It said something about my family that my parents considered the Atlanta home to be a bit on the small side. Located in the prestigious Buckhead district and valued at just under ten million dollars, my grandmother’s prestigious Tudor estate had been one of the first major real estate acquisitions she and her late husband had made, when their business started taking off. In the years since – hell, even at the time when they’d made the purchase – my grandparents had amassed enough wealth to move anywhere they wanted, but they’d made a conscious decision to purchase a mansion in the same state where they’d been the victims of denigration and discrimination for decades prior. That was their own little rebellion: an act of targeted pettiness, in the form of an extravagantly over-sized home for two people. That way, they could never forget where they’d come from and the community wouldn’t be able to forget about them.
I imagined that my grandmother had continued living in the mansion because, no matter how old or successful she became, that little kernel of pettiness still defined a large portion of her being. At least, if the general behavior of the rest of my family was any indication, that is.
We went through the initial security checkpoint with only a little bit of fuss. In America, and in Georgia specifically, I had a very recognizable face. There were new hires semi-regularly, but the neighborhood security company had a long institutional memory. One of the two guards at the guardhouse recognized me after a moment, expressed a vague sort of pleasure at my arrival, and then waved us through. A similar process took place at the second guard house. It wasn’t until we reached the house itself, newly festooned with a guard house at the end of the driveway, that we met our first real obstacle.
I didn’t recognize either of the guards stationed there. The older of the two leveraged himself up from a seated position and lazily walked over to the front of the car. The driver gestured at the backseat, where I sat with the rest of my team, and the guard altered his angle so that he reached us just as our window disappeared from sight.
“Afternoon,” he said. He tipped his hat at us and I caught the initials “CJ” monogrammed in stark white lettering over the otherwise plain black surface. I mentally attached the name to the man until further notice.
No one in the car even bothered to pretend that I wasn’t going to be charged with the lion’s share of initial communication. Michel tried to blend in with the black leather of the car’s interior. Mila somehow managed to appear both bored and tense. One hand toyed with the seatbelt latch which, as it turned out, happened to be perilously close to a spot on her hip where I was pretty sure she’d managed to hide a knife of some sort.
Devlin still wasn’t looking directly at me. I thought about waiting for him to take the lead and, as quickly as the idea occurred to me, decided that this wasn’t the time to test him. His mood was unfamiliar and, as a direct result of that unfamiliarity, potentially very dangerous. Better to leave him alone until we could find the time to hash out whatever black cloud had descended over him.
“Afternoon to you, too,” I said, focusing my attention on the guard CJ and trying to put Devlin out of my mind for the moment.
I sighed. “Sarah Ford. I’m her granddaughter.”
“Sarah Ford? The Sarah Ford?” He whistled. “Why, you’re something of a celebrity around here, you know that?”
I did not know that, and I doubted the truth of the statement, but I just smiled blandly and nodded instead of challenging him on it. “Oh? I just try to keep to myself mostly.”
“Well, that’s why you’re a celebrity!” CJ motioned for his partner to approach the vehicle. “This is who Miss Ford’s always talking about!”
My eyebrows shot up. “She’s what, now?”
CJ didn’t notice my tone. “Must be at least once a day, maybe more, that she’s out here talking about her youngest granddaughter. That sound about right?”
The question was directed at the younger of the two guards. The boy, who could only just barely be old enough to drink, nodded eagerly. “Probably more than that, I’d say.”
“Well, holidays hardly count, do they?”
The boy nodded his assent, but didn’t add anything further to the conversation.
I wasn’t sure what, exactly, I should be focused on. On the one hand, the guards didn’t seem to have any interest in blocking my entrance into the Ford estate. That was good; in the fever pitch of activity since London, it was entirely possible that I’d actually lost any legitimate form of identification. I could have proven my claim, but that would have taken time.
On the other hand, however, the scenario that the two guards were painting clashed violently with my understanding of the eminent Virginia Ford. As I remembered it, my grandmother didn’t just disdain personal connections with the hired security; she actively worked to avoid situations where someone might feel the urge to strike up a conversation. She’d explained it as a desire to keep lines of employer/employee relationships perfectly clear and, after a fashion, I understood her point. Working so closely with the same types of people who would have been only too happy to whisper slurs behind her back would necessitate a certain heavy hand when it came to discipline and chains of command.
But that had been years ago. Decades, even. The Ford family had amassed enough wealth and political power in the last two generations to ensure that no one with an internet connection and even the thinnest margin of common sense would dare to insult even the least visible of us. At the time of that conversation, my grandmother had already been labeled as one of the country’s foremost rising stars of industry. We hadn’t quite been a household name yet, but we’d been close. So, at the time, I’d assumed that there was some other reason for the forced distance she maintained from her employees and put it out of my mind.
