When Matt first rang his doorbell, his initial reaction was just an annoyed mutter. But Matt knew the instant he looked through the peephole, and that he’d been recognized. “I want to talk about Pretzel,” he called through the door. “She’s going to need your help.”
“Oh, wonderful,” Tommy sighed, though at least he sounded less frightened, and he opened the door. “Get in, and if you try anything, I have a knife on me.” Matt had smelled the metal already, but didn’t say anything.
He decline an offer of a drink, causing Tommy to growl, “You think I’d spike it?”
“I’d be able to tell if you did,” Matt said coolly. “I just don’t want to drink anything right now, especially since I’ve got a bit to explain to you, and not much time, so we should just sit down.”
Tommy did so without further protest, and listened as Matt explained the situation to him as quickly as he could. When he’d finished, he said, “These days, I wish I hadn’t followed her here.”
“But you’re here now,” said Matt. “And I can tell you want to save her.” He genuinely could too; the man wasn’t hard to read at all.
“Do you really think…” Tommy started.
“I know you care for her, and that’s all I need to know. The rest isn’t important right now, not for either of us.”
“There are a lot of things that aren’t important to you,” was Tommy’s response. “Like all three of us.”
“Not true,” said Matt.
“So you’re going to claim you care so much about three random criminals in trouble?” He would never believe that.
But Matt could just reply, “No, because Pretzel is not random to me, because she’s not random to Karen.”
“Oh?” Tommy was to try to scoff. Matt had heard more successful. “Don’t tell me. She’s seeing herself in Pretzel, isn’t she?”
“Yes, she is, and honestly, if anything happened to Pretzel? I don’t know if she’d ever get over it. And anything that would do that to her, Tommy, I would do anything to prevent. You don’t have to appreciate my essentially selfish reasons, you don’t have be impressed with me at all, and you don’t have to like me, but I think you should believe me when I say that.”
“I do,” Tommy sounded surprised as he said it, but his heartbeat was steady.
“So,” said Matt. “We need to work together to get Pretzel out. I think if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll recognize she needed out even before Karen and I entered the picture.”
“Yeah,” said Tommy, he’d obviously had thoughts along those lines already. “Do you have any actual plans right now besides break into the phones and go from there?”
“We have to drop the high-tech weapon off at a certainly place tomorrow,” said Matt. “Our CIA contact asked us to do that. Other than that, we’re still reacting to events. Remember we’re not the ones laying the trap. I know that’s not easy to cope with, having to be reactive rather than active-”
“Oh, is that what fancy language you’re going to use to justify that you don’t have a plan?”
“We do have a plan,” Matt dropped his voice, let a little bit of the ice in; he didn’t have much patience at the moment. “The plan is not set up to comply with what your idea of a plan is; it is set up to give us the greatest chance at succeeding. Let me remind you that we are much more experienced than you in this sort of thing.”
“Are you really?” Tommy hadn’t been unaffected, but he was trying to hide that; he might have succeeded had Matt been able to hear only his voice. “You’re used to working for an organization, same as me and CJ. You’re not used to running and fumbling around without one. Don’t you go acting all high and mighty. Doesn’t that get people killed?”
Show no weakness, Matt knew. So he gave no indication of how Tommy’s words struck him, only increasing the ice as he said, “We’re used to being out in the field and making our own calls all the time. Your best chance of getting what you want is still to do as I say, and you ought to realize that.”
It won the argument; Tommy took another moment to admit it, but then sighed, “I can probably safely call CJ after 2. I know where your church is, and the two of us could probably get there between 4:30 and 5. We could even try to bring Pretzel with us, but that would be a lot riskier for more than one reason. I can contact her afterwards; Platzer won’t have to know.” He was more firm with those final words, and Matt believed he’d make sure he didn’t.
He was back in the bus and making his slow way back when Karen called, “Sharon’s emailed me back,” she said. “She says there’ll be backup arriving in Burlington tomorrow night, but that she can’t control the exact time of their arrival, and they might even show up in the middle of the fight.”
