“This is it. The Imperial--best hotel in Hong Kong.”
Murdock flinched when he saw the gigantic lions, just like the ones at the Forbidden City, standing guard at the hotel’s doors. Something about the way their eyes were following him made him want to duck behind B.A. until they were past them and inside the lobby. But he pretended to be brave and kept up pace with Face, looking around uneasily. This place was way out of his league. Marble floors. Vast crystal chandeliers. Giant Ming vases with pictures of dragons and lions and really angry-looking salamanders. Annoying Chinese man-tuning-a-piano music was playing from somewhere. The lights were soft, though, and not as panic-inducing as the fluorescent lights at the VA and he counted that as one minor plus.
He was more comfortable in miserable little fleabag motels and mental hospitals, not five-star hotels. Just being in Hong Kong made him anxious--the food was scary, the politics terrifying, and the traffic nightmare-inducing even on a Sunday morning. He had spent the last three days at that sleazy, dirt-cheap motel with the rest of the team, half-listening to Hannibal work out the plan and fighting off about fifty anxiety attacks an hour, all while crammed into a tiny room he had to share with Face. He was actually looking forward to going back to the VA at this point, where he’d get a nice padded cell and some peace.
“Murdock, you’re translating,” Hannibal informed him as they entered the lobby.
“I…I am? Oh. Right. Si. Muy bueno."
“Mandarin, Captain, Mandarin” Hannibal said firmly, but he didn’t sound exasperated. “But first things first--Face, take Murdock here to the men’s room and get him cleaned up and into that suit.”
“Suit?” Murdock squeaked, even more uneasy now. He had been hoping that the suit in the plastic liner was for somebody else. B.A., maybe. It suddenly hit him that this was why he was being required to change clothes now—had they dropped this bomb on him back at the hotel, he would have succumbed to the last anxiety attack and would have curled up in the bathtub, screaming and refusing to let anybody touch him. Now, he was in a public place and screaming fits wouldn’t work. He doubted Chinese mental hospitals worked along the same lines as the ones back in America. Maybe a few years ago it would have been okay, but ever since Britain had handed the city over to a bunch of hard-eyed murderers, things were probably very, very different.
“Yep. You’re up, Captain, and I know you’ll be fine.”
Murdock gave Face a wary look and started backing away, but B.A.’s narrow gaze kept him from sprinting off in terror just the same. He didn’t wear suits. He wore cargo pants and Hawaiian shirts and hi-top Converse sneakers to everything, including weddings and bar mitzvahs. He hadn’t worn a suit since his mother’s funeral, and the one Face was carrying looked expensive. Armani, for the love of all that was holy. Until he’d met Face, he hadn’t known what Armani was. Thought it was a type of refrigerator, actually…
“It’s all right, man,” Face said reassuringly, sensing Murdock was on the verge of a meltdown. “I think we’ll try a haircut, too. You need to look the part, and it won’t take much--the ladies’ll be swoonin’ over you, bud.”
"Swooning? Nobody swoons over me. And what part? I’ll do Mercutio this time, thanks--I did Romeo last round, back at the VA. That poison I had to take tasted just like aqua vite. I hate that stuff.” Off three exasperated gazes, he blew out his cheeks and gave up--sometimes these guys had no sense of humor. “I was just gonna translate. I was gonna translate and we’d get that guy out of this hotel and in the truck and I’d fly us back to Tokyo and then I’d go back to the booby hatch. You didn’t say nothin’ about lookin’ no damn’ part.”
“Well… ” Hannibal shrugged. “The best laid plans of mice and men and… er… all that other stuff…”
“‘The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray’, and believe you me, they do." Murdock said, his voice shaking. “Robert Burns. And that doesn’t exactly give me a good feeling… with all due respect, sir.”
“I hate when he quotes Burns,” Face muttered. “Why’d you have to bring up Burns, Hannibal? Next it’ll be Scots Wa’ Ha’e Ye and he’ll be paintin’ his face blue again.”
Hannibal looked a little disconcerted, and frowned at Murdock, his expression serious, and Murdock mentally yanked himself out of his panic attack. Just like always, Hannibal’s gaze was steady and respectful, rather than pitying, or furious, like so many other people looked when they talked to Murdock. No matter how manic he got, Hannibal always took him seriously, listened to him, and believed in him. Until he’d met up with these men, nobody had believed in him at all, except maybe God, but that had been what his mother had told him and in the past year or so at the VA, he had wondered if she had just been yanking his chain.
