Warning: detailed descriptions of explicit heterosexual encounters, including some sexual violence and strong language. Please read or not accordingly.

Chapter 5: Tangled Web

Casey frowned, and the reflection of his face in the bathroom mirror frowned back at him as he remembered what had happened that past weekend at the hotel. He had almost fucked everything up royally. What a jerk!

Then he recalled the image of Melody's face when she had forgiven him and told him about her feelings and his frown vanished, replaced by a look of calm confidence and a certainty that their future together was going to be very good indeed, and he flicked off the bathroom light switch and went downstairs.

During the last few days at the Buy More, Casey had lapsed back into the dull routine of inventory, pricing and keeping an eye on Chuck. Now that his emotions had stopped alternating between the heights of euphoria and the depths of despair, Casey found it hard to muster his nasty, aggressive persona at will, and his previous customers drifted away to the other associates when he had lost his appeal.

After the first week, Big Mike called Casey into his office. On his way through the door, Casey noticed that the Employee of the Month plaque now held a picture of the dorky kid with the red afro who looked like Napoleon Dynamite. Oh, well, easy come, easy go.

Casey's picture was lying on top of Big Mike's desk. It was a bit crumpled and the edges had been torn during its unceremonious removal from the plaque. As Casey folded his large frame into the small plastic stacking chair opposite, Big Mike picked the photo up gingerly by one corner and dropped it into the waste basket by the side of the desk, a look on his face as though he were handling biohazardous material. He then laced his fingers together, rested his arms on the edge of the desk in front of himself and frowned.

"Associate Casey," he began, "I'm disappointed in you. Your sales are in the crapper. I had you pegged for bigger things and you've let me down. And my wife is never going to forgive me now for reneging on that trip to Paris."

He paused and looked at Casey with a hard, unyielding stare to underline his next point. "This situation is not helping to improve my mood at all."

Casey, who appeared to be sitting passively and taking in everything Big Mike had to say to him with attentive interest was, in reality, doing his own inventory. It was a mental catalog of objects in the room that he could use to hurt the Buy More manager if he chose to, really hurt him, even kill him, and that inventory included Casey's bare hands.

Adopting a sincere tone, Casey said, "I'm sorry about that, Big Mike. I'll try to do better."

"Well, there's one thing I'll say for you, John Casey," Big Mike declared, "at least you have respect for authority, not like some of these other minimum-wagers, and for that, you deserve my respect. I'm giving you a second chance."

Big Mike stood and came around the desk, offering his hand to Casey for a shake. When Casey slowly stood and looked down, towering over the shorter man, he admitted to himself that Big Mike was aware of the importance of order and discipline. Since the man's file didn't contain any information about previous military service, Casey's curiosity got the better of him and, shaking Big Mike's hand, he inquired, "Where did you serve, sir?"

Big Mike straightened his spine and puffed out his chest. "Boy Scout leader for fifteen years," he replied, the immense pride evident in his voice.

Casey released his grip and, snapping to attention, raised his right hand to his shoulder, palm out, and pointed three fingers upwards in the Boy Scout sign.

"Be Prepared, sir," he said, as Big Mike returned the signal.

When Casey had turned to go, he could hear Big Mike comment to himself, "I knew there was a reason I liked that guy."

Walking into the store proper, Casey pulled up short when he saw Sarah coming in through the front sliding doors wearing that ridiculous Wiener Girl outfit. He was going to duck into the back to avoid her but she had already seen him and turned to walk in his direction, a determined look on her face.

"Casey. Home Theater," she said tersely, grabbing him by the elbow and spinning him around in the direction of the curtained room.

Casey jerked his arm away but went along peacefully and even held the door open, allowing Sarah to enter the room first. Closing and locking the door firmly behind himself and flicking on the light switch, Casey did a quick recon to ensure all the curtains were drawn before turning to Sarah and growling out, "What?"

Instead of answering his challenge in kind, Sarah sat on the sofa and indicated that Casey should do the same. He hesitated for a moment and then sat, hunching forwards uncomfortably as Sarah leaned back, crossed her legs, and settled in for what was apparently going to be a long session.

Giving Casey a smug, superior look, Sarah said, "Come on, spill."

"Waddaya mean?" Casey snarled, his brows bunching up as he turned his head to look at her.

"I finally figured it out," Sarah began. "Well, actually, Anna got there before me. She's pretty tuned in when it comes to men. I should take lessons from her."

Casey was starting to get impatient. Why did women have to talk in this secret code of theirs? He was a trained agent with years of experience and even he was getting lost on this one.

"Just what are you trying to get at, Walker?" he snapped.

