THE FOE OF A FRIEND
Chapter 2 Just The One Suitcase
The telephone on the writing bureau by the window rang twice. Two long rings.
"Excuse me, Mac," Sir George said as he got up from his chair and went to the bureau. He picked up the 'phone. There was a short pause and then he said "No, Peter, I'll take it in here; hold on," he looked around at McGill, "do you want Peter to get your luggage for you?"
"No thanks. I can manage it."
"I see," Sir George grinned at McGill, "still just the one suitcase, eh?"
"That's right, and as it contains all my worldly goods, I'm rather fond of it. So I'll take care of it, if it's all the same to you."
"Well, now would be a good time to take care of it, please Mac."
McGill got up from his chair and walked leisurely out of the room leaving Sir George to take his call in private.
Outside, the day continued to sulk in a sultry heat. McGill went to his little car. He opened the boot, which was at the front, or where the engine would be on any normal car (a little quirk of the Hillman Imp that appealed to McGill). He reached in and took out his battered old leather suitcase, a piece of home in an otherwise strange place; comforting somehow, saying as he did so "hello old friend" His original intention had been to go up to his room, wherever that may be, but, on impulse, he made his way to the stable yard instead.
The place was quiet now without the noisy Pony Club members. Only one horse was in the yard, tied by a loose rope to a large ring beside one of the loose-box doors. On the far side of the horse, McGill saw a pair of Jodhpur clad legs (that he recognised and rather liked the shape of) beneath the belly of the horse, and some tousled brunette hair just proud of its back. McGill walked up quietly to the side of the horse and put his suitcase down gently.
Beth was engrossed in brushing the mare vigorously, the brush making a "shush" noise as she used it, each pass raising a seemingly endless cloud of dust from the not quite Palomino coloured coat of the horse. She only became aware of McGill's presence when she bent down to brush the underbelly of the animal. Then she saw the well-polished Texan boots. The large feet inside them supported the long, brown corduroy clad legs of McGill, and, next to them, a large Texan hand hovered above the well-worn handle of a battered brown suitcase placed on the ground.
"Hello again," she said to the legs before she straightened up to stand on tiptoe, the better to peer at McGill over the back of the horse.
"Beautiful animal," McGill said, stroking its back, although he knew little about horses.
"Do you ride?"
"Only if I have to," he grinned.
"That could be a problem," Beth said.
"Not for me it won't be," McGill made his point succinctly.
"Just "McGill" Beth, please."
"Alright, "just McGill," I spend most of my time riding. How can you watch out for me if you don't come with me?"
"Well now, let's see. How about you stay close to me instead of me staying close to you?"
"If it means not riding, the answer is "no"."
"Ah, I thought you might say that! By the way, where is Gordon?"
"He's gone home."
"Right, Beth, from now until this thing is over, there are going to have to be some changes around here, and one of those changes is that you are never to be out here by yourself. Starting here; starting now!"
"But I never am!"
"Oh really?" McGill glanced around. "Well I don't see anyone here 'cept us chickens."
"Foskett, the groom, is around," she glanced about her. "Somewhere."
"Somewhere, nowhere, same difference," McGill said firmly. "Your father asked me down here to look after you, and look after you I will, whatever it takes. You can do as you are told and we'll get along just fine, or you can be difficult about it and then I'll make life hell for you. Your call." Now his cards were on the table, McGill reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a packet of cigarettes. Before he could get it open, Beth said
"No smoking in the stable yard. MY rules! One spark from a careless match can set light to the whole lot!"
"O.K, I'll let you have that one!" He put the packet away.
Beth sighed and leaned on the horse.
"Do you really think this man is as dangerous as Dad says?"
"I don't know because I don't know the man in question. Your Dad thinks so, and that's good enough for me."
"Besides, you are being paid," she said wryly.
"Yeah, but I am fussy about the jobs I take."
"Oh? I'm flattered then, that you think me worthy of your protection!"
