Zero Hour: Seven – Somebody to Shove

Troubleshooter
Zero Hour
by Andrea Speed

Seven – Somebody to Shove

We have to get out of here,” she told him quietly, keeping her head ducked down like she was looking for a crumb on the wood grain table.

Shan looked around, but carefully, trying not to seem too suspicious. “Why? What’s wrong?”

“There’s a guy in here who can’t see me. He’ll recognize me and blow the whole deal.”

91.jpgHe looked around again, but let his eyes settle on the jailbait twirling around the pole. “Who? Somebody from Vancouver?”

“Something like that. I’m sick, and you have to help me outta here.”

“Huh?”

She glared up at him through her reading glasses, which distorted his face ever so slightly. “My cover story, why you have to get me out of the club now. Comprende?”

“Oh! Yeah, okay,” he agreed, getting up. She had him come over to the left side of the table, blocking the view of her from Worden’s side, and as she got up, she leaned against Shan, resting her head against his chest. It seemed to startle him. “Uh, are you listening for a pulse?”

“I can’t be seen on the left. Try and keep your face away from that side as well, but not too obviously. You’re helping your sick friend out. Got it?”

“Got it.”

She draped her left arm limply over his shoulders, and leaned heavily against him as they started staggering towards the exit. Shan kept himself turned ever so slightly towards the right, so no one from the other side of the room could get a good look at them. But she still kept her other hand close to her gun until they were outside, in the blessedly cool night air. Even the exhaust and cigarette smoke was better than the smell in there.

“What now?” Shan wondered, as she pulled away from him and they started walking down the street.

She grabbed his arm and pulled him into an alley that reeked of piss, but led out to the back of Spank, to an unmarked door that she was sure where the strippers slipped out after the show. The back of Spank was actually a small parking lot, although she couldn’t tell to what building, since it was closed and dark and had no obvious signs on this part of it. “I want you to wait here, and surreptitiously follow that stripper if she comes out.”

“Which stripper?”

“The one who was on stage as we left.”

He nodded knowingly. “Ah, Kristal. Is it me, or did she look a little like Avril Lavigne with a boob job?”

She stared at him, wanting to ask how he knew what Avril Lavigne looked like, but afraid to. “I have no idea. Look, I need you to keep an eye on her; if she leaves before I come back, you need to track her movements. Keep me updated by cell, okay?”

Maybe she was talking too fast; he looked deeply confused. “Come back? Where are you going?”

“Nowhere important. I just have to make a call, in private, and maybe see if I can find an internet café around here. I’ll be gone ten minutes, tops.”

Shan now had the wide eyed look of a man just informed that he was secretly married ten years ago during a drunken blackout, and now owed a half million dollars in back spousal support. “So why aren’t I going with you? Why don’t you make the call here?”

“I need you to keep an eye out for our stripper, and I need an internet café. I ain’t abandonin’ ya, kiddo; I’ll be right back.” She patted him on the shoulder, but he still looked slightly bewildered as she left the alley, leaving him behind. She pulled off her cap and glasses and shoved them in her pocket, because they wouldn’t do her any good anymore.

There was a type of mini-mart at the end of the block, its bright fluorescents bleeding through its huge windows, illuminating the small pay phone kiosk outside its doors. Thankfully the thing still worked and hadn’t been vandalized to death yet, and she punched up the number Frost gave her. Yes, she had a cell phone, but a land line was usually more secure as long as you knew the line wasn’t tapped; anybody who knew what they were doing could intercept a standard cell phone conversation. Still, even though it was highly unlikely that someone had tapped a pay phone, she was still careful, speaking as tersely as possible. She gave him the number on the phone, and then went into the quickie mart to buy a pack of gum and a newspaper (she had to buy something), then went back outside and sat on the edge of the front walk, close to the pay phone. She chewed a stick of gum and scanned the paper while she waited. The Canadian government was a bit more open than most, but still reading of various developments, she found herself trying to read between the lines, trying to figure out what wasn’t being said. It was too bloody easy. Maybe she was just too cynical. The downside of working behind the scenes in an intelligence agency was that you began to see everything as a façade, everything as a bloody lie. At least it was a safe bet nowadays – no matter where they worked, or for who, people were generally full of shit. Or she just needed to get that shotgun shack in the Alberta woods and start writing misspelled letters to the papers about the grand conspiracy involving the Illuminati and Hitler’s ghost bugging her fillings.

