by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by pseudonymeter
They were already falling when the room exploded.
There wasn’t any experience a shockwave couldn’t improve, though, so Veronica saw in excruciating slow motion what it looked like when a dozen panes of century-old glass buckled and shattered with its percussive impact. She didn’t see the fireball that followed, due to a kid-gloved hand that clasped itself across her eyes, but she could feel it singe her exposed cheeks, raging with a heat and intensity she’d never imagined. The sound hit shortly after, the unforgettable roar that her entire life made as it went up in smoke. Reflex compelled her to struggle, but gravity pulled her down and intertia pushed her back, and the hand that covered her face was attached to an arm that locked beneath her shoulder, so she wasn’t going anywhere.
It took several seconds longer than it should have for her to realize that she wasn’t falling anymore; in fact, she was hovering, and her body was shaking not from the explosion or her own startlement, but from the mechanical whirrings of a small engine, probably one about the size of a briefcase from the sound. She kicked her feet and felt something beneath them, and heard the unmistakable rustle of the oak trees the campus prided itself on. “Let me go!” she demanded, because it seemed like an appropriate request under the circumstances.
“Keep struggling, Professor, and I will,” said an unfamiliar voice with an indistinct accent, “and I won’t mean to either.”
The machine jolted and her feet scraped the branches again. She did a quick calculation involving the height of her twelfth-floor classroom, the estimated force of the explosion, and the average height of the campus foliage, and realized that at whatever height they were holding steady, it was more than she wanted to drop. Pitched with a sudden acrophobia she hadn’t known she’d possessed, she tossed her arms around her hovering companion’s neck for stability. She could hear her companion make a pleased sort of sound, though she didn’t assume that noise was the type to come with a smile. “That’s better,” said the voice, which was husky like a young man’s, though Veronica could feel her own breasts crushed against another, smaller pair. “Now just a second more….”
A lurching drop tossed Veronica’s stomach up toward her throat, and when it was done, she could feel the ground beneath the tips of her toes. The arm that held her relaxed and she staggered forward under her own weight, turning as soon as she caught her balance to see what had become of the tower.
By some small act of mercy, the damage looked to be over and done. As bright as the fireball had been, she saw only the barest flickers of flame remaining; the windows were of course gone, and the red brick burned all around the frames, but only a trickle of smoke still followed the cloud that had risen into the evening sky, hovering over the building like great black wings. Veronica pitched a little, and was glad for the trees as she reached out and steadied herself against the rough bark. Students poured out, dazed and frightened but looking for the most part unhurt, and Veronica stumbled forward, desperate to make sure everyone was all right.
That same strong arm that had borne her out the window caught her from behind and dragged her back beneath the cover of the trees. “Steady, now,” said that voice in her ear, holding her in place. “They’re fine, Professor. The bomb was designed to make a big show, not to hurt anyone.”
Veronica turned to see her odd saviour, a girl she recognized from the front row of her lectures, who always came to class but never spoke. She had great locks of blonde hair that were tied back in a ponytail, and strapped to her back instead of a bookbag was a rotor and pair of propellers. Veronica couldn’t bring her name to mind, but she was responsible for nearly four hundred students every semester, and names had never been her strong suit. “Who did this?” she asked, looking back to the chaos that centered around the ruined school building but seemed not to have noticed their landing amongst the trees.
The girl sighed and took Veronica’s hand, urging her deeper into the school’s forest, away from the commotion. “I did.”
(five years later)
She crossed her legs high on her thigh, careful to let show as much leg as she could without crossing the line into blatant exhibitionism. “Do you take me for a fool? Because if you do, you should let me know. We could redesign our entire working relationship around that piece of information.”
The fat man across from her huffed and tugged at his cufflinks. He was a piggish man with a piggish personality that no doubt predated his current size, a slave to all kinds of appetites. She intended to use that against him as far as she could. “Of course not, Miss Banks,” he said, waving his sausage-fingers to indicate the negative. “I’d never think such a thing about a fine, upstanding lady like yourself.”
“Colette,” she said, waving her hand the ever-present figure that hovered behind her, “thank Mr. Sansom and show him the shortest route out the front door.”
“Now wait just a minute!” said Sansom, and he stood, the sudden gesture giving the three heavyset goons that hovered behind him an obvious start, “we haven’t come to an agreement here!”
She quirked her mouth to one side with dry amusement. “Oh, are we speaking like adults again? Then my offer is thirty and not a banknote less.”
The folds around Sansom’s eyes closed in, making his small, dark eyes look even smaller. He was not the sort of man she would have associated with, once upon a time; but that, as the saying went, was in another country, and besides, the wench was dead — the wench in question, of course, being she. “You drive a miserable bargain,” he grunted, but his hands folded across the head of his cane in a way that meant resignation. “Thirty. Half now, half on completion of the job.”
“Why, Mr. Sansom,” she said, bringing a hand to her chest, “you’d think we didn’t trust one another.”
The arrangement required ten more minutes of sharing information and bartering favours, but there was no more haggling over price, and she was glad for that. At last, she bade them all good-day and even sealed the deal with a shake of Sansom’s sturdy hand, then sank back down against the couch as her valet saw her guests out.
When C returned later, she was wearing a scowl, and all of her proper servant bearing had slipped away, replaced with the catlike slink she appropriated when no unfamiliar eyes were on her. “I don’t like them,” she said, casting a glance back in the direction of the door. “Lowlifes are lowlifes, but he’s just plain greedy. Greed makes a man stupid, and a stupid man can’t be trusted beyond appeals to his own stupidity.”
Veronica smoothed her dress back down over her bare legs and sighed. “I know,” she said, and she willed her voice not to shake. They’d trained her, of course, not only in physical skills but in all manner of psychological manipulation, and as long as she felt she was ‘on’ she could keep on a game face with the rest of them; however, just as C’s posture retreated in the absence of prying eyes, Veronica found it difficult to maintain her swagger when the only one who could see her knew better. Laurel Banks was the epitome of a cool, collected aristocrat who’d become bored with riches and instead decided to put her resources to use stealing valuable objects. Veronica put her on like a suit, and always felt a little unsteady when she had to go back to being herself.
