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Darkness had always been Lila Moreau's best friend. Throughout her life she had used different kinds of darkness to aid her in different kinds of ways. As a child, she knew the darkness under a bed or in a closet could protect her from her mother's hurtful words. As a teenager, she felt the shadows of the city could shelter her from people, especially men, who wanted more from her than she was willing to give. As an adult, she used her shady character to keep others from getting too close. But this, the darkness that came with nightfall, was Lila's favorite. Nighttime was when all the best stuff happened. It was when the worldor at least her worldcame to life.
"Hey, lady, ya got a hundred bucks to spare? I ain't been laid all week, and it ain't cheap in this part 'a town."
Lila growled her exasperation at having her profoundand kind of cool and gothic, if she did say so herselfmusings interrupted. Okay, so maybe some of the life in her world was more of the low variety than it was of the high. She knew how to deal.
She turned from where she stood on the corner of N Street and Potomac in Georgetown and glared at the lowest-of-all-life who had emerged from the shadows behind her. He was maybe half a foot taller than her own five-four and probably outweighed her by a 150 pounds. Since he was dressed in double-knit sans-a-belt trousers and a shiny polyester shirt that was stained under each arm with perspiration, and since he clearly hadn't bathed in daysalso considering the way he'd just greeted herhe was too poorly dressed and not articulate enough to be a pimp. So Lila concluded he must just be a big scumbag. This part of the nation's capital didn't usually attract people like him, since it drew such a large tourist and college crowd and was home to so many of the city's movers and shakers. (Well, okay, maybe there were one or two scumbags. Not to mention pimps.) But neither was it unheard of to find someone in Georgetown who wasn't exactly the cream of Washington society.
"Uh, I think you're a little out of your element here, guy," she said to the, ah, guy. "Bubba's Booty Barn is in Cheverly. But good news. You can take the orange line straight there and you won't have to switch trains at all. Metro station's that way," she added, pointing in the general direction of Foggy Bottom, and hoping he'd take the hint.
Of course he didn't. That would have been too easy. Instead the guy grinned and said, "On second thought, sweetheart, maybe I won't need that hundred bucks. You look like the kinda woman who'd be up for just about anything."
Actually, dressed as she was from head to toe in black, complete with knit cap and gloves, what Lila looked like was a woman who was about to break in to someone's home. Of course, there was a good reason for that. She was about to break in to someone's home. Nevertheless, she hated it when men just couldn't get the gist of the most basic fashion statement. Duh.
Damn. She really didn't need a distraction like this right now. She had her schedule tonight timed down to the last second. There wasn't any available room in it at all for a maiming.
But she knew it would be unavoidable when the guy winked at her, nodded his head toward the alley she'd been about to enter, and asked, "Whaddaya say? Do a good job, sweetheart, and I'll give ya back half of the hundred bucks you're gonna gimme, too."
She smiled at him. "Oh, gosh, just keep the whole hundred, big guy. I mean, I should pay you for the privilege, shouldn't I? A great-looking, charismatic man like you? C'mon."
His flabbergasted expression in response to her enthusiasm was almost worth the interruption he was causing her. Almost.
It was a testament to his stupidity that he followed Lila into the alley without a speck of hesitation or suspicion. It was a testament to her skill that she unmanned him in even less than her usual five seconds. Oh, he'd still be able to father children someday. Unfortunately. After he regained consciousness. And, you know, found a woman who had the IQ of a piece of lint.
Now, then. Where was she? Oh, yeah. Darkness had always been Lila's best friend
blah blah blah
the darkness that came with nightfall was her favorite
blah blah blah
nighttime was when all the best stuff happened
blah blah blah
that was when Lila's world came to life.
Brushing off the last lingering remnants of disgust at having come into contact with Mr. Scumbag quite literally, Lila looked around and assessed her situation. The alley between two rows of sleepy town houses was deserted this time of night, save the occasional unconsciousand unmannedscumbag, and silent save the soft sigh of a late spring breeze that nudged a stray piece of newspaper from one side of the narrow pathway to the other. She gazed up at an unlit window on the third floor of one of those town housesthe one through which she would momentarily be crawlingconfident that the occupant was by now fast asleep.
It would be a pretty standard breaking and entering, even though many Georgetown residents were protected by private security systems, this one included. In fact, this residence was even better protected than most, thanks to its owner's occupation, and might prove a challenge to someone else. Someone who wasn't familiar with sophisticated protection devices that ran on arcane power sources.
Fortunately, Lila knew everything there was to know about sophisticated protection devices. And she liked to think that she herself was something of an arcane power source.
She flexed her fingers inside the snug black leather gloves, then tucked an errant strand of blond hair back under the black knit cap she'd tugged low over her eyes. The long-sleeved, skintight turtleneck and pants hugged her body like a second skin and served two purposes. Not only did they keep her warm in the cool April nightand, it went without saying, looked fabulous on herbut there was no part of her attire that might slow her down, tangle her up, or offer purchase for a pursuer.
Not that Lila expected to be pursuednever mind purchasedbut one always had to be prepared for the possibility. Never, though, had she been caught. At least, not when she didn't want to be. She certainly wasn't going to screw up something like this.
Effortlessly and without a sound, she scaled the side of the big brick building, finding footholds by turns in the mortar between the bricks, the rainspout and the thick ivy growing up the side. Having already dismantled the exterior part of the alarm system in the front of the town house, she was lifting the window and pushing herself over the sill within seconds. She paused, standing motionless for a moment to survey her surroundings and ensure everything was as it was supposed to be.
Enough pale blue light emanated from big, illuminated numbers on the nightstand clock to reveal a man's horizontal form in the bed beside it. He was hunched deep under the covers, sound asleep, completely unaware of her presence. Had it not been for the low, regular thrum of his breathing and the steady rise and fall of his shoulders, Lila wouldn't have known if he was even alive. Well, had it not been for that, and the fact that she'd scoped the place out yesterday and had seen not a single corpse lying around.
