When they gave me the uniform, they gave me the first lie.
They gave me the badge.
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, eyes 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 the second 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?
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 while it is many things, the stealth suit is not something that appeals to an eighteen-year-old girl’s fashion sense. Mine might not be particularly refined, but Reem ar-Rahmani DeGrace was not about to let her only child leave the house wearing shoulder pads. She’d taught me better, she huffed when I showed it to her. And - when she wasn’t traveling the world without me - she had tried to, with the desperation of a mother who’d reaped the not-infrequent benefits of an eye-catching figure and who Only Wanted The Best For You.
“My dear Gwen,” she argued across years of adolescent rebellion, “we live in America now, where a little makeup will not kill you, but too little might.”
I courted that danger, mostly out of laziness but partially to annoy her. My nails weren’t even done. I mean, why bother? Creepy old men at my parent’s parties would meaningfully intone that “you’ve definitely inherited your mother’s figure,” but high school had taught me that I 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 moved past each other as I swung the steering wheel of my new Audi left 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. To the right, the fork 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.
Time for the first 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. 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 flat 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. 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 isn't. She loves you. She's behaving strangely because she is pregnant but the two of you never wanted children. She hasn't figured out how to tell you yet, because she wants to keep the baby. That attractive blonde you’ve been flirting with isn't 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 she put you up to this, you little freak? Blonde? Have you been spying on me? Hey, I'm talking to you!”
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 was why I had no friends.
You would not want that cretin for a friend.
Oh, be nice. That had been hardly fair, in retrospect. 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. 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 from a fifteen minute walk from the Purple Lot. Several others were already sharking the lot, and I quickly spied an open space a short walk from the entrance. I was heading towards it as a red SUV came zipping down the aisle, 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 she was leaning in my window. I puckered right up again.
There was… something, though. She looked… so familiar. But I’d never met her before. 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’d had to call me up from understudying Lady Macbeth due to a nasty stomach bug that 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.”
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.”
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 Zagat rating. But I can probably take the word of Senator DeGrace’s daughter that she isn’t that kind of escort.” Her eyes twinkled. “Oh yeah, I know 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. 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 inappropriate old men who make your skin crawl?” 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 world vibrated in C major.
She winked. “Gotta run. 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. She 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 a woman in red 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. Yet nobody looked twice at me.
As I shouldered my way into the green blazer I'd brought, 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.
As I stood there, a long blank hallway in front of me and a museum of Agency history on my right, I caught a faint patina on the air, a wisp of familiar memory. It could be nothing else.
He was here.
"Excuse me, sorry," a man jostled past. People were trying to get to work, and I had just been standing there in the entryway, lost inside myself. Some kind of collision was predestined. He turned to check on me as he swept by, and I got a glimpse of a shaved head, ice blue eyes actually seeing me over a knife of a nose. Another surge of familiarity raced through me; I knew this man, I was sure of it. I had never seen him before in my life, but I knew him nonetheless. He looked at me with authority and warmth all at once, the way my mother did. His eyes lingered on mine for a second, and they didn't drift. Then, satisfied that I'd survived the bump, he turned purposefully forward, never slowing.
I pressed myself up against a wall and let the world sweep past. That was... odd. My heart was beating fast, but it was exciting enough just to be here, and I'd been surprised...
Come now. Coincidences are for other people.
Twice this morning I’d had the sensation of knowing someone who I’d never seen before. It had been happening more to me lately: the guy who’d done my in-processing paperwork had reminded me so strongly of my tenth grade biology teacher that I’d almost greeted him by name. It was something that happened from time to time, but lately it was a daily occurrence.
It was as if the rest of the world was becoming more real… or I was.
"Hey, Gwen!" came a cheerful hail. A young man in a green jacket that matched mine had just come through the turnstiles and was homing in on me, oblivious to my green-shirted invisibility. His brown hair was an awkward tangle, and his limbs could barely do better. My elbows spontaneously pointed sideways in sympathetic post-adolescent confusion.
"Hi Mort," I waved halfheartedly, resenting the intrusion into the strange moment.
"First day!" he huffed, and I slid off of the wall to pace him. It seemed the only thing to do in the face of his familiarity. He turned to me as we walked. “Today's the day when we get our first assignments. Who do you think it's going to be? Ambassador? Foreign dignitary?"
I sighed. "I think probably a janitor or repairman who doesn't have a security clearance. An ambassador gets someone more important to show him around."
