This is one hell of a post.
Olesia Anderson #4 is coming along nicely. I'm hoping to have part 1 live on Amazon within a couple weeks,
barring any terrible problems with editing and proofing. I'm having a ton of fun writing this instalment, although the sheer size of it is very intimidating (hence me splitting Double Down into two parts, each larger than the first Olly Anderson novella Dirty Deals).
Hopefully I won't leave you waiting too much longer for your fix of intrigue and explosions! In the meantime, enjoy chapter 1 of Double Down.
Double Down - An Olesia Anderson Thriller
Forty five minutes after leaving Sheremetyevo International Airport, Olesia Anderson was staring at a corpse.
She and Sparks touched down just after two in the afternoon. They'd slept on the flight, Sparks slumping over his armrest and resting his head on Olesia's shoulder. She didn't shrug him off. It was weird enough seeing him in the flesh, let alone having him drooling on her jacket, but she endured. Only when they were stepping off the flight did she say, “Next time, use the pillows, okay?”
Sparks stumbled, his eyes red-rimmed and his hair a tangled mop. He flashed their papers at immigration control and they moved straight past customs. “Back in the USSR, huh? You don't know how lucky you are, Eight-Oh-Six.”
“Not funny, dear. I've never been to Russia before. This place...” She didn't know how to describe it. The arrivals hall was colossal, lit by thousands of bright lights that itched at the back of her eyes, and the gently curving walls painted with blue and white stripes reminded her of hospitals, and the smell of the dying.
“Just cool it with the Russia jokes, okay?” she said finally. “My homeland is somewhere between Mott and the Bowery.”
“Sure, sure. I'm just tired, that's all. I'm not used to overnight flights. This is your shtick, not mine. Hell, I don't even know why I'm here.”
“Because I value your company?”
“Never valued it much before.”
“Times change. I'm a sensitive new age girl.”
“You're a stream of bullshit without an off valve, that's what you are.” Sparks set their luggage down with a sigh. “Now, where's the contact? Headquarters said they'd be by the pirohzki stall.”
By Headquarters, Sparks meant Blackrock, Olesia's employers. Blackrock were a cabal of corporate spies-for-hire, men and women with unique skills that were contracted out to Fortune 500 companies to take care of what Olesia termed “unpleasantness.” Data theft, kidnapping, the odd bit of sabotage... Olesia had done it all, and received hefty paychecks for her trouble.
Now she was in Russia, ticking off hours on Blackrock time. The job was simple enough on paper. Someone somewhere had lost something, and that something had ended up in the hands of Tobias Gusarov, the young punk son of absurdly wealthy Russian industrialist Marat Gusarov. What it was or how they'd lost it was none of Olesia's business. All that mattered was that Blackrock had been hired to bring it back. Basic intel said Tobias was hiding out in his father's casino, the legendary Metelitsa. Olesia's job was to find away into the Metelitsa's armoured bowels, shake Tobias until he cried, and bring back his stolen wares.
Sparks had already dug up an old but certified set of blueprints that stripped the casino bare. Olesia had brought no weapons – her Blackrock ID carried significantly less weight on foreign soil - but Sparks assured her that a dealer was waiting for them in an apartment less than a kilometre from Red Square. Everything was organised, except for their contact.
“There.” Sparks nudged Olesia in the ribs. “Blue cap, you see her?”
Olesia squinted. A woman sat beneath a potted palm, her cap pulled down low over her eyes, reading a battered paperback. She recognised the cover: an old sci fi classic, something about intergalactic travel and bizarre alien sex. “How do you know?”
“What, you've got zoom-lens eyeballs now?” All she could make out was a blur of silver on the woman's wrist, but she trusted his judgement. Sparks was Olesia's tech-guy, a skinny man with an encyclopaedic knowledge of electronics, mechatronics, cryptography and Korean pop. He was also usually stationed in a van somewhere on the far side of the USA relaying data to Olesia via satellite, not wandering around Moscow airports peering at strange women with strange bracelets.
He was, she thought, adapting remarkably well to life in the wild. “Lead the way,” she said, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. “She better speak English. I need a hot caffeine injection.”
