Copyright: Original story and characters, Copyright October, 2013, D.J. Belt. Any resemblance of any of the characters to anyone living or dead is like, totally radical and far out! (Also unintentional.) And many thanks to Maïté, who so kindly advised me on the French language and Paris. Thank you!
Disclaimers: ALT. Contains a scene of torture, a couple of ass-kickings, some assorted profanities, plenty of romance, and hopefully, some humor.
Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org . Feel free to write!
Misc.: This is the sixth story in the series. French-Israeli Angelique and American Laurie are lovers living in Paris. This time, Laurie is tested to her limits as opposing factions within the American CIA engage in a vicious contest – with her as the objective.
Angelique, Angelique: Book Two, Angelique: Book Three, Angelique: Book Four, Angelique: Book Five
Illegal CIA Black Site, unknown location in France, 2013
A door creaked; the squeak was a familiar sound to the prisoner. It focused her, pulled her from the dark stupor into which she had descended, and urged her to fight her way back to a state of awareness. She could not see, though; a black hood covered her head. Footsteps, slow and menacing, approached her, then halted before her. She waited for her inquisitor to act. What else could she do?
Her legs buckled from exhaustion. She hung by her wrists from a rope, and the bonds caused her hands to go numb. From time to time, she would summon the strength to stand erect, and she would feel the tingle and pain of circulation returning to her hands. Then, she would pass out from sleep deprivation, her knees would buckle again, and she would hang by her wrists in the darkness for a few minutes of sleep. She had long ago stopped shivering from the cool air in the cell; she had either acclimated, or she was just too exhausted.
The hood was snatched from her head, and she blinked at the sudden pain of a flashlight beam shining into her eyes. She closed her eyes and turned her head. After a moment, the light left her eyes, but she saw spots. She hung her head, blinked, and waited for the spots to clear. Slowly, they did, and the sight she saw confirmed to her that she was still in Hell.
She was clad only in a tank top and her underpants; her other clothing had been taken from her. Across her legs, she saw striped bruises left by a baton beating. Her feet were bare; the concrete floor beneath them was cold. Hanks of dirty red hair hung around her face. When, she wondered, had she last had a shower? She didn't know what day it was, how long she had been there, or even whether it was day or night. And she didn't know where she was, except that she hung in a concrete-walled room in what looked, to her, like an abandoned factory or warehouse. The signs on the distant walls, written in French, reassured her that she was still in her host country. Somehow, that had to be a good thing.
Her vision fixed upon the tan-colored military boots before her. Slowly, her gaze traveled up the legs clad in blue jeans, past the black t-shirt, and finally, at the face. The eyes considered her without passion, without anger, merely with curiosity. Cold eyes, they were; the cold eyes of a sociopath. A predator, whose prey was helpless before him. Behind him, she could see the video cameras on the walls, their constant, unblinking eyes staring at her, watching her. Her captor casually lit a cigarette as he spoke to her in English, in a voice edged with an American accent.
“So, are we ready to have a little chat, you and me?” He watched her struggle to keep her eyes focused on him, and he blew some smoke into her face. “You're getting pretty sleep-deprived and dehydrated. Electrolytes getting all messed up. Hallucinating. Pretty soon, your kidneys will shut down. You'll probably have a coronary. I'd guess you've got maybe two days left before you die, at this rate.”
She kept her eyes on his face. She struggled to speak. Finally, she managed to say, “Who are you?” Her voice did not sound like her own.
“Who I am,” he said, “is your best friend or your worst enemy, whichever you want me to be.”
“Why is this happening to me?”
“We talked about that.”
“I told you everything I know.”
“Except who took out our black ops team outside Paris last year.”
“I don't know. That's the truth.”
He studied her. “Bullshit,” he said. “You saw it. You know.”
“It's the truth.” She struggled to stand tall. “As God is my witness, I don't know who they were.”
“Wrong answer.” He flicked open a knife blade, and she gasped. She attempted to retreat from him, but she couldn't back away more than a couple of inches. He grabbed her tank top and pulled it away from her chest, then slit it open and yanked it from her. A moment later, he cut her underpants away. As he clicked the knife shut and pocketed it, he considered her body. Chill bumps covered her skin; her nipples were contracted from the cool air in the cell. Exposure and humiliation: ‘enhanced interrogation' at work.
She closed her eyes and turned her face away from him. “Getting an eyeful?” she asked. “Fucking pervert.”
“This ain't about that. Give me a right answer,” he said, “and you'll get some clothes back.” He glanced around the room. “It's chilly in here. Going to get worse tonight.” A second later, he added, “And don't flatter yourself. You're not my type, honey. I don't like redheads. And you're too skinny. No tits. Are you sure you're not anorexic or something?”
“Go jump yourself, asshole.”
He laughed. “Well,” he said. “I see I haven't broken your spirit yet.” He took a drag on his cigarette and exhaled. “Don't worry. I will. I always do. It's just a matter of time.”
“How can you do this to me? Who are you?” She studied his face, burned every detail of his features into her memory. If she ever got out of this, she'd find him again. And when she did... He ignored her question, turned away from her, and began walking toward the door.
A sudden thought flashed into her mind, and she said, “You're CIA, aren't you? Yeah, that's it. I've met you bozos once before. I know your type. You sick asshole.”
He stopped. Slowly, he turned and retraced his steps until he was standing in front of her. He dropped the cigarette on the floor and ground it out with the toe of his boot. “Very clever,” he said. Then, he punched her in the abdomen. She doubled up at his punch, then went limp and began sobbing. Her thighs felt warm. She looked down; she was urinating on herself.
“Please stop,” she begged. “Please. I can't take this anymore.”
“You know what you need to tell me.”
“Now we're getting somewhere.” He went to the door and spoke with someone in the hall. A moment later, two men entered. One shoved a wooden chair behind her legs. The rope suspending her went limp. She collapsed onto the chair, and her hands were cut free. She wrapped her arms about her chest and drew her knees up so that her feet rested on the chair's seat.
“Who did it?” he asked.
“Get me a blanket,” she replied. “I'm not sitting here naked in front of you assholes.”
“Get her a blanket,” he said. A moment later, an olive-drab blanket was thrown at her. She wrapped it about herself as her inquisitor stood by her chair. He grasped a handful of her hair and pulled her head back. “Look at the camera, honey, and tell us who you are. Speak up.”
“You know who I am.”
“Just for the record.”
She slapped his hand away and shot a deadly, defiant glare at the camera. “My name,” she said, “is Laurie Caldwell. I'm an American citizen, and if I ever see any of you again, I swear to God that I'll find a way to get even with you.”
“Who did it?” he asked. “Who rescued you? Who took out our team?”
Laurie sat up and leaned forward. She looked into the camera and spoke slowly, enunciating each word clearly. “I don't know. I wouldn't tell you even if I did.” After a second of silence, she added, “But I can tell you one thing.”
“Yeah? It had better be some names, or you're in for another beating.”
Laurie managed a smirk. “They know where I am.”
“Nobody knows where you are. Quit stalling.”
“They do. You don't have to go looking for them. They'll come to you. I promise you that. And when they do, you're not gonna like it.”
Her interrogator yanked her backward by her hair. “You're screwing with us. Cuff her hands.”
She felt cold metal handcuffs ratchet around her wrists. The blanket was yanked from her body. A moment later, he slapped her with an open hand so hard that the chair overturned and she fell to the floor. Her ears rang from the blow, and her face burned. He grabbed a handful of hair and lifted her from the floor. Over her shriek of pain, he yelled, “Who are they? Who?”
An explosion, followed by the pop-pop-pop of what sounded like gunshots, echoed in the furthest portions of the building. A moment later, shouts echoed in the building, a confused, frantic sound, and running feet pounded across concrete. The inquisitor looked toward the door, and a face showed itself around the door-jamb. “The site's been compromised. Bail out, now!”
“Who is it?” he said. “The French cops?”
“No. I don't know.”
He pointed toward Laurie. “Help me secure the prisoner.”
“Forget about her. Bail! They're killing everybody!”
The inquisitor released his hold on Laurie's hair, and he ran to the back door. She collapsed onto the cold, dirty concrete and listened to nearby gunshots and shouts. After some time, the gunshots stopped. She tried to rise, but she found that she had no strength left. All she could do was weep, and she did that loudly, without restraint or shame. It was over. It was finally over.
She was still weeping when softer footsteps approached her, when snatches of conversation in Hebrew reached her consciousness, when a blanket was thrown over her and wrapped around her and someone lifted her from the floor. Her wrists were held; the handcuffs fell away. She wrapped an arm around the neck of whoever was holding her. The body felt intimately familiar. “Angel?” she whispered.
The reply was soft, in accented English. “Yes. I am so sorry. We came as soon as we could.”
“Don't ever let go of me again. Please.”
She felt herself carried from the room. “I never will,” the voice assured her. “You are safe now. On my soul, I promise you that.”
Two weeks later. CIA Headquarters, Langley, Virginia , United States .
Two men and a woman sat around a conference table, watching a video. Again and again they watched it, then backed it up and watched again. Finally, the older man put it on pause. “Where the hell did we go so wrong?” he asked.
“The black site was compromised, obviously,” the younger man said. “Whoever freed that prisoner must have followed them. The ops there must not have been following protocol. They got sloppy, and it got them killed.”
“No,” the woman said. “They followed protocol. The elements who penetrated their security and took them all out were just that damned good.”
“And who has elements that good?” the younger man asked. “Militant Islamists? The French? Yeah, right.”
The woman smiled. “Mossad does.”
“What? Why would Mossad – ?” He waved his hand, dismissing her point. “They weren't Mossad.”
“They were speaking Hebrew. Weren't you listening?”
“They couldn't have been. She was connected to terrorists. Mossad wouldn't save her.”
“That woman had nothing to do with terrorists. She was indirectly connected to Mossad, though.”
“Wrong. She was our link to the elements who took out that contract black ops team outside Paris last year. Terrorists.”
“Nope. I believe that Mossad took ‘em out.”
The woman and the younger man argued, an exchange which was brought to a quick halt when the older man's hand slammed down onto the table. They both stared at him. For a moment thick with emotion, he sat still. Then, he looked at them and spoke.
“You're both missing the point. Where did we go so very, very wrong?” He looked from one face to the other. Two associates, both half his age, both from Ivy League universities, both with impeccable credentials. Both of whom came aboard just after Nine-Eleven. Neither of whom remembered the Cold War. “I mean, where along the way did we so completely become the bad guys?”
“Sir?” the woman asked. “I don't understand the question.”
“Look at the video,” he said. “What is happening there?”
“The compromise of a black site,” the young woman said. “Our ops getting killed.”
“No. Before that.”
“The interrogation of a prisoner,” the young man said.
“A prisoner?” the older man said. “Do you know who she is? She's an American citizen living in France. That's all. No proven ties to any terrorist organization. She's a witness to the elimination of a black ops contract team outside Paris last year. We want to know who did it. So some genius inside the Agency decides that we should go to France, set up an illegal black site, kidnap her, and torture her to find out. How freakin' wrong is that? Why didn't we just invite her for a cup of coffee and ask her?”
“Sir, it was all according to the Agency protocols for extraordinary rendition and enhanced interrogation,” the young man said.
“Oh, right. Sure. There's international laws against kidnapping and torturing people, so we'll call it ‘extraordinary rendition' and ‘enhanced interrogation' instead. And I won't even mention how many laws we broke by setting up an illegal black site in France. God, if the French find ever find out we did that in their country, there'll be absolute hell to pay.” He looked at the woman. “Ms. Lawrence, do you classify that as interrogation or torture?”
“I – I'm not quite sure, sir.”
“Well, at least that's something.” He looked at the younger man. “Mr. Kendall, do you classify that as interrogation or torture?”
He shrugged. “Interrogation, sir. Definitely.”
“Well, I disagree. I've been doing this since you two were in preschool, and I classify that as torture, pure and simple. Look at her! They hung her up in that room for two days. They deprived her of food and water and sleep until she began hallucinating. They stripped her naked and exposed her to the cold and to humiliation. They beat her with batons. They covered her head with a sack – ”
“Begging pardon, sir. That's all protocol in interrogations,” Kendall said. “Agency protocol.”
“That's what I'm talking about!” he yelled. Again, his hand banged the table. “How in the name of all that's holy can you two just sit there and watch that video and not be horrified by that? She told them everything she knew before they ever started that spectacle. That should have been obvious to anybody there. It's as obvious to me as the nose on my face.”
“Sir, the op in charge must have felt that she knew more.”
“No.” He stared at the young man. “Mr. Kendall, that man orchestrated the torture of that young woman because he enjoyed it, and for no other reason. He's a God-damned psychopath! He has to be. Who else can do that for a living?” The two younger analysts sat in shock, staring at their boss. “Where's your conscience? Your principles?” He looked from face to face and waved a hand at the image frozen on the monitor. “She could have been my daughter. Your best friend. Your sweetheart. Look at her! How can you view this and not be moved to horror by what we've become? How can you justify this in your own minds?”
“Sir,” Kendall said, “we personally had nothing to do with that black site. We knew nothing about it until we were tasked with analyzing its destruction today.”
“And that absolves us of guilt?” the older man asked. “We're part of the organization that did this to her.”
“It's our task,” Lawrence said, “to figure out what went wrong. A dispassionate opinion and recommendations. Analysis only.”
“Dispassionate?” the older man said. “If you can sit here and watch that video and remain dispassionate about it, then I feel damned sorry for both of you.” He rose from his chair, paced the length of the room, and stared out the window at the distant capitol city.
Kendall and Lawrence looked across the table at each other. They closed their folders and began to rise, but they froze at their boss's command.
“Don't you dare leave.”
Slowly, they took their seats. Their boss looked at them. “Mr. Kendall,” he said. “I want three copies of the complete video archive of that young woman's – interrogation – in my hands this afternoon. And Ms. Lawrence, I want to know if that man is alive. Did he survive the attack?”
“Yes, sir. I believe that he and one other op survived.”
“Where is he now?”
“I don't know, sir. I'll have to check. We'll find him.”
“I want him in my office as soon as you can locate him and bring him here.”
“And I want all the background that you have on that young woman on my desk this afternoon. I want to know the chain of events that brought us to this place.”
13 Rue d'Espoir, Paris, France.
“How are you feeling?”
Laurie sat up on the living-room sofa. She watched as Angelique approached her and sat beside her. “Okay,” she said.
“That was not how-do-you-say? Convincing.”
Angelique brushed the hair away from Laurie's face with her fingers, and Laurie leaned against her. She took comfort in Angelique's near presence; in the warm, fit body, in the sense of protection and assurance that it gave her. Angelique. Angel. Her angel. Her rock, her refuge, her shelter. “I guess it wasn't very convincing,” Laurie said.
“Come. Be with me.” Angelique leaned back on the sofa, and Laurie nestled against her. She loved Angelique's arms about her, the shoulder supporting her head, the soft, accented voice which spoke to her. “I worry for you,” Angelique said. “You are deeply injured.”
Laurie pulled up the hem of her flannel night-gown and exposed her thighs. The bruises had faded, the evidence of violence was almost gone. “No, I'm almost healed.”
“Not that.” Angelique kissed her forehead between the parted bangs of red hair. “You are different.”
“What do you mean?” Laurie asked. She looked up at Angelique.
“I tell you always that you are, to me, the measure of what is good and right. I love that in you. I feel something different from you now.”
“What do you feel?”
“There is a darkness. I can see it in you.” Angelique looked at Laurie, looked into those brown eyes. “You hate. Never before have you hated.”
“Maybe I've got a reason.”
“That man. Do you hate him?”
“If you were to meet him today, could you kill him?”
Laurie did not bat an eye. Her voice was emotionless, steady. “Yeah. In a God-damned heartbeat.”
“This is not you,” Angelique said. “This hatred, it is fierce. It consumes you. It will destroy you. I understand it because I was there once.”
“It's pretty ugly, for sure,” Laurie said. “I don't want to feel this way. How can I get rid of it?”
“There are two ways, only: you must either forgive this man, or you must kill him. Only then will you conquer this feeling, this obsession.”
“How did you resolve your hatred, Angel?”
Laurie sighed and rested her head against Angelique's neck. “I really don't think I can forgive. I mean, I'd love to say that I can. I'd love to be that big a person. But I know – in my heart of hearts – that I can't forgive that man for what he did to me.”
“Then you must kill him.”
“First, we find him. Then, we track him. Then, when the timing is right, you kill him.”
“Who is he? Do you know him? He got away from us when you rescued me. We'll never find him.”
“Let me ask. I still have friends in Mossad. They will find him. They know CIA people. From time to time, Mossad receives prisoners from them.”
Laurie thought about that. Then, she lifted her head and looked at Angelique. “We're really gonna do this, aren't we?”
Laurie rested her head on Angelique's shoulder. “Good.”
“You must realize, Laurie, that your first kill will change you forever.”
“I'm already changed. I want to go back to what I was, but I know that I never can. And that's really a shame, ‘cause I liked who I was.” She snorted, a curt little laugh. “Even if I was a Pollyanna. Naive little Laurie Caldwell, that was me. What a putz.”
“I loved who you were. I love you now, but I hurt for you. Forgiveness or revenge, that will take away the hate. Nothing else will help.”
“Then give me the chance to get my peace of mind back.”
It was Angelique's turn to sigh. “If that will give you peace.”
CIA Headquarters, Langley, Virginia.
Jack Kendall and Janet Lawrence stepped into the hall and closed their boss's office door. They stood quietly for a moment, then shared a mutual, cautious glance. Kendall said, “I think we need to talk.”
“I agree,” Lawrence replied. She looked at her watch. “It's lunchtime. The pub?”
They headed toward the exit and walked through the enormous parking lot. His car was closest; they left the CIA campus in it and headed toward the Washington Parkway. In fifteen minutes, they were across the Potomac River, in Glen Echo, in a little Irish pub which was their usual meeting place for honest, off-the-record conversations. After the server took their lunch orders and brought their drinks, Kendall looked across the booth at Lawrence. “What?” he said.
“Jack, are you thinking what I'm thinking?”
“You mean, has the old man finally lost it?” Kendall thought about it. “Yeah. I think so. He needs to retire. He's a relic from the Cold War. Thinks there's still rules.”
She leaned across the table toward him. “But don't you see where he's coming from? Didn't you cringe at what we saw? That video was haunting, Jack. I can't get it out of my head. I'm going to dream about that tonight.”
“Yeah. The first couple of times you see enhanced interrogation, it's shocking.”
“It didn't shock you?”
“No. It didn't.” He read her expression as disbelieving, and he said, “Listen, she had a link to elements who killed our people. They have to get intel out of her any way they can, Janet.”
She stared at him. Finally, she asked, “Then you condone what we saw in there?”
“It's protocol. The Attorney General said it's okay. Yeah, sure.”
“Since when is torture okay?”
“It's not torture unless she dies or a major organ shuts down. She didn't die; therefore, she wasn't tortured.”
“She would have died if they'd kept it up. They would have killed her, Jack. She either didn't have the intel they wanted, or she wasn't giving it up. They would have kept it up until she was in a shallow grave in the French countryside.”
“So what? She was connected to terrorists, Janet!”
“No, she wasn't!” Janet looked around to insure that no one was nearby, then said, “Do you know the story behind her?” When he shook his head, she said, “I do. Let me give you the thumbnail sketch.”
The server brought their food and set a salad down before each of them. After she left, Janet placed her napkin in her lap, but she did not eat. She leaned toward Jack and kept her voice low. “She's an American citizen, living in France with her girlfriend. That's her only crime.”
“Then why – ?”
“I'm getting to that. Her girlfriend is a former Mossad assassin. A legend. ‘The Angel of Mossad', they used to call her. She's retired now. Deceased, if you ask the Israelis. In reality, she lives a quiet life in France. Won't take free-lance jobs anymore. So, maybe a year ago, we put out a kill contract on a Muslim cleric named Shaykh Ali Barfarush, living in London. He's a militant Islamist, a real rabble-rouser. He's also hard to get close to. It would have been a tough job, and evading the British police after the kill would have been even tougher.”
“So, instead of using professionals, we give the contract to a bunch of ex-Blackwater goons. They decide it's too risky and try to subcontract this ‘Angel of Mossad' to do it for them. She refuses, of course. Not to be put off, they kidnap her girlfriend and hold her ransom. The next thing we know, the entire black ops team is slaughtered at a farmhouse outside of Paris. It was ugly.”
“She did it?” Jack asked. “Do we know that for sure?”
“Not officially. Who else could it have been, though? Who else would have had motivation to rescue that girl? I suspect that it was her ex-Mossad girlfriend, probably backed up by the Mossad section in Paris. The Israelis did it.”
“So what's your point here?”
“Jack, if we'd approached the Ali Barfarush assassination with any level of good judgement at all, none of that would have happened. That contract kill team would not have been lost last year. And our black site in France wouldn't have been eliminated last month. And that girl – Laurie Caldwell – would not have been abducted and tortured by the very outfit that I'm becoming ashamed to say I work for.”
“So it's our fault?”
“You agree with the old man?” he asked.
“Yes. The more I think about it, the more I agree with him. This whole thing is obscene. We've lost our collective soul, Jack. We're no better than Al-Qaeda.” She studied his face. “You don't think so?”
“No,” he said. “I don't think so. We have to do what we have to do, Janet. There's no good or bad about it; it just is.”
She stared at him, open-mouthed, for a moment. Then, she picked up her fork and picked at her salad. After a long silence, she said, “I'm sorry you feel that way, Jack. I really am.”
They did not talk for the rest of their lunch. When they arrived back at the CIA campus and approached the door, Jack stopped Janet with a hand on her sleeve. “Do you still want me to come over tonight?” he asked.
She thought for a second, then shook her head. “I think I need to be alone tonight.”
“Another night, then?”
She glanced toward the ground. “No, Jack. I don't think so.” With that, she left him and walked toward the door.
Laurie left the apartment she shared with Angelique, and she descended the back stairs to the bar. It was just before opening, and Maurice, the bartender and manager, was there. The other servers were arriving. When Emma saw Laurie, she squealed in delight and ran to her. “Oh, Laurie!” she said in French. “I'm so glad to see you back at work.” She kissed her cheeks, then held her at arm's length and looked at her. “You are well?”
“Yes. Thanks for coming to visit me. And I like your hair. It's blue now?” She saw Angelique sitting in a corner booth, speaking with a young man. “Who's that?”
