Natasha Kelly softened her tread as she descended the carpeted stairs. With her weight balanced on one foot, she peeked over the balustrade.
Dirk Sloan, the heartthrob of women the world over, waited on her living room sofa. He stared unblinking through the sliding glass doors, idly rubbing his temple with his right index finger.
How he managed to do it without marring the perfection of his blond hair, she couldn’t fathom. Years of maintaining that illusion of the ideal man, perhaps.
His leg tapped a nervous rhythm against the frame of the couch, atypical for him, but becoming more of a reality as he continued to struggle with regaining portions of his memory.
Natasha sighed. What could she do to alleviate his distress? She couldn’t imagine what it was like to lose months out of your life.
“I’m ready.” She stomped her shoe on the final step as if working her foot in the loafer.
Dirk whirled then stood with a broad smile of greeting, his pearly white teeth further evidence of his impeccable nature.
“Natasha, my lovely, how you captivate my heart!”
“Was that a line from one of your movies?”
She slid easily into his embrace, and he brushed a light kiss on her forehead.
“No. A heartfelt declaration. What would you like to do today?”
His faultless British accent brought a flutter to her heart. She could listen to his romantic declarations all day. She captured his hand and pulled him to the couch with her.
“What’s on your mind, luv?”
“I think a better question would be what’s on your mind?”
Dirk’s blue eyes went blank. “There’s only you.”
“Now, don’t go all secret-agent on me. I’m concerned. You’re not sleeping and you stare into space when you think no one’s watching. You’ve regained most of your memory, so what’s bothering you? Are you bored? Do you need to spy on something?”
He pulled her into the curve of his arm.
“Natasha, nothing is more important than you. I told you I’d remain here until we got to know each other again, and I’m perfectly comfortable. I don’t miss spying, and I certainly don’t miss acting. So…relax.”
“I could…if you could. Just tell me what’s bothering you.” When he hesitated, Natasha nudged his side. “I trust you, Dirk. You can trust me.”
“I would trust you with my life. You’ve become quite an agent.”
“But you don’t trust me with your feelings.”
“Undercover agents aren’t supposed to have feelings, and actors only reveal them on-stage. I’m not acting now.”
Natasha sighed. “I know you love me, and when this problem gets too much for you, I’m ready to listen. Nothing will shake my confidence in you.”
“Not even forgetting that you exist?”
“If Yaakov hadn’t injected you with plague virus…well, we made it past that. It just took awhile. And God has certainly taught us to trust Him.”
“Without the Lord, I don’t know I’d have the courage to start over. Especially when you left me alone in Israel.”
“You needed time. With me around, your mind was always struggling to remember.” She ran a light finger down the contours of the muscles in his arm. “So…what’s pressuring you now? I can feel it.”
Dirk took a deep breath. “Natasha, knowing you has given me great satisfaction. Sharing our faith has made…it’s made life worth living. No matter what I say, or what happens in my job, please believe that you come first. I’d leave it all behind, MI6 and the film career, if it threatened our relationship.”
“I feel the same.”
“I don’t find acting or the spy business more exciting than everyday life with you nor am I anxious to run back to it all. You’re my home now.” His eyes jumped to the sliding glass doors. “But…I feel this urgency…as if I forgot something important, something…crucial.” He faced her again. “Everything I do has begun to feel disjointed. I wake in the middle of the night, and I see this face, an old man. There are voices just beyond the edge of my consciousness. But, I don’t know who the man is or even if it’s a real memory trying to surface. I’ve asked God to help me, but I seem to think about the old man even more.”
“Perhaps that’s your answer…the old man.”
“I don’t follow.”
“God may be telling you to go with your instincts. Often, He lays a heaviness on our hearts about something He wants us to take care of. This burden may be God-given. Were you ever told anything about your capture or your rescue?”
“I never asked. I just assumed no one knew anything about my disappearance up until the moment Jadon gave you the location of Yaakov’s secret lab. Did something unusual happen?”
