Chapter 19: In the Midnight Hour
1 month earlier:
Milena stared blankly ahead. She took another sip of her coffee, trying to wake herself up. The last few weeks had seemed like a blur. All she had wanted were answers. She never could have envisioned the path it would set her on. Some days she didn’t have a doubt in her mind about the choice she’d made. Other days she’d question everything except her love for chess and cream brûlée. Everything had been much simpler before. Her life was set. At least that’s what she’d thought. She’d continue to run her father’s company. Eventually, take over for him. Most likely marry Lorenzo.
If there was anything she’d learned it was that nothing is certain. Inside she felt numb. Empty. The light had gone out of her eyes. It took her a moment to recognize the man who sat in the chair in front of her.
“Loren,” she said flatly.
“Lena” he looked down at his hands. “It’s been a while. You haven’t returned any of my calls.”
“I know.” It was clear things were awkward. She stared down at her mug, trying to avoid his eyes.
Lorenzo continued, his voice shaky. “I…I handled things badly earlier. What I said about you having to move on from your father. I was callous. I didn’t realize how much pain you were in. I’m sorry.”
Milena held up her hand. “Lorenzo…we each didn’t handle the situation as well as we could have.
Lorenzo took her hand in his. “I miss you. I’ve tried to give you space these past few weeks. But it seems every day we’re drawing further and further apart.”
“Lorenzo. You’ve been amazing to me. Everything a girl could dream of” she swallowed hard. “But right now I can’t…” she trailed off. Deep down she knew what she had to do. Though somehow she hadn’t been able to let go. Lorenzo was her only link to her life before. A life she was still struggling to say goodbye to.
Lorenzo found himself getting more nervous by the second as he had a feeling he knew what was coming. “Can’t what?”
Milena sniffed “Can’t be with you. I have some things I need to sort out. Things that need my full attention. I don’t know if I’ll ever…” she took a breath, “but I know it’s something I have to do.”
“I’m sure whatever it is we can take it on together.”
Lorenzo brought his other hand to Milena’s face. His eyes were large and luminous, shimmering with unshed tears. He gently stroked her cheek; her skin was smooth as silk.
Milena’s eyes fell to his lips; longing seized her—how wonderful his lips would taste, it had been so long since they’d been pressed against her own—Her eyes looked up at him—she was drawn closer—closer.
Using all her strength, she resisted the urge. In a moment, all other feelings receded as all her attention was focused on fighting her overwhelming waves of emotion. “No, no.” She shook her head. “This is something I have to do…alone. Trust me it’s better this way.”
“Milena…a few months ago we were talking about our future…possibly marriage, children.”
“Then why are you doing this?” His voice started to rise, the desperation evident.
She matched his tone. Her world had already crumbled, it didn’t much matter she figured if her relationship with Lorenzo did as well. “I already told you.”
“Yeah ‘it’s something I have to do.’ But that’s not an answer. It’s not good enough for me. We’ve been together for over two years now and you expect me to just sit back and let you throw it away!”
The cafe quieted down as other customers began to stare in their direction. Milena disregarded their curious glances.
“I’m not throwing anything away! You don’t think this is hard for me. I’ve thought about this. Gone over it a thousand times in my head. I’m not the same person I was. You deserve someone who’s not held back by the past. Who’s hopeful and optimistic. I don’t know…someone who isn’t nearly as messed up as I am. Someone who will love you completely.”
“I thought that was you,” he said sadly.
Milena pulled her hand back from Lorenzo’s and said softly, “It was.”
3 months earlier:
Blackgaard knocked on the carved door of the brick house. Manicured bushes lined the outside of the house. The streets of Bulin’s Nakhar or lower district were almost empty at that time of night. He was sure though that she’d be awake. The door opened. A petite woman came into view. Her hair was raven black with a few streaks of gray, her eyes were dark amber, and she wore a clinging silk dress. For Regis, it was no surprise that she was able to enchant and subdue the most powerful of men with just one glance. Learn their deepest secrets with only a caress.
“Maria, you look as wonderful as ever.” Blackgaard extended his arms toward her.
