A/N I do all my Volkoff stuff with that wonderful deep baritone rumble in my head. Such a great voice.
This chapter has a lot more stuff from Cubic Zirconium mixed in with it, to cover the dull stuff in Masquerade, like the gunfight and the horse chase. How do you make those things dull? Anyway, CZ and Masquerade were each the third episodes of their respective arcs, so why not. I'd forgotten how much fun stuff there was in CZ.
"You're very good."
"You'll be the done thing!"
"Radio silence, people."
"Here's where it gets interesting."
"She's down!" said Casey in everyone's ears. "Repeat, Walker is down! I'm moving in to support."
Chuck almost panicked, but then Vivian started to rise, and he suppressed the impulse for her sake. Cool and calm, Bartowski, cool and calm. "Do you need assistance?" he asked, waving her back to her seat.
"Negative," said Casey. "Stick to the plan. Fifteen seconds."
"What happened, Casey?" asked Carina, because Chuck–sorry, Mr. Charles–wouldn't, not with a civilian on the network. "Was she shot?"
"Didn't hear one," said the big man, a little out of breath as he moved and talked at the same time. "The horse just reared and threw her."
Chuck turned to look at Vivian, eyebrow raised.
"That's not possible," she said. "Artemis has been extensively trained. She'd never rear unless she was commanded, and your agent doesn't know the command."
Chuck nodded, and she felt a bit of relief, that he wasn't somehow holding her responsible for his agent's fall.
"Be alert, Casey," he said. "Boris got sneaky, and went for the horse rather than the rider. Overrode its training somehow, don't know how."
Casey didn't respond, and when Chuck heard the sound of his rifle firing in the distance he knew why.
Alexei Volkoff was used to his mere presence capturing the attention of everyone, in whatever room he chose to enter. Well, everyone except Frost, who could keep her focus on the objective under any circumstances. It was one of her more valuable abilities, as it made her one of the few who could offer him objective advice, offer criticisms of his schemes in the planning stage. No one else had the courage to ignore him.
She wasn't ignoring him now. "What's the matter, Frost?"
"Boris' plan was rash, and ill-considered."
He appreciated her circumspection. No plan would have been put into operation without his approval, but by phrasing it the way she did, they could blame its failings on a known traitor. "How so?"
"I spotted three separate failure points in the timeline, with inadequate failsafes. The truck breaking down in the desert was the least of them."
"The truck was supposed to break down in the desert."
"Yes, it was." She pointed to a map. "Here, where we could stage a helicopter for extraction once the operation was complete."
He nodded. That area had gaps in its coverage that they could exploit. When the bodies were discovered, especially hers, preferably chewed on by a variety of scavengers, the blame would correctly go on Panzer, but the manhunt would be in entirely the wrong place.
Frost moved her hand considerably up the line of the desert highway. "Unfortunately the truck has already broken down, here."
Bollocks. Too close to LA. "Can we extract by land?"
She shook her head. "Too easy to clog the exits, they do it themselves a dozen times a day."
They couldn't just abort the mission. No one lied to Alexei Volkoff, but Alexei Volkoff lied to no one. He'd made a pact with this devil and by God he would keep it. "What support can we give our Mr. Panzer?" Of course she would know, her plans were never ill-considered, but he only had one of her, and this operation wasn't that important.
He could use another like her, but where could he find another such treasure?
Frost smiled. "Their nearest support facility is Castle, in Burbank. The truck is limping there now."
Volkoff grinned. Castle, of all places! Panzer would need no support, beyond that which his enemies would supply in buckets. Chandler was as good as dead. "May God have mercy on her soul." His grin faded. "Because I will not."
Vivian couldn't just sit anymore. Someone had been attacked in her place, injured because of her. She stood in the shadows, pacing. Pacing for two, since Mr. Charles was quite steady. She envied him. "I see what you mean, about your enemies being clever."
Mr. Charles took in a deep breath, let it out again. "Anyone can be sneaky once. It's who's sneaky most, who's sneaky last, that matters." My mind is a raging torrent, rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives!
"Chuck, microphone," said Carina.
"Dammit!" He toggled his mike off.
Vivian interrupted him, pointing a finger out the stable door. "Here comes Artemis!" She ran out before Chuck could stop her.
The horse slowed in the familiar setting, when she saw a familiar face. Vivian ran her hands over the animal, calming it and looking for any wounds it may have suffered. "She's not hurt. I think anything that would make her rear would leave a mark, or a wound."
"She wasn't injured, that's the important thing." Chuck was glad to hear it. "You should get back inside now, Vivian. You can't be seen here."
Vivian ran back inside.
"We're under cover," said Casey. "Walker's alive, but out of it. Incoherent."
Casey stopped talking and started firing again, as Vivian ran out of the stables once more, this time with a riding cap on. She swung herself up into the saddle before Chuck could stop her.
"What are you doing?"
She looked down at him, determined and terrified. "Something."
"They'll kill you." Another shot punctuated his statement.
