Oh, this chapter takes me back!
Well, to be fair, all the chapters take me back. They’re all in my past, after all. And no I won’t tell you how far in my past; spoilers!
Suffice it to say it’s been a while, and this chapter especially brings back memories.
See, it’s when we first met Mac.
You know Mac. I know you do. Amanda McAllister, the woman with no filter and no punctuation?
Don’t get me wrong; we all love Mac. She is one of our favorite people and we wouldn’t trade our experiences with her for anything!
But she was a bit hard to take at first. Simultaneously talking non-stop and painfully, cripplingly reticent to interrupt? Bad combination.
Okay, here’s where Adam gets me to blather on about things he finds important. Today he wants you to know about two things: the next volume of my story (my story, Adam, not yours!), and a contest to win an audiobook.
First the volume. Triumph’s Ashes releases in ebook on August 15, but if you don’t want to wait that long you can order the paperback RIGHT NOW. Just click the cover image right next to this box and it’s all yours!
Second the contest. Adam’s running a Rafflecopter through the end of the month to win a copy of A Quiet Revolution (Volume 4). Just click HERE and you’ll be able to put in your entry!
Enough! Time for the chapter. If you’re tired of waiting for updates, click any image (or the button, or HERE) to order your copy today!
Chapter 3: Please Have Your Papers Ready
The rescue party from OutLook was there in five minutes with a small APV to carry Joe. Kendra and Cass would have to walk, though they did have another agent accompanying them. She was a short, skinny brunette with an elfin grin.
‘I’m Amanda McAllister, but everyone calls me Mac,’ she introduced herself. ‘Director Talbott asked me to finish escorting you in.’ She talked quickly, with a hint of an eastern accent.
‘Hi, Mac,’ answered Kendra. Cass just nodded her hello; the adrenaline rush from the events of the past hour had worn off, leaving her feeling drained. ‘My silent partner here is Cass. I hope there aren’t any more nasty surprises.’
‘Oh, no, Ms. Foster-Briggs, no more surprises, at least I hope not, but that’s the thing about surprises, they’re surprising, aren’t they?’ Kendra tried to parse the sentence, failed, and decided just to nod. ‘You’ve been here before but Cass hasn’t, do you want me to do the whole tour guide thing or just get us there quick as we can?’
Taking a look at Cass, Kendra said, ‘I think a quick walk would be best. It’s been a long couple of days, and it’s getting on to dark. I remember, we don’t want to be out after dark.’
‘You got that right, boy, it’s not safe out here after dark, not alone at least, but there’s three of us and so we should be just peachy!’ And she led off.
Kendra allowed her a few meters before following. Pitching her voice low so only Cass could hear, she said, ‘Hon? You okay?’
‘Yeah, Ken. I’ll be fine. I just want to get this day over with, you know?’
‘I know. Have to check in on Joe tomorrow, see how he’s doing.’
‘What do you think will happen to him?’
‘Depends on what Director Talbott wants. He might be more useful in the field; in that case, she’ll get him fitted out. Mechanical or maybe a biological, depends on which he’ll take better. If not, she’ll find something in the office for him to do. Might be a little safer for him.’ She wasn’t quiet enough.
‘Are you talking about Joe, wasn’t that the most awful thing you’d ever seen, I can’t imagine being there when a damn big gator’s trying to rip off someone’s leg, he’s so lucky you kept your head and got it off of him, I’m sure he’ll tell you when you see him again!’
‘Do you ever stop to breathe?’ asked Kendra.
‘Oh yeah, I breathe all the time, see?’ And she demonstrated.
‘Tell me, Mac, are you usually out in the field?’
She exhaled, then said, ‘Not usually, I’m more of an IT specialist, you give me a system and I can hack it so clean they won’t even know I was there, why do you ask?’
‘Oh, no reason.’ Kendra let the conversation die and took Cass’s hand in hers.
In a very few minutes the river came into view.
‘We’re going down there?’ asked Cass.
‘We are,’ confirmed Kendra. ‘You won’t believe where the offices are located.’
‘I don’t believe it.’
Cass was looking at the nineteenth-century Greek Revival-style building at the end of the road. In stark contrast to the destruction they had seen along their walk, this brick building seemed to be pristine. A neat, tended lawn surrounded it, with people walking the grounds; huge stumps could be seen where trees had been removed. It seemed incongruous, in the wreckage of the city, to find a building that had such vitality. ‘What is this place?’
‘This is the headquarters of OutLook,’ answered Kendra with more than a touch of pride. ‘It used to be the old New Orleans Mint, then a museum. Now it’s ours.’
‘We don’t want to keep Director Talbott waiting, she doesn’t like that, it makes her unhappy and then she makes us unhappy so why don’t we just get inside so I can bring you to her office?’ There was definite urgency in Mac’s tone, perhaps a touch of fear.
‘No, she doesn’t like to wait. Never did,’ Kendra agreed. ‘We can sight-see later.’ They walked toward the Ionic columns at the center of the building.
‘Shouldn’t there be more security?’ asked Cass. ‘It seems awfully open.’
