When the corridor was empty and Matt could be sure there were no cameras on them, they broke into the vacant suite at the end. In the immediate entrance to it they weren’t visible from any of the windows. The accordion folder had in fact contained food, enabling them to eat during the long wait, after which they took turns napping. Matt slept first, then stood watch as Karen did, as all around them, he listened to the building’s normal inhabitants head home, their workdays over, and then the first people started arriving for the party.
Karen too was awake by the time Matt identified the first of the four names Sharon had flagged on the guest list. Lubov Ashtovka was some sort of Russian businesswomen with too little history and proximity to an unsolved murder that had taken place in Berlin the previous year. According to Karen, her photo showed to be short and very expensively dressed, and Matt could hear some gold bracelets and earrings jangling on her. She seemed to be accompanied by a heavy-sounding man who called her “Madame Ashtovka,” and was talking a lot more than she was.
For the most part he couldn’t hear anything significant from them. Given the ridiculous amount of flattery he was pouring on her, there wasn’t much room for it. But then he heard him say, “Why, Mrs. Castillo! I would’ve thought you’d have come with Mr. Channing!” Katrina Castillo wasn’t one of the flagged names, but Jasper Channing was. He’d worked for Cybertek, a company recently linked to Hydra, from 2009 to 2013, though so far he hadn’t been linked to anything he could be charged for.
“He’s running a little late. I believe we haven’t been introduced, madam?” Introductions, and then a lot of general talk. What both women said about themselves matched what Sharon had had on them, which meant Ashtovka avoided saying much concrete.
In the process the man got identified too, as a certain Harrison Charles, a rich businessman who didn’t seem to have anything out of the ordinary on his record. The more Matt heard him talk, the more he suspected he didn’t have the imagination to be the kind of foe they were currently working against. He was probably boring the ladies with what might, in different hands, had been a pretty exciting tale about a business deal conducted in Athens, where some physical objects he declined to identify went missing about an hour before they were supposed to change hands. He managed to make even the crazy (and ultimately vain) chase around the city, with a group of people half of whom couldn’t speak English very well, sound dull.
Which was why Matt found it interesting that Ashtovka asked so many questions about it, and especially about one of his companions, a man named Orrick Stathos, who’d seemed to have a lot of ideas about where their stolen wares might be. Mrs. Castillo didn’t speak much during that conversation. There was more than one moment where he thought she might have even walked away from them without him realizing it.
They were making their way in with the other guests; the party was now well underway. Matt scanned the other people periodically, and another one of the flagged names arrived, but so far he didn’t seem to be saying or doing anything interesting, and nor did anyone else.
Although eventually even his trio started to move on to other topics. Meanwhile, Karen turned off the lights in the suite and risked a trip to the window, and came back to say, “I think it’s dark enough we can go down a few floors without anyone both spotting us and believing they saw what they thought they saw, if we move fast enough.”
It was only when he’d actually climbed out the window after her that Matt first felt the stab of his hip. He’d put it through plenty of workouts during the past couple of months, of course, but they had all been dictated by a chiropractor and conducted in controlled circumstances. Now, even as, on autopilot, he started scrambling down as fast as he could without a second’s hesitation, he was beset by a mad panic, a thought that he couldn’t do this anymore, a certainty that he was about to let Karen and everyone else down. The pain didn’t get worse, exactly, but it kept pulsing, like getting hit again and again.
It was a terrifying few minutes. Matt might have kept himself sane only by listening to the sounds of Karen scaling down the wall ahead of him. They were on the kind of wall where they didn’t even need rope, although Matt certainly would’ve liked to have it right then. Down to the first floor, and he stumbled through the window when he reached it, but then he was once again standing on the floor, his hip still aching but not to the point where it would seriously hinder him, and Karen said, “The loading dock looked undisturbed so far.” She paused as she looked at him. When he impatiently waved his hand, she asked, “Can you hear anyone there?”
Matt listened. “Not yet.” Then, down below, he heard Mrs. Castillo call, “Jasper! There you are!”
“Ah, Katrina.” Jasper Channing had a very suave voice. “Forgive me for taking so long. An old friend of ours called and kept me a little long.” Matt was concentrated enough to hear their heartbeats, which removed any doubt that this was code.
“I hope he doesn’t call again,” she said. Teasing, but suggested her sentiments were serious.
