It began with a party given by Belle’s hairdresser.
“It’s like a Tupperware party, but not exactly,” Sue said. She giggled as she handed her longtime client the pink invitation. “It’s a lingerie party.”
Belle came home with a sexy French maid’s costume and Bernie was enthralled. He enjoyed pretending that he was not a fifty-five-year-old accountant employed by the county for nearly 30 years. When Belle put on the frilly, black lace lingerie and a faux French accent, Bernie ‘became’ another person, too. He became an international spy, pursued by operatives from a foreign intelligence agency and hiding out in a seaport hotel in France.
It was a memorable evening.
A few weeks later, while driving through New England for a long weekend of leaf peeping and apple picking, he proposed that they cancel the reservation Belle had made at an inn suggested by her cousin.
“Let’s just stumble upon an inn — one off the beaten track. We can pay in cash and we can be anyone we want to be.”
At first Belle didn’t understand what Bernie was talking about.
“We can BE anyone we tell them we are.” Bernie emphasized the word BE by slowing the car and pulling up to a roadside farm stand. He turned to his wife and said. “We can be mystery writers or SEC investigators or sex therapists or…”
“Or writers researching a travel book about the Inns of New England, or anthropologists from Italy or…”
Bernie was a little disappointed by Belle’s suggestions. He’d snuck in the ‘sex therapist’ idea and hoped it would spark a little interest on his wife’s part. But he was pleased that she was beginning to play along.
“We could tell the inn-keepers that we were there to ‘study’ the other patrons, enlist them in our…. Oh, this could be fun.” Belle continued. “They could catch us making notes, taking surreptitious photos with my phone.”
Bernie rarely admitted it to his wife, but he felt that their lives had become too quiet. Since their son had left for college, the house felt empty. It wasn’t that he didn’t love Belle anymore — he would always love her. He also knew that, given a second chance, he would have made pretty much the same choices with his life. There was just a low-grade dissatisfaction, a hum of dull that had had fallen like a fog over their lives, making everything gray and taking away all the sharp edges.
Life had become soft.
Bernie wanted the edge back. He wanted a little danger, the risk of being caught in a lie and most of all — he wanted to be someone who was bigger, bolder and braver than he had ever dared to be.
‘Wouldn’t you love to be someone extraordinary? Someone that other people admired?’ Bernie had often asked her. Belle had always assured him that he was indeed someone who was admired. He was successful and admired — what more did he expect?
Belle, always gentle and beautiful, never aspired to be a star in any arena. She was happy raising their son and running her crafts store in a small shopping center off the highway. She gave knitting lessons and had a small coterie of devoted followers. When one of the younger women suggested she start a knitting blog, she demurred. When that knitting student went on to write the blog and to quote Belle as ‘the knitting Diva,’ Belle blushed. When the young blogger was offered a book contract, Belle beamed with pride in her student’s accomplishment but didn’t feel even a tingle of jealousy. Bernie would have been livid. He wasn’t proud of that fact, but he acknowledged it. He wanted to be someone who was powerful. He wanted to be feared as well as admired.
Pretending to be someone else was just a diversion, a harmless game, but this game allowed him to be someone extraordinary — even for just a little while. As they pulled up to the front door of the inn, Bernie finalized their story. He would be a retired FBI profiler and Belle was his romance writer wife. Bernie had read dozens of mysteries featuring the criminal behaviorists. He knew he could pull it off and Belle had read at least one romance a week since she was 11.
“I write Regency Romances,” she whispered to Bernie as they entered the lobby. “But I’m thinking about writing a romantic suspense set in a New England inn filled with antiques and run by an eccentric couple.”
Bernie chuckled and smiled. The inn was crowded with antiques and the short, round balding man at the desk wore an obviously handmade, green cable-knit sweater. Belle had to stop herself from critiquing the knitter’s work.
“I’m Albert Simpson. My wife and I are your hosts. We serve cocktails in the lounge at five. I hope you’ll join us. Today’s featured drink is a Sidecar. I hope you’ll try it, Mr. Stone.”
