Pushing Fluid - by Lelial Thibodeau

Elegant waste, beautiful trash, you are the road, and I am the crash.

nateswinehart:

Being good to each other is so important, guys.

Chapter Two 
      LeCroix realized, slowly, that she was conscious. Her mind ran through a number of scenarios in rapid-fire succession. She was in her quarters at the facility in Kursk, Markov asleep beside her. Then she was at the hospital in Luxembourg, her psychiatrist keeping vigil as the medical team waited to see if she lived or died. She was in Toronto, the tiny apartment where she recuperated when she finally came back home. In the time it took her mind to rifle through these index cards of her past, less than a couple seconds, she became much more aware of the pain in her side and her leg. Toly. She opened her eyes. He had pulled over her desk chair and sat beside her, a book open in his lap as he watched her come round.
     “Morning.” He smiled, taking one of her hands in his own. He held it to his face, frowning at the icy temperature of her fingers.  
She took a few seconds to glance around the room, then down at her body. She tried to sit up, but he stood, placing a hand on her shoulder and over her midsection.
     “You’re all right,” he said softly, “but you won’t be if you don’t rest.”
     “How long?” she said, her voice gravelly, weak. The darkness outside troubled her. 
     “Eighteen, maybe twenty hours. Not that long.”
     She closed her eyes, exhaling audibly. “How much did you see?”
He sat back down, leaning on the edge of the bed. He moved one hand under her blanket and placed it on her leg, his fingertips just touching the inside of her thigh. She hissed and went rigid.
     “You mean your upgrades?” he asked her, softly exploring the implants with his right hand. 
She stared at him, not daring to say a word. 
     He smiled ever so slightly with one corner of his mouth.  “You lost a lot of blood, Shawn, but I’ve got you stabilized. As for this,” he tightened his and on her leg, moving it up and inward slightly, “I think it’s safe to say I haven’t seen this before. Who did this to you?”
     She pulled herself up onto her elbows. “A facility in Luxembourg City.”
     “You didn’t answer my question.” 
     “A surgeon. Sylvain Balfour. His brother just happened to be the surgeon on duty at the trauma unit in a local emergency room the night they brought me in. I took a 50 caliber round to my knee. I’m lucky to have a leg.”
     “Who shot you?”
She laid back down, her eyes wandering to the ceiling.
     He slid his hand a little farther up her leg. “Who pulled the trigger, Shawn?” 
She looked at him, her expression unmoving.
     “Shawn?” He shifted his hand another couple inches up. She reacted instantly; taking hold of his hand and pushing his thumb down onto itself with one hand and gripping his neck with the other, driving her thumb into his trachea. He pinned down her leg, his thumb hitting one of the protrusions, and she looked at him, her eyes wide. She tried to raise her leg, but could not. He grabbed her side, just enough to put pressure on her stitches. She cried out and dropped back onto the bed, a thin film of sweat on her chest and forehead. He leaned over her. “Who fired the gun?”
     “Larkey.” she said thickly.
     “I knew it.” He let her go. “This was never about redemption. This is about cold, calculated vengeance.”
     She sat up. “Toly, you had no fucking clue that car was rigged to blow. Corvid did.”
He looked at her sharply.
     She nodded. “I can prove it.”
     “Oh really.”
     “Yes. Really.”
He pulled two cigarettes from her pack, lit them both, and gave her one. 
     She took it, drawing deeply, then began to speak. “You been outside yet?”
     “Yes, the view is lovely. I noticed your power lines come right from the town, instead of your unique uh, driveway.”
     “Most of the houses this far north, if they’re not right in a town or on the side of the highway, have similar roads. Keeps out the yuppies.”
     “And yet another indication you grew up in the 80s. You use words like yuppies.”
     “Did you look up?”
     “No, I don’t need a dictionary to-”
     “I mean did you physically look up. When you were outside. Did you look to the mountain, just north of us?”
     “Yes.”
     “And what’s on top of that mountain?”
     “A cluster of cell towers. You’re obviously not concerned about brain cancer.” His tone seethed with sarcasm.
     “More than that. Why do you think I think I chose this property? I could have lived anywhere else in the world. I could have stayed in Luxembourg, or slipped into Belgium or France and disappeared forever.”
     “But you chose to come here. And keep an eye on me. Right.”
     “Toly…”
     “Don’t fucking Toly me. I can’t just saunter back down this mountain and tell Corvid, ‘Oh hey guess what, man? She let me go.’ He’ll think I’m working for you.”
     “The liar’s curse is not that no one will believe him, it’s that he can never believe anyone else.”
     He opened his mouth to speak, and then stopped. “Damn it.”
     “There’s an external drive, quietly collecting information on Corvid, his people, those with whom he conducts business, all of it. If you can get that thing, you’ll see. He sent you here to die, Toly. He planned to use Larkey killing you as an excuse to rain down hellfire on his entire operation. To use the incident to convince his superiors to free up the funds and manpower to take Larkey out.”
     “What’s wrong with that?”
     “Uh, you’d be dead?”
     “Well…shit. Yes.” He nodded.
     “The man I killed in Vancouver, he was one of Larkey’s best bodyguards. Former IDF, speaks no less than eleven languages, has passports for twice as many countries. A ghost. A highly trained ghost. Irreplaceable.”
     “And Larkey won’t like that one bit.”
     “Eidjarn will tell him to let it go, to return back to base and regroup. You’re small potatoes to a man like that.”
     “But he won’t.”
     “Nope. He’s gunning for both of us now. Whichever one of them finds us first, the other will follow.”
     Rodchenko rolled his eyes. “Stupendous.”
     “They won’t get us, Toly. I’m taking you north, to the Territories, putting you on a plane, and from there, you can go anywhere you wish. Free and clear.”
     “What makes you think I want to?”
     “The moment you picked me up off my bathroom floor, you had no choice. Corvid will kill you on general principle alone. This is your chance to walk away from this life, I suggest you take it.”
     He looked at her with considerable disdain. “And what makes you think we can make it that far north? Your truck would be fairly easy to spot from the air.”
     She smiled. “Can you ride a horse?”
     His expression turned to one of resignation. “Of course I saw the barn at the ass end of your property. And the rugged gentleman who arrived earlier today to tend to its occupants. He’s damned lucky I decided to ask first and shoot if necessary.”
    “Oh come on, Toly. Where’s your sense of adventure?”
     He whirled on her. “Oh I don’t know, Shawn. Maybe I checked it at the door, like a responsible human being, when I graduated to eating solids. Christ!” He ran his hands through his hair. “Do you have ANY idea what you’ve done?! I can never go back, Shawn. That’s it. I’m done. Done! Corvid has likely already put the word out that I can’t be trusted. My career? Psh. Gone. So thanks. Thanks a lot.” He left the bedroom. 
 
     Shawn leaned back against her pillows. Arkady lifted his head and placed it in her lap. He whimpered quietly. She stroked his fur, dropping her cigarette in a glass of water on her nightstand. 
     “I know, buddy. I know. I don’t trust him either.” 
     Slowly, achingly, she swung her legs over the side of the bed, carefully checking the implants on her right leg. Satisfied they were working again, she stood up and went to the bathroom. From the cabinet, she withdrew a bottle of large, white pills. She shook three into her hand and tipped them up into her mouth. Turning on the faucet, she cupped her hands under the water and drank until she had alleviated the dryness in her mouth and throat. She wandered back into her bedroom, pulling her jeans off the foot of the bed and pulling them on, mindful of her implants. She pulled a pair of socks, her cowboy boots, a sweater, and perched a cowboy hat on her head. She stood in front of the mirror, gazing at her leg, then into her own eyes. She exhaled softly, crossing her arms. “Don’t get it wrong, LeCroix. Don’t get this one wrong.” She left the bedroom, Arkady at her heels. 
 
     They sat across from one another at her dining room table. Rodchenko picking at the pasta on the plate in front of him. He sipped absently at a glass of wine. LeCroix hadn’t touched hers. She let him pour her a glass, but didn’t tell him she had 15mg of morphine coursing through her system. She fought the drowsiness threatening to drag her back down into oblivion. 
     He placed his fork down quietly, draining his glass and refilling it halfway. He held out the bottle toward her. “You haven’t touched your wine.”
     She levelled her eyes with his. “I don’t think I should lose control of my wits tonight, my friend.” 
     “Oh?”
     She winked. “Let’s just say-”
     “You always were a little difficult to handle after an assignment got,” he gesticulated, searching for the right word, “complicated.”
     “You mean bloody.”
     “Just one big happy family of raging sociopaths.”
     “You’re not a sociopath, Toly. You’re just a guy who can drive. And if we’re a family, that makes me guilty of incestuous thoughts. Awkward. Excuse me.” She stood up from the table and walked toward the stairs.
     “Wait.” He stood up.
She stopped, her hand just on the railing. 
     “Don’t you want desert?” He asked her.
She smiled, though he couldn’t see her face, and looked down, then she turned to him. He walked around the table toward her.
     “I lost my sweet tooth a long time ago, Anatoly. Besides, I prefer my men as I prefer my whiskey.”
     “Obscenely expensive?”
     “Aged.” She turned from him and climbed the stairs. 
***
 
     “Come on, Toly! Do it again!”
     He kicked at the ground and muttered several curse words. “Get fucked, LeCroix, do you train these animals to be so prickish?!”
     “Why yes I do!” she hollered back at him, laughing slyly.
     He glared at her. “Oh ha ha. That’s bloody comical.”
     “Get on the horse, Toly.” To the beast circling the field she barked, “Ferdelance! Again!” She whistled loudly.
The huge black horse, trotting at an easy pace, tightened his circle, keeping an eye on Rodchenko, and made two passes around him before he moved in close enough for him to grab the saddle and pull himself up. 
     Rodchenko readied himself, watching the horse like a hawk tracking prey, saw the horse come in closer, and cracked his knuckles. As the horse neared, he stepped out to the edge of the small platform, waiting until the horse was in range and then reaching out, gripping the saddle and the mane, successfully pulling himself up into the saddle. He laughed loudly, throwing his hands triumphantly in the air. “HA HA! YES! Whoa…!” He grabbed the reigns and the saddle as his balance was thrown off when Ferdelance picked up his pace. A second later, the two of them were dashing across the field at top speed, Rodchenko laughing loudly. 
     LeCroix hopped down off the fence, rubbing Arkady’s head. She knelt down beside him, ruffling his neck, and said, “Look at him go, Ark. He’s pretty good eh?”
The dog barked and licked her face.
     “Good boy. Yeah, look at him go. And he has no fucking idea how much pain he’s going to be in tonight.” She grinned, waving at Rodchenko as he passed by, riding proudly. 
***
     They sat together on her couch, feet up on the coffee table, watching an 80s horror flick called They Live. Rodchenko, normally not one for vintage culture, was less concerned about what was on the screen than he was about the bag of frozen peas tucked between his legs. She adjusted her arm around his shoulders, pouring herself another glass of wine, and kissed his forehead when he groaned in pain, readjusting the impromptu ice pack.
     “You gonna be all right there, rock star?” she asked with a small chuckle.
     He moaned. “You didn’t think to warn me?”
     “If I told you I was going to make you feel like my horse had hoofed you where it counts, would you have displayed nearly that much bravado out there today?”
     He looked up at her. “Bravado? Woman, you’re tripping. That was all skill.”
     “You ever finish blowing the dirt out of your nose?”
     He growled. “Get fucked.”
     “You done good, Toly.”
     He rested his head against her chest. “You know, I never thanked you.”
     “Like I said, don’t thank me yet.”
     “No, I mean, before. I know Joachim had plans to do all of us in. You were unarmed and badly injured and still, you faced him down. Alone. He nearly killed you.”
     “He did more damage single-handedly in a month than you and I could do in a year. Maybe two.”
     “You literally stepped in front of a loaded gun for us.”
     She shrugged. “Justice is its own reward.” 
     “These painkillers are awesome, by the way.” His words were thick and laboured.
     “I’m glad they worked.”
     “I still don’t know how to feel about the pea water pooling in my shorts.”
     She laughed loudly. “Take another painkiller and you won’t care about that either.”
     “No. I need to wake up in the morning, not hibernate through the coming winter.”
     “That’s a tempting proposition. Just curling up in a ball in a dark room and waiting for all this to fade away.”
     “You think Corvid, or Larkey, or Møller, will ever give up?”
     She shook her head. No. I do not. This is only going to end when they’re dead.”
     “Or we are.”
She said nothing.
 
