Chapter 7: Cone of Light

2:10 p.m.

J. Edgar Hoover Building, Washington, DC

Flint drummed his fingers on the conference room table, anxious for the meeting to start. For some reason, this conference room put him on edge even though, from its looks, it was designed to do otherwise. Someone had taken care to create a serene oasis in the midst of the bureaucratic nightmare that was the Hoover Building. Planned and built during the 60s, the structure was an imposing monolith of concrete and marble built in the brutalist style common to public buildings of those days. "Never trust an architect named Stanislaw to draw up something warm and cozy," Agent Miller quipped as he led the soldiers through the maze of corridors and stairwells. The special agent spun a yarn about tour guides getting lost for hours in the Esher-like halls and having to call for help, stranded on some remote floor with groups of tired and hungry tourists. But the conference room was a different beast entirely. When Agent Miller first led them into the room, the agent, sensing the soldiers' surprise, preemptively responded, "Sometimes we spend a lot of time in this room, a lot of time. We make do."

And make do they did. Flint couldn't argue with the agents wanting to create a different atmosphere than the one provided by the usual GSA-approved Navajo-white sterile boxes. But there was something unsettling about waltzing in to what amounted to his grandfather's study. A plush oriental carpet in muted pastel shades cushioned his feet while his body was cradled in the comforts of a very fine Italian leather swivel chair, complete with matching lumbar pillow. Each seat had its own pop-up reading lamp. A bookshelf lined one wall, filled to capacity with black and white binders and dog-eared manuals of some sort. The remaining walls were covered with striped wallpaper and mahogany chair rails. This room had class. Then why did he feel so awkward?

Maybe it was the company. Mainframe was alright. He had no beefs with the computer techie. His stock portfolio owed the man a few favors. Likewise, Agent Miller seemed harmless enough. The remaining cast of characters, however, had his stomach in knots. First up was Lady Jaye. Sitting just to his left, she might as well be a million miles away. He thought they had reached a truce on whatever transgressions he may have had. If so, someone needed to tell her. He hadn't been able to get anything out of her since they left Quantico. He inwardly sighed; FBI headquarters wasn't the only thing lacking warmth. Seated next to Lady Jaye was Shipwreck. The name said it all. How he was the only person available for Duke to send he'd never know. Then there was Deputy Director Patterson. Sure he looked like your favorite uncle on the surface. But Flint knew from experience that underneath he was no doubt all Dr. Roth, an unforgiving academic who knew he was the smartest man in the room and had no qualms about letting you know it. Usually that was Flint's job. Flint was a little uneasy at being usurped. He knew he had to keep his nose to the grindstone on this mission, whatever it may be.

Patterson looked around the room, "Is this everyone then?"

Agent Miller nodded his head, "We just need to get Herrera on the line." Miller grabbed a black box from a side table, dialed in a code, and Agent Herrera's booming hello filled the room.

"Good then." Patterson addressed his comments to the Joes, "I want to thank you for coming on such short notice. We've encountered a situation with which I believe you all have more familiarity." Patterson then launched into a brief recap of the past 48 hours and the mysterious illness affecting the metro passengers.

"Director," Shipwreck leaned forward in his chair, "Seems to me this is all in your bailiwick. Isn't this the kind of thing you guys do?" He was finding it hard to reign in his frustration. For all the things to be called off of leave, sick people in DC? Surely the FBI was more than adequately equipped to handle this one.

Flint inwardly groaned. None of them were particularly happy about the situation, but they were Joes and they would conduct themselves with the upmost decorum. He poked his head around Lady Jaye, glaring at Shipwreck.

Shipwreck met his stare head on, "What? You know it's true. Probably a case of bad sushi."

Patterson stepped in, "No, I understand. Generally, yes, this is a situation we would handle. We believe, however, that these events may have a more sinister origin. Herrera, would you please provide the team with what you've found."

Agent Herrera detailed the findings his unit had made thus far while Agent Miller pressed another button on the black box and a screen dropped down from the ceiling at the far end of the room. Flint made a mental note to lobby Duke to get one of those black boxes. No way should the FBI have better toys than the Joes. The Metro station video feed appeared on the screen. Miller working a few more buttons paused the tape and zoomed in on the image of the faceless man.

Forgetting his interest in the FBI agent's technology, Flint uttered out loud, "Well I'll be." He placed an elbow on the table, resting his chin in his hand, "Zartan."

