Anastasia had dismissed herself quietly from the party and casually walked down the elegant, carpeted staircase to the first floor. She affected a confused expression, as if she were looking for a bathroom or trying to meet up with someone. As she was, infuriatingly, something of a nobody at this party, she found it relatively easy to avoid attention. And on the first floor only a few people were standing about; guests talking in pairs, or taking a phone call in the corner, or admiring one of the Oriental artifacts their host displayed in abundance throughout his almost palatial residence.
Anastasia pretended to look for a moment at two jade lions, which flanked either side of a glass door to the patio, as a rather severe-looking butler walked past her with a tray. When he was gone, she opened the door and went out onto the patio. As she walked down the patio steps onto the grass lawn a voice called from the house, "Ms. DeCobray! Are you leaving without even talking to me?"
She turned around with an affectionate look on her face before she even recognized who was speaking to her. It turned out to be one of the men she'd talked with at the last party she'd attended; the one who'd expressed interest in her, and whom she'd tolerated because she found him useful enough to get her to this party. He was really a nobody, but the worst kind; he thought he was a somebody, and had talked to her at length about all of his financial conquests and investments, and what donations he'd made to political organizations she didn't care about. He was rich, but boring. He was also clearly new money. Real money wasn't nearly so ostentatious or braggadocios, in her experience.
Still, she grasped her hand purse in front of her and smiled sweetly, tilting her head as if she were embarrassed to have forgotten about such a dear friend. "Oh, you know me better than that, Jeremy," she said. "I just needed to come outside and get some fresh air for a few minutes. It felt so stuffy and dry in there."
"It probably has something to do with the guest list," Jeremy said.
She laughed as if he were as witty as he thought and said, "Probably. Could you do me a favor?"
"Anything for you."
"Can you pick us up some drinks and meet me by the monkey statue outside the hall? The one in the corridor? I definitely want us to get together before I leave, if you can spare a few minutes after I come back in."
He smiled and saluted her as if it were a great request. "I can do that. Just don't keep me waiting all night."
"I couldn't if I tried," she said. When he'd gone back inside she quickly skirted over to the side of the house, which was overgrown with dead ivy, and planted herself against it, flattening out as much as possible. She repeated this action several times until she was at the west wing of the house, underneath the host's office on the third floor.
She'd worn flats tonight to get around easier. The last time she'd snuck out of a party, she'd been wearing high heels and had thought taking them off would be sufficient. Then she'd stepped on a piece of glass. She'd limped to her target, gotten it, and managed to say goodbye to the Senator hosting the party without being caught, but she'd had to make up a stupid lie about too much dancing, or something like that. She really didn't remember the details. All she remembered was mentally punishing herself for being so careless.
In addition to sensible shoes, she had chosen a night-blue dress to wear tonight. Black was too dark to shield oneself in the dark; a deep blue worked better. The wall here was also covered in ivy, but she could still see the protrusions of mismatched bricks underneath the crispy leaves and vines. The effect was that the wall had a sort of natural, cliff-like look. It was also not a bad climb.
Anastasia had prepared herself for this particular heist for weeks, practicing her technique on the cliffs near the island beach. She'd been an amateur rock-climber in her youth and was happy that her parents had encouraged the sport; it had come in handy the past few years.
She tucked the skirt of her dress into the band of the exercise pants she wore underneath and gripped the wall. The climb was still not ideal, and she slipped on the ivy when it gave way, but she managed to keep her balance overall and received only minor scrapes. Her dress would be marked with chalk but it would be nothing noticeable to the distracted party-goers after she brushed it off.
The window wasn't locked, though if it hadn't been she would have gotten through anyway. She pulled it open and hauled herself through, tumbled onto the soft carpet, and allowed herself a few minutes to catch her breath.
She checked the door on the opposite side of the room and found it locked. So the only person she had to worry about was the owner of the key, and he wasn't likely to come in here tonight. His office looked too neat to be used very much, anyway.
Still, it was a beautiful office, almost a museum. Recesses in the walls showed off more of Mr. Dorrance's collection of art, all of it Eastern or near-Eastern. Though the office was dark and empty, the art pieces were illuminated by carefully placed lights behind and underneath them. She'd seen this lighting before and every time she felt as though the owners wanted to help the burglar steal their possessions. Anastasia went to one of the art displays, the only one she cared about. She was not a great lover of art, but even she could appreciate the little statuette she had come for; idols of the Egyptian goddess Renenutet were rare, and this one was from before the New Kingdom. It was approximately six inches high, standing in the contra-posta, and cast the goddess as a human body with a snake's head beneath her headdress.
It had disturbed her as a child. But in the past few years she had obsessed over it, had tracked its exchange at auction; she'd even now risked her life for it. As she stared at the statuette that once had been her mother's, her cheeks burned. Tears started to form in her eyes. She squashed the emotion before it could register any further; she hadn't cried in a long time and wouldn't now. She'd made a vow to herself to never cry again.
Anastasia gently placed the statuette into her purse. Nothing was in the purse, and she'd padded it to make sure the artifact would be safe. Gently she clasped the purse shut, and only then could she completely push back the tears.