     She was awake the second her dog was growling. LeCroix sat up in bed, pulling her gun out from behind her headboard, chambering a round. “What is it, Arkady?” Her bedroom door opened. She pointed the gun at the darkness.
     “We’ve got unexpected guests.” Rodchenko said, his own gun in one hand. A small flashlight with a red cover in the other. 
     She lowered her weapon. “Christ, Toly. I almost shot you.”
     “No you didn’t. Get up.”
She climbed out of bed, signalling Arkady to be quiet. The dog fell silent, creeping out into the hallway. 
     LeCroix cocked her head to one side and listened. A second later, she heard it. “Quads. Two of ‘em.” She looked at her watch. “0358 hours. Sun won’t be up till almost 9.”
     “Kids out for a joyride?”
     “Not this time of year. Chances of getting caught in a freak blizzard are too high. Mountain weather is almost unpredictable. After September 15th, all bets are off.”
     He tossed her a pair of jeans. “Get dressed.”
     “My rifles are in the gun vault, at the back of my closet.” She grabbed the keys from the drawer of her nightstand and threw them to Rodchenko; he caught them deftly. 
     “On it.” He crossed the room, disappearing into her closet.
LeCroix dressed quickly, pulling on her cowboy boots and a warm sweater, her orange vest, and tying a bandana around her head before pulling on her cowboy hat. 
     He emerged from the closet with 2 loaded rifles. Both were bolt action with custom mounts and shoulder straps. He broke open a box of rounds on her desk and loaded the magazines, 2 each, quickly. When he was finished, just as she was pulling on her hat, he handed her one of the rifles and an extra clip. “Let’s go duck hunting.”
     She tucked her sidearm into the back of her waist and took the rifle, throwing the bolt. “They’re coming from the south, from town. That means there’s more where they came from. You put some warm clothes on, grab your pack. Make a Thermos of coffee if you get the chance. I’ll meet you out at the barn.” She crossed the room, stopping at the door and looking back at him. “Oh and Toly?”
     “Yes?”
     “Don’t forget my fucking dog.” With that, she was gone.
     He looked down at the rifle in his hands. In a mocking voice he said, “Make some coffee if you get the chance. Don’t forget my dog.” He looked at the door. “Bitch.”
 
     LeCroix left the house through a side door. There were no lights on this side of the property, she’d planned that for just such an occasion. She raised the scope on her rifle and sought out the quads. After a single sweep, she spotted them, sitting idle at the edge of one of the fields. They’d come up on one of the hunting trails. She took aim and shot the first one. The second did not react.
     “Damn it.” She threw the bolt, discharging the spent shell, and flattening herself against the building. The two on the quads were dummies. The operators were somewhere else. She levelled the gun again, using the scope to sight in the quads. There were 4 foot tall whips on the ass end of both machines. “All terrain drones. Flush them out, watch from a safe distance. Son of a bitch.” She slipped back inside the house.
 
     She found Rodchenko in the kitchen. She rounded the corner and he reached for his side arm, stopping when he saw her. 
     “Cream and sugar, ma’am?” When he said ma’am, it came out like mum. 
     She curled up one corner of her upper lip. “No thank you. Toly, just black. There’s no one here. Those are decoys. We need to leave. Now.”
     “But the blueberry muffins are still in the oven.”
     “Get over yourself. We’re leaving.” She grabbed his pack, hoisting it over her shoulder. 
He poured the decanter of coffee into a large, green, metal Thermos, tightening the caps, and followed her into the garage. She pulled a down-filled work jacket off a hook and tossed it to him, along with a wool cap and a pair of heavy, lined work gloves. 
     “I hope you put on extra socks,” she quipped. “Or has life in California spoiled you?”
     “You would do better to worry about whether or not you can interact with people after living like a fucking mountain hermit for so long.” He pulled on the toque and slipped his pack onto his shoulders. 
     
     They walked from the house to the barn, the dog bounding on ahead of them. 
     Rodchenko glanced over at the ATVs at the far end of the property. He took note of the one “driver” slumped over and the over sitting stock still. “How do we know one of those things isn’t rigged with a remote gun?”
     “If it is, they’ll hit me.”
     “Comforting. They’ll see which way we’ve gone. We going to head south and double back?”
     “Whoever is operating those is probably close. They’ll know we’re going north.”
     “Oh?”
     “If we were going to go south, we’d be in Oregon by now.”
     “Point taken.”
     “Be quiet and keep moving.”
     “Snipers?”
     “Bears.”
He swallowed hard.
 
     LeCroix saddled the horses in minutes, handing Rodchenko Ferdelance’s reigns. She pulled a pack from a locker in the tack room, cinching it onto her back. There were rifle holsters on both saddles and she handed him a scoping baton. After he’d mounted his ride, she strapped a hunting knife to his left leg.
     “Too tight?”
     He glanced down, fingering the handle. “I’m good.”
     “We’ll head up the summit, pull that external off the tower cluster, then north down the other side. Here.” She handed him a compass. “We’re going due north for about 200 kilometres. Then northeast for another 100.”
     “Corvid will have people at every airfield in BC, the Yukon, the Territories, and Alaska. He’ll expect this.”

     “We’re not going to an airfield. Not a registered one anyway.” She pulled herself up onto her horse, clicked her tongue twice, and guided them out of the barn and toward the north summit. The quads did not move from their vantage point at the other end of the field as they disappeared past the tree line, the horses’ hooves clocking softly on the various rocks jutting out from the ground. Rodchenko wondered how, exactly, they would see in such crushing darkness, so he was pleased when he saw that the moon and the stars offered them plenty of light once their eyes had adjusted. He shivered against the cold, pulling his coat closed tighter, and took note of his breath, and his horse’s, thick in early morning air.
  ©2014 Lelial Thibodeau 

Chapter Two

      LeCroix realized, slowly, that she was conscious. Her mind ran through a number of scenarios in rapid-fire succession. She was in her quarters at the facility in Kursk, Markov asleep beside her. Then she was at the hospital in Luxembourg, her psychiatrist keeping vigil as the medical team waited to see if she lived or died. She was in Toronto, the tiny apartment where she recuperated when she finally came back home. In the time it took her mind to rifle through these index cards of her past, less than a couple seconds, she became much more aware of the pain in her side and her leg. Toly. She opened her eyes. He had pulled over her desk chair and sat beside her, a book open in his lap as he watched her come round.

     “Morning.” He smiled, taking one of her hands in his own. He held it to his face, frowning at the icy temperature of her fingers.  

She took a few seconds to glance around the room, then down at her body. She tried to sit up, but he stood, placing a hand on her shoulder and over her midsection.

     “You’re all right,” he said softly, “but you won’t be if you don’t rest.”

     “How long?” she said, her voice gravelly, weak. The darkness outside troubled her.

     “Eighteen, maybe twenty hours. Not that long.”

     She closed her eyes, exhaling audibly. “How much did you see?”

He sat back down, leaning on the edge of the bed. He moved one hand under her blanket and placed it on her leg, his fingertips just touching the inside of her thigh. She hissed and went rigid.

     “You mean your upgrades?” he asked her, softly exploring the implants with his right hand.

She stared at him, not daring to say a word.

     He smiled ever so slightly with one corner of his mouth.  “You lost a lot of blood, Shawn, but I’ve got you stabilized. As for this,” he tightened his and on her leg, moving it up and inward slightly, “I think it’s safe to say I haven’t seen this before. Who did this to you?”

     She pulled herself up onto her elbows. “A facility in Luxembourg City.”

     “You didn’t answer my question.”

     “A surgeon. Sylvain Balfour. His brother just happened to be the surgeon on duty at the trauma unit in a local emergency room the night they brought me in. I took a 50 caliber round to my knee. I’m lucky to have a leg.”

     “Who shot you?”

She laid back down, her eyes wandering to the ceiling.

     He slid his hand a little farther up her leg. “Who pulled the trigger, Shawn?”

She looked at him, her expression unmoving.

     “Shawn?” He shifted his hand another couple inches up. She reacted instantly; taking hold of his hand and pushing his thumb down onto itself with one hand and gripping his neck with the other, driving her thumb into his trachea. He pinned down her leg, his thumb hitting one of the protrusions, and she looked at him, her eyes wide. She tried to raise her leg, but could not. He grabbed her side, just enough to put pressure on her stitches. She cried out and dropped back onto the bed, a thin film of sweat on her chest and forehead. He leaned over her. “Who fired the gun?”

     “Larkey.” she said thickly.

     “I knew it.” He let her go. “This was never about redemption. This is about cold, calculated vengeance.”

     She sat up. “Toly, you had no fucking clue that car was rigged to blow. Corvid did.”

He looked at her sharply.

     She nodded. “I can prove it.”

     “Oh really.”

     “Yes. Really.”

He pulled two cigarettes from her pack, lit them both, and gave her one.

     She took it, drawing deeply, then began to speak. “You been outside yet?”

     “Yes, the view is lovely. I noticed your power lines come right from the town, instead of your unique uh, driveway.”

     “Most of the houses this far north, if they’re not right in a town or on the side of the highway, have similar roads. Keeps out the yuppies.”

     “And yet another indication you grew up in the 80s. You use words like yuppies.”

     “Did you look up?”

     “No, I don’t need a dictionary to-”

     “I mean did you physically look up. When you were outside. Did you look to the mountain, just north of us?”

     “Yes.”

     “And what’s on top of that mountain?”

     “A cluster of cell towers. You’re obviously not concerned about brain cancer.” His tone seethed with sarcasm.

     “More than that. Why do you think I think I chose this property? I could have lived anywhere else in the world. I could have stayed in Luxembourg, or slipped into Belgium or France and disappeared forever.”

     “But you chose to come here. And keep an eye on me. Right.”

     “Toly…”

     “Don’t fucking Toly me. I can’t just saunter back down this mountain and tell Corvid, ‘Oh hey guess what, man? She let me go.’ He’ll think I’m working for you.”

     “The liar’s curse is not that no one will believe him, it’s that he can never believe anyone else.”

     He opened his mouth to speak, and then stopped. “Damn it.”

     “There’s an external drive, quietly collecting information on Corvid, his people, those with whom he conducts business, all of it. If you can get that thing, you’ll see. He sent you here to die, Toly. He planned to use Larkey killing you as an excuse to rain down hellfire on his entire operation. To use the incident to convince his superiors to free up the funds and manpower to take Larkey out.”

     “What’s wrong with that?”

     “Uh, you’d be dead?”

     “Well…shit. Yes.” He nodded.

     “The man I killed in Vancouver, he was one of Larkey’s best bodyguards. Former IDF, speaks no less than eleven languages, has passports for twice as many countries. A ghost. A highly trained ghost. Irreplaceable.”

     “And Larkey won’t like that one bit.”

     “Eidjarn will tell him to let it go, to return back to base and regroup. You’re small potatoes to a man like that.”

     “But he won’t.”

