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Synopsis

The good-guys, the bad-guys, and the wild card- it’s the ultimate game of cloak and dagger… Kristian Clark, private eye, thought his days as a special agent were behind him, but when he’s drafted into action, he finds himself reunited with his old team- and painful memories of why they broke up in the first place. But as he plunges into mission after mission- from a ‘holy heist’ to babysitting a young hacker to going undercover in a cult- Kristian find that everything he tried to leave behind is coming back to haunt him with a vengeance, and then some. First there’s the mysterious woman who knows more about Kristian- and his past- than makes sense while using science fiction weapons that don’t make sense period. Then there are the shady powers-that-be who are responsible for drafting him back into this world to satisfy their own nefarious agendas. It’s all Kristian can do to keep from being pulled into their games as he tries to figure out who to trust and what to fight for, even as the trap put in place to destroy him is set with a ticking clock. When did espionage get so complicated?


Chapter One

Somewhere Outside the DC area-23:00

One bulky figure stands alone in the rain, keeping his head down- his identity all but obscured by a hat and large raincoat.
Still, the one character he’s waiting for finds him, a much leaner, though taller man closing his umbrella as he joins the other under the ledge of the closed storefront of a building that will never reopen.

“What does the Boss Man want, Marco?” the tall newcomer mutters like he can’t believe he’s been called out in such weather. Or at all.

But Marco doesn’t have time for such silly questions. “You’ve gotten everything taken care of with the feds?”

“Yes. Everything is official and we were able to locate all the candidates. Made them know they didn’t have much of a choice in the matter.” The lean man glances around, losing interest in the rendezvous quickly.

Marco hands him something so smoothly it takes the other a moment to realize he’s been given something. “In that case,” the former adds. “Get some culture in you.”

Then, without another word, Marco turns and disappears into the night and rain.

And the newcomer looks down at the thing he was passed. A folded piece of paper.

Unfolding it, he begins reading it as he walks, securing his umbrella above him once again. Then he stops and frowns at the strange contents:

He fumbles at your Soul
As Players at the Keys
Before they drop full Music on-
He stuns you by degrees-
Prepares your brittle Nature
For the Ethereal Blow
By fainter Hammers- further heard-
Then nearer- Then so slow
Your Breath has time to Straighten-
Your brain- to bubble Cool-
Deals- One- imperial- Thunderbolt-
That scalps your naked Soul-

When Winds take Forests in their Paws-
The Universe- is still-
-Emily Dickinson

He looks up, a half-way sympathetic expression on his face. To torment from a distance while slowly luring in for a final, lethal blow. A subtle torture of pure vengeance. And it is his own job to see it done. The poor victim.

With a slight shake of his head, the newcomer slides the note into his pocket and continues walking, the sympathy dying on his face after the quiet utterance. “Heaven help Kristian Clark.”

And that’s the truth of it.

~~~

Base Zero—undisclosed time

“I tell you the truth- we need that relic. It’ll be an important addition to our collection, and they don’t appreciate it nearly as much as it deserves.”

“But it’s the people we need most, and this world is just ripe with ignorant, talented people- the perfect kind. Besides, we already stole the Mona Lisa from this world; it seems mean to take everything from them.”

The whole committee room takes sides and argues their new found beliefs until they are blue in the face.

Then the door swings open and a petite woman steps in. “Sorry I’m late, boys.”

Immediately, the room hushes. Then someone whispers. “It’s the expert.”

The ‘expert’ strides across the room in high heels and a skirt suit. Then, with a flick of her naturally pink hair, she drops into her seat and leans back. “So, what were you boys arguing about this time?”

The least timid of the group volunteers information about how some are ignorantly trying to ignore the need for human resources for more trinkets. This inspires the second least timid person to counter him.

The expert rolls her eyes and sits up abruptly, letting her chair come down on all four legs. “You’re arguing over the wrong things- as usual. I mean, sure there are things worth arguing- like faith and science- but you always ignore them by arguing over petty, temporary things.” The expert sighs. “My personal favorite argument is how faith and science actually aren’t fighting. Now that’s breaking out of the usual mindset and actually following where the evidence leads-”

The least timid man in the room clears his throat. “Uh, Felicity, how does that pertain to the subject matter at hand?”

“Oh, it’s a very important matter, but if you’re asking for the answer to your question, it’s quite simple actually: just do them both.”

Everyone gapes at her. “What do you mean?” the third least timid squeaks.

The expert smiles and swings herself into a standing position. “Let me take care of it, boys. I have a plan.”

