Sarah and I rode to the Brooklands Hotel in the backseat of the surprisingly roomy Aston Martin. Michel drove us through London with an ear-to-ear grin plastered on his face. Seeing his own unabashed joy lifted my own spirits. Sarah upgraded the equipment she was carrying, choosing a laptop from the trunk of Michel’s long-suffering taxi, and busied herself with several digital conversations at once. I glanced over to her screen once and saw no fewer than five windows blinking at her for attention. A cursory scan made my eyes cross slightly in confusion. Each window was filled with technical jargon, long strings of alphanumeric information, and code names I’d never heard before. I decided that she would tell me about anything interesting and turned to look out the window.
When we reached the hotel, my eyes widened. The building itself was elegantly designed and expansive. The Aston Martin didn’t stand out against the field of Bentleys, Ferraris, and Corvettes. Each car that I saw made one point eminently clear: this was a place of opulent wealth, and the people who chose to spend their time here wanted everyone to know exactly how much money they could throw around. Running literally through the hotel, underneath an elevated length of building, I spotted an empty racetrack.
I was used to temporary, somewhat shabby residences. Most of my professional life had been spent in one or another. Technically, I held the deed to my father’s property in Ireland and Sarah was the owner on record for several houses across the West Coast but, as those houses were all well-documented and easily discovered, we had rarely stayed there. Sarah used an automated script to keep up with various taxes and upkeep – or, at least she’d done that before we’d parted ways – and I never asked about the details. I honestly never cared. The only reason I kept the land in Ireland was because it’s what my mother would have wanted.
“Well, that’s new,” I muttered.
Michel turned away from the road for the first time since we’d left the previous hotel. “This is not a normal thing for you, then?”
“Hardly,” I said. “Usually, I – we – try to stay under the radar. Relatively cheap rooms for short jobs, established safe houses for longer excursions.”
“There’s a sort of logic to this, though,” Sarah said. At some point, she’d closed the laptop and placed it back into her carrying case. “Everyone who stays at this sort of place is going to be burning money. One more group wouldn’t raise any alarms.”
“And it isn’t unreasonable to think that we aren’t the only people with something to hide here,” I said. “White collar criminals would love a hotel like this. I’d bet there are more pseudonyms in use here than actual names.”
Sarah held up one of the hotel keys. “Did she tell you what names we’d be under?”
I shook my head. “I didn’t think she was going to actually move me into a cushier place, so I didn’t think to ask.”
I gave her a thin smile. “No reason for that. I don’t think she’d go through the trouble of getting us new wheels and new digs, just to throw us to the wolves now.”
“We’ll see,” Sarah said in reply.
I was proven correct almost immediately. After Michel reluctantly handed the keys over to a valet, we entered the hotel and were promptly greeted by an insufferably cheerful young blonde woman.
“Ah. You would be Mister and Missus Benett?” She asked, practically bouncing on her feet.
I looked at Sarah and Michel, and then back at the young woman. “Yes?”
“I was told to expect your arrival,” the woman said. “This is your first time at the Brooklands, I believe?”
“Sure,” I said. “Let’s go with that.”
“If you’d be so kind as to follow me, then, I would be happy to show you around the facilities.”
“Maybe another time,” Sarah interjected. “I’d like a chance to see the rooms, first.”
“You mean the suite, ma’am.”
“Pardon?” Sarah raised an eyebrow.
The perky woman didn’t miss a beat. “You said ‘rooms,’ Missus Bennett, but you and your husband have one of our premier suites for your stay with us. Top floor, of course, with an accompanying balcony that provides a delightful view of the property.”
I blinked. “Well, then, could you show us to that?”
“Of course. And your driver?”
If he was offended by that assumption, Michel didn’t show it. His eyes were riveted on the racetrack. “I will stay down here,” he said, “if you do not mind.”
“Perhaps you could show him what’s going on out there?” I gestured in the direction of the track.
Michel’s eyes lit up.
The woman gave him a look. “Absolutely,” she said, in a tone that contained entire volumes worth of cool professionalism. “Would you care for anyone to bring in your luggage?”
“Not just yet,” I said. “Let’s see the room before we deal with those particulars.”
The woman nodded and walked over to the elevator. Sarah and I followed her, while Michel lingered in the lobby, gazing at various fixtures in awe.
After the doors closed, the woman spoke without turning to face us. “You’ll find your new documentation in your respective living quarters,” she said. I noticed that a great deal of warmth had drained from her voice all at once. “And I’ve been informed that there has been a wide breadth of clothing options provided. All tailored, of course.”
