“And believe me,” Karen added as she rejoined them, “We know how forgiving the Goldsmith is to those who spill his secrets. You need our help now.”
Pretzel squeezed her eyes shut tight enough for Matt to hear distinctly, and he smelled saline. “I can’t…it’s too late.”
“It’s not,” said Matt. “I’ve been studying the law a little. Someone like you? Can easily get a plea bargain, a place in witness protection, in exchange for testimony. You could bring this guy down, and the authorities will know it.” For a moment he entertained the thought it might genuinely be that simple. But no, he knew, Karen and he had work to do to make sure the authorities did the right and honest thing.
But she just whimpered in her throat, and the first tears trickled down. “Do they really? You don’t really know…to them, I’m just a no-good delinquent, wanting my damn smack so much I’m willing to…” She cut herself off, choked up.
Matt heard Karen place her hand on Pretzel’s head as she said, “The Goldsmith hasn’t changed his methods that much. I know exactly what it's like to be willing to do anything for a drug fix. You should’ve realized that, if you saw any of my later videos.”
“You were different…” Pretzel started, but suddenly, down below, Matt heard the whir of motorcycles in the parking lot. Not necessarily them, he reminded himself. But then, two floors below them, he also heard the buzzing of a pager, following by Alice Broom grumbling, “If something else has gone wrong tonight I don’t even want to…” and meanwhile, outside, Matt heard the familiar voice of Craig MacGregor saying, “Hope she responds before it starts raining out here, I just…” His phone went off, and the volume on it was so low Matt found himself getting down on the floor before he remembered Broom was closer to him anyway.
Karen had taken the piece of paper out, but now she stopped and asked, “Matt?”
Matt paused another moment, because now another voice was started to speak, one he hadn’t heard here in Burlington or back in DC, but one he thought he had heard all those years ago, the first time he’d come to Vermont. He wished Karen could hear it; she would’ve been sure. It was a gnarly voice, one he couldn’t make out all his words, though he thought he was saying something about a waste of time. It kept him down on the floor. “I….I think I hear…” he started.
“Ms. Broom,” MacGregor was saying into the phone. “We believe you and Mr. Alkawitz may be compromised. There’s a rumor going around the old blonde and the blind man from DC are in the city, and we have a report of two people who match their descriptions coming out of your building. We’re outside it right now, and we’re going to see if we can identify their car. It’ll probably be a rental. We also think it’s possible they might have tried to intervene in the pickup tonight. Platzer had a man knocked out and we can’t figure out who did it. There was also some craziness at the dock itself, although that might not have been them. They try to come back here, we’ll be waiting.”
Matt couldn’t keep the alarm off of his face, bad enough to get a reaction out of Karen, and Pretzel, too, began breathing quicker, clearly able to tell something was very wrong. But he couldn’t speak yet, because he had to concentrate to hear Broom’s soft-spoken response: “You want me to try to find them, if they’re in here right now? I’m pretty sure they’re not on our floor, but I can go on the other ones, figure out some reason to claim for why I’m looking for them.”
When he heard MacGregor agree, Matt said, “We need to get out of here if we can, and I’m not sure how to.”
“WHAT?!” Pretzel’s reaction was so loud Matt feared Broom might have heard it two flights down. Karen simply asked, “What’s the situation?”
When Matt had explained it, she said, “Okay, the car’s not an obvious rental. Maybe we’ll even be lucky and they’ll search for a DC license plate.” They had, of course, turned in the car they’d driven up from DC and rented another one. “Maybe we’ll be really lucky and assume we’re out when they don’t find it.”
“We can’t rely on that.” Downstairs, Broom was calling Alkawitz. He might keep her talking for a bit of time, but likely not too long. She would probably start with the floors right above and below them; that bought them a bit more time. It might even take a bit more to get someone on their floor both answering their door and willing to tell her where on it the two of them were. “We need to not be in this apartment before she gets up to this floor.”
“If she breaks in and finds the apartment empty,” asked Pretzel, “won’t everyone think you two have to be out?”
