Cold Fury, Ch 1

Cold Fury
by: stmercy2020
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With a shout out to demented20 inspiring this deadly little kitty!

Chapter One
Tris is scouted by a rather unique talent agent.

June 1998
Trista Boyd was finally free of school, with its endless rules, and she loved it. She ran her hands through her shoulder-length red hair, pulling her bangs away from her eyes as she scanned the traffic. She was still wearing her backpack with several binders and notebooks, but now bereft of actual school books. The weather was unseasonably hot- already in the nineties- and so humid that she nearly wished she had gills, but she grinned anyway. It was four and a half miles home the most direct way, but she never went that way any more. She stretched her legs and arms, drawing envious glances from several of the girls still loitering around the bus stop and lustful gazes from the nearby teenaged boys. She told herself she didn’t care, but, deep down, she knew that was a lie. She reveled in the attention.

She set off jogging east through what her parents called campus town, the trendier, more upscale part of downtown Ann Arbor. The buildings weren’t particularly tall, averaging around three stories for most of the businesses with a couple larger campus buildings- dorms and such- and churches thrown in to give it a good mix. A couple boys from the track team were jogging with her, but she knew that wouldn’t last for very long, as she set a punishing pace and kept with it. As she turned onto the more rural-feeling Fuller Road, the last of them waved off and headed south back into the city. She was breathing well, now, she thought- in through the nose and out through her mouth at a regular, controlled pace- and her legs felt strong as they pumped up and down.

She crossed over the Huron River and ran past Mitchell Field on her right. She was sweating freely, now, but the air was so humid that it wasn’t evaporating off her as quickly as she liked. She’d gone about one-and-a-half miles and the heat and humidity was brutal. She tried hard to keep her stride even and strong, her head hardly bobbing at all as her long legs ate up the miles. She passed Huron High School, her three mile mark, and saw her current boyfriend, Jeff, doing up-downs out on the football field. She didn’t wave, as she wanted to conserve her breath. She wasn’t even halfway, yet, and the hardest part lay just ahead. Turning north on Huron Parkway, Tris made her way up the first hill to Glazier Way. There was a more direct route to get to this point, of course, but she’d wanted to see all the glistening boy-bodies out on the field, and to give Jeff something to think about while he practiced.

Glazier Way was a long, deserted stretch of barely passable road, poorly maintained and too hilly for most people to even bother attempting. Tris lowered her head and went for it, feeling the burn in her quads and calves as she forced her legs to keep going. Her chest was really starting to burn, now, starved for oxygen as she hit the four mile mark. The rolling fields and low hills of Huron Parkway had long since given way to huge, ancient trees, but the shade brought no real relief and was short-lived, in any case, as the trees gave way to another residential community heralded by a private snob school. Tris knew a couple of kids who had gone there, and they always seemed to be so proud of their family money, even if they had no idea what it took to make it and maintain it. She squelched that line of thought. She couldn’t afford to get annoyed when she still had about had of her run to go. She slowed until she was jogging in place and unslung her backpack. Pulling out a water bottle, she took a couple of quick sips of the luke-warm liquid before returning it to her pack and setting off again. The next part was, in Tris’s opinion, the most boring part of her run, and she let her mind drift as she went down Earhart to Geddes to Dixboro.

A few more turns took her through another beautiful piece of Ann Arbor’s rural-suburban landscape and back into more populated areas. The businesses on the East side of Ann Arbor always seemed a little rundown to Tris, as if they were just a couple of steps above being white-trash establishments. They were clean enough, and no windows were broken out like you’d expect to see in Ypsilanti or Detroit, but the stone and masonry and brick was old and crumbling. Here and there newer buildings showed that someone was taking an interest in renovating the area. Approaching La Shish, Tris noticed an orange detour sign. Apparently Washtenaw was being torn up again. She decided to head down Packard to get home. She hated running along Carpenter, though, as there really wasn’t a good path and the cars whizzed by with little regard for pedestrian traffic, so she ducked off just after the Secretary of State’s office, cut through the parking lot and hopped the fence to get onto Gross Road, instead. Thoroughly winded, Tris jogged in place for a moment to catch her breath. That was when she saw it.

