“Things are not always as they seem; the first appearance deceives many.”—Phaedrus
And in the process of time, Venomiss surfaced.
The warm Mediterranean Sea had been welcomed refreshment. Yet, its choppy current pressed her on towards the shore with some urgency; as if somehow, the sea sensed the runaway train of events about to track into the former double agent’s life.
Buoyed by the tide, Venomiss briskly swam ashore to her hideout cove. She slithered in her wet pajamas on the smooth rocks and hoisted her body onto dry land.
She was about to open the secret door to the cave that she had painstakingly carved out of limestone rock over the past five years in anticipation of a day such as this one—when she heard a vehicle approaching on the road above.
Breathlessly she whispered to herself,
“That’s my ticket out of here!”
Venomiss ran. She slipped and clawed her way up the bank. Dripping wet she had difficulty maintaining her footholds. But, then again somehow human will kicks in when a glimmer of hope offers a way out.
Exhausted, she made it up the bank to the only road to and from her former home.
Tucking her limbs into her torso as tightly as possible, she rolled out onto the warmth of the road’s sun-bathed pavement, hoping that the oncoming vehicle would see her in time…
She heard screeching tires …and then, a familiar voice yelled,
“There she is! Stop!”
A pair of arms, from a short-sleeved Hawaiian shirt, tattooed with pilot wings helped her to her feet and into the BMW-X5 Protection series (armored).
“Hey, Boss you okay? You gave us quite a scare.”
Still catching her breath, Venomiss chuckled, “Just out for a Sunday swim, Mr. Zero.”
“Where to, your suite?”
Her vocal cords quivered as Venomiss shivered a reply to former RAF Captain, Lance Equator (aka Mr. Zero)—”Yes, thank you.”
Exiting the BMW, Venomiss waved goodbye to Mr. Zero.
Then, with her go-bag slung fashionably over her right shoulder. And clad in her dripping wet pajamas, she strutted barefoot into the lavishly posh aura of The Xara Palace Relais and Chateaux.
Discreetly alarmed, well-dressed groups of guests in their Sunday finest, glanced askance at her as she glided (not walked) into the prestigious hotel acting as if she was dressed in one of Armani’s latest designs on a fashion runway in Milan.
Halting her glide at the Front Desk, Venomiss enquired:
“Hello, I would like to check in. May I please speak with the Manager, Mr. Goldman if he is available?”
The brand new, it seemed, Front Desk clerk who had, no doubt, sized up Venomiss apparent unworthiness for admittance to Malta’s old capital city’s finest hotel responded—her voice oozed snootiness:
“Yes, Madam. If you must.”
Venomiss noticed the young woman’s nametag. It read, “Clara – Guest Happiness Liasion.”
In response to a click on Clara’s mouse on her laptop, suddenly a door behind her opened. A business-like man, tall, in a white pressed three-piece suit with gold trim on his waistcoat buttons walked purposefully through the door. On his nose, a vintage pair of no-rim spectacles hung nonchalantly, as if its owner had no need of its functionality to improve his eyesight.
Mr. Goldman brought the space to attention with his energy when he spoke,
“Ah, Lady Atherton I did not know you were here. My apologies for any inconvenience. Your usual suite is always ready for you.” Clapping his hands, Mr. Goldman summoned two female porters, who scurried hurriedly to the counter.
“Please see to it that Lady Atherton is attended to quickly. Come, come…everyone…dépêche toi!”
“Thank you. You are most kind,” replied Venomiss, smiling at Mr. Goldman as he stood over Clara’s shoulder walking her through her guest records.
With renewed vigor underscored by her embarrassment, Clara, the Guest Happiness Liasion quickly configured and handed Venomiss two copies of her suite’s key card.
“I am so sorry Lady Atherton. I see from your file you like to prepare your own coffee. I will send someone ahead to deposit the necessary expresso machine and ingredients to your suite right away. Again, so sorry my lady, for the misunderstanding.”
“Quickly, get her a warmed robe from the spa,” said Clara as she ordered the staff about to fuss over Venomiss who by now had glided to the private elevator door to her firm’s permanent suite at Malta’s only five-star hotel.
Warm and dry in fresh clothing which she kept at the hotel suite, Venomiss waited for the espresso machine (courtesy of Clara) to stop belching its final drips of coffee into her cup.
She took a long hot sip of expresso, fished her Vitamin B12 tablets from her go-bag, and swallowed in one gulp.
“Ah, the breakfast of champions!” said Venomiss out loud raising her coffee cup in salute to the stunningly refreshing view of Malta’s peninsula from her hotel suite window.
Tapping her temple in the prearranged manner, her communication implant came online. Lady Cat, her Office manager, and Cyber Intelligence Specialist answered immediately—concern registered in her voice.
“Are you okay? You should go to the hospital to get checked out, at the very least.”
