Special Agent Winifred Burkle stepped off the Airbus A320 from Madrid briskly and made her way into the terminal with the single-mindedness of a woman on a mission.
"Will you please slow down?" her companion puffed as he tried to keep up with her, despite being a full head taller and with a longer stride.
She didn't look at him when she spoke. "Long haul flight too bumpy for you, Charles?" She didn't slow down.
Detective Charles Gunn gritted his teeth and tried to stretch his cramped calf muscles so he could walk in sync with his diminutive associate. "Ha ha ha. You didn't sit for 13 hours with your knees against your chest," he grumbled.
"I gave you the aisle seat."
"You're a real saint, Fred," he smirked.
She glanced at him sideways. "We're here on a case, Detective," she said solemnly, though one corner of her mouth twitched upwards in a private smile.
Gunn rolled his eyes. "Yeah, yeah. Don't mix business with pleasure. Well, it's kinda too late now, I have your number. I know you're not the ice queen you pretend to be."
Fred smiled gently. "You sneaked up on me. But we have to buckle up, there's work to be done."
They passed through security channels, with a little delay to process their weapons permits, and proceeded to the meeting area. They were expecting a car to be sent from the local police, but before they could get to their designated vehicle, they were accosted by a worried American.
"Oh thank god you finally got here. First the board said delayed and then it went blank and I thought the flight was canceled. I need your help, desperately." Gunn initially reacted to a hand gripping his arm the way he was trained - with force - but at the last moment held back as he saw who it was.
"Ms Rosenberg, what are you doing here?" he asked, falling one step back in amazement.
Willow continued as if she hadn't heard him. "We stopped the yacht from leaving. They would have gone ahead and be in the middle of the Mediterranean by now. And when they get to Albania ... they have Tara! You have to rescue her, Detective Gunn. I saw them take her, I couldn't do anything but watch," she sobbed.
Fred stepped in at that moment. "Ms Rosenberg -"
"Ah, Willow. Our car is here, why don't you come with us and tell us what happened?" she said, waving to their driver and ushering a clearly distraught and close-to-panic Willow inside.
The ride to their hotel was short, but those short minutes were filled with wonder as they heard how Willow and Tara watched the yacht all night and managed to disable it when it looked like it was about to get away. Though it was dangerous, and in the officers' opinion reckless, they were grateful for the assistance. What was extremely alarming was the news that Tara had been captured.
Fred immediately got on the phone with their local police liaison and diverted the car to the police headquarters. "Check-in can wait," she said, glancing quickly at Gunn who nodded his agreement. "I'm gonna check the progress with getting the search warrant. Working with a legal system we're familiar with is so much better. If they'd stopped somewhere in Africa ..." she shook her head.
"You think I was right? That they're heading for Albania?" Willow had recovered a little of her composure. Thoughts of Tara still filled her mind, but Agent Burkle's businesslike attitude and Detective Gunn's energy has given her hope.
"Yes," Fred smiled. "We may have deciphered the riddle at the same time. I was staring at a picture of Artina and Tirana jumped at me. It's one of those things that makes you go 'duh' once you figure it out."
"Great minds," Gunn smiled lightly.
"Good work," Fred added. "But promise me one thing, no more kamikaze stunts like the one you pulled with the rope. It's far too dangerous. Now I'm making you a temporary intern under my authority. You report to me and your personal safety is my concern."
Willow looked dazed and pleased. "Can you do that?"
Fred shrugged. "Let's worry about the legalese if we need to. You took the yacht out, that's brave enough for me. You didn't think you'd fail did you?"
"We didn't think about that. We saw it getting ready to leave and we had to do something," Willow said. Her thoughts turned to Tara, and how her lover looked when they parted. A small whimper escaped. "How soon can we get the warrant? I don't think I can stand it anymore. For all I know he's torturing her."
"We don't think he will do anything risky."
"But we pulled his whole life from under him, he may take it out on Tara. I think he'll blame her for betraying him."
Fred nodded in sympathy. "That may be true, but I need you to stay strong. You did most of our work for us, Willow. Now let us do our part. We'll get her out."
Willow watched the officers readying themselves for the raid. Agent Burkle met up with the Commissioner of Police as well as the Commanding Officer of the Royal Navy Gibraltar Squadron stationed on the territory. She had services of the entire squad of 220 police officers and a navy patrol vessel at her disposal. "We don't take kindly to criminals abusing our hospitality. They'll be dealt with promptly," the Commissioner of Police declared.
The strike force was put together with stunning efficiency and before she knew it, she found herself in a briefing room at police headquarters. Agent Burkle requested her presence, and after hearing the tale of her single-handedly disabling the yacht, she earned nods of recognition from the officers.
