A BULLET FROM CHEKHOV'S GUN
Legal BS: The original characters and plot of this story are the property of the author. No infringement of pre-existing copyright is intended. This story is copyright (c) 2014 CallMePagliacci. All rights reserved.
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"I should have you killed."
Esme's voice was a dangerous murmur, a silk rope garrote. Edward stared, straight-backed, at her desk. His breathing remained slow, steady, and deep.
"I should take you off this operation, rescind your 00, and send you to Greenland to monitor the uranium mining." She gazed at the London skyline, glowing in the fading light of a setting sun. She'd stood guard, watched over this city, this country, this Empire, for so long. So very long.
These past few weeks, watching Edward with his asset, had pleased her in a small, hidden way. She'd allowed herself to have some small joy in his joy. But that was over now.
"You should have the decency to have tendered your resignation. It'd have been the very least right thing you could have done amongst all the wrong."
"There've been a lot of shoulds lately," he replied.
Esme turned and looked at her agent for the first time since he'd walked into her office. His square jaw was tense, but not clenched. His shoulders were straight. No foot-tapping. Edward was no amateur, and Esme didn't expect any such blatant signs of nerves from him. She examined him further: no tightness in his gaze, relaxed hands, neutral spine. This man was sure of himself. Unafraid.
"Hm. True. So. Where's the lovesick puppy that's been frolicking around the office lately?"
"Gone." In Edward's voice was a resolution, a promise. He was decided, one way or the other.
"Good." Esme sat, knees and ankles together, at her desk. "Edward, what you have lost—"
"She was taken from me."
"—you allowed her to be taken!" Esme's eyes snapped to Edward's face. The crack in her voice echoed around the room.
Edward gazed back at her, cold and direct. "I will get her back."
With that, Esme knew. She needn't bother having Edward killed. Either he would return with Bella, or he wouldn't return at all.
"Yes, you will."
Bella floated. Somewhere. Untethered. Unanchored. Hypnotic.
Hypnogogic. That was the word. Falling, falling, free.
She was warm, and happy, and disconnected. Fuzzy, like cotton.
The view with her eyes open was very different from the view with her eyes closed. She didn't know which was real, and she didn't care.
Hands gripped her, pulled her, pushed her. Standing, stumbling, lying down. Through it all, she drifted.
Where was Edward?
"Idiot. You're giving her too much. She's useless if her brain's fried when she wakes up."
"Alice," Esme said. The wall panel behind her slid back. A screen rose in its place, Alice's face front and center. "Sitrep."
"The signals from her ships are still corrupted," Alice said. She had dark red lipstick on and a feather in her hair. She looked like a flapper girl. "We get pings every once and again, but I can't verify their accuracy."
Maps bloomed onscreen as Alice spoke; first, a mess of data points, and second, a curled-up red-orange shape. "Satellite thermals track her heat signature to a small airstrip. Three planes took off within a half hour of her arrival. We're reasonably certain she was on this one, bound for America."
"I presume you've already contacted Whitlock," Esme said to Edward. He would have had a backup plan, if Esme had denied him.
"Mm-hmm," he hummed, his eyes locked on the imprecise smudge of color that was the only sign Bella was alive.
"Three planes," Alice muttered. "They were prepared." She didn't want to say it, and really, she didn't have to. The knowledge of the threat hung over the room—James had known where to find Bella and Edward. Had known exactly when and how to take her.
"They were," Esme agreed. "Someone has betrayed us."
"No, and she had no good reason to do so. Alice, continue."
"The registered flight plan stated the plane's destination as being Chicago."
"That's the one place we can be certain they haven't gone," Edward said.
"Of course," Alice said. A geographical map of the United States expanded and Alice's face shrunk to a small square in the corner. "The plane touched down on a small, private airstrip outside of Phoenix."
"Phoenix," Esme repeated.
"A major White Fog manufacturing center," Edward said. "The location of Hunter's last assignment."
It was hot. Scratchy. Dry and sandpapery. But only on the outside.
Inside, Bella was fluid, a drop of mercury flowing over curved surfaces. Like a ship at sea.
It was so sweet in here. So light and floating.
But there was something… Something kept Bella from sink-sliding-slipping down into this haze, the impermanence that surrounded her.
What was it. What did she need.
Oh God, what was it? If only she could remember, she could let go and drift — just drift.
It seemed...red, in her mind. Red and black.
"Unfortunately, we lost her there. The hangar is EM shielded, and soon thereafter our satellite passed out of range. I'm sorry, ma'am...Cullen."
Edward clenched his jaw. It wasn't Alice's fault, but he longed to lash out — his rage needed an outlet, though. And soon.
"What do we know? Ownership of the plane, airstrip, surrounding property?" Esme asked.
"Corporate," Alice replied. "Shells within shells."
She brought up tax registries, and Edward and Esme watched as paperwork, files, and images of businessmen flashed over the display. Alice's nails on her keyboard were a rapid, muffled staccato in the background. "Holding companies. Nothing real, just paper...wait. Wait."
The view focused in on one man, an older man with long, dark hair pulled back into a denial-of-middle-age ponytail. In the picture, he smiled — a contorted affectation of easygoing amusement. But his eyes were flat, almost stony.
"I know him," Alice said.
"We know him," Esme replied. "Bring up the file on Aaron Volter."
"'The Vulture,' as he's also known," Edward added.