"Don't set your sights so low!" he shouted, and punched the air. Then he looked at me from the corner of his eye to see if I'd seen it, while simultaneously not wanting me to see him looking.
The juxtaposition tugged at me: his enthusiasm was honest, and yet also a show, useless unless I saw it. He is showing off what a sexually-suitable partner he is. He wants your attention.
I gave it to him for a couple of seconds. I let my eyes flick over stray hairs on his cuff, the knot on his tie, the belt on its smallest notch, the scuff mark on the front of his shoe. I sighed. He had no secrets worth telling. He was just... ordinary.
Mort started to make a turn right before the wooden submarine at the end of the hallway, a relic of some clandestine operation of years past. As he passed in front of me, all reality seemed to gush out of the universe: I could still see everything in exact detail, but it was irrelevant, so vague that my mind would not allow it more attention than was absolutely required not to bump into anything. Mort and the CIA and the submarine and the whole world faded into obscurity, everything vanishing except for a small slip of paper on a bulletin board next to the sub.
This, at least, was a weird sensation that I could do something with.
"Hang on," I murmured, veering away. I felt his eyes on me as I homed in on the bulletin board, and for the first time was glad for the way the green jacket rendered away my curves.
A wall near the elevator bank was plastered with papers advertising things that spies needed, or needed to be rid of. They were banality itself: lamps, two motorcycles, an old set of china, an African carving. I ignored the post looking for a roommate; it was another sort of roommate that I needed.
I tore off the last of the strips of paper that hung from the bottom of the flyer, and nearly rebounded off of Mort, who was a close follower. He let our "oh, excuse me" dance go on a tad longer than it should have, and then peered past me as I put a civil amount of space between us.
"You're getting a dog?"
I shrugged. "My dad won't pay for the apartment if I'm living alone."
"And a dog counts?"
"This one does." I grinned. Even Senator DeGrace could hardly argue that his little girl wouldn't be safe living with a pit bull. The dog looked like a bicep wrapped around a jawline that was chewing through a crowbar.
“Dogs are a lot of work. I’m a cat guy.”
But who cared about that? I didn’t stoop for the bait. “I’ve changed my baby brother’s diaper four hundred and seventeen times. I can handle a dog.”
Mort side-eyed the poster as we started walking again. “He looks like he could handle a Sherman tank. What happens if he decides to go after my cat?”
“I’ll buy you a new one,” I promised. “You’ll name him ‘Patches’ and love him very much.”
“Oh good,” he grinned. “I’ve always wanted a cat. What’s your brother’s name? You’ve never mentioned him.”
“You and I met yesterday. Qadir.” I paused. “It means, ‘fate,’ loosely.”
“And you’re Gwen? They went traditional with kid number two?”
“I changed it when we immigrated. I was ready to be done with Yemen. Qadir, he’s… adopted.”
“You weren’t born here?” His surprise was genuine. “I’d never have guessed in a million years. You don’t have an accent at all.”
I shrugged. “I watched a lot of cartoons for a while. They speak a pretty generic form of English on TV, so that’s what I picked up. I didn’t have many friends.”
He took a deep breath. “You know, if you wanted to—”
"No thanks," I answered the question. Mort reminded me of that scrawny kid in middle school who was always trying to prove himself to the cool guys: terminally insecure, surrounded by a buffer of glibness. He was certain that if he hung around long enough, you'd have to give in and have sex with him.
"Pardon?" He hadn't been expecting me to see through him. No one ever did.
"I'm not interested in having sex with you," I stated, voice flat.
"Uh... who said anything about...?" He unconsciously ran his hand through his hair.
"Since we met yesterday, I've noticed that you speak more rapidly when you think I'm watching you. You laugh when you aren't being funny and then check to see if I'm laughing along. You've looked below my neckline seven times in the last two minutes. Based on the sudden aroma of anti-perspirant, you are currently sweating more than you were when you caught up with me. You were going to ask if I wanted to go and get coffee sometime, and had already tensed up for me to respond that I had a boyfriend. As it happens, I have… something complicated. But that’s irrelevant, because I'm also not interested in having sex with you. I'd sincerely appreciate it if you didn't waste any more tissues on sweaty thoughts of me and instead you relaxed and tried to be a friend. You seem genuinely nice."
He opened his mouth slightly, and then closed it. I preempted his next sentence.
