Chapter 8: Liar’s Den

Marlene was eventually released from French custody. The case was closed after a homeless man admitted to firing the weapon (even though Marlene knew it was a boldfaced lie). Pilar had no immediate family to whom to tell of her death. Marlene went to the quiet funeral at Père Lachaise cemetery. She and the Catholic priest presiding over were the only attendees.

After the cemetery’s pallbearers lowered the casket into the cold, dark hole in the ground, Marlene found herself being drawn to looking at the tombstones interred there. After a long search, she found Jim Morrison and Frédéric Chopin’s final resting places. Marlene felt a strange sense of calmness sweep over her, even as the wind began to blow and the rain commenced. She paused in the middle of the silent residence where hundreds of people were buried to stare up at the rain pounding violently down on her. Marlene’s clothes were soaked through, but she didn’t feel the iciness. Her tears began to mix with the downpour.

* * *

After the one week mourning period Section Seven granted her, Marlene was sent to London to monitor Syrai. The pretense was that she was now being sent to crack the passcode she took pictures of from the Casablanca poster. It turned out the code itself was a cipher text and would not open the suitcase Federov kept his notes in. The cipher would need to be broken. Marlene was an amateur cryptologist and did have some further Section Seven-sanctioned training on it, so nobody questioned her sudden need to go to London. It made sense for her to continue with the Murphy Understudy assignment. Mal was being sent to Tokyo for an Understudy assignment of his own.

“Marlene!” Syrai’s warm greeting floated across the quiet hall as Marlene stepped off the secure elevator into Section Seven’s London office.

“Hey Syrai!” Marlene said, putting on the warmest smile she could muster for the fraud.

“I heard about Pilar,” Syrai offered her sadly, as she met Marlene halfway. “Was it really Aurora Pagano, the woman David was talking about at the Gauntlet?”

“Officially, no. A homeless man took the blame, for some reason. His fingerprints were all over the weapon and everything. But unofficially, just between you and me, I know Aurora did it,” Marlene said, scrutinizing Syrai’s face.

Syrai nodded agreeably, no flash of recognition coming over her. Marlene was steaming. If she could just catch the little bitch in a lie, she could bring her down right then and there. But then Syrai flashed a smile and clapped her hands together.

“I’m late for a meeting. Let’s get together some time later this week, okay? I make a mean chicken paella,” Syrai offered brightly, gently placing her hand on Marlene’s arm. She tried not to recoil in horror.

“Sure, see you,” Marlene replied, shooting mental daggers into the woman’s retreating back.

* * *

After coming to the conclusion that she would need to go to a public library to crack the cipher text, Marlene decided to call it a day. It was late and she needed her rest. Her brain was burnt out from trying to piece together all the possible combinations she knew, used, and double-checked using Section Seven’s expansive knowledge-base. It was fruitless. She had called ahead and gotten permission to take her research to one of the Oxford University libraries.

Just as she was cleaning up her workspace, a knock sounded on the door of her temporary office.

“Hey Maria,” David greeted her uncomfortably.

“David, you can call me Marlene. Everyone else does,” Marlene said, smiling inwardly at her brother’s formality.

“Okay. I was wondering – do you have any plans for dinner?”

“Um, no. I was planning on ordering room service. Why?” Marlene asked.

“It’s just that, well, I told my – our – grandparents about you. I said that you would be in town for an art gallery opening. They’re our father’s parents. Grandma and Grandpa would like to meet you.”

Marlene was flummoxed. It hadn’t occurred to her that she had living grandparents, as Maylene’s parents died in the Philippines before Marlene was even born. “I thought they were dead,” she disclosed.

David smiled. “I bet your mom just let you think that way.”

“You know what? You’re probably right.” She paused and flashed a smile. “I’d love to meet them.”

* * *

David hailed a cab for them in front of the Four Seasons hotel Section Seven put her up in. Marlene briefly returned to the hotel to freshen up. They rode to their grandparents’ flat in silence. David politely opened the cab door when they arrived at number 101. Marlene hung back as her brother rang the bell.

“David!” the chipper voice of an elderly woman sang as she opened the door. She gaped at Marlene, who was standing shyly beside him. “Marlene! You look just like your mother! Come in, come in!”

Her eyes danced brightly as Marlene and David removed their coats to hang on the rack attached to the closet door. As soon as Marlene moved away from the rack, the woman looped her arm through Marlene’s to lead her to the kitchen. “Grandpa Rudy is in the family room, honey,” the woman called to David.

“Thanks Grandma,” he said, turning a corner and out of Marlene’s sight.

“You can call me Grandma Annie. My real name is Anne-Marie but hardly anyone calls me that anymore,” Grandma said cheerfully. “David was telling me how you managed to find him using the Internet, is that right?”

“Yes, yes I did,” Marlene said breathlessly. She liked Grandma Annie already. She was a breath of friendly, fresh air.

She plunked Marlene down at a stool in the tiny kitchen. Marlene took in her grandma’s kitchen. It was warm from the oven and stove working overtime and smelled wonderful like melted butter and cinnamon. It was just how she imagined a grandmother’s kitchen should smell like.

“I just baked a small salmon. I hope that’s enough for us. I’m not used to cooking for two grandchildren,” Grandma Annie explained, her eyes dancing around. “So tell me about your life. What do you do? Where do you live?” She turned to busy herself at the stove with a teapot.

Marlene paused, wondering where to start. “Um, I live in California with my mom and my little sister.”

Grandma Annie squinted her eyes, as if trying to recall a forgotten memory. “Lily, right? I remember your mom sending me a letter when she was born.”

“Yes. And Lily’s about to graduate from high school. I go to college now, I’m studying English.”

“English? Your Grandpa Rudy studied that at university as well!” Grandma Annie said merrily. The teapot began to sing. “David! Rudy! Tea!” Grandma Annie yelled in the general direction of the family room.

A heavyset, gray-haired man shuffled into the kitchen, followed by David.

“You must be Marlene,” the man said heartily, slapping her on the back. “I’m Grandpa Rudy. I’m what your brother will look like in forty years!”

Marlene grinned and just sat back, watching her grandparents banter and David trying to smile indiscreetly behind his teacup. She felt the first genuine wave of happiness wash over her in a long time. For just a split second, she forgot who she was, why she was sent to London in the first place, and became the Marlene underneath it all.

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