D. J. Belt
D. J. Belt
Copyright disclaimer: Original story and characters copyright D.J. Belt, September, 2004. Song lyrics contained within are reprinted without permission (oops, my bad.) I won't mention the artist/composer until the end notes, because I don't want to spoil it for you.
Violence: Yes, some. Nothing to freak out over, though.
Sex: Of course, but not graphic. ALT, if labels are necessary. It's as much a love story as a tale of intrigue and adventure.
Comments, etc.: All comments can be addressed to me at email@example.com. As always, I graciously thank all those who have written before, as well as those who haven't been able to, for taking the time to read my stories. Don't be shy. If you wish to write, I'd love to hear from you.
Miscellaneous: I've got to dedicate this one to Hurricane Ivan, under whose onslaught and aftermath I scribbled out the first third of the story with pen and ink while huddled by an emergency light. Also, thanks to Carly Simon, whose marvelous rendition of the old song Lili Marlene gave me the inspiration for much of the story. Most of all, thanks to you, dear friends, who actually read my stuff. Your kind words and encouragement have kept me at it, and gave me the courage to publish my first novel. I hope that you enjoy this story. It's my gift to you.
"Sean, this is Laurie. I'm stuck in the damned traffic again." Laurie cast a frustrated glance across the dashboard of her Toyota car at the lines of traffic clogging the boulevard leading into the busy downtown of the nation's capital. She huffed, blew a shock of red hair out of her face, then muttered, "Shit. Did I even put on any makeup?"
The voice in the cell phone chuckled knowingly and teased, "Did somebody oversleep this morning?"
Laurie grinned as she retorted, "Bite me, Sean."
"Haven't had our morning coffee either, have we?"
Laura winced. "Jeez. Am I that predictable?"
"You're a creature of habit, Laurie. Don't sweat the nine o'clock meeting, dear. The senator's not in yet, either."
"He's not? You mean I'm busting my butt to get there for nothing? Where is he?"
"Intelligence committee briefing. You've got time, so stop and get a coffee."
"Hallelujah. I'll see you when I get there. Thanks, Sean."
The voice teased, "Not a problem, kid. We'll cover for ya. Bye, little Miss Tardy."
Laurie's eyes narrowed. "Sean?"
"Yeah, I know. Bite me."
Laurie laughed in spite of her mood. "You're right. I am too predictable. Bye." She pressed the button on her cell phone and it bleeped, then winked into standby. As the light changed and traffic began crawling forward, Laurie twisted the steering wheel, squealed through the parking lot of a burger joint, and stopped at the drive-through window. "Coffee, two..."
The young man at the window finished her sentence for her. "Two creams, three sugars, right?"
Laurie nodded sheepishly. As she awaited the thick waxed paper cup, she opened her purse, extracting a crumpled one-dollar bill and some change. When the hand reached out toward her car window, she accepted the cup and dropped the money into the outstretched palm, then looked up in question. The teen at the window said, "Already got the cream and sugar in it."
"Thanks," she said aloud, then thought silently, Man, I am getting too predictable.
"No problem." The teen smiled, then winked at her as she maneuvered her car away from the window. As she waited for the traffic to clear, she took a sip from the cup, then smiled and mumbled, "Oh, yeah. Just right, and I get flirted with, too." After a moment's consideration, she added, "Not such a bad morning, after all."
The atmosphere that morning in Senator Abram's offices was anything but predictable, however. Laurie noted the strained quiet as she passed through the reception room. Stephanie, the senator's secretary, was seated behind her desk, but her expression did not reflect her usual practiced cordiality. She cocked an eye toward Laurie, then whispered, "Hope you're awake, Laurie. You're going to need your wits about you today."
The solemn, almost haunted expression on Stephanie's face sent a thrill of dread up Laurie's spine. She stopped, regarded the secretary with her soft brown eyes and asked, "What's up? You look like war was just declared."
"In a manner of speaking." Stephanie gestured with a crooked finger and waited as Laurie stepped closer to the desk. "There's some FBI agents here. They've been grilling us all morning."
Laurie suddenly forgot about the coffee in her hand. "FBI? Grilling us about what?"
"Can't talk about it."
The door to the conference room opened and a voice tinged with an official air intoned, "Miss Laurie Caldwell?"
Laurie jumped slightly, sloshing her coffee, and turned to face the voice. It belonged to a pleasant face, its owner leaning out of the opened door and appraising her with a critical, interested eye. As she blotted at drops of coffee on her blouse with a tissue snatched from the box on Stephanie's desk, she answered, "Yes?"
The FBI agent's eyes twinkled slightly as he repeated the question. "Are you Laurie Caldwell, one of Senator Abrams' staff?"
Laurie looked up from the coffee spots on her blouse. "Um, yes. Yes, I am."
"I'm Agent Sanderson. FBI. We're interviewing everyone in this office about a matter of interest to us, and you're the last one in. Won't take long. Please?" He motioned toward the conference table politely, but Laurie could read in his tone of voice and his expression that it was not a request. It was an order.
Sean's voice could be heard from the interior of the room. "Is that all you'll need me for?"
A second, unfamiliar voice answered, "Yes, for now, thank you. If we need you again, we'll know where to find you."
Sean appeared in the door, cast Laurie a cautious glance, and turned to pace down the hall toward his desk. Laurie watched him leave, swallowed hard, and then entered the conference room.
The FBI agent motioned politely toward the chair at the end of the table. As she seated herself, she thought, Why does this suddenly remind me of an inquisition? Her heart began to pound in frightened anticipation.
The two FBI agents seated themselves next to her, one on either side of the long, narrow table. They studied her intently for a moment, saying nothing. In response, she raised an inquisitive eyebrow, huffed, and blew a stray lock of red hair away from her eyes. As she sipped at her coffee, she waited for the two agents to begin their interrogation. She did not have to wait long.
Agent Sanderson began the interview by withdrawing a tape recorder from his briefcase, popping a new cassette into it, and clicking it on. He placed it on the table in front of Laurie, then spoke.
"Miss Caldwell, this is a routine investigation by the Bureau into certain activities regarding the office, staff and person of Senator Abrams. Let me assure you that you are in no way the subject of this investigation. Whether you are aware of it or not, you may have knowledge germaine to our inquiry, though. That's why we'd like to talk to you."
Laurie looked from one face to the other, then replied, "Of course. I'll do whatever I can to help you."
Sanderson nodded. "That's good. Now, let's start with some routine questions. First, state your name and address for the record, please."
The interview lasted a full half-hour, and at the end, Laurie felt emotionally exhausted. She ushered the two agents to her small office cubicle where she powered up her desktop computer and printed out several documents for them: memos, fact-sheets and letters corroborating the events upon which they had grilled her at length, and then returned with them to the conference room.
When they entered, the two FBI agents collected their briefcases and prepared to leave. Before they did, however, Sanderson closed the door, turned to Laurie and handed her his business card.
"Should you recall anything else which you think may help us, please call me."
Laurie looked numbly at the card in her hand, then nodded. "I will."
"Thank you, Miss Caldwell. You've been most cooperative." He hesitated, then asked, "Ah, should we need you to testify in person regarding what you've told us here, would you be willing to do so?"
Again, Laurie nodded, her eyes widening slightly as the mention of live testimony. "Testify? Um, of course."
Sanderson extended his hand. "Thank you, Miss Caldwell. We'll see ourselves out."
With that, the two agents opened the conference room door and stepped into the hallway, leaving Laurie to her thoughts. She considered once again the business card in her hand, then thrust it into her pocket and slowly walked down the hall, entering the small lounge to refill her coffee cup.
Sean stuck his head in the doorway and spoke. "Man, they really grilled you. You okay?"
"Yes, thanks." She filled her cup, then sighed wearily as she added cream and sugar. "I just feel like I've gone a couple of rounds with a prize-fighter, though."
"If you think that's bad, wait until they get to the senator. Man, I wouldn't want to be in his shoes right now."
Laurie turned and leaned against the counter. "What's this all about, anyway?"
Sean entered, closed the door, then spoke in a low voice. "We're not supposed to talk about this, but it seems that our boss has been a very bad boy."
Laurie cast him a puzzled look. "I'm not sure I understand."
"Think about it, Laurie. What did they grill you about most?"
She answered, "The charity stuff and the intelligence committee stuff."
"Right. The senator's a member of the intelligence committee. It would appear that there's a serious information leak somewhere in the committee, and they suspect him."
Laurie was shocked. "My God, Sean. Not Senator Abrams. What makes them suspect him so particularly?"
"What he knows, Israeli intelligence also knows very soon afterward. Since he's a rabid supporter of the Israelis, they're looking here for the leak."
"I'm aware of his support of Israel. A large part of my duties include coordination of his efforts to raise money and support for the various charities which provide relief there."
Sean exhaled sharply, then studied Laurie's face. "Were you aware that those 'charities', as you call them, are front organizations for conservative Israeli political groups and Israeli intelligence?"
The statement hit Laurie like a fist. She stared at him incredulously. "What? That's ridiculous, Sean."
"Not so. He's evidently been passing classified information to Israeli intelligence through those 'charities' of which you're so fond."
Laurie's mouth hung open. She sputtered, then said, "That can't be true."
Sean eyed her sadly. "Laurie, you're so naive. He's been passing that info through you. You just never realized it."
"No, Sean. That's treason. I would never do something like that."
"Of course not. You're so squeaky clean, so principled. That's what makes you the perfect conduit. Think back. Don't you funnel the money he collects to those 'charities'?"
"Of course, but it's all perfectly legal. They're legitimate charities."
In answer, Sean gave her a knowing look. "Right."
"But the intelligence info? No way. I've never passed anything like that."
"Sure you have. Don't you run errands for him, dropping envelopes, letters and such stuff off to various offices?"
"Well, yes, but..."
"And one of the places to which you routinely drop envelopes is the office of the Zion Relief Fund?"
"Well, yes, but..." Her eyes widened as she considered his words. It's true. "Oh, my God." She felt as if she had been slapped across the face. Her cheeks burned with an embarrassed blush, with shame from the sudden realization that she had been so simple, so easily fooled. She sat heavily on a chair at the lunch table, then felt tears well up in her eyes. "I've been such a sap, haven't I?"
Sean placed a hand on her shoulder, an attempt to offer comfort. "It's because you're so squeaky clean that he chose you for this, Laurie. Nice small-town girl, so full of naďve enthusiasm. You're one of the few in this town that no one would suspect of passing illegal intelligence to the Israelis. It all makes sense, don't you see?"
Laurie sat at the table, silent for some time, considering what Sean had just told her. Yes, it made sense. She'd been used. It hurt that she had been looked upon as so unknowing, so naďve, by a man that she had respected. Sean knew what was going on, but then, he made it his business to know everything. She didn't. God, how they must have been laughing at her. The thought of it made her face redden. It also hurt that she had been treated so dishonestly. She should have been informed. She should have been given a choice. She wasn't. She rose from the table and shuffled toward the door, creaking it open. As she did, Sean studied her sympathetically, then asked, "Laurie, what are you going to do?"
"The only thing I can do. I'm resigning."
"That won't stop your involvement in this, you know. You're up to your neck in it, whether you know it or not. You actually ran that stuff to unauthorized people. You could be made the patsy for this."
She noted the warning in his expression. "What are you saying, Sean?"
"I'm saying that you should watch your back in this town."
She gulped. "Certainly we're not in any danger of arrest from this, are we?"
"I'm just saying that the senator is a powerful guy. You and I have the knowledge and documents to help the prosecutors destroy him. You're the one who's actually been passing the info that he provides. You might become the scapegoat for this."
She stared at Sean. "Are you saying...?"
"He's not going down over this without a fight. If it saves his ass, he'll just claim that it was you all along who engineered this behind his back."
"Abrams wouldn't do that to me. I don't believe it. You're crazy, Sean. Been watching too many movies."
"Am I? Trust me, he's a political survivor. He'll screw you to the wall in a heartbeat if it saves his ass. So, watch your back."
She considered the warning. It felt odd to hear someone tell her that. She, who was raised in a town where they often left the doors unlocked. She, who, it seemed, never had an enemy in her life. Now, Sean was telling her to protect herself from a false accusation of criminal activity. It was a surreal experience for her.
"Thanks, Sean. You be careful, too. Okay?"
"Call me if you need someone to talk to, right?"
Laurie forced a tight, painful smile. "Right. Thanks, Sean. You've been a pal. I think that you're the only one around here that's had the balls to tell me the truth."
Sean smiled weakly at the compliment. "I'm your friend. One thing I'll never do is lie to you, Laurie."
She found her way to her small cubicle and sat in the chair, staring at the computer monitor for what seemed an endless period of time. Then, slowly, she forced herself into animation, opening her word-processing program and carefully composing her letter of resignation.
Senator Abrams arrived at his offices around mid-day, casting a sullen glance at Stephanie as he strode through the reception area and answering her greeting with a subdued grunt. He paused by her desk and ran a hand through his graying hair as he asked, "Messages?"
Stephanie noted his haggard appearance, then replied, "On your desk, sir."
"No reporters, I hope?" His voice betrayed an almost pleading quality.
"McGregor from The Washington Post has been sniffing around. I told him that you're not here, and that I hadn't seen you all morning."
He nodded with an air of resignation, then said, "Let's keep it that way. You still haven't seen me, right?"
Stephanie nodded. "Right."
"Thank you, Stephanie." With that, he left the reception area and entered the offices, closing the door behind him quietly.
Stephanie watched him leave, then shook her head. "That," she muttered, "is the look of a man going down for the third time."
"Laurie, what's the meaning of this?" Senator Abrams asked incredulously as he lifted her resignation letter from his desk.
"I feel that I can't do this anymore, sir. I'm sorry, but if my involvement with those charities has been a part of something illegal, I feel that I have to offer my resignation."
He sighed deeply, then dropped the letter on his desk. "Sit down, please, Laurie, and let's at least talk about this."
She considered the earnest, pleading expression on the senator's face. Had he used her? She remembered that he had always treated her with cordiality, with respect. Perhaps Sean was just seeing conspiracies where there weren't any. After all, he could be a bit overly melodramatic at times. A tug of sympathetic pain pulled at her, and she relented. As she slid into one of the soft leather-covered chairs facing his desk, the senator nodded. "Glad that you're at least willing to talk about it." He relaxed slightly and seated himself, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his desk. "I take it that the FBI spoke with you this morning?"
"They grilled me for half an hour. It was a frightening experience."
"Yeah, they can be intimidating. What did they ask you about?"
"They told me not to talk about it." At the senator's hurt expression, she relented and answered, "The charities I coordinate with and the intelligence committee work."
"Is that why...?"
Laurie shook her head and swallowed hard. Her voice cracked slightly as she replied, "It's not just that. If there's something illegal going on here, I can't be a part of it."
"They're just fishing, Laurie. They don't have anything credible."
That wasn't a denial. She looked up at him. "Sir, is there something illegal going on here?"
The senator seemed taken aback by the question. He leaned back in his chair thoughtfully, then spoke. "How long have you been with me now? Two years?"
She nodded. "About that."
"Let me tell you how things work in this town, Laurie. I'm in the business of politics. I got into it because I thought that I could make a difference. Unfortunately, I learned quickly that politics isn't about doing what's right for 'the people', whoever they are. It's about grabbing and holding power. It's a brutal cat-fight between two very powerful groups of people: liberals and conservatives. Either group will do anything, and I do mean anything, to acquire and maintain the reins of power. This affair is just a particularly nasty example of that. They're trying to destroy me."
Laurie listened, then offered a question. "Are you saying that there's no truth to this? That we, that you and I, haven't been passing classified documents to the Israelis?" She watched his face intently as he hesitated, then answered.
"I'm saying that this type of thing happens all the time in this town. Do you think that the other side wants to see me re-elected? You know that I'm an ardent supporter of Israel. Many of the other senators aren't. Their re-election funds are full of Arab money. I've never taken a penny from middle eastern interests. That's why I'm a danger to them. They're trying to unseat me, destroy me, and they'll do it any way they can."
As Laurie listened to the senator, her stomach knotted. He didn't deny it. So it's true. Everything that Sean told me is right on the money. I can't believe that this is happening. Her thoughts were interrupted by the senator's renewed, pleading voice.
"Don't let them spook you, Laurie. This will blow over. You know that I'm not going to let anything happen to you, to the others in this office."
Laurie could feel her eyes begin to water. "So it's all true? I've been passing classified documents? I've been committing what amounts to treason?"
"No, of course not." He snorted in exasperation, then persisted in his argument. "Look, Israel is an ally of this country, right?" Laurie nodded. "I know that you've got a great affection for Israel. I knew that you'd dispatch these duties with passion. That's why I thought you perfect for this job. After all, the money we collect for these charities does a lot of good to relieve suffering in that land."
"So do the documents that I've been passing, I suppose."
The senator was shocked at her statement. He regarded her cautiously for a second, then asked, "How long have you known about that?"
There's my confirmation, Laurie thought. The bastard's been using me. "Since this morning."
He nodded. Someone in his office had loose lips. He would find out who and then correct the situation, but first he had to deal with the problem sitting in front of his desk. "Yes, they do, Laurie." As her eyes widened, he continued, "Do you really think that we're the only ones that pass classified info? Why do you think that the CIA guys hate to brief Congress on intelligence matters? It's because they know that Congress is a sieve. Whatever they tell us makes its way to other, ah, 'interested parties'. The Israelis, the Russians, the Arabs, the Germans... hell, even the French have their eyes and ears in this town. It's easier to buy intelligence from us than it is to attempt to collect it themselves."
"But that's treasonous."
"It's practical. Look, the Israelis are fighting for their very survival. They have been for sixty years. Did you know that Israel is the most dangerous place in the world for a person of the Jewish Faith to live today? We- no, you, are helping them survive."
"But the money we collect? That's not for charity, is it? What does it really go for?"
The senator blinked. She's smarter than I thought. "Ah, some of it does go to charity. Some of it helps keep the more conservative factions of the Israeli government in power."
Laurie's gut twisted itself into knots. "So that was a lie, too? I've been collecting and disbursing money intended for foreign political purposes? I've been doing what amounts to spying? You've been using me? I've been a stupid, unwitting party to this?"
The senator held up his hands defensively in front of him. "Look, Laurie, in this town, the less a person in your position knows about certain things, the safer they are. This thing with the FBI is a good example. It's for your own protection. I don't want to see you hurt by this, subpoenaed to testify before a senate hearing, your computer confiscated..."
"They've already asked if I'd testify."
The senator's face paled. "And what did you say?"
"I said that I'd cooperate." After a moment, she added, "Of course I said yes."
He produced a handkerchief from his pocket and blotted at the sudden sheen of perspiration appearing on his forehead. "You didn't give them any documents, did you?"
Laurie nodded slowly. "I did."
"I have to cooperate. It's the FBI. It's the right thing to do." Noting the look of disbelief which crossed the senator's features, she asked, "Isn't it?"
He leaned forward, resting his elbows on the desk and his head in his hands. After emitting a deep sigh, he replied, "Laurie, I've found that in Washington, D.C. the concept of right and wrong is a very relative thing." Then he looked up at her. "Look, Laurie. Don't be hasty about this. Please stay here. At least think about this resignation business. I'll find you other duties, if you would prefer." The pleading expression in his eyes deepened slightly and he added, "Please, just think about it, okay? Look, take a couple of days off to consider it?"
Laurie felt a wave of deep indecision sweep over her. She enjoyed this job, her stay in Washington, D.C., her quaint little Georgetown apartment. She found life here far preferable to a boring existence in her native mid-west. She really didn't want to leave. Perhaps he was right. Perhaps she was over-reacting. Perhaps it was all nothing, that it would die away, given time, and things would return to normal. Besides, the senator had always been good to them, she mused. He would protect them now. Wouldn't he?
Laurie nodded. "I'd like to reconsider it, if that's okay."
