Interstate 44 Westbound, Hampton Avenue interchange
Elena kept the Accord at the speed limit, coaxing it to stay together. Grateful that Rose had lured Sexton away, Elena could try getting the wheezing Honda to the second meeting site. She kept her radio tuned to the chases happening elsewhere, tracking the progress of her fellow Rogues. One pursuit sounded close. Elena double-checked her location, then switched frequencies on her radio.
"Rogue Three, this is Rogue Seven," Elena said. "How far are you from Interstate 44?"
"Rogue Seven, I'm two miles away," Allison replied.
"Roger, Rogue Three. How's the car holding out?"
"Depends if pinging is normal."
"Rogue Three, this is Rogue Five," Amber said. "No, pings are not normal. Rogue Seven, the brakes on mine are starting to slip."
"All Rogues, lose your pursuers and meet at Rendez-vous Beta. Rogue Three, keep coming towards Forty-Four. I'll give you a hand."
"Ten-four, Rogue Seven. Rogue Three on her way."
Elena double-clicked her radio in acknowledgment. She took the next exit off the Interstate, then changed her radio back to listen to Sexton's men. The chase wasn't far, provided her own car could keep in one piece long enough. Elena made a mental note to talk to Sergei about the cars. She turned on to California Avenue, heading towards where Allison was last reported.
After a couple of minutes, Elena spotted a blue-grey 2004 Honda Accord running full out coming towards her. Elena accelerated her vehicle, travelling as close to centre line as she could. She tapped her horn twice to get Allison's attention. The two women flashed past each other, giving the other a quick wave. A silver Taurus was a blur going past Elena. The two beige Chev Impalas behind it swerved, their drivers not expecting a clone of their quarry to bear down on them. One Impala bounced on to the sidewalk and crashed through a wall. The other slammed on its brakes, trying to turn around.
Elena hauled the steering wheel, hand over hand, turning 180 degrees. She zipped past the remaining Chevrolet and accelerated over the Accord's protests. The silver Taurus shone in the sunlight, giving the blonde Russian woman a target to aim for. Ahead of the Ford, Allison's Honda erupted with black smoke. Elena bit off a curse and floored the accelerator.
Allison's Accord bounded across the lanes, thick oily smoke streaming behind it. The Taurus kept close to the Honda's back bumper. Elena adjusted her course, keeping the nose of her car pointed at the narrow gap between Allison and her pursuer. Allison's rear wheels slipped, catching on oil spilling out of the motor. The Accord's back end swung wide, faster than its driver could handle. Elena refocused on the Ford's trunk, then gunned her engine, racing ahead. Her front bumper clipped the Taurus on the rear fender, forcing it to spin out. Allison recovered from her fishtail with a small wobble of the suspension. She caught up to Elena. The two women drove side by side back towards the Interstate.
St. Louis, Missouri
41 2nd Avenue
Rose and Lepinski walked through the front door of the office building, past the security guard at the reception desk and to the bank of elevators. Rose pressed the elevator call button. One opened with a ding. The pair stepped inside; Rose pressed the button for the fifth floor.
The elevator doors opened on to a lobby. A woman sat at a desk near two sets of doors. "May I help you?" she asked as Rose and Lepinski approached her.
"I want to speak with Ray Sexton or his assistant," Rose said.
"Are you expected?"
Rose glanced at Lepinski. "Just tell whoever is here that Rose Velasco would like to talk to someone," she answered, suppressing a grin.
The receptionist picked up the phone and dialled a number. Lepinski glanced at first the elevator and then the exit to the stairs. Rose nudged him with her elbow. The receptionist put her handset down. "Ms Lund will be right out to see you."
Rose nodded, then walked over to a chair. Lepinski stayed close, a worried look on his face. "Carl, really. Relax a little. You'll give the nice people here worries."
"I'll give? Rose, what about the worries you're giving me?"
"Have I ever done anything that hasn't worked out the way I wanted it to?"
"I don't want to be around for when it doesn't."
A young blonde woman stepped into the lobby. "Ms Velasco?" Rose turned to greet her. "Hi, Donna Lund, Mr. Sexton's assistant." She shook Rose's hand. "Please, follow me." She lead Rose and Lepinski into the main office area. "Mr. Sexton isn't in today," Lund began.
