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The Escort

Pearl Ebberhartt did not smile often.

Could I prove it in court? No, but I guess even after your by-the-book chief hauls you into his office and says you’re a real good cop but he’s gotta put you on indefinite paid leave because you can’t keep racing around town blowing up warehouses week after week and you find yourself working for some second-rate bodyguard company dealing with the weirdos and oddballs the real bodyguard companies can afford to ignore, the cop in you dies hard.

Pearl was a thirty-something, but I could see the bone-deep fatigue of an octogenarian in her eyes; the worry lines half-hidden behind neon pink horn-rimmed glasses. I didn’t miss her nibbled-nub fingernails fidgeting with the hem of the loose sweater she wore to disguise her pudgy form. I wasn’t fooled by her cozy studio apartment or its just-to-show-I-could Ikea vibe.

Not that any of this made much difference to me. She needed a bodyguard. I needed cash. Everything else? Ancillary.

“Mr. Bridges?” Pearl’s nasally voice cut into my thoughts. “Did you hear what I said?”

“Yeah, yeah,” I said, running a hand through my hair. “Sorry. So, Maine to Frisco. I gotta ask: why not just catch a flight?”

“Oh, no,” she said, making a face like she’d just tasted something rotten. “No, no, no, no, no. No. And besides, if I booked a flight, it’d be easy for them to find me. They’d just be waiting at the terminal when I got to San Francisco.”

“And by they, you mean, uh …” I glanced at my phone, scanning the information the agency’s automated scheduler had pulled from her submission on our website. “The ‘Enclave’?”

“Yes! They’re watching me.”

Oh, Jesus.

“Alright.” I pinched my nose between my thumb and forefinger. “So, who are these guys?”

“The Enclave represents certain elements within the art world who would rather my life’s work never see the light of day.”

“Elements? Within the art world?” I asked, utterly failing to keep the incredulity from my voice. “What kind of elements?”

Pearl’s eyes narrowed to slits, though her glasses made it look like she was only squinting. She leaned forward, speaking conspiratorially. “Powerful elements.”

We sat in silence for a moment.

“I see,” I finally said.

Pearl sighed. “No, you don’t. But you will soon enough.” She stood and walked to the apartment door, where three pieces of luggage were neatly arranged: two hard-case rolling bags bearing a tropical floral pattern and a steel briefcase, which rested atop the larger bag. Judging from the dings and scratches, all three had actually seen some mileage. I tried to imagine Pearl relaxing on the beach, but the closest I could get was her reading a book in her hotel room and then spilling something on herself.

She grabbed the steel case and brought it back to the couch, resting it on her lap.

“What’s in there?”

“A hard drive with a sophisticated artificial intelligence capable of replicating any masterwork down to the brushstroke,” she said, adjusting her glasses.

I thought for a moment. “But computers can’t paint.”

“Precisely. My counterpart in San Francisco has a special printer that can actually do the painting part. It even mimics the oil composition of older works. But sending the files over the Internet risks exposing us. I need to physically connect my hard drive to his device.”

“I thought the Enclave already had their eyes on you?”

“Super-billionaires aren’t the only powerful people who would do anything to keep priceless art from becoming worthless.” She brought her thumbnail to her mouth and started gnawing. “Can we get moving, please?”

I grabbed Pearl’s luggage and made my way downstairs. She followed, steel case clutched against her chest. I opened the door to the parking lot and started toward my car, turning the situation over in my head. Pearl would probably be a handful, sure, but my cut from this gig would net me more than enough to ship my ride back home while I caught a flight, a nice steak, and a wild afternoon at the strip club.

As for the Enclave? My money was on the whole thing being in Pearl’s head, but no sooner had I thought this than she started screaming. I dropped her bags, my hand instinctively going for the .45 in my shoulder holster.

“What is it?!” I roared.

Pearl was pointing at the sky. “There!”

My gaze followed her arm to a small black object whirring over a tree nearby. A hobby drone, it looked like.

“Shoot it down!” she shrieked.

I looked back at her, fighting to keep my expression neutral. “Ms. Ebberhartt, I can’t just –”

“I don’t care! Shoot it down!”

Ignoring her, I rolled the bags the rest of the way to the car and put them in my trunk. After I slammed it shut, I heard her flats slapping against the asphalt as she ran toward me.

