The store reeked of newness on that early April day. Racks of clothes neatly arranged. The clerks were still smiling. Many checked from time to time for their shiny new name badges, fidgeting, and stalking every customer who walked in the door. I was covered by two women, sure that I one of the few customers with deep pockets. Everyone else had a 20% discount post card clutched in their hands, not me, so I was going to help the store’s bottom line.
An imposing manager stood watch as people left and entered the store, smiling, reaching to help those with their packages, gently taking anyone back to the registers whose purchases did not have the security tags deactivated. A smooth running operation, a new beginning in an old building.
I saw him from a distance. I watched as he searched his pockets for the cigarette pack that was no longer there, a habit borne of decades of addiction. Finding nothing, he adjusted his thick glasses, and turned toward me. It was something he was wearing that gave me the final clue.
“John?” I asked tentatively, walking toward him.
He pushed his thick lenses back up the bridge of his nose, his eyes magnified even more. “I remember you,” he said, listing the places that we’d been together, both in and out of the 'service.'
“How are you?” I asked, patting him on the shoulder.
“Not good, in fact terrible. I’m considering a law suit against…” he lowered his voice and hissed, “them!” His brown stained crooked teeth rattled when he spoke.
“In 2011 I wrote a book, a novel, and passed it through them, like we all have to, and that was OK. Now, decided I’d recount my years there, not a kiss-and-tell mind you, and they took two years to get around to OK-ing it!”
“Long time, even in the worst of cases,” I muttered.
“Damn straight. Fools told me they were swamped but you’ve probably seen that they released a couple of other books in the meantime?” He rattled off three titles recently released. “So, I finally get it back, and some of my old cellmates tell me that the place is out to get me, they want revenge.”
“Lots of changes?”
“Plenty of redactions and plenty of marginal notes too.”
A commotion on the street outside the store started as a pedestrian walked in front of a large bus, nearly getting run over in the process. Horns honked, glances were exchanged, tempers rose. In the end no one was hurt. Washington returned to the normalcy of the total silence, the isolationist phones, the i-Pods, and the head down, don’t bother me life.
I used the distraction to ask a question. “How long were you there? Refresh me.”
“Thirty one years, most of that time in the polygraph program, headed it for ten of those years.” He looked over my shoulder, his large magnified blue eyes dampened with memories of victories in far flung places and defeats at home.
“John, I….” I was searching for something to say. “I find it ironic that they’d see you as a threat, and….”
He thrust his hand into a jacket pocket and with a practiced movement that many agents have, passed a small card to me while speaking and gesturing with his other hand. Classic sleight of hand maneuver, but he was still good. “Check it out, see what I mean.”
John looked nervously over his shoulder, seeing something that I did not. He turned to leave. “Got a card?” he asked.
“No but here’s my email,” I reached for a pen and pad.
“Just tell me and I’ll remember.” He committed my email and my phone number to memory, repeating it back as I’d given it to him.
“You afraid of them?” I asked innocently.
He focused on me, a penetrating stare that had drilled into the consciousness of many new hires and veterans over the years. “No, but they better watch out for me. I’m not done with all this yet.” He made a face, nearly pushing his heavy glasses off his crooked nose. He brushed back his thick gray hair.
John wandered away, stopping to look at various decorations in the store, checking back over his shoulder to see if anyone was there.
To me at least it seemed that the store was chock full of shoppers and clerks, no one else on this overcast cold day. I saw the first signs of rain through the window, the unfurling of umbrellas, the quickening pace of shoppers heading for the garage and uncovered parking. Damn, I should never have had the Mercedes washed and detailed, many were thinking
Maybe it was my imagination but the manager kept looking me and then at John, his gaze friendly, but focused.
John walked out of the store into the diorama, no umbrella, his collar upturned. Heavy rain varnished the streets, cleansing the thoroughfare of lies.