A glass of port appeared at her side, and she took a sip from it, then nodded her gratitude. “Headquarters left a message. They say Jaggart’s on the move.” C took a seat in the great chair that Sansom had so recently occupied, and crossed her legs beneath her in a way that was becoming neither to a butler nor to a lady. It was so easy to forget how young she was, far less into her twenties than out of them, until little unguarded gestures such as that made it plain. “Arriving in a week instead of three. Are you ready, Professor?”
C was the only person in the world who still called her that. “Time to catch two birds with one lovely stone.” Veronica took another long drink from her glass, letting the rich port warm her from the belly out; once upon a time, she hadn’t possessed much of a taste for the stuff, but then again, once upon a time, a lot of things had been different.
“Suppose so.” C nodded, and that was that. She was possessed of an efficiency and an economy of self such that she never wasted a gesture or a said a word more than she meant. In the years they’d known one another, Veronica didn’t think she’d seen C smile once except as her various roles required it of her, and even then the gesture was only one of the mouth, never of the eyes. Perhaps in another life they could have robbed casinos together, with C’s immaculate poker face and Veronica’s ability to count cards.
As it was, they got by with robbing museums. Private collections, too, and at least one house safe in recent memory, but museums were always what Veronica liked best.
What Sansom wanted was easy: a particular gem from a exhibition of South African jewels, touring through the National Museum for a One Night Only show. She’d done more complicated things in her sleep. The trick this time, however, was to get caught — not by the guards or the police, of course, but by the kind of person who might be willing to make a better offer.
After several minutes of comfortable silence, C unfolded her long legs from beneath her and stood. “I’ll see about dinner,” she said, and she strode out of the room in the direction of the kitchen. Left to her own thoughts, Veronica closed her eyes and stretched herself flat on her back down the length of the sofa. Hands folded across her stomach, she took a deep breath and unrolled the blueprints of the National Museum across the drafting board of her mind. Nothing in her life had ever been so satisfying as a good puzzle.
The exhibition was packed with the city’s highest and mightiest, and Laurel Banks walked among them as though she’d been born to their company, laughing and making small talk and nursing a single champagne flute all evening. She’d need her head clear for this.
The only downside to being a government-sanctioned thief-for-hire — other than, of course, not being able to keep any of the revenue earned from her various acquisitions — was that most of the time, it didn’t help. All clients wanted to hear about the plans in advance, and sometimes they even insisted on sending their own people to ‘help out’ (which was not-very-subtle code for ‘make sure you don’t steal from us‘) with the snatch itself, and nearly always they’d have appraisers on the other end to make sure the real object hadn’t been swapped for a fake. Thus, there was usually nothing for it but actually to steal whatever damn thing she was being paid to steal, and alert the authorities so they could retrieve it in a legal fashion at some plausibly deniable later stage.
Contrary to what logic might suggest, she’d learned that the best way to lift something was when it was in plain sight. Objects in transit were watched and guarded, but once something was on display … well, people relaxed. What, after all, would go missing while a hundred eyes were on it?
The trick was usually to get all those eyes off it, even for an instant; the trick this time was to redirect all the eyes minus one. So Veronica waited by the case, near but not too close, looking awestruck by the various shining stones. From time to time she batted her fan in front of her face, and never once glanced over to the west entrance, where all the various valets and manservants kept their distance, never heard and barely seen, but ever ready.
At 8:43 on the nose — at least as measured by the great machine that kept time on the museum’s wall — a flash of blue silk caught Veronica’s eye. It swirled amongst the assembled spectators, its deep sapphire tone bold enough to compete with the exhibit’s jewels, then came forward toward the gems in the form of an exquisite dress, and the crowd parted politely to let Astère Jaggart through.
That wasn’t her real name, of course, nor was it likely to be the name she was going by this evening, unless she felt like announcing to the room that one of Europe’s most-wanted smugglers and black market masterminds had come to pay her respects to some very palmable items; it was, however, the name Veronica’s supervisors kept on her file, and thus it was the first that came to mind. Her deep auburn hair piled atop her head until it rained down broad curls like rivers, and she looked nowhere near her forty-one years. Veronica stood back, allowing herself to notice the woman just enough to be impressed by her couture, and nothing more. Her gaze then went to the other pieces, the more extravagant ones already set in stone by master goldworkers, though she watched the reflections in the glass as Jaggart moved closer to the stone.
Let her see it, let her see that it’s real, Veronica told herself, though her self-steadying internal monologue always came out sounding like C’s voice, stern and unflappable. In the dim reflection off the tempered glass, she saw Jaggart’s eyes widen an inch, a fractional tell, but enough to matter. Veronica opened her fan, dusted it beneath her chin, then snapped it shut and held it close to her left side, her fist tight around its hilt.
That was when the buffet table exploded. Oh, it was a tiny enough explosion, barely enough to upset a few tables of crudités, and the source was so immediately obvious as not to cause any undue concern: the caterers that evening had employed a small clockwork server, a device that mostly kept trays moving up and down the length of the crowded table, and its center panel had burst open, sending puffs of grey smoke coughing into the air. A simple mechanical error, unpleasant but of no great hazard to life or limb. But it had been designed to get everyone’s attention, and by that measure it had been a rousing success. Women gasped, men dropped their drinks, guards rushed forward, and Veronica picked the lock on the case. By the time the surprised throng started clearing out of the increasingly fume-filled gallery, Veronica was coming with them, waving her fan in front of her face with one hand and pocketing the coin-sized stone with the other.
She didn’t move fast enough, though, and she made the critical intentional mistake of looking back at her own handiwork — so her eyes met Jaggart’s deep brown ones, which held her for a moment, then snapped wide with enraged recognition of what had just happened. That was all she got before the crowd swept them farther apart, though, and Veronica made sure she was well outside the doors to the gallery before she allowed herself a hint of a satisfied smile.
C was on her as soon as she could, touching Veronica’s shoulders and leading her out into the fresh air. “Are you well, madam?” she asked, and her fingers swept down Veronica’s left sleeve toward her left hand; she caught the diamond and made it disappear into her own cuff. Veronica was trained and talented, hardly an amateur by now, but C was still safer transport.
“Yes, I think I am, I just … well, it was a terrible fright. Just terrible.” Veronica drew in a dramatic breath and let it out in a huff, trembling with a post-snatch adrenaline that wasn’t feigned. “Did you see what on earth happened?”
