Toll Guy Tragedy

Title: Ralph and the Toll Guy Tragedy

At the end of the meeting, Ralph’s host gave him a wearable device to evaluate for potential investment. As an angel investor in numerous start-ups, Ralph had worn more than a few entrepreneur’s dreams on his wrist. This smartwatch had an integrated EKG and a defibrillator, in the unlikely event one’s heart rate got irregular. The same Vietnamese entrepreneur also had watches in prototype stage that monitored the bloodstream for various deficiencies, and injected hormones or other medicines when needed. This new tech, in the CEO’s eyes, would make the world a better place.

To be polite, Ralph put the watch on his wrist as he exited the meeting room. Ralph thanked the start-up team and promised to follow-up. As the host was Vietnamese, the meeting room’s attendees all stood at the lobby, waiting for the elevator. Seemingly at random intervals, someone would say something, and everyone would bow. Ralph hated this particular Asian custom. Everyone had better things to do than wait for the elevator. It made Ralph and his imposter syndrome issues even more anxious and uncomfortable. The elevator took six minutes to arrive and Ralph had bowed seventeen times. When the elevator door opened, it was packed tighter than traffic on Highway 1 on a long-holiday weekend. Ralph bowed deeply to his hosts, went for the emergency exit door next to the elevator, and headed down the stairs. His hosts were aghast and hollered, but Ralph just pushed onwards.

Ralph tried to remember what floor he was on. Was it seven or seventeen? Or seventy? He wasn’t in Shanghai or Shenzhen or Beijing, so he was almost positive it wasn’t seventy, but who knew? At least he was moving.

At the next landing, he learned it was twenty-seven. He was now on the twenty-sixth floor and was walking through what looked like someone’s apartment. Awkwardly, at least for Ralph, the woman was watching a variety show on her mobile phone with the volume turned up loud while she was cooking some sort of greasy soup on a single gas burner. She looked surprised when Ralph passed, but immediately put her head back down to finish her show. Ralph noticed that each of this modern skyscraper’s stairs was unique; each a non-uniform height. It took some concerted thought not to trip and tumble.

At each landing, Ralph walked into another family’s makeshift home. Most were neat and clean, but a few were so crowded that people moved chairs so Ralph could pass by. One ‘home’ had nine sets of bedding via bunks in a space that might comfortably fit four cuddling people. It took the pear-shaped Ralph about ten minutes to navigate all of those stairs and crowded landings. He laughed to himself when imagining the stories over dinner that would be told about the huge foreign man–Ralph was 6’4”, 250 pounds with mocha-colored skin–traipsing through so many homes. When he arrived at the second story landing, there was a man with a fist full of small currency. He held up his hand like he was expecting a toll. Ralph popped the smart watch into his hand.

“Be careful with this. I think it’s a prototype,” Ralph said in English.

The Vietnamese man quickly tucked the fancy blue-banded watch deep into his pocket and in-tone-alone admonished Ralph in Vietnamese for disturbing his tenants. When Ralph finally stepped onto the ground floor lobby, he noticed that Eva had her back to him, her eyes glued to the elevator’s doors.

Ralph decided he’d surprise her. As a covert agent for the Chinese government, one that often followed him around the globe at the direction of her bosses after he had somehow persuaded her to work off-script with him to solve a worldwide threat, she was always surprising him showing up in the most-unexpected places. His turn. He smiled in anticipation. He poked her playfully under her rib cage on her right side. He planned to say in Mandarin, “Put your hands in the air,” but he got out no more than two syllables before his world tilted and blurred and he was on the granite floor. His gonads stung, bile was at the back of his throat, there was blood pouring from his nose, and he was looking up the very short skirt of a tall, leggy, blue-black-haired beauty.

“Sweetie, you’re not the first man to want to look up my skirt, I can assure you. But there are easier and much safer ways for you, Okay?”