Her mother and father would have been proud of her, not just for tonight but for all the other nights she'd taken back what was theirs. She was certain they would approve of what she'd done for them.
Anastasia scaled back down the wall, jumping the last several feet, untucked and dusted off her dress, and walked calmly to her car. A few other people were leaving the party as well and she fell in behind them, as if she were part of their group. She even initiated small talk with one of the women to better blend in.
With a much lighter heart, she set the purse in the seat next to her and started the engine. She felt almost giddy. It was a feeling she'd gotten used to and she indulged it for a moment.
A man in a black suit strode up to her car as she prepared to close the door. He wore dark shades and looked like some sort of security person. She smiled and said, "Good night."
He smiled and gave her a brief nod. "Ms. DeCobray?"
"Yes," she said.
"Bhang, Dae-Jung. I'm Mr. Dorrance's Head of Security. You didn't get to meet Mr. Dorrance tonight?"
"Unfortunately, no," she said. "I didn't see him at all."
"He really wished to see you before you left. Could you spare a moment of your time?"
She slid her eyes to the purse next to her. "I-am kind of tired. I'll be on the island for the week, if he wants to arrange something."
"It'll only take a moment of your time," Mr. Bhang repeated.
She wanted to scowl. She instead gave a slight nod. "All right." She grabbed her purse and stepped out, in case they decided to search her car while she was inside.
It felt like a long walk back inside. She glared at the Head of Security when he wasn't looking. His name suggested he was Korean, though he could possibly be Japanese as well. She wasn't good at reading stuff like that. But she could read his body language and his facial expressions-or lack thereof. He moved briskly but didn't seem agitated or rushed. Nor did any emotion manipulate his face.
He escorted her past the festivities and led her down a quiet corridor. This didn't look promising, but she was prepared to lie, manipulate, or even fight her way out. Anastasia wasn't the kind of girl she'd been as a teenager, back when everything had crumbled around her. She knew she could handle some security guard and an art collector.
Mr. Bhang opened a door off to the side and indicated that she should enter. She did, with confidence, as if she had nothing to hide. Silently, Anastasia promised herself that she was not parting with her prize. If it didn't leave this house, she wouldn't leave either.
The secondary office she was led into was well-lit. The walls boasted Japanese prints. A man sat at a desk, slightly slumped. But he didn't look like a man. His face was behind a visor and his overcoat was embellished with slight bits of armor.
"Close the door, already," he said to Mr. Bhang.
Mr. Bhang closed the door. Anastasia stared at the man behind the desk; who'd been on the news for months now, declared worldwide Public Enemy Number One. For once she had no clue what to do in this situation.
"You're not Mr. Dorrance," she said finally. "You're the Cobra Commander."
"And you're name isn't Anastasia DeCobray-it's Anastasia Cisarovna," he said.
He looked at Mr. Bhang. Before she could register it, the purse was out of her hands and in the hands of the Commander. She watched as he opened it up and looked inside.
"Such a silly name," he said. "Did you choose DeCobray because of the statuette? Was it a joke?" He picked out the idol and placed it in front of him on the desk. He touched the head briefly. "Well, maybe I shouldn't talk. I have four of the seven other art pieces still floating around after your family's fall from grace, but I chose the cobra woman deliberately for Mr. Dorrance to purchase. Her name is Renanatet, right?"
"Renenutet," she said sharply. "She's a snake goddess of names and nurturing. I'm not surprised you don't know that. Somehow I doubt you are a particularly sophisticated or scholastic individual."
"No," he said. "I'm not. Art bores me, actually. So does classical music and all the other uppity things I can't stand."
"So why did you arrange for all of this?" she asked.
The Commander shrugged. It was such a ridiculously casual, improper gesture given the situation, she couldn't believe this was the man who was somehow evading the Americans and every other intelligence agency around the world. "Because I wanted to talk with you."
"You could have called me," She said. "Not that I am in the phone book, but you seem good at knowing where I am and what I am doing."
"I think this works better. Because now you have to listen to what I have to say."
"Why is that?" She knew why, but she refused to be intimidated. "If you think you have power over me, you're wrong. In fact, you've made a mistake revealing yourself like this. Now I know that you have connections in the art world, with wealthy radio show hosts like Mr. Dorrance, and apparently your network bothered to research old Russian families-"
"Oh, please," he said. "Storm Shadow here could kill you in a second before you even thought to run out and yell anything about me. You're just a petty thief and a spoiled brat, not some secret agent like you seem to think. Neither are you a Lady Robin Hood looking to steal from the rich to give to the...what are you? Former rich?"
She balled her hands into fists. Her nails bit into the flesh of her palms. "I come from a proud, honorable line," she said. "It was businessmen like Mr. Dorrance, and American scum like you, who drove my family into the ground. I'm not taking anything that doesn't belong to me."
"Your ability to lie is impressive," he said. "I almost believe you, even after reading all the facts concerning your family's downfall. How long have you been lying to yourself?"
"It's the truth," she said. "What they did to us was wrong. My parents did nothing to them and were destroyed for it."