"You've got a girlfriend, haven't you, Casey? That's why you've been so messed up lately. I'm right, aren't I? Come on, talk to me."

Sarah leaned forwards eagerly, the look on her face alternating between compassion and burning curiosity, and placed a hand on Casey's arm.

Instead of pulling away from her touch this time, however, Casey let his head and shoulders drop and, his voice full of sorrow, said, "You really do care about what happens to me, don't you, Sarah?"

Sarah straightened her spine at the sound of her name. As far as she could remember, Casey had never used just her first name before. It had always been "Agent Walker" or, more usually, just a barked-out "Walker." She must be getting somewhere here.

Modulating her voice to convey all the compassion she could drum up, Sarah replied, "Of course I care about what happens to you, John. I'm your partner, after all."

Casey stood up suddenly and whipped around to face her, knocking Sarah back a bit and, wearing his meanest scowl, growled out, "Then mind your own fucking business!"

Casey was pleased that he had been able to fake Sarah out so easily, and he stalked out of the room, leaving her sitting on the sofa, completely dumbstruck.

When he came back out into the store, Casey saw Chuck lurking nearby nervously fiddling with his tie. Chuck pointed his finger in the air as Casey approached and had opened his mouth to speak when Casey said, loudly enough so the other associates within earshot could hear, "Bartowski, keep your woman under control. And keep her off of me."

As he continued on his way back to finish inventory, Casey thought, There, that should give these pathetic dweebs a sufficiently thorough mindfuck, and he smiled maliciously, figuring this might turn out to be a pretty good day after all.

Casey had chilled the Prosecco and was placing two champagne flutes on the kitchen counter beside a bowl of large strawberries when he heard the knock at the door.

Quickly wiping his hands on a dish towel, Casey hurried to the door and flung it to one side. He had already opened his mouth to tell Melody how much he had missed her during the past two weeks but stopped and closed it again when his brain registered the bottle blonde standing in the courtyard.

She opened with the handler code of, "This isn't what the weatherman said on the news," and her face took on a puzzled look when Casey didn't respond right away with the counter-code.

Casey collected himself after a moment and stuttered out, "Oh, yeah, uh, they should get their facts straight, don't you think?"

This time, the exchange ended with, "I would have brought an umbrella," which indicated to Casey that this handler had a lower-level clearance than Melody's, and he stood aside to let her enter the apartment.

Once inside, the woman turned to Casey and said, "You can call me Janet. So what's on the agenda, Major Casey? Do we get to know each other first or get down to business?"

Casey frowned at this direct approach. He felt it cheapened what he and Melody had together, and he was about to explain that he wasn't going to need Janet's services after all when he suddenly realized that if he refused outright, this new handler might question why, and Casey was not prepared to reveal the depth of his feelings for Melody, nor that she returned them.

Instead, he asked, "Where is Dr. Beckman?"

Looking around the room and walking over to the kitchen door, the woman replied unenthusiastically, "Dunno." Then, catching sight of the wine, she said, "Oh, good, booze," and went in to help herself to a glass.

Casey stood in the middle of the living room bemused by this behavior. Who was this person and where was Melody?

Then it hit him like a freight train. The non-committal things Melody had said in the car the last time, the way she had averted her eyes and, even when she had looked at him, looked through him. Casey had interpreted it all wrong. He had twisted it around in his head, turning it into what he had wanted to see and hear, and it all added up to one conclusion: She wasn't coming back. She was never coming back.

Time slowed down as Casey's brain worked through these thoughts, finally fixating on the last one. She's never coming back, he repeated to himself over and over again.

Casey was becoming angry, and he actively fed his anger until his temples were pounding. Clenching and unclenching his fists, he built it up, layer upon layer, until the part of him that wanted to collapse to the floor and cry out his anguish was no longer discernable.

When the new agent returned to the living room, alternately sipping her drink and munching on a strawberry, Casey abruptly snatched both the glass and the fruit from her hands and put them on the table. He grabbed her by the wrist and yanked her towards the stairs, and her face lit up as she observed, "Oh, so it is straight to business, then?"

Once in his room, Casey, angry beyond all reason, ordered the woman to strip, and she willingly did so as Casey removed his clothing, glowering at her all the while.

The woman had an allover tan, slightly on the orange side, and it looked to Casey as though she had had more than a little help from a plastic surgeon. In contrast, he remembered Melody's natural curves and coloring, especially the feel of soft, downy body hair and springy pubic hair when he realized this woman was waxed to within an inch of her life, including a full Brazilian.

By this time, Casey's anger at Melody's betrayal was so all-consuming that he hadn't even begun to get an erection, and when he noticed the woman looking at his limp penis with an amused smirk on her face, he growled out, "On your knees."

