The bouncers knocked a five-minute warning on the door. Marie mentally sighed in relief. She was pretty sure this was the last john through her room tonight. As last calls went, this guy wasn't so bad. She wouldn't've have pegged him as the type to buy a prostitute but then again, this op was blasting a lot of her preconceptions out of the water.
Marie snapped the flogger against his back one last time. "Now, what've you got to say for yourself?"
"Sorry, Mistress Liz."
"For everything. I'm... I'm scum. I'm a dirty scumbag. I... I'm not worthy."
"No, you aren't. And I highly doubt you ever will be." She undid the ropes tying him down to the floor first before removing his blindfold. She'd learned that order the hard way. Some people did not understand the meaning of roleplaying. Nor did they understand that she was in charge in this room, not the other way around, despite their fantasies.
The john rubbed the feeling back into his hands. "So... um..."
"Pay the rest at the bar, sugar. See you around soon."
He ducked his head between his shoulders. "I'm not really sure if this is my thing, exactly. I mean, you did it really well but--" He kept rubbing his hands. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to insult you or anything."
That made Marie laugh. "No offense taken, sugar. You're the first person to apologize to me for real instead of in the game. And if this ain't your thing, then it ain't. Although, are you sure I can't convince you otherwise? You gotta try everything twice at least."
"I'm pretty sure," he said. He stuck his hand out. "I'm, uh, really pleased to have made your acquaintance."
"Charmed. It's Rory, right?" She took his hand and shook it. His palms were clammy and sweaty, and he released too soon.
"You said that a little too comfortably."
"Force of habit." He nodded again. "Good night, Liz."
"Have a good one, Rory."
As soon as he left, Marie let out a great big stretch. She stuck her head out the door, looking for the bouncers. "Hey, Tank!"
The bouncer turned. "Yeah?"
"That last call?"
"Thank fuck! Jesus, you'd think my pussy came with a revolving door."
The music downstairs cut abruptly, all the clubbing type lights shut off in favour of normal, white, fluorescent bulbs that did nothing to hide the haggardness of all the girls streaming back up to their little cubby rooms. Blitzen didn't so much stagger as crawl. Sometimes, she didn't even make it up the stairs; the bouncers either carried her up or left her wherever she'd passed out for the night. Girl was messed up in the worst way. Marie doubted she'd make the rest of the year with her habit.
Seeing the other girls pass Blitzen by, Marie let out a real sigh this time, and went to help. "Come on, Blitz. Time for bed."
Blitzen's head lolled across her shoulders. She drooled a bit out of the corner of her mouth.
"Come on. Left foot then right foot."
Eventually, they made it. Thank goodness Blitz's room wasn't too far from the stairs. Marie deposited her as gently as possible on the bed. Go figure that was when Blitz woke up. "The air is like dancing."
"Sure it is."
"It's like synchronicity, right? All things happening at the same time towards the same purpose unplanned. And sometimes, it's pretty and sometimes, it makes you cry." Blitzen blinked away actual tears. "Crying for the pretty even."
"I get you," Marie lied. Then she got angry, like she always did seeing junkies strung out. She never knew who she was matter at: the dealers for dealing, the users for using, or everyone else for not giving a shit. Blitzen obviously did not have the mental capacity for responsible decision-making. Max, Stefan, and all the johns who went to her room took advantage of that.
"It's like my room," Blitzen continued. "Bad things happen to my room."
"I'm sure they do," Marie said and made a mental note to plant a camera in Blitzen's room to photograph and charge every single john that went through, the assbastards.
"Sometimes, the sandman comes to eat you up. He eats here once a month, y'know."
"Sure he does, Blitz."
"He ate Zeb. Ate him up. Fur and all. Left the stripes."
Zeb was a him? A furry, striped him? How many furry, striped male prostitutes could there be? Marie took Blitzen's hands to steady her own. "Blitz, where did you that about Zeb?"
"They talk. They think I can't hear but I do. I just... the listening. I hear it but the listening hurts. It falls out."
"They? The other hookers?"
"Do you know who knew Zeb the best?"
"Sure." Blitzen's eyes drifted closed. "Want a hit. Baby, can you give me a hit?"
"As soon as you tell me who knew Zeb the best."
"But I want a hit now!"
