I woke up on top of the covers, still fully dressed. It had been early afternoon when I’d laid down; now, I could see the sun slowly dipping beneath the horizon through the window I faced.
“How long was I out?” I asked, before I realized that the room was empty.
Bleary-eyed and groggy, I forced myself to sit upright and survey my lodgings. Michel’s luggage lay open and empty by the door, in almost the exact same position they’d been in before, but he was nowhere to be found. A single sheet of paper rested atop one of his trunks. It took me a few seconds to haul myself up and a few more seconds to make my way across the room to the note. Michel’s handwriting was filled with extravagant loops and exaggerated letters but it was perfectly legible…after a brief moment where I had to pause and gather my wits from the foggy depths of my mind.
We decided that you needed to sleep. Mila and I are exploring the city. She might have some friends in the area that could provide some help. Devlin went to reach out to the client and anyone else who might be able to point him in the right direction. Our phones are on, if you need us.
He hadn’t bothered to sign the note. The coded language was a nice touch, I had to admit. Mila’s “friends” were probably weapons brokers. Even though she claimed never to have been in Atlanta on business, that didn’t mean there weren’t lines of inquiry available to her. Why she’d taken Michel, of all people, was an entirely different question that I didn’t currently possess the faculties to parse.
The “client” was, of course, the Lady; the “anyone else” probably referred to the local underworld. I only possessed surface knowledge of Atlanta’s criminal hierarchy. Whenever I’d been forced to stay in or around my grandmother’s place, I generally kept to myself. Sure, the occasional network intrusion or redistribution of funds might have taken place – just to stave off the boredom, really – but I’d never attempted to pull off any grand heists in the area. The possibility of attracting the wrong kind of attention was simply too high. At the time, I’d been working with the barest margin of safety; really, anyone suitably motivated could have easily connected my real identity with my online one, back in those early days. I hadn’t even used two-factor authorization, for Christ’s sake.
I tossed the note into the trash can and began searching for something to change into: specifically, a comfortable pair of pajama pants and a t-shirt with four Disney princesses on it. Even with the Community’s deadline hanging over my head, there wasn’t any chance of us attempting an infiltration of the Ford building with only a few hours worth of notification. As such, I doubted that I’d be going out again. If I did end up having to leave the house, I could always shower and put on something more comfortable.
The fact that Devlin had always been a big fan of that particular shirt had nothing to do with my decision to wear it. At least, I was fairly sure that it didn’t.
I was only slightly more aware of my surroundings by the time I finished. Judging from the dying light, it was too late for normal people to drink coffee and caffeine had always played merry havoc with my sleep cycle. That being said, I had an ungodly amount of work to do and precious little time in which to do it. It didn’t take me long to decide that coffee, and all of its side effects, was just a physical necessity at that point.
I made my way downstairs and found Virginia standing in the kitchen, staring out over the back lawn through a sliding glass window. She wore a long white bathrobe, tied into a tight knot behind her back. She wasn’t speaking – wasn’t even moving – and she showed no no sign that she’d even noticed my entrance.
She jerked in surprise and almost spilled whatever beverage she was drinking. “Lordy,” she said, when she’d had a chance to compose herself, “you snuck up on me, Sarah. Can’t be doing that to a woman of my age. No telling what could happen.”
I hadn’t intended to be particularly stealthy. “Sorry. I think that’s just a bad habit I picked up…you know, somewhere. Around.”
“While you’ve been out there, hunting down art work for people, you mean?” A tiny grin worked its way across Virginia’s lips. “Do your parents know what you’ve been doing?”
I shook my head. “Why would they? Ever since I decided I didn’t want to follow in their footsteps, they’ve been pretty content to leave me to my own devices.”
Virginia’s grin faded. “Sarah,” she began.
I recognized a chiding tone when I heard one. Even though it had been hours since I’d spoken with Devlin, I still wasn’t in the mood for either a lecture or a fight.
“Is that coffee?” I asked, pointing at the mug in her hands. “And if it isn’t, do you mind if I make some?”
Virginia lifted an eyebrow. There was little chance that she hadn’t immediately realized what I was trying to avoid; I could only hope that she’d respect the effort and back off the topic of my parents for the time being. Mercifully, she nodded after a second or two, and gestured with the mug towards a Keurig on the counter. “You remember where the mugs are?”
