Editor’s Note: This is the latest installment of our serial novel, “Over the Edge,” whose chapters are written by a collective of authors. Click to read Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8, and Chapter 9.
* * *
Wine and more red wine. If this were a movie, she wouldn’t have a headache. If this was a movie, Patricia might accentuate the regret. A sleepy, slightly sad look over to him. A shake of the head. A noticeable sigh. One small Greta Garbo tear ever so slowly and artfully cascading from lower eyelid to cheek.
Adam Jessex hadn’t exactly matched her expectations. Younger men, at least, brought prodigious energy, even exuberance to the occasion. Some joy, especially when done.
Ironically, the wine Jessex thought necessary to persuade Patricia to bed helped to undo him. And the added fifteen to twenty years didn’t help.
Patricia wrested his arm from across her chest, hoping this wouldn’t wake him, but his deep continuing snores made it clear that it would take something akin to a tornado to bring him back. She slowly extricated herself from his bed and found her bra and panties, sweatshirt and jeans beside her side of the bed. Thank God, she muttered, she’d be spared the small-talk.
* * *
They had dispensed with the rock, scissors, paper exercise when Natalia peremptorily volunteered. Patricia didn’t know it, but allowing the wine to outvote ambivalence, and her decision to temporarily share Adam Jessex’s bed had saved a life.
From her earliest days at the village, Natalia had grown to despise those who preyed on the weak. The innocent. Although to be fair it was harder and harder these days to find the innocent when so many had surrendered to self-absorption and greed. When there were so many bullies, child abusers, wife-beaters. Shouldn’t #metoo have been called #memillion? When even in American schools, victims became well-armed executioners.
Then there was Adam Jessex. It was one thing to rip off Swiss banks and American billionaires, even Russian oligarchs. But unforgiveable to hack/steal from hospitals and organizations caring for the sick and feeding the poor and saving the seals. Then, there were the journalists he had outed in Mexico, Turkey, and the Philippines. Unfortunately for Adam Jessex, his luck was about to run out and, to borrow one of Oleg’s favorite expression, the bitch karma, and her number one assistant in this case, Natalia, was in the rare position to seek and deliver retribution.
Dressed all in black and thoroughly masked, it was a piece of cake to disable his outdoor surveillance system in a matter of minutes. Natalia sent Oleg a photo of the license plate of the Honda Fit parked beside Jessex’s BMW. Almost immediately, Natalia saw Oleg’s return text: “Patricia Feinstein.” “Merde,” she replied. Expect the unexpected. Undoing the wires for the door alarm. Lock picks out. Refusing to think about Patricia. Time for that, if and when, she was in the line of fire.
Then a quick, but thorough reconnoiter of the premises. She had hoped she might have found Patricia on a couch, a spare room. But no, and with no other rooms left, onto the bedroom last. Looking over them, a recalculation. Even with the unexpected complication of a bedmate, she was fairly certain she could still wield the hypodermic with one hand while squelching any of Patricia’s cries with the other. Then sending her to a kind of sleep for a while.
Problem was Patricia would wake beside the dead, and jump to the head of the list of suspects. Natalia made another quick executive decision. When she was Essie, she and Patricia had shared too much in Switzerland. So, she left Jessex alive and snoring but pledged to herself that it was only a matter of time. And, as she left as silently as she arrived, she decided it was probably time to catch up with Tricia …
* * *
Peter Tock was none too pleased to find an empty Patricia-less room, then grew more and more peeved as nine p.m. turned into ten then eleven, past midnight into the morning. Trying to remember how it was, when as a younger man, it was a routine matter to spend hours without complaint and multiple aches and pains in autos, trucks, vans, conducting surveillance in foreign cities faraway.
Over the years he had grown more comfortable with a desk job and less awkward with the obligations of god-parenting. Though always a bit skeptical that he’d have success with the list of duties his secretary had prepared for him, the strong suggestions she had poached from the Church of England that he help his goddaughter make good choices in life, for herself and for others. Guiding her, somehow, to resist temptations that might harm her, and showing her how to care for God’s amazing world …
He suspected he might very well have permanently disqualified himself, flouting standard godfather/goddaughter protocol by conducting the professionally thorough twice-over search of her room. Her overnight absence, the pot, the hash, those few wilting mushrooms, more condoms than he wanted to find was quite the indictment of his manifest failures in the “resist temptation” department. Though, with a quick and clever flip of the mental switch, the condoms could, in fact, be considered a clear indication of success in the “good choice” category. Perhaps earning him a gold godfather star in the better safe than sorry column.
