November 28, 2116, Paris.
“BREWER. SPEAK,” Leighton heard a man say, as clear as day, but didn’t answer.
“Hello?” came the voice again, sounding more irritated than did his non-traditional ‘greeting.’
Leighton straightened herself out, threw the gun to the bed, and took a deep breath before she said in a stony voice after a long moment, “I’m surprised I was able to get through so quickly. Or at all.” She grabbed her key ring, and fiddled with the stainless steel key fob.
“To whom am I speaking?” the man asked, not expecting a woman to reply, or anyone but the man who owned the phone; it was evident he didn’t expect her’s.
“Brewer is it? I have a lot of questions and no answers, but something tells me, that whatever Mr. ‘Lowood’ was carrying would help me with that.”
“Not over the phone.” Brewer sounded like he was begging, but angry, a rare combination of inflections. He sighed, and softened his voice, perhaps to appeal to Leighton. Unfortunately, it was too late for that, and there wasn’t anyone she was willing to trust now.
“I suspect you know where I am by now. Let’s meet, you and I, at a bus stop one block south from my current location.”
“Ten minutes, and come alone, or dare I say it, you’ll never see your precious drive again.” Leighton hung up as quickly as possible before Mr. Brewer could protest.
There wasn’t time now for Leighton to feel scared and become emotional, let the weight of the world dig into her shoulders, or walls close in around her. Lowood certainly regretted his decision, coming alone, confronting her, trying to ambush her. Leighton knew it was going to be cold out, and that she’d need more than lingerie to keep warm. She threw on black trousers, and a black sweater, and she took off a charcoal peacoat from Lowood’s person who lay unmoving on the bathroom tile. Then she took a deep breath, picked up her purse and the glock from the bed, still warm from an earlier discharge and tucked it into her waistband before departing the flat, once and for all, stepping over pooled blood in the process.
It wasn’t quite snow falling, nor rain, but sleet; by Leighton’s standards it was the worst form of precipitation to ever form from the heavens, and it came down, awfully, not pelting, but spitting. Moreover, she found herself standing in it, in the ebb of autumn, where once the landscape was glorious with life and greenery, was now rotting dead. She was robbed the vibrance of the lush orange, vivid yellow, and most striking and her favourite red hues. The malfeasance of atrocious weather was full to blame, and unfortunately could not be punished, although it wasn’t truly the elements with which she was angry. As she stood there, in a column of a most hated spate, she waited, impatience trembling across her cheek, and as she waited, she espied a man staring in her direction from the confines of a small, poorly-lit Chinese restaurant. The Black Tiger. It was fine enough to look out a window, even at people, but to the lengthy extent which he held his gaze steady was rude, and intimidating.
Leighton however, quickly detected this was a proxy of the mystery person, the Mr. Brewer, with whom she had made contact via telephone, earlier, before it turned to shit, before evening revolved to dusk. With the conviction of a prowling lioness, she strode to the restaurant, and was, what’s more like a lioness, haughtily indifferent of the rain.
Somehow, perhaps it was the young woman’s dangerous persona, the comfortable attire she had donned, remarkably screamed provocative, and damnably sexy, her fiery temperament, and her quick stride, albeit in some hybridization of a pump, did not offset her appeal. The athletic, tawny girl, had a black coiffure akin to Medusa’s, though slightly thinner, and less slithering and disarming, seen more from her indigo eyes which were graced by sharp lashes; if appearance could open doors, her striking beauty would have broken it.
Wrenching open the hatch, Leighton waltzed toward the man, who followed her still with his eyes, contact unbroken. He didn’t move from the little round table beside the window, or attempt to flee the dingy restaurant, he simply gestured by tilting his head toward the chair across from him, motioning for her to sit down. By the look of him, the man seemed to have more confidence than the man on the phone.
Wizarding a pointed beard, and short brown hair, he clenched his white teeth into an inappropriate half-moon shape, inset a strong jaw, to complement his chiselled physique, no longer hidden by a coat similar to Leighton’s in navy which he had put on the back of his chair. She couldn’t be sure, but if she’d hazard a guess, the glasses he was wearing was part of his disguise. “Leighton. Stay awhile,” the man finally said, and Leighton was positive he was not Brewer.
Leighton only sat down to avoid unwanted glances, and she glared at her new speaking partner with suspicion and thinly-veiled hatred. “You’re not Brewer. Where is he?”
The man hadn’t stopped grinning since she stepped inside, and he relayed, “Indeed. He did however, assure me, that you would understand his being here as logistically impossible, any commute couldn’t guarantee his speaking with you in the flesh. Not on time.”
Leighton computed the information for a moment, averting her eyes, gripping the table and trying to shake it, only to find it was firmly affixed to the ground. She found the slight change to the rendezvous couldn’t hurt her chances of survival, the hard drive was safe, for only she knew where it was.
