Battles: THE SILENCED
Petra glanced at her watch.
Her lips tightened as she held in the curse she so desperately wanted to mutter.
The Cathay Pacific flight to New York was only fifteen minutes from boarding, and there was still no sign of Kolya.
If it had been Mikhail who had not yet arrived, she wouldn’t have been so worried. But it wasn’t Mikhail. He’d already been sitting in the waiting area when she walked up.
No, of course it was Kolya. She had known from the beginning that he had been too young, too inexperienced to take with them. But what choice did she have?
Maybe an officer at Passport Control had scrutinized his documents. They were expertly done, but fake, so there was always a chance something had been missed. Maybe Kolya had begun to sweat and look nervous. Maybe Hong Kong security had him in a back room right that very moment, questioning him about his identity, and trying to find out who he might be traveling with. Maybe
the police were even now heading toward the gate where Petra and Mikhail waited, intending to take them into custody.
Petra looked down the concourse toward the main part of the terminal. But there were no uniformed men marching in her direction, only other passengers toting carry-ons and wasting time until their flights departed.
There was also no Kolya.
She glanced over at Mikhail two rows away. Though she couldn’t see his face, she knew he had to be as tense as she was. Their operation could afford zero complications, especially after having experienced another setback, this time right there in Hong Kong, the former British colony where it had all begun so long ago.
Another possibility hit her. What if Kolya hadn’t even arrived at the airport yet? They had each traveled separately. Mikhail took the Airport Express train, while Kolya and Petra had each hailed taxis. What if Kolya’s cab had broken down? What if the driver had misunderstood Kolya’s destination? Doubtful, she knew. Airport was airport. Even with Kolya’s limited English, he should have been able to communicate where he needed to go.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” a voice blared over the public address system. “At this time we will begin pre-boarding Cathay Pacific flight 840 to New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. Passengers traveling with small children or those who need additional assistance may board the aircraft now. Once we are done pre-boarding, we will start boarding all our First Class and Business Class passengers, Marco Polo Club members, and…”
Petra pushed herself up, unable to sit still any longer. Where was he?
Her hand slipped into her shoulder bag as she scanned the terminal, her finger tips quickly searching through her contents. They found what they were looking for. Just touching it made her relax, if only just a little.
At the far end of the terminal dozens of people wearing identical blue sweatshirts moved almost as one toward a gate. Elsewhere, individuals and couples, some using the automated sidewalks, some walking beside them, moved between shops and waiting areas and restrooms. But none of them, none of them
, was Kolya.
“Excuse me,” a voice said into her ear. “Did you drop this?”
Petra turned quickly, surprised to find Mikhail standing right behind her, holding a pen out. She hadn’t even heard him walk up.
“What are you doing?” he whispered through his smile.
“You shouldn’t be talking to me,” she whispered back. They were each supposed to be solo travelers with no knowledge of the others. It was another safety precaution. One they had used since they started on the mission. In a louder voice, she said, “Yes, I did. Thank you.”
As he handed her the pen, he said, “You need to get control of yourself.”
She glanced at him. “What are you talking about?”
He held her eyes for a moment, then looked down. As she followed his gaze, her breath suddenly caught in her throat. In her other hand was the photograph. She had actually pulled it out of her purse, and was holding it in front of her.
Anyone who glanced at it probably wouldn’t have given it a second thought. But to have it out in the open was tempting fate. This was their map, the only reason they were in Hong Kong, and the only reason they were heading to the east coast of the United States. If someone was
tailing them, and figured out what the photograph was, all could be lost.
“Thank you for waiting, ladies and gentlemen,” the voice on the overhead speaker announced. “At this time we will begin boarding our first class…”
“Put it away,” Mikhail whispered.
Petra slipped the photo back in her bag, then hunted around for her ticket. “Kolya?” she whispered.
Mikhail glanced past her for a moment. “Have a nice flight,” he said, then dipped his head and walked away.
Once he was gone, Petra stretched, then readjusted herself so that she was facing the direction Mikhail had been looking. Sure enough, standing on one of the moving sidewalks was Kolya. He was letting the system do all the work while he leaned against the handrail and sipped at a can of soda.
“At this time we will begin boarding seats in rows thirty-one through forty-four. Rows thirty-one through forty-four.”
Petra watched their young companion a moment longer. Then, with a final, mental pull of an imaginary trigger, she retrieved her boarding pass, and got into line.
“At this time, Harold’s son, Jake Oliver, would like to say a few words.”
The old wooden pews creaked as people used the break between speakers to reposition themselves. When no one immediately stood, necks craned and heads turned, looking toward the first row of the chapel.
