The plan was for Clint Barton to meet his contact at an outdoor cafe at 7pm, FET. The plan did not account for a storm to gather strength in the Black Sea and roll in at 6:28.
For the first hour, Clint tried to man up and outlast the rain. After that, the real downpour began, and he had the sense to stand under whatever awning or doorway for as long as he’d be tolerated. That made it more difficult to see people approaching, though, and he began to worry that he’d miss Laura altogether. By 9:30 he was spending more and more time soaking in front of the cafe, and growing very worried that something had gone wrong.
It wasn’t until 10:45 that common sense won out. The rain clung to his skin like baby oil, and his clothes seemed to have doubled in weight. Whatever had happened, he wasn’t going to get any answers from the pre-arranged rendezvous. Fumbling through the language barrier, he hailed a taxi and managed to direct it to his hotel.
At least, he assumed it was his hotel. Laura had made all the arrangements. It was a shot in the dark whether Clint could even get checked in without her.
The Qamari Resort, Spa, and Conference Center was the closest thing to a five-star hotel in the country. Of course, “the country” was a relative term in Rumekistan, one of several unrecognized states that emerged from the slow-motion balkanization of Georgia. The entire region existed in a diplomatic no man’s land between Kartvellian nationalism, Russian hegemony, and political theorists hoping to experiment in the vacuum. Amid the decades of chaos, the only constant was a misplaced priority on tourism. So the Qamari dominated the war-torn skyline of downtown Bărjñőv, assuring visitors that everything was fine in Rumekistan.
Clint knew better, if only because his cab fare was 5,487 abazi, but the driver didn’t even haggle over the $3.78 he fished out of his pocket.
As he stepped out of the car and stared up at his destination, Clint could only hope that SHIELD was footing the bill for all this. As luxury hotels went, the Qamari was nothing special. Still, even after years of living in Manhattan on the Avengers’ dime, he was an Iowa kid at heart. And they didn’t have anything like this in Des Moines. (Maybe the Quad Cities.)
Once he was indoors, though, Barton’s definition of “luxury” boiled down to any place he could pull off his soggy clothes and sleep. So he walked straight up to the front desk as if it were no different from any Motel 6. “Hiya,” he muttered. “I’m gonna need a room...”
The concierge gave him a pleasant, albeit dubious, look. He was prepared for English-speaking guests, but not nearly so prepared as the woman who had the last shift. “Have you, ah...have you booked, batoni...?”
“Yeah, um...Sherwood. Robert Sherwood.” He tightened his grip on his luggage, as if just saying the name would cause someone to see through his bags, notice the bow and arrows, and realize he had to be Hawkeye using an obvious alias. “Might be under my, uh, wife’s name. Olivia...?”
“Ho,” the man said when the names came up on his screen. “You have been checked, batoni Sherwood. Your wife has arrived here before you. Room number 815. Are you requiring a key?”
“Looks like I do,” Barton answered, and then nodded to be sure his meaning wasn’t lost in translation. As he waited for the concierge to program a card, he mulled over the situation. Why would Laura skip the rendezvous and go directly to the hotel without him? Why not call him to explain the change of plans? Something smelled fishy.
The elevator to the eighth floor provided a gorgeous nighttime view of Bărjñőv, but Clint wasn’t interested. When he reached his stop, he trudged through the hallway, expecting answers when he found the suite. When he found the door, he slid his card key through the lock, preparing himself for anything.
A yellow light blinked.
Clint swiped the key again.
“Okay,” he grumbled to himself. He set his bags down and tried to remember something Yoda said, to put his thoughts in order for a prayer to the hotel key gods. Then, with just a little extra English on the swipe this time, he made a third try.
Green light. Clint thanked the hotel room gods for their providence, but just the same he opened the door quickly, before they had second thoughts.
His jacket and shirt were on the floor almost as soon as the door shut behind him. He really wanted to lose the pants, but under the circumstances it was probably better to find Laura first. Posing as a married couple was bound to get awkward, and strutting around nude wouldn’t make it any easier.
As he made his way through the suite’s living room, it began to dawn on him that there was no sign of Laura. He peered into the bedroom, cautious not to invade her privacy, and found everything the way the housekeepers would have left it. No bags, no SHIELD equipment, not even a pair of shoes.
Clint pinched his nose and sighed. “Dammit.” This was becoming a real pain in the ass. Had Laura actually checked in? Had she made it to Rumekistan? He checked his phone for any messages that might shed light on the puzzle. Nothing. Considering SHIELD’s lack of jurisdiction here, it was likely that their communications network wouldn’t be much help anyway.
He’d have to find her, even if that screwed up the mission. Of course, Clint didn’t even know if he was in Europe or Asia at the moment, so his prospects of finding another human being were pretty low. It was late, he was drenched and exhausted, and for all he knew Laura was relaxing comfortably at a layover in Sevastopol. The pants were coming off.
Clint was two steps from collapsing into the king-size bed when he realized there was one matter he couldn’t put off until morning. Finding the bathroom door, he didn’t stop to consider that it was shut, with light shining underneath it. That didn’t cross his mind until two seconds after he stepped out of his shorts and barged in.
There was a blonde in the tub, but she wasn’t Laura Hamilton. No, definitely not Laura Hamilton. She was almost hidden behind piles of bubbles, but Clint recognized her. All the same, she casually stood up, as if to remind him that he recognized every bit of her. Or maybe she just wanted to make sure she recognized every bit of him.
Karla Sofen crossed her arms and smiled. “It’s about time you showed up, ‘hubby dearest.’”
For someone who just had her bath interrupted by a naked intruder, Karla seemed remarkably calm. That was deliberate, of course. To her, emotions were vulnerabilities, and she prided herself on guarding her own very carefully. Besides, her composure just made Clint’s confusion all the more entertaining.
As he stood there, dumbstruck, she availed herself of the chance to examine him. His physique was as impressive as she remembered, the product of a lifetime of training. His muscles weren’t just toned, they were stretched taut, as if he might spring into an acrobatic leap at any moment. His eyes still had that folksy, sentimental gleam that he couldn’t hide from anyone that really knew him. He hadn’t shaved in two days, but that was to be expected. And he was rather happy to see her.
It took a few seconds for Clint to realize she was ogling him, and that it was bothering him, and finally that she was ogling him to see how long it took for him to figure that out. When he turned away to reach for his underwear, Karla allowed herself a private chuckle, but no more. She masked her genuine amusement with a practiced sardonic grin before he could rise to face her again. The boxers didn’t hide as much as he probably hoped.
Clint rubbed the stubble on his jaw, struggling to take control of the situation. “What’re you doin’ here, Karla? And what did you do with Agent Hamilton?”
Karla sat on the rim of the tub, and evaded the question. “I’m taking a bath. Who’s Agent Hamilton?”
“Don’t pull that crap,” he muttered. “Not with me. You found out about the mission, you wanted in, you took Laura’s place. I just need to make sure she’s all right.”
She had to admit, he was sharp. There wasn’t much point in pretending he was mistaken. “Your concern for everyone else’s suffering is noble, Clint, but unnecessary. She’s just fine.”
“Where is she?”
Karla shrugged. “Probably on her way back from the Abkhazian border. I needed her papers, naturally, so I convinced some boy on the street to run past her while I picked her pocket. She chased after him, and if he did as he was told, she followed him onto the next train to Sokhumi. I figured the Russian occupation forces would stop her at the first checkpoint and keep her busy for a while.”
“Yeah? Suppose they decide to ship her off to Siberia. Or worse.” She could tell he was frustrated, and staring at her nipples wasn’t helping. He grabbed one of the bath towels and handed it to her.
“Please.” Karla stepped out of the tub, accepted the towel graciously...and went out of her way not to cover up as she dried off. “If you really believed that, you’d already be dressed and halfway out the door to save her. You know as well as I do--perhaps better--that any SHIELD agent rated for a field mission in the Caucasus can handle the Russians. They’ll bluster about her lack of paperwork, she’ll outwit them, and she’ll head back here.”
“But she’ll be too late to play ‘Mrs. Sherwood,’” Clint reasoned, “because everybody in this building already thinks that’s you.”
“Not at all.” She wiped her hands and dug into a purse next to the sink. “I can pass myself off as the woman in the phony passport, but not with her standing right next to me. If she wants to make a fight of it, she’ll win. But the Rumeki authorities would probably have some questions for all three of us.”
“Okay, okay,” he grumbled. “You win.”
“Oh, Clint,” she smiled, “you’ve made me the happiest woman on Earth.” She finally produced a large diamond ring from the bottom of her bag, and showed it to him. “I was tempted to go with a moonstone, actually, just to fit your sense of humor. But then I assumed you already made Robin Hood references in the aliases, so I decided we couldn’t risk being any more obvious.”
He did his best to feign interest in the ring. “Uh, yeah. Good thinking.”
She slipped it on her finger and wandered out into the suite. “‘Olivia,’” she said. “As in ‘de Havilland,’ I presume? I suppose I’m just glad I’m not ‘Ivana Hoe.’”
“Karla.” She knew that tone in his voice. “Are you gonna tell me what you’re doing here, or do I have to figure it out?”
She tossed the towel to the floor and made a show of prowling around the room. “Why does there have to be anything to figure out, Clint? We’re lodging at a fabulous beachfront resort, with a breathtaking view of the Black Sea.” She lingered in front of the panoramic, floor-to-ceiling window, taking in the atmosphere of even being in a place such as this. “It’s no Gresham Palace, I admit. But the price is right, isn’t it?”
Clint shook his head and approached her. “You didn’t come all this way to mooch off of SHIELD.”
“Don’t be so sure,” she argued. “They have Lykhny downstairs, you know. I think you’d like it. I could have them send a bottle up...” She glanced down at herself, and back at him. “Oh.” With no more than a thought, her body flashed, and she was suddenly wearing a (mostly) modest bathrobe. “I’ll behave in front of the bellboy, I promise.”
“Karla.” He put his hands on her shoulders. She was glad she had put on the robe--he wouldn’t feel her shiver at his touch. “You didn’t come all this way for me, either.”
“Would it...” She started to say something clever, but something in her faltered. “W-would it be...so bad...if I did?”
“You tried to kill me--!”
“You tried to kill me!” she shouted. Light flared from her eyes, and Clint had the good sense to back off. She could remember being this angry, but not...not this way. Part of her wanted to rein it in, and turn things to her advantage, but most of her just wanted to tell him off. “I expect a baseline level of sanctimony from you, Avenger, but between the two of us you don’t have the moral high ground. Do I make myself clear?”
