In this final chapter of World Without Love, Jewel is rescued from Bangkok’s evil flesh markets by a covert government agency. Haunted by her last memories of Annie, Jewel vows to do whatever it takes to find her friend—hopefully in time to save her from Gregory’s sadistic and murderous intentions. In her new position as an embassy hostess, Jewel forms alliances with political attaches and power brokers, hoping one of them can help her find Annie—still alive.
Recognizing Jewel’s special assets, her supervisors offer her more responsibility, releasing her from the constant scrutiny of the all-seeing agency network. Jewel quickly realizes she’s been granted another advantage, one her superiors could not have anticipated: the chance to extract revenge on all those who attempted to destroy her life.
But again, the hand fate touches Jewel’s heart, forcing her to choose between the new man in her life and the one who helped her escape a dismal world of enslavement and cruel domination.
They would take your soul, if they could . . .
“My name is Katherine. I’m here to help you get settled.”
I wasn’t sure how long I’d been unconscious. The last thing I remembered was Bobby pulling Annie and I apart and dragging me out of the cage. And then nothing . . . until a few minutes ago, when I’d woken to the soft white noise from an A/C vent.
Katherine had knocked lightly, announcing herself with, “May I come in?”
It was a token courtesy—saying no wouldn’t have kept her out. And yet, I didn’t fear the stranger on the other side of the door. There was something about the environment—the comfortable bed, the modern upscale room furnishings, the original artwork on the walls—that dispelled any suggestion of captivity. It extended far beyond the sterile ambiance you’d expect from a contemporary hotel room. The space had a welcome, homey quality that immediately replaced my fear with curiosity. And as I’d heard the click of the door handle, it wasn’t apprehension that propped me up on one elbow, it was anticipation. If these people were really the sort Bobby had described, they could easily find out what happened to Annie. And more important, they might be able to help her.
Katherine was mid-40s, trim, and attractive. She wore a short, brown tailored skirt revealing legs that appeared to have spent plenty of time on a Stairmaster. An ivory silk blouse—open to the second button—draped lightly over her breasts, then snuggled around her small waist. Flawless make-up accented deep green eyes. Her sandy-blond hair was cut in a no-nonsense bob, framing her soft, pretty face with a perky salute. She could’ve been a model in another life.
She smiled and leaned against the dresser, her clothes accommodating her movements like a second skin. Admittedly, it was an odd thought, especially under the circumstances, but I suddenly wondered if I’d ever see her naked.
“I’m sure you have a lot of questions,” she began.
I shrugged my shoulders. “I’m just glad to be out of that place . . . the auction.”
She grimaced. “You don’t need to worry. Those people can’t touch you anymore. Not here.”
I ached to ask if she could extend the same protection to Annie, but it was too soon. I would have to wait for the right time.
“From what I understand,” she continued, “Robert—oh, he probably asked you to call him Bobby—gave you some idea of what your new position entails, correct?”
Bobby. That asshole!
“He told me a lot of things. Unfortunately, not all of them were true.”
Katherine’s eyes narrowed. “I’ve never known Robert to intentionally misrepresent the truth, especially when offering an opportunity to serve with us here, in the department.”
Unable to wait any longer, I blurted it out. “I’m talking about the other girl, the one in the cage with me at the auction. Bobby told me he would take us both, keep us together. Then he let someone else buy her.” My voice cracked and I fought to retain my composure, determined not to break down in front of her.
“You mean the other American girl, the one bought by Gregory Housing?”
“Her name is Annie,” I said.
“Yes, we know about Annie. She was working on the Kelsey before the ship was lost at sea.”
“Then you know Bobby promised to buy her, too.”
“I assure you, it’s a promise he deeply regrets.”
I waited for more, but she stood quietly. That wasn’t good enough.
“Bobby said he was outbid,” I offered. “I think there’s more to it than that. A guy who buys girls from slave auctions with government money isn’t pinching pennies, and I doubt he ever runs short of cash. If he really intended to buy us both, the price wouldn’t have mattered.”
Katherine watched me carefully, making sure I was finished. “You’re very perceptive. We’ll teach you to hone that skill, how to use it accurately without jumping to unjustified conclusions.”
“What does that have to do with Annie?”
