Professional "cleaner" Jonathan Quinn has a new client and an odd job: find and remove the remains of a body hidden twenty years ago inside the walls of a London building, before the building is demolished.
But Quinn and his team are being watched. Suddenly caught in the cross fire between two dangerous rivals, Quinn must unravel the identity of the body and why it still poses so great a threat even in death. Because a plot stretching from the former Soviet Union to Hong Kong, from Paris to London, from Los Angeles to Maine, is rapidly falling apart. And Quinn hasn't been hired just to tie up loose ends--he is one.
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April 05, 2011
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Excerpt from The Silenced by Brett Battles
Battles: THE SILENCED
Petra glanced at her watch.
Her lips tightened as she held in the curse she so desperately wanted to mutter.
The Cathay Pacific flight to New York was only fifteen minutes from boarding, and there was still no sign of Kolya.
If it had been Mikhail who had not yet arrived, she wouldn't have been so worried. But it wasn't Mikhail. He'd already been sitting in the waiting area when she walked up.
No, of course it was Kolya. She had known from the beginning that he had been too young, too inexperienced to take with them. But what choice did she have*
Maybe an officer at Passport Control had scrutinized his documents. They were expertly done, but fake, so there was always a chance something had been missed. Maybe Kolya had begun to sweat and look nervous. Maybe Hong Kong security had him in a back room right that very moment, questioning him about his identity, and trying to find out who he might be traveling with.
Maybe the police were even now heading toward the gate where Petra and Mikhail waited, intending to take them into custody.
Petra looked down the concourse toward the main part of the terminal. But there were no uniformed men marching in her direction, only other passengers toting carry-ons and wasting time until their flights departed.
There was also no Kolya.
She glanced over at Mikhail two rows away. Though she couldn't see his face, she knew he had to be as tense as she was. Their operation could afford zero complications, especially after having experienced another setback, this time right there in Hong Kong, the former British colony where it had all begun so long ago.
Another possibility hit her. What if Kolya hadn't even arrived at the airport yet* They had each traveled separately. Mikhail took the Airport Express train, while Kolya and Petra had each hailed taxis. What if Kolya's cab had broken down* What if the driver had misunderstood Kolya's destination* Doubtful, she knew. Airport was airport. Even with Kolya's limited English, he should have been able to communicate where he needed to go.
"Ladies and Gentlemen," a voice blared over the public address system. "At this time we will begin pre-boarding Cathay Pacific flight 840 to New York's John F. Kennedy Airport. Passengers traveling with small children or those who need additional assistance may board the aircraft now. Once we are done pre-boarding, we will start boarding all our First Class and Business Class passengers, Marco Polo Club members, and..."
Petra pushed herself up, unable to sit still any longer. Where was he*
Her hand slipped into her shoulder bag as she scanned the terminal, her finger tips quickly searching through her contents. They found what they were looking for. Just touching it made her relax, if only just a little.
At the far end of the terminal dozens of people wearing identical blue sweatshirts moved almost as one toward a gate. Elsewhere, individuals and couples, some using the automated sidewalks, some walking beside them, moved between shops and waiting areas and restrooms. But none of them, none of them, was Kolya.
"Excuse me," a voice said into her ear. "Did you drop this*"
Petra turned quickly, surprised to find Mikhail standing right behind her, holding a pen out. She hadn't even heard him walk up.
"What are you doing*" he whispered through his smile.
"You shouldn't be talking to me," she whispered back. They were each supposed to be solo travelers with no knowledge of the others. It was another safety precaution. One they had used since they started on the mission. In a louder voice, she said, "Yes, I did. Thank you."
As he handed her the pen, he said, "You need to get control of yourself."
She glanced at him. "What are you talking about*"
He held her eyes for a moment, then looked down. As she followed his gaze, her breath suddenly caught in her throat. In her other hand was the photograph. She had actually pulled it out of her purse, and was holding it in front of her.
Anyone who glanced at it probably wouldn't have given it a second thought. But to have it out in the open was tempting fate. This was their map, the only reason they were in Hong Kong, and the only reason they were heading to the east coast of the United States. If someone was tailing them, and figured out what the photograph was, all could be lost.
"Thank you for waiting, ladies and gentlemen," the voice on the overhead speaker announced. "At this time we will begin boarding our first class..."
