Helen wore one of James' old suits, and she could still smell the smoke from his pipe in the fabric. She pinched the lapel between her thumb and forefinger and rubbed. As if summoning a genie from the bottle, memories flooded back to her. Exhilarating memories, memories of derring-do and quieter moments of quiet contemplation. She remembered the feel of his buttons under her fingers and the sound of his clothing hitting the floor before she pulled him to her. She blinked and inhaled sharply, turning her face toward the open window in the hopes the relatively fresh air of the present would clear her mind.
The car rolled to a stop in front of a warehouse and the driver met her eye in the rearview mirror. "There's still time to abort the plan, you know," she told him. "You could just keep driving and we'll find another way."
He only grunted and said, "This is the only way."
Helen nodded and sighed as she looked at the imposing building outside. The groundwork had been laid, and ending the forward progress would just leave a great many questions to be answered should anything be discovered. She wished there was a way the plan would work without shooting her best friend in the chest. She opened the door and said, "I won't be long."
She shut the door and pulled the hood up so that it shaded her face as she examined the street. A delicate balancing act was required; she would have to appear incognito, but she also needed to be recognizable enough that rumors would start to spread. She needed Will and Kate to be able to follow the breadcrumbs she left. She trusted them to save her before she incurred permanent damage, but it was a gamble. An encrypted email was set to be delivered into Will's email explaining the entire plan if they failed to connect the dots.
A foghorn blew out on the water, and she turned toward it. Nearly midnight, the perfect time for clandestine shopping. She walked to the doorway she had been told to look for and knocked three times before stepping back so she could be spotted through the peephole. After a few seconds, she heard a lock being thrown and the door opened just wide enough to reveal a stocky longshoreman with a tired sneer twisting his lips.
"This is a private facility. Whatever you think you want, you won't find it here."
Helen put a hand against the door to keep it from closing. "Please. The chill off the water is unbearable and I simply require some shelter."
The man eyed her. She'd spoken casually, but all the access words were present. Finally he stepped back. "Hurry up. Can't have people wondering what a lady is doing down here so late at night."
She smiled gratefully and stepped inside. The man motioned for her to follow him, and he led her through a maze of work stations set apart by massive quiet machinery. Helen followed, her coat drifting in her wake as if she had pulled some of the fog inside with her.
The longshoreman knocked on another door and was granted access to a staircase that led down. The stairs were stone, rough-hewn as a hasty and unprofessional addition to the building. When they reached the bottom of the stairs, a gatekeeper blocked her from going through the door. "What are you wanting?"
"The dangerous kind. Red-list."
The gatekeeper whistled. "We might have some-a that. Anything in particular?"
"Ozone beetles, if there are any to be had."
The longshoreman finally smiled. "Ahh. After a good time, eh?"
She glared at him. "I've recently lost two people who were very dear to me. I'd like to forget the pain of their passing, however briefly."
Both men wavered, obviously chagrined by the first man's quip. The pain in her voice couldn't be faked; they would have sensed that. She said a quiet apology to James and Ashley for using their memories in this manner. Finally, the gatekeeper stepped back and motioned for her to come forward. He glanced at her as she passed, and she saw recognition flitting across his eyes. "Hey. You're..."
"An anonymous customer," Helen said as she moved down without hesitation. "You shouldn't concern yourself with details." Nothing more was said. Helen continued into the pit confident that at least one part of her plan was well underway.
By morning, half the Abnormal underworld would be buzzing with the news that Helen Magnus was buying red-list Abnormals.
After the dust settled, and Helen issued the formal apologies to everyone she had deceived, she took a few days to recover from her self-induced mental illness. When she and the Big Guy were both ready for action, they called a meeting in her office. Helen thanked everyone for their hard work and dedication during the past ordeal, but there was just one more thing that needed to be taken care of before the book could be officially closed on the investigation.
They parked a few blocks away from where Helen had been dropped off for her first visit to the bazaar. Will sat beside her in the front seat, with Kate and Henry in the back. Henry was on his tablet computer, jabbing at the screen with enough force that Helen was concerned about the machine's resiliency. Though they'd checked and loaded their weapons at the Sanctuary, both Will and Kate were checking the ammunition again just to give themselves something to do. Helen's gun was a reassuring presence in her waistband, hidden under the drape of her jacket. She rested one wrist on the steering wheel and looked back at Henry.