Ralph tried to sit up, but his once solid world was suddenly viscous, and he fell back and whacked his head.

“Has no one ever given you a self-defense course, Ralph?”

Ralph tried to shake his head no, but that only sent his world into a faster spin. Ralph’s entire covert experience was one single foray a few months prior when he identified and then begrudgingly attempted to stop a dastardly plan to over-take the world.  

Soon, two of Eva’s teammates had lifted Ralph to his feet and were attempting to steady him and find something to mop the blood from his face.

“Who the fuck takes the stairs, Ralph? This is Asia—you probably saw fifty things you shouldn’t have seen in that stairwell. You’re also probably going to need a bunch of needles to ensure you don’t catch anything.”

“There were dozens of families living in that stairwell, Eva. Why?”

“Because people are poor, and they need a place to live. And no business tenant would ever think to take the stairs. Ever. So an entrepreneur, who doubles as the foreman of the cleaning staff probably gets a few bucks for making the space available to those families. If the entrepreneur is smart, they probably kick-back most of what they collect to the building’s supervisor. That’s often how these things work.”

“No one’s the wiser?”

“Until some knucklehead bursts down the stairwell because he can’t stand a few moments of discomfort waiting with a bunch of suits for an elevator,” she said, clearly annoyed.

“You’re mad at me for that?”

“No, well, yes.” Eva shook her head. “Hanging out with you gets my head all scrambled. You never follow the rules. All of these people will now need to find new places to live for the next few weeks. It’ll be a huge pain in the ass. Jesus, Ralph, you’re making me into someone who actually gives a shit.”

Ralph smiled apologetically. “Should we go out and kill something? Maybe a nice chicken or pork for dinner.”

“Don’t make fun of me, Ralph. I’ll hurt you some more. I’m in no mood for your feeble charm. I’m grumpy—and horny. I haven’t been with a man since I’ve been tasked with following you around these last three months, and it’s starting to make me slightly crazy.”

“Well, I can’t really help you with that.” Early on in their weird-friendship, Ralph had been the recipient of Eva’s professional seduction attempts. As a fifty-four year old, he had the maturity of a scared, seventeen-year-old virgin. And, in his twenty years of marriage to Jen, he had only fantasized about straying. In truth, he was more scared of Eva, than turned on. “Maybe we can visit one of those spas where you can get a massage and a happy ending?”

“Ralph!” she said angrily. “Do I look like the kind of woman who needs to pay to get laid?”

“No of course not.” Ralph was momentarily at a loss for words, as Eva was looking authentically offended. “I was only trying to be helpful. I’m really sorry, Eva, if I’ve offended you.” He reached out and gave her shoulder an affectionate rub.

She leaned forward and gave him a kiss that lingered just a little too long. He pulled away with a jerk. She smiled. He blushed. “Don’t you find me just a little attractive, Ralph?” He laughed nervously. “You did seem to find a few extra moments to stare at my legs while you were on the floor just a few minutes ago.”

“Eva. Come on. You know I think you’re gorgeous. You’re stunning. Really, really beautiful. Any man, or woman for that matter, would be thrilled to be with you, but, you know I’m married to Jen. And I take that commitment seriously. If I wasn’t …” But Ralph decided it best not to finish that sentence.

This time it was Eva’s moment to blush. “You know Jen is not within eight thousand miles, and as I check your hotel room every night for sensors while you’re asleep, I know we’d never be found out. Aren’t you even slightly curious to find out if I’m a tiger or a pussy cat?”

“Wait—you come into my room when I’m asleep?”

“Just to make sure you’re safe. Really. By the way, give me the stupid watch you just got from those fools looking for your investment. I need you never to wear that thing.” She started to push Ralph out the lobby and toward her Mercedes Sprinter van.

Ralph was still disturbed by the thought of Eva in his hotel room each night. “I gave the watch to the ‘toll guy’ on the first-floor landing.”

“What is a ‘toll guy?’”

