Wednesday, November 2, 2016

What happens before Ticket Agent begins.....

*Spoilers ahead*

If you've read Chemical Agent: A Thriller, you already know certain events occur; these events are explained below in a Cliff's Notes-type of way. If you haven't read Chemical, stop reading now and grab it at your favorite online retailer... read it, then come back.
The following explains the start to the forthcoming Ticket Agent: A Thriller, and introduces a new character!

Enjoy!


CIA Headquarters
Langley, Virginia
Tuesday, August 16, 8:35 a.m. ET

No matter how much air I pulled deep into my lungs, my heart wouldn’t stop its maddening thump even as I approached the familiar confines of my—no, Alex’s; it was never mine, no matter what Forrister had said—former office. And even as I pounded the stairs with quick strides, I felt an unrelenting weight of apprehension settle on my shoulders, a stitch forming over my chest.
Every emotion—all of them—came with good reason.
I hadn’t returned to Langley since my third successive cross-country trip to Seattle; the president had, in a way, put me out of action in the aftermath of Darren Drake’s death and the emotional toll and strain of Alex’s brutal assassination. And even though I felt I had executed the previous mission to the president’s personal satisfaction, I guess he had felt Tom and I needed a little time off from the counterterrorism business. When you’re the president, you get whatever little thing you want.
In all honesty, I felt glad for the diversion. My soul had grown heavy with grief, even after I had vanquished a foe from my childhood, a foe I had never expected to take down.
But right now was not the time for a vacation, or a holiday as Tom and the rest of my English-born in-laws would say, and it was not time to reminisce about lost mentors and the devastating emptiness a secret agent like myself felt in her heart a year or so after the fact. The phone call had come just after 6 a.m. this morning: the three of us were to report to Langley immediately. I told the party on the other end we’d be there as soon as we were all showered and dressed.
The party on the other end had stressed, in not so many words, that we should conserve water. I took it as a not-so-subtle hint of our country having work for not only me, but Tom and Tasha, also, to do.
I already knew what that work entailed; even though I was technically off-duty the past year, I still managed to keep up with the happenings around the country and the world, thanks to a few precious emails from Salt and through careful sifting of the various media slants on television and on the Internet. A small group of domestic terrorists had taken over Mount Rushmore earlier in the month, and they had successfully, somehow, managed to fend off not only the park rangers, but also the South Dakota State Police. And as the voice on the other end of our call spoke of the details, I learned the events had slowly grown out of hand.
With no viable alternative presenting itself, Forrister had told Alex’s replacement to recall us. Sitting up in bed and groggy, I figured it meant the situation now required my special talents and services. Two and a half hours later and the phone call still playing in my head, I tried to quell the sly grin forcing its way to my lips as I thought about which of my special talents I’d have to use to rectify this problem.
As we hurried up the stairs, a young woman a little older than Tasha rose from behind her desk and immediately buttoned her dark blue jacket before she gasped with recognition. She had a demure, professional look, almost in the same way I had dressed; her hair, the color of gingerbread, tied back save two wavy curls floating toward her cheeks, framed a pair of glasses which rested on a rather coquettish nose. She wore a business pant suit over her thin build, and her face looked tanned, as if she had spent time on a beach recently. Lucky girl.
“Agent Johnson-Messingham, Agent Messingham, Agent Verkler. The Director will see you,” she said as she slipped away from her chair and walked several feet to the door. We followed. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
I can’t speak for Tom and Tasha, but I felt my heart weeping as I crossed the threshold into Alex’s office, now the office of D. Colin Turner.
“Sir, Agents Snapshot, Scouser, and Sex Kitten to see you,” the secretary said.
I almost heard Tasha’s grin without even looking over my shoulder.
“Thank you, Christina,” Turner said as he stood and approached us. Christina departed without another word to us. I noticed he had already disposed of his suit jacket, a black number men wear at funerals; it hung over the back of his chair. He had the sleeves to his white Oxford already unbuttoned and rolled up to just below his elbows, exposing muscular, tanned, and un-tattooed forearms. I remembered Turner was once a member of Special Forces, so I knew he wouldn’t have one—not even a Superman emblem like Jon Bon Jovi wore on his shoulder, or one which showed his devotion to a particular sports team—on the off-chance his missions went sour. Having ink usually led to torture from the enemy, but I’m not revealing what Tom does when he sees mine. That’s pretty private.
