The Improbability Volumes – Day 27

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THE DEVIL YOU KNOW

Washington, DC

Late in Act III

Katja tipped her head up to the sun, enjoying the warmth of a cool autumn morning in the park. It wasn’t the best place for a public meeting, but it wasn’t the worst either, not with all the colorful leaves on the trees and the crisp sound of wind through dry leaves.

To be on the safe side, Katja had cased this meeting spot several times over the last two days and set up a few perimeter trips against any latecomers, but she wasn’t really worried about being apprehended. Despite being on the watch list, she wasn’t the highest priority at the moment. The agency was too busy covering its tracks.

Still, this request for a meeting had come out of left field from a most unlikely source. She could have refused, but her curiosity was piqued.

Rayner had done her homework, and contacted the Falcon via the usual dark channels, the ones Penelope had set up for jobs that hadn’t come from Renault. Still, Rayner been up front about who was – and who wasn’t – coming to this meeting, and insisted that it would be in the open with no subterfuge.

Katja had no idea what it was that Rayner wanted to talk to her about. The messages had only mentioned that it was an item of interest for the Falcon. Whatever the hell that meant.

She pretended that it had nothing at all to do with being one step closer to Denna. She pretended a lot of things about Denna, lately.

Specifically, she pretended she didn’t miss Denna terribly.

Katja sighed, and pushed the longing from her mind yet again.

Rayner chose a long approach on a path with a clear line of sight to Katja’s position on a park bench.  Katja had to admit the woman was easy on the eyes and had a nice walk on her, one that hinted of multiple weapons and little fear. She was dressed in slacks and a matching jacket, and looked like she’d just stepped off Capitol Hill. She held a white coffee cup with dark heat sleeve in one hand – though if Katja had to guess, it likely wasn’t her shooting hand.

Rayner slowed her walk with a nod as she got within speaking distance.

“This ought to be good,” Katja said by way of greeting.

Rayner cocked an eyebrow but sat down. “I’m…glad…you decided to join me.”

“I have to admit I’m interested to hear what kind of spin you’re putting on things these days.”

“I assure you that my motives are sincere and my interest genuine.”

“Oh, I’m sure Foster and Marsh said the same thing.”

Her adversary didn’t skip a beat. “Foster never got his hands dirty and Marsh lost sight of the real goal. Keeping terrorists away from American citizens, at home and abroad.”

“So patriotic.” Katja sighed, uninterested. “Also boring.”

“I’ve read the sheet, Mannis. Your targets were very precise. I think you want those kind of elements away from the US as well. ”

“If you brought me here to see if I’d salute the flag, I’m here to disappoint you.”

“No pleasantries, then. I’ll skip to business. I brought you here to ask you about the possibility of…consulting…with us from time to time.”

Her jaw dropped with a click. The CIA wanted to hire the Falcon for wetwork? That was impossible. She had to be on the suspects list for Marsh’s death. They surely didn’t think Denna did it, or Denna would be in federal lockup…or worse.

“For the company? On whose authority?” It had to be higher up than Foster’s replacement or his immediate superior, if that’s what this woman was now.  If so, she’d jumped a pay grade, but Katja didn’t think it was likely.

Who, though, could sanction that kind of thing? And do it in a way that it was all above board as this woman suggested?

“I’m here on behalf of Zephyr, who would like to work with you on a case to case basis.”

Katja stared blankly.

“You’d be adequately compensated,” Rayner said.  “And I’d be your contact.”

“Like I need your money.” Katja shook her head as she muttered. “You? One of Foster’s personal minions? No, thank you. And the who the fuck is Zephyr?”

She already knew, but wanted to see what Rayner would say. Zephyr was a supra-military government contractor, one of those firms that took military support or clandestine ops jobs with taxpayer dollars but private oversight.

Rayner wasn’t buying it. “I’m betting you already know. And yes, me.”

Always with the games, these guys. This was why Katja preferred to deal with criminals, whose self-interest could be counted on, and who didn’t wrap their greed for money or hunger for power in a flag. She could sense something coming from Rayner but couldn’t pinpoint it. Ambition, perhaps?

Katja tried not to laugh in this woman’s face, though it was hard to resist. “Give me one reason under the sun – one – why I would even consider this.”

“I could arrest you right now and -“

“Try it and one of us will die.” Katja had prepared for that eventuality, and was determined that she wouldn’t be dying today.

Rayner stared at her as if questioning how serious she was.

Katja shifted her weight there on the bench, and Rayner dropped her eyes to Katja’s hands, which were tucked into her coat pockets. Rayner looked her in the eyes again, reassessing.

“Fine.” She frowned in concession.  “But I do have something you want.”

“Doubtful.”

“I can wipe your record clean.”

Tempting, but not possible. Rayner might have pull with the U.S., which would be great and would mean Katja could live in New York again, free and clear, but that wasn’t the only place where Katja was a wanted woman. “Not interested.” It was a lie, but only a small one. She did not want to work with this woman.

She could tell she’d surprised Rayner, who tipped her head and squinted.

“I can get your partner out of maximum security,” she said in a low voice.

Katja took a deep breath, looking for the angles, then exhaled with a tired sigh.  That might be true, and it would be easier to break Penelope out of a lower security institution, but it was weak leverage at best and left Katja little wiggle room. “Not good enough. Release her and we’ll talk.”

“No can do, but I can make her life easier.” Rayner looked at Katja as if she’d convinced her already.

Katja was nowhere near agreeing to this madness.

