Chapter 18: Countdown
4 months earlier:
Regis scanned the fragment of paper spread out across the table before him. Not even a month ago he was a desperate man chasing the shadows of his lifelong mentor. What he’d found in the jungles of South America had been nothing short of a profound revelation. The ancient words inscribed held the key to changing humanity. From the very beginning, he had believed deep within his soul that what Professor M spoke of was true. He couldn’t explain it. He just knew it. Though he’d never have suspected that the place which possessed what he sought was merely some speck on a map. A hamlet of small-town America. In the end, though the where didn’t matter. What mattered was that he attained his goal. Failure was his greatest fear. After what he’d sacrificed to get this far he wasn’t about to fall short an inch away from the finish line. Like Professor M had. When he stumbled upon he’d found a broken sickly old man barely clinging onto life. Filled with regret and sorrow that though he literally held in his hand the culmination of his life’s work, he would never live to see it. Regis had vowed that would not be his fate.
Fate, however, was a funny thing. Previously Dr. Blackgaard had possessed adequate resources yet lacked the knowledge he required. Now just when he had attained the necessary knowledge his funds were depleted. Alas Professor M had died, weighed down in debt, and without any assets to further fund Regis’ research. Dr. Blackgaard was one to keep his research away from prying eyes. The last thing he wanted was to inform anyone of his discovery. Who knows what might happen. Word could spread to the general public if that happened it was game over. Blackgaard was well aware however that the little venture he was starting in Chicago wouldn’t provide him with the funds he needed. The choice was before him. Either choose not to share his work and lose any chance of funding or take the chance and inform potential investors of his findings. When put that way there was only one option – the latter. “Blast” he muttered under his breath.
He rolled up the parchment and stood up from his chair, grasping his walking stick as he sat up. Pacing back and forth on the wooden floor he tried thinking of someone who would work as a potential investor. Blackgaard’s mind raced. Too many people had their motives and agendas they were trying to serve. The last thing he wanted to be was someone’s puppet. He’d rather give up his work altogether than be a pawn in someone else’s game. It has to be someone who has enough resources yet can be easily fooled. Someone obsessed with power and ambition that they’d do anything to obtain it – even trust a complete stranger. A person who is so full of themselves they’d never think anyone could bring them down. Sasha meowed, interrupting Blackgaard’s thoughts. He stooped down and picked up his faithful feline companion. Softly, he stroked her neck and behind her ears, prompting a deep purr from Sasha. “Oh, Sasha…Now, who do we know who’d be aware of someone like that.”
Blackgaard had a long list of reliable contacts. Men and women spread across the globe. People who were aware of plots and schemes of power and the people behind them. Blackgaard’s polished shoes thudded on the packed earth as he circled the jungle cabin, left exactly as it had been when Professor M died. Professor M’s research notes and documents were packed carefully in boxes that were neatly stacked. His personal effects and clothes were strewn throughout the room.
Regis placed Sasha down on the floor and walked to where Professor M’s trunk was located in the corner of the small hut. He opened the lid and searched through it until he found a notebook. He scanned over the pages looking for a particular name. An old contact of theirs who Professor M had known even before he met his esteemed mentor. They had come to value her greatly. Every secret or scheme going on she always found a way to find out. Finally, Regis’ eyes landed on the name he was searching for. Blackgaard knew she was the answer.
4 months earlier:
Liana stared blankly ahead. She was busy pouring coffee yet her mind was somewhere else. Today would have been Erik’s birthday. She tried to push it to the side and carry on waitressing, but the memories would come flooding back. Picnics in the park. Splashing each other in the lake. The way he’d shower her with flowers and chocolates on Valentine’s Day.
Liana had known she’d never be able to have peace until her father and all those responsible answered for their actions, but she at least thought with time she’d be able to have a sense of healing. Instead, the more time passed the more angry she became. She should be spending these years with Erik. If he was here she was certain they’d have been married by now probably with children. Living a happy and beautiful life. She’d been robbed of that life and forced to live a cold and lonely one.
“Liana!” Hearing her name, she snapped out of her thoughts.
“Uh sorry. Millie. What is it?”
“You’re pouring coffee all over the counter.” Liana glanced down and saw she’d overfilled the coffee cup, causing the liquid to flow all over the countertop.
“Oh, I’m so sorry.” She set the decanter down and grabbed some napkins from the dispenser.
“Are you okay? You’ve seemed distracted all morning.”
She wiped up the spilled coffee. “I’m fine.” Liana picked up the coffee cup and walked to a table by the shop window.
She set the piping hot coffee on the table. “Here you are, sir.”
“Thanks so much” the man graciously responded.
“Would you like anything else?”
“No, this is good for me. Thanks.”