She obliged and was soon doing her best to get him started, taking his penis into her mouth and using her tongue, lips and hands to stimulate him. When he finally did react, it was not from her efforts but out of anger, and his cock began to rapidly form, filling out and elongating as his brain became clouded in his fury.

Before Casey even knew what he was saying, he had yelled out, "NSA whore!" and the woman, who had a large part of his member down her throat and thought he was addressing her, became excited and redoubled her efforts.

When Casey began thrusting his now-full erection forwards and choking the woman, she disengaged, yelling out, "Hey, tiger! Not so rough!"

She was about to continue working on him when Casey hauled her up from her knees by her armpits, spun her around and pushed her partway onto the bed so she was bent over in front of him.

This was better. Now he didn't have to look at her face. Because it wasn't his beautiful Melody's face. That fucking bitch.

Wanting to hurt this woman and, in a twisted way, get back at Melody, Casey found her vaginal opening and rammed himself in, not pausing at her obvious cry of pain. He grabbed her shoulders and twisted his hands to purposely leave marks and pushed his hips into her as hard and as fast he could, ignoring her protests and pinning her down with his weight so she couldn't get away.

As he continued his punishment of Melody by proxy, Casey's invective became more vile and insulting, calling the woman "cunt" and "whore" and any other thing that he thought might degrade and wound her. He even threw in some choice vulgar phrases in Russian just to make his point.

Not long after beginning these vicious physical and psychological attacks, though, Casey was losing steam. He slowed down his thrusts until he had stopped entirely and, still angry but no longer with a desire for revenge, he let the woman go, pulling his deflating penis from her violated body and straightening up.

He noticed that bruises were already beginning to form on her buttocks and there were angry red welts on her shoulders, but he felt somehow removed from the scene now, and he watched, aloof, as she got up stiffly from the bed and wiped a tear from her face before turning around to sneer at him.

"You're a real bastard, you know that?" she hissed as she stooped to retrieve her clothes.

Casey remained untouched. He felt as though he were on a boat, quietly sailing farther and farther away from his old emotions as his heart hardened against any more pain.

"Leave. Now," he directed in a cold, clear voice, and the woman was only too happy to oblige. They both dressed quickly and went downstairs, no longer speaking to one another. Casey let her out of the apartment and turned, calm now, to collect the half a strawberry and glass of wine from the table and take it into the kitchen. He poured the wine and the rest of the bottle down the drain and threw the strawberries away, washing the bowl and glasses and putting them into the cupboard.

Going back up to the bedroom, Casey went over to the high-boy dresser and picked up a small gift-wrapped box that was lying on top of it. Tearing off the wrapping and tossing it into the waste basket, he opened the blue velvet hinged box and stared for a moment with a blank expression at the gold tennis bracelet that had cost him two months' salary, its many diamonds blinking and flashing as he tilted the box from side to side. Casey opened the top drawer of the dresser and, snapping the box shut, placed it beside the jeweler's receipt, closed the drawer and turned away.

He carefully tidied the bedroom and arranged everything the way he liked it, erasing any trace that either Janet or Melody had ever been there. When he went into the bathroom to give it a purifying clean, he stopped and looked in the mirror, but he felt no connection to the face that was looking back at him through shallow, expressionless eyes. Empty. Dead.

The petite woman with pale, lightly freckled skin, red hair in a neat bun on the back of her head and stars on her uniform rose to greet the tall imposing-looking black man in the dark tailored suit who had been ushered into the boardroom to join her in the Washington Headquarters of the NSA.

"Hello, Langston. Thank you for coming," she said, extending her hand and smiling as he grasped it in a shake.

"Good morning, Diane. I'm very curious to know what this is all about, actually," he replied, as he returned her smile and took the seat that she indicated.

After seating herself and calling in her secretary to order coffee service, General Beckman and Director Graham chatted amicably, waiting for the coffee to be delivered and the room to be secured.

Glancing at the laptop screen positioned at his place, Director Graham saw live video feed of a woman sitting in another boardroom. She was studying a folder of papers on the table in front of her and frowning intently at them.

When she looked up briefly towards the camera, Director Graham exclaimed, "Melody! How is she doing, Diane? She's an accredited psychologist/agent now, isn't she? It's been years. The last time I saw her, she was still in pigtails."

"Yes, she is, Langston, but please wait for a few more minutes and then we can get started."

When the coffee had been served and the doors had closed, activating a red light above them to indicate the room was now secure, General Beckman started with the housekeeping.

"Langston, I've invited you to sit in on this debriefing today as a matter of professional courtesy."

