Central Headquarters, International Operations
Saturday March 25 2006
"I'm sorry, Mr. Colby." The systems administrator shifted uncomfortably in his seat, but he met the Assistant Director of Operations' eyes squarely. "I can't provide access to that information."
Colby deepened his scowl. "I'm conducting an investigation on the authority of Director Baiul."
Ivana hadn't given the Saturday morning conferees much printed material, and she hadn't allowed note taking. But when Colby had returned to his office after his surreptitious talk with Phillips, he'd found a read-only, non-reproducible copy of Ruche's presentation in his computer's inbox, along with up-to-date field notes from the search teams beating the bushes for Lynch's kids and their new best friend.
One item had jumped out at him right away. A team had gone over the mall bathroom that had been the scene of Hale's ordeal. Among the descriptions of spattered bodily fluids and other forensic evidence was a note: three (3) prints back of inner doorknob, r. thumb, r. index, r. middle. But there was no record of ID results, even in the negative, and when he called up the images of the prints, they'd been pixellated to blurs.
The computer geek held his ground, albeit shakily. "I understand that, sir. But if you want clear images of those prints, you'll have to ask her."
Colby considered. If the file had been censored at Ivana's orders, it might be safer and more productive to look into it without alerting her first. He could ask her for it later, if he couldn't learn what he wanted by other means. It made him glad he'd come to the Information office in person to request the prints instead of phoning or e-mailing. "Okay. Just forget I asked."
"Will do," the man said, relieved. His manner, too on-edge for a bureaucrat simply following orders, raised Colby's suspicions. The systems manager was just a research librarian with a high security clearance, charged with maintaining and gatekeeping IO's enormous internal database; he didn't take part in investigations. But Colby was now certain the man knew why that bit of evidence was being suppressed. How would he know, unless…
Unless the man had dug the ID for the prints out of employee records.
What sort of sense did that make? If the chameleon was an employee, why suppress the information? Surely, Ruche didn't expect to trap her. She must know her cover was blown; she'd have to be insane to pass IO's doors ever again. Could they be trying to avoid alerting other moles? The thought gave him a brief chill.
Was it possible Ivana was protecting the chameleon's identity? Again, it made no sense. If the chameleon was an IO employee whose identity was being protected, it suggested an undercover operation, and meant that the search for her was subterfuge. That thought gave him a different chill, and made him determined to check back with Lynch as soon as possible.
Another thought came to him. If Ivana really wanted to suppress the information, why leave the prints in the file at all? Why not simply delete them, and all reference to them? Unless that little clue was meant to be found by someone as bait.
He took a calming breath. It occurred to him that he was over thinking things. The orders to hide the chameleon's ID must have come from Ivana. But this half measure was just the sort of security decision Ruche was famous for.
I need more information. I simply don't have enough to go on. He turned his thoughts to means by which to gather more, preferably without alerting higher authority.
On the way back to his office, somewhat lost in thought, he met two sharply-dressed women headed the other way down the corridor. He automatically registered details: average height, trim-figured, blonde/blue, brown/brown. Early thirties, possibly, though he had a harder time telling with women. He nodded and made brief eye contact as they passed by.
The athletic-looking blonde turned her head to follow the big blond guy as he headed down the hall. "Not bad. Makes glasses look sexy. I should have transferred to Central years ago."
"Bad idea, Cher," said her shorter companion, quickening her pace. "You don't want any of that."
Cheryl cocked an eye at the brunette. "Got dibs, Ferris? Or is he Research too?"
"No and no. He's Operations. Assistant Director, in fact."
"Wait. That's Francis Colby? I thought he was, like, sixty, and dark."
"No, that's the Director, Joe Santini. You'll never see him here; he doesn't set foot in Central."
"Well then, if he's not part of our office, why not? It'd be a switch dating a guy who makes more than me."
"Because he's poison. You haven't heard the stories?"
"I just transferred, remember? What stories?"
"He ended his last relationship with a bullet. Shot his girlfriend."
"God. He's a stalker?"
Ferris shook her head. "Happened in his bedroom. He put one in her just as she was about to burn him alive in their bed."
"That's horrible. What kind of relationship is that?"
They reached their destination. Ferris paused with her hand on the door handle. "The only kind he knows. What I hear, every woman he's ever had is like that. He's a crazy-bitch magnet. If he ever gave me more than a polite smile, I'd run to a shrink."
In his office, Colby called up the Cheerleader file again, and studied the chameleon's interactions with the other girls. He remembered that Ruche had made mention of other video records not included in his presentation, and made a few calls to secure those records as well. Watching the girls talk and plan in the food court, he wished again for audio.
Then he had an idea. He called Information, getting the man he'd talked to earlier. Colby told him, "I need a personnel search."