Senator Abrams seemed relieved. "That's the Laurie I know. Today is Tuesday. Take the next two days off and think about this, please. We do need you here. We'll talk again on Friday?" She nodded, then stood. He handed her the resignation letter, then ushered her to the door. Before she left, he offered out his hand. As she shook it, he said, "Thanks, Laurie. I know you'll make the right decision." She remained silent, just nodding, and slipped out the door, closing it behind her.
The senator watched her leave. When the door clicked shut, he looked down at his hands. They were shaking. He walked over to the cabinets lining the wall on one side of his office, opened the doors, and grasped a clean glass, turning it up. Into it, he poured three fingers of whiskey, then added some club soda. As he sipped his drink, he gazed out of his office window at the bustling streets below, the dome of the Capitol building overshadowing the city spread out before him, and his thoughts turned dark. Hell, the only reason she got this job is because I owe her old man. Maybe she'll stay on. If she's here, at least I can control her. How the hell did she find out? I'll bet that it was that little prick Sean who spilled the beans on this to her. I had him pegged as an opportunist. What did he expect to gain from this? Ah, probably nothing. I think that he's buddies with Laurie. They would have talked to each other. Still, I thought that he was more trustworthy than this. And her? Will she talk? He snorted. Sure, she will. She's in way over her cute, vacant little head on this one. They'll subpoena her to testify and she'll sing like a bird on this thing, if it gets that far. She'll help them destroy me. Can't let that happen. Can't have loose cannons rolling around the deck at a time like this. I'm not going to prison, that's for damned sure. He considered the alternatives available to him as he gazed out the window, then finally sighed in resignation and ran his hand through his hair in a gesture of finality. There's nothing else to do. Laurie, you over-principled little shit, you've left me no choice.
He shuffled to his desk, sat, and opened a drawer. From it, he extracted a small address book. As he flipped through it, he noted a number and picked up his phone, then thought the better of it and replaced the receiver on the base. Damned FBI. If I know them, they've tapped my phones. Fumbling in the pocket of his suit-coat, he produced a cell phone and flipped it open, slowly punching in the numbers with one hand while he gulped the remainder of his drink. He placed the phone to his ear, and after a moment, he spoke.
"Maurie? This is Abrams. We've got a problem. Our arrangement's in danger. Can you meet me for dinner this evening? Usual place?"
Angelique guided her boxy little Renault car expertly through the crowded Paris streets, twisting to avoid a parked delivery truck. She felt the left-hand wheels thump up over the sidewalk, then back down onto the narrow cobblestone street of the quaint Parisian neighborhood. As she geared the car down, she maneuvered it into a narrow alley. She braked it to a halt, then pressed a button on the black plastic box resting in a dashboard cubbyhole. A garage door whirred open. As she nudged the car into the garage, she pressed the button again and the metal door hummed shut behind her. Before it had even closed completely, she had retrieved her bag, slung it over her shoulder, and trotted up the outside stairs to her second-floor flat, pausing on her front porch to enter a key code into her alarm system before she unlocked the door. She slipped inside, locking the door behind her, and dropped her bag onto a counter in her small kitchen, pulling out a bottle of wine and slipping it into the refrigerator.
As she passed through her living room, she tugged the beret from her head, dropped it onto the lid of an antique upright piano and shook her head, fluffing out her shaggy brown hair with the fingers of one hand. She pulled the running shoes and her socks from her feet, then padded toward the bedroom to shower, still sweaty from her trip to the gym. As she passed the sofa table, she pressed the button on her telephone answering machine. It whirred, bleeped, and then began relaying messages. The first voice, a feminine one, spoke to her in French.
"Angelique, this is Paula. Something's come up. I can't see you tonight. So sorry. Please, don't be angry with me. I promise, this weekend. Still love me? I'll call you soon. 'Bye."
Angelique froze at the message, then snorted in resignation as she dropped her shoes onto the floor of her closet. "Yes, something's come up. It always does. I wonder, what's her name this time?" Her sarcastic comment was cut short by the next voice, a male speaking to her in accented English.
"Angel, this is Maurie. Got a job for you. Call me." The machine bleeped, announcing an end to the messages. She paused, then considered the second message for a moment. With a shrug, she stripped the moist exercise clothing from her lean, athletic frame and stepped into the shower.
Later, as she relaxed on her small balcony overlooking the crooked Paris street, she flipped open her cell phone and dialed a number with her thumb as she sipped a glass of wine. When it rang, she spoke in English. "Maurie? Angelique."
The voice in her ear was pleasant, accented with the same lilt that she had heard so often in places like Haifa, Acre, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. "Angel! Good to hear from you. How's life?"
"I can't complain. You said something about a job. Where?"
"Let's not talk on the phone. Meet me for lunch?"
"That depends. Are you buying?"
The voice chuckled. "Always. One o'clock, usual place?"
"I'll see you then, Maurie." She clicked the telephone off, then folded it and shoved it into the front pocket of her jeans. As she returned her attention to the wine glass in her hand, she kicked off her clogs and crossed her feet on the low, wrought-iron table in front of her. She studied her feet, wiggled her toes, and noted the scars on her left foot and ankle, a reminder of an errant antipersonnel mine on a dusty Golan bluff many years ago. As she contemplated the scars, she recalled the scene, the missing foot of the commando next to her, the one who actually tripped the mine. His foot, his boot had disappeared, just leaving a ragged stump of bone and muscle below his knee. She had been lucky. Very lucky. But then, she always had been.
As she considered the scars, she noted aloud and in her native French, "I am really getting too old for this anymore. Time to retire, I think."
Maurie sat at the sidewalk table at a nondescript Parisian café, sipping his dark coffee and squinting down at the newspaper folded into quarters in his hand. His brow furrowed in concentration as he laboriously attempted a mental translation of an article, and he snorted in frustration at his slow progress. Finally, as he was about to toss the paper aside, he heard the scrape of a chair being pulled out near him and glanced over the tops of his reading glasses. His expression brightened, and he spoke in accented English.
"Ah, Angel. Still as lovely, as charming as I remember you. How are you?" He stood, walked around the table, and held the chair for her as she seated herself, then eased his tall frame back down into his own chair and motioned for the waiter.
When he looked back at her, she was studying him with an air of amusement over the tops of her thin dark glasses. Her beret was tilted back on her head and locks of her shaggy brown hair protruded from its front and one side. In the mid-day sun, the streaks of deep red which highlighted her hair seemed to glow an almost rust color. After a moment's silence, she replied to his pleasant query in her rolling English.
"I am well, thank you. And I see that you have not lost that debonaire charm of yours."
He smiled. "God willing, never."
She squinted her eyes in humor. "Still chasing the young ladies, Maurie?"
He shrugged. "I learned by watching you, Angel. Although these days, it is their mothers who show more interest in me."
She noted his twinkling eyes flicker over her face and her torso, clothed in a form-fitting black tank-top exposing her arms to the summer Paris sun. Her quizzical expression broadened into a grin. "You old fox, are you undressing me with your eyes again?"
He blushed slightly at the teasing question, then waved a hand in the air. "'Busted', as the Americans say. You must forgive me, Angel." He ran his hand through his graying hair and joked, "Perhaps there is some snow on the mountaintop, but there is still a fire in the furnace." He glanced at her again, noting the colorful tattoo on her upper arm. It was a multi-colored dragon, curled tightly and breathing fire. He pointed to it. "A souvenir of the east?"
She glanced down at the tattoo, then nodded. "My last job was in Hong Kong."
"Ah, yes. I remember the town most fondly."
The waiter appeared, took their order, and turned on his heels, leaving. They watched him go, then peered back across the table at each other. Angelique spoke, her voice a notch lower.
"So, you said something about a job?"
Maurie smiled. "That's Angel, all business. Yes, I have a job for you. Where, you will ask? In America. Washington, D.C."
Angelique showed no response other than to raise an eyebrow. "When?"
"Within a week's time."
"That is not much time. Do you have a thorough background on the target?"
Maurie held up two fingers. "Two targets. And yes, the background is very thorough. Plenty of information for you to acquire and deal with them."
Angelique pursed her lips in thought. "Washington, D.C.? Difficult. Probably very heavy security."
Maurie shook his head. "None. Not high-profile targets."
Angelique hedged, "I do not know, Maurie. Something stinks about this one."
Maurie turned on his charm again. "Angel, would I lead you wrong? I come to you because you're the best, clean and silent. It's easy money, believe me." He blinked imploring blue eyes at her and added, "Besides, I haven't forgotten that you saved my ass that time in old Jerusalem. I owe you."
Angelique watched the waiter approach and place their lunch and a thick, dark coffee on the table in front of them, silent as he did so. He bowed slightly at the 'thank-you's' and left, and only then did Angelique resume the conversation.
"I am retiring, you know."
"You'll need money. This pays well."
"Two for the price of one?"
"Oh, no. Two for the price of two, but you only have the expense of one trip. What could be better for you?"
Angelique gazed out over the Paris street, then sipped at her coffee as she quickly mulled over the situation. Something in her gut told her not to take the job. It stank of dirty tricks. And in Washington, D.C.? She had never cared for that city. Still, it could pay well, and Maurie seemed anxious to have her take this job. Finally, she turned to gaze at him as he sat quietly, a hopeful, expectant expression on his face. She nodded.
"Maurie, just for you. Show me what you have, and I will give you my answer in a couple of hours."
He beamed. "Fair enough, Angel." He pushed the newspaper across the table toward her. "Page twenty-one is very interesting."
She glanced at the paper, then lifted her fork and began to poke at her lunch. "Now, Maurie, tell me all about your new grand-daughter, eh?"
Seated upon her balcony, Angelique opened the newspaper and extracted a large brown envelope, carefully opening it. From it, she pulled two file folders and flipped the first one open. Several pages of printed information were fastened to one side. The other side contained pictures, printed from a computer, of a young man. What's this? she mused. Doesn't seem your typical terrorist, double agent or criminal. He appears harmless enough. But then, appearances can be deceiving. She flipped through the photographs of the face, then perused the fact file. Sean Burrows, aide to a Senator Abrams. Address, habits, automobile type and license plate, it's all here. What's not here is 'why'. I need to know that. Who's the other one? She closed the file and placed it aside, then opened the second folder, taking a deep breath when she perused the face. The picture wrought an immediate reaction from her. The features of a young woman peered back at her, the red hair gathered back at the nape of her neck, the soft, pleasant brown eyes sparkling toward the camera's lens. She felt, when she studied the photograph, that she had been struck with a fist, so deep was her emotional response to the woman's picture. That puzzled her. Never before had she been gripped with such a feeling of... what was it, exactly? Sympathy? Yes, that was it. Sympathy, laced with an immediate sense of the innate goodness of this person's character. Her feelings were only confirmed ever more deeply when she read the fact file. The potential target was single, lived alone in Georgetown, drove an older, inexpensive car, and worked in the office of... what's this? Senator Abrams, again? What's going on in the senator's office, she wondered, which would place the lives of two of his staff in such dire jeopardy? What did Maurie say? Page twenty-one of the newspaper? She flipped the paper open to that page and scoured the articles, her eyes fixing upon a short piece circled in ink. It gave few details, but intimated that the senator was under investigation for certain indiscretions.
She folded the newspaper and placed it aside, puzzling over the matter. What indiscretions could be so deep as to require that two of his staff become the targets of a free-lance assassin? There was more to this than Maurie was telling her, and she would find out.
Rising, she picked up the two folders and entered her flat, seating herself before her laptop computer. Shortly, she was perusing the websites of The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. In it, she found only speculation regarding the senator's activities, but it was enough to confirm her suspicions.
So that's why the Israelis are pushing these contracts, she thought. This investigation could upset their apple-cart. The Americans would never kill anyone over this type of thing. Not their style. They're too squeamish. This smells of Jerusalem. They don't play around. She glanced over at the folders. I've heard that Jerusalem has good connections in Washington, D.C. I'll bet it's the senator. He's their ardent supporter, and the investigation has to do with his place on the intelligence committee, the paper said. These two must know something, and Jerusalem is afraid that they will testify about the senator's arrangements with Israeli intelligence.
She turned off the computer and rose from the table, searching out her cell phone. As she was about to flip it open, she paused. Her eyes traveled once again to the folders lying on her table, and she flipped the top one open. The pleasant, warm brown eyes in the photograph seemed to drill into her soul. Innocents, both of them, pawns in this, and they will die as a result of it. A sudden wave of revulsion swept over her at the scenario unfolding before her. She felt disgusted, dirty at being involved, weary beyond words at the life which had brought her to this passage of events. How simple it once was, how black-and-white. The bad ones die to protect the good. Now, the opposite is true. She opened a drawer in her writing table, extracted a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, and stepped out onto her balcony, lighting a cigarette and inhaling deeply. As the smoke curled in the breeze and dissipated, she felt the tension leave her shoulders. She seldom smoked, but occasionally turned to it when particularly upset or melancholy, and she had seldom felt more so than at this moment. She watched the traffic in the street for a while, then flipped open her cell phone and dialed a number, holding it to her ear. After a moment, she spoke.
"Ah, Angel. When can you leave?"
"I do not want the job. It stinks."
"But Angel, it's easy money. You can do this one in your sleep." After a pause, he asked, "Why not?"
"I do not do women."
Maurie chuckled. "Of course you do, Angel."
Angelique grinned in spite of her melancholy. "You know what I mean. No female targets."
"Ah, so sorry to hear that. How about the other target, then?"
"He is an innocent. They both are. This whole affair stinks. Count me out."
"All right, Angel. I'll give it to someone else. You were my first choice, though."
"Thanks, Maurie. I am retiring as of now."
After a short, thoughtful pause, Maurie replied, "I understand, my friend. You lasted longer than most."
Angelique took a drag on her cigarette. "I was luckier than most."
"You were better than most. Oh, I'll need my newspaper back."
"You still know the café? My café?"
"Pick it up from the bartender there. His name is Maurice. I'll probably be working there tonight."
"Wonderful. I'll come and listen to you sing. It's been too long."
"See you tonight, Maurie. Buy you a drink, eh?"
"Just like old times."
"Until then, old friend." She clicked the phone closed, squashed out the stub of her cigarette, and slipped her clogs on her feet. As she passed by her writing table, she picked up the folders and the newspaper, then descended a narrow staircase in the back hallway of her flat. At the bottom of the stairs, she punched a code into the alarm keypad and unlocked the door, clicking the bolt back, and entered the café directly below her flat. The manager and bartender, a pleasant bear of a man, greeted her warmly in their native French.
"Ah, Boss. Good to see you. You'll be playing tonight?"
"Yes, Maurice. I've come to practice a bit, but I'll be in the office for a few minutes first."
"Of course. I'll turn on the microphone, and your piano waits for you."
She nodded, then entered the small office. It was barely larger than a closet, crammed with ledgers, receipts, and the electronic equipment of business-keeping. The small copier machine was already turned on; it took her only a few minutes to copy the files. These, she placed in her wall safe. The original files, she wrapped in the newspaper and sought out Maurice, handing him the clutch of newsprint.
"Maurie will pick this up tonight. You remember him, don't you?" The café manager nodded, then shuffled behind the bar to place the paper near the cash register. She watched him go, then seated herself at the baby grand piano in the corner of the café. It was still several hours until opening, so the only people present were the deliverymen who were re-stocking the bar with bottles. Angelique slid the keyboard cover back, then ran her fingers over the keys. Mellow, brilliant notes vibrated from the instrument, filling the café with their sound. She listened more intently as she ran through her practice scales again, then pulled the microphone close to her mouth and said, "Maurice, it needs a tuning, I think."
He waved from the bar. "I'll call him."
"Thank you." She returned to studying the keys, allowing herself the pleasure of her favorite piece. The bright, soulful strains of Beethoven's Fur Elise swelled from the piano as she closed her eyes and leaned forward, her body swaying slightly to the effort of the playing. For several minutes she remained lost in the music, and then she suddenly stopped. In her mind, the vision of Laurie's warm brown eyes struck her again, struck her hard. Innocent eyes, eyes that would reflect only the pale hollowness of death within a few days. She knew that it would be so. The die was cast, the wheels of the apparatus were in motion. Very soon, someone would study the pictures of that face. Someone would watch the young woman in her daily habits, and then corner her in a quiet place and take her life. It would happen, but not by her hand. No. Not by hers. The melancholy returned, and her hands once again sought out the piano's keys. This time, the slow, mournful minor chords of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata filled the air. She again closed her eyes and allowed her practiced instinct to guide her hands, not realizing that she was pounding the keys with increasing force. She longed for the soulful, slow strains of the tune to envelop her, reach into her soul and wrap its comforting vibrations around her melancholy. As she played, she again permitted her mind to wander, and the warm brown eyes again flashed before her. A sudden tightness gripped her chest and she felt a sob rise in her, felt her closed eyes water and begin to pour tears down her cheeks. She stopped playing and clasped her hands over her eyes, willing herself to regain control over her emotions. As she wiped at her cheeks, a concerned voice spoke to her.
"Boss? Are you all right? What's the matter?"
She looked up into Maurice's concerned face. He stood over her, two glasses in his hand. "It's nothing, Maurice. Nothing, really."
He nodded, unconvinced. "Ah, perhaps just the moon, eh? My wife, she is even the same at certain times." He placed the glasses down on coasters atop the piano. "Whiskey and water, for when you sing. Just as always."
She smiled up at him. "Thank you."
He then offered out a clean bar towel, which she gratefully accepted. As she wiped her face, he watched sympathetically, then pulled something out of his apron's pocket and held it out to her. She looked down. It was her gray beret. "You seem incomplete without it," he explained.
She smiled painfully as she accepted it and tugged it onto her head, then pushed her shaggy hair behind one ear. "Better?"
He nodded, grinning. "Better! Now, you'll charm us all."
As he returned to the bar, Angelique called after him, "Maurice? What do you want to hear?"
He beamed. "Lili Marlene, of course!"
She nodded, then gulped down the whiskey and followed it with a shot of water. Her throat cleansed, she turned her attention to the piano, humming as she played the first bars of the song, then lifting her head and singing in French, her clear, haunting voice ringing through the café. The deliverymen stopped their work and admired the scene, listening appreciatively as the mournful, lost figure at the piano wove a spell of magic around them with her voice and her instrument.
Laurie had slept late, then risen and showered, dressing in a T-shirt and blue jeans. She was indulging herself in a second cup of morning coffee when her doorbell sounded and a rapping quickly followed. Groaning, she lifted herself from her couch and pulled back the dead-bolt, cracking the door open. "Yes?"
Two men in business suits stood at her door. "Laurie Caldwell?"
She considered them with puzzlement, then replied, "Yes?"
One of the men handed her a folded document, and as she received it, the other man lifted a small video camera and began recording the scene. "Laurie Caldwell, you are hereby duly served with a subpoena to appear before the Senate Ethics Committee hearing on Tuesday of next week. You may bring legal council if you so choose." He smiled, then motioned to his companion. "Have a nice day." They left, heading toward a car parked on the street nearby.
She dumbly watched them go, then looked down at the document. "Well, shit," she muttered. "I think the circus has just come to town." She closed the door and slowly paced back down her front hallway, stopping by the telephone. After perusing the document, she lifted the receiver and dialed a number.
"Sean?" she asked.
The voice was unmistakably Sean's effervescent chatter. "Yeah. Laurie? Enjoying your day off, you slacker?"
"Hell, no. I just got a subpoena."
"Me too, kiddo. It's gonna be a long week for both of us."
"What do we do, Sean?"
"Do? We'll testify, that's what. Gather your notes together and grease your butt, because it's not gonna be fun."
The mental image which she conjured at his earthy humor did nothing for her appetite. She winced. "Sean, must you be so crude first thing in the morning?"
He chuckled. "It's ten o'clock, Laurie. Rise and shine. And as far as my being crude goes, hey, it's just my way."
She ignored his humor. "Sean, have you ever watched one of those Senate hearings? They're awful. They're going to eat us alive. I'm not sure that I can do this."
