Slowly, I nod.
“I’m not sure how it happened,” I begin to explain, looking at the table, “but yes, I did for a time. There were days I couldn’t be without him, not because of Izel, but because…I ached inside. Javier was a cruel and brutal man, but he did love me and he was kind to me.” I raise my eyes and look right at Nora. “This may be hard to believe, but Javier never once hit me. At least not out of violence or anger. He did punish me…did things to me…sexually, that some might think is violent, but I didn’t. At least not after a while.”
“You liked it,” Nora says evenly.
Feeling uncomfortable and too exposed, I snap back to the previous topic, not wanting to go deeper into this aspect than I already have.
“But yes, there was a time that I loved Javier. It’s sick, I know. I don’t need you telling me that, or looking at me like I’m some kind of freak. You can’t understand unless you’ve lived it, and your words and opinions and accusations mean jack-shit to me. Call it Stockholm syndrome too if you want—whatever—but yes, I loved him for a time.” I taper down when I realize how overly defensive I had become.
“I would never judge you in that way,” she says. “I know what it’s like to be grounded in a life not of your choosing.”
She doesn’t offer any more than that.
“But you keep saying ‘for a time’,” Nora goes back. “When did you stop loving him and why?”
I smirk at her and cross my arms, leaning back in my chair.
“I’m not giving away all of my secrets,” I say.
She smiles with a nod. “Fair enough.”
Then she tries adjusting herself on the chair, finally displaying a look of discomfort, but it doesn’t last long.
“You shouldn’t feel threatened by me,” she says and has my undivided attention. “I didn’t come here for that. And I’m not showing off; I was made like this. I’ve been doing it all my life, Izabel, from the moment I was plucked from between the legs of a mother I never knew. It’s like learning your native language—you grow up fluent and it can never be forgotten or erased, and you speak and write and hear it with a perfection that those who don’t speak your language can only envy. They can try to learn it later in life, but very few will adapt to it so well that they lose their accent entirely. I was made this way. And I know nothing else. And you, no matter how hard you train, or how good you get, will never lose your accent.”
“But that doesn’t mean I’m not valuable to them,” I say, though still trying to make myself believe it, too. “I don’t want to just be Victor’s woman, his lover. And I know that everyone else, when they look at me, that’s all they see.”
“That’s something you’ll never be able to change,” she says. “When I got involved with my first civilian while working in the field, something happened to me that I never expected—I started to care. I saw how this man lived, how he loved his wife, his sons; I envied his monotonous office job and mundane existence. I never had anything like that before. I never knew what it was like—a normal civilian life, because the very first breath I took was filled with training. I mean that in the literal sense—as a newborn, I was in training.”
I know I must look aghast, but I can’t make myself look any other way.
“That man,” she goes on, “when I saw him and his wife with their newborn, I was fourteen-years-old. They hired me on as a babysitter. But the way they loved that baby, the way the mother held it in her arms, stroked his little bald head, kissed his tiny nose; I was intrigued by it because the babies where I came from were not treated with such kindness and love, and it was so foreign to me. Where I come from, from the moment babies are born there’s no one to cradle them, or stroke their heads, or sing to them, or pick them up every time they cry. They are fed and they are seen by a doctor to make sure they stay healthy, but no one loves them or thinks they’re cute. No one feels guilty about leaving them in their cribs and letting them cry themselves to sleep. They grow up disciplined, hardened soldiers, and they know nothing else. But that man I was sent to kill when I was fourteen, he changed me. Somehow just seeing the way he lived, experiencing it, it infected the soldier in me and made me weak.”
Nora looks off toward the wall, a look of anger and animosity at rest in her eyes.
“Did you kill him?”
She looks back at me.
“I killed him and his wife,” she says, “and made their sons orphans. I fulfilled my mission. I did what I was told.”
I can’t tell if it bothers her or not.
“But you can’t make Niklas and Dorian and Woodard and Fredrik look at you and see someone other than Victor’s woman,” she says. “I couldn’t make my family, my organization, see me any differently when they found out my emotions had been compromised. I was who I was. And I paid the price for it.”
She glances down briefly at her pinky finger, but doesn’t elaborate, and I don’t think she wanted me to notice.
“I see,” I say softly.
“Do you?” she asks. “Or could what you see be a lie?”
She’s trying to confuse me now, because she told me more than she intended.
“No, I believe that it’s the truth. A lot like Niklas, you wanted to tell me.”
She smiles vaguely.
“But how do you know for sure?” she asks. “What makes you think that everything I just told you wasn’t me just manipulating you?”
“Because I’m more intimate than most with that look,” I say evenly, “and because I’m a professional liar and know the difference.”
She nods respectfully.
“Perhaps, Izabel, you should stop worrying about what you don’t possess and focus all of your energy on what you do. No one can be good at everything.”
I don’t offer her a response and I get up.
“Dina Gregory is a nice woman,” Nora says. “I really do hope that Fredrik comes.” She pauses for a moment, pondering. “My meeting with him I don’t expect to go so well, and I’m not too proud to admit that he scares the fuck out of me, but he’ll play an important role in my being here.”
Intrigued by her admission, I study her for a moment.
“How so?” I ask.
“You’ll have to wait and see.” Her lips turn up at the corners.