The workweek started as it always did. Isabel came into her little office at about 8 AM with two plastic bags full of iced-coffee, tied up with rubber bands and with straws sticking out the tops. There were places that sold coffee to go in swankier containers, but the coffee lady on the street, outside her building, made the best coffee bar none.
Isabel had a single employee: a kid named Khanh who had just finished high school and begged her for a job. He took care of all the running around, delivering and collecting, and she was trying each day to teach him a little French and English, to improve his long-term employment prospects.
He was very tickled that she had given him his own desk, out in a tiny reception area. Most of the day, Isabel knew, he surfed the net. But she figured that he'd learn English that way, by way or curiosity and osmosis.
"Bonjour, Mlle Isabel," he chirped as she came through the door.
"Good morning, Khanh. What's new?"
"You mean, 'Same old, same old'."
"Toujours la meme chose."
Isabel smiled and deposited a bag of coffee on his desk. "Now that's excellent. Your pronunciation is coming along fine."
The room was really a single one, divided in two by an old, frosted glass-panelled wall with a rickety door in it. She let herself into her office, dumped her workbag on the floor and switched on the noisy, ancient air-con unit before the room started to heat up.
"I forget," called Khanh. "Someone telephone you."
"Did you get the number?"
Khanh came into her office and deposited a ridiculously cute elephant shaped, floral decorated note on her desk. "Number, name, everything."
Isabel picked up the note. "You know I bought you a message pad for a reason."
"But it's ugly. This much more beautiful."
Isabel raised an eyebrow at him. "Have you met my friend David?"
Khanh made a face. "Mister David is bede," he whispered with derision.
She laughed. "Well you have similar taste in note-paper. It makes me wonder," she teased.
"Okay, okay!" Khanh called, stalking out of her office. "I write it again, on ugly paper."
Isabel glanced down at the writing. "No...don't bother," she muttered.
Car-meng Ma-se. 090-495-5774
Isabel stared at the wall of her office for a moment, and then crumpled the paper into a ball and pitched it into the waste-paper basket. "Remember to ask people to spell out their names, Khanh."
* * *
By eleven-thirty, the room was getting stuffy. Isabel kicked the air-con with her foot. It hiccupped and began to purr at a lower pitch than before. When she got paid for this last job, she promised herself, she would get a new machine.
She had finished the last of the Film Festival work, and was packing it up for Khanh to take over to the client. Outside her office, she heard him chatting away to someone. His English was still very bad, but his French was improving by leaps and bounds.
She looked up from her desk as he opened the door. "Co Isabel?"
"There's a lady here. She says important to see you, now."
But even before he ushered her in, Isabel recognized Carmen Masse. She was wearing a pale lemon, linen sundress and Jackie-O sunglasses. Isabel closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Before she could stop herself, Isabel's head flooded with images of Carmen - legs spread, at the pool's edge. She felt her cheeks burn.
"Isabel, you are so naughty," Carmen chided brushing past Khanh. She walked around the desk and pecked Isabel on each cheek. "You left without a word, and you don't return my phone calls."
"Phone calls?" echoed Isabel loudly, glaring at Khanh. "Go to lunch!"
The boy shrugged and pulled the door closed behind him.
"How sweet." Carmen whipped off her sunglasses and grabbed the back of Isabel's neck, pulling her into a kiss. She kissed her once, twice, and then sucked on Isabel's lower lip.
Pushing her away, as gently as she could, Isabel stood up and stared at the woman. "Carmen, I can't do this."
"Don't you like me?" Carmen took a step towards Isabel. "You didn't seem to mind me the other night."
"I...I do like you Carmen. But it's not exactly a neat situation, is it? I'm not actually a lesbian," Isabel said. It sounded horribly lame. The woman took another step towards her and Isabel realized she had backed-up against the wall.
The smile was ironic. "Oh, I know you're not a lesbian, ma petite. Because I distinctly remember how you enjoyed my Maitre's attentions." Carmen reached up and stroked the side of Isabel's face with her shiny, blood-red fingernails. "'I love it' you cried. 'Gilles, I love your cock!' you swore."
