As Karen had previously heard, the Goldsmith had lived quietly for three years under his new name, mostly off the proceeds of his porn videos. Matt could only imagine just how much it burned Karen to learn how much money he was even today making off what he’d once had her do. It made him burn, he knew, and far too much. One thing he’d continually fantasized about had been somehow, when he was a lawyer, either forcing him to shut down all together, or to at least take the videos with her in them down. He knew the paperwork he’d made her sign had to have been airtight, and even the circumstances in which she’d done so wouldn’t get a court to do anything, but still he’d dreamed of it.
Sharon now believed he’d been induced back into his old life by a Hydra mole within the CIA. She wasn’t even sure whether he’d initially known the man, who was now dead of cancer, was either CIA or Hydra. None of them had found any evidence that he’d known the truth about who he’d been working with when S.H.I.E.L.D. had first taken him down. “If he doesn’t know now, though,” the screenreader recited to them, “then he’s a damn fool.”
They had known from the communications monitor that most of the Goldsmith’s current dealings were in the weapons trade rather than the drug one, which made sense, considering his clients. But Sharon had found patterns, locations and dates for when she was pretty sure someone at the CIA had enabled him to ship them, even made guesses as to where she thought it likely other ones had happened. He’d had a direct hand in dealings that stretched from Baltimore to Halifax. She’d included in the file a list of cities where she thought Hydra presence was still unusually strong. Burlington was among them. So were multiple other cities where the Goldsmith was active. New York City was among those, but Matt didn’t think much of that; it would’ve been more surprising if such a widespread affair hadn’t passed through the city multiple times.
She also provided the details of an aide to the governor who was definitely affiliated with the CIA, and probably also affiliated with Hydra. They were making their way through Pennsylvania and considering their options for where to stop and eat their lunch as they listened through the details about him. Name of Vernon Platzer. Forty-one years of age, white, native to Illinois. Had been in Burlinton for nine years, in various positions that gave him access to power without officially holding it. Along with his height of 5’7” and his weight of 155 pounds, Sharon also mentioned some permanent damage in the bones of his left wrist that Matt might be able to easily identify him by, although there was a photo on the flash drive as well.
Then the screen reader, neutral as ever, said, “For the past year, he has been dating a young woman named Pretzel Martin. She is twenty years old, and has more or less lived with him since she dropped out of the University of Vermont four months ago. I can confirm she has been in contact with Obderbrowski at least five times, meeting with him on the University campus, and that she has taken heroin. I advise you to remember, however, that Obderbrowski does not have nearly as much access to that drug as he used to, and I don’t think it likely he is keeping very many minions in line with it the way he once did.”
“He has enough for one, though,” said Karen, her voice dark and almost deadly. “We already have that much confirmed.”
“Would he use it on this, though?” asked Matt gently, pausing the screen reader. “On a girl he’d be using just to keep control of a CIA guy? He could do that just as easily with money and blackmail.”
“That probably wouldn’t be all she’s doing, then,” said Karen. “And if he doesn’t have as many as he used to, he might be making her do so much…”
When they listened through her physical description, her height and weight and long blonde hair, Karen commented, “Wow, just his type.” Matt thought he might have been able to hear her shudder even if his senses hadn’t been heightened.
She did so again when they finally pulled into a rest stop and ate their sandwiches, which also gave her an opportunity to look at the photos. “Are we sure he hasn’t started making new porn videos?” she asked. “She’s just the sort of kid he’d put in front of his cameras.”
“I’m sure Sharon checked for it,” said Matt.
Sharon had also provided them with Platzer’s anticipated schedule for the upcoming two weeks. They reached that shortly after they got back on the road. The governor was attending a high-profile charity event that Friday night. In front of the details Sharon had typed “HIGHLIGHT.” As the screen reader went on and on about the location and the guest list and the layout of the building, Matt knew Karen was putting it all together in her head same as he was. They were both coming to the same conclusion Sharon had: there was a good chance he would be doing clandestine work for the Goldsmith there. There were four names there Sharon had flagged. One of them was someone she was dead certain even handled the weapons, and it was even possible they might hide some in the building that night.
