Dancing for the General (Chapter One)

 

 Ankara, Turkey
August, 1957

The afternoon air stirred, lifting dust and heat from the stone pavers, swirling the ripe smell of animals here in the heart of the city. A donkey, hitched out of sight somewhere nearby, brayed. Something had startled it.

Anna Riddle paused in the center of the vast, empty concourse and glanced over her shoulder. The back of her neck prickled. Ever since the cab had let her and her eight-year-old niece out at the main gate to Atatürk's Tomb, she'd felt that someone was following them. She hadn't actually seen anyone, but she could tell.

She didn't think it was just her nerves, although her nerves had been on edge these last three weeks, ever since receiving that odd telegram from her brother-in-law:

Please come stop your sister on verge of collapse stop we need you

Anna hadn't thought twice about what she was going to have to do. They were all the family she had left. It had only taken a little over a week to arrange a leave of absence from the high school where she taught social studies back home in Boulder, Colorado. It took three more days traveling on airplanes, and now here she was. Halfway around the world. In a foreign land.

The dancing wind swished her full skirts, twirling around her knees like a dervish's. As she anchored them against her thighs, Priscilla slipped her hand from Anna's and skipped ahead, oblivious to the way the wind revealed her lace-edged petticoat and panties.

"Priscilla!" Anna called, trying not to sound like the nervous ninny her niece probably thought she was. "Don't go so far ahead!"

If Rainer hadn't died in the war, Anna might've had a child of her own, just about Priscilla's age. She would've known better how to handle someone of this age.

She wasn't accustomed to feeling out of control. Being in a strange place gave her a disadvantage, making it impossible for her to tell if something was truly wrong. She'd felt on high alert all the way up the long promenade of Lions Alley to this broad, open concourse that spread out before the tomb. It helped her state of mind that security guards watched from their little huts that ringed the property. They would intervene in case anyone tried to steal her purse. She hoped it wouldn't come to that. The day had started out so playful, so full of innocence and fun and filled with hope that she and her sister's only child would finally become better acquainted.

Anna was in charge now, and she mustn't let on her feelings of inadequacy. Mitzi and Henry had left their child in her care, while Henry catered to Mitzi's fragile mental health by taking her on a much-needed vacation. Perhaps it had been an over-stated emergency, but Anna didn't mind. Coming here was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and she hadn't been able to resist. During her first three days here, after she arrived and before her sister and brother-in-law left, they'd hardly communicated on account of the whirlwind of last-minute details to work out. Anna couldn't imagine what stress they must live under, thanks to Henry's job with the State Department. Nor what it was like living here in a third world country.

But she intended to find out. She couldn't help feeling a thrill of excitement course through her.

Blinking against the sun's glare, she scanned the field of paving stones that stretched out before the tomb. White travertine, her guidebook informed her. As the crowning point atop the pinnacle of the hill, the mausoleum's shape reminded her of the Parthenon. This was a modern version, however, having been completed only four years earlier. And this place was empty of other visitors in the heat of the day. Ankara wasn't exactly a tourist destination.

Then a scuffling sound pulled her attention back over her shoulder. A flash of movement darted behind one of the lion statues at the edge of the concourse. Maybe only a hundred yards away. He or she, Anna couldn't tell from this distance, wore the balloon-puffed pants of a Turkish peasant. He, she decided. He'd ducked behind the statue as if hiding. From her? More likely, from the guards.

She whirled around and hurried after her niece. "Priscilla, wait for me!"

Priscilla paused long enough to stamp her saddle shoes in the dust. Red curls bounced to her shoulder as she cocked her head at one of the guards standing statue-straight in front of a tall, narrow guardhouse. He remained impervious to the distraction of her open curiosity and to the heat that surely made him melt under his rough-spun khaki uniform.

"Hello, Oscar," Priscilla said, tipping up her chin at him. He didn't lower his gaze, shaded under a white helmet.

Anna caught up to her niece, bent down to her freckled ear and whispered, in case Oscar understood English. "You mustn't bother him."

"He doesn't mind."

"But he is on duty." He's keeping us safe from whoever is following us. Anna took Priscilla's hand and pulled her away, across the field of stone. "Come on, let's go see the tomb itself."

Her heels clicked across the concourse, and she wished she'd worn something sturdier than her sister's fine, Italian sandals. Anna was sensible most of the time, but shoes were another matter.

"Do you know that man?" Anna asked, once they were out of the guard's hearing range.

Priscilla twisted her neck and squinted into the sun. She had a redhead's pale eyelashes that reminded Anna of moth wings, at momentary rest. Creases wrinkled her brow, revealing fine lines of glistening sweat.

"You'd better watch out," Anna said with a teasing laugh, "or a bird will land on your lower lip."

The image of the moth fluttered away as Priscilla opened her green eyes wide and studied Anna.

"You called the guard by name," Anna said, once she had Priscilla's full attention. She suspected it wouldn't last long.

"They're all Oscar," Priscilla said.

"How can that be?"

Priscilla shrugged. "You don't know very much for a teacher, do you?"

Anna winced, tightening her fingers around Priscilla's delicate hand. She counted under her breath, disowning the hurtful words. But Priscilla was right about one thing. Anna didn't know very much about eight-year-olds. Particularly, she didn't know her niece, her very own flesh and blood.

