Twenty-Three Years Ago
HANKE BLUT DROVE through the darkness with his headlights off and his windshield wipers cranking full speed. The distant glow of London and the moon hiding somewhere up above the clouds gave his night-vision goggles what little light they needed. But the goggles were useless against the fog, and the rain was coming down in sheets. Then there was the damned lightning. He squeezed his eyes shut with every strike, but not before each goggle-enhanced flash seared the retina of his one good eye. Why the wretches would want to live on this dreary island—let alone fight for the privilege—was beyond him.
He eased the black Mercedes to a stop before a modest two-story cottage sitting twenty yards back from the country road, switched off the engine and removed his goggles. He gave his vision a moment to adjust to the dark, then looked over at his lone passenger, a kid named Jurgen Schmidt.
This was Schmidt’s first kill, and he was nervous. Blut could only hope that the eighteen-year-old wouldn’t get an itchy trigger finger and screw things up. Blut held a strong conviction that executions, like fine wines, should be savored. And there was always the chance they’d extract some useful information before the bitch lost consciousness for the last time. But if Schmidt did blow it, there would just be one more body to deal with. In Blut’s thirty-one years, he’d been around the block enough times to earn the name he went by. Hanke Blut. “Johnny Blood,” in English.
Up the road, headlights rounded a distant curve, dimly illuminating the glint of Blut’s and Schmidt’s blue eyes and their closely-cropped blond hair. They drew their guns—just in case—then ducked below the dash and waited for the car to pass.
INSIDE THE COTTAGE, Mary Collingsworth knelt on the floor of an upstairs bedroom, tucking her three-year-old daughter Abby in for the night. There was another flash of lightning, followed by the crash of thunder. The center of the storm was upon them.
“Mummy, I’m scared,” said Abby.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” Mary comforted. “I’ll be just downstairs.” She gave Abby a hug and a kiss. “I love you, darling.”
“I love you, Mummy,” Abby answered back.
OUT IN THE STORM, the oncoming headlights crawled through the fog toward the Mercedes. Blut stayed low, relishing his impending revenge while he waited for the car to pass. There’d been a leak in his family’s business empire, and she’d been high on the list of suspects. Then she’d disappeared and the polizei had moved in. She’d ruined his family, damaged their cause, and now she would pay.
He’d searched four years in vain. Then by chance, he’d spotted her at a Saturday market in a London park. Her hair was now black instead of blonde, but there was no mistaking her. He’d spent too many hours studying her every movement, dreaming of how she would beg him to stop, but eventually give in. Before he was done with her, she’d be begging him to keep going as she lusted after the ultimate ecstasy of death. And with greatest pleasure, he would slowly grant her last wish.
MARY CAME DOWN THE STAIRS, stopped by the kitchen, and poured herself a cup of tea. She took the cup to the living room and paused in front of the stone fireplace, drawn in for a moment of languor. All of her past ties had been cut, and it was just the two of them, mother and daughter. There was the young naval officer showing interest, but he was out to sea more often than not, and he was shy enough that it was difficult to gauge what was on his mind. Mary handled the solitude well enough during the day, but after Abby’s bedtime the shroud of loneliness descended like a fog.
OUTSIDE, THE HEADLIGHTS passed Blut’s car, slowing but not stopping. There was little chance the car’s driver had noticed them through the rain and fog, but the possibility still registered with Blut. A healthy bit of paranoia had saved his skin more than once, and these damn country folk could be nosy—especially when they happened to be English. The bumpkin could already be on his mobile phone talking to God-knows-who about the Mercedes in front of the Collingsworth house at this hour. They’d have to go in, grab her, and make it out quick.
Blut and Schmidt slipped quietly from the Mercedes, paying no heed to the icy downpour. Dressed head-to-toe in black, they slogged their way through the last of autumn’s dead leaves toward the cottage, pistols in hand.
INSIDE, THE FIREPLACE cast a flickering glow across the living room. Mary stared into the crackling fire, re-living a night four years ago and a love destined to fail. She had silently longed for the man for months while he chased the others. And then one stormy night much like this one, her dream came true. But it was only for the one night. The next day he was gone for good. He had neither a clue nor a care that he had left behind anything more serious than another broken heart.
Mary lost the man and the dream forever, but she gained Abby. She smiled weakly now, knowing that despite the heartbreak, she’d gotten the better of the deal. The man was fit neither for marriage nor fatherhood. With help from her British Secret Service employer, Mary had disappeared, carrying the unplanned pregnancy with her.