"Oh, sure you can, dear. Just regard it as a political root canal."
"Very comforting. Thanks. Do you have an attorney?"
"No. Do you?"
"No. Want to go and get one?"
"The senator said he'd provide us with legal council. Don't sweat it. It's already taken care of."
She considered the comment, then suggested, "Perhaps we should retain our own. I'm not sure that I trust the senator any more."
Sean chuckled. "Has our idealistic little Laurie become so cynical overnight?"
"Sorry, Sean. I just don't know what to believe anymore."
"Hey, you still trust me, don't you?"
Laurie smiled. "Yes, I still trust you. You're about the only one."
"Well, I'll take that as a compliment. Look, don't sweat it. Just do your homework, be your usual sweet self, and you'll charm those senators right out of their socks."
"If you say so."
"I do. And Laurie?"
"Don't be late for this thing, for God's sake. They'll throw you in jail for that."
"Come and get me that morning, will you? I'd appreciate the company."
He chuckled. "Sure thing."
"Thanks, Sean. You're a pal. 'Bye."
"Later, kiddo." The phone clicked, and she slowly placed the receiver down. She glanced at the subpoena again, then placed it down next to the phone and returned to her bedroom. Her mind was awhirl with questions. What to do? How to prepare? Perhaps she should go to her office and arrange her notes, her papers documenting everything concerning the affairs in question. She pondered it for a moment, then shook her head. No, she'd go to the shore. She had much thinking to do, and the shore always provided a soothing place to think about whatever troubled her. The shore was the place to be today. With a tight, uncertain smile, she rummaged in her closet, found some shorts and her sandals, and prepared to leave for the day.
Angelique had played for a few hours that night, only quitting after midnight when the crowd in the café had thinned and mostly disappeared. She closed the keyboard cover on the piano, then slipped behind the bar to speak with Maurice, checking the receipts for the evening. They were good. The café was sustaining itself with its nightly business, a mixed crowd of people finding the intimate, slightly smoky and relaxed atmosphere a pleasant diversion from the labors of the day. She saw many familiar faces. Regulars, she noted. They were the lifeblood of any bar. Artists, attorneys, clerks and college students, lovers curled up in a corner booth lost to all but each other, all found a nocturnal refuge in her place. She must be doing something right. She leaned over the sink and tapped Maurice on the arm.
"I'm going upstairs. Do you need me for anything?"
"No, Boss. I'll take care of closing."
"Thanks, Maurice." She looked around the café, then added, "We are doing well here, aren't we?"
Maurice smiled. "They come to hear you play, you know, as much as anything."
She demurred, "I don't think so."
He eyed her knowingly. "I think so. Sleep well, Boss."
She replied, "You, too." At that, she turned and made her way to the back of the café, ascending the narrow staircase and entering her flat. She felt alone. She always felt alone at this time of the night. Oh, occasionally there was a visitor, someone with whom she made a primal connection and who would slink up the stairs with her for a night of intimacy, but such things never lasted. She remembered the last one, the high heels carelessly dropped on the floor, the dress haphazardly thrown across the back of her bedroom chair, the soft skin and embraces in the night, the smell of strange perfume left on her pillows, but it was always temporary. They always left in the morning. Mostly, they never returned. Who was the last one? Paula. Of course. Giggling, silly, upbeat and happy Paula. A butterfly, flitting from one lover to the next. Angelique doubted that she would ever see her again.
She quickly shed her clothes, slipped a long sleep shirt over her head and poured a glass of wine, gazing out at the now-empty street. A few tendrils of fog began settling over the cobblestones, making them appear slick and shiny in the yellow glow of the street-lamps. To her, it reflected the dull ache which settled over her soul, an ache of emptiness and regret. Regret at her past. Regret at her present solitude. Most of all, she felt the sharp stabs of regret for the seedy underworld of intrigue into which she had first been thrust so many years ago, of life and death and war and peace, of countries at conflict, and of those who had died quietly in an alleyway or their bed at her expert hand. And, the mused, of those who died horribly, violently, in the clash of arms or from an exploding bomb on a Haifa bus or in a Tel Aviv café. She had seen it all, and the memory of it numbed her.
She opened the doors to her balcony and walked out into the cool night air, breathing deeply to clear her head. She looked down at the wrought-iron table and noted her cigarette pack. As she lit one and slowly drew the smoke into her mouth, she remembered the warm brown eyes of the innocent red-haired American girl marked for death. What was her name? Laurie? A good soul, she thought. I can see it, feel it. And soon, she will be no more. Is that what eats at me so? That an innocent must die? I have seen them die before. The good die in herds, while the evil, the rabid dogs of humanity must be stamped out by the likes of people like me.
She snorted at that last thought. Like me? I have always kept my principles. I have never, to my knowledge, killed an innocent. They have all had blood on their hands. The guilty die to protect the innocent. And now, two innocents die to protect the guilty? She stubbed out the cigarette. No, I think not. Not this time. Not if I can make it happen differently. I can keep them alive. I can make them disappear without killing them, keep them safe. I've done it before. I can do it again. I'll call Maurie in the morning.
Maurie had returned to his hotel room, following breakfast, when his cell phone bleeped. He opened it, then hummed in question when he heard the voice in his ear. It was Angelique.
"Maurie, I have changed my mind. I want the job."
"So sorry, Angel. I've already given it out."
"What? To whom?"
Angelique's voice betrayed horror. "Mo? Not that... animal. You did not give him a female target, did you?"
"He was the only other I could find on such short notice. I'm sorry, Angel, but you turned it down."
"I want it now."
"It's done. That's how it is. You know that. I can't change it now."
There was a pause, and then Angelique asked, "When is he hitting them?"
"Soon, soon. He's already in America. California. He'll be in Washington, D.C. in a day or two, I suppose." The connection clicked, and Maurie repeated, "Hello? Hello? Angel?" After a minute, he shrugged and clicked it off. "I'll never understand that girl." He settled down to read his morning paper, still puzzling over the conversation.
Angelique rose from her laptop computer, gathering the confirmation of her airline ticket, hotel room and rental car from her printer, then strode into the bedroom. She opened a closet, found her suitcase, and threw it on the bed. Next to it, she tossed some carefully selected clothes from her dresser and closet, mentally taking inventory and then nodding when she was satisfied.
Her next stop was back at her writing table, where she seated herself and opened a drawer. From it, she extracted three passports: one French, one Canadian and one Israeli. She considered each one, then threw the Israeli and Canadian passports back into the drawer and closed it. She rose, walked to a picture on the wall, and swung it aside. A wall safe peered back at her. She spun the dial expertly, and when it opened, she extracted some money from it and stuffed it into her pocket. Then, she reached into the recesses of the safe and pulled out a polished wooden box about the size of a cigar box.
She seated herself at her couch and opened the box on the coffee table. Inside, nestled in padding, rested a disassembled pistol, its silencer, a laser sight, a box of ammunition, and some cleaning tools. She spread a cloth out on the table and laid out the pieces, examining each one to assure herself of working order and cleanliness, then gathered them up and retreated to her bedroom. She rummaged in an interior pocket of the suitcase, then found a small screwdriver. With it, she opened a false bottom in the suitcase and carefully fastened the ammunition box and the components of the pistol next to a large switchblade knife. When she closed the false bottom, she reached into her closet and extracted a shoulder holster from the top shelf. It was of very soft brown leather, custom fit for her weapon and her person. She wrapped it in some of her underwear and packed it with her clothes.
When all was packed and she had donned her clothes, she picked up the telephone. "Maurice, I'll be out of town for about a week. Something has come up."
"I understand. I'll be here."
She allowed herself a small grin. "Thank you. Good-bye, Maurice."
"Ah, don't you mean, 'I'll see you again'?"
She paused, then replied, "Of course. That's what I meant. See you then." She hung up the phone, pulled on her short leather jacket and slung the long strap of her small leather purse across her body, then looked around the room. One thing was missing.
She went to the back stairs, clomped down into the café below her, and sought out the office. From the safe, she pulled the two files which she had copied, folded the papers, and thrust them into an inner pocket in her jacket. When she returned, she lifted the gray beret from the lid of the antique piano and tugged it onto her head, checking her appearance in the mirror. All was set.
Then, as she had done so many times before, she lifted her suitcase, left the flat and locked it tightly. With a last look around at her familiar Parisian neighborhood, she descended the stairs and headed for the garage.
Laurie yawned as she drove the last blocks to her Georgetown apartment, weary from the day's exposure to fresh air and sun at the shore. She imagined that the seafood dinner to which she had treated herself had something to do with it, as well. As she turned down the street on which she lived, she slowed. Cars lined both sided of the street in front of the quaint townhouses and apartments. As she approached one car, she noted two occupants in it. They were sitting at the curb, not moving. As she slowly passed the car, she looked at them. The two men looked back. They both had the air about them of some kind of cops, but she shiver she felt up her spine when she locked eyes momentarily with the one behind the steering wheel gave her the creeps. She pulled into a cramped parking spot, left her car, and walked to her front door, casting constant glances their way until she was safely inside and had the door locked. She peeked through the blinds, saw that they were still in the car, and pondered their purpose. Probably just the local cops or something. They sure don't look like FBI. She closed the blinds, clicked on the lights, and pulled a cold beer from the refrigerator, sipping at it as she wandered toward the bedroom, intent on a hot bath.
In the car, the two figures sat in the deepening darkness. Neither said anything for quite a while. They just watched the lights in the windows, one scanning the scene with a night-vision monocular. When he lowered it, he said, "License plate checks out. She looks like the pictures. That's your target. Man, she's sorta cute."
The one behind the wheel closed his paperback novel and placed it on the seat next to him. "Yeah, sure is," he said, allowing a slight smile to cross his face. This assignment might turn out to be fun. He shook himself from his thoughts, then ordered, "Now we confirm the other target. What's his address again?"
The car slowly pulled away from the curb and clicked its lights on, cruising down the street. It was not to be seen when Laurie checked on it once more after her bath and before going to bed. She felt relieved at that and slept a little easier that night than she otherwise would have, had the car still been present outside her little home.
Angelique presented her passport to the bored customs official at the Dulles Airport, who flipped it open and perused it as another official poked through the contents of her suitcase. He studied the picture, then looked up at her. "Do you speak English?"
She nodded. "Ah, a little."
"Do you have anything to declare?"
She shook her head. "No, no." Her eyes quickly glanced around the customs area. Several uniformed men and women strolled around the area, weapons at their sides.
The official noted the wandering eyes and asked, "What's the matter?"
She smiled shyly, then waved her hand. "Ah, the guns. We do not have such in France, you know. They make me, ah, how you say? Scared?"
"These are dangerous times for us. Are you here on business?"
"I visit my cousin. She lives here. How you say? Tourist. Yes, that's it."
"How long are you staying?"
She shrugged. "Perhaps several days, ah, a week. I wish to see, um..." She struggled with the words. "The city. I will stay with her. She shows me everything, you know."
He smiled, stamped her passport, and handed it back to her. "You have a tourist visa. It's good for a month. Enjoy your stay in the United States."
Angelique smiled shyly. "Thank you." She accepted her passport, retrieved her suitcase, wound her way through the customs and the security inspections, and stepped out into the busy airport terminal. Seeking out a currency exchange, she traded her Euros for American currency, then stopped at a small store. In the map rack, she found maps of Virginia and the nation's capitol, paid for them and hiked the long distance to the rental car booths.
Shortly, she found herself behind the wheel of a white Neon rental car, pacing the traffic in the right-hand lane of the toll road leading toward Washington, D.C. It took her longer than she had anticipated to seek out her hotel, just off the interstate on the edge of the Potomac River.
Once inside her room, she threw her suitcase on the bed, then checked the time on the plastic bedside clock. She set her watch to the current time, then unlaced her ankle-high boots and dropped them on the floor, spreading out the maps on the bed and settling down to study them. Her stomach growled and she felt a bit light-headed. Hungry, she thought. When's the last time I ate? Not since Paris. She hated eating while traveling; it made her feel bloated, uncomfortable and sleepy. She decided on some quick energy and left her room in her socks, seeking out the soda machine. Shortly, she was back inside the room, unscrewing the cap on a two-dollar bottle of Coca-Cola and swigging the sweet beverage as she returned her attention to the maps, then to the sheaf of papers contained in her jacket pocket.
After an hour of concentration, she was satisfied with her renewed knowledge of the two targets and of the layout of the city. She laced her boots onto her feet, leaving the room to seek out the restaurant in the hotel's lobby and eat something light before she headed into Georgetown to scout the targets and the potential battlefield before her.
Laurie awakened to the ringing of the telephone next to her bed. Sleepily, she reached out and found the receiver, pulling it into her covers and speaking. "Uungh."
Sean's voice was too lively for her taste. "Hey, sugar, wake up. We've got things to do today."
"Bite me, Sean. I've got the day off."
"Not anymore, you don't. Get up and get dressed. We've got to meet legal council here at the office. Eleven o'clock."
She groaned. "But Sean..."
He laughed. "Kick her out and get your skinny little butt in here." Laurie glanced over at the empty space in the bed next to her and thought, Yeah. I wish. Sean's voice nudged her from her thoughts. "Come on, now. This is important." As an added enticement, he teased, "I'll buy you lunch. Your favorite deli?"
She sighed. "Okay, okay. What time is it now?"
"Nine o'clock. You got two hours. Even you can handle that, can't you?"
"I keep wondering why it is that I like you so much. You interrupted a good dream, you know that?"
He roared in laughter at that. "Was I in it?"
She felt herself grin in spite of her grogginess. "Not hardly, unless you grew boobs overnight."
"Lemme check. Nope, no boobs. Hey, nobody's perfect. See you at eleven?"
"Yeah. I'll be there."
"'Bye, sleepyhead," the effervescent voice teased.
"Um. 'Bye." She hung up the phone, groaned, and lifted herself to a sitting position on the side of her bed. After a moment, she rose, sleepily considered making the bed, and then dismissed the idea, instead heading toward her kitchen and the coffee-maker.
The meeting with legal council took longer than she had anticipated. Meetings with lawyers always did, it seemed. When they finally broke, Laurie and Sean left the Senate office building and strolled down the street, heading toward the deli. The lunch was a welcome relief, and Sean's irrepressible humor and teasing manner made her smile, in spite of her own misgivings over the upcoming Senate hearing. They left, strolled back toward the office building, and stopped at the door. Sean looked at her questioningly. "You coming in or going home?"
"Going home. I've got time enough tomorrow and over the weekend to brush up on my notes."
He nodded. "It's a beautiful day. Enjoy it. I'll see you tomorrow, right?"
"Right." As he turned to enter the building, she placed a hand on his arm. "Take care, will you? I don't want to see you hurt over this thing. You're the only friend I've got in this town anymore."
He smiled at the sentiment, then leaned over and kissed her cheek. "It'll all be okay, I promise. Now go home and don't worry." He studied her, then asked, "You going to be okay alone?"
She nodded. "Yeah, thanks for asking."
He winked at her. "No problem. Call me anytime if you want to talk." With that, he turned and bounced up the stairs to the wide doors.
She watched him go, then walked toward the parking garage, nodding toward the Capitol police officers as she entered and found her car. As she was about to unlock it, a sudden chill enveloped her, and she cast a glance around the garage. She thought that she spied the same car which was outside her apartment the night before. It sent a shiver through her, and she stared at it for a moment, then shook her head and opened her car's door. I'm just getting paranoid. Seen too many cop movies. Get a grip, girl.
In the car two rows away from Laurie's, the man in the passenger seat slid down slightly, lowering his binoculars. "Shit, I think she's made us."
The figure behind the wheel glanced up from his paperback novel. "Relax. No, she didn't."
"I swear she did."
"So what? She'll just think we're cops or something. Quit being so nervous. We'll hit the targets tonight and be back in California in twenty-four hours. Now calm down."
"She's probably going home. We'll catch her there tonight, after we deal with the first target."
"Man, how can you be so laid-back about this?"
He turned a page on his novel and continued reading. "It gets easier after the first dozen or so." Silently, he thought, Besides, I'm rather looking forward to this one. He folded down the corner of the page and placed his novel aside, then started up the car. "Let's eat at the hotel. I'm hungry."
As they pulled out onto the street and headed toward their hotel, a white Neon slid into the traffic behind them. They did not notice it pace them at some distance, then stop when they pulled into the parking lot of the hotel. As they headed into the lobby, the white Neon's driver noted the make and license plate number of their car, memorizing it. The driver pushed her thin sunglasses up on her nose, smiled, and muttered in French, "Mo, you're getting sloppy. Thank you." Then, she twisted the wheel on the car, stepped on the gas, and turned out into the busy afternoon traffic to head toward Georgetown.
"Laurie, we need to talk. Why don't you come over?"
"Um, sure, Sean. What's the matter? You sound worried."
"Just some things I found out today at work. You doing anything important?"
"No, of course not. I'll be there in a little while."
"See you then, dear. 'Bye."
"'Bye." Laurie hung up the phone, then paused to consider the conversation. Sean did sound worried, and it was not his usual manner to be so. He always seemed to take life's blows with his typical good humor and optimism. She returned to the kitchen sink, intent on finishing the washing of the dinner dishes before she left to visit Sean, knowing that it would not take her long at this time of the evening to reach his townhouse, just several blocks away in the quaint Georgetown neighborhood.
In her hotel room, Angelique tuned in a soft jazz station on the bedside radio, then opened the false bottom on the suitcase on her bed. From it, she extracted the pistol and its accompanying pieces, and spread them out on her bed. She lifted the heavy black pistol, gazed at it for a moment, then slipped the long silencer on its stubby barrel, tightening down its holding screws with a small allen wrench. Next, she attached the laser sight, about the size of a small penlight, into its track on the top of the pistol, snugged the retaining screws down tight, plugged a small wire into the thumb-operated button on the pistol's side, and checked its operation against the wall of the hotel room. A small, bright red dot danced across the pattern of the wallpaper. She nodded in satisfaction.
She pulled back the latch on the weapon's side with her thumb and the revolver's cylinder fell out to one side with a click. From her lead-lined ammo box, she loaded six rounds into the weapon and clicked it shut with a flip of her wrist. Then, she seated the weapon into its holster and spread the leather straps out on the bed.
The holster was designed to hold the weapon snugly under her left armpit. The strap which was to wrap around her right shoulder contained four small pouches, each just large enough to hold six rounds. Carefully, she filled these with extra ammo, and then placed the box back into the false bottom of her suitcase. Finally, she lifted her large switchblade knife from the suitcase and dropped it on the bed next to her shoulder holster.
She checked the progress of the evening's sun outside, then looked at her watch. It was almost time. Over her sport bra, she tugged a black tank-top, then slipped on a pair of loose blue jean 'painter's pants'. Over her socks, she laced her soft, black boots, the plain rubber soles worn and smooth. They would render her silent, leave no tell-tale trace of pattern in soft dirt or an interior floor's dust. After she laced up the second boot, she jammed her switchblade knife down between the sock and the boot-top of her right boot and pulled the pants leg down over it.
She paused and listened to the music for a moment. A good tune, she thought, mellow, pretty. Fitting. Then, she picked up the shoulder-holster from the bed, slipped it on, and fastened the tab on the bottom of the holster to the belt in her jeans. Over that, she drew on her short leather jacket and slipped the strap of her small purse over her head and one shoulder, nestling it by her hip. Rummaging in her suitcase, she found a pair of thin, soft leather gloves and jammed them into her pocket.
The final act in her ritual of preparation brought her to the large mirror in the room. Staring into it, she pulled on her gray beret, snugging it down over her head, tilting it back and adjusting it until she was satisfied with its appearance. Then, she smoothed the exposed hair on the side of her head back behind one ear, staring into the mirror. The normally pleasant hazel eyes stared back at her with a hollow, sinister quality. It was a quality which she always saw before she worked, the quality of a primal alertness akin to that of the lioness on the hunt. That quality told her that she was ready.
