Ashley departed Sunset Terrace through the front door and headed to the bus stop served by the line that ran back in the direction of Ensenada, and Logan.
As she walked she considered her situation. She had a story about a program to develop mind-control technology, and even a hint of Northrop’s being involved. But how did that translate to Northrop, and the Client, backing off?
Ashley thought of all those movies where the plucky hero’s defeat of the evil conspiracy merely required that they get proof of the conspirators’ misdeeds to those faithful purveyors of the truth and guardians of the public interest, the press, who unfailingly brought said misdeeds to the attention of everybody, setting the machinery of justice in motion, and saving the world.
But real life just didn’t work that way. Or the story of Melanie Roberts would have had a very different conclusion.
Perhaps, Ashley reflected, it was the case that knowledge was power. But never by itself. Knowledge only became power in the hands of the powerful, and to ignore that corollary was to take the true foundations of power for granted, as only the complacently privileged and the stupid did—unlike all the rest of the species, who learned the hard way that the world was an indifferent, immovable thing to mere information. In the end knowledge was not power, not really. Power was power. And she was not so deluded as to think she had it, or the ear of those who had it.
That meant she had to go on searching for a way that would work for her. Pondering that she wondered at the implication of Northrop’s having the disc given what Vieira told her.
Did all the Olympians have those records, or just Northrop, so that he was the one the Client had specifically targeted? She thought, too, of the other projects of which Vieira spoke. Project Artemis, Project Demeter, Project Zeus, each of which probably concerned the sphere of life overseen by the corresponding deity. Project Athena seemed to have been named that because Athena as a goddess of wisdom and of war was easily identified with a military-type initiative to control the mind.
Ashley remembered Artemis as a goddess of the hunt—but also childbirth. A project to control birth rates, perhaps? Demeter was a goddess of fertility, the kind to do with crops. Something having to do with the world food supply? Zeus, the king of the gods, the god of the sky, the god of thunder—who wielded the thunderbolt as his personal weapon. Death from above? And between them all, a comprehensive plan for controlling the world?
These other projects seemed to be possible fields of investigation. But she didn’t think she had to look into them just yet. It was possible that Vieira could offer her more. She did not expect to get another interview, but she wouldn’t necessarily have to talk to him. Perhaps he retained a personal record of his activities after resigning his post. Logan had already taken a peek inside his computer and found nothing of interest there, but maybe he had a disc of his own stashed around the house, or a hard copy of some critical file, and one or both of them could slip back into his home at night and take a look.
And there were the other names Mackelvore gave them, Lawrence and Fischer and all the rest. Surely they had something to offer. Maybe they could even target Northrop himself, dig through every little thing he did until they unmasked the other Olympians that way . . .
Ashley reached the stop and dropped onto the bench, then looked up the road, hoping to see her bus. Instead she saw a black sport utility vehicle slowing to a stop in front of her. The passenger-side window dropped and a man wearing sunglasses looked at her like he was going to ask for directions—while pointing a gun at her over the doorframe. Sitting on the bench, at that range, she knew there was no chance he would miss, and that even if he did his friend in the back, pointing another gun at her from his own lowered window, probably would not. If by some incredible coincidence he too missed, all she had with which to fight them off was the Taser in her purse, while the open ground stretching to the hills behind her afforded her no cover to which she could flee.
And she realized something that seemed unbelievable: they’d got the drop on her, and there was nothing she could do about it. She’d escaped from Harold Northrop’s office on the ninetieth floor of a Manhattan skyscraper. But she wasn’t going to be able to get away from a few thugs in an SUV who caught her by the side of the road.
The two car doors facing her opened outward, and the men holding the guns came out. The man who came out of the front door held his gun on her while the man who came from the back walked over, a third following him with a bag in his hand. Man Number Two searched her, finding and removing items he dropped into the bag Number Three held open.
No one could stay one step ahead forever, Ashley thought. Especially when they were up against resources like her enemies had. It had all been over for her the moment the Client sucked her into that unbelievably stupid job—
And then she reprimanded herself for thinking like that. She had to assume she could beat this, and watch for a sign of a way out, any way out.
Number Two was thorough enough to leave nothing to her but the clothes on her body, after which Three went back into the car, and Number Two pushed her into the car after him, so that she was trapped in the SUV’s rear seat between two large men who promptly belted her in. Then Number Two slammed shut the door he’d just come through, and they got underway.
They didn’t turn, which meant that they were heading north, Ashley supposed, supposing because none of her captors volunteered anything, and she hesitated to ask. Because she knew no one would tell her anything of use if she did, and because she would seem weak if she broke the silence, and it seemed best to not appear weak.
These were Northrop’s people, Ashley thought. They’d realized she might come to see Vieira, and so put a team into place to grab her when she showed up. Of course, they let her actually get into the compound and talk to him, but then maybe they didn’t think it would matter. Because they figured she wouldn’t be talking to anyone again, ever. Maybe they were even subtler than that, Ashley thought, remembering how little Vieira gave her, while getting her to show how much and how little she knew, and even answer his questions.
Ashley thought of Logan then, wondered where he was, if he was free, if he had any idea what was happening to her. But there didn’t seem anything he could do if he did, when a whole team of MIBs was dragging her to—she didn’t have any idea where. Just that they were going north. Had been going north long enough to have passed Logan on the road, though she hadn’t seen him, unable as she was to turn and look back, or see the rear view mirror clearly from where she was sitting.
