Authors: Nichole Christoff
He didn't make it any farther than his knees. Blood trickled from his nose and the corner of his raw, red mouth. The hollow of his left eye brimmed with a blue bruise. My stomach clutched at the sight of his injuries.
But we didn't have time for that. Not if the men who'd beaten the shit out of him decided to return. Of course, Barrett hadn't stood by and quietly let them pound him. His knuckles were swollen and bloody where he'd fought back. And in a sick sort of way, I was proud of himâuntil I remembered he'd killed a man yesterday.
I said, “Do you know you've got a detail of London's finest looking for you?”
But Barrett didn't want to hear it. “You've got to go. You've got to run.”
I grasped a handful of his thick, navy pea coat.
It felt greasy and wet.
Gripping his coat tighter, I tried to haul him to his feet. It was the same coat he'd worn when he'd blasted Dalmatovis. He'd have nitrites and other telltale residue on it from firing his gun. If Philip found him in it, this coat would be all the evidence he'd need to lock Barrett up. And Philip, I recalled, was just a few flights of stairs away.
“Jamie”âBarrett pried my hand from his lapel as easily as if he were picking off a burrâ“you've got to get out of here.”
“Agreed. And you've got to come with me.”
Because he could've been bleeding internally. His liver and spleen could be mincemeat. And a cracked rib could mean a punctured lung now and asphyxiation later.
Barrett staggered to his feet, swayed like a stunned bull.
I opened my mouth to promise him I'd help him, but a new sound had me looking past himâjust in time to see the stack of yellowed newspapers I'd passed go up in flames.
In an instant, the kerosene, the smell of cigar smoke, and Barrett's soaking coat all made sense to me.
So did his efforts to get me to go.
The bastards who'd beaten him had doused the place in fuel oil. And they'd drenched Barrett in it, too. Using a smoldering cigar as a kind of time-elapse fuse, they'd left him here, unconscious, to die.
Well, he wasn't going to die and neither was I. But even as the thought steeled my spine, fire flashed across the kerosene-slick floorboards, engulfed the mattresses and bedding, and leapt greedily up the timbered attic wall. Smoke, boiling and black, billowed toward us. The smoke stung my eyes, filled my lungs, and cut off any access to the stairwell. This time, Barrett grabbed
“Fire escape,” he gagged, and shoved me toward a distant window.
The flames were everywhere now, like a glowing crescent sweeping toward us. I stumbled past the overstuffed sofa. The far end of it was already blazing. Ahead of me, the bank of broken windows shimmered like black diamonds in the heat. I glanced over my shoulder, but Barrett wasn't behind me.
He was doubled over at the waist, coughing like a drowning man taking on water.
I ran to him, dragged one of his arms across my shoulders, and slipped my own around his waist. His knees buckled and the weight of him threatened to drag us both to the floor. If he fellâand if he fell unconsciousâI'd never get him up again.
Panic roared in my ears. Or maybe it was the sound of the raging flames. The fire was snapping and crackling like a disturbed dragon. Orange light bathed the walls that before had been black with darkness. And the smell of hot char burned the inside of my nose.
But I was my father's daughter, and if there was one thing I'd learned from my father the senatorâand my father the generalâit was to never give up.
So in my best commanding officer's voice, I barked at Barrett.
“Come on, soldier,
! One foot in front of the other!”
To my relief, he did as I ordered.
We crossed the room in a herky-jerky two-step that would've made Fred Astaire wince. And we weren't the only ones fleeing the flames. In the hallways below, I could hear the wailing baby and his mama, and the man with the radio. They and a dozen other souls shouted to one another in their respective languages. But one thing made them instantly understandableâthe international language of panic.
Barrett and I reached the blown-out windows. I prayed the lace tracery of a fire escape still clung to the outside of the building. It had to. I'd heard Barrett's captors thunder down the rungs as I'd ascended the stairs. And we had to get outâbecause in the near corner lay a heap of fat, red fuel cans that stank of more kerosene.
