Ah, Paris, where Ione can try to make sense of her new companions.Ione woke up the next day in the middle of one of the king-sized beds. The morning sun streamed in through the window. With effort, Ione rolled over on to her back, trying to figure out where she was. Realization set in. Ione threw off her blankets and struggled to get to the edge of the bed.
"Good morning, Ione." Jack waved from the couch. "You slept well, I see."
"What time is it?" Ione's voice was rough.
"Morning. Otherwise, it does not matter. What is time?"
Ione fell backwards on the bed. "I don't need philosophy first thing after I wake up." She glanced at Jack, a charcoal three-piece suit hanging smartly on his frame. "Business meeting?"
"I don't know. Do I have one today?"
Ione rolled out of bed. She smoothed out her old t-shirt. "I need coffee first."
Jack pointed at a silver urn on the low coffee table. "Help yourself."
"Thanks." Ione padded on her bare feet, enjoying the feel of the rug. She poured herself a mug, taking a whiff of the brown liquid. "This isn't the civet coffee, is it?"
"No, my dear." Jack set down his newspaper. "Decadent, isn't it?"
"Smells like it." Ione added cream and sugar before taking her first sip. "Oh, I need to know what this is so I can have it at home. Karen would flip head over heels for this. I am never having cafeteria coffee ever again."
"Enjoy it while it lasts." Jack appraised Ione's nightwear. "That's not what I expected a young woman to wear."
"Your lovely attire."
Ione sat down in an armchair and pulled her legs underneath her. "It's confortable."
"How long ago did your last relationship end?"
"None of your business." Ione glared at Jack. "Besides, you have Mara for eye candy."
Jack got up from the couch. He adjusted his suit jacket. "Variety, Ione, is the spice of life. I have some business to deal with. I'll be back in an hour." Jack tossed the newspaper at Ione. "In case you were interested."
Ione caught the paper in her free hand. "Where's Mara?"
Jack shrugged. "Out, somewhere. She has her own affairs to maintain, as we all do." He walked out of the room, letting the door close on its own.
Settling in the chair, Ione read the front page of the paper, an international version of the Guardian, as she drank her coffee. Once the mug was empty, she got up to get another before shuffling into the meeting room. Ione opened the lid of her laptop, bringing it out of hibernation. She launched her network of proxies to get to Ada's web mail account. A new message from Pascal awaited. Ione opened the email. That doesn't give me much time, but I'll be there. 1500 hours. You're buying coffee. Ione let herself smile. The meet was a go, and once she made the introductions between Pascal and Jack, she could go home. The smile faded. All her travel arrangements were through Jack. She didn't have return fare. Worse, she had seen what the Consulate had paid to get her home the first time, over four thousand dollars. Her credit card would not cover the fare, and she didn't have nearly enough in her bank account. Ione slumped in her chair.
After a few minutes of self-pity, Ione gave herself a mental kick in the butt. Worrying now wouldn't help matters. A shower, a change of clothes, breakfast, all that would help. She left her laptop running and returned to the main room. Grabbing her pair of jeans, a red blouse, and clean underwear, Ione made her way through the room to the bathroom.
Ione stopped at the bathroom's doorway. The room had a marble tile floor glistening light pink with a full-sized bathtub sitting on a pedestal in the middle. The faded jeans fell out of Ione's hands without her noticing. "I'm in Heaven," she breathed. "I've died and gone to Heaven." She stepped forward, getting her foot entangled in her jeans. With an annoyed snort, she bent down and picked up the errant piece of clothing.
Time had no meaning for Ione as she soaked in the bathtub. She only left when the water turned tepid. Towelling off, she dressed and returned to the main room. Jack and Mara still hadn't returned. Ione gave a mental shrug and returned to her laptop. The screen saver had ribbons of colour dancing across the monitor when Ione sat down. She tapped the machine's touchpad to clear the display. Ada's web mail account had timed out, but the browser still displayed the site's login page. Ione shut down the proxy network. Out of curiosity, she checked her own email. Amid the unfiltered spam and her mailing lists, Ione spotted an urgent message from Karen. Ione, problem. Call me!
