Kirika watched with veiled eyes as Mirielle staggered off with the other woman. No one who might have seen Kirika at that moment would have seen anything more than a young woman calmly loitering in the square. No sign of her feelings showed in her eyes or on her face. Perhaps she had no feelings. That was what she had always assumed, anyway, about herself. Each act of friendship, each moment of caring had been a calculated ploy designed to create an illusion called Kirika. What she really felt or thought, even she did not truly know.
Kirika lingered until the waiter had returned to the café to place an order; she stood, brushing crumbs off her lap. She walked towards the now abandoned table where, for the first time, doubt filled her. Moving unobtrusively, she found herself staring down at a note which had been tucked under the half-finished drink, in disbelief. A slow, burning anger began to fill her, and her breath came more quickly. This unknown woman was taunting her, using Mirielle as bait; was this how low Soldats had sunk?
“Le Chat Noir,” the note began. Kirika snatched it up and moved away, until the crowd swallowed her. She moved smoothly through the afternoon crowd of shoppers, another young woman among many.
Kirika found herself on a crowded subway heading out to a populous suburb. She sat in a seat surrounded by the working poor of this city. With her thin frame and wide, hungry eyes she looked like one of them, and the woman next to her made pleasant conversation. At last the passengers settled into that relaxed quiet that fills commuter trains everywhere and Kirika removed the note from her pocket.
“Le Chat Noir –
We have your lover. You know what you must do.”
An address and time followed the brief note. Kirika committed the information to memory, then got off the subway at the next stop. Stopping at a garbage can, she set the note on fire, the ashes blowing away on the draught of the passing trains.
Le Chat Noir. The Black Cat. Kirika slipped into a phone booth and dialed directory assistance. She made her inquiry and left the phone booth a moment later.
The black cat, hmm? Well, then, she was on the prowl. She smiled grimly at the lame pun and boarded a train back into the city. It was only when the train was well on its way that she pondered the other line. “We have your lover.” An understandable assumption, Kirika thought, but how surprised will they be to find that it is untrue – and how will it affect Mirielle’s future?
Mirielle woke with a dry, pasty mouth and a headache. As the memory of her ignominious capture came back to her, she looked around as if expecting to find herself in chains, naked and manacled to a wall. Instead, she wore exactly what she had left the apartment in that day; her purse (and, after a momentary search, her gun) were on the table by the bed. Sun shone through an unbarred window.
At a light knock on the door, Mirielle stood, her hand in her purse, gripping the gun.
The door opened and Veronika entered carrying a large tray. “It’s unloaded,” she commented lightly. “I didn’t feel like being shot. I’ve brought breakfast. Undrugged.” She smiled pleasantly, a smile which Mirielle did not return.
“You don’t believe me? That is perfectly fine.” Veronika’s accent was as alluring as it had been the day before. “Come sit with me and I will eat first. Will that convince you?”
Mirielle did not answer, but she laid her purse back on the table by the bed. Veronika set the tray down, poured two cups of coffee, set one in front of each chair at the table, then seated herself. Without another glance at Mirielle, the redhead began to layer toast with marmalade.
Mirielle sat on the bed and watched, as Veronika, apparently unconcerned, ate her toast and drank her coffee without a word. As she poured herself a second cup of coffee, Veronika turned to address her “guest.”
“I imagine you have quite a headache. I am a little sorry for that. We needed you to come willingly and I am not very good at verbal persuasion.” Her smile was winning, personable. Mirielle found herself gritting her teeth against smiling back.
“You will not be here long – I promise you that much. You are merely bait. We need to find your lover, and quickly. So, you see, it would do us no good to hurt you. She would simply kill us all. No, that is not what we want.”
“We?” Mirielle’s voice was a harsh croak in a dry throat. “You mean Soldats.” It was only partially a question.
Veronika smiled again, pressing one finger gently over her lips, as if to quiet her guest. “You know so much.” But the redhead’s eyes twinkled and Mirielle’s mind was much clearer now.
“She will come for me, you know – and you won’t be able to stop her.” Mirielle simpered a little. They wanted a helpless princess; a damsel in distress, who’s prince would come to rescue her. Why? And why did they assume that she was that damsel? Mirielle smiled internally at the thought of moody Kirika as a noble prince.
