“Daniel,” Ruel said immediately after we received a scrambled message from the organization. “Listen, I know it’s you, you know it’s me. Just listen. You owe me that, and you know it.”
“Go ahead, Ruel,” the voice said. Sally’s mouth dropped at the mention of his name.
“‘The greater a man’s talents, the greater his power to lead astray. It is better that one should suffer than that many should be corrupted,’” Ruel said.
“Murder kills only the individual, and, after all, what is an individual?” the voice replied. I wondered why they were quoting Brave New World.
“‘Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present controls the past,’” Ruel said.
He was quoting 1984 now, and the conversation was devolving into less and less sense, but I didn’t speak.
Ruel then added, “Its real beauty is that it destroys responsibility and consequences.”
Now Bradbury? Was the organization some sort of global dystopian book club? I thought back to the Hebrew exchange between David and Ruel at MIT. Translated it was from Cat’s Cradle. And the Speaker for the Dead reference Ruel had me make before, was that some sort of code?
“‘Sanity is not statistical,’” the voice said finally. I didn’t recognize this one.
“Very good. Until then,” Ruel said and smiled. He turned to Sally, “I’m done.”
She shut down the transmission link. Ruel nodded to me and I released Morris’ arm.
“So, what was all of that?” Morris asked.
“I told you I knew their code,” Ruel said, then added, “They’ve called off the attack on Saint Petersburg.”
“That’s a relief,” Sally said.
“They’ll give us an answer about the war as a whole tomorrow morning. The right people weren’t in the office, he kept saying. So, the decision can’t be made yet.”
“And are they going to disband?” Morris asked.
“We’ll have to wait,” Ruel said. “But the attack’s not happening, and that’s a good step, so I think we are going to leave for the evening.”
I headed towards the door and Morris stared at us in disbelief.
“We’ll be back tomorrow,” I assured him. “Oh, and you’re welcome.”
I opened the door and Ruel followed me out. We quickly moved through the office and back up the stairs. I wanted to ask him if we should delete the video files they had of us now, surely we had been recorded since we arrived. I decided the timing was poor. We could just do it in the morning.
The first woman we met was upstairs when we opened the wall panel door, she let us pass. I turned the knob of the front door, not having fingerprints had its advantages, and we left. The evening’s peak humidity period had passed and there was now a slight breeze in the air.
“Where are we going?” I asked Ruel, quietly.
“Dinner, I think,” he smiled. “I’d say we deserve a dinner out.”
“Shall we walk?”
“Let’s move the car first,” he said and headed in the opposite direction of where we parked it. I kept pace with him as he quickened his stride and soon we were three full blocks from the anti-organization’s headquarters. Out of video capture range, I assumed.
“What are you feeling like?” Ruel asked me.
“Food-wise? Anything but fish, well, and no greasy stuff,” I said.
“Tapas!” I agreed. “So, Daniel, huh?”
“Yeah, Dan’s a good guy,” Ruel said wistfully. “Just stuck in a bad situation.”
“And the dystopian book club?” I pressed.
Ruel just winked at me.
We walked about fifteen minutes and got to a place on Barnard Street called Jazz’d Tapas. The entry was down some stairs, but the space was deceptively large, and the interior rather modern. There was a live jazz band playing, we sat at the bar. The bartender handed us menus, and Ruel ordered us a bottle of the Malbec.
“Remember the last time you ordered me wine?” I said to him with a smile.
“Yeah, and I’d called you that night from a burner phone so no one would know we were going on a date,” he laughed.
“What made you so certain I would say yes?”
“You were a bit transparent about things,” he said. “I mean, other than the bits we both had erased.”
“Yes, other than that,” I said. “I guess I was transparent, and in retrospect, so were you. Asking me to wear stockings and a garter belt.”
“I never did get to see them,” Ruel mused.
“Hardly my fault!” I said.
“Very true. Okay, so what looks good here?” Ruel said quickly.
I scanned my menu. “Chevre Tomato dip?”
“And the Cuban Beef Satays?” Ruel said.
“Yes, those plantain chips that come with it sound delicious right about now.” I hadn’t realized how hungry I was until that moment. The bartender came back with our wine and glasses. We ordered those tapas along with the stuffed chicken and asparagus.
“It feels a bit like the calm before the storm,” I said once the bartender had left. Ruel handed me one of the glasses of wine and lifted the other.
“To there being no storm,” he said.
“To no storm.” I clinked his glass and we drank. I wanted to believe that was possible, but there was no way the anti-organization was just going to let us go.
“They don’t know about the GR,” Ruel said, sensing my worry. “Only the organization knows about who you actually are. Morris and the lot just wanted you for your brain.”
“Well, that’s comforting,” I said dryly. “We’ll have to destroy the footage of us tomorrow. I’m tired of surgery.”
“Yes, and then we’re off for good.”
I nodded slowly. “Can you even imagine it—just living again?”
“Yes,” Ruel said softly. “I can.”
“Yeah?” I leaned in close to him. “Tell me what you see.”
“I see…snow and mountains. The city lights in the valley below reflecting off the water. A warm fire in a cabin,” Ruel said.