“Your assumption that more than money was involved in Bobby’s decision is correct. And before I go on, I want you to understand he fully intended to buy both of you. But the situation changed at the last minute. He had to get you out of the auction as quickly as possible . . . for your own safety. And because time was short, he couldn’t tell you the whole story.”
No amount of explaining would change the fact that Annie had been left in the hands of a madman. Now the only important thing was what could be done to help her.
“None of that matters,” I said. “Gregory Housing is a killer, and Bobby knew it. He let that monster take Annie after he’d promised to protect her. If I’d known that’s the way you do business around here, I would’ve refused Bobby’s offer and stayed with her. At least she wouldn’t have been left to die alone.”
The cheery expression that had been a constant part of Katherine’s demeanor changed to serious concern. “I understand your loyalty to your friend, and I’m not saying it’s misplaced. Right now, you’re speaking from emotion . . . from anger and fear. And those are poor substitutes for clear, accurate thinking, especially when negotiating for something you want. Remember this, Jewel. It’s much too early for you to be making hollow threats to leverage your value.” She threw me a cold, icy stare. “I’m going to give it to you straight. For me to do my job, I need your commitment. I can’t have you second guessing your decision to work for the department, and I won’t have you challenging me with ultimatums. Now, if you’re ready to listen, I’ll explain what happened.”
I swallowed the lump in my throat. There was no point in arguing. She was right. I had no influence here. I’d shot off my mouth before evaluating my situation and the people around me—people who might be able to help me find Annie.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I keep hearing Annie’s voice screaming at that bastard, begging him to let her go. It was the last thing I remember.” I wiped at a tear streaking down my cheek. “I can’t get it out of my head . . . Gregory walking into the cage, carrying a handful of straps and a coil of rope. And then hearing her cries, begging him not to hurt her. The worst part was not being able to help, and now, I can’t imagine what she’s going through.” My voice broke. I couldn’t continue. I dropped my head, half-slapping at the tears, mad at myself for wallowing in my own misery when Annie’s was so much greater.
For the longest time, Katherine was quiet. When I finally looked up, her expression had changed. Not to the original façade of a cheery Polly Anna, but to one of compassion, not unlike what I might have expected from a concerned big sister.
“You and Annie went through a lot together. And it’s only natural to feel the way you do, especially when someone like Gregory Housing is involved. I can tell you what I know, but it’s important you understand it’s all I know. If and when there’s more, I’ll share it with you. And if it becomes necessary to withhold something from you, I’ll let you know that, too. I won’t intentionally lie to you. From here on, you must believe we’re on the same side. You can’t work here under a guise of suspicion. You’ll need to trust those around you, and they’ll expect your trust in return.” She paused. “Jewel?”
I was staring at the floor. I raised my eyes toward her and bit my lip.
“There are no exceptions,” she added.
I collected myself as best I could. “I want to know what happened at the auction.”
Katherine nodded. “Bobby is required to do his job with extreme discretion, maintaining a low profile. When Housing began to bid against him, Bobby countered with slightly higher bids, trying to dissuade Gregory with simple economic leverage. When he realized Gregory was determined to buy Annie, he had to back off. If Bobby had engaged in an all-out bidding war, it would have called attention to his identity and the amount of money he spends. And that’s simply not acceptable.”
“Why? What difference does it make?”
“Because sooner or later, someone will begin asking questions about who he works for and what he does with the girls he buys. Bobby’s service to our department is very important, for all the wrong reasons. Too many questions can compromise his effectiveness.” She stopped, hiked up her skirt, and pulled a cell phone from a holster-case strapped to her right thigh. Glancing at the screen, she looked up, finishing with, “Do you understand?”
“You’re telling me the people who work here have to avoid doing anything that would create unnecessary attention.”
She nodded. “It’s called intelligent discretion, a kind of protective umbrella that maintains the department’s political integrity.”
I took a deep breath, feeling the sudden tension between us.
Katherine noticed immediately. Moving to the edge of the bed, she sat next to me.
“There’s nothing scheduled for today,” she said. “Use the time to become acquainted with your room and new wardrobe. Take a walk around the grounds if you like. This afternoon, I’ll give you a tour of the cafeteria, the gym, and the main reception and office building. We call it the Fortress.”
“You’ll begin your training. Classes in the morning, lab work in the afternoon.”
“Training?” My mind returned to the ship, where the men had taken turns with me on deck to break down my resistance, trying to desensitize me to the idea of providing sex on demand.