“I’m afraid it’s that kind of friend, Katrina. But ah, where are our manners? Allow me to introduce myself to your two friends here.”
Matt whispered everything he’d heard so far to Karen as they made the introductions. As he listened to both the words and the other telling sounds he could hear from Jasper Channing and Lubov Ashtovka, he found himself thinking it was unlikely they were in anything together. Their words had a barely concealed disinterest in each other, and what Matt could hear indicated it was genuine on his part, though he wasn’t sure about her; something was odd about her in general. The other flagged name still was saying and doing nothing interesting.
Vernon Platzer and Pretzel Martin also arrived, but Matt didn’t expect much out of them, at least not yet. He wouldn’t be surprised if Platzer refused to directly have anything to with or let his girlfriend directly have anything to do with what was scheduled tonight, especially once the governor arrived.
So when the group broke up, the other three perhaps fleeing another very boring story by Mr. Charles, Matt only vaguely tracked Ashtovka, focusing mainly on Channing and his companion. For a while the two of them said little to each other, even as they continued to keep company, greeting and talking to other people, their words not seeming to have any significance. The final flagged name arrived with a whole crowd of people, possibly hangers-on. He was the sort of man who would have that.
There were still people in some of the other offices. Luckily not within normal hearing range of the one the two of them were in. Nothing suspicious for the most part, just people working late. But it was a little past nine when he heard a phone ring down the hall, and a man answer, “Yes?” The person on the other side of the phone was talking too softly; Matt couldn’t make anything out. “Don’t worry about it, dear, I’ll handle it. I’ll get up and go right now. Love you.”
Sure enough, the man headed straight for the dock. Meanwhile, downstairs, Channing said just a little too loudly, “This room is getting stuffy. Want some fresh air, Katrina?” A moment later, Matt first heard the whir of the motorcycles near the building.
On their way out, they stopped near Platzer for a moment. “Hey,” he said, and Matt heard the rustle of a briefcase. “I know that annoying old lady is going to bother you sometime tonight, so you might as well give her this.”
By the time he’d finished telling Karen everything he’d just heard, he finished, “Outside are half a dozen men, all on motorcycles. Channing and Castillo are up on our floor, and headed for the dock. I think…” He focused in on the clank of metal. “Yeah, they’ve both got guns on them. They’ll be there within the next couple of minutes.”
Karen went to the door, and pushed it open a crack. “You want to follow them with me?” she whispered.
Matt considered it for a moment, then whispered back, “Yeah. I think a few more minutes and I should be able to tell if MacGregor shows up; I wouldn’t be surprised if he does.”
Once upon a time, Matt had driven the people who had designed their current footwear crazy by insisting it wasn’t completely silent. But at least he was the only person in the world who could hear their steps as they slipped out into the hall only moments before their quarry went through the door that led to the loading dock. When it was closed, he whispered to Karen: “The guy from upstairs has gone outside. From his trajectory, I’d say he’s going to meet the motorcyclists there.”
The two of them reached the door just as the motorcyclists pulled up, and Matt was already pretty sure MacGregor wasn’t among them, even before he heard one of the two men they’d heard Pretzel Martin talking to say, “You’re Platzer’s latest? Out of curiosity, is he even on the premises, or was he too chickenshit to even attend the party?”
“The governor would have questions for him if he found him not here. Can we get this over with? We’ll probably find another pair of interested parties at the dock, but hopefully they won’t slow us down too much.”
This news caused grumbling from more than one of the motorcyclists, but they all followed the upstairs man’s lead. Meanwhile, Matt had managed to mentally map out what was just beyond the door in front of them, especially noting the lack of light, if the lack of heat was any indication. “There’s another door before you reach the loading dock,” he whispered to Karen. “Left slightly open. I think you could try to get a peek through it with minimal risk.”
They had just closed the first door behind them when Matt heard footsteps in the hallway they’d just left. They sounded too heavy to be either Platzer or his girlfriend, though. Meanwhile, Karen reached the door, and apparently saw something worth having a picture of; he heard her take her phone out and tap in the commands.
“You two?” The lead motorcyclist apparently recognized Channing and Castillo. He didn’t sound very happy to see them.
“It has come to our attention,” said Mr. Channing, “that Mr. Platzer is currently dealing in the sales of two types of guns that I know of where he and I had a very specific agreement about selling within the States…”
“Neither of which are here tonight,” interrupted the impatient motorcyclist, “and I ain’t involved in what I don’t carry. You see how many fucks I have to give?!”