"What sort of personnel search?" The man's wary tone was a confirmation of sorts.
"I'm looking for lip readers among employees assigned here."
"Well… language skills are included in every employee's dossier. I'm sure that includes sign. I could start with that, and if there aren't too many, I can make inquiries."
"Let me help narrow it down. I only want someone who's cleared for very sensitive information, or at least has a file without any impediments to a quick upgrade." That should bring volunteers out of the woodwork; security clearance, as much as job responsibilities, determined salary at the Shop. "And I need this person ASAP."
"I'll get on it right away, sir." The man was clearly relieved at being let off the hook so easily earlier, and was prepared to make it up to the Assistant Director. "Anything else?"
Nothing you're likely to give me. "Nothing for now, thank you. Let me know as soon as you find your first candidate." He hung up the phone and mentally began to compose the ad he planned to post in the San Diego Union-Tribune the next day, to signal Lynch to contact him.
Central's basement pistol range was a twin to the one at Maclean, and had been designed by tech weenies to the specifications of men who shot people for a living. The cost didn't bear thinking about, even to a man with Colby's income; some of its construction was proscribed tech, available nowhere else at any price. Colby was an almost daily visitor.
For an enclosed space where firearms were in use, the place was incredibly quiet. The firing point was floored in rubber tiles, and the floor of the firing lanes as well as the walls and ceiling of the range were lined with a proprietary material that was almost perfectly anechoic. The great majority of the sound reaching one's ears, even outdoors, is reflected; in a room where soundwaves disappeared into the walls, his footsteps sounded flat and faint, the difference between the sound of a drop of water hitting the bottom of an empty pot and one falling into the grass. Earmuffs were a sensible precaution here rather than a hearing-saving necessity.
He had the range to himself this morning, which was something of a disappointment. Colby preferred visiting around shift change, even though his position in the Shop allowed him freedom to use it almost any time he wanted. Troopers on detached duty here often came to use the facility before and after their shifts, affording the Deputy Director a chance to chat directly with the men in his division who still got their hands dirty. Distinctions of rank disappeared amid the adrenaline rush of simulated combat and the comparing of scores, and his brief history as an X-Team grunt gave him an honored place here. Standing side by side with such men, blowing hell out of the holographic targets at the end of the gallery, he'd never heard a facile flattery, a baseless complaint, or self-serving suggestion, and often got fresh information unfiltered by security restrictions or other procedural impediments. It was a habit taught him by John Lynch, and served him well in the jungle that was the topmost level of IO bureaucracy.
"Target two-oh-six," he said to the ceiling microphone, and the three-dimensional image at the end of the lane changed from a crouching uniformed figure with a headscarf and a Kalashnikov to a large man holding a woman hostage upright in front of him. It was one of Colby's favorites, more for the portraiture than the difficulty. The perp's head and one shoulder were exposed, and his pistol was pointed into the air instead of at his hostage. He was looking around, as if unsure what to do next. The hostage, on the other hand, looked more pissed than anything else. She wasn't even bothering to lay a hand on the perp's arm across her shoulders. The image was presently frozen, but when the target was in action mode and the guy was dragging her around, she wasn't giving him a shred of cooperation, hanging off his arm like baggage and hampering his movements. She stared straight at Colby, as if to say, will somebody PLEASE put a bullet in this asshole? He'd been told the picture was derived from actual footage of a botched bank robbery, and the hostage was an off-duty cop. He would have liked to meet her.
The light over the door flashed, warning him that someone was about to enter. When he got a look at his visitor, he felt his jaw clench and he made a conscious effort to relax and put on his poker face.
When he'd come down here, Colby had been hoping to run into some of Santini's men in transit; Central was a useful staging area for Razor operations against militant extremist groups who liked to work out of the sparsely-populated mountain states. But Maclean-based troopers were cautious and circumspect at the Boulder headquarters, even among other uniformed employees; Colby was one of the few people haunting Ivana's lair around which they would talk freely. That would have been enough to explain Colby's irritation at the arrival of any suit from the head office into this warrior's den, where desk jockeys were seldom seen and barely tolerated. But the dapper character who'd just come in preparing to blow his own foot off with a Glock was Gerry Ruche.
Ruche raised his eyebrows. "Surely you're not here to qualify."
"Not for another eight months." Colby adjusted his earmuffs and inserted a fresh magazine into his weapon. Without waiting for Ruche to don muffs, he fell into an isosceles stance and fired off a round at the target twenty-five meters away. The hit would be too small to see clearly at a regular range, especially an extended-length alley like this one, without calling the target up to the shooters' area. But this one was clearly marked by a strobing red dot, and the magnified image over Colby's head showed the point of impact over the perp's left eye.