“We begin with three concentrated curriculums. You’ll start with communication, learning to listen and use language more effectively. Occasionally, one of our girls needs to neutralize a regional slang or a distracting accent. In your case, that won’t be necessary. Next, you’ll work on interpretive skills, how to read and decipher basic code and hand signals used by agents and staffers.” Her expectant stare made it clear she was waiting for a response.
“I understand. What else?”
“We’ll work on improving your behavioral flexibility.”
“Think of it as specialized skills. It means you’ll learn to satisfy the expectations of our guests while working toward the desired result.”
Her emphasis on the bottom line bothered me. “What kind of result?”
“Our job is to acquire information.”
“You mean intelligence?”
“No, dear. Here, inside the wall, we gather information. Those working on the outside—agents and operatives—they obtain intelligence.”
“There’s a difference?” I didn’t really care, but wanted to ask a question to let her know I was paying attention.
“The distinction indicates the source as well as the credibility. We assign a higher probability of accuracy to information. Intelligence must be verified from additional sources before it’s considered credible.”
I nodded, not really understanding.
“It has to do with the way the gen is collected,” she continued. “When it results from our efforts,” she tipped her head toward me, an indication I was now included as an official member of the team, “it’s the outcome of using focused rapport, social skills, and our feminine attributes.” She paused, her expression turning dark. “Outside the wall, I’m afraid the methodology is often less civilized.”
Her words flowed with a kind of practiced precision, the way they would when someone doesn’t need to think about what they’re going to say next. She hesitated only when she needed an indication I was listening.
She looked at me expectantly. “Don’t you want to know where you are?”
I silently scolded myself for not bringing it up before she did. My location should matter to me, as a part of normal curiosity. I quickly found my voice. “Am I still in Bangkok?”
“Yes, more specifically, you’re in the diplomatic compound. I know you’re feeling a little displaced. But don’t worry, most of the girls feel right at home after a day or two.”
“There are other girls here?”
“Usually, we’re a family of six, including myself. Right now, we’re in the middle of regional reassignments. Several of our girls were recently transferred to new projects. So for the time being, you, Marcie, and I are holding down the fort.”
She noticed my eyes darting to the corners of the room, as if searching for a roommate in hiding, ready to spring out and introduce herself.
“Each girl has her own room,” Katherine assured me. “A suite really. Your bath is through that door.” She pointed to the six-panel oak colonial supported by four polished brass hinges. “This room is yours for as long as you’re here. You may consider it private. You’ll also use it to entertain, when appropriate.”
I may not have fully understood everything she’d said, but I had no doubt what the word entertain meant.
“If there’s anything you need—a particular brand of shampoo, moisturizer, lipstick—write it on the pad you’ll find on top of the bath vanity. The staff does the shopping once a week. Anything that isn’t stocked locally, we can have shipped in.”
“Anything?” While I wasn’t fishing for an exotic brand of body wash or a dozen bars of French milled soap, I was surprised at the latitude she was offering, inferring the staff was a bunch of inscripted genies popping in and out of their magic lamp in a puff of smoke.
“Except perfume and deodorant. Those will be provided to you based on the preferences of your assigned guest.”
“You always know that much about the men?”
She smiled, her way of letting me know I had a lot to learn. “Men leave lots of clues. And they’re consistent. If a man liked a particular fragrance or color ten years ago, chances are he still likes it today. Women, on the other hand, are far less predictable.”
I saw a sudden flash of concern on her face. “Is that going to be a problem, because if so—”
“No,” I interrupted. “It’s not a problem. I didn’t realize there would be women . . . guests.”
“It’s not as rare as you might think,” she said. “Dignitaries and political figures often travel with their wives. And some of those women have an influence on the business and political decisions their husbands ultimately make. So we do our best to give the ladies a positive experience during their visit. It’s often as benign as needing a companion for the day, someone to eat or shop with.” She paused, her eyes darting upward as if remembering someone in particular. “Occasionally, they express a preference for more.”
I couldn’t ignore the obvious question. “And I suppose if a woman wants a man, there are male hosts, too?”
“Our job is to ensure our guests are safe, comfortable, and entertained. In that order. Along the way, we hope to gain their trust, and bring their objectives and interests into alignment with ours. To accomplish those goals, we don’t think in terms of limitations. It’s more about doing whatever it takes.”