However, she saw the Ensenada skyline through the windshield once more, and then urban space enveloping them. Driving through the city for the first time Ashley had only a fuzzy notion of its layout, but glimpses of the city’s harbor between buildings told her they were close to the shore.
Were they going to put her on a boat, take her out to sea? Why would they do that—
But the area they drove through then looked more tourist destination than dockland, hotels and restaurants and little shops all about. They turned into the driveway of one of these, the name of which Ashley didn’t catch, but which was, at twelve or fourteen stories, one of the tallest buildings she’d seen in the city.
The driver took them past the front entrance, into an underground garage, and drove among the rows of parked cars to a door. The two men in the back with her led her out of the SUV between them, and then through that door. Past it was an elevator which she guessed to be a service elevator, which she was directed to enter.
Ashley’s brief look at the hotel from outside suggested the kind of mid-rise hotel or condo ubiquitous in just about any major city in the world, and the interior matched this impression, all the way up to the top floor door toward which they steered her.
A Man in Black, with a second MIB looking over his shoulder, opened the door for them and admitted them to a room that, like her suite at the Cordell, gave the impression of a particularly plush doctor’s office.
In the middle of the room Ashley saw Granite Face, and G-Woman, and a man sitting in an armchair between them who was dressed very differently from all the rest. In a pinstriped suit and screamingly loud flaming orange tie and a ten-gallon hat, with dark glasses over his eyes, and a large mustache and beard covering his mouth and jaw and chin. She was sure she’d never seen this man before, but equally sure that she’d met him before nonetheless.
“Hello Ms. Sutton,” the Client said through all the hair on his face, the familiar voice confirming in her mind that he was the man who’d hired her back at the Winchester. “Please, sit,” he said.
Ashley felt her escorts shoving her down into a large, heavy-looking armchair facing his own from ten feet away, with her two escorts on either side of her, as all his other people surrounded them.
Looking across the distance between them Ashley thought of how much the Client didn’t like look any of her mental images of him. She hadn’t pictured him as a man with a beard. She certainly hadn’t pictured him as a man prone to dressing in such garish clothes.
But perhaps he wasn’t. Perhaps the facial hair was fake, the clothes unrepresentative of his personal taste, all of it selected to conceal and to distract as much as his sitting in shadow had been back at the Winchester—a form of theatrical trickery he simply used in situations where that other, more stylish game was impracticable, as was probably the case in this westward-facing room, when it was too much trouble to hide his identity by strategically darkening the room.
“It’s good to see you again,” the Client said. “Though I wish the circumstances were different.”
Ashley didn’t answer him, not wanting to give anything away.
“I suppose you know why you are here?”
“You tell me,” Ashley said.
“Our man who met you in the park to pick up the disc was shot,” the Client said. “The disc you were supposed to bring us was not on his person. Then you disappeared. You can imagine our suspicions.”
He was testing her, and it seemed to her that the best course was to refuse that test, so she remained silent, waited for him to say something more.
“You betrayed us to Northrop,” the Client said flatly, “let him know the pick-up point so that his people could—”
“I never did any of that,” Ashley said. “I gave your pick-up guy the disc in the park, just like you ordered.”
“And then you ran.”
“It’s not just the guilty who run,” Ashley said. “And I didn’t even do that until you sent those two to my apartment.”
“The apartment from which you were conveniently absent mere hours after the incident, and to which you never returned,” he said, unflustered by the fact that she knew about their intrusion. “Something I assume was not an accident, and for which I have yet to hear anything like a satisfactory explanation. If you were not involved in the shooting, why did you run as you did?”
“You never paid up—”
“And so you fled? Unlikely. People who feel they’ve been cheated out of money normally come after the one they think has cheated them, rather than fleeing from them as if they were the ones who failed to meet their obligation.
“And please don’t bother to mention the e-mail you sent, as we both know that was cover for what you were really doing.”
Ashley sighed. “I heard about the murder of Mr. Colby on the news.”
“So what if you did?” he asked her. “You didn’t know the man, did you?”
“And no picture of the murdered man was ever released to the media.”
“Maybe not, but there are plenty of other ways of getting that information,” Ashley told him.
“So what you are telling me is that you connected the murder that occurred in Central Park with the withholding of your payment, and concluded that we suspected treachery on your part, confirmed for you by the appearance of my people at your apartment. After which you decided that the logical course was to run, while pretending ignorance of the situation.”
The Client made it all sound so foolish that it had to be a lie, and a flimsy one at that. Well, he hadn’t been there. Not that she was convinced he was being straightforward with her anyway.
“It seemed like the thing to do at the time,” Ashley said simply.
“As is so often the case with bad ideas,” the Client said. “And then what?”
“I started investigating the situation, hoping that if I figured out what it was I’d been pulled into, I could find some way out.”
“That sounds rather a desperate course of action.”
“It was a desperate situation.”
“Might I ask what you took as the starting point for your investigation?”
Ashley wracked her brain trying to think of an acceptable answer to that, and then when she failed, decided that it was best to just come clean.
“The disc,” she said.
“But according to you, Northrop’s people got the disc back mere hours after you stole it. How could it possibly have been of any use to you?”
“I made a copy,” Ashley said.
The Client paused, and the silence that followed somehow seemed louder than his earlier speech.