Karla glared into his eyes, and found nothing she wanted: pity, concern, empathy. She fought to slow her breathing and relax, if only to pretend she hadn’t lost control for a moment. Clint seemed to be giving her time, and that courtesy only made it more galling.
“Okay,” he said at last. “Okay. We’ll talk about it later. I’ll take the couch.”
“The couch?” She found herself catching up to his train of thought, which was a little terrifying. “Wait a minute--don’t you want to brief me on this mission of yours?”
“Nope.” Clint had already begun to walk away. “I think you know more than you’re letting on. And I really gotta take a leak. Seeya in the morning.”
The couch folded out into a reasonably comfortable bed. Clint didn’t bother to check for that before he collapsed onto it.
As exhausted as he was, he didn’t get much sleep that night. For a couple of hours he couldn’t stop listening for anything Karla might be up to. And then, even when he was sure she had to be asleep, he still couldn’t stop thinking about her.
She was a threat. He didn’t deny that. He just didn’t see the point in pretending he could do anything about it. Karla’s powers were enough to put her in the same league as the Hulk or Captain Marvel. She could pummel him to death almost effortlessly. Or shoot him with a laser burst from her hands. Or fly him into the stratosphere and drop him. Or phase through a wall and strangle him. Moonstone was capable of anything.
But Hawkeye could see all the angles. That’s what made him the greatest marksman alive, and what kept him alive long enough to take each shot. He couldn’t overpower Karla, but he could tell he didn’t need to. She was in Bărjñőv to use him, not to fight him. As long as he stayed useful, he had time to figure out what her plan was, and shut her down if he had to.
Like he had on that day in the North Sea.
He hoped it wouldn’t come to that. But with Agent Hamilton missing, it wasn’t looking good. If he made a stink about her impersonating his wife, then the wrong people would start asking the wrong questions. Assuming she was still alive, Laura would figure that out. So if he went looking for his partner, she’d make sure he wouldn’t find her, for the good of the mission. Karla had all the angles covered, which meant she knew why the mission was so important.
Laura had only briefed him on it a few days earlier. As SHIELD’s foremost cryptogeologist, she’d been assigned to analyze reports about the discovery of a strange, glowing meteorite in a Rumeki minefield. Intelligence on the specimen was limited, but Hamilton was confident that it was a fragment of an alien artifact known as the Lifestone Tree. If she was right, it was only a matter of time before someone used the stone to harness superhuman power.
Ordinarily, SHIELD or a similar international agency would have stepped by now, to contain the potential threat. But Rumekistan existed in a diplomatic black hole, so direct intervention was impossible to authorize. That left Bărjñőv free to exploit their find as they pleased. The government invited “interested parties from around the world” to attend a scientific conference about the meteorite. Considering most nations didn’t even recognize Rumeki sovereignty, those “interested parties” would be representing the shadier corners of the world--places like Carnellia, Madripoor, and maybe even Latveria.
Hamilton’s mission was to ascertain the powers of the stone, and keep it from falling into the wrong hands. To get close enough to take a look, she’d have to attend the conference posing as an expatriate scientist, with no connections to the United States or SHIELD. It was a risky assignment, so someone in charge decided an Avenger should play her husband. Hawkeye was chosen because he was familiar with the Lifestone Tree. Or rather, he knew someone who was familiar with it: Karla Sofen.
Karla’s powers came from a Lifestone fragment, and she had a history of looking for more. It made sense that she was here for the meteorite...too much sense for Clint. So he laid awake on the couch, percolating the facts in his head, hoping to stumble onto some detail he’d overlooked. But all he could really think about was her.
He hadn’t seen her in...it felt like years. And it felt even longer since they’d been on the same side. Just to be in the same room with her, without a crazy super-battle all around them, was overwhelming. The sound of her voice took him back to that picnic on Mount Charteris. The scent of her perfume reminded him of the last time they’d made love. The look in her eyes revealed the same turmoil he saw during that long spaceflight to Saturn, when the only thing that could comfort her was to be held in his arms...
Clint sat up suddenly, as if to shake loose the memories from his mind. He surveyed the room for any sign of activity. Nothing. If Karla was still awake, she was trying not to let him know. More likely, she’d been asleep for hours. Under those fancy sheets. Totally naked, probably. She’d started to order some kind of wine, he recalled. Was that offer sincere? Maybe--
He leaned back against the couch and let out a long sigh. She was getting to him. Again. He tried to think about baseball for a while. It didn’t help. It never had.
He had to make sure not to sleep with her. That should have been obvious--it would jeopardize the mission, affect his judgement, and erode his self-respect. But Clint knew himself, and those reasons wouldn’t really stop him. He’d just convince himself he could salvage all that stuff later. What was more important than any of that, though, was doing right by Karla. He could only guess where her head was at, but he was pretty sure a one night stand would only make things worse.
Even if she wanted it.
Even if she would stop at nothing to get it.
Clint groaned and tried thinking about soccer instead...
At 4am, Karla was staring up at the ceiling, still replaying her “reunion” with Clint over and over in her mind. She wasn’t even sure what she’d been expecting, and it still turned out to be a disappointment.
Maybe she’d come on too strong. Maybe she should have told him what she was “really” after, as a show of “good” faith. Maybe she should have ordered the wine before he had a chance to argue. Maybe she shouldn’t have trembled so much when he embraced her...
No. She couldn’t even pretend that last part was all an act.
She cursed herself for rehashing the incident in the first place. It was in the past, and worrying about it wouldn’t help. Normally she’d just push forward, and find a way to turn the current situation to her advantage. But when it came to Hawkeye, she just couldn’t think straight.
What was it about that man? How could she toy with anyone in the world, except him? Why couldn’t she just forget him and move on? Why couldn’t she hurt him the way he made her hurt? Why did she want to? Why did that make her feel so awful?
Karla sat up and found herself watching the sheets of rain sliding down the window. Whatever peace that gave her only lasted until she noticed the her reflection in the glass. Confronted with the torment in her own face, she turned away, as if recoiling from a gruesome accident. When her eyes began to sting, she steeled herself and resolved to analyze the problem.
If it were anyone else, she’d size up her mark and come up with the best way to control him. With men, it was easy. They already felt entitled to whatever they wanted from a woman, so deliberately feeding those impulses was incredibly simple. Once she had them casting her in their own little fantasies--as a femme fatale, an ice queen, a kid sister, a good girl gone bad, whatever--it was just a matter of skewing the happy ending in her favor. But that had never really worked with Clint. Why?
As much as she hated to admit it, she could only come to one conclusion. She hadn’t worked her way into any of his fantasies. She’d drawn him into one of her own.
At that thought, Karla’s pained expression turned into a defiant scowl, and she found that face much easier to confront in the window. She stood up, curling her fingers into a fist, and approached herself. But she knew better than to take out her frustrations on the building, so she held back and quietly pressed her fist against the glass.
She never should have involved herself with him. Whatever it was that affected her like this, she should have recognized it and stayed away. But there was no use chiding herself about it now. All she needed to do was correct the problem, and improve herself so it didn’t happen again. And then it would be no trouble to manipulate Hawkeye, and get what she came for.
That train of thought made her feel better, or at least she believed it did. The eyes staring back at her were more confident now, and she liked that. Karla stepped back to admire her reflection, her body appearing to tower over the sea, her skin gleaming in the overcast moonlight. She began to pose for herself, reveling in her own vanity. It was only a vice, she reasoned, for the mediocre, the imperfect. This was not a problem for her. She refused to be ashamed of being so...magnificent.
Reveling in her own beauty made her yearn for someone else to do it for her.
Clint of course immediately came to mind, but she quickly resisted the idea. He was probably as good a lay as she’d find in Rumekistan, but it wasn’t worth eroding her self-control. Let him twist in the wind, she decided, and perhaps after a few days of going without would make him more...agreeable. As for herself, though, there was no reason not to have a little fun seducing some other moron. It wasn’t as “Olivia Sherwood” needed to be a particularly faithful “wife.”
Karla was smiling now, if only to sustain the sly, vivacious libertine smiling back at her. She wondered what sorts of men she might find in the resort, and how much sport she could have behind Clint’s back. It was tempting to glide through the molecules of the window, and sneak out overnight. But no, that would be too reckless. Better to wait until the conference began, she decided, before doing anything that might grab attention. Still, the thought of turning some pompous fool into her personal toy was very...appealing at the moment.
She bit her lip and backed away from the window. Climbing into the bed, she sat cross-legged and measured her breathing. She was better than this, she told herself. She ruled her passions, not the other way around. She’d have her little thrill when the time was right, when it was to her advantage.
It was that self-discipline that made her better. Certainly better than Clint. She’d heard all the stories about the trouble he’d earned by hopping into bed with any pretty face that turned his head. The man was incapable of not thinking about sex. He was surely in the other room, thinking of her, lusting for her, and...
Karla shut her eyes tightly and focused on her meditation.
The 1st Annual Bărjñőv Global Summit for Scientific Excellence in the Name of Peace started with a "get to know you" breakfast in the hotel's main ballroom. This suited Clint fine; he'd barely eaten since his layover at Zagreb. So while the other attendees took their time and mingled, he loaded up his plate.
In his travels across the world, Clint had discovered a universal truth about cuisine. Every culture, no matter their differences, had meat on a stick and some kind of cheesy bread. Rumekistan lived up to this paradigm, and he skipped the rest of the items in favor of mtsvadi and khachapuri. Unfortunately the corollary to his principle was that most places didn't serve Diet Dr. Pepper, so he made do with a criminally small glass of milk.
By the time he returned to Karla's side, she'd already introduced herself to half a dozen people, establishing their cover story. Most Avengers would have worried that she was changing the details to suit her own purposes, but Clint knew better. Taking Laura's place and playing her role to the letter was all part of Karla's plan, whatever that might be. So he was comfortable introducing his own wrinkle to the cover story: "Robert Sherwood" tended to shut up and eat while "Olivia" did most of the talking.
"Officially," she explained for the fifth time, "it's the Symmetric Sovereignty of Moldbugia, but the media have taken to calling it 'Bluuit Island,' after the website."
"Indeed?" a bearded man said in a Russian accent. "As an expatriate myself, I've evaluated a number of micronations for residence. The last I heard of that project was that it died out without any concrete accomplishments."
Karla nodded, as if she'd addressed this point for years. "Most coverage of the project was written back when it was a ridiculous fantasy. Things didn't get serious until the Dark Enlightenment nonsense caught on with the startup executives. Once enough money was involved, Bluuit could stop talking about buying an island and simply raise a submarine volcano in international waters."