Emma tapped her lip piercing with a finger as she considered the scene. “I don't know,” she said. “But they're speaking Hebrew, I think.” She rolled her eyes. “I don't ask. It's not my business.”
Angelique and the man stood, and they shook hands. He left, and Laurie took her place at Angelique's side. She spoke in English. “Is everything okay?”
“Yes, yes.” Angelique hesitated, then said, “I have new information. We talk tonight, after work.” With that, she kissed Laurie on the forehead and walked to her piano.
Emma poked Laurie in the ribs. “Ooh!” she said. “Secret things, eh?”
Laurie smiled and waved it off. Inside, though, she felt a slow dread begin to build in her soul. It was real. The resolution of her hatred was about to take tangible form and action. It would end with her killing that man, and she wasn't sure how she felt about it.
Langley, Virginia. CIA headquarters.
Janet Lawrence knocked on the door of her boss's office. When he opened it in person, she blinked in surprise. Usually, he just shouted, “Come in.” He must have read her expression correctly.
“Surprised? Come inside,” he said. “Do you have what I wanted?”
“Yes, sir.” She handed him a paper with all the computer file links listed. “Here's everything.”
“Fine. And that man?”
“We're still looking for him, sir. I'll let you know as soon as I hear anything. The link to his personnel file is on that paper.”
“Good. Keep on top of it.” He studied the paper, then looked up at her.
She took a deep breath, then spoke. “I just wanted you to know – ” She huffed, and tried again. “I agree with you. Completely.”
He relaxed. “My, my,” he said. “For a moment, I felt like the lone voice crying in the wilderness. And Mister Kendall? I presume he doesn't feel the same way?”
“No, sir. He doesn't.”
“Hm.” He thought about that, then looked at her. “I also presume that this throws a serious monkey wrench into your quiet little affair with him?”
Her jaw dropped. “Sir? You knew about that?”
“I'm an astute observer of human nature.”
She managed a blush. “Yes, sir. It did.”
“Um.” He walked to the windows in his office and gazed out at the distant Potomac River. “So now the question becomes: What do we do about this? How do we make it right? How can we insure that it never happens again?”
She joined him at the window. “I thought I'd ask your advice on that, sir.”
“My advice?” He looked at her. “What we're talking about here is a fundamental shift in the way this entire organization thinks. Neither you nor I are highly-enough placed to accomplish that. That would take him.” He pointed toward Washington, D.C. “And even he can't do it. A couple of years ago, he signed a Presidential directive to shut down those black sites. They're still in operation today. We just lie to him about them. No, Ms. Lawrence, we can't change it. We can agitate and complain up the chain of command, but they'll just tell us to shut up. And when we don't, they'll squash us. Bureaucracy hates change, and it hates crusaders.”
“Then, sir, what can we do?”
“I'm retiring. I've had enough. I'm sickened by it all, by what we've become.” He glanced at her. “I suggest that you resign and get out of here as soon as you can, if you want to keep your soul.”
“What about the black sites? What about Laurie Caldwell? We're just going to do nothing?”
“Oh, I plan on doing something.”
“Count me in, too.”
He turned to her. “No, Ms. Lawrence. You have your whole life ahead of you. Live it. Me, I'm – well, it's different for me.” He returned to gazing out the window.
Janet considered his profile; he looked thinner than she remembered, tired. He had been taking a lot of sick time lately, she recalled. “Well, sir,” she finally said. “If you'll excuse me, I have a letter of resignation to write.” She watched him nod and smile. “Any advice?”
“Yes.” He turned to her. “If you ever talk about this, they'll crucify you. You realize that?”
“What do you think you might do? The economy's in the crapper. No jobs out there.”
She shrugged. “I saved some money. I might backpack through Europe. It's always been a secret dream of mine.”
“I did that in Nineteen Seventy-four, after I got out of the army. Ended up in Amsterdam. What a place it was back then.” He smiled. “I was stoned for three days straight, and I fell hopelessly in love with a most delightful girl, a Scandinavian hippie. It was the happiest time of my entire life.” He smiled, a wistful smile. “God, I was so alive back then.”
“Do you remember her name?”
“I'll never forget it. Suvi Hjelmstad. She said she was from Stockholm, originally.”
“What happened to her?”
“What happens to us all?” He shrugged. “Life.” He turned to her. “Ms. Lawrence, if you do decide to backpack through Europe, call me at home. I might prevail upon you to make an unofficial visit to someone in Paris. I have a small gift for them which I think may go a long way toward righting a recent and terrible injustice.”
She smiled. A mutual understanding colored their expressions. “I'd be delighted, sir.”
He held out his hand, and she took it. “It's been an honor, Ms. Lawrence.”
“It has, sir.” With that, she left his office.
In the hall, she bumped into Jack Kendall. They looked at each other, and she saw the hurt in his eyes. He said, “Janet – ”
“No, Jack. I'm done with all of this. That includes us, too. I'm sorry.” With that, she entered her office and closed the door behind her.
It had been a good evening at Café Angel, 13 Rue d'Espoir in the Latin Quarter. Angelique, the bar's owner, had shone at the piano, playing and singing a variety of songs old and new, and Laurie and the other servers, ‘Angelique's bar-girls' as they called themselves, had hustled drinks and coffee and espresso to their tables and booths along with smiles and jokes and conversation for the regulars who populated their bar.
And whenever Maurice got the chance, he would tease the servers as he filled their trays with their customers' wishes. And all the while Angelique, at her baby grand piano in the corner of the bar, kept the clientele entertained as her music floated above the gentle buzz of conversation and laughter. Regulars filled the place: scholars from the local university, lawyers, clerks, plumbers and shop-keepers, young couples in love looking for an accepting spot to sit and nuzzle and drink and whisper; they all came to Café Angel. And they smiled at Angelique's husky, warm voice and gentle piano when she sang love songs; they nodded appreciatively when she played Beethoven or Chopin; and they clapped and sang furiously when she made the bar ring with an Edith Piaf classic. And they drank and tipped generously and filled Angelique's tip glass with Euro notes, and they waved good-bye to everyone as they left, and it was no different tonight. Whatever the magic formula was for running a successful piano bar, Angelique and her comrades had found it. Laurie could see it, night after night, and she had fallen in love with it. This was her home now; Angelique and The Latin Quarter of Paris and the life they'd forged over the last year and a half, since they'd met. Her native Kansas seemed a million miles and another lifetime away. She doubted that she could ever return to it for more than an occasional visit anymore. In her heart, she was European now, and she loved the idea of it. But it was Angelique that she loved, most of all.
At closing time one table remained, at Angelique's invitation. It contained two couples, Angelique's and Laurie's close friends. After the servers and Maurice had left and the door was locked behind them, Angelique took a seat with them. Laurie joined them a moment later and popped the cork on a fresh bottle of wine, and they settled down for conversation.
Laurie looked around the table. Next to her, Angelique sat in that quiet, reassuring manner that she had come to adore. On Angelique's far side, Allie sat. Allison: her older sister, the University of Kansas librarian who'd come to visit and had fallen in love with Maurie, the handsome forty-something Israeli sabra with the devil-may-care aura about him and a wealth of Mossad experience. Freshly retired, they were planning to move to a Greek island and live aboard a sailboat. While they were still in Paris, though, they were at Angelique's call. Across the table from them sat Esther, another ex-Mossad assassin, a young woman with short, spiky blonde hair and the bluest eyes Laurie ever remembered seeing. Her lover leaned against her: Claire, a French shop-keeper with the heart of a poetess and a unique passion for beauty in all its forms. Since only half the table spoke Hebrew and everyone's competence in French was different, but all spoke English, that had become their common language.
Laurie said, “Listen, guys. Thanks. I mean it. Maurie, Esther, Angel; if you three hadn't found me so quickly, I'd be dead now. I'll never forget that you risked your lives to save my butt.”
“Speaking of that,” Maurie said, “have we ever discovered why the CIA took you?”
“All I remember is that they kept wanting to know who killed those guys last year.”
“Oh, yes.” Maurie nodded. “They want payback for that.”
“It would seem,” Esther added, “that you two are now enemies in their eyes, Bat-Ami.”
Angelique smiled at that. Only Esther still called her by her Hebrew surname. “An honor, I suppose.”
Allie said, “They started it, didn't they? You know, when they kidnapped Laurie a year ago?”
Angelique shrugged. “It matters not who started it. It is that way in Gaza, also; they do not remember who began what. They just want revenge.”
Maurie said, “They'll keep coming back. This most recent loss will make them madder than ever.”
Esther nodded. “Yes. An entire station. We killed, what? Seven, eight of them?”
“But we did not kill the one who counted,” Angelique said.
“I will,” Laurie said. The entire table went silent at that. “I've never hated anyone in my life like I hate that man. Like Angel said: to get peace, forgive him or kill him. I can't forgive him. So, I need to kill him.”
“I can't understand that,” Claire said. “To hate so deeply.”
“I couldn't, either,” Laurie said. “Until now.”
Esther said, “Most of us at this table understand. I do.”
“But it's for revenge,” Claire said. “A bad reason for anything.”
“Revenge? Perhaps. We Israelis might say it's justice. An eye for an eye. There is a wisdom to it. It will resolve her feelings, bring her a peace of sorts.”
“A peace?” Claire said. “In the murder of another person?”
“A rabid dog,” Angelique said. “Nothing more. He is an evil man. The world is a better place without him.”
“Do we know who this man is?” Maurie asked.
“No,” Angelique said. “I spoke with a Mossad agent tonight. He can find us nothing but a name, and it is a common one. Jeremy Smith.”
“Oh, God. There must be a thousand Jeremy Smiths in America,” Allie said. “It'll take years to figure out who the right one is.”
“If it's even his correct name,” Esther added.
“Well,” Allie said. “I'm a librarian. I know research. I'll do whatever you want me to do, little sis. If I can't find him, nobody can.”
“And I am, as always, at your side, Angel. Ask, and I'll be there,” Maurie said.
“Me, too,” Esther said. “Whatever you wish of me, just ask. I owe the both of you more than you can know.”
Claire smiled. “And me, Laurie. All I can offer is how-do-you-say? Tea and philosophy, but we're all with you. We love you.”
“Thanks, guys.” Laurie said. “I appreciate it.”
They rose from the table. “We'll give you two a ride home,” Maurie offered to Esther and Claire. “My car's outside. And Angel? Just call us.”
“Thank you, Maurie.”
Claire hugged Laurie, then whispered, “Esther sees a psychiatrist. He's very good. Here's his name and address. Perhaps he can help you as he does her.” She pressed a slip of paper into Laurie's hand, then kissed her cheeks and left with the others.
After Angelique locked the door, she joined Laurie. “What is that?” she asked.
Laurie held up the slip of paper. “A headshrinker.”
Angelique blinked in surprise. “I am sorry. What?”
Laurie smiled. “A psychiatrist. Esther sees him. Claire thinks it will help me.”
“Then go,” Angelique said. “The national health insurance, it will pay. Use it.” She puzzled a moment, then laughed. “Headshrinker. Oh! I think I understand. That is really funny.” Together, they climbed the stairs to their apartment, hand in hand.
Manassas, Virginia. Four days later.
Jeremy Smith sat at the bar, nursing a beer and half-heartedly watching the cable news channel. International news always depressed him, but as long as it was delivered in a crisp, polished manner by attractive news babes with short skirts and long legs, it was tolerable. It became intolerable when people who didn't know what they were talking about rattled on endlessly. Damned university eggheads. They didn't have a clue. He, however, did. He'd been in intelligence-gathering for fifteen years. He'd interrogated countless prisoners in his time, and he'd had some pretty close calls. France was his most recent one.
He still didn't know who'd compromised his black site and killed his people, but he knew they weren't Islamist extremists. They were too quiet, too methodical, too intense. In short, too perfect.
He was sitting in limbo, having been returned from the field by his superiors for some rest before getting re-assigned. For a while, he contemplated calling his ex-wife, but she'd had a restraining order taken out against him. She refused to communicate with him in any way but e-mail or letter, anyway. Smart. That way, she had a written record of everything said between them. He thought about his daughter, then decided to leave well enough alone. It had been a while since he'd seen her, anyway. He doubted if she'd even remember him anymore. It's the past, he decided. Let it go, shut the hell up, and just keep writing the child support checks until she's eighteen.
His cell phone rang, and he fished it out of his pocket. He looked at the number; he didn't recognize the extension, but he recognized the prefix. It was CIA. He held it to his ear. “Hello?”
“Who wants to know?”
“It's your section chief, smart-ass. I've got Langley breathing down my neck about you. Something about that black site in France. What the hell did you do out there?”
“Well, keep your head down for a while. It'll blow over eventually, just like that Abu Ghraib thing finally did.”
“It always does. What the hell am I supposed to do in the meantime?”
“I don't know. Go hike the Appalachian Trail or something.”
“Yeah. Right.” He couldn't believe that his boss actually told him to go take a hike.
“Seriously. Stay in touch, and keep quiet, for Christ's sake.”
“Yeah, right. Later,” he said, and hung up. He shoved the phone into his pocket, and thought about what he'd just heard. He needed to focus, to find a purpose. Maybe he should take a trip. Thailand? Oh, yeah. Now there was a place to get lost in. Nah. Too far. He needed to stay closer to home. Mexico? Nah. Too many crazies and drug lords there. A gringo like him would stand out. Vegas? Oh, yeah. Bingo. His kind of place. Glitter, booze, and legalized gambling and prostitution. A fellow could have himself a pretty good week in Vegas, as long as his money held out. And if it didn't, he could always go camping in the desert.
He pulled the phone from his pocket, connected to the internet, and began to research flights to Las Vegas, Nevada, as he ordered another beer.
Paris, France. Three weeks later.
Angelique concentrated on the punching bag. Strike, strike, high kick; she'd fallen into a rhythm of violence against the bag. She paused for a second and looked across the gym. Laurie was on a distant treadmill pounding out a hard run, arms and legs pumping, pony-tail bouncing. She seemed so determined, so focused; that was good, Angelique decided. Exercise was a balm for a legion of ailments, both physical and emotional, and Laurie still had a lot of healing to do.
She was improving, Angelique could tell. It had been over a month now since she had been abducted and tortured, and she was finally smiling more, laughing at a joke again, relaxing in public. She'd also taken up intense exercise as a therapy, and was seeing Esther's psychiatrist. She was a fighter, and she would heal and emerge from this stronger than ever. That was Laurie, and that was one of the qualities about her that Angelique so loved and admired. What was it that Nietzsche said? ‘What does not kill us, makes us stronger.' Angelique smiled to think that Laurie would probably reply, ‘What doesn't kill me, just totally pisses me off.'
When they were alone, though, she seemed more clingy, more attached. When they slept together at night, Laurie held tightly to her. Before, she preferred to spoon against Angelique's back; now, she wanted to curl up in front of Angelique, to pull her arms about her, to press backward against her body as if pleading for protection. And often, she did not sleep well.
Angelique focused on the punching bag. Punch, punch, kick; the rhythm settled in again. Her concentration was disrupted by Esther's voice.
“Angel, I'm here. Let me warm up, and we'll spar.”
Ten minutes later, Angelique and Esther occupied the mats in a corner of the gym, sparring in the distinctive Krav Maga style of unarmed combat that had become second nature to them over the years. Fresh from her treadmill, Laurie watched in silence as she sipped water and mopped her face with a towel. When, eventually, they left the gym and walked up the street toward their apartment, Laurie ventured a thought.
“Teach me that, Angel.”
“What?” Angelique cast a surprised glance toward Laurie.
“I want to learn that. Teach me how to do that.”
“Ah, I am not sure – ”
“Angel, I'm sick of being a victim. Give me some power. Teach me that.”
“Perhaps it is not best for me to teach you,” she finally said.
“What? Why not?”
“Because we are lovers, you and me. With you, I will be too tender. It is best to have another teacher.”
“Yeah? Like who?”
“Like perhaps Esther. She is not employed right now. I will offer to pay her to teach you this.”
“Angel, that's sweet of you to offer, but I can pay her. I earn money, you know.” She nudged her body against Angelique's as they walked together. “I work in your bar. Remember?”
“It is because of me that you are in danger. They seek me through you. It has happened twice now. It is my fault; please let me do this, to make it right. I owe you this.”
They fell into silence as they walked. As they turned onto Rue d'Espoir and walked toward Café Angel , Laurie said, “Do you really think it's all your fault?”
“Yes. If you were not with me, you would not be in such danger.”
They turned down the alleyway next to Café Angel and tread the back stairs up to their apartment. As Angelique tapped a code into a key pad and unlocked the door with her key, Laurie said, “I'm with you because I choose to be with you.” She shrugged when Angelique looked at her. “I love you. I want to be with you.” She managed a weak laugh. “And besides, you always seem to be there just in time to pull my beans out of the fire.”
“Perhaps one day, I will not be there in time. Then what?”
“Then?” They stepped inside and closed the door. “Then, I will have lived a life with you, happy beyond my wildest dreams.” She dropped her bag on the floor and snaked her arms around Angelique's waist. “I am, you know. Happy. In spite of everything lately.”
Angelique pulled her tightly to her, embraced her, felt her warmth, breathed her scent. “Then – then, you will not leave me?” she whispered.
Laurie looked into Angelique's face. “Is that what you're afraid of?”
Her whisper was a soft confession. “Yes.”
“Well, stop it. If I've told you once, I've told you a hundred times: I'm here for as long as you'll have me.”
“Then you stay forever?”
Laurie smiled at that. “Forever. I like the sound of that.”
Angelique traced her fingertips over Laurie's mouth. “You are smiling. It is a nice thing to see.”
“Have I been that grumpy?” Laurie asked.
“Well – ”
“Oh?” Laurie's eyebrows arched in exclamation. “I have? Why didn't you say something? Man, Grumpy is not the dwarf I want to be.”
Angelique puzzled over that. “Dwarf? Oh! Yes, I understand now. Seven Dwarfs.” She laughed. “So, which one am I?”
“You? Oh, I think – ” Laurie considered her through narrowed eyes, then said, “I think you're maybe Sexy.” She poked Angelique's upper arm with a finger, ran the tip of it over the defined muscle, still pumped from exercise. “Or Arnold, maybe. Damn, girl.”
“They are dwarfs?” She touched the tip of Laurie's nose. “Then which are you?”
Laurie grinned. “Right now?” She ran her hand across Angelique's chest. “Frisky.”
“He was a dwarf?”
“Yeah. Snow White's favorite.” Laurie grabbed Angelique's hand and pulled her toward the bedroom. “Damn, I want you so bad right now.”
“But I have not showered. I am sweaty.”
“You're not half as sweaty as you're gonna be.”
“Laurie! You are a bad girl, I think.”
“Yeah.” Laurie laughed. “And the badder I am, the better you like it.”
The bedroom door closed, and the apartment descended into a silence broken only by muffled laughter and the strike of one p.m. on the clock.
Newly retired, the former CIA bureaucrat waited on a park bench. He sipped coffee from a take-out cup and admired the coolness of autumn that tinged the Washington, D.C. air. He always loved this time of year. When another man seated himself on the bench beside him, he looked over. It was a younger face than his, but these days, most faces around him were younger.
“Guy Reynolds?” the younger man asked.
He nodded and managed a smile. “I was expecting you,” he said.
The man held out a hand. “Max Jernigan, New York Times . I understand you want to talk to me?”
“Yes,” Reynolds said as he shook the hand. “I have a story that I think you'll find very interesting, but we should be careful how this story becomes told.”
“I'm all ears,” Jernigan said. “And I suppose you have documentation to back this story up?”
“Is this documentation that could get us prosecuted? That will have the FBI kicking in my door at three a.m.?”
“I see.” He sat for a moment, then said, “Can you give me a hint as to what this story is about?”
Reynolds studied the reporter. He looked old enough to have been around the block a few times. “You did work on the Wikileaks scandal, didn't you? You have contacts with the London press, with the German press, with Wikileaks?”
“Yes. We still talk, from time to time.”
“This will eclipse that.”
“I see. Just who are you, exactly?”
“I recently retired from the CIA. I devoted my career to intelligence-gathering. I cut my teeth on the Cold War. We were governed by rules then, but this age is different. Very dark things are happening, and they have to stop. And only the light of public scandal will stop them.”
“You're a whistle-blower.”
“Yes.” He smiled. “Or a traitor, depending on your perspective, I suppose.”
“You do know,” Jernigan asked, “what's been happening to whistle-blowers lately, right? In other words, are you prepared to spend the rest of your life in prison?”
“If I do, it won't be much. My doctor gave me the bad news last month.”
They sat in silence for a moment. Then, Jernigan said, “I'm sorry to hear that.”
Reynolds shrugged. “It's very liberating, actually. I find that I'm not afraid of much anymore. And if I can serve one selfless turn of justice before I check out, let it be this one.”
“In that case, I'm all ears.” Jernigan looked around. “Are we being watched?”
“I didn't see any evidence of that.”
“Are you hungry?”
Reynolds thought about it. “I could do with something.”
“My treat. There's a deli down the street that makes the best Reuben sandwich you've ever tasted.”
“That's the place.”
They stood and walked together, an easy pace. “I can see,” the old man said, “that we'll be meeting there a lot, until this story breaks.”
Paris, France. A few days later.
Café Angel had not yet opened for business; it was early afternoon. Angelique sat at her piano, rehearsing a song, playing it first this way, then that way, humming the melody that she would sing to the piano's accompaniment. She was alone in the bar, so when a knock sounded at the bar's door, she rose to answer it. When she lifted the shade, a young woman with the look of a backpacker peered back at her. Angelique puzzled at the unusual sight, then unlocked the door. “ On est fermé, ” she said. For good measure, she added in English, “Not yet open.”
“Excuse me,” the backpacker said in English. “I'm looking for Laurie Caldwell. I was told that I could find her here.”
“Oh!” Angelique said. It had taken her by surprise, but it made sense. The young woman's speech sounded American; she was roughly Laurie's age. Probably an old friend from America. “Yes. She is here. Come in.” Angelique opened the door and pointed to the bar. “She is upstairs. Sit. I will tell her you are here.”
“Thanks,” the backpacker said. She stepped inside, eased her mountain backpack from her shoulders, and rested it against the bar. As she sat, Angelique studied her. She was physically fit and dressed the part; pants with cargo pockets, a light jacket with an outdoors company's logo, and hiking boots and white socks. Sunglasses hung around her neck, and a baseball cap held dark hair away from her face. An interesting person, Angelique thought.