     “Nope. He’s gunning for both of us now. Whichever one of them finds us first, the other will follow.”

     Rodchenko rolled his eyes. “Stupendous.”

     “They won’t get us, Toly. I’m taking you north, to the Territories, putting you on a plane, and from there, you can go anywhere you wish. Free and clear.”

     “What makes you think I want to?”

     “The moment you picked me up off my bathroom floor, you had no choice. Corvid will kill you on general principle alone. This is your chance to walk away from this life, I suggest you take it.”

     He looked at her with considerable disdain. “And what makes you think we can make it that far north? Your truck would be fairly easy to spot from the air.”

     She smiled. “Can you ride a horse?”

     His expression turned to one of resignation. “Of course I saw the barn at the ass end of your property. And the rugged gentleman who arrived earlier today to tend to its occupants. He’s damned lucky I decided to ask first and shoot if necessary.”

    “Oh come on, Toly. Where’s your sense of adventure?”

     He whirled on her. “Oh I don’t know, Shawn. Maybe I checked it at the door, like a responsible human being, when I graduated to eating solids. Christ!” He ran his hands through his hair. “Do you have ANY idea what you’ve done?! I can never go back, Shawn. That’s it. I’m done. Done! Corvid has likely already put the word out that I can’t be trusted. My career? Psh. Gone. So thanks. Thanks a lot.” He left the bedroom.

 

     Shawn leaned back against her pillows. Arkady lifted his head and placed it in her lap. He whimpered quietly. She stroked his fur, dropping her cigarette in a glass of water on her nightstand.

     “I know, buddy. I know. I don’t trust him either.”

     Slowly, achingly, she swung her legs over the side of the bed, carefully checking the implants on her right leg. Satisfied they were working again, she stood up and went to the bathroom. From the cabinet, she withdrew a bottle of large, white pills. She shook three into her hand and tipped them up into her mouth. Turning on the faucet, she cupped her hands under the water and drank until she had alleviated the dryness in her mouth and throat. She wandered back into her bedroom, pulling her jeans off the foot of the bed and pulling them on, mindful of her implants. She pulled a pair of socks, her cowboy boots, a sweater, and perched a cowboy hat on her head. She stood in front of the mirror, gazing at her leg, then into her own eyes. She exhaled softly, crossing her arms. “Don’t get it wrong, LeCroix. Don’t get this one wrong.” She left the bedroom, Arkady at her heels.

 

     They sat across from one another at her dining room table. Rodchenko picking at the pasta on the plate in front of him. He sipped absently at a glass of wine. LeCroix hadn’t touched hers. She let him pour her a glass, but didn’t tell him she had 15mg of morphine coursing through her system. She fought the drowsiness threatening to drag her back down into oblivion.

     He placed his fork down quietly, draining his glass and refilling it halfway. He held out the bottle toward her. “You haven’t touched your wine.”

     She levelled her eyes with his. “I don’t think I should lose control of my wits tonight, my friend.”

     “Oh?”

     She winked. “Let’s just say-”

     “You always were a little difficult to handle after an assignment got,” he gesticulated, searching for the right word, “complicated.”

     “You mean bloody.”

     “Just one big happy family of raging sociopaths.”

     “You’re not a sociopath, Toly. You’re just a guy who can drive. And if we’re a family, that makes me guilty of incestuous thoughts. Awkward. Excuse me.” She stood up from the table and walked toward the stairs.

     “Wait.” He stood up.

She stopped, her hand just on the railing.

     “Don’t you want desert?” He asked her.

She smiled, though he couldn’t see her face, and looked down, then she turned to him. He walked around the table toward her.

     “I lost my sweet tooth a long time ago, Anatoly. Besides, I prefer my men as I prefer my whiskey.”

     “Obscenely expensive?”

     “Aged.” She turned from him and climbed the stairs.

***

 

     “Come on, Toly! Do it again!”

     He kicked at the ground and muttered several curse words. “Get fucked, LeCroix, do you train these animals to be so prickish?!”

     “Why yes I do!” she hollered back at him, laughing slyly.

     He glared at her. “Oh ha ha. That’s bloody comical.”

     “Get on the horse, Toly.” To the beast circling the field she barked, “Ferdelance! Again!” She whistled loudly.

The huge black horse, trotting at an easy pace, tightened his circle, keeping an eye on Rodchenko, and made two passes around him before he moved in close enough for him to grab the saddle and pull himself up.

     Rodchenko readied himself, watching the horse like a hawk tracking prey, saw the horse come in closer, and cracked his knuckles. As the horse neared, he stepped out to the edge of the small platform, waiting until the horse was in range and then reaching out, gripping the saddle and the mane, successfully pulling himself up into the saddle. He laughed loudly, throwing his hands triumphantly in the air. “HA HA! YES! Whoa…!” He grabbed the reigns and the saddle as his balance was thrown off when Ferdelance picked up his pace. A second later, the two of them were dashing across the field at top speed, Rodchenko laughing loudly.

     LeCroix hopped down off the fence, rubbing Arkady’s head. She knelt down beside him, ruffling his neck, and said, “Look at him go, Ark. He’s pretty good eh?”

The dog barked and licked her face.

     “Good boy. Yeah, look at him go. And he has no fucking idea how much pain he’s going to be in tonight.” She grinned, waving at Rodchenko as he passed by, riding proudly.

***

     They sat together on her couch, feet up on the coffee table, watching an 80s horror flick called They Live. Rodchenko, normally not one for vintage culture, was less concerned about what was on the screen than he was about the bag of frozen peas tucked between his legs. She adjusted her arm around his shoulders, pouring herself another glass of wine, and kissed his forehead when he groaned in pain, readjusting the impromptu ice pack.

     “You gonna be all right there, rock star?” she asked with a small chuckle.

     He moaned. “You didn’t think to warn me?”

     “If I told you I was going to make you feel like my horse had hoofed you where it counts, would you have displayed nearly that much bravado out there today?”

     He looked up at her. “Bravado? Woman, you’re tripping. That was all skill.”

     “You ever finish blowing the dirt out of your nose?”

     He growled. “Get fucked.”

     “You done good, Toly.”

     He rested his head against her chest. “You know, I never thanked you.”

     “Like I said, don’t thank me yet.”

     “No, I mean, before. I know Joachim had plans to do all of us in. You were unarmed and badly injured and still, you faced him down. Alone. He nearly killed you.”

     “He did more damage single-handedly in a month than you and I could do in a year. Maybe two.”

     “You literally stepped in front of a loaded gun for us.”

     She shrugged. “Justice is its own reward.”

     “These painkillers are awesome, by the way.” His words were thick and laboured.

     “I’m glad they worked.”

     “I still don’t know how to feel about the pea water pooling in my shorts.”

     She laughed loudly. “Take another painkiller and you won’t care about that either.”

     “No. I need to wake up in the morning, not hibernate through the coming winter.”

     “That’s a tempting proposition. Just curling up in a ball in a dark room and waiting for all this to fade away.”

     “You think Corvid, or Larkey, or Møller, will ever give up?”

     She shook her head. No. I do not. This is only going to end when they’re dead.”

     “Or we are.”

She said nothing.

 

     She was awake the second her dog was growling. LeCroix sat up in bed, pulling her gun out from behind her headboard, chambering a round. “What is it, Arkady?” Her bedroom door opened. She pointed the gun at the darkness.

     “We’ve got unexpected guests.” Rodchenko said, his own gun in one hand. A small flashlight with a red cover in the other.

     She lowered her weapon. “Christ, Toly. I almost shot you.”

     “No you didn’t. Get up.”

She climbed out of bed, signalling Arkady to be quiet. The dog fell silent, creeping out into the hallway.

     LeCroix cocked her head to one side and listened. A second later, she heard it. “Quads. Two of ‘em.” She looked at her watch. “0358 hours. Sun won’t be up till almost 9.”

     “Kids out for a joyride?”

     “Not this time of year. Chances of getting caught in a freak blizzard are too high. Mountain weather is almost unpredictable. After September 15th, all bets are off.”

     He tossed her a pair of jeans. “Get dressed.”

     “My rifles are in the gun vault, at the back of my closet.” She grabbed the keys from the drawer of her nightstand and threw them to Rodchenko; he caught them deftly.

     “On it.” He crossed the room, disappearing into her closet.

LeCroix dressed quickly, pulling on her cowboy boots and a warm sweater, her orange vest, and tying a bandana around her head before pulling on her cowboy hat.

     He emerged from the closet with 2 loaded rifles. Both were bolt action with custom mounts and shoulder straps. He broke open a box of rounds on her desk and loaded the magazines, 2 each, quickly. When he was finished, just as she was pulling on her hat, he handed her one of the rifles and an extra clip. “Let’s go duck hunting.”

     She tucked her sidearm into the back of her waist and took the rifle, throwing the bolt. “They’re coming from the south, from town. That means there’s more where they came from. You put some warm clothes on, grab your pack. Make a Thermos of coffee if you get the chance. I’ll meet you out at the barn.” She crossed the room, stopping at the door and looking back at him. “Oh and Toly?”

     “Yes?”

     “Don’t forget my fucking dog.” With that, she was gone.

     He looked down at the rifle in his hands. In a mocking voice he said, “Make some coffee if you get the chance. Don’t forget my dog.” He looked at the door. “Bitch.”

 

     LeCroix left the house through a side door. There were no lights on this side of the property, she’d planned that for just such an occasion. She raised the scope on her rifle and sought out the quads. After a single sweep, she spotted them, sitting idle at the edge of one of the fields. They’d come up on one of the hunting trails. She took aim and shot the first one. The second did not react.

     “Damn it.” She threw the bolt, discharging the spent shell, and flattening herself against the building. The two on the quads were dummies. The operators were somewhere else. She levelled the gun again, using the scope to sight in the quads. There were 4 foot tall whips on the ass end of both machines. “All terrain drones. Flush them out, watch from a safe distance. Son of a bitch.” She slipped back inside the house.

 

     She found Rodchenko in the kitchen. She rounded the corner and he reached for his side arm, stopping when he saw her.

     “Cream and sugar, ma’am?” When he said ma’am, it came out like mum.

     She curled up one corner of her upper lip. “No thank you. Toly, just black. There’s no one here. Those are decoys. We need to leave. Now.”

     “But the blueberry muffins are still in the oven.”

     “Get over yourself. We’re leaving.” She grabbed his pack, hoisting it over her shoulder.

He poured the decanter of coffee into a large, green, metal Thermos, tightening the caps, and followed her into the garage. She pulled a down-filled work jacket off a hook and tossed it to him, along with a wool cap and a pair of heavy, lined work gloves.

     “I hope you put on extra socks,” she quipped. “Or has life in California spoiled you?”

     “You would do better to worry about whether or not you can interact with people after living like a fucking mountain hermit for so long.” He pulled on the toque and slipped his pack onto his shoulders.

    

     They walked from the house to the barn, the dog bounding on ahead of them.

     Rodchenko glanced over at the ATVs at the far end of the property. He took note of the one “driver” slumped over and the over sitting stock still. “How do we know one of those things isn’t rigged with a remote gun?”

     “If it is, they’ll hit me.”

     “Comforting. They’ll see which way we’ve gone. We going to head south and double back?”

     “Whoever is operating those is probably close. They’ll know we’re going north.”

     “Oh?”

     “If we were going to go south, we’d be in Oregon by now.”

     “Point taken.”

     “Be quiet and keep moving.”

     “Snipers?”

     “Bears.”

He swallowed hard.

 

     LeCroix saddled the horses in minutes, handing Rodchenko Ferdelance’s reigns. She pulled a pack from a locker in the tack room, cinching it onto her back. There were rifle holsters on both saddles and she handed him a scoping baton. After he’d mounted his ride, she strapped a hunting knife to his left leg.

