The Doll 30（文稿）
Manage episode 310290954 series 3051597
The consulate waiting room had long since emptied, and in an unabashed land grab, Munroe stretched out on the longer couch, one arm draped over her face, the other by her side.
An hour until she could contact Bradford, an hour for the Doll Maker’s latest trick to turn around and around inside her stomach, feeding and nourishing the cancerous hatred that poisoned her.
She hovered above the mental abyss, kept from falling by force of will.
Shut out the world by descending into darkness, the closest she could get to putting herself into suspended animation while she waited for time to pass, waited to take matters into her own hands and either through her own death or someone else’s put an end to this misery forever.
Conversation between Neeva and the office staff continued beyond the walls, more of the same constant attention that filtered out as an indecipherable murmur
and made it easy to imagine rounds of e-mail, one person confiding in the next until inexplicably news of Neeva’s surfacing leaked and Internet headlines swirled with rumors and everyone with an opinion became an instant expert.
Neeva could return to her life, to some sense of normalcy, and this time she’d have a wave of media at her back, cresting her celebrity status higher.
Munroe was glad for the girl. At least Neeva’s story had ended happily, and now she could turn her back on that chapter to focus fully on what she must do next.
At an hour to the minute, she sat up. Stepped to the glass and knocked for attention.
Begged for the use of the line once more, and although the staff member, courteous and professional, obliged, Munroe understood from nuance the inconvenience her presence created.
She didn’t need whispers and surreptitious glances to know that by bringing Neeva to the consulate she’d raised unanswerable questions about her own role.
So the staff, with no authority to detain and question her, focused entirely on Neeva, politely providing Munroe with what she needed to sort out her own plans and then left her alone.
The woman put the handset beneath the glass and dialed. Unlike before, Bradford didn’t immediately answer, and Munroe counted rings.
The inner pressure that had been kept in check, one soothing pull of oxygen at a time, amped exponentially higher with each long tone—
fear of losing yet another part of what mattered— a pounding tempo that built, frenetic and maddening— proof, if she ever needed it, that she walked the razor edge of sanity—
until the line finally connected and Bradford, breathless, as if he’d run for the phone, said, “I’m here.”
The internal pressure released, collapsed into temporary calm.
“I’ve got you set,” he said, “but the closest I could manage was Milan. Can you get into Italy?”
Munroe closed her eyes and sighed. More driving. More time wasted. “Yes,” she said. “I can do it.”
“I haven’t been able to find an alert out for you yet,” he said. “Doesn’t mean it’s not there, just means I haven’t found it. Do you have access to e-mail?”
The waiting room had a computer that the consulate staff would connect to the Internet if that was what she needed. “I can get to my race-or-die account,” she said.
“I’ll send you general directions. It’ll get you started. You’ll need to contact me from Italy for the rest of the details. I’m sorry about that.” He paused. “Do you have any money on you?”
“About seventy euros,” she said. “It’s enough to get me to Milan.” She hesitated. “Miles, they have Alexis.”
Bradford was silent a long second. “I was afraid it would happen,” he said. “I tried to protect her.
“When you disappeared, we started digging and pulled a match on some of the information in the Burbank files.
“I went to Kate hoping she might have some idea of what was going on. She’s still facilitating, Michael, even from behind bars, only now it’s not for you but against you.
“She sees this as her magnum opus. Payback, she said. She’s had an appeal running through the courts— her next court date is in a few days—
“and although I don’t think she expects you to survive what she’s put into play, no matter how things turn out, I think she’s planning to disappear. I’ve got a team keeping an eye on things so we don’t lose track of her.”
Munroe drew in the words. Plotted through them, then said, “They’re threatening to replace Neeva with Alexis if I don’t get Neeva back to them.” Paused. “But it gets worse.”
She outlined the logic, the analysis behind her fears regarding the client, the fate she expected either girl to be thrown to, and when she was finished, she shut her eyes against the pain.
“They’re forcing me to choose who lives or dies,” she said. “And the result of not choosing is the same as making the decision itself.”
“What will you do?” he said.
“Stay the course,” she said. “If it’s not Neeva, not Alexis, it will be Tabitha, or you, or someone else.
“It’s not going to end, Miles, unless someone ends it.” Munroe drew another long breath.
