She knew something was wrong before she'd opened the door. The tiny shard of plastic she always stuck between the door and the frame was gone, so it was clear someone had been—or was still—inside. But more than that, it was a sense; somehow, she'd been doing this too long and could feel these things in the air.
And it had been such an easy job so far. She'd only had to follow the target for a few hours before he led her straight to his mistress' penthouse; he hadn't even stopped or switched cabs along the way. It had been no effort at all to get more than enough photos to make the client happy. She'd texted him the confirmation and spent the rest of the evening strolling through the casinos and treating herself to an overpriced dinner, and then returned to the hotel for a relaxing night of bad television. But someone else, apparently, had other plans.
She glanced up and down the empty hallway before slipping a hand into her pocket and closing her fingers over her reliable SIG P230, stainless steel with the satin finish, which she'd cleaned and loaded that morning. Then she slid the key card very quietly into the lock and, after a pause, pushed open the door, turning on the light and aiming the gun into the room in one fluid movement.
Irene wasn't surprised to see someone sitting there on the edge of the bed, nor was she surprised that he was wearing gloves and aiming a silenced nine-millimeter right at her. What she wasn't expecting was that face—or rather, what was left of it.
She broke the stunned silence after several seconds. "My God," she said, in half a whisper. The door closed quietly behind her. "Harrow. Never thought I'd see you again." Judging from the look on his face, he had been under the same impression about her, though it was hard to tell. She stared, unable to stop herself, transfixed: the left eye looked like a fake, though a fairly good one. And across the whole left side, starting at his hairline and down past the eye, spreading down on to his jaw and his neck, disappearing into his collar...
It must have been that night, she realized. What else could've done it? She hadn't allowed herself to think of his face, or any of their faces, for nearly a year and a half now, but in an instant she could remember him, how he used to look, without even trying. Hazel, she thought, for no reason at all. She couldn't see clearly from where she stood, but she remembered that his eyes were hazel, and too kind.
Another humming silence passed before he spoke. "How...did you get out of there?" His voice had changed too, it was lower and rougher, as though he was out of the practice of using it. It took a moment for the question to register, and another to find the right answer. It was a strange thing to ask first off. She knew what he meant, of course, but she had to remind herself of what he knew, or thought he knew.
"I was outside," she said, and in the next moment the entire scene came rushing back to her, the warm night, the hangar, their soft voices. Her apprehension, tinged with excitement, and the way it coiled suddenly into icy dread when she realized what had happened. But somehow the words came easily: "By the door, I mean. They were late, and I wasn't getting decent reception inside and I was trying to lock onto their signal, and..." She stopped, eyes narrowing slightly. The shock of seeing him had thrown her off momentarily, but now she became acutely aware that though neither of them had moved, they were still very much pointing guns at one another. "What are you doing here?"
He didn't say anything, and she considered, taking in the entire picture. She had checked in with a fake name, of course, and only a very small handful of people could have known where she was and why, and yet he was here, armed and waiting for her in the dark...it seemed absurd, almost laughable, and yet she could think of no other explanation. "Are you here to kill me, Harrow?"
He blinked, and now she could see for sure that it was a fake. When he still said nothing, she continued "Unless there's another reason why you'd be sitting in my hotel room waiting for me with a gun. But you looked quite stunned a moment ago, so it seems you didn't know it was me." Without lowering her arm or removing her gaze from his face, she stepped slowly sideways and into a chair beside the television. In response, he turned very slightly and angled his arm so that he was still aiming at her. "So that means you must've been hired for the job. How am I doing so far?"
He dropped his gaze for half a second, and she was entirely sure she was right. In a strange way, it was almost a comfort: it was someone else who wanted her dead, not him. That meant that he didn't know. For some reason, that mattered. And yet he hadn't moved; he hadn't put his gun away or denied anything; clearly he was very much still considering it. If their past together could've changed anything on its own, it would've done so already. "So this is what you're doing these days. My, things have changed since last we saw each other." She settled back into the chair and crossed her legs, the red soles of her high heels winking at him. "This is a turn-up, isn't it. What are the odds? I don't suppose you'd be willing to tell me who hired you."
He frowned slightly, as though surprised by the question. "Well, I have to ask; it could be any number of people, I'm afraid. I've been rather busy lately too, and I suppose I've made my share of enemies." As she spoke, she dragged the fingers of her free hand lazily along the arm of the chair and then, in a quick movement, plunged her hand into the pocket of her Burberry coat. Harrow's gaze instantly flicked downward and followed the action, but he didn't move. She watched his face closely, and when she slowly drew out her phone, she knew.
"Ah," she said softly. "So this is what you're looking for, then. Otherwise you would've assumed I was going for a second weapon just now and shot me on the spot. But your employer needs this in good condition as well as me dead, is that it?"
To her slight surprise, he nodded. She couldn't tell if that was because he was planning to kill her anyway and there was no harm in admitting it or because he was reconsidering now that he knew it was her, but it was still something. "That narrows it down a bit," she mused, hoping to distract him by working it out aloud. "So it's someone I've dealt with recently, because if it's this important they wouldn't have waited...but rather than do it themselves they hired you, and they must have wanted the best because you're clearly quite good at this—"
He made a short, harsh sound that would have been a laugh if there was any joy in it at all, and nodded slightly at the gun still in her hand. "You knew I was here."
"Well, I'm very good at this as well, don't feel bad," she shot back. He'd had a sense of humor, she remembered. He was quiet and hard to draw out, and most of the time Black was the wisecracking center of attention, and yet she recalled that Harrow had made her laugh a few times with his wry asides. She pushed that away—she couldn't get distracted right now; the only thing that mattered was getting out of this. She thought for another moment and then said, "So perhaps it was my friend Gottsreich from a few weeks ago? I suppose he's figured out what I found and what I can do with it." He just continued to watch her shrewdly, and she took that for confirmation. "Well, that's easily solved, then." She glanced down at the phone and typed the unlock code, scrolling through the photos and landing on one at random. She held it up to show him. "I'll just delete this, and—"
This time he moved. He raised his arm another few inches and pointed the gun straight at her head. "Don't do that," he said flatly.
She smiled and tutted disapprovingly, although her stomach slipped several notches. He stared. "Perhaps you're not as good as I thought," she said smoothly. "He didn't tell you a thing when he hired you, did he. He didn't tell you it was me, and he didn't tell you what I had on him." His forehead creased, and she could tell she was starting to get to him. "Or perhaps you just didn't ask."
"Doesn't matter," he replied; his voice was halting, but his hand was steady as a rock. "Just have to take it with me." He didn't bother to add after I kill you, but she was fairly sure it was implied. The longer they sat there, the more alarming the change in him became; not just his face, but everything. He was cold now, sharp and flat. He'd had something of an easy grace before, shy but sure, in the way he sat, the way he smiled, everything. Now he seemed mechanical, his motions memorized, and badly, rather than natural. He had lost weight, too; he'd been slim back then, but now he was nearing gaunt. His dark hair was shorter, and he was dressed differently, more formally, it seemed. The shock at seeing her seemed to have vanished entirely from him now, and there was just—nothing. Only the way he'd lifted his gun was the same: smooth, quick, effortless.
"You could," she agreed, balancing the phone on her knee. She assessed the situation rapidly: either she had to talk her way out or shoot her way out, and the latter didn't seem wise; he had his Army training, of course, and he was always exceptionally quick and dexterous. She could handle a gun perfectly well, but she was sure he could outdraw her. "Or perhaps I make you a better offer."
"What offer?" He gave her a shrewd look; she couldn't tell if he knew what was coming, or if he was used to this kind of thing. Had he been doing this long enough to expect bargaining and begging? Did any of it matter to him?
"Rather than killing me, you, shall we say, don't," she replied bluntly, resting her elbow on the chair's arm and perching her chin on her fingertips. "Instead, I pay you and you leave, and you tell your employers that everything's sorted."
"Doesn't work like that." It sounded as though every word required effort. "They want the phone."
"I'll give you a fake. A very good one."
"I doubt it," she scoffed, but then she thought. "Ah. They'll know because you'll know, and they'll make you prove it. You always were rather good with the details." If he took this as a compliment, it wasn't clear. "And if you don't convince them utterly, they'll just send someone else for me, is that it?"
"Hmm." She laid a finger against her chin. "Quite a pickle. We used to be quite good at solving these things, didn't we?" Perhaps mentioning the past again would chip away at his reserve—but no, not a flicker. It was as though none of it had ever happened. It was starting to feel like less of a relief, for some reason. "Well, then..." Her brain sped into overdrive as she put on a relaxed-thoughtful expression, even tapping the gun pensively against the chair. What could he do; how could she use him...? "I suppose you'll have to help me, then."
She thought she saw his gun hand twitch slightly. "With what?"
"Well, apparently what I've got on here is even more valuable than I thought," she replied, nodding to her phone again. "So it seems I've got to get it off my hands quite quickly. I've got a buyer, of course, but he's a bit of a journey from here, and it seems the roads aren't particularly safe for me these days."
He continued to watch her with a slightly detached confusion, as if he needed to translate everything she said into another language in his head first. "So you're asking me to deliver—"
"Oh no, I'll handle all of that," she said comfortably. "No, you'll just help me to get there in one piece, just in case your employers decide to call someone else. Then we'll go our separate ways once I've made the sale. Just like any other job, really; you're my backup." In response, some emotion she couldn't read flooded Harrow's face for just a moment, and she realized that he was thinking of him. She hadn't meant to stir up that part of the past just yet. To cover the moment, she added "I'd make it worth your while, I can assure you of that." The clouded expression passed over his face and he cocked his head slightly, the first familiar gesture she'd yet seen. "Whatever they're giving you, I'll double it, at least. Just good business, isn't it?"
In response he merely gave a very slight shrug, and for the first time she felt slightly afraid. He hadn't done it yet, so obviously he was considering her words to some degree, but if he wasn't in it for the money, that could mean nothing good.
"Is that not important?" she asked, as if she was only vaguely amused. "That's honorable, I think. So, how about it, then? Go on," she added, dropping her voice half an octave in a way that made most men breathe hard and go all fiery-eyed. "For old time's sake. It'll be far more interesting than just walking out of here and leaving my glamorous corpse behind, won't it? Remember all the fun we used to have?"
They watched each other in silence for another moment. He hadn't released the gun, but his arm relaxed very slightly and it rested against his knee. Then, "You said 'a bit of a journey.'"
"You do pay attention," she said, allowing a purr into her voice, now that it seemed that she had him. "I always liked that about you. Driving would take far too long, and I'd say flying's a bit too risky, what with your friends buzzing about trying to find me. They'll be expecting that." If he'd managed to find her, if his employer had, then the IDs she'd used to get there were useless; surely being tracked.
"I'm supposed to call soon," he said. "To verify. About you."
"Ah, yes, of course," she nodded, as though thwarting attempts on her life was part of her daily routine. "So they'll know rather soon that everything hasn't gone as planned. So we'll have to be quite quiet about it. Train, I think." They'd never expect her to opt for a slower method, and trains were rather less stringent about identification. She could even use cash, something that would surely have gotten her red-flagged on a flight. "Should only be a night or so. Bit of old-fashioned excitement, isn't it?" Then, deciding she had to make her point, she stood up very slowly and set the gun down with deliberate gentleness on the top of the television cabinet. Out of the corner of her eye, the lights of the Strip flashed and twinkled merrily through the window. She held up both hands in a mock-innocent pose, and then took a step closer to him and extended the right one. "Have we got a deal, then?"
He looked at her hand for a moment. Then he unscrewed the silencer from his gun and put it into his pocket, then stood and tucked the nine into the back of his waistband, smoothing his jacket back down over it. She looked up into his face; the damage was all the more apparent up close. It was only mildly discolored—she supposed that had faded with time—but the skin was twisted and uneven, like a relief map, raised in places and pulled tight and shiny in others. The side of his mouth was tugged slightly to the side, giving him a look of a permanent grimace. She had a sudden, strange urge to put her hand against his cheek, to feel the unexpected texture against her own skin. And she was aware of the scent of him as well, faint and sharp and coldly forbidding, like a winter's river.
He took off his gloves and pocketed them, and then put his hand in hers. His touch was cool and rough, more so than it had been before. She remembered that, too; his careful hands, gentler than she had guessed. His good eye roved over her face for a long, deliberate moment, taking her in, as though deciding whether or not she was what he remembered. "Yes," he said.
She smiled again. "Glad to hear it." Then, although she hadn't planned to say it, "It's good to see you, Harrow."
For half a second, she thought he almost smiled. He looked down at their hands, and then glanced back up. "Where are we going?" he asked, as though it were an afterthought.
"Where else?" she asked. She slid her fingers from his and moved over to the bar; she rather thought she'd earned a drink in the last ten minutes. She threw him a look over her shoulder. "New York. Bourbon's your poison, isn't it?"
Fourteen months ago
"Come on, Renie, just do it once more."
Irene rolled her eyes and sipped her wine. "Oh, really, again? You already know what happened."
"Yes, but you tell it so terribly well," Black persisted, shooting her a cheeky grin. "Go on, so you were on his computer and you heard him coming…"
"Funny how he's only interested in that part of it, isn't it?" Irene said pointedly, turning to Darkholme and raising her eyebrows. "It's almost as though he's less interested in my exceptional espionage talents so much as the part where I took my top off."
"Hey, now, perhaps I just have massive amounts of respect for smart, capable career women—"
"—who take their tops off and spank government officials over their desks," Darmody finished the sentence for him from across the table. Beside him, Harrow began to laugh into his own drink. Irene shot Darmody a withering look as Darkholme attempted to hide a grin behind her hand.
"Exactly," Black nodded at him without missing a beat, sticking another cigarette between his teeth as he spoke and lighting it. "And that, lads, is what feminism is all about. You should be writing this down."
"I didn't spank him, as you very well know," Irene said coolly. "I...simply took advantage of the intel we'd vetted about the target to…formulate the most advantageous extraction plan. It was just protocol."
"Yes, yes, very impressive; your Victoria Cross is in the post as we speak." Black waved an impatient hand. "Now tell the part where you slapped him around and made him call you 'Mummy.'"
"I didn't—!" They were laughing again, and even Winchester very nearly cracked a smile. Darkholme grinned more broadly and gave her arm a sympathetic pat. "They're just going to keep making up their own versions unless I do it for them, aren't they," Irene said dryly.
"Probably," she agreed with a mock-grim nod, giving her a beleaguered look that quite plainly said, boys. Irene just shook her head. If she was being honest with herself, she really was rather proud of what had gone down several hours ago; something about just barely making it out of a tight spot always made her feel rather invigorated, and it had been a particularly tricky mission from the start. Getting into the building had been hard enough; Black's handmade IDs had worked without a hitch, as always, but then they'd only had about five minutes to break into his office and search his hard drive for the files—or at least, they thought they had. It had been her first time doing this kind of undercover work—usually this was Darkholme's area of expertise, with her effortless, seductive charm and talent for disguises—and Irene's heart had seemed to leap into her throat and freeze solid there when she heard Winchester's urgent voice in her earpiece. "Adler, he's coming. Get out. Get out now. Copy?"
"Well, when I heard that he was coming, the download still wasn't finished and I knew I couldn't get out in time without setting off every other alarm in the place, so I just thought about his file and—well, we've been following him around for two weeks, haven't we," she said, waving at the bartender and signaling for another glass. "And he went to that sex club practically every night; it wasn't that difficult to know what he'd fall for. So I just popped onto the desk—"
"And got your kit off first," Black interrupted, both elbows on the table and his expression shamelessly eager. She shot him another disdainful look, but then nodded once.
"Yes, that first. And when he came in I just said 'where have you been, you filthy little boy?'" Black gave his usual barklike laugh at that, and Irene realized she was smirking too. Looking back, the whole thing really was rather hilarious; one of the most powerful men in the country and he'd fallen for her ruse in about three seconds just because she was wearing La Perla and used her bossy-schoolmarm voice. "And he said 'why, those lovely bastards, they did remember my birthday,' and I said 'I don't remember giving you permission to speak, you swine.'"
They were laughing even more now, and for some reason she suddenly wanted to tell it properly. She stood up and moved around the table to Black, who looked up at her with a wicked grin. "And then I just went over to him and looked him right in the eye..." She traced a playful finger under Black's unshaven jaw and then slapped him—not as hard as she'd smacked the banker, but hard enough that the few other patrons still lingering in the back garden looked around in mild concern. Harrow and Darkholme were grinning their amusement. She grasped his chin and gave him her most imperious look. "And I just said 'on...your...knees.' And down he went."
Black instantly slid from his chair and knelt on the floor, pretending to grovel at her feet. The others laughed and applauded, except for Winchester, who just scowled, unsurprisingly. "Brilliant! Brilliant performance! Or mazel tov, I should say," Black exclaimed up at her as she gave them an ironic bow. "'A star-making performance,' says the New York Times. Time Out London says 'Getting dominated by anyone else would be a cracking shame.'"
"We're leaving out the part where I saved her ass," Darmody cut in, leaning across the table to snag Black's lighter and shooting Irene a look. "What were you planning to do if I didn't show up, Adler, choke him out with your bra?"
"You were my backup," she shot back at him. "It wasn't exactly a favor. And you took your bloody time, too." She had been rapidly running through everything she knew about pressure points and everything Harrow had told her about the building's layout and wondering how she could distract him long enough to make it out the window, as they had planned, when Darmody had appeared silently behind the man, pushing open the door they'd rigged to stay unlocked, gun drawn and eyes trained on her face. She glanced up for a split second and he made a very slight gesture to her, and she'd very lazily reached up and pulled out a sharp-edged hair clip, shaking out her dark waves. Darmody stepped down hard on the carpeted floor, and when the man turned his head at the sound, she raked it across his face in a swift gesture, and in the next moment Darmody was across the room, clubbing him hard on the head with the butt of his M1911. It wouldn't have done to kill him, not just then, anyway. He collapsed in a heap, and within seconds Irene was rolling over the desk, snatching up her clothes with one hand and grabbing her zip drive out of his computer with the other, and then they were both out of the window and gone.
"Well, it was your first undercover job in a while, I didn't want to insult you by barging in too soon," Darmody told her with a smirk, lighting his own cigarette, and she returned the expression with interest. She knew full well that he and the others were thoroughly impressed by what she'd done; giving each other a hard time was just their manner of praise. "I thought I'd let you have a little fun with him first."
"More like let him have a little fun," Black pointed out, now back in his chair. "I mean, we were trying to ruin this man's life and steal his entire ill-gotten life-stealings; the least we could do is let him be slapped around by a gorgeous woman first. There are few things as enjoyable in this cold and miserable world."
"Speaking from experience, I'm assuming," Darkholme snorted, helping herself to half a krumkake from the plate on the table. "Is there anything left you haven't tried?"
"I should hope not," Black said, sounding scandalized at the thought. "That'd just be a ruddy waste of my life. Come on, I can't be the only adventurous one, can I?" He looked around, addressing the table at large. "In our line of business? Making things a little dangerous in the bedroom just seems like par for the course, I'd say."
"I get enough pain and suffering just working with you on a daily basis, thanks," Darkholme shot back. Black grinned at her, then raised his eyebrows at Harrow.
"It's always the quiet ones, isn't it? I could see you being into some frisky stuff." Harrow just half-grinned and sipped his drink without comment, and Black leaned across the table and adopted a stage whisper. "You have been with a girl, right? Because we both know you've been with a chap." He tipped him an enormous wink, and Darmody gave a faint snort of either derision or amusement. Black looked over at him. "How 'bout you, mate? You seem the type. Ever think about letting some fine young bird put a little slap back into the ol' slap-and-tickle? You might like it."
"Dunno if it's a good idea to mix work and play like that," Darmody replied dully. "And I wouldn't want to steal your thunder as the ladies' man of the group."
"Oh, very thoughtful." Black drained his glass, and then turned a mischievous expression towards Winchester. "S'pose I don't even have to ask you, do I. You're textbook, vanilla as they come." He pulled a stern expression and imitated his gruff American accent: "'Missionary, lights out, six and a half minutes and not a second more. Gotta stick to the itinerary. Can't divert from the plan. Hoo-rah, if you know what I mean.'" The others all laughed as Winchester gave him a mulish look. "I'm just saying, maybe you should've barged in there instead of Darmody, you might've learned thing or two first."
"Yeah, well, Darmody shouldn't have had to barge in at all," he said darkly, setting his bottle down with an authoritative thud. "That was way too close. We should've been better prepared."
"Oh, c'mon, we were," Darkholme protested. "We couldn't have been more careful. We've had eyes on him every day since we've been here; it was just a fluke."
"Then how'd he get the jump on us like that? After all that time we should've been able to predict—"
"Predict that he'd forget his keys? There's only so much we can know, after that it's just luck," she volleyed. "He did the exact same thing every night for two weeks; this was just a weird one. Right, Harrow? Back me up here."
"Right, yeah. He left the office between 6:40 and five-of every night," Harrow reeled off promptly. "In his car by five after seven, fourteen-minute drive to the Club Justine, where he went every night except the 14th, the 20th and the 22nd. His computer system was set to lock after eight minutes of inactivity, so—"
"See?" Darkholme interrupted, nodding pointedly at Winchester. "We've got the best detail guy in the business, and clearly the quickest-thinking hacker. Slash actress." She gave Irene's arm a playful nudge, and Irene grinned back. "It was fine; they can't all be perfect." He always liked to do this; rehash every detail of a job, regardless of the outcome. Black often said that he thought Winchester liked it better when things went wrong, just so he'd have something to be annoyed about.
He still looked grumpy now and seemed ready to argue back, but Black stretched his arms lazily over his head and said "Come off it, Ches, it was still a success. We got the files, no one got burned, no one got killed, and Darmody got to hit someone and we found out what color knickers Adler likes to wear. I consider that a win across the board." The others laughed anew as Winchester just took another moody swallow of beer. "Or perhaps I should say Adler got to hit someone; that's a lot more rare. At least, these days." He raised a lascivious eyebrow at her. "Shame you didn't have your whip with you this time."
"Shame indeed. I have to remember to get it back from your mother one of these days," Irene said calmly, taking another sip of wine, and Darmody guffawed appreciatively.
Black laughed too, though it was a slightly wry sound this time. "Oh, well played, miss. But if you'd met my mother, you'd know that she likes to be the one to do the smacking," he chuckled. "Or she did about twenty years ago; haven't checked since then."
"Well, that explains a lot," Darkholme said dryly. "I always wondered what made you turn out like this. Wouldn't you say mother issues fit the profile just perfectly?" she asked Harrow, who fought to hide a smile.
"Turn out like what?" Black demanded, apparently deeply affronted, pressing a hand to his tattooed chest in an appalled gesture. "I can only assume you mean 'dashingly handsome and staggeringly talented at all manner of capers.'"
"Oh, is that what it says on your record at The Ville? I've always wondered. Sounds a lot better than 'petty larceny' and 'trolling for blow jobs in Hyde Park,' though."
Black took careful aim and threw a bottle cap at her. It plopped neatly into her vodka gimlet, and she gave a snarl of indignation as Black raised both arms in victory and leaned across the table to rap his knuckles against Darmody's proffered ones. "You fucker." She hurled a fork at him, which he ducked. Harrow snickered.
"Will you knock that shit off?" Winchester's voice was even growlier than usual as a waitress looked over in confusion.
"But Daaaad, she started it," Black protested in a whine, but Winchester silenced him with a look.
"If you all can manage to act like adults for a half a second, I'll tell you what's next. We've got another job. Remember those?" He reached into his case under the table and drew out a file, and Black and Darkholme both groaned theatrically at the sight. He glared at them, and then flipped open the folder and pushed it into the center of the table, and they all leaned forward in one motion; no matter what they said, it seemed they couldn't resist the allure of a new task.
"This little syndicate I've had my eye on for a while is set to make a huge heroin sale in El Paso," he said. "They've been around for a while now, building up quiet-like, first just small weapons caches and money laundering, that sort of thing. But word is they've been slowly buying out the Afghans and now are looking to be the new big supplier to the west. They're going by the name Bohemia." At the mention of the name, Harrow and Darmody glanced meaningfully at one another in that wordless way of theirs. "You know 'em?"
"Sort of," Darmody said darkly. "We came across those guys a while back. They're not big, but they're pretty tight. They don't fuck around." He looked at Harrow again before adding "We lost a few guys." He didn't elaborate; it was something of an unspoken rule amongst the six of them not to ask about any of the others' former positions or personal lives beyond what was freely offered, although they were all aware that their previous jobs must necessarily have ended somewhat badly. Winchester presumably knew all of their details, as he'd recruited all of them himself, but he never let anything slip, which Irene had to admit she respected. Looking at their faces, she had to wonder if this Bohemia had anything to do with why Harrow and Darmody had left Special Forces.
"No, they don't. They started out playing nice, just making buys here and there, but then they started going after bigger scores and dropping bodies when they met resistance from the Afghans. They took out a whole family of opium farmers when they refused to sell 'em any more, and lately they've gotten fond of using explosives—car bombs, rigged mail packages, all sorts of shit. And they're not just trying to intimidate, they're also insanely careful about witnesses. Two weeks ago they blew some little coffee shop in Zabul to all hell just because they'd used it as a meeting spot a few times and wanted to make sure none of the staff talked."
