Five years ago.
It was a quiet night in Moscow when Luke Hobbs, Diplomatic Security Service, came barging into Elizabeth's life.
For once, the reception area of the brothel was empty. No clients sat on the black leather lounge suites and the magazines displayed on the coffee table remained undisturbed. On the left wall, an antique clock said it was a few minutes past nine. The front glass door was closed and a thick purple curtain drawn across it helped to block out the sounds of nightlife in the red light district.
Seated behind a heavy wooden desk, Elizabeth swirled the dregs of tea in her mug before finishing it and setting it aside. Normally she would've been curled up in bed by now or dancing the night away in a club if work hadn't proved tedious and exhausting, but the regular receptionist was sick. Someone had to cover for Natalya, after all, and their patrons certainly didn't want some grizzly old man suggesting which woman they'd like to become better acquainted with.
Eyes focused on the computer monitor, she didn't notice the door open at first. Elizabeth glanced up only when she heard the sound of drunken laughter slip in from outside. Two white men in suits walked in, chatting between themselves in English, and strolled toward the desk with a confidence that was oddly unsettling.
"Gentlemen," she said, "how can I help you this evening?"
"Hi." Tall, dark-haired and forty-something, the foremost man spoke with an American accent. The other stood a foot behind him to his right, casually looking around the room. Once or twice, his eyes went to the open corridor to her left that led to the rest of the building. "We were talking to a friend of ours who was here last week and decided we'd like some company."
"Of course," she said, forcing a polite smile. "We have many ladies here. Why don't you have a look and I'll make sure a room's available?"
Elizabeth lifted the lookbook from its place on the desk and handed it to them. Both men nodded their thanks and seated themselves on a lounge several feet from the corridor's entrance. The pair seemed normal by all accounts — dressed in suits with collars not quite properly folded, shirts wrinkled at the waist as if hurriedly tucked in — yet their accents gave them away as foreigners. Frankly, the first one appeared almost too self-assured, too comfortable, to be the kind of man that hired escorts.
Perhaps it was merely well-honed instinct, or the hairs raising on the back of her neck, that set off her internal alarm bells. She couldn't pinpoint it but something about them was off. It was the kind of feeling a woman got when considering walking down an empty alleyway or cutting through a dimly lit park at night. Of course it could also just be paranoia.
Or maybe the same instinct that'd told her when to run as a kid before the cops showed up had reared its head again.
She'd always known things would fall apart sooner or later. Eventually, Elizabeth figured, the government would turn up (or the police) to put a stop to their operations. The brothel itself was merely a front for the Russian mob, and when criminals gathered in numbers they invariably drew the attention of law enforcement. Even in Moscow, blind eyes could only be turned for so long.
She hadn't expected the day to come so soon, however, but here it was.
And here they were.
As calm as ever, Elizabeth reached for the cellphone on her desk and slipped it into her pants pocket. The bluetooth earpiece still sat in her right ear, closer to an extension of her body than a fashion accessory. She fetched two swipe cards off the shelf and walked down the corridor, checking a round mirror mounted at the end of it to make sure the two men weren't following her.
Both looked in her direction but neither moved. Maybe she was completely overthinking things. They could just be American tourists determined to enjoy their stay in Moscow and nothing more. A pair of odd, slightly out-of-place men looking for someone to fill the lonely voids in their lives.
Whatever the answer, it would only take a phone call to confirm her suspicions.
Outside in a sleek black limousine, Hobbs stared at the paused feed from a pinhole camera attached to Chato's jacket. Onscreen, a brunette white woman in a pantsuit looked towards them, hair tied back in a ponytail with not so much as a strand out of place. Her smile made her look friendly but those dark eyes . . . there was something about the look in them that reminded him of his real target: her brother.
Tossing the screen aside, Luke discarded his wig on the front seat and stepped out of the warmth of the car. His breath streamed away in white clouds, a shiver ran down his spine and he rubbed his hands together as the cool night air hit him. It had to be fifty degrees outside, maybe less. Luke grumbled and walked towards the private side entrance reserved for dignitaries and anyone who enjoyed a modicum of discretion. Multiple brothel and hotel staff had come out for smoke breaks in the past two hours, yet not one of them had bothered to properly shut or lock the door.
"H." Chato's voice crackled in Luke's ear. If he was breaking radio silence, it meant the target was out of earshot. "I think she's gonna run."
