Mary Verdick - Author
Mary Verdick - Author
All Rights Reserved © Mary Verdick 2003
Web Site By: Design Carte'
CHAPTER I
In honor of their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary, Kitty and Clem Johanssen set off on what's supposed to be a dream vacation:  a gracious cruise up the East Coast from New York to Montreal.  But in a hectic rush to embark, Clem foolishly loses his cash to a couple of street swindlers.  Unbeknownst to Kitty, the incident sets off a profound introspection of Clem's weaknesses, regrets, and mortality -- amplified by the sudden appearance of his old war buddy-turned-politician, T. McCollough Boyle, during a shore excursion.  As Clem grows more distant throughout the trip, Kitty falls in with an attractive -- and mysterious -- Englishman named Toby Knight, who offers everything Clem doesn't:  grace, charm, and hopefulness.  Now, the slowly smoldering confrontations of the last three decades -- the deep-seated resentments, half-buried insecurities and burning passions -- will surface in a confrontation so powerful it will test the limits of the couple's love.

At once unsettling and compassionate, As Long As He Needs Me is a psychological novel of faith, memory, love and the unyielding supremacy of time.
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Novel by Mary Verdick:  As Long As He Needs Me - Mystery  |Intrigue |Romance
Kate drove them to the station and now as she and Clem put the bags down on the platform, Kitty looked around for someplace for them to sit. But the only outside bench at the little station was already occupied by three men, shabby and unkempt. Definitely not commuters. Probably addicts waiting for the soup kitchen up the street to open so they can cadge a free meal, Kitty thought, and immediately chastised herself for being so uncharitable. Why do you always think everyone down on their luck has to be an addict? she asked herself. Just because Bebe, your own daughter, couldn’t stay away from the stuff—oh, stop it. STOP IT!

To make up for her lack of compassion, she smiled at the men, her warm, all-encompassing smile that said much plainer than words they were all human beings, and that these particular human beings were just fine as they were. She was rewarded with various flickers of interest. Two of the men lifted their heads and glanced shyly in her direction, while the youngest one, the one nearest to her on the end of the bench, actually smiled back.
“You and your sister going to the big city to do some shopping?” he asked, nodding in Kate’s direction. “Taking old Dad along,” he glanced at Clem, “to pay the bills?”

“Not exactly,” Kitty laughed, and putting out an arm drew Kate close. “This gal is my daughter, not my sister. And as for ‘old dad’ there—”

“He’s her husband and my father,” Kate informed him. “My folks are catching a cruise ship in New York that will take them up the Saint Lawrence to Montreal. They’re celebrating their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary. How ‘bout that?”

“Thirty-five years?” the man exclaimed. “Nah!” He shook his head emphatically. “She ain’t been married no thirty-five years. Him maybe, but not her.”

“Yes, her,” Kate insisted. “My folks met at an anti-war rally during the Vietnam War. My mom was a freshman in college and my dad was about to be sent overseas so they eloped—”

“I’m sure these fellows aren’t interested in our personal history, Kate,” Clem interrupted. A tall, gray-haired man with a slight pot protruding under his well-tailored jacket, he took his wife and daughter each firmly by an arm and lost no time maneuvering them to the other end of the platform.

“Why do you two always feel the need to strike up a conversation with total strangers?” he asked as soon as they were out of earshot.

“Oh, darling,” Kitty sighed, “they look harmless enough.”

“Sure. They always do, until they knock you over the head,” Clem said. “You haven’t forgotten what happened to Jack, have you?”

“Please, Dad!” Kate said. “Give it a rest. If I have to hear one more time about how Jack faced down those two thugs I swear to goodness—”

“Not just faced them down,” Clem corrected her. “In case you’ve forgotten, young lady, he belted one of them in the jaw and gave the other one a kick in the groin that put him out of circulation for quite a while, I imagine.”

“And got a black eye and a wrenched knee for his pains.”

“But he kept his money.”

“Big deal,” Kate sniffed. “If you ask me, what Jack did was about the stupidest thing I ever heard. Suppose those jerks had a gun—or even a knife. Jack could have ended up dead and a lot of good his precious money would have done him then. Nope, it’s better to just give them what they want. Even the cops will tell you that.”

“You mean just knuckle under?”

“Yep.” Kate nodded. “Seriously, Dad, if anyone should jump you guys—of course they won’t, but just in case—no heroics, hear? Promise me you won’t be brave.”

“But, honey, your daddy couldn’t help being brave,” Kitty said. “It’s in his genes or something. Remember what I told you, how he knocked out all those bunkers in Vietnam and saved his whole platoon—”

“For heaven’s sake, Kitty,” Clem protested. “That was a lifetime ago.”

“I don’t care.” Standing on tiptoes, she bussed him on the cheek. “You’re still my hero.”

“Mine, too, Dad,” Kate said, bussing him on the other side. “Just be careful, huh?”

You too, sweetie, Kitty thought, smiling at her youngest daughter. What a truly lovely looking girl she was. In addition to the tawny-gold hair and legs that seemed to go on forever, Kate had a fineness of bone, a certain purity of expression that never failed to touch Kitty’s heart. She was much too good for that stupid stable she was wasting her time at—Stop it! There’s nothing you can do about it, so forget it. But it was hard keeping quiet, God, was it hard!

