“Hmm? What Tatiana?” Evan replied, being certain to cue Mashka to use her fake name.
“I think we… I think I‘ll excuse myself for a moment. Check up on Nikita,” She slowly rose and made her way towards the door.
Jack looked at his dad giving a sideways grin. “So, dating younger ladies now?”
Evan sighed. “I’m looking after her and her brother until their parents can immigrate.”
“Ah, so "friends," but you have to have some benefits..."
"Jack-" Evan chided.
"Then why haven’t you just come and see me if you’ve been in Scotland all this time?”
“I would have... but things got complicated. Besides, I didn’t know whether you would like to see me that much.”
“Really? Evan, I would always be happy to see you. Yeah you dropped off the map for a few years but I assumed it was just something involving your work.”
Evan took another sip of his cold beer, and stared into the distance thoughtfully for a moment. Guilt ate at him due to the tone of acceptance in his own flesh and blood's voice. Jack knew he was a lesser priority. “How is Gramps doing?” Evan asked, hoping to change the topic.
“The old chap is doing well, it’s a chore to make sure he takes the medication, but I’m handling it somehow. Besides that, he does more to take care of me than vice versa.” Jack looked back towards the door. “You should probably follow her. In 'lass-speak' she was telling you earlier that she wanted to talk.”
“And what makes you an authority on the subject?” Evan asked.
Jack rolled his eyes, “I’m not the least popular guy in Edinburgh you know.”
Evan rolled his eyes at his son. “We'll have stuff to talk about.” he said warmly with a pat on the shoulder, then he hurried outdoors.
The dark alley erupted as if from a silent bomb blast. Dense, evaporated rain rushed through the network of alleys and shot up from between the buildings like a Maltese-cross-shaped geyser and tumbled into the streets and over rooftops. The Messenger lost its grip of Aleksei in the blast, and sheltered itself, being weary that the Jinn could use the vapour as both sight and as a blade as he had back in Russia. The world vanished into a grey void.
Aleksei emerged from the billowing fog and dashed down the street, glancing over his shoulder to see if he was being followed.
Within the fog, The Messenger sighed as it felt his way to a fire escape ladder and with cat-like speed it climbed up to the roof of the building and felt relieved to be back in clear air. It calmed its breathing and watch the vapours blow away in the wind. “So the foolish ash raises his hand against the red earth giant.” The Messenger smiled. He vanished from the roof and sped as a mere black wisp across the rooftops.
Evan emerged from within the bar to be encountered by pouring rain, a shivering Mashka and an exhausted Aleksei huddling under the pub‘s canopy. “What’s wrong?”
Aleksei gasped heavily as he replied, “The… Association… they are… here in Edinburgh.”
Evan raised his hand to his face in frustration. “That’s perfect! Traffickers, manipulative ghosts, and now The Association, this day couldn’t get better!”
“It gets worse,” Aleksei continued. “Vladimir, our brother, is with them, and he’s Anya’s partner.”
“Anya…" Evan seemed shocked to utter that name again, "...is here?”
“Yes, she is and they seem to be fighting another secret agency, they called it SICA.”
The siblings felt even more nervous at Evan reaction to Aleksei’s latter statement. “Are you certain, without a shadow of a doubt, that they said “SICA”? You didn’t mishear?”
Aleksei thought carefully for a moment, reliving the gruesome scene. “Y-yes, I’m positive, they said “SICA”. What’s the issue?”
“Let me put it this way.” Evan pushed up his glasses, a gesture the siblings usually took as he was going into serious mode. “SICA is to NATO what The Association is to the former USSR; and the former makes the latter seem like philanthropists. Their method of solving the ‘Jinn issue’ is to kill them, rather than have them become pawns to the enemies of the West.”
A stunned pause fell on the Sharovs.
“So what do we-?” Mashka fell silent as she caught sight of Jack emerging from the bar.
“Hey, lads,” Jack greeted casually. “What’s with the glum faces, you look like you swallowed a bee each.”
The three looked at each other and then back at Jack.
Evan spoke up first. “Jack, wait out here, get acquainted. I’m going to finish getting the information we came for.”
The three younger persons glanced at one another in silence, trying to figure out who was supposed to introduce who.
“So, Tatiana was it? Have any plans this weekend?” Jack asked giving a knock out grin, which rapidly disappeared before both siblings’ withering stares.
