Fossa del Lupo, Italy
"When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, 'Come!' I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him."
The surgical mask muffled his words, so the elderly priest overenunciated the passage from the Book of Revelations. Once a rotund man with boundless energy and unflappable optimism, he was barely recognizable now. The violet vestments of sorrow and penance the padre wore hung loosely about his shoulders and waist as he raised his arms beseechingly and turned to face his sparse congregation. Tears streamed down his face as he fell to his knees, and the undercurrent of terror in his tone was unmistakable. "They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague," he said, his voice breaking, "and by the wild beasts of the earth."
Alone in the last pew, a thirty-three-year-old bachelor glanced up at the first of the fourteen Stations of the Cross that ringed the tiny chapel. A gilt-etched rendering of the Savior in chains, the caption beneath it read: GesÃ¹ Ã¨ Condannato a Morte-Jesus is Condemned to Death. He'd never been a religious man and his recent visits to the house of God made him feel like an imposter. But now was not the time for misplaced guilt. Not when the future seemed so grim and death was everywhere. The church was one of the few places still considered safe from the virus, because everyone with symptoms had been banned from public gatherings, and religious services were no exception. How ironic, he thought, not for the first time, and how hypocritical. The one place where the dying feel the need to visit for solace and hope, forgiveness and redemption, was now closed to them. The so-called men of God were only interested in preserving their own life. The bachelor wiped at the sheen of perspiration that drenched his brow.
"Let us pray," the priest cried out.
The man shut his burning eyes and joined the others in their loud prayers for God's mercy and forgiveness.
Only a handful of the village's one hundred and twenty inhabitants dared this rare gathering. Those with families would not risk venturing out, but the forced isolation and growing despondency over the situation had driven those who lived alone to seek the companionship and the consolation of the church. Like him, each parishioner covered his face with a scarf or mask and sat well apart from his nearest neighbor.
The horrible sickness had so far not touched their small community. When the first cases reached Italy along the southern coast, the village administrator had taken early and extreme precautions, barricading the pair of two-lane roads leading in and out, closing the school and businesses, and advising residents to remain in their homes until further notice. But the scourge now surrounded them. Towns and hamlets in every direction had been hit hard, the death toll rising exponentially by the day, and it seemed only a miracle could spare them.
That morning, he had awakened with a headache and queasy stomach, but he'd managed to convince himself the pesce crudo he'd prepared the night before was to blame. A stupid choice, he thought in retrospect, since the last delivery of fresh seafood to the village had been more than two weeks earlier.
When he stepped before the mirror to shave, it was more difficult to reassure himself that the raw fish was also responsible for his gray pallor and the dark circles beneath his eyes. Less than a week ago, he had defied the ban on travel, so desperate for cigarettes that he'd walked two miles cross-country to Camucia. There'd been no reported cases there, so he'd felt it worth the risk. But in the intervening days, the relentless menace had killed a dozen people in the very neighborhood where he'd shopped.
The short trek to the chapel winded him, and the fever that had accelerated with each step now made him want to discard his heavy coat, but he didn't dare draw any undue attention to himself. As he prayed, he got a sudden urge to cough and fought to suppress it, his heartbeat accelerating as he recalled the stark news video of the dying, in hospitals unable to cope with the pandemic.
He grappled for his handkerchief when he could no longer contain the violent compulsion and hacked loudly into the white linen. Recoiling in horror when he saw the thick glob of bloody mucus he'd expelled, it took a long moment to realize the chapel had fallen silent. The priest and all the congregants were staring at him, fear and accusation in their eyes.
He bolted from the chapel and into the dark night, his chest constricting with another urgent spasm of coughing. Despair washed over him as he ran, unmindful of any particular destination. He couldn't bear the thought that he might be the agent of death to his beloved village, nor could he endure the certain agony of his fate.
Falling to his knees, he screamed a prayer for guidance, and the distant whistle of a train blared his answer. Passenger traffic had ceased days ago, but freight lines were still carrying medical supplies and essential provisions to devastated areas.
The rail was a half mile from where he knelt. As though in a trance, he walked to the tracks and arrived before the locomotive came into view. Waiting patiently, he recited the Act of Contrition and thought of his parents, long dead. The roar of the nearing engine filled his ears, and he gathered his courage, made the Sign of the Cross, and stepped forward. Dio se ci sei, ti prego di avere pieta' della mia anima! Lord, if you are there, please have mercy on my soul.
