By Anne Kimbell
Janine Simms, a tall, silver blond, CIA
operative, was pushed abruptly from behind, causing her to stumble on a Paris
street, and dive for a basket holding her recently purchased breakfast
croissants. At the same time, someone yanked violently at the black leather
handbag slung over her shoulder. She turned to face her assailant, ready to kick
him where it hurt, and looked down into the faces of two dark skinned teen-age
boys. One was holding her purse above his head by its broken strap. The other
was hastily picking up the croissants and fruit and stuffing them into his
shirt. Janine wasn't sure if she was angrier about her purse or her breakfast.
She grabbed the taller boy by the shoulders and plunged her knee into his chest.
He yelped in pain but clung determinedly to her purse, shouting a curse at her
in Arabic, which Janine understood. "Would you say that to your mother?" she
snarled back at him, in perfect colloquial Arabic.
Janine Simms had been strolling down the Rue
Belle Chasse in Paris, with a basket of fresh fruit and croissants on her arm.
She had smiled at passers by and inhaled the air of the most beautiful city in
the world. After assignments in Chad and Tunisia, at last she was home with a
chance to use her own apartment in the' quiet residential area of Belle Chasse,
bought with so much hope years before. The fact that she was the only woman in
an all male CIA office no longer concerned her. She had won her spurs with
excellent performances in both Chad and Tunisia. Now she was looking forward to
some interesting assignments in this lovely city. This sudden attack was a blot
on her first perfect morning in her new neighborhood.
The boy understood her Arabic, looked stunned, but held on to her purse as though his life depended on it. As he continued to berate her, she recognized his accent as Algerian. He looked wildly over his shoulder as a gendarme guarding one of the nearby embassies arrived to take charge. Janine was relieved to see the officer, as she had no authority to make arrests in this country, and these boys were clearly on their way to bigger things if not stopped now. The gendarme whistled for support, and the two boys were soon in the custody of policemen who looked as though they had seen this sort of thing before, but not in this upper class neighborhood.
Janine noticed that the younger of the two boys was clutching his shirt, hanging on to the bakery items and fruit that he had stolen. His face was dirty and his clothes ragged. Janine told the policemen that she had never seen either of the boys before.
And she had no idea why they had attacked her. "These Algerian brats are getting braver and braver since al Qaida has begun to operate in their country," the gendarme replied. "They all think that they are future terrorists now. Stealing baguettes is just the first step. The next one will be stealing machine guns." He shook the boy roughly and handed Janine back her purse. "We will take them were they can't cause any more trouble," he said, dragging the boys away toward the local police station.
Janine was shaken. She had reacted instinctively, protecting her belongings. But the fact that the boys were so young and obviously hungry troubled her. She had just been assigned to keep an eye on Algerian
settlers in Paris, who might have leanings toward al Qaida. It seemed a daunting task and one that she was not eager to take on. It was another one of the kind of assignments that the 'boys' in the office loved to hand out to her. Topical enough so that it seemed to suit her facility with Arabic and her experience in North Africa, but at the same time fraught with booby traps to her career. She had hoped to spend a few quiet years in her beloved Paris before shipping back to the states for a desk job and eventual retirement. Hopefully, right back here to her cozy apartment on Rue Belle Chasse in Paris.
The thought of the two Algerian teenagers troubled her as she climbed the three Rights of stairs to her apartment, which the French called a 'Pied a Terre,' a foothold on the earth, which is exactly how Janine thought about it. During her last assignment in Chad she had thought of it often, and it now contained mementoes of her many assignments. There was even an elephant's foot just inside the door that someone at the American Embassy had given her as a joke just before she left Chad. Even though she abhorred the killing of elephants, she kept it as a sentimental reminder of her time in that desert country.
She stored what was left of her shopping in her tiny fridge. The French certainly didn't believe in mammoth refrigerators with ice machines, and she sometimes regretted not importing one from the states. But as she poured herself a cold drink, she had other things on her mind. How was she going to go about this next assignment? The recent unexplained car bombings in Algiers had suddenly put Algeria on the radar of the US government. It had been a backwater for years. A half tribal place where the residents spent more time attacking one another than anything else. Tribal skirmishes that hadn't bothered her brethren at the CIA much, until now, when they knew that al Qaida was beginning to stake its claim to the country.