“But you see,” Veronika continued. “That is what we want.” She stood. Gesturing at the table, she said, “I will leave this here. Please help yourself. If you need assistance, Hugo will come to your call.” That smile once again. Mirielle watched the smile flick on, then off at command. “Please, my little kitten, do not give us too much trouble. The doors and windows are open, feel free to leave the room, but you will not be able to leave the estate.
“We know that you are quite the assassin yourself and we have taken many precautions. Please do not try to escape or you will have to be shot dead, and that would not be a good thing – for any of us.” Her voice was gentle, concerned, maybe even slightly worried.
Veronika walked towards Mirielle, her eyelids drooping, her lips parted. Mirielle watched her with interest. The redhead was clearly keeping up the act of seduction. But why? She had no interest in…suddenly it clicked. She watched carefully, as Veronika slid a hand smoothly across her cheek. Mirielle closed her eyes, just for a moment, pretending a desire she did not feel. Veronika’s voice was a mere whisper as she spoke, her coffee-scented breath warm on Mirielle’s face.
“Little kitten, when this is all over, you will be free to go – or to stay. It will be your choice.” She brought her face close to Mirielle’s, her voice pitched low and inviting. “I think you will stay.” A warm sensation as her lips brushed across Mirielle’s cheek.
Veronika crossed the room and knocked on the door. It opened swiftly and an unremarkable man in a plain suit became immediately visible. Veronika gestured to the man and he bowed.
“This is Hugo. Do not hesitate to ask him for anything – he will do his best.” Hugo bowed again but said nothing.
Mirielle followed the redhead closely with her eyes as she left the room and closed the door behind her.
When the door was closed, Mirielle allowed herself the luxury of a heavy sigh. So, they thought she and Kirika were lovers; that was more than plain. And they thought, obviously, that Veronika would be temptation enough to keep her docile.
A small smile flitted across Mirielle’s face as she rose off the bed. She could play that part if she needed to, that was fine. As she poured herself a fresh cup of coffee and buttered a piece of the now-lukewarm toast, she wondered how she could use this misinformation against her captors.
She ate silently, her eyes straying to the windows, as if she were watching for a rescuer. No doubt they were watching her. They wanted a damsel in distress; that was exactly what they would get.
Kirika slipped into the club behind a group of loud young men who were conspicuously enjoying their foray into the night. She was not stopped by the black man who acted as bouncer, and the waitress acquiesced pleasantly to her request for a table in a corner, away from the stage.
She ordered a drink at random, reading a brand name liquor off an advertisement over the bar. It was served with an admirable alacrity that spoke of a honed ability to determine exactly how many expensive drinks could be coaxed out of any given guest. She did not drink.
The club was dimly lit, dingy, loud. Tinny music blared from speakers in the corners, a stage was lit with red lights that obscured the dust. Kirika settled in for the show, since that was clearly what she was intended to do.
After a short opening act, the curtains parted to show a couple, dressed in formal wear. They swayed slightly in each others arms, as the tinny music changed into a slow, percussion-driven song.
As the music filled in the spaces between the drum beats, the couple began to dance. It was a Tango, in the most primal meaning of the word. The dance was slow, at first, seductive. The woman circled slowly around the man, casting promising looks his way. He, in turn, reached out to draw her in, only to be rebuffed. They each danced to their own music, their footsteps striking the platform stage in staccato counterpoint to the muted drumbeat of the music. But the inevitable happened – slowly their orbits intersected. The dances merged into one dance, the rhythm of their movements were faster now, harsh with longing, with sexual tension. The music rose as they danced across the stage, at last a single unit, and their union complete. Then a discordant note: the braying of a trumpet heralded yet another man, this one clad not in formal wear, but in the loose, untidy clothing of the dilettante artist. And the woman, whose gaze had been focused solely on her partner, wavered, fell, then found a new target.
The Tango continued now as a war for the love of the woman. Dandy and artist danced with her, staring not at the woman herself, but at each other over her. The tension built, the challenge was manifest. The woman was cast aside and the two men danced at first against each other, then in a explosive sound of feet against board and drums pounding, they fell into each other’s arms, embracing fiercely, as the song came to an abrupt and crashing finish. The curtain fell to the scattered applause of the drunks in the club. Kirika sat patiently and waited for the redhead or her agent.