“You willing to go through with this anyway?” he asked. “We could call it off; even leave the city and make them aware of it, or just try to make them think we’ve left.”
A pause; she was definitely tempted. But then she said, “We’re committed to this, and there’s no way we can avoid endangering all three of them now.” There was a little guilt there, but more than that, she sounded resolute. Matt couldn’t quite get her heartbeat through the phone line, but he thought he knew what it sounded like anyway.
This was a different man, of course. One who had heard many confessions already that day, but might have still been a little stunned when Matt had finished giving the one he had to give. Matt couldn’t be sure what his response would be. He’d run into a lot of priests who would refuse to be phased at all and just go through the rest of the rite, sometimes with a clear wish to just get him out of there, but also those who would urge him to turn away from his evil organization. At least none of them had ever broken the seal of confession as far as he knew.
This one, apparently, decided to start with his final admission, the one newly in his head thanks to what Tommy had said. “You seem pretty unsure about your motivations, whether they were out of pride or not.”
“Well, I only realized how arrogant a thing this was to do this afternoon. I don’t think Karen’s thought about it, but, well, she’s the one this guy hurt so badly. I mean, that’s a lot more understandable on her part. I…I don’t have that excuse.”
“You’ve just confessed to a good deal of rage yourself on her behalf.”
“And I know that’s not even entirely my place, you know. The Goldsmith told Karen for years that he was her protection. She hasn’t wanted to be anyone’s to protect since then.”
“Doesn’t mean she can’t do with the help, does it? You two are certainly involved in a dangerous game, and you’ve said you have to play it out, and your reasoning is such I can’t even urge you to reconsider.” He sounded regretful over that. Matt would’ve been sad if he hadn’t.
“And when that’s over?” Matt asked.
“I can give you penance to do, of course. But you are talking about things where you both must find your way for yourself.”
The timing was pretty good. As Matt left the confessional, he could hear Tommy outside, accompanied by another male voice he hoped was CJ, both of them talking low. “…wouldn’t even be considering this if it wasn’t for you,” he heard the new voice say.
“It’s only for a couple of days.” That was Tommy’s voice. “Then we’re out of danger, one way or another.”
“Those potential ways including us being dead or in prison.”
“Look, the asshole’s right. I can’t leave Pretzel where she is right now. Especially since I really think if this goes on much longer, the Goldsmith will turn her into his next Karina Silver. There’s a reason I made you watch that video, and we both know it wasn’t exactly to turn you on, was it?”
“No, of course not.” There was a hard sort of humor to CJ’s voice, but it softened as he said, “I do want to help her, though. I like her, you know, I really do.”
“Let’s all three of us get out of here together, then,” said Tommy. “You could come with us back to Maine.”
“No, if we’re going, we’re going south,” said CJ. “Didn’t you say you two wanted to get somewhere warm? Let’s go to Florida.”
“Florida sounds nice,” Tommy sighed. Matt could hear their steps slow down as they approached the church entrance. “You gotta let go of me, CJ. There are priests in there, and according to Murdock’s leaked profile, he was raised very Catholic.”
Well, that made the situation a bit clearer. It seemed Tommy really wasn’t in love with Pretzel, though that probably didn’t matter too much right now. It stung, though, to hear them assume he’d be judgmental. He wasn’t of others, whatever issues he’d had of parts of him he’d never really dealt with, and certainly never acted on, though he knew them to exist.
They’d found and been greeted by Karen by the time Matt joined them. CJ found him very attractive; that much was clear by the time they’d finished shaking hands. Matt was used to that, and normally it didn’t throw him. But it felt a little disconcerting now, to hear the man’s heart pick up when his boyfriend was standing right there.
It wasn’t something Karen even noticed, he thought. She relayed the latest from Sharon to them as she handed over the phones. As CJ set to work on them, Karen got Tommy talking about Pretzel, and they learned everything from the plans she’d had to major in Geography to the brief obsession she’d had with OneRepublic.
