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Clandestine Affairs, Part Three
Ani's in South Beach this time and meets a new colleague.
I still can’t shake the guilt of seeing Bryan last week. Even though I’ve mostly learned to ignore those kind of feelings and keep moving through my days and nights as assigned, I’m haunted by the memory of his face in Terminal 2 at LAX. I know I owe him a phone call, but I also know it’s a bad move. I still haven’t told Chuck I was recognized by anyone, let alone my ex-fiancé. I know I can’t keep putting it off…
My thoughts are interrupted by an incoming text message from Chuck to my burner phone.
Ani, ready to rock?
I sigh. You know it, I respond.
Great, the car will pick you up in 30 minutes. I trust that’s enough time.
Not really, but I guess I don’t have a choice.
I stand up, stretch, and open the curtains. The sunshine ricochets off the sea that laps against the shore just outside my hotel and is way too harsh for my hungover. I typically control the drinking when I’m on the job because I need to stay alert, but this was… different. For one, Miami is not somewhere I enjoy being: it’s too humid, hot, and filled with party animals this time of year. For two, this mark was exactly that: a party animal. Sebastian Mariano is staying at the Ritz, just a few blocks south of my hotel, the Setai. He was relentless last night, trying to get me to go back to his hotel, but it was too soon — I need to at least wait until tonight, until Chuck’s partner arrives. I was only able to keep him at bay by promising we would have dinner and drinks tonight at his hotel.
I wash my face and wrap myself in a white cotton sundress before brushing the wig I wore last night. I give it a quick style before securing it on my head, apply some mascara, and am taking a final look in the mirror when my phone rings.
“Hello Ms. Price,” the concierge says, getting my name wrong… again. “Your car has arrived, shall I let them know you’ll be down momentarily?”
“Yes, that would be great, thank you so much,” I say in the British accent I’ve been working to perfect.
I finish collecting my things and turn on the lamp next to the bed so it won’t be dark when I return. I start walking toward the door of the suite when I hear movement. I slide to the side and put my ear against the wall, listening intently. I breathe a sigh of relief when I realize it’s just housekeeping, visiting the suite across mine. I wonder if the intense paranoia will ever stop as I give the woman a few minutes to gather her supplies before making my exit.
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Downstairs, the driver opens my door for me and invites me to step into the black SUV. Inside, I’m greeted by Chuck and his partner, Noelle, whom I have never met in person until this moment. She is a handful of years older than me, slender, with a sleek black bob.
“Ani, so nice to finally meet you, I’m Noelle.” She extends her hand to shake mine.
“Noelle, hello,” I say, smiling. “Likewise.”
Chuck clears his throat and hands me a bottle of water. “Now that you’re acquainted, where are we with Sebastian? Ani, can you bring Noelle up to speed?”
I nod and pull out my phone to show her the photos I collected the night before. I scroll through and show I captured his credit card, the bill from the restaurant, a couple of selfies of us getting close, and a short video I took in order to capture his voice on film. She is pleased with my efforts, and I feel a bit of relief knowing I impressed her with my work. I forward her everything I gather so she has copies.
“We have plans for dinner tonight,” I say. “I’m meeting him at nine for dinner and drinks at Bagatelle, in his hotel.”
“Perfect. I’ll arrive around nine-thirty. I’ll look for your table, drop my room key as I walk past so you have an excuse to stop me. I’ll insist on buying you a bottle of champagne as a thank you, and you’ll invite me to join you. Feel free to flirt a bit, get him excited, yeah? Then, my dear, we’ll get the night underway,” she says with a wink.
I give Chuck a glance and see his smile indicates this is all a part of the master plan.
“Excellent. Now, is there anything else I need to know about Sebastian before tonight?”
“Ani, don’t get ahead of yourself. For now, once Noelle joins you at the table, let her take charge. She won’t lead you astray,” he assures me by patting my knee with his large hand.
I know I’m still learning. I try to not let that bruise my ego. So I smile, nod, and tell Noelle I look forward to working with her this evening.
The car pulls up at the Savoy. Noelle hops out but not before clasping my hand in hers. “Tonight’s going to be fun, Ani, don’t worry.” She gives a wave as Chuck and I drive off.
I settle in and sip my bottled water as we head to the next destination, which is still unknown to me. I’m learning to be more comfortable with not knowing things ahead of time — although, I’ll still try and pull it out of Chuck from time to time.
He pulls out a manila envelope and passes it to me. “Here, this should answer any questions you might have about Sebastian. There are some things in this file that Noelle is unaware of, and likewise for the file I provided her. The pages you need to keep to yourself are marked. Tonight, your primary focus will be on getting him to invite you both back to his room. Some things you read here might help you do just that. Noelle will direct you on the rest once you’re there.”
I thumb through the pages and read snippets of info that will help me seal the deal, so to speak, and secure the invite back to his room. Chuck is silent while I read, letting me digest the information but leaving room for me to ask questions. I’m confident, given how last night went, but wonder how the surprise element of adding Noelle to the mix will play out. At least my initiative is clear.
