It was a typical gray dismal raw New York City spring morning. Jenkins stood, crammed with dozens of other blank-faced people, in the subway car headed for his office downtown. If you guessed that Jenkins, with his glasses and neat moustache, dressed in a dark suit, trying to read the New York Times as the train swayed along, was an accountant, you would have been right. If you also guessed that he lived alone in a small midtown apartment, went to work at the same time every morning, did his work conscientiously, returned home to a dinner by himself, watched a little tv, then went early to bed, you’d also have been right. You might not have surmised that he had a white Siamese cat named Cleopatra that he spoiled outrageously.
On this particular morning, Jenkins suddenly noticed a woman at the other end of the car. It was not only that she was beautiful but that she was so striking in a foreign kind of way. Her complexion was olive, her eyes shaped like almonds, her long hair dark as night. In that drab subway car she was like an exotic plant. Jenkins, who, like most New York subway riders, automatically got off at the right stop, couldn’t help staring at her and when she exited the car he saw that, how could that have happened, he’d gone one station too far. He quickly pushed his way out onto the platform and went up the stairs. The next stop was only a few blocks down from his own and he could easily walk back to his office.
But when he came out into the air, he stopped short. Certain things about the station area seemed familiar. There was a travel agency he remembered seeing from walks there, also a book shop and a second-hand clothing store. But surely that outdoor cafe hadn’t been there before. And the art gallery? And the bakery, from which came the delicious aroma of freshly baked bread?
There was something else. The colors seemed brighter than real life. The sky was a cobalt blue. The trees (and where had they come from? He didn’t remember them)
might have been from an Impressionist painting. The very air seemed clearer. Where was the typical New York smog? Sounds of birds, they must be in all those trees, filled the air. When had he ever been aware of birds singing in New York?
Jenkins looked further down the street. He saw a large park which he certainly hadn’t noticed before, with a gorgeous fountain that wouldn’t have been out of place in Rome, spraying water which glinted in the sun. With all of these baffling images, he somehow wasn’t surprised when a large bulldog, dressed in a tweed suit and a Sherlock Holmes hat, appeared and asked him the time. Jenkins looked at his watch and told him. “Tsk, tsk,” said the bulldog, “ I’m late, late for an important date, as my friend the white rabbit likes to say, ha ha. Well, cheerio.”
“Cheerio.” replied Jenkins, as he watched the bulldog disappear around a corner. Before he had time to think about what to do next a beautiful woman flung herself on him and kissed him passionately. Nonplussed, he tried to pull away but she pulled him closer and whispered fiercely, “Hold me, you fool. They mustn’t see me.” So Jenkins held the beautiful woman, who of course was the one from the subway, and returned her kisses. He didn’t know what was going on but the sensation was the most pleasant one he’d ever had.
Then, over the woman’s shoulder, he saw a long foreign-looking car driving slowly along the street, driven by a hard-faced man with another hard-faced man in the passenger seat. He supposed that these were the men the woman didn’t want to see her. When the car disappeared around the same corner the bulldog had the woman released him. “Thank you, thank you,” she said.
“Who are you?” asked Jenkins “Why are those men after you?”.
“I am Natasha, of course. And I have the diamonds. Thank you again. You have saved my life. Now I must go.”
“Go? Where to?”
“To Paris. Where else?”
Just then the car reappeared in the opposite direction and the two hard-faced men leapt out. “Quick,” said Natasha, grabbing Jenkins by the hand. “Run.” There was nothing for Jenkins to do but run with Natasha; the two men, who both had guns, Jenkins now saw, at their heels. Natasha ran in the direction of the park. Jenkins heard two crackling sounds, then other sounds as what he presumed were shots caroming off the fountain. A flock of birds rose from the trees in the park and swirled in front of the men, temporarily blinding them.
“This is our chance,” said Natasha. “Follow me.” They raced down a narrow path in the park and entered what looked like a small zoo. Jenkins knew there had never been a zoo in that part of the city. Natasha dashed into a building whose plaque said it was the lion house, Jenkins following. A bearded man dressed in a kind of uniform with a large ring of keys dangling from his belt, confronted them and asked where they were going.
“You must help us,” said Natasha. “Two men with guns are after us. If they catch us, they’ll surely kill us.”
“Hmmm,” said the guard, stroking his beard and who, with his long mane of hair really looked something like a lion himself, “we can’t have that. Follow me.” He led them to the last cage, in which a large lion paced back and forth. He took out one of his many keys and opened the cage. “Just go through there. The back door leads to a path out of the park.”
“Thank you,” said Natasha.
“Er, what about that lion in the cage?” asked Jenkins. “Won’t he, er, mind our going through his territory?” The guard said something to the lion, who muttered something back. “It’s all right,” said the guard. “Leo understands.” So they entered the cage, went to the back, found the rear door and exited. As they left, Jenkins looked back and saw the two hard-faced men with the guard. “No, nobody here,” the guard was saying. “Of course, if you want to look into the cages, I’d be glad to oblige.”