She mustered a smile when her eyes drifted across the room to the Br’er Rabbit book on the overstuffed chair. She could have recited the story from memory, having long since lost count of the times Abby had chosen it for her nighttime read.
Mary took a careful sip from her tea, crossed the room and placed her cup on the end table next to her favorite chair. She set Br’er Rabbit aside, sat down, and settled in to place her mind under the trusted care of Agatha Christie.
OUT IN THE FRONT YARD, Blut and Schmidt stopped just short of the house. Blut pointed to the illuminated dial on his watch, and held up two fingers. They set the timers on their watches: two minutes. Then Schmidt slipped away through the darkness to cover the back.
Blut crept toward the four steps leading up to the front door. He climbed the stairs and padded across the small porch. He took a position beside the entry and pressed his ear to the door. Soft classical music. She was in there, all right.
He eased his head back from the door and checked his watch. Forty seconds more. He stepped back, fondling his SIG Sauer P6 and watching his timer tick off the seconds.
The instant the timer hit zero, he kicked the door violently, just above the knob. The door exploded inward, trailing shattered pieces of door jamb, latches and security chain.
THE CRASH SET FIRE to every nerve in Mary’s body. In an instant, she knew they’d found her. Somehow. And then there he was: Hanke Blut. The same bloodlust glare, the same cruel smile. Her worst nightmare stood facing her in her own living room.
There was nothing to be gained by holding back. She ignored the pistol in his hand and pitched the scalding cup of tea into his face, sending him screaming and clutching at his cheeks.
Mary grabbed her mobile phone off the end table and pressed the emergency call button. Then she tossed it aside and turned back to Blut. Her first kick caught him on the chin, jolting him backward. He crashed against the wall. His pistol sailed out of his hand, skidding to a stop under a chair.
Mary flew toward him and launched another kick toward his face. He grabbed her leg, and they both tumbled to the floor. Blut held his grip and twisted her foot. A sharp burst of pain shot like lightning up her leg. She stifled a scream and nailed his chin with her free foot, knocking herself free from his grip. She bounded to her feet, wincing under the weight.
She stood there staring at him, her heart pounding, lungs gasping, mind racing, her ankle mangled. Beating on the back door signaled more trouble—someone else trying to get in. She glanced frantically around the room. Blut’s pistol wasn’t an option; she’d have to go through him to get it.
Blut got up, wiped blood from his mouth and stalked toward her. She turned and hobbled quickly toward the kitchen. A knife could even the odds. But she was just to the kitchen door when she crashed into Schmidt. Instantly, he wrapped her in a bear hug. He cried out when she stomped hard on his instep with her good leg and drove a knee into his groin. She spun as his grip relaxed, but he regained control in time to capture her in another bear hug, this time from behind.
Blut closed in on her, snarling. Mary braced herself against Schmidt, reared back and launched a two-footed kick to Blut’s head. He fell backward to the floor.
An artificial eye popped out of its socket and rolled across the room, leaving a garish empty crater in his battered face.
Mary used the momentum of the kick and Schmidt’s imbalance to go into a forward roll, throwing Schmidt over the top of her and onto Blut. She made a dive for Blut’s pistol and came up firing. Her first shot caught Blut in a shoulder. The second blew brains and blood out the back of Schmidt’s head. But before she could get off a finishing shot on Blut, he was on her, wrestling for the pistol. She was no match, even with the animal wounded. Blut turned the pistol to her face and pulled the trigger.
BLUT PULLED HIMSELF TO HIS FEET, cursing in German. His shoulder was bleeding and it hurt like hell, but he was still in one piece. He was on the verge of searching out the little girl he’d seen with Mary at the park when the sound of a siren drifted in through the wind and rain. He looked toward the door and then back to Schmidt on the floor. Had the driver of that passing car been suspicious enough to make a call? Unlikely. Had Mary tripped a silent alarm? The response seemed too fast. The siren was still distant. It could be going anywhere.
Then he heard a tinny voice calling, “Hello? … Hello?”
He spotted the mobile phone on the floor, crossed the room and picked it up.
“Hello, are you still there?” the voice on the other end of the line asked.