She left a light on and the jazz playing quietly on the radio, then stepped out into the hallway, clicking the door shut behind her.
When she reached the front of the hotel's lobby, she squinted at the bright remnants of the day's sun and snapped open her sunglasses, slipping them on her head. Outside the doors, she looked carefully around. Noting nothing which aroused her suspicions, she felt her stomach suddenly knot. The tight stomach, she thought. Always, at this time. It begins.
She took a deep breath to still the increased pounding of her heart. She could feel all her senses heighten, detect things that she normally gave small thought to. The breeze, the smell of the evening air, the sounds in the distance, even the faces of the people occasionally passing, all seemed to scream at her. She missed nothing. Glancing at her watch again, she noted the time. She could spare a couple of minutes. She wandered slowly away from the front door, standing by the manicured bushes and grass, and fished in an inner pocket of her jacket. There, next to her passport, was the small, flat box of European cigarettes. She opened it and lifted one to her mouth, lighting it. The action seemed to soothe her knotted stomach and she felt her body relax slightly. Her left arm rested against the pistol beneath her jacket, and she smiled. An old friend. God willing, this will be the last time I have need of you.
When she finished her cigarette, she dropped it in the sand of the ashtray near the building's door and left to seek out her rental car. It was time for the show to begin.
Laurie guided her car down the narrow Georgetown street, noting the evening's dusk beginning to deepen into night. The street-lamps were beginning to glow and the front windows of the rows of townhouses were alight, their occupants having returned home from their day's work. As she slowed to approach Sean's townhouse, she stared in shock. Three police cars were in the street and a couple of uniformed officers were rolling out a yellow plastic tape with the words "crime scene- do not cross" repeated at intervals upon it. She pulled over to the curb, locked her car with a shaking hand and approached the scene. The crime scene tapes were leading from Sean's front door to the street.
A police officer approached her. "Can't come in here, ma'am. Crime scene."
She blinked at him, then asked, "Is this Sean Burrow's house?"
He looked at her, then replied in question, "Are you a friend of his?"
"Um, yes. I work with him. He's my friend."
The officer's eyes softened. "I see. Wait here, will you?" She nodded silently, watching him walk over to a man in a rumpled suit and hold a short conversation with him. Both men returned to her. The man in the rumpled suit spoke.
"You know Sean Burrows?"
"Yes. He asked me to come over."
The suit flipped open a pocket notebook. "When was that? How long ago did you speak to him?"
"Um, maybe an hour ago, a little more."
"I see. I'll need your name and address. You got some I.D.?"
Nodding, she fished in her pocket and pulled out her card case, handing him her driver's license. As she watched him copy the information down, she asked, "What happened here? Where's Sean?"
The suit handed her license back to her, then sighed. "Been an accident, I'm afraid. Your friend slipped in the shower. Hit his head, evidently."
Her stomach twisted itself into knots. "Is he hurt?"
"I'm sorry, Miss Caldwell. I'm afraid that he's dead."
She stared at him dumbly, the words at first not registering. "What did you say?"
"Sorry, ma'am. He died from the fall." The suit turned and glanced toward the door, noting two paramedics expertly wrestling a wheeled ambulance litter out of the front door. On it, a dark plastic body bag was strapped. She watched the scene as it played out before her as if in slow motion, scarcely hearing the suit's voice when he addressed her again. "Ma'am? Miss Caldwell?"
She tore her eyes from the body bag. "Huh?"
"Look, Miss Caldwell, I hate to ask you this, but since you're a friend of his, could you I.D. the body for us?"
Her knees went weak. She slowly nodded, then whispered, "Yes. Yes, I think that I can do that."
The uniformed officer shouted at the paramedics. "Hey, you guys. Hold it a minute." They stopped, and the suit led Laurie over to the litter. He grasped the zipper on the bag and opened it, then spread the plastic aside. Sean's face was exposed, his hair still damp, his eyes gazing, pale and unseeing, past her.
She nodded slowly, her face a reflection of the disbelief which screamed at her from the depths of her mind. "Yes. That's him."
The suit zipped the bag closed. "Thanks, ma'am. I hated to ask you to do that, but it was necessary."
She looked away. "I know." She cast a last glance at the plastic bag, then placed a hand over her mouth. Before the suit could react, she turned and retched into the grass, leaning against a tree. After a moment, a pair of hands placed themselves on her shoulders. She looked up into the sympathetic eyes of a female police officer. The black face spoke to her soothingly.
"Sorry, honey. Come over here and sit down. You'll be better in a minute."
As the female officer led her over to the open door of a police car, she could hear the suit speaking with the paramedics. "You guys see anything I should know about?"
One of them answered, "Looks like he fell in the shower. Laceration on the back of the head. I think his neck's broken."
"Thanks. Hit the road, guys."
She sat on the back seat of the police car, her feet resting on the curb, as the female officer attempted to comfort her. "Try to relax. Take some deep breaths. You want some water?"
Laurie looked up at her, then tasted the bile in her mouth. She nodded weakly, and the officer unlocked the trunk of the car. She returned with a bottle of water, unscrewed the cap, and placed it in Laurie's hand. She took a swig, swished it around inside her mouth, then swallowed with difficulty. Her stomach flipped again, and she coughed. After a moment, she realized that the woman was speaking to her.
"You got family? Somebody to be with you tonight?"
Laurie shook her head. "I live alone."
She looked up. "He was my friend."
She nodded. "You want me to drive you home? Where you live, ma'am?"
Laurie took another drink of water. "Close. Few minutes away. I'll be okay."
The officer looked at her skeptically. "Where's your car, honey?"
She pointed numbly. "There."
"Come on, I'll walk you." The officer helped her stand, and together, they slowly tread the sidewalk toward her car. When they reached it, the officer took the keys from Laurie's shaking hand and unlocked the door for her. "Now, you sure you're okay to drive? Don't want you gettin' into no accident on the way home."
"I'm better now, thanks. It was just... a shock."
"Always is, honey." Laurie offered her the water bottle back, and she shook her head. "You keep it. Drive careful, now. Keep your mind on the road." The officer unbuttoned a uniform shirt pocket and produced a pad, scribbling a number on it. She tore the paper off and handed it to Laurie. "This here's the number of a hot line, if you need to talk to somebody. They'll listen and get you a counselor, if you want."
"Yes, ma'am." Laurie took the paper, slid into the driver's seat of her car and inserted the keys into the ignition switch, grinding the motor into life. As the officer closed the car's door, Laurie turned the car around in the street and began slowly driving back toward her own neighborhood.
From the back of the assembled crowd of muttering spectators, a woman in a short leather jacket and a gray beret turned and strode away, heading down the street in the opposite direction. She walked with a purpose, silent, an enigmatic expression about her face. As she unlocked the white Neon car, she paused, then kicked the tire in frustration. She took a deep breath, snatched the dark glasses from her face, and then climbed into the car, starting it and slapping it into drive. As she spun down the street behind the ambulance, she cursed quite colorfully in French, then added, "Mo, you are a dead man."
On the side of the street near Laurie's apartment, a car sat parked. Its lone occupant kept his night-vision monocular to his eye, scanning the street from behind the steering wheel. He pressed his finger against the earpiece in his ear, then spoke. "Nothing, Mo."
"Right. Keep a lookout."
"You going in through the front?"
"No, moron. She always uses that entrance. I'm at the back door. I'll be inside in a minute. Let me know when she pulls up."
"Right." He shifted himself on the seat, then resumed scanning the darkened street with his monocular. Occasionally, a car would pass, the headlights illuminating the road around him. He lowered the monocular until it was past, then placed it to his eye again. After what seemed to him endless moments, a nondescript Toyota pulled up next to the apartment and parked.
"Bingo." The lookout in the parked car placed a finger to the earpiece. "Mo, she's just arrived."
"Party-time. I'm inside. Start the car in five... no, fifteen minutes."
"Right." He sat up, feeling more alert, and watched through his night-vision monocular as Laurie left her car. She slowly, stiffly tread the stairs up to her second-floor apartment and fumbled with the key in the front door lock, finally pushing the door open and disappearing inside the darkened apartment.
Angelique studied the street from her vantage point at the corner, bending down in order to better glance through the windows of the cars parked along the street. Her eyes, squinting in the darkness and the haze of street-lamps, noted a head behind the wheel of a parked car near Laurie's apartment. Got you, she thought. Mo, you always worked with a lookout. For that, you're a bigger idiot than even I thought you. The lookout is alone. Mo must already be inside. She began walking down the sidewalk toward the car, then noted Laurie pull into her parking spot. Angelique's pace quickened, her soft boots silent on the cement. When she neared the car, she glanced around the street. No one was out. Good. This time of night, she was worried about residents walking dogs or strolling in the cool evening air. None. Luck was with her once again. She kept her eye on the car as she neared it. The lookout did not see her. His attention was riveted on Laurie's apartment. He kept holding something to his face. A night-vision device? A bonus.
She was now only about ten feet from the car. With another glance around the street to insure that she was alone, she pulled the revolver from her shoulder holster and leveled it, softly clicking the hammer back. The hammer slid smoothly, quietly into the cocked position. She edged her way up to the car, then gently tapped on the glass of the driver's side window with the tip of the silencer on her pistol. A startled face inside turned, stared up at her, and his mouth dropped open. A red dot centered itself on his forehead. His eyes slowly turned upward toward the steady red dot, and then a thump sounded, much like someone striking a bed with a fist. A hole appeared in the glass in front of his face, a jagged cobweb of cracks radiating out from its center. The occupant of the car fell backward into the front passenger seat, a squirt of dark blood staining the inside of the car. She quickly holstered the pistol, then opened the door with a leather-gloved hand. She reached inside, lifted the night-vision monocular from his dead fingers, and slipped it into the pocket of her jacket. Then, she closed the door, looked about the street once more, and glided silently, almost panther-like, across the street toward Laurie's apartment.
Laurie fumbled in the door with her key, her shaking hand unsuccessful in her attempts to enter the key into the lock. Finally, she grasped the key with both hands and inserted it into the lock, turning it and feeling the door give way. It creaked open, and she entered the darkened apartment, placing the keys down on the nearby kitchen counter. She slowly walked back into the hallway and clicked the light switch on. The hum of the fluorescent lights in the kitchen's ceiling seemed harsh to her eyes and she squinted, then clicked them off and turned on the softer hall light instead, intent on heading toward her bedroom.
As she turned the corner near the bedroom, she felt herself pulled roughly off balance. A hand clasped itself over her mouth and a tight, almost crushing hold pinned her arms to her sides. Startled, she attempted to scream, but only a muffled sound emitted from her mouth. The hand tightened around her jaw, then released itself from her face. She found that she couldn't open her mouth. A tight, sticky tape held it shut.
She felt herself thrown against the wall in the entranceway. Her head hit the wall with a resounding thud, causing her to momentarily see stars. When she opened her eyes, her knees went weak. Staring down at her was a stranger's face, the eyes deep and cold, the closely-trimmed goatee beard bristling blonde. The stranger kept a painful grip on her arms, twisting them behind her back. She could not speak, she could not cry out, she could not even bring herself to swallow. Her heart pounded in her chest, and she felt tears begin to flood her eyes and trail down her cheeks. She could hear a voice inside her scream out, Oh, my God. This can't be happening. Oh, dear God, help me, please. This can't be real, can it? This can't be happening to me.
The stranger pinned her against the wall. He looked her up and down for a moment, then leaned close and whispered, "Are you Laurie Caldwell?" When she did not respond, he shook her and slapped her face. "Answer me. Nod your head if you're Laurie Caldwell. Do it."
She forced herself to nod, and he smiled. "Right." One hand still tightly on her wrists, his other hand grasped her about the throat. She stared up at him through the tears in her eyes, and she saw in intimate detail the features of his face: the short blonde hair, the earpiece in his ear, the primal, wild look in his eyes. To her, it was almost as if she were a strangely detached observer, watching a horrible scene play out in front of her and judging it dispassionately. Then, she noted something else about him. A red dot danced across the side of his head, playing in his hair, then steadying itself on his temple. She found it strange that she could puzzle at that, almost as if her mind floated cooly in the midst of the raging tempest of her fear.
A sultry voice echoed from the darkness of the kitchen door, smooth, accented, strange, almost laughing. "Hello, Mo."
Her assailant stiffened at the sound. His head turned, placing the red dot right between his eyes. "What the...?"
A thick, muffled thump sounded from the darkened kitchen. The man's head jerked back, struck the wall, and he released his hard grip on Laurie's hands and wrists. He leaned against the wall, then slowly slid down, finally coming to rest in a sitting position in the hallway. His head lolled and a dark trickle of blood began winding its way down his face, across his chin, and spotting the front of his dark T-shirt. His hands flopped loosely by his sides.
Laurie found herself frozen to the spot, her eyes staring first toward her assailant, then toward the darkened kitchen. Her heart was pounding in her ears, and her breathing was so labored and rapid that she felt herself about to faint. A shadow emerged from the kitchen, then stepped out into the light of the hall and faced her. Laurie's eyes locked upon the hazel ones in front of her. They were regarding her with... what? There was a primal depth to those eyes, as well, but something else. Was it... almost a tenderness?
A leather-gloved hand pulled the tape from Laurie's mouth. She yelped at the pain, then swallowed hard and looked again at the figure before her. It was a woman, speaking to her in a rolling accent. What accent was it? European? French, maybe?
"Are you Laurie Caldwell?"
She regarded the face before her. It did not have the same ferocity as the face of the man who now sat motionless in her hall. She swallowed again, then attempted to answer, but only squeaks sounded from her mouth. The face actually smiled at that.
"You must be." Laurie backed away from the woman before her, unconsciously rubbing her sore wrists, and again the smooth, rolling accented voice reached her ears.
"You look horrible. Come and sit down. Do you have anything to drink in the flat?"
She shook her head in disbelief, blinking at the question. She watched the woman holster the pistol underneath her short leather jacket, and then bend down, strip off a leather glove and touch slender fingers to her assailant's neck. Evidently satisfied, the woman stood erect again, then waved toward the kitchen.
"Come, sit. You have had a bad day, I think." The smile which accompanied the lilting accent set Laurie slightly at ease, and she sputtered in exasperation, finally finding her voice.
"A bad day? A bad day? That man just attacked me."
The woman nodded. "Yes, yes. I know of him. He is an animal. He probably would have raped you before he killed you, you know."
She looked down once again at the dead man slumped in the hall, and her knees gave out. She did not hit the floor. A pair of deceptively strong arms caught her, lifted her to a standing position, and guided her over to the kitchen table. She felt herself lowered into a chair, and she looked up once again at the woman standing over her. She was speaking. "Have you anything to drink in your flat?"
"Um, what do you want?"
The face smiled. "Not for me. For you. You look like you need it."
Laurie coughed. "Boy, that's the understatement of the year."
The face smiled. "Humor at such a time is the sign of a stalwart soul." The woman opened the refrigerator and looked inside. "Do you wish wine or beer?"
"Um, beer, I guess."
The stranger reached inside, withdrew a bottle of beer, and twisted the cap off. Then, she placed it down on the table in front of Laurie, seating herself in the next chair, and watched silently as Laurie tilted up the bottle with a shaky hand and drained half of it in one effort. As the bottle clunked back down on the table, Laurie looked at her odd companion. A gray beret capped brown, russet-streaked shaggy hair, pushed behind the exposed ear. A pair of hazel eyes twinkled at her, their primal tint seeming to momentarily retreat to some hidden depth within their owner. The face was pleasant, but not classically pretty. It studied her with great interest, patiently, silently appraising her. It seemed to hold no malice, no anger, just a pleasant interest.
Laurie weakly motioned toward the beer bottle. "Do you, ah, want a beer?"
The stranger shook her head. "No, thank you. I much prefer cognac at troublesome times, or a good red wine."
Laurie actually managed a nervous laugh. "Guess it's the German in me."
The stranger raised an eyebrow. "Sprechen sie Deutsch?"
Laurie shrugged. "I'm not very good at it. My gramma tried to teach me."
The face smiled again. "Not a problem. I speak English." She noted Laurie's nervous glance over her shoulder at the hall and continued, "Do not worry. He is dead."
Laurie attempted to rise from the table, but found herself too weary to do so. "I need to call the cops."
The stranger shook her head. "Not just yet. Later, perhaps."
Laurie stared at her. "What do you mean, 'later'? That guy just tried to kill me."
An eyebrow raised. "He is not killing you now, is he?"
Laurie sat dumbfounded. On a better day, she might have found the answer humorous. Finally, she just shrugged and answered, "No, I guess not."
"Well, then. Relax and drink your beer. When you finish, we have work to do, you and I."
Laurie looked at her. "Work? What work? Just what the hell is going on here?"
"The work of keeping you alive until this affair is over. You were almost assassinated, you know."
"Assassinated?" Laurie again studied her strange savior. Finally, her curiosity overcoming her, she asked, "Who... who are you, anyway?"
The stranger answered slowly, carefully, in her rolling accent. "My name is Angelique, but my friends call me Angel."
This time, it was Laurie's turn to raise an eyebrow. She had not prayed in years, but had heard herself almost instinctively call upon her Creator for help tonight. Then, this stranger appeared in her kitchen. Oh, my God, she thought. "My guardian angel?"
Angelique smiled. "It would perhaps seem so, would it not?"
"Where are you from? You sound French."
"Sometimes, I am French. Sometimes, Canadian, from Quebec. Sometimes, I am Israeli. It depends on the situation."
"Situation?" Something clicked in the back of Laurie's mind. Israeli. The Zion Relief Fund. The senator. The FBI. The upcoming Senate hearings. Sean, dead tonight. Then, this man tries to kill me. He knew my name. She knows my name. No. It can't be. This all plays like a cheap movie. She took another swallow of beer to ease her suddenly dry mouth, and asked, "And what are you now? Who sent you? The Israelis? Are you here to kill me, too?"
Angelique smiled. "You learn quickly. No. Tonight, I am not Israeli. I am not of any country. I am what they call in my business, a 'rogue element'."
Laurie almost didn't want to hear the answer to her next question. "What business is that?"
"Why, assassination, of course." She gestured toward the hallway with a gloved hand. "Mo, there, assassinated your friend Sean tonight. Then, he came here to kill you. Obviously, he was not successful at both."
"But the cop said that Sean fell in the shower, that it was an accident."
Angelique shrugged. "Mo was good at what he does. I, however, am better, so you are still alive. I was not in time to save your friend. For that, I am deeply sorry. It was a tragic, senseless death of a good young man."
"Sean was murdered by..." She pointed toward the hallway. "Him?"
Angelique nodded. "And now I have killed him." She leaned forward, suddenly masking her face with a serious expression, and spoke rapidly. "Your friend is dead, but you are still alive. It is my sacred duty to keep you so. Mo is not the only one, you know. Jerusalem always sends a backup, in case the free-lancer misses. There will be another attempt on your life. I can keep you safe, but only if you listen to me and do exactly as I say. Do you understand this?" When Laurie did not reply, Angelique reached out and grasped her arm with a gloved hand. "Do you understand me? You must trust me and do as I say. Only then will you stay alive." The hazel eyes bore into the soft brown ones. "Do you trust me, Laurie?"
Laurie considered the question, earnestly spoken, and the face before her. It spoke to her soul, it seemed, the sharp hazel eyes, the smooth, pleasant face. Something about it tugged at her, comforted her. Angelique? Angel? My guardian Angel? She still reeled from the events of the evening. Her stomach churned, her body ached from being roughly handled, and her head felt light from the beer. After a quiet moment, she nodded in surrender. "I trust you, Angelique. What do you want me to do?"
