“The lads play well together, Eileen.”
“Yes they do, Sean. I appreciate you taking us in while we’re in Dymchurch.”
“After all, what are family for?”
The two old friends sat in the Billingham living room by the fire as their two sons Timothy and Roger played with their collection of Pokemon cards at the kitchen table.
“You sure Suzanne doesn’t mind?”
“She’s not jealous if that’s what you’re thinking.” Sean picked up his glass of Port, sipped and then grimaced. “Got to speak to the Missus. This last bottle she brought home tastes like vinegar.”
“You do understand what I’m asking, Sean.”
“Aye. Richard must never find out though or it’ll mean both our lives.”
“He won’t find out if you hold up your end. I got a generous settlement from him and he doesn’t have to know about the rest. You’ll be well compensated as will your kin when the time comes.”
“You know it’s not the money, Eileen…”
“The families pay their way, we always have. I don’t expect you to take such risks, especially with your family at stake, all for love and loyalty.”
“I promise I’ll do my part. I see no trouble bringing Roger into the family business when the time comes.”
“Same with Timothy, Sean. Still, we have to be careful with the young ones. You don’t take the Hawkhurst oath without devoting your total allegiance to Mzimu.”
“Aye. T’would be death otherwise. When you leaving for Chicago then?”
“And you believed him.”
“Of course I believed him, Geoffrey. Yes, he could have been lying but I couldn’t take the chance.”
Colins and his team maintained their temporary base of operations in an unused warehouse in Ashford but they were still in one of the support vans just a few blocks from St Peter and St Paul’s church in Dymchurch.
“How much do you want to bet that if we go back to the church right now Fleming will also be gone?”
“There’s only one way to find out, isn’t there?”
Mikiko was angry and embarrassed. She took it for granted that everything Timothy Fleming had said about Sienna Thomas was true. That included him having her skull wired with an explosive that could be triggered remotely. She hadn’t even tried to reach out with her senses to determine if he could possibly be lying.
But what did it matter? Sienna was gone and Mikiko only had a theory as to where he could have hidden her.
“Take us back,” Colins ordered the driver.
The van’s engine roared to life and they started moving forward. The other van containing Fleming’s confederate and former lover Marquessa O’Shaughnessy was probably in London by now. On her way to rendezvous with Fleming, she’d been pulled off the street, blindfolded, gagged, and then drugged. Once at a secure location, she would endure a long round of interrogations to determine everything she knew about Fleming’s notorious alter ego Hellspite.
Colins had already contacted Danae Parker asking her to research the Hawkhurst gang and where they had likely hidden their smuggled contraband during their 18th century operations in the area. He also requested she find out everything possible about the entity known only as Mzimu. That’s when Mikiko told Colins about Dame Evonne Whitemore and Fleming’s suspects list. He then made a second call to London and ordered Whitemore be discretely picked up for questioning. Colins trusted Mikiko’s word but still hoped he wouldn’t run afoul of the Dame’s considerable political influence.
The van pulled into the same spot where Mikiko had parked her delivery van earlier that morning while in the guise of a JDL parcel driver. Colins opened the sliding door on the panel truck.
“You’re right. He’s gone. We’ve lost him.”
“Not necessarily, Mikiko. Not if your theory is correct.” Colins paused and put his hand up to the tiny earpiece connected to his cell. “Wait one.”
Mikiko was staring at the church. She could smell Fleming’s scent but it was one that told her he’d left the vicinity in the past hour, maybe a little less. Sienna’s odor was much fainter. It’s possible she could track them unless they left by motor vehicle, but if that were the case, it was still possible the city webcams they had accessed could provide some details.
“Thanks, Danae. Keep working on Mzimu and let me know if Whitemore gives us anything. Colins out.”
He turned to Mikiko. “Nothing definitive. Local churches could have hidden rooms or even underground tunnels used by the original Hawkhurst gang, but there’s nothing in any public records, at least those accessible by computer.”
“If we go back inside, I might be able to tell.”
“Of course.” He called inside the van. “Ellis, Carstairs, do a quick recon.”
“That won’t be necessary. No one is inside.”
“Roger that,” Ellis slipped past Mikiko and out the van followed by Kathryn Carstairs.
“I trust that’s true, but he may have left a present behind that your senses would find undetectable.”
Mikiko was again reminded how much of an amateur she was in the world of covert operations. On the other hand, she had become unexpectedly and horribly proficient at killing. She could only hope that her ineptitude wouldn’t cost Sienna her life. There was already too much blood on the young syntheorg’s hands.
We’ve finished our sweep, Mr. Colins. The place is clean.”
“Acknowledged, Ellis. Mikiko and I are on our way.” Colins turned to the driver. “Keep an eye out just in case, Moore.”