Natasha shook her head. “It was an ordinary rescue, but you weren’t the only captive in the lab. There was another man, an elderly Jew, according to Jadon. When we reached the hospital, no one knew who he was until John came to see you.”
Dirk’s eyes lighted with a familiar fervor. That secret agent part of him had identified a problem.
“You mean that monk?”
“Yeah, John took one look at him and had me phone David Benjamin. David rushed to the hospital, and they wouldn’t even let me in the room. I heard David almost yelling, like he couldn’t believe what John was saying. Then one of David’s Mossad teams showed up and hauled the patient away, even though he was still in a coma.” Natasha squeezed Dirk’s hand. “Dirk, he was very old. John and David may know the identity of the man you keep dreaming about.”
“Why was I never told any of this?”
“How were we to know it was significant? You’d lost your memory. You still don’t remember the old man. And he was in a coma. He couldn’t say anything.”
“Of course. I’ve just been so frustrated. And to think, all this time, there may be someone who knows. Did John or David tell you anything else?”
“When I tried to ask, they both looked like it was something they didn’t want to talk about.” She threaded her fingers with his. “Look, there were a lot of things I never knew. Jadon was supposed to get to the lab before us and run interference. I don’t know what happened to him. I certainly never saw him. And why didn’t the team kill Yaakov when they had the chance?” Natasha shrugged. “When we got back to the hospital, you were the only thing that seemed important.”
“I understand, and I’m glad you left everything else to care for me. I don’t know what would have happened if you hadn’t been there when I woke up. Even though I couldn’t remember you, I felt safe when I saw you and believed you when you said I was no longer in danger.”
“Nothing could have made me leave you, but I’ve had questions ever since I returned from that mission.” She laid her head on his shoulder. “You know, Trinity might not be willing to tell me, but you could probably find out.”
Trinity Pictures provided Dirk’s cover story. Three different spy organizations ran the film and production company: The United States’ CIA, the Israeli Mossad, and the British Secret Service, MI6. Each group of spies worked in conjunction to prevent attacks against their own countries and that of their allies. They only shared cross-over information on a need-to-know basis.
Dirk stroked his chin for a moment. “Not if the Mossad classified the mission.”
“You’re looking at this the wrong way. You were there. Tell David you think something is wrong, something to do with that old man who was imprisoned with you. Tell him you need to remember.”
Dirk closed his eyes. He could probably convince David Benjamin that something troubled him about the mission, but he wasn’t sure his friend could do anything about it. Benjamin basically ran field operatives. Someone higher in the Mossad must have decided what to do with this anonymous old man, especially if he was important to the nation of Israel.
“I’d like to try. Can I use the secure line in your bedroom?”
“Of course.” Natasha leaned to kiss him on the nose. “I’ll be waiting for you.”
Dirk hurried up the stairs and wrote a message to send through Natasha’s fax line.
Benjamin, I have questions about old man in coma. Something wrong. We should put our facts together. Sloan 24-7
Dirk fed the note into the machine and glanced at the clock. In Israel, the time was about 6 o’clock on the evening of Shabbat. It could be some time before anyone responded. But knowing Benjamin, he never stayed away from work long. He’d probably check his messages before retiring for the night.
Dirk trudged downstairs in a much better frame of mind. He bounded over to Natasha, swung her off the couch and into his arms.
“Let’s spend this beautiful spring day outside.”
“I should have had you contact David days ago.”
“I should have told you what I was thinking. But now that we’ve addressed the predicament, I feel more confident. It’s Shabbat in Israel, so let’s go out, and we’ll check for David’s response when we return.”
La Palma, Canary Islands
David Benjamin struggled to open his swollen eyes. The danger of permanent blindness, not to mention death, became a distinct possibility if he underwent another beating.
He squinted. Why bother to reexamine his dungeon, anyway? The rugged, pock-marked walls of the volcano shaft hadn’t changed. He couldn’t climb a fifteen-foot wall with his bare hands.
But how he’d tried. The first few days he spent every minute endeavoring to claw footholds in the surface of the walls, volcanic rock so porous it crumbled in his hands or so hard it tore into his fingernails and skin until he had open sores. And now, he felt too weak to attempt climbing out of the pit.
