Traffic was sparse on the streets leading to the outskirts of the city and the Aston Martin, when there was sufficient space, possessed more than enough power to devour the miles. The backseat was spacious enough for Mila, Sarah, and I to have a little elbow room. Mila took the window seat facing traffic, Sarah sat in the middle, and I took position at the opposite window. My heartbeat quickened a little at each passing car, but none fired bullets at the car as we sped down the road.
“Mila,” I said, without taking my eyes away from the road. “What is this ‘Green Light’ thing? And be specific, if possible.”
“I only know what I’ve picked up,” she said. “But the first thing is that it isn’t always called that. I’m not even really sure it’s called anything, specifically. The ‘Green Light’ bit is just to give you an idea of the…I guess, theme is the closest word.”
“Whatever we’re calling it, I still don’t know what Sarah and I are about to wander into.”
“Rich people eating rich food and talking about rich things.” Mila shrugged. “Someone gets picked to host a party for the elite’s elite. That person is responsible for selecting a location, staffing it, providing food and drink, hiring discrete entertainment, and blah blah blah. Involves a lot of blackmail and bribery, I’d guess.”
I filed that away. Blackmailed employees, by and large, wanted a way off of the metaphorical barrel. Bribed ones were harder to coerce, but the Lady might have sufficient resources to throw at a key individual if the need arose.
“What’s stopping the host from killing off any competition while they’re all under one roof?” I asked.
“Two things. First, the host is required to show up to the event in person and without any guards of his own. If there’s any sign the host isn’t coming, then he loses major reputation points.”
“And the other?”
Mila smiled. “None of the other real heavy hitters typically show up in person. They send employees or assistants in their place. So, in the event of a violent coup that’s actually successful, all you’d accomplish is killing off a group of middle men. After which the organizations you’ve just mortally offended would have cause to rain down hell on everyone you know and love.”
Sarah cleared her throat. “You’re saying we’re decoys. Stand-ins, basically, so that the Lady doesn’t have to put herself at risk?”
“Pretty much,” Mila agreed with another slight shrug. “I’d be surprised if anything like that happens, though. Fifteen or twenty highly trained bodyguards in one room tends to dissuade anyone from getting trigger happy.”
“It still seems like a lot of risk,” I said. “Why would anyone bother to come to something like this?”
“I’ve gathered that, at this level, cooperation is key,” Mila said. “They can’t afford to trip over each other in their dealings and these occasional gatherings give them a time and safe space where they can discuss the finer points of their deals and alliances. That’s only a part of it, though.”
I waited for her to finish her thought. After a minute, I realized that she was deliberately holding out for dramatic effect and I resolved to wait until her patience broke. Thirty seconds after that, I gave up. “What’s the other part?” I asked.
“Gloating, mostly,” she said, smirking just a little. “Mind games, power plays, backstabbing, and the like.”
“They couldn’t do that via email, from a safe distance several countries away?”
“No offense,” Sarah cut in, “but you didn’t grow up with a lot of money, Dev. Your experience in this arena is going to be a bit lacking.”
“Fair enough,” I replied. “Explain it to me, then.”
“People who’ve had privilege their whole life, and who have literally no idea what it would be like without that power, get bored of it after a while. That’s when you start jockeying for imaginary position in this game that only other foolishly rich people are playing.” She raised her eyes from the tablet in front of her and met mine. I suppressed a shiver at their intensity. “It only matters if you’ve got something that no one else does. Then you can lord it over the other person and know that you’re superior, even for just a little bit. Doing something like that over the phone or a computer isn’t the same.”
“Gold star for Sarah,” Mila added. She reached into her jacket pocket and I half-expected her to withdraw an actual gold star. Instead, she removed a candy bar, unwrapped it, and began to eat it in large bites.
“Alright. But why would anyone agree to serve as a stand-in?”
“If I had to guess,” Sarah continued, “these assistants have probably been with their respective employers for a long time. It would take years to rise to the point where you’re trusted enough to represent someone at a gathering like this. So, for them, the success of their employers is their own success. They’re in competition with the other assistants and seconds…in their own way.”
“Except for us,” I said slowly.
“Except for you,” Mila said. “You don’t really have a dog in their fight. Whatever happens to the Lady’s position doesn’t mean anything to you.”
That was a possible angle. I added it to the slim list of possible plays, which I mentally reviewed for unanswered questions. “So, who are these people?”
