Sitting at the table with Ariyan, I listened to his soothing voice as, beyond the windows, the sky grew dark and rain began to fall. Lights inside the café switched on, bringing a warm glow to the crowded room.

Ariyan made his announcement sound like his own, difficult confession. “It pains me to tell you this, but I have heard rumors, I have seen things with my own eyes. I do not want to hurt you, I would never do anything to hurt you, but my conscience and my concern force me to speak. Your husband, oh, how can I say it, he is not what he seems. He does drugs, cocaine, heroin, I’m afraid. And he…he frequents gay bars.” He sat back, holding his breath with suspense, large eyes apprehensive.

When I didn’t respond, he continued, talking as much with vivid hand gestures as he did with his passionate voice. “And to do this to a woman such as you. I cannot understand. Surely you see you cannot stay with a man like this. You must leave him!”

I wasn’t angry or even surprised. Mostly, I just felt numb. I supposed Ariyan had ordered one of his henchmen to follow Slick. No doubt, thought he was doing me a favor. How could he understand that I just didn’t care?

He wrapped my hand in both of his and said with a desperation that made his lips tremble, “I love you. My heart breaks to see how unhappy you are. Your pain is my pain. It tears at me inside. From the first time I saw you, looked into your eyes, saw how you smile just a little bit…so sad, I knew I must save you. But I did not know from what, or whom. And so, I had to find out. Your husband is without honor. Any man who could treat you with such disrespect, toss you aside. He is insane!”

“He’s a good person,” I said, suddenly wanting to defend Slick. He’d never hurt anyone but himself. He was an addict at the end of the road. He deserved some sympathy. And when did men talk about saving women these days? Wasn’t I supposed to recoil at that? Puff up with self-righteous indignation at such an offer from a man who claimed to so not be a male chauvinist?

But then, came the coup d’état. Ariyan’s voice vibrated with the importance of the moment, sweat forming on his brow. “You are so talented. A great artist. Your paintings…they are prophetic. So this is what I propose. I would like to take you away from this. I…I would like to take you with me to Berlin. I will set you up in your own flat, in your own name. I will buy you a car, in your own name. I will rent you a studio so you can paint. I will pay all the bills. And after a time, if you will have me, I will marry you! But first, I want you to be independent so I know that when you marry me, it is for love.”

I sat very still and stared, not at him, but at my hand where it lay encircled by his, thinking how white it looked with the angry, ugly scars of my old wounds, how very like a slab of cut-up cod fish. I might be living in Los Angeles, but my skin still held the transparent pallor of an English girl. I’d arrived with nothing and I had nothing still; in fact, I now had negative nothing with the debts. All my dreams coming to this city had been sucked right out of me. Every day was a struggle, not just to survive, but to look successful when really I wasn’t, and I knew I couldn’t keep it up much longer.

I imagined what it would be like to let go of that strain. To move away completely, start over as the mistress of this little man in a city where no one knew me, where I could perhaps gain independence.

Independence? Did that mean accepting money from a man in exchange for sex? But he’d marry me. And for the first time in my life, a man had said I was a true artist. It wasn’t about him, it was about me. Did I believe him? Did I even care whether I believed him or not? Isn’t this how people succeeded in the world? You had to make compromises. You had to pay your dues, do what you needed, climb over the heaps of bodies to get to the top, even of a very small hill.

I left Le Relais Basque, telling Ariyan I’d consider his proposal, but knowing I’d take it. It didn’t matter what he really meant; anything was better than my present situation. My life here was finished. I’d work hard in Berlin, become a famous painter, and return in glory. Yes, that’s what I’d do. It was a perfect next move for an artist.

I unlocked the door to the apartment and went inside. Slick sat on the sofa, smoking a joint. I couldn’t look at him too closely. I knew what I would see; the dark circles around his eyes, the protruding shoulder bones, the shaking hands.

“Hey, babe,” he said, and starting coughing uncontrollably.

“Hey.”

Already I felt as if I was gone, sure of what would happen next. I’d promised to tell Ariyan tomorrow afternoon. Pack your bags, he’d told me. Do you have a passport? I did. We leave as soon as I can arrange it. Be prepared.

In the bedroom, I surveyed my small world. I’d take my paintings to my friend Adonai’s for safe-keeping. Adonai owned Les Relais Basque. She was a Berber; well, maybe she was. Nobody really knew where she was from.

I called her five times, and finally she answered with, “Darling, WTF, someone better be dead.”

I explained my situation and she promised to come the next morning.

“Anything to get you out of there,” she said in a sleepy, smoky voice.

I sat on the corner of the sagging bed and thought how to break it to Slick. Maybe he’d be relieved. Maybe he was looking for a way out and hadn’t known how to do it. We hadn’t had sex in months. Maybe he now had a boyfriend; who knew?

I was a coward, I didn’t have the nerve to tell him to his face. I’d just leave a note.

Next morning, I rose early and walked past Slick, where he lay sprawled on the sofa, head buried in his skinny, tattooed arm.

