Next time I’m not letting someone at a desk stop me,’ Tila promised.
Malachi and Ellie exchanged a meaningful look. They recognised this tone. She meant it.
‘This Cho person is the next biggest investor?’ Tila demanded. ‘Where is she?’
Malachi tapped his datapad as they walked.
‘The biggest single investor was a guy named Alistair Conway, but he is a few blocks from here. Cho Suleman headed a consortium which became the third-largest investor. She represented just over twenty per cent of the total mission cost.’
‘What’s that in real money?’ said Tila.
‘A whole lot.’
‘Okay, let’s go.’
‘Tila, one more thing?’
‘Don’t forget we are on your side, okay?’
Tila took a deep breath and blew it out quickly in a huff. ‘Yeah. Sorry. I… sorry. I’m just angry.’
‘I know. Just don’t be angry with us.’
Tila forced herself to relax, then instead of giving an order she asked her friends a rare question.
‘Shall we go?’
‘Love to,’ said Ellie as she linked arms with Tila. ‘See? All friends here.’
‘Well, now we know for sure,’ said Malachi cryptically., still studying his datapad.
‘What do we know?’
‘That Cho is a woman.’ He showed the girls an image of a young Chinese woman standing in front of the building across the street. She looked far too young to have been a partner in a major expedition more than ten years before.
‘How old is she?’ said Tila. ‘She doesn’t look much older than me.’
‘She is twenty-eight years old according to this profile,’ said Malachi.
‘She invested in the mission when she was sixteen?’ said Ellie.
‘That can’t be right. Let me check again.’ A half-dozen taps later Malachi said, ‘Oh, I see now. This picture is her daughter. Her mother was the investor. They have the same name.’
‘That’s confusing. Why?’ said Tila
‘I don’t know. Family tradition, maybe? Look, this is the daughter.’
Malachi passed the datapad to Tila. The picture on the screen was almost the image before them now. It was the same building with a group of business people posing for a group photo.
Tila looked up at the building as it towered over them. High in the sky, puffy drifted puffy clouds, creating the illusion that the building was in a state of perpetual free fall, ready to crush them at any moment.
Ellie had given Malachi’s image only the briefest of glances before returning her gaze to the street. The scene was fascinating. The city was fascinating. People here had all this space and yet all they seemed to want to do was fill it with buildings and people and vehicles.
As Malachi and Tila talked over their options and planned their next move, Ellie watched the traffic. Every few seconds, a luxury vehicle would arrive at the Suleman building, delivering what Ellie imagined to be one important visitor, or high-powered executive, after another.
Three white vehicles pulled up outside the building. More well-dressed figures sprang from the first and third at once, eyeing the scene around them. One of the figures opened the door in the central cruiser, and a young lady stepped out. Ellie blinked, and quickly snatched the datapad from Malachi’s hands to examine it.
‘Wait! That’s her!’ She pointed at the figures across the street.
‘Over there, getting out of that middle one.’
‘Hey, she’s right, I think that is her,’ agreed Malachi as he took back the datapad and examined the image for himself.
Ellie tugged on his sleeve.
‘Mal?’ She pointed to the figures across the street
‘It happened again.’
He lowered the datapad and looked to where Ellie was pointing. Tila was already on her way.
‘Oh no, not again. Why didn’t you stop her?’
‘How, exactly, am I supposed to do that?’
They ran after her.
Tila ran through the traffic, dodging private cruisers and public transports. She ignored the danger and the beeps and shouts from shocked drivers who were forced to slow or swerve to avoid colliding into the young woman who appeared out of nowhere. Tila had a destination, and traffic was not going to stop her getting there.
‘Cho Suleman!’ Tila shouted as she ran. ‘Cho! I need to speak to you.’
Immediately, three of the suited men and women with Cho formed a phalanx around their boss. The other three members of Cho’s close protection detail stepped forward to block Tila’s path. Two men from the phalanx ushered Cho toward the building entrance as fast as they could, and a lone woman snatched her sidearm from its holster and climbed the last three steps backward, scanning the street below her for more threats. Tila saw more weapons secreted within the jackets of the three guards in front of her as she rushed forward.
Tila reacted instinctively to the oncoming threat. She feinted one way, then another as she ducked and spun past the guards. Even as they recovered their balance Tila had already skipped between the parked vehicles and run up the steps.
‘Cho! I need to talk to you.’
At the top of the steps the guard with her weapon drawn weapon pointed it squarely at her head.
‘Down on the ground. NOW. Hands on your head.’