“Would you like something to drink?” Angelique asked.
“Gosh. Water would be fine.”
“On second thought, can you make it a beer?”
“Yes, yes.” Angelique walked behind the bar, popped the cap on a bottle of beer, and set it before her. When she pulled out some money, Angelique waved a hand. “On the house, I believe you Americans say.”
Angelique nodded. “I will be back.”
The backpacker sat at the bar, nursing the bottle of beer as she watched Angelique ascend the stairs. She studied the label on the bottle; Kronenbourg 1664 , it read. It was good, she decided. She allowed her gaze to take in the bar in its details: the worn wood, the hint of age and history, the baby grand piano in the corner, its keyboard cover open and sheet music across its top, and the collection of bottles and the coffee and espresso machines behind the bar. It wasn't a large place, but it had tons of character.
Her eyes traveled up the wall behind the bar, at the pictures framed and collected there. She raised an eyebrow to see a few framed photos of recognizable personalities from past and present; publicity stills, with notes and autographs scrawled upon them. She smiled at that. Then, she studied one picture in particular. It was a photograph of three young people, two women and a man, sitting on a low stone wall. They were wearing military uniforms, and the backpacker guessed that they were Israeli army uniforms. She recognized, in one of the faces, a younger version of the woman with whom she'd just spoken. Oh, my God, she thought. It's her. The Angel of Mossad. I just spoke with a legend – a dead one, at that. A voice jolted her from her thoughts.
“Hi. I'm Laurie. Do we know each other?”
The backpacker looked to her right. Jeans, slippers, a tee-shirt, and red hair pulled into a haphazard pony-tail; it was the young woman from the videos. Angelique walked past her and went to the front windows. She cast a glance outside, between the drawn curtains, and as she turned, the backpacker noted the handle of a pistol protruding from the back of Angelique's jeans.
“We haven't met formally, but my name is Janet Lawrence.” She looked toward Angelique. “And you must be Angel.” She returned her attention to Laurie. “I used to work for the CIA. I know what happened to you recently,” she said. “Please know that some of us were horrified by it. We want to stop it from ever happening again. We need your help for that.”
“Well, Janet Lawrence,” Laurie said. “You must be a mind-reader. Let's talk.”
Half an hour later, they were still in conversation, huddled around the bar. Janet could feel the mistrust from them and labored hard to assure them that she was legitimate. She'd spilled her story, her career, her recent resignation, and showed them her passport. She described in detail what she'd seen in the videos of Laurie's interrogation, and she gave them detailed information on the man who'd abused her so badly. The one thing she didn't know was his current whereabouts. He was, she explained, being shielded by his superiors, as he had been when the Abu Ghraib scandal broke. “I tried to find him,” she said. “My boss wanted to crucify him for what he did to you. We were stonewalled at every turn.”
“What is his name?” Angelique asked.
“Jeremy Smith,” she answered. That must have been a magic word, she decided, for she saw Angelique visibly relax when she said that.
“Yes,” she said. “Mossad told us that, too. We seek him now. When we find him, we will deal with him.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You'll kill him?” she asked.
Laurie's expression went stone. “I'll deal with him,” she said. “In a very pissed-off way.”
Janet sipped her beer, then said, “If he dies, nothing will change. If you really want some payback, I have a suggestion.” She met Laurie's gaze. “But it'll take courage on your part. Perhaps more courage than killing him would take. But know that I'm with you, and we have a colleague – my former boss – in Washington, D.C., who's also in on this. In fact, he asked me to give you a little present.” She fished in a shirt pocket and withdrew a thumb drive, which she placed on the bar and shoved toward them. “It's all there. The complete video archive of your interrogation and torture, the video of the station's compromise – I assume that was you, Angel – and the personnel file on Jeremy Smith. All there.”
“This is all highly classified, yes?” Angelique said.
“It is. By giving you this, I've broken several laws. I could be prosecuted for treason and espionage in my home country if it's ever discovered. I'm giving you this to prove my good faith, and to prove that I'm really your friend in this. My former boss and I resigned over what happened to you. We want to stop this from happening again, and we have a plan. Laurie, you're instrumental in this plan. It won't work as well without you.”
“Two things,” Laurie said. “One, Angel's identity can never be known. Her privacy is before everything else. She has enemies in the Middle East. She's supposed to be dead. If she's outed – ”
“I understand. And the other thing?”
“My privacy. Nobody knows where I am now, or who I am.”
“I think that's doable.”
Laurie and Angelique traded glances. Then, Laurie spoke. “This plan – does it include Wikileaks?”
“It includes a hell of a lot more press than that. If we do this right, it'll go nuclear. New York, London, Paris, Berlin; those newspapers are all poised to get involved. The television news networks will follow.”
Laurie shot a glance at Angelique, then looked at Janet. “They'll be all over us. We won't get a minute's peace.”
“No.” Janet pulled a picture from her pocket and placed it on the bar. It was the snapshot of an older man. “This man's name is Guy Reynolds. He's my former boss. He'll be the much-publicized leaker of the classified info and the story. They'll all be after him, not you.”
“He'll be destroyed,” Laurie said. “The government will eat him alive. He'll spend years in prison.”
“No, he won't. He's dying of cancer.”
“For the first time,” Angelique said, “I now understand why he would do this.”
Laurie thought as she studied the picture. “Let Angel and I discuss this tonight.” She looked up at Janet's face. “We'll get in touch. Where are you staying?”
She shrugged. “I just got into town. Where do you recommend?”
Angelique pointed toward the ceiling. “We live upstairs. We have a guest room. You stay with us, yes? We can talk more.”
Janet smiled. She knew that she had won their trust. “That's very kind of you.”
The next morning, Angelique rose from her morning coffee to answer a knock at the door. When she opened the door, Allie burst into the apartment. She was hugging her laptop computer to her chest.
“Oh, Jeez. Angel, that information you got me – that was just the thing. I mean, I found the sombitch. Man, you wouldn't believe what I found. Let me tell you – I mean, wow!” She stopped, blinked a few times, then looked around the apartment. “Where's my sister?”
Angelique suppressed a laugh. “She is at her French class. She will be home soon. Are you all right? Your eyes, they are very... ah... red? And wide?”
Maurie walked into the apartment and closed the door. “She has been up all night, Angel. She has not stopped.” At Angelique's skeptical glance, he said, “No, no drugs. This is just Allie when she's been up all night and had too many of those energy drinks.”
“Oh, holy freakin' cow. I am so wired.” Allie waved an electrical plug at Angelique. “Where – ?”
“Sit at the table. Plug it in there.” Angelique heard soft footfalls behind her, and she looked toward the hall. Janet emerged from the guest bedroom.
“Maurie, Allie. This is Janet. She visits from America.”
Janet shook hands with Maurie, then looked at Allie, who waved a hand at her as her laptop computer began whirring. “Ooh!” Allie said. “American?”
“Yeah,” Janet said. “From Virginia, lately.”
“Kansas, here. God, it's so freakin' strange to hear another American accent around here. I mean, except for my sister. Where the hell is she? I can't wait to show her this stuff. Besides, she has to ID his picture – ” Allie stopped, studied Janet, and looked at Angelique. “Is it okay – ?”
“Janet brought us the information which I gave to you.”
“Oh, wow!” Allie folded her legs, Indian fashion, beneath her on the kitchen chair. “That is so freakin' cool. How did you get this stuff?”
“I used to work for the CIA.” She watched Allie blink at her, and she added, “No more.”
“You mean – ?” She pointed at Angelique and Maurie. “Like them, I mean – ?” She made an imaginary gun with her hand.
Janet laughed. “No, no. I was an analyst. No field work.”
The apartment door opened, and Laurie stepped inside. “Honey, I'm home. Hey, you guys. Saw your car outside,” she said. No sooner did she give Maurie a hug than Allie revved up all over again.
“Ohmygod, sis! C'mere and look at this shit. I mean, after you two gave me that information, I searched all over the freakin' internet for this dude. He's here. I mean, whoa! Is he ever here.”
Laurie leaned over her sister's shoulder and looked at the screen. “Let's show this to everybody. And damn, Allie. What the hell are you on? You're buzzing like a chain saw.” She shot an accusatory look at Maurie, who held up his hands defensively.
“She's been up all night and had far too many energy drinks,” he said.
“Okay,” Allie said. “Everybody gather around. Lookie here. This dude has been arrested at least once, for domestic battery. Charges dropped. Again, he got arrested. Washington, D.C. Drunk and disorderly. Charges dropped. He's got a restraining order against him. Must be his ex-wife. Arrested again, non-payment of child support. Charges dropped after he paid up. Several traffic accidents. He's not on, like, any of the social media sites, but he's all over the public arrest records. And the dumbass is in the public telephone book. Here's his current address.” She shrugged. “Well, as of the last year. Manassas, Virginia.” She held up a finger. “But that's not where he is right now. He's in Las Vegas right now. D'ya know how I know? Go on. Ask me how I know.”
“How do you know?” Laurie asked.
“Because he just got freakin' arrested again for battery. Yesterday.” Allie looked up. “It's all public record. So don't get arrested. And don't batter anybody. Except onion rings. God, I love onion rings.” Allie paused, and looked around the room. “Sorry. I'm like, really buzzing here.”
“No more energy drinks for you,” Maurie said.
Laurie said, “Damn, sis. How many of those things did you drink?”
“I don't know. Five? Six? But look. Here's his mug shot.” She turned the computer toward Laurie. “Is this the guy you're looking for?” she asked.
Laurie stared at the screen. For a moment, she said nothing. Then, she slowly nodded. “That's him,” she said. “Those eyes. Cold as hell. I'll never forget that face. Yeah, that's him.”
“Sorry to bum you out, sis,” Allie said. She clicked off the picture. “We had to be sure that's the guy, though.” She studied Laurie's expression. “Hey. You okay?”
“What do you think?” Laurie said.
“I think...wow. I think I'd be really freaked out, too.” She looked from Laurie to Angelique. “Are you two still gonna like, hunt him down?”
“Goddam right,” Laurie said.
“No,” Maurie said. “That would be a conspiracy to commit murder. I think they will visit Manassas, accidentally run into him, and witness him have a very unfortunate accident. Then, they will catch the next plane back to France.”
Allie looked at Maurie. “Oh. That's different,” she said. “Whoa. Can I have some coffee? I'm like, crashing hard.”
“Try some sleep, instead,” Laurie said. She kissed Allie's forehead. “Thanks, Allie. You did one hell of a job there. I appreciate it.”
“You sure did,” Janet said. “That's impressive.”
“Hey, it was fun. Aw, shit. I am so tired, all of a sudden.” With that, she crossed her arms on the table, rested her head on her forearms, and went limp. A moment later, she began a soft snoring.
Laurie poked her. “Sis? Sis? Jeez, are you asleep already?”
“I will take her home,” Maurie said.
“No, no.” Angelique pointed to the hall. “Put her down in our bed. She can sleep there.”
Maurie scooped Allie up, cradled her in his arms, and walked with her down the hall. Janet watched him, then turned to Angelique and Laurie. “So, when are you two going to kill him?”
Laurie pointed at Angelique. “She's the expert. I'm the novice.” They settled down at the kitchen table, and Laurie continued talking. “It's ironic, you know. I was always the one who urged Angel not to take any more of those free-lance contracts. Now, I'm asking her to teach me to kill somebody.”
“I saw the video,” Janet said. “If it had been me, I might feel the same way.” She looked at Angelique. “You're in favor of this?”
Angelique thought for a moment as she sipped her coffee. Then, she said, “No. But I am in favor of helping Laurie achieve a peace of mind. Her hatred of this man consumes her. To rid herself of it, she must either forgive him or kill him. She cannot forgive him. Therefore...”
“I see. Well, let's consider this. To kill him, you have to travel to the US, get a hotel room, get a rental car, buy a gun, track him, wait until he's alone, and then hope that nothing goes wrong and that you can get out of the country before his death is discovered. That's a complicated proposition. And then, a CIA field agent is killed; it will be investigated by the FBI. And if they can tie you to it in any way at all, even circumstantially, like with plane tickets or receipts or whatever, they can ask France to extradite you. Or they'll just come gunning for you here. It sounds risky.” She looked at Laurie. “Instead of killing him, how'd you like to mess up his life real bad?”
“We have his name, his date of birth, his address, his social security number.”
Laurie's eyes widened. “Identity theft?”
“How does a person do that?”
“The CIA does it from time to time, just to cripple a suspected enemy. I can show you how to hack his accounts.”
Las Vegas, Nevada, United States.
“What do you mean, my credit card isn't any good?” Jeremy Smith said.
“I'm sorry, sir. It's been rejected. It's maxed out,” the hotel clerk said.
“That can't be right,” he said. “You guys got a computer I can use?”
“Yes, sir. Business lounge, right over there.”
“Thanks.” He walked into the lounge, sat down at an unused computer terminal, and punched up the website for his bank. A moment later, he was staring at the screen in disbelief. “What the hell?” he said aloud. He dialed a number on his cell phone and waited for an answer. “Hey, it's Jeremy Smith.”
“Oh. Yeah. You still in Vegas?” his section chief said.
“Yeah. Listen – ”
“No, you listen. Are you still in jail out there?”
“No. The FBI sprung me, as usual. These local yokel cops, they'll arrest a guy for anything around here.”
“I'm getting damned tired of getting you out of jams. You've got to quit beating people up. Who was it this time?”
“Oh, some coke-head hooker went apeshit on me. I had to defend myself.”
“No more. You hear me? Next time you get arrested, you sit your ass in jail.”
“Yeah, yeah. Look, somebody's messing with my finances. It's not you guys, is it?”
“What? No. Why would we do that? What's happening?”
“My credit card's maxed out. My checking account is being drained with all kinds of weird charges.”
“Identity theft,” his boss said. “Or you're a target. Somebody's hacked your accounts.”
“Yeah. Any idea who it is?”
“We'll get to work on it. Give me some time. I'll call you back. And don't go getting arrested again. Just go out to the pool or something and behave yourself for a change.”
“I got this problem. I can't pay for anything. I need to use the company card.”
“Oh, Jesus. How am I going to explain a week in Vegas on a CIA credit card?”
Smith grinned. “You'll think of something. Take it out of my pay after we get this straightened out.”
“Look, there's not going to be charges on the company card for titty bars and brothels and gambling and stuff like that, is there?”
“Hello! It's Vegas, dude. Of course. And all that stuff is legal here. It's okay.”
“I'll make you a deal. You stay out of trouble there, and I'll cover your tab.”
“Thanks, pal. I knew you'd understand. And find out who's hacking my accounts, will you?”
“Later.” He hung up, then called his bank. He listened for a while, then said, “Damned telephonic menus. I hate these things. And no, I don't want to freakin' hablar Español .”
A couple of hours later, he relaxed in his swimming pool-side lounge chair. He heard the distinctive giggle of young ladies, and he opened his eyes. Two bikini-clad girls were eyeing him as they walked past him. He smiled. “Hello, ladies,” he said. That got another collective, adolescent giggle from them as they headed to the bar. He watched them walk away, then shook his head. “College girls,” he decided. “Jeez. Trouble.”
His phone rang, and he lifted it from the table at his elbow. It was his section chief. He held it to his ear. “Yeah?”
“Hey, we did some digging. NSA was helpful. Whoever hacked your accounts did it from an internet bar in France.”
“Yeah. Paris. Latin Quarter. I'll text you the address. Got any idea who'd target you from there?”
He thought for a moment. A face flashed into his mind, and his jaw dropped. “Naw, it couldn't have been her.”
“That prisoner I was interrogating when the black site got compromised. You know, that skinny bitch with the red hair?”
“Why couldn't it have been her?”
Smith thought about it. “Well, maybe. She was a lot smarter than the average bear.”
“They all were. They found your site and neutralized it. You're lucky you got out in one piece.”
“Any idea who they were?”
“Yeah. Mossad. Ex-Mossad, really.”
“What? A bunch of Israelis did that to us?”
“I guess so.” His section chief laughed. “Man, you're really the philanthropist, aren't you? You've made contributions to at least twenty charitable organizations around the globe in the last twenty-four hours. World Wildlife, Doctors Without Borders, UNICEF, International Red Cross – oh, and here's a good one. You made a contribution to Wikileaks. Are you and them buddies now?”
“Hardly. This just proves that they weren't regular hackers. They didn't do it to profit from it. They did it to mess with me.”
“Looks that way. Look, when you get back here, we can fix the damage.”
“I want to fix it permanently.”
There was a pause on the line. “What do you mean?” the section chief asked.
“I want a round-trip ticket to Paris and a weapon waiting for me at the American Embassy. And I want all the intel you have on that chick and anybody associated with her.”
“This will never fly. You won't get authorization for this.”
“Who needs authorization? We're the CIA. We can do anything we want. Later, buddy.” With that, he hung up the phone, rested it on the table, and lifted his bottle of beer. As he sipped it, he thought about Laurie. She said she'd get even, he remembered. She had that look in her eyes, that hate look. That's the kind of look women have when they want to kill you in your sleep. Hell, I never thought she'd survive the interrogation. She did, though. And now, she's out for revenge. That's the most dangerous kind of woman in the world. I need to take care of it. Just an address and a couple of days in Paris should do it. What's the problem in that?
Washington, D.C. A few days later.
In his Georgetown townhouse, Guy Reynolds clicked off the computer, then turned to The New York Times' Max Jernigan. “What do you think?”
“I'm stunned,” he said. “This is heavy stuff. When this goes public, it's going to wreak havoc in this town. I need to show this to my editor.”
“I thought you might.” Reynolds handed a disc to Jernigan. “This is the last few minutes of her torture and the video of the black site being taken down. There's supporting documents on here, too. Don't show it to anybody but whoever you need to convince to let you write this story, and for God's sake, don't let it fall into anybody else's hands. You could spend a long time in prison for even having this stuff.”
“You do realize that we'll need to interview you at some point?”
“Yeah. It's okay. I've got all my affairs in order.” Reynolds managed a smile. “I figure about five minutes after that thing airs on the evening news, there'll be FBI agents kicking in my door.”
“It probably won't take five minutes,” Jernigan said. “I plan to be at work when this thing airs. Let the Feds come into the newspaper offices and drag me out of there. We'll film the whole thing and make a story out of that, too.”
“I'm afraid that I don't have the protection of the press that you do.”
“But you have whistle-blower protection.”
Reynolds snorted. “A lot of good that does, these days.”
Jernigan sat, engrossed in thought. Then, he looked at Reynolds. “What's going to happen to that girl when this goes down?”
“The press in Europe will interview her. I've got somebody in Paris right now, looking out for her. They can do her interview and keep her face blacked out or something. Protect her identity.”
“And if they can't protect her identity? The CIA already knows who she is. They'll try to snatch her again.”
“No, they won't. The French will be so damned angry over what we did in their country that they won't let anything happen to her. They'll protect her. And my asset in Paris will advise her to apply for political asylum there as soon as this story breaks. I have a feeling that the French authorities will be delighted to grant it.”
“Well, then. I'll phone and let you know what my editor says.”
“No,” Reynolds corrected. “We'll meet at the deli. No phone conversations or e-mails. NSA can read all that stuff.”
“Okay, then.” Jernigan rose. “Let's do lunch. I'll let you know when.”
Reynolds smiled. “I'll look forward to it.”
“Remember stance. Swing hard. Hard!” Laurie's foot connected with the heavy sparring bag, as Esther hugged the bag from behind to keep it steady. “Yes! Now attack. No mercy. Kick. Kick. Punch. Both hands. Hard. Hard!”
She watched Laurie work herself into a state of exhaustion attacking the bag. After one last kick, Esther said, “Good. Excellent. Take a break.”
Laurie mopped her face with a towel, and sought her water bottle. “So,” she asked. “How am I doing?”
“Well. Very well,” Esther said. “Angel will be proud. Rest for ten minutes. Then, I have a surprise for you.”
“Oh, goody. I love surprises.” Laurie plopped down on the mat and leaned against the wall. She studied the bag as it swung back and forth. Inanimate, nonjudgmental, silent, it did not condemn or berate her for the violence it had just endured at her hands. It merely creaked back and forth on the chain from which it hung. Like she had hung, in that CIA hell-hole. Never again, she vowed. Never again.
She also marveled at how exhilarating the exercise had been, and how light she felt. It was almost as if she had exorcized unknown demons from her psyche. Who knows? Perhaps she had. She wondered what it would be like to exercise that level of violence against a living person, and she wondered whether, after the initial shock, it would feel darkly exhilarating, too. After all, some folks just like to fight. An image of a couple of the farm boys she'd attended high school with in Kansas flashed through her mind.
Esther returned, and she dropped some headgear into Laurie's lap. “Put this on your head. We're going to spar.”
“We are?” She looked up, shocked. “Do you think I'm ready?”
“Yes. Here's your mouth-guard.”
Twenty minutes later, as they sat side-by-side on a bench, Laurie looked over at Esther. “Are you okay?” she asked.
Esther shot her a smile. “You did well. I even let you get a couple of good hits in.”
“You shouldn't have been letting me.”
“I didn't mean to.” She winced as she stretched. “I'm going to feel that one tomorrow.”
“Me, too,” Laurie said. “I'm gonna be technicolor tomorrow. You played a tune on my ribs.”
They packed their bags, and a moment later, were walking among the pedestrians filling the Latin Quarter street. “Esther?” Laurie said.
“When you've fought someone – I mean for real, a deadly earnest fight – how did you feel about it?”
Esther thought about it, then pointed at a little lunch café. “Sit. We'll talk. Lunch? My treat.”
They ensconced themselves at an outdoor table and dropped their gym bags at their feet. In short time, they had been served, and they picked at their lunch plates. Laurie did not ask again; she allowed Esther to think about the question. She would get her answer, she knew. Eventually, she did.
“I was frightened to death the first few times. It isn't something to be entered lightly. One mistake, and it can be too bad for you. But when there is no other choice, one must fight like a cornered dog. It's so scary. But also, one has such a rush of adrenaline – it's such a heady thing, one seldom experiences such a rush in life. Frightening, exhilarating, all at the same time. And if your opponent produces a gun or a knife, your heart almost comes through your chest. At those times, you will react without conscious thought. You will react from training, and it takes discipline not to kill your opponent.”
“ Not to kill him?”
