Authors: Gabby Grant
“This is sounding more risky by the minute, Ana. You made a
promise, a promise to your mother...”
Ana looked away. She’d promised her mother Isabel, for whom
her daughter was named, that the moment the baby was born, she’d get out of
this line of work. One per family was bad enough, her mother had said, speaking
Ana stood and gripped her father’s arm. “A simple thing. Ten
minutes with the Colonel, an hour on the database.”
“I’m not liking the sound of this.”
“You owe me,” she said, watching him flinch.
“Yes, daughter, and it seems that debt will never quite be
“Thanks, Pop,” Ana said, throwing her arms around his neck
and drawing him in like the fresh breath of spring. “I knew you’d understand.”
Albert returned her hug,
go. “As long as you keep your promise and stay out of danger, I’ll give you
what you need. But one step... One step in the wrong direction...”
“Behind the scenes work,” she assured him. “Consider it a
little advanced computer study.”
“Nothing undercover, Ana. You’re not trained for it.”
Ana set her jaw. If the world were in stereo, her father and
Mark would be dueling speakers. “I know what’s at stake. I’m not stupid. I’ve
just got a little problem that needs figuring out, that’s all. Mark’s been
busy, like you say-”
“Mark’s always been a good problem solver.”
Well, he hadn’t solved
thought walking toward the door. She stopped at the threshold and leveled her
father a look. “I’m counting on you to keep this in confidence.”
Albert held up both palms in surrender. “Anything you say,
dear. As long...” He sliced the air sideways with a clean cut of his right
you keep our deal.”
Ana gripped the thin pine railing and hurried up the damp
wooden stairs leading from where her car was parked at the end of the gravel
drive to her warmly lit kitchen door. She’d made it in just
seven hours, including the two and half-hour drive each way. Colonel Roberts
had agreed. There was more than coincidence involved in her cyber encounter. If
only she’d been able to bring those database files home, Ana was sure she would
have found something. But DOS protocol prevented such documents from leaving
Ana had a nagging feeling her instant messaging threat was
somehow connected to all the mishaps she’d been having at home, but wasn’t
precisely sure how they were linked. All she knew was that every eerie
occurrence at home, every missing set of car keys, every piece of rearranged
furniture, each door or window that had been left ajar had left her with the
same gut-wrenching sense of dread she’d encountered when she’d come monitor-to-monitor
with her cyber-creep.
It was a dreary darkening afternoon, misting slightly,
scattered leaves adhering to damp steps like slick shinny pennies.
If Mark had any inkling where she’d
been, there’d be hell to pay. But there was no reason for that. None
whatsoever. Once she’d pieced it all together and technologically cornered her
Ana was halfway around the high upper landing, a mere few
feet from the door, when a plank gave way under her right foot slamming her
sideways into the rail.
On impact, the narrow handle dislodged and popped forward,
into the bushes six feet below.
In a faraway corner of the Rub Al Khali Desert, chemical
weapons expert Joe McFadden slipped past two uniformed guards chatting over
cigarettes and quickly worked the encoded keypad. In an instant, the heavily
barricaded door slipped open, revealing the bowels of the warehouse.
Boxes upon boxes, pointedly labeled “Made in the USA,”
heaped toward the ceiling. Beside them sat a neat array of carefully anchored
Joe waited until the door clipped closed at his back, then
cautiously approached the first box, examining its label.
“Well, well,” the heavily accented voice boomed behind him,
“for a supposedly anti-US mercenary, you are one curious fellow.”
Joe turned slowly on his heels, arms outstretched, palms
toward the sleek tile floor.
“Planning a party, Al Fahd?” he asked through a tight smile,
his eyes never leaving the Arab’s.
