Authors: Nichole Christoff
Philip rewound the video.
Barrett shot Dalmatovis over and over.
I flinched with every blast.
“That man,” Philip said, “is a killer.”
“So is this one,” I said, stabbing the pixels of Dalmatovis's bald spot with my index finger, “by your own admission. If he'd had his way, he might've killed me.”
“No. Dalmatovis only hired on to kill the two defectors. I don't know the other man's agenda.”
“Well, neither do I,” I admitted, glad to tell my old friend the truth about something.
Philip didn't comment. He parked his finely tailored ass on the edge of the electronics console, grabbed the tail of my trench coat's cinched belt, and drew me between his knees. From the frozen monitors, royal-blue light spilled across the ridge of Philip's right cheekbone before splashing the side of his aristocratic nose. No doubt about it, my friend was a good-looking man. And he always had been. I'd willingly overlooked that fact when we were undergraduates. Frustrated and more than a little afraid, I found him hard to overlook nowâespecially at such close range.
“Jamie, if you've gotten yourself into difficulty, I want to know about it.”
“I'm a security specialist. I get into difficulties all the time because I get paid to bring people out of them.”
“Yes, but when you brought Ms. deMarco to London at the behest of your government, murder wasn't the difficulty you were expecting, was it?”
I grabbed the tail end of my trench coat's belt and jerked it from Philip's hand. As far as I was concerned, Barrett hadn't committed murder. He'd defended unarmed civilians from a known assassin.
Not that Philip was likely to see it that way.
Out loud, I challenged, “What makes you think I'm here âat the behest of my government'?”
“Darling, which British ministry do you suppose your government contacted before they launched this action on these shores? And which government representative do you suppose supplied British passports so Ms. deMarco could spirit her contacts away?”
I blinked at Philip in disbelief. “You sent the passports to our State Department?”
“Indeed. Although Ms. deMarco hasn't managed to spirit anyone away so far, has she?”
No, she hadn't. Because Ikaat wouldn't leave Britain without her father. And her father was nowhere to be found.
“To meet your obligation in this matter, you must find the elder Oujdad,” Philip reminded me. “I must find Dalmatovis's killer. We must work together because I believe when we find one, we shall find the other.”
“No.” I turned on my heel, made tracks for the front of the caravan.
I didn't like the sound of Philip's proposal. Oh, I liked the idea of finding Ikaat's father, all right. I liked the idea of finding Barrett even more. But old friend or not, Philip was still a highly placed official in a foreign government. He had his own priorities and so did his employers. And after what Barrett had done, neither Philip's priorities nor the British government's would bode well for him. He'd be better off if Philip wasn't peering over my shoulder when I found him with Armand Oujdadâand so would I.
But before I could reach the door of the small editing suite, Philip hooked my elbow. He spun me to face him. And in the close confines of the tiny room, we suddenly found ourselves toe-to-toe and breast-to-chest. For one long, loud thud of my heart, we stared into one another's eyes. Then Philip's gaze dropped to my lips.
Whatever might've happened next didn't. Because Philip deliberately let go of my arm. Still, I couldn't let go of the feeling my old friend had been about to kiss me.
“Surely, Jamie, you know I cannot allow you to investigate on your own.”
“What are you going to do? Lock me in this RV?”
“No,” he admitted. “But I will have you driven to Heathrow and forcibly restrained on the first aircraft bound for New York. Should you try to enter the United Kingdom again, you'll find your name blacklisted and your passport denied.”
Anger stoked the heat in my cheeks and I felt the immature urge to kick Philip in the shin.
But then he said, “Come now, Jamie. It's been so long since we've been together. I've missed you terribly. Say you'll stay in London. Say you'll work with me on this.”
Years ago, as an undergraduate at Princeton, I'd resisted the come-on from the English exchange student whom every woman on campus wanted to call her own. And although that student had grown into an exceedingly attractive man and a good friend, I wasn't going to be silly enough to assume he was doing anything more than saying he'd missed me to get his way now. But I'd be lying if I said at that moment, sore, tired, and more than a little scared, the thought of taking him seriously for a while didn't cross my mind.
