Chapter 25—Kerner’s List
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Chaos exploded in the Queen’s ear.
Down!Down!Down! Gunfire. Panting. Grunts. More gunfire.
Both Adrianna and Deborah jerked at the blast of noise, looked at each other, at the Queen, at General Chan.
He tilted his head, eying their earphones. “Yes, we’ve seen to your escorts. Did you think I wouldn’t notice two strange cars rolling into town?”
Two cars. Mara’s mind worked furiously, but it was impossible to concentrate and listen to what Francisco and Gregor were screaming at each other. Naveen and Boris would hear them. They would come.
She looked up at Chan, ignoring the gun. He meant to kill them, of that she was sure. All she could do was postpone that inevitability as long as possible.
“Why, Ang?” she asked him. “For money? Power? You killed so many…”
“Me?” The General’s olive features filled with delight. “You really are a stupid ‘loo.”
He laughed long and hard. Mara heard the mockery and the gloating, but mostly she heard shrill relief. He had been nervous when he walked in, and now he wasn’t. What had she missed?
“Emmond tried to tell me otherwise, but I always knew.” Chan wiped the happy tears from his eyes. “We’ll take care of him soon, too. And his sister. And her little boyfriend.”
He took a breath, refocusing. “Yes, a dumb ‘loo. You chew your Liner cud and pass judgment like the All’s asshole.” His face hardened. “What a blow to find out your precious Fifteen were mere people, eh? Failures. Cowards who ran from home and got lost. Reginald Gibson must have pissed himself when he dropped down that wormhole.”
Mara heard Naveen’s voice in her ear, scrambled with Gregor’s, cutting in and out, punctuated with rapid fire. A flicker of hope sparked.
“Yes,” she said over the cacophony. “Just people. Our people—yours and mine.”
“Ancient history doesn’t interest me,” Chan said. “I’m part of Callinda’s future. Unfortunately, you are not.”
His eyes flicked to the pile of maps and papers. “Where is it?”
Mara stared at him.
“The list,” Chan snapped, moving closer. “Kerner’s list.”
Adrianna sprang. She kicked, and Chan’s gun spun out of his hand. Viper-quick, he ducked for it, but Deborah was already there. Sprawled on the floor, she fired.
The bullet caught the General in the side and pushed him backward, but he lunged again. Adrianna swung the desk chair and shattered it in his face. He toppled back, stunned, but still scrambling.
“Stop,” Deborah ordered. On her feet, she leveled the gun at Chan’s bloody face.
“Be still or I will carve a path through your brain and decompress your skull’s occipital bone. Death will be instantaneous.”
Mara shoved him face down on the carpet and yanked his hands behind his back. Adrianna dropped down beside her with cord pulled out of the draperies. Together, they tied his hands and strung them to his feet.
“If he struggles, the knots will only get tighter,” Adrianna told her.
“Show me his side,” Deborah said, holding the gun steady.
Mara pulled back Chan’s jacket to the bloody shirt beneath. She ripped it open.
“Doc! Doc!” Boris bellowed in her ear. “Get down here! The boy’s down!”
“Go!” Mara ordered. “Both of you!”
The women obeyed. Ordered hysteria streamed from Mara’s earpiece. Alone with the General, she watched the puckered hole in his side ooze bright blood. He panted with pain, but neither spoke nor struggled. Mara felt as if great hands squeezed the blood and air out of her lungs and into her head. It pounded with rage. She planted a knee in the small of the General’s back and gripped a fistful of black hair.
“Now,” she hissed in his ear, “let’s chew the cud, shall we? Where is Horatio?”
—Too much blood—Where’s the Queen—Hold it tight—She’s with General Chan—Get the other car—More pressure—Run—Get the other med kit—I need a hospital—The refugee camp isn’t far—I hear sirens—They have a clinic—We have to go—I can’t move him yet—Get the Queen—
Naveen burst through the door. “Majesty, you’re hurt!”
“Chan’s blood,” she said, wiping her sticky hands on her trousers. The General lay unconscious. “Francisco?”
“Not good.” Gregor pushed in behind Naveen. “We have to go. Now.”
“Take him,” she ordered, raking Horatio’s notes into a pillow case, grabbing her shoulder bag. “Gregor, you and Deborah with Francisco and Chan.”
The General roused, groaning, as the men hauled him to his feet. They grabbed him under the arms and hurried down the hallway.
“Is there Underground at the refugee camp?” she asked, trying to keep up.
“Should be,” Gregor grunted.
“Find them. We need to keep the General alive.”
