Chapter 41 – Pop! Goes the Weasel
“I am,” Ava said in confirmation, after a short pause. Her voice was steady and even, but it wasn’t threatening. Evidently she’d decided that the truth was the best option.
Sands tilted his head thoughtfully, and gave Ava an appreciative smirk. “An honest sleeper.” Chuckling to himself, he took a step closer to where Ava was standing. “Now I’ve heard everything, Doll.”
“I’m not your enemy.”
Raising a contemplative eyebrow Sands stated, “You’re not my friend, either.”
Ava sighed, and Sands realized that she sounded tired. “No. You’d hardly allow that.”
He lowered his gun, but kept it at the ready. If she’d wanted to stop him, she’d had ample chance to do it before now. Even so, he wasn’t about to trust someone who’d lied to him so easily. Lying was her job, but then again, it was his as well.
“People like me don’t have friends, Sugar. We have enemies in disguise, and they tend to accumulate quite rapidly.” He gestured at her with the barrel of the gun, making his way towards her as he spoke in a bored tone that contradicted the severity of his words. “I should kill you. It would make things much easier. Kill first; ask questions later, you know the motto. Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t kill you right now.”
She didn’t answer right away, evidently aware of the precariousness of her situation. “Because you have nothing to gain by killing me, and nothing to lose by letting me live.”
She was very good at saying the right thing at the right time, he had to give her that. It wasn’t a talent that came naturally to most people in situations like this; saying exactly what it took to get the other person to stay on your side of the fence. No, that was something that took years to perfect.
Indeed, she was a well-trained officer, and she’d probably worked in the field for quite some time.
Perhaps he should have paid a bit more attention to dear Ava Hunter.
She stood her ground as he drew near, and he was aware that he probably looked like some mangled angel from Hell. He knew his face must be ashen from blood loss and exhaustion, and he could feel his hair, almost certainly jet black from sweat and grime, clinging to the perspiration on his face and neck. Dark sockets instead of eyes would be taunting her, daring her to turn away as he stood a mere inch away from her.
“Exitus acta probat. That assumes that I trust you, and I don’t, because you’re nothing special; just another puppet dancing on their stage.” His drawl was mocking as he traced the outline of her jaw with his index finger.
She stood her ground, even as she clasped her hands tightly in an effort to stop their trembling, a bracelet on her wrist giving her away as it jingled. “So are you.”
His hand dropped back to his side, her words catching him off guard. “So are you,” Sands repeated, the words coming out in an exhale. Those three words, three simple words, shook him more than anything Martin had said. Three words that made his mask of indifference shatter, if only for a second.
A puppet. Nothing more, nothing less.
So are you.
Furrowing his brow, he inhaled sharply, pulling his mask back together almost before she could see that it was cracked. He was almost quick enough. Almost.
Before Ava had time to react, he shoved her backwards, aiming the gun at the sound she made as she hit the wall. “Bad career move, Doll.”
“If you shoot me, it’ll be you making the bad career move.” From the tone of her voice he could tell Ava’s patience had finally worn thin. He supposed that looking down the barrel of a gun could do that to a person.
Good. He wanted her angry. She was far more likely to tell him the truth when she was pissed.
He tucked the Glock into the back of his pants, smiling at Ava as he did so like the cat that ate the canary. Reaching out, he ran his hand down the length of her left arm slowly, and then did the same with the right. He felt her begin to relax underneath his touch, and just as she did so he grasped her wrists tightly, pinning her against the wall.
She bit back a cry of protest as she hit the wall for the second time. He pressed up against her, and leaned down, speaking into her ear. “Who pulls your strings, my little marionette?” he whispered.
He could tell she was once again trying to choose her words wisely, her chest rising and falling with each deep breath she took. “I can hear the wheels in your head turning, but if you haven’t noticed, let me enlighten your busy mind; I’ve lost patience with you.”
Letting her go abruptly, he stood his ground, giving her no breathing room as he waited for her to answer.
