* * *
There are few certainties in a life counted in centuries; perhaps that is why, no matter how many times they gather themselves in any number of places and circumstances, Andromache of Scythia still feels a prickly rush of anticipation thrumming in her veins, in the hours before she sees her team.
Andromache, who has somehow shirked the unpleasant instinct of repulsion every time someone calls her by her most recent name, Andy, arrives in Morocco early. A redeye from the northmost reaches of Europe, where she had been enjoying an easy vacation, ratting out smugglers creeping across the Russian border, cleaning up the stragglers that the Sør-Varanger Garrison miss.
It’s a simple enough, never-ending job. With twice-yearly new conscripts, rotating guards and a grateful officer stationed at Storskog who asks very few questions, Andy has found herself gravitating to Norway’s mountainous north more and more in recent decades. The people are, for the most part, good. At least, as good as any mortal Andy has ever found. The language is easy, the climate reliable, and the scenery majestic.
She feels kinship with the clifftops and the fjords, the snowy crests of the mountains. They age, ageless, unbroken by the cruelties and kindnesses they bear witness to. As does Andy, who was Andrea, and Adriana, and Ada, and Ananda, and Andromache. Child of a world long since vanished.
Arriving in the harsh, sun-blistered streets of Marrakech, she immediately misses the crisp chill of Norway’s coast, buffeted by the North Sea and shaped by a rough tide that knows no master. The winds here are hot as dragon’s breath, nippy with dust and the colour of the sandy ground and buildings pervades like the worst of her nightmares.
She walks the streets, rediscovering the forgotten, exploring the new. It’s a leisurely sort of vigilance, not so much second-nature as first nowadays. She walks until she reaches the hotel address that she had been texted thirty-eight hours ago. It’s a plush building, the kind of place with security cameras that actually record the movements inside, and as such, is the kind of place she rarely frequents.
Tourists and business suits bustle and twirl and block up the elevators and she breathes very deeply, very slowly, counting down the seconds until she is safely hidden once more. She ignores the bright, muted television that displays the latest atrocity of the world. The tear tracks on children’s faces, the blood on their lips and under their fingernails.
The anticipation in her veins compounds into a vibrating energy she releases by clenching and stretching her fingers, which feel empty without a weapon. Everything feels so full here, so busy. The air is always loud, in a way so foreign she fears she shall never know true silence.
Six thousand years, more, and she’ll never keep up with the growing loudness of the world she inhabits.
Knocking on the hotel room door, like always, her breath is stolen from her for a mere second, and then –
“Salut, Boss,” a man says as he swings the door open.
“Booker,” she says, just to solidify his presence, a ritual only completed by the heavy grip of the hand he lies on her shoulder.
He hurries her into a vibrant, sumptuously dressed apartment. Luxury has been woven into the very cushions, and she eyes the decadence suspiciously.
Booker simply smiles and nudges her towards a fruit bowl full of temptations.
“Any trouble on the way?” Andy asks, plucking a ripe plum from the bowl and biting it all the way to the stone.
She is, quite suddenly, ravenous.
Booker shakes his head reassuringly. He’s always chosen gesture over speech when he can. Booker, once Sebastien, her dear, youngest counterpart. She knows every inclination of his head, every twitch of his fingers, every angle of his mouth. It’s Booker alone who maintains the upkeep of his knowledge of sign language, remnants of a life far out of reach, yet so unforgettable, when it resides in the sadness of his eyes.
His tall, stooping breadth has always been at odds with his quietness, but as he takes a plum of his own, eyes searching her face hungrily, Andy basks in his welcome presence. Already, her veins have relaxed under her skin.
“Joe?” she asks, the name stilted on her tongue, but before Booker can reply, she feels the shiver of movement in the air behind her, feels the heat of eyes on the back of her neck. She hears the voice behind her murmur: “Right here, Boss.”
Andy turns, attuned instinctively to his proximity. Almost nine hundred years since they first stood side by side, and he is the balm of warmth he always has been.
Joe. Josef. Yusuf.
“You cut your hair,” she tells him, her disapproval clipping her consonants almost as short as the sheared bristles on his head. His dark beard, like always, is thick and neatly trimmed, hiding his soft jaw line.
“Less room for the sand fleas,” he teases, not quite a joke, accepting the slap she gives his chest before dragging him into a hug. He lifts her with the sudden strength of his embrace, a half spin to make her smile, and she feels like a boulder chained to her limbs the heavy weight of the past fourteen months without seeing him, without seeing either of them.
Joe’s beard tickles her as he kisses her earlobe. In that momentary press of his mouth, she hears everything he doesn’t say.
The empty space of the shadow Joe casts on the floor is a choking, wretched thing to acknowledge.
So, like always, Andy simply doesn’t.
Instead, she bites at her plum and retreats to the chaise-longue to lounge back against the coarse silk cushions.
“Well, le Livre,” she drawls towards Booker, who has never enjoyed the way she purposefully mangles his old family name. “What do you have for us?”
Booker sprawls out beside her, taking up twice the room in order to press the line of his leg along hers. He’s a steely being, always has been. Warm, beaten metal that will never bend.
“James Copley,” he says, the same way he says things like French Fries, and Commonwealth, and Tolstoy. A curl of his tongue inside his mouth like sour grapes.
“No,” Andy replies. The word is out before the thought can truly form in her mind. “We don’t repeat clients.”
Exasperation bubbles under her dry, itchy skin. Joe’s eyes don’t leave her face, and she doesn’t look back, while Booker, torn in a familiar manner, tracks the space between them with his melancholy gaze. This can’t be all there is to it. He wouldn’t call them together for this, a swift rebuttal and three clenched jaws.
“I know, Boss,” Booker replies.
The name scrapes over her in a way not even Andy managed to, in the earliest days of its use. It’s a gesture of its own, a signifier of what she has become to these men, her brothers, her boys; one ageing into a warrior impenetrable, the other barely more than a baby.
