Chapter 3—A Warm Welcome
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She blinked in the dim cabin light and fumbled under the blanket for her iPod. She had already reset the clock to London time. No sense groaning about what time her body thought it was.
She was cold and stiff and needed to use the bathroom. Mrs. Fredericks in the seat next to her snorkeled in her sleep, her chins rucked up around her face by a travel pillow. Her son, Trevor, gawped open-mouthed in the aisle seat. No easy escape. She sighed. She could wait.
How long had it been since she’d spent an upside-down night—awake and asleep at the wrong times? She rolled her head, trying to stretch the kinks. Not that long ago, she decided. Before moving to Joe’s, the depression made her fall asleep in her chair by noon, then she’d be awake all night trolling the internet.
I ought to be good at this, she thought, yawning.
With great stealth, Carrie pulled up her purse and tucked away the iPod. The battery was almost dead anyway. She popped an Airborne tablet out of the bubble pack and chewed it, eying the narrow passage between Mrs. Fredericks’ knees and the next row of seats. Pushing up, she scanned the back of the plane. A small group huddled around the toilets. Well, there was nothing else to do.
She got up, hunched under the overhead bin, and tried to sidle past the elderly woman’s knees without falling into her lap. Bracing her hands against the headrest, she managed not to wake her. But Trevor was taller, and she would either have to climb over him or move his knees out of the way. Carrie tried to nudge them into the aisle, but he woke with a snort.
“Sorry,” she whispered, much too close to his doughy face.
He muttered something unintelligible and levered his knees sideways. Carrie cringed at the man’s fetid breath—a result of snoring for six hours, no doubt—and twisted into a “Z” to shuffle into the aisle.
Once free of her noisy neighbors and upright, her back twanged like a snapped guitar string. Sharp pains sparkled in her dead feet and legs. She lost her balance and grabbed at the overhead bin before she could topple back into Trevor’s lap. As he scowled and rearranged himself, Carrie bit her lips to keep from giggling. Did he know he was a Monty Python cliché? She could see Trevor in a bowler, doing a John Cleese silly walk.
No Python, she told herself as she got her feet moving. No Fry and Laurie. If I start laughing, I’ll never stop.
Like her, the other passengers had created nests for themselves. Pillows, sweaters and jackets stuck out like batting around twisted bodies. Plastic bottles, e-readers, lap tops, and trash littered the floor and bloomed from seat pockets. A few slack faces with hollow eyes watched the vid screens. Carrie saw lots of scary bed-hair and dried drool.
The cabin smelled like a locker room—stale air, body odor, too many fast food burritos. Carrie ran her tongue over furry teeth and stifled a yawn to keep from inflicting her own stench on the woman in front of her. Everyone waddled unsteadily, but moved the line forward.
Another hour or so and she’d be in London. London. The thought made her acid stomach lurch. For the millionth time she thanked the Universe that Giles was meeting her.
“I’ll be the git puckered up,” he had texted her.
She had a friend on the other end of this stinky, uncomfortable ordeal. A friend other than Robert.
As the line inched forward, she pulled out the newspaper clipping Patti had sent her. Like a talisman in her pocket, she had touched it each time her nerves overflowed, but never pulled it out. Reading it once had been enough.
The full-page article featured a photograph Ellen DeGeneres’ production assistant had taken of her and Robert in the green room. They grinned at the camera, arms around each other like life-long pals.
Local Author to School Raven Star
by Mike Killian
Lamb’s Grove author, Carrie Severide, thought she’d be promoting her new book,
Two Fronts: Fighting the Bipolar Wars, when she appeared on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” last month. Instead, she found herself under the spell of British actor, Robert Bierce.
Bierce, who plays Corvus Blackwood in “The Raven” series, asked Severide to tutor him for his next roll…
Carrie had seen a lot of pictures of Robert. In candids, on one Red Carpet or another, he was shy, reticent, polite. In photo shoots, he might call up the famous Smolder or pull out Corvus’ threatening glare. Once in a while a lucky photographer caught him laughing, but those shots were rare.
She smiled at the newspaper clipping. There was no mistaking it. Robert beamed. Like a Pee Wee hitting his first T-ball, raw joy made his grin contagious. Even the grainy, pixellated photo couldn’t filter the effect.
The picture matched the mood of his phone calls. He had called almost every day while she waited for her passport, quizzing her about the script. How would you react to that? What does distorted thinking feel like? Tell me about your parents…
It was research, what she agreed to provide, but it felt personal. Intimate. She told him details about her life that only her therapist knew. Even Joe didn’t know some of the dirt she gave Robert.
