It took longer to finish up with the guards than expected; not too much longer, but enough time that she was feeling pleasantly sore up her arms and legs. Emilia left the blazing wreckage of the warehouse behind her, happily astride a “borrowed” motorcycle, and headed toward the destination indicated by the text message. The machine wasn’t particularly high powered, like any of the bikes she would have preferred to ride, but it wasn’t bad. The one beneath her was probably a Triumph, maybe one of the 750CC models; not enough horsepower for her to really cut loose on the open highway. In lieu of that razor’s edge of danger, she accelerated up to eighty miles an hour and let her mind drift back to the fight. Memories weren’t as good at keeping her personal demons at bay, but these were at least good memories. Much better than what she’d done for work over the past few years.
As of late, all of her time was spent waiting. At the start, when she’d still had a name to make for herself, the contracts had been much more interesting. There were always more fights to be had, more people who doubted the small Hispanic woman would actually be capable of backing up her calmly stated threats. Those were the times she cherished: using her fists and feet to pound regret into anyone foolish to threaten one of her clients and ensuring their safety with her strength. The fact that those bloody conflicts kept the beast inside her sated was a secondary matter, though not one to be ignored.
Of course, as her reputation grew, the nature of the jobs changed as well. At this point, she was mostly expected to stand menacingly in one corner or another. Her name acted as its own deterrent. Most of the people who found themselves hired as security, or hitmen, or bagmen worked in a fairly small circle. Her face was well known to most of them. If Emilia took a job, it was generally accepted that target was essentially untouchable.
So, the melee at the warehouse had been the first real struggle she’d been able to enjoy in too many months to count. It was possible, Emilia supposed, that the fire had been a little over the top. Her instructions had been clear enough, though – “extract Devlin O’Brien from the warehouse, by whatever means you deem necessary” – and she didn’t think the guards would have let her get away without a suitably distracting catastrophe to deal with. It was hardly Emilia’s fault that the client hadn’t specified what methods she could or couldn’t use, in pursuit of the stated objective.
This job was rapidly becoming more interesting than she’d expected or hoped for. At first, she’d been tasked with simply serving as a shadow. Emilia followed from a distance for the better of an hour, before the waiter had slipped something into a glass and offered it to the man. She’d tried to stop Devlin from drinking the drugged champagne, but had apparently been too late. Even then, she would have protected him. She had tried to engage him in conversation, but a message from her actual client demanded her attention and pulled her into a different part of the museum at the critical moment. She had a sneaking suspicion that the client had wanted Devlin to be kidnapped…but if that was the case, why had the orders changed from “shadow, and don’t be seen” to “retrieve him with all possible haste” as soon as the grab had already gone down? It didn’t make sense.
It was, without a doubt, the most unusual arrangement Emilia had ever encountered. This anonymous client had requested Emilia’s services specifically and paid – actually overpaid – for months of work, up front. A dossier was forwarded to her, after the wire transfer went through, complete with several high definition photographs, a list of possible aliases, and the real names of Devlin O’Brien and the people he was most likely to work with. Some of the names on that list were familiar to Emilia; an even smaller number of them were people whose company she…well, she didn’t enjoy anyone’s company, but their presences didn’t bother her.
She wasn’t paid to ask questions, though. She was paid to protect Devlin. So she hadn’t wondered too hard about the earbud laying in the grass, near the table where the man had sat. She hadn’t prodded too far into the identity of the voice – probably Sarah Ford, if the information in the files was accurate – and she hadn’t put up any resistance to the idea of combining forces to retrieve Devlin from the man Sarah speculated was Asher. In fact, the only reason she’d bothered speaking with Asher at the warehouse was to gather information that might help her in her job.
Not only had she made absolutely certain that Asher intended to kill Devlin at some point, but she’d also been able to get a glimpse at the man who appeared to the primary threat to her ward. The discussion had been interesting, as far as those things went, but Emilia had approached it as a fact finding mission. If she wasn’t literally being paid to interact with Asher, she doubted that they would find much to discuss with one another. Even if she was available for work, she certainly wouldn’t have taken any contract he offered. The way he looked at her was obvious and unashamed; she wasn’t interested in that sort of relationship with a client – or with anyone, really – and it only made things more difficult when the client assumed that her body, and not her skills, were for sale.
Besides, she really didn’t like him.