“So we’ve got three days to figure out how to get into that building, preferably into that party.” The former Matt was pretty sure they could do, though the latter might be trickier. “Although if they do have weapons, we won’t in position to steal most of them.”
“We need to get into phone range, then,” said Karen. “Take pictures, recordings…even if we’re not initially sure what to do with them, if we can just figure that part out afterwards, maybe even ask Sharon for advice…” It was a pity, of course, that they hadn’t been able to get their hands on any proper recording devices, and buying what was on the open market carried some risks of being noticed, but they could always use their phones.
There were other details and other things Sharon had written about; she really had been as thorough as possible. They had gotten off 95 and on the highway to Burlington before they were finally done listening. “Do you remember ever being in this part of the state?” Matt asked Karen after he had turned the laptop off. He could tell they were in a rural area, but that was all.
“If I was on this highway? It probably was something I’m trying to forget.”
A short while later they were surrounded by more people, and Matt was pretty sure they were in city limits even before Karen said, “All right, I’m about to get off the highway.” The car swerved as she took the exit; Matt noted with concern how fast her heart was going. Up the exit ramp, another turn, and then there were surrounded by buildings, city traffic going as its normal pace, pedestrians mere feet away from them. “Welcome to Burlington,” she said. “Back in 2010 Forbes called it one of the prettiest towns in America. I can try describing some of the more remarkable buildings to you if you want.”
“A lot of them are old, aren’t they?” asked Matt. “I can sort of smell that in the air, what they’re made of…” He breathed in deep. The air was not unpleasant. He could tell there were trees everywhere, both by the smells and by the sounds they were making. As they drove north, the sounds and smells of Lake Champlain too filled his senses.
“Pity we’re not going to drive past the cathedral on Allen Street. I’m not even sure what kind of brick it’s made of exactly, but it’s definitely old. I’ll take you to Christ the King Church tomorrow, though; that’ll be the closest place you can attend mass at, if we stay here long. You can even walk there.” Matt was grateful she’d looked that up; he’d been attending mass a lot more since S.H.I.E.L.D. fell, and it had gone a long way towards helping him get through these past months.
She named the roads as they turned on them; he painted the mental map in his head, sketching out the grid of streets as he tracked the cars that went down them. He had it pretty much committed to memory by the time Karen turned off the street and into a parking lot, and added, “And here we are. Goodness, Matt, I wish you could see this scenery. I know you know what’s there, but…”
“Yeah,” he agreed. It was especially a pity when the location of this apartment building had made this an expensive lease. But they knew the Goldsmith had at least two accomplices living in it, and they’d even managed to get an apartment two floors directly above theirs.
Matt tried to search their apartment out as they got the keys and started the process of moving in, letting Karen do the talking and lead him around. But doing that in a place he’d never been before was never easy, and the long hours in the car listening to the huge amount of information Sharon had provided them with had tired him out. He completely failed to get any idea of the apartment’s location until they were stepping into it for the first time, Karen describing it to him as they took a walk around. Even then, the people just below them had their TV on, loud enough to make it harder to listen further down, and Matt could hear nothing. He thought it likely their quarry weren’t at home.
He finally gave up in favor of concentrating on the task of getting all their things moved in. That took another couple of hours, but at last it was done. They made the bed last, and then collapsed upon it. Matt reached over and carelessly slapped the alarm clock, which informed them it was 7:41 P.M. He took a quick listen to both of their stomachs, and then said, “We need to eat. There’s got to be take-out we can send for, right?”
“Let me see,” said Karen, and fumbled about for her phone, trying to remember where they’d plugged them in. She found it and then settled against him, not protesting at all as one of his arms wrapped around her. Matt listened contentedly to the sound of her tapping out commands, and found himself fantasizing that this wasn’t just a temporary place in Burlington, but a permanent home in New York, where he knew she would stay. At least they’d turned their TV off downstairs, there was nothing below them now but some low chatter and someone vacuuming on the ground floor…
And then, the sound of a door closing, and a female voice saying, “We have to call him. He’ll probably find out anyway, since Pretzel was there, and it’s better if he hears it from us first.”