"They're buying up explosives too?" Harrow asked, a bit sharply. "What're they after, C4?"
"Nope, they're just making their own, like any basement nutjob. Just left a bag behind on the floor and set it off with a remote when they were a few blocks away." He reached out to the file and spread out a few loose photographs depicting a smoldering ruin, and the others were silent as they looked through them. "Now they're looking to get some of the bigger American and Mexican gangs interested, so they're offering a pretty good price for the stuff to start. Hardly anyone out west knows what they've been up to, so they're offering a giant shipment all at once to make a good first impression—they say they'll move more than anyone else, and faster, and cheaper."
"Hmm, how thrifty," Black mused, frowning down at a page of the file. "Like the FedEx of illegal narcotics. Sounds a little too good to be true."
"It very well might be," Winchester said. "Either they're cutting the product with cheap stuff and pretending it's worth more, or they stole it in the first place and are looking to turn a profit for nothing, or—"
"—they're just going to show up to the buy and kill all the other guys so they can take over their territory and steal all their shit," Darmody cut in, pulling another page towards him and scanning it, and Winchester shrugged his assent.
"Why isn't the DEA on top of this one?" Harrow asked, reading over his shoulder. "They were on the Army's radar a few years ago; if they've escalated this much by now, the feds ought to be all over it."
"'At this time we feel that there is insufficient satisfactory intel to merit an official operation, as the minimal evidence in question could not lead to a successful trial and would bring unnecessary risk to the safety and welfare of federal agents,'" Winchester recited, and the others exchanged exasperated looks, far too used to this sort of bureaucratic nonsense to bother commenting. They took on plenty of private contracts, but it was often when a government couldn't—or wouldn't—do anything that they got the call. Irene's mind was racing.
"Which just means they don't know anything and aren't willing to find out just because of a few dead Afghans," Black cut in pointedly. It was often challenging to say which of them was the most disdainful of the establishment in general, but Black often seemed to come out winner in that respect, as he had had, as far as Irene knew, the most amount of trouble with the legal system. And, of course, his homegrown British sarcasm helped.
"Probably," Winchester agreed. "But even so, the brass has got a point this time; these guys are pretty damn hard to pin down, mostly because it's nearly impossible to figure out who they all are. They don't seem to have a clear leader, and no one talks; no one who's tried to in the past has made it more than a week after. The Afghans aren't happy, and neither are some of the South American syndicates who got word of this, and they're willing to play ball. They want these guys stopped, but it's gotta be quiet, so it's gotta be us."
Darkholme whistled. "When's this sale meant to go down?"
"Soon. Could even be within a few weeks. Which is why we've got to get on top of this one right away. We leave for America tomorrow midday." Black, Darkholme and Darmody all made noises of annoyed disbelief.
"Christ, tomorrow?" Black exclaimed. "When were you planning to mention that?"
"They move fast and quietly; I'm only getting intel in bits and pieces on this one, and usually at the last second," he shot back, clearly irritated at his tone. "You want me to call them and ask if they'll postpone while you take a little vacation first?"
"Oh, don't act like that's so crazy," Black groused. "We've been working like mad for two weeks here, not to mention six bloody months before that, and now we're heading off to a fucking desert to make a bunch of very heavily armed thugs quite angry at us. Again. I daresay most people would want a bit of a lie-in first, yes."
"He's got a point," Darmody said, leaning back in his seat. "You gotta admit, this was a tough one." Irene thought about it and realized that Black was right; they'd all been in each other's presence without a break of more than a few days for more than half a year now, surely their longest stretch yet. They worked nearly around the clock since they'd arrived in Norway for this job, tracking down the target and breaking through his various security firewalls and making a plan to steal his records. Some jobs were largely physical and others more technically-based, but either way, Winchester was relentless, seemingly tireless and always ready to go storming off to the next thing. He was in his element in the field, in the thick of it; he seemed misplaced everywhere else.
"Maybe so, but this is a bigger one," he said forcefully, planting a hand on the open file. "These guys are good. If they pull off this sale, or they stage a coup or whatever the hell they're planning, they go from quiet and underground to practically a monopoly on bringing all kinds of shit over to the west. We're gonna find ourselves up against them a whole helluva lot in future, and I'd rather cut the damn snake's head off now and save ourselves the trouble."
Black turned raised eyebrows to the rest of the group, and Irene knew why. Winchester wasn't given to hyperbole; if he was this adamant about this job, it must have been an important one indeed. "And then burn the neck," Harrow said suddenly.
Winchester looked over at him in bewilderment. "What?"
"You said we should cut the snake's head off, but in the myth three heads grow back in its place when you do, so you want to—what?" Darmody was giving him a quelling look. "I'm only saying, that's how the allegory goes," he finished, somewhat awkwardly.
"See that? You've gone and offended Uni Boy with your mixed metaphors. How can you live with yourself?" Black said to Winchester in an admonitory tone. Then, seeing the look on his face, added "Oh, cheer up, you know we'll be ready for them; we always are. We'll have it all sorted in a few hours, just like today. And after this one we'll definitely have earned ourselves a little holiday." He looked around encouragingly at the rest of them. "Isn't that so?"
"I'd say so, yeah," Darkholme agreed, stretching luxuriously as Black had done. She brought her arm down across the back of Irene's seat, her hand lightly brushing her far shoulder. "Especially you, Winchester. You work so hard and all, bossing us around all the time. Don't you want to take some time off and..." She frowned. "What do you do for fun, anyway?"
"Punch people? Skin small woodland creatures and make them into hats?" Black suggested.
"No, it's cars," Irene cut in, with a rather wicked grin. "He likes cars. Isn't that right?" As Winchester kept his own secrets and stories even closer than he kept theirs, it amused them to notice little details and figure out things about him for themselves, especially since it seem to irk him when they did so. And indeed, he was starting to scowl again.
"There you go," said Black, slapping the table as though it was all settled. "You can go hole up in a garage somewhere and tinker with some old rust bucket. Enjoy all that nice grease and carbon monoxide. It'll be very Zen."
"And where'd you like to go?" Winchester shot back at him, sitting back and folding his arms. "Or should I ask, what countries are you not wanted in?"
"Oh, there's got to be a few." Black rested his chin on his fist and appeared to think hard. "Oman. Or—that's a real place, isn't it?" He glanced over at Harrow, who nodded, biting down on a grin.
"Wait, are you actually agreeing to this?" Darkholme said, reaching across Irene and touching Winchester's arm. "You're actually considering taking time off? Doing something mindless and frivolous that doesn't involve shooting people?"
"I dunno about that," Darmody interjected. "You did say you wanted him to have fun, didn't you?"
Winchester narrowed his eyes in mock-amusement. "If things go well in El Paso, yeah, we could. I've been meaning to take some time, actually. Got some things I gotta take care of."
"What, you headed back to Bumblefuck Cornville or whatever it is to see those lovely boys of yours?" Black asked, lighting himself another cigarette.
"He didn't actually mean that to sound lascivious," Irene clarified in a stage whisper. "That's just what it sounds like when he says 'those lovely boys.'" Black smirked appreciatively at her. Winchester gave a real, though brief, smile this time, the kind that only mention of his sons could cause. Not that he ever talked about them, either; they wouldn't have even known that he had children at all if Darkholme hadn't drawn it out of him one night in Cairo when they were in their cups. Even now they knew essentially nothing more than the fact that they existed, but Irene always noticed that smile. It was that smile that told her that they were allowed to speak of them, at least vaguely—unlike the wedding ring on his finger, which was off-limits. Black had asked about it once in the early days, and his reaction had made it clear that they were never to do so again. "But that's good," Irene added now. "When's the last time they saw your ugly mug?"
"Been a while, I guess," he answered, frowning down into his half-empty bottle. For a second he looked almost bashful. "Pretty long while, and they're gettin' older. Nearly time for college. Well, maybe for the younger one." He shrugged again. "Might be my last big job for a while, is all." The others looked at each other in surprise; by his usual standards, he was practically pouring his heart out.
"And what the hell are we supposed to do, then?" Black demanded, in his usual tactful manner. "We wouldn't make it a day without you." He began to sing plaintively in his rough and decidedly terrible voice: "How do I live without you? I want to know, how do I...something, something...survive?"
"Boo, get off the stage!" Darmody balled up a paper napkin and chucked it across the table at him. Black looked offended.
"How dare you, sir? Have you no respect for art? I think I have to challenge you to a duel now."
"Whenever you're ready," Darmody replied easily, cracking his knuckles in a bored sort of way. "I got time to kick your ass at arm-wrestling again."
"Oh, fuck off, you never!" Black scoffed. "I surely won more than half, and that was after having my damn shoulder pulled out on that Dresden job."
"That was your own fault, who told you to climb over that fence?"
"That vicar was getting away, and if you had any brains at all you would've figured out a lot sooner that he'd had the codes the entire time."
Irene realized she was smiling again as she settled back in her seat and watched them carry on. Sometimes she thought she liked these moments as much as she liked the jobs themselves, this comfortable, sleepy period right after a successful mission. Sometimes, like now, it was a matter of a day or less before the next one, but that just made her enjoy them all the more, these deep breaths between dives. They gave her a sense of stability, somehow, that she rarely had otherwise and usually didn't particularly want.
She listened vaguely as the boys continued razzing each other, tipping her head back slightly and looking up as a V of geese cut across the sky and the sky began deepening to navy. A breeze blew lazily through the garden, and Raven gave a slight shiver beside her. "It's getting cooler," she murmured. "Almost autumn."
Irene moved closer to her, slipping an arm around her shoulders and rubbing her upper arm briskly with her hand to warm her. "How shall we enjoy our last bit of summer, then?" she asked in a low voice. "After this job, once we have time."
"Hmm...we haven't done Paris in a while." She leaned her head on Irene's shoulder. "Or Cannes? Could be nice with the beach crowds dying down a little."
"Mmm, yes, good idea." Irene lifted her hand and slipped it under Raven's red hair, toying with the soft wisps at the nape of her neck. Down the table, Harrow was laughing at something Darmody said. "What will you boys do with yourselves? Head back to New Jersey?" she asked over Raven's head.
The two of them just looked at each other and started laughing anew. "What, isn't that where you're from?"
"Yeah, but then I left. I'm sure as shit not going back there now," Darmody snorted. Irene raised an eyebrow.
"Owe someone money, do you? Pick the wrong boxer in a match?" she teased, not really expecting an answer. The two of them shared another look.
"He just really doesn't like the Ferris wheel," Harrow said soberly. "Bad experience as a kid. Got motion sickness, threw up funnel cake everywhere...it was bad. Really bad." Darmody snickered, unable to hold back a grin.
"Yeah, very funny, asshole," he said, giving him a shove in the arm and pushing his ash-blond hair off his face with the other hand. "We could always go to Chicago instead and see those friends of yours, huh?" Harrow returned the grin, and Irene just shook her head; she and the others had long ago stopped trying to understand their shorthand and their inside jokes. They were the only two who had known each other since before Winchester found them; he'd recruited them in a set and they worked together as one, seeming to predict each other's moves and thoughts instinctively.
Night slipped down around them and lanterns flared to life around the café's garden as they sat, ordering another few rounds and talking idly, mostly about their brief respite and about what Bohemia's plans might be, with Winchester and Darmody debating about the best caliber of guns to bring and Darkholme arguing with Black about which of their many passports they ought to use to get back into the country. Irene listened rather than talked, however, still thinking hard. Around one o'clock Winchester ordered them all to their beds upstairs, saying that they needed to be ready to head out first thing in the morning, though he stopped them before they scuttled off and made them cough up, as they had received local currency for once when they'd been paid for the job earlier that day. They had a steadfast cash-only rule, but it came in dollars more often than not, and Winchester was usually the only one who remembered to exchange any of it and often found himself stuck with the bills. They threw several hundred kroner down on the table and then headed upstairs, with Winchester catching the back of Black's shirt as he tried to sneak off for "just a quick word" with the comely waitress and pushing him, grumbling, into the inn.
"I'll be right there," Irene smiled at Raven, who stood, stretched and looked expectantly down at her as she sat at the table. "Just want to send a quick note. You go ahead." She waited until she had followed the others inside, and then pulled out her phone, scanning through the contacts and typing out a message:
Hello, Ormstein. How's tricks?
If he was actually in Arlington, she realized, it would have been about five in the morning there, but somehow she was sure he was awake no matter where he was. Sure enough, his reply came within moments:
Hello, Apate. Been a long time. You've been quiet.
She smirked as she typed.
I think I've got something for you. You'll like this one. It's big.
Somewhere in Utah (and Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa...)
"Well, this is cozy, isn't it," Irene said wryly, surveying the minuscule room with mild disdain. Booking at the last minute meant they'd had little choice about their accommodations; she'd been hoping for separate quarters at the very least, as she considered it generally bad form to share sleeping space with someone who had very good reason to kill her, agreement or no. However, she decided that even in the worst case scenario, he was unlikely to risk doing so on a crowded, moving train from which he had very little chance of escaping unseen. And the blank, bewildered way in which he'd said "What's a roomette?" when she'd explained the situation had been entertaining—almost endearing—enough to be worth it. Every so often she would notice tiny flashes of the old Harrow in something he said or did, like light shining through infinitesimal cracks, but then they would disappear just as quickly.
She wasn't sure where he'd gone the night before after they'd made their deal; after he'd turned down her offer of a drink, he'd simply left her room, promising to meet her in the hotel lobby in the morning to depart for their train, as he had then done. When he was gone she'd logged online and sent a semi-urgent message to her buyer, and then bought herself a plane ticket to France; if they were watching her credit cards too, that ought to throw them off for at least a day. After that she'd gotten perhaps an hour of sleep altogether, spending most of the rest of the night alternating between looking through the peephole in her door, gun in hand. It wasn't the first time that a displeased client had sought to get rid of her, but it was always an unsettling experience. And this time was something else altogether, as it was him—how had Gottsreich known? No one could've known about their past together, about the team...
Harrow looked around the room without comment, then stepped to the window in two paces and leaned down to look out of the window as the train hurtled along and vast stretches of tan desert swam past. She set her bag on the lower berth and then opened the door to inspect the tiny, cramped bathroom, if it could reasonably be called that, looking up in dismay at the shower head perched over the toilet and glancing into the mirror to touch up her lipstick. As she stepped back out of the space and into the main area of the room, Harrow took a step back from the window and they collided.
"Sorry," he said quickly, shying away from her. She just smiled at him.
"Things are bound to get a bit slapstick in here, I'm afraid," she replied. Then, as there was no way to pretend the room merited any more examination, added "I'm just famished, shall we grab something to eat?"
People stared as they made their way through the train's tight corridors. She'd noticed this in the hotel, too, though less so; early-morning Vegas revelers were shocked by nothing, it seemed. But now people turned their heads and gazed openly, following Harrow's scarred face with startled eyes. He didn't seem to be aware of it; at least, he didn't react in any way she could see. He walked with his shoulders slightly hunched and his head bent down, though she seemed to recall that he'd always done that. It bothered her, their stares, for some reason she couldn't name. As they entered the dining car, she slipped her pear-cut diamond ring from her right hand and put it on her left.
They were shown to a table and Harrow sat with his bad side toward the window, making Irene wonder if that was habit now. The waitress handed them both menus, and she perused hers as another ninety seconds passed in silence. Then she took her phone from her pocket and set it next to the bud vase, bolted to the edge of the table by the window and containing a single yellow rose, and put both elbows on the table, resting her chin on her folded hands. "So. Lovely weather we had back there. Very hot, wouldn't you say?"
He looked up at her, his expression suggesting that she'd started speaking in tongues. "What?"
"Just making conversation," she said, with a slight smile. "We're stuck here for the time being, and I don't particularly like the book I've started. And it'll look a bit odd if we're sitting here not saying anything; I'd rather not draw unwanted attention, if it's all the same."
"Oh." He nodded, still looking uncertain. "Right." He seemed unable to contribute beyond that, however, so she made another offer.
"But perhaps we ought to discuss something a bit more interesting. Bit more relevant. Such as...how'd you get in?"
"Into my hotel room. Last night. Did you use what I think you used?" In answer, he reached into his back pocket and pulled out a thin wallet, more like a leather envelope, and took from within it a small, innocent-looking piece of black plastic. "You did. Why, you clever thing." She reached out and took it from him, recognizing it as a reset card, a powerfully-magnetized key that could unlock nearly any electronic lock. Black had dreamed up the invention on one of their earliest jobs and it had been useful on countless others. She certainly wasn't going to be the one to mention him now, though. "Where did you get it?"
"Made it. Wasn't too hard."
She laughed softly. "I bet not, for you." She handed it back. "Quite a town, isn't it. Vegas."
"Hmm." It was nearly a chuckle. "I didn't look around much."
"No? Not a gambling man?" They'd done a job in Monte Carlo once, but it had been Darmody and Darkholme who'd cleaned up at the tables, both later admitting to flagrant cheating. Harrow seemed far too careful for that sort of thing, though, at least in the way they'd done it. "You seem like the card-counting type, maybe." Again, the quiet almost-laugh. "Didn't take in a show before breaking into my room, either?"
He shook his head, looking disquieted at the very thought. "I saw a sign in the hotel. The one with puppets."
"Ah, yes." Irene smirked, shaking her head. "I know just what you mean. The concierge offered me a very good price on tickets. I told her I'd rather light myself on fire. She seemed a bit offended."
The words were barely out of her mouth before she realized what she'd said, and she closed her eyes momentarily as she huffed out a breath. "That was...a remarkably poor choice of words." She chanced a glance at him, waiting for some kind of umbrage or resentment to settle on his ravaged face, but he just shrugged, as though he'd barely noticed what she'd said. She hadn't meant to get to this point just yet, but they'd arrived at it now and there was no going back.
The waitress chose that moment to return, however, and she resumed a casual air as she ordered the citrus tilapia and, at the waitress' recommendation, a glass of the Pinot Grigio, trying to remember the last time she'd ordered anything for under thirty-odd dollars. Harrow, on the other hand, just chose a simple sandwich, only half-glancing at the waitress and sounding as though he'd much rather skip the entire process. Again, she tried to remember: how had he been before?
When the server filled their water glasses and left, Irene paused for another moment before asking, in a slightly different, gentler tone, "Where did you go? After?"
Now his expression sharpened a bit, and he turned his head slightly to the side, studying her with his good eye. "Home." he said.
"To—New York?" He frowned slightly.
"No. Wisconsin. Emma still lives in Plover. She found me and took me back."
"Emma?" she said, slightly taken aback. "That's your—?"
"My sister." She nodded slowly, searching her memory. Had she known those things about him? She couldn't recall. They'd learned about each other's lives in such disjointed pieces. She'd thought she'd pinpointed his accent, but perhaps not. For some reason she was suddenly curious about this sister: was she older, younger? How had she found him? What had he told her? She had a fleeting picture of a woman with his eyes and dark hair, face lined with worry over her missing brother, and then it was gone.
"Your sister," she repeated vaguely. He nodded as well.
"Yeah. She still lives there. Stayed with her for a couple months while I..." He made a thoughtless gesture at his face, and she guess that he was referring to his healing process, whatever that had been. "But then...after a while I headed out." He looked down at the table for a long moment and she thought he was done with the subject, but then he raised his head and said "What did you do?"
She opened both hands in a slightly helpless gesture, as if to say what was to be done? "Went back to London for a bit, found some work. I try not to stay in one place for very long." He gave a faint nod. There was a good deal more he should have been asking, by her estimation, but she certainly wasn't going to encourage it. "That was always the plan, wasn't it? Scatter." She didn't want to say Winchester's name either, but she was sure Harrow remembered; he'd said it before nearly every job. If worst came to worst, they were to split up and hide, wherever and however they had to, and he'd find them eventually. They were to stay off the grid at all costs—not a difficult prospect as they no longer had any records or anyone else to answer to. "I expect it wasn't meant to turn out like this, though."
"No." He turned to look out of the window, though the way his brow creased made her sure he wasn't admiring the scenery. Then he added, more to himself than to her, "It still doesn't make sense."
"You mean, what happened?" As if he could mean anything else. She sighed and looked away from him, following his gaze out the window. "That's the question, isn't it," she said carefully. "I just don't know. They knew we were onto them, somehow, and they were ready for us. Maybe we underestimated them. I suppose we'll never really know."
When she turned her head back, he was looking at her again, a candid, piercing look. She'd noticed that his artificial eye didn't move like the real one and usually gave him a slightly cockeyed appearance. Every so often, though, he'd turn his head just so and they'd both seem to lock dead on her, sharp and alive and utterly real. Despite the scars, it was the closest thing to glimpsing the old Harrow, the one she'd known. There was a kind of pained shrewdness in his face now, and she wondered if he was searching for accusation in her tone or her expression; if she blamed him for missing something.
Wanting to steer out of those particular waters, she flashed him a quick smile and continued, "Bet you're still a crack shot, though, aren't you." Though not an expert on the matter, she rather assumed that losing an eye would make that particular action significantly more challenging, and yet somehow she knew he'd adapted around it. She remembered the way the gun looked in his hand the previous night: natural, harmonious. They all had their various training, but his talent didn't seem learned at all; it seemed as though he had just instinctively fallen into the profession that best suited what he most loved.
He'd probably been the best out of all of them, really, she decided; she remembered the boys' endless debates on this point. At least once a month they'd start drinking and showing off, getting in shooting contests, setting bottles on fences and that sort of thing and arguing about the winner—or the other three had, at least. It always greatly amused Irene and Darkholme to watch as Harrow waited quietly as they boasted and hectored each other, and then shut them up when he stepped up and outdid them all. "Guess so," he said modestly. That, at least, hadn't changed.
"I'd think that comes in handy in your line of work," she added pointedly, and he raised his eyebrows briefly, apparently not missing the irony of being complimented on his marksmanship by a woman he'd nearly shot not eighteen hours previously. Then, because she couldn't resist, she leaned forward and said "So how did you get into this business, anyway?"
He frowned slightly again, though not as though he disliked the question; he seemed to be unsure of the answer. "Don't know," he said after a moment. "Just seemed to happen."
"What, did you see an advert in the newspaper?" It fit, and yet it utterly didn't; he had just the skills for the job, that was clear enough, but she never would've guessed he had the necessary temperament, exactly. Not then, anyway. But now...
He shook his head. "Went back East after a while. To Jersey. I ran into some people I knew." His expression darkened, and she waited for a few moments with her eyebrows raised before prompting him onward with a gesture. "Got into it one night with a few of 'em. In a bar. Afterwards, guy came up, said he might have a job for me. Said he liked what he saw. It just kept going after that."
"Ah," she said, deciding on the spot not to ask what "afterwards" referred to. "Lucrative business, is it? I'd imagine there's a lot of travel, at least. That's the part I like best."
"Some." Then he turned his head to watch her again. "So what do you do?"
"What do I do? You don't know?" She scoffed an indignant laugh. "My God, Harrow, did you ask any questions before taking me on as a job?" She wasn't an expert on the contract killing business, but in her view, it was one thing not to ask the name of a target, but quite something else indeed not to ask for any photos or personal details whatsoever. She tried not to think about what that implied, but it was getting harder to ignore. "What if I was some sort of...of charitable, God-fearing nun, in charge of an orphanage? Would you still have done it?"
"You're not," he pointed out, with the merest hint of his old humor.
"That's hardly the point," she said, giving him a stern look. Then, to answer his question, she continued, "I do a lot of things. I suppose I'm a bit of a freelancer—fair bit of hacking, of course, bit of spying, bit of evidence recovery, bit of background-checking. Bounty-hunting, too, when the moment calls for it." She sipped her water thoughtfully. "'Private investigator' seems closest, I'd say."
"'Adventuress,'" he suggested, and she gave a low laugh, not entirely sure if he was making fun of her or not.
"I like that," she replied silkily. "Sounds quite glamorous."
The waitress came by again with her salad. She picked up the roll and held it out to Harrow, who shook his head. As she tore it in half he asked "So what do you have? On Gottsreich."
"Ah, so we're acknowledging that openly now?" she asked, now picking open the gold-wrapped butter packet with her red nails. "Cards-on-the-table time?" He just half-shrugged again. She narrowed her eyes at him half-jokingly, as if deciding whether or not to trust him—though she supposed that ship had already sailed, as she was still alive and they were sitting there together—and then said "Well, not photos, as you now know."
"Information, then," he said shrewdly, and she nodded once.
"That's right." She explained briefly about how she had been hired by some CEO a few weeks ago to investigate him: he was the head of a boringly long-named section of the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice, and one of his co-workers suspected that he was selling information under the table to various large businesses to ensure their continued monopolies in their areas. It was all very dull and Gottsreich hadn't, as it turned out, been doing any such thing; it had been one of his subordinates, attempting to avoid detection and frame him by redirecting files through his account. Irene had traced the scheme back through his e-mails and reported back to her employer, and the subordinate had been found shot dead three days later in an apparent mugging, or so she'd heard.
