Built on some ideas and characters from my first novel attempt, this 14-day story arc is more than just an espionage thriller.

~ ~ ~
My name is Morgan Everson. People use a lot of different words to describe me, ranging from glowing praise to muttered expletives, but ‘conventional’ is not one of those words. Being single, female, employed by the Central Intelligence Agency and just shy of turning thirty would have made me unconventional enough for some. I’m not one to settle for mediocrity, and I’d managed to find a way to do some work in the field rather than staying in Langley’s cryptology department working like any other clockwatching office employee with higher security clearances. It was my unconventional nature that got me in trouble that Monday morning, and started me on a journey for which I never could have been prepared.

From the moment Allan Bowman walked over to my desk and said the words “Morgan, Director Jimenez wants to see you in his office,” I knew it was going to be a bad day. Director Jimenez was my official conduit to the field operations unit there at Langley. He and my father had worked together, up until Dad’s retirement two years before I’d been recommended for field work myself. I’d told my father I wanted no special favors or good words put in on my behalf. I wanted to get there on my own merits, assisted mostly by the friend I’d made in Allan Bowman.

It was Allan, not my father, who got me into the field. And it’d been a good three years since then. The expression on Allan’s face, though, told me that was about to come to an end.

“Do you know what he wants to talk to me about?” I asked, even though I was certain I already knew the answer. I didn’t feel the need to jump to conclusions prematurely.

“I’m just an analyst,” he said with a shrug, feeding me the party line that covered his real job in an attempt to avoid giving me bad news. I watched him for a moment before his mouth drew into a hard line. It was a tell of his – it’s why he never beat me at the cryptology department’s monthly poker game. My co-workers encouraged inviting him because he tended to get fleeced.

“It’s bad, isn’t it?” I pressed. “Give me a hint, scale of one to ten.”

“Jimenez got his dials from Spinal Tap,” he told me, turning to get back to his desk. “This one seems to be an eleven. I’ll come by after.”

That was indeed bad. I drained my coffee, locked my terminal, and rose to walk to the elevator. The ride up two floors seemed to take forever. I’m not claustrophobic by nature, but those few moments were very uncomfortable for me. When the steel lift doors opened to face the closed mahogany doors to Jimenez’s office, I still felt trapped. I was headed towards a moment I’d always feared I’d face, but had secretly hoped I’d be able to avoid.

“Director Jimenez wanted to see me,” I told his secretary. She nodded, keying the intercom and raising her handset to indicate I was outside his office. A moment later, she hung up and got up to open the doors. I walked in, saying nothing to the older man behind the wide desk, as the latch of the office doors closed with the report of a gunshot to the base of my skull.

“Sit down, Agent Everson,” he said. I did as I was told, and he pushed a thick file folder towards me. “I want you to tell me what that is.”

I glanced over some of the stamps, scribbles and numbers gracing the front of the folder.

“It appears to be my field service record, Director,” I replied.

“Right you are,” Jimenez declared without a hint of humor in his voice. “Three years of operations at home and abroad. Mostly you have followed leads you yourself have discovered through decryption. And your results are things that have yielded great results both for the Agency and our country.”

“I smell a big, hairy ‘but’ coming,” I ventured, trying to break the glacial mood the Director had established in his austere office. But my effort was fruitless. All he did was look at me over the rims of his reading glasses in that incredulous manner that older men usually employ when I show any evidence of intelligence or a sense of humor. Sometimes I quietly question God’s wisdom or curse my father’s slower-swimming sperm that I wasn’t born a male, or at least not quite so attractive.

“The taxpayers have been paying for your little jaunts overseas for three years, and the congressmen and senators who distribute that hard-earned American money have grown tired of your disregard for Agency protocol and stubborn refusal to remain within the limits of your standing orders.”

“If you’re talking about that total farce you’re calling my last op-”

“You hit your contact in the face!” he interrupted.

“Hey, he was trying to cop a feel!” I protested. “How would you feel if your contact reached between your legs and squeezed?”

“That’s irrelevant,” Jimenez snapped. “He was one of the few links we have to the alleged new terrorist group springing up right here on our shores, and you knocked him out cold! Not to mention the fact he has connections to several embassies that could make our political face in that part of the world very ugly indeed.”

I sighed. I was willing to concede that. “I reacted on instinct. If you had been born with this body and this face, you’d react much in the same way when a man gets a little too familiar with you. I know what my orders said, and they said exactly nothing about becoming intimate with him. Especially considering the amount of hair I saw on his neck and shoulders and the way his breath stank.”

