Standard fanfic disclaimer that wouldn't last ten seconds in a court of law: these aren't my characters, I'm just borrowing them for, um, typing practice. That's it, typing practice. I'll return them to their actual owners (relatively) undamaged. This is an amateur work of fiction; no profit beyond pleasure was derived from the writing.
"The Cascade Caper"
Susan M. M.
Originally published in Ouch! #18 from Neon RainBow Press
"Ellison, Sandburg, my office, now," ordered Captain Simon Banks.
Detective Jim Ellison and his partner, Det. Blair Sandburg, exchanged puzzled glances with each other. Neither could think of anything they'd done that would merit the captain calling them into his office to chew them out in private. And they knew they hadn't done anything that would have him calling them in for a commendation.
Ellison, a tall blue-eyed man with short brown hair, led the way to Simon's office. Blair followed; his wavy dark hair was long for a plain-clothes detective, but far shorter than it had been when he was just a police observer, before officially joining the Cascade Police Department a few years ago. A good head shorter than Simon and Jim, and several years younger, he looked like a child beside them.
"I'm pulling you off the Kent case. Turn it over to Henri. And the Wu robbery – give that to Connor. The Dell case, hmm," the African-American captain thought about to whom he could reassign that case. "Give your files on that to Paulson."
"Sir?" Jim asked respectfully. Although he and Simon had been friends for years, at the precinct he tried to maintain a professional distance.
"All our cases? What's up, man?" Blair asked.
Simon gave Blair a weary, but exasperated look. He had yet to teach Blair the semi-military discipline expected by the police force, and he'd given up trying. "You know who Jacques Moyo'ema is?"
"Dr. Moyo'ema? Of course," Blair replied. "Nobel nominee four years running – they say he has a good chance of actually getting the award this year. Peace activist, social critic, political reformer."
"He's coming to the US. Speech at the United Nations in New York, addressing Congress and dinner with the president in Washington, getting an award at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, attending a medical convention in Chicago, and then coming to Cascade for the Food for the World conference, followed by some R&R in the mountains. You'll be in charge of his security while he's in town."
"Us? Why?" Jim asked.
"Damned if I know," Simon confessed. "The feds requested you."
Blair's blue eyes widened. "They did?"
"Some alphabet soup called," Simon picked up a fax from his desk, "ISD requested you by name. Said they wanted the two of you as local liaison for their security team that'll be accompanying Moyo'ema."
"ISD? They work for the State Department – the sunglasses and dark suits boys," Blair said. "International Security Department, I think."
Simon shook his head. Like most police officers, he had little use for feds. "At any rate, clear your desks. Start preparing security arrangements. Until Moyo'ema leaves Cascade, this is your only assignment."
Jim and Blair traded startled glances. Only on badly written TV shows did police officers have the luxury of working on one case at a time.
"Yes, sir," Jim replied.
"Good morning, ladies," Quentin Cross greeted the three beautiful women who reported to his office. "Would you get the blinds, please, Cassie?"
Cassie McBain, a tall blonde who'd been a con artist before being recruited by the ISD, shut the Venetian blinds.
Cross gestured at the empty chairs, a gesture that was half-invitation, half-order. The spymaster was a handsome man in his mid-forties whose dark hair was going prematurely gray. The three agents code-named 'She Spies' sat down. He suppressed a smile; he was fonder of the trio than he would ever admit to, but he had a reputation for ruthlessness to maintain. He pushed a button, and a picture of a distinguished looking, middle-aged African man appeared on the screen.
"Dr. Moyo'ema," D. D. Cummings identified him. She was the youngest of the three agents, a pretty blonde a head shorter than her team mates.
"What do you know about him?" Cross asked. He didn't want to waste time repeating what they already knew.
"Either an international hero or a meddling busybody, depending on your point of view," replied Shane Phillips. The ex-thief had long brown hair in curly waves and a café-au-lait complexion.
"He was on the news last night," Cassie added. "Giving a speech at the UN about war and famine in Africa."