“The Oujdads,” I told Philip, “have got to be my first priorityâ”
“âand I'm not interested in helping you track down the shooterâ”
“âbut if you can offer any help in finding the old man, I'll take it.”
With matters as settled as they were going to be, I grasped the door handle in my good hand. Before I twisted the knob and left the little editing suite, however, I found I had one more thing to say. I cleared my throat. Because I hadn't been entirely honest with Philip. And dishonesty wasn't like me. But I could be honest about one thing.
“I've missed you, too.”
A slow smile spread across Philip's handsome face. It got tangled up in his hazel eyes and set off a spark there. But those eyes slid away from mine.
My friend mumbled, “I'm pleased to hear it.”
And I knew when he said it that Philip Spencer-Dean, for reasons that had nothing to do with nuclear secrets, was pleased indeedâeven if he didn't want to admit it.
With our newly formed pact in place between us, Philip and I left his RV hidden in that East End warehouse and ended up where this misadventure had begun.
At a bookshop in Covent Garden.
This was the last place I'd seen Armand Oujdad, not to mention the first place in London I'd seen Adam Barrett. It was also the last place London's network of closed-circuit TV cameras had captured identifiable images of either man. In Philip's car, on a slick tablet he pulled from some leather-appointed compartment, I saw the footage myself.
“The Metropolitan Police first flagged this video last night,” he informed me. “When my office became involved, they compiled this composite. You'll notice the elder Oujdad enters the alley in advance of the women by several seconds.”
The night before, Katie and Ikaat had told me as much. As a result, Ikaat swore she hadn't seen which way her father had gone. Now, here was proof.
Grainy footage taken at a sharp angle captured all the romance of a narrow urban alley, a crooked downspout, and several dented trash cans. It also documented a doorâpresumably the back door of the bookstoreâas it slammed open. Neither Katie nor Ikaat were anywhere to be seen as Armand rushed into the alley.
But the alley wasn't empty.
A second man, in a baseball cap, loitered there.
In the wash of light from the shop's interior, Armand's face was plainly visible. Especially when he turned with terse words for the younger fellow who clamped a hand on his shoulder. My heart lurchedâbecause this second man was clearly Barrett.
He and Ikaat's father argued for a moment, but they must've reached some kind of compromise because, in the blink of an eye, they moved down the alley and into inky shadows so deep, I couldn't tell what lay beyond.
Interestingly, it was Armand who led the way. I wondered if he'd had a destination in mind. Or if he'd simply wanted to put some distance between himself and the paid assassin in front of the shop. In either case, one thing was sure. The crummy resolution of this particular camera would be no help at all to me in finding him.
“Where is this camera positioned?” I asked.
“You shall see for yourself,” Philip replied.
And I did. But I felt like I'd lived three lifetimes before I got to do so. After an eternity, Philip's car halted in front of the bookshop.
I was out of the car and into the store in two steps. Employees jerked like marionettes on short strings when I set the bell over the shop door trembling. I imagine they'd seen all manner of cops cross their threshold since the shooting the previous evening and now, thanks to Philip, they saw four more push their way into the place behind me.
I had no idea how Philip had managed to wrangle a quartet of uniformed bobbies to accompany us, but he had. And their presence lent my poking around London an authority I'd never have had on my own. Still, I'd rather have gone it alone.
While Philip made nice with the manager and the coppers looked around, I did just that, bypassing shelves laden with books of every kind and brushing aside a heavy, velvet curtain. Ducking past it, I found myself in the must and dust of a storeroom. A fat orange cat arched its back and hissed at my intrusion, irritated that I'd disturbed it on its pile of crumbling leather-bound books.
But I wasn't. Not when I saw a steel fire door, as gray as a battleship and probably as heavy, set into the far wall. I grabbed its slide-bolt and yanked. The thing was as big as a railroad spike, but it yielded to me. And so did the door.
In an instant, I was in the alley behind the store.
It smelled like every alley in urban London, which is to say it stank.
Stale rainwater, slow drains, and moldering vegetation competed for my attention, but I tuned them out. The area looked like every alley in urban London, too. The trash cans I'd seen in the footage were here and so was the crooked downspout. I, however, only had eyes for the camera that had caught Oujdad and Barrett's departure. Like some kind of malformed bat, it clung to the corner of the opposite building.
