For Jerry, accompanying The Marquis to the Presidential Palace in Saigon for a glamorous social event was truly a coming out party. In addition to wearing tailored evening clothes for the first time in his life, he was wearing his brand-new face. After having his ears, nose, jaw and cheekbones worked on by a reconstructive master, The Professor had seen to the finishing touches with blue contacts and blond hair in a longish surfer cut look. He’d always been considered handsome but with the new overall effect and the clothes he could easily pass for a blond Tarzan in the Lord Greystoke mode.
“Champagne?” Hugo offered from across the seat of the long black Cadillac limousine ferrying them to the gala.
“Merci mais non,” was his polite “thank you but no” response to his teacher of French. Gardening. And far more than the social graces, protocols, and manners necessary to mingle with the elite.
“You will do splendidly, mon ami.” Tapping out an unfiltered French Gauloises from an engraved silver case, Hugo lit up and on a stream of white blew out, “Trust me.”
That trust had been established very early on, with, of all things, the planting of an actual plant. It was one of those rare moments enshrined in Jerry’s memory that he would take out and remember as one would a first kiss, a first car. A first kill.
“We should be there soon.” Another puff, followed by a champagne chaser. “I will exit the car first. You have your instructions.”
“Yes… Oui,” Jerry self-corrected. “You will engage The Ambassador but I am not to approach or speak to him since he will be accompanied by his companion.”
“Ah, the lovely Kate Morningside, always a pleasure.”
“She sure as hell wouldn’t think that about me given our history.”
“It was in another lifetime, mon ami, but yes. An unfortunate earlier encounter. She should not recognize you, but…”
“Don’t worry. I’ll be cognizant of where they are and stay out of their lines of sight. While you mix and mingle, I’ll track the target. Then once you give the signal, piece of cake.” That’s right, easy as The Marquis asking for a private word with the target, maneuvering him into range, Jerry stabbing him with the prepared injection, and making the preplanned exit for their clandestine return to The School via the chopper on ready.
As he patted the syringe in his dress coat pocket and the limo rolled to a stop, Hugo bade him, “Please. Have some fun. As the French would say, `If a man has money to buy two loaves of bread, he should buy one loaf and spend the rest on flowers. Bread is food for the body, but flowers are food for the soul.’ The job is important, Jerry. But there is nothing wrong with gardening when the opportunity presents, no?”
Jerry got out, prepared as he would ever be for his movie-star entrance, abetted by his marquee idol looks. The flashes were only half-blinding while sheets of paper were suddenly thrust at him along with ready pens. Jerry scribbled unintelligible autographs. Flashed his new smile for the cameras. Helped a young woman up who appeared to momentarily faint. And then FINALLY, he was inside the grandest interior entrance he’d ever seen—and that included each and every LIFE magazine he had hungrily consumed.
While managing to navigate his way from the voluminous entrance where impeccably dressed staff rushed to see to every need of the opulent crowd, Jerry made a visual sighting of his target. Next, he located Hugo, engaging The Ambassador, Phillip Jordan, along with Jordan’s rumored fiancé, in an animated conversation.
The fiancé, Kate Morningside, had to still hate his guts even if she believed the Ghost Soldier as dead as The Ambassador had reported to Command.
Having seen to his immediate responsibilities, Jerry wondered if he dared take a little self-indulgent break as Hugo had encouraged, and drift to a corner near the bar. Maybe order something up that wasn’t Absinthe with an LSD chaser for a change but still elegant enough to blend in better than his favored Jack, two fingers, neat.
“Could you make that two Soixante Quinzes, S’il vous plait?”
His order, echoed by a sultry feminine voice, intruded on Jerry’s intent to have a rare moment that didn’t involve a target, The Professor, The Marquis, or anything else to do with The School.
She smiled, knocked him dead with her conspirator’s grin.
He knew her face, such an unforgettable face, even if she no longer recognized his.
