The Skeleton Key
She woke with a knife at her throat.
Or so she thought.
Seichan came fully alert but kept her eyes closed, feigning sleep, feeling something sharp slicing into her neck. She instinctively knew not to move. Not yet. Wary, she relied on her senses, but heard no whisper of movement, felt no stirring of air across her bare skin, detected no scent of body or breath that was not her own. She smelled only a hint of roses and disinfectant.
Am I alone?
With the sharp pressure still on her neck, she peeked one eye open and took in her environment in a heartbeat. She lay sprawled in an unknown bed, in a room she’d never seen before. Across the bed, the covers were finely textured brocade; above the headboard, an old tapestry hung; on the mantel over a fireplace, a crystal vase of fresh-cut roses sat beside an eighteenth-century gold clock with a thick marble base. The time read a few minutes past ten, confirmed by a modern clock radio resting atop a walnut bedside table. From the warm tone of the light flowing through the sheer curtains, she assumed it was morning.
She picked out muffled voices, speaking French, a match to the room’s decor and appointments, passing down the hall outside the room.
Hotel room, she surmised.
Expensive, elegant, not what she could afford.
She waited several more breaths, making sure she was alone.
She had spent her younger years running the slums of Bangkok and the back alleys of Phnom Penh, half feral, a creature of the street. Back then, she had learned the rudimentary skills of her future profession. Survival on the streets required vigilance, cunning, and brutality. When her former employers found her, and recruited her from those same streets, the transition to assassin proved an easy one.
Twelve years later, she wore another face, an evolution that a part of her still fought, leaving her half formed, waiting for that soft clay to harden into its new shape. But what would she become? She had betrayed her former employers, an international criminal organization called the Guild—but even that name wasn’t real, only a useful pseudonym. The real identity and purpose of the organization remained shadowy, even to its own operatives.
After her betrayal, she had no home, no country, nothing but a thin allegiance to a covert U.S. agency known as Sigma. She had been recruited to discover the true puppet masters of the Guild. Not that she had much choice. She had to destroy her former masters before they destroyed her.
It was why she had come to Paris, to chase a lead.
She slowly sat up and caught her reflection in a mirror on the armoire. Her black hair was mussed by the pillow, the emerald of her eyes dull, sensitive to the weak morning sunlight.
Someone had stripped her down to her bra and panties, likely to search her for weapons or wires or perhaps purely to intimidate her. Her clothes—black jeans, gray T-shirt, and leather motorcycle jacket—had been folded and placed atop a neighboring antique Louis XV chair. On an Empire-period nightstand, her weapons had been arranged in a neat row, making a mockery of their lethality. Her SIG Sauer pistol was still in its shoulder holster, while her daggers and knives had been unsheathed, shining stingingly bright.
As brilliantly as the new piece of jewelry adorning her neck.
The stainless-steel band had been fastened tight and low. A tiny green LED light glowed at the hollow of her throat, where sharp prongs dug deep into that tender flesh.
So this is what woke me up . . .
She reached to the electronic necklace and carefully ran a fingertip along its surface, searching for the mechanism that secured it. Under her right ear, she discovered a tiny pin-sized opening.
But who holds the key?
Her heart thudded in her throat, pinching against those sharp prongs with every beat. Anger flushed her skin, leaving behind a cold dread at the base of her spine. She dug a finger under the tight band, strangling herself, driving the steel thorns deeper until—
—agony lanced through her body, setting fire to her bones.
She collapsed to the bed, contorted with pain, back arched, chest too constricted to scream. Then darkness . . . nothingness . . .
Relief flooded through her as she fell back, but the sensation was short-lived.
She woke again, tasting blood where she had bitten her tongue. A bleary-eyed check of the mantel clock revealed that only a moment had passed.
She rolled back up, still trembling with aftershocks from the near electrocution, and swung her legs off the bed. She kept her hands well away from her neck and crossed to the window, needing to get her bearings. Standing slightly to the side to keep from casting a shadow, she stared below at a plaza at the center of which stood a massive towering bronze column with a statue of Napoleon atop it. An arcade of identical elegant buildings surrounded the square, with archways on the ground floor and tall second-story windows, separated by ornamental pillars and pilasters.
I’m still in Paris . . .
She stepped back. In fact, she knew exactly where she was, having crossed that same square at the crack of dawn, as the city was just waking. The plaza below was the Place Vendôme, known for its high-end jewelers and fashion boutiques. The towering bronze Colonne Vendôme in the center was a Parisian landmark, made from the melting of twelve hundred Russian and Austrian cannons collected by Napoleon to commemorate some battle or other. Across its surface climbed a continuous ribbon of bas-relief depicting scenes from various Napoleonic wars.
She turned and studied the opulent room, draped in silk and decorated in gold leaf.
I must still be at the Ritz.
She had come to the hotel—the Ritz Paris—for an early-morning meeting with a historian who was connected to the Guild. Something major was afoot within the organization, stirring up all her contacts. She knew that such moments of upheaval, when locked doors were momentarily left open and safeguards loosened, were the perfect time to snatch what she could. So she had reached in deep, pushed hard, and risked exposing herself perhaps too much.
One hand gently touched the collar—then lowered.
Definitely too much.
One of her trusted contacts had set up this rendezvous. But apparently money only bought so much trust. She had met with the historian in the Hemingway Bar downstairs, a wood-paneled and leather-appointed homage to the American writer. The historian had been seated at a side table, nursing a Bloody Mary, a drink that had originated at this establishment. Next to his chair rested a black leather briefcase, holding the promise of secrets yet to be revealed.
She had a drink.
Still a mistake.
Even now, her mouth remained cottony, her head equally so.