"Which is where you come in," a woman surmised. Clint couldn't place the accent, but he could recognize Wakandan formal attire from a mile away. "I would imagine a new island would offer interesting challenges for a cryptogeologist."
"True enough...although I think the Moldbugian government was hoping I'd find Atlantean crystals and philosopher's stones," Karla elaborated. "Their ambitions are as pathetic as their ideology. They'll probably move from neo-feudalism to true fascism by the end of the decade. Still, they offer substantial freedoms to those they consider valuable. America never would have let me come here, for example."
"But that freedom could be enjoyed in a number of locations," the Russian suggested. "Why tolerate a society based on a movement about ignorance and ressentiment?"
"Actually," Clint interjected, "it's really about ethics in journalism."
Karla's audience blinked at him. That was the plan, even before Agent Hamilton had disappeared. There was no way Clint could bluff his way through posing as a scientist, or anyone remotely qualified to attend this conference. But he had enough horse sense to play the scientist's dumbass husband. As long as he said something stupid once in a while, no one would want to talk to him long enough to catch him in a lie.
All Karla had to do, then, was act as if she was well-practiced at shifting the conversation away from whatever inane point he'd made. It wasn't hard for her. "Er...where are my manners? This is my husband, Robert Sherwood, director of the Moldbugian athletics committee. Robert, this is Doctor Vladimir Orekhov, formerly of the Soviet space program, and Professor Shafira Ibekwe, Chief Technologist of the Wakandan Institute for Xenophysics."
Clint gnawed at his meat-on-a-stick, then waved. "'Sup."
Ibekwe gave her best effort. "Mr. Sherwood, your wife has just been telling us about your...unorthodox nation. I'm curious, what sports have your committee adopted for international competition?"
"Oh, you know...Smash Brothers. League of Legends. I'm trying to get a Candy Crush league off the ground, but it's tough, y'know?" To make this work, Clint had to act like he expected everyone to understand what had come out of his mouth. It wasn't hard for him.
Karla flashed a knowing smile. "Bluuit has a...storied tradition of advocating the legitimacy of e-sports.
"Yes..." Orekhov replied. "Well...I should make sure I partake of the buffet, before the conference proceeds."
Clint held up his khachapuri as he called out to the departing Russian. "Try the cheesy bread!"
Ibekwe took the chance to excuse herself as well. "A pleasure to have met you," she said, briefly clasping her hands around Karla's.
As soon as they were out of earshot, "Olivia" murmured to her "husband." "This is stupid, Hawkeye."
Clint struggled to bite off a piece of his bread without a fork. "'This is stupid, honey.'"
"No one is going to believe any of this. I can't believe SHIELD even concocted this phony island story..."
"You should," he countered, finishing the mtsvadi, "because they concocted the island, not the story. They thought it'd come in handy when it didn't make sense to pretend to be working for Hydra or AIM or whatever."
Karla's eyes slowly widened, as she realized he wasn't kidding. "Are you telling me that a bunch of internet nerds are playing Lord of the Flies on SHIELD's dime?"
"Yeah, I guess you were in prison when all that was going down."
She got a look in her eye, which he'd seen before. He was no brilliant psychological supervillain, but even he could imagine how enticing that scenario was to someone with Karla's talent for manipulation. But after a moment, she seemed to table it to focus on the matter at hand. "Even so, I can only play this part so well with you around to mess it up."
"I'm doing this just the way we planned it," Clint pointed out. "You're the one who didn't show up for rehearsals."
"I'm just saying--!" She struggled to keep her voice down. "I'm just saying, you need to show a baseline level of decorum, or I can't convince these people that..."
"...That someone like you could hook up with someone like me?"
She couldn't stand it when anyone finished her sentences, least of all him. "Go...go lick your meat-stick," she grumbled, and stormed away to hob-nob with other guests.
Karla stormed across the ballroom, putting as much distance as she could between herself and Clint.
She should have been stopping to talk to the people she passed by, introducing herself and establishing the cover story about "Mr. and Mrs. Sherwood." She didn't care. There would be plenty of time for dissembling later. She just needed to get away from that...that insufferable buffoon.
But Karla was too smart to throw a temper tantrum without berating herself for it at the same time. She wasn't upset with Barton, she acknowledged, so much as she was angry that he had a point, and she couldn't prove him wrong.
He was a weakness that she couldn't afford. She needed him for this job, but that wouldn't matter if she fell to pieces every time he made some inane comment. She was the problem. She'd have to fix the problem. It was as simple as that.
When she started paying attention to where she was going, she noticed a man standing with his back to the room, facing the windows overlooking the city. No one was within twenty feet of him; it was as if the entire conference was beneath his notice. But then...why would he have attended in the first place? The curiosity of it held Karla's attention. She needed a diversion, and this would do.
As she approached the stranger from behind, she tried to size him up. He was tall, with pleasing proportions. Probably attractive, and--judging from the quality of his suit--wealthy enough to compensate for any physical flaw. That would be consistent with the confidence she inferred from his stance. But Karla had dealt with enough men to be sure that such an impressive presentation usually concealed some insecurity. He was holding a cane--for pure ostentation, or to address a genuine disability? He was completely isolated here--because he feared companionship, or perhaps because he resented it? Further examination was necessary.
"Excuse me." Karla stood behind him as she spoke. The idea was to prod him into turning to face her, to watch his reaction.
He ignored her.
Ordinarily, this wouldn't have bothered her. She would simply note the subject's response, and bear it in mind in the next attempt at engagement. But Karla was in no mood to be toyed with, not today. Of course, she had no way of knowing if this man was trying to toy with her. And yet, on some instinctual level, she could feel him scoffing at her, mocking her pretense at superiority. She began to imagine how good it would feel to throw him through the window...
She blinked, and composed herself. Was he trying to provoke her? If not, she had just whipped herself into a near-frenzy over absolutely nothing. If so...then this stranger posed an interesting challenge. If this was a game, she didn't dare risk losing.
"Nice try," she offered, like a fishhook.
His head rose slightly, and he finally turned to meet his would-be adversary. He was, as predicted, quite handsome, and his cane compensated for a slight limp. Karla sought to read his face, but she was distracted by his right eye. Sightless and solid white, it gleamed against his smooth, bistre complexion. He began to smile, with the ease and amusement of a master watching a mischeivous pet.
This triggered a wave of defiance in Karla's mind. He was smiling because he expected her to be drawn in by the eye! For a moment she glanced down, to avoid his little trap, until she realized that this too probably served his purpose. Now he had her avoiding eye contact like a callow girl! It was if he was always be three steps ahead.
Unless he wasn't. Karla briefly entertained the notion that she was reading too much into this man, who hadn't even spoken to her yet. It wasn't like her to go around assuming everyone she met was trying to beat her at her own game. And yet, there was something about this bastard...some je ne sais quoi that made her wonder if she could resist him. So she locked her eyes onto his, even as she struggled to conceal the aggression of that decision.
"I beg your pardon," he finally said. His accent suggested someone who spoke English fluently, but had not had cause to do so in a very long time.
"Nothing," she stammered. There was no hope of forcing him to acknowledge his ploy. Better to move on and look for another opening. She held out her hand. "Doctor Olivia Sherwood. From the Moldbugian delegation."
He took her hand, and for a minute she expected him to kiss it. Instead he merely sniffed at her fingers, as though she was a selection at a wine tasting. "Tolerable," he decreed, before finally introducing himself. "I am Baʿal Balaam."
"I see." She pulled her hand back quickly, as if she might lose it. "And whose interests do you serve, Mister Ba--"
"I serve no one," he interjected, pointedly. "This would be obvious, had you been properly educated. 'Baʿal' is my title, though that manner of address should be reserved for worship. You may call be 'Balaam.'"
"'Worship?'" Karla was confident that he only brought it up so she would pursue the topic. It worked. "And who, pray tell, worships you?"
"Those I deem worthy to ache for me," he smiled. "Who worships you?"
The question flummoxed her. It what the sort of thing a madman might say, undeserving of rational thought. Even so, she couldn't bring herself to ignore it, or dismiss it. She needed to respond, to formulate an answer clever enough to put him in his place. But what could she even say to that...?
"No...nobody." She tried to assure herself this was the best reply, since it maintained her cover story. It was what "Olivia Sherwood" would say, after all. But that wasn't why she said it. He'd scored another point in this little game. She was growing to hate him.
"Of course not," Balaam said, rubbing his thin, wiry beard. "That troubles you, doesn't it?"
She could have walked away. She could have answered the question with another question, and put him off-balance. But in the moment, she found herself genuinely intrigued by his suggestion, and too lost in self-reflection to lie. "Y-yes."
Karla felt a knot in the pit of her stomach, as she realized what she'd just done. She wasn't given to such candor with anyone, let alone a potential enemy. He was disarming her. She needed to understand that danger, like a child investigating a flame. Balaam seemed to recognize this, and his aloof smile stretched into a triumphant sneer.
The ringing of silverware against glass filled the ballroom, signaling the end of breakfast and the start of the first session. Karla continued to look up at Balaam as he walked away, without another word. Then he stopped, and fished something out of his billfold. He returned to her, fixing his gaze deeply into her eyes, and slid the item into the breast pocket of her jacket.
She stayed perfectly still as he turned back to rejoin the conference. She didn't so much as move a muscle until the sound of his footsteps--and that heavy, unusual cane--faded into the distance. When she was certain he was well away, she hurriedly checked her coat, to see what on earth she'd let him (let him!) put there.
A hotel key card. For his suite, no doubt.
She stared at it for half a minute, pondering what had just happened. Then, her mind made up, she put the key back in her pocket.
"Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to welcome you all--my scientific colleagues, esteemed dignitaries, and captains of industry--to the first annual Bărjñőv Global Something Something I Forget The Rest Of It Who Cares."
That was how Clint heard it, anyway. This was the part of the mission where he was most useless. Providing some extra muscle to a SHIELD investigation of a scientific conference was a piece of cake. Actually attending the conference was miserable.
Luckily, "Robert Sherwood" didn't wear the lab coat in the family. His cover story didn't require him to act like cared. That was Karla's job, and she was doing it very well. Maybe a little too well?
Agent Hamilton's disappearance made it all weird. If she were there, playing his wife, he could just zone out and wait for her to decide if something wasn't kosher. She'd figure out if the Rumeki specimen was a genuine magic space rock, and if anyone was up to no good with it. But now he already knew someone was up to no good, because Karla had gone to great lengths to take Hamilton's place. Without Laura's expertise, he was flying half-blind, with nothing to guide him but a woman he couldn't trust.
