THE ASSIGNMENT (Story 1 of 3)
Written by Kevin L. Howard   

Betty laughed as she finished her third glass of brandy and looked at the ocean.  When the leaders of Locus first approached her with the job in 2003, she thought it would fail.

 She was a 27 year old with a body that could raise the dead.  Actually, her long black hair could probably have accomplished the task itself.

She had been linked with Locus for some time, but quietly.  She had a saint's reputation and childhood innocence in her eyes. 

Selmont had founded Locus and managed it well.  He knew how to get his way, and wasn't the sort of fellow you'd want your kids to stroll with in the park.  He had a devious glow dancing in his eyes.

He approached Betty with the assignment in August.  She'd be paid $500,000.00 up front, and the other half when the job was completed.

            She arrived in Pasadena, California, two days later in dire need of rest.  Her contact had already prepared her place, just off of South Lake Avenue.  It was a respectable location—not luxurious, not ghetto.

            It was well known that Mark wanted to be married, but had no girlfriend.  Betty would have to act fast, before the door shut.

Mark could often be found on Friday nights down at a coffee house on Colorado Boulevard.  It was there that Betty went first.  She'd seen many pictures of him, and could spot him if he walked in with a fake mustache and sunglasses—which he wasn't likely to do.  She arrived just after 8:00 pm.  He was typically there by then, sipping on tea, and reading a novel.  She waited till 10:00, ordering more caffeine than she normally drank.  But he never showed.  Betty's lips tightened in frustration.  Yet, she'd only been in town three days...this would obviously take some time.

 

***

 

Sunday came and Betty donned the best that money could buy—attractive, yet short of seduction.  She walked into the huge church north of the 210 freeway.  The structure stood boldly like a lion intimidating his foe. 

"How are you this morning?" the greeter said.

"I'm fine thank you," Betty replied.

She took her bulletin and made her way down the sloping aisle.  She picked a pew toward the back, hoping to spot Mark in the crowd.  But, he was nowhere to be found.

The choir's singing distracted her from the task at hand.  It'd been a while since she'd heard a choir.  Her mind drifted to her teen years, back when she was genuinely religious.

By the time they sat down again, someone was giving announcements.  Betty continued to search the crowd.  Lot's of big hairdos and nice clothes, but no Mark.  He could be anywhere in a crowd this size.  She noticed a man over to her left picking his nose.  How unholy, she thought.

Again, they were standing and signing, offering plates were passing among the people, and Betty's eyes scanning for her target.  Maybe he wasn't here today.  Betty passed the plate along, without putting money in.

 

***

 

Two weeks later, she'd only been at the Barnes and Noble fifteen minutes when Mark came in.  He'd brought his own book, and was headed straight for the dimly lit cafe where Betty was.  He seemed about 5'9 and his chin hid in the dark blonde fuzz of his goatee.  He stood for a moment, staring at the menu on the wall behind the counter.  He settled on a tall Americano. 

Betty did her best not to notice him, wanting this meeting to be as random as possible.  As he turned to find a seat, he seemed to notice Betty.  Hopefully the Bible she was reading would make a good impression on her approaching guest. 

"Don't you go to Lake Avenue Church?" Mark asked.

"Oh, hi! Yes, we're in Sunday school class together."
            "I'm Mark...forgive me, but I've forgotten your name."

"I'm Betty...don't worry, I'm terrible with names too."

"You're new in town and preparing for seminary, right?"

"Yes, you remembered."  Betty's eyes glistened.

"Weren't you also looking for work?"

"Yes...well, I'm working down the street at Southern Bell, doing data entry for their online phone book."

"That sounds interesting," he said, while slipping his hand into his pants pocket.

"Not really, but it's a job.  You're welcome to sit if you like...I'm just reading."

"Well...I...uh...sure, I could do that," he said.  "Do you come from a Christian family?" Mark asked.

"I grew up in church."

"Me too," Mark said.  "You're parents are strong Christians too?" he asked.

"My dad serves as a deacon at our home church in Houston.  Your parents?" Betty asked.

"Well, my father died a few years ago..."

"I'm sorry," Betty interrupted. 

"Thanks, but it's ok.  He had cancer.  He was a pretty active Christian though, and my mom's always been faithful to the church," Mark said.

"Are you from California?"

"Born and raised in Sacramento."

"How'd you end up in southern California?" she asked.

"I did my political science undergrad at USC, and got my Master of Divinity at Master's seminary," he said gazing over her shoulder.