The curtain lifted once again to reveal the three dancers, now without wigs. The woman was exposed as a willowy and effeminate male, who bowed quickly and left the stage with an exaggerated swing of the buttocks. A few wolf whistles followed him off. Now the tuxedoed dandy removed his top hat with a flourish, and long, dark hair tumbled over his shoulders. The smile that broke over the dancer’s face was calculated and the effect was dazzling. Where a moment before was a young man, now a woman stood. She took her bow, leaving the stage with elongated and purposeful strides.
Then the artist had the stage alone. He picked up the microphone that was set at the corner of the platform and in a low mournful voice sang a song of love and melancholy and youth. He unbuttoned his loose jacket and pushed one side back to reveal a feminine torso clad in sequined corset. The song ended, and he slid the jacket off. A new song began, one of love gone wrong and a passionate, but tragic affair. During the piano solo, he removed his worn pants, pantyhose-clad legs emerging from the soft material.
He, or she, sat down on a stool, and sang again; slowly attaching a short skirt to the corset, and taking high heels that were handed over by a stage hand, slipping them sexily on her feet. By the end of the song, the chanteuse had finished her metamorphosis. The final three songs were sung in a distinctly feminine voice.
Again, the curtain closed and the music faded away with a sigh. The part of the audience that had been paying attention clapped perfunctorily, or called out pornographic suggestions and orders for drinks.
The singer left the stage, walking past the tables full of inebriates and pleasure-seekers. Ignoring the comments and the attempts to grab at her, she made for a corner of the club. Only when she stood directly in front of Kirika did she stop.
Kirika could see that she was blonde – the dirty blonde that comes from the darkening of blonde hair over time. It shone red-gold in the dull light. Kirika looked up expectantly, nodding when the woman gestured at an empty seat.
After she had seated herself, the singer asked Kirika if she had a cigarette, but shook her head even as she spoke. “No, no – there is no ashtray. You do not smoke.” The blonde turned her head and waved to a waitress, who brought her a martini, a pack of cigarettes, matches and a fresh drink for Kirika, who had not touched her first.
“I am…” the blonde laughed. “You can call me Inge.” The name was spoken as a single syllable – “Ing.”
“I know your name, you need not tell me.” Her accent was slight, Scandinavian…and extremely fake. Kirika was sure of it. This woman was as Scandinavian as she. Something tugged at the edges of her mind, but she could not place it. She let it go for the moment.
“You know why I am here?” Inge lit a cigarette and took a long, relieved drag.
Kirika nodded, at which Inge smiled.
“You look so young, it is hard to believe.” She took a sip of her drink. “Ah, well, appearances are deceiving, are they not? You saw?” She gestured oat the small stage. “What did you think?”
Kirika thought for a long moment before she spoke. “You dance very well.”
Inge apparently thought this hysterical. Her laughter was loud and raucous. Kirika shrank from the attention it drew, willing herself invisible in the shadows of the club. After a moment the laughter passed, then the attention faded away, as clubbers turned back to their own business. Inge stubbed out her cigarette and took a long drink from her glass.
“Fine – you are not much of a talker and I am tired after my show. I need to change, then I will lead to you to her.”
Kirika rose as the blonde rose. The check was presented to her a moment later. Kirika paid without comment the absurd figure at the bottom, and followed Inge back towards the stage. This time the comments were suggestive of other acts – this time involving the two women and a spectator or two. They glided silently by the tables until a single customer, emboldened by alcohol, reached out to touch Kirika, laying a hand on her skirt.
Her movement was impossible to see, so fast had it been. By the time he slipped out of his chair, a welt forming across his neck where she had struck, the two women were already out of sight.
Mirielle was bored. It was the only justification she had for her behavior, really. Helpless as she was supposed to be, she couldn’t really just sit here and wait.
She paced the room, noting the lack of mirrors, the thickness of the glass in the window, the frailty of the furniture. Nothing that could be used effectively as a weapon…nothing that could be turned against her captors without obvious preparation. Mirielle’s jaw ached where she was gritting it against frustration. This operation was professional and she had fallen into it far too easily. It rankled. She needed to do something constructive.
