23 years later (2010)
The Frenchman’s hand was warm where it rested just above her waist, guiding her through the doorway of his hotel room. She waited until he had closed the door and locked it - a man in the public eye had to be careful, after all - then she turned to face him with a toss of her head that sent her long red curls rippling down her back.
She watched as his gaze wandered over her freely, taking in the strapless dress she wore - a bright spring green with a hem that fell just above her knees, and a generous slit in the side that stopped at the middle of her thigh. It was modest enough that it wouldn’t seem out of place at a political fundraiser, though still revealing enough to attract the kind of attention she needed to.
Ives Hébert had certainly noticed her.
Hébert had the bland good looks expected of a young, up-and-coming politician, and an easy personal charm that worked well on camera or in front of an audience. But, he lacked the hardened, suspicious edge a more experienced political player might have had, and that had made her job quite easy.
A few flirtatious smiles and witty comments and he’d spent the evening practically glued to her side, though he undoubtedly wanted to believe that the opposite was true. He’d invited her up to his room for a drink as soon as the fundraiser had begun to wind down, and of course, she’d accepted.
But, considering the look in his eyes now, she wasn’t surprised that he’d decided to forego the drinks entirely, and didn’t offer any resistance when he pulled her flush against him.
“Vous êtes tellemement belle.” You are so beautiful.
The lilting French words were a murmur against her ear, and she smiled, tangling her fingers in his hair. He grinned back, pleased with her reaction, and bent down to kiss her eagerly.
He really was too trusting.
He was also severely allergic to peanuts.
Within moments, he was pulling away, blinking rapidly, taking strained, gasping breaths.
“Qu’est-ce que…? Je ne.…” What…? I don’t…
His eyes widened in sudden realization as he recognized the symptoms. He began frantically searching the pockets of his suit for the EpiPen he always kept with him.
“Aidez-moi!” he pleaded. Help me!
In his panic, it took him several seconds to realize that she wasn’t rushing to his aid.
He paused his search just long enough to look at her again, and his expression grew horrified as she stared at him impassively. As though suddenly desperate to get away from her, he stumbled back and lurched for the nightstand by the bed, ripping open the drawer.
It was empty, of course - she’d made certain of that earlier.
If Hébert had been thinking clearly, he might have tried to make a desperate bid for the door and the hallway outside, but instead, he dropped to his knees in disbelief, clutching at his chest.
“Non, non, non…” he gasped, shaking his head. No, no, no…
His breathing was growing worse; it was little more than a wheeze as his throat swelled. It wouldn’t be long now.
And it wasn’t.
Within a few minutes, he’d fallen onto the carpet, one hand stretched out towards her, his open eyes staring at her accusingly.
She wondered if he realized that this had been something of a mercy.
He’d allied himself with an enemy of the Red Room and her superiors had promptly decided to make an example of him…a warning for all those who knew to look for such a message.
Her original orders had been to leave a gruesome spectacle in the hotel room, then to run through the hallways screaming bloody murder, terrified and tearstained, babbling about the three masked men she saw fleeing the scene.
The death she’d given Hébert instead had been relatively peaceful by comparison.
She bent down to check his pulse, and satisfied that there wasn’t one, she pulled a tissue from her purse and removed the peanut-oil-laced lipstick she’d worn. She walked to the bathroom and quickly flushed the wipe before she set to work on the room.
She replaced both EpiPens - the one she had taken from his jacket pocket while they’d kissed, and the other she had taken from his nightstand a few hours earlier.
Then, she dressed Hébert in his nightclothes, hung up the suit he’d worn, and arranged him in the bed. When he was discovered in the morning, it would seem, at first, that he had simply died in his sleep. His head lulled towards her as she pulled up the covers on the bed, his sightless eyes still open. She closed them, noting that they were blue, and not a particularly distinct shade.
Unbidden, another pair of eyes flitted through her mind…blue-gray, with small flecks of teal, green, and gold. She could not remember the face or the name which accompanied them, but those eyes…no matter how many times she had been torn apart and remade, she had not forgotten them.
Pushing the thought away, she rumpled the pillow as though Hébert had been restless enough to do it himself, then reached beneath the bed to retrieve the duffle bag she had hidden there.
