I frowned at the parcel. It lay on the grimy landing before my new door - the old one had to be replaced when a demon burst through it. I'd built a bit of a reputation in the neighborhood as that crazy bitch with a sword who lives in 32B, an image I carefully cultivated, but even so, an unattended parcel should have been pilfered within seconds of hitting the ground.
Maybe it was booby-trapped.
I pulled out Slayer. The light filtering through the grimy window above me caught the opaque, nearly white metal of the saber, layering a nacre sheen along the blade. I nudged the package with the saber's tip and dodged just in case.
The package lay quietly. Yes, yes, and as soon as I picked it up, it would sprout blades and slice my hands to ribbons.
I crouched, cut across the cord securing the paper, and carefully slid the paper aside, revealing green silk and a little card. I picked up the card. Please call me. Saiman.
I swore under my breath and took the parcel inside the apartment. My answering machine indicated no messages. Nothing from Derek.
I tore the paper and dumped the contents of the parcel onto my bed. A pair of wide silk pants, light magenta in color, green slippers, and an ao dai: a long, flowing Vietnamese garment, half-tunic, half-dress. The clothes were exquisite, especially the ao dai, made of fern-green silk and embroidered with lighter green and tiny flecks of magenta.
I got the phone and dialed Saiman's number.
"What part of 'no date' did you not understand?"
A barely audible sigh filtered through the phone. "Unless you've been to the Games, it's hard to describe the atmosphere. It's a remarkably violent, brutal place. The normal boundaries of common sense don't apply. Cooler heads do not prevail, and everyone's burning to prove their physical prowess. You're an attractive woman. If you come dressed as you were last night, we'll be inundated with challengers. I think we'll both agree that calling that much attention to ourselves is unnecessary."
He had a point.
"I've chosen these items with great care," he said. "They permit full freedom of movement. If you wear them, you'll look less like a bodyguard and more like - "
"A companion. Please, be reasonable, Kate. Play Emma Peel to my John Steed for one night."
I had no clue who Emma Peel or John Steed was.
Saiman's voice softened, gaining a warm velvet quality. "If you are uncomfortable, I understand. We can always renegotiate the terms of our bargain."
He sank enough innuendo into "renegotiate" to make a professional call girl blush.
"A bargain is a bargain," I said. Better to pay up here and now. Being in debt to Saiman didn't appeal to me in the least, and he knew it. Outmaneuvered yet again.
"Green is your color," Saiman said in a conciliatory way. "I had the ao dai tailored to you. It should fit."
I had no doubt it would. He'd probably turned into me and tried it on. "I'll give it a shot."
"I'll pick you up at ten. And, Kate, perhaps a touch of makeup . . ."
"Would you like to assist me with my choice of underwear as well?"
My sarcasm whistled right over his head. "I would be delighted. While I'd love to see you in a balconette bra, I'm afraid for this particular occasion I would have to go with a foam-lined seamless due to the tight fit of the garment across your breasts . . . Perhaps I could come over and review what you have available . . ."
I hung up. A panty party with Saiman. Not in his wildest dreams.
EIGHT HOURS LATER, AS I STEPPED OUT OF SAIMAN'S car into the parking lot of the Arena, I reflected on the fact that he had proved right. Although the green silk hugged my chest, leaving absolutely no doubt that I was female, the dress widened below. Two slits sliced the ao dai on the sides, reaching an inch past the high waistband of the pants. The sleeves flared at the wrist, wide enough to mask my wrist guards, which I had filled with silver needles.
Unfortunately, there was nowhere to put my sword. That was okay. I didn't mind carrying it.
Saiman held on to my passenger door. He chose to be tall and middle-aged tonight, a man past his prime but still trim and dapper in a sleek dark suit and a black turtleneck. His features were large and well-defined, with a patrician nose, powerful chin, wide forehead, and pale hazel eyes under forceful white eyebrows. Platinum-gray hair framed his face in a carefully trimmed mane. In his right hand he held a long black cane tipped by a silver dragon head.
An aura of wealth radiated from him, enhancing his looks like a layer of polish. He smelled of money and prestige. His voice was the auditory equivalent of expensive coffee, rich, smooth, and slightly bitter. "Kate, I'm afraid the sword has to stay."
"Weapons are forbidden everywhere but the Pit level. You won't get through the door."
I sighed and put Slayer between the front seats. "Stay here. Guard the car."
Saiman shut the door. "Is the sword sentient?"
"No. But I like to pretend it is."
A remote clicked in Saiman's hand. The car answered with an odd chime.
"What was that?"
"My security system. I wouldn't recommend touching the vehicle. Shall we?" He offered me his elbow. I rested my fingers on his arm. A deal was a deal. I was his arm candy for the night.
At least I looked the part. I had twisted my hair up and stuck a couple of reinforced wooden sticks into the knot to keep it put. I'd even brushed on some makeup to match the ao dai. The dress already added a touch of exotic, and mascara and dark eye shadow took me into intriguing territory. Pretty was forever out of my league, but striking I could manage.
A large building sat before us in the middle of a huge parking lot. Brick and oval in shape, it rose three stories tall, stretching into the night for what seemed like forever. Buildings of this size were rare in Atlanta.
Something about the location tugged on me. "Wasn't there something else here?"
"The Cooler. This used to be Atlanta's ice-skating rink. Obviously, we've made some modifications."
I chewed on that "we." "Are you a member of the House, Saiman?"
"No. But Thomas Durand is." He indicated his new face with an elegant sweep of his hand.
Not only I was going to an underground tournament dressed like a bimbo, but my escort owned a chunk of it. Great. Since I had gambling and illegal combat covered, maybe afterward I could score some drugs and high-class hookers for an encore. I sighed and tried to look as though I didn't kill things for a living.
"Are those blades in your hair?" Saiman asked.