Strung up by her feet. Swinging upside down in the air. Blood pooling inside her pounding skull. Nicole Haught could finally admit that this hadn’t been the best idea. Maybe. Perhaps. Just a teensy bit.
“You okay there, Haught?” Jeremy Chetri’s voice chirped through her earpiece, as bright and eager as ever.
“Just dandy,” Nicole gritted out.
She tried to curl her body upward to reach the thick rope binding her ankles. Her abdominal muscles burned from the exertion and, cursing, she flopped backward like a hooked fish. She should have listened when Dolls had nagged her about keeping up with her core exercises.
“You totally triggered a booby trap, didn’t you?”
“No.” Nicole eyed the flashlight she had dropped. Its bright beam cut a swath through the darkness.
“Even though I warned you.”
She held back a growl that, nevertheless, escaped as a groan. Her head was killing her, just about ready to explode. Sweat trickled down between her shoulders until the back of her neck was damp. She could taste salt and must, and tried not to think that she was breathing in the dust of corpses buried hundreds of years ago. Dark spots clouded her vision, and she closed her eyes. Things couldn’t possibly get any worse.
That is, until she heard the tell-tale slide and click of a firearm being cycled, primed and ready for action.
Her eyes blinked open. Swallowing hard, Nicole stared down the business end of a short-barreled shotgun and, behind it, the narrowed eyes of the gorgeous woman aiming it right at her head.
One week earlier
The document weighed heavily in Nicole’s hand, even though it was only two sheets of paper. It had been sitting on her desk when she arrived at the office, and she had nearly given herself a papercut when she tore open the tan manila envelope to get to it. Her eyes scanned the caption.
FINAL JUDGMENT AND DECREE OF DIVORCE
It had taken months of back-and-forth with Shae, followed by property settlement negotiations and what felt like a never-ending period of voluntary separation to reach this point. Nights alone in an empty apartment. Her family’s judgment. The “I told you so’s” lingering unspoken in the air, always present. She ran a hand through her newly cut auburn hair, which curled just beneath her jaw. Shae had always preferred it long, and Nicole had hated braiding it up every day for work. Now she no longer had to.
Nicole had thought she’d feel different now that the divorce was final. Relieved, maybe. Instead, she felt empty, save for a remorseful twist in her gut.
The office door swung open and Xavier Dolls strode in, all business in a crisply-pressed dark suit, wire spectacles on as he read through a file. Nicole quickly shoved the papers into a desk drawer. Even though her partner had known about the divorce—and the silent toll it had taken on Nicole—she wasn’t quite ready to discuss it.
“You’re late.” His eyes remained trained on the contents of the manila folder in his hands.
Nicole leaned back in her desk chair and glanced at the analog clock on the wall. Its hands pointed to 7:57 a.m. Her shift started in three minutes. She sighed.
“Sorry. Got caught up.”
“I didn’t see you at the gym this morning, either.”
“Needed a break.” And two donuts instead of two dozen crunches.
“You don’t wanna get soft.”
“Heaven forbid!” Nicole made the sign of the cross.
Dolls finally looked up, unamused. “We’ve got a new mission. Direct from Moody.”
That definitely got Nicole’s attention. It wasn’t often that the deputy director himself assigned cases. “What’ve we got?”
“The Earp sisters. Are you familiar?”
“Who isn’t?” She sat up straighter. “Wynonna and Willa Earp. Descendants of the famous lawman turned international thieves. The pair have evaded authorities all over the globe, including…” Dolls gave her a flat stare, and Nicole cleared her throat. “What about them?”
“Turns out there are more than two Earps.” He slapped the folder down on her desk and tapped a photo of a young woman around her early 20s, walking down a nondescript street, oblivious to surveillance. “Waverly Gibson.”
“Gibson?” Nicole picked up an accompanying bio sheet.
“Born Waverly Earp.” Dolls walked to his desk across the small room. “Adopted by a family friend, Augustus Gibson, after their parents died nearly 15 years ago.”
“Waverly Earp,” Nicole repeated softly, examining the photo once again. Objectively speaking, Waverly was attractive, very much so, with her golden brown hair tied in a long braid slung over one shoulder. But so were her sisters. A family of beautiful—potentially lethal—criminals. “What’s the mission?”
“Undercover infiltration.” Dolls sat in his chair and booted up his laptop. “Secure enough evidence to put these ladies away for a very long time.”
“Through Waverly Earp?”
Dolls nodded. “The other two would sniff out a cop from miles away.”
“What makes you think Waverly won’t either?”
“Intel says Waverly is less experienced than her sisters, having spent the past few years finishing up dual degrees in history and ancient languages. But logs show they’ve been in contact recently, and Waverly is currently en route to Spain. This may be our in.”
“That’s what we need to figure out.”
Nicole let that all sink in as she shuffled through the remaining papers in the folder. “Who’s infiltrating?” A dark-blue passport slipped out.
“Me?” Nicole opened the booklet to find her likeness staring back at her.
“Yes, you.” Dolls peered at her over the rim of his wire-framed glasses, as if daring her to contradict him. “Or rather, Nicole Scott. You’ll offer your services to Waverly Earp as a hired gun.”
It wasn’t the worst idea she had ever heard. “And if she refuses?”
Dolls shrugged. “Make sure your offer is irresistible.”
Nicole’s lips pursed into a thin line. “Back up?”
Nicole fought a frown. Jeremy was terrific for research, but not so great in a firefight. Though, how much trouble could she possibly get into with Waverly Earp? “And you?”
“Bustillos and I will be tracking the other Earps in San Juan. See if we can figure out what they’re planning from a different angle.”
Nicole raised an eyebrow. “Puerto Rico? How terrible for you.”
Dolls cracked a rare grin. “It’s a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it.”
Absentmindedly running her left thumb along the base of her bare ring finger, Nicole looked at the picture of Waverly Earp again. It was exactly the type of case she needed right now to keep her mind off the disaster that was her personal life. Shae, of course, would say Nicole was running from her problems yet again. But she no longer had to answer to Shae. Not anymore.
“So when do I leave?”
Two days later, Nicole checked into the Hotel Ritz, a palatial structure that she was sure charged half her month’s paycheck in daily room rates. She let out a low whistle when she took in the ornate lobby—vaulted glass ceiling, crystal chandeliers, and arched windows—and gave silent thanks that the U.S. Marshals would be footing the bill. The extravagance also made her wonder how a recent college grad like Waverly Earp could afford such accommodations, until she realized that Waverly was most likely subsidized by her family’s extracurricular activities.
Nicole wasted no time in making her way to her assigned suite, where Jeremy had already set up shop, thanks to airline delays that prevented them from arriving at the same time. It was strange seeing Jeremy in blue jeans and a pink t-shirt instead of his usual white lab coat. His normally clean-shaven face was now stubbled.
“You in?” Nicole set her bags down in one of the bedrooms.
“Like Flynn,” Jeremy said from the sitting room. His sleek computer equipment clashed with the gilded antique desk on which it was spread. Wires snaked across the plush oriental rug, with some disappearing into a slotted HVAC grille along one wall. “We’ve got eyes and ears in Earp’s room.”
“Anything interesting so far?”
“Eh.” Jeremy swiveled his monitor toward Nicole. “All she’s been doing is some sightseeing. Journaling. Not exactly supervillain behavior.”
“Has she spotted you?” Nicole peered at the screen.
Snorting, Jeremy shrugged his shoulders. “Please. I’m, like, a total master of disguise.”
Jeremy was many things: a brilliant scientist, a loyal friend, a committed agent. But a super spy, he was not.
“She spotted you,” Nicole concluded.
“Well, okay, yes, maybe,” Jeremy sheepishly admitted. “But she totally thinks I’m here on holiday. Not for,” he made vague handcuffing gestures, “you know.”
On the black and white video feed, Waverly sat at a vanity table, wrapped in a white terrycloth robe. Nicole watched Waverly brush her hair in long, smooth strokes before she began applying her makeup. Not that she needed any, Nicole thought, then frowned at herself for that unbidden observation. Waverly stood, untied her robe, and shrugged it off, revealing a toned body clad in a modest underwear and bra combo. Cheeks warming, Nicole stopped herself from wondering what color they were. Her gaze snapped to Jeremy, who watched with clinical disinterest.
“Jesus, Jeremy, give her some privacy, will you?” Nicole averted her eyes and walked to the small weapons locker their Spanish contacts in Interpol had provided for them.
“You know I’m not allowed to turn off the feed,” Jeremy complained, hugging the laptop back toward him.
“You don’t have to watch her get dressed either.” Nicole crouched down next to the locker, pulling up the encrypted combination from her burner phone. She opened it quickly and pulled out a Beretta M1934, tucking it away easily in her ankle holster.
Next, she fitted herself with an earpiece from Jeremy’s collection of electronics. She grabbed a wad of cash and a handful of loose change from a briefcase and stuffed them in the pockets of her jeans.
“Whoa, hey,” Jeremy said when he noticed what she was doing. “Where are you going?”
“Getting ready for a hot date,” Nicole deadpanned. “What does it look like I’m doing? I’ve gotta make contact with the mark.”
“What, now? You just got here.”
“No time like the present.” Nicole tapped the comms. “Check.” She looked expectantly at Jeremy.
He sighed and slipped on his own headset. “Check.”
Waverly slipped out of the hotel a little before noon, and Nicole followed at a respectable distance. The city was still warm for mid-September, almost uncomfortably so, and Nicole was glad she opted for a black t-shirt and sleeveless green vest jacket. She put on a pair of round sunglasses as Waverly crossed the street toward a fountain depicting who Nicole assumed to be Neptune, based on his conch-shell chariot and trident.
Waverly bypassed the white marble statue of the Roman god, and continued along Paseo del Prado. Stopped cars clogged each lane of the one-way street. At rush hour, it resembled a parking lot more than a thoroughfare. Waverly walked beneath a canopy of tree branches, sunlight trickling through the leaves. Her khaki harem pants and white blouse billowed from a light breeze that did little to thin the stench of exhaust fumes. Nicole trailed after dutifully, making sure to feign curiosity at the sights they passed, from the surrounding buildings to the other bustling pedestrians.
Before long, they reached a plaza with another fountain. This time, Nicole didn’t recognize the statue—a woman draped in robes, sitting in a chariot pulled by lions. Regal was the first word that popped into Nicole’s mind as she took in the ornate details of the sculpture, from the waves of the lions’ manes to the woman’s lifelike facial features.
Waverly paused in front of the fountain, its waters cascading down the side in a tranquil flow. She slipped a hand into her pockets, only to come up empty. She next fished her wallet from her tote bag, zipped it open, and frowned.
Nicole had a guess as to what Waverly was looking for and, taking a chance, walked up and stood next to her. She reached into her own pocket and pulled out a couple of coins, silently offering one to Waverly.
“Oh.” Waverly startled and looked at Nicole, who involuntarily stilled when they locked gazes. Photographs and a grainy, monochrome video feed didn’t do Waverly’s beauty justice. At all. And Nicole suddenly found herself without breath.
“Gracias.” Waverly’s hazel eyes were as warm as her smile. She placed her wallet back in her tote. “No tenias que hacer eso.”
Waverly’s accent was flawless and Nicole, whose Spanish was rudimentary at best, felt self-conscious in replying, “Uh, esta bien. No te preocupes.” Nicole struggled with the unfamiliar syllables and heat prickled across her cheeks.
“That was terrible, Haught,” Jeremy chirped in her ear. “Someone needs linguistics classes, stat.”
Nicole tuned him out.
Waverly smiled as she accepted one of the copper coins. “Lo agradezco.” She cradled it in her palm and glanced down at it, a wrinkle forming between her eyebrows. “Are you American?”
Nicole ducked her head. “Was my Spanish completely terrible?”
“Yes,” Jeremy answered. Nicole vowed to smack him later.
“Not completely, no.” Waverly winked as she held up the Euro between her thumb and forefinger. Except it wasn’t a Euro. “You gave me a penny.”
Sure enough, Abraham Lincoln’s profile reflected back at Nicole. “Must have missed that.” She dug back into her pocket. “Did you want a different one?”
“Oh, no, thank you, this was very kind of you.” Waverly’s fingers curled around the coin once again. She turned back toward the fountain and closed her eyes. After a few seconds, she flicked the penny into the water with her thumb. It flipped in the air and hit the surface with a satisfying plunk.
Nicole did the same with a coin of her own, watching it float gently down to join the bits of shimmering metal at the bottom of the fountain.
“So what did you wish for?” Waverly asked.
“Isn’t that supposed to be a secret?” In all honesty, Nicole hadn’t wished for anything in particular when she had tossed the money. She didn’t believe in wishes. Not anymore.
“I’ll tell if you tell.” Waverly’s smile turned impish.
Nicole slipped her hands inside her pockets. When all else failed, go with honesty. “Nothing.”
“Nothing?” Waverly’s eyebrows arched up.
“Wishes don’t make things happen.” Nicole shrugged. “Actions make things happen.”
Waverly nodded once, slowly. “A skeptic,” she said. “Interesting.”
“A realist,” Nicole countered.
Waverly smiled then, eyes crinkling at the corners. “So why throw a coin at all, then, if you don’t believe in wishes?”
“When in Rome, right?” Nicole asked, waving vaguely at a nearby hotel. Its early 20th century palatial design stood in stark contrast to the modern cars bustling along the surrounding streets. “Or Madrid.”
Silence fell between them, that awkward pause between strangers while they decided what to say next or whether to politely part ways. Nicole half wondered if Waverly would still share her wish, or if she’d keep it to herself now that Nicole made her opinion on wishes known.
“Do you know Cybele’s origin story?” Waverly suddenly pointed to the statue.
Nicole shook her head, pushing her glasses up onto her head, even as Jeremy annoyingly chimed in with an, “I do.”
“There are many. But in at least one myth, she was known as Agdistis, an androgynous deity who was both male and female,” Waverly said. Nicole turned more fully toward Waverly, who paused when they made eye contact. She looked back at the statue quickly and continued, “The gods felt threatened by Agdistis’s nature, and one day, castrated them. From henceforth, Agdistis became known as Cybele.”