Volter's file filled up the screen in tiles. Crime scene photographs, newspaper headlines, in-house analyses — page upon page of information categorizing a great number of misdeeds, from transcontinental drug smuggling, evidence of major complicity in the 2008 collapse, to mass murder in Sierra Leone.
"That slimy bastard," Esme swore. "How's he connected to all this?"
There seemed to be a film of some kind, gauzy and clinging, covering Bella's skin. It kept her restrained, immobile, tied-up in weightlessness. Voices filtered in and out.
"Wake up, beautiful, wake up."
But she didn't want to wake up. She was so close — something, it was there, at the edge of her dream. She chased it, but it slipped through her fingers yet again.
"He owns the airstrip, surrounding property, and probably the plane as well," Alice said. "More properties in Phoenix, Albuquerque…"
"All over the western United States," Edward said. "Down into Mexico. Southeast Asia. The Philippines."
"Businesses all over the globe," Alice continued. Corporate logos flashed, each more vague than the last. "Including one headquartered in London."
"Yes. We're acquainted," Esme said. "Focus on Phoenix. We need an in."
Alice worked. Edward watched. Something she pulled up — anything — could be the key to getting Bella back. Whatever it was, if Volter owned it, spoke of it, even looked at it, Edward would know. He'd know, and he'd make it his own.
"Oh. Oh. Here we go." Alice's voice held the hint of a giggle in it. "It seems as though Mr. Volter, renowned patron of the arts, is set to attend the premiere performance of a ballet, Sleeping Beauty, at the Phoenix Opera House. There's to be a grand gala, they're reopening after a season closed for renovations. Paid for by Mark, Cays, and Volter, Attorneys at Law."
"Well, well. A gala and a ballet." Esme turned to address the grinning young man in her office. "It appears as if we need to have that tuxedo pressed once again, Mr. Cullen."
"Welcome to the world of the living."
Bella was dizzy. She tried to sit up, but the room spun. It was bright white, wherever she was, and the light hurt her eyes.
"What's going on? Where am I? Edward?" Her voice was scratchy and too loud within her own mind. She cringed.
"So many questions. I guess curiosity is to be expected with a mind like yours."
She tried again. Bella opened her eyes slowly, letting them adjust. She rolled onto her side, towards the voice — that wasn't Edward's — and tried to focus. She was in a small, white room. There was a desk and a chair at one end, where a dark figure sat. Bella laid on a cot at the opposite end of the room. Details began to sharpen: first the dark figure, a man in a black suit, and second, the long, steel chain that ran from a handcuff on Bella's wrist to a heavy bolt on the floor.
"What the fuck is going on?" she shouted. She winced at the sound.
"I'm sorry, pet. Reality must seem harsh compared to where you've just been. The fog'll clear, as they say." He chuckled. "What the fuck is going on is this: You belong to me now. You'll do what I say — doing whatever that brain of yours does — and if you don't, well...you've been to Heaven just now. I can put you in hell, too."
Bella glared at him, staring straight into his cruel, dark eyes. Her heart pounded. The adrenaline flooding her bloodstream chased away the last of the drug. The danger of her situation, the dire reality of it, became clear. She was alone with this man, chained, and at his mercy. Where was she? How long had she been here? What did he want?
Where was Edward? Was he okay? Did something happen to him
"Relax," he said. Bella memorized his voice. The pitch, timbre, rhythm — he was from New York, probably, but long since removed. Something in his long vowels...he spoke Italian, or maybe Spanish. She needed more.
"There are people, very powerful people, who will come for me. Just let me go. You won't get hurt if you just let me go."
"I'm not worried about your boyfriend...orhis toys. I have a few of my own." He pushed off the edge of the desk and sauntered toward a handleless door. "Don't worry about getting comfortable, pet. You'll be moved soon."
New York — Queens. Italian-American. Relocated out west early in adulthood. In his 40s now.
Edward would come, and when he did, Bella would tell him everything she knew about this man.
"In the meantime...I have a party to get to."
Esme's office was a flurry of activity: Alice was fabricating an invite to the gala, Esme was ordering her secretary to make arrangements for Edward's imminent departure, and Edward himself was phoning the operatives — both MI6 and not — that he trusted most.
"Blonde. I need some devices. Urgently."
"How many and how big of a boom? I've been wanting to try out a new combination of — " A deep, female voice hummed in his ear.
"No, no time. Whatever you've got on-hand, absolutely no British components. Or American. No trace."
"Oh, I see. Done. I'll stow them in the usual place."
"You are, of course, welcome to come along."
"Oh, oh interesting. It's that sort of thing...tempting. Will McCarty be there?"
"Yes, naturally. I trust him. He still wants to take you to dinner, by the way."
Edward hung up. Esme's secretary handed him a sheaf of papers and he reviewed them.
"The jet again?"
"Mmhmm," answered Esme. "Your team is assembled, nothing to do now but — "
The door burst open and Carlisle ran in.
"Carlisle? What's wrong?" Edward was alarmed. Carlisle never ran anywhere, under any circumstances.
"I know what happened to Miss Swan's trackers!"
How long had it been? Hours? Days? Just minutes? It was impossible to tell. Impossible.
She'd pulled on the chain with all her strength. She'd tried to wriggle her hand out of the handcuff. She'd looked for a crack in the white walls, a vent, a lock to pick.
She'd screamed herself hoarse. Finally, she'd cried.
There was nothing she could do. She was trapped, and nothing — no martial arts skill, no dead language, and definitely no book from the Bodleian would be able to help her. She only had one hope.
"Edward," she cried in a scratchy voice. "Please come soon."