“Good afternoon, pretty lady,” Basaam greets Helena as she walks into his small café.
“Good afternoon, kind sir,” she returns a greeting and takes in the scent of freshly brewed Arab coffee, strong and sweet and dripping with cloves and cardamom.
He smiles generously. “I have your tea ready for you,” his Middle Eastern accent strengthens when he is busy with the stoves behind him, where Helena’s blend ready to be consumed.
“Am I truly that predictable, Basaam?” she runs her hand through her hair and smiles at the older, stout man as he turns back around to acknowledge her question. “Surely a lady is ought to retain an air of mystery,” she cocks an eyebrow and a sly smile as she hands him a beaten metallic tube.
“You are plenty mysterious, Ms. Wells,” he chuckles as he fills her thermos and places it on the counter, “don’t worry, your secret blend of tea is safe with me.”
“You are gallant as you are kind,” she beams. “Three fifty?”
“Two dollars,” he corrects her.
Helena places three dollar bills and two quarters neatly on the glass counter and takes her tea.
He watches her slip the receptacle carefully into her shoulder bag while taking two dollars from the money Helena placed on the counter. He leaves the rest, even though he knows she won’t take it back.
“Why do you insist to pay more every day?” there is a hint of insult in his voice. The fact she never listens to him obviously offends him, especially as he likes her. She indulges him with polite conversation when she turns up; and she has done so every day – without fail – for the past five weeks.
And every time she leaves him an extra buck fifty.
She places both her hands on the counter and leans forward. She gives him a slight nudge with her head, beckoning him to come closer.
Basaam takes this for the request it is, leans in and turns his head to the left, giving her his better ear.
“I insist on paying what I believe a good commodity is worth,” she whispers, “irrespective of the arbitrary rules of supply and demand, or the more arbitrary high-street prices set by large corporations,” she points to the window behind her, the view from which is dominated by a street-corner Starbucks. “Good quality tea is so hard to come by, even in the city that never sleeps,” she smiles gently at him, “and your tea is the best I have had in a long, long time.”
He dips his head in gratitude for the compliment. He knows this woman tells him the truth. He knows because it is evident in her brown eyes and easy smile. He knows he needs to accept her gratitude. That’s how his mother raised him.
What Basaam doesn’t know is that when Helena Wells says she hasn’t had such great tea in a long time, she means a very long time. One hundred and twenty nine years, to be exact. Helena hasn’t had a blend this scintillating, a splendidly balanced mix of spice, heat and comfort, brewed to perfection since 1887, when she was invited to the annual Aristocracy Ball at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton.
“Wait here,” his eyes glint with an idea and he rushes to the back of the house. He comes back a minute later with a paper bag, roughly the size of a box of tissues. “Will you please accept this?” he presents her with it.
Helena G. Wells exhales and relaxes her stance. She doesn’t want to take from him. She had no intention of gaining anything from overpaying for his superb tea. But Helena G. Wells was raised to be gracious as much as she was raised to be compassionate, so she places her palm under the bag.
“You do realise this may be construed as misinterpreting my intentions,” more than anything, however, Helena G. Wells is a woman of principle, breeding and education be damned.
“Do an old man a favour?” he flashes the smile of a fox, “it’s only dried mint and camomile.”
She grins in return and accepts the tribute with a slight bow of her head. “You are too kind, Basaam,” she whispers after placing his gift in her bag.
“Takes one to know one,” he lilts and turns around to take a pot of coffee off of the hob. “I’ll see you tomorrow!” he waves her off and she walks out into the cold street.
She turns south on Washington Ave., heading towards Crown Heights, towards Prospect Park, where she could have her morning walk and a cup of Basaam’s tea before heading into Brooklyn’s Public Library for a day of reading and research.
The sun is just climbing above eastern Brooklyn, burning crisp and white, with no clouds of pollution to make its entrance dramatic. The skies are a bright blue of late fall, so late, in fact, it is overstaying its welcome. Winter should be upon these parts, she hears almost every day, amongst apocalyptic warning of the coldest winter.
Helena thinks it’s beautiful that brown and yellow leaves still decorate the trees, even though it is early December, and – frankly – is not sure how she would cope as and when an Atlantic winter finally breaks over the city.
She breathes in the air – she is used to its scent and flavour now – the air of a large city, a city that – indeed – never sleeps.
New York had fascinated so many people of art and science, Helena simply had to experience it for herself.
So for now, she’s an Englishwoman in New York.
Or Brooklyn, rather.
Apparently, she reminds herself, it’s important to make that distinction.
~ ~ ~
Myka sits in her rental car and contemplates whether she wants to take her thick, woolly hat off. It’s too damn warm to wear it, but she keeps it on as part of remaining unnoticed. Her curls are distinguishing feature, and when she’s running surveillance, “distinguishing” is counterproductive.
Her mark turns the corner right on time, crossing the street to the central avenue.
Myka narrows her eyes behind sunglasses and sinks back into her seat, watching carefully for changes in demeanour, length and pace of steps, the clothes the mark is wearing, the way their hair is made.
This is what Myka was made for: taking in all the little details about a person and a situation, noticing the tiniest of changes.
But there are no changes today.
The Mark enters a building, and Myka reaches for her coffee and her Farnsworth.
“Warehouse Tech Support, how can I help?” Claudia answers.
“Hey Claud,” Myka greets her colleague with a grimace after swallowing a mouthful of cold coffee. “Any chance you ran those searches for me?”
“I did indeed,” the redhead places the Farnsworth on the desk stand and logs into her computer. “Some very interesting purchases,” she shares distractedly while pulling the records up on her screen, then sending them to Myka. “Check your phone.”