Northwest of Budapest, Hungary
Three weeks earlier, October 1
Viewed from above, the secret complex, tucked into a remote forest in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, looked somewhat like a giant V. One wing contained the research labs and the numerous prison-like cells where the human trials were conducted. The other housed a large kitchen, dining room, and dormitory where many of the employees lived. In the space between the wings was a courtyard, where workers could enjoy some sunshine when the weather cooperated. A high wire fence, surveillance cameras, and a small team of security guards prevented unwanted outsiders from intruding.
The facility, less than two years old, contained a state-of-the art BioLab, level 4. It was here that research had been conducted on some of the most virulent and incurable biological agents known to humankind, so extraordinary precautions had to be taken. The lab was air-locked and required a palm print and retinal scan to access it, and the scientists who worked inside with the infectious materials wore Hazmat suits with individual oxygen supplies.
The complex had been built for a single purpose: to develop viruses that would kill quickly and spread rapidly. The lab manufactured several biological agents, but concentrated on one in particular; this one contained a stealth component, one that would disappear quickly after infection, so that efforts to isolate and identify it would be time-consuming and almost impossible to achieve. It took the handpicked team of scientists at the lab four months to develop the formula. The man in charge, Doctor Andor RÃ³zsa, named it the Charon virus, after the mythological ferryman to Hades. A chimera of the H1N1 virus and pneumonic-plague bacteria, it was highly virulent and had a near 100 percent mortality rate.
When the virus was perfected, the team moved on to phase two of the secret project: to develop an antivirus vaccine that would both prevent and cure the lethal contagion. That was more difficult and took them another eight months to perfect.
For the last half year, they'd been conducting human trials at the complex, to both ensure that Charon did its job without mutating and that its cure worked quickly, with 100 percent effectiveness.
On this night, the man behind it all was to evaluate the final results of those trials. If everything was in order, he would finally be able to launch the scheme that would make him a billionaire several times over.
Doctor Andor RÃ³zsa was well positioned to cash in on the windfall without fear of being linked to the pandemic he was about to launch, as long as his meticulous planning went off without a hitch. Charon was his secret pet project; he had a legitimate career as well, as a top virologist with Pharmamediq, Incorporated, a major pharmaceutical company in Budapest. As such, when the time was right he could announce he'd come up with the formula for the antivirus, and no one would suspect him.
As Andor navigated the seventy-minute drive from his office at Pharmamediq to the complex, he reviewed every detail of his plan. He had spent years making it, so he wasn't worried that he'd missed something. However, he was meticulous and took great satisfaction in recalling how he'd put it all together.
He'd had a few great challenges to overcome. First was where to obtain the numerous individuals needed for the human trials, since none of them could survive to tell about the experiments. He solved that by using orphans, runaways, and homeless adults from the streets of Budapest, lured into social-service vans by promises of food, shelter, and jobs. Also, he bribed a warden at a remote prison to release a number of prisoners to his custody: all forgotten men, lifers with no families who would not be missed.
The other major obstacle was to find the perfect individuals to take Charon out into the world and release it. Andor needed three people capable of killing without hesitation if the price was right and experienced in tracking and isolating their targets. They'd all have fake IDs that would pass close inspection, but one had to have no criminal history that might impede his ability to cross international borders. He'd be bound for the U.S., which now did facial and fingerprint identifications of travelers, often chosen at random. It took time to make the right connections, but Andor was confident he had the people he needed.
He parked beside the wing that housed the human-trial cells, and went inside. His chief aide, Patrik, who oversaw the project while he put in his hours at Pharmamediq, was waiting for him. "Everything in order?" Andor asked.
"Yes, sir," Patrik replied. "Two more of the virus test group expired overnight, exactly as anticipated."
"Excellent. Let's make our final walk-through."
The two men visited the first of the two dozen rooms that lined the hallway, starting on the left side. This was the Charon group: the men, women, and children who were infected with the virus and closely monitored until they died. Several people had been housed in each room during the six months of trials, the rooms thoroughly disinfected between occupants. The team now had extensive knowledge of what the virus did to the human body and an accurate progression timeline: they knew precisely how long it took from date of infection, to first symptoms, to death.
Only two patients remained in the Charon group. Both had only hours to live, at most. Further viral trials were unnecessary, and it was time to begin eliminating all traces that Charon had been developed here.
Each small room in the hallway looked very much like a prison cell, with a single cot, sink, and toilet. The occupants had no televisions, radios, books, or view to the outside. These were only lab animals to Andor; he viewed them with clinical detachment, as every good scientist should.