Andy grasps the plum stone in her palm, rolls the wet strands of flesh clinging to the pit over her skin.
“I said no, the first time he contacted me again, last year,” Booker continues, and that gets her attention a whole lot better. Even Joe sits up straighter in his chair.
“He’s contacted a second time?” Andy asks, dragging her eyes over Booker’s angular cheeks, his downturned mouth.
“I said no the second time, too, Andy,” he mumbles. The words seem hollow, meaningless in their shared disbelief. “This is the fifth time Copley’s reached out. Same number. I didn’t even respond, the last time, but he’s still tried again anyway.”
An electric wrongness sits in Andy’s sternum.
Booker sounds as close to scared as she’s heard him in decades. He hasn’t spoken with such laboured breaths since that night in Moundou. Joe’s scimitar blunted at the edges with the crusts of blood it had accumulated. His voice lost in a language not even she could fully translate, while Booker, helpless, clueless, held him down with sheer weight and promise and grief.
“Do you think he knows?” Andy asks.
The notion barely has chance to fester before –
“I think he’s too interested in seeing us again to discount it. Every job he’s called about, it’s been – exactly the kind of thing we go for.”
Andy nods in acknowledgement, rolling his words over, his crooked English, the slip of French in the muttered putain that follows it.
“We’ll meet him. Hear him out.”
This, finally, sparks life and outrage in an otherwise silent Joe.
“Are you mad?” he spits, leaning into his knees. “Boss. It’s a trap.”
“We don’t know that,” Andy reminds him sharply. “And we need to find out. Because if Copley so much as suspects something, we need to know who else he’s told.”
An ugly scowl steals any remnant light from Joe’s eyes. There’s wild agitation in his limbs as he gets up, finding himself quickly at a loss to do anything other than pace. Booker’s eyes follow him; his hands ready and open on his knees, just to be safe.
“I won’t risk our secret,” Andy says, pretending just for a moment to worry that Joe might feel otherwise.
It works like a charm – Joe, her Josef, her Yusuf, is an instrument she is versed in. She knows his melodies and his sticking points. He looks to her, wracked and stung.
“I know. Andy – I know.” He speaks earnestly. She can see his naked grief with her waking eyes and, not for the first time, she wonders if he is so transparent to Booker, who has only had two centuries to map his facial expressions.
His joints bending with rusty unease, Joe retakes his seat, looking contrite.
“So, we meet with Copley.”
“We need to know what he knows, or thinks he knows,” Andy continues, and doesn’t even wait for the two men to nod before standing. “Booker, set up the meeting for this afternoon. We hear him out, and decide from there.”
“Where are you going?” Booker asks her retreating back.
“Yusuf and I are going to find us lunch,” she replies without turning around.
Andy smiles when she hears Joe’s large sigh, a smattering of Italian under his breath. She doesn’t check to see if he’s following, though.
She knows he is.
* * *
The markets are busy in the late morning hour.
It’s a more pleasant busy than the hotel lobby, at least. This isn’t cameras and security and television screens. This is people and fabrics and spices and vegetables. It’s chattering and haggling and arguing and blessing and it’s a fraction of a home she barely remembers anymore.
It’s easy to be heartbroken about all the ways the world has changed, but the truth is, it can be twice as painful, noticing the ways it has stayed much the same. Humanity is, for all its technological advancement, not so evolved as it likes to think. They love and lose and live, as they have always loved and lost lived.
Joe trails behind Andy at her six o’clock. He might be mistaken for a petulant child dragging his heels, if not for the vigilant darting of his eyes. He is keeping guard, as always; as if she might ever need his protection.
“You can stand down, good knight,” Andy says, just to catch the offended glower on Joe’s face. She smiles, reaching back to stroke his arm briefly. He catches up to her side with visible reluctance. “Relax,” she says, and can’t fault Joe for scoffing at her hypocrisy, though she won’t take it back.
It hurts, seeing him so anxious, as if he might fracture at too firm a touch. It’s been a long fourteen months for Joe, too, it seems.
It’s been a long forty-five years, more to the point.
Perhaps Joe sees it in her eyes. Four and a half decades of apology and regret. His hand slips into and over hers, warm and calloused and tight, his fingers looping over her thumb. His smile is very nearly real, makes her want to kiss his cheek, his forehead, the relentless crumple of his brow that deepens with every passing year. Instead, she latches properly onto his hand, and they walk side by side together through the market stalls.
“Where have you been?” she asks, because there is no use in asking what he’s been doing.
Joe stalls for a moment, inspecting a pile of beefy tomatoes with generous scrutiny even as his fingers remain tangled with hers.
“Northern Chad,” he says. “The border is suffering many cruelties, of man and nature. I met a woman, travelling by moonlight with two youngsters. She said they were her siblings, but that was shame speaking for her, I think. She couldn’t have been much older than twenty. I was able to escort them as far as the Djado Plateau. I offered to take her further, but she was reluctant. It feels like we cannot turn, for finding someone in need anymore.”
Andy knows exactly what he means.
It’s been weighing her down, too. It’s why she turns away from every TV screen, keeps herself blind to newspapers and the images glued to posts and walls. Desperation seems bred into the soil as it wasn’t, thousands of years ago. Or perhaps it was, and each pocket of the world, separate from the next, made it difficult to see suffering in its entirety. Now, she can stand on a street in Sydney, and hear about the rising rate of homelessness in Stockholm.
What was once her calling is slowly poisoning itself into a burden too heavy to carry.
After a pause, though, Joe’s mouth curls up at the corners, as he rips a piece of coriander a market seller has just handed him and sniffs it.
“But at the very least, there is always good to be done.”
“You don’t sound much like yourself,” Andy murmurs, through her own shreds of coriander leaf.
The words escape her before she can put real thought into the power of them, and it’s only because she’s still gripping his hand that she feels Joe flinch.
“Yusuf,” she says, without a follow-up and he must know it, because his forgiveness is a forced thing.
He rubs his thumb over her hand, lifting up an aubergine for her approval.