Ruche winced at the noise. "Ah, same target."
"It's a computer, Gerry. Say, 'Target two-oh-six', if you're sure it's the one you want." Colby kept his eyes on the target and put a bullet into the perp's gun hand.
Ruche brought up his Glock nine-millimeter in a stance he must have seen in a movie. He emptied the fifteen-round magazine in as many seconds, then studied the target. Colby put two more bullets into his target's head, each half a hand's width from the first.
"Jesus." Ruche examined his target. Three pinkie-sized red dots blinked in the target, widely scattered, but all of them in the hostage.
"Straighten your right arm. Grip your right hand in your left," Colby said. He demonstrated, enclosing the fingers of the gun hand and the grip of the pistol. "Then put your right foot a little behind your left, about shoulder width apart." Weaver stance was good enough, he decided; if Ruche had to move and shoot with accuracy, he was a dead man anyway.
Ruche nodded and started to copy the stance.
"Wait." Colby pointed to the earphones and glasses hanging on a peg behind Ruche's position. The man picked them off the wall, frowning at the dial set into one muff, then glanced at Colby, who was wearing an identical pair. Colby swung down the tiny mike attached to the opposite muff and positioned it at the corner of his mouth. Ruche copied his actions.
"Is it working?" Ruche's voice was loud in his ears.
"Yes. It's voice activated. Hospital voice, Gerry, no need to shout."
Ruche's voice came back a bit quieter. "What's the range on this?"
"Very short. Now nothing you say will leave this room, either vocally or by the radio. And the noise totally screws up listening devices." What a crock. With the right antenna, you can pick up a four-watt transmission from another galaxy. And we can talk quiet enough not to trip the computer's voice-command mode now, but the microphone in the ceiling is still picking up every word. Why did I just tell him I think we're private?
Because he's not here just to get reacquainted with his service pistol.
Ruche nodded and took up his two-handed stance. He aimed, and pulled the trigger. The slide ran forward, but nothing else happened. "Oh, fuck me." He'd forgotten to insert a fresh magazine. He looked angrily at Colby, who kept his face impassive.
Colby turned and carefully sighted on the target's collarbone and pulled the trigger. The trigger break was a surprise, as it usually is when the shot is good. But the hole that appeared in the target was a good two inches from his intended point. He tried another, with no better results.
Meantime, Ruche had inserted another magazine and emptied it. They studied their targets together. "Well, at least I put most of them into the target this time."
You still murdered the hostage, Gerry. "You'll get better with practice. Try another magazine. This time, don't hold your breath when you fire. And take your time. Let muscle memory develop. Speed comes naturally, after accuracy."
They stood side by side in companionable silence, plinking at their targets, and emptied their unequal magazines at the same time. While Colby reloaded, Ruche said, "We got ID on the chameleon from the dog walker, who turns out to be the next door neighbor. Our girl's name is Anne Devereaux, and she's Lynch's housekeeper. We turned up plenty of paper trail on her. Born in Idaho, but moved to Quebec at age six. Came back to the U.S. just in time to graduate high school with a bunch of strangers. Moved a lot since then. We probably won't find a single person who remembers her. The history's all bogus, I'm sure, especially if she needs to cover being too young. But it explains some quirks the neighbor mentioned – odd gaps in her education, occasional lapses into French."
"Gerry, should we be having this conversation?"
Ruche gave him a crooked smile. "Well, I'm sure Ivana didn't mean us."
Colby studied him. The "Security Advisor" position hadn't existed under Craven; Ivana had created it for Ruche. Although he had no official position in the chain of succession, by responsibilities and pay scale he rated as an Assistant Director, making him and Colby equals in IO's pecking order. But Ruche was Ivana's right hand. The Assistant Director of Planning & Administration, Mark Shelby, was a drone Ivana trusted with her drudge work; if anything ever happened to her, he wouldn't be part of the battle of succession. The Directorship would fall to Ivery, Ruche, or Santini. Colby supposed Ruche thought he was one of the elect.
But, then again, Ruche owed everything to Ivana, and hadn't gotten where he was by disobeying her. Looking into the man's confident face, he suddenly realized Ruche was here talking to him at Ivana's orders. Colby shrugged. "Does she have a police record? Military service? Ever apply for a sensitive job? Not just government work. Even as a pharmacist?"
The displays overhead chimed, signaling that the scoring system was about to reset from inactivity, but neither man was looking. Ruche's brow furrowed. "No military record. Never a cop either. What are you looking for?"
"I was hoping she'd been fingerprinted somewhere. Target Seven." Colby studied his new target, a pistol-wielder turned slightly away from the firing point. He carefully avoided looking at Ruche, listening to his voice instead. "Hard to believe a person with her penchant for violence hasn't left her mark at a crime scene somewhere."
