Adderly dragged himself in late on Monday morning - later than usual - and gave Mona a flat " 'morning," when he did. She had been reading her latest spy novel (a pulp thing with a lurid cover that promised 'thrills and excitement in the South American jungle!') because Greenspan had a Managerial Efficiency refresher course on the eighth floor and the notes he left her were already done.
"Mister Greenspan said to tell you that..." Mona put down her paperback and shook her head reluctantly. "I can't even believe that he wants me to give you this." She held out the stiff envelope with 'ADDERLY' on it in block capitals.
"I can read what he wrote, this must be serious." He took it from her and tore the end off with his teeth. She always got a little thrill when he did something dashing, but she couldn't help it. She'd heard the myths and legends of V.H. Adderly told all throughout ISI, not just in the cafeteria. Dashing pales in comparison to some of the things she'd heard. He groaned, his frustration plain. "Not again."
"Is it another warning?"
"It's always a warning," Adderly griped, wadding the crisp yellow slip into a ball and hurling it at the wastebasket. "The last time it was a warning that he'd have to issue me a warning. That one was pink. This one's a warning that I've received too many warnings."
Mona tried to keep a straight face and ended up with a quirky sideways smile. "He's got a green form for warning you that you've got too many warnings about warnings. I had to order a block of them on last week's inventory."
"I have had it up to *here* with all these forms and paperwork!" Adderly gestured at his throat with his black-gloved hand, slicing the unmoving fingers across his jugular. "If Greenspan knew anything about managing this department, we'd have windows! And sunlight! And you wouldn't have to grow your houseplants under that damn light."
Mona glanced at her tiny garden of struggling African Violets on top of the filing cabinets. "I thought we were doing well, all things considered."
"All things..." Adderly's face darkened and he shoved his hand back into the pocket of his sport coat. "Considering there's been nothing resembling a real assignment in weeks, and considering Greenspan's in Remedial Inefficiency School for the rest of the day... what do you say we take the day out?"
"Out?" Mona brightened. "As in, outdoors? In the fresh air?"
"Get your purse," he grinned and she got that funny feeling in her stomach again. "I'll even buy you an ice cream."
Purse. Lip gloss. She checked her eye makeup in a tiny compact before stashing it away, and as an afterthought tucked in 'Amazon Secret Agent.' Just in case.
It didn't feel strange at all, walking arm-in-arm with one of ISI's most notorious agents. Even though she knew Adderly could kill a man with a single well-placed blow, the way her elbow linked up with his, just the right angle, seemed right somehow. In the book she was reading, Agent #5, ex-Air Force Captain Jack Dash, is caught unawares while escorting a lady friend back to her hotel. The two of them hold hands while he dispatches the assailant with ease, and afterwards he takes her in his well-muscled arms and -
"- don't you agree, Mona?" Adderly was looking at her with a quizzical expression as she dragged herself back to the present.
"What? I'm so sorry, V.H, I was thinking about-"
"- I told you not to worry about Greenspan. He'll never even know we're gone. I was saying we picked a good day to play hooky. Sort of like junior high. Don't you agree?"
It wasn't exactly what she was thinking, but she said, "It's been a long time since junior high. Things change."
"I know. Rule One: never take a girl with you when you skip school. It's a liability."
"I'm not surprised," Mona laughed. "Even back then you were worried someone would hold you back! No wonder you're such a good field agent."
"I was," he shrugged, "but as Greenspan's so fond of reminding me, not anymore."
"Oh, V.H," Mona clasped his elbow in her hands, "You can't let him get to you. He's a bureaucrat. He doesn't know what it's like on assignment. The people, the places...."
Adderly nearly shook off her grasp but graciously stopped himself. He patted her hand almost tenderly. "Oh, Mona, Mona, Mona. Never leave Miscellaneous Affairs. The day you quit will be the day I finally kill Melville. And where would that get me? I'll probably get promoted to department Head. Then I'd have to run Miscellaneous Affairs for the rest of my natural life!"
His ranting and railing was good-natured, but underneath it all Mona could hear the desperation and frustrations seeping through. It couldn't have been easy, adjusting to a desk job, not after Adderly had taken some of the most dangerous postings in Europe. He only put up with Greenspan's petty badgering because it afforded him some leeway to circumvent the regular channels in ISI. Of course, during his couple of years with Miscellaneous Affairs there had been plenty of adventures that were definitely out-of-the-ordinary. Had that been enough to satisfy the part of him that craved field assignments?
"V.H, this might be none of my business, but..." she chose her words carefully, for it really *was* none of her business. If Adderly wanted to brush her off then he was more than welcome. "Why did you stay? With your background you could have an 'in' with any private operation in the country. Why are you still at ISI?"
He looked at her, and for a minute she thinks she sees something resembling truth in his dark eyes. Then he said, "I get better hours. You ever tried three months of overnight stakeouts? They wreak havoc on your circadian rhythms."
