Chapter 01: A Study in Shamrock
When they gave me the badge, they gave me the first lie.
Like a good lie, it was elegant in its simplicity: blue border, photograph. The girl there, striving to be a woman with her unruly black hair, dark eyes, and cappuccino skin, her gaze piercing the camera as if trying to do it one better. There was no adornment, nothing indicating to any who might find it if it were picked up on the street that it was anything but an ordinary identification card. Of course, that curious discoverer might puzzle at the lack of a name, lack of a logo, lack of anything that might signal what this photo badge could possibly identify. It was conspicuous in its plainness.
That was how it worked at the company. You only noticed that you hadn’t noticed after we reminded you that you’d already missed it.
The uniform was another lie. It was a stealth suit.
We didn’t do ninja stealth. Oh, man, ninjas! Rookies. Guys, when you’re up there with Nazis and Imperial Stormtroopers in terms of your body count in any given movie, you are clearly screwing up at invisibility.
Look left. Now look right. See that person over there, wearing the thing?
That’s not me. I’m the one standing behind the ninja.
Didn’t see me? That’s because the stealth suit is green. It’s the color of a shamrock shake that’s had special ops training. Actual, honest-to-god spies can’t see the stealth suit. These people who are trained to Wage War on Terror, the ones we entrust to find shoe bombs and suicide belts and needles in very sandy haystacks take one look at the stealth suit, and their brains say "nope".
I wasn’t wearing it at the moment, because Reem ar-Rahmani DeGrace had expressed Opinions on her only daughter leaving the house wearing shoulder pads. “I taught you better,” she had huffed when I showed it to her. “Absolutely not.”
I’d debated whether or not it would be more indifferent to shrug or just stare, and went with the latter. “OK.”
“Did you just not argue with me?” she’d cocked her head, confused.
“Gotta keep you off-balance. I’ll be extra shitty to you when you get back from... wherever you’re going this time.”
Saudi Arabia. Lecturing on a cultural reclamation conference for Yemeni heritage.
“I canceled it,” she had surprised me right back. “The organizer is a letch and I got tired of his suggestions as to what I might wear to the reception. Since none of my colleagues had even heard of it, I’m fairly convinced it was conceived as more of a private affair, and he has nothing to offer me that would make enduring that worthwhile. Are you wearing makeup?”
I had put on a touch of eyeliner that morning, but I’d snorted in her face. “Do I ever?”
"My dear Gwen, I only want what’s best for you. We live in America now, where a little makeup will not kill you, but too little might. You could at least do your nails for your first day of work."
Eye rolls are like egg rolls but extra delicious. “And have more creepy old men who you’ve invited to parties at our house come up to me and tell me that I’ve inherited your figure? Gosh, that’d be great. Maybe this time I actually will show him my bedroom.”
She’d sighed and kissed my forehead and swept me off to work with a muttered imprecation in Arabic. On her way out the door she reflexively checked herself in the mirror - a simple pantsuit on some women became lips, tits, and ass on my mother - and gave a curt nod of approval.
I’d trailed behind, slouching. The girl who looked back at me may have inherited her figure, but hadn’t gotten any of her penchant for leveraging it. I knew girls with serious acne who had serious boyfriends. My moneymaker? Strictly pro bono.
Well… there was Vic. But he definitely liked me for my brain. That was… complicated.
As I pushed recent arguments out of my mind, my eyes lit again on my unadorned fingernails. I sighed. Blinking into the rearview mirror, I was acutely aware of my badly disciplined hair - dark, ropy strands struggling against a ponytail - and then of my elbows, which fumbled past each other as I swung the steering wheel of my brand new Audi to the right and drove past the guard shack outside of work. Inside the tiny building of brick and mirrored glass was a man with a gun big enough to punch through an elephant made of cinder blocks eight hundred times per minute. He didn't even need to open the door to kill you. Keep those elbows steady, girl.
The road split as the trees reached overhead, and I joined the line of dark men and women proceeding to the security checkpoint that straddled the path ahead. Many of the cars had open windows: with gas prices hiked yet again, air conditioning was a luxury people chose to forego despite the suffocating heat of the DC summer. My new ride was electric: mom would not have me contributing to President Ronald Triumph’s oil wars, and we could afford the new "infrastructure tax" that was supposed to offset our increased burden on the electric grid. As dad pointed out, it was also offsetting our lack of financial support for the oil wars, but my mother had been emphatic. And she knew how to leverage.
To the right, the fork in the road led to the Visitor's Center, where yesterday I'd presented myself and my unadorned fingernails for onboarding. Then, I'd needed my ID, my social security card, and a second photo ID; I’d brought my recent high school diploma for moral support. Today, the only things standing between me and company headquarters were a scanner and the heavily-armed man holding it.
It was time for the lie.