Peter Tock didn’t realize it but he wasn’t the only one waiting for Patricia. Natalia had gone directly from Adam Jessex to Patricia’s place. Immediately discovering the man in his black sedan. And with Oleg’s help quickly learning the black car hailed from a nameless government agency motor pool in DC. Her black outfit making it easy to circle behind and enter undetected through the back of Patricia’s place. It took Oleg about a minute and a half to figure out that the mystery man was Tock.
Natalia decided to check the room. Natalia gave Tock an A- for his search. He lost a few points for perfection, a particularly American liability. Items returned to their places with a bit too much precision. Natalia, with the advantage of those boarding school nights spent gossiping amidst Tricia’s mess, went back over everything, using a USB drive to add some of Oleg’s magic computer code in case they needed to access Patricia’s laptop in the future. Then restoring the few bits of carelessness Tock had obliterated.
* * *
Watching Patricia pull in and park her car, Peter Tock was smart enough to realize that now that he knew she was alive and safe, it paid not to get caught waiting/stalking, to possibly reveal he’d been there all night long. So, he drove back to his motel room to shower and to wait a bit until it made sense to invite her to lunch.
Natalia heard footsteps, then as Patricia unlocked the door and entered, she emerged silently from behind the door and moved quickly to clamp a hand over Patricia’s mouth to keep her from screaming. “Please don’t yell. I know what happens when you yell. Do you remember how you screamed at Princess Dolores de Armigault-Beauprey the afternoon she told Abby Scribner she was much too fat to play Juliet … You may not remember but you called her a stuck-up bitch – which she was – but no one had ever told the Princess off and she turned white and started to cry. At first you looked like you were going to apologize but you got this look in your eye, then said instead, “Dolores do us all a favor, forget the phony tears and apologize to Abigail.” And she did … So, can I take my hand away now?”
Patricia nodded, then stood there silently for a moment or two, steadying her breathing. Then swiftly moved to embrace Natalia. It was only a few minutes later that it dawned on her that Natalia had somehow been inside waiting for her. “What’s going on, Essie? I didn’t leave the door open, did I? And by the way is the Essie I know really Esmeralda Reyes? Because my friend Adam, well not really my friend, but Adam showed me a picture of you in Panama …”
“Wow, quite a lot of questions.” Natalia paused to text “Clear!” then began to slowly answer: “Some stories are so complicated, Tricia, that we want to pretend they are not true. My friend Oleg is coming to tell you some things you may not want to know. My friend Fyodor is someone you may think you know, but don’t. Which is true for me. Because I am not who you knew. Not even who I know, which is even more complicated. And maybe once you check what Oleg has for you, what is true for you may change in very big ways … But let’s start with the Essie you knew is the Natalia you didn’t.”
Patricia’s brow was crunched. “O.K.,” she managed, “I am now officially confused. And considering my aching head I desperately need coffee … Do you want some?”
“I thought you learned in Lucerne that you were better off with white wine than red. I think you better make the biggest pot you can.”
“O.K., I am now completely and officially fucking freaked out … I’m pretty hung over but I don’t think we talked about the wine, did we,” shaking her head as she moved from the small living room to the tiny kitchenette to fill her automatic coffeemaker with a combination of French roast and Guatemalan.
At which point the door opened, and Oleg and Fyodor entered.
Patricia looked over her shoulder and shook her head. “So I take it nobody knocks anymore?” Then a double-take. “I’m pretty sure I didn’t munch those mushrooms and, as bad as my head hurts, I’m pretty sure I’m not hallucinating that the missing distinguished Professor Toma now seems to be in my living room with someone I’m guessing might be your aforementioned friend Oleg. Shit Natalia, Esmeralda, or maybe someone else, this would probably be a good time to tell me what’s going on …”
Before Natalia had a chance to respond, Fyodor stepped forward with a charming smile and hand outstretched: “Miss Feinstein, so very nice to see you again …” And from behind his back he offered her a white bag … “and some pastries to accompany the coffee.”
Patricia couldn’t help but smile: “Professor, you are probably the smoothest uninvited guest I’m ever going to entertain …” She filled four mugs with coffee, found the sugar bowl, and added a pint of half-and-half to the tray she then placed on the table by the couch. Natalia sat in the middle with Fyodor on her left and Oleg on her right. Patricia pulled up a chair to face them, took a quick sip of coffee then looked directly at Natalia: “OK, spill!”
Natalia smiled, as much to herself as to Patricia: “Do you remember how we’d talk about Dominic Perry? And compared him to Erik and Patrick who were smarter and kinder but it was Dominic we were attracted to … even though it was pretty clear he was a complete asshole … well, Dominic is a prince compared to Adam Jessex …”
“How do you even know about Adam?”