"No," Ruche said. "No prints on file anywhere."
"Say, 'Target hold score'."
"Target hold score," Ruche said absently. In an attempt at misdirection, apparently, he went on, "We're coming up empty around the neighborhood. We get nothing from the lawn mowers, trash haulers, mail carrier, you name it. The community has twenty-four seven private security, but the guards claim they never talked with the residents of that particular house."
"Could be true. Or the workers may just be worried about their jobs."
"The next-door neighbor's the only one who'll talk about them, and she likes to tell more than she really knows. She just loves that girl. Says she's sweet-tempered, helpful, hard-working, a real Girl Scout. Hired her to cater on occasion, and she's an excellent cook. Even tried to hire her away from Lynch a few times, but no go. The kids were all enrolled at MacArthur, can you believe it? Again, using their real names. Their school records can be transmitted from the premises, but not accessed from outside the school network. Our geeks are scratching their heads over it." He added, too casually, "You got anything?"
"No," Colby said tersely.
Ruche looked at his target. "Shit. I got one in the target guy, and none in the hostage. Thanks, Frank." He turned to Colby. "At the risk of sounding like an ingrate, why are you being so helpful?"
Fourteen of your bullets went over his shoulder and God knows where, Gerry. It's not necessarily an improvement. Keeping the Eagle pointed downrange, he turned to Ruche and said, "We're team mates, Gerry."
The man's eyes went flat. "Seriously."
"I am serious. Gerry, I'm not going to say we're friends. There are times you irritate the piss out of me and I think IO'd be better off without you. But I also think there's a real likelihood we're going to war with the Gens. You and I could end up back-to-back, fighting for our lives. It'd be nice to know you can shoot straight."
Ruche huffed. "I thought you said they'd have to be out of their minds to take us on directly."
"Ivana's not going to give them a choice. If she trains Operations grunts to engage Gens, she'll use them sooner or later. Razors are elite antiterrorist SWAT troops; the X-teams are covert-strike commandos. Neither group is well suited to an op where taking prisoners is the first objective. I foresee a mutual escalation of hostilities, a sort of brinksmanship, until one side or the other tips over into a full-scale war."
"The 'incident' you warned me about." Ruche glanced at Colby's target. "Looks like I got better, and you got worse."
"I was trying to duplicate our chameleon's little trick with the collarbone shots." He uncocked and safed his weapon, and displayed it on his open palm. "Recognize it?" It was a fifty-caliber Desert Eagle borrowed from IO's practice inventory.
The man's eyebrows rose. "The gun she used? Christ, that's a big sonofabitch." He gave a little throat-clearing cough. "Sorry for that crack about dating her, Frank. I was out of line."
Colby took a moment to digest that, then popped the magazine, laid the Eagle on the bench pointed downrange and slid it over. "Give it a try."
The man holstered his Glock and took the larger handgun carefully, keeping it pointed downrange even though Colby still held the magazine. The guy might know zip about guns, Colby allowed, but he wasn't slow. Colby handed him the magazine. Ruche inserted it, found the safety, and with an effort cocked it. He pointed it downrange and paused. "This thing's going to knock me on my ass, isn't it?"
"Not if you watch your stance. I can't promise you'll hit anything but the backstop, though. Don't let it twist out of your grip." He watched Ruche assume a stance. "Turn a little more. Straighten out your gun arm. And turn your back foot out a little, and straighten the leg." Colby's instructions for careful bracing left Ruche looking apprehensively at the gun in his hands. "Okay. Three left in the magazine."
Ruche pulled the trigger. The weapon jerked up and to the left, pulling at the man's shoulder and pushing him back. His left hand came off the pistol and flew to his face. "Jesus!" He touched his forehead where the ejected shell casing had struck, and looked down at his fingers, examining them for blood. "Just like you said." He offered it to Colby, butt-first and pointed down. "Here. One's enough."
Colby took the proffered handgun very carefully, since it was loaded, off-safety, and cocked. Normally, he'd have refused to reach for such a weapon, but he thought the sooner it was out of Ruche's hands, the safer they'd both be. He fired the last two rounds at the target, chewing the silhouette's left shoulder to pieces. "You know, if that were a real person, he'd be dead. Somehow, she hit the collarbones and paralyzed those two men's arms without nicking the nerves or big blood vessels underneath. I don't think I could do that with a twenty-two from a step away, much less at thirty yards with a gun that fires rounds as big as your thumb. It's inhuman."
"Why'd she bother?"
"To make a point, I think. The guys she shot will know they were meat on her plate, and they'll be out of action longer than if she'd blown their arms off."
