When Matt didn’t have an immediate answer to her question, she reached into their bag and he heard her turn the laptop on even before she pulled it out. “It’ll be online,” she said. “No way S.H.I.E.L.D. didn’t keep track of it.”
“How much have we got left on that thing’s battery?” Matt asked, because it was now well into the afternoon, and he didn’t think it had been plugged in anywhere since morning.
But Karen took it the wrong way, practically growling, “We are not thwarting them at the cost of her life.” He heard her type something in. He was pretty sure she’d turned off the accessibility settings just as a safety measure while she’d been sneaking around, so he could only wait.
When she finally got the number she wanted, she sighed. “I know what you’re thinking,” she said. “It’s going to get more dangerous the longer we stay here.”
“It is,” he said. “For all three of us. Maybe for more people we don’t even know we’re endangering. People like Tommy.” That had always been the thing about missions that drove him the craziest, the collateral even he, with his extended perception, didn’t notice were vulnerable until it was too late. Karen had nearly been such collateral once during her first year with the Goldsmith, and she had strong feelings about it too.
“A lot of the ones where the bait didn’t survive were dealing with people far more worse than these relatively simple thugs,” Matt added. “Even the Hydra agents here probably aren’t too high up in that organization, especially now, when most of their leaders are dead, two of their big corporate fronts have been shut down, and those of them who haven’t been identified and arrested are probably in confusion and not sure who they’re answering to anymore.”
“They don’t care about Pretzel or the people who do,” Karen mused. “That’s both an advantage and a disadvantage, because if it all goes wrong, they won’t bother to kill her, but they’ll leave her there to die...email from Sharon.” A pause while she looked through it. “Well, she did get us some more information on Platzer. Apparently he’s made some enemies within the CIA.”
The idea that hit Matt was a little crazy, but, all things considered, probably the right thing to do. “We won’t be the only ones who’ll care, Karen,” he said, “because we won’t do this alone. We’ll ask Sharon if any of those enemies hate Platzer enough they’re willing to bring us help. Pretzel’s a valuable witness to anyone who wants to take the Goldsmith down, but she’s even more valuable against Platzer. We can get even one or two people here to be backup, and who really want her alive…”
“Backup.” That had been the magic word; Matt could tell just from the way her breathing changed. She was already typing her response. “Maybe we could enlist Tommy as well? Who is he, anyway?”
“We’ll find out,” said Matt, “and we will get his help. We’ll do everything we can, take every measure. Pretzel Martin won’t die if I can at all help it, Karen, I promise.” It would’ve been a little dangerous of a promise to make, if he hadn’t absolutely meant it.
And she knew when he meant promises, even if she couldn’t hear his heartbeat. “All right,” she breathed. “If we can have someone in this besides the three of us. And if we can get Pretzel herself to agree to it, of course. We need to figure out a way to meet back up with her. Might not be a bad idea to check what’s going on in our apartment. If we could even get back in long enough to pick up anything useful they haven’t made off with…”
Matt thought about that, about more of those bikers, and maybe now the Hydra people too, wandering around the space that had now spent days as theirs. The longer it was left in their control, the more he disliked that. He didn’t get attached to his living spaces too easily, if only because of his childhood experiences, but this was his and Karen’s life together available for the viewing. To even take control of it temporarily, much as it didn’t make a practical difference to all that, might still make him feel a lot better.
“We could subdue them more easily,” he mused out loud, “if we maybe lure one or two of them out of the apartment first. We don’t want to cause a commotion, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t want to cause a commotion even more, and we can use that to our advantage. Maybe disguise ourselves; I can do that very easily. The trouble will be getting them out our apartment without getting any of the neighbors out of theirs.”
“I…” Karen swallowed. “I might have an idea. It’ll require you to impersonate a thug, though.”
It had been a while since Matt had done that, but he was disturbingly good at it. He had found that when he lowered his voice, it tended to also go a little rough, and when he used it around someone who didn’t know him well enough, and was disguised enough, even if they’d met him before, they often didn’t identify him. He combined that with letting his more violent impulses swim a little closer to the surface, and he’d fooled many a foe.
Doing it had bothered him more on some missions than others. This one, he was pretty sure, would fall into the “bother him less” category. “What’s your idea?”
“I’m even considering going around to the neighbors just to see if I can find out who’s inviting them,” she said. “Normally I wouldn’t, but seriously, I think those men are criminals. You should’ve seen the tattoos on one of them. And the way another one of them had his hair. Surely most of us don’t want that sort coming up in here.”
“Well,” Matt said, “if they keep appearing for more than a week, I think we’d all have the right to ask questions. Maybe give it until then?”
