This tale starts with a salsa and ends with the Tango, and in between tells the tale of a rather peculiar acquisition ...
An Ordinary life
One, two, three ...
"NO! Come on you useless girl, when will you get it right? AGAIN!"
One, two, three ...
"NO! Remember, remember. This is not the Byamo! Can you not remember? One, two, three, he goes forward, you behind, and right. Watch his arm, his left arm doesn't go behind his back does it? Are you stupid, now again, like this..."
One, two, three ...
"NO! Why do you think you are even capable of Salsa at this level if you can't learn the steps, AGAIN!"
They had tried for close to an hour, and the bitch did not let up. Everyone has those days, the ones where you genuinely think you might be capable of murder. The days where someone is pushing the limits of your patience, or testing your tolerance for stupidity, arrogance, or ignorance. Some days it's just someone being an asshole.
Zach Cartwright was pretty sure he could inflict just such pain on their instructor right at this moment, even if he wasn’t the subject of the bitches demanding ire.
"Ignore her Sarah, you're getting it, don't sweat it." he reassured his partner as they wound down, and the stuck up bitch was out of earshot, having walked off muttering something about putting up with amateurs.
"Easy for you to say, she loves you, mister 'I can dance anything'." "That's not what I meant." "The competition is in a week Zach, you really think I can nail these steps?"
"Come on, it's not like it's a world championship or anything. It's the south London regional amateurs, we'll do fine. Might even come home with a cheap plastic trophy." Zach smiled.
"She treats Salsa like it's life and death." Sarah sighed, slumping back against the mirror wall, throwing her towel into her kitbag.
"So what, maybe in her mind it is, but don't let her get to you. Far more life and death matters in the world than whether we do well at the south London regional now isn't there? Like when do we split this joint and go grab some beer?"
"Sounds good to me." It was the first time Zach had seen Sarah smile all afternoon.
"I'm telling you it's true. Come on, tell 'em Zach, you were the Austrian Macarena champion two years running!" Zach just nodded to his more than slightly inebriated friend and raised his pint glass in salute. Tony was busy holding court in his usual way. Standing with their half a dozen friends around the raised table that they had staked out as their own at the Drunken Sailor.
Tony was invariably the centre of attention, always the one with the story, even if it was someone else's story. Zach for his part, only half listened as he tracked Sarah making her way to the bar to buy him another drink.
She did look good in those jeans.
They had flirted constantly since leaving the dance studio two hours ago. He was pretty sure that he wasn't misreading the signals.
"He is just being modest!" Tony elaborated, "I've seen the trophies in his flat. Austrian champion!"
Virtually all of their little circle of friends was comprised of would be dancers. Only Anna, Tony's occasional girlfriend wasn't a regular at the studio. Zach struggled to keep up with whether they were in an 'on again' or 'off again' stage in their relationship. That was If you could call sporadic drunken sexual encounters an actual relationship. It had always seemed par for the course for Tony, had been since college. Some things didn't seem to change.
Wendy and Larissa made up their usual group. Both were understudies at various West End shows, never quite breaking through to regular recognised work, but they did actually pay the bills with their dancing. Which was something the others couldn't claim. They had all only come together as friends over the previous six months, the usual immigrants to a metropolis like London, in this case united by their love of dance, and the common desire to enjoy some drinks in good company, while bitching about the eccentricities of life.
"It's true," Zach conceded, "Two thousand and one, and two thousand and two. Two years running."
"Really?" Anna quipped, eyebrows raised, "there is such a thing as the Austrian Macarena championship?"
"That can't be a real thing," echoed Larissa, "Waltz I would have believed, but the Macarena?"
"No idea if there still is," Zach shrugged, "but there was when I was living there. Pretty good standard too, wasn't any easy run."
"What were you doing in Austria anyway?" "Fancied a change. You know me, always wandering. I took a temporary job in Venice, worked at the Opera House, danced at weekends."
"Is there anywhere you haven't lived?" Wendy joked, "I'm half serious, you have been around a lot."
"Have I now?" "I didn't mean it like that. Get your mind out of the gutter."