She leaned against the doorway. Her eyes focused on the sharply dressed man before her. “Regis darling so good to see you.” The two shared an embrace.
“You as well.” Blackgaard offered a smile.
“Please come in,” she pushed the door open wider, “it’s a bit chilly this evening.”
Regis entered the parlor. The warmth of the room felt especially revitalizing after the brisk air of the outdoors. Plush wool carpet greeted his feet and the pleasant scent of candy corn met him from the candles burning throughout the room.
Maria closed the door behind them. “I was so sorry to hear of Professor M’s passing. You have my deepest condolences.”
“I actually had been meaning to pay a visit to my old friend…and you of course. But my work unfortunately has kept me very busy.” She motioned to the chairs by the fireplace.
The long-time acquaintances sat across from one another. “No need to apologize my dear. In fact, it is precisely your work that is one of my main reasons for coming here.”
Maria crossed her legs. “And here I was thinking you came by to say hello.”
“Have you ever stopped by an old friend’s house just to say hello?” Regis countered.
She let out a small laugh. “Same old Regis. You could always find a way to get out of everything.”
“Why thank you. Unfortunately, pure cunning and cleverness don’t provide much in the way of financial support.”
Maria held up her hand. “Let me guess you need a new backer. Someone who has enough ambition to invest in such uncharted research yet who isn’t nearly as cunning or perceptive as you. Someone you can easily make your puppet…and pull their strings so to speak.”
Blackgaard’s eyes gleamed with admiration. “You truly are something, Maria. You always knew me so well.”
Maria leaned closer to Regis, closing the space between them. “As it happens I know just the man. One of my recent shall we say ‘clients.’ Not only does he have enough ambition for three men, but he also is actively plotting to achieve his goals. He was even behind the assignation of one of this country’s most prominent and powerful citizens…Norvan Ohanyan.”
Blackgaard’s eyes widened at the sound of Norvan’s name. He’d heard word of his cousin’s untimely demise in what apparently was a car accident, though it was soon widely reported that it was not just an accident. However, there were still no leads as to who was behind it. A smirk spread across his face. Fitting that his cousin would meet such a brutal end. If anyone deserved one it was him, especially considering the way he had looked down upon him. Regarded him as nothing more than dirt.
Now the joke was on him. Who was nothing but dust at that moment? What he wouldn’t give to see the look on Norvan’s face if he found out his demise would ensure his “revolting” cousin’s triumph. “I’m intrigued. Who is this person?”
“Davit Dalmar.” Maria coolly replied. A devilish grin spread across her. “I have to say though if I was in your shoes I’d do the same. Manipulating such a pompous blowhard…I can’t think of anything more enjoyable.”
“Yes, what could be better.” A sly smile slowly curled his lips. Dalmar was his.
The metal door opened, sending shafts of light flickering through the room. Tasha’s eyes met those of Elias. “Get up,” he roughly grabbed her arm and began pulling her up to her feet.
“Let go of me. I can stand on my own.” Tasha gave him a defiant look.
Elias glared at her, face reddening with anger. He pulled her closer to him and threateningly whispered in her ear. “If I didn’t have to keep you ‘intact’ you’d regret that.” He scowled and tightened his grip on her arm.
Tasha didn’t react but kept his gaze. “Go ahead,” she smirked. “I’d like to see you try.”
A voice came from the doorway. “What part of my instructions didn’t you understand?”
“Oh, I understood them completely. This one can’t control her mouth.”
“Well, then it’s a good thing you won’t have to deal with her for much longer then.”
He let go of Tasha’s arm and backed away. Red marks, from where his fingers had been, lingered on her skin. As he stepped out of the room he uttered several crude words in Krudian.
“Come to say hello again?” Tasha asked her patience all but worn out.
Milena’s shadowy form came into view. “I thought you’d like a little time with your partner or whoever he is.”
“And then what next? What happens to us?” Tasha boldly asked, wanting to know as much as possible.
“You know that’s not up to me,” Milena snarkily replied.
“Then what is up to you? How did you even find out about us?”