"That's what I thought but I knew you could confirm." Patterson checked off one item on his mental checklist.

"Um Sir, Zartan?" Agent Miller looked around the room, "Who's Zartan?"

"More like what's Zartan. Dude is one nasty for-hire chameleon that we usually find crawling around with the snakes." Shipwreck frowned; the situation had taken a turn for the worse. Any hope he had of making it out to get back to Claire and John's in time for dinner was just shot to pieces.

"Snakes?" Agent Miller glanced around at the Joes.

"Cobra, a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world," Mainframe deadpanned.

"Because everybody wants to rule the world," Shipwreck couldn't help humming. He winked at Lady Jaye, ignoring Flint's glower, "It's Polly's favorite song."

Lady Jaye tried hard not to laugh out loud at that one. As Flint steamed, she occupied herself with counting the flowers woven into the carpet. It reminded her of the afternoons spent in Grandmother Hart's personal library suffering through the endless lessons on what it meant to be a "lady." Ha, she smiled to herself, if Grandmother Hart only knew what kind of lady she was now. Glancing over at Flint, she wished there was a way she could peel the tension off of him. The more she worked with him, the more she found she could instinctively know how he'd react. It was weird, knowing him this well. In front of the FBI Director, he would want to appear in command, unflappable, and confident. Flint was usually the man in charge. Here, it was Patterson. Flint wouldn't want any funny business. With Shipwreck, funny business was pretty much what the sailor brought to the table. The two of them on this mission were going to be oil and water at best. She'd seen it before. Shipwreck would make some quip and Flint would stew. Sometimes though, she wished Flint would let down his guard around the team the way he was starting to do with her. She liked it when he was less bluster and more, human. Humans had fun. She had fun with the human Flint. Although, truth be told, she kind of liked the robo-Flint, as Alpine would mock behind his back. She found she was attracted to his take-charge side. There was something about the way he oozed masculinity. It was a special brand only he possessed, otherwise, good lord, she'd be throwing herself at practically anything that walked, Beachhead included. Shuddering at that thought, it came down to the essence of who Flint was. There was no denying it; she was hooked, even if her didn't see her in quite the same light. But she wasn't going down that road. Not now. Now it was the mission and it didn't matter how different Flint could be around her. What mattered was how different Ms. Parke was. Did she have a secret life? Otherwise, why would Zartan be involved? "Ms. Parke. If Zartan is involved, it's a good guess Cobra is. Does she have any connection to them or is she involved in something that Cobra would want to influence? Why would they have him take her out?"

"Best as we can tell, Ms. Parke doesn't have any connection to Cobra nor does it appear that she's involved with anything." Agent Miller answered.

"Actually, I think we shouldn't jump to that conclusion." Herrera broke in.

Miller popped his head up in surprise, "What?"

"I initiated a soft meet with Ms. Parke's sister yesterday." Herrera continued, "I may have led her to believe that I was a doctor and asked a few questions about Ms. Parke's history. She claimed that Ms. Parke didn't have any involvement with anyone. Ms. Parke seemed clean. However, after we spoke, the sister placed a phone call to a dummy number and briefly spoke with an individual, a man, I think."

"Dummy number, nice." Mainframe shook his head, "Did you trace the switchboard?"

"Bermuda is as far as we got before the connection timed."

"Dummy number?" Lady Jaye looked over at Mainframe.

"It's a false number, kind of like a paging service. You dial one number and you get bounced around a few different exchanges and, after dialing a code, get bounced around a few more times before being connected with your party. If you don't want anyone to know where you are, you set one of these up. Expensive as hell but damn near impossible to trace. We aren't finding her friend anytime soon."

"Actually, I think he came to us." Agent Herrera replied. "Early this afternoon, Ms. Parke's sister had a visitor. He did his homework. Not one security camera got a good view. Miller, can you bring up that file I sent you?"

Miller pressed a few more buttons on his black box, bringing up a fuzzy security camera still of the back of a dark-haired man speaking with Ms. Parke's sister. "This was the clearest shot." Herrera said.

The man was familiar to Lady Jaye. She couldn't say where or how, but she knew him. It was his carriage and stance, the way he was built. Why would she know him? Think Alison, think, she chided herself. Stealing another glance toward Flint, she felt a mild embarrassment when her eyes met his already watching her. Flint cracked a half-smile, "you caught me," he mouthed to her.

