“Your mother will be at the dock?” Mirren seemed somewhat surprised.
“Yes,” Anna said with a little smile.
Mirren pulled out his phone to make a call. The phone seemed to ring too long before it was answered.
“Yes?” It was Grazie’s voice.
“Grazie. Where’s Sherri?”
“She’s upstairs with Grace.”
“I want you to go check that she’s really there,” Mirren said.
“I saw her go. She has Grace with her.”
“Grazie. Go disturb her. I want you to physically verify that she is there.”
“Okay.” He sounded hesitant. “She’ll be mad, but I understand.”
There was a long silence. Natalia could picture him going up the stairs.
There was a knock, but it was coming from the phone.
“I hope she doesn’t bring that baby with her,” Anna said in a low voice.
The hate in her voice was disturbing.
There was another knock.
There was another moment of silence.
Tia passed through the gate of Viperia, turning toward the shipyards.
“Oh, shit.” The words were hissed and full of emotion. “She’s gone. The room is empty. How did she… there’s a ladder at the window. Mirren, she’s gone. Grace is gone.”
There was a fatherly anguish in his voice.
“I’m getting my coat,” Grazie said. There was the sound of him running down the stairs.
“You stay right there,” Mirren said. “We’ll handle it from this side.”
“I have to get Grace,” Grazie said.
“Stay. We have enough people in place. Any more and we’ll just get in each other’s way. What time did she go up to her room with Grace?”
“She had an early dinner. She was up there by five-thirty maybe quarter to six.”
“That means she’s already at the port. We’ll get her back,” Mirren said. He ended the call.
“Shit,” Tia said.
Mirren looked frozen and pissed, then he slammed Anna’s head against the car window.
“Don’t break my window,” Tia said.
Natalia twisted around so she could face Anna.
“What is Peter’s involvement?” Natalia said. “Anna. What his Peter’s involvement?”
Anna seemed stunned and didn’t answer.
“Don’t do that again,” Natalia said to Mirren.
“I wasn’t calculating having Grace in the mix,” Mirren said.
“It’s called the unknown. The thing we’ve been worried about,” Natalia said, suddenly feeling focused with a purpose. “Let them know at the port what we know so far. Have them be watching out for Sherri with Grace.”
Mirren moved his attention to his phone to send out the message.
There was a long silence. Finally his phone lit up.
“No one has seen Sherri. Alfie only sent those few pieces of luggage onto the steamer. He’s been seen walking toward where Anna mentioned she was to meet him.”
“If she’s to kill Kasseen and Alfie, then we’re down to Sherri and Peter,” Natalia said.
“What sort of fucking love triangle is this?” Tia said.
“A bunch of double-crossers,” Mirren said. “And Sherri’s in the middle. Why doesn’t that surprise me?”
“But why?” Natalia said.
“What would you do with billions of dollars staring at you?” He looked at her. “I guess you’re the wrong person to ask. You didn’t do anything.”
Natalia didn’t correct him.
They fell into silence as Tia drove. The car reported no check points or police cars. Natalia recognized the area as soon as Tia pulled up and parked. There were no cars in sight. The snow seemed lighter here. It wasn’t accumulating on the ground enough to see foot prints. The breeze from the port was moving it around.
Anna was now unconscious. Natalia got out of the car, wondering what they were going to do with her. She was surprised to see Mirren bite Anna. It was a vicious bite. She almost thought it was a double jerk, but it was hard to tell, looking through the windows. Tia locked the car as soon as he was out and shut the door.
“You’re leaving her there?”
“She’ll hamper us for now,” Mirren said.
Natalia recognized the tone to ask no more questions. She’d heard it in Uri’s voice before.
Tia led the way.
“Stop,” Mirren said in a soft voice after they’d gone only a short distance.
He waved his arm for them to get close, then stood looking at his phone.