Frowning, Nicole let that bit of knowledge sink in. Her eyes traced the curves of the statue. “That’s terrible.”
“Isn’t it?” Waverly stared at the water as it glistened and bubbled. “All because others couldn’t accept them for who they were.”
“That’s probably like the tamest version of the myths,” Jeremy said.
Nicole was pretty sure she didn’t want to know, but Jeremy would likely tell her later anyway, regardless. “At least it’s not real.”
Waverly regarded her again, but said nothing.
“It’s just a story,” Nicole added.
“You think it’s not?”
“I think,” Waverly licked her lips, weighing her next words carefully, “there are things that happened long ago that we might not know about or understand today. And even if something is, in fact, just a story, some of it may be based in truths of that time. Or fears. Hatreds.”
“Huh, she’s not wrong,” Jeremy supplied.
“Should we give more then?” Nicole shook the change in her pocket. “A small price to pay to appease past wrongs.”
Waverly smiled. “I thought you thought it was just a story.”
“Covering my bases.” Nicole palmed the rest of her coins.
“Then you should probably know Cybele wasn’t exactly a saint either,” Waverly said.
“She fell in love with someone who, to some, could be interpreted as her son…”
“Or grandson, depending on the story,” Jeremy interjected.
“Drove him mad before his wedding, which caused him to castrate himself.”
Nicole paused midthrow. “Seriously?”
“Seriously,” Waverly and Jeremy answered at the same time.
On second thought, maybe she shouldn’t toss the money.
“If that bothers you, think of it this way: the charity that gets the proceeds from the fountain would probably appreciate the extra change,” Waverly offered.
“Depends on the charity. What if it’s for some anti-LGBT organization?”
“Oh for Pete’s sake…” Nicole tossed the rest of the coins into the water anyway.
Waverly let out a laugh, airy and sweet. No, not sweet, Nicole frowned at herself. The sound was not at all endearing. Not in the slightest.
“Great, now we’re going to have to justify that expense,” Jeremy chimed in.
Nicole tucked her hair behind her right ear and surreptitiously clicked off her earpiece. That was enough commentary from the peanut gallery for the time being.
Waverly held out a hand. “I’m Waverly, by the way. Waverly Gibson.”
Gibson, and not Earp, Nicole thought. Interesting.
“Nicole Scott.” Waverly’s grip was firm, skin soft and warm. “Are you American, too?” Of course, Nicole already knew Waverly wasn’t. The Marshals’ files were nothing if not thorough. But she had to test the Earp and see the type of deceptive personality she’d be up against.
“Oh, good gravy, no!” Waverly touched a hand to her chest, as if the suggestion was physically discomforting. “No offense.”
“Only some taken.” Nicole couldn’t stop a chuckle “Where are you from then, if you don’t mind me asking?”
That was the truth, to Nicole’s mild surprise. “You’re Canadian?” Out of habit, she moved to hook her thumbs on her belt.
“I thought Canadians were supposed to be nice.”
Waverly rolled her eyes, even as she smiled and nodded. “I am nice. In fact, I have a sash to prove it.”
A teasing, noncommittal hum emerged from Nicole. “Where in Alberta?”
“Small town out in the middle of nowhere. Purgatory. Ever heard of it?”
Not since earlier in the week, when Nicole had pored over all the intel the Marshals had on the youngest Earp. “No,” she lied. Nicole didn’t know much about Purgatory, other than that it had a population of fewer than 15,000, and had become the final destination of Waverly’s great, great-grandfather, Wyatt Earp. But she kept those details to herself. “Sounds quirky.”
“Quirky’s one way of putting it.”
“So all the way from Purgatory to Madrid. First time?”
“First time anywhere, actually.” Waverly raked her fingers through her long hair, tucking it back behind an ear. “I’ve never left home before.” Pink spread across her cheeks as she winced. “Sad, right?”
“Not at all.” The records backed it all up. Waverly had only recently applied for and received her first passport. She had never even crossed the U.S.-Canadian border by land, despite its proximity to Purgatory. For being a member of a family of international thieves, Waverly had told her nothing but the truth so far, Nicole noted.
“Why Madrid?” Nicole kept her voice as neutral as possible, subconsciously holding her breath as she waited for Waverly’s answer.
“Had to start somewhere.” Waverly stretched out her arms and grinned, her joy as bright as the sunlight sparkling off the fountain’s rippling water. “Why not Madrid?”
Nicole managed to control her disappointment with a measured exhale. It wouldn’t have been that easy. Either Waverly had the best poker face in the world, or she was actually telling the truth, again.
“In that case, don’t let me keep you,” Nicole said. “Still plenty of daylight left, and a whole lot of city to see.”
Uncertainty passed over Waverly’s features. “Do you…”
“Yes?” Nicole’s heart rate ticked up in anticipation.
But Waverly shook her head slightly. “Nevermind. Thanks again for the coin.”
“Don’t mention it. I got a mythology lesson for a steal.” Nicole found herself just shy of winking and fought another frown. What was wrong with her?
“I’m staying at the Ritz,” Waverly blurted out, then winced.
“So am I,” Nicole responded smoothly, even as her pulse fluttered. It was only because she was making progress toward an arrest. Nothing more, she told herself. After all the losses she had endured recently in her private life, she needed a professional win.
“Maybe I’ll… see you around?” Waverly asked shyly.
“Maybe,” Nicole answered. Definitely, she thought.
“Okay.” Waverly grinned as she took two steps back. “Bye.” She turned around and walked away, and was almost about to step off the curb when something occurred to Nicole.
“Hey, Waverly!” She called out.
Waverly instantly pivoted back around. “Yes?”
“You never said what you wished for.”
Waverly smirked. “It’s a secret.”
Nicole could only chuckle as Waverly continued onward, crossing traffic and eventually disappearing down the sidewalk. Her smile faded as she reactivated her comms.
“What the hell happened, Haught?”
“Technical difficulties,” Nicole lied. It wasn’t protocol to disable the audio feed.
“That’s impossible. I QA’d that tech myself!”
“You can check it out later,” Nicole said. “In the meantime, get me everything you know about artifacts related to Cybele, and whether any might be in the nearby vicinity.”
Jeremy let out a long sigh. “Fine.”
“I’ll check in with you later. Haught out.”
Nicole took one last look at the fountain and the majestic woman at its center, a strange feeling in her chest, before she turned on her heel and set off after Waverly Earp once again.
A criminal mastermind, Waverly Earp was not.
That much appeared painfully obvious after Nicole and Jeremy spent the next 48 hours surveilling their target. Waverly had gone from art museums to history museums, taking her time with each exhibit, reading every single placard and label from start to finish. When she wasn’t sightseeing, she was reading and writing in her journal.
Content to observe from a distance, Nicole hadn’t made contact again, but she was beginning to wonder if that was even necessary. She said as much to Dolls the next time he checked in.
“Waverly Earp may not be the ‘in’ we thought she might be,” Nicole told Dolls, whose visage was projected on the full screen of a laptop.
“It’s been less than three days,” Dolls said. Even from the tiny speakers of the laptop, his voice retained its brusque, commanding edge. “Give it some time.”
“Until when exactly?” Jeremy asked from a nearby desk. He spun lazily in his chair, head flopped back, barely paying any mind to his own monitor. On it, Waverly brushed her hair, preparing for bed after another long day of sightseeing.
“Until you find something,” Dolls said with a finality that invited no argument. “Have there been any noticeable patterns regarding the sites she’s visited? Any leads at all?”
“Not really.” Nicole drummed her fingers on the desk. “Closest we came was the Cibeles fountain.”
“The one where you made contact?” Dolls asked. “What about it?”
Jeremy sat at attention. “According to local folklore, its waters can flood a vault in the Banco de Espana across the street.” He picked up a tablet and rolled his chair to a stop next to Nicole. “The Chamber of Gold, to be exact.”
Squinting into the camera, Dolls frowned at Jeremy. “This isn’t one of your Henry Potter books, Chetri.”
“Harry Potter.” Jeremy rolled his eyes. “And that really is what it’s called.”
Dolls looked unconvinced. “What’s in it?”
“Gold,” Nicole replied dryly. “Hence, the name.”
Dolls’s lips flattened into an unamused line. “What else?”
Jeremy shrugged. “That’s all. Nothing but gold reserves, lingots, old coins.” He lifted up his tablet. “I downloaded the bank’s schematics, but there aren’t any actual connections between the fountain and the vault.”
“Plus, money is outside the Earps’ usual M.O.,” Nicole supplied.
“They’ve never stolen money?” Jeremy’s eyebrows shot up.
“Only artifacts,” Dolls answered, resting his chin in his hand, lost in thought. “Though, there’s a first time for everything.”
But Waverly didn’t seem the type, Nicole thought. She had nothing concrete to back up that opinion. Nothing but an inkling that lingered in Nicole’s gut. Not that she’d tell Dolls. The likelihood of Dolls accepting a gut feeling to end an investigation was as probable as him cracking a smile more than once a week.
“And you?” Nicole asked, instead.“How’re things on your end?”
“About as well as they’ve been going for you,” Dolls said. “Wynonna and Willa Earp have done nothing but play tourist in San Juan. Old churches, citadels, forts. You name it. I’ve since followed them to Bimini.”
“What are they doing in the Bahamas?” Nicole frowned.
“Cave diving,” Dolls said. Jeremy lifted a finger and Dolls quickly added: “And, no, that is not a euphemism.”
Jeremy canted his head to the side. “I was gonna say, maybe they really are taking a break. Even criminals need a vacation.”
“No.” Dolls shook his head. “They’re up to something. We just have to wait for them to play their hand. Haught, don’t wait to make contact again with Earp. The sooner we get to the bottom of this, the sooner we all can go home. Dolls out.”
The call ended, and Dolls’s handsomely dour face blinked out. Stretching his arms above his head, Jeremy let out a loud, drawn-out yawn.
“You mind if I take second shift tonight?” He stood and chucked a thumb toward his room. “I’m kinda beat.”
“No worries, Jeremy, I know all about the raid you’ve got scheduled later.” Nicole winked as she pulled her chair up to the screen with the live feed into Waverly’s room. She picked up a mug and cradled it between her hands.
“You could always join me, you know,” Jeremy offered, walking to his bedroom door as Nicole took a sip of her now lukewarm cappuccino. “I really think you and ScissorzGurl6969 would hit it off.”
Nicole choked on the next swallow. “As enticing as that sounds,” she coughed, eyes watering, “I’ll have to pass.”
“She could be your future wife.” Jeremy winced when his brain caught up with his mouth. “Second wife, sorry.”
Nicole let out an incredulous bark of laughter. “I think I’m done with marriage for the time being.”
“Suit yourself.” Jeremy shrugged. “See you in a few hours.”
“Night.” Shaking her head, Nicole turned her attention back to Waverly, who was again writing in her journal. She did it every night, and each time Nicole found herself wondering what thoughts Waverly was recording within its pages.
Waverly eventually set down her pen, closed the journal, and stretched her arms above her head. Yawning, she stood and headed to the bed, pulling back the covers and sliding underneath what looked like a mountain of blankets. She reached for a lamp, and the screen went black.
Nicole switched on the camera’s night vision mode. Waverly reappeared on the monitor, her image now in shades of grainy green and gray. Something about the way Waverly stared up into the darkness, irises aglow, made Nicole’s chest twinge. Waverly laid still, blinking at the ceiling for several seconds that stretched into long minutes until, finally, Waverly curled into a small ball in the middle of the wide mattress and closed her eyes.
The next day, Nicole followed Waverly to Mercado de San Miguel, an indoor market ensconced within a rectangular shell of wrought-iron pillars and floor-to-ceiling glass windows. Nicole’s stomach rumbled the minute she stepped inside, bombarded by a cornucopia of tantalizing aromas, from savory tapas and sharp cheese to sweet fruit and pastries. She kept one eye on the cases of food on display and the other on Waverly, being careful to not lose her in the dense crowd.
It would have been easier, Nicole thought, if she didn’t have to also look out for Jeremy, who insisted on tagging along after spending days cooped up in their hotel suite. He immediately ordered a plateful of empanadas stuffed with cheese and vegetables.
“Didn’t you already eat?” Nicole didn’t bother to hide the judgment in her voice.
“I’m still hungry.” Jeremy moaned as he bit into golden, flaky crust. “Want some?” He lifted the plate toward Nicole.
Her mouth watered, but Nicole shook her head. “We’ve gotta focus on Earp, not snack time.”
“I’m focused,” Jeremy insisted, words garbled as he chewed. He took another big bite.
Nicole arched an eyebrow. “Sure.”
Swallowing, he leaned to the side, and looked past her right shoulder. “I know exactly where she is.”
“Yeah.” Jeremy polished off his first empanada. “On your six.”
Whirling on her heel, Nicole felt her heart leap into her throat. Sure enough, Waverly was weaving through the throngs of customers, a shy smile on her face as she approached. Today, she wore a blue floral-print dress that flowed around her curves, a white tote bag slung over one shoulder.
“Nicole, hey,” Waverly breathed out, raising a hand and curling the tips of her fingers in a small wave. “I thought that was you.”
“Uh…” Nicole replied intelligently, synapses short-circuiting from the surprise of Waverly’s sudden appearance.
The corners of Waverly’s lips faltered. “You… have no idea who I am.”
Nicole recovered with a shake of her head. “Of course I do. Waverly, wasn’t it?”
Waverly ducked her head then looked up shyly. “So you do remember.”
“How could I forget?”
They held each other’s gazes. The din of the crowd seemed to lessen. Had Waverly’s brown eyes been this soft, this warm, when they had met the other day? Nicole’s stomach fluttered unexpectedly.
Jeremy cleared his throat.
“Oh.” Nicole had forgotten he was even there. She turned back toward him, and ignored his smirk. “Sorry. Waverly, this is Jeremy.” Nicole managed not to wince. She forgot to use his cover name, but it was too late now. And it would have been too damn weird to refer to him as Stephen Vincent. “Jeremy, Waverly.”
Nicole took a step back. Jeremy wiped crumbs from his right hand on his pants and shook Waverly’s.
