Panic shot through me like a bolt of lightning. The lady watched me with a cool, discerning eye and didn’t shift an inch from her position. She wore a form-fitting black evening gown speckled with tiny jewels across the neckline. Her nails were a brilliant shade of red, which matched the twists and curls of her voluminous hair. An oversized emerald glittered from her ring finger. It caught the light as she raised her glass of red wine and emptied it. She held the glass out to the side and the giant behind her, without missing a beat, refilled it from a bottle with a French label. The lady inclined her head to him, without taking her eyes away from me, and he stepped back into the shadows without a word.
“Well?” She asked, in an accent I couldn’t quite place. One corner of her lips turned up slightly. “I would imagine that, after your stressful evening at the museum, you’d prefer to take a seat.”
Somehow, the alarm bells in my head found a higher volume. I struggled to keep the shock from my expression. “Who are you?”
“What I am,” she said, “is in a hurry. Sit or don’t sit; either way, make up your mind.”
I considered the situation. Here I was, in a room that Sarah had rented for me under a psuedonym. And here they were, two people I’d never seen before and one I clearly knew nothing about, seemingly perfectly at ease in my personal space. The lady had thrown my real name out casually, disdainfully. When that hadn’t led to her desired outcome – whatever that outcome might have been – she’d followed it up with a reference to the job I had only just finished.
Knowledge was power and, as an opening display, she’d made a devastating first move.
The man was large enough that it pushed the constraints of reality. Where her eyes were cold and intelligent, his were entirely impassive. His hands were the size of basketballs and his arms bulged beneath the fabric of his expertly tailored suit. I thought, but wasn’t sure, that the outline of a handgun was visible under his jacket. He didn’t quite glare at me, so much as he cast an unflinching gaze in my direction. The expression wasn’t a threat. It was closer to an unspoken promise: “I can hurt you.” An involuntary shiver traveled up my spine at the thought.
Mila’s back was turned to me. She faced the window, looking out on the city itself. Most of the room’s lights were off, and my visibility was limited in the dimness, but her hand seemed to move rhythmically against something on the window sill.
Calling for help wasn’t an option. I’d logged off of the comms line and the earbud was now in my pocket. I held little illusion that this lady, her pet giant, or Mila would allow me to remove the bud, slip it into my ear, and then politely ask Sarah to send over armed assistance. I was, for all intents and purposes, alone.
I could always run away. That strategy had worked well for me in the past. A willingness to leave an unfavorable situation, coupled with a distinct lack of foolish masculine ego, were valuable assets in the field. There were only a few feet between where I stood and the door. I weighed the chance of a successful escape. The lady was seated, her legs crossed provocatively at the knee, with a large glass of wine held inches from her lips. Her heels were several inches long and the carpet beneath my feet was soft; if I fled, and she gave chase, she’d only trip and fall to the floor. A quiet voice in my mind, distinct from the alarm sirens blaring at full volume, told me that she wasn’t likely to move at all. The giant, however, kept his eyes on me, almost daring me to act.
He was large, but I’d learned a long time ago that size was not mutually exclusive with speed. I gave myself even odds. With a little luck, I could reach the hallway. From there, a dash to a stairwell would allow me to open some distance. I would at least be able to slip the earbud back in and call for a ride away from the hotel and to safety.
But, the lady had already found me once. I didn’t know how she’d managed it, but there was no point in denying objective facts. If I ran now, it was very possible that I would only lead her to Michel or Sarah. I needed more information before I made any decision; without that, any move I made – every move I could possibly make – carried the risk of opening myself up to further harm.
Neither the lady in the black dress or her bodyguard made a single threatening move towards me. Mila didn’t even turn to acknowledge my presence. I made the call, nodded to myself, and sat opposite the lady.
“Excellent,” she said with another slight half smile. “Would you care for a drink?”
“Wine’s not my thing,” I said. I continued to examine every inch of the lady for any clue to work with. Her dress was elegant, with a thigh-high slit that displayed a great deal of her legs. I swallowed hard at the sight. Years in prison had not been kind to my libido. She noticed my gaze and shifted, just enough, so that the display of legs verged on indecent. I looked away.
She took another long drink from her wine glass. “Which is a shame, of course. But, I expected as much. You prefer…Guinness, I believe?”
As she spoke, the giant produced a bottle of Guinness. He stepped past her and placed the drink on the table between the two of us, close enough that I could reach it if I stretched. I glanced at his face and a glimmer of recognition twinkled in the back of my mind. He moved back to the shadows before that flash of a thought crystallized into anything solid. I took the bottle from the table with two fingers. It was still cold.
“You know an awful lot about me,” I said. I returned the beer to the table. The memory of my most recent drugging was strong enough that I had no desire to drink from an already opened beverage. “I’m going to assume you aren’t about to introduce yourself and I’ve already made Mila’s acquaintance. Who’s the giant?”
“David, you mean? He is my second.”
