“I simply must have front row tickets, you see. Their live performances are wonderful, almost transcendent…or so I’ve heard. I can’t be so close to one without getting to see it in person,” the guest said. “You understand, right?”
Sophie, who had seen the band in question on a number of occasions, did not understand, but she nodded anyway. “Of course, ma’am. I would be happy to assist, however I can. Was there a particular evening that you had in mind?”
She was already typing, even as she mechanically spoke the words. Her mind traced through a series of connections – favors owed, enticements she could offer, leverage she could use – going all the way back to the band itself. This wasn’t the first time a guest had needed last minute tickets; it wasn’t even the first time this month.
“Well,” the lady on the other side of the desk said, “my husband and I have business in Milan tomorrow – very important business – so tonight would be the only time we’re available…”
She kept talking; Sophie tuned her out with a faint twinge of irritation. Why did guests always try that? Men and women alike both name-dropped celebrities and discussed ‘exotic’ locations, as if it would impress her. She’d been working at the Brooklands for years, and her position as head concierge afforded her access to luxuries that few people even knew about. What did the wealthy, powerful, or influential think they could offer her that she couldn’t acquire on her own?
She finished the message to the band’s manager and sent it off, just as an email appeared in her own inbox. Not the inbox she used to coordinate her staff at the Brooklands; no, this one had come to her other account.
Received, the message read. Ten clean passports, ten Cayman bank accounts, five network infiltration specialists, three personal security experts, one shipping container. Payment delivered.
Sure enough, her phone beeped and Sophie didn’t have to check the display to know what it would show. The materials and personnel she’d redirected weren’t inexpensive, and she required a commission for her work in navigating through the paperwork, connecting interested parties, and ensuring that the multiple transactions took place without incident. She would well paid for the work she’d done.
She typed out a quick reply, without bothering to involve her brain in the process. Happy to be of service, she wrote.
Out loud, she said, “I don’t want to make any promises, ma’am, but I should be able to pull some strings and get you and your husband into the show. If you’d like, I can have those tickets sent up to your room as soon as they’re available.”
“Well,” the woman dragged out the syllable, then lowered her voice to a conspiratorial volume. “My husband doesn’t exactly have to know that I’m going to the concert, does he?”
“One ticket would be easier to acquire,” Sophie said. Which was true, but only a purely technical sense: it wouldn’t be particularly difficult to get as many tickets as she desired. It wasn’t her money that she was spending, after all.
Another message appeared in her private inbox. Police presence at airport is heavier than expected. Bribe?
Apologies, she wrote. I have a strict policy of not interfering with the efforts of law enforcement.
The reply came quickly, and the client forgot to even pretend towards civility. Help, it said, or we’ll point the finger at you.
Unlikely, she typed. But please, feel free to contact me again if you require any other assistance, outside of that earlier restriction.
She didn’t expect to get a response to that one. Criminals were a lot like the nouveau riche, in a way. Both classes of people expected to shock her into compliance or awe, as if she didn’t live her life in the presence of those things every day. Sophie hadn’t been frightened of legal punishments since her second year as an underworld fixer. She certainly wasn’t about to start being frightened now.
Part of that security came from fastidious attention to detail. She almost never broke the law, technically, although she did skirt around it on a regular basis. So long as the client didn’t tell her that, for instance, they intended to use ten pounds of plastic explosives to blow off a vault door, it wasn’t exactly her responsibility. She couldn’t be held accountable for what a legitimate businessman did if, hypothetically, two new employees were sent to collect protection money. A container of Sudafed might have legitimate uses in the hands of an energetic entrepreneur; Sophie didn’t know, and didn’t care, if that might be the case.
It wasn’t her job to help her clients in whatever pursuits they might imagine. All she did was provide them with the best available equipment and personnel, using the same courtesy and alacrity that she provided when working with the latest heiress at the Brooklands. At any given moment, she was working on two or three things at a time: clearing out a tee time at the Wentworth Club for a group of American businessmen; renting a limited edition McLaren for an Italian playboy past his prime; and arranging the purchase of twenty crates of the latest in Chinese RPGs.
“You see,” the woman said, “I might have met someone. Nothing serious, of course, just something a little…spicy. It was his idea to go to this concert, in the first place.”
“Oh my,” Sophie said, forming her lips into a scandalized expression. She resisted the urge to yawn. “So, two tickets, but you’d prefer it if your husband didn’t know.”
