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Clandestine Affairs, Part Seven
Ani runs into an old "friend."
The best part of my job is waking up in a new city. A new country. A new place, with a new job to do. But this time, when the plane touches down in Italy, I’m full of dread.
Noelle gives me a lot more information than I’m used to receiving for an assignment. Usually, it’s the same — I’m giving basic details, an outline of how my handlers would like the assignment to go, and I get some grace to fill in the blanks. This time though… the assignment is delicate, Noelle tells me on the flight. I scoff when she says it — as if I don’t know it’s delicate. With an icy tone, I remind her we are after my father, my flesh and blood. She gives me a pass when others probably wouldn’t, thankfully. I immediately regret being cold toward her. When I try to apologize, she has none of it.
“Ani, you don’t have to justify this one, babe. I understand,” she says, popping a sleeping pill and reclining her seat. She extends the bottle to me. “Here. Get some sleep, we need to be ready to rock when we land.”
The attendant wakes me up with a cold towel as the landing gear drops and I pat my face, attempting to wipe the sleepiness away. Noelle sips coffee across the aisle and offers me a cup of black coffee without saying a word. I drink it, quickly, wishing it was intravenous. I sit up straight and roll my shoulders back, gently rocking my head from side to side. It’s 8:13 a.m., local time. I yawn.
“How did you sleep?” she asks gently. I think she’s treading lightly, given my attitude the night before.
“Eh, okay enough. I need more of this,” I say, motioning to the coffee cup. “Then, I’ll be golden. Thanks for the sleeping remedy, by the way. I think it knocked me out.”
“Same — you needed good sleep. I know the last few days have been rough. I wish I could say it’s going to be breezy from here, but…” she shrugs slightly. “You know what we’re up against. What you’re up against.” She reaches across the aisle and rests her hand on my forearm. “I’m here for you, Ani, and I’ll be right here the entire time.” She gives my arm a quick squeeze and pours me another cup of coffee.
“Thanks, Noelle. I appreciate it.” I sigh heavily and take another drink, letting the hot liquid coat my throat and continue to wake me up. “What’s our first move when we land in Naples?”
“Oh, slight change of plans — we’re going to land a bit to the south, near Salerno, and we’ll lay low for a day or two. Chuck and Simon are still setting things up before we venture to Sorrento. I booked us a suite at this gorgeous place, Hotel Raito — the spa is just ahh-mazing,” she says with a grin. “We’ll hit that today to decompress from the flight. After breakfast, of course. Then, if you’re up to it, we can wander around Salerno and establish ourselves as chic tourists on an Eat Pray Love journey,” she says with a wink.
I smile. “That sounds nice.”
“In all seriousness, my goal today is to get us refreshed. We might start our work as early as tomorrow and I want us to be ready, Ani.”
I nod, knowing I might never be ready for this.
Noelle was right. The hotel and the spa are incredible. I have been in some really nice places since taking this job, but this? This takes the cake. The view of the Gulf of Salerno, right on the Amalfi Coast! The food, the spa, the terrace in our suite… this is living. And softening the blow of what’s to come.
After the spa (and a nice nap), we book a ride into the city ahead of our dinner reservation at the highly recommended Ristorante Cicirinella. Since this is my first time in Salerno, Noelle takes me to Minerva’s Garden, which she says is a “must-see” piece of history. The history is rich, the architecture grandiose. An old-world feel. It’s breathtaking. We walk in silence through the gardens for a good ten minutes, taking it all in. Noelle checks her phone and I continue ahead. “I’ll catch up,” she says.
Standing under a pergola covered in trees bursting with ripe citrus, I take advantage of the quiet, private moment to reflect and give myself a pep talk. I’m drained and I really can’t afford to be, not now. I think Noelle knows I don’t want to talk, so she gives me a little space. I have a feeling she’s going to try to give me advice at dinner or try to open me up about Carmine and I’m really not looking forward to it.
Once we finish touring the gardens, we take the fifteen minute walk to the restaurant. Thank goodness the sun hasn’t completely gone to bed, because the path our map has us on is basically an alleyway between tall buildings in heart of the city. The twilight descending makes it more romantic, though. In another life, I could live here, I think to myself as we walk along the cobblestones. Isn’t that what normal tourists do when they’re on vacation? Dream about moving to the place they are visiting? I haven’t done that in a while — acted like a “normal” tourist, that is.
We nearly pass the restaurant with its unassuming entrance in the alley and are taken to a table outside… with Chuck and who I think is Simon. “Surprise, ladies!” Chuck stands to greet Noelle with a kiss before giving me a hug and affirms my suspicion. “Ani, you remember Simon, right?”
Simon shakes my hand. “Ani, good to see you again, I’ve heard great things.”
“Nice to see you too, Simon, although the first time was brief,” I say, taking a seat next to Noelle. “I didn’t think we’d be seeing you for a few days.”
