Penny Kessler, an intern at the US Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, wakes up in a hospital on the morning of July 5th to find herself at the center of an international crisis. The day before, the Embassy was the target of a devastating terrorist attack that killed hundreds of Penny’s friends and colleagues. Not only has a photograph of Penny as she emerged from the rubble become the event’s defining image, but for reasons she doesn’t understand, her bosses believe she’s a crucial witness.
Suddenly, everyone is intensely interested in what Penny knows. But what does she know? And whom can she trust? As she struggles to piece together her memories, she discovers that Zach Robson, the young diplomat she’d been falling for all summer, went missing during the attack. And one of the CIA’s most powerful officials, Christina Ekdahl, wants people to believe Zach was a traitor.
What actually happened?
Penny barely has time to ask before she discovers that her own government wants her dead. Soon, with only a single ally—a rookie intelligence officer fresh out of the Navy—she is running a perilous gauntlet, ruthlessly pursued by Turkey’s most powerful forces and by the CIA.
To survive, Penny must furiously improvise. Tradecraft takes a lifetime to master. She has less than thirty-six hours. And she’s only twenty-one years old. This is her first real test—one she can’t fail.
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Liar’s Candle 1 THE GIRL IN THE WHITE DRESS
14:45 LOCAL TIME
In Ulus State Hospital in central Ankara, in private room 309, a young American woman lies unconscious. A laminated pain scale is taped to the antacid-pink wall behind her—from smiley-face iyiyim to gargoyle-grimace çok kötü—but she’s too far under to feel anything right now. There are no windows to let in the early-afternoon light.
Her chart says that she has suffered a head injury through blunt force, that her name is Penny, that she’s twenty-one years old. Vulnerable as she looks right now, she could be a teenager. Her cheeks are freckled from six weeks in the Turkish sun, laced with red scrapes from shattered glass. The thick white gauze around her dark hair looks like a tasteless bridesmaid’s headband, except for the blood seeping through. Somehow, the flimsy bracelet on her left wrist, a tiny blue evil eye bead on a thin red cord, survived the blast.
Outside the door, two Diplomatic Security special agents stand watch in black plainclothes. The Department of State isn’t taking any risks, not after last night.
This middle-aged, practical-faced woman sitting in the chair beside the bed could be Penny’s mother, but she’s not. A mother wouldn’t put on a crisp black pantsuit with an American flag pin to identify her daughter in the intensive care ward. As a matter of fact, Brenda has two children of her own, shiny school photos in her wallet. The hospital isn’t air-conditioned. Her pantsuit is making her sweat.
Does Brenda feel a maternal twinge, looking at her intern now? Is she remembering the last six weeks, Penny’s pink-scrubbed face and secondhand blazers, her straight-A student eagerness to please? The kid had been more useful than most summer interns, almost fluent in Turkish and a born translator. Anthropology major—too sensitive, too soft. Wore braids once to work and looked like she was going to cry when Brenda told her to dress like a fucking adult.
But Brenda isn’t thinking any of this. She’s typing a cable into her BlackBerry.
FM AMEMBASSY ANKARA
TO SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE
TOP SECRET ANKARA
SUBJECT: (TS) HOSPITAL VISIT TO AMCIT PENNY KESSLER
Classified By: Pol-Mil Counselor Brenda Pelecchia, Reasons 1.4 (b,c,d,g)
1. (TS) Penny Kessler (USDOS intern, POL Section, Embassy Ankara) remains in serious but stable condition at the Ulus Devlet Hastanesi (Rüzgarli Caddesi, Gayret Sokagi No. 6, Ulus, Ankara). She has been assessed with a head injury and is currently under sedation.
2. (TS) Security camera evidence confirms that Kessler was standing in immediate proximity to suspect Davut Mehmetoglu, and Intelligence Officer Zachary Robson in the Embassy garden, 20 seconds preceding the explosion.
3. (TS) Until Kessler regains consciousness, it is not possible to interrogate her regarding Mehmetoglu and possible accomplices.
4. (TS) At this time, Kessler is likewise unable to provide any statement regarding possible whereabouts of Zachary Robson.
Brenda pauses. Interrogate sounds bad. She substitutes debrief, hits ENCRYPT, then SEND.
