Hard Stripes: Episode One: Guardian Angels

Posted to my blog for the first time, Hard Stripes is a novella that explains how Kyrie Devonai, Chance Richter, and Evangeline Adeler first started working for the CIA.  It is set in May of 2003, five months prior to the events in Reckless Faith.  My plan is to expand this story into two episodes, and after putting it through the typical feedback/editing process, publish it for the Kindle.  This current version has been significantly modified and cleaned up.  I hope you like it!

Episode one is six chapters, approx. 17,000 words.

Hard Stripes: Episode One: Guardian Angels

 

It was a beautiful, mild late spring night in San Diego, and a man with a machine gun in a helicopter was trying to murder Devonai’s friends.

Over a wind-swept hotel rooftop, the gunner in the iconic Huey was shooting at a man named Richter with a FN M240B, a thirty caliber belt-fed weapon, from a flexible mount.  Devonai watched in horror as rounds streamed toward Richter, the latter man firing his pistol in return even while trying to take cover behind a large conduit.  His other friend, a young girl named Evangeline, cowered in fear underneath an air conditioning unit nearby.

Devonai took a knee and aimed at the gunner with his recently acquired Colt carbine, and tried to concentrate on hitting him.  If his rounds missed his mark, his friends would almost certainly die.  He considered using the AT-4 rocket launcher strapped to his back instead, but it would take too long to get into action, and he couldn’t risk sending a flaming wreck crashing down on the police officers gathered on the street below.  Even as the enormity of the situation threatened to send him into a panic, Devonai couldn’t help but resent his sudden involvement in it.

“This is not what I imagined myself doing tonight,” he thought, and opened fire.

May 25, 2003 – 20 Hours Earlier

In his mind was an incomprehensible jumble of images, too indistinct to be identified but compelling enough to manipulate his emotions.  Kyrie Devonai was pleased when he awoke, taking a deep breath and stretching his arms.  The low hum of the airplane was relaxing, but his subconscious seemed reluctant to let him rest peacefully.  He glanced out of the window, securing yet another view of the featureless night.  In the background he could hear the voice of a flight attendant doing her job.  He realized the drink cart was going by again, and he considered ordering another drink.  The martini from a couple hours earlier had created a fantastic haze around his worries, even if it was too heavy on the vermouth.  A quick mental checklist of alcoholic beverages allowed Kyrie to make a choice, betting on the fact that they couldn’t possibly get it wrong.  However, one couldn’t be too careful.  Kyrie raised his hand when the attendant approached.

“Sir?”

“I’ll have a gin and tonic, please.”

“Certainly, sir.”

Rather than mix the drink herself as she did last time, the attendant simply passed Kyrie a glass of ice, a small can of tonic, and a nip of Bombay.  His companion stirred at this activity but did not wake up.  He didn’t feel guilty about drinking around someone too young to do so herself, despite her previous expressions of disappointment.

Evangeline Adeler was seventeen years old, and something of a prodigy.  Slim and attractive, with long black hair, she was pleasant and easy-going, and quick to offer a disarming smile.  She’d just finished her sophomore year at Suffolk University in Boston, the same institution from which Kyrie had graduated eight years earlier.  Upon hearing about Kyrie’s intention to travel to San Diego she had requested to accompany him.  It was unusually direct for her, and at first he had objected.  Not only was he concerned that the conference of violence prevention techniques for police officers wouldn’t interest her, but he wasn’t sure their friendship was ready for the close quarters the trip would demand.

Kyrie and Evangeline were planning on sharing a hotel room.  There were to be two beds, but they expected the bathroom to be the only place where privacy could be obtained.  His department was paying for the room, which meant Eva only had to pay for the plane ticket and incidentals.  She said she would be okay with the arrangements, and intended to visit the city proper while he was stuck at the hotel’s conference center.  Her deep trust in him not to take advantage of the situation was evidence of the crucible in which their friendship had been forged.  He could maintain that, but it didn’t stop the feelings that sometimes crept into the back of his mind, nor the dreams which tended to linger long into a morning.

Rummaging inside his carry-on bag, Kyrie found his mp3 player.  He chose something inspiring and tried not to think about the upcoming conference.  He’d only agreed to represent his department because he’d never been to San Diego, the Town and Country Hotel and Resort looked great, and the weather in Massachusetts had been terrible lately.  He believed his domestic violence training at the academy had been adequate so he wasn’t particularly interested in the conference.  Fortunately his evenings were free for the long weekend, and for that he was glad Eva was coming.

Two hours later the aircraft arrived in San Diego.  Kyrie and Evangeline exchanged few words as they retrieved their baggage and hailed a cab to the hotel.  It was ten o’clock in the evening local time, but the two of them were wide awake.  On the way to the hotel they were treated to a quick view of the San Diego skyline, which was beautiful.

“I can’t wait to get into town and explore,” said Eva.

“The mass transit system supposedly runs right by the hotel,” said Kyrie, “so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding it tomorrow.”

“We should go in tonight.  I’m sure we’ll be able to find a restaurant open this late.”

“I’ve got an early morning tomorrow, Eva.  By the time we get checked into our room and unpacked it will be way too late for that.  I doubt we’ll even be able to find anything other than vending machines at the hotel at this hour.”

“I guess so.  I’m just eager to find out what this city has to offer.”

“I know.  Me, too.”

The conversation lapsed until the cab arrived at the hotel.  The property was much larger than Kyrie was expecting.  The hotel was actually a complex of several buildings, including restaurants, a spa, and bungalow-style suites.  A ten-story building of lodging overshadowed the resort, and loomed over the main pool and recreation area.  Kyrie and Eva’s room was tucked away down a side alley in one of the bungalows.  It was cozy, to say the least.  Maintaining proper privacy would require some advance planning.  Kyrie fell gratefully onto his bed and hoped his excess energy would burn off soon.  Even if he fell asleep immediately he would only get seven hours of sleep.  Adequate, of course, but not as much as he preferred.

“I’m racking out,” Kyrie said.  “Eva, you can watch TV or read if you want, it won’t bother me.”

“I think I’m going to get a feel for the layout of this place,” Eva replied, retrieving a pack of Camels from her jacket on the bed.

Kyrie eyed the illegally-acquired cigarettes.  “I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to go into the city alone at this hour.”

“I mean the resort.”

“Oh, okay.  Just be careful.”

Eva smirked, and said, “You could let me borrow your backup piece.”

“You know I can’t do that.”

“Come with me, then.”

Kyrie sat up.  “I really need to try and get some sleep.  It would be rude of me to snooze through the morning’s talks.”

“Suit yourself.”

Eva waved goodbye and exited.  Kyrie sighed and got up.  He familiarized himself with the bathroom and brushed his teeth.  A shower would probably be a good idea.  He could feel the dust of two airports clinging to his skin.  Kyrie returned to the main room and began to shed his outer garments.  He drew his H&K USP .45 from his hip holster and placed it in the drawer of the nightstand, then did the same with the much smaller Glock 26 tucked in a holster inside his waistband on the opposite hip.  It may not have been very secure, but he only had to worry about Eva accessing the weapons.  He wouldn’t leave the room without them anyway.  Kyrie pulled the curtains aside briefly, scanning the alley.  Eva may have been all grown up but Kyrie still wasn’t sure she could handle herself out there.  Anyone else, he reminded himself, and he wouldn’t be so worried.

Some time later Evangeline had explored the grounds of the resort.  It was deserted save for the odd hotel worker.  The sky was clear and the air fresh.  New England had been plagued with rain and overcast skies for a couple of weeks, so the feeling was wonderful.  The temperature was about the same, however, so Eva hoped it would warm up considerably during the day.  She traversed the narrow brick streets slowly, beginning another cigarette as soon as she’d finished the first one.  Just about every inch of space between the street and the buildings was taken up with rose bushes.  If the color scheme was a bit more radical the place would resemble Munchkin Land.  The resort was an okay place, but Eva strongly desired to visit the city.  Nothing interesting was going to happen here.

Eva cut through the pool area on her way back to the room.  She’d been through here earlier, and again considered retrieving her swimsuit and jumping in.  This time, however, she wasn’t alone.  A man was seated in a lounge chair across from her, a trail of water leading from him to the edge of the pool.  He was wearing red swim trunks and stared upward.  Eva realized it would be about two seconds before the smell of her cigarette reached him, and indeed the man looked up a couple of moments later.  Eva’s first inclination was to keep walking, but the man’s build made her hesitate.  He looked like he had about one percent body fat and used his deltoids to carve ice sculptures.  He smiled at her.

“Hi,” he said.  “Nice night, isn’t it?”

“Sure, I guess,” Eva replied.

The man had a slight Southern accent.  “You should try the water.  It’s heated.”

“I was considering it.  I’m not sure I’d be comfortable with you as my only spectator.”

“You don’t look like you have anything to be embarrassed about.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“Can I bum one of those off of you?”

Eva shrugged, and said, “Sure, why not.”

Crossing to his side, Eva offered a Camel.  The man took it as well as the lighter which was subsequently presented.  He puffed.  Eva noticed that he had a military buzz cut and green eyes.

“I’m Chance,” he said.

“Chance?  As in chance encounter?”

“As in chance pregnancy, actually.”

“Oh.  I’m Evangeline.”

“What brings you to the Town and Country?”

“I’m here on vacation for a few days.  My friend is attending the conference here but I’m free to do whatever.”

“Is your friend a cop?”

“Yeah.  Are you going to the conference, too?”

“No, I just read about it on the bulletin board.  I’m actually on my way to Japan.  I’ve been staying here ever since I got out of the Marine Corps.”

“Oh, you were a Marine?”

“Yup.  Nine years active duty.  I was stationed at Twenty-Nine Palms.”

“You don’t look old enough to have served nine years.”

Chance smirked.  “Thanks, I guess.  I joined when I was eighteen.”

“What are you going to Japan for?”

“I’m going to be studying Kendo in a traditional Japanese dojo.  That’s Japanese sword.”

“Wow.  How did you get that gig?”

“I applied a year ago and paid a lot of money.  I figure it’s time to start spending some of the money I earned in the military.”

“It doesn’t sound like a lot of fun to me.  Aren’t those schools a lot of hard work?”

“Nothing worth doing is ever easy.”

Chance reached over and dragged a nearby lounge chair into range.  “Are you a night owl or is it jet lag?”

Eva sat down.  “I usually stay up late.  In Boston there’s never a lack of things to do.”

“Oh, you’re from Boston?  Born and raised?”

“I grew up in Virginia.  I’ve only been in the Boston area for a couple of years.  I’m going to Suffolk University.”

“Is that a state college?”

“No, it’s a private university.”

“I’m sorry, I haven’t heard of it.  I never considered anything after high school other than the Corps.  What are you studying?”

“I haven’t declared a major yet, but I’m thinking about something involving particle physics.”

“That sounds ambitious.”

“No more so than studying sword fighting in Japan.  When are you leaving?”

“The end of next week.  How long are you here for?”

“Until Monday night.  You should get together with my friend and I tomorrow night and show us the city, I mean if you’re available.  My friend was a soldier, too.”

“Cool, what branch?”

“I think he said National Guard.”

Chance laughed, and said, “Nasty girls.”

