D. J. Belt
D. J. Belt
Copyright: Original story, copyright D. J. Belt May 2010.
Disclaimers: A fair amount of violence and coarse language. ALT, if labels be needed.
E-mail: You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org Don't be afraid to drop me a note, if you feel so moved. I love hearing from you.
Comments: This is a sequel to the story Angelique , but it's not absolutely necessary to read that one before starting this one. It takes place in Paris, France about six months after the first story ended.
Apologies to anyone who speaks fluent French; I don't, so relied upon an online translator for the French dialogue and Google Earth for street scenes of the Latin Quarter. And, of course, I have to mention the song Lili Marlene , done to perfection by Carly Simon on her CD Film Noir , as the inspiration for the whole thing. Hope the effect turned out tolerably well. With that said, I hope you enjoy!
Laurie Caldwell called out as she entered the door beneath a sign reading Café Angel, 13 Rue d'Espoir. The bar had not yet opened for business; it was too early in the day. Delivery men were there, however, stocking the bar. “Oh. Hey, Maurice,” she said, then remembered herself and repeated, “Bonjour, Maurice.” In her best French, she added, “You look well. Is Angel here?”
“She is in the back office. How was your morning at the university?”
“Wonderful,” she said, then giggled. “So, Maurice. Do I sound like a French girl yet?”
At that, Maurice–a pleasant bear of a man–smiled in delight. “Your French is coming along beautifully. You sound exactly like a girl from–” He paused in thought. “How do you say it? Kansas?”
“Oh, quit!” she said in French. Laurie laughed, though. She dropped her bag on a table and walked toward the back office, a little closet of a room near the back stairs, and spoke in English. “Angel? I'm back.”
There was no answer from the little office. “Angel?” Laurie said. “You there?”
She halted just outside the doorway and peeked around the corner. In the cramped little office, Angelique was standing, her iPod in her hand, ear buds in her ears, and she was dancing. Her eyes were closed, and she was softly singing in, it seemed, English. Laurie snickered in delight, then listened.
“Just take those old records off the shelf...”
Oh, my God, Laurie thought. She's grooving out on Bob Seger. What a scream. Laurie grinned from ear to ear, an evil grin, and stepped back. She waved to Maurice and pointed toward the office. He dropped his towel and stepped from behind the bar, his eyes twinkling. He could tell when mischief was afoot, and he loved to be in the middle of it.
He peered around the edge of the office door-jamb. Angelique was oblivious to their presence, and she was dancing, her hands in the air, in some imaginary rock concert.
“...that kind of music just soothes the soul...” she sang softly in her rolling accent. As she danced, she slowly turned toward the door. Her eyes opened, and she saw two sets of eyes peering at her around the door-jamb. Maurice's were above, and Laurie's were below. She yelped, then fell back against a table. Her face turned scarlet, and she meekly pulled the earbuds from her ears. “Ah...” She sputtered a little, then offered them a weak, sheepish grin and a shrug. “I like the song,” she said in French.
Maurice stood in the hall and clapped. “Bravo!” he shouted. “Bravo! As fine a performance as I have ever seen. Boss, you have missed your calling. You should be playing rock-and-roll music.” With that, he roared in laughter and returned to the bar.
“Rock-and-roll,” Laurie repeated in English. “My grandfather used to call it ‘rotten-roll'.”
Angelique laughed, then urged, “In French, cher.”
“It doesn't quite translate the same way. Anyway, I'm home.”
Angelique's expression was indulgent, affectionate, but she raised an eyebrow at Laurie. “Dites-le en franççais, mon amour.” Say it in French, my love.
Laurie huffed, then blew a shock of red hair from her face. “Sorry,” she said in French. “I–” She squinted in thought, then said, “I am home, Angelique.” She couldn't help but add, “And you dance beautifully.”
“Thank you,” she replied in French. “You are learning well. These mornings at the university are worth your trouble.”
“And your money. Thank you for the classes.”
“It is nothing. I am glad to do it, and you need to learn excellent French.”
Laurie stepped into the little office, and Angelique greeted her with a resounding hug and a kiss. Angelique, or Angel, as she was known to her friends, stood a little taller than Laurie and possessed not only a wiry, athletic physique from her mornings at the gym, but a shaggy head of brown hair streaked with rust-red. The effect, especially in the sunlight, delighted Laurie. She watched Angelique seat herself and sigh at the pile of invoices before her.
“Um, too much work? Oh. Excusez-moi. Trop de travail?” Laurie said.
“ Oui. Ce type de travail fait mon cerveau blesséé.” Angel mumbled.
“Huh? Slower, Angel. Oh, sorry. Parler plus lentement, s'il vous plaîît. ”
At that, Angelique smiled. “All right,” she said. “We can speak English. I think you are getting tired.”
Laurie brightened. “Thanks.” She plopped down onto a chair crammed into the room next to Angelique's desk and watched her as she reluctantly returned her attention to the papers before her. “Are we doing okay?”
“The bar. Is Café Angel making money?”
“Yes, yes. We are doing as well as we can hope.” She sighed. “After the bills and the taxes and the payroll, of course.” She studied Laurie for a moment and smiled. The slender build, the red hair always a little loose and in her face, the aura of gentleness about her; these things she loved about Laurie. They seemed a natural part of her. Laurie was Angelique's reminder that, in addition to the ugliness she'd seen in her thirty-plus years of life, there was also much beauty in the human race. “The customers, they say nice things about you.”
Laurie shrugged, even as she brightened at the compliment. “I try. I don't always understand them.” She hurriedly added, “But I'm learning.”
“They know. At least you try.” Angelique laughed. “And they love your accent. Never before have they heard French spoken by someone from the, ah... How do you say?”
“Yes. Midwest. See, I learn from you, too.”
Laurie leaned back in her chair. “So how long did it take you to learn English?”
“I'm still learning.”
“But you're great at it. And you speak several languages. Which was hardest?”
“Arabic, perhaps? No.” Angelique squinted. “Hebrew, I think. Yes.”
“Those were awful times for you.”
Angelique's eyes narrowed for a moment as her memory flashed back to her time in Israel. They were times which were soaked in violence, in blood and hate. “It was not a pleasant time, true. But it is over now.” She noted Laurie's raised eyebrow and added, “For good. Believe that.”
“I do. But sometimes, I worry that Mossad isn't through with you.”
“My obligation to them has long ago ended.” Angelique forced a smile. “It is over.” She changed the subject. “So, are you still enjoying living in Paris?”
At that, Laurie beamed. “Am I ever! I'm damned sure not in Kansas anymore, huh?” She grinned at the joke. “Or Washington, D.C., either. God, I love it here. The Latin Quarter is so cool, so different from anything that I've ever known. Artsy, offbeat, loaded with history. I study French in the mornings. I work here in the evenings. I live upstairs in a quaint, neat apartment. I explore Paris on my days off. And do you know what the best part of it is?”
Angelique shook her head.
“I get to do it all with you.” She rose, drew close to the desk, and seated herself in Angelique's lap. “I love you, Angel.” She kissed Angelique, then sat back and ran a hand through the shaggy brown-red hair. “So just what the hell do you see in me, anyway?”
“Laurie.” Angelique could say no more. She hugged Laurie to her, held her tightly, and squinted her eyes shut. “You,” she whispered to the ear so close to her face, “are my light, my goodness. Never leave me, please.”
“I'm here,” Laurie said. “I'm here for as long as you'll have me.”
“Then you stay forever.”
Laurie lifted her head. Their faces close, she studied Angelique with her soft brown eyes, and she smiled. “Forever. I like the sound of that.”
“Me, also.” Angelique combed the hair from Laurie's face with her fingers. “You are lovely, you know.”
“Liar. I'm such a plain Jane. I didn't even get invited to my high school prom. Nobody wanted to date the skinny redheaded chick with braces and no boobs. I was such a goober.”
“You are lovely. Here...” Angelique's fingers trailed over Laurie's cheek. “And here, even more.” She touched Laurie's chest, just beneath her throat. “A good heart.”
“It's yours.” She kissed Angelique again, then sat up. “Oh. I'm taking you from your work. I'm sorry.”
“I have time. The café, it does not open for some hours yet.”
“Is that right?” Laurie's brown eyes fixed themselves on Angelique's hazel ones, and they squinted in humor. “So, are you thinking what I'm thinking?”
Angelique grinned. “If your thoughts are naughty.”
“They are. Meet me upstairs?”
“I will just check on the delivery. Then, I come upstairs.”
“Don't keep me waiting.” With that, she rose from Angelique's lap and scurried out the door. Angelique took a deep breath and sighed, then rose from her chair and left the office. As Laurie hurried past her in the opposite direction, her bag over her shoulder, and thumped up the stairs to the apartment, Angelique crossed the empty café and joined Maurice behind the bar.
In French, she asked, “The delivery is finished?”
“Yes, yes. Here is the invoice. I signed for it.”
“Thank you, Maurice. I'll be upstairs for a while.”
He nodded. “You will practice your music this afternoon?”
She glanced across the bar. Tucked into a corner of the café, her baby grand piano sat, her microphone poised above the keyboard. “Yes. Later.”
He smiled as he waved a hand to indicate the bar. “We do good here, no? And it is because they come to hear you sing and play.”
Angelique smiled at the compliment, but demurred, “I think not.”
“I think so.” He nudged her playfully with a shoulder. “Now go, Boss. Laurie waits for you. Take a break. I see you later.”
“What about you, Maurice? Are you just going to putter around here?”
“Me? Of course not.” He roared in laughter, then slapped her on the back. “I'm going home to my wife. Why should you two have all the fun?”
Angelique could feel her cheeks heat with blush, but smiled as she left the bar and headed to the back stairs. She tread the worn steps and paused at the top. She looked back. Maurice was watching her from the bar, a teasing twinkle in his eyes. He shooed her away with a motion of his hand, and she smiled, then entered the door. A moment later, Maurice heard the bolt click home. He chuckled to himself, then found his keys and headed for the front door, humming a little tune as he did so. A hopeless romantic at heart, that was Maurice.
Inside the second-floor apartment, Angelique kicked off her clogs. When she looked down, she saw one of Laurie's high-topped black tennis shoes cast aside. A little further inside, the other one lay. Beyond that was a sock, and another one a foot beyond that. She followed the trail of clothes around the corner, and Laurie's tee shirt pointed the way to the bedroom. A bra hung draped over a lamp, and her jeans lay in a heap near the half-closed door. On the door handle, the last item of clothing hung. Angelique had to smile. Although she'd put on a little weight since she arrived in Paris, Laurie was still slender to the point of being skinny; she looked good in a thong. She took a deep breath, then creaked the door open and entered the bedroom. It was bathed in soft noontime light filtered by the sheer curtains. Her breath caught; Laurie looked even better out of one.
“Vous êêtes en retard.” You are late, Laurie had said.
“Mais je suis ici maintenant.” But I am here now, Angelique had answered.
“Vous êêtes habilléé.” You are dressed, Laurie had observed.
“Permettez-moi deux minutes.” Give me two minutes, Angelique asked.
“Une minute.” One minute, Laurie had countered.
With that, Angelique shed her clothes and crawled into the ancient four-poster bed. The covers had been turned down, and as she settled on her side in front of Laurie, she allowed her eyes to slowly trail down the girl's body.
In English, Angelique asked, “You are not trimming your hair any more?”
“Huh?” She grasped a handful of her hair and held it away from her head to study it. “I know I have some split ends, but–”
“No, no.” Angelique pointed toward Laurie's pelvis. “There.”
“Oh!” The corners of Laurie's mouth turned up in amusement. “I like it. Less maintenance.” She shrugged. “I'm a European girl now, huh?”
“Oh? I think that you are a bad girl now.”
Laurie laughed as she snuggled closer and snaked an arm around Angelique's neck. “Yeah. Ain't it great?”
“Deux cognacs, s'il vous plaîît, Maurice,” Laurie called as she passed by the bar. Maurice nodded, and in a moment, had the two glasses of cognac sitting on the counter. Laurie picked them up, squeezed past a knot of customers entering the bar, and set them down on a table. The young couple she'd just served nodded a ‘thank you' to her, then resumed their conversation as Laurie huffed, blew some errant strands of red hair out of her face, and glanced over her tables. All seemed well at the moment. She could hear conversation in several languages, laughter, and the clink of glasses. Her customers seemed happy. She glanced around, and could see the two other servers deftly weaving between tables, their small trays of drinks and coffee and espresso held above their heads as they kept their tables contented.
In the background, the baby grand piano tinkled a soft tune, the introduction to a song. Laurie paused and smiled. She knew the song. In a second, she'd hear Angelique sing. And she always loved to hear Angelique sing. Her voice, husky, sad, melodious, lent emotion to whatever she performed. Whatever language the song was in, it mattered not; whether it was a modern piece or a song from generations long past, it appealed. Both Laurie and Maurice knew that the music was what endeared this little bar to the people of the neighborhoods surrounding it. Angelique was the attraction. They could drink and socialize anywhere; they couldn't hear Angelique sing and play her piano anywhere but here. And here is where they chose to come, to spend their evenings.