Blut hung up and checked for recently placed calls. 9-9-9. Emergency services. Four minutes ago. It was time to cover his tracks and get the hell out. He picked up the stray eyeball and put it in a pocket. Then he grabbed Schmidt’s body under the arms and dragged him out the door toward the car. Removing the dead wasn’t a matter of honor. It was a matter of evidence.
AWAKENED BY THE BRAWL and the gunfire, Abby peeked silently around a cabinet near the top of the stairs, looking down at the ruins of her life. She’d seen the gunshots, and then watched as the one-eyed monster picked up an eyeball and put it in his pocket. With a thumb in her mouth and lost in a state of shock, she clung to her toy rabbit. It was the only softness left in a world that had suddenly turned harsh.
Eventually, she crept down the stairs. Her mother didn’t respond to her voice or her touch. She looked out the front door but saw only darkness, rain and fog. Traumatized, she snuggled in against her mother’s dead body, reacting to nothing. Not even the frequent blasts of thunder and lightning.
TEN MINUTES LATER, the first police car showed up. It wasn’t long before blue lights were flashing everywhere, yellow tape was going up, and bobbies were taking up posts.
Then an Aston Martin rolled in. Alexander Hawke killed the engine and stepped out. He was middle-aged, fighter-fit, and wore a look that said he wouldn’t be trifled with. A bobby minding the crime scene tape tried to stop him. “There’s been a crime, sir. You’ll have to stand back.”
Hawke flashed his credentials and said, “The detective chief inspector, please.”
The policeman looked at the creds. “Right this way, sir.”
A moment later, Hawke was standing in the living room over Mary’s dead body, talking to the DCI, when a woman from Child Protective Services came through, cradling Abby in her arms.
Hawke stopped her. “I’ll take the child.”
The woman started to protest, but the DCI reached out, took Abby from her arms and handed her to Hawke.
As the DCI followed Hawke and Abby out into the rain, three more cars arrived, and four men piled out of each one. Hawke pulled his coat up to cover Abby’s head and turned to the DCI. “Thank you for your quick response. You’re dismissed. We’ll take it from here.”
Hawke issued orders to the new arrivals. Then he moved the child’s car seat from Mary’s car to his own and hauled Abby to London, where he passed her off to a woman and disappeared from the little girl’s life. A few days after that, the woman delivered Abby to her grandfather. Abby had never met this grandfather. She hadn’t even heard him mentioned.
London – Modern Day
ON A WARM SUMMER NIGHT, twenty-three years and one witness protection identity after her mother’s death, Abby Westminster stood behind the hostess podium at the Dorchester Grill. She preferred to let her raven locks flow free, but her hair was pulled back in a tidy bun. The usually-bare lids of her bright blue eyes sported a trace of shadow. Her skirt, blouse and jacket were formal: black and white, all fit and proper. After all, this was The Dorchester, the place where Prince Phillip had his stag party the night before he married the Queen. The place where Eisenhower bunked as he planned the D-Day invasion. The place where Richard Burton and Liz Taylor… Suffice to say, the tips more than justified Abby’s concessions to dress and grooming.
She glanced at her watch and then at the reservations log. The next entry was “7:00 p.m. Bernhardt, party of three,” and the hour was just a moment away. So, it was no surprise when three men approached her work station. But her face lit up when she saw her grandfather among them.
Like Abby, Sir Reginald Wellington was just a shade over five and a half feet tall. Even at seventy-two, he was strong and wiry. He had taken daily exercise nearly all his life, and it showed. He had a striking white mustache and a delightfully high, shiny forehead that Abby loved to kiss.
Sir Reg and the other two men were dressed for business. By their demeanor, it seemed business was going well, even if Reg’s smile seemed a little forced. Uncharacteristically, he stiffened slightly when Abby stepped from behind the podium and gave him a brief hug.
The two men with Reg were larger men. Abby’s eyes were immediately drawn to the younger, introduced as Travis Blackwell. He was about Abby’s age, perhaps a year or two older. He was a couple inches over six feet tall and looked like he’d just stepped gracefully off the cover of Gentlemen’s Quarterly. His dark hair and beard were, if anything, a little too well trimmed.
Abby wasn’t particularly keen on beards, but still she had to suppress a blush as she felt his gaze and returned his warm smile. She noticed the absence of a ring on his finger as discretely as she could. True, she was virtually engaged to Sterling Weatherby, a future duke; but nothing was official yet, and she hadn’t quite shaken the habit of noticing such things.