They rushed down the stairs into the ruined lobby—shattered furniture, broken glass, walls pitted with holes, and the stink of gunpowder. And bodies. Mara counted two—four—five—dead, staring faces as they ran into the street. Three cars idled, one full of Deborah working on Francisco. A crowd had started to gather.
“Adrianna,” she called. “Boris.”
They ran to her, shocked sharp. Mara shoved the pillow case at Adrianna.
“You and Naveen take these to Jed Cabot. Boris, with me.”
She hurried to the last car. The emergency sirens were almost on top of them. A woman’s voice across the street exclaimed, “The Queen! That’s the Queen!”
“Majesty, no!” Naveen ran up behind her, spun her around by her bad shoulder. “I stay with you.”
“Keep Adrianna safe,” she spat. “Get those papers to Jed!”
She shoved him away and fell into the car. Boris shot them across the street into and alley. They flew, out the alley, across another street, and another. They could see the highway ahead.
“Which way?” Boris asked.
“North,” the Queen told him. “To Holyoak.”
They angled northwest through wheat country, the highway a pale ribbon among the Crimson Grass. Planted after the purge, farmers would plow it under once mature to cleanse and nourish the soil. To Mara, it looked like a sea of blood.
“How bad is he?” she asked.
“Bad,” Boris replied. “Don’t expect him to live.”
Mara ground her teeth together, the sick thud in her temple turning sharp.
“Do we need t’check in somehow?” He glanced at her. “Let somebody know where ye are?”
“Not yet. Not until we have to stop for fuel.”
Boris checked the gauge. “Four hours, mebby five.” His eyes slid to her again. “You sure? Folks’ll be worried.”
“No, you’re worried,” she snapped. “You’re the one stuck with me now. Not Gregor, not Dharma, not Francisco. You. I would have taken the car myself, but…” She stopped, too furious to find the right words.
After a long silence, she heard him suck a tooth. “You couldn’t fit behind the wheel no-ways,” he said quietly. “Pro’ly best I came along.”
It was full dark before they stopped. Mara made two calls. Both times she gave the name Geometry Cabot to the receptionists, not knowing if it would give her access to the right people. It did. She hung up after the second call with a plan forming in her mind. It took shape as she washed the blood out of her clothes in the bathroom, and finalized while she vomited in one of the toilets.
Boris met her in the deserted central lounge with tea and a stale turnover from the automated cafe.
“We need to be out of New Dublin before we stop to rest,” she said, hurrying out the door. “Can you drive that long?”
Boris inhaled his turnover. “A full twenty-seven? I’ll need me a nap in there somewhere’s. Hour or two’ll do me.”
“Let’s get as far as we can.” She gagged down the turnover and reached for the car door. “I’ll spell you when you need sleep.”
Boris wrapped his big hand around her arm, stopping her in place. “Yer not drivin’ this rig. I don’t know fer nuthin’ ‘bout women’s doin’s, but I kin see what’s what. Look attcha. Y’totter on her feet like a wet-brain ‘n’ yer color’s too high. Nah, yer goin’ in the back with her feet up like Deborah did ya before. I’ll get us t’Holyoak.”
Mara glared up at him, her rage shoving her from behind and yammering in her ears. But, she willed herself to stand still, to take a deep breath instead of scream.
“Yes,” she said tightly. “All right.”
Boris had been braced for a fight. He eyed her warily. “In y’go, then,” he said, opening the back door.
The Queen crawled in, her movements stiff and jerky. She curled up on her side, arm tucked under her head, and focused on her breathing. She refused to let go of the power burning through her. It felt too righteous, too pure. It gave her strength and energy she hadn’t felt in months and needed—wanted. But, calming her breath might damp it enough to let her rest. And she had to rest to make it through the next few days.
Still, it was a long time before sleep took her. The car hummed along the narrow highway, bloody red grass whispering to her in the dark.
Late the next night, a dusty, gray sedan crossed the Belle Chasse River at the border of New Dublin and Orleans. It turned off at the first gravel road and trundled through farmland lit only by the stars. The headlights flashed over a broken down farmstead, and the car turned into the overgrown drive. Ahead, a big Sweet Maple sprouted out of the collapsed farm house, its leaves blazing cherry red in the wavering light.
The car bumped over deep ruts and came to a rest on the far side of the ruin where a stand of volunteer maples hid it from the road. The motor died. The lights went out. The hot engine ticked in the cool night air.
“I’m done in.” Boris yawned loudly. “We did ‘er, though. We’re outta New Dublin.”
Mara reached over the seat to him. “Switch places with me,” she said. “You can stretch out better back here.”
“Yep,” he grunted, opening the door. “Gotta tend t’business first.”
He rocked out of the car and shambled into the bushes. Mara also felt that need. As she perched on the other side of the car, she called out to him.