Jonathan Quinn felt something poke him in his side. But he continued to stare forward, lost in his own thoughts. When it happened again, this time harder than the first, he pulled himself out of his head and looked over. Orlando was staring at him. Before he could ask what she wanted, she motioned toward the front of the room with her eyes.
He looked over and saw Reverend Hollis gazing at him, smiling.
“Jake, whenever you’re ready.”
Quinn closed his eyes for a second. Oh, God.
He’d been hoping this moment would somehow never come.
Despite the dead bodies he dealt with on a regular basis, attending funerals was something he’d been able to avoid for the most part. His reasoning was simple. It was the grieving. Death marked the living more than it marked the dead, and Quinn was never sure how to deal with those who mourned. Plus, seeing that grief made him think too much about what he did for a living. And that was something that was becoming more difficult to do.
Slowly, he rose. This funeral was different. The man lying in the open casket at the front of the room wasn’t some casual acquaintance, and the grieving weren’t friends of the deceased he had never met.
The mourners here in the Lakeside Mortuary Chapel in Warroad, Minnesota, were people he’d known for a long time. And the man in the box? He was the person Quinn had called his father.
He took a step away from the pew, and glanced back at his mother. Her red-rimmed eyes were firmly fixed on the casket several feet away, her face not quite accepting, but resigned now.
Two days before, as they’d sat in the mortuary office, her face had been covered in shock and disbelief. Because of this, Quinn had ended up answering many of the questions the funeral director had asked. After a while he had put a hand over hers. “Mom, would you rather we finish this later?”
Nothing for several seconds, then she looked at him. “I’m okay,” she said, failing at an attempted smile. “I don’t want to come back and do this again. Let’s finish it now.”
Quinn held her eyes for a moment, still unsure.
“Sweetheart, I’m fine. I’m just glad you’re here to help me.”
They had talked caskets and hymns and Bible passages and who would deliver a eulogy.
“I’d like both you and Liz to say something,” she’d told him.
He had been caught off guard by the request. Speak at his father’s funeral? What would he say that didn’t sound insincere or made up? It would be much better if his sister were the only speaker. He started to say as much, but the look in his mother’s eyes stopped him.
“Of course. If that’s what you want.”
And now here he was, slowly making his way to the podium, a piece of paper with some random, scribbled notes in his pocket, but really having no idea what he was going to say.
“Just think of your mother,” Orlando had told him a few hours earlier as they were getting ready.
“I’ve been doing nothing but
thinking of her.”
“You’ve been doing nothing but worrying about her, and, even more than that, worrying about screwing up in front of her.”
“You’re thinking too much,” she’d said, then kissed him on the cheek. “You’ll know what to say when the time comes.”
He pulled her into his arms and held on tight, needing the energy she was feeding him. So naturally, just as some of his tension was starting to ease, his phone had rung.
“Who is it?” Orlando asked.
“Don’t answer it.”
He frowned. “You know I have to.”
Wills was a client who worked out of London. A week before Quinn’s father had died, he had put Quinn on standby for an upcoming project. With very few exceptions, if Quinn agreed to do a project, he’d do it.
He flipped the phone open. “Hello, David.”
“Quinn. How are you?”
“What can I do for you?”
“I’m calling about the project we discussed. We’re officially on,” Wills said, his British accent clipped and proper. “I need you to get on a flight tonight to—”
And there it was, one of those exceptions. “Let me stop you. I can’t do tonight.”
“Okay,” Wills said, not sounding particularly happy. “Then first thing tomorrow morning—”
“David, I’m sorry but the next few days are out. If you need to find someone else, I completely understand.”
Orlando leaned through the bathroom door. “He’d better
“Have you taken another job?” Wills asked.
“No, of course not. It’s just…a personal issue.”
Quinn, annoyed, said, “Very.”
A few seconds of silence.
“Right then, sorry. Didn’t mean to push. How long will you be tied up?”
“Could be up to five or six days.”
“Five or six days?” Will said, surprised. “Hold on.” There was half a minute of silence, then Wills came back. “There is some flexibility with this project. I think I can arrange things so that the early operations are covered. Then you can take over and finish everything off.”
“Operations plural? How big is this?”
“It involves several related assignments,” Wills said.
“That could get expensive,” Quinn said.
Quinn was a cleaner, the guy you went to when you needed a body – or in Wills’s case, apparently, bodies – to disappear. His rate was simple: thirty-thousand a week with a two-week minimum for each project. If someone had two jobs for him, and each took a day, it was still $120,000 total. He’d explained all that to Wills before the first job he’d done for the Englishman.
“I realize that, but I thought maybe we could work out a flat rate.”
“I don’t do flat rates.”
“Quinn,” the Englishman said, quickly. “Please, just hear me out first. Given your scheduling conflicts, I anticipate only needing your services on three separate operations. Four, tops. Time-wise, we’re talking no more than three weeks. What I’m proposing is a flat rate of one hundred and ninety thousand.”
