Episode 15

There were times Belinda wished she was only a master gourmet chef, rather than a former field agent and head of a secret information network.
            She’d taken her licks from both Damian and her few real co-workers since she’d started the little system she had with Trent and three or four others in high places around the world. Director Ashcroft in particular had chastised her for splitting duties between serving exemplary food and cultivating valuable intel, requesting that she choose one or the other to not split focus.
            If there was one thing Belinda was fantastic at – besides Lobster Colorado – it was multi-tasking.
            Right now her self-preservation skill was keeping her and Michael alive; they were holed up in a vent between the kitchens and the main floor, evading the mercenaries and the security cameras. No-one else had come by, which was a shame because the male body odour in the vent was becoming unbearable and there was no-one she could waft it at without being spotted by the enemy.
            Sometimes she wasn’t much of a team player, especially when it was Michael’s BO involved.
            “So, tell me again why we’re not going for some guns?” Michael asked for what seemed like the fiftieth time that nanosecond.
            Belinda sighed. Men. “Do you really know how to use a gun properly?”
            “Of course!” he hissed. “I was using NERF guns before they were cool, you know!”
            She rolled her eyes. “NERF guns. NERF. Are you goddamn serious? You’re basing your weapons knowledge on some pieces of friggin’ plastic?”
            “Well, do you know how to use a gun?”
            She reached behind her apron and retrieved the Smith and Wesson 460V revolver from its lightweight holster. She flicked open the five-round-chamber and spun it in Michael’s face before twisting it back into the gun, twirling the weapon on her finger briefly. She replaced it behind the apron, leaving Michael to stare in shocked silence.
            Obviously he hadn’t known she had a thing for long-barrelled weapons.
            She suddenly caught sight of something familiar through the slits in the vent – tacher. More than that, a one-handed guy wearing tacher. Nick.
            She pushed the vent panel aside as three assault rifles swung around and aimed at her and Michael, each held by Nick, Jacob and Glen respectively. Nick was attempting to substitute his missing hand with the stump left behind, but didn’t have the firmest grip because of it.
            “Put that thing down, honey,” she said sweetly, “before you hurt somebody.”
            He gave her an admonishing glare before lowering the weapon as the others did also. She crawled out into the fresh air and was immediately hit by three separate flavours of body odour, seasoned with sticky tacher smell. Out of the frying pan…
            “How?” Glen asked, not looking pleasantly at her.
            “Got out when we heard the booms upstairs.” Belinda jerked her finger to the floor above. “Any casualties?”
            Jacob looked grim, staring away from her. Glen filled the void with his own clipped tones. “Ash. One of us did it.”
            Well, that’s unexpected. Belinda did her best to not look so surprised. “Oh. So there’s definitely no sign of her then?”
            The three men exchanged confused glances before Nick replied, “Uh, no. She’s dead. All that’s left is the corpse.”
            “Ah, alright then.” They don’t know about the plush zombie – good. She rubbed her temples with her fingers. “Sorry, all this stress…I don’t know what I’m saying anymore.” She gave a fake chuckle she hoped was convincing. Ash’s death was unfortunate, but she couldn’t risk revealing the Intern’s identity. Not yet. “So, any plan?”
            “The server room,” Jacob responded, sounding like he hadn’t drunk any water in days. “Lonie stayed behind at the armoury in case Trent showed up, and we’re on our way to try and crash the servers to prevent them siphoning anymore CRUD data. We also need to take down the security cameras and any audio receivers throughout the HQ.”
            “Intern codewords?”
            Jacob nodded. “None of us can be trusted until we know who’s who.”
            “I still say it’s your fault,” Glen said bitterly. “She wouldn’t be dead if you hadn’t –”
            “What did Lonie say about sticking together, children?” Nick admonished them. Belinda noticed he was clutching his stump with his hand, the rifle slung behind his back. She couldn’t imagine the pain he must’ve been feeling then.
            The two other men stopped talking, allowing Nick to speak to Belinda. “Any assistance you could give would be appreciated.”
            “I’ve been thinking about that,” she replied, nodding slightly. “There’s a failsafe measure two floors down from here that releases gas through any level of the building. It was designed as a countermeasure in case any rival companies gained ingress.”
            The three of them – and Michael, judging by the gaze boring into her back – stared dumbfounded at her. “How the shit do you know that?” Glen asked incredulously.
            She winked. “Woman’s intuition. Now, there’s some pretty strong anaesthetic gas canisters in there that could knock out all the intruders – or, at least, slow them down considerably – if they were released. I say Michael and I head there, try to knock ‘em all out and have you fine gentlemen storm the place once they’re incapacitated. It’s likely there’ll be one or two who aren’t on the main level, and they’ll need to be dealt with.”
            “You’d need to be careful with the amount you use,” Jacob told her. “Too much and it can kill them.”
            “I know, hun. This isn’t my first rodeo.”
            Glen eyed her suspiciously now. “This is incredibly well thought-out for someone who works in a kitchen.”
            “Who says that’s my only job?”