“Will these make you give more?” asked Mrs. Castillo, and she probably thought the drawing of the guns then as very dramatic.
But the man just laughed, and Matt didn’t hear anything off him to suggest that laugh was covering anything. Still, any kind of confrontation between these people worked to his and Karen’s advantage.
Besides, it did work on the upstairs man, as he promptly said, "No, thank you, I did not sign up for this. Good night." They heard him scurry out, apparently unhindered.
Except that the footsteps back in the corridor were slowing down in a way that suggested their owner was planning to go through the door. Also, he too had a gun on him, a very audible one. “Karen,” he whispered, “I think I should step out into the corridor to deal with someone. I’ll try to make this quick.”
“Do, please,” she responded, and without turning her head, reached her hand back towards his. He took it and squeezed it for a second before letting go.
One thing Matt had tried to carry on him during all missions throughout his career at S.H.I.E.L.D. was a piece of black cloth he could tie around the top of his head to make it hard for anyone to determine who he was afterwards unless they really paid attention to his mouth. Now he took it out of his shirt, and covered the top half of his face. He and Karen had dressed all in black already, and Matt hoped it made him look at least a little menacing.
He kept calm, stood up straight, and lowered and roughened his voice a little, as he stepped out and said, “Good evening, sir. Is there anything I can do for you?”
Metal clanked as the man halted; he had to have his gun drawn and pointed. Unfortunately he wasn’t quite close enough for Matt to just knock it out of his hand, and he wasn’t sure he could’ve done that quickly anyway. “Who are you?”
“I was about to ask the same, sir. My associates expected only certain people to be there, and you don’t look like any of them.” With at least two competing interests on that dock, he could hope that if word of this reached them, each would think he’d been working for the other. Also that none of them actually were expecting this man.
As he stepped up to the man, until he was close enough to more or less perceive the gun, he noted the argument at the dock was getting very loud. Also the motorcyclist was demanding to know if Mr. Channing was “Mr. Dilly.” Channing was denying it.
“Well, I got a word for them,” snapped the man. “Count yourself lucky I’d like you to deliver it; else I would’ve shot you already. Tell them I am from Mr. Platzer, and they’re not taking what’s on that dock anywhere tonight. He’s got a buyer who’ll come for them directly.”
That wasn’t a direct lie. Well, it was probably easier for him and Karen to do something about this contraband if it was left here instead of being moved around.
Except just then they heard Mrs. Castillo shout, “Get your hands off that, you ungrateful…” She was cut off by what sounded like a scuffle, which Matt’s companion probably couldn’t hear, but she’d been audible throughout the floor.
“Never mind…” the other man started, and Matt grabbed his gun and forced it upwards just in time for it to fire into the ceiling. Matt heard it lodge itself below the next floor as he forced the gun out of his opponent’s grip, letting it fly into a wall nearby. “You fool!” he hissed. “If they heard that downstairs…”
They’d definitely heard it in the loading dock. “What was that?” Matt heard the leader of the bikers demand. “You’ve brought some sort of goon with you, just in case we didn’t kowtow and leave without what we came here for? Too delicate to go doing your own dirty work, aren’t you?”
Dimly, Matt could also hear the clicking of a phone; Karen was getting pictures. But that sound was nearly drowned out by the frantic thudding of her heart. He stomped his foot twice, loud as he could, trying to make it look like him trying not to slip. She heard it and recognized the signal that he was unharmed; her heart calmed slightly. Only slightly, though.
It served more than one purpose. The man laughed, and Matt heard him drawing in breath to deliver a taunt. He took advantage, stomping again, this time on his opponent’s foot. The man flailed, but he still proved able to deliver a punch; Matt struggled to stay silent as pain flooded his lower face, though at least none of his teeth came out. He couldn’t quite keep his balance; the man had him against the wall. “You piece of…” Matt cut him off with a hard elbow and broke free.
He heard something rolling along in the floor in the dock, from the door, as if Karen had thrown it. Then he smelled distantly what it was releasing. The people in the door saw it, but they must have not seen where exactly it came from, because he heard Mrs. Castillo cry out, “You bastard!” He heard fast, heavy footsteps; the motorcyclist was running. “These people are crazy!” he heard him yell to his companions. Two thuds; had Mr. Channing and Mrs. Castillo passed out?
