There was a palpable tension in the air. While I’d spent time around Barrett before, there had always been other people around. If not Devlin, then Mila; if not Mila, then Virginia or my parents. It was just the two of us now, though, seated across from each other with a half-full bottle of bourbon as a chaperone.
He sensed it, just as much as I did. He was probably contributing to the vibe through force of will. Barrett was watching me, with a directness that I found equally disturbing and alluring. His gaze never drifted from my face, even though I could almost feel his attention on my body. Casually, he licked his lips before taking a sip from his drink.
“What are you going to do after all of this?” I asked. The answer didn’t particularly matter to me, but the silence was quickly growing unbearable.
While he thought, I topped off my glass and glanced at the wall clock, just so that I was looking away from Barrett’s dark eyes. Some basic research had shown me that most bars in Texas closed around midnight. This particular dive, then, must have been one of the rare establishments open until two.
“After drinks?” Barrett winked and affected a scandalized expression. “Why, Sarah, you should know I’m not that kind of a gentleman.”
I rolled my eyes. “You know what I mean.”
“Sure, but a man can always hope, can’t he?”
I pointed at the bottle of bourbon. “If you aren’t going to answer, then…”
“Just trying to pick my words carefully.” He stirred his drink idly for a few more seconds before speaking again. “It depends. I’d been hoping to trade what I stole from the Sovereign for information, but that’s apparently a nonstarter. But obviously there’s someone in Dallas who wants to take a shot at me. After I find out who that is…I don’t know what I’ll do, actually.”
“What do you want to do?”
“Find my old partner,” Barrett said immediately. “Put an end to all this cloak and dagger stuff.”
“Seems like that’s going to be kind of difficult, considering your line of work.”
“I steal things,” Barrett said. “Ideally, under the cover of night and with a certain amount of flair. I leave calling cards to taunt the police and to establish my brand, so to speak. What I don’t do is dodge bullets or try to survive hit-and-runs in broad daylight.”
He couldn’t possibly know much I related to that. Before the Lady’s intervention into our lives – back when we’d still been working together, at least – Devlin and I had specialized in a very victimless type of theft. We targeted overblown, fraudulent charities; idly rich trust fund babies with more wealth than taste; and, rarely, poorly guarded museums when the price was right. There’d only been one casualty and that hadn’t been a result of our jobs, but of Asher’s goons in Venice deciding to shoot first and ask questions never. Law enforcement, with the exception of Adlai, was aware of our activities, but we weren’t ever a priority. No one was hurt, no one was killed, and it was better for all parties to give each other wide berths.
Not so much, anymore. Now, we overthrew the premiere drug kingpin of London, changed the shape of the Underworld in that city, and installed our own friends in position of power. We robbed the Triad and the Yakuza of millions and redistributed that wealth to the people they’d stolen it from to begin with, inviting the wrath and attention of trained enforcers and killers. We rescued children from sex traffickers and warlords, no matter who had to die to keep those same children safe.
It was still…fun seemed like the wrong word, even though it was probably the closest that I could manage. But there was a raw edge to that fun that tainted the experience. A mishandled network intrusion might have set us back a week before; now, it could get us all kidnapped, tortured, or killed. I wasn’t sure if the corresponding uptick in adrenaline was worth the added risk; worse, I didn’t know how to go about looking for that answer.
I shook my head fiercely, trying to dislodge my darker thoughts and focus on the moment instead. “Understandable,” I said. “But you still didn’t answer my question.”
“I want to go back to doing what I enjoy,” Barrett said. “There are very few things I’m actually good at and I’d appreciate it if I could focus on those, instead of his on-the-ground spy training that I’m going through. Is that answer good enough?”
“I’ll allow it.” We drank in silence for a few seconds before I realized that I was looking at his body once more. When he sat up straighter, rolling his shoulders back and subtly accentuating his muscular torso, I coughed violently to break the moment.
“Everything alright?” Barrett asked. “You seem a little distracted by something.”
My cheeks started to grow warm, despite every one of my mental instructions. “Your turn, you know,” I said.
Part of me expected him to ignore my week attempt at putting this conversation back onts proper rails. He surprised me by nodding slowly – an act which allowed him an opportunity to near-seamlessly check out everything below my neck – before actually asking a question. “Your husband,” Barrett said. My heart skipped a beat until he continued. “Or your fake husband, I guess? What’s the deal with that?”
