Home > The Defender (Aces Book 5)(9)

The Defender (Aces Book 5)(9)
Author: Cristin Harber

“You need way more than three hours.” The tires squealed around the corners. “But there’s only so many hours in the day.”

Rows of cars were parked, bumper to bumper, as though they were on an assembly line. Unevenly placed fluorescent lights cast garage-pillar-shaped shadows. The flat screen anchored in the center of the Audi’s dashboard displayed a lost signal message as they passed Level A, painted floor-to-ceiling in dayglow yellow. Exit instructions were stenciled in black paint on the cinderblock walls. Monthly pass holders exited one way; hourly parkers followed large black arrows in the opposite direction.

Underground garages were a nightmare. He wasn’t sure why anyone would voluntarily subject themselves to this kind of fish-in-a-barrel situation. “Is this one of Dante’s levels?”

Vanka snickered. “A point for American high schools.”

“If you only knew,” he muttered.

They rounded another corner. A petite woman with long beaded braids stood in front of the letter C. She waved Vanka toward a row of cars lined in the same manner as Levels A and B. His stomach dropped. “You’ve got to be kidding.”

“Stop,” the attendant ordered like a military drill sergeant.

Unfazed, Vanka shifted into park. “Hm?”

Spiker glanced at the tightly packed vehicles. “This is your car.”

“And?” She unbuckled her seatbelt and snaked her handbag onto her arm.

The attendant approached the Audi. Vanka opened her door with the car key fob clutched in her hand; the engine was still running. “Is this some kind of parking garage safehouse that no one has read me in on yet?”

“Get out of the car, Spiker.” Vanka slid out and handed over her key fob.

Oh for shit’s sake. What the hell were they doing? The door slammed too hard when he shut it. Both women gave him the same look. It said something like, “Oh look, another asshole,” and it wasn’t the first time he’d seen it. Spiker ignored the look and walked to Vanka’s side, ready to get their spontaneous visit finished.

The ladies shared a conversation in a glance. Vanka removed a twenty from her wallet, handed it to the other woman with a thanks, and pivoted toward the hourly parker’s exit. His gaze stayed on the attendant, now in the Audi.

A minivan pulled onto Level C and took their spot. The driver glanced at the rows of cars. Spiker had a twinge of empathy for the guy. Other than how to leave, there were no directions, and even if they had been plastered on the wall in the same black stenciling, no one trusted a stranger enough to hand over their keys and walk out without a second glance.

No one, apparently, except Vanka.

Vanka’s Audi whipped around at breakneck speed. The attendant reversed down one lane, cut into another, and killed the engine before the minivan man had a chance to roll down his window and ask for help. The entire process took less than ten seconds. The attendant had the skills of a professional race car driver with an inherent understanding of physics.

Impressive, though he still didn’t like leaving personal property vulnerable to the one out of ten spies who called this area home. The attendant directed orders to minivan man like it was his first day of boot camp, and suddenly, Spiker was more interested in watching the other woman park cars than whatever plans Vanka had for them.

Then again, maybe Vanka would surprise him like the petite woman with killer driving moves.





They followed the oversize arrows that led them into a one-way only stairwell that deposited them onto the bustling sidewalk. DC foot traffic made for epic people watching, and not just when he and Vanka were on the job and collecting intel. Power suits and tourist gaggles wove together. Kids cried for hot dogs. Randos blocked the sidewalk to study their maps as bike messengers hopped between the sidewalk to the street.

Vanka stood out in the crush of foot traffic the way that Vanka always did, beautiful yet subtly sharp enough to slice through the waterfall of people. There were times Spiker watched purely from an analytical position as strangers gave her room, curving their path around her. Other times, he saw the situation from up close, unable to veer away from her, like the moon trapped by the earth’s gravitational pull. That was the power of Vanka.

Not that he’d ever tell her so. He’d never hear the end of it. But to himself, he could admit her intangible abilities were helpful assets to have in a partner.

They skirted the center of what looked like a middle school reunion. The children wore identical red polo shirts, khaki shorts, and white athletic shoes.

“Here we are.” Vanka pivoted toward the wide stairs that led to six massive white columns. “Natural History.”

“You took me to the Smithsonian?” Of course that made sense given their discussion, but in what world did they daytrip to a museum?

“Don’t worry.” She locked her arm in his. “Learning something new won’t hurt that much.”

“I haven’t been to this place since I was a kid.”

“Oh yeah?”

He nodded. “Eighth grade trip.”

They joined the line behind a quiet elderly couple. A moment later, two women with young children broke the relative quiet. Spiker glanced back and marveled at the National Mall. Almost everything looked the same as it had when he was twelve years old. At the time, he’d thought he might grow up to be an architect. He hadn’t had the words to explain how the Mall’s tan gravel paths and expanse of green grass balanced the imposing, stark-white neo-classical buildings. As an adult, he appreciated the balance, but understood that he wasn’t meant to create and design spaces. He didn’t search for a balance. He didn’t need it—at least not usually.

“Anyone over the age of sixty-five or with visitors under five,” a guard called from the top step. “New line starts here.”

Their line-mates left for the shorter line. The afternoon heat baked Spiker’s shirt against his back. He and Vanka stepped closer to the museum’s gates and the promise of air conditioning. After another minute, he could see the security checkpoint behind the large columns. “Progress.”

They climbed another two steps, and she asked, “With school or family?”

Spiker returned his attention to Vanka. “Hm?”

“Your eighth-grade holiday—school or family?”

He lifted a shoulder. “Little bit of both, I suppose.”

“What does—” The line surged again, and they stepped onto the shadowed portico. Air-conditioning poured from the nearby doors. Security guards gestured for visitors to prepare wallets and bags for x-ray and then, seemingly based on how well Spiker’s line-mates followed directions, directed them to varying checkpoints.

Apparently he and Vanka aced the visual rule-follower’s inspection, and were pushed through the most expedient checkpoint.

“Be back in a moment.” Vanka gestured toward the sign for restrooms and stroller parking.

The crowd magically parted to let her pass. His eyes stayed on her until she rounded the corner. An elbow jostled him from behind. His first thought was an amateur pickpocket. The elbow nailed him in the back again, and Spiker turned as the culprit launched away—but not from him.

His eyes narrowed. Three red-polo-wearing boys stood at the back of their group. They faced one another like the points of a triangle, laughing in that cruel way that only middle school bullies could. Spiker followed their gazes, and stopped on one of their classmates. Same shirt. Same shorts. Same shoes. Half their weight, if the kid was lucky. The situation didn’t take a genius to decipher.

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