Quinn paused. He didn’t like making exceptions to his rules, but given what was he was dealing with at the moment, getting back to work would be a nice diversion.
“Make it two-ten and we have a deal.”
“Can I count on you being available to start by October first?”
That was a little over a week away. “Depending on where you need me, I should be able to do that.”
“Your first assignment will be in the states.”
“I’d say that’s doable.”
“Great,” Wills said. “Then we have a deal.”
As Quinn neared the podium he almost wished he’d told Wills he would fly out that night. It would have meant he and Orlando would’ve already been on the road to Minneapolis, a six-hour drive away. He could have avoided the whole ceremony. But the reality was he could have never done that.
He caught sight of his sister, Liz, sitting next to their mom. Predictably, she didn’t return his gaze.
When he and Orlando had arrived a couple of days before, he had thought that maybe their father’s death would spark a reconciliation between Liz and himself. Maybe not full on at first, but at least start things moving in the right direction.
But because of her school schedule in Paris and the long, trans-Atlantic flight, Liz didn’t arrived in Warroad until right before the service. Quinn had been in the lobby greeting mourners when she came rushing in, still wearing jeans and a sweater.
“Liz,” he said, surprised.
“I’m not too late, am I?” She seemed to be all motion: fidgeting with the shoulder strap of her bag, one foot tapping, and her head swiveling side-to-side as she took in everything in the lobby except her brother.
“You’ve still got thirty minutes.”
She nodded, her face neutral. “Where’s mom?”
“She’s in back with Reverend Hollis. She should be out in—”
Liz started walking toward the chapel doors. “She’s through here?”
“Liz, it’s probably not a good idea to interrupt them right now.”
“I don’t care what you think. I want to see mom.”
But before he could say anything else, she had disappeared into the chapel.
The podium was right before him now. There was no backing out.
With a deep breath, he stepped behind it, then looked out at the room full of his parents’s friends and relatives. Everyone watched him, waiting.
Everyone except Liz. Her eyes were riveted on the flower display behind the casket, her jaw tense. Quinn couldn’t feel mad at her. He knew, like his mother, she was hurting. She’d lost her father. If anyone in the room had ever understood Harold Oliver well, it would have been Liz.
Quinn pulled the notes he’d written out of his pocket and set them on the podium. After another deep breath, he smiled at his mom, then looked again at the people gathered before him.
“What I remember most about my father…what I…”
He stopped and glanced at his notes, but there was nothing there that could help him. I remember his coldness. I remember his distance.
He had written down things he thought people would want to hear. Lies about a relationship with his father he had never experienced. Feelings he had never had. I remember his anger. I remember his inability to love. Me, anyway.
If he tried to say any of the things he’d prepared, everyone would see right through him.
He glanced up at his mom again. She was looking back, her eyes soft, streaks of tears on her cheeks. He wanted to tell her he was sorry, that the right words just weren’t coming. But then, as he looked at her, he realized there was something he could say, something that wouldn’t be false.
“What I remember most about my father is the way he loved my mother,” he said. “You could tell in the way he looked at her, and the way he always waited to eat until she was at the table. And the way he waited for her, and didn’t give up hope before they were married.” He told stories of life on the farm, of family trips, of Fourth of July picnics all from the perspective of the relationship between his father and his mother.
“He loved her,” Quinn finished. “And that was enough.”
No one who came to the Oliver’s farm that afternoon arrived empty handed. There were casseroles and sandwiches and baked chicken and pans of Jell-O and cakes and pies and cookies and almost anything you would want to drink.
Quinn guessed that at least twice as many people had jammed into his mother’s house as had been come to chapel. When it got to the point where he couldn’t turn around without bumping into someone, he caught Orlando’s eye and motioned to the back door.
The yard was considerably less crowded than inside the house, but it was something equally annoying to Quinn.
He shivered as they walked down the steps. Anything below 60º just felt wrong, and the current temperature was definitely well south of that mark. If this had been Los Angeles, the day would have been considered full-on winter. But here in northern Minnesota, it was merely typical fall. And, as if to emphasize that point, several of the dozen or so people who had also opted for the outside weren’t even wearing jackets.
Quinn shivered again, then pointed at a couple empty chairs. After he and Orlando were seated, he began picking at his food, but nothing looked appetizing. After only a few minutes Orlando set her equally untouched plate on the ground, and said, “I should check on Garrett.”
She had left her son at home in San Francisco under the watchful care of Mr. and Mrs. Vo. Orlando and Quinn agreed that this was not the time for Garrett to be introduced to Quinn’s family. Perhaps the following summer.
