Two days later they were back in the same hotel room. This time the Americans had arrived before them.
Val strolled in with hands in pockets and raised her eyebrows at the scene. Carter was on a big mobile phone, pacing, his coat off and suspenders showing, sweat stains under his armpits. Walsh was at the light fixture, perched upon a stepladder, swearing down at a radio frequency receiver. Upon the table, new tools of the trade: a couple of multimeters, another frequency scanner, what looked like a thermal camera. Plus a couple of other devices Val didn’t recognize. They hadn’t cared about bugs before, but they sure did now.
Carter looked up at her as she entered, mumbled something into his phone, and shut it.
Seeing his expression, Valentina was again reminded that she had crossed a line here, one there was no uncrossing of. And now instead of fear, she found inside herself a sort of predatory smugness. They were cautious of her. Only she knew exactly what she was up to. To them, it was just bizarre so far, not dangerous.
Perhaps they themselves had contacted people in CSIS and discovered that she was lying about the SIRC report. Either way, now that she was in the room with them, the only thing that mattered was whether they had found out about El Vidente.
Childs entered behind her and took a look around the room, open-mouthed.
“Good morning,” he began to say, smiling.
“Shut up. Sit down.” Carter wasn’t smiling. He pointed to the chairs before them. He put the mobile phone on the table next to the raki and wine and loosened his tie. His sleeves were rolled up. Also on the table, the ashtray sat grey with about twenty stubs in it. Val looked at Walsh, who was just descending the stepladder. He had a cigarette in his mouth, almost done, and a fresh one behind each ear. Bags under his eyes like he hadn’t slept. He looked at Val dully.
There was a folder, also, on the table, filled about a centimetre thick with paper. Files on La Vidente, perhaps?
“What the fuck are you doing?” Carter said to Val.
When she didn’t immediately respond, he snapped his fingers at her and she scowled.
“Hey. You. The tall bitch. You listening? Sit your ass down.”
Walsh put his cigarette out, lit a new one, and went to the window to lean with arms crossed. Staring, glancing back and forth between Childs and Val.
Val shrugged, drew out the chair and sat down, slouching. Childs did likewise, nervously, adjusting his tie. He kept trying to catch Val’s eye but she ignored him. She wanted to think that she wasn’t worried, but whenever she stopped paying attention, the muscles in her neck gradually tensed and drew her shoulders up.
No. Stay loose. Stay ahead. Lull them into nonchalance.
She forced her shoulders down and felt power in the nape of her neck. She lowered her chin a notch and let her eyelids droop half closed as if she were bored, relaxed. Like stepping into the boxing ring. Show no fear.
“Ok,” Carter began, leaning forward with his hands on the high back of a leather chair. “So as you may have gathered, we got a problem.”
“Oh?” Val lifted an eyebrow as she reached for a smoke.
“Fucking oh.” Carter nodded meaningfully at her. “We called Langley and this guy you asked about—you’re not supposed to know about him. Nobody’s supposed to know about him. So now it’s a little different. You gotta tell us how you know about him.”
Val said, “Why? Did they tell you why he’s special?”
“I don’t know shit about him. Which, as far as I can tell, is how it’s supposed to be.”
“Do you know where he is?” Val asked.
Carter looked confused for a second and exchanged looks with Walsh. Then he shook his head at Valentina. “Girl. You’re not paying attention. This is trouble. You’re in trouble. You fucked up. Unless you want a living hell as your future, you’re gonna want to—”
Tom Childs was shaking his head with a faint smile as he began to rise from his chair. “Carter, relax, there’s been some mistake…”
Carter stabbed a finger at Childs without looking at him. “Shut the fuck up, you little rat prick. If I want you to talk, I’ll say so. Do you have any idea how screwed you are?”
Childs’ mouth slapped shut and he sat, dumbfounded. Val smirked a little bit at that. Not his fault. Too bad he had to get dragged into this.
“And wipe that goddamn—”
Val cut him off with a gesture. “So. You did ask for the information on the man. What did they tell you?”
Carter looked at her, a bit surprised. “What’s it to you?”
“I want to know where he is. The man I described to you two days ago.”
“You don’t get to know that. Why do you wanna know?”
Val reached across the table and pulled the folder to herself. Carter watched her do it. When she opened it, she saw that the sheets were all blank. She rifled through them for a moment, then frowned up at Carter. He looked back at her, shaking his head in astonishment.
“The nerve of this fucking bitch…” he said to Walsh.
She placed the folder back on the table. “That’s unfortunate. I was hoping you had brought information on him.”
“That would make us stupid assholes.”
“That’s not what makes you stupid assholes.” Val put a hand carefully on the edge of the table before her. She looked at Carter. “Did they tell you anything? When you asked about him.”
Carter hesitated. Just for a second. “Not a damn thing.”
Well then. If he was telling the truth, she was already too far gone anyway. Maybe she really had mucked the whole thing up. She’d been so obvious about it. But how else to get the information except straight from the agency? In eight years of military service and three in CSIS, she’d never caught a whiff of him. This had seemed like her only shot. But even now perhaps it had been for nothing.
One more stab to gauge him. “They didn’t tell you there was CIA agent who could see the future?”
Now he just looked at her bug-eyed, like he couldn’t believe his ears. “What are you, nuts?”
Maybe he really didn’t know. But it was too late.