            There’d been many a time she’d considered whipping out the revolver and demonstrating her prowess against the smug bastard, but there was a time and a place. Maybe when this was all over she’d show Glen just how much the kitchens had given her dexterity.
            He still looked at her funny, but said nothing more. Nick nodded his assent. “Sounds like a plan. You know the way?”
            She looked at him frankly, and he responded sheepishly, “Yes, of course you do.” He turned to Jacob and Glen. “Alright, server room fellas. Let’s hoof it.”
            They nodded to Belinda and Michael – with Glen giving her one last strange look – before tramping off to the server room. Belinda started to slide back into the vent, relishing the slightly fresher body odour before being constrained to what remained in the vent.
            When this was over, she was buying Michael some Old Spice. The man my man could smell like…
The first tool Rob-Bob had pulled out was a radio antenna. He’d taken it from an old Honda Civic he’d once owned, and had then begun flicking Damian’s cheeks with it. The Brit had had no idea how painful that could be until he’d had one hundred lashes with it so his cheeks resembled a Connect-Four board.
            The next tool had been the rubber door insert from a Nissan Pulsar that had been wrapped around Damian’s left arm until it went pale. The third tool had then complemented the insert by being a long piece of shattered, jagged glass that had once been part of the passenger door window on an ancient Crown station wagon. The glass had traced a long, elaborate ‘R’ up Damian’s arm until blood seeped out through the thin lacerations. It dribbled down the sides of his arm, dripping quietly onto the floor.
            Rob-Bob then removed the insert, allowing the feeling to flow back into Damian’s arm and the pain to flare like a mighty dragon inside his head. He did his best not to groan or react, promising himself he wouldn’t give Rob-Bob any ground above him. He was British, and he would be proud and proper until the end.
            Hopefully it’d be sooner rather than later.
            The torturer was once again asking for the same information he had when he’d used the antenna. “Where is Project Starfire?”
            “I don’t know what you’re talking about, dear boy,” Damian replied, avoiding Rob-Bob’s gaze and staring at the conference table. Right now it didn’t matter how Dream knew about Starfire – probably the Intern’s fault for that one – but he would not acquiesce.
            Rob-Bob reached into the suitcase and retrieved a yellow Australian licence plate; the designation read ‘P41-NFUL’. Damian glanced idly at it. “Was that custom-made?”
            The other man nodded, looking prideful. “Don’t usually get seven letters on an Aussie rego plate, so my friend at the RTA had this made special for me.” He dangled two straps, one at either side of the plate’s length, and began affixing it all to Damian’s un-lacerated arm. “Lemme tell ya, reaaaaally don’t want me to do this. Way easier if you just tell me where it is.”
            Damian looked unflappable as the straps on the plate tightened, the registration number pressing against his skin. “What, this Project Starlight thing?”
            “Starfire.” Rob-Bob didn’t seem to be losing his cool, calmly retrieving a cordless iron and flicking the on-switch. “Tell me where Project Starfire is.”
            “I really have no clue what you’re babbling about, good sir.”
            Rob-Bob sighed. “Ya know, Dream’s a mate’a’mine. Could get ya a sweet deal if ya just tell me where it is.”
            “Isn’t Project Starlight a children’s charity or some-such? I think you have the wrong address; if you’d be so kind as to vacate the premises, I’ll consider not informing the authorities.”
            Rob-Bob laughed heartily, then pressed the searing hot iron against the plate. It didn’t take long for the metal to start burning Damian’s arm; he grit his teeth and tried not to yell as the pain intensified.
            No matter what he would…not…break…
            “Tell me,” Rob-Bob repeated, his voice louder this time, “where Project Starfire is located.”
            He pressed the iron down harder. “Tell me!”
            Rob-Bob kept the iron down one-handed and gripped the window shard with the other, slamming it into the center of the ‘R’ on Damian’s other arm. The glass stabbed deep, and Damian’s entire body felt like it was on fire.
            He couldn’t hold it in anymore. He threw his head back and screamed, and dreamt only of oblivion.
Trent didn’t need x-ray vision to know someone was inside the armoury; the door was slightly ajar, and the ragged breathing could be heard down the hallway. He guessed it wasn’t a merc, unless playing possum was something they had in their repertoire.
            He gently nudged the door open, raising his hands. “Don’t shoot! Friendly!” he hissed.
            The door opened all the way and showed Lonie sitting in the corner, behind a rack of body armour, holding a pistol a little awkwardly. She lowered it as soon as he entered. “Thank God. I was worried I’d have to shoot someone.”
            He gestured at her reassuringly. “No worries. I’m guessing you weren’t alone?” He motioned to the empty spots on the armour rack.”
            “No – Jacob, Nick and Glen.” She looked down, and it was then that Trent noticed the dead body – Ash’s dead body. “One of them killed her. One of them is the Intern.”
            Trent nodded. “I know. More to the point, I know who it is.”
            Her eyes widened. “What?”
            He reached into his pocket and brought out the USB Brandon had instructed him to use. “Reckon I should tell her?”
