Dark Angel · Preview Chapters
The woman flew into Miami International with nothing to declare but the clothes she stood in, a phony passport, an iPhone with a broken screen, and a ballpoint pen. The pen didn't work but did conceal a two-inch long razor-sharp blade that could be used to slice open a carotid artery (for example.)
She looked more than tired. Exhausted, but fighting it. She had dishwater blond hair that hadn't been washed recently, a mottled tan, and a thin white scar that extended from one nostril down across her lips to her chin.
The clothes she stood in were speckled with mud and what the young Customs and Border Patrol officer thought might be dried blood; and the clothes reeked of old sweat and something else, like swamp water.
Her ragged tee-shirt the only clothing above her waist, worn paper thin, he could see her nipples pushing out against it featured a drawing of a llama with a legend that said, "Como Se Llama?" which the young officer understood as a Spanish pun. She had flown in on United, from the Aeropuerto Internacional Jorge Chavez in Lima, Peru. How she'd gotten on the plane, he couldn't even guess.
The CBP officer was giving her his best no-admittance stink-eye as he thumbed through her passport. He asked, "Your name is Angeles Chavez?"
The woman shook her head: "No."
"What?" Hadn't heard that before; he checked her turquoise-green eyes. "Then what is it?"
"I'm not allowed to tell you that."
He was about to call for help when the head of the CBP unit stepped up behind his booth, took the passport from his hand and said, "Let her in."
Hadn't heard that before, either. He let her in.
A man in a plutonium suit and tie was standing a few feet behind his boss, rolling a wooden matchstick between his lips. When the woman whose name wasn't Angeles Chavez stepped past the CPB booth, the man took the matchstick out of his mouth, grinned and asked, "How you doin', honey-bun?"
"I think I got a leech up my ass," the woman said.
So then Letty Davenport was sitting on a battered swivel chair in a near-empty room on the second floor of a warehouse off Statesville Road in Charlotte, North Carolina, watching a door on another warehouse across the street.
August was slipping away, but the heat was holding on with both hands, and the warehouse was only somewhat air-conditioned. When she lifted her arms to look through her binoculars, she could smell her armpits, if only faintly, and her face was... moist.
Letty was twenty-five, of average height, dancer-slender and dancer-muscled, with dark hair that fell to the nape of her neck. Crystalline blue eyes. A whiff of Tom Ford's Fucking Fabulous perfume mixed with the perspiration. She was an investigator for the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, although her real boss was a U.S. Senator.
She'd suffered a spasm of fame, or notoriety, after a shootout in the Rio Grande town of Pershing, Texas, the year before, in which she'd killed two men. She'd shot to death a third man earlier in the same trip.
All for God and Country; Country, anyway.
Behind her, in the long, wide, near-empty room, was a ping-pong table. Three youngish FBI agents were taking turns being bad at ping-pong when they weren't trying to determine her relationship status.
Nothing had come through the door across the street in the two hours that Letty had been watching it, but she wasn't bored. She had a laptop where it was supposed to be on her lap and she was riding on a wifi signal from the food wholesaler next door.
From Bing, the search app, she'd learned that South Koreans now disliked China more than they disliked Japan, that housing prices might be peaking. She'd also read in the New York Times about five fascinating things she could do this weekend, if she'd lived in New York City, which she didn't, and if she was easily fascinated, which she wasn't.
Without warning, a door popped open behind her.
Letty swiveled and reflexively picked up the Sig 938 from the windowsill as a woman came through the door, saw the pistol, lifted her hands and said, "Don't shoot."
"That's me." The woman with the turquoise-green eyes had a fresh set of clothing. "I wanted to be here for this."
"I was told you had a leech up your ass."
"All taken care of," Cartwright said. She waved to the three FBI agents but strolled over to Letty. "'Tequila works wonders, when properly applied. You know. By drinking it."
Letty smiled and said, "We were supposed to get a call to say you were on the way up."
Cartwright shrugged. "I dunno. The drop-off guy just dropped me off and said to go to the second floor."
"Sounds about right for government work," Letty said. She looked back across the street. "Bogard and Holsum haven't shown up yet. Sopren walked around the truck and looked inside, an hour ago. That was the last time I saw him. The feds over there..." She nodded at the FBI agents, "are all looking for dates, so you might keep that in mind."
