I think I can finally get this serial off the ground.
My name is Morgan Everson. People use a lot of different words to describe me, ranging from glowing praise to muttered expletives, but ‘conventional’ is not one of those words. Being single, female, employed by the Central Intelligence Agency and just shy of turning thirty would have made me unconventional enough for some. I’m not one to settle for mediocrity, though, and I’d managed to find a way to do some work in the field, rather than staying in Langley’s cryptology department working like any other clockwatching office employee with higher security clearances. That’s why I was walking towards a ramshackle barn 50 miles outside of the Iranian border.
There was plenty to dislike about the situation. What appeared to be your typical family farm for the area was fenced in with barbed wire, observed by closed-circuit cameras mounted on every post of the fence, and patrolled by men with automatic weapons and the occasional dog. For three days I’d observed the place, both as close as I dared and via satellite, and it’d taken that long to work my way around the security protocols of their wi-fi. That was their first mistake. If you’re going to manufacture, move or even dream about weapons of mass destruction in this day and age, you’d want something more secure than a wireless network for the convenience of laptops.
My main person of interest, an Russian ex-militant named Kharzov, was interested in moving something hot from an old storehouse of his Cold War predecessors to the waiting hands of an insurgent organization further south. The intelligence was sketchy on the buyer. I didn’t know if they were disorganized terrorists or an unknown private military company, but either way, the kind of weapons being discussed read like a buffet menu of mass murder. Before we could get creative with long-range weaponry or surgical tactical squads, however, we had to know exactly what was getting moved, and to whom. That was where I, and my contact back in Langley, came in.
“I’ve got a piping hot coffee in my hand,” reported the voice of Allan Bowman from his location deep under CIA headquarters. “I’m ready to go.”
“The sun hasn’t even come up here yet, and the cold breeze doesn’t help,” I growled quietly. The radio system was compact enough to fit in my ear without being too conspicuous, and other than that and the modified flash drive in my pocket, I was unarmed. “Be happy about the fact I’m on the other side of the world.”
“From now on,” he said after making a point to slurp his coffee loudly, “I’ll drink quietly. You need to focus, anyway. We’ve only got this satellite for eight more minutes.”
“I know,” I told him testily. “Tell the damn dog hurry up and do his business.”
I was referring to the large guard dog currently on a leash wrapped around the nearest guard’s wrist. It sat contentedly, in no hurry to finish up, as the guard shared my frustration and tapped his foot. I heard the distant hum of an engine.
“Vehicle approaching,” Allan reported. “Looks to be some sort of car, maybe a small truck.”
“I see it,” I replied as the old model pickup zoomed past. I took that as my cue to move. Two guards moved to stop the truck at the gate, and with Allan hooked into their camera systems, the remote systems just happened to be looking in other directions as I made my approach. Luck was on my side, as the pickup lacked a tailgate. The guards were chatting with the driver of the truck, and the dog had his forepaws in the passenger window, all of them clearly familiar with the driver. None of them noticed me quietly crawling inside the bed. There was a heavy tarp I managed to slide under as the truck got moving again. The crates under the tarp seemed to be carrying fruits and vegetables. The truck made a couple turns on the dirt roads within the fence, and I guessed he wasn’t heading to the main barn.
“He’s heading for a storage shed,” Allan confirmed. “See if you can roll out of there in twelve seconds.”
With the noise of the truck, the driver didn’t notice me rolling out of the back, landing in a crouch as it drove away into the dull light of the pre-dawn morning. The sun would be up soon, in addition to losing the satellite feed back to Langley, so I had to move fast. I approached the barn in search of a way in. There were crates and boxes stacked up on the long sides of the building, and I wasn’t about to saunter in through the large front or back doors while men with AK-47s kept watch.
“Guard coming around the building,” Allan warned me.
