Chapter Forty-Six

We worked in our respective rooms for most of the morning, with a brief break around noon where we ate room service in the living room.  Judging from her silence as she picked over the remains of a salmon dish, Sarah’s efforts to scrub the computer of any spyware weren’t going well, and I wasn’t having much success on my end, either.   After lunch, Sarah returned for another round with the Lady-provided system, and I returned to the room for several more hours until I couldn’t bear looking at a computer screen for another second.   I decided to migrate to the couch, chew mindlessly on a freshly delivered banana, and gaze out of the balcony window.

From where I sat, there wasn’t any possible way for a bullet to bridge the distance between the distant tree line and my forehead.  I scooted a little farther back, anyway.  I leaned back into the plush furniture and closed my eyes.  More ideas and questions than I could count crowded behind my eyelids: theories as to the Lady’s real endgame, what Asher wanted, the nature of the book, and so on.  I opened my eyes and realized, with a dull sort of surprise, that I’d removed one of the lock picks from my pocket.  My fingers expertly flipped it across my knuckles and then back again.  I watched the process for thirty seconds before I pocketed the lock pick again and stood up.

I was halfway back to my room when the elevator dinged.  I turned slightly to face the sound, while my brain processed the addition of new information.  Michel had called earlier to let us both know that he intended to take the Aston Martin for a long ride, ostensibly to familiarize himself with its workings.  Neither Sarah nor I believed that but, at the same time, neither she nor I cared.  It wasn’t really our car.

There was every possibility that Asher knew that we’d been behind the museum job – we were banking on that, in fact – but even his newfound resources would need time to pin down my location.  Adlai was a threat, but he was limited by his own rule-abiding nature.  There were forms to file, reports to submit, and oversight that would hamstring any chase he could mount.  It hadn’t even been twenty-four hours.  At best, he would only have been able to case the scene of the crime while his superiors danced their way through jurisdictional red tape.  My allies were accounted for and my enemies were limited in the damage they could cause.

So, I asked myself, who was entering the room?

I threw myself to the floor, scrambled behind the couch, and waited.  No noise came from Sarah’s room.  She’d probably donned her headphones as soon as the tedious mechanical labor started up.  There wasn’t any way to warn her without exposing myself to the intruder.  There was a chance – a slim one – that I might be able to surprise whoever was in the hotel room, if I was patient.  It had worked in Kiev and several times in London, after all.

The hotel’s living room was covered in a thick, soft carpet.  It made my sprawl bearable but it also muffled the sound of footsteps.  If I strained, I could barely make out what felt like the impression of a footstep, but I wasn’t sure enough to base any offensive or defensive action on those faint sounds.  I waited until the presence grew closer.  When it was on the other side of the couch, a smell reached my nostrils: not perfume or cologne, but something equally strong.  Soap, maybe?  The presence stopped where it was.

I was prepared to leap out of cover, banking on the shock of my dynamic entry, when the presence cleared its throat and spoke.  “How long are you planning to hide back there?”

My eyebrows drew together.  I peeked my head out from behind the couch.  “How did you know where we were?”

Mila, dressed in a pair of khakis and a button-up shirt, unscrewed the cap from a water bottle and drank deeply from it before she answered.  “Call it a lucky guess.”

I left the couch’s shadow and moved across the room to an empty recliner. “I could have attacked you,” I said.

“You could have,” she allowed, “but that really wouldn’t have gone well.”

“That’s a…gracious interpretation.”  Having seen her fight, I was pretty sure I would have been lucky to walk away from any confrontation.

She inclined her head slightly.  “I’m working on my graciousness, actually.”

I raised an eyebrow. I could have bantered with her for another hour, but, at that moment, Sarah left her room and walked into the hallway, muttering to herself.  “Who builds a motherboard specifically to put an actual hardware backdoor into a computer?  There’s suspicious and then there’s…”  She stopped when she noticed Mila.  “Uh.  Hi?”

“You must be Sarah,” Mila said.

Sarah perked up slightly, as she recognized the voice.  “Oh.  Um…you’re the one who got him away from Asher?”

“The one and only.  Mila.  Or Emilia, if you prefer.”

I frowned.  “Which one is it?”

“Neither,” she said, “but one’s as good as the other.”

Sarah still wore confusion on her face, but she was recovering.  I decided to ask the only really important question while Sarah’s mind was still rebooting.  “So.  Let’s get right to it.  Can we trust you?” I asked Mila.