“Call me Mike,” Bernie said.
“And this is my wife Anna.” Bernie almost said Annabelle, but he stopped himself just in time.
“We’ll definitely join you for cocktails,” Anna/Belle said. As Anna, Belle’s voice was lower and softer than usual. It sent a shiver down Bernie’s spine. They went upstairs to their room to create their character back-stories.
“We can’t say too much and not too quickly,” Bernie/Mike said. “They have to think they are leading the conversation. They have to want to hear about us and we’re very nonchalant about it all.”
“We should be very inquisitive? At least I should be…. You should be very, quiet, very alert but not a big chatty Cathy. I’ll be the chatty Cathy, asking everyone about their lives and then I’ll sort of let slip that I write under pseudonyms. And I’ll just smile when they start guessing.”
“That’s great! You can even tell them about me, but not straight out — you could say something about living near Quantico. That would be great. Someone is bound to ask me about the bureau. We at the bureau always say THE bureau not the FBI.”
At 5:15 they went down to the lounge. Albert was behind the bar and his wife, the cheerful and much younger Sara, was fussing over a platter of hors d’oeuvres. She was a recent graduate of a French cooking program and she fluttered, hovering over her creations.
“I hope you’ll give the baked brie a try, Mrs. Stone, I’ve been experimenting with pastry dough and I think this is my best yet.”
Bernie was disappointed. The audience for their show was small, but the tray of glasses dipped in lemon sugar gave him hope that the group would grow.
“A Sidecar, Mike, or would you prefer something else? You don’t look like a cocktail kind of man.”
“You’re right,” Bernie/Mike replied. “Scotch, neat.”
“The ladies seem to be getting along,” Albert said, nodding in the direction of his wife. She was gesturing through an effusive monologue. Bernie was happy to see that Belle was listening more than talking. He was secretly afraid she’d break their cover.
“Al, dear, you must make an extra special drink for Anna. She won’t tell me her pen name but I’m guessing and I think I’ve got a shelf of her books in the romance section.”
Two walls of the lounge were lined with books for the guests to enjoy. The library was heavy on New England history, mysteries, romances, horror, thrillers and science fiction. Belle had managed to convince Sara, with tiny hints and suggestions, that she was one of her favorite Regency romance writers.
Anna/Belle sipped her drink and smiled. She was enjoying the attention. It’s one thing to be a local knitting celebrity, being a best-selling romance writer was an entirely different thing. The Cointreau and cognac made her a bit tipsy, especially when Sara introduced her to Tom and Alan, a gay couple from New York; Rena and Howie, a elderly widow and her photographer nephew; and the Samuelsons — a couple of real estate agents from New Jersey and their three angry, teenaged, children.
The Samuelson kids ate the baked brie and smoked salmon sandwiches, quaffed ginger ale until they burped and then sat in the corner of the lounge playing games on their phones. Tom, a congressional aide; Rena and June Samuelson turned out to be huge romance readers. They were thrilled when Anna/Belle dropped a hint that she was considering writing a romantic suspense novel set in a New England village.
“I’m playing with an early 20th century setting, right after WWI or even during the war. I think it’s such an interesting period.”
“Lovely clothes, too!” Rena said.
“But not as lush as those Regencies…” Tom sighed. “These sidecars are wonderful.”
It took a while, but, by playing it close to the vest, Bernie/Mike found that he was the object of serious curiosity.
“Well, since I retired we’re living in Arlington. It’s close to everything. Much more convenient than down by Quantico…”
“Quantico? You’re a retired Marine? I thought you looked like a military guy, “ Albert commented. “I told Sara though you were Army but…”
“Well…” Bernie/Mike paused.
“Oh, I get it,” Alan interjected. “Quantico, as in the FBI. You’re a retired agent. I read somewhere that field agents have to retire at 50-something, 52 or whatever. So you were an FBI agent. White collar? Terrorism? Bank fraud? Tell us.”
“Yes, I was with the bureau in the B.A.U.”
“B.A.U.?” Tom asked.