“The Agency would be more understanding,” the old man said as he pulled over the file I hadn’t deigned to open, “if that had been your first time pulling this sort of stunt.” He opened the file and flipped through a few pages. “Two weeks ago, you were in Belarus investigating an international synthetic heroin ring, and rather than bringing in the ringleader, you shot him dead with a sniper rifle in the rafters of his warehouse, in front of his entire operation.”

“Hey, it was that or let him kill his own daughter,” I told him. “Her boyfriend had overdosed on his poison and she’d tracked him down to tell him she was leaving the country. He didn’t trust her promises of silence and decided his best course of action was to shove the barrel of his .357 down her throat.”

“Dead men can’t give us the names of their accomplices or the information we need to prevent international incidents,” Jimenez pointed out, as if reciting a lesson a toddler should already have grasped.

“They can’t kill little girls, either,” I began before he cut me off again. This was turning into an annoying pattern.

“Two months ago, working undercover to bust a slave-trade syndicate in the Orient, you blew your cover to go with a competing agent from the Japanese government to a sushi bar.”

“He told me he’d let me meet one of the Iron Chefs! I couldn’t turn that down! Besides, cover or no, we got the bastards.” I paused. “Okay, so I got a little over-excited over meeting a celebrity. Tokyo police and the JSSDF weren’t complaining, considering what we found lead to over two dozen arrests and a score of very relieved families…”

“You have a justification for everything, don’t you Everson?” He shuffled the papers on his blood-red blotter, obviously looking for more. I cleared my throat.

“I will admit that I have deviated from standing Agency policy and at times I have defied orders,” I told him, and began to tick off points on my fingers. “However, I have never done so, however, with the intention of disgracing the Agency or the agents who have given their lives in operations such as these. I have always filed thorough and detailed reports, outlining why I made the decisions I made and how I arrived at the conclusions that informed those decisions. And for every against-policy decision I have made, I can point to three instances in which I have acted in a manner consistent with the demands and expectations of an agent in the field.”

“Regardless of your prevarications, Agent Everson, it has been decided that you are to be removed from field work effective immediately.”

Despite knowing this would be the likely outcome of this meeting, I felt rage beginning to boil inside of my gut. I’d been patient with Jimenez, for the most part, due to respect I owed him for the work he’d done with my father and his position as a Director. But he was now telling me I would no longer do the work I felt, on some level, I was born to do. I broke codes because I was good at it; I worked in the field because I was good at it and I loved it.

“Who decided that?” I asked, a bit more demanding than I intended. He glared at me again.

“My political superiors. Men at the Pentagon. The President. Take your pick. Regardless of the reasons for it, the orders are clear. You are to be removed from the active roster and relegated to strictly Langley-based decryption operations until further notice.” He paused. “I know you have refused, on several occasions, to seek your father’s recommendation or intervention in Agency-related matters. I would advise you to continue that trend. Knowing your father, he would understand the basis for this decision and support it as much as I do. There may come a time when the political environment will permit an opportunity for you to rejoin the active roster. Until then you are to continue breaking codes and splitting open malicious encrypted emails. I know it’s not the glamorous work you’ve become used to, but you will continue to do good work for the Agency and your country.”

At that moment, I had no desire to break codes. All I wanted to break was Jimenez’s head, preferably with something heavy and blunt. Despite the fact that it wasn’t his fault this had happened, he was the closest convenient authority figure. Long before moving onto the active roster, I’d trained myself to think quickly, assess a situation at hand, inventory potential weapons and escape routes, and weigh my options for fight or flight. I’d lost count of the times I’d bit my lip or clenched my fists at frustration in a situation I could not improve by making a run for a door or window, or indulging in a foolish desire to resort to violence.

And grabbing the man’s ceramic ashtray and smashing it over his head was decidedly foolish.

Instead, I exhaled and sought control over my emotions. Closing my eyes, I tried not to think of how disappointed my father would be when I told him. Opening my eyes again, I looked at the Director evenly and frankly.

“Thank you.”

He blinked, surprised. Trying not to feel too much elation at breaking his sour demeanor, I continued.

“Looking at my laundry list of sins, I’m sure more than one political penny-pincher asked for my pretty head on a silver platter. You didn’t give it to them. I could be walking out of here an ex-CIA agent, instead of going back to my desk to stare at lines of code for another few hours. As my field operations superior, you had the power to take this entire career away from me. You didn’t do that, and I thank you for it.”