When she had been combing though Gottsreich's files, however, she'd found other information, very interesting little tidbits that she'd chosen to keep for herself, guessing they could be profitable to her later on. "Encrypted e-mails about a very, very secret little government project," she told Harrow now, nodding at her phone, sitting obediently by her elbow. "It's still in the early stages, but it's already getting quite a lot of funding and attention from some rather dubious places, it seems, and it's being kept under very strict lock and key so far, so that doesn't bode well. I assume that's what this is all about. And obviously it's something rather significant if he bothered giving you a call. I can't think how he knew it was me, though," she added broodingly, taking a bite of bread. "I covered everything up quite well, and I never even met him throughout the whole thing. I expect it was that idiot who hired me in the first place; he didn't particularly seem to know what he was doing. He was probably lazy about it, and Gottsreich was able to trace it back to me once he noticed that his files had been tampered with?" She ended the sentence on a questioning note and looked at him, hoping for some sort of clarification, but Harrow just looked indifferent.
"Don't know," he said. "I didn't—"
"—didn't ask, right," she finished along with him, somewhat wearily. "I suppose it doesn't much matter now."
He hadn't taken his gaze from her face. When she didn't continue, he asked "So what is it?"
"What, the project? It certainly doesn't seem be to about funding arts in the schools, does it," she said dryly, stirring Russian dressing into her salad and taking a bite. When he continued to look inquisitive, she added, somewhat grudgingly, "I'm not entirely sure. All I know so far is that it has to do with Miranda."
"That's the question," she said again. "Someone powerful, I'd think, but I don't know. I can't open the whole thing."
"The whole thing?"
"It's what we in the business call a matryoshka file," she explained. He cocked his head again, apparently thinking it over.
"Like the dolls?"
"Just so. One inside the other, inside the other, inside the other." He nodded. "You need to access all of them for it to make sense, however. I can't get inside the last few; I don't have the software. It's quite top-of-the-range stuff. Fortunately, I know someone who does."
"In New York."
"Right again." She was starting to wonder if he wasn't perhaps too quick for his own good—or rather, for hers. "My buyer, probably the best hacker in the world right now. Or one of them." She gave him a sly smile. "He's even better than I am. Fellow called Rodsild."
Harrow swirled his straw absentmindedly around in his water glass. "Scandinavian?"
She shrugged. "Of some sort. I've not asked. He's brilliant." She chewed a tomato and then amended, "Well, brilliant, paranoid, deeply anarchic, possibly insane. I suppose you could say that he's the one who is confidentially informed. He moves house all the time and always sets up all these mirrors around the room so that no one can sneak up on him. I don't even know precisely where he is at the moment."
"Well, I know he's in the city somewhere, but he won't send me the address until the very last second, just in case. He's entirely sure the governments of half the world's countries are out to get him, which they probably are, given what he's done. And he's got enough money for ten lifetimes, but he just uses it all to buy files and secrets and things from—ah, adventurers such as myself."
"What's he do with them?"
"Cracks them, sees if they're worth anything. And if they are, he usually sells them again, to other governments, journalists, informants, that kind of thing. So if this Miranda thing is as good as it seems, he'll figure it out and get it in the right hands. Or the wrong ones, I suppose. I've already contacted him to say that I'm—or rather, we're—on our way and that I've got something interesting for him. He prefers it if you make an appointment, to put it mildly; surprising him is a good way to get yourself shot."
"Hmm." He was looking out the window again, but she could tell he was listening. He would do that, she remembered, say nothing for long enough to nearly make the others forget he was there, and then prove that he'd retained nearly everything that had been said. The longer they were together, the more the past seemed to return to her. She didn't like it; she thought that had all been safely locked away. "So then what? For you."
"For us, you mean?" she asked, arching an eyebrow. "I've hired you, as you may recall." He inclined his head in a way that was slightly more ironic than deferential. "Well, it'll take Rodsild a day or two to get all the way into the file and analyze it, I expect, and perhaps another few to do something useful with it, but after that I expect we'll be safe." Seeing the brief flicker of skepticism in his expression, she added "Yes, I do mean both of us—I don't think your employers are particularly happy with you either just now, dear."
"Guess not," he agreed, though he didn't look especially worried about it. He didn't look especially anything about it, and she was somewhat sure that he should. "Why would that make us safe?"
"Because it's a secret," she said, popping a bit of bread into her mouth. "Secrets are worth something only when the person who's not meant to know doesn't. Once they do, it doesn't matter. Your friend Gottsreich isn't afraid of little old us, and he won't be worried about us once he's got the feds or the drug lords or the mob or whomever breathing down his neck, will he." He nodded his assent. "So we'll lie low in the city for a few days while Rodsild works his magic, and then once Miss Miranda is no longer a hot commodity, then Bob's your uncle and we'll go on our merry way. Ways." She did a little flourish with her fork. "Simple."
He just gave another quiet "hmm" in response. The waitress appeared then with a plate in each hand, setting their meals in front of them, and then returned with the glass of wine. Irene sipped it experimentally and then set about squeezing the lemon wedge over her fish, but Harrow just poked his fork into the little mound of cole slaw beside the sandwich, then appeared to think better of it and set it down. Then he said "Secrets," as though there had been no interruption, making it sound like both a sentence and a question.
"Very valuable form of currency, don't you think?" she said with a nod, taking another sip. "They never depreciate or go out of style. Everyone's got a few they want to protect; everyone wants someone else's. People think it's always just about money or sex, and most of the time it is, but when it's not, there's still always something else they don't want you to know."
"That's what you do," he said, now tipping the salt shaker back and forth with one hand. She chuckled appreciatively.
"Secrets are what I do? Well, you've got a point there," she agreed. "I suppose I'm a dealer of sorts, aren't I—finding, buying, selling. Bit safer than drugs, bit quieter than art, but just as pricey and exciting."
"Hmm. Nice slogan." This time she was fairly sure he was making fun of her, but she found that she liked it. It was familiar.
"It rather is." She ate another few mouthfuls and he went back to gazing out the window. Her phone chimed all of a sudden, and they both glanced at it automatically. "Excuse me," she said, only slightly ironically, and picked it up to read the text message. It was just another job offer, nothing special, and as she was intending to stay off the radar as much as possible for the time being, she ignored it, setting the phone back down on the table. "Nothing," she said lightly, in response to his inquisitive look. "Just a bit of work nonsense."
"You don't think they're tracking you with that?" he asked, and though his tone wasn't challenging, she didn't have to ask who "they" were. She gave him a reproachful look.
"It's prepaid. And you don't think I know how to scramble a signal and divert it to random cell towers? Honestly." Compared to all the things he'd seen her do on their jobs together, that was child's play. "Secrets indeed." He ducked his head slightly, and she saw another near-smile. Then she said "Funny, isn't it; if my job is finding secrets, then yours is hiding them, for good."
He looked back up at her. "What do you mean?"
"Well, isn't that usually why people hire you? If they're bothering—" she glanced over her shoulder at the occupants of the other tables, realizing that this conversation was likely best kept between just the two of them, and dropped her voice by a half-octave "—if they're bothering to have someone gotten rid of, it's probably because they've got something to hide, either something they did or something they know. Dead men tell no tales and all that sort of thing." She looked at him inquisitively, but he didn't reply. "Or you tell me," she continued. "What sorts of reasons do your employers have for giving you a call?"
Now he was absorbed in watching the light golden liquid in her glass as it shifted with the train's movements. "I don't ask," he said after a beat. "Don't need to know."
"Ever?" She had been wondering if her case was somehow unique; if he hadn't bothered asking the details because he'd worked with Gottsreich before and had his assumptions about why he would want someone killed, or maybe even because he found the idea of going after a woman distasteful and wanted to know as little as possible. Wasn't that how most of them operated? But now he was making it sound as though he simply didn't care about any of it. "What, they just tell you when and where and you tell them how much and that's the end of it?"
"Sometimes." He still wasn't looking at her and didn't seem inclined to say more, but her curiosity was mounting.
"Is that what happened with me? He just said 'here's the room number, shoot anyone who walks in and call me when you're done'?" She realized that she was slightly offended by the impersonality of it all. "Incidentally," she added, now starting on the wild rice medley, "may I ask how much my life's going for these days? As I said I'd double it, I think I've the right to know."
He told her. It was all she could do not to drop her fork in surprise. Far from being an expert on these matters, she was still entirely sure that it should've been far higher than that. "And were you running some sort of fire sale at the time?" she asked when she'd recovered her voice, this time slightly less concerned about the impact of the word.
Again, no reaction. "That's what he offered."
"He offered?" she repeated, taken aback. "You let the client name your price? You don't set your own?"
"Do you?" he asked, and now he looked up at her again with startling directness. She was far too affronted by the question to feel disarmed by it, however. She was aware that considering the terms of their reunion, she shouldn't approve of his line of work at all, but at the moment she was more disturbed by what she considered a distinct lack of professionalism. If he was going to do it, he ought to do it right, just as he'd done with their work before. What was the difference, really?
"Of course," she answered, rather impatiently. "Though it all depends on the type of job, who's involved, how important they are and how many, how long it'll take, all of it."
"You charge a lot?" His tone wasn't directly accusatory, and yet she thought she could hear a suggestion of derision, disapproval of the implicit greed in her words. She reached hurriedly for clarification.
"Sometimes, yes. But often it's not about the money at all, it's about the job itself. The challenge, the outcome." She noticed she was sliding her thumb and forefinger languidly up and down the stem of her glass as she spoke. "The impact. Some of them I just do for fun. I spent nearly four months under last year on one and I hardly made a thing in the end."
"Four months?" His brow creased, and she realized how foreign it must sound to him, now that he was used to jobs that probably took a few hours each at most. Somehow, taking away all the work, the background research and the stakeouts and the planning, made it seem far less elegant to her, but it seemed that he didn't care about that anymore either.
"Yes, indeed." It was childish to brag, perhaps, but normally she didn't have anyone to tell, and that was part of the fun, really. "You may have heard about it, actually—that novelist and his wife? Sparks? They had quite a surprising and nasty divorce; it was rather a scandal, or so they said." He just looked blank, and she considered, with a twinge of annoyance, that he was unlikely to keep up with that sort of gossip. She took another sip of wine. "Well, it was a rather arduous process, and in the end I didn't take home very much, but it certainly wasn't boring."
"What did you do?" he asked. She gave him a very direct look.
"What do you think?" she replied bluntly. "What wrecks a relationship more than anything else?"
He was silent for a moment, and she realized he was actually thinking about it, as though pressed for an answer on a quiz show. "Death," he said.
She gave a laugh that was nearly a scoff. "Well, I suppose that's up there too, yes, if we're being literal about it," she admitted. "I was referring to betrayal, however. Jealousy. I've found that everyone wants at least one thing they can't have."
"Not everyone gives in," he said, so softly that she nearly had to lean in to hear. "Some people are good." She made a dismissive gesture.
"Sooner or later, they all do," she countered. "My theory is that everyone is a potential scoundrel. Temptation's the only way you find out who someone is."
He watched her for another long moment. "So which one was it? With the writer and his wife."
She decided not to explain that she had actually been hired by one of the man's competitors to dig into his life and find something salacious to damage his annoyingly wholesome and highly profitable public image. When she found no devilry whatsoever of note, she had decided to create some, and thought the resultant brouhaha had been larger than her employer could ever have hoped for, he didn't think much of her initiative and paid her rather little in the end. But it had been fun. "Both," she said, quite clearly.
He raised his eyebrows briefly, but made no other clear acknowledgment of her meaning. In the past, she realized, he would've blushed. "That your biggest job?" he asked.
"Well, it wasn't the highest-paying. If you mean 'most interesting,' then...well, no again," she replied thoughtfully. "It was fun, certainly, but it's usually the political ones that are the most..." She traced her finger around the circular base of the wine glass as she tried to think of the right word. "Consequential. The ripples go farthest and widest, if you will." He continued watching her as if expecting for her to elaborate, but she'd said plenty; it was his turn, she decided. "So what about you? What was your biggest job?"
"In what way?" He looked down again. She still couldn't read how he felt about what he did. He certainly didn't seem to enjoy it very much, and yet he was utterly matter-of-fact about it once she asked the right questions, it seemed. She set her fork down and sat back in her seat, tapping her fingers lightly against the edge of the table and trying to decide what she most wanted to know. Her jobs varied more in style and content and results, but his all ended exactly the same way—except for one, of course, so far.
"Body count," she said finally, choosing the most sinister qualifier and wondering if he would tell her. "What's the most you've ever done on one job?"
He made a soft 'tck' sound with his tongue and then looked up at her. "Thirteen."
Her eyes widened; she couldn't help it. She hadn't quite been expecting that. "Goodness," she said. "What, did an entire jazz combo get on someone's wrong side?"
He shook his head. "Gang," he said. He reached out to the yellow rose on the table and touched its petals with a finger. "Family business."
"Family? What, you mean like those D'Alessios in Philadelphia last year?" She picked up her fork again, and she glanced back up at him when he didn't reply. "What—you mean it was them? That was you?" He just looked back her and inclined his head slightly. "By yourself? Are you joking?" she asked, though she knew he wasn't; he wouldn't, not like that. She couldn't help looking over her shoulder again; his voice was still soft, and yet she half-expected to see everyone else in the car stock-still and staring at the two of them in horror, forks frozen cartoonishly halfway to their mouths. It was an astonishing thing to consider, and yet as the details of the story came back to her, it began to make a perverse sort of sense; she could nearly picture him there. She almost had to wonder how she couldn't have recognized the familiar details, knowing him as she had.
The case had been something of a sensation in the news, at least for a while, she remembered, not only because of its shockingly high death toll but because there were virtually no leads on the killer or killers, not a scrap of solid evidence. The details were hard to forget: a family well known for many siblings and for their extensive illegal activity had been killed in their own backyard, right out in the open. They'd been celebrating one brother's release from prison and an unseen sniper had opened fire on their party, picking them off one by one, so fast they hadn't had time to run. They'd found one sister with an ice cream cone still clutched in her hand. It had been assumed to be a gangland killing, revenge for something or other the family had done by someone they'd offended, but the feds couldn't seem to wrangle a word from anyone. Irene, for her part, hadn't been surprised at that; who in the world would talk under those circumstances? "I see," she said, when she realized she'd been silent for a bit too long. "I do hope that one fetched a decent price, at least." He didn't answer, and she couldn't resist asking: "Why? Why were they—why did they hire you? You had to have asked with that one. With something of—that size."
He gave a meaningless gesture with his head. "Business," he said, in a flat tone. "That's all it is. For me. I don't need their secrets."
Irene took a ponderous drink of wine, trying to swallow that grim pronouncement and trying to decide how she ought to feel about it. She was aware of the facts of it; it was monstrous, what he'd done, to be sure, inhuman, beyond anything they would've done as a group—or was it? When she thought back and compared, suddenly it all seemed a bit more gray, the whys behind the whens and wheres. She'd seen them all kill more than once, certainly; it had just been part of the job a lot of the time—sometimes it was the job. But what he'd done, what he'd continued to do…it occurred to her that he could probably give her a precise total, the exact number of people he'd killed since they last met, or possibly in his entire life. He seemed the sort of person to keep track. She was sure that someone else, probably everyone else, would feel conflicted, disturbed, even appalled at what he'd done, but all she could manage was a cold, detached sense of relief.
In fact (the images came rushing back all of a sudden, as they were wont to do that day, it seemed), she could still remember her first one, her first direct kill by her own hand. It had been one of their very first jobs as a group, a fairly simple heist in Los Angeles. They'd made it out of the vault and through the doors and were moving swiftly back to the van at the corner when they'd heard a shout from behind them, and Irene had turned and fired without hesitation. The uniformed man had dropped on the spot, and Darmody had had to yell for her twice before she turned back and grabbed his hand, allowing him to pull her inside before he slammed the doors. In the front, Black floored it and hurtled them off into traffic, and Darkholme had squeezed her knee and said "Good job. That was really good. You all right?" Harrow had given her a small, understanding smile from where he sat across from her, and Irene had smiled gaily back and assured both of them that she was perfectly fine, and she'd meant it, but then realized that she was gripping the gun tightly enough to leave an impression in her palm. Darkholme had eased her fingers off, but the mark lasted for days. She hadn't thought about that day in years.
"I suppose you don't," she said now, her voice light and casual. "Just good sense to keep things tidy." She glanced at his plate. "Wrong sort of bread?"
"What?" He looked down at his untouched sandwich. "Oh. No. I'm not hungry."
"Are you sure? This is actually quite good." She gestured at her own plate with her fork. "Sure you don't want a bite?" He just shook his head. "Suit yourself." She had hoped the change of subject would make him think she was utterly indifferent to what he'd just said, but then for some reason found that she wanted to keep discussing it. "Well, I was right, then, wasn't I." He gave her a quizzical look. "You're still one hell of a good shot."
He just went "hmm" yet again, and this struck her as being rather suggestive; even that seemed to give him no joy at all now. She took another bite of fish and then said "Do you like it? What you do?"
His brow creased, and he was silent for so long that she began to think he wasn't going to answer. Then he said slowly, "Maybe. Parts of it."
"I'd think it's the sort of thing that requires commitment, perhaps. It's a bit more than an idle pastime." His mouth twitched in gesture of indifference. "No? Not for you?"
"Don't know," he said again. "Don't have to think about it much."
"I see," she said, and then realized that she did. All lives ended; no matter how complicated or full, it was always the same. For someone who could do what he could, it must have been the simplest thing in the world. He knew how to make death obedient to him. "I suppose it's the in-between bits that are the challenge."
He nodded. With the air of someone unable to find anything but the simplest words for a thing, he said "It's…all just killing time." She took this in slowly, in stages: she'd meant that the hardest part was evading capture, but he seemed to have indicated something altogether different. She was just finding her way to the core implication of this when he asked "Do you?"
"Do I—like what I do?" He nodded. "Yes." It came easily. "It's what I'm good at. I'd think we like anything we're good at, at least to some degree."
He gave the most halfhearted of shrugs. He looked out the window for another few minutes as she ate and she again thought he was done with the subject, but then he said "I liked what we did. Before."
Irene's heart sank slightly; they had arrived back in the past. She supposed it was unreasonable to think they could avoid the topic for very long, but she would've preferred to, all things considered. "So did I," she admitted, because she couldn't see the harm in saying it. "It—there certainly was never a dull moment."
"No," he said, in what she assumed was agreement. He seemed to struggle mightily to find his next words. "I wish—" He didn't finish it.
It seemed like the right moment to drop her gaze wistfully, and so she did. "I know," she said, although she wasn't precisely sure what he meant; it could've been one of many things. Then, on a whim, she reached out and laid her fingers lightly over his right hand lying on the table. He startled, looking down at the spot where they touched. "So do I."
He said nothing else, and she removed her hand after a moment. She wondered if he believed her, only realizing after several minutes that it was, in fact, probably rather true.
It was late when they returned to their tiny bedroom, and Harrow carefully locked the door, then moving restlessly around the room, idly inspecting the low sink and the cabinet above again. Irene rifled through her bag—she only had one, a small black affair in which she carried her computer, her gun, money, a few passports, clothes and not a good deal else. It made it easy to disappear quickly when she needed to, which was often. She then began undressing, removing her shoes with a sigh and unzipping her dress, the black McQueen with the cowl neck. She'd bought it in Luxembourg on the job before D.C., and she would discard it after she'd worn it once more. The window was a wide black mirror in the harsh fluorescent light, and as she faced it she could see him behind her, turning away quickly as she started to slide out of her clothes. He'd seen her in far less, of course, as had the others; after a while they had all seemed to stop caring about such things, but Harrow had usually at least made a point of averting his eyes politely. She slipped into a simple t-shirt and a pair of yoga pants; she was fond of sleeping in nothing at all, but that seemed like a bit much, under the circumstances. She began to pull the pins from her hair, one by one, and she thought she saw his shoulder turn very slightly as she shook her head and let brown waves fall down her back.
After a few minutes, she turned and cast a critical eye over the fold-out beds. "Let's see," she mused, looking around the sides for the appropriate button. "No, close but no cigar..."
Harrow took a half step closer and hovered vaguely around her shoulder. "Do you want me to—"
"No, no, I'll sort it," she said, now crouching down in front of the seat. "I think it's...just here..." She spotted a bar running along the underside of the seat, and she grabbed it and pulled. Instantly the seat slid out flat into a bed, knocking her backwards into his knees. "Pardon me," she laughed, and he automatically extended a hand to help her up. "Hmm, and they say chivalry's dead. And so I guess that means this one..." She reached over her head and took a hold of the handle over the seat, and in a moment had pulled down the second berth, stacked neatly over the first, already made up with a scratchy-looking blue blanket. "Lovely." She turned to him and gestured somewhat grandly. "Have a preference?"
He looked at both beds in apparent trepidation, and then shook his head, sitting down on the armchair next to the window. "No," he said. "I'm fine here."
"What? Harrow, for heaven's sake." She lifted both hands in an exasperated gesture and rested one on the upper bed. "I'm not bothered, really; it's your choice. You've got to sleep somewhere."
"No, it's—" He glanced at her briefly, and she noticed his fingers drumming uneasily on the chair's arm. "Here's better." She looked at him, waiting for more, but once again, he didn't offer it, just looked down and away from her, at the floor.
"You...don't like to sleep in a bed?"
"No," he said, sounding highly uncomfortable and staring at the ugly gray carpet. "Not anymore."
"Oh." She tapped her red nails on the bed frame for a moment. "Well, all right then, whatever you like." She looked back at the two beds and instantly decided on the top; she was likely going to get a poor enough night's sleep anyway without being directly in his eyeline and two feet away. As she shoved the bottom berth back into a seat, he added "Safer that way. Makes it easier."
"Easier to what?" she asked absently, her back to him.
"Protect you," he said. She turned sharply. "Like you asked me to."
She stared at him. It sounded so unnatural as to be almost funny, or possibly insulting. It was so far from the way she was used to living her life, and yet she supposed that technically was what she had asked of him. But that had been a halfhearted smokescreen at best; just an excuse to save her own life. She was just playing the game. Was he really taking it seriously; was this more than just a payoff to him? Somehow the words hadn't sounded condescending when he said them; somehow she knew he actually meant them. She felt that same old flare of strange frustration that she used to feel when he did that, abruptly said things that were so oddly honest, almost naïve. She couldn't help thinking he should know better; he shouldn't be so trusting. Certainly not now.
"Right," she said. "Yes. That's true." She went digging around in her bag again, just to have something to do, and took out her P230, along with the rather insipid book she'd been reading on the flight to Vegas and a phone charger with an extra-long cord. She plugged the jack into the wall and attached the other end to her phone, which she placed beside the other two items on the bed, and then leapt nimbly up into it and tucked the gun under her pillow and the phone next to it, sure that he was watching.
She lay back and attempted to relax, but the linens had an odd, chemical smell to them, and nothing of the book's plot really seemed to stick. She was extremely aware of Harrow sitting there, quiet and unmoving and alert, every bit the bodyguard she'd pretended to need. After a while he stood up and unbuttoned his blue shirt, removing it and laying it neatly on the seat in front of him and revealing a white t-shirt underneath. She could see further scarring on his left shoulder and down his upper arm. He made no further progress in undressing, but she thought she remembered his body—slim, taut like a swimmer, though now he looked thin and wiry. When he turned, she could see his nine stuck in his waistband around the back, and he pulled out the gun and set it carefully on the vent under the window as he sat back down. He then began to take it apart and then reassemble it with movements that were quick and practiced, and yet meticulous, nearly reverent. She had no trouble recognizing the habit.
Irene rolled onto her side and closed her book over her finger, watching him at it for a few minutes before speaking. "Did you have that on you all day? In the dining car and all?"
He looked up at her. "Yeah," he said, with a slight emphasis, as though the idea of going unarmed was unthinkable. She just shook her head and then pretended to go back to her book, but then looked over at him again.
"Incidentally," she said, as though it had only just occurred to her, "were you planning on killing me in my sleep and scarpering? Just thought I ought to ask." She had her own gun and she knew that he knew it, but that hardly meant she was safe, not from him.
He pushed the magazine into place with a click. "No," he said. "I wouldn't do that."
"Against your code of ethics, is it?" she asked. "That's comforting, I think." She fell silent, thinking it over; she wasn't entirely sure what that meant. Perhaps he liked them to be aware of what was happening to them, even if just for a moment. It was surely either kindness or sadism. He set down the gun again and rubbed his face tiredly, and she wondered again what it felt like, if it still hurt. She bent her elbow, leaning her head against her hand, and said "So d'you wear that thing to sleep as well?"
"What?" She gestured to her own eye with the other hand. "No." When he saw that she was still watching him, eyebrows raised expectantly, he half raised his hand and then asked "It won't—bother you?"
She chuckled. "I've seen far worse," she assured him. After another moment's hesitation, he reached up and, with a quick, practiced gesture and a nod of his head, let the eye fall into his hand. She leaned over, looking over the edge of the bed in interest, and then extended her right arm down to him. "May I?"
