Casey poured three fingers of scotch and then, as an afterthought, added another splash. And another. Downing half the glass in one go, he grimaced and savored the painful sting as the dark golden liquid seared his throat and stomach, finally blossoming into the stabbing heat that presaged relaxed muscles and a somewhat quieter brain. From past experience, Casey knew the liquor wasn't going to be enough, but since it was all he had – all he had ever had – he settled into his chair for the long, sleepless night ahead.
It was September 12th, 2010. The anniversary of the birth of John Casey. Also, as needs must, the anniversary of the death of Alex Coburn. Casey took another swig and remembered that hot, steamy night in the Honduran jungle in 1989 and his last words to Kathleen McHugh, his fiancée, his first real love, and the mother of the child he didn't know he had fathered.
"I just want you to know, if something happens to me, no matter what, I love you."
Then Keller had grabbed the phone from his hand, slammed it into the cradle of the field unit, and ordered him to meet his destiny. And, like a good soldier, Coburn had obeyed.
It was all relatively simple, actually. When his unit had gone down a trail lined densely on both sides by tall growth, exactly as Keller had instructed him to, Alex brought up the rear. By the time the men were under fire, the young soldier had already veered off down a side path and run to a concealed Jeep driven by one of Keller's agents. He jumped into the back under cover of the canopy, knowing that two other agents dressed as soldiers were, at the same time, planting the preserved corpse of a Honduran national wearing Alex's dog tags in his place. The man had Coburn's body type and skin coloring – his mother had been an American exile – and his face, hands and teeth had apparently been obliterated by shell fragments from ordnance of the type that was being fired at the unit right now, the sounds of which faded quickly into the distance that Coburn, huddled in the back of the careening and bouncing Jeep, could still hear popping faintly.
Casey drank some more. He wished the booze would act faster, would dull the memories more quickly so he wouldn't have to see them so clearly, but this is how it always went. And in a way, this is how it had to be. This was his penance, his purgatory, sometimes his hell.
Had Casey just been a young man full of misplaced ideals and too much testosterone? Hard to tell looking back now. As an agent for the NSA, he had done so much good. Sometimes it was done for men and women he didn't respect, but usually those above him were operating from the same high standards that Casey demanded of himself.
And what of the alternative? What if he had finished out his term as a field soldier, returned home, married Kathleen and raised a family, first Alexandra and then maybe one or two more children? What if he had relied on others to keep them all safe and sound, unaware of the machinations of shadow factions, international crime syndicates, foreign interests and even gangs of petty larcenists?
It was so hard to know, looking back, what the right choice would have been. Because Casey had had a good run – was still having a good run. He was well-trained and remained razor-sharp. He had finally lucked out on a terrific partner and was warming up more and more to the asset. Things were settling down in a good way. Not boring, not too unpredictable. Just right.
Except for one little wrinkle. His daughter.
Alex was a firecracker, that was for sure. Chip off the old block. Casey couldn't have been prouder. But there was a question niggling at the back of his mind demanding attention. And it had to do with his daughter, Alexandra McHugh.
Suddenly, his cell phone rang, the private number. He snatched the phone up from the tabletop and jabbed his thumb at the button. "Hello?" he answered, almost splashing some scotch out of his glass in his haste.
"Hi, um, dad," his daughter's voice replied. "It's Alex. Can I come in? I'm outside."
Casey put his glass down and scrambled out of his chair, almost running to the door with the phone still pressed up against his ear.
"Of course you can, Alex. Why didn't you just knock instead of phoning?"
When Casey pulled the door open to reveal his daughter standing there, he could hear her answer through the phone and his other ear at the same time.
"I wanted to call you on the secret number. That's so cool, dad."
Casey beamed as he stood aside to let Alex in. It wasn't often that he was declared "cool" by a member of the younger generation. Okay, it was never.
"So what brings you here, Alex?" Casey inquired, leading his surprise visitor to the living room.
As they lowered themselves to sit, Casey onto his La-Z-Boy chair and Alex onto the sofa opposite, the young girl warily eyed the bottle and half-full glass on the side table near her father before replying. "Mom told me what today is, dad. That they told her this is the day you died."
Casey, quickly turning his eyes away from Alex, replied simply, "Oh."
"And I wanted to come and see you because..."
Alex's voice trailed off as she slumped over and clasped her hands tightly together in front of her stomach. Casey, alarmed, got up from his chair and went down on one knee in front of her. He placed a tender palm on her shoulder and bent down even farther to try to look into her face, which was almost concealed by her long, straight hair.
"Alex, Alex, what's wrong?"
It was suddenly occurring to Casey that this anniversary might have implications to people other than himself, most notably the young woman sitting in front of him who was looking so lost and sad that Casey's brain cleared instantly from the beginnings of its alcoholic haze and clicked on to full alert.
Alex turned her head up to look at Casey, brushing the hair out of her eyes as she did so. Casey could see a sheen of tears glistening on those eyes, but nothing spilled over the lids, and he was captivated by the face that looked a bit like him, a bit like Kathleen, but was, at the same time, all Alexandra. When she finally spoke, her voice – low and hard to hear at first – became stronger and clearer with every word.
"Dad, you must be so sad today. I just wanted to come over and keep you company."
Casey hadn't expected this at all, not from his experience with the youth of today. From the moment he found out he had a child, and a girl only just out of her teens at that, he had expected recriminations, blame, guilt. That's why, at first, he had resolved not to re-open that part of his history. No, Casey had never expected this. Not understanding. Not compassion. Not love.
Casey cleared his throat. His eyes were a little wet too, and Alex reached out to place a hand on his cheek, smiling timidly now and asking, "Is that okay, dad?"
Collecting himself once more and standing, Casey replied, "Of course it's okay, Alex. I'm glad to have you here."
That little nagging question that had occurred to Casey earlier suddenly surfaced again, and before he could stop himself, he blurted out, "But tell me, aren't you angry that I wasn't there for you and your mom while you were growing up?"
Casey, afraid of what her answer might be, turned abruptly to go back to his chair and also so he could surreptitiously take a swipe at his eyes, but Alex grabbed his hand before he was out of reach and pulled him down to sit on the sofa beside her where she encircled his upper arm tightly in a fierce hug.
"Sometimes," she replied, a sunny smile gracing her face once more. "But we thought you were dead, remember? It's not like you had run off with a stewardess or something and left me and mom all alone."
"Well, yes, I guess so," Casey said absently, once again completely absorbed by this amazing person beside him.
"It must have been so much worse for you, knowing all the time that mom was out there somewhere and not being able to go to her."
"It was tough sometimes, but I mostly put it out of my mind," Casey said. "That sounds harsh, I know, but it was really the only option I had then."
"I know, dad, and in a way, I'm glad you didn't know about me. It would have made it that much harder on you then and me now."
"Do you know how proud I am of you right at this moment?" Casey asked, smiling broadly. He couldn't resist the impulse to untangle his arm from Alex's grip and rest it over the back of her shoulders, pulling her closer beside him.
"Thanks, dad. And I'm proud of you too," Alex said, snuggling into Casey's side, sighing contentedly as she did so.
"Oh?" Casey inquired, curious. "And just why are you so proud of your proud papa?"
"Because you're hugging me for real, dad, and you're actually quite good at it."