He was waiting for his luggage at Schiphol Airport when he spotted her. She was wearing the somber, seal-gray coat he had given her last Christmas, and it was only the crimson scarf at her throat that caught his eye. They had decided it was silly for her to meet his plane. He had outlined the reasons against it; she nodded her acceptance. But she was here anyway, as lovely as a porcelain figurine amidst the Dutch pea-soupers in their bulky winter dress. Involuntarily, his hand rose. She placed one gloved hand up to the glass in response and smiled. The delicacy of her movement encapsulated all he loved about her.
Moments later, he pulled his bags off the carousel and walked quickly through the “Nothing to Declare” gate. She turned for his kiss and they bumped noses. He wondered whether other couples missed each other’s lips as frequently as they did.
“I thought we decided you were going to wait at home.” He couldn’t control his scolding tone.
“Didn’t you miss me at all?”
“I’ve thought of nothing else the whole trip home.” Was it possible she didn’t know this?
“We’ve had nothing but misty rain,” she said, ignoring his confession. “Was it nice in Nice? Why don’t we ever live in sunny places?”
“Shall I ask for Madrid next year?” He didn’t actually mean this. No one moving up in the organization rotated to Spain.
Twenty minutes later, he followed her up the spiral staircase to their flat. Anna waited patiently while he searched for his key, not noticing he had to pile the bags between his legs and shift his carry-on. She smiled agreeably, finding nothing unusual in his frantic scramble. She was too thin, and a pulse beat anxiously beneath the nearly transparent skin of her forehead. For a few seconds, his heart took up its feverish pace. Willing it to slow, he put the key into the lock.
Inside, the pleasant rooms were brightly lit by the rare incidence of sun. He put his luggage down, sighing with pleasure. Although they had only been in Amsterdam six months, Anna had managed to make the flat both homey and elegant. Mrs. Jongkind had laid out their meal by the window overlooking the Amstel. Since their arrival, he had weaned the housekeeper away from most of the classic Dutch fare although pea soup turned up with persistent regularity. Today she had prepared a light beef broth and broiled swordfish with a white asparagus salad. He finished the broth and then grated some nutmeg over his asparagus.
“Anna, your broth’s growing cold,” he chided. “What have you been up to? Did you go to the book chat at Waterstones?”
She shook her head. “It was some fellow talking about climbing Everest. They’re having a novelist next week. Maybe you’ll be able to go.”
He frowned. “Fiction writers don’t make interesting speakers.” He patted her hand. “Did you keep your appointment last Friday?” The asparagus was overcooked and he pushed the plate aside.
“I said I would.”
“And you’re still happy with—what’s his name—Dr. Leyden?”
She shrugged noncommittally. “He seems nice enough.”
“Well, I’m not sure nice . . . .” He stopped mid-sentence as Mrs. Jongkind came in to clear. Anna had trained the woman to take away her often untouched dish without comment when she removed Duncan’s plate. He would have liked to change this arrangement, but he was loath to discuss personal matters with servants, even though Mrs. Jongkind had been hired, albeit unbeknownst to her, to keep an eye on Anna.
“So what have you been doing?” he asked. “Did you go shopping with Beatrix?”
“No, she was going to Utrecht. Mother can send us anything we need for much less than we pay at De Bijenkorf. She’s knows what we like better than I do.”
He sighed. “I hope you didn’t criticize the Hoog Catherijne to Beatrix. The Dutch are very proud of it, even if it’s exactly like the American malls they laugh at.” After considering the enigmatic Dutch for a minute, Duncan continued. “Anyway, you need something to do. If you won’t shop, and won’t find a hobby, maybe you could take a class.”
Anna’s large gray eyes looked uncompromisingly earnest. “I don’t mind being on my own. I like going to museums, walking and reading. I write Mother every other day and my sister twice a week. There’s my needlepoint . . . .”
The last canvass he’d bought for her—two swans on the Avon River—remained in the package after several months. “Harriet Winters is over from England. Why not tag along with her?”
