Humans. We are the animals who tell stories. From Adam to Zorro, Santa to Shaitan, Bill to Ted... stories are supposed to help prepare us for the world in all its moments of excellence and disappointment.
This is a story about how stories have failed us.
In dusty hills of Yemen that birthed me, they tell little girls that if they please God with their modesty, they may grow up to birth sons who are the Lions of Submission. When you think about it, this makes no sense whatsoever. Not only do “lions” and “submission” not belong in the same phrase, but how’s a mistress of meekness supposed to raise some kind of Arab luchador? It’s ever-so-slightly less ridiculous in Arabic, but it still stinks like something that fell out of the backside of a goat. My highest aspiration in life was defined entirely by how I pleased God, or my husband? What about how I pleased myself? It didn’t make sense to me when I was two years old, and when I confronted the imam about it in front of my mother - who was an Arab, a woman, and a professor of English Literature, among other non-sequiturs - she got that weird smile that said that she was proud of me and embarrassed by me at the same time.
Moving to America as the adopted daughter of an oil exec-cum-Senator would seem like a dream to someone who spent a significant portion of her childhood peeing into a hole in the ground. But in America, you had to swallow bullshit by the bucket just to cross the street. I loved my stepdad, but American politics made no sense. The two "parties" - a ridiculous American term for coagulations of angry graybeards who celebrated nothing except power - seemed to agree only on the notions that America was the greatest nation in the world and that no one anywhere else had rights. American life was even weirder. Men were supposed to be single jerks until they became married simpletons, boys were not allowed to get into scraps in the schoolyard, girls were valuable only as objects of conquest, and women were to fade into invisibility primarily by means of starvation. "Reality TV" was a thing... and even more of a contradiction than "Lions of Submission." It was all ludicrous.
But that was fine. I had a secret. I knew my story.
It was amazing, how a secret could be your friend when no one else would. You could sullenly whisper it into your gym locker after Brandy Whitebread had made fun of your thick, undisciplined hair because it wouldn't be politically correct to make fun of your skin that was just a shade more mocha than her spray-on tan. You could whisper to it under the covers late at night, instead of to Joe Quarterback who you might once have had a stupid crush on until he said something about "sand niggers", a term that nobody had used in like a decade and he totally knew you were there around the corner and he just wanted to see what you would do.
My secret meant that I knew that when Joe Quarterback went home, his mom was pickled drunk and for years his dad hadn't been able to see him play football over the rim of his cell phone. I knew that Brandy Whitebread made sure that she kept her calorie count under two hundred on two days out of the week (Wednesday and Sunday) but couldn't manage to get her five-eight frame under one-oh-three. She did this because she'd read that intermittent fasting would make up for her brother telling her that she was fat because he'd heard it from their dad, who'd been talking about someone on television who Brandy had read in a magazine was a size zero. Lately, she'd been wondering if her teen-perfect breasts were too small, and was trying to figure out if she could guilt her daddy into paying for a boob job.
My secret meant that I knew everyone else's secrets.
It meant that I cried once a year, on May Day, and that for the remaining five hundred twenty-five thousand, nine-hundred and forty-four minutes per year, I knew precisely what my purpose in life was. (Yes, even when I was asleep.) I didn't have a friend in the world, because every moment not spent fulfilling my mission was wasted.
Also because my secret was batshit crazy and I knew it was true but still sometimes barely believed it. Nobody else would understand.
Also because fuck Joe and Brandy. I didn't need their bullshit stories. I knew exactly who I was. I’d read it in a book.
So two months after graduation, I eased my new Audi past the guard shack outside of the Central Intelligence Agency on my second day 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.
I had no friends except a high school diploma; I had a secret; and I had a birth certificate from a part of the world that we were actively bombing. CIA? Yeah, I was lucky my dad was on the Intelligence Committee. America at least did nepotism right.
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 just yesterday I'd nervously presented myself for onboarding. Then, I'd needed my ID, my social security number, a second photo ID, and I'd brought my diploma for moral support. Today, the only thing standing between me and Agency headquarters was a scanner, and the heavily-armed man holding it.
I clutched at my only identification: a small badge with only a photograph. 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.
There were circuits and stuff in there. As I pulled the car to a halt in front of the guard, I rolled the window down and presented it to him. He was a big man in a police officer's uniform, looking for all the world like he could be strolling through a downtown neighborhood, making sure people didn't jaywalk or go streaking or murder one another.
Except that in one hand, he was holding a funny little scanner-thing, and the other one rested on the M16A1 assault rifle that was slung over his shoulder.
"Morning!" he greeted me brightly, eyes flickering to my badge, my face, my boobs. He reached the scanner out, and it made an anticlimactic beep. He nodded his head at my boobs, and I drove on.
