I followed her into the bedroom, thrown off by her sudden shift in demeanor. One minute she had been vulnerable, broken; the next confident and self-assured, as though the pain I had put her through was nothing more than a minor inconvenience. I wasn’t sure what that meant. One, she could have been playing me from the beginning, aiming to use me as a tool to help her find her sister. Two, I’d done serious mental and emotional damage, and she was just good at hiding it. Probably unhealthy. The third and last option was that she was somehow able to get over being tortured; perhaps she had been trained to withstand high amounts of pain and was just incredibly resilient. I hoped it was the third option. In spite of the fact that I was gunning for her sister, I still reckoned I would rather work together with Agent Blanchez than I would with Doctor Phain. The man gave me the shivers.
She sat on the bed and drew her knees up to her chest – a posture that I recognized as subconsciously defensive. She felt threatened and perhaps vulnerable. That would make sense. She was a young woman and I was an older and much more experienced man. Although she said she was CIA, that didn’t mean she was a veteran. For all I knew, she could be on her first mission. In fact, I found it likely that her superiors had no idea she was here, or else were choosing to ignore her little venture. Either that or she was playing me. I decided to reserve judgement.
“Did you come armed?” I inquired, and she tapped the inside of her thigh.
“My Glock,” she replied.
I nodded. It was a good weapon. Then a thought occurred, and I asked,
“Why didn’t you draw it last night?”
“I didn’t want to tip my hand. I was pretty sure you wouldn’t kill me, and I thought I could beat you without it. And of course, you surprised me.”
“Which surprises me,” I remarked, smelling a half-truth. “Is this your first field op?”
She looked up at me sharply.
“Who told you?” she asked.
“No one. I guessed.”
The silence stretched a moment.
“I wasn’t counting on you torturing me,” she admitted.
“Neither was I,” I said.
I drew my 1911A from the drawer and placed it in its shoulder holster, tucking my Model 29 in the outside pocket of my jacket as I pulled it on. It was still raining out, and I tied the belt tightly around myself, pulling my collar up and my hat down against the deluge. I realized the dame didn’t have anything to wear, so I grabbed a heavy-duty poncho from the closet. She slid the light brown garment over her head, the hood framing her face nicely.
“You’ll want to keep that on so your injuries don’t draw attention,” I remarked, and she nodded.
“I think I can pull it off. I have CIA training, after all.”
I smiled despite myself, amazed by her endurance. When most people would suffer total breakdown, she was ready to head out into a storm in search of her twin. I wished that I could share a bond like that with someone, but I had always been a loner. You never could rely on people not to let you down. Not forming bridges meant you didn’t have to deal with them burning down.
Checking I had all my usual kit, I grabbed an extra knife and torch and handed them to her, along with a belt and three days’ rations. I reasoned that anything could happen on a night like this, especially with the doctor involved. it was already almost two, and I expected we would be out late.
I held the door open for her and then locked it behind us. It didn’t pay to take chances, even in a relatively quiet neighborhood like this. Besides, like I said, I expected to be out for quite a while.
The rain fell in sheets. All across the street, lampposts and lights were on, beacons of floating light in the shifting curtains of gray mist. Lightning flashed, and a crack of thunder rolled across the landscape, rattling windows and pounding on doors and timbers. Barely had it left when a second followed after, lighting white the grayish fog and letting forth a concussion that snapped in my chest and left a ringing in my ears. I hunched my shoulders and strode onward, determined to reach my destination, rain or not.
The atmosphere of the street did not lend itself to conversation, and neither the dame nor I said anything until we got to Jerry’s. I opened the door and let her follow me in, mindful that Jerry should see me first. He looked up as I came in and nodded when he saw my familiar figure standing in his door. Then the dame came in and his expression changed from deadpan mild interest to full-blown curiosity. He raised an eyebrow at me and went back to polishing his glassware. I smiled.
“She’s a friend,” I told him, “but she’s also a Cubs fan. Think you can handle that?”
