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NaNoWriMo 2009

Chapter One
Just because you’re paranoid…

My name is Sandra, and I have the most boring job in the world.  I’m a spy.  Oh, yes, I know, it’s supposed to be a fun-filled, adrenaline-fueled non-stop adventure.  At least that’s what TV shows, movies, and books would have you believe.  And maybe some spies lead an adventurous life, but for every spy out there living on the edge, there are dozens of us paper-pushers and simple couriers.  If I’d known how boring my job would be, maybe I would have majored in journalism or sheet-metal welding.  Or maybe I would have tried harder for one of those coveted out-in-the field jobs while I was training.  But honestly, I knew better.  I knew they’d never pick me to work in the dangerous situations, no matter how hard I tried.  Because Hollywood has one thing right – the field operatives are invariably good-looking.  Because who would suspect the six-foot tall blond supermodel who is unaccountably hanging out at the local taco stand? 

I am not six feet tall, or svelte, or, for that matter, blond.  Nor have I ever been considered drop-dead gorgeous.  So the upshot is I got stuck in a tiny cubicle making phone calls and filling out forms day after day, with the occasional local courier job.  Most times I don’t mind it.  It pays the bills, and there’s something to be said not having to worry about where you’ll wake up or who is trying to shoot you.  But every now and then the crushing tedium and boredom really get to you.  I suppose the fact that I didn’t take up any dangerous hobbies, like rock climbing or sky diving, showed that they were right.  I’m not a natural risk-taker, and maybe I wouldn’t have been good out in the field.  I’d had a few brushes with danger as a courier, but instead of leaving me feeling exhilarated, I just felt tired.

You see, the courier business can be dicey.  I have known quite a few couriers who have been killed or gotten themselves into sticky situations.  But the whole time they’re recounting their harrowing experiences like they’re a hero all I can think is, ‘if you hadn’t buggered up the situation so badly, you wouldn’t have had that close call.’  I’ve gone on dozens of those same types of runs.  I’ve even had contact with the bad guys.  But I’ve never been made as a spy.  Maybe that’s why I’ve never had the rush everyone talks about.  I’ve never truly believed myself to be in danger.

No one suspects the little pixie girl with the wide, trusting, open face who’s just minding her own business reading or knitting on the park bench.  Except me.  That’s the first person I’d suspect.  But then I suspect everyone now.

There are two things the media has gotten right about being a spy.  The first is that it makes you paranoid and cynical.  The second is that you truly do not have a life outside of work.  This seems obvious for the people out in the field, but us cubicle-jockeys work long, draining hours and operate under the same confidentiality clauses.  So we tend to hang out only with other people in the business, and that gets old fast.  When you spend ten to twelve hours a day with the same group of people, you don’t really want to hang out with them after work, too.

So on Friday, when the guys asked if I wanted to head out to the local pub for some drinks after work, I politely declined, saying my allergies were acting up and I had a headache.  Which was partly true.  I did have allergies, though they were under control at the moment.  But I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, and this seemed the most plausible excuse.  Mostly I just wanted to get home early and get a good night’s sleep, so maybe this weekend I could finally move into my house. 

You see, I’d bought a cute little fixer-upper two weeks ago, after a long battle with real estate agents and bankers.  I’d had to leave my apartment the previous month, and all of my belongings, except my bed and a few articles of clothing and toiletries, were still in my storage unit.  Okay, technically my ex-boyfriend’s storage unit, but he was only using half of it and I didn’t think he’d mind.  Besides, it was just a temporary situation.  I was going to move my stuff out as soon as I had a free weekend…  Not that I’d had a free weekend in months, what with one crisis after another at work, plus my best friend Heather having one issue after another.  Which reminded me, I had a stop to make on the way home.  I’d promised her I’d pick up some lace weight yarn from the local yarn shop, since it was on sale and I drove by there on my way home, anyway.  And I wasn’t going to complain about this particular errand, since I had a pretty good idea she was knitting me a gorgeous lace shawl for my birthday.

I turned my car into the parking lot for the yarn shop and it felt more like coming home than pulling into my garage would have.  Unfortunately, all of my knitting supplies were still in storage, though I might still buy myself a skein or two.  But only one or two.

Three hours later and after a $150 dent in my checking account, I dragged myself back out to the car.  I probably would have stayed longer, but they were closing, and I really did have to get home and get some sleep.  Now I really did have to get my stuff out of storage, because I knew exactly what I wanted to make with my new yarn and those instructions were buried somewhere in that storage unit.  I stifled a yawn and pointed my car in the direction of home, my mind whirling with all of the things I needed to get done.  The yard was completely covered in leaves and acorns, for one, though I needed to go buy a lawnmower before I could really do much about that.

But when I turned onto my street, I realized the acorns were the last of my worries.  The road was blocked with fire trucks, ambulances, and police cars, not to mention a sizable crowd of onlookers.  A house – my house – was smoldering in the waning light of the day.  Pretty, in a complete and utter destruction sort of way. 

I got out of my car and wandered down the street, listening to snippets of conversation along the way.  A few people calmly chatting about the World Series, someone else discussion the upcoming football games, and someone telling an incredibly long-winded account of a completely mundane event.  Nothing interesting, until I overheard a police officer relaying the information that the occupant of the house had been found, deceased, probably overcome by smoke and unable to escape.  I blinked, and looked at the house again.  Definitely my house.  And I was definitely not dead.  But someone had been in my house.  And that someone was now a charcoal briquette.

Just as I was about to correct the officer, I caught a glimpse of a figure moving through the crowd.  A figure I recognized.  Jason was the senior case officer in another section, and was working as an undercover mole in a crime ring.  Several people, my boss included, thought that instead of working for us and being a mole in the crime ring, he had defected and was a crime boss working as a mole in our office.  I’d been order to investigate it, very low-key and off-the-books.  And I had.  I hadn’t done anything that should have tipped him off, unless someone told him.  But who else knew about my assignment?

I melted back into the crowd before he could see me.  No reason to tip off anyone that I wasn’t the body in the house.  I was suddenly glad that working in the spy business for so long had made me paranoid, as I had this contingency covered.  Not that I thought I would every really need to fake my own death, but it was comforting to know that if I ever had to, I could.  I had a second identity all set up and ready to go, an imaginary cousin who was also listed on all of my paperwork as my next of kin.  All the documentation I needed was in the storage unit.

As I turned to get into my car I saw another familiar figure.  My boss was winding her way through the crowd.  But not towards me.  She was headed straight for Jason, her face somber but… there was another emotion there, one I couldn’t quite pick out.  She greeted him with a smile and a handshake, but it looked wrong.  And what were the two of them doing here?  There’s no way the news of the fire could have reached anyone yet, and neither of them lived in the neighborhood.

I saw two distinct possibilities.  One, Jason had defected, and had found out about me investigating him.  So he decided to eliminate the problem.  But he had to know someone else would just take my place, and I’m not so amazing that I believed he thought I’d uncover something no one else would.  Though my death would buy him time to bury evidence, so it was plausible.  The second option was more abhorrent, but honestly made more sense.  In this scenario, it was my boss who’d gone to the dark side, and the whole investigative mission was just to set-up Jason for my death.  It made more sense, but was more depressing because it meant I’d misread her for years.

Still, neither of the explanations covered the most bizarre development.  Who was the body in the house, and how did they get there?

Chapter Two
In which things become no more clearer, but slightly more interesting

I drove out to the storage unit, suddenly glad it wasn’t in my name.  They had no way to track me there, and I could stay there until I figured out my next move.  Plus, it would take a little time to find the paperwork I’d stashed.  I think it was packed alongside my inflatable dinghy and my collection of stuffed cows, but it could also have been in the box marked ‘surgical instruments and purple stuff’.  I couldn’t remember.  Every time I move I swear I’m going to do it right, with inventories and box labels so I know what is in each box, but every time I find I’m doing good just to mark with room in the house it should go in.  And even that ends up being a crapshoot, because I end up completely rushed and there’s a perfectly craft-implement shaped hole left in my kitchen wares box.  And you can’t just leave space in boxes, that’s wasteful.  Plus they’re more prone to collapse, and I didn’t want a repeat of the golden peen statue fiasco from when we moved my friend Mark.

Still musing about where I might have packed those documents, who I might be able to trust, and what my next move was going to be, I was caught completely off-guard when I drove around the corner and saw the door to my storage unit – okay, sorry, Jake’s storage unit – open.  A man in jeans and a black t-shirt stepped out into the light of my headlights, and I almost collapsed in relief when I saw it was Jake.  I put the car in park and slowly got out, bracing myself for the grief I was going to get over this.

“This is all your crap, I presume?”  He got right to the point, I’ll give him that.  He stood in front of the unit, arms crossed, feet spread, blocking my path.

“Well, yes, you see, it was only going to be for a short time, because I had to be out of my apartment before I could move into my house.”  I faced him, hands on hips, trying to look as fierce as a four-foot-eleven, 95-pound weakling can.  He stared back, saying nothing.  I cleared my throat.  “I… you… see, I thought I’d have it out before you ever knew, and…”  I trailed off.  It sounded weak and pathetic, even to my ears.

“And that makes it all right?  For you to be in my personal space?”  Damn him, he was right.  I’d known it all along, but I’d been… no, I hadn’t been desperate.  I could easily have rented my own storage unit.  So why hadn’t I?  I could even have rented it under another name, if I wanted to use that as my excuse.  But I hadn’t.  “Sandra, look…”

“Sandra’s dead,” I said.  I wasn’t sure why it came out, but I had to confide in someone, and if you couldn’t confide in your ex, who could you trust?  “I’m Elizabeth now, my long-lost cousin.”

He stared at me for a moment.  “I’m not sure what kind of game you’re playing at, Sandra, but it’s not funny, and it’s not going to get you out of trouble for this.”

“I’m not trying to get out of trouble, I know what I did was completely wrong.  Don’t look so surprised, I can admit when I’m wrong.  I just… this has been hard on me, you know?”

“Yes, I know, and… I’m not sorry, but, you know… I am.”  His posture relaxed slightly, and I could feel the tension in the air dissipating.  Slightly.

“I know.  But look, I need to talk to you about something serious, and I need to trust you.  You might be the only person I can right now.”  I motioned towards the door of the storage unit, where my couch sat at a jaunty angle just inside.  He turned around and walked over to the couch, sinking into its plush depths with a sigh.

“Is this about your death?”  His tone was caustic and more than a little sarcastic, but I pushed aside the bristle of irritation.

“Yes, yes it is.”  As I told him about the events of the evening, his harsh expression softened and he almost looked sympathetic.  Almost.

“So what are you going to do?  You can’t be serious about just letting everyone think you’re dead.”

“Not everyone, no, obviously I’ve already told you and I’d probably let Heather know.  But there’s no one else really important.”  I shrugged.  “And this does give me the ability to start my life over.”

“Not exactly.”  He rubbed a hand over his face.  I stared at the stubble already growing there.  Damn, he was good looking.  I felt a pang again and wished for the hundredth time things had gone differently for us.

“How so?”  I stifled a yawn and slumped over on the couch, curling up against the armrest.

“Because they found a body in your house.  Unless you can explain that.”  He looked at me pointedly.

“What, like I’m a mass murderer and I always have a body stashed in the house?  Right, that’s the explanation.”  I rolled my eyes at him, but in the darkness the gesture was lost on him.

“No, I meant like if there was someone living with you.”

My face flushed.  I couldn’t blame him for that little dig, but still.  “No, there was no one living with me,” I said through gritted teeth.

“Okay, so how do you explain the body?  Obviously, someone wants some other people to think you’re dead.  So that someone knows you’re really not dead.”

“Unless it was some punk who was a budding arsonist, setting fire to my house and getting caught up in the blaze,” I suggested.

“An arsonist who just happens to be about your height, weight, and age?  You know they are going to check out dental records, too, since there’s no one to really identify the body.  I believe in coincidences, but only to a point.”

He was right, of course, and I knew it.  It was too big a coincidence, and it would be too big a conspiracy to get the number of people involved to pass off a body as mine if it was nothing like it.  I wondered what they would do about the dental records, though.  The easiest thing would be to swap mine with the deceased person’s.  Had it already been done?  Suddenly I was wide awake.

“Look, I’m really sorry about the storage unit.  I’ll rent one tomorrow, and move my stuff out, okay?  But can I please, please, please leave it for tonight?” 

He looked at me for a long moment, then leaned forward.  For a moment I thought he was going to kiss me, and my heart skipped a beat.  But he just pointed a finger at me and said, “One more night.”  Then he gently touched the tip of my nose, got up, and walked off towards his car.  I sat there for a moment, but I didn’t have time to sort through my feelings or what his actions might have meant.  I dragged myself up off the couch, closed and locked the storage unit, and went off to try to catch my only link to this whole mystery.

I parked across the street from my dentist’s office, suddenly glad it was part of an unattractive strip mall and only had one entrance.  I could easily keep an eye on the place all on my own.  I hunkered down in my car, shivering slightly as the cool night air wafted in through the partially open window.  At least being cold might help keep me awake. 

It was boring, sitting there watching the front of the darkened strip mall, and I had a whole new respect for officers who sat out on stakeouts.  The crushing boredom could easily lead you to miss something important.  I could only turn over the situation in my head so many times, and come to the same depressing conclusions, so finally I settled for composing dirty limericks in my head.  I was puzzling over a fitting rhyme for ‘mongoose’ when I saw the shadow slinking around the corner and down the front of the shops.  Whoever it was, they were good, slipping between shadows quickly so that only someone really watching would have noticed.

I strained my eyes, trying to make out anything about the figure, but it was too dark.  I weighed my options – stay here and hope I could catch a glimpse of their face at some point, get in position to follow them to their car, or go in after them.  The first was too safe, and likely to fail.  The second was a good plan.  The third was just foolhardy, so of course I went with that.  I waited until the figure had slipped into the office and jumped out of my car, sprinting across the street.  They’d left the office door unlocked, and I slipped inside.  It took a moment for me to get my bearings in the darkened room, but as soon as I did I made my way to the records room.  There was no one there.  Except, of course, for the person who grabbed me from behind.

 

Chapter Three
The mystery grows, deepens, widens, and expands into the fourth dimension

It was a rookie mistake, following someone into a dark building and letting them end up behind you.  But then, I was a rookie, at least when it came to skulking about dark buildings.  Now, ask me to wheedle information out of a crook’s acquaintances over the phone and I was a pro.  Somehow, I didn’t think my ability to talk my way out of things was going to help me now.

“Just because you’re dead doesn’t mean you can’t die again,” a gruff voice said in my ear.  “What the hell are you doing here?”

“Trying to figure out who wants me dead,” I retorted.  I thought I sounded pretty tough for a person in a stranglehold.  But then I had to ruin it.  “Or, more accurately, who wanted to make people think I was dead.  Because if really did want my dead, you wouldn’t be here trying to switch out my dental records so that people think I’m dead.  Obviously, you’d just have killed me then.  So technically I don’t think you’re my enemy, at least not a deadly one at this point, but until I know why you want people to think I’m dead then I can’t really say if you’re an ally, either.”  Great.  I was babbling.

The person holding me chuckled and let go.  I whipped around and put a few steps between us before I looked up.  I thought I’d recognized that voice.  It was Jason.  He grinned, his teeth a brilliant white slash in the dim light.  How do people get their teeth that white?  I’d even endured some long and tedious teeth-whitening procedures in this very office, but nothing would make my teeth that obnoxiously white.  It was unfair, the hand that genetics dealt.  Ah well.  Of all the things going on, his dental hygiene should be the last of my concerns.

He’d simply stood there while my mind raced over inane things, and it was apparently up to me to break the silence.  “So, which are you?”

He paused, considering the question.  “Neither, really.”

“Would you care to elaborate?”  I folded my arms across my chest and attempted to look imposing.  His amused expression told me I’d failed.

“Not really.”

“Bastard.”

He nodded.  “If you’ll excuse me, I have a little work to do to make sure you stay dead.”

My heart stopped for a moment until I realized he was talking about the folder he held in his hand.  I chided myself for being so jumpy, and followed him over to the row of records.  I felt annoyingly like a puppy seeking attention, but I didn’t see any way around that.

“But why?”  Okay, now I sounded like a two-year-old.  But if it worked, I was going with it.

“You really don’t need to know that,” he said.  He found my records and slipped them out of their folder, substituting the other set.

“I think I do, if you want me to stay dead,” I said stubbornly.  “If I show up to work tomorrow, I can pretty much spoil your game.”

He spun around and pinned me to the wall.  I’d like to lie and say I wasn’t frightened, but I was.  I’d also lie and like to say it wasn’t the least arousing, but… it was.  A little.  Have I mentioned Jason is very good-looking?  Tall, dark, handsome, impressively muscled… he’s pretty much the whole package.  I tamped down my libido and focused on the problem at hand.  I was stuck, and there was very little chance of my wiggling out of this.

“No, you won’t.”

“How are you going to make sure of that?”  I tilted my chin up stubbornly.  I wasn’t going to look frightened or cowed, not if I could help it.  Then he gave me a chilling smile and I realized I couldn’t help it.  I started to shake a little.

“I have my ways.”  It was clichéd, but for him it worked.

“But if I hadn’t shown up here, how would you have been sure I didn’t go to Andrea or anyone on the team and tell them about the mistake?  How did you know I wouldn’t go to the police?”  And why hadn’t I?  That’s right, I’d seen both him and Andrea at my house.  Which he had to have planned, knowing if he didn’t catch me there it would at least spook me.  Like I said, even us non-field spies are completely paranoid and jumpy.

He just grinned at me, but at least the menace was gone.  Then his face grew serious.  “Look, I really don’t want to tell you what’s going on right now.  It’s for your own safety.  I know, I know, that sounds condescending and high-handed, and perhaps it is.  But it’s also necessary.  I’m not the one who set fire to your house.  You’re just very, very, very lucky you stopped at that yarn shop today.”

“How many people know about me still being alive?”

“Discounting anyone you were foolish enough to tell, one.” 

“You and one other person, or just you?”

“Just me.”  He turned to leave, but hesitated.  “You do have someplace you can go to hide out, right?  You will keep your head down?  Can I trust you to do this?”

I considered.  Keeping my head down was what I was good at.  But it didn’t mean I couldn’t do any digging.  The internet is a wonderful thing.  So I nodded.  “For now.  But one question – do I have to stay dead forever?”

“Possibly, it depends.  Here, something you might need.”  He shoved a manila envelope full of papers into my hands.  “This is a new identity for you.  There’s a fairly hefty account set up, plus a comparable work history.  I wouldn’t go to work for the government again, but any private company would be happy to have an IT person with your skills.  Or you could start over at something completely different.  It’s up to you.”

“Um, thank you.”  It was an awkward moment.  It was nice that he’d taken the time and energy, not to mention money, to set me up like this, but then again, he’d also killed me off without asking.  As it were.  “Okay, I lied, I have one more question.  You said people were going to kill me tonight, regardless, and it was only dumb luck that I wasn’t there.”  He nodded.  “Then how did you know to get the body – which I don’t want to know about, for the record – in place?”

“Isn’t it obvious?”  He raised an eyebrow.  How do people do that?  It’s such a cool move.  I made a mental note to try that in front of a mirror.

“Probably, but enlighten me anyway.”

“I was one of the ones sent to kill you.”

“I was afraid you were going to say that.  And I have two guesses as to who sent you.  It was either your buddies in the crime world, or my buddies at the agency.”  I really wanted it to be the former, but I had to admit the latter made much more sense.

“I’ll give you one guess.”  He looked meaningfully at me.

“I was afraid of that.”

“You’re a bright girl.  You’ll be fine.”  And with that, he was gone.  I wanted to yell at him that I couldn’t relock the office or reset the alarm.  I wasn’t trained in those sorts of things.  But I didn’t have the energy.  So I shuffled out of the office and back over to my car, where I sat and shuffled through the packet of stuff he’d given me.  Driver’s license, passport, bank books, credit cards, and an apartment key.  I checked the address on the license.  Not a great part of town, but not a bad one, either.  I started the car and drove over to my new place.

Chapter Four
Who says you can’t re-write history?

The apartment was nice, clean, and had a lived-in look.  I think I would have balked if it’d looked like a model home, but there was even a basket of yarn and some knitting needles next to the couch in the living room.  Some clothes were strewn about the bedroom, though they all had that ‘brand-new, never-been-washed’ feel about them.  Everything was even decorated in a style I actually liked.  For a person who had never so much as spoken to me, Jason had done a good job getting to know me.  I plopped down on the couch and turned on the TV.  At least I had cable.  I must have dozed off because the next thing I knew, sunlight was streaming in through the windows and I had a kink in my neck from slumping at an awkward angle all night.  I yawned, stretched, and checked my watch.  Nine in the morning.  I panicked for a moment, and then remembered that I didn’t have to go in to work.  I was dead.  It was starting to have its pluses.

Another quick tour around the apartment and I settled down at the small desk with the laptop computer perched on it.  Next to it was a pad of paper with a list of websites, usernames, and passwords.  I booted up the computer, and ignoring the ‘read me’ icon in the middle of the desktop, I methodically checked each one to discover I had a hefty sum of money in the bank and only a few outstanding debts on some credit cards.  The due dates weren’t for a few weeks, so I left those alone and went back to the desktop to do as the icon told me.

Turns out the new me had lived a pretty sedate life, and had a solid educational background and work history.  There was nothing spectacular about the new me, either good or bad.  Rather like the old me, other than the whole death thing.  I read that I had left my last job after the company had shut down, and had decided on a fresh start in a new city.  I was currently living off of savings and a buyout package, which would last quite a few years if I was frugal.  Or I could get off my butt and get another job.

I mulled it over and decided I deserved a week off for dying, but next Monday I’d get right on it.  For now I had to make good on a promise and empty out a storage unit.  Not a job I was looking forward to, because I may or may not have mentioned this shiny new apartment was on the third floor, and there were no elevators.  Lovely.

I picked up my keys, but noticed a second set hanging on a hook by the door.  Attached was a parking space tag.  I smacked myself in the head.  Of course I couldn’t keep driving my old car.  I would have made a lousy field operative, forgetting the basics like that.  I briefly wondered about my old car, but would have bet my life savings (which were now quite substantial) that it was already gone.  And when I got down to the parking garage and slipped into the cute little hatchback parked there, I saw that all the important junk I’d left in my car had been transferred over.  A few things had been left, but I didn’t think I’d miss the Snuggie Janice had given me for my birthday.  After all, for some reason she decided I would appreciate the ‘designer’ leopard-print Snuggie. 

The hatchback was cute and functional, and it only took me three trips to get everything but my furniture moved into the apartment.  I didn’t really have room for the furniture, anyway, since this place had come fully furnished.  I called Jake and left him a message about the furniture, hoping he wouldn’t be too upset about it and rather glad that I didn’t have to speak to him in person.  Wussy, I know, but I figured death was going to be my excuse for a lot of things, at least over the next month or so.  ‘Oh, sorry, I can’t help you with that, you know, being dead and all’.  Yup, gonna be handy.  And I suppose I never have to return that CD Jessica loaned me, either.  Might be a little awkward, a dead person returning something.

I plopped down on the sofa, flipped on the TV, and contemplated taking a nap.  But a news story had caught my attention.  There had been a huge pile-up on the outer belt, several fatalities reported.  Seems a small silver compact car had been seen careening out-of-control, then it slammed into several cars before becoming one with a concrete barricade.  The news chopped zoomed in on a close-up of the mangled car-corpse, and my heart sank as I recognized the bumper sticker.  It was my old car.  I hoped Jason hadn’t been the one driving it, and at the same time the thought that ‘this is going to be difficult to explain’ popped into my head.  How did the car of a dead girl, one presumably destroyed in the same house fire that killed her, end up on the freeway the next day?

The news crew was giving more details on the crash, though the ‘names of the victims were being withheld until they could identify the next of kin’.  But a few of the other drivers described the crazy driver of the small silver car, and their descriptions fit me perfectly.  If I were, say, on meth.  But pretty accurate other than that.  I sat staring, unblinking at the TV as they droned on about the accident for several minutes.  To most of the outside world, it would look like I’d been killed in that crash.  I was dead for the second time in as many days.  Only this time it had to be a coincidence, didn’t it?  Jason had already staged my death, hopefully, please, with a cadaver, and whoever would have done this would have sent that girl out there to die.  It was horrible, but not unimaginable.  But who would want to kill a dead person?  Someone who knew she wasn’t dead, or at least thought she wasn’t dead?  Someone trying to muddy the waters surrounding my supposed death?

Just then the phone rang, scaring the crap out of me.  Who knew this number?  Who could possibly be calling me?  Other than various campaign groups, charities, wrongly drunk-dialed numbers, and the inevitable ‘but this is the number she gave me at the bar last night’ calls.  Okay, so a lot of people.  I took a deep breath and answered.

“Hello?”

“Oh thank god you’re all right.  I saw… I thought… I…   I didn’t know if you’ve heard the news yet, but…”

“My car is an art installation out on the highway.”

“Yeah.”  He sounded confused.  Perhaps he thought I was being a tad bit too flippant.  “What happened?”

“What do you mean what happened?  I thought you came and got my car because you’d left me one here.”  I’d never even checked to see if it was still parked where I’d left it last night, I realized.  I’d just assumed.  And you know what that does…

“No, I left you new license plates and registration for your old car.”  He sounded confused, and a bit worried.  Confused was bad.  Worried was worse.  All the same questions were probably running though his head.

“No, there were car keys, with the little parking space tag, in the bowl by the door.  No license plate.”  I hadn’t even checked the registration in the car, what if I’d stolen someone else’s car?  But wait, calm down and think.  My stuff had been in it.  It had to be meant for me.  But by who?  “And all my stuff had been moved out of my car into this one.”

There was a long silence as we both mulled this over.  Obviously, someone other than me, him, and Jake knew I was still alive.  Or thought I was.  And this couldn’t be Jake’s doing because he didn’t know about Jason the alter-identity he’d set up for me.  This was not good news.

“Lemme check a few things,” he said, and hung up.  I stared at the receiver for a little while.  Then realized I looked like an idiot and hung up the phone.  I thought for a little while, and decided I couldn’t just rest on my laurels.  I had to take my fate into my own hands, and I couldn’t trust Jason.  Or, for that matter, Jake.  Not until I found out what was really going on.

I picked up the phone, then replaced it.  This wasn’t a call I wanted traced.  I had to think like a criminal on the run.  I was pretty sure the identity I’d made for myself was completely secret, but I wasn’t sure I could even trust that.  There was only one place for me to go.  I shuddered, and started taking my belongings back out to the car.  After I’d fished out a few essentials and done a teeny tiny bit of hacking, after a teeny tiny bit of breaking and entering, a plan had solidified in my mind.  A cunning plan, if I do say so myself.

Turns out the storage unit next to Jake’s had been delinquent on the payments long enough that unless someone pays the balance, it’s going to auction next month.  A little bit of computer wizardry on my behalf, and the balance is paid in full and the unit is now under the ownership of one Marissa Dupre.  A little more magic with some lock-pick tools, and a quick prayer that the unit doesn’t hold a bunch of moldering corpses, and I had a completely untraceable storage unit.  The previous owner had left a stack of boxes that neither smelled bad nor seemed to be leaking bodily fluids, so I ignored them for now.  There was plenty of room for my stuff, including my furniture from Jake’s unit.  I’d call and leave him a message about that later.  For now, I have three more trips to make, a lot of prep work, and one visit I really did not want to make.