Before she could retrieve her phone, though, several women approached them.
“Jake, that was just lovely what you said about your father,” one of the women said.
“Thank you,” Quinn replied. He remembered her as the mother of someone he’d gone to school with, but her name escaped him.
“Yes,” one of the other women said.
“Absolutely lovely,” the last told him.
“I can’t believe how grown up you are now. And who is this beautiful woman you’re with?” the first asked.
Quinn could feel Orlando tense beside him. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he said. “This is my girlfriend, Claire.”
The first woman smiled. “Nice to meet you, Claire. I’m Mrs. Patterson.”
“How nice you could come with Jake,” the third said. “I’m Mrs. Moore.”
“Claire? I wouldn’t have expected that name,” the second one said.
Quinn tensed, annoyed, but Orlando immediately put a calming hand on his thigh and said, “My father was part Irish.” It wasn’t a lie. Her father was half-Irish, but her father had also been half-Thai, and her mother one hundred percent Korean. When someone looked at Orlando, her Irish ancestry was the last thing they saw.
“What name do you want my family to call you?” Quinn had asked Orlando before they’d left for Minnesota. “You’re real name?” Orlando was not the name she’d been born with. Like most in the secret world, she’d taken on a new identity, burying who she had been.
She scoffed. “I hate my real name.” She was silent for a moment. This would be the name Quinn’s family would always know her by, so it wasn’t something to be taken lightly. “Claire was one of my father’s favorite names. He always said he wished it had been mine.”
“Then that’s what it is now.”
After the women left, Quinn said, “Sorry.”
Orlando smiled. “It’s fine.”
Quinn was just raising his beer to his lips when the backdoor to the house swung open, and Liz stepped out. She looked around at those milling outside, then spotted Quinn. With sudden determination, she began walking toward him.
“Uh-oh,” he said.
“It’s okay,” Orlando murmured. “She’s not going to cause a scene. Not here.”
As he watched his sister approach, Quinn couldn’t help but be amazed at how the little tomboy he used to know had grown into such a beautiful woman. Not model beautiful, not put together beautiful. Naturally beautiful, the kind of beauty not everyone noticed right away, but once they did, they would never forget. Liz could just roll out of bed, throw on a t-shirt, a pair of jeans and a baseball cap, and she’d still be more attractive than most women.
Of course, the half-scowl on her face wasn’t particularly helping her looks at the moment.
“Would you mind if I borrowed my brother for a few minutes?” she asked Orlando once she reached them.
“Not at all.” Orlando started to stand. “I have a call I need to make anyway.”
“No need to get up. I feel like a walk. Thought maybe Jake could go with me.”
They both looked at Quinn.
“Sure,” he said. “Here.” He handed his plate to Orlando, grabbed his bottle of beer, and stood up. “Let’s go.”
They walked in silence, Liz striding out a few feet ahead of him. She guided him down the dirt road that went from the house to the barn. The building was big and white and in need of a new coat of paint. It had been at least six years since their father had stopped actively farming, so after the animals had been sold off, and the fields on either side of the house had been leased to a neighbor, maintenance of the barn had no longer been a priority.
Liz turned onto the path leading around the left side of the barn and into the woods.
Once they were among the trees, the trail narrowed, much of it overgrown from disuse. For several years when Quinn had been a kid, he had taken the path everyday. When his sister, eight years younger than him, had been old enough, she had done the same.
They walked for ten minutes before Liz finally stopped exactly where he knew she would – the site of the old fort he had built for himself. It wasn’t long after he outgrew it that Liz had made it her own. Only the fort was gone now, reclaimed by nature, the wooden walls rotted and turned to mulch. Quinn could see a few rusty nails protruding from the surrounding trees, but that was about all that was left.
“I used to think you made this for me,” Liz said.
Quinn took a couple steps forward. The ground was covered in brush and saplings just like it had been when he’d first chosen the spot. Back then he had cleared it, and built a wooden floor that sat a foot above the soil on two by four beams and old bricks.
“I guess maybe I built it for both of us,” he said.
Something caught his eye. It was black and half buried next to a tree. He knelt down and tugged on it until it came free. It was a license plate. Black background with faded orange-yellow letters. The three upper quarters were taken up with the number, while below was a single line:
19 CALIFORNIA 54
He had found it in a neighbor’s barn, and had taken it when no one was home. It had been in a dusty pile with several other plates from various states. He didn’t think it would be missed.
It was the only one he took, though. California. It seemed exotic, and exiting, and, most of all, far from Minnesota. He remembered staring at it for hours, dreaming about escaping to San Francisco or Los Angeles or San Diego. He smiled at the realization he’d actually achieved the dream.
“What?” Liz asked.