Well, I started to. Then I stopped the car.
"Have a nice day, Rick!" I waved back at the puzzled officer. "Also, stop telling yourself that your wife is probably cheating on you: she isn't. She loves you. She's being weird because she's pregnant but she never wanted kids and hasn't figured out yet how to tell you that she wants to keep the baby. That cute new blonde you've been flirting with isn't worth it. Clean up your life. And still have that nice day!"
He looked like he was choking for a second, and then blinked away my tail lights.
Everyone else's secrets.
I followed traffic into the parking lot, where my eyes lit immediately upon a free spot close to the building’s entrance. The time on the Audi's dashboard clock read eight fifty-three: seven minutes until these reserved spaces became fair game to anybody. To roll the dice on getting a CIA parking ticket on my second day of work, or to trudge my way the ten-plus minute walk in from the purple lot?
Nobody with a parking pass starts at nine at the Agency. Anyone this important is already here, if they're coming. The CIA doesn't have a police force large enough to patrol for scofflaws: the only way you are getting a parking ticket is if the person whose spot you've purloined complains. But then they have to get an officer out here before the nine o'clock cutoff to validate the complaint. Given the likely distribution of security personnel available to respond to non-emergency complaints...
I pulled my green blazer off of the seat next to me and wove my way through the rows of tightly-packed cars, intuitively picking the best line toward the walking path. In some places, the cars were spaced so close together that you could barely squeeze through, so I avoided those. The trick was to walk as straight a line as possible to your goal while not finding yourself blocked in between an SUV and an absurdly masculine pickup truck. I looked back on my course with some satisfaction and took a moment to watch the others who were headed in the same direction as myself, evaluating their strategies. Most of them simply walked the long way down the open aisles, not even trying. It puzzled me that no one but me could see the optimal strategy.
The first parking lot, where I'd parked, was just to the southwest of the Old Headquarters Building. The main gate was behind me and to my right as I started down the narrow asphalt path that appeared to lead into the woods once more. The woods were one of many misdirections in this place, for as I passed through the chirping of crickets and the scurrying of squirrels for only a few dozen steps, I found myself at an edifice.
An ugly, graffiti-covered slab blocked my way, bespoilt with an overwrought slogan about the wind crying and a sprayed yellow man with a long nose. It was a piece of the Berlin Wall, and I was standing on the side of it from which the West looked into Communist East Germany. As I walked around it on the path, I passed steel Czech hedgehog anti-tank obstacles like one would have seen on the eastern side of the Wall, oddly incongruous with the lush greenery and sculpted gardens that emerged as CIA Headquarters appeared surreptitiously before me.
It was an odd choice, I reflected, to put CIA Headquarters on the Soviet side of the wall. The better to keep tabs on them, I supposed.
I headed up the stairs to the entrance. This wasn't the one they showed in the movies, with the giant Agency logo on the floor and the wall of honor marking the death of men and women whose names history would never know. No real spy came in that way: it was strictly for show. The southeast entrance was one of the main ways into what Agency folk referred to as "OHB": the Old Headquarters Building.
I studied myself in the reflection of the glass as I came to the top of the short flight of concrete stairs. Average height, skin the color of teak, dark hair pulled back into as tame a ponytail as my patience for such things allowed. I wasn't what you'd call athletic, but I also wasn't much of an eater: I tended to get completely wrapped up in whatever I was into at the moment to the exclusion of everything else, sometimes including breathing. I had an okay figure, as far as I could tell. My mother had despaired for years that I was hopeless at makeup, until she finally convinced me that a year spent in the drama department would help me understand the human condition. I don't know if she was right about that, but I could at least put mascara on without getting too much in my hair, and could run in heels.
For a moment, another reflection caught my eye: a blonde woman with a severe haircut and pinched cheeks. She emerged from the driver's side of a red SUV that she parked casually on the curb by the entrance, leaving the engine running. She stood out from the rest of the crowd by virtue of her brash, scarlet pantsuit. Her squared shoulders and narrowed eyes projected the aura of someone whose drive matched her ambitions. When she walked, she didn’t look down; she didn’t look from side to side. She looked… so familiar.
Yet I’d never met her before. It was a strange sensation.
She stopped inside to argue with the security officer at the desk about something, and I passed by her and the familiar feeling. 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. 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, of detestable pedigree and with more questions than befit my station. Yet nobody looked twice at me. As I shouldered my way into my green blazer, 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.
I was eighteen, and often noticed. My skin, my accent, and, yes, some other parts of me... beneath that coat of shamrock, they 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.
My secret tickled at my hindbrain. As I stood there, a long blank hallway in front of me and a museum of Agency history on my right, it was as if I'd caught a faint patina on the air, a wisp of a familiar memory. It could be nothing else.
