A BULLET FROM CHEKHOV'S GUN

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Chapter Eighteen

Bella staggered off the train in London, sleep-deprived and confused. The glass and steel glittered in the rare morning sun, and Bella squinted as she walked. She wasn't even sure how many days it'd been since she saw St. Pancras last—three? Four? Several. She'd check her phone, but it was dead again. She'd listened to Edward's voicemails through Germany and most of France.

Sent an hour after she'd fled: Bella. Bella, please. You must let me explain. It's imperative.

Two hours later: Bella, it's Edward… again. I know you don't want to speak with me right now, but it's not what you think. I—well, I can't imagine what you might be thinking, but I assure you, it's not… that. Please, when you get this, call me back at this number. Day or night. Please, Bella.

Thirty minutes after that: Bella… I should've told you the truth, long ago. I… Bella. I'm sorry. I'll tell you everything—anything. It's not what you think. Probably. [Chuckle] Hell, you've probably got me all sorted. But I won't do this over the phone… I need to see you. You deserve that. Please.

The half-dozen texts she'd received were largely the same. She ran her thumb over the edge of her phone through her jacket pocket. In her rush to pack, she'd left that damn charger on Jake's bedside table. Bella froze mid-stride. Was she supposed to go back to Masen Industries, if it even really existed? Was she supposed to just act as if everything was normal? Feign ignorance? She had to speak to Edward, and before she went to "work" the next day.

Bella looked left and right when she started walking again. She was staring at a dead end. Shaking her head, she turned, prepared to follow the signs to the street and hail a cab. Between her and the crowds on the concourse were three men, standing in an exaggeratedly casual circle. All were looking at her out of the corner of their eye. A shudder ran down Bella's spine. Their eyes weren't at all like those of the man whose last heartbeat Bella had felt against her chest; this evil was different, but just as chilling. She stood up as straight as she could and walked, each step firm and even, toward the concourse. Her steps echoed in this out-of-the-way place.

"Aw, luvvie, don't be like that…" one of them called. Bella refused to turn until she saw one slide into her path. He wore a black parka, identical to the other two. She jumped back.

One or both of the others laughed. Bella couldn't tell. She took a deep breath. Bella couldn't handle three adult male attackers at once. Just one, certainly. Even two—she'd practiced disabling multiple opponents with Angela at the dojo. Three was too many.

"Leave me alone," she demanded. "You don't want to do this." Whatever 'this' was.

"Oh, but we do," answered one behind Bella, to her left.

"Really do," said the third, to her right. Bella was trapped. She shifted her feet, settling into a defensive stance. Bella wouldn't lay down and take this. She'd fight. Bella filled her lungs to scream for help, but when she glanced over her attacker's shoulder, the station was empty. Where had everyone gone? Would anyone hear her if she cried out?

The black-clad man ambled over to a door. It was labeled STORAGE CLOSET and had a broken lock. Bella shuffled around so she kept the apparent ringleader in front of her. If she surprised them, perhaps she could get away. She tensed, ready to spring.

Until a flash of red among the black and chrome caught her eye. An indicator light on a CCTV camera. Bella gasped. Could he…?

Couldn't hurt. Bella looked directly at the camera and said, "Edward, a hand, please?"

"There's no Edward here, luvvie—"

"Are these men bothering you?" came a fourth male voice from the direction of the concourse. He was tall—huge—and dressed in a suit almost as nice as Edward's. He walked with that same feline grace as Edward's, too, one that was too assured for even a multinational boardroom.

Another ostensible businessman materialized, and another. Surely they hadn't appeared out of nowhere, but where?

"What the fuck?!" one of Bella's attackers snarled. The apparent leader grabbed for Bella. A flash of movement Bella could barely follow; a grunt; shuffling; thudding; muttered cursing. The huge one had thrust Bella behind his body. One of her attackers was unconscious, another was curled in the fetal position and whimpering as he clutched his balls. The one who'd grabbed for Bella was pressed face-first into the wall, held there by one of her rescuers.

"Well then," said the man who was clearly not a businessman, the one restraining her. "Ya gave us a bit of a scare."

"You're from Belfast," Bella blurted out. Shock. She must be in shock.

"Ha ha, aye. But I've orders to tell you—no, to impress the urgency of this upon you," he said in a mocking imitation of a posh English accent.

"That you take this," he removed a credit card from his jacket pocket, "and use it to go wherever ya want, but go directly there. Oxford's a long way, especially on that bus."