“What?”

“Nothing, just an old joke.  I respect anyone who served.”

“So, can you come?”

“Yeah, why not?  Just make sure your friend is okay with it, first.  Don’t surprise him with me or anything.”

“Okay.  How can I reach you?”

“Chance Richter, extension 3224.”

Richter extended his hand and Eva accepted it.  “Evangeline Adeler.  I don’t know my extension.”

He smiled.  “That’s all right.  You know how to find me.”

2. May 26, 2003

“If there are no other questions, let’s retire to the next room for refreshments.  There are also copies of my book for sale.”

The speaker exited the platform and the audience began to shift.  Kyrie stood up from his seat in the back of the room and stretched.  The first event of the conference had proved to be somewhat interesting after all, but Kyrie wasn’t particularly interested in schmoozing with the other cops and professionals.  He had barely made it to the talk in time, having rolled over after his wake-up call and slept for another twenty minutes.  Evangeline was a motionless lump in the next bed over and of no help.  Still, he hadn’t woken up when she came in last night, so he couldn’t blame her.  Sleep seemed unwilling to negotiate on this trip.

Kyrie entered the next room and pursued a cup of coffee.  He wasn’t about to initiate a conversation with anyone, but his name tag read “Kyrie Devonai, P2, Beverly MA PD” and he had no doubt somebody would ask him about his name.  Name tags always resulted in such a query for him, although such things had invariably been accompanied by alcohol in the past.  Anybody with a working knowledge of Latin was sure to do so.  Kyrie often wondered why his parents hadn’t just named him Mike.

Kyrie was perusing some of the books for sale when somebody said his name.  It was pronounced the way he preferred (rhyming with fiery) so he was rather surprised as he turned around.  Before him stood a tall brunette his age whom he knew as Mara Fledgling.

“Mara?” said Kyrie, shocked.  “I can‘t believe it.”

“Hi,” said Mara.  “It’s good to see you, too.”

Kyrie read Mara’s name tag, which identified her as a Special Agent for the FBI.

“You became a cop,” she said.

“You became a fed,” Kyrie replied.  “That’s more of a surprise, isn’t it?”

“I guess so.  It’s not so much of a stretch for a National Guardsman to become a cop.  Are you still in the service?”

“Technically.  After eight years the chance of being activated drops to almost nil.  I stopped drilling once a month after four years.  That’s when I joined the Beverly PD.”

“You’ve been a cop for four years?  Aren’t you overdue for sergeant by now?”

“Just about due, actually, but I’m not sure I want the promotion.  I’m worried that if I pass the exam that I’ll be promoted to the director of the domestic violence task force rather than just the assistant.  I don’t want the job as it will take me off the street.”

“Understandable.”

“How long have you been in the FBI?”

“Three years.  I floated around a lot after college.  I didn’t want to leave New England so I kept myself from applying to two jobs that I was always interested in.  Finally I got frustrated with myself and applied to the FBI and the Sky Marshal program.  The Bureau called me first.”

“Cool.  What do you do?”

“I’m the assistant director of the Bureau’s equal opportunity and gender sensitivity training program for the southern California regional office.”

“That explains your presence here.”

“Yeah, I get around a lot.”

“I take it the FBI is trying to change its reputation as a good old boys club?”

“Uh huh.”

“Are you staying here at the hotel?”

“Yeah, compliments of my boss.  Are you familiar with the area?”

“No, I’ve never been to California.”

“I’m free evenings.  Perhaps I can show you around?”

Kyrie smiled.  Mara looked better than he remembered and his heart raced at the suggestion.

“Sure, but I’m not alone.  I brought a friend along.”

“Oh, anyone I’d know?”

“No.  She’s a student at Suffolk University.”

“So maybe I do know her.”

“I mean an undergraduate student.”

“Oh.  Are the two of you, you know…”

“No, just friends.”

“Okay.  She’s not a jerk, is she?”

Kyrie raised his eyebrows.  “What?  Of course not.”

“Then I’d like to meet her.  My schedule today is full of seminars, but I’m free at five.  Do you want to get together then?”

“Absolutely.  Here, let me write down my extension.”

Kyrie tore a piece from his convention schedule and removed a pen from his pocket.  He leaned over the nearby table to write.  As he did so, he glanced at Mara’s badge and sidearm.

“I thought the FBI issued a ten millimeter,” he said.

“Not for a long time.  Some agents didn’t like the recoil, I guess.  I tried the Smith & Wesson and I liked it, but my boss says carry the Sig so I carry the Sig.”

“That’s a P228, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you like it?”

“I love it.  What are you packing?”

Kyrie handed Mara the scrap of paper.  “My department issues the 5906, but I’m carrying my personal weapon, a H&K USP forty-five.  I’ve got nothing against the nine-mil; I just don’t see the point in carrying one when I can shoot the forty-five just as well.”

“Thanks.  What seminar are you going to next?”

“Uh… sexual assault crisis services.”

“Oh.  I’m attending something else.  Maybe I’ll see you around, but if not I’ll see you tonight.”

“Great.  See you then.”

Mara turned around and headed for the exit.  She turned before leaving and waved at Kyrie.  He took a deep breath.

“I can’t believe it,” he whispered.

__________

Richter was fast asleep when someone knocked on his door.  As an extended-stay resident, he had already made it clear that he would call when he needed turn-down service.  A quick glance at his clock told him it was almost noon, and he realized it could be Evangeline at the door.  He leapt from his bed and threw on a pair of shorts before answering the knock.

Two men in dark suits and sunglasses stood in the hallway.  Another man might have been made nervous by this sight but Richter was simply confused.

“Yeah?” he said.

“Corporal Chance Richter?” asked the first, taller man.

“If you already know my name, you certainly already know what I look like.”

“My name is Case Officer Dowling.  This is CO Sinclair.  We’re here about your application to the CIA.”

Richter’s eyes grew wide.  “Oh!  Son of a… I had all but forgotten about that.”

“Apparently so.  Is there somewhere we can talk?”

“Yeah, of course.  Can you give me a few minutes?  I just woke up.”

“No problem.”

“Why not meet me downstairs at the Veranda Cafe?  Do you know where it is?”

“We passed it on the way in.  Sure.”

“Great, I’ll be right there.”

Richter closed the door and stood motionless in shock.  He snapped himself out of it and moved to the bathroom, where he grabbed his toothbrush.

Rapidly cleaning his teeth, Richter marveled at the situation.  He’d submitted an application to the CIA over a year ago, anticipating the ability to transfer out of the Marine Corps if they accepted him.  After a few months he’d assumed the Agency wasn’t interested in him.  Their appearance now created a great deal of conflict in his mind.  He had his heart set on Japan but he was also very interested in working for the CIA.  They might not be willing to wait another year.

Richter washed his face and threw on some clean clothes.  He wished he had time to shower and shave.

Dowling and Sinclair were seated at a table in the cafe.  The place was sparsely populated and the men had seated themselves a comfortable distance from the other patrons.  They’d already ordered and received coffee.  As soon as Richter sat down the waitress approached and he did the same.

“I’d given up on hearing from you,” he said.

“We were referred by your old unit,” said Dowling.  “The front desk refused to give out your number over the phone, so I’m glad we found you.  We’ve got some stuff going on so we didn’t want to waste our time.”

“You still might.  I’m planning on spending a year studying martial arts in Japan.”

“We’re here to offer you a job, corporal.  Hopefully we can convince you to reconsider your trip abroad.”

“What’s the job?”

“The Agency is creating a new counter-terrorist team,” said Sinclair.  “Your qualifications are unique.  We haven’t had any other military-qualified snipers apply recently.”

“I find that surprising.  The CIA seems like a natural career choice for prior service guys.”

“It is, but you’re the only sniper from this region to submit an application in the past few months.  Normally the Agency would actively recruit for this kind of assignment anyway.  Your application simply made it easier to find an interested party, even if we had to do a little snooping to do so.”

Richter tried to play it cool.  “Tell me more about the assignment.”

“The CIA is looking to assemble a small cadre of counter-terrorist agents, no larger than a platoon.  The arrangement will be military in nature, so men like you are in top consideration.  We will train for domestic missions at first; later we may extend our profile to overseas operations if needed.  The plan is to assemble the team, then train full-time for two months before activating.  After that, training will continue, as long as we don’t have a mission.  Training after qualification is scheduled to be four days per month.  The rest of the time would be yours, with the only restriction being that you’d be on 24-hour recall.  You would obviously be required to maintain high physical fitness standards during that time, I’m sure you’re quite familiar with that.  Salary is fifty thousand to start, and we can offer you the same rank you currently hold.”

Richter leaned back in his chair.  “Wow.  That’s pretty much exactly what I wanted to do.  I thought I’d have to spend a few years as a normal case officer first.  My only reservation is that it was extremely hard for me to get a slot at the martial arts school and my deposit is non-refundable.  I’m going to have to think about this, gentlemen.”

“I hate to rush you, corporal,” began Dowling, “but we’re heading back to Los Angeles tonight.  If at all possible we’d like a definitive answer by five tonight.”

“Okay,” said Richter, sighing.  “Can you meet me back here at five?  I’ll have an answer for you by then.”

“Very well.  Training will begin in July, by the way, so you’ll still have some time to vacation.  It’s been what, two weeks since you got out?”

“Three.  Okay, thanks.  I’ll see you at five.”

Richter shook the officer’s hands and bid them goodbye.  The waitress arrived with his coffee, so he ordered a sandwich.  He stared blankly at the wall for a few minutes before realizing he was supposed to meet with Evangeline at five.

“Damn it,” he said.

He had no way of contacting the girl.  Richter resolved himself to hope that she’d call before five or that he could find her again somewhere on the grounds.  If the CIA couldn’t get his room number from the front desk then he certainly had no chance of getting Eva’s.  That issue, however, had become the least of his problems.

__________

Evangeline stepped out of the salon, lingering long enough to check herself out again in the reflection of the window.  She smiled at her hair, cropped down to just over her ears and neck.  A new city and a new hairstyle seemed to go well together.  She looked around, guessed the direction of the ocean, and began walking.  The concierge service had told her which train stop was the center of town, but beyond that she had no idea where things were.  The waterfront seemed like a good place to start.  Here amongst the skyscrapers, however, Eva had to make an educated guess about how to get there.  The hair salon had been one of the first places she’d noticed upon exiting the train.

Eva didn’t have enough money to continue such impulsive spending.  In fact, unless Kyrie was planning on treating her to one or two meals she’d have to save the rest of her funds for food.  As she walked, she reflected on how she could have asked her father for extra money for the trip.  Such a request would doubtlessly lead to questions about Kyrie, however.  As it was, Eva didn’t want to draw any extra attention to this trip.

With that thought, Eva withdrew her cell phone from her shoulder bag.  No calls.  If this guy was going to contact her, he was certainly taking his time.  She could live without meeting with him but it would leave her frustrated.  She had to remind herself that visiting the city was a good reason by itself for being there.

Eva tried to focus on her surroundings.  She was indeed heading toward the ocean and had just entered a region called the Gaslight Quarter.  Eventually she encountered a Starbucks and decided to get a coffee.  Soon after that she found a tobacconist and sat down to enjoy her drink and a vanilla-flavored cigarillo.  The store had leather couches set up and with the doors wide open it was quite pleasant.  The guy behind the counter looked like he was thinking of a reason to speak to Eva, so she decided to control the event.

