Today's Reading

The bell jingles again, dragging my attention back to the entryway. Another draft follows, and a man shambles past the door in a damp overcoat of navy blue, a hat glittering with mist. His face is pockmarked, the only notable thing about him. He casts a slow, bland expression around the room, and it seems to me that he takes in every detail, every flock on the wallpaper and spot on the upholstery, until he arrives, quite by accident, on me.

The woman's still addressing the clerk. No notice of us at all. I climb to my feet. "Mr. B—?"

He steps forward and holds out his hand. "You must be Mrs. Thorpe," he says warmly, and he takes my fingers between his two palms, as if we are father and daughter, meeting for tea after a short absence.

Instead of remaining inside the Basil Hotel foyer (in which the enemy ears might or might not be listening, but the desk clerk certainly is) we head out into the gloom. I tend to step briskly as a matter of habit, but Mr. B— (I'm afraid I can't reveal his real name) shuffles along at an awkward gait, and it's a chore to keep my limbs in check. I tuck my hands inside my pockets and drum my fingers against my thighs. I feel as if he should speak first. He's the professional, after all.

"Well, Mrs. Thorpe," he says at last. "I must congratulate you on your resolve. To have made your way to London in wartime, to have approached my office with such an extraordinary request—why, it's the most astonishing thing I've seen in some time."

"I hope you don't mind."

"Mind? Of course not. If there's one thing we admire in this country, it's dash. Dash and pluck, Mrs. Thorpe, which you appear to possess in abundance. How long had you two been married?"

"Since July."

"This past July?"

"Yes. The seventh."

"Ah. Just before he was captured, then. How dreadful."

"It was months before I had any word at all. At first, I thought he'd been called out on another of his—whatever you call them—"

"Operations?"

"Yes, operations. But when he didn't return..."

We pause to cross the street. I've allowed him to choose the route; I mean he's the one who lives here, after all, the one who understands not just the map of London but the habits of the place. A couple of bicycles approach, one after the other, and while we wait for them to pass, Mr. B— speaks again.

"Mind you, it was quite against the rules."

"What? What's against the rules?"

Mr. B— stares not at my face, but along a line that passes right above my head, down the street to the approaching bicycles. "Marrying," he says blandly.

The bicycles pass. We cross the street to enter a foggy square of red brick and white trim. Several of the houses are missing, simply not there, like teeth pulled from a jaw. Mr. B— leads me to the gardens in the middle, where we choose a wooden bench and sit about a foot apart, so that our arms and legs aren't in any danger of touching, God forbid. The button at the wrist of my left-hand glove has come undone. I attempt to refasten it, but my fingers are too stiff.

"Of course, I quite understand your distress, Mrs. Thorpe," he says, in the voice you might use to console a child. "It's for that reason that we tend to discourage men such as Thorpe from forming any sort of personal attachment. To say nothing of marriage."

"We're all human, Mr. B—."

"Still, it's unwise. And then to allow you any hint of his purpose there in the Bahamas—"

"Oh, believe me, he never said a word about that. I was the one who put two and two together. I was on the inside, you see. A friend of the Windsors."
...

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