“I’m an officer, like you.”
“To make sure no one interfered with your objective.”
“Oh!” Sands exclaimed, taking a step back. “My guardian angel,” he finished derisively, his hands gesturing as if he was presenting her to someone as he took a step backwards. Letting out a sharp bark of laughter, he shook his head. “I think the picture’s finally starting to develop, Ms. Hunter.”
“It worked out well for you, didn’t it?”
“Oh yes. A puppet never fails to gives a good performance.”
She laughed lightly, causing Sands to raise his eyebrows in silent question.
“You’re no puppet, Sands. A puppet doesn’t think; it just does.” Becoming serious, she continued. “You’re far too hard on yourself.”
Not acknowledging her last comment, Sands rubbed his chin thoughtfully as he asked, “Which branch do you work for in the Company tree?”
“Telling you could cost me my job, Sands. But I think you should know… your extra caution when dealing with the Company will not have been for nothing. You’re going to need all the leverage you can get.”
He could feel her eyes on him, watching him like one would watch a rattlesnake. Her answer wasn’t what he wanted to hear, and she knew it. “I suppose I shouldn’t count on you to follow through on your end,” he said matter-of-factly.
The ring of Officer Shivel’s cell phone interrupted Ava’s answer. The ring reminded him that Cam was on his way. Pulling the cell out of his pocket, he flipped it open and waited for the person on the other end to make their identity known.
Cam’s voice came on the line a second later. “Sands?”
“Yeah.” Lowering the phone, he addressed Ava again. “Split, Doll.”
“You. In the hall.” He was in no mood for an argument, and he made sure she knew it too. It wasn’t that he was afraid of her overhearing; she’d probably listen through the door anyway. He just couldn’t quite gather enough trust to let her stay in the room while his attention was focused elsewhere. He knew what the consequences could be if he let his guard down in front of her.
‘Once bitten, twice shy.’
He didn’t shift his attention back to Cam until he heard Ava walk out into the hall and close the door behind her. “Where the hell are you?” he asked as soon as he heard the door shut.
“You’re asking me?” Cam asked, sounding a little miffed as well. “Where are you?”
“The absent-minded CIA Officer. I’ve told you a million times to write these things down.” Despite his sarcasm, Sands frowned, fearing where all this was really going. “I’ve stayed put like a good little boy.”
“Then you must be invisible, because you’re nowhere in sight,” Cam said, worry evident in his voice.
A tingle ran down Sands’ spine. “You’re there.” It was a statement, not a question. This was bad.
Sands collapsed into the chair in the center of the room as Cam asked anxiously, “What’s going on?”
Things just continue to get curiouser and curiouser, Sands thought, biting his lip uncharacteristically in nervous anxiety. Bad things tended to happen when he didn’t know what was going on.
“Deeper and deeper the rabbit hole goes. Where it stops, nobody knows,” he said to Cam cryptically, as if in answer. In a way, it was one. He figured Cam was used to his odd lingo, and would get his meaning, despite the fact that it didn’t make a whole lot of sense.
It would be a cold day in hell before he flat out told Cam that he had no fucking clue what was going on, or where he really was.
Even if that was indeed the case.
But Cam wasn’t stupid, and despite all of his teasing to the contrary, Sands knew how quick and efficient Cam could be. “Sands, you’re in deep shit.” Cam said. “You need to find out where you are.”
“Yeah. I guess I shouldn’t have followed that white rabbit,” Sands said distractedly, his thoughts briefly returning to Ava and the part she had to play in all this.
“What should we do, Alice?”
Sands didn’t answer right away. An odd smile tugged at his lips, out-of-place in the dire situation he found himself in now. “I’m going to step though the looking glass,” he said at last.
“It’s time to be serious, Sands.”
He stopped himself from making a snide comment in response. Cam didn’t seem to realize that he was deadly serious. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he replied calmly, “I know.”