Suddenly there was a distraction—a whistle, then the rumble of the train approaching. People began streaming out of the station, lining up to board.

“Now, Kate,” Kitty said, “you won’t forget about picking us up a week from Sunday? We’re taking the train from Montreal, which doesn’t stop here, but gets into New Haven—”

“At 5:20 a.m.,” Kate wrinkled her nose. “Some hour!”

“Ghastly, I know, but we didn’t have a choice if we wanted this particular trip. I just hope it’s not too hard on your dad.”

“Now don’t you worry about me,” Clem said. As the train came to a stop, he put both arms around his daughter and hugged her close. “Good-bye, sweetheart. Thanks for the lift.”

“Anytime, Dad. Have a good trip.”

“Intend to try,” Clem said.

The conductor put down the steps. Clem tossed their overnight bags aboard and started to heft their two large suitcases, then paused. “Christ almighty, what’s in these things? Bricks?”

“Here, let me help,” Kitty said, reaching for a handle. But a stocky young woman, also waiting to board, took both bags and easily hoisted them aboard.

“Why—why, thanks,” Clem said. “Thanks very much.”

Kitty smiled at the young woman. “That was ever so kind of you.”

“Not at all, ma-am,” the young woman said. “Glad to be of service.”

Kitty turned back to Kate. “You see, there’re still some nice people around,” she said in a conspiratorial whisper.

Kate smiled. “Never doubted it, Mom. You have fun now and don’t worry about a thing. When you come back from the cruise, maybe, well I might have a little surprise for you.”

Kitty’s heart gave a leap. “Oh, Kate, does that mean…?”

“Look, I can’t go into it now. I shouldn’t have said anything, but we’ll see. Now get on the train before Dad has a fit.”
Kitty hugged her daughter close for a moment, then dashed up the steps ahead of Clem just as the conductor shouted the “All aboard.” They found seats near the front of the car as the train gave a jerk and started off.  Through the window Kitty could see Kate waving and waved back until she was out of sight.

“Well, we made it,” she said. “Finally! Now all we have to do is relax and have a good time.”

“I won’t relax until we get on the ship,” Clem said. “We still have to go through that darn station, don’t forget.”

“Oh, Clem, we’ve been to Penn Station hundreds of times in the past and you never worried about it before.”

“I never thought they’d jump someone like Jack before.”

“Sweetie, that was a one-in-a-million thing. It won’t happen to us.”

“Don’t be too sure. I’d feel a lot better if you’d turn your diamond around.”

Kitty stared at him, puzzled. “Are you serious?”

“Darn right. No use asking for trouble.”

Kitty glanced down at her hand, at the really big diamond he’d given her after “the incident,” as he called it. His guilt offering, she privately thought. This new worry of his seemed ridiculous, but there was no point arguing, so she turned the ring around, hiding the stone, and changed the subject.

“Clem, you know what Kate told me just now? She may be quitting her job at the stable and enrolling in Yale Med after all.”

“She told you that?” He looked skeptical.

Kitty flushed. “Well, not in so many words. But she’s obviously been thinking about what I said, about how foolish it was to work at some fool stable, giving riding lessons to a bunch of kids, rather than pursuing a career with a real future.”
“She’s always loved horses, Kit.”

“I know. But all girls love horses at a certain stage in their lives. It’s just a case of  arrested development with her, that’s all.”

“Is it? I wouldn’t be too sure.” Clem’s voice was curiously gentle. “I don’t know what’s caused it, but Kate’s looked happier these last few months than I’ve seen her look in ages. And as much as I’d like her to become a doctor, too, we can’t turn her into another Pritchard if she doesn’t want it.”

“I guess not,” Kitty said. She glanced down at her hands which, all of a sudden, were trembling uncontrollably in her lap. Quickly, she hid them in the folds of her skirt. “But she is Pritchy’s sister,” she added. “She’s got the same blood coursing through her veins and he never caused us a lick of worry.”

Clem lifted an eyebrow. “That’s open to debate, isn’t it? Anyway she’s also Bebe’s sister and you know what we went through with her.”

“You don’t have to remind me.”

“I’m not. Anyway Bebe seems to be turning things around, now that she’s got religion.”

“I almost liked her better before,” Kitty said, then flushed. “Oh, God,” she bit her lip, “I don’t mean that, not really.”

“Don’t see why not,” Clem said. “It’s damned exhausting, being saved all the time.” Reaching out he put an arm around her and drew her close. “Say, did I tell you how spiffy you look this morning, Mrs. J?”

She glanced down at the red knit suit she was wearing, accented with a perky black and white scarf. “What, this old thing?”

“I’ve always liked you in red. Those fellows on the platform back there couldn’t take their eyes off you.”

“The poor things were probably in need of a good meal.”

“Or a drink, most likely. But they still know a beautiful girl when they see one.”

“Kate is the beautiful girl in this family.”

“Kate’s mighty nice—but she doesn’t hold a candle to her ma.”

“You’re crazy, Clem Johanssen.”

