Not much to say today. I'm just enjoying the process and hearing what you guys have to say. Read on, dear friends! Read on!
(CAUTION: The following contains unedited material that may be unsuitable for the grammatically inclined. Keep in mind that I don’t review what I write until after the first draft of the whole novel is done, so please keep your spelling and grammar fixes until the Beta Reader rounds.)
"Well, would you look at what the cat dragged in?" boomed Master Sergeant Trent when he answered the door to The Jefferson Group headquarters.
"We got stuck in traffic," Cal said by way of greeting. "I could use a shower and a beer, and not necessarily in that order."
"The beer, I can help you with. The shower you have to take care of for yourself."
"Is everyone here?" Cal asked.
"Everyone's here, who's still in the town."
"Tell them I'll be down in five minutes. Oh, and Top?"
"Do me a favor and don't tell me how our boy, Snake Eyes, looks like he just woke up from a 24 hour nap."
Top chuckled and raised his hand in the air as if taking an oath, "I do solemnly swear".
The paired down headquarters group was waiting in the war room when Cal walked inside. He felt refreshed now that he’d scraped off a few layers of road dust. He needed to call Diane at some point, but that could wait.
"Did you start without me?" Call asked, gratefully snagging the beer offered by Top.
"Still no details on the weapon you found," Neil said, for once not clacking away on his computer. Instead he was sipping a chilled martini with three massive olives skewered inside.
“Anymore on the think tank? What's it called again?"
"The America Institute," Daniel answered. "Looks like one of a thousand of it's kind. They do consulting, write policy paper, and do a lot of thinking, of course. They've got some big names on their register."
"And one very dead ex-employee," Cal said sipping his beer thoughtfully. "I hope you all don't mind, but I'm going to think through this one out loud.” There were no objections. “We’ve got a guy who gets fired from his job. Disgruntled employee numero uno, aka Tommy Quinn, calls the Chicago Tribune to tell them he has some kind of evidence on a flash drive. My first question is, why not just send the files via email?"
"Maybe he thought he was being tracked," Gaucho offered.
“It’s possible,” Cal said, "Maybe you're right. Or maybe Tommy just liked to play spy."
"Or he could just be another disgruntled employee,” Daniel added.
"True," Cal said. "But why go through all the trouble? The guy drives a $100 thousand car, but his parents are going broke. Either he was one messed up guy taking advantage of his parents, or he was into something deep."
"I'm sorry to tell you this, Cal," Top said. "But I'm inclined to believe option A. And to add further lemon to your wound, don't forget we're not supposed to be operational right now."
Cal exhaled and took another drink of beer. It was true. After the near debacle in Europe and the way the presidential election concluded, Cal and the President agreed that maybe it was time for The Jefferson Group to lay low for a while. They deserved some time off, finally, even though that was what their trip to Europe should have been. But it seemed like every time Cal and his friends needed a breather, they got pulled back in.
"You know, Cal," Neil said, "Something we haven't even discussed is whether this Quinn guy really was a criminal." Cal had thought about that, but he let Neil continue. "What if the reason he really got fired was because he was stealing information? Maybe what was on that flash drive was some top secret file from The America Institute."
"Okay, let's assume that was the case," Cal said. "Why the break in and why was that guy in the pickup following us the other day?"
"Maybe they were just trying to get the information back. From what it sounds like, these guys are good. They didn't shoot back at Tom, Senior, and they let you off with a warning," Top said.
Cal shifted his jaw. He could still feel the throb from that “warning”.
"So are you all in agreement on this?" Cal asked. He looked around the room. There were nods from Neil and Top, but Gaucho just shrugged and Daniel sat impassive.
"Okay, let's keep running with this. Tommy's a bad guy. He thinks stealing from The America Institute is a good idea, maybe he’ll even make some money off of it, or maybe he can become some kind of a celebrity. That still doesn't explain why he died 30 yards away from where I was standing and why when I went to help him, he knew who I was."
"Sometimes the simplest answer is the right answer," Daniel said.
"Maybe he did know you. Maybe it was just a coincidence."
"Or maybe he had heard about The Jefferson Group," Gaucho said.
"Where do you think he heard about us? It's not like we advertise on Google or in the Yellow Pages, guys," Cal said.
"It's not impossible, Cal," Daniel said. "You know nothing's really a secret. We're consultants and maybe someone at The America Institute or maybe someone in the Marine Corp told Tommy that we, and maybe you specifically, could be trusted. So he has a few drinks, to get up the liquid courage, and then he comes to find you."
"And he gets in a wreck instead? Come on, man.” It felt like they were groping in the dark. “And how about this eyes on the prize thing?" Cal asked. "I swear every time I fall asleep, I hear him saying, 'Eyes on the prize. Eyes on the prize.'"
Daniel nodded. "Again, maybe it's what we thought initially. He was dying and he said something that was familiar. It was probably something he told himself every day, one of those pump yourself up kind of things like 'Never stop' or 'Just do it'."