     “Too tight?”

     He glanced down, fingering the handle. “I’m good.”

     “We’ll head up the summit, pull that external off the tower cluster, then north down the other side. Here.” She handed him a compass. “We’re going due north for about 200 kilometres. Then northeast for another 100.”

     “Corvid will have people at every airfield in BC, the Yukon, the Territories, and Alaska. He’ll expect this.”

     “We’re not going to an airfield. Not a registered one anyway.” She pulled herself up onto her horse, clicked her tongue twice, and guided them out of the barn and toward the north summit. The quads did not move from their vantage point at the other end of the field as they disappeared past the tree line, the horses’ hooves clocking softly on the various rocks jutting out from the ground. Rodchenko wondered how, exactly, they would see in such crushing darkness, so he was pleased when he saw that the moon and the stars offered them plenty of light once their eyes had adjusted. He shivered against the cold, pulling his coat closed tighter, and took note of his breath, and his horse’s, thick in early morning air.

  ©2014 Lelial Thibodeau 

"You’re all set, Mr. Rodchenko. Your room is 418. The elevators are just to the right, past the lounge. Enjoy your stay in Vancouver."

He smiled, taking the card from her outstretched hand. Her delicate, perfectly manicured finger brushed his. “Thank you,” he looked at her through dark sunglasses, “I’m sure there’s plenty to uh, do.” He accentuated the last word, playing on his heavy UK accent, just enough to make her blush. As he walked to the lift, he could feel her eyes following him. He grinned to himself. Sometimes it was just too easy. 

Once in his room, he started the shower, cracking open a bottle of wine from the mini-bar, and peeled off his clothes, pulling a robe from his suitcase. He’d been traveling for 18 hours and he was desperate for some hot water, a drink, and some down time while he went over the assignment brief.

Less than an hour later, he was sound asleep on the bed, papers loosely clutched in one hand, the other tucked behind his head. He did not dream, but on his lips was the faintest trace of a smile. His last thought before sleep and alcohol took him down, was much the same as the thought he’d had when the clerk had checked him in. Sometimes, it’s just too easy. A small gun taped to the back of the headboard, he slept soundly knowing that he was the right man for this job. 

The alarm bleated on his phone and he was momentarily confused. The room was so dark. He was pulled a little farther out of sleep and he remembered the hotel room. The blackout curtains were drawn. Clad in his boxers, he sat up, running a hand through his hair, and shut the alarm off on his phone. He rubbed at his eyes and looked around the room. After a moment, he reached behind the headboard and felt for his gun. He clasped his hand around the holster and pulled it free, checking the magazine. He slipped the gun into his suitcase and stood up, stretching. 

On his way out of the building, freshly showered and wearing a flannel shirt, tee shirt, and jeans, he emerged onto the street. He signalled the doorman and asked him to flag down a taxi. En route, he checked his phone. Satisfied, he leaned back and watched the buildings roll by outside. 

"First time in Canada?" The driver asked.

"Aye," he replied. 

"Oh yeah? Well enjoy your visit. You going over to the island?"

"The island?"

"Yeah, you know. The island."

“‘Fraid not. I’m here for work.”

"What do you do?"

"I’m a software engineer."

"Computers! My son is into computers. Jeez, he goes on Google and gets me what I need in like 5 minutes and I’m just like, ‘How did you even find that?’"

He laughed quietly. “Yes, they can be quite overwhelming.”

They drove in silence for several more minutes until the driver turned down several side streets and rolled to a stop in front of a storage facility.

"Here we are."

"What do I owe you?"

"Uh…$14.00 even."

He handed the driver a $20. “Keep the change.”

"Thank you! Here, let me give you my business card." The driver scrambled to fish one out. "Name’s Benedict. You call me any time. 24/7."

"Thank you." He stepped out of the taxi. 

When the car had left his line of sight, he pulled out a key from his front pocket. Inside the facility, he signed in at the front desk and wandered back down the parking lot to a building with a series of large, roll-up doors. When he found what he was looking for, he bent down and pushed the key into the padlock. He turned it and the lock popped open. He forced the metal door up and smiled. Inside was a shiny black Audi S8. He went to the driver’s side door, pulled it open, and slid down inside the car. He found the keys taped just under the front seat, starting it up and revving the engine. After a moment spent familiarizing himself with the vehicle, he put it into first and drove out of the storage unit, not bothering to close the door behind him. He left a pair of black tracks as he exited the parking lot, savouring the wind in his hair; a sensation he rarely got to experience back in the UK. 

The dining hall was whisper quiet. From an unseen room someone clanked glasses and metal. He stood just beyond the double doors leading in and tried to appear heavily involved with the pages of text in the file through which he slowly perused. Every so often, he would pretend to notice a text and check his phone, dismissing whatever he saw on screen and stuffing it back into his jacket pocket, studying the pages in his hand once more.

A woman cleared her throat. 

He glanced up expectantly.

"They’re ready for you, Mr. Rodchenko." 

"Huh?" He turned to face her, smiling brightly. He reached out and grasped her hand. "Oh! Thank you, miss."  

She directed him through the doors. He stepped inside the dining hall, and had to force himself to keep walking toward the table when he saw a third person sitting with the man he was meeting.  In his mind, he called up the notes he’d been given. There would be 2 men present. Roland Abernathy and Grieg Holden. Both of them were here, and a third; a man he did not recognize. He smiled, approaching the table with confidence he hoped he radiated. 

"Anatoly! Good afternoon!" one of them said, standing up and greeting him. 

Rodchenko offered his hand first to Roland Abernathy, the man in charge of everything happening in this room; the only one who had risen to greet him. 

"How was your flight in? Sit down, please." Abernathy gestured at the empty chair. 

He grasped the back of the chair, pulling it out for himself. “Oh it was fine, sir. Very relaxing.” He sat down, shaking hands all around. 

"Good! Anatoly, this is Devon Larkey," Abernathy said, draping an arm around the shoulders of the man seated beside him. "He’s in charge of our Asiatic software security division."

"Really?" Rodchenko arched an eyebrow.

"Indeed. He’s the best at what he does. We’re all quite proud of him."

Larkey grinned. 

Rodchenko reached over to shake his hand. Larkey reciprocated, but his skin was ice cold. Rodchenko made a note of that, though he attributed it to the temperature inside the building. Outside, Vancouver was experiencing an unseasonable heat wave in mid-October, so the hotel had the A/C cranked. 

"Well, let’s get this ball rolling," Abernathy said. He signalled for the waitstaff and a pretty young Asian woman in hotel uniform approached the table. She greeted them each by name and took their drink orders. Abernathy and Holden opted for Chivas, Rodchenko asked for a glass of Pinot noir, Larkey took a triple espresso, and Rodchenko decided right then and there that something wasn’t quite right. 

"So, Anatoly," Larkey began, "you’re something of a paradox. Your name, Rodchenko, doesn’t seem to match your uh, well, your accent." He leaned in close to the young man with a curly reddish mop atop his head, levelling him with a pair of impossibly blue eyes. 

Rodchenko smiled graciously. He lifted his wine glass and tipped it toward Larkey. “My mother was Scottish. She was on holiday with her parents in Barra. She met a boy. A Belarusian. They fell in love. Two months after they returned home to Edinburgh, she told her parents she was pregnant. They tracked my father down. But by the time I was born, he’d been killed in the Russian-Afghanistan conflict. His parents, my paternal grandparents, died in a house fire less than a year later. So, all I ever knew of him was this picture I keep in my wallet.” Rodchenko pulled out his billfold, flipping it open, and showed Larkey the faded photograph of his father in full military regalia. 

Larkey took his hand and examined the picture. “He’s barely lost his spots in this.”

"Well my mother was only 16 when they met. Is my heritage a problem?" Rodchenko looked at him squarely.

"If there was a problem, you’d be bleeding out by now. I’m very thorough."

"Good. Then can we discuss the job at hand, or would you like to pick apart my upbringing some more?"

Larkey’s eyes widened. “By all means, let us discuss the task at hand. Mr. Rodchenko.”

"Good."

Holden cleared his throat.

"Anatoly, Mr. Larkey is simply covering all our bases."

Rodchenko arched an eyebrow. “Is that so?”

"It is." He nodded. "We have the utmost confidence in your skills as a driver."

"As you should." Rodchenko drained his glass and signalled for another. 

***

Rodchenko slipped the card into the lock on the door of his hotel room. The light turned green, he turned the handle, and pushed the door inward. Once it was closed behind him, he breathed a sigh of relief.  He plucked his phone from his pocket and thumbed in several numbers. Placing the phone against his ear, he crossed the room, grabbed a bottle of champagne, popping the cork with one hand, and pulling the belt off his pants with the other. He draped his jacket over the back of a chair, and flopped onto the bed. 

A man answered the other end. “Toly. I got your email. What’s going on?”

"I’m the driver they want."

"Well good."

"I just don’t think this is job you think it is."

A pause. Then, “Say that again?”

"There was a third man with Abernathy and Holden. Devon Larkey. I’m sending you his picture right now."

"Don’t bother. I know who he is." 

"You don’t sound pleased, Mr. Corvid."

"He killed four of my people on a mining site in Arandis."

"You want me to pull out?"

"What was he doing at the meeting?"

"They said he’s their Asian security software director."

"And you believe that?"

"No. Not for a second. He’s a walking gun. Nothing more."

"Will he be there tomorrow? At the exchange?" 

"Corvid, he’s the one I’m supposed to drive."

Corvid’s grin could be heard through the phone. “Splendid.”

Rodchenko poured himself a second glass of champagne and flipped through the channels before watching the last half of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and falling into a deep and easy sleep. 

***

There was a knock on his hotel room door at 8am, right on schedule. Rodchenko moved into the bathroom and, turning his head just enough to be heard, he asked his caller to identify himself.

"It’s Larkey, Mr. Rodchenko."

He smiled. He opened the door and gestured him inside. “I’m almost ready, sir. Just have to grab a couple things.”

"Oh?"

"My shoes. There’s a decanter of coffee and an extra to go cup on the desk. Help yourself."

"Abernathy certainly speaks highly of you, Anatoly." Larkey poured himself a cup of coffee, added three sugars, and took a sip. 

"He ought to. I am very good at what I do."

"Where did you learn how to drive? The way you uh…do." He cleared his throat.

Rodchenko laced up his shoes and grabbed his watch from his nightstand, slipping it onto his wrist and closing the catch. He smiled. “I got in with a rough crowd in my younger years. Driving stolen cars. You know how it goes.”

Larkey eyeballed him. “Anything the statute hasn’t expired on?”

"Ha! Noooo sir. I’m clean. All my passports are spotless. I am, for all intents and purposes, a ghost."

Larkey grinned wolfishly. “Let’s get going. Clock’s ticking.” 

***

Rodchenko sat behind the wheel of his Audi, the radio playing quietly. Larkey had been inside for almost 20 minutes. Rodchenko had on a pair of black leather driving gloves and he tapped the wheel lightly with one hand, watching the door. His attention was so focused, he didn’t see the uniformed police officer coming up behind his vehicle until she knocked on the window. 

Startled, and severely annoyed, he rolled down his window. “Morning, Constable. Can I-“

"This isn’t a parking lot, sir." She said from behind a pair of darkly mirrored sunglasses.

"Well…"

She snapped her gum. “Picking someone up?”

"My boss will be right out."

"Oh I doubt that." She looked past him, into the car.

"Pardon?"

"Step out, sir. Please."

"Not until you tell me what I’ve done wrong."

She looked at him squarely.  “Get out of the car. Now.”