“Not necessarily,” said Matt. He didn’t know how much these people had studied his leaked profile and learned about his senses, though Broom downstairs was making no attempt to speak quietly as she talked with Alkawitz, even though she ought to have realized he might hear her.
“It’s worth a shot,” said Karen. “We go up to the roof and stay in the middle, no one should be able to see us from the ground.”
“And what if they look up there?” Pretzel protested.
“Have a better idea, Ms. Martin?” Matt responded. “I don’t.”
They gathered up all the cash they had on hand as well as their laptop and other electronics, and Karen re-secured their stolen weapon. Pretzel followed them up to the roof without protest, and they were up there before Broom had even left her apartment. “The motorcyclists are spread out,” he said. “It would be hard for us to get out without someone spotting us, at least right now. Maybe it’ll be better in a few hours, especially if it does rain. Which I definitely think it will likely do, by the way, but probably not hard enough to interfere with visibility.”
“And where will you go?” asked Pretzel. “You two aren’t coming with me.”
“We’ll figure that out. Meanwhile, we’ve got nothing better to do besides continue our conversation from downstairs.”
Karen barely needed the encouragement. “As I was about to say, I know you’ve probably done more than I did. But I know there’s a limit to how much you could have done, because the Goldsmith isn’t even doing as much as he used to. Also, I know how he views women, especially young ones. There are things he’d only rely on you for as a last resort. Plus I know a good deal about your boyfriend, who seems to me to be even worse in that regard.”
“Vernon doesn’t know all that I’ve done,” Pretzel said with a very bitter laugh. “For very good reason.” That, obviously, was the likely nature of some of the tasks he was in the dark about, but those might not be the most important ones. “Although he doesn’t even know where those weapons are bound, because he hasn’t needed to. Even I only know…” She stops for a moment, catching herself, then apparently decides to go all in, “know that they’re bound for some South American country. I also heard something about S.H.I.E.L.D. confiscating some sort of prototype.” They could try looking in the records for a likely culprit, but Matt had the feeling that might be more trouble than it was worth. They wouldn’t have the resources to do anything to them anyway.
Down below, Broom was going door to door on the floor right under hers, reciting some speech about old friends and how excited she was about seeing “Karina” again. His fists clenched. Just how many people had watched those videos? So far no one willing to talk had been able to tell Broom much.
“Do you know how they’re being taken that far?” Karen was continuing the interrogation. “The motorcyclists can’t take them that far, can they?”
“I don’t know if they’re even taking them through all of Burlington. I don’t know for sure who was supposed to get them tonight, but it might be the trucks of this furniture company we’ve got agents at.”
Matt had also been listening to MacGregor’s men reporting there were no rental cars in the parking lot, and him explaining what was going on to a couple members of the gang. “You trust this to Alice?” one of them asked, incredulously. “Do you know how much of a commotion that woman can make? If Murdock is in the building, there’s no way he won’t hear her.”
“I don’t think they’re in the building,” said MacGregor. “I’ve been thinking about who might have taken out Harville. Platzer described his wounds. It looks like they weren’t done with weapons, which the girl would’ve needed to knock him unconscious, so I think that was Murdock. If the car’s not here, I suppose that means the girl has to be with him, since his profile says the crazy senses don’t give him the ability to drive, and they haven’t gotten back yet. I think we’re probably going to end up setting up an ambush in their apartment.”
His overconfidence just might get the three of them out of this, Matt thought. “I don’t think we’re going to be able to go back to the apartment tonight,” he said. They knew of his and Karen’s abilities to fight; they’d pack the apartment with every man they could spare. The two of them would need a firm plan for dealing with that. “But we might be able to sneak out of the building.” When he repeated what MacGregor had said, Karen agreed. “Could you get us to these trucks?” she asked Pretzel.
“That’s actually a good idea,” said Pretzel. “I might even be able to get a ride back to my apartment from there. The men there won’t question my being there, especially not on a night where so much has gone wrong.”
“Maybe we should try an interrogation of them,” Matt said. “We don’t want either Platzer or the Goldsmith hearing a claim they authorized it, of course, but make it ambiguous who sent you and that might buy us as much time as we need. Ask the right questions, and we can learn a lot.”
