Chapter 1: Irene and Sofia
The way Irene sees it, it's simply a matter of choice. A woman could spout off a ton of high-minded rhetoric about women's rights and then, upon discovering that reality was a hundred years behind the world of ideas, happily put all of her beliefs to bed once she found a man who would give her a roof over her head and a piece of sparkly carbon to put on her finger. Irene knows this, she's seen it happen way too many times with her Steinem-quoting college girlfriends giving it all up to raise some banker's brats in the suburbs. Inevitably, they would call her crying that he'd been fucking the secretary/junior associate/valet the whole time and what would they do, where could they go, what next, what would people think? And Irene would sigh and nod, offer a Kleenex and think to herself that anybody who willingly entered into a golden cage and protested against their confinement wasn't worth a single one of the Lauduréé macarons Kate always laid out for company.
Contrary to what most people think, Irene Adler is her real name. She was born in a remote village in Kashmir where her father was posted and somehow, with all the fuss surrounding her mother's death during childbirth, the midwife never thought to draw up a proper birth certificate with the name her mother gave her. By the time she'd left India when she was four, Daniel Adler had already assumed a new identity and he'd bestowed his young daughter with the first of what was to be a long list of pseudonyms. She never forgot what her nanny Bineesh said when Irene showed her the Canadian passport with the name Catherine Fourier: "Remember, suki, you are Irene Adler no matter what any piece of paper says. But to survive in this world, you have to hide who you are very well."
She still thinks that this is the best piece of advice she has ever received in her life.
Like all other men who made a living doing illicit, dangerous work for the US Government, Daniel was eventually rewarded with a well-paying desk job in Langley by the time Irene had turned fourteen. At that age, Irene had lived in four different continents, spoke six languages and was on her tenth assumed alias (Beatrice Jones, American). She also knew how to pick locks, hack into computers and three different ways to incapacitate a man without a weapon—Daniel was nothing if not a hands on parent and his insistence on bringing her with him wherever he went lead her to pick up a few tricks out of necessity. But Daniel was tired now of dealing in secrets and the fall of the Berlin Wall (which he had helped orchestrate) had made his employment redundant. He wanted to play golf, sit in a chair from 9 to 5 and pretend to do work at a government fronted company that would justify his exorbitant salary-cum-pension. Meanwhile, his daughter, who was raised on a life of espionage and exhilaration, was growing bored. Dangerously, dangerously bored.
She tried to alleviate her ennui by applying herself academically but there was simply no challenge in it. Sure, she performed well in school but she had next to nothing in common with all the other teens in St. Alban's except for the kids in the math and the chess clubs. She made friends with a scholarship kid called Vishal who was the president of the computer club, but apart from Vishal and their debates about coding and cryptography, she was largely friendless.
Irene/Beatrice had no intention of engaging with the WASPY, sheltered children of politicians and rich bankers but apparently, the feeling was not mutual. She discovered this when she found a series of love notes written on heart-shaped Post-Its stuck to her locker and deduced that they came from a certain Nicolas Ecklund. She laughed as she tossed them into the garbage, one by one.
Over breakfast the next day, she told her father about her amusing encounter with the stupid Ecklund boy who thought the way to her heart was through neon pink, self-adhesive office stationery. Daniel was indulgently indifferent, hmming at all the right places until he heard the last name of the poor, besotted fool.
"Ecklund? You mean Jonathan Ecklund's son?"
"I think so. His father's on the board of trustees."
Daniel chuckled. "Ecklund's grandfather was Hoover's hatchet man a long, long time ago. Even though Jonathan's dumber than a box of hair, he was at least smart enough to parlay all the information his father gathered into a nice NSA directorship." He took a sip of his coffee and resumed reading the Times.
"Weren't you in the NSA once, dad?" Irene asked, as she looked up from her crossword.
"No liebchen, I belonged to an agency that had no name and by all accounts, never even existed." Daniel gave her a wink as he rose from the breakfast table. "And now, I am off to resume my favorite activity in the world: a nice long nap. Be good." Irene rose as well and gave her father a kiss on the cheek before resuming her seat at the table.
After ten minutes of sitting silently, contemplating, she stood up with a smile on her face and more resolve in her gait as she prepared to go to school. She left the crossword puzzle unfinished, abandoned for more challenging pursuits. By the end of the week, she was Nicolas Ecklund's girlfriend.
Unlike many fourteen-year-old girls, Irene was not afraid of sex. When she was twelve and she had gotten her first period, Daniel had taken her aside and given her the talk in his usually blunt, matter-of-fact manner, sparing none of the sordid details. Both of them were somewhat traumatized by the experience and they never brought up the subject again, but Irene came away from it all with a good understanding of the mechanics.
Later, when she was thirteen, she returned from school early to find a dead man sprawled on the floor of the living room in their apartment in Mitte, with black tarpaulin covering the carpet and all the windows. As she surveyed the scene with wide eyes, Daniel told her to go to her room and not to leave it until he had given her the clear signal. After six hours of waiting, her father finally knocked on her door and sat on her bed with a weary expression on his face. She knew then that he had exhausted himself, disposing of the body.
"Did you kill him?" she asked.
"Yes." He responded, after a pause.
"Why did you kill him?" She had vaguely recognized the man as one of her father's mysterious operatives whom he would meet at the food hall on the top floor of KaDeWe during their Sunday outings.
Daniel sighed and rubbed his hand across his eyes. "Because no matter how well you train an agent, some Russian bitch in lingerie is always going to find a way to make him spill his guts."
And that was all the information that Irene needed to complete her sex education.