An hour or so later, CJ put down the phones loudly enough to get their attention, and said, “You people are lucky. I found something interesting.”
Karen and Tommy walked over to him; Matt thought they were looking at the phones. Tommy was, because a moment later he said, “They were all in contact with Mal Burrows?”
“Not only that, but we’ve got two people who texted with Mr. Ice.”
“Mr. Ice,” said Karen. “We know a little bit about him.” He’d been briefly mentioned in Sharon’s files. “His real name is Alex Argos, and he’s a likely Hydra operative nobody’s managed to get enough evidence against to do anything about.”
“Yeah, that’s what we’ve heard too,” said CJ. “Unfortunately, as you can see, his text messages are vague enough they’ll never prove it, but when he says here to this guy-”
“Johnny Partridge,” Karen interjected, obviously for Matt’s benefit.
“-that he’ll meet him at 6 AM tomorrow with ‘the birds’? I know that’s code for Burrows.”
“But will he do that now?” Matt asked. “They might change all their plans, since they know we might break into these phones.”
“If they can get back into contact with the two of them,” said Tommy. “That can be tricky for multiple reasons.”
“He also says,” Karen added, “that they’ll meet in ‘the courtyard.’ Is that code too?”
“Yeah,” said CJ. “That’s a specific place by the river. You know, if they’re trying right now to get in contact with Burrows or Ice, I’m actually someone Johnny might ask for help, if I can manage to bump into him this evening. There’s a good chance he’ll be in his usual watering hole. I tag along, maybe even claim I…I’ve got reason to dislike Pretzel, because I can cite ones they’ll believe, and we can probably get this set up. There’s more than one Hydra operative and more than one of his own operatives who’d love to be the ones to deliver the two of you to the Goldsmith.”
“Could we even lure more people in?” Karen. “I know we could encourage the Goldsmith to make a big party of it, won’t it? He’ll bring all his most important people with him, at least as much as is practical. Would it be if this all happened in this ‘courtyard’?”
“Place is big enough, and a lot of people could get there without attracting too much attention, but um, this is sounding like the kind of setup where at least one of you would have to allow yourself to actually get captured,” said Tommy doubtfully. “I mean, Ice would probably insist on only calling the guy in after they’ve got something to present to him.”
“I’ll do it,” said Matt immediately. “They’ll be much worse to you, Karen, you know that.”
“If it comes to that,” was Karen’s response. “Maybe if we stage this right I could even get Pretzel out of there; she’ll have served her purpose if they get you, right?” That was probably a reason for him to let himself get captured right there, though Karen would probably refuse to think that.
Fortunately, the two guys with them both would. “You can take care of yourself,” said Tommy, “right, Mr. Murdock?” He asked it a little challengingly, as if daring him to claim he couldn’t.
That kind of maneuvering was easy for Matt to ignore. “I think I’d be all right,” he said, “so long as you can tell me they wouldn’t try to kill me before the Goldsmith gets there.” With Hydra, that was a very legitimate concern.
“They won’t if they know what’s good for them,” said Karen. “The Hydra people try, the Goldsmith’s people might just kill them.” If she was saying that, it was definitely true.
“So,” said CJ. “I’ll go find Johnny, sound him out. Got a good way to get into contact with you afterwards? Any suggestions for how someone can get some sort of word to Pretzel of what’s going down? I suppose if all else fails I could try whispering it to her while we’re holding her captive…”
“I hope not,” said Tommy, very strongly.
“We’ve got an email address we can give you. Send it encrypted if you can. Right now I don’t think we plan on leaving this church today, but of course there’s always the chance we could be found here.”
“It’s a cold place to sleep,” said CJ.
“We’ll deal with it. We’ve both slept in worse.” At least they’d be out of the elements in here, which was more than could be said for the previous night. Good thing, too, because Matt had read enough in the air to be sure rain was currently imminent.
“Just one thing worries me,” said Karen when the two men had left, and they’d retreated to an out of the way corner of the church. “I didn’t think it smart to say this in front of those guys, but I wish I knew what reason he’s going to give them for turning on Pretzel.”