“Captain, you have your orders. I was going to send Face in for this part, but looking at the layout, he would stand out like… er… a peacock amongst crows, and he doesn’t speak Mandarin anyway. You… well, you won’t stick out, and you speak better Mandarin than anybody around these parts, I suspect. Go with Face and cooperate. Got it?”
“Mfhghh… ” Murdock grimaced, thought about murders of crows, and swallowed a series of vile Mandarin curses, including one about ducks and rectums that was really rude. He followed Face across the marble lobby and into the men’s room, which consisted of stalls the size of rent-controlled apartments in New York City. He was shoved into a stall with the new suit, with orders to change into it posthaste. Once dressed, Murdock allowed Face to sit him down on the toilet and winced as the conman began clipping his hair, after putting a toilet seat liner over his shoulders, to keep hair off the suit.
“I ain’t had a haircut in years,” Murdock said. “I usually just… singe it off.”
“Liar.” Face was finished with the trim in minutes. “Or at least I hope you’re lying about that.” He bent down and looked directly at the pilot, whose shaggy look was changed considerably--he only needed a good shave and the transformation would be complete. A couple more snips and Face seemed pleased. The conman then grappled Murdock into the silk tie, with the pilot cursing and muttering the whole time, until it was perfect. “Right. Better. C’mon. I have a razor here, and I want you to shave. Here’s some cream. C’mon, no griping this time, and no foam art on the mirrors.” He dragged Murdock out of the stall and to the sinks.
Murdock observed a tiny man, dressed a lot like an organ grinder’s monkey, standing at the end of the line of sinks, apparently waiting for a tip but also-- conveniently come to think about it--blind, if the sunglasses were any indication. He blinked and snatched up the electric razor from Face, applied the shaving cream and began working away at his stubble. In a few minutes, even Face appeared to be satisfied, and Murdock looked at himself in the mirror. He swallowed and felt like he was having an out-of-body experience. That wasn’t him in the mirror. The scruffy, shaggy, unkempt man of just a few minutes ago had been replaced by a stranger: tall, lean, dark-hair, dark greenish eyes, and even kind of… handsome, in that expensive suit and green silk tie that actually did a lot for his eye color.
No, not handsome, Murdock thought, shaking his head. Nobody had ever called him handsome. Much less swooned when they saw him. Screamed, yeah. Attacked him with sharp implements or needles, definitely, or shot bullets at him. But nobody ever got the vapors when they looked at him. He glanced at Face, and felt an unfamiliar flash of envy. Women got on him like mustard on a tie at a county fair. Women looked at Howling Mad Murdock and… pushed him out of the way, so they could look at Face.
Murdock had given up on being jealous of his friend, long ago. It was pointless, and Face never gloated about his success with women. Talked about it a lot, and even tried to aim Murdock in the occasional girl’s direction, but he never pressed the matter. Both ways, it suited the situation well enough and kept peace between them.
“Not bad,” Face nodded. “Stand up straight. Put on your best behavior, and you’ll get a lollipop, ’kay?” At Murdock’s exasperated expression, he looked apologetic. “It’s all right. C’mon, be a trooper here, buddy. I know you’ll do a great job. Hannibal wants this done as soon as possible, so we can go home. Go on out there.” He pushed Murdock back out the door and into the hallway. “When I give you the signal, you get over to that front desk and start talkin’ to the concierge, and we’ll do the rest. Got it?”
"Si,” Murdock muttered, and stepped aside as Face made his way back across the lobby and out the doors. He watched the doors for the signal, and as soon as he saw the flash from Face’s infra-red pointer, he turned and walked over to the desk, straightening the silk tie, feeling like he was about to choke, and put his mind into Mandarin mode, but as he approached the desk, it was clear the tall, slender, dark-haired woman at the desk would be speaking English--a language James ‘Howling Mad’ Murdock had far more trouble with. She was talking in a soft, posh-sounding English accent to a little man who bore an unsettling resemblance to Jabba the Hutt.