Her expression didn’t change, but I could tell she wanted me to understand the extent to which I could be called upon in performing my job. Whatever it takes, she’d said.
Katherine had done most of the talking, yet I’d begun to recognize a sense of give-and-take between us. But I wasn’t ready to trust her—at least not yet— and I was pretty sure she knew it. I figured it was part of her job, to read me, detect the tiniest tell—a muscle contraction, an adjustment in posture, a hand gesture—that conveyed far more than words ever could.
I decided to risk it and ask if there was anything she could do to help Annie. And this time, I would try to control my emotions. “Can I ask you a question?”
Katherine raised her eyebrows, suggesting her readiness to listen.
“How much do you know about Gregory Housing?”
“We keep tabs on him.”
“Is there some way to find out where he’s taken Annie?”
Katherine fell silent, her gaze fixed on my face. For a moment, I wondered if her training allowed her to peer inside, beyond the limitations of skin and bone.
Finally, she said, “While we could make those inquiries, and eventually have them answered, I’m wondering how prudent it would be?”
Prudent? It was like asking me to evaluate the importance of drawing my next breath. I wanted to challenge her, break through her sudden veneer of polished indifference. Yet the metered calm of her voice, the absence of any argument, stopped me. Her words were more than a veiled threat. She didn’t like repeating herself, and this was her way of telling me—again—that it was far too early in our relationship to discuss what she could do for me.
For now, I would let it drop. But from what she’d told me, information about Annie—including her location—was something the people who worked behind these walls had access to. And if they could get it, so could I.
One way or the other.
Katherine had left abruptly, excusing herself to answer the earlier text on her cell phone. I wondered if the message had been planned, a pre-arranged signal to insure our first meeting was just long enough to provide a brief introduction and not overwhelm. Perhaps that was one of those things beyond my need to know.
It was time to explore my new home.
My room was far different from the cabin Annie and I had shared onboard the Kelsey. Appointed with contemporary furnishings, my queen-sized bed was flanked with large maple nightstands, their deeply polished end-grains confirming solid-wood construction. A matching dresser and velvet cushioned chair completed the room.
Katherine had mentioned a new wardrobe.
Wondering what century had influenced the department’s sense of fashion, I opened each dresser drawer and began scrounging through the neatly folded tops, shorts, jeans, and socks—casual wear.
Inside the large walk-in closet, the balance of my clothing was organized by type and color. A full-length rod was filled with cocktail dresses and evening gowns. Another held blouses, sweaters, skirts, and slacks. In the back, a built-in rack displayed fourteen pairs of shoes—each dedicated to a specific function—including a pair of sneakers, three each of sandals and flats, two pairs of casual pumps, a pair of three-inch heels in black, brown, and dark blue, and two pairs of four-inch, fuck-me stilettos.
Everything was a perfect fit. Even the heels were comfortable. Although I wouldn’t find out until much later, the stilettoes were custom-made at fifteen hundred a crack, the built-in gel support allowing me to stand for long periods during cocktail parties and other social functions, when presenting my assets in full length was not only expected, but a requirement of the job.
It was time to check out the rest of the building. This was my new home, at least for a while, and I was curious.
The door to my room was unlocked, as I’d expected. I would have been suspicious of everything Katherine had said if I’d found myself a prisoner. In fact, the handle had no lock of any kind, at least not the type readily accessible to the room’s occupant. It meant anyone could enter any time of the day or night, regardless of my state of dress or what I was doing.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. I would take it up with Katherine later.
Throwing on light cotton shorts and a pullover top, I stepped into the hallway and closed the door behind me. Scanning both ways, I didn’t see a single indication of life.
The carpeting, the artwork on the wall, the occasional accent table along the corridor reminded me of the San Francisco Hilton, where Carl and I had spent two nights of our honeymoon.
I counted eight rooms, including mine. Each had a small brass nameplate over the door, numbered from C101 to C108—a reminder of our government’s compulsive obsession to systematically identify, number, and map every square inch of occupied space. In this case, it made sense—especially for someone like me who, without it, would be counting doors until I was familiar with the location of my room.
I made a mental note of the number— C104.
As I walked toward the far end of the hall, one of the framed pictures distracted me. Appearing to be an original oil, the scene was a restful pastoral. It wasn’t the artist’s skill that caught my attention, it was the subject—a young bare-breasted girl relaxing alongside a meandering stream beneath a large canopy of oak trees, the landscape suggesting a cool haven on a lazy summer afternoon.