The only window in each room was a thick Plexiglas one in the door that allowed the staff to monitor the patient's condition as he or she deteriorated. Communication was carried on through an intercom, and meals were delivered through a self-contained slot beneath the window. The precautions had been necessary when the complex was built, but weren't now. Everyone who worked there had been inoculated with the antivirus.
Andor removed the patient's medical file from a holder beside the first door he came to and scanned it. Group 1 patient #87 was a thirteen-year-old runaway, infected seven days earlier. He stepped in front of the window and peered inside. The girl was hunched in one corner, her eyes closed. She was pale and shaking violently. Spatters of blood and crusted vomit marred most of the room's beige walls, the bedding on the cot, and the litter of used meal trays and water bottles scattered around the floor. Fetid brown evidence of the girl's chronic diarrhea could be seen in a wide circle around the toilet.
Andor curled his lips in disgust, imagining the stench in the room, before moving on to the next cell.
The remaining virus patient was a thirty-eight-year-old homeless woman. She was in virtually the same wretched condition as her neighbor, though still conscious. She lay on her cot, soaked with sweat, eyes wide open and mumbling incoherently. Not all of their patients hallucinated before they died, but many did. Her room was only marginally cleaner than the girl's.
The rest of the rooms on that side were vacant, so Andor moved to the cells that contained the subjects who'd been infected and then injected with the antivirus.
He peered through the first window at the fifty-two-year-old convict inside. When the man-a hulking brute with tattoos on his arms and neck-realized he was being watched, he stormed the door and began to bang on it, screaming obscenities. The doctor pulled the man's chart from the wall and studied the latest entries. "Remarkable. BP, temp, CBC, Chem 7, U/A, electrolytes-all within normal range. Viral cultures negative. It's hard to believe he was hours from death just three days ago."
"All subjects have made the same progression," Patrik replied.
Andor perfunctorily checked the rest of the patients on that side of the hallway to see for himself. Satisfied that all the subjects had completely recovered, he turned to his aide. "We've no further use for them beyond extracting whatever organs we have orders for. I'll take care of that before I leave. Prep the patients we need and destroy the rest."
Patrik nodded. "So you concur we can proceed as scheduled?"
"Yes. Give the go-ahead."
The three emissaries who would unleash Charon had all been injected with the antivirus vaccine two weeks earlier, to ensure they would return for payment without infecting anyone beyond their targets. Of course, Andor didn't intend to give them anything beyond their travel costs. When their missions were completed, they had to be eliminated, because once the pandemic started spreading, they would realize they hadn't been after a single target, or two, as they'd been told; they were part of the world's greatest biological nightmare.
He'd done everything he could to ensure the three would never be able to link him to the pandemic, should they be caught or decide to try to use their knowledge as leverage to demand more money. He never dealt with them directly. And even the intermediary who did, didn't know who he was. This employee received his instructions from Patrik, who used disposable prepaid cell phones for each communication. The antivirus syringes that the intermediary injected into the trio, as well as the materials they'd need for their missions, were left for him in a train station locker across the border, in Vienna.
Andor had also carefully selected the targets who would be infected. They were a diverse group, seemingly random victims with nothing in common except that all held jobs that put them in daily contact with a large number of people. Authorities would have to work harder to track down the "patient zeros," who would be infecting many others within a day of being infected themselves.
Andor's three deadly emissaries had already received detailed files about their targets to memorize, along with fake passports and cash for their plane tickets and other incidentals. They'd also been given stainless-steel capsules containing the deadly virus, which they would swallow before their flights. Once the capsules had been excreted from their intestinal tracts, the contents would be mixed with water and placed in lipstick-sized refillable atomizers. All that remained was for the intermediary to give them the go-ahead.
Later that night, Agent X would drive to Germany for the first part of her assignment, then fly to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Agent Y had a single target, in China. Agent Z was destined for Colombia and the United States.
Andor headed back to his car for the drive back to Budapest, buoyed by the imminent launch of his long-awaited plan. He had no concern for the millions who had to die to make it happen. After all, he was certainly not alone in his quest to seek profit from genetically manufactured biological agents. Several governments were purportedly concocting bioweapons using the variola virus, the agent of smallpox, including the U.S., Russia, and China. SARS, anthrax, Ebola, and botulinum neurotoxins were other popular pathogens rumored to be in play in labs worldwide, in both the public and private sectors. One lab in the Ukraine had called it an "accident" when it was discovered their seasonal flu vaccine contained a deadly avian-flu virus that killed hundreds. But Andor knew it had been a deliberate act for human trial and profit, just as this was. The difference would be in the planning. No one would be able to connect the upcoming pandemic to him. He would only reap the rewards for having discovered the antivirus.