There was no way that Zephyr would actually work with her. It was a ploy to eventually get her into custody, and if they had both of them incarcerated, they were done. She’d have to find a way to get Penelope out of prison, for a number of reasons but not the least of which was so no one could use her as any kind of leverage at all against Katja.

Still, a small voice in the back of her head and in the general vicinity of her heart told her that there was something else Rayner might be able to arrange.

Katja spoke before she thought about it too much and reconsidered.

“I don’t like the idea of dealing with you. You were a company man, and went along with Foster and Marsh too easily.”

Rayner frowned. “You don’t have many options in that department. I’m the only one willing to consider wiping your slate clean.”

Interesting. Katja filed that away for future analysis.

“What about the others?” Katja asked with tilt of her head.  “Do they hate me as much as Marsh? Ellis? Sato?” She studiously looked away. “Lopez?”

There was a long pause. Katja didn’t glance back. She was scared of what she’d see.

She was scared of what Rayner might see on her face.

“Ellis and Sato are still with the company,” Rayner said quietly. “Lopez is…”

Katja couldn’t resist, but managed to keep her face blank when she looked at Rayner again. Rayner’s face was indecipherable, and something dark and painful washed over her eyes. They were tinged with regret, perhaps.

“Lopez is off the table,” Rayner said with finality.

“If you can’t negotiate the prison release, then I fail to see how anything you have to offer would be worth the risk. I didn’t come this far to fall for so simple a trap.”

“No trap, but this is time sensitive. I can’t hold these terms forever.”

They were weak terms to begin with, which meant there was something else Rayner had in play. Not that Katja cared.

“Not much in the way of terms at all.” Katja was done listening. Her curiosity had been answered, if not satisfied.

“At least consider the offer.” Rayner took a final sip of her coffee and tossed the cup in a nearby disposal unit.

Katja stood without speaking, and with one last glance at Rayner, walked into the crowd. She supposed that was answer enough, but she’d have to come up with another plan.

Perhaps there was a way to limit Rayner’s options.

**

[THIS IS WHERE DAY 13 FITS]

**

Katja stood staring out into the night from the second story window of the remote farmhouse. An out-of-place auto-car pulled up to the four-way stoplight out on the road. The lone occupant stepped out, looked around to notice there was nothing lively except this house, and as the auto-car drove away,  began the long walk up the dirt driveway. The auto-car drove away, programmed to self-destruct when it finally ran out of charge after another hundred or so miles.

Penelope had changed out the orange jumper and was wearing the spare clothes Katja had arranged to be in the auto-car. It had been an impressive prison break, if Katja did say so herself. Not that anyone would ever find out about her brilliance in its execution.

By the time Katja had made it back downstairs to the kitchen and poured the wine, Penelope had made it down the road and up the porch into the house. Penelope stopped in the family room when she Katja, and stared without speaking for what felt to Katja like a week.

Finally, Penelope sighed. “Can we fight tomorrow? I’m exhausted and fucking starved and I just want to eat whatever the hell that is that smells amazing.”

Katja held out a glass of wine as a peace offering. Penelope took the glass, downed a bracing sip, and then set it down.

She crawled into Katja’s arms and squeezed as if her life depended on it. Katja pretended she didn’t feel the trembling in Penelope’s body, or hear the sniffling or the tears.

“I made scalloped potatoes,” Katja said, and stepped away when Penelope finally let go.  “There’s London broil, too, if you can stomach it.”

“Serve me up, bitch. The least you owe me is a meal.”

**

When Katja got up the next morning and found her way downstairs to the coffee pot, Penelope was already sipping a cup on the back porch. As Katja looked out the kitchen window, she was shocked by how much Penelope had changed. She’d seen a little of it the night before, but thought it had just been the stress of the trip and the late hour. Today, in the day’s light, she could see the toll the last few months had taken on Penelope.

She looked like she’d gone through hell.

Katja took her cup on the porch, and realized it was colder than she’d thought. Penelope was wrapped in a blanket on the wicker couch, her feet tucked under her, and looked like she wanted the space. Katja sat on a nearby chair so they could see each other, and opted to brave the chill.

“How long are we here?”

Katja swallowed the sip of coffee she’d just sipped, even though it burned her tongue and throat. “Another day. Then we head west a few hundred miles.”

“Where are we going?”

“I’m going with you as far as Morgantown, then you’re headed to Canada. It’s too hot here. Let’s get you back to Paris, while I figure out the clean-up here.”

Penelope didn’t say anything for a long time, and it made Katja nervous.

“Good.”

Katja couldn’t leave well enough alone. “Good that you’re headed to Paris? Or good that I’m not coming with you?”

“Both.”

It hurt, but it wasn’t surprising.

“Look, I’m…grateful you got me out. I hope I never have to tell you how bad it was in there. And I know you told me that it wasn’t a choice between us, but the fact remains that you went to save her ass and mine got served. Hard.”

Her eyes flashed their pain right into Katja.

Penelope pulled the blanket around her more tightly. “I need to figure out what comes next, and I don’t think I can work with you the way were doing things before. I…”

Katja waited, and tried to pretend it didn’t feel like some sort of final judgement.

“I need time, Kat,” Penelope said. “I’ve still got your back in the field, and I’m not asking you to split up the business. That’s way too fucking complicated and my head’s not in it right now, but…I don’t think I can trust you to have *my* back. Not after what happened.”

A flash of anger nearly unhinged Katja, but she held it in until it passed. If nothing else, she owed Penelope the right to speak her mind without trying to defend the choices that were now behind them.

She owed her a lot more than that.

**

[THIS IS WHERE DAY 20 FITS]


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