“The mythology expert, right?” Jeremy winked. “Nicole mentioned meeting you the other day.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say expert,” Waverly said, flattered, eyes sliding back to Nicole, whose cheeks warmed. “What kind of empanadas are those?” She pointed to the plate in Jeremy’s other hand.
“Verdura y queso.” His accent was infinitely better than Nicole’s, and she half-resented him for it. “Want one?”
“Really tempting.” Waverly closed her eyes as she breathed in. “But I’ve gotta pass on the cheese. I’m vegan.”
Jeremy lifted his brows. “Vegan? That’s awesome. Wish I was disciplined enough to make that leap, but I think I’m too much of a cheesemonger.”
Nicole readjusted her weight from one foot to another, starting to feel a little guilty about the juicy, delicious bacon cheeseburger she had for lunch.
Jeremy glanced down at his food. “Do you mind if I…?”
“No, please, go ahead!” Waverly encouraged, smiling as Jeremy continued to eat with glee. But then she tilted her head slightly to the side, brow furrowing in concentration. “You know, this is gonna sound crazy, but have we met before?”
He paused mid-chew, gaze shifting nervously toward Nicole. “No? I don’t think so?” He tried to deflect, even as warning bells sounded inside Nicole’s head.
“I’m pretty sure I’ve seen you somewhere before,” Waverly said before she snapped her fingers. “The Ritz! You’re staying there, too, aren’t you?”
Nicole bit the inside of her cheek. Jeremy Chetri, master of disguise, her ass.
“Oh, um,” Jeremy swallowed hard, “yeah.”
“We checked in around the same time,” Waverly said. “You had, like, half a dozen suitcases that kept falling over.”
“To be fair, half of those belong to a certain someone who showed up late,” he muttered, giving Nicole a sidelong glance. “Could’ve used some help bringing them up to the room.”
“You guys are sharing a room?” Waverly asked, surprised, looking between Nicole and Jeremy. “Are you two…?”
“Are we…?” Jeremy’s brow wrinkled. Nicole held her breath.
“Like, you know, together?”
Nicole nearly choked, while Jeremy guffawed. “Ew, God no.” he shook his head vehemently.
“Thanks, Jer,” Nicole said dryly. “We just work together,” she added to Waverly, who looked… relieved? Maybe Nicole was imagining it.
“Sorry, sorry,” Jeremy said. “Nicole’s totally hot for a girl,” he chuckled at his own joke despite Waverly’s apparent confusion, “but…”
“But?” Waverly prompted.
Nicole bit her tongue, wondering just how much Jeremy would reveal.
“She’s still a girl,” he finished with a shrug. “Also, she doesn’t bat for my team either.”
Nicole swore internally. It wasn’t that she wanted to hide her sexuality. She had always believed that honesty was the best policy, even during covert operations--the fewer lies she told, the less chance of getting caught with contradictions or inconsistencies that could blow her cover. But if this revelation in any way alienated Nicole from the target, she vowed to erase Jeremy’s favorite Minecraft world.
“Oh…” Brow furrowing, Waverly looked from Nicole to Jeremy, then back to Nicole.
Jeremy nodded with an encouraging smile. Nicole held her breath.
“Oh!” Waverly’s eyes widened. “That’s um,” she cleared her throat, “that’s awesome.”
“Is it?” Nicole asked, unsure, noting the way Waverly avoided eye contact, crimson staining her cheeks.
“Yes, of course,” Waverly let out an embarrassed laugh. “I’m sorry. I just wasn’t expecting… I mean, it’s 2018 and all, and I shouldn’t just assume anyone is one way or another, and--”
“Waverly,” Nicole gently interrupted the ramble. “It’s okay.” She put on a friendly smile in the hopes it would help ease Waverly’s fluster. “Now you know.”
Waverly exhaled. “Now I know.”
“You wanna know what I wanna know?” Jeremy asked.
“Not particularly,” Nicole muttered, not wanting any more surprises from her partner.
“Have you had lunch?” He ignored Nicole and focused on Waverly.
“Me?” Waverly pointed to herself. “No.”
“Great!” Jeremy clapped his hands together. “I read there’s a spot here that has the best vegan paellas. Whaddaya say?”
Nicole wasn’t sure if Jeremy had asked so they could continue keeping an eye on their mark, or because his stomach was a bottomless pit. Or both. Probably both.
Waverly glanced at Nicole, hesitant in meeting her eye. “I wouldn’t want to intrude.”
“Not at all!” Jeremy reassured her. “The more the merrier. Right, Nicole?”
Nodding, Nicole gave Waverly what she hoped was a welcoming smile. “Right.”
It seemed to be enough for Waverly, whose shoulders relaxed. “Okay.” She nodded.
“Yes!” Jeremy fist-pumped. “Follow me!”
It took an hour before they arrived at Paella y Olé, having taken a circuitous route around the market that was governed by Jeremy’s and Waverly’s whimsical appetites. The two got along swimmingly, trading historical and scientific tidbits on various foodstuffs and drinks. Nicole wasn’t sure why that made her inwardly frown, but it did. She managed to shake off the feeling as Jeremy and Waverly sampled everything in sight, from ruby red membrillo spread on crackers, to scoops of sweet, white pulp from green faceted chirimoyas shaped like hearts. They debated whether figs could be considered vegetarian when they had wasp remains inside them. The verdict? The duo passed on the figs, even as Nicole popped a wedge into her mouth along with a slice of manchego.
By the time they reached Paella y Olé, with its row of bright orange rice mixed with seafood or veggies or meat, their bellies were too full for an entire meal. So they took boxes to go for dinner later.
“Thanks for letting me tag along with you guys,” Waverly said as they approached the exit.
“It was fun,” Nicole replied, and Jeremy hummed in agreement. “We should do it again sometime. Maybe tomorrow afternoon?”
“Tomorrow?” Waverly winced. “I actually can’t tomorrow. I was gonna head out of town for a bit.”
“Ah, no problem.” Nicole kept her expression neutral, even as her pulse quickened at that bit of news. Even Jeremy tensed slightly beside her. “Where’re you heading?”
“Oh, just out in the country, you know? Get away from the city for a bit.”
Nicole resisted the urge to press for more information. “Maybe when you get back.”
Waverly nodded, hesitating before adding, “Or, you know, I’m free in the morning. Was thinking of getting a workout in before the drive.”
“Work out?” Grimacing, Jeremy rubbed the back of his neck. “I actually think I have a, uh, work thing I need to finish in the morning.”
“I’ve been meaning to ask,” Waverly said. “What kind of work do you both do?”
Nicole and Jeremy both froze.
“Oh, uh,” Jeremy stumbled. “Consulting, I guess you could say.”
“Security consulting,” Nicole added.
“Right, what she said,” Jeremy awkwardly said. “I’ve got a security meeting. With a client. ‘Cause we have those.”
Waverly’s gaze bounced back and forth between them. “Okay.”
“But, Nicole might be free, right?” Jeremy nodded to Nicole.
Waverly looked at her, eyes wide and full of hope. Even without her assignment, Nicole would have found it difficult to say no.
”Sure,” Nicole answered smoothly. “What time?”
“Is 6 o’clock too early?”
“Not at all.”
“Meet in the lobby?”
“You got it.”
The smile Waverly gave her, bright and wide, made Nicole forget about getting up at that ungodly hour after a long night of surveillance. They headed toward the exit, but Jeremy and Waverly decided to make one last detour.
They approached a vendor selling pepinillos, and Nicole stifled a groan at the pungent odor of pickle brine.
“Have you had these?” Waverly approached the counter, bounce in her step. She pointed to gherkins on a stick, with peppers, pearl onions, and green olives. “Banderillas en Vinagre.” In exchange for a few Euros, Waverly got three skewers. She handed one to Nicole, who hid a grimace as she thanked Waverly, and one to Jeremy, who accepted with glee.
They both bit into their pickles, humming their approval. Nicole hesitated. Her stomach roiled. But when she saw Waverly’s joyful smile, Nicole channeled an old coping mechanism for eating food she didn’t enjoy. She held her breath and wolfed it down as quickly as humanly possible without choking.
“Wow!” Waverly covered her mouth with her fingers while she continued to chew her own gherkin. “You must really like pickles.”
Nicole hummed as she swallowed, managing to not gag from the sour taste of vinegar.
“Do you want some of mine?” Jeremy asked, amused, offering her the rest of his half-eaten pickle.
“I’m good.” Nicole lifted a hand. “If I eat any more, Waverly will have to roll me around for our workout.”
“I guess we all have to give our stomachs a break at some point.” Waverly giggled. “See you tomorrow?”
Standing side-by-side, Nicole and Jeremy both waved to Waverly as she walked away. It had started to drizzle while they were at the market, and she pulled out and opened her umbrella the moment she stepped outside. Nicole wished she had offered to walk with Waverly.
Jeremy took another bite from his skewer, crunching silently on the pickled vegetables. “I thought you hated pickles.”
“They truly are terrible,” Nicole said, moving in search of a bottle of water.
“You know who’s not terrible?”
She glanced over at Jeremy. “Waverly.”
“Waverly,” he agreed with a nod, a small frown creasing his brow. “Maybe Dolls is wrong.”
The thought had occurred to Nicole, too. It was one that was becoming increasingly harder to shake.
Nicole again took the first shift later that evening--partly so she could sleep a bit before her meetup with Waverly, and partly because Jeremy had another raid scheduled with ScissorzGurl6969.
The afternoon’s drizzle had turned into a full downpour, with the hiss of the rain like a thousand beads spilling onto a hard floor.
On screen, Waverly went about her usual bedtime routine of writing in her journal, followed by showering, brushing her teeth, and combing through her long hair. Nicole made it a point, as always, to avert her eyes when Waverly disrobed and put on her sleepwear. Tonight it was a satin negligee that left little to the imagination. Nicole rubbed at her warming cheeks.
Waverly crawled beneath her five layers of blankets. Her hand stilled as she reached for the light switch. Instead, she picked up her cell phone from the nightstand and brought it to her ear.
Jeremy normally left the audio feed on mute, but Nicole turned the sound back on.
“Hey,” Waverly answered, sinking into her pillows. “How’s Bimini?”
That immediately got Nicole’s attention. Waverly had to be talking to one of her older sisters. Nicole slipped on a pair of headphones so as not to disturb Jeremy, and turned the volume up.
“Nothing at all? That’s weird. I thought for sure you’d find a lead there or in San Juan.” Waverly fiddled with the edge of the top sheet peeking out from beneath the mountain of comforters. “Me? Oh, you know, same shit, different toilet over here in Purgatory.”
Nicole lifted one eyebrow. Interesting. Why was Waverly lying to her sister?
“Yeah, I’ll hit the books.” Waverly pinched the bridge of her nose. “Sorry about that, Wy. I’ll be in touch. Yeah, you, too. Goodnight.” After ending the call, Waverly stared at her phone for several seconds before tossing it back onto the nightstand where it landed with a soft crack. She buried her face in her hands, breathing in and out slowly before finally dropping them in her lap.
Nicole couldn’t really make out Waverly’s expression on the video feed, but she could sense Waverly’s unease as she turned off the light and disappeared into the dark. Nicole’s own stomach twisted in discomfort--perhaps Waverly Earp wasn’t as innocent as she seemed.
I forgot to mention last chapter that I owe Nic for coming up with "ScissorzGurl6969" lol. Also, a good chunk of the conversations in this chapter stem from brainstorming sessions with both Nic and Smurf. I heart them.
Nicole couldn’t sleep after her shift, unable to keep her mind off Waverly and her phone call to her fugitive sister. She had some answers now--Wynonna and Willa Earp definitely were looking for something in Bimini, and Waverly’s research had led them there. That was some progress, at least. But Nicole’s thoughts swirled even more around the many questions still left open: Just what exactly were they tracking in Bimini? What other leads would Waverly send? And, perhaps most importantly, why did Waverly lie about being in Purgatory? Did she need alone time away from her family? Or was she fulfilling her own, personal mission? Neither? Both?
The faint clicks of Jeremy’s mouse drifted from the other side of the door, along with the clack of fingers on a keyboard. Waverly had mentioned taking a trip to the Spanish countryside. Could they take her at her word that she just needed a getaway from the city? Or was she finally making a move to further some nefarious plot?
Huffing in frustration, Nicole stared up into the darkness of her room, linked hands cradling the back of her head. There was no use dwelling on it, but she couldn’t help herself, even as she shut her eyes and willed herself to sleep.
After a few moments, Nicole gave up. She opened her eyes, and was surprised to see sunlight peeking through the hotel’s sheer curtains. It didn’t feel like she had gotten any sleep. She blindly grabbed her phone, squinting from the screen’s glare. 5:17 a.m. Might as well get up.
Nicole groaned as she forced herself out of bed. She walked to the bathroom where she splashed water on her face, quickly brushed her teeth, and raked her fingers through her hair. She threw on a pair of gray sweatpants, cropped mid-calf, along with a black sports bra and shirt. After she laced up her sneakers, she left the room.
She found Jeremy slumped in his chair, chin on fist, eyelids drooping. Waverly was nowhere to be found on screen, bed now empty with the sheets pulled back.
“Bathroom?” Nicole asked.
“Bathroom,” Jeremy yawned.
“Go get some more sleep.” Nicole patted his shoulder. “I’ll take it from here.” She fitted herself with an earpiece and placed her cell phone in the pocket of her shorts.
Jeremy rubbed at his eyes with the heels of hands. “You need backup.”
Nicole headed toward the door. “I think I can handle an hour or two alone with Earp.” She stepped out of the suite. “I’ll be in touch.”
Jeremy’s hand flopped through the air in a lazy wave as the door shut.
For that early in the morning, the elevator took an inordinately long time to arrive to the floor, so Nicole opted for the stairs. She bounded down six floors of steps, sometimes two or three at a time.
Waverly had beaten her to the lobby. She waved when she spotted Nicole, who suddenly felt out of breath. She attributed it to her sprint down the stairwell, and not Waverly’s workout clothes: a black-and-hot-pink tank top with matching leggings that clung to her toned figure. A running backpack clung snugly against her back.
“You’re early,” Waverly commented with a smile. She looked bright and refreshed, the exact opposite of how Nicole felt after a night of tossing and turning over Waverly’s motives. Her eyes trailed down Nicole’s body, and Nicole wished she had put on something more flattering than old sweats and a shirt that had probably seen better days.