They lingered freely over tea; they’d scheduled in plenty of time. But when it was a little past eight, Karen said, “Matt and I really should go, get ourselves something to eat.”
“Oh, you haven’t eaten yet?” Kimberly asked, in a tone of voice that precluded an unwanted dinner invitation.
“We had very specific plans for tonight,” she said, letting a little excitement slip into her voice. “Don’t think we have much time left.” They didn’t; the men would be more on their guard once the sun went down. Matt could already feel the building getting a little cooler from its retreat.
“Well, best be on your way, then,” said Kimberly. They didn’t entirely get away as fast as that. She kept them at her door for a hair-raising ten minutes, during which Matt was forced to try to look like he was paying attention, while keeping his focus on every move made and word spoken in their own apartment, ready to grab Karen and bolt should any of them start to open their door.
Then at last they were free, and Karen headed back for the stairwell, taking Matt’s glasses with her in a vague hope of actually preserving them, while Matt pulled his hoodie as far over his face as possible and headed for the door. Not much was going on inside the apartment. There were five men there, all of whom sounded like they were doing things on their phones.
He rapped hard, and in his harshest thug voice called out, “Are you Platzer’s men, in there?”
“That’s only you, Radish. The rest of us sure don’t work for him.”
“I don’t really work for him, either,” said a surly voice, but its owner got up and opened the door. He didn’t sound at all nervous. Matt could work with that.
“That’s fine,” he said. “I’ve still got a thing you might like to hear.” He dropped his voice further, so the other four couldn’t hear his words, and added, “Might be very much in your interest to hear.”
That worked perfectly; he audibly perked up, heart and all. He stepped outside, closing the door behind them. “What’s that?” he asked.
Matt put his finger to his lips. “Not here where anyone can see us,” he murmured, and gestured to the stairwell. Radish was going there before he could finish doing so.
Karen was impatient too; she sprung forward and hit him on the head before he’d even finished opening the door. But she did make sure to catch him before he hit the floor, and Matt helped her lay him down silently. Once they had carefully enclosed him on the landing, they touched hands, Karen tapped his, Matt nodded, and they ran back to the apartment entrance.
They got there just as two more of the men came up to the doorway. Matt surged ahead of Karen, landing blows on both of them. Not hard enough, and one of them only got a hit to his shoulder. Karen gave him a kick, only to suffer a blow from the other one. Matt managed to grab hold of his head and knocked it back into the wall, which took care of him, but was dangerously loud. Inside the other apartments, he heard too many people start, too many exclamations, and at least one person ask someone else, “Dear, do you think maybe one of us should go see what that was?”
The apartment door was still open. “Shove him,” Matt called to Karen, just loud enough for her to hear, as he himself caught the other man on the back with his leg, propelling him towards the door. Karen shoved him as he turned towards her, and all four of them went tumbling inside, then grabbed the door and slammed it shut. She even managed to whap their immediate opponent on the forehead with almost the same move of her arm.
The last two men were on them within another moment. Matt had still been holding the man he’d knocked out; now he threw his limp form at them. It hit them both, and they staggered back. Karen had started grappling with her current foe. Matt gave one last kick to his back as he propelled himself forward to take on the other two.
One of them had thought to pull his gun out, but Matt heard the sharpness with which the other turned to look at him, afraid of the neighbors’ reaction to a gunshot. It was all the hesitation he needed. He went for his wrist, disarming him with a hard squeeze. “I’ll get it, Matt,” he heard Karen murmur from where she was trying to keep her foe from breaking her, and he kicked it back towards her. As he dodged a pair of fists and brought his leg against four more of them, causing both men to lose their balance, he heard Karen’s opponent step on the gun; she had somehow gotten him to, and he too fell. He also heard his head hit the hard door as Karen swung them into it. She was going to have some nasty bruising along her sides, but he was the one left unconscious.
Once she was untangled from him-he’d had his hands on too much of her for mere combat to excuse, Matt thought angrily-and come to help him, the rest went quickly. They knocked the final one out with his own gun.
Karen first went back to the stairwell to retrieve the things they'd brought with them. She even plugged the laptop in; even a little bit more juice could make a big difference at this point. Then she was stalking through the apartment; he heard the rustling of her gathering two pieces of paper. “Too much to hope for they’d have much written, but we can grab their phones. It’ll be a headache to crack them without anyone’s help, though, if only we still had a-ah.”
She’d opened the closet door, and obviously found something. Matt could hear some humming coming from it too. “There’s a blueish cylinder in here. Why would they put such a thing in the apartment?”
“Probably not a good reason,” said Matt, coming to join her. “It might be a trap, if they thought we might come back here.” He doubted it could’ve been much of a danger to men who’d been here, though, since they hadn’t been at all nervous. So probably not a bomb. “I can’t hear anything besides a general hum.”
