Oh, that total bitch.
If you've read Into the Black - or the Kindle Vella project I did, Recruiting Kendra - you know my relationship with Amanda has been up and down. Hell, she even ended up in my bed one crazy night! But it was usually professional.
This was personal.
Chapter 29: Better Sorry Than Safe
In the four weeks it took to sort out the estate, Aiyana and Kendra kept as low a profile as possible. They hired a local firm, Thomason, Pile, West & Gershwitz, who provided a partner, Archie Leach, to represent them as Derek’s estate went through probate. There was a tussle over jurisdiction. Derek’s estate was executed by a Swiss firm, he died in Texas, but was a citizen of Sonora. Leach threatening to dangle Baddiscombe out a window by his ankles broke the impasse. Baddiscombe, recognizing Leach's argument's unassailable logic and validity, conceded the point, and the venue was set for Los Alamos.
They had traveled incognito to Houston and claimed Derek’s body. Once they checked with Baddiscombe for any impediments, they had him cremated and the ashes forged into a Memorial Diamond ™. Then they went back to Los Alamos to wait some more.
Lisa returned home, though it had to wait until after a thorough inspection by Montana and Mac for booby-traps, bugs, and other souvenirs of HLC. Still mistrustful, Stone assigned Alivia and Elle to stay with Lisa and act as her bodyguards.
“We don’t know what these wankers might come up with,” she explained when Lisa protested. “This is not open to debate.”
Lisa accepted that she would have two houseguests for the foreseeable future.
Mac, Montana, and Stone took residence in Kendra’s ranch home. Stone and Montana had forged a strong friendship and spent hours spinning tales of their various misadventures in the field. Mac, for her part, had flatly refused to leave.
“You think I can find any better connection to the Net? This place has exabit speed with triple-layer firewalls and 256-bit encryption, not only that, but you have a bleeding-edge AI built right into the house, SARAH can do so much more than you’ve been letting her, between us, there’s no way we can be hacked, well, not anything less than a multi-governmental all-out assault, we’re talking NSA times ten with dedicated servers and all the best operators, but I know a bunch of them, and they’re friends, mostly, and wouldn’t do that to me even if they were ordered, but that doesn’t matter because between SARAH and myself we aren’t even a blip, we are so totally the ghost in the machine, and how else am I supposed to keep tabs on what Talbott is doing at OutLook?”
That settled that. Kendra needed to know what, if anything, Talbott was going to try next. HLC was less of a worry for now. After Kaine’s “suicide,” an internal investigation had discovered the files and plans Lisa and Mac had backloaded into the security server’s memory. The Director of Operations, not wanting to wash dirty laundry in public, had directed Kaine’s ADD Jordan to bury it all. In return, she had quietly stepped into Kaine’s role at HLC. She was running a competent security division with no nefarious activities.
So Mac stayed, and between her and SARAH, they knew everything that went on at OutLook and HLC practically as it happened.
The other five were on the property as well. At Stone’s insistence, Kendra purchased some temporary modular living spaces and installed them behind the house.
“Why not in the house?” she had asked. “We have more than enough space.”
“That’s part of the problem,” said Stone. “Some parts of this place are like a maze. We’re keeping these agents on-premises because we want to be prepared if anything goes down. It wouldn’t do if their reaction was slowed because they turned left instead of right and ended up in the theater.”
“Hey, that only happened to Sanzari once!” giggled Kendra.
“And if Talbott ever gets off her ass and sends actual agents against you instead of going through intermediaries?”
Kendra sobered. “Point.”
The habs were comfortable and gave each agent privacy they lacked at the OutLook campus. There wasn’t any heavy bitching about it, just the habitual griping of any recruit. There had been more heartfelt complaints when it came time to dispose of the bodies, though not because of the grisliness of the task. No, the complaints centered around the fact they were frozen through and awkward to move out.
They were loaded into one of the HLC-registered transports. Monegain volunteered to drive them to the road between Dixon and Mora, well up into the Cimarron Range. Michael followed in a rented EV. When they were twenty klicks in and hadn’t seen another vehicle for almost an hour, Monegain pulled over. With Michael’s help, they muscled one of the thawing corpsicles into the driver’s seat, set the autocruise, and let them go. They followed the HLC transport until it ran off the road. It plummeted down an embankment and out of sight in the trees.
