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A Time to Love, A Time to Die


Bruce Longman

Fiona hesitated for a moment. 'Oh, what the hell,' she muttered and pushed her way through the swing door. She was momentarily blinded by the darkened interior of the pub and hesitated again before her eyes adjusted to the gloom.

The place was filled with people. A sudden hush fell over the pub and all eyes swiveled in her direction as she walked uncertainly up to the bar. She tried to ignore the appreciative glances the mostly male clientele cast at her trim figure and quickly ordered a coke before slinking into the corner of an empty booth at the back of the pub. Gradually the noise returned to normal as the lunch time crowd forgot the temporary distraction. She realized that going into the bar was probably a mistake. Peter would certainly not approve.

But then he was safely entrenched at the government research center working on some secret project or other. She glanced at the men thronging the bar. No, coming here was not a good idea, but after several hours of exploring this backwater that had now become home, she needed a drink. Not a drink, but a coke or anything non-alcoholic.

Fiona used to be an alcoholic. Or, as she always said at her regular AA meetings, she still was an alcoholic, but hadn't touched a drop in five years.

It was her unusual beauty that had been the catalyst in her downward spiral of self-destruction.

Being beautiful meant being popular, and in no time at all she had been irrevocably sucked into the sex, drugs and rock 'n roll philosophy of the 'cool' set.

'...Professor Peter Cartwright...'

The shock of hearing her husband's name brought Fiona out of her reverie. She had been vaguely conscious of first one man, then a second, quietly take up the booth next to her, but she hadn't paid any attention to their conversation.

' got it?' The man spoke in a quiet, conspiratorial tone and Fiona struggled to hear the conversation above the hubbub in the bar. His accent was also curious. East-European perhaps.

'Yes. Wasn't easy though.' The second man's voice was low and clipped, sounding as if he snipped off the end of his words with a scissors. He also spoke with the same refined but guttural accent.

'Excellent! That will kill him all right,' the man replied cheerfully.

Fiona frowned. Kill? What were these clowns talking about?

'When do we do it?' Scissors Voice asked.

'We can take him out this afternoon.'

Fiona nearly choked on her soft drink. Take out? Kill? Surely not...

'In that case, here's to the demise of the erstwhile prim and proper Professor Peter Cartwright.'

Fiona heard the clink of glass on glass and both men laughed.

These men were planning to kill her husband! Cold fingers of dread clutched at her stomach.

She shrank back even further into the corner of the booth. Assassins! Had to be. Dispatched by some foreign power to stop whatever research Peter was busy on. Permanently. Delay the production of some secret weapon, she supposed.

'So, how are we going to play it?' Scissors Voice asked in his strange accent.

'We send the package by courier. I certainly don't want to be nearby when he opens it!' More howls of laughter.

A bomb! The 'package' had to be a bomb. Fiona slipped down even further in the worn vinyl seat. They mustn’t see me, she thought in a panic, realizing that the men must have assumed that the high backed booth next to them was empty, and they could meet and discuss their plan in private.

'What about his wife?'

'Does it matter if we take her out as well?'

'Uh...I suppose not. Okay, let's do it.'

Fiona heard the men get up to leave. She couldn't believe what she had heard. These two killers had calmly sat in a bar and planned the death of her husband. Hers as well, if she got in the way.

Kill Peter? No! Life without Peter was...unthinkable!

She had known him ever since high school, when he was a pimply faced but brilliant nerd, who scored big on grades but low on dates. He had worshipped Fiona with an impassioned fervour that remained miraculously undiminished by the obvious pleasure she derived from publicly rejecting him. Neither had he forgotten her during his college years; although attending university in Germany on some foreign scholarship, he nevertheless found the time to visit her whenever he was home.

Once he completed his degree and began working for the government he still popped up in her life every few months 'just to see how she was doing'. Not that she was doing very well at that stage. Drugs, booze and too much living too soon, had already begun to take its toll, but he never said a word about her lifestyle, even when she had finally been arrested on drug charges.

No, Peter was the best! She would have to warn him.

'I'm sorry Mrs. Cartwright, but you know the Professor cannot accept calls when he's in the laboratory.'

'But this is an emergency.'

'I can put you through to Captain Hardcastle from security, he is briefed to handle all personal emergencies.'

'No thanks,' Fiona replied, slamming down the receiver. Captain Hardcastle was chief of security at the plant, and no fan of Fiona's. When the Department of Defense had transferred Peter to this new top secret research laboratory, Hardcastle had read the scientist's file with horror at the discovery of Fiona's background. She was the embodiment of the security man's worst nightmare. Fiona could sympathize with his attitude; her record as an upright citizen was not exactly unmarred by human failure. If she told him she had overheard a plot to kill her husband in some sleazy bar, he would probably think she was on the bottle again.

