Chapter 21

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"I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun."

-Jane Austen

"It's raining cats and dogs out there," Lucas said as he slipped his jacket over his shoulders and turned away from the window just as Alexa emerged from the bedroom. She was dressed in a black shirt, jeans and boots. As Lucas watched her, the knot in the pit of his belly tightened at the memory of how she had kept him company in the shower just half an hour earlier.

He exhaled, realizing he had been holding his breath the entire time as he watched her. He sighed. He was tired, his body yearning for sleep but he knew the day was far from over. He still had to get them both back to the Grid for Liam, and to debrief Harry about what had happened on the ship.

He wanted to know what had happened to Nadia, and the man who had held her, remembering how he had dragged the poor girl behind him behind the warehouse. He was distracting me from Alexa, he thought.

Alexa was looking for something atop one of the shelves just above her head, standing on tiptoes as her hand scanned the items. Lucas saw a matryoshka doll flanked by a set of buddhas and a Ganesha statue. Trinkets, he thought.

"We need to get back to the Grid, Alexa," he said as she grabbed hold of the matryoshka doll a little too quickly and pocketed it, her back towards him. Lucas frowned.

"I need to brush my teeth first," she said as she made her way to the bathroom and closed the door behind her, almost slamming it in her haste.

Alexa locked the door behind her, bringing her ear against the door. She could hear him walking away, and a few seconds later, the sound of the microwave turning on. He was warming something up, she thought as she opened her palm.

The matryoshka, a Russian nesting doll, was old, probably an antique when she'd first received it. It was intricately painted and featured a Russian matron with rosy cheeks and a cupid smile, wearing a sarafan, the traditional Russian long, trapeze-shaped pinafore. It separated from top to bottom at the torso, each outer doll revealing another smaller doll inside, ending with the smallest one, usually lathed from one piece of wood and didn't separate.

Alexa twisted the top of the first doll, revealing the second smaller one beneath. She worked fast, looking at the door and making sure that Lucas was still warming up whatever it was he was making. Probably tea, she thought. She heard the beep of the microwave timer.

The doll originally had consisted of eight dolls but Alexa had discarded the last three to make room for something else. Something that had already cost the lives of four people that she knew. As she got to the last doll, a piece of roughly whittled wood with hastily drawn lines to depict it as a swaddled baby with dots for eyes and a cupid mouth, she paused. It did not match the intricately carved dolls which had long concealed its treasure for nine years.

She felt the rough cuts along its surface, not matching the rest of the dolls she'd just opened and exhaled nervously, her mind taking her back to a different place and time. She had whittled the wood herself, she thought, forming the shape of something that, unpainted, resembled a peanut in its shell. And like a nut shell that contained its treasure inside, she'd carved out just enough room for the thumb drive to fit into.

She remembered how it had clicked in place, snug enough in its hiding spot, a few dabs of wood glue and a few painted lines along its surface finally sealing its secret within. Mikhael had taught her where to hide things in the human body and outside of it, and she'd used the knowledge well when it came to something that was just a piece of wood.

This one, she knew, was a huge risk. Anyone could pick it up, but she'd had nowhere else to hide it. At the time that she had whittled it, she knew Arkady was on his way to kill her and the three other girls who had been with Oskar.

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