I backed against the wall, pressing myself into it as much as I could. The muzzle of the guard’s AK came around the corner before he did. I grasped it with one hand and pulled it towards me, stepping into the off-balance man as he inhaled to cry out in surprise or alarm. My free hand chopped upwards, catching him in the soft tissue of his throat below his chin and above his Adam’s apple. What had probably been intended to be some sort of shout came out as a hollow wheeze. He grasped his neck, forgetting about me as he tried to open up his airway again. While he was distracted, I relieved him of his weapon and used the butt of the rifle to knock him out. The whole thing had lasted maybe three seconds and I was around the corner, rifle in hand, peering at just the sort of ventilation grate I needed in order to get into the barn.
Reaching behind me, I sorted through some of the unconscious man’s pockets, finding a screwdriver. A few quiet moments later, and my way in was unobstructed. Belly-crawling into the barn, I checked my watch. Five minutes remained of the satellite’s window. I was behind a few innocuous bales of hay, and got into a crouch as I moved around the outer wall. Kharzov stood in the middle of the open space with a few other men, looking over a laptop being held by one of them and discussing something. After a moment, they walked over to a table by the wall, about six feet from where I was, where an older desktop PC sat. Kharzov tapped a few things in on the keyboard, then pointed at the screen and continued whatever point he was elaborating. I narrowed my eyes at the old computer. Other than the power cord, no other lines connected it to the wall, and I didn’t see any sort of wireless antenna or card.
“I think I found the standalone system,” I whispered to Allan.
“Good,” he replied. “The flash drive in your pocket’s got a sat transmitter and the software to run it, so all you need to do is plug it in and I’ll be able to snag their records. Better do it fast though, we’ve got four minutes left.”
Kharzov and his goons walked back towards the middle of the barn. I crept closer to the table where the PC sat, and was relieved to look behind it and see USB ports. Stretching a little, I quietly slid the modified flash drive into the closest slot. “It’s in,” I murmured, hearing more car engines outside.
“Not a moment too soon. More people are arriving.” Allan paused. “Two cars, they both look like luxury models.”
I had a feeling it’d be the buyers. I checked the AK in my hands, putting it in single-fire mode. The large barn doors were opened by men outside to reveal a pair of Lincoln Town Cars with tinted windows. Men in suits got out of them, as well as a young woman with dark hair. The newcomers had a slightly swarthy look to them. The last one to emerge was wearing dark aviator sunglasses, and immediately lit a cigarette. The others looked around them and two reached under their jackets for a moment. The guy in shades shook hands with Kharzov as the girl slid up to him, and the two men began to talk in Turkmen. While I know Arabic and my Turkish is passable, between the distance to the meet and keeping an eye out for people that might spot me, I couldn’t follow their conversation.
“Any idea what they’re here to buy?” Allan asked. I shook my head, then narrowed my eyes. I knew the girl from somewhere…
“That’s Kharzov’s daughter.”
“Kharzov’s daughter is with the buyers,” I hissed. “I’m thinking Kharzov threw her in as collateral.”
“Charming guy,” Allan commented. “I found their manifests and am uploading now. Give me ninety seconds.”
Kharzov was handed a briefcase by one of his men. He opened it and the buyer reached in to hold up one of its contents. It was small, black, and square-shaped.
“Allan, check their manifests for processors or guidance chips of some kind. That seems to be what’s on special today.”
“On it,” he told me, as Kharzov gestured with the case for the buyer to replace the sample. The man in the sunglasses did so, putting his other arm around Kharzov’s daughter’s waist. She was decidedly unimpressed by this, glaring at her father. I presumed that whatever they’d been negotiating hadn’t gone well. I adjusted my grip on the AK-47, eyeing up the situation. The buyer was actually better protected than Kharzov from this angle.
“Morgan,” came Allan’s voice, “I found your chips. They’re advanced remote control and guidance chips for single-use combat drones.”
“Predators?” I asked quietly.
“They’re not American,” he replied. “They’re from a Cold War experiment to arm insurgent groups in America with remotely guided tactical nukes.”
