Two attendants greeted me at the entrance to the rotunda. I handed them my electronic invitation and gave them my fake name. They repeated the same process as the previous guards before they stepped politely out of my way. I inclined my head at them as I walked down into the gala proper. As I proceeded, I began to assemble the physical identity of a German aristocrat with each step.
Sarah guided me to the party, through the earbud. Even without her assistance, I would only have needed to follow the waist-high braziers, denoted with perfect white flowers. I didn’t interrupt her, though. At some point, she would obviously realize that I didn’t need the assistance but , until then, I intended to soak up as much of her voice as possible.
When I entered the actual rotunda, the beauty of the space took my breath away for a moment. An explosion of color, in a variety of different flowers, ringed the area. I panned slowly to take it all in. Several people were already milling around, discussing very important things with other in polite voices. They turned at my entrance, nodded, and returned to their conversations.
“You’ll want to wait until everyone’s here,” Sarah said. “That’ll be your best chance to slip away, maybe find a physical port for me to access.”
“I have done this before,” I subvocalized.
“I’m just saying.”
I gave each cluster of people a longer look than strictly necessary, and Sarah began building a working dossier on the who’s who of the gala. If the machine gun clicks of her fingers across her keyboard were any indication, she was working furiously on her end of the connection. After a minute of that, I felt a presence behind me. I turned and found myself nearly nose-to-nose with a tall and muscular specimen of English nobility. A pretty girl who couldn’t be much older than twenty-three hung on his arm. The Englishman stepped back from me and I spotted a slight, barely noticeable limp on his left side.
“Pardon me,” he said. The words were perfectly civil, upper-crust Oxford English accent crisp with perfunctory politeness. I immediately didn’t like him. He was only an inch or two taller, but he looked down at me along the length of his nose in a gesture of pure condescension. “Typically, I know all of the individuals who frequent these sorts of things, but your name seems to have escaped me. I suppose you must be somewhat new to the area.” His female companion covered her mouth with a hand and chuckled at some joke I’d obviously missed. “Fairfax. Surely, you have heard of me?”
“Lord Charles Fairfax,” Sarah elaborated after a moment. “Low level nobility with an inherited title. According to this, he’s got a bit of an addiction for fast cars and fast women, as well as a taste for the nose candy.” I heard the sneer in her voice. “Don’t know who the woman is, but I’d guess she’s just someone he’s trotting around town for appearances.”
I sent her a silent thanks for the information and drew together my disparate thoughts into a complete personality. “Hubert von Ackerman,” I told the Englishman, easily slipping into the accent of a native German speaking his second language.
Lord Fairfax introduced himself in that same haughty tone. “So, you are a German?” He asked. I started to answer, but he barreled on before I could get a word out. “And where is Frau Ackerman this evening? You simply cannot attend this sort of event alone; people will talk.” The girl on his arm twittered once more.
“Devlin,” Sarah said in a clear warning. “Leave him alone. He’s got enough connections to the local underworld that he can make things difficult for you if he suspects something.”
I heard her words and promptly ignored them. I focused all of my attention on the twit in front of me. A public confrontation would draw the eyes of the few people already at the gala and the guests still finding their way into the rotunda would be able to watch it all play out. That would have the unpleasant side effect of making me the center of attention and ruining any possibility of sneaking away later. Clearly, I should do the smart thing: extricate myself from the conversation with as much grace as I could muster and simply avoid Lord Fairfax for the remainder of the night. I reminded myself that, technically, he wasn’t even insulting me. His unfounded pompous attitude was directed as Hubert von Ackerman, a constructed identity that literally didn’t exist beyond this room. That thought didn’t keep my blood from rising at his tone and general air.
“Frau Ackerman is occupied with the business,” I said. “She is more skilled than me at the day-to-day operations. Her beauty is not the only one of her skills.” I gave the words just enough spin that Lord Fairfax’ companion realized she’d been insulted, but wasn’t quite sure how.
