The Femme Fatale Who Failed to Be Fatal

When she was young, she was anything but an ugly duckling. She had been a very pretty child, and by the time she was a teenager, she was beautiful. Her dilemma was not that she wasn’t pretty enough, but that she was too pretty. She had few friends; girls resented her and boys were afraid of her. Every so often, a young man would approach her and stammer something nervous and incoherent, retreating in shame and terror before she could even respond.

Like many outcasts, she found solace in books. There was nothing in her reading list to foreshadow her later career, except perhaps for Sherlock Holmes, whose methodical, clockwork rationalism she found oddly comforting. Mostly, she liked the dreamier sorts of fantasy novels, the sort with brave princesses, wicked stepmothers, and kindly old wizards, where good always triumphed over evil.

She herself had no stepmother, wicked or otherwise. Both her parents were kind and understanding, although they, too, were quiet and reserved. However lonely it may have been, her childhood was comfortable and free from strife. Her parents did not spoil her, but she wanted for little. Sometimes they would arrange some special treat, like taking her to the ballet on her 12th birthday.

When she was 13, she discovered chess, which she taught herself to play from books. She came to love the game, even though no one would play it with her except old men at the library, who teased and flattered her before graciously letting her win.

Her most frequent opponent was a retired general, a stern-faced, white-haired man with severe arthritis that lent his movements a terrible, deliberate formality. Unlike the others, the General was a pitiless opponent who made no allowances for age, youth, or beauty. When she beat him for the first time, after a year of trying, he rose haltingly to his feet and favored her with a solemn little bow, radiant with painful dignity.

When she went away to school, she took almost nothing with her except a small wooden box of mementos: a thin paperback volume of Sherlock Holmes stories; a tiny unicorn pendant that reminded her of her favorite fantasy story; ticket stubs from the ballet; and a beautiful marble chess queen that the old General had given her on her 18th birthday. She had nothing else of real value.

# # #

In her second year at the university, she was approached by a tall, perpetually smiling man with slick black hair and crooked teeth. He already knew her name. He asked if she wanted to serve her country.

She had never thought of herself as patriotic, and she was blissfully ignorant of politics, but she was intrigued by the notion of being a spy. She took the card the smiling man offered her. There was a phone number printed on it, but no name. She waited 24 hours before calling the number and making an appointment.

She never saw the smiling man again, but she was met for her appointment by other men cut from the same cloth, and by a white-haired woman who reminded her of the General. The woman nodded approvingly when she saw her, but didn’t say a word.

They gave her a battery of tests, written and oral. Many of the questions they asked made little sense to her, but none was difficult. They tallied her results while she waited, chatting amongst themselves in voices too low to hear. They seemed satisfied.

Finally, the white-haired woman spoke, asking her the same question the smiling man had. She said yes.

# # #

Her training took eight months, while she was still enrolled in her regular classes. She was taught self-defense, how to tell if someone was following her, and how to evade them if they were. She learned how to write coded messages and where to hide them. She was taught to watch people without their knowing they were being watched.

She trained with a small group of other women her own age. She had never seen any of them before, and she never saw them outside of their secret classes. In idle moments, she wondered where they had come from. The same sort of places she had, she supposed.

Once, between exercises, she remarked to one of her fellow students, a cold-eyed blonde, that she had never thought about becoming a spy. The blonde rolled her eyes. “They don’t want us to be spies,” she said. “We’re swallows.” The blonde read spy novels.

She had no idea what a swallow was, but in the months that followed, she came to find out. “You’re all beautiful,” the instructor told them. “Our job here is to make you sharp. Your beauty will be your weapon.” She had never thought of her beauty as anything dangerous, or even useful, only an encumbrance. Your beauty will be your weapon. She liked the sound of it.

“A whore’s a whore,” the blonde muttered, unconvinced.

Their instructor spoke at great length about how to cope with the ethics of their new profession. “Imagine taking everything about yourself that’s really important and putting it in a box,” he declared. “Then imagine hiding that box away somewhere safe, where no one can ever touch it. Then, if you ever have doubts or questions, just imagine that box, and remember that the important things never really change. As long as you can do that, you’ll be all right.”

She nodded agreeably, wondering if it would be a bad idea to mention that she already had such a box. She decided it would. It might even be considered some kind of security risk; they were always being lectured about security risks.

When her training was done for the day, she went back to her room at the university and retrieved the box. Its contents were the same as they’d always been: the book, the ticket stubs, the pendant, the chess piece. Looking at them, she decided the instructor was right — they did make her feel better.

She slipped the box in her purse and walked down to the bus station, checking as carefully as she could to see that no one was following her. She put a coin in a locker and put the box inside. She glanced around, but there was no one watching, just a few sleeping, derelict old men. She closed the locker and went home. She put the key in the coin purse of her wallet. Not very secure, she knew, but it probably didn’t matter.

