Copyright: Original story and characters, copyright D. J. Belt, May, 2012
Disclaimers: Some violence, some mild sexuality. Probably R-rated. ALT, if labels be needed.
Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org. Don't be shy to write; that's how I can tell if I'm doing a good job (or if anybody's actually reading my stories!).
Misc: Not essential to read the other three first, but it helps, I think.
Angelique's old lover walks into Café Angel one night and begs Angelique for help, inciting Laurie's jealousy and pulling everyone around her into a web of intrigue.
Angelique, Angelique: Book Two, Angelique: Book Three
Berlin, Germany, one month after the end of Book Three.
Esther looked at her wrist-watch. Twelve minutes after eleven o'clock in the evening. Twenty-three hours and twelve minutes, Berlin time. She breathed deeply to calm the pounding of her heart, then slowly, quietly slipped a loaded magazine into the handle of her pistol. She twisted the silencer onto the barrel and checked the laser sight. Then, she cocked it, clicked on the safety, and slipped the pistol into her purse.
She opened her cell phone, tapped out six digits into a message, and sent it. A minute later, her phone flashed with a return message: one digit. It was a confirmation. A ‘go'. She returned the phone to her purse, left the stairwell, and rushed to a nearby public bathroom. There, she vomited, even though she had eaten nothing all day.
When she emerged from the stall, another woman was in the bathroom. She viewed Esther with concern. In German, she spoke, a north German accent.
“What's the matter? Are you sick?”
Esther managed a smile as she gathered her long brown hair behind her neck. “Pregnant, I think.”
“Ah.” The woman raised an eyebrow. “Should I congratulate you?”
“Hardly. I'm getting an appointment with the doctor tomorrow.”
“To find out for sure?”
“No.” Esther turned on a water tap at a sink. “To take care of it.”
“Well, it's not so bad,” the other woman said as Esther washed her face. “I've had two.”
Esther looked up. “Children?”
The woman's expression was one of surprise. “No,” she said. “Abortions.” She pushed open the door to leave. Just before she did, she said, “You'll do fine. It's afterward that you must be cautious. Depression, you know.”
Esther straightened up, pulled some paper towels from the dispenser, and wiped her face. “Thanks.”
“Of course. Good luck.” With that, the woman left.
Esther waited for a moment, then slipped from the bathroom and took an elevator to the seventh floor. There, she slowly paced down a hall. Her high-heeled shoes tapped against the polished floor; echoed, it seemed, not only in the hall, but in her gut. She watched the apartment numbers on the doors float past her, as if in a dream. After what seemed an eternity to her, she stopped at a door. She noted the security camera at the end of the hall, turned her back to it, and pulled the pistol from her purse. She kept it by her ribs, concealed in the folds of the jacket covering her short black dress and by her crossed arms, as she approached the door and rang the bell. In a second, the door opened. A swarthy man looked her up and down. In accented German, he said, “Who are you?”
“Helga. The escort agency.”
“Excuse, please. A taxi is hard to get this time of night.” When he did not move, her voice took on a hard edge. “Are you going to let me in, or is your boss going to sleep with you tonight instead of me?”
The man stood aside. Esther strolled in and looked about the flat. It was luxury, sparsely but stylishly furnished, in the current manner of the jet-set elite. She turned when a new voice said, “You're who?”
She appraised her inquisitor. “Helga,” she said. “And you are my client for this evening?”
“Yes. Well, Helga. You're as lovely as the agency said. Please sit and make yourself comfortable.” He turned to the bar. “I'll fix you a drink. What would you like?”
“I'm a whiskey kind of girl.”
As he turned toward the bar, Esther produced the pistol and pointed it at the bodyguard. Before he had time to reach beneath his jacket, she'd thumped three rounds into his chest. He fell against the wall and slid to the floor.
She whipped the pistol around and pointed it at her inquisitor. He had stopped mixing her drink, and was staring in astonishment at his bodyguard crumpled at the base of the blood-smeared wall near the door. Slowly, he turned, her drink in his hand, and blinked at her in disbelief. Then, he looked down at the front of his shirt. Against the fine Egyptian cotton, over his heart, a red laser dot hovered. He looked up at her, and their eyes locked. In his eyes, Esther could see fear, a fear that he attempted to mask with humor.
“So I take it that you're not from the agency?”
That caused Esther to smile. “Which agency do you mean?” she said.
“Ah. Let's see. There's the Americans? No, I think not. They would use a missile. The Russians? No. They're not angry with me this week. Hamas? They don't use women. Then you must be Mossad. Yes, that's it.”
He swallowed hard. The look in her eyes was ice. She would do this. “Why?” he asked.
“You know why. Hamas has been shooting your missiles over the border at us for too long.”
“They'll just get them from somewhere else.”
“But not from you.”
“You Israelis. An eye for an eye, eh?”
“A pity you only have two eyes. Your victims are many more than two.”
“My friends will hunt you down and kill you.”
“Then they'll be doing me a favor.”
“We can make a deal. I can make you wealthy.”
“And I can make you dead.”
Esther's pistol huffed three times. The impact of the bullets threw her inquisitor against the bar. He fell to the floor with a hard thud. The glass rolled away from his hand and came to rest against a table leg. Slowly, deliberately, Esther approached him. She stabbed a high heel against his shoulder and pushed. He rolled onto his back. His eyes were open, wide with disbelief. The front of his shirt was already soaking with blood. She placed another round squarely between his eyes, then knelt next to him and searched his pockets. In one, she found a thick wad of Euro currency.
She smiled, a thin smile. “You're right. You can make me wealthy.”
She stuffed the wad of bills into her purse, then rose and walked toward the door. Just before she left, she stopped and considered the bodyguard. She put another round into him, between his eyes, then left the flat. She walked down the hall, away from the security camera, and around the corner. There, she descended the fire stairs to the landing above the lobby, and ducked beneath the stairs. A large shopping bag waited for her there. She dumped the bag's contents onto the floor, then stripped off her high heels, her dress jacket, and her cocktail dress and stuffed it all into the bag. Hurriedly, she pulled on a pair of jeans, some flat shoes, and a light blue sweater-top. Then, she pulled the long brown hair from her head, dropped the wig into the bag, and fluffed out the ends of her short blonde hair. That done, she shouldered her purse, picked up the shopping bag, and trotted down the stairs to the first floor.
She entered the women's bathroom at the lobby bar and had just found an open stall when she vomited again. As she leaned against the stall's wall, bent over the toilet, the thought screamed at her that she really needed to find another line of work. That thought made her laugh, a short, curt laugh. She pulled the lever, staggered to the sink, and washed her face.
Another stall opened. A young woman with a punkish appearance emerged and said, “Are you okay?”
Esther looked up from the sink. “Huh?”
“I heard you get sick. Did you drink too much?”
“Pregnant, I think.”
“Ah.” She washed her hands. “Men. We should pass a law. Sterilize them all.” She smiled at her own joke. “And please start with my boyfriend. He's totally useless. A pothead artist. I'm going back to women, I think.”
“Me too,” Esther said, as she washed her face.
“Well,” the punk girl said, “Good luck to you with that.” She studied Esther for a moment, then said, “How old are you?”
“Ah.” The girl laughed. “I'd invite you for a drink, but I'm looking for someone younger.”
Esther looked up from the sink. “My loss, then. You seem a nice person. Good luck.”
“Thanks. You seem nice, too.” The girl smiled at her, then left the washroom.
As Esther washed her face, she looked into the mirror. The reflection was someone she didn't know anymore. A stranger. Twenty-nine, and there were lines around her eyes, a weariness in her expression. She looked older. Much older. And she felt...nothing. Dead. No, that wasn't quite true. She felt sick, dirty. Perhaps a drink would help.
She picked up her shopping bag and left the washroom. In the lobby bar, she took her place at a stool and ordered a drink. She thought about a beer, but decided against it. The idea of warm beer made her stomach flip. Whiskey would do. It dulls the thoughts much more quickly. As she sipped her drink, she flipped open her cell phone and punched out a message, a single digit representing, ‘Accomplished'. Then, she sent it, ordered another drink, and downed it quickly. She left some money on the bar and walked out, heading down the street. In an alleyway a block from the hotel, she threw the shopping bag into a dumpster. Then, she hailed a taxi and pulled the back door open.
“Hauptbahnhof, bitte,” she said. She plopped down on the seat and remained silent while the taxi wound through the late-night Berlin streets. Her phone bleeped with a message, and she opened it and read it. It was a two-digit code asking for her location. Esther considered it for a moment, then turned her telephone off. She did not answer. As a final protection, she opened the back cover, pulled out the battery, and dropped it into her purse. No one could track her now.
After what seemed an eternity, the cab left her on the pavement in front of Berlin's central train station. She entered, unlocked a locker, and pulled her bag and a jacket and scarf from it. She lifted a necklace from a side pocket in her bag and fastened it around her neck, allowing a little Star of David to rest against her skin, just beneath her collar-bones. As she walked to the ticket windows, she looped her thin, stylish scarf about her neck and let it hang.
A moment later, a ticket-seller was asking her, “Where would you like to go?”
She smiled, really smiled, for the first time that night. “Paris, next train.” Thirteen hours, and she would be in Paris. There, she mused, she'd look up an old friend. She just hoped that Angelique would be glad to see her after so many years.
Paris, France, twenty hours later.
The evening's business at Café Angel, 13 Rue d'Espoir in the Latin Quarter of Paris, was light. Laurie left the counter where she was chatting with Maurice, the bartender, and met a new customer as she entered the bar and slid into a booth.
“Bonsoir,” Laurie said. “Que voulez-vous boire?”
“Pardon. Peu franççais. Parlez-vous anglais?”
Laurie nodded. “Yeah, I speak English. What can I get for you?”
“Oh. Thank you. Ah, a whiskey.”
In a minute, Laurie had returned to the table and placed the glass before her. The woman smiled up at her, a pained smile as it seemed to Laurie, and said, “May I ask you something?”
Laurie shrugged. “You bet.”
“I'm looking for an old friend. I am told she owns this bar. Angelique Bat-Ami. Do you know her?”
The name made Laurie's heart skip a beat. Angelique hadn't gone by that name since she left Israel, and Mossad. Laurie considered the face. It was careworn, tired. “Maybe,” Laurie said. “Your English has an accent. Where are you from?”
The lady nodded. “You're careful. Protective of Angel, I can see. You must be a dear friend of hers.” She pulled a passport from her pocket and held it up. “I'm Israeli.”
Laurie nodded. “I'll see if she's around.”
“Thank you.” The next words seemed, to Laurie, a whispered plea. “Tell her it's Esther.”
Laurie left the booth and walked to the baby grande piano tucked into a corner of the bar. She sat on the bench next to Angelique, who was playing a soft melody. She waited until Angelique came to the piece's end, then leaned against Angelique and spoke softly.
“There's somebody here claiming to be an old friend of yours,” Laurie said.
“Oh?” Angelique glanced up and squinted. “Where?”
“The booth by the door.”
“She said her name was Esther.”
Angelique took in a sharp breath. “Show me,” she said.
They both rose, and Angelique followed Laurie through the bar. Near the front door, Laurie nodded toward the booth. Angelique studied the features of the woman at the booth; the short blonde hair, the profile of her face, the way that she tapped the table-top with her fingers as if nervous or distraught, then turned to Laurie. She took her hand, squeezed it gently, and smiled a reassuring smile. “I know her. It will be all right.”
“I'll bring you a drink,” Laurie said, and turned away.
Angelique slid into the unoccupied side of the booth and studied the woman with a noncommittal, neutral expression. The woman looked up, and her breath caught. For a long time, they were silent, considering each other. Finally, the woman spoke in Hebrew.
“It's been a long time, Bat-Ami. Shalom. ”
“That person,” Angelique said, “is dead. It's Halevy now.”
“Your French family name? Well, whatever it is, you look well. I'm happy for you.”
Laurie put a cognac on the table in front of Angelique, then left. Angelique's manner softened, and her eyes grew warm. “English, Esther. We always spoke English together, you and I.”
Esther smiled at that. “You remember?”
“You look well, Angel. Very fit. You've been living in the gym, I see. And back to your music? That's good. You have talent.” She glanced around the bar, then returned her gaze to Angelique. “You have a good life here, yes?”
“And that American girl with the red hair? Your lover?”
“I could tell. The way you took her hand, spoke to her tenderly. Your eyes, when she brought you that drink.” She forced a smile. “Like us, so long ago.”
Angelique sipped her drink. “I have not forgotten.”
“I haven't, either.” Esther's expression fell. She cast a pleading glance at Angelique. “Help me. Please.”
“What is wrong?”
“I don't know where else to turn.”
Angelique leaned across the table. “What are you talking about?”
Esther reached across the table and grasped Angelique's forearm. “Hide me. Please. Just for a little while, until I can get myself back together.”
“What?” Angelique asked.
“I'm...” She began weeping, silent, tearful, and yanked a handkerchief from her purse. “I'm sorry.” She wiped her eyes, sniffed, and attempted to regain her composure. “I'm sorry.”
“What are you sorry for?”
“All of it. I'm at the end of my rope, Angel.” She looked up. “Help me. Please.” She wiped her eyes. “You're the only one I can trust.”
Angelique looked at her. The face was lined, careworn, thinner than she remembered. The eyes were pained, hollow. She knew the signs. She'd been there, where Esther is now. Her gaze traveled down to the bag on the seat next to Esther's leg. “Do you have a place to stay?” she asked.
“No. I'll get a hotel.”
“I have a guest room. I live upstairs. You stay with us. We talk, eh?”
“It won't be a problem with your lover?” Esther managed a smile. “She is very protective of you. I suspect that she is the jealous type.”
“I will explain it to her. It will be all right.”
“I don't want to cause you problems.”
“I know, Esther. I know.” Angelique smiled, a reassuring smile, and patted Esther's hand. Then, she rose from the table. “I come back in a minute,” she said, and walked away to find Laurie.
Inside Angelique's cramped little office by the back stairs, Laurie blinked at Angelique. “She's staying with us?”
“Just for a while,” Angelique said. “She is in some difficulty. She is an old friend. We do this for her, yes?”
Laurie softened. “Yeah. Sure. We'll take her in.”
“Thank you, Laurie.”
“She's not doin' drugs, is she?”
“I do not think it is that, cher.”
“That's a relief. What is it, then? She's gettin' beaten up by her boyfriend? She's on the run from the police?”
“I think,” Angelique said, “that she is exhausted of spirit.” At Laurie's questioning look, she said, “She is tired of killing people.”
“Oh!” Laurie's jaw dropped. “Is that all? Well, hell. We can fix that, right? That's nothing. And here I was, worried that she was doin' drugs or something really bad. It turns out that she's just killin' folks.” Laurie fixed Angelique with her gaze. “Let me guess. Old friend. She's Mossad, right?”
“An assassin? Like you were?”
Laurie studied Angelique. “And she's an old lover of yours too, isn't she?”
Angelique hesitated, then nodded. “Yes. It was years ago, Laurie.”
Laurie rolled her eyes. “Oh, boy. This is getting weirder by the second.”
“May she stay with us?”
“Hey, it's your apartment.”
“But it is our home.”
Laurie smiled at that. She leaned against Angelique and kissed her. “I'm glad you care what I think. Thanks for askin',” she said, as she rested her head against Angelique's shoulder and looped her arms around her waist.
Angelique held her. “She is welcome here, then?”
Laurie nodded. “Yeah. Sure. Let's bring her upstairs and put her to bed. She looks exhausted, and she's gettin' drunk, too.”
The next morning, Laurie awoke. She sat up in bed, stretched, and looked over at Angelique. Her lover was still asleep, the brown and russet hair tangled over her cheek, the expression one of serene rest. Laurie smiled. Angelique. Angel. Her angel. She slipped from the ancient four-poster bed, pulled a long night-shirt over her body, and padded barefoot down the hall to the bathroom. There, she stopped and watched as Esther, clothed only in underpants and a bra, hugged the toilet and vomited. After a moment, Esther sat on the floor and leaned against the wall.
“Sick, huh?” Laurie asked.
Laurie fetched a hand-towel from the cabinet and wet it. She leaned down and mopped Esther's face. “What's wrong? You don't have a fever.”
“I'm pregnant, I think.”
Laurie gasped. “Oh, great. What are you gonna do about that?”
“Get rid of it. Go to a doctor.”
“Well. At least the girl's got a plan,” Laurie said as she wiped Esther's forehead. “Do you want some coffee?”
“Oh!” Esther sat up, leaned over the toilet, and vomited again.
“Sorry I asked,” Laurie said. “How's about some hot tea, then? You need something.”
“Yes, yes. Hot tea. Good,” Esther mumbled as she sat back. She looked up at Laurie. “I am so sorry to be trouble to you.”
“Don't worry ‘bout it.”
As Laurie mopped Esther's face and neck, she noted the little Star of David against the skin of her chest. Israeli, like her Angel. Like her friend Maurie. And, like them, a member of the shadowy organization known to the world as Mossad. Like them, immersed in bloodshed. Spies, saboteurs, assassins; invisible soldiers, defending their fragile, tiny homeland from a world of enemies. She couldn't imagine what this woman had seen and done in her life, but she guessed that it wasn't pretty, and that it was a heavy burden to carry around.
“I'll make you some hot tea.” She stood and looked down at Esther, and she felt a little pang of guilt for allowing her gaze to travel down Esther's nearly naked body. Laurie admitted to herself that Esther was hot. She could see how Angelique would have been attracted. She said, “And, Esther?”
Esther looked up. “Yes?”
“You've got the prettiest blue eyes I've ever seen.”
Esther laughed. “Thank you, Laurie,” she said. “You are a very kind person.”
“I figured you could use a compliment right about now,” Laurie said. She shot a grin at her as she left the bathroom.
“I can use a bullet more,” Esther said, “but I'll take a compliment anytime.” Then, she struggled to her feet and went to her room to dress.
Angelique sat at their little kitchen table, sipping her morning coffee. After a moment, she lowered her cup and said, “Whatever trouble you are in, I think Maurie can help.”
Esther's expression fell. She glanced up at Angelique's face. In Hebrew, she said, “No Mossad. Not just yet.”
“In English,” Angelique said. “For Laurie.”
“But – ”
“Laurie knows of my past. She has been put in danger before, because of it. She will keep confidence, but she must be part of this.”
Esther's gaze drifted to Laurie, who was seated on a nearby kitchen counter, listening to the exchange. “I see.” She looked back at Angelique. “Always, you were the one with principles, Angel.”
“If you lose that, you have nothing.”
“Then I have nothing at all.” Her eyes watered, and she wiped them with her knuckles. “I need out. Tell me, how did you manage to do it?”
Angelique studied Esther's face, listened to the thoughts between her words, and knew what the woman was really saying. She knew, because she'd been where Esther is now. And she knew what might very well happen. “You cannot run from Mossad. You have to make a deal with them.” When Esther's expression registered fear, Angelique said, “Look, I will help you. Let me talk to Maurie. He is section chief here in Paris, and he is my old friend.”