Five men in surprisingly well-tailored business suits were passing briefcases between them. Tris willed herself to be silent, suddenly very afraid. There wasn’t a lot of drug traffic in Ann Arbor, she knew- most of the heavy stuff was traded in Ypsi, to the East- but she thought she knew it when she saw it. Unfortunately, running eight miles in the burning hot sun is not conducive to shallow breathing, and try as she did, she couldn’t keep from panting. One of the men looked up suddenly, then touched the elbow of the man next him. She could instantly see that not all of the men were fighters, but three of them were, and they turned and bounded for her while the other two dove for their respective cars. On the other side of the fence from her were a couple of trash cans and a straight run to Carpenter Road, but over here there was nothing but a couple of trees and some small shrubberies. She turned and started clambering back over the fence, but one of the men, a little taller than the others, caught her before she could get a leg over and slung her back to the ground, knocking what little wind was in her back out.

Tris fought a wave of dizziness and nausea and rolled quickly to her feet, instinctively dropping into a low crouch. She focused on her first attacker. He was tall and lean, well proportioned, wearing a pinstripe suit, and moved with the grace of a natural athlete. He wasn’t holding a weapon, but there was a bulge under his jacket that Tris knew meant he was carrying a gun. The other two toughs, only a little slower than pinstripe, circled to her left and right.. The one on her right was shorter than pinstripe, but still a good two inches taller than Tris. His hand snaked into a pocket and came back holding an asp, which he expertly flicked out to full extension and held low like a fencer’s foil. The other man, the shortest of the three, was also the biggest. Tris estimated that he probably outweighed her a good two pounds to one, and only some of that was fat as evidenced by his easy boxer’s stance. Tris saw immediately that she couldn’t get past them back to the fence. Her only hope was to get clear of them enough to make a sprint down Gross to the nearest driveway and pray that she could get enough distance to get inside a business and call for help. She guessed that she had more raw speed than any of them, but she was already winded and they were fresh. She had to do something to buy time, something to make them wary.

Pinstripe was the first to break the tableau. “Okay, girl. We know you saw something you weren’t meant to, but that’s okay. We’ve got a bit of a time crunch, so how about you just get in the car and we’ll hold onto you until the boss completes his deal, then we can let you go.” His voice was warm and masculine and sounded very reassuring, but his posture said that he was still ready to fight, and his eyes flickered just slightly to his left. That was all the warning Tris got- just the slightest twitch of his eyes- but it was enough. She leapt to her side to meet asp, cutting off his angle of attack and hammering him with a vicious jab to his bladder and a left cross to his head. At the same time, his weapon snaked out and he flicked his wrist, but she was no longer in the optimal position for him to deliver the blow. Instead of a crippling shot to the side of her head, he only managed to clip her with a glancing blow with his wrist. Although reeling, asp had enough presence of mind to drag Tris in and yoke her up hard as boxer came in and delivered two fast jabs to her chest.

Her world exploded with pain as flashbulbs went off behind her eyes and she felt bile rise in her throat. Gagging, she fought to regain her balance as boxer delivered another punch, hard, to her stomach. By pure force of will, she managed to tense her abs hard, hundreds of thousands of crunches and leg lifts now really paying off for the first time in her life. His punch landed with a meaty thud, but she barely felt it. She lifted her legs high and asp tried to dump her on her side again, but this time she was ready. As his grip slackened, she brought both feet back down and suddenly dropped her weight, pivoting from the hip and shoulder and drawing his elbow into her chest. She felt and heard his shoulder dislocate as he sailed over her and landed in front of boxer who was stepping forward for another left. She slipped it easily and simultaneously shucked the weapon from asp’s hand. She wasn’t able to grab it, but at least he didn’t have it, either.

Tris glanced around, but didn’t see pinstripe. Boxer stepped around the fallen asp who was already struggling back to his feet and moved in on her again, but she had his timing down, now. This time as he came in first with his right, then his left, Tris ducked the first, slipped the second, and brought her elbow up to block his third punch, a powerful right cross, at the source. Feeling at home in her game, she stomped down hard on his right foot. His leg shot up instantly, driven by pain, and she drove her leg down into a sidekick against the inside of his left knee. She felt the joint give as tendons and ligaments tore under a twisting strain they hadn’t been designed to support and the huge man buckled with a yell.