There were cameras, of course. She had found the first three as she sat on the bed, simply taking in her surroundings. The fourth she had noticed as she paced the room, the fifth as she looked out the window. Intuition told her there was a sixth somewhere, but its location remained a mystery for the moment. No angle of the room would be uncovered – she was sure of this. There was no privacy here, except within her own mind. Of that Mirielle was also sure – and it angered her. After all this time, Soldats still had no respect for her. It had been she and Kirika together who defeated them and *still* they treated her as nothing more than a doll – a placeholder for the real Noir. Her teeth ground against each other audibly.
There was a knock at the door and Hugo entered. His face was placid, almost kind. His voice was soft as he announced the next meal.
Mirielle watched as Hugo laid the tray down. She unclenched her jaw and smiled, thanking him. He met her eyes with no obvious discomfort, nodding.
“Hugo,” Mirielle spoke softly, forcing Hugo to pause in his work and turn to face her. “Will you join me? I…” she allowed her voice to crack slightly, “I don’t want to be alone.”
Hugo regarded her carefully. She shot him a tentative, shy look, one she knew took ten years off her age. Something flickered in his eyes and he nodded shortly.
“Thank you,” she breathed, relief flooding her face. “Thank you, Hugo.” She laid a hand on his arm briefly. Taking her place across from the man, she allowed him to serve her, watching him with obvious gratitude.
He would not eat with her, however, despite her request. He watched calmly, silently, as she picked over her meal, refusing all gambits at conversation, except to respond in soft, noncommittal grunts. When she announced that she was finished with her food – which had been excellent, in spite of her feigned disinterest – he stood and removed the remains without comment.
Once again, she laid a hand on his arm, thanking him sweetly for his indulgence. His nod was no more than a lowering of the eyes. Mirielle allowed fear to fill her face as the door closed and she lowered her head to her hands. If they were watching, it was the least she could do to provide a decent show.
Seating herself once again on the bed, Mirielle considered her options. Escape was, at this point, useless. Until Kirika was found, she was better off here. But she knew, even as the thoughts crossed her mind, that it wasn’t that at all…it wasn’t useless to try and escape. For all her earlier protests, Mirielle was caught up in the game now and she would see it to the end. She had a role to play and she fancied herself a decent enough actress. Lying back on the bed, she spent a few moments in thought; about her situation, about Kirika, but mostly about a book she had loved as a child. Uncle Claude had read it to her many times, as they made their new lives in Paris. And from that book, a name, an idea floated through her mind, circling the kernel of a plan. With the words “Lady DeWinter” on her lips, Mirielle fell asleep.
Kirika watched the woman known as Inge undress impassively. She had accompanied the performer to her dressing room, from where the woman now seemed disinclined to move.
They spent a full ten minutes in silence, something that obviously annoyed Inge to no end. It was clear to Kirika, that they expected something from her – some reaction, some sign – but what that was, she had no idea.
“You are a cold, cold, child.” Inge spoke abruptly, almost angry. “Do you not care that, even now, we hold your lover and may well be torturing her? Why do you not ask where she is? Or why we wait? Or even,” her eyes flashed suddenly and Kirika now realized what the real problem was, “who I am and what I want?”
Inge stubbed her cigarette out and stood, scraping the chair loudly against the worn floor. “Or do you think that I am a peon – so low on the hierarchy that I do not count!” Her voice rose shrilly.
The woman approached Kirika, thrusting her face into the younger woman’s. “I am not to be trifled with! I could send a message to have that woman killed – and you would never see her again!”
Kirika looked up into bloodshot, angry eyes calmly. Inge pulled away with a disgusted snort. “You are too cold and she will die.”
Kirika cocked her head slightly. “If she dies, what good will it do you? You’ll hold nothing that I want – or need.”
Inge spun around where she stood. “So! You can speak after all.”
Kirika nodded slightly.
Inge’s eyes narrowed. “You little shit. You think you know why we took her – why we need you.” She began to laugh, genuinely laugh. “Idiot. You know nothing at all.”
“Why don’t you tell me then, Inge?” Kirika let her voice linger on the woman’s alias, stroking the letters softly. The performer looked up from lighting another cigarette and smirked.
“Don’t waste your breath. ” She blew out smoke from nose and mouth. “I’m not interested. No – we wait here simply for one thing. A telephone call. When that comes, I will let you go to her. Until then, you will be my guest.”