Chapter Five
No, they really don’t exist, and if they did they wouldn’t ~*sparkle*~

“Isaiah Sangria, please.”  I glanced up and down the busy street, suddenly paranoid.  I didn’t like talking on a public pay phone, but I liked the idea of this call being traced even less.  I’d already changed my look in a bathroom at the mall, hoping the incredible number of people would make it hard for anyone tailing me to realize I’d made a change.  I hadn’t seen anyone tailing me, but then, I wasn’t really trained to detect a tail.  The huge number of Goth teenagers at the mall also made for good cover, as my flame-red, waist-length wig, short black miniskirt and clunky black boot blended right in.  I’d never appreciated Twilight until that moment, but for now the craze was working for me.

“Hold one moment,” the husky voice on the other end of the line said.  I’m sure she was trying to sound sultry, but ended up just sounding like she smoked four packs a day.  Maybe she did.  I shifted on my feet again.  These boots were bloody uncomfortable.

“This…. is Isaiah Sangria.  How… may I be of assistance?”  Oh yes, the dramatic pauses.  Talking to Isaiah was a exercise in patience.  It also made me thirsty. 

“Isaiah, dah-ling,” I purred.  “This is Isabella Serrano.”  Okay, so I was a pepper.  Sue me, it was the best I could come up with on the fly, and if the spy world has taught me anything (besides the whole paranoia bit), it’s that hesitation kills.  I’d just had Mexican for lunch and it’s what popped into my head.

“Long…. time since I’ve… heard… from you.” 

I gritted my teeth, and shifted my weight again.  “I’ve been… shall we say… tied up.”

He laughed.  “And yet it appears your master tired of you.  Are you ready to come back to the flock?”

“Oh, no, she’s still quite enamored of me, but has an out-of-town business trip.  I thought I’d take the opportunity to slip away and visit some of my old haunts.”

“Perhaps… we can entice you back, then, my dear.”

“Perhaps.”

“Come by… at ten or so… I’ll let Lucian know to let you in.”  He hung up without a good-bye, and I did the same.  I had about five hours to kill, so I walked to a local taco stand and picked up lunch.  Then I wandered over to the library and browsed through the various sections, ignoring the looks I got from the little old ladies when I picked up knitting books from the craft section.  Hey, knitting was cool again – no reason a 20-something Goth chick couldn’t enjoy it!

The library closed at eight and I still had two hours until I could meet with Isaiah.  This gave me just enough time to take care of my last chore – stealing a few bags of blood.  I felt bad about stealing from a blood bank, and I mentally deducted the amount I would take from my donation tally.  Goodbye, five-gallon pin!

I calmly walked into the hospital, slipped into a bathroom and changed into more doctor-ly clothes.  I picked the pocket of a passing doctor and grabbed her ID tag, then I simply wandered down to the blood bank and walked in.  No one questioned me or even looked up.  I wandered through until my eyes lit on a cooler marked ‘Expired – To Be Destroyed’.  This was perfect.  I mentally added back my four pints and grabbed four bags from the cooler.  I shoved them into the pockets of the lab coat and casually left.  Again, no one seemed to notice my passing.  I went back to the bathroom, changed back into Isabella, stashed the blood in my shoulder bag, and dropped the doctor’s badge on the floor as I left.  Then I headed for Isaiah’s place.

I often wonder if vampires were real what sort of house they’d have.  For some reason, I always imagine a sleek, ultra-modern condo.  Maybe because if I were a vampire, I’d want to buck the stereotype.  But Isaiah had gone completely Hollywood, with dark paneling, red velvet curtains, gargoyles, the whole bit.  It was more garish than spooky, truth be told.  But I’d never been one to visit for the ambiance.  Perhaps I should explain.

Last year, I was sent on a pseudo-field assignment in which I was instructed to make contact and extract information from a man known to associate with a minor drug dealer.  The idea was to get enough info on the minor dealer to lead us further up the chain.  In true beaurocratic fashion, I never did find out what happened in that case, but my part went well enough.  Except for the fact that it cost me six pints of blood.

You see, this man I needed to make contact with fancied himself a vampire.  And since I couldn’t directly make contact (and tip him off) I had to simply immerse myself in the lifestyle and hope I could ‘casually’ make his acquaintance.  This proved surprisingly easy, once I’d gotten myself accepted into the culture with a good back story (yes, except the name bit, I thought I could get away with a single first name, but no…) and donated a pint to the leader.  Isaiah then declared I was a rare ‘vintage’ and got several more donations from me before we’d gathered enough information and I could make up a story about acquiring a very private, exclusive master and get the hell out of there.

I was hoping that Isaiah had not changed his mind and several bags of my blood were still on ice in his dungeon, waiting for that ‘special occasion’.  Then it would be a simple matter of swapping out the blood I’d stolen from the hospital for mine, and getting out of there without giving up any more of my blood.  I’d need as much of it as I could spare later.

I reached the door and was let in once I’d given them my name.  The place hadn’t changed a bit, except, perhaps, Isaiah had added just a bit more red velvet.  The room was suffocating in it.  The only light came from candles flickering on tall candelabras, and the dim interior was thick with smoke from incense and… probably a few other things.  That was definitely a change.  Before, the club had been on the up-and-up, with consenting adults sharing blood and booze.  Now, it had a seedy feeling that made me glad my time here was up, and once I’d retrieved my blood it’d be the last time I had to set foot in this place again.  In reality, I should have gotten it back before I left, but the agency hadn’t wanted to spare the manpower, and had cited leaving it there ‘in good faith’ in case I ever needed to go back.  I’d chaffed at that at the time, feeling it was wrong to leave such a part of me behind, but now I was glad.  It was going to come in very useful.

I threaded my way through the packed crowd, fending off blood-seekers left and right.  Most had glassy eyes and slurred their words, whether from drink or something stronger, I didn’t know.  Isaiah was still holding court in the same place as always, a roped-off back corner hung with even more draperies.  He reclined on an oversized chaise lounge, his face rounder and more corpulent than I remembered.  At least he’d never taken my blood directly from me, I’m not sure I could have stomached those rubbery sausage-lips on  my skin, no matter how good the cause.  His eyes lit up as he say me.

“Isabella… darling!  So… nice to see you.”  He waved me forward into the small space.  The busty blond next to him pouted, but moved out of the way to make room for me.  I settled my face into what I hoped was a sultry expression as I choked back a cough.

“It’s been too long,” I purred.  It sounded fake and hollow to my own ears, but he seemed to take it at face value.

“I hope… you have time to make a donation while you are here.”

“Have you run through all I left you already?”  My heart sank at the thought.

“No… no… you are far too… delectable for that.  But… I was considering… using your blood at the ceremony next month, and I need just a pint more… to serve everyone.”  I breathed a sigh of relief and tamped down the urge to grab him and shake him every time he paused dramatically.  The mental image of me doing just that while shouting ‘Get On With It!’ gave a touch of real emotion to my smile. 

“What ceremony is that?”  As soon as the words were out of my mouth I wanted to take them back.  Oh god, what if there was some well-known ceremony coming up that I, or rather Isabella, should be well aware of?  What had I just done? 

“Tsk…. Tsk… It’s not… for you to know.”  He winked at me.  “Maybe some day… if your master tires of you… and you come back to me… you will know.”  His eyes lingered on my chest.  “It is… such a shame… you won’t be there in person…”

I barely controlled a shudder.  I’d heard a story from a girl last time I was here, from another club she’d been a member of, and if that’s what he was picturing for me I could say for certain it was never going to happen.  I was suddenly glad they wouldn’t even be partaking of my blood, but instead some old, expired blood bank blood.  This place had definitely changed in the last few months.  But I kept my smile in place and simply said, “Maybe some day.  But I am more than willing to make a donation for the… refreshment portion of that evening.”

He smiled and waved a hand at me.  I got up and went out the back of the enclosure, where a big, burly man guarded a non-descript door.  It led, I knew, down to a clean, modern lab with stainless-steel, surgery-quality equipment.  And that’s a big part of why I didn’t understand the change in Isaiah.  He had been so cautious, so meticulous.  He never drank directly from anyone, instead, he tested all the blood donated to him so he wouldn’t get sick.  The man was a certifiable germaphobe.  So why the rampant, careless drug use?  Why the insinuation of intimate contact?  What had changed so drastically?

When I reached the bottom of the staircase, I was overwhelmed by happiness that I didn’t actually have to donate blood.  Gone were the sterilized, blood-center quality needles and tubing.  The autoclave sat in the corner, the hinges on its door bent and broken.  The floor was sticky with old blood.  In the corner, two shapes crouched over each other, moaning and oblivious to my presence.  I crossed the room to the big stainless-steel walk-in freezer, glad to see that it was still functioning.  I stepped in and started looking for my old blood.  It wasn’t as neat and organized as it used to be, but there was still some method to the madness.  I’d just found the small stack of bags containing my blood when I heard the freezer door open and two people walked in.  I grabbed my bags, slapped the stolen bags in their place, and crouched down behind a stack of cardboard boxes just as the two figured turned down my aisle and headed straight for the shelf containing my blood.

Chapter Six
Is that frost on your glasses, or are you…

They were dressed all in black and looked the part of your typical club member, but there was something wrong with their bearing.  It was too stiff, too uncomfortable.  Like a little boy dressed up in dad’s old suit.  If their dad was a mortician from the 1920s.  In a horror movie. With a really bad make-up artist.  My hopes that these were just too club member nipping down here for a quick sip of the main man’s private stash plummeted.  They were up to something, and I was afraid I knew what it was.

The two men stopped in front of the shelf that had, just moments before, held my blood.  I cringed as I realized that the blood I’d set there wasn’t frozen like mine had been – it’s okay to freeze blood to drink later, but not to use in people.  I’d thought there’d be time for the new blood to freeze before anyone noticed the switch, but apparently not.  I had to work on my contingency plans.  Wasn’t that whole ‘expect the unexpected’ thing something they had taught me?  Or tried to teach me.  I swore to myself right then that if I got out of this, I would be sure to have some contingency plans.  You never know when, say, a giant talking hippo will wander in and demand a tutu and blow your cover.  Or you could, at any moment, be squirted with ink from a giant squid.  It could happen.  Or maybe the stress and the cold was going to my brain.  I suppressed a manic giggle and turned my attention back to the immediate threat – those two very out-of-place men.

“This is where it’s supposed to be,” the taller one said, gesturing carelessly at the shelf with one hand while still reading a message on the phone in his other hand.

“Is this it?” The shorter one held up a bag next to my stack, a still-frozen one.  He looked bored, and a little amused at the high-handed attitude of his friend.

“No, next stack over.”  The tall one stared down at the tiny screen on his mobile phone, pretty much ignoring the guy who was now grabbing the bags of donor blood and shoving them in a messenger bag.  He looked like he could care less about the job, which was good for me.  “Got it?”  The tall one looked up from his phone long enough to see him nod, then went back to typing on the tiny keyboard.

Suddenly, the shorter one looked over to where I was crouched behind the boxes.  He froze for a second, his eyes finding mine in the small gap of cardboard.  I cursed and tried to pull myself further back into the corner.  He frowned, and looked suspiciously at the bag that held the much-too-warm blood.  He’d noticed, but he hadn’t really cared.  I’m sure there’s a business lesson in there somewhere, about not ignoring your subordinates because they might be smart than you think.  He took one more look at my corner, then said rather loudly, “Hey, John, you never did tell me what this is all about…”

John stopped typing and snapped the phone shut.  “Need to know basis, Robert.”  He put emphasis on the name, as if it were an insult.  “And you don’t need to know.”  He turned and started walking out of the cooler, and Robert trailed after him, grinning.  He turned back to where I was crouched and winked at me.

“Yeah, it just seems wrong to steal a dead girl’s blood.  I mean, what’s the point?  Is this part of that ‘leave no agent behind’ code, since she’s dead and it doesn’t matter about the good will of the coven or whatever this is?”  He cast one last look back where I was hiding as they turned the corner.  I crept after them, staying out of sight but in earshot.  He was good, giving me a lot of information in the guise of idle conversation.  The question is, as it always is, why?  Who was he and what was his game plan?

“No.”  John’s reply was curt and his tone clearly said ‘drop it.’  Robert did not.  He seemed to have a bit of a problem with authority, and I could relate.  John seemed like a pompous ass, anyway.

“No it’s not about some agency code?  Or no, there’s no agency code?  I’d really like to think there is, that even if I die, everything would be taken care of.  Loose ends tied up and all.  It’s nice to feel like part of a family, you know?”  I could hear the sarcasm in that last statement.  There was definitely bad blood between these two, so why were they still working together? 

“Oh, yes, we’re all so cozy and loving.”  Ouch.  I hadn’t thought it could get any chillier in here.  “No, get a move on.  We need to get that blood back to the lab for analysis.”

“I suppose asking what we’re analyzing it for would be wasting my breath,” Robert replied cheerfully.  The man was enjoying baiting John.  I can’t say I didn’t think John deserved it, but I don’t think I’d have been brave enough to dish it out.  John had a look about him I’d seen in photos of serial killers and sociopaths.  Cold, emotionless, and completely devoid of humanity.  A spy that had perhaps been at the game too long, been asked to do too many gruesome things, and had lost himself along the way.  Or maybe he’s been born a sociopath, and had naturally gravitated to a career that could put his talents to good use.  Either way, not a man I’d press.  But maybe Robert knew him well enough to know how far he could push, or maybe he was completely clueless, or maybe he had a death wish.

They slipped out the freezer door, and I crept up to it, waiting in the freezer until they had time to get out of the lab and up the stairs.  As I stood there, turning over all the events and questions jumbled up in my head, I looked at the door closely.  Written in the frost was a four-digit number.  It was fresh, and just starting to re-frost over.  I pulled out a small pad of paper and jotted it down, then ran my hand over the writing, obscuring the number.  I had a pretty good idea what it was, but testing that theory would have to wait.  In fact, this may have put my whole plan in jeopardy.  I might have to re-think my strategy.  This was getting more and more complex, and more and more people were getting involved.  This was no longer some crazy scheme by one lone spy to… do whatever it was Jason had planned on doing.

I slipped out of the freezer, trying to massage some feeling back into my limbs.  Thankfully, the freezer didn’t have an outside lock, and I hadn’t gotten locked in – one of my worst fears, which is odd, since how often do you have reason to be in a giant walk-in freezer?  Still, I was a bit wobbly from the whole experience, and it took me two tries to clamber up the stairs in my huge clunky boots.  I’d be happy to get home and get changed, maybe soak in a nice warm tub for a week or so.  And maybe by then all of my problems – being dead and yet still hunted top on the list – would just magically disappear.

When I got to the top of the stairs, I slipped past Isaiah and his crowd of fawning women without being noticed.  I looked around for John and Robert, but it appeared they’d already made their escape.  All I had to do was thread my way through the crowd and get out the front door.  Easy as… yeah, of course it wasn’t.

I was a mere twenty feet from the door when somehow, someone noticed the bag I was carrying.  And correctly guessed what was in it.  Thinking back, perhaps an insulated bag would have gone a long way to prevent what happened next, since I think the cold was a big tip-off.  Either that, or they really were vampires and could smell the blood.  I think I’m sticking with the cold theory.  At any rate, a tall, thin, pale man pointed a boney finger at me and shrieked “Thief!”

He tried to grab the bag away from me, but I held on and lashed out at him with a heavy boot.  It connected solidly with his thigh, sending him sprawling backwards.  Right into a tall, gaudy candelabra.  Which tipped over.  And caught the closest drapery on fire.  Suddenly, everyone was screaming and running, and the air was quickly choked with smoke.  I stumbled through the descending darkness towards the exit, feeling my way as much as seeing it.  People swarmed and shoved around me, and it took all of my concentration and willpower to stay on my feet and move with the crowd.  To go down would mean being trampled to death.

Luckily, I’d been close enough to the front entrance that I made it, and breathed in gulps of cool night air.  All around me people were still screaming, and I turned to see people streaming out of several exits of the now-engulfed building.  Isaiah had never seen the need to lock or board up any of the exits, and it saved everyone’s life that night.  As far as I know, at least as far as the news reports said, no one died in the blaze, but the building was a complete loss.  Firefighters arrived quickly, but did little other than contain the blaze, keeping it from spreading to other buildings.  I slunk off into the night, like most of the others, refusing to be seen by the medical personnel on-site.  I needed to get home and work out what these latest developments meant for me and my grand plan.

Chapter Seven
In which the author uses a bad plot device to recap and get the characters straight.

I got home without incident and stashed my blood in the freezer underneath a package of tater tots.  It wasn’t well hidden, and I didn’t think I could pass it off as frozen cranberry sauce if anyone saw it, but there was no other place for it.  I had to keep it here, and I had to keep it frozen.  Besides, if someone was rooting through my freezer I had bigger problems than explaining a stack of bags of blood.  I fixed myself a quick sandwich and then hopped in the shower to wash the smoke off.  I hadn’t stopped to change clothes and make sure I didn’t have a tail, and I could only hope that I’d managed to sneak back to the apartment unobserved.  I was too tired and had developed a slight cough, and was anxious to wash the dust and grime off.

After a quick shower I filled the tub with water and some lovely almond-scented bubble bath I found under the counter, and settled in to soak and think.  The number one priority was to figure out exactly who I could trust.  Because I wasn’t sure I could go this alone.  If I was right, and there was a bigger plan that had been set in action by Jason’s actions, then I needed someone on the inside.  I no longer had access to the databases and files, nor was a privy to the gossip dished out at the water cooler.  Someone who was could provide the key to solving this whole mystery.

I could trust Jake, I knew that, despite our break up.  I knew I still had feelings for him, and I was pretty sure he still had feelings for me.  But the job had come between us.  Too many secrets, too many lies, and he just wasn’t willing to put up with it.  Not that I blame him.  I had, once, been required to kiss a man in the course of a courier job.  It’s not that I wanted to, but it was the only way to keep my cover from being blown.  I don’t think Jake knew about that incident, but I’d felt guilty and I’m sure he picked up on that.  I wouldn’t want to put up with dating a spy, even one with as boring a job as mine.  Sure, at first I was angry that he just didn’t understand.  Then I considered quitting my job for him, but that made me angry because why should I have had to do that to make him happy?  Never mind I didn’t really like my job, it was still mine.  The whole thing dissolved into a series of chilly encounters until we finally called it quits.  But now… maybe if I really was out of the business, it could work.  I but my lip and slid further down in the tub.  Except he wasn’t connected, and I might need him to sell my story to the police.  And the only way for him to really sell it would be for him to believe it.

Jason… Jason I could not trust.  He had some hidden agenda and was using me as a pawn in his little game.  It was rapidly becoming apparent that I needed to distance myself from him as much as possible.  Whether he was on the mob’s side, the agency’s side, or his own side, none of those were my side.  I did need to find out what he was up to, and for that, I needed some inside information.  That left me with one of my ex-coworkers, or… Robert.

I dismissed the idea of contacting any of my old cube-mates as soon as it crossed my mind.  There was a reason most of them only had level-one clearance and were given the most menial of tasks.  It’s not as if any of them could be trusted to keep a secret.  Well, perhaps that is too harsh.  They could, and did, keep agency secrets from the rest of the world quite well.  But personal secrets flew about the room faster than the wicked witch’s monkeys.  You always knew everything anyone said about anything in that room.  If I told one of them I was still alive, then they’d all know.  And the fewer people involved, the better.

That left Robert, a complete unknown.  He’d proven himself very smart, dropping just the right clues.  Someone who wasn’t part of the agency wouldn’t have understood what he’d been saying, or understand how to use that number.  So if I wasn’t what he thought I was, there was no harm done.  But if I was… he’d just extended a helping hand.

The water was starting to get chilly, so I got out of the tub and dried myself off.  I was tired, and though I really should have started working on my plan, I tumbled into bed and almost immediately fell into a light, troubled sleep.  I tossed and turned, and dozed fitfully until I heard the key in the lock turn.  I quick glance at the clock told me it was 3 am.  An odd time for someone to make an unannounced visit.  I slipped soundlessly out of bed and crept to the bedroom door just as the front door swung open and Jason walked in.

He made a quick sweep across the room with a flashlight, and I shrank back into the darkened bedroom as the light flicked down the hall.  And when he started heading for the bedroom, I scurried noiselessly back to the bed and buried myself in the covers.  I slowed my breathing to deep, sleep-like breaths just as the bedroom door creaked open.  Though my eyes were shut, I could still see the sweep of light as he played the flashlight over the walls and around the room, though never directly on me.  I kept my breathing even and let a little drool slip out of the corner of my open mouth.  Still, I felt him hovering over me, watching me, waiting for some indication I wasn’t asleep.  I didn’t give him any, and finally I saw the beam of the flashlight focus on one corner of the room.  I’d had the foresight to feign sleep on my back, so by cracking my eyes ever so slightly I was able to barely make out what he was doing.

He glanced back my way a few times, but I did avoid the rookie mistake of quickly closing my eyes.  There’s no way, at that distance and in that light, he could tell that my eyes were ever so slightly open.  But he would have been able to see the movement of me trying to close them.  So I watched as he fiddled with the side of an antique dresser, exposing a hidden drawer.  Still glancing back periodically, he pulled something out of his coat and placed it in the drawer.  It closed with a tiny snap, and then he rose and left the room.  A moment later I heard the front door open and close, but no sound of the lock.  I stayed where I was, still breathing deeply and rhythmically, the puddle of drool growing.  And then I heard it, the faintest scuff of a shoe against the hardwood floor.  He hadn’t left, not yet, he was waiting to see if I sprang up and checked what he had done.  I forced myself to remain still and eventually, my exhaustion caught up with me.  I fell asleep for real while waiting for him to leave.

The next thing I remember, the bright sun is streaming in through the bedroom window.  Checking the clock, I see it’s just past nine.  Not as early as I would have liked to be up, but it had been a rough night.  I suppressed the urge to jump right up and run over to the hiding place, instead I stretched leisurely and went out to the kitchen to make some coffee, and to make sure the apartment was deserted.   The front door was securely locked and nothing appeared out of place.  So I set the coffee maker to brew and ran back to the bedroom to open the secret compartment in the dresser.

This proved more difficult than I’d hoped.  In the dim light, and through barely-opened eyes, I hadn’t been able to see exactly what he’d been doing to open the drawer.  And in the bright light of day, I still couldn’t even see that there was a secret compartment there.  The intricate carving and scrollwork on the dresser camouflaged any obvious seams.  The only way I finally determined the approximate location of the drawer was to look inside the dresser and find out where there was missing space.  Then I got up, got myself a cup of coffee, and settled myself down to a long morning of poking and prodding every piece of the dresser until finally a small drawer slid out.

The item he’d placed was there, still wrapped in a men’s embroidered handkerchief.  The initials proclaimed that it belonged to one ‘E. G.’ and it was wrapped around a small, ivory-handled pistol.  Handling the gun with the handkerchief only, I sniffed the barrel.  It had been fired, and recently.  I gently re-wrapped the gun and placed it back in the drawer, being careful that it looked exactly like it had when I found it.  I slid the drawer back into place and took my now-cold coffee into the kitchen.

I flipped on the television, and it was on a local station.  The newscaster was telling me there was breaking news.  A man had been found shot to death, execution-style, in a back alley.  Nothing unusual about that, except this man happened to be one Edward Gaust, the head of the biggest crime family in the city.  And, you guessed it, the person Jason had been sent in to get the goods on.

Chapter Eight
Dead men really do tell tales, only you can’t tell if they’re lying, because rotting corpses don’t have facial expressions, other than the one they died with.

This latest murder had put yet another spin on the increasingly complicated mystery I found myself immersed in.  Obviously – perhaps too obviously? – Jason had murdered Mr. Gaust.  Or perhaps he was trying to cover himself because he’d been set up, which would make sense if someone else in the organization knew or suspected he was an agent.  There was one other possibility, and that was that he was planning on setting me up, and the gun being there was just for safe-keeping. 

My mind spun as I constructed a scenario in which I was a pawn that would ultimately be sacrificed for real.  The agency fakes my death in such a way they can later prove I faked my own death.  Which I did to get closer to the criminal, Jason, and prove that I’d switched sides.  Meanwhile, I was still playing the long game and was only using Jason to get to Gaust.  Why, I don’t know.  They’d probably make up some back story about me being scorned and needing to prove myself as an agent, which, given my current position, would fly.  Then I kill Gaust in an attempt to make the agency see my value, but Jason finds out and retaliates.  He’d more ‘in’ with the gang than ever, Gaust is out of the way, and the agency is only out one lowly, unimportant clerk.  Not, I had to admit, a bad plan.  Except the part about killing me.

But then, what about the traffic accident?  As wonderful as my explanation fit everything else, this was an anomaly.  It wasn’t explained by anything.  Unless it really was a red herring.  I shook my head.  I was starting to sound like a 1950s era detective.  Before long I’d be calling women ‘dames’ and wearing a fedora.  Though I did like fedoras.  There was one way to get to the bottom of this.  I might not be able to hack into the agency’s computers, since they were very careful about having no outside connection where they stored sensitive material, but I could get to the official police files.  They might shed some light on it, if they agency hadn’t scrubbed all of the records.

An hour later, I found out why the agency hadn’t bothered to expunge the police records.  They worked too perfectly in with the grand plan.  I was more sure than ever that I had it all figured out.  Except the part about getting myself out of it in one piece.  That still needed a little work.  But maybe my new-found respect for coincidence could help me out.  After all, it ended up just being a coincidence that the drugged-up teen that stole my car for a joy ride was about my size, and could be mistaken for me after that horrific crash.  And maybe coincidence would extend far enough for me to bump into someone in the crime world.  It was time to put my hunches into action.

I picked up the phone and dialed the first three numbers standard on every agency phone number, followed by the four-digit number I’d found written on the freezer door.  The phone rang six times, then a familiar voice said “You’ve reached Robert’s phone, I can’t take your call right now but please leave me a message.”  I hung up, knowing full well the number would be recorded on the caller ID.  I just couldn’t think fast enough to compose a decent message in my head.  Either he’d be curious who had called and call me back, or I’d try later.  For now I was left with not a whole lot to do.

I sat down on the couch and picked up a set of knitting needles and a skein of wonderfully soft yarn.  The label told me it was a silk and bamboo blend, and it was heavenly.  I had to give that to Jason, at least.  He hadn’t skimped on setting me up in this place.  Which just made me wonder.  Would they really have gone through all this expense just to kill me off in a few days?  I forced the thought from my mind as I knitted, mindlessly following one of my favorite shawl patterns.  I’d been at it just long enough to start to get a sense of how the yarn was going to work up in this pattern when the phone rang.  I barely stopped myself from jumping and dropping my project, saving myself from having to frog it or, at the very least, spend a significant amount of time trying to pick stitches up.

I picked up the phone and recognized the caller ID number as Robert’s.  “Hello?”  I spoke through my nose and with a faint east coast accent, just in case they decided to do voice matching.

“Hello, this is Robert.  I’m returning your call.”  Very formal, very businesslike.  I hesitated.  This was an agency line, so I didn’t want to come right out and say anything, but I had to get my message across.

“Hi, I’m sorry our last meeting was so chilly.  You just caught me at a bad time.  But I would like to try again, if you’re willing.”

It was his turn to hesitate.  “I’m not really much of one for blind dates.  Too many bad experiences.”

“I really would like a chance to explain… no, to apologize, for our last meeting.  It wasn’t well done of me at all, and I’m not normally that way.  Unless you’ve been listening to Jason.”  I tried to sound peeved.

“Jason?  You’re a friend of Jason’s?”  His tone became very hostile.