“If they meant it as a trap, they might have deliberately gone with something you couldn’t tell too much about.”
“They’d have had to have done a lot of research about me to know exactly what I could and couldn’t hear.” Still, Matt’s gut was telling him very firmly that Karen was on the right track. “In any case, maybe we’d just better leave it untouched. We’ll have enough electronics to deal with if we take the phones anyway.”
They relieved the men of their phones as they were starting to wake up, meaning they had to knock them out again. Karen did the man who had groped her, which was only fair, and also possibly safer. “I hope Sharon’s right about the trackers probably being disabled,” she said; according to Sharon Carter, the Goldsmith always ordered his minions to not let anyone track their phones.
One of their two hidden stashes of cash had been found and was gone, but they retrieved the other one. Taking the blanket was actually an easy thing to do, because they could roll all the small things they’d pilfered into it. There wasn’t much else left behind to grab, but they had left the cane. Matt took that as he listened in, until he could say, “Next shift’s here. Four men coming up on the right stairwell. We’ll take the left.”
A few minutes later saw them walking out, Matt now putting his cane to use and letting Karen guide him as he held onto her arm, which made it easy to concentrate on the reactions of the new men to their downed colleagues. They surmised what had happened faster than he would’ve liked, but that was only to be expected. When they realized there was someone missing, one of them went out to look for him. Another said, “The closet. I think there was something in there?”
They went to look and found it still there. A young voice asked, “Dude, what is that?” Two very sincere-sounding responses indicated none of them knew. Though Matt was having more trouble hearing them, because they were getting some way away, and more people in the apartment building than usual had their televisions on.
“You want to go back to the park?” he ventured. “We probably won’t be found there, and the blanket should keep us warm if we share body heat.” He briefly wondered if he should’ve presumed they’d do that, but really, it had been months since they’d slept apart. He was starting to forget what it was like to do so.
“That should be a crazy idea,” said Karen. “But yes, I kind of want to.”
Thankfully even as he gently shook Karen awake he also recognized the scent, opioids and all. “Pretzel’s coming,” he whispered to her. Though even she knowing where they were wasn’t good news.
They’d pulled themselves up and brushed a little bit of dirt off when she got close enough to say, “Did you two really think all those guys were going to turn their phone trackers off? They're too arrogant for that. One of them didn’t.”
“And he’s going to allow the Goldsmith to know that?” Karen asked, sounding like she couldn’t believe that part of it.
“I don’t think anyone who knows so far wants him to find out, but anyway, you two are lucky I got here first. Let me see the phones; I might be able to identify which one is his.”
She looked them over, then said, “This one,” and tossed it to the ground. “Do you even have a plan for breaking into the other ones?”
“Haven’t had time for that yet,” said Matt, picking up his cane. Once again he took Karen’s arm, as he extended his senses. Pretzel really had outrun everyone. There were more people in the park than he’d expect when air temperature made clear how far before dawn it was, but none they couldn’t easily avoid. No one familiar; perhaps they’d deliberately sent people he wouldn’t identify from a distance.
Trying to better pinpoint their locations distracted him enough he didn’t realize Pretzel was going to grab him until he flinched at her grip. “Listen,” she growled. “If I get killed for this, I’m not going down alone.”
“You’re not getting killed for this,” said Karen.
“We’re trying to get this over first,” Matt added. “Which of course you can help us with. We’ll get out of this park and then get you up to date. Although if you can think of anyone who can help us with the phones before then, we’ll be glad to hear it.” He could tell by her breath in response that she could. “There’s no one within my hearing range northeast of us.”
They couldn’t really keep quiet, especially since Matt couldn’t always tell what was right below his feet until he’d already stepped on it. But the sounds weren’t carrying too far, and no one around them was moving very fast. The man nearest to them was muttering darkly to himself about how little this was worth, and they were never going to get there at the same time.
They didn’t. They were out of the wooded area and nearly out of the park when Matt heard the reaction of the man who found the abandoned phone. He listened to him yell out the news to anyone within normal hearing range as the air filled with the promising smells of a nearby diner, and smiled as he said, “Think we could risk stopping for breakfast?”
“If we do so at crowded enough a place,” said Karen, and Pretzel voiced her agreement. Matt was a little sorry for that, for more than one reason. Which Karen knew, and she leaned in and whispered, “We’ll find the quietest corner, obviously.”