The entire encounter as a blur of motion and action to her, now. She could feel the bruises on her bloodied knuckles as she eased the motorcycle up another ten miles an hour, savoring the tautness of her leg muscles and the vibrations of the engine against her thighs. There had been too many guards, some of which had actual training instead of sheer bulk, for her to escape entirely unscathed. That was just fine by her. Without the possibility of real danger, she didn’t feel satisfied. It didn’t feel satisfied.
Emilia drew closer to the appointed destination and, as she was easing the motorcycle to a stop, felt her phone vibrating from her jacket pocket. Before she answered the call, she noted with more than a small amount of pleasure that her Aston Martin was parked nearby. She allowed herself a thin-lipped smile: she owned several cars, using them differently as the job required, but this one was one of her favorites. She parked the motorcycle in the vacant spot next to her car and answered the phone. “Yeah?”
“My employer is pleased to see that you’ve accomplished your goal,” an impossibly deep voice said, from the other end of the line. “And with a…minimum of collateral damage, according to reports.”
This was the same person who had contacted her for the job in the first place, then. He wasn’t the actual client – the voice made that much clear with the references to his ‘employer’ – but he apparently acted with his or her full authority. Normally, Emilia hated working with intermediaries, but the money was good enough that she could overcome that disdain.
“If your employer has a problem with my methods…”
“No,” the man interrupted. “Not at all. The loss of those narcotics was not inconsiderable, but the cost was acceptable, in exchange for Mister O’Brien’s safe return.”
“There were a lot of drugs in that place,” Emilia said. “And this one guy is worth that much to you?”
“According to your contract, his life is always worth that much to you.”
It was a veiled reminder that she was still on the job. It was also unnecessary. Emilia had never defaulted on a contract, once accepted. Her word was exemplary. It was a matter of pride for her that she maintained that level of infallible reliability. “If you thought I couldn’t do the job, you wouldn’t have hired me,” Emilia said. “I’m supposed to keep him safe. I got it. But this isn’t how I work. If I’m supposed to protect someone, I have to be able to do that. You want someone who’ll let you use their ward as bait, you can go ahead and cut me loose.”
He didn’t reply for several seconds. “That is reasonable,” he said, sighing heavily. “My employer wishes for you to know that she has no desire to put you in that position again.”
“An opportunity to gather intelligence presented itself,” the man said, “and my employer felt certain that you would be capable of retrieving Mister O’Brien once that information was collected. However, you will be free to protect him, as you see fit, moving forward from this point.”
“Should I expect more problems along the lines of tonight’s show?” Emilia asked.
“You should take steps to be prepared for a variety of possible situations.”
“Is that from you or from your employer?”
Another pause. “Both.”
Emilia nodded to herself. If there might be more opportunities to really cut loose in the future, technically in service to the contract she’d been offered, that was a good thing. Asher certainly hadn’t seemed like the sort of person who would give up on revenge for…whatever slight he imagined was worth all of this trouble. It was a good thing that she hadn’t killed him, then; more conflict was always better for keeping it satisfied.
“So,” Emilia mused, “do I ever get to meet your employer and the holder of my contract? Or am I just supposed to work anonymously?” Either outcome would suit her fine. She just preferred to know who was she was working for.
“My employer has decided to meet you in person,” the man said. “Tonight, in fact.” He did not sound pleased about that decision.
“Listen,” she said, “I’ve worked with people who like their secrets before. I mean, not as much as your employer does, but six of one, you know? You hired me for a couple of reasons, though, and discretion was one.”
“I am aware of your credentials,” the man said. “If I had not personally done considerable research into your record, this offer would never have been extended. That has nothing to do with my…discomfort.”
“And if I ask why, you probably aren’t going to tell me, right?”
The man said nothing.
Emilia used the time while he was silent to switch vehicles from the motorcycle – now that she was leaving it, the Triumph wasn’t all that bad of a machine – to the Aston. Devlin had politely left the keys under the driver’s side floor mat, as though he’d known Emilia would be along to collect the car shortly. She didn’t care for many things in the way that other people did, but the vehicle was nice. Giving up the keys hadn’t been a particularly difficult decision, but she was still happy to see that he hadn’t decided to keep the Aston.
She herself behind the wheel and used the key to bring the engine to life. Then, tired of waiting for the man to speak, Emilia took it upon herself to fill the void. “So, what’s the deal with this guy? He must be a big deal, if your boss is willing to go to these lengths just to keep him safe.”
“He is an essential part of unfolding events,” the man said. “Events far beyond the petty squabbles he is aware of.”