She was reading through the fluffy items in the lifestyle section by the time the phone rang. It didn’t matter that she hadn’t had much information to give him; Frost had enviable connections, who could draw lines between the thinnest facts. She wished she had those connections, but she would have had to have been officially on the grid to utilize them. She still had something of a friend at Interpol, but did he know she was still alive? If anyone would, it would be Nasir. He wouldn’t grass on her either. He might be pissed off that she took the “easy way” out, though. Oh hell, he was a naturalized Frenchman; it wasn’t just typical he’d be contrary, but expected. After all, she wasn’t even a Pommy bastard, she was an Ozzie – they didn’t even register on anyone’s radar. Being from the ass end of the globe was as much a boon as a hindrance.

Once she got the information she needed, she mentioned, “He was meeting his contact. Worden. Did you forget to tell me, Frost?”

There was a long, surprised pause that might have been genuine. “Worden, as in ..? No, my dear, I had no idea. In fact, wasn’t he indicted?”

“I have no idea, I wasn’t in country at the time.”

“Oh, yes. Japan’s lovely that time of year.”

“If I found out you set this up on purpose , I’m takin’ the gear and catching the next flight to Vancouver. Do you understand? You were a decent boss, but I don’t get fucked by anyone.”

There was a long pause, and she couldn’t tell if it was offended or just generally appalled. “I’m a lot of things, Zero, but I’m not a betrayer. I thought you knew better than that.”

“I don’t know anything anymore. It’s better that way.” She then realized that if her plan was going to work, she needed one more ingredient. “Before I forget, I need you to set me up with something.”

“What do you need?”

She told him. He chuckled dryly, and after a moment of decorum, he replied, “A thorough investigation will reveal the ruse.”

“Do you think the States or Italy will bother to do a thorough investigation before pulling him?”

He waited a beat, and she watched the cars driving by, their headlines leaving temporary scars of illumination in their wake. She felt like she existed outside of the world of normal people. She thought that feeling would leave her once she left the game, but it never did. What a pisser to discover what you blamed on the job was in fact you all along. She just wasn‘t cut out for the normal world, for a normal life; her entire existence was powerful testimony to that. “In the current climate? Not at all.”

“Set it up. Email the contact info, and I’ll arrange the place and time.”

“It has to be good,” he warned.

“You know me, Frost. It will be.” She hung up the receiver then, as saying goodbye was for normal people having a normal conversation.

She walked back to the alley beside Spank, and almost didn’t see Shan at first – for a big guy, he could skulk in the shadows with the best of them. “Where have you been?” he whispered angrily. “I didn’t want to stalk a woman alone. I mean, that’s creepy.”

“So she hasn’t come out?”

He glared at her for a moment, but he knew how useless that was and rolled his eyes. “No. An Asian chick came out, though, with some guy. I didn’t recognize her, so we must have missed her show.”

“What a pity.”

Shan had found a good patch of shadow to lurk in, and she joined him. “Find an internet café?”

“Not around here, no.” That bit had been a lie. There was no way to say she didn’t want him overhearing her phone call that he wouldn’t take offense at. “Doesn’t matter, I’ve got things set up.”

Even in the dark, she could feel his eyes on her. “What things?”

She reached into her coat pocket, and felt around until she found what she wanted. They were in auxiliary case, and when she saw them, she figured Frost was being a little paranoid. Still she brought them with her, because she was paranoid too, and now they might be the perfect in with Kristal. “Here, take this,” she said, putting one of the leather rectangles blindly in his hand. “Just follow my lead.”

“I usually do,” he replied, then brought up the item she handed him for a closer look. It seemed to take him a moment. “Holy fuck, are these badges?”

“In a sense. They indicate we work for Canadian Intelligence.”

“What?” There were times she felt bad for him. He was so out of his depth here, and he would never know just how much. But an accident had rendered him unfit for a normal life, so he was in the same boat as her by simple forfeit. He was a lot stronger than he thought, a lot better, but he would never know it. “Umm, isn’t it illegal to impersonate a … what the hell are we impersonating exactly? Spies?”

“Not exactly. And the badges are real, even if we’re not, so as long as we don’t admit we’re fakes, we’ll slide through. Remember – believing your own bullshit is ninety percent of everything.”

“I thought it was ninety nine percent.”

“Not anymore. People are too easy to fool nowadays.”

He took off his cap and scratched his head as avidly as a dog scratching a flea, mussing up his hair in a spectacular way. “Damn, this thing was hot. I see why they wear them on ski poles.”

Probably a malapropism, but who knew? Maybe he knew something she didn’t.

The door opened, letting out a faint wash of bad ‘90’s pop, and the woman of the hour.

Off stage, the woman who called herself “Kristal” looked to be on the short side of average, and her hair was that dry straw blonde, far too brassy to be remotely attractive or real. She wore rather drab clothes, perhaps as a way of hiding her stage persona; the black vinyl rain slicker she wore over everything was borderline hooker wear or practical, pretty much depending on the circumstances and season. As soon as the door shut, and Kristal started walking away, Z stepped out of the shadows, badge first. “Pardon me, ma’am, may we have a word with you?”

