Midtown Manhattan, New York September 11th
Layla Rose Hassani had experienced many firsts in her life. Being kidnapped in Dubai and taken to Iran was a first she’d rather forget. Happily, that first led to her meeting the most irresistible man in the world, Cyrus, her personal Superman.
The first time she’d ever made love was with Cyrus, she knew he was the only man she'd ever love. Their first night of passionate lovemaking resulted in the birth of Cerise, their four-year-old daughter.
Even acknowledging her happy firsts set off an alarm.
Newsflash: Beware the jinx.
Her secret fear? How long before I spin out of control and end up in a ditch with an expired AAA card?
Her prayer? You can have your cake and eat it too. A successful marriage and career are yours for the asking. Some firsts were to be expected.
Some firsts were life changers.
Her firsts were zingers.
But no matter how many things went right, she still feared losing Cyrus and Cerise. Experience had taught her life was a roller coaster, lifting her to dizzying heights. Then just when she thought it could only get better, it all fell to shit, and she found herself tilting sideways, spiraling down, and helplessly plummeting toward earth.
She could see the ground, feel the drop—she knew how easy it would be to fall—to fall and lose everything. Disaster was only a breath away. Being kidnapped had taught her how fragile life could be.
That’s what made this first so special. She took in the sprawling gallery of the Museum of Modern Art, bedecked with bold, brilliantly colored paintings on loan from the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. She owned it—it was her baby. Her first internationally curated art exhibition.
She turned to Zachary Biggs, MOMA’s special exhibit’s director. “I can’t thank you enough for believing in me. You’ve given me a fabulous first...a ‘pinch me’ moment I’ll never forget.”
“You earned it Layla. You’ve shown what a pro you are. This is a creation you can be proud of.”
Wow, Zac’s praise is like a presidential endorsement. “Thanks. Without you, I couldn’t have done it.” “I doubt that.” Zachary stopped to admire Picasso’s Torso of a Woman. “I read once the curator of an art
exhibition is like a movie director and the installation itself is akin to making a movie. If so, this show is your directorial debut. I knew the first time we met you were a talent.
“Mounting successful shows at MOMA is my job. Nurturing talent is my passion. So, what’s next for the rising star curator of the Tel Aviv Museum?”
Layla studied the cubist-style painting with Zachary. “Do you recall, that in 1953 a seventy-two-year-old Picasso painted this last portrait of Francoise Gilot, his lover of seven years? This was the last of eight paintings and marked the end of their tumultuous love affair. Gilot left Vallauris, their home, shortly thereafter with their two children and settled in Paris.”
Zachary nodded. “Picasso was a difficult man to sustain a relationship with. It doesn’t mean you can’t balance both a career and family.”
Unlike Picasso, Cyrus isn’t a misogynist. Controlling, yes. Misogynist, no. “But I worry about the demands of career and the toll it takes on a family. I loved being back in the States. Putting on this show is one of the best things I’ve ever done, but right now, all I can think about is returning home to Cyrus and Cerise. Three weeks away is a long time. Glad I’m flying back tomorrow.”
“It’s a shame they couldn’t join you in New York for the opening. It would have made it easier for you.”
“Cyrus’ work keeps him very busy.” In a different world, maybe. Spies at the top of Iran’s hit list don’t travel much.
When worried, Zachary’s face resembled a Sharpei dog. Folds, wrinkles, and jowls headed south. “I was worried the protestors on the streets were going to kill the show.”
Folds, jowls, and wrinkles rearranged themselves into a smile. “Sometimes the first amendment is a pesky thing. Fortunately, it doesn’t take a genius to see the BDS and anti-Israel protesters are anti-Semitic and racists.”
She glanced at her watch. Zac was right about the protestors. Their motives were questionable. Five after seven p.m. She was late. “Sorry Zac, I’m late for my dinner appointment. I really have to run.”
He held out his hand. “It’s been a pleasure working with you Layla.”
She hugged him. “Thank you, Zachary. Working with you has been a dream come true.”
They continued through the exhibit to a bank of elevators. He pushed the down button. “Is your security detail waiting downstairs?”
“No, I released them for the night. The restaurant’s only a minute from here and the consul general will make sure I get safely back to my hotel.”