"No hits until you answer."
Tears welled up in Blitzen's eyes. "Liz. Liz! I need one. I need it."
"Then tell me who Zeb's friend is."
"The walls!" Blitzen wailed. "The walls talk to me. They won't stop. They're mean. Almost as mean as you. Gimme a hit, c'mon, give it to me."
Disgusted with herself and Blitzen, Marie left without another word, heading for her own room. The bouncers would lock her in-- they locked all the girls into their rooms-- but this time, she welcomed the isolation. Every bit of the puzzle she found made her realise there were a dozen more pieces out there she didn't even know about. She'd been at the Genie for almost a month now; Illyana disappeared two months ago. Pete hadn't been by with news of Emma's search in six days.
To top it all off, lack of sleep was going to kill her. Maybe if she ate something... Marie tried her door just in case rounds hadn't been done but no such lock. She could turn Magneto's powers on to undo the bolt but she wasn't sure re-heated pizza was worth the effort. Instead, she used Logan's powers to scout the outside. Her hearing zeroed down to the ground floor where all the interesting stuff always happened.
She heard Stefan's enthusiastic salesman voice first. "As you can see, sir, we've done a lot to the place."
Sir? The only person Stefan would ever call "sir" was Semyonov as far as Marie knew. She lay full on the floor and pressed her ear against it to hear better. The soundproofing in the place was good enough to give Logan's senses a hard time.
"This is too obvious. The police will know exactly what you are doing." That speaker was definitely Semyonov.
"We own the entire street," said Stefan. "And the building is completely soundproofed. I shot a gun in here once and from the outside on a quiet night, it only sounded like a broken stick. On good nights, we pull in thirty thousand dollars easily. Minus the expenses, that's fifteen thousand dollars a night, seven nights a week. We haven't even been open a year and, well, you've seen the income. Seven figures. That's not even including the money we get from the websites."
"At least you are distributing the money appropriately."
"Of course. We're using every trick you've taught us, sir, and it's working brilliantly."
"Hmm. So, what is this news that must be shared here? I do not like to be late for the ballet."
Stefan's voice receded. Marie crept along the floor, searching for a sweet spot but they must have moved to the other side of the house. The side with the bar. The secret room. She cursed. Not only did she need to know what they would talk about in that room, this could be her last chance to ingratiate herself to Semyonov. Max certainly would never bring her to another party and Semyonov apparently no longer wanted to dirty his hands with business.
She headed for the door. Her disguise melted away as she accessed Magneto's powers. The lock outside the door felt fragile enough. Destroying it would cost too much energy and make everyone suspicious besides so instead, she tipped the bolt open with a flick of her finger. She unlocked the bar locks for all the bedroom doors as well to throw the suspicion off herself. Someone was going to get beaten up for sleeping on the job. Marie couldn't find it in herself to feel too bad for whoever that was.
All right, so Marie had to take advantage of the fact that Semyonov missed his precious little princess of a daughter. Ninety percent of her wardrobe would lead to the complete opposite of that. Unless Semyonov had an entirely different reason for missing his kid. First of all, gross. Secondly, Marie didn't get that vibe from him. Having absorbed a couple sexually abusive dickwads in her trek from Mississippi to Canada, she recognized slime like that from a mile away. No, Semyonov was just your regular thug done up in bespoke suits to hide the bloodstains.
Marie pulled on jeans and a tee shirt. The shirt was a touch on the tight side but it had the most coverage. She wiped her face clean of make-up and braided her hair to one side. The effect was a younger, more innocent looking Liz. She didn't resemble Aleksandra a bit but that was where her acting would come into play, thanks to Pete's memories of his mom. She hoped she'd never have to explain that to her friend.
Without bothering to muffle her footsteps, Marie quickly made her way out of her room and down the stairs. Whatever Stefan had to show Semyonov, she hoped it wouldn't take too long; she had to be gone before the bouncers came back around. But at the same time, she had to make enough noise to draw Stefan and Semyonov out of the hidden room if that's where they were.
To give them enough time to notice, Marie all but stomped to the ground floor washroom, ran the water, and flushed the toilet. Precisely three minutes later, someone rammed at the door.