~~~

Washington DC—5:00

“You don’t even have to come up with the plans.”

I shake my head to try and stop the words from echoing in my mind as I shove my hands into the pockets of my nineteen fifties vintage coat- to compliment my matching brown suit, though not my modern boots- that I wear both to satiate my strange affection for that particular decade and to ward off the autumn chill.

You won’t even have to come up with the plans. What a nice way Liam had of telling me I wasn’t even in charge of my own team anymore. The team I founded. The team I dismantled.
The team I’m being called back to- but not as the leader.
And that’s not even the worst part.

Grabbing my revolver, I take it out of my left pocket and aim it. I shoot two bullets, one in each of the back tires of the Maserati speeding away from me.

Such a shame.

The gorgeous car continues forward a few yards before skidding to a stop. Then I stride forward to the shotgun seat. Just in time to hear a different kind of shotgun going off.

“Blast,” I mutter, dropping to the ground to avoid being hit and rolling underneath the car to the other side. Then I climb up and shoot around it at my target’s accomplice.

The accomplice shooting at me panics and takes off running, and I let him go- I’ll let the man waiting just around the corner take care of him. The cops like to do the arresting anyway.

Then I stride back to the driver’s side.

The window rolls down, and a golden-haired dame leans out it, smoking a cigarette. “How’d you know it was me, Clark?”

“I’ve known for a while,” I answer, opening the door for her so I can escort her to the heat myself. “I just got a tighter time window.”

“Oh?”

I tip my stringy bin fedora at her before taking her arm in mine.

“Been drafted into duty.”

“But there’s no war going on.”

“Not that kind of duty, I’m afraid. Not that kind.”

~~~

Leaning back on my leather chair, I drop the envelope containing to the heirloom brooch I had been hired to retrieve- and finally found in the dame’s purse- onto my desk and slide it to the other side. The case had been surprisingly easy compared to the difficulty of wresting it from my competition across the street.

My young brunette client takes it with a grateful smile. “Thank you so much, Kristian- I mean, Clark.” She blushes to be caught using my first name.

I sigh and sit up. Like with the dame, I’d long suspected the brunette- only of a different crime; a crime all my young lady clients I steal from the competition across the street (though, in my defense, she seems to steal all my male clients) seem to become guilty of at some time or another.

Maybe it’s how dimly lit I keep my office- a precaution for those times between clients when I might feel the need to pile up some z’s.

“I’ll be sure to tell all my friends about you,” the brunette adds, glancing away shylie, though every now and then stealing a glance at me.

Poor souls. They just can’t help but fall for me. I just wish they could see that I’m not right for them.

My heart already belongs to another.

“You’ll probably be getting a lot more business,” she continues.

“Thanks, but not thanks.”

She startles and turns to me, completely forgetting the solemn oath she seems to have taken to not look me eye to eye. “You don’t want my good word?”

“I do, but…” I take my time lighting a cigar before fingering it dully. “I’m afraid I have to shut down temporarily.”

“What? Why?”

“A different kind of duty calls.”

She looks away, her face so surprised and flustered at this, so I add, “But maybe in a few months time. If you still feel grateful.”

Her face lights up. “Oh, I will.”

I smile and wish I really could come back in a few months time.
But deep down inside, I know that’s never going to happen.

“Well, I should go,” she says, standing up and pulling on her shrug.

I nod and watch her go before putting the cigar in my mouth. Maybe this time…

The foul taste consumes me like it does every time and I quickly snuff it and throw it into my ashtray, coughing all the while.

“You got me this time,” I gasp between coughs. “But someday- someday I will conquer you, cigar. Someday.”

