A chill raced down Jason's skin despite himself. Last time he'd seen Sierra, she'd smashed a pistol into the back of his head, knocking him unconscious. Of course, she was only doing her job—taking Gray back to prison. And Jason had interfered by keeping her from hurting Gray. Before that, they'd worked together to keep Gray and Will from destroying the town in their search for powerful secrets. Sierra had rescued Jason and had tortured Gray with him….interesting memories he had of that expert, flamboyant bounty hunter. A fight at a warehouse. Scars that told a tragic story of pain Jason could never begin to imagine. A farewell letter that said, basically, "I hope there's no hard feelings for bashing you over the head."
Jason didn't hold anything against her. But he couldn't help but feel a little apprehensive at her appearance. What could she want? He didn't want anything to come between him and Connie that could potentially endanger the foundation they were rebuilding. But he also couldn't help but feel a twinge of excitement...
He sat down at their table, forcing himself to focus. He could find out about Sierra later.
"You know who that was, don't you?" said the man beside him. Jason looked to see that he was talking to his companion, a young woman with blonde hair and a green dress.
"I'm not sure that I do," she said.
"The famous Muldavian movie star Zef Kane, of course. Just a few minor roles in Hollywood, and one somewhat substantial speaking part. But over there, he's a huge celebrity."
He turned to Jason. "Why, hello! Fancy meeting you here."
For a moment Jason didn't recognize him. Then the image of a face in his mind coalesced with the face before him—he looked older, heavier than he'd last seen him, but he had the same twinkle in his eye, the same hearty manner. "Max! Good to see you." Jason shook hands with him. "It's been a long time."
Max laughed. "Seems like yesterday. And who's this pretty little lady you have here? You always did have the knack for picking up the loveliest dates. Not that I didn't suspect your real motive—making Tasha jealous." He laughed again.
Heat suffused Jason's face. He wasn't the same person that he'd been back then. "Max, this is my wife, Connie."
"Wife? Haha! You mean it? Or is it just a cover? Not that you'd say."
"We're married. Just a few months ago."
"Really. I'd never have thought you the marrying type. But then, none of us agents are."
"It's nice to meet you, Connie. This is my date, Maxine. Haha! No, it's actually Lisanne. She's a secretary at the Agency."
"It's nice to meet you all! Call me Lisa."
"How do you like all of this so far?" said Jason.
"I hardly ever heard of Muldavia before this. It sure knows how to throw a party!"
"We do," said the man across from her. He had curly dark hair and a solemn, earnest face. He looked very familiar…. "In fact, this is nothing compared to the celebrations going on back home right now."
"Maybe I'll head over there next," said Max. "If there's an assignment there I can scrape up."
Then it came to him with a jolt. "Saul Amir?" said Jason.
"Hello, Jason. It's good to see you again."
"Well, you recognized me right away."
"How could I forget? You saved our country. To you, we're just another country you helped."
"No, no, on the contrary, that was my first real mission. It's just—you've grown up since I last saw you."
Saul smiled. "Yes, I suppose I did. This is my wife, Leila."
"Hello," she said. "It's good to meet all of you. Thank you, Jason, for what you did. We wouldn't be where we are today without you."
"My wife and I are with the diplomatic corps. Officially, if you know what I mean."
"You mean, unofficially you're…"
"Let's just say we help keep our country safe. After Von Warberg's fall, I wanted to do something to help my country. To do what you did, behind the scenes. And so I went into the gutted security service as it was being rebuilt from the ground up. It wasn't hard to rise through the ranks back then. It was there that I met Leila. We've been married sixteen years now."
"That long? Wow. Here I'm older than you and I've only been married a few months. Makes me wonder what I've been doing all my life."
"Keeping the world safe, I'd guess." Saul took a sip from his glass.
"Still, I can't believe I spent so long without her."
"I know what you mean." He looked at Leila, and she smiled back at him as if they had their own secret, silent language. Jason wanted that kind of relationship after sixteen years. More, better, stronger, always deeper in love.
"I think that we found each other at just the right time," said Connie. "We were friends, and then it just blossomed into more. The past is all part of how beautiful everything turned out."
"That's a wonderful way to put it," said Leila. She swept back a strand of her dark hair.
"Ah, I remember that honeymoon phase," said Max.
"You mean you were married?" said Jason.
"Yes, married, past tense. Actually it was so long ago sometimes I even forget it happened. One night we decided to elope…probably not the best decision. Actually, I don't see how I could spend my life with just one person. Although—" He looked at Lisa. "Who knows."
A waiter served some hors d'oeuvres on a gilded tiered plate. Another waiter came around with a bottle of dark red wine.
"Ah, this is more like it," said Max.
"One of our biggest exports," said Saul. "Even that is a rather well-kept secret."
"All the more for me, then," said Max, and laughed.
The waiter came to Connie with the bottle.
"No, thank you," she said.
"Are you sure?" said Max. "You don't know what you're missing." He raised his glass and took a sip.
"I don't really drink," she said.
"Suit yourself. Oh, you're not—you two aren't expecting, are you?"
Connie's face paled. Pain shot across her eyes. Jason reached for her hand beneath the table, grasped it, hoping to keep her from shattering again.
"No, we're not," said Jason, saving Connie the pain of having to answer.
"Of course, my wife was lucky and didn't get pregnant—I say lucky because a kid would've made the divorce much messier.
"You really do look like you belong together, you know. There's something—magical, even seeing you this short amount of time. Of course, me and Lisa are pretty magical together ourselves." He took Lisa's hand. She smiled back at him.
"So do you have any kids?" Jason asked Saul and Leila.
"We have five, actually," said Leila. "The oldest is sixteen now. The youngest just turned three. She was our surprise baby. She brings such joy into our lives. It is hard, living the lives we do, but we try to find a balance."
"As important as our work is," said Saul, "they are the most important thing to us. They are the reason we have for protecting our country. It is personal.
"Do you two intend to have children?"
"I—I'm not sure," said Jason, chagrined that the topic had backfired on him. He needed to get on a subject that was less difficult for Connie.
"Well, it's not for everyone. And sometimes it's good to wait until you have a strong foundation of marriage before you think about bringing another person into the world."
"That's what we are thinking," said Jason. The foundation part, anyway, he thought, hoping Connie didn't object to the half-truth. Hoping that, at least someday, she'd reconsider.
A waiter came and gave them plates of salad with chicken, spread with olive oil and garnished with tomatoes.
"Looks good," said Connie, seeming to have recovered. Love for her spread through him and he wanted to protect her with all his heart.
Jason tried the salad himself—it was very good. For salad, anyway. He didn't recall having anything of the sort when he'd visited—of course, it had been a long time ago, and he had been pretty busy. He hardly remembered eating anything during the time he'd been there, though of course he must've.
"What's this about you saving the country?" said Max. "I don't know that I've ever heard that story."
"It was classified. It still might be, who knows."
"Since the wall fell," said Saul, "I'm not sure how much it really matters, and we are among friends."
"I didn't exactly save the country. In fact, it wasn't my most successful mission."
"You sparked a revolution and toppled communism. I'd say that was a success."
"But any good that happened was either by accident or because of someone else. I try not to think of all the ways I blundered. I nearly got myself fired—in fact, when I got back, Donovan practically did fire me. He ended up putting me on probation."
"All that matters is that because of your efforts, our country is a free one."
"It might have become free anyway—communism was on its last gasp as it was. And you were creating a revolution long before I got there."
"But without that spark, it might not have flared into a flame. Von Warberg had an iron grip on the country. Without the King's uniting presence, our country could have fallen into civil war."
"He may have come back on his own."
"That's not what he says."
"You never told me this story, Jason," said Connie.
"I'm sorry. I tend not to talk about my past missions. But now that we're married, we should be able to share such things, as long as they're not classified and can get you in danger."
"You actually knew a king?"
"I haven't personally heard from him in years…"
"You mean he talked to you since?"
"He wanted to thank me for saving him. But I always felt ashamed, guilty. I didn't really do all that much."
"You're too hard on yourself, Jason," said Saul. "It was your first mission. Of course you would make mistakes. And our country didn't exactly make it easy on you. You risked so much, you and Tasha."
"Tasha was there too?" said Connie.
"We were partners from the start."
"You two go pretty far back…." Her entrancing eyes took on a faraway look. He hoped she wasn't jealous of Tasha. How could she be? She had him, heart, body and soul. Tasha was only a shadow of the past. His romantic feelings for her were no more significant than ashes from a fire. But how could he make sure Connie knew that?
"She was an exemplary agent as long as I knew her. I eventually learned a lot from her ….But on that mission, I was pretty clueless." He cringed when he thought of his failures back then. He'd been irresponsibly reckless.
"It couldn't have been that bad."
"I was the one who messed up the mission in the first place. I—" He struggled to remember; after learning his lessons from that mission, he'd tried to put it out of his mind. "We were supposed to be undercover as communist reporters. One day we were covering the speech of the dictator, and I saw a soldier beating a man for holding an umbrella for his wife—it was supposedly disrespectful to the premier or something. So I—intervened."
"You hit the soldier?"
He nodded. "I should've just ignored it—it wasn't like this kind of thing didn't happen all the time there. I wasn't thinking of the big picture, I just wanted to help that man. But you just don't do something like that in a communist country if you don't want to get thrown in jail."
"Is that what happened?" Connie looked horrified.
"A young woman who worked at the paper helped us escape, flee the country. On the way I…fell for her."
Connie's eyes narrowed. "What was her name?"
"I never heard you mention her."
"That's because…she happened to be a double agent. A mole sent by the head of the security service, Zahl." It was all coming back to him now. The fear, the shame, the tang of adventure…. "And then we found the prince hiding out in a cabin on the border with Czechoslovakia. I led the traitor right to him. They captured him, and they captured me, and Elena shot Tasha. So I wouldn't exactly call that a success."
"It wouldn't be if that's how the story ended," said Saul. "If it makes you feel any better, I also…fell for Elena. She had that magnetic quality…and of course she was a good actress."
"You never told me about her," said Leila.
"I forgot all about her as soon as you came along."
Leila smiled. "Good answer."
"She's still out there, isn't she?" said Jason.
Saul nodded. "Like her father, you might say she's a 'slippery character'. But it's been a long time. And Muldavia's not going back to communism anytime soon, so I don't think we have to worry about her."
A waiter came with their food: smoked salmon, rice, asparagus, ribs, vegetables, cheese, bread. It all looked and smelled wonderful—he was hungry.
"Anyway, you eventually escaped, right?" said Saul after the waiter left.
"With Tasha's help. She sacrificed herself so I could get out of that prison…" Memories shot across his mind—Von Warberg beating Tasha with his cane, Zahl humiliating the prince, trying to crush his spirit, the fire in the emaciated prisoners' eyes as they rose in defiance, the sharp sting of the gunshot across Jason's shoulder as he ran….
"In the end," said Saul, "the King made a speech on the scaffold, entreating the people to be free. Just as they were about to hang him, Jason jumped up on the stage and took Zahl hostage—and Elena shot at Jason even while he held her boss in front of him. But just as she did it, the King stepped between her and Jason, taking the bullet."
"James was the true hero," said Jason, emotion welling up inside him from all those years ago.
"He was. But so were you and Tasha. You risked your lives for our country and we'll be forever grateful. Even though you were outsiders, you fought for our freedom and showed us we could take charge and take down the oppressors. Without you, our country wouldn't be what it is today. In fact, none of us would be here, and we wouldn't be enjoying this party right now."
"I always see my success back then as an accident….but even though I made mistakes, seeing the people suffering firsthand made me want to do something. I—I couldn't just stand by and let it happen."
"That passion is what we admire," said Saul. "It may have gotten you in trouble. But you were also willing to sacrifice your life for us. That is nobility on level with the King himself. I know he wouldn't protest that description. I only wish we could have honored you formally."
"You know us spies. We don't expect any kind of honor. It's enough to know that what I did made a difference."
"And that was just your first mission," said Max. "Most of what you did was classified, but you're pretty much a legend around the Agency. Many of your actions looked like mistakes, but then your missions always turn out to be incredible successes. I'd put it down to luck if I didn't know better; you can't be lucky that many times."
"Did you two have a mission together?" said Lisa.
"I saw what Jason can do firsthand, and that the man fits the legend. It was a pleasure to watch him work. Even I, who was an agent long before he was, learned a thing or two from him.
"Of course it wasn't all work. There was that wild party in—well, I can't divulge the location. It was undercover, and so we had our roles to play. I got quite… into my role, I guess you could say. And Tasha—she did her job, though she's not exactly a party girl."
"What about Jason?" said Connie, leaning forward, interest sparkling in her eyes.
"The funny thing about Jason, even though he's got kind of a…cowboy reputation where missions are concerned, he has this code of honor. Even if a mission requires it, there's only so far he'll go. He has this way of treating people with respect, even if they don't deserve it. Even if they're asking for it, if you know what I mean."
"I…don't really know."
"Let's just say that you don't have to wonder about Jason's behavior before you were married. He's always been honorable, even during his career as an agent…something some of us let slip. He may have been James Bond in some ways, but not in others. In case you ever had reason to doubt him."
She shook her head. "It's just nice to hear from someone he worked with."
"It does make sense, actually…he believes in freedom, justice, all of that, and he's never become cynical like some people I know. He was a good agent. And a good man. Those two don't always go together, believe me; I've been around the block." He turned to Jason. "You were such a natural at it I was surprised you gave it up. You were doing real good in the world like you wanted. I'm still somewhat mystified as to why you left."
"That part of my life is over. I've got a life in Odyssey now with the one I love."
"Still, I don't see how someone like you can be content with a quiet life for long."
"I've actually had quite a few adventures lately. Danger isn't always what it's cracked up to be."
Max looked into his eyes searchingly. "The Jason I know wouldn't have said that. What happened?"
"I can't—" Jason wouldn't have said anything even if he could; he didn't want to go digging into wounds that were still not totally healed.
"But of course, you can't discuss it. I know that song and dance all too well. Speaking of song and dance—it looks like people are heading out on the floor. Shall we?" He took Lisa's hand and they wove through the tables. Saul and Leila took their leave and joined them.
Connie wasn't done with her salmon and Jason still had some rice left. "How are you doing?" he asked her.
"Good. This is really good food."
"I've kind of been talking about myself a lot. It's better than…the other subject, though."
"I like hearing the stories of the old days. How everything just confirms what I already know—how amazing you are."
"I'm…not that amazing."
"Yes you are. You put a king on the throne? I'd say that's pretty amazing." She swept a lock of hair back from his forehead.
"I kind of blundered through it; I don't care what they say. That's how I remember it."
"It's not just what you did. It's why you did it. You cared so much you fought for them, risked your life…You've always been the Jason I know and love. I can't believe someone like you chose me. I need to do something for you. To be more…to be worthy of you."
"Connie, I'm the one that's not worthy. Despite the good I may have done, there's darkness I can never make up for. I—I'm not even worthy to touch you."
"I don't see how you can see me that way. I'm nothing special."
"You are. In everything you do you show it, your compassion, your grace, your beautiful soul… I long for you every day and yet you're so much more than I can possibly hope for…. I am in awe of the astounding person you are, Connie. Please, don't ever doubt that."
"I just…want you to feel special too. I don't know how to give that to you. Give you something when you've given me—all of this." She swept her arm around to indicate the room, and then back to touch the necklace over her heart.
"Well, maybe we should dance."
She smiled. "I'd like that very much."
He took her hand and they walked alongside the white columns toward the dance floor. Before they reached it, though, a figure stepped out of the shadows.
"Hello, Jason," said Sierra. "It's good to see you again."
Apprehension struck him—he didn't want to be hit on the head again, although he doubted that was her purpose this time.
"Hi, Sierra. This is my wife, Connie."
She looked at Connie. "We've met briefly. She gave you the message?"
"Yes. I wasn't sure what you meant by it."
Sierra smiled. "I've found that cryptic messages pique curiosity. Anyway, I have a proposition for you."
"What is it?"
She took his arm, pulled him into the shadows with her. "My employer needs another freelance operative. You in?"
"There is no such thing as impossible. The word itself says I'm possible."-Audrey Hepburn
“You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” –C.S. Lewis
“No one ever made a difference by being like everyone else.” P.T. Barnum
Shock shot across Connie's mind. She stood against the column, her dress draped around the edge of it, trailing into the light. Jason stood beside her, looking at Sierra.
"What kind of job is it?" he said.
"A man employed me to find his son. About a month after he disappeared, the regular law enforcement gave up. I tracked him to a human trafficking network, but then he was swallowed up by it. I pulled out two threads, two possible leads. If I follow one, the other might go cold. And vice versa. I could risk it—or I could bring on a fellow specialist."
"I'm no specialist."
"But with your expertise, you could become one. And you know the country."
"It concerns Muldavia?"
"Part of it, yes. The threads go through many countries; that is one of its hubs.
"I can't pretend that this is just another case, Jason. To know what they're doing to those children—and to be able to do something to stop it—I might even consider going after them full time."
She rubbed one wrist. The golden bangles on her arms fell back and Connie glimpsed scars ringing them….tiny slivers that caught the light. Her stomach turned over as she speculated why this case was personal to Sierra.
"I wish I could help. But I have to consider Connie in all of this."
"Of course. You two discuss it. Take your time—at least, till tomorrow morning." She handed Jason a card. And then she swept away and disappeared into the crowd.