“Yes. A deep, primal anger, you see, takes charge. At those times, it's harder, I think, not to kill than to kill. When I fought David, I almost killed him. It was Claire that kept me from it.”
“I saw Angelique disarm a guy with a knife once. She didn't kill him, but she hurt him pretty bad.”
“Yes. Always, she has had extreme discipline. It is good, because her skill is deadly. If she ever allowed herself to be dominated by emotion in a fight, she would kill him with her bare hands.” Esther looked at Laurie. “She seems the essence of self-discipline, but her emotions are strong and they run deeply. She is merely expert at hiding them.”
“I've rarely seen them surface.” Laurie added, “Only when I wake up in the middle of the night and find her crying.” She looked at Esther. “May I ask – do you do that?”
Esther nodded. “I do,” she admitted quietly, then perked up. “Listen, tomorrow we will work on knife and gun defenses. Those are very important. And we spar more, yes?”
“Ouch. Yeah, sure.”
Janet Lawrence entered the office of The Guardian newspaper, stopped at the directory, and studied the office numbers and names. She found the right name, took the elevator up several floors, and exited into a large, common newsroom. “Excuse me,” she asked a passing young man. “Do you know Callum Mitchell?”
“Yes,” he said. “Over there. You'll see his cubicle.”
“Thanks.” She wandered in that direction, and finally found a casually-dressed middle-aged man sitting among a mountain of books and papers. “Mister Mitchell?”
He looked up. “Aha!” he said. “I detect an American. Are you Janet Lawrence?”
“Come. Sit.” He cleaned off a chair for her, and she settled into it. “Now, what's this all about?” he asked.
“Why don't I just show you, instead?” She produced a disc and handed it to him. “A word of warning. This is highly classified.”
“The United States government.”
He raised an eyebrow. “I'm becoming interested. How did you get this?”
Briefly, she explained. After their conversation, he popped it into his computer and watched. When it ended, he sat in silence.
“Yeah,” she said. “That was my reaction, too.” She studied his face. “Do you want in? The New York Times is already talking to my former boss.”
“Who else knows about this? Who is he talking to there?”
“I know Max. We collaborated on some Wikileaks stories together.”
“Good,” she said. “Then he can vouch for the truth of this. We're going public with this very soon.”
“Who gets the honor of breaking this story?”
She smiled. “We want several news sources to go all at once. But since the video is so damning, CNN is first in America, along with the Times. ”
“You have my complete and undivided attention, young lady. Is there some way I can keep in touch with you?”
She handed him a slip of paper. “It's best to be a little evasive when you call me. NSA can listen in. Same with any e-mails.”
“I understand.” He watched her rise. “Where are you off to next, if I may ask?”
She smiled. “Hamburg, Germany. Der Spiegel magazine is expecting a visit from me. After that, Iceland.”
“If you're not in a terrible hurry, take a ferry across the channel to Germany. It's lovely, this time of year.”
“Thanks. I'll do that.”
She shook his hand and walked away. Mitchell played the video clip again, then opened the other files on the disc. One was a few pages of the personnel file of a CIA employee named Jeremy Smith. He recognized the face from the video. “Oh, my Lord,” he said. Then, he consulted his phone list, picked up his telephone, and dialed a number. “Max Jernigan, please. It's Callum Mitchell, ringing from The Guardian in London.”
Laurie lay face-down on the bed. Angelique straddled her buttocks and leaned forward in concentration as she worked the knots out of Laurie's back muscles. “You are doing well,” she said. “Esther has much praise for your progress.”
“Esther's a good teacher,” Laurie mumbled. “Oh, yeah. Right there. That's good.”
“And I see your arms, your shoulders. They get how-do-you-say? Shape. Definition.” She tapped Laurie's upper arm. “It looks good. Take care that you do not get, ah...” She thought. “Addicted to fitness. It can happen.”
“Yeah. Don't worry. I'm not an addictive personality.” She snickered. “Except when it comes to you.”
Angelique smiled at that as she oiled her hands. “Always, you say nice things to me. You never criticize me.”
“Nobody else does that, huh? Hey, I'm your girlfriend. I'm supposed to do stuff like that.”
“Criticize me?” Angelique asked as she resumed the massage.
“No, dummy. Be nice to you.” She turned her head. “So, how did we do tonight?”
“Oh, the bar? Yes. Good. It was busy.”
“Yeah, I know. I was feeling it during the last two hours. My whole body was tightening up. Oh, yeah. Damn, Angel. You're good. Yeah, right there. Thanks.
“Of course.” Angelique smacked Laurie on the bare bottom. “Do I need to massage anywhere else?”
Again, Laurie snickered. “Yeah. There is one other place...”
Angelique laughed. As she cast her robe aside, she said, “Laurie, you are a bad girl.” She leaned forward and clicked off the bedside lamp. The room descended into darkness.
“Hey!” Laurie said. “I'm a Café Angel bar-girl. We're all bad girls, don't you know?”
“Yes, yes. I only hire the bad girls.”
“I like the way you think, Boss.” A moment later, Laurie said, “Oh, yeah. Now this is worth gettin' beat up every day for.”
Charles De Gaulle Airport, Paris, France.
Jeremy Smith pulled his bag from the luggage conveyer and headed toward Customs, passport in hand. Ostensibly, he was merely an American tourist, on his way to see some sights. In reality, his first stop would be to see a contact at the American Embassy and obtain a weapon. After that, he would check into his hotel in the Latin Quarter, and he would begin the hunt. He would find that girl, discover who hacked his accounts and screwed up his finances, and then deal with it. It shouldn't take more than a few days, he figured, before he had this wrapped up to his satisfaction.
Why would she mess with him like that? he wondered. After all, interrogating her was nothing personal. It was business, his job. But somebody hacking his private life was personal. He'd bet that she was in on it. He'd find her and squeeze a confession out of her, then take his vengeance on her and whoever else was responsible. After all, he knew how to make people confess to just about anything.
Two hours later, he stepped from a taxi on the tree-lined Avenue Gabriel , in downtown Paris. Ahead of him, the American Embassy sprawled. A couple of French policemen loitered on the street nearby. He walked to the gate, produced his documents, announced himself, and waited as a US Marine guard made a phone call. After he hung up, he returned Smith's passport and CIA identification and said, “Yes, sir. He's expecting you.”
“Thanks, pal,” Smith said, as he entered the gate and headed for the stairs.
Half an hour later, he exited the embassy with a Glock nine millimeter pistol, a silencer, and fifty rounds of ammunition in his travel bag. Now, he felt ready to face the world.
Guy Reynolds sat in one corner of a hotel suite, in hushed conference with a very recognizable CNN News personality. They discussed the direction the impending interview would take, the questions to be answered, what was taboo and what was fair game to talk about. It was well thought out. Finally, the interviewer looked up from his yellow legal pad. “You do realize,” he asked, “that the moment this hits the air, you're going to be a target? The Feds will be all over you.”
“Then why are you doing this?”
“We discussed that.”
“May we discuss it on air?”
“I wish we would.”
The news personality smiled. “I'll make sure that we do.” He studied Reynolds for a moment, then asked, “Where will you be when this breaks?”
“My home will be the first place they'll look. I'll either be out of the country, or on a leased sailboat off the coast. I haven't decided yet.”
“They'll find you, wherever you are.”
“I know,” Reynolds said. There was a hint of sadness in his manner, but a hint of triumph, also.
“You've got guts,” the newsman said.
“No,” Reynolds countered. “I just don't have anything to lose anymore. There's a big difference.”
A crew member stuck her head into the room. “Sir, we're ready.”
“Thank you.” The newsman looked at Reynolds. “Are you ready?” he asked.
Reynolds looked out the window. In the distance, he could see the tall peak of the Washington Monument. The dome of the Capitol building was barely visible. America. The United States. Something had gone terribly wrong. It had to be put right again. And, he thought, it seems that it had fallen to him to start the process. He was the sacrificial lamb. So be it. He looked at the newsman.
“Yes,” he said. “I'm ready.”
Jeremy Smith sat in his rental car outside Café Angel , waiting. Watching. He had seen Laurie Caldwell leave by the alleyway next to the café, walking with two other unknown females. They were all dressed in exercise clothing and carried bags. He looked at his watch. Ten a.m. He noted the time in his pocket notebook as he watched them walk to the corner, then cross the street and head south.
He left his car and followed them at a distance. After a ten minute walk, they entered a storefront. He approached it, and saw that it was a gym. He wrote down the address, and he decided that they'd be in there anywhere from one to two hours. He had time to burn.
He looked up and down the street, found a news-stand, and bought an English-language newspaper. Then, he settled at an outdoor table at a little sidewalk café, ordered coffee and a roll, and flipped open the newspaper. His attention, however, was not on the news. It was on the front of the gym. He could make out some activity through the front windows. The three women he'd followed were on treadmills. Fitness rats, he thought. No wonder that redhead was so skinny; she works out and probably doesn't eat more than a thousand calories a day. Crazy chick. Give me one with a few curves, like that blonde she was hanging out with. That brown-haired one wasn't so bad, either, he thought. Too wiry, though; too much muscle. He returned his attention to a newspaper article, then placed the paper aside and sipped his coffee.
He had to get that Caldwell girl alone. It wouldn't take long; she'd tell him who hacked his accounts. And if she did it, which he half believed, he'd kill her before he left her. Probably, though, she had help. She'd tell him names and addresses, and he'd hunt them down and kill them, too.
Three hours later, he was resting in his car, hunkered down in the front seat, when he saw his target walking up the street with her two friends. All three of them entered the alleyway next to the bar. He left his car, hurried across the street, and watched them disappear around the back of the building. He followed. Behind the building, next to a garage, was a tiny space of open courtyard. Just beyond a wrought-iron gate, a stairway led to a second-floor door. An apartment. That's where she lived. Very likely, those other two lived there, as well. Women always cluster together when they're not with men, he thought. Go figure.
He considered taking Caldwell now. After all, how dangerous could three women be against him? All he would need from his car is his latex gloves, his ski mask, and his roll of duct tape. His pistol was already on him. He could force entry, tape them up, lock two in one room, interrogate Caldwell separately, and then kill her. The other two wouldn't be able to identify him because of the ski mask and gloves. And if one of them helped her hack his accounts, as he suspected, he would kill her, too.
No, he decided. Not now. He needed to scout them out a little more. Perhaps an early morning, when they are asleep and at their most vulnerable, would be the time to force entry. It would be dark then, and the French police would be at their lightest staffing, too, in case anything went wrong and he had to bail out and run. Yeah, that's better. Tonight, he decided. Tonight's as good a time as any to wrap this up and get out of this country.
He retreated to his rental car and started it. A moment later, he was attempting to navigate his way back to his hotel through the unfamiliar Paris streets.
Janet could see the excitement in Bryn Sigmundsson's face as she handed him a disc. He slipped it into his laptop computer, watched a little of it, and closed the lid as he cast a glance around the coffee shop. “This is potent material. Why us?” he asked.
“Your web site is the premiere whistle-blower site. We can't leave you out of this. If we put this on any video sites in America, it'll be gone in a moment. The Feds would shut it down with an injunction.”
“What do you ask of us?”
She smiled. He was all business, and in this case, she understood. “Just protect the identity of me and of the young lady in this video.”
“How can we document that this interrogation – torture – took place in France?”
“On the disc are a couple of agency internal memos about this incident. They mention the date and location. I've already redacted the names involved, except for my former boss's name. It was at his insistence. His name helps establish authenticity.”
“And his interview is scheduled to be broadcast on CNN when?”
“A couple of days.”
“He'll be crucified by his government. You know what happened to the last two whistle-blowers, and what's happening right now to our co-founder. They'll throw him in prison, and he'll never get due process or see the light of day again. Ever since Nine-Eleven, habeas corpus is a dead concept in America.”
“He knows. It doesn't matter to him. He's dying of cancer. That's why he's not afraid to do this.”
“Me, too. He's one hell of a guy.”
Sigmundsson nodded agreement. “Let me take this to my colleagues. We'll review it, redact any names except your boss's, and pixelate that American girl's face so it's unrecognizable.” He added, “And anything else we need to hide. I see that she was not clothed, part of the time.”
“She would appreciate that, I'm sure.”
He lifted the lid of the computer and watched a little more of the video. “God!” he finally said.
“So, can I count on you and your colleagues?” Janet asked.
“We will not let you down,” he replied. At that, she smiled broadly.
Paris, France. The next day.
“Are you coming, Esther?” Laurie asked.
She waved a hand. “No,” she said. “More cardio.” She pointed at the treadmills.
“Okay. We're going. Thanks for the lesson.”
Esther nodded. “Of course. You're learning very quickly, Laurie.” She waved, then stuffed her earbuds into her ears and tapped her music player.
Angelique and Laurie left the gym and walked up the street, toward Rue d'Espoir . For some time, they did not speak. Then, Angelique said, “What are you thinking?”
Laurie smiled. “You know me too well, don't you? I have this feeling that something's about to happen.”
“I don't know. I can't put my finger on it. It's like – like a foreboding. Do you ever get those?”
“Do you have one now?”
“Oh.” Laurie thought about that, then said, “Maybe I'm just nuts.”
“Oh, thanks. Really?”
“I only agree,” Angelique offered in her own defense.
Laurie huffed. “Well, you're not supposed to agree when I say that.”
“No? But I agree. You are nuts.” She hastened to add, “In a good way.”
Laurie found herself smiling at that. Okay, yeah. She was nuts. At least it was in a good way. And Angel always could make her smile. She looped an arm through Angelique's as they walked, side-by-side. “So,” she said. “Who wants to be sane, anyway?”
They turned onto Rue d'Espoir, and found the alleyway next to Café Angel . When they entered the gate and looked up their apartment stairs, they saw a backpack and a sleeping figure on the entranceway.
“Janet!” Laurie called.
The figure stirred. “Oh. Hey, guys.” She rubbed the sleep from her eyes.
Angelique unlocked the door. “I am sorry we were not home to receive you,” she said.
“Not a problem. Boy, have I got news for you.” She looked at Laurie. “Are you ready to get interviewed by CNN?”
Laurie's eyes widened. “When?”
“How's tomorrow morning sound?”
She gulped. “Soon.”
“You'll do great, Laurie. The correspondent will be here this afternoon to talk through everything. Then, they'll come back tomorrow with the cameras and stuff. I figure we can do the interview in the closed bar, if that's okay.”
“Yes, yes,” Angelique said. “But do not mention the name.”
“Oh, of course.” They entered the apartment, and Janet dropped her backpack next to the sofa. “I'm exhausted. In the last few days, I've been to England, Iceland, two cities in Germany, Stockholm, and the CNN News bureau in Paris.”
“You stay here,” Angelique said. “Use our guest room. And use the shower.”
“Thanks.” Janet eyed Angelique and Laurie. “You two look like you need it more than me right now. I'll nap, if you don't mind. The CNN person will be over later this afternoon.” She hefted her backpack and headed down the hall.
Laurie looked at Angelique. “So, who gets the shower first?”
“We flip a coin for it?”
Angelique puzzled over the answer. “Rock, paper, scissors?”
“Then how do we decide?”
Laurie smiled. “We'll share. It's a big shower.”
Angelique looped her arm around Laurie's waist and led her toward the hall. “This is what I love about you,” she said. “So logical. And we save water, also.”
“Just doin' my part for the environment,” Laurie agreed, as she entered the bedroom and began stripping the exercise clothing from her body. “Besides,” she added, “when I shower with you, I end up with the cleanest parts in town.”
A handsome, fortyish woman with a confident, no-nonsense manner about her contemplated the sign. Café Angel, 13 Rue d'Espoir , it said. A pleasant-looking place, she decided. She checked her note-pad to confirm the address, then knocked at the door. A “Closed” sign stared back at her, and no one moved inside the bar. Not yet open. She dialed a number on her cell phone and held it to her ear. After a moment, she spoke. “Janet Lawrence? It's Bernadette Massey, from the CNN Paris bureau. I'm downstairs, in front of the bar.”
Five minutes later, she was sitting at the kitchen table of a comfortable, spacious apartment situated above the bar. Tea mugs were in front of her, Janet, and Angelique and Laurie. Bernadette flipped open her note-pad. “Now,” she said, “I've been briefed to some extent by the Washington bureau about this story. They said you'd educate me on the specifics. Just what am I going to be interviewing you about? They wouldn't tell me over the phone.”
“Let us show you something,” Janet said. She rose, retrieved her laptop computer, and sat down. She opened it, faced it toward Bernadette, and started a video. The CNN correspondent's disbelief grew as she watched the video unfold. When it ended, she asked, “I can see why they wouldn't tell me over the phone.” She looked at Laurie. “That was you, wasn't it?”
“Yes,” Laurie said.
“Who's that man?”
She looked at Angelique. “And where do you fit into this?”
“I led the team that rescued her.”
“And killed some people,” Bernadette added. “I saw at least two fall on that video.”
“In total, I believe we killed eight of them, all CIA.”
“That looked thoroughly professional. Where did you get your training?”
“I see.” She considered Angelique. Yes. She believed it. This woman was telling the truth. Besides the menorah on the distant book-case and the little Star of David hanging just beneath her neck, there was something undefinable, something about Angelique which spoke silent volumes. The look in the eyes? The aura of quiet assurance? This woman had seen a lot. She looked at Janet. “Where did you get this video?”
“Let me start at the beginning,” Janet said. “Until recently, I was an analyst for the CIA...”
An hour later, Bernadette rested her pen on her open pad. “Jesus,” she said. “No wonder my boss was so adamant about me getting this interview. When this stuff hits the airwaves – ”
“No kidding. Now,” Janet said, “let's agree on the scope of the interview.”
Shortly before five o'clock in the evening, Laurie and Angelique descended the stairs to the bar. Behind them, Janet and Bernadette followed. “I'm starving,” Bernadette said.
“They don't serve food here,” Janet said, “but there's a restaurant two blocks down. Come on.”
“Great. My treat. Hey, I'm on an expense account. You're unemployed,” Bernadette said.
Laurie waved them toward the bar's front door. “Go on. Enjoy. Angel and I have to go to work.”
“We'll be back,” Janet said, as she opened the door for Bernadette.
After they left, Laurie raised an eyebrow in exclamation and shot an amused glance at Angelique. “Man, did you catch the chemistry between those two?”
Angelique laughed as she walked toward her little office at the back of the bar, near the stairs.
“Okay,” Laurie said, as she tied an apron about her waist. “Here we go. Another day in paradise.” She looked toward the bar and spoke in French, “Hey! Throw me a clean bar towel.” A moment later, she dodged several flying towels, accompanied by laughter. “Well,” she decided, “I did ask for that.”
The evening crowd was moderate, and tapered off toward the last hour of the evening. Eventually, they threw out the last of their regular customers and began their well-rehearsed regimen of cleaning the bar. As the chairs were up, the floor swept, and the last glasses rinsed and put up to dry, Laurie tapped Angelique on the arm. “Janet never came back from dinner,” she said.
“She is with, ah...” Angelique made a forgetful motion with her hand, and Laurie nodded.
Angelique laughed at that. “She probably will return in the morning.”
Laurie pulled her cell phone from her pocket and glanced at it. It was buzzing. “Speak of the devil,” she said, and held it to her ear. “Hey, girl. What are you doing?” She snickered as she listened. “Okay, you slut-puppy. So, when are you going to be home? Yeah, I'm your momma now. You coming back in the morning?” She frowned. “Oh. Tonight? Everything okay? Hey, just askin'. When you get in, use the back stairs. Call me. I'll let you in. We'll be up for another hour or more. ‘Bye.” She returned the phone to her pocket as she caught Angelique's eye. “She's coming home tonight.” Laurie shrugged. “Evidently, they've already done the nasty, and she and Bernadette need their beauty sleep. Big day tomorrow.”
“For you, also. Big day,” Angelique said. “You must rest, as well.” She turned toward Laurie and cupped her cheek with a hand. “Are you upset? Afraid?”
“Yeah. Big time.”
“You will do well. You always do, in whatever you do.”
Laurie smiled at that. “You smooth talker, you. Thanks.”
“I only speak the truth. Now, let us close, yes?”
An hour later, Bernadette wheeled her car into the alley next to Café Angel and turned it off. She and Janet whispered and necked for a few minutes, a communion finally broken by Janet's sigh of resignation.
“I guess I need to go to bed,” she said.
“You already did that.”
“I mean alone, so I can get some sleep.”
“Oh. That. Me, too,” Bernadette agreed.
“When will you be here in the morning?” she asked.
“About ten a.m.”
“I'll tell Laurie and Angel.” She pulled out her cell phone. “She said to call, and she'd let me in the back door.” She made the call, then hung up and held the phone in her hand. “Got to go.”
“Yeah. I had a wonderful evening,” Bernadette said.
“Me, too.” They kissed again, then reluctantly pried themselves apart.
As Janet opened the door and stepped out, Bernadette asked, “Will you be okay from here?”
“Yeah. The back door's just through that gate.”
“I'll turn the headlights on and wait.”
Janet laughed. “You chivalrous fool. I love it.”
As Janet walked to the gate, Bernadette started the car and turned on the headlights. It lit the alley, and in that light, she watched Janet wave to her as she entered the gate. Then, she backed out of the alley and headed up the deserted, narrow streets toward the expressway. As she drove, a riot of worries whirled through her thoughts. She worried about the interview, she worried about the furious whirlwind of response which would follow, and she worried about Janet. Was this just a moment, or was this the start of something really neat? She reminded herself that she'd been around the block enough times to not get her hopes up prematurely.
Jeremy Smith waited in the shadow of the garage. He watched a young woman enter by the wrought-iron gate and begin ascending the stairway to the second-floor apartment, and he smiled. His entrance to the apartment had just been handed to him. He pulled the mask down over his face, drew the pistol from his waist-band, and quickly closed the distance between himself and the woman. He caught her on the steps, grabbed the back of her collar, and shoved the pistol's silenced barrel into her ribs.
“Quiet. Don't holler. Just keep on climbing the stairs, honey.”
“Who – ?”
“I know you speak English. I heard you talking. Now go up the stairs and open the door.”
“I – I don't have a key.”
“Bullshit. How were you going to get inside?”
“They're going to open the door for me.”
“Then let's do that.”