He could tell by Pretzel’s reaction that this was something she really didn’t want to do, and nodded very slightly towards Karen. She might have been able to tell on her own anyway, and she said, “How much do you hate talking to those guys? I remember I always hated delivering messages, the way they would usually react. But I did feel better when I got to demand to know things, sometimes. It was an ugly satisfaction, seeing them frightened, but…of course, I usually got to do that when they were the ones who had screwed things up.” That was all perfectly true.
It had its effect. Meanwhile, down below, Broom was on their floor, and talking to the old lady three doors down, who was giving her the information she needed. She was also chattering on about a number of things, apparently unaffected by Broom’s attempts to cut her off. Matt took some satisfaction on their foe being aggravated, but the delay actually didn’t help them any. The sooner everyone was gathered in their apartment, leaving as few people outside as possible, the better.
Except it did give them more time to talk to Pretzel. “Ms. Martin,” Matt said to her. “What do you think about what’s happening here? What the Goldsmith’s doing?”
“Oh, of course I know that’s bad. I’m not…” She sighed. There was a moment where Matt truly was back in that basement. “And I know that if those weapons really are going to South America, they’re probably going to be used by some evil military dictator or something. But do you really think you can stop these people, just the two of you?”
“We can try,” said Matt. “And we’re not the only people in the world who are on a mission to take people like this down. None of the others who are may be chasing the Goldsmith at the moment, but with some solid evidence and words to the right people we can change that. But we need your help.”
Pretzel started to walk to the edge of the roof. “Careful,” Matt warned her, “you’ll be seen.” So she stopped, and just stood there, maybe trying to listen to the gang members below. They let her stew. Down below, Broom finally got away from the old lady and went straight to their door. As she banged on the door, heard no response, and got her tools out for breaking the lock (and that humming was definitely from something advanced), Matt kept himself calm, focused partly on Karen’s controlled breathing as she did the same, even as he relayed to her an account of what was going on. Broom did a quick search of the apartment, but they’d made sure there’d been no obvious signs of their having been there only half an hour ago. As they’d hoped, she immediately called up MacGregor and said, “They’re not here.”
But down below, MacGregor said, “I don’t like it. Why haven’t they come back here yet? No way they stayed at the party if it was Murdock who socked out Harville.”
“Maybe they’re worried about being tracked?” Broom suggested. “They could be driving around the city.”
“Or,” said MacGregor, “you might have made enough of a commotion that Murdock heard you, and they’ve fled to some other part of the building, and if that’s the case, he’s probably actively listening to everything we say right now, and it’s going to be hard to track them down.”
And then, Broom, “According that old lady, they haven’t really gotten to know the neighbors. The only place they’re likely to flee to would be the roof. I’ll do a quick check right now.”
He had to tell the two women immediately, of course. Even though Pretzel naturally panicked badly, her whimpers nearly drowned out by her heels as she staggered to and fro, and Karen hastily repeated Matt’s warning about being seen as Matt himself tried to size up the roof.
“The only structure on here is the entrance, right?” He tried to ask it of Karen quietly. When she confirmed it, he said, “All right. We need to keep Broom from seeing Ms. Martin no matter what. She sees either of us, we need to just get out of the building as fast as possible. Our best chance is probably to knock her out; they’ll wonder why she hasn’t called and eventually come up to find out, of course, but it still buys us time, especially if they start all converging on the apartment before they decide to investigate. Ms. Martin, hide behind the entrance. Karen, where do you think it would be best for the two of us to stand?”
Karen put them both in positions to either side of the building’s roof access as Pretzel crouched behind it. They were all in place barely in time before the doors swung open and Broom stepped out, the clanging of them behind her nearly drowning out her muttering to herself. She clearly didn’t believe she was going to find anything up here, and for a moment Matt wondered if they should just all retreat behind the shaft. But then Pretzel took the option away by whimpering, and a moment later Karen had whapped her on the back of the head with her bag.
Matt heard her kneel down to look over Broom as he himself concentrated on her vitals. When an anxious Pretzel asked, “You didn’t kill her, did you?” they were both able to say “No,” simultaneously. He turned his attention towards the motorcyclists. “They’re coming in,” he said. “We should go the minute they all get off the stairs.”
