Most people are familiar with dread. It’s that feeling you get going into a test you forgot about, or being summoned by the boss during a wave of layoffs. Spies experience whole new dimensions of dread – getting caught crossing the Chinese border with stolen fighter designs, for instance, not that I’ve ever done that. Tonight, I felt it when I pulled up at the end of the Miami mansion’s driveway in an Audi R8, dressed in a rented Naeem Kahn gown, and saw only one other car: a black Lamborghini.
Tatiana favored black Lamborghinis. Every party we’d been to, she’d arrived in one.
I slumped in my seat. Tatiana had arrived before me?
I wasn’t surprised she’d figured out the invitation. It wasn’t very complicated – a fragment of coded chatter intercepted from an Italian yacht, easily decrypted. But to have her reach the destination first? That was embarrassing personally and professionally. I’d let America herself down tonight.
And now, as punishment, I’d have to spend time with Tatiana alone.
I revved the R8’s engine and purred down the driveway. The majority of the population has never even heard of these gatherings. They think it’s hyperbole, an urban legend meant to inspire admiration for the espionage community. They think it’s self-promotion, an attempt to make ourselves look more glamorous, more like those famous movie spies we don’t have to name.
Maybe it is self-promotion, in a way, and it definitely does make us look more glamorous. Our jobs are tough, though, and we’ll take any opportunity to get glammed up and actually have a little fun. Even the Russians relax at these things – except Tatiana, who apparently never learned how.
I ran through the usual guest list. Captain Green would probably arrive shortly, apologizing in his posh accent for his tardiness when he was actually the most punctual among us. Either Chan or Lee would be there, depending on who arrived first. Chan loved parties, but refused to be in the same building as his Korean counterpart whenever possible. Farah, as far as I knew, had never failed to decrypt an invitation, even the infamous New Year’s one four years ago that had stumped the Russians, the Chinese, and the French. She’d be here, but she’d arrive a fashionable twenty minutes late – too late to rescue me from conversation with Tatiana.
Cannot believe she beat me.
A suited valet helped me from the car and two stone-faced doormen ushered me inside the house. Its marble columns and gilded wainscoting showed elegant restraint, by Miami standards.
“Major Melissa Weiss, CIA,” announced the woman standing in the foyer. Judging from the earpiece and tablet she was equipped with, this woman served as both the herald and chief of security. No doubt the tablet showed her every room in the house, complete with active scanning for unusual heat or biochemical traces that could indicate a weapon.
You’d have to be a real jerk to bring a weapon to one of these parties, though. It’s just not the mensch thing to do.
I made my way through the house. The kitchen, which at first glance appeared to be entirely copper-plated, boasted several platters of international finger food. The great room was dotted with bistro tables draped in white, and a portable bar stood near a colorfully lit but empty dance floor. The picture windows were open to the grounds’ manicured hedges, palm trees, and mosaic-tiled pool. Whoever was hosting clearly called in a few favors to score a site like this.
“Welcome, Major Weiss,” a lilting Russian accent called. My heart sank.
“What, no happy birthday?” she pouted. She was wearing a very slinky, very red gown with a hefty gold collar necklace – easily large enough to conceal toxic gas canisters, I thought ungenerously. Clip the two ends together, twist a certain way –
Then it occurred to me. “This is your party?”
“Of course, kotyonok. No one loves Miami like I do.”
A genuine smile spread across my face. “Happy birthday, then.”
She hadn’t figured the puzzle out first – she’d written it. That was the only reason she’d arrived before me. I had solved it fastest, after all.
“Major,” I imagined the President saying (in a Southern accent for some reason, even though he was from Connecticut), “you’ve done your country proud.”
“A drink?” Tatiana marched towards the bar. “My bartender is late, but we are resourceful, no?”
I followed her, trying not to strut. I win. “I could go for a Manhattan.”