“Huh? Oh.” Quinn tossed the plate on the ground. “Nothing. Just…nothing.”
She stared at it for a moment. “Mom’s going to need help,” she finally blurted out.
“Is that what you wanted to talk about?”
“I have to go back to Paris tomorrow. I’m already missing too many classes as it is.”
“I can stay for a couple more days,” he told her. “But after that, I have to return to work.”
As far as Liz and his mother knew, Quinn was an international banker. It was a cover he often used on the job, too. It helped explain his extensive travel.
“So I’m supposed to just stay? I’d have to take the term off.”
“Relax,” Quinn said. “Of course you should go back. Uncle Mark and Aunt Carole are going to check on Mom everyday. And I’ve spoken to Reverend Hollis. He’s going to have some of the ladies from the congregation help her out until she’s feeling better.”
“That’s your solution? Get others to do it for us? Great.”
“Liz, come on. It’s going to be fine. I’ll be here for–”
Quinn’s phone buzz. Instinctively he pulled it out and looked at the screen.
David Wills again.
Liz rolled her eyes. “Work, right?”
Quinn sent the call to voicemail and shoved the phone back in his pocket.
“You’re going to have to leave sooner than you thought, aren’t you?”
“I said I’d stay for a couple more days, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
She took a step away, looking deep into the forest. “You know, I used to think…I used to think that maybe…” She paused for several seconds. “You know, never mind, Jake. Just…never mind.”
She turned and started walking back down the path.
“Liz,” he called out.
She didn’t stop.
But she had already disappeared among the trees.
Quinn ached at the distance between them, but didn’t know what to do about it.
Despite their age gap, they had been close once. Right up until he’d left home. She’d been nine then, and he knew she been at an impressionable point. But he’d had no choice.
He had hoped one day she’d understand. One day she’d realize he’d done it for her, and would forgive him. But, so far, that day had yet to come.
His phone buzzed again, notifying him he had a message. He listened to it.
“Good news,” Wills’s recorded voice said. “I won’t need you until October third. We’re still firming up your first op location, but at the moment it looks like Los Angeles. I’ll call with more details in a couple days.”
Quinn erased the message, then stuffed the phone back in his pocket.
At least he hadn’t lied to Liz about how long he could stay.
Their flight out of Newark International Airport outside of New York had been delayed on the tarmac because of bad weather. So by the time they touched down in Los Angeles, Petra was ready to rush down the aisle, and rip the aircraft’s door open herself to get out.
The minutes they’d lost had been more than just the hundred and twenty they’d spent sitting on the ground. The delay had caused them to arrive in the late afternoon when the freeways of Los Angeles turned into parking lots.
She swore under her breath.
“What is it?” Kolya asked from the window seat next to her.
Because of the near debacle in Hong Kong, and contrary to the precautions they’d taken since they’d left home on their mission, she had decided to keep Kolya close. At least this way he was with her at all times.
She knew it was a huge risk. Dombrovski had been very adamant during their training. “Never give him any means to know who you are. Constantly change your identities. Travel alone. And always assume he is looking for you.”
And look for them he was. If Dombrovski’s own murder back home hadn’t been enough proof, losing Luka in Bangkok was. Luka had been closing in on one of their targets, Petra just ten minutes behind him. But by the time she reached his position, he was dead. Their team of four suddenly down to three.
She sent up a silent prayer hoping this break in protocol didn’t lead to a similar disaster.
Taxiing to the terminal at LAX seemed to take as long as the flight, but finally the plane slowed, then stopped. A second before the engines died and the seat belt tone went off, Petra was up and moving down the aisle, bag in hand. She got to within two rows of the front door before an overweight man in an ugly brown suit stood to open one of the overhead luggage compartments, blocking her way.
She glanced over her shoulder. Kolya hadn’t done as well as she had. The boy was strong and had some useful talents, but, like in Hong Kong, his youth often denied him the experience she desperately needed him to have.
A minute later Petra was walking rapidly through the concourse. Koyla caught up to her just as she reached the escalator to the baggage claim area. As they rode down, they both scanned the crowd standing near the bottom.
“There,” Koyla whispered, looking toward a man holding a sign which read PEGGY ROBERTS.
“You know what to do,” she said.
He nodded, then moved off the escalator in the direction of the nearest carousel.
Petra went to the left through the crowd, her eyes searching for any signs of trouble. They were so close. This had to be it. Here they would uncover the information they needed. She was sure of it.
She found a spot near a group of French tourists. They were slowly gathering their luggage, and arguing about the location of the bus to their hotel. She watched as the throngs of recently arrived struggled with each other in attempts to locate their appropriate carousels, then secure spots where they could wait and silently hope their luggage would be the first to come down the chute.
