The Improbability Volumes – Day 4

See DISCLAIMERS. (Posted without edits.)


New Limits, New Adversaries

[FIX: this needs a lot of narrative distance revision]

“I don’t know when we’ll be back. We can’t catch a flight across the pond right now.” Katja paced as she growled into a new burner phone. One of her contacts back in New York had been arrested for questioning about his association with Katja. He was out on bail, but worried about saving his own skin.

Across the main room of their spacious, two bedroom Parisian flat, Penelope sat at a large, ornately carved dark wooden desk covered, as usual,  in computer systems and displays. She madly typed while talking into her headset. “What about the bravo aliases? Anything there?”

Katja kept one ear on her own conversation, and the other on Penelope’s, trying to determine just how large this epic shitstorm had become.

“Look,” Katja said to her contact.  “Give me a couple of hours to build a cover story, ok? I’ll make sure you’ve got enough good intel to give them to get you out of hot water without actually fucking up my game.”

“Christ,” Penelope said on her line. “Ok, well, any idea where all of this information came from?”

“Thanks, Guillaume.” Katja terminated her call and tried not scream in frustration.

“Huh. Alright, well let me know what you find out.” Penelope stopped typing and turned around to face Katja as she ended her call. “The good news is that the feds don’t know about the Brooklyn house. Not yet.”

“How much bad news could there possibly be?” Katja said, then could have kicked herself. That was just asking for trouble.

Penelope winced. “Our primary and secondary aliases are shot. And…they impounded the Barracuda, and four of our accounts have been frozen.”

Katja cursed long and colorfully enough that Penelope arched her eyebrows.

This whole situation worsened with each passing minute. Katja squeezed her hands into fists. She wasn’t completely powerless, or broke, and she wasn’t in custody, but she had a long list of work to do if she was going to keep doing business. New aliases needed to be generated, new wheels acquired, new safe houses to establish, new access points for their other accounts – all because someone somewhere had finally let the cat out of the bag.

Yesterday morning, Penelope had shaken Katja awake. Overnight, Katja Mannis had become the most wanted woman in the United States and half of Europe. Images of her face and lists of known accomplices, including Penelope, had been distributed to every law enforcement agency in the free world.

By nightfall, reports of arrests and seizures had hit Penelope’s feeds. Their network was being sorely pressed to deliver them to the authorities. Most of those people wouldn’t say a word, but they couldn’t count on the loyalty of every single criminal they’d ever met.

They’d spent the last day fielding calls and making more, trying to stanch the bleeding. Katja squirmed under the new weight of law enforcement scrutiny. For years, she’d been able to move freely around the globe to do whatever she wanted because no one knew who she was, and no one knew what the Falcon looked like.

Those days were now over.

“What the fuck happened, Pen?” This was not the first time Katja had asked.

Penelope sighed. “I’m trying to figure it out, Kat. I can’t just snap my fingers and get all the answers.”

Katja ran a hand through her hair, tugging hard enough that she felt a mild pain. Oddly, it helped her calm down a bit. “Well, can we at least stay here? Or do we need to move?”

Penelope tilted her head from side to side in thought. “We should probably move, but I want to doublecheck the stability of all our local connections first before we ask for help. We could do it ourselves, but it’d be a pain in the ass. I’d rather get more hands on deck so we don’t have to scrap all the gear, but that leaves us open to infiltration.”

Katja paced along the back of a stylish, low profile couch. “Let’s keep our visibility low, which means keeping the gear. We’re going to have to leave some of this stuff behind, at least until the smoke clears.” She tried not to growl again. “Check our locals, but I’ll start packing up and will handle the heavy lifting for now. ”

She headed for her own room to start packing. “Besides, I need something to do with my hands until I know who I have to kill for blowing our cover.”

***

They were stuck in Paris.

Their faces, as well as a half dozen aliases – each –  were plastered across no-fly lists all across Europe.  They couldn’t set foot in an airport without being arrested. Katja could have hired a private jet, but getting to a private airfield was problematic, and most of them were probably now under heightened scrutiny. Penelope told Katja she had no idea how long it would be before they could risk a flight back to the US or Canada.

If they left Paris now, they ran the risk of drawing unwanted attention. It made more sense to stay right where they were until they figured out a better plan.