The white Neon wove through the Georgetown streets, Angelique at the wheel and Laurie sitting quietly in the passenger's seat. She watched the lights go by, the pedestrians on the street, and watched as Angelique pulled the car into a convenience store, stopping in front of the public telephone. She motioned for Laurie to get out, then went to the phone. When Laurie reached her, Angelique held the receiver to her. "Dial the emergency number, ah, nine-one-one, I think it is, is it not? Do not tell them your name. Just tell them your address and that there is a dead man at that address. Then hang up quickly. Do you understand?"
"Is that why you had me leave the front door unlocked?"
Angelique grinned. "You want them to break down the door?"
"I suppose not." She lifted the receiver, then punched in the three numbers. After a moment, she spoke into the phone, exactly as she had been instructed. When she paused to listen, Angelique took the receiver from her hand and placed it back on the phone.
"That is enough. Now, we leave. They already know from where the call comes. The police will be here shortly. Come." She prodded Laurie back to the car, and they both climbed in. Angelique turned the car out of the parking lot and back into the traffic, winding her way onto the interstate and then off again at her hotel.
When they reached Angelique's room, they threw Laurie's hastily-packed bag on the bed next to Angelique's open suitcase. Laurie sat wearily on the side of the bed and watched Angelique strip off her short leather jacket, tossing it on the chair by the writing table, and then stretch luxuriously, as if after a soothing nap. The rippling of the muscle in the woman's shoulders seemed to combine a feminine softness with a strangely erotic sensuality. She noted with fascination the dragon tattoo on one shoulder, the holstered weapon against her side, the form-fitting black tank top with the straps of the sport bra showing between her shoulder blades, and she swallowed at the feeling of warmth suffusing through her. Oh, oh, she thought. I think I'm in trouble here. She chuckled in spite of her bone-deep weariness and mentally added, In deeper trouble than I thought. She's, um.... She mentally searched for just the right word, then settled with ...hot. Really hot. She blinked in disbelief at her own thoughts. I can't believe this. Sean is dead, I was almost murdered tonight, and I'm sitting here in a stranger's hotel room getting turned on? God, I am so in trouble. Laurie, keep your focus.
She snapped from her thoughts to find Angelique studying her. "Are you not well?"
"Huh? Oh, um, sure. Sorry." Laurie could feel the beginnings of a bright red blush color her cheeks, and looked down at her feet in embarrassment. Oh, Jeez. I am so transparent.
Angelique angled her head slightly, keeping her eyes on Laurie, and smiled at the blush. Then, she excused herself, lifted the pack of European cigarettes from her coat pocket, and slid back the glass door to the small balcony. As she closed the door behind her, she lit a cigarette, took a leisurely drag, and a small, interested smile formed on her lips. As she watched the traffic below, she thought, How interesting. Is it possible? I suspected, but dared not hope. Aloud and in her native French, she said, "I have a feeling that the next few days will prove very interesting." After another drag on her cigarette, she added, "Very interesting."
At Senator Abram's home, the police detective stepped outside the door, pausing to turn to the senator. "Thanks for the help, Senator. Sorry to disturb you at home."
He shook the detective's hand. "No problem. I'd appreciate it if you'd keep me appraised."
"Of course, sir. If we find Miss Caldwell, I'll call you."
The police officer watched the door close, then turned and walked to his car. When he sat inside, the detective behind the wheel said, "No luck?"
"Typical politician. Full of concern, but no facts." He thought for a moment, then said, "Let me see that card again, will you? You know, the one you found beside the phone in Burrow's place."
"Oh, yeah." He fished it out of his pocket and handed it over. The detective studied it. "FBI? This gets more interesting by the moment. Think I'll just give this guy a call. Never know what might come to light."
At Laurie's ragged appearance, Angelique suggested that they get something to eat in the hotel's restaurant. Laurie did not take much convincing, and they descended to the restaurant, were guided to a table, and waited upon. Soon, hot food in front of them and wine poured, the conversation began. Laurie seemed relieved to be able to talk, and Angelique pried her with questions regarding her childhood and family. She deliberately steered clear of any mention of Laurie's work or of the day's events, fearing that it would bring forth the whirlwind of emotion which she knew lay just beneath Laurie's surface. She did not want that to happen, at least, not in public. The purging of emotions, the deep, tearful questions and the exploration of the events leading up to tonight were to be reserved for private, later. Angelique knew that it would come and felt sympathetic toward her charge. It would be a long night, she feared, but for now, a little pleasant company seemed to do the American girl much good. She smiled and listened as Laurie relaxed somewhat and chattered pleasantly in answer to Angelique's questions about happier days.
When the check came, Angelique insisted on paying and tipped generously. Then, they returned to their room. Laurie kicked off her shoes and sat on the bed. She scratched at her head and muttered, "I need a shower."
Angelique motioned toward the bathroom. "Go. Plenty of clean towels. I use it after you." At Laurie's hesitation, she prodded, "This is now your room, as well. Make yourself comfortable." Laurie dug into her suitcase, found her toilet articles and her pajamas, and then stood, nervously clutching them. She looked over at Angelique, but seemed uncertain how to voice the question on her mind. Angelique noted this and asked, "What is wrong?"
"Um, will you be here?"
The girl is incredibly shy, isn't she? "Yes, yes. I will not bother you."
Laurie pressed, "No. I mean, will you be here? You're not... going anywhere, are you?" She shrugged her shoulders and added, "I just mean that I don't really want to be left alone right now." She looked at Angelique shyly and asked, "Do you know what I mean?"
Angelique considered the shy confession, then realized what Laurie was attempting to say. "You are scared?"
"Yes. I'm very scared."
"I will be right here. I will not leave."
"Thank you." With that, she turned and disappeared into the bathroom. Angelique listened to the shower start and then moved the suitcases off the bed, making room for them both to sleep.
After a time, Laurie emerged from the bathroom, seeming refreshed and clothed in her pajamas. She thrust her dirty clothes into her bag, then smiled at Angelique's question. "Yeah, thanks. I feel better." Attempting a weak joke, she added, "Like a million bucks. I mean, considering..."
Angelique glanced up from the news channel on the TV. "You feel like money?"
"It's an expression, silly. Aren't you familiar with it?"
"No, no. This means that you feel good?"
"Sure." She held her arms out and twirled in the center of the room. "Like a million bucks. A million bucks is good, right?"
Laurie was surprised to hear Angelique actually laugh at that. It was a pleasant, musical laugh. "Well, then. My turn to, ah, 'feel like a million bucks', too." She rose and gathered her own toilet kit from her bag, then tucked it under her arm. With her other hand, she deftly stripped off her socks, then unfastened her jeans and wiggled out of them. Laurie took a seat and pretended to watch the news, but found that her eyes kept straying over to the corner of the room where Angelique was unabashedly undressing. Her kit under her arm, some clean clothing in her hand, she stepped over to the hotel room door and clicked the bolt, then flipped the locking device. She looked back and said, "Don't answer the door for anyone."
When Laurie nodded, she slipped into the bathroom but left the door open. The shower started, then a sport bra dropped by the door, followed by a pair of underwear. Laurie could hear her enter the shower and rolled her eyes. Then, she glanced over at the single full-sized bed in the room and muttered, "God. This is gonna be one long night." She attempted to divert her overwhelmed mind with some mindless channel surfing, but finally put the remote down in disgust, clicking the TV off. She sighed, then felt the room descend upon her. The weight of the day pressed down relentlessly, and she felt her throat tighten and her chest heave. Visions of the events of the day flashed before her: Sean's lifeless face, the horror of the attack in her hallway, and now her flight for her life from a nameless, faceless assassin who undoubtedly lurked somewhere out there in the city, and who would relentlessly stalk her when news got out about the failed attempt at her apartment. She closed her eyes tightly and allowed herself to cry, a deep, sobbing cry which she had not allowed herself in a very long time. She curled up on the small sofa and clutched a throw cushion, burying her face in it. She wept at the death of her friend, she wept at the aftermath of a frightening attack, she wept at the thought that someone wanted her dead. She wept at the loss of her orderly, predictable life, and most of all, she wept from exhaustion. Not just physical exhaustion; no, this was an exhaustion of the spirit, the very core of her soul, and she felt alone, so very alone.
As she wept, her eyes tightly shut, she felt someone sit next to her. She felt strong, comforting arms encircle her, and she felt herself lifted, her head resting against a soft shoulder. She smelled a pleasant fragrance and she heard a voice coo into her ear, "Now, now, Cherie, it is all right. I am here to be with you. I will keep you safe, I swear on my soul. Everything will be all right. I will make it so."
She wept again, but felt herself weep in relief. It would be all right. It would. It had to be. The nightmare would end, and good would triumph. She dropped the throw pillow and circled her arms about the shoulders comforting her, pressing her wet face against the neck and burying it in the ends of shaggy brown hair, still damp from the shower. The soft voice whispered again in her ear, soothing words, comforting words in a musical accent, and the body shifted, began rocking her gently. She had no idea how long she stayed so, feeling the comfort of human contact, feeling the safety of the arms. For a moment, she felt five years old again. Then, she sighed deeply and just clung as tightly as she could to the shoulders, keeping her eyes tightly shut and never wanting to let go.
Angelique held Laurie until she could feel the tight grip upon her relax and hear her breathing lapse into a regular, rhythmic pattern. She looked down and saw that Laurie was asleep. Gently, ever so gently, she picked her up, carried her to the bed, and placed her down. Then, she drew the covers up over her, kissed her softly on the forehead and turned off the light, leaving only the light of the open bathroom to light the room. After watching Laurie sleep for a few minutes, she quietly turned, lifted the pistol from its holster, and placed it in easy reach of the other side of the bed. Then, she tightened her robe about her, rummaged for a cigarette, and stepped out on the balcony for a smoke.
Laurie awoke in the night, slightly disoriented. She lay on her side for a while, listening to the radio softly playing a mellow, slow music, her eyes wide in the dark, and wondered where she was. Then, she remembered. She must have fallen asleep on the couch. But how did she get to the bed? She didn't remember going to bed. Her eyes widened as she felt a stirring in the bed behind her. A soft breathing sounded near her, and the bed moved slightly. She felt Angelique spoon up behind her and felt an arm drape itself across her side, the hand resting on her stomach. Her eyes grew even wider and she lay motionless, listening to the breathing form behind her return to a normal, soft pattern. After a while, she relaxed, smiled in the dark, and welcomed the comforting feeling of the warm body. It was not so much an erotic feeling. No, it was more like the comforting aura that only a friend could give. For the first time that day, Laurie began to feel safe again. She somehow knew that all would be well, that the comforting presence close to her would protect her, guard her in this strange new world of intrigue and detached violence into which she had found herself thrust.
Angelique. Angel. Her guardian angel? Could it be? She had never believed in such things. Never, that is, until now.
The song ended on the radio. Without the irritating chatter of a disc jockey, a new song started. Some smooth, melodic piano chords began playing, slowly, softly. Then, a plaintive female voice began singing, it seemed, just to her. She smiled. The song was a favorite of hers.
You spend all your time waiting for that second chance
For the break that will make it okay...
She listened, allowing the mellow, mournful piano and voice to wrap around her soul. It seemed a balm, a soothing hand stroking a fevered brow in the night.
Let me be empty and weightless and maybe
I'll find some peace tonight
In the arms of an Angel, fly away from here
From this cold, dark hotel room
And the endlessness that you fear...
Laurie slipped her hand over the one resting on her stomach and squeezed it gently. She held it against her, feeling it touch her, never wanting it to leave. The music wafted over her, gently speaking to her, and, it seemed to Laurie, to her alone.
...and everywhere you turn
There's vultures and thieves at your back.
And the storm keeps on twisting
You keep building the lie...
She lay in bed, not wanting the moment to end, but knowing that it eventually would. In the tempest of twisted politics and international hate, she had found an isle of serenity, a momentary heaven amidst hell. Angelique. Angel. Her guardian Angel?
...in the arms of an Angel
Fly away from here
From this cold, dark hotel room
And the emptiness that you fear.....
She pulled the hand up across her stomach and nestled it under her chin, the arm resting gently between her breasts. The quiet, assured breathing continued in her ear, the soft sound of a citadel confident against the terrors of the world. Her citadel. Her Angel.
...you're in the arms of an Angel
May you find some comfort there.
She listened to the final, slow piano chords play out. The song ended, and some mellow jazz played. Laurie smiled, then gently lifted the hand and kissed the fingers which she held in her own. She sighed, then snuggled the hand back under her chin and closed her eyes.
Behind her, Angelique lay awake. She said nothing, just lying in the dark, and then scooted closer to Laurie until their bodies touched and she could breathe the fragrance of the red hair brushing her face. Then, she sighed deeply and relaxed, even as her free hand slid under her pillow and wrapped itself around the cool, metallic handle of the pistol which she secreted there.
"Laurie? Wake up, Laurie."
"Time to rise. We must go."
"Huh? Go where?"
"I don't know. We will find a safe place. We must move. Perhaps the backup knows where we are."
Laurie blinked her eyes, then opened them and squinted into the morning's weak light. "Shit. What time is it?"
Angelique knelt by her bedside. She watched Laurie struggle awake and laughed gently. "Time for coffee."
Laurie opened her eyes. "Oh, yeah. Now you're talkin'. We got coffee?"
"There is a coffee-maker in the room. Here, be careful. It is hot."
Laurie sat up in the bed, twisted her pajama top back into its rightful place, and gratefully accepted the styrofoam cup. Creamer and sugar. How did she know? She must have watched her fix her coffee at dinner the evening before. Laurie sipped at it carefully. Just the right amount of each. She blinked up at Angelique, who watched her with an amused grin. Finally, Laurie mumbled, "The coffee's perfect, and what's so damned funny?"
"So sorry. You are so adorable when you first awaken. Like a puppy, you are."
"A puppy? That's the first time I've been called that. Usually, it's just 'bitch'." She sipped her coffee again, then looked up at Angelique. "Where are we going?"
"To the country. You like to ride horses, yes?"
"I love to. I haven't done that since..."
"Since you were a girl. I know. You told me." She dropped a flyer on the bed.
Laurie picked it up and squinted at it. "A riding stables in Front Royal?"
"Only a hundred kilometers away. Sixty miles. We can stay there overnight."
"Is that wise?"
Angelique nodded. "Keep on the move. Besides, I can better see if we are being followed by taking a trip out of the city."
Laurie nodded. "Sounds reasonable, I guess."
Angelique noted the hesitation in Laurie's voice. "Do you have another idea?"
"Well, I was thinking last night."
"I've been subpoenaed to testify at a hearing regarding Senator Abrams on Tuesday. If I don't show up, I'll be in big trouble."
"If you do, you might be dead."
Laurie gulped, then sipped at her coffee again, contemplating that most sobering thought. Then she brightened. "Hey, would the FBI help us?"
Angelique cocked her head in question. "Explain this to me."
"Well, they questioned me at length. They wanted me to testify." She pulled back the covers and placed her coffee aside, standing and seeking out her purse. She opened it, rummaged around in it, and pulled a business card from it. "Here, this guy. Agent Sanderson."
"Let me see." Angelique took the card, perused it, and then looked up. "Do you have your cell phone with you?"
"Here." She reached into her purse and pulled it out. Angelique simply said, "Call. Ask him to meet you. Here, in the lobby. Not in our room. Now, as soon as possible."
Laurie nodded, then opened the phone and pressed in the numbers. Angelique kept quiet during the conversation, just listening. When Laurie closed the phone, she looked up. "He'll be here in an hour."
Angelique smiled. "Enough time to eat breakfast. Are you hungry?"
During Laurie's interview with Agent Sanderson, Angelique sat nearby, a newspaper folded on her lap. She watched Laurie speak with the agent, her ears straining to pick up most of the conversation, but there were gaps which she couldn't hear. Finally, when the conversation was ended and the agent left, Laurie sat down next to Angelique. "He doesn't believe me, I think. He said the story was not credible. He thinks Sean's death was accidental, and that I'm just over-reacting."
"He is a fool, then. It would seem that we are alone in this." She looked out the window. "Come, we have a drive to make. Let us check out."
The drive to Front Royal was a pleasant one, Laurie relaxing as they left the city and ventured into the country down Interstate Sixty-six. Angelique drove, keeping an eye about her and behind her for the presence of any cars pacing her, and they stopped at rest stops frequently. Satisfied that they weren't being followed, Angelique relaxed and actually chatted quite pleasantly, this time in response to Laurie's questions about her childhood in France. On the subject of her later years, Angelique was guarded, saying only that she had spent some time in Israel, where she had learned the darker skills with which she had often earned her living. In response to Laurie's gentle probing, she would often just give short answers, matter-of-fact and without much detail. She seemed uncomfortable discussing it. Laurie decided not to press the questions.
Suddenly, Angelique muttered quite pointedly in French and glanced into the rear view mirror. Alarmed, Laurie looked back and saw a police car with its lights flashing, hovering just behind them. "Oh, shit. Pull over, Angel. It's the cops. How fast were you going, anyway?"
Angelique braked the car, guiding it over to the side of the road, and sat behind the wheel. As the police officer left his car and approached them, Angelique rolled down the driver's window, then watched warily in her side view mirror. Laurie put her hand on Angelique's arm.
"Look, let me do the talking. Play stupid, okay?"
She smiled. "I can do that."
The policeman looked into the window and perused the two occupants of the car, then asked for a driver's license and registration. In response, Angelique just looked at Laurie, who pronounced the word 'license' with a French-sounding twist much resembling Inspector Clouseau. In response, Angelique's face brightened and she reached into her jacket pocket, producing her international driver's license. The policemen took it, looked at it, and flipped the document booklet open, then said, "You're not from around here, I take it?"
Laurie leaned over and spoke. "This is my cousin, from France. She doesn't speak much English, I'm afraid. I let her drive because she loves to, but she can't seem to get the concept of speed limits. I'm sorry."
The officer handed the document back to Angelique, then said, "You have your passport on you?"
Angelique nodded, then produced her French passport. "Oui, passport. You forgive, please. Only a little English."
The policeman opened the passport, studied the picture, then glanced at her face. Satisfied that she was indeed an innocent visitor from France, he relented and handed it back to her. "We have speed limits, you know." He pointed to a nearby sign. "Seventy. No more. Understand?"
"Seventy. I think so."
The officer scratched his chin, then leaned down and looked at Laurie. "Look, maybe you'd better drive for a while." At least until you get the hell off my section of the interstate, he thought.
"Good idea." She opened her door, then motioned Angelique over to the passenger seat as she climbed out of the car. Angelique affected a hurt expression, then slid over and buckled her seat belt. As she sat, a slight pout on her face, Laurie came around to the driver's side and climbed in, chattering to the police officer and apologizing profusely for her errant cousin's inadvertent lawbreaking.
As the officer watched her close her door and buckle her seat belt, he shook his head. "Get outta here, you two, and keep it under seventy."
"Of course, sir. Thanks. I promise she won't drive anymore." With that, she put the car in gear and waved as the car moved forward, picking up speed and merging back into the right-hand lane. The officer watched them go, then shook his head and walked back toward his car.
From her place in the passenger's seat, Angelique grinned. "You did that well."
"If there's one thing that I can do well, it's act ditzy."
"You know. Dumb, silly, goofy."
Laurie smiled as she watched Angelique mentally chew on that word for the next two miles.
Senator Abrams was about to throw his cell phone through the wall. His face was turning a beet red. "So what the hell did you do? I thought you'd just make them disappear for a while. You put out a contract on them, for Christ's sake?"
Maurie's smooth, accented voice attempted to soothe the irate senator. "It's the decision of Jerusalem, not mine. They give the orders here."
"God damn it, they killed one of my aides. If they connect me to this in any way, I'm toast. I'm in enough hot water already." He paced, then exploded, "And where the hell is Laurie Caldwell? What do you mean, 'you don't know'? What kind of shit is this? A city cop just left my office. He said some guy was found in her apartment with a bullet in his head. Some other guy was in a car outside, same way. Now, you tell those turkeys in Jerusalem that this stops right here and now."
"I can't stop it. I will relay your concerns, though."
