The middle-aged hotel clerk watched with tentative eyes as the mysterious woman who had left the hotel only forty minutes previously returned through the narrow entrance to the lobby, a few flecks of snow glistening on her shaved scalp. As she swept across the carpeted floor, the woman immediately noticed his gaze and her smile radiated warmth. His own mouth quivered responsively but he didn’t say anything. As he watched her shoes disappear up the steep flight of stairs that led to the floors above, his dull, bored mind ticked over in curiosity.
Forty minutes. That was quite a short time to be gone for someone as dressed up as her. A full face of bright makeup, and he had noticed the jumpsuit flicking through her trench-coat when she had left. His first assumption of her came rushing back to the forefront of his mind. A lady of the night? Surely not, given her quick return. Or do people only last that long these days? He wouldn’t know.
If not a call-girl, then what was she? What was she doing here in Belfast, for only a night it seemed? She hadn’t returned with anything. Had she simply gone out for dinner? Possibly. Did she go alone? Was she meeting somebody? A clandestine plot? Was she a spy?
His breath caught in his throat, contemplating momentarily. A spy?
He jumped as he heard something shatter in the room behind him.
“Are you okay, ma?”
“Get the broom!” His eighty-five-year-old mother’s shrill voice rang out. “I’ve dropped the bloody glass.”
The son instinctively reached for the dust-pan below the counter, and he smiled to himself. A spy? How ridiculous. He really needed to leave this wretched hotel more.
In her room two floors above, Busara Ayabei had already unbuckled her shoes, slipped them off, and flicked her jacket onto the hook behind the door. She poured herself a drink from the mini-bar, a vodka on ice, and double-checked that the drapes were pulled over and the door was locked. She sat on the hideous frilly pink duvet and reached for the hotel telephone. Her hand hovered over the receiver as she collected her thoughts, twirling her hand mechanically, the faint clinking of ice, almost becoming therapeutic.
Her encounter with Ronan Rafferty had gone just as planned but it still left a bitter taste in her mouth. The man had seemed so broken. The eyes that had looked at her across that bar table had been empty, dull. Not a hint of a spark to them. Doubt rippled within her. Why was it such a necessity for the poor man to be involved in all this? Why must he alone break Catriona out? Surely it would be faster and cleaner if they just organised her old friends release without the added liability of Rafferty being involved. But, of course, that was part of being a player in this whole game: everyone’s on a need to know basis.
She finally picked up the receiver and her fingers deftly dialled the number that had by now, bored itself into her mind. The call was answered after three rings.
“Willow Street Toy Shop, how may I assist you?”
The woman’s voice on the other side was as saccharine and soft as the countless other times she had answered the call.
“The caracal prowls the Wild Wood,” Busara said, her tone a monotone drawl. Her eyes were focused on two cubes of ice that were dancing at the base of her glass.
“Of course, one moment please.”
The line disconnected and Busara waited in silence. After a few moments, she heard the click as the call was reconnected.
“Caracal,” said the rich, distinctly male voice on the other end. “I trust everything went as planned.”
“Yes, perfectly,” she replied.
“He’s agreed to it?”
“Reluctantly, but yes.”
“So, you had to use certain leverage?”
“Yes,” she replied. Her mouth moved as if to say something more but no words escaped her lips.
“And he understands the deadline?”
“Yes,” she repeated. The man on the other end seemed to sense that she was holding something back.
“What is it, Caracal?”
“You know that I don’t ever question you, Badger…”
“Yes…” said Badger, his voice dragging.
“I just don’t understand why you want him to do this? He seems exceptionally ordinary, below par even. Especially when it comes to something like this.”
She paused, expecting Badger to interrupt, but he remained silent. She continued.
“He may be Catriona’s cousin, but blood seems the only thing they have in common. He’s not a Riordan. He seems weak, even. Ruined already, by his affair with this Mulligan soldier. Why are we not approaching her uncle?”
As she waited for his response there was silence between the two colleagues.
Finally, he spoke. “I encourage your curiosity, Caracal. I never wish for my soldiers to follow orders blindly. You are right to question me.”
She paused waiting for the ‘but’.
“But. This is one of those times where trust must come before curiosity. I promised you, that everything will come to light eventually, that you’ll understand my reasons for involving Rafferty in this whole ordeal. Why it was a condition of mine to help you help Catriona. Do you understand?”
His voice was gentle.
“Yes, sir,” Busara replied. She could hear Badger’s throat gurgle in a way that suggested he was contemplating whether to continue talking. He did.
“I would remind you how we first met, Caracal. How reluctant you were to submit to our agreement. You surprised me greatly. I would go as far as saying, that you are now my most trusted colleague. Quite a feat, considering how quickly everything has transpired. I hope you know by now that I am a man of my word, and I will hold up my end of the bargain. Even though I’ll be disappointed to see you go.”
Busara didn’t say anything, her tongue tied beneath her teeth. Her heart was pounding. Badger had never been that open with her before. She hoped he took her silence as gratitude.
“You were right in using your real name too. It will make it easier for Catriona to trust us later on. You two were quite close, weren’t you?”
Busara nodded, and managed to stutter, “Yes, quite close.”
“Yes, yes.” His tone changed, back to formal. “I trust you’ll be returning tomorrow?”
“Yes, sir. I leave early in the morning.”
“In that case, I should let you get some rest. Come to the Den in the afternoon if you can. We can discuss our next move.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you.”
“Good night, Caracal.”
The line went dead.
As Busara gently placed down the receiver she laid back on the bulging pillows. Tilting her head, she drained her drink in one go, wincing as the liquid burned her throat and slipped into her empty stomach. She was in no mood to eat.
She pulled herself out of her jumpsuit, hurriedly scrubbed the makeup from her face and returned to the bed, climbing below the warm sheets. As she flicked off the light switch next to the headboard and closed her eyes, she could hear bawdy cheers of drunken revellers below in the street, bringing her mind back to the cramped bar with Ronan.
The image of the hunched figure swam in front of her closed lids, and she couldn’t help but wonder what he was doing and thinking at this very moment. Less than an hour ago, she had seemingly completely turned his life upside down. Obviously, Badger knew something about him that was lost to her. She couldn’t understand how the timid man that she had just met could possibly survive in the world that she had just pulled him into.