“Fifteen minutes,” Joe said tersely into his satellite phone’s hands-free earpiece. He clicked the off button and put his full focus into driving, slewing across the snow to narrowly miss a huge clump of ice that had fallen off some vehicle’s undercarriage.
Lila dozed, her head hitting against the window with a clunk each time they drove over a bump, which was unfortunately almost all the time. At this final swerve, the side of her head thunked hard against the glass, waking her. “Ouch!” she exclaimed, rubbing her palms across her face. She yawned until her jaw cracked. “How long was I asleep?”
“An hour and half,” Ian replied and turned to look back at her critically, “You look like shit.”
“That’s just what every woman wants to hear,” Lila laughed and returned the perusal. “You’re looking pretty tired yourself. I can’t believe you and Joe haven’t fallen asleep.”
Ian rubbed his eyes. “I’m not sure if Joe has been staying awake. All that swerving makes it hard to tell. I know I’ve been drifting off,”
Joe glanced back at Lila. “Fifteen minutes out from the airport. Get ready.”
“Get ready for what?” Lila mumbled. She scrabbled around in her backpack and pulled out what appeared to be a lipstick container. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” she said shaking her head.
“So you’re gonna do what, put on lipstick?” Joe asked jokingly, glancing in the rear view mirror at the object Lila held.
“No, I’m going to stun anyone who tries to stop me from getting on that plane.”
She pulled off the case top and pressed a button. A jolt of electrical current arced across the top of the gadget.
“Sounds like a giant mosquito,” Ian commented. “Probably feels like one biting you too.”
“Shall we try it out?” Lila asked him challengingly and reached the stun gun toward him.
“Children, children,” Joe said teasingly, but with an undercurrent of tension. “Get your gear together. We’re almost there.”
Lila strapped on her backpack and Ian pulled his bag tightly across his shoulders.
Joe sped up and pulled the wheel hard left to skid into a position paralleling a small plane. Even though the plane was only a car’s width away, Lila had to squint to make out its shape in the near pitch darkness.
The three of them launched from their respective car doors, Joe taking time to nostalgically pat the car on the hood before running to catch up. They raced toward the plane, its engines already running.
A man with an AK-47 stepped around the side. “Please, don’t be in such a hurry,” he said in a thick Russian accent.
Lila grabbed Ian to keep from skidding across the snow and smacking into the man as she came to an abrupt stop. Joe almost created a domino effect by crashing into them.
“Uh, that’s our plane,” Lila said weakly.
“Not anymore,” the man “Charlie,” as she dubbed him, said villainously.
“Oh, yeah?” Lila couldn’t think of anything smart to say and looked to Ian. “Do something,” she muttered.
“What? He has a gun,” Ian replied in a low voice.
Joe pushed past the two of them and appeared to trip directly into Charlie, knocking the man’s AK-47 to the side. “Oops,” Joe said, slamming his elbow into the man’s nose, causing it to spurt blood like a faucet. Charlie dropped his rifle, clamping both hands to his nose, eyes streaming with tears. Joe took advantage of the man’s position to kick him in the head with his heavy boot. The man dropped like a rock.
Ian picked up the AK-47, removed the magazine and then ejected the already chambered round. Throwing the AK-47 as far as he could to the left, he then pitched the magazine and round off into the distance to the right.
“All right then,” Lila said, a little shocked. “Who’s going to fly the plane? I hope that wasn’t the pilot.” She gestured to the man lying on the ground and oozing blood.
“You do realize that Joe and I are pilots,” Ian said as they clambered on board the plane.
“Helicopter pilots. Even I know it’s not the same thing,” Lila said sarcastically.
Lila nearly fell headlong as her foot caught on an object on the floor. A man lay bound and gagged. “I’m assuming this is the pilot?” She asked hand braced above him. The man nodded.
The plane was already taxiing down the runway with Ian and Joe at the controls, when Lila helped the pilot sit up and climb into one of the passenger seats where he could take a moment to regain his composure.
Joe contacted what passed for a control tower and then cut the radio as a series of shouts in Russian could be heard squawking from the headphones. “Can’t hear you!” Joe yelled before pulling off the headset.
“Whew, glad to be in the air,” he said.
“What if they did something to the plane?” Lila asked worriedly.
“Then it will be a short flight,” Ian said mildly.
“Doesn’t anything ever worry you?”
“Not really. If it’s good, it’s good. If not, we’ll deal.”
They arrived safely in Magadan, and caught their onward flights. Almost thirty-six hours later, the taxi pulled up in front of their place and Ian and Lila crawled stiffly out.
“What a journey,” Lila groaned. “I think I need a bath.”
“I think you do too,” Ian agreed.
Lila rolled her eyes, too tired to respond.
As she unlocked the door, she could hear imperious meows emanating from behind it.
“Pearson!” she called out happily, carefully opening the door to keep from squishing him behind it.
Ian and Lila stretched out on the couch, Pearson nestled in beside them purring. Lila idly petted his fur. “I’m glad that the cat sitter left us a pumpkin, that was really nice of her.”