At last, pinstripe appeared, just a flicker of movement from behind her as he swept her base leg. She let herself go limp and absorb the fall on her back, but pinstripe continued through, jumping into the air and dropping his knee on her ribcage with all of his hundred ninety pounds on top of it.

Tris gasped hard and tasted the salty, tinny flavor of her own blood. She felt a rib under her skin crack and shift and knew she had to end this quickly. Let them think they have an advantage, she heard her father’s voice once again. Look for the gifts they give you and when you strike, strike hard and without remorse. Don’t waste your opportunities, because you may not get more than one.

Boxer was still rolling on his side, but asp was back to his feet and had found his weapon. Pinstripe tossed his knee over her and was neatly astride her, left hand choking her while the other hand got ready to punch her hard in the face. She knew that would end the fight right there, and she didn’t dare let that happen. As he reared back, Tris hooked his left arm and jammed it off to the side, throwing off his balance. She saw asp moving in to crack her across the head, but she was too fast. Sitting up hard, Tris threw both of her hands into a cross choke on pinstripe, using her powerful shoulders to drive her arms deep around his neck. Jerking her elbows out, she dropped back to the ground, bringing the gagging pinstripe with her just as asp’s strike whistled down. It collided with the back of pinstripe’s neck and Tris felt him go limp very suddenly.

Now it was one on one, and suddenly Tris wasn’t afraid anymore, even as she lay underneath the supine pinstripe. She knew she was better than asp. She didn’t know how she knew, but she felt it to the very core of her being. The emotion seemed to just drain out of her as she bucked pinstripe’s dead weight off of her into her sole remaining attacker. Distantly, she heard a siren approaching, but it was too far off and moving too slowly. Everything seemed to be moving slowly. As pinstripe’s body started to tumble away from her, her hand slipped inside his jacket and came away with his gun, a Glock-22. Tris had been firing guns since she was eight years old, and her aim was rock steady as she sighted down the barrel at asp. He was already moving, the tip of his weapon humming as it cut through the air at her arm. Instead of trying to move, she snapped of two quick shots. The first hit him in the middle of his chest, right above his heart. The second hit him in the neck, shattering his spine and sending out blood and gristle in a fine spray behind him. His grip went slack as all of his strength left him in an instant. His eyes went wide with shock and he toppled back without a sound.

The sirens were atop of them, then, and there were more than one. Suddenly Gross Road was awash with police officers and men in black suits. Someone was yelling, very close by, but Tris couldn’t make out the words right away. When she did, she felt worse than when boxer had punched her in the stomach. “Man down, man down! We need medics, ASAP!”

Tris got to her feet slowly, clutching her side. Every breath was painful. “Drop your weapon!” somebody shouted. She looked around to see who had a weapon.

“Miss, put your gun down and step away!” She looked down and saw she was still carrying a loaded gun. Very carefully, she put it on the ground, then stepped back. One of the uniformed officers retrieved it, watching her all the while.

“Oh, Jesus, Henry- what a fuckup!” A dark haired man with sunglasses was talking to another man. They were both dressed in suits and had the look of underpaid bureaucrats.

Henry shook his head. “Say that again. Okay, team, let’s sanitize this place. Somebody collect the girl for debrief. Marie! That’s your job.”

A woman in a gray suit walked up to Tris. She was shorter than Tris, but she seemed to fill up the space around her. Command presence, her dad called it. “Okay, Miss. I’m going to need you to come with me.” She spoke softly, but there was an edge of steel behind her voice.

Not knowing what else to do, Tris nodded, then asked, “Who are you?”

Not smiling, the woman drew out a leather wallet and flipped it open, displaying a badge. Tris only saw it for a moment, then it was gone again. “Special Agent Marie Cunningham, FBI. Any more questions?” Tris shook her head mutely and followed the woman to a car.

*****

Felipe Dominguez had watched from his black Saturn until he heard the sirens approaching. Something was very wrong about this. Certainly the girl was wrong- he made a mental note to check on her- but where had those policemen come from? Returning to his upscale house on Winter Garden Court, Felipe slammed the door and stalked through the foyer to his expensively furnished office. His wife, the new model that he’d acquired to replace the old one who was starting to get worn, started to timidly ask what the problem was, but he snarled at her and she immediately backed away. He’d pay for that later, he realized, but he could go out and buy her something pretty and say he was sorry and it would be better again.