“Right, Chief.” Edward Moore had formerly served with the British Royal Marines. He didn’t say much but he moved like a panther. Mikiko knew that each member of Colins’s team was a highly trained professional, but everything she could “feel” about the man told her he was the most dangerous person assigned to this op…herself excepted of course.
The four of them were back in the darkened Sanctuary. Ellis and Carstairs were stationed at the exits. Mikiko, now that she wasn’t distracted by Fleming and his bantering, could focus completely on her environment. She smelled faint wood smoke and the slightest hint of a chemical accelerant, one of the substances she’d been trained to recognize. There was a good possibility the fire had been arson, but that wasn’t a priority at the moment.
Both Fleming and Sienna were and weren’t here. She could smell them, mostly as a remnant of their previous occupation in these rooms, but there was something else.
She moved around the area slowly, letting herself absorb the experience of being present. It was like the American children’s game where you were told if you were closer to or farther from what you were looking for because you were “hotter” or “colder.”
Mikiko had narrowed down her search and was steadily getting “hotter.”
“Down here, Colins. I can’t swear it, but I’m betting the flooring behind the lectern is part of the original.”
“Or if not Mikiko, the good Elders of this church had reason to keep any hidden trap doors a secret.”
The both of them were crouched down attempting to feel for anything that might be a latch.
“Ellis, get over here.”
“Yes sir.” He trotted to them.
“What did your sweeps tell you about this area?”
“Well sir, we weren’t looking for a trapdoor, but if you mean could it be wired…?”
“Have a look, will you?”
Colins stood and waved Mikiko back. “Best demolitions man on the team.”
She had a difficult time connecting the polite, clean cut, shy Ellis to someone who planted bombs for a living but as she had learned though personal experience, appearances in this business were deliberately misleading.
“It’s wired, Sir. Recommend you two stand back. Ellis reached into his jacket’s inside pocket and pulled out a small kit. Opening it, he retrieved a pair of cutters. Colins and Mikiko had retreated to what they thought was a safe distance but she wanted to see what Ellis was doing.
She heard him breathing, smelled his sweat, and then there was a tiny clipping sound.
“All clear. Not a professional job. Looks to be a smoke grenade. Probably meant more like a warning or to slow us down for a few seconds.”
“Very good, Ellis.” Colins approached the man standing by the open trap door.
“Let me look in first.” Mikiko could already smell both Fleming and Sienna but the odors weren’t fresh. Over an hour old at least. She bent her head in realizing someone of Hellspite’s reputation could have rigged a second and more lethal trap. She was a little surprised when nothing happened.
“I’d already checked, Ms.” Ellis was speaking from above her. “It’s safe to go in.”
She looked back up and in her best attempt to mimic the agent’s accent said, “Now you tell me.”
Colins chuckled and Mikiko could tell even in the dim light that the other man was blushing.
“Best we go in, Mikiko.”
“Carstairs, you stay here in case Fleming decides to double back. Check in with Moore at regular intervals. Let him know we’re going into a tunnel and will likely be out of communication.”
“Got it, Mr. Colins.” She was clearly disappointed to be left behind, but then being here might end up saving their lives if something went wrong.
Mikiko hoisted herself down, falling a little over two-and-a-half meters and landing lightly on a stone and dirt surface. It was a tunnel rigged with electric lighting, but the power to the church had been turned off so the source came from elsewhere, probably the other end.
Ellis went in next and Colins brought up the rear.
The trio walked slowly ahead. Ellis produced a small flashlight to augment the illuminated bulbs strung sparingly along the ceiling.
The tunnel was old, perhaps hundreds of years old, and yet there had been more modern improvements such as the lighting and lumber supports having been replaced along the walls and roof. The course turned numerous times, the floor dipped down, then up, then down again, and then leveled off, About five hundred meters in, they encountered a chair and a pile of ropes.
“This must have been where Fleming had Sienna while I was talking to him in the church. I can smell her. Fleming too. He must have taken her.” Then she paused to concentrate.
“What is it, Mikiko.”
“Someone else was down here with her.”
“It couldn’t have been O’Shaughnessy.”
“No, it was someone else. Colins, it was someone I’ve met.”
Eventually, they came into a large chamber. It was empty and had been for a long time, but they reasonably assumed that an 18th century gang of smugglers might have once hidden contraband here for later distribution.
It was nearly forty-five minutes later when Colins, Ellis, and Mikiko arrived at the tunnel’s other end. A wooden ladder led to a trapdoor above.
“I’ll take it, Sir.” Ellis cautiously began his climb, holding his small flashlight in his mouth directed right above him. She could hear his breathing again. A slight grunt. She was getting used to his odor and how it increased when he perspired. To look at him, you’d never notice he was experiencing anything except a degree of concentration, but she could feel his anxiety. Then the scent changed.