"Did I say that? I said I respect your father's judgement."
"Honestly, McGill, you certainly know how to insult a girl!"
"Yep, I surely do!"
Beth lightly tossed the brush into a black plastic bucket by the loose-box door where it landed softly amongst other brushes and cloths. Her nonchalant aim was perfect, and McGill was impressed.
"Well done," he said, with a small, admiring, inclination of his head.
"Practice makes perfect," Beth said. She reached under the nose of the horse to untie the rope from the ring in the wall. "Mind out."
McGill picked up his suitcase and deftly moved out of the way to avoid the back end of the horse, which was coming his way as the front end followed Beth's lead towards the paddock nearest to the yard. McGill walked beside them. In a few steps, they were at the paddock gate. McGill unlatched it as Beth unclasped the halter rope. McGill gave the gate a hefty push and it swung inwards, giving the horse ample time to walk in after Beth had given it a slight tap on the rump by way of encouragement. The horse was halfway across the field by the time the gate swung back and caught securely on the latch. Beth leaned her arms across the top rail and rested her chin on them with one leg resting on the lower rail, McGill merely leaned his large frame against the rails. They watched in silence as the horse found a patch of mud at the far end of the field, near a couple of her stable companions, gently let herself down into it , and rolled about happily, undoing all of Beth's work.
"I don't know why I bother. They do it every time."
"Sort of "anything you can do, I can do better"?" McGill said.
"Something like that," Beth turned her head to look at McGill. "McGill is too long; you don't like"Gilly". Can I call you Mac, like Dad does?"
McGill playfully touched the tip of her nose with his fingertip; a touch that she found surprisingly gentle from such a large man.
"You can call me anything you like, so long as it's polite," he said. "Mac" will do fine."
"Mac it is then," she left the rail and returned to the bucket by the loose box. "I'm going to tidy things away and then I will come in. Why don't you go to the house and get Peter to take you to your room?"
"I said I'm not leaving you alone, not for one minute."
Beth looked towards the paddock where McGill first saw her. He followed her gaze and saw a short man carrying a bucket and spade. The man's legs were so bowed McGill could plainly see through them.
"That's Foskett," she said.
"Yeah well I can see how he can stop a cannonball in its tracks," McGill observed, noting the bandy legs.
"Don't be unkind!" Beth chided him.
"I'm not; I'm just stating a fact. You're going to take more looking after than he can manage, that's all."
Exasperated by McGill's nannying behaviour, Beth sighed heavily.
"Look, there's a telephone in the tack room, alright? If the Earth should fall to bits I am sure one of us will be able to phone the house and let you know what has happened. Besides, I am capable of looking after myself, you know, whatever Dad thinks. Now run along and find Peter to show you to your room, there's a good chap."
At that moment, she sounded just like her father. McGill tried, fairly successfully, to stifle a laugh at her indignation, but McGill couldn't resist a parting shot as he moved away towards the house.
"Of course you can. I was forgetting, you're a pint sized version of your father, but without his grace or manners!" He turned his back on her just as she picked up a Dandy brush and threw it at him in retaliation. He felt a slight rush of air as it flew past his ear over his shoulder and landed in the dust at his feet. "Wow," he muttered to himself, "she is good!"
Beth saw the brush fly past McGill's ear and heard it land, but McGill walked on without breaking stride.