I went into the tiny kitchen and poured myself a glass of orange juice, forcing away the stab of pain and worry. I turned on the television, knowing it wouldn’t wake Slick.

A ribbon across the bottom of the TV screen announced that this was a breaking story. Above it was an aerial view of a burnt out mansion with police cars, firetrucks and ambulances parked in the circular driveway, lights flashing. The picture changed and I gasped, the juice glass slipping through my fingers and crashing to the ground. On the screen was the face of Ariyan Barzani and I heard the words, “…the Kurdish leader, who it’s rumored has a price on his head in Iraq, was murdered in a calculated, vicious pre-dawn attack. There’s been speculation as to the level of his involvement with the recent Kurdish/Turkish hostilities; however, this has yet to be fully verified.”

The voice continued, “In the early hours of this morning, Mr. Barzani was shot to death in his Hollywood Hills home and his body set on fire. The blaze torched much of the mansion before firefighters arrived and extinguished the flames. In fact, there is speculation that explosives were used. Mr. Barzani had been influential in Kurdish politics for many years.”

His two sons were also mentioned as having suffered a terrible loss. Apparently, they were both in boarding school in England.

The picture on the television changed to a view of a stormy Pacific and the weather announcer appeared.

I continued to stare in disbelief.

Ariyan murdered.

Ariyan was dead.

My stomach churned and I struggled to breathe in short, sharp gasps, as if a knife had pierced my side. I knew I’d been playing a dangerous game. Involved with someone like that.

Fuck! How could he do this to me!

I started to pace back and forth in the tiny kitchen. Imagine if I’d gone to Berlin; maybe I’d have been in danger. Maybe in danger now! Maybe someone was coming after me. Maybe spies thought I knew something, had been given some information, and I was next on the hit list. It happened in the movies; how about that Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn movie, or Arabesque with Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant?

Oh my God, just listen to yourself, I thought. I’m angry at a man who’s been murdered.

A man who kissed me, held my hand, told me he loved me.

I could at least spare a thought of sympathy for him. I’d cared about him…hadn’t I? Or not?

A rap on the door startled me from my reverie. Should I answer it? Should I not? Frantically, I looked around. Unless I jumped out a second-story window, there wasn’t any escape except through that front door. I tiptoed up to the door and looked out the peephole.

Thank God!

I opened the door to Adonai. Amazingly, she’d really shown up as she’d promised, so early in the morning, wearing a scarf around her head and a large pair of dark glasses hiding her eyes.

I packed a small suitcase, nothing more. We stacked my paintings tightly in the area behind the front seats of her convertible Porsche. I put my suitcase in the boot.

I put my goodbye note on the coffee table, kissed Slick lightly on the forehead, and left, knowing he’d sleep until early afternoon.

“What’s happened?” asked Adonai.

“I have to leave Slick. I can’t stay there another minute.”

“Good for you, cheri. And no argument, you’re staying with me.”

I sighed in relief. “Thank you.”

We made it to the café without incident. I pulled out my suitcase and followed Adonai inside. The place was strangely empty. I’d never seen it like that. It looked like a stage set. All prepared, quietly expectant.

We stacked my paintings up against a wall. She made me a strong Turkish coffee and excused herself to make some phone calls in her flat upstairs. After a bit, I grew nervous, wondering when she’d come back. I didn’t like being alone.

“Adonai?” I called.

Instead of her answering, the front door of the café opened and a man entered. He was of medium height and powerfully built. His bald head shone above a pair of piercingly blue eyes.

He smiled and extended a hand with a slight bow. “I am so pleased to meet you, Hannah. I am Lance Rey.”

I murmured something, I don’t know what. Of course I knew who he was. Everyone did.

“I am very interested in your firefly paintings,” he said.

I could feel my cheeks flush with confusion. And I must admit some pleasure. Who wouldn’t want Lance Rey as a patron? And yet, why had he shown up like this? My mind was elsewhere.

Thankfully, Adonai returned at that moment.

“Ah, you have met,” she said. She pulled out one of my larger paintings. My best. A swirl of light and color.

Rey looked at the painting appreciatively. “Yes,” he said. “I love this one.” He turned his blue eyes on me penetratingly. “Where do you get your inspiration?”

I shrugged. “I’ve always been fascinated. Ever since…my youth.” I didn’t want to mention the suicide attempt. That would be a real downer. I started to say what I told everyone, how I’d been awakened one night by a light and I’d followed it outside, blah, blah, none of which was true.

I didn’t get very far. His eyes stared at me so intensely that my voice faded away. He wasn’t fooled by what I was saying.

He tapped the corner of the painting. “I want to buy this one. Come with me; I’ll show you where I want to hang it.”

I followed after him, down the short hallway.

He propped the painting up against the wall at the end, to the left of the staircase. Why would he put it in such a dark place? I felt offended. But then I found myself staring. The fireflies looked so bright, so alive. Were they moving?

In that moment, I had a sudden urge to walk closer and investigate. But someone grabbed me from behind. I struggled and then stopped when I saw that besides the person who held me, there were three other men behind him, all with guns drawn. I recognized them as Ariyan’s bodyguards.