“I want to keep listening to the radio. Will that disturb you?”
“The All itself couldn’t keep me awake,” he muttered, the crisp air carrying his weary voice. “Must be dreamin’ a’ready. You really hollerin’ at me in the middle of a squat?”
Mara smiled grimly in the dark. A lot has changed, my friend.
Boris rummaged in the trunk while Mara searched for a news station. He fell into the back seat with a blanket and a bag of clothes for a pillow. Snoring commenced immediately.
“… the newly formed Continental Home Guard commanded by President Reneau…”
Mara sat back to listen.
“Arrests and seizures continue at the Sea O’Gold cannery in Yangtze, Tao Province. Also, at the Crown Mountain Mine facility in Notre Dam and Kelly Industries holdings in and around Inverness in New Dublin. The North Callindan Radiant Court today issued an arrest warrant for Governor Emmond Mbutu and Home Guard General, Ang Chan. General Chan remains unaccounted for…”
Mara fiddled with the tuner until she found another clear station.
“…speculation about unconfirmed sightings of Queen Marapura at the Erin Lodge shoot-out. ‘We have no idea where the Queen is,’ Yvette’s voice said, ‘but like the rest of the world, we pray she’s safe.’
“Released from jail today, Prime Minister Collier Cabot reiterated the Governor’s words. ‘If the Queen is alive and in hiding, as I hope, and if she can hear me, I urge her to stay safe until those responsible for the atrocities we’ve endured this year are caught and brought to justice.’
“And this from the President: ‘The Queen at Inverness?’ Covenant laughed ruefully. ‘Ridiculous!’”
Mara twisted the radio off, her fingertips lingering on the knob. My friends. My family. I won’t fail you.
The sedan’s shadow stretched long and deep across the highway the next afternoon before Holyoak’s skyline came into sight. Mara directed Boris carefully around the outskirts to the wooded banks of the China River along Holyoak’s western edge. The largest, most powerful river in North Callinda, it rushed with white water even during this drier time of year. As they passed through the woods, residential neighborhoods thinned to occasional vacation cabins. Mara directed them to a neat, log home tucked back from the road. The usual security was not in place.
Boris pulled around to the back of the house, his eyes skittering over the thick enclosure of the trees and the outbuildings. When the back door burst open, his gun was out and aimed.
Mara laid a reassuring hand on his arm and opened her door. Then, she stepped into Moira Kelly’s arms.
“Thank the All,” Moira whispered, holding her friend close.
“Did you find it?” Mara asked, gently untangling herself.
Moira’s eyes darted from Mara to Boris coming around the car. In the harsh light of the back stoop, he looked ragged and dangerous.
“This is my dear friend, Boris,” Mara said, reaching for him. “He has helped me this summer in ways I can’t even explain.”
Moira’s face softened. She held out her hand to him. “Then, we are all in your debt, sir.”
“Miz Kelly… Ma’am,” Boris replied awkwardly. He tried to doff off his old hat and take her hand at the same time.
“Come inside,” Moira said, encircling Mara’s waist. “The children and I brought all Kerner’s papers like you asked me to—boxes and boxes—but we’re still not sure what we’re looking for.”
They stepped up into a tidy kitchen. The three Kelly children waited for them like a receiving line. Gerhard and Jackson nodded solemnly to the Queen. Dulcinea burst into tears. Mara reached out for her and tucked her next to her swollen belly.
“I’m sorry we scared you, dear,” Mara cooed, stroking the girl’s dark hair. “Is that supper I smell? Goodness, I’m hungry. Aren’t you hungry, Boris?”
“Likely to chew on m’own toes soon, my belly’s so empty.”
Dulcinea peeked up at Boris and giggled. Mara kissed Jackson and smoothed his hair out of his eyes. His serious face slumped. Gerhard folded his hands over his heart in a proper Callindan salute. Mara smiled wanly and reached for him, too. The young man allowed her to hug him.
“Gregor, told me you spent a lot of time in the Archives with your father last spring.”
“Gregor Petrovich?” Gerhard’s eyes brightened for a moment, then his frown returned. “Yes, Majesty, that’s correct.”
“I think those papers are where we should start looking.”
“Yes, Ma’am, I’ll go get them.”
“Let’s eat and read,” she said, following him into the cabin’s main room. “We want Boris to keep all his toes.”
“Here’s part of it,” Mara said, setting down her bowl of stew. She held a cheap notebook in the other hand and studied the lists of names and numbers. “Callinda Investment members and amounts contributed.” She turned the page. “This tells how the money was spent—drilling machinery, laboratory equipment, personnel…” She kept turning the pages, skimming the contents.
