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391

Another car arrived for them as they reached the bottom of the hill, whisking them away to the hotel behind further barriers of bullet-proof glass. It came with a twin, presumably for added protection, and after delivering the three travellers to the hotel door, their driver departed in the second car, leaving them with the keys to the first. It was all accomplished with minimal fuss and maximum efficiency, which rather left Marlena wondering if the ISA had had a change of management. Usually Shane was the only member of the organisation who seemed entirely capable of accomplishing anything. She commented on it to Lester, and he smiled and shrugged, and suggested that perhaps the Italian department was a little more efficient. It was feasible, certainly. Marlena was rather too tired to worry.

There was no sign of Shane and Kim in the lobby, which was no great surprise, since they were trying to keep a low profile. It was simple enough to find out where they were, in the time-honoured fashion of sneaking a look at the hotel register. Abe went to sign their little party into the hotel, and threw up a fuss when it turned out that there was no record of their entirely non-existent advance booking. The modern age, with its computers instead of ledgers, made the operation a little more complicated than it might have been fifteen years before, but it was still not too hard for Lester to find Shane and Kim's room number, just before the manager consoled a frustrated Abe, and assured him that three very nice rooms would be ready in an hour. Marlena smiled as they slipped away to the elevator.

"Nice performance," she said. Abe laughed.

"It wasn't hard. Right now I feel like biting somebody's head off. It's been that kind of a day. I do feel a bit guilty, though. That poor receptionist only looked about twelve."

"It was all for the greater good," said Lester. "Send her an anonymous bunch of flowers later, if it makes you feel better."

"That's actually not a bad idea." The elevator slid to a halt, and Abe went out first, checking the corridor. "Looks quiet. I wonder if our assassin friend had time to find out where Shane is staying, and pass the information along to anybody else?"

"Probably no way of knowing," said Marlena. "Do you suppose that was even the same man who came after us before?"

"No way of knowing that either," said Abe. "I doubt there would ever have been, though. Even if we'd arrested him, I can't see a man like that being ready to answer any questions. We didn't have any fingerprints or DNA from the other attacks for comparisons. I'm sorry, Marlena. We don't seem to know much of anything."

"It's hardly your fault." She stopped outside Shane and Kim's door, and knocked loudly. Abe and Lester insisted on moving in front of her immediately afterwards, just in case security had been compromised, which might have made her smile under different circumstances. When he answered the door a moment later, it certainly seemed to amuse Shane.

"Hello," he said, to the two guns in the entrance way. Abe smiled a little sheepishly, and stowed away his weapon.

"Sorry," he said, and nodded a greeting to Kim over Shane's shoulder. "Just checking."

"They're being paranoid," said Marlena, though not without fondness. Abe moved aside so that she could go in, and she met Shane with an enthusiastic hug. "Hello. It's so good to be here with you."

"It's good to see you too." He hugged her back, looking down at her with concern. "You okay? Any trouble on the way over?"

"I'll make my report in a moment," said Lester, following Abe into the room, and checking the corridor before he closed the door. "Stay away from the windows, Mrs Black."

"Here." Coming over, Kim took Marlena's hand, and led her to some nearby chairs. They sat down together. "You can't be seen from here. Believe me, we've had plenty of cause to be wary of the windows. Lately this whole town seems to be full of eyes."

"Thank you." Smiling as she relaxed into the chair, Marlena let out a sigh. "It's nice just to sit down - and not in a car. That wasn't the most relaxing ride of my life by any means."

"Then you have had trouble?" asked Shane, and Abe laughed.

"You could call it that. First things first, though. Any news yet on Roman and John?"

"Nothing definite." Shane shepherded the others over to join Marlena and Kim. "I have a contact of sorts at the local police station, and he called me earlier about a stolen Lamborghini. He sent over some pictures of it from a couple of security cameras near to the museum. Looks like John in the passenger seat."

"The passenger seat?" asked Marlena. Shane nodded, going over to fetch the pictures from beside his computer.