If Mila was offended, she gave no sign of it.  “The terms of my contract were very specific.  My services are paid for until such time as your business in England is finished, and I receive my orders – not really the right word, but it’s the closest one that I know – from you, not the chick who’s paying the bill.”

“And if we decide to do something that goes against what the Lady wants?”

“I keep you and Sarah from dying.  That’s my only job.”

Jealousy spiked irrationally in my chest.  Mila seemed so at ease with the situation.  “Is this sort of thing normal for you?”

Mila snorted instead of answering.

With an effort, I kept myself from trying to communicate non-verbally with Sarah.  Even if Mila wasn’t sure what a momentary look meant, she would still log it and work to uncover its meaning.  The best course of action was to simply not give her anything to work with.  “How did you find out where we were?  Honestly?”  I asked.

“GPS tracker in the wheel well of that Aston.”  She shrugged.

“You put a tracker on your own car?”

“I’ve got trackers on every car I own,” Mila said.  “And I’ve also got hidden cameras on every property I frequent.  People expect you to spy on them.  They don’t expect you to spy on yourself.”

“Why didn’t you just ask the Lady for directions?”

“Why ask for information you can discover on your own?”  Mila countered.

I smiled at that.  It sounded like something I would have said.

Sarah cleared her throat.  “So,” she said in a tone that did not sound pleased at all, “is there anyone else you want to bring into this?”

“I’m not the one who brought her in,” I replied.  “But yeah, I think this is a good idea.  I was going to suggest hiring someone to act as personal security, anyway.  You saw what happened at the gala, and I’ve only been here for a couple of days.  How bad do you think this is going to get before it’s all over?”

There was an edge to Sarah’s voice.  “Exactly my point.  This is going to be hard enough without the addition of a possible spy to the team.”

Mila had been picking at something underneath her nails.  “One,” she interrupted, extending an index finger.   “I’m not a spy.  There wasn’t an explicit confidentiality agreement in the contract, but it’s implied.”

“Not even to the contract holder?”

“My confidence is with the person I’m protecting, not whoever’s sending the money.  Two,” she raised a middle finger to join the extended pointer without waiting for me to reply, “I accepted a contract.  That means I’m going to protect you, whether you want me to or not.  That part, you don’t get a say in.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Mila rolled her shoulders.  “It means this: if you tell me to go, I’ll leave.  But then I’ll just linger in the lobby.  Whenever you go out, I’ll tail you.  I’ll be an unholy problem, because I’m not good at the covert stuff, but my job is keeping you from dying.  Everything else comes in a distant second, so long as I’m under contract.  Clear?”

In any other setting, Sarah would have appreciated the fastidious adherence to protocol.  Right now, she only scowled at her.  “Anything else?”

Mila’s ring finger rose and joined the other two.  “Sam.”

“Sam?”

Mila unzipped the duffel bag over her shoulder and a fluffy white head poked out.  The cat that I’d seen the previous night blinked huge, baby blue eyes at me and Mila began to stroke absently between his ears.

“I’m allergic,” Sarah protested immediately, stepping away as she spoke.

Mila didn’t blink.  She took her hand away from Sam’s head and dipped it into a side pocket.  A moment later, she drew out a bottle of pills and lobbed it in Sarah’s direction.  “Medication.  Prescription strength.”

“You can’t put the cat in a kennel or something?”  Sarah asked.

Sam,” Mila said, stressing her pet’s name,  “doesn’t do well in kennels for long periods.”

Sarah’s frown deepened.  The displeasure did interesting things to her lips and I looked away before I had a chance to really start imagining things.

“Anyway,” Mila pressed on, “you don’t know anything about what you’re walking into.  You two have been here for, what?  Two days?  And Devlin was already within a couple of inches of death.  I can either follow behind you and be a hassle; or I can stay with you and be an asset.  Your call.”

“Fine,” Sarah spat out, after a minute of tense glowering.  “I don’t know where you’re going to stay, though.”

“The couch is fine.”  Mila lowered the duffle bag, kicked off her shoes, and stretched out across the cushions.  Sam climbed out of the halfway unzipped opening and up onto the couch, nestling himself into the bend in her body.  “But don’t you guys have something to get dressed for?”

I glanced at the clock and saw that it was already nearing six o’ clock.  “Shit,”  I muttered.  “Sarah, we can pick this up later.”

“You can bet we will,” she said, as she hurried into her room.