"Damn!" she said under her breath, even more angry than when she threw it, not because she had missed her target, which she had intended to do (the wooden top on a Dandy brush could hurt like hell when thrown, as she knew well enough from experience), but more because he had taken no notice. As she watched McGill's broad back retreat into the near distance, she realised he was going to be a hard nut to crack. She took a couple of paces forward and bent to pick up the brush. She vigorously dusted off the bristles, but it did little to quench her temper. She saw McGill go through the gate to the drive and then she turned, only to see Foskett more than halfway to the stable. She knew that if Foskett saw her in one of her "paddies", as he called her temper tantrums, it would be all around the local pub by closing time. She could handle teasing from friendly locals, but it would soon reach her father's ears and lead to another lecture on behaviour, probably at breakfast in front of McGill and that would add insult to injury. She was tired of being lectured, and she certainly didn't want to give McGill any excuse to keep her under lock and key, away from her precious horses and riding ambitions; for there was no doubt in her mind that McGill had been given carte blanche by her father to be as bloody minded as necessary, otherwise he wouldn't be here; her father would have just beefed up security measures. She was beginning to feel like a prisoner already. Still red hot and angry, she ran into the tack room. She filled the kettle at the small sink there and warmed some water. When Foskett arrived he saw her head bowed over a saddle as she tore into it, scrubbing, not rubbing, in the saddle soap.
"You could have left that for me, Miss," he said to her hair, as she hadn't lifted her head when he came in. He knew why.
"It's alright, Foss, I'll finish up here, you get off home and have your dinner."
"Right you are, Miss," he didn't argue, and she didn't hear him chuckling as he walked off. Her paddy was going to be all around the pub by closing time.
McGill soon reached the house. He tried the front door, which was locked, so rang the bell. Peter was swift to answer the summons.
The hallway was cool after the heat outside thanks to the tiled floor and the cathedral like spaciousness. McGill looked upwards. The first floor was on a balustered balcony with rooms leading off, so he was staring at the ceiling. It was surprisingly plain for a country mansion, but an oval window in the roof allowed plenty of light into the interior, even on such a grey day as this.
McGill glanced into the living room to see if Sir George was there. He wasn't, so he followed Peter's lead up the central staircase and around to the left. Peter was holding the door open for him.
"This is your room, sir," Peter followed Mac in and walked across to another door by the side of the bed. "This is the bathroom, which you share with Miss Lewis, and her bedroom is through the opposite door."
"Great," Mac said, "just how I told George I wanted it."
"Yes, Sir George said you would need to be close to Miss Lewis' room. If everything is in order, I'll leave you for now, sir. Dinner is at 7.30. Informal dress."
"I have to wear a dress?" McGill grinned at Peter.
"If you insist, sir," Peter was quick to see the joke.
Mac noticed the bell pull by the side of the bed.
"Does that thing work?" he asked, pointing at it.
"Indeed it does sir", Peter answered, "but not too often I hope."
"Well I'll be darned!"
"Will that be all, sir?"
"Yes, thanks, Peter."
Peter left the room, closing the door behind him.
McGill sat on the edge of the bed, his suitcase at his feet, and tried to take in his surroundings. This was different from what he was used to, alright; thick pile carpet beneath his feet; heavy, embroidered curtains at the windows to match the bedspread and wallpaper (and bell pull, of course!) and the furniture, probably antique, he thought (though he was no expert) but immaculate, none the less. It was a long way from his usual accommodation, and a lifetime away from his Texan upbringing, though his family were far from poverty-stricken. Nevertheless, he thought he could get used to this lifestyle, or at least make himself comfortable for the time being, assuming Beth did as she was told, and he wasn't forced to drag her back to London to keep her under house arrest at his flat.
Thinking of his London flat made him realise the biggest difference between here and the place he called home. The silence. Wherever he moved to (and he moved a lot), it was usually beside a main road. Such places were cheaper and all he could afford. The lack of rent was meant to compensate for the dubious privilege of living with the constant roar of traffic noise outside the window.