"Ivana range-qualified with one of those." Ruche put a fresh magazine in his Glock, cocked it, and took aim. This time, he squeezed his shots off carefully, giving each one individual attention.
Colby called for a fresh target. "This bore?"
"Can't say." Ruche gave him a wry glance. "Don't suppose the Range Master'd be eager to fail her."
"And I don't suppose she'd be grateful for an easy pass. She's the competitive type."
Ruche snorted, and paused. "She likes you, you know."
Colby raised an eyebrow as he inserted a fresh magazine in the Eagle.
"Not like that," the man amended. "She likes working with you. She couldn't be surrounded by men who argue with her and question her orders. And she can't stand Santini. But she finds fencing with you refreshing. She's toying with the idea of giving you the Director slot."
"This is a conversation I know we shouldn't be having."
"It wouldn't be disloyalty. Santini couldn't care less about his job title, as long as Ivana leaves him in charge of Maclean and the Teams. You're already doing the job. You'd just have the authority to go with the responsibilities. And the pay, of course. You'd be making more money than you could spend."
"I already do."
"You've just got to put this thing at the mall behind you and move on," Ruche said as if he hadn't heard. "Ivana thinks you've got sources, contacts among the Gens. If she's right, Frank, now's the time to use them. Find out what you can about this little bitch. Ivana's looking for an excuse to promote you, I kid you not. Bring her something juicy, and you'll be the youngest Director in the Shop's history."
Colby snapped off seven shots in five seconds. A fist-sized cluster appeared in the target's head. He safed the weapon, hung the muffs and glasses on their peg, and headed for the door. "Stay here and practice, Gerry. Fire two hundred rounds, and you'll pass with flying colors." He went out the door.
"Well?" Ivana looked over her desk at her Security Advisor, flaring her nostrils at the stink of gunpowder.
"Nibbling on the bait, I think," Ruche said. "How much line do you plan to give him?"
"Very little. Make sure he doesn't go anywhere without his security detail. And get that second team in place ASAP. I don't want him slipping away again. I want to know who he's been meeting, and what sort of game he's playing."
"That won't be easy. I've been looking over available personnel, and it's just as you said: we'll definitely have to hire from outside."
"Do it. They don't have to know who they're shadowing, or why. They just have to be good enough he can't spot them." She showed him her trademark Mona Lisa smile. "You know, you're never going to get that out of your suit. How many rounds did you fire?"
"Two hundred. My hand feels like a ham sewn onto my wrist." He quirked a smile. "But I got my last two clips in the target, and two dead center."
In the living room of his house, Colby hoisted a long-necked bottle of Carta Blanca to chest height. "I'd offer, but I'm sure you wouldn't accept."
Phillips shook his head, smiling. "On duty. Which sounds kind of ridiculous, seeing I'm breaking my orders just sitting here talking to you. Speaking of which. I assume the house is clean?"
"Actually, there are bugs all over." From his shirt pocket, Colby drew out a small silver box resembling a Zippo lighter, a parting gift from Lynch before he'd defected. He studied the two small studs positioned side-by-side on its face: a tiny green light glowed above the right-hand one. "But all they're picking up is background noise, no voices. Your guys won't chat outside?"
"They're too far apart for that, and they won't use the radios for chatter."
Colby nodded. Paradoxically, the tightening of security had shrunk his security detail. Now that Phillips' team didn't have to observe him in secret, fewer men were required to surround him.
Colby looked at the bottle of Mexican beer in his hand. It had seemed like just the thing when he'd come through the front door, but it didn't appeal now that Phillips was here. "Can I get you something else?"
"Coffee, if it's not too much trouble."
"None." He set the bottle on the coffee table, rose, and headed for the kitchen. "What about your men?" He made a chin gesture towards the dark-suited man on the other side of the sliding glass door, who stood so that he could split his attention between the inside and outside.
"Maybe later, Frank. After they're a little more convinced. These men trust me, and your rep carries a lot of weight, but…"
"Were they at the mall Friday?" Colby loaded the coffeemaker.
"Only one. Strange, but he was the easiest to bring around. I think, when we reported finding four girls on that weird-ass watch list, and we were told a special team from Research was coming in to take over, he got the idea that IO knew a lot it wasn't telling us grunts in the field. And when he saw what these kids could do, he came straight to me, demanding to know what was going on. That was while we were loading our wounded into the ambulances. I repeated everything you told me in the hall to him." He shrugged his head. "And everything I found out in the conference."
Colby brought down a mug, then another. The Carta Blanca was going to go warm on the table, he decided. "You fought together." It wasn't a question.
Phillips nodded. "First Gulf."
