“Let’s hope we are, too.”
The curtain on Brent’s booth slid open, and the man beckoned to them. Bryn swallowed her tequila before she went and nodded to the bartender, who nodded back, cautiously polite this time.
“Don’t sit,” Brent said when they came to the booth. “Here. Take it and get out. I don’t know what you’re into, and I don’t want to know.” He slid a folded piece of paper across the table, and Bryn took it. Their fingers touched, and the man drew back fast.
“Brent,” Patrick said. “I can’t lie. There could be blowback from this. Watch your ass.”
That made the older man—Bryn couldn’t think of him as old, even though objectively he probably was—laugh. It sounded like a gravel crusher loaded with broken glass. “Son,” he said. “You think I do anything but? Fuck off. I’m done.” He slid the curtain closed with a brisk whip of his wrist, and Bryn unfolded the paper. On it was a two-line address. The city was Paradise, California.
As they walked away from the bar, she looked over at Patrick and said, “How do you know he won’t turn around and sell us out?”
“He won’t,” Patrick said. “He may be a hard bastard, but he’s loyal. And like it or not, he did owe me. He’ll die before he tells them a damn thing.”
She hoped he was right.
San Francisco was about an hour away, but they only skirted it; in Oakland, they found a long-term parking garage thanks to Google, which was exactly what they needed. The place was staffed, but with lackluster, disinterested employees who were just holding space until it was time to clock out. No problem to shop the available selection and choose the best without anyone noticing, especially since Patrick spotted and disabled the cameras first.
Then it was just a matter of waiting until the attendant went for a restroom break, then picking the lock on the booth to retrieve the key, conveniently labeled by space number. Patrick even logged the car out on the computer, since the attendant had left it running without password protection, and they’d started it and driven off the lot before he ever made it back.
Patrick even put the cameras back into working order on the way out. With even average luck, they had a clean car, one the police wouldn’t flag for days, maybe even months.
Plus, it was a pretty sweet ride . . . some kind of BMW, one of the luxury models with all the bells and whistles. Patrick tried to take the first shift driving, but Bryn sensibly pointed out that he was still healing, and she wasn’t, so a nap would do him good. In true military fashion, he took about two minutes to sack out in the embrace of the butter-soft leather upholstery. Driving in Cali wasn’t exactly a hardship, and Bryn enjoyed feeling in control, for once—even in a minor way, by controlling speed and direction of her forward motion. And this time, there was forward motion. A Fountain Group member, on their radar. Finally.
The miles passed fast and effortlessly; the BMW was a gas sipper, not a gulper, so she had to pull in to fill up only once along the way. At the stop, Patrick woke up, visited the men’s room, and demanded to take a turn at the wheel. Despite the cups of coffee that Bryn bought, and the fact that she drank all of hers, she was asleep in minutes once they were on the road again, seduced by the faint, low rumble of the road beneath their wheels.
But she woke up instantly when she felt the speed of the car change, and opened her eyes to see that they were taking an exit from the freeway . . . toward Chico. Paradise, according to the map, was just a few miles from that medium-sized metropolis . . . a sparse community, looked like, scraping out a living in tough country. “We’re close,” he said. “We’re going to need to do some reconnaissance.”
“How about a blatant drive-by?” she asked. “Nobody’s looking for us. Not here.”
“You hope,” he said, but it was an absent-minded, reflexive sort of pessimism—well earned, these days. “Keep your hat on.”
She slid on sunglasses as well—the car’s owner was female, and had helpfully included some sweet designer frames. “How’s that?”
“Spyworthy,” he said. “Keep watch. You see anything suspicious, we abort and go at this another way.”
But they didn’t spot anything. Chico was a nice town, nobody looked at them twice, and by the time they were out heading for Paradise, they were almost alone on the road, except for the ever-present truckers. The hills were rugged, but the BMW handled them with style, and they made good time.
The built-in satnav led them through the small downtown of Paradise—pretty, neat, perched up above the coast’s fog and away from the hot zones. It looked, Bryn thought, like the kind of place she’d enjoy staying—something that might actually live up to the name, if you enjoyed the rustic comforts.
They didn’t stop. The navigation system led them outside of town, up into the hills, and indicated a dirt-road turnoff that looked isolated and private.
“Drive-by isn’t going to work,” she said, and Patrick nodded. “So, this is a job for the infantry. Want to let me out?”