He shoved her, and she began climbing the stairs. As she did, she glanced down at her hand. It still held her phone. She kept it close to her waist, pressed a button, and touched a name. Then, she pressed it to her chest to muffle the ring. When she felt the ringtone stop, she lifted it from her chest. “Who are you?” she asked. “What do you want with me?”
“You'll find out later,” he said. “It's not you I want, unless you're the one who hacked my accounts. Now get ‘em to open the damned door.”
Her gut knotted. “You're Jeremy Smith, aren't you?”
“Very good, doll. You must have been the one.” He shoved her against the door and stood to one side. She glanced toward him, and saw the barrel of a silenced pistol pointed at her face. “Have ‘em open the door, sweetheart.”
Janet tapped on the door. “Laurie, it's Janet. I'm at the back door.”
“Yeah,” called a muffled voice from inside. “Hang on just a minute.”
Janet could see the peep-hole darken, then lighten again. Someone had looked through it. She heard a muffled, barely discernable conversation on the other side of the door, then heard the locks click open. She could only hope against hope that, in the pale glare of the security light at the back door, Laurie had seen that she wasn't alone, and had heard the conversation on the phone.
The door opened. Laurie said, “Janet. Come on in.” She stepped aside, and Janet was pushed through the door. Jeremy Smith entered behind her. He gestured with his pistol. “You and you, get over there, on the sofa. Do it now.”
He herded Janet and Laurie toward the sofa as the door closed behind him. A second later, cold metal pressed itself against the back of his neck, and a female voice with a French lilt to it said, “Give me the pistol, or I will kill you here and now.”
He froze. After a moment's frantic thought, he said, “Do you think you can drop me before I kill them?”
“I am most assured of it.”
A sudden realization sickened him. He knew that the person behind him was no amateur. “Who are you?”
“I will ask you the same thing.”
Janet said, “Meet Jeremy Smith.” Laurie's gasp echoed in the room.
Angelique said, “Give me the pistol. Now, or I will kill you where you stand.”
He held up his hand, and Angelique yanked the pistol from his grip and tucked it into the waist-band of her jeans. “Now kneel,” she instructed, “with your hands in the air.”
He did. Angelique yanked the ski mask from his head, and Laurie turned pale. She slowly, carefully approached him and studied his face. He looked back at her with a predatory, emotionless glare.
“That's him,” Laurie said. “He's the one.”
Angelique handed Laurie the pistol from her waist-band. “Shoot him if he attempts anything. I will search him.”
“You won't find anything,” he said.
She stood behind him and rifled his jacket pockets, then his pants pockets, one at a time. On the floor, she threw a roll of duct tape, a folding knife, a couple of extra loaded pistol magazines, some latex gloves, and some cigarettes. Finally, she pulled a passport from his back pocket and flipped it open. “Yes,” she said. “Jeremy Smith.”
“I'm a US government agent,” he said. “You're going to be in some deep shit if you interfere with me.”
“No,” Angelique countered. “You are in how-do-you-say? Deep shit. You have entered my home at gunpoint. I should have killed you. Now, I give you to police.”
“Go ahead. I'll be out of jail in a couple of hours, and out of the country in a day.”
“He's right,” Janet said. “The embassy will work some magic. He's CIA. He'll get away with it.”
“No,” Angelique said. She raised her pistol and brought it down hard on his head. He crumpled forward and fell to the floor. In a second, she was atop him, kneeling, and she reached for the roll of duct tape. She taped his hands behind his back, then threw the tape to Janet. “Tape his ankles,” she said. She watched as Janet did so, then slapped a piece of tape across his mouth. “Open the door to the bar,” she instructed, as she grasped him by the back of his collar and dragged him across the living room floor. He struggled as he was pulled toward the door, but it did no good; Angelique was deceptively strong. She pulled him through the apartment, then down the stairs. He grunted with each thump against a stair-step, and he mumbled incoherently in muffled shouts as the tape held his mouth closed. At the base of the stairs, Angelique pulled him around the corner, then into the back hall. “Get a chair,” she told Janet. When she brought a chair and set it beneath the stair-well, Angelique and Janet lifted him and threw him into the chair. Angelique quickly wrapped several turns of duct tape around his body and the chair's back. Then, she studied him for a long, silent moment. She yanked the tape from his mouth, and he protested loudly.
“Ow! God damn, honey. What the hell's wrong with you?”
Angelique leaned against the wall, pistol in hand, and said, “You are about to get, how-do-you-say? A taste of your own medicine?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I saw what you did to her.”
“So did I,” Janet said.
“And I was there. Remember me?” Laurie said.
“Yeah. I remember you. Skinny little redheaded bitch. You were a tough one.” He looked at Angelique. “Hey, I was just doing my job. It was nothing personal.”
“Oh, I think it was very personal,” Angelique countered. She looked at Laurie. “Now is the time,” she said. “You must forgive him or kill him. If you choose to kill, go and get those gloves from upstairs, and use his pistol.”
Laurie looked at Angelique, then at Jeremy Smith. Her expression was unreadable. After a moment, she said, “I'll be right back,” and headed up the stairs.
“That is too bad,” Angelique said. She looked at him. “For you.”
“What are you up to? Who the hell are you, anyway?”
Angelique said, “I believe she asked you that. And I believe that you told her, ‘I am your best friend or your worst enemy, whichever you wish me to be.'”
“You're a pro. Who are you with? Mossad?”
“Once. No more.”
He looked at Janet. “How about you?”
“CIA. Once. No more.”
Laurie walked down the stairs to the bar. She joined the group, pulled on some latex gloves, and wiped the pistol down with a bar towel. Then, she took her place in front of him.
“I hate you,” she said. “I've never said that to anybody ever, until now.”
“I was just doing my job,” he said.
“No. You enjoyed it too damned much. I could see it in your eyes.”
He watched her raise the pistol. The red laser dot appeared on his belly, then slowly crept up his chest. “You ain't got the balls,” he said.
“Don't bet on that,” Laurie shot back.
A trickle of sweat rolled down the side of his face. “Look, this won't solve anything. We can get you a cash payoff. Fifty thousand, a hundred thousand. I can make it happen. Just let me go. We pay off people all the time.”
“It's not about the money,” she said. “It's about peace of mind. As long as you're out there, I don't feel safe.”
“You hacked my bank accounts, didn't you?” he asked.
“No,” Janet said. “I did.” She pointed at him. “That's what brought you here, isn't it? You came to get payback for that. NSA traced the hack to that computer bar up the street, and you thought it was Laurie. But it was me.”
“Why?” he asked. “Why mess with my money like that?”
“Because of you,” she said, “I resigned my place at the Agency. I saw that video, and I couldn't stomach what you did to her. What we did to her.”
“That's your tough luck,” he said. “This is war. Besides, nobody will ever know about that. That video will never be seen by anybody outside of the Agency. Hell, they've probably already destroyed it.”
Janet shot a glance at Angelique, then at Laurie. “Don't count on that, either.”
“No,” he said. “You didn't leak it, did you? Tell me you didn't leak it.”
“Okay,” Janet said. “I didn't leak it. But I figure that in twenty-four to forty-eight hours, you're going to be famous. Or infamous, whichever. It seems that your identity got leaked to the press – along with the video. You're going to be all over TV.”
“You crazy bitch!” he shouted. “Do you realize what you've done?”
“Yes,” Janet said. “Karma sucks, doesn't it?” She looked at Laurie. “If you're going to do this, I don't want to see it.”
“I understand,” Laurie said. “I'll be upstairs shortly.”
Janet impulsively hugged Laurie, then hurried up the stairs to the apartment. The door closed. Laurie returned her attention to Jeremy Smith.
“A hundred thousand, cash,” he said. “I can make it happen for you.”
She raised the pistol. The red laser dot hovered on his forehead. “Say that in Hell,” Laurie said.
“Oh, man. Look. A hundred thousand. I can make it happen in less than a week. Come on, honey. I was just doing my job. You would have done the same thing.”
Laurie kept the pistol aimed at his forehead. She clicked off the safety. “No,” she said. “I wouldn't have done the same thing. Not in a million years.”
He shot Angelique a frantic look. “Make her see reason,” he pleaded.
Angelique considered him coldly. “This is between you and her. I can do nothing.”
He looked at Laurie. “God damn, honey! Come on. You want me to plead? Okay. Please don't do this. Please. I'm begging you. For the love of God, don't do this. Look, I've got a daughter. She depends on me. I was just doing my job. Jesus, honey! Don't do this!”
She watched his face contort into an expression of abject fear, and her gut knotted. She almost vomited. She was doing this to him, causing this fear reaction. She was torturing him, and it was sick. She dropped the pistol to her side.
“Let him go, Angel,” she said. “Get him out of my sight. He's not worth it.”
Angelique hid a smile. She walked to the chair and cut the tape loose. In a minute, she had him freed.
He stood. Laurie looked at him, and waved the pistol at the side exit. “There's a door. Go. Get out of here. Have a nice life.”
Angelique opened the door, and he stepped into the alley. Then, he looked back at Laurie. “I knew you didn't have the balls,” he said.
“You know nothing,” Angelique said, as she stepped into the alley behind him. “You understand nothing. You are an animal.”
“I may be an animal, honey, but I'm a live one.” He turned to her. “I want my passport and my gun.”
“No. The embassy will make you another passport. I keep the gun.”
“You can have it,” he said. He turned to go.
“One more thing,” Angelique said. He turned. She approached him and stood between him and the street, just inside the halo of a security lamp. “Laurie forgave you. That is why she did not kill you.”
“Good for her,” he said.
“But I do not forgive so easily. To leave this alley, you must first get past me.”
He smiled. “I think I can manage that.”
Angelique stepped back two paces and assumed a fighting stance. He copied her, and after a pause, he attacked. She blocked his hard right, and caught him on the chin. He backed up and attacked again. A moment later, he was on his back on the street, attempting to catch his breath. She'd flipped him like he was a featherweight. He looked up; in the haze of the security lamp, her silhouette towered over him. She waited, though. She was not attacking. Slowly, he rose to his feet, then attempted a high kick. She blocked it, and her elbow came down hard on the side of his leg. He felt a pop, and he knew that she'd snapped the ligaments in his knee. It was going to hurt. When she released his leg, he found out how true that prediction was. He screamed when he put weight on his leg, and it almost collapsed beneath him. He balanced on his good leg, and waited for her assault. She did not disappoint him.
Angelique swept his legs from beneath him, and he hit the pavement again. Slowly, he got up, and when he reached a standing position, her fists hammered into his face, a staccato series of punches which caused blood to fly and his face to go numb. He staggered backward, and she did not press the advantage. She retreated into the light, and she awaited his next move. She watched as he recovered himself, and her knees bent as he approached. Then, she launched a roundhouse kick which caught him on the side of his head and left him once again on the pavement, blinking up at the night. He lay still for a moment, then sat up and spat blood on the pavement.
“What the hell is your name again?” he mumbled through his injured mouth. “Angel?”
He looked up at her. “ The Angel? That Mossad bitch?” She did not answer. She did not need to speak; he could see the truth of it, written on her face. “You killed my guys, didn't you? You were the one that took out that black ops team last year, too.”
“Come and do something about it.”
“I plan to.” Slowly, painfully, he rose. As he did, he ran his hand up his shin, lifted his trouser leg, and drew out a flat knife. He held it, blade against his forearm, and approached her. She tensed into a fighting position, tightly wound, waiting, watching. Her expression assumed a deadly seriousness, a reflection of intense concentration. A thick silence descended upon the contest in the alley; the only sounds that could be heard were the contestants' breathing, and an occasional footstep. He edged toward her, his body sideways, his injured leg dragging behind him, his arms in fighting stance. When he judged himself close enough, he lunged and swept at her with the knife hand.
He hit the wall, hard. A second later, he was thrown to the pavement. He rolled to one side as Angelique twisted his knife hand. A loud crack echoed in the alley, reverberated through his body, and waves of searing pain shot along his arm, a pain that took his breath away. The knife clattered to the pavement, and he finally managed a shriek of pain. She released him, kicked the knife away, and stepped back. He looked at his arm and, at first, could not comprehend why it was bent at such an odd angle. Then, he realized that she had either dislocated or broken his elbow.
He determined that he would kill her. This bitch would die, and now. He rose to his knees, and he was assailed with a wave of sick nausea and dizziness. He wavered on his knees, and he looked up at her. He could not stand erect. A sick realization struck him, screamed at him that he had lost this fight. No, he thought. He would not kill her tonight; she was going to kill him. This dance was almost over, and she was the prom queen. Hell of a way to die, he thought: taken out by some Mossad bitch. What the hell, he decided; let's get it done with. He locked eyes with her, and he delivered his final blow.
“I had your girlfriend. She was sweet.” He saw the reflection of shock in Angelique's face, and he saw pain in those light eyes. He pushed the knife in to the hilt with the parting shot, “All four times.”
A second later, Angelique's heel caught his face. He spun on his knees, then fell face-first onto the pavement with a sickening thud. She squatted over him, yanked his head up by the hair, and looped an arm around his neck. As she prepared to twist his neck at a grotesque angle, a voice called her back to reality.
She looked up. Laurie was standing next to her. “Don't, Angel. You'll kill him.” She touched Angelique's shoulder, a soft touch. “Let him go. It's over.”
Angelique looked down at Jeremy Smith. Blood spotted the pavement beneath his face, and he was not moving. She looked beyond Laurie's legs, and she saw Janet standing by the open alley door. Her hands were covering her mouth; her eyes were wide with disbelief and horror. A realization struck Angelique, and it chilled her to her soul: Janet almost witnessed her commit a murder. If she'd broken his neck, it wouldn't have been in war; it wouldn't have been in self-defense. It would have been a murder, and nothing more. A murder driven by hatred, by dark passion, by her memory of what he'd done to Laurie. By vengeance. She released his head and rested it on the pavement. When she stood, Laurie threw her arms around Angelique's chest and hugged her. “Thank God,” she whispered. “I thought we'd lost you for a second.”
Angelique felt Laurie against her, felt the arms tightly around her torso, felt the hair against her cheek. She held her tightly. “You almost did.”
Janet joined them. She looked down at Jeremy Smith. “Is he – ?”
“No,” Angelique said. “He is alive.”
“What do we do now?” she asked. “He's seriously messed up.”
“I guess we'll have to call the emergency number,” Laurie said. “He needs the hospital, bad.” She looked at Angelique. “Damn, Angel. You tore him up a lot worse than he did me.”
She held Laurie tightly. “Is – is it true?” she whispered. “What he said?”
“What?” She lifted her head from Angelique's cheek and looked at her face. “Do you mean – ?”
“Oh! No, Angel. No, they never did anything sexual to me.” She looked down at him. “I wonder why they didn't? I mean, I kept expecting it, but they never did.”
Janet said, “They would have had to turn off the video feed, and that would have raised questions. Sexual battery isn't part of the torture protocol anymore, ever since Abu Ghraib. They'd have gotten into some deep trouble.”
“Well, what do ya know?” Laurie said. “They do have rules, after all.”
“I repeat the question,” Janet said. “What now?”
“Janet's right. We need to do something about him. What do you suggest, Angel?”
She released Laurie and took charge. She studied the alley, the distant trash bins, the street. Then, she said, “Leave him. I will call police. I will tell them that I came out to throw trash there, and found him like this. Laurie, you still wear gloves. Get his passport and his gun. Put them in his pocket.”
“You want to give him his gun?”
“Yes. When the police find it on him, they will give him much trouble for it. Especially the silencer. That is illegal in France.”
“Right.” Laurie ran inside the alley door, and Angelique kicked his knife toward him. “Looks like robbery. A gang must have attacked him.”
They walked toward the door, and Laurie came bounding out with his personal effects. She wiped down the gun with a bar towel, jammed it into the back of his trouser waist-band, and tucked his personal effects into his jacket pocket as he lay motionless in the alley. When she finished that, she turned to Angelique. “Here's your phone,” she offered.
Angelique lifted it from Laurie's hand. She dialed a number, then carried on a conversation in French. When she finished, she tucked the phone into her pocket. “I will stand in the road,” she said, “to stop them when they come here. You and Janet, you go inside, upstairs. You know nothing of this. You saw nothing.”
“Let's clean up that chair and that duct tape,” Laurie said. “And anything else that belongs to him.” She and Janet disappeared into the building as the distinctive two-tone sound of a distant police car siren echoed in the night, and as Angelique walked down the alley to the road to await their arrival.
She entered the apartment through the stairs from the bar almost an hour later. Laurie and Janet were sitting at the kitchen table. “Man,” Laurie said. “You okay?”
“Yes, yes. They had many questions.”
“Did they believe you?”
“I think so. They had no reason to not believe. Also, the policeman, he is a regular of ours.” She smiled. “He likes our bar.”
“He likes your music,” Laurie corrected.
“Whatever,” Angel said. Laurie squelched a snicker. Angelique had picked up that word from her; she even used the perfect inflection, and the perfect gesture of nonchalant disinterest to accompany it. In her face, though, Laurie could see a subtle warmth which said, ‘Thank you'.
“You're tired, aren't you?” Laurie asked. Angelique answered with a little nod of her head.
“Me, too,” Janet said. “I've got to sleep.”
“Yeah, I think we've all had an eventful night.”
“If you think tonight was eventful, wait a couple of days. When this story hits the news...”
“Okay, that's a wrap. Let's go back to the office and edit this.” Bernadette Massey closed her notebook and leaned back in her chair. “You did fantastic, Laurie. You're totally believable, a really credible interview.” She shrugged. “Some people aren't.” She leaned forward. “This gets approved by you before it gets sent to CNN headquarters in Atlanta for re-broadcast.”
“No. Thank you, Laurie. I'll bring it by here this afternoon.” She rose and offered her hand, then impulsively hugged Laurie. Then, she joined the camera team as they muscled their bags of equipment through the front door of the bar, to the waiting van. Just before they left, she ran back into the bar and gave a resounding hug and a kiss to Janet. “Call you later,” she said, as she exited the building. “‘Bye, girls.”
Laurie watched them go, then sat at the bar. “Man,” she said. “I feel like I've run a marathon.”
“It is not yet over,” Angelique said. “We see a lawyer this afternoon.”
“For what?” Laurie asked.
Janet said, “For your application for political asylum in France. That way, the Feds back home can't try to extradite you when the inevitable crap-storm hits Washington over this news story.”
Laurie blinked at Janet. “Do you think they'll try?”
“Oh, yeah. I think they will. You're a material witness, not only to highly-classified CIA black ops stuff, but potentially to the leaking of classified video. And if they ever get you back to America and get their hands on you, there's no telling when – or if – they'll let you go.”
Laurie sighed. “Well,” she finally said. “This is strange. I never, ever thought that I'd be on the run from my own government.”
Western Kansas, two days later.
Bill Caldwell, sheriff of a farming county in western Kansas, relaxed on the sofa in his living room and clicked on the television. Michelle joined him with a bottle of beer in each hand, handed him one, and settled down on her favorite corner of the sofa. “Is anything good on?” she asked.
“Probably not,” he said. “Let's catch the evening news.” He sipped his beer as he chose the channel, then rested the remote control on the end table. They listened to the polished CNN news anchor speak for a couple of minutes. Then, Bill leaned forward in stunned silence.
For at least fifteen minutes, they watched in rapt attention. They watched the video leaked from the secret CIA black site in France; then, they watched the interview with the retired CIA bureaucrat. The news anchor promised another explosive interview after the break, and a commercial began airing. Bill placed his beer on the coffee table. “I've got a really bad feeling about all this,” he said.
“I do too, Bill.” They looked at each other. “That was our Laurie. I'm sure of it.”
“Nah,” Bill said. “You're worrying. That wasn't Laurie. Couldn't have been.”
The news resumed, and the news anchor introduced another interview, this time with the unidentified victim of CIA abuse. The victim was a mere silhouette, her face and body unidentifiable, but her voice was not disguised. They sat in silence, eyes glued to the screen. When it ended, Michelle rose from the couch, found her phone, and dialed a number. She waited, then said, “Laurie? Are you okay? My God, we just saw you on CNN. What happened? No, I mean your face was hidden, but I know my own daughter!”
Bill listened for a while, then held out his hand. When Michelle placed the phone in his hand, he put it to his ear. “Laura Ann Caldwell, what the hell is going on over there? I know that was you in the interview. I'm your father, for Christ's sake. Talk to me.” He listened for a minute, then said, “What do you mean, it's the middle of the night? Why? What time is it there? Oh. Three a.m. Well, sorry about that, but we're worried about you. You're sure you're all right? Well, do you need us to come there? We can be on the next flight. And what about Allie? Is she mixed up in this shit, too? Well, thank God for that, at least. Is Angelique there? Good. You stick to her like glue until this is over, do you hear me? She'll protect you.” He huffed and fumed as he listened, and then he relented. “All right, we'll talk more in the morning. We love you too, Laurie. And tell Allie to call us. She never calls. Yeah. ‘Bye, honey.” He clicked the phone off and handed it to Michelle. “Middle of the night there. Everybody's fine.”
Michelle accepted the phone. “I heard.”
“I gathered that.”
“She needs to come home,” he grumbled.
“She is home, Bill. That's her home now.”
“Paris? Shacking up with her girlfriend and hustling drinks in a bar? I'll never understand that girl.”
“I'll never understand either one of our daughters. But I'm so glad that they didn't end up like so many do, around here.”
“Yeah? How's that?”
“Pregnant too young and struggling too hard to survive. Especially with things the way they are now: no jobs, no prospects, farms and businesses failing. I miss our daughters, but they're both happy. To me, that's the greatest gift a parent can have: to see their children grow up to be happy. And they're living lives that most people around here only dream about.”
He looked at her. “Do you wish sometimes that you'd chosen a life like that?”
“No, Bill. I've had plenty of adventure in my life. Trust me, after thirty years with you and raising those two girls, I just want a quiet life, here on the farm.”
He chuckled. “Well, at least we can see one of ‘em any time we want. We just turn on the news.”
Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Guy Reynolds walked into a corner pub and took a seat at the bar. The bartender, a pleasant fellow of middle age, approached him.
“Good evening,” Guy said. “A draft, please.”
“Comin' up.” The bartender returned in a moment and placed a mug if beer in front of Reynolds. “You know, you look just like that guy that was on the TV news a few minutes ago.”
“Oh? Which one?”
“That CIA whistle-blower guy. That torture thing. That interview is all over the news.”
Reynolds smiled. “My evil twin, I guess.”
