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An Ear To The Ground

An Ear To The Ground
Ginny — 23 Sep 1998, 5:57 PM

The man walked slowly up the steps to the Provencal veranda. As he stepped up onto the porch, he stopped, paralyzed for a moment with indecision. Could he do this? Should he do this? Did he even have the right after all these years?

He forced himself to take a step forward, and another, and then another, until he was face to face with the glass-pannelled front doors. The man who gazed back at him in the reflection looked harried and uncertain. He took a deep breath and reached out to open the door. Before he could grasp the handle, one of the doors opened, and a sharp-eyed woman with a blue Persian drapped across her shoulders stood in the gap. She smiled and pulled the door open wider.

"Welcome to the Provencal. I'm Maxine, the proprietress. Please come in."

The man entered the front hall, and the woman shut the door behind him, saying, "Well, this is quite an honor, Senator Paris. To what do we owe the pleasure?"

The man drew his breath in sharply and spun around to face her. "How did you recognize me?" he asked incredulously, for he was, indeed, Senator Owen Paris, D-Ark. "We've never met before."

Maxine laughed, a rich, throaty laugh, and scratched the Persian behind the ears. "There are no strangers at the Provencal, Senator. Here, let me take your coat." She pulled the camel duster from the Senator's unresisting shoulders and handed it to a young boy in page's clothing, who appeared and disappeared without a word.

Maxine looked at the confused, unhappy man standing before her and said soothingly, "Don't worry, Senator. If there's anything we understand at the Provencal, it's discretion. Well, discretion...and catnip." The Provencal's owner laughed again, but the Senator only looked more miserable than before.

Maxine sobered and laid her hand on Senator Paris' arm. "What can I do for you?" she asked quietly, pulling him over to sit on a nearby settee.

The man perched gingerly on the edge of his seat and clasped his hands tightly in front of him. Maxine noticed how white the kunckles were on his clenched fingers. He finally spoke, so softly that Maxine had to lean in close to hear him. "I was told that Kathryn Janeway was here. I need to speak with her immediately." He paused and looked up. "In private."

Maxine smiled, set the Persian gently down on the floor, and stood up. "'In private' is what we do best at the Provencal, Senator. I'll have one of my girls take you to a room and inform Mrs. Janeway that she has a visitor." She clapped her hands twice, and Racine appeared from behind a closed door.

"Racine, take this gentleman to the Casablanca Room and have Cook send up a pot of coffee and assorted other refreshments." Racine took a couple of provocative, swaying steps toward the Senator, but Maxine's sharp voice brought her up short. "Save it for the sporting trade, Racine. This gentleman is here on other business. Once you get him situated, come right back down. I have an errand for you to run."