D. D. nodded "He was doing the Rodney King bit, 'can't we all get along?' "
"He'd better be careful," Shane warned facetiously. "The last time somebody said people should be nice to each other and stop fighting, He got nailed to a tree."
Cross raised an eyebrow at her irreverence. "The ISD has been given the job of ensuring his security while he's in the US. Our east coast branch is currently protecting him. However, once he reaches Denver, he becomes your responsibility."
"Lucky us," Cassie said.
"There have been several threats against Dr. Moyo'ema's life," Cross informed them. "I expect you to be by his side, 24/7."
"What about when he goes to the men's room?" D. D. asked.
"That's why I'm coming with you to Cascade," Cross replied.
"Cascade? Isn't that up north, in Oregon or Washington?" Shane asked.
"Washington," Cross confirmed. He pushed another button, and a copy of Moyo'ema's itinerary appeared on the screen.
Cassie exhaled. "That's a busy schedule for a man half his age."
"Which is why after the Food for the World seminar finishes, he's going to take a few days' vacation in the mountains outside Cascade. Dress warmly; it's cool in the mountains, even at this time of year," Cross admonished them. "One of the FFTW administrators owns a cabin, and she's insisting on Dr. Moyo'ema taking a break."
"A log-cabin, outhouse twenty feet away through the rain cabin, or a 'cabin' the way summer houses in the Hamptons are called cottages?" asked Shane. The daughter of a pair of wealthy, social-climbing attorneys, she knew all about the foibles of the rich, especially the noveau riche.
"It has indoor plumbing," Cross confirmed.
"Why are you coming? Why not Duncan?" Cassie asked.
"Or Jack?" added Shane.
"Duncan already put in for vacation time for that time period, weeks ago. As for Jack, he's on field duty in Europe. I'm not going to pull him back from his current assignment just so you four can celebrate old-home week when you're supposed to be guarding Dr. Moyo'ema," said Cross.
"Duncan's going to San Diego," D. D. said.
Duncan Ballew, ISD's top techno-geek, had requested vacation time so he could attend the San Diego Comic-Con. He'd failed to graduate from MIT, because he'd missed his final exams to attend a comic book convention in New York.
Jack Mitchell was an ISD analyst who'd been the original supervisor of the She Spies program. However, when he'd been promoted to field agent status, the experimental program had been turned over to Cross, who juggled supervising the three ex-criminals with his administrative duties as director of the west coast branch of the ISD.
"Not to be rude, but … are you up to this?" Cassie asked as discreetly as possible.
"I'll leave the running and jumping to you," he promised. Cross had been invalided out of field duty and into administration after he'd been shot. While physical therapy had permitted him to walk and live normally, he could no longer chase a suspect, climb a fence, etc. He handed each of them a manila folder. "We're coordinating Dr. Moyo'ema's security with the local police department. These are the arrangements that they've made."
The three ladies opened the folders and began skimming the data inside.
"I don't need to tell you that there are people in Washington that don't approve of the 'She Spies' program. The Chairman thinks that if you do a good job with Dr. Moyo'ema, it might shut up some of your critics," explained Cross.
"What, a hundred percent success rate isn't good enough for them?" demanded Cassie. "How are we supposed to improve on that?"
"You could try finishing an assignment under budget for once," Cross suggested mildly. "And you have to maintain a hundred percent success rate. Anything else …"
"… means we go back to prison," the trio said in unison.
"Do you really need to remind us of that every single mission?" Cassie complained. "We're not likely to forget."
"I don't remind you every single mission."
"Sure feels like it," D. D. muttered.
Her partners turned to stare at the computer hacker. Normally D. D. made Pollyanna look as gloomy as Eeyore.
Cross frowned. If Little Miss Perky was complaining of his repeating the warning overmuch, perhaps he was. "You have enemies. You can't afford to slip up. I don't want to lose my best agents just because some DC bureaucrat disapproves of your … unusual background."
The three criminals-turned-spies traded pleased glances. Praise from Cross was as rare as free parking in Los Angeles.