Within a few weeks, Andor would be heralded as the most brilliant scientist of the century and the savior of humankind. Certainly a Nobel Prize would follow. That prospect was almost as satisfying as the fact that he'd soon be one of the richest men in the world.
"Guten Abend, Professor."
"You're early," the professor mumbled, without looking up from his papers.
"Would you like me to come back later?" Agent X asked.
The man didn't answer, but waved at her absently to come in, still intent on the pile of student essays he was correcting.
She pushed the cleaning cart into the office, grateful the file she'd been provided had everything she needed to ensure a smooth completion of the first half of her assignment. As expected, Gunther Zimmerman was working late, a reliable habit after his thrice-weekly botany lectures, according to his bio. The file also had all the relevant information she needed about the University of Munich Biocenter, including a complex blueprint that incorporated the location of the janitorial closet, security cameras, and restrooms nearest the target's office.
She'd waited there, dressed in the cleaning coveralls she'd been given, until everyone but Zimmerman had gone home.
She moved about the office with a can of furniture polish and rag, dusting every surface. When she reached the bookcase behind the professor, she pulled the small atomizer from her pocket and sprayed it in his direction. Another minute or two of cleaning and she was done. She smiled to herself as she pushed the cart out of the office. The man had never even looked up.
But she was only a step or two into the hallway when the professor's voice rang out. "Hey!"
Agent X snapped her head around to look at him as her heart started to pound in her chest.
"You forgot to empty the wastebasket," he said with annoyance.
She went back inside with a look of apology and dumped the overflowing bin into her cart.
Once outside in the parking lot, she fished the prepaid cell phone from her pocket and dialed the number she'd memorized. "Germany complete," she reported. She removed the SIM card and torched it with a lighter before tossing it into a trash bin, then crushed the phone with her boot before disposing of that as well. She also got rid of the atomizer-it had only contained enough for the single spray. She had a vial to swallow and another atomizer for phase two. Four hours later, she arrived at the airport in Frankfurt to catch her flight to Kinshasa. When she arrived in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she was to check into the Hotel Membling, feign illness, and ask to have a doctor sent to her room. The physician on call for the hotel was also on staff at Kinshasa General, one of the largest hospitals in Africa.
Agent Y traveled by train from the airport in Hong Kong to Beijing, then took a cab to the Forbidden City, looking every bit a tourist with a camera around his neck. He had a picture of his target, along with a snapshot of the taxi he drove, distinctively adorned with a large Chan Chu figurine hanging from the rearview mirror. The talisman, a frog with a coin in its mouth, was supposed to drive away evil and increase wealth.
The agent waited patiently for more than an hour until he saw the targeted taxi pull up at the stand. He got inside and told the driver to take him to Emperor Wanli's tomb outside Changlingzhen. Once the airborne virus was sprayed, it remained virulent for up to an hour, so the thirty-eight-mile drive each way would ensure that only his target would be infected.
Agent Z shoved his hand into the pocket of his coat to reassure himself the smooth steel atomizer was still there as he entered the Centro Cultural de Cali, headquarters of the municipal secretaries of tourism and culture. The nine-hour bus ride from the airport in Quito, Ecuador had exhausted him, and he was anxious to complete the first part of his mission. Ten minutes before closing, most of the workers had already departed for the day, but a lone clerk remained at the information desk.
From a distance, the agent checked the clerk against the photo in his pocket. The information he'd been provided was correct. The newest man hired was the only one who had to stay until the end of the shift.
Agent Z asked the man for a list of area hotels and sprayed him when he turned his back to retrieve the information from a rack behind him. By this time tomorrow the agent would be in Dallas, stalking a twenty-two-year-old woman. As assistant manager of a McDonald's restaurant on Lemmon Avenue, her duties included the unfortunate task of closing up for the night.
"Stop looking so bored and smile, honey."
Zoe Anderson-Howe automatically complied as she faced her father, who looked particularly handsome this evening in his favorite navy Savile Row suit and cream silk tie. The tie matched the low-cut cocktail dress she'd chosen for the occasion. Her long, dark brown hair was swept up in a fashionable chignon, and the delicate sapphire necklace that added a splash of color to her ensemble matched the deep blue of her eyes.
"That might be easier if it weren't the third time we've done this in as many weeks, Daddy. And from what you say, it's gotten us nothing. Why should tonight be any different? I really don't have much to smile about."