“Seems clean, Mr. Colins. Want me to have a look?”
“Yes, but be careful.” Mikiko knew he was saying that to be supportive but only an idiot would be anything but careful under the circumstances.
Ellis eased the trapdoor open. He came up in what looked like a store room of some kind. The shelving was bare and the room utterly dark. There was one door. He examined the doorknob. No lock and no apparent trigger.
He leaned down. “Seems safe. Pantry of some sort but empty. I should open the door to the outside before you join me.”
“Wait,” Mikiko called back. “I’m coming up.”
Colins put his hand on her forearm and she turned to him. “In case he missed something.”
He nodded his approval but his odor told her he was worried. Interesting that they had both learned to hide their emotions so effectively to the casual eye, but felt everything she was feeling.
Mikiko made her way to Ellis’s side and looked around. The three of them had come through here. She couldn’t sense anyone present beyond the door and nothing else seemed amiss, but then Ellis was the expert on traps.
“I can’t see any danger either.”
“That’s usually when it comes up and bites you in the backside, Ms Mikiko.”
It was the first joke Ellis ever cracked, at least as far as she knew and she almost laughed. “We’ll go through first and if it’s safe, we can call Colins.”
“Fine with me, Ms.”
He put his hand on the doorknob and slowly turned. Nothing happened so he pushed gently. The door swung easily enough. Darkness beyond but there were windows letting in light from the outside. Ellis had just finished pushing the door all the way open when there was a bright flash. They were both taken by surprise and Mikiko was expecting to feel the pain of a gunshot.
When she didn’t, she looked again. Old fashioned Polaroid camera with a flashbulb.
“On a short timer,” Ellis commented. “Must have been set off when the door opened and then counted out a few seconds before triggering.”
“You didn’t detect it?”
“Motion sensor set up next to the camera. No way I could have known.”
“Mikiko went back into the supply closet and called down. “Come on up. Seems we were expected.”
By the time Colins had gotten into the kitchen, which is where the camera had been set up, Ellis was using a gloved hand to rewind a small vintage reel-to-reel audio recorder.
“It’s clean Sir, but you’ll want to hear the message. Started playing just a moment after we had our photo taken.”
“Congratulations. You made it this far. Of course if I were trying to kill you, You’d already be dead. Do you looked surprised in your picture?”
Colins looked down at the antique Polaroid photo the camera had spit out.
“Nothing has changed, Mikiko. I have Sienna and you have one month minus the time you’ve wasted trying to find me. Give me proof of Mzimu’s death or Sienna will never survive to reach her twentieth birthday. Oh, you get bonus points if you can deliver Mzimu to me alive. Normally, I’d say that’s impossible, but so far, you’ve proved to be very resourceful. I can almost believe you’d manage it.”
The recording ended and the machine turned itself off.
“Clever bastard. Where the hell are we?”
Mikiko was looking out the window. “Some residential neighborhood. I can’t tell much except the three we were following had been here and are now gone. No one’s in the house, and unless Fleming has any more toys lying around to taunt us, I’d say we’re safe for the moment.”
Colins took out his mobile. “Moore, this is Colins. Can you hear me?”
“Loud and clear, Chief. What’s your situation?”
“We came out of the tunnel into a house. Typical neighborhood by the look of it. No present danger and no Fleming or Sienna although we have a new suspect. Can you determine our location?”
“Doing that now, Colins. GPS says you’re about half a kilometer from my location. Want me to pick up Carstairs and move to you?”
“Might as well. I think the trail’s cold for now. He’s too bloody smart to get caught by our webcams, though we’ll go over the tapes anyway. We’ll have a look around here while you’re en route. Oh, forward our address to Danae. I want to know who owns this place, history, everything.”
“You’ve got it, Chief. I’ll call it in and then be on my way. Moore out.”
They were talking on cell phones and Moore sounded like he were using a field radio in a combat situation.
A week later, Colins and his team were still situated in Ashford so they could be as near as possible to where they thought Fleming might be holding Sienna.
“You’re sure about that?” Colins was talking to Danae on a secure landline and had her on speaker.
“Everyone thinks they won’t crack under pressure but most do. Marquessa O’Shaughnessy and Roger Billingham were no different. Took a bit, but they sang like birds. Billingham gave us the names of the other Hawkhurst members in the area and where we might find Fleming and his hostage. O’Shaughnessy didn’t know as much about operations on this side of the pond, but she cut a deal in exchange for what she could tell us about his personal background and his Mum.”
“Excellent work, Danae. What about Whitemore?”