“The image they sent me was taken in front of her home in daylight. Find her for me, Miles— please, if you’re able.
“It’s an unfair burden to place on you, and I’m sorry. It’s the only way I can let everything go. I need you to free me so that I can do what I need to do.”
“I’ll give everything I’ve got,” he said. “My friend will have a phone for you. I want you to call me when you get it.”
She understood what was left unspoken: call him so they could speak freely.
“I love you,” he said.
“Always,” she whispered.
She returned the handset beneath the glass and sat for a while, running circles around the effort she’d made to protect Alexis over the years, all of it gone to waste.
Could count on one hand the people she’d allowed to become that close to her: Logan, Bradford, Kate Breeden,
and a couple of male friends— long-forgotten— whom she’d brought home to her sister Tabitha’s house for shock value during the worst of her inability to integrate into suburban American life.
They had been rough, her early years in the United States.
As a surprise to missionary parents who believed they were finished with child rearing, she hadn’t exactly been wanted.
She’d been six when her closest sibling, more like a father than a brother, turned eighteen and left Africa for home.
There were two sisters before him who’d been old enough to remain in Dallas when their parents had moved to Cameroon,
and until Munroe, just shy of her eighteenth birthday, had showed up unannounced on Tabitha’s doorstep in the United States,
whatever familial bond that existed had been based entirely on sporadic photographs and occasional mail that arrived until she was fourteen and had abandoned home for good.
Munroe wasn’t so much the black sheep of the family as a nonexistent child who’d given up trying to belong to sisters she’d never known and a brother who’d abandoned her;
had given up trying to earn parental approval in favor of carving her own niche on Cameroonian soil
until, at seventeen, violence sent her running to a country that held no attachment but a passport and strangers she called family.
Moving into Tabitha’s house had meant living with a woman old enough to be her mother, who’d welcomed her because of who she was and resented her for everything she wasn’t;
a woman whose eldest daughter, Alexis, was the closest Munroe ever had to a real sister, and now the Doll Maker had her.
Munroe stood. As with Logan, she would abandon what she wanted most to do what needed to be done.
Wouldn’t bother with getting Bradford’s e-mail, she knew where she was going, and Internet access here at the consulate or not, she’d still have to find a way to get the details once she was in Italy.
If Neeva had been alone, Munroe would have stopped to say good-bye, but under the circumstances she preferred not to invite the additional attention doing so would attract.
In the security area, she retrieved the backpack again with the maps, the tape, the GPS, the pieces of Arben’s phone, and everything else she’d dumped into it before abandoning the Opel.
Passed back through the metal detector— the only way out of the consulate’s one exit— but before she got to the foyer, the side door opened and Neeva was there.
The girl followed her to the elevator. “You’re leaving?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Munroe said, and passed up the elevator for the stairwell.
Neeva didn’t stop. “I need to talk to you,” she said.
“Now’s not a good time, Neeva.”
The girl followed down the flight of stairs. “It’s important.”
On the second-floor landing, Munroe paused. Turned so that she was eye-to-eye with Neeva, who was a few steps behind. “Go back,” she said. “I’ll e-mail; you can talk to me later.”
Neeva was beside Munroe now. “I want to come with you.”
Munroe paused midstep, Neeva’s words like cymbals crashing inside her head, was noise that kept reverberating and drowned out everything else.
Hissed, “Are you out of your mind?” Moved another two stairs down and stopped again. Turned again.
“I just risked my life and the lives of people I love to get you to a safe place. Get away from me. You have your shot at freedom. Go home.”
One floor up, the door to the stairwell opened and the guard, who’d apparently followed Neeva out, leaned over.
Seeing the two in a standoff, the woman trotted a half-flight down and peered around. “Neeva?” she asked. “Is everything all right?”
The tone was friendly enough, but her facial expression and body language betrayed the protective animosity Munroe had felt since their arrival.
Neeva turned to the guard, and Munroe, unwilling to endure the ludicrousness of the conversation, used the break in focus to keep going, two steps at a time.
Neeva ignored the woman’s question and followed Munroe.
On the ground floor, Munroe pushed through the door to the lobby, was halfway to the main entry when Neeva popped out behind her saying, “Michael, please let me come with you.”
Munroe said, “Go back.”
