Nathaniel slept through the night and most of the next day. Benjamin had stopped the bleeding and stitched his leg up, but he'd lost a lot of blood. He'd be out of action for the next few days. That left the remainder of the mission to the two-man-crew and the book smart girl.
Juliana sat in the galley with her father. She fiddled with Carlo's cravat and the key card. She wrapped the card in the fabric and then unfurled it. Pietro ate some soup slowly. He'd shaved and was feeling much better. Physically at least. He watched her clammy hands. She sniffed constantly, trying not to shed any more tears for Carlo.
10, 21, 12, 9, 1, 14, 1, she repeated for the hundredth time.
Pietro licked his spoon clean. “I'm proud of you.”
She straightened her spine. She'd taken her hair down and it now hung loosely over her shoulders. It resembled ink flowing through water. Her father's brown hair paled in comparison. He scraped his spoon along the inside of his empty bowl. The spoon dug patterns in the leftover scraps.
Juliana scratched her nose. “Why are you proud of me?”
“Because,” he said, “you went back for Carlo... when no one else would. You didn't wait until it was too late or until it was convenient.” He grinned at her. She'd missed his charming grin. He kissed her temple. “I'm very proud of you and he would be too.”
She mouthed a thank you and transferred her eyes back to the card and cravat laying on the table. The feelings boiling inside her needed to overflow on something. Or someone. Gerard Black had chosen to mess with the wrong girl. She would make sure that the code entered the keypad. Project Reinisiate would commence. No one else would die.
Benjamin appeared in the threshold. “New Paris is in sight.”
Juliana clambered to her feet, snatching up the card and cravat. She followed Benjamin to the bridge. She went to the bow and saw the most amazing sight. The skyline of New Paris. It was breathtaking. The sun hung in the western sky, casting an afternoon glare over the snowy city. Even from their distance, she could make out the Eiffel Tower, clear as day.
Her Anichanical grizzly came up beside her, resting his chin on the deck wall. “Isn't it beautiful, Alec?” she whispered, still trying to believe such a sight genuinely stood before her. If only Nathaniel could see, she thought.
Lennon entered her peripheral vision. He looked through a pair of brass binoculars. He twisted a dial on the side and the lences moved outward like a telescope. A dial on the other side made the lences grow or shrink depending on the way it was turned. Lennon concentrated and then hiss out, “Damn.”
That sounded bad. Juliana was sick of hearing bad news. “What happened?”
He set the binoculars on the deck wall and turned to the bridge. “Black Industries zeppelins! Plan B!”
Juliana took the binoculars to take a look. The city looked somewhat blurry when looking with the naked eye, but she became dizzy when she set the binoculars to her face. If she hadn't known better she'd have thought she was standing on the street. Civilians walked passed where she focused. She could make out their every detail right down to their collar buttons. She feared they'd see her they looked so close. Her fingers found the dials on the sides and she adjusted the lences. When she found the zeppelin port she saw four of the Black Industries zeppelins. They'd arrived ahead of them, waiting to intercept them.
Juliana felt the zeppelin slow to a stop. It hovered low to the ground to keep out of sight. They wouldn't enter the city without a new plan. Juliana turned sharply as Lennon went to the bridge. She walked in his wake. “What's plan B?”
“Not as easy as plan A,” he said simply.
On the bridge, Benjamin pulled out a map of New Paris. He flattened it out over the table. “They're here?” It was a rhetorical question. He knew that their adversary awaited them. Lennon scratched his eyebrows. “Without Carlo this will be twenty times harder.” He hooked his thumb over at Juliana. “I still have no clue why he gave her the code. We're the ones who have the experience with rescue missions. Isn't that why he hired us?”
His words cut her deep. She wanted nothing more than to be home, but she wasn't going anywhere. This mission had become a part of her. Carlo trusted her. Nothing she'd done during their brief friendship was worth such trust. That fact irked her. She wasn't special, yet he'd treated her with admiration.
Benjamin ignored Lennon's words and got to business. “The laboratory is here.” He pointed to the Eiffel Tower on the map. “The entrance is there.” His finger slid across the map to the Seine River. “There is a secret door with the keypad hidden just below the water. That is where Juliana will enter the code.”
