Sam stepped out onto the Grand Staircase of the Palazzo del Consiglio on the arm of John Majors, sheathed in a silk and chiffon column of cobalt blue that accentuated her eyes, and a lightly sequined midnight blue bolero jacket. A sapphire-encrusted pyramid pendant hung around her neck on a platinum chain. Majors, for his part, was outfitted in a tuxedo that matched Sam's jacket, the same pyramid on his lapel and cuff links. He handed the herald their card, who then called out their names:
"The Honorable John Majors and Dr. Samantha Hawthorn!"
Sam laughed inwardly. "'Honorable?'"
Majors looked sidelong at her as they headed down the stairs. "Well, despite your opinion, Hawthorn, I do have a reputation and rank in this organization. Not everything can be solved by pulling a trigger."
"No, but squeezing a couple times usually does the trick in this line of work."
"Not this line of work," he corrected her.
* * *
* * *
Thirty-one hours earlier . . .
Majors plunked himself down in one of Kirsten Geary's Barcelona chairs, waiting for her to get off the phone.
"No, no. . . I don't care. Keep those stooges from the CDC from sending more people. . . I don't know. Lose the paperwork, falsify a report or something. . . Yes, that is why I have you down there. Handle it. Ciao ciao."
Ending the call, KG turned to Majors. "Did I say you could sit down, Katzu?"
"Funny, I didn't bother to ask. I don't answer to you anymore, remember?"
Geary folded her arms and sat on the edge of her desk. "Then why are you in my office?"
"We need to get a better handle on the situation in Tokyo. The files we pilfered from the Orochi mainframe included some rather disturbing, if fragmentary information. And the Council scooped up that device from the Cairo train before our agent could get a good look at it."
"You act like I'm not reading the same reports you are. Tell me what you're doing to remedy the situation."
"I'm attending a Council reception tomorrow night in Venice. I want to bring an agent that can infiltrate the Council Archives and find out what they know about this device and how it relates to Tokyo. We also need to see how far into bed they've gotten with the Serpent."
"Looking for an excuse to jettison the agreements?"
"Not necessarily," Majors said. "But the Winged Lion is increasingly toothless, and I think it maybe an abscess that we can root out."
"So you want one of my agents?" she asked.
"Yes, I've already called her in. She's due any minute."
"Look, I don't appreciate you poaching my people, Katzu."
"Trust me, Kiki. This wasn't my preferred choice. If one of my own could do this, I wouldn't be coming to you."
Geary narrowed her eyes, but kept her cool.
"More like end-running me, which is going to cost you," she said through clenched teeth. "Who do I have to reshuffle then?"
With uncanny timing, the distinct sound of boot heels echoed up the ramp from the main floor of the Labyrinth. Geary rolled her eyes as first a Stetson, and then sunglasses and red hair came into view. Samantha Hawthorn looked like a character out of a Louis L'Amour novel, from her hat and boots to the antique Colt Peacemakers holstered at her side. Her blue eyes were masked by nearly opaque aviators, the only sign that she didn't belong on some nineteenth-century trail between Deadwood and Tombstone.
"Ah," said Majors. "Here's our Lone Star Belle now."
Geary glanced from one to the other. "I thought you two weren't on speaking terms."
Samantha glowered at the Company man from behind her shades. "We're not. He blames me for what happened at the Wabanaki casino."
Majors waved dismissively. "Bygones. I have a job to do, and you're the perfect person to help execute my plan."
"Well, I am good at executions," Sam quipped, folding her arms. "But who says I want to work for you?"
Majors stood up. "Look, I don't have time for this. The limo's downstairs. We need to get you over to the Garment District, and traffic will be horrendous at this hour. I'm sure you've got nothing appropriate for this occasion, and our couturier will need time to make you something 'fabulous.' I'll brief you on the way."
* * *
* * *
"I can't believe I let you talk me into this," Sam muttered to Majors, as she looked out over the small crowd of people already gathered in the Salone da Ballo.
"You've never been to a ball before? I thought you Southerners were all about debutantes and cotillions," he said.
"First of all, why does everyone assume that the South is Gone with the Wind? Secondly, I am a military brat. Cotillions weren't exactly a thing in Germany when I was a teenager."
"Texans don't dance?"
"Yes, but I'm more comfortable with the two-step than the minuet."
"No minuets here. You'll do fine. This is just a meet-n-greet like all those faculty mixers I'm sure you've attended."
"None of those mixers involved such high stakes."
His response was cut off by the approach of the Illuminati delegate to the Council. Lyndon Rezník was a debonair—if slightly weasel-faced—gentleman attired similarly to Majors, with slightly more ostentation that distinguished him as a diplomat. Despite his status on the Council, Rezník was not Beestung. His beady eyes raked across Sam before settling on Majors.
"John!" He made a show of shaking Majors' hand. "How good to see you again."
Turning to Sam, he grasped her fingers. "You must introduce me to your lovely companion."
"Of course. Lyndon Rezník, let me present Dr. Samantha Hawthorn, one of our top field agents."
"Enchanté, Doctor," the diplomat said, raising her fingers to his lips. Sam suffered the gesture, though the weasel made her skin crawl slightly.
"I've read the reports of your exploits on Solomon Island and Salamanca."
"Then not all of my 'exploits' have been declassified," she responded, a bit coolly. Majors gave her a warning glance. She put on her best Southern smile, but escaped Rezník's oily grasp.
"Indeed," he said, returning her smile and giving no sign if he'd taken offense. "Allow me to introduce you to the other members of the Council."
The delegate led them to a short reception line. Despite a large bureaucracy, the Council itself was rather small, only about a dozen members, including the Society representatives. But not all were in attendance. Majors gave her a subtle signal when they greeted Sam's mark, Signore Antal Lugosi, a Hungarian-born consigliere and Curator of the Council Archives. The balding, bookish Lugosi had a soft spot for tall redheads. Pouring on her Southern charm, she lingered a bit with him.
"An archivist! I'm actually a historian by education," she touched his arm and leaned in conspiratorially. "I'd love to see your . . . collection." Ugh, I can't believe I'm doing this.
Thoroughly bewitched, Lugosi unconsciously smoothed his comb-over. "Perhaps that can be arranged."
"Oh, good," she smiled again. "I look forward to speaking with you later."