“And what business would that be?” Fairfax asked.
I obviously didn’t have an answer for that. A waiter approached me at that exact moment, and held out a glass of champagne. I quickly grabbed the beverage and sipped, stalling for time. It tasted different than I remembered, but three years with only prison wine had a way of resetting taste buds. “My business?” I repeated dumbly.
Sarah picked up the cue. “Damn it, I’ve only got a few German subsidiaries available here.” She typed something into her computer. “Go with Halcyon Enterprises. Import/export business, as far as anybody knows.”
I took another sip from the champagne before I spoke again. “You have not heard of Halcyon Enterprises?”
“I have not, in fact,” Lord Fairfax said. He gave me an indulgent little smile. “But it can be difficult to keep up with each foreign start-up, I suppose.”
“That depends on your definition of little, Herr Fairfax.”
“Oh?” Lord Fairfax asked. “Perhaps I will hear something about your company’s value in this quarter’s financial papers.”
I could’ve asked Sarah to provide an actual number, but I doubted that it would really matter. Lord Fairfax was like a hundred other smug pricks I’d met. He considered the circumstances of his birth – a set of coincidences that had nothing to do with him, at all – to be more important than the work other people undertook to achieve similar results. Sarah had spent the first three decades of her life learning how to navigate around people like that, without raising too many eyebrows or upsetting anyone. I, on the other hand, had decided before my sixteenth birthday that pompous, unmitigated assholery simply could not be allowed to stand.
I straightened my back and stared straight into Lord Fairfax’ eyes. He wilted slightly. “Perhaps,” I said. “But enough about me. How is Frau Fairfax?”
The Englishman opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again, and sputtered something nonsensical in reply. “Pardon me?”
I pressed harder. “It is good to see that she does not mind your little dalliances,” I said, with a significant look at his companion. “I had not thought the British were so liberated. But you will have to excuse me. I have never had the taste for these games.”
Lord Fairfax continued to sputter in indignant rage, trying and failing to form words. I noticed a growing knot of people watching the exchange with poorly disguised interest. I pivoted on my heels and strode away, before the British nobleman could come up with a reply.
Sarah was speaking into my ear within microseconds. “What was that?” She asked.
I sat down at an empty table and began to fiddle with my phone. There weren’t any new messages, I just wanted something to do with my hands until I calmed down. “He was cocky,” I said simply.
“You’re cocky,” she shot back. “How did you even know he was married? I specifically did not tell you that.”
I sighed. “Tan line around his left ring finger. You only see that sort of thing with someone’s who been married for a while.”
“That was stupid,” Sarah said. I noted that she sounded slightly amused, though. “Why piss off people you might need later on?”
“I don’t like bullies,” I said, and shrugged. A smile appeared on my lips after a moment. “And let’s be honest, that was worth it, wasn’t it?”
“That was…” Sarah sighed and trailed off. “Whatever. Now that you’ve just publically gotten into a sniping fest with one of the most familiar faces in the art scene, you’ve got to find some way to blend back into the crowd. Unless you want people talking about you.”
My smile dried up and vanished. “Okay. In hindsight, maybe that wasn’t the best move.”
“You think?” A handful of seconds passed before she relented. “Give me another view of the room, and I’ll see who might be open to a new friend.”
I stood to do as Sarah asked and someone crashed into me from behind. The champagne glass fell from my hand, its contents spilling out over the tablecloth. Luckily, none of the liquid landed on my clothing. I blew out a breath and turned to face whoever had knocked my drink away.
A tanned woman, a few inches shorter than me, stood there. She wore a plain, though excellently cut, pantsuit and her hair was tied back in a tight ponytail. Everything about her posture – her stance, the set of her shoulders, the easy grace in her movements – told me that she was in exemplary shape. Her dark brown eyes met mine and I got the distinct impression that I was being mentally weighed. I endured the inspection for a few seconds and then, apparently satisfied with what she saw, the woman gave me a slight smile. “Sorry about that,” she said. “You alright?”