“It’s all right,” said Matt, quick to realize what she feared. “It won’t be a true one. He’s just going to claim he’s romantically jealous.”
And he quickly explained to her what he had overheard. When she heard about their fears of Matt’s getting upset, she chuckled slightly. “I’m wondering how many people in this world will want to assume whatever bad things about us that they can, even if they don’t believe we’re Hydra or evil or things like that. Or maybe they think that about all Catholics are like that? You wouldn’t believe some of the things about Catholics my parents claimed to be true…”
It came out so easily, and Matt couldn’t detect any signs of tension out of her. Yet she’d never before talked about her youngest years in so casual a way. Maybe being brought close to it had loosened her up, or maybe all the changes to their lives in general lately had made her feel more willing to tell him things she hadn’t before.
He could return the favor right now, he supposed. Outside the confessional, he’d never told anyone that he’d had sexual feelings for men. Karen wouldn’t care or tell anyone; it was perfectly safe. But it felt like an inappropriate time to be making such confessions, when they had so much to worry about. Maybe when the mission was over.
For now, he said, “In any case, I heard him say he liked Pretzel, and his heartbeat was steady when he did. So you don’t have to worry.”
“Good.” It had started raining out while he’d been talking, making him hope the boys caught their bus back quickly. Now it was getting loud enough for Karen to hear too. “I always liked the sound of rain on the church roof,” she commented. “Though I always dreaded then having to go out into it.” But she stopped talking suddenly there, and her heart sped up, having likely run into something she still wasn’t willing to talk about.
Matt just smiled and said, “Good thing we don’t have to then, right? Let’s get further back. The priest will be much less annoyed with us if we stay out of his eyesight, though he still won’t kick us out either way.”
Instead they woke up, as they had that morning, to find Pretzel very unexpectedly standing over them. The smell of opioids was stronger than had been either time he’d been in her company so far. The scrape of her heels on the church floor had a very faint echo in the too heavy air, and her breathing before she spoke was strange. In Matt’s sleep-addled brain, it took nearly half a minute to convince himself she wasn’t some weird dream or vision (or whatever you called those when they didn’t involving seeing anything; he wouldn’t know) and focus on what she was saying:
“…wrote it all down here and said you could read it out loud to him.” She flapped the paper about as she handed it to Karen. “He says he doesn’t care how suspicious you two showing up so quickly looks.”
“No objection to that.” Karen climbed out of the blanket, leaving behind air that felt much colder. “They’ll probably just assume we’d been tracking them already, although if he really thinks it was too dangerous to email us tonight...”
Matt moved to get to his feet as well, but was only up on his knees when Pretzel said, “I have too many questions to ask you, and is there even anywhere in this church where your boyfriend here couldn’t hear us?”
“You’d have to walk out further than is entirely safe,” said Matt, not even bothering with protesting the label. “Besides, we should go over these instructions together.” He also wanted to know what they consisted of as quickly as possible.
Pretzel dropped to her knees, then tapped the floor with both hands, obvious to make sure he knew she was there. “It’s a pretty simple deal for you. They call me at about ten tomorrow, claiming the Goldsmith wants me to come to the appropriate venue and not tell Vernon. They think I wouldn’t tell him; of course I would normally.” Matt couldn’t tell from her heart whether that was true or not; she probably didn’t even know. “They kidnap me, then send you two video.” Her shudder was loud; that was probably going to be the worst part for her.
“CJ’s going to be with them,” Karen continued. “Though he’ll have to be out of Pretzel’s company, since of course he wouldn’t want his boyfriend to know his involvement in this. That should give him plenty of opportunity to get away from the others and keep in touch with us. When we get near the courtyard, one man will bring Pretzel out the backdoor and make himself look like an easy target, with a bunch more lying in ambush. CJ says he can get one door ‘accidentally’ latched which will delay them by a couple of minutes, enough for us to overpower the guy and for the two of us to escape.”