Lady Jaye raised her eyebrows and her left hand in an open question, we know this guy.

Flint was on the same wavelength and tapped the right side of his forehead, it's in here. You're right. We know this guy.

She scrunched up her nose, shoulders slightly raised, Cobra?

His face was blank, eyes darting to the front, Class has resumed, time to pay attention to the teacher.

". . . cameras and couldn't pinpoint another image. He knew all the locations." Herrera continued on.

Lady Jaye hoped she didn't miss too much. Still, she couldn't shake that nagging feeling about the man on the screen, and usually it was that nagging feeling that saved your hide.

"We also learned that Extensive Enterprise no longer owns Exclusive Food and Beverage. Just . . ."

"What?" Patterson's baritone rang across the room, interrupting Herrera. "When did this happen?" Patterson scratched his head. He found he was asking this question a little too often on this case. Why did he feel that he was fumbling around in the dark on this mission and just a pawn in someone else's game?

"Some time in the past hour Sir. The SEC filings were all pulled. We have copies but now there are no records in the SEC's database. SEC denies that the transaction ever took place."

"Where there any names attached with the filing?" Lady Jaye leaned back in her chair.

"The registered agent was Tomaso Iloaps. Haven't found anything on him yet."

"Tomax." Lady Jaye and Flint spoke in unison, turning toward each other.

"That's the same name that showed up in Denver." Lady Jaye felt the floodgates spring open, "and it had to be him at the hospital. But why?"

"I don't know but he's leaving us clues. He wants us to find him." Flint nodded his head in agreement.

"So what now?"

"We go to him. How is the hard part." Flint set his jaw, mulling over the prospect.

"All we have worked out right now is the maintenance crew."

Flint shook his head, "No, too suspicious. Those guys have been there too long. It's the Fred series. They never change."

"We can still try to insert someone in for a short time. It might work."

Flint pondered that one for a moment and realized that the eyes and ears of the room were focused on them. "Uh, Jaye?"

"Yeah?"

"We probably should let them in."

"What?" She had become so wrapped up in her brainstorming efforts with Flint that the entire room had vanished from her mind. Turning her chair back toward the table, her cheeks reddened slightly and she felt like she'd been caught making out in a coat closet. Shipwreck waved hello while Agent Miller pretended to be engrossed in fiddling with something on his black box.

Patterson smiled, "Yes, you probably should let us in."

Flint began, "Jaye and I were on a mission where Tomax," Flint turned toward Agent Miller, "he's part of Cobra's high command, used that name as an alias. He's dropped references to it a few times since then. I suspect," Lady Jaye cleared her throat, "Sorry, we suspect that he didn't want us to forget that name. We think he's put out an invitation for us. Question is how do we respond?"

Patterson bobbed his head, "What's with the maintenance crew?"

"That was an idea we had," Lady Jaye placed a subtle emphasis on the word "we" and smiled when Flint kicked her chair, "to gain access to Extensive Enterprises' New York headquarters. We'd try to have someone infiltrate through the maintenance crew. They have a separate entrance, separate id's, no set uniform. That way we wouldn't have to worry about front desk security or close interaction with any of the bigwigs. The problem with that approach is there hasn't been any turnover in their crew. All those employees have been there for at least 15 years."

"And a new person showing up one day would set off some warning bells." Patterson looked over at Agent Miller, "Would we have anything?"

Agent Miller scrunched up his features as he racked his mind for some idea, "I don't think so Sir. We could probably get someone in through that route but it would take too much time, especially if the Joes have already thought of it." The agent shook his head, "I don't see how we could make it work any better."

"There's the other possibility?" Flint's voice trailed off into uncertainty.

Lady Jaye turned back toward Flint, "You mean the maid brigade?"

"Please, upscale cleaning service."

Lady Jaye exhaled a small grunt and rolled her eyes.

Flint held up his arms, "The lady doth disagree. It would be good for a quick in and out. Sure it isn't viable for long-term surveillance but short term? Short term could . . ."

Lady Jaye shook her head, "You just like the outfits."

Patterson chuckled, interjecting himself into the conversation before the two Joes ran off any further, "Maid brigade?"

Leaning back into her chair, folding her arms across her chest, Lady Jaye smirked, "Yes, tell them about the upscale cleaning service."

"Well, as old as the maintenance crew is, their corporate office cleaning staff is, well, newer to the world."