“The guy on the first floor who was renting space to all the people in the stairwell.”

She nodded to one of her crew who was holding Ralph steady, and he shot back into the lobby and up the stairwell. Ralph didn’t realize how wobbly he still was. The extra hands were a steadying factor. Ralph attempted to climb into the van, but found it was still locked.

Then Eva’s crew member came running toward them at full tilt. He was yelling in Mandarin. The van door flew open and Ralph found himself pushed to the floor. Eva was atop him and the helper jumped on top of her. The van accelerated more aggressively than Ralph would have imagined. He was in great discomfort, on the floor of the van with two people on top of him, and with some significant lateral G-forces as the vehicle weaved through traffic. Ralph flinched twice when two bullets pounded into the roof of the van. Ralph’s discomfort increased dramatically when he realized that warm liquids were pouring over him and sloshing to the floor. But he shut his mouth and let the professionals do their job. In this melee he hoped he would feel Eva move or say she was okay. After less than three minutes, he felt the van scrub and hop the curb into a driveway. They came to a violent stop and he heard a heavy gate close. The liquid that was sloshing around the van while they were moving settled into the lowest spots on the van’s floor, only a few inches from his head. Ralph knew some of the warm liquid was blood, as the color was brown red. He also smelt urine and burnt flesh.

After an impossibly long ten seconds, he felt Eva move on top of him. Ralph let out an involuntary gasp of relief. But she was swearing in Mandarin. In moments, it became clear that crew member had taken a bullet and was missing most of the left side of his frontal lobe. In his charred left hand was the watch that Ralph had worn only four minutes earlier, and it was barbecued almost to the point of being unrecognizable. Only the melted blue rubber wristband was the telltale.

“Okay, listen and follow my instructions carefully, Ralph. There’s a penthouse apartment on the top floor of this building. Get upstairs quick. Lock yourself in. Don’t open the door for anyone, not even me. I need you to find a way to stop the bleeding from your nose. Use a bag of ice on the bridge of your nose and some toilet paper up your nostrils. As soon as the flow stops, get into the shower. Throw your clothes and computer bag into the black garbage bag and send everything down the chute to the left of the toilet. Turn the shower water up hot. As hot as you can stand it for no less than 30 minutes. There are a few liters of rubbing alcohol and Listerine in the shower. Pour both all over yourself. Soak your hands and wrists in it. Then more hot water. Scrub hard—explosive residue from the watch won’t come off easily. There might be some fresh clothes or maybe just a robe for you to wear. Put them on and wait for us. Do not try to contact anyone. Sit tight. Can you do that for me?”

Ralph had a million questions, but he saw she had moved deftly into her most-professional mode, so he acknowledged his fears to himself, nodded his agreement and started running up the stairs. The penthouse was at the top of four flights and the door was locked but had a fingerprint reader. Ralph was gobsmacked when his finger opened the lock. He replayed every instruction that Eva had spoken in his mind repeatedly and used great discipline to follow them without deviance.

After more than an hour, and without once looking out a curtained window, he heard the front door’s lock release, and he girded himself for a fight.

Eva walked into the apartment in a white cotton bathrobe, similar to the one Ralph was wearing. She ducked easily when the floor lamp Ralph threw at the apartment’s intruder sailed over her head.

“Oh shit, I’m so sorry, Eva,” he blurted out before the lamp had fully landed on the floor. He had half a roll of toilet paper up his nose to staunch the earlier bleeding. He sounded like he had the worst head cold imaginable.

She stepped over the busted floor lamp with a pronounced limp. Ralph could only now see the very thick bandage wrapped around most of her calf. She reopened the door to tell the newly installed guards with machine guns that they were all okay.

“We save your life and you throw a floor lamp at me?”

“Sorry, I was scared.”

“Yeah, I get it.”

“Are you okay?”