“How long have you worked here?” she asked.

“A couple of months.”

“Do you like it?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

The man didn’t elaborate, instead rapping his fingers on the counter.

“Don’t get a lot of customers like me, huh?”

“Actually, we get all kinds of people in here.”

“That’s cool.”

Okay, so the guy was too nervous to talk.  Eva knew she was attractive but didn’t often take advantage of that fact.  She simply wanted the man to feel at ease.  Eva’s own worries were enough without dealing with this guy’s negative energy.  She checked her cell phone again.  Waiting for that call was enough drama for any one person.

3.

“Evangeline?”

Kyrie entered his room and was followed by Mara.  There was no one to reply to him.  He motioned for Mara to come in and put some brochures down on his bed.

“I guess she’s out right now,” he said, shrugging.

“Does she have a cell phone?” asked Mara.

“Yeah, I can call her… if… damn it, I forgot something.”

Kyrie looked around and emptied his pockets.

“What?”

“I picked up a business card from a guy at the last talk.  He sells instructional videos for dealing with domestic violence situations for police officers.  I think I left it on a table down in one of the conference rooms.  I should go look for it; I really wanted to place an order.”

“Okay.  Go ahead, I’ll wait here in case your friend comes back.”

“Fine.  I’ll just be a few minutes.  Help yourself to the television or something.”

“Sure.”

Kyrie exited.  Mara looked around and decided to do just that.  She found the remote control and turned the set to CNN.  They were talking about the capture of Saddam Hussein’s brother-in-law in Tikrit.  Mara took off her jacket and sat down.  She allowed herself to relax and her mind wandered.  So Kyrie Devonai had come back into her life, however temporarily.  She occasionally wondered what her last serious boyfriend had been up to in the eight years since they’d graduated from college, but not so much so that she ever attempted to find out.  Kyrie had always been a bit shy, and although Mara at first found his sensitivity attractive, eventually she realized he hardly had the balls to stand up for himself, let alone her.  His decision to join the National Guard was a surprise to her and she didn’t really think he’d ever make it.  Apparently he had, and had become a cop to boot.  He currently exuded a confidence that Mara had never seen in him before.  Still, she wondered if what happened between them wouldn’t still effect their friendship.  She supposed that if it did he would not have agreed to go out tonight.

The door clicked and a young woman entered.  She jumped at the sight of Mara.

“Who are you?” she said, ready to flee.

“It’s Evangeline, right?  I’m Mara Fledgling.  I’m a friend of Kyrie’s from Suffolk.”

Eva glanced at the badge on her belt.  “You’re an FBI agent?”

“You’ve got good eyes.  Yes, I’m here for the conference.”

“You are?”

“Yeah… why, is there something you want to confess?”

Evangeline laughed nervously.  “I’m hanging out with a cop.  I’d have quite the guts if I was guilty of something.”

“Keep your friends close but your enemies closer.”

Again, Eva looked like she was ready to take off in a hurry.  Kyrie appeared behind her and put his hand on her shoulder.  She jumped again and cried out.

“Kyrie!  Damn it, don’t do that!”

“You got your hair cut?” he asked.

“Yeah, yeah, I did.  You didn’t tell me you were meeting up with anyone.”

“I didn’t know she was going to be here.  We hadn’t seen each other in eight years before this morning.  I hope you don’t mind that I invited her out with us tonight.”

Eva visibly relaxed.  “No.  In fact, I met someone, too.  Maybe we can make it a foursome?”

“Oh, really?”

“Yeah, I met a guy named Chance.  He just got out of the Marines after nine years of active duty.  He seems pretty cool.”

“I’m not sure that’s a great…”

“Is he cute?” asked Mara, interrupting.

“Well, duh,” replied Eva.

“Does he know Kyrie is coming?”

“Yeah, I told him.”

“Then he’s probably not a creep.  Come on, Kai, it could be fun.”

“How old is he?”

“Twenty-seven, I think,” said Eva.

Kyrie nodded.  “Fine, go ahead.  I just hope he isn’t a dickhead.”

Eva crossed to the phone and picked it up.  “He didn’t strike me as such.”

Dialing the appropriate extension, Eva waited.  After a couple of minutes she hung up.

“No luck?” asked Mara.

“No.  We could go by his room and check.”

“Oh, he’s staying here at the resort?” asked Kyrie.

“Yes.  I met him last night.  He lives in the high-rise.”

“Fine, we’ll stop by.  But I don’t want to waste all night waiting around for him.  If you get in touch with him after we’ve left he can always meet us somewhere downtown.”

“Fair enough.”

__________

Richter waited at a table in the cafe, stirring a cup of coffee.  The two CIA officers were late, and Richter had begun to wonder if they’d give up on him for some reason.  It was about the time that Evangeline was supposed to call him, and he began to feel frustrated at the prospect of missing her for nothing.  Richter supposed he could have avoided this situation if he’d broken down and bought a cell phone, but with a trip to Japan looming in the near future it had seemed pointless.  The only thing he could do was grab a seat with a view of the pool area and hope that she came looking for him there.

At fifteen after the hour the officers arrived.  Both men were carrying briefcases.  They looked distracted and sat down with minimal greetings.

“Have you decided, Corporal Richter?” asked Dowling.

“What did you do in the service?” Richter replied.

“I was an Army Ranger.  We really need an answer from you.”

“I figured you for the service, the way you keep calling me corporal.”

“Are you interested?” asked Sinclair.

“Yes, I am.  It’s too good of an offer to turn down.”

“What would you think about starting right now?” asked Dowling.

“How do you mean?”

“We’re in the middle of an emergent situation.  We need an operative your age and there’s simply no time to get another agent to this area.”

“You don’t have any agents my age?”

“We need someone within the next eight hours.  You also resemble the person we need you to replace.”

“Excuse me?  That sounds like an undercover operation.”

The officers nodded, and Dowling said, “Obviously this is highly irregular but we’ve decided to move up the schedule of our investigation.  Part of that involved arresting someone before he could make a pivotal buy.  We need to send someone in his place to go through with the buy, and thus incriminate the seller.  You could do it once we give you the whole story.”

“Don’t I have to get sworn in first or something?”

“This is a field agent contract,” said Sinclair, removing a piece of paper from a folder.  “It basically deputizes you and authorizes you to perform limited law enforcement operations under the oversight of the CIA.  If you accept the contract we can brief you, but keep in mind that you’ll be committed to the case immediately.  We would need you to get started right away.”

“I’m okay with that.  Let me see the contract.”

There was a tense silence as Richter reviewed the document.

“You must really like my resume to offer me this job,” he said.

“We called your platoon sergeant and your commanding officer.  You come highly recommended.  Actually, your platoon sergeant said he’d trust you to shoot an apple off of his head at six hundred meters and your captain said he’d trust you at the drive-in with his horny seventeen year old daughter.”

“So what’s the op?”

The officers looked around.  The cafe had begun to fill up with dinnertime customers.

“Where can we talk?” asked Dowling.

Five minutes later Richter let the officers into his room.

“All I have is water or bourbon,” he said.

“No thanks,” said Dowling.

Richter offered the pair the seats at his desk while he took a place on his bed.

“So what’s the scoop?”

“Three months ago the CIA became aware of a woman who claimed she had access to critical government research data and was looking for a buyer.  This woman contacted a black market intermediary named Marcus Hausler here in San Diego who was willing to buy the information and sell it to Al-Qaeda.  Hausler was taken into custody after he caught wind of our surveillance, but we don’t think the seller knows about it.  We also know that she has never met Hausler and only has this photograph by which to identify him.”

Dowling handed Richter a fuzzy photograph of a man standing in front of the Washington Monument.  Richter noticed that he could indeed pass for him thanks to the poor quality of the image.

“What about the girl?” Richter asked.

“We don’t know much about her.  We’ve been investigating what she told Hausler but so far we haven’t been able to identify any government research facilities or subcontractors who’ve reported missing data or a security breach.  We also don’t know the nature of the information she’s offering.  For all we know she’s scamming the middle man.”

“What do you know about her?”

“She calls herself Grace and she’s in her mid to late twenties.”

“Has she spoken on the phone with Hausler?”

“Not to our knowledge.  So far all of their communication has been by e-mail.”

“So I pose as Mister Hausler.  Where do we start?”

“Grace is expecting Hausler to call her with a meeting place tonight.”  Dowling produced a cell phone from his blazer pocket.  “This is the phone Hausler had on him when he was arrested.  It has Grace’s number on it.  We need you to set the time and place and meet with her.  We have ten thousand dollars in cash in this briefcase.  Make the sale and we’ll move in for the arrest.  If the data is actually valid, we get her, and even if it isn’t we’ll nail her for… something else.”

“Don’t let that cash get away from you, either,” said Sinclair.  “We had to borrow it from our evidence locker and it would be a major problem if we lost track of it.”

“Roger.  Sounds easy enough.  What’s the risk assessment?”

“Minimal.”

“What if she’s not alone?”

Dowling and Sinclair looked at each other.  Sinclair removed a laptop computer and a holstered Beretta M9 from his briefcase and placed them on the desk.

“Sign the contract and you’ll be authorized to carry this.  For self-defense, of course.”

“What else is a pistol good for?  I’ll do it.”

Richter signed the contract and handed it to Dowling.

“Good,” said Dowling.  “We need to act fast.  We need a meeting place that’s easy to watch and lock down, but where Grace will feel comfortable meeting you.  Any suggestions?”

“You’re asking me?” said Richter, astonished.

“We’re not from around here.  We were hoping you were more familiar with the city.”

“Well… there’s a Mexican restaurant on a street corner in the Gaslight Quarter.  It should be easy for you to place surveillance there, especially if I can convince this Grace to meet in the outdoor seating area.”

“What’s the name of the restaurant?”

“I can’t remember.  I think it’s on West Broadway.”

Dowling looked slightly annoyed.  “Would you remember it if you saw it in the yellow pages?”

“Yeah, probably.”

“Fine, we’ll look it up.  In the meantime, Sinclair will help you put on a wire.  Keep the conversation simple, in fact the less said the better.  Grace might get spooked if you seem too friendly.”

“You ever wear a wire before?” asked Sinclair.

“No.  I was strictly infantry and then a sniper.”

“It’s simple.  Since I doubt you two will be undressing each other I can hook the transceiver onto your belt and tape the mike to your chest.  Would you mind removing your shirt?”

“Sure.”

“I know it’s all rather sudden,” said Dowling, flipping through the phone book.  “We’re not comfortable fielding an untrained operative either.  If not for you, though, we’d have to grab the girl before the buy was made.  Then if she didn’t have a hard copy of the data on her, we’ve got squat.”

“What if she doesn’t?”

“Hausler planned on buying hard data, not just a way to access it.  That’s what Grace proposed initially, to set up a wire transfer in exchange for an IP address from where the data could be downloaded.  Hausler refused, preferring to do the deal in person.  That’s what the laptop is for, to check the validity of the data.  She may give you a CD or a flash drive, either way you’ll need to pretend to confirm that the data is true.  We’ll make that actual determination after she’s in custody, so you don’t need to worry about it.  We‘ll withdraw via ground vehicle to the airport and our helicopter will meet us there.”