How many days had he been trapped? He’d lost track of time. Sometimes he saw daylight when they pulled him out, sometimes night.
He attempted to formulate a plan, but it had become difficult to hold an idea for any length of time. He tried reciting Psalm 23, but no sound came from his parched throat and the movement of his bleeding lips produced spasms of pain across his face.
How long could he go without water? The heat in the pit was slowly cooking him. If the end really was approaching, he would fail his mission, but he’d revealed nothing during torture. Even when they injected him with truth serum, he’d focused on one thought, his answer to everything.
God is good, God is faithful.
Infuriated by his endless repetition of the phrase, the terrorists hit him so hard he passed out. That didn’t seem to matter now. The people he cared about, that he’d left behind; none knew where he was or that he might die alone, striving to save his country.
What of his family? They might never know the Meshiach if he wasn’t there to tell them. And Natasha. What would the Mossad tell her…and Sloan?
David had relinquished any claim he might have had on Natasha’s affections some time ago. Maybe he never loved her. Perhaps she’d shown up at a time in his life when he was ready to contemplate something comfortable, something secure.
She affected people that way. At peace with who she was, stable in what she believed. It was relaxing to be with her.
Was that what he really craved from a relationship? Had he used her to run away from something more risky? Only one person had ever made him feel he had something at stake, but he’d panicked. Anya had never forgiven him for severing their ties without any explanation.
If he disappeared now without a trace, would she mourn him? If only he had another opportunity to tell her what she meant to him.
At least, she still had Natasha to steer her towards Meshiach. Natasha witnessed every chance she got. It seemed to be having an effect, too. Anya was asking all the right questions.
A spasm of violent coughing racked his chest, and he tasted blood in his mouth. Probably a punctured lung; his chest ached from broken ribs.
Yahweh, is this what you want for me?
Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me. May those who seek my life be disgraced and put to shame; may those who plot my ruin be turned back in dismay. Since they hid their net for me without cause and without cause dug a pit for me, may ruin overtake them by surprise- may the net they hid entangle them, may they fall into the pit, to their ruin.
A sharp noise drew David’s attention upward, but his eyes failed to focus. The grating sound indicated someone was removing the cover to the volcano shaft. Would it be daylight or night, interrogation or beating?
The pulley dropped beside David, and someone hauled him to the surface.
“Hey, you no look so good. Perhaps you tell us what we want to know before you die.”
Merciless hands dragged David to his feet then tossed him in the back of a jeep. He’d taken this short jaunt many times before. In minutes, the jeep halted, and someone yanked him up and forced him to sit on the tailgate while another voice addressed him.
“All right, Jew, I’m tired of your silence. Tell me who you work for and where your compatriots are.” The stench of bad breath fanned his cheeks. “This is your last chance. If Miguel drops you in that hole, he’ll never lift you out again. Comprende? Wouldn’t you like a drink of water, something to eat? You are a fool to die this way!”
With death staring him in the face, it was time for David to play his ace-in-the-hole. If only he’d held out long enough to make it convincing.
Mossad headquarters, Israel
“Sir, this communiqué showed up on Agent Benjamin’s fax machine. It’s from a secure line.”
The sheet of paper exchanged hands.
“Has there been any communication from Benjamin?”
“No, sir. He’s more than two weeks overdue.”
A loud sigh filled the room. “I suppose we have no other operatives in the area?”
“Sorry, sir. He knew the risk of going in alone.”
“I’m aware of that, Dosier, but it doesn’t make the situation any easier for Benjamin, now does it? Had he a bolt-hole?”
The clerk observed the outburst in stride. To him, it illustrated the Director’s constant concern for his men. “No, sir.” He drew his superior’s attention back to the sheet of paper. “The message, sir?”
The Director’s eyes narrowed. “Is it possible Sloan has any knowledge that might be useful?”
“He has yet to regain his full memory. He could know anything at this point.”