And he was always respectful, careful to a fault about prying. If she hesitated for a second, he immediately back-peddled.
“No, no,” she said once,” it’s okay, I just have to think how to answer.”
“Sometimes I feel like I do violence to you with all my questions,” he told her. “I worry about it.”
“I’ll be honest, this isn’t easy. But, it’s kind of exciting, too. I can’t wait to see what you do with this stuff.”
“You have no idea how you’ve made Frank come alive for me.” Earnest delight filled his voice—the same passion Sam caught in her picture. “With you here, on set, I think I might actually do him justice.”
Carrie folded the clipping and returned it to her pocket. She finally got her chance at the bathroom. After taking care of her most urgent needs, she stood at the sink and attended the others. Stripping off her new blouse and scrunch cloth jacket, she washed and dried herself with paper towels, then brushed her teeth with a tiny travel brush. The face staring back at her in the mirror looked puffy and pale—a tired, middle aged woman with delusions of muse-hood.
“Careful,” she warned that face. “It’s just a job. Okay, a really fun job, but don’t start making up stories.”
She leaned into the mirror and brought out her best British accent. “Oh, that way madness lies; let me shun that; No more of that.”
We are now making our descent to London Heathrow…
Carrie pressed against the window as the flight attendant told them to stow their personal items. Under the wing, dark layers of cloud sandwiched the orange pre-dawn. Below that, between patches of mist, lights glowed in a mishmash of streets and highways beginning to turn rosy. Just a glimpse, then the plane banked, and all she could see was the dark horizon with its belt of dawn slipping behind her. Lightning shot out of the black clouds in the distance. Coming or going? she wondered.
As the plane evened out, the city reappeared—vast with a wide black ribbon snaking across it.
“There’s the Thames,” Mrs. Fredericks said, leaning to peer out the window with her.
“Really?” Carrie’s stomach fluttered. “Oh…”
Suddenly, the sun broke through behind them, and the city lit up like gold filigree—fragile strings of light set in black pockets of green space. A tiny blue ring stood on its edge on the river’s bank.
“Is that The Eye?” Carrie whispered, pointing.
Mrs. Fredericks nodded, her chins set in motion. “Isn’t it beautiful from up here?”
“So many parks,” Carrie said. “I never knew London was so green.”
“Mostly owned by the monarchy until Victorian times,” Mrs. Fredericks smiled.
The plane dipped lower, following the loops and languor of the river. Carrie could make out car headlights on the roads now. The motorways curved like wheels with spokes cutting through. How did anyone ever find their way in that chaos?
It looked a little lonely, surrounded by all that green, gates blazing light. But still. Windsor Castle.
“Oh, it’s good to be home,” Mrs. Fredericks sighed, settling back into her seat. “I’ll be glad when I don’t have to endure this flight anymore to see my grandchildren.”
“Mother,” Trevor scolded.
“Oh, I know, darling. The Chicago Office and all that. But my ankles can’t tolerate another transatlantic.” She turned to Carrie. “Now, are you ready for Border Control, dear?”
“Yes, thank you for coaching me,” Carrie said. “I didn’t know I had to have my hotel address memorized.”
“Best to be on the safe side. And what will you say when asked why you’re coming to London?”
“That I’m a temporary creative worker under Tier Five.”
“That Daniel Mann is my sponsor, and here’s my certificate of sponsorship to prove it.”
“Brilliant, dear. You should have no trouble, though the queues are horrendous this time of day.”
The runway rushed up under them. Carrie braced against the seat in front of her as the wheels hit and the brakes roared. They taxied down and round, just like any other plane landing at any other airport. The terminal slid into view.
Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of the Captain and the entire crew, I want to thank you for flying United flight 958. Please remain seated until the “fasten seat belt” sign turns off. London time is 5:58 AM.
At Mrs. Frederick’s urging, she set off at a trot with her bag bumping behind her. It felt good to move, her new Dansko walking shoes hitting the tile, her big purse clutched under one arm. Gray light leaked through the high glass walls. The place would have been dazzling in bright sunlight.
She zipped around slower travelers and passed under the huge “Border Control” sign, hitting the queue well ahead of the crowd. An hour later, with her passport stamped, her papers and her person ogled (though politely), she walked under the green “Nothing to Declare” sign and entered the Arrivals Hall.