Rodchenko exhaled audibly. He wanted to reach into his pocket and hit the panic alarm on his phone, which would notify Corvid, but he dared not put his hands where she couldn’t see them. He shut the car off and opened the door. She backed up, placing her hands on her hips, chewing her gum loudly. He stepped out into the street, closing the door behind him, and glanced back, surprised to see a large, red, ancient Jeep Cherokee with oversized tires parked a few car lengths back. But no squad car. He bristled. 

"Let’s see your ID." she said.

He took his wallet out from his back pocket and showed her a British Columbia drivers license. 

She looked at the picture, then at him. “Randy Martell?”

"Yes, ma’am." His Scottish brogue was long gone.

"What year were you born?"

"1985."

"Just a pup."

"I guess. Look, what is this-"

"What’s your boss doing in there?"

"He’s in a meeting."

"What’s his name?"

"Allan Heathers."

"What kind of meeting?"

"A business meeting. Why are you questioning me?"

"Because I can." She handed him back his license. "Come with me, son."

"What? No."

"Excuse me?"

"I haven’t done anything wrong. And I want your name and badge number."

"Turn around." She gripped him by one arm and spun him, kicking his feet apart. He struggled, but she had him in handcuffs in seconds. He was unnerved at the brute strength in her legs. 

"What the hell?!" he snapped, his accent sneaking back. 

"If you want to live to see your next birthday, you’ll behave yourself." she snarled in his ear, pushing him towards the Jeep. 

"Did you just threaten me?!"

She did not respond. They got to the Jeep and she pushed him against the side, gripping the back of his neck, opening the passenger side door.

"This is not a police issue vehicle!" He tried to step away, but she caught him and pushed him up roughly against the side of the vehicle. 

"Shut up, Anatoly." She reached into his pocket and grabbed his phone, sliding it into her own front pocket.

His expression did not change. “Are you insane? My name is-“

"Hey!" A man hollered from behind her. 

Rodchenko craned his neck around as she turned and saw a large man in a suit running across the hotel drive to the street. 

She turned to face him. “This doesn’t concern you, sir.” she said loudly.

"Like hell it-"

His words were severed instantly as she drew her sidearm and cut him down midstride with two shots.

Rodchenko froze. 

His Audi exploded, and the world went black. 

***

"Toly? Why are we breaking radio silence?" 

"Corvid, how the hell are you, old chap?" she said, holding Toly’s phone between her chin and shoulder as she lit a cigarette.

Silence. Then, “LeCroix?” 

"How you been, lover?"

"What the fuck are you up…no. HOW are you even alive?"

"Disappointed?"

"That’s putting it mildly."

"You can thank me later."

"Somehow I doubt that."

"Oh ye of little faith."

"ZERO faith, LeCroix. Zero. Everything you touch ends in bloodshed and triplicate insurance paperwork."

She took one last drag and flicked away the cigarette. “I guess I had a good teacher.”

"Is he alive?"

She looked behind her, into the Jeep. “Ish.”

"I’m a quick study, LeCroix. After our last encounter, I started Lo-Jacking my property."

She held out her hand and looked at the tiny capsule in the quarter-sized drop of blood on her palm. “You mean the thing I just dug out of his shoulder?” She chucked it into the lake. 

"If he dies," Corvid seethed, "you’d best follow him to the other side because otherwise, I will hunt. You. Down. I will raze everything in my path until you’ve got nowhere left to hide and then I will end you." 

"No you listen, Corvid, you fuck with me, I’ll put a bullet in his brain and leave him on the side of the road like a dog and then I’m coming right for you, you son of a bitch." 

Corvid sighed loudly. “Now that I know you’re alive, I’ll find you, Shawn. And then I’m coming to collect what’s mine.”

"Oh I’m counting on that. Bring a warm jacket." She hung up the phone, pulled out the SIM card, and hurled them both off the dock, into the water. "Game on." 

She climbed back into the Jeep, turning the key twice before the engine would start, and drove away from the water, north, toward the mountains. 

*** 

The first thing Rodchenko became aware of was pain. His head pounded like an exceptionally crippling hangover and his entire body felt like he’d been pummelled by…he remembered his car going up in flames and opened his eyes. He gasped, closing his eyes again and shielding them with one hand against the sunshine.

"Morning, Toly." She looked over at him a smiled. 

He peered out from under his hand, grunting as he tried to shift in his seat. He was aware of a deep searing pain in his left shoulder. He thought he’d taken a piece of shrapnel from the explosion, until he remembered his RFiD chip. He groaned. “LeCroix.”

"You’re welcome, kiddo, by the way."

"Yeah. Thanks. Where the hell are we?" He gently rubbed his arm. 

"In my truck."

"No shit." He looked over at her, still shielding his eyes from the bright sunlight outside. She was now wearing cowboy boots, jeans, a flannel shirt over a tee shirt, a bright orange down vest, and a cowboy hat. The small bird tattoo still visible on her neck. She’d changed her hair, but that was it. Everything else was the same. Especially the attitude. "Where are we going?" 

"My place. There’s a Thermos of coffee and a couple doughnuts for you, just behind my seat. Bottle of Tylenol in the glove compartment."

Groaning in pain, he reached behind her. A dog snarled and he snatched his hand back. Looking into the back seat, he found a large German Shepherd staring back at him. He tried to reach again, but the dog growled. “Well he’s a friendly one.”

"At least he’s faithful." she said flatly.

"Ouch. Suppose I earned that one."

"Yes, you did." To the dog she said, "Avez tranquil. Il est un ami. D’accords?" 

The dog sighed and laid back down. 

Rodchenko took the Thermos and the little brown bag. He peered inside and frowned. He hated pastries. From the glove compartment, he removed the bottle of Tylenol. 

She handed him a bottle of water from one of the cupholders. 

"Thank you."

She nodded. 

He fished his sunglasses from his jacket pocket, noticing he still had his gun in his shoulder holster. He pushed the glasses onto his face and swallowed 4 of the red pills, savouring the cool water. His face felt hot and tight, a residual effect of being too close to a big boom. “How did you know?”

"Devon Larkey has been strategically taking out Corvid’s key people for almost 3 years now. He’s working his way up the line. After you, he’ll go for Darrack Pinhill."

"That creepy fucker."

She nodded once. “As soon as I found out Corvid had planted you in Abernathy’s employ, I knew your days were numbered. Corvid has no idea for whom Larkey works.”

"And you do?"

"Eidjarn Møller."

"Who the hell is that?"

"I have no idea, my friend. He’s a Scandinavian. But he lives everywhere and nowhere. I’ve had reliable intel that he’s been in Moscow and Panama at the same time."

"Then I’d say your intel is hardly reliable. You’re slipping, Shawn."

She cracked open the window and lit a cigarette. “No. He’s…something else entirely. He’s been responsible for terrorist attacks all over the world. Seemingly, random. People that have absolutely nothing to do with anything. Or each other.” 

"They must somehow be connected."

"Indeed. All I know for sure is that Møller has been strategically crippling Corvid. Using Larkey, and others, but Larkey has never actually met him as far as I can tell. But he’s not taking you, Toly. I came back from the dead to save your ass."

Rodchenko looked at her directly. “Why?”

She did not take her eyes off the road. “Because I care about you. Because you were there, when Markov was…killed. You,” she bit down hard on her bottom lip, blinking several times, her knuckles turning white as she tightened her grip on the steering wheel, “knew how unstable the operation had become and you could easily have left. Corvid and I would have assumed you were killed in the gunfire, outside Kursk. Or dragged off to some gulag. Same result. Eventually.” 

He did not take his eyes off her. “Thank you, Shawn.” He touched her arm.

She half-smiled, reaching over and brushing one of his curls away from his face. “Don’t thank me yet. Corvid is gunning for me.”

"What’s your plan?"

"We’ve got a couple days before he figures out where I live. Right now the plan is to get you back on your feet."

"Are we almost there? Your house?"

"No way. We’ll be on the highway a few more hours. And then it’s another 90 minutes to my place. Eat your breakfast, then try to rest. I’ll wake you when we stop for gas." 

He opened the bag and removed a large jelly roll with a glob of red sticking out from one side. He frowned, but after a moment, he took a bite and chewed rather morosely. 

*** 

When he opened his eyes again, he was disappointed to note that, though the sun was already falling past the mountains behind them, they were still on the highway.

"How you feeling, kid?" she asked, cracking her window and lighting a smoke.

He shifted himself up and groaned. At least his head wasn’t pounding anymore. “Don’t call me that.  There isn’t even 10 years between us. Also, it’s weird. Considering we-“

"Did Corvid still send you in knowing Larkey was on the scene?"

Rodchenko sighed. “Yes.”

"And you went?"

"Corvid changed the game plan to have me kill Larkey after the exchange. He is aware that Larkey killed 4 people of his in Arandis."

"The uranium mine."

"They weren’t digging for uranium."

"I know. What were they looking for?"

"I don’t know. Something they weren’t willing to disclose to the Namibian authorities."

"Do you know? I mean really?"

"No." He wasn’t lying. 

"He isn’t aware of the other people Larkey has killed?"

"Collateral damage as far as Corvid is concerned."

"And you?"

Rodchenko said nothing. Several minutes later, he grew suddenly more nervous as she pulled off the highway onto an unnamed, but seemingly well maintained gravel road. “Hey,” he said, “I have to um, use the facilities. In this case, a tree.” 

She drove another minute and pulled over, turning off the radio. She waited.

"Aren’t you…going to keep an eye on me?"

"No," she said absently, "you’re old enough to cross the road by yourself."

"Fuck you." He got out of the truck, wincing as he landed on the ground some two and a half feet below the underside of the truck. 

After more than an hour on the gravel road, which seemed to climb impossibly high, and only became narrower and sketchier as they ascended, she turned off an an unmarked double track that cut through the tall trees. He saw no power lines. 

"Where the hell do you live?" he asked her, removing a cigarette from her pack. He placed it in his mouth.

"Don’t smoke that here."

"And why not?"

"Because you’ll start a forest fire."

"It’s October. And very cold I might add. Have you got any heat?" He stuffed the cigarette back in her pack. 

"Sure. Doesn’t really work, but it takes the edge off."

"You’re really living up your retirement." he sneered.

"It’s paid for. But it doesn’t have fancy seat warmers. Like your Audi." 

He narrowed his eyes at her and she smiled. After a moment he did too. 

From the double track, she turned further north onto a barely discernible trail that was barely wide enough for their vehicle. In the back seat, her dog sat up and yawned, his tail thumping against the bench.

"Hang on a second," she said, putting the truck into park and getting out. She opened up the rear door and said, "Vas-y!" Gesturing with her head for the dog to jump, which he did. He snaked up into the trees and was gone within seconds. She climbed back into the truck, engaging the 4L drive and continued up the rocky, heavily overgrown double track.  

"Uh…is he…?" Rodchenko pointed to where the dog had disappeared.

"He’ll beat us to the house. Probably catch himself a rabbit along the way. Don’t be surprised if he’s on the front porch with blood all over his snout."

"Are you kidding?"

She pulled up into a path cut through the woods.

Rodchenko looked ahead and saw a huge, deep puddle of water that had almost washed out a portion of the trail. “Whoa!” He gripped the dashboard.

She gunned the engine, climbing easily over a felled tree. “Relax. I can make it through that,” she pointed at the washout, “but the bottom is like sand dunes. We’ll be out in just a minute.” 

Rodchenko hung on for dear life until she pulled back out onto the trail and continued north. 

Just as the last of the light disappeared from the sky and Rodchenko was beginning to think they would be driving forever, the trees opened up to a breathtaking scene.