“David? The opposite of Goliath, the actual biblical giant?” I raised an eyebrow. “That can’t be his real name.”
She tilted her head slightly at the question. “That is a singularly unique take on a fairly common name, Mr. O’Brien. You haven’t been particularly religious since your eighteenth birthday, so you can imagine my surprise that you would leap immediately to that allusion.”
My jaw dropped instantly. “How do you…” I stopped myself from finishing the question. This was just another blatant display of power and knowledge. She’d been doing that from the instant I’d walked into my hotel. If she knew my full name, it wasn’t that large of a stretch to imagine that she’d done thorough research on my life before I became a criminal. My mother’s death was a matter of public record.
She read my expression flawlessly. “I have, of course, done a great deal of research on you. I am nothing, if not thorough.” She held up her free hand and the giant – David, until more information could be gathered – placed a smartphone in her palm. The lady used her thumbprint to unlock it and scrolled through a list. “Your relationship with your mother is well documented, as is your marriage and divorce from Miss Ford. David, how much information do we have on the cab driver?”
He cleared his throat. I expected him to answer the question with another wordless gesture. He surprised me by speaking, instead, in a deep voice. “Thirty-two years old, native Parisian. Abandonment issues. Sexually promiscuous, but on good terms with most of his past lovers.”
She held up the phone. He stopped speaking and took the smartphone back. “As you can see, Mr. O’Brien, I am very well informed.”
I knew what she was doing. Now that I’d calmed down enough to look at the situation rationally, the lady’s play was transparent: frighten me with an absurd amount of knowledge, lead me to believe that she was effectively omniscient, and make me more likely to acquiesce to whatever her demands were. Knowing that academically, however, did little to decrease the visceral effect of the display. I swallowed twice to moisten my suddenly dry mouth and throat. “What do you want?”
“Business, Mr. O’Brien.” She leaned back in the chair and drank deeply from the wine glass. “Always, business.”
“I’m a little overbooked at the moment,” I said. “Surely, you understand.”
“Are you referring to your dispute with Mr. Knight?” The lady asked. “Or your soon-to-be completed association with that relic you stole tonight?”
“Ah,” I said intelligently. “Well.”
Clouds passed away from the moon outside of the window and, for the first time, light streamed in. I was able to get a better look at the lady. She was absolutely gorgeous. I couldn’t deny that much. The half-smile on her lips was alluring and off-putting, in equal measure. I found my eyes traveling down the length of her dress, but halted as a memory of an attractive redhead from the Parisian ice cream shop flashed in my mind. A moment later, another memory – now, of a tourist with thick red hair standing outside of an airport kiosk – presented itself. “You’ve been following me,” I said. “I saw you in Paris and again when I got into London. Why?”
“I was beginning to wonder how long it would take you to reach that conclusion,” the lady answered. “Now, follow that train of thought to its end.”
I glared at her, even as my mind continued to work. The giant, David, was familiar. I closed my eyes for an instant before I remembered him as well. “And he’s the one who gave me the information on Asher’s whereabouts. That would make…you’re the Puppetmaster?”
The lady’s eyebrows drew close together. She frowned slightly, but only on one side of her mouth. “If that’s the name you and your ex-wife have assigned to me, then yes. I am the person who arranged for your premature release from prison. I am also the individual who hired you to…liberate the crown. ”
“So, this is what?” I asked. “You threaten my life so that you can get out of paying what you offered?”
“Why would I do something like that?” She seemed genuinely upset at the idea. “The money has already been wired to the accounts, as specified. What I came to say, Mr. O’Brien, is that any future business dealings between the two of us proceed on a foundation of proven skill. Your work with the unexpected developments at the museum were impressive.”
“What did you want with the crown?”
“Nothing at all,” the lady said. She finished her wine and David refilled it instantly. The rhythm between the two was daunting. She didn’t glance at the glass and he was in motion before she raised it high enough for him to pour. The simple routine spoke of hard-won synchronization. “Its value was based solely on the interest of other parties. Circumventing the security measures protecting it was the primary purpose of your involvement. Personally, I couldn’t care less what happens to it.”
“As I’ve said, Mr. O’Brien. Business.”
I took a deep breath. The tension of the situation had pushed me past fear and into the realm of inappropriate anger. David’s muscles provided an excellent reason to stay as calm as possible, however. I wrestled my rising temper to the ground before I spoke. “And what business is that?”
“I have a proposition for you,” she said. “Before we get into that, though, please verify that the payment has arrived in your account. I’d like to make several things clear before I proceed.”
David removed a phone, as well as a slip of paper, from his interior pocket and tossed them both to me. I caught the device and, a moment later, snatched the paper from the air. Several numbers and letters were written in two lines on the slip. The phone was the one I’d lifted from the Ukranian sniper. As it touched my hands, the phone vibrated and a new message appeared on the front screen. I accessed the phone’s browser, carefully keeping my expression neutral, and went to the site indicated. The touchscreen gave me a little trouble when I entered in the long strings of characters as both identification and password.