Reg introduced the other as Heinz Bernhardt, the man sponsoring a volcanic survey that he was due to join in a few weeks. Bernhardt was perhaps fifty and not quite as tall as Blackwell, but a far cry sturdier. He looked like he’d been athletic in his younger days, and maybe still made it to the gym on occasion. But he also had the look of someone who had a little too much appreciation for the fine food and drink that he could so obviously afford. More than anything, he looked like he was used to getting what he wanted.
Once through with the introductions and seating, Abby left the gentlemen to their conversation, as she would any guests.
AFTER THE THREE HAD ORDERED their meals, Abby checked by the table, ostensibly to make sure that everything was satisfactory. That was, after all, what hostesses were supposed to do. But she stood ready to discuss her college volcanology degree, if the subject of the survey came up.
Bernhardt looked Abby up and down, not bothering to be either quick or subtle. “So, the granddaughter of Sir Reg!” His voice boomed with more than a hint of a German accent. “You and your grandfather are obviously very close, ja?”
“A close-knit family of two,” Abby said with a proud smile.
“They died in an automobile accident years ago.”
“Ah, such a pity,” said Bernhardt. “I’m sorry.”
Abby flashed another smile. “No need. I’m blessed to have Grandfather.”
“He tells me you studied in volcanology.”
“Following in his footsteps,” Abby said enthusiastically. After a brief pause, she quietly added, “Hopefully.”
Bernhardt opened his hands toward the greater part of the dining room. “Then this?”
“I’m somewhat between jobs in volcanology.”
Actually, for Abby, being between jobs in volcanology was the norm. Reg had wrangled her a few temporary gigs, but nothing had worked into anything full-time.
“How would you feel about helping us survey a volcano?” Bernhardt continued. “Just today, we had an unexpected resignation. We start in two weeks. South Pacific. I must determine if it is safe to construct a resort. Your grandfather is team leader, of course.”
Much to Abby’s surprise, Reg butted in. “No, I’m sorry …” He turned apologetically to Abby. “We just need someone more experienced for this particular job, that’s all.”
Before Abby had a chance to react, Bernhardt said, “Nein. I insist. Your Abby, she must come with us. In my country, we take care of our own, ja? Our family, our friends, our neighbors. If it takes a little more time, then more of my money for all of you. And who knows, maybe there is a permanent position in store.”
“Really, I—,” Reg started.
Bernhardt gave him a look and said emphatically, “I truly insist. You will stay as guests at my famous Le’ale’ a Maka Resort, on the next island over from the one to be studied.” Bernhardt puffed his chest. “You will find my resort much to your satisfaction.”
Reg looked clearly disturbed, but Bernhardt left no room for argument. Abby would have to sort it out with her grandfather later, but her first order of business was to accept the offer and then discuss a leave of absence with the Dorchester.
IT WAS NINE-THIRTY before Reg wrapped up business and dinner with Heinz Bernhardt and Travis Blackwell. As Bernhardt’s limo pulled up in front of the Dorchester, he asked Reg where he could take him.
“Thank you for the offer,” said Reg, “but I’m spending the night at my club. It’s only a few blocks away, and the walk is a fit ending to such a wonderful meal.”
“Which club is this?” Bernhardt pried.
“It’s called Glades.”
“Perhaps I could come as your guest.”
“I’ll suggest your name to the committee. Thank you again for dinner. It was lovely.”
Reg was on his way a handshake later. He had just the barest presence of mind to tell his legs to keep the pace leisurely, but his mind was racing. Abby was not supposed to be involved.
He passed through an immaculate neighborhood of four- and five-story brick buildings snuggled together on both sides of a treeless cobblestone street, strolling deeper into Mayfair, the part of London. He crossed four intersections, then stepped off the sidewalk into an alcove in the middle of a block. “Glades” was spelled out in four-inch copper letters above the heavy oak door. He entered a code on the touch-pad, listened for the click, opened the door, and stepped into Glades’ entry lounge. It doubled as a pub for its gentry members and privileged guests. Happy hour was long over, but the dozen or so who struggled with the daily end to social drinking remained.
Reg greeted his way through cigar smoke and a handful of members, then picked up his key at the front desk. Two minutes later he was in his room, on the phone. “We have a problem,” he said. “Bluebird’s along for the flight over the waves.”
Alexander Hawke replied after a brief pause. “How soon can you meet me at the office?”
