Zero Hour: One – Faithless

Troubleshooter
Zero Hour
by Andrea Speed

One – Faithless

Algiers, Algeria – Five Years Ago

She didn’t think there were any dead ends around here, and yet she stumbled into one. It figured.

14.jpgHer leg kept wanting to give way, and no amount of willpower was making it obedient. It hurt like fuck, and the fact that was a very large piece of glass still sticking out the side, just an inch and a half below her knee, was only part of the problem. Blood had pooled inside her boots and made a telltale squishing noise as she limped along, while her ribs seemed to grind inside her chest, poking her skin from the inside. At least two broken, as far as she could tell; maybe more, and she could feel blood dripping from her nose like hot snot. But the absolutely worst thing was she could taste the blood in the back of her throat, a taste like metal and salt and something sour. It always made her angry to taste it, brought in a lot of bad memories riding on a wave of adrenaline, but since she could use the adrenaline right now, it didn’t bother her as much as it could have.

Her right leg gave, like it had been threatening to for the last few minutes, and she collapsed to the pavement on her knees. It was barely pavement here, the “road” so worn and broken you could see the ocher veins of earth between the cracks, and she knew from the broken down condition of everything – the sagging buildings, the gutted, rusted bodies of old cars – and the smell of cooking fires and shit that she was near the part of the city called the “Kasbah”. Romantic movie myths aside, the Kasbah was actually a large, sprawling slum now, a pit of utter human misery in a country that had little more to offer. The heat wasn’t so much stifling as it was soul crushing; it felt like a place where time itself came to die. The sky was a corrosive saffron color, suggesting that somewhere out in the desert, a sandstorm was raging, something that could strip the flesh off your bones.

The piece of glass in her leg was about half the size of her palm, and she could feel it tear the skin even more as she pulled it out, blood spurting out of the gash with renewed enthusiasm. But she didn’t have much choice, as he knew the bastard had somehow found her. (She probably left a trail of blood that a blind man could have followed.)

“Wow, you really are one tough bitch,” Brewer said, sounding faintly impressed. “I thought it was hype, y’know, the Brits talking up their end of things.”

She closed her palm around the shard of glass, the edges slicing her skin, and let her hand fall naturally to the ground as she looked up at him. He had abandoned the bloody sports coat somewhere, and now wore only the khaki pants and olive drab shirt he’d probably picked up at a Banana Republic back in the States. With the collar open and slightly sweat stained, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows, he could have been one of the oil company reps that occasionally came here as opposed to a tourist (Algeria just didn’t get many tourists, not enough for there to be a stereotype), although his choice of leather shoes that probably cost more than the net worth of a single family here seemed like deliberately asking for trouble. The oppressive heat left his dun colored hair plastered to his scalp and just curling slightly at the edges, making him look comically young, although he had a hard face, like it was carved from granite, and his eyes were Aryan blue under heavy brows, and oh so empty. When she first met him she instantly distrusted him, because there seemed to be no one behind his eyes at all, just a distant reflection of yourself, and her gut instinct was so dead on she could probably become one of those “psychic hotline” workers. “Actually, you’re just a crap shot.”

He chuckled unconvincingly, his MKS .45 ACP handgun loose in his right hand. “Now, come on, your arm’s bleeding there. I got you.”

“You nicked me, barely, took off the first layer of skin. It bleeds like fuck but it doesn’t mean shit, and you should know that.” It was true. The little groove-slash-burn mark the passing bullet made in her upper arm still stung, but the slug itself just barely touched her. If she’d had her Sig Sauer, she could have shown him how you actually shot to kill. “You should also know that they’re not gonna stand for this.”

His lips quirked up in a faint, mocking sneer, and his eyes seemed alive with arrogance now. A good psychopath could turn it on and off like a switch. “Who, fucking MI-5 or 6 or whoever the hell you work for? Yeah, they will. So you sold your country out for money or love or some such shit – won’t matter what they decide on. Dead girls tell no tales, do they?” He finally brought the MKS around and sighted on her.

She lunged up, ready for him, all her remaining strength coiled in her legs. With her left hand she grabbed his right wrist, forcing the gun up, and with her right hand, she used the piece of glass to slash his throat wide open.

His blood didn’t so much spurt out as fountain, splashing her with its gory warmth as she cut open his jugular vein, driving the glass in as deep as it would go in the tender meat of his exposed neck.

He staggered back and grabbed his throat, not noticing she had his weapon now, and he looked at her with eyes that seemed more than shocked, almost uncomprehending. She glared at him, at the traitorous, murdering motherfucker of a CIA agent, and told him, “You talk too fucking much.”

His eyes seemed to cloud over even before he pitched forward and hit the broken asphalt face first, what was left of his blood spilling out of his body and staining the road, seeping in between the cracks and staining the earth black. She slipped his still hot MKS in her pants pocket, feeling it burn her flesh through the thin layer of cotton, and searched through his pants pockets, trying to ignore the shit smell of death coming from him now, overriding the meaty, metallic scent of his spilled blood. She found his cracked leather billfold with his cover i.d. and papers, the ones that named him as James Mitchell, employee at Artron Oil, and ignored them in favor of the two hundred dollars in American cash (large bills), that she also hastily pocketed before tossing the rest of his wallet away.