The woman tucked her book away as they approached and shook their hands in turn. She was thin, olive skinned, black hair tied in a tight bun. Her grip was iron. “Blackrock? We have a taxi.”
Olesia struggled to place the woman's accent. Not Russian, certainly – Olesia's mother's friends had taught her all she needed to know about the myriad of Soviet dialects. Maybe a hint of Australian, but that clashed with her delicate Asiatic features. “You got a taxi?”
“I drove. Everyone is waiting.”
“The team. You're the last to arrive. Did they tell you about Mitchell?”
The woman sighed and jerked her head towards the exit. “We don't have much time. The body's already starting to stink.”
“Body?” But the woman was already walking away. “Who's body? Sparks, what the hell?”
Sparks just shrugged, and followed.
The woman didn't speak for the entire trip. They shot into the tangle of the Moscow highways, zipping across four lanes of traffic at a time, kissing the back bumpers of rotten white utes and armoured vans.
Olesia dug her fingers into the upholstery as their Audi darted through the gridlock, past harsh gulag architecture. She knew that inner-city Moscow was a riot of modern glass constructions mashed up beside golden-domed cathedrals, but this end of town was all hard concrete and broken glass.
Whenever she thought Sparks wasn't looking, she checked her watch. Two thirty. Brad would be landing soon.
Brad was her little lie, one which supported an even larger lie. Neither Sparks nor Headquarters knew she'd brought him along... and in truth, she didn't quite know herself. Brad wasn't a Blackrock employee, nor was he particularly good at anything but shooting and fucking. An ex-marine she'd run into by chance during the Atlantico Developments debacle, Brad had quickly found a comfortable place in Olesia's life. He'd taken a bullet in the gut for her, and now that he was back on his feet and limping around she'd been reluctant to leave him in the US while she took a job on the far side of the globe.
She regretted that moment of weakness now. Brad was a clever guy, and with a rifle in his hands he could take the scrotum off a fly, but he was one more variable in an already complex job. The little lie that propped up the larger lie...
The big lie was that she had two things on her to-do list while she was in Moscow. The Blackrock job, and finding her father.
Olesia's parents – both mid-level intelligence operatives working on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain – had been crushed to death in a high-speed collision over a decade before, when Olesia was still concentrating on her high school exams. But a drip feed of information from both Blackrock and the Sacelle job had planted doubts. She'd never seen their bodies, after all. She hadn't even been allowed to attend the funeral. Maybe they'd survived the crash. Maybe there had never been a crash.
The data she'd hunted down had been very clear. If Olesia's father were alive... and it was a very big if... then he was in Moscow.
She'd be an idiot not to follow her instinct, and an even larger idiot not to use Brad as her tracker dog. She felt a little pang of guilt at how many layers of deceit she was accumulating. Sparks didn't deserve to be lied to. Brad even less so. But she was a contract spy, after all. What did they expect her to do? Maybe she could explain her way out of it when Blackrock inevitably discovered Brad's plane ticket. Write him off as an outside contractor and save her career...
The car jerked to a stop. “We're here.”
They were parked outside a grey-brick warehouse, beside a sluggish river the colour of rotten pumpkin. The air tasted of benzene. Olesia stepped out onto the gravel and pulled her jacket tight around her shoulders as a chill wind rolled up the river. Weeds grew in the spaces between stones, and the paint peeled from the warehouse brick like white moss. She rested one hand on her hip, grabbing for a pistol that wasn't there. “Sparks, you sure about this?”
“Headquarters arranged it.” Sparks hunched so the woman couldn't see his lips. “They wouldn't make a mistake, would they?”
“I don't know. Have you worked with this one before?”
Sparks shook his head, and Olesia shivered. Headquarters had provided them with the most rudimentary of information on the contractors they'd be working with – preferred names and pertinent skills, little else. She knew there was an Artemisia, a Slug and a Kay working the Metelitsa job, at the very least. Any of those codenames could be unisex, and the Blackrock dossier didn't come with photos attached. And if someone wanted to bump off two foreign agents, you couldn't pick a better place than a creepy old piece of shit warehouse.
She glanced over her shoulder at the distant highway, tail-lights flashing under dark skies. “Be ready to run.”
