Tea and Secrets-Part Six

Veteran's Aid Society

Sunday, December 28, 2003

8:15 PM

"I think we've found just about all the audio tapes," Amanda said, as she carefully replaced the lid on the top box. "And they're all in alphabetical order." They stood together in the small storage room—the file cabinets up front had been dummy files designed to fool any investigators—this was where the real stuff was. It was funny, she thought—even in the middle of winter the windowless room felt warm— reaching up she pushed a damp strand of hair out of her eyes.

"Good job," Lee replied. He flipped through a file folder, his small flashlight trained on the contents. "We can have someone collect all this later tonight—hey, take a look at this."

"What is it?" Amanda stared down at what looked like some sort of bar graph—a series of blue and green bars and below each set of bars was a name—Bashram, Langley, Andrews—all air force bases.

"These blue bars represent what the troop readiness levels are supposed to be," Lee told her. "The green bars tell you what they actually are—they mainly use this to determine which bases need more funding or supplies."

"So anyone who got this would know which troops and which bases were least prepared."

"Yeah—very useful for anyone who might be planning an attack," Lee said grimly. "This information is pretty extensive—I'd sure like to know who they were selling this stuff to."

"Could be to the highest bidder, couldn't it?" Amanda asked.

"Could be." Lee shook his head. "Brokers usually fish around for any scrap they can find, though—all of this is very specific—even organized by branch—almost like someone's been requesting this."

"Yeah," Amanda agreed. "But the million dollar question is who?" She looked up, spotting a large white binder on the top shelf—standing on tiptoe she managed to pull it down. The front of the folder had just one word—Contacts.

'This is it,' she thought. 'It has to be.' The binder held several plastic inserts with charts—to the left she could see a column of initials—corresponding to dates and times on the top—and more initials in the chart itself. What did it—that's when she saw it—A.M. Alice Murphy. But if that was Alice, then where was—her finger traced along the line and there it was—R.C. for Robert Clayton.

"Lee I think I've got a list," she told him. "See? It looks like some sort of schedule and the initials—those were the times when he met her."

"Makes sense," Lee said as he stared over his wife's shoulder. "Looks like there were about 20 'volunteers' in this little ring of theirs."

Amanda nodded. Hopefully they'd be able to put names to the rest of these initials—bring these people in for questioning. She continued to flip through the folder. Nothing but more schedules—just like any business would have, really—only this was no ordinary business. Still there must be—she came to the end of the folder and that's when she saw a small white card, like a business card—stuck in the pocket of the binder—Amanda pulled it out, looking at the phone number and a single name—Faisal.

Then she turned it over and the word that she saw there made her blood run cold.

Karbala. She had thought they were gone—she thought the agency had closed them down—Amanda clutched the card tightly, fighting to control her breathing.

"Amanda?" Lee's voice was filled with concern. "What is it? Tell me?" She handed him the card, not trusting herself to speak. He looked down at the card—even in the half-darkness she could see the tension in his expression—the little knot that had formed in his jaw.

"We'll take this to Billy." He said.

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The Agency

10:15 PM

"Faisal Shahad," Billy said. He sat perched on the edge of his desk, file folder in hand. "He was in Birol's organization back in the '70s and 80s—worked himself up from a simple driver to Birol's right-hand man."

"Yeah, I remember the name," Lee replied. "According to reports he was being groomed to become Birol's successor before Karbala folded."

"Before we thought Karbala folded, you mean." Amanda spoke softly. Just seeing that name had brought back a rush of memories—her time with Birol—part of her had hoped she'd never have to think about that again. Reaching over, Lee gave his wife's hand a gentle squeeze.

Billy sighed. "Unfortunately Amanda's right—Karbala wasn't quite as defunct as we thought. While we've been dealing with other threats it seems they've been quietly building themselves back to full strength." He read aloud as he leafed through the folder. "A jeep explosion on a base—IEDs on base—small, random events going back to '89, but our intelligence now believes they could be linked. Again, we have a lot to thank Mrs. West for. "

"Yes sir, without Mother we might have never known there was a link," Amanda said.

Billy nodded. "That's very true, Amanda."

"Any signs that Birol's still involved?" Lee asked.

Billy shook his head. "We're still checking, but as far as we can tell, Birol has not had any contact with any of his former associates while in prison. No, it looks like Karbala's Faisal's baby now."

That was something at least, Lee thought. And as far as he was concerned Birol could rot in prison—along with Johnston and anyone else who tried to hurt his family. Looking over at Amanda he could see how pale she had become—her body tense—until now he'd had no idea how much it still affected her. He gave her hand yet another squeeze—trying to reassure her that no matter what, they were in this together—that it would be all right. "How is Charles Rendell involved, exactly?" He asked Billy.

