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Nicosia, Cyprus – January 2007
The frayed curtains dance in the warm Mediterranean wind. The modest hotel has seen better days, but it is close to the crossing and within her budget. She shift s her body on the sheets drenched with sweat from another night of turmoil. Dreams half-started and memories resurfacing from the unexplainable. She opens one eye to greet the sunshine streaming into the room. No, one more hour of sleep, she pleads. But the wind has picked up and is causing a loose shutter to bang against the outer wall. Sound and light will not leave her be. She rolls out of bed and drowsily walks across the cold tiles to the windowsill. She reaches outside to secure the shutter's latch. On her second try to get the latch in place, she notices reflected light from across the courtyard. She pulls back to hide her nakedness. From the corner of the window, she glances out. On a balcony directly opposite stands a man, his dark glasses like mirrors in the sun. He is tall, athletic and blond. Marie Boivin shakes her head and draws shut the curtains. Today is not a day to worry about voyeurs.
In the darkness of the room, she slowly finds her way back to the bed. Exhausted, she falls on it, closes her eyes desperate to find some respite from the thoughts and doubts racing through her head. Eventually, a half-slumber takes hold, one that barely dulls her anxiety. The minutes turn into hours, and the temperature in the room rises. She stares at the peeling paint of the ceiling as the perspiration rolls off her forehead onto the cotton pillow. She knows that it's time to meet the day and all that it will entail, but her body resists. The sweet music of Scriabin's Piano Etude begins, first softly, then more intrusive. She reaches for the cell phone in her jacket and clicks on the speaker button.
"Hi, it's Marc Taragon."
Her vocal cords instantly freeze at the sound of his voice. It is deep and orotund, gently laced with a southern French accent, and so different from how she had imagined it.
"Is everything okay?" he asks.
"Yes, yes, everything's fine."
"I'm wondering if we could delay the interview by an hour, and start at noon."
"Of course, Monsieur Taragon. Noon will be fine."
"Do you know the Black Sea Cafe? Two hundred metres from the Ledra Street crossing. They can show you the way at the checkpoint.
Ask for Ibrahim. He's a friend who works there."
"Excellent. I'll be there at noon."
"Oh, how will I recognize you?"
Marie wants to say frazzled with dark circles for eyes, her hair tangled like a bird's nest, but then looks at her open suitcase, and says: "I'll wear a light lavender dress."
"Lavender. A pretty colour. A bientot." His words disconcert her. There's an uncomfortable familiarity. Could it be he already knows?
David Levi senses Ari Epstein's presence behind him. The old man has been trained to move silently like a ghost, but there is still an aura around him, a field of rage, that betrays him. David turns around.
"David, you're going to screw up the mission if you continue to take chances like that."
David bites his tongue. He looks at Ari, squat and balding with a long lumpy Balkan nose. He wants to tell his superior what an old ugly prick he is. Instead, he mutters: "Did you see her? She's magnificent."
"You're not listening to me."
"But I think we should talk to her. She might know something."
"No! Keep your distance. My gut tells me that she isn't what she pretends to be. Besides, there's something in her file that bothers me."
"It's above your pay grade."
David walks over to Ari. His six-foot-three muscular frame towers over the little man. He would like to press him for details but knows it will be of no use. When the old Mossad agent decides to clam up, nothing will pry anything from him. Anyway, David doesn't care what Ari thinks. The girl has a beautiful body — full breasts framed by wide shoulders and a narrow waist, hips that swivelled effortlessly as she walked toward the window. This assignment could be a lot of fun if only he can get the old bastard out of his way.
Marie rushes to the checkpoint. She's late. Why did she spend so long comparing the faded photo of the couple to the one on the flap of Taragon's book? She brings her breathing under control and steels her nerves, then again compares Taragon's face to the young man beside the beautiful woman in the old print. There's nothing certain about her theory. A resemblance between the two men, nothing more. Both share a sternness in their angular features, low hairlines and thick eyebrows, and in their eyes, a rare shade of turquoise glistens. She finds their faces mesmerizing and feels they beckon her to reveal her darkest secrets. But those secrets are locked even to her.
The checkpoint is newly renovated, meticulously painted white — a symbol of Greek order, a small monument of racial superiority. As she stands in front of the door, a gust of dry Mediterranean air lifts her lavender dress, much to the delight of the Greek-Cypriot guards. They flirt outrageously when she hands them her passport.
"Miss, we don't believe that this is you in the passport. We might have to keep you a bit longer to check things out," a young soldier says grinning, while his companions chuckle in chorus.
"You're much prettier than in this photo. Do you have any other photos?
Perhaps one I could keep?"
She levels a look to kill at the young man, who only smiles more lasciviously, his eyes washing over her body. When she opens her cell phone and begins to punch in a number, his grin vanishes, unsure of who she is and whom she knows.
