Ione introduced Jack to her late contact's connections.Not long after Ione returned to the hotel room with Jack and Mara did a knock come from the door. Mara answered and allowed a bellboy to enter with a large tray. Jack showed the bellboy to the meeting room, where the tray was put down, and gave the hotel employee a generous tip. Once he had escorted the bellboy out, he turned to Ione. "Dinner is served. I trust that it will meet with your standards."
Ione followed Jack back to the meeting room. The tray held a three course meal and a bottle of champagne on ice. Jack held out a chair for the young woman. Ione sat down, not quiet believing what she saw. "Jack, isn't this, well, a bit much?"
"Nonsense. Life is for living. How can you live without experiencing anything new." He picked up a covered plate. "I believe this is the escargot. The chef here does wondrous things to snails." Jack removed the cover. "Excellent. You should try one." He set a shell down on a plate that he then passed to Ione.
"Um, okay." Ione eyed the shell on her plate. "How do I eat this?"
Jack demonstrated, picking up a shell for himself. He used a cocktail fork to dig inside the shell, loosening the snail within, before pulling the delicacy out and eating it. "Like that."
Ione tried to imitate what Jack did, using her own cocktail fork to pull out the snail. With effort, she pulled the snail out. She held it up in front of her eyes before popping it into her mouth. The butter and garlic flooded her tastebuds as she chewed. After a few minutes, she swallowed.
"Well?" Laughter danced in Jack's eyes.
"I'm not sure."
"Care for another?" Jack held out the plate of escargot.
"I think one's enough for now. It's different. Not sure if I like it, but I don't think I dislike it."
"Suit yourself. More for me." Jack removed another snail to eat.
Ione glanced at the door into the dining room. "Isn't Mara going to eat with us?"
"Mara has other duties to attend to."
"Should I ask what they are?"
"Probably not. What you don't know, you can't testify about."
"Then can I ask a different question?"
"You don't seem to have any problems asking questions." Jack set aside the plate of now empty shells. "Let's see what Eric made for the main course." He uncovered the large plate, revealing a side of roast beef. "I believe this will be more to your liking." Jack began slicing thin cuts of the meat, placing them on a plate. "There should be a vegetable dish, too."
Ione uncovered another plate, finding a mix of baby carrots, onions, and green beans. "Found it." She began spooning vegetables on to a plate.
Jack added the thin slices he cut to her plate. "Here you go. Bon appetit."
"Anyway, Jack, I need to go home. I was only supposed to be off work until Friday." Ione cut a small sliver of the meat and ate it. The sliver melted in her mouth, leaving a tang that hinted of being gamey without being overpowering. "This isn't beef. I'm not complaining, though."
"I believe it's elk."
Ione took another bite of her roast elk. "As I was saying, I need to go home. My roommate is missing, I have work Monday morning which I'll be late for even if I left now, my sister is going to be angry with me if I make her watch my cat for too long. I wasn't planning on being gone this long."
Jack took the bottle out of the ice. "Champagne?"
"Jack, are you even listening to me?"
"You want to go home. I understand perfectly, Ione."
"I need your help for a few more days."
"What about my job? Karen?"
"Everything will turn out well for you. I will guarantee it." Jack popped the cork off the bottle. He began pouring the champagne into two glasses.
"My boss frowns on no call-no shows."
"Tell him you're working from home. A little white lie, but that should keep him happy."
Ione set down her fork. "Then what? How long will I be here?"
"Not for much longer, though timing depends on your friend, Marco. May I say that I find his name far better than the name you chose for him? Pascal doesn't suit him."
"It fit my theme."
"Theme?" Jack passed a glass to Ione.
"How much do you know about computer science?"
Jack smiled. "Enough to let an expert fix my computers."
"Not a bad idea." Ione took a deep breath. "I used Ada as an alias after Ada Lovelace. She and Charles Babbage were friends. He showed her his difference engine plans; she programmed it. Thus, I called the weapons dealer Babbage in all my notes. He gave me an alias, Luxley, that I added to my reports, but kept his code name as Babbage afterwards."