"So far he just seems to be an informant," Billy said. "We believe he may have become involved with Faisal when he was with the Peace Corps in Morocco—he left rather abruptly after an incident at a base near there in '89. We're checking to see if the other non-profits he worked for were also engaged in gathering and selling information."

"What about the other volunteers?" Amanda wanted to know. "Is there anything on them yet?"

"Not yet, unfortunately," Billy replied. "The audio tapes we confiscated should help with that. We're also having Rendell and Mrs. Murphy brought in for questioning." At that moment the speaker on his desk buzzed. "Excuse me." He flipped a switch on top of his desk. "Melrose here."

"Billy, it's Francine." The Section Chief's voice filled the room. "It looks as though Mrs. Murphy's escaped."

"What?" Billy's voice was filled with disbelief. "Just how the hell did that happen? We had people watching her, didn't we?"

Francine sighed. "Of course we did. It looks like she drugged and robbed her neighbor, Elise Silbert—stole her clothes and her car—she drove right out of here right under our noses."

"Damn," Billy said softly.

Right under their noses—somehow Lee wasn't surprised. In the short time he'd been dealing with Alice Murphy he'd learned one thing—she should never be underestimated. "Francine, we need to put out an APB on that car as soon as possible."

"Already done, Lee," she replied. "And we've got Rendell—he's headed in for questioning."

"Good, at least we've got something out of this," Billy said. "Keep us updated on what you can get out of him, Francine."

"Will do." Billy turned off the speaker as he turned to face Lee and Amanda. "Is there any chance that Mrs. Murphy might pay another visit to your uncle? " He asked.

Lee shook his head. "I doubt it—her interest in him was purely business."

"Yeah, you're probably right," Billy said with a sigh. "But we'll station some men out there just in case—he knows to call us if she contacts him," he paused. "Hopefully Rendell will give us what we need to close this little ring—and maybe even lead us to Faisal and Karbala."

"Hopefully we can close Karbala down for good, sir," Amanda added.

"We can hope," Lee agreed. But even as he spoke he couldn't quite shake the chill that went through him, the feeling that this wasn't over—that they'd be dealing with Karbala again—sooner than they thought—his grip tightened slightly around his wife's hand.

He could only hope that he was wrong.

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1104 Agnew Dr

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

11:30 AM

"Karbala—that's what this organization is called?" The colonel asked. Lee, Dotty Amanda and the colonel sat in the living room in front of the Christmas tree, coffees in hand. Outside the sky was grey and cloudy—the weatherman had predicted flurries for later in the afternoon. "What do you have on them so far?"

"There's not much right now," Amanda replied. "We've pulled in Rendell and a few of his volunteers—so far they haven't been very forthcoming with details."

The colonel took a small sip of his coffee, feeling the warm liquid trickle down his throat. "Was Veteran's Aid the only society involved in gathering the information?"

"Looks like it could be," Lee told him. "From what we can gather, Faisal's idea was to keep things small—anything too large might attract undue attention."

That made sense, the colonel thought. A little bit of classified information here and there—things that might seem inconsequential, but when added up they could cause untold damage. He recalled reports he'd read concerning 'accidents' on base over the past few years—explosions, soldiers' lives lost— now he found himself wondering exactly how many of those had been deliberately caused. How many Alice Murphy had been responsible for—the thought sent a chill through him. "And this Faisal—he's the head of Karbala?" The colonel asked aloud. Lee nodded. "Are there any leads on him?"

"Only a phone number," Amanda replied. "We haven't been able to trace it yet. Only a few people had any direct contact with him—right now he could be anywhere." Her voice trembled slightly—Lee took her hand in his.

Something was bothering her, the colonel realized—this was not just an ordinary case with her—part of him wondered what it was, but at the same time he didn't want to pry. "Alice Murphy was the top operative, if I understand correctly," he said. "Is it possible that she might have had contact with Faisal?"

Once again Lee nodded. "It's possible," he admitted. "The problem is, we'd have to find her first. The last report we had was that the car she stole was found on the interstate heading into Kentucky and from there the trail goes cold."

"Somehow that doesn't surprise me," the colonel said. If there was one thing he did know about Alice Murphy it was that she was very strong—she wouldn't go down without a fight. He took another sip of coffee, looking out the window—already tiny flakes were beginning to fall. "I just—" he paused, trying to collect his thoughts. "I still can't believe that I was so gullible—that I let myself trust her like that."