"Please don't call me a name. I've had to give that speech nine times since I turned eleven. I've been called a bitch four times, an ice queen once, and too into myself twice. Once the guy just ran away."
He was quick enough on his feet to do some mental arithmetic. "What about the ninth?"
I shrugged. "That's up to you."
He grinned. "So you're saying there's a chance. Not a serious ‘something complicated’?”
I rolled my eyes. "Ignoring what I'm saying: not as endearing as you imagine it to be. Don't break your own heart. You seem like a basically nice guy, so you've been warned, which is more than most girls would give you. Now come on: we'll be late for work."
"What do you do for the not-nice guys?" he trailed after me.
"Bartitsu," I muttered.
We stopped outside the door of the squad room.
“Okay,” he drooped. “Man, your baby brother is going to have a way better coach for this sort of thing than I ever did.”
His brown eyes were watery and quizzical. Flames flickered in my memory, and I smelled acrid smoke almost a decade old.
“He’s[ Establish Qadir more before Mort. We need to hear about him once or twice before this scene, and maybe again after it.] dead,” I said simply, and headed in to do my job.
It turned out that I didn't get an ambassador.
"What happened to Shauna?" asked the hunched woman in the janitor's uniform before me. I apologized and told her that I had no idea, and in a whoosh explained that it's my first day as a Green Shirt and I'd be escorting her around today and was her name Pat?
Yes, this what I was doing instead of Yale: I was escorting the lady with the vacuum cleaner. Daughter of a Senator or no, it's hard to get a glamorous CIA job when you're eighteen.
She squinted suspiciously at me for a few moments, and then took up her monologue wherever she'd left off with Shauna the day before. I glanced up, but Mort was already back-slapping a mustachioed man pushing a cart full of tools, and he faded away amidst the sound of hushed dirty jokes and laughter.
The cleaning lady's name was Pat, and my job was basically to stay out of her way as she did her rounds. She had wispy gray hair, a mouth that sucked into her face, and a chin that jutted out of it. She dragged her wheeled trash can from room to room as I awkwardly yelled, "Uncleared!" as quietly as I could every time I badged into a new one.
I could have screamed it at the top of my lungs. If I'd thought I was invisible before, that word made me inaudible as well: no one even looked up to see what breed of the great unwashed had entered their august company. It wasn't worth the CIA's dollar to get every janitor or maintenance guy a Top Secret security clearance, and it wasn't worth a spy's time to pay attention when the bored-looking girl with the mocha skin gave the classified equivalent of an airline safety presentation. Pat couldn't wander around without me because she had no security clearance; I had no reason to be in the building except to take her around.
CIA was a pretty cosmopolitan place - that, or my skin tones faded out to green under the coat as surely as the rest of me. There were no funny glances at my exotic appearance. Then again, the charitable explanation held some water: I saw more than a few other Arabs as I went around. They at least acknowledged my existence.
"... and then he asked if I was a linguist," chatted one of them to his pals, quickly acknowledging me with his eyes. "I mean, it was the Deputy Chief of Ops! I was like, 'um, no, I'm an analyst on the Saudi desk...'"
The rooms all started to blend into the next. I tried to stay alert for anything that could help me find my target here in this huge complex, but there were only so many featureless doors I could see down beige hallways with gray carpets before my mind started to shut down in self-defense. I began to tune out. At some point, I realized that Pat was talking to me directly.
"... from Shenandoah County, and Shauna was born in DC, bless her heart. Where are you from?"
"Pennsylvania," I offered, but there was no glint of motive in Pat's eyes. "Er, by way of Yemen."
"That in one of the Dakotas?" Her crinkled face broke into new lines of puzzlement.
"It's near Saudi Arabia," I explained, launching automatically into my Of Course You've Never Heard of The Place You're Bombing riff. "But it's poor and there's a lot of people who are angry with America there. It's hard-" I paused, because there was something about Pat's neutral stare that absorbed any righteous indignation I harbored.
"My first dad got killed while I was little," I offered. “After a totally random encounter in the street that I in no way arranged, my mom remarried an oil exec and we came here. He adopted me, and he's a Senator now. Yemen was a long time ago."
Pat explained to me how poor Shenandoah County was, and asked if Yemen was anything like that. Unbidden, memory crashed over me in crystalline detail.
