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Clandestine Affairs, Part Six
In this chapter, we learn a little about who Ani was before.
The next morning, I find Chuck and Noelle having breakfast on the terrace. I walk in and they offer me coffee. Tilly is close behind with a pitcher of fresh juice.
“Sleep well, dear?” Noelle asks.
I nod and pour myself a cup of coffee. “I took a late night dip to clear my head and once I did that, I was out like a light.”
“Didn’t I tell you that pool was to die for?”
I smile and take a small sip before picking up a croissant.
“Ani,” Chuck begins. Not a moment to waste. “Are you good to proceed? I want to make sure you’re okay with this plan before you leave. Once you go, there’s no turning back.”
I nearly choke on my coffee. “Well, Chuck, no… I’m not comfortable… But, look… I’m good. I’d like to get this one over with, if it’s all the same to you. The sooner the better. When do we leave?”
“That’s what I like about you, Ani — your ability to compartmentalize.” He finishes his frittata and Tilly clears his plate. He doesn’t answer my question.
I nearly roll my eyes but stop myself and give half of a smile instead. I know my role. Just do what you’re told, I think. “I know why I’m here.” Just keep doing what you’re told. “So, what’s on the agenda today?”
“Well, you and Noelle will fly out tonight and be in Italy by morning, you’ll want to get some sleep on the plane. I’m leaving shortly to meet Simon in Naples. You and Noelle will meet us there — a car will be waiting for you. We’ll be staying at a small hotel just outside Torre del Greco for the first few days, then we’ll move down to Sorrento and put the plan into action. We think it’ll take a few days to a week to get on Vanessa’s radar, and by proxy, Carmine’s.”
I nod in agreement. I sip my coffee, contemplating. I let my mind wander just a bit, thinking of how nice it would be if I were going to Italy for holiday instead of work. I make a mental list of places I’d like to escape to if there’s time — Pompei, Capri come to mind first — and my brief holiday planning is interrupted by Noelle clearing her throat.
“Ani, after breakfast we’ll get into some of the nitty-gritty of what you need to know before we arrive. Eat up. I’m going to see Chuck off and we’ll get to it around, say, ten?”
I nod again.
“Noelle, can you give me a moment with Ani first?” Chuck asks.
“Sure, darling. I’ll be upstairs,” she says, grazing his shoulder as she walks away, her sheer white tunic floating behind her.
Chuck waits for Noelle to be out of earshot before he speaks. “Ani, if at any point you cannot finish this assignment, I will understand and will not hold it against you.” He takes my hand in his. “I’ve come to think of you as more than just a colleague, and I do not wish to see you be hurt, physically or emotionally. I hope you know this.”
I swallow hard. “I do, thank you. May I be frank?”
“Of course, Ani, always.”
I take a deep breath and slowly exhale. “I don’t know how this is going to affect me. I’m suppressing anger I’ve felt since I was a child, and I don’t know how well I’ll be able to keep it under control if — when — I see him.”
“That’s natural, Ani. I urge you to remember your training, all the experiences you’ve had between then and now, to keep your mind on the end goal here.”
“The end goal… what exactly is the end goal, Chuck? I know what the end goal has been for some of our assignments, for some of the marks. I don’t know how I feel having a hand in this one, if it’s like some of the others.”
“This won’t be like your first London assignment or Sydney. More like Paris or the most recent London assignment you handled.”
“Ah, so, Interpol is involved…”
“Well, as involved as they have been in the past. You know how it works. We call them at the last possible moment,” he says with a grin but quickly resumes a serious face. “The end goal here is to get him in the hands that will not let him harm people again. Same as always.”
“Should I be worried, Chuck? There’s more than theft happening with him and Vanessa, isn’t there?” I pause, giving him the opportunity to respond. But he doesn’t. I can read the room. “I gather I don’t even want to know?”
“That’s up to you, Ani. I’m willing to share everything I know with you when and if you’re ready to hear it.”
“I appreciate that.” I look down into the coffee cup cradled by my palms and take a moment before responding. “I think I’ll take a raincheck on it for now.”
“Very good. Just let me know when you’re ready,” he says while glancing at his Rolex. “I really must be off if I’m going to meet Simon on time. Noelle will get you what you to need before we see each other again tomorrow. She knows she can also any questions she has answers to, so don’t be afraid to ask if your curiosity gets the best of you. Ciao, my dear,” he says, kissing my cheek.
He walks back inside, and I walk down to the beach for a swim. I need to clear my head before I get into details with Noelle.
I lower myself below the surface and slowly exhale, letting the crest roll around me. My eyes closed tight, I envision my past life as my breath escapes my body. When I can’t stand it anymore, I resurface and take in a large gulp of the salty sea air, in a sad, pathetic attempt to rebirth.