“Behavioral Analysis Unit,” Alan answered his partner’s question. “That means he was a profiler.”
“Wow, like the ones on TV!”
“Well, not exactly like the ones on TV. Their investigations always end on the hour.”
“And half the time they’re chasing serial killers,” Tom said. “There really aren’t all that many of them, serial killers that is, in real life, right?”
“Nowhere as many as it seems on TV,” Bernie/Mike answered with quiet authority. “We profile other criminals, too. It’s part science, part art and a lot of experience with people. It’s about putting pieces of information together.”
“Oh how I love a good puzzle. You must be great at solving murder mysteries.” Alan smiled at his partner. “Tom loves his romance books, but I’m an Agatha Christie man.”
Bernie spun a few tales about cases, but carefully left out any details that might be searched on the Internet. Everyone except the Samuelson family walked together to the inn’s restaurant to continue their conversation over dinner. The Samuelsons piled into their car in search of the pizza place in the next town.
“It’s a shame how kids seem to run families today,” Rena said. “Those kids were so rude and they even dictate their parents’ dining choices.”
“Oh, aunt Rena, not that again!” Howie whined. “My aunt just hates my sister’s kids.”
“If they were just a bit more human, more personable, I’d be inviting them along but…”
Five bottles of wine, shared by six adults over dinner added to the warm fuzzy feelings at the table. The group bonded, if only for one night, and they all had a marvelous time. Bernie felt especially good. He’d made such a big impression on the other leaf peepers. Howie took some photos and promised to email a jpg as soon as he got home.
“Just give me your email address.”
Anna turned white. Bernie’s only email address was his county email address and her email had the domain name of her crafts shop. But Bernie, wine and all, found a quick comeback.
“Believe it or not, my email got hijacked on Monday — yes it happens to people like me, too. There might have been some identity theft, at the very least, my online security was compromised — it’ll be better if you give me yours and I’ll send you an email as soon as I have a new one set up.”
Everyone was sympathetic.
“That was close,” Bernie sighed as he plopped down on the bed. “But it was fun. How does it feel to be married to an FBI profiler?”
Bernie and Belle were back out on the road early the next morning. On the way back down to Virginia, they stayed with Belle’s cousin in New York. Being Bernie and Belle was a let down, but it was also less stressful. There was nothing to remember, nothing to make up, and no need to worry about being discovered as a fraud.
A few weeks after their New England adventure, they started to make plans for another trip, and when their son got an invitation to spend Thanksgiving with his girlfriend’s family in Florida, they decided the holiday was a good opportunity for another vacation from their identities.
This time Belle found a spa with a Thanksgiving special for couples who wanted to escape the usual family parties. A group cancelation had left the spa with a block of empty rooms to book at a last minute discount. She had to pay the spa with her credit card, but she made up a story about really, really needing to hide from some relatives and so they were registered using the pseudonyms that the spa used when celebrities went there to recover from plastic surgery. Only the reservations clerk would know their actual names and she assured them that she’d be visiting her grandmother in Montreal.
“Your secret is safe with me. You’ll just have to bring cash for all the little extras.”
“Extras?” Belle asked.
“Bring money. You’ll fall in love with our terry cloth robes and you’ll want something from the snack bar at night and you’ll need cash to tip the staff. Be sure to ask for Herb when you schedule a shiatsu. He’s the best.”
Belle had to Google shiatsu.
They arrived at the posh spa as Mark and Cindy Smith. Knowing that the spa staff would assume they were famous, or infamous, and in need of anonymity inspired them to be very mysterious characters. Cindy/Belle feigned embarrassment when she let ‘slip’ that her husband was an investigator for the SEC. The other ladies in the sauna, all seated in matching extra thick and plush terry cloth robes, all supported her.