"Don't even ask, Doc," he said without looking up. "These guys are good. Like NORAD good. You ever tried getting into NORAD through the back door. Don't answer that. You probably have."
Helen smiled. "Take your time, Henry. This neighborhood doesn't become truly active until after dark, and we've a good three hours remaining."
Will was looking out the windshield for signs of movement on the side streets, trying to find any indication they had been spotted and were being primed for attack. "So how long did you know about this place before you..."
"Before I went shopping? A few months. I have Kate to thank for it, actually." She looked at Kate. "A few of the shopkeepers you told me about pointed me in this direction. It was well known among international smugglers. This was where you go if you want to find weird. I sent one of my operatives to check it out, and I was sickened by what I found."
"So why didn't you stop it then?"
Helen pressed her lips together and shook her head. "I weighed the pros and cons. Shutting it down is one thing, but allowing it to operate so I could follow the patrons back to where they hid... It was a calculated risk, but one that paid off. We stopped two traffickers of Abnormals, and eight dealers who were selling hits of the derulak's skin toxin to junkies for a cheap high are now in police custody. I also gained intelligence about the location of a ghost ship that smuggles Abnormal slaves."
Kate said, "But now they know you're onto them."
"Precisely. We'll have to move quickly before word reaches them that my recent breakdown was manufactured. They may know already, since they were the source of the ozone beetle that faked my symptoms. These people won't take any chances. They'll uproot and move their entire organization just on the off-chance I'm coming after them."
"Hopefully we can move quickly enough to beat them to the punch." Kate looked pointedly at Henry with one eyebrow arched. "Before we all die of old age. Which would be quite a feat, considering the doc."
"Dude. I'm working on it. If you think it's so easy, why don't you... oh. Okay. I'm in."
"Well done, Henry," Helen said.
"Okay, they have some big-time security on the place. Mostly perimeter alarms to let them know when someone's coming so they can high-tail it. Wow, it's really detailed. Okay, let me just..." His fingers glided over the screen again and he smiled. "Hah. Who's your daddy? They had backups and backups for their backups that would tell them if someone finked with the entire system. So I just made an ant trail. Just one path, but it'll get us in."
Helen started the car. "Tell me where to go."
She drove slowly, with Henry navigating her down the ant trail. When they finally arrived at the address, Helen unfastened her seatbelt and stepped out onto the curb. "Just follow my lead. It's far too easy to get turned around in there, and once you're lost they'll have the upper hand."
"Got it," Will said. Kate nodded and Henry rolled his shoulders and checked his gun since he'd been preoccupied by his computer manipulations to nervously confirm it was ready for rough work. Helen nodded for them to move forward, and they lined up against the wall. Will was on one side of the door, with Kate and Henry on the other. Helen stepped forward, knocked, and backed up to be seen.
The door opened and a different guard than the one she'd already met stuck his head out. "We're closed. Come back--" He stopped talking when Kate's gun pressed against the side of his neck.
"Hello, rabbit," Kate said.
Helen pulled her gun and aimed it at him. "The chill off the water is unbearable and I simply require some shelter. May I come in, please?"
"Doesn't look like I got much of a choice."
He backed up, and Kate followed him without moving her gun from his flesh. She guided him up against the wall and ordered him to turn around. He pressed his palms flat to the wall and Kate held him there as the rest of the team filed inside. Will shut the door and Helen said, "Henry, you stay here and guard the door."
Kate zip-tied the guard's hands and stuffed him into a supply closet nearby. When she rejoined them, Helen nodded for them to follow her through the labyrinth of machinery. They reached the stairwell door and Helen recalled the knock the longshoreman had used. She repeated it - one, two-three... four - and let herself in. A man stationed just inside the door was starting to rise when Will hit him with the stunner, and Helen and Kate continued down as Will eased the unconscious guard to the floor so he wouldn't fall and further hurt himself.
The man from her first visit was stationed at the bottom of the stairs. The element of surprise was shattered, and he fired at them from a semi-protected position. Helen and Kate retreated until he was out of sight and hugged the walls. Helen motioned for Will to stay where he was. "Stop shooting!" Helen shouted. "With the brick in the walls and stairs, and the angle from which you're shooting, you're more likely to hit yourself than any of us!"
"Helen Magnus!" There was an angry amusement in his voice. "I should have known there was more to your visit."