When I open my eyes and shake the water off my face, I have a somber realization: I have completely lost the person I used to be. And I lost her a long, long time ago.
Lizzy. Bets. Liz. El. Elizabeth Gray is dead and all that remains is the shell of her body, taken over by this… creation. Ani Pierce. All the things Elizabeth never was: confident, cool. Steadfast. Fit. Decisive. It’s kind of sick, when I think about it, how easily it was to just… leave the old me behind. With the snap of a finger, Elizabeth was dead and Ani emerged from her ashes, strong and fierce. Ani Pierce is everything Elizabeth Gray wasn’t.
When Lisette Holmes (most certainly not her real name) found me, Elizabeth Gray, I was drowning in debt and in what felt like (to me, at least) a dead-end relationship (with Bryan). I desperately wanted a change but didn’t know how to make one. That and… well, I was lazy. It was easier to stay in that life. Keep going to that boring ass job in the call center. Keep racking up credit card debt. Keep avoiding my student loans. Keep trusting Bryan wouldn’t cheat on me again with his ex-fiancé and that we would actually get married one day.
Lisette “bumped into” me at a coffee shop. Saw the book I was reading. Inserted herself into my life. Learned enough about me in two coffees because Elizabeth Gray couldn’t keep her mouth shut. It was soooo wild that our names were so alike! We were long long pals! Tsk, tsk. Elizabeth Gray was entirely too trusting, too kind, too open. Lisette talked me into going out with her and a couple of friends that night and I thought what the hell, I could use a new friend, and didn’t know my life would be forever changed.
Lisette had me, or Elizabeth Gray, meet her for a drink after work about two weeks after we met each other. I was already calling her one of my best friends. Now, I shiver at the thought, knowing I let a literal stranger in that quickly. A few… too many… drinks later, I was loose and a little too willing to tag along to her apartment. I vaguely remember walking into her suite — I just recall it feeling it was a little too fancy for Elizabeth Gray to be visiting. Elizabeth Gray lived in a shitty one-bedroom apartment with Bryan that barely had working AC and this penthouse with marbled floors had to be at least four times the size of that place.
She handed me a glass of wine while we chatted about our jobs (she told me she was a consultant for a tech firm). I told her more about my gig at a national bank, how I would put on different personas based on the type of call I took when I started in the call center. It made the job less boring, I guess. Someone from the South calling in? I’d put on a thick Southern accent to get them to be nicer to me. Well, sweetie, let me tell you something. A Bostonian? Wicked cool. Minneapolis? Chicago? You get the picture.
She (very easily, I might add) pulled more information out of me, like how I was buried in credit card debt and wished I could just push a button to just make it disappear — but I was too afraid to lose my job. Still buzzed and feeling confident from the cocktails, I bragged to Lisette that I knew how to get the keys to the kingdom, and how easy it would be to just wipe out the records of any client we worked with, all by simply using the admin accounts supplied to us. Under the guise of getting to know me, Lisette asked about my degree (art history, ha, yet another reason why I was so in debt) and eventually weaved her way back into the details of my job. Asking pointed questions. The liquor clouded my judgement and whew, I sang like a canary.
On the heels of me showing off, bragging about what I knew but never had the balls to do anything with it, a man walked into the penthouse.
“Hello, you must be Elizabeth,” he said in a posh British or Australian accent, taking my hand. (I never found out which, because I was drunk and never saw him again after that night.)
I looked at Lisette in confusion and she cooed, “trust me, Lizzy. You’ll want to hear what he has to say. Tell him what you just told me.”
I remember feeling queasy and a bit freaked out… and when Lizzy got anxious, well, Lizzy couldn’t stop talking. Lubricated by the liquor, I answered every question he had, knowing full well if anyone found out where the information came from, I’d be fired. I’d be in more debt. I’d lose everything. They knew it. And that’s when I realized… they must have been after me for a while. They knew just enough to successfully insert Lisette into my life. I was a mark. Apparently, an easy one: I posted on social media too much (lamenting about how much I hated working for that damn bank and how I was always broke), I had no filter when I was out to eat or having drinks with friends (loud conversations)… I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised it only took Lisette a couple of weeks to get me here, in this apartment, to have this conversation.
The man wasted no time and made me an offer he knew I wouldn’t be able to refuse. Wipe out my debt. Wipe out my mom’s debt. Give me a bank account with more zeros than I would ever be able to imagine. Travel the world. Never want for anything again.