“It’s a family thing.” I weighed how much detail was necessary and decided that, honestly, none of it was particularly sensitive. The entirety of my relationship with Michel was just a fiction anyway, designed to cover for yet another lie I’d told my family instead of the truth. “I told them that I got married a while back and no one in my family really believes in divorce.”
“Like people don’t believe in Santa Claus?”
“More like how people don’t believe in climate change,” I corrected, smiling despite myself. “They’re all aware that it exists, but they try their hardest to pretend that it only happens to other people. It was just easier to have my friend play the role than to tell them the truth.”
Barrett nodded thoughtfully. “And what is the truth?”
I poured a shot and downed it in one smooth movement, holding eye contact with Barrett the entire time. He whistled in appreciation.
“That was my second question,” he said, “so you could always have just not answered it.”
“You would only have asked it later,” I countered. “Seemed like a better idea to go ahead and get that off of the table.”
“Message sent and received.”
I savored the pleasant burn of the bourbon, rising up into my face to mingle with the warmth of my cheeks, as it worked its way through my bloodstream. I didn’t want to think about what the pressure of Barrett’s constant attention promised. Nor did I want to think about what my own presence meant for my own intentions. Thinking was hard and there was a high likelihood that I wouldn’t be able to avoid anything negative. I just wanted to be here, be somewhere…just for a little while. Everything else – the Mouse, the Magi, Barrett, Devlin – could wait until the morning.
“What made you want to be a cat burglar?” I asked.
“Well, that’s got some layers.” Barrett drained his glass and refilled it.
“Peel those layers back, then.”
“If you’re asking me why I specifically climb buildings and whatnot, that’s easy: because I’m good at it.”
“That’s it? It’s that simple for you?”
“That’s basically it,” Barrett said. “But if you’re asking why I steal things in general, it’s a little more complicated.”
“That’s going to count as two questions, though. That means I’ll get one and a follow-up.”
I eyed the bourbon. There was still enough in the bottle that, if he asked something I didn’t want to answer, I could just drink instead. I considered the possibility that he was trying to get me to drink, but an instinct told me that he didn’t pursue women like that. Barrett was a staggeringly attractive man with an air of mystery and an abundance of swagger. Women of all stripes found that sort of thing irresistible. Adding alcohol to the mixture as a sort of chemical assistant would, I assumed, feel like cheating to him.
Besides, it wasn’t like I had to drive home. I nodded at Barrett and signaled for him to continue.
He took a deep breath before he actually said anything. “I grew up with some…I don’t know if I’d call them bad people, but they certainly weren’t good. They got worse, if that term applies, as they got older.”
“And you got worse too?”
Barrett shook his head. He started to stroke the side of his emptying glass with one long, dexterous finger. “Surprisingly, no. I fell out of touch with those people when we hit our twenties, give or take. I learned later on that they tried an assortment of get-rich quick schemes and I ended up becoming a jeweler.”
I stared at him over the lip of my glass. “You aren’t serious.”
“As a heart attack,” he said, laying one hand on his chest for emphasis. I couldn’t control the way my eyes traced over the outlines of his pectorals beneath his tight shirt. “Anyway, time went by and then one one of those old friends reached out to me on social media. They knew what I did and, apparently, they needed some professional advice. They phrased it as a hypothetical but, essentially, they wanted to know how much a specific gemstone was worth. I recognized it as a piece on display at a local auction, but didn’t say anything about it.”
Barrett paused, sipped from his drink, and stared into the middle distance for a few fraught seconds. I recognized the tricks of a born storyteller, but knowledge of those techniques didn’t make me less susceptible to them. I leaned in closer to listen carefully to what he said next.
He said nothing. He continued wandering through his own memories until I finally couldn’t take the tension. “And then what?” I asked.
Barrett smirked – not too much, but just enough o display a flash of even white teeth. “I was curious, sure, but mostly I was just bored. So, I got a ticket to check out the auction. But then I started thinking. I knew how much the stone was worth; I knew the sort of people who worked at auctions, on a firsthand basis; why shouldn’t I be the one to steal it?”
“You hit an auction for your first job?” I asked in a hushed voice. I’d tackled a few of those during my career, but only after considerable prep work.
“Correction,” Barrett said, “I hit a hotel room. The person charged with delivering the stone was staying on the third floor of a building in that city, and it wasn’t very hard to get the room next to him. Shimmying across from my window to his was a little bit harder, but nothing too complicated. And he really wasn’t taking even the most basic security procedures. For God’s sake, the man was a smoker and he actually left his window open when he went out for drinks.”