"I will." Cartwright looked through the dirt-spotted window at the semi-trailer backed up to the loading dock across the street. Like Letty, she was average height and dancer-slender. Her blond hair was pulled back in a short efficient ponytail. Like Letty, she was wearing jeans, but with a khaki overshirt to hide her pistol. She was seven years older than Letty, but they might have been sisters.
"Got a good spot here; how long does it take to get across the street?"
"From here, standing start, eleven seconds to get across the room, down the fire stairs, to the exit, which is right below us," Letty said. "They'll see us coming."
"You think they could be trouble?"
"Don't know. I interviewed Sopren. You should have gotten a transcript."
"I did. Sounded fake-cooperative," Cartwright said.
"Exactly. But, I got him jumpy, with the urge to move. When I saw him, he wasn't carrying. On the other hand, he's an office worker in a government building. Bogard and Holsum are the reddest of necks and they're free-lance. Even if they're not carrying, I'd be surprised if they didn't have a few guns around."
"And this will go off around six o'clock?"
"Yes. Most of the employees get out around 4:30. I think they'll wait until it's quiet. Give it an hour or so."
The FBI agents had given up on the ping-pong and come over to meet Cartwright. One of them said, "An hour or so if it happens at all."
"It will," Letty said. "They want to move it fast, before I have more time to dig around in there."
Letty had a CI, a confidential informant, inside the FEMA warehouse. The CI said Sopren, Bogard and Holsum were planning to steal eight forklifts from the FEMA warehouse; the CI also wanted Sopren's job, so there was that.
The three-and-a-half ton capacity, rough-terrain, four-wheel-drive forklifts were valued at $12,500 each, making eight of them worth $100,000 if sold in Charlotte.
If sold in Chancay, Peru, to JuFen Industries, a Chinese company working on the construction of a spanking-new Pacific Ocean port, they'd go for twice that price, less the $1,200 apiece that it cost to ship them.
Small potatoes compared to the $1,500,000 they'd gotten for the five hundred FEMA army-style field tents they'd sold to the same Chinese company to shelter the families of its Peruvian workers. Still, two hundred grand is two hundred grand, especially when it was tax-free.
Cartwright had spotted the tents while doing research in Chancay for an Unspecified Agency of the U.S. government. Her research had included cutting serial number labels off several of the tents, which had later been identified as FEMA property. That vandalism, when discovered by a Chinese security officer, had led to a brief chase across the desert and then an unscheduled swim in the Rio Chancay, followed by a hitchhiking trip to Lima in clothing stolen off a clothesline.
After Cartwright arrived in Miami, the Unspecified Agency had dropped a note to the powers-that-be at the Department of Homeland Security and Letty had been sent to Charlotte to investigate the status of the tents.
In the warehouse where they should have been, she'd found an empty space. Sopren had explained that the tents had been shipped to Africa to shelter children at a free school, that all the paperwork had been perfect, and he hoped the kids appreciated their new homes.
Cartwright, as it happened, wasn't a great ping-pong player, but she was better than any of the feds. After they'd chatted for a while, to bring her up-to-the-minute on their plan and determine her relationship status, she held the table for six consecutive games, until Letty called, "We got Bogard and Holsum."
The two had just arrived at the parking lot across the street in Holsum's pimped-out red Chevy Camaro, and Holsum was talking on his cell phone as he got out of the driver's side. Letty was watching them through a pair of Leica binoculars. When Bogard got out of the passenger side of the car he did a hitch-up to his pants and Cartwright asked, "You get that?" and Letty said, "Yeah," and one of the feds asked, "What?" and Letty said, "Bogard's carrying."
Another of the feds said, "Let's gear it up," and the three agents began pulling on armor.
Soprum opened a door and Bogard and Holsum disappeared inside. Two minutes later, the overhead door at a loading dock rolled up, and Letty said, "Let 'em load, let 'em load."
A minute after that, the first of the forklifts rolled through the loading door, across the dock and into the semi-trailer, with Holsum driving, Soprum keeping watch and Bogard sucking on a Tootsie Pop.
"Go," Letty said, and the three feds headed for the stairway fire door at a trot.
Fifteen seconds later, as Letty and Cartwright watched, the three agents were running across the street, guns in hand. Soprum saw them coming, apparently shouted a warning to the others, and turned and ran into the warehouse.
Bogard, who'd been watching from the other side of the semi-trailer, jumped off the dock and began running to the far side of the warehouse. The feds didn't see him because their line-of-sight was blocked by the truck.
Letty headed for the door, her 938 in her hand.
Cartwright, following: "What?"