Jimenez kept staring at me for a moment, then took off his glasses and wiped them, shaking his head.

“It’s amazing to me, Everson, how you could at once be one of my most intelligent agents, and one of the dumbest.”

“You should I know I got my stubbornness and snap decision-making from my father. The looks and intelligence came from my mother.”

“I figured that,” he remarked, and I couldn’t hide my reactions any longer, not with the way he was smiling, as if he’d been sweating this meeting as much as I had. “Look, you’re your father’s daughter, meaning you’re a good agent who makes bad decisions for good reasons. You and I in this room know this, because we’ve both been there. But trying telling it to a dozen men with law or sociology degrees that slid into Washington on a water slide lubricated with taxpayer dollars and false promises who see you as nothing but a pretty face and a list of near-miss operations.”

“I’m sorry I pissed you off,” I ventured.

“I’d be more pissed off if all of your operations ended this way,” he said, indicating some of the highlighted pages he’d picked out of my file, “but they don’t. I’m decidedly less pissed off than the aforementioned Congressmen. But let’s put it behind us. Tell your friend Bowman I’d like to see him this afternoon, I’ve got a job for him.” He put his glasses back on and closed my file. “And you probably have some of that thrilling encrypted information waiting for you at your terminal.”

I rose from my chair. “Will that be all, Director?”

“Yes, Agent Everson, you are dismissed.”

I nodded, and left his office. I was still mad as hell over this decision. I could count on both hands the times I’d pulled stunts like he’d pointed out. Jimenez himself had intimated that he’d seen worse. Why had the purse-holders suddenly decided I wasn’t worth the extra coin necessary for field work? Something stank here, but I wasn’t about to risk taking inquisitive pokes at the back doors of the Agency computers just to answer niggling questions. I rode the lift back down to my cubicle and sat, resting my head in my hands.

“I come bearing coffee.”

I looked up, to see Allan leaning over the wall of my cube with a steaming mug in his hand. He had taken the travel container from my workspace while I’d been upstairs getting drummed out of active duty and gotten my favorite selection from the machine in the break room. That made me smile, and I nodded my thanks as I took the offered mocha latte. Sipping it with him standing nearby brought back a lot of memories the two of us shared.

Allan was a field operative with some five years of experience off the books before I’d joined the Agency, having studied cryptology and high-end electronic encryption for five years, graduating with honors. He never talked down to me, nor did he ever try to get into my pants. He’d been dating someone at the time, and I myself was engaged to Daniel Radcliffe, a fellow code-breaker with Homeland Security. It took me a year to realize just how insufferable Daniel’s superior attitude and whining about wanting to transfer to the NSA made him, six more months of dealing with the chip on his shoulder for being disowned by his Vietnam vet turned grassroots protester father to decide to leave him, and six months beyond that to get the divorce papers signed. Allan went through a similar experience when he’d discovered his girlfriend in a lukewarm bathtub with a heroin needle in one arm and a vertical razor wound in the other. I’d held his hand in the hospital for five hours after that before we found out she’d be okay but would face years of rehab and therapy.

“He reamed you out pretty good, huh?” he asked after I’d taken a long-enough sip.

“Not without reason,” I replied, “but yeah. Apparently I make some well-fed men in sub-committees nervous.”

“I can see why. You could start a scandal in Washington with a wink and a wiggle of your hips.”

“Don’t start,” I admonished him, but was smiling in spite of my sour mood. Allan was flirtatious enough, but never crossed the line into unprofessional territory. At moments like this, I was glad for his company and would have welcomed even more lewd comments, but we both had work to do and we were still inside Langley. “He wants to see you, next.”

“More digging around in caves and sand, no doubt,” Allan commented with a derisive sniff. “I’d say it beats sitting around this place, but…”

“Don’t talk nice on my account,” I told him, taking another sip of coffee. “I’d much rather be out there, and you know it. I’m not going to spite you for doing what you do best.”

“I’m glad you’re still here,” he said with a smile. “If I know Jimenez, the most they can do is transfer you to some cushy suburban front with a Starbucks around the corner. Then at least you’d have something better than that swill.” He tipped his chin towards my mug of coffee, which I drank without looking away from him.

“Unless you have any Jameson’s to liven this ‘swill’ up, stop complaining and go make Jimenez feel better about his job.”

