In just a few long strides, the elegant woman clicked black heels across the expanse of the opulent lobby and smoothly parked herself and her wheeled luggage by the registration desk. She rested her handbag on the counter, ready to take out her wallet if needed.
“You have a reservation for me? Jeena Mann. That’s Jeena with a J. And Mann – with two Ns.”
The clerk at the registration desk logged into a computer, looked up and smiled. There was a friendly yet distant air about Jeena that usually got her prompt, courteous service.
“Yes Ms. Mann. Welcome back to the Mayfair. We have upgraded you to the executive room on the top floor. If you need anything please allow us to assist you.”
“Thank you Ian,” Jeena said noting the lapel badge. “Perhaps you can check on show ticket availability for tonight. Comedy or drama will be fine. No musicals.”
Jeena walked up to the elevator and allowed herself a long sigh. Today had gone badly. She had traveled to London for a routine planning meeting that turned out to be anything but routine. She blamed overconfidence for not having anticipated how budget negotiations would go. How could she have missed the changed dynamics in the room with a new director in the mix? What would she do next?
At fifty, Jeena, looked forty and was at the peak of her professional career. She dressed to create an aura of uptown chic: enough flair to draw attention but conservative enough to blend in. This uptown Jeena who skilfully negotiated thorny contracts, was admired for staying calm under pressure and for her ability to have empathy with a great diversity of people.
This was the Jeena most people met.But uptown Jeena harbored another; one with a downtown edge that only a few got to meet.
It was getting to be midnight. Unable to sleep, Jeena looked out of the window: the sidewalk was deserted with only an occasional bus rumbling along on the main road. Is it safe to go for a walk at this time? Why not? she thought. Decision made, she could already feel energy flowing into her body as she changed into frayed jeans and faded black t-shirt. She shrugged on her leather jacket and grabbed the black and white checkered men’s scarf she carried just for such an outing. How amazing, she though as she made the final preparations, that I have fallen into my old routine so effortlessly. So naturally.
Jeena stepped out onto the sidewalk along the main road. She was nervous at first and felt awkward as it had been several years since she last did this. The yellow glow of streetlights cut through the fog as she walked. Each step gave her greater confidence till she ventured off the boulevard into a back alley. She sidestepped an upturned trash can and passed by the drunk without flinching. She carefully noted details and markers, counting the doorways so she could work her way back when she was ready. That was her trick – no matter how well she knew an area she always retraced her steps back rather than try a new road. Like a little memory game to hone her observation skills and build confidence.
It happened on the way back when she turned the corner from the side road onto the main sidewalk.
Maybe it was the sharp turn she made as she exited the back alley or maybe it was the fog or maybe she was tired and had started to relax now that she was almost back to the hotel, but she didn’t take the corner well and bumped into the man leaning against the building wall.
“Excuse me,” she said. She stepped away to avoid him, trying to regain her balance.
“What’s your hurry luv?” He stood blocking her path. He accentuated a threatening stance with a crooked leer.
She saw a muscular man of medium height and build, dressed in a tweed jacket and slacks that had seen better days. He was clearly stronger than her so she decided it was best not to make eye contact. She looked over his shoulder; the entrance to the Mayfair was visible in the distance – too far for the night watchman to see her or help if anything was to happen.
She was on her own.
“Excuse me,” she repeated and tried to get past him keeping fists tight to control her shaking.
“Hey, can you spare some cash? I need to buy train fare to go back home. To Scotland. Its far from here.” He was eyeing the small black money pouch peeking out from under her jacket. “You know how it is – spent all my money at the pub and now you come along as my guardian angel.”
“Here – take it all. This is what I have.” Jeena unzipped the outer pocket of her pouch, took out a five-pound note and flipped the pouch upside down to show that it was empty. This was all part of the plan. She carried some money in a visible place so it was easy to extract.
“That’s not enough.” He leaned over and swiftly grabbed her pouch. He opened the inside zipper and with a flourish held out another ten pound note. Ok. This too was on plan.
He would expect her to hide something. Let him find it.
“Ok. Ok. Really – this is all I have.” He was so close now that she could see his brown, stained teeth and smell the alcohol on his breath. To get some distance, Jeena backed up one step, unhooked the pouch from her shoulder and held it out at arm’s length while trying to get around him.
“Give us a kiss then. This is not enough money.”
This was not what she had expected. Usually after she showed an empty pouch she would be left alone. Where had she gone wrong?
Then she realized her mistake. Backing up was a mistake. Now she was up against the wall and he had his arms on either side of her pinning her down against the wall. She could not move.
“No kiss,”she said putting both hands on his chest in an effort to push him back.
He moved one arm down to her hip and started groping around the back. Worse! What does he want now? Think Jeena. Think.
All senses on alert she focused in the moment. Then she realized what he was doing and she almost smiled. Out of habit she had packed away all credit cards, personal identification, passport and extra money in her suitcase before setting out for the walk.
She knew he would find nothing in her back pockets and she had no money belt under her shirt. She never wore a money belt believing them to be trouble because you ended up having to practically disrobe to get any money out. Plus it showed a lack of trust.
She let him grope for bit so he could see for himself that she had nothing on her person. More importantly it gave her time to coil her muscles so when suddenly, using the back of the wall for support, she pushed hard he had to step back to keep his balance giving her enough room to get away from the wall, onto the middle of the sidewalk.
“I don’t want to” she said. “give you a kiss, hug you or give anymore money. I have been good to you. Now it is your turn. You have enough for bus fare; go home now.”
Maybe it was the confidence in her voice, or the subtle shift in power when she was the one telling him what to do or maybe it was the concern of someone wanting to get a drunk safely home, but all of a sudden he turned around and started to walk away.
Jeena stood her ground and watched him walk and then break into a run. Just then a bus stopped close by. Jeena asked the driver as he opened the door “How much is the bus fare to the last stop?”
“Five pounds.” Now she knew she had been right about the money. “OK thanks. No I am not getting on. Just asking.”
From a distance the man shouted, “I just want some love.”
The bus rolled away and Jeena took a satisfied breath. She had wanted to make sure the man saw her talking to the bus driver. She wanted him to know that he could not con her; that what she gave him was because she wanted to.
Not because she was afraid.
When the man had disappeared Jeena walked into the Mayfair lobby and up to her room. She got into her pajamas, and called her husband back in California. All well he asked. All well she said.
“Did the negotiations go your way?” he asked.
“No. I didn’t see some things coming. Maybe I was losing my edge. But its ok now. I’m back.” She did not say anything about the walk. Why worry him? “Good night darling. See you at home tomorrow,” she said as she turned off the light and instantly fell asleep.