“Do you remember that beautiful meal, in Masulé?” he asks. His eyes glint with mischief, a grin playing on his lips that looks exhausting to maintain.
Andy knows the right thing to do would be to apologise.
The right thing to do for her brother, her boy, would be to make him put down the aubergine, coax him out of these pressing crowds, sit him down and tell him, once and for all: I know you are suffering. I know your suffering as intimately as my own. Let me help you. Let me bear it for you. You are not alone in this burden, Atlas.
But she doesn’t do the right thing. She is not truly Andy anymore to him. She is not Andromache. She is not the woman who would shove food into his hands and cloth under his sleeping head, and swat his shoulder when he would mutter nem ‘um, si madre, yes mother, under his breath at her.
She is Boss, now.
She replies, the way Boss would reply.
“We were so full we could barely fight afterwards, as I recall.”
Joe’s eyes still glitter at the memory. His warmth, somehow, has never dimmed.
It’s a miracle, he’s a miracle, and Andy treasures him as she treasures little else in this cold, sorrowful world.
“There is no time to make the lavash, but I smelled some excellent khobz the way we came in.”
It’s halfway between a request and an instruction, and Andy takes the bait willingly, knowingly. She nods, slipping her fingers out of his. She turns back, the way they came in, following her nose and ignoring the emptiness of the space behind her that Joe had taken up. Her sentry, her guard, her boy.
A thousand years and he’s still a child in so many ways.
What have you taught him, Beloved?
The smallest pocket of her heart asks her this, sometimes, when she leaves room for it.
It’s a voice she hasn’t heard for half a millennium; a voice she hears every time she closes her eyes. Time has muted it, mutated it, but it will never truly leave her. Quynh, Quynh, Beloved, her most precious self. The half she gave willingly, and lost unwillingly.
For hundreds of years Quynh has been an empty space in her shadow and now, now, looking at Joe, the empty space inside his own –
Shame creeps upon Andy, sometimes. It prickles like gooseflesh over her arms. Joe has lost, is lost, and he is coping with it the way Andy taught him to. She has nobody but herself to blame for the sharp angles of Joe’s cheekbones, the relentless crumple of his brow that no kiss will smooth away.
If ever that warmth of his spirit leaves him, she knows that will be her responsibility, too.
The bread, when she finds it, is beautiful. She buys too much, and returns quickly to Joe’s side and she hates the easy smile he offers her. Whatever wounds she inflicted with her words have healed as quickly as if she had sliced him open with the knife tucked into her boot.
“Shall we?” Joe asks, bags in one hand and holding the other out for her to take.
She does, gratefully, and they walk back to the hotel together.
“Wait,” she says, as they arrive on the final street. “Booker hated the food in Iran.”
Joe’s eyebrows rise momentarily, a look of such innocent surprise it makes her cackle with laughter.
“You menace,” she tells him, and this time, she really does kiss his cheek.
Joe chuckles, lightly, under his breath.
He doesn’t let go of her hand until their hotel room door is shut behind them.
* * *
James Copley has not changed very much in the years between their meetings – though he has certainly changed more than Andy, Booker and Joe have. He’s charming enough, in the way many handsome Englishmen are. He smiles politely without losing the seriousness of his tone, makes strong eye contact and keeps his limbs alertly relaxed.
The CIA agent in him has not entirely vanished, despite the years since he left the agency.
Andy had liked him plenty, the first time around. More than his counterpart, but less than the previous CIA agent they’d helped thirty years before him. He seems genuinely pleased to see them. Not too eager, not too suspiciously relieved. His manners mean nothing, though. He was a good agent, as hard a read as any they’ve come across.
She takes a seat to his left at the outdoor table of the café they have arranged to meet at. Booker takes the right.
Joe doesn’t accompany them, but is instead stationed at a nearby location, where he can maintain better visuals on their surroundings. He’s not a perfect sniper, but he’s the best they have and Andy’s never liked having all three of them out in the open together.
“I understand you’ve been – busy,” Copley says after they’ve politely exchanged half-sincere greetings. He looks to Booker on this last word, as if he is quoting Booker’s explanation for their previous refusals. It’s as good an excuse as any they’ll muster. “But I really think you are best qualified for this.”
Andy listens to his words – pleas, really.
There’s just enough sentimentality woven into his sentences to appeal to a better nature he cannot possibly understand she has lived without for some time. What good she does anymore, it is muscle memory at best. He shows them pictures. He paints a story of kidnapped women, girls, their vulnerability and the risk posed to not only their lives but so many more, without proper intervention.
It’s not hard to believe the truth of the story itself. Whether these exact girls are really in this location or not, at the end of the day, it’s certain that there are girls out there somewhere, locked in a facility, without hope of salvation. That is the way of this world, as everyone sitting at their table is all too aware.
So, Andy lets Copley weave his tapestry tale. She watches his eyes and his hands and his shoulders. She pays attention to which words he leans into and which he throws away. She scans every clue the meagre pictures offer. She asks about the facility and what he would propose they do.
She asks him what the plan for the girls would be, once they are released.
Copley was a good agent and he’s lost none of his sharpness, nor his stamina. He answers every question with the precision of a needle through the thin skin of a vein. Detailed but not flowery, succinct but not short.
Either he is telling the truth, or this is a plan so long in the making that it has become as good as, to his tongue and his heart. Neither version is a comfort.
Booker keeps his faithful silence, for the most part. He is little more than the mediator and Copley knows it. His answers are directed almost exclusively to Andy, barely sparing a glance for Booker from the moment they sit down.
Then, finally, Booker asks very quietly: “And why are we the better option, exactly?”
It’s so perfectly timed, Andy wants to shake his hand. She barely restrains herself from smiling it’s so wonderful.
Copley’s eyes widen, just a fraction.
Despite an incredibly swift recovery, followed by a very reasonable explanation by way of comparing this job to the one performed for him the previous time they accepted work from him, it is the longest pause he has taken before answering their question. His hand has slipped – he might know it, he might not, but Andy knows the slow nod Booker responds with isn’t meant for Copley, but for Andy. He’s noticed it, too.