“It won't be easy,” Lennon stated obviously. “New London was difficult enough even with Carlo and Nathaniel. Trying to access the very thing Gerard Black intends to destroy... this is laughable.”
“Do try to at least sound optimistic.”
Both men stared at Juliana through squint eyes. She hadn't meant to say that out loud. Lennon's bitterness and snide comments were absolutely galling. She wanted him to shut up and get the job done. If Carlo were with them his attitude would be light and raring. She crossed her arms over her chest. “I don't know why Carlo gave me the code. I wish I did. Regardless, I have it and I will open the lab. If you're so bent on resentment then stay behind.”
Benjamin snorted a laugh, trying to keep it back. Lennon raised his chin in pride, inhaling through his nose. He and she locked eyes and she wouldn't let herself look away first. With a scoff, the man relaxed his muscles. “I'm... sorry... Ms. Russo.”
She smiled, proud for standing up for herself. “Thank you.”
Benjamin clapped dramatically. “Oh how wonderful. Hugs all around. Now... back to the plan?”
“Yes,” Juliana agreed. Lennon pointed out an important fact. “You do know that once we dock Gerard Black's men will be on us in seconds.”
Docking at the zeppelin port wasn't an option. They needed to sneak into the city another way. Possibly, their zeppelin wouldn't even touch down. Juliana imagined hanging from a rope ladder twenty odd-some feet off the ground, a weapon strapped to her hip, the code pulsing in her skull. No matter how many stories she'd read, no matter how many textbooks, nothing could prepare her for real live peril.
Pietro cleared his throat at the door of the stairs. “Mind if I give my two cents?”
“By all means, if you think it'll help,” Lennon said with a beckoning hand. Pietro walked to the table. For a minute he stared at the map, perhaps recalling a distant memory. Lennon rubbed his nape. “Sometime today.”
“Watch you mouth,” Juliana spat.
Pietro held up his hand. “We're all friends here.” He touched her shoulder. “It's fine. Now, I've been here before. They wouldn't let me inside the lab, however. And... it was here that Gerard Black's men abducted my wife and I.”
The bitter wind outside rattled the windows and everyone flinched. Lennon reached for his gun which lay on a nearby chair. Juliana shivered. She'd never get used to the tense atmosphere. Every sound she heard made Gerard Black's face flash across her vision.
Everyone breathed deeply as the wind settled. Pietro forced a chuckle. “Anyway, the secret entrance you speak of is, in actuality, the decoy secret entrance.”
The look on everyone's faces indicated they were all befuddled. Benjamin raised his eyebrows. “Come again?”
“Carlo told me... he told me of the decoy. It was created for this type of situation. Meaning Gerard Black. The scientists took into account that someone may try to stop Project Reinisiate, for whatever reason. Hence the decoy entrance.”
Juliana pictured her father and Carlo having this said conversation in that secluded cabin. Even then Carlo had had a confusingly abundant amount of trust for the Russo's. A secret project was just that. Secret. Yet Carlo told her father about the decoy entrance and her the code. Surely there were others of higher authority whom he could have confided in. A politician or a doctor even. But he chose a historian and a librarian.
“So where is the real entrance?” Benjamin inquired.
Pietro touched a spot about a mile upriver from the Eiffel Tower. “A secret tunnel will lead you to the bottom of the river and there you will find the door with the keypad.”
Lennon voiced what Juliana had been thinking. “Why would Carlo tell you this? Who are you?”
Pietro suddenly found his hand fascinating. “It's hard to explain. Carlo and I... we had an agreement years ago. Only I, for lack of a better word, dented it.”
Juliana touched his arm. This news came as a shock to her. Had Carlo been an old family friend? Had she met him before as a child? She stared at her father, hoping her eyes burned his senses so he'd open up to her. “How long have you known him?”
He kept his eyes on his hand. “I knew him for many years. It isn't that important. Right now we must open the laboratory.”
“Agreed,” Benjamin said. “And I think I know where we can get Juliana down without landing the zeppelin.”