“No! No Mossad. Please, Angel.”
“Mossad does not know where you are, do they?”
“I have to tell Maurie that you are here. I will not betray his trust.”
“You'll betray mine?”
Angelique grasped Esther's hand and held it firmly. “Listen to me. I will go between you and Mossad. I will make it right. Maurie is an old friend; he can help. But you must trust me on this, Esther. Do you hear me? Look at me. Now, do you trust me on this? Answer me.”
Esther sighed deeply, then sat very still and considered Angelique's face. The brown and russet hair, the hazel eyes, the aura of – of, what was that? Nobility, Esther decided. Angel always had a noble aura. Perhaps that was why, in all those years, Angelique was able to keep to her principles. A noble person in an ignoble profession.
“I trust you, Angel.”
“But I don't trust Mossad.”
Angelique nodded. “Mossad made me disappear. They have protected me, and they protect me still. They can do the same for you. Let me talk to Maurie.”
It seemed as if Esther wilted. “All right, then. If you think it will help.”
“I do. Now, is there anything else?”
Laurie said, “Well, she thinks she's got a bun in the oven.”
Angelique cast a puzzled glance at Laurie. “What? She is cooking something?” She glanced toward the oven.
“You might say that,” Esther said. “I think I'm pregnant.”
Angelique's head snapped around. “Pregnant? Oh, mon Dieu. How did that happen?”
Esther managed a snicker. “How do you think it happened?”
“She's got a plan,” Laurie said.
“Yes. I'll get rid of it,” Esther added. “Now. As soon as I can. Perhaps a doctor here, in Paris...”
“Does the father know?” Angelique asked. “You have to tell him.”
“I – I can't, Angel.”
“You must. It is right, to tell him.”
Again, Esther sighed. She looked defeated, worn out. She stared down at the table-top and her tea-cup as she spoke. “I can't tell him because I killed him.”
A moment of stunned silence followed, broken by Laurie's response.
“Oops. There goes the child support.”
Angelique flipped open her cell phone. She dialed, and a moment later, began speaking in Hebrew. “Maurie? Is that you? Shalom. Angelique.”
“Yes, yes. Let's speak English, Angel. Your Hebrew – ”
Angelique laughed as she switched to English. “Yes, I know. It sucks.”
“So what's up?”
“Meet me for lunch. The old place where we used to conduct business.”
“All right, Angel. What's this about?”
“Not over the phone. In person.”
“You're not looking for work, are you?”
“No. But this is about work.”
“I see. I'm intrigued. I'll meet you there in an hour. And Angel?”
“You buy, this time.”
Angelique laughed. “See you then, Maurie.” She folded the phone and stuck it in the pocket of her jeans. Laurie watched her, then spoke.
“How's all this gonna end up?”
Angelique answered with a question. “Where is Esther?”
“Taking a nap.”
“Good, good.” Angelique turned to Laurie and spoke softly. “What is your opinion of Esther?” she asked.
“Honestly? She's nuts,” Laurie replied.
“Yes. I have seen this before. But not with her.” Angelique folded her arms across her chest as she gazed out the bedroom window at the Paris street below them. “I was once that way, also. Lost. Desperate. Afraid of everything, everybody. Not knowing who is friend or enemy.”
“You mean like Esther is now?”
“Hard to believe, yes? But I once tried to kill myself.”
“Jesus, Angel. Do you think she's suicidal?”
“Perhaps. She is desperate. A little push, and...”
“Damn.” Laurie thought, then asked, “What can I do to help her?”
Angelique smiled at that. She hugged Laurie to her, kissed her forehead, and said, “Be her friend. Take her shopping or something while I talk to Maurie.”
“Sure. No problem. I'll entertain your ex-girlfriend for you. I'll get her a pregnancy test kit while we're shopping, too.” At Angelique's questioning look, she explained, “Hell, we sure don't have a need for ‘em.”
Angelique laughed. “No.” She kissed Laurie, then said, “And I am glad of that.” Laurie kissed her back, and for a few minutes, they forgot about anything else. Finally, after some minutes, Laurie spoke.
“I'm gettin' so hot for you right now.”
“So sorry. I have to meet Maurie.”
“Darn it. Well, you owe me one.”
“I owe you more than that. I love you, Laurie.”
Laurie pressed herself Angelique. “You'd better. And I love you too, you smooth talker.”
In the hallway outside the bedroom door, Esther smiled painfully as she listened. Then, she tiptoed back to the guest room and lay down. She turned onto her side and allowed her memory free rein to travel back in time. She remembered the tiny apartment above the crowded Jerusalem street; the hot summer breeze which stirred the thin curtains, the sounds below them, the smells, the distant chant of the Muslim cleric calling the faithful to prayer as she and Angelique lay naked and tangled together, sweaty and sated from love-making, their Israeli army uniforms cast aside, their rifles propped against a nearby wall. She couldn't have been more than twenty or twenty-one; Angelique was a little older. It was a sweet time, a time when the optimism of her youth dictated that all would turn out well and that life was good.
What had happened since then? Images flashed through her mind, brutal, ugly images, and she closed her eyes and willed them away. She squeezed her eyelids tightly shut, and felt tears wet her face. Her hand snaked beneath her pillow, and she felt the handle of her pistol there. Instinctively, her fingers curled around the grip, felt the familiarity of it. And just as instinctively, an image flashed in her mind of the silencer in her mouth, her finger on the trigger. Just a little pressure, and...and the agony would stop. The troubles would cease to plague her. But would she find peace?
No. She summoned her willpower, her discipline, and felt the heat of anger rise within her. Anger at herself, anger at the circumstances which brought her to this moment and made her so vulnerable. And she hated being vulnerable, weak. She hated it. A woman who was losing her sanity, that was weak. A woman who was pregnant, that was vulnerable. And a woman who was pregnant by a man she hated and had killed, that was sick. She was trapped in a never-ending nightmare of clandestine murder and double-crossing, of lies and deceit, of pretending to be things that she was not. A Mossad assassin. The elite. The best in the world. Once, she was so proud to have been chosen. Now, she ached to be relieved of it. And she was overwhelmed by it, lost in it. She was drowning. She ached for a little peace.
Angelique had found her humanity, her normalcy again. But how? How had she done it? Angelique had always been stronger, more clever than her. She'd always looked up to Angelique. She will succeed, Esther knew. She will teach me. And if she can not, Esther thought, then I will have one final target: Myself. I still have that power, the power to take life.
Esther allowed her fingers to caress the cool metal of the pistol beneath her pillow. She found it a comfort, the one constant left to her in a twisted, unsure world.
Maurie smiled as he looked up. “Angel. You look lovely today,” he said. He stood and held Angel's chair as she sat with him at an outdoor café. And she did look lovely, he decided. In a summer top, her brown-and-russet hair protruding from the trademark beret on the back of her head, her eyes laughing at him over the tops of thin sun-glasses, she seemed the essence of late spring in Paris.
“Thank you, Maurie. And you, dark from the sun. How was your trip to the Greek islands?”
“Wonderful. I've applied to retire, you know. I'm taking your advice.”
Angelique decided that Maurie looked retired already. Tanned and jaunty, wearing a white linen suit and his tie loose at the collar, a light dusting of gray in his dark hair, his charm was in full swing today. “And Allie?”
“Ah.” Maurie smiled. “A delightful woman. I'm in love.”
Angelique smiled. Laurie's older sister, Allison, had visited Paris and had fallen madly in love with Maurie. She was glad to know that it was mutual. “She is still here?”
“Sadly, no. She went back to Kansas to arrange her affairs, before...”
Maurie beamed. “Before coming back here for good.”
Angelique smiled. “I am happy for both of you.”
“Thank you. Ah, while she's here, perhaps she can find work? She must have a visa, you know, to stay in France more than ninety days.”
“Marry the girl, Maurie.”
“I asked. She refused. ‘Not for a year,' she said.”
“A smart girl. So, I can hire her to work in the bar. Like Laurie. And we can send her to learn French, like Laurie. Not a problem.”
“God bless you, old friend. I knew I could count on you. Now, what can I do for you?”
A waiter appeared at the table. After giving their orders, Angelique watched the waiter leave, then said, “Do you remember Esther? The Esther from – from my past?”
Maurie leaned forward. “Of course. What about her?”
“Have you heard of her lately? She is still active, right?”
“Yes. I believe so.”
“But?” At Maurie's hesitation, Angelique said, “Talk to me, Maurie. I think we can help each other out here. Something is going on with her. What is it?”
“All right, Angel. She dealt with a target in Berlin two days ago. An arms dealer and his bodyguard. Clean, smooth. No problem. She checked in immediately afterward, signaling success. Then, she disappeared. We haven't heard from her since. The Berlin section is looking for her, but...” Maurie shrugged.
“They will not find her,” Angelique said.
“Because she is in Paris.”
“She's here? Why?”
“She came to see me, Maurie. She begged me for help. She is sick, exhausted. She is losing her sanity.” Angelique raised an eyebrow. “Like I did, once. I am frightened for her.”
“She needs to come in.”
“She does not trust Mossad. She thinks everyone is her enemy. How do you say? Paranoid?”
“Maybe not.” Maurie scratched his chin as he thought. Then, he glanced up at Angelique. “Look, I tell you this because you and I are old friends. Tel Aviv is looking for her. They think she made an unauthorized kill.”
Angelique straightened up at that. An unauthorized kill was a serious breach of protocol. Mossad could hardly afford to have out-of-control operatives running around Europe. “Who?”
“It was a wealthy merchant, an Israeli. We knew that he was selling and transporting black market weapons. He was in league with the Russian Mafia. A bad character, Angel. She was assigned to get close to him, to position herself to deal with him when we gave the word.”
“Let me guess. The word was never given, but he ended up dead anyway.”
Angelique shrugged. “It was probably the Russians. They do not play games.”
“It was her. Three rounds in the chest, one in the head. Her signature.”
“That can be copied.”
“Our empty brass casings were at the scene. Blank, untraceable. Mossad issue.”
“Hand-loaded. The Russians can copy that, to make it look as if Mossad did it.”
Maurie shook his head. “One other thing. I told you that she was assigned to get close to him. Do you know how she managed to do that?”
Angelique's expression fell. “She became his girlfriend?”
“Yes. Well, one of them, anyway.”
Angelique sighed. “Maurie, she thinks that she is pregnant.”
“She thinks so. What can we do, Maurie? How can we help her?”
“This is a problem. She can get medical and psychiatric care in Israel, but she can't go there just now. If Tel Aviv gets their hands on her...” He looked at Angelique. “We'll have to hide her for a while. Here in Paris is best.”
“This could ruin your career, Maurie.”
“To hell with it,” he said. “I'm retiring, anyway. My career's done.” His jaunty grin softened. “And I know what you once meant to each other, Angel.” He studied Angelique with his laughing, squinted eyes. “Perhaps you're still in love with her?”
Angelique allowed her gaze to fall away, to study the passers-by on the busy street. After a moment, she looked at Maurie again. “Perhaps I am. Once a lover, always a lover, yes?”
Maurie smiled. “So they say. Well, Angel. Can you hide her for a while longer? Good. I'll be in touch. And see if she'll meet me somewhere neutral. I want to talk to her, but I don't want to know where she's hiding.”
Esther emerged from the bathroom and found Laurie in the kitchen. Hesitantly, she held out a little plastic gizmo, and Laurie looked at it.
“Well?” Esther asked.
“I think you're definitely pregnant.”
“Oh, God.” Esther ran down the hall and disappeared into the bathroom. A second later, Laurie could hear her throw up.
“Man,” Laurie said. “The power of suggestion, huh?”
The apartment's front door opened, and Angelique entered. She placed her shoulder bag on the table, and pulled a bottle of wine from it. “I have dinner,” she said. “And wine.”
“I don't think Esther's very hungry just now,” Laurie observed. Her statement was punctuated with the echo of someone being sick in the bathroom.
“Oh, mon Dieu.” Angelique kicked off her shoes and walked down the hall to the open bathroom door. “Did you take the medicine?” she said to Esther.
“I can't read the instructions. They're in French.”
“I translate for you.” Laurie could hear Angelique's voice, softly translating the directions. After a moment, Esther's voice cut her off.
“I have to put this thing where? Angel, you're joking.”
Laurie walked down the hall. She heard Angelique say, “It is how-do-you-say? Not a pill.”
“A suppository,” Laurie said, as she stopped at the bathroom door. “And yeah. You're supposed to do that with it.”
Esther cast a cautious look at Laurie, who shrugged innocently. Then, she studied Angelique, who managed a smile and pointed to the box. “It says, here. Yes.”
“I can't just have a pill?”
“You'll throw up a pill,” Laurie said.
“Oh.” She looked at Angelique, who shrugged again and offered a weak explanation.
“It is logical, yes?”
Esther studied Angelique with a critical, appraising eye, then allowed a little smile to crease her face. “From the Germans, I expect logic. From the French, I expect classy. This is not classy, to be sticking something up your – ”
“No, but it's logical,” Laurie said.
Angelique pointed to the box. “It says here, ‘Made in Germany'.”
Esther sighed. “Why am I not surprised?” she asked. She lifted the box from Angelique's hand. “All right. I'm tired of being sick. A moment alone, please.”
“Right. Come on, Angel. Leave the girl alone.”
“Ah. Of course. When you feel better, I have fresh food and good wine. We cook, yes?”
“Maybe.” Esther paled as she herded Laurie and Angelique out of the bathroom and shut the door. They stood in the hall for a couple of minutes, and then Laurie knocked at the door.
“Don't forget to take the foil off of it,” Laurie said.
Another moment of silence passed. Esther said, “I was supposed to take off the foil?”
Laurie and Angelique looked at each other. Their jaws dropped in unison.
The door cracked open. Esther stuck her head out of the door, looked at the expressions on their faces, and cracked up. “I'm joking!” she said. She pointed a finger at Angelique. “Aha! I got you, didn't I?” She stepped from the bathroom and headed down the hall. “Yes! I love to fool Angel!” She entered the guest room and shut the door.
Laurie looked at Angelique. She had a peculiar little smile on her face, a squint that Laurie only saw when her lover was particularly pleased with something. “Now that,” Angelique said, “is the Esther I know from so long ago.” She hugged Laurie to her side. “She is feeling better. Come. We open the wine, yes?”
Laurie nodded. “Damned straight, let's open the wine.”
Tel Aviv, Israel.
David Aronoff stepped into the office of his superior. The older man, dressed casually in a white shirt with open collar, rose and shook his hand, then waved him to a seat. “David!” he said. “Come in.”
“Thank you, sir. You wanted to see me?”
“Yes. I have a little problem which needs mending. You're my up-and-coming problem-solver. So...”
David smiled. Although he was young, only twenty-six, his rapid rise in Mossad was the result of a single-minded, ruthless devotion to success. As a result, he'd become indispensable to older superior officers like the man before him. One day, he was certain that he would head Mossad. “I'll do what I can.”
“I know. Now, are you familiar with someone in our assassination branch named ‘Esther'?”
“I've heard the name. I know that she's been utilized a lot lately.”
“Yes. Horribly over-utilized, in my opinion. She's fluent in German and English. A highly competent assassin. And, she's a good-looking, personable woman, which opens a lot of doors for her and gets her close to her targets.”
“But,” the older man continued, “She's disappeared. We can't find her.”
David sat up in his chair. “Someone dealt with her?”
“No. I think she disappeared because she wanted to. Before she left for her last target, she drained her bank account.” He dropped a folder on his desk in front of David. “Here's a summary of the situation regarding Esther. Read it, think about it. Then, come back to me and we'll talk about options. Say, tomorrow?”
“I'll see you again this afternoon.” David rose and lifted the folder from the desk.
“That attitude,” the older man said, “will make you enemies around here. But it will also get you far up the food chain.”
David smiled, a little coldly. “Yes, sir.”
Paris, France, that evening.
Café Angel was moderately busy; Angelique's piano and voice drew in customers, a collection of locals who enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere and Angelique's music. The buzz of soft conversation, the tinkle of the piano and Angelique's husky, melodious voice, and the clink of glasses were a background noise with which Laurie was, by now, intimately familiar. She looked over her tables as she wiped her hands on the bar towel hanging from her apron. Her customers seemed satisfied, at the moment. When she saw Emma, another server, she went to her and pulled her aside.
Laurie huffed a lock of red hair away from her face, hemmed and hawed a little, then spoke in French. “Emma, I need advice,” she said.
“Yes, yes. What is it?”
“If I wanted to get an abortion, where would I go?”
Emma's eyes widened. “You're pregnant?”
“No, not me. But I have this friend...”
“Ah!” She brushed a streak of purple hair from her face, then thought, absent-mindedly tapping her lip piercing. Then, she brightened. “The medical clinic, a women's clinic. Here, I will write the address down for you.” She pulled a napkin from the bar and scribbled an address. “It is by the university, not so far from here.”
“Must one be French to be seen? Will they see a foreign national there?”
“Yes, yes. I believe that it makes no difference.”
Laurie placed a hand on Emma's arm. “Thank you, Emma.”
“Yes, of course.” She lowered her voice as she cast a glance in Angelique's direction. “Your secret, it is safe with me. I will tell no one.”
“Oh!” Laurie's eyes widened. “It isn't me.”
“Of course. Whatever you say.” Emma hugged Laurie. “Good luck to you. I know it is a difficult time, yes?” With that, Emma turned and scurried back to her tables.
Laurie watched her go. “Jeez,” she muttered, in English. “I wonder if Angel's gonna find that funny.”
Tel Aviv, Israel, that evening.
David sat at a conference table with his superior. The older man carried a deep weariness about him, one which David assumed came from his heavy responsibilities. He'd assessed his boss as a poet at heart, a gentle soul, one who found the cold detachment needed for weighty decisions in the complex, ugly stew of international intrigue difficult to come by. David had no such shortcomings. He prided himself on doing whatever it took to achieve his goals, and he did not lose a moment's sleep over it.
“I agree,” David said, “that she made herself disappear.”
“She made that unauthorized kill. That's serious. She'll be crucified for that.”
“She had motivation, don't you think?”
David nodded. “I do. She got sexually involved with that target. He was a bad character, known to be rough with his women. He probably beat her, bullied her repeatedly, and she tolerated it, waiting only for our word to kill him. Then, the kill order was rescinded, and she killed him anyway, probably in self-defense or for revenge.”
“That doesn't change the fact that she killed an Israeli citizen on Israeli soil. If it becomes public knowledge, she can be prosecuted for murder for that. A life sentence in an Israeli prison.”
“A trial? A scandal, more likely, if it becomes public that Mossad targeted an Israeli citizen -- the prime minister's power could be shaken. No, we'll not put her on trial.” He shrugged. “Let her quietly disappear. She's doing us a favor.”
David's boss ran a hand through his thick white hair. “No. We can't have a trained assassin running amuck out there. What if she decides to kill someone else? We have to find her. But where would she go to hide from us?”