Priscilla squirmed, twisting out of Anna's grip. It was an easy release with palms as slippery as theirs in this scorching heat. Her niece raced across the open concourse to the hillside of steps.

"Wait!" Anna called, running after the little imp.

By the time Anna reached the base of the steps, Priscilla had disappeared behind one of the squared columns at the top. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, lay enshrined within the mausoleum. Anna paused, needing a moment to catch her breath.

Here at the bottom of the grand stairs, stone carvings flanked either side and illustrated centuries of history. The sun-baked stone had been chiseled into rounded shapes that showed the history of Turkey. Anna had a vague idea of Turks rising up throughout time against foreign oppressors, and she felt the familiar catch in her throat that she always felt at the unlearned lessons of persecution. Mother had told the same tales about her ancestry, Anna's father's people, the Lakota.

"Bet you can't find me," Priscilla called out in a sing-song voice from somewhere above.

Anna's attention snapped away from the carvings. Priscilla's voice floated down from the ledge that surrounded the columns, but Anna couldn't see her niece. She saw, instead, a man in a western business suit ducking behind one of the columns.

Anna felt her heartbeat thud. The game had ended, as far as she was concerned.

Leaping up the steps, she told herself everything was all right. It had to be. Probably, it was just another tourist up there.

Still, Priscilla was out of her reach and closer to a stranger than to herself. Anna had slipped up with a momentary lapse of attention, seduced by her passion-history. What kind of a caretaker was she?

"Pssst."

"Priscilla? Did you say something?" Anna paused to shade her eyes, but she still didn't see Priscilla.

An agitated hee-haw split the air, and Anna whirled around. The donkey wasn't there. Oscar swayed slightly at his station, as if something disturbed him, as well.

"Priscilla," Anna called, running up the steps, "come out of there right now."

At the first landing, she heard Priscilla's voice again. This time Priscilla spoke words Anna didn't understand-Turkish, she presumed. In less than a week here, Anna had only learned a handful of Turkish words thus far. Then her niece pronounced one of them.

"Hayir," the little girl said. No. The word meant "no."

"Priscilla?" To whom was she speaking, Anna wondered, quickening her pace. The man in the western business suit? Her heart rate picked up and her skirts jiggled around her, tickling her knees with each step.

"Hayir," Priscilla said again, a little louder.

A soft pop and a grunt sounded nearby. Then, red curls, sparkling in the sunlight, appeared in Anna's line of sight. Priscilla backed slowly out from the shade of the portico onto the sunny ledge that surrounded the columns.

Anna's heart hammered. "Priscilla! Watch out!" The ledge her niece was backing across ended abruptly at the top of the relief wall. No railing. Nothing to prevent a child from falling over the edge. Anna ran faster, but there were too many steps to climb before she could yank Priscilla to safety.

"Stop!" she called, using her sharpest tone of voice, the one she saved for field trips with her eleventh-grade students back home.

It worked. Priscilla stopped several feet away from the edge. Her hand covered her mouth as she continued to focus on something under the portico.

A soft thud and a muffled cry sounded together behind the columns. Footsteps pattered, crossing stone. Anna ran too, closing the gap between them. Priscilla's freckles stood out against her pale skin.

Finally, she reached Priscilla's side, and she scooped her precious niece into a tight hug. "You gave me a fright, honey."

"I didn't take it." Priscilla squirmed, ducking under Anna's arms. She dropped her hand first to her side, then behind her back. Her wide eyes narrowed. Anna had seen that look of defiance many times before on her sister.

Priscilla's gaze locked onto something just past the columns. Anna turned to look too, and gasped. A man, wearing a western business suit, sprawled face-down on the stone floor. His outstretched arm pointed in Priscilla's direction, and his fingers clutched a piece of paper.

A trickle of blood slid away from the man's mouth.

He was dead.

The shock of the realization sent a shudder through her. Anna sprang in front of Priscilla, protecting her.

The dead man held a paper in his hand, as if he'd been offering it to someone. To Priscilla.

Anna reached behind her, groping for Priscilla. Petticoats swished. She opened her mouth to comfort her niece, but soothing sounds evaporated in her throat.

A Turkish voice shouted at them, and Anna looked up to see Oscar-or his twin-appear at the far side of the portico and run, galloping toward them. The rifle, capped with a bayonet, pointed in her direction.

Anna froze, certain that her heart had stopped. New voices in the distance answered Oscar's shout. The hammering sound of running feet told her that other guards were closing in from all directions.

Her knees gave way, and she buckled to the floor next to the dead man. Next to his outstretched arm. The piece of paper he held was an envelope. A letter. A caricature of Hitler decorated one corner of the envelope-like those she herself had used to correspond with G.I.'s during the war.

Then Anna spied the meticulous handwriting in blue ink that smudged across the middle. She choked, recognizing the careful penmanship, her own script. The letters spelled out her former fiancé's name: "Lt. Rainer Akers."

Her fingers quivered as she snatched up the envelope. Her letter. Written by her. To her fiancé before he'd died in the war. What was a dead Turkish man doing with her letter to Rainer?