Jason led her to the dance floor where one song was just ending. She glimpsed Saul and Leila swirl past, their eyes only for each other. Connie wanted to always have such a close relationship. She vowed never to deliberately put distance between her and Jason, to slice through their bond again; no matter how much she hurt, she needed to go toward him, not away from him. But would their love always grow stronger? No marriage was perfect—could theirs be? Or would they have fights, setbacks, drawing apart, growing cold…Horror raced through her at the prospect of such things coming between them. She wanted to be in perfect harmony with him now, no distance between them, no residual awkwardness. Pain cut through her that they weren't there yet. Could they ever get back what they'd had? Or would she always have to be careful to make sure she didn't push him away, or use him like she had that night—
He grasped her hand as the song began, and they swept out onto the dance floor, her ballroom dress feeling cumbersome, her heels feeling a bit too tippy. For a moment she thought she'd fall, but his strong hands supported her. They whirled out into an easy rhythm, completely in sync as they danced. She marveled at him—she couldn't believe she'd never danced with him before. He was very good at it.
His blue eyes blazed into hers, the facets in them purer than any sapphire. Glints of copper gleamed in his hair under the lights. His perfect features, so noble and strong –he looked every bit the dashing secret agent. And the suit, how glorious he was in it. She longed to stay like this, dancing with him till the world stopped spinning and they were the only two people left, their hearts as one….
She was hardly aware when the band shifted to a slower song, but Jason slowed his steps and she slid closer to him, her cheek against his, her arm around him.
When the song ended, they came to a stop along the edge. "Jason, I love you."
"I love you, too, Connie. So much I can't—I can't even speak."
She smiled; a tear fell from her eye, though she wasn't sad, just filled to the breaking point. Next to the ivory-white column, she lifted her hand to his cheek and kissed him softly on the lips. Every touch, every movement, every nuance of who he was, made her want more of him. Reluctantly, she pulled back, though breaking contact only made longing explode inside her.
No matter what, she didn't want to be any further from him than this. She kept her hand in his, reveling in the feel of it, in the beauty of his eyes and his smile.
He leaned in once more. "We can continue this later, if you want," he whispered. She couldn't help but kiss him one more time on the cheek, lingering in the smell of his hair….
A throat cleared behind her. She whirled sideways, nearly tripping over her dress, though Jason kept his hand tightly in hers.
Tasha stood there, her lips pursed slightly. "Excuse me for interrupting," she said.
"No, that's okay," said Jason, a little breathless. "We don't want to get too carried away."
Tasha stepped forward, looking at Connie, the sharp, examining gleam in her eyes turning almost possessive as she looked at Jason. Then it disappeared as if it had never been, replaced by a firm professional demeanor.
"I wanted to remind you of the reason for your visit," she said, stepping closer to Jason. "During the reception, you'll meet an important official. Afterwards, he will join you along with us and a few others for a private meeting in the Chinese Room. There, the Muldavians will honor your father for what he did, and we will give you his reward. It will be a short ceremony, since they were expecting Whit to be here."
"It's too bad he couldn't make it. Although I'm glad he gave us this opportunity."
Some martial-sounding music played, and a young man appeared on the stage. There was a collective gasp from the crowd.
"Who's that?" Connie asked.
"That, I believe, is the Muldavian Prince," said Jason. "He certainly looks like his father."
Connie took a step closer to see past the people in front of her. The prince had dark brown hair and an energetic manner, tall, slim, with a noble bearing. Something about him looked familiar….It hit her. "He looks kind of like you."
Jason smiled. "You noticed the resemblance."
The prince delivered a short speech welcoming everyone and telling them how happy he was to join them. Then he invited them to come up and greet him firsthand.
Excitement pounding through her that she'd meet a real prince, she followed Jason up onstage. The prince stood there under the lights, looking even younger than he did from far away, probably about sixteen years old. Several security personnel stood behind him in suits and dark glasses. The prince shook Jason's hand as he said, "My father regrets he could not be here personally to thank you for what you have done for our country. And your father for what he did."
"He's given me all the thanks he needs; I'm sure my father would say the same about himself. It's good to meet you, your Highness."
The prince flashed a brilliant smile. Connie suspected he already had all the girls at home swooning over him. Even the mischievous twinkle in his eyes reminded her of a young Jason.
Jason led her forward. "This is my wife, Connie."
The prince took Connie's hand, kissed it. "Enchanted."
Connie laughed, not sure what to say. "Thank you, your Highness."
"You may both call me James. I will see you again soon."
They walked down the line and greeted ambassadors and others, including the movie star Zef Kane. Afterwards they headed to the Chinese Room where a shiny table stood under a chandelier, the ceiling decorated with intricate designs of blue and gold. The first to arrive, they sat down at the table. For a moment, Connie immersed in the silence of the room, its beauty and grandeur.
A thought came to her. "So, Whit did something for Muldavia too?"
"It runs in the family. I couldn't help but find out when I met the prince—the king now—and saw how he looked a lot like me. His father and my father apparently resembled each other even more."
"There's a story to all this, isn't there?"
"Isn't there always? Now that you're a Whittaker, you're a part of all of it too."
"So, what's the story?"
"Maybe I should let Whit tell you."
"But Jason—if I'm a Whittaker, I have a right to know."
"He'll tell it better, though."
"Can't you, just the gist of it?"
"Wouldn't you rather hear it right the first time?"
"Come on, Jason, tell me." She tickled him—or tried. He just looked at her with an amused expression, not reacting the way he was supposed to.
"That interrogation tactic won't work on me. I immunized myself against it a long time ago."
"What about—this?" She lifted her hand to his face, kissed him on the lips.
"Mm…" he said, pulling back just a little. "I think…this tactic may be working…." He slid his arm around her, kissed her next to her ear. Now that tickled. She laughed, squirmed away—he lifted her onto his lap and kissed the side of her jaw—
A door slammed open. People trailed in, headed by the prince, flanked by Tasha. Heat flooded Connie's face. She slipped back into her own chair, flicking back a strand of hair that had fallen in front of her eyes. Jason stood, looking unapologetic. She mirrored him, trying to match his demeanor. They'd been doing nothing wrong…just…personal. It had seemed like a private room but of course the meeting was supposed to happen any moment and they should have considered it…but he'd erased everything else from her mind.
"Your Highness," said Jason, giving a bow. Connie followed suit. The prince gave a slight bow in return and took his place at the head of the table. Tasha sat opposite Jason. Three others joined them. The tall, dark-haired Ambassador from Muldavia introduced himself and his aide, a pretty prim young woman. Tasha introduced the young man at her side, an analyst for the Agency.
The prince gestured for them to be seated. "Thank you for coming in your father's place, Jason. You have both done astonishing things for our country and for my father and grandfather. For that we are eternally grateful. I know that your father refused any kind of reward, but we would like to repay our debt in some way. And so if there is anything the royal family can do for you or your father, you have only to ask."
He gestured toward Jason, who walked toward the prince. "We would like to award you with the highest honor, Protector of the Realm. Since you don't want official recognition, I will simply give you this." He deftly pinned a blue, red and gold ribbon to Jason's jacket. "You will know what it means. And for your father, and for both of you." He handed Jason some objects. Then he bowed. "Thank you for your service."
The prince shook Jason's hand, and they both sat back down. Jason showed Connie a coin-like medal in his palm along with the ribbon for his father.
"Perhaps we should honor you as well, Jason," said Tasha. "But we tend to avoid giving accolades to agents—your father is the exception. As I'm not authorized to give anything beyond what's officially granted, I can only offer my own personal service to the both of you: if you need anything, please don't hesitate to call me. As long as it does not compromise my duties with the Agency." She took something from the analyst and handed it to Jason—a piece of paper and a plain black box. Jason looked at the paper. "What is this?"
"Your father will understand."
"It's in code, isn't it?"
Tasha just smiled.
He tried to open the box, but it was locked. "What's in here?"
"The key's an encryption. Your father will know it. It's something so classified I don't even have clearance for it."
"He is certainly a man of secrets," said the ambassador. "I do not even know what he did for our country. Only the royal family knows."
"For the sake of national security," said the prince solemnly, "I will take the secret to my grave."
No wonder Jason was so reluctant to give me the secret, thought Connie. I don't know Whit as much as I think I do….like whatever kind of mission he's on right now.
I'm in a family of spies. I might as well get used to secrets. Though most of them are in the past, and Jason will probably tell them to me…if I'm persistent enough.
After a few more minutes, they stepped back out into the hallway. "Would you like to join us for the more…unofficial party after this?" said the prince. "Who knows, it might go all night." He looked less like a prince and more like a teenage boy excited about a party away from his parents.
"Perhaps we will make an appearance," said Jason. "What do you think, Connie?"
"What time is it?"
"You didn't look at your watch."
The prince pulled a watch out of his pocket; it chimed a melody. "He's right."
"I've always been able to guess the time," said Jason.
"Hm…" said Connie, suddenly feeling exhausted. "This has been fun…but I'm pretty tired. It's been a long day."
"Well," said the prince, looking disappointed, "you could come tomorrow to the luncheon at the Embassy."
"Maybe we'll do that." Jason took Connie's arm. Slowly, they wound their way through the tables and out through the doors to the marble lobby, then out into the dark warm air of DC. The limo drove up and Jason helped Connie inside. Afterimages of the party floated in front of her eyes. She leaned back on the seat. Her feet ached—she hadn't worn such punishing high heels in a while. She slipped them off and rubbed her feet.
"You okay?" he said.
"Yeah. Just…the price of fashion."
"Let me see." He took her foot gently in his hand. "You've even got blisters! How did you stand it?"
"I didn't really notice till now."
"You don't need such torture devices. Your feet are just as beautiful without them."
"I couldn't go to the party with bare feet. Ow!"
He let go of her foot. "Sorry!"
"No—keep doing that. It feels good. Just—the blisters hurt."
"I'll avoid them." He rubbed her foot, then the other, soothing the places where the straps had pressed. I probably won't wear those shoes again….She leaned back and let him massage them. She could do this for a while. But what about him? He didn't have the torturous shoes she did, but the tie did look uncomfortable.
She slid over to him. Tucked her fingers beneath the tie and tugged it loose. He pulled it off. "That does feel better—I've never been a fan of ties."
"You did look handsome in it. But I like you just as well this way." She ruffled up his hair so pieces of it sprang free of the hair gel and stuck up randomly. In the soft light, his eyes sparkled over infinite depths, a rosy pink at his lips. She sat there in awe of him for a moment, not daring to touch such a perfect being for fear he'd vanish like a dream….
But then he pressed his lips to hers, and she fell headlong into the dream with him.
The phone rang on the lampstand. Connie was cuddled next to him. He wasn't sure if she was asleep or not; he didn't want to disturb her. But then he saw the screen: it was his dad.
He reached for the phone and held it to his ear. Connie stirred, looked up at him.
"Who is it?" she said lazily.
Dad, he mouthed. Her eyes widened.
"Hi Dad," said Jason.
"Hi, Jason." His father's voice was heavy with emotion. Jason tensed.
"I wanted to make sure before I called you. I didn't want to give you any false hope."
Jason's heart flipped. Something momentous had happened—he just didn't know what yet. "About what?" Part of him already had an idea, since his father had gone to Chicago. Though he didn't want to let himself think it.
"Your brother. Jerry."
"A letter from Jerry arrived to our old house recently, and the post office notified me. It had gotten lost in the mail all these years. It was postmarked a few days after Jerry's death."
Jason felt like he'd been struck by lightning. For a moment, he couldn't speak. "What? Are you saying—he could still be alive, that we buried—someone else?"
"That's what I though too. I had to be sure, so I went to Chicago. That's where everything was…handled before they shipped him to Odyssey. I was too much in a fog during that time…and you know that it was a closed-casket funeral. But they assured me that there was no doubt it was him. I'm sorry."
Jason's heart fell. "Oh. So it was just postmarked wrong or something?"
"Not quite. It's more likely the date on the postcard was correct, and the date they gave us for his death was the wrong one. You know how chaotic war can be. Anyway, we have another card from Jerry after what we thought was the last one."
"That's something, anyway. Like a last gift from him, after all these years."
"The most interesting part is what the letter says."
"What does it say?"
"It says that—he got married."
"I'll give you the letter to read when you get back. But basically it says that he was captured by the Vietcong, and a young woman helped him escape. They fell in love and got married in secret. They were married only a few days before he died."
"Jerry also said that he wanted to take Ai back to America when he could. He was afraid the enemy would find out about their marriage and hurt her. If he didn't make it out, he wanted me to take care of her."
"So I could have a sister-in-law? In Vietnam?"
"If she survived. And you could have a niece or nephew too, who knows."
"I can hardly take this in."
"Me either. I've been trying to see if I can find her, but it won't be easy. It's likely she didn't want to be found."
"Well, if there's anything I can do to help..."
"Actually I was wondering if you could use some of your connections."
"Yes. Anything. We need to be able to find her. Take care of her like Jerry wanted."
"Meanwhile I'll find some of my contacts and maybe between us we can find her. At least find out what happened to her and if she had a child."
"If she wants to come back to America, we could bring her here."
"That would be wonderful. But I don't want you to get your hopes up too much about this either. It's been such a long time…"
"Some hope is good. It'll keep us searching."
"You're right. It's been an exhausting few days….How are you two doing?"
"Good. The party was amazing and…well, we've been having lots of fun. Reconnecting."
"So you two are—"
"Better than ever."
He looked at Connie. She nodded. Though she had a little furrow in her brow…probably wondering about the conversation. Jason should've put his father on speaker but he'd been so wrapped up in the stunning news.
"So when are you returning?"
"We were going to go back today, but we may stay around if it's okay with Connie. I'll look for some of my old contacts."
"Take as long as you need. I'll do what I can too. I'm not sure where this'll take me….but I'm not stopping until I know for sure."
"I'll go to Vietnam if I have to."
"It may not come to that. As long as we can find the right people in the right places."
"I'll start here. First I'll fill Connie in."
"I'll see you soon."
"Bye, Dad." He hung up, laid the phone on the bed.
Connie touched his arm. "So—your brother was married?"
Jason nodded. "That's what he said in his letter."
"Wow. You could have relatives from Vietnam!"
He told her the rest of what his father had told him. He was really looking forward to reading the letter himself, seeing the last thing his brother had written. Jerry had wanted to keep his wife safe, but it had been in vain, since the letter had gotten lost. Perhaps the fact that it was found meant that there was still hope…
Jason asked Connie if they could stay a few more days to search for contacts and she immediately agreed. He kissed her.
After she went to take a shower, he sat on the bed to absorb what had happened. He tried to think of contacts but his mind was blank. This was just so incredible. His eye caught something on the nightstand. A business card. Was it from the hotel?
He picked it up, flipped it over.
Oh, he'd forgotten all about this. It said, "Muldavian Embassy, 12:00. Sierra." Come to think of it, that was the lunch the prince had invited him to. He hadn't put two and two together because of how entranced he'd been by Connie all night. It made sense Sierra would be there, though…
But what about this mission she wanted him to do? How could he possibly do it? On the other hand…he didn't want to leave that boy to human traffickers if he could help it.
What about Connie? He couldn't abandon her. He didn't have to feel obligated to Sierra; someone else could do the job, probably better. But he could at least go to the dinner. Sierra probably had contacts in Southeast Asia, and he could see if they could find out about Jerry's wife.
He looked at the clock. 10:00. Enough time to get ready to go.
Connie came out of the bathroom, a blue towel wrapped around her.
He stood, kissed her shoulder. "Hey," he said. "Want to go to a dinner?"
"Oh, I forgot! The one the prince invited us to. Sure!"
"Sierra invited us too." He showed her the card. "We didn't really talk about this yesterday."
"Well, we were a bit…distracted."
"Yeah." He smiled. Slid a strand of damp hair from her forehead. "You were all I could think about at the party, and then—" He kissed her temple. He could hardly resist her now. Maybe they could stay here after all….pretend nothing else existed…. He drew her to him and embraced her. "I don't ever want to leave you. I never want to be further than this."
"Me either," she said a little breathlessly. She looked up at him. "I want to give you everything you deserve."
"I don't deserve you."
A pained expression crossed her face. "You've given me so much—now it's my turn."
"This is all I need." He ran his hand down her arm, slid his fingers into hers, and brought their hands up between them.
"I want you to be happy."
"I am." He kissed her cheek, lingering in the scent of her hair.
"What I mean is, I saw how you looked when Sierra told you about the mission. You wanted to do it, didn't you?"
"I don't see how I can leave you, especially after all that's happened. All that we have together."
"I wouldn't want you to go into danger. I couldn't stand the thought of losing you after...the baby." She looked away, pain in her eyes.
"I don't want to leave you alone, either. And I don't really like the thought of being captured or killed. But then there's the boy who was captured….I don't want to leave him to the traffickers if there's something I can do to help. I wouldn't have to go into danger. A freelance operative can set his own limits."
"I could go with you."
"As long as it's not dangerous."
"Well, you're only going if it's not."
"I'll talk to Sierra first. And we'll have to pray and see if it's God's will."
"Whatever you decide, I'm cool with it."
"You sure? Isn't there anything that you want?"
"As long as I'm with you, Jason, that's all that matters. After being apart from you, that's enough."
He wrapped her in an embrace again, kissed her hair. She gave him a joyous smile. It made his heart ache to see her happy again. He wanted to do everything possible to keep her safe and happy. Any mission would never be at her expense. Being married meant that they were in this together. He looked forward to every day with her, getting to know her better, doing things with her and for her, their love always burning between them.