Colby glanced around the kitchen, as if he could look through the walls to see the half-dozen men surrounding his house. "Where did Ruche get you guys? You don't belong in Security."
The team leader smiled. "A little rough and ready for Gerry's Kids, huh? We used to be a Razor team based in DC. Lots of practice shadowing people with connections, uncovering cells and taking them out quietly. One day, our section got a personnel request for people with combat and surveillance experience. It wasn't quite an order, but it sounded interesting, and it came with a transfer bonus that would pay off our mortgages. We volunteered as a unit. Little did we know we'd be spying on our former boss."
"Well, Gordon, I'm not going to be giving them much time to make up their minds. In two days, maybe three, we're going to meet with another of your former bosses." The coffee was done; he poured two mugs. "How do you take it? Powdered is all the creamer I've got, but I've got sugar."
Phillips took the mug. "You mean-"
"The guy at the very top of that weird-ass watch list. The Man himself." To build trust, Top always said, you have to give trust. Gordon trusts these men with his life. If I convince him, they'll take his word, even if they're not sure yet. "The Razor at the mall. Did you know him?"
Phillips sipped the brew straight. "Not really. But anyone could see why he was there. We should have watched him closer."
"The one who killed him. I'm not sure of her connection, but there's a good chance she's working for Lynch. That create a problem?"
The man shook his head. "I don't think so. Most of them don't know about her yet, and if they did, they'd agree it was self-defense with prejudice. The guy was about to pull the trigger on an unarmed teenage girl we were supposed to be trailing. If I'd been standing next to him, I'd have clobbered him too. I just wouldn't have driven his jawbone through his brain. The problems start when I tell them she was the one who beat Mike."
Colby glanced out the kitchen window at the lights of Boulder, far below to the southeast. IO headquarters was located west of the city, hidden among the steep ridges that rose like a thousand-foot wall from the plain. Most of IO's upper management lived in a special-built housing development a few miles southeast of the complex closer to town, but Colby had bought a place on a ridge to the north. The house wasn't as grand as the ones in the development, but it offered spectacular views – and a modicum of privacy.
The wall phone in the kitchen rang. Colby checked the caller ID: Ruche's home phone. "Your boss," he said. He depressed the stud on the 'Zippo,' and the light went out. With a finger to his lips, he set the phone to speaker. "Hello?"
"Frank. Surprised I caught you at home on a Saturday night."
As if you didn't know exactly where I was before you dialed. "I've got a lot of work right now, Gerry, and a tight deadline. I'm staying close to the office and home for a while. Hitting the clubs isn't high on my list of things to do anyway."
"Just as well. The clubs in this town aren't worth the drive, believe me. Speaking of work. We have new information on the hunt. Interested?"
"We found the getaway car parked in a garage in a vacant house about half a mile from the road – straight down. No way did it get down the slope unassisted."
"Best guess. We also found a box of twenty-millimeter cannon rounds. And forensic evidence from all five kids. But nothing from the chameleon."
A thought occurred. "Did anyone spot her in the car after we reacquired?"
A pause. "I don't know. You think they split up?"
"I don't know why they would. But it would explain why your team didn't pick up any evidence of her."
"Well, we already talked to the realtor who rented out the house. Her description of the purchasing agent fits the chameleon perfectly. Supposedly, it was being rented for a defense contractor who needed occasional accommodations when he was visiting the base. But there isn't a stick of furniture in the place, and no signs of occupancy. It's just a place to change clothes and cars, set up months in advance."
"You know what they drove out in?"
"Not yet, but there was a camera covering the only way they could have come. We're looking it over now, but so far we don't have anything besides normal traffic."
"Could they have stolen a neighbor's car? Or maybe they're hiding in the neighbor's house?"
"We've been in every house. It's a dead end street with just two neighbors and a lot of empty houses. The cars are present and accounted for. Oh, by the way. There was a spysat covering that bit of ground at the right time. But it's Russian. We're negotiating for the pictures now, but we'll probably pick up their trail through other means before then."
Don't count on it, he thought. "What about Lynch? Has he surfaced?"
"Well, thanks for the update. Let's stay in touch."
He hung up the phone and reactivated the bug zapper. He added milk and sugar to his brew and sat opposite the team leader. "Something screwy about this," he said as he sipped. "They're overreacting. Jumping to full alert at an undefined threat. Suspending her pet project. She and Ruche know more than they're telling. Ivery too, probably."
Phillips shook his head. "Homeland Security, hijacked by a bunch of mad scientists. We're doomed."
"Oh, Santini's still in the saddle at Maclean," Colby said. "Operations is still tending the herd, riding fence and hunting wolves. But the rest of the outfit is getting more and more like the bad guys from some Bond movie. I honest-to-God think they want to rule the world."