When they returned, Stone nodded in approval. “Did you rig the demo?”
“Thoroughly,” said Monegain. “Checked for a signal after it went over, then again all the way back. We’re still picking it up, so whenever we’re ready, we can blow it.”
Monegain pulled a small device from his pocket and tapped out a code.
“Done,” he said.
“Loss of signal,” reported Michael a second later.
“What if it didn’t work? What if we just lost the signal?” asked Alycia.
“Then there’s going to be a mystery around here in a few years.”
That was the excitement.
Cass resumed working two weeks after her return to Los Alamos, ending her “official” honeymoon. She didn’t want to go back into the lab. Mac visited her office and reassured her there wasn’t any reason not to work in person.
“We have to have things look normal,” Stone said. “Good tradecraft. If you act differently, people will talk and dig.”
Kendra added, “It’ll be good for you to get back to your friends and colleagues. I’m sure they all want to know about your wedding.”
“Omigawd, the wedding! Would you believe I totally forgot about it?”
“It’s still in the news,” said Mac. It was evening, and the residents of the house were sharing supper. It had become a nightly event, a chance for everyone to catch up and reconnect.
“It is?” asked Sanzari around a mouthful of pasta. “But that was, like, a month ago!”
“It’s a quiet town,” said Kendra. “Not much happens around here. Two brides and a groom running away from their own wedding and disappearing? That’ll be talked about for years.”
“Oh, crap,” moaned Cass. “This is so not what I wanted to be remembered for!”
“I don’t think we have any choice about it,” laughed Kendra. “What kind of stories are out there, Mac?”
“Little things, remember the writer, Parker? She puts out something every couple of days, the last one I read was yesterday, I think, or maybe today, hold on, I’ll find it –” Tap-tap-tap-tap. “Okay, got it, she wrote, “Word is our favorite local red-haired researcher has been seen around town in the company of a cute mystery brunette –” must be you, Cris “- but where’s her bride? Where’s her groom? Is the honeymoon over already? Los Alamos wants to know!” That’s pretty typical of what she’s been writing since you started going into town, before then, it was all “Where’s Aiyana? Where’s Kendra? Where’s Derek?” and lots and lots of ridiculous rumors, she even had you three catching an Ares out to the Martian Colonies two weeks ago, it’s all silly stuff, but it just doesn’t stop.”
Cass frowned. “I wonder what’s going on? She’s a better writer than celebrity gossip. Mysti must be really desperate for inches if she’s writing tripe like that.”
“Still,” said Stone. “It brings up a good point. We’ve been lucky so far that Derek died in Texas and kept a low profile here. Sooner or later, luck always runs out, and it’s going to come out about Derek’s death.”
Mac said, “Probably once the estate is settled. Legal notices have to be published and the like.”
“What we told Baddiscombe should work,” suggested Kendra. “It has the benefit of being the truth, if not all of it.”
“What about the whole “running away from the wedding” thing?” asked Montana.
“Chalk it up to an acute attack of nerves?” pondered Cass. “I’d rather be known as a nervous bride than one who dumped her spouses after a month.”
“That could fly,” agreed Kendra. “Remember, nobody else saw the gun.”
“That reminds me,” said Cass. “Mac, did you ever manage to track down Farrell? I know you said you had some leads.”
“I did, and you’re not going to believe it, the last pieces fell into place today, and boy were they hard to find, but I did, I had to get into the databases of three different countries, thirteen agencies, and hire four PIs, but beyond his contract and a few notes on him there wasn’t anything, you remember I told you about that, anyway it turns out Farrell isn’t his name, you probably already figured that much on your own, his real name is actually, you ready for this, Michelle Jeffries, yeah he’s a she, she’s been a freelance hitman, hitwoman? Whatever, freelance assassin, for eight years, she’s created all sorts of alternate identities, male and female, take on any job, anywhere, her prices are sky-high, but she’s never been caught, there’s only one good file out there on her, and if I told you where I got it I’d have to kill you, the point is just that she was a bitch to trace, but I finally know where she’s based. Once I found that out, I could hack into her records. Her files are really comprehensive, she’s got all the details about everything and everyone.” Mac stopped to take another bite.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” whistled Kendra, shaking her head. “I never had a clue that Farrell was a woman. How long was she setting this up?”