“Well, after I had the stone in my possession, I realized that I already knew the type of people who’d be able to turn it into money. I’d worked with some shady providers professionally, so I reached out to them and…well, the rest is history. The money was great, obviously, but you know what really got me hooked?”
“The thrill,” I said.
“Exactly.” Barrett’s broad smile stretched from one ear to the other. “I knew you’d understand.”
It hadn’t been the thrill for me. Not at first. I’d started out on my journey as a sort of digital Robin Hood, taking money from people who claimed to be interested in the greater good, but were really more concerned with lining their CEO’s pockets. I met most of those people at various galas and balls, organized by my parents, and I knew exactly how they worked. They weren’t very subtle about it. Some even bragged about how successful their marketing campaigns were at convincing people that their hard-earned dollars would be spent on, for instance, cancer research. It was a point of pride.
I spent months researching the network of my first target. Most of what I knew about computers, at that point, had come from elective college courses and YouTube tutorials. With that scant base of knowledge and a need to do something, I had eventually worked myself into enough of a frenzy to attempt an intrusion on the rudimentary network of a local charity. While they’d proudly proclaimed that a portion of all proceeds went towards the SPCA, the CEO and CFO neglected to mention that the ‘portion’ amounted to a little over five cents to the dollar. I adjusted that to fifty percent and, after a few fraught days waiting for the police to come knocking at my door, all the way up to one hundred percent.
By the time the executives got around to actually checking their accounts, the damage had been done. Too much of their money had gone to the actual cause they claimed to support for them to walk it back. They were forced to publicly commit themselves to the arrangement I’d created. And, for my part, I was hooked. From one small charity to another, then eventually up to larger benefits and galas, I honed my talents and began seeking out larger targets. One of those targets had been the benefit when I’d met Devlin and, after that, it was off to the races.
“Alright,” I said. “You get two. I recommend making them count.”
“What were you doing in the Sovereign?”
Again, I thought about taking another shot to dodge the question. My mouth moved without my permission, though, to answer him. “Looking for information,” I said.
“This isn’t a follow-up, I’m just curious; what kind of information?”
“I really don’t know. It was an…assignment. Someone wanted us to steal information for them, but we didn’t actually know what it was they were after.”
“And that was with your…I’ve got to be honest here, I’m not really sure who does what in your team.” Barrett emptied his glass again which, for some reason, prompted me to do the same. He poured more bourbon for both of us before continuing. “Your bodyguard is obvious; she made that much perfectly clear when she threatened to break various bones in my body. And then there’s your fake husband. He’s the grifter, maybe?”
“Maybe,” I said. “It’s tricky.”
“Sure, I’ve picked up on that much. But then there’s the guy you were with at the Sovereign. I thought he was just someone you hired for on-site expertise, but now he’s here with you in Texas, so…”
“Is that your second question?”
“You know what? Yes, it is. Who exactly is he?”
Barrett flicked a dismissive hand at my assertion. “Right, obviously, but what is he to your whole thing? Considering how much effort you have to put in to make sure that your real identity doesn’t end up advertised throughout the Underworld, I can’t imagine you work with the same people long enough for any of them to find out the truth.”
I took another shot. The bottle’s contents were rapidly dwindling down to the dregs.
“It’s that serious?” Barrett asked.
“It’s more complicated than I want to get into right now,” I said.
“Or ever. Can we talk about something else?”
“Sure. It’s your turn for a question, anyway.”
I took a moment to compose myself. Barrett didn’t know the emotional complications between Devlin and me. As far as he knew, he’d only asked a question about another man in my orbit, because that man might get in the way of his ultimate goal. It wasn’t his fault. He hadn’t done it on purpose.
But now I couldn’t stop thinking about his question, answering it in a thousand different ways in my head. Who was Devlin to me? My ex-partner, of course. He was my partner now, too, since I considered us all a team. But he and I were both old hands at thievery, while Michel and Mila were relative newbies. That cast us as the experts, the experienced leaders…the mother and father?
No, that was too much. Or was it? We flirted with each other just like we once had. The familiar rhythms were so easy to fall into. Before he’d dropped back into my life six months ago, it had been years since we’d seen each other. Yet, here we were, right back where we’d been before and it felt…right? Normal? There was too much going on in my mind to nail down any one answer.
What made the whole process even more difficult was the uncertainty. I didn’t know what I thought, let alone what ideas were going through Devlin’s mind. Was he still replaying the final, brutal conversation we’d had when I’d ended our relationship? I could still remember the moments right after I’d yelled at him, immediately regretting what I’d said but not knowing how to take it back.