"Here." He sat down on the arm of her chair, handing them over. "It's not a very good picture, I'm afraid, but it was good enough that my contact was fairly sure who he was seeing. I knew him right away of course."

"Yes." Marlena could not help but smile. The picture was mostly from behind, but some of the side of John's head was in vision. She could see part of his right arm as well, resting on top of the door. "No bracelet," she commented. Kim nodded.

"Stefano presumably had him take it off before he came over here. It was what first alerted us to something being wrong. If we can find that thing in Stefano's possession, it might be possible to charge him with something, mightn't it?" The question was directed at Shane, but it was Abe who answered, better placed to do so with his long experience of the law.

"It would be awkward," he told her. "It would certainly prove that Stefano had met with John, but to prove that he was responsible for sending him over here would be nearly impossible, I'm afraid. It might be possible to charge him with stealing it, I suppose. It would be unlikely to stand up in court, though. Even without him being so damn slippery."

"I suppose I should have expected that." Kim was looking at the picture in Marlena's hand. "It does prove that Stefano is behind all of this, though. He can't just smile and pretend that it's nothing to do with him. Not when he has that bracelet."

"True," said Shane. "Trying to prove that a man has used some unidentifiable form of mind control to program somebody to steal a painting is the stuff of science fiction, though. It's one more thing to be stacked up against him on Judgement Day, but beyond that..."

"Quite." Marlena returned her attention to the picture. "I can't see much of the driver at all. Do you have any suspects?"

"Not really. I have no idea who John knows in Rome - or, rather, who Stefano knows. He's not likely to turn to any of his usual friends in something like this. From what little we could see when we tried blowing it up on the computer, it looks like a black person wearing a black earring. Could be anybody, but it does suggest one possibility. There's a gang out here trying to steal the painting. You remember I said that they might be behind the assassination attempts on you, Marlena? Well, one of them is a black woman who wears black jewellery. It's a bit of an assumption, but it might be her. She's approached him before."

"Thieves in a stolen car," mused Abe. "Is there any danger of anyone acting on this? John can be difficult if he gets arrested, especially when he's under Stefano's control."

"I asked my contact to overlook it," said Shane. "I didn't want to risk provoking anything unpleasant. I can't be sure that it'll stay overlooked, though. If that car shows up on any more cameras, it might not be my friend who sees it next time."

"Then we'll have to work fast," said Marlena, with typical determination. Shane nodded.

"I've contacted the ISA. Since John isn't wearing that bracelet, that means that we can trace him using the location device, just as well as Stefano can. They're scanning for the frequency, but without Rolf's special equipment, it can be a little difficult in a city. There's a lot of interference. They've had a few faint pick-ups of the signal, though. Looks like he was headed for the edge of town."

"But nothing definite?" asked Abe. Shane shook his head.

"We'll get there. It's just a matter of getting a good fix on the signal for long enough to boost it, and lock on properly. The ISA has good people in the technical department. They'll get it done." He looked around at his guests. "In the meantime, I'd suggest that you lot get some rest, but I doubt you'll take me up on that."

"I'll send out for some food," suggested Kim. "It's a little safer than calling for room service. Do you have any luggage?"

"There hasn't been any time," said Marlena. "I'd hoped to get some things in London, but as it turned out, our stay there was mostly about running about and being shot at."

"Much like usual, then," said Kim, in an attempt to inject a little humour. Marlena smiled.

"Pretty much." Her smile warmed. "Look at us. We've not seen each other in months, and here we are just talking shop. How are you?"

"I'm fine. Things have been a little hectic, but then when aren't they?" She gestured towards the bedroom door. "Look, why not go and freshen up? You're more than welcome to borrow some of my clothes. Maybe later you can get some sent over from somewhere."

"Nowhere that can't be easily checked first," said Lester immediately. Shane smirked.