“Are you sure? I’d be happy to have a guard walk you over.”
“No, I’ll be fine.”
The elevator dinged. Layla got in. “Come see us in Israel.”
“Will do. Safe journey, Layla.”
The elevator arrived on the first floor, and she hurried to make her date. The museum was deserted after hours, and her heels clicked on the honed green slate floor echoing in the large foyer. She thought about Zachary’s concern for her safety and reminded herself Cyrus would not be happy if he knew she was walking the streets of Manhattan without security. The frenzied pace of the last few weeks had provided little opportunity for her to be the free spirit she considered herself to be. She didn’t need babysitters. Feeling completely anonymous, she saw no reason why she couldn’t walk the four minutes to her dinner date. Tomorrow her watchdogs would see her safely delivered, door-to-door, limousine to the departure gate, on board her flight back to Israel. Cyrus need never know of her insubordination.
A museum security guard stood ready to unlock the door for her. She smiled and waited as he did the honors. Nodding good evening, she stepped out onto West 53rd Street.
A warm September evening greeted her. Having been closeted all day in the museum, she took a deep breath. She glanced up at the banners hanging from streetlights and read, “Masterpieces of Israel.” What a rush. It’s like seeing your name in neon lights. She headed southeast on West 53rd toward 5th Avenue, a confident bounce to her step.
Midtown, Sunday night traffic was light. Five minutes later she passed under the signature white awning and red lettered signage of the famed French restaurant, Ma Maison. Inside, the scent of flowers transported her to the French countryside. Beyond the reception area, she caught a glimpse of the floral arrangements which rose above the diners in towering displays of color.
The maître-d’ greeted her. “Good evening, Madame.”
“Good evening. I’m meeting Avi Zaken for dinner.”
“Of course, follow me, please. The consul general is waiting.”
Layla followed the man as he deftly navigated the room. The soft, golden glow of chandelier light caressed the faces of the elegantly attired diners. Laughter and conversations filtered through the muted voice of a French chanteuse singing “La Vie En Rose.”
Avi Zaken stood. “Layla, dear.” He kissed both of her cheeks. “Congratulations on your triumph. Your father and Cyrus must be bursting with pride. I can tell you everyone in Israel is exceedingly proud of your accomplishment.”
He waited while the maître d’ seated her in the upholstered, curved, red banquette. Avi took his seat, his face filled with admiration. “I’m delighted we could find the time for a meal together. My dinner dates are usually politicians or diplomats—this is a welcome change.” He winked. “I much prefer sharing a meal with the most beautiful woman in New York.”
“Avi, charming as ever, I see.”
“No, my dear, just an honest, overworked government employee. Tell me, have you enjoyed being home?”
“I have, but it’s felt like a whirlwind. I’ve hardly had a moment to myself. I’ve loved being back in the US, but the truth is I can’t wait to get back to Cyrus and Cerise. Three weeks is too long to be separated from them.”
“Ah, the love of a mother and a young marriage, just as it should be. What a beautiful couple you two make.” Their white-jacketed waiter interrupted, pouring Layla a flute of champagne.
Avi nodded his thanks to the server and raised his glass. “To you, my dear, and your family. L’chaim.”
“L’chaim.” Layla took a sip, the bubbles tickling her nose. She took a moment and looked around the room. “Avi, this restaurant is fantastic. It’s such a treat to dine in such a beautiful place. Thank you for this invitation.
It’s the perfect end to a perfect trip.”
“One of my favorites in New York, the last bastion of classic French cuisine and elegant dining. I don’t get here often, but we’re celebrating are we not? Wait until you taste the food. The Dover sole is unforgettable.”
“Cyrus is going to freak when I tell him. My husband is a wonder in the kitchen. Cerise and I are lucky. I’m afraid my cooking talents aren’t all that hot. I wish he could be here with us tonight. He considers himself quite the gourmand. The ambiance and cuisine would be his ticket to heaven.”
“It’s a shame he couldn’t accompany you, but I’m sure you understand,” Avi’s voice plummeted to a whisper. “I’m afraid, even after five years, it’s too dangerous for him to leave Israel.”
“Do you think the Iranians will ever forget about him? I want so much for us to travel to America and Europe.”