Marie obeyed and was hauled out, hanging, by her wrist. She didn't have to fake the tears in her eyes. "Owww! What are you-- let go!"
"What are you doing down here?" demanded Tank.
"Peeing! I was hungry then I needed to go--" She pretended to spot Stefan just then. "Tell him to let me go."
"How did you get out of your room?" Stefan demanded.
"I opened it, duh. It's not like it was locked." Marie wriggled, trying to touch the floor with her toes. Her shoulder felt like it was about to pop out of joint. "Owww! C'mon, let go!"
Tank snorted. "So you can dish it out, but you can't hash it. Maybe I should--"
"Take her back upstairs," said Stefan. "And later you can explain your job to me one more time, just to make sure you actually know how to do it."
That wilted Tank right down. "Boss, I swear I--"
Stefan glared and it was enough to hunch Tank's shoulders down. He lowered his arm enough to let Marie's feet skim the floor. Behind Stefan, Semyonov studied the scene, less than impressed. He didn't seem to recognize her or if he did, he didn't care. Dammit. Not the way Marie wanted this particular bout of insanity to end. Something Russian. She needed to say something Russian.
"Can I at least get something to eat?" she asked and was ignored. "I was seriously jonesing for some syrnikis but I'd settle for toast, for fuck's sake."
Semyonov's laugh cracked the tension. "You know syrnikis?"
He turned to Stefan. "You feed them our food?"
Confused, Stefan said, "I just give the boys money to buy food. I don't know what they get."
"What kind of syrnikis?" Semyonov asked Marie.
Again, she dove into Pete's thoughts. "Just normal ones. With cherry kissel."
Semyonov laughed again. This time, even Tank looked freaked out. "A whore who knows Rachmaninoff and appreciates traditional syrnikis with kissel. Where did you find this one, Stefan?"
"Do you want her? You can have her, boss. That goes without saying." Stefan snapped his fingers at Tank who released Marie suddenly. She tripped to her feet, barely catching herself on the wall.
"When my Aleksandra was a little girl, she loved syrnikis and kissel," said Semyonov. "Come with me, girl. We shall have the cook make some."
Marie rubbed her wrist, doing her best to be wide-eyed. "Sure! Thanks so much, mister, uh, boss, sir. Could I just... I need shoes."
Semyonov jerked his head at Tank. "Fetch her shoes." Then the Stefan, he said, "We wait for them to make a mistake. This is too delicate to act hastily."
"Are you sure we can afford to wait?"
Semyonov narrowed his eyes. "We wait. Girl--"
"Liz," said Marie.
Her fork crunched through the syrniki's skin. Pink syrup jewelled the fritters, a lovely sour-sweet contrast to the richness of the cheese. Despite accessing Pete's memories, Marie couldn't really imagine what syrnikis tasted like. They were like little deep-fried cheesecake bites. Finally, an upside to this undercover op.
"You like it," said Semyonov.
"The stuff I got before didn't taste like this," she said.
"My cook makes his own cheese."
"Hmmrmmf." Marie pushed the plate towards him. "You have some more. I feel like a pig."
The old man shook his hands. "I do not like many sweets."
"Oh. Uh. Thanks." She looked around, letting some discomfort show. "So. Uh. Nice place."
"It is the family home."
"Yeah. I could really tell with the pictures and all."
"My wife liked to take pictures. I told her at the time she was making too much of everything but she liked to do it. They do have their uses." He ran a hand down one of the frames. "Sometimes at my age, you forget little things. Nothing important, but small details. The pictures help me remember."
"Who's that?" Marie asked, pointing to the frame he was touching. The picture was of a young man or an older teenager--- it was hard to tell with the goatee. The facial hair suited his angular features. Dark brown hair flopped over his eyes. It was a posed picture with a slightly younger Semyonov seated in a high-backed chair and the young man standing beside him with a hand on Semyonov's shoulder.
"That is my grandson, Mikhail, Aleksandra's eldest," Semyonov said. His voice deepened with pride. "Is he not handsome?"
"He sure is," a douchenozzle Marie mentally added. The hairstyle, the suit, and the flashy jewellery all spoke of early 2K wanna-be thug-life guido. Marie wouldn't be surprised if somewhere out there was a digital image of Mikhail kissing his biceps while holding a hand gun. "I don't think I've met him."