It was a lengthy wait. Not everyone even left the parking lot, but there were few enough that in the darkness Matt thought their chances pretty good. And then someone on the stairs with four other men, including MacGregor, “Why hasn’t Broom called you back? She must have gone to the roof and back by now.”
“I’ll call her,” said MacGregor. At least as he dialed they reached Matt and Karen’s floor, and so got off the stairwell.
There were still two men on that stairwell, but they couldn’t wait for them to clear it. As soon as he told Karen was what going on, she was grabbing Pretzel and pulling her through the entrance and down the stairs, Matt himself following. “Get her behind us,” Matt ordered. “One of those men will probably leave the stairwell before he notices us, but we have to keep the other one from seeing her. We can’t let him stay conscious for very long anyway; preferably not even long enough to yell about us.” He was already gauging the stairwell’s dimensions, the exact air pressure, and what the three of them had on them that could be used as a non-lethal projectile.
Both women ended up behind him as he set a calculated pace, Pretzel nearly pressed against his back. As he expected, the first man got off the stairwell on their floor, where MacGregor was still trying to get Broom to answer while making disparaging comments about her, but that wouldn’t hold for long. Most of the comments made by the men fanning about their apartment and taking in their things, and especially their obviously shared bed, were ones Matt would’ve preferred not to hear.
He tuned them out as the one man left on the stairs got closer, focusing on his exact speed, the exact location of his head, and the weight of his phone in his pocket. It would be unfortunate to break it, of course, but they didn’t have much else on hand that wasn't too heavy.
He waited until they were past the landing on their own floor, then whispered, “Stop.” Up above, MacGregor was ordering someone to go up to the roof. Thankfully he was headed for the stairs on the other side of the hallway, but they still didn’t have much time.
It was six seconds more, of footsteps coming closer, Pretzel sounding like she wasn’t far from going into hysterics, Karen too audibly getting more and more fearful, well as she continued to carry herself. Matt kept his hand in his pocket, tried to will it not to sweat too much.
Finally, with one motion of his arm, Matt pulled out the phone and threw it. His aim was perfect. He didn’t think the man even saw it coming before it hit him.
It would have been perfect, if him and the phone both clattering to the floor, not loud enough to be heard by any of MacGregor’s men, hadn’t been accompanying by Pretzel starting to utter a shriek which was.
She caught herself and stopped after two seconds, but the damage was done. There were at least enough, “What the hell was that?”s and “Who the hell was that?”s to make Matt certain no one had recognized her voice, but MacGregor was quickly barking an order to a Jameson to check that out.
He didn’t need to tell the two women to run; all three of them were already charging down the stairs, Matt pausing at one point just long enough to let Pretzel get ahead of him, though he didn’t think that would shield her from the eyes of those coming from above them that much.
Had it just been him and Karen, they probably would have had no problem escaping. Either Jameson would have come after them on his own and be easily dealt with, or he would’ve had to wait for reinforcements, which would’ve delayed him enough they would’ve gotten not only out of the building but far away from it and safely into the shadows of the night. But Pretzel, though she legged it faster than he would’ve thought, couldn’t quite run fast enough. They also had to worry about her being seen, but at least when Jameson came in, Matt was pretty sure from his instant inhale and yell that he had seen only his knocked out cohort. Up above, the man headed for the roof was nearly there, though that didn’t matter much anymore.
He briefly considered suggesting Pretzel leave the stairwell on one of the lower floors, and hope no one who would recognize her looked there. But it was too risky. Besides, Jameson wasn’t coming after them, waiting for the rest of the gang to come join him, and they were just a little slow and a little unorganized, bumping into each other when they tried to walk faster or run. Matt started to hope maybe they could outrun them after all, even after they reached the stairs and sounded like an avalanche coming down after them.
They reached the bottom of the stairs with them too close behind. “No one there, alarm’s disabled,” Matt said, gestured to the emergency exit there.
“Probably our two people here disabled it,” said Pretzel, which Matt too had figured already; they’d impressed him as the kind of minions who’d want an escape route only they knew about.
