Chapter 1

 

United States

Present Day

 

Paul Malone turned into the parking lot of his favorite restaurant in Fairfax, Virginia. He was starving, having just left from a tough workout at the gym. The last several nights of broken sleep had taken their toll and he hadn’t eaten since before noon. I need a good meal tonight, he thought.
   It was about 8:30 on this dark Sunday evening and Paul easily found a parking spot, the crowd inside probably small on the slow weekend night. Getting out of his car, he was greeted by a cool evening breeze – unusual for mid-August. The air was clean and crisp, a welcome respite from the heat and humidity of summer in the Washington D.C. area.
   While walking to the front door of the restaurant, he noticed a white Ford, which had pulled up several spaces away from his grey Lincoln Mark VIII. Two burly men occupied the front seat of the ordinary white sedan. He didn’t think much about it at the time.
   After entering the restaurant, the shapely hostess greeted him with a smile. “Hi Paul, we haven’t seen much of you lately.” She then added coyly, “Didn’t you promise me a dinner?”
   “Hey Sally, you’re looking nice tonight.” Paul spoke in tones intended to avoid her flirtations, though unable to suppress a different thought. She sure isn’t hard to look at. He had met Sally at a party he hosted a couple of years ago. She was new in town at the time, and one of his friends had brought her along.
   Paul and Sally had become friends – she was a real sweetheart. But Paul sensed trouble in those eyes, and he was a man who paid close attention to all six of his senses.
   Sally took his mild rebuff in stride. She had been attracted to Paul for sometime. Recently, she had heard through the grapevine that he and Brenda had split up. She was just clearing the path for him a little, letting him know of her interest.
   With Sally provocatively leading him to his table, the subtle fragrance of an alluring perfume hanging in the air behind her, Paul couldn’t help but give himself a mental kick in the rear. He and Brenda had split up six weeks ago and once again, he was a man who paid attention to all six of his senses.
   Sally seated Paul at a table. Then, walking away with an inviting smile, she said, “Keep up your strength.” Besides perhaps a playful implication, Sally felt that Paul looked a bit run down.
   Paul ordered a filet, baked potato, and a salad. The menu was broad, but his choices were almost automatic. He was a man of simple tastes. The restaurant made its own pale ale and he added a draft to his order. He wanted to relax.
   Paul relished his meal, soon feeling his strength returning. After dinner, he decided to have another draft ale. The bar was in an elevated alcove near the entrance to the restaurant, so he walked over, up the few steps, and pulled up a barstool. There, seated at the adjacent corner of the bar, barely six seats away, was his ex-girlfriend Brenda. Their eyes met briefly and he smiled.
   She smiled warmly in return, slowly returning to her conversation. Her date, a well-dressed man, eagerly received her briefly broken attention.
   Merciless fate, thought Paul. Other more base emotions flooded his senses. She looks gorgeous tonight. Flashes of some of their more intimate moments assaulted him, but only briefly.
   Brenda and Paul had been together for a year until their falling out a few months ago. There were so many good things about their relationship, a mutual respect, a sincere caring. Paul sometimes wondered what had happened; it was difficult to express. With a touch of sadness, a dash of hope and other such conflicted emotions, he knew the answer. Paul was comfortable with an uncertain future stemming from an unshakable faith in his own destiny. Brenda was not. She needed a structure for the future that he was unable, or perhaps unwilling, to provide.
   Paul snapped back from his brief nostalgia and ordered an ale. There was a handsome middle-aged woman tending to the bar. Scott, a big friendly guy, who was the head bartender, apparently had the night off.
   After receiving his ale and while taking a drink, Paul’s gaze took in the scene unfolding to his left. Entering the bar was a casually dressed man who had to weigh at least two hundred and forty pounds. He stood an easy six foot four inches tall. The man was showing a little age and a bit of a tire around the middle. In his prime, the big guy could have been a professional football linebacker, thought Paul.
   The linebacker had obviously been drinking. His clothing was a bit disheveled and there was a perceptible sway in his walk. His expression was that of someone looking for trouble. It was an expression Paul had seen before. I don’t need this tonight, he thought, receiving a twang from his intuition.
   As fate would have it, the linebacker, not quite the drunk yet, took up a barstool a few seats to Paul’s right. He sat midway between Paul and Brenda.
   Paul audibly groaned.
   The linebacker loudly interrupted the bartender who was serving someone else across the bar and requested, more like demanded, a gin and tonic.
   I guess we know what he’s been drinking tonight. If alcohol can make a man mean, gin can make a man downright nasty, thought Paul with chagrin. He was willing to give the linebacker some latitude. Who knows? The guy could have just been jilted, lost his job, anything. Everyone was entitled to blow off a little steam once in awhile, he thought, not really believing it himself.