“You know as well as I do plans can change like,” he snaps with a grin, “that.”
“That, I do.”
Chuck orders two bottles of wine and a sampling of the menu, telling us to trust him. We do, and as the night gets underway, we let the wine lubricate the conversation, which steers toward our Italian objective.
“Elephant in the room…” Simon asks after clearing his throat, two glasses of wine deep. His gaze meets mine. “Ani, first, I want to apologize that you’re in this position — I wouldn’t have asked Chuck to include you if I thought we could be successful without your assistance.”
He gives me a small, sad smile and I wonder what all he knows about my relationship with Carmine. With that expression, I gather he is aware Carmine is my father and of the whole mess he created by leaving my mom and me. Simon’s objective is different than mine. Granted, I don’t exactly know what my objective is yet outside of assisting them with this mission, but I can tell Simon is out for blood. There’s something in his eyes, his attitude. He is trying to hide his anger about the situation, but I sense it in every word that escapes his lips. Noelle told me it was more than ripping off his wife, but all she would say is that there was an assault attempt. When Noelle told me this, I couldn’t believe it, but remembered quickly that I don’t know Carmine anymore. I haven’t known him for more than twenty years.
“It’s fine, Simon, I’m here to do a job and that’s what I’d like to focus on, if that’s okay,” I say, swallowing the last of my wine and directing the sentiment to the table, not just Simon. Noelle places her hand on my thigh, to keep me level. It helps, albeit only a little.
“Absolutely. I understand. Now, tell me, did you ladies see anything lovely today? Pity we won’t be able to stay here longer.”
“We did,” Noelle begins. She tells him about Minerva’s Garden as I swirl my fresh refill of pinot. It takes everything in me to not swallow it whole. I notice Chuck looking at Noelle with such fondness. She lights him up, that’s for sure. Seeing what they have gives me hope.
The next morning, I happily wake up alone. Noelle stayed with Chuck last night — they offered me a room but I declined, saying I would be more comfortable in the suite at the hotel. They said they would call me sometime today, so I’m on my own until then. The pool, room service, and a massage sound nice, so I make a reservation at the spa for early afternoon and send Noelle a quick text letting her know my plans. She responds, asking me to be ready for dinner by six.
As I’m walking into the spa, someone calls my name and I freeze.
I hold my breath. The way she calls my name… I recognize the voice anywhere.
“Ahhh-ni, is that you, darling?”
“Lisette! How… what are you doing here?” I approach her and she pulls me in for a tight, long hug.
“You know, you know,” she shrugs, grinning. “I have work in Sorrento in a few days and I figured I’d treat myself. What are you doing here? How have you been, it’s been what, a couple of years!”
“It has. Wow. I can’t believe it’s really you, Lisette.” I avoid telling her why I’m here until I know what she’s up to. It can’t be a pure coincidence she just happens to be in the vicinity of this assignment.
“Believe it, honey, it was bound to happen, us running into each other! Are you going in for a massage right now? I’d love to catch up if you have time,” she says.
“That would be lovely. I can cancel the massage, we can grab a quick coffee or something?”
“Perfect, I’ll go grab us a table!”
She’s been here before. I apologize to the lady behind the counter for the last minute cancelation and thankfully, she is kind about it. I thank her again and head outside to find Lisette sitting at a table overlooking the coastline. We engage in small talk until the server returns with our espresso. While we talk about the gorgeous weather, Lisette pulls her phone out of her bag and sets it on the table, face up.
She’s awaiting instructions.
“So, tell me, Ahhh-ni,” she pats my hand. “What’s new with you?”
“Oh, you know, a little of this, a little of that,” I say before taking a long, slow sip of my espresso through a thin smile. I try to pretend I’m happier than I am to see Lisette. Not only am I weary of her presence… it’s complicated, how I feel about her. On one hand, she’s the reason I got a foot into the door for the life I live now. On the other… she wrecked the life I had before and knows about my past. The pros outweigh the cons, sure, but seeing her makes me think about what could have been if I would have never let her into my life a few years ago.
“I know all too well,” she winks. “What brings you to Italy? Are you working?”
“Lisette, you know I can’t share details, just like you can’t share your reason with me, right?”
She looks down at the small white demitasse that sits next to her phone. The crema has nearly disappeared and I find myself weirdly worrying she will miss the best moments of this magnificent espresso. She gently taps her bright teal nails on the table. I can’t tell if my question annoys her or if she understands. She takes a sip and locks eyes with me. “Ani, are you okay? You seem tense.”
I nearly laugh. I am tense. I’m not doing a great job of hiding it, but I don’t really care. So I make up an excuse to explain it away. “Yeah, I’m okay, Lisette. I’m just tired — jet lagged. I got in yesterday and I’m still adjusting, that’s all. I haven’t taken a vacation in a long time, it’s hard to get out of the usual routine, you know?” I glance at my watch, trying to come up with an excuse to leave.