Despite the size of the crowd, Petra did her best to check every face, sometimes taking in several people in one quick scan, sometimes lingering several seconds on a person who, for any number of reasons, required more attention.
The driver holding the ROBERTS sign continued to stand near the base of the escalators, his gaze flicking from one person to the next as passengers descended from the terminals above. He had the bored look of someone who had done this a thousand of times before.
Kolya, on the other hand, looked anything but bored or inconspicuous. He had done as instructed, and was standing near one of the carousels, but he seemed more interested in the man with the ROBERTS sign than in the bags circling on the never-ending conveyor belt. The luggage was where his focus should have been, creating the illusion that he was just another generic member of the masses.
Petra swore under her breath, but knew there was little she could do. Kolya had not received the several years worth of training that she and Mikhail had. He was new to the art of deception, his only education coming sporadically when Petra or Mikhail found time for a little instruction.
Because of this, she had tried to minimize Kolya’s involvement, keeping him busy with the things he was good at or, at least, could handle. Like driving, or acting as communications point. Bringing him along on this trip to Los Angeles was taking a chance, she knew, but the alternative would have been to leave him with Mikhail in New York. And while Mikhail liked the kid well enough, his patience level with Kolya had dipped even lower than hers. If things got too involved she could just stick Kolya in a motel room somewhere, like she had done when she and Mikhail had gone on their unsatisfying hunt for David Thomas.
No, not unsatisfying. Bitterly disappointing.
Mikhail had tracked down Thomas’s last known address to a house in Clifton, New Jersey. But they arrived to find the Englishman had been missing for a week.
And they all knew missing
in this case could mean only one thing. The man was dead.
Just like with Freddy Chang in Hong Kong, or Stacy McKitrick in Bangkok.
Chang’s body had been fished out of the East Lamma Channel the day after Petra and her small team had arrived in Hong Kong. And in Bangkok, they had at first lost Luka, then McKitrick herself had turned up dead on a walkway along one of the old city canals.
Perhaps Thomas would turn up in the Atlantic at some point, but even if he did, it didn’t matter. Dead was dead, and of no use to her. She needed at least one person from her photograph to be alive. She couldn’t question a corpse.
But now with Thomas sharing the same fate as most of the others, the list of possibilities had been reduced to two names: Kenneth Moody, last known location Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Ryan Winters, last known location Los Angeles.
One of their two targets had to still be alive. If they weren’t…
Petra wouldn’t even let herself think about it. She and Kolya were here in Los Angeles pursuing Winters, and Mikhail was back on the east coast hunting down Moody. They were doing everything they could. Thinking more was just wasting energy.
She did another quick sweep of the baggage area, decided their arrival had gone unnoticed, then walked over to carousel number two, and tapped Kolya on the shoulder. Without waiting for a response, she walked over to the man with the sign.
“Ms. Roberts?” the man asked.
“Yes,” Petra said with a slight southern twang. “I’m Ms. Roberts.” She had worked very hard at perfecting an American accent, and had done well enough to fool most people.
“Great,” the man said, his smile more functional than earnest. “My name is Frank. No bags?”
“Just what we’re carrying.”
This didn’t seem to surprise him. He’d undoubtedly seen it all in his job. “Would you like to wait here while I get the car?”
“We’ll come with you.”
Frank drove them to the San Fernando Valley, and dropped them off at the Days Inn in Studio City. Koyla and Petra found the dark gray Buick Lucerne that Mikhail had arranged for them parked near the back. No paperwork, no way to trace the vehicle to them. If they were being tracked, the trail would end at the motel.
“Keep to the speed limit,” Petra instructed, not wanting to draw the attention of the police.
Once they were back on Ventura Boulevard, she entered their destination on the GPS mounted in the dash, then examined the route. Laurel Canyon Boulevard was a mile to the east. From there it would be a quick drive into the hills to Winters’s house. She guessed ten minutes tops.
Above them, the sky had turned a deep blue, but few stars were visible through the haze of the city lights. Just like Moscow,
The pay-as-you-go cell phone she’d acquired in New York buzzed in her bag. “What happened?” Mikhail asked before she could say anything. “You were supposed to call hours ago.”
“Our flight was delayed after we’d already boarded. If you would have checked our status online, you would have known that.”
Mikhail was silent for a moment. When he spoke again, his tone had softened. “Where are you?”
“We just retrieved the car from the motel.”
“None. Anything on Moody yet?”
“I found someone who remembered him. A neighbor. Said he thinks Moody moved to New York, but he wasn’t sure.”
Petra frowned. “Keep looking.”
“What do you think I’m doing? Sitting in a bar getting drunk?”
Petra closed her eyes. “Of course not. I know you’re doing your best. But we can’t afford to lose another chance.”
“We’ll find them.”