“It was only the serving mechanism, madam,” answered C, her customary hodge-podge accent of indeterminate European origin settled down into the proper King’s English befitting a lady’s valet.
Veronica allowed herself a sigh that bordered on the indignant and snapped her fan wide again. “Honestly, you can’t find good help these days.”
“So I’ve been told, madam,” C conceded, offering Veronica her arm and leading her toward the museum’s parking lot. Veronica allowed herself to be guided, and spared only a single glance back toward the commotion behind her. Jaggart appeared at the edge of the crowd, and Veronica lingered just long enough to give her a good look before climbing into the backseat of her car and letting C ferry her home.
She feigned surprise when C appeared on the wide patio and told her she had a visitor, but in truth the only surprise was that she’d had to wait until after her lunch. She instructed well within said visitor’s earshot that Colette bring out an early afternoon tea. Moments later, Jaggart took a seat in the white-painted ironwrought chair that matched the one in which Veronica sat, admiring the late summer roses. “I’ll cut to the chase,” said Jaggert, and her vowels were tinted to sound Spanish, possibly even Basque, “since you seem an intelligent woman who isn’t prone to wasting time.”
Veronica didn’t turn her head. “I find a bit of leisure good for the soul now and then.” She smoothed the folds of her skirts, loosing a leaf that had gotten caught in the lace.
“A luxury I can’t afford.” Jaggart leaned back in her chair, crossing her trousered legs by resting one ankle atop her opposite knee. “I saw you at the museum last night. Who were you working for? Katsaros? Sansom? Narváez? Whatever he’s paying, I’ll double it.”
Veronica allowed the corner of her mouth to lift — showing she was impressed by the offer, but not considering it. “I fear you’re mistaken. I am a woman of leisure, and as such am in no one’s employ.”
Jaggart drummed her fingers on the glass-topped table that held the book Veronica had brought with her to occupy her during her wait. “I did you the courtesy of abandoning all pretense; I would thank you to do the same. Or I can walk out of here right now.”
“Surely you wouldn’t leave without first allowing me to serve you some refreshments,” Veronica said, turning to face her guest, and right on cue, C appeared with a tray. She held it higher than their seated eye level as she unloaded its contents onto the table before them, one piece at a time: a blue-and-white teapot, two saucers and teacups, spoons, sugar bowl, cream pitcher, and two plates of cucumber sandwiches, four stacked triangles apiece. Atop Jaggart’s sandwiches sat the diamond, and Veronica had the pleasure of seeing Jaggart’s eyes widen the same way they had at the museum — but before she could reach for it, C lay a napkin in front of her place setting, effortlessly palming the stone mid-gesture.
Jaggart’s mouth narrowed into a thin line. “Triple,” she said, fixing Veronica with a cold, serious stare.
Veronica shook her head, picking up the delicate handle of her teacup and bringing it to her lips. Even under ordinary circumstances she wouldn’t have been tempted by the increase in price; after all, the money wasn’t hers, it was her employer’s, and the value of catching Sansom with the stolen gem was higher than could be increased by the simple addition of funds. But she knew that wasn’t what Jaggart was after, so she cast a glance back to the large house behind her. “As I said, I’m in no one’s employ. I am, however — from time to time — known to take suggestions from others as to new forms of recreation.”
It was the right answer, and Jaggart relaxed; she ran her fingertips along the edge of the sandwich plate, but did not touch the food. “There’s a book,” she said, “in the house of a botanist. I’d like to see it.”
Through careful practice, Veronica kept her expression fixed. She couldn’t see C, but knew she had to be somewhere nearby, and wondered how she felt about having their five-year goal in sight. “A gardening book?” she scoffed, tasting the tea. It was strong, the way she liked it; C made almost as good of a legitimate valet as she did a spy.
“Something like that.” Jaggart lifted her own cup as though she were toasting Veronica’s roses. “I’m envious of your fine grounds. I’d like my own to be as nice.”
Veronica let her mouth show thin amusement. “Hire someone.”
Jaggart smiled back at her. “That’s what I’m doing right now.” She stood and walked over to the bushes; mindless of the thorns, she wrapped her fingers around the stem of the largest yellow blossom and used her long thumbnail to chop the stem free. With a smile, she took a short sniff of the bloom, then walked over to where Veronica sat. Veronica willed herself to remain in place as Jaggart reached up and wove the blossom into her own auburn hair, settling it among the waves just above Veronica’s ear. Then she was gone, and Veronica resolved she could find her own way out if she wanted.
After a few moments, C appeared from the opposite side of the garden Veronica had expected. She gave a quick glance at the untouched tea before her, and then a sharp frown at the flower in Veronica’s hair. True to her nature, though, she straightened her spine and let it go. “She seemed,” she swirled all the words she was debating around in her mouth, before finally spitting out a contemptuous, “amenable.”
“I think so.” Veronica reached into her hair and untangled the blossom, then set it aside on the table, diverting her intention instead to the slip of paper Jaggart had left wrapped around the stem. There, in neat, cramped print, were printed the characters:
tnluh rapeo sophe
nhcur otnri sstet rasse
C peered over her shoulder and frowned at the note. “…Who does that?”
“Someone who wants to make sure the invitation lands in good hands.” Veronica squinted at the page, shuffling through the options in her mind. The letters in front of her weren’t a substitution cypher; they didn’t conform to any expected patterns of letter frequency in English or French, though she had to admit languages beyond those were not her strong suit. The presence of scattered numbers, however, suggested this involved something more than simple replacement. She looked at the third line, the smallest sample and therefore the most condensed point of the pattern, and noticed, ignoring all the numbers, that it contained all the letters for ‘tonight’….
With a little sigh, Veronica folded the note lengthwise in her fingers. “Thornapple House, North Narcissus Street, 9:30 tonight,” she said, feeling the sort of letdown she associated with being seven and opening a promising Christmas package only to find a pair of socks. Though she didn’t mind not having to sweat hours over a solution, she was still a little insulted by its simplicity.
Bless C, though, she always had the good graces to be impressed. “How the hell did you get that?” she demanded, snatching the note from Veronica’s fingers. She wasn’t stupid, not in the slightest, but neither was she smart in the areas in which Veronica excelled, something Veronica knew made her particular talents seem a bit like witchcraft.