‘There’s plenty of security, don’t you worry about that, it’s our job to keep you safe and we will, so you can just-’
‘Mac, enough!’ said Kendra. ‘The security’s there; we just don’t advertise. You’ll see what I mean.’ They made their way up the steps and entered the old building.
The difference was immediate. Three heavily-armed guards stood just inside the doors and directed them to three separate man-traps. Kendra just managed to say, ‘Real name!’ before the doors closed and locked behind them.
‘State your name,’ demanded a metallic voice.
‘Aiyana Cassidy Foster-Briggs,’ she answered.
There was a long pause as the machinery thought about this before stating, ‘Identification not found. Entry denied.’
‘What? No, wait, I’m supposed to be here, I was brought here by an agent!’
Nothing happened at first. Finally, the voice said, ‘Identity of responsible agent.’
Another pause. ‘That name does not match records of current agents.’
Realizing her mistake, Cass shouted, ‘Foster-Briggs! Kendra Foster-Briggs!’
A longer pause. She was about to start screaming and banging on the walls when it spoke again.
‘Place your hand in the scanner for DNA confirmation,’ was the next directive. A slot opened in the far wall. She stepped forward a pace and inserted her hand with some trepidation. There was a sharp prick, then the voice said, ‘Processing. Wait.’
It wasn’t more than fifteen or sixteen seconds before the exit appeared, but it seemed much longer.
She stepped through and found the others waiting.
‘I forgot that you wouldn’t be in the system,’ said Kendra. ‘Hope you didn’t have too much trouble.’
‘Not much once I remembered your name.’
Kendra’s face was quizzical.
‘You haven’t updated it, remember?’
‘Got that right. Forget it. What’s next?’
‘Right this way, Ms. Foster-Briggs, if you’ll follow me, we just have to get you a visitor’s pass, and do you have your pass Kendra or do you need a new one, we can always get them both at the same time, it’s not a big deal, but we ought to get moving.’ Mac led them along a corridor. There was no attempt at modernization; the ancient marble floors were scuffed, the brickwork rounded by untold numbers of hands. At the end of the hall, they boarded an elevator. Mac reached for the controls, but Kendra got there first. She pushed a button and they started to descend. ‘I know where we’re going,’ she said to Mac, who seemed about to question her.
After nearly a minute, Cass commented, ‘This is either the slowest elevator in the country, or we’ve gone much farther than I thought we could. How deep are we?’
‘Oh, I’m so sorry, that’s classified, strictly need-to-know, I know you’ll understand but I can’t tell you -’
‘Eight stories,’ interrupted Kendra. ‘At least, it’s eight stories to Talbott’s office, or it was. Did she move her office? Never mind, we have to go to Security first and get ID’s. That is where we’re going?’
‘After the IDs, we can go to Security, but we have to get the IDs first or Director Talbott will have me hunting for nutria for breakfast, and I don’t know if you’ve ever eaten a nutria but they’re not all that tasty, I don’t want to do that, so –‘
Kandra cut her off.
‘They still down in the Pit?’ asked Kendra, but before Mac could answer she turned to Cass. ‘There was always a problem, see, with explosions when things went wrong. You couldn’t see it, it’s around the back of the building, but they blew out an entire wing one time, just absolutely leveled it.’
‘So now it’s underground? Under your offices? That’s safer?’
‘You’ll understand when you see it.’
‘Agent? You wanted to go to Security first? That’s -’ Mac’s explanation was cut short as the elevator finally stopped. The doors opened, revealing a short corridor that seemed to bend to the right, but before she could take more than a few steps, Kendra put her arm in front of Cass and said, ‘Hold on. I never asked, never needed to, but are you at all claustrophobic?’
‘No. Kendra, what…?’
‘Just checking. Come on.’ She led off into the corridor, which soon changed from metal panels to rough-hewn rock.
Cass said, ‘I thought it would be cold. Aren’t caves supposed to be cold?’
‘Only near the surface. When you get deeper, it gets warmer.’
‘How much warmer? I mean, how deep are we?’
‘We’re about a kilometer underground, and the temperature down here is a balmy 35° Celsius year-round.’
Cass’s face went white. ‘A kilometer underground?’
‘It’s perfectly safe, the cavern’s only about two hundred meters up and twice that wide, plenty small enough to support the weight above it, but it was the only safe place we could put them, it’s a lava bubble we think, whatever it is it works for us to do our R&D, it’s just amazing when they have all the spotlights on! But, Kendra, we don‘t -’
Cass got paler and paler through the entire recitation.
‘Thanks a bunch, Mac,’ growled Kendra, interrupting her again, then pulled Cass to the side.
‘Sweetie? She’s right, it’s safe down here. You won’t even be able to tell once we get back inside.’
‘Inside? Inside what?’
Kendra had been gently herding her along the wall. Now the rock gave way again to sheet metal, and then another door with a guard.
‘ID, please,’ he said from behind a security barrier.
‘We’re here to get an ID; how can we give you one?’ asked Kendra, posing the logical question.
‘IDs are in the first sub-basement,’ he replied, suspicious.