The Czech, Vlad and Anya entered the florescent lit warehouse outside the bustling night-life of Leith. They walked down the aisle between the empty metal shelves towards the office-turned-temporary-headquarters. The three of them simultaneously made a disdainful side glance at the approaching Dr. Kerry. Despite all their differences they still found the same man most aggravating.
“Oh welcome back!” Kerry exclaimed all too cheerily and high pitched for anyone’s comfort. “I hope all things went well.” The obvious insincerity of his voice made the corner of each of their mouths to twitch with angry unison. They kept walking, attempting to ignore him, hoping to reach their fellow sympathetic, Bruno.
“Oh and dear Vladimir,” The man raised a slender hand to rest on Vlad’s shoulder.
Vlad raised his eyebrow at the overtly familiar gesture, and heated the air just above his shoulder.
Kerry‘s feminine “Ouch!” echoed. “You’re so mean, I was just--” his voice was cut off by Vlad’s look of 'I-dare-you-to-get-close-again.'
Kerry wisely changed the topic. “The boss is on video call, he’s been waiting patiently, but you all took a long time coming here... and where’s the creepy one what’s-his-face?”
“On surveillance, it’s what The Messenger does best.” Anya’s voice had an odd sharpness, as if she was defending a compatriot against an insulting outsider.
Kerry waved off the trio’s unanimously unspoken sentiments of dislike with a flick of his blond tresses.
Entering the office they were confronted by the impatient gaze of the large, scruffy German, his tattooed, muscle-bound arms folded in front of him, his finger tapping on his bicep. He wordlessly nodded to the screen.
The three stood in front of the monitor of Bruno’s computer and a video of the Administrator in his office. He was dressed in his suite, but the tie was absent and the top few buttons were undone of his dress shirt.
He smiled warmly, and though his subordinates would never admit it, their boss’s smiles always made them feel a strange warmth in their chest, as if meeting with an old friend.
“You look lovely Anya, red is definitely your colour.” the older man grinned, spreading out his well trimmed facial hair and revealing equally white teeth. “It was a good investment to update your wardrobe, very flattering.”
Vlad pulled a face but stopped himself from gagging.
Anya grinned back and replied with a hint of sultry in her voice. “You should lose the tie permanently, makes you seem more up to date and attractive.”
Vlad muffled a gag.
“Oh Anya, you know how to make an old man seem young again. Very well, but only for you, duscha.”
Vlad not-so-quietly retched. Thankfully for him, the flirtatious banter did not continue.
“Now, on to business.” The Administrator sat up straight and put on a emotionless face. “You three have succeeded in raising gam, and without much to show for it. It disappoints me.”
The Czech responded matter-of-factly, “We have not come any closer to the subject, true, but we have greatly hindered the enemy--”
Vlad spoke up rashly, cutting off his superior. “What we have done is turn Edinburgh into a war zone. The authorities are edgy and our mobility is becoming more and more difficult. SICA just has too many people crawling all over the place and they keep cornering us, intentionally or not. I’m fine with chasing down people, but I really don’t like it when the game turns around. So how long are we going to be playing this little game?”
“Good question,” The Administrator turned his gaze towards Bruno. “Did you plug the leak?”
"I am in the process, the bait has been taken.”
“You will not need to worry further, I will take care of the leak myself.” The Administrator’s gaze shifted slightly to the left, looking at something beyond his computer. Returning his attention to the screen he smiled, “In the meantime, I want you to head uptown, there is someone who can lead you straight to the subject. She is a reliable source, so don’t worry. But please, disguise yourselves, you have all become noticeable.”
“No one in SICA has seen me yet, I could go.” Kerry offered.
A very brief, bemused smile touched the Administrator’s lips, but it vanished as he replied. “Niet, I need you to stay here, keep researching that lead. Maybe some other time.”
Kerry seemed only a little disappointed with the decision, quickly recovering. “Right away sir!” He declared in an obnoxious singsong voice.
The Administrator’s eyes roved through his group. “I’m counting on you all, and I apologise for the lack of direction. It’s only temporary, I promise.” His image blinked off the screen.
“This isn’t good.” Anya said aloud.
“What?” Vlad asked, “Besides the other ninty-five percent of our working conditions?”