Sunday March 26 2006
"Pure prejudice on my part," Colby said, "But I wasn't expecting a woman." He offered a hand to the applicant, a medium-size, athletic young woman with chin-length blonde hair.
She took the offered hand in a firm grip. "Less prejudice than statistics, I'm guessing, given the number of women at Central." Her eyes were gray-blue, quite pretty, rather like Anne Devereaux's. He put that thought aside as she went on. "At least, I hope you don't have a problem working with a female."
"None." He ushered her into his office, gave her a moment to look around at the hotel-suite-sized space, and offered her a chair. "In fact, I'm quite impressed with your dedication, coming in on a Sunday morning to interview." Even though IO was a twenty-four-seven operation, the Administration wing was usually a lot emptier on Sundays, which suited Colby perfectly.
"A chance like this comes along, you've got to jump on it, Director."
"Assistant Director, Miss… Carson, right?"
"Right. Cheryl Carson. Intelligence. Just transferred in from the Miami office."
He frowned. "Odd. I thought I'd seen you before."
She gave a little head shrug. "We didn't meet. But we passed in the hall yesterday."
He lifted a forefinger. "You were with another woman. Shorter, reddish brown hair."
"Ferris Mars, Special Security. We're friendly, but our office conversations are limited to gossip. We can't talk much shop."
"If you get this job, that'll probably change. This job involves Specials. It's temporary, but the security clearance will be permanent." He gave her a small smile. "Can't put the genie back in the bottle."
She nodded. "So, what do you need? Mr. King said you were looking for a speechreader."
"Yes. How good are you?"
"Well, sir, it's not like in the movies. A cold reading seldom gets you thirty percent of a conversation. A lot of factors can jack that percentage up: knowing something of the conversation beforehand, like the topic and the names of the speakers; familiarity with the speakers; the angle you're looking at them from; individual speech habits. It helps to be a good reader of body language and facial expressions, too. Best case, probably fifty percent."
"That's live conversation, right? What if you had a recording to work from?"
"Oh. That's a big help, because you can revisit it with new information. Then it's like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. With enough time you might be able to piece together the whole thing."
He nodded, and beckoned her to a small worktable. He saw her into a chair and set his laptop in front of her, then stood behind her. "Let me see you work. This is a mall food court. These four girls are suspects who've just made their tail."
She turned her head up to him. "Westminster Mall?"
He felt his jaw tighten. "Bad news travels fast." The scene showed Fairchild, laden with shopping bags, and the chameleon standing over the table where Callahan and Spaulding were sitting. He pointed. "The tall redhead is Caitlin, or Kat. The girl with the long dark hair is Sarah. The little brunette with the lilac streaks is Roxanne, maybe Roxy or Rox. The blonde's name is Anne, but she may answer to something else."
"God." Cheryl stared at the screen. "I thought they'd be thirty, and butch. Not…"
"We call them the Cheerleaders."
She huffed. "Perfect."
He started the recording. Fairchild addressed the group. Cheryl said, "Something… we're busted."
Callahan took her lips off her straw and spoke. "Something… about to tell you. Something, man watching, something, I'm certain, something something walk. Any others?"
A moment later, she said, "Drat. The little blonde is a lousy subject. Her lips and throat hardly move when she talks. But I think she's addressing the others in turn about something. Since they're talking about tails, she might be pointing them out, if she's good enough to spot them."
"She is. IO has a special interest in her."
"The Asian girl just called her Anna."
"She's an Apache. Anna?"
Cheryl nodded. "Just asked her a question, but I didn't catch it. She enunciates clearly, but her hair keeps getting in the way."
On the screen, Roxanne lifted her face to the blonde and spoke. "But what do we do? The little brunette talks fast, but her face is very expressive. She's scared."
Half an hour later, they'd gone through the scene up to the group's departure from the food court, going over it several times and filling in blanks. By that time, Colby was convinced the group's objective was flight, not a fight, and that they'd come prepared for trouble but not looking for it. He reached past Cheryl's shoulder to point at the chameleon, standing in front of Fairchild in her ten-year-old's pose. "What do you make of that?"
"An obvious play for the redhead's sympathy. Caitlin has been acting protective towards her all through the scene."
"And that?" They watched the big redhead touch her wet thumb to the little blonde's ear. "Does that look… intimate to you?"
She gave him a look that made him feel like a dullard. "It looks like a mom spiffing up her kid. Bet she had something on her ear."
He nodded. "All right. Do you want the job?"
"Are you kidding, sir? I'd eat nails for this job."
"There's something you have to do for me, though."
She looked up at him, eyes wide. "Sir?"