Waking up to the smell of sizzling goat as dusk falls on Eid, my stomach rumbling. There is no roof, but the plastic sheeting flutters limply in the zephyrs of evening, and I can see the moon, which the imam said had been split by the Prophet -- peace be upon him. My mother, beautiful beneath her veil, smiles with her eyes and strokes my hair as we walk through the dusty street toward the place where the women prepare the feast. The radio hisses on, and then off, because there is nothing but static since the local amir determined that music was haram. Later: my mother's face, eyes no longer smiling, telling me that my father was dead, and that we had to leave...
"Something like that," I murmured. "Yemen is something like that."
"Must be nice to be here, then," Pat grinned. "I sure don't miss goin' outside to do my business on them cold mornings..." She bustled off, and I smiled after her. It was nice to be here.
As we went, I caught snippets of conversations:
"... we've got a cut of him talking to an unidentified male that lines up with the report from TQWOODSIDE..."
"... so I sent out an email telling everybody that I would be shutting the Nagios server down in ten minutes..."
"... pulled the metadata and did a two-step associates query with no hits on our boy..."
"... hah, yeah, good luck getting Legal to sign off on that one... fucking Snowden!"
None of this was meant for my ears, but it didn't matter much: absent context, TQWOODSIDE might be a hidden mole, a spy satellite, or the pizza boy for all I knew. Yeah, I was hearing more than my green-clad ears were supposed to, but it didn't mean anything to me. It was tantalizing... yet oddly reassuring: maybe I could fool them into letting me into their vaults, but they weren't straight up giving me the keys to the kingdom.
Pat, on the other hand, had not only the keys, but had a map of every shadowy corner of the whole place. I may have been the one to get her in the door, but there was no mistaking who belonged there and who didn't. The harried spies who were tasked with solving crimes before they ever happened, mostly they took a second to smile at Pat, and ask her how she was doing, wish her a good day, and sincerely thank her for carrying away their garbage and dusting their cubicles. They all seemed fond of her, and a few of them would chat with her about inconsequential trivia while their computers flashed cryptic messages behind them.
After a few rooms, I started tuning back in and listening to what she was saying, and it was fascinating. She knew an amazing amount about everyone in the building.
"That man, very nice, he's got three little kids and he's always showing pictures of their soccer practice, bless their hearts... ...she's new in the office, and is having a hard time, poor dear, here so late all the time... ... miss makeup there is definitely sleeping with the branch chief; I've cleaned their trash cans, if you know what I mean..."
When I started prodding her with questions about this and that, she became even more animated. She couldn't tell me a thing about what any of these people are working on, but after a morning with her, I felt like I'd been spying on the people here for years. No names, but I could tell you how they took their coffee, when they took their breaks, which ones drank too much...
... and I knew which door hid the man I'd come here to find. Pat didn't know any national security information, but she knew a staggering amount of context. Thoughts of TQWOODSIDE were replaced by those of a room on the third floor. It had to be. He couldn't be anyone else.
He took his coffee black as night and sweet as sin.
Somewhere on the second floor, Pat was a few steps down the hall from me as I frowned at the door she'd passed. "What about this one?" I asked. We hadn't yet skipped a single opportunity to douse a room in her mixture of bleach and napalm.
She shrugged, and shook her head. "Not that one," she said, and kept moving. "Don't clean that one." She shook her head, and mumbled something about it probably being filthy in there anyway.
I looked at the door. It looked like every other door in this place, only a number and a barely-descriptive placard. What the "Operational Resources Group" did that distinguished it from the "Mission Support Group", I had no idea, and I suspected that was part of the point. This place was an acronym wrapped in a euphemism shrouded by bureaucratic doublespeak.
I heard a muffled voice and leapt back just in time to avoid getting mowed down by the posse that emerged at speed. Four suited men with three ties, a man in a polo shirt, and a woman who wore Converse sneakers - the last two had been giving the briefing; she dresses casually to be taken as 'one of the boys' because it's easier than being the ball-buster - they were unified by the urgent looks on their faces. Leading the way was the bald, hawkish man who'd bumped into me that morning.
We locked eyes, and he checked his stride for a second. There it was again: that feeling of familiarity. I felt myself draw in every detail in that moment: ice blue eyes with wispy blond brows, a pointed chin and high cheekbones, a mouth that could laugh or bite you in half. His pressed suit clung to him perfectly; he wore cufflinks bearing a sword and shield emblem. He was in the process of cinching his tie where it had been loosened, and I thought rashly that he looked like a knight about to ride off to battle.