“Alfie is at the meeting place. I have confirmation. Nattie, I want you to walk along that building over there. Follow it. It will be for some distance. Stay in the shadows. Walk quietly. When you see a figure, that will be Alfie. At that time, I want you to say his name, but in Viperian.”
“Add some emotion, excitement, glad to see him sort of thing. He’s expecting Anna, so any female voice will be interpreted by him as being Anna.”
Mirren paused a moment to listen before he continued.
“When he responds to your voice and walks toward you, ask him about Cora. His respond will tell us how deep he went into this charade.”
“I understand,” she said.
Mirren waved a hand.
Natalia veer left to get to the side of the building. She could hear the creaks and groans that she knew emanated from the ships that were nearby. There weren’t any human sounds. She wondered just where everyone was and how far behind Mirren and Tia were following.
She picked her way along the building, avoiding the trash and leaves that had blown against it. Her foot falls were almost silent. She could hear Victoria’s heart beat better than she could hear her own steps.
A figure appeared. She could tell by the outline that it was Alfie. He stood there without pacing, waiting patiently. He didn’t seem wary.
’Alfie?’ she said, pretending that she was relieved and excited to see him.
He turned. In the faint light, she could see a big smile on his face.
“Anna? Anna. I’m so glad to see you. I… “
The shadows ended. Natalia stepped out, knowing she was now in full view.
“Nattie?” he looked confused.
“I’m here because of Cora,” Natalia said, trying to think of the right way to say things.
“She’s dead. Did you hear? It was horrible,” she said.
“I… I didn’t hear the explosion,” he said.
Natalia hadn’t heard a thing behind her, but Mirren stepped up beside her. She barely refrained from jumping at his sudden presence.
“What explosion, Alfie?” Mirren said.
“Nattie just said…“
“Nattie said nothing about an explosion,” Mirren said. “What are you doing here?”
Alfie’s mouth moved, but no sound came out.
“It only takes two Council members… a man and a woman… to arrest and convict you,” Mirren said.
Tia stepped out of the shadows.
“Tell us, Alfie. I’d prefer not to bite you.”
“No.” He shook his head, now looking beaten. “It would probably kill me. My heart is not the best.”
“What was supposed to have happened here?” Mirren said.
“I thought I was meeting Anna. We were going to go on a trip and never come back,” he said.
“Who was bringing her?”
“And where is Kasseen?”
He breathed two breaths of defeat before he responded.
“If Anna were here, then I would suspect he’d be dead. Anna said she’d get rid of him.”
“And the money?”
Alfie lowered his head.
“Somewhere on a boat,” he said, waving an arm in no specific direction.
“What is Peter’s part of this?” Mirren said.
“Peter’s not involved. It was just Kasseen, myself, and Anna. Sherri helped a little, but she didn’t know the whole thing. I bought Anna’s marriage rights from her.”
“Bought?” Natalia said.
“A very old custom that’s not followed any more,” Tia said. “And is actually illegal.”
“Is Sherri here?” Mirren said.
“No, of course not,” Alfie said. “Why would she be?”
“Because Anna told us that she was going to kill you next and then meet up with her mother.”
“No. No. She was probably just making something up.”
“She was bitten, Alfie,” Tia said. “With what we’ve heard from her, she’s as good as dead. Murder is a grave crime.”
Alfie looked distressed and his mouth moved again with no sound.
“You are under arrest,” Mirren said. “You do understand.”
Alfie nodded, but moved a hand fast.
“I wouldn’t do that,” Mina said.
His hand froze by his coat pocket.
Everyone seemed a little surprised at her presence as she seemed to materialize out of the shadows. Her face seemed to float in the air since she was so effectively dressed to be invisible.
“I have the right,” Alfie said in a hoarse voice.
“We also have the right to know what happened,” Mirren said. “Where is all the money?”
Alfie drew out a knife from his pocket.
“Where is all the money?” Mirren said.
“I have the right to decide my fate,” Alfie said with anguish.