"Familiarize yourself with the security arrangements. Let me know if you have any questions." Cross picked up another manila file. "Dismissed."
The three ladies walked out of Cross' office. His eyes lingered on Cassie's lithe form just a little longer than professional etiquette permitted.
A tall blond man was waiting for Cross and his ladies as they disembarked from the airplane at Denver International Airport. His Brooks Brothers suit bulged conspicuously over his gun.
"Steve." Cross smiled a greeting and reached out to shake his hand.
The blond smiled back. He gave Cross a quick, hearty handshake. "Is it still Quentin, or do I need to call you Mr. Cross now that you've been kicked upstairs to administration?"
"Always Quentin to you. Ladies, Agent Steve Wrede." Cross gestured at his traveling companions with a quick nod of his head. "Agents McBain, Cummings, and Phillips." The She Spies smiled at Wrede.
"So, these must be your jailbirds?"
D. D. lost her warm smile. Cassie scowled. Shane's brown eyes narrowed, as she gauged the distance from her toes to his testicles, silently measuring whether she could kick his groin in one movement, or if she would need to lunge first.
Cross' smile never faltered. His voice remained even as he corrected gently, "These are my best agents."
Wrede hadn't become a top ISD agent by being stupid. He quickly realized his mistake. "I stand corrected. My apologies."
Cross nodded, his smile still frozen on his face, but his brown eyes no longer warm. "Where's Dr. Moyo'ema?"
"In the VIP Lounge, giving another press conference." Wrede shook his head. "He's not at all shy when it comes to meeting with the Fourth Estate. Come with me, and I'll take you to him."
"Our luggage?" Cassie asked.
"My people are taking care of it," Wrede assured her. He glanced up nervously at his former friend. Before being shot in the back by a rogue FBI agent during a joint operation, and promoted to administration after his recovery, Quentin Cross had been one of ISD's top agents. He was capable of killing a man seventeen different ways in as many seconds, without making a sound or getting a single hair out of place. He was the last person a sane man would want to annoy. And Wrede wasn't crazy. Cross still looked friendly enough, but Wrede was too experienced to trust outward appearances. Before joining ISD, he'd been a Naval Intelligence officer. To kill the time during the long months at sea, he and his navy colleagues had played Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games. A line from his D&D days popped into his mind: Worry when the game master smiles.
For a few minutes no one said anything. The She Spies hadn't forgiven Agent Wrede yet, he was afraid of inserting his foot in his mouth again, and Quentin Cross rationed his words like he did his bullets under the best of circumstances – which these weren't.
"I'm glad you're taking over," Wrede said after a moment. "Dr. Moyo'ema has been running me and my team ragged. Hope you've been taking your vitamins, or you won't be able to keep up with him," he warned.
Cassie gave Cross a concerned look, then snapped her eyes back in front of her, like a young private snapping to attention, lest he notice her gaze.
Wrede noticed the ex-con woman's glance. From what he'd heard, Cross had been forbidden to return to field duty. So what is he doing out here, Wrede wondered, and is he able to do it? Did his ex-cons require that close supervision that he's willing to risk his health? Wrede considered Quentin Cross his friend, but his duty to the ISD came before loyalty to an old friend. If Moyo'ema were killed when the She Spies were supposed to be protecting him, it would reflect badly on the whole agency, not just an experimental program in "creative" community service.
"So, what are you doing here?" Wrede kept his voice casual as they walked down the airport corridor. "I thought they kept you chained to a desk."
"That's why I'm here," Cross confessed with a chuckle. "Officially, I'm here because Dr. Moyo'ema is important enough to merit my personal attention. Unofficially, I needed a break from playing the Rajah of Red Tape."
In the VIP Lounge, a tall, slender man in a red, yellow, and blue dashiki and red trousers faced a crowd of reporters. His skin was very dark, almost a true black rather than the brown skin of most African-Americans. Beneath his red kufi, his short black hair was tinged with gray.