Allan laughed, shaking his head. We’d had drinks together on a handful of occasions, mostly when he or I had been in town at the same time as the other between jaunts overseas. He was only the second man I’d ever leaned on after a night out with complete and total trust. Trevor, my college boyfriend’s brother, had been the first. Often my thoughts on Allan invoked memories of Trevor, a quiet and understanding friend and fellow computer geek. We’d been studying together when I’d met his brother Christopher who’d arrived with a fresh pizza after his business class. As much as I had in common with Trevor, Christopher was less shy and more forward, and when he started offering to take me to dinner at expensive restaurants followed by upscale dance clubs, I wasn’t in a position to say no. But that had been a long time ago. It felt like a lifetime, on days like this.

“I’ll go see if I can help the old man out,” Allan said, interrupting my thoughts on my college days. “You take care of yourself, Morgan, in case I don’t see you.”

“Thanks, Allan. If they send you out, be sure to come back in one piece.”

“I’ll be happy with one larger than the others,” he called over his shoulder as he headed for the elevators. The next sip of coffee was my last, and I turned my attention to my e-mail, seeing quite a few projects demanding my attention. It was going to be a long day, and so far it hadn’t been a very good one.

* * * * * * *

It was a good day for Congressman Malcolm Mackenzie, Republican from Connecticut. He adjusted his tie and smiled smugly as he ignored the press and stepped into his limo, bodyguard following. Inside, his aide waited.

“The meeting went well, sir?” the young intern asked.

“Extremely, Jacob. It seems the rumors of a turf war in Hong Kong were true.”

“Was the analysis correct in that three groups are involved?”

“Quite so. The Yakuza from Japan, the Chinese Triad families, and the Russian Mafia. Nasty business. I hear one can’t walk down the street in Kowloon nowadays without catching a stray bullet.”

“And what are we going to do about it?” Jacob asked. Mackenzie, Vice-Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee, smiled to himself.

“Why, talk to my friends in the Senate who know arms manufacturers and arrange shipments to all three groups, naturally. I am sure they can be contacted through their legitimate businesses.”

“Ingenious, sir.”

Mackenzie smiled and nodded, then frowned, looking out the window for the first time. He didn’t recognize the neighborhood.

“This isn’t the way back to Georgetown. Driver?”

The driver didn’t respond. Instead, the limousine turned into an alleyway in downtown Washington D.C. as the sun began to climb above the skyline, ominous clouds surrounding it like a black cloak.

“Driver! What the devil are you doing?”

The limo came to a stop. The driver got out and opened the door. The bodyguard was the first one out, hand in his jacket. Mackenzie was out right after him, glaring at the driver.

“Now, what in…”

The driver, a slender young woman, took off her cap. This shocked Mackenzie, since his driver was usually male. She smiled at him invitingly as the bodyguard lurched forward. Mackenzie looked over to see the large man hit the ground, back covered in what looked like bullet wounds. But there had been no sound. The congressman looked around as Jacob moved forward, trying to get the woman between him and the shooter. Still smiling, the woman made a gesture that seemed to involve no effort on her part, as easily as she might hail a cab, and Jacob fell back, gurgling, a pointed metal star lodged in his throat. Unable to scream, unable to pray, unable to even breathe, the young intern died quietly. Mackenzie felt his heart tighten in his chest.

“Malcolm David Mackenzie.”

The voice was no louder than a whisper. But Malcolm heard it quite clearly.

“Harvard Law graduate, thanks to your father’s career and connections. On your third marriage, no children that aren’t in foster homes or juvenile hall, yet you pay no child support and won your last two divorce cases. Hence your comfortable lifestyle. You’ve peddled quite a few favors to some interesting characters to get such legal and bureaucratic backing.”

Where was it coming from? Malcolm looked around, panicked. The woman was gone. His companions were dead. He was alone, and afraid. Someone was deliberately trying to intimidate him, and looking at the corpses around him, damned if it wasn’t working.

“Whatever they’re paying you,” he began, trembling, “I’ll double it. No, no, I’ll triple it!”

“I’m afraid you can’t buy your way out of this, Congressman,” the whisper replied. “But don’t worry. This is nothing personal. We simply have our duties to perform.”

“Damn it,” Mackenzie cursed. “Who are you? Show yourself!”