So all he could really do was study Karla. She was looking straight at the man hosting the conference, apparently hanging on his every word, quietly chuckling when he said anything that was allegedly funny. But she'd have been doing that whether she was actually interested or not. There was no way to tell whether she was playing her part until the right moment to pull some scheme, or if she was simply eager to learn all she could about the specimen.
It frustrated him that he couldn't read her. If anyone else wanted to figure out what she was up to, they'd say "Hawkeye knows Moonstone more intimately than anybody. Like, not Kate-Hawkeye. The original one. Hawkguy. Send him." And it'd be the right call; he was the best guy for the job. But it wasn't enough. He wondered if that was always the problem with him.
He spared a thought for Kate Bishop. She always knew what to do whenever he didn't. He started to wish she was there with him, but thought better of it. The kid already knew way too much about his lovelife--if she saw him around Karla, she'd never let him hear the end of it.
Trying to focus, Clint decided to at least make an effort to pay attention to the nerds at the front of the room. Judging from the stupid Powerpoint slideshow, they were getting to the good part.
"When our team identified the antidisestablishmentarianistic qualities in the doohickey," he heard the presenter explain, "we knew we had an unprecedented something-or-rather on our hands. The team nicknamed it 'the Heartstone,' in honor of Somenerdthing from Robert Jordan's Lord of the Rings or some other crap Steve likes to read series. In the books, Somenerdthing is an indestructible substance created in the Age of Who-gives-a-shit, which absorbs all destructive force to become stronger [like that one guy in the Hellfire Club, the muttonchops guy]."
This su-u-u-u-u-ucked, Clint decided.
Just then, he felt something brush against his ankle. For a moment he thought someone had gotten out of their chair when he wasn't looking, and bumped into him slightly. But the sensation continued, not so much accidental contact as a prolonged caress.
Somebody was playing footsie under the table.
He assumed it was Karla--it was her style--until he felt it moving up his leg. The angle was all wrong, unless Karla had some power to sit at his right while her legs were across the table. He hadn't really paid attention to the other people sharing the table, but now he did his best to size them up.
The Cesar Romero looking guy could probably reach him, but he didn't seem the type. If he wanted to flirt with Clint, he'd probably just offer him a red carnation or something classy like that.
He'd briefly met the Ksavian viscountess, and she was certainly a tall drink of water. But she was sitting perfectly still and straight, which would have made it impossible for her to reach him.
The strawberry blonde was...well, it had to be her, because she was looking right at him, smirking. The toes that were probing the cuff of his pant leg wiggled, as if to wave hello.
This wasn't the time or place (he was posing as a married man, for cripes' sakes), but he found he couldn't take his eyes off her. She stared back at him, with a side-eyed leer, as if fantasizing about ways to exploit him. Her lips parted slightly, as if to tell him to enjoy the view; before he knew it, he was, ogling the plunging neckline of her strapless dress.
He felt the silk of her stocking against the skin just above his sock. Clint didn't move a muscle, except to gulp.
The spell was broken when a foppish man loudly barged into the conference center, drawing everyone's attention and bringing the presentation to a halt. "Terribly sorry," he declared, as he hurriedly straightened his coiffure. "I'm afraid my clock inexplicably decided I was still in Algiers." He realized all eyes were upon him, and froze. "Er...rest assured I am authorized to attend these proceedings..."
"Of course, Mister Janso," the presenter assured him. "If you'll be seated, I'm certain one of our other guests can explain what you've missed." With that distraction resolved, he returned to his slideshow. "Now then, as I was saying, blah blah blah, techno-crap..."
Clint rolled his eyes and turned back to his mystery woman. All he found, however, was a man facing away from the table and towards the stage. Cesar Romero, the viscountess, and Karla were right where he'd last seen them, but the strawberry blonde was gone. If she'd ever been there at all. Had he hallucinated the whole thing? Why would he fantasize about a woman he'd never even seen before...?
A piercing scream from outside the ballroom meant that he wouldn't have time to dwell on it. Once more, everyone turned away from the presenter, craning their necks to see what was happening. Except Clint.
Clint had sprinted across the room, and was nearly at the door when a woman in chef's whites burst in. Acting on instinct, he grabbed her by the shoulders, as much to comfort her as to keep her safe from whatever she'd been screaming about. "What is it?" he snapped. "What's goin' on?"
"Something in Rumeki!" she shouted. "Or is it Rumekistanian? Something like that!"
"Anybody in here understand her?" Clint bellowed, failing to remember that her countrymen were the ones hosting the conference in the first place.
The presenter, whatever his name was, blanched as he translated to English. "She...she says there's been a murder."
Karla tore off another piece of tape and stretched it across the cut across Clint's nose. "You're an idiot," she told him. "You know that, right?"
Clint sat on the toilet perfectly still, like someone who had done this a thousand times before. "Yeah," he muttered, "that's what I hear."
"I suppose this isn't the first time you got your nose bloodied," she said, "or the first time someone's had to clean up after you." She knelt on the bathroom floor, rummaging through the first aid kit she'd picked up in the hotel gift shop. "But I was specifically talking about blowing our cover."
She found a fresh cotton ball and reached up to swap it with the one Clint was holding over his right nostril. He shook his head slightly. He knew his way around cotton balls, and he didn't need another one yet.
She was fretting over him like some...some nursemaid!...and it galled her. She could just imagine all the women in his life who happily played this part...doting on him as if he were some hapless child, or the hero in one of the insipid action movies he loved so much. They were fools. She was better than that. She had to be.
Karla wanted to toss the first aid kit across the bathroom, and get back to the science conference. But that wouldn't be any better for her cover than her "husband" getting punched in the face by the hotel detective. If "Olivia" helped "Robert" up to their room, then came right back without him, it wouldn't exactly fit the profile of a loving couple, would it? It might be just the sort of thing to make people wonder if the "Sherwoods" were really married at all, and then wonder what they were hiding.
So she swallowed her pride, and dabbed some rubbing alcohol onto a napkin. He'd scraped his elbow when he went down from the punch, and that was the sort of thing a loving wife wouldn't overlook.
"Am I gonna make it, Doc?"
"Don't joke about it," she grumbled. "You could have ended up in surgery."
"Nah," he said. "You don't get in my line of work without figuring out how to take a punch. And that Burduli guy--well, a guy like him knows how to make a punch say as much...or as little...as he needs to say."
"Then I'm not the only one who got an ex-Russian intelligence vibe from him..."
"He sure acts like the spooks I've met. Fits in great at this hotel, too--he'll keep things nice and orderly, but he's not afraid to sweep things under the rug..." As she bandaged his elbow, Karla could feel the muscles in his forearm tensing. It revealed a lot about his mood. It was also...distracting.
"Clint..." She knew what was bothering him, and she needed him to let it go. "There may not be much you can do about that murder."
"You heard that guy, Karla. He doesn't give a damn about finding whoever did it. All he cares about--all anybody in this country cares about--is keeping the stupid conference chugging along! Someone's gotta pick up his slack!" He was becoming agitated, and starting to let blood drip around him.
Karla stood up and grasped his shoulder, almost forcing him to steady himself. "All right, so you don't approve. What can you do about it? They're not letting anyone in or out of the building. They've blocked phone signals. So nobody's coming to back you up, and we've seen how far you got on your own."
"It's not like I need help. I've been in tighter spots." He smiled at her. "A lot of 'em were with you."
"Some of them were against me," she pointed out. "You do realize most of the people in this hotel want Burduli to keep this thing quiet, don't you? To be perfectly honest, I'm one of them. I can't afford to have the police snooping around here. And this conference is full of people like me."
"They'd be looking for a murderer," he argued, "they wouldn't care what else you're up to."
"You're here looking for someone trying to weaponize the Heartstone," she countered. "Does that mean you won't go after this murderer, if you find them?"
He had to think about that analogy for a minute. "I guess you've got a point."
"So did Burduli," she said, "but you only stopped to listen when he explained it with his fist." She offered him the cotton ball again, and this time he accepted. "I know you could Hawkeye your way through this, but you can't be Hawkeye, not right now."
He nodded slowly, but then his eyes lit up. "You could do it."
"Well, they must've stashed the body someplace," he began. "They couldn't exactly leave it in the kitchen, y'know? So they probably stuck it in a basement somewhere. Not much security, I bet--they're not expecting anyone but me to give 'em trouble, and they don't think they need much to keep me out."
"So they'd never notice if you phased through the building, and made your way down there without using any doors."
"Granting that's true," she said, "what makes you think I'm going to stick my neck out for you?"
"Because you know me," he grinned. "Now that I've got the idea, you know I'm gonna go through with it, whether you help or not."
"You wouldn't...!" But he was right. She did know him. "...You would." She hated getting boxed in like this, especially when it was Clint.
"In a heartbeat, babe. So we can do it together, all sneaky-like, or you can wait and see how much of a mess I make doin' it on my own."
"Well..." she said, thinking it over, "as amusing as it might be to watch you 'doin' it' by yourself, I suppose it'd be more fun to join you."
"That's the spir--hey wait."
Within an hour of the murder victim being discovered, hotel security had posted armed guards at all entrances and exits. Restricted areas within the building were more restricted than usual. A guest trying to find, say, the freight elevator would have to contend with at least a couple of heavy steel doors, padlocked shut. The elevator itself required an ID badge to operate, and a key to access the loading dock. From the loading dock, a second freight elevator, requiring a second key, provided access to a sub-basement.
Barton and Sofen didn't have to learn any of that, however, because they came in through the floor.
The exact nature of Karla's phasing abilities was not fully understood. The ancient Kree believed her moonstone embodied the fundamental force of gravity. Modern researchers on Earth had speculated that its powers had more to do with disrupting the Higgs field, changing the nature of mass in an object, and its macroscopic interactions with other matter.
The resulting anomaly would not be gravitational but gravimetric, confounding Newtonian observation without technically violating classical mechanics. So Karla could negate her own mass without drifting into space like radiation, or levitate without becoming weightless, or transmute energy and matter without a particle accelerator.
As far as Clint was concerned, though, that stuff was for the eggheads to work out. For him, it was enough that she could bypass hotel security by phasing through walls, and--if she held onto him--so could he.
She'd held him in a waistlock as they glided through each floor of the building. He could feel her breath on the back of his neck. It was as intimate as they'd been since...
"There," he said, a few moments after they emerged from the ceiling of the sub-basement.
"I don't see anything," Karla replied. That was understandable. The only light source was her own alien energy.
