St. Louis, Missouri
198 Addison Avenue
Amber settled back with her third coffee of the day. Maria sat beside her on the couch. "Wouldn't it be easier to just use an IV drip?"
"Nah," Amber said. "I hate needles. They give me the willies." She shuddered. "Got any good video games?"
"Have you been tested for ADD yet?"
Amber laughed. "Many times when I was in high school. All negative."
"No way," Maria said. "How did they miss it?"
"I don't have it." Seeing Maria's incredulous expression, Amber continued, "I don't, really. I was a good student and paid attention when I needed to. I also broke bell curves. Schools weren't made for the smart students and a bored Amber is a creative Amber."
"I see. So, why do you work for Mom? She's not exactly the most lenient person around."
"I like the job. I get to drive, and when I'm not needed, I can do my own thing." The green-haired woman held up her hand, her thumb and forefinger a half-inch apart. "I'm this close to solving some of the so-called unsolvable problems."
"You're a geek."
Amber smiled broadly. "Thanks!"
Maria rolled her eyes. "What's with the hair?"
Amber leaned closer to the teen. "I'm in disguise," she said with a mock whisper. "I'm really a redhead. Though I kind of like how my hair turned out. I might keep it."
"Mom won't even let me cut my hair," Maria complained. "I'm almost sixteen. I should be allowed to decide on what my hair looks like."
Amber fingered a lock of Maria's hair. "I think you'd look good with a streak."
"I do. Rose might not care for pink or blue, but a blonde or a natural-looking red one? I can see it."
"Really? Because there's this guy at school--" Maria was cut off by the front door bursting open.
Sexton pointed his shotgun towards Amber and Maria. "Not a word, not a sound, or I will shoot you both," he growled. Behind him, Rollins and Smith entered, both carrying Heckler and Koch MP-5 submachine guns. A plaster bandage covered Smith's nose. The two agents spread out to search the house. "Is anyone else here?" Sexton demanded. He glowered as he waited for an answer that never came. He stepped closer, keeping the shotgun aimed at Maria. "Is anyone else here?" he repeated.
Amber glowered at the intruder. She shook her head.
"Look, you little bitch, I'm in no mood for games. Tell me what I want to know or the brat gets it."
"You said you'd shoot us if we spoke." Amber stuck her tongue out at Sexton.
"I am in no mood for games. If I ask you a question, I want it answered. Understood?"
"Yes," Amber replied. Maria only nodded.
"Where are the others?"
"Out," Amber said.
Amber shrugged. "Somewhere. I'm not their mother."
Sexton turned his attention to the teenager. "You, girl, where are your parents?"
"Out," Maria said. When Sexton jabbed at her with his shotgun, she said, "Dad's at the mall. Mom's looking for you."
"I don't know! No one tells me these things!"
"Leave her alone," Amber said. She took Maria into her good arm. "Haven't you terrorized her enough?"
Rollins returned from the second floor. "All clear upstairs. Not a bad place, either. Private eyes must make decent money these days."
"Not now, Rollins," Sexton said. "Make sure all the curtains are closed. I don't want anyone looking in by accident. Where's Smith?"
"Right here, chief," Smith said as he returned from the basement. "Downstairs is clear."
"Close the front door," Sexton ordered. "Block it. I don't want anyone coming in unless I say so."
Smith dashed back to the front door, closing it firmly. He came back to the living room and dragged a chair away to use as a barrier. Rollins went to the back door, making sure it was secure. He returned, closing the drapes at each window he passed. "All the windows are covered," Rollins reported.
"Good," Sexton said. "Now we wait."
St. Louis, Missouri
225 West Pine Boulevard
Rose stopped her Ford Aerostar across the street from the building Sexton's apartment was in. She and Elena got out of the minivan. Behind them, Lepinski pulled up in his red Crown Victoria. Rose walked over to meet him. "See anything odd?" she asked the police detective.
"Nothing," Lepinski said. "Looks like a nice, quiet place to live."
"Good place for a safe house, in other words," Elena said. "Any idea which side of the building Sexton's place is?"
Rose shook her head. "Allison couldn't find blueprints online."
"The building might pre-date the Internet," Lepinski said. "We could go to City Hall and look over their records."
"That will take too long. We need to look now. Detective, I'll have to ask you to stay behind."
"Should I even ask why?"
Elena answered, "You need a search warrant and probable cause. We're not so hampered."
"In fact, we could use something to drink," Rose added. "Would you be a dear and go grab us something? I think I'd like an iced sweet tea. Elena?"
"Diet Coke for me, thanks," the Russian woman said. "I'm feeling a little parched."
"Subtle, ladies," the detective said. "Okay, I'll be back in five minutes."
"Can you make that fifteen?" Rose requested.
Lepinski smiled. "Of course. After all, that's what Metro PD is here for, to serve and protect. I didn't think that I'd be a waiter after going through the police academy."
Elena giggled. "I'll treat you to a coffee later, Detective."
"Promises, promises," Lepinski said as he returned to his car. Moments later, he drove past Rose and Elena, giving them a wave.
Watching as the Crown Victoria turned the corner, Rose said, "You're not being subtle."
"I don't know what you mean." Elena started across the road. "We better hurry before we're seen."
Rose followed the blonde woman to the other side of the street. "You know exactly what I mean. Maybe you should just throw yourself at him next time."
"You haven't been chased in a while, Rose. You've forgotten the fun in the dance."
"Does Lepinski know he's dancing?"