"Oh, you went to MacArthur's school?" she said, pretending not to know.  "Did you like it?"

"It was great.  Where'd you do your undergrad Betty?"

"Baylor.  I majored in English and Biblical Studies."

"And now you're out here preparing to be a missionary?"

"Yes."  A smile was exposing Mark's delight.

             

***

Selmont's phone rang the next evening.

"Guess who's got a date with Mark this Friday?" asked Betty.

"You're kidding...so soon?"

"Yes."

"Wonderful!  Just remember, you've got to balance your attack with a subtle disregard.  You don't want him to think you're too desperate or too uninterested."  Selmont cleared his throat.  "We're counting on you Betty.  Make it happen."
            "I'll do my best."  She hung up the phone.  "It's time to turn on the charm Betty," she said to herself, looking out her window.

She drove toward the Galleria Mall in Glendale.  She needed to buy some new clothes for her upcoming date.  She had to look and smell her best.  What a great way to spend her $500,000.00.

 

***

 

When Mark rang the doorbell at 5:55 pm, Betty's heart raced.  Things needed to go perfectly tonight.  Mark had the smile of innocence on his face as she opened the door.  A spark of life flashed in his eyes when he saw her, like when a boy realizes the big gift under the Christmas tree is for him.  Betty's white skirt stopped just above her knees. 

"Don't you look beautiful tonight!" Mark said.

"Thank you.  You're looking pretty sharp yourself."

The Thai restaurant Saladang was already filling up, waitresses scurrying around with pitchers of water and taking orders when they arrived.  The mood was romantic, a simple large room with candles on the table.  The lighting softened the masculine gray walls.  The aroma of noodles filled the air and they were seated within ten minutes.

"Water will be fine," Betty said to the waitress.

"I'll have a Coke."

"So what's your favorite Thai dish, Mark?"

"I guess my favorite is Pad Thai."

"Me too."

"Get whatever you want though," Mark said.  "If you like, we can even get different dishes and share them; that's a very Asian thing to do."

"That's sounds like a good idea."  Betty perused the menu, hunting out some of her favorites. 

"So what do you do on your spare time Betty?  Any hobbies?"

"My favorite hobby is shopping.  But I workout, read, and hike."

"What kind of books do you read?" Mark asked.

"I read lots of Christian books, fiction and non-fiction.  I also read a lot of main-stream fiction, Grisham and Clark.  I read some romance, but really enjoy the classics like Twain, Austin, and Hemingway.  Are you a reader Mark?"

"I love to read.  I read mostly theology books, but occasionally dip into a Grisham or Patterson novel."

"Are you ready to order?" the waitress interrupted.

"Betty, do you know what you want?" Mark asked.

"I'm going to have Tom Yum."

"And you sir?" the waitress said, her blood-shot eyes gave the impression she'd been working all day.

"I think I'll have Pad Thai noodles.  And could you put extra peanuts on the side?"

"Mark, tell me how you got started in your organization TASK?"  Her eyes observed Mark's with the watchfulness of a tiger staring at a deer.

"I started it five years ago, as a side interest while I worked on staff at Lake Avenue Church, but TASK soon developed into a full time position, with support from all over the world.  The radio interview with James Dobson catapulted the ministry into the spotlight."  He toyed with his earlobe but kept speaking.  "Had you heard of it before you came to Pasadena?"

"Yes," Betty said.

"Our main focus is to stand against the advances of the Gay Rights Movement.  We're telling the American people that homosexuals aren't the innocent persecuted bunch they claim to be.  They're spreading their propaganda to our kids in school, and we can't sit back and watch it happen."

"Absolutely!  I commend you for the work that you're doing Mark."

"I believe we've actually got them sweating a little.  I know because of the increase in hate mail lately.  The Gay Rights Movement is notorious for its hate mail.  They have lots of money backing them, but we're not afraid to fight. 

"Do you have many non-Christian supporters?" Betty asked.

"Oh yes.  Although we're a Christian organization, we want to join hands with as many folks as we can, as long as they're committed to the traditional family, a man and a woman."

"I admire a man who's willing to fight for what he believes," Betty said as she tilted her head to the left.  "Many people complain, but only a few are willing to do something about it," she said with her eyebrows raised slightly.

"Thank you, Betty.  I've received lots of criticism from the left wing in the last five years.  I appreciate your encouragement." 

"Do you have any gay friends?" Betty asked.

"I used to, but it's hard to keep close gay friends with what I'm doing.  There's one guy that I was friends with before I became so politically active, but we're both so busy, we rarely see each other now.  We've had some lively discussions through the years though," Mark said.