The plan was simple enough. Well, at least Benjamin and Lennon thought so. The entire thing made Juliana want to regurgitate her lunch. She currently stood in Nathaniel's cabin, trying not to think of the plan. It would only make her over-think it, which she had no time for. Her friend was out like a light. His Anichanical was perched on the headboard. His bright headlight eyes watched Juliana. She tied her hair in a braid and did some stretches. Anything to feel more preparedfor her mission.
As she stretched her legs Nathaniel stirred. He spotted her at the foot of his bed, doubled over, hands on her ankles. He scoffed with a crooked smile. “What are you doing, Juli?”
She almost jumped through the wall at the sound of his groggy voice. He tried to sit up and he grunted as he moved. He chomped down on his fist to keep from crying out. She stood over him. “Easy. You're still weak.”
“Noted,” he said. “If I find the no-good, rotten, piece of dog crap that shot me...” He left his half-threat hanging in the air. His head hit the pillow. “This sucks.”
Juliana's eyes fell on his leg. The bandages were crinkled, dried with whatever medication Benjamin had put on them. They needed changing. Nathaniel took a few deep breaths and pulled himself to a sitting position. He grimaced with the action. His Anichanical flew down to his lap. It's headlight eyes turned off and the room dimmed. Only a lantern on the nightstand lit the area.
Nathaniel shifted the topic. “So what's the plan? Fill me in. Please. I'm going mad sitting in here.”
She gathered a basket of medical supplies from the corner and sat beside him. She started to change his bandages. He tried to stop her and she said, “Let me, Nathaniel. It'll help distract me.”
He pushed his lips to one side and shrugged one shoulder. She got to work while explaining the plan. She and Lennon would climb down a rope ladder –as she'd imagined– in a park a mile from the Seine River. Once down, Benjamin would fly the zeppelin out of the city. Lennon and Juliana would go on foot to the Seine River and find the tunnel Pietro mentioned. They'd follow the tunnel, find the door, Juliana would punch in the code, and it would be done.
She finished changing his bandages. Nathaniel made a face. “Seems straight forward. Still, from what I've seen Gerard Black do,” He nodded to his leg. “and felt him do... it just seems like you'll be caught.”
The same worry had crossed her mind. Nevertheless, she had to believe Gerard Black and his spies knew nothing about the true entrance. That was their saving grace. It had to work. They were out of options.
Pietro entered the cabin. The Anichanical parrot squawked and flapped it's metal wings rapidly. They smacked against Nathaniel's chest. Nathaniel pushed the device off his lap. “You malfunctioning piece of equipment. I hate when it does that.”
Juliana smiled and imagined a living parrot always perched on her friend's shoulder. Bright feathers and big, golden eyes. Even the idea of bird droppings running down Nathaniel's shoulder made the dream of returning animals to the world that much more appealing. For a brief instant, Juliana felt excitement for the mission at hand.
Then her father said, “Lennon's ready for you.”
The excitement evaporated.
Nathaniel held out his hand and she took it. They squeezed tightly. He gave her a wink. “Go release havoc.”
Their hands fell away and she linked arms with her father. He escorted her to the deck. As they walked, Juliana inhaled slowly and exhaled slowly. She did this over and over, trying to stay calm. She had her father's arm in a constricting bind. He caressed her pale hands. Inhale. Exhale.
They reached the stairs and paused. Pietro looked down at her and waited for her okay. She stared up the steps. Night had fallen. The cover of darkness would help in their plan. Still, no matter how prepared everyone said she was, she didn't feel it.
10, 21, 12, 9, 1, 14, 1...
“How long did you know Carlo?”
Pietro cranked his head back and looked at the wooden ceiling. “Eh... I've known of him for many years. Personally spoken to him only four, maybe five times.” He moved his eyes to Juliana's. “That man changed my life, my daughter. I owe him so much.” He choked up on that last word. His eyes glistened.
Juliana wanted to understand the importance of Carlo. She laid her head on her father's shoulder. “When I return I want to know the whole story. That will be your gift to me. Promise?”
He swallowed. “Promise,” he whispered.