Natalia pointed to Oleg who took out a crumpled piece of paper from his front shirt pocket, then stood and pulled out another piece of paper from the back-right pocket of his jeans, and began to straighten them. “Oleg,” Natalia interrupted him, “less is more.” Oleg closed his eyes, and took a deep breath then opened them again and looked directly at Patricia: “He’s a crooked son-of-a-bitch and gives hackers a bad name …”
Patricia nodded, then added: “And you Professor Toma, what do you have to say about my unfortunate choice of bed-mates?”
“Miss Feinstein, I regret to say I have found myself too many times in the wrong bed … I may get love wrong time and again, and by the way despite what you heard Angelina Jolie was never one of my mistakes, but our dear friend Oleg not only gets hacking right but is the only one of the three of us to survive our wretched history with his sense of ethics intact – somehow and it is a mystery to Natalia and to me how he does it, but he continues to believe in justice. I was sent to watch Mr. Jessex but Oleg has done a better job than I. He has discovered that Mr. Jessex uses his computer skills to prey upon the vulnerable. And because from our very beginnings, the three of us have been so terribly vulnerable, now that we have more choices in life we just won’t allow Mr. Jessex to continue …”
His voice cracking a bit, Oleg began to read from his scribbled notes: “Using ransom-ware to blackmail them, in the last six months he stole half a million from the Children’s Hospital in Belgrade; one million dollars from Red Crescent; two hundred and fifty thousand dollars from Save Nature … Three people died when he froze the computer system of the Athens Fire Brigade … We don’t know how many died because of his attack on the Ambulance Center in Vienna …”
“Thank you, Oleg,” Natalia said softly, seeing how upset Oleg was getting. “Now for the red wine and Esmeralda and Zain Toma and our dear friend Oleg … We, the three of us, and maybe you, too, Tricia were born into a world of sides … You maybe had a lot more choice than we did because we were just children when they took us and made us instruments of their side, we the red – not the wine – and you the red, white, and blue side. Child actors living in an imaginary American town in the midst of Mother Russia … like a movie or a mystery novel. And your Zain, my Fyodor, and your Essie or Esmeralda or the ten other women I’ve been, we were the very best, which is why we lived and Oleg, who couldn’t run the fastest or lie the best or learn to kill, well Oleg was always the smartest of us, who could learn mathematics and physics and could take machines apart and build computers and make them work faster and better and could break into computers on the other side of the world which is why he lived too …”
Natalia stopped to give Patricia a chance to take some of this in, took a long sip of coffee and a big bite of a croissant. “Oleg, do you have that thumb drive?” Oleg reached into the little coin pocket in his jeans and extracted the 16GB drive, then handed it to Natalia.
“When I say instruments, I mean spies. No one asked us whether we wanted to be spies. No one cared what we thought or what we wanted. Which is probably why we spy for ourselves now and not for others. Though the Americans and the Putins and the MI6 and — there are many other initials occasionally — imagine we work for them and care for them. Maybe it makes them feel better. Maybe it helps to keep us alive a little bit longer. Fyodor/Zain was sent to your school to find out about your red wine partner … and once he/we did, the Washington powers decided that Zain was done and decided that rather than stop Jessex they would use him to find out even more about their many enemies … Which, to be totally truthful, upset Oleg probably more than it did us, so of course Oleg told us more and more about your Jessex …
“I see the look on your face, Tricia, and I am teasing you because I know he was just a momentary bad boy for you …But you should know Oleg is our conscience and because of that he is always searching beneath the surface. And he has found information you may not want to know. Yes, about Jessex but even more. Please know that we three have learned the very hard way that seeing your real situation, knowing what is really happening around you, even though so many are lying to you, that is the only way to survive and to live a real life, so here is what Oleg has found about your parents and about your Peter Tock …We have some work to do, Tricia …”
Fyodor/Zain got up and put his arms out to help Patricia up from her chair. He leaned over to kiss one cheek then the other, then looking into her eyes: “You know this Adam doesn’t deserve you. So if you’re ever in Panama …”
Oleg got up a bit awkwardly, then said: “Thank you very much for the coffee …” and moving toward the door, looked over his shoulder to say: “Sorry …”
Natalia took Patricia in her arms and leaned in to whisper “dasvidaniya.”
They left Patricia Feinstein to her thumb drive and lunch date with Peter Tock. Then drove back to dispatch Adam Jessex to a wakeless sleep.
To be continued.