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Odd Man Out
O d d
M a n
O u t
Richard
by
 
t h e   b l u e
l i b r a r i a n
Barrett sits up in the bed, listening to the bird song in the square outside. Half seriously, he tries to identify the individual species in the chorus, and then gives up the effort. Here in London, as in all British cities, it will be mostly sparrows and pigeons with the occasional blackbird or starling. Nothing more exotic. Not like bird watching when he was a boy, out in the country…
 
He sighs a little to himself, then begins to think about breakfast, and what comes before breakfast. The Times crossword and maybe a run before that, before the rest of the city is awake. Suddenly animated, he starts to move, swinging his legs over the side of the bed.
 
The woman who’s there with him stirs and reaches out a warm hand to touch his back. He stops, waits, listens. After a moment she rolls over and goes back to sleep. He walks quietly out of the room, passing the air hostess uniform folded neatly on a chair, next to the overnight bag. He has offered her wardrobe space before and she has always refused.
 
When he gets back from his run, a milk bottle in one hand and the paper in the other, she is up and dressed and sitting at the table, drinking her usual black coffee with sweeteners, nibbling at dry toast with a thin scrape of butter. She seems abstracted, staring out of the window at the green of the garden in the middle of the square. Barrett grins and kisses her on the cheek.
“I’ll take a bath.”
“No, don’t. Sit down.”
 
Something in her tone disturbs him and he puts the things on the table. He stands watching her and she reaches out and gently pulls him down into a seat.
“Richard, how long have we been seeing each other ?”
“We met about six months ago.”
“At the theatre, remember ?”
“Yes, I remember. Interval drinks. You spilled yours down my back.”
“And you were charming about it.”
“Thank you.”
 
He is watching her intently, even though his tone is the one he keeps in reserve for parties and what he thinks of as frivolous conversations. A part of her is sorry that she is going to have to hurt him. But she knows that she has no choice. Not if she wants to get out of this whole herself. She tries to think of a good way to put it, finds there isn’t one, settles for being blunt.
“Richard, I’m leaving you.”
 
He raises an eyebrow.
“Was it something I said ? Or didn’t say ? We have been… rather good friends.”
“Yes. And I’ve enjoyed it, but it can’t go on.”
“Why not ? I thought the arrangement worked very well.”
“It does. I do like you. I’m not the kind of girl who sleeps with every man she meets, you know.”
 
That cracks the flippant mask at once “I never thought that.”
“No. You respect me as a person, which made me respect you. It could have been the beginning of something else. A life together, maybe.”
“But….” he prompts.
“But I can’t touch you, Richard. There’s a part of you that’s always hidden.”
“That’s true of everyone.”
“Not like you. You’re different. You actually prefer being alone. You don’t really need me.”
“Are you calling me a psychopath?”
“No. You do care about other people. You care about me.” Her voice catches. “I gave myself a deadline. I won’t wait forever for you to make your mind up.”
 
Through his shock he realises for the first time that her overnight bag is packed and waiting by the door. ‘She did it while I was out’ he thinks. He’s quite proud of how steady his voice is “I could change.”
“No you couldn’t. And you’re not the kind of person who likes being blackmailed, anyway.”
She stands up. “Goodbye, Richard. We won’t see each other again. It would be too painful.”
 
When the door has closed behind her he sits for a little while, looking out of the window. Then, in his numbness, habit reasserts itself and he begins to do the crossword.
The wide hall is filled with pictures and the boy stands, quite still, in front of the oldest of them. His dark head is tilted as he studies the face of the long dead ecclesiastic who helped found the school. Upstairs, in the gallery, the two men watch him.
“He’s in your house, isn’t he ?” Thorne, the sports teacher, says. He’s new and has not quite got all of the faces and names straight in his head yet. The other man, Graves, nods “Yes, and I have him for mathematics. He’s a clever lad.”
“So he probably knows he shouldn’t be here.”
“I think so.” The older man steps forward and calls quietly “Barrett !”
 
The boy turns around. Thorne is unwillingly impressed by his composure and feels a twinge of dislike. He is still doubtful of his ability to deal with some of the more difficult pupils and he likes them to know when they’ve done wrong and react accordingly. This one acts as though whatever he does is right.
“Sir?”
“This hall is out of bounds. Go back to your study and report to me in the morning.”
“Yes, sir.”
 
The boy turns to go.
“Barrett?”
“Sir?”
“What were you doing here?”
“I forgot a book. And I’ve always liked that painting.”
“It’s a bit old, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but he has an interesting face.”
 