Reaching for his phone, Felipe checked to make sure all of the security features were on and working before dialing an overseas number. The voice on the other end was smooth, cultured, and British with a hint of something else. “Giancarlo speaking. Is this Felipe?”

“Yeah.”

“I hope you are calling me with good news?”

Felipe swallowed. “Um, there’s been a complication…”

“Stop that, Felipe. You sound like a gangster. What’s the problem?”

Felipe explained about the botched deal. Giancarlo listened intently. That was one of the things Felipe had always liked about working for him. Giancarlo rarely got angry. He was, Felipe thought, an intellectual. That wasn’t to say that he wasn’t decisive- Giancarlo had risen to nearly the top of the European Corps by careful planning, judicious choices, and, occasionally, brutal uses of force.

“You have good instincts, Felipe. The police- I will check on them and get back to you. In the meantime, find out about the girl. Who is she? Has she family in the area? She sounds promising, and I want details.”

*****

The processing at the police station was a grim affair. One of the officers noticed Tris still holding her sides and had a woman take a look at her. The woman- Tris never got her name- was brusque but efficient. She found the broken rib with a quick, gentle probing, wrapped Tris’s ribs with an Ace bandage, and gave her some ibuprofen and water to wash it down with.

Afterwards, she was shuttled through a variety of stations. Her fingerprints were taken and sent off to the FBI, her backpack was taken and rifled through, as was her wallet. She had to repeat her name, address, phone number and birthday more times than she could remember having done before in her life. Finally, she was led into a small, gray office and dumped there. There was a water cooler in one corner, so she got up and got a couple glasses of water.

A moment later, a man stepped into the room followed by Agent Cunningham and closed the door. The man was slim and straight, with brown hair just starting to go gray at the temples. Tris judged him to be mid- to late-forties. He looked like a man who rarely smiled, if at all.

“Trista Magritte Boyd?” he asked, glancing down at a manilla folder in his hand.

“Yes.”

“I’m Special Agent Mitchell Brody, FBI. I believe you already know Special Agent Cunningham.” When Tris nodded, he continued. “Take a seat young lady. You’re going to be here for awhile, so you might as well get comfortable.”

Tris sat down at the table. The chair was a hard plastic model, not uncomfortable, but not especially nice either- the sort of institutional chair you sometimes find in doctors’ offices or church classrooms. There were no armrests, so Tris put her hands on the table in front of her. Special Agent Brody sat down across from her, while Cunningham moved around her and stood in a corner of the room behind her, maximizing her disorientation.

“Am I under arrest?” she blurted out.

Brody looked up from the manilla folder in front of him and cocked his head. “Now why would you think that?” he asked.

“I- I killed that guy,” Tris gulped. She could still see the shocked look in his eyes, the sudden surprise as his whole body failed to respond, the pain, the fleeting realization of his imminent death and the sensation of infinite regret just before his body crumpled. A wave of grief and nausea washed over her, then, and she felt the tears beginning to flow.

Brody waited. Sometimes the best confessions came this way, without much prodding or digging at all. “I killed that guy, and I think I killed that other guy, too.” Her tears were flowing freely, and she wiped at them ineffectually with her hand, but her voice was still clear.

“Why don’t you start at the beginning and tell us everything?” Brody prompted. She did. Brody was impressed. Her attention to detail was clinical, precise. She didn’t seem to have any of the blank spots in her memory that most people-even experienced police officers-suffered after intense action. He let her tell the entire story once without interrupting, then backed her up and went over it again. He knew that the crime lab people were still on the scene reconstructing events, but he felt certain that her narrative would match up with whatever details they felt. Probably better than that other guy’s, Antonio Kazinski’s, story would.

“Okay. There’re still a few things I’m unclear on,” he said, finally. “Let’s start with this one: Why were you back there on Gross Road in the first place? There’re no homes down there, and the nearest business driveway is a good hundred yards or so to the south. It’s pretty secluded.”