Sliding a copy of the dossier she had in front of her over to him, a file with the NSA seal on the front and the words Major John Casey, Echo Park Placement, Ultra-Top Secret, Eyes-Only printed on the front, she indicated he was to open the cover and sign the first two sheets.

"As you'll recognize," she explained, "it's a standard inter-agency security agreement: The CIA agrees not to act on what you will see and hear at this debriefing today without the NSA's prior knowledge, and so on."

Nodding his head as he scanned the form, Director Graham pulled a pen from his inside jacket pocket and signed twice, handing the sheets to the general to be signed, then folding the single copy she returned to him and placing it and the pen back into his pocket.

Satisfied that the formalities had been taken care of, the general began her introductory remarks.

"Normally, we would not divulge internal matters to another agency, but since we're in the unusual position of having a shared asset, namely, the Intersect, I thought you should be apprised of this situation; otherwise, it would have been merely a routine psychological cleanse of one of our field agents."

The general paused to look at the director and he nodded in agreement with this position, so she continued.

"Like any good craftsman – or, in this case, craftswoman –" she said, smiling briefly at the director, "I like to keep my tools sharp, and my best agent was showing signs of becoming a little too comfortable on this assignment, a little dull around the edges, if you will."

"I handpicked Major Casey for special grooming when he first came to us, personally supervising all of his missions, and I'm proud to say he's my greatest accomplishment. He has always been my asset but even he doesn't know to what extent I have been involved in the entire process. And am still involved."

Director Graham, who had been perusing the file while listening to the general, started and glanced again at the young woman on the computer screen before returning his gaze to her older version in front of him.

"But, Diane, surely you didn't –"

"I did, Langston," the general stated. "I needed the best psych agent I've got to help repair the best field agent I've got. And Melody is the best, as you'll see from the results of the mission. But Melody doesn't know I'm running her and neither does Major Casey. The audio feed from here to the room that Melody is in will distort our voices so they're unrecognizable. I'm trusting you according to the official agreement you just signed and as a colleague and a friend not to let either of them know."

Director Graham slowly nodded his head, saying, "Yes, of course, Diane. And thank you for inviting me today, since I understand fully that you didn't have to."

Just then, the door to the other boardroom opened and Janet entered, flinging a manila folder onto the table in front of Melody, who looked up in surprise as the blonde woman said, "Your man Casey is a royal son-of-a-bitch, Beckman. Has all the underpinnings of a Class A sadistic bastard."

Melody's face froze over into a hard stare and she looked at the younger woman for a moment, sizing her up.

When she did speak, all she said was, "Is that your professional summary of what's in your report, Dr. McNamara?"

Janet, sensing suddenly that she had stepped over some line, backed off and replied meekly, "Yes, Doctor."

"Thank you. That will be all," said Melody dismissively, turning her head back to her papers and leaving the other agent standing there, awkwardly glancing around, until it finally occurred to Janet that she was to leave, and she slipped out of the room and closed the door behind her, re-activating the red security light.

A low-register, slightly distorted voice came over the loudspeaker as Melody flipped through Janet's report.

"Dr. Beckman," it said, "as you know, this will be the final debriefing for this mission and, I must say, I consider it an unqualified success."

General Beckman paused for a moment, looking for any reaction from Melody. Seeing none, she continued.

"Dr. McNamara's results were equally impressive, and it has been so noted on her record."

Holding up two photographs, one depicting the red welts on Janet's shoulders, the other the full extent of the bruising on her buttocks and upper thighs, Melody finally spoke.

"Janet will recover, I suppose?" she inquired in a clinical tone of voice.

"Yes. I've been informed by medical that it won't take long for the damage to heal," observed the disembodied voice. "And Dr. McNamara has suffered no psychological trauma from her encounter, either."

"Good for her," Melody whispered.

"What was that?" the voice inquired.

Melody looked into the air and replied, "Nothing, sir. Just clearing my throat."

Director Graham shot a look at the general, but if she had noticed that anything was wrong with Melody, she wasn't giving it away. Instead, she continued with the debriefing.

"Please give me your summary, Dr. Beckman, of the mission results."

Melody flipped over to the last couple of pages in the file and explained, "Under the guise of what we called the Secure Companion Program, I made contact with the field agent, gained his trust, and initiated the planned protocols. As you'll see in the summary section at the back of the file, the subject, in relation to the secondary objective of the mission, reacted as anticipated and experienced a deep psychological cleansing. In my estimation, the positive outcomes deriving from this protocol should be effective for another five years or so, at which point the subject should be reassessed in relation to his psychological state."