“Good to go,” said Sinclair.  “We just need to run a commo check and Richter can start the mission.”

“You ready?” asked Dowling.

Richter flipped the cell phone around in his hand.  “Just give me the number, officer.”

4.

The sun was setting over Coronado Island, and three visitors to the city were enrapt by the sight.  The water shimmered as a bright blade of light cut a path from the sun to the observers.  Behind them, the steel and glass edifices of the city’s towers reflected the glow and the entire landscape seemed to be alive.  Evangeline was eager for the city to show its electric glory as well, but for now she was content to join her two companions in appreciating the natural spectacle.

A wide sidewalk followed the bay’s eastern border for as far as the eye could see, so far passing a maritime museum and several floating restaurants.  Eventually Kyrie and Mara were content to continue strolling southward.  Eva followed close behind.

The conversation between the three of them had been mostly trite.  Eva was perfectly satisfied to let her two friends reminisce about their college days.  She was still wondering what happened to Chance.

“Have you seen anywhere you’d like to have dinner, Eva?” said Kyrie.

“Not really.”

“What the hell is this, Santa’s Village?” said Mara, looking ahead.

A very obviously planned community of colorful buildings lay before them.  As they drew near they could see that each ridiculously fabricated location contained either a memorabilia store or a restaurant.  For the latter, menus were posted outside.  The three continued to walk, pausing only to quickly review each eatery’s options.  The prices were well outside their expectations, if not their means.  Kyrie’s raised eyebrows at the first list of entrees that would well tax a collection of twenty dollar bills was enough to wordlessly convey his preferred price range to Mara.  Eva wasn’t paying much attention to the selections anyway.

Before long the tacky terrain gave way into a municipal park.  Kyrie and Mara immediately moved to check it out, but Eva hesitated.  Kyrie was about to ask her why when Eva’s cell phone rang.  She fished it out of her shoulder bag and answered.

“Hello?  Oh, hi!”  Eva addressed her next statement to her companions.  “It’s that guy I told you about.”

“Chance?” asked Kyrie.

“Yeah.”  Eva returned to her phone.  “Uh huh.  Sure.  Yeah, I think I went by the place yesterday.  Okay, I’ll meet you there.  Bye.”

“Is he nearby?” asked Mara.

“He’s downtown at a restaurant.  Do you want to meet me there?”

“Why don’t we just go with you?” Kyrie asked, shrugging.

“Kai, let’s check out the park,” said Mara.  “We can catch up with Eva in a half-hour or so.”

“Well, all right.  Get a table for four, we’ll be by for dinner.  Okay?”

“Sure, no problem,” said Eva.  “It’s a Mexican restaurant called Fred’s.  Getting there is easy.  Just follow the highway until you find Broadway, and go east until you hit First Avenue.  Fred’s is on the corner.”

“Fine, see you in thirty minutes.”

Eva waved goodbye and headed back into town.  Kyrie watched her go.

“Kai, you’re too protective of her,” said Mara.  “She’s trying to flirt with this guy, you know.”

“I know.  I feel like her older brother most of the time.”

“Come on, let’s walk.”

Kyrie and Mara continued into the park.  The sun dipped beyond the horizon and the ambient light began to change.

“Maybe I’m just a victim of mean-world syndrome,” Kyrie said.

“Tell me about how you and Eva became friends,” said Mara.

“It’s not a pleasant story, even if it has a happy ending.”

“Really?  I guess you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”

“No, it’s all right.  It was the spring of last year.  Evangeline was a freshman at Suffolk.  I had been invited to be a guest lecturer at an evening criminology class.  They were going over the standards for reasonable suspicion and probable cause.  I’d always had a good relationship with Professor Holmes, remember her?”

“Yeah.”

“I was always talking about how I’d like to come in and be a guest lecturer sometime, so I wasn’t surprised when she e-mailed me to see if I would actually do it that night.  I was happy to come in.  Anyway, I noticed Evangeline while giving the class.  I mean, I’m only human.  I also noticed that another one of the students was paying more attention to Eva than he was the lecture.  That wasn’t what I found odd, though.  I wouldn’t blame anyone for being distracted by her.”

“I get the point.”

“Right.  There was simply something about his body language that made me wonder.  So, after the class most of the students booked off right away.  I shot the bull with the professor for several minutes before heading out myself.  We were on the eighth floor of Eight Ashburton, if you can remember the place.  At the far end of the hallway I noticed Eva talking to this guy, whose name I discovered later was Ramiez.  I still hated those damn elevators so I started to take the stairs.  I got to the sixth floor before I realized there was something wrong with what I saw back upstairs.  Cursing myself for being so impulsive, I went back up to allay my worries.”

Kyrie paused, prompting Mara to say, “Okay, and?”

“The hallway was empty.  I turned around, feeling stupid about my actions, and noticed that the elevators were all motionless.”

“How did you know that?”

“I spent enough time waiting for those damn things to know when they were moving or not.  It was quiet enough to hear a mouse fart.  It seemed too quick for Eva and Ramiez to have taken the elevator to the lobby so I figured I’d check the eighth floor to see if they were in one of the classrooms.”

Again, Kyrie hesitated.  Mara looked at him and saw a pained expression on his face.

“You really don’t have to tell me if it bothers you to remember, Kai.”

“It’s okay.  It’s only the natural response of the brain to remembering something like this.  I wouldn’t tell just anybody about this, Mara.  I’m trusting that you’re the same friend you were back in ninety-four.”

“Of course I am.  Good people rarely change in their hearts no matter how much time passes.  That’s one thing I’m sure about you, that you’re one of those people.”

Kyrie couldn’t help but let a tear escape from his eye.  Mara was always so quick to back him up.

“In one of the classrooms I found Ramiez sexually assaulting Eva.”

“Oh, my God.”

“Ramiez knew I was a cop but he still came after me.  You know those desks with the chairs attached?  I picked one of those up and hit him across the face with it.  I never laid a hand on him, but I sent him to the hospital with a broken jaw and cheekbone.”

“Ouch.”

“Ramiez might have sued my department for excessive force, but he was convicted of sexual assault before he could get to it.  Eva was incredibly brave on the stand, and the jury seemed to smile when they heard I cold-cocked the son of a bitch with a desk.  Ramiez has another thirteen years before he’s eligible for parole, and I intend to be present if there’s a hearing then.”

“Jesus, Kai.”

“I gave Eva my card and told her to call me if she needed counseling.  She took me up on the offer and we quickly became friends.  Like I said, she and I are like brother and sister now.”

“I’m impressed.  I can’t imagine the Kyrie I knew smacking someone upside the head with a piece of furniture.”

“He’s lucky that’s the first thing I thought of or he might have had a couple of new holes in his head.”

“Yeah, no kidding.”

Kyrie sat down on a hillside, gazing at the last strands of daylight in the sky.  Mara sat next to him and took his hand in hers.

“I’m glad we found each other again, Kyrie,” she said.

Kyrie smiled but then looked away.  He was embarrassed about the hidden feelings he had for Eva, and how ironic it could be that his first and only lover was here and she believed he didn’t have them.

“The stars are coming out,” said Mara.

__________

Evangeline stopped in her tracks.  There was only one man alone in the outdoor seating area of Fred’s, and it was Chance Richter.  Eva’s mind tried to make sense of it and it made her dizzy.  Chance motioned for her to come over.  Eva looked up and down the street before doing so.  She bypassed the greeter station and went directly to his table.

“Chance,” she said.  “Fancy meeting you here.”

“Have a seat, Grace,” he replied.

Eva’s expression turned to that of horror.  She bit her lower lip and sat down across from Richter.

“So it was you that called me.  I thought I recognized the voice.”

“If you had I doubt you’d be here now.  I figured I’d check you out beforehand, Miss Adeler.  If you think a man like me would do any less you’re too naive for this line of work.”

Eva’s heart was racing.  She thought she could read people well but she had completely misjudged Richter.  She resolved herself not to let the man’s advance recon change her approach.

“Have you got the cash?” she asked.

“All in good time,” said Richter, tapping the briefcase at his feet with his toe.  “Let’s socialize first.”

Richter motioned to the pitcher of blue-green liquid on the table.  There were two empty glasses, and he proceeded to fill them from the pitcher.  Eva also noticed for the first time that there was a laptop computer there, folded shut.

“You want to have a drink with me?”

“Don’t be such a prude, Evangeline.  Besides, who says our relationship has to end with this transaction?
“I do.”

“I’m disappointed,” said Richter, sipping from his glass.  “I thought we had something going there.”

“Let’s just get this over with.”

Eva reached into her shoulder bag and removed a CD in a jewel case.  She slid it across the table.  Richter picked it up and opened the laptop.  After a moment he inserted the CD into the drive.

“Come on, have a margarita.  It’s not poisoned for God’s sake.”

“Just check the disc.”

Richter browsed around the volume for a couple of minutes, then said, “It looks good to me.”

Pushing the briefcase over to Eva, Richter smiled.  Eva reached down to pick it up.

“Hi, Eva!”

Eva turned around and saw Kyrie and Mara approaching from down Fifth Avenue.

“Hi, guys,” Eva replied.

“Who the hell are these people?” Richter said lowly.

“My friends.  They’re early.  Don’t worry, we can finish this up after dinner.”

“You invited friends to this?  D’you think this is some kind of game?  Forget it, just take the briefcase and I’ll be on my way.”

“I can’t take your briefcase,” Eva whispered.  “I need to transfer the money into my shoulder bag.”

“When the hell are you planning on… hi there!”

Kyrie and Mara passed the greeter station and joined Richter and Eva at the table.

“You must be Chance,” said Kyrie.  “I’m Kyrie Devonai, and this is Mara Fledgling.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“We had a hell of a time finding this place, Eva.  Your directions were almost completely wrong.”

“Fortunately we’re not above asking for help from the locals,” said Mara.

“Kyrie, can I talk to you alone for a minute?” Eva asked, standing.

“Sure,” he said.  “Excuse us.”

“You have got to be in the military,” Mara said to Richter.

“Is it that obvious?” replied Richter.

The conversation faded into the background noise as Kyrie and Eva moved toward the greeter station.  Kyrie crossed his arms and waited for Eva to speak.

“Look, I don’t mean to be rude,” Eva began, “but I think Chance and I want to have a private dinner.”

“I don’t think that’s such a good idea.  You barely even know this guy.”

“How am I supposed to get to know him better if I don’t hang out with him?”

“The four of us can have dinner together, Eva.”

Eva frowned and said, “This isn’t anything like Ramiez.”

“Do you think that’s what this is about?”

“Are you seriously telling me it isn’t?”
Kyrie shrugged.  “I’m just trying to look out for you.”

“It’s not like we see each other all the time back in Boston, Kai.  If this is how you feel about me being on my own, how do you deal with it back there?”

“That’s not the same thing, Eva.  I feel especially responsible for your safety out here.  I gave my word to your father that you’d be safe on this trip.  I can’t ignore that promise.”

“I’m almost eighteen.  You can’t be my savior forever unless…”

“Unless what?”