He swept past again, but had slowed enough that his lieutenant pulled up short to avoid colliding with him. He held my gaze for a moment going by, but the current of immediacy bore him on and away before either of us were ready for the look to end.
Military brat, divorced, sleeps at the office more nights than not, went to community college, spent time wandering the Middle East without a guide, five-ten, one-seventy-three, champion fencer, tea drinker, his lips would taste of cinnamon...
I cut my inner monologue off. I knew who this man was. My pulse was racing.
Memory: I willed the fires and smoke to unwind, to retreat back up to the unforgiving sky...
Now: Someone is going to die.
I stood stupidly for what must have seemed a long time after the group had passed, collecting my thoughts. I was trembling, I realized, and Pat reached out, almost touching me.
"You okay, honey?” she asked, dark creases of concern at her eyes.
"I... yeah... I was... startled."
"Them folk," she shook her head disapprovingly, "always hurrying off to the Front Office upstairs, don't never watch where they going..." Seeing that I wasn't about to lose it at my near-encounter with a swinging door, she pulled her hand back.
"It's a bitty room that's next," she clucked. "You can have a little sit-down while I clean up."
"I'm fine," I managed, but my hands were clenched, arms rigid. I forced my fingers to uncurl. "I'm fine. Let's go."
We were on the second floor. They were headed upstairs. To the Front Office. To the room on the third floor. To him.
My mind was still spinning at lunchtime. I was reluctant to leave Pat, but it was time to take a break, and I had a phone call to make.
As it turned out, finding a phone I could use was a bit of a pain. No cell phones were allowed in the building, so I had to hunt down a landline - one that wasn't set up for super-secret phone calls between spies. The phone number in my pocket was for one of the regular sorts of phones - a "green line", Pat had told me, because they apparently used to actually have green phones for unsecured calls - and it turned out that CIA wasn't too keen on just leaving open lines laying around all over the place. I wound up finding one in the break room where us green shirts hid out when not on assignment.
"Drake," clipped the voice on the other end of the line.
“Wait - Guin Drake?” I stammered.
“Not-that-kind-of-escort?” she answered back, voice suddenly all smiles. I smiled back. “I hadn’t expected to hear from you so soon.”
“I saw your poster. You have a dog?”
I could practically her her eyes bug out. “Cavill? Oh, thank God! We’ve been having a hell of a time trying to place him. Arthur and I are PCSing to London in a month, and we’ve got to find him a good home. Are you seriously calling me about him?”
“Yes!” I grinned back into the phone. “When can I meet him?”
“What are you doing right now?” She was buzzing with excitement.
“Now? As in… now, now? You have him at work?”
“He gets around. You have no idea. I can meet you in the parking deck on the second level in ten minutes. I need to finish this briefing.”
“You picked up the green line in the middle of a briefing?”
“I had a good feeling,” she answered confidently. “Ten minutes. You know the car.”
The line went dead.
This was too perfect. My father had been dragging his heels on the "apartment" issue for a while, and just that morning he'd agreed that, if I could find a big dog, he'd get me a place.
I was going to need to be out from under my parents' roof if I was this close already... the third floor beckoned. Soon, I'd be doing things that my parents didn't need to see.
I couldn't imagine my father's face if I brought a dog home today, but my impertinence would as sure as anything get me my own space within a week's time. No way would my parents want a big dog crashing and peeing his way through our manicured home. I clapped my hands together in excitement. It was child's play. Elementary.
Something was nagging at me. I felt the corner of my mouth curl up as I let my brain worry at it. Arthur, yes, that was it. My brain had printed the word in bold letters a mile high across my cortex as she’d said it. Arthur… her husband. They were PCSing…
“Mort,” I snapped as I clocked out early. He turned away from his lunch, sliding his body around to face me with a sly smile on his face.
“Gwen,” he replied evenly. “Leaving early? Whatever is the matter, my dear?”
I cocked my head. I sniffed.
No deodorant at all. He wasn’t sweating. He was as cool as ice.
“What does ‘PCS’ mean?” I said, already backing towards the door. I’d walked past the garage on my way in, and it was still a hike. Wouldn’t do to keep Cavill waiting. Hard to recover from a bad first impression.
“Permanent Change of Station,” he answered. “It’s what they call it here when you’re going overseas for a couple of years. Why, do you know someone who’s about to take a big trip? Meeting people already, are we?”