"Put it away," Mikhail whispered.
Petra slipped the photo back in her bag, then hunted around for her ticket. "Kolya*" she whispered.
Mikhail glanced past her for a moment. "Have a nice flight," he said, then dipped his head and walked away.
Once he was gone, Petra stretched, then readjusted herself so that she was facing the direction Mikhail had been looking. Sure enough, standing on one of the moving sidewalks was Kolya. He was letting the system do all the work while he leaned against the handrail and sipped at a can of soda.
"At this time we will begin boarding seats in rows thirty-one through forty-four. Rows thirty-one through forty-four."
Petra watched their young companion a moment longer. Then, with a final, mental pull of an imaginary trigger, she retrieved her boarding pass, and got into line.
"At this time, Harold's son, Jake Oliver, would like to say a few words."
The old wooden pews creaked as people used the break between speakers to reposition themselves. When no one immediately stood, necks craned and heads turned, looking toward the first row of the chapel.
Jonathan Quinn felt something poke him in his side. But he continued to stare forward, lost in his own thoughts. When it happened again, this time harder than the first, he pulled himself out of his head and looked over. Orlando was staring at him. Before he could ask what she wanted, she motioned toward the front of the room with her eyes.
He looked over and saw Reverend Hollis gazing at him, smiling.
"Jake, whenever you're ready."
Quinn closed his eyes for a second. Oh, God. He'd been hoping this moment would somehow never come.
Despite the dead bodies he dealt with on a regular basis, attending funerals was something he'd been able to avoid for the most part. His reasoning was simple. It was the grieving. Death marked the living more than it marked the dead, and Quinn was never sure how to deal with those who mourned. Plus, seeing that grief made him think too much about what he did for a living. And that was something that was becoming more difficult to do.
Slowly, he rose. This funeral was different. The man lying in the open casket at the front of the room wasn't some casual acquaintance, and the grieving weren't friends of the deceased he had never met.
The mourners here in the Lakeside Mortuary Chapel in Warroad, Minnesota, were people he'd known for a long time. And the man in the box* He was the person Quinn had called his father.
He took a step away from the pew, and glanced back at his mother. Her red-rimmed eyes were firmly fixed on the casket several feet away, her face not quite accepting, but resigned now.
Two days before, as they'd sat in the mortuary office, her face had been covered in shock and disbelief. Because of this, Quinn had ended up answering many of the questions the funeral director had asked. After a while he had put a hand over hers. "Mom, would you rather we finish this later*"
Nothing for several seconds, then she looked at him. "I'm okay," she said, failing at an attempted smile. "I don't want to come back and do this again. Let's finish it now."
Quinn held her eyes for a moment, still unsure.
"Sweetheart, I'm fine. I'm just glad you're here to help me."
They had talked caskets and hymns and Bible passages and who would deliver a eulogy.
"I'd like both you and Liz to say something," she'd told him.
He had been caught off guard by the request. Speak at his father's funeral* What would he say that didn't sound insincere or made up* It would be much better if his sister were the only speaker. He started to say as much, but the look in his mother's eyes stopped him.
"Of course. If that's what you want."
And now here he was, slowly making his way to the podium, a piece of paper with some random, scribbled notes in his pocket, but really having no idea what he was going to say.
"Just think of your mother," Orlando had told him a few hours earlier as they were getting ready.
"I've been doing nothing but thinking of her."
"You've been doing nothing but worrying about her, and, even more than that, worrying about screwing up in front of her."
"You're thinking too much," she'd said, then kissed him on the cheek. "You'll know what to say when the time comes."
He pulled her into his arms and held on tight, needing the energy she was feeding him. So naturally, just as some of his tension was starting to ease, his phone had rung.
"Who is it*" Orlando asked.
"Don't answer it."
He frowned. "You know I have to."
Wills was a client who worked out of London. A week before Quinn's father had died, he had put Quinn on standby for an upcoming project. With very few exceptions, if Quinn agreed to do a project, he'd do it.
He flipped the phone open. "Hello, David."
"Quinn. How are you*"
"What can I do for you*"
"I'm calling about the project we discussed. We're officially on," Wills said, his British accent clipped and proper. "I need you to get on a flight tonight to--"
And there it was, one of those exceptions. "Let me stop you. I can't do tonight."