“Look, there are half a dozen restaurants within sight of here.  You don’t have to go far.  Chance and I won’t go anywhere else.  Can’t you give us an hour or so?  Really?”

Kyrie sighed.  “All right.  I’m sorry, I only want you to be safe.  Mara and I will be nearby.  Give me a call on your cell when you’re done eating and let me know where you stand.”

Eva smiled.  “Thanks, Kai.  You’re still my big brother, you know.”

Kyrie and Eva returned to the table.  Mara and Richter were still engaged in conversation.  Richter looked at Kyrie as they approached.

“Agent Fledgling tells me you were in the National Guard,” Richter said, smiling.

“That’s right,” replied Kyrie.

“What did you do?”

“I was a corporal in an infantry unit.”

“No kidding.  I’m a corporal, too, USMC 1/9, sniper section.  At least, I was until last month.”

“Bully for junior NCOs, eh?  Actually, the infantry is moving away from corporal in favor of the enlisted rank of specialist.”

“They like to make you wait until you get your E5 before you become an NCO, I take it.”

“Bingo.”

“Kyrie and Mara are going to find another place to eat,” said Eva.  “They’ll meet up with us after dinner.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to join us?” asked Richter.

“Quite sure,” said Mara, standing up.

Eva took Mara’s seat proximate to Richter.

“Don’t order her any alcohol,” said Kyrie, sounding way too much like his own father for his liking.

“Relax, I’m a gentleman,” replied Richter.

“Come one Kyrie, let’s see what else this city has to offer,” said Mara.

“Have fun, kids,” said Kyrie, and headed for the sidewalk.

Kyrie and Mara walked all the way to the next block before either of them said anything.  Kyrie stopped and looked back.  He could barely discern Richter and Eva from the rest of the diners at this distance, but the minimal detail was enough to maintain his interest.  Mara looked at him with ire.

“You really need to give her some room, Kai,” she said.

“Something is not right about this situation,” Kyrie replied.  “I’m not sure what.”

“Is that your cop instinct or your jealousy?”

“Hey, I’m not jealous.  Eva is my friend, nothing more.”

“I should hope so.  Kyrie, I can’t help but feeling a little slighted here.  We haven’t seen each other for eight years and yet you’re hardly interested in me.  Did our relationship really mean that little to you?”

Kyrie snapped out of a daze.  “Of course not, Mara.  You know all too well what our relationship meant to me.”

“Good, because I have some unresolved issues about it that have been bothering me for years.  I could forget about them for the most part… but since you’re standing in front of me now, I see no reason why we can’t discuss it.”

“Why would someone bring a laptop computer to a first date?”

“What?  I don’t know, maybe he figured he’d bring something to do if he got stood up.”

“And the briefcase?”

“What briefcase?”

“There was a black briefcase under the table.”

“What the hell difference does it make?  You know what, Kyrie, if all you’re going to do is worry about Eva you don’t need me around.  I think I’m going to head back to the resort.”

Kyrie wasn’t listening.  Mara followed his gaze.  Back in front of the restaurant, a black van had stopped.  Chance and Eva were headed toward it.  Even at their distance, Kyrie and Mara could see that Chance was directing Eva with his hand in the small of her back.  Someone inside the van opened the side door and Eva got inside.  Chance looked around before joining her.

“That doesn’t look like it was on the menu,” said Mara.

Kyrie didn’t reply.  He was too busy stepping in front of a moving taxicab.  The cab screeched to a halt as Kyrie displayed his badge.

“Come on!” he said, jumping in.

Mara followed suit without objection.

“Police officer,” Kyrie was saying to the driver.  “See that black van?”

“Yes,” said the driver, an older man wearing a Padres cap.

“I need you to follow it.  Don’t be shy, we can’t lose it.”

“Am I going to get paid for this?”

Mara reached into her pocket and threw a fistful of twenty dollar bills at the driver.

“Just get going,” she said.

“You’re the boss.”

The van made two left turns and began heading east.  The crowds that had dominated the Gaslight Quarter quickly thinned, and the road climbed steadily uphill.

“I know this doesn’t look right,” Mara began, “but why not call Eva’s cell and see if she picks up?  Maybe she and Chance are… I don’t know.”

“Good idea,” Kyrie replied.

Kyrie dialed his phone and waited.  After several seconds he gave up.

“Think they’ve noticed us?” asked Mara.

“If they’re paying any attention at all, I don’t see how they couldn’t have.”

“You want to call the locals?”

“And tell them what?  It sure looks like a kidnapping, but where’s the proof?  I mean, Eva wasn’t kicking or screaming or anything.”

“We’d better make up our minds soon, Kai.  They’re either going to stop and confront us or try and evade us.  Either way is getting this cabbie in over his head.”

“I concur,” said the driver.

As the cab approached the next major intersection, something big and yellow caught Kyrie’s attention.  “That bus isn’t going to stop!”

The driver braked hard and swerved to the left as a school bus blew into the intersection and stopped.  All three occupants said something awful about someone’s heritage.

“Asshole!” the driver added.

Kyrie was about to propose that the cabbie go around the bus when he noticed the interior.  There were several men aboard and at least three of them had rifles.  Two of them began shooting in the opposite direction as two more exited the rear of the bus.  One of the latter pair had what Kyrie recognized as an AT-4 anti-tank rocket launcher.

The cab driver threw the car into reverse and started backing up.

“Let us out!” Kyrie screamed.

“You can get out when we’re far the hell away from this crap!” the cabbie replied.

“God damn it, I said stop!”

Kyrie grabbed the parking brake and yanked up on it.  The cab skidded violently and knocked over a mailbox.  Kyrie and Mara jumped out.

“Keep the change,” Mara said.

The driver corrected the cab and screeched off to the west as Kyrie and Mara sprinted back toward the bus.  They drew their weapons and ducked behind a parked Ford sedan.  They couldn’t be sure, but it sounded like the occupants of the bus were catching return fire from further down the street.  The man with the AT-4 yelled something to his buddies and they cleared out from around him.

“Holy shit!” said Kyrie, and brought his pistol up.

So far the gunmen hadn’t noticed Kyrie or Mara.  Kyrie changed that by putting three rounds into the man with the launcher.  Two rounds impacted his torso while the third tore through his left thigh.  He fell without firing the launcher.  One of his friends turned around and got a bead on Kyrie with his M4-style rifle.  He pressed himself up against the back of the bus and began firing.  Kyrie and Mara ducked down as shots slammed into the car.

“Cover me while I move!” Kyrie said, the specific words the result of ingrained practice.

“Move!” replied Mara.

Kyrie bolted out from behind the car and sprinted across the street.  The rifleman began to track him but changed his mind, realizing Mara was still there.  Mara centered her sights on the man, who suddenly stood straight up and charged her.  She fired her pistol five times and scored three hits.  The man fell flat on his face and did not move.  The third man from the bus darted around the back just long enough to jump back inside.  Mara resisted the temptation to shoot at where she thought he was, and waited for a clear line of fire.

On the other side of the street, Kyrie could see past the left side of the bus and further down the street.  The black van had skidded to a stop and now rested sideways on the road.  The side door was open and a man lay motionless next to it.  Further down, a tractor-trailer rig blocked the road.  Muzzle flashes emanated from a point near the cab of the truck.  On the opposite side of the street, a man traded shots with the truck from the cover of a parked car.  On the same side of the street, Kyrie recognized Richter as he peeked from around a parked SUV.  The former Marine raised a pistol and fired into the bus.  At that moment, Kyrie realized the setup.  It was a classic ambush, and he knew that if he and Mara hadn’t intervened, Richter and Eva would be dead already.

“Mara, get over here!” he yelled.

Kyrie kept the inside of the bus covered as Mara ran across the street.  He ducked behind an old VW Beetle and she kneeled next to him.  There was barely enough cover for both of them and Kyrie desperately searched for something better.

“Which way?” Mara asked.

“Richter is on this side of the street,” he replied.  “There are more guys behind an eighteen-wheeler down the street.  I want to flank the guys in the bus, but Richter doesn’t know we’re on his side.”

“Are we?” asked Mara, incredulously.

Kyrie replied angrily.  “He’s trying to keep Eva alive, that means we help him!”

Over the din, Kyrie thought he heard Eva yelling something.  Richter got up and ran onto the sidewalk, firing his pistol three times toward the left and disappearing into what was apparently the entryway to a building.  The second man, who’d been firing at the truck, sprinted across the street.  Richter reappeared from the doorway and fired at the truck to cover his friend.  Both men ran into the building, and all firing ceased.

“Back behind the trunk.” Kyrie said quietly.

Mara nodded and they retreated slightly.  The attackers began communicating with each other in an unknown language.  The man on the bus dismounted and joined three more men who had come from up the street.  They all had rifles.  It seemed obvious that they were planning on following their quarry into the building.

“We should call for backup,” said Mara.

Kyrie swapped magazines on his pistol.  “You go ahead.  I think Eva is in that building.”

“You can’t go in there alone!”

The four men entered the building, and Kyrie said, “Come with me, then.  I’m going to get that rifle first.  You check the van to see if there’s anything useful.”

Mara grabbed Kyrie’s arm.  “If we go in there without contacting the cops, how are they going to know that we’re the good guys?”

“Those assholes didn’t engage us, Mara!  They overlooked us, which means we have the element of surprise.  If we’re going in, we have to go now.  Worry about the cops after we‘ve rescued Eva.”

“This is crazy.  I’m a federal agent.  There is a procedure for this and I have to follow it.”

“Look, Mara, I understand that.  You do what you think is right.  I‘m going.”

Kyrie moved his badge from his belt to his jacket, and ran across the street.  Mara swore to herself and grabbed her cell phone.  She could hear sirens in the distance.  Once the cops arrived, there would be no way she could follow Kyrie inside.  The police dispatcher answered her call.  Mara had to turn the volume on her phone up to maximum as she was half-deaf from the firefight.

“This is Agent Fledgling with the FBI, ID number 9335514.  I’m on the scene of a shooting…”

Mara’s voice faded as Kyrie made it to the rear of the bus.  The man that Mara had shot was lying on the ground.  He looked of Middle-Eastern descent.  Kyrie grabbed his rifle, which he identified as a Colt carbine.  Already very familiar with the breed, he confirmed the rifle’s condition and grabbed two spare magazines off of the corpse.  The AT-4 was also nearby, so he grabbed it and slung it on his back.

Kyrie ran over to the van.  The man lying by the side door hadn‘t moved.  Kyrie checked inside the vehicle.  He saw Chance’s laptop computer and the black briefcase, but nothing in the way of weaponry.

A hand grasped his ankle.  Kyrie yelped involuntarily and pulled away.  The man on the ground was still alive.  He held up a bloodied ID card and struggled to speak.

“Christ,” breathed Kyrie, looking at the card, “you’re with the CIA?”

“Case Officer Dowling.  Are you San Diego PD?” the man asked.

“I’m a cop.  Help is on the way.  Where are you hit?”

“I think I can make it.  Where are my people?”

“They ran inside that building over there.  What does this have to do with Evangeline Adeler?”

“How do you know her?”

“It’s too complicated to explain right now.  Is Richter with you, too?”