Jack nodded. "Not too bad for a theme. You haven't explained Pascal."
"Pascal's a programming language, named after the mathematician, Blaise Pascal." Ione met Jack's gaze. "I'll have to write what happened today as a report, too, at some point. I've already figured out Mara's code name. Not sure what to do with you."
"You could just leave me out of any official reports."
"I could, but that would leave to too many questions. It's not like I know your full name, Jack."
Jack sipped his champagne. "I would prefer to be left to my own devices." He leaned forward in his chair. "I am curious, though. What names have you chosen?"
"For Mara, Hopper, after Admiral Grace Hopper of the American navy. Admiral Hopper was almost as important as Ada Lovelace in the field of computer science."
"For you, I've been toying with FORTRAN."
"FORTRAN? Really, Ione?"
"C-Sharp is too awkward to read over and over."
"Keep working on the name." Jack stood up. "I have a few errands to run tonight. I recommend you stay here in the hotel. I'd say stay here in the room, but I have to at least allow you the possibility of getting out for a walk. Mara should be back in a few hours." He left the dining room.
Ione watched as Jack left, then returned to her meal. When she was done, she cleaned up the plates, putting them back on the tray. One last plate remained covered. Curious, Ione pulled away the cover. A single torte, its chocolate icing sculpted to resemble a rose, sat on the plate, tempting Ione. She picked up the plate and a clean fork, then took her dessert into the main room.
She sat down on the couch, setting her dessert plate on the coffee table in front of her. A quick check of her laptop later, she had the machine running, though its battery was starting to run low. Ione hoped that it would last long enough for her to check her email account. Skype showed no attempt by anyone to reach her. Her personal email, though, had a reply from Karen in its inbox. Ione opened the message.
Ione, sorry for the short message. I'm fine. Just a bump on my head. Some woman with a gun was waiting in the house when I got home and asked about you. I had to tell her where you went. I mean, she had a gun! What was I supposed to do? So, if you see a woman with short blonde hair and a British accent, be careful. She's not a nice person. Once she got where you were out of me, she hit me on the head with her gun. Fortunately, Ben dropped by. He took a look at my head and I felt better. He's a keeper, I think. We're waiting for a layover in Chicago. Let me know where you'll be when we land in, Ben says ten hours. Amy's taking care of the house and Diesel while I'm gone. Did you know that she's grumpy when she wakes up?
Ione re-read the message. The description Karen gave of her attacker sounded like Gemma, one of the British agents she worked with. Gemma remained professional around Ione, even when the team went out to relax. Ione just couldn't figure out why Gemma would be after her. Everything that happened went into the report; Ione made sure she went out of her way while writing to mention that the British agents went above and beyond their duty. If Gemma was after her, having Karen here would cause even more problems. Ione replied to her friend's email. Karen, wait. There's no need to come here. Thanks for the warning, though. I'm not sure where I'll be when you get here. Say thanks to Ben for me.
The news that Karen was safe removed a layer of worry from Ione. Even if Karen was on her way to Paris, she was safe. Ione could concentrate on the main problem, Marco's people. After a moment of thought, Ione corrected herself. Two main problems. Marco was one. Jack was the other. Ione wasn't sure which was the tougher problem. Marco was just a step towards a goal, one that Jack really hadn't mentioned. Sure, there was the man that had caused the warehouse to explode, but Ione was positive there was more to the issue than how everything appeared.
Ione shoved her worries aside for the moment. Karen was safe, that's what mattered right now. Anything else, Ione could deal with in the morning. She shut her laptop down and brought it back into the dining room where she could plug it in to charge. The tablet was where she had left it; she retrieved it and returned to the main room. Ione parked herself on the couch, stretching out along its length, and opened her e-reader app. She had no plans to go out, not with a killer out there waiting for her. Getting lost in a book, though, appealed to her. Although she still had the techno-thriller she read on the flight overseas, Ione wanted something more. A quick look through her e-book library later, she found what she needed. A door-stopper fantasy novel, one where she could be pulled into the magic of the setting, was perfect to let time pass.