She nodded and started forward. He followed her lead and they went to the deck where Benjamin and Lennon waited. Alec stood in the background, offline. Juliana made a mental note that she'd see him again. That personal guarantee soothed her. Goals would help keep her alive. She needed reasons to make it back safely.
Lennon had smoke bombs, a gun, and a tracker hanging from a tightly woven, cotton utility belt. A headlamp sat on his head. He passed Juliana a headlamp as well. She tugged it on over her skull with shaky hands. Benjamin touched them. “Steady on, Ms. Russo. Do you have the keycard?”
She exhaled sharply and nodded once. She needed to calm down. Shaking hands would do her no favors. Lennon grabbed the end of the rope ladder. “Ready?”
She embraced her father. He rubbed her back. No words were shared. No words would help lift her concerns. She moved from him and gave a thumbs up. “Let's do it.”
Lennon tossed the ladder over the side. It knocked from side to side for close to a minute before it went still enough for passengers. Lennon threw his leg over the side and climbed down first. “When I touch down you go,” he instructed Juliana. She nodded once to show she understood. Lennon started down. Bit by bit his dark hair lowered from sight. Benjamin went to the bridge to monitor his progress. Pietro would be in charge of raising the ladder when Juliana joined Lennon.
They watched as Lennon grew smaller with each step. Juliana licked her chapped lips. She could do this. How difficult could it be? It would be like climbing down a tree, which she and Nathaniel had done countless times.
Her heart gave a jolt when Lennon let go of the last rung and fell ten feet to the sidewalk below. The time had come. Her turn had come to enter the streets of New Paris.
Before her active imagination could psych her out, she positioned her body over the deck wall and searched with her foot for the first rung. It connected and she lowered all her weight on it. The ladder swung and her leg started to shake wildly. She let out a gasp and squeezed her eyes shut. This was nothing like climbing a tree.
Pietro touched her hand. “Be brave, my daughter. You can do this.”
She pressed her lips together so hard they turned white. Her other foot found the ladder and then her hands. She'd passed the point of no return. Downward. She slowly made her decent. Each step made the ladder sway. She opened her eyes and focused on her father. Don't look down, she told herself. Her father. She looked at her father.
Her foot moved to the next rung only to find there were none left. She yelped in surprise and instinctively stepped up on the higher rung. Lennon's voice reached her ear. “The last few feet go by fast! Let go of the ladder!”
She shook her head. If she let go she'd fall and falling meant death. Her last memory of Carlo flashed across her mind. A splatter of blood, a toppling body, a crater in the snow.
“Let go! The drop is slightly more than your height!”
Her feet left the ladder, hanging in the air. She straightened her arms. Loosening her fingers, her body grew heavier, and then her fingertips slipped. The fall only lasted a second, but it felt as if time slowed. Flakes of snow danced a ballet around her. Her eyes watched the ladder move away. It bounced around, happy and free of her weight. Miles she fell.
Her feet hit the sidewalk. Snow shot up around her legs. Time resumed it's normal speed. Lennon clapped her on the back. “See? Simple.”
“E-e-e-yeah,” she stammered. She shook her shoulders of tension and started to laugh. Now that she was down the whole experience exhilarated her. She almost wanted to do it again. Almost. Lennon raised an eyebrow as her laughter died down. “Finished?”
She covered her smiling lips with her fingers. “I apologize.”
Passersby gawked at the zeppelin as it rose over the buildings and flew away. Then their eyes moved to the two that had climbed down the ladder. Lennon checked the street signs and pointed in the direction they sought. Juliana ignored the people watching them and followed Lennon. One man trotted along beside her. “The zeppelin port is back that way,” he stated. “You two are either lost or completely insane.”
“Both I expect,” Juliana retorted without missing a beat. The man slowed his steps and she pulled ahead. Lennon turned down a new street and Juliana saw the river. So far so good. They hugged the buildings as they headed downstream. Gerard Black's spies hopefully had their eyes on the decoy entrance. Lennon's smoke bombs could only throw them off the sent for so long. This had to work. They had one shot.