She stopped and looked at Ralph for a few moments before speaking. “I always forget you weren’t trained for any of this. It must seem surreal.” She spoke slowly and with compassion.

“Are you okay?”

“What is most interesting to me is that I’ve spoken with two dozen of my people in the last ninety minutes, and you’re the first to ask me if I am okay.” She paused. Just as he was about to ask again she said, “Yes, I am okay. Not great. I just lost a friend and a coworker today. Shen was a good man. His wife and child will never know what happened to him. He just won’t come home to his family ever again. That’s terribly sad, but part of the life we have chosen. A small piece of shrapnel entered and exited my calf. I hope the scars are small. I really like my calves. They are one of the few parts of me that our plastic surgeons never needed to modify. The shooter has been dealt with and you are safe. So I’d call us okay. How about you?”

“I’m fucking scared out of my mind. But I am okay also. Thank you. Thank you for everything.”

“That’s something else I am not accustomed to. Someone saying thank you. You are welcome.”

“What can you tell me? What just happened?”

“Well, Ralph, what we know right now isn’t much. But your silly walk down the stairs probably saved your life. The ‘toll collector’ who was given your watch suffered a major heart attack and the watch burned into his skin. That’s what Shen was yelling when he ran to the van. You were supposed to die when the defibrillator kicked on in the crowded elevator with many witnesses. But when they lost track of you, they got scared and turned the watch into a small electrical incendiary device. They also had a sniper on the roof to follow the watch’s GPS in case the defibrillator failed. That’s how they had such an accurate shot, even after we passed seven hundred meters down the road. The sniper was using an AI-controlled weapon with smart bullets. We should be able to find the purchaser of this weapon in the next few hours. Do you want to hear more details, including the gory bits?”

“No. I don’t. But I think I have to. I think I need to listen to it all.”

“I agree. You need to know in order to make good judgements in the future. My team apprehended and inflicted a non-trivial amount of pain to loosen the lips of the shooter with the expensive weapon. We did the same to the CEO who gave you the watch. Both claimed they were paid large sums of money wired from Middle Eastern banks to play their roles. We confirmed this to be true. Neither of them knew much at all about you or your wife. They knew nothing about the people that hired them. In other words, you were and probably still are a target of a professional hit. Someone wants you taken out. And they’ll take enormous international risks to do so. And just so that I scare you a little more, the CEO and shooter didn’t die peacefully.”

Ralph studied Eva’s expression while trying to hold back the bile from reaching his mouth. “I don’t approve of those methods, but I appreciate that you’ve made us safe for the moment.”

“Speaking of which, we need to move from this location very soon. We should have new clothes and a few more helping hands within the next fifteen minutes. While this apartment building is secure, and thus far, we’ve not picked up any potentially threatening chatter from listening to the Vietnamese police radios, we don’t want to give your pursuers an easy target. Understood?”

“Yes. I am kind of freaking out, but what can I do to help?”

“You need to think about who and why someone wants you dead. We’ve double-checked all the players from our last adventure and all of those folks are licking their wounds. With all the heat we brought to them, and with the surveillance we left behind to keep tabs, we don’t think there is anyone who would make this kind of play. It’s got to be someone else. With that said, there is one certain someone who has fallen off our radar. Have you heard from McKenna recently?”

“No. Not since that drunken night on the Moscow river.”  Eva and McKenna had found Ralph a private taxi that would take me back to the Westin. “That was the drunken evening of dancing on the bar with my big hairy ass hanging out of my shredded pants.” Ralph smiled and looked down at his current lack of pants. “How about you? He works in your world, not mine.”

“I spent another thirty minutes with him, after we paid that Uber driver about 300 dollars to take you back to your hotel. You were a mess.” It was her turn to gently rub her bandaged calf. “We made out and fooled around a little bit after you were gone,” she said smiling, as if embarrassed by her disclosure.

“You what?!?” Ralph’s mouth was agape. “McKenna? Ew.”

