Jeff and Lou do lunch
Lou pulled into a parking garage in downtown Asheville and found a space on the second level. The conversation on the way into the city was about the area where she lived and what attractions they might go visit the next day. She suggested the Arts Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway. "It's not far and they often have demonstrations of the various crafts practiced here in North Carolina," she said. "There's a nice gift shop, too."
"I saw the entrance to the Parkway. What's it like in spring?"
"Nice. There are wildflowers blooming, and at the lookouts, you can see for miles. There're about as many different shades of green covering the hills as there are reds and yellows in the fall. In the summer, the greens become much more uniform. There's a sort of delicateness about the trees, too, in the spring. It's very refreshing."
They climbed out of the truck and Lou locked it securely, then they took the elevator down to the street. A block and a half of walking, and Lou pulled open the door to an Italian restaurant. The scent of garlic that oozed around the outer door grew stronger as they stepped inside, and Jeff found his mouth beginning to water.
"This is Vincenzo's. It's owned and run by a family of fifth generation Italian-Americans from the North End of Boston. Believe me, the accents on the kids is a really strange mix! The eggplant parmiagiana is fabulous and the chicken marsala isn't far behind. The one thing they're really famous for is their pasta, which is made right here," Lou explained.
Jeff looked around. The outside of the restaurant was uniformly part of the brick building that housed it, that is to say, it didn't stand out and scream its presence with some manufactured and jarring facade. He had noticed evidence of tables right next to the windows, discreetly separated from the foot traffic on the sidewalk by a series of beige tab curtains on a long rod. Inside, there was an impression of dark woods, and eggshell stucco walls with reproductions of Italian and Roman statuary, most in miniature, settled on small shelves scattered around the large room. The larger statues stood on the floor, mostly images of men, half clothed, with muscular chests and classic features, hauling around carved vines laden with carved grapes. He hadn't remembered seeing a terrace as they came in, but there was one if the two sets of French style doors with their walnut finish and beveled panes on the far wall were any indication. The tables were covered in white linen, and were surrounded by dark walnut chairs, their backs made of three slats, bent slightly backwards, their seats upholstered in a red striped fabric. There was a bar behind the hostess station, raised two steps from the main floor and surrounded by a low stucco wall, topped by a brass rail. If there was a televid, it was well concealed from where they stood.
They didn't have long to wait for a table. A short, plump older woman, dark hair pulled back into a braid, came to the waiting area and beamed at Lou. "Lucinda! Where have you been?" The woman's strong accent proclaimed her origins as far north of her present abode.
"Out and about, Gisella, as usual," Lou responded, smiling.
"You bring us a new customer? Perhaps un nuovo amante?" Gisella asked, pulling out menus and looking Jeff up and down with appreciation.
Lou colored, and Jeff chuckled to see it. "A new customer but an old friend," she said, following along as Gisella beckoned and led them to a table for two. Jeff pulled out Lou's chair for her, then sat across from her, picking up the menu and perusing the wine list.
"Enjoy!" Gisella said as she patted Lou on the shoulder and went back to her station.
A waiter made a prompt appearance, a young man with olive skin and dark hair worn in a mop of floppy curls. He grinned at Lou. "Hey, Miz Myles," he said cheerily, pulling his data pad from the back pocket of his black trousers. He pulled out a stylus and asked, "The usual to drink?"
"Yes, Fred," Lou replied. "Sweet tea with lemon. Jeff?"
Jeff looked up and said, "A glass of your best Chardonnay."
"Comin' right up," Fred responded, using his stylus to write the order then upload it to the bar. "I'll give you some more time with the menus."
"Thanks, Fred," Lou said with a smile. She leaned across to Jeff. "White wine? I guess you're not going for one of the beef dishes?"
"No." Jeff put his menu aside. "You mentioned the chicken marsala and it sounds great, so I thought I'd try that."
"You won't regret it," Lou informed him. "I think I'll have the spinach lasagne for a change. Something light... I think."
Fred returned with the drinks and took their orders, uploading them to the kitchen, and removing the menus. There was a moment of silence between them as they sipped their beverages, then Lucinda sat up, putting her glass of tea down on its coaster.
"So. We've talked about me for a bit. Now let's talk about you and yours. How's your mother?"
Jeff chuckled. "Doing much better. A couple of days of sun, sea air, and sleeping in her own bed has helped immensely. Her appetite is improving and so are her spirits. The only problem we have is keeping her from jumping the gun and overdoing." He hesitated. "She heard me talking about you and I told her what had happened to you."
Lou rolled her eyes ceiling-ward. "I bet that was well-received."