She recognized the introductory piano chords. The song was Maurice's favorite, Lili Marlene . It was a song from the long-ago war, a soldier's lament about a girl who professed to love him, then, while he was dying at the front, would seek the love of another. Angelique could sing it with emotion, with a hint of the resignation and pain which the song implied. As she trotted back and forth to table and booth in the dim, smoky bar, Laurie cast a glance at Maurice. He had stopped work and was leaning on his elbows on the worn wood of the bar, listening. She had to smile.
Laurie noted a man slide into an empty booth near the door, and she hurried to him. She pulled a cloth from her apron, wiped the moisture of previous drink from the table, and looked at him. “Bonsoir. Que voulez-vous boire?” she said.
His answer was in English, but accented with an unusual, musical lilt, one that Laurie didn't recognize. “You are Laurie, are you not?” he asked.
“Yes,” she replied, surprised.
He smiled. He was handsome, touches of gray coloring darker hair, and his breezy grin rendered him instantly likeable. His eyes, though, contained traces of a hardness, of old pain that he didn't quite have the care to hide as they squinted in humor and studied her. Oh-oh, Laurie thought. A complicated, charming rascal. I gotta watch this one. He'll probably try to hit on me.
“Honored,” he said. “I'm Maurie, an old friend of Angel's.” He paused a beat, then continued, “She has told me much about you. I'm delighted to finally meet you.”
“Why, thank you,” Laurie said. “Um, what would you like, Maurie?”
“Oh. Coffee is fine. And if you could tell Angel that I'm here, I would be most grateful.”
“Sure.” She smiled. “Coffee and Angel, coming up.”
She left him and slid by the bar. “Un caféé, s'il vous plaîît, Maurice,” she said as she headed toward the piano. Angelique had finished Lili Marlene and was playing a soft melody, as she periodically did to rest her voice or consider her next song. Laurie approached her and placed a hand on her shoulder. As Angelique tilted her head toward her, Laurie said, “There's a guy named Maurie sitting back there. Says he needs to talk to you.”
Angelique glanced up, and Laurie saw the momentary flash of concern in Angelique's hazel eyes. Then, she hid the concern and nodded. “Thank you. I will take a break shortly.”
A moment later, Laurie placed the coffee in front of Maurie. “She'll knock off in a minute.”
“Fine, fine.” He smiled his thanks to Laurie, a charming smile, and said, “It's always a delight to hear American English spoken again.”
“You've been to America?” Laurie asked.
“Often,” he said. “On business.”
Somehow, Laurie suspected that she didn't want to know what business that was. She motioned toward the other tables. “Gotta run. Great to meet you, Maurie. Angel will be here in two shakes.”
“Of course. Thank you, Laurie.” He watched her stop at another table, then chuckled to himself. “Two shakes,” he said. “I wonder what it is that she's shaking twice.”
The piano stopped. In the ensuing quiet of the little bar, the murmur of voices and the clink of glasses again became the background noise. A few seconds later, Maurie looked up from his coffee as Angelique slid into the booth across from him. She said nothing for a moment as they eyed one another. Then, Angelique's expression softened, and she extended her hand. He shook it.
“Well, old friend,” she said in Hebrew. “It's good to see you again.”
“We can speak English, Angel,” he said. “Your Hebrew always sucked.”
She laughed. “As did your French.”
“Well,” he said with a shrug, “nobody's perfect, I suppose.”
A mutual, teasing smile crossed both their faces. Then, Angelique got to the point. “I hope that this is a social visit. I am retired, you know.”
“So you keep telling me,” Maurie said. “And after enjoying the atmosphere of Café Angel and meeting Laurie, I can understand why.”
“It is a good life now,” she agreed.
He eyed her. “You are happy?”
“I am very happy.”
“Good.” He smiled, a sincere smile. “No one deserves it more than you, Angel. God knows that you've paid your dues.”
Laurie's hand slid between them and deposited a class of red wine on the table in front of Angelique. Then, Laurie impulsively leaned down and kissed Angelique on the side of the head before she disappeared to serve another table. Maurie smiled at that. “You do look in love,” he said. “You wear it well.”
“Thank you.” She raised a questioning eyebrow. “And you, Maurie? Still single? After all the years and all the women, how do you manage it?”
“I'm divorced, remember? I don't have to touch a hot stove more than once to learn.”
She nodded. “But you will touch it again, if I know you. So, how is business these days?”
He sighed. “Ah, it's not like the old days, Angel. Nine-Eleven changed it all. The Americans, they are in the game now and out of control.” Angelique said nothing, but merely raised an inquisitive eyebrow and awaited his thoughts. “They use mercenaries. Ah, how do you say? Heads of meat?”
“Yes. They have not the discipline you and I did. Be glad that you are out of it.”
“I am. You should retire, too.”
“I often think that I have been lucky once too often, that I am getting too old for this. But,” he said as he spread his hands wide, “I have not yet found my Laurie.”
“I keep telling you, Maurie. Choose your Greek island and buy your sailing vessel, and some young thing will find you.”
He laughed. “More likely, her mother.”
“And that is so bad?”
He smiled. “Perhaps not.” His expression suddenly clouded. “I have come to warn you.”
Angelique felt her body stiffen. She leaned forward. “Speak to me.”
“The Americans, they are well-financed, but lacking in experience. Your reputation is legend. They will probably attempt to contact you.”
“I am retired.”
“So I have told my contacts at the CIA. They are young and arrogant, though. They don't listen to me.”
“They will listen to me.”
“They pay well. Don't fall for it, Angel.”
“For me, it was never about the money.”
“I know.” He smiled, a tired, sad smile, as he considered Angelique. “Just a warning, Angel.”
“Thank you, old friend. Now, is there anything that you would like me to play for you?”
He brightened at that. “ Moon River ? I love how you sing it.”
“Done.” She cast him an affectionate glance, then extended her hand. “I have to go back to work now. Do not be a stranger, Maurie. Come and visit us sometime. No business. Just friendship.”
He shook the hand warmly. “I look forward to it. God go with you, Angel.”
“And with you, old friend. Shalom. ”
She slid from the booth, her glass of red wine in hand, and returned to the piano. In a moment, the soft chords sounded, and her plaintive, husky voice was crooning Moon River . As the song ended, Laurie returned to the booth. Maurie was gone. Next to the coffee cup was a twenty-Euro note. “Wow,” she said. “That Maurie's a great tipper.” She stuffed the note into the pocket of her apron. “And he didn't even try to hit on me. Yes!” she said, then picked up the empty coffee cup and dropped it into the tray behind the bar.
That night, Laurie stepped from the shower, dried herself, and slipped a worn flannel nightgown over her body. She padded into the darkened living room and noted that the balcony door was open. She could see Angelique's silhouette sitting on the balcony overlooking the cobbled street, a glass of wine in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
Angelique seldom smoked, but did so when she was distressed or in deep thought about something. That she was in this state now, after seeing an ‘old friend', concerned Laurie. She stepped to the door and stood behind Angelique's chair. The yellow glow of the street-lamps cast a mournful color across the wisps of fog which settled on the cobblestones and slicked them with a wet tint.
“What's wrong, Angel?”
“Eh?” She looked back across her shoulder, then returned her gaze to the empty street. “Nothing.”
“I know better.” She waited, but Angelique did not answer. She noted Angelique's bare foot, the series of fine scars across the side of her foot and ankle. She had told her it was from a nearby land mine explosion on a Golon bluff many years ago, when Angelique was a twenty-year-old commando in the Israeli Defense Force. A time and place that Laurie tried to imagine, but couldn't. “It was Maurie's visit, wasn't it?” Again, silence answered her. “Anything you want to tell me?”
Laurie sighed. She knew better than to push it. “Okay, Angel. I'm going to bed.” She leaned down and kissed Angelique's head. “Come soon?”
She rested her hand on Angelique's shoulder. “I love you.”
Angelique's hand covered hers, a gentle touch. “I love you, too. Always believe that.”
She left Angelique to her thoughts and retreated to the bedroom. After she snuggled beneath the quilt and turned on her side, she allowed her own thoughts free reign. Although Angelique tried desperately to separate herself from her past, Laurie could feel it always lurking just beneath the surface of Angelique's psyche. She desperately wanted to believe that it was a distant part of her, but she knew better. She had seen effect of the nightmares, had held Angelique in the night when she awoke and found her crying. She hoped that it would not be so tonight.
She heard the shower running, and she closed her eyes. Soon, the bed rustled as she felt Angelique lay behind her, then spoon against her. An arm wound itself around her, and a hand rested itself on her abdomen. Laurie grasped the hand and pulled it up beneath her chin, the forearm resting between her breasts. She kissed the hand, then snuggled back against the warm body, tight with muscle. Angelique. Angel. Her angel.
The arm squeezed her tightly, then relaxed. In a moment, she heard Angelique's breathing slow into a regular pattern. She was asleep. Laurie smiled. But it was some time before she drifted into sleep, and when she did, she had worried dreams.
The next day, at noon-time, Laurie cut off her motor-scooter outside Café Angel's door and kicked down the stand. She pulled off her helmet and gathered her bag, then bounded through the café's door. “Bonjour, Maurice!” she called as she entered.
“Bonjour, Laurie,” Maurice replied, but he seemed preoccupied. His eyes followed a man in a dark suit, briefcase in hand, as he left the office, passed the bar and nodded to Maurice. The bar manager returned the nod, but with a solemn expression. Laurie halted and glanced up at the man. His eyes flitted over to study her, and he nodded a greeting to her, too. She did not return it. There was something in his manner, his gaze, that chilled her. She instantly disliked him. She silently watched him depart, then looked back at Maurice.
“Who was that?” she asked in French.
“Nobody.” He waved a dismissive hand and smiled. “So, you are well today?”
“Yes. It's a beautiful day. Angel is here?”
“Yes, yes. In the office.”
She trotted back to the office and halted in the doorway. Angelique was sitting in the chair at her crammed little desk. When she glanced up, Laurie's blood ran cold. The hazel eyes, normally warm and expressive, were cold and predatory. In a moment, she watched the gaze retreat to somewhere deep within Angelique's psyche, to be replaced by the warm, gentle eyes which she knew and loved. Laurie forced a smile. “Who was that?” she asked in English.
“Ah, business proposition. I told him I had no interest.”
Laurie's face fell. “He wanted you to do a job, didn't he?”
Angelique studied Laurie, then nodded in resignation. “Yes.”
“No. Never again. Please believe that.”
Laurie relaxed and smiled. “I do.” She hesitated, then confessed, “I mean, I really want to.”
Angelique stood and swept Laurie into her arms. She held her tightly. Her voice was a hushed whisper. “Please believe in me.”
“I do. I'm sorry, Angel.”
“I am sorry, also.”
Outside, the man stopped and flipped open a cell phone. After a moment, he spoke in English, with an American accent. “No dice,” he said.
“You didn't offer her enough money,” the voice in the phone said.
“I offered her more than I was authorized to offer her. She said it wasn't about the money.”
“Well, then.” The voice paused in thought, then started again. “We'll just have to make it about something other than money, won't we? This is a tricky target. She's the only one whose reputation is up to it.”
“What can we offer her?”
“I've been studying the intel package on her, and I think I have an idea. Report back to the office and start getting your team ready.”
“Yes, sir.” He clicked the phone shut, then resumed his walk down the narrow street. “Paris,” he said. “Damn, I like this town.”
The evening went much as most evenings go at Café Angel. Business was moderate, and Angelique's music was charming. When they let the last customer out and locked the door, Laurie, Maurice and Angelique quickly joined the other two servers and cleaned. An efficient team, they had the place in order in quick time, and Laurie let her two fellow servers and Maurice out the door. The girls headed up the street with Maurice, and she could hear traces of their voices as she locked the door behind them and pulled the shade. Angelique clicked the lights off and joined her as they made their way up the steep, worn stairs to the apartment above.
The next morning, Angelique was pulling on her gym shoes when Laurie emerged from the bedroom, her bag in hand, clad in her typical jeans and high-topped black tennis shoes. As she pulled a hooded, zippered sweatshirt over her tank-top, she asked, “Gym, huh?”
“Yes. I see you at noontime.” She stood. “You must go now?”
“I have a minute. Walk out with me?”
“Of course.” Angelique picked up her gym bag as Laurie slung the strap of her own bag over her shoulder and picked up her helmet. They closed the door behind them, and Angelique thrust her key into the lock and tapped on the security panel. “Your motor-scooter, it is here, in the back?”
“Yeah.” Laurie bounced down the stairs. “Come on, slowpoke.”
Angelique pocketed the key as Laurie pulled her motor-scooter from beneath the stairs and walked it around the corner, into the side alleyway bordering the building. She expected to hear the motor kick into life; instead, she heard the squeal of tires on the street out front, and she heard the pounding of feet and the crash of Laurie's motor-scooter falling. Laurie's frantic shouts were next. She ran down the stairs and into the alleyway, and stopped short at what she saw.