Tila heard Malachi and Ellie struggling behind her. They must have rushed forward when she did but had been grabbed by the security team. She glanced backward. Her friends were held firmly in the grip of one guard each. The other two had drawn weapons and were pointing them at her friend’s faces.
Tila flung her arms wide and dropped to her knees.
‘I just want to talk to you,’ she yelled. ‘About the Rising Star.’
‘Last warning. Hands on your head,’ ordered the female guard at the top of the steps. She gestured to someone behind her and another guard pointed his weapon at Tila and sidestepped down the stairs to cover her from another angle.
Tila glared at her but complied. Ellie and Malachi had already cooperated. They both looked scared, but Ellie looked terrified.
I’m pushing too hard.
The guards roughly searched them for weapons, Tila supposed. They took her staff and Malachi’s datapad and inspected his pack, which was almost empty anyway. Then her friends were marched up the steps to join her on their knees.
The woman in front of Tila gave a signal and the human fortress of suits took a step away from them. But Tila could see they were still on high alert. Hands were close to weapons, angles were being covered, and the street was being more carefully watched for other surprises.
They weren’t the only ones watching. Tila saw Suleman looking at them from the safety of the building. She didn’t seem concerned by what she had just witnessed, just curious. Suleman studied them for a moment, her eyes lingering on Tila for a fraction longer than Tila felt was comfortable, said something to the aide next to her, and then turned away.
Tila’s heart sank. There was no way they were getting that meeting now.
‘What’s happening?’ she asked the female guard. She seemed to be the one in charge here. ‘Are we under arrest? I just wanted to talk.’
The guard said nothing.
‘Someone’s coming,’ said Malachi, and bent his head in the direction of the main doors.
They followed his lead. Approaching them was the aide who had been standing next to Suleman. She held one hand behind her back while the other rested a white datapad in the crook of her elbow. She wore charcoal grey business attire and the most perfect black ponytail Tila had ever seen. She made a tiny gesture with one finger and as one, the entire security team stepped back, holstered weapons, and appeared to relax, although Tila suspected that was just for show.
Tila felt safe enough to reach out and touch Ellie’s arm. Safe now, said the gesture.
‘My name is Marissa Holmes. I am the head of security here. You may stand, but please, no sudden movements. Your names, please?’
‘Why?’ said Tila.
‘Because I want to know who you are,’ said Marissa patiently. ‘We already have your pictures’.
Malachi gave his name first, then Ellie, and Tila only reluctantly. Marissa typed them into her datapad with a fluent motion, only hesitating once at Tila’s last name.
‘What just happened?’ said Malachi.
‘We just wanted to talk,’ Tila growled. ‘Why did you attack us?’
‘My team are expected to protect Ms Suleman against any potential threat. Unfortunately for you that includes young women running at her through traffic while shouting at her. I’m sure you understand.’
Tila grumbled something that might have indicated she did, but that she wasn’t happy about it.
‘Anyway, we have ascertained you are not a threat to Ms Suleman, so you are free to go. But I must warn you, your faces have been scanned and logged and distributed to all members of Ms Suleman’s security worldwide. The alert will be system-wide within a day and all over the Commonwealth within two weeks. Do not try to contact this office again, in any capacity.’
‘But I need to speak to her about the Rising Star,’ pressed Tila. ‘It’s important. The mission worked! It-‘
The woman held up a hand to silence Tila.
‘Yes, we all heard you. Ms Suleman has asked me to tell you she does not intend to discuss any investment she may or may not have made.’
Tila searched her face for a reason, anything, that would explain this intransigence.
‘May have made? May? Everyone knows she invested. That’s common knowledge, isn’t it? Mal?’
‘It’s public record,’ agreed Malachi.
‘Ms Suleman has no further comment on the matter.’ She gestured again and their possessions were returned. ‘You are free to leave, but if you remain here, or return here, you will be arrested. Is that clear?’
Shoulders rigid with tension, Tila snatched back her staff and pushed between two of the men blocking her path, with Malachi and Ellie close behind.
Marissa watched them leave. Her datapad beeped. She read the incoming message and tapped out her confirmation. ‘Have them followed for at least two blocks. I want to make sure they leave.’
‘You’re not going to involve the police?’ asked one of the guards.
‘There’s no need. We don’t pay them for this.’
‘Why are we letting them go?’ asked another.
‘That tall girl, Tila, Ms Suleman wants to see where she will go next.’
Marissa shrugged. ‘Don’t ask me why. I heard her name the same as you. That girl should count herself lucky you were ordered not to shoot.’