Renault was understandably displeased and keeping his distance. His favorite enforcer was now a liability, which meant Katja couldn’t keep close tabs on him, and any other jobs right now were out of the question.

Katja kept up their preparations to move to a more secluded location, but eventually there was nothing left for her to do. It was too late in the day for them to move anywhere without being seen, so she was in for the night. Everything they couldn’t bear to leave behind was packed and ready to go, except for Penelope’s active systems. As usual, Penelope sat collecting, compiling and analyzing data streams, doing her part to keep them both in business.

Katja’s side of the equation was currently on hold. She showered. She cleaned the kitchen. She reorganized stacks of boxes, gear and suitcases near the door. She was too antsy to eat, and too angry to drink. Finally, she gave up, plucked a novel out of one of her bags, and sat down on the couch to read it.

For now, there was nothing else to be done.

***

“Bingo.”

Two hours later, Penelope’s outburst pulled Katja out of the novel she wasn’t making much progress in anyway.

“Got something?” Katja tossed the book aside as she sat up.

Penelope stood from her trendy desk chair and stretched her arms with little grace, then grabbed her empty wine glass and headed for the kitchen.

“Got a lot. Here’s the story.” She spoke as she refilled her glass, then fetched and filled one for Katja. “Our faces, aliases and known connections hit the wires at 9:14am local time on Tuesday. La PP here in Paris were the first to post the notice before it reposted everywhere else, which means that whoever figured it out is – or was – here. That left a few options.”

Penelope walked returned to the living room and handed Katja a glass of red wine as she sat beside her. She ticked off fingers of her free hand.  “Renault himself, which is unlikely, since you’re on his good list.”

“I was,” Katja muttered.

Penelope ignored the interruption. “Police Nationale or Gendarmie,” she said, ticking off two more fingers. “But both of them posted the notice after La PP.”

Katja wanted her to hurry up and get to the punchline, but Penelope loved a good story.

“I’ve got taps on the other agencies, and would have heard first if it were them. That leaves Foster.”

Katja frowned. “He’s in Paris?”

“Yeah, he got here the day before we did, probably tailing Renault from New York. He’s set up shop weeks ago on the other side of town.”

Ethan Foster was a pain in the ass and hell bent on busting Renault. He had been relentless in his pursuit for the last eight months. Katja might have appreciated that if she weren’t determined to exact her own justice on Renault.

Foster was going to have to learn to live with disappointment, because it was coming. No one would get to Renault but Katja herself.

Still, Foster wasn’t equipped to handle the kind of cybersecurity chops it would take to best Penelope. It was one of his few charms. “I thought Foster’s crew was a bunch of special ops grunts.”

“Seems Foster got himself a new gun.” Penelope sipped her wine, then sat back with a smug grin.

“You know who it is.”

“I know who it is.” She nodded in the direction of her systems. “Agent Denna Lopez, formerly of US Cybercom and later the National Cyber Security Division. Currently on leave from the National Counterterrorism Center while on ‘special assignment’.”

Katja looked at the headshot of this Agent Lopez that Penelope had left maximized on one display.

“First in her class at MIT. Masters from Stanford before she joined up with Uncle Sam. She’s got a work history that makes her look like a true patriot. Government expert on ‘ethical hacking’, yadda yadda. She and Augusta King run in the same circles.”

The image did the woman no favors. It was a standard government profile photo , so Lopez sat dressed in a pale blue suit before the stars and stripes backdrop of the American flag. Blond hair, simply styled to fall across her shoulders, framed an angular face. The reserved smile didn’t match the cool, intelligent brown eyes looking back at Katja across time and space.

Katja pressed a hand atop the back of Penelope’s chair. She had, without paying attention, walked across the room to get a closer look.

“Have we crossed paths with her before?”

“Not really. I’d imagine we were all at the same security conferences, but she’s never presented anywhere. Evidently, she keeps a low profile.”

Katja frowned that they had that much in common. Or at least, they had until two days ago.

“So how did she figure out who we are?” Katja said, and turned her head around in time to see Penelope wince.

“That I don’t know. Not yet, but I’m working on it.”

Katja took a sip of wine, and looked at the image again.

“So, Agent Lopez. You’re the one who told the whole fucking world who I am.”


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