The problem was that Paris was full of Algerians. Many of them products of the Algerian war of the 60's that had sent thousands of white French men and women back to Paris to take up lives in what to them was a foreign country. They had been followed over the years by millions of native Algerians, some as guest workers, some as refugees and some as illegal immigrants. Now there were second and third generations of these French Algerians who had never seen their country of origin, and for whom it had become increasingly romanticized over the years. Al Qaida played on these sympathies among young Algerians, who spent their time hanging around outside cafes and soccer fields with no jobs and little to do but ferment trouble and dream of being taken to Paradise via a car bomb.
But how was she as a tall, blonde woman, and an American, to gain access to these groups and find out what they were planning? Because that was the task that she had just been assigned. She tucked her short, silver blond hair behind her ears and took another sip of her drink, thinking. She knew several Algerian fruit sellers and the owner of a restaurant she sometimes frequented to enjoy authentic "co us cous." They were older men who hardly looked like terrorists. The woman who cleaned her apartment was Algerian, as were many of the other women she saw around Paris doing menial jobs. They were clothed in traditional garb, sweeping, mopping and speaking to each other their sing song dialect as they worked, invisible to the well dressed Parisians who passed them without a glance.
Janine walked to the window and put her glass on the ledge. She had kicked off her shoes as she entered the apartment and she stretched up now onto her toes, looking down the quiet residential street. Perhaps that was the key. These people were largely invisible. Not worthy of a glance because they were the 'other'. They were just a memory of a long and deadly war that most Frenchmen wanted to forget. A recent book by a retired French general, baring his soul about the brutal torture of Algerian enemy combatants, had stung French society to its very core. 'What bad taste he had exhibited to reveal these things now, when those days and that war was best forgotten,' trumpeted the press. But the secret was that it had not been forgotten. Not by the Algerians who had been talking about it over cups of sweet, black tea for three generations. Teenagers, like the ones who had attacked her today, had grown up on these stories. And attacking a tall, well dressed, American woman was just another way to get even. Just as the car bombs in Algiers were, even though it was their own people who bore most of the brunt of the bombs.
Janine noticed two 'gendarmes' walking together down the street, checking addresses. She had given the police hers, but she assumed that the incident was closed. It was just one of a number of attempted muggings that tool, place routinely in any large city these days. But they stopped in front of the door to her apartment and rang the bell. She buzzed them in and listened as they clumped up the stairs, their boots echoing in the uncarpeted hallway. They were very polite, especially when they had inspected her official US passport. But they looked carefully around the apartment, taking in its ethnic furnishings and memorabilia.
They asked, in careful French, if she had ever seen either of the boys before, and if there was a reason why they might have attacked her? Janine answered in the negative. Wondering why they were making such an issue about a routine and inept attempt at a mugging. They soon explained. One of the boys had been carrying an illegal firearm, and it had been used recently. The victim of that mugging was dead; he had been a noted newspaper correspondent, killed just a few blocks away from her apartment. Such a thing was unheard of in this neighborhood, where there were many well-protected embassies. Janine nodded thoughtfully. This was one of the reasons that she had chosen the neighborhood. That and its nearness to the Seine and the Quay d 'Orsay, as well a number of small shops and bistros. It had seemed a delightfully, secure corner of this great city that she planned to finally call home.
But there really wasn't any security anywhere anymore. Her job taught her that. She had dealt most of her career with the underbelly of society and had been the target of attacks before. It was just that this one had been so unexpected, on her own turf, so to speak. She agreed to accompany the police down to the station and identify the boys as the ones who had attacked her. They seemed in a hurry to do this, as though they wanted to get the affair off their docket and move to something more pressing. So Janine agreed to go with them, hoisting her purse over her shoulder and double locking her door behind her. She hadn't expected to have to do that in Paris and in this neighborhood. But caution prevailed.
Anne Kimbell's books,
including Assignment Paris, are available at
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