“Lovely,” I murmured, as the voices of the men raised in pitch. Clearly they were haggling on the price. The buyer tightened his grip on the girl, and when he made a statement that contained the words “take,” “claim” and “whore,” Kharzov pulled out his revolver causing his other men to raise their weapons. The buyer’s goons also drew their pistols. I narrowed my eyes, and saw Kharzov was not aiming at the buyer, but his daughter.
“Allan,” I whispered, “with the information you have from the computer, can we piece together Kharzov’s operation, contacts and inventory?”
“It’ll be tough without Kharzov himself, or one of his lieutenants,” Allan said after a moment, “but yeah, it can be done. Why do you ask?”
“Because General Kharzov’s dead.”
I raised my AK-47 and squeezed the trigger. Kharzov’s head snapped in the same direction as my shot, dropping like a sack of hammers, his nearby lieutenant suddenly wearing the contents of his general’s skull. Both the buyer and the remaining Russians turned in my direction, but I was already heading for the still-open door behind the buyer’s cars. I flipped the AK to automatic fire and kept my body low as I turned with the rifle to lay down a burst of covering fire. The men scattered for cover, Kharzov’s daughter shrieking as she hit the floor. At least she was still alive to do it.
“Morgan, the place just went entirely ape! What did you do?”
“I saved a girl’s life!” was my shouted reply as I rounded the barn, shooting down two oncoming guards. My goal was the truck I’d used to sneak in. The driver was coming back out, confused by the commotion. I sprinted up to him, bringing the stock of my weapon up to smack him across the face. He grabbed his mouth as he tried not to lose his teeth, and I got into his truck and gunned the engine. Bullets clanged into the body of the truck, causing me to duck as I headed for the fence. I floored the accelerator and was rewarded with a loud crash as the truck plowed through the chain links.
“Allan, are they giving chase?”
“No, they seem to be content shooting at each other. I’m losing the satellite in another thirty seconds. Keep driving north, I’m making arrangements to get you out of the country.”
“Director Jimenez is not going to be happy,” I predicted, finding my way onto a road.
“You let me worry about him,” Allan replied. “Just stay alive, stay safe and get home.”
That was easier said than done, at least in terms of worrying about Director Jimenez. He was my official conduit to the field operations unit at Langley. He and my father had served together in the Navy, and my mother had probably worked with him as well, having been in the CIA herself, up until her disappearance six years ago. When I joined not long after, as a cryptologist with my eye on field work, I’d told my father I wanted no special favors or good words put in on my behalf. I wanted to get there on my own merits, assisted mostly by the friend I’d made in Allan Bowman.
The truck ran out of gas outside of the city, but not that far from the airport. Searching the truck’s bed, I was fortunate to find a oily rag, which should help obscure my fingerprints on the rifle when the vehicle was discovered. After I wiped it down, I kept the rag in hand as I slid the AK under the tarp. Climbing back in the truck, I wiped down the seat and steering wheel. Once that was done, I flagged down a cab. I ditched the rag and the radio bud from my ear in a sewer grate on my way into the airport. The flight to Birmingham was 6 and a half hours without an inflight movie, but since the adrenaline wore off somewhere between check-in and security, I managed to fall asleep soon after take-off. After landing and adjusting my watch for the 5-hour time difference, it was around 1 in the afternoon by the time I found my connecting flight, which didn’t leave until 3.
I got myself a bite to eat and a coffee, then found an international phone to call Langley. I dialed the secure line required and waited for the other end to pick up.
“I need a phone,” I told the operator. There was a pause as they traced my location.
“Gate 11. Third row back, four seats in.”