Slowly, she slid away from him. "I better get dressed. Can't go like this."
He laughed. "Yeah. Me either."
While she got dressed, he took a shower, and then they headed out the door to the Muldavian Embassy.
"There is no such thing as impossible. The word itself says I'm possible."-Audrey Hepburn
“You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” –C.S. Lewis
“No one ever made a difference by being like everyone else.” P.T. Barnum
Connie stepped out of the car and up to the embassy door with Jason. Her red-orange dress fluttered with the gentle breeze that assuaged the heat a little. It still wasn't as hot as it would get, but the haze in the distance over the Washington Monument signaled that it would get stifling, perhaps like some of the hottest days in Paraguay.
Her heart pounded in anticipation. She was still a little nervous, but not as much as she'd been last night, since this wasn't so formal. And of course Jason was with her.
She was still in shock from the news that Jerry had a wife in Vietnam. She wasn't quite sure what to think of it…She had a sister-in-law out there somewhere that she'd never met…..maybe even a niece or nephew. She only hoped that they could find her. Excitement hit her at the thought of meeting Ai, Jerry's wife. She hoped she was okay after all these years…how terrible to lose her husband in the war after being married for such a short time.
If Jason took this mission, it might interfere with finding her. But Jason had said that they could do both at once, because a lot could be done remotely. Connie looked forward to helping him as much as she could with both things.
Jason opened the door. Inside, a red carpet lay along the entryway, and huge bouquets of roses greeted them, the sweet, light scent suffusing the air. A man in a dark suit bowed as they entered. "If you would follow me, sir, madam."
Jason took Connie's arm and they followed the man down the hallway, the golden molding along the edges carved into intricate scenes of war and peace.
When the man opened the door onto a room with a high, painted ceiling, decorated with mirrors and roses, another man welcomed them with a bow. He had a red sash across his chest, dark, graying hair, and a gracious smile.
"Thank you, ambassador," said Jason, returning the bow, while Connie curtseyed, almost tripping over her shoes. If they'd been the shoes she'd worn last night, she'd have fallen on her face. As much as she'd imagined such things as a child, she really wasn't used to high society life!
The nervousness that leaped into her throat dissipated as Jason gave her hand a gentle squeeze and they made their way over to the table.
"Welcome!" said the prince at its head as he stood, delight flashing across his face when he saw them. "I'm glad you came!" He tugged down his red, gold-sashed shirt and said in a more formal voice, "Please, if you'd take a seat."
"Thank you, your Highness," said Jason, taking another bow. Connie curtseyed low for him and he smiled, his blue eyes reminding her of Jason. If Jason had had a son….
A twinge of pain hit her heart at this—Jeremiah—and she shut out all thoughts of the baby she'd lost.
The assistant pulled out their chairs and they sat down, Sierra across from them, her chin resting in her hand, a cryptic, unreadable look on her face.
The Muldavian ambassador went to the opposite head of the table. "Welcome, everyone, and thank you for coming. We're happy to share this afternoon with you and get to know you better." He sat down.
Servants appeared as if by magic and served light crisp rolls. Connie wasn't sure how to eat hers.
"Oh, these are very good," said Jason. "You just eat it with your fingers!"
He picked his up and bit into it. She took an experimental bite; it tasted a little salty but good, spinach and generous cheese inside of it.
Sierra gave them a smile. "I'm glad you could make it," she said. "Have you spoken about my proposition?"
"We haven't really had time," said Jason. "I almost forgot about it till this morning, then we talked a little."
"What did you conclude?"
"We still need to pray about it."
"Of course. But you should know that time is short. Even as we speak, the boy could be disappearing so no one can find him. I shouldn't even be here, but I was counting on you to take the other side of the mission."
"Why do you need me specifically?"
"Because I can trust you. Because you're a good agent. Because you are compassionate and you seek justice. And you know Muldavia."
"You've tracked one of the leads to Muldavia?"
"One arm of the human trafficking network reaches to Rakima, the capital. I'm not sure if the base is in the US or Muldavia; it's hard to tell with these things. I'll give you all my data on it before you begin."
"And where does the other lead go?"
Sierra's dark eyes shadowed. "To Cambodia. My old home."
"That makes sense you'd go there."
"I know Muldavia too, but not as well as the streets of Phnom Penh."
Jason looked at Connie, then back at Sierra. "I have something I'd like to ask of you, too. My brother died in Vietnam."
"I'm sorry." Her brow furrowed.
"I just found out he had a wife there, and I want to contact her. Would you—"
"Yes, I can look into that for you. Do you have anything to go on, like her name, her family?"
"Her name's Ai. I don't know her family name… Her last name would be Whittaker."
"Don't be so sure. Times were messy after Saigon fell. She might have taken another name to keep from reprisals from the Vietcong because of marrying an American soldier. Or she might have remarried."
"I didn't think of that."
"I've been in Vietnam on several occasions. I've got contacts there—though some might be…less than happy to see me."
"Don't get into trouble on my account."
"It's no trouble." She laced her fingers and rested her chin on her hands, looking at Jason. Then her eyes strayed to Connie.
"So what do you think about all of this?" said Sierra.
"I'll do what Jason wants, if it's God's will."
"Would you go with him or stay?"
"I'll go with him, as long as it's not dangerous."
"You're not prepared to go into danger with him, then."
"I'd go anywhere with him. But this mission won't be dangerous."
Sierra tipped her head, a coil of blue-streaked black hair working loose and falling beside her cheek. "Who told you that?"
"Jason said that as a freelance agent, he'd get to choose how far his missions go."
"Technically, that's true. But if you're not prepared to go as far as it takes, it's hardly worth doing at all."
"There's a lot of things we can do without putting ourselves into direct danger," said Jason. "I have contacts—"
"Yes, you can be effective, in a way. It's just not how I operate. I'm willing to put myself in just as much danger as the children I'm trying to rescue. I think I owe them that."
"There's no reason to take unnecessary risks."
"Of course not. I tend to be too much of a risk-taker—but you are, too. I've seen it in you. You have that fire inside you, but you've stifled it—" She waved a hand. "I'm sorry." Her voice softened. "I know what abuse can do to a person. I wouldn't blame you if you wanted to settle down for good, and I can't ask you to join my crusade." She sighed, looked at her long purple nails. "I guess I am letting this get personal. Just don't feel pressured into this. If it's not the right thing for you, I'd understand. I want justice—I think you do too, but perhaps this isn't your fight. Perhaps…God will tell you that."
"Maybe." Jason leaned forward. "It's not that I don't want to help. I just need to find out if I should—or if I'm needed somewhere else."
"I understand. I'll need a definite answer by—yesterday. But the end of today will do, I suppose."
A man came in and sat down in the empty seat beside Sierra; she turned to speak with him. The servants brought in some salad with olives and cheese and nuts. It was delicious— just the right amount of tangy. She devoured it; she hadn't enjoyed a salad so much for quite a while.
"Jason, Connie," said Sierra, "this is Kris Markov. He's a Deputy Director of Muldavia's internal security."
The man inclined his head slightly. "It's an honor to meet you." He had short dark hair, graying at the temples, and piercing dark eyes that seemed to appraise everything around him. "I hear that you want to know about the darker side of our country."
Jason nodded. "About one aspect in particular."
"Ah yes. We tend to sweep that under the rug, even more than we do our other flaws. We do so want to join the world stage, be an important country." He smiled wryly.
"Don't start that again!" said the woman beside Connie, with dark red hair and elaborate green earrings that matched her dress. "You're too cynical about our country."
"I'm a realist. I know that we're nothing more than a small dot on the map, and it's likely to stay that way."
"Britain's not much more than a dot on the map, and look what it accomplished!"
"Britain is an island. We're a tiny landlocked middle-European country surrounded by much larger and more powerful neighbors. The most we can hope for is to maintain our sovereignty and stay viable economically."
"I believe that we can become great. That we are great."
"Believe that all you want. It won't change reality. I deal with the dark side daily—I know what's out there."
"You only see the bad things. They block your view of our potential."
"I am working to keep the crime from overrunning our country. Even you in the Ministry of Education must see that."
"Come now," said a man beside Kris with brown hair and gray eyes. "I can't believe it's as bad as all that. Our economy is booming, our relations with other countries are strengthening, we're becoming more of an international player—"
Kris chuckled. "If by a 'player' you mean our wine's becoming known outside our own country, then yes, I agree." He leaned forward. "But if you don't see that crime eating away what progress we've made, you're delusional."
The man took a sip of his wine. "You are the one in charge of the security service. You're the one that's supposed to be dealing with it."
"I am dealing with it. We've made headway. But every time we find a solution, our progress is beaten back by blind idealists, incompetent bureaucrats, not to mention our fluid borders. We've become a safe haven for criminals because they know they can find impunity in our country after fleeing from theirs. We don't have the resources to take down the big crime networks, and so they flourish. Time and again I've asked for budget increases, but our economy isn't to the point where it can spare any more for crime-fighting. And so the lawbreakers eat away at our progress, and the cycle continues. Something drastic will have to happen to change this destructive system."
"I want to change things," said the prince in a strong, earnest voice. "I want to help our people, and so does my father. We need ideas and we need people to help us. Anything you can do will be gratefully accepted." He looked around the table, catching Connie's eyes.
Connie felt a sudden desire to help—he looked so concerned for the safety of his country. But what can I do? she wondered.
The Muldavian ambassador leaned over and whispered something to the prince. He looked startled, and then he nodded. He held his head high, his crown glittering in the sun from the window, and suddenly he looked remote and powerful, like the carving of an ancient king.
"Our country has its flaws," said the ambassador. "But I believe our strengths outweigh them. And I believe we do have the potential for greatness. We're small, but we have lots to offer. We want to join our brothers and sisters, especially in America, and work together to create a better world."
"To Muldavia!" said the American ambassador opposite him. He raised his glass.
"To Muldavia!" Everyone echoed, except Connie, who was caught off guard. She raised her glass and clinked it against Sierra's; Sierra's smile widened, distorted by the water.
"I suppose I should consider myself rebuked," said Kris, his voice lowered. "But we must not forget the vulnerable among us, even as we celebrate who we are as a country."
"That's what we're here for," said Sierra.
"You were asking for a favor, if I remember."
"We're interested in helping a boy who was caught by human traffickers, and we traced them to Muldavia. But if we can rescue others, even expose the ring, well…you will benefit too."
"And you can do all that?"
"Perhaps. Our priority is the boy, though. We will pass on any information we discover, but first you have to give us what you have on them."
"Well, there are several human trafficking networks that flow through Muldavia, especially Rakima. Despite what I said, the most vicious and sophisticated one seems to be homegrown, though we've never gotten close to the inner circle. Most operations that prey on our citizens originate in other countries, but not this one. I have suspicions that the illegal drugs and weapons sales organizations actually come from the same source. We're not even sure what its name is; we just call it Yavesh—which means black hole in our language. I'd guess about a third of the violent crime in Rakima at least originates from Yavesh. I'd say not even bother with the others, but you probably want to be thorough."
"It will actually be Jason who will be going to Muldavia, at least at first."
"Oh, really?" said Kris, his dark eyes studying him. "You are quite the hero in our country. Some of what they say sounds more like legend than fact, almost as if you singlehandedly toppled communism. You and the other agent—what was her name?"
"Tasha," said Jason. "She actually did more than me. I wouldn't have gotten far without her."
"Perhaps your version is closer to the truth. Even so, your being a legend could open doors for you. Or close them, depending on where you go. It's true that most of the population doesn't know the covert story of the rise of the King, but after the fall of communism, much of the old guard went underground and started criminal enterprises. I wouldn't be surprised if some of them still know of you."
Jason nodded. "I'd have to be careful."
Something twisted in Connie's heart. "You mean we could run into some of your old enemies?"
Jason grasped Connie's hand under the table and she pressed her fingers to his palm. "I won't take any unnecessary risks."
"That's advisable, with the people you'll be dealing with," said Kris. "Still, some risks are necessary if you want to get close to these people. Even with my best agents, we haven't been able to penetrate more than the outer rings of the organization. They're very thorough and professional—and ruthless. You ask the wrong question, they won't hesitate to kill you."
He sighed, looked down for a moment. Then he caught their eyes with a sharp glance. "Last year I tried to plant someone inside the organization. I sent one of my best agents to infiltrate it and advance toward the center. Everything went well; he was asked to join a human trafficking cell. But first he had to complete an initiation. They wanted him to…beat a young girl. He did—he couldn't back down if he wanted to get further in—but he went easy on her. The next thing I knew, we found his body dumped in an alley, almost unrecognizable from torture, his throat cut."
A shiver ran across Connie's skin. She couldn't help but picture what he described, and wished she could erase it from her mind. Sierra expected them to fight an organization like this? Connie couldn't bear the thought of Jason going into such danger. Her dream from a few weeks ago flashed across her mind—Jason broken in body and mind—it'd been so vivid—No! She couldn't willingly let him do it. She doubted he'd want to go running toward that kind of thing especially after what had happened to him before.
"That's the kind of people you'll have to deal with," continued Kris. "You'll have to be careful—but to get inside, a high amount of risk is unavoidable."
"I'm not sure—" said Jason.
Sierra sent him a sharp look.
"—that I will go in myself. I'd like to find out from informants."
"That's all well and good, if you're willing to sacrifice people like players on a board. I have to do that—but it doesn't make it easy. The loss of that agent last year hit me hard. I'm looking for some new approaches, so if you have any suggestions as to strategy, an outsider could give a fresh perspective." He looked at Connie. "Will you be accompanying Jason?"
"I'm going wherever he goes."
"As a non-agent, I suggest you get some training, or you could be a liability. You two are married, correct?"
"Being personally involved can help motivate you, but it can also keep you from going as far as you should, just for the concern of the other's safety. If you find this holds you back, perhaps another arrangement would be more advantageous."
Jason exchanged glances with Connie. They hadn't even really discussed this and this man was assuming they were going as a team to Muldavia. What was Sierra thinking, acting like they were doing it? Did it mean they had to do this—or could they back out?
The dinner came in, interrupting them, and Connie ate some kind of wrap and some cheese and fruit salad, but she barely tasted it. She hoped they were not trapped into this. The image of Jason, hurt and broken like the agent, hovered at the edge of her mind and she tried not to look at it directly. Sierra couldn't ask this of them. They didn't have to do this; they had enough to focus on with finding Jason's sister-in-law.
Of course, they could look into this but that didn't mean they had to go all out and endanger their lives for this mission.
After lunch, they spoke with the prince, who welcomed them to come to his country. He shook Jason's hand and then Connie's.
As they headed toward the door, Sierra handed Jason a card. "You can reach me at this number." Before she could slip away though, Jason grabbed her arm.
"I want to speak with you," he said.
She looked surprised but she said, "Of course."
They walked out to the front of the building beside the stairway. The other guests stepped down it, talking, oblivious to them. The air was now so humid each breath felt heavy.
Jason stood in front of Sierra. Tension made his body taut; it took Connie a moment to realize he was angry.
"What was that about in there?" he said. "After you told us we could give you an answer later, you started acting like it was a done deal."
"I didn't want him to think you weren't serious about this, or he wouldn't have spoken to us."
"It seemed a bit like manipulation to me. Listen, this is my decision. Mine and Connie's. We won't be forced into anything. Least of all something that could result in our deaths."
Sierra crossed her arms, looking unconcerned. "It's true, it won't be easy. But neither is it for the children trapped in it."
"I want to help, but I will do it in my own way. I'll look up contacts, I'll investigate. I won't go into inordinate danger, and I won't leave Connie on her own. I'm not willing to sacrifice what we have together, not after…almost losing it."
Sierra studied him for a moment. "Very well. You may do it your own way. But I will do it mine, and I won't hold back. After I check out the lead in Cambodia, I'll come over to Muldavia and take what you've found out, and burrow into the organization as far as I can. It may be my last mission, but..." She sighed, looked away, pain on her face. "Perhaps this is what I should've done all along." She looked back at Jason. "I can't ask you to come to a decision that's taken me years to come to terms with myself. Perhaps this is really about me, how I'm struggling with taking this on because I haven't let my personal feelings get in the way of business for so long. I have to do this, but at the same time I'll be facing my past directly, and I'm afraid…I won't be able to deal with it. I don't know why I'm telling you this, except that I trust you. I…really would be grateful for any help you could provide. I'll do the rest. I only hope it's not too late for Ben."
"That's the boy that was kidnapped. I'll tell you more about him when I see you later today. Now I need to get going. Excuse me." She stepped around Jason, not looking at either of them, and strode down the sidewalk, the click of her heels fading amid the noise of the traffic.
Jason leaned against the brick stairway. "Well…that was interesting."
"Yeah. I don't really know what to think…."
"I'm not rushing into danger like I used to. Those days are over. I want to be by your side, and I don't want even the possibility that you could get hurt."
"Me either. I mean, I don't want you to get hurt. What he said, about that agent…." She laid her hand on his arm, his skin warm from the sun. "I don't want to lose you. Especially not…that way. We've had enough violence for a lifetime."
Jason nodded. "We'll be able to accomplish a lot this way too."
"So are we doing this?"
"What do you think?"
"I want to help."
"It is the least we can do."
"We should pray to be sure."
"You're right." Jason grasped Connie's hand and they bowed their heads and prayed fervently about the mission. Then Jason looked at her searchingly. She paused for a moment, thinking.