He didn’t smile much as he came over and shook our hands. I immediately felt heavy callouses; I figured the callouses were a by-product of heavy lifting, shall we say, while undergoing classified missions in the Middle East prior to his presidentially-approved extraction a year ago. I saw the fluorescent lights of his office—an office he hadn’t, thankfully, changed much; I still felt Alex’s spirit here, something I had hoped would happen when we made the drive over the river from Foggy Bottom half an hour ago—reflecting in the razor-clean baldness of his head.
“Agent Johnson,” he said. “Glad to finally meet you in person.”
I nodded once.
“Same to you, sir.”
“And your entourage, as well. I’ve read the reports. The president, of course, speaks highly of all three of you.” The way he had said it made me wonder if he truly believed Forrister’s praise. He waved us toward a conference table which hadn’t been here while Alex was in charge. We all took seats, with Turner at the head. “You’re next up in the rotation, and I’m sure you know that we have a situation.”
I nodded again.
“South Dakota, I understand.”
“Give the lady a cigar.” He didn’t say it with any emotion backing it, which didn’t exactly surprise me; I had heard Turner owned a by-the-book discipline which—much like body art in Special Forces—frowned on mirth in the clandestine services. I knew I’d have to watch my tongue until we knew each other better; it was in some ways the same methodology Alex had used in the early goings between the two of us, and I hoped I had the ability to revert to that type of relationship. “Armed protesters have seized the monument, are currently occupying it, and they’ve taken to shooting at any official trying to reclaim it. They’ve already killed two men who tried to sneak close to them in broad daylight. The president believes, and I must concur, your skills would come in handy to remove these zealots.”
“Why are they there?” I asked. “I thought I heard something about land rights?”
“Two cigars. The protesters, and we feel they are far left in the political spectrum, and so far to the left that they would fall off your knee, deem it necessary to seize the monument and throw the federal government off the property. They wish to revert the land back to the Native American tribes who had called it home prior to colonization and expansion,” Turner said. “The interesting thing is, and not surprising, the Native Americans don’t want them to speak for them, and have said they can fight their own battles.”
I sniffed as I smiled.
“I’m sure they can.”
“The protesters aren’t listening.”
This time, I gave a full snort.
“Do they ever? Have they asked for snacks?”
“No. You are to go to the Black Hills immediately, Agent Snapshot,” Turner said, his tone rather sharp and succinct. Okay. “And if Agent Scouser wishes to go along with you, he may.” Tom nodded almost immediately; I wouldn’t have doubted his inclusion, and I more than likely would have rejected the assignment had he not been allowed to come with me. We were a team in every sense of the word, our nationalities notwithstanding. “Use any methods necessary to subdue them, but we’d like them alive. We’d like to question them.”
“So blowing up the mountain is pretty much out, Jaclyn,” Tasha said with a wide grin.
I tossed my ward a look of warning. She quieted herself, but she still wore a grin, even with her cheeks turning pink in front of my HUD.
“Yes, that would be the preferred result for everyone involved,” Turner added. “Agent Verkler, you are to stay here and help us monitor the situation.”
I watched as Tasha reacted to Turner’s pronouncement, and I noticed a bit of continuing maturity on her part as she let her lips twitch for just a moment before she finally nodded her assent a few semi-awkward moments later. If this meeting had taken place two years or so ago, she would have protested against the decision, much as she did when I told her she would have to head home from Sydney while Tom and I looked for the person or persons responsible for killing Adam Mendelsberg, the Israeli prime minister. Of course, she had, with Alex’s prompting, countermanded my order, and instead slammed the man who had killed Lavi with the front bumper of her Mustang. Which goes to show my own judgment is sometimes misaligned.
At least that’s what I tell myself.
“Yes, sir,” she said, her back straightening military-style as she accepted the mission. “What will my duties entail?”
Internally, I smiled matronly. My ward had grown so much in so short a time.
“You are to assist us in keeping watch over the mission in South Dakota,” Turner replied, not breaking stride or giving anyone a moment to breathe. It felt as if we met with Forrister instead of the director of the CIA, except Forrister wanted loads of information and input before he made his decision; Turner seemingly cracked the whip without pausing. “You will feed information between Langley and the op on-site, and you will, if my reading is correct, perform some of the duties Agent Snapshot here performed long ago.”