A black van was stopped at the entrance to the alleyway, and Laurie's motor-bike lay on its side in front of her. Several men were in the alleyway, and two held a struggling, shouting Laurie between them. Angel did not think; she dropped her bag and broke into a run toward them.
“Angel!” Laurie cried as she squirmed in the grasp of the two men. They lifted her and threw her into the van as another man stepped in front of Angel, blocking her way. He did not stand there more than a moment.
She leapt and turned, her leg extended. A roundhouse kick to the head brought him down, and she landed on her feet, then continued her charge toward the van. Another man, in black tee-shirt and jeans, confronted her and assumed a martial arts position, ready for combat. He swung a leg at her, and she ducked. His foot passed inches over her head. She retaliated with a kick. He grunted, then swung with a fist and a shout. Angelique parried the fist, grabbed the arm, and twisted her body. He rolled over her back and hit the cobblestones with a hard thud. As he struggled to rise, her hard, quick chop to the back of his neck flattened him.
She was two steps from the van. Inside, she could see two figures and Laurie, who was still squirming in their grasp. “Angel!” she shouted, then degenerated into muffled screams as a gloved hand clapped itself over her mouth.
A hand appeared in the doorway, and what looked like a pistol flashed into Angelique's view. It popped; an instant later, she felt the barbs of a Taser strike her chest, and her entire body convulsed in spasms of muscular contraction. Pain screamed through her. She collapsed onto the alley's cobblestones, attempting to gain control over her body again. She couldn't. Two men, one helping the other, stepped over her and into the van. The door slid shut, and the van roared away.
Slowly, Angelique sat up. She was dizzy from the tasing, and her muscles hurt from the contractions. She looked down. The barbs were still implanted in her body, but the wires, attached to a little square of plastic, now hung loose, detached from the Taser. She rose, painfully, slowly, and staggered into the street. The van was gone, and she had no idea in which direction it had turned. Her chest tightened in panic; her eyes clouded with tears. Laurie! Her first impulse was to get to her car, to chase the van down and force it from the road, to take Laurie and kill those men with her own hands, but she knew, even as she entertained the thought, that she would never catch them. They were gone. In the narrow, tangled maze of one-way streets which comprised the Latin Quarter, she would never find them.
She cursed in prolific French, then began a slow walk back down the alley, bracing herself with one hand against the wall for support. Her mind was fuzzy, but it was clearing. Who? What? Why? It made no sense. She grasped the Taser wires and yanked them out of her skin. It hurt, and they spotted a little blood.
She carefully, lovingly lifted Laurie's motor-scooter and helmet from the cobblestones and wheeled it around back, even as her mind whirled in confused thought. Then, she found her gym bag and made her way back up the stairs to her apartment. It took her a few minutes to make it to the door, though; halfway up, she collapsed on the stairs and sobbed, and she fought with all her discipline to conquer the thick band of fear and panic which tightened around her chest and made it difficult to breathe. She had failed to protect Laurie. Her skill, her experience, it had come to naught just when Laurie needed her. She had been bested. And through the tumble of emotion, she repeatedly whispered one word: why ?
Laurie was flooded with sick fear. She felt tears sting her eyes as she kicked and squirmed and cursed. Strong hands twisted her arms behind her back and cuffed her. She sputtered incoherently for a moment, then found her voice. “What the hell is this?” she shouted. “Who are you? You guys are in deep shit!”
Her assailants did not reply. She loosed a foot and kicked at one of them, but he caught it and pressed her ankles together. She heard the click of metal cuffs being secured around her ankles. The hands released her, and she wormed herself into a sitting position. Her breath came in gasps, and she could feel tears wet her face. “God damn it!” she yelled. “What the fuck is going on here?”
The man riding shotgun in the front seat turned around and studied her. She glanced at him, and her blood ran cold. “You!” she said.
His response was an amused smile. “My, my. A mouth like a sailor. Angel likes ‘em rude, crude, and lewd, I guess.” A smattering of laughter from the men surrounding Laurie answered his observation.
“Fuck you!” She sat, her breathing ragged, studying him for a minute, then glanced around the inside of the van at the others. They were all men; six, clad in jeans, tennis shoes or military-type boots, and tee shirts or sweatshirts. They all had a similar look about them; almost a military look, but several sported facial hair of some design. Goatees, mostly. Colorful tattoos showed themselves on several forearms. They were considering her with dispassion, with amusement, with the casual air of cats who'd cornered a mouse. That made Laurie furious. She looked back at the man in the front seat as she struggled against her handcuffs and blew a shock of hair away from her face.
“You were in the bar yesterday.”
“Give the gal a cookie.”
“You're Americans, aren't you?”
“She's two for two.” He held out a hand. “Give me her bag.”
One of the men in the back of the van passed Laurie's bag to him. He rummaged through it, then looked at Laurie. “Okay, where's your cell phone?”
“I don't have one.”
He grinned. “Nice try. Search her pockets.”
They gripped Laurie and threw her face-down on the floor of the van. She could feel hands probing her pockets, and in a few seconds, a voice said, “Here it is.”
Laurie struggled back into a seated position and watched the man in the front seat as he studied her phone. “Okay,” he said. “I'll bet you have Angel on speed dial. What do I push?”
“Figure it out yourself, asshole,” Laurie huffed.
He glanced up from the phone and fixed Laurie with a deep stare. “You need to be nice to me, honey. We're going to be spending several days together. It can either go pleasant for you, or...”
He didn't finish the sentence, but his eyes did. She swallowed hard. He had a deep, hard look about his gaze, a look that scared the life out of her. This was a bad man, she told herself. Play it very carefully, Laurie. She quieted, glanced down at her legs, and huffed. He nodded in approval. “That's better. Now, where's Angel's number? Oh, yeah. Here it is.” He pushed some buttons, then held the phone to his ear. In a moment, he smiled.
“Nope. Not Laurie,” he said. “Guess again.” He pushed the speakerphone button and held it in front of his face. Laurie could hear Angelique's voice clearly. It was a low growl.
“Who is this?”
“A secret admirer of yours, Angel. We have Laurie. Let's do business.”
“I want to talk to her.”
He held the phone up. “Say hello, doll.”
“Angel, I'm okay!” Laurie shouted. “They're Americans. I'm in a van heading–” A hand clapped itself across her mouth.
“Shut her up,” the front seat guy said. Laurie felt a rubber ball shoved into her mouth, and a cloth quickly followed. It was wrapped around her jaw and tied at the back of her neck. He watched, then returned his attention to the phone. “Okay, like I was saying. Here's the deal. Laurie's okay. We got a little job for you to do. You got seven days to do it in. You do it, you get little Laurie back, safe and sound. You don't do it, well... I left a package for you at your bar's front door, explaining the whole deal. Just read it and heed it, and we can put all this behind us in a week.” He grinned, a cold grin. “You can do this job in your sleep, Angel. I'll bet you've done a couple dozen like this.”
The phone was silent. The front seat guy waited for a few seconds, then said, “Angel? You still there?”
A few more seconds passed, and Angelique spoke. Her voice was low and hard. “You are a dead man.”
“Yeah, yeah. I've heard that one before. I'm still alive.”
Angelique's voice rang out, loud and clear. “From me, you have not heard it before. You have now. Make peace with your God, because I will find you and I will kill you. This I promise you. And I am the one they call The Angel of Mossad.”
A sudden, thick quiet descended upon everyone in the van. A voice behind Laurie muttered, “Holy shit.” Laurie looked around; they were casting silent glances at each other.
The front seat guy said, “Angel? You there?” After a moment, he shrugged and closed the phone. “She hung up.” He glanced up and studied the faces in the back of the van. “What?” he said.
“That's the Angel you were talkin' to?” one of them said. “She's a freakin' legend.”
“Uh-uh,” another said. “No way. I didn't sign up to go up against no Mossad, Jake.”
“Don't use my name in front of her, you numb-nuts. And you did sign up for it.” He glanced around the van. “All of you did. You're getting good money for this shit. So suck it up and remember your jobs, and it'll all go well.” He glanced around the van. “Got me?” He looked around the van and waited for the nods of agreement, then settled himself in the front seat and slipped Laurie's cell phone into his pocket. A resounding quiet settled into the van as it bounced along.
Laurie glanced up at the windshield, and she saw overhead expressway signs. She looked around for a clock. She saw one on the dashboard of the van. She noted the time. Then, she huffed, settled down against the side of the van, and resigned herself to a ride of unknown duration. She hoped that it wouldn't be long, because the metal cuffs on her wrists and ankles were tight and they hurt. Her shoulders were pained from having her arms twisted behind her back, and her jaw ached from being forced open. The ball in her mouth made it difficult to swallow. After a while, she leaned her head against the side of the van. She sighed, a deep, slow sigh of resignation, and she squeezed her eyes tightly shut. A new tear slowly tracked its way down her cheek.
Maurice opened the door and allowed Maurie to enter the café. “Angel, I'm here,” Maurie said.
“Thank God,” Angelique answered. “Come, sit and look at this.” She waved a hand over papers spread out before her on a table in the empty café.
He pulled the sheaf of papers toward him and studied them. Angelique lit a cigarette, gulped the last of a whiskey, and watched him silently as Maurice stood sentry near the door. Finally, Maurie looked up at Angelique.
“They want you to assassinate Shaykh Ali Barfarush. Mossad would like to see him gone, too. He's been preaching hatred of Jews and the west for some time now from his pulpit in London.” He shook his head. “Tough target, though. And London? It's not some third-world hell-hole. The British police are very good. They will be all over you.” He whistled, a slow whistle. “Seven days? Not a lot of time.” He sighed, then looked up at Angelique's granite expression. “What do you want to do?”
“I want to find these men and Laurie.”
“Of course you do. Keep your head about you, though. What do you know about them so far?”
“They are American. An American came to visit me yesterday. He offered me a lot of money to do a contract for him.” She tapped the picture of Shaykh Ali Barfarush. “That target.”
“So it's CIA? I'll look into it.” He studied Angelique, then suggested, “Why don't you come with me to my office at the Israeli Embassy? We can use our latest intelligence. Perhaps something will turn up.”
She nodded wearily. “I will change my clothes.”
She made to rise, and Maurie raised an eyebrow. “What happened to your chest?”
Angelique looked down. Her workout top showed two small rips, one above a breast, and one over her ribs, both dotted with dried blood. “I got tasered.” She pulled the Taser wires from her pocket and threw them on the table.
Maurie picked up the plastic base attached to the wires and studied it. “Made in America,” he noted. “It's got a serial number on it. We might be able to trace the buyer. Was there anything else noteworthy about the van or the people?”
Angelique thought as she lit another cigarette, then nodded. “Perhaps nothing, but I saw a symbol on one man's tee-shirt. It was an oval, with the print of the paw of an animal in the center. Lion or bear or whatever.” She noted Maurie's expression and asked, “This means something?”
He sighed and sat back. “Yes. You've been out of the business for a while.”
Angelique leaned forward. “Who is it?”
“Have you ever heard of Blackwater?”
“The American mercenary company? They were in the news.”
“Yes. They reorganized as Xe recently, after much bad publicity regarding their former name. It's a private company of mercenaries, mostly former American military types. They thrive on no-bid contracts from the American government and private companies. At first, their duties were mostly as bodyguards for various people in Iraq. Then, their duties became more, ah...”
“Yes. They were finally thrown out of Iraq by the new Iraqi government when they began indiscriminately killing civilians in fire-fights.” He snorted in contempt. “Cowboys, answerable to no one. They still do the work of mercenary soldiers around the world.” He hesitated, then motioned toward Angelique's cigarette pack. She shoved it toward him, and he lit one.
“You're not telling me something, old friend.”
“I was deciding how to say this.” He took a drag on his cigarette, then glanced at her. “My information is that they are being contracted by the CIA to do, among other things, assassinations.”
Understanding slowly colored Angelique's expression. “So, instead of killing the Shaykh themselves, they want me to do it for them.”
“Exactly. They know this is a tough target. The chances are overwhelming that the British police will catch whoever kills him before they are able to escape the country. Hence...” He motioned toward Angelique.
“I kill the Shaykh, I get caught, they deny all knowledge and get paid for it.” She thought. “And what happens to Laurie?”
“Maybe nothing, if you live and escape.”
“And if I get caught?”
Maury's expression was sad. “What do you think? They can't have a live witness running around. And you'll spend the rest of your life in a British jail.”
For a long, silent moment, they studied each other across the table. Maurice took the opportunity to set two glasses of whiskey on the table in front of them. “What do you want to do, Angel?”
“Get Laurie back.”
“Make an example out of those men.”
Maurie smiled, a thin, cold smile. “That is certain. What about the Shaykh?”
“To hell with the Shaykh.”
“Okay.” They raised their glasses and tapped the edges together, then downed the whiskey in one gulp. “Next stop is my office.”
As they rose, Angelique's cell phone rang. It was Laurie's number. She raised a hand in warning, then answered. “‘ello?”