She laughed heartily. “So good to know you are truly jealous of me.” She adjusted her robe to show just another half inch of her long legs. “Both of you aren’t much to look at, but in truth, he’s an amazing kisser.”

“Ew. Gross. Ew. Okay, whatever, but seriously, is that the last time you’ve communicated with him?”

She smiled. “Jealous, much?”

“Hell yes. I know I have no right to be, but McKenna? You can do so much better than that.”

“That’s pretty similar to what he said about you when he saw me flirting with you.”

“He’s a dirty dog.” Ralph sulked for a few moments. McKenna had been a friend through thick or thin in college, but his time with various covert agencies had made him less empathetic than Ralph had expected on their last adventure. “But we wouldn’t have gotten out of that last one without his help.”

“True.” Eva got pensive. “But yes, that was the last time we spoke. Whatever happened with the guy that McKenna was working for? The guy working for Roger Phillips of the Z-Prize? Didn’t he try to knock you off via a ginger ale on a cross-country flight?”

“Yeah, not sure where he went. He should probably be on the list.”

“A list? You think we need a list for the people that want you dead? You’re an angel investor, Ralph, not a hit man.”

“Six months ago I wouldn’t have thought of a single name that might want to do me harm, but since delving slightly into your world, I think there is probably a list.”

“Alright, I’ll find you some paper and you can start your list. My team will investigate.”

“Eva?” Ralph paused. “I cannot stop you from following me.  But why are you and your team helping me? I desperately don’t want to appear to be ungracious, especially after you’ve just saved my life today, but, I’m not ever going to be a member of ‘your team.’ You understand that, right?”

Ralph had met Eva only six months ago in Israel, and within a few minutes, she had already threatened to kill him. She was publicly an employee of Huawei and insomuch, also a member of the intelligence community for China. After a few harrowing adventures, she and Ralph had agreed to work together to thwart a group who wanted to take over the world by building a weapon of mass persuasion. Ralph wasn’t sure where Eva’s alliances were, and he wanted to make sure his were well understood.

“I’ve been wondering when you were going to ask me this question.” She made an exaggerated shrug of her shoulders and quickly peered into the four corners of this great room. “Let’s just say my bosses have assigned me to you for the foreseeable future. My team believes you aren’t a threat to them, and you should be slightly in our debt for services and safety rendered. You tend to stumble into places and situations we want to learn more about, so as you know, I am tasked to play nice, observe carefully, and give you the space you need to progress.”

Ralph was certain this room was actively being surveyed. “So you’ll protect me when I need it, but only if I’m giving you opportunities to see what I’m seeing, correct?”

“I think that’s correct. But it’s not like you could stop us from following you. Ninety-five percent of the time you don’t even know we’re around.”

“And how many other people on the globe have this kind of relationship with the government of China?”

“I really wouldn’t know.”

“Guess for me, please.”

“As far as I know, no one. Just you. They purposely don’t tell us much. I’ve asked around to people I trust. No one I’ve spoken to has ever heard of this type of deal.”

“And what if I decide not to play nice?”

Eva looked down, tucked her legs under, and pulled her robe back over her legs. “I honestly don’t know. My bosses would probably want me to make great threats about that possibility, but I don’t think threats motivate you.” She rolled her eyes and smiled.

“I’ve not invested any of the money your bosses somehow put into my VC fund. I’m not entirely sure how your team coerced my lawyers into giving your bosses the necessary paperwork to make that enormous investment. It just sort of showed up one day in Clam Pie VC’s bank accounts.”

“Obviously my team thinks you will make fine investments and returns for them.”

“And if I don’t? Or if I don’t acknowledge the strings that may or may not be assumed to be attached?”

“I don’t think my bosses believe you’d be motivated by those so-called strings attached via those investment funds. You’re already a wealthy man. So maybe, if you aren’t motivated by threats, or money, or by my shapely figure—damn you—then maybe, you’d be motivated by more altruistic causes. And just to be clear, my people aren’t afraid of that particular motivator as much as you might think.”