Semyonov drooped. "He is dead. Murdered."
"I'm so sorry."
"There is no need. He has been avenged." Semyonov touched his fingers to his lips then touched the glass on the picture frame. Marie made a mental note to ask MacTac to look into any gang wars involving Vostochevskaya in the late nineties to early 2K. It was a long shot but she might be able to hang Semyonov's operation on cold case homicides.
Needing more information, she asked, "Aleksandra has two kids, right?"
"Three now. Piotr is... away. With his mother. He worshipped Mikhail, wanted to do everything his brother did. There is a girl but--" Semyonov waved vaguely in the air. He stooped a bit more, leaning on his cane. "I am tired now."
"Of course, dyadya. Let's get you to your office."
"I can go myself!" he snapped, pulling his arm away from her. "I am not an invalid! I can still run my empire."
"Of course, of course, bah!" He jerked his hand through the air, sneering. "You are here because Maksim and Stefan sent you."
"I'm here because I want to be," Marie corrected.
"It's true. This is better than what I'd be doing at the Genie. The food's not as good and I'd be starting my tricks, like, two hours ago so by this time, I'm hungry, hungover, probably pissed off, and wanting to kill someone for five minutes to myself without the bouncers knocking on the door saying 'time' like it's a fuu-- freaking Olympic race. There's a piano here, for fu-- Pete's sake!"
There had been more than a little Skids thrown into that tirade but Marie knew most of the grievances were her own. Semyonov stared at her, his face impassive.
"You should go," he said finally. "I am tired."
Dammit. She couldn't get any more clues from the old man tonight. "Yessir."
"You may continue to call me dyadya."
She nodded slowly. "Yes, dyadya."
The taxi dropped her off at the Genie by sunrise. The darkened house revealed nothing of about its illicit business from the street. Marie was surprised that she was so surprised. She knew how well-masked the place was from the stake out a month ago but it seemed like years had passed since she went into the Genie.
This time, she side door opened before she even knocked. Basher stepped aside to let her in. Stefan stood behind him, his arms crossed, with a slimy smirk on his face. "I knew you were good but I didn't know you were that good."
"What?" asked Marie.
"The Boss told us to move you upstairs."
Marie gave him a smirk of her own. "When you got it, you got it, sugar."
The next night, lizzed out to the max, Marie swung her hips all the way down the stairs to pick up her next custo-- erm, john. Dammit. She'd been undercover too long. She was starting to think like them. Good thing Pete was her next customer. She needed a bit of the outside world to ground her.
She reached the main floor. Music throbbed through the floor itself, vibrating up her body. Funny how even covered from head to toe, the PVC seemed to somehow make her feel more naked. The multicoloured lights hit her body, painting it in splotches of cyan, magenta, and yellow. The lights rendered all the inhabitants of the room into cartoonish reflections of themselves, graphically covered and flattened. She smacked a few on the ass with her riding crop, grazing Blitzen along the thigh as she danced with one of her regulars.
She didn't even recognize Pete at first. He wore completely un-Pete-like clothes-- fitted dress pants, pointed leather shoes, a cashmere sweater over a patterned dress shirt, and a three-quarter length coat. He looked exactly like the kind of guy that could spend a few hundred dollars a night for a hooker. Heck, he looked edible enough not to pay for a woman.
A parade of girls danced around him, trying to get his attention. A man Marie recognized as one of Stefan and Max's people sat beside him, the two of them engaged in conversation. It looked pretty serious. The man poured serving after serving of vodka into Pete's shot glass. The poor guy beside him-- he looked familiar; Ryan or Rory or something-- couldn't steal the bottle away for a drink. Pete looked interested enough to keep Max's underling talking but kept looking up to the stairs, waiting for her.
Marie paused at the bottom step. She leaned a hip on the wall, tapping out a rhythm in the same beat as the lounge music using her riding crop. She didn't think Pete saw her yet. One of the second floor girls, the leafgirl she beat up on her first day, tried to draw his attention by caressing his arms and dragging her leaf-hair across his face. Uncharacteristically, Pete kept his attention on the girls, pausing only occasionally to look at Max and Stefan's man. The lights hid any sign of his perpetual blush. But then again, maybe he wasn't blushing.