Musings over, he felt orientated at last, so he, took hold of his beloved suitcase and pulled it up on the bed beside him. It wasn't locked, so he opened it and revealed the familiar contents. Packed neatly inside was a change of clothes, and his nightclothes; his gun, spare ammunition clips, passport, and a few important documents, plus two reminders of his old life – the newspaper cutting of a confirmed sighting of his supposedly dead senior officer, and who's legacy to McGill was to have him kicked out of American intelligence for treason, and, just for laughs, the most recent statement of accounts for his C.I.A pension, which he would be entitled to when he reached retirement age at 65 – if he lived that long, and which he thought he wouldn't get. The first was unofficial confirmation that the C.I. A were never going to admit they were wrong to charge him with treason; the second was official confirmation that they already had and all was forgiven, but it was the first which kept rearing it's ugly head and which the C.I.A were keen to promote, and caused McGill unending problems, including leaving him open to blackmail. However, McGill ignored those items and took out only that which he originally intended – his wash bag. He got up from the oh so comfortable bed and went through to the bathroom that he would share with Beth.
It was a long, narrow room with a large window at the far end. Originally the room had been a dressing room and the window plain glass, but, with the advent of indoor plumbing at the turn of the century, it was fully converted to a bathroom and toilet, and the plain glass taken out in favour of frosted glass to spare the blushes of the occupants, notwithstanding the fact that there were no nearby dwellings to overlook the house.
McGill noted with amusement that the enamel bath was huge and supported by four large claw feet. The toilet and washbasin were of similar sturdy build. He was relieved to see that there was no evidence of the original hot water system, which was rumoured to explode when unsuspecting bathers were least expecting it! Apart from this one nod to modernity and safety, everything seemed original, but well kept.
He put his wash bag on the glass shelf above the washbasin and noted that the shelf was surprisingly uncluttered, considering that he was sharing a bathroom with a teenage girl. Apart from a box of pine scented bath salts of a well known brand, said,( by the manufacturers),to relax tired muscles, there was nothing to suggest whether the person he shared this room with was male or female; young or old. The soap dish contained a bar of basic soap; in one of the two tooth glasses was a toothbrush and tube of toothpaste of a common kind. Where were the half-used bottles of this and that, as Beth experimented with different smells and textures, which is what he would have expected of a teenage girl? Studying bathroom accessories was like studying bookcases. It was a discreet way of finding out about a person quickly, a way of getting inside a person too, of finding out what made them tick. Unlike people, objects couldn't lie. People may try to cover their tracks with trails of red herrings, but mink coats in a cheap flat told the true story. And the true story about Beth was that she was singled minded to an obsessive degree. With this brief insight into her character, McGill could well see why Sir George had been worried about her. She was so blinkered to the world out side of her horses that she would make an easy target. As he had proved by the way he had managed to get close to her when she was grooming the horse; and then he hadn't really been trying to hide his presence.
He went back to his room with a view to unpacking his suitcase, a rare pleasure since his jobs didn't usually last long enough to make such a small task worth the effort. This job, though, had all the hallmarks of running for a while yet. As he rounded the end of the bed, however, his focus changed. The bedroom window was opposite him at this point and gave a clear view over the stable yard to the fields and countryside beyond. Something in that view caught his eye and, forgetting his suitcase, he ran to the window to look out and confirm what he saw. And confirm he did. In an instant his mood changed from mellow to mean. His face followed his mood and he began to breathe harshly. His fist thumped the window frame with enough force to rattle the whole structure and evict a colony of woodlice. By then the object of his attention had disappeared from his line of sight. With a final thump against the frame, he turned back into the room. He dearly wanted to hit something, or, preferably, someone, to release his pent up anger, but the object of his anger wasn't around and he daren't thump the furniture in case he broke something he couldn't afford to replace, so he paced the room instead, like a wild animal pacing it's cage. Finally he opened the window and bellowed at the object of his anger .