The warehouse doors squeaked on their hinges, and the woman ushered them through. The warehouse was huge enough that their footsteps echoed on the concrete, and the air was chilly around Olesia's temples. The only light came in through dingy glass far overhead, striping ancient machinery with shadow.
She wondered for a moment if Blackrock had found her out. If all her attempts at prying open the company databases had been noticed, and this was their method of disposing of their mistake. How obvious, in retrospect. Fly her to a foreign country, put a bullet in her head and dump her in a ditch. Nobody would ever identify her. Nobody but Brad even knew she was here.
She clenched her teeth and prepared to sprint for the door.
Then she saw the table against the far wall, and the three people huddled around it. One of them, a huge man with a severe buzzcut and lips as white as milk saw Olesia approaching and shouted, “Hey, Kay! What took you so long, eh?”
The woman with the cat bracelet waved back. “Hey, Slug. Found them looking at the blini. You keeping Mitchell cold?”
“Lucky it's winter. Didn't need to even start the coolroom generator.” The crowd around the table parted. Olesia swallowed hard.
The man lying on the table was clearly dead. At first glance Olesia assumed his throat had been cut, the flesh beneath his chin peeling back to reveal the ruin of his trachea. Then she leaned in closer and saw the deep purple bruising around his neck, and how clean the edges of the wound were. A garotte, then.
She thought back to the dossier. Kay, twenty eight years old, close quarters specialist. Preferred weaponry – a ka-bar knife and wire. The woman with the cat bracelet was more dangerous than she appeared.
Mitchell's hands... no, the dead man's hands, she reminded herself. Just a corpse, now. Enemy corpses had no names. The dead man's hands were fishbelly white. His eyes were closed and his jaw hung open, revealing his swollen tongue. There was blood on his teeth.
Beside her, Sparks made a choking sound. To his credit, he didn't vomit. Olesia patted him on the shoulder and said, “Who was he?”
“A Zero Error agent,” Kay said. “Came to meet our boy Tobias. They were ready to make the handover when I..." She drew her thumb across her throat. "Tobias ran. Took an armoured car back to Daddy's casino.”
Olesia gripped the edge of the table very tight, trying to keep the world from spinning around her. The dead man leered. “Slow down. What were they going to hand over? And when did Zero Error get into this?” She looked around the circle of uncomprehending faces. “And who the fuck are you people, anyway? One by one, names and agent codes.”
The people around the table glanced at each other and sighed. “Fucking Blackrock,” the big man said. “Always sending kids. You want to do this, Kay?”
Kay took off her blue cap and crumpled it in her hands. “Amateurs,” she grumbled. “What do you know? Or did the boss just send you here to get you out of his hair?”
“Oh Christ, sit down before you hurt yourself.” Kay cracked her knuckles one by one. “It started in Sarajevo.”
Tobias Gusarov wasn't just a kid with his hands in the wrong pockets. He was a courier.
Something very precious had passed from one set of gloved hands to another, beginning with a theft in the Bosnian capital. What had been stolen, Kay didn't know. The orders sent from Blackrock called it Portobello, but all that meant to Olesia was a song in a film she'd watched as a child. Who it had been stolen from, Kay didn't know either. But the package had hopped eastward, through Serbia, Romania and Belarus, before finally coming to rest in Moscow. Tobias was supposed to make a drop, but that drop was now lying dead on the table.
“We only know he's called Mitchell because Tobias kept screaming it. Kid didn't hang around. Straight back to the Metelitsa.”
Olesia grit her teeth. “I wasn't told any of this. They told me it was a heist. A simple in-and-out.”
“Guess your boss knew you'd get the story once you were on the ground.” Kay rifled through a backpack. She pulled out, in turn, a slim black pistol, a comb, a cannister of lighter fluid, a garotte bundled up in leather thong, and a banana. She peeled the banana lazily as she continued. “If this dropoff follows the pattern of other Zero Error actions, another agent will make contact with Tobias within forty-eight hours. That's all the time we have to get this thing out of the casino and on a plane back home.”
Olesia licked her lips. “And where's home for you? You still haven't told me your agent numbers. I don't recognise any of you.”