I realize we are making a circle and heading back to my hotel, so I decide that it’s now or never to bring up the Bryan sighting. “Chuck, I need to tell you something.”
“Go on,” he says.
“When I was heading to Sydney last week, I kind of… well, ran into my ex-fiancé at LAX.”
“I told him I was going to Sydney for work and that I would call him in a few weeks when I returned because, well, he was still clearly heartbroken because of the way I left…”
“Oh, Ani, you’ll have to let him get over that on his own. Are you worried he will find you?”
“No,” I say. I want to tell him that I want to call him, to give him closure, to ensure that doesn’t happen. But I know Chuck won’t allow it.
“Then what’s the problem?”
“I guess there isn’t one,” I respond quietly.
“You knew this would be a big part of your new life when you signed on with us, Ani. You can’t dip back and forth between the former and this one. I wish it were different, sometimes…” he trails off, leaving me to wonder what he left behind for this gig. “You’re doing well — you’re an asset to us and I hope you can find solace in that.” He squeezes my knee again. “You know you can’t call him, right?”
I do. I hope I find the solace, too. Eventually.
I pass the next few hours by hitting the pool and spa to get my mind right for the events this evening. Noelle has texted me three times asking random questions — some I can answer, others I dodge — and the anxiety has started to hit. I let the masseuse attempt to erase it, but I’m not so lucky.
Once I’m back in my suite, I take a pill to settle my stomach and lie on the bed, hoping to get a quick nap. But I can’t sleep. I can never sleep before an assignment like this. I open the terrace doors to let the ocean breeze calm my nerves, but when that doesn’t work, I take a quick sip from the small bottle of Casamigos from the minibar. Whew, I think, and suddenly my adrenaline is running and in Chuck’s words, I’m ready to rock.
I take the file on Sebastian and lay out the pages on the table, skimming each one of them again. I quiz myself. He’s lived all over Europe, mostly in France and Italy, but stayed in Barcelona for a few summers. That’s my in, my hook. I too have lived in Barcelona — only for a short time, but long enough to get a feel for the local culture and to know what I’m talking about. He hates winter and the cold (me too), and has been a fine art collector for nearly two decades. A decent cover, I think. No social media — he’s careful. No children. Ideal… less guilt for me. Other known names are Seb Floriano, John Mariano, and James Dante. I wonder which is his real name.
Then, my eyes land on the sheet that reminds me why I do what I’m told. The account of the people he’s wronged. The list of things he did to our clients. The photos that display the horrors he inflicted. Seeing this never gets easier.
The phone rings, interrupting my research.
“Hello Ms. Pierce. This is the front desk, for your wakeup call.”
I smile at the evening concierge consistently getting my name correct. “Thank you, I appreciate it.”
“Is there anything you need, Miss?”
So polite to the big spenders. “Yes, actually… could I trouble you to send me shrimp fried rice and some plain Naan bread from Jaya?”
“Of course, anything else?”
“That will be all, thank you.”
I’m going to need a decent base before the drinks that are inevitably going to alter me in a few hours. Here’s to hoping the Naan will take care of that.
At eight-forty-five, I’m en-route to the Ritz. In the back of the car, I’m touching up my lipstick and sending a quick message to Noelle to let her know I’m heading that way. She confirms she is on track for the agreed upon time of nine-thirty. The car pulls up to the Ritz and the valet opens my door to greet me.
“Hello Miss, welcome to the Ritz. Are you staying with us?”
I put on my best ‘I’m just a tourist who doesn’t know where I am going’ attitude. “Oh, no, I’m just meeting a friend who is staying here. I think we’re having dinner at Baga—”
“Bagatelle, of course, right this way Miss.”
He points me in the right direction and I hand him some cash to thank him. He gives me a big grin and tells me not to hesitate to find him if I need anything else. I know how to play this game well enough.
I walk into the restaurant and scan the room. I see Sebastian sipping dark liquor and when he sees me, his eyes light up. I smile and approach.
“Hello there, Sebastian, good to see you,” I say as I kiss him on each cheek.
“Mio caro, Valerie, you are a vision!”
He spins me and pulls me in close and I feel his stubble. His after shave is intoxicating. It’s no wonder he’s able to swindle women the way he does.
“What are you drinking tonight, darling?”
“Oh, Sebastian, I should probably take it easy. I had a terrible headache this morning, you really showed me too good of a time last night,” I say with a wink. He looks a little disappointed, so I relent. “But, when in Rome, as they say. I suppose I’ll have Casamigos, neat, please.”
He grins and gets the attention of our server, taking the liberty to order my drink and some caviar for us to share as we get to know each other a bit more. As we sip our drinks, I casually play with my diamond necklace and tennis bracelet, a way of subtly flaunting my “wealth” to keep him interested. We talk about living in Barcelona and our travels. He orders us a second round before we consider dinner, and I notice Noelle out of the corner of my eye. Right on time.
I finish my first round of tequila and reach for Sebastian’s hand. “Are you having a good time?”
“Why, yes darling, I am,” he says softly, finishing the last of his liquor.