“I was trying to get off of Carpenter, so I cut through the back lot behind the Secretary of State’s office. I didn’t know there was gonna be a drug deal going on back there-”

“A drug deal?” Cunningham cut in, speaking for the first time.

“That’s what it looked like,” Tris flared.

“Oh, ‘that’s what it looked like,’ did it? You see a lot of drug deals?” Cunningham asked nastily.

“No! But I saw them exchanging briefcases, and then they saw me.” Tris was getting angry, now.

“So you drew them to you and then, what, you attacked them while they were offering you an out?”

Tris goggled at this distortion. “They weren’t offering me an out!” she exclaimed. “The one guy was going to club me with his baton!”

Brody put up his hands placatingly and Cunningham backed off. “Okay. So you thought you saw him moving and you moved to defend yourself?”

“Yeah,” she said, still simmering.

“So, from what you’ve told us it’s pretty clear you know something about self-defense. Could you elaborate on that?”

“Not much to tell, really. My dad taught CQB to marines before he retired, and my grandfather taught him. It’s kind of the family tradition.”

“How long have you studied?”

Tris was calming down again. “I don’t know. Pretty much since I could walk, I guess, but, formally, only since I was seven.”

Tris paused while Brody wrote something in his file. “One thing I don’t understand,” she said while he wrote, “the one guy had a gun. Why didn’t he even try to draw down on me?” She really wanted to know that. It was the only thing that didn’t fit in her mind.

“Maybe Special Agent Romeo Lopez didn’t draw on you because he has a teenage daughter of his own back home,” Maria suggested, almost sweetly.

At last it made sense to her. She felt all of her bravado leave her again, and she turned to see Agent Cunningham still standing against the wall, arms crossed. One look at her face and Tris knew she was telling the truth. She gasped for air, her hand coming to her mouth. “Oh, no,” she whispered.

“Oh, yes,” Cunningham said savagely. “That wasn’t a drug deal you stumbled on, that was a sting. We worked hard to get Lopez into that position. He was getting close to one of the major power brokers operating on American soil, and you pretty much flushed that entire operation down the toilet.”

Tris was shaking her head and sobbing openly, now. “I didn’t know, I didn’t know,” she wailed.

Cunningham took a step towards her, her face a mask of rage. “Agent Cunningham! Step back now!” Brody’s voice was a whipcrack. It snapped Special Agent Cunningham back to attention and almost physically drove her back.

“All right, Miss Boyd,” Brody continued calmly, “I think we’ve got enough for now. We’re going to go check on your story and we’ll be back. You just stay right there. Understand?”

Still sobbing, unable to speak, Tris nodded. Both detectives walked from the room and closed the door behind them.

*****

“What do you think, Mitch?” Marie asked as soon as the door was closed.

“Oh, her remorse was genuine enough, I think. You played that well.”

“It wasn’t just playing. What’s the word on Romeo?”

“Well, he’s not dead. She doesn’t need to know that, though. His career with the bureau is probably over, though. Doctors say his spinal cord was damaged from the blow to his neck. He’ll probably never walk again.”

“Shit. How long can we hold her?” Cunningham asked, jerking a thumb at Tris’s room.

“I suppose we could keep her overnight, but we’re not charging her with anything. It was just dumb luck that she ended up in the wrong place at the very wrong time. I think we let her go back to her folks.” He sighed. “At least we got that thug, Kazinski. Maybe we can pump him for information while he’s still doped on morphine…”

*****

Special Agent Brody dropped Tris off in front of her house on Eli Road, next to the Forestbrooke Neighborhood swimming pool. “This is a nice place,” Brody commented. “I need to go in and have a few words with your folks. You ready?”

Tris nodded. She’d finally managed to get control of her emotions, but she didn’t really trust herself to speak yet. She hoped Brody wouldn’t stay long, as she really wanted- needed- to talk with her dad, now. Taking a deep breath, she got out of the car and followed Brody up the short walkway to her porch. Her parents were already at the door.

Duncan Boyd was not an exceptionally large man, but he took up space. He had broad shoulders, a wide face with dark eyes, dark hair, and a dark moustache. Even relaxed, there was always a sense of the caged predator about him, although it was buried deep. He wore a loose fitting flannel shirt and blue jeans, no shoes. There was just a hint of something oriental in his features, but it would be hard to pin down.