There’s nothing more to be gained from this meeting. Further questioning would arouse suspicion and, in any case, Andy is ready to leave this man’s attentive, charming presence. Maintaining her cool veneer of implacability is getting difficult for reasons beyond the pressing afternoon humidity and the prickle of Joe’s watchful eyes.
“We’ll take the job,” Andy says, and the little gust of a sigh Copley lets out is hatefully believable.
“Thank you,” he says, all eye contact and gentility. Andy shakes his hand once. His palm is dry and warm against hers.
“Send us everything you have,” Andy says brusquely, already standing up. Booker follows suit, acting every part the humble second as he shakes Copley’s hand wordlessly. “We’ll be in touch.”
Copley smiles, thanking them again, and that’s it. They part ways with civility and calm and Andy grinds her teeth together as she makes her way in the opposite direction to their hotel. She has no idea if Copley has the resources to know where they’re staying already but she isn’t going to chance it.
Booker stays behind her right shoulder, his shadow merging with hers.
“Merde,” he whispers under his breath.
Andy can’t help but agree entirely.
They walk together, every bit the purposeful wanderers, until they reach their rendezvous point to find Joe loitering at a café with a piece of fruit in his hand, good-naturedly arguing with a young man who appears to be futilely attempting to take advantage of Joe’s goodwill and sell him something from a small cart.
Joe’s hammed up American accent is a thing of marvellous entertainment, and he caves into offering the boy some dirham with a familiar OK! OK! gesture that makes Booker snort.
“Fucking softie,” he murmurs as they walk through Joe’s line of sight, and Andy hums in agreement as they listen to the remnants of Joe saying farewell to the young man as he departs.
It’s another twenty minutes of steady walking and circling before they reach their hotel. None of them speak, or so much as look at each other, until they are safely ensconced once more within their apartment walls.
“Check everything,” she says, without a care for the fact Booker and Joe no doubt did so the first time they entered the room.
They sweep it entirely clean. Every fixture, light switch and cable is checked. Every window is covered, every crack and crevice investigated. Still, when they reconvene in the living space, Andy doesn’t feel quite as safe as she did here a few hours ago. Her restlessness is a living creature inside her, a compass and a guide. She needs to be out of this hotel, this city, this country, right now.
“We need to know who Copley’s been talking to. Who’s funding him. Where he’s getting any of this from. We need to leave Morocco now. I’ll arrange transport. Booker, you get to work on Copley, find what you need. Did you get a good enough look at the buildings in the photos? Joe, you’re on clean up. We’re out of here in sixty minutes.”
The double measure of Yes Boss that responds, followed by a flurry of limbs and hands and averted eyes, hurts more than she will ever admit.
* * *
There was a time, recent enough for her to still miss it, when arranging transport would have had Andy directing herself to some stables. Wrangling for horses, or camels, or perhaps if they were desperate, a donkey cart.
She misses the days of horses. She misses their smell, their bristly coats and tangled manes. The velvet nuzzling of their noses on her cheek as she bridled them. For all the convenience that modern aircraft has brought them over the years, the troubles that have followed suit are too many to really be worth the expedience. She was built for a week’s ride over dusty plains on horseback, not cooping herself up in metal shells that deafen its occupants, no more welcoming than as the gears and hinges they are made of.
Joe and Booker are quick to reach the airfield she directs them to: Booker reliably on his Harley-Davidson, Joe careening up the strip in a rust-bucket of a Vauxhall whose driver accepts every note left in Joe’s wallet when he offers it, before speeding away post-haste.
Andy beckons them to the freighter she’s managed to snag three spaces on. The pilot had laughed at her American accent, but looked pleased by her Arabic, softening up at the promises bestowed on him by her dear friend Hachim, whose knowledge of the comings and goings of Marrakech’s seediest undercurrent are unparalleled.
Now, the pilot, thirty-eight year old Nabil, gives a nod to Andy as she approaches flanked by her team. He rolls his eyes at the sight of the Harley, and grumbles in Arabic loud enough that he seems to assume Booker won’t understand – or perhaps simply doesn’t care. It’s loaded in all the same, stationed between two crates, the contents of which Andy could guess at, but won’t.
Joe, who gets a slightly more approving nod than Booker had, chats amicably with Nabil while Andy and Booker clamber into the main cargo hold, hunkering down between the few fixed seats closely enough for their knees to bump against each other.
You sure about this? Booker’s eyes ask her, while his hands curl around invisible weapons, nails scraping his palms over and over again. Andy merely blinks vacantly, her mind on the gentle widening of Copley’s eyes, as the engines begin to turn and thrum, trembling in their chests and stomachs where they sit.
Joe swings inside, the hold door sliding closed behind him. His face is set with a livid strain she had anticipated, but is never quite prepared for.
“I don’t like this plan, Andy,” Joe says quite simply, as he drops down beside them, gripping hold of a nearby crate for balance as the wheels of the plane begin to roll around. His voice is almost lost amidst the engine.
“What plan?” Booker scoffs, not quite playfully. “I don’t even know where we’re going.”
“Cairo,” Andy replies promptly. She leans back against a chair, settling in for at least three hours of pretending to sleep. “We’re going to Cairo.”
“Why?” Booker asks.
“Because we need a safehouse Copley definitely won’t be able to find.”
“What makes the one in Cairo so special?” Booker mutters, and Andy knows he’s thinking of the well-stocked apartment in Casablanca where they holed up for almost a month’s refuge, ten years ago.
Andy tries to keep her silence. She keeps her lips pressed together and hopes to no god that Booker notices the gesture, that he leaves it alone. She can feel two pairs of eyes on her burning, sandy face; one confused and the other, the other nothing but accusation.
“Andy –” Booker tries again.
Joe cuts him off, in a dreadful voice.
“Because the house in Cairo was bought in Nicolo’s name.”
