I’ve been doing research into the mob business model. It actually boils down to what people have been doing for centuries– politics with a side of intimidation and bribery and a dash of murder and mayhem to make things come together properly. Yikes! Emilia is in WAY over her head.
If you missed the beginning of the story, read it here.
The sound of a car’s engine drifted in through the open French doors. Emilia raised her head and looked outside, into the garden lit by soft lights.
Another one? She marked her place in her book with a finger and crossed to the doors. An evening breeze carried a tang of salt air from the ocean. The engine fell silent. Car doors slammed and voices carried on the air. She frowned.
When a maid had brought dinner on a tray earlier in the evening, Emilia had experienced an odd combination of triumph and relief. No need to cross swords with Dragovich tonight! Then suspicion had set in. Why accede to her wishes now? With the sudden influx of cars, she began to have a notion something was afoot.
Really, she could have no interest in Dragovich’s doings. In fact, the less she knew of them, no doubt the better. But…
He held the trump hand, but she might possibly gain a card or two to her advantage.
She set the book on the little curly maple table and slipped out the French doors, onto the patio.
Wandering in the direction of the voices, she stopped now and again to inhale the aroma of a rose or pluck a blackberry from a thorny cane, pretending to be only enjoying the soft evening air.
Ahead, light spilled from the windows of the house’s public areas. Snatches of voices came again, deep and male. Softly as a hunter, Emilia made her way closer.
Between one step and the next, reluctance to go any farther crept up on her. She stopped, frowning again. Intuition was certainly no stranger to her, but this sensation seemed peculiar. Almost …imposed. She moved forward again. The reluctance increased, shading into apprehension that made her throat tighten. She fell back a step and the anxiety dwindled once more to reluctance.
A spell, it must be. Something to keep eavesdroppers away? She forged on, testing. Anxiety flared to panic. Emilia spun and bolted back the way she’d come. Just as quickly, the panic died.
In the middle of the garden, she turned back, hands on hips. “Indeed, Mr. Dragovich!” she muttered under her breath. “I’m not so easily thwarted.”
A nearby willow tree sheltered a wooden bench. She sat down, closed her eyes and opened herself.
Her gift was strongest with people, allowing her to follow the thread of their pasts to the present, on into the wispy patterns of the future. She could also sense impressions from objects, although those impressions were limited to the past.
Most ephemeral of all were the echoes of places. Strong emotions left lasting imprints—often long-lasting, and detectable to any sensitive person. She guessed this was what was behind most hauntings. More difficult to perceive were the vibrations of the present. But not beyond her abilities if she expended the effort and concentration.
Cricket song and night scents of moist earth and greenery faded, the breath of air that teased strands of hair across her neck. The life in the house expanded in her awareness, a bright jostling of intentions and wishes, conflicts and rivalries. In the center of them all rose the dragon ablaze with power, orbited by a score of those lesser lights.
Emilia let her perception drift closer. Whatever Dragovich directed, it seemed as dull as a ladies’ charity function meeting. Flashes of remembered or intended violence made it something quite different. She flinched back, then steadied herself, frowning in concentration. What exactly was being organized here?
A light separated from the rest, arcing away into the night. Insecurity. Resentment. Defiance. Then, curiosity, interest—
“Well,” a voice said out of the darkness. “Who are you?”
Emilia struggled up out of her seeing, blinked hard a few times.
A man stood a few steps away. The garden lights indistinctly illuminated a face with a long nose and a receding hairline. A neat goatee framed his smiling mouth.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Were you asleep?”
“I was deep in thought. I didn’t hear you approach.” She had no wish to sit here in the dark talking to a strange man. Especially the sort of man who would attend Dragovich. She rose. “If you’ll excuse me.”
He stepped closer. “Come on, don’t run away.”
She was very inclined to run away. Predator, instinct said. Don’t run.
He took another step. “You can tell me your name, at least, can’t you?”
She weighed tactics. “Mrs. Dunmoor.” On the other side of her long darkness, she might have appealed to manners and propriety to escape—no gentleman would’ve accosted a lady alone. Now, she had to be more creative. “In fact, I was enjoying the evening solitude while waiting for my husband to join me.”
He arched a brow and gave a disbelieving half-smile.
* * *
Conversation ebbed and flowed in the room. Occasional laughter or a raised voice bubbled up, the clink of ice in glasses. Cigarette smoke hazed the air, making it sharp and acrid.
Vadim looked around at the men sitting at the big dining room table, talking, drinking, smoking. Others leaned against the wall or on the backs of chairs.
The meeting was routine, taking reports from his territory bosses, hearing discussions of problems and opportunities, making plans, adjusting strategies. All informal, but a chance to keep his finger on the pulse of his domain and his people.