The answer was a flash of movement and the glint of flickering sunlight off a steel blade. Malcolm felt something tug at his neck, then a sensation of falling. As he felt the street hit his head, he looked on in horror as he saw his own body fall to its knees in front of him. He wanted to turn, to see who had done this to him, but all he could do was blink and try to speak. His mouth moved, but no sound came forth. As he felt a raindrop hit his temple, then his cheek, he found the whisper easier to focus on. In fact, he thought, it was almost soothing, and a single black feather floated into his fading vision as the assassin spoke.

“Your wives will finally benefit from your existence, now that it has come to an end. And no more innocents will suffer on foreign shores by your hands. Now, go and face your eternal judgment.”

* * * * * * *

The sirens that wailed on the ambulances that sped past the Potbelly were not uncommon in Washington. On days like today, the traffic between Langley and the DC metro area was a worthwhile obstacle, and the radio and driving had helped clear my head. I’d pretty much thrown myself into the latest encrypted communiques to avoid thinking about my morning, praying as I ordered my roast beef & provolone with no onions that the afternoon would be better. My cell phone, however, had other ideas, and I fished it out of my purse to answer the call from an undisclosed number.

“Morgan Everson.”

“Hello, Morgan,” the quietly self-assured voice responded.

I sighed. Exasperation seemed to be the order of the day for me. “Hi, Dave. I didn’t think they let you NSA-types near the phones on Mondays.”

“I’m on my way out,” he replied. “How are you? I heard the CIA took you off their active roster.”

“Oh?” I said, feigning interest as I found myself a table with my sandwich. “Did you overhear some of your co-workers jawing on Capitol Hill or something?”

“I have my connections, Morgan, you know that,” Dave told me, his voice smoky with pretentiousness and arrogance.

“Yeah,” I replied dryly. “Thanks for reminding me.”

“Maybe even more than you do. I’m sure I’m on our list of ‘Most Dangerous Agents.’ We have one, you know.”

I rolled my eyes. I’d have laughed at how lame he was if I wasn’t in such a foul mood already.

“Is this important, Dave? I’m trying to each lunch, here.”

“I was just wondering if you’d be up to dinner tonight. You know, talk things out. I’m sure this has been a tough day for you…” He kept talking, but I didn’t hear him. I didn’t want to listen to him. I wanted to trace the call, drive to his office, key his car and kick him in the groin really hard. And I knew I could do it, even if I was no longer authorized for field ops.

Instead, again, I exhaled and controlled myself.

“We’re not getting back together, David.”

“I just-”

“No, David.”

He began to protest again, but it wasn’t his voice that stopped me mid-bite. A tall, somewhat elderly gentleman had come over to my table, a pair of milkshakes in his hands. His worn jeans and Hawaiian shirt were very different from what I’d gotten used to seeing on the nights when he came home from work, but the smile on his face and the twinkle in his eyes hadn’t changed at all.

“I have to go, David,” I told the prattling voice in my ear, and hung up.

“Hi, sweetheart,” my father said with his usual Cheshire-cat expression. “Surprised to see me?”

“Well, yeah! Last I heard, you were on a cruise in the Caribbean somewhere.”

“Things change,” he said enigmatically as he sat. “Still a strawberry fan?”

“Sure!” I took the milkshake, a little eager to spend time with him. I hadn’t seen Dad since his retirement from the Agency. It was a cute ceremony, gold watch and all. Director Jimenez had been full of praise for his long years of service, and told me later he was looking forward to more of the same from me. I had no idea how I was going to tell Dad what happened.

“So how’s the code-breaking business?”

I looked up at him, my lips still around the straw. It was a pretty blatant question for a public place, but Potbelly was pretty full and between the shouted orders for sandwiches and the Nationals game on the television, I had little reason to worry.

“It’s fine. Busy as always, between the Taliban having their own blogs and militia nutcases in our own country trying to sneak electronic plans through the Internet. I’m just thankful Anonymous hasn’t tried to mount anything major against the government. As long as they’re more concerned about protesting Scientology and enforcing the rules of the Internet, I’m a fan.” I narrowed my eyes at him. “Why do you ask?”

He took a long sip of his shake, somehow still grinning as he did before he spoke. “Honey… what makes you think I want anything more than to spend time with my daughter?”

“Hmm, I don’t know, maybe the fact that you’re a career spy and spies always have ulterior motives?” I realized how acerbic that must have sounded and I sighed, picking up my sandwich again. “Sorry, Dad. It’s been a rough day is all.”

“Do you want to talk about it?” he asked, letting me swallow my bite first.