"I'll bet." 

"What about you Betty, any gay friends?" Mark asked.

"Well, I've had some through the years and still chat with them on occasion.  Some of them are nice people."

"I agree," Mark said.

"It sounds like you're doing a good job so far fighting the movement.  Sorry to change the subject, but do you play any instruments?" she asked as her eye caught a glimpse of the sign at the music academy across the street.

"I've played the classic guitar since I was 12.  What about you?" Mark asked.

 "Unfortunately I don't play anything."  Betty did her best to use her dark olive eyes in her favor.

 

***

 

Selmont answered on the second ring.

"Sel, this is Betty."

"How was the date?"

"Better than we have hoped.  I believe he's falling for me.  He asked me out again next Friday...he walked me to my apartment, even hugged me goodnight."

"I knew you'd be great for this position.  Now you just need to hold his attention for a while.  Then we'll bring him down." 

"I think we can get him, but it might not be as easy as we hoped.  He seems to be serious about integrity."

"We'll do it slowly," Selmont said.  "No need to rush things.  Just remember, this project's success depends on your objectivity.  You'll have to keep your heart in check.  It would be problematic if you fell for this guy."

"Don't worry Selmont, I know what I'm doing.  I'm a woman."

"Touché!  By the way, have you enrolled in grad school next semester?"

"My paper work is all in.  I should hear something soon."

"Keep up the good work Betty."

She felt a twinge of apprehension crawl in her stomach as she turned off the audio recorder.  The task ahead lay out in her mind like a long road snaking through the back woods of Texas.  She couldn't afford to get lost on this little venture.  Precision was everything.  She clicked her remote until she found her favorite cop show.

 

***

 

It was a Friday night when Mark and Betty sat with each other at the coffee house on Colorado Boulevard.

"Betty, I've prayed a lot since we talked at Barnes and Noble two weeks ago and I want you to be my girlfriend.  What do you think?"

"I'd love to be your girlfriend," she said with a grin.

"Great."  He leaned toward her; she closed her eyes and they kissed. 

"You're quite the kisser Mark."

"Thanks."  He looked down at the table.

"Somebody's turning red," Betty said.  They laughed.

"What are you doing at the end of September?" Mark asked.

"What did you have in mind?"

"How'd you like to come with me up to Sacramento?  My mom's a great cook."

"That would be wonderful," Betty said.

"We can talk more about the details as it approaches.  We've still got a couple of weeks."

"Say, what's the latest with TASK?"

"We're presently battling with some group based in Boston called Locus.  Have you heard of them?" Mark asked.

"I think so," Betty said.

"They're trying to build on the recent decision of Lawrence v. Texas.  Now, they're trying to force a Christian group at A&M to let an openly lesbian student lead the group," Mark said.  "Isn't that twisted?  Before you know it, they'll be putting us in jail for not letting them preach in our churches."

"The more freedom they get, the more they want," Betty said.

Mark's hand propped up his chin.  His face looked like a general's as he pondered his options in war.

"I hope you're not too stressed about all this," she said, moving to his side of the table and putting her arm around him.  He rested his head on her shoulder.

 

***

 

"Hello," Selmont said.

"It's Betty."

"How was your trip to Sacramento?"

"Wonderful.  His mom and I hit it off well.  And Mark and I kissed quite a few times when his mom wasn't around."

"Awesome!" Selmont said.

"It gets better.  When he dropped me off at my place last night, we made out on the couch for at least 20 minutes."

"No?"

"Yes!" Betty said.

"Did he try anything?"

"Unfortunately not.  But he's getting there.  I don't think it'll be long now."

"Let's hope not.  His organization's really giving us a fight up here.  If your plan doesn't work, we may have to take more drastic measures."

A pause hung between them.

"I'll do what I can, but this sort of thing is an art.  It takes time," Betty said.

"You're right.  Sometimes inspiration can't be rushed.  Keep up the good work."

"OK!"  Betty turned off the recorder and drove to Mark's.

The wooden porch moaned as she stepped on it.  She heard the bell ring in the distance.

"Betty, come in," Mark insisted.

"I just wanted to drop in for a few minutes just to see you.  Is that OK?"

"Sure," he hugged her and closed the door behind them.

"Can I get you something?" Mark asked.

"No, I'm fine.  I just wanted to see you.  How was your day?"

"It was hectic but productive.  I'm worn out though.  Are you sure I can't get you something to drink?"