# # #

They taught her how to seduce men. They trained her to show just the right level of interest, just enough to entice, not enough to seem overeager. They taught her how to dress, how to walk. They taught her how to ask questions without seeming to ask questions. They taught her how to flirt.

It was easy. She had always assumed that it must be difficult, but her instructors broke it down into steps and strategy. It was like chess, and she was very good at chess.

When her training was over, they assigned her to a control officer, a handler. Her handler was a middle-aged woman with steel-gray hair and the aura of a high school principal. All the women in this world seemed stern and humorless; all the men wore cheerful, plastic smiles. She met her handler in outdoor cafes, never the same one twice.

She had assignments a few times a year. Each took perhaps two months. Her handler would introduce her to other gray women and smiling men; she never learned their full names. They briefed her on her target and objectives. She rarely understood the reasons why, but it didn’t seem to matter enough to ask.

Her first target was a retired foreign colonel. He was old enough to be her father. There was a courtly formality about him that reminded him of the General, her General, but she put it out of her mind.

The colonel told her everything, more than he should. It was almost no effort at all. She didn’t even have to sleep with him; all he wanted was a confidant, perhaps a confessor.

Her handler was pleased. “Not bad,” she said. “Not bad at all.”

They always paid her in cash for her work, although they always made her sign a receipt. The money was good, enough to move out of her dormitory room into a small apartment in the city. She bought a new purse and a new wallet. She remembered to keep the key to the bus station locker.

Her second target was a consular official for a European nation. He was in his thirties, flashy and a little vulgar. He was married, but he rarely wore his wedding ring. She let him pick her up at an embassy function and take her to a motel. She slept with him, for the benefit of a hidden camera and microphone. She felt nothing at all.

Her third target was a nervous little man who worked for a government laboratory. He had shabby clothes and a gold watch, and he bought her expensive presents. He thought she was in love with him, and he told her about the information he sold to pay for her gifts.

More assignments followed. Sometimes, the envelopes full of cash would be a little thicker, if she had done a particularly good job. The money meant no more to her than the sex had.

Walking one afternoon, she paused to study her reflection in the window of a downtown store. She was a better dressed, perhaps a little sleeker, but she didn’t look any different. Nothing had really changed.

# # #

She graduated from the university. She didn’t need other work, and she had been warned about unnecessary public exposure. When she had no assignments, she spent her days in the park, reading and feeding the birds. Once, she asked her handler if she ever played chess, but the woman only snorted and shook her head.

The consular official was sent home in disgrace, and lost his wife. The nervous little man went to prison for espionage. She read that the colonel had committed suicide. The ethical doubts about which she’d been warned never materialized. She had no more qualms about what she did than she might about taking a pawn or a rook. It was all part of the game.

By her 24th birthday, she was irresistible. There was no man she couldn’t seduce. She could coax people into revealing secrets about themselves without even realizing they had done it. Her services were in great demand. She was flown to great cities around the world, ate in fine restaurants, stayed in the finest hotels. She was a specialist, an expert in her particular craft. If her profession had had ratings, she would have been a grand master.

She was sometimes surprised by how much she hadn’t changed. She was living a life like the heroine of a novel — she had lied, cheated, and led men to their destruction, but inside, she felt the same as she always had.

# # #

Her parents died in a plane crash when she was 25. She had no brothers or sisters, so when her parents were gone, she was alone.

It occurred to her that she had never had a normal relationship, so she found a man her own age and made herself available. They went on a few dates. She quickly realized that she could make him do anything she wanted and think it was his idea; she didn’t even have to try. The last night they were together, she lay awake in bed next to him, thinking about the marble chess queen. She wished she could talk to the General, but she knew he was dead. She had seen his obituary in the newspaper.

She left before the sun came up, without saying goodbye. She left the man no way to find her, and even if he tried, she never saw him again.

# # #

She kept working. She lived modestly, putting her money into a bank account overseas. She was aware that the careers of women in her line of work tended to be short. There was always the risk of being exposed as part of the operation, being named in the press as the Other Woman in a juicy scandal. She knew that she was too valuable to sacrifice out of hand, but she also knew it couldn’t last forever.

Just after her 26th birthday, things began to go wrong. Her target was the 25-year-old son of an international arms broker, a notorious playboy with a yen for expensive cars and beautiful women. Her assignment was to get close to him and find out more about his father’s latest deal. When she approached him, however, he looked through her as if she weren’t there. He had a girl with him, a gray-eyed English girl with dirty blonde hair and pleasant but unspectacular looks, on whom he showered sloppy kisses. He had met the girl only two days before, she knew, and he had never shown any lasting attachment to any particular woman. Even so, he ignored her. She shifted tactics, feigning disdain in hopes of arousing his interest, but it made no difference. He was immune.

