I scanned the mansion, surprised by the size of the foyer in front of me. I hadn’t thought this group could afford such an abode but here we were. I had been hesitant when they had said we were going to be traveling to a small third world country but the small band of agents seemed to have their own home set up here. They were also fairly well off, we were greeted by a military escort at the harbor and we made good time getting across the island to their home.
Each of the members of the small band I now considered my team had gone their separate ways upon entering the estate. I had followed the others inside before finding myself completely without tether. It appeared many had gone into personal rooms across the estate and I quickly lost sight of most of the team. I could see Violet out front, seemingly gathering flowers. Curious I watched her for a time. The behavior was surprising given what I knew of her previous mannerisms. Collecting flowers and weaving them into crowns seemed to childish for the serious young woman.
What surprised me more than this behavior was what came next, as Violet decided to steal through the manor as if looking for something specific. She soon found who she was looking for in the library. Curled beside one of the bookcases within was a form I hadn’t been expecting. Agent Udinov sat reading a hide bound text that looked to be several hundred years older than herself. I was told it had been spoils from a mission before I was recruited by the Voice. Any further details about the mission or the text were not shared with me but I didn’t relish the idea of what the team had gone through to obtain it.
While I was distracted by what the Russian woman was reading, Violet had snuck up behind her without being noticed and was poised to drop the flower crown on the other woman’s head. I was intrigued to see this interaction between two of the most unfriendly members of the team. When the crown fell from Violet’s hands onto Udinov’s head, I expected a more fiery interaction. Instead the woman surprised me by not reacting with fire but with warmth. Udinov looked up at the younger woman and gave a slight smile before returning to her book. It took most of a page before she noticed my presence in the library. Violet seemed to start in surprise first, and the Udinov looked over her reading to assess the new presence in the room for threat.
Silver blue eyes locked with mine as they peered across the room over the ancient tome. I had hoped that the flower crown seated upon her head would help with the intimidation fact but the Russian wearing it still knew how to make her glare turn my veins to ice. Violet's change in behavior was fairly immediate, she stiffened after the initial shock of seeing another person within the library. Her joyful expression hardened as well. I had accidentally interrupted a moment I was not meant to see. After our time together it was clear I hadn’t won the trust of these two women.
Udinov shook her head and gave a slight wave to Violet, who took it as a dismissal. She quickly left the room but not before giving me a glare of her own. Yet now despite that I was only facing one of the two, I felt like the situation may have grown worst. Udinov’s body language hadn’t relaxed since she had sighted me. Her voice was low and cold when she finally acknowledged my presence as something as worthy as her attention.
“Little Magpie, your curiosity will get you killed. Stealing others’ moments is not the best way to earn friends around here.”
She slides a well worn ticket in between the pages of the tome before shutting it with a dull thud and turning the full force of her silvery stare upon me. Impatiently she drummed her fingers on the cover, all the while watching me expectantly. At lost for words, I watch the fingers drumming their owner’s irritation on the surface before her. Something I had initially taken to be a dark smudge of gun oil on her left middle finger formed into a more legible shape.
A small cross rested between her first and second knuckles, a tattoo designed to look like a ring. The cross itself had two crossbeams, one with a slight tilt in relation to the other. A band curled in an elegant filigree to surround the cross and loop back upon itself. It was an intricate inking and the detail was surprising for such a small piece. The lines themselves were crisp and clean, not showing any sign of bleeding.
The fingers had stopped moving. I looked up to meet silver eyes narrowed when they locked with mine. “Da Magpie? Do you have a question?” Her voice was hard and tinged with an edge of suspicion. She still didn’t trust me, and I had again stumbled upon something personal. But I was curious, I could tell this woman was keeping secrets. Painful ones judging but the way she continuously reacted to my prying.
“That tattoo, it’s rather unusual. Especially for a woman who isn’t very religious. Weren’t you just scolding Ted for his blind faith in his deity?” She snickered and shook her head.
“While the evangelist does follow blindly, that does not mean I do not have faith little Magpie. I just look to the moon rather than to nameless gods. But it is true that this marks me not as religious. Instead it marks me as something else entirely. Something that the wise wouldn’t pry into. Don’t you have a saying about curiosity and cats?”
“True the saying begins with ‘curiosity killed the cat’ but it ends with ‘satisfaction brought it back.’ I only seek knowledge about my teammates. And while the others are more open about who they were before all this, I find myself hitting wall after wall with you. Opening up to someone isn’t weakness Udinov.” I didn’t add that I found the particular subject in question quite fetching. I knew the current focus of my attention wouldn’t appreciate the line of thinking either.