He had to break his attention away when his own foe came back at him, yanking his arm so roughly Matt felt the sharp pain of his muscles being pulled too far. He dealt a pair of fast blows with his other fist and a pair of kicks. He heard a couple of cracks when his foot made contact with a knee; he hadn’t broken it, but he had damaged it. But the other man pushed him back to disrupt his balance, then threw himself on top of him as he hit the floor too hard. Matt punched and kicked as best he could, but the man was heavy.
Karen was running into the now deserted dock. Matt hoped she could hold her breath long enough. Then, coming up from downstairs, he heard Vernon Platzer muttering, “He’d better not have forgotten and brought me up here for nothing…”
When his opponent tried to grab Matt’s mask and pull it off, in desperation Matt knocked his head against his. The pain combined with the one already in his jaw to send him near to full agony. But it worked; for a moment he recoiled, and Matt sprung free. It was time to get out of here the only way they could. He turned and ran back the way he’d come, to the loading dock, slamming the door to the corridor behind him a split second before Platzer entered it; Matt heard him swear.
He heard Karen pick what sounded like paper off the floor, then open one of the boxes and pull something light-sounding out as he took a deep breath, then ran into the dock. When she saw him, she tapped the side of her head in coded question; it rung too much in his ears, but he understood it. He shook his, and pointed to where he could feel the outside air; that was their best chance at getting out unseen now.
It should have been all right. The gas was almost dissipated; they were able to breathe in again before Matt even felt that uncomfortable. The two passed out people on the dock were going to stay that way for at least half an hour or so more. The motorcyclists were all on their bikes already, and would be gone by the time there would’ve been any chance of them seeing Matt and Karen in the darkness. Vernon Platzer was storming over to he who Matt was pretty sure was a man of his, and was unlikely to leave that hallway anytime soon. Not to mention the governor was now pretty much due to arrive, so when he did leave, it would have to be to go back downstairs.
They got out of the building with the motorcyclists driving away, and Matt didn’t think they were going to look back. They had this area mapped out, and Matt could hear which way they were going. In a moment, he’d start heading down the other way. The worst of his various pains were fading. A couple of minutes and they’d be able to talk, Karen could clarify for him what she was holding, and they could start figuring out a way to get it back to their apartment…
He heard the running up behind them of heels, and not the ones Mrs. Castillo had been wearing. For a moment he thought Lubov Astakhova, but then he smelt the opioids and recognized the breathing, as well as the rattle of the necklace she was wearing. It was Pretzel Martin.
“Vernon?” he heard her call a second later. “Vernon! Where are you? Please, the Goldsmith himself called me-” She came to an abrupt halt, and he knew she’d seen them. Karen knew too; he heard her turn around.
There was a moment of silence, and then Pretzel said, confused, “You’re Karina Silver. And you have that envelope Vernon gave Mr. Channing.” So that was what she’d picked up off the floor.
Also the Goldsmith was still watching the videos, and at least this minion had seen enough of them to identify Karen immediately. Now wasn’t the time to get angry, Matt reminded himself, but it was hard. Especially since having this girl here, smelling those drugs, and hearing that frightened, overwhelmed voice, brought him right back to that basement, and when the woman by his side had been that girl.
Before he could think past that, Karen said, “Come with us. We could do with talking to you.” Or at least with keeping her from telling her boyfriend about them. Winning her over to their side probably was the best way to do that. There was only one other way Matt could think of, and he sure wasn’t doing that one if they could at all help it.
“Why should I want to help you?” But of course it wasn’t that easy.
“Think about it, Ms. Martin,” he said. “Are you happy as you are right now? Living with an older man who I don’t think always treats you right…”
“If you just assumed he hits me…”
“I’m not saying I think he hits you, I’m saying I don’t think he always treats you right. Also, do you like doing everything the Goldsmith tells you to? I bet you’re afraid of him all the time, aren’t you? Do you like that?”
“Of course not,” she said, then shook her head so hard her hair whapped against her ears. “But that doesn’t mean I’m going to help you.”
Except she was sauntering forward, presumably intending to deliver her message up close. Perhaps unconsciously giving them the chance, or maybe she simply hadn’t thought it through.