Her right leg was barely functioning at this point, so she couldn’t kick him over against the wall, but that was okay; this wasn’t an alley with a lot of traffic, it would do. Anyone that found him would think it was little more than a savage mugging turned murder on a foreigner who found himself in the wrong part of town. Only when the Algerian authorities contacted the American Embassy to report the death – and the timing of that would all depend on how bored and/or cooperative the Constable who found him would be – would the Americans be tipped to the fact that they had lost an agent under some curious and ugly circumstances. But would they discover him for the prick he was? How deep and wide was the corruption of Jack Brewer? He claimed he wasn’t alone, something all the terminally corrupt did, but what if he was being honest? How far would the Americans go to protect their reputations?

What a stupid question. All countries preferred covering their own ass as opposed to exposing the truth. Her countries – both of them – were no different. She’d just have to count on them not wanting to make too big a stink about it.

She wiped his blood off her face with her forearm, leaning against a near by wall for support, and then started limping away. There was a safe house not too far from here; she was pretty sure she could make it, get some stitches and a few painkillers, and make it to the extraction point afterwards.

She didn’t really care about what shit hit the fan next.

******

Vancouver, British Columbia – Now

Z spotted Sir Randolph Frost the moment she stepped into the restaurant on the top floor of the Grand Meridian Hotel. Even though he’d changed quite a bit over the past few years, he still acted like a man who was perfectly bulletproof. He sat alone at a table besides the panoramic window looking out at downtown Vancouver’s business core, a shaft of sunlight hitting him and making him look golden.

The maitre’d came towards her, but she nodded to Frost’s table, and said, “I’m meeting him.”

“Very good, madam,” he said politely, and turned and led the way to the table. You knew you were in a fancy type of restaurant when they went out of their way to be polite to you. Either that, or the waiter was bucking desperately for a tip.

Randolph looked up as he approached, and set down his cup of tea. “I was wondering if you were going to show,” he admitted, his accent sounding even more upper class and plummy to her ears now.

The waiter pulled out her chair for her, but she didn’t immediately sit down. He didn’t notice. He simply put a menu down on the table, and asked if she would like anything to drink. Considering it was morning for her – and afternoon for everyone else – she asked for a large orange juice, which sent him bustling on his way. Only when he was gone did she bother to sit down. “Gonna tell me how you tracked me down, Frost?”

He was rounder and softer than he had been the last time she’d seen him, filled out in that way that many an older man ended up, a victim of gravity and time and a lifestyle that no longer had any challenges. He wore a tailored pinstriped suit that still made his slightly overweight frame look elegant, and he still had most of his hair, although it was a burnished silver now, like strands of fine mesh. But as soft as he looked, his brown eyes glittered with a fierce intelligence, and he radiated a general gravitas, like he knew everything and nothing could actually bother him. Not all former intelligence directors managed that; it was just Frost was born unflappable.

“I did no such thing,” he replied, in absolutely no hurry. “I received an envelope in the mail – completely anonymous, of course, but with an American postmark – containing a card for something called ‘Troubleshooters’. As soon as I saw the Z. Markham name, I knew it was you. I never did believe you were really dead, not you.”

“As long as everyone else thought so, it didn’t matter. So who did you tell?”

“Tell? What, about you?” He chuckled mildly, a slight stuttering cough under his breath. “My dear woman, no one. Did you not know I resigned before the final report on Operation Pitchfork? What they did to you was a disgrace, and I refused to be a party to it. I assure you, you‘re still off the grid.”

Should she trust him? Well, she’d never had any reason not to trust him before. He had, in fact, seemed to like her … if your definition of “like” was broad enough to include “send frequently to foreign countries where she could die horribly”. Frost was one of those remaining few upper crusters who seemed to think you had to comport yourself with decorum and dignity above all, which rendered him a dinosaur in today’s squads. That’s probably why he really resigned. “So you know Brewer was as bent as a three bob note.”

“Of course he was. The Americans didn’t even do a good job of covering it up. He must have whored himself out to everyone with a checkbook. Do you know how they explained your injuries away? He fought back before you killed him.”

She scoffed and shook her head. It sounded unbelievable, and yet very true for that same reason. “He had a gun, I had a piece of glass.” She didn’t bother to bring up that Langtry and Hashimoto weren’t killed with a piece of glass; he knew. And it was unlikely they could explain away the bullets from Brewer’s service weapon in their heads.

“Yes, well, he was a moron. You’re more dangerous cornered. That whole incident with your father -”

“He couldn’t have know that.”

Frost dipped his head, wrapping a single hand around his teacup. He wore a gold band, but since Britain hadn’t yet legalized gay marriage, she had to assume the ring was symbolic. Or he and Gary – if he was still with Gary – went to Iceland to get hitched. Maybe that‘s why they were in Canada? “No. But he should have known that the female operatives are usually more dangerous than the male ones. They can’t depend on overpowering their opponents, so they have to be smarter. God knows you were smart enough to scare everyone else in the unit. Which was another reason you couldn’t have been the one on the take – you’d have been smart enough not to get caught.”