I typed out a quick message to Michel, using the burner phone: “Getting ready now.  Details to discuss.”  I read it over once before I sent it and headed off to get ready for the Green Light party.

The room’s closet contained choices.  After several years of limited options, and a few days’ of wearing whatever clothing happened to be available, the novelty of a fully stocked closet was staggering.  There were ties of all colors, tie bars and monogrammed cufflinks, a rainbow of Oxford button-down shirts, socks, shoes, and other assorted accessories.

In honor of the theme, I wore a pale green silk tie, kept flat with a platinum and gold tie bar against a jet-black button down shirt.  My pants and suit jacket were also black as midnight, but my socks peeked out from under the cuffs to reveal a hint of lime in contrast to the majority of the suit.  Solid gold cufflinks completed the ensemble, providing a unifying note and a reference to the otherwise easily ignored tie bar.  I gave the assorted jewelry a moment of serious thought before I selected a platinum watch with gold numbering.

I ran a hand through my hair and regretted that I hadn’t thought to get a haircut.  I brightened slightly when I realized that, in all likelihood, there was someone on staff who could handle that for me after we got back.

Assuming, of course, that we made it back at all.

It took forty minutes before I was satisfied with my appearance.  “You ready, Mila?” I asked, stepping out of the bedroom and back into the main area.

She stood in the center of the living room, cinching a black neck tie tight.  “Just about,” Mila said.

I stepped farther into the room and saw Michel standing just to the side of Mila.  He looked at her in open awe.  I chuckled to myself.  “I wouldn’t get too attached, Michel,” I said.  “Mila’s all about the business.”

“Can I not still appreciate beauty?”  He asked.

“Just don’t get your hopes up, is all I’m saying.”

Mila ignored the brief conversation.  She finished with her tie, checked the lengths of her sleeves, and nodded once in self-affirmation.  “The color’s a nice touch,” she said when she finally turned to take in my appearance.

I made a dismissive sound.  “Anybody could look good with that closet to choose from.  It’s not the same as…”

The door to Sarah’s room opened.  I turned, instinctively, at the sound.  My eyes became wide as pie plates; my breath caught in my chest; and my heart skipped a beat, fixed itself, skipped once more, and then decided to go into utter freefall.

She was dressed in a single piece of radiant emerald green fabric.  It was either silk or chiffon.  Her neckline sported a dazzling array of gemstones which glittered in the light.  There was every possibility that those stones were actually diamonds.  The chance that Sarah could be carrying at least ten thousand dollars in jewels against her bare skin seemed absolutely plausible and, more than that, absolutely correct.

Aside from the gems on her dress, she wore no necklace or bracelets that might distract from her.  Even her earrings were little more than small silvery beads.  Her nails matched the shade of her dress.  She’d pinned her wild curls up with two golden chopsticks; those, in turn, matched the buckles on her low-heeled, open-toe pumps.  I could see the spot, just above her left ankle, where her first tattoo had lived before the laser removal operation.  Her eyes were hidden behind a pair of new glasses, but the color in them still shone out from her face.

She noticed me noticing her and shifted uncomfortably.  Her left hand crossed over her right and I knew that, if it were possible, her cheeks would be turning a shade of red.  “What?”  She asked defensively.

I cleared my throat several times until words began to form in my mind again.  “Well.  I, uh…well.”

What?”  Sarah asked again.  “What is it?”

“I think he’s trying to say you look good,” Mila chimed in.  She was in the process of securing a handgun beneath her jacket.

I nodded.  “That dress is…it’s a great dress.”

Sarah shifted her weight from one foot to the other.  “I figured ‘green’ was an appropriate color, considering the invitation.”

“We’ll match,” I said.  Words were becoming easier.  “That might be good.”

She nodded and then opened her clutch.  From within, she produced another nearly invisible black earbud, examined it briefly, and extended it to Mila.  “If you’re working with us, then you’ll need to be on comms, too.”

Mila regarded the equipment with a mixture of bemusement and skepticism.

“What’s the problem?”  I asked.

“My job is to protect you,” she said.  “I’ll do that to the best of my abilities, regardless of what you want.  People don’t typically like to work with the babysitter.”

I thought.  “You can’t stop us from doing something, right?  I mean, you can’t just drag the two of us out of London?”

“I could,” Mila said, shrugging, “but I’d rather not.  There’s nothing stopping you from coming right back after I leave, and that just makes for more work in the long run.”

“And if I go into danger?  You’ll protect me, even if you hate that I’m doing it?”