“Hey, there it is again.” The bartender pointed at the television above the bar. He turned up the sound. For a while, they watched in silence. Then, the bartender turned to Reynolds. “Ah... that ain't you, is it?”
“Actually, it is. Why do you think I'm in Canada right now?”
“They'll find you.”
“Yeah. I imagine the Feds have already kicked in the front door of my home in D.C.”
“Jeez. Did you credit card your way up here?”
“Yes. Nobody trusts cash anymore. I had to.”
“Hey,” the bartender said. “I trust cash. Yes, sir. That's my motto: In God we trust. Everybody else pays cash.”
Reynolds found himself laughing. “You're okay.” He held out his hand. “Guy's the name.”
The bartender shook his hand. “Peter. Pleased to meet you.”
“Well, Peter. You guys do food here?”
“Yeah, sure. The usual pub fare, eh?”
“I'll probably have cops all over me within the next twelve hours, so I guess I'd better do with a meal. Ask ‘em to cook me whatever they do best, will ya?”
Two hours later, he left the pub and strolled the short distance back to his hotel. As he walked through the lobby, he noted the front desk attendant nod toward him. The man's eyes, though, were directed elsewhere. Reynolds managed a smile. Here it comes, he thought. Sure enough, before he'd gotten to the elevator, he was book-ended by two men in suits.
“Are you Guy Reynolds?”
“Yeah. Who are you two gentlemen? And if you flash me a badge, you'd better be Canadian, or you guys can go suck eggs.”
One flashed a badge. “RCMP. There's an Interpol warrant out on you. You need to come with us.”
“Well,” he said. “I'm glad I just ate. I've got a feeling that it's going to be a long night.”
Laurie halted her motor-scooter at a red light and glanced to her left. The numerous daily and weekly newspapers displayed at the news-stand, ten feet away from her, screamed headlines such as ‘CIA Operates Torture Chamber in France' at her, along with quarter-page, grainy photos of her, taken from the leaked video. “Jeez,” she said. “When Janet mentioned a crap-storm, she wasn't kidding.” The light changed and a horn honked at her from behind her. She groused, “Blow it out your ass, buddy,” as she accelerated and turned left.
She parked her motor-scooter behind Café Angel, beneath the back stairs, then trotted up the stairs and entered the apartment. When she walked in, Janet, Bernadette, and Angelique were watching the television. It was tuned to BBC, and they were catching the news in English. The American president's press secretary was speaking to a room crammed with reporters.
“The revelations of a CIA black site in France, and of the allegations of torture, shocked all of us. The first the President knew of this was when he saw the video on CNN along with the rest of the nation. Let me emphasize that this was a totally illegal act by a rogue group within the CIA, and violated every standard by which our intelligence community operates. He has already instructed the Director of the FBI to investigate this despicable act. He also assures the American public – and the world community – that those responsible will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
As a gaggle of questions arose from the assembled press, Janet shot a glance at Bernadette. “What do you think?” she asked.
“Horse manure,” she intoned.
“Yup. That's what greases government gears,” Janet said. “Horse manure.”
The press secretary struggled to calm the reporters. “And – and the Secretary of State is en route now to Paris to personally apologize to the French President and offer whatever assistance is necessary to repair the diplomatic damage between our countries.”
Angelique snickered at that comment. “If I know our President,” she said, “he will not take it lightly.”
“He's a man. Maybe a good bee-jay will help smooth things over,” Bernadette offered. Laurie cackled in laughter. Janet blinked in surprise at Bernadette, who shrugged and said, “Hey. It couldn't hurt.”
Angelique wore an innocent look. “I do not understand. What is this ‘bee-jay'?” she asked.
“You don't want to know, Angel,” Laurie said.
Bernadette leaned toward Angelique and whispered, “ Fumer le cigare.”
“They will smoke a cigar?” she said. Her eyes widened, and she exclaimed, “Oh! That!” She thought for a moment, then decided, “Perhaps you discover the secret to world peace, yes?”
Janet started cracking up. Laurie shot a grin at Angelique. “Angel, you're bad today.”
Angelique shrugged. “I learn from you.” She turned to Janet and Bernadette. “She is from Kansas, you know. They are all bad in Kansas.”
Laurie walked around the table, dropped her messenger bag, and kissed Angelique on top of the head. “Yeah, and you love bad. Don't try to deny it.”
“I do not deny.” She smiled up at Laurie. “How was French class?”
“ C'était le Paradis, ” she said, as she headed for the bedroom.
Bernadette smiled at Angelique and spoke in French. “That has got to be the thickest American accent I've ever heard.”
“Yes,” Angelique agreed. “But I find it to be extremely charming.”
Two days later.
Laurie peeked through the peep-hole on the apartment's back door, then opened it. Claire and Esther entered, and she waved them to the sofa. “Come on in, you two. Have a seat. Can I get you some coffee?”
A minute later, Laurie settled into her chair holding her coffee cup, and smiled at her visitors. “How's things?”
“Good,” Esther said. “Where's Bat-Ami?”
“Oh, Angel drove Janet and Bernadette to Gare de Lyon . You know, the train station? They're going to backpack down to Italy.” She rolled her eyes. “God, those two are like teen-agers.”
“It sounds exciting,” Claire said. “And are things more settled for you?”
“Nah,” Laurie said. “Reporters keep sniffing around, asking about me. I get followed on the street. They're ruthless. I almost hate going out anymore. They're convinced that I'm the gal in the video.”
“You are the girl in the video,” Claire reminded her.
“Yeah, but they're not supposed to know that.”
“You need a change of appearance,” Esther said. “Then, they won't recognize you. You won't look as you did on the video.”
“Yes!” Claire agreed. “Oh, and Esther is a good one to advise you on that.”
Laurie sipped her coffee and thought about it. Then, she allowed a smile to cross her face. A radical change? That might be just the thing. “I'm listening,” she said. “Esther, what did you have in mind?”
In reply, Esther grinned like the Cheshire Cat. She looked at Claire. “Shall we three go shopping?” she asked.
Later that afternoon, Angelique sat at her piano in the empty, darkened bar. She rehearsed a new song, played it this way and that, and scribbled the occasional note to herself on the sheet music. She looked up when she heard the locks click open on the front door. Esther and Claire entered, and Laurie re-locked the door behind them.
“Did you three have a good shopping trip?” she asked, as she gathered her sheet music together.
“Yes, Bat-Ami,” Esther said. “We brought Laurie back to you.”
“Sober, even,” Claire added. “The same, but a very different Laurie.”
Laurie approached Angelique. “I hope you like it,” she said. She lifted a baseball-style cap from her head, pulled the sunglasses from her face, and shot a hesitant, shy glance at Angelique.
Dead silence resounded in the bar. Angelique blinked in surprise as she sat, unmoving. The silence was finally broken by Esther's laugh.
“Bat-Ami, never before have I seen you so speechless.”
Angelique rose from the piano bench. She placed her hands on Laurie's shoulders and turned her first one direction, then another, as she studied her. Then, she lifted Laurie's chin and looked into her eyes. “I love it,” she said. “Do you?”
“I'm not sure,” Laurie said. “I feel so – different.” She glanced at her image in the mirror behind the bar. Her pony tail was gone, and her bangs had disappeared. In its place, she wore a short, pixie-ish hairstyle. Her usual little hoops had disappeared from the holes in her ear lobes, and they had been replaced by dangly, longer earrings. Her jacket was new, as was the scarf loosely wrapped about her neck, and her usual black, high-topped tennis shoes had been replaced by a pair of flat brown boots. A different look, indeed. “Damn,” she said, as she studied herself. “I had no idea that my ears stuck out like that. I look like a Volkswagen goin' down the road with both doors open.”
Esther and Angelique roared in laughter, but Claire took pity and kept a straight face. “No, no,” she said. “Your ears do not stick out. It just seems so, because your hair is short now.” At Laurie's skeptical glance, she smiled her best smile. “You look beautiful, I think, in a very different way than before.”
“That is the idea,” Angelique said. “To look different, no?”
“And beautiful,” Esther hurriedly added.
“Yeah. I guess,” Laurie said.
“It must work,” Claire said. “No reporters bothered us on the way home.”
“I just don't want to be the girl in the video any more,” Laurie said. “I want my life back, my anonymity. I'm sick of being hassled.”
“You are not that girl any longer,” Angelique assured her. “Oh, I have news. The lawyer, he telephoned. Your application for political asylum is recorded. Until your hearing, you are under the protection of the French government. The Americans cannot extradite you.”
“That might protect me from the Feds, but it doesn't protect me from the tabloid reporters,” Laurie said. “They still found me out somehow. They know my name.”
Angelique shrugged. “Perhaps we change your name, also?”
“That's radical,” Laurie said. “All my life, I've been Laurie Caldwell. I'm not sure I could get used to a different name.”
Esther waved a hand. “Bat-Ami and I, we have had many names.” She shrugged. “And passports.”
“That's different.” She puzzled over it, then said, “It may come to that. Let me think about it, right?” She glanced at her wrist-watch. “Jeez, it's getting late. Let's eat something before work. I'm starving.” She looked at Claire and Esther. “Join us?”
With enthusiastic nods, they headed toward the stairs to the apartment above the bar.
Hôpital de l'Hôtel Dieu, Paris, France.
Jeremy Smith flipped through a French language magazine in boredom, then repositioned himself in his bed. His butt hurt from the hard mattress, and his disposition was sour from the forced inactivity and the pain which never left him. His right arm was in a cast and his left leg was splinted. In addition, his face still showed the effects of his most recent combat. He'd lost two teeth, and his lip was sutured where it had been badly split open. His eye, too, was still partially shut. The swelling was lessening, though; that was a rare bit of good news. It appeared that he would survive the pounding that Angelique had given him. As much as he hated her and daydreamed about killing her, he also felt a grudging respect for her consummate skill. They train ‘em good in Israel, he decided.
The door opened, and a man in a suit entered. He recognized the man as an attache from the American Embassy in Paris, and as a CIA agent. “Hey, Stork,” Smith said.
“Jeremy. How's it going?”
“I'm bored to shit.” He pointed to the door. “There's a French cop outside the door. What's up?”
“You, old buddy, are a person of serious interest to them.”
“Yeah? What's that mean?”
“That means,” Stork explained, “ that they know you're the guy in the video that's been all over the news. When you're well enough to get out of here, they're probably going to arrest you.”
“What? Can't you guys stop that?”
“Oh, baloney. You guys need to spring me from here, get me on an Agency private jet, and get me back to Langley, pronto.”
“Not gonna happen,” Stork said. “The French are really pissed about that black site. They're making serious trouble for us. I mean, it's a major diplomatic incident. The President's having to do serious damage control. There's demonstrations outside American embassies all over Europe. We're being killed in the world press.”
Smith's expression fell. “And he needs a sacrificial lamb. I'm screwed, right?”
“It looks that way. That black site video is all over the TV and the internet. Man, don't you watch the news?”
Smith waved a hand at the television. “It's all in French,” he said.
“Watch BBC, dumb-ass. Look, do you need anything?”
“I guess I'm gonna need a French lawyer.”
“We'll get you one.” He looked Smith over from head to toe. “So, who was it that kicked your ass six different ways?”
Smith smiled, as much as he could. “I got mugged.”
“Yeah, that's what you told the French police. What really happened?”
Smith thought about it. Then, he looked at Stork. “I got mugged. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.”
“Okay, Smith. Although it's weird that you were found beat to shit outside that girl's apartment. You know, that chick in the video? The one who has an ex-Mossad agent for a honey?”
“Pure coincidence,” Smith shot back. “Do you think one woman could have done this to me?”
Stork laughed. “Yeah, if it was Wonder Woman or Xena, maybe,” he said. “Or the Angel of Mossad. See you later.”
He watched Stork leave, then found the television remote control. He flipped channels until he found BBC, and he listened half-heartedly. Finally, a news item piqued his interest. In America, a retired CIA senior analyst named Guy Reynolds was under arrest and was being held on charges of espionage and leaking highly-classified information to the world press. Yup, Smith thought; he's the leaker. That guy's toast. He'll never see the light of day again. He'll probably be stuck in the slammer for three years before they even charge him. Poor bastard. Well, that's what he gets for leaking classified info.
Smith looked toward the door and saw the French policeman in the hallway. Then, he had another thought: Reynolds isn't the only one going down for this. Hey, he thought; I was just doing my job. That's all. Just doin' my job. And since I was the guy doing the work, they're going to throw me under the bus, just like they did with those Abu Ghraib soldiers.
The door opened, and a man in a coat and tie entered. “Mister Smith?” he asked.
“You know I am,” Jeremy Smith answered.
“Inspector Broussard, Police nationale . I am placing you under arrest for – ” He flipped open his notebook. “Kidnapping, torture, assault, battery, possession of an illegal firearm and a silencer – ” He flipped the notebook closed. “And anything else we can think of. Espionage is also a possibility. It is possible that you will be spending a long time in a French prison.”
“Yeah? How long?”
“That depends upon whether you wish to co-operate with us.”
“Lawyer,” Smith said. “The American Embassy will provide me a lawyer. Until he gets here, I'm not answering any questions.”
Inspector Broussard smiled coldly. “There is no hurry. I am quite certain that you will be a guest in our country for a very, very long while.”
Laurie finished drying herself, then wrapped her bath towel about her body. She halted in front of the mirror and studied herself critically, turning this way and that, only shaken from her thoughts when Angelique's hand fluffed her hair. “I like it,” Angelique said. “Very much.”
“Really? You really do? I mean, you're not just saying that to make me feel better, right?” Laurie read the expression on Angelique's face, then managed a laugh. “Okay, yeah. You're telling the truth. Thanks, Angel.”
“Always.” Angelique pulled her robe more tightly about her body as she leaned against the wall. “Do you wish a glass of wine with me before bed?” she asked.
“Yeah, that would be great.” That made Laurie smile; one of her most favorite moments in their daily routine was after work and after her shower, late at night, when they were able to sit and share a glass of wine and a quiet, mutual presence. At those times, they could talk about anything. Or, they could talk about nothing, and simply be in each other's close, companionable silence.
Laurie hung up the towel, hurried across the hall, and found a night-shirt. She pulled it over her head as she headed down the hall to the living room, where she accepted a glass of wine from Angelique's outstretched hand. In short order, they were snuggled down on the sofa, close to each other, and enjoying a quiet moment.
Laurie leaned against Angelique and rested her head against her shoulder. “Something's on your mind, Angel. I can hear the wheels and gears turning in your head.”
“You know me too well, chérie .”
“I love it when you call me that. Anyhow, what's up?”
Angelique sighed deeply, and Laurie felt a stab of concern. This was serious, she decided. She waited, though; finally, Angelique began speaking.
“Have you thought more about the changing of your name? To hide yourself?”
“Not really. It's not a bad idea, though. Man, that video's all over the news. My name's going to come out eventually, you know that. Some reporter will blab it, and then, I won't get a moment's peace.” She sipped her wine. “I wouldn't even know what to change it to, though.”
Angelique hesitated, then said, “Perhaps you would change it to Halevy?”
Laurie looked at her. “Your last name? It's a nice name, but wouldn't that be a little weird?” She studied Angelique's expression. “Okay, what's going on with you? You're being really strange tonight.”
“I was only thinking that it is legal now – in France – for us to be married.”
Laurie's jaw dropped. She stared at Angelique for a moment, then placed her wine glass on the coffee table and turned to face her. “Did I hear you right? Did you just say what I think you just said?”
Angelique looked away. “I would understand, of course, if you did not wish to do this.”
“Angel?” Laurie turned Angelique's face toward hers. “Are you asking me to marry you? Is that what's going on here?”
Angelique gave her a slight, hesitant nod. “Yes.”
“Because you think it will protect me, or because you want to get old with me?”
“I want to get very old with you.”
Laurie smiled at that. “Right answer,” she said. She lifted the hem of her night-shirt, straddled Angelique's lap, and rested her forearms on Angelique's shoulders. “So, you must want me to stick around for a while, huh?”
“You stay forever?”
“Forever. Yeah, I like the sound of that.” Her eyes searched Angelique's face, saw the question written on it. “Well, Angelique Halevy, it's like this: Of all the people in the world, there's nobody that I'd rather get very old with than you, and no place I'd rather be than by your side.” She looked down and laughed. “Or sitting in your lap, whichever.”
“Then – ?”
“Yes. The answer to your question is ‘yes'. I'll marry you in a heartbeat, and I'll love you forever.”
Laurie was squeezed by Angelique's embrace, crushed to her chest. She found Angelique's mouth with her own, and they kissed deeply, frantically. Then, Laurie placed her mouth close to Angelique's ear. “I can't breathe,” she whispered. She felt the arms loosen their hold, and Laurie sat up in Angelique's lap. Their foreheads touched, and Laurie wiped a thumb across Angelique's cheek. “A tear?” she noted.
“Me, too.” Laurie laughed. “I guess this means that you really do like me, huh?”
Angelique smiled. “No,” she said. “But it is difficult to keep good bar-girls.”
“This bar-girl's not going anywhere. After all, she's sleeping with the boss.” She ran a hand through her own short, mussed hair. “Tell the truth. It's the hair, right? You like short hair? Man, if I knew it would get a marriage proposal out of you, I'd have cut it off sooner.” She squinted in thought. “So, how long have you been thinking about this, anyway?”
“Since it has become legal for us to marry,” was Angelique's reply.
“But you were afraid to ask me?”
“Why?” Laurie said. “I've never known you to be afraid of anything.”
“I am afraid only that I will disappoint you.”
“You never have to worry about that, Angel.” She touched Angelique's cheek, ran her fingers through the brown-and-russet, shoulder-length hair. “I just hope that I never disappoint you.”
“You cannot. It is not in your nature.”Angelique nuzzled Laurie, then kissed her. “It is late. We should go to bed.”
Laurie nodded agreement as she untangled herself from Angelique's lap and stood. She held out her hand, and Angelique took it as she rose. Together, hand-in-hand, they strolled toward the bedroom. “Well,” Laurie said, “I guess this means that we have to make love tonight, huh? I mean, now that we just got engaged and all? It's kind of expected, isn't it?”
A twinkle of humor lit Angelique's eyes. “Yes. It is the law in France, you know.”
“Well, I wouldn't want to break the law.”
“No. Nor me.”
“So, what if I had said ‘no' to you?”
“Then, I must offer you money for love. It is only proper.”
“Damn. I could have made some money, huh?” Laurie snickered. “Like they say in Kansas: I'll make you holler for a dollar.”
“Only a dollar? Laurie!”
“Well, hey. That's better than nothin'... which is usually what I do that for.”
“You are bad.”
“You're going to find out how bad in about thirty seconds.”
Angelique paused at the bedroom door. “I look forward to it.”
“Me, too. I love you, Angel.”
“I love you also, Laurie. Always.”
“But I don't say it to you every day.”
“You show it to me every day.” Laurie depressed the lever door-knob, and the bedroom door swung open. “Come on, Angel. Time's a-wastin'.”
“We have only the rest of our lives.”
“Yeah. We do, don't we?” Laurie paused and tilted her head in thought. “Marriage. What a concept. Sounds mighty permanent, huh?”
“Nothing in life is permanent,” Angelique said. Laurie shot her a look, and Angelique added, “Except us.” She added a quick little smile to her thought. “Of course.”
“That's my girl,” Laurie said, as she tapped Angelique's chest. “You just keep thinkin' that way, and we'll get along great.”
They entered the bedroom. Behind them, the door closed with a soft click, leaving the apartment in still silence.
The next evening, Laurie was leaning against the bar, alternating her attention between her tables and booths, and Angelique's presence at the baby grand piano. She watched Angelique glance up, meet her gaze, and smile. A second later, a finger poked Laurie in the ribs, and a laughing voice teased her ear in French.
“You two!” Emma said. “You are too happy. It's not proper. What's going on between you?” She rolled her eyes. “I mean, besides the usual.”
“Nothing,” Laurie said. She looked toward Emma and noted the teasing manner in her expression. “It's just nice to be with someone... nice!”
Emma shook her head. “No. There is something else.” She leaned against Laurie and whispered, “I will discover it.”
“In time,” Laurie hinted, “I might tell you.”
Emma squealed in delight and mussed Laurie's hair, then picked up her tray and left. The little bell above the bar's front door tinkled, heralding new customers, and Laurie glanced that way.
Allie entered the café, halted, and shot Laurie a jaw-dropping stare. Then, she laughed. “I love it, little sis!” she said. “The whole new look. You're so – so – French !”
“Instead of Kansas farm chic, huh?” Laurie replied. She looked down at herself; Instead of her usual t-shirt, she wore a stylish, feminine top; in place of her black, high-topped tennis shoes, her feet were thrust into clogs, and she'd adorned herself with a few bracelets and a necklace, courtesy of Esther and Claire's guidance. She touched a dangly earring and struck a pose. “So, do I look different? That's the idea, y'know.” She lifted her tray and held it above her shoulder. “Find a seat. I'll get you in a minute.”
“Oh, no. I'm getting a picture. Mom and Dad have to see this.” As Maurie stepped into the bar and closed the door, Allie found her cell phone and pointed it at her sister. “Keep the tray up. Look sassy. Own it, girl! Hold that pose. It's perfect. Cool. Got it. Oh, yeah! I'm sending this right now.” She slid into a nearby, empty booth, and Maurie joined her.
A minute later, Laurie stopped at their table. “Hey, guys. What's your poison?” she asked.
“We don't know. How's about a bottle of red and a couple of glasses?” Allie said. Maurie nodded agreement.
“Sounds like a plan.” Laurie hustled off to the bar, and returned in a flash with two glasses and a bottle of red wine. She expertly popped the cork, handed it to Maurie, and poured a little into his glass. As he lifted it and inspected it, Laurie looked at her sister. “Tell me you didn't send that picture to Mom and Dad,” she said.
“I did.” Allie studied her phone's screen, and she laughed. “Oh, my God. Mom texted back. She loves your look! She says ‘Didn't recognize Laurie at first. She looks SEXY!'”
“Gee, thanks, I think,” Laurie muttered. “Does that mean I wasn't, before?”
“‘Course it does, little sis.” Allie glanced up from her phone. To Maurie, she explained, “Laurie was always such a dork, growing up. Pigtails and braces. She looked like the Wendy's Girl on a double dose of ‘goober'.”
“Jeez,” Laurie said. As she noted Maurie's nod and poured out two glasses of the wine, Allie glanced down at her phone. “Mom texted again. She showed your picture to Dad. He freaked.”