He looked from the thing in his palm to her extended hand, and then up at her. After a moment he stood; the room was small enough that he didn't need to step forward as he placed it in her hand, their fingers brushing. It was surprisingly warm to the touch, and made of some kind of hard-as-nails synthetic, rather than the glass she'd been expecting. It wasn't a sphere, either, but curved like a dish, slightly off-white and detailed with hair-thin veins, the iris painted to match his remaining eye. "Goodness," she said softly, and she had a sudden, absurd mental image of a room somewhere full of tiny paint bottles, shelves and shelves of every possible hue there was. Somehow they'd managed just his shade of sharp hazel. "Is it terribly uncomfortable to wear? I'd think perhaps."
"Not anymore." She looked up and saw that he was watching her almost nervously, as if he was still expecting her to react with disgust to the object in her hand or to the sight of his undisguised face, but she felt nothing of the sort and merely turned it over in her fingers, then handing it back. Apparently reassured, he held the eye up by the tips of his fingers on his left hand, closing the other hand over it, seemingly taking it into his right. Then he dropped the left by his side and held up the right, opening his fingers to reveal an empty hand.
She laughed outright, and the sound surprised her; it was almost girlish. It was just the sort of thing they would've done back in the day, just the sort of macabre humor they all seemed to share. They were forever trying to out-repulse one another, comparing scars and telling gruesome stories from the field, and it somehow always ended in laughter. Those clever hands of his. "That's very good," she told him. "You should do that at children's parties. Where'd it go?"
"Can't tell you," he said, a shy smile appearing against his will, it seemed. It was an odd thing, rather crooked because of the scars tugging on one side, and yet all the more amiable for it. "Magic."
"I'm not going to find it in my ear or something, am I?"
"I hope not." He glanced at her again, their faces just about level, and this time they held each other's gaze for a moment, his eye moving methodically over her face again, as though reading, or perhaps memorizing her. It might have been the combination of the t-shirt and his boyishly disheveled hair, or maybe it was just a trick of the light, but she thought he looked strangely youthful all of a sudden. She wondered if he had been the youngest of them; she had never asked. He had been handsome, though, she realized, remarkably so.
He dropped his gaze abruptly after a beat. "Sorry."
"What for?" He didn't answer, merely sat back down on the armchair without looking at her. She let another half-minute go by in silence and then said "Well, I'm knackered." She sat up and reached for the light switch on the wall. "Mind if I turn this out?" He shook his head. In a moment the room was dark, and then seemed to fill slowly with moonlight as her eyes adjusted to the glow from the window. Then she lay on her back, looking up at the smooth, flat ceiling. The mattress was thin and hard and the pillowcase was rough, but there was still something oddly soothing about the swaying of the train and the steady, thrumming sound of its wheels.
She heard him shift slightly in his seat, and there was silence for another ten minutes or so. She could scarcely hear him breathing. Then he said, quietly, "Irene."
It was the first time he'd said her name. "Yes?"
"Do you think…we'd still be together?"
She was quiet for a long moment as the words settled within her; there were too many meanings and not nearly enough answers for them all. "I don't know," she said finally. "Maybe. Though I think something else would've done it in the end." She turned onto her side, putting her back to him. "I've found that it's best not to think about it, really."
He didn't reply, and she didn't hear him move again. She thought she'd lay awake all night, but eventually she dropped off, listening to the heartbeat of the train and her own breath. She couldn't tell when her thoughts became dreams; when her memories whirred to life like a film reel and took her back there again. She didn't dream very often lately and remembered them upon waking even less, but she had a sense that they were always the same: quiet voices and then screams; moonlight and sudden burning light.
Fourteen months ago
The job so far had been every bit as challenging as it had appeared to them back in the café in Oslo; they'd started work as soon as they landed, running down vague leads and trying to attach names to rumors and faces to names. As predicted, however, it proved difficult to find anything concrete at all, as Bohemia worked in such carefully-enforced secrecy; even when they came across someone who knew something, it often required a great deal of combined bribery and threats to get anything useful out of them.
Winchester, however, turned out to have a few old Marine buddies who now worked in Border Patrol, and Black, unsurprisingly, was able to call in a few favors from former associates of rather questionable virtue that he'd managed to track down. After spending a few days in clandestine meetings in back alleys and on darkened street corners, one informant led to another and to another, and they managed to affirm that a few more-or-less confirmed members of Bohemia had indeed been seen meeting at a certain dingy bar on Dyer Street in the so-called Devil's Triangle neighborhood in recent days. The six of them had discussed the matter while sitting in the diner behind their Motel 6, squeezed into a corner booth with their heads close together.
"We've got to get in close if we're gonna find out anything else," Winchester told them gravely, ignoring his sad-looking slice of pecan pie as the jukebox across the room droned its top-forty country hits. "If they're already in town and meeting more than once in the same spot, that says it's gonna be soon, and probably right around here. They won't hang around for too long ahead of time; that'd attract attention."
"But that means they're really going to keep things quiet," Irene pointed out. "If they're moving faster than the speed of rumor, I suppose, then no one on the outside is going to have time to hear anything specific."
"So we go from the inside out, then," Black said, taking another swig of coffee from the chipped white mug and making a face. "If they're keeping everything inside their little circle of trust, that's where we've got to be."
"We could try to buy our way in," Darmody offered. "Act like a green little nobody of a dealer and offer them some stupid low price for a kilo. Let 'em think we're some dumb kids trying to break into the big time, like someone who'd make a good gofer or scapegoat if the deal goes bad. Or we're from one of the smaller Mexican gangs and we'll offer 'em some inside info if we can get on their side before the buy."
"But how long would that take?" asked Darkholme. "To get deep into the group? They're not just going to trust some new person right away. They'd test you a lot. It'd take, like, ass-ever to really get in there, at least enough to get in on this big buy. Besides, I don't really think my Spanish is convincing enough." She looked over at Harrow, the only other member of the group, as it had turned out, who was reasonably proficient in the language. "What about you?" He pulled a doubtful expression.
"Not enough to sound like a local," he admitted, sipping from his own mug. "It's just from school." Black grinned mischievously and slung an arm around Harrow's shoulders.
"And no offense, mate, but I wouldn't buy a baby aspirin off of you anyway," he said fondly. "You've a great many talents, but you are entirely incapable of insincerity. I think they'd be a bit suspicious if you walked in there and said 'excuse me, would you possibly like to purchase some narcotics, por favor? We're raising money to go to Disneyland.'"
Harrow ducked his head slightly and smiled as the others laughed. "Well, okay, we don't have to go direct," Darmody jumped in, from Harrow's other side. "We can keep an eye on them without them knowing we're there, can't we?"
"You want to bug them?" Winchester asked shrewdly. "You mean in the bar?"
"Sounds simple enough," Darkholme said fairly. "Just do like we did in Cairo, send in the wonder twins to set it up—" she jerked a thumb at Harrow and Darmody, who were too used to this nickname by now to react "—and have Irene logged in a few doors away. We'll hear everything."
"Yeah, but we'd have to mic the whole place; they're probably not dim enough to sit at the same table every time," Black pointed out. "It'll take us forever to sort through it all and get to anything useful."
"And they can't just be working by word-of-mouth," Irene said. "If they're this good, then they're certainly not just whispering secrets back and forth in a bar; they're too efficient for that."
"But there's no way they're writing anything down," Darkholme, sitting beside her, turned to look at Irene with a slight grimace of frustration. "At least not in a way that anyone else could get to."
"So there's also no point in me trying to get into anyone's e-mails or phone records, you mean?" Irene asked ruefully, and then nodded. "Well, they've got to be communicating en masse somehow."
"Text messages?" Harrow suggested. "Prepaid cells; you don't need a contract, so the phone companies don't keep the records. Once they throw them away, there's nothing left to show anything they sent or who they called." He looked around at the others, and Irene, who had been waiting for someone else to suggest this, grinned encouragingly at him and nodded. He smiled back and then dropped his gaze to the table again, for some reason going faintly pink.
"Can you do that phone-spying thing again?" Darkholme asked Irene, turning to look at her again. "Where we can see what they're doing in the moment?"
"That could work, yeah," Irene said carefully. "I suppose we'd need to figure out who's important and who has the most information, or receives it, but if we did then I could hack their mobile and we could listen in and read the messages. And it'd work as a decent tracking device as long as they kept it turned on," she added. Winchester nodded his approval.
"OK, that's good," he said. "Can you do it remotely?"
"Well, no, that's the problem," she said, making sure to give a regretful wince of her own. "We've actually got to be there and download the spyware onto their phone itself. It only takes few minutes, though."
"Hmm," said Black thoughtfully. "Sounds like a job for our Mata Hari, doesn't it." He nodded invitingly in Darkholme's direction, and she grinned back at him. They then turned their attention to suitable methods of deception, and three days later, Darmody slouched into the Dyer Street bar, Manny's, alone with a ball cap pulled low over his eyes. He sat at the far corner of the bar and sat sipping a beer for ten silent minutes. Then Darkholme sailed in, wearing an Arizona State t-shirt and a skirt, and threw herself onto a stool on the other side of the bar. She hefted her knockoff designer bag onto the bar with a thud and an aggrieved sigh, and pulled out a smartphone.
"Fucking thing," she muttered audibly, pummeling the buttons with considerable hostility. "Can I get a kamikaze?" she called loudly to the bartender, running a hand back through her blonde hair and tossing it so that her large earrings swayed. A few seats down from her, a fortyish man with greasy dark hair looked over in semi-interest. Darmody, watching closely from the other side, raised his beer to his lips again and said, very quietly, "That's him. She's got his attention." From everything they'd seen as they took turns sitting on the place over the past few days, they gathered that this man was at least somewhat important in the organization—he seemed to send and receive a lot of messages, at least, and met with a number of shady-looking characters, all of them coming to him rather than him seeking them out.
In the street outside the bar, Black dawdled on the corner, smoking and waiting for the signal from the others to go bursting in the bar, gun drawn, if need be. "Can't be too careful on this one," Winchester had told them grimly. Irene sat with the other two inside a hastily-procured SUV idling across the street, looking into the bar through the car's tinted windows. Upon hearing Darmody's words in her ear, she poised her fingers over the laptop on her knees. "Copy that," she said. "Whenever you're ready, Raven."
Inside the bar, Darkholme continued fiddling with the phone in apparent agitation. "Come on, load," she said irritably. When she glanced up and saw the man watching her, she gave an exasperated smile and said "This thing is terrible."
The others could just make out his reply over the noise of the bar through their earpieces. "Having trouble?"
"Yeah, I'm supposed to meet my friends at that casino, the Speaking Rock or something?" The man nodded and moved a few seats closer to her. Irene caught the glint of an enormous gemstone ring on his hand from her spot across the street.
"That's about half an hour from here."
"Ugh, great," Darkholme sighed. "I have no idea how to get there and I can't get this friggin' locater app to load. I swear, this thing is always so slow." She dropped the phone back onto the bar in disgust. "I seriously need to get a new one. What d'you have? Is it any good?"
In answer, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his own phone, setting it on the bar, and Irene heard Darkholme's musical laugh. "Oh, shit, that's too funny! We have the same one! What're the odds, right?"
"What indeed," he asked, and now they could hear him more clearly, hear the seductive note rising in his voice. Irene grinned to herself; no one could resist Raven. "So you're not from around here?"
"Oh, no, just a little vacation with some girlfriends," she said casually. "Just trying to blow off steam before midterms and all," As she spoke, she slid her phone over so that it was directly next to his on the bar. Irene, watching closely, said "Once you get his, be sure to give it a few minutes to fully download, all right?"
She saw Darkholme nod her head very slightly once, resting her chin on her hand as if utterly absorbed by him as the man said "...could show you ladies around town a bit, if you'd like." The bartender brought her drink over and set it on a paper napkin, and she picked it up and held it aloft.
"That sounds very interesting," she said, flashing him another ingratiating smile. "To new friends, then." The man picked up his own drink, and in that brief moment, moving so nimbly that he couldn't possibly have noticed, she slipped her arm below the bar and took his phone into her hand as he clinked his glass against hers. Then, pretending she was holding her own device, she hit a few seemingly random buttons with the merest glance downwards. Irene had taught her the appropriate keystrokes back in the motel room, and she'd practiced repeatedly until she could do it blind. "So what're the hot spots you're gonna take us to, then?" she asked, sipping casually from her drink with the other hand. Outside in the car, Winchester glanced around at Irene in the backseat, drumming his fingers rapidly on the steering wheel. The higher-tech aspects of their jobs always seemed to make him vaguely uneasy.
"How's it going?"
"Fine so far," Irene said, eyes still on the screen, listening to Darkholme and the man conversing. Harrow, sitting beside her, leaned in, to watch the laptop as well, waiting for the information to start appearing. "Just needs another minute. As long as he doesn't realize—" They had discussed this crucial part at length; he had to remain unaware that Darkholme had his phone, because even if she played off the switch as accidental, he would still be able to clearly see the monitoring program being downloaded onto it. Once it was installed, he wouldn't know it was there, but in that brief window of time, keeping him distracted was essential.
But sure enough, just as Irene said it, they heard the man say "I'll just have to make a quick call first" and start to reach for "his" phone sitting between them. Irene sucked in her breath, but before she could even say her name, Darkholme's hand shot out quick as a flash and secured his wrist before he could get there.
"Oh my god, that ring is gorgeous," they heard her exclaim, leaning over it while her other hand held tight to his phone on her lap. "It looks really expensive." Across the bar, Darmody was sitting very still, clearly watching carefully, and outside, next to the door, Black was shaking his head appreciatively. Irene heard Harrow start to chuckle beside her.
"She's good," he said, grinning. "She is very, very good." Irene smiled back, keeping her eyes on her laptop, feeling a bright spark of pride flaring warm inside her.
"You have no idea," she said. The progress bar on the screen before her finally reached the end, and she gave a quiet sigh of relief. "Done," she said. "Got it, Raven, now put it back and we'll get you out of there." She waited until Darkholme had slipped his phone back into its previous position on the bar, then hit a few more keystrokes, and hers lit up merrily and began to ring.
They both looked down at the screen. "Oh, here we go, this is my friend," Darkholme said gaily, picking it up. She hit a key and held it to her ear. "Hello?"
"Having fun, dear?" Irene asked dryly. Darkholme covered her other ear with her hand.
"What? I can't hear you; it's really loud in here. Hold on." She took the phone away and grinned beguilingly at the man. "I'll be right back, I'm just gonna take this outside. Can you order me another drink?" She slid from the stool, grabbing her bag with her free hand, and put the phone back to her ear as though continuing the conversation. When she made it outside, however, she glanced over her shoulder and waited until he turned away before hurrying across the street to where the car waited. She jumped inside and slid the door closed, and Winchester immediately shifted into drive and pulled off, heading around the corner where they would shortly meet Black and Darmody.
"That was foul," Darkholme said, dropping the bag on the floor of the car with a grimace. "He was completely drenched in Giorgio. I was about to suffocate." She climbed into the back and into the middle of the seat, squeezing between Harrow and Irene, and handed her the phone. "So it worked okay?"
"Of course. You were marvelous," Irene said, grinning at her and giving her leg a squeeze. The other two joined them at intervals over the next twenty minutes, climbing into the middle seats, both smelling of smoke. Darmody, still holding his unfinished second beer, passed the bottle back to Harrow, who smiled at him and took it. Black knelt on the seat, facing backwards, draping his arms around the headrest and grinning at Darkholme as Winchester drove off again. "That was very impressive," he told her. He did a fairly ridiculous high-pitched impression of her: "'That looks really expensive!' You must have aced Flattering Oily-Haired Drug-Dealers 101 at the Farm."
"Why, yes I did, fuck you very much," Darkholme replied, also adopting a fake, girlish voice. "Probably right around the same as…let's see, was it your fourth rejection from MI5? It's hard to keep track."
"Third, darling. You really ought to learn how to count. Though I suppose you needn't bother with maths when you have so many other talents." He tossed his shaggy dark hair in imitation of what she had done in the bar. She leaned forward and punched him in the arm, and he gave a yelp of protest, laughing. "Oh, she's cute!" Irene saw Winchester shoot them an annoyed look in the rearview mirror.
"Maybe you woulda been office mates with her," Darmody offered, jerking his head at Irene and reaching over to take a cigarette from the pack in Black's shirt pocket. "If you hadn't've washed out four times, I mean."
"Three times. And MI5 isn't the same as MI6, you twat," Black shot at him, turning around and settling into a proper sitting position. Darmody scowled at him.
"I know. But aren't they in the same building or something? With all the other MI-things? I thought it was, like…stages."
"Jesus wept." Black leaned his head back against the seat with a thump and gave the ceiling an entreating look. "Thank God you've got that fancy knife and those pretty lips, boy, or I truly don't think you'd get anywhere in life. And I didn't wash out," he added peevishly, turning to look at him again. "I just had some…bureaucratic setbacks. They seemed to take some sort of issue with my Oxford records, for one thing." Harrow, who was grinning at their exchange, leaned forward in great interest.
"You went to Oxford?"
"No, of course not." Darmody snorted. Black fished his lighter out of his jeans pocket and flicked it, holding it out to him, and then snatched the cigarette from his lips with his other hand when he leaned over. He frowned, tilting his head thoughtfully. "Perhaps that was the problem, now I think about it."
In the backseat, Irene was scrolling through the information on the computer screen, and Darkholme rested her chin on Irene's shoulder as she read through it as well. "So we've got the last fifty or so messages he sent and received," she said, pointing. "Now we just have to hope he starts talking about the sale."
"And we've got to crack this shorthand," Darkholme added, frowning at the jumble of letters and phrases on the screen. "This is all over the place, this looks like...like military acronyms meets mafia slang meets bad spy novel."
"Could be worse, could be binary code," Irene pointed out. Darkholme snorted and then slid the laptop from Irene's lap to her own and turning to Harrow.
"What d'you think, see anything familiar?" He leaned in close to her, tucking a strand of hair behind his ear.
"Yeah, I think," he said, with a pensive frown. He pointed at the screen. "That right there, that's probably 'price/cost analysis,' and that's 'close-quarters combat.' Has to do with hand weapons and that kinda thing."
"Oh, great, sounds like fun." Darmody turned around and leaned over the seat to contribute, and Irene waited until they were back at the motel and climbing out of the car before taking out her phone and writing a message:
Made a new friend today. We're officially on Bohemia's mailing list.
She had only just reentered their room and set up her laptop on the scrubbed wooden table when her phone buzzed with Ormstein's reply, and she chuckled silently to herself as she read it:
Good. Let us know the date/time of Woodstock as soon as you find out.
The rest of the evening, and indeed the next several days, were dedicated to making sense of the intercepted messages; Irene picked up on a fair bit of technological slang, and Harrow recognized a lot of bastardized military phrasing, so between the two of them they managed to decipher nearly all of Bohemia's communiqués. Once they had gleaned a good deal more information about their plans for the sale, however, the group's talk naturally turned to their own strategy.
Preventing the transaction itself was the primary concern, they decided, but they quickly concluded that they were unlikely to be deterred merely by an interruption or delay. Next, they discussed going after the product itself, postulating that the group itself was no threat without something to barter, or significantly less of one. They spent another hour around the table at the diner, brainstorming methods of finding and destroying the heroin stash beforehand, or even initiating some kind of blitz attack during the sale itself.
After about a week after the evening at the bar, though, it became clear that more definitive measures were needed. The details of the sale were falling firmly into place; Irene had picked up on several messages between their Bohemian friend and several other members confirming and repeating a certain series of numbers, and Harrow, in charge of analyzing the information she provided, spent a solid two hours writing out what Black deemed to be "dodgy algebraic shit" around the edges of an old newspaper and mouthing soundlessly to himself, concluded that it referred to a specific date and time, surely that of the sale. Soon after that, however, Irene began to see missives pinging back and forth that seemed to be lists, orders or inventories for abbreviated items that they all soon decided were weapons, all manner and caliber of guns as well as protective gear and other items, vast quantities of them.
"So it comes down to this: if they're gathering up that much hardware, they're either planning to use it or sell it," Darkholme said eventually one day, as they all sat around one of the motel rooms talking through the matter yet again. She was lying on one of the beds, upside-down with her head towards the foot and both of her feet up against the headboard. "They could be offering to throw it all in with the dope as a show of good faith or something. But they're not—"
"But we would've heard about that by now," Black interrupted. "They would've made sure that got out as one of their big selling points." He was pacing around the room as he spoke, as he always did when working through the problems of a job; a habit acquired in prison, Irene guessed. "We're hearing all this chatter—rather suspiciously a lot, in my opinion—about this great pile of lovely drugs that they're offering, but not a word about any weapons stock. Are we?" He stopped pacing and stood over Irene, who was sitting at the square Formica table at her laptop, across from Darmody, who was dismantling and reassembling his gun for the hundredth time that day. "Have you found anything else saying they've got other stuff to sell?"
"I told you already, no," Irene replied, with a touch of aspersion, looking around at him peering over her shoulder. She frowned at the screen too, absentmindedly spinning her BlackBerry in circles on the table beside the computer. "There's nothing clear about buying or selling anything, there's just lists. We're just assuming this is what they're bringing."
"But it's a lot," Darmody cut in, holding a bullet up to his eyes and scrutinizing it as he spoke. "I mean, they're practically a cartel now; they're always going to be stockpiling that sort of stuff. But in that volume, they're gearing up for something specific."
"I'd say so," Irene said. "And I still say this bit here—" she pointed to a few lines on the screen in front of her "this C-three H-five bit, that's nitroglycerin. They're planning to blow something up again, maybe that bar."
"Or all of their new friends." Black resumed his pacing. Irene could tell that he badly wanted a cigarette. "Maybe we were right in the first place and now we're just spinning our wheels here. Maybe there isn't going to be any sale at all, they're just looking to round up the competition and get rid of 'em all at once. They'll be sitting bloody ducks. Stock up, invite all the other little gangs round for tea and heroin crumpets, then blow 'em all the fuck up and move in. It's that thing, that—the simplest, the razor thing, the hell's it called—"
"Occam's razor," Harrow said absently from his spot on the other bed, breaking his characteristic thoughtful silence for the first time in half an hour. Black pointed at him with a nod.
"Exactly. All this 'low price, best quality, we're the suppliers who work for you' claptrap is just a charade. Bohemia's looking to take over, simple as that."
"But it's a huge risk, pulling a coup like that," Darkholme argued, following Black's progress back and forth across the room upside-down with her eyes. "They can't really think all these other dealers would just walk into a trap like that without at least coming armed. And the Bohemians are going to be outnumbered, aren't they?" They had started calling them that a few days after they'd arrived, and though Black pointed out that it made it sound as though they were tie-dye-wearing flower-children rather than ruthless gangsters, it had stuck. At the table, Darmody shoved the clip into his gun with a resounding click, and Darkholme looked over at him in annoyance. "Seriously? I think you've figured out where all the parts go by now."
"Sorry. I can't help it; he's driving me crazy," Darmody said irritably, nodding at the still-pacing Black. There was a point on every job, Irene had noticed, where everyone's respective restless habits starting annoying the others, a sure sign that they were all reaching the end of their patience for the planning stage. Black shot him a look, but Winchester suddenly spoke up from where he was leaning against the wall next to the bathroom, arms folded.
"Fact is, they've got a lot of dope, a lot of money, and a lot of hardware," he said flatly. "Doesn't matter why they've got it, it just matters that they've got it." He looked around meaningfully at all of them, and they all appeared to consider.
"It doesn't matter if we jam up the sale or destroy the stash; they'll just go underground and regroup," Harrow said carefully, after a moment. "And their whole thing is staying under the radar until they choose to strike—if they figure out that we know who they are or how to find them, and they will, they'll be gunning for us. That's how they operate."
Black heaved a sigh and sank down on the bed, lying on his back parallel to Darkholme with the heels of both hands pressed into his eyes. "So it seems our simplest solution is staring us in the face, doesn't it," he said. Darmody, who was still fingering his gun, apparently unconsciously, nodded.
"We take 'em out," he said decisively. Across the room, Harrow lifted his chin from his hand and looked over at him, but he didn't speak. "Find out where they're gonna be, get there first, surprise 'em. Like in Chechnya."
There was another brief silence after this as they finally allowed the fact of it to bloom in the air around them. They had done jobs of that nature several times by then, of course, but Irene always thought she felt a very slight shift when they said it outright for the first time, when they acknowledged what was always standing in the corner of the room. Then Darkholme said "That was different, though. They weren't carrying at all, and we knew exactly how many of 'em there'd be. We still don't have solid numbers on these guys, but they're clearly pretty big."
"But they won't bring the entire group to the sale," Irene countered. "That'd look suspicious. They'll want to stay spread out and hard to find."
"Yeah," Black said slowly, and then sat up again with a nod. "Yeah, exactly, so they'll be sure to bring their head guys. They're still pretending this is a sale; when you're trying to win over a new client, you don't send the junior associates, you send the CEO. For that personal touch, like."
"And if it really is just gonna be a massacre, then they'll still need to send the best ones," Winchester pointed out. "The most experienced guys, the best shooters, that kind of thing."