"My Africa is an unhappy land. In Sudan, slavery still exists. Your newspapers call it 'ethnic and religious persecution' when they mention it at all, but that is only a faint whisper of the truth: genocide and slavery. Zimbabwe has the world's highest inflation rate, 80% unemployment, and since 1988, the average lifespan has declined from 62 to 38. In Uganda, an estimated 14,000 children have been abducted, abused, and forced to become child-soldiers. In Equatorial Guinea, there is no freedom of speech, nor of the press. Most people there live on less than one dollar a day, or attempt to. In Nigeria, oil spills pollute the land and water – oil that goes to foreign drilling companies, while the people do without electricity or depend on aged generators. Every day, AIDS decimates the continent, creating countless orphans.
If something is not done, and done soon, Africa will be a barren continent," Dr. Moyo'ema predicted.
"Dr. Moyo'ema," one of the reporters called out, "are you saying that Africa was better off during colonial days?"
"Do not put words in my mouth," the social reformer scolded the reporter. "Surely you are too professional to waste your time and mine on 'have you stopped beating your wife' questions."
A few of the other reporters chuckled.
"And I would remind the gentleman of Gandhi's aphorism on western civilization," Dr. Moyo'ema added, smiling to take the sting out of his words.
"What did Gandhi say about western civilization?" Shane whispered.
"That he thought it would be a good idea," D. D. whispered back.
"But Dr. Moyo'ema, are you saying that the United States is responsible for solving the problems of Africa?" another reporter asked.
"Are we not all responsible for one another?" Dr. Moyo'ema parried. "When I was at the Sorbonne, I read the works of John Donne – in translation, of course. You are, I hope, familiar with his verse. 'No man is an island …any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.' Before Africa can concentrate on solving its political and economic problems, the people must survive. Even the missionaries who came to Africa in the days of Victoria and Leopold knew they must save the body before they could save souls. First the people must eat. Only then can they have the strength to become self-sufficient, to manage without American and European charity."
"Doctor!" One reporter after another called out for his attention.
"One more question, sir."
"Your headache now, Quentin," Wrede said.
Cross nodded, his face still calm and implacid. (Is that the word I want?)
Wrede signaled to a guard at the front of the room. The agent nodded and stepped forward. "Ladies and gentlemen, I'm afraid that's all we have time for. Dr. Moyo'ema has a plane to catch. Thank you very much."
Other ISD agents began gently shooing the reporters out of the room. Wrede waited until they had gone before leading Cross and his ladies forward.
"Dr. Moyo'ema, may I present your new security escort?" Wrede asked. "This is Quentin Cross, of our west coast branch, and three of his best agents."
Cross shook hands with the doctor. "It's a pleasure and a privilege to be working with you, sir. Agent Cassie McBain."
Cassie stepped forward and shook hands. "Doctor."
"Agent Shane Phillips."
Shane nodded; she also shook hands with the doctor.
"Agent D. D. Cummings."
"Jambo," she greeted him in Swahili. Switching to French, she continued, "C'est un honneur de faire votre connaissance, monsieur le docteur."
Dr. Moyo'ema smiled at her, and began chatting to her in French.
Wrede caught Cassie's eye and gestured her over to join him. Raising one delicately arched eyebrow, she did so.
"I was out of line before," Wrede confessed. "If Quentin says you're good enough, I'd trust you to watch my back on any mission."
"But not watch your wallet?" Cassie asked wryly.
Wrede grimaced; he had that coming. "Touché." He took a deep breath. "Sorry. Am I forgiven?"
The ex-con artist considered a moment, then smiled. "Apology accepted."
"So, what are our plans now, Mr. Cross?" asked Dr. Moyo'ema.
"We'll be taking a military plane to Washington," Cross explained. "We'll land at an Air National Guard base just outside Cascade, where we'll be met by local police officers. Then we'll proceed to the hotel for the Food for the World conference."
After an uneventful flight, they landed in Washington. Gathering together their luggage, the ISD agents disembarked from the plane. Moyo'ema and Cross remained on the plane, waiting for the ladies to confirm everything was safe.