"Bogard can't get out that way. The chain link fence hooks onto the next warehouse. He'll have to run down an alley at the other end of the building... He'll be coming back to us."
Eleven seconds later they were out the door with Letty leading the way up the street, Cartwright next to her shoulder, both of them running easily. One of the feds saw them running and shouted something at the other two agents and began running after them, but fifty yards back.
The warehouse was a full block long and Bogard wasn't a runner: he was overweight with the red face of a longtime drinker and smoker; but, he was carrying.
As they came up to the alley, Letty split left and Cartwright went right, and when Bogard staggered out from behind the building, Letty screamed, "Stop! Stop or we'll kill you!" Bogard turned toward them, almost fell, saw three guns pointed at him as the fed came up, and put his hands over his head.
"I'm having a heart attack," he said, and to prove it, he toppled over, hitting the ground face-down, like two hundred and fifty pounds of uncooked beef; he half-rolled, clutching his chest and groaned.
The agent said, "Good gosh! I think he really is." He pulled back Bogard's shirt and dug a chrome revolver out of his belt.
Bogard groaned again, "Call an ambulance..."
Letty was already on her phone, calling 9-1-1.
"Another beautiful day in the American Southland," Cartwright drawled, looking down at Bogard as Letty finished the 9-1-1 call. She turned to Letty and asked, "What would you have done if he'd pulled?"
"Shot him," Letty said. "I would have tried not to kill him, with the first shot."
"Then you're a better woman than I am," Cartwright said. "I would have shot him in the eye."
"You think you could have hit him in the eye from thirty or forty feet, when he was moving?" Letty asked.
"You're looking at the best shot in North Carolina, right now," Cartwright said.
Letty slipped her 938 back in her jeans, smiled, showing some teeth, and said, "No, I don't think so."
Cartwright, cocking her head: "Really."
Letty nodded: "Yes. Really."
Bogard belched, loudly, and the fed said, "Maybe it was just gas."
Bogard moaned and cried, "Help me..."
Cartwright: "Gotta stay away from that barbeque, man."
Made Letty smile, but she turned her face away so Bogard wouldn't see it.
A week later, Letty was sitting in her closet-sized office behind a half-open yellow metal door, in the basement of the Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. She was struggling with the executive summary of the full report she'd just finished writing. She'd learned that if you want your report noticed by a Senate panel, keep the summary under two hundred words. Longer than that, and the senators started getting chapped lips, which they didn't like.
"... intelligence reports indicate that all five hundred tents were being used in a tent city operated by JuFen Industries, a Chinese construction company working on the new Pacific Ocean port being built by the Chinese in Chancay, Peru. The eight forklifts had been illicitly purchased from FEMA stocks by the same company...
Cartwright knocked on Letty's door and Letty turned to look at her: "Barbara. Where'd you come from?"
"Across the river. I have an invitation for you." She thrust an ivory colored, heavy-paper envelope at Letty.
Letty took it. "An invitation? I..."
Cartwright was already walking away, turning to say only, "Come or not."
Letty looked at the outside of the envelope. "Letty Davenport" was written in a neat female hand, in blue-black ink from a fountain pen.
Beneath her name was another legend:
Washington Ladies Peace-Maker Society: You're Invited.
"You gotta be kidding me," Letty said aloud. She called her friend Billy Greet. "I got an invitation from the Ladies Peace-Maker Society."
"I thought they were... a rumor. What does it say?"
Letty: "I don't know. I haven't opened the envelope."
"Well, open it."
Letty opened the envelope and took out a card and read it into the phone: "You are cordially invited to a reception for Ms. Elaine Shelton at the clubhouse of the Washington Ladies Peace-Maker Society. Respondents only please. "
The date of the reception was September 25, a Saturday, the location on Cemetery Lane near Mt. Pleasant, Virginia. The note specified "practical attire" and "personal equipment."
"Who's Ms. Elaine Shelton?" Letty asked. "I never heard of her."
"Look at the medals list from the last Olympics," Greet said.
"Really? Huh. Think I should go?"
"I... dunno. There's some odd rumors about them. I don't know much more. Maybe... a gun club?"
"That's what I've heard. Do you think when it says personal equipment..."
"I guess. What else could it be?"
After obsessing on the phrase for two weeks, Letty went with jeans, a tee-shirt under a loose nylon long-sleeved Orvis fishing shirt and lightweight hiking boots. The drive out to the Ladies clubhouse, in her hybrid Highlander, took almost two hours from her apartment in Arlington.