After Barrett has gone the two men stand and look at the painting together. “Is he always like that?” Thorne asks.
“Always.”
“That self possessed?”
“Yes.”
“Does he have many friends?”
“Oh, yes. He’s quite popular.”
“I don’t understand that.”
“Boys are very superficial creatures. They don’t see it.”
“And he plays sport?”
“Centre three quarter. Not in the first team. He hasn’t got the weight, but he can run.”
“What will you do to him in the morning?”
“I’ll set him a mathematical problem. It’s what I usually do.”
 
Thorne looks at the other man, startled. “You won’t cane him?”
Graves smiles “It wouldn’t do any good. Not with Barrett.”
Richard, Craig, and the Innkeeper
"I really don’t know, sir. Are you sure your friend stayed here?” the innkeeper says. Outside, the birds are singing, responding to the spring warmth of the day. Barrett listens to them idly, letting the implied menace of Craig’s american accent do the work. Strange how the man can smile and threaten at the same time.
“Well, considering that she signed the visitor’s register…” Stirling’s finger stabs down at the entry. The innkeeper swallows.
“Oh, that young lady. Well…. I think she might have…..left. Yes. Left. Last night.”
“And not checked out?”
“We might not have noted it, yet, sir. I’ll find out for you.”
“You do that.”
 
The innkeeper nods, vanishes into a back room. Barrett can feel the hostile stares of the locals drilling into his back.
“Craig …”
“Shh.” Craig says quietly. “Listen.”
 
They both lean on the bar, apparently studying the visitors’ register, tuning in to the conversation going on behind the thick oak door that leads from the bar to the kitchen. The landlord is talking to a woman, probably his wife.
 
“I don’t like the looks of them. I’m telling you now. We need to warn her.”
“About what ?”
“About strangers. Looking for her.”
“And if they are ?”
“What do you mean ?”
“I mean that if she could stand up to old Macready, she can stand up to anybody.”
“And if they’re more dangerous than that?”
“You’ve been watching too many of them cowboy films. Send George to tell her they’re here. Let her decide. She’ll know what to do.”
 
A pause “All right.”
 
Richard puts a hand on Stirling’s arm “Keep them talking. I’ll follow George, whoever he is.”
“How will you recognise him ?” Stirling asks quietly.
“I’ll follow the next person to leave by the back door.”
“That should do it all right. Oh, he’s coming back. Round two.”
 
Barrett leaves the taproom and turns the corner just in time to see the kitchen skivvy sprinting across the village green towards the church, his shirt sleeves still rolled up. He breaks into a fast walk and follows him, glancing back to check no one else has left the inn. The atmosphere in the pub changed as soon as they asked after Sharron and he doesn’t want to be facing the business end of a shotgun today.
 
He walks into the graveyard through the gate with its absurd peaked roof and comes across them almost at once - the youth who ran across is talking fifteen to the dozen, pointing back to the inn and Sharron is listening carefully, the great mass of her hair free for once and spread down her back.
“….they’re asking after you and we thought they might be some of these missionaries he gives house room to. One of them’s American and…”
“It’s all right. I know who they are.”
“I could run and get the constable…”
“To the next village ? Don’t worry, George, I’ll settle this.”
“Miss Macready…..”
“Doesn’t need your help.” Barrett says.
 
George stands for a second looking at him, clearly measuring his chances. He’s about sixteen and Barrett has a distinct weight and height advantage. Then his jaw sets and his fists clench. He takes a step forward and Barrett mentally admires his courage.
“You leave her alone. Or I’ll…”
“Calm down. I’m not looking for a fight.”
“I won’t let you hurt her.”
“George…” Sharron says.
“Look, why don’t you listen to Miss Macready and just go away. You’re not needed here.”
 
The boy must belong to some sort of boxing club - the punch he throws is focused and fast. Luckily Barrett is half expecting it and dodges. Then he steps in, puts a hand on his opponent’s chest, and pushes hard. George flies backwards and lands flat on his back, stunned. Barrett looks at Sharron.
“Tell your friend to calm down.”
“Or what ? Go away, Richard. Wait in the church.”
 
She watches as Barrett leaves, her foot tapping in an irritated rhythm. He walks around the building, finds a place where the sunlight is falling and sits down on a bench there, the wood warm against his back. After a while he closes his eyes and rests until he hears someone coming closer. A light footstep - a woman. He moves along the bench without opening his eyes, making room. After a second, Sharron sits down next to him.
“You look comfortable.”
“Just working on my tan.”
“Why are you here ?”
“I came to get you. Tremayne wants us.”
“I’m on holiday !”
“One thing you’ll learn about being an agent, Sharron. We’re always on call. Holidays tend to get interrupted. Ready to go ?”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
 
Barrett opens his eyes and looks at her. “You sound almost regretful.”
“Why does that surprise you ?”
“This isn’t exactly the Cote D’Azur.”
“No. But I met my husband here. There are happy memories.”
“And he’s buried here. Is that it ?”
“He isn’t buried anywhere. He was lost at sea. They never found his body.”
“I didn’t know that. That’s hard.”
“It was. Since the crash, I feel differently.”
 