It was a male voice, the same one as before. “Hey, Angel. I sent you a little something. Go check your e-mail.”
“What am I looking for?”
“A note from Gomer Pyle. It's got a little video that you might find really interesting.”
“Wait while I do that.”
“Nope. You got anything to say, you call me back.” The caller hung up.
“Shit!” Angelique hissed, then waved to Maurie and Maurice. They followed her into the little office, where she sat at her computer. In a moment, she found the e-mail and opened the attachment. It was a video.
They watched, in stunned silence, a video of Laurie, cuffed hands and ankles to a wooden kitchen chair. She was trembling; whether from fear or anger or both, Angelique couldn't tell. Laurie began speaking.
“Angel, they want me to talk to you. I'm okay. They said to tell you that they're watching. They said to tell you seven days.” She paused, then shouted, “Don't you do it, Angel. Do you hear me?”
At that point, a pistol was pressed against the side of Laurie's head. She squinted her eyes shut and whimpered, then fell stoically silent. A figure in jeans and a black tee-shirt, his face covered with a ski mask, knelt beside her and patted her knee.
“Yeah, she's a wildcat, ain't she? Listen, Angel. We're watching. You do what we say, you can have her back. You screw around, well... Your choice. We'll be in touch.”
The video ended. Silence reigned in the little room. Then, Angel stood. Her eyes were ice. She considered Maurie. Then she asked, “Are you with me?”
“But of course.” He smiled, a cold, hard smile. He and Angel would be working together once again. Welcome back, Angel. “What will you need of me?”
“Your information, your resources, and your weapons. And,” she added, “I need a shooter. You always were the best.”
“I am yours.”
“Maurice,” she said in French, “take care of this place. If anything or anyone arrives for me, call me.”
“Well, then. Let's get started.”
Laurie sat on a thin mattress in a room, bare except for the mattress and the wooden kitchen chair to which she had earlier been handcuffed. She huffed, then blew a shock of hair from her face and leaned against the wall. Her eyes traveled around the room. It was formed of stone walls and a wooden floor, obviously an old house. One closed door showed itself in the far wall. To one side, a small bathroom with an old clawfoot bathtub, and a sink and toilet, was evident. Its door was removed. Above her head, a closed window, its glass painted over, allowed a weak light into the room. A single bulb, bare, glared weakly from the ceiling. She had no idea where she was.
Her eyes traveled down to her feet. Although she was freed of her cuffs, a chain was wrapped around one ankle, above her black high-topped tennis shoe, and fastened with a padlock. The other end was padlocked to an eye bolt protruding from the stone wall.
She stood and tested the far reach of the chain. It allowed her to the bathroom and around some of the room. She couldn't reach the door. She returned to the window and studied it. It was nailed shut, and the paint kept her from seeing outside. She rubbed at the paint, then searched her pockets. In the bottom of her hip pocket, she found a coin. She scratched slowly, deliberately at the paint until she cleared a small corner of one pane, then peered through the hole.
Outside, she saw the van, parked in what appeared to be a farmhouse's yard. A low stone wall was beyond that, then fields and forest. She was in the country. She huffed in frustration, then sat back down on the mattress.
The trip had taken not much more than an hour; she could not be that far from Paris. Maybe sixty miles, a hundred or so kilometers from Angelique. She despaired at her situation, but she ached more for what Angelique must be enduring. She'd probably seen the video they made earlier that day. She needed a way to talk to Angelique, but there was none. They had taken her bag, her cell phone, everything but her clothes. She snorted in disgust as she wondered if that would be next.
The door's outside bolt slid aside, and a woman entered. She studied Laurie for a moment, then spoke in English, but with a heavy French accent. “You are well?”
Laurie stared at her. “What do you think?” she asked.
“It is disturbing, I know. You do not worry, however. You are safe.” She dropped a bottle of water and a plastic bag on the mattress next to Laurie. “To drink, and toilet things.”
The bag contained a toothbrush, toothpaste, a bar of soap and a hair brush. Laurie studied them, then looked up. “Thanks,” she said dryly.
She nodded. “I will check on you, from time to time.” With that, she turned to leave. Laurie stopped her with a question.
“What's your part in all this?”
She turned and considered the question. “I take care of you. And I am their contact. You know, for what they need from town.”
“Nice. What town?”
She shrugged. “You are near Vaudoy-en-Brie, if it matters.”
“I come again later. I will see you much in the next week.”
“If you need something, you tell me?”
Laurie lifted the chain around her ankle. “How about a key?”
“I am so sorry.” She smiled, it seemed to Laurie, a little sadly, then nodded and left the room. The door closed, and she heard the bolt being slid home. Laurie shrugged, opened the plastic water bottle, and took a sip. “Vaudoy-en-Brie. I guess that's French for ‘hell-and-gone'.”
Angelique studied the computer screen in the intelligence section of the Israeli Embassy. The section was run by Mossad; she seemed to have drifted back in time to her past. It looked exactly like the intelligence-gathering apparatus in a score of Israeli Embassies around the world, places where, in years past, she had gathered the latest information on a blur of past targets before she grimly sallied forth to ‘acquire the target and deal with it', in the lingo of the job.
She rubbed her eyes. They burned, and she was exhausted. She had learned much, though. Blackwater, Xe, the Shaykh, CIA activities around Europe; she was impressed with how much Mossad knew. She thought with grim satisfaction that Mossad probably knew more about American covert activities than most American government bureaucrats knew.
Maurie tapped her on the shoulder. “I have news,” he said. “Come to my office.”
Wearily, she rose and followed him. They entered his office, and he shut the door. “My contacts in the CIA confirm a contract on Shaykh Ali Barfarush. It was awarded to a small firm, a group of ex-Blackwater people who have struck out on their own. The name of their firm is Starshell. You know of this?” Angelique shook her head. “Small group. That's a good thing. It means their resources are limited.”
He opened his closet. “And here is the hardware you requested.” He lifted a sniper rifle on a bipod from his closet and placed it on his desk. “Newly sighted. And...” He spread out several semiautomatic pistols on the desk, all with silencers and laser sights. Angelique lifted one and examined it.
“Nice,” she said. She examined the boxes of ammunition next to them. “Teflon coats?”
“Killing, right through body armor.”
“Good.” She looked at Maurie. “Only one more thing to do.” At his raised eyebrow, she said, “Find Laurie.”
“We're working on it, now that we know that it's Starshell. I'm sure they've left a money trail in this country. We'll find them, Angel.” He considered her state, then patted her on the shoulder. “Come. I take you home. You sleep, and tomorrow, we may have her location.” Angelique nodded, but did not move. She studied the floor at her feet. “Hey,” he said. “This is your old friend Maurie talking. You can do no more tonight. Laurie will be okay. They won't harm her. She's got to stay well, or they know you won't do the job. Right?” Wearily, Angelique nodded. “Come, then. I take you home.”
Angelique trudged up the back stairs to her apartment, entered, and locked the door behind her. The place seemed as quiet as a morgue without Laurie there. Her cell phone rang, and she cautiously answered. “‘Ello?”
It was the voice. “Man, Angel. Where you been? You just got home? I thought you'd be heading to England to knock off the Shaykh. Only six days left, you know.”
“Bring Laurie back to me now, and we can forget this. Keep this up, and you will die. I guarantee it.”
“Hey, I'm shakin' in my boots. You weren't at work tonight, either. You busy calling in favors from your buddies in Mossad?”
“I will find you.”
“Not in six days, you won't. Look, get your beauty rest tonight, and head for England in the morning. It'll take you the better part of the day to get up there and settle in. Time's a-wastin'.”
She looked at the phone in disgust, then turned it off. As she studied it, she began thinking. They knew that she'd just gotten home. They knew that she wasn't at work tonight. She pocketed the phone and walked back to the bedroom. She clicked on the light for the closet, and dug into it. In a moment, she emerged with a night-vision monocular in her hand. She tested it; it worked. She placed it aside, turned off the lights in the apartment and turned on the bedside lamp. She made a show of getting ready for bed, slid under the comforter, and clicked off the light. Her window curtains were pulled back; whoever was watching her had seen her go to bed.
In the darkness, she slid from the bed and crawled along the floor, retrieving the monocular on the way. In the living room, she lay on the floor by the glass balcony doors and studied the buildings across the street. Many windows were lit. Some were not. Then, she detected the image of body heat from a darkened third-floor window across the street. It had a view of the front of the bar, of her apartment, and of the alleyway. “Got you,” she whispered. “I will deal with you in the morning.”
Laurie awoke slowly, then sat up. She felt like a dead dog. She staggered into the bathroom, then returned and sat on her mattress a few minutes later. Her stomach growled. She felt nasty; the toothbrush and the hair brush helped only marginally.
The door opened, and the same woman entered. “You slept well?” she asked.
“So sorry. You want coffee?”
“Guess I could use some.”
The woman placed a styrofoam cup of coffee on the floor near Laurie's feet, then turned to leave. As the door shut, Laurie sipped the coffee and considered her predicament. Then, she began to weep, and she ached for what Angelique must be enduring right now.
At dawn, Angelique was up. She dressed in jeans, a tank top, and her soft, lace-up, rubber-soled boots. She had always worn them when she did this sort of work. They made no noise; they left no distinctive footprints. As a final touch, she jammed a long switchblade knife into the top of her right boot, outside her sock.
She lifted her silenced pistol, checked its laser sight, and slapped a full magazine into the handle. She cocked the slide back and felt more assured as it slid smoothly forward. Then, she clicked the safety on and slid it into her shoulder-holster. As it nestled against her armpit, she smiled grimly. “I thought that I would never need such things again,” she said aloud. “Always once more, it seems.”
As her final ritual, she pulled a black beret from a drawer and tugged it onto the back of her head. It covered most of her hair; the brown, russet-streaked hair on one side of her head and in the front still showed. As her eyes transformed from soft to hard and predatory, she carefully tucked the exposed hair on that side of her head behind her ear. She studied herself in the mirror and nodded approval. Welcome back, Angel, she thought.
Then, she donned a fleece running jacket, picked up a suitcase, and exited the apartment.
A Starshell employee sat in the empty apartment across from Café Angel, sipping a cup of coffee, when he noted movement. He watched Angelique depart her apartment and enter her garage at the end of the alleyway. A moment later, the door rose. She threw the suitcase into the trunk of her boxy little Renault car, then got in and backed it out of the alleyway. He flipped open his cell phone. “Base, this is unit three. Angel's on the move. Yeah, she has a suitcase. She's backing out and heading down the street. Guess she's on her way to England, huh? Right, I'll maintain surveillance, just in case she comes back.”
Angelique pulled around the corner and stopped her car. She left it locked and paced back along her street, pressed against the walls of the buildings on the side of the street across from Café Angel. When she reached a door facing the alleyway, she tried the handle. It opened. She entered the dimly-lit hall and noted several ground-floor apartment doors. The stairs beckoned to her. She rose, carefully, one step at a time, her soft boots making no noise on the worn wood.
When she reached the third floor, she studied the layout of the hall, then chose a door. As she approached it, she pulled on a pair of leather gloves. Cautiously, she tried the doorknob. It was locked. She considered her course of action, then pulled the silenced pistol from her shoulder holster and held it by her leg. She smiled coldly as she rang the bell, then placed a finger over the peep-hole in the center of the door. Sometimes the direct approach was the best one.
A voice within spoke in English, with an American accent. “Who is it?”
She answered, “Je suis votre voisin. Avez-vous du sucre?”
“Ah, you speak English? Um, I need to borrow sugar. You have, please? I am your neighbor.”
She heard the bolt unlock. This was going to be easier than she thought. The door cracked, and she was face-to-face with a very surprised young male wearing a black tee-shirt. His jaw dropped, and he sputtered, “Angel?”
She kicked the door open and entered as he reeled back into the empty room. Behind her, she kicked the door shut and faced him. He stood in the room, his glance shifting to the chair near the window. On the floor was his pistol. He looked uncertain, and he looked scared.
Angelique's eyes grew ice cold. “Don't do it.”
“Wh–what do you want?”
“I want your base house. Where are the other members of your team and Laurie?”
He straightened up and faced her. “Forget it.”
She nodded in resignation, then the hand holding her silenced pistol flashed up. It thumped, and he screamed and collapsed on the floor, holding his leg. He crawled toward his pistol, but Angelique's foot stepped on his outstretched hand. He looked up, and stared into the muzzle of her pistol. Then, his gaze lifted, and he looked into her eyes. In them, he saw his imminent death.
“Is your life worth the money they give you? Tell me what I want to know.”
“You won't kill me. You need to know what I know.”
Angelique smiled coldly as she knelt in front of him. “You are right. I cannot kill you.” She switched her pistol to her left hand, kept it leveled at his forehead, and reached toward her ankle with her right hand. A moment later, a six-inch switchblade knife snapped open. “But I can make you wish you were dead.” She pushed the blade into the crotch of his pants, and he gasped, then froze. His eyes were wide, unblinking. She could see him begin to sweat. “Now,” she said, “you tell me where Laurie and your boss are, yes?” She pushed a little harder. “And please, I am in a hurry.”