Less than a hundred feet in front of them stood a large, two and a half story house, all dark grey and black stone facade and siding. The entire main floor was lit up in blazing, welcoming light, and behind the house, seemingly thousands of feet below, the ground fell away and ended in the distant, sparkling lights of a small town. She stopped the truck less than 10 feet from the front door and sure enough, there was her dog. His snout was clean. 

"This is…beautiful." Rodchenko said, marvelling at the bright stars overhead. 

They walked toward the front door, LeCroix digging out her keys. 

Rodchenko noticed she had a fairly pronounced limp. “You all right?” He touched her shoulder as she put the key in the lock. 

She glanced at him. “Old sporting injury. I’ll be fine.” She pushed open the door, ushering Rodchenko in, and to the dog she said, “Arkady, viens-ici.” He trotted in amicably, sniffing Rodchenko’s shoes as he removed them. She closed the door and went into the kitchen, immediately banging around the cupboards. “You hungry, Toly?”

"God I’m starving." He followed the sound of her voice, the dog following him. "Have you got any wi-"

She handed him a glass of dark red wine. “Pinot noir, right?”

He blinked once, taking the glass. “Thank you. And cheers.” He tipped the glass toward her and took a long sip. He glanced around the house, noting the wood and stone making up almost every surface. “Quite the flat, Shawn.”

"Markov left behind one hell of an insurance policy." She poured herself a glass of wine and removed a large Dutch oven from the fridge. From that, she began to spoon some of the contents into a bowl. 

"Hey I didn’t mean-"

"I know. It’s all good, Toly. We’re all friends here. Right, Arkady?" She slipped a spoonful into his bowl and he happily dug in. 

Rodchenko sipped his wine. “Is it always this cold up here?”

She put the other bowl in the microwave and turned the dial. She picked up her glass and clinked it against his. “Colder, usually.”

"I realize this is rather tactless, but per chance have you any of Markov’s old clothes?"

She chuffed. “Ken was 6 foot 3 and 210 pounds of solid muscle. You’d drown in his left pant leg.”

"Thank you for that." 

"I bought you some clothes. They’re upstairs. Guest room."

"Good. I’m bloody freezing. Which door?"

The microwave dinged. She removed the bowl, holding the sides with a dish towel, and placed it on the counter in front of him. She plucked a spoon from a drawer and stuck in the mixture, smiling coyly. “Second on the left. Eat up. It’ll put hair on your chest.”

"But you…you fed this to the dog. It smells delicious. You don’t cook."

"I learned. It’s Lamb Bourguignon. I’m going to have a shower." She walked out of the kitchen. 

Rodchenko looked down at the bowl, sniffed it again, and, ravenous, shovelled a spoonful into his mouth. “Oh my god that’s hot!” He chewed, and his face brightened with surprise. “And it’s really…good. Hey LeCroix! This is spectacular!”

"Enjoy." she called back. 

He tucked into the food with enthusiasm, savouring every bite and washing it down with wine. 

There came a loud thump and a crash from upstairs. Rodchenko froze, looking upward. He put down his dish and drew his sidearm, quietly chambering a round as he moved silently toward the stairs. He ascended slowly, listening for further noise. He noticed the dog following him just as quietly. 

Rodchenko raised his hand, palm out, and whispered, “Taisez-vous.” 

The dog let out a low, almost indiscernible growl. 

"Whatever." Rodchenko went up the stairs and scanned the hallway. He saw one room, last door on the left, had light spilling from it. Gun raised, he moved quickly down the hall, aware of potential movement from the other 3 doors off the hall. He rounded the wall and peered into the room, sweeping it with his gun. Seeing nothing except a slightly unkempt bedroom, he entered the room.

"Oh god." He holstered the gun and went to LeCroix. She was collapsed halfway between the bedroom and the attached bathroom; the wine glass shattered on the bathroom floor. He rolled her onto her back, carefully, and checked her respiration. Finding her airway clear, he moved to assess the rest of her. The first things he noticed were some strange metal implants on her right leg, they were veinous, dark, and raised under her flesh and the metallic pieces protruding, yet flush, appeared to be several parts of a larger unit which comprised her entire knee, part of her thigh, and most of her lower leg. The second thing he noticed was that her entire midsection was soaked in blood. Gingerly, he peeled back her shirt and found her abdomen wrapped in bandages. The amount and colour told him she’d likely taken a piece of shrapnel from his exploding car. And she’d been bleeding this entire time.

"Christ." He hoisted her up into his arms, turning toward the bed.

The dog snarled at him from the doorway.

"She’s hurt. And what the hell is inside her leg?" 

The dog approached the bed, resting his chin on the edge. He whined once, watching Rodchenko work. 

Rodchenko went back into the bathroom and opened the drawers one by one until he found a first aid kit. He brought it back to the bed and pulled out the scissors, beginning to cut away her shirt. He then removed the bandages and assessed the wound. The shrapnel was a chunk of glass, though the largest piece has already fallen out. Or she pulled it out. Would she be that stupid? He decided he didn’t need an answer to that. 

Working quickly, he removed the bits of detritus from the wound, applied bone sealant powder to the seeping tissue inside, and sutured it closed. Washing his hands afterward, he found his eyes using the bathroom mirror to stare at her strange, half-mechanical leg. He knew she’d been badly injured on her last job with Corvid. He went downstairs, checked the doors and windows to ensure they were locked, grabbed the wine bottle and a clean glass, and went back to her room to keep watch. 

As she slept on, her breath low and deep, he remembered seeing her coming down the road toward him, at the facility in the Russian countryside, north of Kursk. She hadn’t walked to him that day so much as she’d staggered. He was only 22, she’d barely turned 31 and her partner, Ken Markov, had died on that mission. So had Corvid’s right hand man, Allan Brickle. That entire operation could not have gone more wrong. One of Corvid’s men (What was his name? Joachim…something.) turned out to be a plant. Whoever Joachim had actually been working for, they never found out. Shawn had killed him with her bare hands and with Corvid fleeing back to the UK, the trail went cold. Rodchenko had driven her to an independent contact who supplied her with travel documents, and she was gone. She asked him to go with her. She’d find him work in her own country, Canada. She’d practically begged, convinced Corvid would get him killed sooner than later. But his loyalties were with Corvid, and there they’d parted paths. 

But what the hell had happened between then and now that her leg was more machine than Shawn? 

He emptied his wine glass and lay down next to her, watching her chest rise and fall. After awhile, once he was certain her bleeding had stopped, he fell asleep beside her. The dog on the floor at the foot of the bed. 
*** 
©2014 Lelial Thibodeau 
https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=72wpyMUaZ9w

"You’re all set, Mr. Rodchenko. Your room is 418. The elevators are just to the right, past the lounge. Enjoy your stay in Vancouver."

He smiled, taking the card from her outstretched hand. Her delicate, perfectly manicured finger brushed his. “Thank you,” he looked at her through dark sunglasses, “I’m sure there’s plenty to uh, do.” He accentuated the last word, playing on his heavy UK accent, just enough to make her blush. As he walked to the lift, he could feel her eyes following him. He grinned to himself. Sometimes it was just too easy.

Once in his room, he started the shower, cracking open a bottle of wine from the mini-bar, and peeled off his clothes, pulling a robe from his suitcase. He’d been traveling for 18 hours and he was desperate for some hot water, a drink, and some down time while he went over the assignment brief.

Less than an hour later, he was sound asleep on the bed, papers loosely clutched in one hand, the other tucked behind his head. He did not dream, but on his lips was the faintest trace of a smile. His last thought before sleep and alcohol took him down, was much the same as the thought he’d had when the clerk had checked him in. Sometimes, it’s just too easy. A small gun taped to the back of the headboard, he slept soundly knowing that he was the right man for this job.

The alarm bleated on his phone and he was momentarily confused. The room was so dark. He was pulled a little farther out of sleep and he remembered the hotel room. The blackout curtains were drawn. Clad in his boxers, he sat up, running a hand through his hair, and shut the alarm off on his phone. He rubbed at his eyes and looked around the room. After a moment, he reached behind the headboard and felt for his gun. He clasped his hand around the holster and pulled it free, checking the magazine. He slipped the gun into his suitcase and stood up, stretching.

On his way out of the building, freshly showered and wearing a flannel shirt, tee shirt, and jeans, he emerged onto the street. He signalled the doorman and asked him to flag down a taxi. En route, he checked his phone. Satisfied, he leaned back and watched the buildings roll by outside.

"First time in Canada?" The driver asked.

"Aye," he replied.

"Oh yeah? Well enjoy your visit. You going over to the island?"

"The island?"

"Yeah, you know. The island."

“‘Fraid not. I’m here for work.”

"What do you do?"

"I’m a software engineer."

"Computers! My son is into computers. Jeez, he goes on Google and gets me what I need in like 5 minutes and I’m just like, ‘How did you even find that?’"

He laughed quietly. “Yes, they can be quite overwhelming.”

They drove in silence for several more minutes until the driver turned down several side streets and rolled to a stop in front of a storage facility.

"Here we are."

"What do I owe you?"

"Uh…$14.00 even."

He handed the driver a $20. “Keep the change.”

"Thank you! Here, let me give you my business card." The driver scrambled to fish one out. "Name’s Benedict. You call me any time. 24/7."

"Thank you." He stepped out of the taxi.

When the car had left his line of sight, he pulled out a key from his front pocket. Inside the facility, he signed in at the front desk and wandered back down the parking lot to a building with a series of large, roll-up doors. When he found what he was looking for, he bent down and pushed the key into the padlock. He turned it and the lock popped open. He forced the metal door up and smiled. Inside was a shiny black Audi S8. He went to the driver’s side door, pulled it open, and slid down inside the car. He found the keys taped just under the front seat, starting it up and revving the engine. After a moment spent familiarizing himself with the vehicle, he put it into first and drove out of the storage unit, not bothering to close the door behind him. He left a pair of black tracks as he exited the parking lot, savouring the wind in his hair; a sensation he rarely got to experience back in the UK.

The dining hall was whisper quiet. From an unseen room someone clanked glasses and metal. He stood just beyond the double doors leading in and tried to appear heavily involved with the pages of text in the file through which he slowly perused. Every so often, he would pretend to notice a text and check his phone, dismissing whatever he saw on screen and stuffing it back into his jacket pocket, studying the pages in his hand once more.

A woman cleared her throat.

He glanced up expectantly.

"They’re ready for you, Mr. Rodchenko."

"Huh?" He turned to face her, smiling brightly. He reached out and grasped her hand. "Oh! Thank you, miss."

She directed him through the doors. He stepped inside the dining hall, and had to force himself to keep walking toward the table when he saw a third person sitting with the man he was meeting. In his mind, he called up the notes he’d been given. There would be 2 men present. Roland Abernathy and Grieg Holden. Both of them were here, and a third; a man he did not recognize. He smiled, approaching the table with confidence he hoped he radiated.

"Anatoly! Good afternoon!" one of them said, standing up and greeting him.

Rodchenko offered his hand first to Roland Abernathy, the man in charge of everything happening in this room; the only one who had risen to greet him.

"How was your flight in? Sit down, please." Abernathy gestured at the empty chair.

He grasped the back of the chair, pulling it out for himself. “Oh it was fine, sir. Very relaxing.” He sat down, shaking hands all around.

"Good! Anatoly, this is Devon Larkey," Abernathy said, draping an arm around the shoulders of the man seated beside him. "He’s in charge of our Asiatic software security division."

"Really?" Rodchenko arched an eyebrow.

"Indeed. He’s the best at what he does. We’re all quite proud of him."

Larkey grinned.

Rodchenko reached over to shake his hand. Larkey reciprocated, but his skin was ice cold. Rodchenko made a note of that, though he attributed it to the temperature inside the building. Outside, Vancouver was experiencing an unseasonable heat wave in mid-October, so the hotel had the A/C cranked.