Finally, he saw her the next time he looked up. His body language changed minutely, the hardness in the set of his shoulders disappearing for a second. It was enough for his small entourage to notice. Leafgirl pouted. The mafiya man smiled his skeevy best and leaned over to whisper something in Pete's ear. Pete gave him a stiff smile then stood, straightening his sleeves. Leafgirl, Blitzen, and a couple others clung to him lightly, wanting a bit more of the action. They knew a high roller when they saw one.
He met her at the foot of the stairs. Even standing on the second to last step, Marie was shadowed by Pete's bulk. "Hello," he said.
She laid the riding crop on his cheek. "Ready to be run through your paces?"
He nodded. Taking his hand, Marie led him up the two flights of stairs to her new room. Stacey X met her in the hallway as she led her own john into her room, one of the regulars. Stacey glared over his shoulder and kept that glare until Marie closed the door to her room. Yeesh, some people were so territorial.
As soon as the door closed, Pete settled on the bed. "As pleased as your team is about Semyonov taking a shine to you, you realise we've used up half of this month's budget for this one visit."
"I'm worth it. You know I am. But speaking of budgets, where did this come from?" She gestured to his wardrobe. "I'll have you know I'm an expert shopper even though I don't indulge as often as I'd like so I know how much that coat and those shoes cost. You could buy two girls around here with those shoes. One for each foot."
"I spent the rest of the budget on it." Pete waited a beat before adding, "I'm just kidding. Storm gave me some money with instructions to blend in better."
"It worked a bit. The men only suck up to the highest rollers. Not quite sure if you should blend in or fade into the background though."
Pete made a face. "Marie, I'm six-foot-seven. I'm not going to fade into the background. I thought I'd best ingratiate myself with the staff. That way, if I'm poking around, I have an excuse."
"There's an awful lot of us in hiding around here. I just hope you're getting something from the bug in the basement. That bookshelf was as far as I could go."
"They don't actually spend as much time there as we hoped and the sound is a little muffled sometimes but it's all right."
Marie flopped back on the bed. "I'm going to try to go back to the boss' house then. Plant more bugs. Maybe get some more information out of him. I don't think he knows anything about who's behind the murders but if any of his lackeys do, I want to catch it."
"In that case, you'll want this as well." He pressed plastic rectangle to her palm, a quarter of an inch wide and two inches long with indentations on two sides. "It's a harddrive bug. You need to put it directly on the wires coming out of the harddrive and it'll feed the contents of the largest and the most accessed files to another computer. I'm not sure how but Kitty assures me it works perfectly."
"I probably shouldn't ask how she got one, should I?"
Marie pocketed the bug.
"How do you know Semyonov's not behind the murders?" asked Pete. "He's a gangster. The head gangster. Men reach that position by being killers."
"True but once they reach the top everything gets too messy. Someone like Semyonov doesn't waste his reputation killing hookers. He'll save the big, showy hits for more important people-- rivals, snitches, people who'll stand as examples. I can see him having a psycho killer in his inner circle though. Someone to act as an enforcer. Like a rabid pitbull on a leash."
"Do you suspect anyone in particular?"
"Obviously Max and Stefan have the best access and the best motive," said Marie. "Maybe a couple of the bouncers are looking to move their way up the ladder and are doing more dirty work. I need to nail down motive."
"None of the girls are talking," Pete said.
"The first rule of staying alive on the street is keeping your mouth shut. Some of the girls are a crack pipe away from being so brain-fried, they couldn't tell you day from night. Hell, the only reason I know day from night is when security unlatches the doors."
"Then I hope you can use this." He pulled out his wallet, opened it, and gave her three credit cards.
"Thanks but we only take cash."
"Peel it open." He picked the edge of one credit card with a fingernail. Eventually, it unfolded into a thinner, larger piece of plastic. He picked at the edge again. The card quadrupled its original size. "I can't get the last edge."
Marie used her much thinner fingernails to pry the last two sheets apart. Tiny type covered the thin gold plastic. She read the first few paragraphs. They were transcripts, presumably of the conversations transmitted from The Genie. "Okay, this is amazeballs. I really do feel like James Bond now."
"I hope you have something to hide it in."