"It wasn't just you," Amanda told him. "A lot of people were fooled by her—she was a professional."

"That's right, sir," Lee added. "And the drug she gave you helped to break down your inhibitions—it made you more open to suggestion."

"Maybe it did, Skip—but still—"

"Robert, you can't blame yourself," Dotty placed her hand briefly over his. "You had no way of knowing what that woman was up to."

"No, that's true," the colonel replied. "And if it hadn't been for Dotty I might have never known. I'll tell you what, though—from now on I'm going to be a hell of a lot more careful about who I let come through that door—I won't trust just anyone."

"Alice Murphy was bad news," Amanda said. "But that doesn't mean that everyone's that way—you can't let what happened with her stop you from trusting people."

"Perhaps," the colonel began. At that moment the doorbell rang. "Excuse me." He rose from the couch and went to the door. An older dark-haired woman stood there, holding what looked like a cake.

"I hope I'm not intruding," she said. "I'm Nora Pratchett—I live two doors down."

"Oh yes, I remember you." Now that he thought about it he'd seen her a couple of times, passing by his house in the evenings as she walked her dog. "How are you doing?"

Nora smiled, a pink flush rising into her cheeks. "Oh fine—I'm just fine. The thing is—I was baking a chocolate cake and I just realized that I hadn't welcomed you to the neighborhood yet so I went ahead and baked a second one for you. I um—I hope you don't mind, Mr.—"

"Clayton, Robert Clayton—pleased to meet you, Nora." For a couple of moments he just stood there, not sure of what to say. This woman was different—he knew she was—she wasn't a thing like Alice Murphy—but still he hesitated—

'Amanda's right' he thought to himself. 'I can't stop trusting people.'

"Would you like to come in and share this with me?" he asked Nora Pratchett. "My nephew and his wife are here—I could make you some coffee or hot chocolate."

Another smile. "Thank you, but no. My grandchildren are staying with me for the holidays and they're two little boys—I'm afraid if I leave them alone for too long they'll destroy something."

"Believe me, I understand," the colonel took the cake from her. "And I'm sure I'll enjoy this very much, Nora—thank you."

"You're very welcome," Nora replied. "Perhaps we can spend some time together later—Robert—when I have more time."

"I'd like that very much. Take care."

"You too." For a few moments the colonel just stood in the doorway, watching as Nora Pratchett disappeared down the block.

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Poplar View Motel—Kenova, WV

Thursday, January 4, 2004

12:00 PM

"Right, well, here's your room key," the man said as he handed it to her, along with her driver's license. "How long do you plan on staying with us?"

"Oh about a week or two," the woman replied. "Until I get myself settled, that is." She was a small woman, grey-hair pulled back from her face—her eyes were sort of a blue-grey color—she fixed him with a gaze—for a moment he found himself imagining that she could see straight through him into his soul. "You do allow pets, don't you? The guide said that you were pet-friendly."

"Yes we are—providing that it's a small pet."

The woman smiled. "Well I have a cat," she told him. "But don't worry, he's very well-behaved."

"Yes I'm sure he is, Mrs. Maxwell."

"Please—do call me Alice. Mrs. Maxwell sounds so stuffy and formal. What should I call you, by the way?"

"I'm Rodney, ma'am—Rodney Wells."

Her smile widened. "Rodney—that's my grandson's name—you and he are about the same age. It's nice to meet you, Rodney."

"Nice to meet you too," he said. "Should I get someone to help you with your bags?"

"No—I can manage."

"Fine," for a moment Rodney hesitated, looking at her—he didn't want to pry—his parents had always told him not to ask the guests too many questions, but at the same time he wanted to know—

"What is it, Rodney?" Alice Maxwell's voice broke into his thoughts—those eyes pinning him in place. "Is there something you want to ask me?"

"Sorta," Rodney confessed. "It's just—you drove up in a new Lexus—you have nice luggage, nice clothes—most of our guests are kind of down on their luck, if you know what I mean. No offense, but I just wondered why you wanted to stay here with us."

The words came out of him in a rush; for one moment he thought that maybe he'd made her angry—she didn't look mad but you couldn't always tell. Finally she spoke.

"Let's just say that I wanted a new beginning—a fresh start for the New Year," Alice Maxwell said. "Come up to my room sometime and I'll tell you more—maybe over a nice cup of tea." She bent down, picking up her suitcase and cat carrier. "Happy New Year, Rodney."

"Happy New Year to you too, ma'am."

The End-For Now