Tasha hated having to rely on this woman for information. But she was out of options. Anything would be helpful to learn, perhaps provide her with a clue or idea about how to escape this predicament. Truth was she couldn’t mess things up more than they already were.
“If you’re thinking that you blew your cover, you didn’t. I knew about you before you even set foot here. My advice, the agency might want to think about who exactly they choose as their contacts. A person having a family may not be the best thing” She pulled out her gun from its holster and spun it around her finger. “As for what’s up to me. The future of this country. My sanity.”
“I didn’t realize becoming a lawless vigilante was the only way to accomplish those things.”
“You know what, I’m done with this.” Milena stared down Tasha. “I can’t believe you have the audacity to question my actions. Tell that to yourself. You think you’re making a better world when in actuality you’re running around doing your government’s bidding. A government that can’t help but stick its nose in everyone’s affairs, tell other nations how to run things, and thinks it’s helping.” She scoffed. “Your government intelligence agencies have supported the assassinations of several world leaders. So don’t stand there and act like everything they’ve done has been above board while trying to give me a lecture.”
A moment passed without either one saying anything. The silence was deathly cold. Tasha knew any further reasoning with Milena was futile, she’d rather save her breath. Milena spoke. “So do you want to see your partner or not?”
Every passing second was torture for Jason. Each moment the horrifying thought struck him that he was responsible for this—he had to fix this somehow. The consequences were overwhelming. He’d affected Tasha’s life drastically, all because he’d acted impulsively and she was the one by his side. But in what twisted world did trying to help others place you in danger every time? Everything about this world of spies and espionage—the intelligence community—was upside down. Those on the side of the free world, who tried to stand up to oppression, found themselves trying to be dragged down, crushed into nothing.
The door opened and Jason glanced up as he heard the door swing open. Fear ran through his veins from the agonizing thoughts he’d experienced over the last hours. In the doorway, he made out Tasha. Relief flooded through him. Thank God she’s okay. Behind her was a muscular man he’d seen earlier who threw her to the concrete floor. The door shut.
Jason made his way over to her, being tied up made it rather difficult to move. He was grateful though he wasn’t held down to the chair anymore. “Are you okay?!” he asked, his face etched with concern.
Tasha struggled to sit up. “I’m fine.” She eyed Jason up and down. “How about you?”
“I’m okay. Still a little sore from earlier.” He scooted closer to Tasha. “I’m so sorry. I got us into this.”
“Turns out it wasn’t you after all. The people behind this knew we were coming before our plane even landed.”
Jason quickly responded. “That’s still no excuse for my actions. I was so intent on making sure our mission was a success I ended up compromising it and putting us at risk. I did more harm than good. When you’re out there and everything’s going as it should it’s easy to think that nothing is going to go wrong. You have to remind yourself just how risky this job is. I’m sorry it took something like this happening to make me see that. But I want you to know I’ll do whatever I can to make this up to you.”
Tasha could see the sincerity in Jason’s eyes. “I know you will.”
“So, are we good?” Jason asked softly, hoping against hope that they were.
“Yeah, we’re good,” Tasha said gently. They both slightly smiled.
Jason sighed. “Do you have any idea who’s behind this?”
“I thought at first it was probably Dalmar but then found out from a woman, who I’m assuming is the leader of this group, that he isn’t. Apparently, we’re being used in some plan of hers to bring down Dalmar.”
“That’s not much to go on.”
“No, it certainly isn’t. Right now all we can do is wait.”
“Waiting…not exactly one of my favorite things.”
“Really? You, having a hard time being patient. I never would have guessed.” She smirked.
“Not everyone can be a paragon of patience like yourself.”
“I’m not the one who brought this up” she wryly chucked. “Let me think, who was it? Oh, right it was you.”
“Well, that was different…I think…that was me talking about…me.”
Tasha shook her head. “Look at us. Tied up and we still can’t stop bickering with each other.” Tasha had never met anyone who could push and challenge her the way Jason did. Who could go toe to toe with her. Match her wit and banter. She found Jason’s sense of humor honestly annoying yet charming at the same time. At the very least it provided a distraction from their current surroundings.
“I guess we just can’t help it.”