“Mademoiselle Jardin.” He took the liberty of kissing her extended hand. Her skin smelled like jasmine and just for a moment, he wondered if she would taste the same. “Enchante.”
“You know me?” she replied in English.
“But of course,” he returned, dropping the French and not missing a beat—unless he counted that strange little skip directly beneath the tailored coat pocket that housed a syringe filled with one of the professor’s special concoctions. “Like many here, I am a fan of your work. Congratulations on the award. It is well deserved.”
“I’m nervous.” Her whispered confession was accompanied by a little duck of her head, as if she could hide the stunning Eurasian features that belonged on the cover of Vogue while her gritty war photography splashed across the pages of LIFE and TIME. “It’s why I hoped I could hide over here in the corner with you and have a breather, not to mention a drink. Do you mind?”
“Are you kidding? I’m delighted!” Ever since Isabelle Jardin had arrived with her camera to capture the reality of a day for troops in the long bloody nightmare that had been the Siege of Hue, he had been almost obsessed with her work. Okay, completely obsessed. And he definitely was not the kind of guy any woman wanted obsessing over her, work or otherwise. But she wouldn’t know that and he didn’t have time to waste if he was going to put his newly acquired gardening skills to work.
Jerry swept up their delivered cocktails from the tray with a “Merci” before personally offering Isabelle her sparkling libation.
As blue eyes met slightly tilted browns, he toasted, “May Dame Fortune ever smile upon you, but never her daughter Miss Fortune.”
To which she returned, “Here’s to blue skies and green lights!”
Tap, sip. His turn: “May your luck ever spread. Like jelly on bread.”
“Oh god, I can’t top that one!” Her laughter sounded like wind chimes and the neck she arched back commanded the attention he was pretty sure should be elsewhere. Knew damn well should be elsewhere. Like on the target, Vuong Quan, the anti-government playwright, who was approaching their secluded table.
“Isabelle!” called Vuong. “I’ve been looking for you. And your parents. Are they here?”
“Regretfully, no. Other obligations, you understand? ” In a hushed voice, she said, “They were afraid to come tonight, as I thought you would be.”
His response was a look of defiance. He turned to Jerry as Isabelle’s laughter faded. “The two of you seemed to be having so much fun. My apologies for intruding.”
“No apologies needed,” Jerry assured him. “Please, join us.”
“Yes, of course!” Isabelle echoed. “Vuong Quan I would like you to meet…?”
“Troy,” Jerry supplied, grateful for all the rehearsals that had accompanied the sham ID. “Troy Hunter.”
“And here I thought you were Troy Donahue. Or maybe Tab Hunter.” Isabelle laughed that great laugh of hers again. “Oops! Got them both wrong. Vuong, shall we move on?”
“I can be Troy Donahue for the night.” As he doubled down on his quick assurance with a signature pose, someone tapped Vuong on the shoulder.
After a brief exchange he excused himself, saying, “It seems someone on the committee wishes to speak with me. See you on stage, Isabelle. And Mr. Donahue, I hope to have the pleasure of meeting again.”
“I have no doubt that we will,” was Jerry’s droll reply.
The technique the professor had taught him—that 7 count centering tap of middle finger and thumb—came in handy in a way that Jerry had never anticipated as Isabelle leaned closer and suggested, “So, Troy, would you be game in scouting out a new location before we have more company?”
Like a couple of teenagers sneaking out after curfew and hoping they wouldn’t be caught, out of the bar and up a somewhat hidden staircase they raced. His partner in escape took his hand, slipped through a deserted room, and then, there they were. The two of them. On a balcony. Covered in moonlight.
He thought he might kiss her and was about to lean in when she asked, “Special Forces?”
“Let’s be honest. We’re all playing roles whether we want to or not these days. The way you hold yourself, move, walk, look around, see everything. It reminds me of those guys. I’ve spent a lot of quality time with them, though not so much lately. I can’t explain it, because I’m quite sure we’ve never met before…trust me, I would remember if we had…but there’s something about you that’s familiar. I only mean that in the best of ways.”