Neeva hurried to catch up. “I won’t,” she said— that same goddamn stubbornness and refusal to quit that had made the first half of the drive from Zagreb so much trouble.
Munroe spun around. Nearly collided with the girl. “What the hell is wrong with you? Do you have any idea the risks I’ve taken to get you here?
“People have died for you and you finally have a chance to get out of this mess. Go. Go back. Be free. Live life.”
Neeva crossed her arms. Said, “No.”
“Get the hell back up those stairs or I’ll drag you in by your hair.”
“You wouldn’t,” Neeva said, chin out and defiant. “Not with the consulate people up there, staring at you, secretly wondering if you had something to do with my kidnapping. You’re smarter than that.”
“Fuck you,” Munroe said. “I’m done being responsible for your life.”
She turned her back and stepped from the cool, silent interior of the lobby to the noise and life of the streets outside.
Neeva did likewise, and the pounding inside Munroe’s chest up-ticked to a dizzying tempo.
Noah had died and she’d risked Logan’s life to get Neeva to a place safe from the Doll Maker, safe so she could discharge all responsibility, cut loose from the puppet strings, and put an end to the madness. Insanity.
Lumani was out there somewhere— not just Lumani. If he’d had anyone local, then he’d possibly pulled together reinforcements during their hours inside the consulate, would be waiting and watching for an opportunity,
and here she was again, tracking device saying Come and get me, and Neeva exposed and out on the street in the open,
as if the entire ordeal of the previous twenty-four hours, the death and the suffering, had been for nothing.
Munroe stared at the empty space where the motorbike had been. Stolen or reclaimed, she’d never know.
The back of her neck prickled with the unmistakable feeling of being watched.
Her gaze shifted to the park across the street and from there to the nearby buildings.
She strode away from the consulate, in the direction away from the coast.
At the nearest cross street, Munroe took a sharp turn, and at the next street another, each directional change chosen at the last second, a form of mental coin toss,
while her eyes ran a continuous scan along rooftops, balconies, windows, and streets for a sign of the shooter.
Whatever her pace, Neeva kept up. Not at Munroe’s side, or even as a shadow at her elbow, but with the timed rhythm of a determined tracker, following a few feet behind, just beyond the edge of her peripheral vision.
Munroe didn’t turn, never stopped to gauge how close she kept but could feel her, tugging at the threads of awareness.
This was the path to madness, to death. Made no sense at all, served no purpose.
Enraged her sense of justice and fairness. Made a mockery of the life expended and the choices made.
They passed an empty apartment doorway, and Munroe turned and grabbed Neeva. Shoved her into the nook.
Fisted the jacket at Neeva’s throat, and, teeth clenched, pushed her against the wall. “They will kill you,” Munroe said.
Chin out, still defiant, Neeva said, “We all die”— a paraphrase of the words Munroe had quoted in the aftermath of the fight with Arben— “it’s really just a question of what deals the final blow.”
“No,” Munroe said. She tightened her grip on Neeva’s clothing and pushed her harder against the wall so that her head knocked back.
“You don’t fucking understand. They’re not just going to kill you. That man with the dog, the one in Monaco, he’s a psychopathic sadist.
“He’s going to carve you up in pieces and take his sweet time doing it— he’s not going to just kill you, he’s going to torture you for his own gratification, he’s going to get off on making you bleed and suffer.
“Do you get that?” Shoved again. Harder. Angrier. “Right now, me standing here, having this moronic conversation with you, ups the chance someone else is going to die exactly like that.”
Neeva pushed back. “No, you don’t understand,” she said. “I see what you don’t see.”
Munroe dropped the backpack, kicked it down a step, lowered her voice, and said, “What the hell are you talking about?”
“I am not the stupid silver-spoon spoiled rich kid you think I am,” Neeva said, and she, too, lowered her voice, stopped pushing, and Munroe relaxed her grip.
Neeva slipped down the wall slightly so that she stood straight again.
“I know you don’t like me,” Neeva said. Her words were rushed whispers, as though she was afraid she wouldn’t have time to finish what she’d followed all this way to say.
“You think I don’t understand what saving me cost you and that I’m throwing away a chance to live. I’m not stupid and ungrateful.
“You saved me, right? But people died because you saved me. I don’t know why they want me so bad, but I saw your face when you got that text.
