The day’s paperwork was stacked on my desk in neatly organized piles. There was no way in hell I could finish it all tonight. My assistant was trying to convince me to participate in the upcoming fantasy leagues. Honestly, I couldn’t care less, but I enjoyed hearing his enthusiasm.
“Are you sure Colonel Wolfe? The pool fills up fast, we have the off-station personnel too. It has an immeasurable positive effect on morale to see the commander's name on the roster next to your own,” Shultz argued.
“Immeasurable positive effect, Christ Shultz you can spread shit on thick. Go ahead, put me down for next year but I want to be told the moment I can load up my football team. I’m not losing to that head shrink again.”
“Carl? That old man knows his stats. I wouldn’t feel too badly about losing to him Sir. He is well versed in most sports.”
“All I know is he’s going to have to work hard to take my money next season. I plan to annihilate him early.” I was trying to finish an email while discussing the fantasy leagues my full attention wasn’t on either task.
“I’m glad you've decided to stay involved Sir, of course, I’ll be sure to keep you informed of the fantasy football progress.”
“Good now, what else do we have? I’m meeting some friends in town for dinner, nineteen hundred, I need to get moving.”
“That covers it, Colonel. We had a quiet weekend and an uneventful Monday. I don’t expect any issues tonight.”
“Oh, now you’ve done it. You’ve jinxed us all, Shultz.” Some topics are never spoken of aloud, and premonitions about the next watch were high on that list.
“Very amusing Sir, I don’t subscribe to superstitious notions of any kind.”
“Nah me neither really. Fate is the one that smacks you down when you get cocky. I know firsthand. Newton’s Law, Occam’s razor and my personal favorite, shit happens they’re all controlled chaos. Fate is a vindictive, evil bitch. She’ll knock your dick in the dirt every chance she gets.”
“Of course,” Shultz snickered. “Will you need anything else tonight Colonel? I’m planning one last trip to HQ before I call it this evening. Tillman and Reeves are on night duty.”
“No that will be all. Tillman’s more than capable. We’ll be in good hands.”
“Yes, I believe so Sir, enjoy your evening.” Shultz left quickly, as he usually did, having a moment alone I checked my wallet for cash and grabbed Laura’s birthday gift from my desk drawer.
I decided to go with a nice watch this year. I got her a lawn mower last year, she needed one, but since then it has been explained to me that lawn equipment is not an appropriate birthday gift for a woman. The salesman at the jewelry store brought out all kinds of rings, necklaces, charm bracelets, useless crap really. I explained how I needed something classy but nothing that implied a long-term arrangement. He assured me that a gold and diamond watch would be perfect.
The plan was to meet my friend Smith at the lower landing pad so we could drive into town together. Walking out of the room collecting my keys and wallet I checked my face in the mirror and noticed something reflective. I grabbed a golf towel from my bag and examined my face in the mirror. All I found was a small patch of silver hair above my left ear. My mind wandered to an old conversation.
I made it a priority to visit the mother of a friend of mine as often as I could. The woman always had sound advice for me and usually read my tarot cards. Now, I didn’t know what to think about the cards at first. They looked strange, and the whole thing seemed odd. I played along not knowing what to think about the creepy looking deck. You hear tarot and think of gypsy card readers in carnival tents. I never gave the practice any thought until I saw it for myself.
On my last visit with her, we talked at length. I had Chinese food delivered and she read my cards. When I put my eleven cards down in front of her, she turned them over and stared at them for at least a full minute. Finally, she smiled and told me to be on the lookout for things I lost to return to me once I noticed my hair turning gray.
“You know your business well. Whatever the situation is, always trust your instincts. But realize not everyone will appreciate the complex sacrifices you will need to make.”
My business was not something I could tell her or anyone else about, but I got the impression I didn’t have to. Somehow she knew what I did for a living. I thought maybe she meant my sanity would return or the simple peace and quiet that I lost over the years would come back once I got older.
I didn’t know that I wouldn’t make it back to see her again. I should have told her how much enjoyed our visits and how much the information she gave me about my friend meant to me. She died that next summer. It was the same year that my mother died of stomach cancer. They were both gone in the span of four months.
I missed both of their funerals. My mother’s I could have gotten leave for, but due to the volatile state of the project I was involved with I chose to stay and see it through. She was already dead. There was nothing to be gained by abandoning my mission. My father understood my situation, he endured a short run with the Army, but my brothers didn’t. It was a shit year for me. I couldn’t believe that I still remembered what she told me. Her voice was still crystal clear in my mind.
It was past time for me to leave. I shook off the nostalgia and hurried out of my office in a half sprint to the helicopter pad. By the time we made it down the mountain to the tarmac below I realized that every damn thing that woman ever told me came true.