"Well, you just do that. You don't have any other people running loose out there, do you? What? Backup? What the hell does that mean?"
Maurie was doing his best to keep his voice smooth. "Jerusalem always sends a backup to make sure the job is done by the free-lancers. It's protocol."
"I don't give a rat's ass about their protocol. You get that guy recalled. No more killing, do you understand? This is America, not some damned West Bank shit."
Stephanie's voice sounded over his intercom. "Senator, there's an Agent Sanderson from the FBI here to see you. May I send him back?"
The senator breathed deeply, then leaned down to the intercom and pressed a button. "Ask him to wait just a minute, will you? I'll see him shortly."
The senator lifted the phone back to his ear. "I swear to God, Maurie, if I go down over this, you guys are going with me. This'll cause a diplomatic stink like you never smelled before. Now get it fixed." He clapped the cell phone closed, then took a deep breath. As he sat in his chair, he pressed the intercom button. "Send the agent in now, please."
Maurie closed his cell phone and leaned back in the chair. From the window of his office in the Israeli Embassy, he gazed out over the city, mentally chewing on what he had learned that morning. Mo, found in Laurie Caldwell's apartment with a single bullet in his forehead. Same with his lookout in the car outside. Single bullet in the forehead. Clean and neat. I think that we have a rogue element on the field. Let's see if Angel is in Paris. If she's not, then I'll bet she's here. He picked up the phone and began dialing a long-distance number to Paris.
Laurie guided her horse down the trail, feeling the warm summer sun soothe her and hearing the buzz of insects in the distance. The day was heavenly, the horse accommodating and the feel of riding brought back wonderful memories of her teen years in the mid-west.
What she seemed to enjoy most, however, was the company she kept. She looked back at Angelique, trailing her on another horse, and then smiled. Angelique, however, was not looking at her. She was scanning the distant hills, her head constantly moving, her attention everywhere but on Laurie. The redhead noted this, then sighed. Yeah. Of course she's not looking at me. What am I thinking? She's incredible. She wouldn't be interested in me. Me, who can't seem to keep a girlfriend for more than four months. Look at her. So worldly, so... confident. I'm really a rube next to her, I guess. Don't get the ol' hopes up, Laurie. It's probably not going to happen. She turned and directed her attention back down the trail in front of her, lost in morose thoughts until she heard a voice call her name.
She looked over to see Angelique next to her. The French woman pointed. "There. A beautiful spot. Shall we?" Without waiting for an answer, she guided her horse to the open field to her left. A large lake shimmered in the sun, water birds squawking in the distance. Laurie shrugged and followed, and soon, they had left their mounts to graze on the deep green grass by the lake and plopped themselves down on a wooden pier which jutted from the meadow out over the lake's glasslike water. It seemed inviting, refreshing in the warm sun.
Laurie sat on the edge of the pier, pulled off her shoes and socks, hiked up her jean legs and splashed her feet in the water. "It feels delicious. Try it."
Angelique raised an eyebrow, smiled slightly, then sat down next to her and began unlacing her soft boots. Soon, they were both sitting, their jeans rolled up to their knees, their feet immersed in the cool water. Laurie lay back on the pier, gazing up at the sky, and sighed. "This is like heaven."
Angelique pulled a canvas bag across the wood toward them. "Lunch. Are you hungry?"
Laurie brightened at the suggestion. "Starving. Where did you get lunch?"
"At the stables. They have a little store." She pulled out two sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper and handed Laurie one. "Um, tuna. You like that?"
Laurie noted the sincere expression on Angelique's face and nodded, then smiled. "I like that." As she unwrapped her sandwich, she added, "Man, a cold beer would go great with this."
A slender hand thrust a can of beer out to her. "Here. Not cold anymore, but it is still beer."
Laurie's jaw dropped as she stared at the beer, then gratefully accepted it. "Damn, you think of everything, don't you?" She cracked the top open, then looked up. "You got one?"
"For me, water." She watched as Angelique opened the top on a bottle of water and took a drink. Laurie felt herself mesmerized, transfixed as she watched Angelique tip up the bottle to her lips, drink, and then slowly rest the bottle on the wooden slats of the dock. The way she moved, the russet streaks in the shaggy hair, the way that she squinted over the sunglasses which constantly crept down her nose, the lithe manner in which she filled out the dark tank-top which she wore, the dragon tattoo, all conspired to make Laurie's mind whirl. She found herself lost in thought, her eyes gazing unfixed down at the water and their feet, her sandwich resting on the paper uneaten. She noted the scars on Angelique's foot and found herself intensely curious about it, about everything concerning her companion. As she sat, lost in thought , she became dimly aware that someone was speaking to her.
"Laurie? Laurie? Are you well?"
"What? Oh, yeah. I'm okay. Just thinking." She blushed, then looked up at Angelique, who was studying her with that quizzical little expression of hers again, the expression with which she had studied her the evening before in the hotel. I am so embarrassed. She probably sees right through me. I wish I could crawl into the ground.
Angelique spoke around a bite of tuna sandwich. "Sometimes, to think too much is a curse."
"Tell me about it," Laurie limply agreed, and then decided to be blunt. She had nothing to lose anymore, after all. She was trusting this woman, a woman whom she hardly knew, a woman who was obviously an experienced killer and who could destroy her in a moment, with her very life. What would be wrong asking her a few of the questions which burned in her mind? She started with an easy question.
"What happened to your foot?"
"Eh?" She glanced down at the scars running along the side of her foot and ankle, then shrugged and looked away. Her voice seemed distant. "Nothing. Accident."
Somehow, Laurie was not convinced. She swallowed a gulp of beer and decided to begin asking the hard questions.
"What's this all about, really?"
Angelique looked at her, her head tilted in question. "What do you mean?"
"Me. You. All of it. What's going on here, really?"
Angelique sighed, then replied with a question of her own. "What do you think, Laurie?"
Laurie answered slowly, "I think that the Israelis want to kill Sean and me because we can hurt Senator Abrams in the upcoming hearings. Am I right so far?"
Angelique smiled. "So far. You learn, you see things quickly."
"What I can't figure out is you."
"What are you doing here, Angelique? How are you involved in this?"
The woman pushed her sunglasses up on her nose and took another bite of her sandwich, then mumbled, "How do you think that I am involved?"
Laurie opened her mouth to speak, then hesitated, unsure if her words would be wise. After a moment, she took a sip of beer to fortify her courage and answered, "I think that maybe... maybe you're the backup that we're running from."
Angelique jerked her head toward Laurie and studied her intently. In the hazel eyes, peering at her over the tops of the sunglasses, Laurie could see deep emotion, and it scared her. What was it, though? It didn't seem that primal rage that she had seen in her assailant's eyes, nor the glint of feral violence which she had detected in those same hazel eyes moments after she had killed Mo. It seemed almost... hurt? Laurie felt a sorrow grip her at her decision to give voice to the words. It was too late now, though. They were spoken. Laurie looked at her companion, her voice involuntarily quivering slightly and asked, "Are you the backup? Are you here to kill me, Angelique?"
"Is that what you think? That I would kill you?"
Laurie shrugged, suddenly ashamed at her words. "I don't know. I don't know what to believe anymore. This all seems so unreal, so like a bad dream."
Angelique's voice seemed anguished. "And me? Am I so like a bad dream to you? Do I seem so evil to you, that I could befriend you and then kill you?"
"No, no." Laurie turned toward her. "You've been nothing but good to me. You saved my life, Angel. You've fed me, you've comforted me, you've given me shelter, you've been a friend to me such as I've never deserved." She saw the question in the pained hazel eyes and scooted closer to her on the dock where they sat together. "I owe you so much."
Angelique studied her face. "Then why do you fear me so?" The question was spoken softly, with a tinge of sadness about it. It almost broke Laurie's heart.
"Oh, Angel. I just don't understand you. Why are you doing this for me? What is your purpose in all this, really?" She took a breath, then asked, "Who sent you?"
"Sent me?" Angelique looked away. As she stared out over the water, she said, "No one. But I never will expect you to understand why I do this."
Laurie placed a hand on her arm and squeezed gently. "I want to understand. Try me." When her plea was met with silence, she urged, "Please, Angel. Talk to me."
Angelique finally relented. The shaggy brown head nodded, an almost resigned air about the nod. She sighed deeply, then looked at Laurie. "I came of my own choice. I felt a duty, an obligation to protect you."
Laurie listened, then scooted closer, intent on catching every whispered word. "Why?"
"Because you are an innocent. It is not right, what they do to you."
"Is it ever right to... kill someone?"
"Of course." Angelique looked at her sadly. "But not you. Never you."
"So, are you telling me that nobody sent you? That nobody's paying you to do this? That you came all the way here from... where do you live, Paris?" Angelique nodded. "You came here to save my life just because you felt that it was the right thing to do?"
"That's the most unbelievable thing that I've ever heard in my life." When Angelique regarded her with moist eyes, Laurie added sincerely, "But, from you, I almost believe it. I really want to, Angel. I so much want to believe you."
"Then what stops you?"
"I... I really don't know you at all, do I?"
Angelique smiled quite sadly. "No. You do not. Of course, you are right not to believe, I suppose. Perhaps I would not believe, either."
"Then convince me, Angel. Please. I really want to believe you."
Angelique gazed out over the lake as she spoke. "When I was eighteen, I visited my sister in Israel, to study at the music conservatory there. I loved her so, you know. We were close, growing up in France. One day, we were to meet at a café for lunch. I saw her bus coming. I ran to the corner to meet it. Then, before my eyes, the bus simply exploded."
"The shock of it knocked me to the street. When I stood, flames were coming from it. I was cut from glass. Bodies were scattered about the street. People were staggering around it, covered in blood. I heard them screaming, crying. I saw my sister fall from the door. When I reached her, I could tell that she was horribly hurt. She passed from this life in my arms." Angelique sniffed, then paused to wipe at her cheek with a hand. "I will relive that scene until my dying day. I vowed then that I would do anything I could to stop such things. I joined the Israeli Defense Force, became an Israeli citizen. I trained hard, fought well. In time, I showed particular promise. I was selected for certain missions, to track and kill those known to plot and execute such acts."
"You learned to assassinate people?"
"Yes, I became an assassin. Our enemies, you know, they do not suspect women capable of such things."
"I spoke several languages. I was sent out on international jobs. Always, it was to kill the evil ones, to protect the innocents in the world from the rabid dogs of humanity. I found purpose in this. I knew that what I was doing was right. It was right."
"But you don't work for the Israelis now, do you?"
"No. A couple of years ago, my obligation to them ended. I returned to France, but always I was available to them. They paid me well. I did business with them and others, but always before I took a job I would ask, 'Who is this person? What have they done to deserve to die?'"
"And you always got a satisfactory answer?"
Angelique nodded. "Always. That is, until you and your friend."
Laurie gasped. "They asked you to kill Sean and me?"
"Yes. They offered the job to me first. I turned it down, and they gave it to Mo."
Laurie was silent for several minutes, digesting the story. Angelique sat quietly, saying nothing, just awaiting her thoughts. Then, Laurie spoke. "What made you turn it down?"
"This." Angelique turned, pulled the canvas bag to her and opened the flap. From it, she extracted her jacket and fished in an inner pocket, producing a folded paper. She handed it to Laurie.
When Laurie opened it, an image of her own face peered back at her. "Why, it's me. When was this taken? I don't remember..."
"You would not. It was probably taken from some distance."
"My picture made you turn it down?"
"It was the innocence in your eyes, the goodness in your face. I knew your soul from your eyes, you see."
"And they gave you this?"
"They gave me all that was needed to find you and kill you."
"Everything but why?"
"That, they would not tell me. I knew then that the system had been twisted. Before, you see, the evil ones died to protect the innocents. Now, they wanted the innocents to die to protect the evil ones. That was not right. I refused the job."
"But that guy you killed in my apartment, he took it?"
"He took it. I knew then that there was only one thing to do: come here and protect the innocent from the rabid dogs of humanity." She looked at Laurie for the first time since speaking, smiling weakly. "Irony, no? You see, we had become the rabid dogs. I vowed to make it right." She sighed, a deep, ragged sigh, and finished, "But then, I do not expect you to believe this. Why should you?"
She fell silent again, considering their reflections in the water, as Laurie looked down on the picture in her hand. Then, she looked up at her companion. Her eyes trailed over to Angelique's foot, the fine scars dotting the skin. "How did you hurt your foot, Angel? It wasn't an accident, was it?"
"No. Land mine in the Golan. I was lucky. My companion lost his leg."
Laurie felt her eyes mist. She wiped at her face, then whispered, "You really have seen some shit in your life, haven't you?" In answer, Angelique shrugged silently. She kept her eyes focused on the distant water birds. Laurie persisted, "How you can remain so noble, so true to what is right is beyond me."
Angelique's voice was a whisper. "Then you believe me?"
In answer, Laurie squeezed the arm which she held tightly, then replied, "I believe you, and I believe in you. You came a third of the way around the world just to keep me safe. You are truly noble. There's not much of that around anymore." She snorted sarcastically, then added, "Certainly not in Washington, D.C. Trust me, I work there." Angelique smiled at the joke. Laurie saw the smile flash across the face, and she beamed. "Now, don't you feel better after telling me all this?"
Angelique considered the question, then nodded. "Yes. It is strange."
"Not so strange. You comforted me last night. Now, I comfort you. After all, aren't we friends?"
Laurie felt Angelique's hand take her own in its grasp. "I would like to believe that."
"Then believe it. Now, friend, eat your lunch, and let's go finish our ride."
The early evening found them leaving the stables. Instead of attempting a return to Washington, D.C., Angelique suggested that they stop for the night at a hotel in Front Royal, a suggestion to which Laurie willingly agreed. They entered the town, chose a large Holiday Inn at random, and pulled into the covered entranceway.
Inside, Laurie pointed and tugged on Angelique's arm. "I have to use the bathroom. Get us a room, and I'll be right out." As she darted into the ladies' room, Angelique moved to the check-in counter. A pleasant voice greeted her.
"Y'all need a room?"
"Gee, I'm afraid that we're about full. Convention in town, y'know. Hang on there. I'll check." The lady perused the computer screen, then nodded. "Got one left. Y'all are in luck." She looked up apologetically. "Room with a queen."
Angelique seemed surprised. "There is a queen in the room?"
"Yes, honey. Sorry, no doubles left."
Angelique shook her head. "Excuse me, I do not understand. There is a queen staying in this room with us?"
The lady puzzled over the question, then burst out into laughter. "Lord, no, honey. I mean that there's a queen-sized bed in the room." She raised an eyebrow, then explained, "You know, a queen? Bigger than a regular bed, but not as big as a king?"
Angelique clucked her tongue. "Oh, a queen bed." She scratched her head, then asked, "Only one bed?"
"Sorry. No other rooms left."
Angelique cast a glance toward the bathroom, then back at the lady, her eyes twinkling. "Ah, that's perfect. We take it, yes?"
As Angelique finished registering them, Laurie joined her at the desk. The lady behind the counter smiled at the red-haired woman and asked, "Your friend, she ain't from around here, is she?"
"No, ma'am. She's my, ah, cousin, from France."
"She's priceless. I declare, she said the funniest thing I've heard all day. Well, you two enjoy your stay."
Laurie looked at her friend, who just shrugged innocently, and then asked the lady, "You know a good restaurant close by?"
"There's a mess of 'em right up the road. Chinese, Eye-talian, and such. Take your pick, darlin'." The pleasant lady watched the two women walk out of the door toward their car, then shook her head and chuckled to herself. "I declare, there's a queen in the room. Now, that's just too funny. Wait 'till Harvey hears this one. I'll have to slap him up 'side his head to just get him to quit laughin'."
Laurie insisted on buying dinner and Angelique reluctantly agreed, then allowed herself to be dragged into an up-scale Italian restaurant. The food and the wine relaxed her, though, and by the time they returned to the hotel and found their room, they were both in quite good humor, laughing over some innocent joke which Laurie found silly but delightful.
As they entered, closed the door, and clicked on the light, Angelique peered out the window, studied the parking lot for several minutes, and then closed the curtains. Laurie had checked the bathroom for cleanliness and stepped out into the room, evidently satisfied. "You want the bathroom first?" she asked.
"What? No, no. You go first." The statement encouraged Laurie, who opened her suitcase, gathered her things, and then looked back at Angelique. Don't be such a prude, Laurie. You can undress in front of her. With a shrug, she untied her tennis shoes, kicked them aside and began to strip to her underwear. She kept her back to Angelique, however, only turning to face her when she collected her toilet things and pajamas in her arms and stood erect. "I'll be right out, okay? Promise."
Angelique was looking at her, but seemed not to hear at first. Then, she shook her head and replied, "Ah, yes. Of course. Take time."
As Laurie entered the bathroom, she began to shut the door, but then thought better of it and left it open. As she undressed and climbed into the shower, she allowed herself to wonder just exactly why she had done that, and then mused that Angelique probably wouldn't think anything of it. After all, it was the French woman's way, wasn't it? As the hot water soothed her, she admitted to herself that she was fooling no one. It's because you're attracted to her, isn't it? You're teasing her. Laurie, you're a minx. She grinned as she rinsed the shampoo out of her hair. Hey, a girl can hope, can't she?
Angelique watched Laurie's slender figure disappear into the bathroom, then sighed. It was going to be a long night. She found her cigarettes and stepped out onto the balcony to smoke, watching the parking lot out of long-ingrained habit, but saw nothing which raised alarms in her head. When she stepped back into the room, Laurie was out and dressed in her pajamas, brushing her hair in the mirror. It fell loosely about her shoulders, and Angelique found the sight extremely... pleasant. Allowing her face no betrayal of her inner thoughts, however, she teased, "Did you leave hot water?"
"There's plenty, you silly. It's a hotel. Go on, take a shower. You smell like a cigarette, anyway."
"Ah." Angelique peeled off her clothes, then gathered her toilet kit and stopped at the room's front door, locking it securely before she turned and headed toward the bathroom. Laurie watched her disappear, clothed only in her underwear, then pondered the lone bed in the room. Yep. She thought, This is gonna be a long night.
When Angelique emerged from the bathroom, she noted Laurie already in bed, absent-mindedly clicking the channels on the television with the remote control. The lights were off in the room, the only light coming from the half-open bathroom door and the flickering of the TV. Laurie looked up and asked, "Feel better?"
"Like a million bucks."
Laurie grinned. "I'll make an American out of you yet."
Angelique snickered, then placed her toilet kit in her bag and found her shoulder holster, removing the pistol and placing it on the bed-side table. Laurie watched her silently, then swallowed hard at the thought of the deadly weapon so close by. She looked up at her friend and said, "Come to bed."
Angelique threw her robe by her bag, then pulled back the covers on the side of the bed. Laurie swallowed again, not at the weapon this time, but at the sight of Angelique's figure clothed in a thin white tank top and a pair of boxer shorts. She pretended to concentrate on the TV, however, and was silently relieved when she felt Angelique scoot under the covers and snuggle down in the bed, fluffing up some pillows behind her. She looked over Laurie's shoulder at the television and asked, "What are we seeing?"
"Huh? Oh, I don't know. Leno, I think."
"Ah. He is funny?"
"I guess." She paused, then said, "Thanks for today."
"I beg your pardon?"
"The horseback riding, getting out of town, all of it. Thanks."
"Oh. Of course. Thank you for dinner."
"It was the least I could do, you know. After all, you got the room." Angelique nodded pleasantly, but said nothing. After a moment, Laurie decided to be more blunt. "Um, can I ask you a question?"
"I notice that you got a room with only one bed. Why is that?"
Angelique seemed surprised at the question. "Ah, this is the only room left."
"Oh." Laurie seemed disappointed at the answer.
"Why do you ask? Is this uncomfortable for you, us sleeping together?"
Laurie shrugged, suddenly shy. "Well, um..."
"But we are both girls, no?"
