"My mother always says it's common as pig tracks to go around with a run in your stocking," Helen says, eyeing Billie's ripped hosiery critically.
Billie rolls her eyes. "Helen, it's murder, not cotillion."
"It's not murder," Helen corrects. "It's an assassination, and you can make an effort to look nice. Besides, they're supposed to believe we're stewardesses and no stewardess would be caught dead with torn pantyhose." Helen brandishes a familiar plastic egg. "I brought spares. Please go change while you still have time. I'll start the coffee."
The run is so tiny only Helen would have noticed it. Billie opens her mouth to argue and closes it again when she sees the tightness around Helen's lips. Helen is nervous and that means her eye for detail is hyperfocused, searching out things to worry about. Better for her to fuss about snagged pantyhose than any of the thousand other things that could go wrong on their first mission, Billie decides.
"Mary Alice is on coffee detail. You go check on Nat," Billie says, plucking the egg from Helen's hand. She pops into the lavatory just long enough to strip off her ruined hose and shimmy into a fresh pair, emerging to hear the conversation from the cockpit. Movies again-of course. When Gilchrist and Sweeney aren't debating the odds of getting Goldie Hawn into bed, they are trying to stump each other with film quotes.
"'A deer has to be taken with one shot. I try to tell people that, but they don't listen.'" The pilot waits while his copilot pauses the preflight check, screwing up his eyes in thought.
"Monty Python and the Holy Grail?" he guesses.
The pilot rolls his eyes. "Jesus, Sweeney, no, it's not Monty Python. Did that line sound funny to you?"
Sweeney shrugs. "It could be." The copilot jerks his head towards the galley. "Skirt!" he calls.
Billie steps into the doorway of the cockpit.
"Yes, Sweeney?" she asks.
He pulls his mouth to the side, doing his best Bogart as he looks her up and down. "She missed being beautiful by just a hair, but the voice more than made up for it. It was low and smoky, the sort of voice that ordered whiskey neat and told the bartender to keep the change."
"I don't remember that in The Maltese Falcon," she says.
His expression is outraged. "It's original! Come on, I make a great Sam Spade."
"Don't quit your day job. What did you ring for?"
Sweeney repeats the quote. "What movie is it from? Vance just threw that one out and acted like I'd punched his grandmother when I didn't know it."
"The Deer Hunter," she tells Sweeney. She points to the pilot. "And his next line will be from The Godfather."
The pilot grins. "How do you know that?"
"Every other one of your quotes is from The Godfather," she says. She pauses and the pilot gives her an assessing look. She is perfectly turned out, from the crisp, uncreased uniform to the smooth, dark blond hair tucked into a neat French pleat. Her hands don't shake and her eyes don't dart around. But she is nervous-or excited. Something is thrumming under her skin, he can almost smell it. And it is his job to settle her down.
"You got this, Billie," he says in a low voice. "You and the others are good or they wouldn't have given you the job."
She smiles. "Thanks, Gilchrist."
He shrugs. "I've given you a lot of shit in training, but the four of you are alright-provided you make it through tonight," he adds with a heartless grin.
"That's comforting," she tells him as Sweeney laughs.
"Just remember the mission and you'll be fine," Gilchrist assures her. "Sweeney and I will be keeping the bird steady, so you girls are on your own back there unless something goes seriously to shit." His expression says it better not, and she promises herself then that she'd sooner open a vein with a paper clip than ask him for help.
"Got it," she tells him. She watches him for a second as his hands move over the switches and levers, working through the preflight check. He is at ease, loose as an athlete who has trained and drilled until there's nothing left but the big game.
Sweeney draws her attention by giving her a nudge. "Tell the brunette I want a drink when this is all over."
"You know the rules. No fraternizing," Gilchrist reminds
Sweeney makes a noise like a wounded puppy. "Easy for you to say. You've got Anthea." He drags the name out on three syllables. "Ahhhhn-theeee-aaaah," he repeats in a country club drawl.
"You got a steady girl? Good for you," Billie says to the pilot.
He pulls down the visor to show a small snapshot of a girl with a dark flip like Jackie O's, a serious expression in her wide eyes.
"Pretty," Billie says.
"And riiiiiiiich," Sweeney adds in a sulky tone.