“No thanks,” said one of the men. “We’ve lost them. We have to report to the Chief.”
“He won’t like it.”
“Don’t worry. He’ll know where to find her.”
Natasha pulled at Jenkins’ arm. “Come on,” she said. “What are you waiting for?”
“I was listening to what our two friends were saying. One said the: Chief will know where to find you.”
“The Chief is clever, but I have one or two tricks up my sleeve. Now, Let’s go.”
They ran along the narrow path and were soon out of the park. Almost instantaneously, a taxi pulled up beside them. “I must go now,” said Natasha. “Thank you.” She kissed him, then she was in the cab.
“Wait a minute,” said Jenkins. “Will I see you again?”
“Who knows?” Then she turned to the cab driver. “To the airport,” she said. The taxi raced away.
With Natasha’s departure, things seemed to change. The sky was no longer a cobalt blue but a dull gray. The sound of birds ceased. Jenkins turned around and the park now looked like a tiny square with one tree. He turned around again and there was the subway station. With all the bewildering goings-on, he was no longer sure which direction his office building was. He walked to the subway station, put in his token and went down the stairs. As soon as he walked onto the platform his train roared in, almost empty. In a few minutes, he was back at his correct station. He went up the stairs and out onto the street. Yes, everything was normal. There was the news vendor by the station. There was the coffee shop across the street. His office building loomed up into a dirty New York sky.
When he entered his office, precisely one hour late, Jenkins received a surprise. All of his co-workers clustered around him, mouthing words of concern, as if he’d returned from a ten-years absence. “What happened?”
“This is the first time you’ve ever been late.”
“We were worried.”
“We called your home but no one answered.”
Jenkins’ boss came out and, to his embarrassment, grasped his hand warmly. “So you made it? We were about to form a search party. Where have you been?”
Jenkins looked around at all those expectant faces and wondered what he could say. He certainly couldn’t tell them what really happened. They’d think he’d gone mad. “Uh, I was feeling a little under the weather so I thought I’d avoid the subway rush.”
“You do look pale.”
“Probably a touch of the flu.”
“You shouldn’t have come in,” said his boss. “You don’t look good at all. You’re suit’s all messed up, as if you’ve been running. I want you to go home right now.”
“But . . .”
“No buts about it. And while you’re at it, when’s the last time you’ve taken a vacation?”
“I, uh, I’m not sure.”
“Jenkins has never taken a vacation,” said the boss’s secretary.
“What? I didn’t realize that. Jenkins, you’re to take a two-week vacation. That’s an order. Now go home and take care of yourself.”
What could he do? Jenkins thought. He thanked everyone, took the elevator down, rode the subway back and went into his apartment, where he refilled Cleopatra’s food dish, then told her all about his morning’s adventure. She listened wisely but said nothing.
The next morning, well after the rush hour, Jenkins took the subway one stop past his regular station. He walked up the steps and looked around. A large bulldog tethered to a fire hydrant looked up at him but it wasn’t clothed and didn’t ask him the time. Otherwise, the area was as he remembered it, not at all like the previous day. There was no outdoor café, no art gallery, no bakery. But there was the travel agency. He looked into the window and saw a dark-haired woman bent over a brochure. Natasha? No. The woman raised her head and he saw that she was plain-looking, although with nice eyes. Those eyes looked at him and before he knew it he found himself inside.
“Can I help you?” She had a pleasant voice.
“Uh, I wonder if you have anything for a trip to Paris, say, for about a week?”
“Why, I was just looking at this special offer that just came in. A week in Paris with lots of extras. It’s at a modest hotel, but in a good location, a real bargain. Have you been to Paris before?”
“Then let me tell you about it.” The travel agency didn’t seem to attract a lot of business as she spent the next hour without interruption telling him about all the things he should see while in Paris, the Eiffel Tower, the Champs Elysees, the Tuileries, the Louvre, Notre Dame, all the parks, the restaurants; the list seemed endless.
“All right,” Jenkins said. “I’ll take it. You’ve been very kind. You must have gone to Paris yourself to know so much about it.”
“Me? Heavens, no. I’ve just read all the brochures.”
“Well, when I get back suppose I take you out to dinner and tell you about it.”
She reddened. “Oh, that would be wonderful.”
“Then it’s a date. What’s your name?”
“It’s Na . . .”
“Oh, nothing exotic like that Just Natalie.”
“All right, Natalie. I’ll see you in a week.”
When Jenkins went back outside, the sky was still gray but it felt warmer, he saw that the one tree in the square was in full bloom, and he could swear he heard birds singing. He took the subway back, entered his apartment, re-filled Cleopatra’s food dish, then told her all about his latest adventure. She again said nothing but looked pleased.