Max managed to duck the knife, but took a punch in the back of the neck as Valentina moved forward, putting him down instantly. He groaned comically, but hit the floor with a sickening impact.
N'buli stepped back as Valentina spun around and lunged for him with her blade, aiming for his eyes. He backed up into the bookcase and grabbed the biggest book he could find.
Pulling out a thick, leather-bound bible, he got it just in time to block Valentina’s next thrust, smacking it away with the spine. She spun around and came in low, aiming for his gut. He used the book as a shield and the blade embedded itself in the text. He twisted and she lost the grip on the knife. N'buli kicked out, shoving her back across the room, and tossed the book and knife out the open window.
Val stepped back and wiped the sweat of her upper lip. N'buli looked into her eyes and saw the same old Val he had always known, but there was something else there.
Something he hadn’t seen in a long, long time.
Then he saw her glance at Max and knew he had to get out of the room. Val could step on the back of Max’s neck and kill him in an instant.
'Max is not the dangerous one,' said N'buli, getting Val’s attention back. He darted forward and got in one good shot, breaking Val’s nose with the palm of his hand, before turning and diving out the window.
He landed on his feet on the street outside, right next to the blade and book. He picked them up, tossed the pages and stashed the blade in his boot. He didn’t want to use it, but he also didn’t want Valentina to have it. The street outside had a canal on his left and tilting buildings that would be impossible to scale on his right.
He could hear her screaming as she came out after him. Val leapt out the window and landed on a parked car, smashing the roof.
N'buli wasn’t going to run this time, but he backed down the street, holding his palms out towards Val, who walked calmly and quickly towards him.
He stood his ground and she feinted with a left jab, and brought her knee up towards his groin. He blocked both blows easily, spun around behind her and got her in a headlock.
'Calm down, Val,' he hissed, but she snapped her head back and caught him on the bridge of his nose. He didn’t let go, but lifted her up and slammed her face down into the ground, just as a group of stoned Irishmen wandered around the corner.
'That ain’t right!'
'Get him, lads!'
N'buli tried to explain, but there half a dozen of them and he recognised some of the rugby club jerseys. One kicked him in the side and the other tacked him hard, knocking him free from Val, and bouncing down the rugged cobblestone.
N'buli struggled to get to his feet, but two more of the Irishmen barrelled into him and pinned him to the ground.
Another of Val’s rescuers helped her to her feet. 'Are you all right, ma’am?'
She looked at him blankly and then drove her heel into the side of his leg, shattering his kneecap. He went down screaming and the two holding N'buli down backed away as she walked towards them.
N'buli grimaced at the nearest Irishman. 'Nice idea, boys. Wrong victim.'
The Irishmen backed off even further as Val aimed her first fist at N'buli’s throat. He ducked away and backed up against the wall. As she came closer, he pushed off and caught her around the waist, using the momentum to drive her backwards.
It wasn’t a good plan, but it was the only one N'buli had, and they both tumbled over the barrier at the side of the street and straight into an Amsterdam canal.
He lost his grip on her as they hit the water and sunk beneath the surface, but then she grasped on to his ankle, her grip as strong as iron as she tried to pull him closer. He lashed out blindly with his boot and caught her on the fingers. She lost the grip.
N'buli broke the surface of the water and swam for it. A small tourist barge pulled up alongside him and three Koreans helped pull him up on to its deck.
He got to his feet and peered over the edge, looking around for Val, but the surface of the water was calm and there was no sign of her.
'Behind you,' said her voice in his ear. He spun around, right into Val’s punch, and fell back onto the deck of the boat.
The tourists all backed off towards the stern as Val loomed over him. N'buli put his right hand up and tried to get her to wait, but she just reached out without saying a word, grabbed his palm and dislocated the little finger on the hand.
Screaming in pain, he pulled his hand free and kicked out, but Val just backed off a step, out of his range. The boat’s captain came up behind her and put a hand on her shoulder, but didn’t get to do anything else, as she lashed out without looking and elbowed him in the face.
The captain fell back onto the boats controls with a groan, hitting the throttle on to full and the boat started careening down the canal, bouncing off the bank and other boats,
N'buli scuttled away from Val and tried to wrench his finger back into the proper place, and got it somewhere close to where it was supposed to be. He glanced at the tourists and yelled at them in perfect Korean. 'Jump! She’s crazy!'
The Koreans didn’t need to be told twice and they all bailed off the rear of the boat, leaving N'buli alone with Val and the unconscious captain.
The boat was picking up more speed, but Val was sure on her feet as she approached N'buli. He couldn’t get his right hand to make a fist with his injured finger, and while he still used his open palm to slap away her first attempted blow, it hurt like hell.
He circled around, blocking her best shots and making absolutely no effort to get in any of his own. Val had never raised a hand in anger against him in more than 60 years, he knew she was not in her right mind.
After trying to get past his defences, Val took a step back and took a breath. The boat was still barrelling down the canal, but Nbuli was able to grab onto the unconscious captain, and with one hand – and without taking his eyes off Val - he picked him up and hurled him into another stationery boat that they were passing.