“She’s a different one. Remember when I said people almost always crack. She’s deffo an exception. Dame Whitemore did reveal a few things but only under drugs. Gave up three other names, top Organization confederates. Says there’s a total of twelve but she doesn’t know the others.”
“Smart move. Even the inner circle members don’t know who all of the rest are and certainly not the identity of the elusive Mzimu.”
“Well that’s the thing, Colins. I’ve correlated the movements of the people on Fleming’s suspect list. Whitemore and the three she mentioned are all on it. I compared those names to known appearances of Mzimu and something odd showed up.”
“Seems at each and every Mzimu appearance, four of the twelve were always present. Interesting thing is that when Whitemore was there, so were the three others she named but none of the others on the suspect list. It was always the same grouping of four each time, as if each triad traveled as a unit.
“So Mzimu travels with an entourage.”
“But Colins, if we assume one of the twelve is Mzimu, then one person should be at all of the appearances, but that’s not what I’m seeing.”
“Why can’t Mzimu be a separate person?”
“Because there’s no one person any of the triads associates with at any of the Mzimu appearances. Either one of the twelve is Mzimu or he’s a ghost.”
Colins thought about it for a moment. “Okay, I want you to triple check those lists again just to be sure, and send me a detailed report of everything you’ve discovered. By the way, you and your team have done outstanding work, Danae. Pass my thanks along to them.”
“I will, Colins. Thanks.”
He disconnected the line.
“What’s it all mean, Chief?”
“If I’m right, it means that Mikiko couldn’t possibly fulfill the mission Fleming gave her to assassinate Mzimu. It also means we are on the verge of ending this charade once and for all.”
“Colins, won’t Fleming know we’ve got Billingham by now?”
“Yes Mikiko, but he probably assumes he hasn’t talked and doesn’t suspect we know who the confederates are. They are undoubtedly providing him with supplies and information and we want to keep them and him as much in the dark as possible.”
“That means we won’t be touching them for the moment, right Sir?”
“Quite, Ellis. We’ll have them detained right before we go in, but I want every inch of that area carefully and quietly covered before we make our move. This time I want to leave nothing to chance.”
“I’ll handle that, Sir.”
“You know dear Sienna, you should feel as at home here as I do. After all, we have a common heritage, one of smuggling and piracy.”
“You can’t hold me here forever. Someone will find us.”
“I almost hope they do. It’s only been a week, but I have an ominous feeling that Mikiko won’t accomplish her assignment. If she doesn’t, I do mean to keep my threat.”
“Why hide in so obvious a place, Timothy? You’re practically begging for that ominous feeling to come true.”
“Even if they guess that we’re here, there are so many lost farms and settlements. It would take weeks to search them all. True, my mate Roger has gone missing, but he knows how to keep a secret, and the others will watch my back. If it looks like they could be getting close, we’ll just move to other accommodations.”
“You’re sure this Mzimu is the one who had my Mama killed.”
“Quite sure, Sienna. My Dad was working for him so he’s as responsible as Mzimu is.”
“But he was my Dad too, at least if what you say…”
“It’s all true, Sienna. I’m not lying.”
“Then I guess I hope Mikiko does find him and…does away with him. Not just for my sake, but for Mama’s.”
“You see, Sienna? You’re practically on my side already. We could even become a team. They’d never suspect.”
“I just want all this to be over, Timothy. I want to go home.”
Oh dear Sienna. Romney Marsh is our home.”
Timothy and Sienna were sitting in the living room of a long abandoned farmhouse. Looking out, the Sun was a dim ball in the east barely shining through the morning mist on the marsh. He found himself imagining the legendary Scarecrow himself was lurking nearby ready to strike.
This story is the immediate sequel to Night of Syn. Every time I think I’m about to write this tale’s climax, it seems something else comes up, However, I should have everything tied up by next time (I hope so, anyway). Can you guess the secret behind Mzimu’s identity or what else was revealed about Timothy Fleming’s background? He seems very clever but he also seems to be making amateur mistakes, unless they aren’t mistakes but calculated moves. Also, even the experienced Ellis fell into Fleming’s “trap” involving the Polaroid and the tape recorder, so no one is perfect.
At the risk of seeming melodramatic, be here next time for the exciting conclusion of the chase to stop the Hellspite.
Here are other stories in Mikiko’s overall saga in the order I wrote them but not in chronological order:
- The Reconstructed Woman
- Burn Victim
- Woman Under Repair
- Five Years On
- Woman in the Shadows
- The Search for Armageddon
- The Swimmer
- Murder at 900 North Michigan
- First Flight
- The Man in the Dark
- The Vengeful
- The Most Dangerous Predator
- The Protector.
- Night of Syn.
See you in the next chapter Game Over.