“Quite, quite,” the woman said. Color crept up into her cheeks. “This man is…something different than anyone I’ve ever met before. So young, so vibrant.”
She continued on with the description and Sophie, paying the conversation the bare minimum of attention it required, nodded at the appropriate points. The band’s manager was taking longer to reply than normal. He might simply be backed up with preparations for his secret show and Sophie, understanding the amount of effort that went into that sort of thing, would normally be content to let him work at his own pace. This woman wouldn’t stop droning on, though. As if this was the first affair that she’d ever had. It certainly wasn’t the first affair Sophie had been forced to hear about; it was if these women wanted someone to hear about their dalliances.
Sophie only wanted her to go somewhere else, so that she could focus on her other tasks for the day.
She sighed a moment later, considering what the rest of her work day would look like. She would be arranging proposal photographers and dead drops with about the same frequency, but neither activity seemed particularly challenging. She’d done so many things over the years that even the less legal aspect of her work was becoming routine. Predictable. Boring.
An email came into her Brooklands inbox. She exited the illicit server, expecting to see confirmation of her request from the band, and was surprised to find an address she didn’t recognize at the top of the unread messages. She clicked it open.
I trust, the email said, that the account I provided was sufficient for the purposes?
Sophie raised an eyebrow. The Brooklands maintained a fairly robust spam filter, in order to keep the servers safe from any twenty-something with an internet connection and too much free time. Apparently someone had found a way through. She deleted the message and made a mental note to contact IT.
“You won’t believe how I met him,” the woman said. “It was on one of those nude beaches in France, you see.”
Sophie covered her mouth, ostensibly in shock; in reality, the earlier yawn had found its way out. “You don’t say, ma’am.”
The woman nodded in excitement. “My husband was busy with work, just like he always is, and…”
Another email, now to the criminal server. This was an address she recognized, so Sophie opened it.
I was pleasantly surprised at your efficiency. We should discuss further business.
A flashing icon at the bottom of the screen told her that the client wanted to start a live chat. She clicked the chat window open.
From BigBrother1986: What percentage of costs do you require as payment?
Sophie puzzled over the other’s username for a few seconds, before its significance occurred to her. George Orwell. She smiled at that. Someone had a sense of humor, apparently.
From Morrigan01: Five percent, payable upon completion of our business.
From BigBrother1986: Completion being defined as…?
That gave Sophie a moment of pause. The job assigned to this account was something new. For one thing, the original request hadn’t included any specific details. Instead, a list of possible aliases and a portfolio’s worth of photographs had been delivered to her, followed by a banking account number and, in place of a signature, a symbol of three interlocking triangles pointed down.
Sophie had booked the penthouse suite at her hotel in anticipation, and the couple had arrived, but they’d only stayed in the room for a few hours. And a little bit after that, the man had called to request a cottage of all things. Sophie handled the transactions, purchasing the land from a widower looking to travel, and furnished it with technology and supplies redirected from a few subsidiaries and former clients in the area. After that, there had been no new requests and she had assumed that payment would be forthcoming.
From BigBrother1986: You might find the news enlightening, if you’re unsure how best to answer.
Sophie looked up, past the woman who was currently in the midst of a graphic description of what a younger man enjoyed, to one of the televisions hanging in the lobby. The sound was off, but the closed captioning was on.
“…a sleepy lakeside village in the countryside,” the newscaster was saying, “under siege in tonight’s top story. According to local sources, police services are now investigating reports of gunfire and car chases in…”
Sophie blinked, and then opened a new tab and navigated to the station’s website. One of the top links contained a series of theories and speculations about the crime; each one was terribly wrong. That was to be expected, though. He didn’t have access to the same information as Sophie. The “sleepy lakeside village” corresponded neatly with the address of the cottage she’d purchased, only a few days ago.
Immediately, she began the process of selling the property to another client, who had been looking for somewhere to lay low. There was virtually no chance of someone tracing it all the way back to her, but she had never been accused of lacking the proper amount of paranoia.
In the midst of that, her phone beeped. She glanced down at it, distracted by her work and the lady’s continued presence, and froze. The number on the display had a lot of zeroes.
From BigBrother1986: I trust this payment is sufficient?
Some quick and dirty math – recalling how much she’d spent on the cottage and clothing, then calculating how much she should have made for the job – provided Sophie with a number that was five times smaller than the amount her accounts had just received. The cottage hadn’t been cheap, but it also hadn’t been a mansion. The SUV was a secondhand purchase; the clothes had been delivered to the Brooklands, already tailored to fit; and Sophie had only needed to hire a team of technicians to install the computer system that had mysteriously been sent to the Brooklands in pieces over the past week. Nothing about what she’d done necessitated so much money.