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Mila said, around a bite of candy. “I’m sure that some of them – most of them, probably – have public identities, but they don’t ever use them. They’ve got nicknames and handles that they use for ease of communication.”
“What do we do if someone starts asking about deals or arrangements?” Sarah asked.
“Lie?” Mila suggested. “Or dodge the question, whichever.”
Michel cleared his throat loudly and deliberately. I looked out of the front window and saw it, rising from the horizon: a plain airplane hangar illuminated by at least four industrial spotlights. Parked off to the side, a fleet of expensive and rare vehicles conglomerated. A cloud of cigarette smoke rose from the mass of cars. Michel whistled as we drew close enough for him to tell the makes and models.
If there were planes, I couldn’t see them. One of the hangar doors was open, however, and two men with large flags stood outside. “We’ll have to sort the rest of this out on the fly,” I said. Now that we were on the scene, it was my time to shine. “Michel, I want you to feed us anything you find out as soon as you can.”
“Of course, Devlin.”
“Mila? If you’ve worked with some of these bodyguards in the past, it’s possible that their previous jobs might give Sarah a basis to find out where they’re – and by extension, their employers – from. That doesn’t break confidentiality, does it?”
Mila scoffed. “I didn’t work with them, I worked near them. Or against them. At any rate, talking about where they’ve been doesn’t break any confidentiality, no.”
“Great. Sarah, can you –“
“Cross-reference any of the information that Michel and Mila give me with known subsidiaries of BMC, in case there’s a connection that might point us in the direction of this key?” She gave me a saccharine smile. “Why, yes, I believe I can do that.”
“I wouldn’t have said it like that, exactly,” I started, but demurred as Michel eased the car to a stop, parallel to a two-seater Maserati. I checked my cufflinks and tie, while Sarah ensured her earrings weren’t going to fall out. When we finished, she caught my eyes and nodded. I returned the gesture.
Mila waited until Sarah and I were both out of the car before she stepped out on the opposite side of the vehicle. Sarah threaded her arm through the crook of mine as we walked. I raised an eyebrow at the familiarity but kept my thoughts to myself. Mila slid into position behind us, smooth as silk and just as silent. Two guards, both armed with assault rifles whose make I didn’t immediately recognize, stopped us at the nearest door. “Invitations,” the wider of the two guards said. His English was unaccented, blank in a disturbing way.
I fished the invitations from my jacket pocket with two fingers and passed them over. The guard who’d spoken inspected them carefully for ten seconds and then waved some device over one of the invitations. I held my breath, without really knowing why, until a high pitched beep came from the machine, accompanied by a steady green light. The guard reset the machine and repeated the process with the second invitation. When a similar sound and light activated, he pocketed the device and the invitations and then stepped out of the way. “Welcome, sir. Ma’am.” He inclined his head to both Sarah and me.
Out of the available accents and personas, I opted for the simplest and most familiar. When I spoke, I did so in my own voice, albeit with elevated diction and the haughtiest air that I could manage under the circumstances. “Of course.” I mentally counted to three and then affected a dramatic sigh. “The door, then?”
The thin guard, who hadn’t yet spoken or made a move, jerked to attention. He hurried to open the door into the hangar and lowered his head as we passed. I turned enough so that I could see Mila behind me. The action also afforded me a slim view of Michel, sharing a lighter and cigarette break with one of the other drivers. “Let’s go, then,” I said. “Duty calls and whatnot.”
Sarah removed her arm and strode purposefully past the guards, into the hallway beyond the door where neither I nor Mila could see her. I hastened to join her, and heard Mila say something to the guards before she joined us. The door closed behind us with a particularly ominous click.
I nearly bumped into Sarah after a few steps. She’d stopped just inside the hallway, apparently. I managed to change my momentum at the last instant, striking the wall with one shoulder instead. “What are you doing?” I asked her.
“Waiting for you,” she answered. There was a hint of bite in her tone. She removed what was either a very large phone or a very small tablet from her purse and pressed several icons in order. The earbud in my ear popped once. Mila wiggled a pinky in her own ear at the same time. “Mila, I’m routing everything that Michel says to you. I assume you can multi-task well enough to keep that from being a problem?”
“Occupational talent,” Mila answered. “And if he says something important? How do you want me to convey that message?”
Sarah bit her bottom lip in thought. “Just suggest a bathroom break or something,” she said finally. “Even if the facilities are occupied, we’ll have a few seconds where we can talk. That’ll work, right?”