“Ah yes,” Al Fahd grinned, clamping down on his cigar with
his teeth. “Quite a party, Mr. Smith,” he said, addressing the American by the
name Joe had provided when he’d infiltrated Al Fahd’s terrorist training camp
as a paid US mercenary. “And what,” the Arab asked, walking over to a low box
and savagely ripping its seal with a steady left hand, “is a party without-
Al Fahd grinned and dug a fistful of flat latex globes out
of their carton.
Still with his left hand.
suspected it was because his right was reserved for deadly action. Joe smiled
slightly in return but didn’t move a muscle.
“You like balloons, Mr. Smith?” Al Fahd asked, shaking out a
bright blue globe and dropping the rest of the litter back into the box.
Joe’s stomach knotted, as he internally judged the distance
from his elevated hand to the small plastic explosive clipped to his belt.
Three seconds was all he needed to disengage it and send it flying in Al Fahd’s
Al Fahd managed a whistle between his teeth and the unlit
cigar, but kept a careful eye on the American as he strolled over to a dusky
green tank and secured the balloon lip around its valve. He jerked the knob
forward and the balloon quickly inflated.
Joe’s senses alerted, and he knew with the dead calm
certainty that came from years of undercover experience, that the balloon Al
Fahd was suddenly wafting in his direction was
merely filled with
Al Fahd approached steadily as Joe stealthily attempted to
lower his arm.
“Uh, uh, Mr. Smith,” Al Fahd said, raising the balloon
slightly above his head and drawing closer. But Joe knew that whatever was in
there, most likely some sort of chemical poison, would be deadly to the two of
Al Fahd loudly sucked in the saliva that was forming around
slipped his right hand beneath his
Joe’s hand clipped to his belt as Al Fahd spat his cigar to
withdrew a miniature mask and slapped its
self-adhesive seal around his nose and mouth.
“Now, Mr. Smith,” he said,
a wicked glint
in his eye, the dancing blue globe just inches
from Joe’s chin. “Do we
party or do we tell the truth?”
“What kind of truth are you after?” Joe asked, his right
thumb resting lightly on his belt rim.
“The truth about your identity for a start.”
Even through the intricate mesh of the
mask, his words came out clear and menacing.
“You know who I am, Al Fahd.”
his jet black
“And you know I can help you,” Joe went on, defending his
bluster, “but not if you continue to shut me out of your plans.”
“Nobody!” Al Fahd shouted. “Nobody knows Al Fahd’s plans but
Joe studied the Arab and parted his lips in his best cool
smile. “There’s a saying in America, something about safety in numbers. Two
Al Fahd harrumphed. “Your point?”
“No matter what you’re planning, you could benefit from one
precisely,” Al Fahd shot back, “
“I am exactly who you think I am,” Joe said, hoping to
confuse Al Fahd with brutal honesty. “And more.”
Al Fahd slowly wavered the blue globe back and forth before
McFadden’s eyes, then eased it to right below his chin. “How much more?” he
asked, pressing inflated latex to Joe’s jugular.
Joe sucked in a swallow of air between gritted teeth and
slightly raised his chin. “Every man has his price, Al Fahd. Even in the grand
old US of A.”
Al Fahd pulled back the balloon with a satisfied grin. “How
much of a price?”
Al Fahd pressed the balloon back into the tender depression
beneath Joe’s jaw. “Negotiable.”
After a lingering moment, Al Fahd pulled back the balloon.
Joe met the
Arab’s cold black stare. “Just let me know,” Joe said, gingerly pushing aside
the balloon, “when you’re ready to
let me join the party.”
Joe stepped past Al Fahd with an easy grace that denied his
terror and walked straight for the door, praying there’d be no explosion at his
“Oh, Mr. Smith...” Al Fahd stopped him when he was halfway
to the exit.
Joe halted in his tracks without turning.
“Meet me in my quarters at twenty-one hundred. I
planning one hell of a party. And, if you’re half the player you pretend to be,
maybe you can help with the preparations.”
“Hi, hon,” Mark said, walking over to the stove where Ana
stood. “How’d it go today?”