The doorknob turns, and a wiry man steps inside, vibrating with energy, his suit still crumpled from the eleven-hour flight. He has that ropy look, Brenda thinks, that lifelong desk potatoes get when they develop a sudden middle-aged mania for biking—as if Lycra and clip-in shoes can somehow help them outspeed time. His assistant—taller, much younger, clearly ex-military—trails behind, holding a briefcase.
The wiry man sticks out his hand. “Brenda Pelecchia? I’m Frank Lerman.”
She knows exactly who he is. Everyone at State does. She can picture Secretary Winthrop at his Independence Day barbecue—Bermuda shorts and that plastic hair of his. His aides interrupt to tell him about the bomb in Ankara. Winthrop’s first words: “Send Frank.” Brenda imagines him adding, “I won’t have another Benghazi on my hands.” By which Winthrop would have meant the PR side, because 256 people are already dead, 312 injured (including Penny), and there’s nothing even Frank Lerman can do about that.
“I thought you’d be with the Ambassador’s widow,” Brenda begins.
Frank Lerman isn’t listening; he’s examining the sleeping girl. “That’s her, all right,” he confirms to his assistant. Then, to Brenda, “Coma?”
“Just sedated.” Brenda conceals her surprise with difficulty. “You know Penny?”
Frank grins. “Everyone knows Penny. Haven’t you seen the papers?”
Brenda stiffens. “I’ve been at the hospital since the explosion.”
Frank turns to his assistant. “Briefcase.” The tall young man hands it to him. Frank pulls out a thick stack of colorful newspapers. “I had him buy one of each.”
“You read Turkish?”
“I don’t have to. Look.”
The headlines vary from that of the sympathetic Hürriyet—APOCALYPSE AT THE U.S. EMBASSY—to that of the ruling-party mouthpiece Sabah—REVENGE ON IMPERIALIST AMERICA? Frank’s got the international version of the Wall Street Journal as well. Every single one has the same photo.
A young woman in a white party dress, stained with blood from her head, dragging a huge American flag out of the wreckage of the Embassy Fourth of July party. It’s the kind of photo that wins awards and shows up on the cover of Time magazine—as this one will next week, and again on the tenth, fiftieth anniversaries of this tragedy. It’s exquisite propaganda—almost too perfect to be true. Six seconds after the lens shuttered, Penny collapsed.
“Oh my God.”
“I’ve got thirty journalists downstairs waiting to talk to her,” says Frank.
“Obviously, that isn’t possible.”
“We need something to throw at them, before someone does the math on Zachary Robson. Brave tragic heroine. America will survive, blah blah. We have to wake her up.”
For the first time, Brenda feels almost protective of Penny—possessive, at least. Penny is hers. “Mr. Lerman . . .”
Frank has already pressed the red panic button, to summon the nurse. On Frank’s orders (reluctantly translated by Brenda), the doctor is sent for. A minute later, a thin, well-kept man in his late forties walks in, bleary-eyed at the end of his fifteen-hour shift.
The doctor moves at once to Penny’s side, dark eyes flicking to the monitor, the IV drip, Penny’s bandages. Is she . . . ?
The girl is stable, the nurse quickly explains in Turkish, but these people . . .
Frank sticks out his hand, but Brenda is quicker. She’s not about to let Frank Lerman take control. “Ben Brenda Pelecchia, doktor bey. Pleased to meet you. Çok memnun oldum.”
The doctor smiles slightly at her accent. “Ali Denizci. The pleasure is mine. I’m sorry, but we still have over a hundred patients in intensive care. If this isn’t an emergency—”
“Frank Lerman. Your English is great.” That ingratiating smile of his works on almost everyone.
Dr. Denizci is no exception; he smiles back. “Should be. Johns Hopkins, class of ’98.”
“No way. My brother was class of ’79. Way before your time.” Frank sidles closer. “Look, Doctor. My colleague says the girl’s sedated . . .”
“Yes. After a head injury like this . . .”
“Can you wake her up?”
The doctor’s smile vanishes. “Wake her up?”