She was apparently talking to the security guards now, though? And not just talking to them, but sharing personal details about my life?
In virtually any other situation, I would have dropped everything else just to focus on that new development. Something must have gone terribly, terribly wrong to affect that kind of change in a woman who prided herself on being utterly intractable. But this wasn’t any other situation and I couldn’t afford to split my attention between the problem of the Mouse and the mystery of new familial developments.
So, instead of asking any of the dozen questions that sprang to mind, I gave CJ and his cohort a sunny smile and made a series of wordless, yet generally positive, noises. He wasn’t actually looking for affirmation, after all. He just wanted someone to acknowledge that they’d heard him, that he wasn’t being ignored, and then he’d be content.
He proved my assessment correct only a heartbeat later. “Well,” CJ said, “I’d have to blind not to see the resemblance between the two of you. Is she expecting you?”
I shook my head. “I tried to tell her that I was coming into town, but I’m not sure if she got the message.”
“Did you call her personal line?”
“The business number,” I said. “Why?”
“Well, she hasn’t been at the office in…what, a week?”
“Two weeks,” CJ’s partner said.
He had already returned to his chair and was browsing through something on his phone. Judging from his demeanor and the speed with which his fingers tapped the screen, I assumed he was playing some sort of game. From that, I guessed that my grandmother wasn’t receiving an excessive amount of visitors. It also explained why CJ had opened up with so much excessive familiarity. He was bored. They both were.
I wondered if that was something I could use. People weren’t really my area of expertise, but it would have been impossible to spend so much time around Devlin without picking up at least a few secrets about manipulation and the relative value of bystanders who could prove useful at a critical point. I filed the idea away.
“She hasn’t been at the office in two weeks?” I asked.
“She hasn’t been at the office in…God, I don’t even know how long,” CJ said. “But she makes a point to check the voicemail every couple of weeks, just to make sure she isn’t missing anything.”
“My grandmother,” I said, deliberately punctuating the thought with an audible period. “She isn’t going into the office anymore?”
CJ shrugged. “Not since I started working here,” he said, “and I’ve been here for a while. One second, Sarah; let me see if she’s feeling well enough for visitors. Not that she won’t be excited to hear from you, but…well, you understand.”
I nodded to show that I did. CJ stepped into the guard house and, following a brief but fervent search through a series of drawers, began speaking into a handheld microphone.
“Well, that’s strange,” I muttered to myself.
“What is?” Michel asked.
“Just this whole vibe,” I said. “Grandma hates security. So why would she bother hiring guards to protect her driveway, specifically? And why would she be talking to them about me?”
Mila shifted in her seat. Sam’s carrying case sat on the seat next to her and she idly scratched the top of the case as if the cat inside could feel her fingers through the property of transference. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“The two of us were never close enough for the whole ‘sharing childhood stories with strangers’ thing,” I said. “And I can’t imagine her ever deciding that she wanted to take a walk down memory lane, especially not with the help.”
Mila raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.
It only took me a second or two to realize what I’d said. Immediately, I kicked myself internally. “You know that’s not what I meant, Mila.”
“I know that,” she said. “But why’d you say it?”
I sighed. “It’s this place. Just something about being here makes me feel like I’m…I don’t know, like I’m a kid again.”
“So you didn’t talk to the help when you were a kid?”
Her question was made worse by that maddening calm delivery. There wasn’t any condemnation or judgment in her voice; just the question, asked without any particular emotional investment. I should have grown used to that, coming from Mila, but her tone struck an uncomfortably familiar note with Devlin’s complete lack of interaction at the moment, so it stung a lot more than I’d expected.
“This is what she wanted me to be like,” I said, “and I just wanted her to be happy with me. So, yes and no. Does that make any sense?”
Mila considered the question for a few seconds longer than it really warranted before she shrugged one shoulder with elaborate, near-perfect carelessness. “If you say so.”
“Sometimes,” Michel said, “people change. Could that have happened?”
He was trying to change the subject. That much was obvious. The fact that he’d been blatantly obvious about it didn’t detract from the effectiveness of the ploy. Obviously he’d been paying attention to Devlin’s sporadic lessons about conversation and various verbal tricks, even if he hadn’t quite grasped the art of delicacy yet.