But Clint was used to acquiring targets in unfavorable conditions. "At eight o'clock," he explained, "about thirty feet away." She carried him along that course, until they were both satisfied that there were no major obstacles in the way. By the time they touched down on the floor, she had restored their intrinsic mass to normal.
Clint wanted some more light, but he didn't bother asking for it. He knew she'd have it covered, just as she had on dozens of Thunderbolts missions. Karla emitted a faint glow--bright enough to see by, but dim enough to confuse an interloper--and they got their first good look at their surroundings.
The sub-basement was ancient and filthy. It reminded Clint of Al Capone's vault, except for the large, modern chest freezer plugged into the corner. It was pretty much like he'd expected--the Qamari staff didn't want to call a coroner, but they couldn't leave the body in the kitchen, so they carted it downstairs with whatever they had on hand. And since no one was supposed to come looking for the freezer, let alone get this far, it wasn't locked.
Clint glanced to Karla, as if to confirm she had no objections, and lifted the lid. His plan was to gather whatever forensic evidence he could, as quickly as possible, and get out before they were caught.
Instead he found Laura Hamilton staring up at him.
He drew back, aghast. He'd tried to convince himself she was fine. That she was laying low to make sure she didn't blow his cover. That she'd made it out of whatever trouble Karla had--
He forced himself to look back in the freezer. He had to confirm what he'd seen at first glance.
He didn't want to.
But he had to be sure.
Hamilton had a burn mark on her blouse. It surrounded a chest wound. Consistent with a high-powered laser beam.
He glared at Moonstone. She already knew why. "Clint--"
"Did you kill her?"
"Why would I--?"
"Did you kill her?" His voice was low and hoarse. He knew there was no point in asking. She could have done it. She'd certainly lie if she had. He couldn't stop her. But he had to find out.
Karla winced, and gave him that look. The one she made whenever she couldn't explain herself. Because she knew whatever she said next would sound like a lie. He could see she wanted to set up her answer--pour a bottle of ketchup all over it so it didn't taste so bad--but he wasn't going to put up with that. So he just stood there and stared at her, as the frustration in her face built up to a release.
"No," she finally answered. "I didn't kill her."
"Awright," he muttered. "Now make me believe that."
She seethed at his arrogant command, but did as she was told. "All I wanted was to infiltrate this science conference," she began. "Stealing her papers and her cover story was the easiest way to do that. But I didn't need to kill her to do that."
"That doesn't mean you wouldn't have."
She wanted to fight him on that point, but... "No, it doesn't. I could have shot her like this, and stashed the body somewhere. But if I had, why would I agree to bring you here?"
"You didn't," he said. "I had to back you into it."
"By promising to make enough of a mess to blow our cover," she reminded him. "That wouldn't be good enough to force me into confessing a murder!"
He rubbed his temple. "Maybe. Or maybe you just decided you'd finagle your way out of that later."
"What? That doesn't even make sense, Clint. If I'd killed Hamilton, I wouldn't even want you to know she was dead. So the smart play would be to incinerate the body and dump whatever was left in Bărjñőv Harbor."
"All that means," Clint suggested, "is this could be the work of somebody who's not as smart as she thinks she is."
If anyone else had implied she wasn't as smart as she thought she was, Karla would have just deflected the insinuation with an unflappable smile, or a cutting remark. But it was something else entirely to hear it from Clint.
"And just what do you mean by that?" she demanded. Her tone was intended to make him choose his next words very carefully.
He didn't. "You're sloppy, Karla. You always have been. You're just better than most people at talking your way around it, that's all."
"You think I'm stupid enough to kill someone you know," she fumed, gesturing to Agent Hamilton's body, "then lead you straight to the body, and then expect to talk my way around that?"
"No," he muttered. "I think you're sloppy enough to kill someone without a plan. And if that leads to trouble, you're short-sighted enough to decide you can fix it later. If you can't fix it later, you play for more time, and expect a guy like me to just roll over for you. And it's not gonna work on me, but you're too cocky to see that."
He had a point, which just made it worse. He didn't need to hit below the belt. But that didn't mean she couldn't. "Sure, you'd like to think I'm the idiot, wouldn't you?" She pointed straight at the corpse. "But this is your fault, Barton. You were attached to this mission to protect her, and you failed. Just like you failed every woman who ever counted on you."
She stared straight into his eyes as she said this. And it almost worked. He almost wavered. She could see it on his face. But he blinked, and grit his teeth, and stared right back at her.
"You finished?" he said, but not as stoically as he meant to. She'd hurt him, all right, but not enough to shut him down. It was only enough to make him think twice about giving her the benefit of the doubt.
Sofen sighed, and ran her hand through her hair. "Do you think I did it?"
"She was shot with a laser--"
"Answer the question."
"The angle's all weird, unless the killer was floating ten feet in the air--"
"Do you think I did it, Clint?"
He hated being interrupted, almost as much as she did. It took all his willpower not to lash out at her--she could see his tension just from the veins in his forearms. Still, he wasn't mad so much as he looked...disappointed. Even now, he insisted on seeing her as a wayward pupil. It was galling...but possibly useful.
"I don't know," he finally said. "I sure hope not."
"That's fair, I suppose." She took a step back, and held out her palms, almost like an animal trainer trying to calm an unruly predator. "Then what do you intend to do?"
He looked away from her, staring at the corpse. Eventually he grumbled, "Find out who did this." Then he looked back at Karla. "And make 'em pay."
"Then it's in my best interest to assist you."
"'Assist?' You ain't exactly John Stockton."
"Perhaps you have a tedious sports reference involving quid pro quo? I want to be exonerated of this crime, and the simplest way to get that would be to help you get what you want--the real culprit."
Clint mulled it over, but she could tell he'd need more convincing. "You could just run," he said.
"True," she admitted. "But, as I recall, the last time I left you and didn't do anything wrong, you tracked me down--" Her voice faltered. "...And...shot me."
She crossed her arms, and shook her head. "This isn't worth arguing about. You don't trust me, but you're stuck with me. You may as well avail yourself of my talents."
"Suppose I do," he countered, "and you futz with the investigation?"
"Then you'd be wise to keep me where you can watch me 'futz.'" It was a pat answer, and she knew that wouldn't satisfy him, but she stood by it. "You're the one who said I'm...sloppy. Either I'm stupid enough to kill this woman and let you find out, or I'm cunning enough to mislead you under your own nose. So which will it be?"
She knew she had him when he stroked his chin. "I guess we'll find out," he conceded.
He rolled his eyes and turned to the open freezer, bending over to examine Hamilton's corpse. "You're the doctor. Can you give me a time of death?"
"Probably not." She stood beside him, and scanned the body for anything that might be useful. "I doubt rigor hasn't set in--there's no sign they had difficulty repositioning her to fit in this space. Which would mean she wasn't dead for very long before she was placed in the kitchen freezer. The killer was probably counting on the low temperature to confound forensic analysis."
Clint pulled a pair of archery gloves from his pocket and slid them onto his hands. They didn't even cover all of his fingers, but it was the closest he could get to actual medical equipment. Karla started to object--with her powers, she could conjure latex gloves on her own hands--but she realized there was no point. Clint knew she could palpate the subject for him...he just didn't want her to.
He lifted the left side of Hamilton's jacket, and carefully slid a smartphone from the liner pocket. "At least we know," he said, "she wasn't killed for this."
"They may not have known she was a SHIELD agent," Karla suggested.
"Or they did know," Clint replied, "and didn't think she had intel they needed." He started to examine the phone, when he caught something out of the corner of his eye. "What's that?"
"On her shirt." He reached back into the freezer and smoothed out the fabric on her blouse, which had been hidden under the jacket until a moment earlier. "Some kinda glob of somethin'..."
"Wax," Karla decided. "A pellet of paraffin wax. It must have been warm when it landed there, to stick like that. It could have come from the hotel's spa..."
"Worth lookin' into." But Clint was satisfied that could wait; his attention was now dominated by Hamilton's phone. After several minutes of trying to activate it himself, he resigned himself to pressing the corpse's right thumb to the screen. Then the right index finger. Then the other fingers on the right hand. "If we're lucky, though," he muttered as he worked, "Laura might have seen it coming, and had something about it in here."
"She probably only had one or two fingers mapped to the phone," Karla observed.
"I know that," Clint grumbled, pulling at the left hand. "It's figurin' out which fingers that's the trick..."
Once he tried the left index finger, the phone came to life. It displayed a list of apps, and quickly presented pop-ups for the notifications that Hamilton had received since her death.
Clint frowned at one of them. "Aw, Laura, no..."
Karla waited for him to show her what he'd found, but he just stood there, staring at the screen. When she stepped over to see for herself, she saw a text message that explained his shock:
"Bjarnov contact reports rv did not occur on sched. Comrade Hamilton to contact THEM reg director at once, confirm SHIELD cover not compromised"
Clint Barton was on his own now.
Set aside that Moonstone had taken Agent Hamilton's place in his cover story. Never mind that Hamilton had turned up dead the next day. Never mind that the hotel was firewalled and he couldn't get a message to SHIELD even if he thought it would help. All that aside, he still couldn't trust anyone.
Hamilton was a double agent for THEM. He had the proof right in his pocket: the last text message she'd ever receive. Technically it wasn't airtight. (Why would THEM have sent such sensitive information to a SHIELD-issued phone? How could anyone be sure the message came from the real THEM?) But Clint's gut said it was true, and no amount of quibbling about it was going to reason it away.
So right away there were several possible motives for Hamilton's murder. The most obvious was that Karla had killed her, the better to take her place. This would mean that Karla had done a piss-poor job covering her tracks, and was now aiding his investigation of her own crime to confuse him; unfortunately, every bit of that was very plausible.
Theory #2 was that someone discovered Hamilton was part of an undercover SHIELD mission to keep the Heartstone from falling into the wrong hands, and killed her to thwart that mission. In this case, there was an excellent chance that the killer would track down anyone else involved in Hamilton's mission, and therefore Clint himself would be a target. So might Karla, for that matter. All the more reason to keep her close.
The added wrinkle of THEM opened up two more possibilities. If Hamilton accepted SHIELD's mission for some ulterior motive, some under-the-table business involving her true allegiance, that business might have ended badly. Then again, if SHIELD itself learned of her betrayal, the organization might see fit to arrange her death in response. So those scenarios expanded the field of suspects to literally anyone who might be working for SHIELD or THEM, which amounted to literally anyone, period.
He needed to narrow that down.
Clint wasn't much of a detective, but (as usual) he figured it couldn't be much different from archery. A detective would size up the situation, identify their best available lead, consider all the ways to investigate that lead, and then investigate until they had more information. Replace "lead" with "target" and "investigate" with "shoot arrows," and Clint might as well have been fighting an army of killer robots. Easy-peasy.