“Other than your ex-partner,” I asked, “is there anyone else in your life? Anyone permanent, I mean.”
Barrett shook his head. “Of course not. I’m hardly ever in the same town for more than a week, present circumstances notwithstanding.”
“No family?” I pressed. “No friends?”
“I’ve got contacts,” Barrett said. “But, no, nothing I’m welded to. My parents and I made a mutual decision to go our separate ways a long time ago and I’m an only child. I made the mistake of working with someone else on a long-term basis once and you can see how well that worked out.”
“Doesn’t that get lonely?”
Barrett’s fingers drummed out an irregular rhythm on the tabletop, seemingly on their own. When he spoke, his voice took on an almost wistful, contemplative quality. “I don’t know that I’d call it lonely. I don’t like being tied down, that’s all. And it’s not like anyone else could even begin to understand what this life is like.”
Anyone, I thought, except for someone else in the trenches.
“That was three questions,” Barrett said. His tone was back to its usual playful, cocky cadences, as if that swagger had never left. “Four, if I want to be really technical.”
“Ask your three questions, then.”
“Actually, I’ve only got one.” He reached out, took the bottle by the neck, and emptied in a single pull. “About fifteen minutes away, there’s a delightful little place where I happen to be staying right now. Seeing as this place is just about to close, I was thinking that we could get some bourbon to go and finish this conversation in more…comfortable surroundings.”
His accompanying wink couldn’t have been less necessary. Since laying eyes on me at the Sovereign, Barrett had been perfectly clear about his desires. Our question and answer session so far had reinforced that belief. He was a deliberately untethered man, content to drift from city to city without forming any connection. What he offered, then, wasn’t anything deeper than what it looked like on the surface: mindless, meaningless distraction.
Barrett let the unasked question linger in the air. I watched his cool, confident expression for several seconds before my eyes involuntarily traveled to the muscles of his shoulders and arms. His posture exposed just a little more of his midsection, flat and defined above the waistline of his low-slung jeans. It was an elaborately staged act, a pose designed to catch the eye, and it was working. It had been so long.
“So?” Barrett finally asked, when he saw something change in my eyes. He knew what I was going to say, just like I did.
“I’ve got work to do in the morning,” I said. A part of me rejoiced at making the right choice while the other assorted bits howled at my stupidity. “Can’t do that if I’m hung over.”
Barrett relaxed slightly…or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he shifted. He settled into his seat a little more, eased up on the unseen pressure he caused with his attention, and his gaze flickered momentarily towards the exit. To the untrained eye, the subtle change in readiness might have gone unnoticed. My eyes were not untrained and, for the duration of our drinks, I’d been focused on Barrett’s swagger and style.
Which he damn well knew. He wasn’t trying to be subtle; he wanted me to know that he was content to wait, even if his intentions hadn’t changed in the slightest.
“Maybe we can do this again,” Barrett said.
“Maybe,” I said. “Next time, don’t drink all of the bourbon yourself.”
“That sounds an awful lot like a date,” he said. He kept his tone light and airy, but made no effort to disguise the very real undercurrent of heat.
Something stopped me from outright rebuking him. I got up from the table just before he did the same and allowed him to escort me outside. It only took a moment to hail a cab. When the car eased to a stop in front of the curb, Barrett stepped in front of me to open the door.
I favored him with a polite smile. Anything more than that might have betrayed my confusion and uncertainty.
“Until next time,” Barrett said. He took my hand through the window and brushed his lips lightly against it. He held my hand just a second or two longer than necessary, though, and I found that I couldn’t figure out anything to say that might stop him. He released me from his grip before I located the words, but not from his eyes. Those stayed fixed on me.
“Maybe.” I knew, as he did, that I was going to see him again. I just wasn’t ready to say that out loud yet.
I gave the driver an address – not the hotel where Virginia, Devlin, and the rest of my team were staying, but somewhere close enough that I could walk the rest of the distance – and he nodded in comprehension. I waited until the taxi was entering the sparse early morning traffic before I looked back, through the rear window. Barrett just stood there, in front of the bar, with an inscrutable expression on his face. He didn’t move from that spot until we were too far away for me to see him anymore.
I slouched into the backseat and ran my hands through my hair in frustration. Or was it irritation? Confusion?
Definitely that last one. I stared down at the back of my hand, where Barrett’s lips had been, for entirely too long before I sighed and turned to stare out of the window.
“Oh, Sarah,” I said to myself, “what the hell are you doing?”