He frowned, scanned faces again and gestured to Roman, one of his security, where he stood against the wall behind Vadim. The man came near and bent his head to listen.
“Where’s Peterson?” Vadim said.
“In the garden,” Roman said in a flat voice. “Seems he’s not ready to join us yet.”
Vadim tapped a finger on his snifter in annoyance. His drink was tequila, neat. Not vodka. He liked to be able to taste his liquor.
“Is that so?” He pushed the snifter aside and stood.
Faces turned to him and the talk died down. He waved a hand, carry on, and stepped through the open French doors.
Vadim worked a spell of diversion, something that made the eye and awareness slide past him. Almost as good as invisibility, without the expenditure of power. He moved away from the light and noise of the meeting, into the soft evening darkness.
Yes. There was Peterson, talking to someone in the shadow of a willow tree. A woman’s voice replied, one with a gentle English accent.
Vadim narrowed his eyes. Something in him tightened to a cold, honed edge.
His steps utterly silent, he approached, then stopped a good distance away. Wizard’s senses allowed him to hear words that would’ve been indistinguishable to ordinary ears.
Emilia stood with her usual formal straightness. Peterson took a step closer. She stayed where she was, but her stance quivered with tension. Vadim reached for the magic, began shaping a spell—one that would prove very unpleasant to Peterson.
“Husband, huh?” Peterson said. “I haven’t heard of a Dunmoor. What’s he do for Dragovich?”
“He scouts prospective territories then assesses how much profit they’re likely to produce,” Emilia said.
Vadim paused in his spellwork, curious. Was he hearing the truth of this long-dead husband? Or was this some tale embroidered to discourage Peterson? He ghosted nearer, close enough to be able to see their faces in the dim light.
“Sounds important,” Peterson said. “Funny I haven’t heard of him.” He smiled. “But maybe there’s really no husband, huh?”
“Why, of course there is!”
She looked around, as if for eavesdroppers. Vadim remembered her sensitivity at the market and dispersed the magic he’d gathered.
“I wouldn’t dare be here without him, you know,” Emilia said in a lower voice. “Mr. Dragovich quite terrifies me.”
Vadim blinked. I terrify her? Truly? She didn’t seem terrified. If she had been, he certainly gave her no reason to be frightened now.
“Then why does he bring you here?” Peterson said. His smile said he still wasn’t convinced of the mythical husband.
“Well, I suppose we’re both invited. And George makes me feel perfectly safe wherever we are.”
“Except he leaves you all alone here,” Peterson said.
“Oh, no. He’ll be back any moment.” Emilia back looked toward the house and smiled. “George is such a good-natured fellow, so full of laughter and good cheer. I can’t help but be happy when I’m with him.”
Vadim lost Peterson’s reply to this enthusiasm. Emilia was disarming him with this artless patter. Peterson looked like he was already foundering.
She craned her neck, now looking beyond Peterson. Vadim held his breath, waiting for her gaze to light on him, but it slid past, to the house.
“George told me Mr. Dragovich is holding a meeting tonight. Is that why you’re here?” A little worried frown kinked her brows. “Perhaps I oughtn’t detain you longer.”
“Dragovich can wait. I’m not afraid of him,” Peterson said.
You will be, Vadim thought.
“How about I sit here and keep you company?” Peterson went on. “Until your husband gets back. I’d like to meet him. Maybe we can talk about some things.”
“What a fine idea!” Emilia said, brightening. “He’s always eager to meet a new friend. Shall I go find him? I’d be delighted to introduce you.” She turned and started back to the house.
“Sure,” Peterson said to Emilia’s retreating back. He sounded confused.
Vadim almost cheered her. She seemed a completely different woman, naïve and harmless while neatly derailing Peterson. But it was time to end it.
He took his phone out of his pocket. Get Peterson, he texted. Now.
Emilia continued quickly across the garden without seeming to flee.
“Wait a second.” Peterson started after her. “I’ll go with—”
“Peterson!” Roman shouted from the door to the dining room.
Peterson spun, frowning. “What?” he shouted back. “I’m busy.”
Roman strode through the garden, the tall shadow of another of Vadim’s men right behind him. “The boss wants you. Get in here.”
Peterson turned to face them, hands outstretched in an angry shrug. “What the fuck?”
Illuminated by the light spilling through her door, Emilia paused and watched the men argue a moment before slipping inside.
Roman and the other man herded a protesting Peterson back toward the dining room. Knuckles to lips, Vadim stared absently at Emilia’s closed patio door.
What had she said this morning, when he’d teased her about displeasing him?
Her words struck him suddenly, stopping his breath.
He challenges you. Meddles with something you value.
“Something that gives me strength,” he murmured to the night air. “Something that makes me greater.”
Triumph surged through him as he realized what that something was.
He laughed softly. “Oh, Emilia. How can you not see how very valuable you are?”