The boy—Ben—could be getting so lost they'd never find him. They didn't have the luxury of waiting. But they at least had till the end of the day to call Sierra. They shouldn't make a rash decision, although this did come to them out of the blue. Perhaps it did mean God wanted them to do this. Why not help him, if it didn't mean going into danger?
"I think we should do it," she said. "But we might as well wait to the end of the day to be sure."
He smiled. Oh, how she loved his smile. It dispelled all dark thoughts and made her want to embrace him. She held him close, her cheek against his, happy that he'd never have to be much further than this. After a quick kiss, they walked hand in hand down the sidewalk to their car, and drove off to explore DC despite the sweltering heat.
"There is no such thing as impossible. The word itself says I'm possible."-Audrey Hepburn
“You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” –C.S. Lewis
“No one ever made a difference by being like everyone else.” P.T. Barnum
I'll post another for Christmas (going to Grandma's tomorrow)
Jason sat beside the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool; Connie sat beside him, swishing her hand in the water. A few geese swam nearby, and some kids shrieked and splashed each other. Heat shimmered on the pavement, making the Washington Monument waver as if it were a reflection itself.
The water swirled and glimmered with sunlight, calm compared to the flash and sparkle of the World War Two Memorial fountain they'd just come from. They'd contemplated the quotes on marble, walked through the arches, touched the bronze stars.
It'd hit him again how his father could have easily been one of the dead. How he'd saved all those men, then been hit by some shrapnel and ended up in the hospital. He'd heard that story many times but standing there at the memorial brought it home. One star: 100 dead.
But because of his father's heroic actions, a transport of soldiers made it. Like many others who'd sacrificed during the war so others could live….
That was the kind of person his father was. His brother was.
Compared to them, I'm this reckless adventurer who takes risks for their own sake.
Well, not anymore. The labyrinth, Gray, Paraguay, has burned all that desire out of me. I still want adventure, just not the dangerous kind.
What Sierra had said was true, though. If it were just himself, he'd have no excuse for not going into danger. Just because he was afraid of capture and torture didn't mean he shouldn't help someone. But how could he put Connie in harm's way? How could he leave her when they just got close again? How could he risk dying and leaving her alone?
Now that they were married, he wasn't just himself anymore. If they decided anything, they had to decide it as a team. He had to put her feelings first. Especially now, when she was still recovering from what had happened.
I'll do all I can on my end, he thought. But it doesn't mean I'll rush headlong into danger.
Sierra had offered to infiltrate the organization herself. Perhaps that was the solution; he could gather the information, and when she got back from Vietnam, she could take over and go as far as she wanted to.
Connie splashed water onto herself, smoothing it over her neck. Damp hair straggled from her ponytail; she was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. He didn't want to stop watching her but at the same time he longed to gather her into his arms…
She looked at him, her eyes reflecting the blue of the water. He drew her gently to him. She leaned against his chest and he smoothed back wisps of her hair. She sighed. "I'm so happy, Jason. I could just sit here all day with you." She twisted back to look up at him and he kissed her forehead.
"There are more places to go, though."
"What do you want to see?"
He thought for a moment. The closest was the Lincoln Memorial but he knew where he really wanted to go. At the same time, he dreaded going there.
He really had no excuse not to, not even the heat. To be so close and not to go there, especially now that he'd found out about Jerry's wife….It was just that all this was bringing up old memories and he was afraid that going there would make the past too real again.
"The Vietnam Memorial isn't far from here," he said.
"Oh! I'd like to go there. It's much bigger than the one in Odyssey."
"Okay. Let's go." He grasped her hand and helped her to her feet. They took a shortcut through the trees.
He stopped near its left edge, his heart pounding hard. Something in him wanted to go back. Moving forward meant plunging into pain. But he couldn't turn his back on Jerry. Jerry had sacrificed his life for others and Jason couldn't let something as trivial as his feelings keep him away.
A shadow had fallen over the sun and he could only see things through a dark, narrow film. He felt as if he were sinking to the ground under an oppressive weight. The air was too heavy to breathe.
A warm hand slid into his. Connie. He took a breath, and stepped forward.
Down into the sunken ground, where the names of the dead were buried. Black stone, gray words blurred, mirroring vague faces.
All these names cut into him but he couldn't look at them. Until one drew him like a magnet and he instinctively stopped.
He'd been here before, long ago. He couldn't bring himself to come back again. But he owed it to his brother to be here now.
He laid his hand on the name. The words pressed into his palm, a physical thing, as if part of Jerry still lived. Tears dripped hot down his cheeks—he couldn't hold them back.
"Jerry, my brother," he whispered and under the weight of the name he fell to his knees, hitting the stones hard. His hand on the warm wall, another name beneath his palm, he leaned over, a silent sob wrenching him, tears falling to the bricks.
He trembled, feeling sick, knowing he was probably making a fool of himself but not caring. Connie's hand lay on his shoulder, a comforting presence. He wiped away tears—though even they were a tribute, a small one—and reached in his shirt pocket. The ribbon of honor from Muldavia.
I don't deserve it, he thought. If anyone deserves recognition for heroism, you do.
He laid the ribbon and the cold metal medallion on the stones below his brother's name. Pressed them there, as if they could bind to the pavement permanently, along with his love.
He stood, touched the name. "I will find her," he whispered to him. "I'm sorry we couldn't protect her before. But now I'll protect her with my life."
"So will I," said Connie, her arm linked with his. She laid her hand next to his over the name and stood there together. "I wish I had known you, too." A tear slipped down her cheek. He wrapped his arm around her waist and they stood there together for a moment in silence.
Then, they walked slowly away, Jason's heart still heavy, but a burning desire inside it, a purpose, a vow. He couldn't save his brother, but perhaps he could save the one he'd loved.
After immersing in the grandeur of the Lincoln Memorial, they sat on the steps in its shadow. "I'd like to start looking for her," said Jason.
"Where do you want to start?"
"Well, believe it or not, Tasha had a mission in Vietnam a while ago, after I left the Agency. She also offered her service to me and Dad as part of our unofficial recognition. I know some people in the Thai embassy, and a few other agents who have connections in Vietnam. And of course there's Sierra, who's going to Southeast Asia. I think I'll start with Tasha to make sure to get to her before she goes on another mission. And we'll talk with Sierra when we tell her of our decision."
"Sounds good! I wish I could do more." She laughed. "I don't really have contacts anywhere."
"That doesn't matter. I'm just glad you're here with me. I don't want to let you out of my sight." He kissed her cheek. She lifted her hand to his face, drawing him to her, and they kissed, slowly, passionately, not caring about the tourists that stared at them.
As they walked down the steps, Jason called Tasha. To his surprise, she answered.
"I thought you'd be busy," he said.
"I am. But I saw it was your number."
"Well…you know how you said you would give me and Dad a favor last night?"
"Yes, of course."
"I think we'd both like to collect on that now."
"What would you like me to help with?"
"Dad called yesterday. He told me…he'd found a letter, lost in the mail. From Jerry. It said…he'd had a wife."
A silence. "That's—amazing, Jason."
"She might still be alive. I was wondering if you could dredge up some contacts from your Vietnam mission."
She sighed. "That mission was of debatable success. At best."
"I know. But if it's possible to find any leads from it—"
"I'll see what I can do."
"Thank you. You aren't too busy?"
"I'll find the time."
"During an Agency mission?"
"I'm not exactly on an Agency mission. Well, it's related. But…." Her voice trailed off; it sounded anxious.
"What is it?"
"I don't know if I should tell you."
"No—well, yes, but that's not why. It does concern you in a way…It's Gray."
"They're cancelling his trial. Because he was a useful asset in Paraguay, they want to keep using him."
"By 'they', you mean the Agency."
"Yes, and the ones who pull their strings. They want to keep him out of the justice system, under the radar, so he can keep working for us as long as he's useful."
"They're denying his trial indefinitely?"
"That doesn't sound legal."
"The Agency's using their significant legal leeway. Gray has no one to advocate for him, no family or friends. When he's no longer useful…they'll probably just discard him.
"I'm sorry. You probably don't want to hear about him."
"No—I want to know. I don't fear him like I used to."
"If you've seen him how I have, no one would fear him. I don't see how anyone can send him on another mission; he'll fall apart. They've seen his file; they know what he can do—at least, before. He's got a coveted skill set. The problem is, he's not the same man that he used to be. What they did to him at the CIA prison….It goes beyond all sense of human decency; the person who orchestrated it should be prosecuted. But of course it's all classified, inadmissible, so she gets off free….I just—it's strange being sympathetic to the one who hurt you. But I'm seeing the lengths that people in our business will go, and I can't turn a blind eye to it anymore."
"What have they done?"
"Let's just say no human being should have to endure what he did."
He wasn't sure if he should ask any further; Gray might not want it disclosed. Jason was sensitive about his own torture; it was supremely personal, humiliating. It was strange, still, feeling sympathy for his enemy…but he knew in a small way—from Gray himself—what it was like to be tortured.
"The Agency told him that if he doesn't cooperate, they'll send him back to the CIA detention center. They know full well what was done to him there. Whether it'll happen to him again or not, he believes it. They're holding it over him, just so he'll do what they want. It makes me sick; this kind of thing isn't want the NSA is supposed to be about. I could go public, but they would probably just shove this under the rug anyway.
"They're not interested in actual justice, just a means to an end. I've tried to warn them that he'll shatter if they keep this up for any amount of time, but they won't listen to me. It's—idiotic. Sometimes I wonder if this is the same Agency I signed up for. Perhaps it's just the idealist in me, but I believed there was a foundation of honor, even in the darkness we sometimes had to immerse in."
"I got out of that life because I didn't want to live in a means-justifies-the-ends world. I saw honor in the Agency, but perhaps that was just because I worked so close to you."
"He's a mess. If you saw him—well, he might put on façade. He does with me, but each time I see him, he's less able to pull himself together. He's getting worse, not better. It might be because of being captured in Paraguay, or what they're holding over him. He won't let anyone touch him, and he gets startled at sudden movements. I don't see how they can't see he's not up to doing any kind of work. At the very least, he needs therapy, perhaps years of it.
"You're sure you're okay with this, with me helping him? I'm not even sure if I'm okay with it."
"I am. I wish I could help, but I'm not sure what I could do. I don't have any idea what he's going through." Even now, he didn't want to think about it, and to experience what Gray had—he didn't even want to imagine. But he did feel this connection with him…now that he'd forgiven him, and they'd gone on a mission together….he felt like he should do something. How could he, though? And would Gray even want to see him?
"Well," said Tasha, "now you know what I'm dealing with. It's not so involving that I can't look into what happened to your brother's wife. This'll be finalized in the next day or so, and then I'll be reassigned. After that—you know the Agency—I can't make any promises. It might be deep cover, who knows. But I'll do the best I can."
"Thank you, Tasha."
"Talk to you soon." She hung up.
They'd reached the base of the Washington Monument by now. Jason felt dazed in the heat, crowds of tourists jabbering. Connie took his arm and led him into the broad shadow. "Are you okay?"
"I'm not sure. You heard most of that?"
She nodded. "What you said. What they're doing—it's horrible. I don't even want to think about it." She shuddered, looked away.
"At least he has Tasha. Someone who wants his best interests. It's strange…."
"It's just strange. I'd never have thought she'd have sympathy for him—but then, I'd never have thought I'd be able to forgive him. In any case, I wouldn't wish what happened to him on my worst enemy. Which he was." He shook his head. "I suppose we should take our next step."
"Call Sierra. We'll look into the organization in Muldavia, and she'll find contacts in Vietnam. What do you think?"
Connie nodded. "Let's do it."
"But we won't go into any inordinate danger. Sierra can take up the reins after she's finished in Southeast Asia." He slung his arm around her. "I'm not leaving you. I'm not going any further from you than this if I can help it."
She laughed, wrapped her arms around him, snuggling close to his chest. Happiness swelled through him. He hugged her tight, never wanting to let her go.
On the way back to the car, Jason called Sierra. They got in, and drove to her hotel to meet her.
"Come in!" said Sierra. Jason pushed the door; it swung open to reveal Sierra sitting cross-legged on the bed, eating Chinese takeout in front of her laptop.
Connie followed Jason inside. The blinds were drawn, the golden sunlight suffusing the room.
"I got some for you, if you want it," said Sierra, gesturing to the table by the microwave. Two takeout boxes sat there, unopened, chopsticks and plastic forks beside them. The food smelled good; Connie was hungry. She grabbed one of the boxes and followed Jason toward Sierra.
"Have a seat." She gestured to two chairs by the table in front of the window. Connie sat down beside Jason and dug into her box with a fork; she wasn't feeling adventurous enough to try the chopsticks. She swirled the noodles around with a fork and took a bite.
"I always order from Chinese Star when I'm in DC." She scooted forward and swung her legs over the side of the bed. "So, you guys are in?"
Jason nodded, opening his box. "We'll go to Muldavia, look up intel. Then you can take over when you're done in Vietnam."
"Sounds like a plan. Before we go any further, our client would like to talk to you." She stepped off the bed and lifted the laptop, carrying it over to the table. She leaned over, maneuvering the mouse, and brought up a Skype screen.
"Right now?" said Jason.
"It's the best time for him."
Connie had barely managed to slurp up a dangling noodle when a face popped up on the screen.
The man was about forty-five; his dark eyes looked haunted. He wore an immaculate suit, but his perfectly trimmed brown hair was slightly messy, as if he hadn't combed it yet.
"Good evening," he said in a deep, cultured voice.
"Hi," said Sierra. "Mr. Brand, these are the associates I told you about, Jason and Connie Whittaker."
"It's good to meet you," said Jason. "I'm sorry about your son."
"You will help me find him?"
Jason nodded. Connie felt a little awkward, not sure what to do. Sierra had just sprung this meeting on them. Connie hoped Mr. Brand didn't think she was some kind of secret agent. Because that would never happen in a million years. She'd just have to let Jason handle this and fade into the background as much as she could. She certainly wasn't an equal partner in this, really just tagging along as Jason worked his magic.
"We were hoping you could tell them more about what happened to Ben," said Sierra.
"O-of course." He looked down, as if gathering his thoughts. He was sitting at a desk in a room that looked rich and ornate, gold wallpaper in the background, shiny dark wooden furniture—perhaps mahogany (though Connie wasn't totally sure what mahogany looked like...). He looked back up at them, his eyes brimming with sorrow and pain.
"It started with—well, it started long before he was kidnapped. I should've paid attention to what was going on but I was so—busy." He said the word as if it left a bad taste in his mouth. "Ben's always been such a good boy. I rarely had to discipline him. He always did what he was told—ever since he was little, he was responsible. He had to be, since his mom left us when he was two."
"Oh!" said Connie involuntarily. "I'm sorry."
"I should've seen that coming, too. It was a mixed marriage, and Dezi was a free spirit—that's why I loved her. Marrying her was the only impulsive decision I ever made. But we were too different. She couldn't be 'tied down', as she said. Her love faded like it had never been and I was left with two toddlers to raise, in addition to my business. I…it's been hard, but I thought I was managing it. Now—it looks like I couldn't help but neglect one aspect of my life—and it ended up being the most important part." He took a deep, shaky breath.
"You said it was a mixed marriage," said Jason. "What did you mean by that?"
"Oh. I'm not sure how much Sierra told you."
"Not an awful lot."
Mr. Brand gave a ghost of a smile before it faded. "I'm Jewish. Dezi was…not. I met her on a business trip to L.A. and her religion was a mixture of Buddhism and other new age beliefs—but she took that about as seriously as she did anything. I thought—naively—that I could get her to come around to my point of view. But she never listened to me when I talked about religion. Just a few months after I married her, I felt her gradually floating away….as if I and the children mattered less and less and she felt the pull of the world. 'There's a whole world out there' was one of the last things she said to me. 'You can't expect me to stay in one place for long.' And she left. Becca was too young to remember, but Ben was devastated. He cried for his mommy for days. He even tried to find her once…he got halfway to the nearest subway station before we found him." A pained expression crossed his face at the memory. "After he was old enough for me to tell him why his mother left, he was angry at her and started to pretend she didn't exist. But lately, he started looking for her again."
"Is that—what happened?" Connie ventured to ask.
He looked at her sharply and she felt like sinking down into her chair. She couldn't help but say something—it wasn't in her nature to fade into the background. "It's a bit more complicated than that." He ran his hand through his hair, messing it up further. He looked distracted, as if he was having a hard time keeping his thoughts together. "Though it really is my fault."
Sierra made a small, frustrated noise, shaking her head.
"How could it be your fault?" said Jason.
"I didn't have my priorities straight. I thought I was paying enough attention to my children, but….My business was successful. I couldn't afford to not stay on top of things. I had to go to meetings, go on business trips….keep everything running smoothly. I couldn't let Dad down." He gave a wry, humorless smile. "And of course I had to make sure Ben carried on the business—like he didn't have enough to deal with! I wanted him to follow in my footsteps and he agreed, like the obedient boy he is. I thought he'd keep his other interests as hobbies. I didn't see how much they meant to him till it was too late.
"We had the best year ever for the business, and I thought I could make up the time with the kids after the busy summer season." Bitterness filled his voice.
"I pieced all this together later. Ben often had a bad time in school. I enrolled him in a different school because of the bullying. He's sensitive and was an easy target for them. That he was Jewish didn't help. It seemed to get better in the new school, but now I realize he just didn't want to bother me with it. He endured it until he couldn't take it anymore….He's always been self-sufficient. I should've noticed the changes, but…he stopped getting straight As. I thought he was just adjusting to high school. He stopped doing a lot of the activities that interested him. I thought he was just growing up. He started working out, doing a lot of physical activity, though he never stopped doing what he loved most—writing.