I appreciated the effort, more than I could possibly have explained in the confines of the car. Mila was frightening, as a matter of course, but I didn’t think for an instant that she’d actually turn her capacity for violence against me. Her cool judgment, however, was a different matter entirely.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“My family was a…different matter,” Michel said, “but I knew people in Paris whose family grew to accept them as they aged. Could that explain what has happened with your grandmother?”
I snorted. “When hell freezes over, maybe. She must be playing at something. That’s just who she is.”
“Maybe she didn’t change,” Devlin said, in a quiet voice. “Maybe there was just more happening beneath the surface that you didn’t know about.”
Silence filled the car’s interior. Even Mila seemed uncomfortable and I would have sworn on a stack of bibles that she wasn’t physically capable of that emotion.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked him. Anger slipped into my voice before I could stop it.
“Exactly what I said. It’s been years since you’ve seen her and you obviously had your own assumptions about the kind of person she was. You might have clouded your own judgment.” He shrugged. “It happens.”
I knew he was being disingenuous. I just knew it. But he’d phrased his point in a way that made it impossible to outright disagree.
In lieu of that, I drew in a breath to outright ask him what I’d done to piss him off. CJ returned at that exact moment, forestalling any further discussion.
“She’s in the kitchen,” he said. As he spoke, his younger cohort pressed a button and the steel gate began to slowly climb out of the way of our vehicle. “Miss Ford asks if you remember where that is?”
“I remember where the kitchen is,” I said.
The brief hint of animosity from Devlin – if that was even the right word – had soured my mood and I spoke the words through lightly gritted teeth. Besides, my grandmother’s request practically reeked of a passive aggressive jab at my culinary weaknesses. Which seemed distinctly unfair, since I couldn’t remember a time where she’d entered the kitchen to do anything other than berate more qualified chefs for their perceived failings.
Where CJ had missed my skepticism before, he didn’t miss the scarcely contained anger behind my wintry, painted-on smile.
“Ah,” he said. He swallowed nervously before he continued. “Well, alright then, ma’am. You have a good day, alright?”
He returned to the guard house, just as the gate reached its highest point. Our driver coaxed the vehicle back into motion and we covered the short distance from the guard house to the front door. We exited the vehicle and made our farewells with the customary exchange of pleasantries and folded bills of American currency. Devlin helped Mila to unload our luggage. I suspected that he’d chosen that task because it afforded him a measure of distance from me, but I couldn’t very well ask him that without coming off as impossibly arrogant.
I had to repeat that reasoning to myself two or three times before it sank in.
The four of us managed to get the bulk of our luggage inside the house. We left the miniature mountain of clothing and whatever gear we’d managed to sneak onto the plane by the door. Then, the other three followed me through the maze of the mansion’s downstairs rooms. I let memory guide me through the halls.
Drifting off into thoughts of my past helped to insulate me from my mounting concern about Devlin. The two sentences he’d spoken in the car hadn’t been openly hostile, but I couldn’t imagine there was much distance from where he was to the point where we were fighting in front of Mila and Michel. Which didn’t actually concern me, all that much, except for the not-insignificant possibility that we wouldn’t fight about whatever was bothering him. If he allowed it to fester, it would poison our well of teamwork, with potentially catastrophic results.
I resolved to pick a fight with him at the first opportunity, if he didn’t unburden himself before then. It would be better to lose a few hours in an explosive blowout, rather than to miss a vital cue because of some poorly suppressed emotions. It was exactly the sort of cold, emotional logic that he would have suggested, if he were talking to me.
The kitchen was at the back of the first floor. As we drew closer, the scent of some sort of pastry began to find its way into my nose. It didn’t smell quite as good as some of the professional confectioneries we’d been partaking of, courtesy of Mila’s sweet tooth, but it certainly didn’t smell bad.
When I entered the kitchen, I expected to find a new chef, to go with the new security guards outside. Instead, I was met with the image of my grandmother in a faded apron, removing a pie from the oven. She wore mismatched mitts and her hair, which I’d never seen outside of a tight bun atop her head, was tied back in a loose ponytail. She placed the pastry – it looked like a pie, but I wasn’t really sure I could trust my eyes at the moment – on the counter before she noticed the four of us standing in the doorway.
A smile lit up her face, like someone had plugged her into a wall outlet. “Sarah! I didn’t think you’d be here until much later! I was hoping to surprise you, but it took a little longer to make this than the recipe said.”
I blinked, partly to fix the image of my grandmother performing domestic tasks with her own hands and partly to ensure that I wasn’t hallucinating the scene entirely. The air conditioning unit kicked on and, from my position directly beneath a vent, the temperature dropped noticeably.
It wasn’t quite hell freezing over, I thought, but it was probably close enough for government work.