Heart racing, Ione brought up Skype. She checked to see if Karen was online, but her contact list showed no one online. Ione pulled out a headset from her computer bag and plugged it into the laptop, then tried calling Karen's cell phone number through the software. The other end rang three times before going to voice mail. "Karen, it's Ione. What's happening? I'm here until, oh, hang on." Ione tried adjusting her time for Karen's. "Until eight in the morning your time. Use Skype." She disconnected the call.
A quick search later, Ione was on the hotel room's phone dialling her home number direct. Again, the phone rang three times before going to voice mail. "Karen, it's Ione. I got your email. What's going on?" Ione hung up. She paced around the room in her bare feet. Worry worked at her. The not knowing was the hard part. On a hunch, she returned to her laptop and re-read Karen's message. Ione checked the time stamp; Karen had sent it around eleven last night, her time. It would be about four in the morning back home, she figured, too early to get in touch with anyone to check on the house and her friend. Ione sent a quick message, asking for details and hoping Karen was safe.
The room's phone trilled, startling Ione. She ran to grab it, picking up on the second ring. "Hello?"
"What idiot calls in the middle of the night?" Amy's annoyance was crystal clear.
"Ames! It's Ione! What are you doing at my place? Where's Karen? What happened?"
"Oh, figures. Hang on."
"Don't yell. It's too early for this."
Ione counted to three before continuing. "Amy, where's Karen?"
"She had to leave suddenly. She called me up around midnight when I was with Matt doing, well, no, you don't need to know that, and asked me to house sit for you and her. What's going on?"
"I don't know." Ione sat down in an armchair. "Karen emailed me last night about some sort of problem."
"Why didn't you call her then?"
"I just got the email now. Ames, did Karen say anything?"
"She left a note. Wait, I've got it somewhere." Ione heard a sheet of paper being unfolded. "Here it is. Ready?"
Ione mimed choking her sister. "Yes."
"'Ione, there was a break-in and I had to say where you were. Sorry. Ben and I are trying to fix it.' Ben?"
"Not important, Ames. Did she call the police? Is anything missing? Any sign of the break-in?"
"I don't know, Ione. Karen never told me. Your chair was out of place, if that helps."
Ione let her head fall. "Thanks, Ames."
"Anytime, Sis. When are you going to be back?"
"I don't know. Work, you know? Hey, is Diesel still there?"
"He is. Want to talk to him?" Ione heard the phone being moved, then a heavy rumbling.
"Hi, Diesel. Is Karen okay?" The cat's tiny mew carried through the phone lines. "Good. You be good for Ames. Tell her where the treats are."
The phone at Amy's end shuffled again. "He's shown me. I'm going back to bed. Be careful, Ione?"
"I will. I promise. Bye."
"Bye." Amy hung up.
Ione set the receiver back on its hook. She flopped down on the couch. Ben was involved. Ione knew she shouldn't have trusted the barista. Now he had taken Karen somewhere and was doing something and Ione realized that her suspicions had no grounding in reality, just in her imagination. Karen's lack of details weren't helping. Ione wanted to do something, anything, to help her friend, but without further details, she was stuck.
The quiet of the hotel room didn't help Ione's mood. She turned on the television and went through the channel line up to find a music station. A French-dubbed version of Pirates of the Caribbean appeared on the screen. Ione set down the remote; not quite what she wanted but good enough. Background noise would either help her think or distract her enough to not run out and start looking for Karen. Ione forced a dry laugh at the latter idea. Her friend could be anywhere, from hiding out in Ottawa to looking for a way to get across the Atlantic Ocean. There were just too many places to search without narrowing things down.
Ione rolled off the couch to go retrieve her laptop. She sat back down, curling up on the couch, keeping an eye on her email and social media accounts. If Karen was going to return Ione's messages, there was no way the analyst was going to miss them. Since she had the laptop on anyway, Ione took the time to take a look at the neighbourhood where both the hotel and the meeting place were in. It would be in no way the same as being outside on the actual streets, but the satellite views, zoomed in almost to the street level, would give Ione an idea of what was around.
