“Where to?” The question was innocuous enough, as was the answer, “The airport, please.” The real question might have been, “Where to after that?” Grace had no idea where life was about to take her.
The ride wasn’t long, but it was long enough to start Grace thinking about plans for her future. It occurred to her that, except for the clothing on her back and the contents of her bags, she no longer had any connection to her past. In fact, she realized, if it were not for her .380 pistol, she would just “turn left” and keep going. As it was, her best bet was to get a new identity and try to disappear. She wondered how, and why, Reginald had taken on a new name. Had he double-crossed someone? And was that same someone now after her?
Grace had managed to stop Vasily and Anna, but she was under no delusion that her problems were over. Who ever had sent them would surely send someone else once their failure was known.
She released her driver at one end of the departure area, then walked across the terminal to where her suitcase was located. After producing all the paperwork which proved it was here, Grace was able to claim her bag. From there she made her way out of the terminal, stopping first in a restroom where she made use of the handicapped stall to transfer the gold into her rolling suitcase, and her .380 into her coat pocket. With the original contents of the briefcase back in place, both it and her tote were much lighter.
Outside once again, Grace took advantage of the airport shuttle service to get a ride into the nearest town. She reasoned that her best bet was to buy a used car there. She had already checked the bills in the envelope to be certain they were not in sequence, so she was hopeful she could spend them without arousing suspicion. A personal sale would be best, she thought.
She got off the shuttle bus at its first stop. In a nearby café, she picked up a newspaper from a machine outside, then went in for a sandwich and a glass of tea. She sat at a table where she could see the door, then began to peruse the classifieds. There were several cars in her price range, and Grace was just about to call the first number when she spied a familiar face through the window. She quickly lifted the paper to her face.
Grace heard the door open, and then the newspaper was pulled away. “I taught you that maneuver,” Jerome said, “Did you really think you could hide from me?” Grace didn’t know how to react, or to respond. “To answer your question,” he continued (had she asked one?), “I’ve been following Vasily since he left D.C.; I figured he’d lead me to you, and that you might need my help.”
“Thanks a lot,” she responded, “Where were you when he had a gun pointed at my head?” Jerome dropped his head, a sheepish grin on his face. “Vasily lost me for a minute,” he said. “By the time I recovered his trail, you had it covered. I’ve been trailing you since you left your house.”
“Why?” Grace questioned, “Unless you thought someone else was following me, too.” Jerome didn’t respond. “Is that person you?” she asked, “Were you sent to make sure the job was done? Are you a …cleaner?”
Jerome held a finger to his lips, “Shhh,” he whispered. “Some people think it was you who took that bullet to the brain, and those same people think I took care of Vasily; let’s let them think it.”
It was clear that Jerome had been inside her house. Grace had one more question for him. “Would you have saved me?” she asked. There was only time for a breath before he answered, “I like you, Grace, but no. You need to be able to save yourself.” It was an awakening.
After a few minutes of silence, Jerome began, “I have an assignment tomorrow. I’m going to need a partner, and I was hoping it would be you.” Grace was surprised. “Why me?” she asked, “I haven’t been trained for that sort of thing.”
” Your instincts are good,” Jerome said, “You think fast, and you’re not afraid to take action. It’s what I need.” Grace agreed to consider it.
Together, they bought a car using her money and his ID. The name was different than the one with which Grace was familiar. After they had driven away from the seller, she said, “I want one of those, or maybe more than one.” Jerome agreed to help her create her new identity. She wanted to trust him, but to do so without reservation would be foolish. This would be a learning experience. Just as she needed to change her name, it was also time to move her money.
“A penny for your thoughts,” Jerome said. Realizing she had been silent, Grace answered, “I was wondering about this assignment of yours. What exactly do you need me to do? I’m a little worried I’ll mess it up for you.”
“Don’t worry about my assignment,” Jerome said, “Just do what I tell you and you’ll be fine.” Grace waited for him to continue, but was met with silence. She could only assume that he would tell her when she needed to know. Suddenly noticing their surroundings, she asked, “Where are we going?”