“No mini-hospital basement?” I joked.
“No,” Ruel said. “If I never see another mini-hospital basement again, it would be too soon.”
I laughed and drank some more wine. I wanted to relax. We had stopped the attack on Saint Petersburg. More people wouldn’t die tonight because of us, and that was a good thing.
As the hot water ran over my body the next morning in the hotel room, I tried to remember the last time I showered. Brasov? Yes. Brasov, which was nearly a week ago. The air temperature changed slightly and I knew the bathroom door had opened.
“You have to see this,” Ruel said to me. “Come out here.”
I let out a sigh and shut off the water. I wrapped a cheap, scratchy towel around my body and went into the hotel room. Ruel had the television on.
“Look,” he said.
I looked. The broadcast was a replayed video of both the U.S. and Russian presidents sitting at a table in a well-appointed room. The caption read: “GENEVA: Peace treaty talks in process between Russia and the United States.”
“They ended the war?” I asked, flabbergasted.
“They ended the war,” Ruel said, sounding pleased.
I listened to the reporter: “President Herron and her administration flew out yesterday to meet with the Russian leadership after the shooting in Boston. They were in closed-door discussions throughout the night and have come to the preliminary agreements to end the fighting while the peace treaties are drawn up.”
“So, should we go in to headquarters again?” I asked Ruel.
“The only point would be to destroy the video footage,” he said. “I think the lowest risk is just to leave.”
I nodded. “I’m going to finish my shower then.”
“I’ll check us out of the hotel,” Ruel said. “Then we’ll grab the shuttle to the airport.”
We had taken a cab back to the hotel, assuming the anti-organization had put a tracker on our rental car. I grinned and pulled Ruel in for a long kiss. I didn’t care if the organization never disbanded. This ridiculous war was done, and Ruel and I were free.
I headed back into the bathroom and turned the water on.
“Can you leave out the dress I bought in Myrtle Beach?” I asked Ruel. I waited for him to say, “Yes” before shutting the bathroom door and climbing back into the shower.
A few minutes later, I could hear him speaking over the noise of the water. I assumed he was calling down to the front desk to check out. I proceeded to rinse the shampoo from my hair. When I came back into the room, Ruel wasn’t there. The bags were not packed. My stomach dropped. I scanned the room quickly. It was empty and nothing was noticeably out of place. Maybe he is in the lobby, I told myself. Maybe there was some issue, and he had to go down and talk to them in person. I went to call down to the lobby to check, and there, sitting next to the hotel phone, was a handwritten note on the hotel stationery. It read: Emma, Come to HQ by 4:00 today, or he dies. –Morris.
I looked at the clock. It was 7:29. I sighed. I doubted Morris himself had come, but that didn’t lessen the threat. An action list started to form in my head. I needed to find a clean phone and call Jeremiah. I wondered if he could make it in time. It was doubtful. I pulled on some dirty jeans and a shirt. I needed a car. I wondered if they were staked outside. Why wouldn’t they just take me along with Ruel? Why hadn’t Ruel fought them off or yelled louder? There wasn’t time to think about this. I had to call Jeremiah. I had no weapons and they were expecting me. I was not going to win this fight without help.
I took my purse I’d purchased in Myrtle Beach, my passport was amazingly still inside of it, and grabbed a key card off the dresser next to the television. I went to driveway in front of the lobby and got into a taxi. I told the driver to take me to the closest open Walmart.
Six minutes later we were there. I paid him and headed straight for the electronics department. I chose the cheapest pay-as-you-go phone and had the store clerk put one thousand minutes on it. I had no idea how much a call to Ukraine would cost.
“All set,” he said to me. I handed him my credit card.
“Do you guys sell hunting knives?” I asked.
“Yeah, in sporting goods. Did you want to do that and then ring it all up together? I can hold this for you here.”
“No, no that’s fine,” I told him. “Just this.”
He nodded and ran my card.
“Just sign this, Ms. Berg.” He handed me the receipt and a pen.
“And it’s ready to use now?”
“Yes, all set up,” he said.
“Great, thanks so much,” I said and signed the receipt.
He handed me a bag with everything in it, including my copy of the receipt, and I headed for the bathrooms. There wouldn’t be any cameras in the bathrooms. I couldn’t risk the anti-organization reading my lips if they were watching.
I checked the whole bathroom for people. It was empty. I dialed the number Jeremiah had me memorize before we left. It rang as a series of beeps.
“Sluchaju?” I didn’t know what it meant, no one had added Ukrainian to my brain, but it was definitely Jeremiah’s voice.
“It’s me. They’ve taken him,” I said.
“Who?” he asked.
“The anti-organization. They’re going to kill him if I don’t show up by four o’clock today.”
“Okay,” Jeremiah said. “Where are you?”
“I’m in Savannah.”
“Why didn’t they take you? Did you escape?”
“I’m pretty sure it’s a trap. I don’t get it either,” I said. “But I only have about eight hours.”
“Why would they give you eight whole hours?” Jeremiah wondered aloud.
“I can’t take them by myself.”
“We left him,” I said. “Long story. Can you be here in eight hours?”