"What's your problem, Sweeney?" she asks.
"I'm jealous, of course. He's got a rich, pretty debutante and all I've got is a stiffy for the little brunette with the curly hair out there."
"The little brunette has a name," Billie tells him. "Natalie."
"The future Mrs. Charles McSween," Sweeney says solemnly. "At least for this weekend." He raises a warning hand. "And don't tell me it's forbidden. That just makes it more exciting. It's like they're daring me to take her out."
Billie looks from one to the other. "I'm surprised neither of you is chasing Helen," she says. "She's the prettiest of us."
They both shrug. "Pretty, yes," Gilchrist admits. "Beautiful even. But she's what we Canadians call a Winnipeg winter."
"A Winnipeg winter?"
"Great natural beauty but capable of freezing your dick off if you're stupid enough to get naked," Sweeney explains. He surveys Billie with a practiced eye. "Of course, you would just-"
Billie holds up a hand. "Never mind. I don't want to know. Coffee is brewing. I'll have Mary Alice bring you some."
Mary Alice is pouring two fresh cups when Billie enters the galley. The air smells of burnt coffee and Mary Alice gives her an apologetic look. "I spilled some on the burner."
Billie waves a hand. "Who cares?" She reaches for the foil-wrapped package of mixed nuts and sticks it into the warming drawer.
Mary Alice nods towards the cockpit. "How are our fearless leaders?"
"Quoting films and trying to decide which one of us they get to take home for the weekend."
Mary Alice pulls a face. "God, I hate them."
Billie lifts an eyebrow. "They're not all bad. Vance Gilchrist just gave me a vote of confidence, a little pep talk for the evening's adventure."
Mary Alice snorts. "Only because he's in charge and if we screw up, it's on his head."
"Probably," Billie agrees. She reaches out and straightens Mary Alice's name tag. It is printed with the name margaret ann. Her own name tag reads bridget.
Always choose an alias with your own initials, their mentor has told them. At some point, you will be tired or distracted or simply human and you will start to write or say your real name instead of your alias. It is far easier to correct your mistake without arousing suspicions if you have at least begun with the proper letter. Also, it means never having to change your monogram. Remember, ladies, your lives are lies now, but the fewer you tell, the simpler it is to keep them straight.
Helen appears, poised and unruffled although her eyes are unusually bright. "Showtime," she tells them. "The Bulgarians are here." Natalie joins them as they hurry to the side of the plane, watching through the round windows as the long black bulk of a limousine approaches.
"Oh god," Natalie murmurs. "It's happening. Finally."
Helen lays a hand on her wrist. "Breathe, Nat."
Nat pulls in a long breath, flaring her nostrils as she watches the car glide to a halt. The expected quartet of passengers gets out: the principal-a man they refer to only as X-his private secretary, and a pair of bodyguards.
"Oh shit," Mary Alice says suddenly.
Billie leans forward, pressing her nose to the glass. The bodyguards carry nothing, hands free should they need to draw their weapons. They look like bears, heavily bearded and shaggy-haired, unlike the secretary, with his neatly shaven face and slicked-back hair. He has a calfskin case in his hands, slim body hunched over it to shield it from the light greasy rain that has begun to fall. X himself is cradling a small dog in his arms, an apricot poodle with a tuft of hair gathered into a silk bow.
"Nobody said anything about a dog," Helen says faintly.
"I'm not killing a dog." Nat rears back from the window, eyes wide. "I can't do it."
"You won't have to," Billie promises her. The others stare, and she realizes the flaw in the plan. The four of them have their orders and are supposed to be under Gilchrist's command. But he will be secure in the cockpit, locked away from whatever happens in the cabin. And in the cabin, they are going to need leadership. It isn't like their organization to make such a basic mistake, and Billie wonders if it has been done deliberately, a way to test them on their coolness under pressure.
Billie steps up. "The dog is a complication. But it's not a now problem. It's a later problem. The now problem is getting our guests on board and settled. Stations. Let's go."
To her astonishment, the other three obey, hurrying forward to arrange themselves attractively as the principal starts up the staircase of the aircraft. He is the sort of man who should have been flying on a luxury jet, a Beechcraft or a Gulfstream, something with sleek teakwood interiors and the latest gadgets. But his dossier says he is old-school, preferring twin-engine turboprops, the bigger the better. This one has two engines mounted in front of each wing, and they rumble to life as the propellers begin to move.