Elena opened the door to the apartment building. "That's also part of the fun. You've been married way too long."
"I'm happy." Rose looked through the tenant directory. "Figures. Sexton's labelled as 'Occupant'."
"What's the saying? 'It's not the bullet with your name on it you have to worry about; it's the one marked occupant.'"
"That's the one. Appropriate." Rose looked at the door's lock. "Do we wait for someone to let us in, or do we let ourselves in without an invitation?"
Elena looked over the directory. "I think I can get us an invite." She dialled apartment 404. The phone rang once.
"Four-oh-four?" Rose asked.
"Occupant not found. An Amber-joke."
The phone was picked up on the second ring. "Hello?" a male voice asked, a slight Vietnamese accent obvious despite the poor connection.
"I'm looking for my aunt," Elena said, letting her Russian accent out. "She's sick and she's not answering. Can you let me in?"
The man didn't answer, but the door buzzed. Elena smiled as she opened the door, letting Rose in. Once the door closed, the Russian said, "There, nice, easy, quiet, and no one is aware that it's us."
"Where did you learn that trick?"
"Brandon. He showed it to me while we were tracking down that missing student last year."
Rose pressed the elevator's call button. "When is his review coming up?"
"Not for another three months. Why?"
"I think we need to give him a raise."
The elevator arrived. An elderly couple walked out, side by side. The man nodded to Rose and Elena as he passed them. Rose smiled back as Elena got into the elevator. She waited for Rose to get on before pressing the button for the seventh floor.
The doors to the elevator reopened on the seventh floor. Rose exited the car first and crept down the hall. Elena followed, keeping pressed against the wall on the left side of the hallway. Reaching apartment 702, Rose ducked down below the view of the peephole, standing up on the other side of the doorway. Elena remained pressed against the wall as she knelt down to check the locks. "Deadbolt, two of them," the Russian woman whispered. "Door looks solid, too."
"What do you suggest," Rose whispered back, "that we rappel down the side of the building to the balcony?"
"Too obvious. I'd prefer explosives."
"I'm obvious? Explosives would wake up the block."
"Small charges at the hinges or the locks. They'd sound like a car backfiring. Sergei might be able to get some for me, but it'd take him time."
Rose shook her head. "We don't have that sort of time." She looked at the locks. "There has to be a way in."
Elena produced her lockpicks. "I might. The weight of the bolt might snap the picks, though."
"Beats kicking the door."
Elena started on the bottom of the two locks. With some effort, the bolt slid back. The Russian winced at the noisy thunk the lock made. She paused. After a few tense moments, the door remained closed, with no sound from the other side. Elena set to work on the upper lock. Again, it took effort, enough for beads of perspiration to form on her forehead. The lock slid open. The Russian stepped back and nodded to Rose.
Rose drew her Colt M1911. She tested the door handle – the mechanism opened easily. Letting the door drift open an inch, she whispered, "On three."
Elena nodded and drew her CZ-83. She mouthed, "One."
Keeping her Colt pointed at the floor, Rose moved to stand directly in front of the door. "Two," she mouthed.
Elena pointed her pistol at the ceiling. "Three!"
Rose kicked open the door. It smashed against its stopper. Elena stepped inside, gun pointed straight out in front of her. She moved to let her partner inside. Rose dashed inside and poked her M1911 into the first room she encountered. "Clear!" she reported as she saw that the kitchen was empty.
Elena darted past Rose and into the living room. Sparse furnishings greeted her; a lone couch sat in front of an older Panasonic television. Elena crept through the room towards the back hallway. Rose backed away from the kitchen to follow the Russian woman. The door to the bedroom was closed. Elena brushed the handle with the back of her hand. "Not trapped," she reported.
"Stand back." When Elena moved out of the way, Rose rammed in to the door, shoulder first. The door gave way, depositing the Hispanic woman on the floor. Elena crouched down as poked her CZ-83 into the bedroom. The room was as sparse as the living room, containing a bed and a dresser. Rose picked herself up from the floor. "Damnit," she cursed.
Elena walked over to the dresser and started pulling out drawers. "We may not have missed him by much. Go check the television to see if it's warm."
"Long shot, Elena," Rose said as she returned to the living room.
Elena searched through the drawers, finding spare men's underwear and socks in the top drawer and shirts in the other two. She walked over to the closet. Hangers hung empty, though a closed box caught the Russian's attention. She unfolded the box lid and found discarded bloodied bandages. "Rose, he was here," Elena called.
Rose ran back to the room. "What did you find?"
"Discarded bandages, used. Start looking for panels. If I was him, I would have left a stash of weapons and cash just in case I needed it."
Rose started with the bed, removing the mattress. Seeing nothing on the box spring, she pulled it off as well. "Aha!" she called. "Gun safe."
Elena joined the Hispanic woman. "That's a find. Is it open?"
Rose pulled on the safe's handle. The door swung open. "I'd say so."
Inside the safe, two boxes sat, slightly crumpled. Rose picked up one. "Shotgun shells."
"Nine millimetre rounds in the other box," Elena said, handling the remaining container. "What was he using before?"
"Just the shotgun. I didn't see him with a pistol. Maybe his goons need nine mil ammo."
"Nine mil is used by a lot of weapons, though," Elena pointed out. "I'd prefer to know whether I'm facing pistols or submachine guns."
Rose shrugged. "It doesn't matter. We should go down and see if--" Her cell phone cut off the sentence. She checked the caller ID. "It's home," Rose explained to Elena. Opening the cell phone, she greeted, "Hello, Amber."