"I thought this was all normal. He still seemed his old self, if a bit more serious. But I later learned this was probably triggered by an event where—" He shook his head, looking a bit sick—"some boys found a note he'd written for a girl he liked. They gave it to her and she stomped on it and the girl's boyfriend and his friends all ganged up on him. He…was beaten so badly they cracked a rib. And he told me that he just fell! I took his word for it even though he had a black eye…." He shook his head as if in disbelief and exasperation at himself.
"Meanwhile, Becca was getting in trouble in school. Acting out. She's a lot like her mother….and I can never be mad at her for too long. I was perhaps a bit too lenient with her…. Ben's grades were going down. He was even getting C's, which never happened. Even I couldn't help but notice that. I talked to him about it, but his grades didn't improve. And then he got into a fight. This time, he won. All his working out had paid off. But the principal didn't see it that way. Neither did I.
"The troublemakers ganged up on him again—and he put them in their place. I told him our annual summer trip was off. I went on a business trip instead. By this time, school was out and I left Ben at home with Becca, telling him to look after her. 'Be responsible for once,' I told him, which wasn't really fair. I told him—" He looked away, a tear flickering in his eye—"I told him that if he didn't get his act together, I could never entrust the business to him.
"'I don't want it anyway!' he said—the first I'd heard of it.
"'Your grandfather would be ashamed of you!' I told him. You have to understand, that Dad's very important to this family. He started the business after surviving the Holocaust as a boy—all the rest of our family was killed. He died a few years ago—he was a great man, and a good one. To disappoint him, well—Ben would never want to do that. He just looked at me and left. Those are the last words I spoke to him." The tears hovering in his eyes spilled onto his cheeks. He looked away, shame and sorrow in his face. "Excuse me," he said, and his face left the screen.
Connie looked at Sierra, who seemed lost in thought, then at Jason, who shrugged. She felt awkward, but that was nothing compared to what that poor man must have been feeling.
He returned, his face dry, looking apologetic. "I'm sorry. I've come to the end of myself. There's nothing I can do anymore—just entrust this to you. Try to keep hoping even though…." He swallowed, shook his head, as if trying to fend off more tears. He folded his hands in a businesslike manner. "Now, where were we?"
"The day you left," said Sierra.
"Ah. Well…I left to Berlin and tried not to feel guilty for what I'd said. I was still angry with him. But once I got to work, it was easy enough to forget….
"At home, Ben watched Becca—who's 13, a year younger than he is. One day she went to a sleepover with some friends and Ben—did something uncharacteristic. He went to a party. Not just any party.
"I suppose I should explain that the last fight at the end of the school year had a different effect at school than it did with me. Ben earned respect that day and the kids didn't bother him anymore. What's more, he earned a place with the 'cool' kids. They weren't the bullies—they were above all that. The group that contacted him, anyway.
"They asked him to a party and he debated whether to say yes. I learned all this from his journal later. He was done trying to be what I wanted him to be. It felt good being respected by other kids for once. Maybe he could become someone better…someone he could be proud of.
"So he left. According to the kids there, he seemed to be enjoying himself at first. But then the party started to get wild. They offered him alcohol. He didn't take it—he just wanted to go home."
"Good for him," said Connie.
Mr. Brand gave her a fleeting smile. "I was proud of him for that. But—" he took a deep, shaky breath—"when he left the party, he never came home." He swallowed, sat back. "The police looked for him, but they lost the trail after a month. That was when I contacted Sierra. A business associate had used her services before, and she'd come through with amazing results despite the apparently hopeless situation. Sierra's found much more than the cops ever did, but she says that she can only be in one place at a time. So she recommends you two."
Connie shifted uncomfortably. She didn't belong here with these professional agents.
"I'm glad we come so highly recommended," said Jason.
"I trust Sierra's judgment. You are former NSA agents, correct?"
"I'm just his wife."
"Do you have any experience in this area?"
Connie shook her head. "I'm sorry. I doubt I can do much to help you."
"That's all right. I thought I was getting two agents, that's all." He gave Sierra a pointed look.
"Well, they come as a pair or not at all. Isn't that right, Jason?" Sierra looked at him, a wry smile on her face.
"That's right. I'm not going anywhere without Connie."
"Might that not get a little…inconvenient?" he said, glancing at Sierra.
"Her presence helps me," said Jason. "Without her, I couldn't do my work."
"Can she handle herself if it gets dangerous?" He looked at Connie, who wanted to shrink again.
"If it gets dangerous, we'll get out of there."
"I see. What if my son is in danger? How far are you willing to go to help him?"
"I'll go in alone and get him out."
Mr. Brand nodded, though he didn't look totally convinced. It did sound a little too simple. And when had they agreed to go into danger? But Connie couldn't see how they could tell this man they would only try to help his son if he wasn't in danger. Now that she knew what had happened, she couldn't back out now.
"Very well. I'll pay you what I'm paying Sierra."
"You don't have to pay me," said Jason.
"Nonsense. I'd give everything I have to get my son back. A hundred thousand—that's nothing."
Connie's stomach flipped. A hundred thousand? Dollars? Before she could recover, Jason said, "All right. But we're not doing this for the money."
"Neither am I," said Sierra, passion and determination in her voice.
"It's been so long…he's been gone two months. Anything you can do—" His voice broke as he pleaded.
Connie wished she was next to him so she could give him a hug. "I may not be an agent," she said, "but I'll do everything in my power to help get him back." Everything? A small voice asked. Really? But how could she possibly promise any less after meeting this man, getting to know him and his son?
"I'll at least do some behind-the-scenes stuff, learn what I can. I'll let Jason do the rest." Which is what? Fear pricked her. She shoved the fear away. But she couldn't help but wonder if this would end up like so many other missions before. She couldn't believe anymore that just because bad things had happened in the past, they were owed a "break". She'd thought that once….but the world didn't really work that way.
That didn't mean something would happen either…and perhaps this mission would be routine for once and they'd get Ben back without too much trouble. She hoped.
"Thank you for agreeing to help find Ben," said Mr. Brand. "I'd almost given up hope when Sierra came along. At first it looked like he ran away. But I couldn't believe it—he's not that irresponsible. Then when we found clues he might've been kidnapped, I thought I'd hear some demands soon. But after almost two months without any demands from kidnappers, I couldn't accept that explanation either. Sierra found out that several other kids had disappeared from the same place the party was at. Some kind of group where kids who want to run away are given false identities."
Sierra leaned forward, clasping her hands over her knee. "That's what it looked like, anyway. Once I did some digging, there were discrepancies. The kids seemed to completely disappear, for one thing. I didn't think a small, altruistic organization would have that many resources. And when I contacted the boy at school responsible for asking potential runaways to these parties, he told me about the man who was responsible for transportation of the kids. This man seemed like a professional to me. I tracked him down. He spilled his secrets—such as they were.
"I tracked the leads he gave me, which led to a cargo ship to Southeast Asia and a plane to Eastern Europe. I knew I couldn't track both leads at once, so I contacted you, Jason. The leads are already going cold. We'll have to act quickly in order to follow them before they disappear completely. I'm planning on leaving first thing tomorrow morning. If possible, you should do the same." She looked at Jason.
"I wasn't expecting to leave so soon."
"You don't have to, but the sooner you leave, the better. You know what's at stake."
Jason nodded. "I'll leave as soon as I can. We'll have to find some airline tickets, for one thing."
"I'll help you with that," said Mr. Brand. "If you need anything, just ask and I'll see what I can do."
"I feel so helpless here. I'd go with you myself if I thought I could do the job. But I'm no agent." He smiled ruefully. "Just—bring him back, if you can."
"I'll try. If he's in Muldavia, I'll do everything I can to find him."
"That's all I can ask." He leaned to the left, out of the screen, and reached for something. A small framed picture. He turned it around so it faced the screen. "This is the picture of Ben I keep on my desk."
The boy in the picture had a ball in his hand and was laughing. He had curly brown hair and big brown eyes that seemed to look straight into Connie's. A girl danced in the background—Connie figured it was his sister, Becca. She had the same curly brown hair but it was longer, obscuring her face as she twirled. Ben looked so happy in the picture it broke her heart. Now he was in some dark, horrible place she didn't want to think about. How could anyone do something like that to an innocent kid?
"How old is he?" she asked softly.
"Fourt—Fifteen." Mr. Brand withdrew the picture. "He had his birthday in captivity."
Mr. Brand gave a small smile. "If-when he gets back, we'll give him a party that's better than a hundred birthdays."
He gave them his contact information and then he said goodbye.
"Well," said Sierra. "What do you think?"
"I think you did this on purpose. You wanted us to talk to him so we couldn't back out."
Sierra tipped her head. "You think I manipulated you into this?"
"You didn't have to do anything you didn't want to."
"I think you took advantage of the fact that we're nice people. You knew we couldn't let something like this happen."
"I knew you were a man of integrity. You're a good agent. And yes, you're compassionate. Good qualities for the mission. Forgive me if I thought you were the best person for the job."
A smile spread across Jason's face. "You did a good job of recruiting me. Very clever."
"It's true that this is important to me, for reasons I've told you before. And it's true that I am on a deadline, and your appearance in DC was extremely fortunate. I didn't even have to go tracking you down! It's like you just came to me." She smiled. "But…even if we don't share methods, and we sometimes disagree as to goals as well, I believe we both share a commitment to justice. Mainly, I just thought that this would be something up your alley. I'm sorry if it seemed a bit…underhanded. It's just how I do things."
"That's okay. As you can see, we've agreed to do this." He looked at Connie with a bit of a question in his eyes; she nodded. "You were right."
"Good. We're on the same page then."
"You're going to Cambodia tomorrow?"
Sierra nodded. "I'll look up those contacts for you."
"I'd appreciate that. I'd like to look up some contacts here, but I can do that remotely too. I suppose there's not much keeping me here, except that I'll need to find a flight to Muldavia." He looked at Connie. "Unless you have any objections."
She shook her head. "I don't want to hold you back. I want to help. As much as I can, anyway."
"See if you can get tickets tomorrow, if possible. Some of the Muldavians will be going back—perhaps you can catch a flight with them." Sierra picked up her computer, set it on her lap. "I'll send you all the intel I have about Yavesh. And one of your first steps should be to contact Kris Markov. He knows more about the organization than anybody—which isn't saying a lot." She typed on her computer for a few minutes; Connie finished her cold noodles.
"Well," said Jason, "I suppose we'd better get going." He stood.
"All the better, since I have to get up at three a.m." She gave them a preoccupied wave without looking up and they walked out the door.
"Well," said Jason as they walked down the sidewalk. "It looks like we're headed to Muldavia."
"Yeah. It's just—all this is just such a whirlwind I'm not sure what to think. First the party, and then finding out about Jerry's wife, and now this—it's one thing after another!"
He slid his arm around her shoulder. "Don't forget about…us."
"Yeah. That too." Heat rose to her cheeks. Longing for him hit her—she wanted him even closer than he was now. She wanted to forget everything else except him. She wrapped her arm around his back and hugged him closer.
They arrived at the car and got in. As soon as he withdrew, she felt cold without the warmth of his skin against hers. She didn't want to be separate from him.
He started the car, the muscles in his arm flexing. Just this part of him was marvelous; she could gaze at him all day. Just looking at him should be enough, but the more she had of him, the more of him she wanted. How could she have ever wanted to be separate from someone so magnificent?
She was glad they were going to Muldavia together. It could be like another vacation. A second honeymoon…although they'd have to do some investigation. But that could be fun too. As long as she was with him….This could be a honeymoon, unlike Paraguay, where something didn't go wrong. Perhaps all would go smoothly and they would find Ben and they could relax afterwards….
Even as she thought this, she realized she was thinking optimistically. But thinking that nothing whatsoever would go wrong wasn't realistic. It was as if she was trying to compensate for all the horrible things, a block against it, as if her mind couldn't cope with thinking something bad could happen this time too.
It might not all go perfectly, but it didn't have to end in disaster either. There might be some danger, some roadblocks, but statistically speaking (am I starting to think like Eugene? she thought), it was unlikely that he'd get kidnapped or tortured or enslaved. It had happened too many times already.
Then again, Jason was an agent and he did seek out the things that others ran from…..Though now he seemed more cautious, including in that meeting. He'd said as much.
"Jason," she said.
"Yeah?" He turned the steering wheel, giving her another view of his wonderful arm, and for a moment she forgot what she was asking.
"Um…I want to find Ben. But I don't want to risk losing you."
"I don't want to be lost, either. There's only so far I'll go. If I see a chance to rescue him, I will….but if Sierra doesn't find him in Cambodia, I'll let her take over the reins here. We'll give her the leads we found and we'll go off and have some fun. Like a second honeymoon."
She smiled at how close their thoughts were. They kind of needed something like that after all that had happened. "I'll make up for everything you did for me."
"It's me who has to make it up to you. For everything you gave me." He smiled and a thrill ran through her.
Jason's phone pinged just as they pulled up to the hotel. Jason picked it up and read it. "It's from Dad. It says…he's sending me a picture of Jerry's letter. That way I can read it for myself." Another ping. "Here it is. Want me to read it to you?"
Connie nodded eagerly, excitement running through her at what it might say.
"Let's get out of this heat first." They climbed out of the car and went up to their pleasantly cool hotel room. Then they sat down on the bed and Jason started to read.
"There is no such thing as impossible. The word itself says I'm possible."-Audrey Hepburn
“You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” –C.S. Lewis
“No one ever made a difference by being like everyone else.” P.T. Barnum
Here's Chapter 11
Tension seized Jason's body as he looked at the picture of the letter. A letter written in Jerry's own hand. He wished he could hold it, but this was the next best thing. The words blurred and for a moment he couldn't read.
Then the blurs coalesced into sentences and he read aloud to Connie, his stomach clenched, his throat tight.
Dear Mom and Dad,
and Jana and Jason,
I need to tell you about what happened here in Vietnam. In my other letters, I glossed over details because, Dad, you know war and so I don't have to tell you what it's like, and Mom, I didn't want to worry you. Jana and Jason, I hope you never have to know what war is like.
But I can't deny the truth of what happened over here, the pain and the glory of it.
You hear stories about Vietnam before you leave, that lot of people give into evil. You have to kill to survive, that's one thing. But the things people let themselves do…become no better than the enemy they're fighting. They let the war cloud their minds, muddy their morals. I was self-righteous about this at first. I would never fall.
Oh how wrong I was.
I hesitate to tell you. Especially you, Jason, who looked up to me so much. I wish you could keep this heroic image of me, but that would be selfish.
The truth is, I gave into evil. I was proud, to start with. It blinded me to the fact that deep down I'm no different than anyone else and it's only by the saving grace of Jesus Christ that I have anything salvageable inside me.
It's not like I did it myself; I just let it happen. But that doesn't justify it. Fear is no excuse either. It can't be, here. Especially when you're an officer; you're responsible for the men under you.
The other thing I'm hesitant to tell you about is top secret. And it involves someone else and her safety. But with the uncertainty over here—when the war will end, overall or just for me—it's worth the risk so you can help her in case I'm….not around anymore.
We trudged through the mud, sheets of rain pouring down, soaking us. The gray sky pierced by green knives of grass, slashing our arms as we searched for the enemy. We hadn't had any action for days and some of my men were itching for a fight, just to break up the gray sloshing mud with bright flowers of fire.
This kid, Jenkins, had glasses and that made it so he could see even less than the rest of us in the rain. Barely 18, smaller than most, the guys all teased him but he took it well and so they were good-natured about it. He was kinda like our mascot. We thought he had a charmed life; he once stepped on a mine and it didn't go off, some of the men thought he was lucky and even that we were an invincible unit.
We were checking out a weapons cache when some VC ambushed us. Shattered Benny's leg, that's my sarge. Good man. I dragged him to safety and fired back—we were surrounded on this little island in the swamp, just a raised bit of land, not much cover, so we were sitting ducks. I had to get my men out of there. I ordered some men to make a feint to the left, others to cover our rear as we retreated into the swamp. But they caught us as we came down, popped up right out of the gray water and shot some point-blank. I fought hand-to-hand with one—he stabbed me in the thigh and blood swirled into the water like red ink. Somehow we fought them off but by that time they'd killed five of us and Jenkins was lying face down, so much blood in the water around him we knew he was gone.
A chopper flew us back to base for R and R and to take care of the dead. Rally, one of my squad leaders, wanted to go right back out and find those VC—he didn't use that term—and kill them. Something in him snapped that day. I should've seen it but we were all grieving. We were a tight-knit unit, even more than most, I thought, and to lose Jenkins and four other good men…it hit us hard. But we forged on. I had to get a new platoon sergeant temporarily so I promoted Rally to the acting position.
About a month later, early August, we captured some VC. My men and I secured the village while Rally began the interrogation of the prisoners, two men and a woman, in a vacant shed. While I was occupied, the prisoners attempted to escape and Rally shot them. That was his story. I have no doubt they were trying to escape, but they were shot in the back, which wasn't really necessary as they were bound and couldn't have gotten far. When I returned, one man had died and Rally was beating the other man's face in. He was incoherent and useless as an intel source. Jackson offered to "put him out of his misery"; I held him back and had the medic take care of him.
