THE SPY IN THE MIRROR
(c) Diana Belchase
Nerves twisted Trina Bianchi’s gut into sharp, painful knots. She ran a finger through the frosty film clouding her champagne flute wishing she could clear her mind as easily. Setting the glass onto a serving tray, she tamped down her panic and reassessed. Her partner, X, wasn’t in the ballroom, she didn’t have backup, and her mission now switched to Plan B.
Plan B stank.
She wove through throngs of party guests, smiling as if she were one of them, as if she’d been born to this life. But Jersey girls didn’t get invited to places like this and beneath her calm demeanor, as the minutes wound down, her heart jumped around like an engine sputtering to life.
She darted around a cluster of laughing partygoers and reminded herself to move slower. No one in this crowd rushed anywhere – except to the bar.
What if X had been taken? What if the arms dealer’s goons were on to her, too? A queasy line of fire snaked its way from her gut to her throat.
A man pinched her derriere. She turned and wagged a playful finger. More than eighty, with food in his moustache, the scent of garlic and mothballs surrounded him like an invisible cloak. He moved closer, running a clammy finger down her arm.
“Later,” she mouthed, wanting to wretch. “If you’re good.” She tapped him on the nose.
“I’m always good.” He laughed and shuffled off to a plump redhead one group down.
Glancing into the enormous gold-leafed mirror near the doorway, she tucked a strand of dark hair into place, checking to see if anyone followed. Behind her, people danced and clinked glasses. No one noticed her exit the massive gilt ballroom.
Left at the first corridor, then up the stairs.
Guests and staff littered the hallway in paralyzing tangles of conversation, blocking her progress. Her fingers clamped around the elegant beaded purse she carried as she fought the urge to push her way through. Her mother used to know how to practically float around these kinds of obstacles, with an elegance that belied the tough agent underneath.
Would she ever be that skilled?
She unclenched her jaw and laughed at the tail end of a joke she hadn’t really heard. Snails moved faster than she right now, and inwardly she sighed her frustration. A man in a third-rate tux elbowed past her. A twist of wire slithered over and behind his ear like a hearing aid from the fifties.
Tension rippled across her back and shoulders. The cheesiness of the earpiece was little comfort when it adorned a man whose muscles bulged across his chest and arms like barrel staves – and this guy had the stocky, no-neck torso of ex-militia. Besides, letting guests “see” a few earpieces was probably calculated to keep them in line.
Where the hell was X?
His screw-up turned their two-man job into a solo. Acid burned her throat.
What if –?
Her fingers bit into her palm. No. She imagined him in a corner charming a tacky blonde.
She smoothed her brunette updo, smiled, and kept moving.
Strains of a mambo wafted out of the ballroom where Budapest’s most famous orchestra played. She took a breath, looked over her shoulder, and slipped up the stairs.
Turn right. Pass the statue, fourth door on the left.
Down the corridor, a uniformed guard paced with a machine gun slung over his shoulder. She ducked into the nearest room, praying she didn’t barge into something disgusting – like that time in Madrid – when she’d found a three hundred pound guy, pants down, applying lotion to the rash on his butt.
The room was vacant. She sighed out loud, knelt, and slipped her cell phone’s retractable optical filament under the door. When the guard’s image disappeared from her view screen, she continued on.
She entered a small bathroom, checked her watch, and chided herself for not switching plans earlier. After locking the door, she reached under her dress, accessed a hidden pocket, and dumped her stash of tools onto the rose marble counter. She rummaged through her equipment and taped a miniature mp4 player to the door.
When she knocked on the frame, a recording of her voice sounded. “I’m still in here.” It might buy a few precious moments if anyone intruded.
Leaving her gown in a silver puddle on the floor, she unrolled black Spandex leggings from her thighs and adjusted the top of the sleeveless bodysuit as she pulled on gloves that extended past her shoulders. She pushed open the round window over the toilet and waited.
“Mom, Dad, this is for you,” she whispered.