She sighs, “You are too curious for your own good Magpie. You pick at things that are best left alone. But fine, if you truly wish to know, this little mark.” And she waves her left hand, “I made poor choices growing up. I ran with the wrong crowd. This marks me as a thief to anyone who knows the meaning of it. Knowledge you shouldn’t be privy to unless you are involved in things that you shouldn’t be Magpie. Things that would get a little bird like you killed.”
I open my mouth to ask another question but she shakes her head and hushes me. “No no little bird. You have found your morsel for the day. Greed breeds pain little Magpie, trust me I know. I have watched men far stronger than you fail beneath its weight. Men far better than both of us.” She frowns and I swear I saw sadness in those eyes. A quick shake of her head and it is gone, replaced by ice.
Udinov stands, pushing the book off her lap and onto the floor beside her. She quickly rises and scoops up the tome before striding off toward the back of the library. After winding between several stacks I see a door I hadn’t noticed before. She pauses and looks at me before rummaging in her leather jacket for a few moments.
The only warning I had before the key was thrown in my direction was a brief flash of metal. I fumbled to catch it while Udinov looked on with what appeared to be slight amusement in her eyes. I stare at the two keys in my hand and she waits for me to process what she had given me before speaking. “You will need a way to get into the estate little Magpie as well as a place to call your own. I can guarantee those rooms are quiet and undisturbed. They were once mine before I moved to be closer to the laboratory.” Before I could respond in thanks, she keyed a code into the pad beside a nearby door and disappeared inside.
I began to wander after that, again without tether. I had no idea where the rooms in question were nor how to reach them. As luck would have it, I bumped into another teammate not long after. Clyde gave a bright smile when he saw me, “I was wondering where you had vanish to. Ted asked me to give you a key to the front door and one for your rooms. It’ll be a bit smaller, most of the larger rooms were claimed early.” He looks a bit sheepish at that, but then his gaze falls to the key in my right hand. His eyes widen in confusion and he checks his own pre-offered keys before giving me a quizzical look.
“Udinov. She said she had no more use for this one and that I would need a place to stay.” I give a shrug of my shoulders. I wasn’t entirely sure why the miscommunication had happened, surely her teammates had known about her vacating the room.
Clyde’s eyebrow rose slightly. “Big sis gave you her room key? That’s surprising, I didn’t have you pegged as someone she had grown attached to. I suppose it makes sense, the room is vacant ever since she built that lab and the bedroom off of it. That woman lives for her privacy. Well follow me, your room is at the back of the estate close to Ted’s. Those that were first chosen by the Voice picked rooms fairly clustered together. I think they took comfort in their shared experience, bonded over it. It’s a bit odd and can be hard to break into. I was part of the second group chosen, they had already fallen into their places by then. I heard there was quite the coup in the beginning when Ted’s natural leadership skills kicked in. Udinov wasn’t having any of it. Sure she may chaff against his orders from time to time but they make effective and efficient co-leaders. On that first mission? Not so much.”
The story ends and Clyde shakes his head, muttering something about a crazy Russian. He pushes open a door and indicates that I should enter. The doorway leads into a large bedroom, rivaling my master back home, but I see very little of Udinov’s personality within. It is immediately clear that she had removed most traces of her time within this room and returned it to the opulent style that permeated the plantation style mansion. But the other woman had failed to erase all evidence of her presence. Scratches on the floorboards where she had pulled a rifle case from beneath the bed. A few stacks of books on the occult scattered about the room which she had forgotten to bring back to the estate’s library in her exodus. The smell of her still hung faintly in the air, a ghost of gun oil, leather and something else. Something unmistakably belonging to Udinov, dark and spicy. A sharp clean scent with a sweet finish. But even as I noticed it, I can tell the scent was fading only to be quickly replaced with the scents of disuse.
Clyde closes the door behind him as he leaves, his task complete. I place my belongings beside the bed and begin to explore the room. On the table beside the bed I notice a card inscribed with an angel. Another mysterious religious affiliation. But as I look over the card, I change my mind. Not religious, the occult. An inscribed angel for the woman that was trying to hide her broken wings. A woman who had become the avenging angel of this Voice we all followed. One answer only opened the floodgates for many more mysteries, all of which continued to swirl around the strange woman that only allowed me to address her by her last name.