“Why aren’t you –” she began, stopping as I whirled to face her.

“Let me explain something to you, Ms. Ebberhartt. That’s not how this works. I’m not just a gun with legs for you to point at everything that makes you nervous. That drone could belong to anyone. And even if it did belong to these people you think are after you, you’ve already made it clear we saw it.”

Pearl was quiet for a moment. She glanced at the drone once more, then looked back at me.

“Sorry,” she said, slouching. “And please call me Pearl.”

***

We passed the first leg of our journey in relative silence.

Near the state line, Pearl suddenly sat forward.

“Take the next exit!”

I glanced over. “What’s wrong?”

“Poochie’s,” she whispered, as if invoking some ancient and powerful deity. “My dad used to take me on the first Sunday of every month. Just me and him.” Silence filled the vehicle, and though it only lasted a moment, it was somehow more intense than the last few hours of wordless travel. Then Pearl gave her head a little shake, her curls bouncing. “Sorry, I, uh … I just don’t make it out this way too often anymore. I’d like to stop.”

“You’re the boss, boss.”

Poochie’s was a little greasy spoon just off the expressway, the kind of place that had hand-painted seasonal soap art all over the windows and where the soup du jour was always cream of chicken and rice. Pearl insisted I park around the back and leave the car unlocked just in case we needed to leave in a hurry. I told her my key fob had plenty of range to open the car from inside the restaurant and that our valuables were inside, but she wouldn’t leave the car until I agreed. Worn down from the drive, I obliged.

We took a booth near the window. Once we got seated and placed our orders, I excused myself and stepped back outside to vape.

As I puffed, I watched Pearl through the window. She was taking quick bites of food, looking down only long enough to fork off another piece of pancake between furtive glances around the diner. Our waitress sauntered over with a fresh carafe of steaming coffee. As she got closer, Pearl clutched the case to her side, locking eyes with the young woman, whose expression turned sour. She passed our table, leaving my cup empty.

I frowned and took one last hit from my vape. As I started back toward the diner’s entrance, I heard a low buzzing. I looked up to see another hobby drone passing lazily over the parking lot. I told myself there was no way they could be the same - those things had short ranges, and we’d been on the road for hours.

I started at a dull thud behind me and spun to see Pearl’s face pressed against the window, her breath fogging the window in short bursts as she searched the sky. The distortion from her glasses made her eyes look like softballs. I drew my hand sharply across my neck. Sulking, she sat back down.

When I walked back in, Pearl was staring at me over the top of the seatback.

“What were you looking at out there?” she asked.

I took a moment to imagine Pearl’s reaction if I told her I’d seen another drone.

“I thought I heard wasps or something,” I fibbed, shoving a piece of microwaved tamale into my mouth. I didn’t like lying to Pearl, but I had my reasons. Was it weird to spot the same kind of drone twice in one day - and for each sighting to be within hours of the other? Absolutely. Did it rise to the level of turning a hysterical Pearl loose on a diner full of unsuspecting patrons?

No.

No, it did not. Instead, she could only stare at the parking lot and brood on her suspicions.

“Natasha,” she whispered.

I shook my head, taking a sip of my water and wishing it was coffee. “I think our waitress’ name is –”

A bullet shattered my glass, drenching my tamale and jeans with water. Stunned, I followed Pearl’s gaze outside. A tall woman with dark hair, a khaki overcoat, and impractical heels was marching toward the diner, a pistol in one outstretched arm. A handful of masked gunmen spilled out of a van behind her.

“ – Natasha,” I muttered. Instinct kicked in. I fell onto my back in the booth as another round whanged off the coffee machine behind me. Natasha clearly favored style over accuracy. No sweat - except Pearl and the other patrons were in hysterics, which made it tough to focus.

“Ohmygod, it’s happening!” Pearl tumbled out of the booth, nearly dropping her case. “Have to get out, have to get out!”

“Pearl, no!” I yelled as she stood. “Stay down!”

“This is all your fault!” Pearl spun to face me. “If you’d have blasted that little robot – “

Another gunshot cut her off. She grunted, spinning slightly and thudding into the booth behind her as a bullet caught her full-on. I screamed her name as she crumpled to the floor, but got no response.

