I met Cogliano at the Port Authority bus station, or rather, he met me. He knew who I was. I thought he was one of those guys who try to con the tourists into buying fake jewelry.
"Sorry, pal," I said as he fell into step beside me. "I know the drill, so you can just move on. There're some suckers coming off the bus from Cincinnati in fifteen minutes. I know, because that's the one I'm supposed to catch."
"Ms. Foster," he said, pretending he hadn't heard me. "Adrienne, isn't it? I'd like a few minutes of your time."
He knew my name. That made the last little bit of me that was still hopeful stop thinking con artist and start thinking agent. Since I didn't have an agent already, I let him keep pace with me instead of clubbing him with my suitcase and calling security. He might look like Frankenstein's monster in aviator sunglasses and a baggy suit, but representation was representation. Plus, it was a sure bet that nobody else was tracking me down at the bus station to make me an offer.
I was still smarting from that. I'd planned for things to work out differently this year.
"Yeah, well," I said, shifting my suitcase to give my right hand a break. "Looks like you're the only one."
"I heard the final round," he said. "You sang very well. Better than the girl who took third, I thought."
We were close enough to the loading bay for me to see the Cincinnati terminal. There wasn't a line yet. I dropped the suitcases next to a grimy concrete bench, made a half-assed try at brushing it off, and sat down. "That and a buck seventy-five will get me a cup of coffee. You buying?"
"Later maybe." He sat down next to me and took off the sunglasses. "You know, a lot of people would have been happy just to get this far. Making the Philharmonic nationals is a big deal."
I was sick of hearing this. "Except that I don't have another shot at it."
He raised an eyebrow. "Always next year."
"I turn thirty-one in November," I said. "This was my third strike."
"Come on, Lurch," I said. "You know this game better than I do. The whole damn city's full of national Phil finalists who got exactly as far as I did but didn't make the money spots, and most of them are filling water glasses and serving tiramisu right now. My bad luck they didn't want mezzos this year, that's all." I glowered at him. "What's it to you, anyway? You the traveling therapist they're sending round to make sure none of the losers go home and open a vein?"
He ignored me. "I see you're not staying in town."
"Stay here? You're kidding, right?" I cast another glance at the sign marked 'Cincinnati'. "I'm going back to Ohio to pack my apartment."
I shrugged. "I've got a summer-stock gig in Boulder. Everything I don't take with me goes into storage."
His brown eyes were narrow and shrewd. "And after that?"
"Hell if I know," I said. I had a headache left over from last night's consolation binge, heavy and dull and grasping at the backs of my eyes with its dirty fingernails. "Do some more auditions, find a day job. House-sit. Walk dogs. Sell real-estate."
"Seems a shame."
"Yeah, well, everybody says that. But nobody's got better ideas."
"I've got one," Cogliano said. "If you're in the mood to hear it."
I looked over at him. He was sitting very straight in the rumpled grey suit, his shoulders at a perfect parallel with the floor. His posture reminded me of my father's; the Major never sat in a soft chair if he could find one with a straight back.
His pants fit, but his jacket was half a size too big. I narrowed my eyes, looking for a telltale bulge at the armpit. I couldn't tell, but then that's why he was wearing it roomy. Ten to one he had a shoulder holster on underneath.
"You're not a theatrical agent," I said, leaning back. "You're military. Career. I should have known it the minute I saw those damn sunglasses."
The pupils of his eyes dilated slightly, but his expression didn't change. "Good guess. You're not right, but you're not far wrong."
"Ex-military, then. Government." I slung my arm over the back of the bench and looked him up and down. "Pentagon."
That got a thin smile out of him. "No."
"Well, you're sure as hell not from the National Endowment for the Arts." I gestured over my shoulder toward the loading bay. "Not that I care. Line's getting longer, and the least I can get out of this disaster of a trip is a seat to myself. We're going to have to do this another time."
"It won't wait."
"I don't care," I said, standing up. "I don't want any part of it."
