O’Hare Airport, Chicago, IL — June 21, 2004
Etienne steered the girl back to the seating section, where TJ had rejoined the others. “Sit down,” he told her. “You will stay in that seat until I release you, and you will answer my questions. Is that clear?”
Eyes wide and frightened, she nodded, clutching the straps of her backpack where it rested on her lap.
Both the grad students, sitting just across from where he’d sat the girl down, were watching what he was doing with rather keen attention. Etienne ignored them, turning slightly to hand the girl’s phone over to Charles.
“Check the phone logs, and transcribe the numbers,” Etienne said. “Especially outgoing.” He then turned his attention back to Chloe.
“You’ve been watching us. Why? And for whom?”
“I—I haven’t, it’s just—”
“Chloe,” Etienne repeated. “Look at me—that’s it. You were watching us, we saw you. Just answer the questions. Who are you working for?”
She swallowed hard. “I—I can’t tell you.”
“Hmm,” was his only reply to that. “ Well, then. What were you looking for? How did you spot us?”
For a moment it seemed as though she might succeed in resisting this question too, but at last she said “You… you didn’t actually drink the coffee. You held the cup up like you were, but you didn’t swallow.”
“So you weren’t instructed to look for us specifically,” he said. “You just happened to notice us and then called…. let’s call him your employer, shall we? Is that correct?”
She nodded, miserably, twisting the pack’s straps in her fingers.
“I see,” Etienne glanced over at Charles. “What calls were made recently?”
“Three,” Charles said, studying the phone’s tiny screen. “One just a minute or two ago, the other… forty minutes ago, to the same number. The other call was about fifteen minutes ago, a different number.”
“Forty minutes – that’s about when we left the coffee shop,” Etienne murmured. “Local number?”
“Yes, I believe so. Chicago area code.”
Etienne turned his attention back to the girl. “And do you routinely hang around the airport watching for … travelers who don’t drink their coffee?”
She nodded again.
“What else do you look for, when you’re … observing. Any other criteria besides not drinking coffee?”
“Lots of things. Uh… Anything spooky or weird. At night.”
“And your employer just told you to get on the same flight as we’re on — correct? That must have cost quite a bit. His credit card or yours?”
“I—I just called the travel agent. They set it up,” she said. “But I won’t go, I—I’ll just say I missed the gate or something. Please..” Her voice went suddenly soft, almost a breathy squeak. “Please don’t kill me—“
“Hush now. No need to panic,” Etienne reassured her. “All I’m trying to do here is mind my own business, traveling through O’Hare on my way to somewhere else, and suddenly I find someone spying on me and my companions. What would you suggest I do?”
“You—you could just let me go?,” she suggested hopefully.
“And maybe I will, if you continue to cooperate,” Etienne agreed. “But your employer seems to think we’re very dangerous. Do you have any idea why that might be so?”
She pressed her lips together and nodded, fighting tears.
Etienne lowered his voice. “You know what not drinking the coffee means. You know what kind of danger you’ve gotten yourself into.”
“Yes.” A bare and fearful whisper.
“Why would you want to do this, knowing how dangerous it is? What do you get?”
The two grad students had not been blind to this exchange, though it wasn’t clear how much of it they could hear. Diane still had her book open, but she hadn’t turned a page since he’d brought Chloe over to sit down. And TJ was watching intently. Now he stood up and came over closer.
“What’s going on?” he asked. “Is she okay?”
“She’s fine,” Etienne explained, a bit irritably. “But she has been spying on us, for an unnamed party—and after what you in particular experienced last night, I think it’s important to find out why. And for whom.”
TJ gave her a confused glance. “But she said she was going to visit her grandmother—“
“She lied,” Etienne said flatly. “But I promise you that I am attempting not to make any bigger a deal out of this than I absolutely must.”
“Uh—okay, then. I guess.” TJ sat down again, but leaned closer, his brow furrowing over his glasses.
Etienne turned his attention back to the girl. “You were going to tell me what you got out of this arrangement? Why do you do this… for him?”
She looked down, her skin flushing. “He—he’s,” she started, then pressed on. “He’s …very good in bed. I like it—I like what he does.”
“Oh, dear…” murmured Charles, from behind him.
Alright, that was maybe a little bit more information than I really needed to know…but Etienne knew one of the hazards of mesmerizing a subject for interrogation was a tendency to overshare.
“Listen, Chloe,” Etienne said wryly. “I’m not about to advise you on your love life. But anyone who calls you an idiot and sends you to follow strangers around is really not a boyfriend worth keeping.”
“He’s not my boyfriend,” she protested. “He’s—he’s my puh—my—“ Her lips moved, but nothing came out. “I can’t talk about him, sorry.”
“Professor?” Etienne supplied.