She curled and uncurled her hands, running the mission brief through a head that felt suddenly full of sludge and wished it were over.
The ruby eyes of a golden, swan-shaped faucet seemed to glare at her as the seconds ticked by. “It won’t bring them back, you know,” it seemed to say. “Run away before what happened to X happens to you.”
“Shut up.” She yanked the shower curtain closed, but it didn’t stop the doubts in her head.
What if the agent at the electric company blew it? What if yesterday’s team botched the generator sabotage?
On cue, lights went out. There were murmurs in the hall and a man shouting orders.
A jolt of adrenaline flooded her body, making her feel as jumpy as if she’d downed a hundred high-caf energy drinks and a thousand times more alive. The lights went off for a moment, flickered, then once again burned bright. She checked her watch. Director Ashstone promised the emergency generator’s failure within three minutes.
It happened in two.
She sighed in a mixture of relief and uncertain anticipation, comforted by the darkness and the sounds of chaos that accompanied a blackout. They’d done their parts. Now it was up to her.
Standing on the toilet tank, she levered her body onto the windowsill and swung out of the narrow opening. Frigid air blasted her face as she paused to examine her next move. The balcony was supposed to be three stories up and to the right.
Focusing on the slight shadow jutting above her, she adjusted her route, and began to climb. A bitter gust of wind slammed into her torso as she clawed at stones in the moonless dark. She felt for toe and hand holds on the frigid edifice, concentrating on her goal: the owner’s private office four stories overhead and to her left.
Her chest flushed with angry heat despite the temperature. Didn’t those boneheads understand her life was at stake? Had bad intel harmed X? She shivered, but not from the cold.
Mid-climb, tiny dots of light shone beneath her like a swarm of fireflies, as a contingent of guards rounded the corner.
Must everything go wrong tonight?
She gritted her teeth, unable to move, unable to go up or down, forty-five feet in the air. As she willed the men to pass, her brain rattled off some choice curse words. She dug frost-numbed fingers deeper into a crevice and waited.
The generator’s unlikely failure had set the guards off. They searched in shrubbery along the massive house, pulling apart branches, kicking at shadows to be sure they were as transparent as they seemed. She flinched.
They’d do worse than that when they found her.
Flashlights shone along the flagstone path, bushes, doors, and windows. The beams progressed upward in wide swaths, edging ever closer. Soon she’d be seen, splayed like a squashed insect against the mansion’s third-story façade. She wanted to run and hide, but knew better. Any motion would betray her position.
Her pulse buzzed shrilly in her ears as she envisioned being dragged down or shot on sight. Men like these didn’t call the police. If caught, she’d never be heard from again.
She pressed her forehead against the icy stone and focused on the cold, concentrating until the stab of pain reduced to a sting, then forced her mind to blot out even that sensation.
“Trina, you’re not trying hard enough!” Her father’s voice rose in her memory like a ghost from the grave. “Don’t tell me you can’t. You must!”
Willing a Zen-like numbness to flow into her lungs, heart, and gut, she controlled her emotions, her breaths, almost dissolving into the masonry, praying her luck would hold.
She glanced down. Lights came closer, with faint outer arcs brushing the stones a few inches below her feet. Her arms were failing, the muscles from her shoulders to her fingertips stretched in unrelenting, burning agony. Her nails felt as if they were being pried from their beds. What was she going to do? She should have already been in the office opening the safe.
Her parents had spent her entire life preparing her for missions like this. She was a Bianchi, damn it. She’d hang on forever, if she must.
Fourteen minutes till lights on.
The vibration of her watch against the stone building made a weird scratching noise. The guard below her stopped, dropped his light a few inches, and cocked his head. He murmured to the man next to him. She didn’t need to understand Hungarian to know he asked him if he’d heard the sound. A bead of sweat streaked down her neck to the cleft between her breasts. The guard’s beam of light lifted and his eyes followed.