"Okay," Wills said, not sounding particularly happy. "Then first thing tomorrow morning--"
"David, I'm sorry but the next few days are out. If you need to find someone else, I completely understand."
Orlando leaned through the bathroom door. "He'd better understand."
"Have you taken another job*" Wills asked.
"No, of course not. It's just...a personal issue."
Quinn, annoyed, said, "Very."
A few seconds of silence.
"Right then, sorry. Didn't mean to push. How long will you be tied up*"
"Could be up to five or six days."
"Five or six days*" Will said, surprised. "Hold on." There was half a minute of silence, then Wills came back. "There is some flexibility with this project. I think I can arrange things so that the early operations are covered. Then you can take over and finish everything off."
"Operations plural* How big is this*"
"It involves several related assignments," Wills said.
"That could get expensive," Quinn said.
Quinn was a cleaner, the guy you went to when you needed a body - or in Wills's case, apparently, bodies - to disappear. His rate was simple: thirty-thousand a week with a two-week minimum for each project. If someone had two jobs for him, and each took a day, it was still $120,000 total. He'd explained all that to Wills before the first job he'd done for the Englishman.
"I realize that, but I thought maybe we could work out a flat rate."
"I don't do flat rates."
"Quinn," the Englishman said, quickly. "Please, just hear me out first. Given your scheduling conflicts, I anticipate only needing your services on three separate operations. Four, tops. Time-wise, we're talking no more than three weeks. What I'm proposing is a flat rate of one hundred and ninety thousand."
Quinn paused. He didn't like making exceptions to his rules, but given what was he was dealing with at the moment, getting back to work would be a nice diversion.
"Make it two-ten and we have a deal."
"Can I count on you being available to start by October first*"
That was a little over a week away. "Depending on where you need me, I should be able to do that."
"Your first assignment will be in the states."
"I'd say that's doable."
"Great," Wills said. "Then we have a deal."
As Quinn neared the podium he almost wished he'd told Wills he would fly out that night. It would have meant he and Orlando would've already been on the road to Minneapolis, a six-hour drive away. He could have avoided the whole ceremony. But the reality was he could have never done that.
He caught sight of his sister, Liz, sitting next to their mom. Predictably, she didn't return his gaze.
When he and Orlando had arrived a couple of days before, he had thought that maybe their father's death would spark a reconciliation between Liz and himself. Maybe not full on at first, but at least start things moving in the right direction.
But because of her school schedule in Paris and the long, trans-Atlantic flight, Liz didn't arrived in Warroad until right before the service. Quinn had been in the lobby greeting mourners when she came rushing in, still wearing jeans and a sweater.
"Liz," he said, surprised.
"I'm not too late, am I*" She seemed to be all motion: fidgeting with the shoulder strap of her bag, one foot tapping, and her head swiveling side-to-side as she took in everything in the lobby except her brother.
"You've still got thirty minutes."
She nodded, her face neutral. "Where's mom*"
"She's in back with Reverend Hollis. She should be out in--"
Liz started walking toward the chapel doors. "She's through here*"
"Liz, it's probably not a good idea to interrupt them right now."
"I don't care what you think. I want to see mom."
But before he could say anything else, she had disappeared into the chapel.
The podium was right before him now. There was no backing out.
With a deep breath, he stepped behind it, then looked out at the room full of his parents's friends and relatives. Everyone watched him, waiting.
Everyone except Liz. Her eyes were riveted on the flower display behind the casket, her jaw tense. Quinn couldn't feel mad at her. He knew, like his mother, she was hurting. She'd lost her father. If anyone in the room had ever understood Harold Oliver well, it would have been Liz.
Quinn pulled the notes he'd written out of his pocket and set them on the podium. After another deep breath, he smiled at his mom, then looked again at the people gathered before him.
"What I remember most about my father...what I..."
He stopped and glanced at his notes, but there was nothing there that could help him.
I remember his coldness. I remember his distance.
He had written down things he thought people would want to hear. Lies about a relationship with his father he had never experienced. Feelings he had never had.
I remember his anger. I remember his inability to love. Me, anyway.
If he tried to say any of the things he'd prepared, everyone would see right through him.
