t was blisteringly hot outside of the airport, of course. No matter how much time I spent away from Georgia, some things never changed. The heat clung to my skin, so thick with humidity that I could practically drink it in. My hair was already in dire need of professional attention; stepping out in the intense humidity of late summer weather only exacerbated that problem. I could practically feel the Afro frizzing into existence on the top of my head, in complete defiance of my greatest efforts to tame my curls. The distance between the relative safety of the airport terminal and the air conditioned interior of the oversized SUV I’d rented for the next few hours comprised all of fifteen feet, but I felt each and every one of those feet as the damage accumulated.
“Jesus,” Devlin breathed as he settled into a seat so soft that it threatened to swallow him whole. “How is this even hotter than literal Africa?”
“Humidity,” I said. With an effort, I managed to keep myself from trying to wring the moisture from my hair. “It isn’t hotter, so much as it’s damper.”
“Is there any functional difference between heat and humidity?”
It was a question I’d considered before, so my answer came out a little sharper and immediate than Devlin could possibly have expected. “There’s basically nothing you can do to deal better with humidity, outside of simply staying indoors.”
“We should do that,” he said. “That sounds like a great idea. We’re going to do that, right?”
I favored him with a twisted smile and an elevated eyebrow. “Don’t be a baby, Dev. It’s hot. You’ll survive.”
Mila cleared her throat. “I’m gonna go ahead and agree with him on this one, actually.”
She shrugged. “If I wanted to go swimming, I’d find a pool.”
Internally, I agreed with her, but I kept that thought to myself. “Babies,” I said, “the lot of you.”
Our driver didn’t involve himself in the discussion, except to issue a vaguely affirmative grunt. He wore a full black suit, complete with an old-style cap. I couldn’t imagine how uncomfortable he must be in the sweltering temperature. He wasn’t as talkative or as insightful as the driver I’d used in San Francisco, but years spent in the South during the hottest months of the year engendered a deep sympathy for the man’s plight. I resolved to tip him extravagantly after he dropped us off. It wasn’t really my money, after all.
I didn’t speak any of those thoughts out loud, though. I gave the driver the address and – following a few hilarious seconds where he tried to imagine a world where this ragtag group of individuals belonged anywhere near Ford, Inc. – he started the vehicle and started off in that direction. As a matter of course, he raised the screen that was supposed to offer us a measure of privacy.
“Those don’t work,” I said, pointing at the black screen as it inched shut. “Just in case you didn’t know.”
“I’d sort of figured that out,” Devlin said.
“What is the point, then?” Michel asked.
I tilted my head to one side, then the other. “Honestly, I’m not sure. Maybe just the illusion of privacy is enough for most people? It isn’t like the drivers care all that much about the kind of things we could talk about.”
The words were spoken in an easy going manner, so casually that it almost hurt to force down my anxiety. There was an incredible amount of subtext underneath what I’d said, though. There was a not-insignificant possibility that we’d grown a little too used to discussing our business in the open since London. Part of that came from a tendency to only spend serious amounts of time around each other; even more came from the fact that we often found ourselves working in countries where the average citizen didn’t speak English in the first place. But, now that we were back in the States, we couldn’t rely on the same sort of precautions.
Devlin glanced at the divider – as did Mila and Michel, an instant later – and nodded. “Good to know.”
“So.” I laced my fingers together so that I could crack all of the knuckles at once. “I think it’ll probably be for the best if you let me do all the talking when we get to see my grandmother.”
“It’s your show,” Devlin said. “We’ll just follow your lead.”
I nodded, hoping that the gesture hid my mounting discomfort. Part of that unease came from the impending meeting with Dame Ford; the rest, I suspected, had something to do with the unfamiliar burden of leading our little collective. In all the ways that mattered, Devlin and I shared leadership, switching off as necessary. However, in a purely symbolic fashion, he’d been the…well, the standard-bearer for our group. I preferred to work in the background, unseen and unnoticed, and his personality lent itself more easily to welding together disparate goals into a cohesive whole.
I wasn’t going to give breath to any of those thoughts, of course. Confidence was essential in these matters; the fact that I would soon be serving as the de facto face of the team in front of my domineering grandmother only meant that I had to lean even further into the facade of self-assurance.
