THICKER THAN THIEVES
Penelope threw her hands into the air for the third time in ten minutes. “I just don’t understand why you’re doing this.”
Katja didn’t understand either.
“What the hell do I tell Renault?” Penelope asked.
“You won’t have to tell him anything. He’ll contact me directly, and I won’t be gone that long.”
“That’s not the point. You’re taking one hell of a risk. The Falcon is too hot in the states right now. Your face is on every watch list in the western world, and if the feds back home catch you, they’ll throw you in a hole and never let you out.”
“That’s a bit dramatic, Pen.”
“Yeah, not by much.”
She wasn’t wrong, but Katja didn’t want to focus on all the things that might bite her in the ass. She zipped her small carry-on bag closed, and then lifted it from her bed to rest on the floor. “There are some things I need to take care of.”
The exasperation in Pen’s tone hit peak intensity. “What things? Since when?”
Katja crossed her arms. She wasn’t going to get into this with Penelope right now, not when she wasn’t sure herself why she was doing it. “Look, can you do it or not?”
The gust of breath from Penelope sounded labored. “Yes, I can do it. It’s expensive as fuck, and dare I remind you that we shouldn’t be leaking any extra money right now -“
“I don’t want to talk about how much it costs, Pen. I just need to go.”
It was the closest they’d come to an argument in years. While they had an arrangement when it came to doing their jobs – Penelope handling most of the logistics while Katja took care of any meatspace work – their lives had been inextricably linked for nearly a decade. This was one of the few times that Katja planned to set out on her own, even for a short while, and it was made worse by her inability to answer any of Penelope’s questions.
Much to Katja’s surprise, Penelope backed down. The fiery shine in her eyes morphed from angry to sad in seconds.
“It’s going to take a few days to get you anywhere near the east coast. Your train tomorrow to Budapest leaves at 8:40am local time. From there, I can get you into South America easier than Canada or Mexico, but it’s still a roundabout way to go. Less planes, trains and automobiles – more buses, boats and helicopters.”
“I’ll take it.” Katja softened her voice. “Thanks, Pen.”
“It’s what I’m here for.” She stood without looking at Katja and headed back to her usual workspace.
Katja sighed, and proceeded to pack up the gear she was leaving behind, just in case Penelope needed to move them while she was gone. It wasn’t likely, but she took the precaution. It was how they lived.
Her contacts had told her that Lopez had spent weeks recovering in Washington, D.C., but had spent an unpredictable day in New York. Soon after, she’d packed up her D.C. condo and was now staying in New York but not working for the agency, at least not through official channels.
It was odd behavior for an analyst, and completely outside of Foster’s usual playbook, but Katja had known since she’d followed Lopez in Paris that she wasn’t a typical analyst.
She didn’t think this thing with Lopez was over. She just wished she knew what the hell it was to begin with.
After four days of constant travel, Katja was back in the United States.
The border patrol agents were looking for people traveling alone with little or no luggage. Without prior planning, Katja might have fit the description, but she had the twisted workings of Penelope’s brain on her side.
Katja cooed in broken Spanish to the crying baby in her arms, and clutched the hand of a toddler as she walked through the gates. She hitched the baby high on one hip, knowing it would change her gait, and she’d already applied enough makeup and false [putty to shape her face] to fool the face detection software.
The man next to her pulled her luggage as well as his own. He smiled at her as they passed the border guards, though the warmth didn’t quite reach his eyes. A tired, young widower with two tiny children, he was emigrating to the U.S. to work in his uncle’s garage in Kentucky. He was a good man, so Katja had no idea how Penelope had found him or convinced him to play this role. Still, ten thousand American dollars would provide him with seed money in his new life, and had purchased Katja a ready-made family to escape detection.
Another twenty grand had given her a clean set of identification papers.
Any reluctance by the children to follow their mother would be considered typical behavior for ones so young, and weary from travel, Katja looked the part of a harrowed parent. She and her temporary family wouldn’t part company for several hundred more miles, but she didn’t mind the added challenge of tired tantrums from healthy, well-loved children. It was a far cry from where she’d started.
She didn’t think about the old days much. There wasn’t much to cherish.
By mid-day the next morning, she’d parted ways from the kind man and his children, and reached the last planned drop on this part of her voyage. Katja entered a four-digit code into an old padlock and lifted the door of a remote garage. Once inside, she pulled the tarp from the waiting vehicle and smiled.
