On the way to the mansion, Victor reminds me one last time, “Never get out of character. No matter what happens, or how uncomfortable things might become for you. Don’t break character.”

“I understand,” I say. “No matter what, I won’t break character. I promise.”

That look he just gave me, although indistinct, tells me that he has his doubts.

We arrive at Arthur Hamburg’s estate at seven-thirty and are met by a tall electronic iron gate and a security guard. Victor holds our invitations out the car window to him. The guard inspects them first then walks over to a panel set in the side of a small rock security station and puts a phone to his ear. I hear him faintly through the opened window describing us and then describing the invitations. A few seconds later he hangs up and gives the invitations back to Victor.

He slips back inside his station and soon after the iron gate breaks apart allowing us access onto the enormous property. After going over the cobblestone driveway the length of at least two acres, we park our car in front of the mansion next to a plethora of equally expensive cars.

We get out and Victor loops his arm through mine and we walk toward the house. We approach the giant front double-doors, passing two marble pillars on either side and then underneath a scaling balcony. We’re greeted at the door by another armed security guard and this is when I notice all of the other security guards posted about the property. I remember what Victor told me about them and I start to feel a little uneasy. But after our invitations are inspected again and we walk inside, the uneasiness fades away, replaced by awe. I have been to many wealthy houses before, but this one is the most stunning by far with tall ceilings that rise four floors in the center of the mansion, opening up into a massive circular skylight. Beautiful Greek statues are displayed on the ground floor underneath it. Whenever someone walks by, the sound of their shoes tapping gently upon the marble echoes as though I’m inside a museum instead of a privately-owned California mansion. I hear what sounds like a small waterfall and then notice to my right, underneath a fifteen-foot archway is a beautiful white-rock fountain situated in the center of that room.

Before I’m caught ogling at this place the way a girl who has never seen such wealth in her life would, I shift my expression to look mostly inattentive, narrowing my eyes gently as if a part of me is bored. And when someone does catch my eye, I pick and choose whom to nod subtly in recognition to and who to ignore. Mostly, I ignore the women, or gaze upon them briefly with disapproving eyes.

Victor walks with me through the enormous room and we are then greeted by a man, though this man is not Arthur Hamburg. He is much younger with sandy-brown hair and brown eyes.

“Welcome to the Hamburg estate,” he says. He reaches out a hand and Victor shakes it. “I am Vince Shaw, Mr. Hamburg’s assistant.”

“I am Victor Faust and this is my lady, Izabel Seyfried.”

I hold my hand out to the man, palm-down and he takes it into his fingers and leans over kissing the top.

I wonder if that’s really Victor’s last name. He doesn’t seem worried about using his real first name…unless ‘Victor’ isn’t his real first name, either…

I can’t think about that right now.

‘Vince’ takes a glass of champagne from a tray when a server walks up carrying it. The server presents the tray to us next.

“Please, have a glass,” Vince says and Victor takes one from the tray and gives it to me before getting one for himself.

“I apologize,” Vince says, “but I was curious as to where you obtained your invite.”

Victor takes a sip and is slow to answer as though he’s important enough to make the man wait for it.

“Izabel and I were guests at Mr. Hamburg’s restaurant last evening. There was an incident.”

“Oh, yes of course,” Vince says with a knowing, but respectful smile. Then he turns to me. “You were compensated with interest for your dress, I presume?”

“Yes, I was,” I say and take a sip. “But I must say, I think it could’ve been handled differently.”

“Oh? In what way do you mean?”

“Well, it happened to be my favorite dress. Sentimental to me, if you must know. The waiter should’ve been relieved of his job.”

“Ah, yes,” Vince says. “Well, that certainly can be arranged. I will speak with Mr. Hamburg about it personally. That is, if you don’t want to speak to him yourself about it when he meets with the two of you later.”

“No,” I say and bat my eyes. “I trust that you will save me from having to repeat myself.”

I look at Victor who seems to be pleased with my performance.

“Of course,” Vince says. “Say no more. It will be done.” He smiles, revealing his straight, white teeth.

I feel terrible about being the reason that poor guy will get fired, but I make myself feel better by telling myself that he shouldn’t be working for a man like Hamburg anyway. After all, if we were sent here to kill him it can only mean he’s a bastard in some way, shape or form.

We mingle with Vince for a short while, but mostly I just sip on my champagne and listen to the two of them talk. Every now and then I’ll bring up my hand, folding my fingernails over and into view, nonchalantly studying them out of boredom. I notice Victor glance at his watch once.

“Mr. Hamburg will be down to greet his guests in no time,” Vince says. “For now, feel free to enjoy the champagne and hors d'oeuvres. Ah, there she is!” He waves a hand toward us and we turn around. “I would like for you to meet Lucinda Graham-Spencer.” He smiles at Victor. “Surely you know of her?”

