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Feels like the first time

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The hotel room was small and Maggie couldn't decide if she should pace or perch. Her stomach felt queasy, like on the first hill of a roller coaster, when excitement and fear of the unknown were building in equal measure. She could feel the first beads of sweat welling up in her palms, so she walked over to the tiny bathroom and washed her hands, then splashed some water on her face.

She was about to move into a regimen of deep breaths when a knock on the door provided a welcome distraction. Maggie listened for the pre-arranged signal, three short knocks followed by a pause of ten seconds and then another four knocks in rapid succession. The pause seemed to stretch forever, hanging her in suspended animation as she anxiously waited for the rest of the code.

When the four knocks sounded, Maggie nearly giggled in relief. She hurried over to the door, carefully checking the peephole before she undid the chain and pulled the door open. Sophie came in with a swirl of floral perfume and a warm smile.

"Maggie, thank you so much for agreeing to help us out," she said, dropping her clutch on the bed. "Did you bring a few outfits?"

"I did. I didn't know what would be best so I went a little crazy," replied Maggie, a blush rising in her cheeks. She'd carefully hung up four outfits on the pointless open closet rail near the door. Sophie followed her gaze and retrieved the items, looking at them with the intensity of a boutique buyer.

"Too schoolmarm-ish," said Sophie, dropping a severely tailored navy blue suit on the bed, which was closely followed by a plaid jumper combination. "Too schoolgirl-ish."

Maggie wanted to think of a joke, but she was suddenly concerned that nothing she'd brought would be right. Sophie stood in the center of the room holding the remaining two outfits: a blue silk a-line dress that was practically a nightgown and a strapless flowered dress.

"Hmmm," said Sophie, considering both dresses. "What do you think, Maggie?"

"The strapless one looks a little like a bridesmaids dress."

"Quite right." Sophie dropped the flowered dress onto the bed. "By the process of elimination… taah-dah!"

"I don't know what possessed me to buy that one," said Maggie, nervousness overcoming her desire to stay cool. "It's practically a nightgown."

"Don't be ridiculous, Maggie. It's lovely. And quite striking. Lattimer won't know what hit him." Sophie held the dress out to Maggie.

She hesitated for another second and then sighed. She owed the team so much for getting her out of Kiev in one piece. Dressing like a high-class escort for ten minutes was the least she could do. She reached out and grabbed the hanger, feeling the slippery blue silk under her fingers.

Sophie turned her back and Maggie suddenly felt like she was in the middle school locker room after gym class. She dressed quickly and then asked, "So, what do you think?"

Sophie's eyes moved over her quickly and then she smiled. "It's perfect. Now, are you ready? You seem a little nervous."

"I'm not nervous," said Maggie, hoping to bluster her way through the encounter with Lattimer.

"Maggie," said Sophie, her voice taking on the warning tone of a scolding parent. "You can't bullshit a bullshitter."

"I'm not nervous…. I'm terrified," admitted Maggie, wrapping her arms around herself and then slumping not the bed.

Sophie checked her watch quickly. "We have a few minutes. We can do a run-through. I'm going to stand over there and pretend I'm Lattimer, standing at the bar. Then you can come chat me up."

Maggie watched and waited until Sophie was in position, then walked over. She nearly tripped and her sudden clumsiness flustered her, causing her to say the first thing that popped into her mouth. "Hi, I'm Maggie."

"No, that just won't do. You're going to need a pseudonym."

"A pseudonym," Maggie repeated dumbly even though she knew damn well what Sophie meant. "Okay, how about… Hazel?"

"Too old lady," replied Sophie, wrinkling her nose. "How about Amber?"

"Too stripper," said Maggie with a smile.

Sophie puffed out a sigh and rolled her eyes. "You'd be surprised what sort of men go in for strippers. I once conned a vicar-"

Maggie interrupted. "I'm not sure I want to hear how this story ends. How about Lenora?"

"Beautiful name, Maggie, but we're not naming a baby. You want something classic but unmemorable. Think about back when you were in school. What was the most common name in your class?"

"Jennifer. We had at least five them in our grade alone."

"How about Jenny then? The 'eee' sound at the end forces the speaker to smile."

"Jenny," said Maggie, giggling when she realized she was smiling.

"Jenny's always been one of my favorites," said Sophie, a twinkle in her eyes that nearly made Maggie ask for the full story. "Okay, now you can't just go up and introduce yourself. You need a line."

"I've never been good at lines."

"Read the scene and improvise. Comment on whatever has the mark's attention," said Sophie, a light twinkling in her eyes. In her career as an art authenticator, Maggie had worked with many of the foremost experts in their fields, but she had never seen anyone who was so good, or got as excited, about her job as Sophie did.

"Okay, I'm ready to try again," said Maggie.

Sophie turned away and pretended to study an imaginary bar. Maggie approached confidently, pausing to read the scene and then took a deep breath. Time to improvise.

"So, see anything you like? My ex-husband always went for the most expensive Scotch but I find you can't tell the difference. As long as something's been aged for 12 years. It's all just bragging rights after that."

"I know, right? I tell him the same thing all the time," said Sophie.

Maggie laughed. "You have an ex-husband, Lattimer?"

Sophie grinned. "I think you're ready, Maggie. Your first real grifting job, without a net even. Or at least without an earbud. You're going to be great."

"Do you think so?" asked Maggie, biting her lower lip self-consciously as self-doubt crept in.

"I know so," said Sophie. "Come on, let's head to the bar. I'll do my thing first and then it'll be obvious when you're on."

Maggie pressed her hands into her stomach to settle the flock of butterflies that had suddenly taken up residence there. She nodded slowly. "I'm ready. Let's do this thing."

"That's the spirit," said Sophie, leading the way to the door. She paused before opening it. "And Maggie? Thank you. This means a lot to all of us, but especially Nate."

"I'm glad he has you now," said Maggie, wishing, not for the first time, that English had a way to differentiate between second person plural and singular. While she was glad that Nate had the team, she was even more glad that he now had Sophie to watch over him and pull him back when he reached the edge.

Sophie's smile was awkward at first but then melted into a genuine beam that made Maggie feel like she was the most important person in the world. "Thank you. That means a lot to me. Now, not to ruin the moment, but let's go."

Maggie smiled and watched as Sophie turned and opened the door. Her mother used to say that life rarely took you where you expected, so you'd best just sit back and enjoy the ride. Maggie had no idea where the next ten minutes were going to lead her, but she was fully ready to enjoy them.