"This is like cling wrap. I can legitimately hide it under the bed and no one will know." She picked at the type. "Hmm. It looks like it might flake off though. Maybe I can fix it with some hairspray. Might have to lay the smack down to get a stash of my own. Or hit up the bouncers and let me tell you, it's a freaking joy dealing with them."
Pete's brows wrinkled. "Are you all right? You haven't been hurt again?"
"No one's touched me when I didn't want them to if that's what you're asking," Marie said. "This kinky whipping stuff actually works. Who'da thunk? I guess it explains Frost's popularity with men."
He winced. "Illyana's taken a strange liking to Emma. I'm afraid once she starts school at MassAcad, she'll start wanting designer clothes. Triple the price for half the cloth."
Marie punched his arm. "Prude."
"She's my little sister. If I had my way, I'd lock her up in nun school."
"You wouldn't do that."
"No." He gave her his sweet, bashful smile. "I wish she'd come up with it on her own though."
"What else is going on in the outside world?"
"More of the same. Gas prices are up, minimum wage can't catch up, Kitty and I broke up, the Simpsons are still on--"
"Wait, back up. You and Kitty are over?"
He shrugged. "Yes. It... It's been a long time coming, really. She's working in the UK and I can't-- won't-- relocate. We haven't been on the same page for almost a year now. Mostly, we've stayed together out of habit. Because everyone expected us to get married and have a half dozen X-babies."
"Damn. Sorry, man. That's kind of shitty with everything going on right now. Wait, did she break up with you?"
"No, it was my idea. When something like this happens, you start to... " He gave himself a quick, short shake. "It was time."
"Okay. Consider my mind blown. Storm has a bed buddy, you broke up with Kitty, the Simpsons are still on. Do we hate her? I can hate her."
"No, Marie, we don't hate Kitty. We wish her well in all her endeavours."
"Okay. We don't hate Kitty and you're single while I'm doing shit-all to find your missing baby sister. Why are you still talking to me instead of in the bottom of a vodka bottle?"
"Real vodka's too expensive on an artist-slash-construction worker's salary. Mom raised me too well to drink anything else."
"Snob." Marie lunged across the bed to hug Pete, squeezing around his massive chest as hard as she could. Slowly, his hands came up to return the embrace. "Life sucks," she said.
"It does. But it'll get better. You'll help it get better. I know you will."
She had braced herself for the fallout of her move to the third floor. Long-time residents like Stacey and Gemini were sure to have something to say about it. They might even declare an old fashioned throw down. Marie had no intention of losing a fight but she couldn't afford to attract any more attention than she already did by being Semyonov's apparent favourite. Too much attention got undercover cops killed.
Marie walked into the main floor, tensed for a fight. Instead of a confrontation, she found a brunch party with one Remy Fucking Lebeau smack-dab in the middle. She suspected that was his real middle name. It was more appropriate than Etienne. What the fuck did Etienne mean any way? Nothing. Now, "Fucking"-- that had meaning which suited the man well in all its connotations. After nineteen-- wait, no, twenty months, two weeks, and four days of knowing Remy Etienne Lebeau, Marie thought nothing he did could surprise her. She hated being wrong, especially about Lebeau. Being wrong about Lebeau was hazardous to her health.
A second-floor girl clung to each of Lebeau's arms. Another sat on an ottoman in front of him. The same ottoman and a couple side tables had been recruited to hold the food: eggs benedict smothered in hollandaise sauce, waffles piled high with fruit and real whipped cream, crisply curled bacon, cheesy grits, a mountain of potato and yam hashbrowns, grilled tomatoes and peppers, and spicy sausages. On the bar, a tank each of coffee, hot chocolate, and tea waited. Beside them, a glass punch bowl held orange juice with oranges, grapefruit, and lime slices swimming in ice. The piece de resistance, however, was the three-foot tall, hookah-like bong in the middle of the dance floor. Security was nowhere to be found.
Lebeau winked at her. "Mornin', sleepyhead." His arm ornaments giggled on cue.
"What's going on?" Marie asked, her wariness all too real.
"Well, if it ain't the favourite," drawled Stacey. "Not getting too comfy in your new place?"
"No one told me about a party."
"Maybe if you weren't busy looking for ways to get into the big house, you'd've heard."