“Well,” I began, and then paused.

He stared at me. “It’s Jimenez, isn’t it?” His tone was suddenly much darker.

I nodded. “He called me into his office. He cited a few of the maybe eight times I’ve flubbed an op due to my moral compass, and told me that his congressional masters had come to the conclusion that I wasn’t worth the taxpayer dollars to send on covert operations anymore. So I’m off the active roster and back to constant code-breaking monotony.”

“Those stuck up-!” He looked like he wanted to hit something. I know the look; I see it in the mirror occasionally. “I don’t believe this. Why didn’t you call me? I mean I know you’ve wanted to do all of this on your own merits, and it only makes me more proud of you, but dammit, Morgan, sometimes you need to not be so stubborn and-”

“It’s all right, Daddy,” I said, laying a hand on his. “The CIA might be full of red tape and regulations, and sometimes they rub me the wrong way, but I do good work there. My code-crunching might not be as thrilling as being in the field but I might be able to do that again.” I took a long sip of my shake and looked around the restaurant. “Besides, I get to spend more time with my cat, now. Get caught up on the latest buzz on new encryption methods and how hackers are breaking them. That sort of thing, the kind of thing one can’t do if they’re always on the move, you know?”

“I hear you. I’m actually glad they put me out to pasture.”

“That’s odd,” I commented. “You always told me and Mom how much you loved your job.”

“Yeah, I know, but I still kept tabs on the Agency even after your mom left. Between the meddling of the congressional types and the strain on all of the agencies due to this crusade against terrorism, things have gone downhill.”

A chime came from Dad’s jeans pocket. He pulled out a Blackberry and peered at the display. I quietly ate my sandwich as he looked over whatever he’d gotten, and from the expression on his face, he didn’t like what he was seeing.

“What is it?” I asked finally.

“There’s been another murder,” he told me. “A Congressman, this time.”

Before I could ask him why he’d gotten such a thing sent to his phone, he laid some money on the table and took a final sip of his milkshake. “I’m sorry, sweetheart, but I have to go. I’ll probably be calling you in a bit.”

I rose to protest, but he was already walking out. I sat back down and tried to muddle through my confusion. My father appearing out of nowhere to check up on me like that was certainly welcome considering how my day started, but his abrupt departure was disconcerting. We’d gotten used to having meals without him when I was little, considering how much he travelled, but since retiring he’d promised to spend more time with me. I’d been to his villa in the Bahamas twice, on his dime.

It wasn’t the fact that he was in Washington that continued to bother me as I finished off my sandwich and drank down the rest of my milkshake. It was the timing of his visit. He’d chosen the day I was removed from the CIA’s active roster to ‘drop in,’ and he did it while I was having lunch, which I could have had in the office or any number of other eateries in the Metro area. Yet there he’d been, right across from me in the crowded Potbelly, acting surprised and outraged at my demotion. Something didn’t add up.

I made my way back and tried to put the emotional roller-coaster of lunch behind me. I went through a couple militia communiques and found nothing of interest when I got an e-mail from my father. My desk phone rang a moment later.

“Everson,” I said into the receiver, as I always did.

“So am I,” my father replied. “I just sent you something I want you to look at.”

“You know I can’t look at porn when I’m at work, Dad.”

“Very funny. I only did that once. And that guy totally deserved it.”

Sighing, I opened the attachment to his email.

“What is this?” I asked him a moment later.

“It’s an encrypted file. See what you can do with it.”

“I’ve never seen this cipher before, Dad.”

“I believe in you,” he said, and hung up. I sighed a bit. Some people had teased me in college for taking my studies so seriously, since with a family member in the CIA and aiming to go there myself, I didn’t need better than passing grades. But I didn’t want to just coast in on my looks and pedigree alone. I’ve always enjoyed solving puzzles, and my father was always happy to pitch me a fresh one. I took a deep breath and started to look over the cipher, picking out algorithms and determining the best route to attack the message. I latched onto something almost right away, and I lost track of time as I started to take it apart. By the time I was gone, most people had left the office, but I had a completely decrypted message.

I sent it back to my father, and minutes later he was calling me again.

“That’s fantastic work, Morgan. I can’t believe you knocked that out in an afternoon.”

“It wasn’t that hard,” I said, rubbing the bridge of my nose to relieve my eyestrain, “just time-consuming.”

“Did you read it?”