“Getting a dog!” I chirped. Mort was being weird, but maybe this was the way he was when he wasn’t trying to sleep with me?
“Give her my best.” He tapped his fingers to his forehead in a casual salute.
“It’s a he,” I answered. “His name is Cavill!”
He isn’t talking about the dog, said my inner voice.
I let my brain worry at it. My feet had some fast walking to do.
I wound through hallways, some drab, some three stories tall with replica SR-71 Blackbird spy planes swooping from the ceiling. Exiting through the New Headquarters Building -- not the one with the big CIA logo on the floor, but the one with the full glass skylight and statue of Native American warriors in the middle of the lobby -- I emerged into the sweltering summer of the D.C. suburbs. I shucked the jacket in an effort not to be immediately drenched in sweat.
Ugh. At least Yemen had the decency to be a dry heat. How did people live like this?
Arthur, Arthur, Arthur…
It got marginally cooler as I entered the gloom of the garage. Guin had said that she would be parked near the stairs, and I remembered her red sport utility vehicle. The car was only a few spaces down, one aisle over from the stairs. The windows were all opened a crack, and I heard a muffled bark as I approached. I started to smile, but a little prickling in my spine froze my lips as it was forming. I could hear the worry in that bark.
Something was wrong.
I looked around, but there was no one else in sight. Quickening my pace, I came up behind the SUV. There was a large dog inside, moving around in the back seat, agitated. He saw me, and then jerked his head soundlessly forward. Any stressed dog would have barked at the stranger coming to the car, but he didn't; he looked ahead. I followed his gaze.
A woman's form slumped against the driver's side door. She wasn't moving.
Oh no. Oh, no, no, no, no, no…!
Arthur… and Guin.
My pulse was pounding, but my breath pushed evenly out of my body. Every nerve was tingling in anticipation, and part of me was screaming and crying and cursing the universe, how could it, she was so nice…
But that was just a part of me.
The part of me that was me got to work.
I eased around to the door. Her head had fallen up against the glass, blond hair obscuring her features, but I could tell from the angle of her head that her mouth was facing down. There was no fog of breath on the window.
I shivered, seeing her again. Even in death, I felt as if I knew her.
“Guin Drake. CTC/COPS.”
She was still wearing the scarlet pantsuit. I couldn't see any sign of injury: no blood, no obvious bruises. One hand lay akimbo, on top of a matching red travel bag. The frozen fingers clutched a cell phone, its display showing the text messaging screen.
"Rache", the message read, as if she'd been about to type "Rachel". But she'd already entered the phone number of the recipient; this word was the text of the message. I caught my breath when I saw whose phone number she'd entered.
It was mine. But I'd called her from an office phone. I hadn't given her my phone number.
I straightened, peering quickly around, but there were still no observers. Her other hand was in her lap, empty, but on the floor I could make out a small pill bottle. I sniffed: the smell of mint and something bitter was on the air. There: a travel mug in the cup holder had the top off, half-drunk. Steam curled from it: this was fresh, and hot. My eyes flicked around the cabin. Her keys were in the ignition, partially turned: the engine was off, but the air conditioner was running.
The dog watched me, not whining, not threatening... just watching.
Murder… whispered my inner voice.
I heard voices, and my jaw clenched in frustration. They were still a ways off - top of the stairs, conversing before parting ways: thirty seconds or less - I had no time.
I let my shoulders loosen and instinct took over. Smell of wax: the car's been washed recently. Finger smudges on the rear driver's side door: it's been opened since the wax job. The rear door opened right away, and the dog hopped out. He immediately sniffed the neighboring car tire, and peed on it.
I let my mind whirl on as my body went on autopilot, almost in a fuge state. I fished around in the cab of the car, taking care not to disturb the body while wiping away any fingerprints I might have left. Cavill was sitting quietly on his haunches, watching me, but it wouldn't do to have a pit bull off leash: he might see someone he thought was friendly and I'd never get him under control. There it was - red, like everything else, expensive-looking and leather - and after snatching it, I moved to close the door… and paused.
My fingers hung in the air for a moment. She was just… I didn’t want to leave her alone.
She’s gone, Gwen.
My fingertips brushed the back of her hair. Blonde. I’d so often wished for hair that color after we moved to the U.S. For a moment, my heart swelled in yearning for the relative simplicity of Yemen.