“Yes.”

“Then we’re in this together.  Hold on, pal.  I’ll get your friends back.”

Kyrie ran to the entrance of the building.  One of the glass doors had been shot out.  A noise brought his attention to the sky; an unidentified helicopter had appeared.  Kyrie took a deep breath, cleared the doorway and disappeared inside.

5.

The Coronado Hotel had been closed for renovations over a year ago.  Apparently the investors had backed out, for no work had ever been done and the structure remained derelict.  That much was obvious to Richter.  He, Eva, and Sinclair had just sprinted through the darkened lobby and into the doorway of a manager’s office.

“Is Dowling dead?” asked Richter, changing magazines.

“I think so,” replied Sinclair between heavy breaths.

Richter looked back at the darkened lobby.  It was a large area, open three stories up and ringed on three sides by balconies.  Fake miniature palm trees in concrete planters formed concentric rings which surrounded the circular main desk.  Each planter was accompanied by two sofa chairs and a table.  Sparsely-placed emergency lights provided the only illumination.  There was a lot of cover, but the interior favored a man armed with a rifle.  Four of such people had just entered.  Richter swore to himself.

“Engaging these guys is suicide,” said Sinclair.

Richter nodded.  “I agree.  Stay close, Eva.  We need to find a way out of here.”

Sinclair and Richter turned around.  Eva was gone.

“God damn it!” hissed Richter. “She’s still got the disc.”

The two men ran down a hallway.  There were no doors labeled as exits.  Two stood out, one for a stairwell and another for the fitness center.

“You take the stairs, I’ll go this way,” Sinclair said.

“Roger.  What’s the rally point?”

“Damn, I don’t know! How’bout the restaurant?”

“Fine.  Do you have spare cuffs?”

“No.”

“I guess I’ll just have to be more convincing.  Good luck; watch your six.”

“Richter, listen to me!  Evangeline is just as important as that disc.  We can destroy the disc if necessary but you have to keep her alive.”

“Of course I will.”

“No, I mean there is something special about that girl.  Her life is more important than just one person.”

“Whatever you say, Sinclair.  If I find her I’ll protect her.”

Sinclair nodded and headed toward the fitness center.  Richter ran to the stairwell door and entered.  Thinking that Eva wouldn’t be stupid enough to get caught in the basement, he ran upstairs.  As he cleared the first landing he thought about Sinclair.  He was carrying a Walther P99 9mm pistol and he’d gone through one magazine and two or three shots from the second.  Richter hoped that he carried three magazines or he was going to be in a lot of trouble in another fight.  Richter himself had only fired eight rounds out of three full magazines so he wasn’t worried about it yet.

“I’d give my left nut for a SAW right now,” he said to himself.

Reaching the second floor, Richter grabbed a small flashlight from his pocket and shined it at the door.  The dust on the door handle hadn’t been disturbed.  He ran up the next flight of stairs and repeated the process.  This time it looked like someone had gone through the door recently.

“Don’t move, Chance.”

Richter froze before he could finish opening the door.  Eva’s voice echoed from the next landing up.  Richter struggled to recall whether or not Eva had an opportunity to grab a weapon during the melee, and failed.

“Put your weapon down.”

“Evangeline, take it easy, we’re still on your side here.”

“Which side is that, the side that’s arresting me for espionage, or the side that’s trying to murder me?”

Richter turned around, keeping his pistol at his side.  Eva was holding a Glock in the Weaver stance with her index finger resting along the frame.

“You stand a much better chance of getting out of here alive by sticking with me.  If you cooperate with our investigation you may not face any jail time.  Heck, a smart girl like you could even be recruited.”

“Oh, bullshit.”  Eva sighed and lowered her pistol slightly.  “Do you even know who these people are?”

“Our attackers?  Not a clue.  Obviously they don’t want whatever’s on that disc from getting to your original buyer.”

“More likely they represent the buyer, and they’re only attacking us because you took me into custody.”

“I suppose that’s possible, too.  Just what the hell did you steal, anyway?”

“You don’t know?”

“I’m too far down on the food chain, Eva.”

“It’s nothing worth this kind of violence… it’s just plans for a new device that can seal wounds by energy transmissions.  It wouldn’t be a very effective weapon or anything.”

“Come again?”

“It’s a hand-held device that can clot blood and seal lacerations and puncture wounds with magnetically-modulated particle energy.”

“Holy shit, Eva!  You don’t think that kind of technology could be used for other purposes?”

“Not without more reverse engineering than any other country is capable of.  The US is the only country with sensors delicate enough to detect the subatomic particles to begin with.”

“Sinclair told me a little bit about your father’s scientific research.  Is this one of his projects?”

“That’s not important right now.”

Richter shook his head.  “Fine, don’t tell me, I’ll find out soon enough.  You’re still trying to sell classified technology to our enemies.”

“Doesn’t everyone have a right to access the best medical technology available?”

“That’s not your decision to make!  Besides, it sounds like this thing could get wounded soldiers back into action more quickly, and we don’t want the enemy to have the same advantage.”

The sound of gunfire echoed up the stairwell, mercifully quieted by the superstructure of the building.

“Come on,” said Richter, ignoring Eva’s pistol and climbing the stairs.  “We have to get you out of here.  If you still want to shoot me, do it after we’re both safe.”

Back in the lobby, Kyrie ducked behind a large concrete planter as several shots licked at his heels.  One of the enemy riflemen had spotted him almost as soon as he’d entered the building.  The man shouted an incomprehensible warning to his friends and continued firing.  He spun his head around and tried to get an idea of the layout of the hotel lobby.  The shadowy balconies concerned him the most but he couldn’t spot any obvious threat from above.

There was a break in the incoming fire, and Kyrie risked a glance above the planter.  Three men were slowly moving toward him, using the furniture and fixtures as cover.  He spun himself around on his waist and assumed a reclined seated position.  He gained a sight picture on the closest man and slowly squeezed the trigger.  He practically broke his own finger trying to pull the unresponsive lever, and swore under his breath as he flipped off the safety and took aim again.

This time his rifle barked in obedience and the man stumbled.  His two friends immediately returned fire and Kyrie ducked back down.  He put the rifle on burst, leaned up, and sprayed six rounds.  Again spinning around on his waist, he stood up and sprinted towards another planter.  The men returned fire on his previous position.  As soon as he arrived at cover he kneeled and looked for a target.  One of the men was silhouetted against an emergency light and Kyrie fired.  The first shot hit the man in the head and the next two went into the second floor balcony.  Kyrie switched his rifle back to semi-auto and ran to a support pillar.  The remaining man spotted him and advanced on the pillar, systematically firing his AK-style rifle slowly.  Pinned down, Kyrie waited for the man to choose which side of the pillar to turn.  A fresh rush of adrenaline hit him as he realized that if he anticipated the wrong side, he’d be dead.

Over the din the man was screaming obscenities.  Kyrie’s mind raced as he tried to think of something to do.  He had just decided to break right around the pillar when shots flew in from a new position near the rear of the hotel.  His opponent turned to face that direction and fired one shot before being cut down.  Kyrie looked over and saw another man with a pistol stumble and fall.  It was most likely Sinclair, so Kyrie ran over to him, keeping him covered with his rifle in case he was wrong.

“Police officer!” Kyrie yelled, louder than he intended.

“Federal agent,” Sinclair replied, groaning.

Kyrie kneeled by the officer.  This time he could plainly see that he‘d been hit in the ribs.

“It looks bad,” he said.

“I’ll be okay.  Look.”

Sinclair pointed back toward the main entrance.  The beautiful strobe of blue and red emergency lights beamed in from outside.

“I’m not sure all of the targets are down,” Kyrie said.  “Let’s get you behind cover.”

Kyrie helped the officer over to a planter.  He picked up his pistol and handed it to him.

“There’s a girl somewhere upstairs,” Sinclair said.  “You’ve got to find her.”

“I know.  Are you sure you’ll be okay?”

“If I don’t get shot by your compatriots, I think so.  Help me get my ID out.”

Kyrie did so.  Sinclair propped himself up on a chair.

“Which stairwell did she use?”

“That one.  There’s another one of my men after her, too.  He’s got a buzz-cut and he’s wearing a…”

“I know what he looks like, I’ll hold my fire.”

Sinclair nodded and fixed his gaze on the lobby.  Kyrie left him to his task and headed for the stairs.  He sloppily cleared the landing and glanced upward.  It was too dark to see anything and, as far as he could tell, silent.  He replaced the magazine in his rifle with a fresh one, swore to himself, and charged up the stairs.

Richter emerged onto the rooftop of the hotel, a warm breeze immediately catching him broadside.  Fortunately, the door to the roof had not been locked, but he mused that he was expending too much of his fortune on inconsequential matters.  Evangeline crossed the doorway a couple of seconds later, struggled to catch her breath, and took stock of the scenery.

“It’s very beautiful up here,” she huffed, “but I don’t see how this enhances our security.”

“We may not have cornered ourselves,” Richter replied, and revealed the hand microphone for a portable radio hidden somewhere in his vest.  “Eagle One, this is Longshot, over.”

Richter pointed to a large air conditioning unit and indicated to Eva that they should use it for cover.  They moved to one side of the sheet metal walls.  Richter took a knee.

“Longshot, this is Eagle One, go ahead, over.”

“Eagle One, we have enemy contact at the Coronado Hotel.  I am on the roof, and I need evac for myself and one other friendly.  How soon can you get here, over?”

“Longshot, we are inbound to the airport.  Diverting to the Coronado Hotel will not take long.  Which, uh, which building is it, over?”

“Wait one, out,” Richter said, then turned to Evangeline.  “Do you have any idea what the street address is for this place?”

“I haven’t a clue,” replied Eva.

“That’s a problem.”  Richter keyed the mike.  “Eagle One, this is Longshot.  I will direct you to the appropriate rooftop using landmarks.  Are you currently heading towards downtown, over?”

“Roger, over.”

A very loud roar caused Richter and Eva to turn around.  A UH-IH Iroquois helicopter had just appeared from behind a taller building.  Riding in the back was a man behind what Richter instantly recognized as a M-240B machine gun on a flexible mount.

“Eagle One, look to your nine o‘clock, over,” yelled Richter into his radio.

“Roger, Longshot, over.”

“Do you see us?”

“Negative, Longshot, we are still thirty seconds out from downtown.”

“Over here!” shouted Evangeline, waving at the Huey.

Richter went through about half of the invectives he knew and tackled Eva to the ground.  The gunner on the Huey opened up on the rooftop.  Richter regained his feet and effortlessly dragged a screaming Evangeline across the gravel and around the corner of the air conditioning unit.

“Stay down!” he ordered.

Rounds impacted the AC unit with a crackling noise.  Some were stopped by the machinery therein, others passed through and continued toward the heart of downtown.  Richter considered his options, the most appealing of which was to get back downstairs.  There were two more AC units and some large conduits, but nothing much else in the way of hard cover.  He leaned down and inspected the bottom of the air conditioner.  There was enough room for one person to hide underneath.

“Get under there, I’ll deal with these fuckers,” said Richter.