“I’m not letting you go on your own,” he said, and went another mile or two before pulling the BMW into a scenic overlook spot. It had some deserted picnic tables, so it probably got some traffic; the car wouldn’t attract too much attention, provided it didn’t stay for long. “One sec.” He pulled the chip out of the navigation system and pocketed it. “Just in case.”
They locked the car, and Bryn hoped they’d see it again; she’d miss her backpack, badly. The meat had no doubt gone rancid by now, and even though she could almost certainly still eat it—with nauseating pleasure—her conscious mind had enough decency left to object unless there was no other choice. She needed to find something less perishable—maybe beef jerky, by the pound. That thought made her stomach growl, again. Oh, relax, she told the nanites, annoyed. You’re not exactly working hard.
The hike was a little strenuous but it felt good, stretching those muscles, and it had been too long since Bryn had been in the trees, enjoying the fresh breezes and the dappled sun. Patrick spotted animals better than she did, and pointed out a deer watching them from a thicket, motionless and wary; as soon as she looked, it bounded away with hardly a rustle of brush.
Within half a mile, they came upon the fence. It was, at first glance, not much of a thing . . . more an annoyance than a barrier. But they both paused and took a closer look. It was for show, of course; the real security came from proximity sensors that would feed directly into the house’s security. There were probably motion-activated cameras, too.
Patrick took her hand in a very natural sort of motion, and they strolled a little ways down the fence line to a clearing, where he pressed her against a tree and kissed her. That was nice. More than nice, actually. She had a sudden fantasy of sex in the soft grass, but she knew what he was doing . . . creating a plausible show for the cameras. “So,” he said, as he kissed her neck. She didn’t have any difficulty showing enthusiasm for that move. “Recon is probably a bust, unless you want to spend a couple of days camping out and watching the comings and goings.”
“That’s a no. It just gives them more time to trace us.”
“Then we just go?”
“We just go,” she said.
“Dark won’t help.” These days, the serious security had night vision cameras, and motion sensors never slept. Without tech help, they wouldn’t be able to overcome it anyway.
What they had left was pure ferocity and nerve. Unknown odds, unknown conditions, and they didn’t even know if their target was on-site.
“I love you,” he murmured, and kissed her again, with real heat. “Let’s go.”
She felt her adrenaline surge, and a smile form without any direction from her conscious brain. And then, without more than a breath to prepare, they both turned, leaped the fence, and began running for their target.
There was no outcry, no barking dogs or sirens to give alarm. The two of them were fast, and Bryn faster than Patrick, although he worked hard to catch up when he could. The uphill course crossed a couple of small streams flowing the other way, and she leaped them easily without much of a pause. It felt good, this run. This hunt. It felt like she’d been born for it. Engineered for it, at the very least.
When she flushed a rabbit out of her path, the urge to chase it down and feast was strong, insanely so, and she had to struggle to tamp it down. The distraction allowed Patrick to catch and pass her, and she took a deep breath to center herself again.
Then they both reached the top of the ridge together, shaded and concealed by the tree line, and looked down on a steep slope that led to a pasture. A large one, marked by a genuinely serious fence that marked this as an estate, and maybe a compound. The pasture was a glass-smooth expanse of lush green, no cover, no protection. The wall was eight feet high and reinforced with razor wire at the top.
“Shit,” Patrick said, which pretty much summed it up. “We can’t wait. They’ll know we’re coming.”
Maybe they did, but if so, there wasn’t the response that Bryn would have expected to see—no boiling-up of security personnel, no vehicles, no dogs. Nothing. She didn’t see a thing moving, anywhere.
“You getting a bad feeling?” she asked him. Patrick didn’t take his eyes off the scene lying before them.
“Yeah. Either this guy is supremely confident his fence will keep us out, he’s got something in place we can’t see that he knows will kill us, or . . .”
“. . . or there’s something very wrong here,” Bryn finished. He nodded. “Well. Only one way to find out. You stay behind me, no matter what.”
He drew his sidearm and nodded; no macho arguments, which was a relief. He knew she could take the abuse.
She jumped out onto the downslope and ran down, hearing a tumble of rocks and soil behind her. As soon as she cleared the tree line she felt exposed and cold, despite the warm morning sun. Any second, she expected to feel bullets striking, followed by the time-delayed chatter of a machine pistol . . . but she reached the fence easily, without any kind of attack or alarm.