He swiftly extended his left arm so his wrist extended beyond his sleeve, and slit his wrist. Natalia thought she could see tears in his eyes.
“Cora will be better off without you,” Natalia said.
“She lives?” he said, almost sounding hopeful.
The smell of blood grew strong as it ran down his hand and pooled on the ground. It surged out with every beat of his heart. He slowly sank to the ground in a controlled fashion. No one spoke or confirmed his question.
“Where’s Sherri? Mina?”
They stepped away as if Alfie was no longer there. Natalia saw his eyes pleading for information. She turned away and followed, not wanting to see or hear his last breath.
“The only activity I’ve seen is near the tug boat,” Mina said. “But I can’t identify who or how many.”
Mirren was typing on his phone.
“We have three down. A possible two to go and one baby,” he said.
Mina was watching her phone.
“Sophie is going to take a closer look. I’m going to assist.”
Before Natalia could blink, Mina seemed to disappear.
“I want you to stay here,” Mirren said, then he too was gone.
Natalia turned to Tia but found she was gone as well. She listened hard, but heard nothing but the sounds of water lapping against the ships. At one point, she saw a figure running, but decided it had to be Mirren. She moved until she was further from Alfie and out of the breeze before she stopped and leaned against the building. She was relieved that the salty smell of the water was diluting the smell of Alfie’s blood.
It felt like a long wait when she heard a different noise approaching coming from the direction she assumed everyone went. She figured it was the sound of multiple people running. Five teens came into view. Natalia shrank back against the building even though she was still some distance away. She knew she wasn’t dressed to be invisible. They passed without noticing her. They also didn’t seem to notice Alfie’s body and then they were gone.
Natalia brought out her phone.
She texted to the group about the five teens.
Then she waited some more.
She jumped. It was her phone. She barely recognized Uri’s voice.
’Come toward the tug. Very quiet.’
Natalia moved away from the building in high alert, watching and listening for the teens. She kept in the shadows as much as she could. The tug was quite a distance away. She had to pass one whole ship to get there.
A figure came into view once she had full view of the tug and it was moving fast and quiet. She froze, knowing it was a Viperian. But which one?
A few moments later, she recognized Uri. He was carrying something. The next thing she knew, Grace was in her arms.
’Get out of here,’ Uri said.
He turned and ran back toward the tug.
Natalia didn’t even see him disappear because Grace started to fuss.
’You know me’,” Natalia said. ‘Nattie.’
Grace pursed her lips and flailed one arm.
’Let’s go get you to daddy. I know he’s worried.’
Natalia adjusted the blanket around Grace, becoming concerned because Grace wasn’t dressed to be outside. She wrapped her arms around her while she retreated the way she’d come. Her whole being was in full alert to any sound. For as many people that she knew were in the area, it felt too silent and too isolated. She rounded the corner, heading back toward Alfie’s body and skidded to a stop. Grace fussed.
The five teens were kicking Alfie’s body, turning him over. She figured they were trying to see if he was really dead.
She took a step back and all five turned toward her.
“Ahh, the baby,” one said. “We’ve been looking for you.”
The teens trotted toward her.
“Me?” she said.
“The baby,” the leader of the group said.
“Why would you be looking for a baby?” she said, taking another step back.
She adjusted her left arm to better support Grace in order to free up her right. The teens stopped a short distance from her. They were wary.
“We were paid a lot of money to get the baby. They fetch a good price on the open market.”
“You can’t sell babies,” she said.
“Oh, yes, you can. And a young one like that one is best. They go fast.”
Natalia had the feeling a Viperian baby wouldn’t survive with Undent parents who had no idea what they were dealing with. She took another step back while the teens took two steps forward.
“I think you have the wrong baby,” she said.
The teen laughed and gestured around with his arm.
“This isn’t exactly the place to find a lot of babies,” he said. “Not a place to find a lot of anything. But to find a baby and a pretty girl… whoa. Jackpot.”
He smiled and licked his lips.
