Gregor and Adrianna woke the Overnight hostess and begged rooms for their tired family. From her backseat window, Mara watched the little drama play out in the lobby. Adrianna’s talent impressed her. She seemed to babble non-stop at the stunned hostess, gesturing wildly toward the cars outside and throwing desperate looks at Gregor. Even he played his part well, acting like a man used to, but apologetic for, such histrionics.
In the driver’s seat, Francisco chuckled. “Look how confident she is,” he marveled.
As Mara watched the hostess hand over room keys, a strange sadness slid over her. She flicked it away impatiently.
In moments, Gregor and Adrianna emerged from the tiny lobby. Adrianna waggled the keys in her hand, grinning. Gregor signaled Francisco, who started up the car. They followed Gregor’s taillights over a patched and pitted road, past a long string of sagging rooms.
“How did you know about this place?” Francisco asked, guiding the car around a crater in the pavement. “I can’t picture you staying here.”
“Robby’s parents built it years ago,” Mara said. “It was nice then. We used to come up here on holidays—Collier, Yvette and me with our friends from school. Mrs. Dinh always kept a bowl of rose apples on the desk.”
“I am glad Mr. Dinh did not come with us,” Deborah said from the front seat. “This would sadden him.”
“Why didn’t he come with us?” Mara wondered out loud. “Why tell him about us now and bring him to the airport only to send him back to the city?”
“I wondered as well,” Deborah said. “Perhaps…”
“Go on,” Mara encouraged. She could feel Francisco’s attention sharpen.
“Before the Singh sisters called for me,” Deborah said, “Mr. Dinh and I helped the Ambassador prepare for the Earth refugees. With the Prime Minister in jail and Governor Gibson assuming your duties, we were really the only assistance Mr. Running Bear could get. Mr. Dinh was creative and efficient as always, but he seemed unusually distracted, even after all that had happened. When I asked him about it, he said he was involved in another ‘project’ for Washington Brown.”
“Robby?” Francisco barked out a laugh. “Is everybody in the Underground now?”
Mara didn’t laugh. Robby presented himself as the perfect secretary, but she knew he was much more than that. Again, Washington Brown had chosen wisely.
“What was the project?”
“He did not say. And times being what they were, I did not ask.” Deborah shrugged. “All I am saying is if Mr. Dinh was told about you coming to Mandalay, if it was arranged for him to see you, then there is a reason.”
Mara sat back in the seat. She felt unreasonably comforted knowing Robby was involved. Don’t, she told herself. We have klicks to travel before we reach Comfort.
Their rooms sat on the backside of the Overnight, isolated from the other sleepers as Adrianna had requested. While the women unloaded in one room, the men set up a watch station in theirs and settled on shifts. Since Boris had enjoyed a nap on the plane, he took first duty.
“Is anybody else hungry?” he asked, wandering into the women’s open door.
“Starving,” Adrianna said, checking the windows and pulling the drapes.
“Oh, we should have stopped at that all night market up the road,” Mara grumbled. “I wasn’t thinking.”
“I’ll go,” Deborah said. She eyed Boris. “Car keys?”
“I’ll walk out with ya,” he said, pulling the keys from his pants pocket. “Y’never know what kin jump outta the dark.”
Deborah stared at him, then held out her hand. “No, you never know.”
Boris grinned as he dropped the keys into her palm and steered her out the door. He waggled his eyebrows at Adrianna before shutting it behind him. She laughed in delight.
“I believe that man is buzzing Doctor Deborah!”
“He’s certainly trying to.” Mara kicked off her worn sandals and started to undress.
“Then, anything is possible.” Adrianna automatically helped the Queen lift the tunic over her head, then stopped, uncertain.
“Old habits?” Mara pulled the embroidered nightgown out of her bag.
“I’ll always be your First,” the young woman said softly.
She tried to keep the pain out of her voice. “Why didn’t you talk to me?”
She crawled under the covers and sat against the rickety headboard. “When you decided to leave my service. Why didn’t you talk to me about it first?”
“I thought I was in love.” Adrianna rolled her eyes and went on dramatically, “Trip was special. I was special. We were born to be together.” She sighed and sat on the bed. “When they left, all I could do was cry.”
“Guide Sickness can be crippling.”