"Exactly. That's got to be the last time you call me 'sir' when we're private. Let's save the bowing and scraping until we're around people who think the place can't run without it. In this office, I'm Frank."
She grinned. "Kay, Frank. I'm Cher."
"Then I'll call Mike Diehl first thing tomorrow and get you seconded to Operations. Your pay will still come from Planning, but you'll be working for me. I want you to start from when they first entered the mall. Maybe they were a little more careless in their speech before they knew they were being watched." He looked at his watch. "Buy you lunch?"
"Uh. Ah, sure."
A few minutes later, they were seated in the complex's dining room. He picked up the menu and glanced at her over it. "Something wrong?"
"No, no. But when you offered me lunch, I wasn't expecting this."
He raised the menu again and pretended to study it. "Disappointed, or relieved?"
She reached nervously for her own bill of fare. "Both, actually. I mean, there are liabilities to consider."
"Agreed." But I wonder if we're considering the same ones. "Friendly and professional suits me just fine, Cher."
Colby's next unexpected visitor on the practice range was Ben Ivery. He watched the balding man enter and close the door behind him, and thought, is somebody telling Ivana when I come down here? He nodded a greeting and wondered what sort of message the Director of Research had been instructed to deliver.
Ivery had borrowed a pair of coveralls from the locker just outside. Gerry must have been bitching about his dry-cleaning bill, Colby thought, aware of the petty satisfaction that accompanied that thought. Then he watched Ivery slip on a pair of light fingerless leather gloves that he must have brought with him.
The Director reached for the earmuffs on the wall and slipped them on, adjusting the microphone and volume dial in a way that spoke of practice. "Afternoon, Frank."
"Afternoon, Ben. You come down here much?"
"Just often enough. Target One." A standard silhouette appeared, with target rings in the chest. Ivery produced a Glock from a belt holster, checked the load and the action carefully. "Gerry found out you're here and insisted I come down. I suppose he expects you to give me some pointers." He took up a good stance and squeezed off three rounds.
Colby saw a blinking "hole" appear in the chest ring on the first round, and grow even larger at the second and third; the Research Director's shots were on target and quite close together. "That's some shooting, Ben. Thought you didn't know anything about guns."
"Oh, I know how to go through the motions." He switched his aim and fired several measured shots. Colby took a good look at the man's weapon, and recognized it by the long frame and slide: a Glock 34, an extended-length nine-millimeter often used for competitive shooting. "It's a job requirement, so I do it. No different from shuffling the paperwork. And about as useful. If I ever sighted on a person, I don't think I could pull the trigger if my life depended on it." This time, a hole opened up in the head, very near the point between the eyes.
"Not even a Special?"
Ivery uncocked and safed his weapon and holstered it before he turned to Colby. "They're not monsters, Frank. They're good kids. I know them all. But they're carrying something beyond their power to contain or control. It just isn't safe to leave them out there. What might happen is beyond imagining. And if they fall into the hands of someone with a malevolent purpose…"
You don't regard IO's purpose for them unhealthy? Interesting. "So, how's your investigation going? Any leads?"
"I leave that to you and Gerry and the people who work for you. I'm sure I'd have to be beyond lucky to come up with something you don't. I have another assignment." Ivery's hand snapped down to his holster and brought up his gun in a two-handed grip and snapped off three shots. Colby saw that the first "hole" was low and off-center, but the man had hit the target, at least. "What's your feeling about the little one? The mystery girl? Where did she come from?"
Colby drew his chosen weapon for the day, a Glock 20, and sent three ten-millimeter bullets downrange. The holes were just spaced far enough apart to be distinct points. "I don't suppose we can rule out a natural mutation. But I don't like it. The timing is too convenient. But if there's one, it's not unreasonable to stipulate more." He and Ivery emptied their magazines, using single measured shots. As they reviewed the targets, he added, "On the other hand, I don't see how even a handful of them could have missed notice. A schoolteacher somewhere should have turned one of these girls in to the Darwin Academy, unless they're very circumspect about their talents. Or…" Colby took his eyes from the display to look at the other man squarely. "That idea you had. Just how young could they be?"
Ivery shrugged. "The network we set up to net Thirteens starts at junior high. Once we start down that road… anywhere from two to twelve, really."
Colby examined his companion's target. Ivery's skill with the thirty-four was nearly as good as Colby's with the bearkiller. The Assistant Director was forced into a partial revision of his opinion of office weenies. "So, to repeat," Ivery said, "where do you think she comes from?"
"Gut feeling?" Colby holstered his weapon and prepared to leave. "I think she's somebody else's experiment." He watched Ivery's hands, and saw signs of uneasiness that made Colby think the man knew more than he was telling. "And I hope to God she was just bluffing when she said there were more of them."