Autumn was breaking out in brilliant, spangled color, making the trip into the Blue Ridge spectacular, all that red, yellow and orange against the remaining green of the forest, and a flawless robin's-egg sky.
She drove most of the way with the driver's side window down, so she could smell the dusty, astringent scent of the roadside wildflowers. The clubhouse, she'd imagined, would be something like a southern mansion, long broad porch, white pillars, a place where George Washington or Robert E. Lee might have stopped to take a leak.
She found Cemetery Lane on the main road out of Mt. Pleasant, a place which barely qualified as a hamlet. A few minutes north, a gravel road branched to the west, taking her past a small, unkempt cemetery guarded by a rusting barbed-wire fence strung on rotting wooden posts. The track took her up a hill, and then over a ridge and down into a heavily wooded valley.
The road narrowed as she went along, went from gravel to packed dirt, weeds growing up in the middle of the two-track, all of it spotted with fallen red and yellow maple leaves. The track passed through an open metal gate, and finally ended at what she guessed must have been the "clubhouse" a row of three green-painted industrial-sized Quonset huts. They were neatly kept with stone steps and zinnia gardens around the foundations. But still... Quonsets. No porch with white pillars.
Two of the Quonsets showed open doors toward the parking lot. She could see farm-style equipment in one two corn-green John Deere Gators, an orange Kubota backhoe, walls hung with what looked like landscaping tools. In the other, she could see a group of women in practical attire, standing, talking.
There were thirty or so cars in the parking lot, with another following her in. Letty parked and sat for a moment. The woman who'd followed her in hopped out of her car, opened the back door, and took out a five-foot long nylon rifle case, slipped it over her shoulder, twiddled fingers at Letty, and then walked up the stone steps through the open door of the center Quonset.
Letty got out, took her equipment case out of the back black nylon, soft-sided, smaller than a briefcase and walked up the steps to the Quonset. There were thirty or thirty-five women standing down the length of the building, chatting, some of them drinking from bottles of water, all casually dressed as Letty was, which immediately took some pressure off.
A fortyish woman caught Letty's eye, smiled and walked over and said, "Letty! So happy you could join us. Very nice work you did in Pershing."
Letty said, "Thank you, thanks for inviting me." She tried not to crane her neck around, though there really wasn't much to see a series of what looked like small offices and storage rooms, built with drywall and painted a government tan, a concrete floor. The largest room showed a table with some energy bars and cookies, bottles of water sticking out of basin filled with ice, and several ranks of folding chairs.
An over-sized reproduction of a 19th Century newspaper advertisement, four feet long and two feet high, was framed and hung on a wall in the middle of the building. The advertisement showed an exploded view, an engineering drawing, of a Colt Single-Action Army revolver, the M1873, in .45 Colt. The gun was also known "in the trade" as a Peace-Maker, according to the ancient advertisement, though Letty had only seen it spelled as one word, Peacemaker, like the comic book super-hero.
Hence, Letty thought, the Washington Ladies Peace-Maker Society, with a Nineteenth Century hyphen.
"I see you brought equipment," the woman said.
Letty nodded and held up the case: "I wasn't exactly sure what I could use, but it's a Staccato XC."
"Excellent. What kind of sight?"
A few other women drifted over, to listen: "A Leupold Delta Point Pro," Letty said. "The gun is pretty much stock. I did replace the grips with checkered cherry."
"We have a couple of members shooting Staccatos," one of the other women said. "Nice gear."
Cartwright threaded her way through the crowd. "You decided to show up."
"Thought I'd give it a try," Letty said. She held up the case. "Brought my good gun."
Still carrying the 938?"
"Yup. In the Sticky," meaning her pocket holster.
The woman who'd come to meet her said, "Cocked and locked, I hope."
"Of course," Letty said.
The woman grinned and said, "Of course."
The woman said her name was Jane Longstreet. She was black, thin, looked to be in her mid-forties, her trim dark hair touched with strands of gray. She wore an antique African trade-bead necklace, an opened-necked man's white dress shirt worn loose, and jeans. The shirt showed a bump on her left hip, a cross-draw holster.
With Cartwright hooked into a different conversation, Longstreet told Letty that the program would consist of three rounds of shooting with evaluations "It's competitive, but we pass it off as friendly." Then the day's honoree, Elaine Shelton, would give a half-hour talk on .177-caliber Olympic air pistols.