"Yeah." He nodded, stepped inside the corridor and pulled the door closed behind him. The warmth of the building washed over him, a sudden burst of heat that sapped away the bitter cold. According to Wilkes' maps, a set of stairs lay around the corner. Hobbs found them and took them up to the second floor, positioning himself behind the stairwell door. "She's rabbiting."
If she came upstairs, he wanted to be there to cut her off. Fusco was already in position in a room further along the corridor and had been for a while. A fake Afrikaner accent and a wad of cash had gotten him a room with no questions asked well before Elizabeth's shift started. Wilkes, on the other hand, was holed up in the building next door, watching live feeds from the brothel's own internal security system.
With Chato and Macroy behind her, he and Fusco above and ahead of her, the team was in position. Now all Hobbs had to do was listen and wait for the right moment to burst out and slap a pair of cuffs on her.
Downstairs, Elizabeth took the first corridor on her left and paused just a few feet from the end. Her backpack was in her office, passport and cash stashed within it, along with a switchblade and spare pair of boots in case she needed to do some serious running. She'd have to grab it on her way through else there was no chance of her making it out of the country. Out of sight and well out of hearing range, Elizabeth slid her cellphone free, dialled a number and resumed walking. Seconds later, the call connected as she returned her phone to her pocket.
"I need you to hack the CCTV and run a background check."
"Hello to you too."
"Someone somewhere has screwed up because I've got Feds on my arse." She afforded herself a glance over her shoulder. The corridor still seemed empty and, when Elizabeth lifted her earpiece away from her ear, there was no noise bar the sound of herself breathing. "I don't know who they are but they don't feel right."
"First things first: stop panicking."
"Remember just who it is you're talking to," Elizabeth spat. "We had an agreement! I burn my bridges, you keep the target off my back. This situation doesn't reflect too well on your ability to do your job, Cipher."
"Now you really sound like your brother. How is he, by the way? I haven't—"
She cursed under her breath and ripped the earpiece out, stuffing it in her breast pocket as she walked. The last thing she needed right now was to get in an argument with the woman who paid her. Up ahead sat the elevator, like a solid steel cage ready to imprison her. The indicator said it was presently on the second floor. Elizabeth jabbed the call button and waited, her right foot tapping a slow rhythm on the carpet. Moments later, the elevator dinged and the doors slid open.
A shiver ran down her spine when she stepped in. It was empty and the hatch sealed shut. No signs of tampering or use. She pressed the button for the second floor and closed her eyes, grip tight on the rail beside her. The question of her paranoia remained first and foremost in her mind as the elevator came to life. If she was wrong then the men would be sitting there when she came back. If not . . . someone had to warn him.
Because if they'd found her, made the connections necessary to even know she was in Moscow — to learn her birth name — then they could sure as shit find her brother.
The ding sounded once again and the doors slid open. Elizabeth opened her eyes, stepping out into the corridor. She turned left, away from the fire exit, then swiped her card over the reader on her office door. The lock clicked. Elizabeth pushed the door open and reached in, grabbing her backpack from where it sat just to the right of the doorway.
She propped the door open with her foot and slipped the backpack on, giving her office one last forlorn look. The desk where she skimmed money and called it 'transaction fees' sat in the middle of the room, surrounded by shelves and books. A coffee mug with a flaming dagger and the words 'who dares wins' printed on it sat beside the monitor. It'd been a gift, a perk of being his sister; a reminder from home of exactly why she'd come back to this godforsaken city.
And now she would leave it all—
Elizabeth jerked her head to the left, looking down the corridor. Was she hearing things or had something just creaked? It wasn't the bed-related kind of noise. The rooms were thorough!y soundproofed for a reason, after all. More like a heavy door's hinges or someone stepping on the wrong section of flooring.
"Maybe I am going nuts," she murmured. Her entire body felt frozen as if trapped in that one second she had to decide between fight or flight. Then her eyes landed on the fire exit's door. There was the slightest gap. A thin wisp of light stretched across the carpeted floor, and beside it, a fragment of a cast shadow.
Oh fuck me.
There was someone standing in the stairwell, behind the door.
"Yeah, course I am." Elizabeth lifted her foot from against her office door and let it slide shut. She turned to face the corridor and began walking down it towards the fire exit. With her left hand, she reached into the side netting of her backpack and slipped her switchblade free only to tuck it into her pants' pocket. Better to lose the backpack and keep her life then get caught by clinging to some paperwork. "Haunted building, creepy old men and beautiful women in classy lingerie. What's not going to drive you nuts in this place?"