"Are those the detectives we're working with?" Shane asked.
"They must be," Cassie reasoned. "They're the only ones not in uniform."
"Uh-huh." D. D. nodded. "The short one's cute."
"He's also married," she heard Cross whisper in her ear.
The hacker blushed. She hadn't heard Quentin Cross come up behind her.
"Everyone ready?" Cross asked.
"Yes, sir," Cassie McBain replied briskly.
Cross ducked back into the plane to escort Dr. Moyo'ema out. Then the five of them walked toward the waiting detectives.
Jim and Blair approached Dr. Moyo'ema's party. Both displayed their IDs. "Welcome to Cascade, Doctor."
"Thank you, gentlemen." Dr. Moyo'ema shook their hands.
"Detective Ellison, Det. Sandburg, I'm Quentin Cross, ISD. My associates, Agent McBain, Agent Phillips, Agent Cummings."
Jim Ellison nodded politely. Blair smiled widely. Married or not, he still had an eye for a pretty woman, and the three ISD agents were beautiful.
The trip to the hotel was uneventful. The doctor settled into his suite and took a nap. Cross stayed to guard him, while Jim, Blair, Cassie, Shane, and D.D. gave the hotel a final security check. An hour before the banquet, everyone changed into more appropriate attire: tuxedoes for the gentlemen, an evening gown for Cassie, and waitress uniforms for Shane and D. D.
Jim stared at his plate. Rice. His cup held nothing but water. He flagged down a waiter. "Any chance of getting a cup of coffee and a sandwich?"
The waiter shook his head. "Sorry, sir. Not until after the banquet."
"After the banquet, I'm hitting Wonderburger," Jim muttered.
"You may not be the only one," declared the elegantly gowned socialite sitting across the table from him.
"Chef Henri has announced that the hotel restaurant will be open later than usual tonight," the waiter informed them.
"Excellent," the socialite replied. Donating to the poor and hungry was one thing; eating like them was another.
Jim wore a tuxedo. He was seated with some of Cascade's top movers and shakers, pretending to be a guest. Blair sat on the other side of the room, also mingling with the guests. Cross was at a table near the front. Agent McBain was at the head table, pretending to be Dr. Moyo'ema's aide. Agents Cummings and Phillips were disguised as waitresses. Several CPD officers were also among the waiters and banquet guests.
Dr. Moyo'ema stood to address the audience. "I realize that some of you had expected more for dinner. However, the meal in front of you – steamed rice and clean water – is more than many in Africa and Asia have to eat every day. And at 2000 calories, this is the UN guideline for the minimum calories for a day's sustenance. Not a meal, but for the whole day. And this, ladies and gentlemen, would be a banquet to many, an unbelievable bounty of excess." Unbelievable excess of bounty?
The murmuring of complaints amongst the diners faded away.
After dinner – which took much less time than $100 a plate dinners usually did – Dr. Moyo'ema gave the opening speech of the conference.
"The farms of America," Dr. Moyo'ema declaimed, "could feed half the world –"
A scattering of mild but patriotic applause interrupted him.
" – If modern economics and politics would permit your farmers to do so," he continued. "Some of your farmers waste arable land on tobacco, a poison. Others are paid subsidies not to raise crops, lest too bountiful a crop lower prices. Every major religion – Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism – extols charity as a virtue. Could not these subsidy farmers, having already agreed not to raise crops for profit, grow food pledged to charity, food dedicated to the hungry of the world?"
"What a beautiful idea," D. D. murmured.
"Yeah, just convince the farmers they should work twelve to fifteen hour days without getting paid," Shane replied. "I'm sure Exxon would be happy to provide them with tractor fuel for free, and the feed store could just give them –"
"Ladies, we're here to guard Dr. Moyo'ema, not to critique his speech," Cross interrupted. "Keep this channel free."
Only mild disapproval could be heard in his tone, but it was enough. The ladies instantly fell silent. A frown from Cross carried more weight than shouting from someone else. For the rest of the speech, they rotated through the banquet room, keeping their eyes and ears open for trouble.