“So are you,” Nicole replied, finally recovering her breath.
“You know what they say--five minutes early is on time, on time is…”
“Late,” Nicole finished. It was one of Dolls’s favorite lines. “My partner would love you.”
“You mean Jeremy?”
“Hm? Oh.” Nicole nearly smacked herself for the slip up. It was too early. She needed caffeine. She needed Waverly to not flex her arms as she tied her hair back in a ponytail. “My, um, my other partner.”
“Are they here, too?”
“No.” He’s in Bimini trying to find a reason to arrest your sisters, Nicole thought. No big deal. “He’s more of a silent partner.” That wasn’t a lie, per se. She cleared her throat and changed the subject, gesturing to the lobby’s revolving glassdoor. “Shall we?”
They went through the swishing doorwings and into the cool morning air, still sweet and clean from yesterday’s rain. The sun hadn’t yet risen, but they city was already stirring in the receding darkness of twilight.
“Where are we headed?” Nicole turned toward Waverly.
“Just follow me.” Waverly winked and jogged away.
Nicole grinned as she followed, quickly catching up. Waverly started slowly to warm up, leading them in the opposite direction of the Fuente de Neptuno, down Calle de Antonio Maura. Once they crossed into a park, Waverly gradually picked up speed. Nicole matched her stride-for-stride, until they reached a brisk pace that had Nicole wishing she had spent more time at the gym with Dolls.
“Is this okay?” Waverly turned her head toward Nicole.
“Yep.” Nicole inhaled and exhaled quickly, trying not to appear winded when Waverly didn’t seem to be breaking a sweat. Their footsteps pounded in sync on the pavement.
They ran along a path that wound through what Waverly eventually identified as Parque del Buen Retiro. They passed statues of 18th century Spanish kings, a flower-shaped pond, and a grand red-brick-and-tile building with a vaulted roof made of curved iron and glass. Waverly suggested they visit the art galleries inside the Palacio de Velázquez when she got back to town, and Nicole agreed, even as she wondered if she would have to arrest Waverly before that could happen.
Waverly didn’t stop running after they exited the park and continued along a city sidewalk. By then, the sun was starting to break over the horizon, slowly brightening the cobalt sky.
“Almost there,” Waverly said.
Nicole only bobbed her head, lungs burning.
Finally, right before Nicole thought her heart would explode, Waverly slowed to cool down. She still wasn’t breathing hard. Nicole fought the urge to double over and place her hands on her knees. Instead, she took stock of their surroundings: another park, this time with a large stone structure shaped like a boot. Red, blue, green, yellow, and orange climbing holds dotted its uneven surface.
Waverly nodded toward the edifice. “Thought we could go for a climb.”
“Climb?” After two miles? Maybe Waverly was onto Nicole after all and was trying to kill her.
“Yeah.” Waverly jogged in place, knees bouncing all the way up to her chest. “Race you to the top? Loser buys dinner.”
“We don’t have climbing shoes,” Nicole stalled, even as they walked closer to the tower. She hoped she didn’t sound as breathless as she felt. She rested her hands on her hips.
“Psh.” Scrunching up her face, Waverly blew air through her lips. “We don’t need climbing shoes. Afraid you’re going to lose?”
“Me? Lose?” Feeling more confident now that she was getting her second wind, Nicole walked toward the base of the tower-like portion. She curled her fingers over a grip with each hand. “I’ll have you know I’m an expert climber.”
“Then prove it.” Waverly also got into position. “Ready?”
Nicole nodded, albeit reluctantly.
Waverly was fast. Faster than Nicole had anticipated. Her jaw nearly dropped at Waverly’s litheness and the way she bounded past grips. Beautiful, but borderline reckless. Still in her starting position, Nicole couldn’t stop herself from staring at Waverly’s flexing legs and toned backside.
“I can already taste my free meal!” Waverly exclaimed above her.
Shaking off her stupor, Nicole scrambled after Waverly. She hadn’t gone climbing for more than a year—not since the last time with Shae in the Smokies; the beginning of the end, as Nicole sometimes referred to it—but she was pleasantly surprised that it still remained second nature to her. Muscle memory allowed her to easily set her feet on the holds and push up, hard plastic digging into her palms. She almost caught up to Waverly, but in the end it wasn’t enough to overtake her. Waverly reached the top with a triumphant laugh. Nicole, only somewhat mortified, finished almost a minute later.
“Holy hell.” Nicole rolled onto her back once she was over the top, feet dangling off the side. She didn’t bother hiding her heavy breathing, and squinted up at the now clear blue sky, the sun warm on her face. “Where’d you,” Nicole panted out, “learn to climb like that?”
“Back home.” Waverly grinned as she sat cross-legged next to Nicole. “When you live out in the middle of nowhere, there’s really not that much you can do. My sisters and I would climb everything in sight--the house, the barn, the trees. The Rockies aren’t too far of a drive, and sometimes we would climb there. Our favorite was the range that had the Three Sisters. Are you familiar?”
Nicole shook her head, still trying to get her breathing under control.
“Three peaks,” Waverly explained. “Faith, Charity, and Hope. Big sister, middle sister, and little sister.” A wistful look ghosted across her features. “Haven’t been there together in ages, though.”
“You the little sister?” Nicole asked, the burn finally starting to recede from her lungs. She wondered if Waverly would tell the truth or protect the identities of her infamous older sisters.
“What makes you say that?”
Nicole shrugged. “You seem like the type who gets your way. The babies of the family always do.”
Waverly playfully shoved at Nicole. “That is not even remotely true.”
“So you’re not the youngest?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“So you are,” Nicole said confidently, as if she hadn’t already known.
Rolling her eyes, Waverly removed her backpack, unzipped it, and pulled out two reusable water bottles, both turquoise. “So smug for someone who didn’t even think to bring her own water.”
Nicole managed to push herself up onto her elbows. Her arms wobbled a bit, muscles fatigued. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it. Youngest children are amazing.” She longingly eyed the bottle. “I would know, since I’m one, too.”
“Really?” Waverly’s eyes narrowed.
“Yes! I’ve got one older sister. Hayley. Married. Two kids. She has the quote-unquote perfect life. And yet she insists I got everything she never got.”
Waverly chuckled and tossed one bottle to Nicole, who caught it gratefully. “It sounds like Hayley and my oldest sister, Willa, would get along.”
Nicole held up the cold bottle to her sweaty forehead, heart rate ticking up. “Just Willa? Not your other sister?”
“Wynonna’s a wild one.” Waverly’s lips spread into a fond smile. “She doesn’t really do perfect. Doesn’t want to. And I love that about her.”
“Waverly, Wynonna, and Willa Gibson,” Nicole tested the names on her tongue.
Waverly took a drink. “Earp.”
Nicole shook her head. Did Waverly just…? “Sorry?”
“Little known fact,” Waverly said. “Our real last name is Earp.” She watched Nicole’s reaction closely.
Nicole kept her expression neutral. “Like, Wyatt?”
“The one and only.” Waverly let out a deep breath, forehead slightly scrunching. “After our parents died, we were raised by an incredible woman named Gus Gibson. So, I sort of borrowed the name.”
“Your sisters, too?
“No. Just me.”
Waverly shrugged a shoulder. “I guess I always saw it as a curse. The Earp name. But now, I’m wondering if maybe I should have embraced it more.”
Did that mean following in her older sisters’ footsteps into their illegal family business? Waverly didn’t elaborate further, and Nicole didn’t push for more, cognizant of the tenuous trust forming between them.
“Three Earp sisters,” Nicole said tentatively. “You must have been quite the popular girls around there.”
Waverly again sipped her water and averted her eyes. “Something like that.”
Nicole sat up, mirroring Waverly’s cross-legged position, and chugged down half her bottle in three gulps. “And you didn’t get your way as the youngest?”
“Maybe sometimes,” Waverly admitted, rolling her bottle between her palms. “But, in my family, birth order makes a difference, and it’s the firstborn who gets, um, the perks.” Before Nicole could parse out what that could mean, Waverly waved a hand through the air. “Enough about all that boring stuff. Tell me, when did you learn to climb?”
“Oh.” Nicole wiped her lips with the back of her hand. “A few years ago.” If Waverly was revealing parts of her past, Nicole supposed she could return the favor. Give a little, get a little. For the mission. “It’s, uh, how I met my ex-wife, actually.”
“Your...” Waverly’s eyebrows shot up. “You...you were married?”
Nicole finished her water. “Went rock climbing near Vegas. It was my first time, and she helped show me the ropes, so to speak. One thing led to another and… She used to say we got married in a fever. And fevers, they cool off eventually.”
Waverly’s expression was sympathetic. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. She’s a great person. We just didn’t,” Nicole linked her fingers together, “I don’t know, mesh completely.”
“How so?” Waverly shook her head. “I’m sorry. That’s none of my business. You don’t have to answer that.”
“It’s okay,” Nicole reassured. “I brought it up.” She took a second to gather her thoughts, looking out at the now brightly lit tops of the trees and buildings. Even now, after a year of separation and constant justification to her family, she still had a difficult time putting into words why she and Shae didn’t work out. But it seemed easier with Waverly, somehow. “I guess, we just wanted different things in life. And now we’re free to pursue them.”
“Like, she knows exactly what she wants. Always has, always will. Constant stability and a glamorous, high-class lifestyle as a big city doctor.”
“I honestly couldn’t care less about money and status. I just want to make the world a safer place for people, wherever they may be.”
“God,” Waverly exhaled. “That’s se--” She stopped abruptly, cheeks turning pink. “S-so noble,” she finished.
“Is it?” Nicole asked, amused.
“Totally. Knowing what you want and not being afraid to go after it. I only wish I had done something like that sooner, instead of staying with my old high school boyfriend for so long.”
Nicole felt an inexplicable pang in her chest at the mention of an ex-boyfriend. “But now, here you are.”
“Here we are,” Waverly corrected with a smile, hazel eyes as bright as the sun. Maybe even brighter. “And you owe me dinner.”
“Right,” Nicole jokingly rolled her eyes. “When do you get back?”
“Tomorrow at the earliest.”
Nicole refrained from again asking about Waverly’s destination. “Got some place in mind?”
“Hm.” Waverly tapped her chin with a finger. “Maybe we could just go back to the place with the banderillas.”
“The…” Nicole swallowed back her gag reflex. “Were those the pickles?”
“Yup!” Waverly watched Nicole’s expression closely. “You liked them, right?”
Hesitating, Nicole bobbed her head up and down once. “Sure.”
“Then why do you look like you’re about to upchuck?”
“I do not.”
“You’re literally turning green in front of me,” Waverly laughed. “If you didn’t like them, you could have just told me.”
“I was trying to be polite.”
“Polite’s sweet, but unnecessary.” Waverly reached out and took one of Nicole’s hands into her own. “I think you and I could be friends.”
Waverly’s touch was gentle, skin soft. Nicole’s mouth felt dry. “Are you saying we’re not already?”
Retracting her hand, Waverly bit the corner of her bottom lip as she smiled. “Well, then, if we’re already friends, we should be honest with each other, Nicole Scott.”
Nicole’s stomach sank upon hearing her cover name. “About pickles?”
“That’s as good a place to start as any.”
“Fine. They’re vile. We don’t need to preserve things by soaking them in vinegar anymore. It’s 2018.”
Waverly laughed yet again, the sound addicting. “Was that so hard?”
That wasn’t. But the other things Nicole was hiding... “Okay, your turn.”
“I just confessed to you one of my deepest, darkest secrets. It’s your turn. I will accept nothing less in the name of friendship.”
“Okay.” Waverly took a few more moments to give it some thought, gaze turning toward the horizon where the cityscape met clear blue sky. A light breeze cooled the sweat on their skin. “The other day, when we met by the fountain? I wished that I’d bump into you again.”
Nicole’s mouth parted, heart skipping a beat. “You wanted to see me again?” She was genuinely dumbfounded.
Before Waverly could answer, Nicole’s phone trilled, jolting them both. Only a handful of people had that particular number and, on instinct, she pulled her cell out of her pocket. “Sorry,” Nicole winced, unlocking the screen. “I have to…”
She froze. It wasn’t a call, but a text. It read simply: Lost eyes on the marks.
“Everything okay?” Concern laced Waverly’s voice.
“Everything’s fine.” Her gut twisted. She slipped her phone back in her pocket. “Just work stuff, you know.”
“Please don’t let me keep you if you have to go.”
Nicole forced a smile on her face. “There’s nowhere else I need to be. But, you do, right? Maybe we should be heading back.”
Waverly’s expression fell slightly, but she nodded. “Yeah, we probably should.”
They packed up and stood, stretching out their muscles. Nicole already knew she’d be sore the next day. But it was worth it. For her health, of course.
Waverly turned and positioned herself to climb down the tower. As she began to lower herself down the side, she paused and looked back up.
“I’m not racing you down if that’s what you’re going to ask.”
“Why?” Waverly smirked. “Afraid you’ll lose again?”
Laughing, Waverly shook her head. “That’s not what I was going to say.”
“Thank God. My pride and wallet can only take so much.”
Waverly playfully swatted at her ankle. “I just wanted to say, I’m glad my wish came true.”
Heat prickled along the back of Nicole’s neck. “You might change your mind,” she deflected. “Maybe I’m an asshole.”
Waverly’s laughter again cut through the air, and Nicole worried about how much she wanted to hear it, again and again. “I’ve got a good feeling about you. Plus, I’m a great judge of character!”
With a wink, she disappeared off the side with a wide smile just as Nicole’s phone chirped again. She reluctantly pulled it out of her pocket.
Nicole didn’t type back. Instead, she shoved her phone back in her pocket, perhaps with more force than was necessary. She leaned over the edge and watched as Waverly smoothly scaled down the side.
“A great judge of character,” Nicole murmured, heart sinking into a dull, uncomfortable ache. “No, you really aren’t.”
Dolls was in a capital M mood. More so than he usually was, at least. Nicole knew better than to figuratively poke at an angry dragon, but Jeremy had no similar self-preservation instincts.