N'buli was relieved he didn’t have to worry about innocent bystanders being hurt in his confrontation with Val, but his compassion almost killed him. He was still off-balance from tossing the captain when Val came at him again, trying to claw his eyes out.
He ducked away and rolled under her swipe, coming to rest at the rear of the boat. Val was coming for him again, but N'buli was looking past her, where the canal took a sudden right turn, with nothing but a hard brick wall straight ahead.
N'buli caught a break when Val over-extended herself and was momentarily off balance. He managed to get his shoulder underneath her and used her momentum against her, flipping her right over him and into the water.
He lightly stepped off the vessel just as it passed the last moored boat before the wall and it crashed into the brick wall with a loud thud. N'buli was already off and running as other people came to see what the noise was, even though he didn’t know exactly where he was going.
He’d been to Amsterdam dozens of times, but he usually took the opportunity to just get really, really stoned, and his knowledge and memories of the city were clouded in a hazy fog. Then he recognised a Fibo outlet, and knew which part of town he was in. There was a small park just down the road and it was still early in the morning, so there should be no bystanders to get in the way.
Val wasn’t right behind him, so N'buli slowed down to a brisk walk and saved his energy. He waved at one of the friendlier-looking prostitutes in her display on the street and slipped his damaged finger into the right place with a pained grunt.
Arriving at the park, N'buli saw it was just as empty as he’d hoped. He strode out into the middle of the park’s largest patch of grass and stood still.
He didn’t have to wait for long. A dripping wet Val came out of the darkness, walking purposefully towards him.
'Come on, Val,' he said as she came closer. 'You’re better than this.'
She didn’t react to his words, but started attacking him. Most of her blows would have been fatal if they had hit, but N'buli had picked his ground, was ready for her and easily blocked them all. 'Mind control isn’t anything new to people like us, Val. But you’ve been too strong in the past. Others succumb. Valentina Nabokov endures.'
His words still were not getting through to her, and she tried to sweep his legs. He stepped back, and resisted the urge to push her over as she momentarily overbalanced.
'They shouldn’t have been able to do this to you, Val.' She tried to claw his eyes out. He ducked her blow. 'They shouldn’t make you do these things.' She tried to grab his fingers again. He shifted aside. 'They shouldn’t have made you kill Stevie.'
That got through to her and she howled, tears streaming down her face as she launched herself at N'buli. He avoided her rush, but slipped behind her arms and managed to get a grip around her neck and one of her shoulders. Pushing forward they fell to the ground, she needed to use her free hand to stop herself from slamming her face into the dirt, and couldn’t move.
N'buli moved his head around and whispered into her right ear.
'I know they used you to kill your son, Val. They’ve got you trying to kill your oldest friend, it’s just the right kind of sick humour these people like. You told me yourself, you fell asleep while you were waiting for them that night, and you never fall asleep on the job.'
Val tried to squirm free, but N'buli just tightened his grip. 'It’s not your fault. They turned you off and used your body to kill your own son.'
Val screamed, but she couldn’t shut out the truth in N'buli’s words. 'It’s not your fault.'
She screamed again and snapped her head back, breaking N'buli’s grip. He let go and rolled away, ready for the next attack, but Val wasn’t moving. She sat on the ground, hunched over, her head in her hands. N'buli could hear her quietly sobbing.
'Val?' He moved closer, and she looked at him, her eyes full of tears.
'Don’t come any closer, N'buli. I can’t hold them off forever.'
He backed away a step. 'Okay, okay. You can feel them?'
She nodded. 'I can feel them in my head, squirming around. They let me watch this time, let me see myself fighting you, but I couldn’t do anything.'
'They? Do you know who they are?'
'You were right. You were always right. It’s the Goodsons, slipping around in here. Oh Stevie…'
He ignored her earlier warning and moved in close to take Val in a strong bear hug. She melted in his arms, and for the briefest of moments, they just sat there on the grass in the middle of the park, without saying a word.
Finally – and too soon – Val straightened and gently pushed away. 'You have to go. They left me aware this time and I know how it all works.'
N'buli couldn’t help but be impressed. Even with all she was going through, the mission was the important thing. 'What did you learn?' he asked her.
'Well, it’s definitely the Goodsons, I kept hearing Mrs Goodson’s voice, telling me to calm down. But I also know they can’t take everybody. One in ten people is immune to their influence. Something to do with genes. You’re safe. And Max is safe.'
'How do you know?'
'Because they’ve been trying to take him over for days, but his head is full of things like sit-com theme songs from the eighties and they can’t get through. And you’re just too focused or something.'
Val slowly got to her feet and pushed N'buli right away from him. 'I have to go. I can’t come with you.' N'buli moved forward, but she backed off. 'No, you have to do the next part without me. I can’t do it.'
'Where are you going to go?' asked N'buli.
Val looked him in the eye for the last time and smiled sadly. 'South.'
She turned and walked off without another word. N'buli wanted to go after her, and tell her that he didn’t care what the Goodsons could do, he wanted her by his side, for whatever was coming.
But he just watched her go, and she soon disappeared in the dark, leaving N'buli alone.
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