Anna traced the final curve on the portrait she was drawing of the woman sitting across from her. The thin line in the picture which defined Zoe’s elegant jawline could have easily been a slash that cut from one end of her throat to the other. With her offhand, Anna smudged the pencil line to soften it. She wanted a smooth transition, not a violent demarcation.
“I’m impressed that you managed to cut off my communications links,” Anna said, glancing around the cafe and noticing the half dozen people in close proximity to them who were happily chatting away on the phone. “Very neat and precise.”
“Thank you,” Zoe said. “We pride ourselves on our professionalism.”
“I presume that’s why you chose to meet with me directly, rather than sending in your heavy hitter or a strike team like with Val and Tam?” Anna asked. She sketched a quick symbol under Zoe’s portrait and placed the drawing pad down on the table.
“I assure you, they will both be given every opportunity to reconsider their position,” Zoe said. “Your team is a tremendous asset, and would be valued as such.”
The drawing pad buzzed imperceptibly under Anna’s fingers. She let out a small puff of relief at the message the sensation conveyed.
“I was not aware PrimaLux valued that who served it,” Anna said. “You spoke of a flow of duties and rewards but from what we’ve seen, those rewards seem to be little more than an investment with a required rate of return. What they pay you will always be less than what you earn for them, no matter what form the remuneration takes. True loyalty from PrimaLux to those who serve its interests appears to be entirely absent.”
“And what would you see this ‘True loyalty’ involving?” Zoe asked. She reclined in her chair with the easy grace of someone who knows they’ve already won and who wishes to savor the victory for as long as possible.
“Real loyalty can take many forms,” Anna said. “If your superiors discovered that you had failed to complete a mission and that failure had significant cost to them, would they be more concerned about the impact to their agenda or to the price you paid for trying and failing?”
“If I failed, would I have the right to demand any consideration from them?” Zoe asked.
“You are a valued asset are you not?” Anna asked. “Should valuable things be discarded because of an imperfection?”
“If the imperfection reduces their value sufficiently? Then, yes, certainly!” Zoe said.
“And once something is discarded, does it owe any duty to its former master?” Anna asked, folding her hands over the drawing pad and leaning towards Zoe with a smile.
Zoe paused, biting back her first retort, and smiling a cold but playful smile in return.
“You have some stratagem still at work, don’t you?” she asked.
“What would make you say that?” Anna asked, her smile unwavering.
“A discarded tool owes its former owner no further consideration,” Zoe said. “Their relationship is ended. But why would you make that point? To convince me to abandon my side and join yours? You are suggesting that a relationship built on true loyalty would never be discarded and even in the face of abject failure. That would be a superior position to be in, if it could occur, and if I believed there was any danger that such a failure might be in my future.”
“You’ve cut me off from communication with my team,” Anna said. “Certainly I can’t have any sense how the plan I worked out is coming undone.”
“And yet I can’t help but feel that you do,” Zoe said.
“That’s easily verified,” Anna said. “My communications are down, but yours remains intact.”
Zoe wriggled her fingers, flexing them in tight knots of anticipation.
“What an interesting move to make,” she said. “Do I call them and play into a trap you’ve set? Do I cut myself off to avoid being trapped and play into a separate trap? If you were only half as clever, this would be no fun at all, but could you be twice as clever as I believe?”
“I am doubtless less clever than I believe myself to be, but whether that is clever enough for you is something we have yet to determine,” Anna said, relaxing back into her chair.
Zoe fidgeted for a moment, caught on the horns of indecision, until she finally reached down into the purse she carried and brought out her phone.
“Doing nothing tells me nothing,” she said. “If you have another stratagem in play, I’m sure my team can adapt to it.”
She tapped the screen a few times and brought the phone to her ear, only to pull it away a moment later.
“You sabotaged my phone as well?” she said.
“It seemed only fair,” Anna said. “Also, I was hoping for an uninterrupted conversation with you.”
“You have my full and undivided attention now,” Zoe said, a hint of irritation coloring her voice.
“Good,” Anna said. “Perhaps you would like to know what my plan was then?”
“I believe I have the general details of it,” Zoe said. “Please though, break down the specifics, I suspect I know them tool but I’m sure you’re perspective on them will be enlightening.”
“Where shall we begin?” Anna said. “Perhaps with my overall aims?”
“You were looking to land a big catch,” Zoe said. “Someone sufficiently high in PrimaLux’s hierarchy that they could testify convincingly on our involvement in the cases you’ve encountered.”
“To what end?” Anna asked.
“Typically it would be to bring those responsible to justice, though given how you operate I imagine it was more likely that you intended to deal out a poetic form of justice yourselves and use the witness you procured to avoid the official prosecution that would come as a reprisal.”
“And the witness who was going to work with us?” Anna asked. “You clearly identified them early enough to put a comprehensive plan in place.”
“Vice President Claudia Goodwin,” Zoe said. “We’ve had recorded some disturbing marks in her profile for a while now. Not enough to terminate her but signs that she might not be as reliable as we would have preferred.”
“She was as much a honey pot as anything, wasn’t she?” Anna asked. “You were able to respond to our overtures as rapidly as you did because you knew she would act as a lightning rod for anyone seeking to undermine PrimaLux from within.”
“Let’s say she served multiple roles in the organization,” Zoe said.
“Served in the past tense? Then your plan did call for her elimination?” Anna asked.
“A requirement from my superiors,” Zoe said. “By preference I would have allowed her to continue serving as bait. She was uniquely well positioned for that and remarkably productive despite her misgivings.”
“Out of curiosity, what sort of fallback plans did you have if my teammate Ms. Perez defeated your security chief Ms. Collins?” Anna asked.