I hung up, walked to the designated gate, and found the slim satellite phone taped to the underside of the seat. It was a newer model, with a touch-screen, and I gently pressed my forefinger to the center of the screen. Rather than turning on with a cellular graphic as it normally did, a green line moved from the bottom of the screen to the top, then back down. It repeated this procedure three times, and after a moment, the screen came to life. Bringing up the touch-screen’s keyboard, I tapped in the secure passcode that would connect me to Allan Bowman, as I walked to the restrooms. I was in luck. Besides the men’s and ladies’ rooms, there was a ‘family’ restroom, handicapped accessible, with a locking door. Putting the phone to my ear, I stepped into the bathroom and locked the door.
“It’s 9 am here,” he said without preamble, “and I’ve been here all night. Tell me you’re calling from an airport on your way home.”
“I am indeed,” I replied, loudly sipping my coffee as he had earlier that morning.
“Very funny,” he groaned. “You sweep the room yet?”
“How am I going to do that?”
“Go to the phone’s menu, start up the app to sweep the room. Does that work, or shall I send you a diagram?”
“I forget how crotchety you get when you pull an all-nighter,” I told him, starting up the app and following the on-screen instruction to ensure the room wasn’t bugged. When everything showed green, I put the phone to my ear again. “Room’s clean. It’s just you and me, handsome.”
“Flattery will get you on your plane home,” Allan replied. “Look, Morgan, you’ve made a colossal mess here. Kharzov was someone we wanted to get in touch with after this in order to get more information on some missing materials.”
“Well, you got the whole manifest, right? Shouldn’t the mystery items be there?”
“They weren’t available for sale, or he’d already sold them. We knew that going in. We needed his current inventory for leverage.”
“I was securing blackmail material? Nice to know I get all the decent jobs.” I rolled my eyes. “In Jimenez’s shoes I guess I’d be pissed, too, if one of my field agents had shot the person of interest with an AK-47 instead of a tranquilizer dart. Or a spitball.”
“Morgan…” Allan’s fatigue and exasperation were tangible in his voice.
“I’m sorry,” I told him honestly. “But how long has it been since Hector’s been in the field? The girl’s only crime as far as I could tell was having Kharzov for a father. I know I have my duty, but what kind of callous bitch would I be if I just watched him shoot her down in cold blood?”
“Hector’s cut you a lot of slack in the past, Morgan. Remember that little ‘blind date’ you had with Mahmood? That Pakistani connection to an investment firm channeling money somewhere on the Eastern seaboard?”
“I remember Mahmood, and I remember him being very ungentlemanly.”
“Morgan, you punched him in the face and nearly broke his kneecap.”
“He was groping me in public, Allan. Mahmood thinks he’s Allah’s gift to women and is in desperate need of deodorant. Some things I can handle, even smile and laugh, but a full-on grope in public outside a nightclub? I tend to take exception to that.”
“I can see why,” Allan conceded, “but he has connections to a few embassies and the politicians don’t like our standing in the Middle East getting any more unstable than it already is. And if the politicians aren’t happy, they make Hector’s life miserable.”
“I know that, but I can’t be expected to turn off my instincts or muscle memory because it’s inconvenient for the fat cats on the Hill. Especially when I keep getting told by you and Hector and my father that my instincts are good.”
“I’m not disputing that, and neither will Hector when you get here, but to be honest I can’t see him keeping you in the field. He’s not the kind to let go of someone valuable due to slip-ups if he can help it. He’ll go to bat for you, but he won’t let you forget that you’re still working because he needs you.”
“So I’m in for a sit-down, a raking over the coals, and a demotion back to desk duty, right?”
“Pretty much,” Allan confirmed with a sigh.
“Breaking code for eight hours a day until the heat blows over and Hector can find a way to get me back in the field sounds absolutely riveting.”
“I wouldn’t hold your breath on the second part of that, Morgan. Oversight’s going to tighten up seriously after this.”
I checked my watch. “They’re going to be opening the gate for my return flight soon. Who’s picking me up?”
“I’ll make arrangements for you,” Allan told me. “Just try to enjoy your flight. I bumped you up to first class.”
“You’re a sweetheart,” I told him. “I’ll see you when I get back.”