"I should have known you wouldn't give me a straight answer," she scolded. He laughed and the edges of his eyes crinkle up. He nudged her with his shoulder.
"I'm serious," he said, though it was clear he was anything but.
It was all just a defense, she knew. When Captain Jack Dash was kicked out of the Air Force in 1972, he spent a couple of years slumming in South East Asia and he never said a straight word about it to anyone except his partner. When he met reporter Ruby Burke in Singapore in 1975, she understood him without him having to say a word about it. They got back to the States, Jack dried out and got sober, and they ran a very prosperous consulting firm until the G-men came calling again. At first, he protested, refusing to work for the same organization that cut him off without a penny so many years ago, but in the end they struck a deal. So, ten years (and seven novels) later, Jack was operating in Brazil, slashing his way up a tributary of the Amazon, oblivious to the piranhas nibbling at his heels. His days of disgrace were long behind him, and he was fuelled now only by the fierce love for his work, and the knowledge that at the end of it all, Ruby would be there, waiting for him -
Mona bumped into Adderly, who had stopped on the cracked sidewalk in front of a red and white striped awning. There was flaking gilt on the window that proclaimed 'best ices in town!'
"If you've finished daydreaming?" He mocked her gently.
"Oh, I don't know where to begin!" The selection was dizzying, a veritable rainbow of sorbets and gelatos in inexplicable colours and flavors. A wizened old Italian man peered out from behind thick horn-rimmed glasses at the two of them. Mona began to giggle. "Tropical Pineapple? Or Raspberry Bliss? How about Café Mocha?"
"You'll like the pineapple," Adderly offered with a rakish smile. "Just a hint of coconut rum. For those sweltering summer days?"
"What the heck," she said, and the little Italian began to paddle the iced confection into a paper cup for her. He passed it over the glassed-in freezer.
"That looks good." Adderly pointed to a dark, purplish-black container in the far corner.
"Tre dollars sessante," said the ice-cream gnome, and Mona put her purse on the countertop, certain Adderly would start to juggle his ice cream while trying to get the money out of his pocket.
"I said it was my treat." There was an unmistakable edge of irritation in his voice as he reminded her.
She plucked the black dessert from his good hand and plunked it on the counter. "I know," she said evenly. "Is that better?"
"Thanks," he scowled, shown up, and for a moment Mona felt terrible. He was a grown man. Just because he only had the use of one hand didn't mean he should be made to feel like a child.
But her purse had fallen open to display 'Amazon Secret Agent' in all its lurid glory, and after Adderly paid for their ice creams, he picked it up and waved it in front of her.
"This? You're reading this now?"
She grabbed it back, shoving it deep into the depths of her purse. "It's none of your business what I read, is it?"
"Captain Jack Dash, trapped in the steaming jungle and forced to choose between hacking off his own foot or being eaten by piranhas when the tide rises?" Adderly shook his head. "Honestly, Mona, if you wanted to read about adventures in the Amazon Basin I could get you some old case files for you to look at. Not too many man-eating piranhas. Not much of a tide, either, once you get past the first hundred kilometers."
"Now, listen, just because -" She began to protest, but Adderly spooned up the first melting glob of ice cream and stuck it in her mouth. At the taste, all of her objections dissolved.
"Is that better?"
"My god, it's like..." she took another hasty spoonful to recapture the entire flavored experience. "It's like a vacation in my mouth. With piña coladas and snorkeling!"
That garnered a grin from Adderly, who took his own ice cream and ushered her to a cast-iron bench outside the door. They sat, and he balanced it precariously on his knee.
"Vittorio makes the best flavors this side of the Atlantic," he confided. "I only tasted one better, but that was a long time ago in Venice."
"What flavor is yours? I've never seen ice cream that colour before."
"Taste some if you like," and he held out his cup.
Mona took a little, and after putting it in her mouth she was glad it was such a small amount. She nearly spat it right out again. "Liquorice! V.H! Liquorice? What is wrong with you?!"
"How can I commit such a travesty to ice cream?" He grinned and licked the top of his scoop. "I like the taste."
"You never cease to surprise me," she said, shaking her head. They worked at their ice creams in silence for a little while, with the white noise of traffic passing them on the street. Finally, the heavy rumble of a streetcar broke through, clattering and hissing as it made the corner.
"Do you really think I should have my own company?" Adderly leaned back and surveyed the placid street scene before them. "Operate in South and Central America? Run security detail for oil pipeline executives and coffee plantation owners?"
"I didn't say you should," Mona replied around a plastic spoonful of vacation-flavored ice cream. "I asked why don't you?"
"You tell me," he said, as he wedged the remains of his ice cream cup between his knee and his gloved left hand. He poked doggedly at the remains, until it was nothing but melted liquorice, and then drank the dregs.