Marie waited, knowing Stacey wanted to boast about this.
"If she's in the big house, maybe we shouldn't tell her," said Tinkerbell-Leafgirl. "She could tell on us."
Suddenly, the metaphorical temperature in the room dropped. Marie found herself the target of a half dozen baleful glares. Gemini even started cracking her knuckles, all forty of them.
"There you are, sweetheart." Lebeau sat up as he spoke. All trace of his Southern accent was gone, replaced by something vaguely Midwestern. "Breakfast is served."
"Love to but I'm watching my figure," said Marie. "You bought the whole Genie for an hour?"
"Extending a hand of friendship," said Lebeau in that damned unfamiliar accent. "Made friends with a few of the girls. I noticed a distinct difference between what they charged me and what you get and, frankly, darling, I think it's unfair, as you know."
"Absolutely. Now I was just telling the girls that you and me know people who can help you all be in charge of yourselves. Become a home business, if you will, instead of having to fork over more than half the fees to your current bosses."
Stacey snarled at Marie. "I thought you were sucking up to Max and Stefan's boss for a sure thing when you already have something going. Bitch is just greedy."
Marie snarled back. "Bitch, you're just hating 'cause you didn't think of it first. Or maybe you did but you weren't good enough to be interesting."
"Fuck no, you didn't." Stacey rose, fingers curled into claws.
Lebeau jumped between them. "Ladies, we can't afford to be heard, remember. Give me a few minutes to talk with our mutual friend. Meantime, why don't you all enjoy the rest of breakfast."
The others thought she was going to service Lebeau. That ought to make her even more unpopular than ever with Stacey and her cohorts. Lebeau allowed Marie to lead him to her room on the second floor. She looped her riding crop through his belt and his hand lightly ringed around her wrist. His thumb caressed her palm, right at the crease where the flesh of her thumb met the rest of her hand. She felt the touch through the glove.
Upon reaching her room, Marie pushed Lebeau on the bed. She backed into the door to close it. As soon as she got the door locked, she whirled around and demanded, "What the actual fuck, Lebeau?! You're supposed to be undercover, too."
"I am," he said. "I told them to call me Gambit. And no more chin pubes, per your request."
"Yeah, great fucking disguise. I thought you were supposed to be the most clandestine character in a urban rumour of a gang. This isn't clandestine at all."
"You remember why we're called The Guild, hein?" Without waiting for an answer, Lebeau said, "Thieves, Assassins, Dealers, Hookers, pooling our skills and income 'cause helping other out makes for more money. That's the Guild. Setting girls up in this place, encouraging a hierarchy-- Ol' Max and Stefan's already done half my job for me."
"A Hooker Guild?"
"Used to be the Pimp Guild. Didn't like that, me."
"Of course. Wouldn't want competition. Don't worry, Lebeau, there ain't a pimp hat big enough to fit your ego."
"Hookers give us a cut of their money, Assassins protect them from abusive johns and other gangs, Dealers get them candy and other goodies, Thieves fake them any paperwork they need. If anyone wants out, they can join the other sub-Guilds, no questions ask. It's all about teamwork."
"And me without my pompoms," said Marie. "So much for the concerned private citizen helping take down a killer."
"Au contraire, sha, I do and have helped. Greenback told me--"
"Pretty little thing. Svelte. Down the hall from your old room. Has leaves instead of hair. Handy for pretending to be a potted plant. She told me your friends, Max and Stefan, are planning another Genie type business in Manhattan. Apparently, Stefan talks a lot during sex."
"You couldn't shut the man up with superglue," said Marie. At Remy's side-ways look, she said, "Oh, get your mind out of the gutter. I've just gotten damn good with a riding crop."
"You're a natural, I'm sure. You know what type of properties in Manhattan have enough room between neighbours to build something like this?"
A light went on in Marie's head. "Waterfront properties. All the bodies were processed somewhere then dumped in the water. "
"Gold star, sha. Now if they were as smart as me, they'd use property that's been in the Vostochevskaya's hands for at least a year but no longer than five. After five, it starts developing a trail. I'd be looking for evidence of any high demand businesses with a waterfront address."
Marie shook her head, amazed despite herself. "You did all of that just to get information?"