“Rail fence cipher.” Veronica sighed and smoothed her skirts, then went for one of the sandwiches C had made; she lived opulently now, but she had once survived on a lecturer’s salary, and knew there was no sense in letting good food go to waste. “It’s all the letters right there, they’re just greatly scrambled. Figure out the pattern, and the rest is simple.”
“I don’t like it.” C brought the note beneath her nose, sniffing at the paper, then tucked it in the breast pocket of her vest. “A cipher isn’t something you give to an aristocratic cat burglar. It’s more appropriately a taunt for an author of several papers on cryptography, Professor.”
Veronica stopped mid-bite in her sandwich, and only through careful self-control did she bring herself to continue, trying not to look concerned. She’d agreed to be a part of this operation willingly — well, willingly past the initial kidnapping, but even that, she had come to admit, had come of good reason — and wasn’t going to let her own lack of nerve be the reason it stumbled. “You don’t need to be an academic to demonstrate critical thinking,” she said, as much to convince herself as anything. “And look, it’s a simple cipher; she probably expected us to take until 9:30 to suss it out, giving us less time to prepare, keeping us off-guard.” She swirled the cold dregs of her tea around in the cup but did not drink.
C nodded, but she pressed her lips together, making a stern face such that her displeasure could be conveyed without her having to say a word. Veronica looked back at her, offering a smile she intended to disguise her own deep reservations. She was not going to be the reason this all fell through; she couldn’t let her cowardice repay C’s saving her life in the tower that day, her last day as a professor and the first day of what had become her life now. She couldn’t be the weak link.
At last, C bowed her head and picked up the tray. “I’ll make preparations,” she said, her voice crisp, and she walked back to the house with a terse step. Veronica watched her go, and with every step a greater anxiety gnawed at the pit of her stomach. If C’s bad feelings were right, they were walking into a trap that saw right through them both. But if they were wrong, and if Veronica balked and called everything off, then they might miss their one chance to shut down a criminal enterprise connected to some of the world’s most notorious arms dealers, corrupt corporations, and oppressive regimes. Certainly a nagging fear for her own skin was no reason to put the brakes on an operation that might save hundreds, thousands of lives.
And at any rate, C had risked her own life countless times for Veronica, first — but certainly not only — when she’d staged the explosion and faked Veronica’s death for her, two steps ahead of the same criminal syndicate they now sought to foil. Past that, she’d remained by Veronica’s side the entire time, though Veronica knew she must have been offered different assignments and even promotions, certainly opportunities more glamorous than that of Colette the valet.
But the note had said tonight, and she had no intention of refusing the invitation. With all due haste, she set off back to the main house to change. Fine gowns were her preference, but tonight’s dress would need something a little more flexible.
Thornapple House was a small-ish country home, surrounded on all sides by a high brick wall and with neither thorn nor apple in sight. Veronica drew her dark coat tight around her body and nodded to C, who disappeared in the bushes behind the front gate, standing at the ready. A quick call to the Hall of Records had identified this house as being the residence and workplace of Dr. Sharon Roves, botanist and researcher. Veronica had never heard of her before, but the woman at the Hall of Records had turned out to be something of an orchid fancier, and had been more than happy to tell about the strains of orchid Dr. Roves had debuted at the local botanical show, a new one every year, always taking home first prize.
This was all well and good, of course, except that it had done nothing to settle Veronica’s nerves about why Jaggart had sent them there, and when she’d told C, C had made the same skeptical face she had earlier. But she had neither said nor done anything to interfere with Veronica’s plans, and as the local church steeple tolled the half hour, Veronica scaled the brick wall alone.
She came down soft on a pile of leaves on the other side, her shoes making a rustling that could just as easily have been caused by a stray cat or the night wind. A single light glowed in the a room on the first floor, but other than that, the house was dark. With a wire she kept stored in her bracelet, she picked the lock to the house’s impressive greenhouse and slipped inside.
The first thing that hit her was the heat; she’d been in greenhouses before, of course, mostly during her time at the university, but she’d never before entered one so utterly tropical, a mix of warm and wet that left her lungs aching. Little beads of sweat were already beginning to form across her brow as she slipped inside, and every hard exhale she made, she could see the misty air swirl around her mouth. Trusting that her quarry would become evident, she pressed forward, making her way through rows of potted plants toward the main house.
She was nearly to the glass doors that led to the study beyond when she realized something odd: there was no smell anywhere in the greenhouse. She’d been so distracted by shifts in temperature and humidity that she hadn’t paused to realize that absent component. A noise from the house startled her, though, and she flattened against the wall beside a blooming hydrangea bush whose puffed flowers crept beneath her nose. She knew the blossoms well, yet they had none of their telltale fragrance about them, and she wondered what on earth could have robbed them of that essential component. Who on earth would engage in the pursuit of making flowers smell less?
Through the paned glass, she could see a study, and beyond that, the lighted room. Veronica tried the knob and was surprised to feel it give with no hestitation; then again, she supposed, it made little sense to keep a place locked from one’s self. The door swung open, and Veronica nearly gasped in the cool air of the rest of the house, then had to swallow several times to fight back a coughing fit. As she slipped inside, she could hear the sound of soft speech from the far room, two women’s voices, one of which she recognized from the earlier discussion in the garden. The study before her was full of books, making it the most likely place to identify her target item, but she was drawn instead to the noises; she pressed forward, staying well in shadow, reasoning with herself that the more information she had about what else was going on inside the house, the more correctly she could assess how much time she had for her own searchings.
What she saw there, however, made her breath catch in her throat. The voice did in fact belong to Jaggart, and though Veronica could not hear the words, the meaning behind them was made clearer by how Jaggart was wearing nothing but a deep black corset and stockings that clipped to a pair of equally dark panties. She reclined on the couch, her legs spread, swirling a glass of wine in her right hand; her breasts had fallen out of the tight boning, and her brown nipples stood pert just above the corset’s cups. Between her legs knelt an older woman, perhaps sixty years of age, whose long, beautiful white hair spilled down her back from what looked once to have been a tight bun at the base of her neck. Her own dress was simpler, but undone at the front to her navel, and her own ample breasts threatened to spill forth from beneath the parted fabric. She — and she must have been Dr. Roves, Veronica concluded — laughed and drew a lavender petal across Jaggart’s thigh, saying something that must have been clever indeed, because Jaggart laughed and brushed one fingertip down the curve of the woman’s chin.