Ten minutes later, she flipped open her cell phone. “Maurie? Angel. I have got the location of the base house where Laurie is. Meet me in front of Café Angel as soon as you can, and come ready for a fight.” She relayed the address and location of the base house to him. Then, she closed the phone and shoved the Starshell employee's pistol into the waistband of her jeans. “How do you communicate with your boss?” she asked the man.
He was lying on the floor, his hands and feet bound. His belt was cinched tightly around his injured leg as a tourniquet. “Bite me,” he said.
She kicked his injured leg. He screamed, then broke out in a profuse sweat. As her foot lifted to kick him again, he said, “Okay. Cell phone. There.”
She looked in the direction of his nod, and found the phone on the window sill. She pocketed it. “Hey!” he shouted. “You just gonna leave me here?”
She considered him coldly, then said, “When they do not hear from you, they will come to check on you. You will last until then.” She moved the lone chair in the room, seated herself where she could see both the front of the café and her prisoner, and waited for Maurie's arrival.
After about ten minutes, the man's cell phone rang. She lifted it, pressed a button, and said, “Yes?”
“Unit three, this is base. Use proper procedure, numb-nuts. Any more movement on Angel?”
Angelique smiled cruelly. “Oh, I think so. You have a very good view of my place from here, you know?”
The phone radiated stunned silence for a moment. Then, the voice said, “Angel? That you?”
“It is. You had better come. Your man is bleeding. And bring me Laurie when you do. We make a trade, yes?”
“God damn it, Angel. You don't fuck with me. You hear me? I've got your little honey. Now you get your ass to England and do your job, or she's gonna suffer.”
“You come personally to see to your man, yes? I cannot wait to meet you.”
There was a long pause on the phone. Finally, the voice said, “He's expendable. Now I tell you what you do. You go to your place and wait for my e-mail. You'll get one in about twenty minutes. And trust me, you're gonna want to see this.”
The line went dead. Angel considered the phone, then pocketed it and looked at the Starshell employee. “He said that you were expendable.” She heard a car in the street below, and saw that Maurie had arrived. She rose and headed for the door.
“You're leaving?” the man asked.
She blinked at him, then nodded. “Yes.”
“What about me?”
She sighed. Then, she lifted his phone from her pocket, dialed the emergency number, and said in French, “Gunshot wound to the leg, 16 Rue d'Espoir, apartment number 304.” She clicked the phone off and hurled it against the wall above his head. It shattered. In English, she said, “You are clever. I am sure that you will think of something to tell the police when you arrive at hospital to keep you out of a French prison.” Then, she left and closed the door behind her.
Laurie looked up when the door burst open. Jake stormed into the room, his face red with anger, and strode toward her. Several others filed in behind him, and one began setting up a video camera on a tripod. Laurie huddled in a corner, but he snatched her to a standing position and threw her into the center of the room.
“Take that sweatshirt off her. And cuff her hands behind her back.”
His subordinates scurried to comply. In a moment, she was relieved of her zippered sweatshirt, and was standing in her tank-top with her hands cuffed behind her. Jake grabbed her arm and held her.
“That camera ready?” The man with the camera nodded, and Jake bellowed, “Everybody but you, get out of here. Close the damned door on the way out. On the double!”
The room emptied, except for the camera operator. “That thing on?” Jake asked. “Okay. Now you get every bit of this, you hear me? And don't wimp out on me.”
Jake slammed Laurie against the stone wall and grabbed a handful of her hair. “Okay, Angel. You want to play rough? Here's where we get rough.” He pulled a Taser from his pocket and waved it at the camera. “You know what this is, right? We kicked your ass with it yesterday. Well, on this setting, it's also real good for a little thing I call ‘pain therapy'.” He ripped Laurie's tank-top open on one side and jammed it against her ribs. The buzz was audible. So was Laurie's scream.
“Nice, huh? I'll teach you to shoot one of my people.” It buzzed again, and Laurie screamed again. Her legs buckled, and he lifted her by her hair. “Oh no, sister. We just got started.” He pushed her against the wall and waved the Taser at the camera. “Now you get your bad little Jew ass up to England and take care of that target, you hear me?” He paused, then shot an irritated glance at Laurie, who was sobbing behind him. “Shut up, will you? I'm talkin' to Angel here.”
Laurie tried to stifle a sob. “Better,” he said. “Now listen, Angel. I don't want to have to make this a daily thing with her. I mean, she's a sweet kid. You can stop this.”
Laurie shouted, “Don't do it, Angel! You hear me? Don't you listen to this dickwad!”
Jake whirled, and his raised elbow caught Laurie in the face. She dropped like a rock, crumpled at the base of the wall. Jake considered her, then said, “Keep the camera on her.” He knelt next to her, grasped a handful of her hair and lifted her head so that her face was clearly seen. “Oh, damn. See what happened now? She's got a nosebleed.”
Laurie's nose had taken the hit squarely. Blood was pouring from her nose across her chin and dripping onto the front of her tank-top. She was awake, though. She spit blood, then wiggled and cursed. He hit her bare skin with the Taser once more, a five-second burst. She screamed in pain and began sobbing. He leaned toward the camera.
“Man, I can't believe you'd want to treat your girlfriend like this. Come on, Angel. Do your job. Once I hear you're in England, Laurie quits takin' the heat for you.” He paused, considered Laurie, and looked back at the camera. “I'll be in touch,” he said. Then, he rose, pocketed the Taser and headed for the door. “Turn that thing off and get that video ready to send to Angel, will you?”
The video operator nodded, then watched him leave the room. He wiped his face with his sleeve. His hands were shaking. “Jesus!” he said. “I seen some shit before, but not like that.” He turned to Laurie, who was still crumpled against the wall, her hands cuffed behind her, blood dripping down her face and soaking her chest. She was crying. “I'm sorry,” he said. “Look, I didn't know he was gonna do that. I'll send somebody in to you.” With that, he gathered up his camera tripod and left the room in a hurry.
Laurie watched him go, then spit blood on the floor. A slow grin spread across her face. “Way to go, Angel. You already got one of ‘em, huh?”
Maurie and Angelique waited in the café's little office for an e-mail from Gomer Pyle. Sure enough, about fifteen minutes after they arrived, it popped up on the screen. It had a video attachment. She opened it. The video began playing, and her face turned an ashen color. As the video played out, they watched in silence. When it finished, Maurie said, “Good God.”
Angelique stood stone still for a long moment, then slowly turned to him. Her eyes were ice. Feral. A vision of death. Tears streaked her face. “You have the house located?” she asked.
“Yes. I know where it is. We're ready to go.”
“You have the identity of that man?”
With that, she stormed out of the office. Maurie followed at a trot, and they left the café for his car.
In the car, Maurie drove. Angelique sat in the right-hand seat, staring straight ahead. She said nothing, and he knew better than to make conversation. He had trained Angelique years ago, had worked with her in a variety of dangerous situations, but never before had he seen her like this. Never.
He had also never been scared of her before. He was now.
After about thirty minutes of driving, a cell phone rang. Angel lifted it to her ear. “Yes?” she said.
“Angel?” the voice said. “You get my little video?”
“You are a dead man,” she said, then hung up. She said nothing else the entire trip, and she did not answer the phone when it rang several more times.
As they turned off the expressway onto the secondary roads leading toward the town of Vaudoy-en-Brie, Maurie answered his phone. He listened, said ‘thank you' in Hebrew, and hung up. “Angel?” he said.
She turned to look at him.
“I just got word from the office. The British police have arrested Shaykh Ali Barfarush and taken him into custody for fomenting terrorism. It's on the news. Surely the Starshell people will find out very soon.”
Angelique said nothing.
“I'm worried about Laurie. When they find out...”
“They will abort the mission and prepare to leave the country,” Angelique said. “And Laurie will become a liability to them.”
“Yes. I'm sorry.” Angelique said nothing in reply. “Does this change anything? What do you want to do?” he asked.
Jake folded up his cell phone. “Shit,” he said to the men gathered in the kitchen. “The Brits have just taken the Shaykh into custody. The mission's aborted.”
“What do we do?” One of them asked.
“You guys, pack our shit and let's get out of here. I want this place emptied of everything in one hour. We're leaving the country.”
“What about the girl?” Another one asked.
Jake leveled his most menacing glare at the man. “That's not your problem. Now move, you guys. Get crackin'.”
The French woman pulled up to the farmhouse, past a man on guard. He was wearing a protective vest and holding a sub-machine gun. She stepped from her car and noted other men carrying bags and cases to the van. “What's going on?” she asked.
One man shrugged. “Jake says the mission's cancelled.”
She headed toward the front door. Jake met her on the steps. “We're done, doll,” he said. “We don't need you anymore.” He pulled a wad of Euro notes from his pocket and peeled off several bills. “Here's your pay. You're dismissed.”
Her expression registered question. As she stuffed the money into her pocket, she asked, “What about the girl?”
He gave her a cold look. “Not your concern. Go on, now. Get outta here.”
She stared at him for a moment, her face reflecting increasing fear. Then, she pushed past him and ran into the house.
“Women!” he said. “They never listen, do they?” He followed her inside.
She ran down the hallway, past a table holding the remnants of communications equipment, and shot the bolt back on a door. She pushed it open and ran inside. Within, Laurie still sat, crumpled against the far wall. She halted in the center of the room and stared.
“Oh, God! Who did that to you?”
“Who do you think?” Laurie said. “He had a good old time, huh?”
She waved her hands in the air. “Ah, I take care of you. You stay there.”
“I'm not going anywhere.”
When she turned, Jake was in the door. Her voice rose to a shriek. “What is wrong with you?” she yelled. “She was not supposed to be hurt.”
“Change of plans,” he said. “You've been paid. Now I suggest you beat it.” He stepped aside and motioned toward the open door. “Trust me, you don't want to hang around here any more.”
“You are an animal!” she screamed.
“I'm a guy with a job to do, and you're getting on my nerves.” He grabbed her by the arm and forcefully escorted her from the room. In the hall, he shoved her toward two of his men. “Take her outside, put her in her car, and make sure she leaves. Now.”
She turned and faced Jake. “I am calling police!” she shouted.
“Do you want to go to prison? You're in this up to your tits, doll. You took money from us.”
She reached into her pocket, pulled forth the wad of bills, and threw them on the floor in front of Jake's feet. “You keep your money.”
“Get her out of here,” Jake said.
The two men stopped what they were doing. Each one took her by an arm, and they hustled her toward the front door. Jake waited until he heard her car door slam and her car start, then walked back into the room. Laurie had risen to her feet and was peering through the little hole in the window's paint. Her hands were still cuffed behind her back. She turned when she heard Jake's voice behind her.
He was eying the hole in the paint. “You're pretty clever.”
Laurie leaned against the wall and faced him. “And you're sick.”
“Yeah.” He grinned. “That's what my ex-wife said when she slapped me with a restraining order.”
“She should have slapped you with a two-by-four.” She watched his face while she asked the next question. “Leaving?”
“Yeah. Mission's aborted.”
“Oh.” Laurie felt her blood run cold at the next thought. She voiced it. “Is Angel okay?”
He shrugged. “I don't know. Your girlfriend and I had a little tiff. She's not talking to me right now. Doesn't matter. Mission's over.”
“So what happens to me?”
“You're not needed anymore.”
“I can go?”
He sighed, then began pacing as he thought aloud. “Well, let's see. I figure I have two choices here. One, I can set you free and hope that you can keep your mouth shut about all this.” He fixed her with a cold stare. “But you probably won't do that, right? As soon as you're out of my sight, you'll be on the phone to the French police. You're too much of a firecracker to just go meekly into the night.” He stopped pacing and faced her. “And two? Well, you're not gonna like number two very much.”
Laurie's voice was a whisper. “What's number two?”
He said nothing; he pulled a cigarette pack from his pocket and lit one, then took a deep drag and exhaled. “Number two?” he finally said. “Well, that's a single bullet to the back of the head. I dump your body in the woods, and you're not a liability anymore. Hell, by the time anybody finds you, you'll be a pile of bones and we'll be long gone.”
A wave of nausea hit her, and her head swam dizzily for a second. She took a deep breath and forced herself to recover. She felt her eyes water. “Oh.”
“Shame, too,” Jake said. “You seem like a nice kid.” He shrugged. “But a guy's gotta do what a guy's gotta do.”
Laurie's mind raced as she leaned against the wall and faced him. He was serious. She had no doubt that he could do it. She looked down at the floor, considered her feet and the chain around her ankle. A desperate idea flashed into her mind, and she grasped at it. Angelique was undoubtedly making a heroic effort to find her and rescue her, but she couldn't naively count upon her showing up in time. She had to try. She wouldn't go down without a fight.
Laurie looked up. Jake was standing in front of her, smoking and watching her. She swallowed hard, then said, “Um, can I have a cigarette?”
“You smoke?” he asked. “I didn't see any in your bag.”