“Okay. That helps. You know I don’t …”

A quick knock and the front door swung open. In a second and a few tenths, Eva had vaulted on top of Ralph and had a gun pointed at the door. One of Eva’s team announced in Mandarin some code words and Eva lowered her weapon. The team walked in carrying some bags.

“Where did you have the gun?” Ralph was flummoxed. “You can’t hide a gun and a holster under that tiny terry cloth robe. It’s not possible.”

“Delighted you noticed. But the weapon was between the cushions in the couch we’ve been sitting on. Now go with him and put on those clothes. He’s also going to add some coloring to your ‘old man’s’ gray hair. We need to get out of here.”

Ralph and Eva split into two different bathrooms to get ready. Within five minutes, a brown-haired Ralph met a blond-wigged Eva in the penthouse’s lobby.

“Wow. You look different.”

“That’s the point, Ralph. We need to get out the country without being noticed. We’ve both got tiny shims in our shoes, so we’ll walk differently. We’ll be okay, as my team will keep us safe until we get to the airport.”

They were walking downstairs when Ralph tripped on an uneven step. His mini-stumble sent him into one of Eva’s team. The man scowled at Ralph’s inadvertent bump. His expression changed almost immediately to a forced smile. The misstep happened so quickly, Ralph was certain he was the only one to notice.

In a new big BMW sedan, with doors that felt like they weighed three times more than they should, Ralph was placed in the back seat next to a wiry older man in a bad suit. Eva was up front next to the driver, the same man who had given Ralph the forced smile. They left the safe house, with three identical BMWs following them. Within sixty seconds, the four cars had each gone in different routes. The driver was trying his best to coax the heavy car to dance through a number of crowded intersections. After a tense ten minutes, the driver told his passengers that they were away safely, with no tails, and would be at the airport in thirty minutes.

Everyone had been very quiet. When Ralph spoke, the car’s tension seemed to increase. “Eva? That list we spoke of?”

“Sorry. I forgot to get you some paper. Maybe there will be some on the plane.”

“I don’t think we’re going to need the list. I think there can only be one organization that could have the wherewithal for this attempt on our lives.”

“Don’t keep us in suspense. Who?”

“Yours.”

The silence was thick. For twenty seconds, no one moved. No one breathed.

“That’s bullshit, Ralph, and your accusation is really inappropriate and hurtful.” She didn’t look back over her shoulder at him. Her eyes were only focused on the driver. “You owe us an apology, you asshole. How many times do we have to save your pitiful life?”

“Eva, I’m so very sorry, but I’m fucking certain of it.”

“Stop the car!” yelled a furious Eva.

The driver hit the brakes hard, at over 150 KPH. In a fluid movement, he pulled a weapon from his shoulder holster and fired. So did Eva. The two weapons sounded like thunder struck in the armored car.

Ralph wasn’t a fast man but had undid his seatbelt and had used the negative momentum of the heavy braking to propel himself into the lap of the wiry man. The driver’s bullet had lodged itself into the polycarbonate window about four inches from where Ralph’s head was three seconds prior. Eva’s bullet had misshapen the driver’s head with a decidedly Picasso influence. She had one hand on her weapon and the other on the steering wheel. The car was traveling only on momentum and, due to the weight, had dramatically slowed.

The wiry man was pinned beneath Ralph’s lumberjack-like girth. He didn’t move. His palms were facing Eva’s weapon. He said in Mandarin, “I am not a threat, Niece.”

“Get off him, Ralph.”

Ralph slid off and buckled his seat belt.

The wiry man said in English, “Thank you, Ralph.” He switched to Mandarin. “I can drive once we get this scum into the trunk. I can move the body alone, but it’d probably be faster if we all did so. If I were you, Niece, I’d keep the gun trained on me while this old water buffalo and I wrestle the body into the trunk. Is it a plan?”