Lennon stopped them after a few minutes run. He examined the waters edge. “There,” he declared with a hint of excitement under his breath. He and Juliana went to the side of a bridge. She saw an ordinary manhole cover, only this one had two C's etched on it. “Carlo Costa,” Lennon speculated. He checked for witnesses. Due to the late hour not many New Paris civilians were out; at least not in that part of the city. Lennon searched the area for something to pry the cover off. Juliana spotted a large metal cane floating in the river. The end was bent, smashed flat, and she assumed that was why it had been discarded. She shook her head; she detested littering.
She stepped out on a sheet of ice on the bank and grabbed hold of the cane. The ice started to crack as her fingers wrapped around the object. She gasped and felt Lennon's hands on her waist. He yanked her to safety before the ice could break. He glowered at her. “I thought you were smart,” he bickered.
She inhaled slowly and tried not to let his snide words get to her. She dropped the cane at his feet. “Will that help?”
Lennon picked it up. “Maybe.” He jammed the flattened end under the cover and pushed down. After a few attempts the cover popped free. “Quick, grab it,” he grunted. Juliana grabbed the cover and pulled it back. It flopped to the ground with a clang. They winced and checked for any unwanted attention. The coast was still clear.
Juliana looked inside the dark tunnel. She couldn't see anything. Lennon carefully climbed inside and turned on his headlamp. It shinned into the darkness. “Clear,” he assured. Juliana climbed down with his help and turned her headlamp on. All she could see was more tunnel which lead to more darkness. The only sound was that of dripping water. An image of the tunnel bursting with freezing water gushing in at them made her shiver violently.
Lennon lead the way. They walked silently for twenty feet. The tunnel, Juliana realized, was slowly dipping. They were moving downhill. She slipped on a patch of ice and bumped into Lennon. He helped steady her. “Sorry,” she said with flushed cheeks. She rubbed her thumb on the cravat and took a deep breath.
And then she saw it. The door. Her feet picked up speed and soon she was face to face with it. She rested her hand on the frozen steel door. To the left of the door sat a black screen. Lennon caught up with her. “That must be the keypad.” He touched a thumb to it and the screen lit up, turning a rich blue. A scanner turned on and words appeared on the screen. Place keycard here. Juliana pulled the card out and held it up to the scanner. They waited and then a beep sounded. The word clear came and went and then the numbers came, listing 1 to 26.
Lennon grabbed Juliana's shoulders with excitement. He rocked her back and forth. “This is it!” he claimed excitedly. “Enter the code.”
She swallowed. For a second her mind went blank. She couldn't remember it. She rubbed her temples. Lennon tapped her back. “What are you waiting for?”
“Shut up. Just shut up.” She closed her eyes and breathed. “Got it,” she said to herself. She raised her finger to the number 10. In the space above the list of numbers, a letter shinned. Juliana furrowed her eyebrows.
She punched in the next number. 21.
“Each number is a letter,” Lennon deduced. Juliana had come up with the same conclusion. She added the next few numbers. 12, 9, 1... L, I, A...
It became clear. She knew the word without needing the final numbers. Lennon did as well. He looked down at her. “Did you know about this?”
She shook her head and added the last numbers of the code. 14, 1... N, A...
A lock clicked open and a light started flashing. A secret slot in the wall slid aside and a microphone and speaker appeared. A man's voice called out from the speaker. “Carlo? Carlo is that you?”
Juliana couldn't find her voice. Her eyes were glued to her name glowing on the screen. How could the code be her name? Her father had said he'd known Carlo in the past, but they must have been closer than he'd let on if Carlo's secret code was her name.
Lennon spoke to the man. “This is Lennon Learman and Juliana Russo. Carlo is dead. He gave the code to Ms. Russo. Did it work?”
The air fell silent. After a bit the man responded. “Yes... it worked....”
The door opened, mist seeping from the longed sealed edges. An old man stuck his head out. He looked exhausted and his arms were stick thin. He stared at the newcomers. “Welcome... and thank you.... Now Project Reinisiate can make its debut.”
Something whacked repeatedly against Juliana's leg. She looked down and inhaled a deep, startled breath. The culprit looked up at her, tail wagging and tongue hanging practically to the floor.
End of Part 8