When Mara walked in, Ione wasn't sure. She had read several chapters of her book. Ione waved to Jack's employee, her eyes never leaving her tablet's screen. Mara waved back. "Is Jack around?"
"He had errands. There's some dinner left, though it might be cold."
"That's okay. But thanks." Mara sloughed off her coat as she walked to stand behind the couch. "Anything interesting?"
"Just a book I've been meaning to read for a while." Ione sat up, swinging her feet down to the floor. "How was your night?"
"Busy. All work. I think I need a vacation."
"Don't we all."
"There's a bar downstairs with dancing."
Ione grimaced. "I'm not good at dancing. I think I want a quiet night after all the excitement today."
"Your loss." Mara walked towards the bathroom. "I'm going to check it out."
"Have fun!" Ione turned her attention back to her book. She heard the bathroom door close.
A few minutes later, Mara walked back out. Curious, Ione checked to see what the red haired woman wore. Mara had on a variation of the classic little black dress; the hemline barely a few centimetres below her butt and the straps working hard to keep Mara's breasts from spilling out. "You're going to be the hit of the party."
"Are you sure? I mean, this doesn't really show me off that much."
"Believe me, Mara, the guys are going to notice you." Ione returned to reading.
"Thanks, Ione!" Mara sat on the edge of the bed to put on a pair of cream open-toed high heels. "Have fun with your book!" She left, letting the door close behind her.
Ione curled her legs up as she got comfortable again. As she started reading the next paragraph, the room's phone rang. She set her tablet down and got up with a groan. After a quick stretch, Ione picked up the phone as it started its third ring. "Hello?"
"Ah, good, Ione," Jack said at the other end of the line. "I was hoping you'd still be awake. I have a quick question for you."
"Sure, what is it?"
"How did you get your cat?"
Ione blinked in confusion. "Diesel?"
"Is that the fur ball's name?"
"It's the one he ignores on purpose."
"How did you get him?"
Ione perched on the edge of her bed. "He moved in with Karen and me when we got the house."
"What do you mean, 'moved in'?"
"The door was open, he walked in and never left. We tried making him leave, even carried him outside, but he kept running back in. We gave up, Diesel stayed, and he acts like the house is his and I'm just staff."
"You're a soft touch, Ione. Thanks for answering." Jack hung up before Ione could say anything more.
Ione set the phone back down on the hook. She ignored the odd question and returned to the couch. The quiet of the room threatened to become deafening. Unlike her home in Ottawa, there wasn't the sound of traffic, of a cat running down the hallway, of music coming from the living room or either bedroom, or even the whisper of a computer fan. It wasn't that Ione wanted music; she needed white noise, the comforting sounds that she took for granted. The creaking of the house she and Karen rented, the click of Diesel's claws on the floor, sounds that added to her reality.
Pushing the longing for home out of her mind, Ione switched on the television. She turned its volume down low, loud enough to be heard but not loud enough to make out individual words. Picking up her tablet, Ione settled back down on the couch and continued reading her fantasy novel. With no further interruptions, she fell into the book's rich tapestry.
Time passed without Ione noticing. She was only a few chapters from the end when Jack returned to the room. Ione didn't look up as she waved. "Mara's off dancing somewhere."
"And you didn't go?"
"I hate dancing."
Jack cleared his throat, getting Ione's attention. "You hate dancing? I doubt that."
"I hate how I look when dancing. Better?"
"A little." Jack patted Ione's shins to get her to move her legs. "Any other reasons?"
Ione curled her legs beneath her. "You have seen Mara, right? She'd make a super model jealous, especially with what she wore tonight."