I felt a tinge of voyeurism. And it made me realize that, just as I was watching her in that distant, frozen moment in time, someone was surely watching me. A government facility of this importance would have video cameras in every nook and cranny of every building.
I scanned the ceiling for camera housings or protruding lenses. The lightly textured finish appeared smooth and unaltered. The crown molding, however, did not. The grain pattern of the wood looked artificial and repetitive, with a recessed quarter-inch cavity dotting the finish every ten to twelve feet. Too large to be the puttied heads of recessed nails, they were most likely openings for pin-hole lenses.
I wanted “Big Brother” to know I was aware of their monitoring and that, frankly, I didn’t care. I smiled and waved as I passed each dot in the molding, hoping to convey a little innocent whimsy and not the compensating actions of a snooping newbie who’d realized her every move was being scrutinized.
Reaching the opposite end of the hall, I’d expected to find a group of small offices or an open bull-pen with desks, chairs, and filing cabinets—usual fixtures for any government operation. I was surprised to discover a large reception and gathering room.
I was also relieved to find it empty.
Vastly different in appearance from the casual sprawl of the typical middle-class living room, the expanse of polished oak flooring was highlighted with large Persian rugs, each one strategically placed in front of beige leather couches and overstuffed easy chairs, creating separate areas for conversation. French Provincial end tables flanked each sitting area and supported vases of mixed flower bouquets, the carefully coordinated spots of color adding a sense of civility to the room. The soft glow from wall-mounted, bound-glass lighting sconces left the twelve-foot coffered ceiling uncluttered by the usual geometric pattern of recessed incandescent floods.
Every picture on the wall, every precisely placed cushion on the leather couches appeared to serve the gods of design and style, the final result presenting an image that could easily grace the cover of Architectural Digest.
Katherine had been right—anything and everything was a phone call away. And in a day or two, I was certain that same degree of availability would also apply to me and the services I could provide to “guests” of the embassy.
On the opposite side of the room, a pony-wall flanked by twin columns created the illusion of a formal entry. More functional than grand, its understated design was enhanced by a set of eight-foot-tall paneled oak doors. The room had no windows, leaving me to guess what waited on the other side of the twin slabs of polished wood.
Growing accustomed to my new freedom, I tried the handle of one of the doors. The deadbolt retracted in near silence, the smooth mesh of spline and gear no less precise than that of a fine watch.
The neutral scent of the reception room was immediately overwhelmed by the fragrance of blooming jasmine and new-cut grass.
I didn’t hesitate.
Standing under the covered breezeway, I took my first look at the embassy compound. In some ways, it was like pulling back the curtain on another time and place, where poverty, strife, and conflict had been eliminated.
An immense landscape of Bermuda tiff stretched out before me in manicured perfection. Accented with stately maples and huge oaks, the trees presided over curved stone pathways, their granite edges softened by low-lying hedges highlighted with rows of pink and yellow asters.
From my vantage point, it appeared the system of ornate pathways provided access to every building in the compound, including the largest and most architecturally ornate structure centered a hundred yards away. With its elaborate mix of columns and decorative façade, it was the obvious centerpiece of the embassy. Katherine had called it the “Fortress.” By the end of the day, I would learn the twelve-thousand square foot reception and meeting facility was the initial arrival point for visiting dignitaries and diplomats.
The more generic structures appeared dedicated to less glamorous functions—storage rooms, the motor pool, and staff dormitories located around the perimeter of the compound.
Breaks between the buildings provided a glimpse of the nine-foot concrete wall that completely enclosed the two-acre facility. Apparently, security was tight.
While my residence hall had been empty and quiet, the outside grounds were bustling with activity. In the distance, gardeners and groundskeepers were busy cutting, trimming, and sweeping. Other personnel—campus staffers wearing navy-blue blazers, white dress shirts, burgundy ties, and tan slacks—scurried from building to building with obvious urgency.
Everyone appeared to be on a mission of importance. Even the leaves were raked with authority.
After being kidnapped from the Morrison home, I’d been a continuous prisoner—hog-tied to the floor of a van, kept under lock and key in a ratty hotel room, my every move under constant supervision. My new freedom was intoxicating.
I had to explore.
