Here it comes, the finale!
Thank you all for sticking with me this long, and especially thanks for all the awesome reviews!
And a big thank you also to my amazing beta-reader, who has managed to work her way through another 24 pages of my endless sentences and messy grammar, so if you enjoyed this, there might be something more coming, soon.
"How do I look?" Benji asked when he came out of the bathroom. The first thing he had done after he and Luther had joined the others in their apartment this morning was rummaging through the extensive wardrobe, and now he was dressed in dark trousers, a dark petrol shirt and a very straight black jacket with large front pockets. The only signs of his adventures of the day before were the splint on his right hand and a slight limp.
"Looking good," Luther replied and threw him a small plastic device. "Here's your ear-bug."
The other techie caught it easily and installed it into his ear, while Ethan went on explaining, "We only have one pair of visco glasses, so Declan will be our eyes. He'll double as your bodyguard."
The Irishman nodded curtly at the mention of his name. He was dressed completely in black and his equally black sunglasses were still dangling from his shirtfront.
"Brandt will be posing as barkeeper right outside the auction room and I'll be sitting in the lobby upstairs, so we've got the only exit covered. Luther will set himself up in the restaurant directly above and handle surveillance."
"And here's our masterpiece," Luther added and set a flat, padded bag onto the table. Inside was a small laptop computer with an external sloppy-disc reader. "We've done a bit of work yesterday night."
"You put a trace on the disc?" Brandt asked as if he was missing the obvious.
Luther gave him an almost grin. "Even better," he said, then nodded at Benji.
"First of all, of course we put your standard physical GPS tracker on it," the Brit explained gleefully. "Low signature, low ping-rate, so hopefully it won't be spotted as easily, but we had to put it in the casing, otherwise it would interfere with the operation of the disc.
"Secondly there already was a trace on the disc itself," he continued. "I guess it's part of its original design. It's a little bit old style and pinpoint precision sinks drastically with range, but it should be hard to spot for anyone not looking straight at it, exactly because it is so old. And lastly we built a virus directly into the file that will spread with every copy and give us the identity and location of any computer the disc is booted up on.
"Also we implemented a virtual disc-drive on the computer," the techie added and his joyous smile turned a notch mischievous. "When we boot up the disc, it will look as if it's the actual disc, but in truth it will show the copy of the original list I made earlier."
"It looks like now this thing actually has a chance to work," Brandt added, just a hint sarcastic.
Ethan nodded approvingly. "Good work."
"Don't look at me. All his idea," Luther said and Benji beamed. "I just helped to get it done in time."
"Well, then let's just get on with it," Declan added with an almost happy grin and headed for the door.
"Gentleman, lady," Benji motioned a curt half-bow into the direction of the only woman present. She was, tall, well-tanned with long, wavy brown hair and obviously the bodyguard of an Asian businessman, and only answered him with a cold, unimpressed glance, before returning her attention to Declan.
The Irishman stood behind him with the best no-nonsense face he could muster and was the only one in the room wearing a gun. Or the only one, at least, who was wearing his firearm openly. Benji didn't doubt that someone had smuggled a concealed weapon into the meeting, despite strict instructions warning them against it.
"You all know why we are here today," he continued, looking over two dozen or so mostly black-suited people with various briefcases sitting in short rows between meter-high wine barrels. Half of them were security detail, unanimously looking at least mildly irritated at his own bodyguard. They had argued whether or not it was wise to show his customers that he didn't trust them, but fact was that he didn't, and with very good reason.
"Frankly, I'm just tired of being chased and shot at, and all I want is my money," Benji explained and held up the unspectacular disc case. "And since you all seem to have such a great interest in this, you can now make all this your problem for the right sum."
"Just a moment, Mr Baker," a sun-burned looking man in the front rows put in, pronouncing his name like a question. Benji identified him as Mattheo Bareille. "How do we know that what you're selling us is the real deal?"
"Have a look at it yourself," Benji answered with a smile. He took the disc out of its casing and held it up for a moment for everyone to see, then put it in the reader of the small laptop-PC that stood on the desk in front of him. The computer was connected to a beamer and he motioned at the wall behind him where the projection mirrored the display of the PC, as he continued. "What you see here is what is on the disc. Of course I'm not qualified to judge the authenticity of the content," he added and his smile grew a notch wary. "That would be up to you."
Soft discussions in multiple languages arose around the room and Benji picked up various snippets, but he didn't concern himself with it. If there was anything interesting in it, one of the others would pick it up, and he didn't have any doubt that Brandt would have one of his underlings sift through the recordings once they were back in D.C., maybe even do it himself.
"You all know the rules," he announced and the murmured conversation slowly died out. "Payment has to be cash only. If the highest bidder fails to produce enough on the spot, the item will fall to the second highest bidding, and so on. The bids will be made in US dollars, but I will accept any currency as payment, to the current exchange courses of the International Monetary Fund." A short grin crept across his face, when he came close to just using the initials of the institution. "Now if you are all quite ready, let's begin with one million."