“No, no, I am quite fine. Fortune has preserved me from injury. Have you swept this suite for electronic bugs?”
“Yes, I did that before your arrival…As soon as Mr. Zero informed me of your plan.”
“Long story short, I know you can’t bear geek speak. Suffice it to say that that message I forwarded you—the one entitled “Magma” had a rather clever worm/virus encoded in its header. It remained dormant until I forwarded that message to you. It then relayed your location to an awaiting drone armed with a missile.”
“Even shorter story—basically when I opened that message, I told an armed missile where to find me, right?”
“Pretty much. But, good news we have a lead…sort of! One of our “competitors” in the freelance spy trade perfected that worm technology some years ago. The worm deleted itself from our servers but its traces read like the sinister work of our competitor, FLANX.
“What about the meet at the Malta listening post?” Venomiss, still savoring her expresso and the view, enquired.
“Fake. A fake bomb was found in an unmarked package at the planned meeting site. Your advance team, got suspicious when a young man with a strange limp carrying a Luger Glock 19, mysteriously appeared. He then ran frantically out of the area before he could be apprehended.”
(Venomiss could not help but notice the similarity in the assailant’s description to the events in her dream this morning. She had received premonitions in the past that had been spot on. Some of them had even saved the former double agent’s life. However, she kept her thoughts on this matter, as always, to herself.)
Continuing to track her conversation with Lady Cat, Venomiss chimed in:
“So… they, whoever they are do not want me dead. The incendiary at my home was too small to do much damage. Moreover, it was timed with such precision to give you and me sufficient warning.”
“Precisely! Therefore, on a hunch, I tracked the path of the drone on its return flight after the blast. It landed in a vacant parking lot in Mdina where you are there. The closest structure was a warehouse owned by the same company that owned the multinational research facility that had been vaporized earlier today in Norway.”
“I don’t think that was a coincidence. Do you want to check it out?”
“Let’s go snooping my friend—that’s what Athertons do.” Venomiss’ delight was palpable as she continued. “Snooping has been my family’s legacy since my great grandmother worked as a spy for The Pinkerton Detective Agency in the 1950s. It’s in my DNA!”
“Okay good. I have sent the vacant parking lot’s coordinates to your new cellphones. Your new phones plus your usual goodie package have been left at the front desk for you. You realize Venomiss—they, whoever they are were counting on us tracking that drone. They know we are coming. It is probably a trap.”
“I know, my friend. I know.”
“….And uh… a bit of worrying news,” said Lady Cat after a long pause.
“Shortly after your check-in at the hotel, I intercepted an encrypted email routed through the hotel’s wifi network. Someone sent your photograph as an attachment with no text—to Europol, to Langley, Virginia, and to Mossad.”
Suddenly, Venomiss’ acute hearing, further enhanced by her communication implant, picked up sounds outside the door to her hotel suite: a polite cough followed by a tentative knock on her door, and then footsteps running away.
“_Just a second, someone is at the door, Lady Cat!”
Walking cautiously, Venomiss peered through the peephole. A serving cart had been left outside her door.
She opened the door slowly. Cautiously she stepped into the hallway and checked all exit points for anyone that might be lurking. It was clear.
She walked back to the cart and perused it with healthy suspicion. One silver cloche covered a glass lunch plate. A large glass of orange juice with a covered lid had been placed carefully next to the cloche.
Sliced apples in a bowl of wilted salad hurriedly flung together with olives, raw almond flakes, and bacon bits languished on the other side of the cloche. She lifted the cloche to reveal the glass plate. It held a slab of flank steak, unevenly breaded and very rare.
Gingerly Venomiss closed the cloche and pondered this trojan horse disguised as a meal cart. What was its message/purpose? The offering had clearly not measured up to the hotel’s Condé Nast Traveler top fifty world ranking for fine dining. And more importantly, the hotel’s kitchen staff knew that she was a keen vegan.
Wasting no time, she scrutinized every item meticulously. Then she found it.
A seemingly blank piece of notepaper inside a yellow ziplock plastic baggie had been concealed inside the large glass of orange juice. Opening the zip lock baggie, Venomiss noticed that—wherever drops of orange juice trickled onto the “blank paper” —letters appeared.
She whispered, “Old-school spy-craft, manganese lettering reacting to acid.”
Venomiss then dunked the “blank paper” in its entirety into the orange juice. The paper emerged from its ascorbic bath revealing four sentences. The sentences were written in a simple cipher she knew well. This particular cipher was like a second language to her mother tongue. Venomiss translated the sentences in her mind, before the paper itself dissolved.
Venomiss whispered the four sentences she had uncovered. She let out a gasp as she uttered the first sentence like a chant.
The message that had been concealed on the “blank paper” in the orange juice read as follows…
“What if the four horsemen of the apocalypse are already here? Come alone. Back of the hotel by the dumpsters. Twenty minutes…”
****To be Continued Next Week Sunday****