“I’m at Glades.”
“See you in five.”
Reg opened the door to the walk-in closet, rotated two clothes hooks and stared into the mirror that hid the biometric facial recognition system. A moment later, the floor descended to an underground hallway. It was one of five hidden entrances to a branch of the Secret Service that, since 1940, had no official existence, and was known to only a few.
Reg walked out of the elevator and pushed a button to activate the moving sidewalk. He stepped onto the belt and rushed to MI7 headquarters six blocks away, then took the stairs up to Hawke’s fifth-floor office two at a time.
ALEXANDER HAWKE HAD AGED WELL since removing Abby from the site of her mother’s murder and placing her with Reg twenty-three years before. Even at seventy-one, he was still fighter-fit. His face always reflected experience, and seldom anything more. This evening was an exception. He sat behind his desk waiting for Reg, and he didn’t look happy.
“How did this happen?” Hawke got straight to the point as Reg took a seat across from him.
“As you’d expect,” Reg explained, “Bernhardt invited me to dinner after the meetings. I figured it would be at the Ritz where he’s staying, or one of the upscales nearby. But the next thing I know, his chauffer’s dropping us off at the Dorchester, and of course Bluebird’s on duty. I knew her volcanology degree was going to come up, and it would look suspicious if I hadn’t mentioned anything about it. So I did, and the first chance Bernhardt gets, he offers her a job on the survey. And of course, she’s all over it.”
“Any chance Sterling will talk her out of it?”
STERLING WEATHERBY was thirty-two years old, a future duke, and heir to a fortune in oil, transport and communications. He sat outside the Dorchester Hotel in his silver Bentley Continental GTC. The summer night was warm enough, so the luxury auto’s top was down. He turned the rearview mirror to give himself a final looking over. His sandy hair was perfectly tousled. Not so much as to seem wild, not so little as to seem…well, like the royalty he obviously was. The effect was perfect. He practiced “the look” with his thoughtful blue eyes. His straight teeth sparkled. Now if Abby would just show up.
TEN MINUTES and three Sterling mirror-checks later, Abby finally came bounding out the door and headed toward him, absolutely beaming. Obviously, she was glad to see him. As she should be.
But Sterling’s heart took a turn south when Abby exclaimed, “Sterling, I got a job!”
“You have a job. You think I haven’t noticed?” Sterling wasn’t excited about the working-class thing, especially at the food service level. Once they married, working for a paycheck would be the first thing to go.
“I mean a new job,” Abby explained. “Well, it’s only temporary; I get my old job back when it’s done. And it’s in volcanology!”
“This job is in London?” Considering the number of volcanoes in the vicinity, he didn’t really think it likely.
“No, it’s on an island in the South Pacific. The Ring of Fire!” Seeing that Sterling didn’t share her excitement, Abby quickly added, “But it’s only for a month. It starts in two weeks.”
“You’ll miss father’s birthday,” Sterling said in a stern voice.
“He’ll have others, and it’s not as though I never see him.”
“I’m getting the sense that you don’t appreciate the importance of family events.”
“It’s just… It’s just for a short time, and it’s not as though—”
“It’s more than that, isn’t it,” Sterling interrupted. “You’re always running off and doing things on your own. You really just don’t want to fit in, do you.” It was a statement, not a question.
“Yes, I do!” Abby protested.
“So, why haven’t you taken up golf? Or even tennis, for Christ’s sake.”
“I have my activities. They’re just—”
“What is it you’re afraid of, anyway?” Sterling asked with a hint of disgust.
“What are you talking about?” Abby demanded.
“It’s all your activities.” Sterling drew parentheses in the air around the word “activities,” on the off chance that his voice didn’t convey the intended degree of sarcasm. “There’s nothing social. No games! Look at tonight!”
He brought up his Rolex and jabbed a finger at it. “The party’s been on for two hours, and we’re the only ones not there. You’re always working! And when you’re not, you’re off practicing up how to fight or how to get the hell away. From what, I don’t know! Karate, kung fu, rifles, bows, arrows—then you’re off on your own… running, swimming, bicycling!”
“Yes,” Abby broke in. “It’s called ‘triathlon.’”
Sterling ignored her, and his voice grew louder. “You drive like a maniac, and you fly a plane like the bloody Red Baron’s on your tail! For God’s sake, you’ll get yourself killed! Can’t you find some activities with a little dignity? Something we can do to spend a little quality time together?”