“Ah, an older model,” Philip said, stepping into the alley with me. “You'll note it remains stationary. The wide-angle lens is permanently fixed on the mouth of the alley.”
“To discourage vandalism no doubt. And bust parking violators.”
“How would your countrymen phrase it? Parking fines are big bucks in London.” Philip smiled. “In any case, we're fortunate the doorway was within the camera's field of view.”
Fortune, as far as I was concerned, had short-changed us. After all, it hadn't brought me any closer to Ikaat's father. Or to Barrett.
Across the alleywayâwhere the camera couldn't seeâthe opposing building gave us the cold shoulder. Any of its boarded-up windows and wooden doors with peeling paint could've provided Oujdad and Barrett with an escape route. I crossed to the first door, butted my good shoulder against its curling green surface, grasped its corroded brass knob, and pushed.
The door didn't budge.
“Jamie, the Metropolitan Police tried these doors last night. Furthermore, they searched each building adjacent to this property.”
“Good for them,” I muttered, and moved along the cobblestones to try the next one anyway.
Philip whistled between his teeth. His policemen emerged from the bookshop. “Hop to it, lads.”
They did, testing the doors and checking the windows more thoroughly than I could've done one-handed.
Philip slipped an arm around my waist. “Come, Jamie. Let's return to the car. Surely your arm pains you.”
It did. Not that I was going to tell Philip about it. For the record, though, the fingertips of my left hand stung, my wrist throbbed in its cast, and a dull ache had taken up residence in my collarbone.
Still, I shrugged off Philip's attentions, walked to the far end of the narrow alley. Here, the camera's eye hadn't reached. And here, the alley opened to the maze of Covent Garden's twisting streets. Barrett and Ikaat's father could've gone a hundred different directions from here. And I had no way to definitively eliminate any of them.
But then Philip said, “There
one place they might've gone.”
And at that moment, if he were willing to lead me there, I'd have accompanied him anywhere.
On a nondescript street in the far reaches of North London, Philip ordered his car to stop at the curb.
I wasn't familiar with the neighborhood and I suspected we were somewhere above Marylebone. That area's Baker Street, I recalled, was once the fabled home of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous creation. Now, it hosted some of the city's well-to-do citizens, along with the homes and businesses of some of England's newest residents. Along Marylebone's thoroughfares, a jumble of curry shops, hookah bars, and dim sum restaurants reflected Britain's ever-changing demographics.
On this particular street, in this particular neighborhood, however, vendors had erected tents and folding tables to form a Sunday morning, open-air, Middle Eastern market. And temporarily at least, this section of town looked more like Istanbul than London. That, I realized, was why Philip had brought me here.
“You think Oujdad's got connections in the immigrant community,” I said, as Philip's bobbies fanned out to flash photos of Ikaat's father and Barrett at buyers and sellers alike. “But his daughter says he doesn't know anyone in Britain.”
Philip smiled. “Do you suppose your father tells you of everything and everyone he knows?”
Philip's question hit a raw nerve residing somewhere in the vicinity of my breastbone. The feeling made me frown. And made me more than a little reluctant to answer him.
“Ah,” he said, veering toward a vendor's booth. “This looks like just the place to begin.”
At a folding table showcasing sunglasses, Philip perused the goods. He tried on a pair of aviator shades. I bit down on my frustration. Before us were aisles and aisles of potential witnesses. Any one of them could lead us to Ikaat's father and Barrett. But canvassing them all would take the entire afternoon.
Yet what was Philip doing? Rushing to question them? Heck, no.
Philip was shopping.
But when the booth's proprietor made his way over to us, Philip parlayed his interest in the sunglasses into a chat about the missing men. The seller took the photos Philip offered as readily as he took Philip's cash for the shades. And though the fellow said he hadn't seen either man we sought, he suggested we speak to the guy selling refurbished sewing machines three rows overâsince the guy also allegedly ran an illegal boardinghouse.
The sewing machine repairman swore he didn't recognize Ikaat's father, though. He swore he didn't recognize Barrett, either. Of course, it was difficult to know whether he was telling the truth or not. Philip's four policemen had spread far and wide through the market by then and I could see their effect here, there, and everywhere. Shoppers did U-turns to avoid us. Sellers got busy arranging stock when I glanced their way. Whether newcomers to this green isle or Brits born and bred, no one would look at us, and I knew few of them would speak when spoken to.
