“Can you smell smoke?”
His more-than-a-whisper brought her back from the edge of unconsciousness. “What?”
“Can you smell smoke?”
“Yes, smoke.”
“What do you mean ‘where’? I don’t know where.”
His voice was even louder, and now she was fully awake. “Almost the first words you’ve said to me since last weekend, and you ask me if I can smell smoke!”
“Can you?”
“I was sure I could smell something.” He reached out and switched on the bedside light.
“Do we have to have that on?”
“I want to know what that smell is.”
“I told you we should have had those smoke detectors fitted when we had that special offer through your company, but you said no, in your usual stubborn way.”
“I wasn’t being stubborn.”
“No. Mary bought them and wasn’t all that pleased. They went off almost at random, and the little, red, flashing lights were annoying. I found the one in the bedroom particularly irritating.”
“Can we go back to sleep now?”
“Are you sure you can’t smell something?”
“The only thing that smells around here is something fishy about your behaviour.”
“We went through that last weekend, that’s why we‘ve hardly spoken since. I’ll say it again, there’s nothing ‘fishy’ as you put it.”
“Some strange coincidences though.”
“They do happen.”
“I’m getting up to have a look.”
“Tell me again why you had to take Mary to the meeting last month.”
He stopped with one leg out of bed. “You want to go through it again, do you?” He lay back down.
“Means yes. The meeting was the final negotiation and I wanted someone to take complete notes.”
“You have Eric, your assistant.”
“He’d been too involved so far.”
“And he’s not as sexy as Mary.”
“I’ll tell him you said that.”
“To you I mean. I find him quite yummy.”
“Yummy! I’ll tell him you said that also. Sniff, sniff”
“So, what’s the answer?”
“What’s the question?”
“Mary and the meeting.”
He sighed. “I wanted someone who would not be drawn into the discussions; Mary’s my secretary, they’d met her before so it didn’t seem so strange, and she’s one of the few people left who still take shorthand.”
“All very convenient.”
“If you want to see it that way.”
“I don’t, but it’s difficult not to. In a hotel for three days and three nights …”
“Two nights actually.”
“Two nights, three nights, what’s the difference? One night’s more than enough. Hard negotiations during the day, need to relax afterwards. What did you say you did in the evenings?”
Another sigh. “I told you, I had the financial team working here in the office and I spent most of the evening on the ‘phone with them.”
“All the more reason to relax afterwards. The warm, Mediterranean nights, difficult to sleep, even if that’s what you wanted to do. Late supper overlooking the sea, lingering over coffee, the unspoken question and answer.”
“You’ve got a vivid imagination. You should write a book.”
“Perhaps you can help me with some of the details. Whose room for example?”
“I can still smell smoke,” he said, getting out of bed again.
“Getting a bit too close to the truth am I now?”
“No, I just don’t want the house to burn down.”
“So, what about Frank’s house-warming party last week?”
This time one leg remained out of the bed. “You are determined to go through this all again.”
“You woke me up.”
“And given your lack of concern, I wish I hadn’t.”
“Once you’ve done something, you can’t just ‘wish you hadn’t’.”
“There must be a deeper meaning to that, but at this time of night it’s gone completely over my head.”
“You’d make it do that at any time of the day.”
“If you say so.”
“I do. Now, what about Frank’s party?”
“Back to that.”
“Yes, ‘back to that’.”
“I don’t see how you think I could have planned anything with Mary. You were invited to Frank’s party and only decided not to go at the last minute because of your migraine.”
“Oh, I don’t say you planned it, but when the opportunity arises …”
“You were the one who insisted that I go alone.”
“I said just to put in an appearance for an hour or so, not until three thirty in the morning.”
“What was that noise?”
“I didn’t hear anything.”
“I did. Something falling.”
“Well I know what’s not falling, and that’s me for the story you told.”
“Not a story, the truth.”
“Oh, I’m sure parts of it are true, interwoven with some half-truths and some, what shall we call them, lies?”
“All the truth.”
“That might just be another lie.”
“I give up”
“Oh don’t do that. That’s almost like admitting you’re guilty.”
“Of what I don’t know.”
“OK, let’s see, how did it go? Not so many people had turned up, so you felt a bit embarrassed about leaving quickly – I’m sure that’s true.”