“First boarding call, United Flight 215 to Baltimore Washington International Airport. Flight 215 is now boarding at Gate F3. We would like to invite first-class passengers, unaccompanied minors and anyone who might need special assistance to board at this time.”
“Professor. Well, that shouldn’t be too hard to figure out,” Etienne remarked to Charles.
“No—no, you can’t, he won’t like it! I shouldn’t have said that—“ She looked about frantically. “If he finds out I talked to you—“
“Is Jacques here yet?” Etienne asked, quietly.
“You know about Jacques?” Her voice choked a little on the name
“Yes, I know. Is he here yet or not?”
She shook her head. “No. Not yet. Please. Please let me go?”
People were already lining up at the gate to board the plane. Diane had put her book away in her carry-on, and was watching them warily, plainly awaiting a cue as to what to do next.
“We do need to board,” Charles pointed out mildly.
“All right, then,” Etienne said, and turned back to the girl, whose shirt had grown damp with perspiration. That more or less settled it—she couldn’t possibly be the type to work for their shadowy enemy voluntarily, and she didn’t seem to be under anything like the hypnotic suggestion that had forced poor Ramon into a rather badly-cast assassin’s part. “Now listen to me closely, Chloe. These are your options. Either I will let you go, and you can go and tell your professor what happened, or not, as you wish. Or you may board the plane with us and pretend to your professor that everything is going perfectly well, and you can even watch us all flight if you like, like Jane Goodall and the chimpanzees. It’s up to you.”
“And when we get to Baltimore?” she asked, not meeting his gaze. “What then?”
He smiled mirthlessly. It was quite a dilemma she’d be facing, and she was smart enough to foresee it–but that was hardly his doing, and certainly not his to solve. Under Kindred law, she was her “professor’s” vassal, and interfering could only entangle them further in the affairs of a city that they only wanted to leave before their stalkers found them again.
“That also depends on you,” he replied. “I will protect myself, and I will protect my friends. But I have no interest in hurting you—unless you or your professor force my hand. Are we clear?”
“Yes. Please just let me go, I won’t say anything—“
“Very well.” He sat up and looked at the gate. They were into general boarding now. He turned back to her. “Just please do let your professor know he and you both would be far better advised to mind your own business next time. What you’re going to do now is stand up, smile and hug TJ over there, like a girl making up with her old boyfriend. You do that, and I will let you go.”
Then Etienne glanced at TJ, who was frowning, surprised to be suddenly brought into the proceedings “Just go with it, okay? Then we can get on the plane and get on with our own business.”
“Oookay—“ TJ got to his feet.
“You can get up now, Chloe,” Etienne said. “Go on, give him a nice hug—“
She got up and half-walked, half-stumbled into TJ, clinging to him as a shipwrecked sailor might cling to a bit of flotsam. He hugged her in return, clearly trying to be comforting, murmuring soft encouragements. Not exactly the smoothest imposture Etienne had ever devised, but hopefully convincing enough for the others in the gate area who’d been glancing their way, wondering what sort of personal drama had been going on in their little corner of it.
Meanwhile, Etienne reclaimed his own bag, and Charles, who had never let his precious antiquity get more than a few inches away from easy reach, stood up, case again in hand.
“Oh. I suppose we really should give her phone back—“ Charles said, holding it out. Chloe didn’t seem to even hear him (neither did TJ), so Etienne took it and slid it back into the pocket on her backpack as he strolled past.
“Allez, allez,” Etienne called to them, as cheerily as he could manage. “All aboard, as they say. Time to go!”
“Come along, Thomas—“ Charles said more quietly, as he and Diane also headed for the gate. TJ extricated himself gently from the girl’s grasp, picked up his backpack and followed.
“And just what was that all about?” Diane muttered as they were settling into their seats—this time in first class, courtesy of Charles’ backlog of frequent flyer miles.
“I dunno, exactly,” TJ said. “I mean, she was shaking. Really scared.”
Etienne, who of course overheard this, glanced at Charles—they were, after all, his ghouls. But the Ventrue seemed totally absorbed in getting the case with his prized artifact securely stashed under the seat in front of him.
Etienne heaved a mental sigh. Then he stood and turned to face the two mortals in the seats behind him, leaning close so he could keep his voice low and still be heard over the steady stream of incoming luggage-laden passengers filing down the plane’s center aisle.
“Listen to me,” he said seriously. “After last night’s little incident, and what just happened—I think it’s very possible that our academic excursion has garnered a lot more interest from a lot more undesirable quarters than any of us expected…or, to be fair, than any of us hoped.”
Diane frowned, giving him a wary look. “You think they’re connected? How?”
“I don’t know if they are or not,” Etienne allowed. “The girl, at least, could just be coincidence.” He hesitated, then reached inside his jacket. “But what happened last night, I fear, was most definitely not.”