With the exception of the Fortress, the dozen or so buildings within the compound reflected the priority of utilitarian function over architectural form. The flat facades were augmented by heavy cornerstones and wide window pop-outs, the features barely breaking the basic four-square design. I imagined the interiors to be just as stark and sterile. Dull gray signage identified each structure with letters and numbers rather than purpose. Two of the buildings stood out as unusual, their large metal doors, huge strap hinges, and keypad entries offering clues to the importance of their contents. I imagined their obvious bunker-like construction provided a secure location for computers and sensitive communication equipment, especially with their banks of roof-mounted microwave dishes and exotic pendant-shaped antennas.
Without a destination in mind, I started walking the interconnecting system of pathways, wondering how long I could continue to encounter the constant stream of staffers and maintenance personnel before someone stopped me. But instead of evaluating stares and a quick order to return to my room, I was greeted with “Good morning,” and the occasional, “How are you today?” Even those approaching in a distracted daze managed to break from their trance long enough to speak.
After twenty minutes of strolling the grounds, I discovered all paths eventually led to the main reception hall—the Fortress. As I stood in its growing shadow, I was fairly certain I’d arrived at the rear entrance and not the more stately façade that surely graced the front. It was, none-the-less, intimidating.
The double-door entrance was recessed behind a deep portico, and on either side, armed guards stood at attention.
I felt out of place. Everyone I’d seen, even the gardeners and maintenance personnel, conformed to a dress code. With my tan shorts and blue pullover, I appeared more like a lost stray from a tour group than the government’s newest inductee. I wondered if it was a good idea to test the limits of my new freedom, especially on my first day. Even if the guards allowed me to pass, what business did I have wandering around inside the embassy’s headquarters?
Several blazer-wearing, badge-brandishing staffers whizzed by me. An older gentleman in a three-piece suit took the five shallow steps leading to the portico in two short strides. None of them offered a greeting. Apparently, those with business inside the Fortress were far too focused on affairs of state to acknowledge a loitering vagabond.
I was ready to walk back to the residence dorm when a young woman with a ream of copy paper under her arm slowed as she approached. “Do you have an appointment? Appointments are received at the front entrance.”
“No, I don’t have . . . I mean, not really,” I stammered.
She didn’t respond. Resuming the same frenetic pace as the others, she was through the doors before I could say any more. No doubt she’d been summoned to reload the main printer, hopefully arriving in time to prevent World War III.
No longer a transparent visitor, I was beginning to feel conspicuous. The guard on the right had never taken his eyes off me.
My decision was impulsive and spontaneous. I hoped I wouldn’t regret it as reckless, or brash.
I took a step, then another. Unchallenged, I walked up the stairs toward the entrance. Before I could touch the doors, they opened—not electrically from sensors—but from the immediate attention of a second set of guards, positioned inside the foyer.
“Where’s your badge? It needs to be visible when entering the building.”
“I didn’t get a badge.”
“I guess I don’t have one of those either.” The inside guard was immediately talking on his radio, his left hand raised like a traffic cop, indicating I was to stay right where I was.
“She’s with me.” The male voice came from behind.
I turned around, curious who was offering to take responsibility for my unauthorized entry into the embassy’s central sanctuary.
At just over six-feet and two-hundred well-distributed pounds, he was dressed in a dark gray suit and maroon tie, his firm jaw and confident expression making him as impressive as he was attractive. His light brown hair was neatly trimmed, with no indication of a part.
I glanced down at his shoes, thinking it odd they made no sound as he approached.
Removing his aviator-style sunglasses, the guard immediately stepped back and offered a half- salute.
“I’ll take a guess and assume you’re the new hostess.” He smiled, revealing a row of perfectly spaced, gleaming teeth.
“The only thing I’m sure of is the new part.”
He offered his hand, the sudden flip of his jacket revealing the handle grip of an automatic pistol peeking out from a waist holster. “My name’s Mark.”
“Let’s take a walk to security. You can’t go anywhere in this building without ID.”
“It’s all about the badges, huh?”
“Procedure and process, the government thrives on it. It’s the glue that holds this place together.”
“Conformity to the hive?” I asked.
He smiled again. “I presume you’ve met Katherine?”
I nodded. “I think I like her. At least I’m trying to like her.” I cringed as I said it, realizing Katherine would no doubt learn what I’d just said.