She looked at Carter. If he had a gun, it wasn’t visible. Same for Walsh. But better not to prejudge the situation. Better to be fast. Merciless. Assume the worst. Carter was the lead. If anyone knew anything, it was him.
“You’re going to tell me…” she said.
Carter was grinning, nodding. “Oh, I’m going to—”
“…what you know.”
Then her hand was under the lip of the table and she hauled it up. She leaned forward and put her shoulder under the table, heaving it upright like it was made of cardboard and not solid wood. The spy paraphernalia all slid off on the right side along with the folder, the drinks, and the ashtray. She stepped in and charged, catching Carter in the face with the corner, then hurled the table into Walsh as hard as she could, knocking him back as he came for her.
“Jesus Christ, Val.” Childs was stepping back with his hands raised.
Then she was on Carter. He still had a hand at his face as he reeled. She got a hold of his tie and swung him around, gave him a brief pat down to check for a weapon, grabbed the back of his belt and flipped him on his back with a judo throw over her knee.
She turned her attention to Walsh, who was just leaping over the fallen table with pistol in hand, a Glock 17, brand new and top of the line. She intercepted him with a hand on his wrist and an elbow to the nose, then put her hand over the gun and peeled it away from him. Drove her knee in his gut and stood back for a moment. Carter wasn’t stirring from the floor.
She field-stripped the Glock in about four seconds and tossed the pieces away, then looked back at Walsh. “You wanna give up?”
Blood streamed from his nose over his lips. “Fucking…bitch.” He squared up with her, fists up. She could have laughed. Walsh could tell that Val was taller than him, of course, but he probably couldn’t have conceived that she also outweighed him.
He came in with a wide haymaker at her face. She stepped inside it, deflected it with her forearm and jabbed, feeling his nose pop, again, under her fist. A second jab to the throat and he was coughing. She took him by the front of his shirt, looked at him for a second, and threw him headfirst into the wall.
She was wringing out her hand as she approached Tom Childs while he was wide-eyed, inching towards the doorway. “Jesus Christ, Val…”
“You said that already. Listen, Tom.” She put a hand on his shoulder.
“What?” He looked at her, tensing up.
“Sorry about all this,” she said with a shrug.
“Oh, well, y’know…” He gave her a weak smile.
She walked behind him and put a hand on the back of his neck, and he hunched like a baby herbivore under the jaws of a predator. When he tried to turn to look at what she was doing, she shushed him and turned him back by the shoulder. “Okay…” he said.
Then she choked him into unconsciousness and put him on the floor.
Now Carter was moaning and just starting to stand up.
Val was over him, a foot on his chest, bottle of raki in hand. “Drink?” she asked. “Might make this easier.”
“Fuck you,” he spat.
She put a knee on his fat neck, grabbing a fistful of his hair. “What did they tell you? Where is he?”
His face turned red, veins popping out, straining under her weight. “Nothing, Jesus,” he wheezed.
Now what? She thought a long way back. A long way. What would he have done? He who had given her this mission by his own hand and who had set her life on this course. He whose will she carried into the world.
She touched his hand with hers. Break the fingers?
Then she saw the corkscrew, where it had fallen from the table. Silver on the carpet.
She had it in her hand and the tip was digging at Carter’s temple.
“What the fuck,” he whispered.
“What did they tell you?” She turned it a little and drew a trickle of red.
“Jesus Christ, what the fuck.”
“Either you know something or…you’re screwed.” Another slight turn.
She turned again and thought, fuck it, gave it a real turn and it popped hard into his skull, blood flowing freely down to darken the carpet. He shouted and thrashed on the floor, arching his back.
It was a real injury. She wasn’t even sure what would happen to him now, but the sight of his blood and his pain lit inside her a rush of emotion that seemed like rage or horror and guilt that had to be clamped down, transformed, and turned into anger, or it could core her. Now she was sweating and breathing heavily. This was the will she carried. This was who she was, by her own decision.
“Jesus, please,” Carter said at length, tears streaming from his eyes. “You crazy bitch, please.”
She roared down in his face like an animal, trying to make herself what she had to be. What she was. She was doing it now, she realized, even though she felt like she was watching someone else do it. She’d never watched her hands do anything like this. She felt like throwing up.
She’d had a life. She’d been given so much. She had thrown it away. It was too late.
“Tell me,” she screamed in his face. Don’t make me kill you.
“Just,” he said. “Just a little bit.” He was slurring his words. Eyes closing. “Please. Please. Just general. Not. Spessif.”
The corkscrew was deep in his temple. She could turn his head with it, and she did. Making him look up at her.
“Condor,” he said dimly. “Cyclone.”
“What? Hey!” She slapped his face.
He grunted. “Operation Cyclone.”
“What the fuck is that? Huh? Where?” She shook him.
“Afghanistan.” Then he was unconscious.
Shaking, she took her knee off him and sat back. Looking at him. Tears were in her eyes and she wiped them with the back of her sleeve. She sat for a moment.
Afghanistan. She had figured it would be Central America. Hoped. Maybe Nicaragua. Some place where she knew the language, at least. Or maybe retired in the USA. But Afghanistan was close. She could get there without flying.
Adrenaline roaring through her. Her heartbeat in her ears. She shook her head and looked at her right hand, slick with blood. She felt like she was floating. She checked Carter’s pulse, filled with sick dread, but he was alive. She wondered whether it would be safer to take the corkscrew out or leave it in.
In the end, she left it.