“The Administrator never apologises, even when the two of u--” She cut herself off, receiving suspicious stares from the others. “I mean, it’s just not in his character to feel sorry, something is really bothering him.”
“Yes,” The Czech agreed. “and it’s not something small.”
After the three reloaded on spare ammunition they left. As he drove, the Czech reflected on the Administrator’s face. There was only one thing in the world that would bother his long time employer that much, and it was the one thing he knew about his boss that Anya did not. For the first time in a very long time, the Czech felt something that might vaguely resemble worry.
Jack opened the door for Evan and the siblings. “Welcome to my pad! Grandpa is with my aunt for the weekend, so we’ve got the place to ourselves. So charades? Movie? Take your pick!”
“We are here to sleep, nothing else.” Mashka said politely with a smile that told Jack she meant business. “However, thank you for your hospitality.”
He excused himself to the kitchen. 'What’s up with her? She gives me the willies and then she thanks me so nicely? And that sexy Russian accent just makes the two acts all the more extreme.' He was actually relieved they were going straight to bed, otherwise he didn’t know how long he could put up with the bipolar woman.
In the spare bedroom, Evan caught Mashka and Aleksei up to what he had learned. “After showing a few pounds to the bartender he told me he did know of a George Donnelly. He now goes by the name of Ravi Donnelly, and has been overseas for the last few months and just got back. Apparently he’s an urban real estate tycoon with a net worth in the tens of millions.”
Aleksei’s eyes widened a little. “Then how do we get to that kind of guy?"
“Well, he’s not exactly a celebrity. He maintains a low profile and has not been involved in any financial scandals, so we just might be able to walk up to him. Even better, he lives close by.”
“This bartender is getting creepy.” Mashka butted in.
“Relax, he knew which bank Donnelly uses judging by his debit card. Also, another small detail about him…”
Several minutes later, down in the living room, Jack began to wonder when his father would finish saying good night. He sighed and walked up the stairs but he stopped short of the guestroom door when he heard his father whispering something, followed by Nikita. Despite that they were speaking in Russian, he could tell it was not a conversation. He peeked in, surprised to see three bowed heads and six clasped hands. When he heard “Amen” he ducked back behind the wall, not wanted to seem like he was spying. His guests continued speaking in Russian, then they bid one another goodnight and Evan emerged from the room.
“Aye Jack, you wouldn’t happen to have some milk on hand would you?”
“Of course, and I prepared the sofa for you.”
In the small, pastel yellow kitchen Evan poured himself a glass of milk and placed it in the microwave, setting the timer.
Jack raised his eyebrows in disbelief. “Warm milk, really? You have been tamed! Whatever happened to a stiff drink?”
Evan chuckled weakly. “Alcohol does not agree with me like it once did, besides, Tatiana only allows low proof vodka and light wine in the house, she’s not fond of alcohol breath.”
“Old man…” Jack rolled his eyes. “So much for being their guardian. Besides, are not they both adults? Why are they still living off of you?”
“Augh! You use that answer far too often.”
“Let’s just say they have nowhere to go.”
“And you need them too.” Jack concluded.
Evan shook his head. “No, it’s not like that, I’m not picking them over you, they, I should say ‘we’, left Russia having made few friends and far too many enemies.”
Jack smiled. "Now this is getting interesting. So what are they? Witnesses? Children of a defeated mafia boss?”
“About as exciting but not quite the same. I can’t tell you without consulting them and I would not want to put you in danger.”
“Ok, I hear you Evan, I will be as silent as the grave.”
Evan rubbed his son’s shoulder proudly. “Thanks, I hope next time I can pay you back the favour, and depending on how the next few days play out, maybe we could get together more often and in a less covert matter.”
“Something’s going on with your ‘work’, right?” Jack received the same cock-eyed smile that he had inherited in reply, telling him that Evan was not going to say anything else about it. He wisely decided not to pry so changed the subject. “So, anything you can tell me about them, like maybe what are the lassie’s hobbies?”
Evan chuckled at his precocious offspring. “I think I better keep my lips sealed there, Tatiana is going through a tough time right now, I don’t think she needs additional complications.”
Jack’s face fell. “Rats, and she’s such a belle too. Unusual eyes, kind of an emerald green.”
Evan almost corrected him that her eyes were blue, but he caught himself remembering the changes going through her body at the moment. He missed her old eyes, the ones that reminded him of summer dusk.