“She’s been on assignment here for two years. Been with the service for over fourteen. She’s the best at what she does. Don’t be afraid to ask her anything.”
“She has all the answers?”
“It’s a good place to start.”
“Anything off limits?” I asked.
“She’ll let you know. Of course, you may not like the answer, but don’t question what you’re told.”
His sudden change in demeanor put me on edge. I wanted to get back to the flirty give-and take we’d had just seconds before. I’d already decided seeing more of him wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
“What do you do here?” I asked.
My first impression suggested he was placating me, dismissing me as a novice. I would learn I’d received the customary answer offered by those engaged in sensitive activities. Even seemingly benign information was distributed judiciously, with co-workers told only what they needed to know to accomplish their job.
“My new bird leave the nest?”
I recognized Katherine’s voice. She was suddenly behind us. I doubted it was a coincidence.
“Just stretching her legs,” Mark said. “Pretty serious infraction, though, wandering around without a badge. I suppose we should have her shot right here on the spot.”
Katherine turned to me. “And now you know how important it is to always have this with you.” She handed me a laminated plastic card riveted to an alligator clip. The front displayed my picture, first name, ID number, and a barcode long enough to label a double-marked-down flat-screen from Walmart. The edges were finished with a light blue security border, inset with Eagle holograms. “You’ll receive several,” she added. “At least two with a magnet, so you won’t damage your better clothing. Remember, never wear it outside the compound. The guard will remind you to surrender it as you leave the gate. But if he’s distracted, he might miss it. Outside the embassy, you’re not to reveal your position or association with the government.”
“It’s our version of the Twilight Zone,” Mark chimed in. “ . . . a place that exists between shadow and doubt.”
I started to ask him how long he’d been waiting to say that, then decided against it, noticing his smile had returned, interestingly, with Katherine’s appearance.
Katherine pinned the badge to the upper sleeve of my pull-over. “You’ll receive your thigh holster tomorrow.”
“I’m going to carry a gun?” My voice carried a hint of surprise, but the idea appealed to me.
“No, dear,” Katherine smiled. “It holds your badge, cell-phone, and a few essentials. You’ll use it during official functions, when you’re wearing a cocktail dress or evening gown.”
Mark squinted, his eyes on my legs. “So that’s where the girls keep them, close to their—”
“Close to their hearts,” Katherine interrupted, finishing his sentence.
Probably an old joke, reserved for first-timers.
Katherine reached out and touched my arm. “Come with me. I’ve give you a quick tour. Mark has other business to attend to.”
I looked at him, hoping he would object. Instead, he took a step back. “It was nice to meet you, Jewel. I’m sure we’ll see each other again.”
I mumbled goodbye as he left. Apparently, he did have other priorities.
“So what does Mark do here?”
Katherine’s expression fell stern, as if evaluating my need to know. Apparently, she saw no harm in telling me, perhaps ready to trust me with a bit of privileged information.
“He’s an outside agent . . . communications.”
“You mean like a spy?”
“Like a telephone repair man.”
Confusion tugged at the right corner of my mouth.
“He makes sure we have ears when we need them,” she added.
I nodded, a little stunned over Katherine’s ability to interpret facial cues.
“You’ll learn more about this in training,” she explained. “Here’s the short version. Some agents work strictly on the compound. They report each day and work their assigned shift. It’s no different than any other job.” She paused. “And then there are the others, agents who have outside assignments.”
Others. She’d used enough emphasis to convey the idea their jobs were steeped in clandestine subterfuge. And apparently, I had just met one of them.
I wondered if Katherine could sense my attraction to him. She seemed to be a walking antennae system, easily detecting my thoughts and intentions. So what? I hadn’t been with a male lover of my own choosing since enjoying the forbidden delights of young Logan’s lean and muscular body.
The thought began to move through me . . . the pulse-quickening anticipation of Mark’s sculpted chest pressing against my breasts as he settled between my legs.
I noticed Katherine tip her head, like a bird listening to the call of its mate. Was she picking up the sudden shift in my heart rate and blood pressure? I didn’t know how, but something told me she knew exactly what I was thinking.
For a split second, I considered admitting my attraction to him. It would be an attempt at girl-talk, sharing my feelings in a first-time bond with a new friend. From the look on Katherine’s face, now was not the time.
I promised myself, if she ever asked, I wouldn’t deny it—I wanted to fuck him.