"I...I didn't say that. I did NOT say that!" The truth was, Isabel wasn't sure what she had said. "I wouldn't say that," she added, weakly.
The hand that Carmen had raised to Isabel's face traced a line down her neck and settled on her covered breast. "Perhaps not, but that is exactly what you were thinking. Especially the second time he made you release." Fingers squeezed the nipple beneath.
"No... I can't. Please, Carmen. You have to go." Isabel pushed down a sick mixture of fear and lust.
"I can't, Isabel," Carmen cooed. She pressed herself against Isabel and kissed her again, sliding a pointed tongue across her lips. Then she stepped back and smiled. "I'm here to deliver a contract, for Gilles."
Carmen pulled an envelope out of her purse and laid it on the desk. "It's a lot of work," she said, looking around the office. "I doubt you can afford to pass it up."
Isabel narrowed her eyes. "Carmen? I'm not going to have an affair with you just for a translation job. You know that, don't you?"
"Not for the job, no."
"Then why do you think this will make any difference to me?"
"Maitre figured that you would need the contract as an excuse, to overcome your hesitations."
Isabel shook her head, unable to follow the woman's reasoning. Worse, she could feel the sticky wetness of panties as they clung to her pussy, beneath her skirt.
"I don't need an excuse, Carmen. I'm not the kind of person you think I am. That's all." Even as she said it, a wave of self-revulsion swept over her. She wasn't sure what she was anymore.
Carmen gave her a half-smile. "I know what kind of person you are, ma petite. We are very similar, I think. Come and have lunch with me."
"I...I don't think so."
The woman laughed, turned, and walked out of her office. "Then I'll see you at dinner, at eight," she called behind her, leaving the outer door open in her wake.
Isabel sat down in her chair and covered her face with her hands. "I can't, I can't," she whispered to herself.
But even as she said the words, her memory, brutal in its accuracy, replayed the night she'd spend at the plantation house - the sound, the tastes, the sensation - and showed her, in very detailed manner, that she could. No matter how much she wanted to deny it, no matter how ashamed it made her feel, the truth was that she could not forget who she had become that night and there was a part of her that craved to become it again.
* * *
Opening the manila envelope, Isabel drew out a thick sheaf of papers. On the top was a note.
Dear Ms Fletcher,
Enclosed please find a contract and examples of the translation work we require for the Indochine Designs Furniture Company. The terms of the contract are, of course, negotiable but I think you will find us a fair and generous client to all our suppliers.
In the interests of cementing this business relationship, it is our pleasure to invite you to dinner at The Mandarin Restaurant, 34 Cao Ba Quat street, this evening at 8 PM. We have a number of our own clients in town, and we are taking this opportunity to celebrate our company's new direction.
p.s. I enjoyed your little visit with us so much, and I know that Carmen did as well. We must do it again, very soon.
The last part of the letter was written in a flowing, old-fashioned hand in pen.
She set the letter aside and paged through the contract. He was right; it was a very generous contract. The skinny of it was, if she took the work, she'd be earning about $8000 in the space of two months. That was more than she had earned from a single client in the whole time she'd worked in Saigon. There was a lot of work, but a good deal of it was repetitive stuff that would take her very little time once she'd set up her electronic glossaries. At the same time, Isabel had a nasty feeling that if she were to sign the contract, she'd be selling her soul to the devil.
Khanh returned, bearing a ham and cheese baguette for Isabel. "I met Bac Loc on the stairs. He said he can't wait another week for the rent," he said morosely, in Vietnamese.
"English, or French, Khanh. You won't get better if you don't practice all the time." She smiled and took a bite of her sandwich.
"I like this job, Co Isabel. I don't want to go somewhere else."
"Don't worry." She patted his shoulder. "We'll manage."
Isabel sat back down at her desk, wiping crumbs off her lips with her thumb. She picked up a pen and signed the contract.
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