“Stay safe, Morgan,” he said, as he always did when ending a call, and the line went silent. I looked at the phone’s main menu, checked the retrieval information, and tapped the command that wiped the SIM card. Wiping off the device, I walked through the terminal to the area the information had indicated, and dropped in the garbage can. I kept walking, knowing that the device would be retrieved later. If it was picked up by our people, great. Otherwise, without fingerprints or an active SIM card, it couldn’t be traced back to the CIA.
I made my way back to the gate and found a seat. It wasn’t long before they started boarding first class passengers. I took a seat on the plane by a window, ordered a gin & tonic, and settled in for my second flight. I wasn’t looking forward to sitting in Jimenez’s office for the better part of an hour after being in transit for almost half a day. He wouldn’t be happy about staying in his office after 5 waiting for me to get through Washington’s rush hour traffic, either. The stewardess brought me my drink, and I finished it just as we were taking off. We reached our cruising altitude and the passengers were getting instructions for their entertainment choices as I dozed off again.
The plane’s descent into Washington airspace is what woke me. Since I was traveling light, as I usually do, I had an overnight bag that fit under a typical airplane seat, with toiletries and a few changes of clothes. I bypassed baggage claim, got my passport stamped, and flipped through it as I walked away, wondering who would get it next. I looked up as I entered the lobby and saw people waiting for passengers, holding signs or balloons. My eyes were scanning the crowd for some goon in a suit with a sign bearing my name, or maybe, if I was lucky, Allan.
I was not expecting the tall, somewhat elderly gentleman who had no need whatsoever for a sign. His worn jeans and Hawaiian shirt were very different from what I’d gotten used to seeing on the nights when he came home from work, first the police uniform, then the off-the-rack suits. The smile on his face, however, and the twinkle in his eyes hadn’t changed at all. He held out his arms, and I gladly put my own around his neck to get a very welcoming hug.
“Long time no see, gorgeous,” my father said.
“What are you doing here?” I asked him. “How’d you know when I’d be landing?”
“A little birdie told me,” was his reply. “Now, before you lecture me on intervening on your behalf, I will have you know that I was intending on picking you up before things went sour on your end.”
“You know about that, too?” I hissed, glancing around as we walked out of the terminal. “What, are my assignment updates getting put up on Twitter or something?”
“No,” my father said with a laugh. “No, nothing like that. I just have connections that I tap into from time to time, and the occasion called for me to do so.”
I wanted to press him for more information, but my train of thought got derailed when I saw him leading us to an Audi RS4. I stopped in my tracks. “Dad? Is that your car?”
“Yes, and not even a rental. Bought and paid for. You know I love Quattros and haven’t had one since you were little. In fact, I remember coming to pick you up after you had that accident on your bike and ripped that hole in your jeans, putting that nasty abrasion on your-”
“I remember, I remember!” I insisted, waving away the memory. We hadn’t told my mother about that incident, and my father had bought me new jeans afterward, so it was something only he and I would know about. So I could be pretty sure that this was my father holding open the passenger door of the Audi for me. I got in, settling against the leather seat as he got behind the wheel and drove us out of the Dulles parking structure. Being on the road with my father, even if it was just between Dulles and Langley, brought back a few pleasant memories from childhood, of long weekends driving to beaches and amusement parks when Mom was home from her latest trip to some remote corner of the world.
“So,” my father began, turning down the radio as we merged onto the northbound Beltway, “what happened over there?”
“I violated Director Jimenez’s orders. I was not supposed to intervene in any of the activities of Kharzov’s operation, and I shot him in front of his entire operation.”
“He was about to shoot his own daughter, right?”
“Yes,” I replied, “that’s why I took the shot. Allan told me he had enough information to go on…”
“And you followed your instincts. As you have on many an occasion.”
“Well, my instincts aren’t always the most politically correct. Plenty of people can attest to that.”