"Well, that's the problem." She muted the TV and looked toward Angelique shyly. "You see, I, ah, er..."
Angelique studied her with her intent hazel eyes, and then smiled softly. "You, also?"
Laurie swallowed hard. She saw in Angelique's face that she understood. "Yeah, me also."
"Then you would prefer that I sleep elsewhere?"
"Oh, no!" God, no. "Look, does this arrangement make you uncomfortable?"
Angelique answered immediately. "No, no. I am quite comfortable with this. Are you not?"
Laurie put down the remote control and turned to lie on her side facing her friend. "Since we're on this 'truth' kick, I have to admit that I like having you close by in the night. I feel safe, protected." She looked up, her voice suddenly a shy whisper. "Please stay close to me tonight?"
"I shall." With that, Laurie fumbled for the remote control and clicked off the TV. The room darkened, only the light coming from the bathroom dimly lighting their faces. Angelique snuggled down into the covers next to Laurie, then smiled. "I will not leave you."
Laurie closed her eyes. "I'm glad." She turned on her side facing away from Angelique, who sighed softly in disappointment. Laurie heard the sigh, then felt herself scooting back in the bed until her back touched a warm body. She snuggled against the form, and felt the form spoon itself against her, settling in to sleep. Laurie reached back and found a hand, then grasped it and pulled it around her side, pressing it against her neck. The arm draped over her, surrounding her, making her feel safe, secure. Then, she realized that it made her feel something more. It made her feel loved. She whispered, "Angel?"
She could feel the vibration of the voice close to her ear as well as hear it. "Yes?"
"Have you ever been in love?"
"Yes. Have you?"
"I guess so. Can't seem to keep 'em, though."
Laurie shrugged. "I don't know. I guess there's something wrong with me."
The voice so near her ear hummed thoughtfully, then whispered, "There is nothing wrong with you, Laurie."
"Do you have a girlfriend in Paris?"
Angelique thought of Paula. "No." It was not a lie. "Do you?"
Laurie chuckled. "Of course not, silly. I've never been to Paris."
Angelique laughed. "You are so funny. I love that about you." She paused, then asked, "Would you like to have one in Paris?"
Laurie's eyes widened at the question. She contemplated it for a moment, her heart suddenly pounding in her chest, then slowly turned and faced Angelique, their faces close. "Do you think that you can find me one?"
The hazel eyes twinkled at her in the dim light. "I have just the one for you."
"Really? What's her name?"
"Angelique, but her friends call her 'Angel'."
"Oh." Laurie found that her arms had somehow wound themselves around the lithe form pressed close to her. "And this Angel, what does she do when she's in Paris?"
"She owns a little bar, where she plays the piano and sings most nights."
Soft brown eyes widened in the dim light. "She sounds delightful, this Angel. Do you think that she'd like me?"
A hand brushed against Laurie's cheek. The voice which answered her was barely a whisper. "I am most assured of it."
"She seems so sophisticated, this Angel. Could she maybe even fall in love with me? After all, I'm just a ditsy..." A finger brushed across her lips, silencing her.
"Shh. You think too little of yourself. You are most magnificent. She will come to love you deeply, I think, if you give her the chance."
This time it was Laurie's voice which barely made a whisper. "You think?"
"I know her well. Trust me."
"She sounds like everything that I've ever longed for, this Angel."
"But do you think that you can love her?"
Laurie whispered, "I think that I already do love her." With that, she pulled Angelique closer to her and kissed her, first on the forehead, then on the cheek. On the third kiss, their lips met.
Soft kisses gave way to more impassioned ones; their breathing deepened. Hands caressed, then tore at clothing, pulling it from bodies. Soft words, fervent kisses and the exaltation of smooth, warm skin responding to their fingertips heated the night. They felt themselves drawn into each other, drawn up into a world where only the two of them existed. Time stopped, the motion of the universe ceased and it seemed to them as if the very essence of their souls touched, blended in the tapestry of an overwhelming sensual and emotional whirlwind. Higher, higher they soared, and from those heights they glimpsed a vision of all that was right and good. The universe exploded in a shower of starlight, and then they felt themselves buoyed up by unseen hands, slowly lowered, exhausted and clinging together, back to the spot from which they had begun their flight, gently lowered to lie, spent and clinging together, in a tangled embrace.
For a long time, no words were spoken, no language adequate to express the intensity of their communion. They dozed, molding themselves in their slumber to each other, seeming to fit so perfectly together that they comprised not two bodies, but the two halves of a single entity.
Laurie opened her eyes. She found herself peering into hazel ones, and she suddenly felt very shy. "Um, that was..."
"I've never felt anything like that before."
Angelique closed her eyes. "Nor have I."
"Really. Shh. Sleep now, Cherie." Angelique pulled Laurie closer to her and shifted her body underneath her, allowing Laurie's head to rest on her chest, an ear pressed to the warm skin. Laurie could hear the heartbeat, feel the gentle rising and falling of the chest beneath her. A hand played lazily through Laurie's tangled red hair, then stroked her head gently, rhythmically. She closed her eyes, and remembered nothing else for quite some time.
"Angel, what are you doing?"
Laurie looked down in horror as a red dot danced across her chest, then flipped up to burn her eyes. She squinted at the laser coming from the pistol in Angelique's hand.
"You were right, Cherie. I am the backup."
"Oh, my God. Angel, don't." The pistol's hammer clicked back. "But you... love me."
There seemed a sadness tinting the feral glint in the hazel eyes. "I know." The pistol's barrel flamed, and...
Laurie felt her entire body jerk spasmodically. She opened her eyes and found herself sitting up in bed. Her heart was pounding in her chest, her hair hung damply in her eyes and she was covered with a thin sheen of perspiration. She gasped, then muttered, "Damn. What the hell was that all about?"
She looked down at herself and noted that she was naked. As her eyes trailed across the bed, she saw Angelique sleeping next to her, the tangled covers only partially clothing her nude form. In spite of her pounding heart, Laurie felt herself smile. Well, she thought, at least that part wasn't a dream. God, it really happened. I still can't believe it.
She slipped from the covers and stood on slightly shaky legs, stepping over her cast-aside pajamas and padding into the bathroom. She washed her face and took a drink of the metallic tap water. After she groped for a towel and patted her face dry, she stood, looking at herself in the mirror. Her hair was disheveled. She weakly picked up a brush to deal with it, then shrugged and placed it back down on the counter. What was that on her neck? Was that...? Oh, my God. She found herself grinning like a teenager on prom night. Laurie Caldwell, little Miss Predictable. Just look at me now. Naked as a jaybird. I'm shacked up in a hotel room with a woman whom I've known for what? Two days? A woman who kills people for a living. My guardian Angel? And there's some "backup" out there hunting me down. It's all so surreal. I've never been so close to death in my life. Her eyes widened at the next thought. And I've never felt so alive as I do right now. How strange! She thought for a moment, then confessed, No. Perhaps it's not strange at all.
She returned to the bed, slipped under the covers, and looked over at Angelique. The shaggy brown hair was partially covering her face, a serene face. She watched as an eye opened, and the voice which came from the French woman seemed dreamy. "Where did you go?"
"To the bathroom."
"Are you well?"
"Yes," she lied, then confessed, "No. I had a bad dream."
"Oh." Angelique scooted closer to Laurie. "Tell me."
"Not now. In the morning. Okay?"
"Um. If you wish."
"I do. Now sleep, my Angel."
In answer, Angelique wrapped an arm around Laurie's waist and snuggled against her. The voice which dreamily whispered to Laurie seemed almost childlike in its plaintive quality. "Love me?"
Laurie placed her hand on the head of shaggy brown hair. "I do love you, Angel." She snuggled down in the bed, her nightmare still in her mind, and shivered slightly even as she softly stroked the brown head which nestled by her arm.
"Laurie? Wake, Cherie." A pair of soft lips placed a kiss on Laurie's forehead. She smiled, still half-asleep, and thought that she could smell the aroma of coffee. She willed herself to open an eye and saw Angelique kneeling, fully dressed, by the side of the bed. She placed a cup of coffee on the table near Laurie. "For you. Drink."
Laurie stirred, then sat up in bed. She reached for the coffee, and the first heavenly sips drew her mind into her present surroundings. Angelique watched her, a little smile on her face, and she laughed, a musical, tinkling laugh.
Laurie raised a sleepy eyebrow. "My 'puppy dog look' again?"
Angelique nodded, then asked, "You have your cell phone?"
"Um." Laurie swallowed a sip of coffee, then nodded and pointed toward her small purse. "What's up?"
"It is time to resolve this situation." The French woman opened Laurie's purse and dug into it, withdrawing the phone. She flipped it open, then sat on the side of the bed, studying it. "What is the code for Washington, D.C.?"
Laurie squinted, then replied, "Um, area code two-oh-two."
Angelique dialed a number from memory, then listened. After a moment, she spoke. "Maurie? Angelique."
The voice on the other end of the phone was bright, cheerful, and strangely accented. Laurie could hear him from where she sat near Angelique. "Angel! How delightful! Tell me, where are you?"
Angelique ignored the question. "I have Laurie Caldwell. Call off the backup, Maurie."
"Now, Angel. You know I can't do that."
"I will kill him."
"Perhaps. Perhaps not."
"You owe me, Maurie. We are friends, no? Do this for me."
There was a pause on the line, and then the voice answered, "Why don't you meet me, Angel, and we'll discuss it? You choose the place."
"Nothing to discuss. You call off the backup, or I will kill him."
"Angel, it doesn't have to be this way."
"Your choice, Maurie. Not mine."
A note of desperation sounded in Maurie's voice. "Look, Angel, there is one other way to resolve this."
"I am listening."
"Something could happen to the senator. No senator, no hearing. No hearing, no embarrassment for Jerusalem. Your Laurie is safe, and we can all go home."
Angelique squinted her eyes in thought, then asked, "Are you offering me a contract, Maurie?"
"That depends. Are you interested?"
"I am retired, Maurie."
The voice chuckled. "So you said, but here you are. Well, Angel, give my best to the backup when you find him."
"Wait, Maurie. Tell me about the backup."
"Come on, Maurie. You owe me."
There was a hesitation, then the voice replied, "All right. Just for old times, and because you saved my ass once. Now, I save yours. You will find the information packet in Laurie Caldwell's mailbox. Is that good enough?"
Angelique seemed relieved. "That is good enough. Thank you, old friend."
"Not at all, Angel. Good luck." The connection went dead. Angelique looked down at the phone, then folded it shut. She was shaken from her thoughts by Laurie's voice.
"Now, we return to your flat and resolve this thing." She looked over at Laurie, then smiled. "Come, dress. You are hungry? We have breakfast, then leave."
Senator Abrams huffed into the cell phone, "Maurie! It's about damned time. You find Laurie Caldwell?"
"Not to worry. She's been out of town somewhere, but she's returning to the city today. We'll have her for you by tonight."
"Your cowboys aren't going to do anything stupid, are they? Is that backup called off?"
"The backup will be taken care of." He chuckled, then added, "I have my best person on it."
"Look, I don't want to know. Just handle it, will you? And keep in touch, for Christ's sake."
"Don't worry, Senator. I think that you'll be hearing from us very soon now."
Maurie heard the line go dead, then folded his cell phone up. As he gazed out his office window, he stroked his chin with a hand, then thought, Angel, don't fail me.
As the dusk settled over Georgetown, a white Neon car pulled to the curb and parked about a block from Laurie's apartment. Angelique left the keys in the ignition, then turned to Laurie. "Where is your mailbox?"
"In the front door. There's a mail slot."
"Perfect. I will get in through the back door. You wait here. Keep down. I come back soon."
Laurie swallowed her fear and nodded her understanding. When Angelique opened the door, she placed her hand on the woman's arm. "Be careful, will you?"
Angelique smiled. "Always." With that, she leaned over and kissed Laurie quite tenderly, then stood and closed the car door. In a moment, she had disappeared. Laurie squinted into the deepening darkness to attempt to find her, but found that she was not to be seen. Then, remembering the instructions, she scooted down until her head was below the back of the seat and waited.
After what seemed endless minutes, Angelique returned, an envelope in her hand. She slid into the car, then tore the envelope open. When she clicked on the map light and perused the documents, she shook her head. "Something is wrong with this."
Laurie looked over Angelique's arm, then gasped. "That's Senator Abram's home address and picture."
Angelique shook her head in disgust. "Nice try, Maurie."
Laurie whispered, "What do we do now? We don't know who the backup is." She found her eyes creep up to study Angelique's face as she spoke the words, but the woman's only reaction was one of pragmatism.
"Then we wait for him."
"No. He is perhaps watching the front of your apartment. I draw him away. Then, I deal with him."
Laurie covered her face with her hands. "Oh, my God. I don't think that I can do this."
"I do it. Give me your car keys." Numbly, Laurie fished in her purse and withdrew her car keys, handing them to Angelique. "Now, you remember where our hotel room is? Drive this car there and wait for me in the lobby, where there are other people. I drive your car. With luck, the backup will think I am you and follow me. Remember, do not leave the lobby until you are with me again. He will not attempt to kill you until you are alone."
"Angel, for God's sake, be careful."
Angelique smiled. "I see you at the hotel very soon." She kissed Laurie, then added, "I love you, Cherie. Take care."
"I love you too, Angel."
Angelique slid from the car and began walking toward Laurie's apartment. Laurie started the Neon, turned it around, and headed toward the hotel.
Angelique walked to Laurie's car, opening the door as she kept her head and eyes constantly in motion, studying the street. When she backed it out into the street and began driving, she noted another set of headlights take their place behind her as a car pulled out from the curb to trail her. She nodded in satisfaction. Got you, she thought. This is almost too easy.
She drove leisurely toward the hotel, then parked in the outskirts of the parking lot. As she left the car, she noted a car pull up to the curb about twenty feet away. It sat there, the lone figure in the car not moving. She began walking toward the hotel, then ducked between two SUVs. She did not appear from the other side. The figure in the car rolled the window down, then slowly drove into the hotel's parking lot, heading toward the front of the lot. Angelique watched him until he passed her by, then slipped from behind a car and trotted alongside the slowly moving vehicle, pulling the back door open. She slipped into the back seat and pressed the muzzle of her silenced revolver against his neck. In Hebrew, she ordered, "Stop the car."
The car stopped. Angelique smiled grimly. He speaks Hebrew. I guessed right. Israeli intelligence. She noted the man's hand slowly reaching toward his shoulder, and she pressed the pistol against his neck a little harder. Again in Hebrew, she ordered, "Keep your hands on the wheel." His hand stopped, then returned to grip the steering wheel.
"Take out your pistol with your left hand and give it to me, over your left shoulder." The man did so, and as he held the pistol up, she pulled it from his hand and shoved it into her jacket pocket. "You have a wife and children?" The man nodded. "Then you will live to see them again. In return, I want you to do something for me."
"What do you want of me?"
"Tell Maurie that you failed. Tell him to leave Laurie Caldwell alone. Tell him that I kill the next one who comes for her."
"Who is the message from?"
She pressed the end of the silencer harder against his neck and replied, "Angel."
His eye widened. "Angel? I have heard of you." His head turned slightly, then stopped at the sound of the voice behind him.
"Don't turn around."
He felt the pistol leave his neck, and the door opened, then slammed. When he looked around, she was not to be seen. He breathed deeply, then noted that his hands were shaking. He wiped his forehead with the sleeve of his suit coat and then put the car into gear, heading back toward downtown Washington and the Israeli Embassy.
Laurie leapt to her feet and ran across the hotel's lobby when Angelique entered, throwing her arms around her neck and hugging her tightly. "Oh, God. I'm glad to see you."
As Angelique squeezed her, she whispered, "It is all right now. The backup is dealt with."
She could feel the arms about her freeze. Laurie whispered, "Is he...?"
"No. I sent him to Maurie with a message. Come, let's go to our room." They headed toward the elevator, and Laurie spoke.
"Will he be back?"
"I do not believe so."
"Then can I go to my place?"
"Not yet. I was inside your flat. The body is gone, but there is still blood on the walls. You want that?"
"Um, I'll stay here."
"Your door is locked. Everything looks all right inside."
They reached the door of their room and entered. When they clicked the light on, Angelique quickly searched the closet and the bathroom, then emerged and sat next to Laurie on the bed. "You stay here. I must go and do something. You lock the door. Open it only when you hear me knock twice, then once more. For no one else, you open it. Understand?" Laurie nodded. "You can shoot a gun?"
"I did some shooting in the country."
"Good." Angelique pulled the backup's pistol, an automatic pistol with a silencer, from her pocket and handed it to Laurie. "Look, here is the safety. It is loaded. Use it if someone forces the door open. Do you understand?" Again, Laurie nodded and accepted the gun from Angelique, regarding it with distaste. When Angelique stood, Laurie looked at her.
"Where are you going?"
"One more thing to do. Tonight, this will all be over for you."
"I still have to testify."
Angelique looked down at her. "If I guess right, you will not have to testify."
"I know Maurie, and I know Jerusalem." She bent down and kissed Laurie. "Now, remember. I come back soon. Two knocks, then one more."
"You will be all right here?"
Laurie's chin trembled slightly. "I'll be okay. You just come back to me, Angel."
"Always." With that, she turned and left, closing the door behind her. Laurie rose, placed the gun on the bed, and locked the bolt on the door. Then, she sat and clicked the television on, keeping the sound low and attempting to find something, anything to take her mind off the grinding fear in her gut.
In the Neon, Angelique studied the papers with the senator's home address and picture, and then memorized the numbers. She pulled out into the night's traffic, heading toward the Georgetown address. When she found it, she passed by the townhouse and parked about a block away, watching the senator's home with the night-vision monocular. It was not long before she spied motion near the building, then saw the heat-image of a figure disappear into the back of the townhouse. She smiled, then lowered the instrument and left her car, pacing silently up the street. She followed the path which she had seen the figure take, reaching a back door. She inspected the lock in the dim light of distant security lamps. It was unlocked, and the scratches on its exterior indicated that it had been expertly forced. She slipped her soft leather gloves on her hands, then pushed slightly. The door squeaked open. She entered, silent, walking on the balls of her feet, her hand under her jacket and resting on the handle of her pistol.
She passed through the darkened kitchen, then slipped into the living room. There was no sign of life. She halted, then listened carefully, and thought that she heard conversation beyond a distant closed door. When she reached the door, she stopped and listened. Light shone from beneath the door. A male voice could be heard inside, but the words were not clear. She lifted her pistol from her holster and then placed her hand on the doorknob, turning it slowly. When it had rotated to the right as far as it would go, she opened it and quickly stepped inside, her pistol leveled. She glanced about the room. It was a study.
Senator Abrams was sitting behind his desk, placing the telephone receiver back on the base, a startled expression on his face as he looked up at her. She kept her pistol leveled at him as she quickly looked about the room, then directed her attention back at him as he rose, sputtered, and roared, "What is this? Who the hell are you? How did you get in here?"
"Shut up and sit down, if you want to live." The senator's face reddened, and then he glanced at her pistol and sat back in his chair, his right hand reaching for a desk drawer. "Keep your hands on the desk." Slowly, the hand returned to the desktop.
The senator watched her, then his eyes narrowed. "Who are you?"
She shook her head. "Listen to me. Maurie will attempt to kill you. I think that he is here now, somewhere. You are in danger."
The senator regarded her distrustfully. "What kind of bullshit is that? He wouldn't dare make an attempt on my life. I don't believe you. Who the hell are you, anyway?"
Maurie's voice sounded, pleasant and distinct, from the door behind Angelique. "This, Senator, is what we call in my business a 'rogue element'." Angelique froze, then stepped sideways and turned. Before she got halfway around, Maurie's voice cautioned, "Don't, Angel. Don't turn around. I'll kill you where you stand. You know I will." Angelique froze. She could hear Maurie's footsteps approach her from behind, coming nearer to her. "Face the senator and hold your hands up in the air. Show me your pistol." Slowly, Angelique raised her hands. Maurie grasped the pistol in her right hand and relieved her of it, then said, "Keep your hands on your head, then sit down in that chair to your right." Angelique did as she was instructed, interlacing her fingers on top of her head and carefully pacing the distance to the chair facing the senator's desk. She turned and sat down.