He mouthed ‘thank you’.
“You eventually left at eleven thirty – must be true because I could ask Frank.”
“Go ahead.”
“On the other hand you probably know I wouldn’t because it might embarrass you – a double bluff.”
“I’ve changed my mind about you being a writer, you should be a lawyer.”
“You’d being driving for about 15 minutes when the car suddenly started misfiring and eventually stopped – possible, of course, but why it miraculously starts three hours later, and the garage can’t find anything wrong is a mystery.”
“They said it could have been something that temporarily blocked the fuel line.”
“Which, as you know, is way beyond my limited knowledge of cars. You’d forgotten your mobile ‘phone – true, it was on the hallway table, but that’s something you’ve never done before; generally you spend more time talking to it than you do to me.”
“I don’t talk to the telephone, I talk to other people through it. I can still smell something. I want to check.”
“Let me finish your story first of all. So there you are, in the middle of nowhere, not sure where you are because you’ve never been that way before. What to do? Start walking towards some distant lights, hoping to find a telephone to call the AA. After a few minutes the road ahead is lit up by a car coming up behind you. You’re rescued! And, another miracle, it’s Mary!”
“And I told you it was Mary. I could have said it was a complete stranger.”
“You could have. I’ve thought about that. If I’d checked with Frank what time you left, and he just happened to mention it was a few minutes before Mary, I might have put two and two together.”
“And got five!”
“No, that there was a good chance she would be the next car down that lonely, country road. Anyhow, you ‘phone the AA on Mary’s mobile, and she, very kindly, offers to stay with you until they arrive. Did you tell her you were afraid of the dark or something?”
“And what would you have done in the circumstances, just abandoned the person, I suppose?”
“If it was my boss and I was having an affair with him, no, too good an opportunity.”
“Ah, so it’s an affair now is it?”
“What would you call it?”
“There’s nothing to call anything.”
“We’ll see, because now we get to the really difficult part of the story to believe. The AA, ‘you just call out my name’, ‘you’ve got AA friend’, never arrives. The two of you sit there for three hours. By chance you try to start the car and wonder of wonders it starts. What did you do during all that time? No, don’t answer that, I don’t want to know. Did she take some shorthand?”
“I told you, we listened to the radio most of the time, between repeatedly ‘phoning the AA.”
“Of course that’s not checkable. They’d never admit, especially to me a non-member, that they didn’t go to the rescue of a member. I suggested that you write a strong letter to them, but you said it wouldn’t do any good.”
“It wouldn’t. Now, can I go and check downstairs before we are burnt alive?
“Hell’s a fiery place for cheaters. You can go after the big question, which is, did any of this happen? OR did you and Mary leave Frank’s within a few minutes of each other, meet up on the road, abandon your car, and spend the next few hours in her bed?”
“What an imagination.”
“So it’s not true?”
“Absolutely not, and that’s the truth.”
“Ah, but which do you mean, your story or my imagination?
“You don’t seem concerned about this smell of smoke.”
“I’m more concerned about the smokescreen you’re putting around these Mary opportunities.”
He shook his head. “You’re becoming paranoid about this; there are no ‘Mary opportunities’.”
“No? Convenient wasn’t it though, her husband being away at the time of the party?”
“You’ll only believe what you want to.” He sniffed. “That smell seems to have gone now.”
“Good, can you get back into bed and put the light off. It’s midnight and I have to get up early tomorrow. We’ll continue this discussion another time”
“There’s nothing else to discuss. Good night.” He stretched to kiss her.
She turned her head at the last minute and brushed her lips on his cheek. “Good night. Sweet dreams … of Mary.”
“Look, can we get this clear once and for all. There is nothing going on between Mary and I.”
“Mary and me”
“Whatever. Nothing’s going on. I love you.”
“Lots of coincidences though. You know what they say, ‘there’s no smoke without fire’.”
“And that’s why I’m still going to check downstairs.” He rested his hand on the door handle. “Ouch.”
“I’ve just realised what you said. When you spoke about Mary’s experience with the smoke detector you said, ‘I found the flashing light in the bedroom particularly irritating’ not ‘I would find’.”
He opened the door, and the flames found the vent they had been seeking and roared into the bedroom.