I knew what Turner meant. Just thinking about how I had worked alongside Alex as a pseudo-mission control tech back in the day made my heart skip another beat; again, I kept my smile hidden. It was a frightening yet interesting experience for me: here you are, off-site, and you’re giving instruction and advice to someone on-site who truly has a better handle on the situation than you ever would. It’s one of those situations where you’re being groomed for command at an early age, and the bosses want to see if their trust is validated or misplaced. There are a few differences to our situations, though: Tasha had performed admirably in the field prior to this, while I had done this while in my teens without any field experience whatsoever. I had no doubt she would exceed Turner’s expectations for the mission.
As I mused, she had nodded.
“I’m willing to do anything to help the mission succeed, sir,” she said.
“When we’re done with this mission, I will fully expect Tasha to continue her field training at The Farm,” I said. “Much in the same way I did.”
“I agree,” Turner added at once. “We will have need of more operatives in the coming years as our older agents retire and are phased out, just like I was last year.”
I took note he didn’t look at me when he had said that, which I took as a sign that my job wasn’t in jeopardy any time soon. I also took another note: he didn’t particularly like his current job, his lips emitting a throaty grumble as he spoke the final phrasing. I honestly didn’t blame him, and I knew exactly how he felt; I had loathed the idea of being stuck here in this office, pushing paper after Alex’s death. Turner and I had a kinship of sorts, just from what I had learned from him in my conservations with Forrister and Melanie Ruoff. We were both doers; we did our best work with guns, taking out terrorists. We considered pencils and budgets as the tools of lesser beings.
“All right, you three. Let’s move out,” he said, breaking my line of thought. “Here is information on the targets.” He passed me a manila folder—a fairly thin manila folder. “Agent Verkler, head down to the sub-basement; Desmond is waiting for you to bring you up to speed. Agent Johnson, Agent Messingham, Parkerhurst has processed my requisitions for you, and there is a plane headed to Ellsworth from Andrews in two hours. Report in when you land in South Dakota.”
We stood, and the three of us shook his hand. I almost wondered if he would request a salute as we left, but no such request came. We left and headed downstairs, not saying a word to Christina as we passed her. We didn’t even say anything to each other until we got to the elevators.
Tasha, I noticed, looked as if she had swallowed milk which had sat in the fridge well beyond the sell-by date.
“You’re going to be fine, Tasha,” I re-assured her as the numbers above plummeted. She looked at me and took a deep breath; the good air helped return the natural coloring to her face. She nodded.
“I know.”
“Think of it as a new wrinkle in your training. I did it, and I’m sure Tom did it.”
“I did,” my husband said; I felt gladdened for his remembered usage of words, seeing as I was about five seconds from prying his lips open with a crowbar. I understood his reservations about speaking openly in front of Turner. He was still a guest agent in this country, and while Forrister appreciated his input all the time, we hadn’t nailed Turner down yet regarding his acceptance of foreign help. The fact Turner mentioned Tom as being a part of the operation meant nothing. “Dad made sure I had all my training down nice and proper.”
The elevator dinged as it came to a stop.
“I guess I’ll talk to you over the phone,” she said as she gave us both hugs. Tasha turned and headed toward Salt’s office, the nickel gray walls stretching a hundred feet away. “Love you guys.”
“Love you, too, kiddo,” I said as the doors closed.
“What do you think of Turner so far?” Tom asked as soon as the elevator resumed its trip.
“He’s hard to get a bead on, but I knew this coming in,” I replied. “He had been inserted in the Middle East for how long before Forrister had him extracted? Before my Boston mission, long before you and I met. Think of it this way: If you’ve only been in a foreign country for over half a decade working to bring down al-Qaeda from within, with no one you can trust nearby save at our military bases—and keep in mind, no one in our military knew what he was up to or where he was, for starters—wouldn’t you be a little jumpy when you return home?”
“If you take away bringing down al-Qaeda and replace trusting no one with a Yank who I share bed space, then yes, I’d be quite jumpy when I went back to mum’s when you went to Atlanta.”
I had to admit: he had me there, but I would never admit that to him. Instead, I rolled my eyes underneath my Foster Grants and tried to draw out my counter.
“You were with me and Tasha for four weeks. Four weeks is not half a decade.”
“When your jaw is wired shut and your future wife is out hunting child molesters and human traffickers in Southern California, four weeks feels like an eternity.”
I didn’t reply. Instead, I subtly shifted my weight and waited for the elevator to stop again. Tom wrapped his arms around my waist; he gave me a soft kiss on the cheek, one I leaned into. The elevator came to a stop a few moments later, accented by a ding. Parkerhurst’s floor.
The doors slid open for us to find the smiling, waiting quartermaster looking right at us. The smile evaporated in a few heartbeats, replaced by a pair of rolling eyes.