Well, Veronica thought, trying to coax her mouth from its painful dryness, good of her to provide a distraction.
She drew back into the shadows near the bookcases, pulse pounding. She was no stranger to the idea of Sapphic love, of course — she’d been educated at only the finest boarding schools, after all, and knew what went on in a dormitory — but to see it played out in front of her gave her a jolt she hadn’t been expecting. Certainly her training in the art of espionage hadn’t covered that. Several deep, steadying breaths neither calmed her heart rate nor erased the scene from the forefront of her brain.
In fact, something else was wrong, terribly wrong. She grasped toward the edge of the desk, rustling paper as she did, but unable to convince her body to greater stealth. Every breath she took, her throat seemed to close a little tighter. It had been a trap. She just needed to shout, make a noise, do something to warn C in time for her to get away–
It was too late. Unable to breathe, she collapsed to the floor, and the last thing she saw before she passed out was Jaggart’s wicked smile as she bent down and pressed a damp cloth over Veronica’s nose and mouth.
She woke with her face pressed down against a desk; her hands were free but she could feel shackles around her ankles. She gave a startled cough, and the pressure against the back of her head eased, letting her sit up. “Quite effective,” she heard a woman’s voice say, and when she turned her head, she could see Dr. Roves standing against the wall; her dress was done up in full, and she wore a white lab coat over it. “Heightened adrenaline and a strong constitution delayed the response, but only temporarily.”
Jaggart stepped from behind Veronica, now fully dressed herself in a soft green robe, though Veronica could see the stockings beneath where it parted when she stepped. “Professor Veronica Lafreniere,” she said, giving a little bow. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, if five years belatedly.” Her former accent was gone, replaced with a sinister clip that was all London.
Veronica turned her head a little too sharply, and was rewarded with a bout of nausea that made her have to close her eyes until the room stopped spinning. “Careful, careful,” Roves warned, stepping forward with a little metal cannister. “My flowers leave something of an impression.” She sprayed it twice in Veronica’s face, and Veronica was chagrined to admit that breathing its mist did make her feel a bit better; it had a scent, the cold snap of camphor.
Jaggart tossed a folder onto the desk in front of Veronica. “We’ve needed your skills for a while, but we’ll take them now.” Veronica nudged the flap open, and a series of diplomatic papers fell out, all of which looked to be typewritten on the sheets of their various embassies; she looked closer and saw that they were to the untrained eye an unintelligible mess, a clutch of random characters, half of which were X’s. They were only random, though, if you didn’t know how to look at them.
“What do you expect me to do with these?” asked Veronica, slurring the ends of her words as she willed her mouth to obey. This was obviously past the point of her pretending she was still or had ever really been Laurel Banks. “I’d need a year to break the code, and by then it’d be no good to you; they’d have replaced it.”
“Doesn’t matter.” Jaggart shook her head and tapped the documents. “I don’t want the code; I want these. This is the information all we need, the agreements about these countries’ biological weapons programs — more specifically, their codes for the containment systems. You can decrypt them because they were encrypted by your algorithms — the ones national security concerns wouldn’t allow you to publish.”
Here it was, then — the reason C had faked her death in the first place, to give her the opportunity to use her mathematical intelligence to catch criminals before the criminals caught her and pressed her into service. She’d given a good chase, but in the end, it hadn’t been enough. Still, laws governing chaos and action demanded that there was no such thing as a situation with no choice. “I won’t. I can’t and I won’t.” She folded her arms across her chest, banking on her last trump card: that she was of infinite use to them alive and of no use dead. “Kill me or trap me, I won’t work for you. You won’t let me leave here alive anyway.”
With a thoughtful nod, Jaggart pulled a lever in the wall. “No, I won’t,” she acknowledged as a bookcase panel spun around, “but I’ll let her leave.”
As the other side of the revolving wall came into view, Veronica’s heart sank: there was C, with heavy manacles around her wrists and ankles, and a tube attached to her throat. She looked as drugged as Veronica felt, her eyes half-lidded and her breathing heavy. The tube stretched to a machine by her feet, which idled with a low purr.
“You’re stuck with us forever,” Jaggart conceded, “but you get to choose whether your little spy lives or dies. If that’s decrypted in an hour — and I mean utterly, there is no partial credit in this exam, Professor — she walks free. If not, well, she has only you to blame for stumbling into this little trap.”
C looked up at Jaggart, an expression of pure hatred on her face the likes of which Veronica had never seen before. “You bitch,” she slurred, spitting out the last consonant.
Jaggart laughed right in C’s face, and C recoiled as though she’d been struck. “What’s the matter, little Canna? Sad that your mommy and daddy aren’t here this time? I confess, I wasn’t expecting you to take up the same profession that killed your parents.” She stepped closer and gave C an eyerake that made Veronica’s stomach turn. “But vengeance is a powerful motive. Did you really do all this just to get back at me?”
C looked away without answering, but Veronica could see that the accusation’s sting. She’d asked before about C’s past, of course, mostly attempting to be friendly, but C had never offered anything — least of all her real name — and after a while Veronica had stopped bringing it up. At most, she’d thought C simply possessed a sense of justice that compelled her to act above and beyond the call of duty; she’d never considered this might be personal.
Roves shook her head and drew a bell-shaped white flower from among an arrangement next to the wall. “Datura stramonium,” she said, “better known as hell’s bells, moonflower, and thornapple, among other things. In the language of flowers, it indicates deceitful charms. Honestly, no one knows their florigraphy these days. It’s a terrible shame.” She spun it between her fingertips, then placed it on the desk in front of Veronica, clicking her tongue. “Don’t eat it. Nasty business.”
“One hour.” Jaggart pointed to the machine at C’s feet. “When the sand in the timer runs out, the serum pumps into her veins and she will die, in terrible agony. Oleander poisoning isn’t a pretty sight.” She took Roves’ arm and escorted her toward the stairs that led up from the basement where they were tied down. “We’ll leave you to your exam.”
