I blinked, very hard, just to make sure that the scene in front of me wasn’t a creation of my overtaxed mind. Then, I did it again. Nothing changed.
The Virginia Ford of my memory had been a powerful, almost domineering figure. Her husband Ezekiel had been the public face of the family business, as was customary during the time and he’d possessed a world class instinct for infrastructure and bureaucracy that had served him well in the early days. But it had been her talent for cutthroat, back room deals and her steely personality that had allowed a family owned operation to blossom into the international corporation that Ford Enterprises had become.
I’d made something of myself, both legally and illegally, but it hardly compared to what my grandmother had done with nothing but grit and ruthless implacability. In a time of appalling, open racism, she and my grandfather had carved out a place for themselves and then, not content with that little bit of respite, they’d left a mark on the world that had outgrown any and all expectations. Appropriately, she’d always cast an impossibly long and deep shadow in my mind.
It was almost impossible, then, to draw a connection between the little old woman, complete with freshly baked pie, and the titan of industry I’d simultaneously feared and adored for most of my formative years.
“Virginia,” I said slowly. Using her first name, instead of a nickname, had been a childish act of rebellion that had grown out of control over the years. “I, uh…didn’t know exactly when I’d be here either. Sorry for catching you off-guard, I guess?”
She waved a hand dismissively. “Oh, I’m not worried about that. I’m just happy to see you, is all! Did you and your friends already eat? I already fixed something for myself, but I’ve still got some leftovers in the fridge, if you’re hungry.”
“We had something at the airport,” I said. Then, I paused and rewound the last few seconds of conversation. “You cooked? For yourself?”
Virginia shrugged. “It wasn’t anything fancy.”
“No, I mean…what happened to your chef? What was his name again?”
“You must thinking about old Bobby. Well, when he got an offer to go run his own restaurant, I figured it was about time for me to learn how to take care of myself. Can’t rely on other people to make dinner for me all the time, now can I?”
I didn’t turn to look at Devlin, but only through great and concerted effort.
“If you don’t mind my asking,” Mila said, “what kind of pie is that?”
Virginia took in the four of us at a glance and only missed a single beat before answering. “According to the recipe, it’s supposed to be pecan. I’m still new to this, though, and I didn’t think to get all of the ingredients before I started and…well, I don’t know what you’d call this now.”
Mila’s eyes practically gleamed as she looked at the steaming pie. “I’ve never had pecan pie before. Not homemade, at least.”
“Help yourself, then!” Virginia stepped away from the counter, whipping off the apron in a smooth motion. “I certainly couldn’t eat this all by myself.”
Mila took a half step forward, paused, and then shot me a question using only her eyes.
In a way, it was refreshing to have at least one steady principle to hold onto. Something sweet had been presented to the team and Mila, of course, wanted to get her hands on that item as soon as possible. The fact that said sweetness was being presented by my grandmother – or at least a woman masquerading as my grandmother, which I wasn’t quite ready to rule out yet – didn’t change the fundamental rules of the universe.
“Go for it,” I said. “I think we’ve got some catching up to do anyway.”
Mila hesitated for another second, seemingly torn between her desire for sweets and some vestige of manners. The sweets won that battle.
With Mila expertly slicing the pie into individual slices, I turned my attention back to my grandmother. “So. This is new.”
“You know what they say. Soon as you stop learnin’, you start dyin’ and I’ve got no intention of going anywhere just yet.” She fussed with her hair for a moment before she gestured toward the kitchen island and its array of stools. “But you’ve got to be tired! Come on, sit! Sit!”
“Uh..sure,” I said. My mind still refused to accept this smiling woman as my grandmother but, for lack of some other explanation, I figured the best route was to simply go with it.
Michel and Devlin followed me over to the island. I sat between the two men and Virginia took a spot across from us. She looked from me to Devlin, then back at me, and finally at Michel.
“So,” she said, affecting an air of overwhelming casualness, “are you going to introduce me?”
“Oh!” This, at least, was territory I felt comfortable on. It was a shame that lying felt more natural than seeing Virginia engaged in domestic tasks. “This is…Michel. Michel, this is Virginia, my grandmother.”
For simplicity’s sake, I’d made sure that our fake identities shared our real first names.. It was easier on everyone and it cut down on the possible mistakes we might make, in the heat of the moment. If she were suitably motivated, I imagined that Virginia could have asked after flight records and received some information, but Michel wasn’t a terribly common name. Anything she found, I could easily knock down or argue away. Although it did mean I’d have to falsify some marriage records later. Maybe even Photoshop a few wedding photos, in case she asked to see them.