Moving the phone away from his ear, he held it in front of him, as if looking at it. Cam was probably still talking to him. He didn’t care.
‘I’m running out of options.’
In a daze, he turned off the cell, cutting off Cam’s attempts to come up with a plan.
Placing his elbows on his knees, he rubbed his face tiredly. Everything had just gotten a whole lot more complicated, and to make matters worse, he was so drained that it was becoming hard to think straight.
Ava clearly didn’t work for Martin, nor did she work for OOS, nor did she really work for Tom. He had the feeling that if he knew who she worked for, the rest of the puzzle would fall into place. He had the feeling he was missing something obvious, something that would have come to him clear as day if he wasn’t so fucking exhausted.
Sands’ blind gaze started to wander to the table that he and Martin had sat at earlier.
Sitting up straight, he furrowed his brow, a question forming in his mind. “Where did you get that tape, Martin?” he wondered. It suddenly occurred to him that some of the answers he was searching for just might be sitting in the room with him.
With some effort on his part, he stood and made his way over to the table. His attention had been so focused on Martin that he hadn’t counted his steps. As a result he was forced to hold out his right hand slightly in front of him so that he didn’t walk into the table.
way there the toe of his boot hit one of the bodies on the floor, and he nearly fell. Righting himself, he muttered a curse and closed the gap between himself and the table in two more steps.
Once his hand made contact with the table, he slowly ran the palm of his hand over the tabletop. He bumped his hand against the object he was searching for, and it tipped over with a clunk. Grabbing it, he turned around and made his way back to the chair.
He sat down heavily, turning the small tape recorder over in his hand. Digging into his pocket, he pulled out his pack of cigarettes, knowing he was going to need one as soon as he hit play. Extracting one, he put the pack back in his pocket and exchanged the pack for his lighter.
‘Well, what am I afraid of?’
Lighting up, he smirked to himself at his own ridiculous question. He knew very well what he was afraid of. Sighing, he only realized that his hand was shaking when he brought the cigarette to his lips.
He took a deep drag of his cigarette, trying to relax. It didn’t really work, but he felt a little more confident when he had a cigarette between his lips. With a determined set of his jaw, he felt out the buttons on the side of the tape deck, the process made a little easier by the raised symbols on each main button. It didn’t take long to find the familiar sideways triangle that represented ‘play’. His index finger hovered over the button hesitantly.
The fact was there was one question that he was dreading hearing the answer to.
‘What was it that Martin wanted me to hear before he was interrupted?’
After a moment, he bit the bullet and pressed play. The tape crackled to life.
There were a few seconds of static before the shrink’s voice spoke. “You never burned down your house, Cecelia. You tried, but the house is still there. You didn’t destroy it.”
“No, no, no. It can’t exist. Burned to ash. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Forever… gone forever,” Cecelia said, her words a rambling mish-mash of thoughts that didn’t form complete sentences.
“It does exist.”
“You’re just like him!” Cecelia hissed, her tone of voice changing abruptly.
It sounded as if she’d hit the table to accentuate her point. Sands exhaled smoke out through his nostrils, trying desperately not to picture in his mind’s eye the conversation playing on the tape. He only half succeeded.
“Like your husband?” the shrink asked after a short pause.
The change of subject seemed to affect her adversely, as she began to mumble to herself. Her mumblings were incoherent to Sands, but he wasn’t sure if it was the result of the static noise on the tape or if she’d been talking so quietly that the recorder wasn’t able to pick up her words.
“I’m tearing down our paper house, Sheldon!” she said suddenly, loud and clear, her whispered ramblings stopping as suddenly as they had begun.
It sounded as if she were convinced that she was talking right to him. As if he was in the room with her, rather than the psychiatrist. Taking another puff of his cigarette, Sands frowned, realizing that she must still be suffering from dementia, even after all these years of treatment.
“It’s all wrong. All wrong. Everything is wrong,” she blathered on, and the shrink interrupted her before she got too excited.