I had to walk away from my life as I knew it and work with them. I would be taken care of… if I helped them. They knew I could be a strong asset with the right training. With the right guidance. Obviously I would have to quit my job — but turnover at the bank was high. The plan was for me to call in the next day (unpaid sick leave, of course), then text my boss to tell him I quit because I got another job. People did it all the time. No one enjoyed working there; the job was a means to an end. They would ensure nothing would be linked to me, and I just had to trust them. If I wasn’t drunk, would I have screamed “red flag?!” and walked away? Who knows.
I would also have to leave Bryan behind. Sadly, I wasn’t more upset about that, if I’m being honest. He was a nice guy, I just… didn’t know how to break things off. This seemed like the best option, because I was a total wuss. I nervously played with the ring on my finger and wondered how I’d get it back to him.
“Help us help you, Elizabeth. You can trust us,” Lisette said. “You can have all of this and more.” She gestured around the penthouse like she was Vanna White on Wheel of Fortune displaying prizes. “You just have to take a leap. I did it, and girl, my life is amazing now. Whaddya say?”
I remember holding my breath before asking “can I at least call my mom and tell her what I’m doing?”
The short answer was no, but I wouldn’t comply until they let me call her and tell her I was fine but I was going off the grid for a while… and if anyone asked, I just needed to get away. I think they knew my mom wouldn’t cause trouble — they must have looked into her too — and told me I could tell her that I would make sure she was taken care of. At the time, it felt like the longest night of my life. My mom was so worried and upset — of course — but I assured her I was fine and if Bryan asked where I went to just make something up. Say I was going to find my dad or something. She didn’t like that but it seemed like the best excuse at the time. I promised I’d call at any chance I got and that she would always know I was safe. And happy. Even though I had no idea if I would be. She didn’t understand, but when I told her to trust me, something in my voice must have made her feel better, even if she didn’t agree with my decision. It was always like that with us.
I had so many questions that I knew wouldn’t get answered today, but something in my gut told me to just roll with this. Take the leap.
So, I gave Lisette and the man everything I had.
Lisette instructed me to get a few hours of sleep, to which I obliged because I was exhausted. I called in sick and cried myself to sleep by seven in the morning. When I woke up, my eyes were puffy and my head was pounding. Lisette gave me some aspirin, put me in a hot shower, and when I emerged she had breakfast on the table.
“There she is.” She handed me a cup of strong coffee. “Drink up. You ready for your new life?”
“I’m not sure. I guess I don’t have much of a choice, do I?”
“We all have choices, Lizzy. First, though — here,” she opened her tablet and displayed my new accounts. “Proof. In a month-ish, you and your mom will be golden.” She holds up three fingers. “Scout’s honor. You understand we have to wait a little bit, right? The optics,” she said with a shrug.
I was still a little skeptical, but decided to take the leap. For some weird reason… I trusted Lisette. She had this aura about her, which is probably why she was good at this job. She could sell a bald man a comb, a ketchup popsicle to a woman with white gloves… you know, just like all those silly cliché sayings. She handed me a brand new iPhone and some cards with information for new accounts with instructions for getting my new stuff set up.
“Speaking of choices, Lizzy… some are easy, fun. Others are harder, especially when it’s picking the lesser of two evils. It’s subjective,” she shrugs. “This one though, I think is fun. You get to pick a new name! After breakfast you can get your phone and all that going. But first, here,” she said as she slid a black shoebox across the table toward me. “Look through these and pick one. We can update the photo today, no problem, so don’t worry about that. And once you have the name, we’ll get your banking in order.”
I opened the lid to find more than a dozen passports. The first one I picked was with the name Anna Pierce. Sounds good to me, I thought.
Lisette squealed in delight. “Ahhh-naaah. Great choice, babe. You’re going to love being Ahhh-naaah. Let’s start by calling you Ahhh-ni for short. Ani Pierce. Love it!”
“Why is that?” I asked with hesitation.
“Because Ani is fun. Ani is chic, Ani is… smart. Ani is, well, really whatever you want her to be, everything Lizzy isn’t,” she said with a smile. “Like Lisette. Lisette is worldly, she is educated and daring. Catch my drift?”
I nodded, as if I actually know. I don’t, but… I suppose Ani does. For the first time in — I don’t even know how long — I was excited for the future.
“Eat up. My lovely friend Dominic and his team are coming by to change up your look and then we’ll be off to London by sunset. We’ve got a dry run set up for you in the next couple of days so you can start your training.” She walked over and put her arm around my shoulder. “Look, Ahhh-ni, this is going to be the best thing that has ever happened to you. You get a fresh start with a fabulous new life. You’re going to make the most of it. You’re going to thrive. I promise you this. I’ll be here to help. Always. The most important thing to remember is… just do what you’re told. You do what you’re told, you’ll be just fine. I’m living proof,” she said, raising her mug and squeezing my shoulder. “You understand?”
I said yes, because Ani would say yes. Because Ani does what’s she told.
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