The diner they walked into was a bit louder and a lot smellier than Matt liked. But the food, though potentially fattening, was relatively inoffensive, and it had been a while since he and Karen had eaten anything substantial. Long enough that they both ended up eating voraciously and letting Pretzel talk first. She had no idea how to tell a story or get to a point, but they managed to learn from her that Astakhova and her stolen weapons had vanished off the radar completely, the Goldsmith was possibly angry at everyone, a lot of the people involved who weren't Hydra were very unhappy at having to work with those who were, and if the two of them managed to get through this day uncaptured, they’d probably go with the plan of laying a trap for them.
When told of what they’d been thinking, her heart certainly pounded in protest. But he was pretty sure she was putting on a show of devil-may-care as she said, “Well, I think I’m pretty much fucked now if we don’t do this. I mean, maybe no one’s figured out I’ve met with you two yet, but sooner or later’s someone’s going to put the pieces together. So, fine, okay, I’ll be your bait. But, well, do you need any of the information you tried to get out of your apartment last night, now? Maybe you should just ditch all of those phones?”
She’d spoken it way too hastily; Matt would’ve been suspicious even without the extra information his ears could gather. “Actually, I think those phones are our best chances of information, knowing exactly who’s communicating with whom. And you do know someone, don’t you? Someone you’re trying to protect?”
When Pretzel’s only response was her hammering heart, he asked, very gently, “Tommy?”
“No, not him, his friend.” She sighed. “Well, except that if CJ gets connected to you two, they’ll think Tommy must have been involved, even if for some reason I get left out of it. The two of them have been in each other’s pockets from about the time we first arrived in Burlington, before any of the three of us got involved in any of this. But he’d be through those phones in a heartbeat, and if Tommy asked him to do it, I’m sure he would do it.”
“So we have to persuade Tommy,” said Matt.
“That won’t be easy,” said Pretzel. “And no, before you ask, he’s not in love with me. We’ve known each other since we were three.” She believed it as she said it, and Matt supposed she might well be right.
“But he cares about you very deeply,” said Karen.
“And I care about him,” she said, her voice turning sharp. “You shouldn’t get him killed either. Or CJ.”
“We won’t,” said Matt, and his head formed the plan even as he spoke it: “If you can tell me where to find Tommy, I’ll talk to him. Meanwhile, we’ve got a friend who now works for the CIA. Give us the full names to these two men, we’ll pass them on to her, and she’ll see what she can do for them; we’ll get all three of you out if we can. They’re nobody major, right?” Sharon Carter hadn’t mentioned any CJs in her notes either, so he couldn’t be.
“No,” said Pretzel. “And all right, I’ll give you his address. Then I gotta go; if I don’t get back with groceries within half an hour of Vernon coming home he could get suspicious.”
“One more thing,” said Karen, as she got up, apparently thinking it perfectly fine to stick them with the check. “Do you think it would be safe for us to take refuge in a church today?”
“So long as it’s not one anyone who knows what you look like are attending, probably,” she called back, already hurrying out.
“You want to come with me to mass?” Matt asked. He was deeply grateful she’d asked, but he didn’t want her pressured to attend, especially not when they were within the realm of her younger years.
“I think it might be good for me, actually,” she said. “Just don’t ask me to go anywhere near a Baptist service.” She pulled out one of their remaining phones and clicked on it, obviously just to look at the time. “It’s probably too early to go waking her friend up anyway. You sure you want to talk to him? I suppose he’s not as bad as plenty of these boys, but…”
“Yes,” said Matt. “I think it won’t be too hard to persuade him.”
“If you say so,” said Karen, and Matt was relieved she hadn’t pressed him any further. It wasn’t that he would’ve minded her knowing exactly why he felt he could talk to that boy, if he was right about him. On the contrary, it would have been better if he could let her know. But he’d never have the words to explain that even if his witnessing Karen’s actually suffering what Pretzel was currently suffering had been very brief, he still understood the feeling of helpless anger and the willingness to take any action that it was suggested he could take.
“I was in this part of the city, yesterday,” said Karen, as they paid the bill. “There’s a Catholic church only a couple of blocks from here. Even a café right next to it with free wifi. I can email Sharon and then take refuge, at least if they don’t kick me out.”
“They’d better not,” was all Matt would say to that.
As they left the diner, he gave up trying to listen to Pretzel, who had found a bus stop and was waiting in silence, and scanned for the sound of anyone else familiar. Only one of the men he’d heard in the park was still within his hearing range, and he sounded like he was going the wrong way. Still, there was a good chance someone had gone for backup, possibly making a call when they believed he wouldn’t be able to hear them.
But there was no one in the least bit familiar around them as they joined the crowd going in. At least these weren’t the kind of mobsters who hypocritically attended church. Matt had dealt with those kind of men before on one occasion, and decided then there were few kinds of people he disliked more.