“Yeah, how else could we possibly put up with each other.” The two of them shared an amused look followed by a light laugh. It felt comforting to share a moment of levity. To not be alone. For a second their troubles seemed to melt away, at least to a certain extent. Their banter made their lives seem more “normal” if that was possible. At least how it had been the day before. When they were just two coworkers together rather than two kidnapped NSA agents being held in an empty warehouse. Their thoughts began to once again drift to their present situation. Not knowing what was in store for them – that was what was most frightening.
The door suddenly swung open. Elias entered the darkroom and walked to where Tasha and Jason were seated. He violently tore Tasha away from the wall.
“What are you doing?! Let go of her!” Jason shouted.
“You all said I could be here,” Tasha responded.
“Time to go” Elias responded as he dragged her to the door. Tasha didn’t resist. Better to save her strength for later when she’d need it the most.
All Jason wanted to do was help, but there was nothing he could do. Nothing except to be tied down and watch from the sidelines. The unfolding scene served as a reminder that their fate was in someone else’s hands, and at this moment there was nothing he could do.
As Tasha was dragged out Jason kept shouting “Stop!” over and over again. He felt shaken to the core seeing her disappear down the hall. Two burly men surged into the room; they grabbed him and shoved him up against the wall. They grabbed Jason’s arms and forced him through the doorway. He grunted and strained, trying to resist them but it was useless being tied up. The door shut behind them leaving them mostly in darkness. Jason was yanked and pushed down a long hallway. He wished this was a nightmare. One he could wake up from and forget – but it wasn’t. This was real. Uncertainty filled him, along with generous doses of fear, much more for Tasha than for himself. He was grateful his parents couldn’t see him now. They’d be consumed with worry and distress, especially after what had happened to Jerry. Losing another child was something they never wanted to experience again. The pain was unlike any other. Jason still vividly recalled coming from school. Seeing his mother and father desperately holding onto each other on the couch, weeping. They’d naturally been concerned for his safety when he told him he wanted to join the NSA but offered him their full support and prayers. He promised them he’d be okay. That was one promise he was determined to keep.
Four days earlier:
Outside the sun crossed the sky and dipped down under the horizon. The moon appeared and the stars came out. Crickets chirped all around.
Milena lay in bed asleep. Her usual nights were filled with the memories and faces of the past. Her Dad, Mom, and Liana. Now a strange and twisted dream shook her. She saw a man who looked like Dalmar seated on a throne in the center of Izmirlian Square. Gold and red robes adorned him and a gilded crown sat atop his head. He held a golden scepter in his hand and was surrounded by a sea of people.
A woman in the crowd pointed at him and yelled, “You aren’t here to free us! You’re here to enslave us! Monster!!!” She was soon joined by all the other members of the enormous crowd. Suddenly, Milena was the person seated on the throne. The crowd began to press closer and closer. In their hands, they held stakes, pitchforks, and guns. Frantically, they cried out for her head. Milena stood from the throne. Panic gripped her eyes. She glanced down and saw that her hands were stained red with blood. In the corner of her eye, she saw something pointed to her head. She turned her head and saw a man standing before her holding a pistol to her head. His eyes were full of rage. She found herself shaking uncontrollably. The man’s finger found the trigger. “Please!” she pleaded. “I’m not a monster. This isn’t me!” The gun went off.
Milena jerked awake, gasping for breath. Her forehead was beaded with sweat and her cheeks were flushed. She tried to reason and calm herself down. It had just been a nightmare. A very strange and horrifying one albeit. She shut her thoughts out. She wasn’t some power-hungry monster like Dalmar, to be reviled and despised. Who was deluded with dreams of power or of the world holding its breath at one word from her lips.
She ran her hand through her hair and glanced out the window at the night sky. It wasn’t like what she’d dreamed was an omen or sign of the future, so why did she feel so uneasy? Perhaps it was that she was soon reaching the point of no return. Today, in merely a few hours, 1131 and 2362 would be arriving. The countdown was nearly over. Time was running out. She could either keep going or stop altogether. Who was she kidding? She knew there was only one choice.