By all accounts, Nicolas Ecklund was not a bad boyfriend to have. He was on the lacrosse team, he maintained a 3.7 GPA, he was good-looking and Post-It faux pas aside, he was the perfect definition of a gentleman. He came from a good family, was extremely wealthy and was generally considered a good catch.
He was also, in Irene's opinion, boring as fuck.
Yet that did not stop Irene/Beatrice from dating him for two years.
It wasn't that Irene didn't try to love him; she really did put in an effort to muster up some affection for him and the sex wasn't bad. But during the whole time she was dating him, she was questioning why she was so bored by someone that everybody else found so desirable, to the point that she was wondering if there was something wrong with her.
It wasn't until they went on holiday to Sitges during spring break in eleventh grade and took some ecstasy in Pachito that Irene finally realized the problem. Up on the stage was a beautiful, Catalan girl dancing sensually to the music and when she locked eyes with Irene, the resultant epiphany was like a jolt of electricity. Still, Irene wasn't quite done with Nic yet and she turned to him: "How would you like to have a threesome?"
Later, when they were all tangled up together in bed, smoking some Northern Lights in their post-coital daze, Irene learned that the girl's name was Sofia and she laughed and laughed and laughed.
During the weekends, Irene liked to spend time at Nic's house, exploring all the nooks and crannies. From her father, she learned how to detect the presence of hidden safes or secret compartments but the vast expanse of the Ecklund mansion made this task a long and arduous one. Compounding the problem was the coterie of security personnel and interns that accompanied Jonathan Ecklund at every turn, armed men posted like sentinels at the entrance of his study.
Pandora could not open her box.
However, that did not mean that Irene didn't notice things. She noticed that Mrs. Ecklund's meals were always served with a small silver tray of pills, most of them ending with the suffix –am. (How fucking cliché, Irene thought) She noticed that the servants held their employers in contempt because they were underpaid and overworked—this is where her knowledge of Serbian really helped—and so she refused to eat anything that was prepared in the Ecklund kitchen as a consequence. She noticed, too, that the omnipresent guards and interns gave her discreet, appraising looks when they thought she wasn't looking. She filed this information away for future use.
And finally, finally, just when she was on the verge of giving up, she noticed that one of the agents working for Jonathan Ecklund was a mole.
There is a reason why there are very few people qualified to be spies: few have the innate discipline and control required to keep from slipping up, from letting their disguises turn into self-portraits. The vigilance required to maintain a perfect façade at all times is exhausting and only the truly seasoned, older spies are skilled enough to do this. (Unless of course, you were Irene Adler who had six aliases by the time she was eight years old.)
The young man the Russians sent to Ecklund was still woefully undercooked and unsuited to the task. For one, his Belarusian accent kept slipping through when pronouncing certain consonants, although few on Ecklund's staff were perceptive enough to notice. Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy, Irene thought.
Eventually, she discovered his fake name (Kenneth Dwyer) and brought it to Vishal to have his records checked. Two days later during a Math club meeting, Vishal approached her with a piece of paper and a name: Dimitry Schevchenko. Later that afternoon, she thanked Vishal appropriately and the transaction was deemed satisfactory by all parties involved.
Now that she had Schevchenko in her sights, she didn't quite know what to do with him. She thought of using the blunt approach, of asking him right off the bat if he wanted to form an alliance but she could tell that this strategy simply would not work. For one, the risk of being discovered increased and if found guilty she would be committing treason; a treason charge severely diminished her chances of getting into Oxbridge. Secondly, the obvious approach was never her style and she didn't want to risk everything she'd worked for by teaming with a naïve KGB agent who hadn't bothered with a proper dialect coach. Finally, she really really really did not want to attract the attention of the NSA at the tender age of 16.
No, what Irene needed to do was compel Dimitry to act. But how?
"Everything ok?" Daniel asked his daughter, as he poured milk on to his corn flakes.
Irene looked up from her crossword puzzle. "Yes dad, everything's fine. Why do you ask?"
Daniel lowered his newspaper and scrutinized her more closely. After a long pause, he removed his reading glasses and set down his paper on the table.
"What's wrong, liebchen? You look a little disturbed."
Irene sighed. This was Daniel, her father and her mentor: there was simply no point in hiding anything from him.
"Well, where do I even begin?" she said. Her father only chuckled.
"I have plenty of time, it's not like anything happens where I work anyway. C'mon liebchen, tell me. Tell me all of it."
Irene smiled bitterly. "I know you're retired but maybe you should tell me. Let's see if you haven't started on the slippery slope to senility."
Daniel ran a hand over his face and then he gave a wry smile.
"I know that my daughter is dating a boy she doesn't love even though she's clearly gay and that her best friend is a computer geek who is either going to end up in jail or owning the rest of the world because he hacked into the KGB database ten days ago. I know she spends entirely too much time in Jonathan Ecklund's house because she thinks there's something worth finding there and she's not sure what to do about the mole on his staff. Have I got everything covered?"
Irene was expecting this and yet her mouth was open, like a gasping fish, at how much her father knew.
"Can I ask you how you knew? Especially about the gay part."
Daniel only smirked at her. "Sweetheart, you live in my house, use my computer connections, a cellphone and a telephone that I pay for. Thank goodness you're not sloppy enough to use these services elsewhere but given everything that you've broadcast with electronic communication and the fact that I taught you everything you know, you have no secrets from me."
He picked up his glasses and resumed reading his paper while Irene digested everything he said.
After a long silence, she asked tersely, "What about my Belarusian problem?"
He gave a long-suffering sigh. "I've already given you the answers, liebchen, you have to use that pretty head of yours and think." As Irene started mulling his words over, he lowered his paper to level her with a piercing stare: "Oh, and stop watching so much lesbian porn."