“Uncle, we will follow your plan. And be aware, the old water buffalo speaks passable Mandarin.” Eva used the honorific ‘uncle’ not to convey a familial relationship, but to tell Ralph that she trusted him.

It was Ralph’s turn to roll his eyes. At 20 KPH, she applied the handbrake and the car came to a standstill in the breakdown lane. “Now. We move now.”

The three doors opened at her command. Within twenty seconds, with Ralph carrying the legs, the body was in the truck. Eva never pointed her weapon away from the wiry man’s chest. Soon the man with the bad suit was driving to the airport.

“So how did you know?” Eva asked.

Ralph paused, then spoke slowly. “I wasn’t sure I knew until I made the accusation. There are only two countries in the world that have developed the granularity in GPS to get under one-meter resolution. China and the US. Plain-old GPS has three-meter resolution. That smart gun was fired at over 700 meters and took out Shen’s hand as it covered his head. The watch was in Shen’s hand. And the US and its intel teams still aren’t welcome in Vietnam. Hence the US wouldn’t have been able to make these kinds of logistical arrangements in Vietnam. Yet the Chinese move around this country freely. And in addition, the email invite to meet the entrepreneur smartwatch-maker came only three days ago, from a ZTE server IP address. Being a geek, I check that sort of thing to ensure I’m not wasting my time. And since the IP address came from at ZTE box, and most developed countries, including the US, won’t use ZTE servers due to known surveillance concerns, the only logical player was your own team. Huawei would most certainly use ZTE servers, just to obfuscate the originator. Your team was the only real option. And when I made the accusation, the man now in the trunk was straining to keep his breathing even.”

“Fuck.” It was obvious Eva was silently trying to punch holes in Ralph’s theory. “The next question is even more difficult. If you’re correct, then are we the rogue element, or are they?”

“Either way, I’m not feeling great about our next move.” He looked at Eva with vulnerability. “I’m significantly frightened.”

“I understand. Professionals are, after all, trying to kill you.”

“Can … I stay with you?”

Eva smiled. “Ralph you old romantic. You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to hear you say those words, but I’ve got to get to my superiors to figure this out. And if my superiors are the ones trying to kill you, then it doesn’t really make sense for me to bring you along, now does it? I’m heading to Beijing when we get to the airport. And I’m going to say something you might not like: Get on a plane, and don’t tell us where you’re going.”

Ralph started to laugh. A very nervous laugh. “Ahh, well, I don’t know if that makes sense, Eva. Weren’t you supposed to be protecting me? If so, then I should stay with you. At least until we figure out what’s going on.” He couldn’t believe he actually said these words. He hated to be dependent on anyone. Especially Eva.

“Sorry, Ralph, but your not thinking right. I think it’s best if we split up. For now. I’ll send you an email when I learn more from my side. Until then, I need you to act as if nothing has happened.”

Ralph contemplated the possibility of being able to act normally when he knew that highly-sophisticated people were trying to kill him with heart-attack-inducing watches and smart-bullets. He quickly calculated that his chances were slim.

They pulled up to International departures. Ralph jumped out quickly. He had no bags. His passport and wallet were his only possessions. He leaned against the passenger door, keeping his head down. She rolled down her window. Ralph leaned in and kissed her forehead. “Thanks for saving my life … again. Stay safe.”

She nodded. “You too. I’ll be in touch just as soon as I can. Get yourself on a flight within forty-five minutes. Then I’ll catch my own. Okay?”

“Okay. And then, if I’m in trouble, how will I find you again?”

“I’ll find you, Ralph. I always do.”

Her facial expression was a mix of determination and sadness. She wouldn’t look at him, staring only at the driver. Her gun hadn’t moved an iota. Ralph took his cue and ran. After going through the revolving doors, he turned back. They were already gone.   

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