She couldn’t help but smirk. “I hope that wasn’t part of your argument on my behalf.”

“No. I knew they’d never understand it.”

Part of the whole thing was bad timing. She was sacrificed on the alter of political expediency, as a hard truth had been solidifying in the intelligence community for years: the results had to be aimed at a narrow point, to conform to whatever the top man wanted it to say. And she sucked at playing politics, which pretty much meant she was out the door anyways. As it was, they never got a chance to kick her ass out, as she rather conveniently “died” before the final verdict came down.

The thin, gangly waiter came back to the table, bearing a glass of orange juice, and put it down in front of her as if present a sacred offering. He then whipped a PAD of paper and a pencil out of his pocket, and asked if she was ready to order. She picked up the menu, and asked Frost, “You buyin’?”

The small smile that curved his lips suggested he found the very question funny. “Of course. I asked you here, did I not?”

Always the gentleman. She actually didn’t feel much like eating, but she was tired, and food might perk her up a bit. Besides, if he was buying, who was she to skip a free meal? It wasn’t like she went on dates and got them a lot. After a quick scan of the menu, she told the eager young waiter, “Bring me the frittata primavera, sans broccoli, and whole wheat toast .”

“Excellent. And you, sir?”

“Just keep the tea coming.”

“Yes sir.”

They waited for the waiter to gather the menu and drift off again before they spoke. “Can I steal a piece of your toast?” Frost asked politely.

That made her sit back in her chair and wonder. He couldn’t order his own toast? “Are you on one of those damn low carb diets?”

He rolled his eyes, a strangely youthful and undignified gesture for him. “Gary has decided that we should cut back on our carbohydrate intake for the sake of our health.”

“We meaning you.”

“He’s one of those deeply annoying sorts that never gains weight or cholesterol, no matter what he eats. I am attempting to be the good patient and stick to my regime, but … it’s a bugger.”

“Yeah, well, tomorrow you could get hit by a bus. So have the fucking croissant.”

Frost broke out into a genuine laugh, covering his mouth with the back of his hand to keep the volume down. No one was this polite in Britain anymore; Frost remained a true anachronism, and for that reason alone, it was hard not to like him. “You haven’t changed at all, I see.”

She just shrugged, and glanced out the window at downtown Vancouver. Canada hadn’t yet homogenized to the level that America had, but there were clear signs that it was starting to happen. The price of progress seemed to be a slow and terrible gentrification, from Tokyo to Vienna and back again. Sometimes you weren’t perfectly sure where you were, but then again, no matter where you were, you were assured of getting an overpriced coffee drink and a cheap blowjob, so it was a trade off. “You didn’t want to meet me here just to have brunch, Frost. So cut to the chase, okay?”

“Again, you haven’t changed in the least. And here I thought death was one of those life altering experiences.”

She didn’t take the bait, but looked back at him with a studious neutral expression. He had a briefcase resting beside his chair, and he pulled it up to his lap, unlocking and opening the deceptively battered case with great deliberation. At least he hadn’t tried to lie to her.

He took out a folder held together with an elastic band, even though it was remarkably thin. She picked it up and slid the band off as he closed up the briefcase and put it back down beside his chair. Inside the folder was professional quality photographs, mainly taken with a good zoom lens, of a man in early middle age, tall and solidly built, with a penchant for tailored suits and dark sunglasses. He looked familiar somehow, from his sharp widow’s peak to his blunt chin. “Is this the Wolf?” She wondered, paging through the surveillance photos.

He nodded, remaining as professionally nonchalant as he always did, whether they were discussing the weather or a botched operation in Kazakhstan . “I still have friends in the game, and they passed these along. He shows all signs of having been relocated to Toronto.”

“Who’s moving in?”

“No one.”

That made her look up at him curiously. He looked faintly disgusted. “He’s an asset now. We can’t touch him.”

“No. Not this bastard.”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Who is he squealing to?”

“CIA, and Italian SSIMI.”

She shook her head, continuing to flip through the photos. Somebody must have broken protocol to take these, indicating there was at least some suspicion around him, as there should be. How an arms dealer and drug trafficker (and suspected hitman for at least one major cartel; of course, having worked himself up the food chain, he probably had people who did that for him now) could be considered a reliable asset was beyond her. “They figure out he’s a lying fuck yet?”

“He only has to be correct once out of ten times to be considered valuable. You know what an unreliable bunch assets can be.”

“Somebody must be suspicious of him to have him under surveillance.”

“Canadian Intelligence. They’re not happy he’s here in their fair country. They suspect his illegal dealings continue.”

She scoffed, and closed the folder. “Of course they do. Being an asset doesn’t pay that well, not enough to keep him in Prada suits.”

He nodded in agreement, folding his hands together on the neat white tablecloth. “Which is why I’m here.” She waited, sure she knew what was coming. “I wish to hire you to take care of our little problem.”

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