“None of your people could come on short notice,” the man called Slug said. He was a good six and a half feet tall, broad-shouldered, his chin fuzzed with stubble. He wore a black turtleneck rolled all the way up to his jaw and his eyes were blue ice. Russian accent – Yakut, she thought, from the far north east. “We are contractors.”
“Since when does Blackrock pull in outside contractors? Who do you work for when you're at home?”
Slug shrugged his huge shoulders. “Whoever will pay. I have worked for Blackrock before. I work for many people.”
“This is bullshit.” Olesia banged her fist on the table. The corpse jumped. Kay didn't move, still chewing her banana. “I don't need outside contractors. I'll do this shit myself.”
A smile pricked at the corner of Slug's mouth. “You're firing us?”
“I'm the only Blackrock agent here. That makes me boss, and I say I don't want you.”
Kay grinned as well. “Metelitsa is exclusive, these days. Oligarch country. They'll smell you a mile away.”
“I've infiltrated more exclusive places than some downtown casino. I don't need your help.” Even so, she didn't walk away. Something about these people and the corpse on the table intrigued her. They knew things they shouldn't. It was standard procedure for Blackrock to feed Olesia as little information as possible, but when the hired help already had a better handle on the situation than her it made her wary. Something interesting was going on, and she wanted to sink her teeth in.
She met Sparks' eyes. He nodded imperceptibly. She sighed. “What're your names?”
Slug shook his head. “Only codenames.”
“Good enough. Slug, Kay, I know you. What about you two?”
The man and woman waiting at the back could have been twins, if you judged by their fashion. The man was short, slim, pale, in a neat black suit with a blood-red shirt and tie that made him look like a refugee from some early noughties pop punk band. The woman was elegantly compact, with black hair that tumbled in waves over her shoulders. Her suit was fitted so well that she had became a creature of curves, but she didn't look to Olesia like a soft woman. More of a jungle cat, sinuous and darkly dangerous.
They regarded Olesia with cold eyes. “Dell and Dell,” the woman said.
“No. Just very good friends.” The man cupped the woman's waist. “Bradbury Dell and Artemisia Dell. We work together.”
The Artemisia of the Blackrock dossier, Olesia thought. That filled in all the gaps. It didn't explain why Blackrock had hired outside contractors instead of in-house operatives, but it sufficed. “So what do-”
“And you?” Kay interrupted. “Blackrock, yes, but do they give you a number?”
Kay frowned. “Eight-Oh-Six?”
“Did I stutter?”
“The Eight-Oh-Six that blew up Ardentech?”
The two Dells snapped to attention. “You shot your employer in the balls, didn't you?”
Olesia spluttered. “I didn't... It wasn't in the balls, it was... How the fuck do you know all this?”
“We listen,” Artemesia said. She touched her chin with one finger, looking Olesia up and down, and Olesia was reminded uncomfortably of her highschool geography teacher. “Your name gets everywhere. Not good for business. Why did Blackrock send you?”
Olesia didn't know what to say. Her hands twisted before her. Finally, she managed, “You guys already have a plan for getting Tobias out into the open, right?”
Kay shook her head. “We were waiting for the Blackrock genius to arrive. Guess we got the joke prize.”
“There... there must be a plan. Blackrock hired you specifically.” She sighed and motioned for Sparks to hand over her bag, and she pulled out her iPad, filling the screen with the Metelitsa blueprints. “Okay, okay. Five of us. We surprise them, straight through the front doors. Security might be carrying tasers but we'll have-”
Slug shook his head. “You forget where we are. As we said, the Metelitsa is a place for barons to drink and throw chips. Their security carry light machine guns. Tobias will hide in his room until they have us all lined up. And the doors to where Papa Gusarov will be hiding... A bomb would not get through.”
“Will Tobias be carrying this... thing? The Portobello?”
“I do not know.”
Olesia spun her iPad around to face the group and jabbed at the blueprint. “Tobias might be a Zero Error courier, but he's young, and he's run back to Daddy's house. Daddy will ask, what did you screw up now? And Tobias will cry and hand it over. Daddy will say, here, let's put it in the safest place I know.”
Slug nodded. “The vault.”