At this point, he only had one lead: The body had been found in the kitchen freezer. So Detective Barton considered his next move, and decided to take his "wife" to lunch.
"This is stupid, Hawkeye," Karla told him (more than once).
"So I think better on a full stomach," he said. "Sue me."
"We need to follow up on THEM," she pressed. She could afford to speak freely; the hotel restaurant was deserted this long after the lunch rush. "If they're involved we can't take any chances."
He sipped his water and imagined what a terrible sharpshooter Karla would make. Instead of pinpointing the best shot, she was always dwelling on bigger, louder distractions. Maybe that was what she'd seen in him. "We can't follow up on somethin' we barely understand," he shrugged. "We gotta know who was in that kitchen, and when. That'll lead us to THEM, if they're even involved."
She furrowed her brow, the way she always did when she lost an argument. "Have it your way," she said, "but let's at least play our parts. This isn't the kind of...culinary service...you're used to..."
"Hey," he grinned. "I've had the best cookin' you can get from Tony Stark's butler."
She rolled her eyes. "Yes, and I'm sure he's paid enough to pretend to enjoy serving you corn dogs and funnel cake. These people aren't. They're trained to present a certain...savoir faire, and they expect it in kind from their clientele."
"Is that so...?" Clint couldn't tell if she was trying to bait him, or if she simply didn't notice that she was insulting him. "Well, by all means, lady, show me how it's done."
He directed her attention to the waiter approaching their table. He was wearing a crisp tuxedo, and shoes that probably cost more than anything Clint had packed for this trip. Without missing a beat, Karla straightened in her chair, assuming the poise of someone who deserved to give orders to such a man. "Foie gras," she declared, "with poached pear salad and a glass of Barsac--very young, very chilled."
The waiter nodded and turned to Clint, who was just as ready. "I'll have a caviar burrito."
There was an awkward silence.
It lasted longer than he'd expected.
"What's the matter?" Clint asked. Karla's face was sinking into her hands. "You've got caviar, right?"
"Sir, I don't--"
"It ain't too hard to make--hell, you can turn anything into a burrito if you try. Tell you what, I'll just fix it myself." He rose from his chair and made his way toward the kitchen.
"Sir..." Only years of training and etiquette prevented the man from raising his voice. Unfortunately for him, a lifetime of hard knocks had taught Clint not to stop for anything less.
Clint flung open the door and took stock of the kitchen. "Awright," he blustered, "where do you fellas keep the tortillas?"
There were several cooks in the kitchen. All of them were irritated by the intrusion, but none of them spoke English. They yelled at him in at least a couple of languages, pointing at the door with whatever utensils they had in hand.
"WHERE DOOO? YOU FEL-LAS? KEEEEP? THE TORRR-TEEE-YUHHHS?" He could do the "ugly American" bit in his sleep.
"Sir." Clint heard the waiter behind him, and thought for a moment that the little man had finally grown a spine and followed him. Then he turned around and saw Karla standing in the doorway too; that explained that. "I'm afraid I must ask you leave."
"Aw, this won't take a minute, son," Clint insisted. "Just scoop some caviar onto a tortilla. Guess we might have to mash up our own guac if you don't have any. Actually, a caviar breakfast burrito sounds pretty good..."
"Robert." Karla had to use his assumed name, but the mortified tone was genuine.
He dismissed her. "Just a second, hon. I just realized this is where that body was found this morning! Any of you guys see anything about that?"
"Sir, they don't speak English--"
Clint pulled the waiter close and wrapped an overly friendly arm around him. "Then translate, bud! Ask if they have any idea who left a stiff in here."
The man groaned and muttered in Rumeki to the kitchen staff--Clint figured it was something like "Tell him what he wants to know and maybe he'll leave." The cooks were still annoyed, but began to talk it over, apparently eager to get this over with.
"None of them saw anyone come through here with a body," the waiter summarized. "Not in the last 36 hours. At least one of them would have been on shift."
That might have meant that the murder occurred the night before Clint arrived in Bărjñőv, or earlier. It was worth keeping in mind, but Clint wasn't feeling it. Thirty-six hours was an awfully long time for none of the kitchen staff to notice a corpse in the freezer.
Of course, he couldn't ignore the possibility that these cooks were involved, or covering for the killer. A thorough questioning might shake something loose, but that wasn't going to happen here, now. Language barriers aside, it stood to reason that the kitchen staff would provide alibis for one another, and close ranks if anyone tried to break those alibis. It was an obvious target, but a terrible shot.
Karla was livid. The cooks were glaring at the waiter, who was maybe a minute away from calling security. Clint tuned it out, and looked for another angle.
A pot of noodles was boiling over. The sink was overloaded with dirty dishes--between the conference and the discovery of the body, the staff hadn't caught up yet. There was a small fixture on the wall with nothing in it. All the equipment looked recently used, but pretty clean. The deep fryer in particular was sparkling. Someone had spilled flour on the floor near the freezer where the body was discovered, and by now a dozen or more people had tracked through it. A broom was leaning in the corner by the freezer.
"Where were you guys during the fire?" Clint asked.
The waiter was sweating. "Fire?"
He pointed out the empty fixture on the wall. "Somebody used your fire extinguisher. I'm thinking something happened to your fryer last night."
He could see the waiter starting to resist, but he shot him a look that kept that argument from starting. Another round of conversation in Rumeki, and finally: "The kitchen had to be evacuated for a few minutes until the smoke cleared."
"When was this?" Karla asked.
"Around 10 last night."
"Well now." Clint was grinning ear to ear. "Seems like maybe somebody mighta gotten in here during all that hubbub. What about it?"
The waiter groaned as he translated the question. One of the cooks was exceptionally irritated that this was still going on. He marched right up to Clint, staring him right in the eyes as he shook a ladle at him. "Look, I'm speaking in Rumeki," Clint imagined him to be saying, "but even you can figure out I'm calling you a colossal douchecanoe!" He dramatically walked over to the part of the floor coated in flour, and gestured to it with his utensil. "Obviously something really important happened over here!! I can't explain it to you in English, you stupid stupid American!! But whatever the hell I'm saying, it totally explains why I think you need to stop asking these stupid questions!!! Stupid!!!!"
Clint shrugged it off and turned to the waiter.
"He says that even if anyone had gotten into the kitchen during the fire, they couldn't have carried the body into the freezer. He says that he spilled that flour on the floor before the fire, and there were no tracks in it afterwards. He says he already explained all of this to Inspector Burduli this morning."
"Is there any proof of that?" Clint followed up.
The waiter didn't even bother to relay the question. "Everyone that was here last night will swear to it. If that won't suffice, you'll really have to consult Inspector Burduli. Now I must insist that you--"
"Yeah, yeah..." Clint blew him off and grabbed Karla by the waist on his way out. "I can tell when I've worn out my welcome. C'mon, Liv, this place oughta have a decent vending machine somewhere..."
On their way out of the restaurant, she pried his arm away from her waist, content to let anyone who happened to see know she wasn't pleased with her "husband." Clint didn't mind. The angrier she became with him, the easier it would be to play good dignitary/bad tourist.
"You know what this means?" He asked her.
"That the fire was a diversion," she concluded, coldly. "And one of the cooks either is the killer, or covering for them."
"Seems that way. Unless..."
Clint suddenly didn't want to look her in the eye. "Unless there weren't any tracks in the flour...because the killer had the power to float over it."
Inspector Burduli's office was spartan, devoid of any personal accoutrements or decorations. That immediately put Karla Sofen on alert, because it reminded her of herself.
This wasn't just a man who would be difficult to read. He had actively worked to limit anyone's ability to read him, closing off the most subtle glimpses into his personality. That was going to make her next task that much tougher.
"Doctor Sherwood," he said, in a deep, Russian rumble that told her very little. "What brings you here? I would have expected you to have returned to the conference by now."
"Yes," she replied, "I really should get back to it. But first I wanted to personally apologize for my husband's earlier conduct, when they..." She trailed off, not wanting to sound too inured to the discovery of a corpse.
"Of course, of course. The matter is closed, I assure you." The "matter" was that Clint stuck his nose where it didn't belong and Burduli had bloodied it, so there wasn't much for him to forgive. Still, it set him up to be in a magnanimous mood. "How is, errr, Mister Sherwood?"
"He'll be fine, but I'm afraid he hasn't learned his lesson." She glanced to the office sofa, and then back to Burduli, wanting him to feel she needed his permission to sit. "He's rather insistent on finding out who killed that poor woman."
Burduli sat behind his large desk, steepling his fingers. "As I tried to explain this morning, a full investigation will be impossible until after the conference. It would be better for everyone if you could...errr...control him."
She couldn't argue with that. "Indeed. I take it you already heard about what just happened in the kitchen."
He nodded. "If I may ask, Doctor...how is it that someone as cultured as yourself came to be involved with someone so...errr...?"
Burduli chortled, but with his booming voice it sounded more like Dracula cackling from hell. He might have let her unexpected choice of words end the aside, but Karla had no such luck. "Yes, how would such a...boorish man possibly...interest such a charming and...errr...sophisticated woman...?"
She had a choice here. She could make up a story wholecloth. The best lies, however, had some foundation in the truth. If he'd wanted to know Olivia Sherwood's favorite color, it was safer to tell him Karla Sofen's than to visibly spend any time thinking of another option. But that meant explaining why Olivia would marry Robert Sherwood by way of examining why Karla would have ever fallen...fallen in with a moron like Clint Barton.
So she could say that in spite of his rough edges, Robert Sherwood was doggedly loyal--even to those who never deserved his faith. She could say that when she was terrified of losing her sanity, the only thing that grounded her was the reassuring tone of his voice. She could say there was a time when they lost one another, and when she returned to him, he was still waiting for her.
"What can I say?" she smiled. "He's a good fuck, Inspector. But that's not what I came to talk to you about. I've told Robert to stay in his room, but he's adamant that I get him the records from last night's room service orders."
Burduli straightened in his chair. "To what end?"
"You must understand, he's fascinated by conspiracy theories. He's convinced he can solve the murder by poring over the raw data. Normally I wouldn't encourage him, but in this case it might be just the thing to keep him out of trouble for the rest of our stay."
He stroked his beard. "I would, of course, approve of keeping Mr. Sherwood, errr, preoccupied. However, you must appreciate my position. The information you're requesting is not only confidential, it is potentially related to an ongoing criminal investigation."