Her phone dings and the name on the screen is VR. I can only make out the first few words: Have you found
VR. Seems like a stretch to be Vanessa Rossi, but that’s where my mind goes. I have to be more careful. I avert my gaze to the sea and smile. “At least the weather is gorgeous, am I right? I was planning to make my way up to Rome, but I don’t know, this coast is begging me to stay” I say, stretching my arms toward the sun.
Lisette quickly taps the side button on her phone to darken the screen and she finishes the rest of her espresso in a gulp. “I know what you mean. Sorry to switch gears so quickly but do you have plans for dinner, Ani?”
I have to keep her at arm’s length until I can talk to Chuck and think of an excuse. “I do. I have… I have a little… date.” Her eyes light up and I quickly continue before she can ask any questions. “But hey, maybe tomorrow we can get lunch? I’m flexible, where are you staying?”
“Oooh, that would be great. Then you can tell me about this little date of yours,” she says, grinning. “I’m staying at this adorable little villa, just up the road. The host told me about this spa, and I was dying for a massage.”
“No way, same here — which villa?” I say in an excited tone to distract her from her phone.
“Giordano, it’s like, a five minute walk. Wait, are you staying there too?”
“No, mine is the other way, it’s like, a ten minute walk. The winding roads, you know, it feels more like a hike. I wish I would have booked here instead!”
“Yeah, this place is great!” She smiles and her phone dings again. “ Sorry Ani, I need to take this — let’s meet here tomorrow, say, two? We’ll have some coffee and then go into the city together and get something delicious, maybe do some sightseeing!”
“That sounds great.” I stand and stretch my arms toward her for a hug. “It’s so good to see you, Lisette, can’t wait to actually catch up.” I might be laying it on too thick now, so I gather my bag to walk toward the exit. She stays on the terrace and waves as I walk away, phone pressed to her ear. I’m going to have to really walk out of this hotel toward that villa now, aren’t I?
As I exit the hotel, I put my AirPods in and call Chuck. When he doesn’t answer, I call Noelle. I walk with a slight bounce as if I’m listening to music. Noelle picks up after two rings. “Ani, what’s up?”
“Noelle, I just had an interesting run in… with Lisette Holmes. I know that’s not her real name, but that’s what I know her as.”
“What happened, tell me everything,” she says evenly.
I lower my voice as I enter the street. “I was about to walk into the spa, and so was she, and she recognized me. We had an espresso by the pool, she got a call and had to take it, so I made lunch plans with her for tomorrow. Thank goodness she got that call, so I could leave as fast as I did. I’m walking down the street away from the hotel now, I told her I was staying at a villa down the road.”
“Good call on that. Keep walking. Anything else? Did she tell you why she was here?”
“Ha, no — we would never discuss anything work-related, and it was rather quick — barely enough time to finish the espresso. She did get a text from someone, and Noelle, I know this may be a stretch, but the initials were VR…”
She senses my unease. “Alright, Ani, listen to me. Walk to that villa you said you were staying at and I’ll come pick you up. Make it a leisurely stroll, take pictures of the coast or something — do the touristy thing. And send me your location.”
“Should I be worried, Noelle?”
“Not yet, but let’s not take any chances. I’ll see you in a few. And Ani,” her voice drops to a low drawl. “Stay aware.”
“Of course. See you shortly.” I end the call and share my location with Noelle immediately and change my pace to be a bit slower, like I’m taking in the beauty of Salerno. I snap some photos from the side of the road and admire the coast. I wish that’s what I was really doing. Instead, behind my sunnies, I’m scanning the street to make sure no one is following me. I can never be too careful.
What is Lisette up to, I wonder as I approach the villa. I’m passing the bus stop when my phone rings. It’s Noelle. “Where are you?”
“I see you, I’m in the black Fiat coming ‘round the bend. Get ready to jump in.”
I turn around and see it slowly driving up behind me. I do another quick scan and see no one. When the car pauses, I open the door quickly and get inside.
“Do you think she followed you?”
“No, I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. Noelle, you’re making me think I actually do need to worry…”
She pats my leg and says “we can’t be too careful. I’ll send for your things from the hotel later — you’re staying at our place now.”
“She’s going to know something’s up if I don’t show up tomorrow…”
“Probably. We’ll figure that out tonight. Did she say anything else to make you skeptical of her being here?”
“Not really. Now I’m wondering if she knew I was here and intentionally ran into me like that,” I speculate. “I know it’s a long shot, Noelle — what if she’s working with Carmine and his girlfriend?”
“It’s possible, sure. Let’s hear what Chuck thinks. I know he hasn’t seen Lisette in a while, but I’m not sure if they’ve been in contact. Things might get more complicated than we planned…”
Well, that’s reassuring… “She knows things about me, Noelle. Like, about my life before. I don’t think she knows about my family but she definitely knows who I used to be.”
Noelle looks out the window, pensive, and doesn’t offer a response.
Definitely not reassuring.