“Send a memo back. Benjamin is unavailable for an unknown length of time. Let me know of further developments.”
Natasha and Dirk returned to her home by nine that night. Dirk performed the habitual security check of the house before racing up the stairs to check the fax machine. “I’ll be right down.”
“Want some tea?”
“Sure,” he yelled from the top of the stairs.
Natasha smiled as she wandered to the kitchen and pulled out two glasses. All the spies she’d met were the same. When they worked a case, everything happened at fever pitch. But she was becoming accustomed to it.
When Dirk thundered down the stairs, the look on his face spoke volumes.
“What’s wrong?” Natasha asked.
Dirk handed over the sheet of paper.
David Benjamin is unavailable, indefinitely. Don’t call us, he’ll call you.
She slapped it on her table. “What is going on? David gave me that number. It’s my only secure contact number.”
Natasha checked her watch. “It’s a little before five in the morning.”
“Call her before she disappears for the day.” The flinty tone of his voice underscored the urgency.
Natasha hit the speaker phone and dialed the overseas number from memory, waiting for the short delay until the phone began to ring.
Anya picked up on the second ring. “Barux haba?” asked a groggy voice.
No use taxing Anya’s limited English this early in her morning. Natasha answered in Hebrew. “Boker tov, Anya, Natasha here.”
Natasha preferred to get right to the point of her call, but Anya’s phone was not on a secure line so this had to seem a social call.
“Natasha, it’s wonderful to hear from you. How are you?”
“Fine. Have you any plans for today?”
“Nothing pressing, are you coming over?”
“Actually, I was trying to reach the Great Lover.” Natasha kept her tone light. “His phone is out of order.”
“I hadn’t heard that.” Anya’s voice perked up with interest. “Have you checked with the Great Pretender?”
Dirk snorted when he recognized their pseudonym for him. “Present and accounted for.”
“Ken, I heard. Well, I’ll call back later from another phone. Was there anything else?”
“Lo, shalom, Anya.”
Dirk rose menacingly before Natasha. She ducked and ran down the stairs. He came after her in a flash.
“Natasha, darling, why is Benjamin the Great Lover while I’m the Great Pretender?”
He caught her in the living room and threw her on the couch to tickle her mercilessly. Natasha writhed in gleeful contortions, laughing with abandon.
“It wasn’t my idea. Those are Anya’s code names. Why would she call you her Great Lover?” She laughed even louder as he continued the torture. “Dirk, it’s a compliment. You’re an actor; she called you the Great Pretender.” She squealed. “Dirk, Dirk, stop! I can’t take anymore.”
Dirk eased off but towered over her as she lay on the couch, gasping for breath.
His eyes danced in merriment then became serious. He bent to brush her lips with his.
When he pulled back, Natasha traced a finger down the side of his face. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.” He stood. “It’s time for me to leave. We have church in the morning. If you need to call me tonight, use my cell phone so you don’t wake your brother.”
“All right. I hope Anya discovers the truth. I feel like something’s wrong.”
At the sight of Dirk’s wooden face, she scowled. “Now, don’t pull that secret agent look again.”
“Sorry, darling. The situation feels wrong to me as well. Let’s pray before I leave.”
“We’re still waiting, Jew. Hit him again, Miguel.”
David opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out but a raspy choke.
Miguel’s round, pock-marked face sought the other man. “He can’t speak. Pour water down his throat.”
Water trickled over David’s face and into his mouth.
“I better not be wasting this water on you, Jew. Tell me something I want to know or we kill you now.”
David choked again.
Jose lifted the water bottle, but Miguel knocked his hand away. “Enough, make him speak.”
“Safehouse.” David could barely whisper the Hebrew word.
One of the guards kicked him. “Espanol.”
David repeated the word in Spanish.
“What safehouse?” The terrorists yelled as one.
“Weapons,” David gasped out.
Water splayed against his face, stinging every torn piece of flesh. A bottle touched his hand, and he took several swallows then paused. If he drank too much, he might wretch.
“Drink, we want an explanation.”