A delegate took one look at Jim's face, shuddered, and hurried away.
The detective caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. One glance at his scowling face, and he understood her reaction. Taking a deep breath, he rearranged his features into a more neutral expression.
Damn, but I hate security duty, he thought. Like his spirit-totem, the black jaguar, he was a hunter. Standing around waiting for trouble just wasn't his style. He'd much rather be out on the street, investigating crime, fighting criminals, not waiting for an assassin who might or might come. The past two days had been boring and depressing. He could now recite dozens of facts on hunger and malnutrition that he hadn't known before. More than 840,000,000 people in the world are chronically malnourished. 12,000,000 people die each year from the lack of safe drinking water. 91 children out of 1,000 die before their fifth birthday in developing countries. He could go on and on, and he'd been happier without the knowledge.
Plus, like any cop, he hated working with feds. There was something about the ISD agents that set him on edge. Cross he had no problem with; the man was ex-Special Forces, just like he was. The man was tough, but competent. Jim had the feeling he wouldn't want to meet him in a dark alley. The women, though….
There was no denying they were capable. They'd caught some holes in the hotel security that he and Blair hadn't noticed. And there was certainly no denying that all three were beautiful; any of them could've gotten jobs as models or pin-up girls. But he just didn't get the vibes off them that he normally got off other law enforcement officers. He was reminded more of the way he felt with criminals. He shook his head. That was nonsense. It had to be the result of the normal cop/fed antipathy.
Worst of all, tonight they'd be attending the Jaguars game, and he'd have to keep his eye on Moyo'ema and possible threats, instead of watching the Jags whip the LA Lakers.
"How much further?" Dr. Moyo'ema inquired.
"About fifteen-twenty more minutes," Cross informed him. The men rode in an unmarked police sedan. The women preceded them in another car. "Just relax and enjoy the scenery."
"Your people already checked out the cabin and the route?" Jim asked.
"Agent McBain came up yesterday," Cross confirmed.
"Don't worry, Jim. The place checked out clean," Blair reminded his partner.
"It seems unchivalrous, letting the women go first," Dr. Moyo'ema remarked. "Like a goat staked out as bait for a leopard."
"This is the 21st century, sir. They're as capable as any man," Cross replied. "Trust me, if anyone starts shooting, they'll duck."
Jim frowned. He had that missing-word-on-the-tip-of-his-tongue sensation. There was something about the ISD agents that should've been obvious, and wasn't. The detective knew he wouldn't be able to relax until he figured it out.
Cassie parked the Crown Victoria she had borrowed from the Cascade PD motor pool of unmarked cars. The three women piled out of the car. D.D. took a deep breath of fresh mountain air. Shane looked at the 'cabin.' It was made of logs, and it was in the woods, so technically, she supposed it was a cabin. The building was two stories tall. Neatly manicured lilac hedges surrounded the building; potted geraniums added a splash of scarlet to the porch.
"What's it like inside?" Shane asked.
"Abe Lincoln, as interpreted by Martha Stewart," Cassie replied. "Deeds, you keep watch while Shane and I get the luggage in."
The hacker nodded. All three remembered the tongue-lashing Cross had given them the day they'd first met him for not setting a lookout and letting themselves be caught by him and a squad of ISD operatives.
"Be careful," Shane advised. "There's something about this place I don't like. Like someone was watching us."
"Probably just a bear," Cassie joked.
"Lions and tigers and bears, oh my," D. D. quoted.
Shane took one more long around before helping Cassie get the luggage out of the car. She still couldn't shake the feeling that someone was watching them.
"Shall we kill them?" Mbu asked.
Zimwima shook his head. "We must do nothing that could alert Moyo'ema to the danger he is about to face. They are only women. We will kill them after we kill Moyo'ema." He grinned maliciously. "Perhaps we will not kill them right away, eh?"
Mbu returned the grin. He pulled out his walkie-talkie and relayed Zimwima's instructions to their other two colleagues.