Andy keeps her eyes closed, feeling her teeth bite through the inside of her cheek. Blood pools into her gums, the bites healing instantly, and she swallows it down with effort, feeling sick. She doesn’t need to look to see the betrayed anger in Joe’s eyes. It’s the same, every time he’s forced to say Nicolo’s name; just like the cavern that widens behind Andy’s sternum, every time she hears it.
Booker doesn’t respond.
At least, not in any way that can be heard.
* * *
When Andy briefly opens her eyes ninety-four minutes later, she sees Joe’s head resting on the back of Booker’s shoulder, his eyes shut too tightly to be sleeping.
Booker is staring blindly through her.
She wonders if he feels Nico’s absence the same way she does; if he has a hollow cavern in his chest, too.
* * *
They land half an hour out of the city.
Nabil is sweet, and helpful, and entirely lacking in curiosity.
Andy gives Booker the address, blind to the hardness of his eyes as he swings a stiff leg over his Harley and makes for the armed vehicles slowly reversing towards the freighter. Joe follows wordlessly on foot, already hollering in a rough, familiarly Egyptian dialect of Arabic to the closer truck.
The winds are tightly stretched over Andy’s face as the dust is scraped from the road in tiny whirls. The sun is distractingly clear, pulling her thoughts from the image of Booker’s clenched mouth and Joe’s hunched shoulders.
“Shukran,” she thanks Nabil, and he smiles at her with his hand over his heart.
Swinging her backpack over her shoulder, Andy starts walking.
Behind her, and before her, and all around her, the Sahara Desert hums a taunting lullaby. The soft, rich sand twirls and burns and Andy keeps a tight grip on the knot of terrible sorrow that lives inside her chest, lest it loosen enough to break free.
* * *
The safehouse in Cairo is an old building in the downtown area, a survivor of a terrible earthquake and countless raids. Andy’s feet remember the way, although it’s been decades since she set eyes on it.
By the time she gets there, by foot, taxi and more than one bus, the day has slipped away from her. At least she knows with cautious certainty she hasn’t been followed, though.
It’s Booker who lets her in, just like at the hotel. He looks greyer than he did stepping down from the plane, his upper back a little more curved. They share a grim smile as Andy brushes past him, following the natural route of the landing to a wide kitchen that’s a hell of a lot better stocked than she expected it to be.
She realises, too late of course, Joe has probably been here plenty of times in the last few years. He doesn’t have unlimited safehouses on this continent, and this is easily his northmost one.
“How are we looking?” she asks, fully expecting Booker to be bringing up the rear as she drops her stuff onto a chair beside Joe.
Booker doesn’t disappoint.
“I’ve got a signal. Data’s collecting as we speak. Nothing yet on who Copley spends his time with, but a few bits and pieces about the facility. Thought most recently to be used by a faction of ex-South Sudanese militia. It looks like they’ve been subcontracted by a company called Elit-Farms. They specialise in sustainable energy and windfarm production. Been branching out to solar energy, the past two years.”
“That’s no good,” Andy mutters.
“I know,” Booker says with conciliatory annoyance. “I’ll keep looking. We’ll find something.”
“Until then,” she says, but she’s cut off by Joe.
“You’re in the top room,” he interjects bitingly, not looking up from his phone. She wouldn’t be all that surprised if she were to look down at his screen and see he was playing candy crush.
He doesn’t offer to show her the way, and she doesn’t ask him to. She knows where it is, and she knows it is as clear and clean a punishment as Joe can manage in his current state.
“Get some sleep, Andy,” Joe continues. He even spares her and up-down glance this time. “I know you haven’t slept since Booker’s message.”
She doesn’t refute it. She just nods, reaching to squeeze his shoulder, then Booker’s upper arm.
She leaves them to it in the kitchen, stopping only long enough to root under a flight of stairs, where she knows she’ll find booze. A bottle of cognac is the only half-decent thing she finds, but it’ll do. She won’t sleep, and Joe knew that when he dismissed her. But he’d wanted her out of the room and it’s the tiniest gift Andy can offer him right now, so she gives it.
Her feet drag on the stairs, her eyes on the floor. The house seems huge in its emptiness. It feels like days ago she climbed aboard a plane in Norway. It’s barely been twenty-four hours.
The top room, as Joe had called it, is the only room on the top floor. It takes up most of the breadth of the house, with an adjoining bathroom and even a small balcony, though that’s been boarded off for years. It’s the master bedroom. A sacred place, which Andy has no interest in entering.
The door is shut, requiring at least some fleeting effort to enter. She wonders grimly if that was further spite on Joe’s part.
Taking a fortifying breath, Andy pushes open the door and steps inside.
She’s greeted by darkness, and the distinct scent of dust. The light is poor when she turns it on, casting pale shadows in the form of a tall dresser and several chipped sculptures strewn about the room. There’s a decrepit easel in one corner – destroyed, she realises upon closer inspection, by haggard cuts from a large blade. There’s a shredded canvas propped against the wall.
Andy’s breath catches in the back of her throat.
Her eyes sting and she thinks, for three steady heartbeats: Nicky, Nico, Nicolo, come back, come back to us.
The very notion of Joe and Nicky, of JoeAndNicky, has been stitched into the room. The paintings on the walls are all Joe, while the rugs are all Nicky. The bed is huge, piled high with variously coloured blankets and sheets – the dresser is open, revealing some haphazardly hung shirts and pants. She knows, if she looks, she’ll find half an arsenal under the bed.
Andy closes the door almost all the way behind her, allowing just a sliver of light from the stairs to leak in. A reminder, that this is not a tomb she has been locked inside.
It’s the work of moments, clearing the bathroom, using the facilities. The water she splashes on her face is tangy from the pipes, but gloriously cool. She runs her fingers through her short hair, swigs her cognac, and drops to sit on the side of the bed nearest the shuttered window.
There’s a cabinet with a lamp and a few assortments on top of it. She knows better. She knows better.