“I don’t want to speak in riddles right now, it’s been a tough day,” she paused, “So who the hell are you supposed to be this time?”
“You want a name? I’ll give you one. Mike.”
“And what have I wandered into, Mike?”
Mike leaned forward and answered Leighton’s question, the word direct to her ear, “Trouble.”
Leighton pulled away, and put on a fake smile, though there was no mistaking it was animated compared to Mike’s; she couldn’t hide her rage. “Brewer seems to really want what I have, and I’m fairly certain I said no riddles.”
“Where’s Lowood, and where’s the drive?” Mike snapped, expression unchanged.
“Go fuck yourself,” Leighton whispered as politely as she possibly could, under the circumstances, and then she continued, “What’s on the drive? Tell me, or I’m walking out of here.”
“It doesn’t matter what’s on it!” Mike grabbed her wrist on the table, and pulled her closer to his face, “It could be satellite images of nuclear warheads being transported into Kabul, or Northern Ireland, it could be correspondences between two adulterous politicians. The drive itself, is what we want. You don’t want any games, any riddles, puzzles, fuck you. You have problems, questions, I can give you the answers, but they won’t do fuck-all to help you.”
“Then why? Why do you want it? and why did Brewer send Lowood to kill me?”
“You piece of shit.”
“To eliminate the threat! You were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“For some reason I’m having a very difficult time believing that.”
“And that is your prerogative.”
“No! Let’s try this again. You and Brewer are assuming I didn’t have a little... heart to heart with my would-be assassinator. There’s more to this than some drive. Something else is in play. He had it the whole time. He followed me, because that was his secondary objective, and if he got the chance, he would have killed me.” Leighton pulled away her hand.
“Don’t be so dramatic. The agency has everyone followed, and you’re not nearly as clandestine as you think you are.”
“Well I’m flattered, I’m sure it was just a careless mistake on my part. I guess I’ll give up the drive, and call it a day shall I?”
Mike stopped smiling, and a frightening grimace appeared instead, far more menacing than before. He rubbed his hands in his face, unimpressed that he had made zero headway in the conversation.
“Let’s cut through the bullshit, Mike. We all have better things to do. What’s on the drive?”
Mike sighed, “Dates and times. Locations of proposed attacks, estimated casualties, etc.”
“Sounds like more bullshit.”
“Yeah, well, the truth often is.”
“Okay, so how does that involve me?”
“You’re asking me? that’s why Lowood dropped by to see you. If you didn’t figure it out then, why wouldn’t you ask him?”
“Because he had an itch, and he thought his glock might scratch it.”
“I hope that’s not a euphemism for something.”
“He’s dead, Mike.”
“That doesn’t help your situation.”
“You think I don’t know that?” Leighton growled, upping the ante on her tone, ceasing their repertoire.
The other two patrons turned their heads, but after a moment, they resumed to their own conversations and hot meals, when Leighton regained her composure.
“Lowood was based here in Paris.” Mike said informatively. “He tailed you from the airport, saw the drop, and when you were exposed, he moved in and tried to take the drive.”
“What? Are you suggesting he took the drive from me?”
“Stop playing coy, you have your answer now,” Mike groaned.
“I didn’t have the drive before this evening.”
“Right, and there’s absolutely no way to connect you to the Free Peoples Of Washington either.”
“None!” Leighton paused, and waited a moment, thinking of how the conversation turned to this, one of accusation toward her, when she was in the right. “Where are you getting your information? The Free Peoples Of? Come on. You think I’d be affiliated with them?”
“I don't know you anymore, Leighton. Our information came from the now dead horse’s mouth. He saw the drop. Then you took the drive to your flat, and so the story goes.”
“Then Lowood lied to you.”
“Well the pictures don’t.”
Leighton had to reevaluate her situation. This wasn’t a hit, this was a frame-up. She didn’t have a meeting with anyone, and she certainly didn’t schedule any such drop like the one Mike described.
“Where did this intel even come from?”
“I laud your performance, but there’s no point to the act at all.”
“I’m not fucking around! If there was a drop, I wasn’t privy to it. I don’t work for, or with the Free Peoples Of, and I have never had contact with them.”
“Then why are you in Paris?” Mike pressed.
“Don’t you think the EU is a little out of the group’s way? A small one like that?”
“It’s not so far-fetched to think they might be branching out, to a city with a populace that has a similar ideological movement. Besides, the foreign press is good for these individuals, that in and of itself is income, if not a direct corollary to rake in foreign investors. Now I’ll ask again, why are you here?”
Reluctantly, Leighton answered, “I’m… meeting with foreign investors,” and she realised how suspicious her being here was.
She began,“I know how that must sound,” when Mike interjected, sounding more sympathetic than before “You shouldn’t have killed Lowood.”
“I didn’t kill him,” countered Leighton.
“But nonetheless he’s dead.”