“Hmmmm, no, I wouldn’t say that.  We’re more of acquaintances, friend of a friend kind of thing.  Except now he’s brought some floozy from work around and is kicking me out of my own apartment.  Okay, I was sub-letting it from him, but still.  It’s my home, and I admit I’ve been a bit hostile towards him of late.  He says she needs it more than I do, something about hiding out.  Whatever.  Anyway, I know you guys work together – you probably know this Sandra chick, too – and I admit I did kinda seek you out at that grocery store and accidentally bumped into you on purpose.”  I paused, not sure what he was going to make of this.  But so far I’d covered my bases.  I wasn’t me, and I explained how the call came from this number.  I also established Sandra’s… I mean my… presence in this apartment.  All he needed to figure out was that I really was Sandra and agree to meet with me.  “I admit it was with an eye to payback at first.  I thought maybe you could tell me something that would help me get back at him.  Stupid, I know.  But once I started talking to you… I really do like you and want to give it a try.”

“So what happened on our date?  That seemed like a step back.  You seemed a lot nicer picking through pomegranates than you on our so-called date,” he said.

“An attack of conscience and a case of nerves, I think.  Please let me make it up to you.  I’m a lot more like pomegranate girl than freezer girl.”  I completely failed at sounding coquettish in my nasal voice, but I think the sentiment was understood.

“Okay, deal.  One more date.  But this time I pick the place, you have horrid taste.”

“I don’t suppose you’d fancy a furniture store?  All the stuff in here is Jason’s, I’m just back for a few more personal items before I lock up and hand over the keys.”  Please suggest the mega-furniture mart on the edge of town, I thought.  It was the perfect place to get swallowed up and avoid a tail, in case they were listening and sent someone after him.

“How about that huge place on Highway 7?  I can’t remember the name off the top of my head, but you can’t miss it.”

“Perfect.  How about we meet…”

“I think we know what you need most, first,” he said, cutting me off.  “I’ll see you around seven?”

“I’ll be there.”  We hung up, and I looked at the clock.  I had five hours to kill before I had to leave.  I dug through the closets looking for something to wear, but not finding anything I loved.  A lot of stuff I liked, which I set aside to box up and take to my storage unit, but nothing I loved.  Then it struck me.  The identity Jason has set me up with had money.  And credit.  Lots of it.  No wonder, since it was only supposed to be for a short time.  But I could spend a fair bit of it before I had to go.

I grabbed my purse and the new cards and went out and hit the stores.  For the first time, I lived the maxim ‘live each day as if it were your last.’  I spent with wild abandon, and when I’d bought everything I could think of that I wanted, I started buying for charity.  A stop at the pet store and $10,000 later the shelter had several month’s worth of food, some pet beds, and lots of toys.  Another ten grand to a children’s hospital.  The biggest shopping trip I’ve ever made to the grocery store made the local food bank ecstatic.  It’s amazing what, when you shop generic and simple, two thousand dollar’s worth of food looks like.  I had a nasty flash-back moment to my college years, when that would have fed me for about six months, and my stomach heaved at the thought of Ramen Noodles.  I had to settle my nerves with a quick trip to the spa to ready myself for the night.

I made a quick detour to my storage until to store all my new clothes, electronics, yarn, and other bits, then I headed out with the last fifty thousand to my name, or, rather, my new fake identity’s name, burning a hole in my pocket.

Chapter Nine
Why is it when you need a salesperson, there’s never one around, but when you’re ‘just browsing’, they pester you every thirty seconds?

I’d dodged half a dozen salespeople by the time I made my way to the appliance section of the gigantic furniture store.  Everyone was, it appeared, quite keen on helping me.  They must, I determined, at least partly work on commission.  There was no other explanation for so many eager, helpful people.  This is not to say I think all salespeople are lazy and rude, but in a store this size you would expect to find at least one horrible employee, and I had yet to see anything but smiling, helpful faces.  It made my teeth ache.

Perhaps I was more sensitive to it because I was anything but peppy and cheerful.  The elation of my shopping spree had faded, and the old (yes, week-old, but it had been a long few days) worry and stress had set in.  I couldn’t be sure that what I was doing was the right thing, and second-guessing myself was really tiring.  As I approached the appliances I told myself for the thousandth time that I had no choice.  I needed info, and for that I needed someone on the inside.  Robert was my best chance at that.

He was standing next to the chest freezers, the closest thing the store had to industrial walk-in freezers.  Dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, he looked far more relaxed and at home than he had in the goth get-up from the night at the club.  I’d changed from my goth wear as well, and was now sporting a long black wig and ample padding, hopefully making me unrecognizable as Sandra or Isabella.  I stood there a moment, then realized he probably wouldn’t recognize me and started towards him.  I was wrong.

“There you are,” he said jovially, and moved towards me, engulfing me in a giant hug.  I was too stunned to do anything but play along.  “John and some of his cronies followed me.  I don’t know how, I’m betting there’s a tracking device on my car.  I can’t believe they don’t trust their own agents,” he whispered in my ear as he hugged me.  “I lost them in the store, but they could be anywhere.”

“Including in the security booth watching,” I said.

“Right.  So you’d better just be a long-lost acquaintance, not the person I came here to meet.”  He released me and stepped back.  I grinned up at him, and out of the corner of my eye I saw I man in a suit sidle up and start hanging out a little too close for coincidence.  I could see by the brief flicker in his eye Robert had caught sight of him as well.

“Long time no see!” I exclaimed loudly, pouring on a charming southern belle accent.  “It’s been, what, five years?  What were the odds of running in to you here after all that time?  How have you been, what have you been up too, or can’t you tell me that?”  I grinned and gave him an exaggerated wink.

“Slow down! Slow down, one question at a time.”  He chuckled and returned my wink.  “Of course, I still can’t talk to you about work.  I could tell you, but then…”

“I’d have to kill you,” we said in unison.

“Right,” he said.  “It has been too long, but I’m still much the same as I was then.  How is James?  The baby?”

“Fine, fine, in fact… we’re expecting another.”  I patted my slightly rounded midsection.  The padding was coming in handy.  “That’s why I’m here, we’re moving to a bigger place, need more furniture.  Everything is so expensive, though!”

“Moving?  I thought you loved that little house.”  He moved with me as I pretended to examine a sticker on a freezer.  He very subtly pointed at letters on the tag.  M… C… D…  It was a slight movement, and even the best security cameras wouldn’t be able to pick that up.  Okay, maybe the ones in a Vegas casino, but not in a giant chain furniture store.  You don’t need really fine cameras to notice a person trying to steal a washer and dryer.

“Yes, but ‘little’ is the operative word.  I really want each of the kids to have their own room, you know?  And James is doing pretty well at work, we can afford a bigger place if we move a little further out.”  We moved to another freezer, and he pointed out more letters.  H… W… Y… 7…  I tapped his hand to let him know I’d gotten in.  “But what about you?  What are you doing in a furniture store?  Did you move out of that awful little apartment?”

We turned slightly and I could see the man in the suit was bored.  He was only half-listening now, and as I watched he said something into his shirt cuff and wandered further away.  Still not far enough for us to say anything without fear of being overheard, though, so we kept up our pretense.  And he might not be the only one watching.  In fact, I was pretty sure he wouldn’t be, because agents aren’t usually so sloppy and obvious.  He was probably trying to lull us into a false sense of security so we’d slip up and his unobtrusive, and yet unnoticed, partner.

“No, I’m meeting someone,” Robert said.  The man in the suit was suddenly listening again, wandering closer.  “Or, at least, I’m supposed to be.”  He sighed theatrically.

“Weird place to meet someone,” I said.  “I suppose this means you can’t go look at cribs with me?”

“No, I need to stay here, at least for the time being.”  He glanced at his watch.  I’d shown up early, and it appears he had, too.  “She’s supposed to get here in about 20 minutes.”

The man in the suit relaxed back a few paces and muttered into his cuff again.  Definitely way to obvious.  But I couldn’t look around to study the other shoppers without looking obvious myself.  I forced myself to act casual and completely unaware, though my stomach was starting to churn.  At least I already had a built-in excuse if I blew chunks.  Oops, sorry, must be early-evening sickness again!  “Oh, well, your loss!  I’m sure James would have understood if his darling little girl ended up in a racecar bed.”  I winked at him.  My, this new personality was saucy.  And a bit obnoxious.  I liked her a lot more than I liked Isabelle.  I really should give her a name.  What’s a good suburban Mom name?  Rachel?  That sounded about right.  I started to think of the new (new) me as Rachel.  Who has a husband named James, one kid, probably about six years old, and another on the way.  I decided we had a little boy named Ryan, and were planning on naming the little girl Heather.  Should we have a dog?  I pulled myself out of my musing and forced myself to listen to Robert.

He laughed.  “I always wanted one of those beds.  I probably would pick it out, even for a girl.”

“Well, I should get going.  My mother will only watch Ryan for a little while, then he starts to fray her nerves.  I told her it was just going to be a quick trip to do some pricing and I’d swing by and pick up some dinner on my way back.  And if I’m not home soon, it’ll be time for him to go to bed before he gets to eat.  That’s the problem with two night-owls raising children.  Call us sometime, we should get together!”

“I will,” he said.  I hugged him again, then wandered off to the baby department to browse through the cribs.  Just in case they kept an eye on me.  It would look suspicious to leave the store right away.  I even spent some time with a salesperson, really getting into my role.  By the time I left I felt like James, little Ryan, and our pet hedgehog, Martin, were real. I was even starting to feel a craving for a tub of ice cream, though that probably had less to do with pretending to be pregnant and more to do with my general love of ice cream.  I walked to the far end of the lot, glad there were no security cameras to pick up on my car.  None of the men in suits had followed me out, and it was just now past time for Robert’s mystery woman to show up.  Or, as the case was, not show up.

I headed over to the mall out on Highway 7.  I didn’t know how long it would take Robert to divest himself of his tail, or how he would manage it if they’d tagged his car.  Maybe he was just counting on them getting bored and leaving him alone once the girl was a no-show.

As I caught sight of myself in the rear-view mirror, I wondered again how Robert had recognized me.  He hadn’t seen much of me that night in the freezer, and I’d pretty radically changed my appearance from then.  Except my eyes, which were still the same, boring brown they’d always been.  If I was going to keeping having to change identities, I was going to need to be able to do something about that.  They eyes are the window to the soul and all that.

Once at the mall, my first stop was an eyewear place.  I picked up a pair of dummy glasses.  They wouldn’t completely change the look of my eyes, but they would alter my appearance a little more.  Then I hit the bathrooms and changed into a brunette in tweed with a sensible bob, sensible shoes, and a pair of sensible glasses.  I still thought I looked a lot like myself, but it was the best I could do.  I’d never had any of the formal disguise training the agency offered, being nothing but a paper-pusher, but I thought I was doing pretty well for flying by the seat of y shorts.  As I got in the car to head down the road to the McDonalds, I started creating my new character.

 

Chapter Ten
Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, tracking device, on a sesame seed bun.

I walked into the fast-food restaurant with a complete back story for my new identity, but no name.  I’d always had a problem with names, which is what led to the debacle with Isabelle’s last name.  Every name I could think of reminded me of someone I’d actually known, or a character in a book or movie, or just didn’t seem to fit.  I’d never liked my own name, but who would with a name like Sandra?  All I could ever hope for was a life of being unfavorably compared to Sandra Bullock, an actress I quite liked otherwise.  And it never seemed to suit me.  Maybe this whole ordeal was just the universe’s way of rewarding me by giving me the life I always wanted, right down to the name.  The problem was, I wasn’t entirely sure what that life was.

I walked up to the counter and ordered a meal, though I wasn’t really hungry.  It would look odd to just sit in a booth without any food.  It was going to be weird enough sitting there by myself.  I gathered up my food, got some catsup, and sat down to nibble on my burger.  I went over my identity one more time, and tried to make sure there were no gaps.  It wasn’t perfect, but it would do.  For now.

I was single, well-educated, and a low-level accountant in a large firm.  Pretty much the same type of paper-pushing job I have, or rather, had, in the agency.  It seemed the best way to be able to fake my way through it.  I could reasonably talk about programs and office issues and sound like I was who I said I was.  Unlike, for instance, telling everyone I was an engineer working on the Large Hadron Collider.  That might sound like a great job, but knowing my luck I’d end up next to a particle physicist at a party and my cover would be completely blown.  My knowledge of physics doesn’t extend beyond what you get in a basic college physics class, and the thing I remember most was the test question “George is standing in the middle of a frictionless, frozen lake.  How does he get off”?  Which, to some (with dirty minds), is a very questionable question.  Others wonder how he managed to stop in the middle of the lake, as it is frictionless.   I always imagined he was lowered there by a helicopter, left stranded by a not quite as smart as he thinks he is evil mastermind.  See?  I was destined for the spy business.  And in case you’re wondering, the answer is that he takes his shoe off and throws it away.  Conservation of momentum, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  Sure, he’ll move slowly, but because the lake is frictionless he won’t stop until he reaches the edge.  So if the evil mastermind had been as smart as he thought he was, George would have been naked.  Then there’d at least have been a chance that he’d freeze to death before help arrived.

I was brought out of my musing about George and how he’d extract revenge on the evil mastermind for dropping him in the middle of a lake to die (after getting new footwear, of course) by the arrival of Robert.  He wandered in with a goofy grin on his face, like he didn’t have a care in the world.  I was gratified that his eyes slid over me, at least the first time.  Then he noticed me and my heart sank.  I must be worse at this spy stuff than I thought.

“I don’t have much time.  I figured out how they’d been tracking me, and there’s nothing I can do about it at the moment,” he said, grabbing a handful of my fries.  What is it with men and food?

“And how is that?”  I asked.

“First off, when was the last time you ate anything provided by the agency or anyone at the agency?”  He eyed my barely-eaten burger, and I pushed it towards him.  It was gone in seconds.

“I… don’t recall, honestly,” I said.

“No doughnuts at meetings, no food provided at the apartment?”  He grabbed the rest of the fries, and at least this time he ate them individually after dipping them in the catsup.

“I never got invited to any meetings, and everyone in my area was on that diet program, so the food brought in was always crap like wheat-grass smoothies.  Not my cup of tea.  As for the apartment…” I thought about it for a few minutes.  I had made a quick stop at the grocery store on one of my many trips to the storage unit, and I was pretty sure that was the only food I’d eaten.  The kitchen had come stocked with some staples, like flour, sugar, spices, and some canned goods, but nothing I’d had time to fix.  “There was some food there, but I’m pretty sure I’ve only eaten things I bought.  To be honest, I haven’t had much of an appetite lately.”

“I’m not surprised.  But at least that means they aren’t tracking you.”

“Do you mean they put tracking devices in the food?  Can they do that?”

“I had a buddy of mine search for bugs, and the only blip he got was right here.”  He patted his stomach.  “It’s the only thing I can think of.”

“I just can’t believe they don’t trust their own employees…” My voice drifted off as I thought over what I’d said.  Of course they didn’t trust us.  The whole premise of the spy business was about not trusting anyone.  Why would an employee be any different?  Plenty of employees had turned on them.  “Okay, I can believe it.  I wouldn’t trust most of them as far as I could throw them, and given access to that sort of technology, I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same thing.”

“True.  But it’s not safe for us to meet again until I work this out of me.”

“How often do they feed you guys doughnuts?”

“Every other day or so, someone brings them in.”

“Who?”

“I dunno, they just show up in the break room.”  He had the grace to look sheepish.

“And it never occurred to any of you to question where they came from?  To think that eating food from an unknown source would be bad?  You’re a spy for goodness sake.  Isn’t it your job to be suspicious?”  I stared at him.  He looked down and flushed, but rallied.

“It was in the office.  Who there would want to hurt us?”

“You know, when I become an evil mastermind bent on world domination – and it could happen – my plan of attack with be to turn everyone into my zombie army by using mind-altering drugs I bake into pastries and place in offices all over the world.  Domination by doughnut.”

He considered, then nodded.  “It’d probably work, too.”

“Great, now all I need is a mind-altering drug and an army of minion to deliver my baked goods.  And probably an industrial kitchen.  I can’t imagine baking the thousands of cookies, cakes, pies, and doughnuts I’d need in a regular home kitchen.”  I sat back and contemplated life as a baker.  I liked to cook.  Maybe that would be my new identity, if I survived this.

“Right.”  He looked as though he was wondering if he should take me seriously and consider me a threat to the safety of the world as we knew it.  “They’ll be here momentarily, I’m sure, so maybe we should get down to business?  And I suppose I should make sure you are who I think you are.”

“I am.  No need to bring names into it.  Look, I don’t know why you decided to write that number on the door-”

He cut me off.  “I have information about a rather unethical and unpleasant operation involving an agent, and I suspected, based on where you were, what we were doing, and the improbability of unfrozen items in a freezer, that you were that agent.  And if you were her, you’d know what those numbers meant and how to get in touch with me.  Obviously, I was right.”

“Operation?” I said stupidly.  Even though I’d suspected it, to hear it made my heart sink.  If the whole agency was behind this, I had very little chance of getting out of it.  Even with help from the inside.

“Just take this.”  He passed me a jump drive.  “How can I get in contact with you when it’s safe?”

“I don’t know.  I plan on staying at the apartment, but it would be risky to call me there.”  I was lying to him, but what else could I do.  I still wasn’t completely sure I could trust him.  The information on the drive he’d given me could be false.  This could be part of their game.  “I just spent way too much of my money on stuff I’ve always wanted, it’s rather like home now.  And I have a good resume to get a new job, I’ll probably settle in and forget about my old life.  It seems the only option.”

There was a flicker in his eyes.  Was it relief?  I’d said something right, something he wanted to hear.  I was suddenly very, very glad I hadn’t told him the truth.  I still had my out, and I planned on taking it.  Soon.

“Well, I’ll try to get in touch with you as soon as I can.  In the meantime, lay low.”  He got up, and with a single backwards glance walked out of the restaurant.  I reached down in my purse for the small tracking device hidden there and turned it on.   A small blip started traveling down Highway 7.

 

Chapter Eleven
Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer, but stay the hell away from people actively trying to kill you.

I got in my car and followed the blip down the highway, not sure what I’d find out.  There was a chance I’d just tagged someone who was honestly trying to help me, and if that were the case, I suppose I’d feel a little guilty.  But on the other hand, if he wasn’t, I’d feel justified in being suspicious and paranoid.  It seemed a risk worth taking, especially since I’m not one to wallow in guilt, even if I probably should.  Call it an underdeveloped sense of empathy, but I’d never been one to let the past drag me down.  Another thing that would have made me an excellent field agent, if I do say so myself.   

I watched the blip slow as he turned his car off the highway and headed into the city, into an area I admit I wasn’t that comfortable with.  Especially not on my own.  I didn’t have a choice if I wanted to find out what was going on, though, so I took a deep breath and followed.  The map screen showed he turned into a parking lot and when I caught up and saw the disreputable bar, I drove on by, circling around the block trying to figure out my next move.  I didn’t want to go in there.  I really, really did not want to go in there.  I tried to rationalize my fear by saying it was because so far he’d recognized me in every disguise I’d had on, and that did disturbed me.  There had to be a way he knew, I just couldn’t figure out what it was.  But the real reason I was so hesitant to go in there was because it was a biker bar.  I’ve never been one to hang out in any rough and tumble places, and I didn’t know if I’d be able to handle myself in one.  My nervousness would be apparent and make me an easy mark.  If only there was a way I could get the information I needed without actually going inside.  I could skulk around the outside, no problem.  Skulking was good.

I pulled up next to his empty car in the parking lot, got out of my car and peered into his.  On the seat I could see a high-tech bug-finder.  At least he hadn’t been lying about that, though why he was so careless to leave it just sitting there in plain sight was beyond me.  I tried the handle of the door, and of course it was locked.  I went back to my car and pulled out the lug wrench next to the spare tire.  This was not the time for subtlety.  I also started my car, so I’d be ready for a quick escape.  One good swing and the window shattered.  Amazingly, no alarm went off.  This made me pause, and I began to get nervous.  If they were tracking me, and this was all a set-up, of course no alarm would go off.  That would also explain the device left sitting out on the seat in this neighborhood.  I reached into the car and grabbed the device, as well as a few CD and the small amount of cash from the armrest.  He owed my for the hamburger, anyway.

I hopped in my car, but there was no need for a quick get-away.  No one came out of the bar.  I drove down the street and parked, then turned on the device and started sweeping myself and the car.  It didn’t come up with anything, but I had no way of knowing if it was working.  Short of sweeping Robert, who I knew was carrying a bug.  I chewed on my lip for a moment, then decided that in for a penny, in for a pound; I was going for it.  I popped the back hatch and dug through the store of clothes and accessories I had there, coming up with a combination of Isabelle, the goth chick, and a biker chick, as yet unnamed.  It should work to blend in at this place.  I hoped.  I quickly changed clothes, glancing around to make sure no one was watching on the street, but it was a pretty deserted place.  All it needed was a lone dog barking mournfully in the distance and you’d have the scene from a horror movie.  Probably one about zombies, and this would be the eerie deserted quiet right before the invasion.  And here I was, in stilettos, which of course I would be too stupid to take off when they started chasing me.  Improbably, I would keep ahead of the zombies until my heel broke, sending me tumbling to the pavement where they would descend upon my like starving Chihuahuas on a pork chop.

“There’s no such thing as zombies,” I told myself firmly.  It helped saying it out loud, I have to admit.  I pulled out the make-up case and began slathering it on.  Let’s see if he recognized me this time.  At the last minute, I realized I was still wearing my favorite necklace – a Tahitian pearl drop necklace that I never took off.  It really didn’t go with the outfit at all, so I took it off and, unable to leave it out in the car in this neighborhood (after all, Robert’s car was just broken into!), I stuffed it in my pocket.  I tossed the scanner in my bag and took a deep breath, and headed into the bar.

It was loud and dark, pretty much what I expected.  There were dark, scarred wood tables and uncomfortable-looking wooden chairs, and a very battered looking bar.  There were no fancy lighted shelves full of pretty alcohol bottles behind the bartender, and the beer taps were plain wood handles.  The air smelled like whiskey and beer, and the men standing around the pool table in the back corner had a definite air of menace about them.  And they looked like they knew how to use those pool cues for more than just shooting pool.  I slid up to the bar, two seats away from where Robert was talking to a man I didn’t recognize.  I ordered a drink and settled into some serious eavesdropping, a little surprised, but pleased the men in the bar were leaving me alone.  Not that I thought I was so amazingly hot that a guy couldn’t help but hit on me, but I figured I looked as uncomfortable as I felt and they’d pick up on it right away. 

“…I don’t think she has any clue, but just in case, we really need to find a way to tag her.  I tried tonight, but I didn’t get a chance.  Besides, just slipping it in to her purse would be too risky.  She could find it, or it could drop out.”  Robert took a long swig of his beer.  The bartender threw him a disdainful glance, but Robert didn’t notice.

“No need for that now, we have the necklace done.”  The other man pulled a small jewelry pouch out of his pocket, and after a furtive glance around him, slid it over to Robert.  “All you have to do is sneak into the apartment and switch it.”

“That’s if she doesn’t sleep with it on,” Robert said.  He took another long pull on his beer.  This was definitely I side of him I hadn’t seen before.

“I’m sure you can think of a way to… charm her out of it, if that’s the case.  I’m sure she doesn’t shower with it on, that would be the perfect time.”  The other man smirked, and I felt a greasy chill run up my spine, like someone had coated an ice cube in bacon grease and dropped it down my shirt.  At the thought of bacon grease, which led to the thought of bacon, sizzling in a pan, my stomach rumbled, reminding me I hadn’t eaten in awhile.  How I could in mortal danger and still hungry was beyond me, but I promised it that if it could just stay quiet for ten more minutes, I’d feed it anything it wanted.  Yes, that included that gigantic banana split they make at the corner bistro.  That seemed to do the trick.

“You are seriously saying my job hangs on the balance of me sleeping with her, and swapping out the necklace when she takes a shower?”

“Yes.  I am.”  The man’s tone was completely humorless, all traces of the former smirk gone.

“God, I love my job,” Robert chuckled.  “Okay, give me a few days, I have to play out a line I started this evening.  I’ll let you know when it’s done.”  His tone had lost all of the good-boy joviality I’d come to know.  And despite myself, I felt disappointed.  I knew this was a good possibility.  I’d tried to prepare myself for it.  But still, being left with no one to trust was crushing.

At least I knew how he’d recognized me.  That blasted necklace.  I wore it so often I didn’t think about it, and had it on with each of my outfits over the last few days.  It was a one-of-a-kind design, and my co-workers knew it.  Which meant the whole agency knew it.  And it had been perfect for keeping tabs on me.  I fingered the necklace in my pocket.  It was one of the last things Jake had given to me, and I was loathe to give it up, even temporarily.  But if it was the difference between life and death, it would have to go to the storage unit for awhile.

Robert made a motion to get up, and I quickly pulled out the scanner and discretely gave him the once-over as I brushed by him on the way to the restroom.  It trilled loudly, and I quickly shoved it into my purse and dug out my cell phone, pretending to take a call.  Robert looked at me, then his eyes slid on past.  He hadn’t recognized me.  I kept up my pretend conversation all the way to the bathroom.  When I’d gathered myself enough to come out, both he and the other man were gone.  And my chances of a quick escape were soon blocked by a pool cue thrust across my path.

Chapter Twelve
Do you come here often?

I looked down the length of the pool cue, unable or unwilling to look up at the person holding it.  I was shaking slightly, and no matter how much I wanted to tell myself it was from low blood sugar, I knew fear when I felt it.  And I was terrified.  Each of these men was easily twice my size, and I was completely unarmed.  They had pool cues and goodness knows what else.  As I stood there, unable to move, I felt another one of the men walk up close behind me.  I could feel the heat radiating from his body and his breath tickled my neck.  It wasn’t a good excited like the movies or books, it was terrifying.  Sure, there was a chance I’d just run into the gruff biker with the heart of gold, but that was unlikely, and I knew it.

“Hey, baby, you come here often?” the voice behind me said.  Even with the slick, tough-boy tone I recognized that voice.  I almost fainted in relief, but instead I turned around and smacked him in the chest with my purse.

“What the hell, Jake?”  All of my fear turned to anger, and I started shaking even more.  Toss a coin belt on me and I would have made any belly dance instructor proud.

He just laughed, and grabbed my arm.  I let him pull me to a back table just as Robert came back in, swearing and yelling about his car being broken into.  The other men in the bar ignored him, and he sulkily settled back at the bar for another drink while he waited for the police.

“Gimme your keys,” Jake said.  I handed them over without thinking, and he handed them to another huge, rough-looking man standing next to him.  Without a word, the man nodded and left the bar.  Presumably to move my car.  Or set it on fire.  I honestly wasn’t sure any more.

“What the hell, Jake?”  I repeated myself, but I didn’t know what else to say.

He sighed and settled back into his chair, stretching out his long legs in front of him.  I tried not to notice how good they looked in his worn-out jeans.  I’d always imagined him as more of a cowboy than a biker, but this suited him.  “You’re in deep shit, Sandra.”

“Really?  Tell me something I didn’t know.”  I was being snippy, but I thought I deserved it.  “Like, perhaps, what the hell you are doing here.”

“Working.”  He raised an eyebrow at me.  I hated that.  It was so sexy and disarming.

“You work at a graphic design firm,” I said, but my voice wasn’t as sure as it should have been.