A sudden shout in the distance and his flashlight jerked away. Could it be X? The hackles on her neck rose as the night echoed with running feet and garbled radio conversation. She gulped in air, said a prayer, and climbed.
Finally, the marble balustrade’s ice-slick surface greeted her palm and she flipped herself over the ledge. She paused for an instant to catch her breath – and to rub the searing ache out of her arms. Behind the glass doors, a beam of light swept the interior walls and floor. She scrambled into the farthest corner of the balcony, flexed and blew on gloved fingers, and with a horrible sense of urgency in her belly, waited.
She needed to get in. Now. She shimmied closer to the doors and peeked inside.
A guard reported into a radio, “Tiszta,” the Hungarian word for clear. The door to the hallway snapped closed behind him.
She picked the balcony door and slipped into the room. With her penlight on its dimmest setting, she crossed to a bookcase and ran her fingers under the molding. Thankfully, the latch was where the informant had indicated and the bookcase slid into a wall, exposing a safe. She dropped to her knees and attached a round, thin disk over the dial.
The LED screen washed the safe in an eerie, red glow as the combination appeared. She dialed in the code, feeling each tumbler thump into place. As the heavy metal door creaked open, it echoed through the room like an old woman’s scream. Her arms prickled with gooseflesh.
Had the guard heard?
Precious seconds ticked by as she strained for any sign. No one came.
She rifled through musty documents, found details of arms deals, and snapped photos with an infrared camera the size of a matchbook. Fishing a flash drive out of a box labeled “Backup,” she downloaded its contents to a miniaturized reader/recorder. Cool plastic slid against her flesh as she hid the copy in her bra.
After returning the safe’s contents, she spun the dial to its original position and pushed the bookcase closed. The timepiece vibrated against her wrist.
Five minutes left.
Not enough time, but how could she get this close and fail? Ashstone didn’t tolerate failure. She’d end up couriering dead drops. Again.
If she were lucky. He might drum her out of the agency – everything she’d worked for, over. She’d end the Bianchi family legacy as a screw-up.
The computer sat on an ormolu desk, seeming as out of place in the room as she was. She dove under a tangle of wires, removed a USB cable, and started to insert a transmitter.
The eraser-sized device slipped from her fingers and she crawled around, with a penlight between her teeth, frantically groping the dark floor. Suddenly, voices on the other side of the door became louder. She didn’t understand more than a handful of Hungarian words, but the voices seemed concerned.
So was she.
The fine hairs on her neck shot up as a whisper of fear threaded through her. She swept the carpet with her fingers and nearly squealed when she found the transmitter. She popped it into the back of the computer and piggybacked the displaced USB cable into the port on the transmitter’s other end. As jangling keys were inserted into the hallway door, she dashed to the balcony, locking the exterior doors behind her.
After easing over the marble rail, she retraced her path down the wall to the second-story powder room. She slid through the small window and dropped onto rose-colored tile.
The familiar rush of victory made her dizzy. Breathing hard, she stifled the laugh threatening to burble out of her chest. She silently punched the air over her head with a fist while wiggling her hips in a dance. The surge of relief left her swimming in giddy delight. She rolled the legs of the black Spandex body suit back up her thighs and peeled off the shoulder-length gloves.
In the corridor outside the bathroom, the muted swell of party conversations drifted upstairs. Women’s murmurs were punctuated by a man’s guffaw. The guests seemed to be coping with the blackout.
A knock sounded and her heart leaped out of her chest.
“I’m still in here,” the recording replied. She quickly turned it off and pulled it from the door.
“Are you all right, madam? We’re just making a routine check.”
Had she been spotted? The suppressed laugh now felt like a fist in her throat.
“Thank goodness you’ve come! I’ve been so scared.” She resorted to the helpless female routine. Always lame, yet always useful.
“The blackout shouldn’t last much longer. I can escort you back to the others if you’d like.”
The concern in his voice told her he’d fallen for it. She smirked knowing exactly how much longer they’d be in the dark.
“It’s hard to finish up without lights. Do you think the power will be back on soon?” She sounded more clueless than ever.
