Rocking Around the Christmas Tree
Nikki Lanier popped open the hood of her small red Fiat and stepped out onto the sun-washed, dusty Colombian road that tumbled away in a series of jogs and bends in either direction. The far side of the road was a mass of greenery from which issued an occasional lonesome birdcall and the repetitive chirp of insects. The near side was a wall of clay bricks broken only by a set of tall iron gates and a smaller wooden door a few yards away. A scrawny calico cat sunned itself on top of the wall, ignoring Nikki, who was pretending to examine the inner workings of the engine. The blast of hot air from under the hood added to the sheen of sweat covering her skin. The monotonous tick of the cicadas should have made her feel alone; instead it simply seemed to underscore her feeling of being watched. She held still and listened for a sound behind the insects.
Her cell phone buzzed against her hip bone, vibrating in her pocket. Fireworks of adrenaline burst in her chest, shooting sparkles of fire down her arms. They were supposed to be in the communication blackout phase. Had something gone wrong with the team? Nikki checked the phone’s face. Her boyfriend’s picture blinked next to “incoming message.”
Against her better judgment, she pressed the accept button.
“Call me. We need to talk,” was all the message said.
Nikki froze. In the entire history of man, nothing good had ever come from the phrase “we need to talk.” A grating noise pulled her back into the moment.
Turning, she saw the small door in the wall slowly opening. Nikki whipped back around and looked at the engine again, stuffing the phone into her purse. She put Z’ev firmly out of her mind. It was time to concentrate on the mission. The team depended on her.
She heard the crunch of footsteps as two men emerged from the doorway. They were wearing jeans and T-shirts, with guns slung across their shoulders. Nikki knew at a glance that the black, snub-nosed machine guns were TEC-9s. Nikki waved happily at the two men, who remained expressionless.
“Boy, am I glad to see you guys!” she chirruped, trying to look as harmless as possible.
“¡Usted no puede parquear aquí! ¡Usted no puede estar aquí!”
“Sorry, fellas,” said Nikki, jutting out one hip and sounding as American as possible. “No habla español. I don’t suppose y’all habla car?” She made little steering motions with her hands and then broke the imaginary wheel. The men exchanged looks.
“Sí, pero está buena.”
“Justos, ayudémosla a arreglar su coche así se va más rápido.”
The second man shrugged. They both slung their guns behind them and approached Nikki’s rental car. Nikki beamed.
“You can see it’s just busted all to fooey,” she said, holding the smile and resting a hand on the upraised hood.
Both men ducked under the hood and peered at the engine workings. Nikki maintained her smile, put both hands on the hood, and then slammed it down on their heads. There was a satisfying whonk sound, and when she raised up the hood both men fell, unconscious, onto the roadway.
“No todos los americanos son estúpidos, mus amigos,” Nikki said in perfectly clear Spanish, looking down at the bodies. “But it’s nice to know you think I’m hot.” She collected the guns and pulled the guards to the side of the road, pushing them into the underbrush.
Moving quickly, Nikki went through the door in the wall and walked briskly down the path as if she had followed it a hundred times before. The path led to a small, round building that overlooked the gate and the main house. She slithered through the doorway, letting the TEC-9s lead the way. The caution proved needless since the hut was empty except for blinking TV screens that showed various black-and-white viewpoints of the grounds, including a middle-gray version of Nikki’s Fiat and a small delivery van arriving at the back gate.
“Right on schedule,” she said, checking her watch. Her rescue plan was moving smoothly through phase one and into phase two—extraction.
Nikki flipped the switch that opened the back gate, and the van pulled through without even stopping. Reaching under the console, Nikki ripped out a series of wires, and one by one the TV screens went blank. Then, taking a tool kit out of her purse, she climbed on the console and inserted a bug into the junction of wires where they emerged into the room. When a repair crew came in, all they would see was the mess of ripped-out wires under the console; meanwhile, Nikki’s team would be able to see everything going on in the Alvarez compound. Climbing down from the console and dusting off her hands, Nikki frowned.
