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Chapter Nineteen: You've Got a Friend
"I hope you find someone who is brave enough to enter your storm, and respects you enough to love the size of your waves. I hope you find someone who will relish the calm you can have, and who is eager to set sail on the expanse of your mind. I hope you find someone that can't escape the love they have for you, because now they have you in their very blood, always reminding them that you are the only sea worth exploring."
Scanning the dilapidated and graffiti covered buildings, Bella's so-called "safe house" takes on a completely different meaning. Her choices are always fascinating, yet brilliant in their thoughtfulness and execution.
Leaning over to avoid engaging the nosy cab driver, my lips skim her ear. "Lovely neighborhood."
She flashes a mischievous grin. "You balk, but the trees are actually quite lovely. I mean I wouldn't build a summer home here, but it serves its purpose."
I'm unable to hold back my laughter at the altered line. "Brains, beauty, and she can quote the Princess Bride."
"You caught that reference?" She seems surprised.
Dramatically, I grab my chest. "I'm wounded. Only a fool wouldn't recognize the brilliance that is the Princess Bride." Wagging my finger, I enact my best contemplative stare. "In fact, it's a good thing you referenced it when you did because I was starting to question where this whole thing was going."
She grabs my finger to stop it from moving. "Well, thank God I passed that test. I kind of like having you around." Abruptly, her smile melts into a wistful stare, her eyes unfocused.
"Hey." My fingers surround hers, trying to steal her back from her thoughts. "Where did you go?"
Her misty eyes find mine. "Charlie and Tyler never got my references. In fact, they hated them, said it distracted me from the job. I just…"
"You just," I push before she can edit her words.
She focuses on our hands. "It's just nice to be accepted, that's all. They always praised me on my skills and the way my mind works. I guess I didn't really understand how good it felt to be accepted for just being you," she looks up, "until now."
Reaching out, my fingers navigate through her hair, pulling her closer. Our lips instinctively collide, quenching a thirst I didn't realize I had, the hours without touching her suddenly too long. "You are enough, Mira. Just you," I whisper against her lips, drawing her closer.
A throat clearing causes us to separate, the elderly cab driver judgmentally eyeing us through the rearview mirror. "Eyes on the road, buddy. Nothing to see back here," I snap. Bella hides her head against my shoulder, but I can feel the shaking of her laughter. With one final kiss to her head, I pull away leaving our hands linked, finding it hard to break the connection completely.
When we turn a corner, her body subtly shifts, becoming sharper, evaluating the surrounding area. "Are we close?"
We have taken multiple precautions to identify, as well as prevent, anyone from following us. So far, we remain clear, which is almost as concerning as seeing someone. Given what James said, people obviously know where we are, it makes we wonder why they are so quiet.
"Do you see anything?"
"No." She taps the partition, pulling cash out of her pocket to give the driver. "Stop here."
Stepping out, I peruse the crowds on each corner and various stairwells, thankful for the presence of my weapon. "What's the plan?"
"We walk from here. I know a back way into where we are going. It will be hard to follow and easy to spot someone if they try."
"Another secret tunnel?" I work to keep up with her brisk walk, dodging people as she expertly weaves in and out of the crowd.
"Not exactly," she says over her shoulder. "That was all Charlie. This is something I found on my own. At this point, I can't rely on anything that he put in place for me." Her detached words cover the conflicted emotions I know that she feels.
Unexpectedly, she turns a corner and walks into a carpet shop, zigzagging around the aisles to avoid the employees. Near the back, she glances around before opening a door on her left and darting through it. Following, I barely step in before she shuts it, encasing us in darkness. This may not be Charlie's route, but it's obvious from whom Bella learned her tricks. It highlights the unspoken significance of that picture. He has undoubtedly had an influence over her for a long time.
"This brings back memories," I josh as she rummages around the back of what appears to be a small closet.
She chuckles. "Only last time, I couldn't do this." Unexpectedly, she plants a rough kiss on my mouth before opening a hidden door to another room. "Let's go, pretty boy."
This woman continues to make my head spin, but I love it. "Lead the way, Mira." We step into what looks like a storage room of another store, and by the looks of the boxes, I would assume that it is a shoe store.
"There's an exit back here," she whispers, guiding us to yet another door, checking for an alarm system before opening it.
Walking into the alley, the smell of stale urine and garbage permeates the air. Several people are sitting against the grimy buildings, all in various states of disarray and inebriation. Although logically, I know that Bella can take care of herself, I stay close watching for any threatening movement.
"This way." Veering left, she hustles down the alleyway, scanning the doors on the opposite side, her finger pointing to each one as if she is trying to remember where to go next. Several feet down, she walks over to a red door. "Here."