“My dear, be happy you were able to dissuade him, and he permitted you to go to the US at all. I heard from the prime minister he put up a big stink, demanding increased security for you. I’m afraid it’s unlikely the Iranians have forgotten an operative who betrayed their secrets. He’s an unsung hero in Israel, but those in the know are grateful for his service. I think it’s best he remains just where he is. A rising star at Mossad, doing whatever it takes to neutralize Iran’s nuclear threat.”
“Speaking of my husband’s need to neutralize threats, please don’t tell him I blew off my security and walked to the restaurant without my watchdogs.”
Avi’s face was a study in control. “That security team is clearly not Mossad. I should be chastising you, my dear, but since you arrived in one piece and are as dazzling as a ten-carat diamond to these old eyes, I’ll withhold my lecture and agree to keep your secret. However, I do intend to reprimand those lazy good for nothings for letting you out of their sight.”
Layla burst into laughter. “Please, Avi, don’t be too harsh on them. In all fairness, I insisted they take the evening off. As far as your ancient stature, we all know you’re as spry and adept as ever. They don’t call you the silver-tongued diplomat for nothing.”
“That, my dear, is a media sobriquet, an exaggeration.”
“I’d say it’s more of a well-earned designation. One thing is for sure—when I tell Cyrus about tonight, he’s going to be jealous not only of the Dover sole but also of the man who wined and dined me.”
Avi raised his hands in mock fear. “Then we’d best not tell him. I’ve no intention or need to incur the wrath of such a skilled adversary. I may be single and divorced, but I’m harmless. Please tell him dinner with me excited you as much as dining with your father. Speaking of your father, how is Dr. Wallace?”
“Busy as ever between the laboratory and his doctoral candidates.”
“Our country is grateful to have him on our side.”
“It’s hard to believe it’s been five years we’ve lived in Israel. Dad’s adjusted better than I thought he would.
After my mother’s death, I didn’t think I’d ever see him happy again. Of course, Cerise has as much to do with his adjustment as anything else.”
“Grandchildren are the greatest of blessings. Besides, there’s the added pleasure of being able to give them back to their parents when you’ve had your fill.”
Layla laughed. “I’m so lucky to be surrounded by brilliant men.”
Avi raised his glass again. “To your continued good fortune, my dear. However, your husband is the lucky one. You should know if he decides to seek another career, he’d have a bright future in politics. With you on his arm, he’d be a shoo-in.”
Layla clinked her champagne flute to his. “You too, Avi, to your good health, and may you continue to represent Israel deftly.”
She sipped and shook her head. “Politics? I’ve never given politics a thought, and neither has Cyrus.” It occurred to her Avi’s suggestion might hold merit. “Maybe you’ve hit on something. I’ll have to give your idea some thought. I can’t imagine anyone being able to resist my husband’s charm. Perhaps this could be my ticket to travel.” A vision of Cyrus pandering to crowds made her laugh. “I hear the security can’t be beaten and the perks are off the charts.”
“Nothing, my dear, is more powerful than a man and a woman who share a common goal. Even if hers is a more personally satisfying one.”
After dinner, while Avi settled the bill, Layla excused herself to go to the ladies’ room. She washed her hands and glanced in the mirror. A young woman pushing a wheelchair entered the restroom. The wheelchair occupant’s head was bent forward, her face hidden in the folds of a scarf. The wheelchair blocked the exit.
Layla smiled at the woman who pushed the chair. “Don’t worry, take your time.”
In accented English, the woman thanked her as she tried to help the invalid rise. She struggled to lift the large, unsteady, woman. “Here, let me help you.” Layla kneeled to assist and felt a prick in her leg. “Ouch!” She looked down and saw the glint of a hypodermic needle. She tried to scream, but her vocal cords seized, her protests sounded like the hissing of a snake. Oh, my God. My voice? What’s happening to me? Her legs gave out beneath her. She sank paralyzed, all her ability to control her muscles gone. She knew her eyes were bugging out of her face with terror. She tried to form the words Help me...somebody help me? Tried to wrap her lips around them, but she could hear nothing but hiss, hiss, hiss.