"Hardly," Jeff replied, shaking his head. He sipped his wine again, and set down his goblet. "I wish I knew where all this animosity of hers came from. I mean, even Lucille trusted you!"
Lou looked down at her hands, then back up at Jeff. "Uh, that's not quite true, Jeff. Lucille didn't. Not at first, anyway."
Jeff's face was a study in puzzlement, and he was about to ask a question, but Fred chose that moment to bring their salads and a basket of soft bread sticks. They both sat quietly while he served them, topped off Lou's tea, and told them he'd be back soon with their entrées. As soon as he was out of earshot, Jeff leaned toward Lou.
"What do you mean 'not at first'?" he asked.
Lou sighed. "One day while I was in the office that I'd been assigned as part of my 'employment' with Tracy Aerospace, Lucille paid me a visit. She came in and greeted me, then closed the door behind her. I offered her a chair, but she ignored that. She looked me in the eye and flat out asked me, 'Are you having an affair with my husband?'."
Jeff's eyes widened. "She didn't!"
Lou nodded. "She did."
"Well, what did you tell her?"
Lou's eyes roved around the room for a moment before meeting Jeff's again. She sighed, a frustrated sound. "The truth... or as much of it as I could without jeopardizing the investigation. I said that, no, you and I were not having an affair." She shrugged. "I couldn't tell her everything. Not then. I wanted to, thought it might put her mind at ease. But we were so close to nailing the perps that if even the slightest whiff got out about who I really was, they'd be on the next plane out of the country with all the evidence."
"What did she say to that?" Jeff asked, fascinated and concerned at the same time over this behavior from his beloved Lucy.
"She looked me over and her eyes narrowed, then she said that she didn't think she could trust me around her husband," Lou replied, her gaze wandering again. Jeff noticed that her eyes kept straying toward the door. She brought her attention back to him and continued. "Greg and I were still sort of in the 'newlywed' stage, and something I remembered from our premarital counseling popped into my head and I blurted it out. I told Lucy that I wasn't the one she had to trust: you were. And that if she couldn't trust you, then... she'd better take a good look at her marriage."
Jeff sat back with an uttered, "Whew! What did she say to that?"
"She blinked a couple of times and looked as if she wanted to say something. Instead she just turned on her heel and left the office." Lou sipped her tea. "I thought, 'That's the last I see of her!' I was wrong."
"The day after we made the arrests, I was cleaning out the office, getting ready to leave, when she came back. Same deal as before; she greeted me then closed the door. This time she said that she was sorry she had misjudged me. Said that she had thought about what I'd told her about trust, and that I was right. You were the one she had to trust, and she did. I accepted her apology, and went back to cleaning out the office. She headed for the door, then turned to me and asked, 'Do you have time for a cup of coffee?' I was surprised, but I said yes. I finished up my packing and took my stuff down to my car, then we went to a local coffee shop and that, as Bogie put it, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
Jeff shook his head. "I never knew this, any of this. The two of you just seemed to hit it off..."
"We did," Lou said. "Just like you and I did. It just took a little clearing of the air, that's all."
Fred came over with their entrées, and Jeff sniffed at his appreciatively. He peered at Lou's plate and asked, "Are you going to be able to eat all that?"
Lou gave him a pained look. "I don't think so. Fortunately, they believe in take-out boxes here. Many are the times I've made one of their meals into two."
Things were quiet between them for a while as they applied themselves to their food. Lou asked about the boys, and Jeff told her that John was back home but that Alan was now out on company business. He watched as her eyes kept glancing over at the door and every time she did, she looked worried.
"Are you expecting someone?" he finally asked.
She turned, startled, and gave him a small smile. "Uh, no, not really." And through the rest of the meal she kept her eyes squarely on her immediate surroundings.
About halfway through his chicken marsala, Jeff said quietly, "Lou, about your... accident, the one that landed you on my island. There's something you should know..."
Lou, in the middle of a gulp of tea, waved her hand. She swallowed and said, "Please, Jeff. Let's not talk about that here. Interpol assured me that they'd launch a full investigation when I debriefed the other day." Jeff wasn't sure about it, but he thought she had put a small stress on the word, "here". I guess I'll broach the subject in private, then, he thought.
At last, Jeff finished eating, wiping his mouth with the red linen napkin and draining his glass of wine. Lou had given up about halfway through her lasagne and had asked Fred for a take-out container.
"Dessert, anyone?" Fred asked with a grin.
"None for me, thanks," Jeff replied.
Fred nudged Lou, who gave him a sideways look. "Frederico..." she said in a warning tone.
"Nonna Francesca's cannoli..." he said in a teasing voice, a smug smile on his face. "With the sweet chocolate cheese filling..."