“Most things are different since then.”
Barrett says and gets up, suddenly restless. He walks away, hearing the crunch of gravel under his feet. Sharron stares into the middle distance.
“It’s as though I completed my grieving. I couldn’t before. And the strange thing is - I’ve got him back now. I couldn’t think about him before. It was too painful. But now I remember so much ! Everything is clear again.”

 
She smiles radiantly and then sees how Barrett is standing, his back turned to her, aloof. “Richard ! Are you all right ?”
“I’m fine, thank you.”
“No you’re not. What’s the matter?”
 
He scowls. “Doesn’t it bother you?”
“What?”
“The fact that your mind isn’t your own any more.”
“What do you mean?”
 
Barrett turns back to her, his face savage.
 
“Don’t you remember how it was? Before the crash?”
“Yes, of course.”
“All of it?”
“I don’t understand.”
“You were grieving for your husband.”
“Yes, I know. And you tried to be kind, in a clumsy sort of way, and you tried to talk me out of it. As if you could ! Just as you tried to help me when the plane was crashing. You tried to help me hold on.”
“Not that. What else?”
“Well….you and Craig didn’t like each other very much. That was obvious. I think somebody told me that you’d actually had a fist fight once. A long time ago.”
“We did. He won.”
“And now it’s changed. So?”
“So, it was my dislike of Craig, your grief. It belonged to us. Now it’s gone, wiped out of our minds. We’ve been changed. Without our agreement.”

 
Sharron can feel the tension in him - she wonders if Craig is picking this up, back at the inn. She stands up, carefully lays a hand on his arm. He doesn’t shake it off and for a second they stand close together. Then he turns away again and she turns with him, so that her grip isn’t broken. Gently, gently, like holding a wild animal with a broken limb, in case its heart bursts with the fear of being held, and you kill it while you’re trying to help it. She realises that he is in pain, though it is impossible to tell from his face. The old public school training has him in its grip.
 
“Richard…they healed us. They didn’t change our personalities, our minds. They just…..”
“Yes?”
“They made us as …. well as we could be. We’re all different, you’re less twitchy, Craig doesn’t swagger as much, I’m not …trapped in my grief any more. But we are still ourselves. Just better.”
“I wish I could believe that.”
“If you don’t, it’s because you don’t want to. Richard? Is it the link that bothers you ?”
 
He flinches and then looks at her. “A bit.”
“But why? It’s just a developed form of the sixth sense, if you like. We all know when one of us is in trouble. That’s as far as it goes. If it was going to develop any more it would have done so by now.”
“I suppose you’re right.” he says slowly. She can feel the tension bleeding out of him.
Against his will, he believes her. Because of the link he distrusts.
“You know I am.”
“Trust you, you’re a doctor?”
“Something like that.”
“And you trust them. The people in the city.”
“Yes.”
 
He reaches out and traces the edge of a gravestone with the other hand. “Why?”
“Simple. They’ve given us the power to destroy them.”
That gets his attention. “What do you mean?”
“If we told what we knew, they wouldn’t be safe. Do you think they could resist an invading army ?”
“I imagine they’d have ways of defending themselves.”
“Against the Chinese? Can you imagine what they’d do to get their hands on something like this? The city would be destroyed. The only thing that protects it is secrecy.”
“You’ve thought about this too, haven’t you.”
“Yes. On the walk back. There was nothing else to think about, after all.”
“No, I suppose not.”

 
His shoulders hunch. “There is another possibility.”
“What’s that?”
“That we’ve been brainwashed.”
“To do what?”
“I don’t know. We could be sleepers.”
“That’s insane, Richard. You’re saying that the people in the city have some plan that can wait until a group of people who happen to be agents happen to fall into their power. It doesn’t make sense.”
“There are some people in internal security who don’t agree with you.”
“That man with the glasses ? He’s spent hours interrogating us and he can’t find anything.”
 
Richard grins for the first time “Maybe he shouldn’t have concentrated his efforts on you. I think he was expecting a weak woman.”
 
It’s like the clouds clearing. The first time she has seen his crooked grin since they got back from the mission. It was rare before and she hadn’t remembered how much it changed his face. Fondness overwhelms her. Quickly, she kisses his cheek, then drops his hand and turns away while he is still looking startled.
She looks back. “Shall we go and find Craig?”
He shrugs, follows her. “This place is really beautiful, Sharron. You’ll have to tell me the story some time.”
She stands, waiting. Her hand is on the gate her husband held open for her on the day of their wedding “One day.”
Sharron
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