Stories from the War-First Meeting: Part 6
First Meeting, the first short story in my new WIP Friends of my Enemy continues with Part 6! If you haven’t been following along with Monday Reads, you can read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5 by clicking on the links.
Intimidation, lies, and deceit – but who is playing who? And is it okay if it turns out to be a little fun? At least except for the life and death part…
Friends of my Enemy
Stories from the War
First Meeting: Part 6
It was uncomfortable, pretending to be Byran’s latest girl. The impression pricked under Michael’s skin enough that his hostility to Bryan authenticated the rumor. It was perfect.
Michael would never have agreed to it if two days after Arinna had told him of Byran’s offer and information on the FLF, Michael hadn’t been called to speak to his supervisor. But not in the office. Instead they met on an open runway at the airport, supposedly inspecting a potential security threat at the US hanger. Michael had been distracted enough at the longing to fly again that he hadn’t realized how quiet his supervisor had been. At least not until they were alone in an empty building and the Major pulled a gun.
The conversation had been brief and off the books. Otherwise, the gun would have been used. The thought unnerved Arinna so much that she’d fretted for days afterwards whenever Michael was late or didn’t check in. Michael’s informal, and thankfully not persistent questions, regarding the FLF had gone back to the Major, but no further. If Michael dropped the questioning and said where he’d heard the name, as well as anything else he’d learned of the group, the matter would be forgotten. In the half year he’d been with the embassy, Michael had proven himself. It was what kept him alive that day.
Michael lied. He protected Byran and instead said the FLF had been mentioned in chatter he’d picked up from the Italian flyboys visiting the week before. Michael hung out with any pilot that flew through Madrid. It was believable and got him off the hook. It got him home to her. He was safe, but she could see the doubt in his eyes. He wouldn’t talk about it. She’d never seen his faith in the military shaken before and wasn’t certain how to help him.
Now the only source for information came through Byran and the world he opened for her. The price was to pretend to enjoy it while being nothing more than the latest girl on Byran’s arm. She wasn’t certain who disliked the situation more, she or Michael. Byran loved it.
But the information made the ruse worthwhile. For every late night out with Byran as they attended balls, clubs, or private dinners, Arinna would stay up to dawn giving Michael information and assurances. The strain ate at her, but as unrest at home grew and official information became more unrealistically bland, she and Michael both knew Byran was their best source. What she overhead in unguarded moments while staff drank wine, flirted, or complained was invaluable. So she continued while Spanish spring changed to the heavy heat of summer.
Arinna’s cell phone buzzed silently in her pocket. She pulled it out without checking the number. Only two people typically called her and it was too early for Michael to be checking in.
“What are you wearing?”
Arinna smiled at Byran’s smooth voice, pushing the report she was idly working on across her desk.
“That is not your concern,” she answered, but her laugh undermined her cool tone.
“Hmmm… I get to use my imagination then. Bueno.”
“I do hope you have a reason for calling,” Arinna said, cheeks hot.
A new political officer barely two days at the embassy glanced over while the new woman’s trainer whispered to her. The new officer’s eyes grew wide. Such was the price of knowing Byran. Arinna turned away from the snooping pair.
“Of course. I missed you and wanted to hear your voice… which is why I managed to get us invited to the ball at the Brazilian Embassy tonight.”
“I see. And give me one good reason I should change my evening plans to go with you?”
“Because there is someone there with news on the bombings,” Byran said, the teasing gone from his voice.
“Plural?” Arinna asked, keeping her tone light. The new woman blushed scarlet.
“Yes. You’ll come?”
“I can arrange it,” Arinna said, feeling breathless.
“Good. Wear something low cut. The night is supposed to be warm even for late July. Besides, you know how the Brazilians like a good display of skin.”
“Not just the Brazilians, I think,” she replied drily. Byran was laughing when she hung up.
Michael wasn’t home when she needed to leave. She left a note wishing he could answer his phone, but personal calls were limited while he was on duty. When they spoke at work, it was in code and often stilted. At home they barely saw each other with the time she spent gathering information.
Byran picked her up, his black convertible spotless. “Not home?” Byran asked, glancing toward the house as he met Arinna at the gate.
She shook her head. The pressure of his hand on the small of her back deepened with the motion, edging her closer as they walked toward his car.
“I didn’t get a chance to tell him I’d be out,” Arinna said as Byran opened the door for her.
“Well, we’d better go before we need to explain,” Byran said with a wink. Even though they were doing nothing wrong, he could make her feel a tremble of illicitness.
Byran’s arm was around her waist again when he handed over the invitation. She leaned against his chest, feeling his warmth through a fine shirt. In the summer heat, the fabric of clothing created what felt like an ephemeral barrier over skin.
“I almost wish they’d refuse to let us in. We’d have to find another way to spend the night,” Byran whispered in her ear.
“Yes, I could spend some time with my husband for once,” Arinna replied.
Byran let out a puff of breath. “Well, we are all out of luck, I guess,” Byran said as they were waved in.