“We do things together,” Abby said, her voice shaky.
“Well, there comes a point when one of us needs to make a little sacrifice for the good of the team,” Sterling said in a huff. “And let’s face it, the team is basically my family…if you’re going to join it. So, why don’t you just tell whoever’s offering you that job that you got a better offer?”
Abby sputtered a moment, then near tears, she blurted out, “If that was a proposal, the form was certainly a dog’s breakfast!”
“Maybe we’d better just put this whole thing on hold,” Sterling declared. “Maybe you should take some time to reconsider your island vacation. Maybe you’ll grow up. Maybe we can talk about it when you get back .... If you insist on going. Maybe. And I mean ‘maybe!’” He paused for a breath, then softened. “Let me give you a lift home.”
“I think maybe I’ll walk home!” Abby growled. She turned and stomped across Park Lane toward Hyde Park.
“You’ll get yourself mugged walking through the park,” Sterling called after her.
“Bad news for anyone who tries!” Abby shot back.
REG PACED NERVOUSLY in Hawke’s office at MI7. “Maybe we should just scrub the entire mission,” he said. “Let Six or the Americans handle it. Or at least find some way to keep Bluebird out of it.”
“Reg, think this through,” said Hawke. “It’s a little late for anyone else to get planted in Bernhardt’s camp. And most likely he doesn’t really have a bomb. He’s probably completely innocent. We just have to check it out.”
“Do you believe that? That he doesn’t have a bomb?”
“I don’t know what to believe,” said Hawke. “I’d like to think I can trust Mihailov, but he is a Russian. All I know is that he says they’re missing a nuke, and they traced it to Bernhardt. The most obvious explanation is that they’re just trying to embarrass us again by sending us after a respected Western businessman. Or it could be that they’ve grown suspicious of you, and once they heard you were on Bernhardt’s survey, they thought they’d put out a little bait to see if you’d bite on it. It’d be just like the Russians to come up with either one of those.
“On the other hand, it’s possible that Bernhardt does have a bomb. And if he does, given that he chose the Dorchester for dinner and insisted on inviting Bluebird along on the survey, we have to consider that she’s part of his agenda somehow. If we pull Bluebird, chances are, you’re out the door. We can’t afford that.
“So, there you have it. If Bernhardt doesn’t have a bomb, there’s nothing to fear. If he does, we have to play his game until we can bust him.”
ABBY WAS HALFWAY through Hyde Park when she turned toward the Rose & Thistle, her neighborhood pub. It was a weeknight, late enough that the crowds would have thinned. She needed someone to talk to, and it bloody well wasn’t her grandfather, who suddenly had no confidence in her abilities. And it certainly wasn’t Sterling!
By the time she arrived at the pub, her hair was down, but her hackles were still up. She worked her way through a small group on their way out. There were just a few guests left, engrossed in their own worlds at tables toward the back. She made a beeline for Martin, the owner and bartender.
Martin stood alone, toweling a glass behind the bar. He had brown hair and a warm smile, and his neat, clipped mustache was just starting to turn gray. He could tell a story on occasion, but he was a quiet sort, and a good listener. He could be trusted to keep things to himself.
Abby smiled weakly to be polite, but the dam holding back her tears was fragile. She blurted out: “Martin, Sterling just dumped me, and Grandfather doesn’t think I’m good enough to go on a volcano survey!”
“The usual?” Martin asked. Counseling Abby usually went better with a little alcohol.
“Yes, please,” Abby answered politely. “Make it a double.”
Martin poured some ingredients into a blender, gave it a quick whirl, and served up a frothy pink drink. “Why would Sterling do that?” he asked.
Abby gulped down a pull on her drink. “He thinks if I'm ever going to be a duchess I need to start behaving as one. Dedicated. Go with him wherever he goes. Never go anywhere on my own. Quit triathlon. Quit martial arts. Quit shooting. Now he wants me to take up tennis. And golf!!”
Abby took another gulp, set down her drink and said defiantly, “I don't even like tennis and golf.”
“Did you tell him that?”
Abby’s hands started flying around like she’d just gotten off the boat from Italy. “Yes, and do you know what he said?” She dropped her voice down an octave, mimicking a man. "What are you afraid of, anyway?"