Maurie stood before her, a silenced automatic pistol in one hand and her prized revolver in the other. He kept his pistol leveled at her chest as he examined the gun in his left hand. "A fine weapon, Angel." He slipped it into the pocket of his jacket as the senator's voice interrupted the reunion.
"Maurie, you'd better explain to me just what the hell is going on here and how you got into my house." The senator glowered at him and Maurie smiled in return, then gestured toward Angel with his pistol.
"She's right, Senator. I've come to assassinate you."
"What? If that's some kind of sick joke, I'm not laughing."
Maurie turned his pistol from its place pointing at Angelique's chest and aimed it toward the senator, his voice bright but his eyes cold, piercing. "I'm not joking, Senator."
When the senator studied Maurie's expression, his face went ashen. "You're not kidding, are you?"
"My orders are that you are to meet with an unfortunate death. No Senator Abrams, no hearing. No hearing, no embarrassment for Jerusalem."
"You don't dare do this. There'll be an investigation like nobody ever saw. I'm a United States senator, God damn it. You'll never get away with it. You'll swing by the balls for this."
"Diplomatic immunity is a wonderful thing, Senator." He turned slightly and looked at Angelique. "Isn't it, Angel?" Her hands still atop her head, she shrugged nonchalantly, then nodded. Maurie looked back at the senator. "That's Angel. Few words. Keep your hands where I can see them, Senator."
Senator Abrams huffed, then placed his hands on his desk. "We can make a deal, Maurie. How much do you want to be paid to just go away?"
Maurie brightened. "Ah, a bribe? Nice try, but no. Jerusalem can reach into almost any home in the world. It's reaching into yours tonight, is it not?"
Senator Abrams exploded. "You don't dare do this, you freak. It'll cause a diplomatic uproar like you've never heard. Do you know how much money Congress gives Israel every year?"
Maurie chuckled at that. "Money, money. For you, it all comes down to money, doesn't it?"
"I'm a staunch supporter of Israel. You kill me, you lose a big friend in this town. That won't make your superiors in Jerusalem happy."
Maurie was not impressed with the argument. "My superiors, as you term them, have deemed that you are now more of an embarrassment to them than a friend. They wanted everyone connected with this affair to die. Your staffer, ah, Mister Burrows, he was first. We've been chasing Miss Caldwell, but it would seem that she has a guardian Angel." Maurie indicated Angelique with a gesture. "Don't worry, Angel. We'll find her. It's just a matter of time."
A thrill of fear shot through Angelique. She spoke now, quickly, fervently. "Listen, Maurie. Enough of this. Enough killing. Laurie is an innocent in this. She does not have to die."
"Of course she does, Angel. Everybody does." He studied her for a moment, then his face brightened in understanding. "Ah, of course. You broke your own cardinal rule. What was it? 'No female targets?' Now, it becomes clear to me. Where is she, Angel?"
"You will never find her."
Maurie's pistol slowly swung around to point at Angelique's head. "If you are not around to protect her, it is only a short time until we do."
Angelique stared into the dark hole in the center of the silencer on Maurie's pistol. Desperately, she attempted one last gambit. "Look, Maurie. We both know how this works. If there is no hearing, then she becomes of no importance to Jerusalem. True?"
Maurie looked at Angelique, then over at the senator. "Quite true. I understand you perfectly. What was it that you told me once? 'The guilty die to protect the innocent?'" Maurie studied Angelique intently for a moment, then nodded pleasantly. "I think that Jerusalem would agree with you, Angel." He looked over at the senator, swung his pistol back to point at the politician, then asked, "You must have a gun here somewhere, Senator. Where is it, I wonder?"
Angelique replied for him. "Top drawer, right side."
"Thank you, Angel." He looked at the senator as he gestured toward Angelique. "She always was the best, you know. I taught her. The avenging Angel, now become the guardian Angel." He approached the senator's desk, motioning him away with his pistol, then opened the drawer and extracted a revolver with his left hand. He flipped the cylinder open, saw that it was loaded, and then clicked it shut with a flick of his wrist. As he stood next to the desk, a gun in each hand, he looked down at the senator and then motioned toward Angelique. "Take a good look at her, Senator. She was the best Jerusalem had." When he turned his head, Maurie pressed the revolver against the senator's head and pulled the trigger. A resounding bang sounded and the senator slumped over in his chair, his eyes still fixed on Angelique, his mouth lolling open. Maurie pocketed his automatic pistol and placed the still-smoking revolver in the senator's hand, then pressed the dying man's fingers around the handle and the trigger.
Angelique watched him from her chair. "That was smooth, Maurie."
He shrugged at the compliment. "I've committed a few successful suicides, you know." He looked at the senator's limp body, then added, "I always thought he was an ass-hole, anyway." When he finished arranging the scene, he looked at Angelique. "We'd better leave, Angel. I'm quite sure that the neighbors heard that."
Slowly, she stood and followed Maurie out of the room. They found their way through the house and exited the back door, quickly walking out into the night air. They paced the distance to the corner together at a brisk walk, both remaining silent, and when they reached the corner, Maurie stopped. He studied the ground thoughtfully for a moment, then softly confessed, "You know, Angel, I don't think that I could have killed you."
"I know." She held out a hand. "My pistol?"
"Ah, yes. Excuse me, I forgot." He pulled the weapon from his pocket and handed it back to Angelique. "I have diplomatic immunity, but you do not. I would suggest that you get out of the country as soon as you can. Good-bye, Angel." He turned to leave, but Angelique's voice stopped him.
"Is Laurie Caldwell safe now? Do I have your word?"
He smiled. "I will not pursue her. There is no further need. She is safe."
"Your word, Maurie?"
He looked at her for a long moment, then extended his gloved hand. "Only for you, Angel. I give you my sacred word. She is safe."
Angelique grasped the hand. "Thank you, Maurie."
"Of course. Now, you'd better get out of here. Perhaps I'll see you in Paris sometime, eh?"
"I will buy you a drink."
"God go with you, Angel."
With that, he turned and walked quickly away, heading for his car. Angelique watched him go, then smiled and spoke softly. "And with you, old friend." Then, she turned and walked down the street to the white Neon car which silently waited for her.
Laurie wound her way through the gravestones as she headed for her car, surprised that she had shed no tears. She looked down at her dark suit and thought bitterly, Getting a lot of wear lately. The senator's was the second funeral she had attended in a week; the first was Sean's. There, she had wept.
She had also wept when Angelique suddenly took her leave the same morning that the senator's suicide hit the news. The French woman had been rather tight-lipped about what had happened the evening before, but had insisted that she was not responsible for what would be on the news, even to the point of kneeling before Laurie as she sat on the bed and tearfully asking her over and over to believe in the truth of her words.
Laurie smiled painfully as she recalled their last night together. They had clung desperately to each other in the darkness, their lovemaking frenzied and passionate, the aftermath tearful and punctuated with questions of the future and vows of love. Then, Angelique disappeared from her life as quickly as she had appeared, and in her absence, the heaviness settled on Laurie's soul, a heaviness like she had never known before.
With the senator dead, her job was gone. She did not know what the future held for her now, but, as she drove to her apartment, she prayed that she would be shown a direction. She knew only one thing; that somehow, somewhere, she would see Angelique again. But then, she had not heard from the illusive French woman. Perhaps she never would. As the days went on, it seemed more so that way to her.
She pulled up to her apartment and unlocked the door. She entered, stumbling slightly at the door, and closed it behind her. As she did, she glanced down at her mailbox. Inside, a single letter awaited her. She lifted it and perused its face. The postmark was from Paris. Her breath caught; with shaking hands, she tore the letter open. In it was a single sheet of stationery and a paper match-book cover. She scanned the neat, tight handwriting once, then again, then yet again. As she did, her heart thrilled and tears filled her eyes, making it difficult to read.
I write this to you from my flat in Paris. How I miss you! You have not left my mind for one moment since we parted. I long to see you again, to feel your touch, your kiss. In my dreams, I see your red hair, I look into your wonderful brown eyes. I ache to see you again. Will I?
I hope that you understand that what you probably saw on the news was not my doing. Please believe me when I tell you that. Even so, it is not safe for me just now in America, you understand. I cannot come to you; therefore, I implore you to come to me.
If you find it in your heart to come to Paris, just show this match-book cover to the cab driver. He will take you to my place. I pray that I will hear from you soon.
With all love,
Laurie wiped at her eyes. She looked down at the match-book cover. Café Angel. She smiled at the name. Angelique. Angel. Her guardian Angel? So it would seem.
Laurie looked around the apartment. Her meager possessions were all boxed for moving. The van would arrive tomorrow and cart her things back to the mid-west. She would follow.
Her parents eagerly anticipated her return. Her father had even wangled a job interview for her with a local politician's office. She thought of these things, and then looked down again at the letter in her hand. It would seem that she had some thinking to do. It was early; the shore was the place to go. With that decided, she entered her bedroom and rummaged in a suitcase, digging out a pair of shorts and some sandals. Today, it was the shore for her. Tomorrow, what?
The café was alive with the evening's regulars, seeking escape from the day's cares and the pleasure of good company. Above it, in her flat, Angelique washed her face in the bathroom sink. She stared up into the mirror, fixing her sight on the hazel eyes which reflected back at her. They were deep, sad. She felt hollow.
She had not heard from Laurie since a letter announcing that she was leaving Washington, D.C. to visit her mid-west home. To her, it sounded much like a farewell. Angelique pressed the towel onto her face, then brushed her shaggy brown hair into some semblance of order. Why should Laurie be any different from the hundred and one Paulas who had come and gone through her life? She reflected that perhaps it was for the best. After all, what did they really have in common? She was foolish to believe that an American girl from the mid-west could really find a home in Paris. They were two different universes. She remembered her grandfather once telling her that a fish and a bird may love each other, but where would they make a home together?
She slipped her feet into clogs, then pulled her gray beret onto her head, tugging on the edges until she was content with its place. Then, she brushed the errant hair back behind her exposed ear with her fingers and descended the back staircase to the café.
As she headed toward the bar, she heard the voices of many of the regulars greet her. To them, she forced a smile and nodded pleasantly, but her show of cordial familiarity was false.
She smiled at Maurice, who nodded pleasantly and motioned to the piano with a question in his eyes. She nodded. Her music kept her alive now; it gave her a purpose, a soul, and she was aware that lately, her playing had been deep and melancholy, reflecting her spirit.
When she took her place at the keyboard and pulled the microphone close to her mouth, an expectant applause sounded raggedly through the café. She looked to her left, on the lid, and saw two glasses await her there. The dark liquid was first. She tilted the glass back, drank, and felt the familiar burn of the whiskey. The second glass, the water, cooled her throat. She hummed a few bars of a tune, and then, satisfied that her throat was cleansed, began playing a simple tune. After the introductory bars, she lifted her head and sang. The clear, pleasant voice, occasionally betraying a raspy, throaty quality around its edges, filled the bar.
As she played and sang, she felt the song encompass her. Her hands caressed the keys with gentle authority; her voice betrayed a touch of resignation, of the surrender to life's pain which Parisians were known to love. After all, weren't they used to pain? Didn't they bounce back from the blows, to live and laugh and love again? That was why she loved that city. Perhaps, she thought, it would take her in its arms now, comfort her, soothe her loneliness, fill the gaping void which she felt in her soul. She had loved and, it seemed, lost again. So it goes, as the song says. So it goes.
She finished the song, nodded to the scattered applause, and then began another. Lili Marlene, Maurice's favorite. It was an old song, sung by soldiers during the last great war, about a girl who professed to love, then, while they were dying at the front, would seek romance from another. She played it slowly, sang it with a tint of the song's irony in her voice.
Laurie stepped out of the cab and stood on the lamplit, wet street in front of the café. She looked up, the rain gently spotting her face and hair. The sign read, Café Angel. She took a deep breath to still the pounding of her heart, then summoned her courage and opened the door to enter.
Inside, it was about half full. She blinked at the scattering of people, most of whom ignored her or cast only a cursory glance her way as she stepped inside and wandered slowly toward an empty stool at the bar. She chose one away from the others, then sat up in it, leaning on the worn wood. As a piano began its melody, she sat bolt upright, then strained to see over the heads of the others at the bar. She finally caught sight of the piano player, and her heart nearly stopped. The shaggy brown hair, the gray beret. It was Angelique. She felt a sob rise in her throat, then placed a hand over her mouth to stifle it. She sat, transfixed, watching her work her melancholy magic from behind the baby grand piano tucked into a corner of the café. When the voice rang out above the tinkle of the piano, she gasped. It was husky, clear, beautiful, but it was more than that. It was full of... what's the word? Soul. The reflection of a beautiful, aching soul.
The song was in French, as was the subdued babble of voices about her, but Laurie didn't care. The quality of the music touched her deeply. It seemed to have an emotional life of its own, stab her with a haunting quality. Dimly, she became aware of a voice speaking to her in French. She tore her eyes away from Angelique and looked up. A large man was leaning over the bar toward her, an inquisitive expression on his face. She leaned toward him, then said, "Um, cognac?" He nodded, left, and returned in a moment with a glass and a cardboard coaster, not waiting for payment. She sipped the liquor and watched Angelique play, song after song, applauded by her patrons, cheered on by the others in the bar. Through it all, stalwart and with an aura of smiling melancholy about her, Angelique delivered.
Laurie opened her small purse and withdrew a note pad and a pen. She scribbled a message on it, then gazed down at her round, neat writing. It read simply:
Can you play "Angel" for me?
With a deep breath, she tore the paper from the pad and folded it in half. She waved at the bartender; he came over and leaned toward her. Laurie smiled, then asked, "Excuse me. Do you speak English?"
The large man regarded her pleasantly, then nodded. "A little," he replied.
She handed him the note. "Will you give this to Angelique?" Again, he nodded and took the note from her. "Oh, and give her a glass of whatever she drinks." He paused, then nodded again. She watched him pour another glass of cognac, leave the bar, paper and drink in hand, and place them both on top of the piano near Angelique as she played a slow melody. He leaned over and whispered something in her ear, pointing to the paper and the drink, then back toward the door near where Laurie sat. Angelique looked up, but from her position behind the piano and in the dim light of the bar, Laurie knew that she couldn't see her.
Angelique continued the tune, but kept her eyes fastened upon the note and the glass of cognac. When she finished, she lifted the glass and sipped at it, then placed her hand on the paper. From her place at the back of the bar, Laurie could see her hesitate, then lift the paper and flip it open, holding it at an angle to better reflect the dim lighting. Laurie scarcely breathed as she watched the scene unfold.
Angelique studied the paper briefly, then froze. Slowly, she folded it and lay it back on the piano's lid. She said nothing, did nothing for several long seconds, then bowed her head and placed a hand over her eyes. When she raised her head again, Laurie could see that the face shone. The lost, mournful aura had dissipated. In its place, a smile formed. Angelique wiped at her cheeks with a hand, then pulled the microphone close to her and struck some slow chords. After a moment, her voice traveled through the dimly-lit, slightly smoky café, in lilting English.
You spend all your time waiting
For that second chance,
For the break that will make it okay...
Laurie watched as Angelique closed her eyes, leaning into the piano, and played from the depths of her soul. The clear, plaintive voice, the striking chords, all seemed to quiet the occupants of the bar to a person. Not a whisper sounded. She noted the silence as all eyes became fixed on Angelique, the lost, shining center of the little universe unfolding in a corner of this quaint Parisian neighborhood. As Laurie watched, she felt her breath catch and tears spill down her cheeks. It was magic unfolding in front of her that night, the magic of a deep soul revealed through voice and piano. And it was all for her.
In the arms of your Angel
Fly away from here,
From this dark, cold hotel room
And the endlessness that you fear....
At that moment, Laurie knew that she was home. Here she sat, a mid-west girl in a strange city on another continent, not understanding the language spoken about her, and yet... she was home. She could feel it in her soul, as the voice and the piano wrapped around her and touched her.
...you're in the arms of your Angel
May you find some comfort there.
The closing piano chords echoed through the café. When the last one bled away, a total silence reigned in the café for a moment. Then, a thunderous applause sounded, shouts and cheers in French arose from the assembled patrons. Angelique opened her eyes, looked around as if only then realizing where she was, and sat, blinking in disbelief at the response to her song. She muttered a simple "Merci," stood from behind the piano, and made her way through the café toward the back of the bar. Several patrons spoke to her on the way, and she nodded grateful thanks in reply to their comments, leaning toward their tables as she slowly paced the gauntlet of kind words.
Then, as she looked up from a table, she met soft brown eyes. Laurie stood near, quite shyly, and then held her arms out toward Angelique. They found themselves embracing in the aisle, a desperate embrace, unmindful of the watching faces, and their lips met. In that second, the universe again stopped; there existed no one, no one at all but the two lost souls who again bled together as one, as they had half a world away on a night a month before.
When they parted, Angelique ran her fingers through the thick red hair which she had seen time and again in her dreams. Laughing, she noted, "You are wet."
"It's raining outside." Laurie reached up and wiped at a tear on Angelique's cheek with a finger. "So are you." She tapped Angelique's chest with a finger and asked, "Is it raining in there, too?"
"No more." She took Laurie by the hand and led her to the bar, where they sat together. The bartender appeared, smiling, and two glasses of cognac appeared by their elbows. Near hands never let go of each other; the conversation flowed in English, and often, patrons noted, one or the other of the two women would wipe at their cheeks as they spoke. Finally, the bar began to empty.
Angelique looked at the time and asked, "Where do you stay? You have a hotel?"
Laurie nodded. "Yes, near the airport."
Angelique grimaced. "Expensive. You can stay here. We get your things in the morning?"
"I have a better idea. Why don't we both go there tonight, and you can bring me and my things here in the morning?"
Angelique beamed agreement to that idea, then turned suddenly pensive. "Ah, how long will you be staying in Paris?"
Laurie shrugged. "That depends."
"Me? Do you not have a job to go to? Your letter..."
"I didn't take it." Laurie hesitated, then explained, "I thought that maybe I'd like to live in Paris for a while." She added shyly, "That is, for as long as you'd want me to." She held her breath, watching, waiting for Angelique's reply. For a second, the woman sat, wide-eyed. Then, Laurie found herself crushed in a tight embrace and heard Angelique's tinkling laugh.
"Cherie, you stay forever."
Laurie heard herself rambling, babbling like a fool. "Of course, I'll have to learn French, and then find work, and get a residence visa and..."
She felt herself lifted, and a slender finger placed itself across her lips, silencing her. "Tomorrow, I will make a French woman out of you. Tonight, we are just together."
Laurie looked into the twinkling hazel eyes. "So, um...have we decided? Your place, or mine?"
Angelique laughed. "Tonight, your place."
"And tomorrow? Yours?"
Angelique shook her head. "No. Tomorrow, ours. You would like to live with me above a café, yes?"
Laurie nodded enthusiastically. "Yes, I would like that very much." She looped an arm around Angelique's and pulled her from the stool. "Now, take me to the hotel and put me to bed?"
"But of course." They headed toward the back of the café, arm in arm, and as they passed the bartender, Angelique waved a hand and called out in French, "Good-night, Maurice."
"Good-night, Boss." Maurice watched them go, then paused in his work and smiled. This one would work out for Angel. He could feel it. This one would last. Angelique would finally have a home.
Author's notes on the music: The rendition of the song Lili Marlene which inspired the story can be found on Carly Simon's wonderful CD entitled Film Noir. Angel is found on Sarah McLachlan's CD Mirrorball, and as for Beethoven's timeless piano pieces Fur Elise and Moonlight Sonata, well, they can be found just about anywhere. -djb
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