Pulling out a set of keys from her bag, she unlocks it, revealing a rickety wooden staircase. "Another passageway?" I ask, unsure of its soundness.
"Nope. This is it. Jasper is probably up on the third floor. It has the nicest room. If he's not there, he didn't snoop like a good spy should." Smirking, she starts up the steps.
Reaching the third floor, I follow her out of the stairwell. The hallway is dark, lit only by a few tiny windows close to the ceiling. It smells dusty and dank, the place obviously neglected. Stopping abruptly, she knocks on the fourth door down.
Immediately, it swings open to reveal a black clad Jasper, his sniper equipment, and guns leaning against the wall behind him. "Welcome to my humble abode." He reaches out for Bella's hand. "I guess I have you to thank for that."
My hands sweat watching their introduction. Never before have I cared so much about two people meeting one another.
"Jasper. It's nice to finally meet you." Bella allows him to grasp her hand, her body language not quite matching her words.
"It's lovely to meet you too, Bella. I can see why Edward is so taken with you." He pulls her hand to his mouth with a wink. She blushes, reacting to his natural southern charm. Swiftly, my nervousness turns into unwarranted jealousy.
Jasper grins over Bella's head, jolting me out of my own stupidity. The crazy thought reinforces the powerful effect that Bella has on me. The emotions go beyond reason. Rationally, I realize that his intention is to break down her defenses, but the added bonus of messing with me is just too tempting to pass up. As always, the son of a bitch knows exactly what he's doing.
"You're looking a little constipated, Edward. You okay?" Bella laughs in response. Good thing I love him like family.
"You're cute." Walking over, I shake his hand, clapping his shoulder with my free hand. "Thanks for coming."
His jovial face turns serious as he waves us in. "Anytime."
The meager studio apartment is not what I expected. There is a small bed, dresser, and a tattered chair filling the living space, which is adjacent to a tiny kitchen. Next to that is a door, which I assume leads to the bathroom. The walls are fading with crumbling paint, the carpet worn and stained. If this is the "nice" room, I would hate to see the rest of the building.
"Nice place," I mock.
Bella throws me a look. "Hey, it's homey."
"Homey?!" I look around again. "Under what definition?"
She reaches over to push my shoulder playfully. "Shut it. No one asked for your opinion."
"Fine." I cross my arms. "But I still think that someone should introduce you to the DIY network."
Jasper laughs, watching our exchange. "You two are adorable."
"Shut up," we say simultaneously, turning to laugh at one another when we do.
"See adorable," he teases, then points towards me. "I don't think I ever see this one so twitterpated."
I roll my eyes. "And I call you my friend." Bella watches us with a bright smile. "Enjoying yourself, Mira?"
"Absolutely," she jabs. "I can tell that you guys are close. How long have you known each other again?"
"About seven years." Jasper throws his arm around my shoulder. "I took him under my wing. Taught him everything he knows."
"What?" I shake his arm off. "You certainly have a twisted recall of history. They assigned me to you because you needed help." I focus back on Bella. "The truth is that he didn't have enough evidence to close his case. They sent me in to save his ass."
Bella looks to Jasper. "Is that right?" He raises his hands into a surrender position with a "you caught me" look.
"See, I always speak the truth."
"I'm starting to believe in that." Bella bestows a meaningful glance upon me. Her trust means everything, especially given her recent experiences.
"Good," I whisper, watching Jasper beam from the side, the whole scene feeding his inquisitive nature.
Glancing down at her watch, Bella swiftly alters into a more serious mood. Playtime is over. "We should get down to business. We have a lot to discuss."
Jasper sits in the chair, leaning back with his hands clasped in front of him. "Right. Let's talk about James," he starts, "that was one hell of an interesting meeting, and I don't even know half of what is going on."
I sit on the bed across from the chair. "Yeah, he's just one of the many interesting characters in this story."
"I gathered that. So, where do you want to start?"
Sighing, Bella runs her hand through her hair, sitting next to me. "Afghanistan would probably be the easiest."
Minutes merge into hours as we spin our remarkable tale, answering his questions and carefully laying out what we know and what is still a mystery. Jasper's reactions speak volumes about his thoughts. Essentially, he agrees with our conclusion that we are in the middle of something connected to the highest levels of the CIA.
"Our next step is finding out what's in that file, and hopefully that information will answer some of these unknowns." Bella lets out a long breath, bringing us to the present.
"Well, this is definitely a lot more interesting than our last assignment," Jasper jokes off-handedly.
"Yeah, be careful what you ask for," I add bitterly. When I took this assignment that is exactly what I wanted. However, I would give anything, including going back to a stale stakeout, if it meant that Bella was safe.