“Of course. If you need anything please let me know.” She forced a smile and began to walk to another table where two women were waiting to order. Halfway to the table, she stopped. Her eyes were drawn to the television mounted in the corner of the room. An image of a man’s face caught her eye. His familiar features, grey hair, wrinkled skin, piercing black eyes, matched the image she’d seen in person on multiple occasions. One of the faces seared into her head for the last nearly five years. There was no mistake, the man was none other than Davit Dalmar. Below his image was the headline “Breaking News: Davit Dalmar, CEO and founder of Dalmar Petroleum, announces run for Krudian parliament.”
Liana found herself chilled to the core seeing his face. It took her back, back to that night. The worst night of life. She holding her dying boyfriend in her arms, knowing there was nothing she or anyone else could do. She bit back her lip and took a deep breath. No, she wouldn’t break down, especially in a Budapest cafe.
What was that expression? The past has a way of catching up to you. She’d always planned to go back. To go home. Deep down she knew what she had to do. That pain. That anger. That overwhelming feeling of loss. It was still there. Burning in her soul stronger than ever. She knew she’d never be able to move forward unless she went backward. Nevertheless, when it came to confronting her past she’d find herself paralyzed. Unable to go back. Memories of Krudia, her father, Eric haunted her. Every street or shop in Bulin came with some painful reminder. The very thought of stepping off the airplane filled with her dread and terror.
But now seeing Dalmar had served to remind her of the men she’d left behind. And of what she’d lost. He was a monster. Him and her father both. She felt another wave of anger surge through her. In what world was it fair that Erik was dead and Norvan and Dalmar were still breathing? How could someone be so heartless as to take him from her without a second thought? How could people, like her father and Dalmar, find pleasure in killing others? She may have thought the removal of some malevolent individuals necessary but never took pleasure in their demise only in the justice being served. One thing couldn’t be denied: her father and Dalmar were insane. They had to be brought down. Any reservations or fears she had, Liana knew she couldn’t wait any longer. She was done running from her past.
Jason woke, tied to a chair. Ropes dug into his wrists. Beads of sweat trickled down his face, or perhaps blood, though he wasn’t sure which one. His eyes adjusted to the dim light. He appeared to be in some type of warehouse. Above him, warehouse pendant lights flickered the only source of light in the room.
It all came flooding back to him—what he’d prayed had been only a nightmare—The car chase, men shooting at them, Tasha slumping forward on the steering wheel ….
Tasha. His heart began to race and a sinking feeling settled in the pit of his stomach. Where was she? He prayed she was still alive. He frantically glanced around him but saw no one.
He couldn’t help but wonder if his earlier actions had caused this.
He struggled to loosen the ropes that bound him. Straining he turned every which way trying to free himself. It was no use. He let out a scream of frustration and lowered his head. A feeling of helplessness and utter loneliness consumed him, His head throbbed but the physical pain he was experiencing didn’t compare to his overwhelming guilt.
It’s my fault. The words stabbed through his mind. I got us into this. I shouldn’t have acted recklessly—Why didn’t I just stick to the plan? Why did I have to be so stubborn? He shook his head. I wanted so desperately to prove myself that I ended up screwing everything up. If I get out of this I’ll probably have to resign. The last thing the NSA wants is someone who can’t complete a routine mission, let alone their first assignment. Who knows, maybe that’s probably for the best anyway. Donovan saw right through me. My flaws and weaknesses…how careless I could be…and I proved him right. Now not only is the mission ruined but Tasha’s life is in danger because of me. If she dies I’ll never be able to forgive myself.
He glanced up at the ceiling. Right now he didn’t feel like he belonged anywhere. His whole body felt numb.
There was nothing he wanted to do, nowhere he wanted to go. Nothing mattered anymore, except doing everything he possibly could to right his mistake. To make sure Tasha was safe and if possible successfully complete their assignment.
Whoever was behind this would probably hurt him. The thought barely registered in his mind. He knew he should feel something. Dread. Fear. Anxiety. But he didn’t. All his thoughts were turned to Tasha. They could do whatever they wanted to him. It didn’t matter. He would willingly sacrifice his life without hesitation if it meant they didn’t touch her. At that moment he knew he was powerless. There was only one thing he could do. He bowed his head and closed his eyes.
Tasha’s eyes darted around the room, her eyes landing on the metal door to the side of her. She felt something digging into her skin and realized she was tied up. Tasha lay against the wall struggling to recall previous events, how she’d ended up here. Her mind was blank. The last thing she remembered was leaving with Jason for the gala. She looked down at her clothes. Instead of the dark blue dress, she remembered she was wearing light pink pajamas. She looked around the room. The floor was layered with dirt. Cobwebs hung from the corners of the room. Jason was nowhere in sight. Who knew where he could be. For all Tasha knew he could be lying dead somewhere or being mercilessly tortured.