The quartet of stewardesses smile at X, a dour-looking man in his fifties who snaps his fingers as he stands just inside the open doorway, shaking the rain from his hair. His secretary waits patiently behind him, still shielding the case with his body. One bodyguard brings up the rear, standing with bovine stillness on the stairs while the other moves into the cabin. His neck is thick and his gaze is flat and unfriendly as he pokes a head into the cockpit for a quick inspection.
The pilots turn and Gilchrist flashes him a genial grin. "Jesus, you should warn a person." He waits for an answering smile that isn't forthcoming. Then he shrugs and turns back to his preflight check.
"You are not Henderson," the bodyguard says in an accusing tone.
Gilchrist's reply is cheerful. "Nope. Poor bastard got food poisoning. I warned him not to eat the bouillabaisse, but he wanted to go native. Now he's crouched in the bathroom at the Hilton, spewing out of both ends." He finishes with a laugh and looks at Sweeney, who joins in laughing half a beat too late.
"You are not Henderson," the bodyguard repeats.
"Wow, you're quick," Gilchrist says, giving a good impression of a man whose patience is wearing thin.
"We don't take off without Henderson," the bodyguard tells him.
The principal pushes his way forward. "What's the trouble?"
The bodyguard makes a gesture. "This is not Henderson."
Gilchrist rolls his eyes. "Look, can we skip the rerun? No, I'm not Henderson. Henderson is sick and the agency called me. My credentials are right there," he adds, pointing to the laminated ID clipped to his shirt.
"Let me see," the bodyguard says, making a beckoning gesture with his hand.
"Christ," the pilot mutters, handing over his ID. It is a fake, of course, but a good one, and Gilchrist isn't worried. Sweeney continues to work methodically through the check, focusing on his clipboard and his instrument panel while the little drama plays out. The bodyguard scrutinizes the ID.
"Vincent Griffin," he reads slowly.
"Excellent," Vance Gilchrist tells him. "I see someone's gotten the message that Reading Is Fundamental." He gives the bodyguard a thin smile. Usually Gilchrist prefers an easygoing approach, but sometimes playing the jerk gets better results. And it is always more fun.
He puts out his hand for the ID but the bodyguard holds it close.
"What are you going to do, press it in your diary before you ask me to prom?" Gilchrist demands. "That's my ID. If you have a problem, get on the radio. Otherwise, hand it over."
They stare at each other, bristling like dogs. From behind the principal, Billie speaks up.
"Excuse the interruption, Captain, but I need your order and the copilot's," she says, drawing every man's attention.
The principal turns to look and she gives him a cool smile. "Good evening, sir. Can I get you something from the galley before we take off?" She is inches from him and he steps back to take a better look at all five and a half feet of her. The uniform, dark grey and severe, does her the favor of showing off a fair bit of shadowed cleavage and a knee he wants to get to know better.
He returns the smile with his lips but his eyes are cold and small. "Vodka," he tells her. "On the rocks, and no cheap shit. I pay for the good stuff."
"Of course, sir," she says, holding his gaze a moment longer than necessary. "Would you care to take your seat? My colleague is preparing a selection of snacks and dinner will be served within an hour of takeoff."
She holds out her arm, indicating the cabin behind her. The bodyguard makes a noise of protest, but the principal waves him off with a few choice words in Bulgarian. Billie leads the way to the first row of leather armchairs. The secretary has already taken a seat in the second row, wiping at the rain-spotted calfskin case with a towel Helen provides. Natalie is on her tiptoes, struggling to close an overhead locker while the second bodyguard watches with enthusiasm for the way her breasts bounce against her uniform shirt.
He says something in Bulgarian to the secretary, finishing with a rough laugh, but the secretary prims his mouth. Mary Alice is in the galley, pouring drinks and garnishing small bowls of warm nuts with salt to make the men thirsty. She smooths the uniform skirt over her curvaceous hips and carries out the tray, presenting the refreshments with a smile. She makes certain that the bodyguards have a hefty glass of something cold and encourages them to drink up quickly before the plane takes off.
Copyright © 2022 by Deanna Raybourn. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.