If their pursuers had been further up, they might have tried to just slip through and hope they charged right past it. But there wasn’t time; they had to bang through and just keep on running. “Too many cars,” whispered Karen as Matt’s ears told him the same. “There’s enough darkness in the street that if we could just get to the other side of it…though the parking lot’s pretty dark too.”
“Away from the building, then,” Matt whispered back. “This way-there are still some members of the gang milling about the back; they’re currently discussing whether they want to investigate the noise they just heard.
The three of them scurried to the far side of the parking lot, and they had just gotten Pretzel behind them when the emergency exit door was once again slammed open, and he felt the heat of light being shone in their faces. Only for a split second, but then he also heard the sounds of guns being readied, enough that some of their shots were sure to hit.
Before Matt could try to think of any way out of this, Karen did what, perhaps, was the only thing any of them could do. Pulling the experimental weapon from her bag, she pointed it at the crowd and fired.
More heat slapped their faces, electric charge as sharp, narrow laser fire burned the air it came into contact with. MacGregor had come to the forefront, and it was him the lasers reached. It happened so fast he himself might not have had time to feel it, but the way the deadly bolt tore his very molecules apart, blasted shards of him that cut the air before they evaporated, the sickening heat he left behind, those were things Matt knew he’d always remember. The complete change in scents, at least in the moment after, just made the whole thing feel more wrong.
The rest of the gang had come to a halt. The smell in the air did start to change a moment later, when it became filled with their terror.
He heard Karen swing the weapon slightly; it was loud when swung. She wasn’t in much less distress than those she was threatening, but her voice was steady as she said, “Get going.”
Most of them did immediately. The rest stayed frozen, as she and Matt backed further away, pushing Pretzel with them. She was close enough to Matt he would have known had there been light enough to illuminate her; there was none. But there was a brief break in the traffic upcoming; they would have make their run across the street then, and that would make their silhouettes very discernible, even if a stray light didn’t catch her then.
But one of the men still there yelled, “Are you pussies just going to let them run off?” Noone moved instantly, but the break in traffic had arrived, and Karen too knew they shouldn’t wait to see if anyone did spring into action; he could hear her already turning towards the road.
He grabbed Pretzel’s hand and nudged her just before he started running. Thankfully she understood, running alongside him, letting him guide her to the darkest parts of the street, not even asking how he was the one who knew where they were.
She couldn’t run as fast as them, and she nearly didn’t get off the street in time to avoid getting hit, one car almost reaching her in the split second before Matt outright grabbed her and they toppled back, avoiding falling only by some quick maneuvering of his feet. Karen was waiting for them, and she’d already scouted their new immediate surroundings as much as the darkness and her limited senses allowed her. Matt took her arm as they reached her, and without further prompting she led the both of them away, still walking fast, Matt keeping his ears peeled for the sounds of everyone in their general area.
He also was still listening to everything going on back in the parking lot, and after a few minutes he said, “They’re not going to follow. We’ve managed to scare them, and they’re going to regroup. We probably don’t have much time before it’ll be too dangerous to go after the men with the trucks, an hour at most. Then we go to ground immediately after. You go back home, Pretzel, and Karen and I will find a motel in another part of the city.” Although even as he said it, Matt was aware that if Pretzel decided she wanted to go home immediately, he no longer had the heart to talk her out of it, and there was no way Karen still did either.
But instead, she just said, “I’m not doing any longer interviews with them. Two or three questions, and that’s it. And you two better not even enter the garage.”
“We’ll hide ourselves nearby,” said Karen, as Matt nodded, honestly relieved that they would be doing no more than that. At this point, he was longing for an end to the night’s events, a chance to at least sit and preferably lay with Karen as they let the adrenaline crash and called themselves done until the morning.
Even though that itself would not be a restful experience. He wasn’t sure if either he or Karen were even going to be able to sleep at all in the limited hours the night had left, or even she’d want to, or if she wouldn’t think herself able to take it. She never coped well after killing, and he didn’t know if MacGregor’s death had been as ugly to see as it had been for him to perceive, but it couldn’t have been too pretty a one.