            At this point, I do not see it really helping or hindering us.
     Lonie eyed the device warily. “What is that?”
            Trent waggled it in front of her, showing her the text screen. “Brandon – he’s lost a bit of weight though.
            Ha, ha.
     “We’re on our way to the server room – need to knock out any data the baddies can get their hands on.” Trent took a breath before continuing. “I’ll take you along, but you have to promise me something.”
            She nodded, quirking an eyebrow. “What?”
            “I’m guessing the others left you a way to contact them?” When she showed him the radio they’d left behind, he went on. “I’m going to give them a buzz, and tell them where we’re headed. We cannot tell them who the Intern is.”
            “What?” she said for what seemed like the fiftieth time that nanosecond. “Why not? The others could be in danger!”
            “Because if we tell them who it is, and the Intern is confronted with it, they’ll experience massive synaptic shock.” It was days like this Trent wished he’d done that neuroscience degree they’d offered in college. “I don’t know all the technical stuff, but there’s a codeword Beth needs to speak to Activate him permanently. Unless she uses that word, any revelation that the Intern is who they are would severely damage their psyche, almost to the point of brain death. If we’ve got any chance of rehabilitating this poor soul, they have to remain in the dark for now.”
            She seemed to take that onboard, though Trent could see she didn’t agree with it. “Do you know what the word is?”
            “Not a clue,” Trent admitted. “If it follows previous patterns, it’ll be a colour. No idea which one.”
            She clicked her fingers in frustration. “Dammit. I knew I should’ve done visual arts instead of law.”
            He raised an eyebrow. Her humour really needed some work. “Don’t quite your day job, sweetheart. Now, give me the radio.”
            As he started to page the radio the other group had, Lonie’s eyes suddenly widened again – this time with realisation. “Oh my God.”
            “Has anyone checked on Graham 917?”
The irony of needing to be in a gas room was not lost on Belinda. If she got too much more gas today – whether it be from man or machine – she might just start wearing hazmat gear to work. Lord knows it’d help when radioactive chicken was on the menu.
            The room itself was set up like a surveillance room, with large metal canisters embedded in the walls with long-numbered designations telling a casual observer which gas did what. Each wall was divided into one of three groups, besides the fire suppressants stored in the ceilings of every corridor; anaesthetics, poisons and hallucinogens. In her years at CRUD Belinda had only ever seen it used once, as an April Fool’s Joke.
            No-one joked afterwards about the serious effects hallucinogens can have – although a happy by-product of it was seeing Damian convinced he was Rick Astley. Belinda had never seen such a spirited rendition of that song in her life.
            She dropped from the vent and onto the floor of the gas room, opening up the terminal attached to the wall opposite the main door. She brought up a list of all available gases as Michael dropped down beside her, checking the area warily. He stood next to her and looked at the screen.
            “Alright,” she told him, “should be right as rain now. Just need a bit of –”
            She stopped midsentence. The display told her every single canister was empty, utterly devoid of any gas. Even the hallucinogens were gone.
            She was about to ask who had done it when her answer came in the sound of a hammer being cocked behind her head. “That’ll do, grandma.”
            Michael raised his hands in surrender, looking behind her. She caught sight of part of the captor’s face in the terminal’s screen reflection. “You must be Tucker.”
            “Right in one.” She could almost feel his wretched grin. “You’re gonna do me a favour, grandma.”
            She twitched at the use of the matriarchal affectation, but tried to ignore it. “What would that be, exactly?”
            He gestured with the gun to the canisters in the walls. “You’ve no doubt noticed all your gas has escaped. That’d be because we kinda stole it.” He tapped something large and metallic behind her with his foot. “It’s all in this tank here, every single gas you’ve got a hold of. One giant cocktail of no-fun.”
            “How the hell did you keep them all in there, stably?” she asked, not only horrified but genuinely curious. “There’s at least twenty different kinds of poison gas in there, as well as the –”
            “We know exactly what was in there,” Tucker interrupted. “What’s important is that we’ve synthesised it into one giant drum of death, and I need you to spritz your friends heading to the server room.”
            “Like hell she’d do it,” Michael interjected.
            Tucker looked at him menacingly. “Quiet, old man, or you’ll have trouble peeing for the rest of your life.” He looked back at Belinda. “Well?”
            “Not a chance.”
            Tucker nodded. “Figured you’d say that. Let me up the stakes for you – waste your buddies, or you get to hear the screams of your co-workers dying upstairs.” He clicked on a radio he held, and Belinda heard screams – a man’s screams.
            She knew it was Damian when he spoke. “I will not…break!
            Her heart felt clenched in an iron vice. Tucker obviously noticed her pain as he stashed the radio back in his pocket. “So, do we have an accord here?”
            She swallowed, knowing she had to be strong. If Damian wouldn’t break, neither would she. “The only accord we have is the one you –”
            “Yeah, really not interested in a diatribe, grandma.” In one swift motion Tucker swung the gun to the side, in Michael’s direction, and fired.

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