“I do now.” She nodded toward him. “Do you mind?”
“What the hell. I don't think you'll live long enough for it to kill you.” He pulled the pack from his pocket and took a step toward her.
“And can you take these cuffs off so I can smoke? They hurt. My hands are going numb.”
“Jeez. Nag, nag. Sure, why not? Turn around.”
She did. She felt him unlock the cuffs, and her wrists were finally free. She turned back around. He handed her a cigarette, and she placed it between her lips with shaking hands. He flicked his lighter, and the flame was in front of her face. She allowed him to light it, then took a puff. She coughed.
“Yeah, sure you smoke.”
She dropped the cigarette by her feet. “Damn,” she said. “I'll get it.” She bent down, and as she picked up the smouldering cigarette, she grasped the chain leading from her ankle with her left hand. Then, she darted toward the center of the room. The chain wrapped around his legs.
“What the hell, honey?” he said, then made a grab for her. She ducked, then threw the cigarette aside and pulled on the chain as hard as she could as she backed away from him. The chain tangled his legs; when he tried to come after her, he lost his balance and fell backward. The back of his head struck the stone wall. He collapsed to the floor, then rolled. “God damn it!” he roared, and held one hand to the back of his head as he pushed himself up with the other hand. “I'm gonna catch you and make you suffer.”
Laurie desperately looked around. The straight-backed wooden chair to which they'd cuffed her earlier was two feet away. She grabbed the back of it and raised it over her head as he caught a handful of chain and drew it tight. She felt herself pulled toward him, and she brought the chair down with all her might on his head and shoulders. It shattered into pieces, and he roared in pain and collapsed to the floor.
For a moment, she stood in amazement. He was flat on the floor, but he wasn't out. He was rising. She had a long piece of the chair still in her hands, and she hit him again. He yelled. She raised it and hit him again, and he roared in anger and pain. When she swung a third time, he caught the wood and yanked it from her hands.
Slowly, he rose. He put a hand to the back of his head, and it came away bloody. “Okay,” he said. “That's it. No more Mister Nice Guy.”
A voice called from the door. “Jake, we got a problem out here.”
He turned toward the door. “What?”
“The van's got two flat tires.”
“God damn it!” he roared. “So change ‘em!”
“We only got one spare. And Jake, I think they're bullet holes.”
He froze. “What? You sure?”
“Come and see.”
He turned toward Laurie. His hand shot out, and he grabbed her by the front of her tank top and her bra and pulled her close. “This ain't over, honey,” he said. Then, he drove a fist into her gut. She doubled over and collapsed to the floor, gasping for air and trying to retch. “I'll be back.” He stormed out of the room. “That crazy-ass bitch broke a chair over my head,” he said to the man as he stomped through the door. The man considered Laurie for a second, then grinned and gave her a quick ‘thumbs up' sign before he turned and left.
Laurie fell onto her side, gasping. As she tried to slow her breathing, she started wheezing in laughter. “Angel,” she whispered. “You're here.” Slowly, through her pain, she grasped onto a second thought. If Angelique was here, things were going to get really ugly in a minute or two. She'd better find cover. She sat up, still holding her stomach, and looked around. Then, she crawled toward the bathroom, her eyes fixed on the claw-footed metal bathtub.
On a bluff overlooking the front yard of the farmhouse, Maurie tweaked the adjustment knob on his sniper rifle's sight and watched the knot of men examining the tires of the van. He touched the earpiece in his ear and said, “Angel? They've discovered the flats. There's three out front. Two more are coming out the door now. Total of five.”
Angelique's voice echoed in his earpiece. “Tell me when they go back inside.”
A few minutes later, he touched his earpiece again. “All back inside but one, and a sentry by the stone wall.”
“It is time. Take the sentry first, then the other.”
“Goddam flat tires. Change the flat, he says. Don't do no good without two new tires, I says. He says just change the goddam flat, and he don't care which one. And this jack is a piece of crap.”
The sentry snickered. Better him than me, he thought. “Yeah, yeah. Things could be worse. You could still be in Baghdad, getting shot at for twenty-five grand a year.” The sentry adjusted the strap across his chest bearing the weight of his sub-machine gun, and turned to walk back to the gate by the stone wall. He uttered a ‘whoof', and he flew backward about three feet. He hit the ground hard, and did not move.
“What's going on back there?” The man with the jack looked around from his squatting position by the van, and he dropped the jack handle. He slowly stood and approached the guard. “Hey, man. You okay? What's wrong?”
It was then that he noted a hole the size of his finger in the front of the vest. He turned the guard over with his foot, and saw a hole the size of his fist in the back of it. He stood, momentarily paralyzed with fear, then frantically looked around. “Sniper I got no cover I'm toast oh shit oh shit...” He turned and ran for the farmhouse door. On his second step, his chest exploded. He was dead before he slid to a halt in the dirt.
Maurie put his finger on his earpiece. “Done. God go with you, Angel.”
Jake stormed back into the room where Laurie was kept. “Okay, now. Where were we?” He looked around and did not see Laurie. Then, he saw the chain leading into the bathroom. “Clever girl,” he said. He walked to the bathroom door and stood, hands on hips. Laurie was in the bottom of the tub, curled into a tight ball. “You can't hide from me, doll.”
Laurie's voice echoed from the bathtub. “I'm not.”
“Well, then. What are you hiding from?”
A resounding explosion splintered the back door. Pieces of wood clattered through the hallway, and a wisp of gray smoke followed. Jake stood, frozen.
“That!” Laurie said.
“God damn it!” Jake roared. He stormed toward the door. “Everybody, up and at ‘em! We're under attack!” He entered the hallway just in time to see a smoke canister roll down the hallway. It popped, and began squirting a thick cloud of white smoke. He heard shattering glass in the kitchen, and instantly knew that another one had been thrown that way. The house would soon be untenable.
Coughing and retching resounded in the house. Jake pulled a bandana from his pocket and held it over his nose and mouth with one hand as he drew his pistol with the other hand. He kicked the smoke grenade toward the open front door. One of his men staggered into the hallway and nearly collided with him.
“Where's your weapon, numb-nuts?” Jake yelled.
“Hell, I don't know.”
“Well, get one and shoot anything that comes through that front door.”
The man stumbled away, returned in a moment with a sub-machine gun, and posted himself in the hallway behind a table. He crouched, coughing constantly, and aimed toward the front door. Jake strode into the kitchen, where several other men were attempting to deal with a smoke grenade. One picked it up with a cloth and threw it back through the window, shattering another pane of glass. The inside of the house was enveloped in a thick pall of white, acrid smoke.
“You! Get your weapon and head out to the front yard. Stone wall.”
“Right.” The man slipped the strap of his sub-machine gun across his chest and trotted through the front door. A second later, he flew backward as a fist-sized hole appeared in his back. A fine spray of blood and gore splattered the walls of the hallway. He was dead.
“Damn,” Jake said. “So much for the front door.” He turned. “You guys, get your weapons and follow me. We're going out the back.”
The kitchen door slammed open. A figure, pale in the smoke, stood in the doorway, arm extended, pistol in hand. In quick succession, it nailed two men, each one in the forehead. A third man wheeled, his pistol drawn, and fell against the sink as the silenced pistol thumped once more.
Then, the figure turned toward Jake. It stood very still, swirls of white smoke clouding its detail, and considered him with a tilt of its head. Finally, it spoke. “You are the one in charge?”
“Who wants to know?” He suspected the answer.
He raised his pistol and emptied the entire magazine at the kitchen door. When his last shot was expended, he stood in the silence. His ears rang from the shots; he could hear the tinkle of empty brass rolling across the floor by his feet. Slowly, he lowered his pistol and approached the kitchen door. As he studied the steps outside, a voice teased at him from behind him.
He whirled and raised his pistol, but remembered that he had emptied it. He yanked another magazine from his pocket and was jamming it into the handle of his pistol as the empty magazine hit the kitchen floorboards. The slide clicked forward. He approached the hall ever so slowly, one step at a time, and listened with his still-ringing ears for any sound of life. He heard none. He knew, though, as surely as he breathed, that Angel was in the house somewhere.
He slid into a crouch, then peered into the hallway. His man was still behind the hall table, sub-machine gun pointed toward the front door. “Hey!” Jake whispered. “Where'd she go?”
The man did not respond. Jake scanned the hall to his left and right, squinting through the acrid smoke, then rose to a standing position and approached his hall sentry. He noted that the man's expression was one of surprise; his eyes were wide and unblinking. Jake lowered his pistol and stood over the man. He felt for a carotid pulse with his left hand, and there was nothing. “Shit,” he said when he saw the gory hole in the back of the man's head.
Something cold pressed itself against his neck, and he froze. “Drop your pistol,” an icy voice demanded. It did not come from behind him. It came from above him.
“What the hell?” he said aloud. “Angel? That you?”
“Oh, you're good. Where are you?”
“Where do you look for an angel?”
His eyes rolled up and looked at the ceiling. He could see Angelique's figure at the ceiling, her feet braced on one wall, an arm bracing her on the other side.
He smiled. His hand jerked up, and he emptied his pistol into the ceiling above him. He heard a thump on the floor behind him. The feel of cold metal left his neck. The acrid smell of gunpowder combined with the white smoke to make the air foul. The hallway was silent except for the sound of spent brass rolling across the floor. “Got you, bitch,” he said.
The cold metal pressed itself against his neck again. He froze.
“No. Drop your pistol.”
“What the hell. It's empty.” The pistol hit the floor. “Now what?”
“Now, you take me to Laurie.”
“You're too late.” His voice was taunting. “Two of my guys took her out in the woods to put a bullet in her head.”
The hall resounded with a thick silence. Jake felt the press of cold metal against his neck falter a little. He spun around and struck out with a fist. His hand cut only empty air. Angelique was not there. He looked down, and his face met the soft rubber sole of Angelique's boot.
He blinked. He saw the ceiling in the hallway, the holes in it that he'd put there a minute ago. His face ached, and he felt his nose and lips swelling. Slowly, he sat up. He spit, and blood and a tooth hit the floor by his leg. “Nice one, Angel.”
“We have not yet started.”
He looked past his own feet, and for the first time saw Angelique clearly. The soft boots, the jeans. His eyes trailed up. She was wearing a tank-top with a shoulder holster over it. Her arms and shoulders displayed wiry muscle. A colorful dragon tattoo decorated one upper arm. But beneath the black beret pulled low on the back of her head, beneath the brown and russet hair, she bore a pair of light eyes which burned with intensity. She took a step backward. “Stand up.”
He stood and faced her. “Come on,” he said. “What are you waiting for? Get it over with.”
“After I have Laurie.”
His eyes narrowed. “I told you. She's in the woods. They just left. You'd better get out there and start looking for her. Hell, you're good; you might catch them before they kill her. If I know them, they're probably having a little fun with her first.”
Angelique's chest tightened in panic. She fought to control it. She stared into his eyes. They were laughing at her, taunting her. He was inflicting pain on her, and he knew it. And he loved it. But was he telling the truth about Laurie? She met his defiant gaze with her own ice-cold eyes, and she considered the question as they faced each other in the hallway. Liar, she thought. Then, she made her decision.
“I have not yet cleared one room.” She indicated the direction with her eyes. “You go in first.”
“In case my guys are in there, waiting for you?”
“Correct. You go. Last door on the left.”
He turned and slowly walked down the hall. Angelique walked a few paces behind him. He stopped in front of the door, placed his hand above the open bolt, and hesitated. “You sure you want to go in there, Angel?”
“Open it and go in.”
“Okay. Your funeral.”
“No. Yours.” She kicked him hard in the small of the back, and he stumbled through the door as it flew open.
Angelique followed him into the room. He whirled and struck out at her. The blade of a knife flashed in his hand. She ducked the blow. As his knife's blade jammed against the wall, she struck him in the face with the handle of her pistol. He fell backward to the floor and rolled, his hands to his face. Angelique watched him coldly as she kicked the knife across the floor, then walked around him and took a quick glance around the room. She saw no one else.
She touched her earpiece and said, “Secure, Maurie.” Then she motioned with her pistol. “Kneel. Hands on head.” Slowly, Jake rose to a kneeling position and placed his hands on his head. He was bleeding profusely from a cut on his cheek.
“Last chance,” she said. “Where is Laurie?”
“Eat my shorts.”
Her pistol thumped. He gripped his leg and screamed. “Jesus!” he wheezed. “That hurts!”
“Okay, okay.” He jerked his head toward the bathroom door. “Bathtub,” he said through gritted teeth.
She stepped away from him, keeping him in sight all the time. She looked around the room, then backed up to the bathroom door-jamb. Her eye perceived the chain, and she followed its course. Her body went tight. She spoke, but her voice was hoarse.
She saw the body curled into a tight ball in the foot of the bathtub. There were a couple of bloody hand prints on the edge of the tub. She knew the body was Laurie, but it was not moving. Her heart nearly stopped.
“Laurie, talk to me!”
The body stirred, and Angelique went limp with relief. Laurie's head appeared above the tub's edge.