The room's main door opened. Ione jumped to her feet, spinning around. Mara paused halfway inside and gave the analyst a quizzical look. "I didn't interrupt anything, did I?" the tall redhead asked. Continuing in, she shrugged out of her knee length raincoat and tossed it on the back of a chair. "I can leave again if you want."
Ione set her laptop down on the couch. "No, no, you just startled me."
Mara fixed the hem on her white leather mini skirt. "Are you sure? It's not a problem. I mean, if you were doing something that you didn't want anyone else to know about, just say the word."
"Nothing like that. I was just checking out a few places online. Satellite maps and all that." Ione sat back down.
"Did you find someone sunbathing in the nude?" Mara walked over to the couch on her white four-inch high heeled wedges. "Can I see?"
Ione blushed in spite of herself. "I didn't find anyone. I mean, I wasn't looking for that."
"You're not interested?"
Ione's cheeks grew warmer. "I just have a few other things on my mind right now. These are just photos of la Terrasse for this afternoon." She held up her laptop to let Mara see, all the while wondering why she bothered.
"Oh, that." Mara giggled. "I'd have never thought of that."
Ione set the laptop down again. "If something happens, I want to know where the dead ends are."
"Gotcha. But, if you did want to look at naked photos, let me know. I know some great sites." Mara winked.
"I'm good. Really."
"Your loss. Maybe after all of this is over, I'll send you the links."
"You don't have to."
"It won't be any problem." Mara strode towards the bathroom. "If Jack asks where I am, I'm taking a bath."
Ione nodded. "I'll let him know." Once the bathroom door closed behind the leggy redhead, Ione let her head fall back. She closed her eyes, blocking out the confusing conversation. At some point, she was going to have to set boundaries with Mara. Ione's sex life was not to be brought up for discussion. For good measure, Mara's would also be out of bounds. Returning the the laptop once more, Ione checked her personal email. She refreshed the account several times, hoping that something from Karen would appear. Nothing.
Jack returned. Ione noticed he had a mahogany walking stick with him. "Isn't that overkill for today's meeting?" she asked.
"This?" He held up the walking stick. "Just a prop. You need to make your Pascal believe that your people can afford what he's selling. I'm just looking the part." Jack looked over at Ione. "Ione, dear, you look like a tourist."
"I didn't think there would be a dress code." Ione put away her computer. "Besides, aren't we going to be in a tourist area? I'm not going to look out of place."
"You'll blend right in with the other rubes. How is your Pascal going to find you?"
Ione plucked a flower out of an arrangement and tucked it in her hair above her left ear. "Already thought of that."
Jack nodded his approval. "Fetching, though a white rose would suit you far better than that tiger lily." He walked to the chair where Mara's white leather jacket was draped. "Is Mara around? I see she's returned."
"In the tub."
"I should have realized." Jack reached into his suit jacket, easily finding the pocket inside, and pulled out a black billfold. "Go have lunch. I'll meet you at la Terrasse in time for your meeting." He tossed the billfold to Ione.
Ione fumbled with the billfold before pulling it to her chest with both hands. "Now?"
"Now. Go." Jack sat down on the couch. "Before I change my mind."
Ione looked inside the billfold. "Sure. Just let me get my shoes on and, yeah, gone." She stared at Jack. "Thanks."
Jack only waved her away in response. Ione laced up her shoes, a comfortable pair of sneakers that had turned grey from use. "Remember, three o'clock."
"I'll be there, Ione. You don't have to worry about me."
"I'm more worried about me." Ione grabbed her black leather jacket. After one last check to make sure she had everything she wanted and a quick dash to grab her smart phone, she left.
The money Jack gave her was far more than Ione needed, even after taking a cab from the hotel to a brasserie walking distance from where she would meet Pascal. Lunch consisted of a roast beef sandwich on a small baguette, topped with Roquefort cheese and washed down with a glass of red wine. Ione chided herself on her alcohol consumption; she drank far more this week alone than she did in a regular month. Meeting Pascal while tipsy could also cause problems. At the same time, Ione hadn't realized just how hungry she was. Coffee for breakfast woke her up, but her worry had driven any thoughts of breakfast out of her head.