“Tag along, Duncan! How you embarrass me. Asking your colleagues’ wives to entertain me.” She had twisted her linen napkin into a tight knot.
“We both know the trouble you can get into,” he began.
Anna stood up, threw the knotted napkin on the table, and fled the room. Duncan sighed, pushing his spoon into the dish of pudding Mrs. Jongkind had set before him. It was butterscotch and she had kindly allowed a skin to form. He wondered how his mother contrived the burnt sugar taste of his childhood.
The trouble arose in London. Anna was recovering from a miscarriage suffered a few months before in Philadelphia. Each of her three pregnancies had ended in the fourth month. This time, the doctor had ordered bed rest, drugging her with all the meds in his arsenal. Anna obeyed every instruction. Still they awoke one morning to find the sheets awash in dark red.
Anna seemed to recover. She was excited about the move to England and flew over with Duncan a month later to choose a flat. There was no reason to believe they couldn’t try to have a child again in a few months. New procedures and medications came onto the scene every day. There was still time; Anna was not yet thirty.
The flat near Hyde Park was lovely. Anna made a few friends among the wives and began to resume a normal life. Often Duncan came home to find her in the garden, chatting with, or rather listening to their gregarious neighbor. Esme was taking a two-year leave from her position as a solicitor to care for little Miranda. Once or twice, Anna looked after Miranda when the Osbornes had to be away. Nothing seemed amiss.
Then one day, coming up the tube steps at Marble Arch, Duncan spotted Anna pushing Miranda’s carriage toward Speaker’s Corner. She had a distant look on her face and was moving too quickly. Dashing after her, he caught up near the park’s entrance.
“Giving Esme a break?” he asked, planting a kiss on her cheek. Anna, looking flustered, continued walking.
“Isn’t it time for Miranda’s nap?” he asked, glancing as his watch. “She’s usually asleep in the back garden by now.” Anna stopped suddenly, bent over the carriage, and examined the sleeping infant. “Why don’t we start for home?” Duncan suggested, disturbed by her dreamy, unfocused look. He propelled the carriage around, but in minutes, his hurried gait woke Miranda.
The baby’s cries brought Anna to life and she started to sob, too. For a tense minute, Duncan stood on the street, holding the baby in one arm, his sobbing wife in the other. Noontime shoppers swarmed around them, many looking at Duncan accusingly. Finally, they made their way home where Esme came flying out the door. Seeing Miranda safe, she burst into tears.
When it had been sorted out, it was agreed that Anna needed professional help. She was still vague about what her intentions had been, unclear about where she’d been headed.
No one mentioned the police although Duncan was certain Osborne had considered it. He doubted a strong case could be made against Anna; her walk toward the park with Miranda was too innocuous to prosecute. He was grateful to the Osbornes for their generosity, but soon all four were anxious to be rid of each other. Duncan put in a request for a transfer and a few months later they came to Amsterdam.
Although the word baby hadn’t been mentioned in nearly a year, their growing estrangement was mostly due to Anna’s inability to carry a child to term. She hadn’t made a single friend in Amsterdam and her supposed activities—the walks, the museums, and the needlepoint—were figments of her imagination or lies. She hadn’t written her mother in weeks; he had a message on his machine to prove it. He wondered if she had been to Dr. Leyden after the first visits. According to her calendar, she had an appointment Tuesday, and he decided to see whether she kept it.
He was waiting on the street when she left the flat. A block or two away, she turned onto the Herengracht, the most lovely of the canal streets. This was something Duncan had been told rather than experienced since he’d spent very little time exploring Amsterdam. He’d never been inside De Bijenkorf, the department store. He’d attended just one concert at the Concertgebouw and made it to the Van Gogh museum for the first time last month. His lone trip to the Red Light district was at a client’s insistence.
Anna crossed a square. It was easy to keep sight of her despite the bustle of midday shoppers. Quite simply, she stood out in any scene, Duncan realized, not for the first time.