“Family?” David suggested. “Family, in another country?”
The older man shook his head. “Our assassin-candidates are chosen carefully. One requirement is that they have no close family ties. She has only an estranged father, and he hasn't seen her.”
“Friends?” David asked.
The older man did not reply immediately, but cast a glance out of his window at the city below him. After a time, he turned back toward David. “She did have a friend,” he said. “Once.”
David sat up in his chair. “The Angel of Mossad? But she's dead.”
The older man leaned forward, placed his elbows on the table, and fixed David with a serious look. “What I say next does not go out of this room.”
David swallowed hard. “Understood, sir.”
“Bat-Ami is not dead.”
David's jaw dropped. “But I saw her grave.”
“Empty. She lives now in Paris, a quiet existence. And Paris is, what? Half a day's journey from Berlin, the last place Esther was known to be.”
“So they were friends. So what? That means nothing.”
“They were lovers,” the older man said. He waited for the color of understanding to show on David's face, but it did not. “Have you ever been in love, David? I mean, really in love?”
“No, sir.” The admission was soft.
“The ties are permanent. Even if the affair dies, the ties endure. Time does not break them.” He sighed. “I hope for you, that you experience that one day. In the meantime, look for her in Paris.”
“Paris is a big city.”
The older man smiled. “In the Latin Quarter, there is a piano bar called ‘Café Angel'. There, you will find Bat-Ami.”
“And Esther, too?”
“Probably, if my understanding of human nature is accurate.”
“What are my instructions when I find her?”
“Watch. Listen. Learn. Then report. I'll advise you.”
“Yes, sir.” David rose. “Well, I'd better be packing for a trip to Paris.” He shook his boss's hand, then headed for the door.
Just before he left, the older man said, “David?”
“It's Paris, for God's sake. Take some time to have a little fun. Who knows? Perhaps you'll fall in love there.”
David smiled, a cold smile. “Probably not.”
Paris, France, the next morning.
Angelique's boxy little Renault stopped in front of the clinic. Esther and Angelique climbed inside, and it took off. “So, how'd it go?” Laurie asked as she twisted the car through traffic.
Esther said, “Today, I saw the doctor. I have to come back for the abortion.”
“A week. It's the law in France.”
“Why's that?” Laurie asked.
“To give a little time for thinking,” Angelique answered.
Laurie looked at Esther in the rear-view mirror. “So, is this a pill thing, or is this a procedure thing?”
“Procedure,” Esther said. “They think that I am perhaps two months along, now. Too late for pills.”
Laurie stopped the car at a red light. Angelique's eyes connected with Esther's. “Are you sure about this?” she asked.
“Yes,” Esther said. Her voice suddenly took on a hard, low timbre. “I will not carry that bastard's child.” Her next confession was softer. “And I am no one to be a mother.”
Laurie looked back at Esther. “I think you're being very hard on yourself.”
“If you knew me, Laurie, you would not think so.”
Laurie patted Esther's knee. “Well, whatever you decide to do, we're with you.”
Esther managed a smile. “Bat-Ami,” she said, “you are a lucky girl.”
In reply, Angelique nodded and smiled. “Lunch?” she asked. “My treat?”
Laurie and Esther looked at each other. “She wants to buy?” Esther said. “We should take it.”
“Oh? Was she that big a tightwad when you knew her?”
“Oh, God.” Esther rolled her eyes. “From her hands, you have to pry a shekel.”
Laurie laughed. “She's not so bad now.”
Angelique glanced toward the back seat. “And your stomach, it is feeling better?”
Esther seemed surprised. She thought about it, then answered, “Yes. Yes, thanks. I feel much better. How odd.” Her eyes traveled from Angelique to Laurie. “It must be the company I'm keeping.”
David sat in his rented car just down the block from the front of Café Angel. He occasionally raised a monocular to his eye and scanned the bar-front, then the windows above the bar on the second story. He was about to leave and find some lunch when a little Renault pulled into the alleyway next to the bar. It stopped, and two women got out. He noted the license number. As the car entered a garage at the end of the alley, the two women walked to the front of the closed bar. He crouched down in his seat and held the monocular to his eye. The shorter of the two women, the one with red hair pulled back into a pony-tail, unlocked the bar's front door. The taller of the two, the one with short blonde hair, followed. He suspected, from file photographs, that she was Esther. He did not recognize the redhead. Could that be the legendary Angel? He did not know. But he would find out that evening, when the bar was open.
His attention was diverted by the garage door closing at the end of the alleyway. Then who, he wondered, drove the car? He did not see anyone leave the garage. There was a third person, an unknown. Probably no one of importance, he decided. He would concentrate on the blonde and the redhead. He turned his cell phone on and made a call in Hebrew.
“It's David, sir. I'm in Paris, in front of the café. Send me the most recent picture that you have of the operative known as ‘Esther', please. And I'll send you the number of a Paris license plate.” He listened for a confirmation, then hung up. He returned his gaze to the bar. The shades over the window were not pulled up, and the sign saying ‘closed' was not taken down. He checked the hours listed in the window with his monocular. Six o'clock. He would return that evening. In the meantime, he would find something to eat.
After his lunch, David found that he was not tired. He decided to return to the Rue d'Espoir and take another look at the café. He found it, and he found a parking spot on the street very nearby. He turned off his car, slid down in the seat a little, and scanned the front of the bar. When he viewed the balcony above the bar, he started in surprise. Three women were seated on wrought-iron furniture on the balcony. He could see the faces of all three, and he puzzled. There was the blonde and the redhead, but who was the third one? The one with the light brown hair streaked with red? He did not know. He turned on his camera and pointed the telephoto lens toward the balcony. He watched, and he took several photos when he could clearly see a face. It was time to return to the hotel. He would e-mail the photos to Tel Aviv. Perhaps they could provide an identity for the third woman. He thrust his sunglasses onto his face, started the car, and drove down the road past the café. He would be back after he had more information.
On the balcony, Laurie, Angelique, and Esther had fallen into an easy silence as they enjoyed the afternoon sun and a bottle of wine. They were relaxed on wrought-iron furniture, their feet propped on the knee-high table in front of them. They watched a car accelerate past the front of the café, beneath their balcony, and Esther smiled. After a moment, she said, “He was parked there for some time.”
“Twenty-three minutes,” was all Angelique said. “And that reminds me; Maurie wishes to talk to you.”
“Give him a chance. I trust him.”
Esther thought about it. “All right. For you, Angel. Tell him to meet me tonight, in the bar.”
“In the meantime, I need a disguise. I recall that you hate to shop.” She looked at Laurie. “Do you like to shop?”
“Oh, yeah,” Laurie said. “What did you have in mind?”
Esther smiled. “Something very different from my look now.”
“I know just the street, and I've got a motor-scooter.”
“Then we should go now, before he comes back.” Esther looked over at Angelique. “May I borrow your lover for a little while?”
Angelique's answer was a wry little smile. “For shopping? Yes.”
They rose. Laurie kissed Angelique as she passed by her chair. “Thanks, Angel.”
Esther placed a kiss on Angelique's forehead as she followed Laurie into the apartment. “Yes. Thank you, Angel.” She paused at the door. “And I promise, for shopping only.” She switched to Hebrew and said, “I will bring her back with her virtue intact.”
Angelique smiled at the teasing. When the balcony door slid shut, though, she descended into a reflective mood. She thought back in time, and she remembered. For a moment, the scene beneath the balcony was not Paris; it was crowded, narrow, alive, filled with voices in Arabic and Hebrew and English and the smells of food and automobile exhaust and the hot breath of a Jerusalem summer. She could feel the heat on her skin, the sweat on her body. And she could remember Esther's touch, her bright laughter, her long blonde hair released from the tight military bun on the back of her head as her hair flowed around her shoulders and hung beside her face. Esther, in a tee-shirt and shorts, would sit on the roof-top with her and watch the crowded mass of Jerusalem pass them by. And they would talk of love and futures and dreams and joys, and Esther would take her hand and interlace her lovely, slender fingers with Angelique's. And she remembered, most of all, the affection in Esther's voice.
“Why don't you play the piano and sing for me more? I so love to hear you.”
“I am a soldier now, not a musician.”
“Nonsense. You're a poet, Bat-Ami. You'll never be happy if you don't keep up your music. It's in your soul, you know.” She leaned her head against Angelique's shoulder. “And I just want you to be happy.”
“I am happy now.”
“No. You're happy at the moment because you just got three stripes on your uniform sleeve, and you have me and I adore you, but you're not content because you don't have your music.” She squeezed Angelique's hand. “Isn't that true?”
“My music, it died with my sister.”
Esther sighed. “You'll get it back. Your sister, wouldn't she want you to?”
Angelique started as a different scene flashed through her mind: a scene of a shattered street-corner in Jerusalem, of a burning bus, of bodies and parts of bodies scattered about; of weeping, screaming voices, of acrid smoke and shards of broken glass and sirens and a ringing in her ears and cuts on her body; and of her sister, bloodied and dying in her arms. Of her sister's wide eyes, staring up at her in amazement, in a desperate attempt to comprehend what had just happened to her; and of her sister's final, ragged breath, just before the light in her hazel eyes dimmed and finally extinguished. And that was the moment in which Angelique put aside her music and went to war. And it was not until years later that she returned to her music. And it was not until Laurie that she finally put aside the instruments of war and left the dark, violent path which Esther still tread.
She finally felt at peace. It was a good feeling, a contentment unlike any other that she had known. And it was a horrid, bloody, twisted road which finally brought her to that peace after it almost killed her. Now, Esther was on that same road, but she was exhausted, wounded, in despair and lost. Angelique would pick her up, dress her wounds, and show her the path to her own peace. It had to be so. Or Esther, she knew, would soon be dead. If not by her own hand, then by someone else's. Perhaps even someone in Mossad.
She opened her cell phone and dialed a number. “Maurie,” she said, “come to the bar tonight. Esther will be there, and she will hear what you have to say.”
“Thank you, Angel.”
“No. Thank you, Maurie.”
“Wow, Esther. Angel's not gonna recognize you.”
“No one will. That's the idea.”
“You have an eye for this. You do this kind of thing all the time?”
Esther smiled. “It is a helpful skill to have, in my work.”
Laurie raised an eyebrow. “Yeah, I guess so.” She watched Esther pay the store's clerk and pick up her shopping bag. “You ready?”
“Wait, one more thing.” She smiled, a painful little smile. “I am your guest. I should get you and Angel a present.”
“You don't have to,” Laurie said.
“No, I insist.” She looked around, then pointed across the street. “There, that shop. Besides, I need something else.”
They left the store and walked across the busy, cobbled street to another, smaller shop. When they entered, Laurie laughed. “Esther,” she said, “you're turning out to be a surprise a minute.”
Esther looked at Laurie. “That's good, right?”
“Oh, yeah. I think so.”
Esther's eyes warmed. “I'm glad you think so. Come, let's shop.”
About seven o'clock that evening, David parked his car a couple of blocks away from Rue d'Espoir and began walking. He walked leisurely, taking pleasure in the shops and buildings, the narrow alleyways and cobbled streets of the Latin Quarter. It was a fascinating place, a place alive with humanity and prosperity. No wonder Angelique chose to settle here. Here, she could hide in plain sight, safe from her enemies' revenge.
He found Rue d'Espoir and walked a block up the street to Café Angel. Lights were on, the shades were up, and people were inside. He opened the door, and a little bell on the top of the door tinkled as he entered. A few people cast disinterested glances at him, then returned to their conversations and drinks.
He looked around, then chose a seat at the bar where he could see most of the interior. In a few minutes, he was sipping coffee, studying the people in the bar. Professionals, college students, older people with a settled, tired air about them and young people full of energy and optimism, it was an interesting mix of humanity. And when a ragged applause broke out, he looked around. The woman he'd seen earlier, the one with the light brown and red-streaked, shaggy hair, took her place behind the piano, pulled the microphone to her face, and said some pleasant words in French. She struck some chords on the piano, and then, she began to sing.
Her voice was husky, melodious, lilting. A charming voice, and just enough piano to complement the singing, not overwhelm it. She was, he decided, very good. And she seemed happy to be there, lost in the moment of the song.
A particular face caught David's eye, and he studied that face. It was a bar-girl, one of the servers. Red hair in a pony-tail, some hair loose over her face, she hustled from bar to table and booth, chatting with her customers. He was close enough to hear her voice. Her French did not have that unique French peculiarity about it; she must be foreign. Is she Israeli? And is that really the legendary Angel of Mossad, waiting tables in a French bar? He would find out. He would see which tables and booths were hers, and sit at one of them.
He lifted the phone from his pocket and pretended to be reading the screen. In reality, he took several pictures of her, and of the bar's interior. Then, he turned back to his coffee. A moment later, he felt someone slide onto the stool next to his, and he glanced up and raised an eyebrow in surprise.
A young lady had seated herself next to him and was acquiring a whiskey from the bartender. He took a moment to study her and decided that she was probably a ‘coo-coo's nest', as his mother would have said. Black, punky hair, a lip ring and a little nose-ring, a black tank-top and baggy cargo pants, bracelets and a funky necklace, and a visible tattoo on her neck; she was not a woman to take home to mother. But, he decided, she might be a woman to know for an evening. He smiled at her. In return, she said something in French as she held up an unlit cigarette.
“I'm sorry. English?” he said.
“ Ja , I speak English. Do you have a light for my cigarette?”
“I don't smoke.”
“A pity,” she said, as she cast a laughing glance his way. “Everyone should have a bad habit or two, nicht wahr ?”
He found himself laughing at that. In reply, her bright blue eyes laughed back at him. “I suppose it makes them more interesting,” he said.
“In that case, you should find me extremely interesting.” She looked him up and down. “You look entirely too serious. Let me guess. You're a lawyer.”
“Hm.” She studied him. “All right. I have it. You're a government bureaucrat.”
He shrugged. “In a manner of speaking, I suppose.”
“Ah. But not French. And not English. Canadian? American? On vacation, and seeing some local sights in the French Quarter of Paris? How do you say? Hanging with the locals?”
“Something like that.”
Maurice held a lit lighter across the bar to the girl, and she leaned forward and lit her cigarette from it. “ Merci ,” she said to the bartender, then returned her attention to David. “Coffee?” she said.
“You're on vacation in France, and you're not drinking the wine? That is just very wrong.”
“I like coffee.”
“I like everything,” the girl said. “Whiskey. Coffee. Wine. Women. Men.” Those squinted, laughing blue eyes caught him again, and he found himself fascinated by them. “So,” she said. “Do you like what you see?”
He felt a little blush creep up his neck at her forthright question, but he found that he enjoyed this game. “Yes, I do,” he said. “Are you alone here?”
“I'm waiting for someone.”
David smiled. “Me?”
She smiled back at him. “No,” she said. “My how-do-you-say? Sugar daddy.”
“Oh. He's rich, huh?”
She cast him that laughing glance again. “He's rich enough to afford me.”
“Well,” David said, “whatever you cost, I'm sure that you're worth it.”
Her blue eyes twinkled. “That's sweet. Thank you, American. Or is it Canadian?”
She studied him, then nodded, a short little nod, almost as if he'd just confirmed a private suspicion of hers. In the background, the door-bell tinkled, and a man in middle age, tanned and looking fit beneath a short-sleeved shirt, entered and took a booth. She indicated him with a gesture. “That's him, now.”
“Like I say, I have many bad habits. He is one. See you around, Israeli.”
“David. My name is David.”
“Ah.” She held out her hand as she slid off the stool. “Trudi.”
He shook it. “Pleased. You're German, right?”
She cocked her head and considered him for a second. Then, she nodded. “ Ja. You're good.” With that, she left him and approached the booth where Maurie had taken a seat.
She slid into the booth, and Maurie looked up. A slow grin spread across his face as he sized up his visitor. Then, he said, “Esther, I presume.”
“Maurie, I suspect.”
“Your file photo makes you look far too conservative. I like this look better.”
“I'm so glad,” Esther said. “And you, too. You seem like a man who's content with the world.” She appraised him through squinted eyes. “Let me guess. Recent vacation to a warm and sunny place?”
“With a new girlfriend? A younger woman.”
“You're good.” He clapped his hands. “Bravo!”
“Thank you.” She smiled; then, her expression became serious. “Angel said that you could help me. Can you?”
“That depends on what you want.”
She leaned forward and fixed him with a deadly serious look. Her voice became very soft. “I want out. I've had enough, Maurie. I can't do this anymore. I'm at my wit's end.”
“You aren't the first,” he said. “I understand more than you might think.” Laurie appeared at the table, took Maurie's order, and disappeared. Maurie returned his attention to Esther. “But there's the little problem of that unauthorized kill you made in Israel.”
“He was a bastard. It was self-defense.”
“Or vengeance?” Maurie said.
She shrugged. “Perhaps there was that, too.”
Laurie placed a glass of cognac on the table in front of Maurie. He smiled his thanks, and she hustled away. Then, he sighed. “We have to be careful. If Tel Aviv knows that you're in Paris, I may be ordered to apprehend you.”
“In that case, one of us will die.”
“Esther,” he said. “Let Angel and I intervene for you. You just hide for now. And I don't want to know where you're staying. I'll get in touch with you through Angel.”
Esther softened. “Angel believes in you.”
“And I know what you were to each other, once. I will do all that I can.”
“Thank you, Maurie. You're a good soul, I can see it.”
“I'm glad someone can,” he joked. “And you've got an admirer, I think.”
The barest trace of a smile crossed her face. “That young fellow at the bar, checking his phone?”
“He's not checking his phone. He's taking pictures of us.”
Maurie nodded. “I suspected as much. Did he recognize you?”
“I don't know. Perhaps not. Did he recognize you?”
“I'm not sure, but we need to get that phone.”
She grinned. “I can do that. Do you have a car?”
“Follow us and bring me home afterward. I'll take care of it.”
Maurie drained his cognac, dropped a ten-Euro note on the table and started to rise. Esther said, “Kiss me.”
“I told him that you're my sugar daddy. Kiss me before you go.”
“Ah.” He leaned across the table. She raised her face to him, and he placed a soft kiss on her lips. As they parted, she whispered, “My name is Trudi.”
He smiled. As he left the table, he said, “Until tomorrow, Trudi.”
She smiled at him as she watched him leave the bar. Then, she rose and took the stool next to David, cigarette and whiskey glass in hand. “He has to work tonight.”
“What does he do?” David asked.
“He won't tell me.”
“And you don't ask?”
Esther looked at him. “Would you?”
“I suppose not.” They considered each other in silence for a moment. “So, what happens now?”
“Now?” Esther said. “Now, this is where you ask me if I want to go home with you.”
David blinked at the forthright question. Then, a slow smile formed on his face. “Do you?” he asked.
She leaned forward, placed her elbow on the bar, and rested her chin in her hand. “Do I what?” she countered.
“Do you want to go home with me?”
She studied him for a silent moment. Then, she nodded. “Your place, not mine.”