Helen smiled. "Put down your gun. We're coming down there whether you do or not. Without a gun, you'll fare much better when we do."
"Not a chance." He fired again, and Helen heard the bullet tink off the wall near her. She and Kate both retreated up another step.
Helen sighed. "What I wouldn't give to have Nigel here..."
"You want invisible?" Kate said. "You don't need your little injection for that." She handed Helen her gun and untucked her shirt. She laced her fingers together and stretched both arms out in front of her to loosen her shoulders. When the guard fired again, Kate cried out and dropped. Helen watched with a mixture of admiration and surprise as Kate tumbled down the stairs on her side. She used her hands and knees to hit the stone steps, saving herself from more dire injuries than bumps and bruises, and she heard the impact when Kate's body hit the landing.
"One down!" the guard shouted. "How many more you go--"
His taunt was cut off with a surprised grunt, and Helen heard sounds of a struggle. She hurried down the stairs and watched as Kate put an elbow to the guy's jaw and he slumped unconscious against the bricks. Once he was out of commission, Kate hissed and tensed. Helen put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed.
"Are you okay?"
"Oh, peachy. Stairs weren't usually stone when I used to do that."
"When we get back to the Sanctuary, I'll call up my personal masseuse. My treat. The whole afternoon package."
Kate's eyes shown with anticipation. "Klaus?" She racked her gun to ready it and said, "Well, then. Let's give him a few more knots to work out."
Helen threw open the door and she and Kate went through into the bazaar together. The space was about as large as a subway platform with carved stone walls that arched up to a cathedral ceiling. Lanterns hung from ropes that stretched from one side of the cave to the other, providing a dim light for the smugglers to ply their trade. Boxes fresh from boats stood stacked against the walls, and stolen items were placed on merchant tables still smelling of their country of origin.
Will joined them in the entryway, and Helen stepped forward. "There's no point in running! You're..." A man across the room, the man who had sold her the ozone beetle, turned and ran. Helen sighed. "Oh, bloody hell. Will, Kate, take care of these, would you?" She took off after the beetle seller, ducking into a dark tunnel only seconds after he did. The sound of their footsteps echoed off the narrow stone corridor, making it sound like an army was passing through.
"Stop!" Her voice also carried, but he paid it no heed. She could only make out the vague silhouette of a man ahead of her, but she saw enough to know she was gaining on him. He twisted and fired blind, and the momentary explosion of gunpowder blinded her. She cried out in pain and swiped at her eyes, then continued on in darkness broken only by the spots dancing in front of her eyes. "I'm trying to do you a favor! Stop!"
He laughed at what he thought was a pathetic attempt at psychology and she heard the squeal of iron hinges as he threw open the escape hatch. Sunlight flooded into the tunnel, and Helen saw him standing like a paper cutout against the sky. He looked back and leveled his weapon at her.
A large, hairy hand gripped his wrist and squeezed hard enough to make the fingers convulse. The gun fell with a clatter, and the man cried out and dropped to his knees. Helen stepped squinting into the sunshine as the Big Guy loomed over the smuggler, holding him down with just the strength of his angry glare. He wore a leather jacket with a hood drawn up over his head to lessen the chances anyone would notice how peculiar he looked. Helen caught her breath and looked at the smuggler's wrist, which was most likely broken from the way it was being twisted.
"If you had just stopped in the tunnel, this wouldn't have happened. Told you I was doing you a favor." She looked at her friend. "Thank you."
He grunted. The tunnel was the means by which smuggled goods are moved from the docks to the bazaar. He'd been standing watch just in case anyone tried to sneak out the other way, and Helen was glad he'd had the idea. Helen crossed her arms and stared down the smuggler.
"Your ozone beetles... and everything else in there. It all has to come from somewhere, and you're going to tell me exactly where that is."
"Go to Hell."
Helen hissed through her teeth and shook her head. "I keep trying to do you favors, and you keep resisting." As she turned to walk away, she casually told the Big Guy, "Break something else. Nothing vital, you understand, just enough..."
"Okay! Wait... wait. Okay." He gulped and leaned as far as he could from the Sasquatch, further twisting his wrist. "I'll tell you. I'll tell you what you want to know."
Helen smiled and faced him again. "Start talking."
She had waited long enough to stop these people from selling their wares on the streets of her town. As the information flooded from the smuggler, she could hardly wait to get started taking them down.