The teens took another step toward her. They weren’t staying in any soft of formation as they jostled each other and kept switching places. She couldn’t tell if it was excitement or male posturing. Natalia let fly one knife toward a teen at the back. The others weren’t aware of what she’d done until he fell over. She let fly another knife at the leader, but another veered in the way and took the knife in the throat. She backed up rapidly. However, the three remaining weren’t going to be stopped so easily. They were now on to her, and one did what Natalia had feared the most. He pulled out a gun. She already knew he could fire faster than she could throw.
“Give us the baby. Let us love you a little. Just a little. And we’ll be on our way,” the leader said.
Natalia shook her head.
’Uri. Someone. I need help.’
She knew the teens couldn’t hear her, but she knew a Viperian would. She hoped someone was close enough to help.
She took another step back.
“You’ll be next,” she said.
“You move your hand and you’re dead,” he said. “We can love you a dead or alive.”
Something hit the back of the leader, then the other two in quick succession. They looked somewhat stunned or shocked. Something hit the leader again. One teen collapsed. His head hit the ground with a sickening thud. He was followed by the second and then the leader. The gun clattered to the ground.
Natalia could see four knives sticking out of the leader’s back. There were only two in the others.
Natalia wasn’t good at recognizing voices when they spoke Viperian. She had to look hard at the figure that approached her.
’Grazie. I’m glad to see you,’ she said with relief.
’No one tells a father he can’t go rescue his child,’ he said.
Natalia almost felt like fainting, but she took a deep breath.
’Let’s get you both out of here,’ Grazie said.
’S-step away,’ a voice said. The person sounded like they’d been running.
’Walk away, Peter,’ Grazie said.
’No father walks away from his child,’ Peter said, catching his breath.
’Grace is my daughter,’ Grazie said.
’No, she isn’t. She’s mine.’
Natalia stepped backward to get out of being between the two men as they faced each other.
’I have two children on the ground,’ Grazie said. ‘I know their scent. I know my children.’
Peter shook his head.
’I bred with Sherri. Your breeding was a farce.’
Natalia took another step backward.
“Don’t go anywhere, Nattie,” Peter said, changing languages. “I can easily run you down.”
“I’m not the type of person you should confront,” Grazie said.
“You don’t have any more knives. You don’t kill people.”
“I have about ten knives and I kill people,” Natalia said, redirecting Peter’s attention.
He smiled and shook his head.
“It’s well publicized who carries knives and who kills. Just because you’re Uri’s wife, doesn’t mean you can tout the same.”
Natalia pulled out one knife. It caused him pause.
Grazie pulled out a knife.
“I know of two kills that Nattie’s done. Who did these five,” Uri said, stepping into view.
Natalia saw some concern pass over Peter’s face.
“I did two. Grazie did three,” Natalia said.
“Congrats, Grazie on your first kills,” Uri said. “Now what is the problem?”
“Peter says Grace is his daughter,” Grazie said. “I know my children.”
“Perhaps, Sherri can tell us,” Uri said.
There was a blood curdling shriek in the distance.
“That sounds like Sherri now,” Natalia said.
She caught Uri smile at her comment.
“Nattie, those don’t look like your knives,” Moralis said, stepping out of the darkness.
Peter didn’t look pleased at his appearance.
“No, Grazie assisted.”
“Good boy,” Moralis said, patting him on the back.
“A father can do anything.”
“That’s my daughter,” Peter said, but the conviction in his voice was ebbing.
Grazie shook his head.
“I already verified. I had her tested,” Grazie said. “I was encouraged to do so.”
“I’ll have to do that,” Uri said.
“I’m quite sure I’m carrying your child,” Natalia said.
There was another scream. Everyone turned.
“Where is my daughter?” the voice was Sherri’s.
There were two people holding on to her. Natalia had to squint to make out that they were Mirren and Mina. Tia followed behind. Sophie led the way.
“Your daughter is up here,” Mirren said.
“Where? I don’t see her.”