She finally had to withdraw, admitting defeat. When she was debriefed, her handler seemed unconcerned, suggesting that perhaps the young man was gay, using his string of girlfriends as a cover. “It happens sometimes, with these Lothario types,” the woman observed. “They have too much to prove.” She wasn’t so sure, but she nodded in agreement.

Her next assignment went no better. The foreign dignitary she was supposed to entrap shrugged off her subtle innuendos and flirtations with polite disinterest. When she tried a more direct approach, he brushed her off. If he had said no but still shown signs of being attracted to her, she would have had room to maneuver, but he simply wasn’t interested. A second time, she had met defeat.

Her handler suggested a vacation, offering her a prepaid ticket to a tropical destination spot. She took a few weeks off, sunning herself on the beach, eating fresh fruit, and swimming. She returned home feeling refreshed, ready to start work again.

But she had lost something. When she walked down the street, men no longer looked at her. Even teenage boys treated her with disdain and disinterest. It was as if she had become invisible.

She went home to her apartment and took off her clothes. She surveyed herself in the mirror. She was 26 years old. Her face was unmarked, her body perfect. She was still as beautiful as ever. If something was wrong, it was nothing she could see.

She contacted her handler and went back to work, but her subsequent assignment was a disaster. The target was a sensitive one, a senior official from her own country with aspirations to high office and a fondness for a well-turned ankle. She was briefed extensively on his tastes, his personality, and his predilections. She was thoroughly prepared. For all that, he didn’t respond. He smiled at her, a gentle vaguely condescending smile, as if she were not a beautiful adult woman trained in the art of seduction, but a little girl wearing her mother’s make-up. It stung, the way it had stung the first time she had lost to the General at chess. “Maybe you should go home,” the official suggested.

This time, her handler was not sympathetic. Dark allusions were made to her political allegiances. Records of her past assignments were reopened and scrutinized. It was implied, never in so many words, that she had been compromised. She tried to defend herself as best she could, but she had no better explanation to offer.

When she went home that night, she counted how much cash she had on hand. It would be enough to travel, and there was the overseas bank account. She could live abroad for years if she was frugal.

The next day, she received a message to meet her handler for a new assignment. The meeting place was a café where they’d been once before.

When she approached the café late that afternoon, she saw that her handler was not there. In the seat where the woman should have been was a man with salt-and-pepper hair and a gray suit. He wasn’t smiling.

She turned away before he could see her, resisting the impulse to run.

She walked away from the café and lost herself in the evening crowd, using all the tricks she had been taught for evading pursuit and surveillance. If someone had been following her, she was certain she would have lost him.

She made her way by an erratic, circular course to the bus station. The bus seemed her safest choice. They might be watching the airport, and even if she rented a car under a false name, she might be recognized.

It was nearly dark when she got there. She still saw no signs she’d been tailed, but she approached the entrance cautiously. She dug in her purse for her wallet as she quickly scanned the departure schedule.

When she took out her wallet, she remembered the key and the box. She didn’t need the box, but it seemed fitting that she should retrieve it now. She had had the box when she came to the city; she would have it when she left.

She went over to the row of lockers and located the correct number. The box was still inside, a little dusty, but otherwise exactly the way she had left it.

She opened the box. Inside were a copy of Madame Bovary; a dried rose; a gold ring she could tell was too big to fit her; and a silver locket containing tiny snapshots of a man and woman she didn’t recognize. She looked at the locker, checking the number again. It was the same number, the same locker. It even looked like the same box, but nothing in it was hers.

She closed the box, slipped it under her arm, and let the locker close. She walked over to the far wall of the bus station and tried to collect her thoughts.

She noticed there were an unusual number of women in the station that night. The last time she had been there, she had seen old men and a smattering of old women, a few single mothers with their small children. This time, there was a handful of women her own age, well dressed, seemingly affluent.

A tall brunette came through the entrance, looked around warily, and walked to the bank of lockers. The brunette withdrew a small parcel, opened it, and frowned, tucking it under her arm.

The speakers squawked, announcing a departing bus.

“Miss?” the ticket attendant called to her. He was an ancient black man wearing a blue uniform and blue cap. He waved a slip of printed cardstock at her. “Your ticket.”

“Me?” she said. “I didn’t buy a ticket yet.”

“You’d better hurry, Miss,” he insisted.

The women in the waiting area, the women her age, were getting up, forming a queue by the departure gate. Each of them held a small package, clutching it like an unopened birthday present.

“Departing soon, Miss,” the attendant called.

Outside, the bus was pulling up to the gate. She noticed that its destination signs were blank.

Her attention was distracted by the arrival of another woman at the entrance. It was the blonde from her training, the one who had said, A whore is a whore. The blonde saw her and favored her with a faint nod, heading back in the direction of the lockers.

She took the ticket from the attendant without further protest. Clutching the box under her arm, she walked to the gate and took her place in line.

# # #

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