He glanced up at his mom again. She was looking back, her eyes soft, streaks of tears on her cheeks. He wanted to tell her he was sorry, that the right words just weren't coming. But then, as he looked at her, he realized there was something he could say, something that wouldn't be false.
"What I remember most about my father is the way he loved my mother," he said. "You could tell in the way he looked at her, and the way he always waited to eat until she was at the table. And the way he waited for her, and didn't give up hope before they were married." He told stories of life on the farm, of family trips, of Fourth of July picnics all from the perspective of the relationship between his father and his mother.
"He loved her," Quinn finished. "And that was enough."
No one who came to the Oliver's farm that afternoon arrived empty handed. There were casseroles and sandwiches and baked chicken and pans of Jell-O and cakes and pies and cookies and almost anything you would want to drink.
Quinn guessed that at least twice as many people had jammed into his mother's house as had been come to chapel. When it got to the point where he couldn't turn around without bumping into someone, he caught Orlando's eye and motioned to the back door.
The yard was considerably less crowded than inside the house, but it was something equally annoying to Quinn.
He shivered as they walked down the steps. Anything below 60� just felt wrong, and the current temperature was definitely well south of that mark. If this had been Los Angeles, the day would have been considered full-on winter. But here in northern Minnesota, it was merely typical fall. And, as if to emphasize that point, several of the dozen or so people who had also opted for the outside weren't even wearing jackets.
Quinn shivered again, then pointed at a couple empty chairs. After he and Orlando were seated, he began picking at his food, but nothing looked appetizing. After only a few minutes Orlando set her equally untouched plate on the ground, and said, "I should check on Garrett."
She had left her son at home in San Francisco under the watchful care of Mr. and Mrs. Vo. Orlando and Quinn agreed that this was not the time for Garrett to be introduced to Quinn's family. Perhaps the following summer.
Before she could retrieve her phone, though, several women approached them.
"Jake, that was just lovely what you said about your father," one of the women said.
"Thank you," Quinn replied. He remembered her as the mother of someone he'd gone to school with, but her name escaped him.
"Yes," one of the other women said.
"Absolutely lovely," the last told him.
"I can't believe how grown up you are now. And who is this beautiful woman you're with*" the first asked.
Quinn could feel Orlando tense beside him. "Oh, I'm sorry," he said. "This is my girlfriend, Claire."
The first woman smiled. "Nice to meet you, Claire. I'm Mrs. Patterson."
"How nice you could come with Jake," the third said. "I'm Mrs. Moore."
"Claire* I wouldn't have expected that name," the second one said.
Quinn tensed, annoyed, but Orlando immediately put a calming hand on his thigh and said, "My father was part Irish." It wasn't a lie. Her father was half-Irish, but her father had also been half-Thai, and her mother one hundred percent Korean. When someone looked at Orlando, her Irish ancestry was the last thing they saw.
"What name do you want my family to call you*" Quinn had asked Orlando before they'd left for Minnesota. "You're real name*" Orlando was not the name she'd been born with. Like most in the secret world, she'd taken on a new identity, burying who she had been.
She scoffed. "I hate my real name." She was silent for a moment. This would be the name Quinn's family would always know her by, so it wasn't something to be taken lightly. "Claire was one of my father's favorite names. He always said he wished it had been mine."
"Then that's what it is now."
After the women left, Quinn said, "Sorry."
Orlando smiled. "It's fine."
Quinn was just raising his beer to his lips when the backdoor to the house swung open, and Liz stepped out. She looked around at those milling outside, then spotted Quinn. With sudden determination, she began walking toward him.
"Uh-oh," he said.
"It's okay," Orlando murmured. "She's not going to cause a scene. Not here."
As he watched his sister approach, Quinn couldn't help but be amazed at how the little tomboy he used to know had grown into such a beautiful woman. Not model beautiful, not put together beautiful. Naturally beautiful, the kind of beauty not everyone noticed right away, but once they did, they would never forget. Liz could just roll out of bed, throw on a t-shirt, a pair of jeans and a baseball cap, and she'd still be more attractive than most women.
Of course, the half-scowl on her face wasn't particularly helping her looks at the moment.
"Would you mind if I borrowed my brother for a few minutes*" she asked Orlando once she reached them.
"Not at all." Orlando started to stand. "I have a call I need to make anyway."