"No, thank you.  I'm not staying long.  I just wanted to tell you how great you are."  She hugged him and started toward the door.

"You don't have to rush off," Mark said.

"I'd better go.  Call me tomorrow."  They kissed and Betty was on her way.  There was a cool breeze, and the flowers surrounding his house spewed fragrances of pleasure.

 

***

 

"How did you find this restaurant?" asked Betty.

"A friend of mine brought me to this place about a year ago when I lived in Alhambra," Mark said.  "I've been coming back every couple of weeks since."  He wiped his goatee.

"You can't beat the price for a lunch buffet," she said.

"How are things looking for school next semester?" Mark asked.

"I've been accepted into the missions program.  I just need to work some overtime hours between now and then to pay for tuition."

"Seminary's pretty expensive these days," Mark said.

"I don't mind working.  I need something to keep me busy or I get bored."

"I know what you mean.  I complain about being so busy, but the truth is, I like it," Mark said.

Betty winked at him and watched his cheeks fill a rosy color.  He laughed and winked back.

"How'd you like to catch a Laker's game sometime soon?  I can get tickets."

"You might could persuade me with a kiss or two," Betty said.

"I may be able to arrange that," Mark said.

They paused for a kiss.

"How are things with TASK?" she asked.

"They're fine.  We're staying busy with the case up in Massachusetts."

"The Locus group?" Betty asked.

"We're obviously rattling their cage."

"How?" she asked.

"We send literature to churches, and rally grassroots organizations to voice their concerns in their communities, and we give speeches on campuses."

"You make me proud to be with you Mark."

 

***

 

The Laker game ended late, but Mark wanted to show Betty Santa Monica pier.  They parked several blocks away and walked to the beach.

"Look at the stars.  You can't always see them around here," Mark said.

"This is beautiful," Betty said.

"We'll have to come sometime during the day...you can ride the Farris wheel."

"Let's go down to the water and get our feet wet," Betty said.

Her arms barely reached around him. 

"I love it when you hold me Mark."  She moved her head onto his chest.  "I can hear your heart beating."

"I'm surprised it's still beating after the two corn dogs I had tonight."

"You're the nicest man I've ever dated..."

He interrupted her words with a long kiss.

"Betty, I'm falling for you."

"I'm falling for you too.  Now stop talking and kiss me," she said.

He hugged her tightly and kissed her again.

"What are you doing for Thanksgiving and Christmas?" Mark asked.

"I was hoping to go back to Texas, but think I'll stay to save money.  What are you doing?"

"I'll be going to my mom's again, and she wants you to come back to see her?"

"And what do you want?" Betty said.

"I just invited you, didn't I?"

 

***

 

Mark took Betty's arm and escorted her to her apartment, Christmas packages and all. 

"Thanks for taking me to your mom's, Mark.  You really are blessed."

"Yes I am...and you're welcome.  I had a great time," he said with a smirk.  They kissed.

"Come in for a few minutes before you go," she said.

"Alright, but I can't stay long.  I'm really tired."

"Would you like something to drink?" she asked.

"I'll take some water."  Mark sat on the sofa, brushing his hair back with his hand.

She turned on the stereo and brought two cups of water, seating herself beside him on the sofa.

"You're a great woman Betty."  Again, he kissed her, this time longer than he had before.

She moaned slightly.  He caressed her neck with his thumb, then kissed her neck gently.  Her hand rested on his back, mid-way around.  They kissed passionately for several minutes.  Their breathing grew heavier until Mark's hand was now under her shirt.

 

***

 

"What have I done?" Mark said as tears formed in his eyes.  He zipped his pants and looked like he would pass out.  "Betty, I'm sorry.  We've made a huge mistake.  I'll call you soon...I'm sorry."  He closed the door.

Betty's look of guilt gave way to a smile, realizing she had what she needed.  She walked over to the stereo where the one-eyed bandit was hiding.  The red light flashed until she shut it off.

 

***

 

Several days later, Betty felt the breeze on her face as she stood on the balcony of her hotel in Chile, looking out over the sea. 

She held the L.A. Times in one hand, brandy in the other.  The headlines read, "Right Wing Leader Takes a Fall."  Mark was a good man, but had gone down quicker than she imagined. 

Just below it, read another: "Gay Rights Organizer Arrested in Scandal."  Next to it, a picture of Selmont in cuffs. 

"My, what one woman can do!  Here's to men," as she lifted her glass skyward.

 

See "The New Reformation" (Story 2 of 3) at http://www.neednotfret.com/content/view/66/29/