Once done, Ione decided to play tourist. She turned her jacket's collar up as the wind gusted; the breeze sent leaves skipping down the street. With the Eiffel Tower in sight, she began walking towards it, taking her time. Ione wished she had a proper camera with her. Her cell phone, though, would have to do. The crowd of people grew as she got closer to the attraction. Tourists had cameras out and barely noticed each other, let alone Ione. For her part, Ione was happy to be ignored. The fresh air, despite the chill in it, improved her mood. Doing something, even if it was unrelated to finding Karen, gave Ione hope.
The line up for the elevator at the Eiffel Tower daunted Ione. As much as she wanted to see Paris from the Tower's heights, she had a schedule to keep. She confirmed the time on her phone; she had a little over an hour before she had to be at la Terrasse du Septième. Ione contented herself with taking photos of the Tower from street level, making sure she didn't get into anyone else's shot. The last thing she needed was to explain why she was back in Paris to Lawrence. As three o'clock neared, Ione started to wend her way to the Terrasse. Timing could be critical. Too early, Ione would look too eager, setting off warning bells for Pascal. Too late, and Pascal would just leave. What Ione wanted was to have Pascal already inside and approach her after she was seated.
Ione entered the Terrasse. When the maitre d' gave her the choice, she chose the brasserie part of the restaurant. The maitre d' escorted her to her table, with two place settings already set up. Ione sat so she could see as much of the establishment as possible. She adjusted the tiger lily in her hair to make sure that it was seen. The waiter stopped at the table. Ione ordered a coffee, something she could drink slowly without appearing to nurse it. Three o'clock came and went with no sign of Pascal. Ione finished her coffee and ordered a second. There wasn't much else she could do. Jack still hadn't arrived, but even if he had, he'd have nothing to do.
As the time approached three-thirty, a thin man with an olive complexion stopped at Ione's table. "Ada?" he asked as he shrugged out of his grey trenchcoat.
Ione nodded slowly. "You're one of Babbage's people?"
The man sat down across from Ione. "Yes."
"Traffic." The man signalled for the waiter. "There are some people who are very angry with you."
"I didn't expect interference. Your people set up the location."
The waiter arrived. The man ordered a white wine with appetizers. Once the waiter scampered away, the man continued. "Until your people showed up, the location was secure. We lost a lot of high quality merchandise."
Ione's eyes darted around. Still no sign of Jack. "No, we lost a lot of high quality merchandise. Babbage had half the payment already. However, my people still want the merchandise or replacements and are willing to deal."
The man's eyes narrowed. "Your people were in the warehouse when it went up."
"So were yours. Yet, here we are, both of us in one piece." Ione fought to keep her composure. She was sure that Pascal or his representative was going to kill her if they left the restaurant.
"Indeed. I need reassurances before we go further."
"What sort of reassurances? Another payment?"
"Nothing like that." The man leaned back as the waiter returned with his order. He took a sip of his wine. "You should try the house white."
Ione flashed a smile. "Perhaps later." She leaned forward against the table. "What sort of reassurances?"
"My people are a little touchy right now. They want at least a quarter of the payment before we leave here."
"A quarter?" Ione pushed back from the table. "No. Do you know how many deals collapsed that night?"
"Perhaps you should talk to your people first and let them know how serious the matter is."
"Oh, I know." Jack pulled a chair from another table. "My associate is correct. I haven't seen anything from you yet."
Ione felt relief flood her entire being. "Hello."
"Who is this?" The man started to get up from his seat.
Jack offered his hand. "Call me Jack. Ada works for me. I need some guarantees from you, Mister ...?"
"Marco." He shook Jack's hand and sat back down. "We're at an impasse, then, Jack."
"Perhaps." Jack set a wad of Euros on the table in front of Marco. "Perhaps not. Thing is, after what happened Wednesday morning, I'm thinking that you no longer have the quantities I need."