"I'm sure that with the proper precautions-" she started.
"Precautions?" Adderly shook his head. He pitched the spent cup into a nearby garbage can and squeezed his once-injured hand tightly. "There's no precautions for this. ISI's best surgeons don't have a solution. The best anyone can come up with is incarcerating me in a dead-end department with a dipstick for a supervisor, and a daydreamer-"
'-a daydreamer for a secretary?" Mona snapped, instantly injured. "I was only trying to help."
"-no, V.H, that's far enough!" She huffed to her feet and started back along the sidewalk the way they'd come.
"I didn't mean it like that." He ran after her and caught her sleeve.
"Oh?" Mona spun on her heel. "Explain to me how you did mean it, then? I don't read those books because I think they're real. I read them because -" she paused, stalled in mid-sentence. "Never mind."
"Oh, come on, Mona, you can tell me." Plaintive wasn't a tone Adderly usually employed, but that didn't stop him.
"You'll say it's silly," she shrugged off his hand. "And anyway, you'll probably get mad at me."
"I promise." When she glared at him, he raised three fingers in a salute. "Scout's honor."
"Okay, but don't laugh at me." Mona pulled the battered paperback out of her purse and opened it to a page she'd dog-eared. "I just... oh, it's stupid. Here." She thrust the book into his hands and paced off along the sidewalk. She was almost out of earshot, but not quite, as Adderly started to read out loud.
"Dash lay on the tidal flats for what seemed like an eternity, the hot tropical sun beating down on his naked back. The chain bolted around his ankle burned like fire. Within reach, just inches away from his fingertips, lay the glittering shape of the machete Gallardo had thrown down. He knew what had to be done, what Gallardo had wanted from the very beginning. But he wasn't going to give in. Never! He had spent too many years clawing his way back to success, from the dark, drunken times on Singapore docks, to have it end here. Gallardo wanted him to cut off his own foot to escape, or he would drown when the tidal bore reached him. Jack knew that he'd never make it out of the tidal flats alive. But there was a third option, so risky that he dared not think of it, but if it succeeded then he would have his revenge on Gallardo. But first, he would have to draw his own blood to attract the piranhas....-"
Mona groaned in embarrassment. "I told you it was stupid."
But Adderly kept reading, coming closer towards her. He was grinning. "This was how it had to be. Jack Dash would have to sacrifice himself and everything he held sacred, to risk his own life and limb so he could escape. He knew that if something happened that Ruby would never forgive him, but he grasped the shaft of the machete and raised it high above his head. The weight balanced perfectly in his hand. He drew a sharp breath to steel himself and brought the blade down-"
"-Stop!" Mona skittered back to his side and clapped a palm over his mouth. There was a pause, their eyes meeting over the pages of the trashy novel. She took the book between finger and thumb and gently extricated it from his grasp.
"Lmm ghhss," Adderly started to say. She waved a finger at him and took her hand away. "Let me guess. He lives?"
"If you must know, he uses his own blood to attract the piranhas, and when the tide comes in they try to eat his leg, but just enough for the chain around his ankle to loosen so he can head for shore," she muttered. The book went back into the secret depths of her purse again, where it belonged. "He rescues the woman he loves but spends a lot of time in the hospital afterwards so he doesn't lose his foot."
"Of course," Adderly said, attempting to sound light. "It wouldn't do to cripple the hero permanently now, would it?"
Mona stayed stubbornly in her place, glaring at him. "Adderly."
"I'm only teasing," he reached one arm - the good side - around her and hugged her in close. "If I was to hazard an educated guess, I'd say you were reading those books because you were trying to get an idea of how I feel. It's marginally applicable, but close enough. I never had to do anything quite as honorable as feeding myself to piranhas. But if you were in danger...." He leaned down, quite close to her ear and whispered, "I would." His lips brushed the side of her neck in something that could almost be mistaken for a kiss. Mona shivered.
"V.H," she turned her head, but he was already pulling away.
"We're going to be late," he said with a glance at his wristwatch. "I know Greenspan's summer camp gets out at two and if we aren't at our posts he'll have a whole rainbow of memos to send. To the both of us. Shall we go?" He offered her the crook of his elbow again, and she took it. It still felt right.
"You know, if you ever wanted to tell me about the Amazon," she said after a little hesitation, "Mister Greenspan usually takes a nap directly after afternoon tea on Wednesdays...."
Adderly chuckled. "I'll pencil that in." He ushered her across the street and they began to make their way back to ISI headquarters. "By the way, Mona, you know why I never started up my own concern?"
"Precautions?" She offered a little glumly. He grinned back at her, and the wobbly feeling came back into the pit of her stomach.
He shrugged. "I'm no Secret Agent, but let's just say if I were ever in the Amazon River basin, chained to a rock, and the only way for me to escape was to be eaten by piranhas....."
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