“Please do not use my elevator as a place to neck, Snapshot,” he said as he turned and walked back toward his work station. We followed. “I thought the necking ends when you get married.”
“Not at all, mate,” Tom jovially said as he shoved his hands into his pockets. “Being married means you get to do it anywhere, without the throes of judgment ringing down all over the place.”
I heard Parkerhurst snort.
“Then I have something to look forward to when I finally find the right woman,” he said, not elaborating further as I felt my heart shattering for him. Instead, he led us to a small table in the center of the room, which had a few interesting items atop it. I looked around the somewhat barren workshop: I didn’t see a souped-up vehicle standing by.
“The Director has informed me,” he began, “you two are off to South Dakota, and he has asked for certain items made available for your use.”
“Right,” I said. “Where’s my car?”
I had expected a stare, followed by a pair of pursed lips which would have clearly showed his annoyance. It was Parkerhurst 101. Parkerhurst had a method to his madness, especially when it came to handing out my goodies: The tools of the trade came first, then the car. Always. I’ve set my HUD’s chronometer to it. My prompting for him to give me the car first, much like my usual banter and repartee, was an attempt to throw him off his proverbial game.
This time, I instantly realized I wouldn’t get the chance to smirk or giggle or make a condescending remark like normal.
He didn’t even flinch. He simply turned to the table and moved his arms about.
“Your night vision cameras,” Parkerhurst said, and he turned and held up a pair of straps complete with a miniaturized version of a camera attached at the bottom. They had the look of a miner’s head lamp, but I noticed the ear piece and the thin boom microphone attached to the right-hand side. “Bluetooth-enabled, which will connect to your iPhone and send visuals here via a satellite connection. Everything you see, Salt will see, all in beautiful black and white, all in 1080p high definition. You’ll use these headsets to speak with Command.”
I nodded. I didn’t trust myself to speak—at least not yet. In my mind, I heard myself say, “Car? Car? Car?” much in the same way the seagulls in Finding Nemo said “Mine?” but the words didn’t quite reach my lips.
“A light is here, and you turn it on here,” he explained as he indicated a switch on top. “Use the light sparingly, as it will drain your iPhone’s battery.” He handed them to us. “Besides, a light in the forests surrounding the monument might be a dead giveaway to your approach. Your weapons are here.”  The quartermaster gestured to his left, and he moved that way. We turned and let him pass.
Under my HUD, my eyes widened as the weapons he had indicated came into view.
“Whoa,” I said. “It that a McMi—”
“Your McMillan TAC-338A,” Parkerhurst finished for me. “A tactical sniper’s rifle. You may have trained with something similar, or used a variation of it.”
“Yeah, in Boston,” I replied, recalling the fight with Grant Chillings’ goons on Government Center. I found it tough to swallow, my throat slipping into a Death Valley status with every passing second. I’m surprised I had the ability to think, the thoughts of holding such a weapon turning my brain to porridge. The McMillan TAC-338A was a pretty damn good rifle; it was the personal choice of terrorist killers throughout the armed services. Quite possibly, Turner had used one of these prior to extraction. While I preferred a close-combat tool in my Walther P99s for normal, every-day counterterrorism, I would be lying if I said I didn’t want the chance to use this piece of weaponry before I died.
“And if you don’t need a bib, Snapshot,” Parkerhurst said, interrupting my salivating, “I have a few newly-created set of darkness and ether bombs for your use in South Dakota. Your jumpsuit is right there; Agent Messingham, I have some dark clothes for you, as well. Body armor, too.”
I noticed Tom looked positively giddy at Parkerhurst outfitting him; the most he had received before from the CIA, if my memory is correct, was a Walther handgun when we were in Sydney.
And my hand in marriage, of course.
I finally swallowed.
“Car?”
Parkerhurst’s smile felt paternal, in a way. I don’t know why. It just did. It countered my somewhat meek tone as gently as a baby’s coo.
“There isn’t a vehicle ready for your use at the moment, Snapshot. Your mission parameters do not include blowing up Mount Rushmore, I’m afraid.”
Why I frowned, I’ll never figure out.
“There will be a driver from Ellsworth, I believe, who’ll take care of your every need. The commander there is a thirty-something. Epping, I believe. A good man, or so I’ve read. They’ll help you put together your plan.”
I nodded.
“Thanks, Parkerhurst.”
“You’re most welcome, Snapshot. Happy hunting. I’ll have an assistant bring you a box to carry everything, and try to remember to disengage the magazines to the McMillans before you get on the Gulfstream,” he said with a smile, then turned and headed deeper into his sub-basement lair.
As soon as the door closed, I turned to Tom.
“Is it just me, or has Parkerhurst developed a sense of humor?” I asked.
My husband simply shrugged his shoulders.
“For Parkerhurst, that may be as witty as you’ll get, love.”