She made her way through the thongs of workers, who seemed to eat on their feet, popping into bakeries. herring stands or pancake houses. Soon she disappeared inside a cafe where he watched through the large windows as she found herself a table and pulled out a book. He went back to his office and put out some fires, then considered his domestic situation.
The next evening, his key was in the lock when he heard Anna call from the living room. He found her sitting across the coffee table from a young Asian woman. He couldn’t help but notice the short, tight skirt, the blouse stopping well short of her navel, the ridiculously high platform shoes. Her eyes were ringed with kohl. Her cheeks unnaturally pink. She looked predatory.
“Duncan, this is Hue Duc Do,” Anna said. “We’ve become friends on my afternoon walks.”
Duncan and the woman eyed each other warily. “What’s this about?”
“Hue has two young sons,” Anna began nervously. “She works terribly hard to support them.” Duncan was nonplussed but didn’t comment. “I think you know where Hue works, Duncan.” Anna was almost whispering.
“What’s that to us?”
“Hue doesn’t want to continue to . . . to continue working on Oudezijds Voorburgwal.” Although Anna struggled with the Dutch words, all three understood. “Her boys are nearly school age. She wants a better life for them. She intended on becoming a cook when she came to Amsterdam. Hue studied at a culinary school in Hanoi.”
“Do you want me to give her money? Is that it?”
Hue giggled and Anna threw her a sharp look. “Duncan, I’m going to send Hue away now. Will you give her a hundred euros, please? I promised her that.”
“Is that the going price?” But it was money well spent if it got Hue Duc Do out of his house. It depressed him to see her standing in front of his Karel Appel painting. Hue took the notes and Anna saw her to the door, putting a hand over the woman’s as she closed it. The gesture suggested an intimacy that shocked him.
“Would you like a drink?” Anna walked to the drinks cabinet and poured him a Dewars without waiting for his response. He took it wordlessly, sinking into a chair. She joined him, choosing the small, embroidered footstool and resting her cheek on his knee. He wondered if there was any cunning in the gesture.
“Hue is willing to carry a baby for us, Duncan. She did it once before—for a Dutch couple. I’ve seen pictures of that child and met her own boys. Her deliveries were textbook. I’d like to make arrangements for her to do the same for us. It’s done all the time, you know. They’ll remove my eggs, fertilize them with your sperm and implant one in Hue.”
His stomach convulsed. “Do you really think I’d allow a street whore to carry my child?” His throat was parched as he gulped down the scotch.
“I’ll only be able to have a baby if I make an arrangement like this. It’ll be our child in every important respect, Duncan. Hue’s just the vessel.”
“And what a vessel! Do you imagine you can pour something pure into a dirty jar, store it for nearly a year, and not find it sullied?” The image filled him with horror. “If it comes to this, we can do better than a prostitute.” He paused. “Why haven’t you been seeing your doctor, Anna? I know you didn’t meet your appointment yesterday.” He swallowed the remaining scotch in his glass and, shaking the ice cubes, started to rise.
She got up swiftly, making him another. “I couldn’t get him to understand that I have to . . . .”
“There you see!” he interrupted triumphantly. “No sane person would support you in such a thing.”
Anna walked over to the console table, pulling an envelope out of the drawer. “Look, Duncan, these are Hue’s sons, Hung and Tuyen. They both weighed over seven pounds at birth. That’s large for a Vietnamese child.”
“You forget they’re probably only half-Vietnamese. The other half could be anything. Swedish, Argentinean.”
Silently, she held up another photo. This third child bore no resemblance to its surrogate mother, of course. It was one of those nondescript photos taken soon after birth. The child looked vaguely Asian, but all babies do. Even when their mothers are not Vietnamese prostitutes,
* * * *
In Duncan Parsons’ firm, he was often called on to explain things to people who didn’t want to listen. He dismissed secretaries who couldn’t grasp complex technology. He pushed through early retirements for men who fell asleep at seven p.m. meetings, and fired employees out carousing too late to make ones at seven a.m.