“Does it say who it is?” Moira asked, her hands full of papers. “Who’s at the center of all this? Please tell me it wasn’t Kerner.”
“No, darling, it wasn’t Kerner,” Mara said. She shut the notebook. “You showed all this to Horatio when he came to you?”
“Yes, he looked through everything.”
“When he left, he thought Ang Chan was the leader.” Mara rubbed her throbbing head. “I know he’s not. Ang was worried about a list. It must be somewhere else.”
Gerhard entered from the back rooms. He held another cheap notebook. “Father gave me this before he left for Mandalay the last time.” The young man’s face pinched, but then he regained control. “He said it was just an old journal, some of his personal thoughts. He asked me to keep it safe for him.”
He handed it to Mara. She opened it to Kerner’s flowery, dramatic script. So like him, she thought with a pang of sadness. She read the first page, then the next. In the corner, Boris snored musically.
“Gerhard,” she said quietly, “did you read this?”
“No, Ma’am,” he said. “Those are my father’s private thoughts. I didn’t think anyone should read them.”
She looked up at him and smiled. “Thank you, dear.” She tucked the notebook into her carry bag. “Moira, can you arrange a flight for me tonight to Mandalay?”
“Of course, darling, but…” She glanced at her children. “You can’t tell us, can you.”
“Not yet.” She nodded at Boris. “He’s exhausted. I’m leaving him here in your care.”
“Yes… all right.” Moira looked at Mara with worried eyes. “You’re going back to Mandalay alone?”
“Yes.” Mara pushed up from her chair. “Hurry now. Get me that flight.”
In the small hours of morning, a two-seat plane touched down on a private airstrip outside Mandalay. It taxied out of the brightness thrown up by the landing lights and into the surrounding dark, the roar of the engines deafening. The plane came to rest next to a shed where two shadows broke free and dashed onto the tarmac.
The hatch swung open, and Naveen filled the space. Mara nodded to the pilot and twisted in her seat. After five hours squeezed into the tiny space, she could barely move. Naveen lifted her out, easing her through the hatch like a cork from a bottle. Robby steadied them both.
As the plane rolled back onto the runway, Mara stretched her aching back. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to see you.”
“You left a mad New Minsker in Holyoak, Ma’am,” Naveen said.
“Well…” She looked past them to the shed and the car parked behind it. “I have something to tend to, and I don’t want any interference from either of you.”
“I think I know where you’re going,” Robby said.
Mara looked at him, little more than a shadow in the dark. “Yes, I suppose you do.”
“Shall we go, then?” She felt his hand at her elbow. “I have something for you from the Prime Minister and Washington Brown.”
Weariness washed over Marapura in a wave of dizziness and nausea. Her headache was a constant companion now, a bright spur of pain at her temple.
Robby’s fingers touched her chest. A tickle laced across her belly, and then she felt his hands again at her side.
“Forgive me, Majesty,” he whispered.
“Oh, Robby,” she sighed. “We’re so far beyond modesty and decorum now.”
“Yes, I suppose.” Another gentle tug. “There,” he said. “Done.”
Mara pulled her tunic down and shifted on the car seat, feeling the tape on her side pull.
“The Prime Minister said a confession might not be necessary, depending on the information you found in President Kelly’s files.” Robby finished tuning his earpiece and put it in.
Mara shook her head. “Kerner names him, but there’s no hard evidence.”
“I wanted to take a team over there,” Naveen said from the driver’s seat, “but Wash wouldn’t let me. He said you had the right idea to confront him on your own.”
“Are you part of the Underground now, too, Naveen? Do I have any Royal Guards left?” She caught his eye in the rear mirror. Her voice lost its strength. “Is there any word?”
“Wash won’t say. Just that Gregor got them to the refugee camp.”
“We have a car parked a few blocks from the villa,” Robby said, pulling her back to task. “You will drive in alone. Once you enter, Captain Mendoza and his squad will move into place. We will all hear you and what’s being recorded.” He tapped his earpiece.
Mara took a deep breath. “How do I get him to confess? Any suggestions, Robby?”
“He believes he is Callinda’s salvation, so any act is justified to reach his goals. But, his master plan is breaking down. That has made him reckless and more dangerous than ever.”
Robby leaned toward her. “I know you will have to provoke him, but if you go too far, he will kill you—without warning and before any of us can get to you.”
Mara settled deeper into the seat and gazed out the window at her sleeping city. What Robby didn’t know, what none of them knew, was that a confession didn’t matter to her. Oh, she wanted to hear him say it—how he murdered Kerner, and Ra, and Horatio. And all the others. Francisco. But the rest meant nothing to her. Because tonight, Jakaya Brown died.
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To read Chapter 26, click here.