"Do you want a singing career?"
My hands froze on the handles of my suitcases. "What's that supposed to mean?"
His eyes were cool and steady. Yeah, he was military all right. "Just answer the question. Is that what you want? To sing?"
My headache throbbed harder, and the room blurred in front of me for a second. I blinked hard to clear my vision. One too many gimlets last night, that's what it was, and nothing to eat since the plastic Danish I'd had compliments of the hotel this morning, because the seventy-five bucks in my pocket had to last me all the way to Boulder. I was supposed to get a $5000 check for making the finals. The minute it came in the mail, it was headed straight for student loans, back rent, and credit cards; it wouldn't bring me flush, not if I wanted to save enough back for a security deposit on wherever I landed in the fall, but it would help.
The contract I signed with Chaparral Light Opera said I'd get paid in two chunks – one halfway through the run and the other at the end. More than a month away, that, which meant it was Ramen noodles and tap water until the middle of July.
If I'd won last night, I'd be sitting on thirty thousand dollars of prize money and a three-year singing contract with the Phil. Thinking about how close I'd come to that made my head twinge again.
"Yeah," I said to Cogliano. "I want to sing. And people in hell want ice water. Wanting something doesn't mean you're going to get it."
"I can get you what you want," he said, and the way he said it made me believe him. "But we can't talk about it here."
He bought me a late lunch at the upscale deli across the street from Port Authority, and I let him because I was hungry and my bus ticket was interchangeable and despite my suspicions, he'd made me curious. We both got the roast beef. Two bites in, he took out a manila folder from his briefcase and moved his plate around until he had room for it on his side of the little square table.
"What's that?" I said. "My dossier?"
"Not bad." He flipped back the oaktag cover. "Your dad said you were quick."
"My dad." I froze, kosher pickle spear halfway to my mouth. "The Major put you up to this?"
"Not exactly, no."
"Because that would be a deal-breaker. I don't want his help."
"You haven't even heard the deal yet."
I stood up. "I don't have to."
"Sit down," he said, sounding weary. "I don't work for your father, and he isn't at all involved here. We're acquainted socially."
"I went to school with him. The academy." He twisted off his heavy school ring and handed it over to me. The engraved numbers to either side of the gold palm in the middle were 7 and 2. "I was a year behind your father," he said.
I grimaced, annoyed with myself for not noticing the ring earlier. "Okay, fine," I said, giving it back to him and sliding into my seat. "So you were at school with the Major. Doesn't explain why you've got a file on me. And before we go any farther, I want to see some official ID."
"He said you'd be a pain in the ass," Cogliano said. He took it out of his jacket lapel and passed it across the table. It was one of those government-issue flat leather wallets with a clear plastic pocket on one side. I scanned it twice, frowning.
"I was beginning to think you were CIA," I said. "But I don't recognize this."
"You wouldn't. It's under Homeland Security," he said. "Generally speaking. The bit that doesn't make the papers."
"Uh-huh," I said. "And you do what, exactly?"
"I talk to people like you," Cogliano said, retrieving his ID from me and turning his attention back to the manila folder. "Every military brat has one of these, so don't get paranoid. Says here you're trained in small arms. Won some tournaments in target shooting."
"Yeah, well, that was back in high school, when all my friends were guys in Dad's company." I took another bite of roast beef. "Not sure I could hit anything now. I've sort of shifted my focus, see."
"You've still got a pistol registered in your name," Cogliano said. "And a membership to a shooting range in Cincinnati. Though the membership expired three months ago and wasn't renewed."
"Cash flow," I said, trying to keep it light. "I'm an opera singer, remember? Not one of you government drones. The dinero comes in by trickle, not by flood."
His gaze travelled down the page. "Brown belt in jujitsu. Twelve years of piano lessons. Fluency in five languages. Photographic memory. Good ear for accents."
