You have, to say the least, a servant problem. First Cornelia and now this Soliman---if Phipps or Kent ever behaved that way with me, I'd dismiss them like that, though it doesn't actually seem like Soliman himself is your problem. It's his orders. From what point has Aunt Isabella taken to having you watched? I know she's careful of my part of the family but I somehow doubt Ironheart is hiding behind a Marseilles tree.
I've done something and I don't know whether it's the right thing or foolish but I've resolved not to think too hard about it. If I wind up the worse for it, then it's done and all I can do is make sure it tilts my way now. And I have a talent for turning things my way.
The Cole were over here today and I was, for once, invited to join them. Lord Edmond sat at a table with my grandmother and I sat for a few moments, nodding and smiling while they talked of worthless things.
I excused myself to my room and apparently, I was followed. I found James in the hallway, leaning against one of the doors as I walked.
I was expecting to be more afraid than I ended up being, after what I'd heard about him, after the court case. My mother may even have invented it, though I don't think so. I was nervous but not terrified. All I could feel was this odd sense that I had to keep myself, not fall in front of him.
"Yes?" I asked.
"I have a proposition for you."
"I'm sure you do."
"Clever. Really, I wondered just how curious you are about the work Edmond and your grandparents are doing."
"King of deals, if of nothing else. In return for?"
"If your notion of the word is mine, I'll survive curiosity."
"No, nothing like that, though I could add it if you like."
"There's a laugh," I scoffed.
"I didn't think so, no. I want something else."
"Edmond doesn't tell me everything, Olivia."
"That's clever of him."
"I hate being a pawn." He was serious, then, walking around the room, thinking something over.
He paused before speaking again.
"There are things I'm not told and I want more," he continued, "I do know more than you do, still I want more. I've done my best to find out what I could from him, but I want more."
"No." I realized what he meant and shook my head, backing away.
"Why not?" A threat, not a tease.
"You despise being a pawn, so you make me one in your place? It's just like you, Mr. Cole, nothing I wouldn't expect."
"Think of it as business. You win from all points, Olivia. Find out information you'd want anyway and be rewarded with more for giving it. Where's the trouble there?"
"Only that I'm the one of the two of us who could be caught."
"Then don't be caught."
"And that's ever so simple, isn't it?"
"You're capable enough."
"It's all tilted to you and you know it, Mr. Cole. I sneak round and give up information for you while you lie back with no risk whatever and give as reward something you already have and that is clearly meaningless to you."
"So it's pride, then. You don't like me and I'll be frank, I don't like you much either. You don't want the plan because it's mine. But it goes beyond that. We could do something, figure it out and you're a fool if you let dislike get in the way of it."
He moved behind me and placed his hand on my shoulders.
"Olivia," he breathed in my ear, "We're both unimportant players. Don't flatter yourself to think you're anything else. Socialite or not, whatever the society columns say about you, you're the same to them as an upstairs maid, there to serve a purpose and I could be the same, if I let them. We've the least control in this but we could have the most, if we tried."
"It's not enough," I replied, "it's in your favor. You think I have a moral stand here?"
"How could you not, Miss Van Der Meer?"
"Take your mocking and take your ideas of me and throw them both in the Hudson. I don't trust you. That's all. You may go now."
"I could give you money, too, if you like."
"I don't need money," I sneered.
"Yes, you do. They give you all you want but it comes from their accounts and when you buy something yourself it goes on their bill and they see it all."
He was right. There have been things I've avoided for t he sake of the bills they read. I used to pick a few things off shelves that I wasn't supposed to have but I've since given that up. Nobody would arrest me but if anyone saw---
I still do, now and then. I've gotten better at it, that's all.
"How do you know that?"
"Don't be too astounded, it's the way things are done. I haven't been studying you."
"Yet you know my place in all of it and every detail about me."
"That doesn't require study. I could find a thousand of you anywhere."
I turned round, hand up, but he caught my wrist.
"I wouldn't try that," he said lightly, with a smile playing on his lips.
I stepped back and we watched each other for a moment, testing. I gave a quick, tight smile and sat.
"It's not a bad plan, you know," I sing-songed.
"But you want more from it."
"For all you know, that's what I've been playing at all along."
"You're easy to read."
"How is that?"
"There's nothing special about you or any move you make. Another New York debutante."
"I wouldn't play at that," I repeated his words.
"I'm not worried."
"But you want me to help you."
"You're in the right place."
"Keep on talking and I may not agree. Then where will you be?"
"Just playing with you, Olivia. Go on. What do you want?"
"You won't hand out the information you choose for what I bring you. I'll ask questions. For something I deem important, two questions."
"May I turn down a question?"
I thought for a moment.
"Yes but you must answer the next one I ask."
"And you won't bring up old questions I've refused, Olivia?"
"You decline and the question is gone."
"It's like a child's game, isn't it?" he mocked, grinning.
"It's not all I'll have."
"You want it all, don't you?"
"And is that unique?"
"Not a bit, Miss Van Der Meer."
"Pity, for five or so minutes I was Olivia. Shame."
"Access, to put it simply. Your money, if and when I should need it. Access to transportation, skycarriage or hovermachine, whatever you can give me. Lie for me, when I ask. No questions."
"Now I think it's tilted towards you, Miss Van Der Meer."
"How much do you want to know?"
"We'll have to add something to it."
"What is it, then?"
"You could go to bed with me," he smirked.
"I thought I was nothing special."
"You aren't. It isn't required."
"You didn't really expect me to accept, Mr. Cole?"
"No, not now."
"Not now? Not yet?" I cackled, "You've deluded yourself."
"Here is what I'll have: I will be able to tell you what to do. Once, every time we exchange the information. My choice."
"Nothing like what you're thinking."
"If it were something I'd be willing to do, you'd tell me now."
"You wouldn't have to be willing. It's my condition and you have money and secrets and freedom to do as you like. I won't ask to bed you or anything of the like."
"And if I don't want to obey for another reason?"
"You can't decline."
I thought and thought about it, about his little playing smirk and the way he'd called me ordinary. I thought about having to do as he liked (what would he ask?) and spying for him and being caught.
I thought about money and freedom and places I would be allowed to go. I thought about things I could know and questions I could ask.
"And when would it end?"
He laughed and seemed to know he'd won.
"When I say it ends."
And I knew there was no further bargaining. Yes or no, all the things I'd been wondering about. I thought of you and all the things you don't know, my mother saying everything would change, though I didn't know how.
"Good. I'll come here in a week and ask what you've found. Settled?"
And I left. I don't want to join in any plan of his but in the end, I doubt I had a choice. There are things I want and need and I will have to take them, even from him.
I'm probably being a fool but in the end, perhaps I need to be.
I'll tell you anything that he tells me.
I will win this.
in my heart: determined
on the phonograph: Stripper-Soho Dolls