Lady Nina (not her real name) looked at herself in the full-length mirror and tried not to cry. Her dress was so slinky and fitted it seemed to give her curves she wasn't sure she truly had, and clever use of fabrics and panels made her seem so slim that you wondered if she'd disappear if she turned sideways. Her shoes, with the cripplingly high heels, forced her legs into such a graceful shape that she'd seen men have heart attacks watching her walk into a room (that had been a client and had worked out rather costly in the end). Even her handbag and evening gloves of sheer white silk seemed plucked from the kind of movie where the heroine is tragically doomed from the outset, offered redemption and turns away from it, not believing herself good enough to be saved. She was, to summarise all the description, beautiful.
She whispered "Cyonara," to herself in a voice with a hint of smoke and gravel and left to go downstairs and hail a taxi, choking back her tears all the while.
"Lady Nina," he said, already in the taxi. She'd known something was wrong when she saw the taxi waiting outside, apparently thinking that this lonely stretch of road with tenement housing for the poor and depressed was a hub of taxi-needing activity. But the light was on, and it had purred over to her when hailed, and it was only when she'd sat down inside and named the 22-club as her destination that her date for the evening had leaned forwards from his corner of the cab and laid a hand on her shoulder.
"Mr. Diseased-Rat," she said, trying and succeeding not to flinch. Surely real people weren't supposed to be so clammy? "You know my address?"
"I know much more than just your address," he said, his voice deep, calm, and now unutterably creepy. "I know everything about you up until five years ago, when you seem to have stepped out of thin air and into existence. Even your National Insurance number didn't exist prior to that time, and believe me, that startled our accounts department."
"Why?" She couldn't have said any more if she'd tried.
"It started as a security exercise," he said, his hand not moving from her shoulder. "My security team are very conscious that the nature of our consultancy makes me unusually vulnerable to certain kinds of influence, and they work very hard to make sure that that influence doesn't reach me. So they investigated you to see if there were any little shadows in your background, or, well...,"
"Skeletons in my closet?"
"If you prefer. I was going to say 'bodies in the back-garden', but if you bring the bones back in later that's fine by me."
She forced a smile, her face managing it automatically when she squeezed the muscles hard enough. It wasn't the first smile she'd forced, and at least he wasn't hurting her. Yet.
"Then when they couldn't find anything for you beyond five years ago you became a challenge for them. They started hunting deeper and farther, tracking down runaway girls and their descriptions. I believe they've solved fifteen missing persons cases for the police while they were trying to find you, plus two dognappings and a garden-gnome-theft ring. We're deploying their new search patterns and algorithms at our national conference next month, and I've called the whole package Lady Nina in honour of you."
Another forced smile, a hasty glance at the dashboard checking how fast the taxi was going. Too fast, she'd need medical care if she tried jumping out now. Perhaps when they – ah, they'd just run the red light. Jeremy Diseased-Rat must have already considered this.
"Nothing to say, sweetheart?"
"I'm flattered," she said, hating being called sweetheart. It reminded her of her father, and the reasons she'd left her past behind. "You shouldn't have."
"I shouldn't have had to," corrected Jeremy. "But you left me little choice, and I still don't know who you are. That's a worry, you know."
"So tonight's date is with an open grave and a shovel?" She tried hard to keep her voice light, but a note of pain crept in anyway.
"Hah. Security would prefer that. I've decided to let them keep looking for you; no-one can hide forever after all."
"Lord Lucan can."
Jeremy laughed, and there was a note of real pleasure in there. "Surely there are more modern disappearances that you could reference? But yes, some people can. But they are disappeared, not sitting in a taxi with me, or being sought after by my security service. So perhaps they have an advantage that you do not?"
"And when you know me inside and out? Will the mystery disappear as well, when all I am is a manilla dossier on your desk?"
"Let's find out, shall we?" Jeremy leaned in closer, his lips brushing her long, swan-like, neck, and she controlled the urge to pull away. As she forced herself to respond she wondered if Jeremy would find out that five years ago she'd completed her sex-change operation or if he was resolutely looking for the wrong kind of person. And then she wondered what he'd do if he did find out.