"And hot?" Shipwreck pushed himself forward into the conference room table. "If so, sign me up, right away. I volunteer."

"Shipwreck, if they're hot that definitely leaves you out." Mainframe smiled and settled into his seat. It wasn't often that he got the opportunity to let a few zingers fly. He was on a roll today.

Shipwreck threw a gum wrapper at Mainframe, "Leaves you out too, geek boy." Surveying the room, "Actually, only one of us makes the grade."

"Why thank you Shipwreck." Flint winked at Lady Jaye as she gave him a high five. Finally, a little loosening of the collar. She bit down on the inside of her cheek to bring in a little reality check. She was getting too ahead of herself. Remember before, remember before, she chided herself. Teammates, only teammates.

Flint mentally congratulated himself. Jaye pointed out one time that he had a tendency to act as if he had just sat down the wrong way on a yardstick. It didn't paint a particularly flattering picture of his leadership style and he was working on "lightening up, 'ol grumpy pants," he believed was the exact phrase she employed. He was feeling a bit more relaxed around Patterson, and Cobra, well Cobra was a cake walk compared to any of the numerous things for which the FBI could seek to consult with the Joes. Maybe he could handle this one. And then, he quickly glanced to his left, maybe he could iron that out. First things first, "Shipwreck is right. Only one of us makes the grade to be a maid." He offered a sympathetic grimace to Jaye, "Sorry," then back to the rest of the room, "Xamot's tastes tend to shift with the weather and there's an extremely high turnover in their visible cleaning staff. Pretty much new girls every week. One week blondes, the next brunettes, you see the pattern. We just need to know who's on first and be prepared to be on second. When we devised this particular plan for a future Joe operation, we assumed it would be Lady Jaye undercover, I'd be back-up, and Mainframe would run the computers. The mission was designed to insert a bug into either of the twins' computers. Obviously the parameters have changed and we won't worry about planting a chip. Still, I trust Tomax about as far as I can throw him and I'm worried about sending her in without being able to get to her quickly."

Lady Jaye's head cocked up at an angle upon taking in Flint's last words. Here it was coming out then, he didn't trust her to handle a mission. Prior to Kansas City, Flint wouldn't have mentioned one iota of concern for her ability to handle herself. Now, well, now it was different. "I think I can handle it Flint."

Now it was Shipwreck's turn to react. The biting way that sentence came out was a huge beacon to the sailor that this was it. No way could Jaye be that mad if there weren't any underlying currents of tension, and tension in a good way, between the two. Ace's pool was about to pay off for him. If he could string it out for a few more days, he'd hit pay dirt. He licked his lips, almost tasting the victory that would be his.

"I know you can handle it. I don't know about him. I don't trust him. We planned this thing to be covert. But if you're making contact, that changes the calculus." There was so much more he wanted to say, but this wasn't the place. No, not here, not in front of these strangers and friends. He had meant every word he said in Kansas City. He trusted her implicitly; it was all those with whom she would have to interact—the worst that man had to offer—that he feared.

Patterson, sensing the delicate balancing act put on by Flint, waited for the two Joes to settle their differences. He had a suspicion that Flint's concern was more than just mission deep. Call him an old romantic fool but he would root for it to work out between these two. It had to be hard in their positions. He knew what it was like. Patterson met his wife at the Bureau. She had been an agent at a time when there weren't many females taking on the job. He first saw her at the academy. Talks between classes soon led to a three-year long distance romance conducted entirely by inter-department delivery envelopes when he was stationed in Omaha and she in Buffalo. Hopefully the two Joes wouldn't have to wait as long.

Patterson observed a subtle bob of Lady Jaye's head; she had backed down. "We can round up a surveillance operator to keep close tabs. If anything threatens to happen, we're the FBI, we'll just storm the place." Patterson winked at Flint.

Flint set his jaw, "Well, hopefully Tomax is in a cooperative mood and it won't come to that." Flint looked over at Mainframe, "Do you think we can do it?"

"Well, there will be a few things we'll need but we'll manage I think."

Flint turned to Lady Jaye. She was the most important piece of the puzzle, if she thought it was a bad idea, he'd nix the operation, no questions asked, "You?"

She looked him straight in the eyes, "I won't wear that dress."

"Oh, no fair!" Shipwreck slapped his hand on the table. "I miss out on all the good stuff."