“You save lives, Morgan. Right next to every single reprimand anyone’s ever thought of giving you is at least one innocent person’s bacon you’ve yanked right out of the fire.”
I nodded. “I’m not really an ‘ends justify the means’ sort of person, but given the choice between saving someone innocent and letting a criminal keep committing crime, the innocent person wins every time.”
My father smiled a bit. It was about this time that I noticed we’d missed the exit for the Georgetown Pike, continuing to head north on the Beltway towards Maryland.
“Is it that bad?” I asked.
“Not really, but I’d be lying if I said if I hadn’t been waiting for an opportunity like this. And while I’m being honest, I should tell you I’m not technically retired.”
I leaned my head against my hand, resting my elbow on the edge of the door by the window. “Dad, I work at Central Intelligence. Your emails and phone calls to me…”
“Redirected,” he replied flatly, and I stared at him.
“Are you pulling my leg? Why would you think it’s necessary to convince me and anybody else with interest that you were living in Key West, getting drunk on mojitos and chasing supermodels?”
“Because the nature of what I’m doing now is extremely covert and highly volatile. I can’t tell you all of the details, but suffice it to say…”
I wanted my father to explain further, to fathom the nature of the work he was doing now. I was used to my father keeping secrets from me, being part of a covert operations agency myself, but taking a road trip like this was how we’d always opened up to one another. This seemed like another opportunity for that. My cell phone, however, had other ideas, and I fished it out of my purse to answer the call from an undisclosed number.
“Hello, Morgan,” the quietly self-assured voice responded.
I sighed. Exasperation seemed to be the order of the day for me. “Hi, Dave. I didn’t think they let you NSA-types near the phones on Mondays.”
“I’m on my way out,” he replied. “How are you? I heard the CIA took you off their active roster.”
“Oh?” I said, feigning interest as I glanced at my father. His sour expression spoke volumes of his attitude towards my ex-husband. “Did you overhear some of your co-workers jawing on Capitol Hill or something?”
“I have my connections, Morgan, you know that,” Dave told me, his voice smoky with pretentiousness and arrogance.
“Yeah,” I replied dryly. “Thanks for reminding me.”
“Maybe even more than you do. I’m sure I’m on our list of ‘Most Dangerous Agents.’ We have one, you know.”
I rolled my eyes. I’d have laughed at how lame he was if I wasn’t in such a foul mood already.
“Is this important, Dave? I’m sort of in the middle of something.”
“I was just wondering if you’d be up to dinner tonight. You know, talk things out. I’m sure this has been a tough day for you…” He kept talking, but I didn’t hear him. I didn’t want to listen to him. I wanted to trace the call, drive to his office, key his car and kick him in the groin really hard. But my father was driving in the opposite direction, and while he might have turned around at my behest, my curiosity regarding this mysterious work of his was more powerful than my urge to throw my ex-husband a beating.
“We’re not getting back together, David.”
“No, David,” I told the prattling voice in my ear, and hung up.
“Remind me why I walked you down the aisle for that moron,” my father said to me.
“He seemed nice enough, and he’s pretty easy on the eyes. Oh, and government job. Hector vouched for him.”
“Hector also wanted you wearing skirts around the office more often.”
I smiled and shook my head. “Not my fault you and Mom gave me such great legs. And you’re changing the subject. Why did you lie to me about your retirement?”
He sighed a bit. He did that when he got annoyed at me. “Morgan, I didn’t lie. I retired from Central Intelligence. I just got another job after that, and it required more secrecy.”
I looked at him as he drove, merging in and out of the fast-moving lanes. “I’m not going to get any answers out of you right now, am I?”
“Nope,” he replied. Normally, he’d be smiling, but his expression was stony. After a while, I asked him a political question, rather than press the issue. The ensuing debate took us farther away from the subject of his work. We stopped for something to eat after we got around Baltimore, and I’d figured out a way to approach my quest for answers from another direction.
“So where are we headed?” I asked as I ate my sandwich.
