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Friday, February 25, 2011

The Magician's Assistant (TBC)

Gregory spotted the lone woman as soon as he strolled into the club. She was sitting by herself at a table near the door, sipping on a glass of sherry and reading newspapers. She could hardly be called beautiful, with an oblong, narrow face, a sharp nose, and a long, thin neck. Yet her luscious chestnut hair, piled on her head like a crown, gave her a certain sensuality in the dim light of the shabby place.

As small and shabby as "The Bush Club" is, it is the best and only club for the few Englishmen unfortunate enough to end up in this god-forsaken land of dust and cows, and nothing else.

A native in waiter's uniform came up to Gregory. "Whiskey with lots of ice," he said, wiping the sweat on his face with a handkerchief. The nightfall barely diminished the brutal heat that seemed to penetrate every hidden corner of this country. He approached the woman's table. "May I sit down, Madam?" He bowed slightly and turned on his smile. "All the other tables have been taken."

She looked up and around the nearly empty room and smiled back, "Of course. Please do." Gregory saw that she had olive-colored skin and a hint of foreign accent in her voice.

The waiter brought him the drink before he sat down. He took a self-conscious sip and sighed, leaning back in his rickety chair. "I don't remember seeing you around here, and, trust me, I know every white person within a hundred miles."

"Ah, but I all about know you, Mr. Best, the writer, the journalist, the chronicler of the peaceful transition of a colony. I have read many of your articles in the Times," she said. There was a twinkle in her eyes that, Gregory decided, was admiration rather than irony. He also noticed randomly scattered green specks in her brown iris.

He took another sip at the whiskey with obligatory modesty. "You're too kind." He put the glass down on the little wooden table with peeling paint, then remembered that his own question had been evaded. "You look a bit familiar, but I can't quite place it ..."

"That should be my line, shouldn't it?" She tilted her head slightly to one side. "After all, you are the celebrity. Nevertheless, let me introduce myself. I'm Mrs. Moretti." She extended her hand.

Gregory took and held it for a smidge longer than was necessary. "Is Mr. Moretti here as well?" He asked.

"Mr. Moretti is probably still on his coffee farm in Rhodesia, unless he went back to the Riviera," she waved a hand dismissively. "Do you mind if I smoke?" Before he could answer, she took out a cigarette and began fishing for a lighter in her purse.

"Allow me," Gregory hurried to take out his own gold lighter from the inside pocket of his jacket and moved closer.

Raising his head in the mist of her first quick puffs, he was captured by her eyes, gazing at him directly and intently. A flutter passed from his chest to the tips of his fingers as she put her right hand over his and brushed it lightly. Before he knew it, his lighter disappeared from his own grip and re-appeared in her left hand. She rolled it around among her long and delicate fingers and observed it with interest. The polished surface of the lighter reflected the dim light in the room, sparkling almost like a jewel.

"How did you do that? I didn't even feel you taking it." Gregory marveled. "You have such quick and soft fingers."

"I'm not a professional thief, if that's what you think," Mrs. Moretti chuckled. "Once upon a time I spent a few months with a magician and played his assistant on stage."

"Oh, where was that?" He asked.

"England," she took another draw on the cigarette and blew it out. "Before the war."

"Are you English?"

She thought about it for a moment. "Hmm, a little bit. I was born in the West Indies."

Curiouser and curiouser. Gregory downed his drink and waved at the waiter for another one. She ordered a gin and tonic.

"What is a fascinating woman doing at the forgotten edge of the world?" Gregory pondered. "There is nothing but dead grass and unbearable heat."

"What is a famous English writer doing here?" She responded with a question. "Merely to witness your Empire handing its power to the native chiefs? Such events are hardly news any more."

Gregory shrugged. His eyes drifted to the left and fell on a photograph hanging on the wall. He replied absently, "It's a job, I suppose. But I'm so sick and tired of this dreary little country that I don't think I'll have the patience to hang around for another couple of months. Actually, I've arranged to leave for Nairobi tomorrow."

"Understandable," she said. "The Empire herself couldn't wait to get rid of this useless little patch of land. Colonialism is such a losing business nowadays."

Gregory searched his mind for a new topic to change to. He glanced at her and saw that her eyes were still fixed on him intently. Perhaps this would not need to be a one-night stand.

"So, you have not talked yourself at all," he noted. "What has brought such a refined lady to this useless little place?"

"Friendship," she answered vaguely. "A friend of mine is moving down here soon and asked me to scout around, maybe buy a house for her."


(TBC)

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