It was good to learn that everything hadn’t changed. The mugs were exactly where I remembered them being. Shockingly, it seemed like Virginia hadn’t replaced the mugs themselves, either. I moved the generic black and white mugs aside, in search of a very particular one. My search proved successful by the time I reached the third row.
Carefully, I extracted the mug and held it up for Virginia’s inspection. “You still have this?”
“Of course I still have that,” Virginia said. “What kind of person throws away a Christmas gift from their baby granddaughter?”
The mug in question was a misshapen wreck of a thing, as if Frankenstein had made his monster out of clay instead of miscellaneous human body parts. Where the interiors should have been smooth, the walls melted over each other in waves and formed a gradual slope down to the inside bottom. It wasn’t perfectly circular, of course – my childish hands had lacked the dexterity to use the pottery wheel all that well – but had ended up in a sort of lazy oval instead. The handle had clearly been designed for someone with smaller, more delicate fingers than either myself or my grandmother.
I traced my index finger along the underside and felt the tiny grooves where I’d attempted to write my name before the clay had been able to dry. If my memory served me correctly, I’d made it as far as the second letter of my middle name before I’d simply given up and scribbled out a line to signify the rest.
“What do you even do with something like this?” I asked.
“I don’t show it off to guests, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Virginia said. I looked up from the mug and found a genuinely warm smile on her face. That just felt strange.
“I mean…why hold onto it at all?”
Instead of answering, Virginia turned fully away from the sliding door and gave me a steady look for several long seconds. Then, she crossed the room, plucking the mug from fingers as she passed, and filled it with coffee from the Keurig. She handed it back to me before she spoke. “Are you being serious right now?”
There was an undeniable note of actual pain in her voice. She hid it well, but not well enough. In the face of that, I couldn’t find a way to articulate my thoughts. It wasn’t that I thought my grandmother didn’t love me. It was more that her form of love had always been fixed on the singular goal of making me the best woman that I, or anyone, could possibly be. To that end, she’d pushed me relentlessly, responded to failures with withering disappointment, and rewarded successes with a series of ever-increasing goals.
I understand why she’d raised me that way, of course. Virginia had grown up in a different time, when women – especially black women – had to work two or three times as hard in order to receive even half as much as privileged men. She had passed down that exacting work ethic to her daughter and, when my mother fell victim to the hands-off parenting style of the seventies and eighties, Virginia had taken it upon herself to toughen up her grandchildren.
Those lessons had taken root in my older sister, but not in me. When I’d taken my shares in the family business and set off to do my own thing, I’d expected her to go nuclear. I had not expected her to become a real-life version of Anna Huxtable.
“No,” I said, “I’m just…nevermind, forget about it.”
The look on Virginia’s face told me, in no uncertain terms, that she would not forget about it. But she graciously dropped the subject anyway with a slight nod.
“What are you looking at?” I asked, hoping to ease the transition into safer conversational territory.
Virginia shrugged one shoulder. “Nothing in particular. Just passing the time, is all.”
“Waiting for something?”
“I’ve got a fundraising thing tonight,” Virginia said. “You’d think retiring would give me a reason to skip these damn parties, but no, everyone still wants to meet with the original Ford.” She made a sour expression and I smothered the desire to laugh out loud.
“What’s the charity?”
Virginia took a long sip from her mug. “You know your sister is chair of the outreach committee, don’t you?”
I did. Whenever I found the time to check all of my various email accounts, I made a special point to look into the company email address my parents had practically forced on me. Even though I didn’t work for the company – and, in fact, had never worked for the company in any official fashion – I was still privy to the internal memos and messages that passed through the halls of power. I’d seen the message about my sister’s promotion before leaving for London.
My grandmother must have seen acknowledgment in my expression because she continued without waiting for a verbal response. “Well, she started up a charity for battered women,” she said. “The committee decided that they ought to throw the first fundraiser in the city where the company started, with the woman who started it.”
“Did you get any say in that?”
“Not a bit,” Virginia said. She made the sour smile again. “If I’d known you were coming to town, I might have been able to…”
Virginia trailed off, mid-sentence. It didn’t take a genius to figure out where her thoughts had traveled to. “Listen, I am not going to -”
The front door opened before I had a chance to finish my sentence. Virginia and I both turned to look in that direction. A minute later, Devlin entered the kitchen. He had a few shopping bags distributed between his hands or adorning his arms. When he saw me and my grandmother, he froze in the doorway, like we’d caught him doing something wrong.