“How on earth did they give you the slip?” Jeremy asked Dolls, whose scowl only deepened onscreen.
“It happens,” Nicole jumped in before Dolls could bite Jeremy’s head off. “What matters is we still have Waverly Earp as a lead.” She kept her tone calm, neutral, and professional. “She just left the city.”
“Then why are you still in Madrid?” Dolls asked gruffly.
“Jeremy managed to place a tracker on Waverly’s rental,” Nicole said. “We’ll give her about a 30-minute head start before we follow.”
“Chetri, stay in Madrid,” Dolls ordered.
“What!?” Jeremy exclaimed, eyes wide and panicked. “Why?”
“We don’t know where the other two Earps are heading,” Dolls said. “Waverly could be providing a distraction for them. Their target may be in Madrid, for all we know.”
That couldn’t be true, Nicole knew, given that the older sisters thought Waverly was still in Purgatory. The observation hung on the tip of Nicole’s tongue, but she couldn’t bring herself to voice it. She didn’t dwell on why.
“And if they do come here?” Jeremy’s voice creeped up an octave. “Then what?”
“I’ve already dispatched Bustillos to Madrid,” Dolls said. “You’ll have backup while Haught’s tracking the other suspect.” He fixed Nicole with a steely stare. “Don’t lose her.”
Nicole nodded. “I won’t.”
Jeremy had assured Nicole that the vehicle he had secured for her was perfect. But “perfect” to him apparently meant “nightmare.”
“Was this really the only car available?” She used the term “car,” lightly. Subcompact deathtrap was more like it. Even with her seat pushed all the way back, she felt like she had been stuffed inside a tiny clown car. The air conditioner blew only hot air, and the cabin was sweltering, even with the windows down.
“You wanted nondescript, didn’t you?” Jeremy asked through her earpiece.
“Nondescript, yes,” Nicole growled. “Piece of shit, no.”
“Don’t you think you’re over exaggerating, just a tad?”
“Easy for you to say when you’re sitting in a luxury suite,” Nicole muttered.
“Hey, you’re not the one who might have to intercept two bloodthirsty killers!”
Nicole rolled her eyes. “Oh, they’ve never killed anyone”
“That we know of!”
He wasn’t wrong. But it was no use worrying about it now. “It’ll be fine,” she reassured him, despite the unease settling in her chest. “Everything will be fine.”
“If you say so.”
Nicole had been driving north for hours, tailing the GPS signal of the tracker on Waverly’s car. She blamed her grumpiness on the heat and the sore muscles of her lower back, and not what she would have to do if she caught Waverly in the midst of a crime.
Once Nicole left Madrid’s city limits and passed the neighboring localities, the landscape shifted to long stretches of green hills, forests, and farmland, with the occasional small town interspersed here and there. The sun began to set, shades of orange and purple blending in the sky, and Nicole was convinced Waverly was never going to stop.
Startling in her seat, Nicole nearly swerved the car off the two-lane road. “She did? Where?”
“About 20 miles ahead of you in,” Jeremy paused, “Santervas de Campos.”
“I’ve never heard of it.”
“Why would you? It’s literally in the middle of nowhere. It has a population of, like, 130 people, give or take.”
“Did she stop for gas or something?”
“Don’t think so. Signal’s at an inn just inside town.”
Nicole glanced at the GPS tracker. Sure enough, the blinking blue dot that represented Waverly’s car was no longer moving. “Anything notable about this place?”
“Not really. It’s one claim to fame seems to be that Juan Ponce de León was born there.”
Nicole’s brow furrowed. “The explorer?”
“The one and only.”
The information niggled at the back of Nicole’s mind. “She loves history,” she reasoned. “A visit to the hometown of the conquistador who discovered Florida would be right up her alley.”
“Maybe.” Jeremy sounded cautiously hopeful. Nicole wasn’t the only one who wanted to believe that Waverly was what she appeared to be: a curious academic traveling the world for the first time.
He fell silent--possibly to conduct more research into the town. Nicole focused back on the road. Her hands grew clammy as she gripped the steering wheel, its frayed leather biting into her palms.
After about 20 more minutes, the navigation directed her to turn left onto a road that led to a bridge spanning across a wide stream. On a hill in the distance, an old church with a steepled bell tower overlooked the water. Its weathered stone facade and circular bastions reminded Nicole of a medieval castle.
Waiting on the other side of the bridge was the tiniest town Nicole had ever seen. The blocky buildings--alternating between brick and white stucco--were no more than two stories high and crammed together. The half-circle shingles of their red terracotta roofs had faded to a dull rose. To Nicole’s amazement, the horrible car Jeremy had picked actually became quite useful when the road narrowed into a maze of one-way streets.
“You at the inn yet?” Jeremy chimed in suddenly.
“I might have found something.”
“Go for it.” The few locals out on the street waved as she drove by. Nicole waved back.
“In 2011, the town was in the spotlight when the governor of Puerto Rico visited.”
Alarm bells sounded in Nicole’s head. “The Earps were just in Puerto Rico.”
After carefully maneuvering around several tight corners, Nicole reached her destination: an unassuming inn off the main thoroughfare. She recognized Waverly’s red rental instantly, and parallel parked her car about a block away on the other side of the street.
“Why was the governor here?” Nicole cut the engine off.
“To commemorate the quincentennial of Ponce de León’s governorship. They even put up a statue.”
“Is Ponce de León buried here?”
“Gimme a sec.” Rapid keyboard clacks drifted over the line. “No.” Excitement crept into his voice. “Take a guess where.”
A hollow pit burrowed into Nicole’s stomach. “Puerto Rico?”
“Bingo! San Juan to be exact.”
Nicole thought back to Waverly’s phone call with her sisters; the one in which she had specifically mentioned San Juan. They were hot on the Earps’ trail. It should have given Nicole a boost of confidence. Instead, she felt almost queasy.
“Shit,” she exhaled.
“Hard same. So now what?”
“Now?” Nicole reclined the driver’s seat, which creaked in protest, but kept an eye on the inn’s entrance. “Now we wait.”
Nicole longed to rest her eyes, if only for a few minutes. The early start to her day combined with Waverly’s torture in the form of exercise and the long car ride had made her eyelids heavy. But she couldn’t. Not with Waverly possibly up to no good.
A chime from Nicole’s cell phone interrupted her response. Scrunching her brow, she looked down at the screen. Speak of the devil…
I hope you’ve picked out our dinner spot.
Despite herself, Nicole couldn’t stop her lips from curling up into a small smile. Totally. Hope you like Mickey D’s.
I hope that doesn’t mean what I think it means?
Yup. Nicole smirked as she typed. The Golden Arches. They have like one salad that’s vegan. Whaddaya think?
She watched the bouncing ellipses that would turn into Waverly’s reply. I’m thinking I should pick my prize next time.
Nicole lifted an eyebrow. Next time?
Next time I beat you. ;-)
Nicole laughed. Is this that Canadian niceness again that won you a sash?
I AM nice. :-P I never said I was humble.
Shaking her head, Nicole glanced at the inn, wondering which window was Waverly’s. So how’s your trip going?
Waverly didn’t respond right away. Perhaps she was going through her nightly ritual. Or maybe she truly was upset about Nicole’s McDonald’s joke. Just before Nicole was about to succumb to irrational worry, Waverly replied, It’s going great! Stopped for the night in a sleepy little town in the north. I’ve always wanted to stay in a sleepy town!
Sounds lovely. That bit of truth reassured Nicole. Is Purgatory not a sleepy little town?
It’s definitely little, but definitely *not* sleepy. You’ll have to see for yourself sometime.
Nicole’s stomach twisted. Her phone felt almost too warm between her hands. I’d like that. It was the truth. She would like to see Waverly’s home, even if it would probably never happen. She licked her lips. Btw, I was kidding about McD’s tomorrow. Maybe.
Sooooo you had something else in mind?
You’ll have to find out.
Well, I had my heart set on bagged salad, but now I really can’t wait! Waverly paused. I should probably turn in. Have a good night, Nicole! xo
Truthfully, Nicole had very much thought about where to take Waverly, that is, if Nicole didn’t arrest her before dinner. She had researched a number of restaurants with vegan options and settled for Punto Vegano, which was within walking distance of the Templo de Debod--an ancient Egyptian temple in the middle of the city that Nicole hoped would appeal to Waverly’s love of history. It was said to be a perfect spot to catch the sunset…
Nicole cleared her throat, willing herself not to finish that train of thought.
Darkness blanketed the town, which somehow grew even quieter in the stillness of the moonlit night. Even though she’d been up for 18 hours, Nicole now felt wired, running on caffeine from the cold black coffee she’d been drinking to wash down the cardboard-like protein bars Jeremy had packed her. She had munched on three of them already. Although she wished she had opted to quickly find and wolf down a real dinner, she didn’t want to take her eyes off of Waverly’s inn, even if Waverly had said she was going to bed.
Her patience and persistence paid off when movement caught her eye, not from the front door, but from the side of the building. Waverly emerged, dressed in all black, from her t-shirt down to her cargo pants and boots. Her hair was tied back in a long ponytail.
Nicole’s stomach sank. Waverly had lied to her after all. It shouldn’t have surprised her, but it stung nonetheless. She slid down into her seat and turned on her comms. “Earp’s on the move.”
“I'm guessing this isn't a midnight stroll?” Jeremy responded instantly.
“No.” Nicole eyed Waverly’s newest accessory as she walked down the street: a shotgun secured in a scabbard strapped to her back. “And she’s packing some serious heat.”
“Be careful,” Jeremy warned.
“I always am.” Nicole exited the car, happy to finally stretch out her muscles, even while anxiety knotted her stomach. She doubled checked the clip and safety of her Beretta, securing it and a small flashlight in a shoulder holster. Next, she affixed a revolver to an ankle holster and rolled the cuff of her jeans over it.
She cautiously started after Waverly, glad she had pulled on a dark gray Henley to help her blend with the shadows.
Waverly walked quickly and with purpose, as if already familiar with the path to her destination. Nicole noted that Waverly made no effort to ensure she wasn't being tailed, hardly ever looking back. Nicole couldn't tell if it was from inexperience or, worse, arrogance. Waverly didn’t stop until she came to an empty courtyard where she approached a bronze statue of a man atop a white pedestal. He wore a conquistador’s helmet and armor, left arm raised and pointing into the distance.
“I’m beginning to think this girl has a thing for statues,” Nicole muttered as she hid around the corner of a building.
“Another one?” Jeremy asked.
“I can’t make it out, but if I had to hazard guess, I’d say it’s Ponce de León.”
“Correct! According to the GPS, you’re at El Museu Ponce de León.”
Nicole watched Waverly circle the statue once then stand in front of it. Turning her back to it, she stared out in the direction it was pointing. After a few moments of squinting into the darkness, she pulled out her phone, the screen illuminating her face.
Do you think she’s going to steal something from there?
Waverly started walking again, away from the museum.
“No, I don’t think so.” Nicole continued onward. Waverly’s path seemed to be a straight line from the statue. She didn’t deviate. When she had to go around buildings or other obstacles, she quickly returned to that invisible route. Wherever Waverly went, Nicole followed. Before long, the street began to slope upward, and Nicole could hear water streaming in the distance. “What’s at the top of the hill?”
“Nothing but a church,” Jeremy said.
It had to be the same one Nicole had seen when she first drove into town. Sure enough, the grand structure soon came into view. Wasting no time, Waverly bypassed the heavy double doors of its entrance, shimmied up a nearby lamp post, and hung from its arm.
Nicole watched Waverly rock back and forth, bending her knees on the backswing and kicking her legs out straight going forward to increase the arc of her swing. She did this once. Twice. On the third, she let go of the light and launched her body toward a slitted window.
Nicole held her breath, mouth agape, as Waverly gripped the ledge and braced her feet against the outer wall. From there, she bounded up to the next window, and the next, somehow finding the right places to grab and from which to push off.
“What’s she doing now?”
“Oh, just scaling the wall,” Nicole exhaled in a rush. “You know, as one does.”
Waverly was just as spry as she had been at the climbing tower earlier that day. In no time, she reached the top of the steeple, entering the belltower through an unglazed window.
“Yeah, like Spider-Woman.” Nicole shook her head. “Wait, there’s a Spider-Woman?” She emerged from the shadows and approached the same lamp post that Waverly had climbed.
“Yup. The first one was Jessica Drew, who had memories of being a spider implanted into her by HYDRA…”
Nicole tuned out Jeremy’s ramble and began following in Waverly’s footsteps. Or tried to, at least. She was a bit more sluggish than Waverly as she swung from the streetlight to the window. She firmly blamed the lack of real food and sleep. She clung to the ledge with both hands, but lost her grip with her left, causing the right side of her body to slam against the ashlar blocks.
“And then there’s an alternate universe Gwen Stacy who--” Jeremy paused when Nicole grunted in pain. “Haught, what are you doing?”
“Nothing.” Heart hammering against her ribs, she stretched her left arm back up to regain a two-handed hold on the sill.
“Please don’t tell me you’re going up after Earp.”
“What on earth would give you that idea?” Nicole carefully made her way up the wall, doing her best to mimic Waverly’s path.
“You should just wait on the ground for her. We have a tracker on her car.”
“And if she’s arranged other transportation? I don’t want to risk her giving me the slip.” Like Dolls, she thought.
“And if she catches you? Then what?”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”
Jeremy let out a long-suffering sigh. “This is a bad idea.”
By the time Nicole reached the top and half-stumbled into the bell tower, every muscle in her body was screaming in protest. Her legs wobbled and she braced a hand on the large bronze bell to keep from toppling over. Her right arm stung. She glanced down and saw that she was bleeding where her sleeve was ripped from hitting the wall.
Sighing, she pulled out her flashlight and clicked it on, scanning her immediate surroundings. Nothing out of the ordinary. The beam came across a set of stone steps that led downward.
Nicole descended, keeping her footfalls as light as possible. An open wooden door waited at the bottom. She shone the light on the lock, noting that it had been picked cleanly--yet another one of Waverly’s hidden skills, apparently. She took another staircase down into the church’s narthex. Waverly was nowhere to be seen.
