Annie Walker stared again at the invitation in her hand and then the address on the building in front of her as she stood on the sidewalk. Finding the invitation on her desk earlier in the afternoon had raised just about every hair on the back of her neck and only got worse when she asked Auggie and the man hadn’t had a single idea what she was talking about.
It wasn’t until she spoke to Joan and the woman assured her that she had nothing to fear in a rare case of straight talk that Annie had decided to try it out.
“I haven’t been to one of these in years,” Joan had said. “But it’s safe and you might enjoy it.”
Though, on first blush, the bar called Mata Hari’s was raising Annie’s hackles again. It looked abandoned for all the name sign was lit: the door was shut with a least ten locks and a sliding view slot, the windows were shaded dark so that it was impossible to look in, and it seemed like everyone else on the street ignored its existence.
But Annie hadn’t gotten to where she was in life by letting her doubts and fears stop her, so she strode up the handful of steps to the door and knocked confidently. Instead of identifying herself or showing her invitation when the eye slot opened, Annie stared as the door simply opened on its own accord as when Annie walked inside, she saw that no one was there. She was standing in a receiving room, obviously being used as a coat room judging from the rails with hangers. Annie counted at least twenty four different coats and hesitantly hung up her own before going to the second door and twisting the knob to open it.
Unlike the dank and dark interior she was expecting based on the exterior of Mata Hari’s, the bar was warmly lit with overhead lamps and several decorative paper lanterns. There were the smells of perfumes, food and drink, something floral that Annie couldn’t identify, and the faintest traces of gun powder and sweat. The room’s dimensions were long and rectangular with the bar running the length of the room with the wood top and chairs gleaming in polished perfection. The back of the room was a cleared space and dance floor with karaoke and sound equipment in one corner. Currently, something light and jazzy was playing. The rest of the room had a collection of small tables and chairs, also polished to gleam.
And while Annie didn’t see a single person manning the bar, there were more than two dozen people milling around, and to Annie’s surprise, they were all women of various ages and ethnicities. So far, she was completely taken aback but hid it behind her mask of casual observation as her training taught her.
But apparently, not well enough. “You’re new this year, aren’t you?”
Annie turned to face the young women on her left, realizing that she hadn’t noticed the stranger approach her. Cursing herself silently, Annie noted the woman’s age to be younger than herself, dark haired and dark eyed with a smattering of Latina in her features.
“This is my first time, yes,” Annie confirmed. “I’m still not exactly sure why I got this invitation or what it means.”
The younger woman grinned and held out her hand. “Carmen Cortez, OSS. I take you for CIA.”
If Annie had been surprised before, she was shocked now. “Annie Walker. How did you know I was CIA?”
Carmen loosed an unladylike snort. “I’ve been in this business for a while, I can usually spot a girl’s affiliation on the first or second try. Also, I knew you couldn’t be OSS or I would have known you already and you would have known me, or at least recognized my name. And your clothes are American which adds up to CIA.”
“Carmen, you’re not doing this well,” another voice interrupted, causing Annie to visibly start this time as the second woman also hadn’t made a single sound until she was right by Annie’s side. Though shorter than Carmen, this woman was in her mid-forties, Caucasian with auburn hair. Despite the differences in looks, Annie guessed there was a familial relationship.
“I’m Carmen’s mother, Ingrid Cortez,” the second woman spoke. “And you look like you could use a drink.”
Fervently agreeing, Annie followed the mother and daughter to the bar, earning several looks from the women they passed, looks similar to the ones Annie was giving them covertly.
“Is everyone here in intelligence work?” Annie guessed, taking a stool next to Ingrid as Carmen lithely hopped over the bar.
“Just about,” Ingrid answered. “Here, let me explain from the beginning. About fifty years ago, an anonymous woman began sending out invitations to various female operatives, inviting them for a night with no masks. Well, no one really admits how all these women actually trusted the hostess’ intentions as we’re all suspicious by nature and design, but the point is that Mata Hari’s holds a private gathering every year for those of us to work as spies, operatives, agents, whatever you choose to call yourself.”
Annie absorbed this as she pointed to the beer tap she wanted to Carmen’s questioning gaze. The young woman who couldn’t have been much older than twenty one, poured a glass with expert precision and placed it in front of Annie before pouring a glass of red wine for her mother and mixing a complicated and brightly colored drink for herself and hopping back on Annie’s other side to sit.
“And what happens here?” Annie asked after taking a sip of her beer.
“We relax, we eat and drink, we talk or dance, whatever you want to do,” Ingrid explained. “This is a night where you can talk about anything with anyone here without having to censor yourself. What is said here stays here.”
Annie raised her eyebrows in skepticism, but Ingrid laughed.
“Just wait until tomorrow and you’ll find yourself very unwilling to talk about tonight. None of us know how it’s done or if we all just take this night so seriously, but you’ll have a hard time talking about anything that happens here, even if you and I were to bump into each on the street tomorrow.”
“My dad and brother don’t even know about this place,” Carmen told her. “They think it’s just a girl’s night out that’s been happening since I was a teenager.”
Annie shrugged, willing to take the other woman’s word for it for the time being. “How long have you been an agent?” Annie asked Carmen curiously.