“Philadelphia,” he replied, putting more salt on his fries than was healthy for him. “We’ll probably hit a bit of traffic because it’ll be around rush hour when we get into the metro area.”
“You’ve gotten used to the traffic up there?”
“It’s not quite as bad as DC,” he told me, “but I see a lot more foreign cars. I guess they’re less afraid of being called traitors if they’re in Beamers instead of nice big Chevy SUVs.”
“Says the man in the Quattro,” I teased before taking a sip of my drink. The sky was starting to darken. My father was used to negotiating rush hour traffic, but it still required concentration, so I didn’t press him for more information about his job as he drove. His cell phone rang just as we entered the Philadelphia area, and he put a Bluetooth headset in his ear.
“It’s Everson,” he said into it. He listened to what was said, then grimaced. “It’s a bit early, isn’t it?”
I watched him for a moment, trying to read his expression. He shook his head. “Be there in five.” He touched the headset, then glanced at me. “We need to take a slight detour.”
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Person of interest has decided now’s a great time to have some fun on the south side of town. The pattern indicates he’s going to hit a convenience store close to us. You’ll get to meet one of my co-workers on site. Reach under my seat, you’ll find a gun there.”
I reached my hand under the heated passenger seat, and my fingers touched metal almost immediately. I pulled out the weapon and stared at it. What I’d found was a large revolver, with a barrel over four inches long, featuring a rail at the top of sighting equipment and weighing about four pounds. It would have made an effective club, let alone a firearm.
“Gun, nothing, Dad,” I told him with a bit of alarm. “This is a hand cannon.”
“So it is. Reach in the glove compartment, get one of the speedloaders out. Check to see if it has a Roman numeral ‘one’ on the back.”
There were a few in there, with one labeled “II” and another labeled “III.” The third one I fished out bore a bold “I”, and I took the liberty of loading the weapon for him. I looked towards him as I turned the revolver around to hand it to him handle-first, and I noticed he had produced a holstered semi-automatic from somewhere and had clipped it to his belt.
“Any reason you need two guns, Dad?”
“Precaution,” was all he said as he pulled into a spot outside a convenience store. We got out of the car, and I held up the weapon I’d loaded for him. He took it with a nod, and had hung a badge from his belt. Another man was nearby, a gun like my father’s revolver already in his hand. “Parker, Morgan,” my father introduced. “Morgan, Parker.”
“Hi,” I said, somewhat unnerved. Parker nodded. He was tall, wearing a nondescript black ballcap and track jacket, a badge like my father’s hanging from the breast pocket. My father nodded towards the storefront and the men moved in unison.
“Stay here!” my father called over his shoulder. I nodded, staying near the Audi. They headed into the store, and I heard gunfire mere moments later. I felt an unconscious impulse and reached for my hip, but there was no weapon to be found there, of course. I looked around for anything I could use for a weapon, but after a few seconds, the door opened and my father came out, smoking gun in hand, his bright Hawaiian shirt stained with blood.
“Clean up before the local cops get here,” he was telling Parker, who lingered in the door. “You’ve got two minutes. Haul ass and I’ll see you back at Lighthouse.”
“Right, boss,” Parker replied, and went back inside. My father gestured for me to get in the car, which I did. We drove away, rather quickly, and I waited before I asked the foremost question in my mind.
“Are you all right?”
“The blood isn’t mine,” he told me. “Our over-eager friend bled a lot when we shot him.”
“What was all of that about cleaning up before the local cops show up?”
“I can’t go into details right now, Morgan. We need to get to Lighthouse.”
I kept quiet. I wasn’t familiar with Philadelphia, so most of the high-rises looked alike. My father pulled down an alley next to one, and the nondescript, graffiti-covered garage door opened without him doing anything. He found a spot in the small garage under the street level and got out. “Leave the weapons,” he told me, and I obeyed. We walked to an elevator at the far end of the garage. We stepped inside, and he pressed one of the buttons.