The shift was surprising, but not entirely unexpected. “Is this customary service for all of your guests?”
The woman glanced back at me, over her shoulder. “There are services we provide only for our most distinguished guests,” she said in a soft, conspiratorial voice.
I deliberately left enough of a conversational gap that Sarah could leap in and ask whatever questions she wanted. She said nothing. I shrugged and waited out the rest of the elevator ride with only my thoughts and theories for company.
The elevator announced our arrival with a high-pitched ding. The woman gestured for us to enter ahead of her. Sarah hesitated, so I took the lead. After I had been inside for a minute, without difficulty or danger, she joined me. The hotel employee brought up the rear. The elevator shut and returned to the lobby almost immediately, leaving the three of us alone in unfamiliar surroundings.
The suite was, in a word, extravagant. On one side, I could see the balcony she’d mentioned, looking out at the treeline and the parking lot. I noted with pleasure that there weren’t any tall buildings that could conceal a sniper. I looked around until I found the hotel employee, who had taken up a position just barely inside the room. “Which room is mine?”
She pointed. “That way, Mister Bennett. And Missus Bennett, your room is across the hall.”
The Lady had explicitly referred to my divorce from Sarah, so the names weren’t an oversight. The fact that she’d arranged for separate rooms confirmed that much. So, the fact that she’d picked false identities for us as husband and wife was just another of her nose-tweaks.
Sarah opened her mouth and closed it, without saying anything. She walked instead to her room and disappeared inside. I covered the distance to the door opposite hers and entered. Inside, I saw the regular amenities expected of a high end hotel room. On the nightstand, there was a slim folder. I opened it and found all of the paperwork that came with a new identity: passport, driver’s license, credit cards, and so on. I opened the nightstand’s single drawer and located a brand new wallet and a set of brand new lockpicks. The cards went into the wallet, the passport into the drawer, and the lockpicks into my pocket before I went to check out the closet.
My capacity for shock had been greatly diminished in the previous few days, but the sight of a closet full of suits, with different colors and cuts, gave me pause nonetheless. I removed one from its hanger and ran a finger down the lapel. The fabric felt like wool, or a mixture of wool and cotton; breathable, but warm enough for the lower temperatures of England in the early winter. I checked inside one of the shirts for a label and found none. Not just tailored suits, then, but bespoke ones.
“You couldn’t have given me one of these before I paid Suzie?” I asked the quiet room. A second ticked by before a possibility occurred to me. Suzie had only been in town because of a previous job. The idea that the Lady had planned all this, down to the room and the clothing, before Sarah and I caught a flight into London to begin with was apparent. I wasn’t sure, however, if the suits were another display of her power or if she was simply being solicitous. I pulled out a drawer, found a pair of jeans and a t-shirt to wear instead of my day-old suit, and decided that I really didn’t care.
After I changed, I went back into the hallway. Sarah was leaning against the door frame of her own room and the hotel employee who’d shown us to our room was nowhere to be seen. Sarah watched me search the room before she cleared her throat and spoke up. “I asked her to leave,” she said. “There’s a card by the phone with her personal cell number, if either of us need anything that isn’t already here.”
“What do you think of the place?” I asked.
“It’s probably bugged,” she replied. “But, seeing as the Lady’s proven herself pretty capable of keeping track of us no matter what we do, that’s not as big of an issue as it should be. You had a closet full of clothes in there, right?” Sarah pointed at my closed door.
I nodded. “There were lockpicks in the nightstand, too. I’d be willing to bet that there’s a full set of gear in various drawers.”
“That makes sense,” Sarah said. She opened the door back into her room. “Look what she left for me.”
I followed Sarah. She hit the light switch as she passed it. Without that, the room was mired in almost impenetrable darkness. There were no windows to allow ambient light into the space. I thought back to my own room and realized that there were also no windows there, either. Several articles of clothing – shirts, dresses, skirts, and blouses were thrown haphazardly on the bed. I glanced at them briefly and, when my eyes flicked back up, I saw what Sarah had wanted me to see. Set against the back wall, where a window would normally have been, an expansive bank of monitors glowed with electric light. White letters flew by against a black background on at least six different monitors while a powerful fan churned air around inside the room.
“I’ll spare you the technical details,” she said, in answer to my unasked question, “but this is top of the line. Higher than top of the line. I gave the specifications a quick once-over, and they are…impressive.”
“What’s it doing now?”