That might have been the end of it, if she were dealing with an honorable, law-abiding man. But Karla knew better. He masked his intentions well, but his eyes darted up and down, sizing her up. Some of that was just a man testing his boundaries with a woman. But she knew a grafter willing to negotiate a bribe when she saw one.
"We both know the investigation won't even begin until this conference is over," she said. "Until then, everyone and everything in this building is in legal limbo. So what's the harm in indulging me?"
He pretended to give that some thought. "You pose an interesting hypothetical scenario, Doctor. Let us suppose, then, that so long as we are confined in this resort, there is no law but what we make for ourselves. What would a man in my position demand for a favor?"
She leaned forward in her seat. "Under those circumstances, a man in...your position...would have me at a disadvantage."
"An entertaining notion." Burduli rose from his chair, and practically strutted around the desk to stand over her. The fly of his pants was now at her eye level, and she half expected him to unzip it at any moment. "Then, as you said, what is the harm in indulging me?"
Karla glanced up to his face and smirked. Negotiations had just become much more complicated. She had no moral objection to fellating a perfect stranger, but if it was to be done it would be on her terms. In this case, though, Burduli the one holding all the cards. All she could do, then, was string him along until she could come up with a Plan B.
So she batted her eyes and played innocent. "Wh-why, Inspector, what kind of woman do you take me for?"
Burduli chortled. "The kind that would be more trouble than she is worth, I think." He stepped back, his trousers thankfully still in place. "A lifetime in Russian intelligence has made me cautious of becoming...errr....entangled with women of your intellect."
This was a relief to Karla. Plan B was starting to look like "beat him senseless and steal his files," and she was having trouble working out the part where he'd never know it was her. "Then I take it you have something else in mind..."
"I understand you struck up a conversation with Mr. Balaam this morning."
The mere mention of the name threw her off guard. "I beg your pardon?"
"He's a mysterious fellow, isn't he?" Burduli returned to his desk, and tapped a few keys on his computer. "So, errr...private, and eccentric. There are stories of his bizarre lifestyle..."
"I wouldn't know," Karla muttered.
"But you're in a position to find out."
Her eyes widened. "Are you saying you want....me...to spy on him?"
"I'm saying," he replied, "that information, like the records you asked for, is a commodity. When a businessman finds his clientele cannot afford for his wares, he would do well to obtain better merchandise...and wealthier clientele."
"I...I-I-I can't..." she gasped. "You're asking me to be a party to blackmail."
But Burduli was too slick to admit that. "I'm not asking you to do anything. I'm merely extending the line of thought you suggested. In a...errrr, legal limbo, as you put it, a person would have to do whatever she could get away with." His choice of pronoun was not accidental, or subtle. "Otherwise, she might have to deal with others getting away with...other things."
Karla frowned. "Such as?"
"Best not to dwell upon it." The inspector reached across the desk to offer her a USB stick. "After all, an intelligent woman such as yourself is certain to make the right decisions."
He didn't really need to issue an actual threat. That he was already offering Karla the files showed that he was confident he could carry it out if she forced his hand. If she didn't dig up something on Balaam, he'd dig up something on her. And she couldn't very well let that happen, for reasons she didn't want him to suspect.
She hung her head and slowly took the stick.
"That's right," he purred. "I knew you'd understand."
She looked up, narrowing her eyes as she glared at him, and stormed out of his office. She could feel his gaze on her back, watching her leave with that smug little grin...
...which was just the way she wanted it. After all, he'd never have given her what she wanted for such a small price, if he'd known she was already planning to spy on Balaam anyway.
Reading data off of a USB stick with nothing but a smartphone was no easy feat, but the Avengers had tricked out Clint's device with a few extra features. A neutrino emitter just under the camera lens scanned the states of each memory cell, allowing an app on the phone to reconstruct the files byte-by-byte. Through the miracle of technology, it would only take a few minutes to format the information. He waited at the desk of his suite, standing by with a pen and a notepad.
Karla stood over his shoulder. "That's a little...insecure, isn't it?"
"Nobody knows to be looking for this," he said, gesturing at the paper. "That makes it a lot safer than the little rectangle that everybody expects to have all my passwords and credit card numbers." He glanced up at her. "Did you get the exact time of the kitchen fire, too?"
"Inspector Burduli...wasn't forthcoming," she admitted. "But the concierge was more helpful. According to her, the man on duty last night logged it between 10:05 and 10:10."
"I'd rather get it straight from the horse's mouth, but it'll do for now." Their working theory was that the killer used the fire as a diversion to dump Hamilton's body in the freezer. Arranging that would be a lot easier if the kitchen staff was preoccupied with their work. So he'd sent Karla to get the room service records, on the hunch that there would be a surge in orders just before the fire.
Clint drummed his fingers as he waited. He had it in him to be patient, but not with a lull this awkward. Karla wasn't much for small talk, especially considering how they'd been getting along since last night. "So how'd you get this thing anyway?"
"What? I spoke with Burduli, just as we decided..."
"No, how did you get him to give it to you?"
"I convinced him. What's the difference?"
He didn't have a good answer. "Just wonderin'," he muttered. "Y'know, how far did you have to go to...?"
"I resent that implication," she told him.
"That I must have used sex to get this data." He started to defend himself, but she wouldn't have it. "First of all, if I were a man, you wouldn't care because I'd be the one 'scoring.' Second, why would it be any of your business? I'm not one of your precious little Avengers. I'm not actually your wife--I'm not even your lover anymore. My 'purity' is not your concern."
"It is if you blow our cover," he pointed out. "People would notice if you fooled around all weekend and I acted like I didn't care."
"Who's to say that 'the Sherwoods' don't have an open marriage?" Karla suggested. "There's no rulebook here, Clint--we can make it up as we go. As long as we're here, we can be anyone we want."
"Then who do you want to be?"
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Clint groaned and rubbed his temple. "Look, Karla, I get that I'm not the boss of you. But If we're gonna catch the murderer and deal with that Heartstone thingamjig, we have to cooperate. That means keepin' our stories straight. If you want to change yours, you need to tell me what you're changing it to."
"Fine." Karla sat at the edge of the desk, giving her a few inches to tower over Clint in his chair. What she said next was calm, clinicial, seemingly prepared: "This is a loveless marriage. I think you're an insensitive oaf that doesn't know the first thing about women, but I keep you around because the sex is good. I'm emotionally distant and private, so you wouldn't know what's on my mind even if you asked. We both sleep around and I don't care, as long as you stay out of my affairs. I'm a sybarite--I came here to do my job, but I'm far more interested in finding ways to please myself."
He thought that was supposed to astonish him. It didn't. "Really goin' out on a limb there, huh?"
"A minute ago you said we can be anyone we want," he reminded her. "But from the sound of it you want to be pretty much who you already are."
That bothered her--he could see it in her eyes. "That's what you've never understood. I never wanted to be anyone else. I just want to be myself without being disrespected for it. I just wish that you'd--"
"That I'd what?"
She struggled to answer, and that astonished him. "I started to say 'be someone else,'" she said, "but that's not quite it. Everyone else at this conference is going to be looking for things to get away with while they're here. You don't have to be above that. No one's going to find out. There's no SHIELD to answer to here. No Avengers looking down on you. No Thunderbolts for which to set an example."
"For all the difference it makes." She rolled her eyes. "You're vibrating."
"What?" It took him a moment to realize she was talking about his phone. The tedious process of transferring data from Burduli's memory stick was complete, and he hurriedly began scribbling down anything that might be relevant to their investigation.
His hunch seemed to be paying off. In the hour before the kitchen fire, eleven different suites placed an order. It might have been a coincidence; all those people could have gotten the munchies around the same time. But if even a few of those orders had been part of some coordinated effort, then any of those eleven suites could have been hiding a clue.
One of them was his.
"When were you gonna tell me you ordered room service last night?" he grumbled.
"I didn't," Karla replied. "I suggested it. You weren't interested."
He showed her the record on his phone. "Suite 815, Robert Sherwood, 9:23 pm. Except 'Robert' wasn't here yet."
She stood up and paced, looking very confused. He figured it was a good sign--Karla had a good poker face, but this wasn't it. Then she made a connection. "That would...almost explain--"
"A little after 10," she said, "a man came to the door trying to deliver fried calamari. I told him he had the wrong room, but he insisted I open the door. I said I was shaving my legs, but he wouldn't take no for an answer. Eventually he admitted it was a gift from an 'admirer' that didn't want to be identified. I...convinced him to leave." He wondered what that meant, and she must have been able to tell. "I made up a very...detailed story about a yellowish discharge coming from my--"
"Awright, awright..." Clint groaned. "But I don't get why you'd pass up free room service. That doesn't sound like you."
"I suppose it wouldn't, if I were as stupid as you think I am." She wasn't going to let him forget that crack back in the basement. "After all the trouble I went through to infiltrate this conference, I wasn't about to take any chances. Assuming the 'secret admirer' routine wasn't a trap, it could've been someone who'd realize I'd taken Hamilton's place. Besides you, that is."
"What made you so sure it wasn't me?" Clint asked. "Suppose the food was a pre-arranged SHIELD signal."
"I considered that. But I couldn't see you signing on to any plan that left you eating squid all night."
He couldn't argue with that. Still, he couldn't dismiss the possibility that Karla was her own "secret admirer." If she had committed the murder, it wouldn't be difficult for her to place the order, sneak down to the kitchen, stash Laura's body, and get back to her room quickly enough to make it seem like she'd been there the whole time.
He was lost in thought a little too long for Karla. "So," she said, "it stands to reason my secret admirer could have placed all of these orders, and somehow made each call appear to come from these suites."
"You're still working out how I could have done it, aren't you?"
He shrugged. "I have to."
"I suppose you do," she said, "but not right now. You have ten other leads. If any of them has something, you're not going to find it by dwelling on me." She checked her hair in the mirror and turned to leave. "I've got to head back to the conference. You need to stay out of sight the rest of the day."
They could at least agree on that. He was supposed to be sulking in the suite with a busted nose and a compulsion to analyze Burduli's records...without any special gadgets. "If you run into anyone on this list..."
"I'll learn what I can..."
"Just schmooze with 'em for now. Size 'em up. I don't want any of them to be suspicious if an' when we gotta poke around in their suites."
"I know what I'm doing, Clint." She quickly closed the door behind her, eager to have the final word.
Clint sat at the desk for another few minutes, idly tossing his pen in the air as he took stock of things. He was taking a big chance letting Karla run around on her own. He tried telling himself he was worried about botching his mission, or the murder investigation, or his credibility in law enforcement. But in spite of everything, what really ate at him was the feeling that he might not be there if Karla needed him.