Veronica didn’t even wait until they were gone; she tore into the files, spreading them before her, grabbing entire fistfuls of her hair as she stared at the pages before her. There had to be a pattern, there always had to be a pattern, that was the core of cryptography, that was the core of mathematics itself, the idea that everything happened in measurable, observable patterns. She’d even been given the clue that these had been based on the algorithms she’d once worked up for the government, though she had no idea whether that was true or just something Jaggart had been told. Jaggart’s assessments of the situation were not necessarily to be trusted, after all; if she’d known the real answers, she wouldn’t have needed Veronica, she would just have done it herself. But she hadn’t, and now it was Veronica’s turn, and there had to be an answer. They were government documents, after all, and they must have meant something. She just had to figure out what it was.
Her thoughts, however, were interrupted from a groan by the wall, and Veronica snapped her head up to see C’s struggling against the bonds. “Get out of here,” she growled, her voice heavy and without the extra jolt of whatever Roves had sprayed at her. “Pick the lock and go.”
“Don’t be stupid.” Veronica grabbed a pencil from a jar on the desk and began scrawling characters on the blank folder, looking for frequency patterns. It was beyond possibility that they all used the same transposition key, but if she could figure out the sequence, maybe she wouldn’t need it. She knew the pages were about bioweapons, so that could help. The X’s were placeholders, of course, but not necessarily in the right places, and more than likely their frequency was the key to the code–
“Don’t you be stupid!” C struggled against her bonds, but they were made of thick steel and looked like neither she nor they were going anywhere. “I can guarantee you, they’re not using that information to kill aphids.”
“Be quiet and let me think,” Veronica snapped, with more intensity than she’d meant — but perhaps she could be forgiven for being a little on edge. There was the possibility that these had all been done using one-time pads, which would make them truly unbreakable except by the most fortuitous of random guesses, but she concluded that routine, non-wartime information would more likely be handled with a standard, re-usable encryption system. These hadn’t been transmitted across telegraph wires, but appeared to have been typed up specifically for transfer amongst agencies; that made it more likely that there would be a key on hand at the various agency offices. If she could break into those, of course, she’d have no problem — but that would take her far more than the fifty-five minutes she calculated she had left. “I can do this.”
“This isn’t about your ego!” C hissed. “You felt yourself what happens with the flowers they’re growing there. Trash the cables, refuse to do it. Forget about me — they could kill millions with this.”
First were a dozen eight-character strings paired with one another; those had to be coordinates. The stationery indicated that the communication was French, but she couldn’t imagine they’d send the information to themselves, meaning that this must be the information about someone else’s containment strategies. But the locations were only the half of it. What else would be in one of these cables? Frequencies, certainly. Not codes to activate them, those would be country-specific, and few countries would give over that kind of authority even to friendly neighbours. Some authentication codes, then, to let the other governments know that whatever information followed was trustworthy. Jaggart and her cronies wouldn’t even need to find a way to get countries to stand down their defense systems; they’d simply ask using the right magic words and have it done for them. Given what she’d seen of the floral poison, by the time the countries realized what was going on, it would be beyond too late.
Exasperated, C slapped her body back against the wall holding her, making a terrific crashing sound. “Are you listening to me? Did those plants eat your brains?”
Veronica slammed her fist against the table and glared up at C. “I can’t think while you’re being a martyr!”
“Get out of here and go while you can!” C’s light hair had fallen loose of its customary low ponytail, and it hung in her face, giving her a desperate look that Veronica supposed she could understand. “We’re still in the same house as before; we’re only underground. Wait by the door, and when they come for me, you can grab–”
“Dear God, shut up!” Veronica stood from the desk, forgetting the manacles, and nearly fell over as her weight didn’t shift quite as she’d expected; is it was, she only tumbled back into her chair. “Just shut up, I can do this. I just need to concentrate.”
“They’re not going to let me go, Professor,” said C, and this time Veronica could hear the tremble in her voice. No matter how brave she was under all other circumstances, the needle in her neck and the timer at her feet were both too real. “You have to know that. Whether you translate it or not, you’re not leaving their custody, and I’m not leaving here alive. This may be your one chance, so damn everything, take it.”
Even chaos made patterns. The observable universe operated in anticipated ways. The answer only had to be what was expected. “That’s the thing about chances,” she said, setting her pencil over the typeset letters. “I don’t believe in last ones.” Fifty-two minutes was plenty of time. With a deep breath, she began to write.
Less than a minute after the screaming started, Jaggart appeared at the door. “Ah, time’s up so soon?” she laughed, waltzing down the stairs one foot at a time, the long hem of her robe trailing behind her. “And how’s my little worker bee?”
“Let her go.” Veronica’s voice shook as she thrust out the papers, and her eyes were puffy and red from crying; every time C shouted, she felt her stomach lurch, until she wanted to throw up. “They’re done. Let her go.”
Jaggart took the pages from Veronica’s hand and thumbed through them. “Nice. But I’ve got to be sure they’re real.”
“No!” She shot a terrified glance toward C, who thrashed in her restraints. “No, you promised! You said you’d let her go!” C gave one last cry of pain, then gave over to coughing and spitting, foaming at her mouth; her head flopped back for a moment, and Veronica could see the blood trickling out of the side of her mouth. Her ankles and wrists remained steady inside their cuffs, though, and the needle that pierced the skin of her throat remained taped in place.
“Not my fault if it takes more time than she has to check your work.” Jaggart gave a whistle, and Roves made her way down the stairs close on the heels of the call. “Doctor, if you’d fire up the transmitter, I think we’ve got some secret codes to check.”
Veronica pushed the desk away from her, upsetting all the items atop it while she herself remained fixed to the ground by her ankles. “Goddamn you!” she shrieked, lashing out at Jaggart though she was well out of arm’s reach.
“Did she tell you,” Jaggart laughed, “about what happened to her parents?” The wires behind her crackled as the radio equipment sparked to life, and Veronica could feel a charge run up the back of her neck as the air became electrified. “An unfortunate case of sticking their nose in the wrong business at just the wrong time. They took her with them as their cover, in fact, because who would suspect a married couple with a seven-year-old daughter of espionage?”
Roves laughed and drew her long hair back from her neck, pinning up it with what looked in the dim light like various surgical instruments. “I told you that you should have killed her, but you’ve always had a soft spot for your pretty little girls.” She clucked her tongue at Jaggart, shaking her head in mock reproach.