~~~

Gritting my teeth, I scan my thumbprint and push open the door of the unassuming rental office that Liam, the man who’d called me back, had secured for our base of operations.

Our operations being espionage.

The first person I spot in that room on the other side is Amelia, petite and pretty as ever with her smiling face and brown, bobbed hair. A one-woman wonder, she’s always been good with her hands and light on her feet, and back when we were a whole team, she was the one who we counted on for getting in and out unseen, changing our appearances, swindling people while stealing their hearts, and just being the heart and soul of the team. Back when we were a team.

Amelia notices me and her face lights up, reminding me of all the time we spent together two years ago. She hurries over and throws her arms around me, just like that times. “Kristian!”
But unlike old times, I tense. A sworn- and, well, friendless- bachelor, it’s been a long time since I’ve suffered human contact.

Twenty-four and already a curmudgeon. Must be my mother’s genes.

If Amelia notices, she doesn’t let on. I notice, however, that something about her demeanor is different. It makes me wonder if my tall stature, dark hair, blue eyes, and firm jaw are the same as she remembers, or if I’ve changed too.

She doesn’t give me an answer. And as for me, she barely gives me a chance to tip my fedora before she pulls me toward another familiar face.

“Hey, Garret, look who’s here!” she cries like this is a class reunion and not a forced draft of failed special agents.

My dark haired, dark skinned friend who’s only specialty was muscle- and that he clings to like an idiot savant to his one skill- nods, but he seems distracted, studying the stranger in the room.

I study him too and clench my jaw at what must be our replacement tech. Scrawny-and-bespectacled’s not going to be good for anything else. At least not in this business.

And this business is dangerous. Just ask our last tech…

Scrawny-and-bespeckled glances at me and I’m struck with the feeling of having met him before. Or at least someone very like him, like a relative. But I can’t quite place him…

“Good; you’re all here.”

Tearing myself out of my train of thought, I turn toward the speaker, Liam, who’d be a stranger if he weren’t the one who orchestrated this little reunion. Of a mixed descent- though which mix it’s hard to say- his dark hair is neatly combed and his face is clean shaven. My replacement.

If Liam notices my edginess, he doesn’t show it. Of course, in the short time I’ve suffered his acquaintance- basically since he showed up at my door and informed me the government was calling me back into action against my will- he hasn’t really shown anything. Then again, neither have I. Not since the Incident.
Because what else is there to show that I haven’t already?

Instead, Liam opens a concealed hutch in the wall and types in another code before scanning the print of his right forefinger as well.

A hidden door appears in the wall.

Amelia grins like that’s just the most incredible thing.

“It will open for each of your fingerprints as well,” Liam adds dryly. “Now follow me.”

He passes through the special door and we follow him. What we find on the other side is what appears to be a cross between an office, with several more strangers bent over dozens of high-tech computers; a gym, with training equipment in one corner; and a break room, with a coffee maker and several tables in another corner.

“This is even better than our last base!” Amelia cries.

“What are you talking about?” Garret asks. “I thought Kristian’s basement was very nice.”

“Hey,” the new tech expert whispers in an Indian accent, leaning toward me, obviously trying not to feel like such an outsider. “Name’s Robbie. Robbie Bali.”

Garret laughs. “Robbie Bali? You know that rhymes, don’t you? Did your parents hate you or something?”

“Not at all. Quite the opposite, actually-”

I ignore them all. So does Liam, who nods toward the computer people. “Those are our base agents. They’re in charge of surveillance, research, and, if necessary, back up.”

“See that one there?” Robbie- or was it Rob? I’m terrible with names- whispers, gesturing to a particularly bearded man. “That’s Jeb. His wife makes some killer fudge. Really, it’s killed somebody. And that more refined guy over there wearing a suit is Peter.”