Duncan also arranged for photographs to be taken of certain nocturnal activities when the need arose. He made sudden and upsetting visits to employees with difficult spouses or children; he paid off people with damaging information if threats or strong-arming was inadvisable. He did everything asked, even procuring drugs and sexual partners for clients being courted. Consequently, it was not very difficult for Duncan to deal with this new circumstance.
It was possible Anna and he would be forced to turn to a surrogate for a child, but that would be a woman he found himself, someone entirely different from Hue. He made one more attempt to persuade Anna.
“I want to return to the U.S. with a baby,” Anna told him. “No one will imagine I didn’t carry and deliver our child. And Hue will be out of our lives forever. She’ll have enough money to leave Amsterdam.”
“She’s done this before you said? What happened to the money? Why’s she back on the streets?”
Anna sat down. “Hue brought her mother over from Viet Nam. That cost some money, mostly in bribes. Then her younger brother developed a habit, it seems.”
“And this is the woman you want to trust with our child?”
“She’s thirty-two now. She has two boys to think of.”
Anna had made a better plan than he’d expected. She had shown initiative, intelligence. She looked into Hue’s background, raised certain issues. Briefly, he considered going ahead with it. But in the end, he realized that a street whore could never be trusted. A woman who permitted such degradation was not a fit “vessel,” as Anna put it, for his child. He preferred to be childless rather than to father one grown in Hue’s belly like some sub-par hothouse tomato.
It was not difficult to find her telephone number on Anna’s phone, and he dialed it a day later.
“Dag,” a woman said in a soft voice, ill suited to the harsh Dutch hello.
“This is Duncan Parsons. Is this Hue?”
“Yes,” she admitted hesitantly. After a halting and strained conversation, they agreed to meet the next evening.
He didn’t think to make a map. Hue had given him her address and a brief explanation of where her flat was located. His one excursion to the Red Light District had been in daylight when the streets were filled with gawking tourists. It had a certain festival atmosphere that was only vaguely sinister.
But it was after seven now and dark. All but the most deliberate “shoppers” had moved on to the theaters, concert halls or restaurants. Soon he was on a street lit by a pulsating pinkish light, and the same sorts of shop windows advertising baked goods, hardware supplies and antiques a few blocks away, pitched women. The women pressed their gyrating bodies against the glass, their lips leaving large red O’s. This was what he had expected and he was mildly aroused. When he paused, a young man dressed entirely in leather and sporting a shaven head decorated with a field of silver studs sunk into his scalp sprung from the door. Duncan shook him off, but not before the pimp grabbed teasingly at his erection.
“You know you want it,” he said. “She’ll do things you haven’t thought of. Things your wife won’t do.” A spray of misty water splattered the shop window and the woman writhed against the steamy glass.
Duncan picked up his pace. Now, the creatures in the windows wore more bizarre costumes and were tied down, handcuffed or held back by seemingly brutal means. Some of the larger “women” were probably transvestites. There was something here for every taste, every fetish.
The street activity grew even more fevered as he passed the House of Pain and the Hanky Panky Tattooing Museum. The air smelled of pot. A gang of kids tumbled out the door of a disco. The pulsating music, an indiscriminate European techno pop, flooded out, stopping just as suddenly as the door swung shut. A girl, looking no more than sixteen, leaned over suddenly, vomiting on the street. Pale but undefeated, she wobbled after her giggling friends, her short suede skirt revealing thighs no thicker than her calves. Her chest, covered in a leather halter despite temperatures in the forties, was almost concave. Looking up, Duncan saw the sign above the large black door warned in English as well as Dutch and French “Strict Leather Dress Code.” Unable to catch her friends, the girl whirled around, “Est-ce bien la route de La Disco de Kopenhagen?” He shrugged. She reached down, removed her shoes, and ran barefoot down the street.
Prinsenhofstraat was subdued after what came before it. Hue’s face appeared at a second floor window when he rang. She pressed the buzzer and he climbed the narrow staircase. Hue stood at the door, her hands gripping opposite elbows. Her defensive position was familiar to him. He saw it often enough at the office. Sometimes he saw it at home.