Alexandra Graham put on her best smile and pretended that the grouchy little man in front of her wasn’t easily the ugliest, most ill-mannered human being she’d ever dealt with. Considering she had dealt with politicians, rock stars, actors, celebrities and multi-billionaires for the past four years, that was saying a lot. This man--Mr Renfrew--was a little wart-shaped fellow with piggy eyes and a mean expression, and from the moment he had arrived at the Imperial last night, he had complained about everything in his hotel room, from the view to the soap to the reception on his television and now, the towels. It was like dealing with Hyacinth Bucket in drag.
“Mr Renfrew, I’m sure that we will do all we can to accommodate you,” she said, while her eyes said ‘And if that fails, we’ll be very happy to throw you off the roof with much force and considerable glee’. “We apologize for the inconvenience, but I’m sure that the bath towels can be replaced, and will be one-hundred percent pure Egyptian cotton, and well over four-hundred thread count, at the very least.” The little man nodded, but she knew he’d soon find something else to squawk about, and put a curse on him as he strutted away, clearly accustomed to bullying people around so long as they had no means of retaliating. May you develop a contagious skin rash and may your socks always fall down around your ankles... and may cotton towels give you an even uglier skin rash, you odious, silly wee man.
It was little wonder that Alexandra Graham had, over the past few years, developed a strong distaste for men and their vast egos that rarely was in proportion to their tiny little parts and even tinier brains and their general viciousness. Her eyes narrowed as Mr Renfrew strutted away, having been joined by a tall, blonde human Barbie.
“Uh… ’scuse me, ma’am?”
She glanced toward the end of the front desk and put on her ‘Welcome to Hong Kong’s Imperial Hotel’ smile, but had trouble holding it. The man standing there looked very uncomfortable--shy as a mistreated colt, and clearly ready to bolt for the doors if anybody touched him. He was wearing an expensive Armani suit, but didn’t look like he belonged in it. She suspected he’d look far happier in jeans and a T-shirt.
“Yes, sir? How might I help you?” she asked kindly, stepping a little closer to him, sensing nothing threatening about him… not really. No one else was at the desk, and she was intrigued enough to neglect her duties and not watch the front door. She mentally pulled herself up and glanced toward the door, but there was no activity out there. She looked back at him and couldn’t help admiring the way he carried himself--there was a kind of dignity about him, but there was something else… something she recognized instinctively. He was not of her class, but he was quality.
“I… uh… room. I need a room.”
She looked at him more closely. Dark, slightly rough-cut hair, pretty green eyes, tanned skin, along with a Southern drawl that frankly was her very favorite kind of accent on a man. He was probably not quite forty, clearly in excellent condition, if a little thin, but really kind of good-looking, in a hard-lived and maybe even damaged kind of way. “I’ll be happy to help you, sir. What is your name, please?”
He looked momentarily confused by the question, then shook himself slightly. “James.”
Alexandra smiled again. “James… ?”
“James. Um… Mur… phy. James Murphy.” He seemed to settle a little, and he had a sweet, almost boyish smile above a nice chin. He glanced to his left, down the hallway. “How much are the rooms here?”
“We start at six hundred dollars a night for the smallest suites, and a bit higher as the size and amenities go up.”
“‘A bit higher’ meaning several hundred dollars more each, right?” He nodded and she looked down at his hands. Long, strong fingers, with brawl-reddened knuckles, but his nails looked ragged, and it was clear that he wasn’t the executive type. Interesting, she thought, but she knew never to make snap judgments about anybody.
“I’m afraid so.”
He moved along the front desk, so that she had to turn her head to keep him in her line of vision, with the doors right behind him. “And… uh… what is your name?” he asked her, once he was directly in front of her, and she faced him squarely.
She had to cough to cover a laugh. He was clearly no good at flirting. What was he, a monk out on the town for the first time? His voice even sounded slightly raspy, as if unaccustomed to use. “My name is Alexandra.”
“That… that’s a pretty name.”
She raised her eyebrow. It was a tired line, but there was a sweet sincerity about how he said it that further peaked her curiosity. She glanced down, over the desk, and noted he was wearing work-roughed boots. He had no suitcase. Not even an overnight bag. What was going on here?
“Thank you, sir. So are you interested? In a room, I mean?” she asked, unable to resist putting a little lilt to her voice--an inflection she would never use around a guest if the manager was within earshot, and she was gratified when James Murphy’s cheeks pinked.