“If you insist,” said her male companion, who would be Oscar Alkawitz. “But you can be the one to call him.”
“So, Matt,” Karen started, “do you want Thai-” But Matt hastily cut her off with his finger to his lips, as down below, the woman, Alice Broom, as her name was, took out her phone and placed the call.
“Sir,” she said, bluntly, but even from two floors up Matt could hear the tiny tremble in her voice, “I need to talk to the Goldsmith. I need him to be on the phone to say this to him directly. It’s that kind of news. Thank you. Good evening, sir.” Matt strained, but he couldn’t tell what the Goldsmith way saying to her on the phone. He could sort of hear his voice, a low ominous murmur coming from the phone, but he talked too softly. “We just got back from a meeting with Mr. Platzer, and he now thinks someone from his own organization is onto him.”
Matt let out a little reaction to that, a little “Oh,” that he knew Karen understood the general gist of. Her heart pounded in response, although he also thought he heard her resume tapping her phone, maybe now getting them food without further input from him.
“I don’t think it’s true,” Broom said, and even without trying to get a listen on her heartbeat, Matt was pretty sure she was lying. The Goldsmith could probably tell too. “But he’s now refusing to bring the shipment in Friday night. At the very least, he wants the arrival place changed. Preferably to the other side of town, he said.” Something angry from the Goldsmith; Matt thought he heard the word can’t. “I know, sir. I’m hoping if we can vet the guest list, although believe me, sir, I know how hard that’s going to be in the limited time, we might be able to persuade him to let us go as planned.” The Goldsmith just got louder. Matt could hear phrases now: two months planning this and too much has slipped through our fingers and he can answer to those motorcyclists following by ten hours or so all the way up from DC.
He breathed deep in and out to keep himself from reacting, to keep his concentration on the phone conversation. Broom was now discussing when she and Alkawitz next expected to meet with Platzer: the next day, around lunchtime, in the black café, which Matt was pretty sure was code. Still, Karen could drive around the area just to search for likely candidates after she took him to the church. He could even skip that and go with her.
Broom ended the call, and Alkawitz said, “You think they might clear the entire crowd out of DC? I heard whoever MacGregor and his crew were after have finally left town. They never got near them after they got away when S.H.I.E.L.D. went up, from what I understand.”
“Probably,” sighed Broom. “Even though just having the majority of them here is bad enough. That man’s insufferable, and so is that right-hand man of his, and they’re even worse when they’ve just failed at something. They’ll probably insist whoever their targets were are a lot more dangerous than they actually are. And if we then have to keep track of every last one of their thugs let loose in Burlington…”
They had already learned from one of their fellow former agents that the leader of that motorcycle gang was named Craig MacGregor, though Matt didn’t even need that to be pretty sure they were talking about him and Karen. That only confirmed that they’d both long thought. More alarming was the news that group might be in town. Although it was good, he supposed, that the two people they were spying on the most had no idea who they were.
He ended up not getting much more from Alkawitz and Broom then. It seemed they’d talked all they wanted to about their job, and soon descended into an argument about what to watch on TV. He told Karen what he had heard as she put her shoes on and prepared to go out to pick up their food. Her heels were shaky as she headed out of the building, so subtly Matt wasn’t sure even she realized it.
By the time she got back they were both starving. She’d gone with the Thai food, and for the first ten minutes they were too busy eating to talk. Then Matt, who'd had plenty of time to think about it by then, said, “I think it’s odd that we never even detected any sign of MacGregor and his motorcyclists trying to get to us again. I even listened to every motorcycle that came near my parents’ house whenever I was there; I heard nothing in the least suspicious. They never even tried to steal back the motorbike we stole from the police after they took it as evidence. Do you think they might not have been trying very hard?”