“Did I, uh -” He stopped, gathered his thoughts, and started again with the faint Irish accent in his voice now. “Am I interrupting something? I was just thinking about making a little something to snack on, after a hard day out on the town.”
I pointed at the bags on his arms. “What are those?”
He obviously didn’t get the joke. The rise of meme culture must have passed him by during his years behind bars. “Had to do a bit of shopping,” he said. “What I brought wasn’t really, uh…fit for the environment.”
“Sweating like a whore in church, eh?” Virginia asked.
I blinked. Devlin did the same thing. He pieced together the meaning a little faster than I would have expected, judging from the slightly awkward chuckle he offered up in response. “I suppose you could say that, sure.”
Virginia’s eyes narrowed slightly. It wasn’t a big thing. A random observer would’ve noticed it, sure, but they wouldn’t have had the necessary context to understand what it meant. It wasn’t the expression she made when she sensed a secret in the wings. It wasn’t even the face she made when she was angry, perturbed, or otherwise upset.
No, the expression on her face was the one she wore she was scheming.
Devlin could have figured it out, given time and the opportunity to focus exclusively on decoding my grandmother’s nonverbal tells. He had neither of those, however. So he walked, face-first, into Virginia’s plot.
“Is that a Tom Ford bag I see?” Virginia asked.
“It seemed appropriate,” Devlin said.
Virginia turned to me. “Sarah, where’d that handsome man you came here with get to?”
I didn’t know exactly where Michel was, but I couldn’t say that to Virginia. Something told me that she’d frown at the knowledge that he was off somewhere with his…I didn’t really know what Mila was to him, but it was entirely too complicated to explain to my grandmother, even if that whole ‘in search of illegal weapons’ thing wasn’t a factor.
“Out,” I said lamely. The word was barely out of my mouth before I regretted my vagueness.
That same vagueness didn’t seem to bother Virginia at all. “Hmm. I suppose, then, that means you need an escort for this fundraiser, doesn’t it?”
“Fundraiser?” Devlin asked. “Escort? What did I miss?”
“Sarah was going to come with me to a party tonight,” Virginia said, “and I was just thinking that she’d probably want someone she knows to go with her. They can get so boring, after all.”
I held up both hands, palms facing Virginia, and took a step away from her. “I did not agree to do any such thing.”
“I’m an old woman,” Virginia said. She placed a hand on her hip, as if that weak effort was actually going to fool me. “I don’t know if I’m up to all the schmoozing and hand-shaking.”
“Okay, but I’m not up for all that, Virginia! I decided not to work for the company for several very good reasons. Some of which were specifically related to doing this sort of gladhanding.”
Virginia sighed, shifting her attention back to Devlin with a minor adjustment of her eyes. “It’d be too much to ask you to come with me, I suppose. We only met this afternoon. It’s alright; I’ve been hosting events like this for…what, fifty years? One more won’t kill me.”
I knew what she was doing. Virginia wasn’t even trying to be subtle about the manipulation. I opened my mouth to warn Devlin, but caught myself off before my lips had an opportunity to form so much as a single syllable. There wasn’t a clear reason in my head that kept me from speaking, so much as an amorphous feeling.
She’d kept my childhood abortion of a coffee mug for years. Was it really so much for her to ask me to accompany her to a silly fundraiser? I’d attended dozens of them in my youth. Odds were high that I’d be able to navigate through the sycophants and dilettantes with a third of my attention.
“Oh my God,” I said. A good portion of the exasperation in my voice was genuine; the rest, I faked, just so that she didn’t think she’d gotten her way without difficulty. “Where even is this thing?”
“At the office,” Virginia answered immediately. “They turned the fifteenth floor conference room into a ballroom for the event, I think. Why does that matter?”
“The fifthteenth floor conference room?”
Virginia nodded. “The servers, up on the twentieth, put off too much heat. Otherwise, they probably would’ve tried for a rooftop thing. You know your sister’s so avant garde with these things.”
It was either too good to be true or a vicious twist of fate. Either way, it was too coincidental to ignore.
I turned to Devlin. “I guess we’re keeping her company tonight, then.”
He gave me a questioning look with his eyebrows and I responded with a nonverbal assurance. Virginia seemed pleased that she’d gotten her way and began busying herself around the kitchen.
It didn’t occur to me until days later that her manipulation had never been aimed at Devlin to begin with. And it took me months to figure out what she’d really been after, in the first place.
It only took Virginia hours to figure out what I’d been after.