“No, I don’t.”  He signaled to the bartender, who brought over two drinks.  A beer for him, and a Pepsi for me.  The man did know me.  I took a deep swallow and felt a little better as the sugar rushed into my bloodstream.  My stomach rumbled again, reminding me that the ten minutes were up, and we had a deal.  Jake smiled and signaled the bartender again.  “I should say, I don’t anymore.”

“You switched jobs again?  What is your problem?”  As long as I’d known him, Jake had rarely kept the same job for more than a few months.  I’d chalked it up to his artistic temperment.  It would have bothered me more if he was ever unemployed, but he always seemed to get a new job right away and seemed responsible with money.  It never occurred to me that it was anything other than…

“You’re a spy,” I said softly.  A lot of things suddenly made sense.  Things not quite said.  The undercurrent to our arguments.  And looking back, I could see where a lot of things were slightly out of kilter, but I dismissed them at the time.  Hindsight, you know.  It’s funny, they say you can’t change the past, and that might be true in a strictly factual sense.  But when you change what you know about the past, and your perception changes, you realize that in a way you have changed your past.  It’s a sobering and slightly depressing realization, because rarely does it change for the better.

He nodded, and took a sip of beer.  “Not your kind, though.”  He seemed about to elaborate, but fell silent again.

“Corporate.”  I said, and it wasn’t a question.  It seemed logical, and the job-hopping made sense.  He’d always landed decent jobs at very large firms, no matter why he’d left the last.  That should have seemed suspicious, but I was too wrapped up in my own job to take proper notice.  He was probably investigating things like insider trading and tax fraud, getting the dirt on the CEOs and accountants.

He didn’t say anything.  We stared at each other for a little while, and I hoped he’d elaborate, but keeping silent is the oldest trick in the book, and he was better at it.  I broke first, and spoke up.

“Third time’s a charm, right?  What the hell is going on, Jake?”  Just then the bartender came out of the back with a club sandwich and a pile of fries, and I could have kissed him.  I was so hungry I ate half the sandwich before I even realized Jake hadn’t answered me yet, and I looked up to give him a accusatory stare.

He grinned at me.  “I’ll answer your questions after you eat, and we get out of here.  But we can’t leave until your pal over there does.  I don’t want to take any chances and draw any attention to you.”

I nodded, and concentrated on finishing the food.  The bartender brought me a refill of my Pepsi, and we sat in silence, waiting for the police to arrive so Robert would leave.  He didn’t seem bothered by the wait, though, and was getting really drunk for a man just nursing a beer.

“How many did he have before I got in here?” I asked.  It had taken me a little while to gather up my courage and change clothes, but not that long.

“It’s not the beer,” Jake said.  He shared another look with the bartender, who gave him a curt nod in response.  Whatever they had going was on track.  Suddenly I wasn’t so sure about my conclusion of corporate spy.  This seemed a lot more dangerous.  But he wasn’t going to tell me anything here, I’d just have to bide my time.  I settled down with my Pepsi and waited.

Twenty minutes later the cops had shown up, took his statement and the statements of a few people in the bar, chalked it up to a random burglary, and had made Robert give up his keys to a biker who swore they were friends and that he would see that he got home safely.  I visited the restroom one more time, then followed Jake out to the parking lot.

I don’t know why I was shocked when he handed me a motorcycle helmet, but I was.  “Where’s your truck?” I asked.

“It wasn’t really keeping with the biker image,” he said.  He stood, waiting patiently, as I stared at the helmet.

“I don’t like motorcycles.”

“You don’t really have a choice right now,” he said gently.  “I promise to go slow and not do anything crazy.”  He gave me a smile that I’m sure was supposed to be reassuring, but fell short.

“Yes I do.  Where’s my car?”  I looked up and down the street, but there was no sign of it.

“It’s been taken to a warehouse, where my boys are going over it with a fine-tooth comb to see if anything has been planted on it or if it’s been tampered with.  We don’t think so, because we’ve kept an eye on it as much as we could, and sweep it every chance we get, but with your recent trip we just want to make completely sure.”  He leaned close as he spoke to me, and it took all of my willpower not to lean into him.  He looked rough and tough, but he smelled nice.  Damn my hormones.

“You’re the one who gave me the car,” I said stupidly.

“Yes, that was us.”

“And you’ve been keeping tabs on me?”  I didn’t know whether to be angry or relieved.  If Jake had been keeping an eye on me, I’d never been in real danger.  And yet, I think I’d proven I didn’t need to be watched over.

“Yes.  I wasn’t going to let anything happen to you, though I admit you did give us the slip a few times.  You’re good.  If it hadn’t been for…” he trailed off, looking uncomfortable.

“Been for what?”

“Let’s get going, we have a limited amount of time here.”  He shoved at the helmet in my hands, prodding me to put it on.

“Hadn’t been for what?” I asked again, my voice markedly louder.

He mumbled something under his breath.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.  If it hadn’t been for what?”

“The tracking device,” he said quietly.

“The what?  I’m sorry, I can’t have heard you properly.  You’ve been tracking me?  Since when?”  Suddenly I remembered running the bug finder over myself and the car earlier.  “Wait, you can’t be.  I used Robert’s bug finder, and it didn’t pick up anything.  And those things are the best, top-of-the-line.  If there was anything to find, it would.  Unless….”  A thought occurred to me and my breath caught.

He watched me closely, still not saying anything.  I felt myself on the edge of tears and cursed under my breath.  Now was not the time to fall apart.  No matter what, I had to keep myself together.  Whatever Jake was, whoever he worked for, at least they were there to help me.  That’s all that mattered.  I dropped the helmet on his motorcycle and walked away.  He didn’t try to stop me.

 

Chapter Thirteen
You’re not lost until you don’t know where you are and you don’t know how to get anywhere where you will know where you are.

I was lost.  I’d been walking for about two hours, and had completely lost my sense of direction.  I’d never been lost before, and I wasn’t keen on repeating it ever again.  I’d wandered down blind alleys, doubled back a bunch of times, and probably wandered in circles.  I was still in a bad neighborhood, but didn’t care anymore.  I hadn’t really seen anyone else, if there were people in the run-down industrial complexes, they were keeping to themselves.  I’d also managed not to cry, though it did hurt.  Jake hadn’t ever loved me.  I’d been an assignment to him.  For a year, we’d been in a relationship, and I’d never guessed.  What does that tell you about me?   I slumped down on a nearby crate and dropped my head into my hands.  It was getting cold, but I didn’t care.  It took all of my willpower not to sob.  Maybe, when the sun started to rise, I’d be able to find my way out of this rabbit warren of tiny roads.

My hand went to my neck and I felt for the pearl necklace that was usually there.  But it wasn’t, and I momentarily panicked until I remembered that it was in my pocket.  I know, I know, I’m slow.  But that’s when it clicked.  Of course it was the necklace.  I pulled it out of my pocket and stared at it in the glow of the street light.

“It’s just as pretty as the original,” Jake said from behind me.  Of course he’d known where I was.  And in spite of myself, I felt a surge of happiness that I wouldn’t have to spend the whole night lost in the hell hole.  I stood up and turned around to face him.

“The original?”  I asked.  “Who has the original?”

“I do, now.  It’s at my apartment.  You… if you want… you can have it back,” he said.  He didn’t sound as sure and cocky as he usually did.

“No, it was never mine,” I said glumly.

He looked confused. “Yes it was.  You wore it every day for six months.  I’d say that makes it yours.”  He chuckled.  “I honestly can’t believe you didn’t notice when I switched it.  I expected you to.”

Now it was my turn to be confused.  “So… you didn’t originally give it to me to track me?”

“No, why would you think that?  You don’t think… really, I’d do a lot of things for the job, but that’s not one of them.”

“A lot of people would,” I said in a small voice.

“Not to be harsh, but, sweetheart, you weren’t exactly a high-level important spy.  Nor did we have any reason to believe you were involved in anything you shouldn’t have been.  That’s the only reason I got the okay to date you.  But then… when this business cropped up with your boss… and the Jason mess…”  He sighed.  “They insisted I break it off.  And I did, I’m sorry.  I admit that it crossed my mind that you might have been involved.  In my defense, you’d been acting a little odd.”

“That is harsh.  I mean, I know I’m not important, you don’t have to say it.  So… you really didn’t want to break up with me?”  I tried to keep the wheedling note out of my voice, but it crept in anyway.  I sounded pathetic. 

He reached out and pulled me into his arms.  “No, I didn’t.  I think things were pretty good, don’t you?”

I snuggled into him.  “Yeah, they were.”

We stood there for a little while, just hugging, until reality reared its ugly head in the report of a gunshot, not too far off.  I jumped, and Jake held me tighter and pulled me back into the shadows.  I’d never been so glad that most goth chicks wore so much black.  We blended in with the shadows and the building wall, and the car that glided past didn’t even pause.  Once he got a look at the car, Jake relaxed.

“Just some gang members,” he said into my ear.  “We’ll wait a minute and make sure they don’t make another pass, but I think we’re safe.”

“Just gang members?” I hissed back.  “I’m sorry, I don’t see what’s so comforting about that statement.”

“Gang members will probably just kill you quickly,” he said.  “And considering the alternative to who would be out here looking for us, that would be a blessing.”

I shuddered, imagining.  And this is a case where I’m not sure my imagination was worse that the reality.  In fact, I had a sinking feeling that reality was probably a whole lot worse than anything my imagination could come up with.  We stood there for another ten or so minutes, then Jake led me down the street.  We stuck mostly to the shadows, and he kept very alert.  I was almost afraid to talk.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to cause trouble.  Didn’t you say you had something to do that was time-sensitive?” 

“Grant is taking care of that, and it’s more up his alley anyway.  After what I heard, I probably wouldn’t be as subtle or nice, and it’s imperative he doesn’t know anything is wrong.  A black eye and some broken robs would be a bit of a tip-off.”

“Who?  Robert?”  I knew the answer, but asked anyway.

“Yeah.  We figured this would be a good time to question him.  He’s really the weak link.  He’s not a supporter of the cause, just a disinterested soldier doing his job.”  Jake tugged me into another shadow as the distant rumble of a car drew nearer, but it turned down a side street before it reached us.  We resumed our journey, with Jake confidently striding ahead and me scurrying behind.

“How is he not going to know you – oh.”  I smacked myself in the forehead.  “Of course.  The bartender.  You drugged him.  But he’s going to know something is up when he realizes he can’t remember getting home last night.”

“We have that covered.  We have an agent who will be there when he wakes up, and ‘remind’ him what he did last night.  Trust me, he’ll want it to be true so badly he won’t even try to question it.”

“She’s that hot, huh?”  I couldn’t believe how jealous I felt.  I tried to keep my face and tone neutral and calm. 

Jake shrugged.  “Yeah.  I suppose.  We got your car done, it’s in here.”  He gestured to the large steel building we had stopped in front of.  “Do you need me to see you home, or will you be okay?”

I looked up and down the streets.  “I have no idea where I am, or how to get home.”

“Well, then, you can give me a ride to my apartment.  You should be able to find your way home from there, right?”  He pulled the barn-style garage door open and ushered me in.  I stepped into what looked like a chop shop – car parts everywhere, tools strewn about the floor, and men standing around in greasy overalls.  Except that in the middle of all the chaos, the little hatchback stood there, good as new.  If they’d taken her apart, they’d managed to get her all back together fast.  I peered into the window.  My stuff was all still in there, but in much neater piles.  Obviously, they had searched through that as well.  I did a quick inventory in my head to try to determine if there was anything embarrassing in there, but was too tired.  If they’d riffled through any lacey g-strings, I hope they enjoyed it.

I opened the door and slid into the car.  The keys were dangling in the ignition.  Jake ran around to the other side of the car and hopped into the passenger’s seat. 

“Ready?” he asked.

“As I’ll ever be.”  I started the car and drove out of the garage and back into the dark streets.  We were quiet for some time, Jake occasionally gesturing right or left to guide me.  I was mulling over everything that had happened tonight, and trying to talk myself out of asking Jake if I could stay with him.  That would be pathetic.  Okay, so he admitted that he hadn’t wanted to break up with me.  That didn’t mean he wanted to get back together with me.  But in the day and age of equality, shouldn’t I be just as responsible to make the first move if it’s what I wanted?  I was far too tired for these philosophical conundrums, I decided.  So I did what I usually did when I couldn’t make decisions – I left it up to the universe.  If it was meant to be, something would happen.

Just then, Jake’s phone rang, and I jumped.  My hand jerked the wheel to the right and I barely missed driving us right into a street light.  I suppose that would have been one way to stay with him tonight, though a hospital is not exactly a cozy, romantic place.  I cursed the universe and its smart-ass sense of humor as Jake eyed my warily and answered his phone.  I didn’t pay much attention to his end of the conversation, as it mostly consisted of non-illuminating ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers.  Then he gave one more sharp ‘okay’ and snapped his phone shut.

“Change of plans, I’m afraid.”

“Something happen with Robert?”  I pulled to the side of the road, now starting to look familiar, while I awaited further instructions.  Perhaps I was better suited to being a sidekick than the main spy, I mused.

“No, that’s going well.  We have a lot of information we didn’t have before, and he’s well on his way to having a story that will entertain the boys at the water cooler for weeks.  It’s… look, you probably don’t want to know.  Just drop me off here, get yourself home, and I’ll call you as soon as I can.”  His tone was confident, but he looked worried.

“What happened?  Just tell me.”  I wasn’t sure I wanted to know, but I had to.

He hesitated.  “Jason’s dead.  We’re not sure who did it, the agency or his underworld connections.  It’s… messy.”

“And if it was the agency, you think sending me back to a place they undoubtedly know about is a good idea?!”  I was fully panicked now.

“No, but it’s my only choice,” he said.  “Just keep everything locked down and I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

He stepped out of the car and I pulled away, squealing the tires a little, which is quite a feet in a front-wheel drive car.  I was shaking, both with fear and anger.  He knew it wasn’t safe for me, and while he didn’t have any other choices, I did.  It was time to put my plan into action.

 

Chapter Fourteen
In Tarot the Death card merely represents transition and change.  I like that interpretation.

 

I was going to have to die.  Again.  And everyone was going to have to believe it.  Even, for now, Jake, though I did believe I could trust him.  He was just going to have to sell it to the people he worked with because even if they were on my side, they were dragging me into something I didn’t want to be a part of.  Maybe some day I would learn what this was all about, I certainly hoped so.  But for now, I was content to leave it a mystery and get out with my hide intact.

I needed a few things to complete the plan, so I stopped by a local store and picked up a large men’s flannel shirt, a pair of men’s jeans and a pair of size 11 sneakers.  At the last minute I also grabbed a bag of trash bags and a pair of kitchen rubber gloves, because I couldn’t recall if there were any in the apartment.  I made sure to pay with cash.  This was one purchase it would be damming to have traced.

When I got back to the apartment, I sat in the car for awhile, staring into space.  My plan would only work if there wasn’t already someone there waiting for me.  I finally pulled myself out of the car and crept up to my apartment door, putting my ear to the wood and listening.  I didn’t hear anything.  Why hadn’t I thought to put a hair across the door or any such trick to see if someone had been inside?  Too late for that now, but that’s a trick I’d have to remember.  Except, of course, I was getting out of the spy business.

I slowly pushed open the door and peered in.  Nothing appeared to be out of order.  I flipped on the light, and nothing moved.  I shut and locked the door behind me, then systematically went through the apartment searching for anyone or anything.  Mostly I was worried about hidden surveillance, though the detector I still had with me didn’t show any evidence of bugs.  I scoured the walls and ceilings, all the fixtures and smoke detectors, looking for hidden cameras.  I didn’t find any.

I went to the kitchen and filled the sink with warm water.  Then I pulled the blood out of the freezer and set it into the water to thaw.   I watched the frozen red crystals start to liquefy, and really hoped this would work.  I pulled the industrial size jug of bleach out from under the sink and poured most of it into a bucket, then re-filled the container with water.  I only hoped this would work.  I had no idea if I could pull it off, but it was my only hope.  I quickly gathered up the few belongings I was going to take with me and stuffed them into a bag.  I included the gun that had killed the crime boss, though I made sure to leave it wrapped up in the handkerchief.  That was going in the river as soon as I could get it there.  No need for it to be found in the apartment, especially if this didn’t work.  I set the bag I was keeping by the door, then started tossing the place.  Clothes were roughly pulled from their hangers, drawers pulled out and overturned, cushions ripped open and stuffing pulled out – all the things you see in the movies.  I was glad, as I broke a few vases, that none of this was really my stuff.  It would have been hard to destroy everything I loved even though it was necessary.  I suppose I had to have a little luck through all of this.

I pulled the shirt, jeans and shoes from the bag, catching the receipt and stuffing it in my purse.  I folded up the plastic bag and put it with the others, and put away the trash bags after I’d taken one out, which I used to protect my stuff by the door.  Then I thought about it a little, and went back and pulled out half of the bags.  I had to make it look as if enough had been taken to be used to wrap up a body.  I took a moment to congratulate myself on that smart thinking, putting off the part of the plan I really did not want to do.  I pulled all of the ice out of the freezer and filled the bathroom sink with cold water, adding the ice.  I changed into the men’s clothing, stashing my clothes under the plastic by the front door.  I pulled the necklace out of my pocket and put it in the jean pocket.  I had one more thing to do before the part I really was not looking forward to.

When the blood bags were thawed out I pulled them out of the water, put on the gloves, and grabbed the largest kitchen knife I owned.  Then I went into the center of the living room, facing the door.  I played the scene as if I’d walked in on someone tossing the apartment.  I stabbed the bag of blood and flung the knife over my head, coming back down to stab it again and again.  The arch of blood spatter along the wall and up the ceiling looked convincing enough, though I didn’t get any spray from the body.  I wondered if that only occurred when someone was stabbed in the neck.  Maybe this would work for a chest wound.  When the first bag was empty, I went on to the others, this time from the ground, as if I’d fallen to the floor and they’d jumped on top of me.  More stabbing and slashing, more blood thrown everywhere.

I got up and tracked blood into the kitchen towards drawers, opening them in order and leaving smears of blood on the handles.  I got to the one with the trash bags and pulled them out roughly, spilling them all over the counter.  Then I opened the cabinet under the sink, leaving tell-tale smudges of blood there, too.  I picked up the container of bleach and brought it back to the living room, where I liberally sloshed it over the blood.  I went to the linen closet and gathered up towels, which I used to try to soak up the sodden mess.  I dumped the towels into a trash bag, then went back to the kitchen , poured more of the bleach into the container, added water, and repeated the process.  When I was done it looked like a very clumsy attempt to clean up a horrific murder scene.  Hopefully the bleach had destroyed the blood enough to make it impossible to tell it had been frozen, I didn’t know.  Maybe it would work, maybe it wouldn’t.  But I also needed to provide them with an easy sample of non-tampered-with, fresh blood.  And this was the part I wasn’t looking forward to.

I dragged myself back to the bathroom, still leaving bloody, bleachy shoe prints on the carpet.  I submerged my arm into the icy water until it went past the point of pain and into numb.  I drained the water out of the sink, running hot water to melt the ice.  And, I admit, putting off what came next. 

I took the knife and made a deep gash in my arm.  Despite the numbing effect of the ice, it hurt.  A lot.  I let a bit of blood drip into the sink, then sloshed some water around, hopefully simulating someone washing up.  Then, holding the bleeding wound tightly, I went out into the living room and let the blood drip onto the knife, when I smeared it around, covering both the blade and the handle.  I squatted down and tossed the knife under the couch, still dripping fresh blood everywhere.  I pulled the necklace out of my pocket, and pulled on the chain with both hands until the clasp gave way.  I tossed it into a fresh pile of blood next to the couch. I ripped the bottom of the shirt and bound my arm tightly.  I realized I was going to need stitches, but there’s no way I could go to a hospital.  I couldn’t have anything they might connect to me on record.  If there was any doubt, any clue, they might suspect something.  I put off thinking about what else the night was going to hold and finished cleaning up my crime scene.

I pulled out another trash bag and, after dragging the one full of towels a few feet to produce a streaked pattern on the floor, I carefully bagged it up and set it next to my bag.  Then I pulled off all my bloody clothes and carefully put them in another trash bag.  I changed into some light casual clothes and my own shoes, but slipped the men’s sneakers back on over them.  It was a good thing I had small feet.  I still had blood spattered all over me, but it was still dark, so I had a little time.  I dragged the bag of towels to the end of the hall and dumped them down the garbage shoot.  I grabbed my stuff and the bag containing the bloody clothes, then I closed, but did not lock, the apartment door.

 I left the building and walked a quite a few blocks before depositing the bag of bloody clothes in the dumpster.  I tossed the leftover trash bags in another dumpster a block away.  Then I set off to Jake’s apartment, hoping he wasn’t home yet.  There were still a few things I needed to do.

Chapter Fifteen
Tying up loose ends is a lot like pulling on a dangling thread.  You never know what else is going to come loose.

I made my way towards Jake’s apartment, stopping on the middle of the bridge to toss the revolver into the water.  The flow of blood was slowing, but I’d still lost a lot and was starting to feel the effects.  I was beginning to wonder if I’d be able to skip the trip to the hospital.  But they’d take one look at blood-spattered me and call in the police, and that couldn’t happen.  I’d taken a course in field medicine, granted it was years ago, but I still remembered the basics.  I could get through this.

Jake’s apartment was still dark when I got there, and I quickly picked the locks on his front door.  There was one skill I was very good at, and it was coming in handy.  Leaving most of the lights out, I headed straight for the bathroom.  I stripped off my clothes and dumped them into the washing machine.  Then I riffled around under the sink until I found the first aid kit, which still included the small suture kit I remembered.  Perhaps another reason I should have questioned his ‘job’ as a graphic design artist.  How many people do you know that have a first aid kit with suture supplies?  Mine doesn’t.  Mine has a handful of Hello Kitty band-aids and a half-used tube of ointment.  I grabbed the bottle of alcohol and positioned myself so my arm was dangling over the bathtub.  Then I unwound the flannel, thankful that it hadn’t had time to really stick to the wound.  I was still slowly oozing blood, and I took a very deep breath before I poured a good amount of alcohol over the wound.

You know how in the cartoons pain causes little stars to float above the character’s heads?  I saw those stars.  It was even more painful than the original cut, almost certainly partly because I was exhausted and had lost a lot of blood.  I kept myself from passing out, barely, and went about threading the needle.  The stitches stopped hurting after the first few, and I blocked out everything but concentrating on the next neat, tidy little stitch.  I was a decent seamstress, but no doctor, so the stitches looked more like a patch job on a teddy bear than real sutures.  But they were holding the skin together and the bleeding had stopped, so they would do.  I hopped into the shower and washed all the blood off of me, careful not to get too much water on my stitches.  I got out feeling almost refreshed, though I was smart enough to realize it was more of a giddy delirium than anything else.

I sat on the floor of the bathroom and dozed until the washer was done.  Then I threw the clothes in the dryer along with the towel I’d used.  I neatly put back all the medical supplies under the cabinet, and wandered into his bedroom for a robe.  It felt a little weird walking around naked.  What if he came home suddenly?  And what if he wasn’t alone?  So far my luck had held out, but I wasn’t counting on it staying that way.  I pulled on a t-shirt and a pair of boxers from his drawer, and fought down the melancholy at the gesture.  At least I hadn’t seen any indication of another women at the apartment.  I’m not sure I could have handled that.

The kitchen was well-stocked and I helped myself to a very large ham sandwich, a few cans of pop, and a very large slice of chocolate cake and a glass of cold milk.  The food made me feel better, but more sleepy.  I suppressed a yawn and went to check on the clothes.  They were almost dry.  I had just enough time to do one more thing and then I’d get dressed and leave.  Maybe for the last time.  If everything went right, I’d probably never see this apartment, or even this city, again.

The necklace was in the first place I looked.  The top drawer of his dresser, nestle next to an impressive Colt 45.  I ran my finger down the length of the barrel of the gun, smiling to myself.  I had been an idiot not to see what Jake was, but then, I suppose that’s why he was good at his job.  I wondered briefly if Jake was his real name.  I pulled the necklace out of the pouch and put it on, now realizing the subtle difference in weight between this one and the tracking device.  How hadn’t I noticed that before?  Because I hadn’t been looking for it.  Things are so obvious when you know what to look for.  It’s spotting the oddities out of the blue that is difficult.

I riffled through the paper on his desk, snooping while looking for a blank sheet of paper.  There was nothing interesting.  Just a pile of mundane bills and junk mail.  I would snoop longer, but each minute I stayed I was in more danger of being caught.  I found a slip of blank paper and sat, chewing on the end of a pen for a moment.  No pressure, I just had to decide the next chapter in my life right this moment.  A name popped into my head, and wrote it down on the slip of paper.  Then, thinking about it for a minute, I decided to run a quick internet search before committing to it.  No results.  I briefly hoped I wasn’t too blatantly ripping off Bloom County, but figured it was a bonus that Jake would get the reference.  I slipped the piece of paper into the jewelry pouch and waited for the clothes dryer to finish.

When my clothes were done I slipped them on, hung the towel neatly back on the rack, and stuffed Jake’s t-shirt and boxers into my bag.  It was depressingly sentimental, but I couldn’t help myself.  I let myself out of the apartment, being careful to re-set the locks on the door.  Locking a door with a set of lock-picking tools is a lot harder than opening it, but like I said, I’m good.  I left the apartment building just as the sun was rising.  I was dead on my feet but still had one last stop before I could rest.  I made my way on foot and by public transport (no risking a taxi remembering me) to the storage until and dug out the paperwork for my alternate identity.  It was a safe one, since it had never been, in any way, connected with the agency.  I’d created it on my own time, and never using any agency equipment.  It was an old-fashioned fake identity, with the real Elizabeth Henderson having died in childhood in a car accident.  Strange how death certificates are the one thing no one ever checks for.  Credit reports, yes, and thanks to some careful pre-planning Elizabeth, though never having bought a car or house, had some credit rating.  I’d worked some second jobs as her, and attended college on-line in her name, so there was a history.  I told you working in the spy business made people paranoid.  I’d been preparing for this, even though I never thought it would happen.

I was all set to go to a hotel and spend the night, but fatigue finally got the better of me.  I shut the storage unit and flopped down on the couch, falling into a deep and dreamless sleep.  When I woke up, it was dark again, but the light was brightening.  I’d slept through the entire day and night.  I yawned, stretched, and let myself out.  I walked to the nearest fast-food place and immediately used the bathroom.  The one drawback to camping out in a storage unit would be the lack of facilities.  I ordered breakfast, feeling the coffee and grease revive me.  It was a big day today.  The first day of the rest of my life.  I started it off by going back to the storage unit and taking a nap.  I thought it a fitting start to my new, independent life.

When I got up the second time it was mid-afternoon, and I spent a few moments gathering up the things I needed to keep near me.  I packed a suitcase with all of my new documentation and stored everything of my old self in a lockbox.  I would, eventually, need to dispose of it, but not now.  I wasn’t ready for that just yet.  I stepped out of the unit and headed back to the fast-food place for another bathroom break and lunch before heading out to get a truck.

The nearest U-Haul didn’t have the size truck I wanted, but when I told them of my lack of transportation, they had one delivered from a nearby store.  If they thought it was odd for a twenty-something to suddenly decide to up and move across the country, they didn’t say anything.  I suppose I had the right mix of weary and defeated on my face, as if I’d come to the place with dreams and ambitions that had been brutally dashed.  Close enough to the truth.