“I’d never had it before. Even after hosting guests for years. People tried to tell me—Marissa, Mr. Dinh—but I wouldn’t listen. I just wanted to run away. Then, the Prime Minister asked me to help, and I thought at least I could go away and die somewhere else.”
Mara smiled. “But, you didn’t die.”
“No. The Sickness healed, just like all the books say it does.” She paused. “I’m sorry I didn’t talk to you about it.”
Mara threw back the covers and pulled Adrianna under them with her. The young woman leaned her head against the Queen’s shoulder.
“I thought you were suffering just like me, and I worried I’d make you more miserable,” she said. “I didn’t want to remind you of him.”
“You can’t remind a person of someone who is never forgotten, dear. He’s with me every moment of every day.
“Then, you didn’t have Guide Sickness.”
“No, dear.” Mara smoothed Adrianna’s hair.
“I think that’s almost worse,” she whispered.
Mara swallowed. “Tell me about your work in Notre Dam. You can tell me, can’t you?”
She closed her eyes and listened to Adrianna unwind her tales, filling the space between them that had become so empty. Like a lullaby, the sound of her voice rocked her to sleep. Not even the noise of the others returning or rolling onto her side roused her. She sank deep into the dreaming place. And for awhile at least, her dreams were her own.
She woke with a start to Adrianna bolting from the bed. Headlight beams splashed through the thin curtains, splaying weird tracks of light and shadow over the walls. Mara heard the door crash in the next room. She hurried with Adrianna to the window where Deborah already watched.
The rains had started again, deadening the early morning light. Francisco, Gregor and Boris ran into the colorless downpour, guns trained on an approaching sedan. It pulled up slowly over the pitted yard, the lights jumping over the men. Francisco chopped the wet air with one hand, and the lights cut off. Even through the insulated walls and noise of the rain on the roof, Mara heard a man’s voice call out, “Don’t shoot me, Boss!”
Belting his gun, Francisco ran to the car. Naveen jumped out and met him in a crushing embrace.
“I knew you got out!” He pummeled Francisco’s back. “When I found the new shed empty, I knew you took the truck!”
Naveen glanced past Francisco’s shoulder to Gregor. His eyes widened, but he nodded in polite acknowledgement. He scrutinized Boris and touched a fist to his chest. Then, he saw Mara in the doorway. It was as if a gust of wind blew through him, filling him up then leaving him hollow. He ran across the muddy yard to her, then stopped. Rain flattened his black hair and ran from his nose.
“Majesty,” was all he could say.
Mara stepped onto the rain. She took his hands and smiled at his wet, struggling face. “It’s good to see you, too, Naveen.”
They decided to take all three cars. Naveen had filled his with Francisco’s wish list, bringing hand guns and ear phones for all of them, automatic weapons, ammunition, explosives, a bag of hand tools, electronics, maps, survival gear and camp food. By the time Mara dressed, the men had redistributed the supplies to all the cars, cleaned up their room and needed towels.
They crowded into the women’s room to dry off. Deborah laid out the food she scavenged earlier—fruit, cheese and hard rolls. Adrianna materialized in the doorway, soaking, with a big tea urn. She and Boris set it up near the food.
“All right,” Francisco said, slapping crumbs from his fingers. “The Prime Minister’s orders are for us to track General Jones from his last known location in Inverness. We also need to find out what he was doing there.” He glanced around at the others. “Thoughts?”
Mara blew into her paper cup of tea and watched the people in her room become a team. Francisco assumed leadership with a firm hand and an open mind. He listened to Gregor’s experience with respect to his seniority, but didn’t hesitate to debate him. In turn, Gregor clearly accepted Francisco’s authority, which knit them all closer together. They both turned to Boris for practical advice. Mara smiled at how that caused the rest to listen carefully to what the rough New Minsker had to say. Adrianna and Deborah added their opinions, both with expertise the others lacked. Francisco looked to Naveen to provide the latest news out of Mandalay.
The one person her Security First didn’t consult was the Queen. Mara understood. She didn’t know the safest route into Inverness, or the best way to gain entry to Horatio’s room at The Erin Lodge, or how to track him. She knew Horatio—that was her skill. There would be no discussion or help for her when the time came to use it.