I resist the temptation to reveal my interest at the killer fudge part. I refuse to show any interest in anything whatsoever during my stolen time here.

Time that should be spent piling up z’s in my office.

We pass through wall containing several doors.

“That one,” Liam is saying, “is the all-purpose room- specifically interrogation. That one leads to a hallway adjoining several supply rooms, and those two are the locker and shower rooms.”

“Basically the boys’ room and my private place,” Amelia offers, glancing back to where the nerds- all male- are typing before turning to us guys.

Liam ignores her once again and strides to the other end of the room, where we find a hidden room. “And this-”

Garret perks up. “The torture chamber?”

“Is my office.”

His face falls.

And Liam types in another code before opening it. “This is where I’ll debrief you on your missions.”

We follow him inside and he closes the door behind us. “One of which you have already been assigned.

“Really?” Amelia asks, perking up even more than Garret at the thought of torture chambers.

But I do my best to not react to his news. Instead I glance around the small but comfortable-looking office. New carpet, leather upholstery, large wooden desk with absolutely no pictures whatsoever- definitely nicer than my basement. Not that I care or anything.

Liam places a file in my hand and I find a matching one in each of the others’.

“Your first mission,” he begins, “is finding and procuring a recently stolen relic sacred to the Catholic faith.”

I bristle at the word ‘faith.’

But Amelia is all questions. “Which one? They have so many. Has this one performed any miracles? Is it a fraud? Is it shiny?”

“Your files will tell you everything you need to know,” Liam answers brusquely. “Like how you’ll have to be especially delicate about this mission.”

I raise an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“We have reason to believe that the Neos believe it could be used as a weapon.”

Somehow, I suppress rolling my eyes at the mention of the strange, anarchist band who’ve made it their mission to topple capitalism with their own brand of mixed fascism, Marxism, and about every other ism that never worked.

“Ah, the Neos,” Amelia says with fake nostalgia. “We knew them well.”

“Can’t believe they’re still operating,” I mutter.

“And what’s this about them going after a relic?” Garret asks.
“Aren’t they all atheists?”

“Everyone believes something supernatural,” Liam answers.

“And everyone has a reason for believing,” Garret counters. “What’s theirs?”

“In the file. Just, whatever you do, keep this mission low-key. That’s why we’re sending you; you’re our most official channel that can work under less official guidelines.”

Amelia cocks her head. “So you want us to get this relic back legally illegally?”

“I want you to get this relic back whatever the cost.”

I glance down at my file and move past the first page with the bold words ‘Codename Holy Heist’ to the next sheet where I find a picture of a relic that looks like three triangles intersected with a circle running through them and five… words- Celtic, I believe- inscribed on it:
Uisle-Soma
Aisling Bua
Suaimhneas
Slánte
Leannán

Garret whistles. “The Triquetra Baetha? That is one strange name.”

“It’s Celtic,” Liam offers. “It means-”

“Three things that satisfy,” Amelia whispers.

We all turn to look at her.

“What?” she asks. “I was fascinated with all things Celtic as a child. Besides, I heard of it before. And technically, it means triangle things that satisfy, the triangle referring to the special shape of the tablet- a Triquetra. But the Triquetra here symbolizes three- the Holy Trinity.”

“I’m going to have to agree with Garret here,” I say. “It’s just strange.”

“Well,” Amelia begins, “there is a legend behind it-”

“What’s strange is the length of the name,” Garret interrupts. “Why can’t it be the name of some random saint?”

“Because it’s not,” Liam answers. Suddenly, he’s thrusting a key in my face. “You’ll find a jeep parked outside; it’ll be your ride.”

Amelia opens her mouth, probably to ask where we’re going.

“In the file,” he answers. “Good luck.”

For a moment, I can’t help but feel like I’m the better leader between the two of us since I actually went with my men- and Amelia.

But in the end that didn’t help much…

“And if you need more supplies than I have packed,” Liam adds, “you know who you need to contact.”