I rented the truck and persuaded two of the guys working there to come help me load up the storage unit for a modest fee.  I think they felt sorry for me, and I’m not ashamed to admit I took full advantage of it.  With the three of us working it only took a few hours, and by the time I was ready to go the sun was once again sinking into the horizon.  I could still get a few hours on the road before it was time to stop for the night, though, so I took off and started my journey cross-country.

 

PART TWO: JAKE

Chapter Sixteen
There’s screwing up, and then there’s the massive cluster that is this operation.

I knew I shouldn’t have sent her back to the apartment.  I knew it when I did it, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do.  The only other options were to take her with me to the crime scene, or to send her back to my place.  Either had its own set of risks.  If she went to the crime scene with me, she’d have been exposed to a lot of people who wanted her dead, and could recognize her.  They’d see her with me and my cover would be blown.  If I sent her back to my place, there was a chance she’d find what I had hidden there, and if she found that out, she’d be in more danger than ever.  Ignorance can be bliss, and it can save your life.  Better for her not to have that temptation to follow that particular path.

Still, I did keep an eye on her tracking device, which showed her going to the apartment and staying there.  That is, if she kept it on her she was still at the apartment.  But I had a feeling she would.  It’d saved her tonight after she’d stormed off, and despite being royally pissed off about it, I’m sure she was the teeniest bit thankful.  Maybe.  Yes, it was a shitty thing to do, but, again, it was the only choice I seemed to have.  Not that it excuses it, but still.  When I went back to her and pleaded with her to take me back, maybe that would weight a little on the ‘Jake’s not such a bad chap’ side of the scale.

I pulled on my police department uniform and reported to the crime scene.  There were dozens of uniforms and CSIs roaming around, and I was able to slip in undetected.  On the surface, it looked like a mugging gone bad.  And I doubted they’d find any evidence that pointed to anything else.  It was only the victim that made it suspicious.  Because of his connection to the seedy underworld and the recent upset of the crime syndicate, the police might suspect it had something to do with the power struggle going on.  Not that they could prove it, but they’d probably file it under organized crime, pay lip service to solving a completely unsolvable case, and let it go.  Sure, they’d file a ballistics report and if anything ever matched they’d follow up on it, but they knew these criminals were smarter than your average mugger, and if they gun was ever used again it’d be by a completely unrelated person in a completely unrelated crime.  If it wasn’t already at the bottom of a large body of water, it’d been chucked into a dumpster or sold to some two-bit gang-banger who’d use it to rob someone, and if he was caught it’d lend credence to the mugging gone wrong theory.

A few of the other officers milling about engaged me in some idle conversation, and I used the opportunity to subtly pick their brains.  I didn’t get much, other than the fact that the victim’s watch and wallet were missing, just like you’d expect in a mugging.  But then one officer mentioned that the victim’s cell phone had been taken, but found smashed to pieces in the next alley.  This got my attention, and sent a chill down my spine.  Sandra had been tracked by her necklace, and the agency had kept tabs on Jason through his cell phone.  Any typical mugger would have taken it and pulled out the SIM card, selling the phone for a few bucks on the street.  An organized hit would have taken the phone, pulled the card, and tossed the phone in a dumpster to make it look like a mugging.  Only someone who knew what that phone contained would have destroyed it.  And that narrowed the field down considerably.

I wandered away from the crime scene to a nearby pay phone.  I put in a call to a local 24-hour pizza joint and ordered a large pepperoni pizza to be delivered to the apartment Sandra was staying at.  If everything was okay, I’d get there about the time the pizza did and we’d have a nice late-night snack.  And if anything was wrong… but I didn’t want to think about that.  I quickly changed back into a pair of jeans and a t-shirt and raced across town.  I was just entering the building when I heard the shout from upstairs.  I raced up the stairs and saw the pizza guy backing away from the apartment door, pale and shaking.  He looked at me and shook his head.

“Dude, the door was, like, kinda hanging open, and I just pushed it a little and…”  He pointed at the open door.  My eyes followed his outstretched arm and my stomach dropped.  Blood.  Lots of it.  Splattered up the walls, along the ceiling, pooling on the floor.  Blood everywhere.

“Call the police,” I told him.  He pulled out his cell phone and made the call while I stood there in shock.  I wanted to go in and look around, but I couldn’t risk contaminating the crime scene.  I pulled out my own cell phone and made a call to my partner, told him to suit and work this call with the CSIs.  He was good, and as much as I wanted to work this one, I was the pizza guy’s witness.  I was going to make sure I didn’t get him into any more trouble than he was in, since I was the one who’d called and subjected him to this.  And, as much as I wanted to believe I was professional and able to cope, I was far too close to this case to work it with any real objectivity.

I sat down on the step, my knees suddenly weak.  There was no way she was dead.  She just couldn’t be.  Because if she was, it was all my fault.  I should have risked sending her to my place.  There was no guarantee she would have snooped, or even if she had, that she would have found the documents.  Maybe she’d survived.  There was no body, at least none I’d seen, and I didn’t even know if the blood was hers.  Maybe it’d been there when she got home, and she’d left.  Maybe she was sitting outside my apartment door right now.
I spent the next few hours talking to the cops, telling them what little I knew and assuring him the pizza guy hadn’t killed anyone.  Howard stopped by my perch on the stairs once to let me know what they’d found, the knife and the necklace.  It didn’t look good, but I wasn’t giving up hope.  After another grilling about what I’d been doing wandering the apartment in the middle of the night, to which I made up a story about a late-night call from a married mistress, the cops finally told me I was free to go.  The sun was just rising as I left the building and raced back to my apartment.  The hallway was empty.  I threw the door open and called out, but there was no answer.  She wasn’t here.  Okay, maybe she was somewhere else.  I still refused to believe she was dead.  I sat down and poured myself a drink.  It’d been a long day and night, and I was running on empty.

My phone rang, and I answered more sharply than I intended.  “What?”

“Bad news, boss.  Robert’s dead,” Daniel informed me.  He sounded grim.

“What the hell happened?”  We’d planned it out perfectly, and the drugs hadn’t seemed to have had any unexpected ill effects.

“It wasn’t us.  Robin was with him that morning, and she heard a noise outside the apartment.  She grabbed her stuff and hid in a closet, and two men came in and killed him.”

“Is she okay?”  I couldn’t have another death on my conscience.  Another.  I was thinking as if Sandra was dead.

“She’s fine.  The men weren’t even interested in searching the apartment.  The funny thing, though…” He hesitated, and I didn’t blame him, considering my mood.  “According to her report, the men showed up not half an hour after the call came over the police radio about Sandra’s place.”

“You think they’re related?  Whoever offed Robert thinks he had something to do with the…” I couldn’t bear to even say that Sandra had been murdered.  “…the crime scene at Sandra’s?”

“Either that, or it’s a hell of a coincidence.  And where this is concerned, I’m not inclined to believe in coincidences.  And I think he might have known something.  You know that blood the team was sent in to recover?”

I pushed my foggy brain to remember what he was talking about.  “Oh, right, that vampire club.  Yeah, I remember.”

“The stuff they brought back was from four different people, none of them hers.  He and his partner screwed up big time.  And now the place’s burned down, so there’s no recovery.  They don’t have a sample of her DNA, so they can’t compare it to either of the bodies.  The agency is still keeping her case open, not convinced she’s dead.  Which makes sense, since they have two possible deaths that could have been hers.  Robert knew she was still alive…”  Daniel hesitated again as he realized he was speaking about Sandra in the past tense.  But he’d already seen pictures from the apartment, and it didn’t look good.  “He and Jason, and they’re both gone.  In a way it doesn’t make any sense.”

“You mean them killing people who knew she hadn’t died in the house fire or car accident?” 

“Yeah, it’s almost like… I don’t know, someone was – is – trying to protect her.  By making sure everyone things she’s dead.”

“That doesn’t bode well for us, since we all know.”  Jake was having a hard time concentrating.  His eyes were getting heavy and his head was lolling to the side.  He yawned.

“Well, except now…” Daniel took a deep breath.  “Now it might be a moot point.  After, you know.  Look, you need to get some rest.  We’ll go over this later, okay?”

Jake was too tired to argue.  He mumbled a goodbye and fell asleep in the chair.

 

Chapter Seventeen
Your subconscious really is a lot smarter than you are.

I dreamed of blood, rivers of it.  It was flowing through the city, down streets and splashing up against buildings.  I was keeping ahead of it, running through small alleyways and twisting down back streets, but every time I turned my head it was gaining ground.  I was trying to outrun a monstrous wave of it, heading for a giant freezer that I thought would offer some protection, when I was mercifully woken by my phone ringing.  I fumbled around on the floor next to the chair, my neck aching with every move, until I came up with it.

“Yeah?”  I looked at my watch.  It was ten till noon.  I’d gotten almost six hours of sleep, and I felt almost human again.  I stretched and tried to make all of my joints move the way they should once again.

“Jake, it’s Howard.  I thought I’d let you know what I found out last night, if it’s a good time?”  He sounded busy and distracted.  Still working the case, I guessed, but with enough evidence to give me an update.  It probably wasn’t good.

“I’m not sure it will ever be a good time, but sure.  I can be down at your office in… gimme half an hour?”  I tried to turn my neck to the right and grimaced in pain.  I should have known better than to sleep in the chair.  I must have been dead tired to fall asleep there.

“See you then,” he said and hung up.  I slid the phone onto the coffee table and levered myself up out of the chair, creaking and groaning far beyond my years.  I refused to feel like I was getting old when I hadn’t even hit middle age yet.

A hot shower helped, but only just.  I could move my head and shoulders without swearing, and that was going to have to do for now.  I still didn’t feel clean, though, as the memory of the dreams of blood, waves of it crashing over my and soaking me to the skin, was so vivid I’d woken up feeling coated.  Though in my mind, the blood was oily and slick, and impossible to wash off completely.  My stomach turned over at the thought of the coppery smell of that much blood, and any idea of breakfast was squashed. 

I shook my head, the motion sending little splinters of pain down my neck.  But it did clear out the vision.  Just what was my brain trying to tell me?  Or was it just a reaction to having seen that apartment, all that blood?  I still refused to think of it as Sandra’s, and I could be in denial until I talked to Howard.  I took comfort in that.  I quickly dressed and reached into my top drawer to get my Colt 45.  If there was ever a day I needed my lucky gun, this would be it.  Sitting next to it was the velvet pouch holding Sandra’s original pearl necklace.  I reached for it, but pulled my hand back, my fingertips just skimming the surface of the velvet.  Images of the blood room once again rose in my head.  I quickly holstered the gun, shut the drawer, and left the apartment.

On the way to the office I made calls, checking in with everyone on my team.  No progress had been made in the Robert case.  The police were suspicious, since it hadn’t been a robbery and they couldn’t find any other motive, but they didn’t have anything to go on.  They figured it concerned his job, and were more than willing to let the agency take over, even if they couldn’t officially say that.  Jason’s death, likewise, was set on a back burner, chalked up to a mugging gone bad.  But Daniel had found some strange similarities between the two killings.  Robin hadn’t been able to provide a description, as she’d neither seen the men or heard them speak, but what she had been able to tell us was important.  The men – she was sure there had been two of them – had said nothing, not waking Robert up before they shot him with a silenced pistol.  And they’d left directly after.  No searching, no talking.  That pointed to a cold, calculated hit.  Only this time, they didn’t try to disguise it as anything, and that didn’t make sense.

Reading up on the reports when I got to the office, I saw why.  A neighbor of Robert’s, an older lady who was stereotypically nosey, had heard some noises and reported it to the police.  She’d complained of thumps and what sounded like muffled gunshots.  It’s amazing what sticking a glass to the wall can make it possible to hear, I thought.  The funny thing was, as closely as she paid attention, she’d seen or heard no one leaving the apartment between the time of the gunshots and the arrival of the police.  When the police got there, they’d found Robin still hiding in the closet, no sign on anyone else, though the door was unlocked.  The obvious conclusion this brought to my mind made the bile rise in my throat.  I knew we had a spy in our midst, the problems keeping a wrap on the Sandra situation had proven that.  I didn’t think it was Robin.

I went to where Daniel was pecking away at a computer and motioned for him to follow me back to my office.  I’d known Daniel for ten years, and if there was anyone in this office I trusted, it was him.  “Daniel,” I said quietly.  “I think I know who the spy is.”

“I think I agree,” he said grimly.  When I looked at his quizzically, he explained.  “You picked up on it when you read the same case file.”

I nodded.  “It seems almost too obvious, why doesn’t everyone else jump on it?”

“Because little old ladies are unreliable, and there’s no reason an agent would do such a thing,” he said.  “Think about it.  Think about if this were a different case, and we had no reason to suspect someone on the inside working against us.  How possible is it for a man to have slipped in and out without the little old lady noticing?”

“Quite,” I agreed.  “She couldn’t have been keeping watch the whole time, what with the listening and calling the police.  It is very possible she missed something.  Especially if it was a pro.  I swear some of those guys could walk right by you on a sunny day on a deserted street and you wouldn’t notice them.”

“Exactly.  But we’ve been looking for something.  Something out of the ordinary, and we’ve found it.  There’s probably something else, other things buried in your subconscious that are telling you something was wrong.  Something about her, something you saw but didn’t really notice.”

“Don’t worry, I trust my gut on this one.  Has she been out of anyone’s sight since the incident?”  At his mention of subconscious, my brain had filled again with images of blood.  I’d seen a fair amount of blood in my career, but that room was going to haunt me for the rest of my life.  Daniel pulled out his phone and made a quick call.  I didn’t really listen as he talked to the agent on the other end, whoever had been sent to keep an eye over the Robert crime scene. We’d been stretched pretty thin last night, and I felt guilty for having gone home and slept while everyone else was out working.  It didn’t matter that I’d been up for almost forty-eight hours, as the one in charge I was supposed to be there.   

“They’re just about to release her.  The police have been questioning her, and she spent some time with a counselor,” he said.  “Apparently she’s a bit shaken up by the incident.”

I looked up sharply.  “Really?  Shaken up as in she might request some leave kind of shaken up?  From being safely tucked away in a closet when someone she didn’t even know was killed?”

He nodded.  “Yeah, that kind.”

To others it might seem heartless to doubt the psychological impact of being a witness to a murder, but they didn’t know Robin’s history.  She’d been in stickier situations, and even killed several people, and never batted an eye.  And sure, this could have been the last straw, and it could have sent her over the edge.  But personally, a lot of us believed there was no edge for Robin.  She didn’t seem to have either a conscience or a moral compass.  And while that made her a great spy, it also made it very hard to trust her.  She’d been top on our list save one thing.  We couldn’t figure out why she’d switch side, or who she’d be working for.

“I want eyes on her twenty-four seven,” I said.  If we were going to catch her, we needed to make sure she never got out of our sight.  “But keep it very quiet.  If she comes in and requests time off, she gets it, but give her a hard time about it.  Then lull her into a false sense of security.”

He nodded, and relayed the information.  If she was going to make a move, it would be now.  There was a chance, no matter how slim, that she hadn’t gotten rid of the gun.  If we could get that, we’d have her.

“You want ears at her place?” he asked.

“If we can, but  I do not want anything that would tip her off, you understand?”

He nodded, and gave more instructions over the phone.  Then he closed it and sighed wearily.  “This is the worst part of the job.  It’s okay when the bad guys are bad, but when it’s one of your own…”

“I know.  But maybe it won’t turn out that way.”

“It’s possible, but I’m not holding out much hope.”  He nodded at me and left my office, leaving me feeling the exact same way about Sandra.  It was possible she wasn’t dead, but I was no longer holding out much hope.

Chapter Eighteen
Denial.  It’s not just a river in Egypt.

 

“What do you have for me?”  I tried to keep my tone brisk and business like as I swept into Howard’s lab.  Everyone knew I had a special connection to the case, but it wouldn’t do to show just how close I was to breaking down.  I was in charge, and if I wanted to stay that way I was going to have to put my feelings on the back burner.

“The preliminary reports are… mixed,” he said.  He fiddled with some knobs on his microscope.  “Based on the DNA we have, it matches both the DNA in the hairbrush at the apartment and the DNA of the blood.  Granted, a lot of it was destroyed by the bleach…”  He looked up and frowned.  It was rare to see the great Howard looking perplexed, and despite the situation I felt the ridiculous urge to grin.  Or maybe it was just caffeine deprivation.  I made a mental note to grab a cup of coffee as soon as I was done here.

“What?”  I knew just enough about this stuff to be dangerous, and it was looking like it was going to be a long and difficult afternoon.  They put me out on the field, and not in a lab, for a reason.

“Well, some of the blood looks a little odd.  I’ve seen what bleach can do to blood cells – goodness knows we’ve seen enough crime scenes people have tried to clean up – but some of this damage seems wrong.  I don’t know.”  He rubbed a hand across his eyes in a weary gesture, then shook his head.

“But you found undamaged blood cells to make a DNA comparison?”  I almost sounded like I knew what I was talking about.

“Wes, there were some blood droplets on the floor that the killer missed.  It was a pretty shoddy clean-up job, to be honest.  Almost more like the killer just wanted to make identifying the victim impossible.  They obviously did not care if we found out a crime had been committed.”

“Obviously,” I agreed.

“So what kind of killer wants to let everyone know that they’ve killed someone, but not who?  That is the million-dollar question, and the key to the case.”

“But there’s no body,” I said.  I sounded hopeful and I cursed myself.

Howard shook his head sadly.  “No, there’s no body.  But the amount of blood… the amount of blood we found at the apartment was… well, the loss of that much blood is inconsistent with life.”

What a way of putting it.  Inconsistent with life.  What he was telling me was that if Sandra lost that much blood, she’s dead.  And they found that much of her blood.  I didn’t say anything.

“We found what we think amounts to five to six pints of blood between the crime scene and the towels and the clothes.  That’s more than half of her blood volume.  They had to wrap the body in something, as well, which probably soaked up some…”  He trailed off lamely when he saw the expression on my face.  “I’m sorry, Jake, I really am.”

“It’s okay, never mind me.”  I cleared my throat.  “Let’s work on the facts.  You said there was something odd about the blood?”

“Yeah, but I can’t put my finger on it.  Perhaps the killer cleaned up with more than bleach, or used boiling water.  I’m not sure.  It’s just a blip, though, something to nag at me.  You know how caught up in the details us science types get.”  He tried to grin, but it fell flat.  I nodded.  “Anyway, the blood splatter…” he paused.  I nodded again.  “The blood splatter would indicate she was attacked as she walked in the door.  The killer struck several times, and she crumpled to the floor.  He continued to stab, we’re guessing in the torso.  There’s no spray to indicate the neck was hit, most of the blood seems to be pooled, as if it oozed out of the body.”

He was getting into a rhythm, the cold, clinical, detached scientist reporting his findings.  I found myself able to separate what he was saying from the image of Sandra, substituting a nameless, faceless victim.  I admitted to myself that I still didn’t believe she was dead.  Sandra was too smart to walk into an ambush like that.  Sandra wouldn’t have stood there and let herself be killed.  She would have left us evidence, wounded her attacker.  Sandra would have done something.

“Was there any other blood at the crime scene?  Did the victim manage to wound the attacker?”  I flipped through the crime scene photos, studying them with a critical eye.  I found that as long as I stopped thinking of Sandra as the victim, I could concentrate on the case.

“No, none that we’ve found.  We did even find traces of blood in the bathroom sink, where the killer likely washed up, but it was too minute an amount to do any testing on.  We just know it was there.  But we’ve tested the blood from the shoeprints and the smudges on the cabinets, and even though it’s damaged, we can tell with a fair amount of certainty it was hers.  Unless you had a killer who happened to have the same blood type.  Which would be possible if we were talking about O positive blood, but A negative is much more rare.”

I nodded, flipping through more photos.  These showed the tracks down the hallway.  “Any info on the shoe?  It looks like you got some pretty good, clear prints.”

“Not just info, we have them.”  Howard hoisted a clear plastic bag onto the metal table.  “Found in a dumpster with a pair of jeans and a flannel shirt a few blocks away.  They were stuffed into a plastic bag.”

“Any prints on the bag?”  I flipped through more photos.  The crime scene tech had taken hundreds of them.  Every conceivable speck of blood had been photographed and carefully documented, distance and close-up shots with rulers. 

“No, none we could find.  We looked for any discarded gloves, and didn’t see any.  Well, actually, we saw a lot.  I never realized how many people used those rubber kitchen gloves to do their dishes.  I tried that once, and all I did was plunge my hands so far into the dishwater that it topped the glove and filled it up.  Rather pointless, if you ask me.”  He stopped himself mid-ramble and pulled back on topic.  “But none of them showed traces of blood.”

[Author’s Note: it’s here that, if it were not NaNo, and things had not already been ‘published’ and read, I would go back and fix the scene where Sandra dumps the stuff to clarify that she did leave the gloves on until after she dumped the bags, and kept them with her to dispose of once she got to her new home.  Because it is possible to get fingerprints off the inside of a glove, though unlikely, and she would have thought of this.  So pretend I did that, okay?]

“So what about the shoes?”  I fiddled with the pictures in my hands, shuffling them back and forth aimlessly.  Bloody shoe print, bloody smudge on the cabinet, drop of blood, pool of blood, the front of the refrigerator, smear of blood…

“Men’s size eleven, nothing special.  The brand is one sold at stores everywhere.  They’re relatively new, so we could try to track down every pair sold, but….”

“Undoubtedly a wild goose chase.  Probably thousands sold, and if the killer was smart, he’d have used cash to pay, anyway.”

“And most stores don’t keep surveillance footage past a week, if they even keep it for twenty-four hours.  I’m guessing that would just be a lot of wasted man-hours.  Same with the shirt and jeans.  New, but frighteningly generic.  No way to track down which of the hundreds of stores it could have been sold at, and when you combine that with even a week’s timeframe, if not more…”  He shrugged.

“Yeah, pointless.  Any contract killer has dozens of generic outfits hanging in his closet, purchased at various times.  And as much as this is supposed to look like a crime of passion, I don’t believe it for an instant.”

“Nor do I, though all evidence indicates a frenzied attack.  Except the clean-up, which points more towards something meant to keep us chasing our tails.”  He looked meaningfully at me.  “Like trying to prove that she’s still alive.”
I ignored that.  “Any evidence on the shirt or jeans?”

“There were some hairs, but initial study seems to indicate they belong to San- the victim.  We’re combing over everything, but the killer was careful.  No trace of him as far as we can tell.”

“Not a single hair?  Isn’t that a bit suspicious?”

He shrugged again.  “Not really.  It could be that the killer shaves everything.  In this day and age, the criminals have to get pretty creative to stay one step ahead of us.  And remember, we’re not talking about a garden-variety burglar or mugger.  We’re talking about a professional.  I honestly didn’t expect to find much coming in to this case, given the circumstances.  I don’t think forensic evidence is what’s going to solve it.”

I looked down at the photos I was mindlessly shuffling in my hands.  I had stopped on a picture of Sandra’s pearl necklace, laying in situ in a pool of blood.  The clasp had been wrenched open.  Howard followed my gaze.

“It’s evidence right now,” he said softly.  “But I’ll make sure you get it back.  I know how much it meant to her.  She never took it off, even after you two broke up.”  He smiled sadly.

“Evidence?”  I stared at the picture.  Something was niggling in the back of my brain.

“It was torn off her neck in the struggle.  Tossed under the couch.”  He pulled the photos from my hands, and I let them go.  My brain had latched on to one very important detail.  Sandra hadn’t been wearing the necklace when I’d last seen her.  It had been in her pocket, and she’d pulled it out to look at it.  Then she’d stuffed it back into her purse.  She hadn’t been wearing it in the car.  I was sure of it.

 

Chapter Nineteen
Your first instinct in usually right.  Except, of course, those times when it isn’t.

I know she could have put the necklace on as she was driving home, or when she was walking up to her apartment.  It was completely possible.  But I didn’t think she would have.  Not knowing what is was.  Oh, I believed she’d keep it on her, so I’d be able to find her if I needed to, but I didn’t believe she’d ever wear it again.  And I didn’t blame her, considering all it represented.  I’m sure the lies and mistrust would be a lot to put aside, though hopefully some day she’d forgive me.  But if it hadn’t been around her neck, why had it been broken?  The only reason I could think of was to make it look like even more of a hit, the tracking device left behind.

Which would make sense if, as she believed, it was official.  Then everyone at the crime scene would see it as an inside job, someone who knew what that meant and knew to leave it behind.  But no one else knew.  It was something I’d done to ease my conscience after breaking up with her.  A way to keep an eye on her, and as a means to possibly be able to clear her name if anything ever came down.  It wouldn’t be much evidence, but perhaps enough to cast doubt.  I thought the risk had been worth it, though I honestly never thought she’d find out.  And, I admit, if she hadn’t, and I’d been able to get back together with her, I never would have told her.

And it had been worth that risk, and even the consequence, since Sandra had been able to evade those following her so many times.  We’d lost track of her a lot the last few days, leading others in the department to believe she was involved in whatever shady dealings were going down.  But I knew where she’d been, and it didn’t add up.  I went back to my office and sat at my desk, running through all the places I know she’d been.  The one that kept popping up with a little red flag was the vamp club.  She’d been there the night it burned down, the night Robert and John had been sent in to retrieve the blood.  The night they screwed up, getting John, the superior, busted back down to background-check duty.  The night they brought back the wrong blood.  Blood.  The dreams, the blood and the freezer.  My subconscious hadn’t even been subtle in trying to tell me something.

With a groan my head hit the desk.  It couldn’t be that simple.  She couldn’t have.  I refused to get my hopes up.  I looked back through the evidence, shuffling the bits of the file and combining it with the things in my head that only I knew.  The places she’d been when they’d lost track of her.  And there was that brief stop on the way back to her apartment the other night…

I grabbed my coat and headed out the door, yelling a quick, “I need decent coffee, I’ll be back,” as I went.  No one batted an eyelash at that, as the sludge they served in the break room had more in common with used motor oil than with coffee.  You only drank that if you were desperate, or it was late at night and nothing else was available.  Late.  That was the key.  She’d driven home very late at night.  There couldn’t have been many places to stop.  I retraced the route, keeping my eyes open.  The tracking device wasn’t exact, but it gave me a fairly good idea within a block’s radius where she’d momentarily stopped.  And there, smack-dab in the middle of that block, was an all-night big-box store.  A place you could buy any number of things in a single trip.  Including men’s clothing and rubber gloves.

I pulled into the parking lot, not sure how to approach this.  I couldn’t leave a trail, because if anyone at the agency found it, all her hard work would be for nothing.  But I had to know.  Suddenly, I had an idea.  Not a good idea, probably, but maybe just good enough to work.  I whipped out my laptop and quickly hacked into the store’s credit card processing computer.  Because of the need to approve the cards, a lot of information was flying around and available if you knew how to use it.  This store’s security was particularly lax, and I was even able to hook into their live video feed.  I couldn’t get any older information, though, so I had to take it to the next step.  I poked around the digital info until I found the name of their computer security company.  I slid into a logo-ed button-down shirt and went in to talk to the manager.

He wasn’t happy to see the list of credit card numbers I’d pulled off of his under-secured network, and he quickly agreed to my offer of giving his store security an overhaul.  The company they were using had been recently highlighted in a new story about identity theft, and while the manager had meant to upgrade the security, he’d never gotten around to it.  I gave him my schpeal about being a small, one-man operation, flourished my credentials (all those jobs and training courses finally paid off), and named a decent price, and he was more than willing to hire me.