"Perhaps," Derrick said, scanning the well-heeled guests assembled in the private banquet room at the Loose Cannon, one of London's premiere staging grounds for corporate gatherings. The food was exceptional and the ambience of the arched brick walls and understatedly elegant dÃ©cor set the place apart. "But we have about twenty reasons to try, all of them handpicked to be here tonight."
Zoe sipped her champagne and considered her options. Many of the hundred or so guests were unfamiliar. "Do I need to dazzle anyone in particular?"
Her father tilted his head toward a couple in their late forties, an Internet-made millionaire with a bad hair transplant and his newly Botoxed companion. "Why don't you start with Van Haren and his wife?"
Zoe sighed, but her faux smile never faltered. She knew her job as PR Director of Skye Lines, her father's airline, required a certain amount of after-hours schmoozing, but this recent need to aggressively court new investors was demeaning. Not to mention terminally boring and rarely effective. The tight economy had everyone watching their wallets.
"Ah, yes, the nouveau riche and their scent of eau de despair. Forever angsting about their inferior beginnings and constantly desperate to fit in. I don't think I have the energy to deal with boring stories about their above-all-odds and beyond-everyone's-expectations catalogue of achievements."
Derrick Anderson-Howe waved to acknowledge a well-known local realtor who was looking their way as he leaned toward Zoe and lowered his voice. "Although your appraisal of them is accurate, tonight is about being productive. Unless you want to start cooking your own meals, making your own bed, and getting your beautiful hair done at WeSnippit, we need their money. We need everyone here to like us and we need them to trust us."
"And what better way than by showing them what a wonderfully united team we make," she said drolly.
"That's right." His hazel eyes beseeched her to turn on the charm. Zoe looked nothing like her fair-haired, chiseled-jaw father; she had her mother's coloring and softer features. "Can you do that for me, for us?"
This time her smile was genuine and heartfelt. "You know I'd do anything for you, Daddy."
Derrick grinned back and squeezed her elbow in appreciation before returning his attention to the crowd. "I see our reinforcements have arrived." He gestured with his head toward the door, and Zoe followed his gaze.
"You didn't tell me Uncle Eddie was coming." The evening was definitely looking up. Her father's older brother had a wonderfully dry sense of humor, and she always loved hearing him relive his latest adventures. A bachelor physician/virologist, he taught at Cambridge but was often out of the country, taking jobs as a private consultant.
"You know him," Derrick replied, motioning his brother to join them. "Never one to make commitments. I didn't want to get your hopes up."
"Zoe, darling, don't you look luscious." Edward embraced her warmly and kissed both cheeks.
"Wonderful to see you," Zoe replied. "Got some stories for me?"
"Indeed I do." He winked at her. "But later. I've apparently been drafted to use my considerable charms to empty some wallets tonight." Edward turned to his brother.
"Derrick," he said with mock seriousness, sticking out his hand.
"Edward," Derrick replied with a straight face as they grasped hands and shook.
Zoe giggled. Her father never got it when his brother poked fun at him. Derrick was British to the core, but Edward had definitely loosened up from his frequent trips abroad.
"Who shall I woo first?" Edward asked.
Derrick surveyed the room. "Madeleine Beaubien, I think." He indicated a middle-aged redhead who'd just arrived with a younger woman. "She's CEO of a large French banking firm that's recently opened a new branch in the financial district."
"Great dress, bad accessories," Zoe commented. "And I don't just mean the purse, which is still less offensive than the daughter she has draped permanently on her arm."
Edward laughed and headed off toward the woman.
"Play nice, Zoe," Derrick said, his voice more pleading than reproachful. He had such a soft spot for her he'd never been much of a disciplinarian. "You are not to provoke her tonight."
She glanced about for a waiter to refill her glass and spotted an unfamiliar woman near the bar. The tall, lean beauty, dressed in a Vera Wang pantsuit, had olive skin and classically sculpted features.
"Zoe, did you hear me?"
Her father squeezed her elbow again. "Huh? Yes, of course." The dark-haired stunner across the room was so distracting it took Zoe a few seconds to remember what they'd been talking about. "Besides, it was just that one time," she said defensively. "She actually slapped the waiter for petting her pedigree Chihuahua and then called him a third-class citizen, not worthy of touching her baby. I just hid the pooch in the coatroom for a few hours. How was I supposed to know her mental meltdown would include getting down on all fours and emitting a special come-hither bark in front of two hundred people?"