“I have, haven’t I?” The radio began to hum, and Jaggart pressed a few buttons, tapping at the machine until a cleaner signal began to pour through the channel. Beneath the white noise, Veronica could hear the staccato blips of a telegraph, projecting its nonsensical dots and dashes into the air and hoping they fell on the right ears. “Too bad I’ll never get a taste of that.” She jerked her head over to where C’s body had gone mostly still against its restraints, still twitching at the extremities, but otherwise limp.
With a sharp jerk, Roves pulled the paper from Jaggart’s fingertips and sat down before what looked like a telegraph operator’s machine, except it had touch plates for all five fingers; Veronica had never seen a machine like it before, and wouldn’t have known the first thing about operating — or dismantling — it correctly. C might have had a better chance at it, being more mechanically inclined, but…. Veronica turned her head so she couldn’t see C’s body any longer, even out of the corner of her eye. “Like mother, like daughter,” Jaggart continued, pacing nearer to Veronica, but still keeping out of her immediate strike zone. “But I guess it just goes to show you what a love of justice gets you. Namely: dead.”
From the machine, Roves began tapping, stopped, listened, tapped a few more times, and perked up when she heard a reply tattoo out from the other side. “They’re listening!” she announced, clapping her hands together. “Ears wide open.”
“Fantastic! Start transmitting the codes.” Jaggart clenched her hand into a triumphant fist and walked over to where C hung suspended from the wall; she grabbed a handful of C’s hair and jerked her head up, looking into her slackened face. “Well, I promised I’d let her go, and I always keep my promises.” She produced a key from her belt and stuck it in the wall, giving it a twist that released all four manacles simultaneously. C slumped forward, a marionette with its strings cut, and collapsed on the floor, upsetting the clockwork death machine that had ticked away the minutes to her doom. Jaggart kicked her in the stomach, and her body absorbed the blow without response; Veronica gasped and started to cry again.
The radio chirped a few more times — then grew ominously still, its former static thinning out to a much cleaner band. Roves’ smile faded, replaced first with a hint of confusion, then with a much deeper frown. “This is all wrong,” she said, leaning closer to the speaker, which was now broadcasting a low, whining siren. “No, no, this isn’t it at all, this is–”
“Payback,” a voice finished the sentence from the floor, and a sweeping kick took Jaggart down.
Roves gasped in horror as C hopped to her feet and braced her foot right against Jaggart’s windpipe, pressing hard enough that Jaggart gave a gargled gasp, and Veronica took the opportunity to bolt from the cuffs that had only pretended to hold her feet. She’d never been much of a physical fighter — that had always been C’s job, owing to her having had much more training — but she knew how to handle herself when the situation necessitated it, and subduing even a very attractive sixty-year-old woman was well within her abilities. She caught Roves’ arms behind her back with her own lab coat, then pushed her down to the floor beside Jaggart. “Are you okay?” she asked.
C nodded, though Veronica could see her customarily powerful stance was suffering. Veronica had tried to make things easier on her, but the only thing she’d really been able to do was to dismantle the tube that would deliver the oleander’s poison; everything else had been C’s to endure on her own. “Feeling much better, actually,” she said as she growled down at Jaggart.
“No,” Roves protested from where she lay, “no, that’s not possible, I called–”
“You called our backup,” said Veronica, rummaging through a pile of various wires until she came up with a piece she felt was both long and sturdy enough to keep Jaggart stationary; she tossed it to C, who made short, brutal work of binding Jaggart’s hands and feet together, then went over and positioned herself in front of the radio to tap further instructions. “I couldn’t decrypt the pages; given a month and a programmable rotor machine, I might be able to get a fair guess at them. But these are matters of national security, and they don’t make them for amateur hour.”
Being bound didn’t seem to do anything for her temper, and if Jaggart could have killed with only a glance, Veronica supposed she might well have done just that. “They’re based on your algorithms,” she scowled at Veronica.
Veronica shrugged and folded her arms across her chest. “And aeroplanes are based on Newton’s theories, but I doubt he could have flown one. Besides, I didn’t have to break the codes at all. I just had to make them look like what you thought the decrypted messages would be. You did the rest for me.”
Jaggart snarled, but the wire held her fast. “We were wrong to try and capture you five years ago. We should have just killed you while we had the opportunity.”
Veronica looked over at C, whose fingers were furiously tapping information about their location and situation to their handlers, and a proud smile crept over her features. “No,” she said, “that’s one more thing you never had.”
The safe house was anonymous and underheated, and it smelled vaguely of turpentine, but it was as safe as promised. Veronica had slumped on the room’s sole bed and was nearly asleep when she heard C get out of the shower. She rolled over toward the wall, more than willing to give C half, but was surprised to hear the sound of a chair’s being pulled away from the room’s small table. Veronica sat up, frowning. “You’re not going to sleep there.”
“I’m not going to sleep at all,” said C, propping up her feet on a pair of paint cans that hadn’t been removed after the room had been last repainted. “You go on.”
“That’s ridiculous.” Still fuzzy and drowsy, but more awake on account of indignation, Veronica sat up in the bed. “There are two agents just beyond the front door, and more down on the street. We’re beyond safe.”
“That’s not it.” C shook her head, but said nothing else as she turned to the window, looking out over the pre-dawn cityscape. Just enough light had started to filter through that Veronica could tell the sky from the slightly darker silhouettes of the trees in front of it. It seemed impossible that everything had happened in such a short time, but here they were, barely eight hours away from what had very nearly been disaster.
“Then what?” Veronica pulled her legs over the side of the bed, shivering a little as her bare feet hit the floor. “…Is it what Jaggart said about your parents?”
C shrugged and wrung a few more drops out from her hair. “I’ve spent so long wanting this, having this be my only reason for living, that….” Her voice trailed off, and she ran a hand across her features. She’d pulled on a pair of loose pyjama pants and a sleeveless undershirt, both of which had been in the box of assorted clothing that had been left to them to make their stay a little more comfortable; Veronica herself, unable to find anything approaching a night-dress, had settled for a man’s oversized dress shirt with the sleeves cuffed high.
“It’s all right. You’ll need some time to adjust.”
“Adjust,” C echoed, sounding skeptical. “This has been my entire life. From the moment I was recruited after my parents’ deaths, this has been what I’ve been working for. And now….”
Veronica stood and walked over to where C sat; she reached down and took one of C’s hands, urging her back toward the bed. “It’ll all seem better after some rest,” she said, hoping that she wasn’t lying.