“What do you mean by ‘it’s all wrong’?”
“I saw… things, so many things. He couldn’t see them – he didn’t think I could see them – but he was wrong. I saw – I know, because I saw them.”
“Why do you think your husband couldn’t see what you could?”
“He had no eyes. No eyes, no soul.”
Sands inhaled sharply, and coughed as he took too much smoke into his lungs. He cursed his own stupidity as he regained his composure.
“Do you mean that he was blind to what you could see?” the shrink asked, trying to make sense of her riddles.
Cecelia didn’t answer, and the shrink didn’t press her on the question. Sands wondered why; he should have had her answer the question. It would have forced her to think about the things that were spilling out of her mouth.
“What did your husband see?” he asked instead.
“Nothing. Nothing but lies. He was a lie.”
A tremor shook Sands’ body, and he took another drag of his cigarette like a drowning man inhaling oxygen.
‘Holy fucking shit.’
So that’s what Martin had wanted him to hear, sick fuck that he was. He could just imagine what Martin had wanted to say.
“I may have done this to you, but I could never have dreamed it up without some help from your wife.”
Sands’ suddenly felt dizzy. He bent over, holding his head in his hands. It took him a moment to realize that he’d missed part of the conversation on the tape.
Cecelia was reciting the end of 3 Blind Mice. Apparently she found it hysterical because she began to laugh, and then she recited the old nursery rhyme again.
The shrink finally interrupted her hysterics with a calm but stern, “Cecelia, stop!”
It was no surprise that she didn’t.
“He told me we didn’t have a daughter!” Cecelia said, still laughing, but it was quickly replaced by sobbing as she continued. “Isn’t that funny? He told me that, you know. Paper. She must have been drawn on paper. That’s were I saw her. He told me. Blind mice lie—“
Sands stopped the tape abruptly.
‘Couldn’t quite pull that one off, could I?’ Sands’ mind taunted.
Hitting the appropriate button, he sat in silence as the tape rewound to the beginning.
‘Don’t think about that now.’
He tapped the ashes off his cigarette, listening to the cassette reels spin, slow, and then stop with a slight shudder from the deck.
‘Time to find out who out-weaseled the weasel.’
Sands hit play and waited.
This time the voice recorded was very familiar, and it spoke with cool, clinical detachment. “Project number 05493. Subject PB – 048C. Annual evaluation. January 15th, 1999.”
Sands stopped the tape. That was all he needed to hear. Stubbing out his cigarette on the arm of the chair, the realization of how deep all this truly went began to sink in, and all those extra pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place.
And the picture it was forming wasn’t pretty.
The nasty outcome in Mexico had been set in motion long before he’d even been given the assignment. Shit.
Ejecting the cassette from the deck, he flipped it over and began pulling the tape out of its casing. As he pulled out the tape, it struck him that the cassette was a lot like one’s mind. Everything was neatly stored inside until someone began to pull on the tape; if you pulled on the tape long enough, eventually it would snap completely. You might be able to salvage some of the tape, but it would never play the same again, nor would it ever be so neatly spooled inside its casing.
The door opened just as he broke the tape from the reels. “What timing!” he exclaimed with mock enthusiasm, tossing the unraveled tape away. “What style! Tell me, did you listen through the door with a glass or did you have to rough it?”
“I—” Ava began, but was immediately interrupted.
“A little late for explanations. Besides, they’re boring.” Sands stood, using the back of the chair for support as he swayed ever so slightly on his feet. “Why don’t you tell me my fortune, instead?”
“Your fortune?” Ava asked, but it was clear that she knew where Sands was going.
“Oh, don’t tell me you’ve forgotten your crystal ball,” he drawled.
She stepped further into the room before answering. “I can’t tell you that, but I can tell you that you opened up quite a… Pandora’s Box in Mexico.”
“How enlightening.” Folding his arms in front of his chest, he smiled slyly. “At least, your choice of words is.”