“Angel! Oh, my God! I'm so glad to see you!” She leapt out of the tub and plastered herself against Angelique's side. Her arms wrapped around Angelique's chest, and she sobbed. “I'm so glad to see you.” She opened her eyes, then froze. “What's he doing here?” she asked. She pointed at Jake.
Angelique got her first good look at Laurie, and her jaw dropped. Her voice was low. “He did that to you?” she asked.
“It probably looks worse than it is,” Laurie said.
“He did it?”
Laurie nodded toward Jake. “Yeah. Him.”
She considered Jake, still kneeling in the middle of the floor. He was smirking at her through his pain, taunting her.
“Leave the room and close the door,” Angelique said.
“I can't. I'm chained to the wall.” She shook her leg, and the chain rattled.
“Where is the key for this?” Angelique asked Jake.
He shrugged. “I ain't got it.”
She stepped toward him. “Empty your pockets.”
“Kiss my ass.”
Angelique did not ask again; she stepped closer to him and fired a shot into the floor between his thighs. Jake hurriedly dumped the contents of his pockets on the floor.
“Throw that ring of keys to Laurie,” she said. Jake picked up the key ring and tossed it her way. They both waited patiently until Laurie, sitting on the floor, had found the key and unlocked herself. When she stood, Angelique said, “Go now. Close the door behind you. I saw your bag and your jacket in the kitchen.” She nodded toward the door. “Please.”
Laurie stopped in the middle of the room and considered Jake. He was still on his knees, hands gripping his leg. She turned her attention to Angelique.
“What are you going to do?”
Laurie stared at her, then looked at Jake. Angelique was going to kill this man. She considered, for a moment, pleading with her to spare his life. If she asked, Angelique would let him live. For her, Angelique would probably do anything. And wouldn't that be the right thing to do? Let him live? Then Jake's eyes met hers, and she felt a sick fear knife into her aching gut. A dark anger welled up inside her. No, she thought. Not this man.
Without another word, she turned and marched out of the room. The door creaked shut.
As she closed the door, she heard Maurie's voice in the hallway. “Laurie!”
She glanced up. “Oh, my God! Maurie! Thanks for coming.”
He smiled. “How could I not?” He grew suddenly puzzled. “Where's Angel?”
Laurie motioned to the closed door. “She's, ah...taking care of something real personal.”
“Ah. The leader?”
Maurie's expression clouded. He lowered his pistol and pushed the door open a crack.
“You might not want to go in there just now,” she suggested.
His eyes were sad, but his expression kindly. “I have seen worse, I am sure. Angel is my friend. She may need me.”
A flash of understanding hit her, that Maurie shared a certain past with Angelique; that their friendship allowed him to go where she couldn't go. She nodded and stepped aside.
“Why don't you go outside for a while?” Maurie suggested. Again, she nodded understanding.
“Yeah,” she said numbly. “Good idea. I think I'll do that.” I don't want to see this, but I'm not sure I want to hear this, either, Laurie thought. She passed a dead man in the hallway, carefully stepped over another one, and headed for the kitchen.
Laurie was sitting on the stone wall, looking out over fields and distant woods. She sat with her back to the house, a bottle in one hand, a cigarette in the other. Her jacket and her bag sat on the wall beside her. She was thinking about everything and nothing, and at the moment, she was contemplating the fact that she hurt all over.
She heard footsteps approaching, and she felt the presence of someone behind her. She did not look. She knew who was there. Angelique and Maurie passed the end of the stone wall and stopped.
“I will get the car,” he said. Angelique nodded, and Maurie walked away. For a moment, Laurie watched his back as he crossed the road, then the field beyond. Then, she watched Angelique sigh and stretch as if after a bout of exercise.
“Are you hurt?” Laurie asked.
Angelique turned and considered her question. “No,” she said.
“I always have been.” She sat on the stone wall next to Laurie. “I have something for you.” Angelique pulled Laurie's cell phone from her pocket and handed it to her. A second later, she passed Laurie a wad of Euro notes. “This, also. For you.”
“Holy cow, Angel. This is a lot of money. Where...?”
“Him.” She nodded back toward the farmhouse. “I feel he owes you.”
Laurie studied the folded wad of bills, then handed it back to Angelique. “Yours. Somehow, I think that you suffered worse than I did through all this.”
Angelique considered her words. “Ours,” she said. “Yes?”
Laurie looked at Angelique. Their eyes met. Laurie saw that the cold, predatory stare in Angelique's hazel eyes was dissipating, was being replaced by the warm, friendly aura that was usually there. “Okay,” she said in compromise. “Ours. And I guess you're right. He does owe us.”
Angelique stuffed the money into the back pocket of Laurie's jeans. “This,” she said, “is why we can last, you and me. We can...how do you say? Meet half the way?”
“You're right,” Laurie said, as she puzzled over the thought. “We don't ever argue, do we?”
“I mean, we disagree sometimes, but we always end up agreeing. I've never had that before. That's really nice, isn't it?”
“Yes.” Angelique studied Laurie. “You are hurting?”
“Yeah. I feel like I've been run over by a car.”
“You look it.”
“Thanks.” The edges of Laurie's mouth turned up in a little smile.
“You smoke now?”
“Not really. Tastes like shit.” She took a final drag, then tossed the cigarette aside. “I found ‘em in the kitchen.”
“Ah.” Angelique nodded. The spoils of war: cigarettes and a drink.
“Along with three dead men.” She took a drink from the bottle. “And two in the hallway.” She motioned behind her. “And two more out here.” She giggled, a little hysterically, then affected a low, menacing voice. “I see dead people.”
Angelique forced a smile at the morbid humor, then grew solemn. “I am so sorry you had to be in this. To see this.”
“Yeah. Me, too.” She looked at Angelique. “But you've seen so much worse in your life, haven't you?”
Angelique's memory turned back, so many years ago, to when she was eighteen years old. The Israeli bus, burning after a suicide bomber's detonation. The screams, the smoke and fire, the blood, the cries for help, the shards of glass in the street, the bodies. Her sister, a passenger on that bus, dying in her blood-soaked arms. It was the act which started her down a dark and violent road of grim retribution against those who would commit such barbarous crimes, as Angelique left behind her study of music and became an avenging angel in service of her adopted land of Israel. First, the Israeli army; then, an elite commando unit; then, Mossad's school for assassins. She showed a dark talent for it. Speaking newly-learned Arabic and wrapped in burka, or with her hair cut short and clothed as a man, or in dark Mossad battle dress, she hunted and slaughtered Israel's enemies one by one, a single bullet to the forehead her signature. First, it was in Israel; then, it was over the world. Her reputation grew. Her nickname became a whisper on the lips of those who had reason to fear her, a prayer answered to those whom she protected. The Angel of Mossad, a silent, deadly specter wreaking vengeance on the rabid dogs among humanity, dogs who utter the names of God as they slaughter innocents. How, she wondered, in the land so many revere as holy, had things come to this horrid state of affairs? So many years had passed since then, and she could still taste the memories. And what has changed?
She had. She was exhausted, soul-weary of it all. She had left Israel and buried herself in the mass of humanity which constituted Paris, a protection from those in the middle east who would kill her, and a refuge from the reminders of war. And now, the war had come to her native France. At the moment, she felt a thousand years old. She nodded. “Yes,” she answered. “So much worse.”
Laurie tilted the bottle and took a drink, then passed it to Angelique, who lifted it from her hand and studied the label. “What is this?” she wondered aloud. “Wine? Oh. Jus de pomme. Apple juice.” She tilted it up and drank deeply, then passed it back to Laurie.
“Is it over now, Angel?”
“Yes. It is over now.”
Laurie nodded toward the house. “Is he–?” She couldn't quite bring herself to say the word.
Angelique nodded sadly. “He has been dealt with. Never again will he bother us.” She lifted a cigarette from the pack next to Laurie's leg and lit it.
“Somehow, I guess I should be happy about that.”
“You are not?”
“No,” Laurie said. “I'm just numb. I don't feel anything.”
Angelique nodded. You will, she thought. Aloud, she said, “Me, also. It is better that way.” For a time, they sat in silence, a silence which Angelique finally broke with an anguished, whispered question. “Do you hate me now?”
Laurie stared at her. “Why on God's green Earth would I hate you?”
“To see what I am, to see this part of me?”
“This part of you?” Laurie turned to her and placed a hand on Angelique's thigh, a reassuring touch. “This part of you saved my ass today.”
“This happened to you because of me.”
“I would rather be with you and get kidnapped and beaten up than live safe in Kansas, never having known you.” Laurie forced a wry little smile. “And I don't say that to just anybody, y'know.” She leaned forward and looked up at Angelique's face. “I know who you were, and I know who you are. And I know that you are good, and I love you. Please never doubt my love, Angel.”
Angelique's hand covered hers. “Merci,” she whispered.
Laurie realized, as she looked into Angelique's face, that the last traces of the cold predator had dissipated from the hazel eyes. In their place was the warmth, the kindliness that she knew and loved. Mossad's avenging Angel was gone, retreated once again to that deep part of Angelique's psyche in which she slept. Her Angel was back.
Maurie's SUV stopped on the road in front of them. The windows were rolled down. He said, “Let's get out of here before the police arrive.”
Angelique stood and cast her cigarette aside. She held out her hand. “Come, Laurie. We go home now.”
Laurie smiled at that. “Yeah. Sounds good.” She gathered her things, rose, and took Angelique's hand. Together, they walked toward the car. “I could so use a shower,” Laurie said. “I feel like ass.”
“You feel like an ass?” Angelique asked.
“Not an ass. Ass. Just ass.”
“I do not understand this. You feel like a donkey?”
“No. Ass. Not the donkey ass. I mean this kind of ass.” She grabbed Angelique's butt, and felt the hard muscle beneath the jeans.
“Oh. That ass.” A second later, she said, “I do not understand. This is a bad thing?”
“Yeah. See, if you feel like an ass, you feel stupid, silly. But if you feel like ass, you just feel bad all over.”
“Ah. I think I understand.” She opened the SUV's back door, and Laurie crawled in. She shut the door, then climbed into the front seat. “No,” she said softly as she closed her own door. “I do not understand.”
The SUV bounced gently down the farm roads, then pulled out onto the primary road. As Maurie accelerated the car, Angelique said, “Laurie, explain, please. An ass is a donkey, but ass is ass?” She heard Maurie snicker in amusement. When she got no answer from the back seat, she turned and looked. Laurie was stretched out on her side, fast asleep.
Angelique smiled at the sight, then ached as she studied Laurie in detail. She saw the ripped tank-top, the red marks of the Taser surrounded by the beginnings of bruising on the skin over her ribs. She saw the dried blood on her face and her chest, and how the blood had soaked the front of her tank-top. She saw the red marks on her wrists from the handcuffs.
She turned around and gazed into the distance as Maurie drove. She had survived today. More important, Laurie had survived today. And Jake? Angelique had executed yet another rabid dog. How many did this make now? She had long ago lost count. The good, the innocent of the world die in herds, while the Jakes, the rabid dogs among humanity, must be snuffed out one by one. If you are kind to the wolf, her grandmother had once said, then you are cruel to the sheep.
She thought of her grandmother, dead now these many years. She recalled, as a little girl, asking about the numbers tattooed on her grandmother's forearm. The woman would never speak about it to her, saying only that she was too tender to hear the story. She took the story to her grave with her. Only years later did Angelique realize what those numbers meant. Her grandmother: a survivor, having tasted of the worst that the rabid dogs of humanity had to offer and having lived through it all, to laugh and love and embrace life again. And so would Angelique.
“Maurie?” she said.
“Did we do the right thing today?”
He looked over at her in surprise, then back at the road. After a moment of thought, he said, “Laurie is safe. The Shaykh is in jail. A rabid dog has been dealt with. You have sent a very loud message to the CIA. They will respect Mossad more after this. And they will respect The Angel of Mossad most of all.” He cast a disarming smile her way. “And you and I have survived once more. Life is good, yes?”
Angelique felt a sudden swell of emotion rise in her chest, and she could not contain it. She began weeping. She wept loudly, without shame. She wept for who she was and for what she had just done; for her grandmother and for her sister, whom she loved and missed desperately; for Laurie's pain, and for everything for which she had never allowed herself the luxury of a tear.
Then, as she wept piteously, she thought about Laurie, asleep in the back seat. She thought about Café Angel, 13 Rue d'Espoir, in the Latin Quarter of Paris. She thought about her piano, waiting for her to coax music from it; about the grand songs, old and new, which she sang to her bar's customers every evening. She thought about the feel of the keys, the sound of her amplified voice, throaty, husky and melodious, baring her soul in her songs the way that an artist bares his soul with oils and canvas. And about the feel of Laurie in her arms in the night, the touch and sound and smell and taste of someone good who loved her for who she was, and in spite of all that she had been.
After a couple of minutes, she quieted, sniffed a few times, and wiped at her eyes. She glanced to her left. Maurie was studying her with a look of deep concern.