‘I tried to tell you Kendra, I really did but you cut me off and that’s okay because I know you’re worried about your wife, I’d be worried too if I didn’t know what I was getting into down here but we really shouldn’t be down here, not yet, and I did try to tell you!’
Kendra dropped her face into her palms, then ran her hands through her hair. ‘Fine.’ Her tone indicated it was anything but. ‘Sorry for the intrusion.’ And quietly they eased back to the elevator.
‘I sure hope there aren’t any more surprises, Mac.’
‘No, ma’am.’ For once, the petite agent didn’t have much to say.
The ride up to the processing sub-level was silent. The procedure didn’t take much time, though, and they were soon headed up again to see the Director. On their way, Kendra turned to Mac. ‘If you see I’m about to pull another boner like that, stop me, will you please?’ She smiled to take the edge off her words.
‘Sure, Kendra – I mean, Agent.’
‘Kendra’s fine. Can’t stand on formality when I just showed myself as a complete jackass, can I?’
The third floor of the building was thoroughly modern. They were led down the hall, through an anteroom, to a final barrier, another biometric checkpoint, which swung open just as Kendra was about to initiate the procedure.
‘I knew you’d make it eventually!’ called a voice.
Kendra grinned. ‘I knew we would too,’ she said, striding across the carpet to stop in front of an old-fashioned wooden desk. From behind the desk, a figure stood up out of the darkness and came around into the light.
‘Welcome back, Kendra.’ She put out her hand.
‘Thank you, Director,’ she answered, taking the hand, then being pulled into a hug.
‘Dammit, Ken, when did you think I got formal?’
‘Maybe when you got your promotion? It’s been a while, after all.’
The director released Kendra and stood back, holding her at arm’s length. ‘Ha! The only reason they promoted me is I knew where they hung too many of their skeletons. You think I was going to change my MO just because they gave me a bigger office?’
She was tall, nearly as tall as Cass, but much more athletic despite her age, which Cass guessed at her mid-forties. That body was covered with a conservative suit, custom-made by the look, that suited her position. Shoulder-length blonde hair framed a face that was currently warm and inviting, but Cass could sense that the emotion would change in a shot if needed. Probably a useful trait, running a business like this, she thought.
From the far corner an assistant stepped forward with a pair of chairs. ‘Oh, good, Keith. Right there, that’s fine.’ He set them in front of the desk as she settled back into her chair and raised the lights. ‘Sorry about the dramatics; I just couldn’t resist.’ The smile was on in full force.
Cass sank into her seat with a grateful sigh. Kendra stood a moment longer, unsure if the remaining chair was for her or Mac. Talbott, noting the confusion, cut through it.
‘Mac, if you wouldn’t mind waiting outside? Don’t go too far.’
‘Yes, ma’am.’ Mac escaped to the relative safety of the anteroom.
‘Coffee would be good,’ admitted Kendra.
‘And Ms. Cassidy – I mean, Ms. Foster-Briggs?’ The correction was smooth but planned, Cass noticed, as if Director Talbott wanted her to be aware that she knew all about her.
‘That would be fine,’ agreed Cass, though she really just wanted a bed. That didn’t look like it would happen any time soon, however.
‘Keith, coffee service, please.’ The assistant headed out.
‘This is the inventor,’ said Talbott after the door closed. She scrutinized Cass for a long moment before speaking again. ‘Good job bringing her in, Kendra.’
‘Thank you, Amanda. It wasn’t easy -’
‘Yes, I’m sure you had quite the adventure,’ said Talbott, waving off any explanations. ‘I look forward to seeing your report. But for now – tell me your story.’
‘You just said you would wait for the report -’
‘Not that – your wedding! I never figured you to be the type to settle down, Ken; how did – Cass, you said? – manage to pull you in?’
The tale took fifteen minutes to tell. Keith delivered the coffee near the beginning, then faded into the background. Kendra was animated, relishing the opportunity to give her emotions free rein, and Cass was soon pulled in, adding details and expanding on stories. The subject turned to Kendra’s early days with OutLook, which Cass found fascinating even despite the frequent reminders from the Director: ‘That’s still classified.’ And, eventually, even a few stories from Talbott’s career came to light to much amusement.
‘He never did figure it out.’
Kendra was rolling with laughter, and even Cass was finding it hard to control the giggles.
‘Cheese in the ventilators in July!’ whooped Kendra before losing it again.
‘Not everything I do, or did, was lethal,’ answered Talbott with a smile. ‘Now, then, not to change the subject, but I do rather need to talk with Kendra. Keith, would you bring Agent McAllister back in?’
When Mac returned, Talbott said, ‘Would you please escort Aiyana to her quarters and answer any questions she might have? I’m afraid I have to detain Kendra for a while yet.’
‘Yes, ma’am.’ She waited for Aiyana to rise.
‘You won’t be long?’ said Cass.
‘I don’t think -’ began Kendra before being interrupted.
‘I won’t keep her terribly late; I know you’ve had a busy few days.’ With that obvious dismissal, Cass allowed herself to be led from the room.
The door snicked shut behind her.