The rain thinned to sprinkles. After an hour on the road, patches of blue bled through the gray clouds. They travelled north along the Eastern Seaboard Highway into New Hope’s high country. Pasture land stretched from horizon to horizon dotted with cattleloo, sheep and swine. Farmsteads clustered around rare stands of trees.
Mara gazed out the window from her make-shift nest. Deborah had propped her up in the back seat with pillows and a blanket against the early morning chill. She watched the layers of cloud slide over each other, thin, feather apart, knit back together. She touched the radio in her ear.
“Yes, Ma’am,” he answered.
“What’s happening with the Earth refugees? I haven’t heard any news in awhile.”
“Let’s see… There was a welcoming ceremony when they arrived. Did you know about that?”
“How did it go? What happened?”
“We took a big contingent from Mandalay—Governor Gibson, your aides, most of the Congress, the Elder Liners who were still in town.”
Mara ticked off the list in her head. Yvette, Robby, Marissa, Briank, Delilah, Washington Brown.
“Sounds like a security nightmare,” Gregor’s voice added.
“It was,” Naveen replied. “We’d been vetting and training new Royal Guards since Massacre Day, but they were raw. We made the Mandalay delegation go through security training…”
“You taught Congress Mother Mbutu how to drop and roll?” Adrianna’s voice. “I’d like to have seen that.”
“You’d be surprised.” Francisco’s voice came to Mara in stereo from the headphone and from the front seat. “She knows Chan-style self defense. I saw her spar at a tournament a few years back, and she took the ribbon in her age group. Fast and smart. Like you, A.”
A. Mara smiled to herself. Adrianna.
“President Reneau pulled together a security presence from all over the North,” Naveen went on, “Home Guard, private security firms, Shannon Valley farmers with shot guns. General Chan didn’t like it and said so to the vids.”
I’ll bet he did, Mara thought.
“I didn’t like it either. It felt slapped together and unorganized, and it made me nervous. But the Brown Line Elder, Washington, kept telling me not to worry too much. You remember him, Boss? He helped us revamp the security system in the Palace after the shootings.”
“I remember,” Francisco said mildly.
“Smart old guy,” Naveen’s voice drifted. “I wish he could have come with us to the Governor’s residence. I could have used his help. But, I guess he took over Mr. Dinh’s job of coordinating the Elders’ schedules.”
“Everyone’s job changed,” Deborah said, “after the bombing.”
The radios hissed in an awkward silence.
“So, how did it go, Naveen?” Adrianna asked. “I saw the vids later and there didn’t seem to be any trouble.”
“No, believe it or not, the whole ceremony rolled out like sod. Shuttles ferried the refugees from the big ship all day. Each time, the band played, the dignitaries made a little speech, the crowd cheered, and a team of guides escorted them into the compound.”
“Were there any protests?” Mara asked.
“The President’s people kept them on the fringe. Some pickets, some chanting, nothing you wouldn’t see at any big event.”
“Really?” After all the rhetoric Mara had suffered during her summer tour, after all the violence, this relative acceptance of the refugees was hard to believe.
“That was one of the speeches they showed on the vids,” Adrianna said. “Congress Mother Mbutu talked about Callindans waking up after a bad dream.”
“If anyone woke that crowd up, it was Mary Archer,” Naveen said. “The papers had been full of stories about her coming. When she got off the last shuttle and stood between Governor Gibson and President Reneau, I thought the cheers would never stop.”
“Did she say anything?” Mara watched sunbeams streak down through the clouds and light on a cluster of sheep. One woolly head raised up in appreciation.
“She talked about the threat to Earth, and Captain Archer’s mission,” Naveen said. “She thanked us for opening our doors to her people.”
“In the vid, she said she came for one reason,” Adrianna said, her voice quieter. “She said she came to hold her grand baby and to take care of her daughter.”
“And that’s when the crowd really went wild,” Naveen said.
Mara laughed, tears streaking her face. “Jonathan said once that he wasn’t much of a speaker, but he mesmerized every group he ever talked to. It sounds like he inherited his talent.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” the two said in tandem.
“And no trouble at the compound since then?”
“Not with the Lamas there.”
“What do you mean?”
“Three hundred Lamas showed up the next day. They came from all over Callinda from Duncan down in The Fingers to Gobbler’s Cove up in the Ice Isles.” Naveen paused. “Lama Ki said they came to serve the refugees.”