When she wasn’t even armed, or at all capable of hand to hand, it was ridiculously easy. Matt did it, mostly so Karen wouldn’t have to, grabbing her by the arms, keeping hold, and dodging her attempts to kick. “Come back with us,” he said. “I won’t hurt you if you agree to.”
“No way in Hell!” she screeched, too loud. She’d screamed further, Matt knew, and reluctantly he zeroed in on the spot of her skull that hitting wouldn’t permanent damage, got a fist free, and hit her just hard enough to knock her out. He thought it made both the pains in his head worse again.
“Come on,” he said, lifting her up. “Someone or other probably heard that and we need to be out of here right now.”
Into the night the two of them ran, Matt not finding it all hard to do so even with his burden. The girl weighed far too little, even beyond what he would’ve expected.
They kept to the shadows as much as they could, Karen leading through alleyways, Matt listening for deserted blocks. Two blocks in, and Pretzel’s phone buzzed in her pocket. Karen took a look, and said, “The Goldsmith has called Platzer. Wants to speak to him right now. The governor's just arrived, and he's made his excuses to him.” That news made both their hearts pound, but she said, “Well, at least we’ll have plenty of time to talk to her. He tells her not to wait up for him, and if the Goldsmith’s anything like he was, he won’t be back home for hours yet.”
At one point while waiting at one corner for a young couples to turn another, Karen tore the envelope open. Matt listen to the paper crinkle as she studied it, before saying, “This is in code. Maybe she’ll decode it for us?”
Pretzel started to stir as they approached their apartment building, and then stopped. Matt listened into the lobby, looking for the concierge, and smiled. “He’s on the phone. We stumble in, act drunk, he won’t look too closely.”
They entered the lobby with Pretzel, still not entirely awake, hanging between them as they leaned on each other, Karen carefully pressing her stolen item between herself and their captive to keep it mostly out of sight. “I can never take you anywhere,” Karen announced to the world with the perfect tone of drunken annoyance she’d used once before, during a mission in Halifax a very long time ago. “You always get some drunken woman who won’t leave us alone…”
“It’s not my fault,” Matt protested back. “We couldn't just leave her there, could we? And I swear, she’s just going on the couch to sleep it off, and the minute we can get someone to call out of her, they’re coming to pick her up.” He heard a little bit of movement at the desk; he thought the concierge glanced at them, but no more. No reaction from Karen, so obviously he wasn’t doing anything alarming.
“Well, next time,” Karen continued as they reached the elevator, “Don’t let any young woman follow you outside until we at least know…”
The elevator doors clicked shut, so she could stop talking then. “She’s almost fully awake,” Matt advised her. “I’m not sure how we’re going to get her down the hallway.”
“Hold on tight and move fast?”
But Pretzel made no attempt to escape them, even though Matt was dead certain she was fully awake by the time they reached their floor. She didn’t even say anything until they were in the apartment, when she said, “Torture doesn’t work, remember.” Sadly, she didn’t sound like she actually believed that, even in her voice, let alone her heartbeat.
“We’re not going to torture you, Ms. Martin,” said Matt. “We kind of feel like we shouldn’t have to, you see. In fact, Karen, can you tell me if she looks hungry?” As he asked, he reached out and touched her hand, nothing that looked deliberate.
But he could tell just from how Karen inhaled the message had taken: the answer to the question was absolutely yes. She might have even been able to hear the girl’s stomach growling herself. “You do look like you could do with something to eat. Let me put some leftovers in the microwave.” They’d been saving those for after the mission anyway, and they were pretty sure there was enough for three.
While it warmed up, she picked up the weapon, saying, “I think I’ll take this out of her reach. Could you help me carry it?”
It was as light as it had sounded; that was just as excuse for Matt to feel it directly. He’d noted mostly that it was made of metal and that it had a very hot power cell. Now, as he ran his hands around it, tapped his fingers slightly to listen to the echoes, he noted it was a bit clumsily put together around that cell, as if the manufacturer hadn’t been sure how to do such a thing. That implied dangerous experimental weaponry. Of course, he couldn’t say anything to Karen yet.
Except Pretzel then said, “I’ll tell you one thing, but only because I don’t want to get blown up. Be careful with that thing. I actually don’t know what’s in it, exactly, but I have been told very firmly it could destroy everything in here.”
Well, Matt, thought, that was a start. An alarming one, though not exactly a surprising one.