"So either way, we get all of their most important people in one spot at one time," Black said. He spread his hands, as though the matter spoke for itself. "Seems too good to pass up."
Darkholme sat up, swinging her legs around and resting her back against the bed's headboard. "What about the other ones? The so-called buyers? Once they show up too, we'll be insanely outnumbered—even if we're not aiming for them, I don't think they're gonna make that distinction once we start."
"But they'll come first," Irene said, still spinning her phone with a finger. "Bohemia, I mean. They'll want to be there when the others arrive to make a point. Or to set up a trap, I suppose." They'd better, she added privately. The entire thing would fail if they didn't.
"So after we take 'em out, the buyers show up and find 'em and think they've got some pretty nasty enemies," Black offered. Darmody nodded.
"Meaning none of them will probably want to deal with the ones who're left," he agreed. "So we don't have to get 'em all, just the most important guys. Then the rest will scatter. The group dies without its heart, or its brain or whatever."
"Cut the head off the snake," Irene put in, giving Harrow a sly look across the room. He gave her a surreptitious smile in response.
"So that's the plan," Winchester said, as usual putting the phrase somewhere between a declaration and a question. Despite his frequently imperious nature, he still seemed to like everyone to be in agreement on the plans for a job as much as possible, particularly with those sorts of jobs. Everyone looked around at each other and nodded, and Irene thought there was a potency of sorts to the brief silence that followed, a settling in the air around them as they made the choice together. "Okay."
"Lovely," said Black, and then it was over. He stood up in one quick motion and clapped his hands. "Now that that's sorted, can we get something to eat? I'm starving."
"So am I, now you mention it," said Darkholme, standing up as well and interlocking her fingers, pressing them outward and over her head to crack her knuckles. "Has this town got any Waffle Houses? I still want to go to one in every state."
"Man, I'm sick of that place," Darmody put in, leaning down to retie his shoes. "Let's get burgers or something." He glanced over at Harrow. "What d'you think?" Harrow just shrugged.
"Anything's fine." Across the room, Black shrugged on his leather jacket, even though it was patently too warm outside for it, and rolled his eyes at them all.
"No, come on—what's the matter with you people? We ought to be appreciating this…this cultural nerve center we find ourselves in. We ought to take advantage of the local cuisine."
"Certainly, yes," he said, and then grinned wickedly. "But for dessert, three words: tequila."
"Oh, hell no," Darkholme shot back, running a hand through her hair and retrieving her wallet from the dresser. "No way, not again. You remember what happened that time at the Guadalajara airport?"
Black frowned. "No."
"Exactly. You're not getting anywhere near that stuff again so long as I'm alive."
His eyes lit up. "Oh, come on, tell me! What'd I do? Or what'd we do, should I say? Did you ladies finally take me up on my generous offer?"
Darkholme shook her head in apparent disgust. "He doesn't even remember," she said. "I'm offended, Irenie, aren't you?" Irene looked up from her phone just in time to see Darkholme winking at her.
"Sorry? Oh—yes, very," she said, standing up and closing her laptop. "I suppose he'll just have to live in wonder forever. Sounds like fitting penance to me." She headed towards the door with the others and tucked her phone into her pocket, though not before pressing 'send' on the message she'd just typed out, reaffirming the date and time and adding the latest piece of news:
13/10, 22:00. Be early. Decision's just been made: this is a one-time only deal. We're putting our friends out of business for good.
They filed out of the motel room, and Irene slipped her arm into Darkholme's as they headed around the corner to the street. "But he's got a point; a margarita sounds excellent just now."
Somewhere in Indiana
When Irene woke, she could tell it was some time a bit after dawn. She'd always been a natural early riser, never needing more than a few hours at a time. It had driven Raven crazy. She looked around and saw Harrow still sitting upright in the armchair, but when she slid quietly out of bed and onto the floor, she saw that he was asleep, his head falling very slightly down and to the side. At a glance, though, he might've been wide awake, ready to spring into action, his gun still lying close by his side. His breaths were short and uneven, and as she watched, lines creased his face as he grimaced faintly. His hands, one on the arm of the chair and the other lying across his middle, twitched in agitation. She considered waking him, as it was clearly a less than restful sleep, but then decided against it.
Wanting to get out of the room, she slid a thin sweater over her clothes, slipping her phone into the pocket, and ducked into the bathroom to pin back her hair in a simple style, guessing that most of the train's other passengers were likely still asleep at this hour anyway. She scribbled a note to him on the back of the receipt from her book (gone to the dining car, back soon –IA) and set it on the vent under the window. Tucking the complementary newspaper under her arm, she turned to leave the room, but then stopped and reached above the door, pulling down another one of the scratchy blue blankets from the small shelf. She unfolded it partway and laid it across him, very gingerly, and he didn't wake. She turned away and left the room, closing the door silently behind her.
The train was quiet, as she'd expected, the empty corridors filled with a pale pink morning light. When she got to the dining car, only two other passengers sat inside, and a bleary-eyed young man in a blue uniform told her that the kitchen was not yet open, but she was free to help herself to coffee and donuts in the meantime. When she asked, he said that they were running on time and should arrive in New York that afternoon as planned. She filled a plastic cup with weak-looking coffee and sat by the window, reading the paper and the politics section in particular, searching for any mention or veiled reference to Gottsreich, Miranda or anything else relevant. She found nothing, though, meaning that her information, whatever it was, was still worth something.
She sat back, looking out the window as the train seemed to head straight into the rising sun and thinking. Maybe it changed things, being here with him, the way they'd found each other again under the wildest of circumstances. Perhaps it was just absurd luck, but his being there proved that the past wasn't what she had thought it was; it changed what she had done, in a way. A story she had thought was finished forever had an epilogue, it seemed, or perhaps a sequel, one she hadn't bothered to hope for.
After an hour or so, she got up and headed back down the corridor into their car. She slipped the key card quietly into the lock and pushed the door open, and when she entered the room she saw that Harrow was awake, the blanket lying in a heap on the floor in front of him. He was still sitting in the chair in his t-shirt, but he was leaning forward now, one elbow resting on his knee, his fingers braced against his temple as though in pain. He looked a bit like he was nursing a hangover, though she knew he wasn't. "Well, good morning," she said. He didn't look around. "Kitchen'll be open in about half an hour, if you're hungry. There's coffee out now, but it's dreadful stuff." She threw the newspaper onto the seat below her berth and then reached into her bag, pulling out a silky dressing gown. "I'm just going to pop in the shower, all right? So to speak."
He made no reply. She stepped into the tiny bathroom and shed her clothes, and then wrestled with the detachable shower head, trying to stand under its stream without falling over and smashing her extremities on the walls again. After fifteen uncomfortable minutes and several muttered oaths, she shut it off and toweled herself off, pulling her dressing gown around herself and putting her phone back in the pocket. Then she opened the door and stepped back out into the room with a brisk sigh. He had removed his hand from his head, but otherwise hadn't moved.
"That was very unpleasant. I'm getting a suite with an enormous bathtub in it once we get to New York. And a very comfortable armchair for you," she added, a bit cheekily. She began to dry her hair as best she could with the towel, wringing out the excess water. "And I've just remembered, you don't drink coffee, do you. You were the one who always had tea. I always thought, well, at least there's hope for one of these wretched Yanks."
She smiled slightly as she said it, but he remained silent, still not looking at her. She leaned slightly towards him. "Harrow? You all right?"
He made an inarticulate movement, half a turn towards her, but didn't quite manage it. He seemed to be on the verge of speech, then stopped. He took another breath and then said, "I do think about it. Every day."
Irene blinked. It took her several seconds to realize what he meant, that he was continuing their conversation, if it could be called that, from the night before, as though only a few seconds rather than several hours had passed since then. "That night, you mean?" she asked haltingly.
"Every day," he repeated. "It didn't make sense. It shouldn't have happened. We thought of everything. We had a good plan." His voice was strange and flatly cold, like when he'd talked about the D'Alessios, but more so.
She sighed again, this time quietly. "It was a good plan," she said gently. "I remember all the work you put in, but we still couldn't have thought of ev—"
"It didn't make sense. How they knew." He was looking at some point beyond the window, at something only he could see, it seemed. "I thought about it. Went over it a thousand times. The phones, the files, the buyers. Everything. I'd checked everything. Never made a mistake like that."
"No, you mustn't blame yourself." She set the towel on the sink and moved over closer to him, making her voice soft and earnest. "I don't blame you. I never have." Now that she was closer, she could see the change that had come over him; the tension in his hunched shoulders, the sharp lines in his face. His hair was in disarray, falling into his face, looking as though he'd run his hands through it in agitation more than once. Somehow it seemed like more than the effects of an uncomfortable night's sleep.
"After a while, I realized." It was as if he couldn't hear her at all. "It was all for us. They knew, ahead of time. They knew we'd be waiting. Because someone told. Someone was working with them the whole time."
Spiders of dread were crawling up and down Irene's spine. She inched slowly over to the window, as though she was moving up on a spooked horse, sinking down onto the seat opposite him so that they were face-to-face. "What do you mean?" she asked slowly. That was when she noticed that he was holding his nine millimeter in his right hand again, his thumb poised along the hammer, index finger lying right beside the trigger.
"The other day, when I saw you. I started to wonder. Now it makes sense." He looked up at her. The undamaged side of his face was towards the window, throwing the scarred side into shadow. He hadn't put his eye back in, and there was anguish in his face such as she'd never seen there before. "It was you," he said. "You told. The others...you killed them."
Thirteen months ago
Summer continued to hang on even after they'd been in Texas for several weeks, far more so than it had in Norway, with a determined tenacity that Irene and Black were both quick to attribute to American stubbornness. The temperature dropped considerably at night out in the desert, but as they crouched in the empty, echoing building, quiet and waiting and armed, Irene could hear the others over her earpiece shifting uncomfortably in their heavy protective black gear. The night was cloudless and moon obligingly bright, illuminating at least a mile all around, but they'd seen nothing for more than an hour; not a single car had strayed out towards the airfield. Darmody's voice suddenly crackled through: "I don't fuckin' believe this. Where are they?"
"They're not even late yet; we're early," Winchester answered tersely. "Let's keep our focus here."
Confirmation of the sale's location had come worryingly late in the process; it hadn't even been forty-eight hours ago when a new message had popped up on the cloned cell phone with a series of apostrophized numbers; they'd all breathed a sigh of relief when Harrow immediately recognized them as coordinates. A quick Internet search confirmed that they referred to an abandoned airfield nearby, just outside of town and an ideal location for covert proceedings, they noted, due to its remote location and flat, empty terrain. When Irene pulled up a satellite photograph of the space, they saw that there was also an old hangar on the property as well that the city hadn't bothered tearing down yet because of the expense, apparently, and Winchester had taken one look at it and said confidently "That's our play."
They'd driven out to the location late that night, taking great care to make sure that they weren't followed, and taken a look at the hangar: it was relatively small, only enough for one midsized aircraft. Most of the wide, square windows were broken, and weeds and halfhearted plants were growing the floor in between the mass of debris and grime that had, presumably, blown in through the open doors and been left behind by other occupants who'd previously used the space for their own matters. Winchester grumbled that a higher structure, like a radio tower, would have been more practical for their purposes and provided better visibility, but usefully enough, there was a complicated system of metal beams and rafters thirty feet over their heads supporting the roof. It looked at a glance as though it would support the weight of at least a few of them, and when they tested it, it did. They'd examined the place quickly and then headed back to the motel, where Harrow, who was handy with a pen, sketched it out on the back of a map of local tourist attractions he'd grabbed from the rack in the lobby.
The six of them stayed up late, making instant coffee and talking through strategies. In the morning, after only a few hours' sleep, Winchester and Darmody had headed out again to meet up with a supplier; now that they knew the circumstances of the job, it was time to get the accessories needed for it. They all had their own personal, favorite pieces that they carried with them from job to job, but for bigger assignments they often needed reinforcements. When the two of them returned and reversed the car into the parking spot just outside the motel room door, the others went out to meet them and Winchester looked carefully around to make sure no one was watching before he opened the trunk. The others' reactions were ones of badly-restrained furtive glee as they peered at the arsenal in the back of the car—long-range rifles, short-range pistols and plenty of ammunition. "Morbid Father Christmas has come early, it seems," Black chuckled, as Darkholme immediately reached for her preferred Desert Eagle and Harrow's face lit up, his eyes falling lovingly upon the Enfield rifle.
They decided that they would arrange themselves, three on the ground and three perched in the rafters above, on the north-facing side of the hangar, as their guests would surely be coming from the town, and pick them off as they approached through the broken and missing windows. Using the tiny shampoo bottles from the bathroom, they marked out their positions on the makeshift map; Harrow, Winchester and Darkholme seemed the obvious choices for the higher physical position, as they were the best marksmen. However, Harrow reasoned that they would be better placed on the ground, with the others providing covering fire as needed, so that they could aim for direct headshots rather than firing down onto the roofs of their vehicles, as the Bohemians would probably prefer staying inside their expensive, comfortable cars to standing around in the dry, dusty desert air as they waited. He even climbed up onto the dresser, aiming his beloved Enfield at the carpet to demonstrate the angle, and Winchester was convinced. He moved Harrow and Darkholme onto the ground with Irene, who would be monitoring the group's movements on her phone, and placing himself up above to give orders from "on high," as Black put it. "And we'll have to wait," Irene told them, "until they're close enough so that they won't have a chance to react. If we reveal ourselves too soon, they'll have time to escape or return fire." Those few seconds were essential, she reminded herself; too fast or too slow and everything would fail.
All of this, however, was contingent upon their targets actually arriving at the airfield, which at the moment was only a theory. They had indeed arrived extremely early; they'd set out from the hotel the minute the sun had finally set, not wanting to move in daylight. Once they were safely out of town and the traffic on the roads had thinned to almost nothing, they'd pulled over and changed into their dark-colored gear—official Desert Night Camouflage would have been preferable, as Winchester noted a bit grumpily, but they were long since accustomed to improvising such things—and streaked their faces with black camo paint. As the SUV set off again, Irene had started to braid her long hair, intending to pin it around her head, but Raven said "Here, let me" and Irene smiled, turning her back towards her and feeling a slight, pleasant shiver run through her at the feeling of her fingers. Black watched them in great interest, and when she finished, he ran a hand invitingly through his own messy dark hair.
"Me next?" Darkholme nodded enthusiastically at him.
"Yeah, that'll definitely happen. Just turn around—though can I see your Five-seven for a second first?" He smirked at her, placing a protective hand on the gun in the holster by his side.
"I'm not falling for that again, woman." When they arrived at the hangar, they parked around the south side, where it would be invisible to anyone approaching from the town, leaving the key in the ignition and the doors unlocked just in case. Then, after fitting in their earpieces and testing them, they assumed their spots along the north wall inside the hangar, with Winchester, Darmody and Black climbing up in onto strategically-spaced positions on the metal joists above with mountain-climbing gear they'd purchased at a sporting goods store the day before and securing themselves with makeshift harnesses—it wasn't ideal for a quick getaway, but they'd gotten out of worse.
Then they waited. Darkness fell and the moon rose into a cloudless sky. "It'll be full tomorrow," Irene heard Black murmur, with a soft, sad laugh; she couldn't begin to guess how he might know that. Long minutes became longer hours, and as the preordained time loomed closer, Irene could hear the others getting increasingly restless. Even the smallest sounds and movements seemed unpleasantly amplified over their audio monitors; she thought she could hear Darkholme clicking her back teeth rhythmically, grinding them as she sometimes did in her sleep, and Black sang absently under his breath "Mother Superior jumped the gun...Mother Superior jumped the gun," until Darmody, who by the sound of it had run out of nail and was now gnawing on the very bones of his fingers, told him to shut up. She even thought she heard Winchester drumming his fingers impatiently against the Colt M4 carbine rifle cradled in his arms. Only Harrow was silent; his motionless silhouette nearly invisible, positioned fifteen yards to Irene's right.
Just then, Darmody's disgruntled voice flared in her ear again as if she'd muttered this aloud. "Adler, you really sure about this? The date and time and all?"
"Yes," she hissed back quickly, although her doubts too were growing with every passing second. "We checked a dozen times; we saw the same message over and over. This has got to be it."
"Maybe we read it wrong," Black cut in, and Irene thought she heard a creak from the balcony over her head as he shifted his weight. "Maybe it was a code for something else and we just thought it was about this."
"It bloody well wasn't, all right?" Irene hoped distantly that they'd interpret her frustration as a response to this slight on her hacking abilities rather than anything else. She stared angrily through the broken window at which she was stationed, at the goldenly twinkling city in the distance, as if she could force them to appear on the road through sheer willpower. "They couldn't have been referring to anything else; it doesn't make sense. They'll be here. They have to be."
"But why the hell would they be late? They—" Darmody began to argue, but Winchester cut sternly across him.
"Everyone shut up. Adler, you seeing any other messages saying they changed anything?" Irene automatically checked the phone in her hand yet again, even though she knew that Winchester couldn't see her from that angle and there was no point.
"No, boss," she replied quietly. "There's nothing."
"Good." She could still hear his restless fingers. "So we wait."
The wind blew quietly through the dark, dilapidated building, lit only by moonlight. Irene listened to the others breathing right in her ear, as if they were all standing crowded over her shoulder, and finally she could stand it no longer. She put her Smith & Wesson SW99 back into the holster against her thigh and moved quietly away from the window towards the opening of the hangar, the wide, doorless space to her left that opened into the night. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Harrow react when she moved.
"Where are you going?" His voice was soft and urgent in her ear. She heard another faint creak from above and knew Winchester was looking down at her.
"My phone's being a bit spotty," she said quickly. "I think something in here is interfering; maybe there's still a frequency from when this place was still a military base or something. I can't get a good lock on their signal. If they're on their way, I should be getting a read on..." She trailed off, not sure if she needed to finish it. "I'm just going to step outside a bit to see if I can strengthen it. I'll be right back."
"Make it quick," Winchester said brusquely. "Then get back to your position. Last thing we need is for them to show up and spot us from half a mile out."
"Of course," Irene responded. Another time, she might've quipped that anyone approaching would've needed a NASA-grade telescope to spot her from that distance, dressed as she was in black in what was rapidly becoming the dead of night, and that if they couldn't spot them coming in time then they weren't much of a crack team at all, but now she couldn't muster the effort for wit. Her mouth was dry as she moved to the entryway and stepped a few paces out, wondering if she could quickly disable her earpiece without arousing the others' notice if Ormstein didn't return her text and she was forced to call him. She typed out a rapid message:
Something's gone wrong—they're not here. Did you intercept already? Where are you?
His answer came even faster than usual, as if he'd been holding his phone in his hand and waiting for her.
Are you all in position?
Irene stared at the screen in confusion, its light nearly blinding in the dark night air. It didn't seem to be a logical response at all; their position mattered far less than Bohemia's, and they were nowhere to be seen. She wrote back:
Yes, of course, but no sign of B. Where are YOU? You were supposed to be here 30 min. ago.
She barely had a moment to wonder if the stupid man had misunderstood the plan, simple as it was, before her phone buzzed silently in her hand again and lit up with his response.
Change of plans. Sorry, Apate. Nothing personal.
A bright knife of terror plunged between her ribs and she couldn't breathe, and she knew. Somehow, in less than a second's heartbeat, she knew. Days and weeks and months later, before she stopped letting herself think about it, she was never entirely sure how the whole understanding of it came crashing down on her so completely; perhaps it was instinct, or perhaps she had always known it would come to this. "No," she whispered, and she whirled around so that she was facing into the hangar again. "No, no, oh no—"
One thought flooded her mind; one word filled her mouth, and she screamed the only thing that mattered into the dark, open space. She saw Harrow's outline turn sharply at the sound, to his left, away from the window. He moved rapidly towards her, and he had just enough time to call out "Irene—?" before the first explosion shattered the night.
It originated from the ground, from somewhere around the middle of the floor. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion, as the cliché dictated, in a neatly-ordered sequence: she seemed to see his stunned face illuminated for a split second before she saw the flames; saw the fire before she heard its roar; saw him hit from the side and thrown into the wall by impossibly bright light and heard his agonized howl before she herself was hurled backwards off her feet by the force of the blast. The second explosion came from above, from somewhere in the center of the crisscrossing beams and rafters and glass and metal that couldn't really be called a ceiling, and it blew the roof up and out. The dry grass, the trash and broken lumber and detritus littering the ground inside was the perfect kindling, and within seconds the hangar was filled with a wrath of fire.
Irene landed in a heap on her back on hard, dusty earth some fifteen feet outside of the doorway to the hangar with a bone-rattling thud, eyes full of raging light, ears full of a piercing, whining shriek, every inch of her hurting, feeling the jagged glass from the blown-out windows beneath and all around her—she was surely dead; she was surely in hell, because she could still hear them, somehow; even over the hideous keening in her ears she could hear their screams, those voices that she knew so well, distorted but still distinguishable, as though they were standing right next to her, over her, crying out God and please and help and names of people she'd never met—
The earpiece. Somehow it had stayed in place and she could still hear them over the ringing and the roar; she was still connected to all of them and she was listening to them die. She scrabbled frantically at her ear with both hands, her shaking fingers grimy with dirt and oily with paint and slick with blood, and she tore out the little speaker and threw it away from her with every bit of strength she had left.
The world was ablaze in front of her eyes, orange and blue and white; she couldn't see any of them inside, though she knew they must have been there, trapped and burning. She could feel her lips moving and was faintly aware that she was still repeating no no no, though whether whispering or yelling it she didn't know. She had to get up, had to get up; she had to get inside, she had to fix it—but she couldn't; nothing would move right, she couldn't remember how to do it. Everything hurt so much. She made it to her hands and knees, feeling shards of glass piercing everywhere, coughing, gagging on dust and ash and sobs. No. No. No. Not like this.
The last thing she remembered was seeing the hole in the top of the hangar beginning to widen as the pieces fell, as the roof collapsed in on itself and the flames leaped greedily higher towards the night sky. She managed to get out one more word, the only-thing-that-mattered word, and then she was gone.
The train hurtled on, uncaring. The wheels hummed. Irene could feel their vibrations through her bare feet on the thin carpet, shivering up her body. Outside, the world flashed by in tan and white and blue and occasional streaks of green. She stared at him, and he looked right back, challenging, almost daring her to deny it. She was strangely aware of her own steady heartbeat. Then she said "That's quite a thing to say, isn't it."
"But you did," he said, and there was only the faintest note of belligerence in his voice, a very slight, tired insistent, and she realized that he wasn't asking, he was stating. "Nothing else makes sense."
"I fail to see how it makes sense at all," she fired back, trying to sound too appalled to be angry. "What possible reason could I have for conspiring with them?"
"You tell me." He hadn't quite pointed the gun at her yet, but she couldn't keep her eyes from darting to it every so often. "Why did you?"
"Harrow, you can't be serious." Now she added a note of hurt to her tone. "Why in God's name would I want everyone dead?"
"Money. Or fun," he said, putting an acid twist on the word, and she remembered what she'd said the day before. "Because you didn't care."
"So you think I found a way to contact a ruthless, highly-covert bunch of murderous drug dealers and ask to be their friend, and then invited them to blow us all up?" She gave him an astounded, wounded look. "If I wanted to kill everyone, you don't think I could've found a better way? I was in that hangar as well, as you may recall."
"And now you're here." He turned his head slightly, casting his one-eyed gaze over her again, except now it was a harsh, nearly denigrating look, as though he hated every inch of her smooth, unscarred, blood-warm flesh. She was suddenly aware of the smallness of the room again, as if its cramped dimensions were emphasizing the blasphemy of her presence, the inherent guilt in her existence.
"So are you," she shot back automatically, and he gave a quiet, harsh scoff of a laugh that he didn't need to explain. The dark, round socket looked strangely too large next to his other eye, as though excess flesh and bone had been carved away as well. She could see the clench of his jaw under the ragged skin. "It was sheer luck that I made it out; it was nothing I did on purpose. I moved outside to check my phone and that's when it happened; it wasn't planned. You must know I'd never do something like that. How can you say this?"
"You know. Don't lie anymore." There was a soul-deep weariness in his tone. "I realized. I knew…it had to have been one of us. But not you." He seemed to be talking more to himself now, his voice a mutter, his gaze unfocused. "It couldn't be you."
"And what does that mean?" she asked sharply. Was it an insult? He thought she didn't have the skills? "You're accusing me of this, but it couldn't be me—what are you saying?"
"I thought—" His eye flickered up to her again, as though he'd momentarily forgotten she could hear him. "I didn't want it to be you. Not you."
"I—" She just stared at him. Somehow, somewhere inside herself in a deep place that she had little use for, she understood that it wasn't an insult at all. For a moment she was knocked off-balance, and then her resolve clicked back into place. "Well, it wasn't. It doesn't follow at all. We were all working together; how could I have pulled that off without anyone realizing?"