"Beth! Get in here! NOW!" Beth hove into view and blew him a kiss, but made no move towards coming in. Right, he thought, turning away from the window, if that's the way you want it…
His quick temper didn't have a quick release mechanism, but soon he had calmed down enough to sit on the foot of his bed and think about how best to handle the situation. He checked his watch. 6pm. Dinner was at 7.30. He looked at his suitcase and made up his mind. Confrontation could wait, as could unpacking his suitcase. He got up from the bed, took the towels which had been placed on top of the tallboy at the side of the room behind the door and stepped towards the bathroom door. He just reached the doorway when he heard footsteps padding by outside his bedroom door, accompanied by tuneless humming of the female type. It could only be Beth, probably coming for a pre-dinner wash or bath too. In an instant, he changed his mind and decided it would suit his purposes better if he let her go first, so he reached for the bathroom door handle and closed the door gently so as not to make a noise. He didn't want to face Beth just yet. McGill dropped the towels and himself back on the bed. Through the wall behind his head came the unmistakable sound of a bath filling with water. From the gap under the bathroom door came the unmistakable smell of pine.
It seemed a mere five minutes or so before he heard movements from the bathroom that told him Beth was out. In fact, it was nearer half an hour, during which time he dozed. McGill was not normally given to dozing off at odd moments of relaxation, because he so rarely felt safe enough to relax completely. Here though, it was different. After only a few hours he felt completely at home, a feeling he thought he had left behind when he left America. Another man might have stopped to analyse this feeling but McGill knew that this job would soon end and he would be back out in the cold world again, hoping that the next job would come along before the rent was due. So he didn't worry about why he felt so at home, he just luxuriated in the feeling.
Feeling at home was one thing, but he still had a job to do and that "job" was out of the bath and in her bedroom. McGill decided that it was time he made his presence felt again. He got up from the bed and made his way across the bedroom and bathroom to Beth's door, which was slightly ajar. Without knocking, (another habit of his which had stood him in good stead many times), he pushed the door wide open. Beth, her hair and torso wrapped in towels, was stretched out on her stomach on the bed, reading a magazine. She looked up and saw McGill framed in the doorway.
"I didn't hear you knock," she said, an angry edge to her voice.
"That's because I didn't," he said, matter of factly, and started to walk towards the bed.
"I didn't say you could come into my bedroom, did I?"
"Nope," McGill reached the bed and sat down beside her, "but then I didn't ask."
"Well you should!"
"What's the point when I'm coming in anyway?"
"I know you are meant to be my bodyguard, but there is a limit!"
"No there's not," he said, evenly.
"Go away," she ordered him limply. McGill ignored her, as she knew he would. She returned to reading her magazine and tried to ignore him in her turn.
McGill looked her up and down as she lay face down on the bed. Her hair was wrapped, turban style, in a towel and a large towel covered her torso from below the shoulder blade to the top of her thighs. Although McGill had not met her mother, it was clear from where he was that she had inherited her father's physique. Like him, she was short and squat with shoulders as wide as her hips. There might not be much of her, but what was there was all muscle. Not an ounce of spare flesh could he see.
She turned the page of the magazine and the slight draught it made wafted the discreet smell of baby talc towards McGill. It made him feel wistful for a fleeting moment, and he realised that it had been a long time since he had allowed himself the luxury of letting a woman become more than a friend. He had a sudden, strong, urge to run a finger gently down the hollow of her spine, just to remind himself of the feel of soft, smooth, female skin, but he resisted, as he usually did, his CIA training kicking in to distance himself from the job in hand. Inwardly he cursed the profession he had chosen that kept him separate from the softer, gentler things life had to offer. He suppressed a sigh of longing and turned his attention instead to her magazine. He saw a page full of titles and dates.
"A little light reading?" he asked. Beth didn't speak, but with him practically breathing down her neck she couldn't ignore him entirely so, using her thumb as a bookmark, she closed the magazine so that McGill could see the cover. The title "Horse and Show" stood out white against a black background, below it was a beautifully photographed horse and rider clearing a fence at a country showground, so full of colour and life they could have leapt off the page.
"Let me guess," McGill said, pretending to think deeply about the significance of the magazine, although Beth was so single minded he guessed right away what she was looking at. "You wouldn't be thinking about entering any horse shows, by any chance?"
"You aren't as thick as you look," Beth said in genuine admiration.