“Maybe. Maybe he has two vaults, or five. Maybe he's got a personal safe. The point is, Tobias won't have it in his pockets. It'll be hidden and secure. We need to figure out where it's stashed before we steal it. To do that-”
“We ask Tobias,” Sparks whispered. “We have to be his friends.”
“Exactly. If we try to beat it out of him, he'll go quiet. More scared of Zero Error than us, I bet. But if we get in close, become his confidante-”
“In two days?” Kay rolled her eyes. “Please. He's Russian. You'd need two years. They don't trust easy.”
“Don't lecture me about Russians. My mother-” Olesia stopped. Her phone buzzed in her pocket, but it wasn't the sharp, repetitious vibration reserved for calls from Headquarters. This was a standard call, and the only person that had her number was Brad. He was on the ground.
She swallowed, trying to ignore the persistent burr of the phone. “Does he have a girlfriend, boyfriend, whatever? Someone we can get close to?”
“I asked,” Slug said. “He does not stay in Moscow. His home is in Kiev. If he has anyone, they are in the Ukraine.”
“God, can you at least tell me whether he's straight or gay?”
“Straight. He is Russian, what do you think?”
Olesia scowled. “Let's not even get into that. Okay, he's straight. All we need is a honeypot.”
Slug's huge brow wrinkled. He leaned back against the table and the legs creaked alarmingly, and Olesia had a terrible image of the entire apparatus collapsing, the corpse of Mitchell sliding wetly to the floor.
The table held. Slug said, “I do not know this word.”
“She means, one of us has to fuck him.” Kay glared. “Everything I heard about you was true. Eight-Oh-Six is a codeword for giant fucking mess.”
Olesia slammed her hand on the table. “You want to do this job or not? Or do you want to fuck off back to your own freelance bullshit and let me sort this out solo? Who wants to get paid, huh?”
The Dell couple were silent. Kay looked away, still frowning. Olesia licked her lips. “Nobody needs to fuck him. We just have to get close. Will he know what his Zero Error contact looks like? Kay, if you're such a smooth talker, maybe you can play the role. No? Then I guess I'll have to be the professional here.” She took a deep breath, smoothing her hair back from her forehead. “We have less than forty-eight hours. We need to figure out exactly where Tobias is hiding. We need to get into his good graces. We need concealed weapons and a method of escape. Tactical gear, comms, and a full understanding of the layout of the Metelitsa.” She turned to Sparks. “Can you figure this out? The equipment, the infrastructure?”
Sparks' expression was set. There was no nervousness in his voice. “Anything you need. I have contacts.”
Olesia couldn't help but smile. At least there was one other professional at the table. She turned back to the group. “You're going to need suits. Classy, no cheap jobs. Get fitted. Except for you, Artemisia. You're looking good. We've got enough time to scout and do one test run before everything goes to hell. Understood?”
Slowly, sullenly, Kay nodded. Slug did too.
Between them, the body of Mitchell leaked dark fluids.
The only thing left to do was to take care of the corpse.
Slug and the two Dells left – to take care of their suits, Olesia assumed. That left herself, Sparks, Kay, and Mitchell. None of them were saying very much, but Kay bent low over the corpse and wrinkled her nose in a way that Olesia recognised. Universal code for, he's ready to blow.
“Where do we keep him?” Olesia asked.
“There's a place out back. Cool-room.”
“Can't stash him there forever.”
“Long enough. We'll be out of the country in two days.” Kay scowled. “Should've gotten Slug to move him. Guess it's the girls doing all the work, as usual. You take the hands.”
Olesia shuddered as she gripped the dead man by the wrists. They carried him together across the factory floor and through a narrow doorway. The dead man's skin was cold and leathery to the touch, and his head flopped back, exposing the hideous gash in his throat. Olesia had to look away to keep her breakfast from rising up out of her stomach. Sure, she'd hurt people before. Killed more than a few. Left them with bullet wounds and shrapnel-splinters in their abdomens, some crying, some silent... but it never became any easier. The weight of corpses was always piled high on her shoulders.
Kay didn't seem to care. She dropped her end of the body and hauled open a tall steel door. Cold air billowed out, raising goosepimples on Olesia's arms. “He'll stay fresh,” Kay said. “Someone might find him in a couple months. Maybe not. Come on, get him in.”