Nicole walked past wooden pews through the nave, underneath the domed crossing, and checked the corners of both transepts--all under the watchful eye of saints and apostles in the form of statues, stained glass, and portraits. The door to the sacristy behind the altar remained locked, meaning that Waverly most likely was uninterested in whatever was inside.
“Where do you think she went?” Even though Nicole kept her voice low, her words seemed to echo inside the church.
“The schematics show an underground level.”
Nicole turned in a slow circle until her light landed on a partially opened metal gate. “Bingo.” It had been expertly picked, just like the bell tower door. She went down yet another set of stairs on the other side of the gate, the air growing stale and dank the lower she went.
After what felt like a small eternity, she reached a dark chamber.
“Well? Don’t leave me hanging! What do you see?”
Nicole swept her light back and forth.
The fine hairs on the back of her neck rose.
A chill trickled down her spine.
“It’s,” she swallowed, “some sort of crypt.” She was surrounded by sarcophagi.
“So she’s like a tomb raider!?” Nicole couldn’t tell if there was more awe or disgust in Jeremy’s tone. “Still think this was a good idea?”
It felt like the walls of the tomb were closing in, but she resisted the urge to flee back up the stairs--or to give Jeremy that satisfaction.
“Yep,” Nicole said, defiant.
“Can you at least watch your step in there?” Jeremy’s warning crackled in and out in her earpiece, the reception growing weak that far underground.
“For what?” Nicole moved further into the catacomb.
“A booby trap.”
“You’re kidding right?”
“Why would there be…” She stepped on a stone that gave way beneath her foot. Before she could react, a rope squeezed around her ankles. An ignominious yelp escaped past her lips as she was sent flying upward.
Strung up by her feet. Swinging upside down in the air. Blood pooling inside her pounding skull. Nicole could finally admit that maybe, just maybe, this hadn’t been the best idea.
“You okay there, Haught?”
“Just dandy,” Nicole gritted out, trying to curl her body upward to reach the thick rope binding her ankles. Her abdominal muscles burned from the exertion and, cursing, she flopped backward like a hooked fish.
“You totally triggered a booby trap, didn’t you?”
“No.” Nicole eyed the flashlight she had dropped, its bright beam cutting a swath through the darkness.
“Even though I warned you.”
She held back a growl that, nevertheless, escaped as a groan. Her head was killing her, just about ready to explode. Sweat trickled down between her shoulders until the back of her neck was damp. She could taste salt and must, and tried not to think that she was breathing in the dust of corpses buried hundreds of years ago. Dark spots clouded her vision, and she closed her eyes. Things couldn’t possibly get any worse.
That is, until she heard the tell-tale slide and click of a firearm being cycled, primed and ready for action.
Her eyes blinked open. Swallowing hard, Nicole stared down the business end of a double-barrel shotgun and, behind it, Waverly Earp.
Thanks for all the support! I really appreciate it! As always, heaps of gratitude for Nic and Smurf for beta reading and all the great suggestions when I get stuck.
Santervás de Campos, Spain
An upside-down Waverly approached, steps cautious. She now wore a headlamp, but it was clicked off. Her visage swayed to and fro from Nicole’s vantage point.
“Nicole?! Why are you…” Her eyes narrowed as Nicole grinned sheepishly. “Hands up!”
Nicole’s arms remained dangling toward the floor. “My up or your up?”
“I just mean, my hands are already up, except my up would be your down, and your up would be my down, and--”
“Just keep your hands where I can see them!” Waverly exclaimed.
“Dude, are you trying to get shot?” Jeremy piped in, alarmed.
“Shut up,” Nicole whispered.
“Excuse me?” Waverly asked.
“Sorry!” Nicole did as she was told, and stayed as still and as non-threatening as possible, even if her head felt like it was about to explode. Gravity, she decided, was the worst.
“Good,” Waverly said. “Now, slowly, give me your weapon.” She tightened her grip on her shotgun. “And don’t even think about trying anything funny.”
Nodding, Nicole carefully unsnapped her shoulder holster and handed the Beretta, grip first, toward Waverly. Nicole managed to keep herself from glancing upward toward her ankle where her revolver remained strapped, thankfully still covered by the cuff of her jeans and the rope.
Waverly checked the safety before tucking Nicole’s gun into the waist of her cargo pants. She raised her shotgun once again. “Give me one good reason I shouldn’t help you slip into something more comfortable. Like a coma!”
Panic forced out Nicole’s reply before she could think better of it. “I still owe you dinner?”
“Oh, she’s gonna pop a cap in yo’ ass,” Jeremy breathed out.
“I said a good reason.” Waverly took a menacing step forward. “You think this is funny? You think I can’t do it?”
“No!” Heart racing, Nicole knew she needed to de-escalate the situation. Pronto. “No,” she repeated more calmly. “I mean, I think you’re more than capable. But…”
“You are many things, Waverly Earp, but I don’t think a killer is one of them.”
Waverly’s expression wavered. “You don’t know me.”
“No, I don’t,” Nicole agreed, trying to her best to sound placating, which was difficult with all the blood rushing to her head. “But I know of you.”
Waverly’s guard went back up immediately, the muscles of her jaw tightening. “Who are you really?”
“Nicole Scott.” It was getting easier and easier to let her cover roll off her tongue. “You already know that.”
“Who do you work for?”
“No one,” Nicole lied. “I work for myself.”
“You expect me to buy that? Who sent you? Bobo?”
“Who?” Nicole and Jeremy asked at the same time.
“Only one way to find out.” Waverly holstered her shotgun and pulled a dagger from her boot.
“Whoa, what are you doing?” Nicole struggled against the bindings around her ankles. The rope only cut off even more circulation to her already numb feet.
“What’s happening?” The fear in Jeremy’s voice only heightened Nicole’s own distress.
Waverly clicked on her headlamp and Nicole reared back with a wince. The light was blinding. Nicole raised her hands to cover her eyes, the afterimage of the bulb floating across her line of sight like a ghost. Nicole’s reaction made Waverly pause mid-step and stare at the tattered remnants of Nicole’s right sleeve.
“You’re bleeding.” Waverly’s brow creased.
In all the commotion, Nicole had forgotten about the scrapes on her arm. “Not everyone is Spider-Woman, I guess.”
Something about Nicole’s injury caused Waverly to lower the blade, if only by an inch. “You said you knew of me. Is that why you’re following me?”
“I know of your family. Anyone who’s anyone in my field knows about the Earps. I didn’t know you were one until you told me.” Nicole kept her voice calm and neutral, even as nerves twisted her gut.
“You’re telling me this was all just one big coincidence?”
“If I see a business opportunity, I take it. Jeremy and I wanted to offer our services.”
“Why are you bringing me into this?!” Jeremy huffed.
“And why would I need security consultants?”
“Security,” Nicole deadpanned. “Protection. Maybe from this Bobo person, whoever the hell that is.”
“So, what, you’re some sort of mercenary?”
“Potato, Po-tah-to. Like the fine line between a treasure hunter and a thief.”
Waverly scoffed. “I’m not a thief.”
“Says the woman about to rob a grave.”
Nostrils flaring, Waverly bent down and re-sheathed her knife. “You know what? I don’t have time for this.” She straightened back up. “Enjoy hanging out for a bit.”
“No, Waverly, hold on a sec,” Nicole implored.
“Ta-ta!” Flattening her fingers and bending them forward and back, Waverly gave Nicole a mocking wave before going back the way she had come.
“Shit.” Nicole struggled against her bindings, yet again, to no avail. The swinging of the rope was nauseating.
“What should I do?” Jeremy sounded like he was on the verge of hyperventilating. “Should I drive up there? Notify Interpol?”
“Negative.” She curled her torso upward, stretching her arms up to reach the rope wrapped around her ankles. “It would take too long.” After several attempts, her abdominal muscles burning with each try, she finally grabbed hold of the rope. The rough fibers scratched her palms, and the pounding in her head thankfully subsided somewhat.
“You can’t very well stay there and get caught!”
“You don’t say?”
No matter how much she pulled at the rope, Nicole knew she wouldn’t be able to get her legs out. She could, however, wriggle the cuff of her pants loose. She yanked at the denim, wiggling it back and forth, until it popped out from beneath the knotted cord. Nicole let out a triumphant whoop as she managed to remove her revolver from its ankle holster. She uncurled her body to catch her breath and give her sore stomach a break, letting herself rotate in a slow, creaking circle.
“Are you free?”
“What are you doing?”
Nicole manually cocked the hammer back with her thumb and aimed at the rope where it was attached to a rusty pulley. “When in doubt, shoot yourself out.”
Despite Jeremy’s worry, Nicole was confident she’d be able to hit the target. She had gotten a perfect score on her last pistol qualification. Granted, she hadn’t been hanging upside down, but… Positive thoughts.
Before she could pull the trigger, the soft click of steps on stone caught her attention. She looked toward the staircase, where a man now stood. He was boyish and pale-faced with greasy, side-swept blond hair. He startled when he saw Nicole, beady eyes widening. His hand flew to his hip. Nicole, fueled by instinct, straightened her arm out and fired a round at him. The crack of the shot was deafening in the enclosed tomb. The man flew backwards from the blow, landing with a thud, his own gun clattering on the floor.
Haught, what’s happening?!
The recoil made the arc of the rope’s swing wider, but Nicole wasted no time in cocking her revolver again, re-aiming it at the pulley, and shooting. She fell immediately. Even though she placed her arms over her head to brace herself for impact, she still landed hard. Pain lanced up her forearms, the wind knocked completely out of her. She wouldn’t have much time to recover. She could already hear Waverly rushing to her location. Rolling over, Nicole pushed herself up onto one knee and pointed her gun toward the archway where Waverly appeared.
“If you’re not dead, I’ll kill you myself for giving me a myocardial infarction!” Jeremy shouted in her ear.
Waverly froze when she saw Nicole, then immediately raised her own shotgun. Nicole’s breath came in harsh pants, head swimming. Her heart pounded so hard she wondered if Waverly could hear it.
“Hey, now.” Nicole raised her empty hand in appeasement. “I mean you no harm.”
“Oh yeah? Why should I believe you?”
“Because if I had wanted to shoot you, you would have been dead the moment you walked in.” She canted her head toward the fallen man. “Like him.”
Waverly’s gaze traveled to the prone man, brows knitting together.
“Look, I’ll prove it to you.” As slowly as possible, Nicole released the cylinder of her revolver and emptied it. The four remaining bullets clinked against the ground. She tossed the now unloaded gun toward Waverly. It skittered against the floor until it came to a stop next to Waverly’s foot.
“Don’t move.” Waverly carefully walked in a wide arch toward the man, shotgun still firmly aimed at Nicole. She exhaled forcefully when she reached him, muttering what sounded like, “Stupid Carl,” but Nicole couldn’t quite make it out.
“Waverly,” Nicole tried again, both hands now raised. “I know you have no reason to trust me--”
“You bet your ass I don’t.” Waverly picked up the other intruder’s gun and tucked it away. “You lied about liking pickles. I mean, who does that?! I should have known then you were untrustworthy!”
“Accurate,” Jeremy unhelpfully agreed.
“Okay,” Nicole acquiesced. “But I’m not lying about wanting to help you.”
“Self-interest. I watch your back. In exchange, I get a 20 percent cut of whatever job you’re pulling.”
“That’s all??” Jeremy sounded incredulous.
“So you’re only in it for the money,” Waverly said slowly.
Nicole shrugged nonchalantly. “What other reason is there?”
A shadow seemed to pass over Waverly’s features, but it was gone so fast Nicole thought she might have imagined it. “I don’t need help.”
“Maybe,” Nicole agreed. “But if that guy found you, there might be more on the way.”
Even in the dim light, Nicole could see Waverly visibly pale. “How do I know you didn’t lead them here yourself?”
“You don’t. The way I see it, you have two options: let me help or shoot me.”
“I could,” Waverly swallowed, “I could knock you out.”
Nicole inclined her head. “Three options, then.” She would be up shit creek without a paddle if Waverly settled on the second or the third.
Seconds ticked by as Waverly considered her next step, silence stretching between them to the point that Nicole was getting less confident that Waverly wouldn’t pull the trigger. Even Jeremy had gone silent.
Cursing under her breath, Waverly reluctantly placed her shotgun back in its holster and turned around. “I don’t have time for this. You try anything, I will shoot you.”
“Damn, you are one lucky nerf herder,” Jeremy breathed out.
Nicole hid her relief behind a cocky grin. “Noted.” She scrambled upright and retrieved her flashlight, the soles of her feet prickling with renewed circulation. “Can I get one of my guns back?”
“Don’t push it,” Waverly threw back over her shoulder.
Waverly led the way down a narrow passage, their two beams of light piercing through the darkness. They descended even further until nothing but static filled Nicole’s ear. They were too deep underground for a signal. Although the path branched off into several vaults, Waverly continued straight ahead until it dead-ended into the innermost sanctum. The air inside was even more stale, still, and cold. Death permeated the entire chamber.
Multiple sarcophagi lined the walls, and the fine hairs at the nape of Nicole’s neck stood on end. Waverly began examining the inscriptions carved into sides of the stone coffins, some crumbling with age.
“What exactly are you looking for?” Nicole watched with interest.
“That’s none of your concern,” Waverly dismissed.
It was disconcerting how the warmth from their previous interactions was now practically nonexistent. Nicole understood, of course. In Waverly’s shoes, Nicole would have been distrustful, too. Still, she couldn’t quite ignore the dull ache in her chest caused by Waverly’s cold shoulder. Instead of pushing it down, though, Nicole embraced it. Used it to remind herself to focus on her actual mission. She wasn’t there to befriend Waverly Earp. She was there to lock her sisters up for a very long time.
Sighing, Nicole walked up to one sarcophagus and, illuminating it, squinted at its engraving. She didn’t recognize the letters. Actually, they weren’t letters at all. They looked more like shapes than the familiar Latin alphabet. She ran a finger along the grooves of the squares and triangles, the stone rough against her skin. Some pointed up, down, left, right. Some had missing sides and dots in the middle. A few reminded her of the arms of a Maltese cross, the ends indented into the shape of a V.