“Misha was the backup plan,” Zoe said. “Our Vice President was scheduled to meet her demise via a car bombing. Prima would benefit from being seen as the target of a terrorist attack instead of the perpetrators of one, and if Vice President Goodwin chose to flee without taking her car, Misha and her security forces would be there to arrange matters as needed.”
“That makes for a good story, but as we’re in the end game, be honest, you had more bases covered than that,” Anna said.
Zoe tilted her head and chuckled.
“You must come and work with me,” she said. “And yes, of course we were prepared for slim chance that encounter turned against us. Even if you had spirited Goodwin away safely, she wouldn’t have been able to testify to anything substantive about PrimaLux’s projects. The moment her escape was confirmed, our internal records of her would be wiped out and replaced with new data. Aaliyah, our counterpart to your Ms. Le, can be quite thorough. Once she pulled the trigger, Claudia Goodwin would be reduced to known mental health patient suffering from a variety of delusions, with the proper paperwork and doctor’s testimony stretching back years to support that claim.”
“That requires Aaliyah to remain in command of her data center though I believe,” Anna said.
“Aaliyah is in one of the most secure facilities in the entire PrimaLux portfolio,” Zoe said. “She is the spider at the heart of an invincible web. I have no concerns there.”
Anna studied Zoe for a long moment. Sketching her opponent had given Anna a keen sense of where Zoe held tension in her face. The taut micro-lines near her eyes, the slight tightening in her upper lip. As Zoe spoke though neither her lips nor her eyes betrayed any trace of a lie.
Under her fingers, Anna felt the drawing pad buzz once more. She scribbled a single character below the portrait she’d sketched and frowned a tiny bit. The game was done, and for as serious as it was to be in a contest against a giant like PrimaLux there was a part of Anna that couldn’t help but be thrilled by the moves and countermoves. She could already feel how much she was going to miss it.
“Your faith in your teammate is impressive,” Anna said.
“And not unfounded,” Zoe said.
“I agree. Between Tam and Aaliyah I believe the difference in their technical and mystical skills would be exceedingly difficult to measure, and in this case your team had the home team advantage,” Anna said.
“Yet in the face of that, my phone has been disabled,” Zoe said. “So what final enchantments has Ms Le woven?”
“She wasn’t the one weaving enchantments,” Anna said. “Your phone should be working again. You’ll mistrust what I have to say at this point, so please, contact your team. They can give you all the details you desire.”
Zoe gave Anna a look of surprise and reached for her phone.
“Speaker phone will save time,” Anna said.
Zoe frowned at that and waited for the call to go through.
“Aaliyah, what is our situation?” she asked as soon as the other woman picked up.
“We’re dead,” Aaliyah said.
“Explain,” Zoe said, her expression and voice frosting over.
“They got Goodwin,” Aaliyah said. “And I can’t give the orders to scrub her files.”
“Why?” Zoe asked slowly.
“Because she’s currently sitting on a chair in my worklab and bound within a circle that’s about as strong as the ones you use to keep your special guests under control,” Tam said.
“They held open our portals,” Aaliyah said. “After, I would like to point out, destroying the strike team that Prima sent after her.”
“They’re not dead,” Tam said. “But by this point they’re probably wishing they were.”
“I congratulate you,” Zoe said, looking back at Anna. “That was well played, but still ultimately fruitless. Ms. Goodwin will be able to do a fair amount of damage to PrimaLux but we’ve survived worse.”
“I don’t think you have,” Anna said. “You see you were wrong about my primary aim. Saving Ms. Goodwin’s life was a secondary, though important, objective.”
“What were you after then?” Zoe asked, a twinge of fear in her eyes.
“PrimaLux,” Anna said. “All of it.”
“That’s not possible,” Zoe said. “No one could give you that.”
“Ms. Goodwin certainly couldn’t but we did identify someone who could,” Anna said. “You.”
Zoe looked to see if Anna was joking but when she saw Anna was serious she scoffed.
“Why and how would I give you PrimaLux?” she asked.
“You gave it to us because you were distracted,” Anna said. “Your security is impressive, but it is only truly impenetrable while Aaliyah is there to deal with esoteric threats that can bypass all of the static defenses.”
“But Ms Le was busy dealing with our strike team, there wasn’t an opportunity for her infiltrate our systems,” Zoe said. “And don’t say she did it when she apprehended Aaliyah. Aaliyah’s bunker is denied direct access to the majority of our systems to prevent exactly that.”
“Tam wasn’t the one who hacked your defenses,” Anna said. “I did.”
She flipped back the page she’d been sketching Zoe’s portrait on to reveal the touchpad beneath it. The characters Anna had sketched remained on the screen as instructions to the application Tam had installed before they began their mission.
“As soon as your phone was active, I was able to connect through it to the rest of PrimaLux’s systems and your login opens a great many doors,” Anna said.
“What did they get?” Zoe asked.
“As far as I can see?” Aaliyah said. “Everything. Anything we had a record of, they’ve forwarded to Interpol and everyone else we wanted to keep those secrets safe from.”
“To be accurate, the records will show that you forwarded that information,” Anna said, looking Zoe in the eyes. In the depths of Zoe’s soul she saw the image of a tool being discarded by its former master for a failure beyond any hope of forgiveness.
The frost shattered in Zoe’s expression and she sank back into her chair, silent for a long moment as she processed what had happened.
“This doesn’t prove that you were right,” she said at last.
“Of course not,” Anna said. “Our philosophy’s aren’t magic talismans to grant us the power to be victorious. What I believe about the value of people and how they should be treated doesn’t make winning easier. What it does is inform what I do with the victories I manage to achieve, and how I choose the changes I wish to see in the world.”
She offer Zoe a small smile of comfort. “Which is why I had this drawn up.”
She handed Zoe an envelope containing a membership application.
“What is this?” Zoe asked.
“A second chance.”