Dust lies over everything like an enchantment that is not hers to break and yet – and yet.
Andy picks up an envelope-sized rectangle of paper, turning it over in both hands. She bites into her cheeks again, tonguing the specks of blood that drip down.
Nicolo di Genova stares back at her, from over his bare shoulder. He’s smiling, just a little. The charcoal does not allow for the starlit glimmer in his eyes but Andy sees it anyway. She knows it’s there, and what’s more, the artist knew. Joe always knew. He looks young, so young; nothing like his nine hundred years. He looks alight, he looks alive.
That, she knows, is what haunts Joe’s face every waking moment.
Because this unnatural nature of theirs, this immortality they share in lieu of blood to forge a family fire. It has gifts and curses, both. They dream of each other, is the thing. They dream of each other forever, until they meet.
For three hundred years after she lost Quynh, Andy never knew for certain whether true and final death had found her beloved, from the day the cruel hands of mortal men ripped them apart. Cast to the seabed, unreachable and unforgotten, Quynh has lived and died and suffered in between ever since.
But then along came Booker, two hundred years ago. Booker, who was Sebastien le Livre, who dreamt of three fighting travellers, two men and a woman – Josef and Nicolas and Ada. And he dreamed of a tormented woman at the bottom of the ocean, screaming, and when he told her, Andy’s heart shattered into fragments inside her chest and was made whole again in an instant.
Because Andy is a wretched creature, she knows she is. She was relieved. She was relieved to know that Quynh lived still, that there was a chance they might yet one day be reunited.
And the dreams have never truly stopped. They have plagued Booker, driven him to sleepless nights and chasing a bottle more than once and still Andy can’t quite stamp out the relief, because as long as Booker dreams of Quynh, Andy knows she will find her again.
Now, Joe carries that torment with him. He wakes every day, not knowing whether Nicky is living or dead. Until a new immortal is made known to them, he’ll never truly know. He has only his faith, which has been rooted in Nicolo di Genova so long Andy doesn’t know how easily it will survive without him.
What have you taught him, Beloved? Andy hears Quynh ask her, as she sits on this empty bed, holding Nicky’s portrait, her breath clenched behind her teeth.
I have taught him suffering without end, she thinks to herself.
Shame envelops her.
Andy drops the portrait face down onto the cabinet once more. She can’t bear Nicky’s eyes on her, not even a charcoal rendering. Her brother, her boy, it claws her open too harshly to think of him often. Better to lock him away, with Quynh, that they might suffer together in the coffin of her oubliette mind.
She bows her face into her palms, her fingernails digging into her scalp and she breathes hard and slow, in and out, riding the tidal wave of emotion that has crashed so thoroughly over her that she can’t take it, can’t take the punishment from Joe no matter how she might deserve it for forcing him here, for forcing their company on him here, in a place that should have belonged to him and his beloved only.
Scratching the tears out of her eyes, Andy gulps more burning cognac, lies back on the bed and conjures to her mind James Copley’s face instead.
Does he know? It seems impossible, though she knows above all else there is no such thing. There is only improbable.
To what end does he seek them, then? To become one of them? Why, in that case, send them on a goose chase through Africa? If he knows of them, of their strength, their…endlessness, then he surely knows he cannot defeat them. Which leaves only capture.
A tremble runs decidedly through her body at the very word. It is, remains, has always been, her very worst fear. Even before she was forced, shackled, to watch men’s dishonourable hands on her Quynh as they dragged her away, the very prospect of a cage has terrified her. It did in her mortal life, too.
It’s about the only thing she brought with her, from one life to the next. That violent fear of imprisonment.
She does not know if it is the same, for Joe and Booker. She’s never asked. She’s never wanted them to ask.
I would never let them cage you, madre mio, Nicky whispered into the back of her neck, once, clutching her as tightly as cracked ribs, as stifled breaths, and still it was the safest place she knew in that moment. I am here, I am holding you, I will hold you for a thousand years.
Thank you, thank you, she thinks she might have sobbed into the gloom of the night.
Once dawn finally kissed their weary eyes, he never spoke of it again, and neither did she.
She never thanked him, never needed to but she should have done anyway. She should have told him: You saved me. Whatever fragments of me remained after Quynh, they remained only because you held them together.
Andy takes a shuddering breath, stealing back the trailing cobwebs of her thoughts with a sip of her drink. It spills over her cheeks, into the blankets underneath her.
She closes her eyes.
And, quite suddenly, she sleeps.
* * *
Sleeping pills don’t last very long on their metabolism, but a strong enough dose will put even Andy out for an hour.
She wakes up suddenly, coughing and spluttering, and she wakes up livid.
It sits inside her as she gets up, and takes a shower.
It festers as she washes the grime of travelling and sweating and worrying out of her hair and skin. She scrapes away a layer of it when she towels herself dry with one of the dusty bed blankets, but it’s grown back by the time she’s pulled fresh clothes on: a pair of her own jeans, and a shirt from the dresser she’s reasonably sure is Joe’s, because she’s angry but she tries not to be cruel.
There is food cooking by the time she gets downstairs.
Booker is still on his laptop, notes jotted on a thick pad of paper beside him as he quickly finds and deletes everything he needs in the hope of going unnoticed.
Joe is on a computer of his own, but seems to have either given up entirely or is waiting on further instructions from Booker, because he’s currently doodling Nabil’s face on a sheet of paper. He looks up when Andy enters, polite and concerned and full of utter bullshit.
“Did you know I’d go for the cognac, or did you just drug all of them to make sure?” she asks coolly.
She grabs a spoon from the worktop and eats a bite of the stew-like concoction bubbling in the pan. It’s furiously spicy and seems to be fifty percent peppercorns. Joe is unremorseful.
“I’ve known you how long exactly, Boss?”
She’s not sure if the words were meant to hurt, or if she’s just reeling from this asshole of a day they’re having.
“Booker, we need a location. How long until we have one?”