“Mr. Parsons?” Her voice was barely audible. On her own turf, she looked less rapacious. Gone was the elaborate hairstyle. In its place, Hue had a ponytail. She wore no makeup and her feet were bare.
As Duncan was considering his next move, one of her sons ran into the room. Hue scooped him up and the child squirmed, giggling in her arms. He said something in Vietnamese, and shrugging, Hue set him back down. It was only then that the boy noticed Duncan, and despite his age, surely no more than four, he gave Duncan a wary look and shouted something. He struck a martial arts pose and kicked the air.
Duncan, usually puzzled by children, reacted instinctually, pretending fear. He crouched, covering his head with his arms. The boy collapsed in laughter. Hue said something and the child ran out of the room, returning a minute later with a fat cookie. Flopping down in front of the television, he was immediately absorbed by a cartoon.
“Usually my mother here with him.”
“I think you’ve made an arrangement with my wife?” Duncan asked, getting right to the point.
She stood motionless, her wariness increasing. “Anna want baby very bad. I do that one time now. She show you pictures?” Duncan nodded. “She say you pay me a . . . a fee, is that right word?” He nodded again. “After baby come, we go somewhere else.” She nodded at her son. “Hung start school this year. Tuong next year. Time to go. “
“I won’t pay you to have a child.” Duncan shook his head vigorously, thinking the gesture might speak louder than his words. “It’s impossible.”
Hue shrugged as if it were just what she expected. “You tell Anna this?”
“No,” he admitted. “She’s not well.”
Hue nodded knowingly. “You pay me something, I tell her. Tell her I not do it. Yes?”
Duncan considered this. He could come up with a story for Hue to tell Anna. Perhaps, Hue could say she was already pregnant, or that she had an STD. She was not unintelligent and could probably pull it off. But could he trust her not to strike some new bargain with Anna?
“I’ll tell her myself,” he said, shaking his head. “I’d like to pay you something for your troubles, Hue.” He reached in his pocket and removed an envelope. “It’s a large amount of money.” He had given her one-third of what Anna had promised her for her services as a surrogate.
Hue stood there counting the notes. When she finished, she looked up at him. “What you want me to do?” There was no mistaking the fear in her eyes. He was used to that too.
“I want you to take your boys and leave Amsterdam. I want you to never see my wife again. I want you to go in the next day. Can you do that?” he asked putting a hand out for the money.
“I do it,” Hue said, putting the envelope behind her back. “We go tomorrow. Never see me again.”
“If I do see you again, I’ll take my money back. There are other things I can do, too,” he told her. “Far worse things than taking back money.” He looked down at the floor where the boy sat lost in his cartoons, and took a half- step toward him.
Hue swooped in. White-faced with anger or fear, she lifted the boy up in one swift movement. The cookie flew out of the boy’s hand and his flying legs knocked over a photograph. Glass cracked. Surprised at his mother’s rough handling, Hung burst into tears. Duncan backed away. He had never frightened a small child before but it was necessary now.
“Mr. Parsons,” Hue called out to him, shouting to be heard over her son’s tears. “I glad I not have your baby. I don’t want you inside of me.”
“Me, too, Hue,” Duncan said, starting down the stairs. They were in agreement on that score.
This story originally appeared in Berkeley Fiction Review.
Patricia Abbott is the author of more than 125 stories that have appeared online, in print journals and in various anthologies. She is the author of two print novels Concrete Angel (2015) and Shot in Detroit (2016), and the short story collection, I Bring Sorrow and Other Stories of Transgression (2018). Concrete Angel was nominated for an Anthony and Macavity Award in 2016. Shot in Detroit was nominated for an Edgar Award and an Anthony Award in 2017. She also authored two ebooks, Monkey Justice and Home Invasion and co-edited Discount Noir. She won a Derringer award for her story “My Hero.” She lives outside Detroit.