"No they won't." Vivian turned and pointed. "They'll kill her, because she's not me. I'm the one person here they won't kill, not immediately, and I think we should use that."
He looked like he was trying to come up with a counterargument and failing.
She reached a hand down. "Are you coming, Chuck?"
He flashed, grabbed her hand, and swung up behind her as if he'd been born in the saddle. "Just don't die on me, please, the paperwork's awful."
Vivian laughed, and slapped the reins. "Hyaah!"
"Casey, we're on our way," he said, before the accelerating horse drove any thoughts beyond simply holding on from his mind. Such as, for instance, turning on his mike.
"We just got the alternate signal from Mr. Panzer, Alexei."
Volkoff chuckled. "Escaped a holding cell already, has he? Very good. I expect to hear good news very shortly, Frost," he said eagerly, then his voice dropped, "Even if it is only the news of Miss Chandler's tragic demise."
"You were really looking forward to the wolves, weren't you, Alexei?" said Frost sympathetically.
He nodded, then remembered that she was on speaker. "Or some form of wildlife! Bleached bones just won't do." Half a billion really called for something…special.
"LA is the smoggiest city in the world." Not a lot of bleaching possibilities there.
"You don't suppose they have any rats, do you?" he asked hopefully.
"It's a city, Alexei. It's got more rats than people, and probably in better health. But they take time, and even the Castle team should be able to recover the body before they can do much."
He made a little noise in his throat. That level of ineptitude was too much to hope for. "Too bad we can't send Yuri." Solve both problems at once. That's what Frost should be working on, getting the Gobbler back, not this…trivia. Damn Boris for all the trouble he was causing!
"I'll see what I can do to hack into the system, maybe I can get you some video."
That brought a smile to his face. "You're so good to me, Frost," he said softly.
"I'll only be a minute."
Chuck looked behind them. The two riders in their classic gear had not lost them, they'd simply left the trail to cut the distance. "They're gaining," he shouted over the pounding of Artemis' hooves on the packed earth.
"You're thinking going out into the open was a mistake," said Vivian, because that's what she was thinking. Chuck and his team were professionals! What business did she have being out here?
"Actually, I'm thinking we need to lighten the load," said Chuck. "Keep going. Don't stop for anything." Just like that he was gone, she didn't even feel him jump off. Her load halved, Artemis put on some speed, and Vivian took a look behind her. The two riders had fallen behind, but Mr. Charles was nowhere in sight. Had he fallen, had he hurt himself?
Either way, she couldn't stop now.
Frost used Panzer's signal as a starting point, backtracking through the network to find the originating server. For a moment she wondered if there was something wrong with their software, since the outermost firewall identified its domain as a Buy More sub-net. When she burned through that she realized the ploy for the work of genius that it was, the Buy More's own systems hiding her target under a profusion of mismatched software.
She was Frost. She persevered. She overcame.
"Welcome to the Castle Mainframe Interface," said the computer's speaker in a pleasant female monotone. "How may I help you?"
Voice-activated security? Since when? "What the hell is this?"
"I'm sorry, I didn't get that. Please identify yourself for access."
She had no files prepared. "Um…"
"I'm sorry, I didn't get that. Please identify yourself for access."
She hit the intercom for the main office. "Alexei, there's been a delay, it'll take a few more minutes."
"Very good, Frost."
"I'm sorry," said the computer. "I didn't get that. Did you say 'Mary could, Grost'?"
"Did I say what? No!..." Who built this thing?
"I'm sorry, I didn't get that…"
"'Carina and Davis, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G'…" Carina stopped humming. At least that would have been more interesting than what she was doing, which was nothing. Was sex in a tree even possible? One way to find out…
The sound of pounding hoofbeats drew her out of her salacious musings. Showtime. At least, she hoped it was showtime. Vivian, and she was alone. Where'd Chuck go?
Sarah fell down and bumped her head, nimrod. Where do you think Chuck went?
The horse turned up the lane to the stable, and Carina lifted her rifle and took aim.
"Clear the room."
When Frost said to leave, you left. When the room was empty of people, she pulled out her scrambler and foxed any eyes that someone may have tried to plant. Then she leaned in real close to her speaker.
"Castle Mainframe, this is Mary Elizabeth Bartowski, code name Frost, override code zero-zero-zero-alpha-zero. Do you understand that, you stupid machine?"
The computer understood something, but all the flashing lights in the world couldn't tell her what. "Greetings, Mary Elizabeth Bartowski," said the computer at last. "According to our records, you are presumed dead. We are sorry for your loss. Access is granted. Have a nice day."
Vivian looked behind her one last time, but saw no one following. Chuck must have done something, hopefully he was still alive to tell her what. She allowed Artemis to slow as they approached the lane, and turned towards home.
When the man strolled out of the stable, Carina heard nothing. "Guys, Boris is here but I'm getting no signal from Vivian. Her mike is off or she lost her earpiece."