“You don’t have to tell me, but I know. Someone else is dead or is going to die because of me. How many will it take?”
Neeva paused; her voice caught and she looked up into Munroe’s face. “It’s not right— one life for all those others.”
The image of Noah, like a mirage rising from the desert, his body on the ground, darkened holes in his forehead, danced in Munroe’s vision, and teeth clenched, she said,
“It would have been really helpful if you would’ve reached that conclusion twenty fucking hours ago.”
“I didn’t understand twenty hours ago,” Neeva said. “Didn’t get what was going on— didn’t see it until after we were inside the consulate and they started telling me some of the stuff they knew,
“and then that text came, and I saw your face and…” Neeva stopped. Pleaded. “How was I supposed to know?”
Munroe bit back spite and anger and venom. Food to a starving man, she wanted what Neeva offered yet couldn’t take it.
“You’ve fought too hard to just roll over now,” Munroe said. “You want to live.”
Tears welled in Neeva’s eyes. “Yes,” she whispered. “I want to live so bad— I want life more than anything else on earth.”
“Then why are you doing this?” Munroe said. “I got you to safety.” Paused. Whispered, “I fucking got you to safety.
“Against everything I wanted, against everything I am. I gave up everything to get you there. And now you just throw it away?”
“I didn’t know. I didn’t know what it cost you. I thought you were just like them— the people who stole me.”
“You’d willingly turn yourself over to these people, this”— Munroe spat out the word— “animal?”
Neeva’s cheeks flushed and she shook her head. “I-I … no. Not that. You’re plotting something. You’re going to get back at them, I know it.
“The men who took me, they still want me, so I thought maybe you could use me. Like as part of a trap or as a bargaining chip in your plan— like bait.”
Munroe let go of Neeva’s jacket. “God, you are so naive,” she said. “You left the safety of the consulate for that?
“You are young and stupid and clueless, and I despise and adore you for it.”
“Can you, though? Can you use me as bait and would it do any good?”
Munroe checked the street in both directions. They’d already stayed still longer than was prudent; needed to keep moving.
Munroe took Neeva’s biceps and turned her toward the sidewalk. “You know what happens to bait when you fish?”
Neeva stared at her blankly.
Munroe sighed and picked up the backpack. “This isn’t Hollywood, Neeva. This isn’t a movie set. In real life, the bait dies.”
“But this is all so fucked up,” Neeva said. “That they can just steal women and sell them— they do whatever they want, take whatever they want, and nobody does anything to stop them.
“But I heard you. You’re planning. You’re actually going to do something about it.
“I know how dangerous these people are, and I hate them, and I have a chance to make a difference. I can help you.”
Munroe stared at her for a moment, wasting precious seconds, trying to understand the underlying thought processes that had made Neeva follow her, trying to grasp what Neeva really wanted,
but in the end she had no reply, so she walked on in silence while Neeva stayed beside her, legs working overtime to keep up with Munroe’s long stride.
Whether or not she wanted Neeva along was irrelevant now.
She didn’t have the time or the inclination to return her to the consulate, and she couldn’t leave her to wander back on her own just so Lumani could pick her up en route.
“We’ll have to get you a hat,” Munroe said, “and some different clothes.”
Once more she lowered her voice to a whisper. “And I can’t promise to keep you safe. I have other priorities now.”
“This was my decision,” Neeva whispered back. “I’ll be responsible for me.” She hesitated. “But you’ll do the best you can, right?”
“Yeah,” Munroe said. “The best I can to keep you safe, but you’re better off scared.”
“Of course I’m scared.”
“Good. At least you’re not entirely insane. Odds are ten to one we’ll both be fish food by the end of tomorrow.”
Munroe checked over her shoulder. Along both sides of the street. Crossed it.
Neeva said, “Well, you wouldn’t be doing whatever it is you’re doing if you didn’t think you’d succeed.”
Munroe stopped midstep, stood just long enough to stare hard at Neeva. “You’re wrong,” she said, then continued walking again.
“I’m doing this because I don’t have a choice. Even if everything had gone the way it was supposed to, even if I had delivered you like they wanted, the people I love would never be safe as long as I’m alive.
“If I traded you now, they’d still kill me— so I’m dead either way.”