"Languages are a singer thing. Don't try to make me sound all Bond." I craned over the table to get a look at the dossier. The print was too small for me to get much, reading upside down. "Does it have my Girl Scout badges on there, too? I was good with knots."
"Page four," Cogliano said. "Plus an interesting interview with a retired Marine named Jim Wheeler. Says he knew you when you were ten or eleven."
They knew about that? This was hardcore. "Yeah, Dad was stationed in Biloxi that year. Had high-clearance meetings every Saturday morning. Jim was my babysitter."
Cogliano raised an eyebrow. "Unorthodox methods."
"Hey, I'm not complaining. He's a good guy. Knew what he was doing, too. Give me a handful of those little throwing knives, there's not a tree stump in the world that's safe." I stabbed up a forkful of coleslaw. "Is there a point to all this? You trying to recruit me for some secret order of assassins? Because I've seen La femme Nikita, and it doesn't have a happy ending."
"Your share of relationships, too," Cogliano said, flipping pages. "If you can call them that. You do get around, don't you?"
I smirked. "Told you I was good with knots."
"Your dad know you like girls?"
I went very still.
"You know how it goes in the Army these days," I said. "Don't ask, don't tell."
I had to hand it to him; he didn't overplay his hand. Was he threatening me? Hard to say, but the words hung there in the air between us like a bad smell.
"What do you want?" I said finally, and he spread both hands out in front of him, palms up, fingers splayed, in the universal symbol for 'work with me here'. It was the first purely Italianate gesture I'd seen from him. Maybe he was frustrated, too.
"We need someone for an assignment," he said. "A specialist."
"Last I checked, two gold medals in high-school target shooting and a couple weekends throwing knives at a rotten tree didn't make me a specialist."
"A singer," he clarified. I frowned at him.
"Homeland Security wants an opera singer?"
He glanced around at the rapidly-filling restaurant. "We need a more private venue."
"Just answer the damn question," I said. "Otherwise I'm not going anywhere with you. I'm still trying to decide whether or not to get on the next bus to Ohio. I've got a gig lined up, remember?"
"Chaparral Light Opera," he said, his voice neutral.
"Yes," I said. "Preceded by three weeks of boxed macaroni and rinsing out my underwear in the sink and wondering what the hell I'm going to do in the fall. But it's Die Fledermaus, which is standard rep and gets done a lot, and the conductor fills in now and then at Chicago Lyric. It could lead to something." I set my jaw and locked eyes with him. "Can you beat that?"
"Paris Grand," he said. My mouth fell open.
"Paris, Texas, you mean."
"You know better than that."
My headache was back, bumping along in the back of my skull in time with my rising pulse. "What's the role?"
He smiled. He thought he had me. "Octavian."
"Der Rosenkavalier," I said wonderingly. "I've seen buzz for that in Opera News. It's their September show, their big concept production. Some anniversary gala thing. They're keeping all the details secret." I did the math in my head. "They must be starting rehearsals in what, a month?"
"Close enough," Cogliano said.
"Smythe-Hite is conducting."
"And the stage director," I said, half under my breath. "It's that movie guy. The one with all the arthouse flicks. Just did some big show with the Alvin Ailey dancers. Can't think of his name."
"Maigny. Robert Maigny."
"That's it." I rubbed my burning eyes, trying to focus. "Big production, big publicity. All-star cast."
"Not bad," Cogliano said.
I gave him my version of the Major's cool stare.
"You're so full of shit."
"Paris Grand Opera is an A-list house. So they must book their singers five years in advance," I said. "Three, at the least. And besides, I've seen the ads, and Lydia Gramm is booked to sing Octavian. No way they're going to engage me over her; she's a superstar. Hell, her understudy gets more work than I do." I took a sip of water. "And the French don't even like us anymore. What do they want with a US government operative?"
"If you agree to this," Cogliano said, "Ms. Gramm will suddenly discover that she is double-booked and bow out of the production. And the house isn't going to give you any trouble. They've got more to lose than anybody else. You want the role, it's yours."
