Amena spiked the ball and I dove for it, barely able to get it back into the air. A floater that I knew she was going to smash. She leapt up and hammered it again with a little bit of rage. I didn’t even try, watching it bounce away. I looked at her and said, “Really?”
She gave me a little impish grin and said, “I thought your reflexes were quicker.
We were in our small driveway on a narrow lane in Charleston, without even a net, and I knew she’d done it on purpose. All we were supposed to be doing was tapping
the ball back and forth, like before a volleyball game, and she had decided to turn it into a contest. I wasn’t sure if it was because she was mad about being forced to leave the house, or upset at herself for agreeing to the plan in the first place.
At thirteen years old, she was taller than most of the girls her age and was pretty athletic. I’d decided to get her interested in volleyball, because the school she was set to attend had a pretty good team. I’d paid for a couple of lessons, and in so doing had turned her into a monster.
A refugee from Syria, I’d collided with Amena on a mission in Europe after her
family had been slaughtered by some very bad men. She’d ended up being pretty critical to saving a lot of lives, and after the loss of her family, she was all alone. So I’d brought her back to America after it was over. Okay, that sounds like I’d gone through the wickets with the US department of state to introduce a foreign refugee into America, but hadn’t. I’d basically smuggled her into the United States using a covert aircraft for the organization I worked with.
Called Project Prometheus in official top-secret traffic – but just the Taskforce to all of us minions – its sole mission was protecting the United States from attacks that others in the department of defense or the CIA couldn’t prosecute, which is to say it operated outside of legal bounds. And therein lay the problem.
I’d basically turned an enormous covert infrastructure into my own personal coyote operation, but instead of bringing in a load of El Salvadorians across the Rio Grande in the back of a pickup, I’d flown her into the United States on a Gulf Stream jet leased to my company. It was bad form all the way around, not the least because it could have exposed the entire organization, and with it our less than stellar following of United States Code, but she was worth it. She had prevented a catastrophic attack at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, and she’d deserved the rescue.
Of course, the higher ups in the Taskforce hadn’t taken that view. Called the Oversight Council, they oversaw all Taskforce activity, approving each mission on a case by case basis. Except for this one. When they’d found out what I’d done, they’d tried to slip her back out of the country and introduce her into the refugee flow out of Syria, but I
was having none of that. The odds of her ever showing back up in the United States were marginal at best, and she’d earned the right to be here, regardless of the less than legal means I’d used.
Amena ran into the side bushes and grabbed the ball, knowing I wasn’t going to chase it after that hit. She handed it to me and said, “If this isn’t a honeymoon, why can’t I go?”
I took the ball knowing she was playing me. I said, “It’s not a damn honeymoon. Quit saying that. You can’t go because you have school. You’ve been begging to go to school for months, and today’s the day.”
“But that was before you taught Jennifer to SCUBA dive. Before you planned a trip to Australia. Before the choice was being stuck inside your house or going to school.
Now it’s going to Australia or going to school. I’d rather go to Australia. Unless this is a honeymoon for you two…”
In the end, me and the National Command Authority of the United States agreed to a compromise, which is a polite way of saying I took on the president of the United States over Amena’s fate. It had been a little bit of a fight, but they’d agreed to wash her documents as having been sponsored by a global company that engaged in worldwide protections of antiquities. One that was a do-gooder on the world stage, protecting what was honorable and just in the sands of history. My company, Grolier Recovery Services. It was a unique solution, because in truth, while my company did in fact run around the world saving old pottery shards, its sole purpose was to put a bad guy’s head on a spike. But I’d agreed.
The sticking point was that the sponsor had to be something more than a company. It had to be a family unit, with actual names. Which is where Jennifer Cahill, my partner in crime, came in.
If I had a Facebook page, under relationships it would say, “It’s complicated”.
Jennifer and I were business partners first and foremost, but we were definitely more than that, if either one of us had the courage to admit it. We’d danced around the commitment to our relationship for years, sometimes falling back onto just the business partner side of things, but always with the benefits side of the house, if you get my meaning.
My feelings had slipped out on occasion, as had hers, but we’d conveniently forgotten those instances, like an embarrassed family member that doesn’t discuss what the drunk uncle blurted out at thanksgiving.
The truth was I loved her and had just been too damaged to commit – and she had been the same way. Amena had shortchanged all of that angst, forcing us to face reality. Something I was happy about, but I wasn’t so sure about Jennifer.
Because of the immediacy of her situation, Jennifer and I had actually tied the knot at the justice of the peace, becoming officially married, but Jennifer thought it had a veneer of corruption around it. When she’d said “I do”, she’d expected a wedding, but there wasn’t any time for that. We needed to be a family unit immediately – but she was still expecting a ceremony. Which is what Amena was talking about. We couldn’t be having a honeymoon when we hadn’t had an official wedding ceremony.
I batted the ball to her, saying, “Stop that talk. You’ll just get Jennifer wound up.
You’re going to school, and we’re going to Australia. It’s just a vacation.”
The truth of the matter was we were leaving the country solely to make Amena rely on the boarding school she was attending. In effect, taking away her ability to call u every night or come running home for support. I was forcing some tough love, but I couldn’t tell her that.