“We found Chang and McKitrick and Thomas, too,” she reminded him.
“I meant alive.”
“Have you heard from Stepka?” Petra asked.
“No. You want me to call him?”
“I’ll do it.”
She hung up. Stepka’s role in the operation was that of technical support. Dombrovski himself had insured that Stepka got the best training available. Something the young man would undoubtedly use to make millions once their mission was finished. He was based out of a Moscow apartment. A significant amount of their funds had been used to equip the space with the best computers and communications gear that could be obtained.
Petra calculated the time difference. Moscow would just be waking up, which, knowing Stepka, meant he was starting to think about going to bed. She made the call.
“Yes?” Stepka said in typical hurried fashion.
“It’s me,” Petra said.
“Hold on.” The delay was only a few seconds long. “Where are you?”
“Los Angeles. Heading to the address you found for Winters.”
“Have you made any progress on the other matter?” she asked.
She had tasked Stepka with trying to find out who had been hired to erase the people she and her team had been trying to find. If they could figure that out they might be able to get one step ahead of them. That could very well be the difference between failure and success.
“I’m still working on it.”
“Work faster,” she told him. “We need to know.”
“I’m doing what I can,” he insisted.
“If Winters and Moody are dead, too, then the only lead we’ll have left is whoever’s doing the killing.”
“We can’t afford to–”
“Petra,” Kolya interrupted.
She put her hand over the phone. “What?”
“We’re almost there.”
Winters was home.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t alone.
His house was located where Laurel Canyon began its rise into the Hollywood Hills, several blocks south of Ventura Boulevard. It was one level, and impressive: a dark wooden roof, outer walls painted creamy yellow, window frames and front door a bright, glossy white, and a wide grassy front lawn. Back in Moscow it would have been something only the very rich could afford, but by American standards, she had no idea where it fell on the monetary status scale. In the driveway were two sedans, a Mercedes and an Infiniti.
As Kolya drove the sedan leisurely down the street, Petra took another glanced at the house. Through the front window, she could see the dark shapes of several people. She told Kolya to keep driving, then instructed him to turn down the next street and park. She opened the glove compartment, but it was empty. A bit more anxious, she slipped her hand under her seat, and dug around until her fingers touched a hard object wrapped in what felt like cloth. She pulled it out.
It was a canvas bag, the kind someone would use at a grocery store. From within she pulled out the Baby Glock subcompact pistol Mikhail had arranged to be waiting with the car.
“You think you’re going to need that?” Kolya asked.
“I hope not,” she said, then slipped the gun into her bag, and climbed out of the car. “Keep the lights off and the engine running. I’ll be back soon.” She closed the door silently behind her.
Night had descended in full over Los Angeles. But while the lights along Ventura Boulevard had been bright enough to leave little hidden, up here in the hills the street lamps only cut ineffectual holes in the darkness. Despite this, Petra proceeded with caution, taking the leisurely pace of someone out for an evening stroll. She noted lights on in most of the houses she passed, but she was the only one out.
Then, two houses down and across the street from Winters’s place, she spotted a man leaning against a tree.
He wasn’t exactly hiding, but close enough. He had positioned himself in such a way that the tree blocked the light from the nearest street lamp, creating a dark shadow that all but enveloped him. His short height made her think that he might be a teenager, but her gut said no. In her mind, a giant sign hung above him, reading: DOESN’T BELONG.
Without missing a step, she continued down the sidewalk, one arm wrapped around her chest like she was fighting off the cool night, the other draped at her side, her hand resting near the opening of her bag inches from the grip of the Glock.
When she’d closed to within ten feet of the man, she glanced at the ground like she was checking her footing. She stayed that way until she was abreast of him, then looked back up, her gaze swinging to the left like one might naturally do. She stopped abruptly, her eyes wide, staring at the man.
“My God, you scared me,” she said.
“Sorry,” the man said, not moving from the shadow.
Up close, the darkness did not mask him completely, and she could see he must have spent a lot of time in the weight room. No doubt, she guessed, to compensate for his lack of stature.
“It’s okay.” Petra let out a nervous laugh. “It’s just you’re kind of hidden there.”
The man smiled without showing his teeth, but remained otherwise silent. His attention seemed to be focused more on the house across the street than on her.
“Nice night, huh?” Petra said.
He responded the same way he had before.
After a moment, she smiled and started walking off. “Have a good evening.”
At the next block she turned left. As soon as she was out of sight, she stopped and turned around. She almost expected to see him standing behind her, but the sidewalk was empty.
He was a watcher, not a local. And by the bulge Petra noticed under his jacket, an armed
watcher. But was he watching to make sure no one got in, or that no one got out?