I gaped at him. "I would need to know what you wanted me there to do," I said after a while. My face felt like it was going to fall off. I would have given every cent in my pocket for a single aspirin. Cogliano studied me for a long moment, then started sorting through his briefcase. Presently he emerged with a gold manila envelope, which he handed over to me.
"A hotel reservation for tonight," he said. "And a plane ticket to D.C. for tomorrow morning."
I blinked. "D.C."
"It's going to be easier to explain in the office," he said. "And you're probably going to ask a lot of questions I can't answer, because I'm not the opera guy. Better to wait and let Bernie fill in the details."
"My boss." He threw some bills on the table and stood up. "We'll expect you at eleven a.m. tomorrow. It was a very great pleasure hearing you sing last night."
For a big guy, he moved fast. I sat staring after him, weighing the heavy envelope against the crinkle of the folded e-ticket in my pocket.
You want the role, it's yours.
Octavian in Paris? That was an even better deal than I'd have gotten at the Phil.
"I haven't decided I'll go yet," I said to his empty chair.
Even to me, it sounded like a lie.
The hotel he'd booked me into was nicer than the one I'd been at for the last three nights. Midtown, not the Bowery, with guys in uniforms to take up the suitcases and a restaurant at street level. The restaurant had a full bar. I thought about medicating my gimlet headache with a little hair of the dog, then decided that was a bad idea. Instead, I turned my duffel bag upside down on the bedspread and rooted through the jumbled contents until I found a packet of ibuprofen tablets. I washed them down with water from the bathroom tap, then piled everything back into the bag and dialed my father's number. It was six-thirty in Maryland, same as New York. He'd just be getting home.
He picked up on the third ring. "Foster here."
"Hi, Dad," I said. "Remember me?"
"Adrienne." His tone didn't change. "To what do I owe the honor?"
"I met a guy today, says he knows you," I said. No sense wasting time on pleasantries. The Major didn't do chitchat. "Name's Cogliano. Said you went to school together."
"So it's true then," I said. "What's he do?"
"Can't tell you," the Major said. "Classified."
I frowned at the phone. Classified could mean classified, or it could just be Majorspeak for I don't want to talk about it. "You didn't have anything to do with him coming to see me in New York, did you?"
"Why would I do that?"
I sighed. "No reason. Forget it."
Silence. "How's the car?" he asked finally.
I sold it last winter to pay for coachings and headshots. "Fine."
"Do you need money?"
Frankly, yes. "No."
These two questions were the Major's standard contribution to the father-daughter conversation. Now that they were asked and answered, we were all but done. "I may be coming into D.C. for a few days," I said. "If I do, I'll call you."
I replaced the receiver in its cradle and tipped the contents of the manila envelope into my lap. Back in the restaurant, I hadn't looked at anything but the hotel reservation. There was a plane ticket underneath it, one-way on one of the little puddle-jumper commuter planes that ran from LaGuardia to Dulles, and a slip of paper with an address typed on it. A plastic badge with a blurry digital copy of my driver's-license photo, stamped VISITOR. A slender fold of bills in a money clip. Surprised, I pulled them out of the clip and counted them.
Two hundred dollars, folded around a Post-It note with the word Expenses scrawled on it in red pen. From the petty cash fund? I wondered. Or did Cogliano just know how much I needed money?
Well, it didn't matter. I took a long shower, pulled on a pair of jeans and the least wrinkled of my button-down shirts, threw a jacket over the shirt, and sat down on the bed to put on my Docs. Funny how much better I felt, now that my headache was gone.
Spending Cogliano's money didn't mean I owed him anything. I could still say 'no' tomorrow, in which case I'd just make a minor adjustment to my bus ticket and go straight to Cincinnati from D.C. Maybe I'd have dinner with the Major first. More likely I'd just wave in his general direction as I passed him on the turnpike, but I wasn't ruling anything out.
I had options again.