Looking back on the events of this chapter, all I have to say is I don’t believe I was that stupid.
I had been in this business for ten years at that point, and I’d managed to survive every other attempt at taking me down, but I walked right into this one. Fat and happy and stupid.
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Chapter 20: Into the Lion’s Den
Customs entering the Duchy proved no issue for “Dani Drake”. Kendra was sure she wouldn’t have had any problems as herself, but she’d been on too many courier missions not to appreciate the extra layer of protection a cover identity provided. Now, all that remained was crossing the Demilitarized Zone and border into the San Fernando Valley.
The DMZ was a relic of the 21st century, during the initial dissolution of the state called California and before the formation of the Confederacy. As the riots and lawlessness spread outward from Los Angeles, the citizens living north of the dying city, especially those backed against the Mojave Desert on the far side of the mountains, fought back to keep what they termed “filth” penned up. Utilizing military forces recruited from Edwards AFB and others, a desperate battle was waged to prevent penetration of the mountains. Realizing that they faced a determined, organized and well-trained adversary, the Angelenos eventually ceased their attempts.
When order returned at last to the Los Angeles Basin and San Bernardino Valley, and they eyed once again the lands to their north, they found a foe even more entrenched and determined than before. The Duchy of Lancaster solidified the resistance and fought their opponents, again, to a standstill. Years of back-and-forth skirmishes made no real dent in either side’s defenses and served only to enflame passions on both sides. A truce was eventually reached, with the mountains declared the DMZ and only a single corridor, from Palmdale through to Santa Clarita, set aside to allow commerce and communication between the erstwhile enemies.
The borders on either side of the DMZ were strictly controlled and heavily patrolled. Smuggling was difficult; weapons were nearly impossible, much to Kendra’s chagrin. That’s why she found herself in a rented room, just a few minutes from the border, shedding what was turning into an impressive pile of weaponry. Evan had turned his back out of what she suspected was a genuine sense of modesty, but Jamey stared unabashed.
“I don’t believe it. There’s no way you could have – no. I refuse.” He shook his head. “You seriously had a whole pack of Octol hidden?”
She held up the packet in question, not much larger than a few sticks of chewing gum. “Of course I did. You never know when it might come in handy. Better than knocking on a door you just gotta get into.” She added it to the stack.
“How much longer?” asked Evan, still facing away.
“Just about done.” She held the final object in her hand, weighing if the inspection would consider it a weapon. Finally, she decided not to chance it, and dropped the small vial of perfume with the others. “Ready.”
Evan glanced at her pile and said, “We’ll make sure it’s waiting for you back at the Complex.”
“You’re not my escorts back?” she blurted. She had assumed that the arrangement, however awkward, would continue on the return leg.
“No. While you were meeting with your contact in Chicago, we received new orders. We’re recalled immediately after seeing you across the border; you’re to return by your own methods.” He reached into a pocked, pulled out a message flimsy. “It’s right here.”
She slapped it aside. “It didn’t occur to you to mention this earlier?” she asked. “Okay, I knew you were inexperienced, but I didn’t think you were stupid! And Jamey, you’ve been in the field plenty of times! Didn’t you – I mean – dammit!” She stalked out of the room.
Evan and Jamey shared a glance, then chased after her. “Wait! Where are you going?”
“I’m making arrangements for my return trip! You’re waiting here until I get back,” she snapped.
“You can’t go! There’s not enough time!” insisted Evan. “We’re supposed to meet with the Valley contact no more than three hours after arriving in Palmdale!” She stopped and waited for him to finish. “It’s been almost two hours since we landed; from what I was briefed, the passage across the DMZ will take most of an hour. That doesn’t leave you any time to make plans!”
She considered. “Get a signal to them, tell them we’re delayed. I have to set up my route; I’m not going into the Valley without a bolt hole.”
Jamey shook his head. “Can’t. We don’t have any communications with them. Operational security.”