The two women worked as a team, together they picked her up and lowered her into the chair. The woman who’d pretended to be incapacitated kneeled in front of her, unwound the scarf from her head and grinned. Layla wanted to scream, to kick, to claw the eyes that smiled, taunting her. Am I in some weird, parallel universe? The woman was a man.
He ignored the soundless cries coming from Layla and reached underneath the wheelchair. When he rose, he held a briefcase. After entering a code, the briefcase snapped open. Carefully he activated a switch, and the contents came alive. He gave a satisfied nod to his accomplice and locked the case. Then he pulled a roll of duct tape from beneath the chair. Terrified, she watched him tape the briefcase behind a Demilune cabinet situated against the wall.
In a frantic effort to resist she tried to move her fingers and hands, but no part of her body responded. Unable to fight, they effortlessly secured and wrapped her in a scarf and blanket.
How could she have been so stupid to blow off her security? To risk everything without a thought to the danger? Her husband was a target, which made her a target. She was going to die. Poisoned and paralyzed, she was going to die, and she’d brought it on herself. All she could do was watch as the man who’d sat in the wheelchair removed the long black shroud-like cover he’d been wearing. Beneath the shroud-like garment, he wore slacks, a shirt, and a tie. He grabbed a sports jacket from beneath the wheelchair and put it on.
With the transformation complete he nodded to his accomplice. The woman peeked out the door, nodded okay, and her accomplice left the ladies’ room. A minute later, the other woman wheeled Layla, her hair hidden beneath a scarf, through the dining room. She tried to scream for help when they rolled past Avi, but her body was no longer hers. He didn’t give them a second look. She saw her life pass before her. I can’t be kidnapped again. The thought that she might never see her family again filled her eyes with invisible tears.
At the entrance to the restaurant, the man with shoulder-length dark hair waited, holding the door open. She was screaming, she could hear it in her head, but her cries were no more than hisses that emanated from an unfortunate woman. She managed a slight tremble, causing the wheelchair to infinitesimally shake, which only registered in the maître d’s eyes as pity. He quickly looked away and bid them goodnight.
Outside, a black SUV idled at the curb. The doors swung open, and a man with wavy dark hair jumped out. The two men lifted Layla out of the wheelchair, strapping her into the car with a seat belt. Abandoning the wheelchair, the two men and the woman who’d pushed her outside, jumped in the SUV as it sped away.
Her heart pounded, fear strangled her. She struggled to gain control of her body—she needed to fight the drug that immobilized her. If she had any hope of being rescued, she needed to stay vigilant. Even the smallest detail might mean the difference between life and death. Death! Am I going to die? Why is this happening?
The vehicle raced away and left Ma Maison behind with a screech of rubber on the pavement. The long-haired man in the front seat turned. A wordless exchange passed between him and his accomplices. He punched numbers into a cell phone. His finger hovered over the keyboard for a second. He looked at each passenger, and they nodded their approval. He pressed a key, and a series of deafening explosions rocked Midtown Manhattan. Windows fractured up and down East 52nd Street. The deafening blare of fire alarms going off shattered the silence. She caught a brief glimpse of terror on the faces of people in the street as they whizzed past.
Inside the car, the kidnappers shared a moment of excitement, their tones ominously congratulatory. It was madness. People were dead and dying, and they were doing a happy dance. For the first time in her life, she wanted to kill. She recognized the language. Farsi. They’re Iranian. A fear of a different kind crept up her spine. Kidnapped, I’m kidnapped. These monsters just blew up the restaurant and murdered innocent people, and I’m the cause. She was bludgeoned with guilt.
Even the debilitative drug couldn’t prevent the tears welling in Layla’s eyes. Oh, God! Avi, all those innocent people. Was there something I could have done to avoid this? If I’d only brought my guards would it have made a difference? Or would they too have been part of the body count?
Her throat felt like she was being made to swallow rusty nails. She pictured the sweet face of her daughter, Cerise. An image of Cyrus, his face fractured with pain, tore a wrenching cry from her. The startled kidnappers began arguing. When Layla saw the women remove another hypodermic from her bag, she struggled to twist away. A scream pierced the air. Her scream. Her vocal chords pushed against her throat. The needle punctured her skin, and she howled like a banshee. The effect was immediate. Consciousness withdrew. A black curtain came down over her eyes.