That was probably more work than would actually be necessary, though. It wasn’t as though she’d ever shown an outsized interest in my personal life, outside of the occasional chastisement and –
“You must be the husband I’ve heard so little about!”
Virginia practically preened as she gave Michel the familial once-over. Luckily, he was dressed in one of the nicer outfits we’d managed to hold onto since London: a polo shirt, fitted to display his broad shoulders and upper arms, nice jeans, and a pair of plain black sneakers. I hadn’t planned this particular encounter, but it was good to learn that every new development wasn’t going to pan out badly for the team.
“Yes ma’am,” Michel answered, after a beat of awkward silence. His hesitant answer actually seemed to work well. He wasn’t a shy person, by any means, which meant he’d elected to play the part of my husband that way on purpose. Virginia relaxed her gaze slightly, mollified by something she saw in his bearing, and he reacted to that by leaning further into the persona. “And you must be the grandmother she has talked so much about.”
“Oh? Well, what kind of things has she been saying?”
“Just that you are one of the most shrewd businesswomen she has ever known,” Michel said. I could have sworn his accent was just a hair thicker than normal. “But she did not mention anything about you being an amazing boulanger, as well.”
Virginia swatted at the air. “I just dabble, from time to time. What else is an old woman to do with her free time? My two grandchildren never come to visit and it’s almost impossible to even get them on the phone these days.”
“But I do not see any old women here.”
“You are a charmer, aren’t you?” Virginia winked at me. “I can see why you picked this one.”
I didn’t look at Devlin, because I didn’t have to. I could literally feel his teeth gritting together without turning my head even the slightest fraction of an inch. It sent a wave of nervous tension running all the way up my spine.
Surprisingly, Virginia didn’t notice how I sat up straighter or catch the minute flinch that I couldn’t quite contain. She just barreled on, oblivious to the tension that radiated from Devlin. “And your other friends?” She asked. “Aren’t you going to introduce them, too?”
Mila picked that moment to return, having contrived a way to carry five pie plates with only two arms. She laid the plates down on the island, one in front of each of us, before she took a spot to the left of Michel. “Emilia,” she said and extended a hand.
Virginia took the hand and shook without missing a beat. “And how do you know my granddaughter, Emilia?”
Instead of answering, Mila looked at me. I took the cue. “You know how mom and dad have always been after me to get some protection?”
“Well, as long as you’re going to insist on traveling all over the world, it only seemed reasonable.”
I tilted my head in Mila’s direction. “Emilia’s my protection.”
That actually caused a visible reaction in Virginia’s expression. A flash of concern, accompanied by a brief but intense narrowing of her eyes, passed over her face. It was gone so quickly that I might have missed it, were it not for my heightened state of paranoia.
“Is everything okay?” Virginia asked.
I waved away her concern. “Everything’s fine. But I’ve been overseas handling some personal business and I finally decided that Mom and Dad might have a point. Nothing to worry about.”
I kept a question – “Since when have you been worried about me?” – to myself.
Virginia pursed her lips and sucked her teeth. “If that’s what you think,” she said slowly. With a visible effort, she turned her smile back on and pointed it in Devlin’s direction. “And you?”
A lump of ice formed in my gut as I followed her gaze toward Devlin. Our conversation in the car had ended abruptly, before we’d had a chance to finalize any plans. I was prepared to follow whatever story he came up, within reason, but I would have felt a lot less anxious if I had even the slightest idea what that story might be.
No matter what our personal issues might be, I should have known better than to doubt Devlin. He was a professional, through and through, and he’d have thrown himself onto hot glass before willfully tanking even the most mundane job. With the stakes as high as they were – the Lady prodding us forward with a velvet glove, while the Magi loomed ahead with mailed fists – it was too ridiculous to even consider.
Without any prep time, Devlin met my grandmother’s smile with a sly one of his own and crafted a character out of thin air. He applied just a touch of the Irish accent he’d forcibly acquired over the years, as well as a bit of the old swagger he’d used at our first meeting. The effect was subtle, but no less effective for its subtlety. With just those two light adjustments, he made himself appear more approachable and friendly. He had also, I realized a moment later, elected to use the accent as a mirror for my grandmother’s own delicate Southern twang. She would probably see a kindred spirit in him, now: someone else who had clung to their heritage, in defiance of the world around them.