She smiled. She was about to enjoy her favorite thing about being a spy: the takedown. Silently she retrieved a pair of handcuffs tucked into her belt at the small of her back and crept across the room.
It was only after she had launched herself at her quarry that she sensed something wasn't quite right. Unfortunately, her body was in motion by then, and although Lila Moreau was a woman of many talents, defying gravity wasn't one of them. Before she could recover and retreat, the man who should have been sleeping was wrapping her in the covers, wresting the handcuffs from her grasp and snapping them chink, chinkfirst around her wrist and then around the thick metal spokes in the wrought-iron headboard.
Immediately Lila began to fight, throwing herself completely into her assault. And even one-handed, Lila Moreau could wreak the havoc of ten men. But it quickly became evident that her adversary was more insidious than ten men, because he had her pinned to the mattress in record time. After more frantic struggling, she decided her assailant couldn't possibly be human. And after still more frantic struggling, she knew she was right. Because she realized then that what had finally brought berspy Lila Moreau to her kneesor at least facedown into a mattresswas
sheets. And a blanket. And a couple of fluffy pillows.
Damn. This was not going to look good on her report. Eventually she managed to extricate herselfwell, kind of, since she was still handcuffed to the bed. But even though a light had been switched on in the corner, she saw as she shoved the bedclothes off herself that there was no one in the room except her.
The furnishings were what looked like period antiques, but they seemed to be more functional than they were collectible, because all were clearly well used. Likewise, the Oriental rugs were richly colored but worn in spots, the hardwood floor beneath them polished but scarred in places. A fireplace on the other side of the room smelled faintly of burned wood, indicating it had been put to use recently. Its mantelpiece was crowded with models of wooden boats, and bisected floor-to-ceiling bookcases that were crammed full of old books. The remaining walls were hung with what appeared to be commendations of some kind and childishly executed works of art in baroque frames.
As masculine lairs went, this one was something of a departure from the ones Lila usually saw. Of course, most of the masculine lairs she saw had been decorated by men who were morally bankrupt, so there was a chance she wasn't really in a position to judge the decor. It was nice, though, she had to admit. It made her feel
calm. Until she remembered she was shackled to the bed frame, wherein she felt more than a little pissed off.
Wondering where her target had disappeared to, she reached down into her sock for the spare handcuff key she always hid on her person for just such an emergency and had never had to use.
And discovered it was gone.
Dammit. It must have fallen out while she was trying to subdue the counterpane in the ass. No way could anyone have lifted it without her realizing it. She began to search furiously through the bedclothes as far as she could reach, but there was no sign of the key anywhere.
Great. Now she was going to have to gnaw off her hand to get away. She hated when that happened.
"It's on the nightstand."
She whipped around at the sound of the deeply timbred voice and saw a man lounging in the doorway. Although they'd never met personally, she knew who he was. She didn't go around breaking in to the houses of total strangers. Who knew what kind of germs you'd pick up doing that? Lila only broke into the homes of her closest friends and enemies. And although Joel Faraday, code name Virtuoso, wasn't exactly either of those, she did know himas an archivist for her employer, the Office for Political Unity and Security. He was also her captor, she reminded herself. Which might cause a bit of trouble, considering the fact that he was her partner, too. At least for a little while.
What he wasn't was what she'd expected. In all her years at OPUS, Lila had met only one archivist before tonight, but that one had been pretty much what she'd suspected all of the OPUS archivists were: a timid, wrinkled, eccentric little man she could sling over one shoulder. Joel Faraday was none of those things. Well, except for being a man. That part was obvious. Too obvious, in fact.
She guesstimated his age as mid-thirties, even though there was an air about him that suggested considerable life experience. His thick, dark brown hair hung almost to his shoulders and was shoved straight back from his forehead by a careless hand. Behind trendy, black-framed glasses his eyes were even darker than his hair, and the lower half of his face was shadowed by more than one day's growth of beard. Slumped against the doorjamb as he was, she could only guess at his full height, but it certainly topped six feet.
And every last inch of it was very nicely put together. Broad shoulders strained at the seams of an otherwise baggy white T-shirt, and black hair sprang from the deep V-neck. Loose, dark blue striped pajama bottoms ended in bare feet, feet that were large enough to make her wonder about another fabled part of the male anatomy whose size was often compared to those, ah, appendages. One big hand was settled indolently on his hip, while the other cradled a half-empty snifter of something the color of rich amber.
"The far one," he added, dipping his head toward the nightstand on the other side of the bed from where she was lying.
She turned her head to look where he indicated and saw the small metal key sitting on the farthest edge of the night-stand, just
"Out of your reach," he said. Then he grinned. "They told me you always do this. So I confess I had a little advance warning. If I hadn't
He lifted a shoulder and let it drop, but left the statement unfinished. Not that it mattered. Had he not had his advance warning, he, not Lila, would be handcuffed to the bed. They both knew it. As he said, that was the way she broke in all her new partners. It was just her little way of letting them know up front that she would be the one in charge.
Not that Joel Faraday would be her partner for long. And no way would he ever be in charge. Well, not once the handcuffs were off, anyway. He would be on board for this particular part of her most recent assignment only long enough to reveal some information, impart his evaluation and share her speculation. As soon as she had everything she needed from him, she'd be completing the rest of the assignment on her own. And then she hoped to go back to working with her regular partnerwhich largely involved flying solo, just the way she liked it.
As she jerked her wrist against the cuff snapped snugly around it, Faraday's grin widened. And the sooner she got back to flying solo, Lila thought with a silent growl, the better.