“Fair enough. Shall we go, ah – Trudi?”
“Yes. Ah – David.”
“What's in a name, anyway?” he asked.
“My feeling, exactly,” she replied. They stood, and David fished money from his pocket and handed it to the bartender. Then, Esther looped her arm through his, and they left Café Angel.
Angelique had just finished playing a piece, and felt her cell phone ring. She turned off the microphone near her face and placed the phone to her ear. “‘Allo?”
“Angel, it's Maurie. Esther's going to be in late tonight. She's working.”
Angelique raised an eyebrow in surprise. “She's not working on you, is she? Laurie will be very angry with you.”
“What? No, you misunderstand. There was a Mossad agent in your bar this evening, looking over the place, and us. She's taking care of him now.”
“What the hell is she doing?”
“She's going to sabotage his surveillance. Wipe his phone clean.”
“Where is she now?”
“His hotel room.”
Angelique was silent for a moment. Then, she merely said, “I see.”
“I'll bring her home to your place, Angel.”
“Thank you, Maurie. Please keep her safe.” Then, she hung up. She sat there for a moment, lost in thought. Then, she sighed, pulled the microphone close to her face, and turned it on. Her hands found the piano's keys, a familiar, reassuring feel. Her fingers traced out chords on the keyboard, soft, plaintive music, and then she began singing. Lili Marlene the song was, an old song from the last great war, about a girl who promised to love a soldier. And then, while he was dying at the front, she would make promises of love to another. She wondered why she had chosen that song; then, she reminded herself that it was Maurice's favorite song. That was why. Of course it was.
No. She knew the real reason. And she indulged herself in the song because she found that it fit her mood at the moment. A girl who promised to love a soldier. It was an old story, and one that seldom worked out well. That was a truth that she had learned long ago, in Jerusalem.
Angelique, Maurice, Laurie, Emma, and the two other servers hustled to and fro, cleaning and putting in order the bar. It had closed, and they were anxious to go home. In short order, they had it put right, and Laurie let everyone out of the front door, then locked it. She turned and saw Angelique ascend the back stairs to their apartment, then enter the door at the top.
“Jeez,” Laurie said. “Thanks for waiting for me.”
Laurie turned off the lights and climbed the stairs. By the time she'd entered their apartment, she saw Angelique sitting on the balcony, a glass of wine in one hand and a cigarette in the other. That was not good, in her view. Angelique did not smoke except when she was in deep thought about something, or worried or upset. By her body language, Laurie guessed that she was all three. She kicked off her shoes and opened the balcony sliding door. “Angel?” she said.
Angelique looked up. “Oh. Come, sit with me.”
Laurie's hand rested on Angelique's shoulder. “Would you rather be alone?”
“No, no. Please.” She indicated a chair.
Laurie sat and studied her lover intently for a moment, then asked, “Where's Esther?”
“Working?” Laurie cast a puzzled look at Angelique. “Doing what, exactly? I saw her meet with Maurie, then five minutes later, she was heading out the door with some guy, arm in arm.”
“And what was that with Maurie? I saw him kiss her. He's supposed to be crazy in love with my sister, and he's kissing Esther?”
“That young man she left with was Mossad. He was there doing surveillance on our bar. That kiss was probably for his benefit.”
“How do you know?”
“I can tell. Did you see him constantly look at his phone?”
“He was taking pictures with it. He will undoubtedly send them to Tel Aviv for analysis. They will identify me and Maurie, and probably you, too. And perhaps Esther.”
Laurie thought about that, then asked, “So, what do we do?”
“Us? Nothing. Esther will deal with it.”
“She will get his phone and erase his pictures. Or steal the phone and throw it into the Seine.”
“Jeez. So, how's she gonna get his phone?” Laurie watched Angelique's silence. “Or do I wanna know?”
“She is at his hotel room right now.”
“Oh. Enough said there, I guess.” Laurie studied Angelique. “And you're worried sick about her, aren't you?”
“Sure you are. Your old flame is out there in a hotel with some guy she just met, and you're sitting here, all tied in knots. Angel, are you still in love with her?” Laurie was surprised to have heard those words come from her own mouth; it was as if someone else had asked them. She hadn't thought about it. She'd just said it.
In reply, Angelique looked at her. “It is not what you think. I am concerned for her. She plays a very dangerous game.”
“No kidding.” Laurie leaned forward and rested her elbows on her thighs. She locked eyes with Angelique. “And in case you hadn't noticed, she's not wrapped real tight.” Laurie tapped the side of her head. “Up here. I mean, I like her, Angel. She's bright and fun and sweet and kooky one minute, but then it's like somebody throws a switch and she's all doom and gloom and out of control the next minute.”
“You are frightened of her?”
“I'm afraid for us. What if she decides that she wants you back? I mean, she's a trained assassin, and she's also seriously nuts.” Laurie's voice became softer, more hesitant. “And she's also a lot hotter than I am. I mean, I can see why you fell for her. Maybe you will again.”
“Laurie, please do not think this way.”
Laurie's voice raised. “How am I supposed to think? A major blast from your past shows up, turns out to be nuts and a professional killer and seriously hot, moves in with us, and I'm supposed to be tickled pink about it? How would you feel if you were me?”
“Not good, I must say.”
“Okay, then. Do you see my point?”
“Yes. I also cannot abandon her.”
“Yeah. Okay. I can see your predicament, Angel. She's a friend, a Mossad associate, and she needs your help. And I'm busting your ass about it right now. Pretty selfish of me, huh?”
“What would you have me do?”
Laurie thought about it, then said, “Okay. Here it is. She has to wait a week to get that abortion, right?”
“It is French law.”
“Right. So, you and Maurie have a week to talk to Mossad and let them clean up their mess with her. She stays a few more days and recovers from the abortion, and then she's outta here. Agreed?”
Angelique studied Laurie with an enigmatic expression, then nodded. “It is a good plan.”
“I'm glad you agree.” Laurie rose. She seemed, to Angelique, tired. “I'm taking a shower and going to bed.”
“I will be there in a little bit.”
Laurie paused in the doorway. She looked back at Angelique. How would Angelique react, were the roles reversed? And were her concerns legitimate, or was this just ‘the green-eyed monster', jealousy, raising its head?
“I just don't want anything to mess us up. You're the best thing that ever happened to me, and I don't want to lose you.”
Angelique stood and came to the door. She traced her fingers down Laurie's cheek, met her worried gaze, and smiled. Her arm crooked around Laurie's waist, pulled Laurie against her slowly, gently, and Laurie yielded. She placed her hands on Angelique's shoulders and looked up, looked into those hazel eyes.
“Laurie, I love you. You and I, we are one. Nothing will separate us.” Angelique's hand brushed hair back from Laurie's face. The touch was feather-light, warm. “Do you believe this?”
“Damn, Angel. When you look at me like that and touch me like that, you could tell me that the earth was flat and the moon was cheese, and I'd believe you.”
“Let us shower and go to bed, yes?”
“Oh, yeah. Maybe later, we can even sleep.”
Esther lay in the darkness, listening to David's breathing. It was regular, rhythmic. He was asleep, in deep sleep. It was time.
She rose, picked up his phone from the table, and entered the bathroom. As she sat on the toilet, she scrolled through his telephone menu, seeking out pictures. Those, she quickly found, and she erased them, one after another. Then, she read some texts. Nothing to concern her. She erased all his texts, all his e-mails, everything but his phone book. Those numbers, she glanced over. Most were in Israel. She flushed the toilet, eased the bathroom door open, and allowed the ribbon of light to guide her to her clothes. Quickly, quietly, she dressed. She slipped the strap of her leather purse over her head and across her body, picked up her shoes and socks, and cast one parting glance at David. Then, she eased out of the hotel room's door, padded down the hall, and found a settee at the end of the hall. She pulled a cheap, prepaid cell phone from her purse and called a number. Maurie answered.
“Are you ready for a ride home?” he asked.
“Understood.” She clicked off the phone, and pulled on her socks and shoes. Then, she rose and headed down the elevator to the lobby. When she got there, she ducked into the bathroom, staggered into the first stall, and vomited. Then, she rinsed her mouth and made her way out of the hotel, where she saw Maurie's car waiting with the engine running and the lights on.
As they drove through the late-night Paris streets, Maurie looked over at her. She was sitting quietly, lost, it seemed. “So, did you find it?”
“Yes. He's what we thought. I took care of his photos.”
“You didn't hurt him, did you? Did you drug him?”
“No. He was sleeping soundly when I left.” She glanced over at him, and she uttered a cynical little laugh. “The best way to get a man to sleep is a good shagging.”
“Even a bad shagging will do,” Maurie joked.
She smiled at that. “You're okay, Maurie. I like you.”
“I like you too, but you play a dangerous game.”
She looked out the window, and she watched Paris go by. “I know. But I can't seem to help it, anymore.”
Laurie was pressed against Angelique's body, lying half-atop her. Angelique's arms held her, and the fingers of one hand traced their way lazily down the skin of Laurie's thigh. Laurie's head rested on Angelique's chest, and she listened to the heartbeat within. Slow, rhythmic, it lulled her, made her feel warm and protected and loved. As much as she relished making love with Angelique, she relished the aftermath, the silent companionship, too. At these times, she ached in delight at the touch of skin against skin, the sound of soft breathing, the vibration of a whispered thought in the darkness, the leisurely touch of lips against lips and the slow, languorous kisses. She wanted to will herself to melt into Angelique, to become part of her, to never allow that moment, that touch, to end. This, she thought, was love. Love as the poets sang of it. The more she fed on it, the more she wanted it. No wonder it moved mountains and shattered kingdoms. And no wonder its companion emotion, jealousy, was so strong. Perhaps, if she knew more... She pressed herself even more firmly against the warm softness beneath her.
“You never told me about you and Esther. How long were you together?”
“Perhaps two years.”
“And you were happy?”
For a moment, Angelique was silent. Then, she said, “I died. And she went on.”
“I'm not sure I understand.”
“No more, now. It is long over.” Angelique's arms tightened around Laurie. “Shh. Just be with me now, Laurie. I love you.”
“I love you, too. And I'm with you for as long as you'll have me.”
“Then you stay forever.”
Laurie smiled. “Um. Forever. I like the sound of that.”
Angelique's cell phone rang. She groped for it in the darkness, then held it to her ear. “‘Allo? Oh, it's you. Yes. I be there in a moment.” She placed the phone down on the table and untangled herself from Laurie, who groaned in protest and watched as Angelique pulled on some clothing, lifted the pistol from her bedside table, and walked out of the bedroom. Laurie sat up in bed. She slid from the covers, pulled on a tank top and some jeans, and followed.
Angelique peeked through a crack in the front door, then opened it. Esther walked in, plopped down on the couch, and pulled off her shoes. Then, she pulled the wig of punky black hair from her head and ran her fingers through her blonde hair. “Thank you,” she muttered.
Angelique sat across from her. “Did you have success?”
“Yes. He was Mossad. His phone was full of pictures of the bar. Of me. Of Maurie. Of you.” She looked up. “And quite a few of Laurie.”
Laurie sat down near Esther. “Me? Why me?”
“He found you interesting, I suppose.”
“He wanted your identity,” Angelique said. “And Mossad would have told him who you are.”
“Mossad knows who I am?” At nods from Angelique and Esther, Laurie huffed. “Well, hell. Of course they do. They're Mossad.” She puzzled over that, then said, “Now what?”
“Now,” Esther said, “I want a whiskey, a hot shower, and sleep. I feel very, very dirty.”
“I suppose you do,” Angelique said. Her voice seemed soft, sad. She rose, picked up her pistol from the table, headed into the bedroom, and shut the door behind her.
Esther watched her leave, and Laurie noted the expression on Esther's face. It tugged at her sympathy, even as it poked at her jealousy. “You really loved her, didn't you?” Laurie asked, after the bedroom door closed. Esther didn't answer in words, but in those blue eyes, Laurie could see the answer. “Yeah,” Laurie said. “I thought so.” And you still do, she thought, as she rose from the couch. “You look like you need somebody to talk to. You want that drink?” At Esther's nod, she poured two whiskeys and returned to the couch. She watched Esther gulp the drink, then she placed hers aside and turned to her. She placed a hand on Esther's arm. “Esther?”
“Yes?” She studied Laurie's face with those tired blue eyes.
“I've got something to say, and I'm only gonna say it once, so you listen, right?”
Esther turned toward Laurie. “Yes?”
“Angel's the best thing that ever happened to me,” she said. “We've got a great thing here. Don't do anything to mess that up, ‘cause I really love her, and it would kill me.”
Esther studied Laurie for a moment, then smiled a pained little smile. “Never,” she said. “I can see now that it was a mistake to come here. I'm sorry. I never intended... I didn't know...”
“You didn't know about me, did you?”
“There's something else you probably don't know. Maurie's involved with my sister.”
Esther's blue eyes watered. “You must think me a horrid person. Do you think that I can just have anyone I want, like that?”
“Yeah, I do.” Laurie shrugged. She looked at Esther, felt herself fascinated at those sea-blue eyes, so close to her own face. “I mean, you're really hot, and you've got this way about you. You're incredibly...I don't know. Alluring. Yeah. That's it. Like they say in Kansas, you're very... doable .” At Esther's little smile and laugh, she said, “I thought you could use a compliment right about now. It must have worked. You're smiling.”
They fell silent. Their eyes locked, and they sat together, Laurie's hand on Esther's arm. Esther's hand touched Laurie's cheek, cupped her cheek in her palm, and Esther smiled at her, a sad, tender smile. The next thing Laurie knew, she and Esther were kissing, a tender, explorative kiss which began to grow passionate, deeper. Laurie's mind screamed a frantic warning at her, even as she felt her body respond to Esther's touch. She broke away, huffed, and sputtered a few incoherent syllables before she finally managed to whisper, “What the ... what was that all about?”
“It was simply the moment happening, Laurie.”
“Yeah, well. Damn, girl. You sure can kiss, but that moment better not happen again.”
Esther's eyes expressed confusion. “You wanted me. I could feel it.”
“Shh!” She lowered her voice to a whisper as she rose and stood over Esther. “It didn't happen. That never happened.” Laurie's eyes drilled into Esther's, and Laurie's finger wagged in Esther's face. “Understood?”
“Are you angry with me, or with yourself?” Esther asked.
“Me, I guess. Damn, why'd you have to do that?”
Esther rested her head in her hands. She sniffed, and wiped at her eyes. “I'm... I'm sorry. I thought you wanted it... I seem... to harm everyone... that I touch.”
“Then stop. Angel was right. You play a dangerous game.” Laurie walked a few paces away, pulled a clean towel from a kitchen drawer, and handed it to Esther. She sat next to her again, but a couple of feet away from her, and watched Esther wipe her face with the towel.
“Do you hate me so much?” she asked.
“I don't hate you, Esther. I really do like you. I'm just not sure I trust you, that's all. You're unpredictable as hell.”
“I'm going insane, you know.”
“It's your job that's making you crazy. You need a new life. A new start. That's why you came here, wasn't it?”
“You're right, of course.”
“Look, Esther. Angel and Maurie and I will do everything we can to help you. You know that, right?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
“Just do me one favor: keep that libido of yours locked up when you're around us, will ya? I mean, Jeez! That thing's a deadly weapon, girl.”
Esther, through her tears, laughed. “I promise.”
“Good. Now take a shower and get some sleep. Things will look better tomorrow. We'll see you in the morning.” She patted Esther's shoulder, then walked to the bedroom door and opened it. Just before she entered, she looked at Esther for a long, silent moment. Then, she disappeared into the darkness of the bedroom and closed the door very quietly.
The Israeli Embassy, Paris, France.
A young woman stuck her head into Maurie's office. “Someone from Tel Aviv is here to see you,” she said.
“Right on time. Send him in.” Maurie smiled. He had guessed that he would receive a visit that morning, and he knew from whom. He was not disappointed.
David walked into his office, and stopped short. His jaw dropped, and his eyes widened a little, much to Maurie's amusement. Maurie rose and offered him his hand. “I'm Maurie, section chief here in Paris,” he said. “You must be David Aranoff.”
“Yes, sir. Ah, forgive my reaction. You look familiar to me.”
“I should. I was in the same bar that you were last evening.” He grinned, a jaunty grin. “Sit, and we'll talk. Coffee?”
“Oh, have some coffee. You look like you kept a late night. Paris will do that to you.” He poured two cups of coffee, and placed one in front of David. “Cream? Sugar?”
“No, sir. Thank you.”
“Relax. Call me Maurie. Now, what's on your mind?”
“I'm here from Tel Aviv, looking for a missing agent. I need your help.”
“Tell me.” Maurie motioned with a hand to encourage him to keep talking.
“An operative from the assassination section, known only as ‘Esther'. She disappeared. We think she might be here, in Paris.”
“Oh? Why would she disappear?”
“She made an unauthorized kill in Israel. She may be afraid to come home.”
Maurie sighed, then leaned back and crossed his feet on the edge of his desk. “Have you had much field experience, David?”
The admission was soft. “Not a lot.”
“I have. I've been in that section. Do you know how long the average career of a Mossad assassin is?” David shook his head, and Maurie said, “About three years, at the most. Do you know why?”
“I suspect that they become identified.”
“That's one concern. But the principle reason is that they either make a mistake and get killed, or they suffer a mental and emotional breakdown. They become unstable. Some have committed suicide. Some have been institutionalized. Some were able to return to a fairly normal life. They were the lucky ones.”
“Why does this happen?”
Maurie sipped his coffee as he thought. Then, he said, “It's a tangled, desperate life they lead, full of deceit and danger. They have no friends. They constantly move in a shadowy world. One error, they can be dead. And killing someone with premeditation like that, with deliberate, cold planning, works on the human psyche. To plan every step of a person's death, to pull the trigger on someone as you look them in the eyes, it's brutal. The stress is too much. They snap.”
“And you think this ‘Esther' has snapped?”
“I think so. Tell me, what makes you think she's here?”
“I have information that she has an old friend here.”
“So you were in the bar last evening looking for Esther?”
“Did you find her?”
“Perhaps. I took some pictures for analysis.” He shrugged. “I have never met her personally.”
“I see. I would love to see those pictures.”
“Of course.” He pulled his cell phone from his pocket and began scrolling through the menus. Maurie smiled as he watched David's expression change from confident to puzzled, then to frustrated. He looked up. “I don't understand it. Something's happened to my phone. It's wiped clean. Everything's gone.”
Maurie leaned back in his chair and roared with laughter, and David grew red in the face. “I don't see what's so funny about it,” David said.
Maurie wiped his eyes as his laughter declined into the occasional snicker. “David,” he said, “think about it. What did you do after I left that bar last evening?”
“Let me tell you,” Maurie said. “You hooked up with some freaky-looking German chick named Trudi, took her back to your hotel, and she shagged you silly. Then, while you slept like a baby, she wiped your phone clean and left.”