“I am fine. Although my champagne is not, unfortunately.”
The woman raised her arm and took a pull from a glass of beer. “Well, let me get you another one, then. My treat.”
“The drinks are complimentary,” I said.
“I’ll get you two, then.”
I laughed before I could help myself. “I’m getting some weird feedback,” Sarah said into my ear. “Go ahead and talk to her for right now. I’ll let you know when I’ve got more information.” The line clicked twice and she was gone. Which I appreciated, truth be told. It wasn’t terribly difficult to exchange small talk with a stranger, but it become much harder if I had to keep two different conversational tracks in mind.
“So?” The woman hooked a chair from under the table with one foot, pulled it free, and sat down heavily upon it. “How about it?”
I sat down as well, opposite my new drinking companion. She gestured at a waiter, who approached long enough to deposit a fresh glass of champagne in front of me. “Thank you,” I said. “And you are…?”
“Mila,” she said. “And you are Hubert, right?”
I nodded. If my fake name was already spreading amongst the local movers and shakers, all the better for me. I wasn’t about to complain about work being done for me.
“I gotta be honest,” Mila said. “I was listening to you and Fairfax going back and forth, right at the entrance to the rotunda.”
“Oh, yeah.” Mila leaned back in her chair, pointed her face to the ceiling, and barked out a sharp laugh. “God, I can’t tell you how much he’s had that coming. Such an asshole, and he’s got no reason to be. So he was born into some money…what’s that mean, in the real world?”
In the same way that I’d almost instantly disliked Lord Charles Fairfax, I found myself warming to Mila. It wasn’t as quickly or as absolute as with Michel, but she was certainly speaking my language. The fact that I couldn’t openly agree with her appraisal kept my growing affection from getting too out of control. While Devlin O’Brien wholeheartedly agreed with her assessment, the identity I was still constructing for Hubert von Ackerman wouldn’t feel the same. “Without money,” I said, “what can a man do?”
Mila raised an eyebrow.
“Or a woman,” I amended.
“Without integrity,” she countered, ‘what good is money? Cash goes away; integrity lasts forever.”
I nodded sagely. I felt comfortable doing that; Hubert would probably agree with that sentiment. “Perhaps.”
“So. Money and integrity. Which one’s worth more, in the end?” Mila tilted her head, considering the question. “What do you think, Hubert?”
I had my own answer. Hubert, if he truly existed outside of my own imagination, would probably have an entirely separate one. I decided to split the difference. “They are both important in their own ways,” I said. “Who is to say that one is more important than the other?”
“So you aren’t going to answer,” Mila said, with another loud laugh. “Fair enough. Then, this one’s to money.” She raised her half-full beer bottle.
I hesitated for a second, but Mila made no move to lower her arm. I couldn’t afford to let her draw any more attention to me than I’d already garnered, so I touched the rim of my champagne glass to her bottle and drank a quick toast. “Thank you for the – “
“And this,” Mila continued, talking over me as easily as if I’d never spoken at all, “is to integrity.” She lifted her bottle once more.
I repeated my earlier action a little quicker and finished the rest of my champagne as I did so. It didn’t taste anywhere near as bitter as before. The earbud clicked twice, signifying Sarah’s return, as I placed the empty glass onto a passing waiter’s tray. “What did she say her name was?” Sarah asked.
“Mila.” I managed to get the woman’s attention and answer Sarah’s question at the same time. My partner went to work, checking through the files at her fingertips. “You do not seem like the type to attend these things. Not like…” I made a vague gesture toward six or seven people, all clumping around the fuming Lord Fairfax.
“Art’s soothing,” Mila said, casually. She spoke with an air of almost forced disregard. “This isn’t what I usually enjoy, but it isn’t bad. Also, free drinks.” She finished the rest of her beer and half-placed, half-slammed the empty bottle onto the table.