"You could," he said, and the disgust was back in his voice now. His gaze sharpened and dropped to her hip, and she realized that she had, quite unconsciously, been gripping her phone through the thin fabric. So he had noticed. "You knew everything. You had access. You told us. Everything they said," he told her, and she began to realize how much consideration he'd truly given it. "The date and place and time. I got it all from you."
"It wasn't my decision," she exclaimed. Her mind had sped back up and was a hurricane of answers, and she fought to capture the right ones. "I didn't set that meeting, I just picked up on the information. I showed you everything, all of you. You saw everything that I saw, you helped to decode the messages and plan all of it—you know this, you were there."
"I saw what you showed us," he persisted. "You were the expert. You could have changed anything."
"But think about it; it's just the sort of thing they'd do. You knew them, Bohemia, didn't you? I remember, you said it that first night; you'd been up against them before, and you knew how they worked." He made a quiet noise of angry dissent, but she continued looking steadfastly at him. "And we talked about it a great deal, we guessed that they were planning a trap for the others, their buyers. It fits, you know it does." She softened her voice, as if pleading with him to see reason. "It was a trap for the others, and we walked into it, that's all."
"They weren't coming in. Into the hangar. They were meeting outside. On the airfield."
"It still could've worked, if they'd shown up. If they were close enough. It fits the pattern. That's what they did to their competition, you know that."
He didn't respond right away this time, just looked at her for another long moment, as if giving her the chance to say more. Then he said "Yesterday you said 'they knew.' You said 'they were ready for us.' You knew. It was for us." And again, it wasn't a challenge, it was a flat acknowledgment, as though he had been waiting for her to say it, waiting for her to make a mistake, to stumble into the grave she'd dug for the others. She opened her mouth automatically to respond, but then closed it again.
She looked back at him, at his rumpled dark hair, his leaden grief and his once-gentle face, and she let out a low sigh, sitting back against the blue cushion of the seat. She felt the winds die down within her and knew that it was over. There was no point anymore; he knew and nothing she could say could roll the stone back into place. She remembered the way he'd looked at her as they'd discussed it the day before, the penetrating look he'd given her as he listened to her lies. She remembered the way he'd looked asleep, the tormented crease of his brow as he'd dreamed about it yet again. She felt her shoulders sink, though she hadn't realized she'd been holding herself taut, still looking at him. There was no reason to try and protect herself anymore, because it wouldn't, she realized, make a difference anymore.
"Well," she said, in almost a whisper, "I did say that everyone has their secrets."
He exhaled sharply as though she'd hit him, as though despite his conviction he was still shocked to hear her say it out loud. He brought his free hand to his head again and clutched, apparently unconsciously, at a handful of hair. "Why?"
"It's not at all what you think," she said, very distinctly. She leaned forward again and looked at him as intensely as she dared. "I certainly wasn't trying to kill anyone. No one was meant to be hurt at all. It—it went wrong."
"You trusted them? When you knew—" She cut him off with a brisk shake of her head.
"No, I didn't. That's what I'm telling you, I had nothing to do with Bohemia at all." He looked at her with deep mistrust, and she pressed on. "At least, as far as I knew at the time. It was someone else."
"Someone I used to work with." She blinked; it took every ounce of strength she possessed to keep looking levelly at him. Just thinking about him made her feel slightly ill—how could she not have known? She had gone over it and over it since then and it still didn't come out even. "Chap called Ormstein; we met on an assignment years ago. He was with the DEA."
His expression twisted into confusion. "DEA? But they..." He shook his head. "Why them? They didn't want it."
"Well, he didn't quite work for them in the traditional sense," she said carefully. "I suppose you could say he was affiliated with many different operations. Not unlike myself at the time. He'd team up with just about anyone for the right—under the right circumstances."
His brow furrowed again, as though it was a riddle. "He was corrupt," he said after a beat. She almost wanted to laugh at the strange fastidiousness with which he said it.
"That's one word for it."
"You told him about us?"
"Not in great detail. I mean to say, I didn't tell him who everyone was. I…simply alerted him to the fact that our team was privy to a fairly large operation with some important people. And quite a lot of product," she said, and now she realized that she was twisting her diamond ring around and around her finger as she spoke. "We had the information, but he had the far better resources."
"And?" Of course he would want every detail, she thought. He was always so fucking precise.
"And we made a bargain," she continued. Her wet hair felt heavy and cold between her back and the seat, but she didn't move. "I told him the details of the sale, and he was to show up with his men that night and bust them, so to speak."
"While we were there?"
"Hopefully before we put our plan into action, yes. He'd say he had a confidential informant, and we were just to think that they'd been keeping their operation quiet. They'd arrest them, ostensibly, and they'd take everything into evidence."
"The drugs?" She gave something like a shrug. "For what?"
"I couldn't precisely say. To sell, to trade, something of that nature. Something profitable, at least."
He studied her face for a moment, then gave a slow, single nod. "And you'd get half."
There it was again, that note of derision he'd had when they'd talked about jobs the day before, when he'd asked if she charged highly for her services, except now it was sharper; she could practically taste the bitterness of it in her own mouth. "Not quite half," she said evenly. "But yes, that was the essential idea."
He was shaking his head again, faintly. "Then why?" he asked again. "Why was it a trap?"
"I don't know." He made a quiet noise of contempt and turned his face away, towards the window, the scarred side towards her.
"I'm not. Harrow, I'm not. I don't know what happened." She could hear the insistence in her voice and didn't understand it where it had come from or why it was there. The truth tasted strange in her mouth; she would never have guessed it would feel so similar to lying. There was the same push of urgency, the same peppery need to make him believe, and it didn't make sense—why did it matter? She leaned forward again, trying to recapture his gaze, a fist clenched on her knee. "I was as surprised as you were; I couldn't have guessed he'd go back on our deal."
"He wanted us all dead," he said, managing to both correct her understatement and reiterate his disbelief that it had been as she said. "Why?"
"I suppose because 'everything' is better than 'slightly more than half of everything,' isn't it," she replied. "And I suppose he saw us as rather a significant threat. But I am telling you, I never could have guessed that he'd do such a thing. I knew him, or I thought I did. I'd worked with him in the past."
"Then maybe he just wanted you." He gave her another cold look as he said it, and she knew what he meant: whether she'd planned it or not, if she'd worked with him at all, by his reckoning she was the only one who deserved such a fate.
"Perhaps. But I rather doubt it," she returned coolly. "He would have known that I told all of you everything that I knew. And we'd earned ourselves a bit of a reputation by that point, hadn't we. He certainly wasn't the first to come after us. We made plenty of enemies; I suspect that he knew all about us and the sorts of things we did."
"You never found out." Again, it was half-question, half-statement. "Never went after him."
"Went after—for God's sake, he wanted to kill me. He thinks he did kill me. I'm supposed to call him say 'I'm not dead, let's have dinner and a chat about why you blew us up'?"
"You could have. Found him." She heard the blackness of revenge in his tone; no doubt he considered it the noble thing to do. She felt a flare of hostility lick her insides that was quite separate from her generic dislike of anyone who held a gun on her; it was such a naïve thing to suggest, a stupidly romantic ideal, just the sort of thing he liked to say.
"Well, I didn't," she retorted, and she was sure he could hear the snap in her voice. "Typically when sometimes fails to kill you, it's a bit temerarious to give them another go at it, wouldn't you say? Especially when it wouldn't make the slightest bit of difference."
"He knows you're still alive." This time he didn't bother to make it a question. "He would have checked. Realized you weren't there."
"Possibly. Likely, in fact, though I suppose he couldn't be entirely sure; he certainly didn't have my DNA on file." A muscle twitched his jaw, and she knew he was hearing the hideousness that she wasn't saying: after a fire like that, perhaps knowing her face wouldn't have helped him at all. "And I don't imagine he's having an easy time of it tracking me down; as I told you, I don't stay in one place very long. I use different names, but he only ever knew me by a code name anyway." The evil spirit, the personification of deceit and fraud. She had laughed out loud when he'd given it to her. "Officially, I don't exist anymore, remember? Nor do you."
He studied her for another long moment, his hand still tight around the gun pressed against his leg. Then he asked "How did you get out of there?" again, just as he had in the Vegas hotel room. It was the very first thing he'd said to her, but she was aware that this time he wanted more. "The hospital. Did they take you too?"
Something sharp tightened in her chest at the memory, like a single strand of hair yanked hard. She settled back against the seat again. "Yes."
"As soon as I could. In the ambulance they asked for my name, but I just said I couldn't hear them, for—obvious reasons." She remembered the dull, resounding hammering in head when she awoke, the ache in both ears and everywhere else, her bloodied hands, the red-haired woman's reassuring smile. "When we got there, they put me in an exam room, and when they left me alone I walked out."
"Not very gracefully, perhaps, but it was busy that day. No one noticed."
He said nothing for a moment, and she thought she saw him nod almost imperceptibly, as though deciding that what she said fit. Then, abruptly, "Did you know? About me?"
"What about you?"
"That I was alive." He swallowed hard; it looked painful.
"No, of course not; I left right away. I hadn't any idea if they'd brought you in with me. I didn't see you there, if that's what you mean."
He looked at her, and she couldn't tell if he believed her or not. Then he looked unseeingly out of the window again and, sounding like every word was costing him effort, said "Wasn't there long. They sent me to Houston. Different hospital." She guessed at the specification that he wasn't bothering to make: a burn center. "I woke up, after a week. Alone." Her throat felt dry all of a sudden, her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth. She couldn't have interrupted if she'd wanted to. "Later, I went back. To El Paso. I asked everyone, but—" He swallowed again, and his face was going pale, white under angry pink. "No records. No one brought in with me."
Irene let out a quiet, slow breath. "I left before they properly checked me in," she said softly, when he didn't continue. "I hadn't given anyone a name; I expect after a few days no one made the connection that we'd come in together. And…" She didn't finish it. There was no need; it was hanging thick in the air between them, sour in their mouths and stinging their eyes: the others hadn't been brought in with them at all. Corpses weren't taken to emergency rooms.
He turned back. "The others. You didn't know. They were dead?" Statement, question. Disbelief.
"I—wasn't sure of anything," she answered. Why did it matter? "Not at the time. I just followed protocol. I just left and waited for word." And another string seemed to tighten across her chest as she realized it was true; as much as she wanted to remember otherwise, she had waited, she had hoped, despite everything she'd seen and heard and knew. She'd checked the backup e-mail account that Winchester had so hated to use every day for months, knowing that the white box on the screen would stay quiet and empty and yet believing, somehow, in that same quiet and unused cellar of herself, that it wouldn't.
"You never…went back."
"Don't be ridiculous, how could I have done? You know what the rules were. No police, no hospitals, no names. We were never to say that we knew each other if we were caught. How could I have found out anything without explaining who we were, why we had been there, what we did?"
"You could have. You know how. To find out things."
"How, precisely?" she challenged. "None of us had any records; he made sure they were all destroyed. I couldn't even be sure that I knew anyone's real name. We didn't exist anymore, remember? That was the idea."
He gave another quiet scoff. "You didn't want to know. Because you didn't care."
"And yet you didn't know that I was alive, did you?" she shot back, and he looked away from her again. "If it would have been so easy for me to find answers, why not you?"
"I didn't—know how. That wasn't...what I did." She watched as his shoulders hunched and the fingers of his free hand twitched unconsciously; his tells were the easiest thing in the world to spot, and he had always been a terrible liar. She grabbed onto it swiftly.
"You didn't know how because it would have been nearly impossible," she told him, a bit more gently. "We never wanted anyone to be able to find us. I daresay we never thought about the downside of that. I didn't know anything, I swear to you."
"But you knew. What you did. You chose."
"Not this. I would never have chosen this. It's just what happened; it was the business we were in; secrets and lies." She gave a hollow version of a smile. "And we're still in it, really, you and I. But I didn't know what happened, and I didn't know why. I admit it, I didn't see it coming. I couldn't have known he'd betray me."
"Betray—" It was more air than sound. "He betrayed you."
She didn't miss the intimation. "That wasn't my intention in the slightest." She was beginning to feel hot all over; the air hissing quietly from the radiator under the window smelled stale and packaged. "You've got to hear me; I never meant for anything like that to happen. I never would've dreamed it. It had nothing to do with anyone else, with the group, at all. It was just an arrangement."
"But you lied to us," he shot back, quietly but insistently. "You risked everyone. You told. We were never supposed to tell. Not anyone." The way he said it—it was as if she had finked to their schoolteacher about their secret hideout, she thought, with another swell of that dark fury towards him. It sounded so puerile in his words.
"I knew him," she retorted, and her animosity had begun to bleed into her voice again. "I just chose to keep the matter to myself because I didn't think that everyone would agree to it and it would've complicated matters unnecessarily. Not because I thought there was any danger. I've told you, I'd worked with him. I had no reason at all to think—"
"You risked everyone," he repeated doggedly. "You didn't know. You sold us out. Your friends. For money." He turned his head and looked at her again, and her anger whiplashed violently into utter horror as she looked back into his face and saw that his one eye was bright with unshed grief. For the first time she was seized with a desperate longing to leave the room as fast as she could.
"How could you?" he asked. His voice shook. "How could you do it?"
"Oh, stop." The words were spitting from her mouth before she'd even thought them. She was sitting forward now, clenching the edge of the plush seat with both hands, nails digging into the fabric; she felt a wild desire to hit him across the face. The plaintive chord of his voice sickened her. "You know that it wasn't like that at all; don't try to warp this into something that it's not. It was just—" She realized the irony of the word before she'd said it aloud. "It was just business. It looked to be a good opportunity. And you know quite well that any one of the rest of them would have done exactly the same thing in my position. None of them would have passed that up."
Outrage flooded into his face, and he actually appeared to recoil from her. "No," he managed to say, and his voice sounded as though her hands were already around his throat. "You're lying. They wouldn't. Have chanced it. Not with each other. Not with you."
"Do you really think any of us were that noble?" Her sneer tasted of the bitter coffee she'd drunk. "You truly believe that none of the others would've jumped at a chance like that, for an amount like that, simply because of the risk? Because that's what we did, my dear. The danger was the point. We bartered danger for money, that's all."
"That's not true. We did—good things. No one else could. The jobs…" He stopped, and she laughed softly, cruelly.
"My God," she said quietly, sitting back again and folding her arms tight across her chest. "Have you been telling yourself that we were heroes? That we were some righteous band of vigilantes, doing good where the law had failed?" She shook her head slowly. "We never were. We were just lost creatures with useful skills and nothing better to do. Nowhere else to go. You know that. You know what we did."
"We did—it wasn't—" She saw his grip tightening on gun, his knuckles flashing white against the black metal, but she couldn't stop herself.
"It wasn't what? You were there; you remember. You remember Chechnya, Los Angeles—both times, actually—Aberdeen? I'm sure you remember that one. How they begged." He turned his face sharply away from her again, towards the window filled with mockingly bright sunlight, but this time she leaned forward, trying to recapture his eye. "We'd take anything. Practically nothing was off-limits."
"It wasn't like that." His breath was coming in staccato bursts, strange and uneven, as though he had to remind himself to do it. "They were your friends." In his mouth it had immeasurable weight, as though no other word could ever have meant more. "What we did. Those were jobs. You can't compare."
"You're such a child." She could hear a stinging whip of loathing in her voice. "You think calling them that changes what they were—it doesn't. It doesn't change what we did. Maybe good came of it some of the time, but that was hardly a requirement for us. When we got the call, any story was good enough; if we could do it, then we did. We didn't care about the rationalizations. Actions trump reasons."
"Reasons—" He fought hard to get it out, as though every word she spoke was another stolen from him. "We knew. We always asked. You—you gambled with us. Just for money. Your reasons—"
"What, and money wasn't a factor for us? Everything we did, we did it because we were paid to, and because we wanted to. And because we were good at it. Nothing's changed." Astonishment raked across his face, the face that showed everything he had lost, but she plunged on. "Just yesterday you said that you don't ask for reasons, that you don't care about the 'why.' 'I don't need their secrets,' wasn't that it? If you want proof of what we were, look at us now. Look at what you do."
Something shuttered closed over his face. "That's different."
"It's not." She stabbed a finger at him. "Now who's lying? If anything, it's worse—at least we asked. Our standards may not have been much, but at least at least we wanted names, stories. We knew who they were. And they weren't children." The expression on his face rendered him unrecognizable now; she wouldn't have known him at all. "How old were those D'Alessios, Harrow? The youngest was about eight, wasn't she? But that didn't matter, did it. And I don't really think you care about the money, either. You do it because of what you are."
"And what are you?" The sunlight hit his swimming eye and for a moment it too looked blank, invisible. "What have you done?" She gave another mirthless smile.
"I know what I am," she said. "I've always known; I don't deny it. But it's what we all were, and that's why it could have been any one of us. Whether or not you want to accept it, sooner or later one of us would have taken a deal like that and ended everything."
"You think. We were all like you?"
"Of course," she said softly. "Be as high-minded as you like, but in the end we were nothing but talented sinners. That's why it worked. Why do you think he chose us? And why do you think we never talked about it?"
"Everything else. Our pasts, where we'd been before. You call us friends; we hardly knew one another. We all had something to hide, and so we didn't ask questions."
"Maybe you. Just didn't care."
"Oh, I just didn't care? I was the callous one while everyone else was so terribly forthcoming?" She shook her head again. "You know that's utter nonsense. We didn't want to know; we'd forgive each other anything sight unseen if it meant protecting ourselves. Even when we had hints, we didn't pry. We—" Her throat caught; she hadn't spoken any of their names allowed since that night, not until two days ago, but she forced herself. "We all knew that Black had been in prison, for years, but we never wanted to know why. Could've been all manner of horrors, but we never asked. We never really questioned how Winchester found all of those jobs for us and knew all those 'suppliers'; we never asked about why you and Darmody—"
He made a convulsive movement, so suddenly that a small gasp burst from her quite without her permission and she darted instinctively sideways in her seat, dodging the bullet that she was sure was finally seeking her. But there was no bang and no acrid smell of smoke; he had stood up and moved rapidly away as if trying to escape, but the room was so small that one second put him virtually at the other end of it. "Don't—" He leaned, or rather fell, against the door of the bathroom area, still gripping the gun fiercely tight in his right hand, his left arm going unconsciously up and across his body to clutch at his opposite shoulder. "Don't say his name. Don't...don't say..."
He was trembling all over, she realized, his breath stuttering out of him, the gun shivering in his hand. She had never seen him like that before, not once, no matter the circumstances. In Chechnya, when they had been crouching on the top floor of that apartment building and aiming at the street below, the last member of the bratskaya semyorka that they were supposed to be clearing out stumbled from the tavern a bit later than the others. Upon seeing his six brothers crumpling to the ground, their heads bloodied, he'd panicked and run for it. Winchester swore viciously as the man darted around the corner and into a crowded street fair, but Harrow had just said "I got him" in a voice of utter calm, and repositioned his rifle in the next window. He'd lowered his eye to the sight, and Irene had been close enough to him to hear him exhale one clear, soft breath before he pulled the trigger. The man stumbled, fell forward and didn't move again. There were a few faint shrieks from the street as people around him scattered, and Darmody let out a muted whoop and thumped Harrow on the back. Several hours later, in a pub a few towns over, they had all toasted him, and he'd shrugged politely and said "I just had the shot," as though anyone on Earth could have and would have done the same thing. In Budapest, when the dead drop had failed and they'd found themselves in the middle of that riot, Darmody's bad leg had seized up on him and he'd slowed down as they fled, earning an eight-inch gash across his scalp from a flying chunk of brick for his trouble. Harrow had looked around and run back for him without hesitation, grabbing hold of him under the arm and hauling him into the safety of an alley. Then he'd stitched Darmody up himself back in their grim hotel room, kneeling over him and talking to him in an undertone, making him laugh through gritted teeth as he swigged from Black's hip flask. Irene had watched, fascinated, as his hands moved deftly over his small, neat sutures and he wiped away the excess blood with his sleeve, finally leaning down to sever the thread with his teeth.
But now he stood against the dark gray door in his white t-shirt, his arm across his chest as if to hold himself in, his fingers striped red and white against the black gun. His chest rose and fell rapidly, as though he was fighting a losing battle not to drown. She stared, still frozen in her seat at a strange angle, vaguely aware that her dressing gown was tugging open on one side and not caring in the slightest. He wasn't looking at her; his face was an unreadable cloak of grief.
"He fell," he muttered, and now his voice was a halting growl, a rough, guttural thing that was nearly inhuman. "From above. Near me. I was lying there, and...I saw..." The gun knocked gently against the door as his hand twitched; he didn't seem to notice. "He...he was still..."
His voice broke and died, and he took in a shuddering breath. The tears finally fell down one cheek, the other side a mask. Tragedy and tragedy. Irene wanted to crawl out of her skin. She sat there, unable to look away, and understood: he was still there. He had never really left Texas; every morning was the same morning, the day that he had awakened to find himself alone in that hospital with one half of himself gone. And she realized, not with a brilliant, jarring bolt of understanding but rather the dull, inevitable thud of a heavy door, that she had been wrong. She looked at the deadly thing he was holding and remembered his hands taking it apart, his eye on the Enfield's sight, his careful, measured breaths before he fired, and then she looked up into his tormented face and understood that for all of his skill, his guns had never been the thing he loved most.
He didn't even cover his face. The silence spiraled horribly as he wept without sound and she sat, unmoving, feeling her heart twanging painfully and not understanding why. It was over; there was nothing left to be done, and she hadn't meant it in the first place. She hadn't wanted it, but it had happened and months had passed and nothing had changed—why was panic clawing at her throat just as it had in the darkened hangar? She hadn't thought about in ages and yet she could suddenly see the broken windows, the nearly-full moon, the twinkling city in the distance, hear their voices muttering anxiously in her ear—but it was over, finished, she couldn't go back. "Harrow," she tried to say; her mouth was impossibly dry. "Please. I—"
Another train went roaring alongside theirs with a shockingly loud bang as the air pressure between the two dropped, and the room was suddenly darkened as Irene jumped and swore reflexively under her breath. Harrow didn't flinch, but it seemed to bring him back to his senses as well; he looked at her, at least, though he didn't wipe the dampness from his face. After another moment she said in a low voice, "I don't quite know what you want me to say."
"Nothing." His voice was still a throaty rasp, but now it was empty, utterly devoid of emotion. "No point." He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out the silencer.
Irene couldn't feel the steady, heavy banging of her heart anymore; now it seemed to be rolling, humming in time with the train's wheels. She licked her lips. "Harrow," she said again. She gathered herself and began to stand up as slowly as she could, knowing how he would react to a sudden movement. "Please listen to me." She spoke every word with steady determination, refusing to let her voice shake. If she could just distract him for a moment, it would be enough. "This won't change anything. It won't make it better. I swear to you, I didn't know. You have to believe me."
She couldn't tell what he believed. He wasn't looking at her, he was looking down at the silencer, weighing it in his hand. Then he put it back into his pocket. He didn't care, she realized. There was no need to hide anymore. He wasn't looking at her, but if she moved he would see; if she reached out up and just a foot to her right, if she could do it quickly enough—
"You said something." He looked up again, turning his head and pinning her to the spot with his good eye. "Yelled. I heard you. Right before."
It was like falling through ice, as though the ground beneath her had suddenly split and sent her plunging into ruthless dark blue. Everything that moved within her seemed to stop, her skin crawling as though needles had found every centimeter. No. It felt exactly as it had that night, that moment when she'd realized what was about to happen and, in mad desperation, tried to stop it with a word. No. She would not discuss this with him. Not this. Not with him, not with anyone. "What did you say?"
She'd let him shoot her first. "What could that possibly matter?" she asked, and she sounded more like him than like herself, each part of it nearly its own deliberate sentence.
"Tell me what you said." His seemed to be steadying himself; the gun was no longer shuddering violently in his grip. "I heard you. But I don't know. Tell me."
"Why?" She could feel her throat itching and tightening, her eyes were stinging—no, no, no. Not here. Not for him. "I've told you everything; now you know what happened. You can't ask for any more."
"I want to know. What you said." He hadn't raised his voice or even added an angry thrust of insistence, but she flinched as though he'd roared it at her. Something trembled against her thigh; she chanced the briefest glance downward and realized it was her own shaking hand. Somehow his dread had left him and sunk into her like poison gas. Why had it all returned? It was done; the worst had already happened. Maybe he hadn't left, but she had. She never stopped moving.
"It doesn't matter," she said, and she could do no better than a whisper now. "It's over."
He raised the gun, holding it by his shoulder, though he still didn't direct it quite at her, and it occurred to her for the first time that his bullet may not have been intended for her at all. "Tell me," he repeated. "What did you say?"
She wouldn't. She wouldn't; she hadn't said it since that night and she never would again; she hadn't spoken a single one of them since that moment right before the blast, up until the moment she saw him in her hotel room. But her breath was catching and she could feel it stirring inside of her, clawing to get out, and she realized with another dizzying sweep of horror that she wanted to tell him; she knew better and yet she wanted him to hear it, wanted to taste it again just to know it hadn't all been a dream—
She was shaking her head, biting the inside of her cheek and tasting blood. She could barely see him now, standing mere feet in front of her. "Tell me, Irene," he said, so quietly his voice was almost lost in the continued, maddening purr of the wheels.