“Seems likely,” said Karen. “Although they did know a lot about who we were, more than necessarily always told. Then again, their boss might not have told them everything they know. If the Goldsmith’s been working with any of his old associates, even briefly, my name almost certainly made the gossip rounds. They might have even known who you were because you were the one who took me out. And I think it’s pretty clear already the Goldsmith is only working with Hydra, not for them. That might have kept them from seeing any S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, even me, from being that big a deal.”
Either way, it was obvious no one would be looking for them for a while. Unless they did something reckless. “Guess we can’t try to crash the actual party Friday,” he observed. “We’ll have to be careful even infiltrating the building.”
“We could try to scout it out first, though,” said Karen. “If nothing else, you could just walk slowly past it.”
“Thursday,” Matt decided. “We’ll go together, get an outside visual too at least.”
“From the sound of it, too,” he muttered to her. “Corridors thinner than usual, I think. Maybe larger corner offices.” Unfortunately the party itself was going to be held on the basement level. That was harder for Matt to map out. But it didn’t take him long to zero in and gauge the state of the building’s loading dock, and how many crates and such surrounded it. If activity in that area of the building went down Friday night, Matt thought one could keep contraband there for a least most of the night, maybe even a day or so, with minimal risk of discovery.
The elevators in the building weren’t well kept; he knew from the facts that they weren’t that old, but they moved like they were. The freight elevator, near the dock, was no exception. More suites in the building than usual were vacant, which was potentially useful for their quarry, but was definitely even more useful for them, even though more of them were on upper floors than not. When the wind picked up, Matt heard it move enough on the roof to conclude people probably went up there at least a few times a week, although no one was there right now.
They were walking past the entrance, and Matt knew they were there even before Karen confirmed it with a whisper, “Two of the men from that motorcycle gang. Turn around now.”
Neither said another word as they turned and walked the other way fast as they could manage without looking suspicious. “It’s all right,” Matt whispered back when they had the entire building between them and the bikers. “They’re absorbed in their conversation with each other. Irrelevant words you really don’t need to hear.” It embarrassed him, to put it mildly, to hear it himself. “They didn’t notice us.”
“Oh!” Karen’s attention was taking by a young woman walking past them, not paying attention to them. “Matt,” she whispered, “I think that’s Pretzel Martin.”
“He’s sending her to deal with those guys?” Matt felt sorry for her. Especially since he could smell opioids on her, and a lot of them.
“Typical enough of him,” she muttered back, and he squeezed her hand. This was a piece of luck, he reminded himself. They hadn't been able to locate the "black cafe," and Broom and Alkawitz hadn't said much that was of use to them since that first evening.
The comments the two men greeted her with were less than sweet. Her reaction to them wasn’t audible to Matt’s ears. “Listen up,” she said. “There’s been talk about the shipment. We’re still bringing it here tomorrow night, but we’re not doing it until eleven at least. And Vernon doesn’t want MacGregor here; he’s too familiar to too many authorities.”
“Well, baby,” one of the men growled, “Why doesn’t he come to us to tell us that himself? Why isn’t he going to talk to MacGregor, hmm? Is he that much of a pussy?” The way he purred that last word was sickening.
Pretzel still wasn’t reacting. She was reading to Matt as almost unnaturally disconnected from her surroundings. “He thinks it would be a bad idea to be spotted in where you usually are. We should meet in places like these as much as possible from now, though not in this particular place again.” Matt could hear the men bristling at that. “He tells me to remind you that if you are arrested and try to betray him, he knows important people who will make sure your claims are dismissed.” There was no telling, Matt supposed, whether that was true or not. He didn’t even try to determine whether or not she believed it; her heart was too unnaturally steady.
“Really?” scoffed the other man. “Maybe MacGregor might end up having a little message for him.”
“Call the number, then. You know which one. Good day.”
One of the two men was muttering things under his breath about maybe next time they wouldn’t let her go so easily, but they did this time. She walked back the way she had come, which meant past them again. Matt kept a tight hold of Karen’s hand. He knew she wanted to go to that girl right now, do something, anything, to get her out of her current situation. But now wasn’t the time; they both knew that. He listened to the easy click of the girl’s platforms and the desperate hiss of Karen trying to hold herself in and keep quiet. Her heart beat out a symphony of pain.