Jeff chuckled to see Lou's face go from stern and unrelenting to one who knew she was about to cave in. She glared at him, then turned to Fred.
"Filled about fifteen minutes ago. In fact," Fred's voice dropped down to a conspiratorial level and he bent over so he was near Lou's ear, "Nonna heard you were here and made up a batch of the sweet chocolate cheese filling... just for you."
Lou turned to him and stuck a finger in his face. "Don't you tell me any terrible stories, Fred. I'll only believe it if Nonna Francesca comes out and tells me that herself!" She lowered her finger. "However, I'll have one... just one... to go."
Fred smiled the smile of the salesman who's found the perfect mark. "Coming right up, Miz Myles!" He entered the order in his data pad and uploaded it to the kitchen. In just a few minutes, an elderly lady came out with the promised dessert in a clear plastic container.
"Lucinda!" she cried while Lou covered her red face with one hand and Jeff laughed. "Lucinda Myles, are you calling my grandson a... a... fibber?"
Lou rose, laughing, and embraced the petite grandmother. "Truly, Nonna, I didn't know you were back from Boston." She looked at Fred, who was grinning wider than the Cheshire Cat. "And you know what kind of snake oil salesman your grandson is!"
"Well, I'm back and you'd better remember that!" Francesca scolded good-humoredly. "I just went up there just long enough to get my accent recharged." Her merry eyes danced their way to meet with Jeff's. "And who is this? Why haven't you had him back to the kitchen to introduce him?"
Lou sighed, smiling. "This is an old friend of mine, Jeff... just Jeff."
Francesca held out her hand. "It's nice to meet you... just Jeff." She winked at him as Lou got redder.
Jeff took the hand and instead of shaking, kissed the gnarled middle knuckle. "A pleasure and a privilege, signora."
"Oooh! A smooth operator, this one," Francesca said, chuckling. "Better keep an eye on him, Lucinda."
"He's just a friend, Francesca. We've known each other for years. I was particularly close to his late wife," Lou said in explanation.
"Ah! Well," Francesca said, smiling, "it was a pleasure to meet you, Jeff. And because you're a friend of our Lucinda..."
Jeff held up his hand. "No ma'am. I am wining and dining this lady today and I insist on paying. Besides," Jeff turned to look across the room where Fred was waiting on another table. "That young rogue deserves a nice commission."
Francesca chortled. "I won't insist, then." She handed the box with the dessert in it to Lou. "Enjoy. Come back again soon."
"I will, Nonna, I promise," Lou said, kissing the old woman on the cheek. "See you later."
Jeff glanced over at Lou. "Ready to go?"
"Yes, just wait for Fred. He'll come over with the bill." Lou sat back down, as did Jeff. "Dang, she put two cannoli in here." She looked up at him. "I guess one's for you."
"The way you were going on, these must be the height of high cuisine. I look forward to tasting it," Jeff said with a teasing grin.
Fred came over with the bill in a folder and handed it to Jeff, who pulled out his wallet. He wrote a figure down on the bill as a tip, selected a credit card, slipped it into the folder, then handed it back to Fred. Lou watched out of the corner of her eye as the waiter took it over to the cashier station and pulled out the card. Suddenly, his head shot around to look at Jeff sitting there with their regular customer. Then he took out the actual bill, and took a step back. He waved Gisella over, and showed the documents to her. Her reaction was similar, and Lou smiled.
"I think you've made a splash here, Jeff," she said quietly. "They are going to remember the day Jeff Tracy came to eat at their restaurant."
"Not if I make a habit of it," he replied. "The food here is excellent and worth coming back for. And the company's not bad either." He winked a her and she rolled her eyes to the ceiling.
Gisella came over. "Uh, Mr. Tracy? Did you mean to put...?"
Jeff gently interrupted. "Yes, I did. Run it through as written, please. Someone can add it to his college fund."
Gisella nodded, and smiled, then went back to the cashier's station.
Lou looked at him with suspicion. "How much?" she asked.
"Not telling," Jeff replied coolly. Then he leaned forward. "Don't worry, it was bigger than average, but not the price of a Ferrari."
Lou chuckled. A flustered Fred came over for Jeff's signature, and gave him the customer's copy. "Th-Thank you very much, Mr. Tracy."
"Thank you, Fred. You gave superlative service and provided me with some entertainment, too," Jeff said with a grin. Then he patted the younger man's upper arm and pointed at him. "College fund."
"Yes, sir!" Fred replied, smiling and hurrying off as a customer called him.
Jeff helped Lou on with her coat, which had been draped over the back of the chair. Then the two left, Lou with her boxes in hand. The day outside had become gray and drizzly and they walked quickly back to the parking garage. Jeff noticed that Lou kept looking around, scanning the area, noting each one of the few people who hurried by, intent on getting out of the weather.