She considered driving over to the research center herself, but quickly discounted that, as even if she could somehow get to see Peter, she doubted that even he would believe her. As much as she loved him, Fiona was quite aware of her learned husband's failings. He was a thinker, not a doer. He would probably still be running a feasibility study on the likelihood of her story through his laptop computer when the bomb blew his limbs apart.

No, she would need hard evidence to convince anyone that she was telling the truth and not suffering from some post traumatic stress disorder or regressive paranoia.

But, how to get it?

The men were going to courier the bomb to...where? The installation? Not likely, not with Hardcastle's security. It had to be their cottage up on the hill outside of town. And this was also a small village with only one courier service...

Fiona pulled her MG to the curb on the opposite side of the road to the small courier office. The little red sportster had been a present from Peter on her first anniversary out of detox, two months after their small wedding.

There was a blue Ford parked outside the courier office. The killer's car? She tried to peer through the glass into the office, but the reflection showed her only a mirrored image of the street.

After a few minutes two men emerged from the office and strolled casually towards the Ford. It had to be the killers. She lowered herself in her seat and examined them carefully over the top of her door. They didn't look like killers, but then what did killers look like? These men had the appearance of academics; tweed suits, full beards and formidable looking spectacles. The latter two of course being a perfect disguise, Fiona realized.

She waited for the blue Ford to pull away from the curb before jumping out of the MG. She quickly skipped across the road and into the courier office. 'Excuse me.' She attracted the attention of the clerk behind the desk. 'Uh...those men who just left...I believe they dropped off a parcel for Professor Cartwright?'

'You mean Mr. Jan Schmidt and his associate?'

'Yes,' Fiona said, thinking: sure, Jan Schmidt - the German equivalent to John Smith - like hell that's his real name. She took out her ID. 'As you can see, I am the Professor's wife, so why don't you release the parcel to me, and I'll give it to him tonight when he gets home?'

'I'm sorry Mrs. Cartwright, but I immediately dispatched it by motorcycle delivery.' He smiled. 'We pride ourselves on our quick service.'

A hollow appeared in the depths of Fiona's stomach. Don't panic girl, she instructed herself, Peter doesn't get home from work until six, so there's plenty of time to pick up the bomb from home and take it to Hardcastle to be defused.

Fiona dashed out of the office and half-walked, half-ran to her car. Pre-occupied in her haste to get going, she didn't notice the tall bearded man wearing a tweed jacket and thick-lensed spectacles until he leaned right across her vision.

'Mrs. Cartwright?'

Scissors Voice!

Fiona was temporarily frozen with fear, mesmerized by the cold steel of his pale blue eyes - killer's eyes - slicing into her through the lenses of his spectacles.

'You are Mrs. Cartwright?'

'Uh...yes,' she stammered, at last able to break through the rope of dread binding her tongue.

'Can I...can I help you?'

'You don't know me, but I know all about you. You're very distinctive. Even more pretty in person than your photograph.'

He smiled cheerfully, but Fiona was not fooled by his friendly demeanour. She knew that his outwardly affable attitude disguised a malicious contempt for her life. 'I just saw you exit the courier shop. I take it you've discovered our little plan. That is regrettable. I had hoped our parcel would be a surprise for Peter.' He leaned forward cheerfully, menacingly. 'Perhaps a change of plan is in order. I think..'

Fiona gave him no more time in which to disclose what he thought. Energized by fear for her own safety as well as Peter's, she slammed the little car into first gear and dropped the clutch, leaving the killer staring bemusedly after her. In her rear view mirror, she saw him turn on his heels and sprint to the blue Ford where his partner was waiting.

The chase was on.

But not for long. Fiona took two quick turns and pulled directly into the back workshop of a service station and behind a huge tow truck. Scissor's Voice and friend wouldn't find her without a door to door inspection.

She sat forward in the seat and dropped her face into her hands.

The parcel was on its way to her house, and the killers were on to her. Dammit to hell! she raged, why didn't I wait until the Ford was completely out of sight before rushing into the courier shop? She had to get to the house to intercept the bomb before Peter came home. But the killers would know that as well, and once they couldn't find her cruising the streets, they would naturally head for her house.

'Can I help you?'

Fiona looked up to see a man in grease stained overall staring curiously at her.

', I'm just…' She stopped mid-sentence, suddenly, sadly, realizing just what she had to do.

'Uh...yes, can I have a large can of oil and a can of gas please?'

Fiona drove as fast as she dared. She had spotted the blue Ford driving slowly down the main road in the opposite direction to her home, and had shot out of the garage and down a side street where they couldn't see her heading for the highway.

As she turned on to the highway, a motorcycle bearing a large ACE COURIERS sign emblazoned on its fuel tank passed her heading back into town. A shroud of depression settled over her. She was sickened by a vision of Peter sheathed in a blanket of flame, flesh bubbling from his frame in huge smoking black strips as he screamed his way into oblivion.

NO! She would save him, just as he had saved her five years ago.