"Figures," he said aloud, "that I'd wanna do the white knight bit for a lady that's bulletproof."
Karla had wanted a moment to herself in the elevator, to collect herself after arguing with Clint. She didn't get it.
When the doors opened she found a woman inside, staring back at her. She was tall, brown, and thin, wearing a satin blazer that barely fastened at her waist and sheer beaded pants that barely concealed anything. Karla quickly sized her up--a model, perhaps, with enough wealth and poise to reveal no immediate vulnerability--and stepped into the back of the car to ignore her.
"Enjoying the conference?" the woman said, in a Brazilian accent.
"I suppose," Karla answered, like someone trying to avoid a conversation.
"I'll be hosting an...intimate...gathering tonight, in the penthouse."
"Good for you."
"The guests have been selected on the basis of aesthetic and...prowess," she continued, undeterred. "I must insist that you be among them."
"You insist?" At this point, Karla realized the woman had been admiring her like a Modigliani up for auction. "Who the hell are you?"
"Izalene, darling!" The elevator opened at the seventh floor to reveal Janso, the pallid dandy who had arrived late to the morning introductions. When he noticed Karla, he added, "I assume you've invited this delightful creature to tonight's, shall we say, 'horizontal refreshment.'"
"Obviously," Izalene answered, and immediately returned to making her case to Karla. "I am renowned for my skill in identifying individuals with certain...exceptional qualities. My associates would appreciate those qualities in you. Exhaustively." She didn't hesitate, or smile, or do anything to indicate that this was incredibly bizarre. She was, with icy sincerity, declaring that Karla could qualify as the guest of honor at an orgy.
This was not news to Karla, of course. But she resented being treated like a commodity, however precious. "Your 'associates' will have to exhaust themselves. I have other plans."
"Please," Izalene countered, "do not insult us both by suggesting you'd prefer the company of your slovenly husband."
A fair point, Karla decided. So she dangled a carrot. "Actually, I had hoped to learn more about Mr. Balaam..."
"Baʿal Balaam," the other woman corrected.
"Yes, yes, that's the one."
"How very convenient. He has accepted my invitation. Perhaps I will see you there, beneath him."
It was precisely the sort of catty little remark that would make Karla furious (because she hadn't thought of it first). But for the moment she was just pleased that Izalene had taken the bait, and revealed new information about the man who'd slipped her his hotel key. So all she said in reply was: "Perhaps."
When the elevator opened at the ground floor, a dapper septugenarian was there waiting, and very relieved to find Janso inside. "There you are, Miggerus!" he grumbled. "Where the devil have you been?"
"Hmp...nothing you should concern yourself with, my good man. I merely thought it proper for one to, ahem, powder one's nose before attending to one's business, eh?"
"A fine idea, sir, if only you'd finished a half hour sooner!" Karla recognized the upper-crust accent (and the mustache) from breakfast: Hector Velasco, a reclusive venture capitalist. He was clearly upset, but too dignified to let it slip into his body language. "The breakout sessions have already begun, and every moment you waste is costing me opportunities!"
Karla began to follow the two men as they quibbled over sources of funding, various proposals (presumably to exploit the power of the "Heartstone") and the finer points of negotiation. She was curious why someone of Velasco's status would need to bother associating with the thoroughly unimpressive Miggerus (really?) Janso. Or maybe not so unimpressive, if Izalene had let him in on her exclusive sex party.
It was only then that Karla noticed Izalene hadn't gone with the rest of them toward the conference center. That was odd--why would someone like her even be involved in this event, and then furthermore steer clear of the proceedings? It was possible someone had contracted her purely to organize "entertainment" for the weekend, but Karla was certain there was more to this woman than that.
Part of her wanted to pursue the matter, even at the cost of her obligations to Clint and her own personal interest in the conference. But she understood herself well enough to resist the impulse. Between the conference, Clint, Balaam, and solving a murder, her plate was too full to indulge in "alpha female" posturing.
No, her priority was clear. Velasco and Janso were both on the suspect lists, insofar as they ordered room service around the time of the murder. Velasco and Janso were wandering around away from the conference for no apparent reason. Velasco and Janso were working together on...something.
"Excuse me, gentlemen," she announced over their banter. "I seem to be going your way...I hope you don't think I'm eavesdropping..."
Velasco lit up when he finally noticed her. "Not at all, my dear, not at all! Mrs. Sherwood, isn't it?" She let the error pass. "We'd be delighted by your company, in fact."
"Then I'm in your debt," she replied. "After the unpleasantness this morning, I have some catching up to do. It's really quite interesting to overhear whatever you two are cooking up! I wasn't expecting everything to be moving so fast!"
"Oh my, that is my business here, m'lady." Janso gestured down the hall, encouraging the group to keep moving. "I, er...facilitate these sorts of...delicate ministrations."
"You must be quite formidable, then, to be recruited by someone with a reputation like Mr. Velasco." The rare double ass-kiss, with a flourish.
"'Hector,' if you please."
Karla feigned a shy smile. "Oh, but then I'd feel very silly letting you say 'Doctor Sherwood.'" Not that he had, so far, but if he noticed the oversight he'd be all the more grateful that she hadn't confronted him about it. "'Olivia.'"
"Olivia..." Velasco said the name as though it inspired him to recite Shakespeare. "Miggerus and I are on our way to wine and dine some of the more industrious fellows at the conference. I'm certain you could learn what you've missed if you were to grace us with your presence a while longer...?"
"The pleasure is all mine," she beamed. "And perhaps I'd be of more use than you'd imagine. I happen to be a cryptogeologist."
Janso clapped his hands together in amusement. "How deliciously serendipitous! Though I would humbly suggest that you speak up about such matters more promptly, Olivia. Such timidity might obstruct certain opportunities that your charm and beauty cannot reclaim."
She smiled at the fool. "I suppose that depends on the opportunities, doesn't it?"
After agreeing with Karla that he should keep out of sight, Clint waited a whole twenty-two minutes before wandering around the hotel.
He was restless, and he knew why. A SHIELD agent was dead. Karla. He'd taken a punch to the face. THEM was around somewhere. Karla. The nearest In-N-Out Burger was 6,624 miles away. Karla.
He needed to blow off steam, and 200 pushups weren't enough. So he tried running up the stairs, but it wasn't much of a challenge getting to the top of a fifteen-story building starting from the eighth floor. He was on his way back down when he discovered the indoor pool, one flight below the penthouse.
The pool was enormous, stretching across almost the entire floor. What little space remained was partitioned along the perimeter, with walls blocking off the exterior windows to create a more private atmosphere. But the best part for Clint was that he was the only one there.
He figured it would be like that for a while. The hotel staff had been there all day without relief, what with the entire building being sealed off as a crime scene. The guests were preoccupied with conference-related events, and it was unlikely that a pool party was on the agenda. There wasn't even a lifeguard on duty. Clint realized he might have the place to himself all evening.
There was just one problem--he hadn't packed a swimsuit. Even if he had, he wouldn't have wanted to run down to get it at the moment. All he could think about was the endless, shimmering, blue..min...escence...ish sea of...wavy...water.
"Nobody'll ever find out," he muttered to himself as he stripped naked.
He did a running dive into the pool, executed as perfectly as the last time he narrowly avoided a maritime explosion. The water was brisk and refreshing on his face and chest. On the other hand, the water was bitterly cold and painful on his nutsack and bunghole.
Once he'd warmed up he spent about half an hour doing laps. It was exactly what he'd needed. Swimming forced him to focus on breathing and pacing, and gave him little chance to let his thoughts ramble off in a dozen other directions. It as if a little voice in his head had been trying to tell him to do something just like this, and he'd just been too frazzled to listen.
The world around him seemed to fall away to the hum of the filtration system, the gurgle of water in his ears, and his rhythmic breathing. And then the little voice in his head wondered where his phone was.
Clint thrashed and sputtered to a stop, realizing he was pretty much boned if anything happened to his phone. Just the idea that he might have forgotten to take it with him, or that he'd somehow dropped it in the stairwell, or whatever, was enough to strike panic in him. It was, of course, absurd to imagine that he'd kept the phone safe all the way across Europe just to lose it now. But he'd let himself relax enough to feel like he could lose his phone, which meant that he was capable of doing it, which meant he might have already lost it like eight times already.
Instinctively he reached for his pants pocket, but of course he'd left all his clothes in a pile on the other end of the pool. "Duh," he said aloud, and made his way back.
As he climbed out of the pool, it felt like half the water was pulled along with him, sloshing onto the deck and pouring off of his bare skin. The wind chill had to be at least ten degrees cooler than when he'd arrived. He figured he could grate cheese with his goosebumps, and his nipples could cut glass.
He was bent over reaching for his pants when he saw her staring at him.
Clint almost didn't recognize her, what with being distracted by his bits and pieces dripping all over the place. But with the way she stared at him, with those icy blue eyes, it had to be her. The strawberry blonde. The one who'd played footsie with him that morning.
"What do have we here?" she said, with a joyless smirk.
He rose to his full height and faced her. "So...this looks bad..."
She was wearing one of those flimsy little robes people wear when they're going to sit around the pool without actually swimming in it. It didn't leave much to the imagination, mostly because it was hanging open, revealing one of those low-cut one-piece swimsuits, like the one Elle Macpherson had on the cover of the 1988 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. In fact, as Clint gave it more thought, the suit was exactly like the one from that cover. He would know.
"I'm certain it's just the water."
"What?" He realized he'd neglected to cover his dick. "I, uh...yeah. Huh." Just then he noticed she was carrying a towel. "Yeah, um, maybe you could lend me your--"
She barely reacted, except to gracefully remove the towel from around her neck, and hold it out to him. Just as he was about to take it, she flung it away, into the pool. Clint watched it go, and then looked back at her in disbelief.
"I think I prefer you better this way," she said. "But it'd be amusing to watch you play fetch, too."
"Uh...huh." Clint decided this was getting weird, in a unexpectedly sexy way. Shrinkage was now the least of his concerns. "Well, as long as you don't mind," he replied, reaching down for his clothes, "I'll just be..."
"I wouldn't do that."
That was enough, somehow, for him to stop and look back at her. "OK, look, um...we haven't been formally introduced, but I think we kinda met at breakfast..."
She nodded. "You liked that, didn't you, freak?"
"I...I guess I was flattered, lady, but..." Clint started to take in her posture, her poise, her permanently awful disposition. This woman made Karla look like Squirrel Girl. He needed a way out of this. "I think you should know I'm married..."
"Do I look like I give a damn?"