Bella nodded and took the card. She stared at the more-than-silver plastic. On it, ISABELLA MARIE SWAN was written in squared-off, raised letters. Bella didn't have an account with this bank.

"Vauxhall Cross is much closer."

Bella's head snapped up. A half-dozen questions flitted through her mind, but the twinkle in his eye suggested she already knew the answers. Well, most of them.

"What's your name?"

"Go see your boy. There'll be time for all that later. I'm sure I'll see you again."

"That's not creepy at all," Bella muttered.

"Give 'im a chance." He squeezed her shoulder, just like Jake would do. Like a brother would do. "He's been worried. Nearly driven the Chief mad pacing outside her office, I'd bet."

Bella stroked her name on the credit card with her thumb. She was tempted to turn around and go right back to Jake and Germany. Bury her head in the sand. But she'd been neglecting her studies—more than that, there was a mystery to be solved. The mystery of Edward Cullen.

"Vauxhall Cross."

He nodded, and Bella nodded back. She walked through the station—still strangely empty—down to the street. Once in the cab, she groaned.

"Goddamn it." She tried to straighten her t-shirt and pulled her hair into a tidier bun. A dramatic confrontation would go better if she'd had time to clean up.

"Understood. Send her up."

Esme Platt hung up her phone and turned to look at the agent sitting, head in his hands, on the other side of her desk.

"Apparently, there is a disheveled young woman downstairs demanding to speak with you."

Edward startled and looked up.

"Bella?"

"The very same. So, pull yourself together. Sort this." Esme glared at Edward. "Stop acting like the lovesick puppy you are, and start looking like a proper member of HMSS, like you're supposed to be. Enough of this moping. I've had enough. I need you strong, and damn it, Edward, Bella Swan needs you strong. Give her a reason to trust you, to trust us."

Edward stood and paced. He wiped his face. When the operation required it—like when Bella had been in danger—he could empty his mind and focus solely on the issue at hand. Why did Bella scatter his thoughts like light through a prism? Stupid question. He knew why.

"And for Christ's sake, do something with your hair."

Edward ran his fingers through the offending tangle, which only made it worse. Esme just shook her head.

"She's here," squawked the intercom.

"Send her in."

Bella walked into Esme's office. Her fingers trembled. Edward looked at her rumpled clothes and dark circles. She was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. He rushed towards her, and Bella held up her hand without looking at him. She focused on Esme.

"You're the woman from the train station."

"Indeed I am. Have a seat, Ms. Swan."

Bella slumped down in Esme's leather chair and rubbed her temples. Edward took a step, paused, and stuck his hands in his pockets. He ran his hand through his hair, then put it back in his pocket. He took another step. Esme relieved him of his suffering and gestured to the chair beside Bella's.

"You're spies. Both of you." Bella's voice was quiet and tired, but sure.

"Yes," Esme answered. "Though my days in the field are long behind me."

"But… the train station."

"Well, my operative here," she indicated Edward with a raised eyebrow, "foolishly let you out of his sight. Honestly, I should sack him for his bungling of this op."

Esme sighed. "And, Ms. Swan, you… are a special case. Surely you must see that."

Bella nodded. She noticed Esme's nameplate, and the letters on it. Bella couldn't help it, she started laughing. "'What a dame…' You're an actual, literal Dame…" she said through her hysterics.

Esme tilted her head to the side and Edward hurried over to the liquor cabinet. He poured a finger of single-malt into a lowball glass, glanced over his shoulder at Bella, and added another finger. Bella drank it in two gulps. Her eyes tightened, but she didn't flinch.

"Feel better?" Esme asked.

"Not really."

"You will." Esme stood, and when the lady rose, so did Edward. Bella heaved herself out of her chair as well, because it seemed the thing to do. "Edward, you two have a lot to talk about. Take her to your uncle's, enjoy the sun in his garden."

"Yes, Chief. Bella?" Edward offered her his arm.

"And feed her something, she looks like she's about to fall over."

Edward guided Bella down to the hidden parking garage. She didn't comment on his car and didn't wait for him to open her door. Silence stretched between them as Edward drove into the rare English sunshine.

AN: A short update is better than no update, yes? Thanks to everyone who wished me luck with my real-life stuff! I'm very excited.

I thank my beta, Sara ( abadkitty) often, but still never enough. She's wonderful, as both a beta and a friend. I lucked out when I found her.