Parent and child leaned on the counter, the son staring blankly at the yellow cabinetry and the father staring at the grey living room carpet surrounded by the deep red easy chair, sofa, and Ottoman.
“You pray now…” Jack stated flatly like a research fact.
“Not really, they pray, I just join.” Jack’s head turned slightly at the somewhat guilty tone of his father. “They desperately want my soul saved, just shows how much they care. Still, I kind of wish I was as childish as them, their faith has gotten them through thick and thin, and in a way, even I feed off of their intangible confidence. It’s something to admire in them.”
“Must be tough, pretending all the time, in particular when they see through your façade.”
Row after row of beautiful houses, gardens, and parks stretched out in Alexandria, Virginia, a wealthy city containing expansive suburbs, contrasting with the nearby, less prosperous District of Columbia.
On one side of the green, manicured backyards, behind a large picturesque house, a man threw back the rubbery foam football to his spunky, dark haired son. The boy ran and leapt in an attempt to snatched the ball but stumbled and landed on the grass.
“Oh!” The man exclaimed, his classically attractive face furrowing in concern. “Come on Li, you can get up!”
The boy sniffed, put on a determined face and rose, throwing the ball back straight and true, smiling because his dad had to leap to get it.
“Victor!” his wife called. “There is a call for you.”
“Yeah, thanks Ming,” Victor gave a one minute sign to the young boy and hurried over to his wife.
“It’s from Mr. Carlyle,” she explained.
Her husband’s grin twitched a little, but he accepted the cordless phone calmly and waved the small woman off affectionately as he walked to the corner of the patio and sat down.
Though he maintained a relaxed expression the edge in his voice could have cut ice. “I thought I told you no calls today.”
“Sorry,” Carlyle’s voice was urgent, “The agents we sent to England, a third of them have been...”
“Killed?” Carlyle’s nervous pause answered for itself. “That is surprising. Usually the old fellow is more of a gentleman. We were playing this game tamely, no casualties, a few meagre shots fired, nothing more. What changed his approach?”
“Three days ago, some of our own men acted unusually. They opened fire when they shouldn’t have. Two civilians and an Associate were killed. We took the agents off duty, but the damage was done and The Association reacted with killing SICA agents on site rather than following the catch-interrogate-release procedure.”
“And what about the agents who started this?”
“The agents in questions all claim to not remember the incident. We polygraphed them, and they passed.”
“There may be an abnormal involved.”
“Maybe, but it’s not one of The Association’s. Before they cut contact with us, they seemed just as surprised as we are about the incident.”
“Like Tbilisi all over again.” Victor mumbled.
“We need reinforcements. The Administrator has his best working here, and he brought along a new agent, an abnormal named Vlad. I’m emailing his M.O. to you.”
Victor considered the situation calmly. “I’m tempted to think it was a mistake stepping on The Association’s territory, it might have been too soon. The Administrator has stubbornly guarded Europe and the Middle East, allowing us free range of Africa and the Americas. But since we started the incursion, it’s time to end the games. I’m sending Nebuchadnezzar3 to assist, and perhaps Nyra, she’s always helpful in a pinch and works well with Nezzar.”
“You sure, sir? Don’t you need them looking for the targets on the West Coast?”
“Relax Carlyle, I still have plenty of staff in those areas. And Nyra would be very irritated if she knew you didn't want her.”
Carlyle laughed nervously.
“Oh, and one more thing, I know it might be a long shot, but take care of that lead we received from White Crow. It’s time for us to pull a fast one on the old man as well.” Victor hung up before Carlyle had a chance to bid his polite farewell. He wanted to be sure that his subordinate knew that he was displeased with the interruption over something that could have been talked about later. Europe was not at the top of his priority list.
However, he could not yet go back to his pleasant evening with his family. That man, the Administrator, was an irritation. He thought he had taken care of the last of the opposing agencies after collapsing both China's Great Tomorrow Project and the Russian Association from the inside. However, the old man simply used the collapses as a way to rid himself of the fellow bureaucrats at the cost of the sweeping influence the former Soviet project once held over the whole world, while NATO’s shadow organisation, SICA crawled behind.
'It makes little difference now,' he thought smugly. 'Nezzar and Nyra will be more than he can handle. This will be the first time he sees my fangs.'