“We need to talk,” she muttered to herself. “There’s nothing to talk about!”
Nikki jogged toward the main house, still carrying the TEC-9s. But her mind was racing faster than her feet, considering the things Z’ev might want to talk about. Two days from now they were supposed to meet in Mexico for two weeks of Christmas fun, sun, and making out on the beach. And probably lots of those little drinks with the umbrellas in them.
Nikki liked this plan; it was a good plan; had lots of good points to recommend it. Avoiding one more depressing, obsessive holiday with her mother, for one thing. And it was convenient since she was already in South America on “business,” anyway. Not that Z’ev needed to know that. And had she mentioned umbrella drinks and making out? Nikki approached the house with a worried expression that had nothing to do with the looming oak doors. Z’ev had canceled this vacation before. Twice before, in fact.
Nikki kicked open the front door and quickly scanned the room. In one corner was an enormous fake Christmas tree that had been decorated with a Martha Stewart–like pathology. The rest of the room boasted a mix of traditional Colombian and totally drugged-out Miami Vice decor. It was Colombian eighties. Nikki paused her scan at the fireplace; there was a large fertility god on the mantel, large in a way that required the kind of hand gestures fishermen usually reserved for the best fish stories. No, really, it was this big. While Nikki was taking a moment to consider why men felt the need to decorate with their penises, a maid ambled into the room accompanied by the slow sluff, sluff sound of her house slippers on the tile floor.
“Buenos días,” said the maid, shutting the door and ignoring the fact that Nikki was carrying not one but two submachine guns. Nikki smiled uncertainly.
“¿Puedo tomar su bolso?” the maid asked, gesturing to Nikki’s purse. For lack of anything better to do Nikki handed over her purse, shrugging it awkwardly over one of the guns.
“Where is Mrs. Alvarez?” asked Nikki, momentarily forgetting her Spanish.
“La señora no está aquí,” said the maid placidly, and Nikki stared in dismay.
“¿No está aquí?” repeated Nikki, feeling a cold fear creep into the pit of her stomach. What did the woman mean, “not here”? Nina had to be there. Isolated from her family and married to the abusive head of a drug cartel, Nina Alvarez needed help. The mission was to extract Nina and install monitoring devices in the house to help them bring down her husband, who was funding revolutionaries throughout the region. That was the plan. But in order for the plan to work, Nina had to be there.
“Los hombres están allí,” said the maid, pointing through a large archway.
Nikki looked through the archway and felt a gust of wind that chilled the sweat on her skin. Hearing the loud pop, pop of gunfire coming from the same direction, she took a big gulp of air and ran toward the noise. She paused at a corner and risked a glance before sharply pulling her head back. Her team had three guys pinned down, but the men were behind a big cement planter. Nikki swore under her breath.
The team had deviated from her plan. Nikki remembered the briefing; she was pretty sure she’d been extremely specific about the east entrance. The guards patrolled east to west. Entering on the west put them directly in front of the guards; entering from the east put them behind the guards and in perfect position for an ambush. Entering from the west meant that they were more likely to be spotted and get into a time-consuming and dangerous shoot-out … like they were doing now. This was exactly the sort of thing Nikki had been trying to avoid. She ground her teeth in irritation and calculated her next move.
Between the hard pops of gunfire she heard the sluff, sluff sound of the maid approaching. Nikki glanced over her shoulder and saw the maid shuffling quickly toward her, apparently talking on Nikki’s cell phone. Nikki gaped in disbelief.
“Get back,” she hissed urgently at the woman, making desperate “go away” hand gestures.
“Sí, señor, Lucy Ricardo. Esa pelirroja loca. Aquí está.” She handed Nikki the phone with a smile. “Es el señor.” Nikki took the phone, wondering what else could go bizarrely wrong today.
“Nikki, finally! Where are you? That sounds like gunfire.” Z’ev sounded irritated.
“I’m at Mrs. M’s,” lied Nikki. The number of times she was mysteriously hanging out at her boss’s house was growing improbable. She was going to have to come up with a new place to be. “Some kids are lighting off fireworks.”