Barrett leaned over a sill, sucked in clean air. I peered past him and there it was: the rusty rails of the fire escape. Barrett reached for me, boosted me over the lip of the window. As soon as my boots touched down, my cell phone trilled in my pocket. The number was a familiar one. It belonged to Philip and he was phoning from the restaurant below.
Now, a fresh fear found me. My friend was also in danger. I answered the call.
“Get out of the building, Philip. The connecting tenement's on fire.”
But I wasn't telling him anything he didn't already know. Behind him, I heard the syncopated
sirens of London fire engines approaching. He must've been standing on the street at the restaurant's entrance.
“Where the bloody hell are you?” he demanded.
“Don't worry. I'm on my way.” And I hoped this was true. Especially when Barrett stumbled onto the narrow platform beside me.
The fire escape was rickety and rusted, and it shook and shuddered under our weight as we tripped down four flights of metal steps. The stairs ended half a story from the smelly surface of the alley below, and there, a short ladder was attached. But the ladder didn't reach the pavement. The remaining six-foot drop would rattle my bones, but I was okay with that. Barrett, on the other hand, was in no shape to be slammed to the ground.
I didn't have time to find another option, though. An explosion rocked the brick-and-mortar building. It shook our fire escape like a terrier shakes a rat. Debris, hot and smoking, rained down on us. Twisted metal tore at our clothes.
At the mouth of the alley, someone shouted. A figure, dark in silhouette, ran toward us. A cop? A fireman? I didn't know. I just didn't want him to take Barrett away from me.
But it was my young New York Yankees fan, leading a string of kitchen workers.
With steady hands, they reached for us, guided us to the ground.
I started to thank them, but the young man waved me impatiently to silence. “You must go. No one must know. Hurry.
He didn't have to tell me twice. I seized Barrett by the hand and tugged him toward the street. Quite a crowd had gathered in front of the restaurant. Fire trucks were parked every which way. Uniformed police were thick on the ground.
Philip would be among them.
Philip and his overdeveloped sense of justice.
For Barrett's sake, we couldn't risk running into Philip. And Barrett needed a place to rest and get medical attention. But going to a hospital to get it meant popping up on Philip's radar.
So that left us with only one place to go.
If I'd ever thought about taking Barrett into my bedâand I'll admit I thought about it a lot while we were apart over the summerâI'd never thought the experience would be anything like this.
For one thing, in my daydreams, roommates had never figured into the equation.
But currently, I had two of them.
I couldn't be sure Katie would welcome an addition to our partyâespecially since that addition was a fugitive from the law. She was, after all, a U.S. State Department courier. Avoiding an overseas scandal had no doubt been engraved on her heart long before she'd been allowed to board the plane for this trip.
I was counting on Ikaat's reaction to Barrett, on the other hand, to fill in the blanks about his involvement in this whole affair. I suspected Barrett had been her father's American contact in the Middle East this past summer, and thanks to Barrett, she and her father had escaped their homeland to meet Katie here in London. But I didn't fool myself into believing I'd pieced together the whole story. There was much I didn't know. And in my business, what you didn't know could get you hurt.
Thanks to a cooperative cabbie who mistook the smell of kerosene for alcohol and Barrett's battered face as proof of being bounced from a pub, I managed to get Barrett across town and through the back entrance of Rabbit's Revenge. Nobody passed us in the hushed halls, and nobody spotted us waiting for an elevator. Best of all, the lifts were across the lobby from the hotel's cozy pub, where I spotted Katie and Ikaat tucked into a quiet corner. They'd apparently tried to make the best of their waiting game with a hearty English supper.
Katie, however, was signing the bill. It was a clear indicator that their dinner was done. And that I didn't have a lot of time to get Barrett upstairs and into our suiteâno questions asked.
As we entered my bedroom, Barrett clung to consciousness as lightly as he clung to me. The second we reached the bed, he slumped down on the edge of it. And then he tried to lie down.
I tugged on his sleeve, silently cursing Locard's Exchange Principle. It was bad enough that the handgun Barrett had fired to kill Dalmatovis had undoubtedly left evidence all over his hands and coat. Now, he was transferring that evidenceâand not to mention no small measure of keroseneâto my duvet.