“What kind of writing is this?” Nicole took out her phone and snapped a picture, wishing she could send the image to Jeremy. She was sure he would have known instantly.
“You’re here for security.” Waverly didn’t look at Nicole, her tone clipped. “Not chit-chat.”
“And yet you won’t give me a gun.” Nicole rolled her eyes. She swept her flashlight from one side of the crypt to the next. “You know, if you’re actually pressed for time, I could maybe help. Otherwise, I’ll have nothing to do but talk.”
Waverly exhaled loudly. “Fine, if it’ll keep you quiet. Look for anything out of the ordinary. Anything that stands out.”
“Like what?” Waverly whipped around.
Nicole’s light had landed on one coffin tucked discreetly in one corner. It appeared stained and pockmarked, but something about it was definitely… off. It’s surface was smoother than the others, its edges sharper.
“Someone went to a lot of trouble to make that one blend in,” Nicole observed.
Waverly went to it immediately, footsteps echoing in the chamber. She bIew over the top, dust clouding the air in a puff. In each corner was a symbol. Starting at the top-left and going clockwise were an arrow-like diamond pointing to the left, the same shape going downward, a leftward facing triangle, and then a rightward facing triangle. Nicole took another picture.
“This is it!” Waverly practically squealed, before she cleared her throat. She moved to one end of the sarcophagus and placed her hands on its lid. “Help me get this off.”
“I thought I was just here for security.”
“Security. Hired muscle. Potato. Po-tah-to.” Waverly smirked. “Now, are you going to help or what?”
“You could say the magic word.”
“Good enough.” Nicole positioned herself on the opposite end of the coffin, stomach twisting at what she was about to do. She gripped the edge of the top. Grunting, they both slid it to the side, the stone groaning and crashing loudly against the ground.
Nicole kept her gaze trained away, afraid of seeing a dessicated corpse inside.
“Holy fudgenuggets,” Waverly breathed out.
Nicole chanced a glance and nearly sighed in relief when she saw, not a dead body, but a cylinder made of smooth, modern metal. The capsule was secured by some kind of combination lock, one that Nicole had never seen before. It had three concentric circles. Within each ring were lines that, taken all together, formed a haphazard pattern.
“Can’t rob a grave when there’s no grave.” Waverly pointed out as she lifted the container and set it gently on the ground.
Still burglary, Nicole thought, but didn’t say. “Now what?” she asked after she snapped another photo.
“Now, we open it.” Waverly, almost reverently, traced the curves of the lock and began turning the circles, seemingly at random.
“How do you know what to do?”
“What if you get it wrong?” Nicole imagined the canister exploding or releasing a noxious gas if Waverly failed, like in the movies.
“I won’t.” The confidence in Waverly’s voice was enough for Nicole. For now.
Nicole took a step back and walked back to the entrance of the crypt to make sure the coast was still clear. To her relief, the corridor remained empty. Behind her, Waverly whispered a string of curses every time the combination she entered didn’t work. Waverly eventually growled in frustration and stomped away from the capsule, hands on her hips. She began to pace back and forth.
“Thought you wouldn’t get it wrong.” Nicole couldn’t stop herself from teasing Waverly. She instantly regretted it when she saw a flash of hurt beneath Waverly’s frustration.
“Like you could do any better,” Waverly snapped.
Nicole definitely knew she couldn’t do better, but she walked back to the canister anyway. Waverly had gotten some of the lines to connect, a few resembling the corners of a triangle. Something niggled at the back of Nicole’s mind, causing her to glance back at the symbols on the outside surface of the sarcophagus.
“Maybe you’re overthinking it,” Nicole suggested.
“You’re the expert now, are you?” Waverly lifted one eyebrow.
“These markings.” Nicole pointed. “You know what they are.”
Waverly nodded reluctantly. “A Knights Templar cipher.”
“The Catholic military order.” Nicole’s brow wrinkled.
“You know them?”
Nicole tried to not be offended by the lilt of surprise in Waverly’s voice. “Fought in the Crusades. Protected the Holy Grail.” She refrained from mentioning how Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade had been one of her favorite movies as a child.
Amazingly enough, Waverly cracked a smile. “Rumored to protect. But, yes, the one and only.”
“You can read it.” It wasn’t a question. “What does it say?”
“You yourself said we’re running out of time,” Nicole pointed out.
Waverly crossed her arms, not unlike a petulant child. “Fine,” she said. “It says: Life.”
“Life?” Nicole repeated slowly. “On a coffin.”
“Ironic knights are ironic.”
“Okay.” Nicole let that sink in. “Well, maybe the combination is related.”
Waverly shook her head. “No, it wouldn’t be that simp--” She stopped midstride. “Or would it?” She leaped back toward the capsule and crouched down once again.
Nicole placed herself beside Waverly and watched over her shoulder as she manipulated the three rings until they slowly, but surely, formed an upside-down triangle. She didn’t understand the significance, and wanted to ask Waverly, but didn’t want to disrupt her concentration.
“Moment of truth.” Waverly took a deep breath and pressed the center.
Something inside the canister clicked.
The lock separated.
Nicole’s breath stilled as Waverly carefully opened the capsule and reached inside. She pulled out her hand. In the middle of her palm, she cradled what looked like a stone, shaped like a paddle. Half an oval protruded from its center.
“What is it?” Nicole wondered if it would feel as smooth as it looked. She was tempted to reach out and touch it.
Before Waverly could answer, the clack of steps sounded from down the corridor, startling them both.
“Hold that thought.” Waverly whipped out a plastic ziplock bag from one of the pockets of her cargo pants, slipped the artifact inside, sealed it, and returned it to her pocket. She reached behind her, retrieved Nicole’s Beretta, handed it back to her, then unholstered her shotgun. “Don’t make me regret this.”
They made their way back at a cautious, but quick pace, with Nicole taking the lead. She paused at the entrance of the first chamber, shoulder blades pressed to the wall, and held up a hand to stop Waverly. She peeked around the corner. The room appeared clear. Nicole took a deep breath and swiveled through the archway, weapon ready, eyes swiftly sweeping the rest of the room.
“What the…” Nicole was shocked to find it empty. The body of her would-be assailant was nowhere to be found. All that remained were smears of dark blood on stone.
“Shit,” Waverly exhaled. “We’ve gotta get out of here.”
She took off before Nicole could ask any more questions. They retraced their steps back up into the church. Crossed the transepts. Cut through the nave. Ascended to the roof via the staircase in the narthex. When they emerged back into the evening air, they turned off their respective lights and rounded past the old, bronze bell. As Waverly prepared to climb out one of the unglazed windows, Nicole noticed a red dot floating across Waverly’s torso, moving from her shoulder to her chest.
“Watch out!” Without thinking, Nicole shoved Waverly down just as a hail of bullets struck where Waverly had been. The shots clanged against the bell and shattered stone upon impact. Nicole immediately emptied her clip during a lull in the shooting. She only had a few seconds, but she spied at least two tactical Jeeps on the street below surrounded by at least half a dozen heavily armed combatants. She ducked back down again for cover and reloaded. Her earpiece chirped incessantly. Jeremy was trying to reconnect, but she couldn’t pay attention to that right now.
Nicole kneeled next to Waverly. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Waverly said in a daze. “I can’t believe they got here so fast.”
“They?” Nicole offered a hand to help Waverly. “Who are they?”
Waverly ignored Nicole’s hand and pushed herself back up to her feet by herself. She pumped her shotgun and pulled the trigger. Boom! She cycled it again. Boom! Waverly shouted something over the blasts. Something that suspiciously sounded like, “Eat shit, shit-eaters!”
But it was hard to tell with Nicole’s ears cottony from the din, and with her attention held hostage by how stunning Waverly looked. Intensity blazed in her eyes, face set with determination. Nicole’s heart hammered against her ribs.
The return fire snapped Nicole from her trance. It was even heavier than earlier. She turned away to shield herself, but the spray of rock still stung her face.
“Waverly, we’re not gonna win this firefight!” Nicole shouted over the thundering cracks of the gunshots. “We have to run!”
For a few seconds, Nicole thought Waverly would argue with her. But she nodded and reholstered her shotgun.
They ran to the opposite window and climbed out. They scampered across the roof with an adrenaline-fueled burst of speed, away from the street and the enemy fire, feet pounding hard on the stone roof. They reached the opposite edge of the church facing the river.
“Now what?” Waverly breathed heavily as she peered out onto the churning waters.
Nicole glanced back, her own lungs burning. They couldn’t go back the way they came. If they climbed down the sides here, there was no telling if they would be able to outrun the shooters or their Jeeps. They were trapped. Unless…
Nicole leaned past the edge of the roof. “We have to jump.”
“What?!” Waverly squeaked. “You’re kidding, right?”
“It’s too far. We’ll never make it!”
“We have no choice!”
A shot whizzed by Nicole’s ear, and she turned and fired back. She somehow hit the attacker center mass, despite the distance.
“Oh, God!” Waverly walked three steps away, then back. Away and back. Her earlier bravado had dissipated like gunsmoke. “Why did I do this? I should have stayed in Purgatory.”
“Willa was right. I can’t do anything right. And now I’m gonna die here!”
“Waverly!” Nicole shot yet another enemy the minute he set foot on the roof. If they waited much longer, they would be swarmed.
“And I never got to swim in the ocean, or jump out of a plane, or eat geoduck!”
“I thought you were vegan!?”
“Hell, I never even got to kiss a girl to see if I liked it!” Waverly was clearly freaking out, voice growing more and more hysterical.
“Jesus.” Nicole didn’t know what else to do, so she holstered her gun, marched up to Waverly, and kissed her. Hard. On the mouth.
Now was definitely not the time to focus on how soft Waverly’s lips were. Or how she smelled like wildflowers and sweat. Nicole stepped back, praying that her gamble worked. It had. Waverly was speechless, eyes wide and unblinking, jaw dropped.
“There.” Nicole grabbed Waverly’s hand, dimly aware of the wail of sirens in the distance. “Now jump!”
She sprinted toward the edge of the roof. Waverly thankfully was in step with her, squeezing her hand so tightly Nicole thought her bones might crack. Together they leaped, weightless in the air for a few precious moments before they crashed against the darkness of depths that swallowed them whole.
Apologies for taking so long to post this chapter. Thank you all for your patience! Clearly, I'm off my weekly schedule, but I'll do my best to not take tooooo long between updates. As always, eternal gratitude to Nic and Smurf for the quick beta reads and the feedback!
The water was so cold, it squeezed the air out of Nicole’s lungs the second she was submerged. Despite an instinctive spike in panic, she fought her body’s need to inhale. She kicked her legs and stroked her way back up, gulping for air once she finally broke the surface.
“Waverly?!” Nicole craned her head above the river’s waves, frantically searching for signs that Waverly was okay. The sound of splashing caught her attention.
About a few meters away, she saw Waverly’s face bob above the water then disappear. She reemerged, but didn’t shout, only tilting her head back as she continued to struggle to keep afloat.
“Waverly!” Nicole swam forward, closing the gap as quickly as possible.
She reached out to Waverly, whose eyes were glassy and wide. She was taken by surprise when Waverly, driven by fear, grabbed her by the shoulders and tried to use her as a buoy. They both sunk into the depths.
Keep calm. Nicole repeated the mantra. Remember your training.
She gripped Waverly’s wrists and twisted away, using the momentum to turn Waverly’s thrashing body so that she faced the surface. Grabbing the back of Waverly’s shirt, Nicole brought them both back up into the air. Waverly sputtered as Nicole positioned herself behind Waverly and hooked one arm across her heaving chest.
“Hey,” Nicole said as soothingly as possible into Waverly’s ear. “It’s okay.” Waverly’s hair stuck to Nicole’s cheek. “I’ve got you.”
Nicole felt Waverly relax, not completely, but just enough so that she began to float on her back.
“Good,” Nicole breathed out. “That’s good.” Using her free arm, she swam toward the opposite shore, careful to go with the flow of the current to keep herself from getting winded. Nicole chanced a glance back toward the church, its silhouette dark against the backdrop of flashing blue lights. She had half expected a hail of bullets to rain down on them the moment they rose to the surface. But none came. And no one followed them into the water.
Relieved, Nicole continued paddling at a steady pace, grateful when Waverly began to kick her legs to aid in the process. Together, they moved forward.
By the time Nicole’s feet bumped up against the rocky riverbed, she didn’t know what hurt more: her arms, legs, or lungs. Nicole tried to help Waverly to her feet, but they both stumbled onto the riverbank. Muck oozed beneath Nicole’s fingers as she caught herself from collapsing face first.
She turned toward Waverly. “Are you o--”
A fistful of mud slapped against Nicole’s cheek.
Her lips parted in shock, the gritty taste of earth filling her mouth.
“That’s for trying to kill me,” Waverly spat out, eyes flashing in anger.
“Kill you?” Nicole swiped a hand down her face. “I saved you!”
“I wouldn’t have needed saving if you hadn’t thrown us into the river!” Waverly slipped a bit as she got up, boots squishing toward dryer land.
“Are you serious right now?” Nicole scrambled to her feet, which sunk in the mud. She fought against the suction of the ground. “We were outnumbered! It was the only option!”
Another ball of sludge quickly followed, this time hitting Nicole right between the eyes. “And that’s for stealing my… that… ugh!”
Nicole again wiped away the mud, shaking it off with an agitated flick of her hand. The back of her neck heated up. She chalked it up to indignation, rather than shame. Waverly was being so unreasonable.
“I did what I had to do!” It took several long strides for Nicole to catch up with Waverly, who moved swiftly despite her shorter legs. “Excuse me if I wanted us to, you know, not die!”
“Yeah, just keep telling yourself that.” Waverly reached into a side pocket of her cargo pants to check on the artifact. Her shoulders relaxed. “I need to get back to the inn.”
“You can’t go back there.” Nicole tapped at her headset. It was unresponsive. Cursing under her breath, she yanked it out of her ear and dropped it on the ground.
“Those goons, for one. Who are they?”
“The bad guys.” Waverly crossed her arms and said nothing more.
“If the bad guys,” Nicole made air quotes, “tracked you to the church, chances are they have eyes on the inn.”
Irritation spiked within Nicole. “Didn’t you already steal what you came for? What could you possibly need there that you’re willing to risk getting killed? Again?!”