“Do they mean something to you?”
“You know they do,” he stated matter-of-factly. “But don’t attempt to look inside. There could be terrible consequences if you do.”
“Oh, I have no intention of looking inside,” Ava said, and he imagined that she had a slight smile on her face as she said it.
Tilting his head, he considered Ava’s role in all this. He stood unmoving as his thoughts drifted from Ava to Cecelia then back again. Ava didn’t realize it, but she’d reminded him of an important strategy. Sometimes the best action was no action at all. “And it really was a kitten, after all,” he half-whispered.
Sands unfolded his arms, and ran a hand through his hair, pulling the stray strands away from his face. “You do what you have to do,” he stated at last, having made his decision as he approached Ava once more. “But I’m like a bad penny… I always turn up again. Remember that, if you choose to become an enemy.”
Ava didn’t seem to know how to respond, but recovered fairly quickly and took a tentative step forward. “You seem to think that you’ve lost, but you haven’t. You just finally stopped fighting.”
He said nothing to Ava in response. He didn’t tell her that he’d continue to fight if his goddamn body wasn’t about to collapse. He didn’t tell her that he’d continue to fight if he knew who he should fight against.
And he didn’t tell her that he’d continue to fight… if there was any point to it at all.
He’d already obtained the evidence he needed, and had gotten his revenge on Martin. He knew how the pieces fit together, and who had a part to play. His anger seemed to have left him, leaving him with nothing but exhaustion.
‘If you don’t know where you’re going, then every road you take will lead you nowhere.’
“Where to?” Sands asked casually, but he dreaded the answer.
“Back to the States.”
He chuckled. “A deliciously vague answer,” Sands replied, closing the gap between them.
He leaned in close, and inhaled deeply, taking in her perfume. Without warning, he reached out and grabbed her by the waist. She let out a breathless gasp as he pressed her body against his, and despite the situation he smiled wickedly when he felt her heartbeat quicken.
“What awaits dear Officer Sands back in the good ol’ US of A, Doll?”
“They’ll take you back. You’ve proven yourself useful to the Company.”
“Nunc, vero inter saxum et locum durum sum. How will they take me back?” He wasn’t naïve, and had seen and been a part of enough Company operations and projects to know that ‘they’ll take you back’ wasn’t necessarily a good thing at all. Although his decision was already made, he wanted to know what was in store for him in the coming days. He couldn’t formulate an effective plan when he didn’t know what was going on.
“What makes you think that I know?” Ava asked.
Sands smiled knowingly. “Because you do.”
The door opened suddenly, interrupting them both, and Sands’ attention quickly shifted to the newcomers. He let Ava go, but she surprised him when she grasped the back of his neck and pulled him close. She whispered quickly into his ear, “Pandora,” while at the same time relieving him of his gun. He didn’t try and stop her. It wasn’t as if he’d had any intention of using it. “Remember yourself,” she said softly, before pushing him away and ordering the officers who’d just entered to “Get on with it.”
His instincts screamed at him to not give up without a fight, but in the back of his mind he knew that fighting would be suicide.
He found it funny, that as bad as things were, anything seemed better than that.
Just because he was letting them have their way this time, didn’t mean he couldn’t go out with some style. Sands faced Ava, and said in a sing-song voice, “I’ve no time to plead or pine. I’ve no time to wheedle…” Sands hand mimicked pulling the trigger of a gun in Ava’s direction, “Pop goes the weasel.”
Chuckling, he let an Officer take hold of his arm and lead him out.
He wanted to believe that returning home wouldn’t be so bad, but then Ava’s warning - and he wasn’t stupid enough to believe that it was anything but - rang clear in his mind.
He had the distinct feeling that this was far from over, and returning home wasn’t going to be pleasant.
Exitus acta probat. – The end proves the deeds.
Nunc, vero inter saxum et locum durum sum. - Now, I really am between a rock and a hard place.