Only the woman was left to interrogate. I let Rally be the bad cop and threaten to kill her family, but I didn't let him lay a hand on her. She taunted us, told us we were dead men like the buddies we'd lost. Rally swung a fist toward her; I shoved him out of the way and had a nice, civil talk with her. She seemed to thaw a little; I saw some of the fear in her eyes beneath the bravado, and we even shared a little about our families. She gave me a nom de guerre: Ana.
Just when I thought we were ready for a breakthrough, some of her comrades attacked and we had to fend them off. Once I got back to the shed, I found Rally had continued the interrogation by breaking one of her fingers. I tried to stop him but Jackson held me back. "She's close to cracking," he said. "You step in, she'll clam up again. He's already got some good stuff, sir. Just a little more. Otherwise this is all in vain."
"This is not who we are. We're Americans—this is what they do."
"I know. I know, sir. You've kept us on the good path. But just this once, look away. For the ones we lost. For the ones we can save."
I left the building, patrolled the perimeter. But no matter where I went, I could still hear Ana's screams.
When I got back it was like a slaughterhouse. Rally was covered in blood; Ana (I must use her name—to do otherwise would dehumanize her) was unconscious. He'd broken each of her fingers and carved the names of our fallen into her chest. I tried not to look at her directly, as if that would absolve me of guilt, as if she was just a "target" and not a human being.
"We got the intel," said Rally, beaming like he'd won a medal of honor.
I treated it like just another operation. She was just another casualty of war, an enemy at that. We'd done our job; it was a successful mission. We could be proud of ourselves.
We left her there; I'm not sure if she lived or died. I didn't feel guilty at first; I didn't feel anything but the need to keep my men safe. Until we stopped to rest, and she began to haunt me. Even if it was Rally who had gotten out of hand, I was responsible for my men's actions. I'd allowed it. It was the same as if I'd carved those names into her chest. Hadn't I wanted revenge too? How could I possibly delude myself I was any different, any better?
Still, I had to do my job, and I began to gain attention as a good leader from my CO. He told a CIA officer about me, and that officer contacted me for a special mission. Inside enemy territory.
We'd really only be glorified couriers; we were to deliver some new equipment to a northern spy. The CIA officer told me that he suspected a mole in his network; every agent he'd sent north had been killed or captured, the expensive equipment confiscated. We had a reputation of getting things done. He commended us for the intel we'd gotten from Ana; his agents had made good use of it. We'd take a different route than the others to throw the VC off track, but we should be under no illusions that this would be an easy or safe mission. He'd only take volunteers.
I took a small group of 10 men and we went north. We'd just dropped off the package when we were ambushed. Two men were shot; I covered the others so they could get away. I emptied my ammo and then fought with my knife—I'd rather be killed than captured—but they stabbed my leg and I went down. Blows rained from all directions until a rifle hit my head and I blacked out.
I came to in a cell at a VC base camp. My body ached; I could barely move. A man dragged me to the interrogation room and the fun began.
My interrogator was the man we'd thought was our agent. He'd been fooling the Americans for years, feeding them false intel, getting their agents captured. I was no different; he'd extract the info he needed then kill me.
He asked me about my mission for the CIA. I couldn't tell him any more than he already knew. So he hit me. He asked about troop movements and supply routes; I wouldn't tell him anything. So he hit me again. He wasn't especially creative even though he always bragged about his abilities. I think he confused enjoyment for expertise. Plus he had a big head from fooling the Americans. He was probably a good spy, but not a very good interrogator. I called him Hack.
Still, he began to wear me down, especially if the sessions ended with him hitting me so hard I blacked out. I probably had multiple concussions, and my wounds were left untreated and infected. One of his COs sat in on an interrogation and I was apparently so incoherent and delirious he ordered a medic to take care of me.
I don't remember much after that; it was probably days before I was fully conscious again. It was like heaven; my head was clear and I barely ached. Someone came in with food.
No, not just someone. The most beautiful girl I'd ever seen. Silky hair that fell like a sheet of black water. Intense brown eyes in a perfect oval face. For a moment I thought she was an angel, especially since I felt no pain and pain had become part of my existence. She also reminded me of Ana…guilt struck my heart.
She handed me the tray of food and then left. When she came back, she aimed her gun at me and told me to follow. I was back in the interrogation room, but this time Hack was gone, replaced by another man. He spoke no English so he needed the girl, Ai, to translate. I knew basic Vietnamese but no complex words or sentences.
His interrogation was perfunctory and he rarely used physical force. It was a welcome reprieve. Plus I got to be in the same room with Ai, who looked at me with disdain as she translated.
This guy didn't get anything out of me either, so they got some sort of specialist to have a go at me. He was good. Big, brutal, but he knew how to inflict maximum pain with minimum damage. Ai translated for him as well.
One day he had me on the floor, just screaming and sobbing with pain, like I was on fire. Ai threatened to stop translating unless he stopped hurting me so badly; he grabbed her and asked what side she was on. She said she just couldn't stomach this; he said if she was weak she didn't belong in the VC and began choking her.
First I noticed the absence of pain, then I noticed frantic, strangled cries. I looked up to see Ai kicking at him as he held her in the air by her throat.
I asked God to help me because I knew I couldn't move on my own. I couldn't redeem myself for what I'd done to Ana but I could help Ai.
I struggled to my feet and stood, shaking. Somehow I managed to say, "Stop!"
Anger crossed his face. He dropped Ai to the floor and turned on me. Gave me a good old fashioned beating till I blacked out.
When I came to, Ai was shaking me. It was dark. She told me that they would kill me since I had outlived my usefulness. She led me down the hallway and opened the door to the back, where there was a running vehicle. "Thank you. For what you did for me," she said.
"Thank you for helping me, Ai. I wish—"
"Go! I can't let them catch me." She darted back inside.
Somehow I got down the road a bit before anyone saw me. I had to ditch the vehicle and run into the jungle. Survived for days, dodging patrols, eating bugs, till I ran into an American squad and they had me choppered back to base.
Everyone had thought I was dead; they had a big party for me. I recuperated and then went back to leading my platoon. Everything went back to normal. Vietnam-normal, anyway.
Until one day I saw Ai on base, delivering supplies to the soldiers. She drove out before I could catch her.
My men and I were hanging around base for a little while, so I saw her when she returned later that week. I caught up to her this time. She took me aside and told me that she was supposed to be an agent for the VC, but she was really working for the Americans. She had been with the communists when I'd been captured but she wasn't a die-hard party member or anything. All she wanted was for the war to end and for her country to be at peace. She thought the VC would do that. But I'd changed her view of what Americans were at the same time she'd seen the brutality of the VC. She didn't want to be complicit in that so she agreed to help us, in part to bring democracy and peace to her country, in part to make up for what she did.
I then told her my own struggle—my own complicity. Hurting a young woman like her. I expected her to leave in disgust. But she forgave me. I felt a dark burden lift from my heart. It wasn't totally gone—it never will be. But what she did freed me, more so than when she'd let me out of the enemy camp.
Whenever she was on base, I found time to be with her. We began hanging out together. Eating at mess together. The boys began to make fun of me. I knew I should be careful; I didn't want to blow her cover. Spending too much time with any one American without intel from him would be suspicious to her handlers. So we did things in secret. Had picnics out on this grassy hill with beautiful red flowers. I gave her presents. I felt she deserved the world.
Then I got orders to move out. We'd be deep in the jungle for weeks, perhaps months. My heart felt like it was imploding. I couldn't be without her. I wished I could just take her and run away from the war and just live with her in peace.
But I decided to do something a little less drastic. When we were out on a picnic, I asked her—Dad, Mom, can you believe this?—to marry me.
And even more wonderful and crazy—she said yes!
Two days ago, we were married on our hill under the moonlight. She had a red flower in her hair. She was so beautiful! We sealed it with a glorious kiss and then…well, I'll leave it at that.
We had two frantic days together, stolen kisses in the hallway, nights in a little abandoned hut covered in vines. Today I have to move out, leave her to the lonely life of a spy. How I can leave her without my heart breaking I don't know. I'm sending this letter so you know the worst and the best of me, and so that you know to take care of her in case I don't come back. Only the chaplain and the witness know about our marriage.
She's leaning over my shoulder as I write this in our little 'cabin', as I call it. Kissing me. Now she's saying that she wants to say hi to you and she can't wait to meet you. That she won't let me leave and if I do she'll drag me back….Oh I do love her, I can't tell you how much, my heart's bursting and I—
I miss you. I've got a long tour left but when I come home, I'll bring a beautiful bride with me.
And, just in case,
Goodbye. (I'll see you in heaven, anyway!)
Jerry (and Ai) Whittaker
Ai wrote her own signature beside Jerry's in both English and Vietnamese.
Jason sat back in the chair, exhausted, emotionally drained. Such a letter! He couldn't process it.
The last thing his brother had written. The living words on the page, almost as if he were alive…
Tears sprang to his eyes, slid down his cheeks. Connie wrapped her arm around him and he nestled his face against her shoulder and cried. Letting loose all the emotions he'd kept inside all these years, stuffed down just to move on, But he'd never gotten over his brother's death, just…ignored the pain and forged ahead. What else could you do? Now it felt like all those years had never been and the pain was fresh and real as if he were a boy just hearing about his brother's death….
But now…Ai. She might still be alive. A connection with his brother. Hope and excitement leapt in his heart. Even more than ever, he had to do something to find her.
He sat back, still holding Connie's hand, the phone in his other hand as if setting it down would sever the link between him and his brother. "She knew Jerry sent this letter," he said. "She might have thought we didn't care about her since we didn't try to find her after the war."
"Maybe she thought something happened to the letter—like it did."
"She didn't try to contact us though. Maybe she thought we abandoned her. Or maybe—" He couldn't stand the thought that she could be gone too. How horrible to get this letter after all these years, too late to do anything about it. What was the point? Why would God let this happen for no reason?
"Maybe she couldn't contact you. She was a spy."
Jason nodded. That was it. She probably thought it was too risky to send a letter as a spy. Maybe even after the war. Especially after the war, because it had become a completely communist country. "I wonder how long she was a spy. If she tried to get to America or if she didn't think it was worth the risk. Maybe she doesn't even want to hear from us."
"That's not what she said in the letter."
"Yeah…but that was before Jerry's death. Maybe she wanted to move on. Forget it happened. She probably has a family of her own now, maybe even remarried."
"I think she'd still like to find out about Jerry's family. It sounded like…they were very much in love."
"They have something in common with us, then." He squeezed her hand. "Before this letter, I had no idea… I just thought he was over there fighting for truth, justice, and the American way. Even after his death, I didn't really think about what it was like for him. When I heard stories about Vietnam, it didn't connect with this heroic image I had of him, like he was a figure from some ancient drama. He was always larger than life. Now I see that he was just a man like me—younger than me—thrown into a horrible war. I'll never really know what it was like, but now I have a more realistic idea than my childhood image of it. That he gave into darkness doesn't make me think less of him. I can't judge him, since I've never been in war myself, never been faced with such impossible situations. I looked up to him so much that no one could've lived up to such an image. In a strange way, I feel closer to him because he worked for the CIA."
"Spying must run in the family."
Jason nodded. "I hope the communists didn't catch Ai…. Maybe we can find the chaplain and the witness, whoever they were."
"That's a start."
"I'll make some calls before it gets too late."
Jason called some contacts, but hit dead ends. Then he looked at the info Sierra sent over about Yavesh and sent her the possible leads. Finally he called Kris Markov, who told him that he'd brief them tomorrow on the way to Muldavia on his private plane. Wearily he set down the phone and got ready for bed.
He ran his hand over Connie's cheek, reveling in her beauty in the dark. At least Jerry had known love before his life had been cut short. But Ai had had to live afterwards…torn from the one she loved. Jason couldn't imagine losing Connie. To live without her the rest of his life, a huge piece of his heart ripped out… he hoped he never had to go through that. His heart went out to Ai, wherever she was.
Just as he was drifting off to sleep, the phone rang.
It was Tasha.
"There is no such thing as impossible. The word itself says I'm possible."-Audrey Hepburn
“You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” –C.S. Lewis
“No one ever made a difference by being like everyone else.” P.T. Barnum
"What is it?" said Connie sleepily.
"Nothing, go back to sleep."
"Mm…" said Connie, snuggling closer to him.
Jason was tempted not to answer. Why was she calling in the middle of the night? But he pressed the green answer button.
"Hello, Tasha," he whispered.
"We're sleeping, you know."
"I'm sorry. But I just want to give you a heads up. When you go to Muldavia tomorrow—"
"How did you know—wait, don't answer that. I don't want to know."
"When you fly out, we'll be going with you."
"What do you mean?" He sat up. Connie reached for him and he wrapped his hand around hers. She smiled and curled up under the covers.
"It's last-minute, I know. But the Agency wanted me to go with you."
"I'm gonna be up front with you, Jason. No secrets except need-to-know. They want me because I know you. They want me to work with you as long as the relationship is…beneficial."
"Use me, you mean." Jason carefully slid his hand out of Connie's and walked into the entryway.
"At its most basic, I suppose."
"So the NSA is interested in human trafficking now?"
"Not so much, no. They're more interested in the arms trafficking side of things. Yavesh has come up on their radar; separate leads converged to reveal a common source. They want to know more about this organization that's thwarted them and has been clever enough, till now, to seem like small-time, disparate groups and random incidents. You've got an admittedly tenuous lead; they want to follow your investigation. And then I'll diverge once I get enough info to go deeper into the weapons trafficking angle. I'm sorry if this makes things…difficult for you."
"No, it's fine. I understand, you've got to follow orders. With our past, things could get…awkward, but I think we're able to keep things professional."
"Yes. There's another thing. Another reason the Agency wants me to go. Gray is coming with me."
"I thought he wasn't in any condition to go on a mission."
She scoffed. "He's not. But I don't have any influence with the higher-ups. I actually flirted with the idea of leaving the Agency. This business, this dirty underside I've had to see firsthand, makes me sick. The greater goal—if they even know what it is anymore—has been thrown off-track by their games, their detachment, their lack of empathy. The ends don't always justify the means. But besides the fact that being an agent is in my blood and I can't just turn my back on it, I have to be Gray's handler. If someone else was in charge of him, they wouldn't care how fragile he is and could push him too far. I still don't see how he can hold up long enough for a mission, but at least with me he has a chance."
"Why do they want him so much?"
"They see him as a great asset. How much he helped with Paraguay. And how much success he had before his capture. He's got experience with groups like Yavesh. They didn't see how he almost fell apart in Paraguay, or how he's not the same man he was. It's a good thing he's not the same man, but he's in no shape to be an agent. If he fails, they'll send him back to the CIA. You know what happened to him there."
"He wants to do this. Especially since it's his only good option. I just don't see how he'll be up to it. I'll support him as much as I can, but I'm not sure that it'll be enough."
"I can help," Jason found himself saying. "I can try, anyway."
"Even after what he did to you."
"He's in pain; I have some experience with that. I'm not really sure what I can do to help, though."
"Just be there for him. He expects to be hurt. He still expects me to hurt him, to…want revenge for what he did to you. And he's got this…well, not irrational fear, after…but he is afraid of other men."
"Maybe my talking to him isn't such a good idea."
"In Paraguay, you forgave him, kept him from being recaptured. He knows you have good intentions—though he's probably as mystified about them as about mine." She laughed softly. "It's so strange to have this sort of rapport with him, to be his only advocate. I'm…not entirely comfortable with this…relationship. But I'm just going to have to deal with it so this mission will have as few road bumps as possible."
"We all will. This should be…interesting."
"Yeah. I'm still trying to wrap my head around it."
"I'll see you tomorrow, Tasha."
Jason set the phone down and sat there for a minute in the dark, absorbing what she'd said. He was so tired he knew the full import of Tasha and Gray joining this mission hadn't sunk in. As if things weren't interesting enough.
Excitement and a bit of dread knotted up in his chest, he crawled back into bed and wrapped his arm around Connie's. He kissed her temple and then lay down.
It took longer than he would've liked to get to sleep, but eventually he drifted off into dreams.
In the morning, they packed while he told Connie about his conversation with Tasha. "She's coming with?" she said.
"Not only her. Gray's coming too."
"Wow." She dropped a shirt into her suitcase. Looked away toward the opposite wall.
"Are you okay with this?"
"I have to be okay with it."
He walked over to her from beside the bed. "No, you don't. We wouldn't have to go if you don't want to."
She gave him a smile. "It's just a lot to take in, that's all. I know Gray's not the same person he was…that…he deserves our sympathy. But I haven't seen him since he kidnapped me. I mean, I saw him a little in Paraguay but not close up like you did. I don't think I've…been able to get the closure that you have."
"Maybe now you can."
"Maybe. So much else has happened and ….I thought I was over it but when you said he was coming….I sort of felt a panic. I'll have to face him, look him in the eye…the one who hurt you. He is the same person, even if he's changed, and I…I'm not really sure if I've forgiven him. I just thought I did because you did…but it's not really the same thing. I don't even know what to forgive him for, because he didn't really do anything to me."
"He kidnapped you. Broke your leg. Set the bomb that put you in the hospital." Anger stirred in him when he remembered what Gray had done to the one he loved.
"I don't really count that. It's what he did to you that matters. But he did it to you and not to me and so….it's like I don't have to forgive him but the anger's still there, deep inside…" A tear spilled onto her cheek.