She hit it back, this time with a soft lob set up, and I leapt up and smashed it, driving the ball next to her head and causing her to flinch, the volleyball bouncing into the street behind her. I hit the ground grinning and then heard, “What in the world was that? Are you crazy?”
Amena now sported her own grin, knowing I was going to have my ass handed to me. I turned around and saw Jennifer on the stoop of our Charleston single with a suitcase, looking like she wanted to gut me.
I said, “Hey, wait a minute. You didn’t see what she did earlier. I was just acting like a front line on the court…she asked me to do it.”
With a pious look, Amena said, “It’s hard practicing with him. He is very mean.”
My mouth fell open and Amena broke into a smile, chasing after the ball. She came back, stood next to me and gave me a small hip bump, both of us looking at Jennifer, waiting on the pain. She shook her head and said, “I can’t deal with two children. One is enough. Help me with the suitcase.”
Amena lost her smile and said, “Why can’t I come with you guys? If it’s not a honeymoon?”
Digging into her purse for her car keys, Jennifer looked up in surprise and said, “Honeymoon? Who said that?”
She looked at me and I pointed to Amena, then picked up the suitcase, hustling to get out of the blast radius.
Jennifer said, “Amena, go inside and make sure you’ve got everything you need.
You won’t be able to come back here until we return in a couple of weeks.” Amena scowled, but unlike she would do with me, she listened to what Jennifer said and went back inside.
Jennifer came over to me and said, “What was that about?”
Cramming the last suitcase into the back of her little mini cooper, juggling the other bags, I said, “I’m getting that Jeep I saw online yesterday. I don’t care how much they’re charging. This is a clown car.”
My ancient Jeep CJ-7 had been destroyed almost a year ago, and we still hadn’t replaced it because I was a picky shopper and hadn’t found one I liked, forcing both of us to use her little midget vehicle, but my attempt to deflect the question fell on deaf ears.
She repeated, “What’s Amena talking about?”
I sighed, closed the hatchback and said, “She thinks she can’t go because I’m taking you on a honeymoon. That’s it. She came up with it all on her own.”
Jennifer snorted and said, “We’re not having a honeymoon until we have a real wedding. You can’t weasel out of that by taking me to Australia and then calling it a honeymoon after the fact.”
I raised my hands and said, “That’s not from me. That’s from her. I didn’t say a word. You know the only reason we’re going is to get her settled at school. That’s it.”
Amena came out carrying a small satchel and Jennifer squinted at me. I lowered my voice and said, “Enough talk about why we’re going.”
Jennifer whispered, “If you think going to Australia and hanging out with some old Taskforce guys is my idea of a honeymoon, you’ve got another thing coming.”
I grinned and said, “Hey, he’s giving us a free place to stay. We’re diving the reef. That was your idea.”
Amena came up and said, “So? Is it a honeymoon?”
Jennifer looked at me and I said, “No, it’s not. We can’t have that until after a proper ceremony.”
“What’s a proper ceremony? You guys go to Australia and I’ll never see you again.”
Jennifer laughed and said, “That’s not going to happen.”
I said, “What are you talking about? We’ll be back in two weeks.”
She became earnest, “Trouble follows you. It always has. You’re going to get in trouble. And I’ll be left alone.”
I knelt down and said, “That’s not going to happen, doodlebug. It’s not.” She took my hands and said, “You promise?”
“I do. It’s just a vacation. That’s all.”
She looked into my eyes and said, “Until the bad man shows up.”
And I knew what she was telling me. She’d seen the bad man more than once, and was convinced it was the natural way of things. The bad man just always showed up I said, “Don’t worry about that. You’re in the United States. The bad man is gone.”
I saw her eyes tear up and she said, “The bad man is always there. Even here.
Don’t leave me to him.”
It broke my heart. I hugged her and said, “Hey, come on. There is nobody out to get you here. You’re going to be in good hands. It’s what you wanted.”
She broke my embrace, looked into my eyes and said, “If the bad man finds you on vacation, you’ll kill him, right? Come back to me?”
That took me aback. What kid thinks her parents are going to be attacked on vacation, and then wishes that the parents would kill the attackers? For the first time I realized that this was more than just a foster-parent relationship. We were never going to have a normal family, because we most decidedly weren’t normal, as much as we wanted it to be. She’d seen me operate – had seen me kill – but because of her love for me, she couldn’t get it around her head that I was, in fact, worse than the evil she’d encountered. There was nothing on earth that would keep me from protecting her.
I looked at Jennifer and saw a tear in her eye. I hugged Amena and leaned into her ear, whispering, “I am the bad man. Remember that.”
Pike Logan and Jennifer Cahill are enjoying a sunny vacation down under when they get disturbing news: their friend and colleague Clifford Delmonty is in serious trouble. While working as a contractor at an Australian F-35 facility, the former Taskforce member—callsign Dunkin—saw something he shouldn’t have, and now he’s on the run from Chinese agents.
Pike and Jennifer soon discover that Dunkin’s attackers are a dangerous link to a much larger scheme that could launch a full-on conflict between China and Taiwan. In its quest for dominance, China is determined to reclaim Taiwan—a pivotal ally the United States has sworn to protect. Pike learns that the Chinese have a devious plan to bait the island nation into all-out war by destabilizing the government and manipulating an artificial intelligence defense system.