Chapter 1: Kitalia
My Jimmy Choo's sparkle their rhinestone flash as I tap-tap-tap my way across the shining marble floor of the opera house, counterpoint to the distant, soaring soprano singing my favorite aria from Carmen, Habanera. My mind sings the tune, full lips heavy with red lipstick twisting momentarily. Whoever the company hired to take on the role butchers her job.
Hopefully it's not a sign about my own assignment.
Fabric clings, the vintage Dior gown I borrowed rounding to my curves. Enough of a distraction and an attention draw to make me invisible. Just another stunning brunette in a slinky red dress here to watch the opera.
The perfect disguise for what I need to do. I nod ever so slightly at the operative in the waiter's outfit who offers me a silver tray of champagne flutes. T.B. seems to be the first one I see in every assignment, lingering the background. It's both comforting and oddly off-putting to know he's there.
I sip the drink and continue on. While I might be underage back home in the States, Prague is my kind of city.
The deep, purple carpet masks the sound of my shoes when I alight the wide, ornate staircase, fingertips brushing lightly over the white marble rail. I'll leave fingerprints behind, but I can't resist the feel of silken stone. And it's not like any agency in the known world has a record of my existence. Or ever will.
Kitalia. I catch the faint touch of a familiar mind as I round the first landing, heading up toward the private box and my target. I asked you to wait for me.
I shut out my foreign contact, J.J., grinning ever so slightly. He's late and I have a job to do. My MI6 contact has left me hanging enough times in the past with his nonchalant British ways. It's time he discovered he doesn't run the show when I'm in town.
The slim gun in my purse leaps to mind as a pair of opera goers emerge suddenly from the curtained hideaway of one of the private seating areas. I let them pass, saluting with my glass. The woman ignores me, her German accent harsh against the song still winding out from the theater on the other side of the curtain. But, the tall, handsome man with her gives me the once over, wide lips curving in an inviting smile as he admires my cleavage.
I smile back. And send a mental reprimand into his head, a faint headache. He'll never know it came from me. Doing so is against the rules, too. Still, as I swish my way past him, I smile into my drink. Serves him right.
Box six waits for me, the curtain drawn back, empty. I slip inside, setting the champagne out of reach as my gaze scans the audience. It's hard not to leap into action, to savor the moment of my arrival. Impatience, I fear, is my only vice, at least when it comes to work. I want to get the job done. But, observation is the most important thing right now. I refuse to allow my decision to act on my own, to leave my MI6 contact behind and move ahead, to lead to a reprimand from my superiors because I didn't succeed at my mission.
The crowd below isn't of interest, the overdressed masses observing the opera in rapt attention none of my concern. I allow a quick mental scan of the entire building, just in case. Come across a few walls of protection, but it takes almost nothing to penetrate the shields of such weak and ineffectual practitioners. There's a reason I work for the CIA and they, the amateurs, hire out to paranoid drug lords and minor politicians.
I finally sit back in the velvet-upholstered chair and settle my gaze on the small group seated in the box across from me. Despite the distance, it's easy to make out her iron-gray hair, curled and coifed elaborately, the sparkle of the diamonds she wears around her neck, the shimmer of silver taffeta. Ms. Ming has a thing for silver, always has. Makes her easy to find in a room. I'm sure she knows it and doesn't care. All the more reason for me to take my time.
She's the only one with significant protections. Those protections are no shield against me. But, worthy of at least a moment's pause to examine the opposition before slipping under the curtain of her mind's wards and into her thoughts.
Or, would have, if J.J. didn't choose that exact moment to insert himself into the seat beside me, one hand settling over mine. His are much bigger, stronger, lean and tanned on my pale skin. I let him touch me, though few have that privilege.
His dark eyes flash, a grin on his handsome face. It pulls faint lines at the corners of his mouth, tugging against the cleft in his chin. Perfect hair shines faintly, ponytailed in a tight twist at the nape of his neck.
Damn, he looks good in a tuxedo. Not that I'd ever tell him so. He's got a big enough ego as it is.
"Well, good evening, gorgeous." He winks, his gaze already flickering across the expanse to my target. "Imagine my surprise when I arrived at the hotel to find you already gone."
I snort softly. "Imagine my surprise you were late. Again."
He flashes his perfect, white teeth. "Touché. Shall we proceed, or are you waiting for a special invitation?"
If it weren't for his delicious British accent and the fact he oozes charm, I'd have smacked him long before now.
"One note, if you please." His fingertips slide over my wrist, up my arm as he leans close. The scent of his aftershave makes its subtle way to me, mint and cinnamon and cloves. At least he has the good sense to mask what he's feeling and thinking from his forward mind. He spares me that much, though there are times I think it would be interesting to peek just a little. "The muckity-mucks would prefer you kept things simple this time. No 'messing about' as they put it." His dark eyes laugh at me. "Just the info and no tampering, my lovely Kitalia Ore."
I shrug inside my dress. Instantly, his eyes flash to my breasts and I know my gesture did its job. Distraction achieved.
"We'll see." He's right about one thing. I have a job to do. And this game, while delightfully delicious and familiar, isn't getting that job done.
I return my attention to my target as J.J. sits back, hand releasing its grip on me. I miss his touch but shake off the craving. Silly girl. He might be falling in love with me-ideal, really, if I was going to continue to manipulate him to get what I needed on foreign missions-but the feeling could never be mutual.
Ms. Ming's mind is a cesspool. That much is apparent the moment I part the soft curtain of protections and step inside. The mental me sheaths herself in leather and steel against the wash of hateful memories slamming into me one after another. The human mind is a funny place, less in the moment and more about the past. Guilt, regret, bitterness, anger, all tied up into replays of the past most don't even know they are reliving. I brush by a giant vision of an old, Asian man dying horribly, blood gushing in frothing bubbles from his nose while she stands over him, laughing, in the dress of a feral geisha, and head for the center of her mind.
A little girl crouches in a corner, refusing to look at me as I pass, the grungy room giving me the taste of old grease and spices in the back of my throat. So realistic. I have to be careful not to get caught up in the memories. When I look down, she's at my side following me. Ms. Ming? Perhaps. Or a safety precaution meant to spy on me.
The psychic who protects her might be more clever than I thought...
I ignore the girl. If she's a representation of Ms. Ming, she won't interfere with me. But, if she's a spy bot placed there to track me, any attempt to destroy her will trigger the creator's protections. I reach for her hand, grasp it, and carry on. It will tie her to my power and keep her under wraps until I decide either way.
Her power winds around mine, soft and subtle. If she is a bot, she's been crafted by a master. I let her settle, ignoring her attempts to see deeper inside and continue on.
The information I'm looking for isn't buried deep. Another oddity of the human mind-that which you try to hide is the very thing that clings to the surface, lingering despite all attempts to guard it. That's why good protection is a must and why someone like me is your worst enemy when you have secrets to keep.
The location of the enemy base sits in a clear image at the top of a mountain of mess. Someone with less skill and power would have to climb to find it, maybe. But, all I have to do is look up.
I know this place. It's back home in the US, in fact, in D.C.. Private residence, owned by a supposed crime kingpin. I haven't been inside before, but Ms. Ming has. I follow her memories, past the laser fence, the armed guards and dogs, the psychic wards no match for me. I enter the control room where a man in dark clothing sits, shadowed and invisible from my ability to see, surrounded by computers and banks of monitors.
Damn it. She's never seen his face.
This was a total waste of time.