"No problem, Miss. Here's your passport. Enjoy Nicosia! If you need someone to show you around, I would be delighted to. But watch out for those Turks. They don't respect women, especially beautiful women like you."
Marie grabs her passport and leaves without acknowledging the young soldier's last remarks. She walks quickly to the Turkish side, to the unwelcome accompaniment of low whistles from the Greek guards.
Her thoughts are spiralling in a swirl of apprehension and uncertainty. She stops and braces for what might be in store with the Turks. It's true that their reputation is worse than the Greeks'. It was a mistake to put on this flimsy dress, a replica of the one worn by the woman in the photo. It shows too much cleavage, and it's far too short. She had it made in Montreal just for this occasion. It was a foolish, childish thing to do. Ibrahim, that was the name Taragon had said. Repeating the name calms her — why, she doesn't know.
Marie steps inside the small hut on the Turkish-Cypriot side. The paint on the walls has yellowed and the glass is cracked in some of the windows. Still, there is a sense of order although different from that of the Greeks. The customs officials sit behind wooden tables, scratched from years of use but adorned with legs engraved with Ottoman calligraphy. They witness the longevity of the Turkish presence on the island and convey a note of defiance as if to say: We are still standing — we are still here.
A dark face looks up from the desk. It's a beautiful face, but so out of place. Yes, she's heard of black Cypriots, descendants of Ottoman slaves, but she's never seen one. And now here before her is the face of Othello, strong and muscular with such inviting eyes. She hands the young immigration official her Canadian passport. He smiles broadly and asks: "Vous parlez francais?"
Marie takes a step back and answers: "Oui. Etes-vous Ibrahim?"
"Oui," the official says and quickly stamps her passport. She asks for directions to the Black Sea Cafe.
"To see Monsieur Taragon?"
"Go down this street and turn left at the second corner. You'll see the sign after one hundred metres."
"Au revoir, Marie. I hope to see you again."
Marie flashes a smile at the young man and starts down the road, thinking how she has forgotten to ask him where he learned such perfect French. She hopes that he'll be there when she returns. For a moment, she's no longer a woman on a mission, but a girl succumbing to her youthful desires. She glances back. Ibrahim is now processing two men. The younger one looks vaguely familiar. He is tall with blond hair. His shoulders are broad, like a swimmer's. His companion is short, bald, perhaps sixty. Tourists, she thinks. She turns and breaks into a run to make up for lost time.
The younger man watches her. He likes her athletic stride, the way the dress pulls tight to her in the wind. Ibrahim frowns and, with a particularly violent passport stamp, catches the men's attention. He sends them on their way with a sharp Shalom and reaches for the phone. The older man looks back, worried. Their Canadian passports are genuine, but the black Cypriot seems onto them. The young man ignores Ibrahim, puts on his dark glasses and saunters forward with the swagger of a movie star.CHAPTER 2
Nicosia – January 2007
Taragon walks to the edge of the rooftop terrace. The divided city pans out before him. On each side of the Green Line, Greek and Turkish Cypriots go industriously about their business. How similar they are. So diff erent from their kinfolk on the mainland. And yet how viscerally they hate one another. Still, Cyprus is prospering, and the influx of euros and Russian gold have tempered the two sides' desire to re-ignite their centuries-old conflict. Occasionally, war is bad for business.
Taragon remembers the first time he was here. Then, no building was higher than six stories. The centre was a ghost town, scarred by barbed wire and Greek and Turkish watchtowers, and the Green Line manned by Canadian peacekeepers snaked its way through the city.
A hint of lavender catches his eye, the lavender of thirty years ago? He quickly brushes the thought aside. He shades his eyes from the glaring sun. The lavender takes form, and in it, a tall blond woman comes into view. She is running. Her stride is strong and determined like a marathoner. He wonders what can be so urgent. He watches the woman slow her pace until she's directly beneath him. He realizes that it must be the Canadian although she appears younger than Leyna had described her. He waves as the lavender disappears under the awning of the cafe's entrance.
Marie stands before the blue door. Sweat streams down her face. Her linen dress clinging to her body. She feels inhibited by her dishevelled appearance and self-conscious of the sensuality that it might exude. For a moment, she ponders turning back, abandoning this quest for the truth to return to the comfort of her past existence. She regains her composure and turns the knob.
The cafe is dark and cool. A few old men in outmoded suits and wide ties sip Turkish coffee and play backgammon. One even sports a red fez. A young married couple feed their toddler bits of pita bread dipped in hummus. Over the bar is the obligatory portrait of Kemal Ataturk beside a framed business licence. But Taragon is nowhere to be seen. She is about to sit and wait when a barman, a black Cypriot like Ibrahim, emerges from the kitchen. He stares at her for a moment and then motions to the stairs leading to the rooftop terrace. She walks across the cracked marble tiles and looks up the winding staircase. One short breath before her long legs take the steps two at a time. As she reaches the top, the door opens before her. The intense sunlight is blinding. At first, all she can make out is the outline of a dark figure. When her eyes adjust to the light, there before her is the face that she has scrutinized for an eternity.
