Authors: Dale Amidei
Tags: #Suspense & Thrillers, #Suspense, #Thriller, #Fiction
“The OPM system panel tagged you as next up, Boone. Your seniority and experience makes you the obvious choice for Senior Case Officer.”
She nodded, continuing to stare out of his window, realizing it was because she was unwilling to face him. “It would mean working together closer than ever,” she heard herself say.
God, Boone, don’t show him your back this whole time.
She turned around with her hand going on her hip. To her surprise, she found him just sitting there, his hands folded in his lap, nodding in return. She knew he shared every one of her own concerns.
“Right down the hall. Forty hours a week plus,” he confirmed without hesitation.
“Only forty hours is a
” she countered.
“Yup. Pretty much.”
It was her turn to sigh. “Terry,” she said, walking up to his desk and sitting on the corner near him. She broke eye contact and stared at the ceiling before finally giving up the effort to find a subtle way to say it. “When we broke it off—right before you met Janine—it was because we knew what was happening would hurt both of us. It was going to blast our careers … just a matter of time before the system came down on us for unprofessional conduct. It was a considered decision we made together.”
Bradley tilted his head to one side in concession. “This was the Office of Personnel Management’s idea, Boone,” he attempted. “Procedure required me to follow up, one way or another. It’s my job.”
She peered at him intently. Raising her eyebrows, she did not have to say a word.
Shifting in his chair, he shrugged. “OK, OK,” he admitted. “I am favoring the suggestion.” His eyes met hers. “We’ve been able to work well together in the past.”
“Oh, yeah.” Despite everything she was feeling, his statement had almost elicited a laugh. “Our personal history, Terry—you’re saying you anticipate it would be a
rather than a
Appearing resolute, he answered, “I’m saying I’m willing to take the chance on the assumption we’ve moved beyond the potential negatives.”
He looked up at her with those same eyes, the ones from the old days. “I need you here, Boone.”
Rising, she paced back to the far side of the desk. She shook her head and turned to lean in, bracing with the fingertips of both hands. “Professionally or
“It’s all the same thing now,” he said with noncommittal inflection. Without giving her too long to ponder the nuances, he continued. “As DNI, I’m asking you to seriously consider taking the slot.”
Sitting again, she crossed her legs, and her foot kicked the air for just a second before she willed it to remain still.
Oh, what the hell
You practically specialize in bad decision making.
“OK, Terry. You got me.”
He straightened, and his fingers flew over his keyboard. “Thanks, Boone. You don’t know what you’re doing for all of us. The timing on this is really,
“I am hardly surprised,” she said with just an unconcealed hint of resignation.
He popped some more entries into his admin panel. “What about your start date?”
“Right freakin’ now.” She thought she surprised him. “Though I
take you up on the offer of the long weekend to get settled somewhere.”
“Really, Boone? No arrangements to make for your things over in—”
Smiling, she shook her head. “I still travel light, Terrence dear. Almost everything sentimental is in my luggage already. The Embassy can pack up and ship the remainder before the close of business tomorrow.”
Nodding once more, Bradley added the relevant entries to her status. One final tap of the Enter key, and he seemed satisfied. He stood, extending his hand as a formality. “Congratulations, Doctor Hildebrandt. Senior Case Officer, effective immediately. Once Edna is in, I’ll have her get you settled in your office.”
What a Vo Binh Dinh kick in the gut.
Her expression must have said it all.
Bradley looked sad only for a moment, and then he was the DNI again. “The overnight crew cleaned out Rex’s things and spruced the space up a bit. Personnel changes don’t take them much time anymore.”
I bet you’re right. This is Level Zero.
Boone honey, what have you just gotten yourself into?
She was struck for a moment by the realization she could not define the situation for her internal inquisitor:
Did you mean into personally … or professionally? Is Terry right? At his level, is it all the same thing, perhaps?
Thirty minutes later, a visibly perturbed Edna Reese punched the button on the sensor for the lights of Boone’s new office, next to the DNI’s. Its new occupant noted the woman would not so much as enter the space with her. Terry had been right. It was empty and tidied. Not a speck of dust or as much as one of Rex’s dropped paper clips remained behind.
“Will this do, Doctor Hildebrandt?” the admin supervisor asked in a professional tone.
Understanding Edna would be Boone’s facilitator as much as she was Bradley's, the new SCO took a pointed look alongside the office supervisor at the room. The dill-weed green walls matched the darker brown of the carpet, and the cherry veneer of the furniture contrasted with the black locking cabinets and shelves lining the walls.
I think I can live here. It all goes with the hair, after all.
“This will be fine, Edna dear. Thank you so much.”
Oh, how I would like to be a fly on the wall of this woman’s mind right now,
“Your current network access should be every bit as valid here as it is via the remote system,” the stocky administrative professional relayed. “You have your own laser printer, and access to the Xerox main document center near the rest of us. We’ll be transferring Mister Schilling’s caseload—”
please, Edna. He’s not
far gone from us, is he?”
The question almost got to her. She appeared to recover quickly, however. “
caseload. You’re entirely correct, of course, Doctor.”
“Call me Boone, Eddie,
Edna nodded. She did not comply immediately.
While Boone did notice, she also decided to let it go. “Is there anything in particular I should know?”
“I’m sure Mister Bradley will be going over the
on Tuesday,” Edna posited. “Rex was quite busy with security assessments, as I understand.”
Those and a hundred other things you will never be aware of,
Boone added in her mind. It seemed to the smaller woman Edna wanted nothing more than for this to be over.
“For now, is there anything else I can do for you?” the office matron queried.
Boone looked around.
Here is where the next phase of your career starts. You might as well sit down and buckle up.