“Oh,” Mac said, still chewing. “She got the assignment only a few weeks before she made an attempt.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” disagreed Cass. “Reverend Farrell was at the First Unitarian Church for at least six years, maybe seven. I remember running into him all over town. Surely you don’t mean she was playing the role for that long?”
“No, Mac doesn’t mean she was playing the role for that long, and don’t call me Shirley,” quipped Kendra. “Sorry, Mac. I couldn’t resist.”
“No problem,” mumbled Mac. “You can probably explain it better than me.”
Kendra nodded. “As a rule of thumb, a professional assassin will have two different personae running at any given time. One is who she lives as, her “real” identity.” She saw nods from several heads. “The other is her primary backup. It’s real enough to withstand some pretty hefty scrutiny, and it serves as her main escape route. She’ll put enough time and public appearances into it to ensure it stays current. When I was working, I was based out of the Valley. I had my alternate identity set a couple princedoms over, so I could get out there once a week.”
Kendra looked thoughtful for a moment. “I just reactivated it before all this shit went down while I was on that little “milk run” for Talbott. Probably worthwhile going out there and cleaning things up. It’s a useful thing to have.”
“That doesn’t answer the question about Farrell,” persisted Cass.
“Short version, then. I find it unlikely in the extreme that Farrell was Jeffries’s alternate,” said Kendra flatly. “Mac, where’s her home?”
“Her home base seems to be Richmond, Virginia.”
“In the United States. Too far away to be shuttling back and forth regularly to here. She’d attract far too much official attention crossing the border that often. Plus, there’s a little consideration that, well, Farrell was male. It’s tough to pass convincingly as a different gender for any length of time. To do it over and over for years? Nearly impossible. Sooner or later, even though your life depends on it, you’re gonna screw up.” Kendra shook her head. “No, the backup identity is usually close enough to your real self that you don’t forget the details. It’s also distinct enough that they don’t overlap. If you want to know what I think happened?”
Cass, Mac, and a couple others nodded.
“I’ll bet the real Reverend Farrell met with an accident, probably a few days before the wedding. We met with him the week before, remember?” Cass nodded sadly. She’d liked Farrell. She wasn’t a believer, but he was always kind and polite, which is why they’d picked him as the officiant.
“He seemed like himself, right?” Cass nodded again, answered by Kendra’s nod.
“Right. The man we talked to knew all the details, stuff we’d talked about but hadn’t written down. At that point, he was still himself. She probably came into town, followed him for a few days, then bam!”
“Poor Will,” said Cass. “He was a nice enough guy. Mac, is there anything in there about following up with us?”
“No,” said Mac. “I didn’t find anything like that.”
“That’s a relief,” admitted Kendra. “I didn’t think there would be, after hearing what Mac said about being a professional, but it’s still good to know.”
“Why is Jeffries being a professional a good thing?” asked Elle.
Kendra put down her fork. “Because you do what your contract calls for, period. It’s a job, and you’re getting paid for the job. You don’t freelance, you don’t improvise, and if you’re really a professional, you don’t let any personal feelings get in the way.”
“But wouldn’t he, she, have felt she didn’t fulfill the contract?” Elle followed up.
“Maybe,” shrugged Kendra. “Contracts almost always specify one attempt. I never had a contract that said anything else. The idea that one assassin will pursue their quarry until they succeed? It’s a bad sensie trope. Usually, if the first assassin misses, you just find another assassin.”
“To summarize, then,” said Stone, who’d been following along. “We know who Farrell really is, we know where they are, and we’re pretty confident they’re not coming back here without another contract.”
Kendra and Mac nodded in unison.
“Then does anyone else have a concern that needs airing now?” She waited, but nobody spoke. “Very well. Bruce, what did you do to the lamb? It was amazing!”