To be fair, I did get him a very good system upgrade.  Very few people would be able to hack into the system I installed.  And I made a pretty penny on the side.  But most importantly, I got unfettered and untraceable access to the records.  I narrowed down the video tapes to the hours or so she would have been there, and saw her checking out.  I brought up the register she checked out through and found what I believed to be her purchase.  If it hadn’t been clear enough on the video, there it was in black and white.  Men’s sneakers, jeans, flannel shirt, trash bags and rubber gloves.  It was then I allowed myself to hope.  She’d managed to fake her own death better than we had.  Well enough that, as far as everyone working for the agency, she was dead.  Even without a body.

It was the lack of the body that sold it, though it seems counter-intuitive.  It had been brilliant.  And if I hadn’t known about her visit to the vamp club, or her stop on the way home, there’s no way I would have been able to put the pieces together.  I headed back to the office, happier than I’d been in a long time and trying not to show it.  I had two objectives now: find out who was behind it, and make sure Sandra stayed dead.  I had the power to confuse any investigation, and the more I put forth the belief that she was still alive, the harder they would try to prove to me that she was dead.  And in the end, they’d build a cast-iron case for it and they’d believe it, regardless of their initial doubts.

I swung by my boss’s office on the way in.  He knew about my computer side-business, and that I’d kept it up since the assignment three years ago.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say he approved, but it kept me busy in my spare time and the extra income kept me from pushing too hard for a raise, so he tolerated it.  As long as it didn’t interfere with my official duties.

“Yo, Nate, just wanted to let you know I worked a computer job this afternoon.”  I took a deep breath.  “It just… helped to clear my head, and take my mind off…”  I trailed off convincingly.

He nodded, looking as sympathetic as I’d ever seen him look.  That wasn’t saying much, since he had the empathy of a rock, but it was touching.  “I completely understand.  If you want to take time off, or get re-assigned, I’d understand.”

That threw me.  We’d all swear Nate would make you work a case if your own grandmother had been killed, and here he was, willing to excuse his best (I’m not being vain, it was simply true) investigator because the victim was an ex-girlfriend?  That seemed out of character.

“No, I feel like… I feel like I owe it to Sandra to find her killer.  If, in fact, she’s actually dead.” 

Nate gave me a pitying look.  “She is, and while I have no doubt you’d manage to do a fine job, if you need off, Mike is more than ready to step in.”

I nearly choked.  Mike?  Nate’s pet lackey, Mike had the intelligence of a turnip.  He was good at following orders, but not much else.  Anything Mike was in charge of, Nate was directing.  And that set off alarm bells in my head.  If the problem was at the top, it would make it a lot harder to stop, and almost impossible to prove.  I’d like to say I’d always suspected Nate of being up to something, but the truth is, up to that point, it’d never crossed my mind.

Nate was dry, humorless, and an asshole, but he never came across as corrupt.  Good criminals usually have a smidgeon of creativity to help wiggle out of tough situations.  Even the most meticulous plan goes awry now and then, and if you can’t roll with the punches, you’ll sink.  And it was universally joked that if it wasn’t written down as standard operating procedure in some manual, Nate didn’t do it.

“No, no, I’m good.  I intend to get to the bottom of this.  If she’s dead,” I emphasized the word ‘if’.  “If she’s dead, I’ll catch the bastard that did it.”

It might have been my imagination, but I fancied I saw a glimmer of fear in Nate’s eyes.

 

Chapter Twenty
It’s a thin line between helping and hindering.  Only the most talented can look like they’re doing the former while actually doing the latter.

I was on my way back to the lab to see if they’d found anything new when Daniel interrupted me.  He came jogging down the hallway and grabbed me by the arm, dragging me into an empty conference room.  Even in the semi-privacy of the conference room, he didn’t say enough to let anyone uniformed know what we were talking about.  Walls in this place typically have both eyes and ears.

“That thing you had me do?  It was… productive.  We need to go now,” he whispered furiously.

I nodded in understanding.  “I’ll meet you at the car in five.  There’s one thing I need to do first.”

I hurried back to my office and pulled a small device from my desk drawer.  It larger than most bugs, but that was because it was self-contained.  It didn’t transmit a signal, making it almost impossible to detect.  But that also meant that you had to retrieve it, making it much more dangerous to use.  But in a place filled with suspicious, techno-savy people, it was the only way I might be able to get the information I need.  It was another case where the risk would hopefully be worth it. 

A quick stop by the vending machine for a bag of chips and I was on my way bag to Nate’s office, stuffing my face with chips as I went.  I hadn’t realized how hungry I was, and couldn’t even remember the last time I’d eaten.  When the bag was almost empty, I activated the bug and dropped it into the bag.  I knocked and stuck my head around the corner of his office door.  He motioned for me to come in.  I popped another chip in my mouth, then crumpled the bag.

“Hey boss, just want to let you know Daniel and I are off to go over the crime scenes again, and check up on Robin.  I feel awful about her being caught up in all this, and I haven’t even talked to her since.”  I dropped the bag into his trash can.  He barely noticed, paying more attention to what I was saying and less to what I was doing.  A mistake a lot of complacent, office-bound agents make.  Always watch for the misdirection.

He hesitated, unable to think of a tactful, reasonable way to tell me not to do something I should be doing.  Instead, he nodded.  “Good, let me know if you find anything.”

“Will do,” I said, and went off to meet with Daniel.  I suspected anything of interest the bug would pick up would be in the next ten minutes, but I’d have to wait until evening to hear it.  Patience is a virtue, I told myself.  I could wait.  It almost worked, but I was still jittery with anticipation.

I joined Daniel out in the parking lot, and we high-tailed it to Robin’s place, making one quick stop through a drive through to pick up a burger.  Initially he objected, repeating the need for speed, but the look I gave him must have changed his mind.  He settled back and filled me in on what they’d heard.

“She hasn’t done anything remarkable.  She went home and has stayed there, not making contact with anyone along the way.  The only reason we got the info was because we managed to get a wired mike in through the oven vent, and luckily she hasn’t done any cooking.  And I know she’s swept the place for bugs at least twice.  Once we saw her do it, and the second time she was on the phone, and she told the person she was talking to that she was actively searching for any. Even so, I’m surprised she said as much as she did.  We have her on tape for the murder of Jason and Robert.  Obviously, she can’t be the one responsible for Sandra’s murder, because as good as she is, she can’t be in two places at once.  But you want to hear the best news?”

“We know who she was talking to?” I asked.  That took the wind out of Daniel’s sails for a moment, but he rallied.

“Well, no.  She was talking on a throw-away cell, and we don’t know the number so we can’t trace it.  And the boys saw her thoroughly destroy it when she was done talking.  She smashed it to bits and flushed the pieces, so that’s a dead end.  But she did happen to mention that she still had the gun.  She hadn’t had a chance to get rid of it.  The bad news is that she knows she was followed, so that was a screw-up on our part.  That’s why she hasn’t chucked it yet.  Even though, if she tossed it off a bridge we’d probably never recover it, the act alone would land her in a lot of hot water.  You know the agency doesn’t actually have to prove you guilty of anything to punish you.”

I nodded.  “So if we get there fast enough, we might be able to track down the gun, and at least that’s something.  I doubt we’ll get anything out of her, though.  She’s too tough to crack.”

“I rather doubt questioning will lead to anything, either, but we have to give it a shot.  You never know, maybe the lure of a lessened sentence will make her turn on her boss,” Daniel said, but there wasn’t much hope in his voice.  We both knew how unlikely that was.

As it turns out, it was even more unlikely than either of us guessed.  When we got to her house, there was already an ambulance parked out front.  One of the surveillance crew came jogging up to the car.

“We tried to stop her, but we got there too late.  We didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late.  I’m sorry, boss.  Really.”  He took a deep breath.  “And I’m sorry she knew she was being followed.  We tried really hard to stay unnoticed, we did, and I honestly don’t know where we screwed up…” he trailed off miserably.

“She was a good agent,” Daniel said.  “It wasn’t so much that you were incompetent as it was that she was very, very good.  Learn from this.  Go over it with your team.  I want a full report and alternatives as to what you could have done better.  I-”

“What happened?” I interrupted, though I knew the answer.

“She killed herself,” he replied.  “She wrote out a note, which is when we should have seen it coming and done something, I know, and then she just shot herself.  It happened so fast.”

“There’s nothing you could have done,” I reassured him.  “Robin was a professional.  She knew what she was doing.  She knew she was being watched.  Hindsight tells you that you should have known, but at the time, she might well have been writing out a shopping list.  Don’t worry about it.”

He nodded glumly and went back to the surveillance van.  I knew he would worry, there were no words that could stop that.  But it was a learning experience, and he was young.  In the long run it might help, though there was a thin line between a healthy amount of second-guessing yourself and thinking so much you lose your chance at action.  I tended to lack enough second-guessing, and was admonished often for being too brash.  Maybe if I’d screwed up a few times early in my career, instead of being the luckiest bastard in the agency, I wouldn’t have that problem.  And maybe I’d have thought enough ahead to have planned for this eventuality.

“Well, shall we go see what Robin thought was important enough to tell us in her last words?” Daniel asked.

We trudged up to the house, where we were handed a blood-splattered paper in a plastic bag by an officer.  “I suspect this was meant for you guys, makes no sense to us.  Just be sure to hand it back to one of the CSIs when you’re done with it.”  We nodded, and he wandered off.

The note was written in Robin’s distinctive swirling hand, and it was short and to the point.  There was no greeting, and no signature.

You’ve come to me for information, but you’re too late.  I’m too old and tired to hold up to questioning, and, frankly, those I’ve allied myself with would just as soon see me dead.  It’s the coward’s way out, but I’d rather leave on my terms than to spend my last days cornered and afraid.  The gun I used on myself is the same one that was used on Jason and Robert, and, yes, I admit I was the one who pulled the trigger.  I’m not going to pretend I was a saint or try to pin my sins on anyone else. I’m sorry, Jake, that I had to let you down.  It wasn’t personal.  And I truly am sorry about Sandra.  If I knew who killed her, please believe me that I would tell you.  I have nothing left to lose, anyway.

And even though I have nothing left to lose, I regret to inform you that I cannot tell you who my boss is.  There are other lives at stake, others I love who would be put in danger.  And I cannot risk their lives.  I do hope you understand this, and do not hate me too much for it.  But as you wish, Jake, as you wish.

“Well, that was… weird.” Daniel said.  “And fairly unhelpful.”

I nodded, and handed the note to a nearby CSI.  “Any chance we can look around?”  I asked.

“Just don’t touch anything,” she said curtly, and went back to her work.

“What are we looking for?” Daniel asked.

“Nothing,” I lied.  “Just looking around.  In case we missed anything, though I doubt we did.  I just don’t want to look back later and think that we should have done something, you know?”

He nodded, and we wandered through the house looking at everything and anything.  On my second circuit of the living room, I had a brief moment when no one else was there, and with no one watching, I quickly slipped one of the DVD cases off the shelf and into my shirt.

Chapter Twenty One
I do not think that word means what you think it means.

Daniel and I left Robin’s house, him dejected, me buzzing with excitement.  I was sure the DVD I had stashed in my shirt, now transferred to my computer case while Daniel wasn’t looking, would provide all the answers I needed.  Robin had been an odd duck, and as mad and disappointed as I was in her choice of allies, if, in the end, she helped me out I was willing to forgive.  Sure, she was a murderess, but when it came right down to it, a lot of spies were.  Sanctioned murder, yes, but perhaps not justifiable.  There are always unknowns, and you always have it in the back of your head that who you think is the bad guy might not be.  I was willing to give Robin the benefit of the doubt that at the time, she was operating under the widely-held belief that Jason was a traitor.  I didn’t know her reasons for killing Robert, if it had been an order or of her own volition, but I couldn’t feel bad about that.  Not after what that weasel had said about Sandra. 

I dropped Daniel off at his car, telling him I’d meet him at the bar in a few hours.  The team was going out for a mini-celebration for having the Jason and Robert murders cleared.  Daniel hastened to ensure me that it didn’t mean they were backing off Sandra’s killing, and I assured him that I understood.  In this business, you needed to let off steam occasionally.  Even if, to outsiders, it might seem inappropriate.  I also knew there would be fond and not-so-fond stories of Robin told.  Even though she died a traitor, she’d still been one of us.  And she’d still done a lot of good work.  Not to mention the ground rules for divvying up her office supplies would have to be set.  I told you it might seem inappropriate, but it’s the way we did things.

The office was quiet and deserted, but the cleaning crew hadn’t been in yet.  I stationed myself at a terminal not too far outside of Nate’s office.  In a place this sensitive, even the cleaners had high clearance, and I had to keep in mind that they, too, were trained professionals.  Most of them were training to be field agents, and often the instructors would try to trip them up during their cleaning duties.  It was going to be a tricky job, or so I thought.  Until I saw that evening’s cleaner.

She was hot, even in the baggy cleaning crew uniform.  I couldn’t get a good look at her face, but she was curvy in all the right places and had the most luscious, er,  flowing hair.  I saw the perfect opportunity to play up the stereotypical male and get what I needed, all without her being the wiser.  Sure, she’d think I was an uncouth lout, but as that wasn’t far from the truth I could live with it.  I ducked back into the cube when she unlocked Nate’s door.  It was important she didn’t know I’d seen her before.  Surprise was the key element to my plan.

As she came out of Nate’s office and re-locked it, I picked up a hefty file and started reading it.  When I saw, out of the corner of my eye, that she had started working her way down the row of cubicles, I stood up and, still holding the file, started to walk down the aisle while reading it.  When I got to her cart I looked up, prepared to act surprised at seeing such a beautiful woman and ‘accidentally’ trip over the garbage can.  It was genius.  Except for the part where I was actually surprised and I did actually trip over the garbage can.  I ended up on my ass, looking up into a gorgeous, and utterly familiar, face.

“Jake,” she giggled, surprised.  “Fancy running in to you here!”

It was my youngest sister’s friend from elementary school.  I used to baby-sit the two of them.  My stomach heaved as I remembered the lusty thoughts that had just been running through my head.  “Patty!  I didn’t know you were training with the agency.”  I reached out to lever myself up, and my hand closed around the crumpled chip package with the bug inside.  It seemed my improbable luck in the spy business was still going strong.  I hopped up, slipping the package into my pocket in the same motion.  She never batted an eye.

“Just started a few weeks ago,” she admitted.  “I was sorry to hear about Sandra.”

“Yeah.  Hey, I’m sorry, let me help you clean that up,” I said, reaching for the toppled garbage can.

“No!” She threw out a hand to stop me.  “I mean, no thank you.  It’s my trash, and I’m responsible for it.  I can get it.”

I grinned at her.  “It wasn’t a test, but good for you.  I am sorry, though, I didn’t mean it.  I was so caught up in the file, and seeing you was a big surprise.  Last time I saw you, you weren’t so…”  I floundered for a non-offensive term.

“Tall?” she asked with a wink.

“Yes, that’s it.”  I grinned back at her.  “Well, I should leave you to it, I’m really sorry again!  Good luck with your training, let me know if I can ever help.”

“Thanks,” she said, and bent to pick up the mess I’d created.  I tried not to stare at her perfect bottom as I backed away.  I finally got myself turned around and going in the right direction, giving myself a stern talking-to.  What can I say, I’m a guy.  We appreciate a fine feminine form.

I gathered up the rest of the case file I’d left on my desk and left the building.  These were things best sorted through at home, where I could be relatively sure no one was watching me.  I couldn’t be as sure no one was listening, which is why spies are never the type to talk to themselves.  Or rather, good spies aren’t.  You can never be sure you’re the only one listening.  It was going to be a long night, going through all of the evidence.  And even if I found anything, the ability to nail Nate on anything concrete might be difficult.

I stopped by a burger joint on the way home and grabbed dinner.  It was shameful how little I’d managed to eat lately, and I could feel the lack of good food wearing me down.  And I’d even done a stint in culinary school on a job, about five years ago.  Another handy skill I liked to keep up on, when possible.  But I was too eager to get to work on the case to even spend the time to whip up a simple dish, so burger and fries it was.  Maybe when all this was done, if I came out of it in one piece, I’d look for a new career.  Spying on spies is a tough business, and those of us who do it usually have a pretty short career.  Not only is it dangerous, but the burn-out rate is extraordinarily high.  At ten years in the business, I was considered a very old-timer indeed.  Maybe I could make a switch to a regular spy.  It would be less stressful, but still with the occasional surge of adrenaline.  Though if the others would accept me, after having spent so long as our version of Internal Affairs, I did not know.  Maybe I could just concentrate on my computer business.  Boring, but I could make a decent living, and Sandra and I could settle down to a nice, normal life somewhere.

I got home and spread the papers out on the dining room table, propping the computer and the Princess Bride DVD up next to it.  I attacked the bug first.  Once I plugged it into the computer, it automatically downloaded the file.  It hadn’t been left there long enough to run out of storage space, so it undoubtedly got my fast-food order and my conversation with Patty.  I flushed at that, but at least I could edit that out before anyone else heard it.  The files had a feature where it would show any tampering, and it would show that I had cut off the end, but I’d just tell them it was hours of silence, and that would be close enough to the truth.  No one likes to sit and listen through nothing, and if I turned the entire sound file in, they would be forced to do just that.  I’d simply make a note of what I cut out, time-wise, and tell them it was just the noises of me retrieving the device and driving home.  I plugged a pair of headphones into the computer and got listening.

As I suspected, the first ten minutes were all that mattered.  You heard me crunching down the hallway, eating the bag of chips.  Then I knocked, and you heard me tell Nate what I was going to do.  There was silence for a moment, then the sound of someone moving around the room and a door closing.  The next noise could have been anything, but I’m guessing it was Nate picking up and dialing the phone, because his next conversation was one-sided.

“Hey, it’s me.  I know, I know, but it’s an emergency.  Blast that, I don’t have time for it.  I’m the boss, no one taps my phone.  Yes, I’m sorry, you’re going to have to destroy this one as… is that a toilet?  Oh, I see.  Yes, I’m sorry I had to call, but you needed to know they’re on their way.  Jake knows something.  You’ve been under…  oh, I see.  So you can’t…  That’s a shame.  I’m sorry, I can’t help you.  You’re on your own.  No, I’m not going to guarantee that, either.  If you become a liability…  Yes, that is harsh.  Yes, I am that.  Look, I just need to know where you put the… Robin?  Robin?  ROBIN?  God damn it.”

The sound of a phone being slammed down, then picked up and dialed again.  “Yes, I need to add time to a cell phone, please.  The number is 555-6794.  Pin is 5462.  Twenty dollar’s worth.  Yes, the card that is on file.  I can confirm that, yes.  1142.  Thank you!”

Hanging up and dialing again.  Grumbling.  Then the phone being slammed down again.  “Don’t tell me no longer in service!”  Then the footsteps, a door opening, and nothing else until Patty came in to empty the trash.  Interesting.  Nate had evidently run out of the office on his way to look for something, to get to Robin before she did what he knew she would.  Too bad I hadn’t been able to tail him, as well, though I don’t think he’d be able to lead us to anything.  How had Robin arranged that so well?  Was it luck, or had she timed it so that he wouldn’t have time to ask her about whatever it was that was hidden?

Now she was off the hook, she hadn’t betrayed him.  He wouldn’t go after her family, but he wouldn’t get what he wanted, either.  Clever, clever girl, I thought.  And suddenly I was very sad she was gone.  She would have made a brilliant instructor at the academy.

I clipped the audio file down to the relevant part and added a note explaining what I did.  I also tagged the date, time, and location of the recording.  Then I turned my attention to the DVD.  I opened the cover, and saw the standard disc staring up at me.  For a moment my heart sank.  But then I saw, behind the official disk, another CD had been stuffed into the case.

 

Chapter Twenty Two
And then she realized, when he was saying ‘I’ll always have you back,’ he really meant, ‘you’re on your own’.

Robin was not going to give me anything easily.  The disc did not contain a series of scanned documents or video files or anything so helpful.  She was careful, putting a lot of distance between herself and the evidence.  I might be able to link her to it if I tried, but it would be a hard sell.  It would require people to know, or believe when I explained to them, a series of inside jokes and specialized references.  And they’d have to believe I was telling them the truth, and this is where I got the information.  Which, if I were them, I wouldn’t believe.  It’s always easy to say you got something from a dead person, because no one can go back and hurt them.  You don’t lose a source.  It’s the oldest trick in the book.  Not even Nate would believe Robin had given him up, because he was too egotistical to believe that anyone would turn on him.  No, I was best off leaving Robin out of it and making them believe I’d stumbled upon whatever she had left for my strictly by chance.  And, oddly enough, given my career and sting of luck, they’d probably buy it.

First thing, though, I had to decipher the mystery Robin had left on the DVD.  It was a series of movie clips, seemingly random.  There was no commentary, no hidden data that I could find.  It seemed to be leading me somewhere.  If I wrote out the scenes in the movies and the landmarks they showed, and translated them into landmarks in our city, like substituting the taco stand we frequented for the one in the show, it formed a neat trail from the office down to the docks.  It took me a few times watching through, and I had to guess on some of the clips based on the path I’d drawn on the map, but I think I had it.  It wasn’t the most direct route, it wound through a few odd places, but it was definitely a trail of breadcrumbs.  By the time I finished, it was morning, and I hadn’t slept a wink.  My eyes were gritty from lack of sleep, but I was wired with adrenaline.  I dismissed the idea of trying to get a few hours of shut-eye, and instead decided to start following the trail before some little birdies came and ate the breadcrumbs.

I copied the audio file to a jump drive, then stashed the bug and the disk in my hidden safe next to the papers I’d hoped Sandra would never see.  Sure, it was cleverly hidden and had a near-tamper-proof lock, but I would never underestimate that girl’s abilities.  By now I was pretty sure she hadn’t been involved in her boss’s dealings with Edward Gaust, nor in his attempt to muddle the issue by involving Jason, and I was worried that wherever she was, she was planning on… not revenge, really, but clearing her name and bringing down the bad guys.  That might be why Jason had picked her, of all of her team, to try to prove his innocence.  She was by far the smartest, and the least trusting of the rat-faced George.  I’d never liked him, but of course hadn’t been able to say that to Sandra.  Because when would a graphic design artist have met an agent of his standing?  And why would I know so much about his background?  The lies still weighed heavily on me, and I made a pack that if I ever saw her again, I would tell her everything.  She’d probably guess a lot of it when we put George and whoever he was working with behind bars.  I was pretty sure Nate was pulling the strings, but I needed proof.  If I could take down Nate and George, the rest of the rotten operation would come tumbling down.  I had no idea how far the rot ran, but I could be pretty sure the rest of the underlings would roll as soon as we took out the leaders.

I tidied everything up, making sure I hadn’t left any notes that showed the real direction of my research, and headed out the door to follow Robin’s trail.  The sun had just risen and it was a beautiful day, but all I felt was cranky and sleep-deprived.  I promised my body and entire week in bed if it would just carry me through the next few days.  The pep talk, or the bribe, seemed to work, and I managed to pick up the pace and make reasonable time along the path I’d traced out on my map.

When I got to the first location, a small, quaint stone bridge in the park, I was stumped.  I walked around it a few times, searching for whatever it was that Robin would have left as a clue.  There had to be something, somewhere.  I was sure each of the locations would hold a piece of the final puzzle, and only by gathering it all up would I be able to get whatever it was she had stashed.  She was being careful, and I just had to be clever enough to decipher all the clues. 

It was on my third trip around the bridge that I saw it.  Etched into a stone low on the bridge was the crude figure of a robin.  I hopped down and, sure enough, the small stone wiggled free.  Behind it was a small slip of paper with a single word written on it.  I stashed it in my pocket, and headed for the next destination, my eyes on the lookout for small, red-breasted birds.

Robin had been very clever.  There were places I found slips of paper, other places I found that there was a store nearby with a sign that boasted a robin.  Sometimes the robin she’d drawn contained a letter or a number, and in one impressive piece of graffiti, the only think I could come up with was the number five, since it was a stylized picture of five robins.  At the end of the trip I had a pile of clues that amounted to the following choppy sentence:

“Weston Crown 4 7 Park Level 5 Blue Benz  5 1 1 2 G P S”

I was exhausted from walking and searching for robins all day, and hadn’t eaten a thing.  The Weston on 47th was a long was away, and my apartment was on the way.  As much as it pained me to rest for even a short time, I knew if I didn’t get any sleep I’d be useless.  I was on my way to catch a few winks when Daniel called me.  I almost didn’t answer the phone, but curiosity got the better of me.

“What?”  I yawned. 

“Find anything good today?” he asked cautiously.  “We haven’t heard from you in awhile.”

“Not yet, though I have some solid leads,” I told him.  “Why do you ask?”

“I was hoping you’d be in a good mood,” he said.  “And you wouldn’t get too pissed.”

“About what?”  I was too tired and hungry to muster up enough anger to sound threatening.  If anything, it came out sounding decidedly apathetic.  I shook my head and tried to temporarily wake myself up.

“We finally got the evidence to nail George,” he said.

“That’s… good news.”  I was confused.  I didn’t think I was that tired.  “There must be something else.”

“He’s gone.  Slipped the net.  We’re watching all possible escape routes, so he’s still in the city.  But he knows we have him, so he should be considered very, very dangerous.”

I was suddenly a lot more alert.  I made a quick scan of the area, and didn’t see anything suspicious.  “I understand.”  I checked my watch.  It was three in the afternoon.  If I gave myself a few hours, I might be able to recover whatever it was Robin had left for me.  But I needed a place to stash it if George was on the run.  It wouldn’t be long before he had Nate after me.  And I didn’t have time to be as clever as Robin had.  “Hey, Dan, do you fancy a game of racquetball?  You know, like back when we were at the academy?  I could blow off some steam.”

“Now?”  He sounded surprised, and I could almost hear him thinking.

“No, not now.  I need to catch some shut-eye.  What about, say, tomorrow afternoon?  I bet I can still kick your ass.”

“I doubt it.  Unless you want to invoke those absurd out-of-bounds rules again.”  He understood what I was saying.  I felt relief wash over me.

“It’s like Calvinball.  We make it up as we go along.”  I chuckled.

“You, maybe.  Okay, then, tomorrow, and I’ll show you I still have it, old man.”

“Who are you calling old man?” I retorted in mock-anger.

He chuckled and hung up the phone.  I pulled myself together and tried to shake off the lingering cobwebs of exhaustion.  A quick trip into a small coffee shop got me caffeine and sugar.  Hopefully that would be enough to keep me going as I tried to unravel the mystery Robin had left for me.  I could only hope the next step ended in something easy, unmistakable, and dead simple.  Like a giant red X.

 

Chapter Twenty Three
Sure, I could play that role, as long as they changed the name of the movie to “Gone in 600 seconds”. 

I decided on public transport to get across town to the Weston.  Mostly because, as short as the ride would be, I could catch a few moments of sleep.  And a good spy always took advantage of any sleep they could get.  You never knew when your next opportunity would come.  I set my watch alarm for twenty minutes, and settled down in the subway seat to catch a few minutes of rest.  I wouldn’t be a good sleep, but it was something.  And I would need my wits about me in order to play Robin’s game.

Even asleep, I tried to stay alert, as idiotic as that sounds.  I knew George was out there, and he’d be looking for me.  At my best, he’d be no match for me, but I was no where near my best.  I slept fitfully, my mind still trying to make sense of everything that had happened, trying to fit everything together.  But there were still too many pieces missing.  I could only hope Robin was leading me to a place with all the answers, and not a trap.