“A call from the people who have her?” Kirika widened her eyes slightly.
“Yes, from them. They will tell you where to go. And you will leave this room and I will, God willing, never see you again.” The words were bitter. There was something here that Kirika could not place. Inge did not want her – she had made that plain. She knew, or thought she knew who Kirika was. There was something Kirika was missing in this interaction…
“Why don’t you take me there directly? Wouldn’t that be easier?”
Inge snorted. “Yes, much easier. But no, they tell me to stay here and wait, and so I do. ”
Ah, so it was internal politics. Kirika shrugged slightly. “What would happen,” she mused, “if you didn’t wait here?”
“What indeed?” Inge seemed to realize where the conversation was going. “You are a clever thing – they told me that you were. You look innocent enough, but your eyes make a lie of it.” She appeared to be lost in thought for a moment, then come to a decision. “Alright, you want to know what will happen if we take the bull by the horns.” Her accent had slipped away completely, leaving a rough and ready American voice. “Fine, I’ll tell you.
“What would happen, Miss Cold Eyes, is that I would be shot – quickly and cleanly. Either you or they would do it, but that would be that. My family, and yes, I have one, would be shot. My lover, my child, everyone who ever knew me. By tomorrow morning every instance of my existence would be wiped from the face of this earth. And *that* is why we sit and wait.” She whirled on Kirika, drawing back suddenly at the blankness of the girl’s face. Inge’s face paled.
“But why should you care?” she whispered. “You are not someone who cares about others.” She crushed a cigarette stub under her shoe and paced across the tiny room. “You do not care, even, that they hold your lover, why should you care that they hold mine?”
The breath Kirika released might have meant nothing, or many things.
Inge stared hard at the girl. “I can’t tell you what I know.”
Kirika met her eyes smoothly. “I know.”
Inge stamped her foot in frustration. “I know more than you think! Don’t underestimate me!” Her eyes flickered craftily. “You think you can get me to tell you, but you don’t realize that you are so wrong it’s almost funny!” She began to laugh hysterically.
Kirika could see that the woman was unstable – possibly mad. She cocked her head at Inge inquisitively.
“You idiot!” Inge cackled, “You think you know who you fight – but you are wrong!” She took a breath, as if to continue, then stopped, shutting her mouth with an audible snap. “No, I cannot say. Only that we have to wait, you see.”
“How long? How should I know?” Inge lit another cigarette with shaking fingers. “Maybe five minutes, maybe five days. Why should they care?”
“Who are they, Inge?” Kirika’s voice was so gentle, Inge had opened her mouth to answer before she caught herself. Her grin made her look like a cadaver.
“Hah,” she spoke humorlessly. “Hah.” Her face changed again. “Maybe…maybe you do know and you are just playing with me?” She scanned Kirika’s face for some clue. “Maybe you are all working together…or maybe,” her voice fell to a whisper, “maybe I just don’t care anymore.” She smoked her cigarette in silence for a few long minutes. She took one long last drag and stubbed the cigarette out. “No, I just don’t care anymore, I really don’t. I’m tired.”
Inge circled the room once and crouched next to where Kirika sat. “You know they are not who you thought they were. I can see that you do. If you promise to save him, save Peter, I will tell you what you want to know.”
Kirika’s eyes flicked to the side and Inge stood up, pressing herself back against the corner of the dressing room. “It’s too late” she hissed.
Kirika drew her gun. “Tell me quickly,” she folded her body against the wall.
“Peter is trapped in the castle, where they hold your lover, he is…” Inge jerked where she stood, then made a croaking noise. She looked at her own chest where blood spread quickly across her clothes. “He is…” she stepped forward, “they…” she crumpled to the floor as three figures broke through the door. Kirika shot two before they could aim at her, but the third had his gun to her head a second later. She lowered her gun.
“You want to see Mirielle Bouquet again…just come with me.” The voice was stiff and thickly accented, speaking from a memorized script in a language he did not actually understand. Kirika nodded. She holstered her gun. The man did not lower his own, but held his hand out. Kirika hesitated a second, then redrew her revolver and handed it over. The barrel against her head pushed slightly and she moved towards the door.
She had no intention of fighting them now. They wanted her alive, that much was apparent…but until she knew why, she might as well play along. And now there were two lives at the end of this road she needed to save…or avenge.