“It’s not doing anything,” Sarah answered. “I’m running every anti-viral, anti-spyware program I know of to find every single byte of data she installed on this computer before she gifted it to me. When this is finished, I’m going to take it apart and put it back together one piece at a time. Anything that doesn’t belong – anything that I think might not belong – is getting thrown out. After all that, I’ll reinstall the operating system and start from scratch. I still won’t use it for anything sensitive that she doesn’t already know, but it’s better than anything else I’ve got at the moment.”
I approved of her paranoia and, at the same time, was absolutely sure that it would all be for naught. I’d only been in the Lady’s presence for a short time, and what I didn’t know about her vastly outweighed the knowledge I’d gleaned, but she struck me as the type of person who expected circumspection. Either she’d already planned a method of surveillance that Sarah and I would miss or she hadn’t bothered with it at all.
She obviously already other means of keeping tabs, anyway. She’d tracked me out of France under an identity I’d literally stolen, to Kiev on an alias I hadn’t used in years, and to London. As long as we were in the hotel room that she paid for and supplied, the most likely assumption was that she had eyes on us, in one form or another.
“So, how long are we staying here?” I asked.
Sarah checked her smart phone before she answered. “I don’t think we’ve got much of a choice. While you were checking out your room, I got a bank notification. The credit card that I used to book your previous room was tagged as stolen. All funds are frozen until the bank has a chance to ascertain the circumstances surroundings its use.”
“She torched those identities?”
Sarah shook her head. “Adlai. I don’t have any idea how he’s moving this fast, but it is what it is. I could use another account to reserve that room, or another one somewhere else, but that’s just going to open up more information to the Lady. Which I’m pretty sure she’d be fine with.”
I considered that and nodded. “Safe houses?”
“Same principle,” Sarah said. “We don’t know how she’s tracking you and, until we do, I’m not about to lead her to any other safe houses she doesn’t already know about. If she found you, then both identities are blown, and I’m not about to give her anymore.”
There was a slight edge to the words. I doubted that anyone who didn’t know Sarah well would have caught it, but I did know her. “So, you’re not okay with working under someone’s practically omniscient supervision?”
Sarah let a sarcastic laugh escape her lips. “Hell no, I’m not okay with it. The better part of my life has been spent making sure that I don’t have to answer to a single soul. I’m hard at work trying to get out from underneath her thumb, but I’m not going to talk about it while we’re…well, I’m obviously not going to talk about it right now.” She gestured vaguely at the walls.
“Ah. Well, then,” I said.
“I’m going to change into something a little more comfortable,” Sarah said. I bit back a smirk with a fair level of success. “And then I’ve got a full day’s worth of work before this system is usable again. What about you?”
“Mind if I borrow one of your laptops?”
She raised an eyebrow, but handed me a messenger bag without a verbal comment.
“What’s that look supposed to mean?” I asked. “I can read, you know. I’m going to check in on the available information about the museum job, maybe see if I can figure out where Adlai’s getting his information from. Do you still have that log-in information for Interpol?”
“Unless someone closed the backdoor, sure. That account doesn’t have the sort of privileges you’d need to monitor an active investigation, though.”
“That’s fine. I really just want to see where he’s been. It’s a little too coincidental that he ended up in London, just after I got back to work, don’t you think?”
Sarah blinked. “You think he might be working for one of the other players?”
It was my turn to shake my head. “No, he’s too much of a straight arrow. If someone hinted that they knew about a crime in progress, in the past, or in the future, Adlai would arrest them on the spot until they told him everything. I don’t think he’s in on this, at all. Or, at least not in the way that everyone else seems to be.”
“Maybe he got onto someone’s radar during one of his cases,” I suggested. “And that person, who might know about the history between Adlai and me, sort of…steers him in this direction. If I get back to work and I pull it off, then Inspector Javert is right here to track me down. If I don’t, no harm.”
“Or Asher. Or the Magi. There’s a lot of options here. But someone could be using him as a weapon against us.” I hefted the messenger bag and the laptop contained within. “Thus, the research.”
The computers behind Sarah beeped and the screens reset to entirely black, instead of only mostly black. She dug into a different bag for pen and paper, wrote down a long string of numbers and letters, and handed the paper to me. “That’s the log-in information.”
“What happens if I get caught?”
She shrugged. “Worst case scenario, someone realizes what you’re doing and figures out that you’re logged in as someone that doesn’t actually exist. They’ll just revoke the rights, but still, try not to go digging too deep.”
I held up two fingers. “Scout’s honor.” I ducked as a pillow sailed overhead.
“Good. Now, go away,” Sarah said. Her attention was already fixated on the computer, as it booted back to life. She cracked her knuckles. “We’ve both got work to do, don’t we?”