Trista’s mother, Kenzie, was actually the taller of her parents, standing just under six feet in her stocking feet. Slender and graceful, Kenzie could have been a fashion model if she wanted, but realized that there was more money in design. Brody could see right away that Tris got most of her looks from her mother’s side- red hair, amber eyes, the elegant shape to her face. If she filled out the way her mother had, Tris was going to have to beat boys off with a stick when she got older. Actually, she probably already does, Brody thought to himself.

Tris’s father was the first to speak. “Good evening, officer,” he rumbled in his deep, masculine bass.

“How do you do, Mr. Boyd?”

Duncan nodded and gestured for everyone to come inside. The front door opened into a modest living room- reasonably spacious without being ostentatious. A beige sofa and loveseat helped to define the room’s borders and subtly defined the space immediately inside the door as the front hallway. Wide, tall openings led into the kitchen and dining areas, and a stairway in the northeast corner led both upstairs to the living quarters and downstairs to the basement.

Once inside, Brody got straight to business. “Mr. and Mrs. Boyd, I spoke with you briefly on the phone. I told you your daughter had gotten involved in an FBI operation- not intentionally, I assure you. At any rate, this operation is still in effect. We are doing our best to salvage matters. You understand?” Duncan nodded, although Kenzie looked a little confused.

“What that means, Mrs. Boyd, is that operational security is in effect. After tonight, you should not talk about this subject, even if you think you are alone. You don’t write down anything, you don’t talk to each other about it, and you certainly don’t put any of this information in any electronic form. The reason for this should be obvious, but I’ll spell it out anyways.

“The first thing you need to understand is that your family is officially done with this operation after tonight. That is to say that the FBI has no further interest in you. I can’t tell you much about what we’ve been doing, except to say that we’ve been trying to insert a member of our team into a cartel that’s been operating on American soil. Because of the mishap your daughter was involved in, that part of the operation has been scrapped. Even so, if somebody from that cartel were to piece things together correctly, it could jeopardize agents already in place. We rate the probability of that happening as very low. Right now, bluntly, you are the greatest security risk we face.

“It is unlikely that you will come under surveillance from the bad guys, but not impossible. That is why it is important that you agree that, once this conversation is finished, you will not communicate about this subject again in any way. Agreed?”

Tris’s parents looked at each other before her dad spoke again. “Mr. Brody, you have our word. No further communication.”

“Very good. All right, here’s the other thing. If you happen to see anything suspicious- anything at all- I want you to call this number.” He handed Duncan a card that read Wilson Security Services and had a phone number on it. “Ask for either me or Ms. Cunningham by name. You don’t speak with anyone else. Clear?” They nodded again.

“Good. Do you have any questions for me?” They didn’t, so Brody bid them goodnight and drove off.

*****

Giancarlo sipped his Château Latour and turned an idea over in his mind. Several weeks had passed since the botched trade. His contact had confirmed that there was some sort of operation in place-a joint FBI/CIA venture, he gathered-but had been unable to uncover any specific names. The operational security maintained by the FBI was damnably good. He considered briefly giving them Felipe, but discarded the notion. Felipe knew enough to be dangerous if he was turned, but he had proven to be both loyal and intelligent, if slightly coarse. No, Giancarlo would protect his man, thus inspiring further loyalty from his other subordinates.

He had acquired the FBI’s report of the incident, though, as well as Felipe’s testimony. The girl-Trista Boyd-had apparently shown up purely by accident. The information he had on her was fairly detailed, but not especially impressive until he had further researched her family. Her father, Duncan, had been a staff sergeant in Vietnam, serving from 1971 until 1975 and earning several commendations for bravery, a silver star, and two purple hearts. He had signed on for his first tour at the age of 16. After Vietnam, he had continued to serve in the United States Marine Corps, passing along his extensive knowledge of close-quarters battle to students in various special forces units for the next ten years, except for several absences that were code-word classified. His security clearance was unusually high- well above what an NCO could normally be expected to attain- and Giancarlo felt certain there was a fascinating story behind it, but he was utterly unable to uncover any details. After one of his unexplained absences, Duncan had returned to duty with a new wife and, scarcely a year later, had a daughter. Not long after, Duncan caught a bullet in his hip, ending his active duty career. He retired from military life and became, of all things, a banker.