“You've got to get out of this coat,” I urged him. “And I've got to take a look at you.”
Barrett leveled a glare at me that was full of contrary opinion, but I ignored it.
He pushed himself to his feet, staggered, tried to shuck the navy-blue coat.
I peeled the lapels from his chest, shoved the wool down his arms, and let the coat drop to the floor. I eased his sooty pullover up and over his torso. It, too, reeked of kerosene. And the cuff was bloody where Barrett had wiped his mouth and nose. Despite all that, his shirt wanted to stay with his sweater, so I let it.
I dragged both garments over his head and tossed them on the carpet.
Red welts, as round as dinner plates, had found their way through Barrett's defenses and stamped his sternum. If his heart, living beneath the flesh and bone, didn't ache with the beating, mine sure ached for it. The trauma to his right collarbone and rib cage sure as hell didn't make me feel any better. Barrett looked as if he'd been on the receiving end of blows from a crowbar. The resulting bruises were as black as sin and spreading fast.
Only the damage low on his right side was old news. Above his waist and probably well below his trousers, crazy crescents dug into his skin. They were shrapnel scars, leftovers from an insurgent's exploding incendiary device, and a reminder that Barrett had lived to tell about the experience. Because Barrett was one tough customer. I knew that.
Still, I knew he could have kidney damage from the beating he'd sustained. Crushed organs. Internal bleeding. I'd have to call the house physicianâand hope he wouldn't rat Barrett out. But first, I had to get Barrett out of the rest of his clothes.
I grasped the tail end of his belt, began to fumble with the buckle.
“Hey.” Barrett seized my wrist. “What happened to buying a guy a drink first?”
We'd shared a drink. Two nights ago, in fact. The memory of that eveningâand of the two of us wrapped around each otherâmade me shiver. I'd been so thrilled to see Barrett back from his secret summertime mission. When he'd taken me in his arms, excitement had shimmered through my system like champagne.
Barrett was thinking of that night, too.
I could see the recollection of it sparkling in his chocolate-brown eyes.
But a lot had happened since then. A man was dead. Barrett had killed him. As a result, I wasn't sure how I was supposed to feel. And I was no longer certain of the kind of man Barrett really was.
That realization chilled me to the bone.
Barrett seemed to sense the temperature drop. He released my wrist. “What happened to your arm?”
It was the first time he'd noticed the cast.
And it was proof positive he wasn't at the top of his game.
Before I could decide how to answer him, I heard the suite's door bump open. Katie and Ikaat entered the outer room, their conversation muted by the hardwood between us. My heart lodged in my throat when one of them tapped on my door.
“Jamie?” Katie whispered. “Are you in there?”
“Just a sec,” I called. To Barrett, I hissed, “You stay put.”
I left him swaying in the middle of my bedroom and went to meet her. Barely opening my door, I slipped through the gap and closed the latch firmly behind me. If Katie thought my behavior weird, she didn't comment on it.
She did, however, look me up and down. When her brows arched, I glanced at my streaked trench coat, patted my ashy hair, and smelled the kerosene on my own clothes. I probably looked like I'd hiked through a coal mine and back. Uphill. Both ways.
At any rate, I sure as hell felt like I had.
Katie's nose wrinkled like a cotton shirt. “You smell like a campfire.”
“Yeah. Fortunately, I'm not a marshmallow.”
“My God, you're not kidding!”
I shook my head.
“Are you hurt?”
I hefted my broken arm. “Not any more than I was last night.”
But that wasn't exactly true. My heart hurt with hiding the truth from Philip. And with wondering about the truth of Barrett's involvement in this state of affairs.
“Well, I'm glad you're back. I got bad news this afternoon.” She glanced over her shoulder, toward the room she shared with Ikaat.
I heard water splashing in the basin in the connecting bath.
Katie continued, “I got a phone call from my boss at the State Department. I explained the situation, about Ikaat's missing dad, but I'm under orders to bring her back to Washington immediately.”
“Have you told her that?”