Taragon offers his hand to help her over the tall sill of the door. His face betrays little emotion, just a faint smile as he leads her to the table. Somehow, she already feels disappointed by his dispassion, but why should she? After all, she thinks, there is no reason for him to suspect she is anything more than a fellow journalist looking for a good story.
"Leyna has told me much about you," he says. "You know, I rarely give interviews, but she assured me that you are honest, and, more importantly, her friend. I trust Leyna's judgement. She's my oldest friend. I hope you understand there are some things that I need to say, things which may damage people's reputations or even put their lives at risk. So I'll ask you to be careful in how you write up the interviews."
Marie hesitates. She lowers her eyes.
"Yes, of course. I'm flattered Leyna said such kind words about me. I'll do my best."
Taragon smiles. This time an engaging smile. No sign of the arrogance her editor at Le Devoir had warned her about. She takes him in. His hair is grey, and his aquarelle eyes are framed in deep wrinkles, cutting into a very tanned face. Noticeable scars start beneath his right earlobe, disappearing into the collar of his blue cotton shirt. Leyna hadn't mentioned them. But then, Leyna would be the last person to speak of scars. Marie looks down at her own scar crossing the palm of her left hand and quietly clenches her fist to hide it. She looks up at Taragon. Did he see it? Suddenly, she realizes that Taragon is speaking to her.
"I said, I hope you don't mind that I've ordered a mezzeh. It's an assortment of Turkish hors-d'oeuvres. Perhaps, you'd also like some Buzbaj? Red wine from Anatolia, and very good!"
"Yes, yes, that sounds wonderful."
The barman appears at the door with a large tray of assorted dishes and wine. He offers them a broad smile as he approaches the table. He pours the Buzbaj first into Taragon's glass. Taragon raises the glass to assess the wine's clarity. Marie seizes the opportunity to study his face further. It is different from both the photo on the book flap and the faded one from her childhood.
"Shall we begin?" he asks.
"Yes, of course."
Marie straightens. Her distraction must seem odd to Taragon. She needs to stay focused. She can't let him guess why she's really here.
She brings out a small recorder from her purse and places it on the table. Every nerve in her body twitches. She suddenly feels her life will never be the same now she has met him.
She takes a sip of Buzbaj. The savoury liquid releases the muscles in her throat. She presses the ON button on the recorder and begins.
"This is Marie Boivin with the celebrated French journalist and Middle East expert Marc Taragon. Monsieur Taragon, can you tell us what brought you to Lebanon in 1975?"
He pauses, looks to the east and, with a mischievous glint in his eyes, replies: "The letter 'ayn."CHAPTER 3
Shemlan, Lebanon – April 1975
Abu Walid's frustration is palpable. For years, he has trained foreigners to master the intricacies of the Arabic language at the prestigious Middle East Centre for Arabic Studies, high up in the mountains above Beirut. But this class is the absolute worse. For the past two weeks, he has drilled them on the pronunciation of the Arabic alphabet. Only one, Marc Taragon, a young French journalism student, is making any progress. He has mastered all of the letters, except the elusive 'ayn. The others, aspiring British and Australian diplomats or perhaps spies, are dullards.
No matter — the school's director has already agreed to Abu Walid's request for a month's leave. He has packed his bags and will travel aft er lunch to visit his ageing mother in the Druze-Christian village of Maaser in the nearby Shouf Mountains. Unrest is stirring there, and he is worried. Militiamen from Beirut have been brainwashing the local Christian youth with stories of century-old massacres, and the Druze are preparing for confrontation. Beirut merchants, always keen to make a little money, have been visiting both sides with off ers of arms shipments at rock-bottom prices. Druze with unfamiliar accents are passing through the area — Israeli or Syrian spies or simply visiting distant relatives from America? No one is sure. This morning, Abu Walid puts all that aside to teach at least one student how to pronounce 'ayn. He chooses his first target, Evan O'Shea, the class clown who occasionally surprises him with a close resemblance of a Damascene accent.
"'Arabi. Repeat 'Arabi!"
"R abee," the Australian replies, grinning.
God, how he hates that silly grin, more ridiculous than Arafat's. Abu Walid, a life-long Arab nationalist, has become increasingly intolerant of the Palestinian leader. Secretly, he wishes that Arafat and his men would reconcile with King Hussein and return to Jordan. Lebanon is fragile, too fragile to be in the crossfire of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Abu Walid scans the class, desperately seeking just one student who can give him a decent 'ayn. His eyes fall on the young Taragon.
"Marc, you say 'Arabi."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Quill of the Dove"
Copyright © 2019 Ian Thomas Shaw and Guernica Editions Inc..
Excerpted by permission of Miroland Publishers.
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