Somehow he arranged for her to be released from custody and into a rehabilitative program; made all the charges go away. He took the shattered pieces of her life and pasted them together again. She no longer found his diminutive stature, nerd-like appearance and analytical nature repellent; she learned to look beyond the outer man and revel instead in his unconditional love for her. The granite reason and steely logic she had once scorned now became a sanctuary she could shelter in. For the first time she discovered the one thing that had eluded her for most of her life; love. An emotion so powerful she still lay awake at night marvelling at its absolute simplicity.

Fiona turned off the highway and on to the tiny side road that led to the small cottage Peter had rented at the top of the hill. For once she was grateful for his obsession with privacy. The house was perched on the top of a steep hill serviced only by a narrow road, which, in places, teetered on the edge of a cliff that overlooked the valley below.

She selected a stretch of road that curved sharply to the right, while on the left the ground dropped straight to the valley floor. She reversed the small car behind a bush beyond the curve, and removed the can of oil.

She walked woodenly over to the stretch of tarmac just before the curve and twisted the cap off the can of oil, spreading the thick liquid across the road. Tossing the empty can over the edge of the cliff, she ran back to her car and crouched behind the steering wheel looking out on the valley below, waiting.

She checked her wristwatch. Just after two. Plenty of time before Peter came home. She would dispose of the bomb once...well, once the killers were taken care of.

She stared back down into the valley and immediately recoiled with shock. She could see a depressingly familiar blue Ford turning off the highway and heading up their private road.

There was no going back now.

Fiona stared apprehensively at the oil glistening in the early afternoon sun. She was doing what had to be done in order to safeguard the man she loved and preserve the only peace and tranquillity she had ever known. But she could draw no comfort from these rationalizations and began to shake uncontrollably as the sound of the killer's car labouring up the hill reached her ears. Her fingers burned white at the knuckle as she clutched the steering wheel even tighter.

The Ford never stood a chance.

Without even wavering, it skidded straight over the cliff almost soundlessly as its tires lost all purchase on the slippery road. It seemed to clutch desperately at nothingness, before finally losing momentum and dropping out of sight.

Fiona screwed her eyes shut, hearing only the scream of the engine racing on its death plunge.

She could still see a vivid picture of Jan Schmidt waving his arms in panic as he fought the steering wheel for control. She clamped her hands over her ears, but this still failed to block out the sound of screeching metal tearing into the jagged rocks below.

At last silence returned, restoring peace to the tortured landscape.

Fiona climbed slowly out of her car and stared vacantly at the edge of the road, stunned by the rapidity of the entire episode. She stumbled to the rear of her car and removed the can of petrol.

Still quivering with shock, she poured the fiery liquid over the remains of the oil. At no stage could she bring herself to look over the edge of the cliff, as that would be the ultimate confession of her sin.

She flicked a lighted match on to the petrol and watched the oily mixture explode into great gouts of fire lancing into the afternoon sky. She doubted that anyone would notice the flames, but did not really care, as Peter was safe and that was all that mattered. Within a few seconds the windy sound of hungry flames dissipated, leaving only a few black marks on the tar as an epitaph to the killers' passing. The oil had burnt completely away leaving the road safe to travel on. Safe for Peter.

She drove the last mile home in a bleak state of depression. A strange calm had settled on her after the frenetic pace of her earlier soul-searching, and for the moment she just existed.

She rounded the last corner and froze in shock as she saw Peter's sedate sedan parked outside the cottage. 'Oh, no!' she screamed in panic, slamming her foot on the accelerator. 'What's he doing home so early?'

Her car ground to a halt outside the front door. There was no parcel on the doorstep. She flew through the doorway just in time to see Peter ripping through the last of the brown paper covering the package.

He looked up at her in surprise. 'Hello darling, I was going to wait until you got home before I opened this, but my curiosity...'

'Don't open that!' she shrieked at him.

'What are you so upset about?' He frowned, stubbornly lifting up the lid of the now uncovered cardboard box.

Fiona closed her eyes, bracing herself for the devastating explosion she knew she would never survive.

A moment's deathly silence.

Peter exploded into raucous laughter.

Fiona's eyes shot open, her mouth gaping wide in astonishment. Her husband held up a silver-framed photograph of himself, trousers around his ankles, showing his skinny posterior to a group of horrified university professors.

'This was the one and only time I ever got totally smashed at 'varsity in Hamburg,' he giggled, 'and showed a brown-eye to my German professors on graduation day. They're very conservative over there, y'know. Oh, where on earth did they get a copy of this pic? It couldn't have been easy. Those guys. They kill me! When Jan phoned me late last night to say he and Karl were in the country on business, he did say that they had a nasty surprise that would bring me down a peg or two. Well, he certainly wasn't kidding!'

Peter placed the cardboard box on the dining room table and walked towards her. 'That's why I'm home early actually, they said they'd drop by this afternoon to take me out. I suppose they won't mind taking you out as well.' Peter frowned. 'I wonder where they are?'

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