"She is right," Tony jumped in, "you deserted us for a good stretch there. Austria, Germany, Canada, those six months in Mexico, and what Greece and Turkey before you moved back? That's quite the decade."
"Don't forget Dubai, you lazed on the beech there for a while didn't you?" "Two months, for the money, that was a good gig."
"That was a security job? Remind me again why you don't have a better job. You're the plain weirdest guy I know," Anna asked, "You do all that computer security stuff sometimes, and then next time you come home you're working at a hotel."
"It is an upmarket hotel!" Zach protested, "Be fair, when I slum it, I do it in style don't I? I don't need the money right now, so I just took it to keep me busy. Let's me dance, meet some interesting people ... and I'm not wearing a suit and tie in an office job somewhere."
"That's only because the spooks fired you. " Tony laughed. "What do you mean by that?" Asked Anna,
"What spooks." "MI5," Zach replied, "first job after university. They recruited me straight out of Cambridge, said I had a lot of potential. I was hired as an intelligence analyst, wasn't really my thing though."
"Isn't that kind of thing supposed to stay secret, official secrets act and all?" "Hah, only when they don't fire you!" Tony laughed.
"There is that," Zach nodded, "and I was hardly there long enough to know anything that might endanger the state. They let me go before the end of my first month. "
"Did you do something stupid?" Wendy asked.
"Nah, they just said that I didn't have the right kind of character for the work. Never explained what that meant. I'll always remember that turn of phrase. What the fuck is the right kind of character for being an intelligence analyst anyway? Screw them, no regrets. A job behind a desk was never going to be for me."
"Why didn't you mention that before?" Wendy asked Zach just shrugged, "What, you think I'd volunteer the fact that I fucked up the biggest opportunity in my life? That I was drummed out of an illustrious intelligence institution for not having the right type of character?"
"I'd take that as a compliment myself," Anna offered smiling. "Still, I'd rather you thought of me as the cool dancer. A dancer who was once the Austrian Macarena champion ... twice."
His friends laughed as Zach raised two fingers in salute and beamed them his best cheesy pose smile. Sarah returned with their drinks and laid the tray carefully down on the table as Zach turned things round on his friend, "Besides, not like I am the only one who has been fired from a great job, and my failure didn't involve flooding my bosses office."
"That was not my fault!" laughed Tony. "To be fair if I had been sober, that would not have happened."
"Which boss was this?" Anna asked. "You didn't tell me this story did you darling?" she added, mockingly stroking Tony's chin.
"It was actually his bosses, bosses, bosses, boss as I recall." Zach smirked.
"The minister for Trade and Industry to give him his full title," Tony beamed, "I think I am actually proud of that one. I mean who has a better pub tale than that one. That's the shit that happens in bad sit-coms, not real life. My life trumps bad sit-com scripts!"
"How did you flood his office?"
"I'd had a heavy night the evening before ... which as I recall was all your fault Mr Cartwright ...."
"Guilty as charged," Zach smiled, "do continue."
"I'm pretty sure I was still hammered when I got to work, and I thought it might be cool to hide out in the executive bathroom they had on the top floor. I wasn't even supposed to know about it, but I'd been having a little fun with his lordships PA, and she let me have the key now and again. See that way they still saw me as being in the building when they checked, since we had those crappy card security systems. It was the perfect hiding spot to slack a little."
"Except when you leave the taps running and clog the sink at the same time."
"How did you manage to do that?" The girls asked almost in unison. "I left my jacket in the sink. It blocked the overflow, and I fell asleep in the bath next to the sink. next thing I know, the bath is literally on the floor below, right on top of the ministers desk. He wasn't there though. Guess if it had been a sit-com he'd have been at his desk when I fell through the floor, bath and half a ton of water in tow."
"I'd have paid to see that!" Laughed Larissa.
"It was quite the sight apparently," Tony nodded, "alas my recollection is fuzzy at best." "You'd be stinking rich if you still had that job."
"Yeah, probably, but hey, not like I do badly now is it? The dealership is pulling in the dough like no-one's business at the moment,"
"Antigua in a few weeks," Anna giggled excitedly, "you have much making up to do darling."
"Jealous." pouted Larrisa.
"She does have to put up with Tony." Wendy quipped. "I guess making up in tropical climes makes it all the more bearable eh?"