She returned her attention to the woman near the bar as her father chuckled. "Who's the cute butch?"
He followed her gaze. "I think you mean Eleni Skouras. The man to her left is her husband. He's a Greek ship owner."
"And she's a closeted dyke."
"You are to refrain from-"
"I believe my interest in tonight's event has been resurrected." Zoe set her empty champagne glass on a passing waiter's tray and grabbed two full ones. "And so has my curiosity about the Mediterranean. Go be productive, Dad. I'll talk to you later."
As he dutifully headed off toward one of the well-heeled guests, Zoe hesitated, watching him go. She couldn't help but be concerned about him, given the changes she'd witnessed in recent months. Like many other CEOs in the aviation industry, he'd been worried about the future of the company and in rather bad spirits for the past year. He was tense all the time now, and his sense of humor had evaporated. He kept reminding her how much they needed to find financiers, with an increasing sense of desperation in both his voice and attitude.
To the best of her knowledge, her father had had nothing but brief, purely physical relationships since her mother passed away. None of them were noteworthy enough to require introductions, but he seemed to always have some stunner on his arm, especially for occasions like this.
Derrick was certainly prime material for the legions of British socialites seeking a mate. Tall and slender, ruggedly handsome, with just the right amount of distinguished gray at his temples. From all outward appearances, anyway, financially secure and endowed with all the qualities that women most admire in long-term companions-wit, charm, kindness, eloquence, and a deep respect for the feminine gender. But in recent months, he'd been spending more time alone, and he'd asked Zoe to be his companion for this affair, and many others.
Zoe had mixed feelings about the prospect of her father ever remarrying. Certainly she wanted him to be happy, but she couldn't shake the feeling that such an event would be somehow disloyal to her mother. Ten years had passed since she had succumbed to acute lymphoblastic leukemia, but not a day had gone by without Zoe whispering a morning greeting to her mother and a good night as she retired.
The first years had been hard for both her and her father. Derrick had coped by burying himself in his empire and showering Zoe with gifts and attention. But they were not what she needed. There were things only a mother could give a daughter. Her example had provided Zoe with a disciplined direction to her life and a desire to put others' welfare ahead of her own. When she died, so did Zoe's motivation and inspiration. Gone with her mother were her adolescent dreams of studying medicine to join Doctors Without Borders, to actively do something about the poverty and disease-stricken people her mother had felt for and donated to for years.
Instead, Zoe ignored her classes and embraced hedonism. Vowing to take life less seriously, she partied her way through Oxford. She got in because of her father's financial persuasion, not her own academic abilities, and three years later had a BA in economics and management. At the age of twenty-three, when her indiscretions and promiscuous behavior started to make the tabloids, her father forced her to join the company. He said it would give her a sense of direction and help her put her energy into something more productive than women and alcohol. She fought until her father threatened to cut her off financially. Although she doubted he'd ever make good on the promise, she also needed something to keep herself busy until the later hours of the day when she could start partying again.
It took Zoe another three years to realize that no amount of women and alcohol would bring her mother back, and yet another three to find herself in a compromising yet less restless life. She did her job, even enjoyed it occasionally, but she was comfortably numb. Even her one-night stands had become so routine she was now looking for ways to up the excitement by taking risks with married women. She enjoyed seeing how far she could get them to go, and this evening was no exception.
Zoe slowly approached the Greek couple. The husband was in what seemed a serious discussion with an Arab, while his beautiful wife looked about as interested in the gathering as she was.
Donning her most charming smile, she stopped in front of the striking woman and offered her one of the glasses of champagne. "A couple of these and you might actually make it through tonight."
The woman laughed. "Thank you. Is it that obvious?" She accepted the offering and downed the contents.
"Only to someone who's looking closely. I'm Zoe Anderson-Howe."
"Skouras," Zoe said. When the woman lifted one eyebrow in surprise, she explained. "I inquired. It was hard not to."
Zoe positioned herself at the woman's side and slid her hand down Eleni's back.
"Because you're the most attractive woman here." This could backfire but she didn't care, and she could tell by the way the woman was looking at her that she was mentally already on second base.
"I'm here with my husband," Eleni said in a low voice, implying they needed to be careful.
"So I hear. Technicalities don't deter me," Zoe replied, and her companion laughed again. "Can I get you another drink?" she whispered in Eleni's ear.
The woman glanced around nervously and set her empty glass on the bar. "Can you find us a place to drink in private?"
Zoe moved closer. "I'm sure I can arrange that," she said before discreetly nipping at Eleni's earlobe. "Follow me."