Keep calm. It could be nothing. Again, something creaked as she passed the emergency exit. Eyes forward, Elizabeth kept a casual pace. Behind her, the creak grew into a whine of metal being pushed open. If she ran now, she'd tip them off. It'd allow her a headstart but as soon as she took that first step, the chase would be on.
"Anna?" A Polish accent came from one of the rooms ahead of her. Sofya stuck her head out into the corridor and smiled as Elizabeth neared. She was a beautiful woman from head to toe with waist-length black hair, pale skin and intelligent blue eyes. Sofya beat her at chess every time they played without fail. "There are no more clients?"
"None." She kissed Sofya on the cheek. "We're closing early tonight."
"Good. But what about your friend? Is he going to join us?"
Hand on his revolver, Luke glared at Elizabeth. If she so much as twitched, he'd have Fusco come charging out of his room in a heartbeat. This wasn't going to end well for her, Luke knew that much, but there was always the option of making it easy on them both. "Don't make me chase you, Shaw!"
"I promise I'll call you, Milaya," she murmured. The five seconds that Elizabeth could've wasted looking over her shoulder were instead spent breaking into a run. Whoever he was, he had an American accent, and going off the 'my interest is piqued' look on Sofya's face, he was big.
He burst out from one of the rooms behind her as she ran, grabbing ahold of her backpack and pulling, trying to throw her off-balance. Elizabeth grunted, struggled to pivot on her right foot and keep her balance while slipping her arm completely free of the strap. Instinctively, she knew she was in a bad position: her body was tipping one way and she was trying to throw herself in the other direction. Her legs were faltering, the weight of a grown black man in body armour dragging her down.
The moment she felt herself tip far enough, she shifted all her weight to her left leg and slipped her arm free. At the same time, Elizabeth lunged to the right, throwing herself away from him. She slammed into the corridor wall, bounced off it and kept moving, even as the click of a gun's safety sounded behind her.
Fusco took aim. "Don't move!"
"Elizabeth Shaw, you're under arrest." Hobbs approached from behind her, his revolver drawn and firmly gripped in both hands. Perhaps Shaw hadn't noticed the situation but she was outnumbered two to one. "Put your hands on your head and get on your knees."
I don't think so. Elizabeth grit her teeth, kept on moving despite the clear image in her head of someone holding a gun. She wasn't going to end up back there again. Not now, not ever. The past could stay where it belonged. She rushed down the corridor, head down, arms hugged to her side. Her heart pounded in her chest, adrenaline and fear washing over her as heavy, rapid footsteps began echoing in the corridor.
"You keep running and this only ends one way, Shaw!"
One way? That was doubtful. He wasn't the only person carrying a weapon, even if hers required her to get close. One good shot at his femoral artery and he'd be dead quicker than he could sing the American anthem.
Elizabeth dodged around a cleaning cart outside one of the rooms, slamming into a wall as her shoes skidded on the carpet. She pushed herself off, trying to remember the map she'd seen in her boss's office once upon a time. Somewhere in a room up ahead was a concealed corridor that connected to the building next door. All she had to do was get there.
"Nitchka? Why are you—" Instead of finishing her sentence, Yuliya screamed. She stood in the doorway, leaning the top half of her body out as if to see what was going on. There! That was the room, and it seemed it was currently occupied.
She lunged for the open door and slipped past the prostitute, grabbing Yuliya's arm and tugging her inside as she went. There was no time for pleasantries. The door slowly closed behind them while Elizabeth returned Yuliya to the bed in the middle of the room. "I'm really sorry, I'll call you, I promise!"
"You always say that, Anna."
"I mean it!"
The built-in closet was situated in the corner, the door closed. She fumbled with the handle, pulled it open and stepped inside. There were no clothes, only a large well-lit space and—
No. God, no. There was no escape route, no concealed door, only bricks. Elizabeth slammed her fists against the brick, as if expecting it to pivot on a concealed hinge, but nothing moved.
She pulled free the switchblade in her pocket and flicked it open, positioning herself against the wall to the right of the door. It seemed she'd be taking the other option. If this American fed thought he'd survive the night, he was wrong. Either she left this room alive and kicking or she made certain he didn't.
Before the door could close completely, Hobbs jammed his foot in the remaining gap and stopped it. "I know you're in there, Shaw!"