"And Tyler is contained," Jasper clarifies.
"For the moment," Bella adds, still worried about his increasing mobility.
"And Charlie is basically missing in action?"
"Yes." Bella looks down at her fidgety hands. "He hasn't tried to make contact with me."
"But you're sure he sent those codes."
"Yes," She states confidently.
"Could he have sent them under duress?" Jasper questions further.
"No. He would have sent a different code telling me that he was in trouble and not to trust what he sent."
"You planned for any contingency," I comment.
She finds my eyes. "Yes, to make sure I was always prepared. He wanted to ensure that I came back at the end of each assignment. To him." She clears her throat. "It made me feel special, especially since I had no one else, besides Tyler, who cared about what happened to me."
"Mmm hmmm." I can see Jasper's mind spinning theories about Bella's mysterious past. He stands to get a drink of water, leaning against the sink when he's done. "Tell me again about your memory loss."
Bella blinks. "I don't know what else I can say. I was in an accident and lost everything. My life's memories are now the sum total of seven years."
He hums thoughtfully, moving back to the chair. "You don't remember anything."
Bella rubs her head. "No."
"Not even broken memories?"
Her hand rubs across her forehead again, harder this time. "No."
"What about your nightmares," I point out.
Her head whips in my direction, eyes narrowed. "They are nothing. Just incomprehensible blurs of nothingness and not worth discussing."
"You've never tried to figure them out, or push yourself to remember more?" Jasper refuses to back down.
Bella jumps up. "Of course, but there's no point if nothing changes. The past is the past." The robotic words chill me.
Jasper tilts his head, scrutinizing her. "Yet something has changed." His voice is calm and even.
Bella blinks again. "Nothing has changed. The past is the past."
Jasper stands taller. "It has, Bella. Now, you know that it's a lie. That picture at the very least proves that Charlie knows more about your past than he's saying. The logical question to ask is why."
"And I am. That's why I meeting Laurent at his fucking cabin," she hisses.
"Bella," he murmurs, walking closer, "haven't you considered that you have the answers already. The truth is hidden in your memories. We just need to find them."
"How?" Her hands start shaking.
"The accident you keep referencing. What happened?"
She backs up against the wall. "It was a car crash. A drunk driver hit me head on. I was lucky to survive." I find myself holding my breath. This is the first time she has given away any specifics.
"That sounds horrible and scary." Jasper's voice remains even. "Did you ever see the police report?"
The question throws her. "No." I can barely hear the whispered response. "The other driver was killed instantly, there was no need."
"That's what Charlie told you," Jasper clarifies.
He takes another step. "It's normal to forget an accident and often the moments leading up to it, so let's start with the basics. Where were you going when it happened?"
"Charlie told me that I was on my way to work." She braces herself against the wall, her body quaking along with her hands.
Jasper nods. "That's good. We can work with that, our habits become hard wired. Do you have any morning rituals?" Bella blinks again, looking at him nervously. "Just tell me about them, we'll worry about the time frames later."
She swallows. "I like to run."
"Do you eat breakfast?" he asks.
She shakes her head. "I only drink coffee."
"Okay. Are you living in the same place or did you move after it happened."
"Perfect. I want you to picture it in your head." She looks at him wide eyed. "Just close your eyes and picture it."
Reluctantly, her eyes shut, her body tensing. "Now what?"
"I want you to try and think back, remember those habits, and try to remember yourself doing them before the accident. Picture yourself in your kitchen fixing coffee."
"I'm trying." Her body quakes harder, her skin a deathly pale. "It's blank."
"Did they save your clothes after the accident?" She nods. "Picture yourself in those clothes. Remember the smells and the feeling. Can you see it?"
"I…" Suddenly, her eyes pop open before she runs into the restroom and slams the door, the sound of gagging quickly following.
"Bella!" I jump up to follow, but Jasper's hand prevents me from going.
"Leave her. She won't want you in there."
"I don't care."
"Trust me, Edward. Give her space."
Shaking free of his grip, I reluctantly pace the floor instead. "What the fuck was that?"
He stares at the bathroom door. "Brainwashing."
I spin to face him. "What?"
"That girl has been brainwashed or programmed in some form."
"How in the hell would you know that?"
A cryptic expression crosses his face. Walking back to the kitchen he gets some more water and then hops up on the counter. "My background is in psychology remember. When I first joined the CIA, the 'powers that be' matched me to the behavioral sciences unit, specifically the department that tests experimental programs. One of them dealt with cutting edge hypnosis."
"Like training people to cluck like a chicken when given a command?" I ask derisively.
He shakes his head. "Not really. They were experimenting with electrodes, specifically how suggestion worked when you stimulated certain parts of the brain. It was interesting but scary as hell."
