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They had been walking through the twilight, almost in lockstep with one another, when John heard Kelly give a shiver as she wrapped her arms around herself. He turned and looked at her, the purple half-crescents of exhaustion tattooed beneath her eyes and the waxy pallor of her skin made him stop and put his hand out to touch the small of her back.
‘We will stop and get warm now, Kelly.’ he said.
His voice was low and rough with the burden of his own exhaustion. He knew he had pushed their pursuit to mitigate his mistake, but he saw the impact of his decisions reflected in her face. She nodded with gratitude as she drew closer to him.
‘Good, I’m feeling the cold.’ she said.
Kelly resented the admission, but she had been forcing one foot in front of the other for hours, wracked with hunger and cold, as she fought the looming exhaustion which dogged her harder than the men hunting her.
He looked ahead and sniffed. The scent of chill, running water ran down his throat as he smiled and gazed at her as he took the tomahawk and gripped it in his right hand. He told her to wait here whilst he found wood for the fire. She sat down before she collapsed, fighting a sudden squall of tears by lowering her chin and letting her hair fall over her face.
She awoke to his touch as he squatted in front of her but he shook his head and told her to go back to sleep. A burst of gratitude, gentle and delightful ran through her as she lowered her chin and slipped back into a blank, exhausted sleep.
The fire woke her up as John sat there, cross legged and going through his rucksack. She watched him, the fire highlighting the hints of gold in his brown eyes as he worked with a careful diligence.
She got up, rubbed her legs to get the blood flowing again and joined him by the fire.
‘How long do you think we’ll be out here?’ she said.
He gave a hesitant smile as he handed her a strip of jerky and a fresh canteen of water. She chewed as the salty, meat taste flooded her mouth with sustenance but the salt stung and she washed it away with a slug of cold, clean water.
‘There’s not many of them but they looked prepared.’ he said.
She caught the unspoken fact of the reduction in their numbers by how the skin around his eyes crinkled with a sharp pang of acknowledgement. He sighed and looked down, calculating their odds as Kelly watched him, hopeful for a sign of a positive outcome.
Her assessment was as bleak as it was undefined. Despite moving, they were hidden, detached from their lives and circumstances and she wondered if she would ever have cause to feel dissatisfied with a late arriving cab or bad service in a restaurant again. The time spent unplugged had stripped away much of her affectations, but it came to her as a relief. She had a love of puzzles, which is part of why she adapted to computing, then its darker applications but here she had been confronted with two puzzles.
Kelly realised she had not touched a computer in days, had missed the flow of information which served as a secondary memory for her with a piquant ache. She dabbled in the self-pity before she saw it as an affectation and let it go. Her skills had earned her a death sentence, and out here, she was safe from the consequences.
She hoped she was.
They sat by the fire in companionable silence until she drew closer and rested her head on his shoulder. He had accepted her overtures with stoicism, and he kept his hands from wandering over her, nor had he forced a kiss on her. Kelly wondered if this was how he was with people, or whether he was too polite to reject her but he embraced her with a tenderness which made her wish, she could stay like this with him.
John did not answer her question. He would need to see for himself, which invited further risk and conflict. He had his hungers but no genuine appetite for murder, and each time it took something from him he was unsure he could replace.
For now, they were safe and warm, which was enough.
Jasper was not fluent in the language of conciliation and failure. If there were an app or a phrase book available, he would have devoured it. Instead, he was sat in a restaurant, plucking the linen napkins instead of smoking, thinking through what he needed to do.
His employer was coming to the U.S. This evening.
Grant and the others were back, holed up in a secure location and collating their information so Jasper had a hymn sheet to sing from. The waiter came over and took his order as he received a report from Olivia.
She had threaded the few facts with supposition. Kelly had lucked into the presence of an eccentric wealthy survivalist, with a dog he trained to hunt, and the charitable nature to help her evade capture. They had fled into the woods but Olivia had been confident they would return to civilisation and had suggested surveillance on any known associates. Jasper did not correct her with the fact her closest friend and collaborator had died in the plane but he figured doing something was better than not doing anything. The briefcase was so much ash, but he had to be seen to be acting in his employer’s interests.
Jasper had never met his employer. A lawyer had approached him with a contract, followed by a telephone conversation and a set of directives. A transfusion of credit to his failing security business had smoothed over any concerns and the work kept Jasper busy and wealthy if a little uncertain of his role.
Last night, Jasper had received a phone call to announce his employer was coming to the area on business. Jasper had swallowed his nerves, fearful the visit was a termination of their agreement but a phone call would have sufficed. A bullet to the head was an international and expansive gesture, but Jasper feared disappointing his employer more than death.
Since his childhood as a twitching nerve, Jasper had bullied his way through basic military training then selection into the SAS before eight years of operations and the nascent idea of his own business. Now, he was little more than an hour away from wondering if this was the last good day he would ever know.
He forwarded the report to his employer and by the time his food had arrived, his phone rang.
‘Who wrote this report?’
Jasper broke out in gooseflesh as he stammered out Olivia’s name.
‘Excellent. Will she be available to discuss her findings?’
Jasper agreed she would be because it limited his chances of dying. At heart, Jasper had an animal’s instinct for survival. Some breeds chewed off limbs to escape traps, but it did not mean they enjoyed the taste and he was no different.
He rang the number for the secure location and told Olivia she needed to meet him at the Chateau Marmont at 1400. He ended the call before she could ask anything and he sat back in his chair with a sense of reprieve lifting his mood.
Jasper even found his appetite again.
Kelly awoke as the blue light of dawn washed over her. John was not in his sleeping bag and she swore under her breath as she looked around for him. He had left her a note, pinned underneath a flat rock.
GONE TO SEE THE LAY OF THE LAND.
She got out of the sleeping bag when she heard a faint rustling from the foliage to her left. Kelly had the gun in her hands but John poked his head through and looked at the gun with a frown.
‘I should have warned you but I have good news.’
Kelly lowered the gun, it had gained a weight which drew her arms down as she looked at him with expectation.
‘They’ve backed off. I followed the scent trail and it died off. There aren’t any drones and they’ve hidden their two guys.’
Kelly was disarmed by the news as she sat back down, her head light and stunned with feeling.
‘They’re gone?’ she said.
John buttoned up his shirt and raised his eyebrows as he nodded.
Kelly put her head down and wept. She felt John’s arms wrap around her, solid and safe as she let go, ensconced in the rich, dark presence of the man.
It was time to go, if not home, then somewhere.
He made no requests. The items were made available, and in duplicate around the world. Installations were completed and tested before his arrival, so he could exist in a state of comfort fitting to his achievements and station.
The meeting at the Marmont was to collect the pair of them. He had purchased a beachfront villa, perfect to accommodate the additional equipment which made him comfortable. By the time his plane landed on American soil, his base of operations was complete and correct.
It had been a long time since he had been in the country. He was aware, and amused by the changes, ephemeral flickers disguised as fundamental spasms of change but he remained silent as the car took him to his home.
A hot meal had been arranged, he was informed and the only thing he said was thank you before returning to his reading. The report was interesting and he read it through twice without blinking, absorbing the pertinent sections and asking questions of his own.
The couple were more interesting to him alive, he decided. Jasper’s call to retreat had been a good one, although he would take pleasure from seeing his aide sweat through the details. He closed the laptop and sat back, closing his eyes as he looked forward to a good meal and the assertion of his authority.