Here I accidentally break my pact with myself and react by jerking upward. Of course I know exactly who he means. And of course I won’t contact her.

And with that little reminder that there is no way that Liam could be a worse leader than myself- no way- I push my hands back into my pockets and step outside, all too aware of the reason I disbanded my team to begin with.

~~~

Chapter Thirty-Three

“Kay?”

I glance up to see Romulus frowning down at me. “What on earth are you doing?”

“Uh…” What are you doing, Romulus? Hopefully not going berserk on me again.

“Oh, never mind,” he adds. “We don’t have time if we’re going to get you ready for your wedding.”

“My what?”

“A Christian reverend has been brought in. It’s time to commence your nuptials.”

~~~

Dressed in my own wedding dress- I mean toga- I take my stand next to the nerd- I mean pastor. The exact one I requested to be sent, looking much more convincing as a pastor than I do as a bride, thank goodness.

Strange as the contrast between seeing him in his usual suit and now in this full tux, stranger yet is the contrast between him, Bible in hand, and the pagan, toga-ed cultists around him.

“Nice dress,” the nerd pastor in question whispers.

“Don’t make me punch a parson,” I whisper back.

“I’m a reverend, actually,” he says, inching away from me ever so slightly.

Then the three serving women we fought earlier glide into the room before stepping to the side, revealing a sprite turned angel behind them.

“Whoa,” I whisper, and I can’t tell if it’s just my mind or if my heart went awol too.

The ‘reverend’ waggles his eyebrows and gives me two thumbs up.

I shake my fist at him ever so slightly. “Don’t tempt me, parson.”

Susan reaches my side amongst the sound of cultists chanting- their twisted version of the wedding march, I suppose- and I smile down at her.

“Dearly beloved,” Parson Nerd begins. “We are gathered here today…”

It doesn’t escape me that this should have happened only different. Like some divine irony to rub it in that I didn’t get the one thing I wanted. I should be marrying someone- for real, not for an act- with not only Amelia’s face, but the rest of her too. And we wouldn’t be under cover marrying aliases, but above-ground- literally- marrying every part of our soul to the other…

But this is what I got instead. The wrong angel. An imperial affliction sent us of the Air-

“I do,” Susan says when her turn comes.

Then comes mine. I smile at her again. “I do.”

“You may now kiss the bride.”

Oh, well, might as well make the most of it. I pull Susan into my arms and kiss her until the cows come home, as my father used to say.

“Agent Clark,” she scolds under her breath when we finally come up for air.

I wink at her. “Just making it look convincing, dear.”

“Now,” Mr. Wheezily says with such an air of solemnity everyone falls silent, “we feast.”

~~~

“So, this is what it’s like to be married,” I say, wiping Susan’s cheek with a napkin as we share a dining couch.

She blushes and glances away. “Control yourself, Kay.”

I waggle my eyebrows at her, having way too much fun teasing her to consider such a thing.

“So,” the Reverend Nerd begins as he awkwardly situates himself on his own couch the best he can, looking even more like the sore thumb he already is by nature. “Should I say grace or will you?”

The cultists, who have already begun digging in the moment we came in- some even before we’d all been seated- all freeze and stare at him like he’s an alien or at least speaking in the tongue of an alien. But that doesn’t stop the Reverend, who apparently has the gift of tongues.

“Our Father,” he begins. “Who art in Heaven, hallowed be Your name. We thank Thee for the food Thou hast provided and please bless it to our bodies. Please do not smite us for eating before praying or give us worms, but lead us to true repentance and unto You, so we might surrender our lives to You. Please cleanse us from all impurities as You Yourself are pure and defend us from the evils we often play with rather than flee from as we should and also deliver us from them. Amen.”

The room is silent and I if I had Susan’s knife, I’d cut the tension. But since I don’t, I merely pick up my goblet and take a swig.

And proceed to cough it all back out. “Wine… in… my glass. Wasn’t… expecting… that.”

Susan pats my back until my last lung decides that it will, in fact, remain inside me. Then she pops a grape into her mouth before proceeding to start choking herself.

I start lifting her arm, but then she stops making noise. Freaking out, I get into position to start giving her the Heimlich maneuver, but then Reverend Nerd pushes me aside and thumps her on the back so hard that the grape goes sailing across the room.

“I’m fine,” Susan gasps before taking my wine goblet from me and downing it.

“First Jupiter and now Bacchus inflict their wrath upon you?” Romulus asks before taking a sip of his own wine, watching us all the while.

I stare back at him and can’t help but wonder at the coincidence.

Reverend Nerd clears his throat. “Perhaps I should bless the food some more?”