“Very seasonal,” Ian concurred sleepily, his eyes half shut and the reflected light from the candles burning inside the pumpkin dancing across his face.
Lila turned her head to gaze at him. “Happy Halloween.”
“To you too.” He smiled.
Lila snuggled in to enjoy the glow from the pumpkin. “It’s nice to be home.”
“Okay, so that’s a bad thing,” Lila said halfheartedly.
“Yes, and the worst part is that we have very little time to delay the catastrophe.” Sergey pointed to Ian and Lila. “You two are familiar with things that go bump in the night and this is definitely going to be a big bump.”
“So what are we supposed to do?” Lila asked.
“We need you to go down to the research facility and spend the night there to give us a reading on the situation.”
“You want us,” Lila gestured to herself and Ian, “to spend the night at someplace that you think is the source of the next disaster of the week?”
“Sure, why not?” Lila got up from the couch and once again moved toward the door. “Can’t be worse than the place we used to live. Ghosts wandering up and down the stairs and hiding out in the attic.”
Ian nodded. “What’s the address?”
Sergey handed Lila a piece of paper on which he had written a series of numbers followed by the address of a parking garage.
“What’s this?” Lila pointed to the numbers.
“It’s the access code for the building connected to the parking garage. Take the elevator to the third floor. You’ll need to enter the first code at the elevator, and this second code at the access door to room 331. Also, you’ll need these.” Sergey produced a couple of ID badges with their names and photos.
“Awfully sure of yourself, aren’t you.” Lila commented as she tucked the badges in her handbag.
“We like to be prepared. We could only hope that such dedicated professionals would be willing to take the case and run with it.”
“Well, luckily you were right.” Lila looked at Ian. “Let’s go.”
Charlie remained by the couch and Sergey walked them to the door. “Good luck to you,” he said gravely and shook each of their hands.”
Lila walked into the stairwell and shook her head. “We are so trusting.”
“Trust, but verify,” Ian stated as he dialed his supervisor. “John, we just had a conversation… Really. You’re sure?” He hung up. “Before I even had a chance to say anything, John told me to take as much time as I need to help ‘our friends.’ Very strange.”
Lila looked down at the address with surprise. “I know this place. It’s where I did a summer internship when I was in high school.”
“You were already an intern in high school?” Ian asked incredulously. “You were a go-getter.”
“I was very advanced.” Lila grinned. “It’s a small contractor who works on special projects. They’re close enough to the Air Force Base to be convenient, but far enough away for deniability.”
They made it home quickly, then took only enough time to feed Pearson and pack up some treats and hot drinks for their evening’s adventure/sleepover.
They parked at the garage and made their way to the elevator, punching in the series of numbers given to them by Sergey. The elevator opened directly into a small room with a guard sitting at a desk. “ID’s,” he said in a bored voice.
Ian and Lila both handed over their badges and the guard buzzed them through a thick metal door.
“Ladies first.” Ian waved his hand for Lila to precede him through the door.
“Gee, thanks.” Lila said dryly.
“Hey, you wanted to do this,” Ian pointed out.
Lila led the way hesitantly through the entrance and they slowly strolled down the hallway looking for room 331.
”Smile, you’re on camera.” Ian murmured so only she could hear.
“I know,” Lila smiled. “I saw the display on the guard’s desk.”
Finally reaching the door, Lila entered the code and received a red flash on the keypad. Trying the door, it refused to open. “What the…” she began to gripe.
“Try it again,” Ian encouraged her. “Breathe.”
Lila once again pushed the series of keys and this time the small keypad light flashed green and unlocked with an audible click. Lila pulled down the handle sharply and pushed open the heavy door.
Lila was digging in her embroidered handbag for her keys, when she looked up to see a cardboard box leaning against her front door. Shaking her head, she walked toward it. “More eBay stuff,” she grumbled. Lately Ian had been on a buying spree in a quest for the perfect Halloween outfits for them.
She reached down to pick up the box, and nearly fell over as the weight from her backpack sliding off the one shoulder almost pulled her off balance. Reaching to the ground to steady herself, her hand encountered what felt to be a flat package. She grabbed it and heaved her way up, finally using her keys to unlock the door and stumble inside.
“Oof.” She nearly face planted on the floor as she tried to avoid tripping over their cat Pearson, who sat squarely in the middle of the doorway looking peeved about having been home alone all day. Lila finally came to a halt and managed to close the door without stepping directly on Pearson before throwing herself down in a chair and putting down the assorted packages, purse, and backpack with a series of heavy thuds.
“Sorry, buddy. Got caught at work.” She addressed the cat, who decided that she had gotten the message and came over to jump in her lap and demand the attention that was his rightful due. Lila petted him absentmindedly while turning over the envelope that she’d picked up right before entering. Written in Cyrillic were a couple of words that made her blood run cold:
Lila’s new project starts today, after clearing the decks from the previous one yesterday. Ian is hard at work with multiple job demands, and a possible temporary assignment in the offing. Every day is a new day!