“Whoever put the drive in my bag, is who you should be investigating, not me. Your intel is wrong. Whatever they told you is wrong. I work for private intelligence out of Hong Kong, and as far as militant groups go, the Free Peoples Of Washington, or Philadelphia, etc., they couldn’t afford anyone like me.”
“And you wouldn’t be interested in their cause at all, right?”
“I don’t give a shit whether any city in the FACs gains independence. They’re too late, they should have left when Cascadia became its own state; if they had any brains. Sure, they have a noble cause, but it’s a futile one, and not worth my time, because they have no money, and I don’t work for free.”
“Look, even if I believe you, it’s not me you need to convince. If this is a set up, like you’re implying,” said Mike, lowering his head closer to the table as if it would lower his voice too, “then you need to turn yourself in.”
Leighton thought about her options, fiddling with her key chain, and one of the fobs, the stainless steel one in particular. She still had enough leverage to walk out of the eatery unharmed, but by now, it would have been surrounded by agents, no matter what she said about her meeting her contact alone; she would lead them to the drive, and if they believed she was somehow involved with a militant group, they would follow her anyway, regardless if it were in her possession.
“No, Mike. I can’t trust your organisation anymore.”
“You don’t trust me?”
“The fact that you’re here and not someone else just raises more questions. I’ve heard too many rumours, and from what you’ve just told me tonight, I’m under the impression the agency knows more than what they’ve brought you up to speed on. Following me, and not the delivery guy as well? That doesn’t seem strange to you?”
“Leighton, you don’t have any choice. If you go for the drive, we bring you down. Leave, we’ll follow you, after a while, we’ll take our chances... and we’ll bring you down. You were one of the best operatives, so you of all people should know, if you don’t trust anyone, you don’t sleep, you get sloppy, and then you die. Please, understand that.”
“I’ll take my chances.” She looked out the window at the empty bus stop, buckets of rain finally stopped falling.
Once again, Mike sighed, lowering a finger from his ear, “Well, I’ve just been authorized to keep you from escaping by any necessary means, as have the ten agents outside.”
Leighton brought a smile to her face, and affirmed, “Like I said, I’ll take my chances.”
As Mike slowly rose from his chair, Leighton clung to the table, and pressed a button on the side of her key fob before he could lunge at her. Instantaneously, an innocuous rubbish bin situated near to the empty bus stop where Leighton previously was waiting, burst to life, sending shrapnel, and heat, and raging fire in the direction of the establishment, uprooting asphalt, and shrubs, breaking glass and concrete, and sending everyone standing too close to the blast flying. If anyone had been waiting at the bus stop, they would have been vaporized.
Leighton came to, less injured than anyone else in the restaurant, still holding onto the table, and covered in rubble and broken glass. She looked around to see isolated fires burning in the remnants of the shabby city-scape, people lying unconscious, as few casualties as she was expecting. If there were agents waiting to pick her up outside, they had been blown back and injured. Mike was lying across the restaurant flat on his back, but alive and moaning. As quick as a flash, she jumped up, and darted out the gaping window, starting to the northeast, when she felt something sharp, a thorn digging into her thigh, a rather large piece of shrapnel protruding, ugly and jagged, and it slowed her run as she became aware of the injury.
Suddenly, from out of the shadows on her nine o’clock came a lone gunman, only he was as off-guard as Leighton, and they both drew their weapons, and both knocked them from each other’s grasp with their free arms. Two guns sailed across the cobbled pave, as they lashed out in conflict for advantage. A fist here, there, to the face, and a kick to the groin, and then she sustained punches to the breast and then the kidney. The man grabbed Leighton by the shoulder and threw her to the ground, and against a building-side, where he proceeded to kick her in the stomach. By the third blow, she was more than winded, but she managed to grab the man by the boot, and yanked hard, twisting it in the wrong direction, effectively shattering his ankle. He fell onto the road awkwardly, but Leighton still was out of breath to get up in a hurry, or get far by slinking away, so the man reached out, and dug his fingers into her ribs, one of which she now believed to be broken, to bring her back down. He inched closer, dirtying his attire from the well rained-road, and brought his other fist upon her ribs, and Leighton cried out in pain.
Then she saw a gun resting on the road, and heard the sound of sirens finally within range, and footsteps running wild towards her. She managed to kick the man’s damaged ankle, forcing him to let go, she grabbed the gun, wheeled on her pelvis, and fired.
Another agent was closing in, and shot right by her. She got up, and leaned against the wall, the gun, warm to the touch, closed around her fingers, as she waited for the agent to round the corner. The young man came about at high speed, and as tight as a spring, connected her fist to his face, incapacitating him.
Leighton was not going to leave the city in her condition, feeling the blood drip from her leg, and she felt weak, and tipsy from the blood loss. Then she cringed when she put her hand to her ribs, and stopped herself from screaming. She remembered seeing a pharmacy a few blocks from her current position. Her new mission: heal, and hide.