Yes, Giancarlo decided, it was time to make a move. He picked up the phone.

*****

During the first week after whatever-it-was that Tris had stumbled into, she seemed unusually withdrawn. It troubled Duncan that he couldn’t even talk to his daughter about what was bothering her, but he was a disciplined man. He had grown up with discipline and had imparted it to his daughter as well, and she was a good pupil. Finally, almost a week later, she had spoken to him down in the basement. The basement was where Duncan had set up his home gym and the exercise mats that he used when teaching his wife and daughter hand-to-hand combat techniques. He noticed that Tris hadn’t been down since the event, but hadn’t commented on it.

“Dad,” she began, twisting a lock of red hair in her fingers, “can I talk to you about something?”

“Anytime,” he grunted, racking his weights. “What’s on your mind?”

She looked, he thought, positively miserable. She started to say something, then changed her mind, then tried again. “Have you ever killed anyone?”

Suddenly it all clicked into place. Duncan sat on the bench facing his daughter and toweled off the back of his neck before answering. “You know I was active duty during Vietnam,” he said softly. “It’s not something I like to talk about, much, but, yes, I’ve killed people before.”

Tris’s eyes glistened with unshed tears. “How do you live with it?” she whispered.

Duncan rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Come here, Tris,” he said, finally. She stepped over to him and he enfolded her in a hug. “You live with it by remembering there are people who love you unconditionally.”

She sniffled and he held her out at arms length, raised her chin so that she was looking at his face. “No matter what, okay? There’s nothing you can do to change that.” She smiled, then, although the tears were still in her eyes, and nodded once, decisively.

She had been better after that. A bit more reserved, still, but she had started going out with her friends again, and she had started working out again, and Duncan dared to hope that, whatever had happened, she was putting it behind her.

Several more weeks passed. Tris was spending more time at the pool next door. She had joined the swim team and diving team and was considered a star in both arenas, her natural athleticism and superior training combining to make her nearly unbeatable.

Duncan had taken July 4th and drove his family out to Willow Run Airport to see the fireworks. Their was an airshow first, a bunch of Navy flyboys were doing aerobatics and working the crowd pretty well. Then the real show began. Tris had always loved fireworks, ever since she was a very small girl- something about the way they exploded in such neatly arranged patterns appealed to some inner sense of order.

“Sgt. Boyd?” Duncan turned to discover that a man had somehow come up behind him without his noticing.

“That’d be me,” he confirmed cautiously. “Who are you?”

The man smiled easily. He was a truly ordinary looking man, pleasant features and sandy hair, relaxed posture. “Devin Andersen. A colleague of mine, Mitchell Brody, suggested that we might do some business if you could find the time to talk to me.”

“Sure. I can spare you a couple minutes right now, in fact. What’s your business?”

Andersen coughed delicately. “Education, actually. I work for the office of the National Clandestine Services.”

Duncan raised a eyebrow. “Spies? Why would a spookmaster want anything to do with me?”

“Ah-not with you, actually. With your daughter. She has already demonstrated many of the skills we look for in our top agents- loyalty, discretion, resourcefulness- and we’d like to lay claim to her before some other agency manages to capture her attention.”

Duncan frowned. “I think I’m going to need a little time to discuss this with my wife and daughter.”

“Of course. Take your time. Let me warn you, though, you should not talk about this to anyone outside your immediate family, and you need to make certain that you follow security protocols to make certain you are not overheard. I’ll stop by in a week and you can give me your decision, then.”

*****

Alfonse looked around at the tiny office again. Hopefully this assignment wouldn’t last long. He was already uncomfortable in this skin, this man’s life. What an unfortunate. Divorced, two children who loathed him, a coworker who, he was fairly certain, had a crush on him but who he was too old to really appreciate. And his face. So old. Alfonse felt the wrinkles around his mouth, the crows’ feet around his eyes, and grimaced.

The phone on his desk rang. Taking a breath to steady his nerves, he picked it up. “Brody,” he said.

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