She wasn’t slowing down any, or otherwise acting like she was on the lookout for a car. Matt considered his options, then whispered, “Karen, if I leave you here, will you be all right?”
“Yes, I think so,” she said, and her heart was calming down. “I’ll just…stand here a while.”
He pressed a quick kiss to the side of her eye, the kind that always helped soothe her. Then he jumped onto the adjoining dumpster, and from there to the roof.
It was harder than he thought it would be; the part of his body that had been broken earlier in the year was definitely going to be sore later. It was a good thing his quarry wasn’t going very fast, so he didn’t have to either. Maybe he should have even brought Karen up here with him, but she probably wouldn’t have been of much help; the girl was walking way to close to the buildings for her to be able to see her.
She did start to slow down after a few blocks, but even then it was gradual, and more likely a sign of fatigue then anything else. From what he could tell, she was headed in the general direction of the water, although that would be quite a long walk.
But she finally did stop, and stand in front of a part of the building where Matt thought there had to be a door. Her heart and breathing quickened slightly, and he thought he heard her fists clenched.
The door opened, a male voice, “Hey, babe,” and the sound of kissing. Matt listened, and, yes, there was the damaged wrist, grinding away. He took a moment to really focus on the sound and commit it to memory.
They stepped inside. Matt settled himself down onto the roof as quietly as possible. They were taking the stairs up. “How’d it go?” asked Platzer.
“They were mad,” she said. She was trying to sound blasé, but not quite managing.
Her boyfriend noticed. “What did they say to you?” he asked. His voice was threatening, too much so.
“Oh,” she was trying to brush it off. “Just usual nonsense and threats. They wanted you to talk to them yourself.”
“What?!” Not as harmless a revelation as she’d no doubt been hoping, especially when Matt heard his fist hitting a wall. “What did you say to that?”
Her answer was only slightly stammered, but that spoke worlds to Matt. He heard her open a door, go into some room. Platzer’s footsteps as he followed her were too loud; so was his slamming the door behind him. “They’d better not call me just to insult me,” he growled. “They’d get us all caught, the idiots. Did you tell them that, at least?”
“I…I didn’t think of that.”
“You silly girl.” He whacked the table. “You all better not get me caught. I can make sure none of you ever set foot outside of a prison again. Now come over here and help me shred these.”
Matt listened for a little while longer, but there wasn’t any further real conversation between the two of them as the shredder-a cheap, portable one, he thought-worked away, just occasional further dark mutterings. Eventually he gave up, making his way down to the street, where he could ask passersby to tell him what the street signs said. Although before he walked out, he paused to listen to his phone messages. Karen had texted him to report she’d gotten a look at and photograph of the outside of the loading dock, and was headed back to the apartment.
He heard her there when, too much time later really, he walked into their building. On the way up he listened into the apartment below them. It sounded like Broom was out, and Alkawitz was watching a baseball game. By the time he stepped into the corridor, the smell of Karen’s lasagna was making his mouth water. He still wasn’t sure she’d ever cooked that for anyone outside him and his family.
“You going to call your mother tonight?” she asked as he came in. Her voice was a little tense; she was still rattled from the day’s events. “Tell her about the church, maybe?”
“Probably,” said Matt. “You want me to ask her any questions about how anyone’s doing?”
“It’s only been a couple of days,” she laughed, genuine for that moment. But he can pretty much hear her cheer drop as she bends down to examine how the lasagna’s coming. “Did you get anything?” she asked.
He related it all as calmly and as simply as he could. Even so, she was trembling a bit by the end. “I suppose the less they’re getting along, the better,” she commented.
Matt had to go over to her, then. “Is there anything…” he started.
“I don’t know,” she sighed. “Just…maybe stay here?”
When he cautiously placed his arms on either side of her, she leaned back and they kissed, slow and deep. They weren’t going to do more than this, tonight, Matt thought, but oh, Jesus, it felt good.