“What?” Mara breathed.
“The compound is sort of a holy place now.” Naveen sounded thoughtful. “People take pilgrimages there to work alongside the Lamas and the refugees. They hold a continuous sit on the banks of the Shannon River.”
“Ambassador Running Bear said the Lamas made him feel easier about the big ship returning to Earth right away,” Adrianna added.
Mara thought of Lama Ki at the Palace reception so many lifetimes ago. She remembered him talking about preparing for a great storm, about nature’s unpredictability.
He’s turning the storm, she marveled.
She touched the earpiece and rode the rest of the way into Inverness in silence.
The switchback road into town passed by a construction site surrounded by razor-tipped wire.
“Are you seeing this?” Gregor asked.
“Mining rigs there in back,” Boris noted. “‘N’ refinery stacks past that slag pile.”
“I don’t remember any easements granted for a mine here,” Mara said.
“Sure act like they got the permissions,” Boris said. “Bold as badgers out here fer all t’see.”
“But not enter,” Francisco added.
“There!” Adrianna’s voice broke in. “That sign on the fence. Did it say Kelly Industries?”
Mara squinted at the sign as it passed. “Yes, and something else.”
“Callinda Investments,” Naveen told them. “Does that mean something?”
Francisco caught Mara’s eye in the rear mirror. “We need to check it out. Gregor, once you and A. finish your work at The Lodge, I want you to look up Kelly Industries.”
“Newspaper,” Gregor confirmed. “Courthouse.”
“Naveen, you and Boris peal off from us now and get a good look at that site. We may need to get in there tonight.”
Mara watched the car behind her slow, then take a cattleloo path off to the right.
“I remember something about this town,” Deborah said. “The sign made me think of it. Griffen Kelly came from Inverness.”
“Griffen Kelly, the sniper?” Adrianna’s voice rose. “From Massacre Day?”
“Well, that’s not coincidence,” Francisco muttered.
“Let’s stay focused,” Mara said. “I know how easy it is to get lost in this tangle of plots.”
She rubbed her temple and watched the drab town wrap around them. Even in the bright afternoon light, the shops and offices looked mean. She didn’t like this place.
“I see the Lodge,” Gregor announced. “Here we go.”
Francisco, Deborah and the Queen pushed through scrub between an auto mechanic shop and a second-hand furniture store. Burs caught in Mara’s trousers and scratched her hands. The air smelled of chasse grease and varnish.
The radio in her ear crackled. “I’m back,” Gregor said. “Adrianna got the host to take her on a tour. I’m… wait… yes, here’s the register.”
A long pause followed. Francisco stopped them at the end of the brambles. A parking lot spread in front of them. They waited.
“I don’t see his name,” Gregor said. “Would he use another name?”
“Look for a math reference,” Mara said, her mind shuffling memories. “I used to tease him when I was young—Horatio… Ratio…”
“Here. Geometry Cabot.”
“That’s him,” Mara said, smiling.
“What’s your position?”
“We’re across the lot in back of the Lodge,” Francisco told him. “I can see the back door.”
“Back door’s no good. It goes through the kitchen, and there’s staff prepping dinner. You’ll have to come in the front.”
Francisco muttered obscenities under his breath, then turned to Deborah. “We keep the Queen sheltered from sight—me in front, you on the right, cover on the left. Match my pace.”
Deborah nodded and tucked Mara beside her. They crossed the lot at a casual, steady pace, first keeping the cars, then the side wall of the Lodge, to Mara’s left.
“We’re in place,” Francisco said, studying the street ahead.
They rounded the corner to the front of the Lodge. A big truck loaded with rock lumbered by. Mara focused on Francisco’s back and the gun tucked in his belt—breathing, walking, one foot in front of the other over a buckled sidewalk.
Francisco pulled open a heavy door and swept them inside. The lobby was too dark after the bright day, but Mara kept moving. Keys jangled as Francisco caught them, and Gregor’s voice said, “Three-nineteen.”
Running feet on carpeted stairs and Deborah’s hand at her elbow. “Take your time,” the doctor said when her sandal hit the stair riser. She started climbing.
“Hurry.” Gregor again. “I can hear them coming back.”