A stunning woman wearing a tight white dress that hugs her hourglass curves approaches with a man in a suit.

“Yes, I have heard her play,” Victor says. “At a concert in London last year. She is brilliant.”

“Darrrling, how are you?” the woman named Lucinda Graham-Spencer asks holding out her arms dramatically to Vince. Victor and I step aside and she flits between us to plant two almost-kisses on each of Vince’s cheeks.

I roll my eyes. Not just in character, either.

“Lucinda,” Vince says, turning to Victor, “meet Victor Faust and,” he gestures to me, “Izabel Seyfried. They are guests of Mr. Hamburg.”

Lucinda leans in to Victor the same way she did with Vince and they kiss each cheek. Then she turns to me. Victor’s eyes narrow at me privately, but it’s not enough of a hint and I sure as hell can’t read his mind.

So, I act as my gut tells me to.

“A pleasure to meet you,” I say politely yet without letting my air of self-importance diminish. I kiss her cheeks in return, my hands fitted gently around her arms as hers are on mine.

Victor’s eyes smile at me now, approving of my choice and probably relieved by it. Apparently, this woman is of a much higher stature than I could ever be, and although I have no idea what kind of musician she is or why she is so important, I know that she must be famous in her own right and I would only make myself look like an idiot if I shunned someone as respected as her. In fact, we’d probably get kicked out on our asses if I did.

Vince leaves Victor and me alone as he walks with the woman through the room to introduce her to the other guests. I listen to him, noticing that he says the same thing to everyone that he said to us and that everyone here is introduced as ‘guests of Mr. Hamburg’. I start to wonder just how Victor plans to get Mr. Hamburg’s sole attention with so many other people in here, couples included, to compete with.

Victor drapes his free hand around the back of my waist and we walk through the room slowly, pretending to talk about the paintings and the statues. He’ll point subtly to this and that and comment on the detail or the color or the emotion it portrays. It’s all pointless, uninteresting observations that really don’t warrant verbal recognition in my opinion, but I play along anyway. Soon, I see that he was using that time to get across the room without looking lost or as though we needed the company of someone else to make us feel more welcome.

“I need to find the facilities,” Victor says, placing his glass of champagne down on a table at the hallway entrance. “Will you be alright on your own?”

“Of course,” I say with an air of annoyance. “I’m perfectly capable of standing by myself.”

He kisses my lips and then walks down the hallway. I watch until he turns the corner at the end. I know he’s not looking for the ‘facilities’ and I start to get nervous when he’s gone for more than a few minutes and I’m still standing here alone. I hope I don’t look in need of social rescue.

I get it anyway.

“I’m Muriel Costas,” a woman says stepping up to me with another woman and one younger man. “I’ve never seen you here before.”

“Izabel Seyfried,” I say and sip my champagne very slowly, letting her know it has more of my attention than she does. “And I suppose you wouldn’t since I’ve never been here before.”

She smirks, bringing her own glass to her rose-colored lips. She has long jet-black hair cascading over both shoulders that ends just below her plump br**sts, her cl**vage is pushed into view by the tight gray dress she wears. The woman standing beside her glances at her once, probably wondering if she’s going to let me get away with the attitude I gave her. I smirk at her too and turn my attention to the young man who can’t be much older than me.

I offer him a faint, seductive smile just to spite Muriel and he catches it. But then his gaze strays submissively when she looks over.

“Where does it come from?” she asks me.

“Where does what come from?”

She and the other woman glance at each other with soft grins, obviously sharing an opinion of me.

“Your money,” Muriel says as if I should know the lingo.

She sips her champagne.

“You are wealthy, though no one needs to know where your money comes from.”

My whole face darkens with a confident grin. “Only someone who feels threatened ever asks that kind of question,” I say and glance at the other two briefly to quietly flaunt my win of the control. It’s apparent to me they are Muriel Costas’ lost dogs and depending on whose hand offers the better scraps, they’re not immune to influence.

Victor re-emerges from the hallway.

Muriel’s face lights up when she sees him. She introduces herself immediately, offering him her hand for a customary kiss which I know has nothing to do with custom and everything to do with challenge. Victor accommodates the gesture and gazes into her dark eyes as he comes out of his half-bow, which he holds a little longer than I like. But Muriel is pleased and she makes it a point to look me straight in the eyes to let me know just how much.

They introduce themselves and start the pointless mingling conversation all over again. But instead of showing an ounce of jealousy, because I know nothing would satisfy Muriel more, I walk away from the four of them with my chin raised in an important manner and find my own small group of men to mingle with. I’m not sure if this is an act that Victor approves of, but I don’t look back at them once to find out. If I do that, it would pass me off as jealous as much as blatantly displaying it would. And Izabel Seyfried doesn’t get jealous easy. She gets even.

Tags: J.A. Redmerski In the Company of Killers Book Series