“Wow, they’re loud.”
“I know,” said Nikki. “Can you hold on a sec?” She didn’t wait for his reply but held the phone to her chest, muffling the speaker, and leaned around the corner, firing a spray of bullets at the men behind the planter. There was a yelp from one of the men, and Nikki heard Camille yell at them to put their guns down. She picked up the phone again.
“I think the gardeners are yelling at them now,” she said, hoping that would cover any yelling he might hear in the background.
“Oh, good. Look, Nikki, about our vacation plans…”
Nikki felt her neck muscles tense. “No, Z’ev! No. You’ve canceled twice already.”
“It’s not my fault, it’s work.”
Nikki bit back a reply that involved swearing and glanced around the corner in time to watch Jenny take a running dive over the planter and take out one of the guards. She pulled her head back and leaned against the cool adobe wall.
“Well, you can tell them to go take a flying leap off a cliff!” she said fiercely. It was the best she could do without a diatribe of cuss words that she couldn’t quite bring herself to say with the maid watching. “I haven’t seen you for more than two days in a row in two months.”
“I know, I know, but these things just happen.”
“They don’t just happen, Z’ev. You let them happen! I rearrange my work schedule for you.” She pushed herself away from the wall and walked out into the courtyard. Jenny had a grip on one of the guards; the other was wrestling with Ellen.
“Well, forgive me, but I think my work is just a little more important than yours.” Nikki thought of Nina Alvarez’s bruises and got mad. Ellen lost her grip, and the man slithered out of her grasp and ran toward Nikki, still looking at Ellen.
“My work is just as important!” she yelled into the phone. Forgetting about the TEC-9 dangling from her shoulder, she punched the guard in the face. He went down like a sack of potatoes.
“…you work for the Carrie Mae charity foundation,” Z’ev was saying with irritating calm as she put the phone back to her ear. “And outside of that one time in Thailand, world peace doesn’t exactly depend on you.”
Nikki clenched her fist around the phone. She couldn’t decide which infuriated her more: his attitude about her job or the fact that she couldn’t tell him what her job really was. The Carrie Mae Foundation, charity subsidiary of the at-home-cosmetic-sales giant, was a widely acknowledged force for women’s rights; that they also happened to use force was less well-known. Very few people outside the foundation knew about the all-woman spy network. What worried her was the creeping suspicion that even if Z’ev knew she was an operative for a secret agency focused on women’s rights, he’d have the exact same attitude.
“Well, I may not work for the CI—”
“Nikki!” Z’ev interrupted sharply. Talking about his job on the phone was forbidden.
Briefly, Nikki took stock of the year that they had been dating. Weekends mostly, and occasional weeklong visits in between missions, his and hers respectively. She’d always tried to get time off or schedule things around his visits. He’d never even invited her to his apartment in Chicago. He had never made her a priority.
“I may not work for your ‘company,’” Nikki said, “but if you read the news these days, it’s a pretty good guess that in the world peace department, you guys suck!”
There was an angry silence on the other end of the phone, and Nikki made a quick status check; the team looked fine. No one was bleeding. Jenny was hog-tying the guards.
Nikki walked toward Nina’s room; she had a mission to complete, but her legs felt rubbery. She couldn’t believe he was doing this to her. Ellen was a few steps behind her.
“Nikki, I’m sorry, but this is the way it has to be,” he said at last. There was an angry finality about his tone that she hadn’t heard before.
Nikki opened the door and looked around the room. He had a drawer in her apartment and a job in the CIA and Nikki suddenly realized that was how it was always going to be. The room contained a lot of things, but none of them was Nina Alvarez. She blinked back tears. This was a disaster.
“Well, in that case, Z’ev Coralles,” said Nikki, reverting to her mother’s habit of using full names when truly pissed, “next time you want to call up and cancel plans with me, don’t bother, because we don’t have any.” And she hung up the phone.
© 2011 Bethany Maines