He was here.
"Excuse me, sorry," a man jostled past. He'd been staring to one side - looking at the woman in scarlet - 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 in as many minutes, 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 so often lately. It was as if the rest of the world was becoming more real… or I was.
"Hey, Gwen!" came the cheerful hail. A young man in a green jacket that matched mine had just come through the turnstiles and was homing on me. His brown hair was an awkward tangle, and his limbs could barely do better.
"Hi Mort," I waved halfheartedly, resenting the intrusion into the strange moment I'd just had.
"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.
"Second," I corrected. "We had that security thing all day yesterday."
He waved it off. "The one where they tried to tell us about computer security with the game show, complete with buzzers? Come on, do you think you're going to be touching a computer in here?" Not needing a response, he barreled on. "I mean 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, to make sure I saw it. He's showing off what a guy he is. He wants your attention.
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. Something had caught my eye. "Hang on," I murmured, veering away. I felt his eyes on me as I homed in on the bulletin board next to the sub, and for the first time was glad for the way the green jacket rendered me shapeless.
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 spaceace 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.
"Most people would just get a roommate," Mort pressed, and I could hear a question within that statement.
"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.
"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 mentioning a roommate to gauge by my answer whether or not I had a boyfriend. I don't. But 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 stared, mouth open slightly, and then closed it. I interrupted his next sentence.
"Please don't call me a bitch, or an ice queen, or way too into myself. You think you're the first guy who's heard that speech? There've been nine. I've been called a bitch four times, an ice queen once, and too into myself twice. One time 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."
I rolled my eyes. "Don't break your own heart. You've been warned: it's more than most women would give you. Do your gender a solid and don't buy into the bullshit story that I'm a prize. I'm a person, and I'll choose who I have sex with. Now come on: we'll be late for work."
"How many guys have you not given that speech to?" he trailed after me.
"Enough," I muttered.
We walked in silence for a minute. "Okay," he said, stopping outside the door to the squad room where we would get our first assignment, "you're right. You did me a favor. Nobody drops the facade like that. So I'll do you a favor and tell you this: it only makes you more intriguing to guys like me who think you might be good for more than just bedroom ninjitsu. Think about it. Maybe telling me this makes sense logically, but that doesn't change what I want." He paused, and I nodded reluctantly. "Now, I'm going to walk through that door and go to work and not get all wound up in you. But that also means that we're not going to hang out, because I'm no good at the 'just friends' thing."
I smiled. "That's fair. And thank you. I'm sorry it's got to be that way. You really do seem nice."
And then he turned away and did as he’d promised. It was more courtesy than most boys showed. Mort had a few years on me: maybe that was the difference between boys and men.
He really meant it, too. My secret meant that I knew that he wasn't bullshitting me. For a second, I let myself be intrigued by the rare breed of man who respected my wishes. Then I put it out of my head and went to work.
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 explained that it's my first day as a Green Shirt, and that I'd be escorting her around today. Yes, this what I was doing instead of Yale: I was babysitting 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 to basically 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 at all 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 was 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 still harbored.
"My first dad got killed while I was little," I offered. "Mom remarried an oil exec and we came here. He adopted me. It was a while 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 XXXXXXX..."
"... 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, XXXXXXX 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. Mostly, the harried spies whose jobs it was to solve 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 XXXXXXX 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.
My mind was spinning when I realized that it was already lunchtime. I was reluctant to leave Pat, but it was time to take a break, and I had a phone call to make.
"Drake," clipped the voice on the other end of the line.
"Hi," I stammered, knocked off by the no-nonsense tone. "I'm calling about the dog?"
"Cavill? Oh, thank God!" Instantly, she softened. "We've been having a hell of a time trying to place him. We're tandem PCSing in a month, and we've absolutely got to find him a good home, but we haven't found a good match yet. He's picky. I actually showed him to--" she paused, thought better of it, redirected. "Can I meet you at three in the parking deck on the second level? I'll have him there. Somebody with an Audi and a death wish stole my regular parking space, and those goddamn meter maids in security won't... never mind. I can use the branch parking pass when I come back. The garage might be a better spot for it in this heat."
I swallowed, and then I realized what she had asked. "What, today?" I blubbered. I sounded like a moron.
"Yes," she answered quickly, a hint of her prior impatience in her voice once more. This Drake lady wasn't used to being questioned. "I'll have him here today. Could you take him this afternoon?"
We made arrangements for a meeting, and I hung up. Okay, I'd have to walk the dog from the garage to my car, because contrary to rumor I did not have a death wish and would not be driving a certain Audi to the meeting... but this was too perfect! Daddy 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.
