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The coffee is a tall, precise drink, consisting of the soft brown coffee in the bottom, whipped white cream spilling over the glass’ side and orange shavings on the top. It is sitting on the table top, – untouched – waiting for pursed lips.
The man sitting beside it is sitting alone. The café – a stylish, modern bar of black polished marble – is empty. Only the scurrying people behind the bar make any noise, busying themselves with nothing of importance.
Slowly, the man turns his head to the window and stares out, waiting. Outside it is cold, wintry midday. Grey has seeped through the sky. However, no one comes to this side of town; everyone knows not to.
A silver green shirt glimmers under a heavy grey suit. A walking stick lies under the table. Wrinkled hands touch wrinkled face. The man leans back on his chair expectantly, closing his eyes for a moment. He has been here before, as a child, playing in the field crushed under the café floor. He has chosen to be here to reconnect: to taste childhood again.
Also, for business. It has beckoned him here.
But they haven’t arrived yet. And his coffee is getting cold.
What does he feel? Nervous? Sad? …Scared?
…Nothing. His emotions have been frozen for so long, there are none left.
Running his fingers round the smooth edge of the table, the man watches as a large black car pulls up outside the café. A woman gets out. Recognising her demeanour, the man sits up, pulls his coffee towards him and folds his hands on the table. His eyes don’t leave her.
Silently opening the door, the woman enters, pulling off her navy blue gloves with care. Their eyes connect, meet and flash as she walks straight towards him. The man’s waiting is over.
“Mr Carter.” Her voice is as silky as ever, if anything a little dry and cracked with age.
Carter looks at her and at once an immense wave of emotion washes over him. One glance of her face brings everything back that they have been through. Flashes of past scenes between them flicker in front of Carter’s tired eyes: a garden at four, a beach at twelve, an apartment at seventeen… a cellar at twenty four… a warehouse at thirty nine… And those were only the most vivid memories that have been refreshed. The woman’s face replays all the memories Carter loves and treasures… and the memories Carter tries restlessly to erase from his mind. Just a glance brings an uplifting feeling of joy and a deep pang of pain to Carter at the same time. Age had not changed that; age had not taken that away.
Her face is the same, but physically the woman is completely different. Her skin is greyer, lined and worn out. The woman’s once long glossy brown hair has changed to a tight shimmering, grey bun. But what Carter notices the most is her eyes. Her large, gleaming brown eyes are what Carter remembers the most about her; eyes that expected anything to happen - eyes that had freedom.
They are gone. Like Carter’s, her eyes are now glazed – empty. Nothing but black holes leading to a hollow soul. The things that had happened to her eventually dulled them down to nothing. The uncertainty, the lies, the betrayals she had been through… they had drained the life out of her.
Making them the same.
“Mrs Rose Lamont,” Carter says breezily, smiling emptily. “How lovely to see you again.”
“Yes.” Rose says curtly, smiling briefly in return. Through her composed expression, she is uneasy. Without invitation, she sits down firmly opposite Carter, wary that his eyes are still fixed on her.
“As I said, wonderful to see you again after so long,” Carter says. “When was the last time we saw each other, Rose? When was it? Twenty years ago?”
“Something like that.” Rose replies, uninterested.
“I can barely remember our last meeting. I remember it being quite short-…”
“I remember.” Rose interrupts.
“You do?” Carter asks.
“Yes,” She confirms. “San Francisco.”
“Ah yes.” Carter leans back on his chair again, remembering that encounter. It sends a shocking chill up his spine. He addresses Rose again. “I kept a memo of the time we spent on the beach there. An orange shell – like the ones on our old beach back home. Do you remember? You and I, sitting on our little private corner of the beach till nightfall, just collecting funny looking shells…”
Rose suddenly looks a little uncomfortable and looks away. “Yes. When we were twelve.”
“You were eleven.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
The conversation breaks into a pause.
Taking his time, Carter sips his coffee, brushing the cream off his pink brittle lips.
“Can I get you anything?” A smart looking waiter approaches the two, finding a good time to interject on their conversation.
“A black tea please.” Rose says coolly.
The waiter nods and walks away briskly. In silence, the two of them wait for the tea. With the tiniest clatter, the steaming cup is placed in front of Rose before the waiter leaves them. Rose stretches out to pick up the tea.