"You've got yourself a regular attack dog here, haven't you. Go ahead, Marlena. Stay away from the windows of course, but there's nobody lurking in there, I promise."

"It would be nice to get cleaned up, I suppose." She rose to her feet, taking one last, lingering look at the photograph, before setting it down nearby. Abe reached out for it, and she fired him a sharp, doctorly stare. "No straining your eyes looking too closely at that," she warned. "I'm still not happy about that injured one."

"You are looking a bit red," said Shane cheerfully, as Marlena disappeared into the bedroom. "Been hitting the bottle a bit much lately?"

"Don't I wish," joked Abe. "No, this was courtesy of our assassin friend. Stone dust back in London, which Marlena cleaned up for me, and then grime from the explosion on the way over here. At this rate I'm going to take to wearing safety glasses permanently."

"Explosion?" asked Shane immediately. Lester nodded, somehow managing to make it look as though an explosion was nothing much to be worried about.

"That assassin turned up again," he said, as Kim went to fetch the first aid kit, and see about checking Abe's eye for further damage. "There was a bit of a shoot-out. I was all for trying to shake him off in town, but Mrs Black was worried about the civilians. I suppose she had a point. We headed up into the mountains instead, but he got a little over-enthusiastic, and tried to ram the car over a cliff." He shrugged. "I had to stop him."

"By blowing him up?" asked Shane. "You know, subtlety does have its virtues. How are we supposed to find out who hired him now?"

"The man was unstoppable, Shane." Abe winced as Kim rinsed his eye out with saline. "Nothing seemed to discourage him, or even make him flinch. Even if we could have stopped him some other way, he wouldn't have told us anything, I'm sure of it. I would have liked a chance to look at him, though, admittedly."

"Keep still," Kim told him. Lester shifted awkwardly in his chair.

"I had a chance of a shot, and I took it," he said. He didn't sound especially apologetic. "He wasn't going to stop until Mrs Black was dead, and being foiled several times already had seemed to make him even more determined. As far as I could see, this was the best chance of protecting her. Anyway, the scientific lot might find something. It wasn't that big an explosion."

"Sure felt it to me," commented Abe, as he emerged from beneath Kim's ministrations. Shane smiled slightly.

"Well, at least he won't be coming after Marlena anymore. That's one threat neutralised. Hopefully it'll take a while for him to be replaced. If we can get everything wrapped up here quickly enough, he might not be replaced at all." He slid off the chair arm, and into the now empty chair. "All right. Kim, let's organise that food that you suggested. Lester, do you have anybody that you're supposed to report to?"

"For now I'm at your disposal," the younger agent told him. Shane nodded.

"Good. You're unknown to the enemy. I might want to make use of that, so you make sure to stay away from the windows as well. Keep hidden when the food turns up too. I want to check in with my contact at the police station again, and see if I can't badger him for a little more information. Abe, would you mind calling Bo? We've been keeping them all in the dark over there, but it's probably only fair to start filling them in now. Bo and Hope might be able to help us with Stefano, and possibly with Victor. If he's the one who hired these other thieves, I'd like to know a little more about it."

"I'll get right on it," promised Abe, and pulled out his cell phone. Shane nodded.

"Thank you," he said, then pulled out his own phone as Kim headed towards the main one to call for the food. "It's important to get things moving. There's no telling when that painting is going to get hit, and I want to be on top of the situation."

"Would it help if I went over there now?" asked Lester. "I'm sure my ISA ID will get me in with the security team. I can help to watch out for John, and make sure that he doesn't get anywhere near that painting. With me there you can be sure that he won't get hurt."

"I doubt you'll be able to stop John on your own," said Shane, but he nodded nonetheless. "Thank you, though. That's a good idea. Stay in touch, and keep your eyes peeled. Good luck, and be careful."

"Oh, don't worry about me," said Lester cheerfully, flashing Shane a boyish grin. "I can take care of myself - and I'll take good care of that painting, too." He headed for the door, stride positively jaunty. "You can be absolutely sure about that."