"Thank you, but flattery will get you nowhere, young lady."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, don't make any plans until I'm gone," McGill said as he got up from the bed and walked towards the door where he stopped and looked back at her. " You and I are going to have to have a serious talk after dinner tonight."
"Well I hope it will be quick. I'm going out."
"No you're not."
"Oh come off it, Mac! You can't stop me meeting up with my friends, surely?"
"Honey you just don't get it, do you? I can do whatever I want where your safety is concerned. Now I saw you coming back from the stables, alone, after I told you not to be on your own for a minute, so you and I are going to have to get a few things straight before we go any further. If that means you have to stay in tonight, that is just what you will do." With that, he went into the bathroom, closing the door behind him. A few moments later, Beth heard the bath filling. Tears of frustration began to well up in her eyes and she thumped the bed in impotent anger. She would have preferred to be thumping McGill.
McGill sat on the edge of the bath as it filled with water. He sighed heavily in exasperation at Beth's pig headedness and shook his head. He didn't know whether to laugh or cry, so he picked up the packet of bath salts instead. He read the promises on the box without much enthusiasm but decided that it couldn't hurt to try them, so he tipped up the packet and poured a liberal amount of the green powder into the steam, watching it forming itself into a soggy green pyramid as it went through the water and settled on the bottom of the bath tub.
In her bedroom, Beth caught the whiff of the pine bath salts from the gap beneath the bathroom door.
"He's using my bath salts! Bloody cheek!" she said through what remained of her tears.
By the time Beth heard the bath emptying and knew that McGill was done, she was fully clothed. Now it was her turn to bound into his room without knocking. She nearly caught him with his towel down. Luckily, McGill's reflexes were lightning quick and he managed to hastily re-fasten the towel around his waist without giving away too many secrets, although with Beth being so single minded she probably wouldn't have noticed unless he were a horse. He rounded on her.
"Didn't they teach you to knock at that fancy school of yours?"
"It's a bad habit I picked up from you," she countered at once.
McGill had to smile at that, but not to her face. Beth moved around him towards the far side of the bed. McGill saw that her dress sense was sorely limited and did her no favours. She had exchanged the blouse and jodhpurs for a clean blouse and loose fitting jeans. She was also barefoot.
"So we don't dress for dinner here?" McGill said as sarcastically as he could. The sarcasm washed over Beth.
"Nope," she said, plonking herself down on the bed beside his suitcase, which bounced slightly. She noticed.
"Wow, you don't carry much do you?" She said as, rudely, she started to open the lid. Suddenly McGill was there with his hand firmly on the lid to keep it closed.
"No, I don't," he said, giving her a no nonsense stare. "I travel a lot and I like to travel light. Not that it's any business of yours."
"Just making polite conversation," she shrugged her shoulders.
"Well go and make it somewhere else. I want to get dressed."
"Oh don't mind me. I promise not to look."
McGill thought about saying something about privacy, but decided not to bother. It would only bring a smart remark from her. He sat down on the bottom of the bed and proceeded to get dressed in the clothes he had arrived in, socks first.
His back was towards Beth, as was hers to him, but even had she been facing him, the sight of his muscular back and upper torso would have had no effect on her whatsoever. She was young and in love – with her horses.
From the corner of her eyes she saw McGill pull his clothes off the bed item by item.
"Those are the clothes you came in!" she said, surprised.
"Well, you said you don't dress for dinner!"
"Only on special occasions…..you do own a dinner suit, don't you?
"A "tux"? No, can't say I do!"
"Oh! I expect we will have to get you one, then. Riding clothes?"
"Noooo. Besides, I said before, no riding!"
"Is that because you don't ride?"
"I used to, when I was a boy in Texas, but I don't think it's what you would call riding over here."
"It's not that much different…"
McGill was now fully dressed.
"You don't give up easily, do you?"
"I get that from Dad."
"You do surprise me! Well, that kind of gives us another problem."
"Neither do I! You just don't get it, do you? I'm here to keep you safe, and I'm going to do that, whatever it takes!".