   The linebacker received his drink and scanned the action at the bar much as a lion might survey his domain. Taking a swig, he immediately started in on Brenda’s date who was sitting to his right. “What the hell are you looking at?” he bellowed.
   Brenda’s date did his best to ignore him and made no reply, managing only a sheepish grin.
   Paul felt bad for the smaller man – he could sense his fear. Where is Scott when you need him? It’s his job after all, he thought, with growing resignation. The new bartender wasn’t likely to be much help.
   The linebacker returned to his drink and Paul had a moment of hope that maybe the big guy might calm down. Paul couldn’t remember having had a fight outside of the ring since his college days, and he was not anxious to break that record. But before his thoughts were even complete, the linebacker started back in, this time on Brenda.
   Having intimidated her date, he threw a crude pass her way. “What are you doing with that squirrel? How about trying a real man?”
   Brenda, though obviously disconcerted, made it plain she was not interested. “Why don’t you go bother somebody else?”
   The exchange went on for a short time with Brenda growing increasingly anxious, the linebacker growing more insistent and angry, and Paul reaching the limits of his patience.
   Finally, when Paul heard the linebacker start to say, “Why you stupid bitch, who the hell do you think you’re talking—,” all the while standing and moving slowly in her direction, Paul had reached his limit. So much for my quiet Sunday night thought Paul, sensing that the linebacker intended to slap Brenda around.
   Catching the linebacker in mid-sentence, Paul tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Maybe we need to calm down here a little.” Paul approached the possibility of a fight with a calm born from years of training.
   The linebacker smiled maliciously as he now had an object for his rage. He swirled around counterclockwise; his bulky form trailed behind a powerful fist aimed squarely into the face of his smaller opponent.
   Paul knew what was coming so he made a quick move to his right and dodged the punch – a punch that would have done some serious damage. Using his momentum, he brought his left knee hard into the linebacker’s mid-thigh purposefully missing the groin area. He didn’t want to cripple the guy, just hurt him.
   The linebacker reacted expectedly. He bent slightly, which brought his head forward and down a few inches, now easily within Paul’s reach.
   The big guy’s left guard was down. He is obviously not a fighter, thought Paul.
   With hand held in and elbow out, Paul snapped his whole body into a counterclockwise pivot. He brought nearly one hundred and ninety pounds of his own weight to the point of contact. His right forearm squarely struck the linebackers left cheek. Paul was careful to pull his punch a little to avoid breaking any facial bones.
   The brief conflict had the desired effect; the blow was enough to daze the big guy. In the same smooth motion, Paul guided the linebacker to the nearest barstool. He slid the gin and tonic over to him and said, “Maybe you should just finish your drink and leave.”
   Paul had spoken quietly, as he knew that to avoid any further trouble, the linebacker needed to save face. But there was more to it than just that. For a yet unknown reason, Paul’s words seemed to do more to change the linebacker’s attitude than the fight itself.
   The linebacker, still dazed, mumbled a less boisterous reply. The entire fight took only a few seconds. Even customers on the other side of the bar could have missed it, had they not been looking in the proper direction. The fact that the fight went largely unnoticed was not lost on the linebacker. It helped to stem his embarrassment. Suddenly and almost mystically, he just felt like leaving.
   Paul returned to his seat at the bar. He hoped the linebacker would finish his drink and move on. Almost as if directly influenced by Paul’s hopes, the linebacker soon paid for his drink and left.
   Paul was grateful the big guy didn’t try to start things up again. Maybe he was just having a bad day after all. That still doesn’t excuse his remarks to Brenda, he thought, with a touch of suppressed anger.
   During the fight, while surveying his surroundings, Paul had noticed two burly men sitting at a table just outside the bar area. They started to make a move during the fight. As it ended so quickly, they were able to disguise their actions.
   Paul sensed good intentions from them at the time. Maybe they were just wanting to help, he thought. However, Paul felt something more. I bet I’ll be seeing them again. Casually looking around now, he noticed they too had left.
   Brenda and her date soon settled their bill and headed for the door. When Brenda’s date was walking by, Paul said, “That guy was nothing but trouble. You did the right thing by ignoring him.”
   Brenda’s date made no reply.
   To Brenda, Paul said softly, “Are you all right?”
   She responded with a gentle whisper in Paul’s ear, “Yes, and thanks for helping. Really. Take care of yourself.” With a sincere and warm smile, she added, “Let me know how you are doing from time to time. I miss you.”
   Paul let Brenda’s parting words, I miss you, play through his mind. A lost love, yes, he thought with a hint of sadness. Lost forever? Maybe not, he reflected, content to let his destiny unfold. He finished his ale, paid his bill, and went home to bed.

 

 
 

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