“I thought you said it was a prank,” Diane objected. “Just a misunderstanding of some kind.”
“Yeah, that bellhop was just crazy, man,” TJ said.
“Unfortunately, that crazy bellhop is now dead.” Etienne offered them the newspaper article. “And, it seems, under quite suspicious circumstances.”
Diane snatched the article out of his hand, scanning it quickly. “Shit. That explains all the cop cars this morning. This is way too creepy for coincidence, isn’t it.”
“I’m afraid so. So until we do know what’s going on—it’s best to err on the side of caution, and keep our guard up, don’t you think?”
“Definitely,” Diane agreed.
“But what about her—what about Chloe?” TJ asked. “She’s in serious trouble, isn’t she? Isn’t there anything we can do to help her?”
“I don’t know,” Etienne admitted. “I have no idea who she’s working for, but I doubt it’s anyone pleasant. However,” he continued sternly, “unless she gets on this plane—or we get off, which we are not going to do—there is very little we can do about it. All we can do is try to keep ourselves out of trouble, which is proving to be quite a challenge already, and you have the bruises to prove it.”
TJ slumped back in his seat. “I know,” he said. “I just wish… we could’ve done something.”
Could’ve. In the past tense. Well—good. Satisfied he’d made his point, at least for the moment, Etienne turned back around and got settled in his seat beside Charles.
It wasn’t as though he didn’t have enough challenges to look forward to in Baltimore, after all. Explaining to the Prince how he’d managed to get blown to smithereens and somehow not die, for one thing. Avoiding getting blown up again once the word got out, for another. One crisis at a time, and they certainly didn’t need to be picking up a new one in Chicago. However pretty.
But apparently, Fate was taking it into Her sadistic head to disagree—for the very last passenger to board the airplane was Chloe, her backpack slung insouciantly over her shoulder now, her eyes steadfastly focused ahead as she brushed past them, toward the cheap seats in the rear of the plane.
“Merde,” Etienne grumbled softly. “One thing after another! Well, at least she’s not supposed to use the cellphone on the plane.”
“Yes, indeed,” Charles said, leaning forward slightly to look out the window. “Makes it exciting, doesn’t it?”
“If you want to call it that. Did you see? She got on the plane after all. Clearly I wasn’t frightening enough.”
“No.” Charles crooked a deceptively casual finger in the direction of the window and sat back again. “I suspect Jacques is a lot more frightening than you are…”
Etienne leaned over to look, sharpening his vision until he could see what Charles had: two figures standing in the terminal observation area, staring out at the plane. One was a tall, broad-shouldered black man in a chauffeur’s uniform, whose deep forbidding scowl had probably been his chief hiring point. Beside him stood a shorter white man in a crisp suit, youngish and handsome, but with eyes like black ice. Etienne needed no further clue to his nature than the weight of his gaze, palpable even from here. The Ventrue had the right of it—neither of them looked like the forgiving sort.
Behind him, he could hear TJ turning in his seat, watching Chloe make her way to the back of the plane.
Mon Dieu, save me from young men and their hormones. Etienne turned around in his seat once more and beckoned. “Mr. Greer—“
“Uh—yeah?” TJ got the hint and leaned closer so Etienne could keep his voice low.
“I know she’s cute, but her boss really sucks. Please don’t do anything classically dumb without letting me know first.”
“You said if she got on the plane, we could help her!” he protested in an explosive whisper.
“We can’t help her without having some idea what’s going on,” Etienne explained patiently, “which is exactly what she would rather not discuss. That is what I mean by classically stupid. Uninformed heroics could be disastrous. We wait and we watch until we understand things better.”
“I could ask her,” TJ offered, hesitantly. “You scared her. Sir. She might talk to me.”
“She might, but bear in mind she’s supposed to be gathering information on us. You’ve already been injured once. How much more of that do you want to risk?”
“She wouldn’t hurt me,” TJ insisted, though he did sound a little less confident now. “She’s not crazy, like that … that guy from last night.”
“TJ, don’t forget. That guy from last night is now dead,” Diane hissed at him.
“I know, I know.” TJ sighed. “But, shouldn’t we at least try to help her? If we can?”
“Yes, we should,” Charles chimed in unexpectedly, without turning his head. “If we can. We’ll see.”
“Yes, yes. If we can,” Etienne relented, though not without raising an eyebrow at his seatmate. Et tu, Hewitt? “Just…please don’t go off half-cocked. I beg you by all that is holy.”
Seeing that there was no prevailing against the inconveniently gallant, he sank back in his chair and pulled SkyMall out of the seat pocket in front of him. At least some distractions on this flight were harmless to indulge in, and could be neatly and quietly put away afterward.
TO BE CONTINUED….