David took another swallow and cleared his throat. “There is a…munitions compound…not guarded.” David stopped for another drink. “I have security codes.”
The two terrorists stared hard at one another. Both islands, La Palma and Gomera, were owned by Spain. Though separated by only a short expanse of water, Gomera was another country altogether.
They discussed the matter between themselves. Gomera maintained little security, so no border patrols would be watching for smugglers. As long as the weapons remained well hidden during travel, the risk would be minimal. However, if they were discovered at any point during their trek across the island…prison was not an attractive thought, especially for gunrunners.
Miguel leaned toward the other guard. “Hosea, would not Yaakov prepare the way for us?”
“Shut up, you fool.” Hosea’s bright black eyes glanced uneasily at David.
He betrayed no outward sign that he heard Yaakov’s name, but it was the proof he needed to take back to Israel. Now they could send a team…if he got out alive.
“If we involve anyone else, we’ll have to share what we find.”
“No.” Miguel spat out the word like venom. “We have taken the risks. The weapons are ours alone.”
“Then we can’t expect help from that source.” Beady eyes shifted to David. “Jew, how large is this cache of weapons?”
“One truck could carry most everything from the coastline of La Palma, but you’d have to fly it out of Gomera.”
They had resources to fly, but they’d have to involve someone else in their plan.
“Too risky. How far from the coastline is this compound?”
“Close…in a ravine off Los Organos. But it’s all volcanic rock from the coast to the ravine. No place to drive a truck. No place to land a boat. A solid cliff.”
“Where are your compatriots?”
“I was on reconnaissance. No one came with me.”
Hosea nodded at Miguel. “Drop him back in the hole.”
They dragged David to his feet and half-carried him to the back of the jeep. He slid the bottle of water down his shirt during the short drive back to the pit, not sure whether they meant to leave it or not, and he wasn’t taking a chance. Water meant survival.
At the bottom of the pit, David reflected on what he’d just done. The compound he’d identified belonged to Trinity Pictures, not Israel. He wasn’t on a mission for Trinity. For the time being, he was strictly Mossad. Considering the nature of the mission, Trinity should be happy to part with a few obsolete guns.
Safehouses provided an out. The security code allowed the agent to send his whereabouts, initiating a rescue. Unfortunately, this area of the world wasn’t exactly crawling with agents. He had maybe one chance in a million that anyone would arrive in time, but it was probably his only chance.
A shrill ring woke Natasha from a deep sleep. She reached for the phone while glancing at the clock. Three in the morning. What took Anya so long?
“Hello, this is Natasha Kelly.”
“Anya. I am on secure line, sorry to be calling in the middle of your sleep.”
“It’s all right. What did you find out?”
“Not much. David is missing on some mysterious assignment.”
“What do you mean…missing? No one knows where he is?”
“That is correct. He has disappeared.”
Natasha heard the pain in Anya’s small voice. Maybe there was something she and Dirk could do.
“Where is he supposed to be?”
“They won’t tell me.”
That made sense. The Mossad were notoriously tight-lipped, even within their own ranks.
“Al tedag, Anya, we’ll get right on it. Listen, I’ve told you before, you can trust Yahweh with David. This is not the time to doubt Him. I promise you, He’s faithful.”
“I…I made a deal with Him, Natasha. If He brings David back, I’ll be a Christian.”
Lord, help me. What can I say?
“Neshomeleh, it doesn’t work like that. Yahweh wants you to love Him because you love Him, not because of what He can do for you. If David never came back again, could you say you knew Yahweh had a plan for you, that He was still working out what was best for you?”
The sound of soft sniffles cut into Natasha’s heart. She wanted to reach through the telephone and wrap Anya in an embrace, but she couldn’t.
Holy Spirit, be with her and help her.
“I don’t know. Is that what you told yourself when Dirk disappeared?”
“That’s exactly what I told myself, and sometimes…I even believed it.” Anya managed a forlorn little laugh before Natasha continued. “Trust is a difficult thing. Mine is always changing and expanding, and I know it will continue to grow until Yeshua comes back to get me.” There was silence from the other end. “Anya?”