“Does he know he’s a part of ‘unfolding events?’” Emilia asked. “Or is he going to keep throwing himself into reckless situations, just hoping for the best?”
The man sighed again. “If his previous experience is any indication,” he said, “the latter seems most likely.” A voice, – soft, maybe feminine – said something inaudible from the other end of the line and the man spoke again, answering Emilia’s other question. “And, no, he is not aware of his place. Not yet. I am assured that situation will be rectified, in part, shortly.”
Emilia glimpsed a wild thought, flittering through her mind, and took a shot at it. “That’s where I’m meeting her tonight, then? When she sends you to deliver whatever new information this is that Devlin needs?”
“Of course not,” the man said. “You will be at that meeting, as well. According to your previous employers, you work best when you are able to actually coordinate with your wards, correct?”
“Fair enough. Am I going to have time to swing by my hotel, at least?”
“From your current location, you would have to go past the destination. There isn’t enough time for detours.”
Emilia made an effort to conceal any nervous habits. Alone in the Aston Martin, however, there was no one to see or hear as she cracked her bruised knuckles, one at a time. Sam was in the hotel room, and had been there alone for hours longer than anticipated. The job was paramount, though. She’d picked a hotel that would probably see to it that Sam was taken care of until she returned.
“Your companion will be brought along, as well,” the man said. “In keeping with your desire to stay close to your ward, new accommodations are being arranged for. I thought it best to facilitate the transition, in order to make things as smooth as possible.”
Emilia was so relieved that Sam was being picked up that her mind nearly skipped directly over the fact that the man knew her exact location. Was she bugged? Or being tracked in one way or another? Well, probably. She wasn’t doing anything that she would have to hide, but the idea that someone required surveillance on her made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. “Thanks for that,” she said, after a few moments. Parsing her words was not easy for her. It was so much simpler to speak your mind, but she’d learned that most people didn’t particularly enjoy that, and this man was doing her a favor. “Keeps me from having to worry.”
“If I may ask a personal question? This is from me, mind you, and not from my employer.”
“If you want, sure. I’m an open book.” Emilia wasn’t a very good liar, but she’d had a lot of practice telling that one. It came out smooth and even, totally convincing even to her own ears.
“This…companion? I was led to believe that you made an effort to remain as mobile as possible.”
“Mobile doesn’t mean disconnected,” Emilia said. “Sam keeps me grounded. What? You don’t have anyone like that in your life?”
The man didn’t say anything and, in the background of the phone call, that soft feminine voice spoke again. Emilia strained, but couldn’t catch the exact words being said. “I suppose that makes sense,” the man said, after almost thirty seconds of silence. “Your new destination will be sent to you, shortly. We expect prompt arrival.”
“We?” Emilia asked, but the line disconnected without offering an answer. She looked at the phone for a few more seconds in thought. The call had come from a blocked number, but there were ways around that. Of course, anyone who was paranoid about their privacy would have taken that into account. Besides, if the man’s ‘we’ was accurate, there was every possibility that she was about to meet the client anyway. No reason to rock the boat.
She started up the Aston, relishing the familiar rumble of the powerful engine, and waited until the text with her new address came in: if her memory was accurate, she was headed to a hotel near the center of London proper. If anyone else was driving, the train would have been quicker, but Emilia was still wound up from the warehouse fight. She turned onto the highway once more, this time pointed in the direction of the city center, and floored it. The Aston responded admirably.
When she was nearing the areas where there was an actual police presence, Emilia slowed back down to merely fifteen over the speed limit and switched on her police scanner. It was a quiet night in London, by all indications, and that meant –
“Uh, we are code five,” a scratchy voice said. The quality of the scanner left much to be desired. “En route to the museum now. Does anyone know what’s going on over there?”
“Not a clue,” another voice replied. “Something about a robbery? Gunshots? Your guess is as good as mine.”
Emilia laughed openly and the sound filled the Aston. There was little doubt that this was connected to Devlin. The man had been kidnapped, been threatened with torture, barely escaped with his life, and immediately gone back to fulfilling the job he’d come to London to do. Emilia very nearly found herself liking him, and she hadn’t even been introduced to his real personality.
This job promised to be fun, Emilia decided; the type of fun she found herself wanting more and more. If she wasn’t so elated at the developing events, the thought that she wanted to commit violence more and more, as of late, would have made her think of Aiden. As it was, she was too amused in the moment to do anything but look forward to whatever twists were coming next.