“I know how it is dear, that ‘we can’t talk about business’ rule. It’s all they think about, all they dream about and we can’t talk for fear of gossips or rumors of insider trading. I call a moratorium on the rule. My poor, dear, departed Edgar was a hedge fund manager. He knew a great deal about money and nothing about life. That’s why I married Sven. He’s twenty years younger than me and all he cares about is fun. I’m Dorothy, by the way; it’s all first names here — no need to check out each other’s pedigrees. But, you know, they really should change the name on that V.I.P reservation. I’ve met Cindy Smiths every time I’ve been here.”
Dorothy, Cindy/Belle and the other women laughed.
Mark/Bernie played squash with a hedge fund manager. They talked about market trends and the tax implications of being in the top 2%. Bernie knew that had he arrived at the spa under his own name the hedge fund manager would not have said more than ‘good morning.’ Being a rich and powerful businessman was intoxicating. It was also expensive. The little extras piled up. Belle enjoyed her shiatsu massage and the best mani/pedi of her life, but it was the price tags on all the ‘little things’ that annoyed Bernie. A trip to the snack bar for a meager, if healthy, fruit plate and two bottles of sparkling water was more than dinner at their favorite Italian restaurant at home.
“Next time, we have to be more careful about the money.” Bernie told his wife as he stuffed the last piece of ripe mango into his mouth. He didn’t even like mango, but he wasn’t going to waste a bite.
They came home from their Thanksgiving holiday with a new appreciation for the day spa next to Belle’s shop and weighing a few pounds less than when they did when left their house four days before. Belle went into her busy season and Bernie daydreamed about their next adventure. He created a fabulous persona, one that he was certain to enjoy. They would be therapists specializing in couples and marriages. They would the perfect example of enduring romantic love, while being invited to comment and snoop into the lives and marriages of others.
Belle wasn’t immediately sold.
“It seems so arrogant. It’s like we’re saying that we’re better than everybody else.”
“What if we said we were researching a book and that we wanted to figure out the secret to a successful marriage? Would you like that better?”
“Sort of, but… I’m not sure.”
They dithered and, after a great deal of discussion, they created a couple that was modest enough for Belle, while being authoritative enough to please Bernie. Then Belle found a Caribbean cruise that fit into their budget. As it was international and required passports they have to use their real names — everything else about them would be a vivid fantasy.
The first evening went very well. They mixed and mingled at the first night cocktail party and reviewed their success as marriage researchers at a table for two in the most romantic of the onboard restaurants. Once again Bernie found the game exhilarating and Belle found that talking about love and romance was more stimulating than talking about knitting patterns and quilt designs.
The game almost ground to a halt the following morning. Bernie rose from their poolside table to get a second helping of huevos rancheros from the outdoor breakfast buffet when he spotted a familiar face. It was Howie, the photographer, from the inn. Bernie deftly made his way back to their table and parked his straw hat on his face.
“We have a problem.”
He explained the new situation to Belle.
“Well, I guess we could come clean. Tell him that we lied then or that we’re lying now or….”
“I really don’t want to do that. It’s so…. Humiliating. I really liked being Mike Stone the profiler. Maybe we could swing being both, just on this trip. Be Mike and Anna AND be Bernie and Belle, too?
Belle threw a strawberry from her breakfast plate at Bernie, hitting him on the nose.
“That is NOT a solution!”
Later that day, as people signed up to go ashore for various excursions, Belle saw Rena and Howie. They were discussing their options.
“I think I’ll find better photo opps on the jungle tour.”
“In that case you’re on your own Harold — on your own!”
“Rena, Howie…” Belle began, but the two people who had seemed so friendly and open in September, were different people in April.
“Can’t you see I’m having an argument with my husband?” Rena said with loud exasperation in her voice. “My friends told me not to marry him. He’s too young they said. He’s too vain….”
Belle quietly exited. A small crowd was growing around the older lady and the younger man with expensive camera equipment. Belle went back to Bernie and told them they were skipping that afternoon’s excursion.
“I don’t want to run into them until I’ve sorted this out.”
“Sorted what out?” Bernie asked her. “There’s nothing for us to think about. They’re just players in their own game. They weren’t Rena and Howie any more than we were Mike and Anna. Games and players, Belle — just games and players.”