“Oh-oh. What do you mean, ‘He freaked'?”
“It says, ‘Ur father is frothing at mouth. Is making plane res 4 tonight 2 drag ur ass back 2 Kansas.'” Maurie cracked up. Allie elbowed him, then shot him an evil grin.
“Oh, horse-feathers. She did not say that.” Allie held up the phone, and Laurie leaned forward and studied it. “Oh. I guess she did. Okay, either she's pulling my leg, or Dad's really pissed. I wonder which it is.”
“Wait. Let me ask.”
Allie began tapping at her phone's screen, and Laurie excused herself to tend her other tables. When she returned ten minutes later, Allie gave Laurie a sly, laughing glance. “Okay, what's up? I know that look,” Laurie said. In reply, Allie handed her the phone. Laurie scrolled through the text messages. They read:
Allie: WTF is up w/ Dad?
Mom: He is finding Laurie a place in a convent.
Allie: Convents only want virgins.
Mom: O har, har!
Allie: Straight virgins.
Mom: Stop it! Um... BTW, re: Laurie and boys...?
Allie: U don't wanna know, Mom.
Mom: Ur right. I don't. Tell ur sister we love her so much.
Allie: Aw. I will.
Mom: And U call us more, young lady!
Allie: I will. ‘Night, Mom. Give Dad a chill pill or something.
Mom: I already have. It will kick in shortly.
Allie: Got any more of those?
Mom: Just 4 me. U can get ur own. Later, Allie. Love U!
Allie: Love U 2, Mom! And U text pretty good 4 an old person.
Mom: @^%&**+$^ !!!
Laurie snickered. She handed the phone back to her sister. “You're not right, Allie. You guys need anything?”
Maurie shook his head. “We're good for now.”
Laurie turned to go, then looked back at Allie. “If you really want to see the cow-flop hit the fan, tell ‘em Angel and I are getting married.”
“Yeah, right. They'll never believe that,” Allie called after Laurie as she retreated.
Maurie said, “Why not? Same-sex marriage is legal in France now.”
“It is?” Allie blinked in surprise. She sat in silence for a moment, then shot Maurie a glance. He shrugged innocently. She stared across the room, studied her little sister, then squinted in thought as she watched Angelique at the piano. Finally, she whipped out her phone and sent a text. In a minute, she got a reply, and she cracked up and texted again. After a few minutes, she showed her phone to Maurie. He read:
Allie: Laurie sez 2 tell U she's getting married.
Mom: WTF!!!!!!!!!!!!!! To who? Is she knocked up?
Allie: LMAO! No! To Angel. Maurie sez it is legal here.
Mom: I need another pill. And a mason jar of moonshine. U girls will kill me.
Allie: Luv U 2, Mom! Bye!
Maurie snickered as he handed the phone to Allie. She leaned against his shoulder, and he kissed her forehead. “Your parents,” he said, “have the patience of Job. How did they ever manage?”
Allie laughed. “Dad's a cop. He went to work every day and tore up bad guys. That was his stress release for trying to raise two daughters. Poor Mom didn't have that, so she became a saint, instead.”
“How nice for her,” he said.
“But not for me, bud. Trust me, a girl does not want a mother who's a saint. The expectations are impossible to live up to. Ask any stripper; she'll tell you her mother was a saint.”
“And so, did you become a stripper?”
“Worse. I became a librarian.”
They looked toward the piano when Angelique struck some soft chords, then began playing a tune. She pulled the microphone closer to her mouth and began singing an old Chicago song. Laurie halted by Allie's and Maurie's table, held her tray to her chest, and listened. The voice was resonant, the piano perfect – as usual – and the manner in which she performed the song was slow and haunting. For a moment, Laurie felt herself the only one in the room, felt as if Angelique was speaking to her, and only her.
You know our love was meant to be
The kind of love that lasts forever
And I want you here with me
From tonight until the end of time ...
“Oh, crap!” Laurie said. She clapped a hand over her face. “She had to sing something like that, didn't she?”
“Oh-oh. Here come the tears,” Allie said. She pointed to the empty side of the booth. “Sit here.”
Laurie slid into the seat and wiped the back of her hand across her cheek. “I'm sorry,” she said between sniffles. “Bear with me. I'll get it together in a minute.”
Allie fished a handkerchief from her purse and handed it to Laurie. “Is anything wrong, little sis?” she asked. “Besides you being premenstrual, that is?”
“No. Everything's so God-damned right that it doesn't seem real.”
Allie and Maurie traded glances, and Allie said, “You weren't lyin' about the marriage, were you?”
“No.” Laurie sniffed again and wiped her face. “She asked. I said yes.”
Maurie smiled. “Mazel Tov,” he said.
“So what's the problem?” Allie asked.
“You don't understand. I'm Laurie Caldwell. This shit doesn't happen to me. I'm the girl that never realized her crush, that never went to the prom, that never won the prize at the county fair. I'm the skinny little red-headed dork with the braces and no boobs that no neat guys – or girls – ever wanted, much less somebody as totally awesome as Angel. And now, look at me.” She allowed herself one more sniff, and held up the handkerchief. “Can I borrow this?”
“I'm waiting for it all to crash. It's just too good to be true.”
Allie shrugged. “Well, look on the bright side. You never grew any boobs, but at least you got rid of the braces.”
Laurie laughed. “Yeah, after Ashley Johnson's tongue stud got stuck in ‘em.”
“How'd that happen?”
“How do you think it happened? Never mind. That's history.” She looked at Allie and Maurie. “How can Angel want me? Me?”
Maurie leaned forward, resting on his elbows. “I have known Angel for many years. She guards her emotions closely, keeps herself secret. But I can see that she is devoted to you. Never have I seen her as frightened as she was when you got taken. She drove herself – and Esther and me – relentlessly, until we found you. And then, she nursed you back to health, yes? She never left your side.”
“Yeah. She's always good to me.”
“She blames herself for them taking you. She always will.” He reached across the table and placed his hand on Laurie's forearm. “Take that burden from her, if you can.”
“Yeah, little sis. Angel's crazy about you. Now go marry that girl. She rocks.” Allie shrugged. “Well, okay. Right now, she's playing a Chopin interlude, but you know what I mean.”
Laurie laughed. “Thanks, dork. You too, Maurie.” She took a last wipe at her face, then slid from the booth and stood. “I've got to go to work.” With that, she turned and left.
Maurie looked at Allie. “Did we do good?” he asked.
“Yeah. Sure. We did good,” she said. Allie laughed. “Family, huh? Never a dull moment.”
That night, Angelique lay in bed, attempting – and failing – to involve herself in a novel. She shut the book as Laurie entered the bedroom and focused her attention on her, instead. Laurie had just left the bathroom after her shower, and was naked. Angelique could see only the barest traces of the beating still evident on Laurie's legs. Again, she noted the pixie haircut and admired it; Laurie's oval face was complimented by it. And she saw the shape, the definition in Laurie's legs and in her arms and shoulders. Her physical training was paying dividends, not only in her physiological health, but in her mental health, as well. Having endured what Laurie had endured would wreak deep damage on some people. Not Laurie, though. This, she reminded herself, was a woman of uncommon strength of character.
Laurie slid beneath the covers, wriggled close to Angelique, and said, “May we talk?”
“Of course.” Angelique placed the book next to the loaded pistol which always occupied its place on the night-stand. She turned toward Laurie, waiting for her thoughts. They would come. And they did.
“It's not your fault,” Laurie said, “what happened to me. So don't blame yourself.”
“It is,” she argued. “I was not there for you.”
“You can't be with me every second of every day,” Laurie said. “You rescued me in – what? Two days? No one else could have done that. You did. I owe you my life. Thank you, Angel.” Laurie leaned forward and kissed Angelique. “So don't be blaming yourself.”
“They took you – twice – because of me.”
“No. They took me because they're criminals. It isn't your fault, so stop thinking that it is. Right?”
Angelique smiled. “You always know what to say to me.”
“It's my job,” she said. “Good night, Angel. I love you.”
Angelique clicked off the bedside light. “Good night, Laurie. I love you, also.” She kissed Laurie, then turned on her side in the darkness. Laurie scooted against her back and lay still.
For a while, there was silence. Then, Laurie whispered, “Angel?”
“May I sleep in front of you? Will you hold me?”
Laurie slid over Angelique and curled up in front of her. She pressed herself against Angelique's body, pulled Angelique's arms around her. Angelique. Angel. Her angel. “Protect me,” she whispered. “You're my rock, Angel.”
“And you are my conscience.”
“I won't ever let you go wrong,” Laurie said.
“And I swear on my soul that I will keep you safe,” Angelique replied.
“When can we get married?”
“I spoke with our lawyer,” Angelique said. “First is the political asylum hearing. After that, when we know your status in France, then we can think about marriage.”
“So I'm gonna be a Halevy? I like the name,” she said. “Is it a Jewish name?”
“I'm not Jewish. Does that matter? I mean, about us getting married?”
“But you go to synagogue sometimes.”
“When I feel the need.” Laurie felt her shrug. “I am a Jew.”
“I wish I was. Then, I could share that part of your life with you.”
“I am not so much how-do-you-say? Observant. I do not keep kosher or Sabbath. I do not keep many other laws. I am not so traditional.”
“Obviously not,” Laurie said. “Since you're lying here with me.” She looked back at Angelique. “But you consider yourself Jewish, right? I mean, even though you're not really... into the laws and stuff.”
“It is part of me, part of my deepest being. It is not merely birth. I earned it when I got beat up on the school-yards in France as a child; when I saw my sister murdered in Jerusalem; when I was a soldier of Israel and went to war against our enemies. I am by birth and also in my heart a Jew, and I am proud of that.”
“Would you want me to convert?” Laurie asked.
Angelique was silent for a while. Finally, she said, “If you do, it must be because you want this, and not because you think I want this. I want you only to be who you are.”
“I'm not much, compared to you.”
“You are everything compared to me. You need only to be you, and that is enough for me to love you always.”
It was Laurie's turn to lay quietly. After a moment, she pulled Angelique's arms more tightly about her and snuggled back against her. “Well,” she said. “You know just what to say to me, too, don't you?”
“I learn from you.”
Laurie laughed, a soft, delighted laugh. “Okay. It's agreed: we can be different.”
“ Viva la différence. ”
“Yeah? We are pretty different, aren't we? You're French-Israeli, I'm American. You're a fighter, I'm a lover. You're hot, I'm not. You speak five languages, I'm just learning my second one. You're a wonderful performer; I couldn't carry a tune if it had handles. You're like, three inches taller than me. Sorry, I'm in Europe now; Seven and a half centimeters. You've got hazel eyes and brown hair, I've got brown eyes and red hair.” She assumed a puzzled look. “Okay, what did I miss?”
“You have short hair, mine is longer. When first we met, it was opposite.”
“Yeah. It's the longest I've ever seen it on you.” Laurie lifted the covers and looked down. “And I'm almost natural down there , and you – ”
“Laurie!” Angelique laughed. “I never know what you will say next.”
Laurie squirmed around in bed until she was face-to-face with Angelique. “That's a good thing, right?”
“Oh, yes. That,” Angelique agreed, “is a very good thing. From you, I like a surprise.”
Laurie placed a hand on Angelique's shoulder and pushed her back on the bed. She sat up, threw a leg over Angelique's waist, and straddled her. “Okay,” she said. “Surprise! I get the top.” Angelique tensed her body and sat straight up, then fell forward on Laurie and pinned her to the bed. “Damn,” Laurie said. “That didn't last long, did it? That's what I get for sleeping with a krav maga expert.”
“Shall I teach you some moves?” Angelique asked.
“Yeah.” Laurie wrapped her legs around Angelique's waist and wound her fingers into her hair. She pulled her head down until their faces were close, until she could feel Angelique's breath on her cheek. “Why don't you do that?” she asked. Then, she lifted her head from the bed and kissed Angelique for a very, very long time.
Laurie bounded down the steps to the street and looped the strap of her messenger bag across her body. In one hand, she held her helmet; with the other, she zipped the front of her jacket against the autumn weather. She turned when a cheerful voice called, “ Adieu, Laurie !”
“ À la prochaine, Jozef, ” she replied. In English, she said, “See you later, alligator!”
Her classmate laughed. In his Polish-accented English, he replied, “After a while, crocodile!”
She waved at her classmate, then walked toward the cluster of motor-cycles, motor-scooters, and bicycles gathered at the street's corner. She always had a laugh at hers; it was older, beat-up, and had a faded peace sign sticker on it, but she loved it. Character, she thought. It was probably as old as she was. Angelique had bought it for her from God-knows-where, insisting that the newer ones weren't nearly as good. She was right; this one ran like a champ, and whenever it did crap out on her, it was either out of gasoline, or needed the spark plug swapped out. She'd dealt with both situations often, and carried a spare spark plug and a wrench beneath the seat.
She unlocked it, stuck the key into the ignition, and twisted it. When she kicked the kick-starter, though, the motor wheezed a couple of times, then went silent. She huffed, muttered a few choice words, and opened the gasoline cap. When she rocked the scooter, she heard gasoline slosh. “Okay,” she said. “That's not it.” She replaced the cap, kicked down the kick-stand, and pulled on the spark plug cap. It came off easily, and the wire separated. She blinked in surprise; the cap and half the wire was in her hand. “What the hell?” she muttered.
“Excuse me,” a voice said. “Got problems?”
Laurie looked up. A young woman stood near her, watching her. She smiled. “I couldn't help but notice you. Is your motor-scooter messed up?”
“Yeah,” Laurie said. “You're American?”
“Yes. My husband and I can help. We have a van. Do you need us to drop you somewhere?”
Laurie followed the woman's pointing finger to a nearby minivan. A smiling man stood by it. He waved at them, then approached. Laurie's gut knotted, and a voice in the back of her mind screamed a warning. “Ah, no thanks,” Laurie said. “I don't want to put you guys out. I'll be fine. Thanks for askin', though.”
“Oh, it's no trouble,” the woman insisted.
“What's up?” the man said, as he took a place near the woman.
“Oh, her motor-scooter has a problem. We can drop her off somewhere, can't we?”
Laurie glanced down at the spark plug cap in her hand. The wire had been cut. She glanced up at them again. The man had a distinctly military appearance about him; the woman exuded a subtle, undefinable aura of manipulation about her. Laurie decided to trust her gut. “I'm fine. I'll just make a phone call. Thanks anyway, you guys. I appreciate you askin'.” She leapt from the scooter and bolted toward the front door of the building she'd just exited.
Behind her, a female voice shouted, “I'm on her. You go around back.” Feet pounded on the cobblestones just behind her as she took the steps three at a time and yanked open the front door. A hand grasped at her shoulder, caught the hood on her jacket, and Laurie turned. She smashed her helmet into the woman's face, and she released Laurie and staggered backward. Laurie slammed the door shut, then bolted for her classroom. She turned a corner, found the door, and twisted the handle, but it was locked.
“Shit!” Laurie said. She glanced around; a stairwell was at the end of the hall. She stopped in the hall and looked toward the front door. It flew open, and the woman entered and broke into a run toward her. Laurie did not think; she ran for the stairwell, pounded up the stairs to the second floor, and halted at the top. Below her, she heard a shout. A second later, the woman was running up the stairs. Laurie looked around; near her, a fire extinguisher hung on the wall. She yanked it from its hook, popped the safety wire from it, and held it as she pressed herself against the wall beside the stairwell. The foot-steps got louder and nearer; when the woman turned the corner, Laurie pointed the extinguisher at her face and pulled the trigger. A flood of white powder hit her, and she halted, backed up, and began hacking and coughing. Laurie swung the extinguisher, and the metal canister rang with a hollow thud as she connected with the woman's head. She staggered and fell to her knees. Laurie kicked her in the chest, and she fell backward and slid down the stairs on her back.
She dropped the extinguisher and pulled her cell phone from her pocket. She tried to select Angelique's name on the screen, but her hands were shaking so badly that she had difficulty. Finally, the phone rang; once, twice, three times. She heard foot-steps, a heavier tread, coming up the stairs, and she said, “Come on, Angel. Answer the phone, already.”
“Hello? Laurie?” a voice said.
“Oh, thank God. Angel, help! I'm in the building where my French class is. Two people are after me, Americans. A dude and a woman. I'm on the second floor.”
“I am coming,” she said. “Go to top floor and hide.” The connection broke.
Laurie shoved the phone in her pocket and looked up. The man was on the landing beneath her, and he stopped. He looked down at the woman, covered in white powder and lifting herself to her knees, then up at Laurie with a deadly glare. The woman said, “Go! Get her. I'm okay.”
She did not wait to see if he obeyed. Laurie ran down the hall, past the doors of various offices, and found the elevator. She pounded on the button, and the door opened. She ducked inside, pressed the top floor button, and the doors began closing. Just before the doors met, a hand grabbed one door and attempted to force it back. Laurie smashed the fingers with her helmet, and the hand withdrew. The doors closed, and the elevator began moving upward.
She leaned against the wall and gasped for breath. Her heart was pounding in her chest, and she was sweating. What would she do when she got to the top floor? She wondered why Angelique had insisted on going there; after all, if they cornered her there, she would have no exit, no escape to the street.
The elevator stopped, and the door opened. She looked around, then exited and attempted to walk casually past a couple having a conversation in the hall. She turned a corner, and she detected the sound of foot-steps ascending the stairs. The tread was heavy; she guessed that it was the man. She turned and walked as quickly as she could toward the other end of the hall, and just before she turned the corner, she looked back. The man had arrived at the top of the stairwell, and he looked winded. He was breathing heavily, and he touched his lapel and said something, then began a slow trot toward her. “Stop right there, Miss Caldwell!” he said.
“Kiss my ass, buddy,” Laurie said, and bolted down the hall. She ran past a bathroom, then backed up and pushed through the door. Inside, it was small, and there were only two stalls. “Bad idea,” she decided, and emerged into the hall. A moment later, the man stopped ten feet away from her. He was panting.
“Just give it up,” he said.
“Who are you?” Laurie asked.
“You're coming with us.”
“That's not an answer.” She turned toward the end of the hall and the stairwell, but stopped short when the woman emerged from the stairs and stood in front of her. Laurie backed away from her, and she looked first one way, then another, but saw no escape.
Laurie looked at the man; he outweighed her by at least sixty pounds and had a lot of height on her. Bad choice. She glanced at the women. She was about Laurie's height, but had more mass. She was the lesser of the two evils. Okay, Laurie decided. When you're cornered, you must fight like a dog. Here we go.
She pulled the strap of her messenger bag over her head and dropped the bag and her helmet on the floor. Then, she looked at the woman. “Think you can take me?” she asked.
“I know it, honey.”
“Then bring it on, ‘cause I'm not going with you.” Laurie kept her gaze fixed on the woman's eyes as she assumed a fighting stance.
The woman's face clouded, and she attacked. Laurie parried a right-handed fist and caught her across the face with her own left hand. The woman backed up a little, and Laurie kicked at her knee. She caught it and felt the knee buckle beneath the sole of her boot. The woman screamed and fell to her good knee, and that gave Laurie the opening she wanted. She kicked at her, and caught her squarely in the face. The woman hit the floor hard, flat on her back.
Laurie turned, and a fist caught her on the cheek. She saw stars; her ears rang, and she found herself on the ground. The man leaned over her and reached for her, and she kicked up at him. She felt her heel connect with his groin. He let out a roar and backed away, doubled over and clutching himself. She scrambled backward, then rose and turned toward the stairs.
The woman was attempting to rise, and Laurie drove an elbow into her face and flattened her again. She pulled the woman's jacket open, and saw a pistol in a holster. She grabbed the pistol, cocked it, and pointed it at the man. “Who are you two?” she shouted.
The man did not answer. His hand inched upward, toward his waist, and Laurie said, “Don't even do that. Hands where I can see ‘em.”
He froze, and he studied Laurie. Then, he smiled, a cold smile. “You won't shoot,” he said. “You haven't got it in you, I can tell.”
Laurie watched his hand slide into his jacket. Her finger tightened on the trigger, and she aimed at his chest. A red dot lit his shirt, and wavered back and forth. He looked down, then back at Laurie, as if recalculating his decision.
Laurie heard the woman's voice, behind her. “We need her alive.” Laurie backed against the wall and attempted to keep both of them in her sight, as her head turned from left to right. She kept the pistol aimed at the man as she watched the woman rise to her feet. She wiped her hand across her face and noted the streak of blood on her fingers. “Not bad, Miss Caldwell,” she said. “You're tough. But I've never been whipped by a woman ever before, and I'm not about to start now.” She looked at the man. “You stay out of this, partner. You hear?” The man held up both hands in a gesture of understanding, and he backed up a few paces.
Laurie returned her attention to the woman. “You don't want to do this,” Laurie said. “It's not necessary.”
“It's necessary,” the woman said. “Now lose my gun, and let's get started.”
Laurie faced her. “All right,” she said. “But I warned you.” She shoved the pistol into the back of her jeans and assumed her fighting stance. A second later, she deflected a kick from the woman, a hard kick which connected only to her forearm, but made her stagger. She caught the leg, twisted, and pulled the woman off her balance, and the woman slammed against the wall. In a second, she had regained her balance, and she attacked again. Laurie ducked beneath her swing and struck upward as hard as she could, and her fist caught her assailant's upper abdomen. The woman wheezed, gasped, and faltered. Laurie's right connected with her jaw, and her left flattened the woman's nose. The woman staggered backward, and Laurie pressed the attack. She kept the initiative and struck out again and again as a blind, red rage overtook her, hammered at the woman with her fists repeatedly, felt her knuckles connect with flesh and bone until her arms ached with exhaustion. Then, she stepped backward and kicked her in the chest. The woman bounced against a wall, then staggered forward. Laurie kicked again, and she flattened against the wall once more. She appeared disoriented. As she stepped forward from the wall, Laurie hit her once more with her right, a ferocious punch with her entire body behind it. The fist caught the woman in the left eye. The woman's head snapped to her right; then, she dropped to her knees. Laurie stepped behind her, leaned down, and grasped a handful of her hair. She jerked the woman's head back, then wrapped her arm around the woman's neck. She tightened the arm, and began squeezing with all her might.
As if in a distant dream, a familiar voice said, “Laurie! Stop. It is over.”
Laurie froze. She looked up. Angelique stood in the hall, next to the man. “Angel?” she said.