The door creaked open causing Tasha to look up. An older muscular man entered the room followed by a tall brown-haired woman.
It didn’t take a genius to guess what they were probably after. Information. Luckily, Tasha thought, she’d been briefed and trained how to resist such efforts. She sat up in her seat and braced herself for whatever was coming, though she couldn’t help the shivers that traveled down her spine.
Milena’s eyes met Tasha’s. Tasha tried to read them yet they seemed nearly expressionless. The man’s on the other hand were easy to read. They were deathly cold.
Milena spoke. “I have to say that was quite a showing back there. Very impressive. My hired men are known for their efficiency. You and your associate were their hardest targets ever by far.” She crossed her arms. “So congrats.”
Tasha kept a blank expression on her face. “You might as well just skip to the end. I’m not saying anything.”
“Who said anything about getting information? I’m not so stupid as to waste my time trying to get intel out of an NSA agent.”
Elias walked over to Tasha “Never saw that coming did you?”
Tasha looked him directly in the eyes. “Can’t say I didn’t. If I was in your shoes I wouldn’t waste my time either.” Fear trembled through her, but at the same time, there was a defiance in her eyes. Even in face of danger, she wasn’t one to submit or hold back on fiery comebacks.
A dark chuckle escaped his lips. He glanced at Milena. “I like this one. Too bad we can’t keep her around.”
“I’m afraid I wouldn’t be the best company anyway.” Tasha glanced at the metal door beyond Milena and Elias. There was one question she had to ask. Though a possible answer filled her with dread. Life had a funny, even almost cruel way of unfolding. Not even a few hours ago Jason and she had been going at it and now here she was worrying over his safety. Though she was still deeply angry and upset at Jason for what he had done, all that mattered to her right now was that he was alright. “Is…he okay?”
“He’s alive if that’s what you’re asking,” Elias replied.
A wave of relief washed over Tasha. At least she and Jason were both alive. When it came down to it that alone only mattered. A dark thought crept into her mind. But then again who knew what their captors had in mind for them. Perhaps it would have been better for him not to survive, that might have been a merciful fate.
Elias stepped closer to Tasha. Then, from under his black shirt, he unslung a small black pistol from his belt.
Tasha’s mouth began to run dry and her heart began to race. Elias twirled the gun on his finger, only increasing Tasha’s uneasiness.
She ignored him, keeping her eyes fixed on Milena. “You know, you seem like a straight shooter so I’ll cut to the chase. Why exactly do you need us? If you’re not after information I fail to see the point.”
Milena gave a small laugh. “Aren’t you a fast talker? Trying to hide your fear?”
“No, my boredom.”
Milena clasped her hands. “Let’s just say I need you both for a plan of mine.”
Tasha eyed her confusingly. “What kind of plan.”
“That would be giving things away now would it?”
“What things? Are you working for Dalmar?”
Pain flashed across Milena’s eyes at the mention of his name. It was only there for a second and was gone as soon as it came. Not before being noticed by Tasha. “Dalmar, that monster. Heck no! Your whole plan of bringing him down is still happening. You and Edward are just playing a different role than you originally planned.”
Tasha found herself shocked by Milena’s revelation. However, she made certain not to show her surprise to those in the room. Basic training – never show your opponent what you’re thinking.
Milena turned to Elias. “Would you give us a moment?”
He glanced from Milena to Tasha and back to Milena again. He placed his gun back in its holster. “Sure.” The door clanked shut behind him.
“I know what you may think of me and I can’t say I blame you. I’d probably feel the same way too…but I just want to say that I admire your tenacity. I respect what you’re doing.”
Tasha leaned forward. “Really. I would never have guessed. If you respected my mission, why interfere with it?”
“Trust me. I had my reasons. The justice I’d get from your NSA wouldn’t be enough.” She spoke, a hint of sadness showing in her eyes for a brief moment.
From the first time she laid eyes on her Tasha could tell that the woman standing in front of her wasn’t a hardened criminal. That there was something beneath the surface. It was obvious now she’d suffered some tragic painful event in her life. Dalmar’s doing most likely. Tasha thought for a moment about how to respond. She knew the words she’d say would probably not change her mind or course of action, but she had to try.
Tasha spoke softly. “I know what horrific things Dalmar is capable of…Sometimes it seems that men like him just end up walking away but that’s no ex—”
“Excuse for me to take the law into my hands. Yeah, I figured that speech was coming. Guess what, I don’t have time for it.” Milena said strongly before turning around and walked across the room. Well, that went well but pretty much how I expected. Tasha thought as Milena shut the door behind her as she exited the room, leaving Tasha alone once again.