C balked for a moment, but Veronica was insistent, and after a sufficient amount of tugging, C rose and allowed herself to be led back over to the bed. “I don’t think it will,” she said, but when Veronica pushed her back down on the bed, she complied. “Though I suppose there’s always another assignment.”
Veronica nodded and climbed over C, taking her previous spot closer to the wall. “We’ll have to see where they want to send us next.”
A frown dusted C’s features, and for a moment Veronica was certain she’d said something wrong; then C relaxed, and her eyes grew wider. “You … wouldn’t want to do something else? You’re safe now, after all. You could go back to what you left behind.”
She’d have been lying to say she hadn’t thought fondly of her old identity, her old profession, her old hours … but this was her life, and everyone who had known her had mourned her and moved on. She had nothing to go back to, and everything waiting here. “What’s left there for me?” she asked, and she touched the corner of C’s mouth where she’d bit her lip to draw convincing blood for the seizure. “I’d be lost without my butler.”
A single quiver trembled C’s lower lip, and she turned so her mouth brushed against Veronica’s fingertips; she hesitated for a moment at the edge of contact, then kissed the skin there, causing a flutter to spike from Veronica’s navel downward. “I’d never let anything hurt you,” she promised, and Veronica could feel the words as well as she could hear them. “Never.”
One of Veronica’s professors in graduate school had referred to something he called the Instant of Convergence, the moment where all the disparate pieces of a puzzle suddenly fell together and became, combined, the only possible series of lenses through which a problem could be viewed. He had been speaking of the calculus, of course, and not until this moment had Veronica ever considered the applications of that term to anything beyond higher mathematics — but there was nothing else she knew that could explain this phenomenon. She took a deep breath and leaned in to kiss the undamaged corner of C’s mouth.
C trembled in Veronica’s arms for a moment before kissing back, and kissing hard, leaning into Veronica’s body. “Tell me what you want,” she breathed into the kiss, placing her hands on either side of Veronica’s stomach, “anything, I’ll do for you.” Her small breasts pressed against Veronica’s chest, and Veronica could feel the hard rises of C’s nipples even through both their shirts.
“I … don’t know,” answered Veronica, because it was true; she’d had suitors before and even gone on a few dates with young gentlemen from her college, but she’d never been kissed or held like this before, and she didn’t know anything except that she wanted more. C reached down to the fork of her legs and slipped her nimble fingers between Veronica’s thighs, pressing against the cotton of her underwear, and Veronica felt herself grow damp and slick and warm against the touch.
“Anything,” C repeated. “I’ve wanted you since I met you, I’ve wanted to have you like this. You’re so beautiful.” She pulled from the kiss to nuzzle the side of Veronica’s throat, and Veronica felt her heart flutter in her chest. “Just let me touch you, please.”
An invitation like that was impossible, Veronica found, to refuse. “Yes,” she gasped, letting her knees fall wide to accomodate C’s touch, “yes.” C’s fingers hooked beneath the waistband of her underpants and pulled them down, and Veronica lifted her hips to allow their removal. When they were far enough down, she kicked them off herself and settled back into C’s arms. C undid the buttons of her shirt and let the sides fall open, exposing Veronica’s breasts; she then bent down and took one of Veronica’s nipples between her teeth, biting lightly and flicking her tongue across its sensitive tip, and Veronica found she had to bite her lip to keep from gasping loud enough to be heard outside the room. “Yes,” she repeated when she had a bit more control back, and C responded by taking the bud of Veronica’s clitoris between her fingers. She gave a light pinch, her touch electric, and Veronica moaned with pleasure.
Though a virgin, Veronica was hardly prudish about sex — mostly just too preoccupied with other matters to bother with it — and from an early age she’d known how to bring herself to climax with only her own fingers. C seemed to possess that same knowledge, as she rubbed Veronica faster, her fingers slipping slick across warm, wet skin. This was not about taking her time and exploration; this was fast and deliberate, a possessive claiming that made Veronica even wetter to think about. How long had she wanted to be touched like this and not even known whose fingers she desired?
She rocked and thrust her hips into C’s touch, not caring now that her movements made the box spring and ancient bedframe creak in time. Let everyone in earshot know what was going on; she’d saved the world tonight, and she deserved to get laid. C’s teeth closed on either side of her nipple, trapping it as her tongue flickered across the cluster of nerves there, and Veronica jumped as the sensation sent fire down the length of her body, curling her toes. “Harder,” she pleaded, barely aware that she was speaking, “bite harder, please, I want to, please, please,” and then she was coming in gasps and shivers, feeling her entire body shake in C’s arms.
C stroked her through her orgasm, and when Veronica settled back to the bed with a great exhalation of air, drew her into her arms and kissed her fiercely. Veronica kissed back for a moment, giddy and boneless and light — and then began to laugh. C drew back, frowning. “What…?”
Veronica shook her head. “Nothing, nothing, just–” She leaned forward and kissed C again. “I didn’t know I needed that.”
“Oh,” said C, and she offered a quick nod. “Then I’m glad to be of assistance.”
“No, I mean….” Veronica reached for the hem of C’s shirt and tugged it upward, exposing her breasts. “You. I didn’t know I needed you. Not like this, anyway.”
Wide-eyed, C looked down at her newly exposed skin. “You don’t have to–”
Veronica silenced her with a kiss, feeling more confident than she had in years, perhaps in her entire lifetime. She supposed logically that she should be feeling hesitant, even downright uneasy about such a paradigm shift, but she couldn’t bring herself to that point; after all, C was with her, and that meant she could do anything. The Convegence had happened, the planets had aligned, and now everything that proceeded forth between the two of them came less as a revelation and more as the logical product of a string of events. The observable universe happened in patterns, and this was an iteration Veronica could more than live with. “I want to,” she said, cupping one of C’s breasts with her hand and flickering her fingernail across the sensitive rise of her nipple. “More than anything, Canna,” she added, testing the waters with C’s real name.
A moment of unease flicked across C’s face, but then a smile — finally, a real smile — chased it away. “At your mercy as always, Professor,” she said, settling back against the sheets, and Veronica leaned over her to kiss her, pressing their bodies together. A ray of sunlight spilled through the window, casting the room in a bright golden glow, and Veronica smiled too knowing that after a night of so many difficult resolutions, the sun was rising on a world that spun a little righter.