Myka pulls her phone from her coat pocket and scans the images. “That’s some pricey stuff,” she muses and takes another sip of coffee without thinking.
Claudia grimaces on her behalf.
“That’s gross,” Myka mutters and puts the cup on the car’s floor, between her feet. “So what are we thinking?”
“Could be a surprise for a special someone?” Claud keeps a cheerful attitude, “Christmas presents?”
Myka looks at her sternly, then back at her phone. She sighs heavily as she flicks through the images Claudia sent, searching for a pattern in the purchases, a common denominator. “What are you doing, spending all this money like that?” Myka asks her phone as a proxy for her mark.
“Nothing clear-cut,” Claudia drops her shoulders and her face admits defeat, “I’m sorry, Myka.”
“Oh no,” the agent springs to life, “it’s not over yet. I am not losing again.”
Later, Myka sits on a hard chair in a darkened room of a darkened apartment in front of a portable, high-end surveillance lab: there are two cameras armed with telescopic lenses pointed at the building across the street, and two more pointing at its entrance.
She munches on carrot sticks and scans the day’s footage when her phone buzzes on the desk.
She casts a quick glance towards it – it’s Helena.
She traps her bottom lips with her teeth as it quirks into a smile, gets up from her seat and stretches before answering her phone. “Hey.”
“What are you doing up, darling?” Helena sounds surprised.
Myka laughs. “Why are you calling me if you think I’m asleep?”
Helena is silent for a quick moment. Myka knows Helena has a plan, and Myka hindered its execution.
“I may have wanted to leave a gift in your voicemail to keep you entertained until I see you next,” the artificer responds lasciviously.
Myka purrs, closes her eyes and leans against a wall, rakes her fingernails against her neck. She’s recalling the time she saw Helena last, remembering the feel of them against each other. “Can’t I have my gift now, then?” she asks, her voice low and suggestive.
She can hear Helena’s breath across the line: slow, purposeful, calculating. She can hear her thinking.
Myka’s smile widens. It’s not often that she leaves her girlfriend conflicted, and even less often that she manages to put such effective spanners in her works. She considers what it is that Helena had in mind – exactly; but the sound of Helena’s breathing and the sensation her own fingers are creating make her light-headed. And now Myka is conflicted: which should she give in to, Helena’s voice or her fingertips? She knows she can’t sustain both right now.
“That was not my plan,” Helena says eventually, and Myka stops touching her neck.
“Okay, then,” the agent opens her eyes and straightens, “how about I hang up and you call again and I don’t answer?”
Helena is silent again. She had a plan – an idea – a way to keep Myka on edge until she comes to visit her in Brooklyn next week, a plan which involves a series of recorded messages and a treasure hunt that will have culminated in heated and somewhat experimental few days in Helena’s home-from-home.
But now, she hears Myka’s voice, smooth and soothing and turned on. And she knows Myka is alone somewhere, collecting intelligence, in a dark room, in a dark flat, with the cold light cast from LED screens that makes her face look angelic and her skin glow divinely, and there is nothing Helena wants more this very minute that to feel Myka’s collarbones under the pads of her fingers.
“That, still, was not my plan,” Helena retorts, and Myka’s curiosity piques.
“Time for another plan, then?” Myka answers through a smirk she’s sure Helena will hear, and she guesses that will frustrate her lover even more, which will gain her the upper hand (for a while, anyway).
And that is Myka’s plan.
“Perhaps,” Helena answers and smiles a small smile, knowing full well Myka is at an advantage. For all her love of game-playing, for all her mastery of the art of influence, Helena adores it when Myka leverages the odds in her favour. “Good night, then, darling.”
“Wait,” Myka pushes off the wall she was leaning against, feeling a bit excited, a bit needy, but more than anything she’s missing Helena. It’s been more than three weeks since she’d seen her. “Is that all I'm getting?”
Helena hums her breath out, knowing they are not playing anymore. She recognises Myka’s need in herself. “What would you like?” she asks her darling.
“Whatever you have open.”
Helena laughs lightly. She has Philip Larkin open, a bittersweet poem (more bitter than sweet), very fittingly titled ‘Love, we must part now’. She contemplates cheating, reciting something else from memory, but she decides to stay honest to Myka’s request, and shares with her what she had just been reading.
Myka recognises the poem instantly. Helena speaks it, words roll from her tongue and fall from her lips like gentle plumes of smoke that tickle Myka’s senses.
Myka closes her eyes, imagining Helena’s mouth, as it moves, as it conjures these sounds, these syllables, glues them together to form words and sentences. She mouths the words with Helena’s recitation, spellbound by the Helena’s voice, her accent, the sadness and truth of the words she utters.
When Helena reaches the second half of the poem, she closes her eyes in the pause between the stanzas, and thinks of Myka’s face, of her green eyes with the gold ring in their middle; her pink cheeks and how they rise and round when she smiles; her lips and how they fill and thin and flex and stretch as she speaks, as she whispers, as she mouths; because she knows Myka speaks these words with her.
There is regret. Always, there is regret.
As Helena continues, she can hear Myka’s breathing is following the same pattern as her own;
But it is better that our lives unloose,
she can hear consonants as Myka’s lips and tongue and teeth form them;
As two tall ships, wind-mastered, wet with light,
she can hear soft exhales that match wind and wet and with had they been voiced;
Break from an estuary with their courses set,
she can see Myka’s smile growing in her mind’s eye and knows she will be biting on her lower lip now;
And waving part, and waving drop from sight.
she opens her eyes to her empty flat, to Myka’s ghostly presence on the phone she has pressed to her ear.
Myka releases her bottom lip. “I’ll see you back in the estuary soon, Helena,” her voice is low and tired and a little lonely.
“Soon, darling,” Helena sighs. “Good night.”