeah." Mickey agreed easily, he was intrigued. "So tell me already!"

"Bowling."

"Wha? Bowling?" Mickey had a problem putting a picture of the genteel, straitlaced, and rather stuffy Robert McCall together with the idea of bowling. "You went ...bowling?"

"Ten pin bloody bowling - that was the surprise."

Mickey started to laugh. Then he couldn't stop laughing.

Robert tapped his fingers on the arm of the chair. He lifted one eyebrow to Mickey and asked with grim decorum, "Are you satisfied now?"

At that, Mickey laughed even harder, "Satisfied? Believe me, that isn't a question I could ask Ollie. Not safely anyway." After a few moments he finally got himself under control. He cleared his throat, and asked calmly, "So, were you any good?"

Robert looked at him with cold eyes. "I beg your pardon?"

He realized at once that Robert had misunderstood his question. "At bowling! And I thought I had the dirty mind. Sheesh!"

Robert smiled, "As a matter of fact, yes I was. Mind you, there was a bit of a tussle when a couple of lads tried to rob the place."

Startled, Mickey asked, "What happened?"

Robert grinned, "I guess you could say I bowled them over." Robert chuckled at his own joke.

Mickey thought about it, then shrugged, "Right. What else could you have done?"

Robert settled back into his armchair, closed his eyes and smiled. "All things considered, I had a very nice evening."

"Me too," Mickey said, just as his hand fell on the shoe box that had been sitting on the couch. Mickey flipped off the top and got a fast glimpse of the contents. Purple and green shoes? Mickey grimaced. He slid the top back on the box.

I don't think I wanna know. He said to himself, as he began to smile. "Hey, McCall."

Robert didn't bother to open his eyes and his reply was muted, "Yes Mickey."

"Any ideas what I can do for next Valentine's Day? Now that I'm great at it, I have to keep my reputation up."

McCall opened his eyes and the glare he aimed back at him spoke volumes.

Then Robert seemed to ponder the question for a second before he grinned. He groaned as he stretched, "If I ever recover from this Valentine's Day, I - we - shall need to think up something challenging for us both."

Mickey grinned. "At least we have a year to think about it."

Robert sighed, "Thank heavens."

"Romance isn't easy, is it?" Mickey's head dropped in exhaustion onto the back of the couch and he yawned. "But it is worth the effort."

"That it is," McCall agreed. "That it is."

 

 

Back