“Yes, I’m not in Europe at the moment.”
“Oh? Where are you?”
“Probably a four-hour flight away.”
“Fair enough. I don’t have a way to get any real weapons due to waiting periods, and because I’m not a citizen any longer.”
“We’ll bring some. Any preference?”
“Something quiet. I think we’ll need a stealth plan. You’ve been to HQ, right? Any ideas on where they’re keeping him?”
“I have a good idea, yeah. There’s only one place they can lock him up. I spent a lot of hours in that room.”
“So, you’re coming?”
“Yes, I just signaled Kalyna to call our charter plane service.”
“You have a signal for that?”
“We have a signal for everything,” he said. I could tell he was grinning.
“I highly doubt that,” I said with a smirk.
“Okay, so, get whatever weapons you can. Have they followed you?” he asked.
“I’m not certain. I’m not taking chances, though.”
“Right,” he said. “Well, keep a low profile, and I’ll call this phone number once we’ve landed. If I can’t reach you on it, I’ll look for you at the airport. If you’re not there, we’ll just go in for him without you and come back for you later.”
“Okay, sounds good. Thank you.”
“Don’t turn yourself in.”
“I’m not stupid. See you in four hours,” I said and hung up the phone. I walked out of the bathroom and headed for the beauty department. Keep a low profile. The hair accessories aisle was long and full of options. I doubted they would have proper wigs, but perhaps I could use enough clip-on extensions to make my hair look longer. That under a hat with some glasses and I should be set for a disguise.
After I picked out a nondescript green baseball cap, I headed for the sporting goods section. The worthwhile knives were all in locked cases near the pellet guns. I went in search of a worker to help me and stumbled across someone stocking the shelves in the toy section nearby.
“No, you gotta wait for the sporting floor manager to get in. He ain’t in yet, not ’til ten probably,” the worker said when I asked about opening the case.
“Not until ten?” I said.
I looked at my new phone. It was 8:12. I decided to don my disguise and go get food while I waited. The Walmart was in a part of town with all the other box stores and chain restaurants, all less than a mile from the airport, so I would just walk to something. No need to steal a car after all. Better for the low profile.
I paid for the items and went back into the restroom, fumbling to make the extensions stay in my slippery, short hair. Finally, it worked and I threw on the hat and glasses. I looked ridiculous and my vision felt impaired even though they were only +0.75 strength.
The southern sun was hot despite how early in the day it was, and I let out a sigh on the walk to the main road. I spotted a fast food chicken place across the street with cars in the drive-thru and decided on that.
The restaurant only had three patrons in it, but the kitchen was busy with drive-thru orders.
“May I take your order?” the employee at the register asked me.
“Um, do you have a chicken breakfast sandwich?” I asked, scanning the menu.
“Yeah, do you want cheese with it?” he asked me.
“No, that’s fine.” I said. “And a coffee.”
“You can add hash browns and a coffee for $2.15, do you want to do that?”
“Good news this morning,” he said.
“About the war ending. You haven’t heard?”
“Oh, yes! I’ve heard, yes. Great news.” I smiled. It had been great news up until Ruel was held ransom and I was stuck killing time in a chicken restaurant as his life clock ticked down.
“That’ll be $6.28. Do you want any ketchup?”
“Sure, and some cream or milk for the coffee.”
“Cool,” he said and reached under the counter for the ketchup packets. “It’s weird. My brother was in Iraq, and it just went on forever. This war was over so quickly.”
“Yeah,” I nodded. “Was your brother in this war, too?”
“Oh, no. He died in combat in 2007.”
I was not expecting this. I suddenly wanted to ask for the food to go, so I didn’t have to be around this energy of death. Instead I just said, “I’m sorry.”
“Thanks,” he said, and put my coffee on the tray along with five little plastic tubs of creamer. “Is that enough?”
“Plenty,” I said. I handed him my credit card. He ran it and gave it back. I didn’t have to sign here. I pulled the tray from the counter and smiled at him again.
“Well, have a great day,” he said.
“You too,” I told him. Right then, I decided not to buy the hunting knives. I took my tray to an empty table by the window and mixed three of the creamers into the coffee. I ate the food. It was fairly disgusting, but I was hungry. After managing half of the overly acidic coffee, I gave up on it and decided to toss the rest.
“Hey, what’s the best way to the airport?” I asked the guy.
“Oh, it’s just up there,” he pointed east.
“Can I walk it?”
“You don’t have a car?”
“No, it was sort of a last minute thing,” I said, as if that sentence made any sense.
“Well, I’m about to go on break. I can probably give you a ride.”
“Oh, wow, really?” I definitely hadn’t expected this.
“Yeah, why not. It’s two seconds from here.”
“Thanks so much.”
“No problem. Just give me one second to clock out,” he said and disappeared into the kitchen. I debated taking the ride. He seemed innocent enough, but the anti-organization could be anyone. Plus, this guy had some level of military connection through his brother. He reappeared without his hat and apron and came around to the customer side.
“Ready?” he asked.
I could definitely take him out if needed. “Yeah, I’m ready.”