It would have been an impressive transformation, even if he’d had a few hours to look into her past and create some sort of psychological profile. Of course, considering the woman in front of us bore little resemblance to the one I’d known growing up, the outcome of that research likely wouldn’t have hit the mark. Instead, he’d relied entirely on his intuition and pulled something together on the fly, based solely on the last few minutes of conversation.
“Name’s Devlin,” he said cheerfully. “Devlin Murphy. Pleasure to meet you, ma’am.”
“The pleasure’s all mine,” Virginia replied. “What brings you out to Georgia, Mister Murphy?”
“My da’s Mister Murphy,” Devlin said. I couldn’t have sworn to the subtle twitch at one of corner of his eye. “Everybody just calls me Devlin.”
“Well, then, Devlin. How do you know my Sarah?”
Devlin sampled the pecan pie and leaned back in his chair. “If I told you it was so that I could have a piece of this delicious pie, would you think I was laying it on too thick?”
Virginia giggled. She actually giggled. “I’d think you were trying to avoid my question with flattery.”
“Is it working?”
“You aren’t the first man who’s tried to charm his way around an answer,” Virginia said. “But I admit you are the most brazen about it.”
Devlin took another bite of pie, shrugging one shoulder while he chewed. “It was worth a try. I’m not trying to keep anything secret, you understand; it’s just that I’ve never liked to mix business with pleasure. And I’m enjoying watching this reunion. Figured we could talk about why I’m here when we were all done here.”
A familiar light came into Virginia’s eyes; it was the first glimpse of the grandmother I’d known. “Business? Well, now I’m interested.”
“Nothing interesting,” Devlin said. “Just a bit of art acquisition for one of my clients. She’s a little concerned about some, uh…other interested parties getting their hands on her favorite pieces, so she sent me out here to help facilitate the transfer.”
“You deal in art?”
Devlin winked at her. “Buying, selling, trading…you name it, I do it. Everybody’s got to have a job.”
“That’s true enough,” Virginia said. “But what does that have to do with Sarah?”
“Didn’t you know? When it comes to art, your Sarah’s the best in the world. As soon as my client let me know what she was after, I couldn’t think of anyone else I’d want working with me.”
The fabricated story he wove was a little too close to the truth for my taste, but I trusted him to know where the line was. His praise of me, however, came as a welcome surprise. The lump of ice in my stomach melted slightly.
“Shame she’s so in demand,” Devlin continued. “It’s only a matter of time before she gets a better offer, so I thought it best we get as much done as we can before she leaves.”
The ice returned, colder and larger than before. That wasn’t even subtext, so much as blatant innuendo. Even Mila looked up sharply from her pie for an instant.
Virginia was so focused on Devlin that she didn’t notice the change in atmosphere. “Well, I never knew she had those kinds of interests,” she said, “but I’m happy to hear she’s doing something she enjoys. What’s that got to do with Georgia, though?”
I spoke before Devlin could. I didn’t exactly know what words would come out of my mouth, but I was certain that I didn’t want to hear whatever thinly veiled criticisms he could come up with. “It’s a little technical,” I said, “but I needed to borrow your access card for the office. There are some files on the Ford servers that might point us toward the, uh, artwork we’re looking for.”
Virginia frowned. “The office? You mean, at the Atlanta branch?”
“Unless there’s another one that I don’t know about.”
“Sarah, I haven’t gone to the office in years,” Virginia said. “I could get you in to the building, but I don’t even have access to those systems anymore.”
I stared at her for several long seconds. “What?”
Virginia took a bite of her own pie and grimaced slightly. “Too much nutmeg, I think. Anyway, Sarah, I’m almost ninety years old. I couldn’t keep up with the demands of the business at my age. If I hadn’t given my position to some new hotshot, the board probably would have forced me out.”
The dreams of an easy couple of days back in Georgia evaporated as she spoke. I certainly didn’t have access to the corporate system. I could have arranged for it, given a few days to contact my parents, but there was every possibility that using official channels would raise too many flags. If Caelum was watching for anything unusual, surely the return of a wayward daughter seeking access to a specific server would be all he needed to discover my identity. From there, it wouldn’t be too difficult to run down Michel, Mila, and Devlin.
No, if I couldn’t use my grandmother’s card to gain entry into the network so that I could trawl for information on the server, that meant we’d have to go about this the hard way.