Muffled running on the closed staircase above her, a whoosh of air as Francisco ran past. She and Deborah turned on a landing and started up the second flight. Far below, she heard the distant jingle of keys, more footsteps. Then, Adrianna’s voice carried up the stairwell.
“Darling, you should see the sitting room! Such beautiful woodwork! Did you already take our bags up?”
Then, Francisco was behind her, breathing hard. When they reached the third floor landing, her eyes had finally adjusted to the dim light. She steadied herself against the wall—old flocked paper worn thin by many hands. Cheap wall sconces lit a long hallway. Toward the end, a crack of light sliced across the patterned carpet where Francisco had unlocked the door. Mara took a step toward it and stumbled. Deborah grabbed her, eyes bright. Mara straightened and continued on.
Francisco shut the door quietly behind him. “We have to assume the room was searched.” He turned to find Mara stretched out on the narrow bed, Deborah pulling equipment out of her bag.
“I’m all right,” she told him.
Deborah said nothing. Her stiff back and abuse of the blood pressure cuff said enough.
“Let’s assume, too, that Horatio knew he was being watched,” Mara said, grimacing at the needle in her arm. “And let’s assume he had notes or documents he wanted to protect.”
Her eyes wandered around the room—simple furnishings, artless paintings on the walls, a window, a bathroom…
Francisco opened the closet door and felt along the shelf, the walls, the ceiling. He pulled up the carpet and checked the floor. Then, he checked the small desk for anything taped to the underside of the drawers. Same with the desk chair. In the bathroom, he checked the toilet tank, unscrewed the pipes under the sink, felt for loose tiles. He searched inside all the light fixtures and tapped the walls for hollow spots. Finally, he came to the bed.
Deborah helped her to the chair. Vertigo tipped her sideways, but she straightened once she sat down. Francisco stripped the mattress and felt for any slits in the padding. He pushed the frame away from the wall, checked the back of the headboard, the floor, the walls.
Mara watched him. Careful and methodical, he kept his growing frustration under control, but the Queen knew her First of Security. Almost as well as she knew her Home Guard General.
Too obvious, she thought as Francisco felt along the inside of the spring frame. Horatio is more clever than that. And he loves puzzles…
Her gaze drifted again to the paintings on the walls. One was a simple landscape, painted to match the drapes and bedspread. One was a portrait of The Fifteen, a poor copy of the photograph T’Pol first showed her. But, something about it wasn’t right. Mara went to the painting and looked closer.
In the original picture, Russell and Annabel Jones grinned at the camera, their brilliant smiles shining out of ebony faces. In this portrait, Russell wasn’t smiling. Mara leaned closer. His teeth had been inked out with a black pen.
“Here, Francisco,” she said quietly.
Adrianna found them gathered around a pile of papers like a camp fire in the middle of the floor, a smashed frame with tatters of canvas on the bed.
“You found it,” she breathed, squatting down with them.
“Has Gregor left yet?” Francisco asked, touching his ear piece. “Gregor? Where are you?”
“Parking lot,” came the reply. “Everything okay?”
Francisco stood up and headed for the door. “I’ve got a document you should take to the Courthouse with you…” He slipped into the hall.
“I recognize these.” Adrianna spread open one of the maps. “This is a geological survey like the ones Crown Mountain Mines use. Here.” She pointed to a slim gap between layers. “Oil.”
Deborah fished a topographical map out of the pile and compared it to Adrianna’s. “It’s here in Inverness, south of town. The construction site we saw?”
Mara nodded, holding out a slim notebook. “Horatio writes here that Kelly Industries started surveying last winter. Drill tests hit gas pockets in the month of Triesta and crude in Quatora.”
“Before the Enterprise came,” Adrianna said.
Mara continued reading. “Callinda Investments formed last year. Funded Kelly Industries. Funded Crown Mountain retool. Funded Sea O’Gold. Funded Alliance for Callinda.”
She stirred the scraps of paper in front of her. “Here are all the receipts.” She snatched up one page torn from a ledger. “It says, C.I. blackmailed Griffen Kelly????”
She showed them the note. Written across the bottom and underlined was one word. CHAN
The door opened quietly. Mara turned to report to Francisco and froze.
“Ahh, thank you, Majesty, for finding what was lost.”
General Ang Chan grinned at her, his gun pointing at her belly.
◊ ◊ ◊
To read Chapter 25, click here.