And now everything had returned: the laugh, the eyes, fingers in her hair. She might as well have been standing in the tiny room with them. She hadn't even seen her face since that night—she didn't have a picture, as her phone had been destroyed then too—but now everything was back. "I said—" She closed her eyes, knowing it wouldn't make a difference. "I said 'Raven.'"
At long last, he extended his arm and pointed the gun at her forehead, not her heart. It was his turn to watch, standing there and swaying faintly with the train's movement as her shoulders shook, her damp hair falling forward. She hadn't cried since she was eight years old, and yet it came back easily. He stood and looked at her, and when she removed her hand from her face she him swallow hard yet again, saw his fingers flexing around the handle, saw his index rest against the trigger. Then he dropped his arm.
"I'm going," he muttered. He tucked the gun back into his waistband and took a long, deep breath. "No more."
It was several seconds before she could speak again. "What? What are you doing?"
"I'm going," he said again, and he looked at her quickly, as though doing so for too long was painful, repugnant. "I can't be here." She stared at him as he ran a hand through his hair and looked distractedly around the room, as if expecting his belongings to appear, though he'd brought nothing. He leaned sideways and picked up his button-down shirt from where it lay on the lower seat.
"What—it's a train. Where are you going to go?" Her voice sounded odd and throaty and she felt winded; the shift in the moment was so abrupt.
"I don't know. Anywhere. Out of here." It took her a moment to register the finality in his voice.
"And are you planning to come back?"
"No." Another momentary glance. "I can't be around you." He stood, clutching the shirt in his hand, apparently having forgotten the next step of putting it on. Then he turned for the door and finally, finally put his back to her.
In the split-second when he looked away from her, her right hand shot up and across to the bed where she'd slept, just slightly above her eyeline, reaching under the pillow. He seemed to realize his mistake the moment he'd made it, and he spun back around, his hand flashing behind him, and he drew on her just as she straightened her arm and raised her SIG P230, stainless steel with the satin finish. The room was far too small for such theatrics, however, and their forearms collided hard, and they each looked down the barrel of the other's weapon, with him pointing slightly down and her pointing up.
"I'm afraid I can't let you do that," she said quietly, again laying out each word with a jeweler's precision. "We have an agreement."
"I don't care," he replied, just as softly and in a voice of deadly calm. "Put it down."
"No," she echoed him. She could taste salt on her lips. "I've hired you. You can't leave. I have to get the files to Rodsild first. After it's done we never have to see each other again, but until then we cannot separate. We're both in danger if we do."
"You are," he corrected, but she shook her head, not taking her eyes from his face.
"Gottsreich already knows that something has gone wrong. You didn't check in the other night and I'm not at the hotel; he'll know by now that you didn't complete the hit. He doesn't trust you anymore. And that means he'll come after you as well. You know that that's true. That's how he works. For now, we're safest together."
"You don't get it," he said, and for a moment she thought he nearly laughed. "I won't help you."
She reached up with her left hand and pulled back the slide, setting the hammer back and chambering a round. "Don't make me," she said. "Please. I truly don't want to." She needed him alive, but she needed him with her more. Away from her he was a threat of unacceptable magnitude. He knew where she was, who she was, where she was going, everything. He knew her better than anyone left. It simply couldn't be allowed.
They stood for another moment, the skin of their arms touching, cool against hot, and he narrowed his eye slightly, as if seeing her for the first—or last—time. Then, for the third time in as many days, he lowered his gun. "Do it," he said. "Finish the job."
Her stomach turned over and she had to clench her jaw hard to stay silent. He stuck his gun behind him again and put on the shirt, though he didn't button it. He still hadn't replaced his eye. She kept the gun trained on him, fingers bloodless and aching. Now was the moment, she knew. Now was the moment to survive again.
He stepped back and opened the door with a hand behind him. She didn't pull the trigger. He moved back into the hall, and she kept her eyes on his face; for a split second as the door slid closed across him, all she could see were expressionless scars, the dark absence of his eye, and then nothing.
Thirteen months ago
She's not a girl who misses much. The ground was still moving, but something was wrong with the light. The heat was gone, and the light had changed; it was too white and too still. It wasn't flickering blue and orange anymore, but—buzzing? And someone was still talking far too loudly (I need a fix, 'cause I'm goin' down); surely he had to shut up or they would hear, they'd be found and everything would be ruined—but no, that wasn't right, that wasn't what they were saying, and she didn't know that voice—
Irene opened her eyes another millimeter or two; it seemed a much harder task than usual. As she did so she became aggressively aware of a stunning pain in her head; something seemed to be inflating inside her skull and demanding to get out. She groaned and, with an automatic gesture, tried to lift both hands to her temples, but her wrist collided with someone else's and she jerked back in surprise as she realized that someone was leaning over her.
"Okay, she's coming around. It's all right, honey, just lay still," a voice said, softly accented, from far away and underwater. A face swam before her, but a wrong face, not one of theirs. Where were they hiding? "Got equal breath sounds on both sides. You were in an accident, but you're all right now. Can you tell us what happened?"
The motel. The hangar. The desert. The car? Yes, it had to be that SUV they'd found; those were wheels moving underneath her; that was a motor humming. But it was too small, too white and narrow and busy; the ceiling was shiny and there were cabinets above her and metal and words. She turned her throbbing head to the side to look, and the whoosh of the pillowcase against her ear seemed to drown everything else out for a moment—pillowcase?
The light jumped down suddenly and poked her hard in the eye, and she wrenched her head away roughly. "Sorry about that, I've just gotta check you out here." It found her other eye and then disappeared. "Both pupils reactive. We're taking you to the hospital, okay? Can you tell me your name?"
Hospital. Hospital? No, that wasn't right, she thought torpidly. That definitely wasn't allowed. No police, no hospitals. When something happens, we take care of each other.
"Ma'am? Can you hear me? ¿Habla inglés?" The voice, garbled and still faraway-sounding, but understandable. The face again, a woman's: a curious-kindly expression, red hair pulled back, a blue uniform top. For some reason that was what told her to lie; she couldn't quite remember why, but she knew instinctively that uniforms were a bad sign.
She reached for her aching ears again, feeling the dried blood along the side of her jaw. She shook her head and immediately regretted it as the heavy thing inside her brain seemed to roll slowly and clang against the sides. She gave the woman a blank, frightened look, and she nodded and gave her a reassuring smile, and then pointed to the words stitched into her top in black thread: William Beaumont Army Medical Center. "You'll be okay," the woman said slowly, forming the words exaggeratedly.
Army, she thought stupidly. Army. Soldiers. The others. The others. Everything was flowing back; colors sharpened around her and she began to remember everything. The hangar. Bohemia. Ormstein. The plan. The others. Something was beeping, shrill and rapid and insistent. The explosion. Please, no.
Her chest was tightening painfully, and she looked down to see that her black jacket was torn open, wires attached to her exposed, dirty, bloodied skin. Winchester. Her breath sounded strangely loud, as though she still had both hands cupped around her ears. Black. "Heart rate's at ninety-four," another voice rumbled, and she realized that there was someone else in the ambulance, crouched at her other side. "I'm starting a line in case she goes tachy on us." There was an angry sting like a bee near her left wrist. Darmody.
"Ma'am, it's all right." The woman leaned across her again, eyes widened in a soothing expression. "We'll take good care of you. Just try to breathe." Harrow. She put a gloved hand to her own chest to mimic the action. At the same time she picked up Irene's hand and inspected her fingernails, then touched her face gently, running her thumb across her lips. Raven. "Color looks good," she said. Then she rubbed her thumb and forefinger together, blackened with the camouflage paint, and looked over at the other man. "I don't think this is soot," she said in a pointless undertone. Raven.
"And I can't find any ID, but I found this," he replied, and held up the spare .32 cartridges she'd stashed in her pocket. "It's bullets," he added, in response to the woman's look. "The hell were they doing out there?"
They. Irene looked up at them, her eyes darting between their faces, seeing the suspicion blooming in their expressions. Her mind was spinning, her breath still coming hard. She had to get out of there. She had broken the rules, she had gotten caught, but if she could just escape then everything would be all right. She hadn't said anything, hadn't told them her name and even if they had her fingerprints it wouldn't help, of course—
But her instinct was wilting in the crushing grip of truth, of what she already knew. The simplicity of it hammered in her aching head like dropped stones, absolute and immovable. The plan. The explosion. Winchester. Black. Darmody. Harrow. Raven. They're all dead. None of it mattered. There were no more rules, because they were all dead. She'd seen it happen; she'd heard them. How couldn't they be? Raven. Dead. Gone. Everything was gone.
She wasn't properly aware of arriving at the hospital, nor of being taken inside, nor of the tests they performed nor of the words they spoke to her. She continued feigning deafness and didn't say a thing, though she wasn't sure she could have managed words anyway. What was there to say? She barely even noticed when they pulled tiny shards of glass from the heels of her hands; she didn't flinch when they realigned the elbow she'd knocked out of place when she'd landed hard on her back. Everything seemed unreal, slow and dreamlike; she floated somewhere between disbelief and understanding, between what she knew and what she could accept. It was too enormous, too ludicrous to be true. It was too sudden and too whole. All of them? All five of them, and she was alone.
It wasn't until one of the nurses wrote the police will be here soon to ask you some questions about the accident on a clipboard and showed it to her that she began to surface, breathing again and realizing just what was at stake. They were dead, but she wasn't. She was still alive, and she was still caught, and there were still rules. She had survived, and now she had to escape. She nodded benignly in response to the message on the page and then waited until the woman left the room. As soon as she was alone, she leaned over and yanked out a drawer close to the bed, searching quickly and pulling out a pair of scissors and a fistful of gauze. She cut the plastic bracelet from her arm and tore the leads from her chest, quickly hitting a button on the monitor on the other side of the bed to silence its reproving beeps, finally pulling the line from her arm and stemming the thin stream of blood. Her ribs and her arm and her hands burned fearsomely as she forced herself to her feet and her aching head stormed in protest as she bent down to retrieve her scuffed Doc Martens from under the bed, but she ignored it all and moved silently to the edge of the room, grabbing a shiny metal tray and using it to look around the edge of the curtains. She waited until the security guard at the end of the hall was looking the other way, and then slipped out of the room, keeping her head down and forcing herself not to limp. She found the waiting room, full of impatient voices and crying children, and took a jacket from the back of a chair without stopping, pulling it around the thin, spotted blue gown she was wearing and heading straight for the blinding sunlight beyond the sliding doors.
"Need some help?" She spun around to see a guard lolling against the wall by the door, smoking and looking at her curiously. She tensed to run but then stopped, knowing how it looked, with her scratched face and bandaged hands, the gown and the boots, wisps of her hair blowing against her face in the hot, dry air. Somehow, Raven's braid had stayed in place, for the most part. She had to wait for the right moment. She rearranged her features into what she hoped was a casual expression and asked, in a hoarse American accent that she couldn't entirely hear, "Got another?"
He considered her for a moment, then pulled out another cigarette and lit it for her with his own. "Looks like life ain't been kind to you lately, gal."
She took it from him and gave him a smile that didn't belong to her. Without thinking she said "Maybe I haven't been too kind to it."
He laughed. "All right, fair 'nough." He gave a deep cough. "Guess I been workin' here long enough to know that it don't matter what you do, anyway. Crazy things can just happen to anyone."
"Hmm." She barely heard him, though the words returned unexpectedly days later, and at night when she didn't sleep. She stood there smoking and waiting, taking in the bitter taste of the cigarette and watching the ash at the end, feeling oddly as though the two were connected; she had only until the paper burned away and then she would have to decide. She was hovering in limbo, but within minutes it would end. Everything would be left behind; aside from some money she'd saved up from a few jobs in a hidden bank account, she realized, she didn't have a thing to prove that any of it had ever happened. That they had ever happened.
She knew that she could stay. She could go back inside and face whatever was coming to her and try to figure a way out of it, as she had done so many times before, or she could leave now and never look back.
The sound of the sirens reached her after only a few minutes, and she stood there until the ambulances came screaming into the bay in front of her. She stepped out of the way as a number of doctors hurried out past her into the yard, and as they opened the back doors and rattled out the stretchers and called to each other in sharp metal bursts, none of them, including the guard, seemed to notice her in the slightest. She dropped the still-burning cigarette onto the ground and walked quietly away without turning around. Every breath hurt and she could barely see for the ache in her head and the fierce yellow-white of the Texas sun, but she forced herself to take a step, and another, and another.
Three days later she was back in London. A month later her hearing had fully returned. Two months later her broken ribs were healed. Four months later she took on her first job, breaking into the e-mail account of a powerful court judge. Seven months later she kissed the novelist's wife in a dark bar and realized she couldn't remember the scent of Raven's hair. Thirteen months later she entered her hotel room in Las Vegas.
New York City
There was, she had to admit, really no point in bothering, but Irene couldn't stop herself from looking, scanning her eyes rapidly across the sea of faces as the passengers flowed gratefully out of the train and onto the platform, chattering and dragging suitcases behind them. She'd spent the last ten minutes of the trip hovering by the door at the far end of the train so she could be first out, and now she leaned against the wall of the elevator bank, craning her neck up and looking, and yet knowing it was useless. If he didn't want her to find him, then she wouldn't. She'd stayed in the room for another hour after he'd left, pacing and staring out the window of the door and wishing for the first time in months that she had another cigarette, and then had finally gotten dressed and stormed out into the corridor, her hand tight around her gun in her pocket again, determined to find him and convince him to see sense; she'd shoot him in the middle of the dining car if she had to.
But he was nowhere to be found, though she'd made her way up and down all twelve cars twice, and she couldn't see him anywhere in the crowd of people disembarking and making their noisy way to the escalators, and she was all the angrier because she wasn't even particularly surprised. He knew how to disappear; he knew how to hide and stay hidden for as long as it took. She remembered his tranquil silence in the hangar that night, his still-pond calm that rendered him nearly invisible in the dark room. On stakeouts he nearly always offered to take the long night shifts, and he was never the one to fall asleep or complain or beg for caffeine deliveries. She had grudgingly admired it at the time; now it made her hate him, and she knew that he hated her enough in turn to hide out somewhere on that train for a goddamned week if that was what it took to avoid her.
Nevertheless, she hovered by the elevator and watched until the train was empty and the platform quiet, or as quiet as it ever got, with other trains idling nearby, the patient hum of their engines loud and echoing in the low-ceilinged underground space. He didn't appear. The white noise suddenly seemed to swoop down on her and she realized that it was unwise for her to stay in such a place too long; he might have contacted Gottsreich already, he might already have dispatched another hitter. She was entirely unused to the feeling of the threat facing her, the cold-and-small feeling of true danger over which she had no control at all.
It was different with her jobs—with those, there was an exhilarating sense of peril as she danced one step ahead of her target, always knowing more than they did. And before, with the others, even when things were at their most dire, they'd had each other. The risk of everything they did together had never seemed quite real to her; it had all been a bit of playacting, cops and robbers with the lovable rogues always making it out safely, because what could happen when six acted as one? But now she was one again, as she had been before, as she had thought she would always be. It was the first time since then that she'd felt like a sixth.
She took the escalator up into Penn Station and ducked into a Starbucks and sat in the corner, pulling out her phone yet again and sending a new message to Rodsild:
I'm here. Are you ready for me? Things are getting hot & I'd like to get this off my hands.
She knew he too would respond quickly; she could picture him easily, sitting at his wide desk, with his array of computer screens before him and a half-dozen different smartphones at his elbow, frowning down at her message through his horn-rimmed glasses. She still needed the address of his current hideout, though when his reply came pinging back a minute or two later, it was less than forthcoming:
are you alone?
From anyone else, she thought, it would have been an odd question: she hadn't told him that she was bringing anyone else along when she had written from Vegas, and he knew full well that she worked alone. But coming from him it was unsurprising; he wouldn't have been happy if she'd read someone else in, no matter how much she vouched for him, which was why she hadn't mentioned it. She rolled her eyes slightly before remembering that all things considered, on this job she could stand to be a little more paranoid herself. It was all a rather moot point now.
Yes. Where & when should I find you?
Not wanting to waste time venturing out into the far, isolated edges of the city, she was sincerely hoping that he hadn't sequestered himself in some godforsaken corner of Queens or somewhere far out on Long Island—
fletcher/south st. near pier 17 gray door 7AM
—and was therefore relieved to see that he was reasonably nearby, at the very southern edge of Manhattan, though she didn't like the idea of putting it off until the morning. She knew better than to argue, knowing well his finicky, sometimes irascible ways, but the idea of another 18-odd hours of waiting and nothingness and uncertainty was unsettling, maddening like an escalating itch or a persistent sound she couldn't escape. She hated that, for now, someone else was in charge.
She took another escalator up and made it out onto Seventh Avenue, unable to stop looking over her shoulder. She ordered herself to think clearly, to act naturally, but she couldn't shake the sensation of being followed. As she was much more accustomed to being the one doing the following, she couldn't be sure that she was reading the feeling correctly, and yet she thought it must feel like that, like a shadow just beyond her eyeline, like fingers on the small of her back.
The New Yorker was only a few blocks away, and she had walked halfway there before realizing that they would be expecting that. She felt another hot swoop of anger at the thought: Harrow had probably already told them to look for her in the nicest places, the most expensive restaurants and hotels, because why not; she could afford it. That was the entire point, wasn't it? That was why she bothered. Well, she thought, I'll show you: she turned abruptly around and, performing a quick search on her phone for the lowest-rated places, walked down to Chelsea and checked into a small and unimpressive-looking hotel, paying cash and not meeting the bored eyes of the clerk.
Realizing that she hadn't eaten all day, she ducked into the Internet café next door and ordered a coffee and a sandwich, but she couldn't relax—everyone who walked in was suspect; every eye that met hers was a threat. And frustrated as she was with everything at the moment, she couldn't help but feel a strange annoyance towards all of the customers leaning over the outdated, pay-by-the-minute computers—who didn't have a laptop of their own these days? After twenty minutes she gave up and returned to the hotel, angrily consigning herself to an evening spent in entirely in hiding. She'd made sure to get a room facing an alley; when she inspected it, the fire escape looked rusty and ready to crash to the ground four stories below, but she'd fled through worse. She lay on her back on the cheap bedspread, listening to the thump of music from the building next door and the rumble from the street below, wondering how it had come to this.
If it had been a job with the others (it was a dangerous sort of game, like Darmody dancing the point of his trench knife between his spread fingers, that she had allowed herself to play only once or twice in the months after, when she had started taking her own jobs), if they had been tasked with transporting the Miranda information to Rodsild and evading Gottsreich and his men along the way, she knew just how it would have been. Winchester would have found him, somehow, and Harrow would have looked into his past, with Irene's help, probably, and researched his other deals and associations. Once he checked out, they would have traveled to New York all together—driving, perhaps, all through the night with the windows down, switching off drivers every few hundred miles and arguing lazily about the music and about the fast-food restaurants they passed along the way. Or perhaps they would fly, depending on where they were, boarding separately with fake passes lovingly handcrafted by Black and sitting scattered throughout the plane. Raven probably would have disguised herself with a wig and a ridiculous accent just to make Irene laugh, and Black would be trying—and succeeding, mostly likely—to sneak into first class to steal drinks for them all. Darmody would be pacing the aisles restlessly; he hated flying because the cramped seats were hell on his leg, and Harrow would be bent sedulously over his latest paperback while Winchester squinted down at the notes they'd amassed on the case so far; he was still pretending that he didn't need reading glasses, and they were all still playing along with it.
Once they landed, they'd camp out somewhere near Rodsild's location and Irene would contact him through a secure Internet line and arrange a meeting, and if he wouldn't come out to meet them then they'd sit on his place for a few hours, making sure none of Gottsreich's friends were lurking around. Then two of them, perhaps Raven and Winchester, would enter his basement-office-compound, with Irene listening in attentively and Darmody leaning around the corner with his hand on his M1911 and the others waiting close by, and they'd make the trade. If all went well, they'd spend a few days roaming around the city, waiting for his results and their payment, with Raven probably dragging her off on some absurd adventure or another, like a carriage ride in Central Park or a trip to the top of the Empire State Building; she'd loved big cities and always headed straight for the corniest tourist attractions, her argument being that there was no point in traveling as they did without seeing the classic sites, and anyway, no one hunting them would ever bother looking anywhere so conspicuous. In Venice she'd insisted that they all go on a gondola ride, and Black had pretended to be their group's tour guide, gesturing extravagantly at the architecture and gabbling away in entirely fake German as the gondolier stared in confusion and Darmody laughed so hard he nearly fell into the canal—
No. No, that couldn't be allowed to happen; she had no time or space for that kind of thing right now, or ever again. It was over and there was no point in pretending otherwise. She had to focus now; all that mattered was evading disaster over the next few days. She flung both arms up over her head and heaved a harsh sigh that made her flinch; it still hurt to breathe on the rare occasions when she let herself think about it. She told herself that it was from the ribs she'd cracked.
She stayed in the hotel room for the rest of the afternoon and into the night, finally turning on the TV but muting it every other minute to listen, sure that despite the noise from outside, she could hear someone breathing at her door. Eventually she gave up and got ready to sleep, but then spent another ten minutes looking out of the window from every possible angle on the bed, sure that a sniper—particularly a very good one—perched on the roof opposite could easily spot her lying there; the curtains were thin and no help. Harrow had rather been onto something, she realized, not wanting to place himself in a vulnerably supine position at night, and she deeply hated the idea that her life had become something like his. She attempted to doze off in the chair against the far wall, but her neck began to ache and finally she got up, shoving the chair in front of the door and dragging the pillows and bedspread into the bathtub, where she settled down with the hand still holding her gun resting across her stomach and her phone perched on the white porcelain beside her. In the quiet, his halting rasp seemed to reverberate in the air, inside her head: you knew. What you did. You chose.
Little you know, she thought bitterly. I never chose, and nor did you. There was never a chance that either of us would be anything else.
She had set her phone's alarm for five AM, though she awoke, stiff and uncomfortable, before it sounded. She was ready to leave within minutes, but she forced herself to stay in the room for a while longer, knowing that Rodsild was not fond of surprises and not wanting to wander around the early morning New York streets while she waited for him. When she finally left the hotel, the morning was gray and cold, smelling faintly of snow. She headed for the A train; she hated the idea of being stuck underground in the claustrophobic tunnels, particularly without phone reception, but she would be easier to tail in a cab. She got onto the nearly-empty subway and her heart sped up every time they slowed between stations, and she had to keep reminding herself that it was very nearly over. Once she handed off the files, once they were no longer exclusively in her possession, then she would be safe, or relatively so, and she could move on. It would just be another job. The closest stop was some distance from the waterfront, and she pulled her coat tight around herself as the air got even colder on the way down the sloping street towards the river.
The street was a small, nondescript one; the block he'd indicated was more like an alley, a narrow space beside a parking lot, nearly too small for cars to fit. Tufts of grass grew between the uneven cobblestones, and the lower windows of the weather-beaten brick building were boarded with large sheets of wood. The only notable thing was a small security camera, mounted incongruously beside the plain gray door, and she was sure she knew what that was for. She stood in front of the door and pulled out her phone, sending a message to let him know that she had arrived, and a moment later she thought she heard the very faint whirring of the camera as it focused on her. She tilted her head and glanced sideways at it, giving a slightly sarcastic wave. Her phone lit up with his reply:
down stairs 2 lefts then right
and she pushed the door as he buzzed it open. The building was, as expected, exceptionally dark and grimy inside, as seemed to be his preference, and his directions led her to a low-ceilinged corridor with a brightly-lit room at the other end, the door partially open. All she could hear was the loud echo of her high heels against the stone floor; the sounds of the street and the raised parkway outside had faded as she descended into the basement.
In fact, it was too quiet. It took her a moment to notice the strangeness of the silence. "Rodsild?" she called out. No reply. "I'm here." Typing, she realized. That was what was missing; the perpetual skittering of his keyboard. There had never been in a time in the few years that she'd known him that she hadn't found him working, usually on several projects at once, the room filled with mechanical hums and trills. But right now she could hear nothing. Something about it made her touch the outside of her coat pocket with a hand, feeling the hard weight of her gun resting there, but she didn't pull it out.
As she approached the room she saw movement ahead and realized that she was walking towards herself: it seemed that he had indeed set up his usual series of mirrors all around the room in order to prevent anyone sneaking up on him, or from pulling anything from behind their back once they entered. Another few steps put her in sight of his wide desk, angled diagonally in the far left corner without a mirror behind him, providing him a panoramic view of the room and the hallway without allowing anyone a glimpse of the monitors in front of him.
He was seated at the desk, his glasses a little askew as always, but he didn't look around when she stepped into the doorway. "What, no hello for your best customer?" she asked dryly, glancing down at the phone in her hand and wondering how he managed to get such good reception in the underground space. "Believe me, you're going to love me even more when you see what I've brought you this time."
He didn't reply. She looked up. It wasn't until her gaze slid to the mirror on the wall opposite her, positioned to his left, that she looked at his profile and saw the neat, dark bullet hole in the side of his head.