“It’s very important.” Frank pulls out his clunky, official-issue BlackBerry, identical to Brenda’s, and grumbles as he waits for it to load. “At McKinsey even twenty-four-year-old pipsqueak analysts get top-of-the-line smartphones. That’s State for you.” He looks anxious. “Penny’s father needs to speak with her. As soon as possible.”
“She may not be coherent, Mr. Lerman. Some memory loss is highly likely, at least in the short term. And she’ll be in a lot of pain.”
“Please. Just for a little while. If he could even hear her voice . . .”
Family counts for a lot in Turkey. The doctor softens. “If we stop sedation now, she should wake naturally in about twenty-five minutes.”
“Any way to speed it up? It’s very urgent, Dr. Denizci.”
“Urgent?” The doctor frowns. “I could give her methylphenidate.”
Brenda interrupts. “Methyl . . . ?”
“Ritalin, basically. She’d wake in a few minutes. But we don’t typically . . .”
“Her father.” Frank looks away, fiddling nervously with his phone. “He . . .”
Dr. Denizci takes the bait. “He’s an important man?”
Frank exhales. “To put it mildly.”
“Who can’t wait half an hour?”
“He’ll be very grateful, Dr. Denizci. And so will I.”
“And so will her Uncle Sam?” The doctor’s expression is sarcastic. “I’ve seen the news, Mr. Lerman. I’ll wake her up. But don’t tell me stupid lies.”
With quick instructions to the nurse, the doctor excuses himself.
“Penny’s dad is a sculptor in Saugatuck, Michigan,” says Brenda pleasantly, as the nurse turns off the drip of anesthetic into the girl’s arm. “She showed me his website. Giant crushed soda cans. Elephants.”
Frank doesn’t react, at least not visibly.
They both watch Penny. Thin brown eyelashes don’t flutter yet. Her brows are level, her mouth slightly, childishly open in the innocence of sleep. Her slow, shallow breathing hasn’t changed.
“You can’t let her talk to journalists,” says Brenda. Rage and exhaustion have made her mouth dry.
Frank keeps watching Penny, as the clear methylphenidate sluices into her arm. “Did you know Zachary Robson?”
“There are only fourteen people in my Section, Mr. Lerman. Plus Penny. I know them all.” Brenda lowers her voice, so it won’t crack. “Knew them all.”
“Did he ever mention Mehmetoglu as a possible source?”
“I’m hardly the person to ask.”
Frank’s voice sounds accusing; his sweaty, shaved (clandestinely balding) head reflects the white-bluish glow of the fluorescent bars above. “Zachary Robson was your liaison.”
“My liaison with them.” Brenda keeps her eyes fixed on the girl, her voice too low for the nurse to overhear. “So if you want to know about Zach’s other duties, I suggest you contact Christina Ekdahl at CIA.”
“She said Zachary Robson never mentioned contacting Mehmetoglu.”
“Never mentioned it to me, either.”
“Someone put Mehmetoglu on the guest list, Ms. Pelecchia.”
“Lots of questions, Mr. Lerman.” Brenda raises a carefully plucked eyebrow. She’ll be bidding for deputy chief of mission at her next post, and this high up in the Foreign Service, the aesthetics matter. “Aren’t you here to handle press?”
“It helps if I know what really happened.”
Brenda’s lips tighten. Back in her thirties, she trained herself not to purse her lips; she didn’t want her mother’s wrinkles. But it’s a better career move than telling Frank to take a long walk off a short pier.
He nods at the bed. “Did she work directly with Robson?”
“Once or twice, I think. She does open source gists and translations for the whole Section.”
“You think maybe he recruited her to CIA?”
Brenda snorts. “Penny?” She shakes her head, remembering that god-awful SAVE THE RING-TAILED LEMURS T-shirt Penny wore last casual Friday. “No way.”
There’s a quiet groan, not self-aware, the noise of a weak and helpless creature.
Brenda and Frank each move slightly closer to the bed. The nurse is holding Penny’s wrist. The monitor shows a quickening heart rate.
“Is she waking up?” Brenda summons her best FSI Turkish. “Uyaniyor mu?”
The nurse smiles, nods.