“Fine,” she said, focusing her attention on her work as she
fanned in another handful of pasta. “Isabel was good as gold.”
It was true, at least according to what
Isabel’s regular sitter Maria had told her. By the time Ana had finally
returned from Washington at five, the baby had awakened all cheery and rosy
from a three-hour nap.
“Really?” Mark smiled as only a proud father can. He turned
toward the cooing sounds at the far end of the galley kitchen and went to scoop
his daughter out of the port-a-crib. “How’s my best girl?” he asked, nuzzling
his patrician nose into the fat folds of the baby’s neck. Isabel squealed with
delight and clamped down onto her father’s salt and pepper head with fierce
“Ow! Hey, Ana!” he called toward the stove. “Rescue me!”
“Rescue yourself,” she said turning from the range and
reaching into the cabinet for dishes. That was just like him. Playing the
helpless male, when all he really wanted to do was be in charge.
Mark disengaged from the baby and set her back in the crib
with a kiss on the head. “Hey,” he said, drawing up stealthily behind his wife
and bringing both arms around her middle. “What’s going on?”
If only she could tell him. But Ana knew precisely what Mark
would say, that she was getting in way in over her head. That
expert, the one with the background and experience to tackle these things. She,
after all, had only worked for the DOS just over a year and a half before baby
Isa had come long- and even then she’d only done junior analytical work.
Ana shivered involuntarily as the warmth
of his lips met the nape of her neck.
“If you’ve had a bad day,” he
whispered into her ear, “maybe I could think of a way to make it better...”
“The baby!” she said, swatting the side of his head with the
hand that didn’t hold the dishes.
“Maybe the baby,” he said, lightly nibbling her ear, “needs
Ana sighed and put the plates down on the counter, then
turned to face him. If sex were the answer, Ana wouldn’t still have so many
“Ana,” he said, stopping her with a feathery finger to the
bandage on her chin. “What happened?”
As if she could tell him. As if Ana could tell him about any
of the strange things that had been happening around here lately without having
the accusations somehow turned back on her. “Cut myself shaving,” she answered
wryly as the heat of his body closed in, pinning her against the counter.
He brought his palms to either side of her face and looked
deep in her eyes, his cappuccino gaze stirring something Ana felt she
remembered, but couldn’t quite place, from so long ago. “Seriously, Ana. What
did you do to your face? You look like you’ve been worked over by-”
“Took a little tumble, okay?”
He shot a panicked look at Isa. “Was the baby-”
“Isa was in the house with Maria!
Let’s not go making a federal case out
Mark dipped his head and stopped her stream of words with a
kiss. Ana felt something pulling inside, an old kind of longing. But it had
been swept away just as surely as the
sands beneath a turning tide. And now, there was nothing left but the crashing
surf and her fleeing emotion. Somewhere between the baby and his work, Mark had
lost sight of the power rushing between them. And where there’d once flowed
love, now only existed an empty ocean.
Ana placed her hands on his shoulders and attempted to push
him back, but he held on tight, as he always did, in telling reassurance he’d
never let her go. And, a part of her didn’t want to be let go. Her heart, her
soul wanted desperately to hang on. Hold on to what was familiar.
But another, more fervent part of herself, needed to be set free.
Free from this entanglement called home, laden with expectations and demands-
demands she increasingly appeared unable to meet.
Ana wished so badly she could simplify. Somehow cleave her
spirit in two and be, at once who she aspired to be, and the woman Mark wanted.
But every passing day, it seemed more impossible to conquer that double
“Ana,” Mark said, resting his forehead against hers and
pulling back his lips. “You really need to be more careful.”
She wasn’t the only one, Ana realized, shivering as the
coldness engulfed her. Their troubles had to do with more than Ana falling off
the steps. They were rooted right here in this very room and anchored in a
relationship that wasn’t. “That’s what you keep telling me,” she said, as the
noodles boiled over and sent steaming liquid hissing onto the stove.