"I'll have you know that I have spared no expense on this romantic endeavour." Tony replied quickly.
"Your money has to be good for something." Anna grinned, blowing him a kiss.
"See what I have to put up with? Fucking proper gold digger this one isn't she?" "You're the one who keeps begging forgiveness darling."
"That's because you do have a fine ass," Tony bellowed, "and I am a man after all!"
"You know, sometimes I wonder how you two are friends at all," Wendy noted, pointing at Zach, "how do you put up with this idiot?" "What can I say, I'm the quietly charming one. I need a loutish foil to accentuate my better properties don't I?"
"Touché, smart ass." Tony laughed, mockingly flipping a finger in his direction.
"Don’t you have to be at work soon anyways?" "Yeah afraid so," Zach nodded, "had better make a move."
"You have to go?" Sarah looked disappointed. Good, Zach thought to himself. Tonight was too important though, no time for distractions, even of the welcome kind.
"Sorry, I took the night shift tonight. Only one this week though, swapped with Marnie so she could go to her aunt’s second wedding or something. I'll see you at the studio tomorrow."
"That you will, although not sure I want another session with that bitch." "It will be worth it," Zach smiled, "just think of the awesome plastic trophy." Sarah smiled back, the big broad type you can't fake,
"I'll hold you to that."
"Deal!" Zach winked at her, "Ok guys, that's it for me. Maybe see you Friday?"
"Probably," Tony nodded, "maybe before the movie?"
"Oh yeah, sure, forgot about that, we can meet here before we head over. See you guys then."
With that Zach slipped out onto the street and made his way up towards Tottenham Court Road. It was coming up on nine thirty. The in-between time, when most were already safely indoors within their drinking establishment of choice, and still a few hours before the first serious stream of drunkards would descend from the bars to mix with the summer tourists getting out of their shows. It was the perfect combination of time of year and hour of the day. The last of the summer twilight fading into the bright lights and coalescing with the gaudy neon into atmospheric half-light.
He much preferred the streets before the effects of cheap beer and poor judgement spilled out onto them.
It also made his journey to work uneventful. All the better under the circumstances he thought to himself.
Tonight was indeed the night.
The hotel was one of the more well renowned spots in the West End, a fairly high end clientele. Wealthy enough to tip exceedingly well, without being the types that employed entourages, or didn't deign speak to the help. The average client was the best type of rich, it was one of those trendier places. What did they call them? Boutique hotels. Mostly folks new to their money. Not the establishment types that guard their wallets like miserly Scotsmen. It was a great job for tips, people proactively wanted to demonstrate to you that not only were they rich, but they were still grounded, could still relate to the common man. Like lambs to the slaughter for those looking to illicit some decent tips.
Not that the job was about the money. This was just the cover. That he oddly enjoyed it, and some of the fringe benefits was just a happy co-incidence. He made his way in through the service door as always, and was quickly changed into his neat black and white uniform. Zach's tasks rotated and kept him busy most times. He didn't have an official job title anymore. He tended to help everyone as and when required, and had become a kind of trusted jack of all trades. Trusted around the clients, he was equally at home behind the bar, as he was banking a weekend's takings or even interviewing a new maid when the shift manager forgot he had scheduled it.
At times he was the de facto concierge, at least when Bill was not around. Bill was the senior concierge, a really interesting guy. In his sixties, and still at work bright as button each and every day he was shifted. Zach always thought Bill would make for great source material for a book.
Of course, in his profession, it was unlikely he could get away with writing a book. This was only the third job he'd been assigned since he had moved back to London. He hadn't expected to enjoy coming back to London quite as much as he was. He'd enjoy it as long as he could.
The first few hours passed uneventfully. It was hard to avoid having a tiny sliver of paranoia slip in during those hours, but the usual routine kept him occupied.
Eleven forty five came. Time to take care of the task at hand.
He sent Natasha on a break, it had been over two hours since she had last had a cigarette, so she left without a complaint . He would be the only one available to take the order upstairs. The room service order was being placed by one of their people. As far as the kitchen were aware the order came from room 1520.
That would put him on the right floor at the right time.