“Devlin,” Sarah said, “See if you can get her last name. Whoever she is, she isn’t prominent enough that a first name alone can provide any answers.”
“Your family,” I said, in Hubert’s accent. “Is there where you gained your taste for the arts?”
Mila smiled. The expression was more vulpine than joyful, curved almost cruelly and displaying too many of her teeth. “My family doesn’t have a whole lot to do with my tastes,” she said.
“Still.” I elected to double-down. The worst thing that Mila could do was leave. If that happened, it would be a setback – I would have to actually try to find some other socialites to use as cover – but it wouldn’t be traumatic. “Perhaps I would know your family. What was your last name?”
Mila started to answer. The museum curator approached the dais and Mila’s phone beeped at that exact same second. She sighed. “Hold on.” She removed the device from her jacket pocket and read whatever message was displayed. A frown replaced the fox-like grin on her face for an instant, just before her features smoothed into an expressionless mask.
“Is everything alright?” I asked.
Mila returned the phone to her interior pocket and sighed. “Work,” she said, as though that one word explained everything. “We’ll have to pick this up later.”
“Indeed,” I said, and meant it. “Good evening, Mila.”
She rose and inclined her head to me. “Good evening to you, Hubert.”
Mila added the equivalent of vocal italics to my fake name. It took me a few seconds to realize what she’d done but, by then, she was gone. “Sarah?” I asked. “Did you find out anything about her?”
“Nothing worthwhile,” she said. “Without access to the museum’s internal network, I can’t track down who purchased the tickets. Whoever she is, she doesn’t seem to have left much of a footprint in London.”
I looked at the empty glass of champagne on the table. Its taste had been different than my first glass. The glass I wouldn’t have dropped if Mila hadn’t chosen that exact moment to bump into my shoulder. And, as if summoned by the trajectory of my thoughts, I felt a vague darkness begin to permeate the workings of my mind. “I think I made a mistake,” I said. The unexpected weight of my tongue and my lips’ reluctance to operate as ordered made the sentence into a garbled mess of stranded syllables. I tried a second time, with slightly better results.
“Devlin? What do you mean, you made a mistake?”
I attempted to lift the glass from the table, but it slipped from nerveless fingers and tumbled to the ground. “I think…I…think…” It wasn’t just becoming harder to speak; it was becoming harder to form coherent thoughts. I felt so tired, all of a sudden. In my peripheral vision, I could see as the museum curator stepped onto the center dais and began to speak, but I couldn’t seem to make sense of the sounds he made.
Sarah’s voice, however, never lost its clarity. “Devlin! Are you okay? What happened?”
My fingers went up to my earbud. I don’t know why, but the digits traveled there all on their own, without bothering for a consultation from the rest of my body. I attempted to adjust the earbud into a more comfortable position, but that was work far too subtle for my deadening fingers. Instead of adjusting the earbud, I only succeeded in dislodging it completely. I watched as it fell to the ground in slow motion.
A figure approached me, from the other side of my peripheral vision. It knelt next to me and laid a hand on my back. I tried to protest, to cry out for help, but my tongue was too thick in my mouth now. Speech was an impossibility. And, even If I had been capable of croaking out a sound, the debutantes and socialites were so totally engrossed into whatever the museum curator was saying that they’d forgotten entirely about anyone who wasn’t doing the same.
“Shhh, shhh,” the figure said. “It’s okay. Don’t worry. There’ll be plenty of time for conversation later.”
I lost control of my limbs completely at that point. I slumped from a seated position to a full sprawl on the grass. I could hear Sarah’s voice from just in front me; the dislodged earbud was still transmitting, although I couldn’t seem to remember the series of commands that force my lips to call for help. Blackness seeped in from the edges of my field of vision. The last thing I saw before it claimed me entirely was a burn-scarred, mottled hand reaching for my face. Then, I slipped entirely into unconsciousness and saw nothing at all.