To her surprise, when Booker looks up, he’s got a doubtful crease in his brow. He glances sideways to Joe, then back to Andy. He licks his lips, nibbling on them before answering.
“That depends,” he says, with such a measure of caution Andy almost doesn’t recognise him.
She leans back into the heels of her hands on the kitchen counter, cocking her head in warning. Booker looks to Joe a second time.
“On what?” Andy asks, pushing the t out so hard with her tongue she nearly loses a few teeth, too.
“On the job Copley offered. That we said we’d take.”
No longer merely confused, Andy is downright baffled now.
“What do you mean? We aren’t doing the job, that was just a stall. You knew that, Booker. We all did.”
“And if there really are girls in that bunker?” Joe cuts in.
It seems to be more mercy for Booker than a desire to speak. Booker’s eyes are very round and very wide, spinning from one to the other as he tries to take both Joe and Andy in at once. Andy turns fully to Joe, who seems to be the sower of the seed of doubt that is germinating awfully quickly.
“There aren’t,” she replies. “Joe, you were the one who said it was a trap first.”
“Booker’s found evidence of three known traffickers making use of the byroads that lead to this place in the past year alone,” Joe says hotly. He’s no longer sketching Nabil. The pencil is clenched with deadly force in his hand. The crumple of his brow is deeper than ever. “There might actually be girls in there.”
“And?” Andy asks, the lingering headache from the sleeping pills gnawing at her.
She’s angry – angry with Joe for drugging her, angry with herself for falling for it. Angry with herself for not noticing the chemical taste in the booze and angry with Joe for knowing she’d be so thrown off by being banished to the master bedroom she’d think nothing of the alcohol she was knocking back like water from an oasis –
“And, if James Copley has the resources to pull us in, he’d have the resources to drag some innocent victims into the throng if it got him what he wanted.”
“I repeat, and?” Andy snarls, gripping the worktop tight to keep from finding something to lob at Joe.
Booker is completely silent, no longer even tapping on his laptop as he watches the volleying of Joe and Andy’s frustration. His mouth is shut, lips folded into his teeth as if it is a physical barrier alone keeping himself from trying to intervene. He’s learned, unfortunately, how that usually turns out.
Andy would feel guilty if she wasn’t so angry.
“So that’s who we are now, is it?” Joe scoffs, looking nothing short of disgusted. “We throw anybody in our path that serves to our benefit, no matter the cost?”
“We aren’t the ones throwing these probably fictional girls into harm’s way, Yusuf. Copley is. And if it’s a real job that he really wants done, he can find somebody else. We aren’t risking our existence over –”
“Nicolo would never risk the fates of children over his own.”
“And look where that got him!” Andy roars, her throat burning with a desperate rage that has nothing to do with the pills, and right there, in that precise moment, she watches, devastated, as the words carve ruin into Joe’s grief-stricken face.
She hears the tiny intake of Booker’s breath, sees the even tinier lift of his shoulders towards his ears.
Joe looks as if Andy has just shot him. Shot him and then slapped him, just for the pleasure.
A thrumming, horrible feeling that is awfully close to satisfaction ticks inside her to hear his silence. The rest of her, though, has never been so horrified. Andy licks her dry lips with a sandpaper tongue. She can’t suck any air into her shrinking lungs.
Joe’s eyes are spoiled with tears as the pencil drops out of his hand and in his blustering rush to escape the room, he overturns two chairs and with a slam of the door he’s vanished into the depths of the house.
“I didn’t,” Andy says, a meek thing inside her desert of a mouth.
She looks at Booker, who’s staring at his laptop keys. He nods anyway. When he lifts his hands and deftly tells her to follow Joe with his fingers, she takes the offer gratefully, stopping only to put her hand next to his on the table before following Joe through the unlit hallway.
She tries in every room, just to be sure. She doesn’t know why – she knows where he’ll be.
The top room door isn’t shut this time. It’s mostly closed, just like she’d left it, as if Joe had had the same desire as she did, to remember he hasn’t been locked in. Or maybe it was just the careless haste of his retreat.
Andy doesn’t knock. A knock is an offer, and Andromache of Scythia apologises so rarely that they are never offers; they are tokens forced upon their recipients with very little grace.
The bedside light has been turned on, but there’s no Joe on the bed.
He’s sitting on the floor, next to the broken easel. His back is resting against the shredded canvas, knees bent as an armrest with his head against the wall. If any tears have spilled down his face, they are no longer visible. It’s been a long time since Andy has seen Joe shed a single tear and she thinks, longingly, of how easily they once fell. How an injured dog, or a laughing child, or just the right smile, could tip him over the edge.
His breaths are soft and a little too even to be natural. It’s only once Andy moves to sit down cross-legged in front of him that he opens his eyes. She loves him. She loves him. If she ever knew how to tell him, she’s forgotten it by now.
After a generous silence, in which neither of them averts their eyes, Andy says: “I won’t lose you, too, Yusuf.”
She almost manages it – chokes on the final word, on his name. It’s a fitting enough hurdle to stumble over.
“I can’t. I can’t lose you both. You’re right. Nicolo would put any child’s life before his own. But he wouldn’t put anyone’s life over yours, and he’s not here, so I’m doing that job for him. I will keep you safe from everything. Even yourself. You did the same thing for me, when I lost Quynh. You both did.”
Joe closes his eyes again, opens them after a jagged intake of breath through his nose.
“I know,” he says, two cracked syllables that soothe Andy’s own burning eyes. “I know.”
He looks at her, wet eyelashes and dark eyes and dry cheeks.
“It never stops, does it?” he asks.
She wants to lie to him. She wants to tell him how time heals everything. How the days lighten and the nights soften. How one day, getting up from the ground won’t feel like pushing a boulder up a mountain’s cliff. She wants to lie.
He is hers, her teammate. More than that, her brother, her boy. She cannot lie to him. She cannot poison Nicky’s absence further with a falsehood.
“Never,” she replies.