David's expression was one of absolute shock. Slowly, realization washed over him, and he wilted. “That was Esther?”
“Perhaps. Or perhaps it was a friend of Esther's, there to protect her.”
David looked up. “Bat-Ami?”
Maurie grew solemn. “Bat-Ami's dead. Perhaps it was one of my people.”
“You're protecting Esther? Why?”
Maurie leaned forward. “Look, David. I've been in the field for a long time. Things are done differently out here, because when you're out here, things look very different from how it might look from a high-rise office window in Tel Aviv. And people who've spent time in the field are very protective of each other.” He tapped his chest. “Let me handle Esther.”
“So she is here?”
“I didn't say that.”
“I'm required to find her, you know.”
“Dead end. Your leads are false. Go home.”
“I can't do that. The Old Man wants her found. He seems to think she's here.”
“Trust me, if Esther doesn't want to be found, she won't be found. She's a trained, experienced agent. She's a whisper of wind, a master of disguise.” Maurie raised an eyebrow. “Last night should have proved that to you.”
“Then that was Esther!”
“I'm not saying.”
“I'll have to report this to Tel Aviv.”
“Do what you must. I'd love to hear the Old Man's reply when you tell him that Esther, disguised as some punk German girl named Trudi, played you for a fool and erased your surveillance.”
“How about when I report that the Mossad section chief in Paris is protecting Esther? Perhaps even having an affair with her?”
“And Bat-Ami? ‘The Angel of Mossad'? The world thinks she's dead. I know differently, and I think you do, too. If it were to hit the newspapers in Israel that she's still alive...”
Maurie's back stiffened. “Don't even go there.”
David leaned forward. “Then help me catch Esther.”
“I can't do that.” Maurie ran a hand through his graying hair, then sat back in his chair. “Look, David. You're a decent sort. A little gung-ho, but a decent sort. Do yourself a favor. Report that there's nothing to see here. Forget about Esther. And forget about Angelique Bat-Ami. She's dead. Look, you're in Paris. Go and take in the sights before you fly back to Tel Aviv.” He flashed a jaunty grin. “And your fling with ‘Trudi' is our little secret. The Old Man will never know. Paris is like Las Vegas. What happens here, stays here.”
“I've never failed on a mission before.”
“You just have. Learn to live with it. We all have failures.”
“I will find Esther. And if you won't help, I'll see you demoted.”
Maurie smiled. “Don't start a dog-fight on my turf, David. You'll lose. Go home. And give my regards to the Old Man when you speak with him next.”
David stood. “So that's it, then?”
“That's it.” Maurie rose, showed him to the door, and offered his hand. David did not take it. He left, striding down the hall. Maurie watched him, then returned to his desk. “I suppose I'd better make a pre-emptive telephone call,” he said aloud, and sat down. He lifted his receiver and said, “Get me Tel Aviv. I want to speak with the Old Man on a secure line.” Then, he sat back and waited. Beneath his practiced, devil-may-care exterior, though, an aura of worry began to radiate.
Angelique came in from the balcony. “He is out there,” she said.
“It doesn't matter,” Esther said. “I've got nowhere to go.”
“Perhaps you should think of someplace. I just got a call from Maurie. David was in his office this morning.”
Esther paled. “What did he want?”
“Help to bring you in. Maurie refused him.”
“Oh, my God. David will call Tel Aviv. Go over Maurie's head.”
“I am certain that he already has called.”
Angelique shrugged. “We shall see. But I think that you should pack your bag. Be ready to go in a moment.”
“Yes, of course.” She rose from the couch and headed to her bedroom.
Laurie looked at Angelique. “And Maurie?”
“We will how-do-you-say? Play it by ear?”
“Nice. Somehow, I'm not getting a good feeling about all this.”
A young lady stuck her head into Maurie's office. “Tel Aviv for you, line three secure.” She cast him a warning glance. “It's the Old Man.”
Maurie shot her a rakish grin. “Thanks for the warning.” He breathed deeply to calm himself, then picked up the phone. “Maurie.”
“Ah, Maurie. How are you, these days?”
He could recognize the voice. The Old Man. “Good, sir. And you?”
“Not so good. I have worries.”
“What could be so bad,” Maurie asked, “that you have to worry?”
The Old Man laughed. “For sixty years now, we're one battle away from being overrun by our enemies, and you ask what could be so bad? Maurie, I think you've been in Paris for too long. The French have rubbed off on you. ‘Relax, have some wine,' you'll tell me. ‘Take an hour lunch at a sidewalk café. Look at the beautiful women. Life is good.'”
“Well, sir, life is good.”
“For a young fellow like you, perhaps. Not for an old Jew like me. My blood pressure is up. I worry too much. And do you know what it is that I worry about today?”
“It's that I have a rogue operative running around Europe. She's a trained and experienced assassin, she's undoubtedly armed, and she's not right in the head. She's disappeared. I think she's in Paris. So I send a man up there to find her, but he can't. Do you know anything about this?”
“Yes, sir. I've heard the rumors.”
The Old Man sighed. “Maurie, Maurie. We've known each other too long for games.”
“Right, sir. She's here. I met with her last evening. She's exhausted, burned out. She's at the end of her path. She needs to be retired, brought in from the field for good.”
“But she's also paranoid. Thinks that Mossad is after her for that unauthorized kill, and that she'll be made to disappear, or be put on trial and sent to prison.” When the Old Man did not answer right away, Maurie asked, “Is that a real possibility, sir?”
“Yes. It is. But that's a decision to be made by someone above me.”
Maurie felt his heart sink. The only person above the Old Man was the prime minister. A political decision. Hold up the finger, see which way the political wind blows, and perhaps sacrifice an operative who has given her life, her all, and even her sanity to Israel, just to satisfy the hounds of the opposition party. “I see.”
“Maurie, I want you to bring her in. Take custody of her, put her on a charter jet to Tel Aviv, and bring her to my office.”
It was Maurie's turn to be quiet. He thought about it, then replied, “With the deepest respect to you, sir, I can't do that.”
The Old Man sighed. “I assume this has to do with promises you have made? Personal loyalties that you have maintained over the years?”
“Of course. Always, I have known you as a man of integrity. So here is ‘Plan B'. I have your retirement request on my desk. It's granted, effective immediately. You're now officially retired, Maurie. Clean out your desk, and go enjoy your life. But before you do that, answer me one thing.”
“Do you have confidence in your assistant chief there, in Paris?”
“Ronstein? Yes, sir. He's a good man.”
“He's now appointed to replace you. Go get him and put him on the phone. I'll wait. And Maurie?”
“When you come to Tel Aviv to process out, let me know. You're invited to my house for dinner. I'd love to see you once more before you run off to some Greek island with your sailboat and your pretty American girlfriend.”
Maurie laughed. “How did you know about that?”
“I'm good at what I do.” The Old Man laughed, then said, “Now go and get your assistant chief, Maurie. At my age, I can't afford to be waiting all day.”
Maurie turned his car onto a Paris street and flipped open his cell phone. At a stop light, he dialed Angel's number. “Angel, it's Maurie. Get Esther the hell out of there, now. I've been relieved of my post. Aranoff is getting the help he wants from the Paris section. They're going to be all over your place in maybe half an hour. I can't stop it.”
“Understood.” That was all Angelique said. Maurie folded the phone and put it into his pocket, then wondered what his next move should be. After a moment, he made his decision. He turned his car toward the Latin Quarter, and Café Angel.
Angelique turned to Laurie and Esther. “It is happening. Get your bag. We get out of here, now.” Esther was gone in a flash, heading for her room. Angelique took Laurie by the arm and hustled her to the bedroom. “Dress. We are running. Comfortable shoes. Money. Your passport.”
“Angel, you're scaring me. What the hell is going on?”
“In perhaps half an hour, Mossad agents are going to be all over us.”
“He has been relieved. He can do nothing else for us.”
“Oh.” Laurie paled, but she forced herself into action and hustled about, getting herself ready.
In ten minutes, the three of them were gathered at the front door of the apartment. “David is outside, watching the front,” Esther said. “How do we get past him?”
Angelique smiled, a thin little smile. “We drive right past him.” She yanked the door open, and they scurried down the back stairs. Angelique locked the door, tapped a security code into the door keypad, then followed. When she reached the garage, she entered the back door, opened the garage door, and started her Renault car. She backed it down the alleyway and pulled it onto the street. Then, she stopped it next to David's car. She leaned out of the window and looked into his car. In it, he was hunkered down in the seat.
“‘Allo, David,” she said. She pointed at the second-floor apartment. “Trudi tells me to give you her love. I am going to market. Do you want anything? Yogurt? Fruit? A croissant? A drink?”
“No, thank you,” was the reply from within the rental car.
“Are you sure? She is paying for it.”
“No, thank you.”
“All right, then. Au revoir! ”
She blew him a kiss, laughed, and popped the clutch. The old Renault squealed away, leaving him sitting in the morning sun, stewing in frustration. For a minute, he thought about the exchange, then sat up, started his car, squealed it around on the narrow street, and followed, as he searched for his hand-held radio with his free hand. He found it, keyed it on, and held it to his mouth. “Esther's on the move. Red Renault car. I'm following now. Track my GPS signal.” He stopped at a stop sign, looked in three directions, and saw the car two blocks away. He stepped on the accelerator, spun the wheel, and gave chase.
In Angelique's car, Esther and Laurie sat up in the back seat. Esther looked out the back window. “Angel, slow down,” she said. “You might lose him.”
“Okay,” Laurie said, as she looked from Esther to Angelique. “What's the plan here, exactly?” She watched the two glance at each other and shrug in unison, and she rolled her eyes. “Great.”
“Here!” Esther said, as she pointed. “Find parking somewhere here. We go on foot. We need to shop.”
“Shop?” Laurie said. “Now?”
“Yes, yes.” Esther grinned at Laurie. “Just accept. It will be fun.”
Laurie huffed a lock of hair out of her face. “I think I heard that right before I lost my virginity.”
Angelique turned a corner, saw a parking lot, and squealed into a free space. As they bailed out, an attendant approached, and Esther peeled off a twenty-Euro note and handed it to him. He smiled, and the three women trotted across the lot, toward the nearby shops and cafes, and the crowds of shoppers and pedestrians on the picturesque street. “Down,” Angelique said, and they ducked between two cars as David's car slowed and turned the corner.
He pulled to a curb and glanced around, then caught sight of an older, boxy little Renault car in the parking. He turned into the lot and pulled up to the attendant. “Do you speak English?” he asked. The attendant shook his head. “ Deutsch ?” he asked.
“ Non ,” the attendant replied.
David huffed in frustration, then pulled twenty Euros from his pocket and held it up. “Do you speak this?” he asked.
“ Oh, très certainement! ”
“A woman? Ah, Une femme ?” He pointed at the red Renault.
“ Non, non .” The attendant shook his head sadly, then brightened. “ Trois femmes! ” He held up three fingers.
“What?” David shouted. “Three? Where? Ah...?” He pointed around.
“ Direction? ”
“ Oui . Yes, damn it.”
The attendant pointed toward the stores. “Thank you,” David said. “ Merci. ” He handed the attendant the money, then squealed away. He pulled around the corner, then began slowly cruising up the street that the attendant had indicated, as he held his radio to his face and talked.
Angelique, Esther, and Laurie ducked into a shop. The shop's clerk, a young woman, approached them and greeted them. Esther noted that Angelique was at the window, and her attention was fixed on David's passing car. She said to Laurie, “You translate for me?”
“I speak English,” the shop clerk said.
“Oh, good. Thank you. Ah, we – ” She indicated the three of them. “Are going to a party this afternoon. We play a joke on someone. We want to look alike. Same clothes, same hair, everything. Do you understand?”
The clerk smiled. “Yes. I can sell you clothes, but no wigs. But across the street...”
“Good. Laurie, pick us out some clothes, yes? Same everything. And sunglasses, too. Same.”
“I'm beginning to see a plan,” Laurie said, as she began looking around the shop.
Fifteen minutes later, they huddled near the front door, their purchases stuffed into a single shopping bag. After David's car slowly cruised by, they opened the door and hustled across the street, to the wig shop. As they entered it, the clerk brightened in recognition and said, “Esther! Bonjour! ”
“ Bonjour , Claire! I need another wig,” Esther said. She looked at Angelique, then pointed to Laurie. “Like her. She has long hair; we must all look exactly like her. Do you have wigs like her hair?”
The clerk approached Laurie. “May I look?” Laurie nodded, and Claire lifted her pony-tail and examined the hair. “The color is soft, not harsh. And longer. Very pretty. Yes, I have.”
“And we need your back room to change. It's a joke that we play on someone, yes? We all look alike?”
“Oh, that is good!” The shop clerk laughed, then pointed to a back room. “There, you can change.”
Inside the storage room, Esther, Angelique, and Laurie began undressing. As they dropped clothing by their feet, Laurie puzzled as she saw Angelique place a compact pistol on the floor. “You've got a gun?”
“Yes.” Angelique looked at Esther. “Have you?”
“Of course.” Esther opened her leather purse and pulled her semiautomatic pistol and her silencer from it.
“Holy crap,” Laurie said. “Are we gonna shoot anybody here?”
“No,” Esther said. “They are Mossad. Israeli. Never.”
“I just wanted to get that straight,” Laurie said, as they began pulling on their newly-bought clothes.
A few minutes later, they emerged from the storage room, their old clothes jammed into the single shopping bag. After Claire seated them and fit the wigs to their heads, she laughed when she saw them. “Now,” she said. “Make-up. It's free. This will be fun, yes?”
The three women looked at each other, then nodded in unison. Claire began fussing over them, and in a few minutes, she pointed to the make-up mirrors on the counter. “Do you like how you look?”
“Damn,” Laurie said. “I guess I'm back to bein' a lipstick lesbian, huh?” She looked over at Angelique. “And you look...whoa. Hot.” She leaned forward and studied Esther. “And you look...totally different. I wouldn't recognize you on the street.”
They were as identical as they could be. Each had long red hair pulled back in a loose pony-tail, round sunglasses, and an identical outfit of jeans, a black top, a light, silver-colored hooded sweat-shirt, and flat ballet slipper-type shoes. Same touch of make-up, same lipstick color, same light shading around the eyes. Except for Laurie being a little shorter, they might be clones.
“That,” Esther said, “is the idea.” She hugged Claire, whispered some thanks, passed her twenty more Euros, and turned to the window. “Now, where are they?” she asked.
Angelique and Laurie joined her at the shop window. “There. There is David's car. And there are other agents from the Paris section, now. They are gathering.”
“Yes, it's been enough time.” She opened her purse. “I have a disposable phone. Let's trade numbers.” They all pulled their phones out, and they worked quickly. “Now, we wait until David is driving by. Then, we leave together, and we go in separate directions. For three hours, we keep them chasing us. Go on busses, go on tram, rent a bicycle, walk the streets, hide, I don't care. Keep them chasing you. Here is money.” She pulled out her bankroll, peeled off several bills and handed them to both Laurie and Angelique.
“Mossad pays better than I remember,” Angelique said.
“It is from my last assignment, in Berlin. He had a lot on him when I killed him.”
Angelique puzzled over that. She whispered, “You took his money?”
Esther shrugged. “He didn't need it any longer. Now, we keep moving, traveling, yes? And in three hours, when darkness falls, we meet back at the car. You, Angel, you and Laurie take me to the train station and leave me. I will disappear for five days, and then come back to Paris for my appointment.”
“Where will you go?”
Esther shrugged. “I don't know. Do you have suggestions?”
“Wine country,” Laurie said. “Hey, it's where I'd go.”
Esther nodded. “I like that.”
Claire's voice sounded behind them. “You're not going to a party, are you? Why does she have a gun?” The clerk pointed to Angelique's back. Her top had ridden up, and a bit of her pistol was showing. “Are those men police?”
“Not police. Not even French.” Esther took the clerk aside. She opened her purse and showed her the silenced pistol. “I tell you the truth. I cannot tell you for whom I work, but there are men after us. Thanks to you, we can fool them. You probably have saved my life with your help today. I am forever in your debt.”
“Are you a terrorist? A gangster?”
“No. I hunt them.”
“Oh! It sounds dangerous, your life.”
“It can be.”
“If you need more help...I mean...come again, won't you?”
Esther appraised her with her squinting, bright blue eyes, and her face crinkled into a smile. “I will. I promise to come back.” She saw Claire's eyes widen at that, and heard Angelique's voice behind her.
Esther kissed the girl soundly, said, “Thank you,” and strode to the door. As she opened it, she said, “Shall we?”
“All for one and one for all,” Laurie said, as she followed Angelique out of the door.
Angelique said, “ Three Musketeers? Dumas?”
“Dumb-ass, is more like it,” Laurie said. “I can't believe I'm about to let Mossad chase me all over Paris.”
Esther looked at Laurie. “But don't you feel alive right now?”
“Yeah.” Laurie grinned. “Hell, yeah.”
“All right. Three hours. Go.”
With that, she waved at David's car as he passed by. Then, Laurie took off left as Esther began a brisk walk away, to their right. And Angelique? She trotted into the street, banged on the hood of David's stopped car, and then laughed and shouted, “Catch me if you can!” as she broke into a run down the far side of the street.
A minute later, David breathlessly entered the shop, followed by another man. He halted when he perceived a store clerk standing very still near the front of the shop, evidently lost in thought, the fingers of one hand absent-mindedly touching her lips. “ Bonjour, ” David said.
“Oh! Oui? ” the store clerk said, as she blinked in surprise.
“English?” he asked.
“ Oui . Yes, I speak – ”
“Three women came out of this shop a few minutes ago.”
She shrugged. “Yes?”
“Do you know their names?”
“They paid with credit card?”
“No, no. Cash. You are police of some kind?”
David ignored the question. “Did one have short blonde hair? Like this?” He held out his phone, and on the screen was the Mossad file photograph of Esther. The girl's eyes widened, but she shook her head.
“No. She is pretty, though.”
“Which one was she? Which way did she go?”
“I don't know.”
He eyed her with frustration. “ Merci. ”
He walked out of the shop and stopped on the street. His companion asked, “She wasn't here?”
“That girl is lying. She was here.”
“Someone was here. She had lipstick on her mouth, as if she's just been kissed.”
“What?” David looked at his companion, then opened the door and looked at the girl still standing in bewilderment near the front of the shop. She had clearly been kissed by someone wearing lipstick. “Damn it! Esther!” He looked around, then pointed in the direction that Angelique had taken. “That way.” He held up a little palm-sized radio and shouted into it. “Is somebody on the other two?”
“Unit one has the shortest one in sight.”
“Unit four is on the ah...whichever one that was, we're following...somebody who looks like two other people.”
“Unit three. We're watching the Renault car.”
David barked, “We've got the one that went across the street and headed south. Unit two, follow us. That's Esther.”
Maurie brought his car to a halt in front of Café Angel. He got out, tried the front door of the café, and found it locked. He ran around the side alleyway, headed up the back stairs, and banged on the door. “Angel!” he shouted. “It's Maurie.”