Smith walked up to me while I was still distracted and landed a solid punch on my arm. I was supposed to have dodged his incoming fist, but I was too distracted to notice him.
“Hey Wolfe what’s up, you’re late?” Smith questioned. “You’re never late.”
“Yeah sorry. It’s been a weird ass day.”
“My wife is already at the restaurant with Laura. Cheryl can only tolerate that woman of yours in small doses. She’ll hurt me if we make her sit there alone with her too long.” Smith looked seriously concerned about his pending abuse.
I jumped in the front passenger seat of Smith's new truck. The cab still smelled like fresh Naugahyde. He was making an attempt to keep it showroom clean. “Let’s go then. Move this piece of shit.”
“Hey, now this is my new baby. I earned this damn thing,” Smith protested.
“Found On Road Dead,” I rhymed while tapping my fingers on the doorframe.
“Yeah, right we’ll see about that. What’s in the box a spool of weed whacker line?”
“You’re a real smug son of a bitch for a guy afraid of his wife beating his ass.” Picturing petite Cheryl making any serious attempt to smack Smith around made me laugh; he had a buck and a half on her if he had a pound.
“She does Pilates three nights a week, get her mad enough, she’ll kick your ass too.”
“Oh no, I don’t doubt you. That woman harbors some rage. This is nothing. It’s a watch for Laura’s birthday. The guy at the jewelry shop helped pick it out. Real nice guy.” I remarked turning the small package over inspecting the meticulous gift-wrapping.
“I’m sure he was. You know what’s gonna happen, don’t you? I’ll tell you what’s gonna happen. Laura’s going to see that little box and think you got her an engagement ring. When she opens the damn thing up and finds a watch, she’s gonna be pissed. You know the overly smiley kind of pissed.” Smith poked me in the arm hard enough to leave a bruise. “Mark my words fucker, you’ll see.”
“Why would someone wrap an engagement ring? Besides, I made it perfectly clear to her from the beginning that I am not looking for a wife. It’s not even a topic for discussion.”
“Rich I'm telling you they all think they can change your mind. How many women have you dated that were satisfied being your weekend wife? Seriously, I don’t know how you pull that shit off? They want the ring and they want the kids, especially Laura.” An odd silence filled the cab. Smith was my oldest friend and I valued his opinion, but today I didn’t want to hear it. “Damn, you two would be the oldest kindergarten parents. Cheryl and I had Josh in our early thirties and we were the oldest parents for all of the school crap.”
“No kids, no kindergarten, no marriage; we are spending our free time together enjoying not having all that baggage. That’s what I want and Laura agrees with me. She’s busy running that bakery of hers twenty-four seven she doesn’t have time for kids.” My explanation sounded logical but I knew the reality of my situation wasn’t.
“She tells you she agrees. She tells Cheryl how close you are to proposing, and how great your life will be once you retire. She’s playing the waiting game with your stupid ass.” Smith laughed and smacked the dashboard.
“Retire to do what? I’m going out while I can still shoot straight. I’ll take a few more bloodied terrorist bastards with me when I go. I have no interest in the domestic hell you roll around in.”
“Communism and terrorism are the backbones of wedded bliss brother; someday you too will come to understand this fact.”
Smith knew two things well the intricate workings of aircraft engines and the twisted mind of a woman. He could claim twenty-five years of experience with the engines and forty plus with his five older sisters. As he was saying the words, I knew the bastard was right. I shouldn’t have gotten Laura anything that came in a little velvet box.
We arrived at the restaurant fifteen minutes late and found the girls at our usual table deep in conversation. “Sorry ladies couldn’t be helped. All my fault.”
While Smith tried to cozy up to his wife, I sat back and surveyed the restaurant. There was a lull in the constant stream of chatter, and I took the opportunity to give Laura her birthday gift. Smith was right of course. Laura's eyes lit up at the sight of the jewelry store logo then dimmed after she opened the box and found the delicate gold watch inside. Smith took the opportunity to nod knowingly as if to say I told you so.
“It’s beautiful Rich, thank you so much. You know I have never seen such a gorgeous watch and look at all the diamonds, so fancy. Now tell me is this a birthday gift or a retirement gift?” Laura laughed, and everybody at the table joined in. She passed the watch to Cheryl, and they fawned over it appropriately before Laura slipped it on her wrist.
I felt in my jacket pocket for my phone to check the time and found it was missing. I checked all my other pockets and realized in my rush to leave I left the damn thing on my desk. Deciding that one hour out of contact wouldn’t be the end of my career I put the mistake out of my mind. On a quiet Monday night, who would even miss me?
One of the things I dislike most about my appointment as the base commander is that I have to be a textbook example of the perfect soldier even when I’m off duty. Drinking to excess in civilian attire is frowned upon. Drinking to excess in uniform it’s a mortal sin. This fact plus the long list of other equally abhorrent behaviors I must avoid while representing my fine branch of service dictates that I lead a tame public life.