Final, fleeting tremors escape Joe’s lips when he laughs quietly. Andy reaches over to rub the soft skin beneath his eyes with her thumbs and he takes hold of her wrists, kisses her palms one by one.
“Thank you,” he whispers into her skin. For what, she can’t bear to imagine.
“Come on,” she says, pulling him up by his grip on her arms. He goes willingly, following almost blindly all the way to the bed.
After only the barest moment of resistance, Joe allows himself to be pushed down onto the covers, lazily kicking his shoes off as he’s swaddled at the waist with loose blankets. As she turns off the bedside lamp, Andy thinks, briefly, of going back downstairs to Booker. To the food gurgling on the stove and the waiting laptops and the worries of what it is they’re going to find on James Copley.
Joe, however, has other plans. His fingers latch onto her, loose enough to be shaken off, as if she’d dare.
With a single tug from him, Andy folds back onto the bed, facing the door, so that their backs are pressed together, their spines aligned. He’s a warm, unfamiliar comfort. It’s been a long time since they slept like this. Joe reaches back, briefly, to put his hand on her leg.
“Thank you,” he whispers again, and she isn’t feeling mean enough to make the same mistake as she did in the market earlier: You don’t sound much like yourself.
Andy lies awake, for over an hour. Joe does, too. Their breaths are a unique rhythm, their combined warmth a degree too much in the dense air, though they daren’t move.
Eventually, there’s a creak on the stairs, the recognisable tread of Booker moving purposefully loudly, so as to be heard on his approach.
He nudges the door open, takes in the sight of them and huffs a near-laugh, shaking his head.
After a moment’s visible deliberation, Booker places his handgun on the bedside table nearest the door and lies down on the bed with his shoes still on. He must know they’re both awake, though Andy has her eyes closed and she knows Joe probably does, too.
“Elit-Farms was bought last year by Merrick Industries. They also own Merrick Health and Merrick Pharma. The pharmaceutical branch’s last major lawsuit was two years ago, when they moved a drug onto human trials without proper regulations. Two people died. Another is in a coma. It cost them millions in pay-outs and fines. Their stock prices recovered within six months.”
There has always been a soothing quality to Booker’s stubbornly maintained French accent. Some things, though, cannot be made softer by his lilting tongue.
They lie together in the darkness, three lost souls with ageless bodies. Pressed together in night’s embrace.
Andy feels a tremor of something unnameable in her heart. Some animal instinct to run, run far away, that has served her well for almost seven thousand years. Against her back, she feels Joe’s returning shiver.
“I know where Copley lives,” Booker continues, seeming untroubled by the lack of verbal response. “I think our best bet is to go straight to him.”
He must take their silence for what it is: agreement.
With two hard flicks Booker kicks his shoes off and turns his back to Andy, so he is facing the door as well, within reach of his gun. For a little while, there is just their breathing and their heartbeats; the relentless sound of Cairo at night coming through the walls.
Then, stretching out with all four limbs across the mattress, Booker lets out another little huff of laughter, just like the one he made when he entered the room.
“Christ alive, Joe. You guys need a bed this big?”
Feeling raw and turned around by the day, not to mention her argument with Joe, Andy freezes at his words. Joe, on the other hand, actually chuckles a little. Despite the smallness of the staccato sound, it’s as brilliant as birdsong to Andy’s ears.
“We’re very athletic,” Joe replies dryly.
Booker laughs, too, who retorts with Yeah, I remember, and suddenly Andy is laughing, too, and the air is still full of dust and dismay but somehow it is just that little bit easier to breathe. Andy pushes one foot backwards, to rest again Joe’s, while the other moves forwards to meet Booker’s.
She remembers these moments from the years following Quynh’s loss, too. When things were abruptly alright, for a fleeting moment. She remembers the violent wrench of guilt that would follow, every time.
With Booker facing the door, Andy allows herself to fight every piece of her instinct and turns around on the bed. She moulds her body against Joe’s back, her hands sliding over his torso, her knees tucked into the back of his. Clutching his abdomen, she feels the clench of a stifled sob, her nose pressing into the nape of his neck.
Joe shakes, silently, and when he moves his hands she feels the rustle of paper in them, clenched tight. His bristles of short hair tickle her forehead, and her lips touch the bony knob of his upper spine. She clutches him, as Nicky once clutched her, and tries to breathe his words into Joe’s trembling body.
I am here. I am holding you. I will hold you for a thousand years.
Eventually, Joe slips into a restive sleep. Andy follows, unsure if Booker has done the same or not.
Dreams claim her, violent and gruesome and more frightening than any she has experienced in two hundred years.
* * *
Specifically, one dream.
* * *
Andy tears herself awake, choking on blood that isn’t her own. A terror that isn’t hers, either, grips the last vestiges of her mind trapped in that waking nightmare.
On either side of her, Joe and Booker are doing the same. Their hands touch their necks, as if they’ve each been slit.
“Free – something,” Booker says, instinctively, the exact same nametag Andy had seen in her dream.
A woman. Black, younger than thirty. Frightened, frightened and brave. Blood pouring out of her throat. Panicked and surprised and angry and confused and –
Joe’s already slid off the floor. He’s grabbed a pencil from who the hell knows where, and is scribbling haphazardly the picture of a woman’s face on the back of the small portrait of Nicky that Andy had left on the cabinet. Already, Andy recognises the shape of the woman’s eyes, her mouth, her angles and lines.
“Another one,” she says, if only to make it real.
Booker’s nodding, frowning, clearly astounded. He’s never met a new immortal before – two hundred years and already he’s no longer the baby.
Joe, though. Andy looks at him, scrawling and scoring the shape of young Freeman’s youthful face. She can’t be much older than twenty-five– quite literally, the youngest of them, too. And Joe’s eyes are bright, and glossy, and lit with a fire she hasn’t seen in years. In forty-five years, to be exact.
“Another one,” he says, and he almost smiles.
Andy takes a deep breath, and tries not to think how this girl sure has the worst timing in the world.
Or, quite possibly, the best.
* * *