There was no answer. He looked around, then descended the stairs. In the alleyway, he flipped open his phone, dialed a number, and waited. Finally, he got an answer. “Angel,” he said, “where the hell are you? I'm at your place.”
“Meet me at Café Doumont, as soon as you can. Cannot talk now. ‘Bye.”
Laurie crossed a street and glanced behind her. A car with two men inside slowed; she smiled. She crossed again, and headed toward the river and the Notre Dame Cathedral. Along the way, she paused and pretended to talk on her phone. She glanced around, and saw the car slow and the men watch her from a distance. She cut up a street on which no automobile traffic was allowed, and laughed as she lost herself in a crowd of pedestrians. They would be forced to follow on foot. She glanced backward and noticed one man leave the car, and the other drive the car away. The man on foot walked briskly; she'd better, too. On instinct, she ducked into a coffee shop and sat at a window table. In a couple of minutes, she was sipping her coffee. She looked up, nodded to the man standing outside watching her, and returned her attention to her coffee – but not before she noted the withering look he gave her in return. It was then that she realized that he'd positioned himself very near the front door. She was trapped inside. That is, unless...
Esther caught a city bus, rode it several blocks, then stepped off. She looked around, and noticed a car with two men inside slow down near her. She ducked down a side street, flipped open her phone, and speed-dialed Laurie's number. “It's Esther. Are you okay?”
“Yeah. I'm having coffee on ah...Rue des Anglais.”
“How appropriate. Are you being watched?”
“Yeah. I've gotten hit on twice now, too. I'm gonna have to try wearing make-up more often.”
Esther snickered. “What about Mossad?”
“There's a gorilla watching me through the window.”
“Use the back exit when you leave. It makes them crazy. ‘Bye.” She smiled at that. “And I should know crazy.” She speed-dialed Angelique. “Angel, Esther. Checking in.”
“I am fine. They must think that I am you; I have four of them on me.”
“Yes. He is following me.”
“Give him Trudi's love, will you?”
Angelique laughed. “Esther, you are a bad girl.”
“And you loved me for it. ‘Bye.”
She shut the phone, stuffed it into her pocket, and looked around. A news-stand was nearby. She walked to it, looked over the magazines and newspapers, and bought a copy of the German-language Der Stern . Leisurely, she strolled down the street, flipping through the magazine. She noticed, in the reflection of shop windows, that the car followed slowly behind her. Then, she ducked into a café. The car stopped, and the two men got out and entered the café. They looked everywhere, but did not see their mark. Finally, they gave up in disgust and walked out of the front door. There, they halted and stared in surprise. On the hood of their car sat a red-haired woman with dark glasses and a silver-colored zip-up hoodie. She looked up from her magazine, smiled at them, and hopped off. She shouted, “Taxi!”, caught a cab, and hopped in. When the two men climbed into their car and attempted to start it, it would not turn over. One tapped the other's shoulder and pointed beneath the dash-board. Wires were hanging loose.
After some well-placed curses, the man behind the wheel said, “You call it in. I'll try to get it back together.”
Angelique lifted her phone to her ear. “Esther? Take a taxi. 3 Rue Thouin. Teddy's Bar. We'll meet.”
“I like it. Laurie, too.”
“Of course.” Angelique put her phone away, then hailed a cab and climbed in. In a bit, she was dropped off on Rue Thouin, and found the green store-front of Teddy's Bar. She casually glanced around, noted her pursuers a block away, and waved at them. Then, she ducked inside, found a table at the back of the bar, and made two phone calls.
About ten minutes later, Laurie came in. An agent followed her and occupied a table near the door. Two others joined him. As Laurie sat, she said, “Man! Teddy's Bar? I was expecting a fancy French place.”
A server came to their table, took orders, and left. Esther slid into a free chair at the table and said, “Did you order me a whiskey?”
“You betcha,” Laurie said, then rose. “Man, I've gotta use the can. Be right back.” She headed down a back hall, and a moment later, came back frustrated. “There's some drunk asshole in the hall by the bathroom. He tried to put the moves on me.”
Esther and Angelique looked at each other. “Do you want to handle this?” Esther asked.
“Yes.” Angelique rose and headed down the hall. In front of the women's bathroom, a man loitered. He began speaking when Angelique approached him, and she cut him off with a curt warning to leave. When his response was a slurred profanity, she decked him, and left him sprawled in the hall.
“It is all right now,” she said, as she returned to the table. “He will not bother you, Laurie.”
“I don't have to go, now.”
“I do.” Esther rose and headed down the hall. Outside the bathroom, the man was rising from the floor. He saw her, and became profane. Without a word, Esther decked him, then stepped over him to enter the bathroom. When she came out, he was just rising to a sitting position, rubbing his face. She leaned down, decked him again, and returned to the table.
“It's all right, Laurie. He's passed out cold.” She shrugged. “Must have been the alcohol.”
Angelique nodded. “Yes. It must have been.”
Laurie cast a suspicious glance around the table. “Okay, you two. I'll try it again.” She rose and headed down the back hall. The man was struggling to his feet, his hands propped against a wall. He looked up as Laurie approached, and his eyes widened.
“Not you again,” he exclaimed in drunken French. He leaned against the wall and held up both fists in front of his face. “I'm ready for you this time.”
Laurie kicked him squarely in the crotch. He groaned, doubled over, and fell to his knees. “Man,” Laurie said. “I am so sick of assholes.” Then, she entered the bathroom. When she came out, he was rising. She felt a presence behind her, and looked. It was Angelique.
“I came to check on you,” Angelique said.
“Oh. Thanks, Angel. Yeah, he's still here.”
He struggled to a standing position and blinked at them in disbelief. “There's two of you?”
“No,” Angelique said. “You're seeing double.”
“Oh.” The man shrugged, then got angry. “Which one of you bitches kicked me in the balls?” he asked.
“I did.” Angelique decked him again, a right-hand across the jaw, and he crumpled. They looked at him sprawled on the floor, then turned in unison and left.
“One day, you're going to have to teach me that,” Laurie said, as they sat at their table.
Angelique asked Esther, “Did you kick him in the balls?”
“No. I hit him in the face. Why? Did you?”
“No. Face.” Angelique puzzled. “Then who...?” In unison, both Angelique and Esther studied Laurie. In reply, she merely shrugged and cast them both an angelic expression.
“Hey. It seemed like the thing to do at the time.”
Esther caught Angelique's expression of satisfaction. “Bat-Ami,” she said, “I like your girlfriend.”
The server returned with their drinks. After the requisite “ Merci ,” Angelique struck up a conversation in French with the server. She looked at the Mossad agents near the door, laughed, and nodded. Angelique handed her some money, and she left. A moment later, the server headed toward their table, a little tray held over her head. On it was a bottle of wine and three glasses.
“Angel, what did you do?” Esther asked. “I know that look. You did something bad.”
Laurie, who'd been privy to the conversation, cracked up. Angelique merely smiled.
“I asked her to bring them a bottle of very cheap wine. Watch their expressions as they taste it.”
“Where's David?” Laurie asked.
“I'll call.” Esther dialed his number, put it on speaker, and spoke. “David, it's Trudi. I miss you. Where are you?”
“I'm right outside. You can't get away, you know.”
“Ask your men if they like their wine.” They glanced across the bar, and watched one of the agents at the table listen to his radio, then say something into it.
“Horse what ?” Angelique said. “I am insulted.” She shrugged. “Or perhaps the horse is insulted, yes?”
A second later, Esther's cell phone echoed David's voice. “They've had better,” he said.
There was an awkward pause. Finally, David said, “You're not talking about wine, are you?”
Esther pouted. “David,” she said, “you know how to hurt a girl's feelings.”
“Esther – ”
“It's Trudi. Or maybe it's Angel. Or Laurie. Are you really sure which one I am?”
The server stopped at the table. Angelique looked up at her, had a few hushed words with her, and pointed to the cell phone on the table. The server leaned over and said in English, “David?”
“Yes? Who is this?”
“Trudi. You love me?”
David's reply was unrepeatable. The table roared with laughter, and the server walked away. David's car stopped outside the bar, and the agents' attention was momentarily attracted to it. When they looked back, the table where the three women had been sitting was empty, glasses drained, money on the table. One of the agents began jabbering into his radio as the other two rose and headed toward the back of the bar. In a moment, they were standing in an alleyway. One agent ran left, one ran right, and the one who ran left arrived on the main street just in time to see a taxi pulling away. Three heads were in the back seat. He barked into his radio, and a car squealed away, following the taxi. A moment later, another car picked him up.
They followed the taxi through the French Quarter, and cursed when it stopped and dropped off first one, then several blocks later, another of their quarry. Finally, when the third woman left the taxi, David followed her.
Angelique decided that she needed a private place for confrontation. She chose a parking garage, crossed the street, and walked toward it. She entered and ran up the stairwell, then exited on the top floor. She stripped off her hooded top and tied it by the arms about her waist. Then, she looked around. There were several cars on the top deck, but much empty space, too. She chose a car and ducked behind it.
In a minute, a car rolled up onto the top deck. It stopped, and two men emerged from it. They looked around, and one spoke into a radio. Another man burst forth from the stairwell and shook his head. A moment later, the second car rolled out onto the top deck. That was the car that attracted Angelique's interest, for she deduced that it contained David.
As it slowly rolled by, she left her hiding spot, trotted along beside it at a crouch, and yanked open the back door. She sat inside, and she said, “Hello, David.” As she slammed the door, she pressed the muzzle of her pistol into his neck and spoke in Hebrew. “Drive back down to the street, will you? And keep both hands where I can see them.”
He turned the car in a tight circle, and began driving back down the ramps. “Esther?” he said. “Your Hebrew, well...”
“What's the matter with my Hebrew?”
“I'm sorry, but it sucks.”
“My rabbi said that, too. Now, what do you want with me?”
“I'm to bring you in. You want to come in, right?”
“Not to a trial or a mental hospital. Go away. Leave me alone. I disappear. I will be no trouble to Mossad or Israel, ever.”
“The Old Man wants you home.”
“Tell him to retire me, and I will disappear forever. This, I promise.”
Angelique glanced into the rear-view mirror. The second car was behind him, but there was only one occupant in it. That meant that two men were on foot in the parking garage. They would probably be running down the stairwell now, and would try to meet the car at the bottom ramp. “David?”
“Trudi sends her love.” Laughter sounded from the back seat.
David slowed to a crawl, turned a tight corner, and glanced into the rear-view mirror. “Esther?” he said. Then, he looked over his shoulder. The back door was open. The seat was empty. The car behind him had stopped. His radio crackled, and a voice shouted, “She's on foot. Second floor.”
David threw the car into park and stepped out. He looked around, but saw nothing. He reached inside the car, grabbed his radio, and said, “Does anyone see her?”
“Damn it!” David stamped his foot in frustration, then keyed his radio. “Back into the cars. Let's split up, see if we can pick her up within the block. One of you, check the stairwell.”
A panting agent banged open the stairwell door, and heard footsteps. He looked down, and his quarry was ten feet away. She paused, waved at him, and resumed her descent. He gave chase. On the ground floor, he caught up with her at the door and leaned across her, a hand against the door. She looked up at him, smiled, and kneed him in the stomach. When he doubled over, she snatched the pistol from his shoulder holster, pushed him into a sitting position on the stairs, and waved the pistol in his face.
“Radio,” she said in Hebrew. “Now.” He handed her the radio, and she pocketed it. Then, she pressed the barrel of the pistol against his forehead, and yanked the necktie from his shirt collar. “Turn around,” she said. “Hands behind back.” He complied, and she jammed the pistol into her waistband and yanked hard on his wrists. He stumbled backward, and in a moment, she'd bound his hands to the metal railing. Then, she stepped back. As he watched, she deftly dropped the magazine from the handle of his pistol, jacked back the slide and ejected the chambered round, and then dropped the pistol at his feet. “I will tell them in a little while where you are,” she said, then opened the door. After a look around, she sprinted away.
On the ground floor, a Land Rover stopped and waited for the exit bar to raise. On the back, feet braced on the bumper and arms wrapped around the spare tire, Angelique was curled into a ball. As the car emerged onto the street, she dropped from the bumper, straightened up, and trotted away, even as she heard the squeal of tires on the next deck above her.
Maurie waited at Café Beaumont, sipping a coffee and studying the people around him. It seemed odd to be sitting here, retired. No longer with the weight of his career on his shoulders. He felt – well, a little naked.
He saw a woman with long red hair and sunglasses cross the street, and puzzled over her. She walked with a familiar gait, had an athletic build that he'd seen before, but she looked different. Her long stride took her across the street, and she turned his way. As she approached him, she smiled at him. He smiled back. Much to his surprise, she sat at his table. For a moment, she said nothing. Then, she laughed. “Hello, Maurie,” she said.
“Angel? Is that you?”
“I'm being followed.”
“Two agents, white car? They just stopped across the street.”
“There should be two more. Gray car.”
Maurie smiled. “I used to drive that car a lot. It's a piece of crap. Now, what's going on, and what can I do to help?”
Angelique began speaking, and Maurie listened intently. Then, he nodded, threw a couple of bills on the table, and left. Angelique watched him leave, then stood and walked away. Half a block away, she hailed a cab, climbed into the back, and headed up the street past her extremely pissed-off pursuers. She waved at them as she passed, then gave the driver instructions as she heard tires squeal behind her.
She flipped open her phone, called Laurie, then Esther, and checked in with them. She said one more thing. “Esther, in exactly five minutes to the second, call David. Ask him if he's had enough.”
Esther laughed. “Understood.”
Several blocks later, Angelique stopped the cab, paid the driver, and got out. She began strolling down the sidewalk, past shops and apartment entrances. She watched her watch. Then, in four minutes and fifty seconds, she held her phone to her ear and pretended to make a call.
Laurie was on a park bench when she noted the passage of time. Angelique had asked her to fake a phone call. She didn't understand, but if Angelique asked, that was good enough for her. She held her cell phone to her ear and began to recite The Gettysburg Address to nobody in particular.
David was fuming. “What the hell is she doing?” he asked. His cell phone rang, and he lifted it to his face. “Hello?”
“Hello, David. It's Trudi,” a seductive, laughing voice said.
“Trudi, my ass. It's Esther, isn't it?”
“What's in a name, David?”
“And your Hebrew is a lot better than it was an hour ago, too. What do you want?”
“Have you had enough? We can do this all night, you know.”
“I'm returning you to Tel Aviv, whether or not you want to go.”
“If that's the way you want it. Give my love to the Old Man when you report to him next.”
The phone went dead. He keyed the radio and said, “All units, did your target just make a phone call?”
“Ours did, too.”
He cursed, then looked up. “We don't know which one she was, for sure.” He realized that his target was gone. “And where in the hell did she go now?” he raged.
“Bookstore,” the driver said.
“Go! Go!” They bailed out of the car and ran across the street, into the bookstore. Inside, they slowed and walked silently, carefully, around the store, between the racks of books and magazines, ignoring the looks of the patrons and employees. They finally met in the back.
“Son of a bitch,” David said. “Come on.” Together, they walked to the clerk. “Ask her if there's a back way out of here,” he said.
The man repeated the question in French, and the girl nodded and replied. The man looked at David. “Yes, to an alley.”
“She's probably long gone. Let's go back to the car. Maybe we'll pick her up on the street outside.” Disgusted, he led his companion back through the front door.
After they left, Angelique rose from beneath the counter where the clerk stood. “ Merci ,” she said.
“Of course,” the girl said, in French. “You're wanted by the police or something?”
Angelique smiled. “They aren't police. And you probably just saved my life.”
“Oh!” The clerk blushed a little. “Ah, my pleasure, I suppose.” She looked at the book and the money in Angelique's hand. “Do you want to buy that?”
As she took the money and made change, she said, “ Three Musketeers? Dumas?”
Just before Angelique headed out the front door, she looked back. “It's a famous French novel, no? It's time I read it.” She laughed. “All for one and one for all, right?” With that, she was gone. The clerk thought about that, then smiled. That little episode, she decided, had just made her day.
David growled a string of curses in both Hebrew and English, then keyed his radio. “All units, check in. Status.”
“Unit One. We're still on the shortest one. She's heading north, toward Notre Dame. No, wait. She's just taken a bus in the other direction.”
“Unit two. We're at the end of the street from you.”
“Unit three. We're at the Renault car. Nothing here.”
“Unit four. We're following our target. She's doubled back east now.”
“Unit five,” a feminine voice said, “is at the strip club.”
“What?” David barked.
“Do we have a unit five?” a voice asked.
“And where is this club?” another voice keyed in.
“Who the hell is this?” David said. “Identify yourself.”
“It's Trudi. I am working now. Come and see me, David. I miss you.”
“What's the address, honey?” a radio voice said. Laughter sounded on the radio.
“Silence!” David shouted. “Unit, ah, five. Who are you?”
“Trudi. If you will not come and see me dancing, go back to the parking deck and look in the stairwell. One of your men is still in there. ‘Bye, David.” Just before the radio keyed off, distinct kissing sounds could be heard.
“Unit two is returning to the deck.”
“What... the... hell ?” David said. “They're making fools of us.”
David looked over at his companion. “You don't have to agree.”
“All right, wise-ass. Do you have any suggestions?”
“Well, sir. They're leading us on a wild chase all over the Latin Quarter. Perhaps, if we leave them alone...”
“Yes, sir. Then, they'll return to the Renault. Or the apartment.”
“Say, that's not bad.” He keyed the radio. “Unit three, stay put. They're going to be coming your way. All other units, discontinue pursuit of your targets. Meet with me.” The radio crackled with replies.
“About fucking time.”
“Thanks be to God.”
A feminine voice added, “David, done already? I am so disappointed.”
A snicker sounded from the man next to him. David felt his face color bright red. “That's enough!” he barked into the radio.
Angelique sat at an outdoor café, sipping a soft drink. She looked up when a chair was pulled out, and Esther plopped down next to her. “My surveillance left me. I feel so jilted.”
“Mine, too,” Angelique said. “What are they up to, I wonder?”
A taxi stopped nearby. Laurie emerged from the back and joined them at the table. She looked around as she sat. “Where's our buddies?”
Angelique looked at Esther. “You should call David,” she suggested.
“I like it.” She pulled out her cell phone and dialed his number. When he answered, she put it on speaker-phone. “David, it's Trudi. Don't you love me anymore?”
“It's not over, you know. I'll catch you.”
Angelique lifted the phone from Esther's hand. “David, this is Esther. Put this to the Old Man. I promise to disappear and never be trouble if he just retires me. Give me my pay and a new identity, allow me a week in Israel to order my life, and I am out of there forever.”
“I don't think he'll go for that,” David said.
“Just put it to him. You have nothing to lose, and I have everything to gain. For God's sake, please. I have given all I have to Israel. I have nothing left. Now, I just want a little peace.”
For a long moment, David was silent. Then, he said, “I'll put it to him.”