Jason laid his hand on her arm. "I know. I know how hard it is. The first step is acknowledging you do feel anger and hatred, and then asking God to forgive you for it and to help you forgive. Even though Gray didn't hurt you like he did me—it still had to affect you. I didn't realize that. This'll be a bit challenging for the both of us. Even though I've forgiven him and want to help him, the memories are still there and—it still hurts." Tears sprang to his eyes at this realization. He would never completely heal, just as he'd always bear the external scars…. He'd just have to make the best of it. Use his pain to give empathy to Gray and others.
"Oh, Jason. I know." She turned to him, kissed his cheek. "I wish I could make it stop. Part of me thinks that hurting him will help—but it won't make you better, it will only create more pain, for him and for me. Forgiveness is the only way to go, I know that. Will you pray with me?"
Jason nodded. They knelt beside the bed, Jason's hand in hers, and she asked God to help her forgive Gray. Jason asked God to give her strength, and to help him to find ways to help Gray. They prayed about the mission too, that they'd find Ben soon, and to encourage his father. And for them to be able to find Jerry's wife, and to keep her safe.
"I feel much better about this now," said Connie. "It will be a little weird with Tasha there…."
"You don't have to worry about Tasha." Jason swept her into a kiss. She laughed and kissed him back passionately. But reluctantly he broke away. They'd be late if they didn't watch it.
They packed and drove to the airport. Leaving their rental car behind, they went through the terminal and boarded a sleek, compact private plane, blue and marked with "Bonne Chance".
Inside, Kris Markov met them. "Welcome aboard," he said. "I'm glad you could come. The more diverse perspectives we have the better. You're a legend among those of us who have a window into Muldavia's secret past. One might even say hero." He smiled.
"I don't really deserve that…I learned much more about intelligence since then."
"I welcome your present self then, although your status as hero of Muldavia could also be of use. Please, take a seat anywhere you like. We'll serve lunch at midday."
Excitement gripped him as he walked down the aisle—he was actually going back to Muldavia after all these years. It would be fun to visit now that James was in charge and it wasn't communist with secret police at every corner.
After passing several people absorbed in their laptops, Saul and Leila greeted them.
"I didn't know you were coming!" said Jason.
"All of us security people are going back on one plane," said Saul, "and the prince and his entourage on another. This gives us a chance to compare notes on Yavesh. We're really overdue for taking a serious look at its threat to our national security."
"It'll be good to work with you again. And get to know you, Leila."
"Likewise," she said, smiling at him and then Connie. Jason was glad she wasn't ignoring Connie; he hoped she didn't feel left out on this plane full of spies.
At the back of the plane Jason spotted Tasha and Gray. His heart flipped as he walked toward them.
"Hi Tasha, Gray."
"Hello, Jason," said Tasha.
Gray looked at him, his blue eyes almost transparent in the light from the plane window, apprehension cutting through the cautious eagerness in his face.
"Mind if I sit down?"
"Go ahead," said Tasha.
Jason sat across from Gray so it wouldn't force Connie to confront her feelings about Gray until she was ready.
Jason however had to figure out what to say to Gray that wouldn't hurt him. He couldn't exactly ask "How have you been".
"It's good to see you again."
Gray's eyebrows furrowed as if he didn't quite believe Jason. But he said in a quiet voice, "It's good to see you too, Jason."
"I'm looking forward to working with you."
"You were…very professional last time we worked together. I'm sorry I couldn't have been of more help to you."
"Are you kidding? You provided the intel Tasha needed to go after Ramon."
"I drugged you. You were shot—I left you."
"The former was part of your cover. The latter was my choice, and there was no use in the both of us getting caught. In the end, I escaped. No harm done."
Gray looked out the window a moment. Then back at Jason, a tentative expression on his face. "I barely survived Paraguay, you know. It's gotten worse, not better, since then. I'm…not sure how much of an asset I will be to this." His eyes dropped, a blush suffusing his usually pale cheeks.
This admission of weakness was a far cry from the Gray he had known. "You are a great agent. You have accomplished much."
"That was before. I was not even the great agent I thought I was then. If I were, I could not have become…this." He grasped his wrist, his nails digging into his skin. Beneath his long-sleeved shirt a white bandage showed.
"You still have that person inside of you. You can become him again."
"That's the person that hurt you." His eyes bored into Jason's, pain and challenge in them.
"You don't have to be the same man. You can be better. You can use your talents for good."
"For good. Ha! I can't even—" He stopped, as if choked.
"That's what you're doing now, believe it or not. By going on this mission. This can be a fresh start."
Gray tipped his head sideways, his eyes narrowed as if considering what he'd said. Then he said bitterly, "What makes you think I care about doing good? I'm doing this to try to get back some semblance of the life I had. And because…" He closed his eyes, leaning his head back against the seat wearily, and said so softly Jason could barely hear above the noise of the engines, "I don't have a choice."
"What do you mean?" said Jason.
"If…if I don't do this, they'll send me back. I can't go back." He shuddered, turned toward the window, his whole body tense. He grasped his wrist, fingers digging into it. He didn't look back at Jason and Jason thought he'd give him some space. But the plane was about to take off and he had to stay in his seat. He looked at Connie, who smiled and slid her hand into his.
"Tasha's been telling me about your mission to Muldavia," she said. "It's amazing to hear about it firsthand."
"She's probably glossing over my mistakes."
"Cut it out, Jason!"
"I mean it. I'm a bit embarrassed to be singled out as a hero, when any success I had was due to Tasha."
Tasha smiled. "You were quite green, it's true, but you also showed raw potential—and you later blossomed into one of the best agents the NSA has ever had."
"I could say the same for you. This mission has a much greater chance of success with you on the case."
A smile spread across her face. "Thank you, Jason. I will do my best….and it's a good thing I have experience with this country, although I think we'll find much has changed when we arrive."
"For the better."
Tasha nodded and pulled out her laptop.
"Is he all right?" said Connie, looking at Gray. The plane was taxiing down the runway.
"His arm, Jason-"
Sure enough, red had seeped through his bandage to stain his sleeve. "Gray—"
Shock seized his face; he lifted his hand away from his arm to look at the blood spreading through his blue shirt. "I'm sorry."
"Nothing to be sorry about. Here, let me help you—" Jason reached toward his arm. Gray jerked away, fear flashing across his eyes. He grabbed his seat belt as if to unbuckle it. Jason moved toward him to stop him. Gray tried to writhe away from him. Jason sat back, not knowing what to do.
Tasha touched his shoulder. "Please, Gray. Stay in your seat. It's all right. No one will hurt you. You don't have to be afraid."
The wild terror faded from his eyes. Tasha slid her hand into his hair and stroked it like he was a child. He leaned back, his breaths slowly steadying as the plane rose into the air and gravity pressed them back into their seats.
"I'm sorry," said Jason. Gray didn't respond, didn't look like he'd heard.
"It's all right," said Tasha. "Now that you know, just...try to be more careful."
Jason nodded, feeling sick. He'd had no idea until he'd seen Gray's reaction how deeply he'd been hurt. But it made sense. Jason had had trouble being touched after what Gray had done to him. Jason had experienced PTSD symptoms to some extent, but not as intensely as Gray must be suffering....and he had no idea how to help him. What he'd done had just made things worse. With such a recent injury, of course he was not recovered. Tasha was right. If he was still so traumatized, how could he do his job? Would he be a liability to the mission? Or would he even get that far before it became evident he wasn't useful and be returned to the CIA detention center? Was there a way that Jason could help him, or should he just keep his distance?
The plane lifted through the clouds, and Jason walked to another seat. Connie followed him. He sat by the window, watching the clouds glide by, her head on his shoulder, his heart troubled.
After lunch, Markov called them into the conference room in the back of the plane. Gray did not join them.
Connie sat at the conference table in the back room of the plane. She was trying to concentrate on what Markov was saying, but she kept zoning out and watching the pictures of his PowerPoint on the wall, which were equally nonsensical but at least were colorful. Jason sat beside her, looking rapt, as if it was the most interesting thing he'd ever heard. So were Saul and Leila and Tasha and the other agents. Gray wasn't present.
She wanted to be able to help Jason as much as possible, so she needed to at least sort of understand what was going on and not just be deadweight. But all these agents knew much more than she did already, so she didn't know how much "help" she could provide without getting in the way. She could just focus on having fun…but this trip wasn't just about having fun. She wanted to support Jason in whatever way she could. It would be hard to even do a fraction of the amount that was already second nature to the agents, but she had to try.
She made another effort to focus on the words and understand what the Muldavian security director was saying.
"Yavesh works in self-contained cells, which communicate with each other anonymously. This makes it almost impossible to bring down the organization, because if you capture members from one cell, they won't be able to lead you to another.
"However, it also has a hierarchy. If one cell seems to do particularly well, their superiors will send in a scout to scoop up the individual most responsible for its success. My agent was trying to rise in the ranks before he was killed. He gathered most of the intel I'm sharing with you now. Before we sent him in, we didn't even know for sure if we were really dealing with a cohesive organization or just small-time criminals trying to make an extra mina.
"The hierarchy, however, remains completely opaque. We have no idea who organizes it at the central level. Until we find out what lies at the core, we'll only be fighting the symptoms, not the disease. But we must fight it, even if it seems like a losing battle, because if we give up, we will be surrendering our country to ruthless criminals with no respect for human life or the rule of law.
"I know you're all professionals; you've been around the block. But Yavesh is in a whole different category. It's comparable to ISIS in its calculated brutality. The difference is, it works in shadows and doesn't display its evil on the Internet. Our evidence comes from smuggled cell phone video like this."
An image flashed on the screen. It showed about nine girls lined up along a wall. A man stood in front of them, speaking in harsh tones in a foreign language. As he spoke, some of the girls began to cry silently, tears streaking their cheeks. They oldest was probably only fifteen. One of the girls began sobbing, and the others tried to comfort her. The man stepped forward. He grabbed the sobbing girl and wrenched her away from the others, slammed her to the cement floor. She cried out, her knees scraping painfully. The man jammed his gun to her head.
Connie nudged Jason's shoulder. "I can't watch this," she whispered.
"You don't have to. You can just—"
The gun went off. But the girl was not harmed. She writhed away in fear. The man grabbed her by the hair and lifted her up against the wall. Shoved the gun against her shoulder.
Blood—screams—too much blood.
Connie tore outside of the room. The door slammed. She leaned against the wall, shaking. Her heart thudded hard in her ears like the reverberations of the gunshot. She slid down to the floor, leaned her head in her hands. Tears slipped onto her cheeks.
How could anyone do that to an innocent girl?
A half-sob squeaked from her throat but she was in too much shock to cry.
She didn't have the right to cry….not after what she'd seen. At the same time, how could she do anything but cry? How could she let this happen—but she had no way to stop it—she was totally inadequate, how could she possibly think she could do anything—she'd just be a hindrance to Jason—probably would've been best if she'd stayed home.
The image flashed again across her mind and she fled it—anything to get it out of her head.
She ran down the aisle to the front of the plane, past the curtain where the food was located.
Someone moved in the shadows. Wide panicked eyes.
Then the figure stilled, steadied into someone familiar.
"Oh, it's you," said Gray. He held a glass in his hand, sloshing with an amber liquid.
"Are you all right?" Part of her was grateful for something to focus on; part of her wanted to be alone.
"Of course I'm all right." His voice was cold, hard, although there was a slight quaver to it.
"I'm not." She didn't know why she said that, only that she was still shaken.
"You can take what you want from the bar, you know." He indicated the glittering wine glasses, stacked neatly on the rack, and the dark gleam of various bottles with elegant labels.
"I don't drink."
"Probably a good idea not to self-medicate. I should have joined the meeting instead of coming back here. It was a…momentary weakness. But it appears that meeting wasn't worth it anyway."
"It was too much for me. They—" She tried to keep from seeing the image again—"showed a video of a man shooting a girl. I couldn't watch any more."
"My old self wouldn't have flinched at such a thing but now…perhaps it's good I didn't go to it. They were human trafficking victims?"
Connie nodded. "I want to help but I don't think I can. I'm not cut out for this. I'm no agent."
"I used to be an agent…but now I don't belong with them either. I am…little more than a slave myself." His eyes were haunted. The terrible sorrow in them cut her to her heart. He was not the same Gray as before….perhaps she could help him. And in doing so, find a way to forgive the Gray he had been….
"Connie!" Jason dashed up to her. "Are you all right?"
"I'm sorry I didn't come right out after you. But Markov delayed me. Are you sure you're okay?" He laid his hand on her arm.
"Yeah…I am now. I ran into someone." She gave Gray a hesitant smile.
"Are you all right, Gray? I didn't see you at the meeting."
"Yes," Gray said, tugging his left sleeve down over his new, unstained bandage. "I will…try to make the next meeting." He lowered his eyes. "Please disregard my reaction earlier. You just…startled me. I…am still not myself."
"I understand. I know what it's like to be…recovering from a traumatic experience."
Gray looked at him sharply as if not sure if he meant more than he was saying. Then he gave a curt nod, set the half-empty glass down, and went back to a seat.
Connie sat down beside Jason along the window, away from the others. Tiny waves glistened far below like carved blue ice.
"I'm sorry I ran out," said Connie. "It's just that—I couldn't watch."
"It's good you're not used to seeing such things. I can have a bit of a clinical detachment if I block myself off, but this time, I felt like running out too. It's not war—it's the torture of young girls. I can't close myself off from it—and I shouldn't. I should let my feelings drive me to do something about it." He looked out the window, the sky reflecting in his eyes, making them an even more brilliant blue.
Connie shot awake. Lifted her head from Jason's white shirt. Good, I wasn't drooling, she thought.
"Hey," said Jason, and kissed her lightly on the mouth.
Heat suffused her cheeks. "Someone might be watching."
"So what? Besides, most people are sleeping."
Sure enough, most people had their seats reclined. The sun shone golden into the windows from the west.
He kissed her delicately along her jaw. She gasped and pulled away. She wanted more of his kisses, but didn't want the chance of someone watching what was theirs alone to share.
He whispered, "If you want some privacy, we could go into the conference room and lock the door."
"Someone would find out," she whispered.
"Some time alone would be nice, though, wouldn't it?"
She nodded. It did sound nice; they probably were only halfway across the ocean, and it would be a while before they could be alone together again. She still wasn't sure about this, but excitement laced through her. She let him lead her to the conference room.
Inside, it was warm and dark. His hand moved to the small of her back and guided her gently to him.
He kissed her slowly, lusciously. She savored his touch. She'd been away from him, from this, for too long.
Alarm cut through her mind. "Jason, is the door locked?"
"Oh! I forgot." He rushed to the door and locked it, then returned to her, fire in his eyes. "So, where were we?"
"Here," she said, sliding her hands around his back, and pressing her lips softly to his. He wrapped his arms around her and drew her close, her cheek against his, his soft hair entwined in her fingers. She reveled in the fact that she was this close to him at last. She'd needed this without realizing it.
She leaned back against the table; he consumed her lips in a fiery kiss. He lifted her onto the table and she let out a shriek of surprise. She hoped no one had heard….although any embarrassment she might feel was muffled by her desire.
He climbed onto the table with her and slid back the fabric of her shirt a fraction to kiss the top of her shoulder.
He lifted her into his arms—she laughed—he gave her a deep, passionate kiss that left her breathless.
Then he slid back off the table. "I think—that better be it for now."
"If we're in here any longer, someone might miss us. Besides, now that we're back together—I need you even more. You fulfill every part of who I am." His eyes were fervent in the dark. "I was starting to forget where we are."
She needed to be closer to him too—but he was right. She didn't want to get too carried away, yet.
She slid off the table and smoothed her shirt. "Here," he said. He slid his hand softly into her hair and drew down a strand that must've gotten mussed up.
She ruffled his hair into an artfully messy style and slung her arm around his waist. They walked out of the conference room, most people still sleeping in the same positions, hopefully none the wiser.
They walked back to their seats. She entwined her fingers through his. She couldn't stand not touching him in one way or another, even if it was torture not to be as close as they'd been a few moments before.
Markov strode down the aisle as if from nowhere.
"I want to talk to you," he said in a stern voice. She shrank back, afraid he might not have approved of their using his conference room for personal purposes.
"What about?" asked Jason.
He sat down across the aisle facing them, leaning forward, his hands folded over his knees. His dark eyes were earnest. "What they showed in the conference room was too much for you, Connie, wasn't it."
"I'm sorry. I'm not used to that sort of thing."
"That's the problem. You're a civilian, I get that. But if you're going to be a part of this, you've got to get over your squeamishness."
"Wait just a minute," said Jason, an undercurrent of anger in his voice. "It's a good thing that things like that bother her. Sometimes we agents take our detachment too far. Keeps us from acting."
"On the contrary, it keeps us from acting rashly. Anything done from emotion instead of from reason is courting disaster. Of course we can let ourselves feel. But sometimes those feelings can be a liability. We cannot let them control our actions."
"I agree to a certain extent. But these are children. Being used for horrible, unspeakable things. If we're stifling our compassion for them, our effectiveness can be dulled."
"Or we can let our passion rule, rush in, and get ourselves killed and do nothing to help the cause." He sighed, looked at Connie. "What I mean is, this is just symptomatic of a larger issue. You are no agent; your ability to help us will be limited, and if you remain ignorant, your tenderheartedness and your well-meaning attempts to help may keep the real agents from doing their jobs."
Connie flinched inwardly at the harsh words. She'd already been thinking such things.
"I…I want to help," she said. "But maybe it's better that I just stay out of the way."