“Back to D.C.,” he answered. “We have plenty of time to get there before the party.” Grace was confused, “Party?” she asked. Jerome explained, “There’s a big party at the Russian embassy tomorrow night, and we are invited. Do you own a formal gown? No? We’ll have to find you something; nice enough that you’ll fit in, not so flashy that you’ll stand out. The last thing we want is for you to be noticed. No weapons, so you’ll need something you can move in if it becomes necessary.”
Grace turned her head and looked at him sharply. He continued without pause, “Don’t worry about that for now. It’s your job to be a wallflower, to walk around listening to bits of conversation and taking pictures of everyone; without being seen, of course. Don’t worry, I’ll supply the equipment. It’s easy, you might even have a good time. Try not to act too lost or abandoned, or some gallant soul is bound to try to rescue you.”
“And where will you be during all this?” Grace asked. Jerome responded, “Doing my job, hopefully. I will stay with you for a time to make sure you’re comfortable. When the time comes, I will touch your back and make my excuses. When I reappear at your side, it will be time to go. If I’m gone for more than an hour, don’t come looking for me, just leave. If you’ve done your job properly, no one will notice your departure.”
It seemed simple enough. Grace was certain there was more to it than he was telling her; things she didn’t want or need to know. She asked a few questions that seemed relevant to her part of the assignment, than spent the remainder of the drive in silence, thinking about what she would have to do.
Jerome left her at a hotel near the restaurant where they had met before. He parked the car in the underground garage, then accompanied her to her room on the third floor. It was clean and modern. After making sure it was clear, he left her at the door. “You get some rest,” he said, “and try not to worry. I’ll see you bright and early tomorrow.”
“Wait,” she exclaimed, “You’re just going to leave me here?” She blushed at the implication that she wanted him to stay, but he seemed to understand. “You’ll be fine,” he said, “And I have work to do.” He handed her the key card and made his exit. Alone in her room, Grace realized how exhausting the day had been. Without even pulling back the covers, she laid down on the bed and fell sound asleep.
An undetermined number of hours later, she was awakened by the sound of her phone ringing. The number was unfamiliar, so she just let it ring. Two minutes later, it rang again; this time she answered it. “Si, Pronto!” she said. There was the tiniest of hesitations before she heard, “Grace? Is that you?” She was relieved to hear Jerome’s voice. “Are you ready to go?” he asked. Go? Grace looked at the clock on the bedside table. It was nearly noon. She jumped up quickly, “I’ll need a few minutes,” she said. She couldn’t believe she had slept so long. “I’ll be waiting by the computers,” he said.
The hotel had a small bank of computers available for use by the guests, and it was there that Grace found Jerome. He was shopping on line for formal wear. Without looking up, he asked, “What size do you wear? This is a local store, and they deliver.” Between them, they chose a jumpsuit with a pretty bolero jacket. It would be sent to the hotel and held at the desk until she needed it. Shoes and a handbag completed the outfit.
The remainder of the afternoon was spent familiarizing Grace with the equipment she would be using that evening. It was unlike anything she had seen before… outside of the Spy Museum, and certainly nothing she had ever imagined using. The camera and voice recorder would fit nicely in her new handbag, and resembled items you would expect to find there. Grace found herself becoming excited about what lie ahead.
The evening came soon enough. Jerome had left her at the door to the hotel, promising to pick her up with time to spare. Grace was pleased to see that her packages were waiting for her at the desk. Gathering them, she stepped into the glass elevator to make the ride up to her room. Looking out through the clear panels, she caught sight of someone she would never have expected to see so far from the city. She quickly turned away from the glass, hoping he had not seen her. What was Cedric doing here?
She made it safely to her room. Any desire she had entertained to go into the city had vanished entirely. She locked and secured the door, then searched the room thoroughly for any devices which might have been deposited there during her absence. The room was clean. Was Cedric looking for her, she wondered, or had he trailed Jerome to this location? She couldn’t imagine either was good.
Locked safely in her room, Grace did her best to relax. She wanted to call Jerome, but didn’t trust her search skills. To avoid missing any sounds she might need to hear, her time was spent in silence. She was relieved when the hour came to get ready for the party, and even more so when a text told her Jerome was waiting in the lobby. “Come on up,” she sent. When his knock came at the door, she opened it with a gun in her hand. His eyes grew huge; “Just checking,” she said.
