protocol by pyritefortune

16 Jan

Mr. Baraclough has been visiting as long as the bookshop has been here. A fine old English gent, tweed suit, small round glasses, with a particular penchant for nineteenth century French literature. Always had a pleasant remark about the weather, the colour of the new paint on the jeweller’s shop, or the latest eccentricities of the town council, but never ungentlemanly enough to venture into politics or religion. I had always regarded him as part of the furniture, Tuesday mornings, regular as clockwork.

Over the years, I’ve picked up a fairly good sense of the literary tastes of all my regular customers. If it had been a copy of Maupassant or Balzac, I would have just assumed he had slipped it inside his jacket in a moment of senior abstraction. It wouldn’t be the first time one of my more mature regulars had forgotten they hadn’t already paid, and happily packed a book away into their bags with a cheery goodbye. But a biography of Attlee, that wasn’t even in his usual section of the shop. Instead of lurking in the literature section in the dusty corner by the heater, he’d picked the shelf opposite the counter,  directly in my eyeline, and slipped it calmly but quite deliberately inside his jacket.

I half expected him to make eye contact, to check whether I’d seen, but he simply turned his back and left the shop. I couldn’t have spoken, even if he had come to the counter, just stood, frozen in place, with the voice of my father ringing in my ears. I had never thought that it would actually happen, not after this many years. And certainly not Mr. Baraclough. I took a shaky breath, tried to push back the wave of nausea and hastily glanced around the shop at the other customers. Had anyone else noticed him? Was anyone watching? No new faces, nobody making eye contact nor attempting carefully to avoid it. Nobody followed him out. It was a clean drop.

I still had half an hour until I closed for lunch, each minute sitting like a lump of lead in my stomach. It was too tempting to drop the books where I stood and go, but I had to stick to the plan; nothing out of the ordinary, my Father had said, everything like clockwork, nothing for any watchers to notice. In the early days, all I would have had to do was call my father, if it happened, and he would take care of it. And then when he became ill, he’d sat me down, told me the full story and taught me the rest of the drill.

At one, on the dot, I pulled the blind down, stood for a few nerve-stretching moments making smalltalk with a lingering pensioner, and then closed the shop. Finally I could climb the stairs, two at a time, and grab for the phone. As I dialled the number, I could hear the gentle voice of my father, reciting the digits with me as I wrote it down time after time after time, drilling it into memory, and smell the charred paper as he burned it in the hearth afterward. It rang four times, and was answered by a woman.

“Jameson’s of London, Jennifer speaking, how may I help you?”

“This is 5-6-2-9-4”.

“What is the protocol, 5-6-2-9-4?”

I count quickly through the list he taught me. “Today’s protocol is green. I have a message for someone named Apollo; I’m to tell him that Garnet has made contact, and has signalled that his identity is compromised.”

“Message understood, thank you.”

The line went dead, and I was left with nothing but my pounding heart. I thought of my father; a soldier with a briefcase, patiently fighting the red tide with his files and paper clips and treasury tags. And as the tears began to run down my cheeks, I pictured Mr Baraclough, drowning his memories of Moscow in the world of  Flaubert and Dumas, while he waited for them to hunt him down.

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  1. prompt: peter on vacation « the character project - January 17, 2011

    […] out last week’s stories about Janet: Protocol by pyritefortune Civic Duty by phoenix.writing Small Town Chill by jmforceton Mrs. Johnson by pjrob Gorillas in the […]

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