I pulled the car to a halt in the dappled shade of the trees over the checkpoint, rolled the window down, and presented my ID to the guard. He was a burly man in a police officer’s uniform: crisply-pressed but not starched, with a single straw-colored hair caught on the epaulet on his shoulder. A napkin was stuffed into his pants pocket, with the number two in black ink disappearing into his trousers. I could see immediately that he was a cat person. His hair was close-cropped and brown, with a fading sunburn that crept over his scalp. His mouth was smiling, but his eyes had the flatness of someone who half-expected violence at any time. Typical beat cop. He could have been on a stroll through your neighborhood, making sure people didn't jaywalk or go streaking or murder one another.
Except that in his left hand he was holding a funny little scanner-thing, and his right rested on the M16A2 assault rifle that was slung over his shoulder.
"Morning!" he greeted me brightly, eyes flickering vaguely to my badge and face before touching down on my breasts. The sun glinted off of a ring as he reached the scanner toward my outstretched badge.
BEEP, beeped the scanner.
"See you around," he nodded to my chest.
My back straightened minutely, an instinctive reaction that probably only made things worse. I had on a sensible white button-up blouse, not some kind of crop top. My cleavage wasn't cleaving. Come on, man.
And then my mouth opened.
"You will, Rick, in the course of our respective professional engagements!" I waved to him. "Also, stop telling yourself that your wife is probably cheating on you: she is not. She loves you. She is behaving strangely because she is pregnant, but the two of you never wanted children. She has not yet figured out how to tell you, because she wants to keep the baby. That attractive blonde you have been flirting with is not worth it. Clean up your life because fatherhood is a serious responsibility. I have a baby brother, and I tell you, the diapers alone…"
He looked like he was choking for a second. "What the… Pregnant? How do you…?" His eyes narrowed. "Did Shelly put you up to this, you little terrorist? Blonde? Have you been spying on me? I’ve got a buddy who’s an ICE Marshall… I can have you on the Wall in a hot- hey, I'm talking to you!"
My foot accelerated my mouth away from him. His sunburn got redder in my rearview for a moment, and he took a half-step after my retreating tail lights. His lip curled as he thought better of it and turned back to the line of cars.
I sighed. My mouth opening was why I had no friends.
His assertion that you are a terrorist was unsupported and likely motivated by racist ideology. You would not want that cretin for a friend.
Oh, be nice. Crass or not, he'd had no defense against my party tricks. Vic had warned me about upsetting the villagers.
A certain arrogance comes with the arrangement, I fear. That said, you are entering a realm where few will appreciate you revealing their secrets.
That’s me. Brown and under-appreciated.
I had a late start today, and was arriving just as the most convenient parking lot went from all-reserved to free-for-all. If you’d had a personal spot and you hadn’t parked there by now, tough luck: the great unwashed were here, ready take advantage of the nine-A.M. switch from "reserved" to "open" to save themselves a fifteen minute walk from the Purple Lot. Several others were already sharking the aisles, and I quickly spied an open space a short way from the entrance.
I was heading towards it as a red SUV came zipping toward me, its driver intent on claiming my prize. With a grin, I eased my foot onto the gas pedal… or at least, I tried. My foot had other ideas, and used the fat pedal to bring the Audi to a smooth halt.
My eyes were likewise fixated on commands coming from outside my brain. The blonde woman who slid into the parking spot in front of me caught them with her own before she disappeared into the spot. "I’m sorry," they seemed to say. "We’ve all got party tricks."
I held still and counted out three long breaths. The SUV’s brake lights died with its engine, and a moment later, I saw the door open and close. I still hadn’t moved.
Experimentally, I flexed my toes. Yes, that worked. Fingers wiggled. Foot?
Would. Not. Move.
Rather than heading into the building, the woman walked toward my car. She was tall, blonde, and striking. Her red suit matched the tint of her car perfectly. She didn’t look from side to side: her eyes were focused on what was in front of her and nothing else. She was beautiful, but in a tertiary way: if you saw her up close it would be the last thing you noticed about her. Your first two impulses would be to get the hell out of her way, or to do whatever she wanted.
I’d done both already.
She strode to my passenger window and leaned in, which was my first clue that I’d opened it. The movement was relaxed and unthreatening. Someone coming to your driver’s side window just makes you want to roll it up, but on your passenger side, they couldn’t reach you. I unclenched a bit. Then I realized that I hadn’t meant to open the window, and didn’t even remember pushing the button. My body was playing to someone else’s tune, and that someone was leaning in my window. I puckered right up again.
There was… something, though. She looked… so familiar. But I’d never met her. Of that much, I was positive: I had never met anyone like this before.
"Thanks for stopping," she smiled, eyes crinkled, "I’m really glad you did. I wanted to apologize for zipping into the spot like that."
The angle of her head, the tilt of her back… The closest my mother had come to getting me to study makeup was her dogged support of my interest in Drama Club. She’d canceled about a dozen trips and personally driven me to every rehearsal, every play, every night. She’d left the Sultan of Brunei hanging to make sure that I got to opening night when they called me up from understudying Lady Macbeth because a nasty stomach bug had taken out the lead actress. Theater was the one thing I did in high school other than homework, and a few years of hanging around with thespians had sharpened my radar for faked emotion. This woman’s smile was just what it seemed to be: pleased and grateful to me.