She couldn’t keep from grinning. The whole world was here, from the Chinese family arguing behind her in line, to the service men and women in unfamiliar uniforms, to children crying in Hindi and French. Yes, she was tired and a nervy, but the worst was behind her. She’d find Giles and, maybe, get her first cup of real English tea.
Carrie found the melon-colored Meeting Point sign and looked for a skinny geek with thinning ginger hair and hipster glasses. Bored business suites held up signs for “Weatherly,” “Katzenbaum,” and “Sanghvi.” She wound through them and circled the area. No Giles. She circled again, widening her perimeter. A green-haired girl leaped up and straddled her tattooed and pierced boyfriend. A sour, wild-haired man, grumbling in thick Cockney, snatched up a tired teen’s valise and marched to the exit. The boy trailed listlessly behind him. More meetings. More kisses. More people setting off together. But no Giles.
Panic started to creep up Carrie’s back as she found a seat and dug for her phone. It crept a little higher when a busy signal answered instead of Giles.
“Where are you?” she muttered, disconnecting
She took a deep breath, then another one. Maybe his battery is dead. Or he’s someplace without cell service. I’ll just sit here a while and relax. Just relax.
Lightening flashed from the window wall. Even in the noisy cavern of the Arrivals Hall, Carrie heard the clap and rolling grumbles that followed. Rain splattered the glass. She watched the ebb and flow of travelers—every color, every age, every mood. Some jumped at the thunder, others were too focused to notice the people around them let alone the weather.
With each crack of thunder, Carrie flinched. She felt the queasy hole in her stomach, the grit in her raw eyes. Her mind tried to race ahead like a dog straining on its leash. She rocked sideways in the hard plastic chair and concentrated on breathing.
One thing she was good at was crisis. Somehow it slapped her brain into working properly, if only until the situation was resolved. After that, it fainted into a puddle of hysteria. But that was later. Right now she needed to figure this out.
She called Giles number again. And again a busy signal answered. Then, she called Fiona, Daniel Mann’s assistant.
“Hey, Fi, this is Carrie,” she said at the voicemail prompt. “Giles was supposed to meet me at the airport, but it’s 8:30 now, so I’m going to take a cab to my hotel. Something must be wrong with his phone, so if he checks in, tell him to meet me there. If he’s not dead in a ditch. Which I hope he’s not. Because I don’t want to finish the rewrites by myself.”
There. The right amount of breezy and snark with no signs of hysteria. That ought to do it.
She found an information kiosk and got directions to the taxi ranks. Then, she hit an ATM machine. Then, she marched herself out the sliding doors and got her first taste of London—exhaust fumes and jet fuel in a thick stew of humidity. She yanked her bag through the cross walks, around growling buses and vans, to the long line of black cabs. A short, swarthy man got out of the lead cab.
“Can you take me to the Oakwood Arms in Slough?” she asked, rain pelting her.
“I can,” he said.
She crawled in with her bag and settled on the wide seat. As the cabbie maneuvered the clotted exodus out of the airport, Carrie focused her attention. The cab was immaculate, for one thing, with a hint of cinnamon air freshener. Out the window, nothing screamed England—the highway signs were the same green as at home; flat, boring warehouses surrounded the airport area. She could have been anywhere—not that she expected Beefeaters along the side of the road. But then she spotted a billboard sporting the Union Jack that announced a final soccer match at Wembley Stadium. That made her feel better.
In no time they pulled into the hotel’s circle drive. Layers of spring flowers tumbled out from the wet gravel. They melded into taller shrubs that hugged a sculptured yew tree hedge. On the inside arc of the drive a manicured lawn swept up to a bubbling stone-ringed fountain. The effect blocked out the rest of the world and drew them into the “arms” of the hotel. Brick, timber and stone stretched around the top of the drive. Carrie could see where additions had been built on over the years—a different color of slate or granite, a slightly changed pattern in the brick work. She took the warm light shining out through the rain as a good omen.
The cabbie pulled up to the covered entrance and waited.
“I’m sorry,” Carrie said through the divider window. “I haven’t learned your money yet. Can you help me?”
The cabbie half-turned. “Two o’ them.” He pointed at the bills in her hand. “That’ll do.”
“Okay.” She shoved the rest in her purse, hoping she hadn’t just paid for the whole cab. “Thanks.”
“Welcome to London, Mum,” he added.