“Since I was nine.”
If it weren’t for the casual tone of the answer and no facial tick from Ingrid to give away a lie, Annie would never have believed Carmen, but she did.
“So, CIA, I’m guessing that you live right here in DC?” Carmen asked, expertly turning their conversation. Now Annie could really believe that she had been at this game longer than she had herself.
“Moved in with my sister a couple of years ago,” Annie answered.
“We’ll have to introduce you to Ziva,” Ingrid said, pointing down the bar where a dark haired and tan complexioned woman sat with another woman with dark hair and pale skin, talking with a third who was behind the bar mixing drinks, tanned and brown haired.
“She looks Israeli,” Annie commented. “Mossad?”
“Former Mossad,” Ingrid corrected her with a hint of a frown. Annie got the impression the frown was not directed at her or Ziva, but something about Mossad. “She came only once or twice when she was Mossad, but she’s been here almost every year now that she’s working at NCIS.”
Annie raised her eyebrows in surprise. It was rare for Mossad to switch teams as this woman had done. “That must be a story.”
Carmen smirked. “You have no idea. Ziva is another legacy, like I am, which makes it fun enough to begin with when you work with or answer to your parents, but her father is a son of a bitch for a lot of reasons.”
Carmen didn’t explain further, neither did Ingrid, but Annie could easily guess the confrontations and risks involved when you had to work with family in their kind of work. So, now it was Annie’s turn to change the subject and get another of her questions answered.
“What about those other two women with here? Are they NCIS or Mossad?” Mossad was unlikely as neither of the other women looked Israeli or Middle Eastern.
“No, Emily is FBI who’s done some work with Interpol. She and Ziva actually met years ago before they both recognized each other here one year. The last woman there is Fiona.” Here, Ingrid paused. “She’s, well, an independent is the best way to put it. Not all of us answer to government agencies.”
“Fiona’s probably the closest we come to a gray area,” Carmen added. “Typically, she’s actually an arms dealer, but she does little projects down in Miami to help people out that can’t be helped by legitimate or legal sources.” Carmen smirked. “Plus, she’s dating a burned spy.”
“And she and Emily have some common background in Ireland,” Ingrid said. “You’ll find that our hostess will send invitations based on mutual acquaintance just as often as not.”
It turned out that no one knew who the hostess was or how she managed to set up Mata Hari’s so that no one else wandered in on their annual nights or how everything was set up to run without any servers, but Annie found herself enjoying the concept and the company enough that she wasn’t willing to make a big deal about finding out.
“So, why only women?” Annie asked nearly an hour later. She had followed the Cortez women to join Ziva, Emily, and Fiona at a table. She, Ziva, and Emily were all multi-lingual, and with Ingrid and Carmen fluent in Spanish and Fiona able to follow some Spanish and French, the conversation was full of idioms other than English.
“Why not?” Emily countered. “Most of us can’t maintain relationships of any kind outside of work for one reason or another, but we still need the release just like any other woman to needs to vent with her girlfriends.”
“Especially with you cut off from your team as you are,” Fiona pointed out.
“Why is that?” Annie asked. The other women grew solemn and turned to look at Emily.
“I’m considered dead to the agency, the world, and my team except for two people and I can’t make contact even with them without putting them in danger.”
There was so much more to that story, but Annie knew it wasn’t her place to ask more. She was realizing that while no subject was taboo in this group (they had already discussed the trials of hiding their weapons when wearing cocktail dresses, the best make up foundation to cover up bruises and abrasions, as well as more mundane fashion, family problems, and those who had men in their lives and their teammates), they were still complicated women with complicated lives and histories.
Luckily, the tension was broken when a lively country song came on over the speakers as well as the sound of a large object being rolled onto the dance floor. To Annie’s astonishment and the other women’s amusement, three women were lugging a large mechanical bull onto the floor, laughing all the while.
“I was wondering if they would show up this year,” Ingrid commented.
“I think the rest of us are too serious for them sometimes,” Emily said. “And they have each other as teammates and girlfriends.”
“Who are they?” Annie whispered to Carmen, sitting next to her.
“They’re Angels,” Carmen whispered back. “More independents, like Fiona, only they’re set up as a private detection agency with a loaded sugar daddy to fund it all. Angels have been coming since the beginning almost, our hostess counts them in because enough of what they do mimics what we do and they always make things livelier.”
And that indeed proved true as the night progressed and Annie found herself introduced to more female operatives than she ever thought, sharing drinks, stories, and jokes that spanned all ages and countries.
Against her better judgment, Annie even found herself giving the blonde Angel, Natalie, a run for her money on the bull riding as the crowd of women cheered on the rookie. By one in the morning, Annie was ready to call it quits, by no means the first or last person to do so.
“See you next year,” Carmen called after, raising what had to be her sixth drink in a farewell toast.
“Next year,” Annie promised.
The next morning, Annie found how true Ingrid had been; she felt no desire to share her experiences from the previous night with anyone beyond a secretive smile with Joan. And while the night had been wonderful, Annie eventually stopped thinking about it all.
That is, until the next year when she received her invitation again.