* * *
Nausea. Dizzy so dizzy so dizzy. Eyes hurt to open—only one can. Woolly light. White-blue woolly blur. Pain. Not sharp, but sick. Sick heat in her head. Sheets hot too hot. Giddy, as if the pain were in another dimension, getting closer. Tubes in her nose. Then they’re gone. Her head aches all the way around.
Memories that might be dreams that might be real might be making her want to throw up. A needle in her arm, paper-taped, tugging when she tries to cradle her head. It stings. Her ears hurt hollow from the blast.
Under the fireworks. A young man in a suit—wavy dark hair, smiling brown eyes that always find her. He has a name. Zach. Zach’s talking to someone else now, but he’s smiling at Penny. She’s listening, listening so hard, letting the patterns of their Turkish slide and lock into place. The man talking to Zach, the important one, holding a glass of cloudy iced apricot juice. Penny likes apricot juice. Better than sour cherry, which is too sweet and looks like fake Halloween blood.
So thirsty . . .
Carefully, the nurse lets her sip the plastic cup of water. Penny chokes a little, but gets it down. Brenda and Frank and Frank’s assistant watch in silence as the nurse goes through the drill, testing Penny’s reflexes. They come to the verbal stage.
The nurse asks, in that lilting nursery-school voice Turks use with foreigners, especially young women, “What is your name, canim?”
Throbbing head, but the voice is kind. The name comes out of the darkness. “Penny.”
“Do you know where you are?”
“What day is it?”
Penny answers in English this time, halting but certain. “The fourth of July.”
“It’s the fifth now,” says the balding man.
Penny looks up from the needle in her arm. A round dark bruise has already formed beneath the itchy tape. Her eyes focus on the balding man in the suit, and she frowns hard. She wades through the grogginess. “You . . . aren’t him?”
“Penny. Penny, sweetie, do you know who I am?” Brenda is more shaken than she knows.
Penny clocks Brenda’s blazer, then her own hospital gown. Her cheeks are getting hot. “Brenda.” She shrinks into her pillows; pain triples in her head; her heart pounds. A surge of anxiety. Work. Why isn’t she at work? “Brenda. The party. I should . . .”
The nurse hushes her, but Penny won’t be soothed. Her voice is getting faster, clearer. “I was going to get lemonade. Near the grandstand. Then . . .” She’s still too foggy to panic, but that won’t last much longer.
“There was an explosion,” says the balding man, with the rubber gravitas of a soap-opera doctor. “You’re going to be just fine. My name is Frank Lerman. I’m from Main State. I need to ask you a few questions, Penny, and then you’re going to talk to some nice folks.”
Penny is staring at the newspapers in his hand. The Wall Street Journal is on top, her own photo hogging half the space above the fold. “Is that . . . ?” Her voice trails off as she registers the headline.
EXPLOSION AT THE U.S. EMBASSY IN ANKARA, 256 DEAD
“A bomb?” A sick pounding fills her neck, her chest. Weak but determined, she reaches for the papers.
“We think—” Brenda begins.
Frank shakes his balding head. “Not right now.”
“Please.” Fear and adrenaline are making Penny sweat under her bandages. “What happened?”
Brenda sounds irritated. “It’s not exactly a secret, Mr. Lerman.”
“We need her memories, Ms. Pelecchia. And we have to be sure they’re her own.” He looks over his shoulder at the young man still holding the briefcase. “Hey, what’s-your-name—”
“Connor, sir.” The young man’s voice carries a faint Georgia drawl.
“Whatever. Take these.” Frank shoves the papers into his assistant’s arms. Connor closes them back into the briefcase with an efficient click. Frank switches his kindly voice back on. “Now, Penny. What’s the last thing you remember, before the explosion?”
Penny blinks hard, and her bruised eye throbs. “Two hundred and fifty-six people.” Her throat feels like it’s closing.
“A tragedy.” Frank sounds like he’s trying to sound patient. “Don’t think about that right now. We just need you to try to remember. Everything you can. You were in the Embassy garden, right?”
Penny closes her eyes.
Red swirling patterns throb like fireworks behind her stinging eyelids.
The memory pulls her back.
* * *
Round fizzing, flowering starbursts of blue and red sparkled high over the U.S. Embassy’s garden walls.