"It… it’s no big deal," said my mouth, while my mind was shouting that it was indeed a very big deal. Part of my brain had been cataloging the parking spaces that were being picked off as the seconds ticked by, and I was currently two spots away from a Purple Lot death march.
She beamed. "That’s great to hear. This actually is my spot, but…" she tapped her watch, "… I’m totally late. You’d have been in your rights to take it. I appreciate it very much."
I smiled back, in spite of myself. There was a black sedan that… One spot left. "You looked like you were in a big rush. I’ve got fifteen minutes before my shift starts."
Which if I didn’t get going right now were going to be spent fast-walking in the moderately-but-not-completely-sensible heels my mother had just bought me, so let’s just rolllllll up the window…
"Shift?" she asked, her urgency for the parking spot now forgotten. "Are you with Security?"
"Green Shirt," I admitted. "It’s my first day."
"Oh my gosh!" She actually put her hand to her mouth. "First day? Welcome aboard! Guin Drake. CTC/COPS."
Guin: she pronounced it with a "W". Almost like…
"Gwen," I said. "Er, DeGrace. Not-that-kind-of Escort Services."
She giggled. I put her age somewhere in her late thirties, but she moved and spoke like a much younger woman. "I’m not that kind of cop, so no worries. We’re morally flexible here. The truth is a message, not a mountain."
She laughed again at my expression, which was trying to decide whether to be embarrassed or confused. "It stands for ‘Chief of Operations’. It’s my job to make sure the dirty jobs get done. So I can give you a list of escort services alphabetically, by country, or by star rating. But I can probably take the word of Senator DeGrace’s stepdaughter that she isn’t that kind of escort."
Her eyes twinkled as I flinched. "Honey, it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to figure out who you are. I believe your stepdad puts my husband in the hot seat on the regular, which is why we never make it to any of your mom’s soirees. Goddamn shame about the conflict of interest, because I’ve heard rumors… Maybe you can sneak me in sometime? It’s a pleasure to finally meet you."
Chief of Operations for the Counterterrorism Center. She was four or five steps from being the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Pleasure to meet me!
I blushed. "Uh… you too? And I try not to hang out at the parties."
Characteristically suave. By the by, the last parking spot has been occupied.
"Because they’re full of old men who make wildly inappropriate comments and think you don’t get it, or else don’t give a damn?" She put her finger to the side of her nose. Her fingernails were the same red as her car and her suit. "I have sources… including having been eighteen myself, once. And yes, I saw that panicky look on your face when I dropped your stepdad’s name. Don’t worry. Your secret is safe with me."
"I mean, it’s not like he pulled strings…" I objected.
He pulled strings.
She smiled again. "Honey, ‘strings’ are how the world works. It’s like a violin. Strike a bow, and there’s music. For the right tune, there are plenty of people listening." She leaned in. "I’ll very much enjoy hearing what you have to play. You’re not destined to be a Green Shirt for long."
There was a flicker in the air between us. The universe vibrated in C major.
She winked, and the strings hushed. "Gotta run. Need to see a man about a sex tape. Good luck!"
I watched her go for a moment. For as long as I could remember, my mother had been my idea of what it meant to be a strong woman. Mom didn’t walk so much as she flourished. Where she passed, eyes followed.
Guin Drake didn’t walk, either: she strode. My eyes weren’t prone to playing tricks, but I swear that I saw parked cars scramble to get out of her way.
I checked my nails. Red wouldn’t look so bad.
Then I remembered the clock, and the Purple Lot.
It turned out to be a long walk. There wasn’t a great way to get from the Purple Lot to the one entrance of the building that I’d ever used, and that was the only route I knew to get to the squad room where I’d start my shift. Even without my stealth suit, I was sweating lightly in the late summer haze. As I headed inside and the turnstiles signaled their approval of my badge and PIN code with a loud chirp, I felt a thrill shiver up my spine. Thoughts of red fingernails faded as I breathed deeply.
I couldn't help but feel like I'd fooled them all: I couldn't really be walking through CIA Headquarters on my own, barely eighteen and with more questions than befit my station. But nobody looked at me twice.
I shouldered my way into the green blazer I'd brought, and the inattention became a void that sucked at me, made me want to scream at them all, those dark-clad men and women who held the fate of the world in their crooked minds. Beneath that coat of shamrock, all the things that too-shy high school boys and dirty old men and lonely security guards noticed smeared away into the kind of invisibility that the spies around me trained for years to attain. With one wardrobe selection, I had gone off the grid.
I stood there, a long blank hallway in front of me and a museum of Agency history on my right, and I caught a faint patina on the air, a wisp of familiar memory. It could be nothing else.
He was here.