"Well, let’s get this ball rolling," Abernathy said. He signalled for the waitstaff and a pretty young Asian woman in hotel uniform approached the table. She greeted them each by name and took their drink orders. Abernathy and Holden opted for Chivas, Rodchenko asked for a glass of Pinot noir, Larkey took a triple espresso, and Rodchenko decided right then and there that something wasn’t quite right.

"So, Anatoly," Larkey began, "you’re something of a paradox. Your name, Rodchenko, doesn’t seem to match your uh, well, your accent." He leaned in close to the young man with a curly reddish mop atop his head, levelling him with a pair of impossibly blue eyes.

Rodchenko smiled graciously. He lifted his wine glass and tipped it toward Larkey. “My mother was Scottish. She was on holiday with her parents in Barra. She met a boy. A Belarusian. They fell in love. Two months after they returned home to Edinburgh, she told her parents she was pregnant. They tracked my father down. But by the time I was born, he’d been killed in the Russian-Afghanistan conflict. His parents, my paternal grandparents, died in a house fire less than a year later. So, all I ever knew of him was this picture I keep in my wallet.” Rodchenko pulled out his billfold, flipping it open, and showed Larkey the faded photograph of his father in full military regalia.

Larkey took his hand and examined the picture. “He’s barely lost his spots in this.”

"Well my mother was only 16 when they met. Is my heritage a problem?" Rodchenko looked at him squarely.

"If there was a problem, you’d be bleeding out by now. I’m very thorough."

"Good. Then can we discuss the job at hand, or would you like to pick apart my upbringing some more?"

Larkey’s eyes widened. “By all means, let us discuss the task at hand. Mr. Rodchenko.”

"Good."

Holden cleared his throat.

"Anatoly, Mr. Larkey is simply covering all our bases."

Rodchenko arched an eyebrow. “Is that so?”

"It is." He nodded. "We have the utmost confidence in your skills as a driver."

"As you should." Rodchenko drained his glass and signalled for another.

***

Rodchenko slipped the card into the lock on the door of his hotel room. The light turned green, he turned the handle, and pushed the door inward. Once it was closed behind him, he breathed a sigh of relief. He plucked his phone from his pocket and thumbed in several numbers. Placing the phone against his ear, he crossed the room, grabbed a bottle of champagne, popping the cork with one hand, and pulling the belt off his pants with the other. He draped his jacket over the back of a chair, and flopped onto the bed.

A man answered the other end. “Toly. I got your email. What’s going on?”

"I’m the driver they want."

"Well good."

"I just don’t think this is job you think it is."

A pause. Then, “Say that again?”

"There was a third man with Abernathy and Holden. Devon Larkey. I’m sending you his picture right now."

"Don’t bother. I know who he is."

"You don’t sound pleased, Mr. Corvid."

"He killed four of my people on a mining site in Arandis."

"You want me to pull out?"

"What was he doing at the meeting?"

"They said he’s their Asian security software director."

"And you believe that?"

"No. Not for a second. He’s a walking gun. Nothing more."

"Will he be there tomorrow? At the exchange?"

"Corvid, he’s the one I’m supposed to drive."

Corvid’s grin could be heard through the phone. “Splendid.”

Rodchenko poured himself a second glass of champagne and flipped through the channels before watching the last half of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and falling into a deep and easy sleep.

***

There was a knock on his hotel room door at 8am, right on schedule. Rodchenko moved into the bathroom and, turning his head just enough to be heard, he asked his caller to identify himself.

"It’s Larkey, Mr. Rodchenko."

He smiled. He opened the door and gestured him inside. “I’m almost ready, sir. Just have to grab a couple things.”

"Oh?"

"My shoes. There’s a decanter of coffee and an extra to go cup on the desk. Help yourself."

"Abernathy certainly speaks highly of you, Anatoly." Larkey poured himself a cup of coffee, added three sugars, and took a sip.

"He ought to. I am very good at what I do."

"Where did you learn how to drive? The way you uh…do." He cleared his throat.

Rodchenko laced up his shoes and grabbed his watch from his nightstand, slipping it onto his wrist and closing the catch. He smiled. “I got in with a rough crowd in my younger years. Driving stolen cars. You know how it goes.”

Larkey eyeballed him. “Anything the statute hasn’t expired on?”

"Ha! Noooo sir. I’m clean. All my passports are spotless. I am, for all intents and purposes, a ghost."

Larkey grinned wolfishly. “Let’s get going. Clock’s ticking.”

***

Rodchenko sat behind the wheel of his Audi, the radio playing quietly. Larkey had been inside for almost 20 minutes. Rodchenko had on a pair of black leather driving gloves and he tapped the wheel lightly with one hand, watching the door. His attention was so focused, he didn’t see the uniformed police officer coming up behind his vehicle until she knocked on the window.

Startled, and severely annoyed, he rolled down his window. “Morning, Constable. Can I-“

"This isn’t a parking lot, sir." She said from behind a pair of darkly mirrored sunglasses.

"Well…"

She snapped her gum. “Picking someone up?”

"My boss will be right out."

"Oh I doubt that." She looked past him, into the car.

"Pardon?"

"Step out, sir. Please."

"Not until you tell me what I’ve done wrong."

She looked at him squarely. “Get out of the car. Now.”

Rodchenko exhaled audibly. He wanted to reach into his pocket and hit the panic alarm on his phone, which would notify Corvid, but he dared not put his hands where she couldn’t see them. He shut the car off and opened the door. She backed up, placing her hands on her hips, chewing her gum loudly. He stepped out into the street, closing the door behind him, and glanced back, surprised to see a large, red, ancient Jeep Cherokee with oversized tires parked a few car lengths back. But no squad car. He bristled.

"Let’s see your ID." she said.

He took his wallet out from his back pocket and showed her a British Columbia drivers license.

She looked at the picture, then at him. “Randy Martell?”

"Yes, ma’am." His Scottish brogue was long gone.

"What year were you born?"

"1985."

"Just a pup."

"I guess. Look, what is this-"

"What’s your boss doing in there?"

"He’s in a meeting."

"What’s his name?"

"Allan Heathers."

"What kind of meeting?"

"A business meeting. Why are you questioning me?"

"Because I can." She handed him back his license. "Come with me, son."

"What? No."

"Excuse me?"

"I haven’t done anything wrong. And I want your name and badge number."

"Turn around." She gripped him by one arm and spun him, kicking his feet apart. He struggled, but she had him in handcuffs in seconds. He was unnerved at the brute strength in her legs.

"What the hell?!" he snapped, his accent sneaking back.

"If you want to live to see your next birthday, you’ll behave yourself." she snarled in his ear, pushing him towards the Jeep.

"Did you just threaten me?!"

She did not respond. They got to the Jeep and she pushed him against the side, gripping the back of his neck, opening the passenger side door.

"This is not a police issue vehicle!" He tried to step away, but she caught him and pushed him up roughly against the side of the vehicle.

"Shut up, Anatoly." She reached into his pocket and grabbed his phone, sliding it into her own front pocket.

His expression did not change. “Are you insane? My name is-“

"Hey!" A man hollered from behind her.

Rodchenko craned his neck around as she turned and saw a large man in a suit running across the hotel drive to the street.

She turned to face him. “This doesn’t concern you, sir.” she said loudly.

"Like hell it-"

His words were severed instantly as she drew her sidearm and cut him down midstride with two shots.

Rodchenko froze.

His Audi exploded, and the world went black.

***

"Toly? Why are we breaking radio silence?"

"Corvid, how the hell are you, old chap?" she said, holding Toly’s phone between her chin and shoulder as she lit a cigarette.

Silence. Then, “LeCroix?”

"How you been, lover?"

"What the fuck are you up…no. HOW are you even alive?"

"Disappointed?"

"That’s putting it mildly."

"You can thank me later."

"Somehow I doubt that."

"Oh ye of little faith."

"ZERO faith, LeCroix. Zero. Everything you touch ends in bloodshed and triplicate insurance paperwork."

She took one last drag and flicked away the cigarette. “I guess I had a good teacher.”

"Is he alive?"

She looked behind her, into the Jeep. “Ish.”

"I’m a quick study, LeCroix. After our last encounter, I started Lo-Jacking my property."

She held out her hand and looked at the tiny capsule in the quarter-sized drop of blood on her palm. “You mean the thing I just dug out of his shoulder?” She chucked it into the lake.

"If he dies," Corvid seethed, "you’d best follow him to the other side because otherwise, I will hunt. You. Down. I will raze everything in my path until you’ve got nowhere left to hide and then I will end you."

"No you listen, Corvid, you fuck with me, I’ll put a bullet in his brain and leave him on the side of the road like a dog and then I’m coming right for you, you son of a bitch."

Corvid sighed loudly. “Now that I know you’re alive, I’ll find you, Shawn. And then I’m coming to collect what’s mine.”

"Oh I’m counting on that. Bring a warm jacket." She hung up the phone, pulled out the SIM card, and hurled them both off the dock, into the water. "Game on."

She climbed back into the Jeep, turning the key twice before the engine would start, and drove away from the water, north, toward the mountains.

***

The first thing Rodchenko became aware of was pain. His head pounded like an exceptionally crippling hangover and his entire body felt like he’d been pummelled by…he remembered his car going up in flames and opened his eyes. He gasped, closing his eyes again and shielding them with one hand against the sunshine.

"Morning, Toly." She looked over at him a smiled.

He peered out from under his hand, grunting as he tried to shift in his seat. He was aware of a deep searing pain in his left shoulder. He thought he’d taken a piece of shrapnel from the explosion, until he remembered his RFiD chip. He groaned. “LeCroix.”

"You’re welcome, kiddo, by the way."

"Yeah. Thanks. Where the hell are we?" He gently rubbed his arm.

"In my truck."

"No shit." He looked over at her, still shielding his eyes from the bright sunlight outside. She was now wearing cowboy boots, jeans, a flannel shirt over a tee shirt, a bright orange down vest, and a cowboy hat. The small bird tattoo still visible on her neck. She’d changed her hair, but that was it. Everything else was the same. Especially the attitude. "Where are we going?"

"My place. There’s a Thermos of coffee and a couple doughnuts for you, just behind my seat. Bottle of Tylenol in the glove compartment."

Groaning in pain, he reached behind her. A dog snarled and he snatched his hand back. Looking into the back seat, he found a large German Shepherd staring back at him. He tried to reach again, but the dog growled. “Well he’s a friendly one.”

"At least he’s faithful." she said flatly.

"Ouch. Suppose I earned that one."

"Yes, you did." To the dog she said, "Avez tranquil. Il est un ami. D’accords?"

The dog sighed and laid back down.

Rodchenko took the Thermos and the little brown bag. He peered inside and frowned. He hated pastries. From the glove compartment, he removed the bottle of Tylenol.

She handed him a bottle of water from one of the cupholders.

"Thank you."

She nodded.

He fished his sunglasses from his jacket pocket, noticing he still had his gun in his shoulder holster. He pushed the glasses onto his face and swallowed 4 of the red pills, savouring the cool water. His face felt hot and tight, a residual effect of being too close to a big boom. “How did you know?”

"Devon Larkey has been strategically taking out Corvid’s key people for almost 3 years now. He’s working his way up the line. After you, he’ll go for Darrack Pinhill."

"That creepy fucker."

She nodded once. “As soon as I found out Corvid had planted you in Abernathy’s employ, I knew your days were numbered. Corvid has no idea for whom Larkey works.”

"And you do?"

"Eidjarn Møller."

"Who the hell is that?"

"I have no idea, my friend. He’s a Scandinavian. But he lives everywhere and nowhere. I’ve had reliable intel that he’s been in Moscow and Panama at the same time."