She nodded.

“Well, then, I don’t see any problem at all,” I lied.  Or exaggerated.  The details were fuzzy, even to me, but I wasn’t sure how Mila’s contract would hold up to an actual field test.  At the same time, I had little to no options.  “You know what we’re doing.  You know who we’re going after.  If you try to slow us down, you’ll only make things more dangerous for us.  The easiest thing to do is to help us finish what we’ve got in mind here, so that the three of us can leave.  And you can go off to whatever your next job is.”

“I figured you were going to say that,” Mila said.

“And?”

In response, she reached out and took the earbud from Sarah’s fingers.  “The sooner we get this started, the sooner we can all go home.”  She began to play absently with a spot between Sam’s ears.  The cat purred and nestled his head into Mila’s palm.

Sarah entered a command into her smart phone.  “Check, check.”  I suffered from the unpleasant sensation of hearing her voice from her own lips, as she was less than a yard away from me, and also through the earbud.  I could see that Michel and Mila underwent similar discomfort.  The line popped and went dead again.  “Alright, we’re linked up.  I’m going to keep Dev and I muted from each other, so there’s no feedback.  Michel, you’re on recon.”

He raised a hand.  “What is that, exactly?”

“If what the Lady said is true, there are going to be a lot of powerful people at this thing.  That means personal drivers, and powerful people tend to not like new people,” Sarah said.  “Their drivers are likely the same people who’ve been ferrying them around for years.  You can’t work for someone that long and not pick up some juicy details.  Michel, I want you to see what you can sneak out of them.  Any information is better than nothing.”

“Is there anything in particular I should ask about?”

“Nothing I can think of.  Asking about the Magi is too heavy-handed.  I’ve already sent people running for the metaphorical treehouse by phrasing a question the wrong way, but maybe you can tease out some other details we can work with. ”  Sarah considered a half-finished can of Diet Coke on the table.  She touched two fingers to her fresh lipstick, sighed, and abandoned the can where it sat.

Michel looked at her and, almost imperceptibly, flicked his eyes in my direction.  I shook my head and took a step back.  “This is Sarah’s territory.  I don’t work well from a position of…well, safety for lack of a better word.”

Mila snorted violently.  “No one’s ever really safe.”

“From a vantage point, then,” I conceded.  She nodded and I continued, speaking to Michel.  “I’m good on the ground; she’s good from here, in the planning stages.  If she says you should interrogate the drivers, then that’s what you should do.”

“Ah,” he said, “oui, Monsieur…er…Madamoiselle Ford.”

“It’s Bennett now,” she corrected.  I knew she’d caught his deference to me.  I could only hope that she’d appreciated my reaction to it.  That argument was an old one, and it wasn’t one I was looking forward to having again.  “No way to know who’s listening from this point on.”

“Bennett, then.”

“Mila,” Sarah said, turning slightly to give our new bodyguard her own set of marching orders.

“I’ll shadow the two of you,” Mila interrupted.  She shrugged one shoulder at the annoyed look Sarah shot her.  “I told you that you wouldn’t like my methods.”

Sarah sighed and checked her smart phone again.  “Fine.  Do you know anything at all about what we’re about to walk into?”  Sarah asked.

“I’ve heard rumors,” Mila said.

I thought about that.  “What exactly is it?”

She was quiet for a few seconds, weighing the question and how to answer.  “These Magi – great name, by the way – are international badasses, right?”

I nodded.

“Imagine a room filled with other people in that league, who don’t have your interests at heart.”

“It’s that bad?”

“Probably worse.”

“What else do you know?”  I asked.

Mila rolled her shoulders and neck before she answered.  “Enough to know this is a terrible, no good, very bad idea.”

I smiled, despite myself.  In my peripheral vision, I could see that Sarah’s expression lightened as well.  “Nice reference.”

“I do what I can,” Mila said, faking a curtsy for effect.

My attention went back to Sarah, who had thrown herself back into some project on her smart phone.  “And what’s our plan?”

She looked up.  “Step one: infiltrate this party.  Step two: try to not die.  Step three: really, seriously, try not to die.  That about sum it all up?

I swallowed a lump of anxiety.  “Yep,” I said.

“Glad to hear it,” she said.  “Now get your stuff.  Michel, bring the car around.  Mila…do whatever you do.”  Sarah hesitated and a shadow of a smile played at the corners of her lips.  “Let’s blow this popsicle stand.”

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