She stopped short and fast, tensing visibly as she turned towards them. This wasn’t the best place for an exit, was it? A nice dark alley. It made her wonder if there had been trouble here before. “Who are you?” she asked, her voice surprisingly high pitched and raspy, like she’d been a pack a day smoker since she was seven. Up close, her face had a pinched look, and her make up was too heavy. She looked like Courtney Love’s slightly less trashy younger sister.

“We work for Canadian Intelligence, ma’am. I’m Agent Foster, and this is Agent Castlemaine,” she replied, keeping things deadpan. If t.v. and movies taught anyone anything, it was that federal agents were virtually robotic.

Shan, who had done his best to smooth down his hair, held up his badge and nodded a terse greeting. She gave him the longest, strangest look, perhaps because he wasn’t wearing a suit.

“Uh … yeah, right. Are you friends of Kimber’s?” Although she was less freaked out than before, she still took a step back, cinching the belt of her coat tightly around her waist.

A woman in an exploitative business like “Kristal” would be naturally suspicious of anyone who showed up flashing a badge at her, which is why she called in Frost to find out who she really was. Hard data always gave anyone an air of credibility. “No, I assure you we’re on the level. You are Jody Burdett, yes?”

Her pale hazel eyes widened in shock. That was her real name – Jody Wynne Burdett, originally from Moosejaw. She had a very minor arrest record, which was Z had figured, and made her easy to find. According to Frost, her arrests were all penny ante stuff: vagrancy, vandalism, shoplifting, public disturbance, nothing above a misdemeanor. Most likely, she was a runaway from a bad home, where there might have been some sexual abuse. It was a stereotype, but sometimes stereotypes existed for a good reason. The whole “stripping my way through college” was a bald faced myth, probably cooked up by vaguely guilty men, or ones who just liked the idea of a naked co-ed. “H-how do you know my name?” she asked nervously, taking another step back.

That question was just too stupid to answer. Instead, she pulled out a folded photo of the Wolf, and held it up to her. “Did you see this man tonight? He was near the front. He comes every Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, just to watch you work. Have you ever seen him outside of this place?”

She was hitting her with a lot of information, a lot of it implied, but she wanted her off balance. She looked slightly stunned, suspicion warring with fear, and after a moment, she stared intently at the photo. Z noticed her pupil were large, and wondered what she was on. Something mild, without an obvious odor, maybe prescription drugs. “Uh … I’m not sure, I’m not good with faces. Are you sayin’ he’s stalkin’ me?”

“Not to our knowledge – not yet, anyways. But he does seem to have an obsession with you, and considering his line of work, that’s not in your best interest.” It should have bothered her how easy it was for her to lie, to spin yarns that could manipulate people into doing what she wanted, but ever since she left that godforsaken Australian backwater town known as Cooper Flats, she had been doing little else. She was so good at it, she landed herself a government job.

Jody shook her head, clearly not understanding much of this, but still being sucked in. The frightening was often easier to believe than anything else, as it just confirmed your own private suspicions. “What is he, a pimp? I’ve had ‘em bug me before -”

“No, Ms. Burdett, not a pimp. He’s a trafficker in children and pre-teens mostly, procured for the purpose of creating child pornography. You’re older than he goes for, but you look like you could pass for fifteen or so, which makes you ideal for his purposes.”

She scoffed faintly, shaking her head. “I don’t do porn.”

“He won’t ask you to do it.”

That briefly confused her. “Then why tell me -”

“Do you seriously think the children are in it voluntarily?”

Finally the penny dropped. Perhaps the drugs were making her synapses fire sluggishly, because the realization seemed to unfold across her face for several seconds. “You think he’s gonna kidnap me?”

“It’s a possibility we can’t discount.” Oh, you had to love doublespeak. It was an answer that was neither yes or no, and yet most people would accept it coming from someone in an authority position. “That’s why we’d like to discuss an operation with you. We’d like to nab him before he does something egregious on Canadian soil, but right now we haven’t been able to tie him to anything. With your assistance, we believe we can.”

“Me?” She squeaked. “But I – why would I – he’s dangerous, right? What d’ya want me to do, get kidnapped?”

“Absolutely not. I can guarantee you would be in no danger. There’s a coffee shop around the corner, perhaps we’d best discuss it there.”

She hesitated, continuing to look angry, scared, and confused by turns, but Z knew the next words out of her mouth would confirm whether she was going to have to press a little harder, or if she had Burdett. It took much longer than she guessed, but finally she said, “Yeah, okay, I guess. I still don’t understand what you want with me.”

Bingo – she had her. Now that she had the bait, all she had to do was set the rest of the trap.

If only there was a way to take down Worden with him.

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