“We’re getting you out of here,” said the one holding me.

They now surrounded me, as if shielding me from Rey. I heard Adonai give a little gasp.

Rey’s expression of serene composure never changed. But he advanced a step toward me and I felt the menace. Then he relaxed and shrugged.

“I knew that little shit wasn’t dead,” he said.

It didn’t hit me at the time what he meant. I was in shock. It seemed useless to resist the bodyguards. They led me out of the café and into a waiting van. The one I’d always noticed following after Ariyan’s car.

Once inside, I realized how hard my heart was beating. One thing seemed sure; if I wanted to go out with a “bang,” staying with Lance Rey would have afforded me the experience. But why Rey would wish me harm I didn’t understand.

We drove silently out of Los Angeles and into the desert, traveling east. Maybe I was still going to be killed. Left in a shallow grave for the coyotes to devour.

But no. All that happened was I was given bottled water and adequate bathroom stops.

I had time to think and I remembered what Rey had said about “that little shit.” He must have meant Ariyan. I mustered the courage to ask, “Where’s Ariyan?”

No one answered me.

I must have fallen asleep, because the sun was low when we reached our destination. I opened my eyes to see we were out in the middle of nowhere. Before me was an airstrip, empty except for one sleek jet.

The driver carried my suitcase and I followed him to the jet, along with the four guards.

“Have a pleasant flight,” the driver said.

I placed a foot on the bottom step and looked up at the yawning opening above me. I could still turn around. Go back to my old life.

No, I couldn’t. It was too late for that.

It was dangerous where I was going. It was dangerous where I’d been.

I was as good as dead if I returned. If Rey didn’t get me, Slick would take me right down with him.

Ariyan had died in a fiery explosion. I’d seen it on the news. I should know better than to believe everything I saw on the news.

I’d almost died once. I had nothing more to fear. There was nothing anyone could do to me that I hadn’t already done to myself.

I ascended the steps to the plane.

And there was Ariyan. The insignificant little man who had miraculously come back to life. How many times had he done that?

He got up and walked toward me.

“My darling Hannah,” he said.

“Fuck you,” I said, as he took me in his arms.

I pulled away, wanting to chastise him. All I could think of to say was, “Next time, you better take me with you, wherever you go. To Turkey. Kurdistan. Don’t leave me behind.”

It was ridiculous, I know. But how do you start a conversation under circumstances like that?

He smiled indulgently. “Wherever you wish.”

“But you’re dead,” I said. Again, an inadequate comment.

He brushed his fingers across his luxuriant moustache and then reached out his arms like wings. “I have been reborn.”

He took my hands in his, warm and tender, and reached up on tiptoe to kiss me deeply on the mouth. Why did I love his kisses? Because they made me feel more alive than I had ever felt before. Because they were given by a man who was completely and utterly interested in me.

We sat down next to one another and a server brought us champagne.

Ariyan explained to me that old enemies had resurfaced and had been stalking him. The danger to his life had been mounting. He’d discovered a plot to kill him. So, he’d decided to do it for them. With the help of some friends in the FBI, he’d staged his death.

“The FBI does stuff like that?” I said.

“My darling, you cannot begin to image what goes on.”

I accepted this latest story of his, just as I had to all the others. The difference was, those had been in the past and they hadn’t involved me. I was now a part of the stories.

I looked down at his feet, noticing for the first time that he was wearing white tennis shoes, brand new and without a single smudge.

“Where are your cowboy boots?”

He sighed with regret.

“Alas, some sacrifices needed to be made.”

Fleetingly, I wondered who had been lying dead in the mansion, wearing Ariyan’s cowboy boots.

Sacrifices needed to be made.

“I met Lance Rey. He wanted to buy one of my paintings. He acted so strange…” My voice trailed off. What to say?

Ariyan frowned. “If I’d known about the painting…but never mind. We can retrieve it later. My men came just in time. You have nothing more to fear.”

“All my paintings are there,” I said sadly.

He put his arm around me. “Never worry for anything. We will get them back.” He continued, “Rey thought that because you paint fireflies, you must know something.”

“What? What do I know?”

He shook his head. “Nothing. I don’t think you know anything. You are an artist. A real artist, after all, and you feel things most people don’t. But Rey is paranoid. If you had stayed there, he would have sent you…away.”

“Adonai, I thought she was my friend.”

“Adonai isn’t so bad,” Ariyan assured me. “She called to let me know you were there.”

“Then she knew you weren’t dead?”

“I told you, she isn’t so bad.”

“Nothing is what I thought it was,” I said. But whatever it was, it was better than what it had been a few hours before. A lot better.

We clinked glasses.

“Berlin is on hold for the time being. But never fear; my island oasis awaits. For now, sit back and enjoy the ride.”

The engines roared and the plane taxied forward. I looked out the window. My heart jumped with excitement and I felt the heady surge of power as the jet took off for the faraway horizon.

***

For all installments from Luminaria, click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Chapter 1: Come to Me — Lana
  2. Chapter 2: The Proposition — Hannah, Part 1