"I know. However, I do have some information. Is Ray's boss in?"
Lund looked puzzled. "I believe he is. Why?"
"This might be better discussed someplace private, like a conference room."
Lund led the pair to a small conference room near the wall adjacent to the elevators. "Wait here. I'll get Mr. Jacoby." The blonde woman left.
Rose sat down at the conference table and rubbed her right knee. "I knew I should have picked up some aspirin."
"There's some in my car," Lepinski said. He leaned against the wall. "Old injury?"
"Funny, you don't look that old."
Rose looked up at the detective. "Thanks. Trust me, though, this knee has aged faster than the rest of me."
Lund returned with a middle-aged man with light brown thinning hair. "Mark Darren, this is Rose Velasco and, I'm sorry, I don't believe I caught your name."
Lepinski reached out to shake Darren's hand. "Carl Lepinski. Pleased to meet you."
"Rose, Carl, Mark is Mr. Sexton's superior."
Darren sat down across from Rose. "Is there a problem, Ms Velasco?"
"There is, yes. Oh, please, Ms Lund, stay." Rose waited for Lund to take a seat. "Anyway, yes, there is, and I believe that you may be able to help."
"Ms Velasco, you do realize where you are?"
Rose nodded. "I do, Mr. Darren. I also know that deniable black ops that come out into the open aren't in anyone's best interests."
"Deniable-- What are you talking about?"
"That's a promising answer, Mr. Darren. You might convince me that you didn't know what Mr. Sexton hired me for."
Darren leaned forward. "This office does not condone the use of outsourced contractors. The National Security Agency is only involved in cryptology."
"Officially. Mr. Darren, I've seen the NSA involved in some side work with the CIA. Nothing official, no paperwork, but the agents were on the field." Rose leaned back. "Now, tell me why Mr. Sexton would have me steal the plans for a Halifax-class ship? I didn't know we were spying on the Canadians."
"What is your game, Ms Velasco?"
"This is no game, Mr. Darren. Your employee is working on some project that I believe you were never in on. However, Ms Lund," Rose focused her attention on the administrative assistant, "you may know what Mr. Sexton is doing."
Lund looked shocked. "Me? I'm just--"
Rose cut her off with, "His administrative assistant. I have one, myself. My business would have failed without her around to track what I couldn't. Has Mr. Sexton requested anything unusual lately, say, in the past three months?"
Lund shook her head. "Nothing that I can think of."
"Are you sure? No odd requests for airline tickets somewhere out of the country?" Rose suggested.
"Mr. Sexton makes trips on a regular basis."
Darren raised an eyebrow. "Ray's duties don't include travelling. What is going on, Donna?"
"I . . . I don't know. Ray had me book several trips over the past year. I didn't think anything of it."
"Ms Lund, what trips will Mr. Sexton be taking in the next few months?" Rose asked.
"He wanted me to book a trip to Cairo next month. The tickets are taking a little longer than I expected, though."
Rose glanced at Lepinski then pulled a sheet of paper from her back pocket. She read through the handwritten list. "Thank you." She put the paper back into her pocket as she stood up. "Thank you both for your time."
"You just can't leave," Darren said.
"I have a few phone calls I need to make, Mr. Darren. Mr. Sexton is trying to cut off some of his loose ends, and I am not willing to be cut."
"I'll call Security."
Lepinski pushed away from the wall. "On us? I don't think so."
"I mean on Sexton. Have him investigated."
Rose shook her head. "It'll take too long. I'm one of his loose ends. He needs to be neutralized."
"I can't condone killing him."
"I never said that," Rose reassured. "However, I have people who need protection, too. If he tries killing them, I will stop him."
Darren nodded. "I understand."
"Carl, we're done." Rose led Lepinski out of the conference room and back to the lobby. She pressed the elevator call button.
"Rose . . .."
"Not here." The elevator doors opened. Rose entered, followed by the lanky detective. She pressed the button to return to the main floor. "Okay."
"I can't stay with you, not if you're being hunted."
"That's fine, Carl. You were around when I needed you. If anything happens to me, you know where to start."
Lepinski sighed. "Just be careful, Rose. I don't want the paperwork."
Rose laughed. "Keep your sense of humour, Carl. It'll get you through a lot."