Angelique smiled. “Yes, Maurie,” she said. “You are right. Life is good.”
Several days later.
The door to Café Angel opened, and Laurie bounced into the empty café. “Bonjour, Maurice!” she said.
“Bonjour, Laurie!” he replied, beaming. In French, he added, “It is wonderful to have you back.”
“Merci. It is a beautiful day today.” She dropped her helmet and bag on a table, then looked up and froze.
She stopped dead in her tracks when she saw Angelique at a table and in conference with Maurie and a man she didn't recognize, but did. His business suit, his manner pegged him as an American, and a bureaucrat. The smile left her face. “Angel?” she said, a question more than a statement.
“It is all right,” Angelique said in English. At Laurie's approach, they all stood. “This is Mister, ah...”
The man approached Laurie and extended a hand. “James Holleran, State Department. You're Laurie Caldwell?”
“Yeah. Yes, I am.” She did not accept the hand, but eyed him cautiously instead. “What are you doing here? Is this about Angelique? She's retired.”
“I know. She's been very emphatic about that.” He smiled, a painful smile. “The reason for my visit is this: on behalf of the United States government, I'm here to extend to you a formal apology for what happened.” He considered her sadly, then said, “We're sorry about the whole thing. It never should have gone down that way.”
“No kidding,” Laurie said. “You mean the little matter of my kidnapping and torture by agents of the U.S. government? That whole thing?”
He winced at the comment. “We realize that it got out of control. If it's any reassurance, we're reviewing all our policies regarding the hiring of independent companies for covert operations.”
“Covert operation? Is that what that was?” Laurie huffed and blew a shock of red hair from her face. “Somebody needs to read some Tom Clancy novels or something. I don't know who the good guys are anymore. Those guys were morons. A bunch of bozos led by a freakin' psychopath. If that's the best you've got, you're gonna lose this war.”
“Don't you mean, ‘we'? After all, you're an American, born and raised.”
“Please excuse me if I don't feel much like whistlin' Yankee Doodle right now.” She softened a little, then said, “I'm sorry to dump on you, Mister Holleran. I know you weren't responsible for any of that, but I'm still pretty pissed off about the whole thing. That my country would breed animals like that and then let ‘em loose on the world...” She shook her head. “I'm from a little town in Kansas. We didn't even lock our doors at night, and neighbors helped neighbors. That's the America I grew up in. That's the America I love. That's the America I want to remember. Not this.” She huffed again, then managed a smile and extended her hand to him. “Thank you for coming, and thank you for the apology, Mister Holleran. It was kind of you, and I do appreciate it, really.”
“Of course.” He grasped her hand and shook it. “And I truly am sorry for what happened. I, ah, hope that you're recovered?”
“I got a broken nose and a couple of cracked ribs. They'll heal. I'm afraid my patriotism is a little shredded right now, though. I can't promise the same about that.”
“Then you won't be returning to America any time soon?”
Laurie glanced over at Angelique, a reassuring glance, then back at Holleran. “This is my home now.”
“I think I understand,” he said. “And I will convey your exact sentiments to my superiors.” His eyes actually twinkled in humor. “Trust me on that one.” He shrugged. “Hey, I've got nothing to lose. I'm not on their top ten list these days, anyway.”
“Which is probably why you got the job of apologizing to me.” Laurie managed a smile. “Pleased to meet you, Mister Holleran.”
He nodded, then returned to the table and reclaimed his briefcase. “I'll be going now.” With nods from Angelique and Maurie, he headed toward the door, and left. The bell on the door tinkled a pleasant sound as he closed it behind him. Laurie stood in the silence for a moment, lost in thought, then looked up. Maurice was considering her intently from behind the bar. Angelique and Maurie were smiling at her from their places at the table.
She spread her hands wide. “What?”
Maurice began clapping. “Bravo!”
“My, my,” Maurie said. “I think we're seeing a new Laurie.” His eyes crinkled in amusement as he cast a glance at Angelique. “Well, old friend. I think you have...how do you say? A tiger by the tail?”
“No! A butterfly...” Maurice squinted in thought, then offered his best English. “From cocoon.”
“Quatre cognacs, s'il vous plaîît, Maurice,” Angelique said. “Rééjouissons-nous. Let us celebrate the new Laurie.”
Laurie grinned even as she felt herself blush. “You guys! It wasn't that big a deal.” She shrugged. “But what the hell. Any excuse to drink some of Angel's best booze.”
Maurice lined up four stemmed glasses on the counter and filled them as they gathered at the bar. They lifted their glasses, tapped them together, and drank. When the conversation lulled, Laurie leaned against Angelique's side. “I love you,” she said.
“And I love you,” Angelique said. She placed an arm around Laurie's side. “Forever, ma bien-aiméé.”
“That's good, because I have some news.”
“Oh?” Angelique raised an eyebrow. “What news?”
“She's pregnant!” Maurie cried. “Angel, how could you? And after all those training films we showed you!”
“Oh, stop!” Laurie said as she gave Maurie a playful slug on the arm. “No, this is scarier than that. I mean, really scary.”
Angelique grew concerned. “What is it?”
She snuggled against Angelique's side and looked up at her. “My parents want to come here for a visit. And, of course, they want to meet you.”
Maurice rolled his eyes. “Oh, mon Dieu!”
Maurie snickered. “Oh, oh. It's time to meet the in-laws.”
Laurie laughed at the teasing. “It's not that bad. They're sweethearts, really they are. I love them dearly.” She shrugged. “It's just--I mean, I talked to my sister yesterday. She said that Dad was all like, ‘I can't believe I sent that girl to college so she could shack up with some chick in Paris and play French barmaid in some Left Bank dive...'”
Maurie was screaming in laughter. “Oh, Angel! I would not want to be wearing your shoes now!” He wiped the tears from his eyes and leaned against the bar. “This is too good.”
Angelique shot him an amused, if slightly irritated, glance. “So glad that you find it funny.”
“Oh, Angel!” Maurie leaned against the bar and sipped his cognac, then held up the glass to admire the liquor as he spoke. “Do you remember, so long ago, when you first came to me at Mossad?”
“Do you remember the first lesson I taught you?”
“Yes. To fall from exhaustion.”
“No, no. That was the second lesson. What was the first?”
Angelique smiled. “To show no fear. Ever.”
“Right.” He winked at her, then drained his glass. “Show no fear.” He placed his glass on the bar and smiled his thanks to Maurice. “And on that delightful note, I must leave you now.”
Angelique shook his hand as they exchanged mutual smiles. “Visit again soon, old friend.”
“Yeah, Maurie.” Laurie leaned up and kissed him on a cheek. “You're a sweetheart. Thanks for being there when we needed you.”
He beamed. “Of course. I look forward to meeting your parents, Laurie.” He strode to the door and opened it, then paused and looked back. “Ah, you said that you had a sister...?”
Laurie smiled even as her eyes grew squinted. “Yeah. And she's too damn young for you.”
He gestured melodramatically. “Ah! The story of my life. Au revoir!” With that, he left. The little bell on the door tinkled as he shut the door behind him.
A contented silence fell over the quiet bar. Laurie snuggled against Angelique's side and looked up at her face. “So, can they visit?”
“Of course, I suppose...”
“Hm.” Laurie studied her reaction. “I can see that this is going to take some convincing on my part, isn't it?”
“Well, we can talk about it upstairs.” Angelique's hazel eyes met Laurie's soft brown ones, and they smiled a mutual little smile. “If you want to, that is...”
“I want to. Oh, yeah.” She left Angelique's side and picked up her bag and helmet. “I damned sure want to.” Laurie swept back past the bar and grabbed Angelique's hand.
Angelique barely had time to drain her glass and put it down before she got yanked toward the back stairs. She waved at Maurice as she was pulled along. “Later, Maurice!”
“Later, Boss.” He watched them clomp up the steep, worn wooden stairs and disappear behind the door at the top. Then, he smiled as he dropped the four glasses into the soapy dishwater behind the bar. “If I know Laurie, the boss hasn't got a chance.”
“Mom? It's Laurie.”
Angelique lay on her back, as content as a cat in the ancient four-poster bed. She delighted in the gentle noontime breeze that played through the open window and brushed across her bare skin. She traced her fingers over the smooth skin of Laurie's lower back and watched Laurie as she sat up in the bed next to her, talking on her cell phone. She loved to see Laurie naked, and she was that way now.
“Yeah,” Laurie was saying, “I talked to Angelique about your visit, and she's great with it. She's excited that she finally gets to meet you. So when are you coming? In a month? And you can stay for a week? Great!”
Angelique smiled at Laurie's manner. She loved everything about the girl; the tangled red hair, the body slender to the point of being skinny, the relaxed glow of contentment from recent love-making, the gentle brown eyes; and then, Angelique ached to notice the red marks and bruises over her ribs, the bruising on her abdomen and across the bridge of her nose. She had come close to losing Laurie. How close, she dared not contemplate. But Laurie was recovering well from her collision with the darkest parts of human nature. It had not damaged that goodness in her which she so cherished, so needed from Laurie; rather, it brought it to the front ever more forcefully. From difficult times, good people shine even brighter, it seemed.
“And hey, Mom? Can Sis come, too?” Laurie pouted, an endearing gesture. “She needs to dump that doofus loser boyfriend of hers, Mom. And she needs a vacation. She'll have a blast, really. Hey, I've got a friend she'd love to meet and hang out with.” She snickered softly. “No, Mom. A guy. He's a great guy. He's been all around the world, and he loves to have a good time. What do you mean, ‘That's what worries you'? She's a big girl now, divorced and all. She's twenty-nine. She'd love him. She does like older men, right? What?”
Laurie held the phone away and turned to Angelique. “How old is Maurie?” she whispered.
“I do not know.”
She held the phone to her head. “Um, he's in his thirties. Mid-to-late thirties, I think.”
Angelique laughed. “Ooh, you are such a liar.”
“Hush,” she whispered. “Well, he looks like that, anyway.” She returned her attention to the phone. “Well, work on her. Yeah, I know she's got that job. But she needs fun, too. Huh? Angelique? Yeah, she's here.” As Laurie listened, her expression became cautious. She looked down at Angelique, then held out the phone. “She wants to talk to you.”
Angelique considered the phone, then lifted it from Laurie's fingers and held it to her ear. “‘Ello? Oui, this is Angelique. I am so happy to talk to you, finally. No, no. It is no problem, really. You come visit, yes? We love to have you. Oh, we have hotel on this street. It is quaint and not expensive. We put you there. Our guests, you will be. You will love it. And please, if you can, bring Laurie's sister. She misses her so, you know? She talks of her most constantly. No, no. Three is no trouble at all. You are so kind to say so. Yes, I am delighted to talk to you, also. I see you soon, huh? Okay, here is Laurie. Au revoir! Good-bye.”
She handed the phone back to Laurie, who placed it to her ear. “Mom? Yeah, she's a sweetheart, isn't she? Told you. She's da bomb. You'll love her.” Laurie listened, then huffed a little. “Well, gee thanks, Mom.” Laurie laughed. “Yeah, she is a doll. And you can listen to her sing and play the piano in the evenings. And we'll show you Paris. It'll be great. What's that? Yeah, my phone does have a camera. You want a picture of her? Now?” She cast a frantic glance over at a very naked Angelique, who turned on her side and affected an alluring pose.
“Take my picture, love,” Angelique teased.
“Um, she says not now, Mom. She just got back from the gym, and she's a mess. I'll send you one this afternoon, okay? Yeah, call me when you get your plans finalized. You, too. Love you, Mom. ‘Bye.”
Laurie turned off the phone, then sat and studied Angelique in silence.
“What?” Angelique asked.
“She absolutely adores you. You charmed the socks off of her. How do you do that?”
Angelique laughed. “I am adorable.”
“You got that right.” Laurie snickered. “She said that she used to worry that you were good enough for me. Now, she wonders if I'm good enough for you.” She watched Angelique roll in laughter, then huffed and blew a shock of hair from her face. “Glad you find it so freakin' funny.”
Angelique recovered herself and held out her arms. “Come here.”
Laurie lay down next to her and propped herself up on one elbow, smiling down into Angelique's face. “Thanks. You're one brave girl to host my family for a week.”
“For you, anything.”
“Right back atcha.”
“Huh? What means this ‘right-back-atcha'? I do not understand this. This is how-do-you-say? A midwest expression? This is a good thing? Explain, please. Does it mean–?”
“Shut up and kiss me.”
“Ah. Now that, I understand.” As Laurie lowered her head, Angelique put a finger on Laurie's lips. “But you must say it in French.”
“J'ai l'intention de le faire,” Laurie whispered. Oh, I plan to! she had said.
“Oh!” A delighted laugh escaped Angelique, one which turned into a contented purr when Laurie kissed her.
A soft, intimate quiet fell over the apartment on the second floor of 13 Rue d'Espoir, as the breeze ruffled the sheer curtains over the open window and the sun warmed the cobblestoned street below them.
Yes, indeed. Life is good. Very good.
-April, 2010 djb
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