“Have you missed me?” Carter suddenly asks.
“No.” Rose retaliates back almost instantly.
“You have. You have loved me once.”
“No.” Rose repeats. “I didn’t love you. All of that is gone now Carter. I’m only here on business.”
A flash of pain appears and fades away as quickly as it came in Carter’s eyes. “Business, Rose...” He sighs. “Business - what for? What has working for this Organisation ever left us with? Nothing. It has just stripped us bare.”
“And yet you’re here,” Rose says. “I called you here for business, and you came.”
“I came to see you again.”
The café door opens and Rose turns her head. A tall, heavy looking man enters the room, setting his eyes on Rose and Carter. Leaving his dark brown umbrella by the door, he strides towards them, casually brushing the rain off his thick but sharp-cut black coat.
“Carter. Good afternoon.” The man acknowledges Carter in a deep, gruff voice.
“Good afternoon Lamont.” Carter returns the courtesy. Lamont is about fifty now. The last time Carter had seen him, he had been thirty. Lamont’s features are as thick-set and intense as Carter remembers them, if anything they are a little tired with age. Lamont reaches over the table and shakes Carter’s hand. Their eyes meet.
And Carter then knew that Lamont still wants him dead.
The mad murderous glint in Lamont’s eye at Carter’s contact told him this. Lamont’s crushing grip on Carter’s hand told him this. The fact that twenty years ago this same hand had been around Carter’s throat told him this. Nothing has changed Lamont.
“What kept you Richard?” Rose asks as Lamont pulls up a chair to the table.
“…Complications.” Lamont replies hesitantly. “But nothing I can’t handle.” He settles himself down, leaning on the table imposingly. “So Rose. Have you made the proposal yet?”
“Not yet.” Rose admits.
“I’m ready to listen.” Carter says as he tucks in his chair.
Rose sips her tea before starting: “Mr Carter, we called you hear to deliver a message from the Organisation. I think you can guess what it’s about. They have told us that you have gone too far. The way you have used the Organisation in the past for your own gain, the people and other corporations you have meddled with, the badly made decisions you carried out when you were in positions of power… it has disgraced the Organisation. They are ashamed of you. Especially with your latest charade… Their order for you is this: take your punishment. The Organisation want you to meet them, to call into account of your wrongdoing, and pay for what you have done under their own sentence. If not… you know what they’ll do. They won’t hesitate to.”
Another brief silence follows. Carter replays the message in his head.
“So what do you say?” Lamont asks casually to Carter.
“I can’t do it.” Carter says immediately.
Lamont raises his eyebrows a little but says nothing.
Rose gags on her tea. “You’re not going to go?”
“No,” Carter repeats. “I’m a proud man and I believe what I did was right. I will not be humiliated for something like this.”
“Don’t be a fool,” Rose says heatedly. “If you don’t go they’ll-…”
“Yes. I know.”
“And you’re just going to sit like this and wait for them?” Panic flickers in her eyes.
Carter sips his coffee again. Now it is cold. “Yes,” he says simply. He looks up and catches Rose’s eye. “If that’s alright with you.”
Lamont shoots a powerful glance at both of them, clenching his fists on the table.
Rose opens her mouth to speak, but instead looks away. There is a silence as she composes herself. Eventually Rose turns back to Carter. “You’ve always been so stubborn.” She says in a quiet voice.
Carter smiles fleetingly.
“Look,” Rose says slowly. She rubs her tired eyes. “Maybe I can find you a safe passage out of the city. You can start a new life elsewhere. Just for old time’s sake.”
They catch eyes again. Carter then glances at Lamont briefly before replying. “Thank you Rose. I’m indebted to you.”
Lamont looks on disapprovingly, but a hard look from Rose causes him to whip out his phone from his coat and dial. “I’ll organise it now,” Lamont grunts. He stands up and walks away.
“You just can’t let me go, can you?” Carter says once Lamont is gone.
“I don’t want you to lose your life just because you’re a stupid, arrogant man.” Rose spits back.
“Yes, and that too. But you still care, don’t you Rose? Not a day went past in these last twenty years when you haven’t wondered where I am or if I’m alright.”