She unzipped it and picked up the scissors first, reaching for a lock of her red hair, quickly cutting it to just above her shoulder. She continued until the rest matched this length, and though the overall effect was a bit rough given how quickly she had worked, it would do. She put the discarded pieces of hair in a plastic bag which she tucked back inside the duffle, so that she could dispose of them later. The jewelry she’d worn was deposited in another plastic bag before it too was tucked away. Her purse followed.
Grabbing the hem of her dress, she pulled it over her head and shoved it inside the duffle as well, then took out a baggy sweatshirt, a pair of jeans, tennis shoes, a baseball cap, and a pair of glasses. She kicked off her high heels, and slid into the jeans, pulling on the sweatshirt before slipping into the tennis shoes. She tucked the now-much-shorter strands of her red hair up into the baseball cap, careful to hide as much of it from view as she could. She would dye her hair later - probably to a much less memorable brown - but right now, there wasn’t time.
The glasses were last - they were only a cheap set of reading glasses, and because they were actually unnecessary, they distorted her vision faintly. But, they helped to ensure that she looked nothing like the woman who had been seen on Hébert’s arm all evening, so she would tolerate them until Paris was far behind her.
She paused just long enough in front of the mirror to make sure that she was satisfied by her reflection, then examined the room one last time, careful to remove any lingering evidence of her presence. This had to look like some sort of accident, at least initially. She had no doubt that someone would eventually realize it was murder, but her caution now would insure that by the time the investigation into Hébert’s death had progressed, she would be long gone. She was confident that the French police would be no threat to her.
The Red Room, however…they would learn the truth quickly, and they would come for her.
"Do you want to die?”
"No. But I don’t want to live like this either.”
She was not sure when that resolve had solidified in her mind, but it had.
She’d planned for years. The glasses she’d bought at a Walgreens in Washington D.C. The sweatshirt in a tourist shop in Trondheim, Norway. The scissors in Taiwan. Little by little, she had slowly gathered and stored the supplies she would need.
She suspected that she’d had to start over several times as one personality and then another had been stamped into her consciousness, erasing the progress she had made, but somehow, through it all, she had managed to cling to the idea of escape.
When her preparations were complete, she had waited for an opportunity to present itself.
The Hébert mission had provided precisely what she needed. It was a simple assassination, requiring only the most basic of cover identities, and she had been allowed to carry out the mission while her mind was still her own. Better yet, the timeframe of the mission was rather loose; her superiors had simply ordered that Hébert was to die “at some point during the night.” As the Red Room had no way of knowing how long it would take her to secure an invitation to Hébert’s room, she’d had a small but significant window during which she would not be under close scrutiny.
Killing Hébert quietly had extended that window even more, since his death had not yet caused a swarm of police and media to descend upon the hotel. When the Red Room discovered that Hébert was dead, though not in the manner they had ordered, they would assume that there had been an unexpected complication. They might even come to the conclusion that such difficulties would delay her return. At best, it would only afford her a few additional hours before the Red Room began to search for her, but she planned to put the time to good use.
Bending down to retrieve her duffle bag, she walked to the door, turned the knob, and stepped out into the hall.
She was under no illusions - once the Red Room knew she’d defied them, they would expend all of their resources to hunt her down. By doing this, she was declaring war.
"You can’t fight them.”
"I can try.”
Two weeks had passed in a flurry of travel.
A train from Paris had carried her to Spain and then she’d caught a flight to Italy, and another to China, and finally, she’d gone on to South America. She paid for each of her tickets and forged passports with money she’d stolen from passing tourists, always using cash, keeping her movements as random as possible. She’d spent several nights on the streets, preferring anonymity to comfort, and she purchased most of her food and necessities from street venders, who were less likely to keep careful track of their customers.
In Quito, Ecuador, she had found a small grove of trees on the edge of the city and claimed it as her own, hiding her supplies there among the bushes while she ventured out to search for more. Her hair was now a dark brown, and much of the clothing she’d collected was deliberately bright, in keeping with the warmer colors often favored among the locals. She’d hoped that from a distance, she would blend in fairly well. Still, given her pale skin, she wasn’t likely to be mistaken for a native, and she’d taken to going out mostly at night.
Tonight, she had dressed in a loose red top with floral embroidery and a pair of black slacks, planning to make her way through the middle of downtown, where she could slip in and out of the crowds, pick-pocketing. She was walking through an alley when a prickle of awareness ghosted down her spine.