“Uh… ” He glanced down the hallway again, and this time she looked that way as well. She looked back at James Murphy and noted his nervousness. He took a deep breath. “I… yeah. A room. I’d like to check in… for… for the… uh… night. Alone, of… of course.”
“Very good, sir. Just one moment, please.” Never say ‘okay’ to the guests, the hotel manager had pounded into the staff’s skulls, every day, until they all wanted to kill the little jerk and never said ‘okay’ at home, either. ‘Okay is a vulgar Americanism!’ he would always squawk. None of the hotel employees, many of whom were bilingual and from every corner of the world, had appreciated that comment from the English-born hotel manager, whom they all loathed with a passion and had thought about dropping heavy things onto for years now. But His Prickness had made the Imperial the premier hotel of the Pacific Rim, and anybody who was anybody stayed there, from Kings to Presidents to Brad Pitt and myriad others with equally low IQ scores. She glanced up at Mr Murphy and suspected that he was one of the ‘anybodys’ that surprised you.
She logged into the hotel system and looked back up at him, smiling warmly. “Do you have a major credit card?”
“Um… ” He reached into his back pocket and winced. “Oh.” A pained expression crossed his face, and she could have sworn she heard him say a four-letter word in Mandarin. He spoke Mandarin? He barely seemed capable of speaking at all…
“Is there a problem, Mr Murphy?”
“I seem to have left my wallet at… uh… somewhere else.” He looked left again, and so did she. Four men were walking across the lobby, with a vaguely familiar man walking in front, his gait rather stiff, with an aggrieved expression on his face, but he was keeping his gaze forward, looking neither right nor left. One of the men--a handsome fellow with flashing blue eyes--glanced toward the front desk, and as he pushed the door open, Alexandra’s eyes widened when she glimpsed a gun at his belt. A gun?
Panic surged through her and she looked at Mr Murphy again.
“Actually, I think I left it in my limo,” Mr Murphy told her, determinedly catching her gaze again. “I suppose I’ll just have to go get it. Excuse me.” He stepped back from the desk, gave her a polite little bow from the waist and walked away. Alexandra reached for the phone, and was starting to dial, when a hand clamped down on hers. “Don’t. Don’t even move. Look at me. Smile big for daddy and look like you’re havin’ just a great big ol’ peck of fun.”
She looked up and her face was just inches from Mr Murphy’s, and she felt that all-too-familiar flash of terror before she looked directly into his eyes. They were green, touched with gold and hazel, and she could smell his aftershave. It wasn’t an offensive smell--instead, it was entirely masculine: primal, even, the way men were supposed to smell but rarely did. The shy, awkward colt of a few minutes ago was gone, replaced by a cool, steely purposefulness that unnerved and further intrigued and alarmed her. In fact, there was something almost… erotic about his transformation from nervous to commanding. She swallowed and her gaze dropped to his mouth, and she felt her cheeks warming. She raised her eyes back to his again and found him studying her intently, and then his gaze dropped to her mouth.
Must be the late hour, she told herself. She had been up more than twenty-four hours, covering a sick employee’s shift. Otherwise, she wouldn’t be feeling little electric currents from his hand to hers, and she wouldn’t be wondering if his hair would feel soft against her fingertips. Right. Definitely sleep deprivation. Alexandra never would have reacted to a man when she was fully alert and in control.
“Just keep quiet. It’s okay. I promise. I assure you--no harm will befall you, ma’am. I’d never allow it.” He smiled at her and she obeyed his order to smile big. “Good girl. You got a right pretty smile, too, to match your name. What’s your full name?”
“Hm.” He flashed her a grin that made her forget all about being afraid. “All’s well. Another nasty man off the streets, too.”
“W-What?” she gasped, her swirling thoughts coming into focus. His hand was still on hers, holding it down on the phone receiver. He glanced around, noting that no one else was in the lobby. Alexandra saw a red flash from outside the hotel doors--just a tiny little point of light that went off one, two, three times. Mr Murphy glanced back, seeing the light, and nodded.
“Very good, baby. Thanks. Tell security the cameras should work just fine--we just scrambled the signal for a few minutes. No harm done.” He released her hand and stepped back. He gave her another little bow and turned around. She reached for the phone again, and dialed security. When she glanced up, however, Mr Murphy was gone and the lobby was empty.
Moments later, six armed security guards rushed into the lobby, guns drawn and shouting, and all merry hell broke loose.