“Thank you, David.” She turned the phone off and handed it back to Esther.
“That was well-played,” Esther said. “Thank you.”
“Now what?” Laurie asked.
“Now,” Angelique said, “we eat some dinner, yes? Then, it will be dark, and we go to my car. We take you, Esther, to train station. You come back in five days, and we get you an abortion.”
Esther thought for a while, then looked at Angelique and Laurie. Her eyes were glistening, and the tears seemed to make the bright blue of her irises dance. “Will I ever be happy again?” she asked.
Angelique nodded. “Once, so long ago, you told me that I would never be content without my music, did you not? And you were right. I did not find contentment until I again found my music.”
“And peace? Did you find that?”
“Yes.” Angelique placed her hand over Laurie's hand. “Here.”
“How did you do it? Tell me.”
“You find someone of good and gentle heart. And you let them in.”
“I don't think I can do that. I don't trust anybody, anymore. Not that way.”
“You only have to start with one, Esther.”
Her dancing blue eyes traveled back and forth from Laurie to Angelique. Then, she smiled, a painful little smile. “Well. Let's eat, at least.” She shrugged. “Before I start throwing up again.”
In a car registered to the Israeli embassy, two Mossad agents sat. One sighed. “Damned surveillance. I'm bored out of my skull. They're never coming back for this car.”
“I'll see what's up.” The other one keyed his radio. “This is unit three, checking in. Nothing's happening. Can we go home, for God's sake?”
“No. They'll be there. Keep sharp.”
“Understood. Out.” He put down the radio, then looked up. “Oh, great. That jerk with the black SUV just stopped and blocked our view of the Renault.”
“What's he doing?”
One agent picked up his monocular. “He's kissing a girl,” he said. “Now, she's getting out and standing there, talking to him.”
“Hurry up, already. Or go get a room.”
“Now she's left. What's he waiting for? Ah. He's finally going.” The agent sat up. “God damn it! The Renault is gone!”
“It's gone! Find it. Find it.”
They looked around frantically. One agent keyed the radio. “Unit three. The Renault just took off.”
“We don't see it. It's gone.”
There was a dead silence, a static, on the radio. Then, David's voice sounded, tired and angry. “Discontinue. Return to the embassy. We'll never catch them now.”
One agent looked at the other. “Halle – freakin ' – luyah!” he said.
“Where did you learn that?”
“My cousin. He lives in New York City.”
In Angelique's car, Laurie watched as Esther held her phone to her ear. “Thank you, Maurie,” she said. “I owe you.”
Maurie laughed. “That kiss was payment enough. Where did you learn to kiss like that?”
“I was raised on a kibbutz. Plenty of boys around. And girls, too.”
“Any girl who can do that won't stay single long. I'll give you a month.”
“You, too. Go marry Laurie's sister, Maurie. Perhaps I'll see you both in Greece, sometime.”
“I plan on it. Good-bye, Esther. May God go with you.”
“Thanks, Maurie. ‘Bye.” She hung up the phone, and she gazed out the car window. Then, she started as she remembered something. “Oh! That wig shop! Go there now.”
Angelique appeared puzzled, but nodded. She turned right, and in a few minutes, stopped in front of the shop. Esther climbed out.
“Wait, I won't be a moment.” She ran inside. Immediately, a hand pulled the curtain down over the window and placed a ‘closed' sign in front of it. Ten minutes later, she emerged with the shopping bag containing their clothes. “Okay,” she said, as she scooted into the back seat and hurriedly reapplied her lipstick. “Train station. And drive fast; I'm going to be changing back here.”
At the station, she emerged from the car's back seat dressed as she had arrived in Paris; blue jeans, a blue sweater-top, a stylish little scarf, and her jacket and bag. Her short, blonde hair was neatly brushed. Angelique and Laurie walked her into the station, and waited while she got her ticket. Then, she met them and stood awkwardly.
“I don't want you to see the track,” she said. “You don't need to know where I'm going. I'll call you again in five days.” She hugged them both to her. “Thank you so much. You have saved my life, I think.”
“We will see you then,” Angelique said. “Take care of yourself.”
“‘Bye, Esther,” Laurie added.
“Good-bye, Laurie. You're a good soul.” She looked at Angelique. “Bat-Ami, you're a lucky girl. Shalom. ” With that, she turned and walked away, her bag slung over her shoulder, her jacket under her arm. They watched her for a minute, and Laurie looked at Angelique.
“What are you thinking?” she asked.
“Hm? Oh, just that I am a lucky girl. We go home now?”
“And go to work. It's about seven-thirty.”
“Oh. Of course.” Angelique pouted. “Too bad. I was, how-do-you-say-it? Getting hot for you.”
Laurie looked up at Angelique. “We got time for a quickie, right?”
“What is this ‘quickie'?”
Laurie laughed. “When we get home, I'll show ya. And don't take that wig or make-up off just yet.”
Angelique roared in laughter. “Laurie,” she said. “You are a bad girl!”
Esther sat cross-legged in the second-class section train seat and watched the French countryside go by. Periodically, she checked her watch and her ticket for the name of her destination town. Dijon, one hour and forty minutes south-east of Paris. She would get a hotel room there tonight and get some sleep. And tomorrow, she had plans that only one person in the world besides her knew about.
When she finally debarked the train in Dijon, she immediately went to the ticket window and bought an early morning ticket. Then, she asked about a hotel, and she found one a block's walk from the train station. Her check-in was prompt, and she found her room.
Inside, she kicked off her shoes, stretched on the bed, and pulled her cell phone from her pocket. She dialed the number that she'd most recently added, and listened for the ring. When she heard an answer, she smiled.
“Hello. It's Esther. Yes, I'm glad to hear your voice, too. Can you meet me in the morning tomorrow? The train coming in from Dijon, arrives at eight-fifty. Good. See you then. ‘Bye.” With that done, she rose, started the shower, and stripped off her clothes. She was nervous about tomorrow. But she was taking Angelique's advice, and she had confidence in Angelique.
“I need to speak to the Old Man on a secure line.”
Ronstein looked at David. “I suppose so,” he said. He picked up his phone, said, “Get Tel Aviv on a secure line. The Old Man.” Then, he hung up. “I'll let you explain this to him, Aranoff.”
“Yes. My responsibility.” He flopped down on a chair and waited for the phone to ring. When it did, the new Paris section chief spoke a little, then passed the phone to David and walked out of the room. He didn't want to be privy to the conversation which was about to happen in his office.
“David here, sir.”
“So, tell me that you have her on a charter jet to Tel Aviv.”
“I'm sorry, sir. I can't tell you that.”
“Because you lost her. She's God-knows-where right now, isn't she?”
“Yes, sir. But we'll keep the bar under surveillance.”
“Don't bother. She's too clever to return there. She's gone, probably left Paris. So, how did you lose her?”
The Old Man listened patiently while David described the effort to apprehend her. When he finished, there was silence on the line for a moment. Then, the Old Man rendered his verdict.
“That was a monumental failure, wasn't it? They made total idiots of us today. And do you know why? Because you were up against three very experienced agents, all former or present assassins. The best of the best. They played with us like cats with a mouse.”
“Three? Maurie and Esther were there. Who was the third?”
“That,” the Old Man said, “was the Angel of Mossad, undoubtedly.”
“Oh.” David puzzled over that, then asked, “Which one speaks mediocre Hebrew? Esther?”
The Old Man said, “Esther's sabra . She was raised on a kibbutz. Her Hebrew is perfect.”
“French.” The Old Man listened to a pause and asked, “What's the matter?”
David said, “At one point, a women climbed into the back of my car and held a gun to my neck. She spoke less-than-perfect Hebrew. She said she was Esther.”
“Congratulations. You've met Angel.”
“She's good, for sure. So who was the unaccounted-for woman?”
“Red hair?” the Old Man asked.
“They, um, all had... red hair... this afternoon.”
The Old Man snickered. “Of course. That, I believe, is an American girl, Angel's friend.”
“I see. So, what are my instructions?”
“Stand down. Return to Tel Aviv. I'll handle this personally. Report to me when you get in, Mister Aranoff. Shalom .”
David swallowed hard. The Old Man didn't call him that except when he was very upset. The connection broke before he could respond. He set the receiver down and walked out of the office. He met Ronstein in the hall and simply said, “I need a stiff drink and some sleep.”
“There's a bar in the restaurant just across the street.”
“That'll work. I plan on getting rather drunk tonight.”
In the morning, Esther stepped down off the train, once again in Paris. She stood, bag over her shoulder, her jacket on, and looked around. At first, she didn't see a familiar face. Then, she felt a presence nearby. She turned, and she smiled.
Claire said, “I'm glad you came back.”
“I'm glad you wanted me to come back.”
“I took the morning off from work.” She shrugged shyly. “For you.”
“I came back from Dijon,” Esther said, “for you.”
“A fair trade. I live near the shop. Come. I'll show you.”
As they walked toward the main exits, Claire slipped her arm through Esther's. They began softly talking, a conversation punctuated with laughter and possibilities, as their tread fell into unison.
Laurie padded down the hall to the bathroom. It was empty, and after she used it and washed her hands and face, she stepped into the hallway. The guest room was empty. Already, it seemed a little quieter without Esther there. And she found that she missed Esther. She walked back into the bedroom, noted Angelique still asleep, contemplated waking her, then decided on a better course of action. She climbed back into bed, snuggled against Angelique's body, and closed her eyes.
David emerged from his hotel room. He'd showered and filled himself with coffee, but it didn't help. He was in a foul mood, and still stinging from his humiliating failure. He decided to retrace his steps of yesterday, and decided to begin at the parking lot where Esther had parked that little red Renault. Then, he would go from there.
At his apartment, Maurie hung up from a very interesting conversation with the Old Man. Although he was officially retired now, he still needed to fly to Tel Aviv to process out of Mossad. He'd do that in a few days. In the meantime, he'd start getting rid of his stuff and ready his apartment to sell. He wanted to be ready to head to the Greek islands as soon as Allie could return to France. He placed his coffee cup down and lifted a picture of Allie from the kitchen counter. In it, she was smiling at him, standing at the wheel of a leased sailboat in the Aegean Sea. Shorts, bare feet, a bathing-suit top, sunglasses and a baseball cap on her head, she resembled Laurie in many ways. Most of all, she resembled Laurie in her good heart and her sense of humor. He loved both qualities. And he knew that Angel loved both qualities in Laurie, as well.
Yes. He would marry that girl. So what if there was sixteen years difference in their ages? So what if they were different nationalities and different religions? It mattered not to him. And it mattered not to her, either. And that, he decided, was another quality that he loved about her. Retirement. A new love. A new life. He couldn't wait. He hoped that Esther would find those things, too. And he hoped that his conversation with the Old Man had helped speed her to that end.
Claire had a little walk-up apartment above the shops in the crowded Latin Quarter. It wasn't much, but it was all she needed or wanted.
She opened her eyes and stared across Esther's chest to the bag haphazardly dropped on the floor by the entrance, to their scattered clothing, to Esther's closed eyes. She studied the profile of her new lover's face, drank in every detail; the scar on her temple, the short, blonde hair ruffled, the alluring pout of her lips. And her gaze traveled down Esther's neck and fixed on her chest, on the prominent collar-bones, on the pale skin of her chest, on her own hand, cupped over Esther's breast, on the little golden Star of David against her skin. There was so much she wanted to know about this stranger, but she would have to learn slowly, like peeling layers from an onion. What she most wanted to know, though, was why Esther fascinated her so, and why she had let her so readily into a very private area of her life. This woman had stripped the layers of caution from her, made her hungry to take chances in her life where she usually did not. Perhaps it was appealing to the frustrated poet in her. She wanted to rise, to open her journal and write, describe her hunger for this woman in her precise French, but she couldn't move. The moment might leave her, disappear, and she would find Esther gone as quickly as she'd entered her life and her shop. And she did not want that.
Esther stirred, and she smiled. Her eyes opened, and the bright blue of her irises danced like Caribbean seas in a gentle wind. She said, “Coffee?”
“I have that,” Claire said. “I'll make some.”
Esther's expression clouded. “Bathroom.”
Claire pointed. “There.”
As Claire was drawing water for coffee, she heard an unfamiliar sound, and she walked to the bathroom. Esther was being sick. “What's the matter?” Claire asked.
Esther lay back, naked, against the wall. “Morning sickness. I'm pregnant.”
Claire's mouth dropped open. “You don't look it.”
“And we just did – what we did?”
“It doesn't matter.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Get an abortion. I have an appointment in four days.”
She helped Esther stand. After Esther washed her face and drank water, she led her from the bathroom and handed her a robe. “Does the father know?”
“Don't be. He was a vicious bastard.”
“Then why – ?”
“It's a long story. I'll tell you over coffee.”
David walked the street near the parking lot. He remembered the attendant. He remembered the parking spot where the older red Renault was parked. He was looking for the stores into which his quarry had ducked. They could have bought their matching clothing at any one of a number of shops here. He would just have to start asking. He pulled Mossad file photos of Esther and Angelique from his pocket. To them, he had been able to add a third one; Laurie. For some unknown reason, Mossad had a photo of her, too, but not as an employee. It was merely in their immense database.
Near lunchtime, in the umpteenth store in which he'd asked, the clerk nodded. “Yes,” she said. “Two foreigners. One French. They spoke English together. They bought matching outfits, for a party or something. I remember them; very fun. Nice.”
“Where did they go after here?”
“They wanted the same hair. Wigs, I think. Yes. There is a shop over there.”
“Thank you.” He offered her twenty Euros. She looked around, then accepted the money and pocketed it. “All right. Times, they are hard, yes?”
He smiled. “You have no idea how hard.”
“He hit me. I could not defend myself; he would have become suspicious if he saw how good I was at self-defense. I had to pretend to be helpless. The last time that he beat me, he forced himself upon me. Afterward, I cursed him with every word I knew. He laughed in my face.” Esther sipped her coffee. “Something in me, it snapped. I went to my purse, got my pistol, and shot him. Just like the other fourteen I have killed; three in the chest, one in the head to make sure. Then, I left. I said nothing to Mossad; they would have been furious. You see, they had withdrawn the execute order. For their purposes, he was supposed to live a while longer.”
Claire was listening, totally focused on the story. “But they found out?”
“Of course. I was in Berlin when they ordered me home after that job. I knew.”
“And you disappeared.”
“To the only friend I had left in the world: Angel. She helped me, she and Laurie. And they will take me to get my abortion in four days.”
Claire shrugged. “It seems a shame, I mean. But after you have seen so much death, what is one more, I suppose?”
Esther's eyes watered. “I am no one to be a mother. Especially to that monster's child.”
“But perhaps someone else is.” Claire's gaze drifted down to Esther's chest, visible above the open neck of the robe. “You are Jewish. Do you believe in God?”
“No. I don't think so, anymore. If He is there, He is a cruel god.” She studied Claire's face. “Do you?”
Claire shrugged. “I don't know. But I believe in serendipity. In chance. In karma, even. You have a chance to do something very good, here.”
“What do you mean?”
“Serendipity. My older sister, she and her husband have been wanting a baby for a long time, now. They can't have one. And you have one that you don't want. And here you are, appearing in my life like magic, two months pregnant. Karma. Serendipity. It seems obvious to me.”
Esther sat back, stunned. Such a thought had never crossed her mind. She had hated this pregnancy, hated the man it represented. And she was not mother material. She could not love this thing, this product of a vicious act and its bloody retribution. But perhaps someone else would.
She had killed fifteen people, evil people. People who had blood on their hands, who were deemed to be enemies of her fragile homeland. Would this indeed make her tally fifteen evil, and one innocent? The implications of the question struck her speechless. She could not restrain herself; she began weeping openly. She covered her face with her hands, and she turned away from Claire.
“I'm sorry if I said something to upset you,” Claire said. She rose, walked around the little breakfast table, and pressed Esther's head against her belly, holding her as she wept.
“No, no.” Esther wiped at her face with her sleeve. “Please don't say that. You have given me a lot to think about.”
“If you like, I will call my sister and see if they're interested. If not, you can still have your abortion.”
Esther, through her tears, found that she was able to laugh. “Yes. Do that. Oh, do that!”
“I have to go to work,” Claire said. “But you can stay here. This is your home now, too.”
Esther smiled as she brushed her hair. “I don't want to stay alone. Can I come with you? I promise not to interfere.”
Claire brightened. “Yes. We can talk. And I can show you how to sell things.”
They slipped on their shoes and grabbed their purses, and Claire locked her door. “I will have to get you a key.”
“We're not shopping for furniture next week, are we?” Esther said.
“That's silly. Where would I put it?”
On the street, they walked together, arm-in-arm. It was a good day. The Paris sun was beckoning summer, and the street was picturesque, crowded with humanity of all sorts. When they found the shop and entered, a little bell tinkled, and the clerk brightened. She said a few hurried words in French, grabbed her purse, and headed for the door with a bright “ Au revoir! ” and a laugh.
“She is meeting someone,” Claire said. “Come, sit here, behind the counter.”
As Esther settled onto a stool, Claire leaned across the counter and rested her chin on a hand. She considered Esther for a moment, then asked, “Why do you like me?”
“What do you see in me that you like?”
Esther knew the answer immediately. “A good heart. I see a good heart, and a gentle one.”
Claire smiled. “Of all things, I like that answer best.” She straightened up and turned when the door opened, and the little bell tinkled. “ Bonjour, ” she said. “Oh! I remember you.”
David nodded. “Yes. I was in here yesterday. I have a favor to ask of you. Can you look at these pictures and tell me if they were the women in here yesterday?” He held out photographs, and Claire froze. The top one was Esther. Involuntarily, she looked aside, toward the counter.
“Hello, David,” Esther said. “Trudi sends her love.”
“Esther. What a stroke of luck.”
“What do you want with me?”
“I want to accomplish my mission. I want you in Tel Aviv, in the Old Man's office.”
She looked around. “What, no backup?”
“I can have them here shortly, if I need them.”
“I doubt that. You're here on your own. I know Mossad. After your incompetence yesterday, I'll bet the Old Man nailed you to the wall. He recalled you, didn't he?”
“You need to report to Tel Aviv.”
“Go away and leave me alone.” Her expression became pleading. “Please, David. Go away. Let Maurie and Angel negotiate for me. They will. I'll work a deal with Mossad.”
Claire said, “Go! I'm calling the police. You trespass.”
David looked at Claire, then at Esther. “Do you want an international incident here? Come on, Esther. I'm not leaving without you.”
“Yes, you are.”
“I'll take you back to Israel by force, if I have to.”
Esther's eyes became icy as she emerged from behind the counter. “You can try. Claire, you'd better hide yourself. This is going to get ugly.”
“Oh, my God!” Claire said. She ducked behind the counter. “Esther, be careful!”
Esther began slowly pacing back and forth. “Make your move or get out of here, David.”