"Do you have a shot?" said Casey.
"Not a great one. I'd be shooting over her shoulder." And she couldn't tell Vivian to move.
"Don't take it unless you have to. Wait for a better shot or–"
"Artemis is up!"
Boris flung himself back, away from iron-shod horse's hooves that were as dangerous as any sledgehammer to the skull. This put him clearly and cleanly in Carina's field of fire, and she fired.
Boris flew backward, his chest exploding in gore.
"Holy crap, she shot him," said Carina. If she hadn't been strapped to the branch she'd have fallen off in surprise. "Repeat, Vivian shot Boris! Shotgun to the chest."
"That'll leave a mark," said Casey. "We've got seven down out here, but we'll need a pick-up. My transport is for one man only. I've got our fearless numbskull here, and her fearless numbskull husband. Good thing I recognized his panicked flailing about as he stumbled out of the bushes or it'd be nine dead."
Nine? Oh. "You wouldn't try to run instead, Casey?"
"You think it would do any good?"
Sarah had chased her into a holding cell, and that was just for getting Chuck captured. "No." Carina started unbuckling herself. "On my way."
"What do you mean, Panzer failed?" asked Volkoff, his voice hard enough to grind wheat. "The Chandler woman is still alive?"
Fortunately the cameras on the parking lot were not nearly as secure as the Castle Mainframe. They clearly showed both prisoners being loaded into a new transport. "I'm afraid so, Alexei. He got caught in a riot."
"A riot in a Buy More?"
"This surprises you?"
For a second he said nothing, then, "No. No it doesn't."
"Apparently the store manager pegged him as an instigator and tasered him down."
Volkoff laughed into the phone. "Today just wasn't our day, was it, Frost?" Or Panzer's, long may he rot.
"I'm afraid not, Alexei. Shall I continue after Boris?"
He let her change the subject. "No, leave that to Packard. You concentrate on getting Yuri back. With him at my side I won't need my lieutenants."
Good to know. "As you wish."
"Did Boris say anything more about this key he was looking for?"
Vivian Vol–McArthur paused in the act of clipping her locket back around her neck. Then she continued, her head tilted down. "Uh, no, no he didn't," she said to his feet. "He just called me a weak, indecisive, girl."
"Well, one out of three ain't bad," said Chuck, smiling to his companions and to her. He took her hand warmly in his own. "Congratulations. I think you're well on your way."
"Wherever you want to go, whatever you want to be," said Chuck. "Isn't that what you wanted?"
Even Casey shook her hand respectfully on the way out.
"Here you go, Mrs. Bartowski," said Chuck, sliding the ring back on Sarah's finger as they sat together in the back seat.
She admired it with joy. "No more Walker," said Sarah, kissing him. "Much as I love working with you, Chuck, separate names are too much of a price to pay." Her phone rang, and she checked the screen. "It's Hannah."
Chuck left her to it. He looked around. Casey was looking all taciturn, as usual, and he was driving, while Carina was…"Are you all right?"
She didn't smile. "Yeah, I'm okay. Just wondering what the weather's like in Monaco."
"We needed you here."
"Absolutely," he said with complete sincerity. "You were the endgame, the final piece of the plan! No way Boris would come out of the woodwork unless he thought we'd all left Vivian alone, that's why I needed you to be there."
Carina looked back out the window. "Yeah, well, she sure didn't need me."
Chuck put a hand on her shoulder. "I didn't say she did. I said we did."
"That's great!" shrieked Sarah, suddenly, and they looked at her. "Hannah's gotten engaged!"
Chuck's congratulations were enthusiastic, while Casey just grunted politely. "How'd it happen?" asked Carina, once Sarah had ended the call. It didn't take too long, Hannah was making the rounds. "Balloons, champagne, and a horse-drawn carriage at her favorite restaurant?"
Sarah shuddered. "Please. Remind me to tell you about my parent's proposal. Better yet, don't remind me. No, it wasn't terribly romantic at all, took her by complete surprise. They had a prisoner escape, but he ran into a riot at the Buy More and they caught him again."
Chuck's brows went up. "A riot in the Buy More?"
"That surprises you?"
For a second Chuck said nothing, then, "No. No it doesn't."
"Well, anyway, after it was all over, he says he hears something, and starts looking around. He moved behind her and by the time she turned around, there he was, on his knee with a ring in his hand! She said he looked almost as surprised as she was."
"Wow," said Carina, deadpan. "How…romantic."
"Yeah," said Sarah. "Like you would know anything about romance."
"I happen to have a very romantic soul, I'll have you know! The Ring ploy is my favorite scam!"
They all just groaned and shook their heads.
Vivian watched them drive away, watched the dust kicked up by their vehicles settle. She took the locket from inside her blouse and looked at the inscription, "Love, Daddy."
She put it away again. She knew what she wanted.
A/N2 Which is more than I can say for me. Vivian is so undefined it's hard to say what she really wants, but I guess I'll figure it out as I go, like usual.