The police chief conducted the briefing. Willow was impressed at the level of detail of his intelligence and briefly regretted not going to the local police directly that morning. Then she realized it was one thing acting on a request for assistance from the FBI and having a live eyewitness to an abduction; and another having two twenty-something tourists showing up at the police station with wild tales of evil deeds.
The operation was planned for dusk to take advantage of the changing light conditions. Willow cheered when the police chief told the group that the yacht had informed the harbormaster that its propeller shaft was broken and one of its engines had overheated. The yacht's captain was pushing for repairs to be conducted quickly and had filed for a departure time that afternoon. The shipyard in charge of repairs would be told by the police to delay completion of the work - it was a simple matter of claiming to need a part that needed to be ordered from the mainland.
"Special Branch will run this operation jointly with our navy colleagues. We assemble at 1800. At 1820, HMS Sabre will approach and dock alongside. Two assault teams will board and have the task of securing the yacht and incapacitating the suspects. Team Three will be responsible for hostage rescue. We don't expect the suspects to have time to mobilize a full-scale defense although we are expecting resistance. They are well armed. There is a risk that one of more of the hostages will be used as human shields, so shoot to disable only, troops," the commissioner's instructions were clear and concise.
He then introduced Fred and Gunn, turning the podium over to Fred to explain the layout of the yacht, present the latest satellite pictures and give a run-down of what to expect. The FBI had photos of most of Wilkins' staff - Faith, Luke and all the security people he had taken with him as well as the yacht's crew. The officers took their time to study the features of those they would have to apprehend. Most attention was placed on Wilkins himself.
"We suspect there are a number of stolen works of art onboard, so care should be taken not to flood or blow up the yacht," Fred scrolled through slides of the art that Wilkins had acquired through his scam. "Although in a situation where there is immediate threat, don't hesitate to act appropriately."
"We'll be careful where we toss our petro-bombs then," one of the officers joked, though not disrespectfully.
Fred smiled at the attempt to lighten up the atmosphere. "The hostages will thank you too, Officer."
"Yes, what about the hostages, Agent?" another officer asked.
"We have reason to believe he is holding three, possibly four hostages. Two we have identified through satellite photos and the third was abducted this morning. Ms Rosenberg over there," she nodded in Willow's direction. "witnessed the whole thing as well as disabled the vessel."
"You did well, Ms Rosenberg," the first officer said.
Willow acknowledged the praise with a slight nod, though hearing Tara being referred to as a 'hostage' made her heart run cold and she couldn't return the warmth shown by the officers.
Fred clicked on her remote control and brought up photos and descriptions of Lily, Hallie and Tara. She also showed a picture of Dawn Knudsen with a warning that they didn't know whether she was friend or foe. "We know she worked for Wilkins to forge a number of paintings. However, given her age and his treatment of two of his staff, we simply can't determine her status. Treat her as a hostile hostage for the time being. Detective Gunn and I will join Team Three, and we will take responsibility for her if necessary."
The briefing continued to logistics and technical aspects of the operation and Willow couldn't keep up. All of a sudden chairs were pushed back and the troops exited the briefing room en masse. She was left with Fred and Gunn.
While Fred was unplugging her laptop, Gunn came up to sit next to Willow. "How are you holding up, Willow?" he asked with genuine concern.
Willow remember the first time she met the detective, when Tara was in hospital, and how nice he was. Detective Lockley was reserved and impersonal, but Detective Gunn asked about Tara's health before launching a round of questioning. "I'm scared. But I trust the police to do their job. Are you going with them?"
"Yes, I'll be with Fr- Agent Burkle with the hostage retrieval team. Our focus is purely to get Tara and the others out," he said.
Willow shuddered. "Hostage retrieval, brrrrr, it sounds so harsh."
Gunn nodded in sympathy. "I know. Sometimes we police types have to distance ourselves from the case, but it doesn't mean we don't care," he said sincerely.
"I know. I trust you. Thanks for doing this." Willow was emotionally exhausted, and felt she was about to break apart. She knew she would lose her mind if the operation wasn't successful.
"It's my job," Gunn said. Fred was trying to catch his eye, and he pointed to the door to tell his associate that he would catch up. "Will you be okay for the next few hours? I know you'll want to be around when we set out on the patrol boat, and no one will deny you a spot at the dock. Try to get some rest? Should I call for a cab to take you back to the hotel?" he asked.
Willow paused. "Thanks. I'll be fine. I think I'll wander around the quayside for a little bit." At his warning look, "I know, stay out of sight of the yacht, don't risk being recognized."
"We'll make a junior FBI agent out of you yet, Willow," he smiled.
Willow watched him exit the room and sat there alone for a long interval. Her whole body ached, from the tension and from Tara's pointed absence. Her thoughts swung between physically painful ones of Tara suffering and faintly hopeful ones of being reunited with her lover. Recoiling from the turmoil, she fled the police station, desperate for air.
Please bring her back. I am nothing without her.