"So you changed up?" Jasper was already in the field when we met. Although we are close, we never discuss past assignments, standard practice for the CIA.
He nods. "They misevaluated why I liked psychology. I loved studying the beauty of the soul and discovering how it develops for each person. They were destroying that, wanting to twist someone's experience for their own personal gain. It wasn't for me."
"And you were able to transfer? Just like that?" If I learned anything over the last few days, it is that the CIA loves to keep their secrets.
He huffs out a sharp breath. "Not exactly. I improved my sniper skills. I overheard that they were lacking new recruits with that talent. I knew if I scored high enough at the range, they couldn't ignore it."
"You're a scary individual."
"Don't forget it either," he smirks.
I look towards the bathroom, thankful that I don't here anymore retching. "Is that what you think happened to her?"
He shrugs. "I'm not sure, but given her physiological reaction, whatever they did is embedded deeply. It's going to take a lot to undo it."
"But it's possible?"
He pauses, rubbing his chin pensively. "Maybe. I know a guy who might be able to help. He ran for the same reasons I did, although he left the CIA altogether. It might be worthwhile to take a trip to visit him. If I'm correct, reading whatever is in that file is just going to make it worse for her until we can figure out a way to counteract whatever they did. They clearly don't want her remembering her past."
"That's what worries me. They already tried to kill Embry, what's to stop them from killing her."
"Charlie," Jasper declares simply. I raise my eyebrow for an explanation. "Look, I'm not saying that the guy isn't shady as shit, but he clearly cares for her. It sounds like he's trying to stop the CIA from destroying her. We can use that to our advantage."
"I don't know, man," I mutter, watching the door. "We're still missing something. How does losing her memory connect to the picture of her with Charlie as a kid? That program you were working on started after she knew him."
"Exactly. Something must have changed seven years ago, and the CIA had to react to protect whatever program James' referenced. Does Embry act the same way?"
"A little bit. He doesn't claim to have any memory loss, but he did repeat that 'the past is the past' phrase when I pushed him about Charlie."
"Hmm, that's interesting." He sips his water slowly. "One thing I learned during my time there is that some people are more susceptible to suggestion than others. If a person took to it easily, it didn't take much to screw with their thoughts. With others, deeper work was needed for the suggestions to take effect. Maybe Bella has a tough brain to crack, so they wiped her memory instead of just altering it."
"Fuck." The thought enrages me as Tyler's face flashes in my mind's eye. If I find out that he was involved with whatever they did, I will destroy him.
"Just cross your fingers that the file James mentioned is detailed. If it talks about what was done to her, it will be a hell of a lot easier to undo."
My body tightens thinking about being able to help her. "That's all I want."
"You really care about her, don't you?"
I shift my eyes towards him. "Yeah, I do. I really do."
He stares for a moment. "Then let's get to work. We need to save your girl." I can't hold back the smile at his choice of words. My girl.
"Can you?" Bella whispers, emerging from the bathroom. Her face is pale, eyes watery. "Help me?"
He hops off the counter to walk over to her. "I think I can."
"I want my life back," she whispers. "No matter how much it hurts."
He takes her hand, patting it lightly. "I'll make some calls. I know somewhere we can go."
She starts to relax, but then suddenly looks up worried. "What about Tyler? Medically, he can't be left alone, not to mention that he'll cause problems if I leave without him." No matter how upset she is, she still has a deep connection to him, one that is difficult for her to break.
"I say we take our chances and just leave him." She may have a connection, but I certainly don't. The guy can rot as far as I'm concerned.
Jasper subtly shakes his head, warning me to watch myself. He's right. I don't want Bella to feel as though she has to make a choice. "If I can work out what I hope, he'll be able to come too. There is plenty of space to contain him until we figure out exactly what his angle is."
Bella sighs, wiping her eyes. "Good, good. Now what?"
Jasper sits in the chair again. "Don't we have a dinner date to plan for? Nothing else matters if we don't get out of there alive, with the contents of that file."
The shift away from her past remarkably re-energizes her. "Right. I have some ideas about that." The abrupt change only reinforces Jasper's theory.
Walking over, I pull her into a tight embrace. "Are you okay?" It's a rhetorical question; we both know that she's not.
She pulls back, with a sad smile. "I'm fine. Planning a successful mission is what I do. Apparently, that's all I can do." Stepping away, she sits on the bed stiffly, her light extinguished.
Jasper's right, we need to get that file. It's time to free her of this invisible yoke once and for all.
Up next, France! There is no teaser this week, you will just have to be surprised. :) The next chapter will post in two weeks, my crazy month is particularly busy this next week and weekend. Until then, take care.