***

Andrews Air Force Base
Camp Springs, Maryland
Tuesday, August 16, 10:32 a.m. ET

I spied the powder blue nose of Air Force One off to the side as Tom and I rode into the base in a black-as-night Range Rover, crossing the rolling gray concrete until our escort came to a halt, the Gulfstream waiting for us; I heard the warming engines as we opened the doors. Tom hopped out of the back first, carrying the large box full of Parkerhurst’s toys—we had checked the chamber on each McMillan before removing the magazines—onto our ride. We didn’t have a full military escort; there were no soldiers carrying weapons at the ready nearby. As far as I knew, no one outside of us, Tasha, Salt, Turner, Parkerhurst, Forrister, and Ruoff knew of our mission, and I knew the folks ferrying us from Langley to Andrews and from Andrews to Ellsworth had rigid security clearances. For now, I felt adequately sure the mission would go on uncompromised.
Once we got outside of Ellsworth, though, everything regarding mission security would be up in the air. I held out hope nothing would leak. It wouldn’t be the first time if it had; I wondered if we had executed the woman who had leaked info during my Detroit mission for treason yet.
I smiled Claire the Stewardess’s way as I stepped into the Gulfstream. She didn’t wait for me to tell her to close the doors; she did it automatically.
“Do you two need anything?” she asked as soon as she had shut out the noise of the East Coast from the cabin.
“Do you have a menu? In-flight movie, perhaps?” Tom said sarcastically.
My knuckles stung as I slugged him in the meaty part of his shoulder. He quieted down.
“We should be fine, Claire. Just a couple bottles of water will do; we’ll eat lunch on-base when we get to South Dakota,” I coolly replied as we sat down. She smiled and fetched us our drinks before she headed into the cockpit for the duration of the flight to the Black Hills.
I reached over and grabbed Tom’s hand, and when our eyes met, I gave him a soft grin, and I leaned in for an even softer kiss.
“Here we go again,” I said, just as I heard the engines turn from a dull roar to a heavy whine.
We’d be in the air in moments.

TO BE CONTINUED IN TICKET AGENT: A THRILLER

Coming February 2017!
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