And who could blame them? In many parts of the world, cops asking questions meant trouble wasn't far away. Especially to immigrants from countries where the police behave like criminals.
So the sewing machine man got cagey when I pressed him about Oujdad and Barrett.
And in the end, not even Philip's money could open the guy's mouth.
When Philip and I had merged once again with the thick throng flowing through the market, I asked, “Has it occurred to you that your policemen are scaring more people into clamming up than into giving answers?”
By way of reply, Philip drifted toward another booth. This one offered cell-phone cases, wraps, and skins. But they weren't knockoffs mass produced in some slipshod factory or even manufactured in a crowded sweatshop. I saw this the second Philip selected a beautiful case of midnight-blue leather. His lithe fingers caressed the grain, tanned to perfection and hand-sewn with French seams to house a device like mine.
Philip said, “A hotheaded American might see such police canvassing as a sloppy maneuver. I would think a general's daughter, however, would call it a tactic.”
“Indeed.” He turned the case over in his hand.
Its workmanship was flawless.
Even I had to admit it was a lovely little thing.
“Give me your mobile, Jamie.”
I humored himâand turned my back on him while he fiddled with my phone. To my infinite frustration, London's humanity streamed past us in both directions. Each person was a potential leadâand each one was a missed opportunity while we dawdled over a cell-phone case.
“What,” Philip asked me, “would a general's daughter call this?”
I stopped scrutinizing the crowd and looked down at my phone lying flat on Philip's palm. It wore the midnight-blue case. And the case transformed my cell from a utilitarian object into an elegant accessory.
In short, I loved it.
Before I could comment, however, my friend changed the subject yet again. “Have you ever watched the dogs on a birding weekend?”
“Philip, I've never been on a birding weekend.”
“Well, we should rectify that. My father is hosting one at the family home next weekend. You should drive up with me.”
I'd met Philip's father once. We'd crossed paths at a joint benefit for wounded American and British soldiers held at the UK's Washington embassy. Compared to him, Hadrian's Wall had come off as more yielding.
Here on his home turf, when he wasn't masterminding the nation's fiscal policy in London, Philip's father reigned at the ancestral digs, a Tudor monstrosity bestowed on the family centuries ago by a philandering king. According to the guidebooks, the place even had a moat, but I didn't know if it did or not. I'd never been there, though Philip had invited me often enough.
“My father,” Philip said, “has a brilliant springer spaniel. She's called Tessie. She can flush a brace of birds even Mother Nature would overlook. You'd love her.”
“Let me guess. Tessie isn't the only member of your family with strong hunting instincts. You think your strong police presence will flush out Armand Oujdad and your suspect.”
“So,” Philip remarked, handing my newly enhanced phone to me and reaching for his wallet. “The general's daughter knows something of tactics, after all.”
I ignored his cheeky grin, but the vendor, a short, thick man with a bald pate and a bristling mustache, took Philip's smile as a good sign. He swooped in to seal the deal on the little leather case. I took advantage of his enthusiasm to show him the pictures of Oujdad and Barrett.
The salesman's assistant hovered nearby, stacking boxes in a corner of the tent and trying to appear as if he weren't listening in on our conversation. He was a kid of about sixteen in a white oxford shirt rolled to the elbows and an honest-to-goodness baseball cap. The cap was dark blue and bore a strange sight on these shoresâthe interlocking
of the New York Yankees.
I showed the kid the photos. He denied having seen Oujdad or Barrett.
We said our goodbyes, and Philip and I and his four Metropolitan Police officers continued to comb the bazaar until lunchtime. We kept at it until teatime, too. When the time came for the market's vendors to pack up and go home, I began to wonder if I should cut my losses, grab Ikaat and Katie, and do the same.
After all, Dalmatovis's helmet-headed crony still had to be out there somewhere. And Ikaat and her father undoubtedly still had a price on their heads. I'd promised
father I'd see Ikaat to safety and I couldn't let her dad stand in the way of that. I couldn't let my worry for Barrett get in the way, either. But I was afraid it just might.