He nodded. Then he snapped his fingers at Mr. Bhang-or Storm Shadow, apparently, who walked to the desk and pulled out a very thick manila folder. The Commander took it. "I've had my people monitoring you for years. Protests, anti-American tracts in college, riots, a few arrests. Then an anti-corporatist crusade when you were twenty-six. And there are also some interesting reports about eco-terrorism which I still find a little incongruous. Unless, of course, you're just an angry woman with an axe to grind, trying to fight the whole world all at once."
"I was in college," she said. "Young people do crazy things in college."
"I also have some recent activities that are off the record; things you thought you covered your tracks on."
"Everything I've done, I've done to people who deserved it," she said.
"Probably," he conceded. "Yet your parents willingly sold off their possessions to make ends meet. And now that they're gone you've taken it upon yourself to steal all of them back-and even things that never belonged to them, if rumors are to be believed."
She felt a stab of shame-because it was true-but she suppressed it. She didn't let him see any hesitation. "They still deserve it. I won't apologize for anything."
He said, "I'm not here to judge you. I only see someone wasting her potential on silly revenge and pointless greed when she could be doing real damage to the people who deserve it, and getting back real rewards."
Then it all clicked for her. This was no different than the military recruiters sent to low-income schools, or poor neighborhoods. It was no different than all the other propaganda she'd heard in her life "You want to recruit me for Cobra?"
"Why not?" he said. "You've worked for the Triads, for right-wing extremists, for corporate saboteurs. You've stolen, or been paid by criminals, over 100,000 dollars this year alone. And Cobra is not some group of gangsters or bitter extremists. We are a strong, totally self-sufficient organization, with no dependence on any country for anything; we have our own wealth, creed, and pride. Why would you of all people find that so unattractive?"
"Perhaps because its leader wears an unattractive bike helmet," she said, "probably to hide his unattractive face." She ripped the folder out of his hand. "Why should I work for some over-rated American militia group headed by a man so ashamed of his face and name that he has to hide from the world he wants to conquer? Unlike you, I am proud of my name, and my history, and where I come from. I also know that real loyalty to fascist cults like yours never work. That's why I'll associate with anyone, to get what I want, and then I am gone. I'm in this for only myself. You're a fool to build an empire that's going to crash on top of you."
He didn't say anything. She expected him to blow up, but he just picked up the snake goddess. Then he held it out and said, "Take your idol, then. Chase after your name. But I'm offering you more than a name. I'm offering you Cobra. Security in Cobra. I think that's what you really want-to be secure. You can associate with the dregs of society and clean up after your parents' tragedy, or you can do something for yourself that will last. But either way, here's your idol."
She didn't acknowledge that; if he was going to let her leave with what she came for, that was all she would concern herself with.
Well, not quite.
As she reached for the statue she asked, "You...said you had four more besides this? Of my parents' collection?"
"Yes." He didn't let go of the statuette as her hand closed around it. "I will give them to you," he said, "but only if you do one small thing for me."
Her grip tightened. "What is this 'small' thing?"
"Think about what you really want. But whatever realization you come to, in three days, you will have your family's possessions back." He released the idol and she took it. She quickly stuffed it into her purse and walked out into the corridor.
She didn't look back as she ran to her car and drove to her hotel.
He kept his word. An old journal from the 1500s, a timepiece, and two paintings-were delivered to her room on the third morning, by two men who were dressed as postal workers but who definitely weren't. She didn't have to sign for anything, and they left before she got a good look at their faces.
There was one extra item, however. It was a modern book on ancient Egypt. It looked and smelled brand-new. She flipped through it, until she found a highlighted passage, titled "The Hymn of Renenutet."
"I will make the Nile swell for you,
without there being a year of lack and exhaustion in the whole land,
so the plants will flourish, bending under their fruit.
The land of Egypt is beginning to stir again;
the shores are shining wonderfully,
and wealth and well-being dwell with them
as it had been before."
She closed the book. She laughed.
Another island. It was beautiful, covered with great trees and other lush vegetation that almost totally shielded the modern-looking hangars and installations that formed Cobra's main base of operations. The sun peaked over the horizon and the whole island glimmered like a gold trinket. Anastasia saw it all from her helicopter, piloted by someone who went by the odd codename of Wild Weasel. After flying over half the island, he set them down on one of its three landing pads. A small group was waiting there for them. The Commander was there, looking as strange and nonhuman as always. His jacket flapped wildly in the helicopter's wake, but he stood as still and firm as stone. Behind him were Storm Shadow and his Red Ninja guard, men she'd heard of but till now never seen.
The Commander walked right up to the door after the blades had stopped spinning. He opened it and offered her his hand. Sometimes he was actually a gentleman, which surprised her. Anastasia blessed him with one of her rare, genuine smiles and let him guide her onto the landing pad.
"Welcome to Cobra Island," he said. He gave her a formal tilt of his head. "It is good to have you at last, Baroness Cisarovna."
The old title surprised her. But it also pleased her. But the name no longer felt right to her ears.
"Just Baroness will do," she said to him.