Cal wasn't sure, but it was hard to dispute what the others were saying. Maybe he was looking into this thing with Tommy too much. Maybe it was how it appeared, a broken guy looking for recognition. But Cal still couldn't shake the feeling that it was the wrong conclusion. There'd been something in the way that Tommy had spoken to him, so clear. So Cal only half conceded in his mind.
"All right, we'll take this slow. Neil, you keep digging on the weapon and the think tank. The rest of us will get started on finding this flash drive, if it even exists."
"Where do you want to start?" Top asked.
Cal passed his hand over his stubbly chin, “How do you start looking for needle in a haystack.”
“One blade at a time?”
The den was quiet, save the occasional crack and fizzle from the low-burning fire. The lights were dim, and Senator Fowler inhaled the cedar scent coming out of the massive fireplace. He and his father had built it together, stone by stone, pulled from a nearby river and hauled the half mile to the field that had become their home. His father had never shown his love outwardly, but he'd shown it in practical ways, by spending time with the young Warren, showing him how to use his hands to build, to drive a stick shift, how to rebuild an engine, all practical tools for a man of the twentieth century.
Sitting there staring at the fire always brought back those memories. He'd known even as a child that his father was a simple man. He himself had eclipsed his father's schooling just by graduating sixth grade. His father had never seen him go on to great things, but the senator always remembered his love, and now as he sipped his Johnny Walker Blue Label, he wished he could go back and just be with his father one more day. Hell, he'd shovel half the horse shit in the county if it meant more time with his father. Then, his thoughts shifted to his own son.
"Do you have children?" he asked the other man in the room.
"I do not."
"Did you ever want them?"
"I never really had the time, senator.”
“Time. It's a funny thing, isn't it?" said Fowler. "We wish it away when we're children, and now I'd give away all my money, all my land, just to get a few precious moments back."
The other man knew better than to pry. His employer would get to the point eventually.
"Let's just assume for a moment that you found out that you had a child, a son, to be exact,” Fowler said. "Now, maybe you never knew about him. Maybe he was in his twenties before you ever knew he existed. Your offspring. A gift from God. Now assume he’s a handful, that he really gives his mother hell. What do you do? Do you step in?"
"I'm not sure I understand the meaning of…”
"Just answer the question," Fowler said.
"Very well, senator. I guess I would assess the situation. If the child was a product of my past indiscretion, then I have to admit that I would probably deny he ever existed. Let his mother deal with it."
"You are a cold man," Fowler said.
In any other circumstance, the man would have taken it as a compliment, but now he must have detected the edge in Fowler's tone because he shifted in his leather chair.
"Senator, if I offended you, I apologize."
Fowler didn't say a word, but just stared into the fire. "I'll tell you what I would do," he said finally. "I would help that boy. I'd use all the influence I had to make sure he was taken care of."
The level of intensity in the senator's tone left no doubt that the man should remember those words. Then, Fowler's face softened. "I had a son once. Have I ever told you that?"
"No, senator. I didn't know."
"Yes, well, I did, as I said, I put my heart and soul into that young man. But as I'm sure you know, young men most often do as they please. They don't have the benefit of decades of wisdom. I've seen your files, and by the way you carry yourself, I can tell that you never been in a speck of trouble, have you?"
For the first time, the man looked trully uncomfortable. "No, sir."
"Never mind the question," Fowler said. "My point is, you'd do anything for family and as an extension, you'd do anything for your country, wouldn't you?"
The man sat up a little straighter. "Yes, sir, I would."
"Is it because you've sworn an oath or because you believe it?" Fowler asked.
"Both, sir. I believe in this country. I fought for it."
"Well, son, I am your country now. I am your family. You belong to me and I you. If you go down, I go down. Is that understood?"
"I tell you this not to sound overly dramatic, but to make sure that you understand the gravity of the situation. You're a fine man, a war hero, but the things I'm about to ask you to do, for me, for your country, may put you at odds with the ideals of your training and the laws of this country. Does that disturb you?"
"Senator, I've been a longtime admirer, but I've also been a lifelong student of American history. Our country needs someone like you at the helm, someone who can make the tough calls, to really put themselves out there. And if I may be so bold as to say so, sir, I would be honored to serve you."
"Well, good," Fowler said. "I'm glad we understand one another. Now, to the task at hand. I’m sure you’ve had ample time to digest the dossiers I gave you. So here’s the next step.” Fowler leaned forward in his chair, the intensity on his face highlighted by flickering fire. “I want you to find this Cal Stokes and this Marine, Daniel Briggs. They are traitors to our country. I don't just want them dead, I want them erased from history."
The young man nodded and Fowler extended his glass in a toast. "To history," Fowler said.
"To history," the man repeated.
Their glasses clinked together, and Fowler savored the feeling of retribution wrapping itself around him like the warm arms tendrils of the Caribbean sun.
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