The navy blue 1970 Chevelle with white sport stripes wasn’t her black Barracuda, but it would do.
A quick inspection revealed a briefcase full of cash, a few burner phones still encased in manufacturer packaging, parking stickers from a nearby military base as well as veterans’ bumper stickers proudly displaying time served overseas. The windows were tinted and wouldn’t reveal who was driving. Anyone who saw her would think she was an old vet driving a classic car, and she’d be able to get away with murder – not that murder was on the docket this trip.
It was brilliant cover. Maybe Penelope wasn’t that mad at her after all.
She transferred a few thousand dollars in cash to her pockets, then tossed everything into the trunk. The keys to the Chevelle had been left in the ignition.
She fired up the engine and listened to the purr of well-tuned American ingenuity.
Twenty minutes later, Katja was driving five miles over the speed limit on the highway, headed for New York City.
Katja tossed another ten dollars into the tip jar, and winked at the pimpled kid behind the counter who served her another cup of designer coffee. “Table rent.”
Predictably, he blushed, but a bark from his manager sent him scurrying.
It’d taken a bit of scouting to find this place. Penelope said the cameras on this block were covered, but Katja played it safe and chose a shop that was clearly cutting costs and likely wasn’t paying their surveillance bill. The cameras were probably recording, but the data wasn’t going any further than the shop’s archives.
She sat down in a corner table with a view of the street. This was the third day she’d stopped in this shop, under the cover of working on a freelance article for New York Magazine, but in truth, she was scouting the bizarre daily activities of one Agent Denna Lopez.
Katja sighed, and took a sip of her too sweet, too hot coffee.
What the hell was she doing here? She hadn’t let herself ask that question for most of the journey, for fear the answer would reveal that she was on a fool’s errand. At significant expense, and at risk of absolute disaster, she had travelled halfway around the globe to get another look at Lopez.
She didn’t think it was worry about Lopez’s injuries – that didn’t sound like something she’d do. Though she’d made the call that freed Lopez from Roux’s clutches, and made an uncharacteristic trip to the hospital to see if she’d lived, Katyz didn’t really care what happened to her, did she?
Did she want to kill her? This woman had destroyed a carefully constructed personal and professional house, one designed to protect Katja’s interests as well as her identity. But the thought of killing Lopez didn’t offer her any satisfaction, so that wasn’t it. Was it because Lopez had given Foster such an edge?
No, she didn’t really care about Foster that much. He was merely an annoyance. Foster was Renault’s problem.
On the other hand, Lopez seemed to be hers.
Katja read over the chatter on the nets from the last few days, checking buried messages in various applications and sites that Penelope had set up for clandestine communication. Nothing significant had changed, and though Penelope asked her about a return date, she didn’t ask anything about what Katja was actually doing.
She saw Lopez arrive out of the corner of her eye. Something about the way Lopez walked caught her attention, even though she was focused on the screen in front of her. It was the same walk Katja had seen on the streets of Paris, but now people in Lopez’s path saw her coming and moved out of her way.
Lopez was dressed in workout gear, and carried a rugged backpack. Now that Katja thought about it, Lopez was always carrying a rugged backpack. Katja wondered if that meant something.
As she had yesterday, and the day before that, Lopez had arrived ten minutes before the top of the hour, and walked into a martial arts studio across the street.
The gym was in an old warehouse with large bay doors. It was warm enough that they’d opened all three of them, revealing a matted area inside with half a dozen fighters. Lopez’s warm-up demonstrated that she knew her way around a mat, but the other guys looked like professional brawlers – mixed martial arts guys, boxers, grapplers. Most of them were twice Lopez’s size.
In fact, Katja realized, most of them were bigger than Albert Roux.
The warm up ended, and the show began.
Katja watched Lopez get her ass kicked over and over again. Knocked to the ground in every bout, Lopez never once got the upper hand, but each time, Lopez got back to her feet, wiped the blood from her face, reset her mouthpiece and beckoned a glove for more.
Katja thought Lopez might be some sort of masochist, but as she watched, she realized that Lopez never made the same mistake twice. She was a quick study – still rough, still losing, but improving, and quickly.
Lopez was becoming a different animal altogether, and Katja couldn’t stop watching her.
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