Memory: I willed the fires and smoke to unwind, to retreat back up to the unforgiving sky...
I blinked. Do not cry on the crime scene, genius.
Gwen, we have to go. The voices are getting close.
I squeezed my lips together, swallowed, and pushed myself into the car one more time. My hand darted into her purse, unerring, somehow knowing just where it would be in the mess of cards and sunglasses and lotion…
Red nail polish.
I ducked down and leaned my weight into the door as firmly as I dared. And I left her.
I hooked Cavill up and wove him between the cars, staying low where it made sense and trying to avoid as many eyes as possible. We headed down to the bottom floor of the garage via the rear stairwell, farthest from the main building - can't go back up that way, lest the strangeness of a dog call unwanted attention - and I tied his leash to the stair railing. I hustled to my car as quickly as I dared, not letting myself run. After seven excruciating minutes, I tore open the door of the Audi.
I was a rubber band ready to snap, which is probably why I screamed when I saw movement. Cavill was there, panting and smiling at me.
“What the…? How the? What the hell are you doing here? How are you doing here?”
He smiled, cocked his head, and wagged his tail. His entire posture conveyed an absolute certainty that he was a very good boy.
I’d been hearing shouts of alarm in my imagination ever since I’d left the garage. I couldn’t stand here, dumbly staring at this dog who had magically appeared in my car. Not with his murdered owner so close. We had to get out of here, both of us.
No sirens. There wouldn't be, would there? Not here. Still, to play it safe I took the back exit, pulling past the spy plane monument in the north lot straight onto the George Washington Parkway. No one stopped me. No one even noticed. I looked down at some point as I drifted coolly beneath the trees, Potomac River on my left and blue sky smiling over it, and I noticed that I was wearing the green jacket again. I'd put it on unconsciously while going to fetch the Audi. Of course no one had stopped me: I'd been invisible.
Cavill had curled up on the passenger seat, but was watching me curiously. He was powerfully-built: seventy, eighty pounds, with a barrel chest and a neck thicker than my thigh. His blue-gray coat rippled as he shifted and yawned, and from that brief view into his mouth I was certain that nobody would have approached a car that he was in without his permission. Anybody who had come up with murder on their mind would have needed at lead a full SWAT team, and those are hard to hide.
Murder… but it had happened before she entered the parking garage. Tea, and pills. Guin… and Arthur.
Guin Drake. Arthur Drake.
He was here. A room on the third floor.
Flames flickered in my memory, and the lump in my throat made it hard to swallow them.
The trees had given way to clear sky as I passed Georgetown on my left, angling along the water towards National Airport. It was a beautiful drive: a lazy river on one side streamed the promise of monuments striding the world, while ducks and geese skimmed over a marshy expanse on my right. Before me, an airport tantalized with dreams of simpler lands… lands made for the living.
But I always seemed to walk among the dead.
My cell phone rang. A blocked number.
"Ms. DeGrace, I'd like to be the first to congratulate you. No one saw you coming." The man's voice had an aristocratic accent. American, though: Connecticut. His words were complimentary, but his tone was not.
"Thanks? I, um, who's this?" I was playing it cool.
"Doyle Holmes, at your service." The grin in his words said that he was enjoying the confused sound of my voice. "Or perhaps, you shall be at mine, tomorrow. I'll expect you at nine-oh-three, at the Starbucks. We have a great deal to talk about all of a sudden."
"Look, I don't-"
"Green is not really your color, Ms. DeGrace. Nine-oh-three. Leave the dog. Bring the phone. I'll need it. Also, watch your speed. There's an officer of the law just past the airport." The line went dead.
Cavill had propped himself up, rigidly staring at something in the distance, over the marsh. I squinted, and then I saw it: a tiny speck, a metallic glint, hovering a hundred yards off, then rising straight up and zipping off to the north, where a woman lay dead.
I slowed down the car, but had no luck with my heart rate. There was a police cruiser parked a short distance past the airport exit.
I looked down at the phone lying on the console next to me. Not the one I'd just taken a mysterious call on; my phone was back in my purse. Guin Drake’s phone was lying next to her pill bottle and fingernail polish.
"Rache", shone the word on the screen. The message hadn't been sent... at least not over cellular networks. It was there on the phone: that word, and my phone number, a number that I hadn't given out.
It was a message… a message for me.
Well then, Holmes. The game is afoot.