Eva offered no objection and slid herself under the unit.  The Huey had looped around the far side of the roof, making it easy for Richter to move back toward the center of the roof without being seen.  He knew that before too long the pilot would realize he could simply move directly above the building to allow his gunner an unobstructed view.  If he timed it right, he might be able to move laterally underneath the aircraft and get a shot at something vulnerable.  He resumed a crouch and keyed his mike.

“Eagle One, this is Longshot, be advised that we have a hostile aircraft at this location, over.”

“Longshot, we see a Bell Iroquois over downtown, is that it, over?”

“Affirmative!  What are you flying?  Are you armed?”

“We’re in a Blackhawk, but we’ve got sidearms only, over.”

“Exercise extreme caution and do not engage.  The aircraft is armed with a general purpose machine gun.  Call the Air Guard for immediate interdiction, over.”

“Understood, Longshot.  What are your intentions?”

“I’m going to extract myself.  Standby for a new evac location, over.”

“Roger, out.”

Richter looked in all directions.  He could still hear the Huey, but he’d lost sight of it.

“Evangeline, can you hear me?” he yelled.

“Yes,” said Eva’s voice.

“We have to get you off of this roof.  I’m going to distract that chopper.  You have to run as fast as you can back to the stairwell.  Wait until I give you the signal.  Understand?”

“Yes.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Richter noticed the door to the stairwell open a crack.  He ducked back and spoke as loud as he dared into his radio.

“Sidewinder, this is Longshot.  Are you about to come out onto the roof?”

There was no reply.  He repeated the query, then glanced around the corner at the door.  A man with a rifle was standing in the shadows of the stairwell.  Richter’s adrenaline level spiked once more.  He could deal with one opponent, even when vastly outgunned, but if he and Eva were flanked then it would be all over.  He decided he couldn’t wait any longer, and took aim at the man in the door.  As his finger squeezed the trigger he realized it was Devonai.  The shot missed, and Devonai sprinted out of the doorway and dove behind a concrete barrier.

“Damn it, Richter, it’s Devonai!” he yelled.

“Whose side are you on?” shouted Richter.

“I’m here to help!”

“You should trust him, Chance,” said Eva, poking her head out.

“Suits me fine,” said Richter, then to Kyrie, “There’s a Huey out there trying to nail us!  When it comes back, I’ll run a distraction.  I need you to tag the gunner, do you think you can do that?”

“Piece of cake!” replied Kyrie.

The dull thud of the helicopter rotors seemed to lessen.  Richter fought the temptation to move to the edge of the roof for a better look.

“Have they gone?” asked Evangeline.

“I seriously doubt it,” said Richter.  “The Air Guard couldn’t have gotten here this fast.”

“Don’t these idiots realize they may destroy the disc with these tactics?”

“With the exception of that eager beaver behind the Bravo, our opponents have been carefully choosing their shots.  They’re trying to take you alive.  Then it won’t matter if they lose the disc.”

“Are you two all right?” asked Kyrie.

“Just ducky.  Are you ready?”

“Roger!”

With a sudden rush of wind and noise, the Huey ascended back into view.  Less than fifty meters from the AC unit, Richter could see the gunner smiling as he looked down the sights.  Richter turned to run laterally, slipped on the gravel, fell, and regained his feet, all as the gunner began filling the air around him with shots.  He fired his pistol wildly, knowing full well it was in vain, and headed for the relative cover of a large conduit.  There were several sharp tugs at his clothing, but his legs kept working so he pushed it out of his mind.

On the opposite side of the roof, Kyrie sighted in on the gunner.  He had the rifle rested on the concrete barrier from a kneeling position.  He took a deep breath, exhaled, and tried to ignore the fact that Richter’s actions would be suicidal if he didn’t hit his mark.  The pilot was doing his best to keep the aircraft steady, to Kyrie’s benefit.  He slowly pulled back on the trigger, ignoring the shot and concentrating on a follow-up.  He repeated this process three times before the gunner stopped firing.  Looking up from the sights, he saw the gunner swing his weapon around and aim at him.

Kyrie’s instincts were telling him to get back behind the barrier, but he forced himself to resume aiming.  He and the gunner fired simultaneously, with the other man’s fusillade cut short by Kyrie’s round passing through his torso.  A moment later his helmet was macerated by five rounds from Richter’s pistol.  The gunner slumped over his weapon and remained still.  The pilot immediately swung away and disappeared below the level of the building.

Kyrie ran over to Richter’s location.  He was helping Eva out from underneath the AC unit.  There was blood on his hip and arm.

“Nice shot, Devonai,” Richter said, “he won’t be back.”

“You’re hit, Richter,” Kyrie replied.

“I’ll live.”

Eva jumped up and embraced Kyrie.  “You came after me.”

“Of course I did,” replied Kyrie, then said to Richter, “what the hell is going on here?”

“Evangeline is in the custody of the CIA.  We were transporting her to a secure location when we were attacked.”

Richter took off his shirt.  Kyrie noticed a recording device in addition to what appeared to be ugly but superficial lacerations.

“Does this have something to do with your father?” Kyrie asked Eva.

“Yes,” said Eva.

“As a research scientist for the government,” began Richter, examining his hip, “Eva’s father works on some top secret stuff.  If there was a threat against him, we’d have to consider it a threat against his entire family.”

“So this was a kidnapping attempt?” replied Kyrie.  “An attempt to use Eva as leverage?”

“Something like that.”

A Blackhawk helicopter appeared about three hundred yards away, coming from the direction of the bay.  Kyrie spun around and unlimbered the AT-4.

“I’m through fucking around with these people,” he said.

Richter put his hand on Kyrie’s shoulder.  “This one’s with me, Devonai.”

Kyrie relaxed, and said, “Good.  Let’s get the hell off of this roof.”

6.

“Kyrie Devonai.  K-y-r-i-e…”

“I got it Ma’am, but he’s not logged in.”

Mara sighed and pulled out her badge wallet.  She displayed her credentials along with a slight grin.

“FBI?” asked the now-surprised nurse.  “Why didn’t you say so?”

“He may have come in with someone else.  I just want to look around the ER area, is that all right with you?” replied Mara.

“No problem, Ma’am, just log yourself in on our visitor sheet.”

Mara did so, smiled at the nurse, and began searching the emergency room.  It didn’t take long for her to find Kyrie, Evangeline, and Richter, the last of whom was getting his elbow stitched up by a doctor.  Another wound on his hip had already been patched up.  Kyrie jumped to his feet when he saw Mara, and hugged her.

“Thank God you’re okay,” he said.

“Same to you, Kai.  Is Eva all right?”

Mara looked over at Evangeline.  She noticed that the girl was handcuffed to an empty gurney.  Eva glanced briefly at Mara and resumed watching the doctor.

“She’s fine physically.  Legally she’s in deep shit.  How did it go with the cops?”

“I gave them my statement and one of them gave me a ride down here to look for you.  There will be a mountain of paperwork later.  But tell me, what happened out there?”

“Be careful what you say, Devonai,” said Richter.  “It isn’t up to us to divulge any information to another agency.”

“I think Mara deserves an explanation,” replied Kyrie, “but right now I don’t know much more than you do.”

“At the very least I have to file an incident report,” said Mara.  “I don’t have to provide any particulars about your operation but I can guarantee the FBI will make a formal inquiry.”

Richter nodded, and said, “I don’t doubt it.  My superiors can decide whether or not to bring the FBI in on the case.  It may well end up being a joint investigation.”

A tall, thin woman with blonde hair approached the group.  She was wearing a gray skirt with a matching jacket and black high-heel shoes.  Her hair was tied in a ponytail and she wore glasses with a thin metal frame.  She had a canvas shoulder bag just visible behind her back.

“Agent Richter?” she asked, looking at both Kyrie and Chance.

“That’s me,” said Richter.

“I’m Case Officer Lauren Hill, from the Boston office.  I’m here to help clean up this mess.”

“You’re a little late to the party, but I’m glad to have some help.  How are Dowling and Sinclair?”

“CO Dowling is out of surgery.  He should recover in time.  Sinclair is still in the OR and his condition is more serious.  We should get word on him soon.”

“They fought well, Officer Hill.  They deserve recognition.”

“So do you, obviously.  I hear it was a nasty fight.”

“Evangeline and I would be dead if not for my new friends here.  This is Special Agent Mara Fledgling with the FBI and Officer Kyrie Devonai of… I’m sorry, I forgot where you work.”

“The Beverly, Massachusetts Police Department,” replied Kyrie, shaking Lauren’s hand.  “This is Evangeline Adeler, by the way.  Might as well be polite and introduce you to her.”

“Oh, Evangeline and I are well acquainted with each other,” said Lauren.  “Isn’t that right, my dear?”

“It’s wonderful to see you too,” grumbled Eva.

“Does this whole thing have something to do with Eva’s father?” asked Kyrie.

“I need to talk to you in private, Officer Devonai,” replied Lauren.

“Okay.”

Kyrie and Lauren moved back to the reception area.  Several officers from the San Diego police department were there and quite clearly paying attention to Kyrie.

Lauren said, “Officer Devonai, I’m placing you under arrest.  Please hand over your sidearm.”

“You must be joking,” Kyrie said, astonished.

A few of the cops tensed up, and Lauren said, “I apologize in advance if this turns out to be nothing, but I need your weapon.”

Kyrie cautiously removed his pistol and handed it to Lauren butt-first.  She cleared the weapon and dropped it into her satchel.  A cop offered her a spare pair of handcuffs, and Lauren secured Kyrie’s hands behind his back.

“Do you want to do Miranda or shall I?” he asked.

“You are being held on suspicion of conspiracy to commit treason against the government of the United States of America.”

“Holy shit, is that what you’re after Eva for?  Damn it, what has that girl gotten me into?”

Lauren dismissed the officers and moved Kyrie back towards the others.  Richter bolted upright, almost knocking over the doctor, and Mara gestured in surprise.

“You’re arresting him?” asked Richter, livid.

“What the hell is this?” added Mara.

“No good deed goes unpunished, apparently,” replied Kyrie.

“Until we can confirm that Officer Devonai wasn’t in league with Evangeline,” said Lauren, “We have to hold him.”

“Are you going to arrest me too?” asked Mara, folding her arms across her chest.

“Your story checks out, so no.  There’s no record of contact between you and Devonai for over six years, and as far as we know you hadn’t met Eva until last night.”

“Evangeline and I have been close friends for eighteen months,” began Kyrie.  “We see each other at least once a week; plenty of time to conspire about something.”

“But you haven’t,” interjected Mara.

“Of course he hasn’t,” said Eva quietly, “I’m the only one responsible for this.”

“Look, I don’t really care what Eva is accused of doing.  That’s between her and the CIA.  If you choose to bring the FBI in on the case, then maybe I’ll find out more someday.  However, I’m compelled to add that Kyrie’s behavior before the attack doesn’t conform to that of someone conspiring with Eva to commit a crime.  Heck, he invited me to come to dinner with them!  It would be pretty ballsy to invite a federal agent to sit down with you while committing treason.”

“The woman makes a good point,” said Kyrie.

“I’m all set here,” said the doctor, standing.  “Mister Richter, take these antibiotics twice a day, and seek help if the swelling or redness gets worse.”

“Thanks, doc,” said Richter.