The elevator doors opened. I was staring at a very long corridor with unadorned concrete walls, harsh overhead lighting, and a moving walkway. I peered down towards the other end and thought I could make out a pair of metal doors as well as the occasional mirror on either side.
“Let me guess, I’m getting on the walkway and remaining still?”
“Head of the class,” my father confirmed with a bit of a smile.
His jovial tone of voice didn’t make the experience any less disconcerting. As the moving walkway carried me towards the opposite end of the corridor, I passed several mirrors that were probably manned on the other side. More than once I heard a humming noise from one side or the other, and it was my assumption that something a bit more powerful than an airport metal detector was giving me a once-over. Finally, the walkway ended, and I stepped off in front of a pair of metal doors with no visible handle. A bas-relief lighthouse atop a rocky pinnacle dominated the doors. Underneath the artwork was the Latin phrase I’d seen on my father’s badge: “Lumina ex tenebrae.” Light from darkness.
I heard heavy bolts retracting, and the doors swung open slowly, to reveal an older man dressed in a waistcoat and sporting a mustache and sideburns the color of his lion-like silver hair. His eyes were piercing and direct, hazel in color, and despite the lines on his face he moved like a man who knew how to handle himself. When he spoke, it was with an Oxford accent.
“Miss Everson, your father told me we should be expecting you here at Lighthouse. Let me be the first to welcome you.”
“What, exactly, is Lighthouse?” I asked.
“Lighthouse is a covert international investigative body, sanctioned by the United Nations with a very specific charter.” He extended his hand. “Miss Everson, I’ve heard quite a lot about you. My name is Sir Geoffrey Aldersgate.”
Stunned, I took his hand. This was arguably the best agent MI6 ever had. During the Cold War, he was discussed on the far side of the Iron Curtain as ‘Shadow-Lion’, a reference to both his homeland and his method of operation. I tried to compose myself, since meeting him was like an up-and-coming actress meeting Dame Helen Mirren.
“It’s an honor,” I told him. “I had no idea you were an Oxfordshire man.”
“Raised and educated there,” he replied. “I’m surprised you picked that up so quickly. Charles, you look awful. Go change and find yourself a drink, would you kindly?”
My father nodded, patting me on the shoulder before he walked away. Aldersgate gestured for me to walk down a corridor with him.
“So you picked up on my background, as I mentioned, and I understand you speak fluent Arabic, French and Japanese with smatterings of others.”
“I had to study how people communicate, sir. Part and parcel of cryptography, which I’m assuming is why I’m here.”
“Indeed. But there is also the matter of your field work. It is impressive, if somewhat… I believe the phrase is, ‘outside the box’.”
“That’s one way of putting it,” I admitted with a smile. “Did you poach me from Hector Jimenez, Sir Geoffrey?”
His mustache turned downward in an expression of mock disapproval. “Poach is such a mercenary word, Miss Everson. I’d like to think that I liberated you from a rather strict and staid agency to bring you into a larger world.”
“I’m not quite sure I follow, sir.”
“We can discuss this more in the morning,” Aldersgate said. “You’ve had quite a long drive, Miss Everson, and I want you fresh and your mind sharp.”
“Thank you. I am pretty tired,” I admitted. We walked down a few hallways, decorated by art of various lighthouses and towers, until we came to a side room that contained a cot, a desk, and a coat rack.
“Make yourself at home,” Aldersgate said. “There are thicker sheets under the bed should you catch a draft. Good evening, Miss Everson. Your father and I will fetch you in the morning.”
“Good night,” I said to him, closing the door. The light switch was next to the cot, which was a good thing because I forgot how tired I was until I laid down and turned off the light. Despite my unanswered questions about the purpose of Lighthouse, my father’s violent encounter in the convenience store and the reason I’d been brought here, fatigue pounced on me like a cat desperate for attention, and I was asleep less than a minute after the light went out.