“I’ll bring you a candle.”
She listened for his footsteps before risking her flashlight. Leaning over the sink, she panted hard, meeting her own eyes in the mirror. The light made her face seem sick and ghoulish.
“Don’t botch it now.”
Thirty seconds left.
The beaded evening gown glistened like pooled mercury on the floor. She stepped into its circle and yanked it up to zip closed. Her tools were secured in the concealed pockets of one flounce, the rest of her paraphernalia in another. The design camouflaged the items while leaving her figure long, lean, and alluring.
Another tool of the trade, but the one she most hated.
She wrinkled her nose in disgust. Was the old creep still waiting for her? She replaced her climbing slippers with five-inch, strappy Louboutin heels as the house lights returned.
The orchestra resumed playing and she slid the penlight and slippers into her purse. After repairing hair and makeup, she went downstairs and rejoined the ballroom jetsetters.
The creep was nowhere to be seen. Had he gotten lucky with the redhead or was he snoring, passed out in some corner?
She chuckled softly. Envisioning her own private celebration – one where she gave X a piece of her mind before making him buy her breakfast – she nabbed a glass of champagne and moved toward the mansion’s foyer, intending to leave the way she’d come.
She froze. Oh no.
TV film crews had set up cameras and lights at the entrance and guests were being interviewed. A particularly aggressive reporter prevented anyone from passing without saying a few words.
Getting her face connected to tonight’s shenanigans would be a screw-up of unimaginable proportions.
If her partner had been taken, it could be a way of weeding her out. For a moment, the image of a battered X forced the bravado out of her like pin-popped balloon. She tamped down her frustration and canvassed the space. The guards on the mezzanine were growing in number. The arms dealer was no fool.
She needed to leave immediately and discretely.
One side of the room framed the garden in a wall almost entirely of glass. The French doors furthest to the right were literally steps from her car. But crossing the dance floor to leave, with a perfectly good front door nearby, would seem strange and attract attention.
Then she spotted him.
For the briefest second she felt the wind knocked out of her. He leaned against a wall seeming casually bored – as if he’d made a career of elaborate parties and couldn’t abide another one. It made her wonder how many he’d gone to.
She detested parties – but he didn’t disguise the annoyance she carefully hid.
No. He just seemed above it all.
In his late twenties, he was tall and sleek with a wave of blue-black hair – and sexy enough to make Bond look like Mario the Plumber. She approached him with a half-formed idea in her mind.
His expression changed as she came near. He straightened, stepped away from the wall, and turned to greet her with a gleam in his eye – warm, familiar, intense. Like a wolf ready to nab a lamb at the edge of a flock, he seemed to be waiting for her. For a split second she wondered who’d targeted whom.
His lush British accent rippled through her. Upper-crust public school. Oxford? Cambridge? Perhaps, something a bit exotic, too.
“Isn’t that a beautiful song they’re playing?” she asked.
As an opening line it wasn’t her best, but it’d do. She wanted to glance away, seem disinterested – to draw him in using the techniques she’d learned so well. Somehow, under the scrutiny of his penetrating gaze, she found it impossible.
“You like it?”
It took a moment for the question to register. “It’s one of my favorites,” she fibbed.
Was it a waltz?
“We should dance to it.”
For a fraction of a second she hesitated, then took the hand he offered. He spun her into his strong embrace and led her from the fringe of the floor.
Like a school of jeweled fish, the dancers around them swirled in precise formation. He drew her into the swell and rhythm, breaking pattern only once to stroke her cheek with the back of his hand.
For a moment she lost herself.
And missed her chance to escape as they moved away from the door she needed.
She cleared her thoughts as guards shifted position in the gallery overhead. The time for fantasy was over. The music trilled. They neared the exit a second time. He reached out to spin her, she twirled underneath, then once again. Her fingers slid free. He stepped forward to recapture her hand, but she glided away.
Leaving him with a baffled expression, she spun out the garden door.