He made his way to the service elevator and picked up the room service cart.
He turned the corner into the corridor. Deep breath. Don’t screw this up he told himself, same exercises as on the dance-floor, just a little more at stake. He knew that he wouldn’t screw it up. He never did, it was how he rationalised the danger.
He knocked on the door to room 1518.
The occupant, a middle aged business type, answered with a quizzical look on his face, "Sorry, but I didn't order any room service." He said.
"Really?" Zach asked, looking down at his belt. "Ahh, damn, I left my radio downstairs. Sir, would you mind if I use your phone to check with the kitchen? Sorry for the imposition"
"By all means."
"I'm really sorry sir."
"No worries. That smells good."
"Someone ordered Filet Mignon. The chef's good too."
"Might have to try that tomorrow."
"It's worth it," Zach smiled, "I'll be out of your way in a second, just let me use the phone here."
Preoccupied with the football game on the TV and distracted by the smell of the steak, which kept drawing his eye, the man didn't even notice as Zach reached into the case that was open at the end of the bed.
He pulled the object he was looking for up quickly from beneath the collection of pressed dress shirts. Then he calmly made the phone call down to the kitchen, confirmed that the order had come from the next room, made his apologies, and calmly left the room.
He made his way next door, opened the door to 1520 with his key card. Quietly closing the door behind him. The room was empty, but the lights were on. Zach pulled the cart up and sat himself on the end of the bed, before digging into the Filet. The chef was indeed excellent. He finished the meal, leaving only the asparagus uneaten. He looked down at his watch. Exactly half past midnight. He made his way to the far wall and switched out the lights, counting out the thirty seconds precisely in his head. The job was successful. He switched the lights back on and breathed out slowly. He was still alone. The others hadn't noticed and his paymasters knew the object had been retrieved.
Breathe out … and relax.
He felt into his pocket and pulled the trinket into the light. As tended to be the case with these things, it looked like an innocuous little object. Jade from the best he could tell. A small elephant hung from a sterling silver necklace. He often wondered why they went to such great lengths to secure these things. He knew that the objects he was entrusted to retrieve were seemingly not valuable to their current owner.
The would-be 'victims' didn't actually know they had what they had, or rather they were rarely aware of the true value of something. That's the thing about the world; the worth of something is often very relative. Context is often everything. Hell, he didn't even know the worth of the object he retrieved. Safer that way. What isn't missed can't be reported stolen. The objects often weren't even missed until the poor soul had moved on. Probably when they unpacked upon arriving home, or upon reaching their next destination. Sometimes he was pretty sure that they didn't even know they were in possession of the object in question in the first place.
His profession existed simply so that the others wouldn't know that the object had been retrieved. If it was obvious it might raise all kinds of questions. They had warned him that there were more than a few truces that he'd be breaking. He hadn't asked for the details.
The consequences would never be important as long as he wasn't caught. Their politics didn't particularly interest him. He knew that was weird. Most people would freak out in his world.
He whistled to himself as he pushed the cart back towards the service elevator. He went outside immediately, and carefully placed the trinket under the loose brick to the right of the delivery bay. It was right under the security camera, a good blind spot.
Zach slipped back inside, no-one any the wiser that he had once again danced with fate a little.
He finished his shift just as the early morning light was washing away the dirt from the night before.
Making made his way back to the flat he wondered when he would hear about the next assignment.
They had paid him a visit in his absence. He wasn't all that surprised.
Zach picked up the manila envelope that was sitting there on the kitchen table. This was the fastest turn-around yet. He hoped it wasn't going to be too sudden. He was looking forward to the dance championship, maybe celebrating in style with Sarah. He pulled open the envelope and quickly scanned the single page that was contained within. Then he folded both neatly, placed them carefully in metal bin by his table and threw a match in after them.
It was to be Argentina this time. A long game too, possibly several years. He watched the paper slowly disintegrate with the flames, occasionally poking the ashes to spread them about. Zach sighed, it was a shame, he had enjoyed his time back home by the Thames, but no rest for the wicked it seemed.
Besides at least there would be some fringe benefits to the next assignment. Argentina ... Tango ... a truly sensual and complex dance ... right up his street.