When the account information appeared, my jaw dropped slightly. I couldn’t help it. Sarah hadn’t told me exactly how much the job had been worth.
I looked at the number and the zeroes that covered a good portion of the screen, before I slipped the phone into my pocket. I didn’t look at the message I’d received. I could wait until after my guests were gone to do that. “Okay.” I rammed every ounce of composure I owned into the word. “What’s the point of this?”
“I’m simply making it clear the sums I’m willing to provide for work well done,” the lady said. “And, if you’ll remember, the crown meant absolutely nothing to me personally.”
The phone vibrated once more in my pocket. “You went through all the trouble of springing me from prison, just so that I could steal something you don’t care about?” I shrugged. “It’s your money, I guess.”
“Please, Mr. O’Brien. I’m well aware of your talent for problem solving and your ability to multi-task your way through several issues at the same time. Do so now, and save us both the time of these pointless interludes.”
That old familiar anger rose again. She was right, though. I didn’t have to think about the question; the answer had already occurred to me. “It was an audition,” I said. “A test, to see if I could handle whatever your real goal is. Right?”
“Indeed,” the lady replied. The accent continued to gnaw at me. On certain words, she sounded distinctly Baltic. On others, the accent shifted to French, upper-class British, even German. “I’m glad to see that your reputation wasn’t entirely ill-deserved.”
“Reputation?” I asked, and immediately regretted it when that corner of her lips rose once more. I shook my head. “Nevermind.”
“There is an item that I wish to acquire,” the lady said. “I’d like for you to acquire it for me.”
“Another job? Something else that you don’t particularly care about?”
An emotion flickered across her face. It vanished too quickly for me to decipher, but its simple appearance was enough. “No,” she said cautiously. The half-smile disappeared. “This…item…is of considerable importance.”
The glimpse beneath her façade emboldened me. Whatever this was about, it meant more to her than she was willing to let on. “If it’s so important,” I asked, “why not get it yourself? Or send your personal Bigfoot, if you can’t be bothered to handle the matter personally?”
“There is a fair amount of danger inherent in said acquisition,” the lady said. “I am, as you can imagine, reluctant to expose myself to that sort of danger.”
“And you want me to do it for you? I don’t even know your name.”
She didn’t take the bait. I didn’t think she would, but there was always a small hope. “I don’t expect you to do it simply out of the kindness of your heart.”
“And if I say no?” I tried to hide my instinctive nervous swallow with a cough. I smirked for effect, despite the growing pit in my stomach. “You’ll kill me?”
“Mr. O’Brien,” the lady said. The temperature in the room dropped several degrees as she impaled me with a humorless, steely glare. “I assure you. You do not wish to test that theory.”
David was easily two hundred and fifty, maybe three hundred pounds. He looked at me, not as a person, but as an obstacle to be removed if necessary. He moved and the outline of a large caliber handgun clarified in the moonlight. Even without that, he could easily strangle me to death with his gigantic hands or pummel me to death in short order.
I’d personally seen Mila go on the offensive, leveling several men who were heavier, stronger, and taller. Even though she still hadn’t turned around to face me, it would be foolish of me to forget about her presence.
Despite their presence, in that moment, the lady in the black dress was by far the most dangerous person in the room. I stayed quiet and tried very hard not to make eye contact.
“But no,” she continued, after her threat had a chance to hang in the air between us. “This task will likely require your absolute best. For that, I need your willing cooperation. Anything less will be insufficient. If you choose not to accept this assignment, I will be forced to move onto yet another, less qualified and untested, individual.”
“You know,” I said, “the typical strategy is to downplay the dangerous part of the job. That way, I don’t’ know what I’m getting into until I’ve gotten into it. What possible reason could make me take a job that’s so bad you’ll openly tell me how bad things are going to be?”
“A truly absurd amount of money,” she answered immediately and with perfect ease.
That gave me pause.
While I floundered to form the appropriate words, she accepted a manila folder from David and placed it on the table in front of me. “So? Will you accept the job?”
My mouth opened and closed for several seconds before I found the words. “I’ve got my own issues to worry about,” I said. “You aren’t going to threaten or hurt me and mine if I turn this down?”
She shook her head. “You are free to leave, whenever you wish.”
I stood, watching David for any movement or threat. There was none. “Then, as interesting as that sounds, my plate’s a little too full for me to take on outside work.” I stood up and started toward the door. It struck me as supremely unfair that I was being forced to leave my hotel room, but any escape with my limbs intact was a good escape in my book.
“And if I told you that Mr. Knight is a key player in the unfolding events?” The lady’s voice rose from behind me, almost musical. “That, by your involvement, you could deal a not inconsiderable blow to the organization protecting him?”
I froze. I knew bait when I heard it. I turned back around and my eyes met the lady’s. That half-smile was on her face again but, aside from that, every inch of her had turned to resolute stone. She was deadly serious. I looked down at the manila folder, inhaled long and slow, and then sat back down. “What’s the job?”