Marco turned his full attention to Jack. "How much do you need?" He reached for the Euros.
Jack snatched the money back out of reach. "I don't think you're at a level to know, Marco. This is far above your pay grade. Go back to your people and tell them that I need to speak to the man in charge. I don't deal with underlings." Jack's face became stone, expressionless. "And if anything happens to my assistant, if even one hair of hers is out of place before I hear back from you and yours, I will hunt each and every one of your people down." He stood up and offered Ione his arm. "I believe we're done here for the day."
Ione smiled at Marco as she took Jack's arm. "A pleasure meeting you, Marco." She let Jack lead her out of the restaurant. Once outside, her knees threatened to collapse under her weight. Her hands trembled.
"You're safe." Jack patted Ione's hand. "Nothing to worry about. Mara has the car around the corner."
"Did you mean what you said in there? That you'd hunt him down if I was hurt?"
"Did I look like I was joking? And not just him." Jack guided Ione around the corner.
With the car in sight, Ione picked up her pace. Jack kept at his usual stride, holding the young woman back. Mara opened the passenger door and helped Ione inside. The analyst collapsed on the seat. She hugged herself to try to calm herself down. Jack slipped into the limo and set his cane down. "A quick tour of the city, Mara."
Mara nodded, then closed the door. She got into the driver's seat and set the limo moving. "How did your meeting go?"
"I think I made an impression on the messenger." Jack rubbed Ione's knee. "It helped having a good warm up act. We should hear from him again."
"Am I done?" Ione asked. "I mean, now that you met Pascal, Marco, whatever his name is, do you still need me?"
"Your part is still not over, my dear Ione. We've just finished Act I. You have another cue coming up." Jack took Ione's hand into his. "However, your role becomes a supporting one. You just have to confirm details when we meet Marco's superiors. Trust me on this, Ione, Marco isn't in charge. He's just a cheap thug there to intimidate."
Ione retrieved her hand. "He was going to kill me if I tried to leave, wasn't he?"
"Marco? No, not him. He doesn't have it in him to kill anyone face to face."
"That's good to hear." Ione slumped in her seat.
"His friend, though, is a nasty piece of work. Wanted in several countries for murder, including here in France. He'd be wanted in several other countries if they knew what he had done there. Good thing I was here. You'd would have been a victim of a particularly violent mugging."
Ione's stomach fell in on itself. "I don't think I want to continue. No, I bloody well know I don't want to keep going. Jack, I want to go home."
"Relax, Ione." Jack's tone turned soothing. "Mara would have stepped in before anything had happened to you. Isn't that right, Mara?"
"It is, boss." Mara craned her neck to look at Ione. "I'd have stopped Marco's friend before you could be hurt." She returned her attention to her driving. "Hey, boss, we have a tail."
Ione twisted to look out the back window. "We're being followed?"
"Naturally. Ione, don't look." Jack put a bit of pressure on the analyst's shoulder to get her to sit properly. "I was expecting a little company. Mara, let's give Ione and our followers a grand tour of Paris. It'd be a shame not to see the sights while we're here. Ione, you should have set up a time after sunset. Paris is called the City of Lights for a reason."
Mara eased the Mercedes limousine through the building rush hour traffic. She kept her speed steady, taking the long way through the city. Jack pointed out various landmarks, both famous and infamous. Ione took advantage of the guided tour to take photos with her phone. Her desire to go home remained, though. Even with all the benefits Jack was providing, Ione felt that her life was far more important.
Dusk fell across the city. Mara brought the car on to Voie Georges Pompidou, along the Seine, giving Ione a beautiful sight of the lights along the river. Ione let herself get lost among the glow of the reflection of the lights on the river, giving her a chance to forget all her concerns for just a moment of bliss.
"The hotel, Mara. Dinner awaits." Jack left Ione in her silence.
"I had to tell her where you went. I mean, she had a gun!"
"Life is for living."
"I need to go home."
"How did you get your cat?"