“Here’s the interesting part,” said Pretzel. “Apparently, according to CJ, it’s not entirely inconsistent with your behavior, Agent Murdock, to stay behind and continue to hit my guard even when I’m away from him and the sensible thing would be for everyone involved to run?”
Matt had to bend his head a little as he said, “No, it’s not, that’s happened.” It was a temptation he’d been fighting from that first mission against the Goldsmith onward, and a battle that every once in a great while he had lost, usually when rescuing a victim who had been young, or egregiously abused. The devil in him getting out, and rational thought fleeing. He’d even been reprimanded for it once. “So that’s what I’m to do there? Lose control and hit the guy until the others get out and overpower me?”
“Basically,” said Karen, and he could hear her angry internal reaction, since this would probably worsen his treatment at his captors’ hands. The boys had been smart to send Pretzel to them to break the news. Either of them she wouldn’t have been nice to. “Meanwhile, according to this, Tommy’s going to spend the morning falling in with Victor Morino-that’s the Hydra agent you overheard in Ashtovka’s apartment making the original suggestion. Once Pretzel is safely away and they have you instead, CJ will call Tommy and invite him to the courtyard, saying he can share in the credit of capturing you.”
“Tommy can let Victor know about this,” Pretzel picked up, “and CJ seems convinced Morino will get mad at his idea being stolen, and come charging with most of the Goldsmith’s remaining Hydra allies with him. Though Tommy’ll have to come with him. Once he arrives, CJ’s priority becomes getting the two of them out of there. If you tell him to do anything to help you hold everyone there until the cavalry comes, he’ll do it, but he expects you to come up with the plans at that point.”
“I’ll drop the gun off for Sharon, obviously,” mused Karen. “I can leave a note with it updating her on the current situation and directing the reinforcements to the courtyard, just in case she can’t get in contact with them. I’ll then head there myself. I can email Sharon and tell her they need to be in Burlington as soon after 5 as possible, but I can lead a few men on a chase through the building to keep them in it for at least half an hour, maybe longer, depending on the building size and maybe state of repair.”
“I can draw you a diagram,” Pretzel offered, and she set to work, saying, “The courtyard is a storage facility the Goldsmith bought out a couple of years ago; most of it isn’t in use. Four floors, takes up about half the block. They’ve got a loading dock in the southwest corner; most of our activities take place pretty near it. The elevators closest to it work; I don’t know if the ones on the far side of the building still do. The rooms there might be in bad shape, I don’t know.”
An actual measurement would’ve been of much more use than “half the block,” but Matt doubt Pretzel had ever thought about how big a building was before. Meanwhile, he put his hand forward and allowed Karen to guide it, taking in what Pretzel had drawn. “If the elevators are offline, I can definitely hold out for an hour. Although, you know, Matt, if I managed to break you out to come with me, we’d likely last even longer.”
“Feel free to do that, then,” Matt grinned. “As long as I stay in running shape.” Although he was pretty sure if he was in worse condition, Karen would probably come in gun blazing, grab him, and run as much as she could do so while dragging him along, abandoning the plan.
Even now, she gripped his wrist, and growled, “You stay in it.”
There was a pause, and then Pretzel said, “I’ve been trying to know what to make of you, Agent Murdock. You make a show of being the perfect man to your girl here, but I wonder about you and your violence. I think we’ve both had experiences of violent men who insist they’re protecting us already, haven’t we, Agent Page? And if you want to point out that you don’t hit her, well, Vernon doesn’t hit me either.”
“Believe me,” Matt said, because Karen’s shocked reaction didn’t sound like it would let her speak immediately, “you’ve thought nothing about me I haven’t dwelt upon myself.” He didn’t even try to keep the neutral tone he’d always kept around her before that moment; he wanted her to hear his doubt.
He thought she did, because her voice softened a little bit as she said, “Keep thinking about it, Agent Murdock. Someone ought to besides us women.” She’d stood up while speaking, and now she turned on her heel and walked out, neither agent making any attempt to stop her.