Devlin gave me a strange look and tilted his head minutely to one side. Immediately, I turned my attention to the window and stared out into Atlanta’s streets. A moment after that, I realized that he could read my abrupt shift in focus as easily as any expression that might have slipped through my guard. If I continued looking out of the window, he’d know for certain that something was bothering me. If I made eye contact in an effort to portray a calm demeanor, though, there was every possibility that he’d be able to figure out exactly what was bothering me.
It was the kind of thing I’d struggled to get used to, back when we’d first started working together. I decided to fall back on old habits; specifically, I tried my very best to ignore the sensation of his eyes on me until he took the hint and found something else to focus on.
It only took him about thirty seconds to either give up or to discover whatever answer he was searching my bearing for. “So,” he said, “here’s a question.”
“I’m listening,” I said, without turning my head.
“Equipment is still a problem, isn’t it? I mean…sure, we managed to rescue that, uh, startup company at our last stop, but that didn’t give us what we were looking for.”
Mila made a muffled noise. I flicked my eyes in her direction, just as she popped another candied nut into her mouth. “Don’t look at me,” she said, around the food. “I’m just along for the ride, apparently.”
I rolled my eyes at her before, cautiously, giving Devlin my full attention. He was focused intently one, but not in the way that represented one of his silent examinations. I could deal with that.
He’d made a good point, too. I was operating with the bare minimum, technologically speaking, and our time in Tangiers hadn’t yielded any tangible hardware that I could use. There might be some computer stores in the area that I could visit, maybe even some items I could use to shore up weak points in my electronic arsenal, but I’d need top of the line gear if Caelum was on the field. Generally speaking, I’d have to special order the components for that kind of a system; special orders, of course, took time that we didn’t have to spare.
“We’ll probably have to scavenge,” I said.
“Again?” Devlin asked.
I shrugged. “On the bright side, there’s a much higher probability that we won’t have to deal with, uh…” My train of thought momentarily derailed as I tried to think of an appropriate metaphor.
“Rival business interests?” Michel suggested.
I favored him with a smile and a slight incline of my head. “Let’s go with that, sure. This is already equipment that we own – or that I own, in a roundabout way – so it’ll just be like shopping.”
“And that’s going to be good enough?”
“In the limited amount of time we have available before we reach a certain deadline?” I lifted my hands, palms facing the ceiling. “I’ll just have to make do with whatever we can find.”
Mila swallowed her mouthful of candy, started to say something, but stopped herself with a quick glance at the privacy screen.
“If we find ourselves needing your services,” I said, putting a bit more emphasis on the word than necessary, “then we’ve already found ourselves in way too deep. When we’re finished here, though, we can definitely figure out a way to resupply you. There’s just not anyway to justify that now.”
“Actually,” Michel said slowly. He stopped talking when three pairs of eyes swung in his direction. Devlin and I motioned for him to continue, at the same time, and Michel took some measure of encouragement from the dual motions. “Actually, your family’s business is very famous in America, no?”
“I wouldn’t say famous,” I replied, “but the family is pretty well-known. Notable, maybe. Why?”
“Would it be uncommon for someone of your notability to have personal protection?”
I stared at him for a few seconds, silently castigating myself for overlooking the obvious cover for Mila. My parents had tried to saddle me with a bodyguard for years, starting in a particularly tumultuous couple of months spent in Mexico, and they’d never really given up on the idea. My grandmother hadn’t necessarily agreed, but her argument had been against leaving the country at all. If Mila posed as my own security – which, well, she was, but not from the forces that my grandmother would assume were threats – she wouldn’t have to play any other role and risk inciting an old black woman’s curiosity.
Mila’s eyes lit up and I added a second thing to the ‘pro’ category: she’d get to carry a gun.
“That is not a bad point, Michel,” I said. “And I’m guessing you’re okay playing yourself, Mila?”
She considered the bag of candied nuts for a few seconds before she reluctantly returned it to her luggage. “I’ve been doing it this long,” she said. “I figure another day or two shouldn’t be too much trouble.”
“That’s the two of you sorted out,” Devlin said. “What about Michel? Did you have a role for him in mind?”
“If we are going with the simplest solutions,” Michel said, “then I could simply be her driver. It is what I am, after all.”
“And I’ll play your husband,” Devlin said. “If that’s okay with you, I mean.”
As soon as he spoke the words, I remembered a few glaring deceptions I’d fed to my family and the full breadth of information I’d withheld from them. I cringed, so violently that I didn’t even bother to hide it.