“I typed up the expense report for those,” said Ayla Parlak, the Public Diplomacy Section’s summer intern. Her parents are Turkish, but Ayla’s a Newarker to the bone, a senior at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. “Twenty-two thousand dollars. Twenty-two thousand dollars! For fireworks. Our tax dollars at work.”
Penny hefted the huge American flag over her shoulder. “I think my tax dollars would just about cover a box of sparklers.”
“Okay, our parents’ tax dollars at work. Come on, Betsy Ross. I want some Ben & Jerry’s before they run out.”
The two girls wove through the crowd toward the purple ice cream truck. The six-foot American flag propped over Penny’s shoulder flapped behind her like a cape. People in unseasonably warm suits and work-appropriate summer shifts clustered around the floodlit white tables, trying not to drip mustard on their patriotic ties, or let their white pumps sink too deep into the lawn. The grass felt weirdly greasy underfoot—nothing was ever quite clean outdoors in central Ankara.
“What shoes are you packing for the NATO Summit?” Penny asked. “I thought maybe just comfortable sandals—I mean, they’ll just have us running errands all over Istanbul, won’t they?”
“Sandals? Penny. Secretary Winthrop’s going to be there!”
“I’m sure that between finalizing the peace deal, keeping President Palamut from arresting more journalists, and stopping the Russians from sabotaging the whole shebang, the Secretary of State will definitely be giving a lot of thought to the interns’ shoes.”
“It’s not just shoes, Penny. It’s the message you’re sending. Like Madeleine Albright’s pins.”
Penny grinned. “You could just paint HIRE ME! on your toenails.”
“Do you think it would work better in red or silver?”
Overhead, the last golden sparkles fizzled into gunpowdery darkness. The Embassy garden buzzed with applause and the odd inebriated whoop. Penny could smell hot dogs and hamburgers sizzling on the grills—eight hundred frozen patties and franks had been shipped in from Iowa. As if they didn’t have cows in Turkey. The brass band on the grandstand, flown in specially from Louisiana, swayed in the spotlight, their saxes gleaming as they segued into a jazz version of “My Country, ’Tis of Thee.” Relations with Turkey had been so tense lately, State had gone all out on the party: in the lexicon of American diplomacy, jazz was the cheapest goodwill out there, after free Coke.
As Penny waited with Ayla in the line for the ice cream truck, coworkers kept coming up to congratulate her—none too sincerely—on winning the gigantic American flag, first prize in Independence Day bingo.
“Hang that out your window, and you can start your very own Embassy.”
“So let me guess. You’re . . . Canadian?”
“Have fun taking that home on the metro,” drawled Brenda Pelecchia, as she strolled past, ketchup-oozing hot dog in hand.
“Ha-ha,” Penny replied.
“Swirlie,” wailed a small boy’s voice from in front of the ice-cream truck.
“The soft-serve machine is out of order, buddy,” wheedled the Embassy’s Press Attaché. “Daddy can get you a scoop of chocolate and a scoop of vanilla. Is that good?” A three-year-old in a bow tie prostrated himself on the grass. “Chase, Daddy needs you to use your words.”
Tiny fists pounded the earth. “Swirlieeeeeeeee!”
The red-faced Press Attaché grabbed his son and headed for an empty patch of grass.
The young Turkish woman in the ice cream truck smiled at Penny and Ayla as she scooped their cones. “Rough crowd.” She handed them their ice cream. “Good luck out there.”
Penny grinned and retreated under a tree with her flag, Ayla, and a dripping scoop of Phish Food.
“Zach totally let you win,” said Ayla, through a pink mouthful of Cherry Garcia. “Next time, they should pick a more impartial judge.”
“Hey, I won fair and square. I got Thomas Jefferson horizontally.”
“You and Sally Hemings.”
Penny could see Zach across the Embassy garden, standing near the Ambassador’s grandstand, deep in conversation with a heavily bearded Turkish man. Zach snagged a hamburger off a passing tray and said something that made the tired-eyed waitress laugh. Zach could always make people laugh. He caught Penny’s eye and raised the hamburger in her direction, as if making a champagne toast.
He wasn’t even all that good-looking, Penny told herself. Okay, a bit like a young JFK in that suit, if JFK had dark stubble and had lived in Baku and Johannesburg.