As he weighed his next move, Jerry heard voices. And that’s when Hugo and The Ambassador decided to plant themselves not ten feet away from the balcony.
He had two options: Either make their presence known asap—or take a chance that Isabelle would overhear critical information, that perhaps even he was not supposed to be privy. And if that happened? His duty would be to permanently silence her as immediately as possible.
A quick glance over the balcony confirmed it would be a killing distance; it was a dark, private area beneath; the sound of revelry in the background would mute any last screams while she fell—if he didn’t strangle her first.
But he did not want to do that. Actually, he wasn’t sure if he could. That was… disconcerting. He’d never had trouble killing when necessary before. Even when it wasn’t necessary.
Raising his glass, along with his voice, he suddenly proclaimed, “La nuit est exquise mais pale en comparison de vous!” And because he knew the night was exquisite but could never compare to her, and because he knew he would probably never see her again, and that he would never forgive himself if he didn’t, he laid a quick, urgent kiss against her surprised open mouth, gripped her elbow, and marched them both into the room.
“Oh, pardon us!” He stopped cold, as if startled to have encountered what had to be the two smoothest guys in the world who looked at him without recognition and collectively turned their attention to Isabelle.
“Mademoiselle!” they both exclaimed, greeting her effusively and kissing her cheeks in that French way.
“Congratulations on your award, my dear.” This, from the Ambassador.
“Indeed, ma chère,” echoed Hugo. “And oh, what lucky man is this, your handsome escort for the evening?”
“Ah, this man? He is the famous American actor, Troy Donahue.” She gave them both an exaggerated wink. “I was just showing him the stunning view from the veranda.” The way she touched her fingertips to her lips felt like an extended intimacy between them. “Mr. Troy Donahue, I would like you to meet the honored Ambassador Phillip Jordan. And, the renowned Hugo Goulet, who you never want to play cards with.”
“So nice to meet you, Mr. Donahue,” said the Marquis with a short bow.
“A pleasure, certainly,” concurred The Ambassador. He extended his hand.
It was not an extended handshake. This was a diplomat. Not a soldier. They could do business together and respect their disparate roles because it served both of their purposes. Make no mistake though, it was crystal clear who had the control and power, who gave the orders and who was to follow them, and who moved in a whole other level of the world.
The four of them made all the right noises to politely part company, but as Jerry and Isabelle descended down the stairs they had raced up before, he was acutely aware of how rare the moment was. Like a life so rich and full of promise, only to be snuffed out in the mere seconds it took for a bomb to blow. Or, for an assassin to make his intended hit.
He slid her a smile. It was a smile for a spy movie.
She laughed, more like a romantic caper, as if she knew that watching Beach Blanket Bingo and the Elvis movies with ingénues frolicking in the sand were his guilty pleasures, best enjoyed alone in the dark.
They reached the end of the staircase. They reached the end of what he was 99.9% certain would commemorate their final moments together.
“Would you mind if we tried that last kiss again?” he asked. “I’m afraid it was a bit rushed. I can do better.”
Her response was the wrap of her arms around his neck, the urging of his mouth to hers. And when they connected…
It felt like an explosion of a fleet of B-52’s going off in his head while an implosion gravitated down below when she whispered into his ear, “Meet you back at the bar once the awards are over and we’ll pick things up from there?”
Jerry nodded. He watched her go. Put his palm over a heart unaccustomed to this strange racing—only to encounter the slight bump of a syringe intended for one of her friends.
Hugo descended the stairs, caught his eye. Gave him a sly smile.
Jerry stole a last, longing glance at Isabelle’s retreating back.
He returned his attention to Hugo, paused in his descent. There was a question in the subtle lift of his eyebrow.
Hesitating, but only slightly, Jerry patted his pocket.
They were good to go.