Noelle walks by and as planned, drops her key card. I pretend to only happen to notice as coincidence. “Oh! Miss, I think you dropped this,” I say with urgency, standing up to hand her the card.
“Oh my goodness gracious, thank you!” She embraces me and I act a little surprised by it. “I would have been screwed if I couldn’t get back in my room tonight. Please, let me thank you. I’m going to buy you and your husband a bottle of Veuve, and I won’t take no for an answer!”
“Wow, that’s quite the offer, I don’t know…” I shoot Sebastian a look and shrug with a smile, not correcting or stopping her. His eyes light up at her offer. She is his type of people, after all.
“Well, who are we to decline such a generous offer. Are you meeting someone, would you like to join us?” I ask.
“Flying solo tonight, and sure! Your husband won’t mind a third wheel, will he?” She throws him a wink.
“Not at all, please, sit,” he stands up to pull out the chair for her. “I’m Sebastian, this is Valerie. We are not married, though, unfortunately,” he says with a regretful smile.
I force myself to blush. “We actually just met last night. Nice to meet you, too, I didn’t get your name?”
“Carrie. Nice to meet you too. Now, let me get that champagne on the way,” she says, raising her hand to get the attention of the server near us. “So tell me while we wait, what are you two doing in South Beach?”
I let Sebastian start. He says he’s visiting friends and is here on a little business. I say I’m here on a long weekend away to recharge. We order more drinks, barely eat, and start feeling light. Carrie/Noelle touches my arm a lot and we both notice it excites Sebastian. We turn up the heat and make it look like the more tipsy we are, the more we’re into each other. He won’t resist for much longer.
After we finally finish the bottle of champagne, I excuse myself to use to the restroom. Carrie/Noelle offers to join me. “Ladies have to stick together — don’t miss us too much, Sebastian!” She grabs my hand and pulls me close to her, wrapping her arm around my waist. I let her.
As we are washing our hands and touching up our lipstick, Noelle looks at me and says, “see, Ani? I told you this would be fun. You feeling good?”
“Feeling good. You think he’s ready to invite us up?”
“Definitely. He is antsy. We should get back, yeah? You get the ball rolling for us and after we’re upstairs, it won't be long until we’re on our way out of here.”
I exhale slowly and nod, putting my trust in her. Until tonight, I’ve only had Chuck directing me. It feels strange, trusting someone like this. It’s a dangerous game.
We stroll back to the table, fingers interlocked, smiling and giggling. Sebastian grins as we return. “Welcome back, ladies. Say, would you like to take this party upstairs?”
Carrie/Noelle and I look at each other and agree in unison. This didn’t take long at all. We head to the elevator and once we’re inside, just the three of us, Carrie/Noelle lays a kiss on Sebastian and when she breaks away, she says, “I hope you don’t mind, darling?”
I shake my head no and give a slight shrug. She surprises me by turning to kiss me next. I let her lead, because I’m just doing what I’m told. Sebastian wraps his arms around each of us as we exit the elevator, telling us about how fabulous his suite is and that we’ll never want to leave. We act excited at the opportunity and tell him we can’t wait.
When we get into Sebastian’s room, he points to the bar and says to help ourselves. He steps on the terrace to take a phone call and Carrie/Noelle makes us drinks. I watch her pour a small part of two mini bottles of tequila into our glasses before she fills the rest with water. She pops a lime in each glass, giving the illusion we’re having a strong drink. Then, she empties something into the drink she makes him. Giving it a swirl, she sets it on the table for him to retrieve when he comes back inside.
I put on some music and we dance, laugh, pretend we’re into each other, and try to keep things moving. While we dance, I wonder what Noelle knows that I don’t, and what I know that she doesn’t. Given she’s administering the dose this time, she must know more than me… and I don’t enjoy knowing what I know.
Sebastian comes back inside, finds the drink, and downs it immediately, flashing a grin when he finishes. “Whooo, ladies, that was lovely!”
We look at each other and I try to not be surprised. Carrie/Noelle laughs. “Well, looks like we’re in good company, Valerie. I think he wants to party.” She clinks her glass against mine and we finish ours, too.
He walks over to Carrie/Noelle and pulls her in close. “I definitely want to party, ladies. I’ll make us some more drinks, why don’t you get a little more comfortable,” he says, pointing down the hallway. “I have a jacuzzi, if you’re into that?” he asks with a devious smile.
Carrie/Noelle and I look at each other and nod. “Definitely,” I say. We walk down the hallway and while we are in the bathroom pretending to get undressed, we hear a glass break followed by a thud. “That’s our cue,” she says. “Come on.”
She leads me back to the front of the suite and we see Sebastian lying on the ground. His hand is bleeding and he’s groaning, but his eyes are closed.
“Ani, go ahead and call Chuck,” she directs me. “Then, take his wallet and whatever you find in the safe. Code is 1234.” I shoot her a look as if to say, seriously? “I know, he’s not the brightest despite the things he gets away with. Get going, we don’t have much time. You will take his things with you and wait for further instructions.”
I nod and do what I’m told. And within ten minutes, I’m on the way back to the Setai, knowing my bags will be packed and a ticket to the next place will waiting for me.