"She will help as much or as little as she wants," said Jason, the anger more than an undercurrent now. "We aren't employed by you but by Mr. Brand to find his son. We're helping only because our interests coincide. You cannot tell us how much or how little we're going to be involved in your own operation."
Markov blinked, as if taken aback a little. Then he said, "You may not be employed by us, but if you're going to work with us, you'll need to follow certain protocol. The bare minimum of competence. I will not have my operations messed up by amateurs."
Connie felt tears spring to her eyes. She loved how Jason defended her, but she knew Markov was right. "It's probably best if I stay out of the way." She looked at Jason. "I don't belong with all these agents anyway. I'll do some investigating if I can but I'm not going on any agent adventures."
Jason smiled a little. "I'm not sure how many agent adventures I'll be going on myself." He looked at Markov. "I have no obligation to help beyond the parameters of my own mission. I want to help Muldavia… but I will do so in my own way." He stood. "And the next time you talk that way to my wife, I won't be so forgiving."
Markov's eyebrows rose. Then he nodded. "Fair enough. But it is also fair to point out that this game is a dangerous one. And if you want to help, you should learn quickly—or stay out of the way."
He stood and strode down the aisle.
Jason sat back down. "We are guests on his plane. But we didn't promise anything either. It's not like I can singlehandedly fix their country like I apparently did last time." He sighed, sat back against the seat.
"You are amazing. I could never do what you do—I won't even try. But I still want to help."
"How much can I really do though? I didn't understand half of what he was saying in the meeting."
"Anything you can do will help."
"But it's not enough! If not even the agents can help those girls….maybe I don't belong here. But I can't stand by while I know things like that are happening! They're hurting them—I—" A sob built in her throat. She sought solace against his shoulder. He wrapped his arm around her. "Contrary to what Markov said, a tender heart is a strength, not a weakness." He kissed her tear-damp cheek. But she couldn't help but wonder whether he was right.
The plane landed in the dark on a rainy airfield. Connie stirred awake, sleepily grabbing her carryon. Outside, a limousine drove up. It turned out it was for them and Tasha and Gray.
They rode through rain-soaked streets, some of them cobblestone. Brick buildings, some ancient, rose up around them. A few were tall, modern, glistening like obsidian. On the edge of town, perched on a hill, stood a palace. Made of white stone, it gleamed against the darkness.
They drove down a long, winding driveway, past elegantly sculptured shrubs, gardens, fountains, statues. Then the limo pulled up under an archway. Jason helped Connie out of the car. She still felt half-asleep; all this seemed like a dream.
A man resplendent in a white suit glittering with jewels stepped out, a crown on his head. A woman beside him in a royal purple dress.
With a shock, Connie realized the man looked a lot like Jason.
Jason bowed; Connie followed suit, rather awkwardly. Tasha and Gray bowed elegantly.
The woman swept forward—she was like a grand lady, larger than life. She took Connie's hand. "I am Darya Regina, Queen of Muldavia. I'm very happy to meet you."
Connie stuttered out her own name, not entirely certain she got it right.
The man took her hand, kissed it. "I am pleased to meet you. I'm Roderick, king of Muldavia, but you may call me James. Welcome." He gave her a smile.
The king and queen ushered them into the palace, and Connie fell headfirst into a dreamworld.
"There is no such thing as impossible. The word itself says I'm possible."-Audrey Hepburn
“You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” –C.S. Lewis
“No one ever made a difference by being like everyone else.” P.T. Barnum
Here's another chapter!
The rain pattered on the roof. Jason stood by the window, looking out over the palace grounds. The sky was gray, the grounds drenched in rain. He had never been in the palace, but he felt at home here, and more at ease than he had the last time he'd visited this country…all the danger had leeched out of it. It was free now. Yes, in part, due to him, but mostly due to Tasha and James. The King had rebuilt his country into something remarkable over the past 17 years.
Seventeen years! Jason couldn't believe it. He felt a twinge of annoyance that he was so old. He'd only been in his early twenties last time….close to the age that his beautiful bride still was.
He turned away from the window to see Connie still asleep, lying in the grand, four-poster bed. She was all tangled up in the sheets, her hair tousled, her leg twining around a purple velvet blanket. She looked entrancing. I have a queen of my own, he thought, and stepped toward her as if drawn by a magnet.
Her brown hair framed her face, some of it twined across her neck. Carefully, he lifted a strand from her forehead, sliding it back to admire her incomparable beauty. As beautiful as she was now, she was even more so when her green eyes snapped with delight, when her mouth curved upwards into a smile. In a way, it didn't really seem fair to her to just admire her without her knowing, as if he was taking something from her without her permission. She should be able to look at him too, equally—admire him, or not. He needed the dynamic Connie, not the one in repose. The whole of her, not this quiet, external version that only hinted at the astonishing being she was.
Though he longed to look into her gorgeous eyes, see the love he didn't deserve shining from them, he didn't want to wake her until she was ready. Part of this was a vacation, after all. A second honeymoon after the horrible darkness that had torn them apart—an agony he never wanted to go through again, never wanted to even think about.
He sat down on the bed and slid under the covers, intending to read until she awoke. Despite his caution, she stirred and flipped over to face him.
"Hey, Jason," she said.
"Hey my beautiful Connie."
He drew his fingers gently along her cheek; she closed her eyes and leaned into his touch. Kissed the side of his hand. Just that kiss sent thrills through him.
He wrapped his arm around her waist and tipped his forehead against hers, gazing into her eyes.
She ran her hand through his hair, down the back of his neck. He drew in a sharp breath.
"You okay?" she said.
"Yeah. You're just—amazing." He kissed her cheek fervently. "I need all of you—but at the same time, this is more than enough." He took her wrist in his hand, kissed it.
She sat up against the pillows, the sheet falling to her waist. She traced his cheekbone. "It's funny how you look like him. The king, I mean. He's like you if you were older."
"And better-looking." He slid up to sit beside her.
"Stop it, Jason! You're perfect. But what if you're some long-lost royalty or something?"
He laughed. "That would be…interesting. My father said we might have once had cousins over here."
"Really?" Her eyes lit up.
He shrugged. "We've never really looked into it." Even though she was part of the family now, he didn't want to assume his father wanted him to tell her the secret, the time as a young man he'd been a king for a day to save a nation.
"I don't know if I'd want to be royalty…I want you all to myself." She slid out of bed, the pink silk nightgown draped regally over her body.
"Are you cold?"
He headed over to the fireplace, surrounded by comfy chairs, and stoked it back to life, added some logs. Soon it was radiating glowing heat.
Connie lounged in the puffiest chair, a soft blanket pulled up to her neck. "I suppose we should get up and get dressed."
"If you want. They serve breakfast all morning in the adjoining room."
"Wow. It's like a grand hotel!"
"James sure is treating us. I suppose we shouldn't take too much advantage of his hospitality. We're here on a mission, after all."
She flung out one arm. "Can we dance?"
"Sure." He took her hand, kissed it. Swirled her onto her feet. He imagined slow, beautiful music and led her in a dance over the soft carpet.
She leaned her head on his chest, traced one of the knife scars on his shoulder, then kissed the jagged mark. "I wish I could erase your pain somehow, make it so it never happened."
"I don't mind the scars so much anymore, now that I know you love me with them. The worst scars are—here." He pressed his hand over his heart. "They're not gone, just faded. But maybe some good can come out of them, if I let it."
She looked up at him, her eyes shining. "That's another thing I love about you, Jason. You can find good even in pain. Such horrible things—I can't even think about it without it hurting my heart. I hope you never have to experience anything close to that again." She kissed the scar on his cheek.
"I never want to either. I don't want the chance I could ever be torn from you." He kissed her on the mouth. Lifted her up in his arms, still kissing her. She shrieked, never quite pulling away from his lips. He twirled her around and she laughed, the fireplace and the rainy sky whirling past them.
"My Connie." He swept her closer and kissed her again.
She wrapped her arms around his neck and their kiss deepened. He needed her—needed more of her—nothing else mattered.
A knock on the door. He almost dropped her, but set her down gently, his mind in a haze. He only wanted to be with the one he loved. Maybe they should just pretend they were still asleep….
The knocking became more insistent. "It's me, Tasha," said a muffled voice.
Jason's heart thumped hard. He scrambled for the bathroom and swept his bathrobe over his chest, tying the sash tight around his waist. Then he dashed to the door and opened it.
"Hi," said Tasha. "I'm sorry to bother you but—"
Connie peeked from behind him. "Hi, Tasha."
"Hi, Connie." Her face flushed; she dropped her eyes. "I can't find Gray. I went to check if he was awake but he's gone."
"Gone?" Jason's heart flipped. "He's not in his room?"
She shook her head. "I came to you first—I want others to know as little as possible about what he's gone through. But if he can't hold it together, they'll find out anyway."
"Don't worry. I'll help you."
"Me too," said Connie.
Jason stepped out into the hall.
Tasha blushed, unusually coloring her pale complexion. "Um—Jason—maybe you should get dressed first."
"Oh. Right." He shut the door and pulled on some jeans and a shirt. Connie slipped into a white dress with a flowing skirt that fluttered past her knees.
They joined Tasha in the hallway. "How far have you gone?"
"Just our suite, including the bathroom. I don't want to go where we're not invited, but I also don't want anyone else to find him in case…something's gone wrong."
"I'm sure James won't mind us exploring the palace. He said as much last night."
"Yes, but I don't want to take advantage of his generosity."
"We don't really have a choice."
She nodded grimly and Jason followed her. His hand sought Connie's. "I hope he's okay," she said. "It…feels strange to want that."
"It means you've started to forgive him."
Tentatively, Tasha knocked on one of the other doors—tall, made with dark wood, an ornate frame with scenes of clashing armies, galloping horses carved across it. The door swung open; no one was inside.
They tried the next few doors with the same result. Until they came to one of the doors toward the center of the hall.
"Just a minute!" said a muffled voice. A moment later the door opened and a face peeked out. A teenage girl with beige skin, masses of dark brown hair tumbling over her shoulders, soulful brown eyes. "Hello," she said in a soft accent. "What's going on?"
"We were just wondering if you've seen a man—"
"No, I haven't seen any men. Not since I got here of course, last night with my brother."
"Thank you. We'll keep looking."
She opened the door wider, stepping out in a lacy lavender nightgown. "Who you looking for?"
"Just—the man I'm working with."
"You're not Tasha, are you?"
"Uncle James told me about you! So did Mama and Papa. You helped get Papa out of jail. And you must be Jason!" She took a step toward him. "You look like Uncle James."
"Are you…." He racked his mind for the name, buried deep in memory. "Zara?"
She laughed. "No, don't be silly. Zara's like, five years older than me. She's in college. I'm Luna."
"Oh. I don't think I remember you, then."
"Yes you do!"
"Mama was pregnant with me when you guys came to visit us and rescued Uncle James."
"Oh. I do remember that. Your mom's Marija, your dad's Stefan?"
She nodded vigorously. "They're coming later. Me and Stefan—my brother—got here last night. We don't want to miss the festival!" She looked at Connie. "Who're you?"
Jason wrapped his arm around her. "This is my wife, Connie."
"Hi," said Connie, holding out her hand. "It's nice to meet you."
Luna shook her hand. "You weren't here last time, were you?"
Connie laughed. "No, I was just a kid back then."
"Yeah, you don't look that old."
"But I do," said Jason.
"I didn't mean—Oh, I'm always saying the wrong things!"
Jason laughed. "That's okay. I'm kidding. We really need to get going though."
"I'll get dressed and help you find your friend." She dashed inside and closed the door.
Tasha looked at Jason, a wry smile on her face. Then she led the way down the hall, knocking on doors. The rooms were either locked or empty.
Finally they reached the end and opened a larger door onto a huge room with marble floors, flanked by colonnades, decorated with statues and elegant portraits. Beside the large main doors, filigreed with gold, stood two men, their voices echoing, indistinct.
Jason, Connie and Tasha approached them. As they got closer, Jason realized it was James and a young man with curly dark hair. Probably Luna's brother, he thought. Only two years old when I left. Seeing all these kids grown up does make me feel old….Connie's closer to their age than mine. He glanced at her; she smiled. He marveled again that she'd chosen him, of all people.
"Good morning, your Majesty," said Tasha, bowing.
"No, please don't stand on ceremony with me. You're the reason I'm here, after all. My honored guests." He gave a swift, elegant bow. The young man beside him did the same, the hint of a smile on his lips, his eyes dancing with good humor and mischief.
"This is Stefan, my—well, they always call me uncle, though we're not related. He's here with his sister, Luna. I'm sure you remember their parents, Marija and Stefan."
"Of course," said Tasha. "We remember you as well. We met your sister a moment ago."
Stefan laughed. "Luna's up already?"
"We might've woken her up," said Jason. "We're looking for—the man we came with, Gray."
"Oh, that's who he is?" said Stefan. "I ran into him a little bit ago."
"Where did he go?" said Tasha.
Stefan waved a hand vaguely toward the front doors. "Strange man. He looked as if he were afraid of me. But then, I did run into him, literally. And I'm afraid I hurt him." He frowned. "Maybe he had a right to be scared of me. It's just that—he looked terrified. Or sick. Maybe he did need help."
"You didn't think to tell me this?" said James, an eyebrow raised.
"I forgot, till just now. Mama called, like I was telling you, and they're bringing Grandpapa too because he's feeling better and—Well, anyway. I'll make up for it by helping you find him."
"We can handle it," said Tasha.
"You sure? I mean, it's kind of my fault."
"It might be best if…someone he knows found him."
Stefan nodded. "If I may ask, what happened to him? He had a bandage on his arm."
"He's been through some…terrible things that I'd rather not go into."
"What can I do?"
"You can be careful around him. It's men who have hurt him. And—don't mention this to anyone."
"You can go anywhere you like, indoors or outdoors," said James. "Let me know if you need anything. I can lend you my guards."
"That would be…less than ideal, at least—for now."
He inclined his head graciously.
"Some umbrellas would be nice," said Jason.
"Your wish is my command." James sent Stefan for the umbrellas and in a moment he returned with three of them and handed them out.
Jason and Connie followed Tasha out into the porch and popped up their umbrellas. Then they headed out into the rain.
"I think we should split up," said Tasha. "We'll cover more ground that way."
"Should I approach him alone? After what happened on the plane…."
"Use your discretion. It's true that what Stefan inadvertently did might have triggered a panic attack….You have your cell phone, right?"
"If he looks too distraught to go near, call me. He's learned to trust me to a certain extent."
"Is he…suicidal at all?"
"He has been," she said grimly. "But he seemed to regain a bit of hope when I told him about this mission. If he'll be able to follow through with it, it'll help him recover."
"It's too bad he had to go back into the field so soon, though. I mean, his injuries aren't even healed; you can't expect his mind to be healed."
"His more recent injuries were self-inflicted." Tasha turned and walked off toward the rolling hills, a forest hinted, misty in the rain, mountains vague outlines in the distance.
"Do you think Tasha meant we should split up too?" Connie asked.
Jason shrugged. "We can do what we want, since we're freelancers. She's not our boss; we're just working with her."
"I'd rather stay with you. Unless—you think I should go off on my own. I just…don't really feel comfortable doing that, especially since I left my phone in the room."
He slung an arm around her waist. "I don't ever want you further than this, you know that." He kissed her forehead. "Besides…it might be better for you to approach him, considering his problems with men. If you're okay with that."
She nodded. "I'll try….I'm not terribly comfortable with it, but I do want to help in whatever way I can, and let him know I want to help him."
They walked down a stone path that led to a great arbor, like a tunnel, that had flowering vines crawling all over it, so thick they blocked out most of the rain.
"I can hardly believe Gray would actually go that far, to actually...hurt himself," said Connie. "I had friends that struggled with self-harm in high school, but Gray seems like he wouldn't be that kind of person. I suppose it does make sense considering what he's gone through."
"Before, he seemed almost invincible to me. I can't imagine what...what happened would do to someone, no matter how strong he was."
"Do you think he'll ever get back to normal?"
"I hope not. I mean, I don't want him to keep suffering, but I hope he'll be able to beat this, and become a better person through it."
Out of the tunnel, huge bushes lined the path like walls. Further on, the bushes were carved into sculptures of many different shapes. Then they ended in a vast field covered in roses in a rainbow of colors. As dramatic as they looked now, they must've been stunning when it wasn't raining. In the center of the rose garden sat a large white gazebo—and inside, Jason could just make out the shadowy form of a man.
"If that's Gray, I'll see if he's okay with me going near him. If not, I'll let you try."
Connie nodded, her green eyes wide, anxious.
His heart pounded as he reluctantly let go of Connie's hand and walked toward the gazebo, his shoes tapping on the wet stones.
As he got closer, it looked more and more like Gray. He was sitting on a bench, his back to Jason, wearing a white T-shirt. He was bent over, but Jason would know those broad shoulders, that slim but powerful figure and amber-blond hair anywhere.
Jason crept toward the steps, then realized it probably wasn't the best idea to creep up on him. But he didn't want to startle him, either. He really had no idea if he had come out in fear or was just out here to enjoy the garden in peace.
He cleared his throat. Gray whirled around, crouched as if ready to run, terror emblazoned across his pale face.
"It's all right. It's me, Jason."
"J-Jason?" said Gray.
It was then that Jason noticed the blood dripping down Gray's arm.
"There is no such thing as impossible. The word itself says I'm possible."-Audrey Hepburn
“You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” –C.S. Lewis
“No one ever made a difference by being like everyone else.” P.T. Barnum