"Is something wrong, Lou?" he asked, frowning.
She shook her head and sighed, then smiled slightly. "No. It's okay. Really." Jeff wasn't convinced, but he dropped the subject... for the moment.
"Where to now?" she asked. "We could go back to the house, or take a quick excursion up the Parkway and hit a couple of the scenic overlooks."
"How scenic could they be in this drizzle?" he asked.
"You'd be surprised," she replied as she unlocked her truck.
"Okay, I'm game," Jeff said, climbing in the passenger side door. "Show me how scenic wet and cloudy mountains can be."
She grinned, then pulled out of the space and, after paying for the privilege of parking there, drove away and out of the city.
Jeff recognized the route as the one he himself had taken to her home, and that she had used to bring them into the city. But just before they reached the spot where the road began to follow the French Broad River, she turned right, following the signs that said, "Blue Ridge Parkway". They passed a drive with a sign for an arboretum, and Jeff made note of it as a place of interest. But Lou took them up a steep ramp that wound around a good-sized hill, and at the top, took a right.
"You can't see the river very well from here," Lou explained as they drove. The road, well-paved and tended, snaked its two lanes higher and higher. "If we go to the Arts Center, we'll go in the opposite direction and cross the bridge over the river. It's quite a view in itself. But the actual Parkway is more scenic this way and has a series of tunnels, some short, some long, where the mountains themselves are bored through. There are walking trails in some places. My neighbors at the Inn down the road are hikers, and we've gone along some of the intermediate trails."
They traveled for about twenty minutes before they found a scenic overlook to Lou's liking. As they pulled into the gravel parking lot, Jeff got a glimpse of low clouds and green. Then Lou hopped out of the truck, and he followed.
The view was breathtaking. Low gray clouds, their under edges wispy, moved with stately slowness across the tops of the mountains across from them, obscuring exactly how high they were. The valley was full of woods, and fields, the fields a pale green from the growth of new grass, and the woods a range of colors from lime to hunter, each deciduous tree adding its own shade to the palette. There was a wet look to the branches nearest them, a darkening of the bark that made the sprouting, baby leaves show up even more vividly. Jeff turned and saw the forest behind them, and looking up, a low gray ceiling. He took in a deep breath, appreciative of the wet, earthy smell of damp air and moist leaf litter.
"You're right," Jeff said, standing closer to Lou, who had her hands in her coat pockets. "This is lovely. Reminds me of parts of New Zealand. Only the mountains there are higher and wilder."
"I never got out of Auckland," Lou said quietly. "Wish I'd had time for some sightseeing."
"Lou, about your plane...," Jeff began, and then it hit him. How do I tell her how I know it was sabotaged? I can't tell her we found it by using the sensors on Thunderbird Five. I can't tell her we sent out Thunderbird Four! That would be revealing our secret. And as good a friend as she is, I just can't expose IR to her. Not because I don't trust her, but because if anyone found out she knew, she'd be a target. And from what Gordon found out about her plane, she just may be one.
"Jeff?" Lou's call brought him out of his musings. "You were saying about my plane?"
"Oh, I'm sorry. I was just wondering if you had figured out any reason for it to go down, that's all," Jeff prevaricated.
"No, but I'm sure that my former employers will discover the cause if they can find the plane," Lou said tonelessly. She snapped her head around at the sound and sight of a car coming down the mountain, driving slowly past. She didn't turn around to watch its progress behind her, but she turned her head in the other direction to catch it as it continued down the slope.
She is so jumpy! Jeff realized. It's as if she thinks she's being shadowed. She may know more about this whole business than she's willing to tell.
The drizzle was giving way to actual rain now, and the clouds were lowering, threatening to envelop them in a thick, pea soup fog. Lou glanced over at Jeff and smiled. "We'd better get going. The weather is going sour and my cats will want their dinner soon."
"Okay," Jeff replied as he walked back to the passenger side door. He climbed in, and Lou took her place in the driver's seat. She backed out of the scenic overlook and headed back down the mountain, quietly concentrating on her driving in the worsening weather. Jeff glanced over at her from time to time, a serious and concerned look on his face. She caught him at it once, and smiled slightly, then reached over to touch his arm.
"We'll be home and dry soon enough."
They passed few other cars on the way back down, but one that they passed went up the mountain a short way, then made a U-turn, the driver turning off the lights as he did. Then he eased back down the mountain, turning the lights on again, staying close enough to see the tail lights of Lou's truck, but far enough back that he would be mistaken for nothing more than a careful driver in a rainy, rapidly darkening afternoon.