He stepped forward and attempted to grapple with her. She threw him off easily, and danced away a few paces. He bent low, went for her legs, and again, she was faster. He caught her wrist, though, and twisted her arm. She fell to a knee, then kicked out with her other leg. It caught him in the shin, and he yelped and let go. She was on her feet in a second, and she flattened his nose with a well-placed fist. He staggered, disoriented. It took him a few seconds to recover, and then he attacked in earnest. Kicks and hand blows were traded, thick and fast. Grunts and shouts accompanied them, and merchandise racks were knocked askew. Claire watched in horror as she fumbled for the shop's phone. When she retrieved it, she punched some buttons and began shouting in frenzied French. Although the fight couldn't have lasted more than several minutes, it seemed to go on for an eternity, a vicious dance of combat which quickly grew personal. As Claire watched, helpless, she perceived the aura of hatred, of anger which permeated the fight. She could see it in both their faces. Someone was going to get killed, of that she was convinced. But she could do nothing.
Esther was bleeding at the eyebrow and her mouth, but the injury to David's nose covered the front of his shirt with blood. He was stronger, but she was quicker, more agile. She parried many of his blows with lightening efficiency; those that he did land, hurt her. But it did not slow her or deter her. She fought back, fought him with every fiber of muscle and ounce of determination she possessed. And the accumulation of her kicks and blows was telling on him; he was breathing heavily, and he favored his right side. And he eventually made the mistake that she was seeking. He dropped his guard for a second. She slammed her heel against his chest, and he fell backward, over a chair, pulling a display of wigs down upon him. He lay there, silent, and Esther watched him. She was in fighting position; knees bent, left side forward, hands in front of her. After a moment, she relaxed. He was not getting up. She had won. She took in a deep breath and slowly exhaled, as if exorcizing some primeval demon of war from her body. Only then did she hear Claire's voice.
She looked at Claire. Only then, Claire could see the left side of Esther's face streaming blood from a cut above her eye, and another at her swollen lip. She watched the icy darkness in Esther's eyes begin to dissipate, and she pointed a shaking finger at David. “Is he – ?”
“I have no idea,” Esther said.
“We have to see.” She emerged from behind the counter and approached him. Esther placed a hand on her shoulder, then gently drew her back.
Esther stepped over a chair and leaned close to him. She touched his neck, sought a carotid pulse, and his eyes flashed open. His hand caught Esther's wrist, held it hard. She yanked, and broke his grip. He swung a fist, and caught her on the side of her head. Her ear rang with the blow, and she fell backward over the chair. As he rose to his feet, so did she. In a moment, the icy blackness had clouded her eyes once again, she was facing him in fighting stance, and David knew that he was in the fight of his life. He managed a grin.
“How's your head?” he asked.
In reply, she leapt and spun, her leg extended. In mid-air, her heel connected with his temple, and he staggered. As Esther watched him, she became aware of the two-tone sirens of the Paris police. She looked at Claire.
“Did you call police?” she asked.
“Yes!” she said. When she saw Esther's aghast expression, she said, “I thought – Oh!” She pointed.
Esther's blood ran cold. She had taken her eyes off her enemy. She turned back to him, snapped into a fighting stance. But it was too late. He rushed her and hit her with a shoulder, and she tripped backward and hit a wall hard. A moment later, the toe of David's shoe caught her full-force in the pelvis. She screamed, doubled over, and fell to her knees. He staggered toward her, and he grabbed her by her shirt. “You're coming with me,” he said. He dragged her across the floor.
Esther curled into a ball, twisted, and tangled her legs into his. David fell over her and hit the floor hard. In a second, Esther was behind him, her legs around his chest and arms, her arm hooked around his neck. His face was turning scarlet, and he couldn't speak. His arms were pinned, and he couldn't move. His legs flailed, but Esther was rock-still, holding him in a deadly choke-hold. Claire watched in horror as David's face turned bright red, and his eyes began rolling back in his head.
“Esther, stop! You're killing him!” She saw the ice in Esther's eyes, saw the determination on her face. “Stop!”
The door burst open, and three policemen entered. Claire shouted in French, “That man! He's trespassing! He attacked her.”
The police shouted at them, but Claire said, “They don't speak French.”
“What are they?” a policeman asked.
“Israeli. Try English.”
A policeman shouted in English, “Stop fighting!” When Esther did not let go, the policeman pulled a wicked-looking metal baton from his belt and popped it open.
Claire almost wilted from fear. “No. I will try. Please don't hit her!” She leaned over them and looked into Esther's eyes. “Stop! Let go! You're killing him! He can't breathe.”
Esther's eyes connected with Claire's horrified expression, and she wilted. She released David, who rolled away, coughing. His face had tinges of purple in it.
“Identification,” the policeman said. “Both of you.” He leaned down, snatched the passport that David had managed to retrieve, and looked at it. “Israeli.” He looked at Esther. “You?”
“Yes.” She was leaning against the counter, and her breathing was labored. She pulled her passport from her back pocket and handed it to the policeman, who quickly perused it. He held onto both of them.
“What's going on here?”
“Personal...matter,” Esther huffed.
“Hm. Very personal, I think. Is this your husband?”
“No. God, no.”
“Lover? A domestic matter?”
“An Israeli government matter,” David said. He slowly stood, holding his throat.
“Let me call my superior at the Israeli Embassy,” he said. “He can explain satisfactorily what is going on. She's a fugitive from Israeli justice.”
“He's lying!” Esther barked. “He is Mossad. He has no authority here. And I have never been accused of a crime in Israel.”
“That's it!” the policeman barked. “I'm taking you both down to the station. We'll sort this out there.” He looked them both over. “You're both hurt. Do you need a doctor?”
No,” David said, as he wiped blood from his face with a handkerchief.
Esther's eyes were wide. She said nothing, but groaned and crumpled to her knees. Claire knelt by her. “Esther, what's wrong?”
“I...hurt. Oh, God!” She held her pelvis as she struggled to her feet.
Claire looked down. “You're bleeding. Look!” She pointed to the floor. A puddle of blood was growing by Esther's foot. Claire yanked open the front of Esther's jeans. Her underwear and groin was covered with blood. “She's losing her baby!”
The policeman immediately barked instructions into his radio, then approached Esther. “Ambulance is coming. Lie down. We take you to the hospital.”
David stared, stunned. “She's – she's pregnant?”
The policeman looked at David. “Perhaps not any more, thanks to you.” In French, he uttered a few words, and David felt his hands pulled behind his back, and his wrists cuffed.
David was in shock. He had no will to protest. He allowed a policeman to lead him from the shop and put him in the back of a police car. There, he sat in stunned silence, sat for several minutes. Then, he rested his head against the back of the front seat as he watched blood from his face dot his pants leg.
Maurie's phone rang. He answered it.
Ronstein, at the Israeli Embassy, was talking. “Maurie, we've got a problem. I'd appreciate your advice.”
Immediately after their conversation, Maurie called Angelique. “Esther's in the hospital. Yes, here in Paris. I'll pick you two up in say, fifteen minutes? Long story. I'll explain on the way.”
In the hallway of the hospital ward, a doctor took Claire aside. “Are you a relative?” he asked.
“Friend,” she said. “She has no family.” She looked up at the doctor. “Will she be all right?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“And – and her baby?”
The doctor paused, then shook his head. “I'm sorry,” he said. “She's getting blood, and she's resting quietly. If she says so, you can visit a little. She'll probably be here for several days. Observation, you understand.” With that, he left.
Claire squeaked the door open. In the room, Esther lay in bed. There were paper sutures over the cut on her eyebrow, and her cheek and lip were swollen where she had been hit. Her eyes were closed. Claire walked across the floor and stood next to the bed. She looked down. Esther's hand lay limply, a white gauze over skinned knuckles. She grasped the hand and held it gently, and she felt Esther's fingers close around hers. Esther opened her eyes and looked up.
“I'm sorry,” Esther whispered. A tear tracked across her cheek. “Tell your sister... I'm sorry.”
“Forget it,” Claire said. “Just get well.” She wiped the tear from Esther's cheek with her free hand.
“Call Angel,” Esther said. “My phone.”
“It's at the shop, in your purse, I suppose. I'll call when I get back there.” She managed a weak snicker. “If I still have a job. The shop is a mess.”
A voice sounded from the door. “There's no need to call. I'm here.” Angelique walked into the room. “Esther,” she said. “Are you going to be all right?”
“I suppose. But you can cancel that abortion for me.”
Angelique's expression was one of puzzlement. Claire said, “The fight. She lost her baby.”
“Oh.” She looked down at Esther, and she noted the tear. “You would have wept, either way.”
“I know. I decided to have it.” She smiled at the irony. “Just this morning, I decided.”
Angelique smiled in reply. “What changed your mind?”
Esther's gaze traveled over to Claire. “A good heart.”
Angelique held her hand out over the bed. “Angelique Halevy.”
“Claire Dubois.” She shook the offered hand. She spoke in French. “You are a friend of Esther's?”
“An old friend. We were in the Israeli army together.”
“Hm.” Claire puzzled over that. “I'm learning more about her all the time.” She looked down at Esther and returned to speaking English. “I like your friend Halevy. She seems nice.”
“She'll always be ‘Bat-Ami' to me,” Esther said.
Laurie bounced into the room, leaned over Esther, and kissed her on the forehead. “Hey, kiddo. I'm glad to see you're in one piece.” She became more somber. “Sorry about...you know...”
“Thank you, Laurie.”
Maurie's voice sounded now, from near the door. “Esther, you look like you've had a rough day.” They all looked to the door. He was leaned against the door-jamb, his jaunty, smiling persona masking his worry.
Esther managed a smile. “You should see the other fellow,” she said.
“Ronstein told me.” He looked at Angelique and Laurie. “She beat the living shit out of him.”
“Holy cow!” Laurie said. “Where'd you learn to fight like that?” In reply, Esther pointed at Angelique.
Maurie walked toward the bed. “They tell me that you'll be here for a few days. That's good. I'm bringing a special visitor this afternoon. He's coming a long way just to see you.”
“From Tel Aviv?” she asked.
“Yes. And try to look a little more pitiful, will you? It'll help your case. You look like the Queen of Sheba, surrounded by all your friends.”
Esther smiled at that. “Friends,” she echoed. “For so long, I have been alone.”
“I think that you're on the mend,” Maurie said. “In more ways than one. Shalom! ” He shot her a rakish grin and left.
“We must open the bar,” Angelique said. “We go. But we come back every day. If you need anything, you call? And if you need a place to stay when you get out...”
Esther squeezed Claire's hand. “I have what I need.” She looked at Claire. “As long as she'll take a chance on me.”
Angelique nodded. She wrapped an arm about Laurie's waist and hugged her to her side. “Maurie is right. You are healing in every way. Shalom, old friend.”
“You two make a delightful couple,” Esther noted.
As they walked to the door, Laurie called over her shoulder, “Darned right we do. ‘Later, Esther. Au revoir , Claire.”
That afternoon, Esther rested while the nurse came in and took some blood. She asked a few questions which Claire translated; then, satisfied with the answers, she left. Claire was seated on a stool by the bedside, and had her head and chest nestled on the bed next to Esther's hip. She held onto Esther's hand as she dozed.
She looked up when Maurie entered the room. “Esther,” he said. “I have someone here to see you. Now is good?”
Esther opened her eyes. “Yes. Now is good.”
Maurie became apologetic. “I'm afraid that he must speak with you alone.” He looked at Claire. “May I buy you a cup of coffee in the canteen?”
Claire shot a worried look at Esther, who squeezed her hand and replied, “Yes. It's all right. Go. I'll be fine.”
Reluctantly, Claire rose and walked with Maurie. As they left, Esther closed her eyes. A moment later, she opened them again, and she looked around the room. Standing about five feet away was the unmistakable figure of the Old Man. He was as she remembered: Short, with a thick shock of white hair and a white, open-collared shirt beneath a rumpled, dark suit. He leaned on a cane.
“Sir,” she said. “I didn't hear you come in.”
He managed a smile. “For an old man, I'm still pretty sneaky. Maurie told me about your miscarriage. I'm so sorry.”
“It's all right. Thank you.” She looked at him, and tried to read his expression to glean some knowledge of her fate. She found that she couldn't. His poker face was on. “So,” she asked, “what's it to be for me? A mental hospital, or the penitentiary?”
He sighed. “After Maurie and Angel called me and twisted my arm on your behalf, I had a long conversation with the prime minister. He has rendered his verdict.”
“Oh.” Esther closed her eyes. Her face hurt. Her abdomen hurt. And her heart hurt worst of all. “So it's too bad for Esther, is it?” she asked.
“That depends on how you look at it, I suppose.” The Old Man approached and stood next to her bedside. “He agrees with me that you did Israel a favor. That man was a piece of garbage, citizen or not. And he also agrees that you have given your all to Israel at a difficult time for us, and at great cost to you.” He withdrew a thick envelope from his jacket pocket and placed it on her abdomen.
She opened her eyes and looked down. “What's that?”
“Your new life. A new last name, a new birth certificate, a new passport, a bank book and card with your severance and retirement, a new driver's license, all you need. You're officially medically retired from the Israeli defense forces. If anyone asks, Mossad has never heard of you. You were never a Mossad assassin. We'll deny all knowledge. And you will never publically speak of it. You'll take it to your grave. Agreed?”
“I always knew it would be that way,” Esther said. “Sir?”
“May I ever return to Israel?”
“Of course. It's Angel that can't ever return.”
He pulled up the stool and settled down on it. “Obviously, she has not told you the story. I will. She successfully dealt with a particularly difficult and tricky target. In the process, she was identified. A fatwah was issued for her, a death sentence. Her name, her face was passed around. We barely had time to spirit her out of the country, fake her death, and relocate her here, in the massed humanity of Paris, where she could disappear in peace. It was highly classified; no one could talk about it.” His eyes expressed sympathy. “We couldn't even tell you.” He added, “Nor could she.”
“I see. Thank you, sir. That answers a burning question.”
“I thought it might.” He leaned on his cane. “Well, I must be returning to Tel Aviv. If there's nothing else...”
“Ah. Yes.” The Old Man scratched his chin. “An impetuous young man, that. I had to grovel and kiss ass to get him extracted from that French jail cell. The police commissioner was not happy. But he's heading back to Tel Aviv. And he's never welcome in France again, I assure you.”
“What will happen to him?”
“Besides the obvious demotion? He needs a lesson in humility. I think some time spent in charge of a detail clearing land mines in the Golan will do it. Nasty work, you know, but character-building.” The Old Man added, “If one survives it.”
“I suppose so.”
“ Shalom , Esther. You are as noble as your ancient namesake. And like her, you have done much to save your people.” He stood and offered his hand, and she took it. Then he smiled, released her hand, and walked toward the door.
When he reached it, she said, “Sir?”
He turned. His aura was weary, but pleased. “Yes?”
“Thank you, Esther. May God go with you always.” With that, he turned and left.
“And with you,” she whispered, as her hand grasped the envelope on her stomach.
Two weeks later.
Café Angel was empty; it was early afternoon. The delivery men had left, and Maurice was finishing paperwork at the bar. Angelique was practicing a new piece of music, repeating the chords over and over, listening to the inflection of her voice as she softly sang and played it, first one way, then another, until it seemed right and it settled into her heart.
She heard the buzzer at the locked front door and she heard Maurice answer it, but she did not look up. She concentrated on her moment, held the music close to her, lost herself in it, ached to soak it into her skin, her soul. And she felt, rather than saw or heard, a presence near her piano. She opened her eyes and looked up. Esther stood in front of her. She was dressed in a skirt and a tank-top and sandals, bright and sunny-looking. Her face was almost healed. At a glance, no one would have guessed her recent, deadly occupation, or the body count that her brutal skills had left behind her.
“Esther. You look like summer.” Angelique smiled. “You look good.”
“We Israeli girls, we know hot weather, yes?”
Esther leaned on the piano top. “So, Bat-Ami, play me a song.”
“What would you like to hear?”
“You know the one. The one you first played for me.”
Angelique nodded. Her hands found their place on the keyboard, and she began playing. After a while, she sang softly, gently.
“Moon River, wider than a mile...”
Esther closed her eyes and listened. And Esther sang with her.
“We're after the same rainbow's end,
Waiting ‘round the bend, my Huckleberry friend...”
And when the song ended, when the piano fell silent and the last notes drifted away, Esther said, “You remembered.”
“Of course.” Angelique took a sip from her water glass, then asked, “So, how are you? And how does it go with Claire?”
“Good.” A smile creased Esther's face, made her eyes twinkle the blue of mid-day summer. “Really, really good. We're inseparable, it seems, and we're making plans for the future. I'd forgotten what it was like, to be that way with someone.”
“Yes. Until I met Laurie, I had forgotten, also.”
“Love. There's really nothing quite like it, is there?” Her expression became serious. “To have someone who so adores you. Angel, it's frightening. What if I disappoint her? What if I break her heart?”
Angelique smiled at her. “You won't. I believe in you. And so does Claire. And so does Laurie.”
Esther laughed. “You always know just what to say to make me happy, don't you?”
A silence descended on them. Angelique cast Esther a quizzical little expression and waited for her thoughts. They would come. And they did.
“You're all settled now, and you're very in love with Laurie. But if you weren't, I mean, if things were different, do you think...?”
“You and me, again?” Esther shrugged shyly, and Angelique smiled at that. “Who could ever say ‘no' to you, Esther? Certainly not me.”
“That's nice. Thank you.” She collected her thoughts, then ventured one more. “The Old Man told me why you disappeared so suddenly, so long ago. He said you weren't allowed to tell me.”
“Yes. I am glad that you finally know why.”
“Me, too.” Esther's manner suddenly became very shy. “So, it wasn't because...of me?”
Angelique shook her head. “Esther, I could always forgive you anything. Do you not know that by now?”
“That's quite a load off my heart.”
Angelique nodded. “And off mine, also.”
For a long moment, they looked at each other, and they reveled in the presence of old friends and of new honesty. Closure, some call it. The final ends knit up, the final threads tied off. And it felt good for both of them.
Esther looked around. “So where's Laurie?”
“Upstairs, studying her French. Go. Say hello. She will be happy to see you. She has been asking about you.” Angelique pointed. “Up the back stairs. Ring the buzzer.”
“Well, I'll leave you to your music, Bat-Ami. It was always your first lover, anyway.” She laughed as she tread the stairs up to the door. “And you do her justice.”
Angelique smiled. She returned to her keyboard and the repetitious performance of new material. She heard the buzzer; she heard the apartment door open, and she heard Laurie's excited voice in the background, welcoming Esther. The door shut, and Angelique was alone with her music again. And her thoughts. And, for a moment, she was back in Israel, in the hot summer, in the recreational barracks of the army base, playing the beat-up piano in the corner. And she could almost feel the athletic young woman with the long blonde hair, clad in an army tee-shirt and baggy uniform pants, sit next to her on the bench and say, “Bat-Ami, you're really good at that. Can you play some Mancini for me? And by the way, my name is Esther.”
Djb, May, 2012
Return to the Academy