“I didn’t read the whole thing, just whatever I was decrypting. I know it was about that Congressman who was killed today.” I thought back to the bits and pieces of the message. “MacKenzie.”

“It was a report on a successful test. We need to know what’s being tested, and why.”

“Who’s ‘we’, Dad?”

“I’m sending directions to the GPS in your car. Follow them.”

The line went dead and I admitted I was starting to get aggravated. Sure, Dad was good at giving me interesting puzzles, but being this cryptic with me wasn’t like him. He was still my father, however, and he’d earned my trust over the years. I got in my car and began following the instructions. It turned out being a 4-hour car ride, and the night seemed even darker as I arrived at my destination. I took the designated exit and arrived at the Greenbrier Valley Airport in West Virginia. I was directed to a nondescript office building in the industrial park. It was one story, and the interior was bare save for an elevator and a large desk with a woman sitting behind it.

“Everson?” she asked me.

“Yeah,” I replied. “My father…”

“I already know,” she said, waving her hand as she filled out some paperwork. “Sign here. And I’ll need any weapons you’re carrying.”

I looked over the paperwork, which was an ‘intake form’ with all of my vital information already filled in. I didn’t see anything untoward on the form, so I signed it, then unholstered my sidearm and laid it on the desk, following it with the short Japanese blade I carried at the small of my back. She looked at the tanto for a moment before regarding me with a raised eyebrow.

“Never runs out of ammo,” I told her with a shrug. She didn’t change her expression, but reached under her desk and pressed a button. The elevator doors opened.

“Please step inside, Miss Everson.”

I did as I was told, and the elevator started to descend. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable, and what happened next didn’t help.

“You made good time,” came my father’s voice. I almost jumped out of my skin and looked around as the elevator came to a stop.

“Dad? What the hell’s going on?”

“I know you’re tired and you have a lot of questions,” was his disembodied reply. “I promise I’ll explain everything and you’ll get a chance to rest, but first I need you to do me a favor.”

The elevator doors opened. I was staring at a very long corridor with unadorned concrete walls, harsh overhead lighting, and a moving walkway. I peered down towards the other end and thought I could make out a pair of metal doors as well as the occasional mirror on either side.

“Let me guess, I’m getting on the walkway and remaining still?”

“Head of the class,” said my father. “I’ll see you on the other side.”

His jovial tone of voice didn’t make the experience any less disconcerting. As the moving walkway carried me towards the opposite end of the corridor, I passed several mirrors that were probably manned on the other side. More than once I heard a humming noise from one side or the other, and it was my assumption that something a bit more powerful than an airport metal detector was giving me a once-over. Finally, the walkway ended, and I stepped off in front of a pair of metal doors with no visible handle. A bas-relief lighthouse atop a rocky pinnacle dominated the doors. I heard heavy bolts retracting, and the doors swung open slowly, to reveal my father, now dressed in a simple gray suit.

“Hi, Morgan,” he said with a smile. “Sorry for the theatrics. Welcome to Lighthouse.”

“What’s Lighthouse?” I asked him, stepping through the doors into a much warmer corridor. As the doors closed, another man approached us, dressed in a waistcoat and sporting a mustache and sideburns the color of his lion-like silver hair. His eyes were piercing and direct, hazel in color, and despite the lines on his face he moved like a man who knew how to handle himself. When he spoke, it was with an Oxford accent.

“Lighthouse is a covert international investigative body, sanctioned by the United Nations with a very specific charter.” He extended his hand. “Miss Everson, I’ve heard quite a lot about you. My name is Sir Geoffrey Aldersgate.”

Stunned, I took his hand. This was arguably the best agent MI6 ever had. During the Cold War, he was discussed on the far side of the Iron Curtain as ‘Shadow-Lion’, a reference to both his homeland and his method of operation. I tried to compose myself, since meeting him was like an up-and-coming actress meeting Dame Helen Mirren.

“It’s an honor,” I told him. “I had no idea you were an Oxfordshire man.”

“Raised and educated there,” he replied. “I’m surprised you picked that up so quickly.”

“I had to study how people communicate, sir. Part and parcel of cryptography, which I’m assuming is why I’m here.”

“Indeed. That was impressive work this afternoon. We’d like to see more of it.”

“I already have a job with the CIA, sir.”

“I’ve made arrangements with Jimenez,” my father put in. “He owes me, and we need you more than he does.”

“We can discuss this more in the morning,” Aldersgate said. “You’ve had quite a long drive, Miss Everson, and I want you fresh and your mind sharp.”