She gave Edna a glance and a smile—
one someday she might even return
. “No, dear, for now this appears to be everything I will need.”
Edna nodded and left her in her new office. Boone sighed and moved to the leather office chair, the wrinkles of the seat and back somewhat conformed to the previous occupant. She eased into place, glad Edna was not hovering to observe the discomfort she felt in slipping into her colleague’s role.
Think it through, Boone honey. It’s a good move. There are reasons why Terry brought you in.
The course of this year had been a complicated one for an operative struggling to maintain a low profile. First, there came her involvement in the death of one of the wealthiest businessmen in Russia.
Involvement? Boone … you shot him through the heart
. Shortly afterward, widespread coverage followed her most recent adventure of liberating the now internationally famous Chinese evangelist Lin Shun Lun. In retrospect, she knew, entering the People’s Republic of China on her own passport had been a major foul-up. She shook off her aura of negativity.
The assignment got complicated
. Three attempts by their Ministry of State Security to kill Lin before things finally settled down had not helped anything.
She was now in the public record.
And it might have been enough of a liability for another Director to have pulled me back down to Level Two.
Level Zero, she realized, was the only other direction to go. Here, life would have more of an administrative flavor although field assignments could and often did occur.
Go toward the light, Boone. You’re thirty-two years old now. It’s time to start thinking long-term.
She heard Terry’s first appointment leave, and she knew the DNI was approaching even before he appeared in her doorway with his cup of java in hand.
He looked around in approval as she placed her hands on the desk of the office. Already, she was making it her own rather than a memorial dedicated to another dead friend.
“Is this going to work?” the DNI inquired, doubtless unaware of the larger implications of his question.
She nodded, keeping herself from going there. “This will be fine,
I can’t wait to get started.”
Terry smiled at her, but his expression told her nothing of what was going on inside his head. He walked back to his own office to prepare for his next meeting, and she swiveled toward her dual monitors to get used to the environment there as well.
Is this going to work? Well, we’re all about to find out now, aren’t we?
Chapter 3 - Every Day a Monday
Five days later, Boone again found herself to be the first one into the office following Veterans Day. Her habitual timeliness was due—she had no doubt—to an overactive and inherited diligence gland. Something about government service, she thought, seemed to slowly and inexorably move eight o’clock closer to a quarter
Perhaps it’s through a type of time warp developing via federal seniority.
She set up, as her first order of priority, a brand-new personal coffee machine. A nearby shelf held a small basket containing filters and packets of a hazelnut blend, one seeming closely enough to approximate the brew which had so well enlivened her early-morning acuity in Paris. The aroma from the brewing process would also serve notice to the late arrivals—those who would hopefully soon be populating the outer office—that her office light was not on due to the inattention of the cleaning crew nor a malfunction of the “green” motion-sensing switch near her door.
Twenty minutes later, after the noises of settling in and morning conversations died down in the administrative assistants’ area, Edna appeared in her doorway. Looking resigned if not enthusiastic, she greeted the DNI's newest hire. “Good morning, Doctor.”
Morning, Ed. How was your weekend?”
“Oh, lovely. I did want to let you know Director Bradley was called to Langley as the first order of business this morning. He just messaged, wanting me to make sure you were set for the day and aware of your morning schedule.”
Nodding, Boone wondered how long the initial hand-holding phase would run. “Yes, the DARIUS overview and security assessment? I had planned on taking a vehicle over in twenty minutes or so.”
Edna looked pensive for a moment. “Correct. It’s a bit of repetition for us, I’m afraid. Rex was over there only the week before last. Mister Bradley did want to make sure the current SCO was up to speed on the facility, especially since it is so nearby.”
“I’m on it, Edna. I do appreciate your reminder,” Boone acknowledged the woman’s effort. It brought the first hints of a smile to the office supervisor's face, something the younger woman had not seen for quite some time.
“Have a good first full day, Boone,” Edna said, surprising the woman she addressed.
Whoa! Progress. What’s next, a lunch date?
Boone felt her trained controls engage before she let her surprise register in her expression. She merely smiled sweetly in response. “Thanks so much, Missus Reese.”
Forty-five minutes later, Boone parked the USIC’s black Escalade and began walking carefully across a parking lot. Her destination was the main development facility for the military contractor known as Defense Armaments Research Institute (United States). The blustery, wet conditions had left the asphalt slick and puddled, and though she was dressed for the weather, she felt no need to sacrifice her shoes for the sake of expedience. Bradley’s representative remained on the slightly excessive side of timeliness, just as she had planned.
Stepping inside the main entrance, Boone saw an officer at the security station—
which doubles as a reception desk, all right.
She assumed he noticed her lack of a displayed ID hanger as would be usual for a firm of this type. Striding confidently to the station, she smiled at the guard, who seemed under no obligation to return the nicety. “Good morning,” she said before introducing herself. “Doctor Hildebrandt … for Mister Kemp’s nine o’clock.”
The guard’s demeanor only slightly warmed after he checked his list. “Yes, Doctor, and welcome,” he said, offering a visitor's badge he pushed toward her on a clipboard holding the sign-in sheet. “Let me ring the Vice President.”
“Thank you so much.”
Initial assessment—traffic control and professional security. No surprises thus far.
Boone signed in and hung the orange lanyard around her neck. She then positioned herself back from the man’s view of the front entrance, a gesture he seemed to appreciate as more employees made their way inside, perfunctorily displaying their identification on the way past.
This could be done better. Perhaps they could consider installing a read station to swipe … one avoiding exposure to counterfeit cards.
Presently a tall, smartly dressed man, older than Terry Bradley—
but still a very viable stack of man-flesh
—approached the security station as well. Boone turned and gave him her best smile. “Mister Kemp?” she guessed, stepping forward to meet him.