She returned his toast and pretended to sip the cone of Phish Food, pinkie raised.
There was something about him. Confident. Complicated. Clear-eyed. Zach made a few people bristle—especially the Embassy’s more hidebound higher-ups. But in the end, his wry, adaptable charm won almost everyone over. The fruit sellers near the Embassy joshed and saved the juiciest nectarines under the cart for him. Turkish officials asked if they could meet with Zach instead of his red-faced supervisor Martin MacGowan, whose postdivorce health-food kick—he brusquely refused all tea, coffee, and sugar—had already offended half the Turkish Foreign Ministry. When Zach walked Penny home after a picnic last Sunday, even her landlady Fatma—tough as old leather—pinched his cheeks and made him stay for three whole plates of crunchy, wincingly sour green plums. Which Zach—bless him—had manfully pretended to enjoy.
People muttered that he must have serious connections to breeze so casually through the bureaucracy, as if the rules didn’t apply to him. Penny wasn’t so sure. Zach had an uncanny gift for listening through the noise and hearing what really mattered. A man like that can pull strings for himself. Zach was going places, and he knew it. With him, Penny felt as if she were part of some stylish drama with high stakes and sweeping cinematography: good versus evil set to a swelling score.
Penny’s huge flag billowed with snappy nylon enthusiasm. She clamped it down, trying to roll it up; it flapped rudely in her face.
“Hey, Penny!” called Matt, the ex-Princeton ultimate Frisbee captain who manned the Counterterrorism desk. He raised an open can of Bud Light in each hand. “Fly it proud!”
Penny obliged with a big wave.
“That’s more like it. U-S-A!” chanted Matt, pumping the beers until they sloshed onto the grass. “U-S-A!”
Penny caught sight of the guest of honor, President Palamut’s thirty-something daughter, Melek, eyeing Matt with obvious revulsion. Melek Palamut was her father’s angel, unmarried as yet because, she often told the press, no man could live up to President Palamut. This evening she was resplendently self-satisfied in a tight Hermès head scarf and ankle-length gray Armani raincoat—the uniform of Turkey’s elite conservative wives and daughters. It was the most expensively, aggressively unflattering outfit Penny had ever seen, offset by the world-class scowl Melek had directed at Matt’s brace of Bud Lights.
Penny saw Matt grimace; he wasn’t that drunk. “Shit,” he muttered. “Brenda’s going to kill me.”
Melek stalked away, flanked by her six dark-suited bodyguards. She looked like she was headed for the exit.
“Excuse me.” An unfamiliar Turkish woman touched Penny’s arm. “Aren’t you the girl who won the bingo?”
Penny plucked at the flag. “How did you guess?”
The woman laughed; she had kind brown eyes, a majestically curved nose, and deep worry lines in her tanned face. The pale violet scarf draped around her neck matched her purple tunic. Too stylish to be in government. Fulbright Commission, maybe? Probably a journalist, Penny thought, or somebody from a local NGO?
The woman looked from Penny to Ayla. “You seem very young to be diplomats.”
“We’re only interns,” said Penny.
“Interns do important work, too,” said the Turkish woman, smiling.
“Not this intern, I promise you.” Penny grinned.
“Speak for yourself,” said Ayla, straightening the American flag pin on her dress. “I make some very important photocopies.”
“Everything must have a beginning,” said the Turkish woman. “Here.” She unfastened a string bracelet on her wrist, a thin red cord strung with a single dark blue glass bead, decorated to look like a tiny eye. “You know about the beads we wear? To ward off the nazar—the evil eye?”
“Oh,” Penny began, “I couldn’t possibly—”
“Please, canim! It cost one lira.” The woman clipped it onto Penny’s wrist and waved away her thanks. “Güle güle kullan! May it bring you luck.” The woman turned to Ayla. “And for you, canim, let’s see . . . ah . . .”
Ayla held up her hand, to show off a ring with an identical evil eye bead, the same kind every tourist shop and street peddler in Turkey seems to sell. “I’ve got two Turkish grandmas and five Turkish aunties. Trust me, I’m covered.”
“Good.” The woman in purple looked relieved. “Excuse me, please. Happy Independence Day!”
“What a sweetheart,” said Penny.