Katie cast a glance at the doorway to her shared room again. “No. I didn't know what she might do if she thought she'd have to leave without her father.”
Katie had a clear head on her shoulders. So clear, maybe I should've sent her to find Ikaat's father. I certainly hadn't had any luck finding him.
Of course, thanks to a young Yankees fan, I'd found Barrett. Barrett, however, was in no shape to go anywhere, even if Ikaat were willing to abandon her father and hop on a plane. When the time came, I'd have to go with her and Katieâbut I sure as hell wasn't going to leave Barrett injured and alone in London.
“We won't go, yet,” I told Katie. “I want to take at least another day to look for Ikaat's father.”
She shook her head. “You can't, Jamie. I've been ordered to board a plane or get Ikaat to the U.S. Embassy. If I don't do either, someone will come looking for me. I'll lose my job.”
Another player in the middle of this business was the last thing we needed. Especially if that player was a government bureaucrat. And I didn't want to cost Katie her job, either.
“I'll work it out,” I promised her. And I knew I would. I just didn't have a clue how I'd do it.
The smile that spread across Katie's face telegraphed the depth of her relief. She embraced me in a sisterly hug. “I knew you'd know what to do!”
Then she released me, cocked her head. “Did your shower just come on? In your room?”
I bet I blanched as white as the table linens at the Ritz. And then flushed as red as a maiden's first blush. Because sure enough, I heard my shower runningâand without wanting to, I pictured Barrett in it, naked.
“It's the neighbor's,” I lied, and hoped Katie believed me. “Keep an eye on Ikaat,” I told her as I fished my phone from my trench coat pocket. “I have to make a call.”
She nodded and I ducked onto the chilly balcony, pulled up the contacts on the handheld device. Philip had called me twice while Barrett and I were fleeing the scene of the fire. But my phone or his kept dropping his calls. That's because London's cell-phone network had been overloaded in the aftermath of the Marylebone tenement explosion. As far as urban catastrophes went, it had been a pretty bad one. Not even a faulty connection, however, had prevented Philip from letting me know he was as angry as a mad dog in the noonday sun that I'd slipped away from him again. But I'd have to mend that rift later.
Just then, I needed to speak to my father.
In Washington, it was early evening, and government grunts had a long way to go until the end of the workday. So, I dialed my father's direct line. After three rings, however, it wasn't my father who answered.
“Jamie,” Roger said, sounding as pleased as a telemarketer to speak to me. “It's good to hear from you.”
“Um, thanks. Is my father available? I've got to speak to him right away.”
“No, I'm sorry. Can you hold on a second?”
All kinds of rustling met my ear. Muffled voices traded words in a quick exchange. When Roger spoke again, his voice was hushedâand rushed.
“Look, Jamie, it's not a good idea for you to phone the Senator's office like this.”
“Well, where should I phone him?” I snapped. Roger's constant interference was finally getting under my skin.
“That's just it. You shouldn't.”
Roger, I'm here, in Britain, because he askedâ”
“You'll be coming home soon?” he interrupted.
Something in the way he said it made the question seem all-important.
“No, I've hit a snag,” I said. “Armand Oujdad is lost in London. But Katie deMarco is now under orders to bring Dr. Oujdad to the States regardless. I need more time so I can find Ikaat's father.”
“Or,” Roger said, “you could leave the old man behind.”
I was shocked Roger would suggest such a thing.
“I'm not going to leave anyone behind. The deal was Ikaat Oujdad's knowledge in exchange for asylum for both her and herâ”
“I'm aware of the deal.”
“Oh, goody. Now, you're also aware I need more time so America can hold up her end of the bargain. Can you and my father make that happen? Or should I round up Ikaat and Katie and go off the grid? No one would see us 'til spring.”
Silence crackled along the connection.
When he finally spoke, Roger's voice was barely more than a whisper.
“Jamie, you have to understand what's at stake here. It's not that I'm hard-heartedâ”
Well, I was beginning to think I didn't know
“I'll see what I can do,” he said at last.
And before I could reply, Roger Lind, my father's chief of staff, hung up on me.