Arinna had become an expert in pretending to drink. Byran kept her distracted and laughing enough to appear tipsy. The rest of the act required carrying a half empty glass and occasionally raising it to her lips. Sometimes she simply filled her wine glass with water. Together, she and Byran danced, chatted, and waited. The times before had taught her that information came after the first two hours. The best came after at least three. This time though, the informant was as sober as her and wouldn’t talk.
“Not in Madrid,” he said, accent thickening the quietly spoken words. “There are too many dangers here, for both of us.”
“Then where?” Arinna asked, frustrated.
“I own a boat docked in Porto Banus. Come for the weekend, both of you,” Marco said with a glance at Byran. “We can talk there.”
That wasn’t enough to entice her. “That would not be possible.”
Marco’s gaze fell on a woman standing at the far end of the hall, her sleek summer gown contrasting with the frown pulling at her mouth as she stared at them. The look in her dark eyes was not jealousy.
“If I could borrow your lovely companion for a dance,” Marco asked Byran before leading Arinna away. “Smile,” he said to her in a low rush, “please.”
“You can’t expect me to believe you have information just because you say so,” Arinna replied, providing the requested smile.
“Two bombings after the first,” Marco whispered in her ear. “And one depot has been emptied.”
Her eyes jumped to his as he pulled away. She remembered to laugh, a blush rising by accident more than design. He relaxed.
“If that is true… but why tell me? What do you want?”
“Information as well. We can help each other. They are not just a US problem.”
The dance ended, Marco returning her to Byran before disappearing. She was still pondering the information and the offer when Byran dropped her off at home, peeling out as he raced off.
“No,” Michael said, pacing across their living room. “This, THIS, is bad enough!” he said, gesturing to the clock. Arinna winced when she read 2:20 in the morning. She rubbed a hand across her eyes, not relishing an argument.
“What if it is true?”
“What if it is just a ruse of Byran’s to get you away for the weekend?”
Arinna blushed, but couldn’t deny there was a note of truth in the accusation. That would be something Byran was capable of. But would he? Michael was staring at her. “You’re right. If we could verify the information, it would be worth going. But I don’t know how to without a risk. Not after…” She couldn’t finish the thought or sentence. Apparently, she didn’t want to talk to the threat to Michael’s life the Major had made as much as he didn’t.
Michael ran his fingers through his hair. His buzz cut was growing out, she realized. She’d never seen him with hair longer than a half inch.
“Well?” Michael asked.
“I’m sorry. I’m half asleep. What did you say?” Arinna admitted.
He sighed, sitting next to her on the couch and taking her hand. “I said, I can at least see if there were other bombings. If there were, we’ll decide then.” Michael glanced away, uneasy with the idea.
“Agreed,” she answered. “Can we go to bed now?”
Michael checked the satellite imagery. The data wasn’t closely watched, he’d learned. Scrolling back through the records, he found the signs of two large explosions: one in Georgia and the other Michigan. It took a lot more pacing, but he agreed she should go.
Arinna found two benefits to the weekend. The first was that Marco gave her and Byran separate rooms, as if knowing the relationship were a ruse. The other was information. Marco knew of new exclusion zones and stricter curfews. Her government was tearing itself apart looking for members of the FLF.
“The focus is not on gaining allies to rebuild. Surely you’ve noticed that?” Marco asked.
“Yes. We’ve been told to look for commitments of arms and troops, not food or industry,” Arinna admitted.
Marco painted a similar, if less paranoid, picture of Brazil.
“They are there too?” Arinna asked.
“Yes. I’m not certain where else in the world or who else I can trust to find out. Be careful who you ask. The US measures are total. Either you aren’t aware of the FLF or you are with them.”
Arinna nodded. “I noticed. I’ll contact you if I learn anything of use. It will be small details, more a lack of information in most cases than not.”
Marco’s gaze was appreciative. “Good. It is good you can see the blanks in what they say.”
July fed into August with deeper heat and storms lashing across the Mediterranean. The US felt distant, its problems locked behind silence an ocean wide. Staff were not rotated out. Despite that, everyone eyed each other nervously in the halls of the embassy, but no one knew why. Or at least no one would admit to knowing why.
Outside the embassy, Arinna spent most of her free time with Byran. Compiling information on home became more of a mission than finding allies or securing promises of weapons. Michael’s job was to keep their superiors happy. Hers was to know why they really wanted the information they asked for, hoping this new chaos would end soon. She wanted her country to return to emerging out of the decade of darkness that had plagued it before. She had believed in the future she and Michael had mapped out before coming to Europe.
Weekends away to Marco’s boat made her miss Michael’s company, but her network grew. Though not every moment was an investigation. As if sensing the strain, Byran worked hard to distract her. The nights spent drinking wine and talking with Byran until dawn jarred her when she returned to embassy. She lived two lives, not always certain which was meant to be the serious and which promised moments of fun.
As the months turned toward a slight coolness of promised fall, Arinna began to hope for a return of normalcy. No new information on attacks came from any source. In fact, information on some admitted problems, dealt with now, did come through the official channels. The embassy no longer felt oppressive, even if people watched each other from the corner of their eye.
Read part 7 here.