Or was he with
the group inside? Standing guard in case… In case someone like me shows up
, she thought. She closed her eyes, and swore under her breath. Like the others, Winters would soon be a dead end. If they hadn’t been delayed in New York, they wouldn’t have gotten stuck in traffic, and it was possible they would have been able to get to the house first. Winters would have been theirs.
She pulled out her phone and called Mikhail.
“We’re too late,” she said.
She told him what she’d found.
“He’s still alive, though,” Mikhail said. “There’s still a chance.”
“The only chance I see involves a high percentage of bullets aimed at my head. Is that what you want me to try?” When he didn’t answer, she said, “Have you made progress on Moody?”
“A little. I traced him from Philadelphia to an address in Manhattan, but he’s not there anymore, either. I’m trying to figure out where he went next.”
Petra wanted to scream, instead she said, “Get us on a flight back tonight.”
She disconnected the call, then stood there for several moments thinking. Maybe Mikhail was right, and Winters wasn’t yet a lost cause. At the very least, pictures of those who had him could be very useful in identifying who the killers were.
She traded her phone for the palm-size digital camera in her bag, then, keeping low, moved back onto Winters’s street, crouching behind a parked car to mask her return. She was only there a few moments before the watcher stepped away from the tree and started crossing the street. His head was tilted in the way a person did when they were listening to a receiver in their ear.
She shot off a couple pictures, then turned the camera on the house. The front door was now open, and standing just inside was a large man in a suit that did little to hide his bulk. He stepped aside so that another man, this one only slightly smaller than the first, could pass through. Two others appeared in the doorway. Neither was in the same size class as the two behemoths. One looked to be in his late thirties or early forties. He was thin, but walked with a confidence that made Petra think he was in charge. The other man looked pale and nervous. Petra estimated that he was in his mid to late sixties, the right age to be Winters.
The one in charge had a hold of the other guy’s arm and was helping to keep him from collapsing. Once they were outside, one of the big men took over, lifting the man so that his feet barely touched the ground as he walked him toward the Mercedes in the driveway.
When the car door opened, the dome light came on, illuminating the older man’s face. Winters. Definitely.
Even from this distance, she could see fear on the man’s face. She touched the zoom, took one more picture, then slipped the camera back into her bag.
Once Winters was shoved into the back of the silver sedan, Petra retreated to the next street down, then sprinted back to the Buick.
“Go!” she yelled as she jumped back into the car. “We have to follow them.”
Kolya pulled the car onto the road. “Follow who?”
“A silver Mercedes. They have Winters.”
Kolya turned onto Winters’s street just in time to see the taillights of the Mercedes turning two blocks away.
“Hurry,” Petra said. “But for God’s sake, don’t let them know we’re here.”
They followed the Mercedes south on the 101 freeway into Hollywood, and then downtown. There it finally exited onto a side street.
“Not too close,” Petra said. Unlike on the freeway, they could be easily spotted now.
“I know,” Kolya shot back. “But I don’t want to lose them, either.”
They were surrounded first by skyscrapers, then by squat, storefronts with signs mostly in Spanish. After a while, these gave way to warehouses and manufacturing plants, most with no identification at all.
It was quiet here, almost deserted. The buildings that didn’t look abandoned were shut down for the night. But it wasn’t only the buildings that looked abandoned. The roads, too, were nearly deserted. Petra was sure they would be spotted at any moment.
“Slow down,” she said.
“Trust me,” Kolya told her.
He immediately turned right onto a side street. As soon as they were out of sight of the Mercedes, he flipped the Buick’s headlights off, then executed a quick one-eighty. A moment later they were back on the main road, the Mercedes’s taillights fading in the distance.
“Don’t lose them,” she said urgently.
“Which is it? Don’t loose them or slow down?”
Petra didn’t answer.
They raced forward, closing the gap by a third before Kolya eased back on the accelerator. Ahead, red brake lights shined brightly in the otherwise dark, empty night. Kolya let the Buick coast to a halt in the darkness near the curb.
After half a minute, the brake lights dimmed as the Mercedes crept forward several feet then turned off the road. A second later it slipped behind a building, but it didn’t completely disappear. The brake lights had come on again, and the red glow leaked back to the street. It stayed like that for half a minute, then everything went dark.
“There was a parking lot about half a block back,” Petra said.
“I saw it,” Kolya said.
“Take the car there and wait. If the Mercedes comes back out, duck down and make sure they don’t see you.” Petra opened the door and climbed out.
“How long do I wait?”
“You have something better to do?”
“No. I was just…I mean, what if you need help?”
“I won’t.” Petra hesitated in the opening. “If I’m not back in two hours, go to the airport and call Mikhail.”
“What about you?”
“If I’m not back by then, I’m dead.”
Copyright © 2011 by Brett Battles. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.