"No need to get up. I feel like a walk. Thought maybe Jake could go with me."
They both looked at Quinn.
"Sure," he said. "Here." He handed his plate to Orlando, grabbed his bottle of beer, and stood up. "Let's go."
They walked in silence, Liz striding out a few feet ahead of him. She guided him down the dirt road that went from the house to the barn. The building was big and white and in need of a new coat of paint. It had been at least six years since their father had stopped actively farming, so after the animals had been sold off, and the fields on either side of the house had been leased to a neighbor, maintenance of the barn had no longer been a priority.
Liz turned onto the path leading around the left side of the barn and into the woods.
Once they were among the trees, the trail narrowed, much of it overgrown from disuse. For several years when Quinn had been a kid, he had taken the path everyday. When his sister, eight years younger than him, had been old enough, she had done the same.
They walked for ten minutes before Liz finally stopped exactly where he knew she would - the site of the old fort he had built for himself. It wasn't long after he outgrew it that Liz had made it her own. Only the fort was gone now, reclaimed by nature, the wooden walls rotted and turned to mulch. Quinn could see a few rusty nails protruding from the surrounding trees, but that was about all that was left.
"I used to think you made this for me," Liz said.
Quinn took a couple steps forward. The ground was covered in brush and saplings just like it had been when he'd first chosen the spot. Back then he had cleared it, and built a wooden floor that sat a foot above the soil on two by four beams and old bricks.
"I guess maybe I built it for both of us," he said.
Something caught his eye. It was black and half buried next to a tree. He knelt down and tugged on it until it came free. It was a license plate. Black background with faded orange-yellow letters. The three upper quarters were taken up with the number, while below was a single line:
19 CALIFORNIA 54
He had found it in a neighbor's barn, and had taken it when no one was home. It had been in a dusty pile with several other plates from various states. He didn't think it would be missed.
It was the only one he took, though. California. It seemed exotic, and exiting, and, most of all, far from Minnesota. He remembered staring at it for hours, dreaming about escaping to San Francisco or Los Angeles or San Diego. He smiled at the realization he'd actually achieved the dream.
"What*" Liz asked.
"Huh* Oh." Quinn tossed the plate on the ground. "Nothing. Just...nothing."
She stared at it for a moment. "Mom's going to need help," she finally blurted out.
"Is that what you wanted to talk about*"
"I have to go back to Paris tomorrow. I'm already missing too many classes as it is."
"I can stay for a couple more days," he told her. "But after that, I have to return to work."
As far as Liz and his mother knew, Quinn was an international banker. It was a cover he often used on the job, too. It helped explain his extensive travel.
"So I'm supposed to just stay* I'd have to take the term off."
"Relax," Quinn said. "Of course you should go back. Uncle Mark and Aunt Carole are going to check on Mom everyday. And I've spoken to Reverend Hollis. He's going to have some of the ladies from the congregation help her out until she's feeling better."
"That's your solution* Get others to do it for us* Great."
"Liz, come on. It's going to be fine. I'll be here for-"
Quinn's phone buzz. Instinctively he pulled it out and looked at the screen.
David Wills again.
Liz rolled her eyes. "Work, right*"
Quinn sent the call to voicemail and shoved the phone back in his pocket.
"You're going to have to leave sooner than you thought, aren't you*"
"I said I'd stay for a couple more days, and that's what I'm going to do."
She took a step away, looking deep into the forest. "You know, I used to think...I used to think that maybe..." She paused for several seconds. "You know, never mind, Jake. Just...never mind."
She turned and started walking back down the path.
"Liz," he called out.
She didn't stop.
But she had already disappeared among the trees.
Quinn ached at the distance between them, but didn't know what to do about it.
Despite their age gap, they had been close once. Right up until he'd left home. She'd been nine then, and he knew she been at an impressionable point. But he'd had no choice.
He had hoped one day she'd understand. One day she'd realize he'd done it for her, and would forgive him. But, so far, that day had yet to come.
His phone buzzed again, notifying him he had a message. He listened to it.
"Good news," Wills's recorded voice said. "I won't need you until October third. We're still firming up your first op location, but at the moment it looks like Los Angeles. I'll call with more details in a couple days."
Quinn erased the message, then stuffed the phone back in his pocket.
At least he hadn't lied to Liz about how long he could stay.