“Call John if you can’t take the pressure.”
“Yes, he’ll pray for you. And call me anytime. When I find something, I’ll call you back. Make sure you leave your answering machine on when you go to work. Now, let me pray for you and David.”
After Natasha hung up, she turned immediately to snap on her lamp and grab a fresh sheet of paper from the fax machine. What could she say that would force the hand of the Mossad?
To Whom it May Concern- Arriving in Tel Aviv shortly with the Great Pretender. (Ok, so everyone in the Mossad called Dirk that.) Have last whereabouts of David Benjamin ready or will publicize pictures of comatose old man captured with the Great Pretender. Also, will contact the monk for confirmation of said old man’s identity. Sincerely, Agent 409
Ha! They might have called her 409 because they thought she’d wash out of Mossad training like Formula 409, but she showed them.
Of course, they could send someone to assassinate her.
PS- If I disappear, I have left directions for pictures of old man to be spread all over the Internet.
Natasha sent the fax. That should ruffle some feathers. She looked at the clock again. In Israel, it was shortly after noon. She should get a quick reply.
Tel Aviv, Israel
Dosier traipsed into the Director’s office with a sheaf of papers. “Director, there’s been another communiqué from the States.”
The Director looked up from the documents he was reading to study the face of his secretary. As usual, it revealed nothing. The man would have made a good field agent. “Nu tzadakti. Are they up in arms?”
“Oh, yes, sir, threatening even.”
He enjoyed a slight chuckle. “Ei, gut, they’ll arrive more quickly. Let’s see it then.”
He pursed his lips as he read Natasha’s note, reached for a clean sheet of paper, scribbled a few lines then handed it to Dosier. “Put my stamp on this and send it back.”
Dosier headed out the door, but before he could exit, the Director stopped him. “And Dosier…”
“Send Anya Perez in.”
When the fax machine began to hum, Natasha was leaning against her headboard, resting her eyes and reciting Psalm 93 over David.
She snatched the paper as it fell from the slot. Hurry up, then. Director Ravin.
The Director himself.
Uh oh. If she got in his way, the man would just as soon shoot her as look at her. Too late now.
She called the airlines and made two reservations for Tel Aviv, Israel, then called Anya, who said she would wait for them at the airport.
Now, she could take a nap until time to wake Dirk. It wouldn’t take long to throw a few things in the mission bag she kept ready at the foot of her closet.
The alarm sounded at 5:30, and Natasha reached for the phone and dialed.
“Good morning, darling.” Dirk’s greeting sounded crisp and bright for that time of the morning.
“How’d you know it was me, and why do you sound so awake at 5:30 in the morning?”
“I was expecting your call. Who’d you have to threaten to find Benjamin?”
“Just Director Ravin.”
At Dirk’s silence, she continued. “Our flight leaves in two hours.”
“I see. I’ll pick you up in thirty minutes.” The line went dead.
Dirk’s lack of comment on her new association with the Director didn’t mean he was happy about it. Loving someone in espionage required many adjustments, for both of them. They were learning to withhold hasty remarks.
Natasha jumped up and took a quick shower. When she left for a mission, she never knew where she’d end up or how long it would be until she got the next bath.
She hoped to put Dirk in a better mood and spent longer on her make-up than she should have. She heard his key in the lock then his voice calling up to her before she was quite ready.
“Natasha, I’m here.”
“I’ll be right down. I’m putting on my shoes.” She slid her feet in comfortable shoes before grabbing her flight bag.
As she appeared on the landing of her stairs, Dirk whistled.
She pirouetted so he could absorb the whole picture, wavy blond hair hung glossy and sleek down her back over a pale pink cashmere sweater and form-fitting pink leggings.
For some reason, Dirk had a preference for seeing her in pastel pink, so she wore a lot of it. Perhaps it reminded him of innocence and safety.
He smiled in appreciation. “That better be for me.”
She hurried down the stairs and dropped her bag on the stoop. His arms encircled her waist, and she wrapped her arms around his neck. “It’s all for you.”