"Then I’d say your intel is hardly reliable. You’re slipping, Shawn."

She cracked open the window and lit a cigarette. “No. He’s…something else entirely. He’s been responsible for terrorist attacks all over the world. Seemingly, random. People that have absolutely nothing to do with anything. Or each other.”

"They must somehow be connected."

"Indeed. All I know for sure is that Møller has been strategically crippling Corvid. Using Larkey, and others, but Larkey has never actually met him as far as I can tell. But he’s not taking you, Toly. I came back from the dead to save your ass."

Rodchenko looked at her directly. “Why?”

She did not take her eyes off the road. “Because I care about you. Because you were there, when Markov was…killed. You,” she bit down hard on her bottom lip, blinking several times, her knuckles turning white as she tightened her grip on the steering wheel, “knew how unstable the operation had become and you could easily have left. Corvid and I would have assumed you were killed in the gunfire, outside Kursk. Or dragged off to some gulag. Same result. Eventually.”

He did not take his eyes off her. “Thank you, Shawn.” He touched her arm.

She half-smiled, reaching over and brushing one of his curls away from his face. “Don’t thank me yet. Corvid is gunning for me.”

"What’s your plan?"

"We’ve got a couple days before he figures out where I live. Right now the plan is to get you back on your feet."

"Are we almost there? Your house?"

"No way. We’ll be on the highway a few more hours. And then it’s another 90 minutes to my place. Eat your breakfast, then try to rest. I’ll wake you when we stop for gas."

He opened the bag and removed a large jelly roll with a glob of red sticking out from one side. He frowned, but after a moment, he took a bite and chewed rather morosely.

***

When he opened his eyes again, he was disappointed to note that, though the sun was already falling past the mountains behind them, they were still on the highway.

"How you feeling, kid?" she asked, cracking her window and lighting a smoke.

He shifted himself up and groaned. At least his head wasn’t pounding anymore. “Don’t call me that. There isn’t even 10 years between us. Also, it’s weird. Considering we-“

"Did Corvid still send you in knowing Larkey was on the scene?"

Rodchenko sighed. “Yes.”

"And you went?"

"Corvid changed the game plan to have me kill Larkey after the exchange. He is aware that Larkey killed 4 people of his in Arandis."

"The uranium mine."

"They weren’t digging for uranium."

"I know. What were they looking for?"

"I don’t know. Something they weren’t willing to disclose to the Namibian authorities."

"Do you know? I mean really?"

"No." He wasn’t lying.

"He isn’t aware of the other people Larkey has killed?"

"Collateral damage as far as Corvid is concerned."

"And you?"

Rodchenko said nothing. Several minutes later, he grew suddenly more nervous as she pulled off the highway onto an unnamed, but seemingly well maintained gravel road. “Hey,” he said, “I have to um, use the facilities. In this case, a tree.”

She drove another minute and pulled over, turning off the radio. She waited.

"Aren’t you…going to keep an eye on me?"

"No," she said absently, "you’re old enough to cross the road by yourself."

"Fuck you." He got out of the truck, wincing as he landed on the ground some two and a half feet below the underside of the truck.

After more than an hour on the gravel road, which seemed to climb impossibly high, and only became narrower and sketchier as they ascended, she turned off an an unmarked double track that cut through the tall trees. He saw no power lines.

"Where the hell do you live?" he asked her, removing a cigarette from her pack. He placed it in his mouth.

"Don’t smoke that here."

"And why not?"

"Because you’ll start a forest fire."

"It’s October. And very cold I might add. Have you got any heat?" He stuffed the cigarette back in her pack.

"Sure. Doesn’t really work, but it takes the edge off."

"You’re really living up your retirement." he sneered.

"It’s paid for. But it doesn’t have fancy seat warmers. Like your Audi."

He narrowed his eyes at her and she smiled. After a moment he did too.

From the double track, she turned further north onto a barely discernible trail that was barely wide enough for their vehicle. In the back seat, her dog sat up and yawned, his tail thumping against the bench.

"Hang on a second," she said, putting the truck into park and getting out. She opened up the rear door and said, "Vas-y!" Gesturing with her head for the dog to jump, which he did. He snaked up into the trees and was gone within seconds. She climbed back into the truck, engaging the 4L drive and continued up the rocky, heavily overgrown double track.

"Uh…is he…?" Rodchenko pointed to where the dog had disappeared.

"He’ll beat us to the house. Probably catch himself a rabbit along the way. Don’t be surprised if he’s on the front porch with blood all over his snout."

"Are you kidding?"

She pulled up into a path cut through the woods.

Rodchenko looked ahead and saw a huge, deep puddle of water that had almost washed out a portion of the trail. “Whoa!” He gripped the dashboard.

She gunned the engine, climbing easily over a felled tree. “Relax. I can make it through that,” she pointed at the washout, “but the bottom is like sand dunes. We’ll be out in just a minute.”

Rodchenko hung on for dear life until she pulled back out onto the trail and continued north.

Just as the last of the light disappeared from the sky and Rodchenko was beginning to think they would be driving forever, the trees opened up to a breathtaking scene.

Less than a hundred feet in front of them stood a large, two and a half story house, all dark grey and black stone facade and siding. The entire main floor was lit up in blazing, welcoming light, and behind the house, seemingly thousands of feet below, the ground fell away and ended in the distant, sparkling lights of a small town. She stopped the truck less than 10 feet from the front door and sure enough, there was her dog. His snout was clean.

"This is…beautiful." Rodchenko said, marvelling at the bright stars overhead.

They walked toward the front door, LeCroix digging out her keys.

Rodchenko noticed she had a fairly pronounced limp. “You all right?” He touched her shoulder as she put the key in the lock.

She glanced at him. “Old sporting injury. I’ll be fine.” She pushed open the door, ushering Rodchenko in, and to the dog she said, “Arkady, viens-ici.” He trotted in amicably, sniffing Rodchenko’s shoes as he removed them. She closed the door and went into the kitchen, immediately banging around the cupboards. “You hungry, Toly?”

"God I’m starving." He followed the sound of her voice, the dog following him. "Have you got any wi-"

She handed him a glass of dark red wine. “Pinot noir, right?”

He blinked once, taking the glass. “Thank you. And cheers.” He tipped the glass toward her and took a long sip. He glanced around the house, noting the wood and stone making up almost every surface. “Quite the flat, Shawn.”

"Markov left behind one hell of an insurance policy." She poured herself a glass of wine and removed a large Dutch oven from the fridge. From that, she began to spoon some of the contents into a bowl.

"Hey I didn’t mean-"

"I know. It’s all good, Toly. We’re all friends here. Right, Arkady?" She slipped a spoonful into his bowl and he happily dug in.

Rodchenko sipped his wine. “Is it always this cold up here?”

She put the other bowl in the microwave and turned the dial. She picked up her glass and clinked it against his. “Colder, usually.”

"I realize this is rather tactless, but per chance have you any of Markov’s old clothes?"

She chuffed. “Ken was 6 foot 3 and 210 pounds of solid muscle. You’d drown in his left pant leg.”

"Thank you for that."

"I bought you some clothes. They’re upstairs. Guest room."

"Good. I’m bloody freezing. Which door?"

The microwave dinged. She removed the bowl, holding the sides with a dish towel, and placed it on the counter in front of him. She plucked a spoon from a drawer and stuck in the mixture, smiling coyly. “Second on the left. Eat up. It’ll put hair on your chest.”

"But you…you fed this to the dog. It smells delicious. You don’t cook."

"I learned. It’s Lamb Bourguignon. I’m going to have a shower." She walked out of the kitchen.

Rodchenko looked down at the bowl, sniffed it again, and, ravenous, shovelled a spoonful into his mouth. “Oh my god that’s hot!” He chewed, and his face brightened with surprise. “And it’s really…good. Hey LeCroix! This is spectacular!”

"Enjoy." she called back.

He tucked into the food with enthusiasm, savouring every bite and washing it down with wine.

There came a loud thump and a crash from upstairs. Rodchenko froze, looking upward. He put down his dish and drew his sidearm, quietly chambering a round as he moved silently toward the stairs. He ascended slowly, listening for further noise. He noticed the dog following him just as quietly.

Rodchenko raised his hand, palm out, and whispered, “Taisez-vous.”

The dog let out a low, almost indiscernible growl.

"Whatever." Rodchenko went up the stairs and scanned the hallway. He saw one room, last door on the left, had light spilling from it. Gun raised, he moved quickly down the hall, aware of potential movement from the other 3 doors off the hall. He rounded the wall and peered into the room, sweeping it with his gun. Seeing nothing except a slightly unkempt bedroom, he entered the room.

"Oh god." He holstered the gun and went to LeCroix. She was collapsed halfway between the bedroom and the attached bathroom; the wine glass shattered on the bathroom floor. He rolled her onto her back, carefully, and checked her respiration. Finding her airway clear, he moved to assess the rest of her. The first things he noticed were some strange metal implants on her right leg, they were veinous, dark, and raised under her flesh and the metallic pieces protruding, yet flush, appeared to be several parts of a larger unit which comprised her entire knee, part of her thigh, and most of her lower leg. The second thing he noticed was that her entire midsection was soaked in blood. Gingerly, he peeled back her shirt and found her abdomen wrapped in bandages. The amount and colour told him she’d likely taken a piece of shrapnel from his exploding car. And she’d been bleeding this entire time.

"Christ." He hoisted her up into his arms, turning toward the bed.

The dog snarled at him from the doorway.

"She’s hurt. And what the hell is inside her leg?"

The dog approached the bed, resting his chin on the edge. He whined once, watching Rodchenko work.

Rodchenko went back into the bathroom and opened the drawers one by one until he found a first aid kit. He brought it back to the bed and pulled out the scissors, beginning to cut away her shirt. He then removed the bandages and assessed the wound. The shrapnel was a chunk of glass, though the largest piece has already fallen out. Or she pulled it out. Would she be that stupid? He decided he didn’t need an answer to that.

Working quickly, he removed the bits of detritus from the wound, applied bone sealant powder to the seeping tissue inside, and sutured it closed. Washing his hands afterward, he found his eyes using the bathroom mirror to stare at her strange, half-mechanical leg. He knew she’d been badly injured on her last job with Corvid. He went downstairs, checked the doors and windows to ensure they were locked, grabbed the wine bottle and a clean glass, and went back to her room to keep watch.

As she slept on, her breath low and deep, he remembered seeing her coming down the road toward him, at the facility in the Russian countryside, north of Kursk. She hadn’t walked to him that day so much as she’d staggered. He was only 22, she’d barely turned 31 and her partner, Ken Markov, had died on that mission. So had Corvid’s right hand man, Allan Brickle. That entire operation could not have gone more wrong. One of Corvid’s men (What was his name? Joachim…something.) turned out to be a plant. Whoever Joachim had actually been working for, they never found out. Shawn had killed him with her bare hands and with Corvid fleeing back to the UK, the trail went cold. Rodchenko had driven her to an independent contact who supplied her with travel documents, and she was gone. She asked him to go with her. She’d find him work in her own country, Canada. She’d practically begged, convinced Corvid would get him killed sooner than later. But his loyalties were with Corvid, and there they’d parted paths.

But what the hell had happened between then and now that her leg was more machine than Shawn?

He emptied his wine glass and lay down next to her, watching her chest rise and fall. After awhile, once he was certain her bleeding had stopped, he fell asleep beside her. The dog on the floor at the foot of the bed.
***
©2014 Lelial Thibodeau https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=72wpyMUaZ9w

sosuperawesome:

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Never trust chicks who play with sledgehammers.

jonkakes:

ericscissorhands:

"Some women are lost in the fire. Some women are built from it."

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