She went into a rant, again dropping her voice for everything she attributed to Sterling. “And I said, ‘I'm not afraid of anything.’ And he said, ‘Then why is everything you do either about fighting or getting away?’ So then I said, ‘I just like to do those things, that's all.’ And he said, ‘Well, if you’re going to join the team—”
Martin interrupted. “What started all of this, anyway?”
“Well! The latest chapter. I've been offered a job to help study a volcano in the South Pacific. Mr. Bernhardt—that's who's funding it—he wants to know if it's safe to build a resort on it. The island, that is. He's already got one on a nearby island, and he—”
“That's a better offer than rich duchess for life?”
“Why can't I do both? It's just for a month. That's what I told Sterling.”
“Marriage is give and take, Abby.”
“Yes, and you know what he said? He said that…” She dropped her voice again and wobbled her head around… “Since his family has all the money, he should make all the important decisions.”
“I could go along with that for a few million quid.”
“Yes,” said Abby, “but you see, Sterling's not gay.”
Martin straightened. “I’m not—That’s not the point. Sterling would probably buy you an island if it means that much.”
“Well I'm going,” Abby declared. “I’ll show my grandfather who’s good enough. And I'm not giving up triathlon. I'm not giving up martial arts, either. Or flying. Or shooting. I'm not giving up anything!”
“Besides marrying half the wealth of England.”
MEANWHILE, Reg was wearing a path in the carpet in Hawke’s office.
“So, you’re sure Bernhardt’s not ODESSA?” he asked.
Hawke leaned back in his chair. “Reg, ODESSA was set up to help German Secret Service nasties escape and put new lives together after World War Two. That was a long time ago. It’s done. We’ve moved on to other things.”
“Granted,” Reg countered, “but the wealth they passed on to their heirs didn’t just evaporate. And you know it was remnants of an ODESSA wing that Abby’s mother broke up.”
“Over twenty years ago.”
“But there could still be something left of it.”
“It was pretty busted up, and we haven’t seen so much as a flash since.”
“Well, I don’t like the way Bernhardt was looking at Bluebird. Like he was trying to place her.”
Hawke’s patience wore thin. “Reg, I’m sorry to break it to you, but Bluebird’s the kind of young woman that men young and old tend to look at.” He paused and gave his head a small shake. “If there’s any family resemblance, she’s more like her father. Look! You know we’ve thoroughly vetted Bernhardt. His family was quietly anti-Hitler during the War. They did what they had to do to survive, but we’ve never seen any ties to ODESSA. Quite the contrary, really. You do know his parents were murdered, don’t you?”
“So I’ve heard. He was what—thirty at the time?”
“Yeah, something like that. Five never did find the killer. But the Bernhardt family did cross ODESSA after the war. Chances are it was ODESSA that did it.”
“Sure it wasn’t Bernhardt? Usually it’s someone close.”
“No evidence of it, and there’s nothing in his profile to suggest it. He was devastated, spent six months in convalescence, then came back and took over the family businesses and did well.”
Reg rubbed at his temple. What he knew and what he felt were going in different directions. “What about Blackwell?”
“Newcomer to Bernhardt’s organization. American, obviously. From Florida, went to university in Mississippi. Toyed with the alt-right a bit, but never got past the fringe. He’s got a solid work record as a techie, even if he has changed jobs a little often. Bit of a love-‘em-and-leave-‘em type with the women, but if that’s the worst of our problems…”
ABBY STOMPED THROUGH the darkened park, half hoping that someone would dare try to mug her, fuming all the way home. But once there, she stopped by her grandfather’s home office and picked up a pen and piece of paper. She was still upset over her grandfather telling her she wasn’t good enough, but she buried her anger and wrote in her best handwriting, ‘I promise I won’t let you down, Grandfather. Love, Abby.’ The ‘o’ in love was in the shape of a heart.
She left the note by her grandfather’s computer and went to her bedroom. Her eyes settled on the framed pictures of herself, receiving black belts from two different martial arts masters. Inside her head, she heard a voice with an Asian accent say something about violence being a last resort. At the moment, a part of her didn’t completely agree. She exhaled hard, trying to blow the anger from her system. It didn’t work. She thought maybe a shower would relax her.
She was down to bra and knickers when her eyes focused on the punching bags hanging in the corner—a speed bag and a hanging heavy bag. The shower could wait. She pulled on her gloves, walked over to the punching bags and said, “Quality time, you say?”