“Or not,” Devlin said. He tried to keep his voice light, but there was a beat of real pain hidden underneath the words. “We can come up with something else. I didn’t think it’d be that big of a deal. People work with their exes all of the time, so long as they can keep things amicable.”
“It’s not that.”
I swallowed nervously. This wasn’t going to be easy for either one of us. Devlin wouldn’t appreciate our past being dragged out in front of God and everybody; I wasn’t going to enjoy being the one responsible for the dragging.
“There are a few things I might not have told my parents,” I said, dreading each word but pushing forward nonetheless. “First, you’ve got to understand that they are very traditional. They were willing to accept that I got married without inviting them to the ceremony, but just barely.”
Devlin lifted one eyebrow, just a fraction of an inch. “Okay,” he said, “but that isn’t telling us what things you didn’t tell them.”
“Well, they know that I got married,” I said. “They might not know that I got divorced.”
“They just don’t believe in divorce,” I said quickly. The words rushed out of my mouth, tumbling into and over each other as I rushed to spit them out as quickly as possible. “So it was easier to just…you know, distance myself and hope that they just forgot about it. If they don’t know that I’m not married anymore, then my grandmother certainly won’t know. Or she shouldn’t, at least.”
“So you’ll have to play the married couple again,” Mila said. Her expression was slightly less stoic than normal and it seemed like she was fighting down a smirk. “That shouldn’t be too hard, considering how chummy the two of you can get when you’re on the job.”
“Yeah…” I drew the syllable out, as if I could fill the remaining time between where we were and my grandmother’s house without saying anything else. I made it a good ten seconds before capitulating. “Yeah, that’s not the only thing I kept from them.”
Devlin was good at reading people. He was exemplary, when the mood and necessity struck him at the same time. I could almost see the wheels in his head spinning as he crunched through the available information, seeking a solution that would explain my reluctance to say anything further. I could practically hear the gears grinding, and I knew that he’d never in a million years guess correctly.
“You know how I said they’re traditional?”
“It was literally a second ago, Sarah,” Devlin said. “Yes, we all remember it.”
“Yeah. Well. They’ve got really specific ideas about relationships, too. You’ve got to understand, my grandparents grew up in the South and it was just easier to -”
“No,” Michel said, breathlessly. “You are joking.”
He would be the first one in the vehicle to understand. Michel had experience keeping things from his father – in his case, the somewhat flexible relationship his sexual appetites had with gender – and he had something in common with me that neither Mila nor Devlin could lay claim to.
“What are you talking about…” Devlin trailed off as he connected the dots. Michel’s reaction, my bone-deep unease with this entire conversation, and the reference to the South’s less-than-stellar racial history.
“I might not have told them you were white,” I said. Hearing those words, in my own voice, felt like a knife through the heart.
I wasn’t sure how Devlin would react, but placid equanimity hadn’t made the list of possibilities. “Because they’re traditional,” he said.
“Your sister,” Devlin said, in a slightly higher volume and through gritted teeth, “is gay, Sarah. But that was something she shared with your ‘traditional’ parents. And you didn’t want to tell them that I wasn’t black?”
Open anger would have been preferable. Devlin – the Devlin I’d married, not the one who emerged when the moment called for cold, implacable decisions – was an emotional person, more likely to let his emotions briefly flare out of control, rather than suppress them. But he was certainly suppressing them now. As I watched, he visibly smoothed his expression out into a mask of absolute neutrality.
The air in the car had become stifling hot. I started to say something, failed to find anything that could possibly fill the space, and prayed that either Michel or Mila would say something instead. They exchanged a look with each other and then, with overwhelming care, avoided looking at either Devlin or me.
“Well,” Devlin said, long after the tension had reached a breaking point. “Michel can play your husband. I can…be the driver, I guess. We’ll figure something out.”
He turned his head and looked out of his own window, clearly done with the conversation.
“Devlin, you don’t…look, it’s my family.” I tried to convey an entire lifetime of parental expectations with just my voice. “What else could I have done?”
Devlin said nothing. I considered trying again, maybe even reaching out a hand to get his attention, but the possibility of a more severe rejection kept my hands at my side. I could only hope that his mood would break and I’d have a chance to actually explain myself.
It didn’t. Devlin stayed like that until we reached the Ford estate, silent, stern, and filled with some emotion that I couldn’t even guess at. For my part, all I could feel was a deep, deep shame.