From Morrigan01: Five percent is more than enough.
From BigBrother1986: Work well done is work worth paying for. Your regular fee, plus an enticement.
From Morrigan01: An enticement for what?
From BigBrother1986: Your continued assistance. I suspect your guests will require additional aid throughout their time in England. It would be appreciated if you would continue to provide the level of service you have thus far demonstrated.
Sophie understood what that meant.
From Morrigan01: I don’t break the law when assisting my guests in whatever activities they do, or do not, conduct.
From BigBrother1986: I’ve seen to those who break the law, Sophie. Your job would only be to provide them with the tools to do so.
Sophie’s heart leapt up into her throat. The first email, delivered to her Brooklands address, made sudden and terrifying sense. Someone from the underworld knew who she was. The layers of protection Sophie used to insulate her civilian identity from her criminal one were painstakingly thorough and she added new defenses as techniques were developed or defeated.
For someone to contact her by name was unheard of. It was horrifying, the possibilities of retribution for failure something she hadn’t really considered until that exact moment. It was the nightmare scenario: a situation she had planned for, outlining a series of checkpoints and fake names, so that she could disappear before a dissatisfied client could find her or force her to give up her sources.
From Morrigan01: I am unfamiliar with working under these conditions.
From BigBrother1986: Life is often unfamiliar. Will you take the job?
Sophie mused idly at the prospect but, even as she did that, she knew she’d say yes. The amount of money the client had transferred into her accounts simply to entice her was staggering. Besides the money – perhaps more important than the money – Sophie was interested. She’d worked at the behest of powerful people before. There was an air of mystery and danger around these proceedings that she’d never encountered before.
From Morrigan01: Are there any restrictions you would care to outline? Spending limits, equipment requisitions…anything of that sort?
From BigBrother1986: Your guests will have a better idea of their requirements than I will. If a problem arises with the funding, simply open a line of communication and I will see to it that the problem is rectified. Until such point, you should endeavor to provide the best service you possibly can.
A blank check, in essence. A smile tugged at the corners of Sophie’s lips, but she kept it from her face.
From BigBrother1986: Of course, it wouldn’t due for you to attempt any sort of subterfuge. Your skillset is impressive, Miss Morgan, but not irreplaceable.
From Morrigan01: I wouldn’t dream of it.
From BigBrother1986: Excellent. I take that question as a tacit agreement on your part, then. Did you have any further questions?
From Morrigan01: Would you prefer that I keep you up to date on what services and equipment I acquire for my guests?
Several seconds passed. Three dots appeared next to BigBrother1986’s name and stayed there for so long that Sophie started to think a reply wasn’t coming. She tuned back into the lady’s conversation.
“Of course, this isn’t the sort of thing I do,” she said. It seemed that she hadn’t even noticed Sophie’s preoccupation.
“Of course not,” Sophie said. “It’s simply one of those things.”
“Exactly!” The woman clapped her hands together in excitement. “Finally, someone who understands. It isn’t about the sex or even that he makes for such delightful arm candy, it’s just…”
A soft ding let Sophie knew that another message had arrived.
From BigBrother1986: An asset closer to the situation would provide a clearer picture of events, yes. Any assistance you provide will, of course, be remembered.
Sophie wasn’t able to start a response to that before BigBrother1986 logged off. Almost immediately, five new emails appeared in her Brooklands inbox, all of them from the band’s manager. According to the time stamps, they’d been sent within a minute of her first message. It took her a moment to understand what had happened.
BigBrother1986 had somehow blocked her inbox from receiving new messages, presumably to make certain that Sophie’s attention was entirely on the conversation. That was a neat trick, but wholly unnecessary. The mystery client had claimed her attention from the start.
Sophie printed out the tickets and allowed the smile she’d hidden to appear on her lips. Using a blank sheet of paper to conceal them, she slid both tickets across the desk to the woman, who secreted them away like nuclear launch codes.
“I would never do this,” the woman said. “I know how much of a stereotype I am, and how silly it all is, but, it’s just that it’s…” She trailed off.
“It’s something exciting,” Sophie said.
“Yes! It’s something I’ve never done before and I just can’t help myself!”
Sophie’s smile turned secretive. “Trust me, ma’am. I understand exactly what you mean.”