“Do not do that. You will kill her.”
Laurie released her, and the woman fell forward and leaned on her arms. Blood dripped from her face and spotted the floor in front of her knees as she hung her head. Slowly, she looked up as Laurie paced around her, watching her.
“Damn, girl. You fuckin' kicked my ass, didn't you?”
Angelique marched the man forward, and only then did Laurie notice the pistol in her hand. She saw the empty holster peeking from beneath his jacket, and knew that Angelique had disarmed him. She drew the woman's pistol from behind her own back, and held it in her hand. “Now what, Angel?” she asked.
“Bring her in here.” Angelique shoved the man into the bathroom.
Laurie grasped the woman's collar, lifted her from the floor, and guided her into the bathroom. When the door shut, they pushed the woman and her associate against the far wall, and Angelique locked the bathroom door. She and Laurie stood, shoulder-to-shoulder, pistols leveled, and faced them.
“Who are you?” Angelique asked. “CIA? What do you want with Laurie?”
The woman pulled some paper towels from the dispenser, wetted them in the sink, and held them to her face. “Go on. Tell ‘em.”
The man nodded. “Yeah. We had orders to get her.”
“Why do you want her?”
“Rendition to the States. She's a person of interest.”
The woman added, “We got a private jet waiting at the airport to take her stateside.”
Angelique and Laurie looked at each other. “This has to stop,” Laurie said.
“I agree.” Angelique waved her pistol at the pair. “Put your passports in that sink. Also any CIA identification you have. Let me see them. I will return them to you.”
Slowly, they did. Two passports dropped into the sink, along with two slender wallets. Angelique waved them against the wall with her pistol, then walked forward, picked up the documents, and stepped back. “Keep them at gunpoint,” she said to Laurie, then knelt and spread the documents out on the floor. She pulled her cell phone from her pocket, took pictures of the credentials and passports, and then stood and took pictures of the two agents. Then, she gathered the documents and dropped them into the sink, where the two agents retrieved them and stuffed them into their pockets.
“One more thing,” she said. She pointed at the man. “You, come with me.”
The man stepped forward, and Angelique kept him at gunpoint as he edged past Laurie. They stepped into the hall, and left Laurie and the woman alone in the rest room. The woman leaned over the sink, ran the water, and tended to her face, then looked into the mirror and shook her head. “I can't believe I let some scrawny-ass white chick whip my butt.” She looked at Laurie as she held a paper towel to her face. “Where'd you learn to fight like that?”
“I study. My teacher's former Mossad.”
“Mossad? Damn.” She looked back at the mirror. “My eye's gonna swell shut pretty soon. You done busted my nose and split my lip, too.”
“You need a doctor.”
“I need to get back on that plane and get the hell outta this country, is what I need to do.”
“The plane you guys were going to use to kidnap me?”
“It's called ‘extraordinary rendition', honey. It's perfectly legal.”
Laurie shook her head. “Your people have been lying to you. It's illegal as hell. Do the research.”
“So,” she asked, “what happens now?”
“That's up to my friend,” Laurie said. “She seems to have good ideas.”
Angelique opened the bathroom door. “Bring her.”
Laurie motioned with the pistol, and the female CIA agent stepped from the bathroom. In a moment, Angelique had frisked her, found the expected set of hand-cuffs on her, and cuffed her to the stairwell railing next to her partner. She stood back and leaned against the wall next to Laurie.
“Now what?” Laurie asked.
“Now?” Angelique studied the two agents, looking up at her from their kneeling position on the floor. Then, she smiled at Laurie. “Now, we wait.” She placed a hand beneath Laurie's cheek, turned her head, and studied the left side of her face. “You got a good hit there.” She lifted Laurie's hands and examined the knuckles. “You are hurt.”
“Not too bad.” She lifted her messenger bag and helmet from the floor and slipped the strap over her head. Then, she pulled the spark plug cap from her pocket and showed it to Angelique. “They messed up my scooter.”
“That will probably cost twenty Euros for a new wire.” She looked at the pair of prisoners. “Do you have twenty Euros on you?”
“Yeah,” the guy said. “Right front pocket. I'd get it for you, but...”
The female agent looked at him. “See what you get? I told you not to mess up her scooter.”
“You did not. You said – ”
“I know what I said.”
“You said, ‘We need to fix that thing so she can't ride it home, then – ”
“Quiet!” The two agents looked up at Angelique, who waved her cell phone at them. “I cannot hear.” Then, she resumed a conversation in French, and as she did, Laurie hid a smile with a hand across her mouth.
When Angelique hung up, Laurie said, “Excellent call, Angel. I never would have thought of that.”
“Who'd you call? The cops?” the male agent asked.
“Not yet,” Angelique said. “Someone else, first. I called her first when I was coming here. They are outside now.”
A few minutes later, Bernadette Massey, followed by a news cameraman and a sound man, hurried around the corner and approached them. “Well, Angel,” she said. “You're full of surprises, aren't you? Thanks for the scoop, by the way.” She stopped, and the cameraman shouldered his camera and turned it on. The sound man held the boom above their heads, and Bernadette faced Angelique and Laurie. “Okay, what's this all about, and when are the police going to get here?”
“I will call them when you finish,” Angelique said.
Bernadette smiled a huge smile at Angelique and Laurie. “You darlings,” she said. Then, as occupants of the nearby offices gathered in the hall and watched the scene, she became all business. “Laurie, we'll interview you first. Then, we'll see if we can get something out of these two.”
That evening, Laurie tied her apron about her waist, stuffed a clean bar towel in a pocket, and unlocked the front door to Café Angel. As she was raising the curtains on the front windows, Emma entered and greeted Laurie. Then, she took a close look and uttered a cry.
“Your face. Oh! You have been hit. Who did that?” She leaned forward. “It wasn't, ah...?”
Laurie laughed. “No, Angel didn't do it. I got in a fight.”
Emma's jaw dropped. “You? With who?” She saw Laurie's knuckles, and she grasped her hands and held them up for inspection. “I hurt for you.”
“Well, that's a good thing, I suppose,” she said. “Did you get arrested?”
“No, the police were very kind to me. They knew who I was.” She pointed to the television above the bar. “The news.”
“Ah. Let's hear!” Emma hurried to the bar and caught Maurice's attention with a wave. At her insistence, he turned on the television and turned up the sound. As the other servers arrived, and as they went about readying themselves for another night of work, Emma shouted and jumped up and down in excitement. “Laurie, look! You and Angel are on the news!”
Everyone stopped and gathered around the bar. On the television, Bernadette Massey was speaking. The camera panned to just beyond her, and showed two people, a man and a woman, hand-cuffed to a stairwell bannister. Bernadette knelt down and asked them questions, but they were not forthcoming and attempted to hide their faces from the camera. Then, the camera returned to Bernadette, where she spoke to two women whose faces were pixilated, unrecognizable. The conversation was in French, but when Laurie spoke, French subtitles appeared on the bottom of the screen.
Laurie said, “Subtitles? Is my French that bad?”
Emma cast her an apologetic look. “I understand you perfectly, but...”
“Your accent. It is ah – very thick.” She shrugged. “Very.”
“Oh. That awful, huh?”
“We love you, Laurie.” Emma kissed her on the cheek, then returned her attention to the television.
Angelique said, “I thought that the two of you spoke in English, also.”
“We did. I guess that interview gets played in America. This is CNN, after all.”
“Smart,” Angelique said.
The news returned to a polished news anchor who resumed broadcasting, and explained that an official statement from the French Foreign Minister's office regarded the incident as “intolerable” and “an act of piracy and a blatant disregard of all standards of international law and custom.” This, coupled with recent allegations of the NSA hacking of the telephone calls of French and German citizens – including the German Prime Minister – has spurred a renewal of protests from various European government officials.
Angelique waved at Maurice, and he clicked the television off. “Well,” she said to Laurie, “at least you are safe now, I think.”
“I don't think so,” Laurie said. “I'm paranoid that they'll try again.”
“No,” Angelique said. “I think they cannot afford another how-do-you-say?” She gestured with a hand as she searched for the correct English expression.
“Mistake? Mess-up? Screw-up?” She grinned. “Clusterfuck?”
Angelique roared in laughter. “Yes! That is it! How descriptive is that expression! I like it.” As she walked toward her little office by the back stairs, she was still laughing.
Three months later. Federal Minimum Security Prison, Pensacola, Florida, United States.
Janet Lawrence rose from the bench in the crowded waiting room and walked with a guard. She noted that he was not armed; when she entered a large indoor visiting area, she saw prisoners in dull green uniforms sitting with civilians, speaking softly and sharing a snack or a drink. In addition, she noted several couples holding hands. This was indeed minimum security, she thought. When she had arrived, she had noted that there wasn't even a tall chain-link and barbed-wire fence around the place. She was relieved. She ached to think of her former boss in a cell.
She looked around when a voice called her name; the man who spoke sat by himself, at a table ten feet from her. She hadn't recognized him at first. She managed a smile as she approached him. It was Guy Reynolds, but thinner now, looking much older and dressed in the prison-issued green shirt and pants. The uniform hung on him.
“Sir,” she said. “It's good to see you again.”
He rose. “Call me Guy.” He smiled. “Humor an old man. I don't get to flirt with attractive women much in here.”
“Guy.” She embraced him, and she was shocked at how thin and frail he felt. She released him, and they sat down. “So,” she said. “No glass partitions? No telephones? No barred doors and armed guards, like in the movies?”
“Nope. Minimum security here.”
“I'll say. I'm glad.”
“Yeah. Me, too. That was part of the deal for me pleading guilty.” He looked at her. “You seem well. Have you found work yet?”
“I sure did. I work for CNN in Atlanta now. A research position. The traffic's no worse than D.C., and the weather's more agreeable.”
“Damn,” he said. “How'd you get that job?”
“Through Bernadette Massey.”
“Oh, the CNN correspondent? Wow.”
“She's a, ah – friend of mine. I met her in France.”
“My, my. Do I detect a romance in there somewhere?”
Janet managed a blush. “How do you figure these things out?”
He smiled. “It's a gift. Or a curse. You choose.”
“I guess it's true, what they say. When you go to Paris, you can't help but fall in love.”
“Ah, Paris. I've been following that situation as much as I can in here. We sure let the dogs loose on that one, didn't we?”
“Yes, sir – ah, Guy. We did.” She handed him an envelope. “Speaking of which, here's a letter for you. Hand-delivered, from Paris.”
He accepted the letter and studied it. Then, he smiled. “May I read this later?” he asked.
“The guards will slice it open, of course, to inspect it. Nothing in there that'll get me in trouble, is there?”
Janet shrugged. “It's not from me.” She glanced around, then pointed to the vending machines. “Want a cup of coffee?”
“I'd buy you one,” he said, “but I'm afraid that I'm not allowed to have any money.”
“My treat,” she said. “Cream and sugar?” At his nod, she rose, walked to the coffee machine, and stuck a bill in it. Guy looked at the letter in his hand, then slowly opened it. He withdrew a one-page, handwritten letter and unfolded it. The stationery was pretty, the writing confident, the characters rounded. The script was obviously that of a female educated in America. He read:
Dear Mr. Reynolds:
I wanted to write you and tell you how much courage I thought you have, and how grateful I am to you for making what happened to me public knowledge. Thank you. J. and I spoke at length, and she told me of her respect and admiration for you. I saw your interview on television here in Paris, and I wept at your courage. I know that you sacrificed everything in doing what you did, but you did it anyway. Perhaps it will keep such things from ever happening to someone else, and will expose the cowards who hide behind official titles and secrecy while they break laws and brutalize people. I can only hope.
Again, thank you.
He folded the letter and slid it into the envelope. When Janet sat holding a waxed-paper cup of coffee, and slid it toward him. “What's wrong?” she asked.
She glanced down. “You read the letter, huh?” He nodded. “She's quite a gal.” Again, he nodded.
“Did you, by chance, meet this mysterious ‘Angel of Mossad' with whom Ms. Caldwell is somehow allegedly associated?” he asked.
“I did. For a dead person, she's quite impressive. Especially her skill at krav maga .” At his questioning glance, Janet leaned forward and lowered her voice. “I personally watched her beat Jeremy Smith to a pulp.”
“Yes. I suspected it was her.” He sipped his coffee. “Are you here for long?”
“Just drove down from Atlanta to visit you, really. Oh, I walked the beach yesterday evening when I first arrived. It's chilly, but beautiful. And the seafood here is to die for.” She put a hand over her mouth. “Sorry, Guy. I'm being really insensitive here, aren't I?”
He laughed. “Prison is a condition of the body, not the spirit. I find myself incredibly free, actually. Not a worry in the world.”
“How's the food?”
“Not bad, really.” He smiled. “Much better than the cafeteria at Langley.”
She laughed. “Anything has to be better than that.”
“Which is one reason, I suspect, that you and Mister Kendall used to sneak off to that little Irish pub in Glen Echo every chance you got.”
“You knew about that?” She laughed. “Of course you did. It was CIA. Everything was secret, and nothing was secret. Have you had any other visitors here?”
“Yes. My daughter manages occasional visits. My lawyer does, too. He never brings good news.”
“That's lawyers for you.”
“Doctors, too, these days.”
“How are you feeling, Guy?”
“Weak. I hurt.” He held up a finger. “But they give me good drugs. And I haven't lost my appetite. Just weight. There's a lot of folks out there who would envy me that.”
“I'm one,” Janet said. “So...what do the doctors say?”
He held out his hands, palm up. “What can they say? A few months – who knows?” He chuckled. “My lawyer said something about a Presidential pardon, but so far, all I hear is crickets chirping. I guess it's not politically expedient.”
“I'm so sorry, Guy.”
He shrugged. “There's worse places to die, trust me. They're good to me here, and I'm something of a minor celebrity in these parts. The local news has already asked for an interview.”
“Will they get it?”
“Who knows? That's up to the head of the prison.”
Janet reached across the table and grasped both his hands. “I'll come visit again,” she said.
“I'll always enjoy seeing you. Now go out there and live your life, Janet. And drink a margarita for me tonight.”
They rose, and she embraced him. As she stepped back, he held up the letter. “Thank you,” he said.
“You bet. See you soon, Guy.”
“Yeah. Until next time.” As she turned to leave, he said, “Oh, Janet?”
She stopped. “Yes?” She looked back at him.
“I got a letter from Stockholm, Sweden the other day. It meant the world to me. It seems that I have a pen pal there now.”
She beamed. “I'm so glad.”
“How in God's name did you ever find Suvi Hjelmstad?”
“A little research and a bit of luck. I'm glad she wrote you. I trust she's well?”
“Quite.” He smiled. “God bless you, Janet.”
Janet smiled. “Take good care, Guy.” With that, she turned and hurried to the exit as Guy watched her leave. Then, he lifted his cane from the bench and steadied himself with it as he walked toward the prisoners' exit and the waiting attention of a guard.
Paris, France. Two weeks before Christmas.
Angelique and Laurie walked the crowded Latin Quarter street, bundled against the chilly, wet air. Night had fallen early, as it does in Paris in December, and a soft rain spotted their coats. It was a Monday night, and since Café Angel was closed on Sundays and Mondays, they had an evening to enjoy the impending Christmas season. This evening, they were meeting friends at a nearby restaurant.
Laurie snuggled against Angelique's side as they walked. When Angelique slid her gloved hands into her coat pockets, Laurie grasped her arm with both hands. “Angel? I've been thinking.”
Laurie laughed. “What do you mean, ‘Oh-oh'?”
“I only mean,” Angelique hurried to explain, “that when you tell me that you have been thinking, I know that things will get very interesting, very soon.” She glanced at Laurie, saw the pout, and kissed the side of her head. “So, tell me. What have you been thinking?”
“Well, I can't believe that Hanukkah is already over. And that final night, when we had everybody over and you and Esther and Maurie lit the candles and sang that beautiful song – ”
“ Ma'oz Tzur ? It is traditional.”
“What was that other one that you sang?”
“ Hatikva . It is national anthem of Israel.”
“It was so lovely, Angel.” She looked at Angelique. “Do you miss Israel?”
“But you can't ever go back?”
“No. It is not safe for me there. I am supposed to be dead.”
“And your family's all gone, aren't they?”
“Doesn't this time of year get lonely for you?”
Angelique thought about it. “Yes,” she said. She looked at Laurie. “You are missing your family?”
“Yeah. And I can't go for a visit. Besides the cost, I'm afraid to go back to America right now. And I didn't get my political asylum, so I don't have that protection.”
“You have me. We can go together, if you like.”
“Not under my current name. I'm sure I'm on TSA's list or something.”
“Perhaps after your name changes?”
Laurie smiled. “How's that going? Jesus, we've been dealing with paperwork for months. That's one thing about France: the red tape to do anything is endless.”
Angelique laughed. “Yes. The red tape to die here is even worse. But perhaps soon, we can get married.”
“Will that make me a French citizen?”
“No. For that, you must wait four years after we marry.”
“Jeez. Whatever happened to that ‘huddled masses yearning to breathe free' crap?”
“That is in your country. Statue of Liberty.”
“Hey, you guys gave us that statue.”
“We had to do something with it. Nobody else wanted it.”
“Oh, har-de-har-har.” Laurie pointed ahead. “We're here. Yum. I love sushi.”
They entered the restaurant, and they unzipped and shed their coats as they walked toward the back. There, at a table for six, Allie, Maurie, Esther, and Claire waited for them. No sooner had they seated themselves than cups of sake were set before them, and Esther lifted her glass. “I propose a toast,” she said. “To the happy soon-to-be-married couple.” Everyone raised their sake glasses, and Laurie looked at her sister.
“To you and Maurie, big sis,” she said. “You're a brave guy, Maurie.”
“No, doofus!” Allie said, laughing. “Not us. To you and Angelique.”
Laurie looked to her right. “What's this?”
“I heard from the lawyer today,” Angelique explained. “Our license is on his desk. We can get married this week, if you wish, as soon as we can get appointment with the city official.”
“You did? It is? We can?” Laurie's sake glass thumped down on the table, and her jaw dropped. “When were you going to tell me this?” she asked. “Everybody here knows but me?”
“How sweet!” Allie said. “Look, they're fighting.”
“Already acting so married,” Claire gushed.
“Don't worry, Angel,” Esther said. “Go ahead and fight all you want. The make-up sex is great!”
Laurie snickered. “Okay, okay. Jeez, you guys!” She held up her sake glass. “Thank you!”
The entire table shouted, “Mazel Tov!” as diners at the neighboring tables glanced their way and smiled.
Later that evening, Laurie held tightly to Angelique's arm as they walked the crooked, busy Latin Quarter streets toward Rue d'Espoir. They stopped before a store window and stood, pressed against each other, looking over the display of books. “I wish to read that one next,” Angelique said, as she pointed.
“I'll buy it for you.” Laurie rested her head against Angelique's shoulder. “Tomorrow morning.”
“That is nice, but you do not have to do that.”
“I know. I want to.” She lifted her head and looked at Angelique. “Oh, hey! Wedding rings. We need wedding rings.”
Angelique blinked at her. “We do?”
“Yeah. Sure. I want everybody to know that you belong to me.” She laughed. “You do know what a wedding ring is, right?”
“It's a tourniquet worn around the finger to keep you out of circulation.”
“I thought marriage does that.”
“Not by a long shot,” Laurie said. “In Kansas, married women are fair game.” They resumed their leisurely walk down the street. “That's why we have guns there.”
“It is legal in Kansas?” Angelique asked.
“What? Guns? Yeah, sure. Everybody's got one.”
“No. To shoot someone for being unfaithful.”
“It was, until about a hundred years ago.” Laurie laughed. “Frontier justice. You steal somebody's horse, you get hung. You seduce somebody's wife, you get shot. Hey, a good horse and a good woman were valuable commodities on the Kansas frontier.”
Angelique thought about that. Then, she hugged Laurie close. “At least I have one of those.”
“What?” Laurie looked at her. “A good horse?”
“No, silly. I have a good woman.”
“Yeah? When do I get to meet her?”
Angelique laughed. “It is you. Believe me, one woman is all I can ah, how-do-you-say?” She motioned with a hand, searching for the right word in English.
“I'm not sure. I could finish that sentence any number of ways.” They stopped beneath the glow of a street-lamp, and Laurie leaned against Angelique. “I love you, Angel.”
Angelique smiled at that. “I love you also, Laurie.”
“I know you do.” Laurie looked up. Thick flakes of snow were falling, attempting to dust everything in white. “Wow. A perfect ending to a perfect evening,” she said. She pulled her knit cap from her pocket and tugged it over her head. “Let's walk for a while.”
Angelique pulled her beret more firmly down on the back of her head and closed her scarf about her throat. “Yes. Why not?”
“That's funny.” They resumed their slow stroll among the crowds of pedestrians navigating the street. “My grandpa told me that once. He was here in the Second World War. He said that in Paris, one never asks, ‘Why?' but ‘Why not?' She looked at Angelique. “Is that true?”
“Does he still live, your grandfather?”
“Yeah. He's in a nursing home, but yeah.”
“Write him a letter. Tell him that he was right.”
-djb October, 2013.
The inspiration for this story wasn't hard to find. It was all around me, and all over the daily news sources. Here's a few things:
Laurie's treatment at the hands of the CIA in the opening scene was taken directly from accounts of actual CIA torture sessions. (See the book The Dark Side, by Jane Meyer, for a complete account of CIA practices, including secret ‘black sites', kidnapping, torture, and murder.)
Same-sex marriage became legal in France in May of this year (2013), after it survived a challenge as to its constitutionality and was promulgated into law by President Hollande.
The widespread hacking by the NSA of millions of European Union citizens' telephone calls (including hacking the personal cell phone of German Prime Minister Angela Merkel) only became known through the efforts of an American whistle-blower, one who asked for and has received political asylum in Russia.
The Wikileaks story is well-documented. I recommend the book Assange Agonistes, by Heather Brooke (RosettaBooks, August, 2011, a Kindle Single). She's an investigative journalist who actually spent time with Wikileaks.
The fictional elimination of the CIA contract black ops team in France, the event which caused Laurie to be tortured for information, happened in Angelique: Book Two. Laurie's parents and her sister, Allie, are first introduced in Angelique: Book Three. And Esther and Claire are first introduced in Angelique: Book Four, in case you haven't read any of those.
I hope you enjoyed. Thanks for reading!
-djb October, 2013.
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