The doctor headed toward the reception area.  Kyrie sighed and shrugged at Mara.

“So what happens now?” asked Richter.

“You, Evangeline, Devonai and I are headed to Boston,” replied Lauren.  “There will be a full investigation into this incident, and charges will be filed where appropriate… excuse me.”  Lauren reached into her pocket and withdrew a vibrating cell phone.  “This is Hill.  Yes, they’re still upstairs.  What?  Are you kidding me?  All right, then.  I don’t see how.  I’ll call you back.  Bye.”

“Something wrong?” asked Mara.

“What’s the name of your supervisor at the Bureau, Agent Fledgling?”

“ADA Frank Marshal, why?”

“Because if you want in on this case, now’s your chance.”  Lauren turned to Richter.  “Hausler has escaped from custody.”

“How did he manage that?” asked Richter.

“We were getting ready to transport him to Boston.  The van was ambushed soon after it left the facility, probably by more of the goons you ran into.”

“So you think our attackers were working for Hausler.”

“We shouldn’t be discussing that here.  Agent Fledgling, we simply don’t have the resources to pursue Hausler on our own.  My superiors have already contacted the San Diego branch office of the FBI.  I think it would be appropriate for you to be involved in recovering our prisoner.”

“Let’s hope Marshal agrees with you.  I haven’t been on a field op in a couple of years.”

“Here’s my number,” said Lauren, handing Mara a card, “call me if you get assigned to the case.”

“Will do.”

“Richter, if you’re ready to travel, we’ll head for the airport.”

Mara hugged Kyrie tightly.  “I’m sure they’ll get this sorted out soon, Kai.”

Kyrie smirked, and said, “If they call you to testify in my trial, please don’t mention all those Communist Party meetings we attended in college.”

Mara pulled back and put her hands on Kyrie’s shoulders.  “You really shouldn’t joke around like that.”

“Thank you for covering my ass out there, Mara.”

“I’m just sorry I couldn’t go inside with you.  It sounded like a hell of a fight.”

“I did fine, Mara, and I’m not going to fault you for doing your job properly.”

Mara gave Kyrie a quick kiss on the cheek.  “We shouldn’t have drifted apart.”

“Excuse me,” said Lauren, “we have to get going.”

“Call me as soon as you’re released.”

“I will.  Goodbye, Mara.”

Mara pulled out her cell phone, walked into the reception area and disappeared around the corner of the hallway.

“Richter,” began Lauren, “you take charge of Evangeline and I’ll take Devonai.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” replied Richter.

Lauren led the way as the group headed to the parking garage, flanked by two cops.

“How long have you been playing me, Eva?” Kyrie asked.

“I never meant for you to become involved,” Eva replied softly.

“It would really be best if you two didn’t talk to each other,” said Lauren.

The group entered an elevator, and Richter said, “So I gather we’re not going to Boston anymore.”

“No.  Right now the priority is getting our guests to a safe location.  Then, you and I will probably be assigned to the task force that’s doubtlessly being assembled to recover Hausler.”

The elevator arrived at the underground parking garage.  Lauren pointed at a fifteen-passenger van on the other side of the floor, and the cops led the way.  When they arrived, she dismissed the officers.  She and Richter loaded Eva and Kyrie into the vehicle, then after fidgeting around in the glove compartment, Lauren motioned to Richter to step aside with her.

“Richter, there’s something you need to know,” she said quietly.

“Is this about the tape recorder you just activated in there?” he replied.

“No, it isn’t.  It’s about your employer.  We all work for a special unit within the CIA known as Omega.  We have a bit more freedom in our field operations than normal, other than that we are still bound by United States law.”

“Freedoms like being able to hire me on the spot?”

“Precisely.  Omega’s only purpose is to investigate threats to the government’s scientific research, whether it be from espionage or subterfuge.  Toward that end, we have to be somewhat more independent than other alphabet agencies.  This case would be a simple matter of rooting out a traitor trying to sell technology to our enemies, except for one important factor.”

Lauren paused for dramatic purposes, so Richter asked, “What’s that?”

“Evangeline is the technology.”

“Uh.  Okay.”

“She’s not a cyborg or anything.  All you need to know right now is that the data she was trying to sell to Hausler is no good without her.  The technology won’t work without her being physically present.”

“Then why would she try to sell it?  Was she planning on ripping off Hausler?”

“She may not be aware of her own involvement.  That‘s one thing we‘d like to find out.”

“Hence the tape recorder.”

“Yes, but I’m also hoping that if Devonai is a collaborator, he’ll let it slip now.”

“Fat chance of that.”

In the van, Evangeline waited all of ten seconds before speaking.

“I never meant for you to be involved in this, Kai,” she said.

“You keep saying that,” Kyrie replied, squirming against the handcuffs, “but here we are.”

“I was planning on coming to San Diego alone, but when I found out you were going…”

“It would be best if you kept your mouth shut,” interrupted Kyrie.  “They almost certainly have us bugged.”

“I don’t care.  There’s nothing more I can say that would get me in more trouble than I’m already in.”

“Fine, you want to talk about it?  Just tell me why you did it.”

Eva folded her arms across her chest.  “My father doesn’t appreciate me, or my contribution to the project.  Lately he’d been treating me like just another researcher, barely acknowledging me at the lab.  He hadn’t been home in a week when we left.”

“Believe me, there are better ways to get your father’s attention than treason against the United States government.”

“I don’t expect you to agree with me.  I had just hoped that you would be a little understanding.”

“Okay,” Kyrie said, sighing.  “I admit it, I don’t know what it was like for you in your father’s laboratory.  I wish you had said something to me, though.  I enjoyed seeing you and visiting all of Boston’s coffee shops.  I always gave you space and I never pushed you to tell me anything about your life that you didn’t volunteer.  I wish you realized sooner that I could have given you some advice, or anything, to help.”

“What we had was so perfect, Kyrie.  I didn’t want to risk pushing you away.”

“Is that what you think I want, Eva?  A perfect friend?  Number one, that would be a hell of a hypocritical thing to want, and two, I only ever wanted you to be yourself.”

“Maybe I was showing you the part of me that I wanted to be me, and ignoring the parts that I didn’t.”

“I guess you’re still too young to realize this, Eva, but normal, healthy relationships aren’t based on putting on one’s best face, or expecting everything to be wine and roses.”

“If that’s true, then you must have thought something was very wrong with me on the inside.”

Kyrie looked at Evangeline and considered his next words carefully.

“I did.  Nobody goes through what you did without some kind of fallout.  I wanted to be there to support you when you finally…”

“Cracked?”

“Needed help.  Or a shoulder to cry on.  Whatever.”

“Is that all you wanted?”

Looking away sternly, Kyrie replied, “You don’t want to go there.  Not now.”

“So you don’t want a perfect girl and you don’t want a criminal mastermind.  I don’t know if there’s anything else of me to offer.”

“You still don’t get it, do you?  Evangeline, our relationship is over.  Right now I’m simply hoping to get out of this with my badge still intact.”

Eva choked up and moved to the back of the van.  Kyrie’s heart sank.  He didn’t want to be so blunt with her, but she needed to hear the truth.  In the back of his mind, he hoped that there was some way both of them could come away from this mess clean.  At the moment it seemed impossible.

Lauren and Richter returned to the van.  Lauren got into the driver’s seat and Richter sat next to Eva.

“What now?” asked Kyrie.

“We’re going after Hausler,” replied Lauren.  “Evangeline, if you hope to get out of prison any time ahead of your social security benefits, you will help us find him.  Devonai, if you’re involved, the same goes for you.”

“I’m confident in my innocence,” said Kyrie.  “Eva, if you know anything, you’d better come across with it.”

Eva remained silent.  Lauren fired up the engine and headed for the garage exit.  As the vehicle hit the street, she rolled down the front windows.  Once again the sweet, warm air of San Diego washed across Kyrie’s face.  He knew that this adventure was far from over, and he had a feeling that everyone in the van would see more pain before it was over.  Richter moved next to him, and patted him on the shoulder.

“Don’t worry, Devonai,” he said.  “When we get out of this, I’ll buy you a beer.”

About David Kantrowitz

I am the author of Reckless Faith, The Tarantula Nebula, and Bitter Arrow, a science fiction adventure trilogy, as well as The Fox and the Eagle, a stand-alone sci-fi adventure. This blog will feature new fiction as I create it.
This entry was posted in Original Fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Hard Stripes: Episode One: Guardian Angels

  1. John says:

    “With that thought, Eva withdrew her cell phone from her shoulder bag.” — didn’t she give him her room number, not cell number?

  2. John says:

    The exchange between Chance and the CIA operatives feels a little strange. He’s trusting them with absolutely nothing to go on. Perhaps I’m more suspicious than he is.

    • I agree, as far as exposition goes, it’s a little forced. Do you think Richter should be more suspicious about their identities, or the mission? Or both?

      Perhaps I should make it so that Richter has already met Downing and/or Sinclair. He could have met them through a contact in the Marines regarding his impending job application (or something).

  3. John says:

    Either more suspicion or prior meeting could help. Also, you mention they contacted people he knows. Let’s say Richter has a cell phone and therefore one of those people calls him to let him know? I haven’t finished reading yet, so perhaps the lack of a cell phone is a plot point.

    • The fact that Richter doesn’t have a cell phone is a plot device, explained by his impending trip to Japan. It is meant to add veracity to the idea of the CIA operatives showing up out of the blue at his hotel room door.

      I’ve been thinking about this one. Since Richter was in Afghanistan, it’s possible he could have met one of the CIA guys during an op… like the elimination of a High Value Target, coordinated through the CIA. Even if Richter isn’t the one who pulled the trigger, he could have (briefly) worked with them. That would also help explain why he applied to the CIA, if he was impressed with their work in the field.

  4. John says:

    “Kyrie grabbed the parking brake and yanked up on it. The cab skidded violently and knocked over a mailbox. Kyrie and Mara jumped out.”

    I call vehicle details here. Where is Kyrie? What make is the vehicle? Most cabs are large cars which use a left-pedal e-brake. If you’re going to get specific about make and model of weapons… ;)

    • Good points, I will make it clear that he’s in the front seat, and choose a car that makes sense. Thank you.

    • I fixed the taxicab details. I also added this snippet of dialogue with Richter and the first appearance of the spooks:

      “My name is Case Officer Dowling. This is CO Sinclair. We’re here about your application to the CIA.”
      Richter’s eyes grew wide. “Oh! Son of a… I had all but forgotten about that.”
      “Apparently so. We’ve met before, Richter, do you remember where?”
      Richter gazed at Dowling for a moment. “Afghanistan, last year. You were the Agency guy in charge of that HVT op. Hassan Al-Assad, right? Did you ever nail him?”
      “Yes.”
      “Sorry I couldn’t have been the one to make the shot.”
      “We dropped a JDAM on him. Indelicate, but effective. Anyway, is there somewhere we can talk?”
      “Yeah, of course. Can you give me a few minutes? I just woke up.”
      “No problem.”

  5. John says:

    Finally finished reading the whole thing. I think the part where Richter is pulled aside at the end is a little too subtle of a transition. I had to reread that. Overall, as usual, I liked the story. Good edits. I look forward to the second installment!

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