It had occurred to me that, as her final act, instead of redeeming herself, Robin would set a trap for me.  There wasn’t any reason for it, other than my natural paranoia, but I resolved to stay on guard and not do my usual, stupid, rushing into things.  And that’s why, after getting off the subway and walking the few blocks to the Weston’s garage, I scouted the area thoroughly before going up to the blue Mercedes on the fifth level.  I looked over the car carefully, checking under it with a small flashlight, looking for any wires that seemed out of place, any explosives, any transmitting devices.  I ran my bug scanner over it and came up with nothing.  As far as I could tell, the car was clean.  That didn’t mean the door wasn’t packed with C4 and the moment I opened it I’d be shrapnel.  But it was a risk I was going to have to take.

After a deep breath, I punched the four-digit code into the door and the locks clicked open.  Nothing else happened.  I grabbed the door handle and yanked the door open.  I was still there, still in one piece.  I lowered myself into the car and looked for the GPS unit.  It was tucked into the compartment between the seats, and it was fully charged.  The little line that appeared on the screen showed the car’s last trip, starting in a section of town I wasn’t very familiar with and ending at this parking garage.

Unfortunately, Robin’s generosity did not extend to leaving the keys anywhere in the car.  And Mercedes were notoriously hard to hot-wire.  I suppose I could take solace in the fact that she must have had faith in my skills, but it was a hollow victory.  Ten minutes, a lot of swearing, and one shock later I finally got the car running.  Only to find that it was nearly out of gas.

Calling Robin every vile name I could think of, then feeling guilty because she was dead, I headed to the nearest gas station and put ten buck’s worth of gas in the car.  I kept the baseball hat pulled down low and used one of the agency’s dummy credit cards, hoping that if anyone every looked into the security tapes they wouldn’t be able to tell it was me.  I wouldn’t pass for Robin, but I might be mistaken for Mike.

I followed the GPS’s commands on a return route, and found myself entering the outskirts of town.  Not a lot of people out and about, the construction sites having closed for the day.  The GPS led me to a particular site surrounded by a chain-link fence and razor wire.  It had obviously been shut down for quite some time, and as I read the placards posted on the fence it jogged my memory.  Something about a corrupt land-development agent, some shady deals, and bad permits.  The city had come in and shut the site down a few weeks ago.  I almost laughed as I remembered one of the restaurants that was going into this particular strip mall.  Red Robin.  She’d kept it going to the very end.

I searched my fuzzy memory banks for the plan I’d once seen of the development, showing the proposed shop locations.  If I recalled correctly, and I wasn’t sure I did, the Red Robin was slated to anchor one end of the strip mall.  The North end.  I slipped through an opening in the fence and walked across the uneven ground to the place I thought the restaurant should go.  Litter covered the ground, and I scrutinized each piece until I found what I was looking for.  Half buried in the dirt, and anchored securely with a large rock, was a Red Robin menu.  I looked around for a shovel, but the construction site had long been stripped of anything useful.  I swore again and made my way back over to the car.  I’d left it idling, not wanting to have to deal with getting it started again, and I was gratified to find it still there.  Luckily the local hoodlums had moved on after they’d picked this particular construction site clean of anything valuable.

I reached in and popped the trunk, not hoping for much, but maybe, just maybe, Robin had been kind.  And in this once instance, she had.  There was a shovel, still dusty from use, laying in the trunk.  I thanked her and trudged back to the menu to start digging.  I didn’t know how far down I’d have to go, but I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be too close to the surface.  She wouldn’t have risked anyone accidentally stumbling on it.

By the time I’d made a hole a good seven feet in diameter and four feet deep, I was ready to give up.  I’d run out off unkind things to call Robin, and marveled at her strength and endurance.  Of course, she probably hadn’t been doing it while sleep deprived and starving, I reassured myself.  And maybe the hole had already been here, and she’d simply filled it in.  Or maybe she’d been more of a man than I was.  I didn’t care at this point, I just wanted to find whatever it was she’d buried.  Then the thought occurred to me.  I didn’t know what it was she’d buried.  I didn’t know how big it was.  I scrambled up and out of the hole, scraping up my arms on the various sharp, pointy rocks.  I gritted my teeth and ignored the pain, searching for the glint of metal I’d seen early in my digging.  I hadn’t thought anything of it, believing I was digging for a large box or file.

I sifted through the dirt pile, and a few minutes later, I found it.  “Son of a bitch!” I swore out loud.  It was a locker key, on I recognized as being from the airport.  It had been a foot or so directly under the menu, a mere one or two shovels full of dirt.  I slumped against the pile of dirt, angry at myself and bone-weary.  At least, I thought wryly, I’d gotten in a good workout.  You just had to look at the bright side and laugh at yourself sometimes, or you’d go mad.

I took the key and went back to the car, heading out to the airport.  It was a short drive, but I had to park in one of the outlying lots and that meant turning the car off.  I sighed as I realized it meant another laborious task of re-starting the car, this time in a busy parking lot.  Even at night, the airport was a hive of activity, and I couldn’t count on being unobserved for very long.

I took a shuttle into the terminal, getting a lot of not-so-subtle glares because of the dirt I was shedding everywhere.  I probably didn’t smell as fresh as a morning daisy, either, but I ignored the looks and tried to act casual.  It was easier to ignore the stares of the other passengers, but the looks of the security guards were more troubling.  I looked suspicious, and they had every right to question me. I just did not have the time for it, and if they decided to pull me in I might not make it in time to gather all the evidence and bring down Nate before he took a page from George’s book and fled.  I snuck a quick look at the arrivals board and saw a delayed flight.  I breezed past the board and up to the nearest security officer.

“Excuse me, is there any way to know when the flight from Atlanta is going to be in?  The board says delayed.  My wife sent me here in hysterics, telling me I was late picking up her sister.”  I gestured to my clothing.  “Didn’t even give me time to change from my work clothes.  If there’s enough time, I’m going to head home.”

The man relaxed at my explanation.  I certainly looked like a construction worker.  He inquired about the status of the flight using his walkie-talkie, and grimaced as he relayed the information to me.  “Sorry, buddy, it’s due in about fifteen minutes.”

“Okay, then, any place I can wash up a bit and get a bite to eat?”  I settled my face into a hang-dog expression.  My stomach decided to help me out and chimed in with a loud rumble.

He gave me a sympathetic look and gestured me towards the far end of the concourse, where there were several restrooms, restaurants, and the lockers.  With any luck, I could get into the locker and retrieve what was in it before the flight came in, and slip away unnoticed.  For now, I was explained away as the harried, hard-working husband sent to pick up his wife’s sister.

Chapter Twenty Four
I always hated jigsaw puzzles.  Probably stems from when I was younger and my older brother would swap out half of the pieces with a different puzzle, leaving me completely frustrated.

I approached the lockers, telling myself I would dig up Robin and kill her again if this wasn’t the end of this wild goose chase.  She’d led me through enough to reasonably distance herself from the evidence.  I stuck the key in the locker and opened the door, braced for anything from an explosion to an empty locker.  I didn’t realize I had closed my eyes and braced myself for a blast until a moment later, when nothing happened and everything was black.  I cracked an eye open, steeling myself for disappointment.  But I was rewarded by the sight of a large metal box.  It was unlocked, and when I flipped it open I saw that it contained a mixture of jump drives, pictures, and paper documents.  I sighed in relief, closed the box, and high-tailed it out of the airport.  Getting the car started was easier a second time, but I was tired and nervous and my hands were fumbling.  People who saw me walking up to an expensive Mercedes, covered in dirt and carrying a suspicious looking box, gave me curious looks.  But in today’s society, everyone minds their own business, and these people were in too much of a hurry to bother with me so long as I didn’t seem an immediate threat to them.  For once I was happy for the apathy and anonymity of a big city, and as the car roared to life and I left the parking lot, I wondered if I would be happy in a small town.
 
I put thoughts of the future out of my head and tried to concentrate on the case.  Now that I had all the pieces, all that remained was assembling them into a semblance of a case against Nate.  As long as I took him down, everything else would work itself out.  I could retire, and others could take over the internal investigations.  My mind wandered back to thinking about my future.  I was bone-weary of this job and ready to hang it up.  I was sure they’d offer me a nice cushy office job somewhere up the chain, or maybe a teaching position, but I wanted out.  Even if Sandra wouldn’t take me back, I would set up shop somewhere and run a little computer business and be happy.  Maybe not a small town, but not a big city, either.  Someplace nice.  No more lies, not more paranoia.  Right after I solved this last case and hung that bastard Nate out to dry.

I drove back to the apartment, my arms and back screaming in agony.  I desperately wanted a decent night’s sleep, but I didn’t have time.  A hot shower and a pot of coffee would have to suffice.  I parked the car a few blocks from the apartment, wiped down everything I’d touched, and left it unlocked.  I probably left a few hairs behind, but there wasn’t anything I could do about that now.  I was too tired and in too much of a hurry.  I could always claim I’d once been in the car with Robin, if it came down to that.  Hopefully it never would, and some crack head would steal the car and take it to a chop shop, or wreck it.  If my luck would just hold a few more days.

I hopped into the shower and let the hot water sooth my aching muscles.  The soap burned all the scrapes on my arms and hands, but it felt wonderful to be clean once again.  After I finished washing, I turned the knob to cold and gritted my teeth as the icy water washed over me.  It was cruel, but it had the effect I wanted.  I felt marginally more awake as I stepped out and toweled myself off.

I reached under the sink to pull out my first aid kit, and was frozen by what I saw.  Things weren’t exactly as I had left them.  I reached into my pile of dirty clothes and grabbed my gun.  Wearing nothing but a towel, I made a quick circuit around the apartment, but nothing else seemed out of place.  Maybe I was too tired.  Because who would break into a person’s apartment just to riffle through their first aid kit?  Just to be on the safe side, though, I decided to forgo the ointment and band aids, just in case they had been tampered with.  There are plenty of drugs that are transferred through the skin, and the scrapes weren’t that serious.  Still, it left me wondering, and that thought stayed on the edges of my brain as I went though assembling the case against Nate.

I brewed a pot of extra-strong coffee and poured myself a cup, then grabbed a box of snack cakes from the cupboard.  I crammed two of them in my mouth and had already refilled my coffee cup once before I’d gotten the table set up with my computer, the files from my safe, and the box I’d dug up at the construction site.  I started on the last of these first, since I needed the most awake brain to deal with the newest information, and I didn’t think I had much time left before I crashed.

The box contained dozens of snapshots, all of which I carefully scanned in, labeled, and tagged.  I put them in a folder and sealed it, signing my name across the seal and adding the time, date, and case information.  The one thing they never tell you in all the spy movies and TV shows is the sheer amount of paperwork involved.  It gets tiring, but I was going to be sure to dot every T and cross every I this time.  Or whatever.  I poured myself another cup of coffee and snarfed another snack cake.  The caffeine and sugar would have to be enough to keep me going.

Next I tackled the jump drives, which contained audio recordings of a lot conversations the participants can’t have wanted saved for posterity.  I recognized Robin’s voice, as well as Nate’s and George’s, and there were two men I didn’t recognize.  They were careful to never use names, but from the conversations, I gathered that one of the men was Edward Gaust.  And it sounded like the other was someone who worked closely with him.  I painstakingly transcribed the conversations, cursing my lack of typing skills.  It took a few hours, but at the end I printed those out, added tags, labels, and my signature, and sealed them in an envelope with the original jump drives.

I fixed another pot of coffee and drank half of it before I tackled the last part of the box, the documents.  They were a mix of financial records, bills of sale, and a few memos.  I arranged them on the table carefully, and was able to follow a very thin trail of money from Gaust’s sham businesses all the way to Nate’s pocket.  It was flimsy in and of itself, but combined with the audio, the pictures, and the info I had gathered on George it was enough for the agency to condemn him.  He may not ever be tried in a civilian court, but he’d be punished.  And that would be enough for me.

I fell asleep with my head pillowed in my arms, drooling on the table.  My dreams were strange and troubled, with quirky undertones.  I was on a construction site, being chased by Nate and George.  Except everything, including us, was made of Lego blocks.  And there was a pygmy hedgehog.  But I didn’t know what he was doing there.  Then I was on a boat, but the whole ocean was full of bubble bath bubbles.  It was actually rather relaxing, and I settled in to enjoy the ride.  The ocean grew rough, and I started to get sea sick.  I woke myself up heaving and panting, and I narrowly avoided throwing up all over the evidence.  I forced my stomach to settle down and took deep breaths.  I still felt unsteady, and my head swam from too much coffee, too much sugar, and not enough sleep.  I looked at my watch and swore.  Though I’d only been asleep a little over an hour, I had to get moving if I was going to get the evidence in a safe place in time.  And then I still needed to lead Nate and his boys on a merry chase in order to give Daniel the time to do what he needed to.

I dragged myself upright, and instead of another cup of coffee I drank a large glass of water.  Then I took a minute to fix myself a sandwich, though I didn’t have anything in the apartment other than peanut butter.  I fixed myself a fluffer nutter on slightly old, crusty bread.   It sat heavily in my stomach, but at least it wasn’t rumbling anymore.  I drank another glass of water and sat back down at the table to write up my report.

I strung together all of the evidence in a continuous narrative, adding my own personal observations and the evidence we’d gathered as a team.  It was a long report, but comprehensive.  It was more than enough for a formal criminal investigation, though not yet enough for a conviction.  I had no doubt, though, if given free rein, we could dig up more information.  And if we could work with the police, I had no doubt we could both get what we wanted – Nate behind bars and Gaust’s empire dismantled.

I finished the report, printed it out, and added it to the pile of evidence.  All of it when into the metal box, and I tucked it under my arm and went to hide it in a place that hopefully only I and Daniel would think to look.

Chapter Twenty Five
I don’t care what Daniel said, that rock was definitely out of bounds.

One more trip back to the airport, this time clean and pressed, and in my own car.  It was busier in the early morning hours, and I doubted, if there were the same security guys on duty, they would have recognized me.  Still it was a slight chance, but one I had to take.  It seemed the most logical place to hide the box.  Robin had that right.  Open at all hours, easily accessible, and now all I had to do was hide a key.  I slipped the box into a locker just a few down from the one Robin had used, put two quarters in the slot, locked it, and took the key. I was constantly on the lookout for George, or someone Nate might have sent to tail me, and saw no one.  Either my skills were slipping, I was too tired, or they were that inept.  I preferred to believe it was the last of those, though I also feared it was something else.  They were up to something I knew nothing about, or perhaps they were on to Daniel.

My next stop was the old alley where Daniel and I used to play racquetball.  It was a block off the agency’s campus, and because it was in a commercial part of town, we could sneak down there at night and play for hours.  That was during that time when the agency thought we could do with a little discipline, and had imposed a curfew.  Oh, the days of youth and high jinks.  I smiled at the memory.  It was good to have someone you know would cover your back, no matter what.  And despite all the subterfuge and backstabbing going on, I was sure I could count on Daniel.  I was, in fact, betting my life on it.

At the end of the alley was the wall we used to hit balls off of.  We never could agree what the marked the back of the court.  I suppose we could have brought down a tape measure, and measured out an official court, but that would have taken all the fun out of the bickering.  And sometimes I think that’s what kept us going through most of those years.

I had a moment of panic when I thought the large rock that marked my idea of out of bounds had moved, but it was still there, just a little more to the side.  It was placed there originally to keep the dumpsters from rolling, but over the years the dumpsters had moved further and further down the alley.  The rock had been shoved up against the wall, but it was still recognizable as the same rock we had fought about all those years ago.  I slipped the key under it, and slid back into the shadows to watch.  If anyone had followed me, I might see them try to make a move.  Tiredness pressed down on me, but I kept watch for a solid hour.  Nothing.  No suspicious noises, no one walking by the alley.  If someone had followed me, they were good, and far more patient than I was.  If they stole the documentation, the only thing I had was the copies I’d scanned and uploaded to my server, and they wouldn’t stand up nearly as well as evidence.  Hopefully I was right, and for whatever reason, they hadn’t followed me.

Which actually presented a bit of a problem.  Now that they evidence was safely delivered, I had hoped to occupy Nate and George’s time, to give Daniel a chance to do the work he needed to.  He should be by that afternoon to pick it up, and since I’d laid all the evidence out it wouldn’t take him long to convince the higher-ups that action needed to be taken, and quickly.  But keeping Nate busy was going to be difficult if I couldn’t find him.  I yawned, stretched, and decided to head for the one place I was sure Nate wouldn’t be – the office.

Turns out I was dead wrong on that account.  Nate was ensconced behind his desk, barking orders and generally driving everyone mad.  I nearly smiled with relief.  The secretary told me Daniel had called in, something about a sick relative.  In true, reckless character, I popped my head in to see if Nate needed me for anything.

“Where the hell have you been?”  He looked at me with beady, suspicious eyes.  “You look like hell.”

“Sorry, boss, I was out on a security job.  It kinda fell into my lap, and I didn’t think it’d take that long.  I’ll put in for some vacation time.”  I tried to suppress a yawn, but failed.

“Seems like you might need to put in for another day for today.  You’re useless to me in that condition,” he said.  Oddly enough, he looked happy about it.  But if I went home, they’d know right where to find me.  I needed to figure out a way to get them chasing their tails.

“Well, if you think so, I did meet a very charming young lady last evening…” I let the sentence hang in the air, and tried for a wolfish grin.

He grunted, and waved a hand at me.  “I shouldn’t let you go, not with Daniel out.  And not if you’re not going to get some sleep.  I don’t know how you young people do it.”

Neither did I.  I couldn’t even imagine a romantic encounter right now.  I’m pretty sure my body would laugh at me if I even suggested it.  But there was no reason to let him know that.  “Thanks a million, boss.  I’ll see you bright and early tomorrow, then.”

He didn’t say anything, and I wandered back out to my car.  This time I was aware of Mike shadowing me down the hallway and coincidentally getting into his car at the same time.  Subtle as a brick to the head, Mike.  That was okay with me, and I led him on a merry chase down to the heart of the city.  I parked my car under a large apartment building and got in the elevator.  I could almost imagine what was going on in Mike’s head then, wondering if he should watch the elevator and try to determine what floor I got out on, or take the stairs and try to catch me getting out of the elevator, or maybe just sit on my car.  He probably called Nate to try to figure out what to do.  Any of those three options were fine with me.  I rode the car up to the twelfth floor, then back down to the lobby, and walked out into the street.  I hopped the nearest subway and was asleep as soon as the car started moving.

When I woke up, I wasn’t sure how many times I’d ridden the circuit, but I was alone in the car.  I cursed myself for my stupidity.  My watch told me it was early evening, and my body told me I hadn’t gotten nearly enough sleep.  I wanted to call Daniel to make sure he’d retrieved the package, but I stopped myself.  I trusted him to do it, and any contact could tip off Nate.  I briefly wondered if Mike was still back at the apartment complex.  I wondered if it was safe to go home.  I really wanted to go home, take a shower, and crawl into bed.

The desire for comfort won out over my sanity, and I got off the subway and trudged the few blocks to my apartment building, stopping at a small local grocery store along the way.  I was going to eat before I fell into bed, and it wasn’t going to be horrid fast food.  My mouth watered at the thought of the juicy steak and a mound of mashed potatoes.  It would be worth putting off going to bed for that.  And at least I’d fall asleep with a full stomach.

I got back to the apartment and started marinating the steak.  I stuck it in the fridge while I took a shower, mindful of the fact that there was every possibility I would fall asleep in there.  The brief, unsatisfactory naps I’d been taking made me feel even more run down, and the buzz from the caffeine and sugar had completely worn off.  I took my gun and clean clothes into the bathroom with me, conscious of the fact that I wasn’t even safe in my own place.  I locked the bathroom door and stood under the hot steam of the shower until the water started to run cold.  My mind had started to drift, in that weird state halfway between sleep and wakefulness, and my brain registered something that I’d seen that hadn’t quite looked right.  It wasn’t something as out of place as the first aid kit, but something…

Suddenly my eyes popped open.  What kind of person would break in to someone’s house and only disturb a first aid kit?  Someone who was hurt.  Someone who had needed a bit of fresh blood to sell their own death, and had to cut themselves to get it.  Someone who then had to suture up the wound.  And someone who might just be interested in something in my top dresser drawer.

 

Chapter Twenty Six
I love ewe, too.

I jumped out of the shower and scrambled to get into my clothes.  Was it my imagination, or had there been something off about the velvet pouch in my top drawer?  I was only a few steps away from the bedroom door when my phone rang.  I’d left it sitting on the dining room table, and, cursing, I backtracked and grabbed it.

The caller ID said it was from an unknown number.  I hesitated, then answered.  “This is Jake.”

“Jake, I just wanted to update you on the status of the project,” a familiar voice said.  It was Daniel, wisely calling from a phone other than his personal cell or home. 

“Go ahead,” I said.  I started back towards the bedroom, though not with as much urgency as before.

“Pickup went fine, the delivery is in progress.  I think it’s a good… product.  You shouldn’t have any problems.”  There was a deep rumble in the background.  It sounded like he was calling from a pay phone near the highway.

“No problems with anyone trying to get their hands on it?”  I was aware that my phone could be monitored, so I added, “It’s something I’ve worked a long time on, you know, and it’s proprietary software.”

He understood, and played along.  “None that I could see, and I kept my eyes open.  I’ll try you back in a few hours.  Oh, and Jake?  I think the sale would go through even better if you wore your old college watch.  The head investor is an alumni.”

“Will do, thanks,” I said, and hung up the phone.  So that’s what Daniel had planted my tracking device in, I thought.  No one trusted anyone these days.  I tried to dredge up some anger, but it would have been hypocritical.  He had the same motivation for tagging me as I had for tagging Sandra.  And right now I was very glad.  As long as it was still in working order, if Nate and his boys did kill me and dump my body, at least Daniel’d be able to find it to prosecute them and give me a decent burial.  Not a charming thought, but in my line of work you take what comfort you can.

The only question was, where had I put that watch?  Last I saw it was in the living room, where I’d taken it off after Sandra gave me the watch I wore now.  I think it was her way of trying to nudge me into growing up, giving up the college gear.  And the watch she picked out was a lot nicer, so I couldn’t complain.  I pulled it off and started digging around the house, looking for it.  Too bad the tracking devices weren’t pinpoint accurate, or I would’ve asked Daniel for the frequency and I’d have been able to find it quickly.  As it was, I tore apart half the living room before I found it, wedged down between the cushions in the recliner.  It looked a little battered, but it was still ticking.  And it even had the right time.  I strapped it on and went back into the bedroom.

I reached into the drawer and touched the velvet bag, again struck by the feeling that something was a little off.  I picked the bag up, and knew something was wrong.  The bag was alarmingly light, and when I reached into it I pulled out not a necklace, but a little slip of paper.  I unfolded it and read the three words written there:  “Naked Came Ewe”.  I smiled at the play on the book by Bloom County’s Opus, and realized it was what she’d planned on naming that yarn store she always wanted to buy, but never thought she would.  At least I had an easy way to find her when this was all over, and the reassurance that she wanted to be found.  I was still smiling, distracted by my fantasy of a cozy, happy life, when my brain finally registered the fact that there were two people standing behind me.  I closed my hand over the little slip of paper.  I had to make sure they never saw it.  At least I could protect Sandra.

“Hey guys, what the hell are you doing?”  I tried to grin jauntily, but it felt forced.  I was armed, but so were they.  And there were two of them, and just one of me.  Sometimes the best thing to do is back down and hope you live to fight another day.

“Jake, Jake, Jake,” George clucked.  He was trying to be sinister and mob-like, but it looked and sounded weird coming out of a little weasel like him.  Like the scrawny little kid playing tough.  “Why couldn’t you just stay out of our business?  Everything was going so well until you started meddling.”

“Because that’s my job?”  I could never resist being the smart ass, even as I swore at myself.  They must have come in while I was in the shower.  Why didn’t I make a circuit of the apartment when I got out?  Would it have done any good, anyway?  There still would have been two of them and only one of me.

“Hands up, wise ass.  If you hadn’t noticed, or couldn’t handle the complex math, there are two of us and only one of you.”  He smirked at me, and it took all I had not to punch him square in the middle of that ferrety little face.  He’d always irritated me.  But to do so would probably gain my nothing but additional, completely unnecessary, and indeed detrimental, holes in my body.  So I resisted the urge.

“Mike, take his gun.  Jake, no sudden moves, or you’ll be full of holes, you understand?”  It was like the guy could read my mind.  I put my hands up, hiding the slip of paper between my fingers.  Mike relieved me of my gun.

“Now, then, that we can talk like civilized gentlemen,” George said.  “Why don’t you tell me where it is?”

“I didn’t realize civilized gentlemen were in the habit of speaking to people while waving guns at them,” I said.  “And tell you where what is?  I’m afraid Mike never had a brain, so it’s not as if I’ve hidden it.”

That comment got me a smack upside the head from Mike.  It wouldn’t have been so bad, but he used the butt of the gun.  I felt a dull headache begin.

“Just tell us where it is, and we can all get out of this happy and in one piece,” George said.  He tried to sound gentle and cajoling, but it reminded me of a used car salesman trying to unload a lemon.  He was lying, and he knew I knew it.

“You’re a lying sack of shit, you know that?  Even if I did know what you wanted, or where to find it, I wouldn’t tell you.”  Keep the lie going, I thought.  It was my best, and only, defense right now.  “Besides, you didn’t say the magic word.”

“Give it to me now,” George said, stuffing the gun in my face.  It was a stupid move.  If there were just the two of us, I could probably wrestle the gun away from him and get the upper hand.  But Mike was there, keeping guard, well out of arm’s reach.  Maybe I had misjudged who was the brains of the operation.

“Or… you’ll shoot me sooner?  It won’t really help you recover what it is you want.  Especially if I do know, and am the only one who does.”  I winced as I saw him grin.  “Unless this is something you never want found, in which case, I would have been stupid not to leave it someplace with explicit ‘open if you don’t hear from me’ instructions, right?  Presumably, if I do have this thing you want, and I know what it is, I’d be smart enough to know which course of action would be best to ensure my survival, right?  Unless you think I’m a complete moron.”  I held up my hand.  “No, no, don’t answer that.  I’ll just say that, if I knew what you were talking about,” I put a lot of emphasis on the word ‘if’.  “If I knew what you were talking about, I can guarantee you I’d know what I should have done with it, you know?”

George and Mike exchanged a look.  They were clearly out of their depth here.  I’d been wrong.  Neither of them had half the brains to run even this little part of the operation.  I sighed.  I never thought I’d even be suggesting that anyone kidnap me, but here it went.  It would buy Daniel time, because sooner or later they’d get around to asking about him, and he’d find me in time.  I hoped.

“Guys, guys, you clearly are at a loss for what to do here.  Would you like to know what I would do?”

“Yeah,” Mike said, before George could stop him. 

George tried to recover.  “Not particularly, but I’m guessing you’re going to tell us anyway?”

“Yes, well, I would take me to your base of operations, to better be able to work me over and get the information you need.  Think about it, it’s probably safe and secluded, and you have all the things you need there.  If you do anything here my neighbors will hear.  They’re notoriously picky about noise, you know.  Call the cops at the drop of a hat.  I can barely watch my TV without one of them banking on the wall for me to turn it down.”  This was a bald-faced lie, as I had no neighbors at the moment, but they didn’t know that.

“Funny, that’s just what we were going to do.  Great minds think alike, eh, Jake?”  George grinned at me.  I gave him a lopsided grin back. 

In truth, that was the last thing I would do.  It was classic stupid criminal, taking your enemy back to your base.  But if it made evidence gathering – and therefore prosecution – easier, I was all for being kidnapped.

