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Yellow Tulips
About the Author: Peter W. J. Hayes is the author of the Silver Falchion-nominated Vic Lenoski mystery series. His short stories have been finalists for the Derringer and Al Blanchard awards, and have appeared in publications such as Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Mystery Magazine, Crimeucopia, Pulp Modern, three Malice Domestic anthologies and The Best New England Crime Stories. Two of his stories were chosen by Robert Lopresti for his Best Mystery Story I Read This Week blog.

Levon Grace felt the commercial airliner tilt as it turned south toward Ankara. Below, the setting sun glittered on the surface of the Black Sea. Levon tried to appreciate the sight, but couldn’t. This was his first visit to Ankara, it was unfamiliar ground, and his assignment should have started three days sooner.

“Cake-walk,” Carter Quince had told him the day before, sitting across from him in the narrow armchair of Levon’s Washington D.C. hotel room. Outside, traffic snarled through the darkness under a pattering rain. Carter’s tone was apologetic.

Levon knew Carter was trying to be honest with him, but Carter told lies for a living. The apology behind his words was the best he could do.

“Let me get this straight,” Levon said. “Your best informant in the Turkish National Intelligence Organization, or MIT, or whatever they call it, disappeared two days ago. Her name’s Aisha Aydin. And you think she left MIT headquarters in Ankara and went dark.”

Carter’s blue eyes were serious behind his round tortoiseshell glasses. “Right. She transmitted her burn code but never showed in Istanbul. That’s her protocol to escape the country. That means she’s in her Ankara bolt-hole, waiting for someone to show up.”

“And you don’t have the address.”

Carter pursed his lips. “Again, standard procedure. Suppose someone is reading her messages? We set up a greeting protocol years ago. I’ll give you the hotel name. Just go there and wait for her to make contact. You do the napkin, she’ll do a yellow tulip. Like I said. Cake-walk.” This time Carter’s use of the phrase was ironic.

So much for trying, Levon thought.

He also knew they were skirting a third possibility, that Aisha was already in a Turkish jail, or worse, a soundproof room in the jail’s basement. But it was bad luck to mention that outcome. And it was fair to assume the Turks hadn’t turned her. If they had, Aisha would still be transmitting reports.

“And if she actually makes contact?”

“Well, she can’t stay in-country. Just do what you think best.”

Levon didn’t like that last sentence at all. His instinct was to walk away. As a private contractor for the CIA, he could. But he and Carter had worked together almost fifteen years, since Carter’s early years when he changed strategies and abandoned informants whenever things turned tough. Carter’s face still carried the mark of those early days, a slight depression under his left eye where his orbital bone broke and never properly healed.

But Carter tempered after that. He developed reliable protocols and stayed loyal to his informants. Gave his plans time to mature and find success.

Levon often thought that when his punch broke Carter’s orbital bone, it was good for both of them. He’d certainly felt better at the time. But it also meant he couldn’t walk out on Carter now.

“Okay,” Levon said. “I need everything you have.”

Carter lifted his briefcase from the floor and placed it on the desk. “I’ve got photos.”

Twenty-four hours, two plane flights and a taxi later, Levon was sitting in the bar of Ankara’s Atakost Hotel, nursing an Efes Pilsner.

Levon understood Aisha’s choice of meeting place. The bar was public, but small and out-of-the-way. As a western-style hotel, it would be easier for a single Turkish woman to enter without arousing suspicion. It also offered exits onto two different streets and an alley.

The bartender was a man in his fifties, thin and grizzled, with an impish smile. The only other patrons were three Turkish businessmen in armchairs around a low table, drinking cocktails and talking in low tones. An American yammered into his cell phone at the other end of the bar.

Levon glanced at his almost-empty beer bottle, gauging how long he could politely wait before ordering another. Beside his bottle, a cocktail napkin—folded corner to corner and once down the middle—stood upright on its edges like a three-dimensional arrowhead.

Just the type of thing someone bored might do.

He heard the tap-tap of high heels on the polished stone floor and waited before glancing toward the sound. The woman was tall with light brown hair and a confident walk. She wore a sleek grey business suit with black piping along the collar and jacket edge. A small yellow tulip was pinned to her lapel. And she certainly was not Aisha Aydin.

This story appears in our MAR 2024 Issue
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