Olesia grit her teeth and hauled the dead man through the gap. It was a relief to finally set him down on the cold concrete, and she took a moment to look around the impromptu mausoleum. Steel hooks hung on rails along the ceiling, and the floor was stained black in places with old blood. A meat locker left empty for decades, she assumed... until the team had fed the generator and cranked the cooling back up to max.
There were worse places to be interred, she thought. Like a electricity substation on the outskirts of Bethesda... but that was a different time. She had no intention of dying in Moscow. She bent low to straighten the dead man's collar, even as Kay tapped her foot outside. “What?” Olesia said. “Let me give the man some dignity.”
“You know what happens when you garrotte a man?” said Kay. “They shit themselves. He's not getting his dignity back now.”
“No reason not to be nice.” Olesia stopped. There was something in the man's top pocket that gave her pause. “Did you search him?”
“Of course. Wallet with cash and no ID, Beretta 92 Inox with no serials, photo of old girlfriend with no name.”
She reached into the man's pocket and pulled out a little square of paper. The girl in the photo was pale, white-haired, not smiling. Her eyes were very blue and very sour. “You put the photo back?”
“Bad luck to take photos from the dead. If you believe that.”
“I've heard crazier stories.” She flipped the photo over. Nothing was written on the back. She went to slip it back into the dead man's pocket, and her fingertips brushed a hard edge beneath the fabric.
Her breath caught in her throat. Something was sewn into his shirt, cleverly hidden beside a seam. The stitching was loose, and she tugged, feeling the thread unravel. A secret pocket no larger than a penny. Whatever was tucked inside was squared off, thin. A folded piece of paper? An SD card?
“Aren't you cold?” Kay said. She'd turned away to adjust her hair, retying her neat bun. “Gonna lose a nipple if you don't hurry up.”
Olesia swallowed. The last of the stitches came undone, and whatever was hidden in the pocket slid out into her palm. For a moment she considered speaking up, telling Kay about whatever it was she'd found. But then she thought of her father, and the codes buried deep in the Blackrock vaults: ZE-EMP 22 – rltn: 806 (f) – Moscow (Russ)
Zero Error employee 22. Relationship to agent 806: Father. Location: Moscow.
She palmed both the photo and the mystery chip just as Kay spun around. “For the love of God, hurry up!”
“I'm coming, I'm coming.” Olesia pivoted and dropped her left hand to her side. Her little discovery fell into her pocket smoothly. The job was done, but her heart still hammered against her chest as Kay slid the freezer door closed. “Lucky you've got a cool-room on hand. Bit coincidental, isn't it?”
Kay grunted as she slammed the locks home. “Slug knew this place. He's worked Moscow before.”
“Never met him before. But Blackrock says he's okay, so he's okay.” She shrugged. “You got something against him?”
“I've got something against everyone, dear.”
Kay laughed at that. She didn't speak again until they were out in the main chamber, where Sparks was busy making calls to suppliers, and Olesia smiled at how animated he had become, how his nervousness had fallen away and been replaced with hyperactive enthusiasm. He'd have them drowning in surveillance gear before morning, she was sure.
Kay said, “Is he good?”
“Blackrock usually send good people.” Kay ducked her head. “Eight-Oh-Six, it was?”
“The one and only.”
“You were right. If Blackrock picked us for the job, they picked us for a reason. Let's get it done.” Kay offered her hand, and Olesia eyed it sourly. “Like you said. Professionals.”
In the end, Olesia shook the woman's hand, but there was no warmth in her palm or in her voice. It was like shaking the hand of a mannequin, and when Kay smiled she showed sharp, bright teeth.
Sparks hung up. “I've got people calling other people. Tomorrow morning should be enough time for them to collect the gear.”
“Dry run tomorrow night, and then the job the night after. We'll be out on the midnight flight.”
“Maybe. You're counting chickens, Eight-Oh-Six.”
“One of us has to be the optimist, right?”
But as Kay drove them out to their hotel and dropped them outside, Olesia began to wonder whether she'd taken on more than she could handle. Whether this was a fuckup beyond all her other fuckups.
Her palms itched. She still had the feeling of the dead man on her fingers.