A pause. Rose wavers.
“You’re just a business partner, Carter,” Rose whispers in a fragile voice. She is shaking a little. “That’s all…”
“The passage is ready.” Lamont comes back to the table and stands over them. His ear is still to the phone. “Take the South Gate, Carter. I’ve arranged for people to meet you there.” Noticing that Rose is a little shaken, Lamont rests a large hand over her own on the table. Lamont’s numerous rings chink with Rose’s single marriage ring.
“And take my car, too.” Rose says weakly, trying to stay poised. “Richard can walk me home.”
Lamont walks off as he continues to talk on the phone.
“Thank you.” Carter says. He picks up his walking stick.
The two of them stand up to leave, no drink on the table finished. In silence, they walk to the door.
Carter turns to talk to Rose one final time. “So this is how it ends, huh Rose? No more walks in the garden, no more slinking around the city together, no more funny-looking shells? All those moments together – every single memory of me and you – has lead up to this. Tell me Rose – is this is how you wanted it to finish? Is this how you pictured the final goodbye all those years ago?”
“This is how it has to be.” Rose says, trying to hold back her emotions.
“I will never see you again, will I?”
“I hope not. For all our sakes.” Rose tries to stay calm. Her face tightens with the strain.
Carter watches her. He searches her eyes, trying to find life. “You don’t mean that, do you?”
Rose bites her lip. A single drop of emotion falls from her eye. Slowly, with the strength she has left, she mouths: “No.”
“Good-bye Carter.” Lamont approaches them, putting away his phone. “Good luck.”
Carter nods at Lamont briskly and places a hand on Rose’s shoulder. “Good-bye Rose.”
“Good-bye… Luke Carter.” Rose looks pained for saying his name again.
Lamont watches them narrowly.
Savouring the moment, Carter opens the café door with one hand, holds it open with his walking stick, and then walks out into the pouring rain. The water washes through Carter’s grey hair and runs down his neck, making him shiver. He turns to see Rose through the café window, stepping back into Lamont’s arms.
Carter understands now. Rose had never been his.
With cold, wet hands he opens Rose’s car door and slips inside. He shuts the door behind him, not bothering to look back at Rose from the window anymore. It pains him to see her now. She only reminds him of what he once was and what has been. For a moment Carter can see in his head the field that used to be here... He is running through it, six years old again, with Rose at his side, squeezing his hand...
Carter shakes his head. He can never stay here.
Revving up, the car speeds away into the rain.
It is clear what Luke Carter should do.
It is different to what he does.
He should take the West Gate instead, he should meet his grand-son waiting for him by the port, then safely make their way back to San Francisco. Carter then should have to go back to hiding, – change his name again, live a quiet life in a suburb somewhere – spend the rest of his years he had left keeping his head down... That is what Carter should’ve done. That is what he had planned two days ago.
Carter should’ve left the assassin waiting for him at the South Gate – take him out later when he had the time.
But he doesn’t.
Luke Carter knows of his grim fate, waiting patiently for him at the South Gate.
But he goes.
The black car pulls up smoothly beside the South Gate security booth, in front of the barrier. Slowly, Carter winds down the window a crack and peers at the man in the booth. He recognises him.
“Just a minute sir.” Comes the voice from the booth. A thick Chinese accent. Yes, Carter knows who it is.
Carter stares forward, waiting for the bullet to come ricocheting through his skull.
But he doesn’t mind. About twenty years ago, Carter would’ve been fighting and squirming in any way possible in order to stay alive. But now he is changed. He understands that there is nothing left for him. No freedom, no happiness, no Rose waits for him if Carter escapes through the West Gate. Just more loneliness and lies.
Carter hears the click of a gun in his left ear.
This is the only way for it to end.
But his wasted life hasn’t entirely been for nothing. He had known Rose. He had talked with her, laughed with her, had constantly been blessed with her graceful presence for nearly all his life.
Luke calms himself, closing his eyes. He can feel Rose in his arms once more.
He hears her final words again. “Good-bye… Luke Carter.”
“Here you die.” Says the assassin.
A far away bang. A distant sound of smashing glass. And the echo of Rose’s good-bye.