"And you thought you couldn't compete." Jack sat down on the couch. "So you gave up a night of fun because Mara was going to steal your thunder."
"It's not that." Ione squirmed under Jack's gaze. "I also have a missing friend and someone who wanted to kill me this afternoon."
"I doubt he wanted to, Ione. And with me on the scene, there wasn't a need for you to be killed."
"I feel oh so much better."
"You could have brought someone back up to the room if you wanted. No one here knows who you are. You could try being someone else."
Ione rested her tablet on her lap. "I'm not looking for a one night stand, Jack."
"Give me your feet." Jack held out his hands. "Don't knock quickies. Sometimes, you just need the sex without the attachment. I wouldn't look down at you. Who would know? I'm not going to tell anyone."
"I'd know." Warily, Ione extended her legs again, letting her feet fall on Jack's lap. "There are lines that I'm not crossing."
Jack began massaging Ione's left foot, starting with a small circular rub at her ankle. "What happens if you do? Ione, there would be nothing to feel guilty of. You went to university. Didn't you hook up then?"
"I did, a couple of times. It might have felt good at the time, and it didn't once, but I needed more." Ione gasped as Jack traced a finger across the arch of her foot.
Jack ran his finger down the arch again, eliciting a squeal from Ione. "How much more do you need, Ione?" He began kneading the ball of her foot. "Marriage, a house with a two-car garage, two-point-three children playing in the backyard?"
"Maybe. I've thought about it and, yes, why not? I deserve happiness as much as the next person."
"I've seen the next person. Happiness is fleeting. Get what you can while you can."
"What about love?"
"What's love got to do with it?"
"Quoting songs of the Eighties again?" Ione gave Jack a wan smile. "I know, love hurts. Its a risk everyone takes."
Jack set Ione's left foot down and picked up her right. "Except you. How do you know your soul mate isn't downstairs dancing right now?"
"I don't believe in a soul mate. The idea of everyone having the ideal partner that needs to be found is cruel. You always ask yourself, 'Is this him? What about him?' Then there's, 'Where is he?' No, thanks, not for me."
"Sounds like a broken heart talking."
"Why am I telling you this?"
Jack smirked. "I asked, and you needed to get it off your chest."
"And that's the only thing coming off my chest tonight." Ione folded her arms over her breasts.
"Do I really seem the type to use bad pick up lines? Have I not treated you with respect?" Jack pushed the heel of his thumb into the arch of Ione's foot.
After a moan of pleasure, Ione answered, "So far." She relaxed her defiant posture. "Okay, maybe I have a bit of baggage. My best friend is prettier than me and my baby sister just got engaged. Don't get me wrong. I hope they're both happy, I really do. But, damn it, why not me?"
"Perhaps you're looking in the wrong places."
"Where am I supposed to look, Jack? Work, where the one guy I want to go out with is gay? And, no, that's not a guess. He's open about being gay. He's great at work, funny, supportive, everything I'm looking for, except being interested in women. He's a good friend. My boss is married and, no, I'm not interested in being the other woman. I've gone to LARPs, I've gone to conventions, I've looked at online dating sites. Where else am I supposed to look, Jack?"
"'Larps'?" Jack raised an eyebrow.
"Live action role-playing. I get to dress up as someone else for a weekend and pretend to be a knight in a far away land."
"I see." Jack returned Ione's feet to her. "Have you tried being yourself?"
Ione curled her feet under her legs. "Who else would I be?"
"That's a very good question." Jack got to his feet. "I don't think I'm the right person to ask. You should get some rest. Tomorrow will be busy." He walked to the door. "I need to talk to Mara about some arrangements. Good evening, Ione."
Ione watched as Jack left. "Who am I supposed to be, then?" she asked as the door closed.
"We must all dress the part and, well, of the three of us in the room, you're the only one wearing grubby jeans."
"You seem more like a blue or a green to me."
"Care to let me in on the madness?"
"Not even my cat gets to join me when I take a bath."