“Fuck,” I growled, drawing my .45. I slid out of the booth, landing in the aisle as one of Natasha’s henchmen burst through the front door. I put two slugs into his chest, spattering a fine red mist across the soap artwork behind him.

Evidently they hadn’t been expecting a fight. Natasha barked at her thugs in Russian, and gunfire ripped through the remaining windows as they sprayed indiscriminately through Poochie’s.

I crawled across the linoleum floor to where my client lay motionless. I felt a little better when I saw a big bullet hole sizzling in the steel case, but I couldn’t tell whether it’d gone through, and there wasn’t time to check thoroughly. I dragged Pearl through the diner until I reached the back of the counter, where our waitress, the fry cook, and a few customers were taking cover.

I slid Pearl toward them. The fry cook and one of the diners hauled her the rest of the way behind the counter. I took a deep breath to steady myself, then crawled back out. I peeked into the aisle just in time to see one of Natasha’s men ease the diner’s back door open. I raised my pistol and put two rounds through the poor sap. He fell back with a grunt, and I curled up as another burst of machine gun fire tore into a pie refrigerator on the counter overhead.

Pie crust and fillings splattered everywhere. I was licking a dollop of meringue from my lips when the trigger-happy henchman kicked open the back door. I put a slug through his forehead, but as his head snapped back, a burst from his machine gun tore through my leg. I cried out, falling fully into the aisle.

The front door dinged as Natasha and her last goon entered.

“Enough hide-and-seek,” I muttered, forcing myself to stand. I leaned against the counter to support my weight and steady my aim, but the searing pain in my leg clouded my mind.

I fired at Natasha, but the round went wide, detonating a fire extinguisher on a nearby wall. A thick white cloud filled the diner. Coughing, Natasha’s gunman let loose a burst of panic fire. His muzzle flash made him easy to find in the haze.

I dropped him, then heard heels clicking on linoleum. I pivoted to see an unfazed Natasha exit the extinguisher’s cloud, gun raised in one hand. My leg gave out just as she fired, and I fell backward, my shoulder crunching as I landed. I cried out, dropping my handgun.

Before I could get myself fully behind the counter, Natasha was standing over me, pistol pointed at my nose.

“Dasvidanya.”

“DEATH TO THE ENCLAVE!”

Natasha looked up just in time for Pearl’s swing to connect. The steel case crushed the assassin’s nose. She groaned and collapsed.

Pearl locked her gaze onto mine. Her chest was heaving, her eyes wild, but her expression was focused. Determined, even.

“Now, Mister Bridges,” she began, apparently unaware of the blood dripping from the corner of her steel case, “I am acutely aware of what a handful I can be. If you don’t want to take me seriously, I understand. I will arrange with your headquarters to have someone else accompany me the rest of the way.” She looked down and away, perhaps finding an interesting spot on the floor.

“But I won’t feel nearly as safe,” she added quietly.

Something shifted inside of me. “I don’t, uh … I don’t think that’ll be necessary.”

“Good, because I need you to – blehOHMYGOD!” she shrieked, finally seeing the blood on the corner of the case. She flung it out of her hands. Natasha’s unconscious form convulsed as it bounced off her skull.

Pearl covered her mouth with both hands. “Ohhhmygod, oh my God. Is she … did I… ?”

I crouched, put two fingers against Natasha’s neck, and then looked up at Pearl.

“She’ll live,” I lied, “but she’s going to be in a world of hurt when she comes to.” I glanced behind the counter, where the fry cook was babbling into a cell phone.

The last thing I needed was the cops getting mixed up in all this.

“We need to go. Now.”

“What about your leg?”

I glanced down, then shook my head. I’d bounced back from worse in my warehouse-exploding days. “Needs a bandage, but I’ll be fine.”

“Okay.” She nodded, her brown frizz dancing. “Could you clean my case before we go?”

“You’re going to trust me with it?”

“Don’t make me overthink it. Also, I’ll heave if I touch it while there’s still blood on it.” She nudged the case toward me with one of her dainty little shoes. I grabbed it, then held out my other hand. Pearl braced herself against the counter, then helped haul me to my feet.

And I will swear until the day I die that she wore the tiniest smile as she did.



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