“Thank you. I am pretty tired,” I admitted. We walked down a few hallways, decorated by art of various lighthouses and towers, until we came to a side room that contained a cot, a desk, and a coat rack.

“Make yourself at home,” Aldersgate said. “There are thicker sheets under the bed if you get cold.”

“We’ll talk tomorrow,” my father told me, and gave me a hug. “I’m glad you made it.”

“Good evening, Miss Everson. We’ll fetch you in the morning.”

“Good night,” I said to both of them, closing the door. The light switch was next to the cot, which was a good thing because I forgot how tired I was until I laid down and turned off the light. Despite my wonderings about the purpose of Lighthouse and the reason I’d been brought here, fatigue pounced on me like a cat desperate for attention, and I was asleep less than a minute after the light went out.

* * * * * * *

“She’s a fine young woman,” Aldersgate said as they walked away from the room Morgan was sleeping in.

“Takes after her mother more than me,” Charles replied with a shrug. “I know she’s got a lot of questions about this entire operation and how I found her earlier.”

“Shows good instincts,” the British man nodded. “She’s going to need them in the days ahead.”

“I’m not entirely thrilled about her being a part of this, Geoff. It’s a dangerous and unpredictable world she’s coming into, and it swallows people.”

“We need the best minds to puzzle out the meaning of these occurrences, Charles. Take it as a compliment. Your daughter’s the best, in both cryptography and field work. We don’t have the red tape problems the CIA has. And she’s an unknown. These are all powerful weapons in her arsenal for what’s to come.”

Charles looked over his shoulder at the door behind which his daughter slept. He smiled but his voice completely belied his expression. “I hope we’re right about this, Geoff. For my daughter’s sake.”

“For all our sakes, Charles.” Sir Geoffrey touched his friend on the shoulder. “Get some rest. We’ve an early start tomorrow.”

* * * * * * *

She looked out over the Philadelphia skyline. The lights on the roadways went to and fro, as they always did, oblivious of being observed. The voice in her ear prattled on, and she looked at her manicured nails as she contemplated switching off the Bluetooth headset.

“I know you’re upset,” she put in finally. “I know how valuable MacKenzie was to you. But you know he suffered the same fate as my top police resource. Why would I dispose of that valuable a resource, even to smokescreen depriving you of yours?”

“You’re being coy,” was the response, “and that to me smacks of rudeness. There was no interference in your interests, Countess, and destroying MacKenzie was absolutely senseless.”

“Which is why I didn’t do it,” the Countess insisted. “Baron, still your tongue and use your brain. If you weren’t trying to muscle in on my territory – which, I might add, I would have known about long before tonight – why would I try to muscle in on yours? We have a standing agreement, you and I, to say nothing of the greater treaties that exist between us, the Five Boroughs, New England and the South. This entire seaboard has been somewhat destabilized by these events, and it doesn’t take a genius to see that someone is trying to pit us against one another.”

There was a pause. “That might be. All the same I have called a gathering. Am I correct in assuming you already know if it and am making arrangements?”

She sighed. “Yes, Baron, and it will be here in Philadelphia. I’m sure you have travel arrangements to make, so I will leave you to that. I look forward to seeing you.”

Before the Baron could question her sentiment, she terminated the call. She was removing the earpiece when her assistant, Evans, stepped into her office.

“Sorry to disturb you, Countess,” he said, “but I need to ask you about tomorrow night’s gather. Is there anything you need me to look after other than the venue and seating arrangements?”

“As a matter of fact, Evans, there is,” she replied. “I want you to monitor the intelligence networks. Look for anything unusual. If our friends at Lighthouse are catching wind of the connections between the murders, chances are someone new is going to be sent into our area for some reason or another.”

“Of course.”

“And it goes without saying, Evans, that none of the others are to know about this. They are unaware of Lighthouse. It’s best for all involved if it stays that way.”

“I shall be discreet as always, ma’am,” Evans told her, and with a short bow, he walked out of the office. The Countess turned back to the skyline, folding her arms. Without her police contact, the amount of information she had on the murders was limited. There was certainly something about them, however, that pointed to something undeniably sinister. This wasn’t Lighthouse’s style, either. She knew Aldersgate and his operations tended towards the subtle and sublime, and this was overt and gruesome.

There was a new player involved. And the Countess got the sneaking suspicion they didn’t care about the rules, and that made them not only unknown, but dangerous.