“You two frakkers picked a fine time to decide to play by the rules.” She sighed and conceded. “Fine. Give me your comm,” she demanded of Evan.
“My comm?” He was already reaching into a pocket.
“If I can’t make plans in person, which is always better – and learn this now, boys: always make critical plans where you can see the other person’s eyes; it’ll save your life – then I have to do it on the net. Jamey, you’re driving. Try not to piss off the patrols.” Snatching the comm from Evan’s unresisting hand, she climbed into the back and began mentally running through her contacts list.
By the time they passed Lang, a small town about eight kilometers from the end of the DMZ, she’d made all the plans she could. Some would have to be confirmed once she hit the Valley, but she was satisfied with the initial setup. Kendra leaned forward.
“How will we recognize these jokers?”
“They’re supposed to approach us.”
“No,” said Jamey. “Something different. The Director said you’d recognize it; doesn’t mean anything to me. Ev?”
Evan said, “It’s in four parts, not two. After they greet you, you say, “Do you have a match?” The first response is, “I prefer a lighter.” You answer, “Even better.” And the final part is, “Until they go wrong.” Hope it means something to you.”
Kendra frowned. “Nothing specific, though it feels familiar.” She ran through the sequence a few times and reviewed what little she knew about the two men meeting them. Gary X and Ed Sanchini. She searched her memory for their names but drew a blank. They must not be from OutLook, she thought. Well, she used affiliate agents, blind drops, cut-outs, mules, and every other trick in the book, most more than once, so this wasn’t totally out of the ordinary…
She was roused from her musings by the car slowing as they neared the final checkpoint into the Valley. “Showtime,” she said.
The inspection was disappointing. For all their preparations and worry, they spent more time idling in the queue than in the actual search. When they pulled out of the Customs station and towards the rest area, Kendra was fuming.
“Everything! I had to leave everything behind, and for what? I’ve had more thorough searches trying to get into a jewelry store! Frak, frak!” A few seconds of this and she pulled herself together. “Right. Let’s go find the next links in the chain.”
The rest area was centered around a pair of buildings. By the signs, one was a restaurant and lounge, while the other provided showers, sleeping cubicles, shopping, companions – everything a visitor to the Valley would need. By unspoken consent, the three agents ended up at the second building and entered, one at a time.
Kendra’s first thought was, I’m home. Her years in the Valley came rushing back, good and bad both. Her feet guided her over to the video chips of their own volition, and she found herself looking at a row of familiar titles. Interesting days. She ran a finger along the edges, remembering, before bringing herself back to the present. Just in time, too, as a young couple passed by, giggling and holding hands.
Home soon, Cass.
She looked around. There were enough people wandering through the store, both singly and in pairs, that any of them could be her contacts. She concentrated on looking disinterested in the other customers; after all, it was their job to contact her.
Five minutes of strolling just about convinced her they were in the wrong building when a giant of a man bumped into her side, knocking her to the ground.
“Watch where you’re going, ape!” she hissed. He towered over her by a good twenty centimeters and was probably twice her weight, none of it fat. A shaved head revealed elaborate, if abstract, tattoos.
“Watch yourself,” he growled with a voice more suited to a cement mixer before moving on.
“You’ll have to excuse him,” said another voice to her left. Kendra spun to face another man, still taller than her but not by much, with short-cropped blonde hair and what looked to be a permanent tan. “He’s lost something, and he won’t be happy until he finds it.”
“No reason for him to be a jerk,” Kendra retorted, but it lacked bite.
“No, I suppose not.” He made no move to walk away, and Kendra started to get a tingling sensation. Could this be my contact? One way to find out.
“I don’t suppose – I mean, it’s not common, but – do you have a match?”
“I prefer a lighter.” It was!
“Until they go wrong. Come on, we need to hurry.” He took her by the elbow and herded her to the exit.
“My other escorts -” she protested.
“Ed will take care of them. I’m Greg.”