Smith understands what’s required of me. He ordered a round of whiskey shooters for my benefit, but I’ll only get to sip one. We held our shots in the air and toasted Laura’s birthday; she looked happy. Smiths fear of spousal abuse faded about as quickly as Cheryl could empty a shot glass down her throat.
The mundane birthday dinner ritual is lost on me. Many of my birthdays have been spent in unpronounceable locations. Tribal territories marked only by coordinates, covered in sweat, sand in every possible place you can think of, eating dehydrated food in the shelter of whatever shithole could be found. God, I miss those days. If I were celebrating, I would do it outside over an open flame with freshly caught fish or big, juicy steaks not cramped in a stuffy room eating over-salted microwaved meat.
A man I recognized from the base walked through the front entrance. Reeves was dressed in civilian attire and moved quickly towards me through the crowded dining room. His unaltered path and rigid body language told me he was the bearer of bad news. I started thinking of an excuse for why I would have to leave. The truth wouldn't be something I could share with my dinner companions and the lie would have to be ready for presentation directly after speaking with Reeves for it to put them at ease.
“Excuse me, Colonel Wolfe. Sorry to disturb your dinner but I need to speak to you, Sir.” The young man nodded at Smith and smiled at the girls before turning his back to them and leading me to an empty table.
“Reeves, you’re not on duty for several hours. What can I do for you?”
“I was the closest to your location. Command has been unable to reach you. Shultz assumed you would be here for dinner. We have intercepted a police communication. One of the archived projects. Mcnair aka Lopez she’s a participant from an old project named Virtue.”
“Yes, my phone I left it. Wait, what did you say? Is she hurt? What happened to her?” I was stunned. I hadn’t heard her name anywhere but in my own thoughts for years.
“According to the information relayed to me, she shot and killed three armed men in one of the small harbor villages along the Hudson. She was listed as not likely by the first responders on the scene, but her condition was revised to critical by the physician in charge. As of ninety minutes ago she is alive and recovering. There’s a contingency plan in place for retrieval of the Virtue participants; it’s already underway.”
“Yes, there are several. If she’s injured, she could be dangerous. We have to remove her from the civilians and get her into a controlled facility.” I didn’t look back at the people waiting for me to explain the interruption. The machine was rolling, and I was caught unprepared. “Has Admiral Gerald been notified?”
“Yes, Sir he is on route from Boston now. His team is in contact with command. I have been told they are prepping the main surgical suite for the subject.” I took a long sigh of relief as we reached the double-parked car running in front of the restaurant. They are bringing her to the compound. They intend to keep her alive. “We are going to the south hangar directly. Is there anything you need before our departure Sir?”
“No, the sooner we retrieve her the better off she’ll be. Dead or alive every scrap of evidence, from whatever she has been involved with, comes back with us tonight. No exceptions no deviations.”
“Yes Sir, that is the goal of the protocol as I understand it.”
“Excellent, that’s excellent news.” I wanted a cigarette. A craving I hadn’t felt in years. But I settled for a piece of gum and the view of the scenery melting away from me as Reeves pushed his late model German import to its mechanical limits.
Normally I would express regret for being transported in a foreign made automobile, but I knew the young man bought it used. The first owner was long gone. The financial sin was wiped clean by the car's lineage of local owners. I noticed several shopping bags and a duffel bag in the backseat. Reeves was tasked with collecting me before he arrived on base.
“How much have you been told about project Virtue Reeves?”
“Not much Sir, but I was told the target we’re retrieving is listed as a class three. She should be harmless.”
“Harmless, is that what they think?” I shook my head in disbelief. Gerald was one of only a few in the program who could have downgraded her lethality rating. He would have no problem with a few civilian casualties if meant she would be returned to under his thumb. The ladder-climbing sycophant wouldn’t have even given it a second thought.
An old familiar hate began to swell in my chest as I thought of Gerald planning her departure all those years ago. I could have killed him with my bare hands once I found out what he did to her, but he has been careful not give me the opportunity.
As he saw things, he set her free. The truth is he was the one that sent her far away from me. Gerald succeeded in turning her into the monster he hoped she could become and in one moment of desperation, she let it take everything.
After seeing the destruction she was capable of the powers that be would have tried to harness her talent; direct it as they saw fit. The Calynn I knew would have never agreed. She would have refused, and refusal is not a popular choice in my line of work.
I’d like to think that’s why she left. I’d like to think she refused to have her ability used for destruction. The only problem with this theory is that the girl I knew was not the least bit self-sacrificing, she was stubborn, vengeful, selfish and she could be cruel. But while I had her in my sight, she was completely mine.