I slip behind the wheel of the ambulance and twist the key waiting impatiently for my fingers in the ignition. The engine coughs to life as Emma closes her door and we sit in silence as we wait for the heater to thaw our fingers and toes and tongues. I fiddle with the knob that controls the fan, going back and forth between three and four, trying to decide if three is more too low than four is too high.

“Would you stop that?” Emma says tightly, staring straight ahead. I hesitate a moment, then turn it to four before sitting back in my seat. I turn my head to look at her and wait for the rest to come. It doesn’t take long. “Look, this doesn’t prove anything, alright? This guy might be betraying Joel, or hell maybe Jazz is too. It’s not like we know these people.” I can tell she doesn’t believe what she’s saying. “The only way for us to find out is -”

“To ask Joel?” I can’t stop the harsh, short laugh that accompanies the question. I don’t want to be talking about this. I don’t want to be speaking to Emma this way. But this conversation seems to be just one more thing tumbling out of my control. “Yeah, I’m sure he’ll be really grateful to know that his crony failed to kill me in City Hall and that these two are having late night chats with the mayor behind his back. He seems like the sort of guy that would have no idea that sort of thing was going on – totally out of the loop, you know?”

“So you’d rather trust that child molester? The monster that nearly tortured Jim to death just because… because who the hell knows why, anyway?” The words pouring forth from those rosy lips are striking me like poisonous barbs, each one draining my strength bit by bit. If we can’t stay united, we have no hope. Even though it was only minutes ago that we came together in the snow, I can’t remember what those lips taste like. “So what’s his plan – for us to charge into Grozny’s mansion, guns blazing?”

I throw the vehicle into drive and step on the gas without answering. I can feel her eyes burning a hole through the side of my skull as I make my way quickly through the parking lot and back on to the side street. The clouds have put down a thick blanket of snow and the tires struggle for traction, forcing me to slow down.

“Actually,” I say quietly, “he’s given us two options on how to take Grozny down. Wilkerson claims to have a CD full of dirt on his partner in crime, hidden in a safe at his home. It’s encoded, of course, and he promises to unlock what we need as long as we play by his rules. But he also doesn’t know we have Jim.”

“What’s option two?” Emma’s voice is still tight but at least some of the fire has gone out of her words.

“Everybody keeps records, even criminals. And those records need to be stored somewhere – in this case Wilkerson believes that Grozny has split his files between three locations. One in his home, one in the Oberon Abattoir, and the last he doesn’t know. I’m not sure how he found out about the first two but I don’t think it matters – trying to break into that mansion would be a death sentence and who knows if he’s moved the other location by now.”

“So you want to start with his own CD and see what we can get out of that first? Grozny’s people are sure to be keeping a watch on Wilkerson’s home – they’ve already been through it with a fine tooth comb by now,” she says, not bothering to conceal her doubts. I’m tempted to add that Joel and his people have probably been there too but I manage to maintain our fragile peace by keeping my mouth shut. “Where did he hide the safe, anyway?”

“That’s the catch,” I say as I pull the cell the Bear gave me out of my jacket pocket. “He wouldn’t tell me. He said to call once we’re inside his house and he’d direct us from there.”

“He might as well hold out a piece of cheese with one hand and hold a butcher’s knife in the other,” Emma says, slumping into her seat. “Who are you calling?”

“I want to see if Jim has had any luck with the CD we already have,” I reply as I put the phone to my ear. “And to see what his thoughts are on having to crack another one.”

“Yes?” The Russian Bear answers on the second ring, his voice indifferent. I bury my doubts about trusting him underneath all my other concerns as I take the left turn that will take us back to the aquarium.

“We’re on our way back – any word from Puppy?”

“Nyet. But I would not expect to hear anything from our girl until she finds what she is looking for.”

“Good point. Has Jaws made any progress on his work?”

“He has not yet broken his computer,” he replies and I’m not certain if that was a language issue or if he was making a joke. “You are here already?”

“No, the building is just coming into view – we’ll be there in a minute.”

“Hold on. I think someone is paying us a visit.”

“What?” Every hair on my body is standing at attention now. I put my foot to the floor and the ambulance fishtails momentarily before I’m able to regain control.

“Jeremy? What’s going on?” Emma braces herself against the door frame with one arm and grips the armrest with the other. I don’t answer, too busy keeping us on the road and straining to hear what’s going on at the other end of the line. Maybe Puppy has returned already. Maybe…

My thoughts and hopes are brought to a terrible halt as the aquarium disappears before our eyes, replaced by a nightmarish ball of red and black fire.

The End

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