Melody paused for a moment as if steeling herself to continue.

"And the result of Dr. McNamara's intervention for the second phase of the mission has clearly achieved the primary objective: that of emotional detachment that is so necessary in a valuable asset such as Major Casey."

Glancing at Director Graham, General Beckman interrupted before Melody could continue.

"Thank you, Dr. Beckman. You'll find in the envelope beside you the necessary papers and details of your new assignment, as well as documentation of your promotion. Congratulations."

Flicking off the communications equipment, General Beckman closed her file and accepted the folder back from Director Graham. After saying good-bye and seeing him out the door, she returned to the table and turned to the back of her file. There were another two files tucked inside of hers, both red, and she opened one up and flipped through the pages.

The red file was available to only three people at the agency, General Beckman and two superiors, and contained information that was too sensitive to keep in Casey's regular file. Among the sheets was a page detailing his early childhood with his alcoholic mother, who had started drinking heavily after his younger brother had died unexpectedly, finally abandoning Casey and his father, who had raised the boy on his own.

General Beckman paused and thought about her daughter. She really was the best if she had gotten down far enough into the major's psyche to draw this information out of him, as she had written in her report. Major Casey had had extensive block conditioning as part of his training to hide any information that might make him particularly vulnerable in the field, and Melody had somehow circumvented that conditioning. But how had she done it? Perhaps that was why the report seemed incomplete somehow. Director Graham had also sensed that something was amiss; the general had seen his glance.

After thinking it over, General Beckman finally decided that Melody could be trusted completely to do what was right and, as the mission coordinator, there was no point second-guessing her agent's actions, but the mother side of her was still worried and even more worried that she didn't know why. A parent's lot in life, no matter who the parent was, it seemed.

Turning to the first page of the red file, General Beckman read the words: Major John Casey, Echo Park Placement. Complete emotional detachment required to fully effectuate this asset's primary function in the event that the Human Intersect becomes expendable.

She flipped the red folder closed, re-inserted it into the file the director had been using, then got up and left the room.

"Dr. Beckman."

Melody turned at the sound of her mother's voice and waited in the hallway for the general to catch up. Smiling sadly, she reached out and grasped her mother's hand, dropping it after a brief moment.

General Beckman contemplated her daughter before asking, "Is everything all right?"

Melody sighed and looked at the floor. "Just an assignment that didn't turn out the way I thought it would," she said, a wry look on her face when she raised her eyes to look once again at the general.

"They seldom do turn out the way we expect, Melody," the general observed. "Will you be over for dinner tonight? I think your father has some new publications that he wants to show you."

"I'll be there," said Melody, "but I've had enough psychology for a while. My transfer takes effect in a couple of days and I could use a break."

"I'll tell him," said the general, as she pulled Melody's forehead down to her lips and gave it a gentle kiss. "But you know how your father can get once he starts talking shop."

"Yes, I know," Melody said, rolling her eyes in agreement.

They turned and continued walking down the corridor, once again superior officer and NSA agent.

"Oh, I got a promotion, General, but maybe you already knew about that," said Melody.

"Oh, really?" returned General Beckman. "No, as a matter of fact, I didn't. Congratulations, Doctor."

General Beckman was alone in her office. Still worried about Melody, she flipped open the computer on the desk in front of her and tapped in a key sequence that gave her the video feed from Headquarters' outdoor parking lot in time to see Melody exit the building and walk towards her car.

Switching from camera to camera as Melody moved across the lot, the general was able to track her progress to the very edge, which was bordered by a high chain-link fence topped with razor wire. Just beyond the fence and security lighting, the ground dipped into a deep gully with steep sides that was designed to make unauthorized access very difficult indeed.

Watching closely, the general saw Melody approach her car, put the key into the door lock, then pause and draw it out again. She turned and walked over to within a few feet of the fence, and General Beckman had to quickly switch cameras to get a better view.

When she had located the best angle, she saw Melody unhook a large purse from her shoulder and unzip it, searching inside with one hand. Finally, she extracted a cardboard box and, taking off the lid, pulled out a wilted and fading bouquet of small red roses tied with a blue ribbon. Putting the box back into her bag and placing it on the ground, Melody held the roses to her cheek and caressed them with her hand, shoulders heaving as her tears splashed to the pavement.

Even without audio the general could feel her daughter's pain, but there was nothing she could do to acknowledge it let alone provide comfort, and she watched as Melody kissed the bouquet one last time, finally flinging it high over the fence so that it bounced down into the bottom of the gully.

At least the general now knew what was missing from her daughter's reports, and she continued to watch the video feed blankly long after Melody had gotten into her car and driven away.