Waverly whirled around on Nicole. “If you want your cut, I have to get back to the inn. It’s not an option.”
She stomped onward, and Nicole stood still. She briefly wondered if she should just arrest Waverly now. Get it over and done with--her real mission be damned--just so she could be free of whatever nonsense Waverly had gotten herself into. The thought passed and, with a deep breath, Nicole followed Waverly, her soaked clothes growing heavier and heavier with each step.
It took almost a half-an-hour for them to backtrack to the inn, moving carefully across the bridge to the village and through the streets to ensure they weren’t being followed. The now dried mud from the riverbank itched terribly, and no matter how many times Nicole tried to scratch it off, there was still more. Waverly hadn’t said one word to Nicole since the river, which suited Nicole just fine, despite all the lingering questions she had. They didn’t have to be friends, Nicole told herself. In fact, it would be better for them both if they weren’t.
A few blocks from their destination, they rounded a corner, only for Waverly to freeze in her tracks, turn on her heel, and push Nicole back into a dark alley.
“Wha…” Nicole lost her train of thought as she was pressed into a small alcove on the side of a building, Waverly’s body flush against her. Nicole tried not to think about how their wet clothes stuck together, or how she could feel the rise and fall of Waverly’s shallow breaths.
“Shh,” Waverly whispered. She peeked out to the side and whipped her head back, leaning in toward Nicole’s chest.
Despite the thundering of her heart, Nicole picked up the low hum of an engine and the crackle of asphalt under rubber. A beam of light cut down the alley. Nicole held her breath. It arced left. Then right. Waverly pushed into Nicole even more, hands on her shoulders, and Nicole flattened her back against the wall, damp hair catching painfully on the rough brick. On instinct, Nicole wrapped her arms around Waverly and pulled her closer. She smelled like the river, a little bit sweet and a little bit dank.
Waverly glanced up at her. Nicole expected to see murder in Waverly’s eyes, but instead, the apprehension Nicole felt was mirrored in them. Nicole pushed the fear down, hoping she could convey a sense of calm to Waverly. She felt Waverly squeeze her shoulders lightly. Message received.
The light disappeared, and they exhaled in unison. The sound of squealing tires made Nicole’s body go weak with relief. She might very well have collapsed if not for Waverly still pinning her in place. Waverly waited a few more seconds and then peeked out a second time.
“It’s clear.” Waverly shoved backward, perhaps a bit more forceful than necessary. Nicole immediately missed her warmth. “Let’s go.”
They reached the inn with no other incidents, bypassing the main entrance and going straight to the fire escape. Up they climbed, footsteps clanging softly against metal, until they reached the window to Waverly’s room. Waverly slid it up and entered.
Hearing Waverly gasp, Nicole quickly ducked inside and saw for herself the cause of Waverly’s dismay.
The entire room had been turned upside down: drawers yanked out of the desk, the dresser, and the side tables; clothes and bedsheets strewn about; feathers from ripped pillows blanketed nearly every surface.
“Shit,” Nicole breathed out. “We have to hurry.”
“Thank you, Captain Obvious,” Waverly snapped.
Nicole only sighed as Waverly began gathering her clothes and stuffing them back into a small knapsack. It didn’t take long for Waverly to finish.
“Come on.” She crawled back out the window and onto the fire escape. Nicole followed.
“Is this all we came back here to do?” Nicole asked.
“Don’t be silly.” Waverly moved toward the stairs, surprising Nicole when she started climbing up and not down.
“Where are you going?” Nicole was starting to feel impatient about being left in the dark.
Waverly went up two flights before stopping at another window and pushing it open. Inside she went, with a confused Nicole in tow. This time, when Waverly flipped the light switch, the room was pristine.
“I’m not an idiot,” Waverly muttered, though Nicole wasn’t sure if she was addressing her or not. “I’m a planner.” Crouching down in front of a ventilation grill, she pried it from the wall and reached inside the vent. “I like to stay two or three steps ahead.” When she pulled her arm back out, a worn, leather-bound journal was in her hand. The same journal Waverly had read or written in nearly every day.
“That’s what they were looking for,” Nicole said.
Waverly nodded once.
“Obviously, they want to know who I had a crush on in seventh grade,” Waverly deadpanned.
Nicole pursed her lips. “Now what?”
“Now,” Waverly carefully placed the journal inside her knapsack, “we get out of here.”
True to her word, Waverly was indeed a planner. After they left the inn, Nicole retrieved her spare phone and then abandoned her car along with Waverly’s rental. Waverly once again led Nicole in silence, this time to a tiny, single-story cottage on the outskirts of town. Even with the pale light from the moon, it was difficult to make out much detail, save for the twisted vines of dark green ivy that crawled up its stone facade and tangled over the roof’s terracotta shingles. They went through a wrought iron gate that creaked with rust, passed an old Volkswagen Beetle, and walked up to an oak door.
Nicole was patient, but only to a point, and it was already wearing thin. She couldn’t take being kept in the dark any longer. “What is this place?”
“A contingency plan.” Waverly unlocked the door and stepped inside.
Nicole followed, shutting the door behind them as Waverly flipped on a light switch. The house was little more than an efficiency, but well-kept and modestly furnished. Waverly walked past a kitchenette to the right, and dumped her knapsack onto a small couch in a combined dining and living room space. A full-sized bed with a slat headboard was tucked in a corner on the other side of the room next to a bathroom.
“Do you mind if I make a call?” Nicole pulled out her cell phone.
“Why?” Waverly glanced at her, eyes narrowed.
“Check in with Jeremy.”
Waverly softened somewhat upon hearing Jeremy’s name. “I want to hear everything.”
Nicole nodded and dialed out.
Jeremy picked up on the first ring. “Haught?!”
“Miss me?” Nicole asked. “
“By gray Merlin’s beard, I thought you were dead.” The relief in Jeremy’s voice was palpable. “Again! What happened?”
“Oh, you know, got shot at. Jumped in a river. No biggie.”
“Frakkin’ hell… And Waverly?”
“Right here with me,” Nicole placed the call on speaker as Waverly glared at her. “She can hear you.” Nicole hoped that would signal to Jeremy not to spill any of their secrets. “How are things on your end?”
“About as boring as yours, if you don’t count someone breaking into Waverly’s room.”
Nicole would have smacked Jeremy if she could.
“What?!” Waverly exclaimed. “You’ve been spying on me?”
“Ahhhh… N-no. No. Not you, uh, specifically,” Jeremy fumbled. “More like monitoring the hotel’s security feeds.”
It wasn’t a half-bad save, Nicole thought. Waverly crossed her arms, murder now definitely in her eyes.
“We’re keeping an eye out for a new business partner. It’s not as if we have cameras in your suite,” Nicole lied outright, gut twisting at just how easy it was becoming. “If your room was compromised here, then it’s not a stretch to assume your room in Madrid might be as well. Or would you rather have not known?”
Waverly lifted her chin, defiant, but said nothing further.
“Who was it?” Nicole asked Jeremy.
“Couldn’t tell. Whoever it was had a handkerchief covering his face. And, get this, he was also wearing an honest to goodness cowboy hat.”
At that, Waverly froze.
“Do you know who that is?” Nicole asked.
“No.” Waverly averted her gaze. She had a terrible poker face. She said nothing further and rummaged through it until she pulled out her journal and some clean clothes.
“We’re gonna need somewhere else to stay,” Nicole said.
“Already on it. I’ll send the address.”
“Thanks, Jer.” Nicole could tell Jeremy wanted to press for more information--his curiosity palpable even over the line--but for once he thankfully managed to refrain. “We’ll be back in Madrid soon.” That is, if she and Waverly didn’t end up killing each other before then.
“Try to stay out of any more trouble, will ya?”
Easier said than done.
The line disconnected.
“Don’t even think about trying anything.” Waverly clutched her belongings against her chest.
Nicole shrugged. “I make no promises.”
Eyes narrowing, Waverly turned on her heel and disappeared into the bathroom. The pipes in the wall rattled as the shower was turned on. Nicole could only sigh.
Not knowing what else to do, Nicole walked to the kitchenette and turned on the faucet to scrub as much muck as possible off her hands, arms, face, and hair. She longed for a bath, to submerge herself in a tub of hot water and forget all about the crazy night. And then sleep. She eyed the house’s lone bed, its warm comforter and soft pillows beckoning. But knowing her luck, she would be cramped on the tiny sofa, legs dangling off the side.
She sighed again just as Waverly cursed loudly from the bathroom.
Nicole dried herself with a kitchen towel and, against her better judgment, walked up to the bathroom door and rapped softly on it with her knuckles. “You okay in there?”
Holding her hands up, Nicole backed away. “Suit yourself.”
Waverly swore yet again. This time even louder.
Taking a deep, steadying breath, Nicole called out, “You sure you don’t need any help?”
Her question was met with a long stretch of silence, followed by a quiet, “Fine.”
The lock clicked, but Waverly didn’t open the door, so Nicole tentatively turned the knob and ducked her head inside. She was greeted by the sight of Waverly with her wet shirt up over her head and tangled in her still damp hair. The warm and hazy steam from the shower had fogged up the mirror behind her.
“If you laugh, I swear you will not live to see the morning,” Waverly warned.
Nicole cleared her throat to stifle the chuckle that threatened to emerge. “Wouldn’t dream of it.” She gripped the ends of the shirt and, as gently as possible, helped Waverly extricate herself from her cotton trap, careful to keep her eyes above Waverly’s shoulders. She noticed that Waverly’s journal and the artifact from the church rested on top of a pile of clean clothes on the bathroom counter. Even under full lighting, it still had one of the oddest shapes that Nicole had ever seen.
“Thanks,” Waverly mumbled, cheeks pink, studiously avoiding Nicole’s gaze as she took her shirt back. “Now get out.”
Nicole didn’t need to be told twice. She stepped out just in time for the door to shut in her face. Letting out another weary breath, Nicole raked her fingers through her hair, wincing as her fingers got caught in tangles. Her right arm also stung. She glanced down, surprised to find various nicks and scrapes from her shoulder down to her wrist. Thanks to the night’s adrenaline, she hadn’t felt anything before now.
She went back to the kitchen and tore off a few sheets from a paper towel roll and pressed them against the largest of the gashes, right above her elbow. She debated calling Dolls, but thought better of it. The last thing she needed was for Waverly to catch her in that conversation.
When Waverly later emerged from the bathroom, she was clad in fuzzy pajama bottoms--sporting pink unicorns--and a plain white t-shirt. Her clean hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail. She wasn’t cute. Not in the slightest.
“You wouldn’t happen to have an extra change of clothes, would you?” Nicole dared to ask as Waverly returned her journal and the artifact to the knapsack. She had been so focused on following Waverly out of Madrid, she hadn’t thought to bring an overnight bag. Waverly’s clothes would be too small, but anything was better than remaining cold and wet.
Waverly narrowed her eyes, looking like she was about to tell Nicole off, but she nevertheless pulled an old pair of gray sweatpants and a black sleeveless t-shirt out of her bag. She tossed them to Nicole, who caught them and turned them over. The shirt, much larger than Waverly, read: Purgatory High Wrestling.
Nicole lifted an eyebrow, but said nothing. Beggars couldn’t be choosers and all, she thought, refusing to acknowledge the unexpected twist in her gut.
She pulled off her soiled henley, startling when Waverly let out what could only be described as a squeak.
“What are you doing?!” Waverly whirled around.
Nicole scrunched her brow. “Changing?”
“Why not?” Nicole, shaking her head, continued to strip while Waverly’s back was turned.
“There’s a perfectly fine bathroom right over there!” Waverly gestured vaguely behind her.
“How do I know you won’t run off the minute I’m in there?” Nicole quickly put on the clean clothes. They were a bit baggy, but they would do. She rolled up her dirty clothes and put them on the counter.
“I’ve been up over 18 hours,” Waverly huffed. “Even I’m not foolish enough to chance falling asleep at the wheel.” She chanced a glance over her shoulder. The corners of her lips turned downward as her eyes trailed over Nicole’s injuries. “You should really get those taken care of.”
“You won’t be if they get infected.” Waverly crossed her arms. “Go sit on the bed.”
A part of Nicole wanted to rebel against Waverly’s order. But, in the end, she was too tired to argue. She did as she was told, signing as she sat on the mattress. Waverly retrieved a first-aid kit from her sack.
“You don’t have to do this,” Nicole pointed out.
But Waverly ignored her and silently began tending to Nicole’s wounds. The sudden changes in Waverly’s mood, from hostility to concern, were giving Nicole whiplash. She figured she should be grateful for their current ceasefire.
“So…” Nicole started.
Waverly arched an eyebrow.
“Are you ever going to tell me what you’re looking for?” Nicole winced from the sting of the antiseptic.
“Happiness. Fulfillment. Love.” Waverly blew gently against Nicole’s skin to lessen the bite of the alcohol. Nicole couldn’t suppress a shiver. “What is anyone ever looking for?”
Nicole canted her head to the side, unamused. “You know what I mean. Why are you here? What did you take from the church? Who were those people?”
Waverly placed bacitracin on Nicole’s cuts and wrapped gauze around the biggest one. “Those questions will have to wait until after we’ve gotten some rest.”
“I’m not tired,” Nicole lied.
Waverly squinted at Nicole and then, suddenly, pushed her back onto the mattress. The bed springs creaked in protest. Before Nicole could even process what had happened, she felt cold metal against her right wrist and heard a telltale click. Waverly pinned down her free hand.
“What the hell?” Nicole looked up and, sure enough, she was handcuffed to the bed. “S-seriously?” she spluttered.
“How do I know you won’t run off the minute I fall asleep?” Waverly asked as she quickly jumped away from Nicole’s reach.
Indignation flared within Nicole. “Because I’m exhausted, too!” She pulled against the cuffs to no avail, metal clanking against the headboard’s metal bars. “How do I know you’re not going to leave me here in the morning?”
Waverly walked toward the light switch. “You don’t.” She smirked just before darkness blanketed the room.
“Waverly, uncuff me.” Nicole tried to sound as commanding as possible. “Right now.”
Nicole cursed under her breath.