“About you.” He drew her close and put his lips against her ear. “You’re more beautiful than the day we got married and I still want you just as much. What other guy can say that about a woman he’s been married to for thirty-five years?”
“Silly,” she said. “I think you’re going through a second childhood.”

She knew what he was doing of course—trying to distract her, keep her from thinking of Pritchard. And she decided to let him. She wasn’t going to let her own unhappiness spoil the trip for Clem. She cuddled closer against him, laid her head on his shoulder—the car was only half-filled—and in this relaxed mood they continued on to the city. With half her mind she listened to the porter calling out the stops: New Haven, Bridgeport, Stamford, Greenwich…, finally a disembodied voice came over the loudspeaker announcing the approach of Penn Station.

The train screeched to a stop and they got off. There wasn’t a Red Cap in sight but fortunately the larger bags were equipped with wheels, so with each of them picking up a strap, and the overnight bags slung over their shoulders, they started down the platform. It was kind of tricky getting the bags up the escalator, but once they’d accomplished that they were okay.
“Are you hungry?” Clem said when they paused in the lobby to catch their breath. “What do you say we have lunch here in the station. How’s that place look?” He gestured at a restaurant on the other side of the lobby.

“Fine,” Kitty said. “Although actually, I’m not too hungry. I wonder if I can get a salad in there.”

“I’d guarantee it,” Clem said.

And he was right. She had a delicious spinach salad and a glass of white wine. Clem ordered a roast beef sandwich and two very dry martinis, although he rarely drank in the middle of the day.

The bill came. It was a bit more than they’d expected and they debated whether to put it on a credit card or pay cash. Clem opted for cash. “I’ve got plenty,” he said. “I went to the bank yesterday and took out a thousand.”

“Really?” Kitty said surprised. “Do we need that much? We’ve got several credit cards if we see anything we want to buy ashore, and practically everything on the ship’s paid for.”

“I know, but I always like to have some extra cash on hand for an emergency. You never know when it’s going to come in handy.”

“I guess,” Kitty said.

So Clem paid the bill and they left the restaurant. There were still no Red Caps to be found, but again they managed to roll the heavy bags across the lobby and up another escalator to the street. When they came outside to 8th Avenue they saw a long line of people under the portico waiting for cabs.

“I hope we don’t have to wait too long,” Kitty said, glancing at her watch. “It’s already after two.”

“The ship doesn’t sail til four, does it?”

“No, but embarkation starts at one-thirty, and we’ve still got to get to the terminal.”

“What terminal’s that?” a soft voice said, close to her ear.

Kitty turned and saw a slender, light-skinned black—little more than a boy really—standing right beside her. She didn’t know where he’d come from, but he was wearing freshly pressed jeans and a polo shirt with a Ralph Lauren logo, and he had the whitest teeth she’d ever seen.

“Where you nice folks heading?” he asked with a smile the angels would have envied.

“The passenger terminal at West 55th Street and 12th Avenue,” Kitty heard herself  replying.

“And I bet you’d like a cab, right? Follow me.”

He picked up both their big bags in one swift motion and dashed out into the street. After a second Kitty and Clem grabbed their overnight bags, which had been resting at their feet, and followed. The young man was going so fast they almost had to run to keep up.

“How can he carry both those heavy things?” Kitty asked. “He doesn’t look very strong.”

“Oh, these street kids are tougher than they look,” Clem said. He was panting a little as they raced after the boy. “How much do you think I ought to give him? Five bucks okay?”

“Ten sounds better. You said yourself those bags weigh a ton.” As she spoke she saw another young man approaching up the street. This one was a little older and not as good looking as the boy carrying the bags, but they obviously knew each other.

“Yo Rudy,” the newcomer said, a wide grin creasing his face. He put up a hand and hailed a cab.

The cab slowed down, pulled over to the curb, and stopped. The driver, a small, wiry man with a gold tooth in front, got out when he saw the bags and opened the trunk.

The boys hoisted the bags into the trunk while the driver turned to Kitty. “Where to, Missy?” he asked.

She gave him the address of the terminal. “Do you know where that is?”

“Sure, Missy, no problem. Please to enter?” The little man opened the cab door with a flourish, then hopped back into the driver’s seat.

Kitty paused, her hand on the door frame, waiting for Clem to tip the boys. She watched as he opened his wallet.
“Here, I’ve got something for you fellows,” Clem said as he flipped through the pile of hundreds in his wallet. “I know there’s a ten in here someplace.”

“Don’t worry about it, Pops.” The good-looking one called Rudy reached out, quicker than the eye could fathom, and snatched the entire pile of bills out of Clem’s wallet. “This’ll do just fine, and my friend and I sure want to thank you.”

It took Clem a moment to comprehend what had happened. Then, “Hey!” he yelled. “What do you think you’re doing?”

At which the other young man shoved Clem roughly back against the side of the cab. “We’re relieving you of some of your bread, you stupid motherfucker. We need it worse than you.”

“But, hey,” Rudy said, “no hard feelings, huh?” He gave an exaggerated wink, then the two of them turned and scampered off up the street. In a matter of seconds they’d been swallowed up by the crowd.

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