George nodded and Mike prodded me in the back towards the door.  I went along docilely.  Once we were outside, I let the little piece of paper slip from my hand, and it fluttered away in the breeze.  At least that was one secret that was safe.  They wouldn’t even think to ask me about it, either.  Despite my dire predicament, and perhaps because I was running on next to no food and even less sleep, I felt damn near giddy.  I didn’t protest as they shoved me in the car and drove me god knows where.

Chapter Twenty Seven
Cake, or Death? And by the way, we’re out of cake.

Mike had the brawn and lack of queasiness you need to torture someone, but he lacked the imagination.  George was such a pathetic little runt he couldn’t even give the order to have someone properly tortured.  And Nate was too caught up in accountable deniability that he didn’t want to get involved.  What it resulted in, then, was a lot of shouted questions and a few punches to the face.  Which weren’t comfortable, but they also weren’t anything I couldn’t handle.  I’d gotten far worse working undercover in some rough-and-tumble bars.  But I tried to look cowed and scared, all while blubbering that I didn’t have whatever it was they were looking for.

Which was true.  By now, all the proof should be in the hands of whoever would be able to bring Nate and his cronies down.  Hopefully whoever that was was acting on it right this minute, getting all the paperwork in order and assembling a tactical team to secure my release.  And hopefully we were someplace that Daniel could get a signal and find me.  And then he would show up with the calvary, and the good guys would triumph and we would ride off into the sunset.  Or, rather, sunrise, by this time.  I’d lost track of how long I’d been here.  I had managed to catch some sleep between the bouts of questions, and I was actually feeling a little better.  Which I’m pretty sure is not the objective to a session of torture.

“Look, I know you tracked down that damnable evidence.  I don’t know how you did, but if you don’t tell me where you’ve hidden it, you won’t be the only one to pay,” George growled as menacingly as he could manage.

“Yeah, that’s right,” Mike chimed in, sounding about six years old.  I tried not to laugh.  For one, I’m pretty sure it just wasn’t what you did while being tortured, especially when you were trying to convince them that you were being tortured.  No reason to make them think they had to ramp it up a notch.  For another, grinning would split my lip open again, and that really did hurt.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.  “You have access to all of my notes, the file, everything.  It’s all in the office, in the computer database.  That’s everything I know!”  My protests almost sounded sincere.

“I know you’ve been up to more than that.  You’ve hardly been in the office, and you haven’t filed a report in ages,” George said.

“Did it occur to you.”  I stopped and took a deep breath, and I didn’t have to fake the pain in my voice as I pulled a muscle in my back.  I cursed Robin again for the shoveling.  “Did it ever occur to you that I’m a little upset about the death of my ex-girlfriend?  I still had feelings for her, you know.  Maybe I just needed some time to myself.”

George considered that.  It was clear that have never crossed his mind, and I wasn’t surprised.  I would have been surprised if someone told me George had a shred of humanity and had every shown a genuine human emotion.  “Is that all it was?”

“Yes, that’s all it was.  Ask Nate if you don’t believe me. I did some free lance computer work.  I was thinking of retiring and making that my career.”  I wished my arms weren’t tied behind my back.  Not because I had any grandiose dreams of jumping up and beating them both to a pulp before they could shoot me, as pleasant as that thought was, but because I desperately wanted to know what time it was.  How long was it going to take Daniel to get everything together and come after me?  Eventually Nate would grow tired of his underling’s pathetic attempts to get information from me, and then the torture would begin in earnest.  Either at Nate’s hands, or by someone else he hired for the job.

They huddled together and talked it over.  My guess is their consensus was that they had no idea, and they needed to call Nate.  This didn’t make any of us happy.  George and Mike were unhappy because it meant they had failed, and they knew they would pay for it.  Nate would be unhappy that they had failed and dragged him into it.  And I was unhappy because I knew my life was about to get a whole lot worse.

George wandered further away to make the call, and I couldn’t hear what he said.  But it was obvious from his hand gestures that things were not going well.  I thought about taunting Mike a little, but resisted the urge.  No need to inflict more pain on myself before it was necessary.  George gestured for Mike to join him, and they left the room.  I tried pulling at the ropes that held me in place, but it was no use.  Mike was an idiot, but he must also have been a boy scout.  I could try to hop the chair across the room, but it would make a lot of noise and ultimately I still wouldn’t be able to get the heavy steel door open.  So I did the only thing I could think of.  I fell asleep.

I was woken by the sounds of arguing, loud and vicious enough to be heard through the heavy door.  I hadn’t been asleep long, which meant Nate had been close.  Which meant Daniel might also be close.  I held on to that hope as the door opened, and George, Nate, and Mike walked in.  There was a moment of relief that no one else, say, a massive thuggish killer-for-hire, had joined them, but that was quickly quashed by the look on Nate’s face.

“Where is it?” he asked.

“Where is what?”  I feigned innocence.  Really, he could have been talking about anything.  I did not know, for instance, where that sock I lost in the laundry last week had gotten off to.

“The records.  The proof.  It was supposed to be in Edward’s office, but someone stole it.  And I think that someone is you.”  Nate loomed over me, his face turning red.

“Edward?  Edward Gaust?  The one Jason was supposedly in cahoots with?  No one ever said they knew of proof of that relationship.”  Misdirection, that was the key.  And it threw Nate for a moment.  He didn’t know whether to believe me.  I tried another tack.  “You think I stole it, tried to cover it up?  You think I’m a traitor?”

Oh, now I saw confusion in his face.  I’d given him an out, if he believed me.  He could say it was all about mistrusting me, and if I was telling the truth, and that paperwork never surfaced, I’d be the one tossed out of the service. 

“Did you?” he asked.

“No.  If I’d known such paperwork existed, we’d have been down there in a flash, and this case would be closed.”  Again, an element of the truth.

“You would say that, though, even if you’d taken it, wouldn’t you?  Anything to save your skin.”  Check and mate.  He’d turned it around on me.  He still had a perfect excuse to beat the crap out of me, and if he killed me, no one would be the wiser.  At least no one as far as he knew.  I wasn’t about to clue him in on the fact that if anything happened to me, Daniel would connect the dots and he’d be up for murder.

“You do have a point there,” I admitted.  “But it’s also what I’d say if I were telling the truth.”

We stared each other down for a little while.  He had the upper hand in the immediate situation, and he knew it.  The only was I was going to get out of it was by talking my way out of it, or if Daniel came in and saved the day.  So pretty much Daniel was my only hope.

“Look, we can stare at each other all day long, but I’m tired and hungry.  Make up your mind what you’re going to do and get on with it, okay?”  It sounded pretty brave to my ears, if a bit stupid.

“Where did you go when you left the office?” he asked abruptly.

“What?”  I was completely caught off guard.

“You said you were going to meet a woman.”

“Ah, yes, so I did.  She wasn’t home, so I went back to my place.  Where your fine lads caught up with me.”

“And yet you left your car there.  Why would you have done that?”

Dammit, he had me there.  I’d acted like a man being followed because I’d known I was a man being followed.  I’d been cocky and stupid, and instead of keeping them busy I’d felt the need to slip their surveillance and somehow ‘win’ the game.  Instead, I should have acted completely oblivious.  Hindsight, what can you say?

“It… broke down?” I offered.

“Try again.”

“I felt like walking?” I asked.

“Fifteen miles?  I don’t think so.  Would you like to try again?”  He looked amused.

“I was suddenly stuck by the immediate need to become Amish, and it required me to eschew all motorized transportation.  So I procured a horse and buggy and drove it home.”  Like I said, Daniel really was my only hope.

“Creative, but not very plausible,” he said.  “But a very nice try.”

“Thanks, I thought so.  I’m not much of one for thinking on my feet, you know.”  No reason to hide it now.  Brazen and stupid to the end.

“Mike, it’s time to put an end to this,” Nate called out.

“Oh, so you’re too much of a coward to do anything yourself,” I sneered.  Probably not my best move.

“You think you’re such a wise guy, eh?” Nate shouted at me.  “If you’re no good to us alive, then…”

He pulled out his gun and pointed it at me.  It seems he was finally ready to get his hands dirty, after all.

Chapter Twenty Eight
They may not have come in on horses, but they were still a calvary to me.

Daniel burst into the room, oblivious to the guns that swung in his direction.  It took me a moment to register why he was so unconcerned, but when I saw the ring of swat team members filing in after him, I understood.  Nate, George, and Mike were outnumbered.  That didn’t mean they wouldn’t do anything stupid, or that Daniel was safe, but then, spies rarely worried about how safe something was before dashing in.  At least he’d brought back-up, and that made him a lot smarter than I was.

“You okay?” he shouted at me.

Well, other than being tired to a chair, dehydrated, sleep deprived, starved, and with a lump growing on my head the size of Cincinnati, yeah, I was great.  But I didn’t even have the energy to be a smart ass, and all I could manage was a little head wiggle.

“I’m going to go with that meant ‘as well as could be expected, under the circumstances’,” he said.  I gave another head wiggle.  “Don’t worry, old man, I’ll get to you as soon as I can.”  He grinned at me, and turned to address Nate, who was still somewhat between the two of us, if off to one side.

Nate still had his gun pointed at me, and Mike and George kept their guns trained on Daniel.  It was a very tense stalemate, and I knew better than to speak up.  Daniel was a much better negotiator than I was, and we could all see where my fast talking had landed me.  On the wrong end of the gun barrel.

“Nate, you might as well give yourself up.  We have all the proof we need.  Proof of your dealing with Edward Gaust and his crime syndicate, how you filtered everything through George and used Mike as your errand boy.  You weren’t careful enough, Nate, there are witnesses.”  Daniel spoke in a low, controlled voice.  I was glad one of us had stayed awake during the negotiating classes.

“What, the word of a criminal trying to avoid a harsher sentence?  I’m sure that carries a lot of weight,” Nate scoffed.  “They would jump at the chance to put any of us behind bars, and everyone knows that.”

“Perhaps not if their word was all we had, Nate, but there’s a lot of evidence.  The kind of evidence that doesn’t lie.”

“Faked evidence,” Nate said.

“How, exactly, do you explain this, then?”  Daniel gestured to me, still bound in the chair.  I was hoping one of the SWAT guys would slide over and untie me, but so far they were holding their positions, all weapons aimed at Nate, George, and Mike.

“I’m sorry to tell you, Daniel, that Jake here is the traitor.  We uncovered evidence that he was working with Robin when she killed Jason and Robert.  They must be the ones who’d been working with Edward.”  Nate said.  He was a good liar.

“I’m sorry to tell you, Nate, that I think that’s a load of horse shit,” Daniel said pleasantly.  “And what about Sandra?  Can you explain how her blood ended up smeared on the floor in your house?”

That stunned everyone.  Nate gaped, looking like a drowning fish, his lips moving silently.  Finally he rallied.  “I was set up, then.  I don’t know anything about the Sandra case.”

“But you do know something about the Jason and Robert cases, don’t you, Nate?  You know you were the one who ordered them killed.  Jason, because he was getting too close to clearing his name after you’d tried to frame him, and Robert… that one I can’t understand, Nate.  Why did you have Robin kill Robert?”

“She did that all on her own, I had nothing to do with it!” Nate yelled.

We were all silent for a moment as the words sunk in.  They weren’t a confession, but they were damning.

“Nate, just give yourself up,” Daniel said.

“How many times do I have to tell you that it’s Jake you’re after?  Jake is the one who betrayed the agency.  Jake is the one who had Sandra and Jason and Robert killed.  Hell, he probably killed Sandra himself.  Isn’t it always the boyfriend?”  He sneered at me.  “And then he tried to frame me!”

Daniel glanced at me, and I could see the worry in his eyes.  I understood.  Nate was no longer stable.  He couldn’t be reasoned with.  He was an animal, backed into a corner, fighting for his life.  Prison was a bad place for people who had put a lot of the criminals away, and he knew he had a better than average change of ending up in a traitor’s prison, and having a horrible accident befall him in the laundry room. 

“Nate, why don’t you and I step out of here and talk it over.  Leave George and Mike to look after Jake, okay?  You can show me the proof you have.”  Daniel was trying to separate them, figuring that if Nate wasn’t there, George and Mike would give themselves up.  He was right, too, I could see George’s hand was already starting to shake, and it was only with a fair amount of effort he kept the gun up and pointed in the general direction of Daniel.  Mike just looked confused.

“Don’t you come near me, I see it now, you’re working with him, aren’t you?  You’re all against me.  You’re all traitors!”  Nate was plunging head-first into crazy now.

And then I did something stupid.  I know, surprise, surprise.

“What the hell could I possibly have to do with your business dealing with Gaust?  We have evidence that there was money that went directly from his companies into your pocket.  The funny thing is, it isn’t even about your job.  No matters of national security, no super-secret spy business.  It’s because your wife is a council person and gets to vote on new developments.  You were selling her vote.  It was all just garden-variety greed and dirty political dealings.”  I shook my head sadly.   

“Shut up,” Nate growled.  Normally I wouldn’t be cowed, but he was waving a gun at me.

“Yes, shut up, Jake,” Daniel hissed at me.  He shot me a look that clearly said ‘I am trying to save your worthless hide, you pain in the ass, so please don’t try to help or I will shoot you myself’.  Or something very similar. 

“I’m just saying, maybe Nate needs to take a deep breath and consider his options carefully.  If he is being set up.”  I shot Daniel a look.  “If he’s being set up, then he’ll need us to help clear his name.  We are the best investigators.”

“That is true,” Daniel said.  “And really, Nate, Jake has no reason to set you up.  It had to be someone else.  We can find that out.  Obviously, they’ve been trying to deflect suspicion all over the place.  You, Jake, George…”

Nate seemed to consider it.  “How do I know you’ll actually look for the person who did this?  How do I know you won’t just hang me out to dry on the Sandra killing?  That blood in my house is probably enough evidence for half the agency, they’ve always been out to get me.”

I saw a flicker in Daniel’s eye.  It was brief, and I doubt many people would pick up on it, but I noticed.  And I knew what it meant.  Daniel could bluff when it came to most people, but I knew him too well.  He’d lied about the blood.  But it had worked.  Nate was rattled.  I couldn’t help it, I started to laugh.  I blame the stress of the last few days.  Nate was having a psychotic break, I should be allowed a little hysterical laughter.

“What’s so funny?”  Nate demanded.

I couldn’t answer, I was laughing so hard I couldn’t catch my breath.

“Shut up!” Nate yelled.  And Daniel and I saw the look in his eyes at the same moment.

“No, don’t be an idiot,” Daniel said, his hand going to the butt of his gun.

But Nate didn’t listen.  He fired, hitting me square in the chest.  My last thought as I sank to the ground in a haze of pain was that at least I got to see his body riddled with bullet holes.  Between Daniel and the various member of the SWAT team, they must have punched him full of a dozen holes.  I only had one, though it was a doozy, and I counted that a win.

Part Three: Elizabeth’s Story

Chapter Twenty Nine
Knit… Purl… check on the cookies

I remember the day I saw the news story about what happened.  I cried, despite myself.  Not that I’d really harbored much hope for the happy ending, but it had always been there in the back of my head.  It was possible.  It had been possible.  Not anymore, and I needed to move on with my new life.

I’d set up shop in a small, sleepy town, mostly living off of the money I’d squirreled away when I was working for the agency.  It wasn’t as if that job gave me time for a social life, so living frugally had been easy.  Now, though, I was glad my little yarn shop was taking off, because I was spending evenings out with my new friends, spending more in a week than I used to in a month.  They knew me as a girl from the Midwest, who’d headed to the big city to try to make it big, and found she couldn’t deal.  So I’d pulled up stakes and settled here, content to live a sleepy, small-town life.  Privately, they all wondered why I thought I could have handled city living and the fast pace of a city job, because I was so suited to a slower way of life.  Each took some responsibility for how much happier I’d become since I first showed up with everything I owned in a truck, and a sad, defeated expression on my face.

They all also knew there was more to the story than I told, probably having something to do with a man.  Perceptive, these small-town folks.  I was finding it harder and harder to hide my depression over the news from them, because why I would be so upset about some spies being caught in a shoot-out and corruption in a super-secret government agency was something I couldn’t explain.  But I found myself sitting in my little apartment over the shop at night, staring at the necklace in my hand.  I hadn’t put it back on, but I handled it every day.  Every day I tried to put it on, but I just couldn’t.  I had it in my mind that they day I did would be the day I’d be able to move on with my life.

The little bell over the shop door jingled, and Jenny walked in.  She was an unashamed gossip and my best friend, even if she tried to hook me up with every man in the town.  I think she thought that all I needed was a good roll in the hay to clear my head.  But she meant well, and she was fun to hang out with, so I put up with her incessant match-making.

“Watch the place for me, would you?”  I set down my knitting and picked up the little timer sitting next to me.  “I need to grab the cookies out of the oven.”  Not that I needed to have anyone watch the store, this was one of those obnoxiously picturesque towns where there was vanishingly little crime.  I ran up the stairs as the timer started going off, and rescued the racks of cookies from the oven.  I set them on coking racks and headed back downstairs. Two warm cookies in my hand.  Jenny was fingering some lace-weight mohair I’d just gotten in.

“Lovely, isn’t it?”  I held out a still-warm cookie for her.

“I was thinking it’d be perfect for that shawl I was going to make Nana.”  She took the cookie and nibbled on it.  “These are amazing!  What’s in it?”

I winked at her.  “It’s a secret.”  I’d recently taken up dabbling in baking, and while I still had more failures than successes, I was getting better.  I think Jenny encouraged it so much because she thought it would help me land a man.  Everything came back around to men in her mind.  I was pretty sure I wasn’t the one who needed a good roll in the hay.

“Have you given any thought to expanding your shop to include a café?  The place next door would be perfect for it.”

“Are you kidding?  If I added cookies and tea to the yarn, half the women in the town would never leave!”  It was tempting, though.  I could use the extra income, and I was really enjoyed making up new cookie recipes.

“Especially if you had, I don’t know, a handsome man working as a cook?” she said slyly.  I shot her a sideways glance.  She had that look like she was up to something.

“Which one of the Mathews boys fancies himself a baker now?”  She’d been trying to get me to go out on a date with Jamie since the day I showed up.  I think it was mostly so he’d stop chasing her, and I don’t believe he was any more interested in me than I was in him.  We both humored her for different reasons.

“It’s a secret,” she winked back at me.  “Come out with me tonight and we’ll talk about it.”

“Fine, where are we going?”  I picked my knitting back up and started in on the sock once again.  I only had a few more hours of work on it.  It was my first pair, and I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to wear them.  Maybe I’d just frame them.  Then I promised myself I’d tackle the dozen or so projects I’d brought with me from my previous life.  I’m sure there was some psychological mumbo-jumbo to explain it, about embracing the new but not forsaking the old, but I just wanted to get some things done.  Maybe it was about clearing the clutter, not only in my closet, but in my mind.

“It would be nice to expand my apartment,” I mused.  Jenny smiled.

“You could turn the entire place above the bakery into a master suit with a gorgeous bathroom suite.”

“You’re just looking for a place to practice your interior design skills, aren’t you?  You want me to be your guinea pig.”  Though, in truth, I wouldn’t mind.  I was comfortable enough in my shabby apartment, but Jenny had a way with interior design.  She didn’t just throw together the latest trends and make a place look like a show room, cold and sterile.  She took into account your personality and really made it into what you would have done, if you’d had the time and energy.  The only problem is that I would insist on paying her, and she would refuse, and I’d feel guilty.  She didn’t do it to make money, she told me.  She had a trust fund for that.  It was because she loved it.

“Perhaps.  I was watching one of those design shows on TV last night, and this one designer glued hay to the walls.  I’d have never thought of it, but maybe it’s worth a try…”  She winked slyly at me.

“You’d never!”

“I might.”

I threw a skein of yarn at her, which she caught and started to pet.  “Oooh, this is nice.  Is it new?  I don’t think I’ve seen it before.”

“Yeah, part of that new shipment.  I’m not completely sold on it, I think it might shed too much.  Plus, I tried a swatch with it, and I don’t like the way it’s working up.”  I held out the small knitted swatch to her.

“Hm, I see what you mean.  Still, it’s lovely and gorgeous all wound up in a ball.  And goodness knows at the rate I’m getting my projects done, it’ll be like that for a good, long time.”

“Isn’t that the truth?  You and me both.  So, what do you have planned for tonight?”

“Well, there’s that get-together and the Sampson’s, but I know you’re not fond of them.”  She held up a hand to forestall my objections.  “No one is.  They’re boring and snotty, but they do have the best chef in three counties, so everyone goes to their parties just to eat.  Trust me, you’re not alone in your opinion.  Though I do think they are harsher towards you than anyone else, since you don’t descend for a noble bloodline.”  She said the last in Iona Sampson’s nasal voice.

I laughed.  “I would rather not deal with them tonight,” I admitted.  “Usually I can deal with her, but I’m not feeling up to it right now.  Besides, I’m more in the mood for something… exciting.”

“And exciting has never been used to describe any of the Sampson’s parties, unless you count the time the giant ice swan tipped over and pinned Iona to the ground between its wings.  And even that was more a relief than exciting, because it gave everyone an excuse to leave early.”  Jenny smiled at the memory.  “Now, mind you, it’s not that anyone wanted to see her hurt, but as she wasn’t, well…”

“I completely understand.  What else is going on?”

“There’s a bunch of us getting together at the pub, just and informal gathering.  But it should be more fun than a stuffy party, even if the food is a bit more… plebian.”

She was up to something, but I wasn’t going to argue.  It did sound like more fun than sitting at home, knitting by myself.  And I needed to get out.  A few days doesn’t a hermit make, but if I didn’t break out of my melancholy, I was bound to draw more attention than I wanted.  And Jenny was too observant to throw off the scent.

“Fine, but dah-link, I have nothing to wear!” I drawled.

“I think we can work on that,” she said.  “The party starts at eight, I’ll meet you here at five when you close up.  There’s a dress over at Maddie’s that would look divine on you.”  She sailed out the door with a backwards wave before I could object.

I groaned.  A dress from Maddie’s would cost me an arm and a leg, and even though I know Jenny would insist on buying it for me, I wouldn’t let her.  I’d better make tonight worth the cost of the dress, I decided, and went upstairs to pull out the pearl necklace.

 

Chapter Thirty
I was a diamond-tiara kind of girl in a dusty cowboy bar

I felt completely overdressed as I walked into the pub.  Sure, the dress was flattering and it fit me beautifully, but it was overkill for the low-key get-together assembled at the bar.  No one was in jeans, but no one was in formal dress, either.  I shot Jenny, in her not-quite-as-evening dress, a look.  It was a look I reserved for extreme situations, and it promised retribution.  Granted, I never look that threatening, so she probably thought I was plotting to snarl her yarn or bend a knitting needle.  I really needed to work on my evil looks.

“Relax, you look great.”  She smiled at me.  I frowned at her.

“But I’m a tad over-dressed, wouldn’t you say?”  I fiddled with the pearl necklace around my neck.  It felt both out of place and completely comfortable.

“Ummm, no?”  She batted her eyelashes at me innocently.  “I think you look lovely.”

“I didn’t ask if I looked okay, I asked if I was over-dressed,” I said sourly.

“Really, you need to relax and stop being so paranoid.”  She shot me a look I couldn’t quite read.

“Oh, don’t start that with me.  You did this to me on purpose.  Now I stick out like a sore thumb.”  I glared at her, but it was a weak glare.  Jenny was impossible to stay mad at.

“Not like a sore thumb at all!  Like a diamond nestled amid…”  She trailed off.  There was no way she could compare this group to anything too shabby, because she was too polite for that.  She struggled to come up with an analogy while I simmered.  “Like a diamond in a pile of blue topaz,” she said with a grin.

“Ah, and I stand out so much against the semi-precious stones, eh?”  In spite of my anger, I had to laugh.  Only someone like her would place so much weight on the difference between precious and semi-precious jewels.

“But of course!”  She didn’t really see the humor, but I couldn’t hold it against her.  It was just the way she was raised.  I, for one, would be perfectly happy to settle down with a nice blue topaz.  Even a cubic zirconium would work for me.  As long as it admitted it was a cubic zirconium, and didn’t try to put on airs and pass itself off as something else.  I shook my head.  Obviously, I had needed this night out.  I was going batty.

I did a quick sweep of the pub and only one figure, a man down at the end of the bar, didn’t look familiar.  At least everyone here knew all about Jenny and her match-making schemes.  Most of them had been on the receiving end of her attention at least once, so I would get more sympathetic looks than anything else.  I settled into a booth and watched Jenny flit from table to table.

“She never gives up, does she?” a deep voice said at my elbow.  I jumped and looked up at the smiling face of Jamie.  I grinned at him.

“Can’t you catch her already and get her to settle down?”

“I wish,” he said sadly, shaking his head.  “I swear, I can’t understand that girl.  Sometimes she seems interested, and the other half of the time she’s trying to set me up with another girl.”

“I know this may seem obvious, but have you ever actually asked her out?”

He looked confused.  “We go out places all the time together.”

“No, not like that.  Not asked her to join the group, but asked her out on a proper date?”  Men could be dense sometimes.

“I… I… I…”  He frowned.  “I’m not sure I have, honestly.  You think that might change things?”

It took all I had to hold back the biting sarcastic ‘you think?!’ that was on the tip of my tongue.  Instead I opted for diplomacy.  “It might make a difference if she knew how you felt,” I said gently.

“I suppose.”  He chewed on his lip nervously.  “Do you think she’d say yes, though?”

What was this, sixth grade?  “Would you like me to talk to her and see what she’d say before you ask?”  All we needed now was a slip of paper with check boxes.

His face brightened.  “That would be great!  Thanks, you’re wonderful, you know that?  Can I do anything for you?”

“How about getting me a drink?”  I scanned the pub, but didn’t see Jenny anywhere.  I wondered, briefly, what she was up to now.

“Coming right up!”  He hustled over to the bar to get me a drink, and I got up and wandered over to a group of people I knew pretty well.  At least I could feel out some people on the idea of a combination yarn shop/café.  It was starting to sound like a better idea the more I thought about it. 

Jamie came up and joined us, handing me a drink.  I took a sip and nearly choked.

“What is this thing?” I gasped.

“My new concoction.  I call it a Prickly Hedgehog.  What do you think?”

“I think I’m wondering if I’ll ever breath properly again!”  I coughed and groped for a nearby chair.  Slumping down, I laid my head on the table.

“I’ll… just go get you a glass of water,” Jamie said.  I nodded weakly.

“There you are!”  Jenny’s voice cut through the din of the pub.  “There’s someone I want you to meet.”

I could see she was towing someone through the crowd of people, but as they neared a rowdy group blocked their path.  I set my head back down on the table.

A few minutes later, a low, male voice said, “Hello.”

I looked up at him and recognition hit me.  Hard.  My heart stopped.

“Elizabeth, this is Alex.  He just moved to town, and he’s looking for a job.  He just finished culinary school,” she said, giving me a meaningful nudge.

“Is that so?” I squeaked.  I cleared my throat.

“And Elizabeth here is thinking of expanding her yarn shop to include a small café.  Granted, it would just be cookies and cakes and whatnot, not the seven-course meals you’d be making at a restaurant or as a private chef, but there’d be plenty of freedom, and… well, why don’t I just let you two talk about it?”  She winked at me, and was gone.

Alex reached out and touched the pearl necklace softly.  “Why, hello, Elizabeth, it’s very nice to… meet you.”

The End.

 


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