Jerome looked nice in his tuxedo. “Shall we go?” he asked, offering his arm after she had locked her gun back in its case, and then locked the case in her suitcase, She took it for a second, whispering in his ear as she pulled the door shut, “My ankle’s packing, just ’til we get there.” Once they were away from the room, she told him about Cedric.
They arrived in style; Jerome had rented or borrowed an older model sports car for the occasion. Just as they were arriving at the party, Grace locked her Springfield pistol in the glove compartment, along with its holster.
Jerome had an engraved invitation in his pocket, but once again the name on it was unfamiliar. “Don’t ask,” he said. “This is us for the evening.” Grace made a point of learning their names. No one looked up when they were announced at the door; everyone seemed engrossed in their own conversations. True to his word, Jerome stayed by her side, pointing out the features of the room, and telling her which people were of interest. “I have to go now,” he said after a while, “Don’t forget what I told you.” Grace was smiling as he walked away.
She lifted a champagne flute from a passing waiter’s tray; sipping on it slowly, she began to stroll around the room, moving from group to group, listening to conversations and taking photos when she was able. Her voice recorder was always on. Grace stayed in the background, moving on when anyone seemed to notice her. She couldn’t be sure of the quality of her pictures, but she was fairly sure she’s snapped everyone there.
Not certain how much time had passed, she began to look around for Jerome. Suddenly, a door opened near her and two men stepped into the room. One was a stranger, the other was the man who had been talking with Cedric on the Mall. Grace took a photo of them, then moved away. Whatever their conversation, it had been shared in private. Conscious of her voice recorder, she made note of their meeting.
“You ready to go?” The voice, coming from behind her, caused Grace to jump. Just then the door opened and Cedric walked out. “Now!” Jerome said, taking her by the shoulders and turning her around. Grace had just enough time to snap a photo of Cedric before being whisked away.
Safely back in the car, Grace made quick work of returning her Springfield to her ankle. Jerome pulled away from the embassy, watching to see if they were being tailed. As they headed for the highway which circled the city, he noticed a black sedan following closely behind them. “Here we go,” he said, “hold on.” Pulling into a clear lane, he began to accelerate. The sedan kept pace with them as they continued to go faster, quickly closing the gap and beginning to pull alongside. Suddenly, a shot rang out. Grace pulled her gun from its holster as Jerome maneuvered the speeding car into position for her to fire. For the next few minutes, she exchanged shots with the passenger in the back seat of the sedan. She had caught a glimpse of the shooter, and his face was all too familiar. Grace took careful aim and squeezed the trigger. The front tire exploded, causing the driver to lose control and the car to roll. It landed on its roof and burst into flames.
Jerome slowed to a normal speed. “Are you okay?” he asked. When Grace assured him that she was fine, he added, “It’s a good thing we have insurance.” Grace burst into uncontrollable laughter. “Now what?” she asked when her laughter had subsided.
“We turn in our evidence, write our reports, and wait for the next assignment,” he answered. Grace turned to look at him, “That’s it?” she asked, “We don’t get to know what happened?” Jerome smiled, “Not in this case,” he answered.
They locked the car up in the hotel parking garage, then took the escalator up to the lobby. Instead of leaving her there, Jerome saw her to her door. He unlocked it and checked inside before turning to tell her good-night. “I think you’ll be safe for now,” he said. “I’ll be back to check on you in the morning.” Pulling the door closed, Jerome said, “Don’t forget to lock up,” but before it could latch, he pushed it open again.
“Look, Grace,” he began, “I’m glad you were there tonight. I didn’t know Cedric was going to be there, or I wouldn’t have put you in danger.” He took a breath before continuing, “No one sent me after you; I overheard Cedric and Vasily plotting… I couldn’t let them kill you the way they killed Caroline.” Grace dropped her head in sudden grief.
Jerome waited until she looked up to speak, “Grace, it looks like I may be in line for an assignment out of the country soon. I can’t make promises or commitments, but I’d like you to come with me.” “I’ll consider it,” she said, but she was smiling.
Alone in her room, Grace started thinking. She was free. She had decided to let Jerome’s agency deal with the contents of the briefcase, minus the cash; to just walk away from what she didn’t understand. There was money enough to take care of her for the rest of her life. She fell asleep dreaming of what that life might be.