Lebeau grinned. "Of course not. I wasn't lying when I said I wanted in on this territory. This place can make up to a million dollars a night, excluding costs, if they play it right. Hits and heists might be sexy but deals and sex are the steadiest income."
"Just like that, you continue to destroy any faith I have in humanity."
"The girls'll be better off with us. Trust me."
Marie snorted. "They'll still be selling their bodies."
"But they'll be well compensated and protected. And I guarantee, ain't no minors gonna be doing this in any Guild house."
Marie rubbed her thumb and forefinger together. "Know what I'm doing? Playing the world's smallest violin for your thief with a heart of gold act."
"Sha, you go on being mean to me, we might not be friends anymore."
"I wasn't aware we were ever friends."
"Sure we are. Don't know anyone else who enjoys obscure B-list foreign films much as I do. Last date I had fell asleep in the middle of Chocolat."
"That doesn't mean any-- really? Chocolat? That movie kicked ass."
"That's what I'm saying."
Marie flapped her hand to push the tangential conversation away. "How do you know one of the girls won't narc you out to Max or Stefan?"
"First of all, one of the girls lived savvy enough to hear of the Guild. She's got all sorts of boogie stories that'll keep them in line. For another, I may have told the lovely lady downstairs that we're both working for the Guild."
Lebeau sat back, folding his arms behind his head. "I told them you were here to scope out the place which is true."
"I'm just not doing it for you! If word of this goes back to MacTac." Marie rubbed her temples with both index fingers.
"You're in disguise. You got nothing to worry about."
"You might not think so but I'm already walking too fine a line. Between playing up Semyonov's nostalgia and skipping a few grades to get to the second floor, I'm already in the spotlight all the damn time, not only with Max and Stefan but the rest of the workers. If any of them thought they could get a better life by making me fall, they'd do it and I wouldn't blame them." She dropped onto the bed to his left. "So now, not only am I the Big Boss' favourite and the uppity bitch who manipulated her way to the third floor, I'm also from a rival gang. Can you understand the position you've put me in?"
Lebeau stared at his hands. "You... may have a point."
"If you wanted to do something like this, at the very least you could've warned me."
"Would you have agreed?"
"Hell no! But at least I could've changed my M.O. for the rest of the op."
"I'm... I'm sorry, sha, I talk shit but I'd never want to really endanger you, y'know that."
He sounded so forlorn, Marie couldn't help but pat his leg. "My life's always been endangered, sugar. You just make it a bit more challenging."
He covered her hand with his own. "Can I ask you a personal question then?"
"You ain't ever asked permission before," she drawled.
"I'm still in the doghouse. It'd suit me to be a bit more polite."
"Natch. Ask away."
"Why do you do this? A cop's life is tough. If it wasn't, we wouldn't be able to buy them so easy. Being a mutant cop, working to protect our people on the one hand and busting them on the other-- that's gotta be ten times as hard."
"And half the pay," Marie joked. "But hey, I get a nifty gold-plated pin after ten years."
"So why do you do it?"
"I collect cheap pins."
Lebeau squeezed her hand. "C'mon, now."
Marie tried to look him in the eye but his expression was just so... it was so... something about it made her throat feel thick so she focussed on the imperfections of his right hand instead. Old burn scars streaked all the way down to his wrists. His pinkie nail had a deep dent and a dead spot blackened a third of his middle finger. Nicks and scratches criss-crossed his fingers and the back of his hand, one of them deep enough to pit the calluses on the side of his thumb. He had twenty years on her and only his hands showed any sign of it.
"I just can't imagine doing anything else," she said, surprised by her honesty. "It makes me..."
"Happy? Proud?" he filled in when she didn't continue.
"Constant happiness is too high to aim for in this line of work. And sometimes, yeah, I'm proud of myself but mostly I'm proud of everything to do with MacTac. I guess... I guess I'm content. I could do this forever. I want to do this forever."
"Guess you wouldn't've been the kind of girl who wanted to brush long-haired ponies."
"Nah, I still want a pony. Gotta see if I can train to ride the horses for parades."
Lebeau chuckled. "You are one fine piece of work. And, again, I'm real sorry I made things challenging."
"I've learned to expect that from you. But if you're feeling guilty, I've just come up with a way for you to make it up to me. How are you with secret passages?"