The big double doors opened on a lobby from the turn of the last century. Marble pillars rose from the parquet wood floor to hold beams that arched across the ceiling. Paneled, cherry wainscoting ran from the carved front desk to a huge fireplace fronted by bas-relief cherubs and scrollwork. Painted landscapes hung from the bird’s egg-blue walls in gilded frames. Opposite the front desk, a wall of books stood ready behind glass doors. Tufted chairs; couches in pale striped silk; tall, opaque orchids in brass pots—it was another world.
Carrie dripped on the entry rug, mouth gaping. Would long white gloves and evening dress be required for dinner? Did gentlemen smoke cigars in the lounge?
“Welcome to Oakwood Arms.” A woman about Carrie’s age smiled from the desk. She wore a crisp navy blazer and short, spiked hair. “It’s a bit to take in at first, isn’t it?”
Carrie picked up her suitcase (she didn’t want to roll it on the pretty floor) and went to the woman. “I’ve never been any place so beautiful.”
“You have a reservation, then?”
“Yes. I’m sorry. Yes. Severide.”
The woman tapped a keyboard. “Ah, yes, Ms. Severide from the States. I’m afraid our check-in time doesn’t begin until 2:00 PM, but we can get things started.”
“2:00 PM.” Carrie’s stomach sank. She looked up at the big, old-fashioned clock behind the clerk. “I have to wait five hours to check in?”
She rested her elbows on the counter and rubbed her face. “My friend was supposed to meet me at the airport, but he never showed. We have work to do… it’s such a mess.”
“Does anyone know you’re here?” the woman asked.
“I left a message…”
“Then, they’ll find you.” She came around the desk. “Let me store your bag, then I’ll get you a nice cup of tea.” Her sensible heels marked time on the floor as she wheeled Carrie’s bag behind the counter and returned to her. “You’ve had a fright after your long trip.” She took Carrie’s arm and led her to one of the overstuffed chairs. “Breakfast service is finished, but Chef usually keeps some yummy bits back. Just a tick.”
Carrie sank into the chair. She could feel her Crisis Grip failing. And kindness always made her cry.
I should send texts home before I start blubbering, she thought, pulling out her phone. Nothing says “Don’t worry—I’m fine” like sobs and snot.
She sat for a minute, trying to think, feeling her capacity for that shrinking fast. Finally, she keyed, I’ve arrived. More later.
She closed her eyes. I’m okay, she told herself. I’m safe and being tended to by a punk-rocker matron. I could probably go fox hunting later if I wanted…
“Here we are.” The clerk set a wooden tray on the table beside Carrie’s chair. “Chef had some of his current buns left. They’re lovely.” She placed a hot mug in Carrie’s hands. “Drink up, now. You’ll feel better. And if you need anything more, I’m just behind the desk. I’m Bea, by the way.”
“Thank you, Bea,” Carrie croaked.
The tea did make her feel better—black with milk and sugar. And the miniature buns were yeasty and light. She licked her fingers and rested her head against the winged back of the chair. She could almost fall asleep…
Robert Bierce peered at her, heavy brow puckered over those Icelandic-blue eyes. “Such a nice dream,” she murmured. “Thanks.”
“Carrie,” he shook her arm a little harder.
“Uh…” She struggled up from a deep place. Where the hell was she?
“You can’t sleep yet,” Robert said, shaking her harder. “Otherwise you’ll never get over the jet lag. Come on. Up you go.”
He pulled her out of the chair and got her walking, which immediately pissed her off.
“Git!” she hissed, shoving him away.
“I’m sorry you had to fend for yourself at the airport,” he said, cautiously taking her arm. “That was brilliant, coming here.”
He walked her past the front desk. Bea lifted a penciled eyebrow, but said nothing.
“Fi still can’t raise Giles,” Robert continued as they strolled past the fireplace, “but a mobile tower went down in the storm. That might be it.”
Carry pulled her arm free. “All right. I’m awake. You don’t have to walk me like a poodle. She scowled at him. “So Fiona told you I was here?”
“Called me straight away.” He smiled. “Thought I could come rescue you.”
Carrie couldn’t help but laugh. How many times had she fantasized about that.
Then, the front doors flew open and a soaked, balding Scotsman stormed in like a Pict ready for battle. He glared at them, wind flinging rain through the open door behind him, his black trench coat flapping like a cape. All he needed was an axe.
Then he saw the tea service on the side table.
“Right,” Giles said, stomping toward it. “Got any biscuits?”
To read Chapter 4—Out of the Frying Pan, click here.