“Well,” teased Ayla, “now that you’re officially lucky, are you going to quit making eyes at your beau and ask him to dance?”
Penny laughed. “My beau?”
“Isn’t he?” Ayla leaned forward, grinning. “You’ve been out together every day for two weeks.”
Penny exhaled slowly. “I’ve never met a man like him, Ay. He has the most incredible stories—adventures he’s had in the craziest places. Yesterday we talked so late the metro stopped running, and he drove me all the way home.”
“Why am I not surprised the International Man of Mystery likes talking about himself?”
“He’s not like that when you get to know him. Really. He’s so sweet. You should hear the way he talks about his little girl.”
“Whooaa. He has a kid? Where’s the mom?”
“Promise you won’t tell anybody? Zach’s really private about it.”
Penny lowered her voice. “After college, before he got his FSOT results, Zach was doing Teach for America in Texas. He was seeing this girl and she got pregnant. But they lived in the middle of nowhere, and her health insurance sucked. She had preeclampsia, and the clinic didn’t catch it. She died two days after Mia was born.”
“Oh my God.” Ayla presses her hand to her mouth.
“Mia’s back in the U.S. with Zach’s sister and her husband. She’s moving over here in August for kindergarten. Zach’s so happy. He asked me to help pick out some toys for her room.”
“He’s already got you playing house?” Ayla teased.
“Stop!” Penny laughed. “I’m going to go talk to him. You coming?”
“I’m going to go dance with that cute Marine.” Ayla pulled out a compact to check her sparkly eye shadow and dabbed discontentedly at a tiny zit.
“Stop it. You look gorgeous.”
Ayla smiled. “Good luck, Pen.”
Penny crossed the garden to where Zach and the bearded man were chatting.
“Nice flag,” said Zach.
“Oh, this old thing?” She draped it around her shoulders like a mink stole. “Is this Mr. Mehmetoglu?”
The bearded man shot Zach a questioning look. He had the tawny, sun-blasted coloring of southeastern Turkey, and the extraordinarily intense blue eyes that sometimes go with Kurdish blood.
“This is Penny,” said Zach, reassuring. “She’s our intern.”
“I’m so glad you could make it.” Penny switched to Turkish to put Mehmetoglu at ease. “Your name got left off the invite list, and Zach had me fix it.”
Mehmetoglu’s cell phone buzzed; a text.
Zach and Penny watched in slow, polite silence as Mehmetoglu slowly checked it, read it, nodded, and stuffed the phone back into his pocket.
Penny’s smile was starting to go stale. “If this is a bad time, maybe I should . . .”
“Stay. Please.” Zach put an arm around her shoulder. “And since I’ve got a captive audience . . .” He pulled out his phone. “Mia’s Daisy troupe marched in the Independence Day parade.” He scrolled through pictures of a beaming little girl with round, brown freckly cheeks and a halo of tight black curls.
Penny leaned into his shoulder. “Oh, look at her on the float! Did she end up singing?”
“She was really shy. But I took your advice. I skyped her before the parade and told her to imagine everybody in their underpants. My sister said Mia sang so loud she almost broke the mike.”
“Aw.” Penny looked up. “Do you have kids, Mr. Mehmetoglu?”
“One son.” Mehmetoglu smiled ruefully. “Teenager. He tells me I am stupid like a rock. Then he asks me for a motorcycle.”
Zach grinned. “Wrong order of operations.”
Talk turned to the traffic in Ankara. The weather lately. The recent renovations at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations. How nice the fireworks had been.
Though Zach maintained an expression of polite interest, Penny could tell his mind was elsewhere. He turned his wrist to check his watch and dumped half his drink on the lawn. “Whoops.” He chuckled. “There goes the worst Bellini this side of my mom’s book club.”
Penny spotted a waitress handing out drinks near the ice cream truck. Martin MacGowan seemed to be scolding her about something; his face was turning crimson.
“I’m going to get a lemonade,” said Penny. “You want one?”
“Stick around.” Zach’s hand slipped around her waist—the first time he’d ever done that. “There’s something I want to tell you.”
A blast of light and heat and noise.
Penny’s head slammed against the wooden corner of the Ambassador’s grandstand.