Her lips parted, but she didn't even have time to draw a breath before there was a sudden movement to her right and something heavy and hard hit her across the face, making her gasp aloud and sending brilliant stars of pain across her field of vision. Her phone flew out of her grip as a rough hand grabbed the back of her neck and forced her forward into the room, and she heard a voice from very close by, calm and smooth and all too familiar.
Forty-four months ago
The pub was predictably crowded and noisy when Irene walked in, filled with its usual combination of regulars, greeting each other loudly and handing over pints, and tourists, tired from their day shopping in the high street. She scanned the room quickly and spotted the man she'd met—Winchester, he'd said his name was—sitting in a corner booth, and he lifted his chin in acknowledgment as their eyes met. As she approached she realized that he was not alone this time, but seated with four others, three men and a woman.
They looked over at her as she got close, and she surveyed them all rapidly, taking in each one in turn: she'd marked Winchester as ex-military the instant that he'd walked up and sat down next to her in Piccadilly Circus the previous day; now with his jacket off she could see the ball chain of his dog tags around his neck, under the shirt. The rough one with the tattoos looked a few years younger than Winchester—an ex-con, obvious from the hunch of his shoulders as he leaned on the table, and a heavy smoker, judging from his fingertips. The two on his other side looked much younger, only in their mid-twenties, perhaps, and definitely American. Their unconsciously mirrored postures would have made Irene think they were brothers, were it not for their dissimilar looks. The light one merely jerked his head at her in greeting, but the dark one gave her a shy, polite smile and half-raised his hand in a wave, mouthing hey. And then there was the woman. Her face lit up as she looked back at her, and Irene held her gaze, a faint smile curving her mouth.
"I'm not late, am I?" she asked as she stepped up to the table, knowing full well that she was early.
"No, not at all," Winchester replied. Next to him, the smoker grinned broadly.
"Ah, thank God, another Brit," he said (north London, she thought, most definitely; Holloway or possibly Islington). His eyes roamed up and over her with great interest. "You've saved me, darling."
"More like 'thank God, someone else without a dick,'" the woman put in from the other side of the table, winking at Irene. "I was starting to think I'd joined a frat or something." About Irene's own age, she had bright blue eyes and very even teeth, and though her hair was sleek and black, Irene could tell that she changed it often and that any style would suit her, really. She was wearing a leather motorcycle jacket, and though it was hard to tell sitting down, Irene thought that when she stood, she would be nearly as tall as Winchester. "Here, sit." She pulled out the chair beside her. "It's Irene, right?"
She sat. "It is, yes."
"So what's your specialty?"
"Computers, mainly; encryption, security systems, that sort of thing."
"Ah, very cool, I was hoping we'd ourselves get a hacker," she said, grinning. "I'm Raven, by the way." When she slid her hand into Raven's, her grip was firm and warm, and she could feel the hard press of several rings against her flesh. Irene thought their fingers stayed linked for a trifle longer than was strictly necessary.
Winchester leaned forward, arms on the table, and she turned to look at him. "So, what d'you think?" he asked her. "Pretty straightforward job, like I said; just have to get in there and get a hold of the records without too much noise. We get paid as soon as we're done, if we do it right. You like it, and we like you, you stay on with us. If not, you can go, and none of this ever happened." He gave her a steady, significant look as he said it. "You never met us, and we never met you. Interested?"
She understood his point. He knew what she'd done and why she needed the work, but he didn't intend to use it against her as long as she didn't interfere with their plans in turn. She glanced sideways at Raven, who gave her a mischievous, inviting look. She smiled, Irene thought, as though they already had a wealth of secrets between them. "It'll be fu-un," she singsonged, and Irene realized she was grinning as well. She turned back to Winchester.
"Yes," she said clearly. "I'll take the job." Somehow she already knew that she'd be staying.
New York City
"Hands on your head." The man released his grip on her, bringing her to a halt in the middle of the room, and began patting her down roughly, keeping his gun trained on her with the other hand. She blinked several times, trying to clear her vision, and looked sideways at him as he searched her, recognizing his face from years ago, from the days of her former position, though his name escaped her. Kelly. Keefe. Keenan. Something like that. A hired gun, just a brutal mercenary thug. For some reason, it entered her mind that Winchester would never have hired him in a million years.
He found her P230 in her pocket and took it out, and then upon finding no other weapons, grabbed hold of her neck again and bore down, forcing her to her knees. She could see herself reflected in the mirror straight ahead of her, her face pale and set, a thin line of blood rising on her cheekbone from where he'd hit her. He handed her gun to Ormstein as he strode around to stand in front of Irene, smirking benignly down at her as she knelt with her fingers interlocked behind her head. "I gotta say, you are a very hard woman to kill," he said, idly checking the gun's chamber to make sure that it was loaded. "I don't think anyone else has ever needed three tries. Under other circumstances I'd have to say that I respect that."
Three? Without moving her head she raised her eyes to look at him: he was only a few years older than she was, she reminded herself, but he was very good; he had risen quickly in the ranks of the government by an indeterminately-balanced combination of dishonesty and actual talent. She hadn't seen him for several years now, and yet he looked mostly the same, his young face, bright lively eyes and unruly hair at odds with his impeccable suits, not to mention his ruthless demeanor. She looked at him, and she understood.
"You're Gottsreich," she said. "Always have been."
"Of course," he said, with half a shrug, as though the revelation was so obvious as to be rather boring. "Among others. Lots of jobs, lots of names, you understand. But I was sure you would've figured that out when you were poking around in my e-mails. Me, I knew it was you as soon as I realized I'd been hacked." He gave her another sinister smile. "Couldn't have been anyone else. You always were the best."
"That's very kind of you to say," she replied coldly. She looked quickly around the room, assessing the situation and trying not give herself away by moving her head too much: there were no windows in the room; the only door was the one through which she'd come. Even if she could get her gun away from him, Keith would surely put a bullet in her within seconds. Ormstein didn't need anything from her; she had nothing to trade, so there was no talking her way out of it. If she rushed him and smashed him into one of the mirrors, maybe she could get a shard of glass—
He chuckled. "I couldn't believe my luck, to tell the truth. I knew you hadn't died in that hangar, and I'd spent the better part of a year looking for you when you just fell right into my lap." He began to stroll in a lazy circle around her, with Keller stepping back a few paces of out his way, still aiming his gun at her head with both hands. "And after that fiasco in Texas, I thought I'd learn from my mistake and try a direct approach, but here you are again. So I'm not taking any chances this time. I mean, fool me twice, right?" He nodded towards the other man.
There was no way out of this, she realized. If he was bothering to tell her all of this, it was because he knew that she had no escape this time, and he wanted her to know precisely how she'd failed before he killed her. He was just toying with her. The only thing to do was to keep him talking, she decided, to let him brag about everything he'd done in order to buy her time to think of a plan—or, at the very least, to find out what she wanted to know before he did it. "So this wasn't about Miranda," she said, her voice very calm.
"Oh, you got that far, did you?" He was behind her now, and she could see him reflected in the mirror ahead of her, nodding impressively. "Well, like I said, you're good. Very logical guess. But no, that's just a side project I've got going right now. Though it might turn into something and I can't say I would've liked you to find about it." He bent down and picked up her phone from where it had landed on the floor and pressed several buttons, frowning, and she knew he was trying and failing to break through her security code. "I've been wanting this for a while, though, just to see what you'd managed to find and to make sure it was really you, since I know you keep your whole life on here." He shrugged and pocketed it. "I guess it's really the same principle, you being too nosy again."
"So I suppose you were already working with Bohemia when I contacted you about them."
"Working with them, nothing. I was them," he corrected her. "Well, maybe that's generous, it was really a team effort. But I was the captain, at least. And I spent quite a while setting up that sale, and it was more than a little annoying to hear that you and your friends were planning to mess everything up for us."
"So everything I sent to you about them..." His face was alight with pleasure, and she knew that he was loving it, telling her how she'd walked straight into his trap—twice.
"Was actually just you sending back to me what I'd indirectly sent to you," he said brightly, making a back-and-forth gesture with the gun. If he wasn't careful, he was going to accidentally kill her before he was done boasting. "It was pretty funny, actually. Once you told me about the phone-tapping plan, I just made sure you only intercepted what I wanted you to hear, since I knew what you'd do with it. I knew you'd show up; you couldn't let something like that pass. Which I do respect," he added magnanimously. "I'm not forgetting that we got a lot done together in the past, and I really hated the idea of taking you out. But the things I was hearing about that mod squad of yours…" He shrugged again. "You were just in the way too much, and I had a business to run, that's all. Like I said, nothing personal. You understand."
"You'll forgive me if I don't." The cold logic she'd summoned from within herself to work through the truth of what was happening was receding, to be replaced by smoldering fury. It was you. You killed them. She had always known it was so, and yet hearing him say it was something entirely new.
"Well, I handled it badly, I already admitted that," he said a bit exasperatedly, resuming his circling of her. "Apparently there's a bit of a learning curve with explosives. I thought the whole place would just come down on your heads and no one else would really notice, but then half of you made it out of there and the fire department showed up and I had to spend eight weeks making paperwork disappear and paying people off so they'd call it a 'controlled demolition.'" He passed in front of her again, scowling like a teenager whose plans to evade homework had been foiled. "It was really a hassle. So then when you popped up again I thought I'd better be a little more precise about it, but I guess that didn't pan out either." He stopped again and faced her, crossing his arms, her gun resting against his upper arm. "Just out of curiosity, what did you do with my hitter?"
Now she lifted her head and looked at him. "What?"
"My hitter. Guy I sent after you, whatever his name is." He gestured towards himself with the gun. "Two-Face. He did at least make it that far, didn't he?"
Irene's mind was racing again. This she hadn't considered—he didn't know. That meant that Harrow hadn't contacted him upon arriving in the city after all. And furthermore, he had no idea who he was. Somehow, Ormstein hadn't made the connection between the scarred assassin he'd hired and the clever young analyst he'd meant to blow up in the hangar a year ago. He had been focused on tracking her down because he knew her, to a degree, but surely he would want to eliminate anyone who knew too much. And yet he was asking…
She gave him a steely look. Her fingers were beginning to tingle from being locked behind her head. "Do use your common sense. What do you think I did with him?" she said. He gave a soft grunt of frustration. "If you'd like his body, call the hotel. I'm sure they've managed to fish him out of the laundry chute by now."
"Christ." He rolled his eyes impatiently. "I should've known. I was told he was the best guy working right now, but that price was far too low. That's what I get."
He believed her, she was sure of it. He had no reason not to; it was the only logical reason for her to have made it there. And so regardless of whether she made it out of there or not, Harrow would be safe—from Ormstein, at the very least. It was, she decided, the only reasonable thing to do.
Her eyes found Rodsild in the mirror again, and she turned her head slightly to the left to look at him, positioned as she was in front of his desk. His eyes were still open, his face empty. She could see under the desk from her kneeling position, and both knees of his trousers were darkly stained. His hand dangled loosely over the chair's arm, and she could see that his fingers looked strange, all of them bent at unnatural angles. Nausea rose in her throat.
Ormstein had followed her gaze and made a 'tsk' sound that was strangely familiar to her, turning to face the corpse in the chair. "If it helps, he didn't give you up easy," he said, in a tone that someone else would have mistaken for regretful. "Took a while to get everything out of him. I started out offering to just pay, but he wasn't having that. It took a couple hours before he even admitted he knew you. But I've bought from him before and I had a feeling you two were friends. You always did have a knack for finding the right people to use."
If Keegan hadn't been looking down at her on the floor, he would have seen. The movement in the mirror would surely have caught his eye, but as it was, he was focused entirely on her and didn't notice. In the moment when Ormstein turned to face the blind corner of the room, something shifted behind Irene, in the doorway, and she saw it reflected in the mirror at the very edge of her field of vision and turned her head to look. He was only leaning into the room by the merest fraction, just the edge of his shoulder and his good eye, but there was no mistaking him.
She didn't even have room for disbelief. Their eyes met and she held his gaze for what seemed like an eternity. Then Harrow nodded, and she lowered her chin once to indicate that she understood. Then he leaned out of the doorway and disappeared. The entire exchange had taken no more than a few seconds.
Ormstein was still talking. "But like I said, this wasn't how I'd been hoping this would go. Getting rid of two world-class hackers in one day is really a shame. Guess it's just a dirty business." He turned back to face her with a sigh, and then repositioned her gun in his hand. "But you had to know it was gonna end like this, Apate. You've misbehaved too much."
"Well, you know what they say, play to your strengths," she replied calmly, her gaze on his knees. "But all this talk is getting rather boring. I'm starting to doubt that you've got the guts to do it..." She raised her eyes to him again, and he shifted his weight slightly to the side, looking down into her face in some surprise. Perfect.
"...you swine." She sincerely hoped that Harrow had heard her and understood that it was a cue, and a split-second later she was glad to see that he had. Bang.
She didn't even see the gun. Somehow, between the moment when Kendall-whatever-it-was's head snapped to the side, a firecracker of red bursting from his other temple, and when he dropped to the floor in a silent heap, she had time to wonder: where had he fired from? Between the door hinges? Straight through the wall? He really was a fucking evil shot.
Ormstein jumped a mile and let out one "God—!" of shock, eyes wide and jaw dropped comically, but Irene had already dropped her arms from above her head, pulling back her elbow and sinking it deep into his groin. He doubled over and fell to his knees, and she grabbed her gun from his slackened grip as she got to her feet. For good measure she hit him in the face with it, and he fell back on the ground, where she pointed the P230 straight at his head.
Harrow strode into the room behind her with more boldness than she would ever have guessed possible, gloves and eye back in place, still holding his own gun at the ready. He too aimed at Ormstein on the ground and leaned over to peer at the body lying close by, making sure he'd done the thing correctly. Then, seeing Ormstein raise both hands, his eyes darting between the two of them as he put it all together, he lowered his arm slightly. He gave Irene another brusque nod. "It's yours," he said.
"Kind of you," she replied. Then she looked back at the man on the floor. His blue eyes were full of something she'd never seen there before; she recognized the look she herself must have worn in the train roomette the day before.
"Think about this," he said slowly. "We can still help each other. You know that."
"I think you've helped quite enough," she said, and though her voice was calm, she could feel her face growing hot, like she was kneeling outside of the burning hangar again, the smoke stinging her eyes, listening to them inside.
"If you'll just give me a chance—" But she found that she didn't want to hear any more.
"Not this time," she told him, and she left out one clear, soft breath before she pulled the trigger.
In the silence that followed, Irene stayed still, staring ahead, into the mirror and down at the person who'd ruined everything that had ever meant anything, and Harrow looked around the room, taking it all in, pausing for an extra few seconds on Rodsild's body in the chair. Then he held out his gloved hand to her. She looked at him blankly.
"Your piece." His voice still had that rough, throaty quality. She blinked, forcing herself to think again, and then handed it over. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and then took the gun apart, apparently not bothered by the heat of it, and quickly wiped down each separate piece, then reassembling it and stepping over to Ormstein's friend. Without the slightest hesitation he crouched down and took the dead man's wrist in his hand, pressing his fingers to the trigger and handle of the gun, then setting it beside him. Then he moved over to Ormstein and did the same thing without glancing at his face. He searched the man's pockets and retrieved Irene's phone, which he handed to her. When he saw her watching him mutely, he shrugged and said "It'll help a little."
She nodded. She could think of a whole host of things she wanted to say or ask, but after a moment all she said was "Why?" and she could tell from the way that he dropped his gaze to the floor that he knew she wasn't asking about planting evidence.
He made a quiet noise almost like a sigh. Then he said "Because I'm your backup," and she knew that she shouldn't ask more, though she was deeply curious about the mechanics of it.
"You followed me here?"
"From the train."
"Of course you did." At least I can still tell when I'm being tailed, she thought distantly. "Took your time, didn't you." She allowed the merest pointed note into her voice, suspecting faintly that he had left her languishing in Ormstein's hands for a few minutes first on purpose, and realizing that she couldn't precisely blame him for it. But he just shrugged again.
"Had to find a way through the door."
"Through the—that was a high-security electromagnetic lock. Rodsild installed it after he stole the technology from the Federal Reserve."
"Yeah," he replied, straight-faced and still not looking directly at her. "That's why it took me a few minutes."
She began to laugh, more breath than sound, and it made her chest hurt again. She looked at him, then at the three bodies, and then at herself in the mirror, and the heat in her face seemed to intensify, blood rushing to her head, making her feel slightly dizzy as she considered the full weight of all that had happened and everything she had learned in the last ten minutes. She took in a deep, unsteady breath. "God," she muttered. "I need some air."
He followed her silently as she moved from the room, up the stairs and out of the building, back onto the cobblestones and across the street. The sun was beginning to peek from behind clouds as they passed underneath FDR Drive and onto the pier, and she didn't stop until she'd reached the wooden railing. She pressed against it, breathing through her nose, taking in the cold scent of the iron-gray river. Harrow stood beside her, about a foot away, his head turned towards the Brooklyn Bridge. She expected him to walk away from her at any moment; it was all over, he had no reason at all to stay. But he just took off his gloves and put them into his pocket, and then pulled out his handkerchief again.
"Your cheek," he said, handing it to her. She gave a quiet chuckle and took it from him, touching it to the raised weal on her face from where he'd hit her with the gun. She hadn't even remembered it was there.
After a few moments she said "So I expect you heard everything in there, then."
He turned back to look at her. "Some of it."
"It's mad that he didn't know about you." She shook her head faintly. "All that effort and he didn't put it together."
He was giving her a strange, uncertain look. "What about me?"
"That you were one of us." She stared at him. "That you were the same person that—what did you hear?"
"Not a lot. Just that he didn't give you up easily. That you use people." He said it so plainly that it didn't even sound like an insult. She was silent for another moment, the cold wind sending strands of hair blowing across her face, trying to remember everything they'd said and in what order. He hadn't really heard anything. He didn't understand at all, and yet he'd done what he had.
"That was him," she said carefully, forcing herself to watch his face for his reaction. "The man in there, who hired you to kill me: that was Ormstein. That was the man I—worked with before."
He looked back at her, and he wore the same expression he'd had when she'd first seen him, sitting on her hotel bed with the gun—blank, empty shock. "What?" he said, so quietly that she only saw his lips move.
"You were right. He was after me," she told him, and she explained, as concisely as she could, about how he'd known she was alive, how he'd found her when she'd worked the other job and prowled through his files, and how the killer he'd hired to go after her was someone he himself had tried to eliminate. "You didn't know," she said, already knowing that it was the truth.
He shook his head with small movements. She could see the full impact of it settling on him, over his shoulders and across his face. Behind him, the black form of the Wavertree creaked dolefully, its empty masts swaying moodily back and forth with the movements of the water. "No," he murmured. "I didn't know."
That meant he also hadn't heard what she'd said, she realized. He hadn't heard her lie about him, claiming that he was already dead. And yet he had still done what he had. She wasn't entirely sure what to make of that.
He lifted his uneven gaze to her again. "So it's over," he said. "That's it." She didn't have to ask what he meant.
"I suppose it is." In a split-second of trust, without even meaning to, they'd achieved the vengeance that he'd so hated her for not seeking, and now the air between them was quiet again. She looked out at the cars moving on the other side of the river, pulling her coat closer around her in the cold November air, feeling the strange lightness that was the absence of her gun. He was wearing only a dark jacket over his shirt, but he didn't seem to notice the temperature. Again, she waited for him to walk away, to turn silently and not look back at her, but he didn't move. It took her another minute to realize what must be holding him there.
"Ah, yes," she said, breaking the short silence. "You're waiting for what's owed you."
He glanced over at her, blinked. "No," he said. "I don't want your money." It sounded benevolent, and yet she was sure she heard a slight emphasis on the penultimate word. Somehow that one sound told her in no uncertain terms that despite what had just happened, she was not to consider herself forgiven. They'd done away with the man who'd pulled the trigger, but he hadn't forgotten that she had handed him the gun, so to speak.
"No?" She waited, but he didn't elaborate, and when she glanced down she saw that his hands were moving nervously again, his fingers tightening and kneading something that he wasn't holding, and she knew there was more that he wasn't saying. "What is it?" she asked, not unkindly.
He looked down at the water in front of them for a moment before saying "I found something."
"Last night." He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a folded piece of white paper. He handed it to her, and she opened it to see what looked like a computer printout, a page of text divided into journalistic columns.
She looked at the headline. Suspicion Lingers Over Airfield Explosion. It was dated some ten months past and came from a Texas publication, according to the small lettering along the bottom, although it was no paper she'd ever heard of. It must have been one of the smaller local newspapers, she guessed. "Where did you get this?"
"Café. Next door to your hotel," he replied. Seeing her slightly surprised look, he added, with just the faintest hint of a droll note, "I can use a computer too."
She snorted very quietly. She looked back down at the paper and began to read. Questions still remain about the fire that destroyed the vacant hangar on the MacGuire Ranch Airfield on the night of October 13. Having fallen into disuse some decades ago after... Key phrases jumped out at her. City officials have stated that the planned demolition had been scheduled for...the absence of a public statement beforehand and the lateness of the hour have made many citizens...
"It seems he didn't do as complete of a job as he thought covering it up," she mused, glancing up at Harrow again. "Really wasn't good at much, was he." He just gestured at her to keep reading.
...have also repeatedly stated that the blast area was first swept for civilian presence and that no injuries were reported...however, sources within the County of El Paso Medical Examiner's office who wish to remain anonymous have affirmed that three unidentified bodies were pulled from the wreckage and taken to the city morgue, furthermore alleging that several other individuals were taken from the scene to area hospitals. Records indicate...when asked, Dr. Weaver refused to confirm that...
Irene stared at the words for several seconds before the true meaning of what she was seeing penetrated her brain. Her head snapped up to look at Harrow again. Three.
"I never looked," he said quietly. "Before. Like you said. I didn't want to know. I thought I already knew..." He trailed off and shook his head. "But now this. I don't know if it's true. But I had to show you."
Her heart was beginning to pound again. Something Ormstein had said was floating back to her, something that hadn't sounded right at the time. She hadn't given it her full attention, distracted as she had been, but now...what was it? She looked back at the paper. "Half," she said suddenly.
"Half," she repeated. "He said it, in there—Ormstein, or whatever his name really was. Before you turned up, when he was talking to me about what had happened, he said 'half of you made it out of there.' And now this says 'three bodies.'" She began to feel dizzy again. "Harrow. Oh my God."
He was looking at her directly now, the gray sky framed behind his head, and again, for a moment, it looked as if both eyes were locked on her face. Their faces seemed to wheel before her; it was like a perverse quiz show, or perhaps a sadistic choice. Six lives, three won, three lost. Four options left.
But no, she realized after a moment. Not four. Three. He, Harrow, wouldn't have been there with her, wouldn't have been what he now was if he wasn't sure, if he hadn't seen it happen. But the others.... "Which one?" she asked in a whisper.
"I don't know," he said, just as quietly. "But we've got to—"
He stopped. They'd both heard it, the 'we' he'd said without entirely meaning to. She finished it for him. "We've got to find out." It would be more than she'd allowed herself to even consider since the ambulance, and yet at the same time it would be terrible. But somehow she already knew that they'd be going.
He nodded, swallowing. "Yeah," he said. He looked down again. "Yeah, we do."
She looked back at him, still clutching the paper and his handkerchief. She understood why he had come back now: because he needed her, because they were tied together forever by what they had been before. She even thought she understood how he had ended up in her hotel room, how they had been dragged back together despite the odds. Little though she believed in those things, it seemed that there was never any chance that it was would be otherwise.
"All right," she said. She refolded the paper and gave both items back to him, and she stood up straight, looking him right in the face. "Then let's go to work."
Forty-four months ago
"Yes," she said. "I'll take the job." Winchester nodded approvingly.
"Good," he said. "We start tomorrow at oh-seven-hundred." Beside him, the tattooed man rolled his eyes.
"What Loquacious John here means to say is, we're very glad to hear it and we welcome you warmly, Ms. Adler, to our humble and ragtag crew of misfits. We do so hope you'll find things to your liking," he said, leaning over to her. "Call me Sirius."
She chuckled slightly as she took his proffered hand. "That's quite a name."
He made a dismissive sound. "Yes, well, you'd have to meet my lovely family. Load of jokers. You've already met this ravishing creature—" he indicated Raven, who toasted him somewhat sarcastically with her drink "—and this tragic-rent-boy-looking chap is Master Jimmy Darmody of Atlan—"
"It's James," the blond one interrupted, sounding annoyed and glaring over at Sirius. "My mother calls me Jimmy."
Sirius gave a bark of a laugh. "I bet she does. And I would dearly love to meet her, if she's anything as charming as you," he said, giving him a jovial punch on the arm.
Irene was laughing again. When she glanced at the dark-haired one beside Jimmy, she saw that he was as well. "Richard," he said when he saw her looking, holding out his hand in turn across the table. "Harrow."
She took it, returning his smile. Even in the dim bar his eyes stood out to her; they were hazel, and too kind. "It's very nice to meet you," she said.
- fin -