“Sure,” Mila said, “but that’ll leave Devlin all by himself at the table while we’re gossiping.”
“Shit, then. That won’t work.”
I raised my hand. “I’m standing right here, you two. And, just so you’re aware, I’ve managed to keep myself alive for a very long time without any assistance from either of you lovely ladies.”
Sarah frowned. “This isn’t really the time for your fragile masculine ego.”
“In all the years you’ve known me, have you ever known me to have masculine ego? Really?”
Sarah and Mila exchanged a look, and then Sarah shook her head slowly.
“Exactly,” I said. “Mila, you said these things are all conversation. Posturing and discussions and international criminal trade agreements. I can handle a few minutes by myself if you two need to discuss something. Besides, any information you find out that Sarah needs helps us all in the long run.”
“He’s right,” Sarah admitted, after a moment.
I smirked. “Often. You make the plans, I take care of any on-the-fly decisions. Information we gather now rests firmly in the ‘planning category.’ Anything that happens when we walk into this thing is ‘on the fly.’ So, Mila? Does that work for you?”
She sighed. “If you insist, fine. But I will cause a serious incident if you get yourself into any more trouble like that warehouse.” The expression on Mila’s face gave me the impression that she wouldn’t be dissatisfied with that outcome, should things come to a head.
“You have my permission to cause as much of an incident as you need to,” I said solemnly. “Now, can we get back to the matter at hand?” I bowed slightly and gestured for Sarah to walk down the hallway ahead of me. She gave me a sardonic smile and accepted the invitation.
I admired her shape for a few seconds before Mila prodded me in the small of my back. “Eyes up.”
“I know that,” I snapped and stalked off down the hallway before she could needle me any further.
She was right behind me, speaking directly into my empty ear. “What happened there? I know you two were married, but the divorce wasn’t covered in the file.”
It was a testament to my nerves that I was barely irritated at the existence of a file. “It’s complicated,” I whispered back.
“These things are never complicated,” Mila said. “Difficult, sure. Impossible, even. But the ‘why’ of it is usually pretty simple.”
There was truth in those words. “This isn’t really the time,” I said.
“If your past is going to be an issue, or a threat to your safety in some way, then this is exactly the time.” I nearly stopped to face her, but Mila’s inexorable movement pushed me forward. She continued to speak in a low voice. “Whatever caused you two to split up, professionally and personally, must have been pretty bad. Tell me this: is it going to be a problem?”
I thought about Sarah’s actions over the past two days. “It won’t be a problem,” I said. I was pleased to find that I meant it, without reservation.
“I’ll take your word for that,” Mila said. “For the moment.” She straightened up and I felt her presence leave my immediate personal space.
I turned to look back at her and, in the process, took my eyes away from Sarah as she stopped once more. This time, I actually did collide into her back. Mila caught my arm and I caught Sarah’s, so that none of us found ourselves tangled on the floor.
“You have got to stop doing…that…” My mouth went dry as I looked past her, at the spectacle in front of us. The interior of the hangar – at least, this part of the hangar – had been transformed into a space that resembled nothing so much as an elegant ballroom. The entire room was cast in a pale green light. I looked up and saw a chandelier, complete with actual cameras, surrounded by a cone of green stained glass to provide the effect.
“Green light,” Sarah whispered.
Suddenly, I got it. “Gatsby. It’s the green light from Gatsby.”
Large round tables, adorned with shockingly white cloths and an assortment of floral decorations, were spread around the room. Each table was far enough away from the others that eavesdropping would be difficult. That would be made even more difficult by the presence of several dozen bodyguards, both male and female, standing watch like gargoyles over their charges. The people seated at the tables spoke animatedly with their hands, and they smiled across their respective tables, but their eyes were universally narrowed in suspicion. The room felt cold, in a way that had little to do with the temperature.
“Sir, ma’am,” a voice said from my right. I jerked in surprise, pulling myself out of my amazement and back into the moment. The speaker was a balding man, who spoke English with a vaguely Nordic accent. “If you would please follow me to your table?”
Faces amongst the assemblage began to notice our arrival. Some of the people at the tables closest to us turned and shot openly searching looks at us. Others pointed and whispered to their compatriots. We were, for the moment, the center of attention. I swallowed nervously but kept that nervousness from my face. Instead of shying away from the spotlight, there was only one way to turn this situation to my advantage. I held out my arm for Sarah and she took the elbow graciously. “Absolutely,” I said to the balding Nordic man. “Lead the way.”