That was all the warning she had before something streaked through the air towards her head. She dove for the asphalt, her knees hitting the pavement hard; she spun around to see an arrow embedded in building she’d been standing in front of just a second before. She jumped to her feet and drew the gun she had hidden at her back. She estimated the trajectory of the shooter and emptied a clip in that direction, retreating further into the shadows at the same time.
She pressed her back against a nearby brick wall, ejected the spent magazine and slid another one into place. She felt a sudden stinging on her face, a thin, burning line stretching from the corner of her right eye to her temple. She brought her free hand up, unsurprised when her fingers came back coated in red. That arrow had come even closer than she’d realized.
Adjusting her grip on her weapon, she scanned the darkened alley for any signs of movement, but there was nothing.
Suddenly, there was someone beside her, and a sharp pain exploded in her left hand, forcing the gun from her now-uncooperative fingers. The gun fell to the pavement, and she lashed out, drawing up her other elbow and driving it into flesh.
But he - she could tell now that her attacker was male - responded by bringing his knee up into her stomach. She doubled over and he spun, bringing his other leg around to pull her off her feet.
The air was driven from her lungs as she struck the ground, and for an instant, time seemed to slow as she stared up at the man who might very well become her killer.
He wasn’t particularly tall, but his compact frame was heavily muscled, and he was dressed head to toe in black. He wore no insignia, but she knew who it was that had sent him because he watched her with the same blank stare that her own marks saw just before they died.
In the space of a heartbeat, he drew another arrow, raised the bow he held, and fired.
She was moving before she’d even registered it, twisting sideways on the ground.
The thwack of the arrow sounded unnaturally loud as it passed just a hair’s breadth from her ear. She twisted around again and kicked up with both legs, aiming for the bow. It wasn’t enough to drive the weapon from his hands, but it did make him stumble back, and she was able to use the momentum to jump to her feet.
Her gaze dropped quickly to her injured left hand, and though she wasn’t sure precisely what had made the wound, there was a deep, bleeding gash across the back of it. She grit her teeth against the pain, and curled her hand into a fist, ignoring the rivulets of blood that trailed down her wrist in response.
He was coming at her again in an instant, surprising her by swinging his bow like a staff, forcing her to arch backwards as it passed a short distance from her face. She dropped into a crouch immediately afterwards, and reached for the sheath she had strapped to her calf beneath the leg of the pants she wore. Her uninjured hand grasped the hilt of the knife just as his foot came racing towards her head. She ducked and rolled, coming up behind him with the knife drawn.
He blocked her strike with his forearm, dodging the blade, and instead of pulling away, he dropped his bow and wrapped both arms around hers, trapping her against him, using his strength to push the blade towards her instead. The point moved closer to her own throat, making her tilt her head back to avoid it.
Her eyes locked on the hard lines of his face, the square jaw and broad nose…the impossibly familiar blue-gray eyes, with small flecks of teal, green, and gold…impossibly familiar because she shouldn’t have recognized them…but she did.
"I do trick shots with my bow.”
"You are good?”
"Yeah. I am.”
His name was suddenly on her lips, a name she’d thought lost.
But there was nothing. No flicker of recognition, no hesitation.
The blade drew closer still, and she flexed her burning muscles, trying to halt its progress.
“Clint,” she tried again.
She felt the tip of the knife touch the skin of her neck.
Grunting with the effort, she twisted to the side suddenly, thrusting the knife into the air over her shoulder. The change in direction clearly caught Clint off-guard, because his grip loosened just enough that she was able to turn the movement into a flip that wrenched his arms and made him double over.
Without wasting a second, she shoved him forward, headfirst into the brick wall.
He hit hard, releasing his grip on her knife as he crumpled to the ground, stunned.
She turned and ran, still clutching the knife, but not bothering to retrieve the gun she had lost earlier. She wasn’t certain how long Clint would be down, and she needed to put as much distance between them as she could.
She thought she heard him stirring as she reached the end of the alley and kept going, bursting into the middle of the street beyond. A car screeched to a halt in front of her as the shocked driver, a woman, slammed on the brakes and started cursing in Spanish.
Ignoring the woman’s ranting, she walked around the car, flipped the knife in her hand, and used the hilt to break the driver’s side window. It sent a shower of glass over the woman, and the angry tirade stopped, replaced by frightened cries. She reached inside the door to unlock it and threw the woman out onto the road, taking her place in the driver’s seat. Then, she pulled the door shut behind her and pressed the gas pedal to the floor.