My afternoon charge was nowhere as engaging as Pat, and we spent it mostly in silence. She stolidly cleaned room after room, and within the first twenty minutes, I could feel my skin itching to be doing something, anything, as long as it didn't involve the scent of disinfectant and a conversational void so loud I couldn't hear my own thoughts. I pondered what it would actually mean to own a dog, decided that any dog belonging to Ms. Drake would be too scared not to be housebroken, and congratulated myself on being a genius.
Somewhere on the second floor, Janelle 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 fast-moving 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 Janelle reached out, almost touching me.
"You okay, baby?" 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 a room on the third floor. To that room. To him.
I got through the rest of the day without embarrassing myself further, and managed to duck out of the squad room before finding out if Mort had changed his mind about us. 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?
My shift ended early today, so there weren't the hundreds of people leaving that you'd have later, but there was still a flow of people in either direction. It got marginally cooler as I entered the gloom of the garage. Ms. Drake 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 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.
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.
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 was the message. I caught my breath when I saw whose phone number she'd entered: mine.
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, and two white pills. Her keys were in the ignition, partially turned, as if she had been listening to the radio while waiting.
The dog watched me, not whining, not threatening... just watching.
I didn’t have a lot of time. There was a lot to learn here: this was absolutely a crime scene. Given a few minutes, I was confident that I could puzzle together enough information to be helpful to an investigator. And yet… I felt a kinship to this animal that I couldn't explain. He shouldn't have to be trapped in the car with a corpse.
"Okay, boy," I whispered. "Time to get you out of there."
I let my shoulders loosen and instinct took over. Smell of wax: the car's been washed today. 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 or leave fingerprints. 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 I eased the door closed, wiping the handle.
I hooked Cavill up, led him 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 huffed it to my car as quickly as I dared, not letting myself run. After seven excruciating minutes, I had pulled the Audi around to pick him up. He was sitting there, head cocked, waiting for me right where I'd left him. He hadn't budged. I hopped out and unleashed him. Without a word, he jumped into the passenger seat, a doggy smile on his face. We pulled away from the garage and the site of his former owner's murder.
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. Invisible.
Cavill had curled up on the passenger seat, but was watching me curiously. His presence there jarred me out of my reverie.
"It wasn't a suicide," I explained to him. "Your mama loved you very much. She was trying to find a new mama for you, somebody tough enough to handle you." I put on a brave face. "So don't get any ideas about peeing on my tires."
He panted at me, eyes laughing.
"But that does mean that mama was murdered." His ears flattened at my harsh tone. "Don't worry, buddy. I'm going to find whoever did this. I'm going to take care of them. And you. But, you know, in different ways."
I kept talking, because it felt good to say things aloud, and he kept cocking his head like he was puzzling really hard but was pretty sure he understood what I was saying to him, and maybe it involved food?
"Your mama was PCSing soon - I asked, it means 'Permanent Change of Station', and it's an all-expenses-paid relocation to some other part of the world. Most people are excited about stuff like that. She was doing it as a tandem - with her husband - which probably means she wasn't going to some backwater like Yemen. Between the expensive suit in a place where most people go with business casual and the way she talked like she assumed you were wasting her time, she's management... she's not going someplace she doesn't want to go. She had something to live for." I took a breath.
"Then there's the location. People who kill themselves want to be found, yes, but they do it at home where it's going to be a loved one, not a total stranger. She knew I was coming, and when. The person who found her wouldn't have any emotional connection to her. The only people who act like that are the ones who are sure that no one in the world cares about them, but you were right there: you can't think that you don't matter when your dog is sitting next to you."
I took a deep breath. ”If you're killing yourself with pills, you take them all. You don't leave any lying around, because who knows if those are the two that mean the difference between getting your death wish and waking up in a hospital. Certainly, if she loved you enough to make certain that you were going to be cared for, she wouldn't leave any pills lying around that might kill you."
Cavill was suitably impressed with my logic. He sneezed apologetically.
"No reason to die, and she did it badly. No one as type A as that just lucks their way into suicide. She'd have done it right. She wasn't expecting what killed her. But it also wasn't someone who came close. You wouldn't have let that happen, would you? Someone comes to the door with murder on their mind, you wouldn't have liked that, would you?"
I took his silence as agreement. 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.
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 faraway lands... lands without unexpected death.
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. Though his words were complimentary, his tone was not.
"Thanks? I, um, who's this?" I was totally playing it cool.
"Doyle Holmes, at your service." The grin in his words said that he was enjoying the confused tone in my voice. "Or perhaps, you shall be at mine, tomorrow. I'll expect you at seven-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. Seven-oh-three. Leave the dog. Bring the phone. I'll need it. Also, watch your speed. There's a cop 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.
"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.
Well then, Holmes. The game is afoot.