“Greg? I thought – no, forget it, it’s not important.” She was sure, though, that the name she’d been given was Gary, not Greg. Still, in a mission as screwed-up as this one had been so far it wasn’t surprising that a name was wrong. They neared the exit, and Kendra looked back to see the giant talking with Evan, who gestured around. “Looks like Ed’s having problems.”
Greg didn’t even glance but continued on. “He’ll manage. Come on.” The door opened for them and they were into the late afternoon air. “We have a vehicle just this way.”
“I can manage to walk on my own,” she said, tugging her arm away.
“Of course,” he said, smirking. “My apology. I just don’t want to be late.” He hurried on, and Kendra found herself near running trying to keep up.
“Where is this vehicle?”
He pointed. “That.” That was a bulk transport, usually used to haul products between stores.
“Trust me, it’s much better on the inside.” They reached the side of the transport; he reached up to open a door in the side. “Up you go,” he said as he pulled it wide.
“In there?” This was getting to be a bit too much.
“We don’t have time to argue! I’ll explain it all in a few minutes once Ed comes back. Now, get up there!” He boosted her up.
“Here, drink this.” He pressed a bottle into her hand.
“What is it?”
“Just water, but it’s hot in there; you’ll want it.” Indeed, it was apparent that the sun had been beating on the transport for some hours. Kendra uncapped the bottle and drank gratefully, but before she could thank him the door was slammed shut and latched.
Only tiny cracks of light illuminated the interior, but that was enough for Kendra to explore her surroundings. There didn’t seem to be anything special about it: four steel walls, a sliding door on the back, no other exits she could see. She finished off the water as she poked around, then sat against the far front wall, waiting.
She didn’t have to wait long. The back gate lifted up, and she could see Ed silhouetted against the sunlight. He dropped something heavy into the back, bent, lifted, dropped something else, then lowered the gate. “Hey!” she said, surprised at how quiet her voice was.
The side door opened, and Greg’s face appeared. He hoisted himself into the back with her.
“I thought you said it would be better on the inside,” she protested.
“How are you feeling?” he asked, ignoring her question.
“What’d Ed do back there?” she said.
“I’ll tell you if you tell me how you’re feeling.”
“I’m feeling – I’m feeling pretty good, actually.” She giggled. Giggled? “What’s going on?”
“Good.” He closed on her quickly, reached down, and snapped shackles on her wrists before she could react. For some reason, it didn’t seem to be a big deal, but then, something wasn’t right. What’s wrong with me? Her brain made a connection. “You drugged me!”
“Twice, actually, once when Ed ran into you, he shot you with the precursor, and the trigger was in your water.”
She giggled again. “You’re not going to get away with this.”
“No? Who’s going to stop us?” He turned on an interior light. “Not those two.” He pointed at the far end. Evan and Jamey were there, very obviously dead. Few people survived plasma shots to the chest like that. Kendra noticed that Evan’s tie was still in place from the collar down to the singed end, just above the sternum, and to her horror found herself laughing. When she managed to bring herself under control, she said, “Those aren’t the only agents we have; our Director will -”
“Won’t, you mean. Won’t do anything.” He took her bag from her, extracted the package she’d carried from Chicago. “You know what’s in here?”
“Need to know. I didn’t need to know.”
“Oh, but you’ll like this. It’s your indentures, signed by Director Amanda Talbott herself, authorizing your sale. Or, for that matter, your death.”
That penetrated the drugs haze. “Sale? Death? For what?”
Greg’s laugh was mirthless. “Your sale back into San Fernando’s number one business: sex. Kendra Foster-Briggs returns – and you can own a piece of her! And death, well, there’s lots of people who want more than a piece of your ass.” He shut off the light, dropped out of the door.
As she sat in shock, he said, “One more thing. A little touch I thought you’d appreciate. Your silly recognition code? From Russia With Love.” He closed the door, latched it, while she thought. The old movie finally surfaced, and the connection was made.
I’ve been betrayed – WE’VE been betrayed! Oh, Cass, Cass, I’m so sorry!