"So far, so good," Brandt muttered when the first buyers started leaving the room. They were careful not to leave in bulk, he thought. But none of them took much notice of the barkeeper in the typical wine-red waistcoat mopping up glass-shards and liquid. Some of them frowned at the sticky floor, but doubted any of them would notice the microscopic tracking devices now sticking to the soles of their shoes, each of which would send off a GPS signal in uneven, roughly hour-long intervals.
"Signals are good," Luther announced in a satisfied voice and counted. "Tracking now, two, three, five individuals."
"Traces verified," Ethan replied as their targets came by his post in the lobby and Brandt tuned out of the conversation that now mostly went back and fourth between the two. He spread more of the sticky liquid on the floor, but stood up to make way as more of the potential buyers headed for the stairs.
"That's all of them," Benji suddenly announced and Brandt already allowed himself a sigh of relief. It looked like this worked exceptionally well, despite his darkest fears. And cursed himself a moment later for his shortsightedness.
"Hold on, we're missing a trace," Luther said sternly. Brandt bit his lip before he could say anything that might have compromised him in front of their target. It wasn't necessary, because Luther almost immediately went on: "Tall, slender guy, red hair, white shirt, no jacket. Left front corner."
Brandt spotted the man in question just before he vanished in front of his amazingly broad bodyguard up the stairs. "He's past me," he muttered into his radio and suppressed a curse.
"That's our buyer," Benji announced. Now that he was alone in the cellar, he had tapped into the security feed, too. "Maybe the tracker from the disc is interfering with the micro-bugs."
"Not sure," Luther replied. "I don't want to bet on it."
Meanwhile the redhead passed through the lobby. Ethan folded up his newspaper and casually walked over to the rotating doors, so that he was there just before their buyer. Right outside the door's radius, he bent down as if to pick something up. Standing up, he bumped into the man, seemingly accidentally. The redhead stumbled, but was caught by his bodyguard.
"Oh, I'm sorry, sir," Ethan said with an apologetic smile and bent down again to pick up his scattered newspaper. "Really sorry."
"It's alright," the man muttered and hastily proceeded down the street.
Ethan got up and followed them as closely as he dared, but neither of them turned around. "Please tell me you've got a signal."
"We've got something," Benji announced. "Not sure, though. It's pretty fuzzy."
"You better hang on to him," Luther added and Ethan went on.
He followed the two men down the street, then right through a small side-street onto a big main road. Once he almost lost them as they crossed sides and he couldn't run a red light, but they went on in the same direction until they reached a bus stop. For a moment he thought he'd be able to catch up to them, when little children suddenly ran at the bus stop, seemingly out of nowhere. They were next to a school.
"I'm loosing them," he said, still closing the distance between him and his targets, a little more than he was comfortable. Yet, as the crowd of children was getting denser and more older and therefore taller students joined them, he got close to losing sight of the two men.
"Hold on, hold on" Luther called over the radio and there was the clatter of frantic typing in the background.
A bus pulled up next to the bus stop and Ethan was close to getting on himself, when suddenly cheerful the techie announced, "We got a signal."
William Brandt sat behind his desk, tipping back his office chair and sipping coffee. The brew was black and so strong it could be smelled from the corridor, and he drank it in large doses, despite the late hour. And of course he also offered it to the two men sitting across from him.
Both of the agents declined with a head-shake. Luther had once made the mistake of accepting and was since convinced that the black liquid would eat through the building if it was spilled on the floor. Ever since he didn't trust the chief analyst anymore, at least not concerning coffee.
"We've got our first fish from the Seattle operation," Brandt announced almost cheerfully. "We're still waiting for the big drop, but we've already got enough intel for two minor follow-ups. Since this was basically Benji's party, I gave him the choice and he'll be taking Jane and Skye to Australia. Which leaves me to offer you a trip to Russia."
"With the option to decline?" Luther asked hopefully. He shuddered at the thought of the cold Russian winter.
"The mission is choose to accept, as always," Brandt confirmed, but looked at Ethan. "But it's only a small thing. And the only reason I got Hunley to sign off on you as my first choice is because you fit the physical profile better than anyone else we currently got available."
Ethan half frowned as he took in Brandt's meaning. In the wake of the Seattle mission the secretary had of course caught on to Julia's existence and had not been very happy about it. Although all the paperwork was in order and approved of by his predecessor, he had made a major point of this. Brandt suspected that he still had some sort of personal problem with Hunt and this just was his next reason to take it out on him.
The agent himself was acutely aware of that, too, and that two weeks Russia would at least give him some sort of breathing space. Ignoring Luther's annoyed look, Ethan leaned forward on the desk. "Tell me more."