“I trust that we’re alone here?” I began.
“Terrible storm out,” he replied. “Not many people roundabouts, I recon.”
I met his eye, then continued.
“My friend here is a CIA agent. She’s here looking for her sister, an identical twin. I had to be unpleasant to her to get that out of her, but I thought she was her sister.”
He took her hand and kissed it, pulling out a mug which he then proceeded to fill with warm apple cider. It steamed as he poured it and then handed it to her. She accepted the beverage graciously and sipped it, smiling at him as the warm cider soothed some of the tension she’d been holding on to since we’d entered. I waited patiently until she had taken several large mouthfuls and Jerry turned his attention back to me. I was glad he seemed to have relaxed her. It would make our job easier and presumably less unpleasant for her, given the nature of the issue. He held his hand out for my payment, nodding approvingly as I dug my wallet out of my inside jacket pocket and produced a fifty-euro note. Jerry preferred to be paid in Euros. He tucked it in his pocket and went back to polishing glasses. I ordered a coffee, which he promptly poured into a porcelain mug and handed to me. I sipped it and slapped a twenty-euro note down on the counter. He nodded as he collected it.
“I can help you,” he said, “but it will cost you something more than Euros. When you find the girl, I want you to bring her back here.”
I nodded slowly.
“I think that can be arranged. I wasn’t planning on handing her over to Phain right away. I want to see if she has information on him I can use to get him to back off. As much as I might seem a villain, I’m desperate.”
Jerry looked at me quizzically.
“He threatened Constanzia, Jere.”
The bartender sighed and took his apron off, hanging it on the wall.
“Then we must do what we can to stop him,” he replied, turning around and placing his honesty jar on the counter. Jerry never closed his bar, even with business nonexistent due to the tempest. I smiled.
“You’re a good man, Jere,” I told him, following him. Maria followed me with somewhat less enthusiasm, apparently unsure how the middle-aged bartender could possibly be of any help against Mordred Phain. I simply smiled.
Jerry sat in one of the booths facing the door, and Maria followed me into the seat opposite him. I folded my hands on the table in front of me and looked at her.
“Tell him what you told me.”
She hesitated and swallowed, then began.
“My name is Maria Blanchez. My sister, Sophia Blanchez, is an MI-6 agent and my identical twin. She has far more experience than I do. As…” she looked at me for a name, and I provided it. “…John told you, I’m a CIA agent. Two days ago, my sister contacted me and said she was in trouble. I asked her for more details, but the line went dead. Naturally, I was worried and came over here immediately, without the consent of my supervisors. I left a note, but I doubt they’ll be happy with me for going AWOL.
“When I arrived, I discovered my sister’s safe house had been ransacked thoroughly. All I found was a reference to a Dr. Mordred Phain that may or may not have been left there on purpose. I watched his residence for a while and followed him to the University, where I saw Mr. Naissance hurry out. I followed him, thinking I might have a lead on my sister’s location. When he stopped here, I called in a favor and got his address. It turns out her superiors don’t know where she is, and they’re very interested in recovering her and in working with me as well. Identical twins in the intelligence industry have a lot of potential, as I’m sure you can imagine. We’ve known each other’s status for years, but we’ve kept a low profile because I was still in training.
“Anyway, when I arrived at Naissance’s place I searched it, but found no references to my sister. I was just about to split when he came in with a tranquilizer weapon, presumably designed for him by the doctor. The next thing I knew I was in his closet upstairs and he was torturing me for information. I pretended to snap…no, that’s not true. I actually did snap when he threatened to hurt me severely and when I realized he was after my sister too. I didn’t realize Phain had threatened him as well.”
“And then I brought her here,” I concluded. “Where she told her story to you. Can you still help us find Sophia?”
Jerry’s eyes looked to the door.
“He can’t, but I can,” said a voice from behind me. “Now tell me, Jere, should we kill him for what he did to my sister?”