~~~

As we disperse, Reverend Nerd grabs me by my arm and pulls me into a dark corner (though, they’re all like that really).

“Something new has come up,” he whispers.

“What?”

“The governor son who disappeared here. Liam discovered why he was so important.”

“Why is he only just now learning about this?”

“Because he was in deep cover. The boy I mean. Deep cover. He’s from the Academy. Recruited when he was a teen- not even his father knew about it.”

I glance at the kid as he passes us by. “So I don’t have to find him anymore? Because he’s an agent?”

“No- that’s why you have to find him- because he’s gone off the grid. Hasn’t met with his contacts in weeks.”

The kid pauses, and for a moment I think he’s going to charge at us and admit that he’s our man.

“Why? He’s Academy- he’s been trained against brainwashing.”

“Exactly.” Reverend Nerd glances at the kid. “He passed all the anti-brainwashing tests with flying colors. Be careful, Kristian, because none of us know exactly what you’re up against.”

I run my hand through my hair. “’Thanks for that.’”

They did send an agent before us after all. And he’s missing in action.

I glance toward Susan, laughing and looking absolutely glowing, and decide with every fiber in my being that that will not happen to either us.

~~~

“So, this is our wedding night,” I say when Susan and I finally make our way back to our room.

“Kristian, we’re not really married. You know that, right?”

“I’m Kay. You know that, right? And you know what our marriage night is, right?”

She crosses her arms and I know I’m treading on thin ice before she whips out her knife again.

“An alibi,” I add.

“You mean-”

I grin. “Let’s go exploring.”

~~~

“No need to go in there,” I say, passing the warehouse of illegal goodies. “Already checked in there.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yeah, one of those mornings you wasted on primping I explored it. Just some worthless trinkets that aren’t actually worthless, but no people.”

She rolls her eyes as I pull her to the final door in the hall. Unlike the other one, though, this one is locked.

“I’ll take care of this,” she says. “But you’re going to have to look away.”

“Why? Trade secrets?”

“Well, I don’t like going anywhere without my lock-picking tools, but this dress doesn’t have pockets, so just look away, okay?”

“But I’m your husband.”

“Turn.”

Rolling my eyes at my sweet little kitten of a rookie, I do as she says. A moment later, I hear it click open.

“Is it safe to look yet?” I call.

“Come on,” Susan orders, pulling me into a large, dark empty room. Empty except for two ‘decorations’ on the wall: a mask of a man whose eyes have a great hunger somehow painted into them, and the large former head of a bull, now a creepy hunting trophy.

I glance around the rest of the room before shaking my head. “The things you do to get me alone, dear.”

“Behave yourself, Clark, or I’ll be reporting you to your superiors.”

I flash a grin in her direction while feeling the wall for something to activate a secret passageway or something. “Oh, Liam would side with me.”

“Then I’ll have to teach you both a lesson,” she calls from the part of the floor she’s searching with her hands.

“That is assuming you don’t fall for my charms first.”

“Yeah, like that will ever happen-” Suddenly her eyes widen and she turns to me. “Quick- kiss me.”

“Okay, I got to admit that even I wasn’t expecting my charms to work that fast-”

Without another word, she hurries to me, pulls me down, curls herself around me, and smashes her lips on mine just as the door swings open.

“Well, well, well, what do we have here?”

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