Elizabeth fumbled with her earpiece and returned it to her ear. It wouldn't take the Fed long to find her. "Tell me you didn't hang up," she whispered. "If you're listening, they're Feds and they know my name . . . I think I'm done."
Luke entered the room, giving the half-naked woman on the bed an apologetic smile as he approached the closet with his arms extended in front of him. In response, she glared at him and pulled the sheets up over her waist to cover herself. "Come peacefully and no one gets hurt."
The only one who would be getting hurt was him. Elizabeth adjusted her grip on the switchblade and crouched, angling the blade upwards. She'd only have one shot at him, two if she took him by surprise. Whatever happened, the end result would be her freedom. Prison, death — they weren't options tonight. Elizabeth had served her time and she had no intentions of serving any more.
The closet door creaked as Luke pushed the handle down and forward. He cracked it open half an inch then used his foot to push it open the rest of the way. The left side of the doorway was clear, the rear of the room clear, but the right? No. It didn't take Sherlock Holmes to notice the doorknob hadn't touched the wall. Luke turned as she lunged, shoving his revolver into her face while the blade in her hand found his thigh.
"You put that away and no one has to know you just tried to kill an American federal agent."
"I think I'll take my chances," Elizabeth said.
The barrel was cold against the tip of her nose but anger overrode everything, including fear. Elizabeth applied pressure, more than enough to slice through the thin material of his pants. Whatever gear he was wearing couldn't be too thick or it would obstruct his ability to run. She lifted her head to look up at him, flinching as the revolver grazed her face further. The Fed was tall, well over six feet, and wide. Broad shoulders, muscles and brown skin. His body armour seemed to strain itself in order to protect him. God, who the hell was this guy?
"Too bad I'm not taking any." Luke wrapped his fingers around her wrist and squeezed. Not so hard as to shatter bone, but hard enough that she'd—
She angled the blade downwards, pressing even harder. In one smooth movement, she'd cut straight through all that muscle and twist the blade, rip him apart. "I'd take this one if I were you."
"Drop the knife or I break your hand and you never make another bomb again."
The look in his eyes promised he'd do exactly what he said. A broken hand wasn't that bad a thing. She could handle the pain. It'd be one sudden burst and then a dull ache till it was fixed. Injuries were better than talking. Death better than imprisonment. Her hand twitched, lifting the blade slightly, ready to thrust it forward and cut this bastard open.
Just as fast, Hobbs adjusted his grip and dislocated her thumb. Shaw yelled through gritted teeth, glaring daggers at him as he holstered his revolver. He slid a pair of handcuffs free, hooking one bracelet around Shaw's right hand. Twisting her left wrist, he slapped the other bracelet on her and secured it.
"Don't make me carry you."
Carry her? She'd make him drag her corpse out of the brothel if it came down to it. Elizabeth kept her grip on the knife despite the throbbing pain. If this American gun-toting cliche-loving bastard thought a bad finger would stop her, he clearly hadn't read her file.
"No smartass comment? Your brother Owen is involved in some bad shit and you're the one who's been supplying him, so sooner or later we are going to talk about where he is."
Owen? Son of a—He knew Owen's name, and that meant he knew what Owen was doing. Just how screwed were they? She had to get some kind of warning to her brother. Tell him the Americans were coming and that whatever he was doing, he needed to do it fast then disappear like planned.
"I want my phone call." Her father's words echoed in her mind as the Fed pried the blade free from her grip. If you're ever arrested, say nothing. You keep your mouth closed and call me. You may not like it, little wolf, but the world is cruel and untrustworthy.
"Unfortunately, you don't get one. Now walk," Hobbs said, "or this time I won't be so gentle."
Gentle? Elizabeth scoffed and stood firm, refusing to budge. Was this some kind of rendition? Had Cipher set her up to take the fall?
"Elizabeth Shaw, you're under arrest on conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism, money laundering, falsification of documents, and being a pain in my ass."
"Those charges are bullshit." They made no sense. Money laundering and forgery, sure, but terrorism? She was no monster. Even the blood she'd willingly dipped her hands into had left its permanent scars on her psyche. "I'm not going to Gitmo or any other prison. You want to drop me down a hole? You better make sure I can't crawl out of it or else I'll be coming straight for you."
"Oh don't you worry about that, Princess. The hole I'm dropping you down, even Sadako couldn't crawl outta it."