"We serve a modest round of alcohol during the talk. Some of the ladies like their G&Ts and red wine, though we don't want anyone driving their cars off the lane. That happened once and we had a dirty time getting her out of the ditch. We finally had to put a chain on the Kubota and drag her out backwards."
"How do you get to be a member?" Letty asked.
"You're a candidate, if you wish to be. We evaluate candidates by email. If we decide to offer membership, the candidate will get an invitation to our next meeting. If we decide not to, she won't hear from us. Dues are... modest."
"Fair enough," Letty said. "Though I'm not terribly social."
"That's not disqualifying," Longstreet said, glancing around. "Some of our members are only social in the sense of being sociopathic. All of them are decent shots, though. Ranging from good to fantastic."
The socializing continued for a while, several handguns and one rifle were produced by various women, to be examined, discussed, and in a few cases, argued over. Letty found herself being moved from one circle of women to the next, to look at guns, talk about her own, relating what happened in the gunfight at Pershing, Texas. It occurred to her after the first few minutes that she was being interviewed.
An hour after she arrived, the members began drifting out the back of the Quonset, carrying their guns. The shooting itself took place at ranges dug into the valley wall, one for pistols, one for long guns. The pistol range was nothing fancy: cutbank dirt walls as backstops, with targets stretched between wooden racks.
The women were a bit ragtag, Letty thought: some camo here, a boonie hat there, boots and athletic shoes, sunglasses everywhere and more than a few cargo pants. The oldest was probably in her sixties and Letty was the youngest. Most seemed to be in their thirties or forties. They were friendly, but with edges.
Letty was wearing jeans she'd had modified by a dry cleaner's seamstress. An extra piece of material was sewn into the righthand pocket, which made the pocket gap slightly. The gap allowed her hand to get in fast, the slick interior of the Sticky holster inside meant the gun would come out clean.
They shot in groups of three and times and scores were recorded. They shot at three distances: three yards, seven yards, and twenty-five meters. Speed was essential for the first, speed and accuracy given equal weight on the second, while precision counted most in the third round.
"You getting tight?" Longstreet asked Letty, as the first group of three moved up to the firing line.
"Not yet. I used to shoot in a police league, including my dad. That's when I'd get tight when I started beating him. Neither of us liked to lose. At all."
"Your father is a U.S. marshal."
"You've done some research," Letty said.
"Yes, we have."
The first two rounds were fired from holsters. Letty had brought an appendix carry holster but asked if her pocket holster qualified: "That's the one I work with."
"That's fine," Longstreet said.
Another woman said, "Looks like you had some work done on those jeans."
"A little bit," Letty said. "Didn't want to break a nail going in."
"Yeah, that's nasty," the woman said.
"Isn't it a little slow?" Longstreet asked. "The pocket holster?"
"No," Letty said. "It's not."
Letty was in the last group of three in the first round. She had nerves until she walked to the firing line. When the starter clock beeped, the Sig was up and fast and accurate, but Cartwright, also shooting in the last group, was two-tenths of a second faster and nearly as accurate. In the close-up shooting, as might occur in a street fight, speed counted for more than accuracy.
Longstreet came over and said, "My. You're pushing Barb. If that's her real name, which it might not be. That doesn't happen very often."
"She's fast," Letty said. "And good. We worked together last month and she told me so."
Longstreet leaned toward her and lowered her voice. "Most all the women here work with the military or specialized law enforcement of one kind or another. Often, undercover with agencies like the DEA. Others are... consultants. I guess you know that Barb works for what we call the Unspecified Agency, as do two of the other women. That's the CIA, of course."
In the second round of shooting, Letty and Barb exactly tied in time and Letty was barely more accurate.
When the results were announced, a short break began, as the twenty-five-meter targets were set up. Cartwright wandered over to Letty and said, "You aren't that bad. I wasn't sure what to expect. When did you start shooting?"
"When I was five," Letty said. "I didn't shoot targets until I was twelve."
"You were shooting with a .22 single-shot rifle," Cartwright said. "Rabbits and squirrels."
"Cottontails in Minnesota, sometimes. I stopped shooting squirrels the first time I cooked one and the meat turned black. Mostly I used it on racoons when I was running a trapline at the local dump," Letty said.
"That thing down in Pershing," Cartwright said, popping a stick of gum into her mouth. "Pretty fine."
"It was interesting," Letty admitted.
"Who was that big guy?" Cartwright asked. "The guy who picked you up like a football and ran you off the bridge?"
"John Kaiser. Former Delta. He's an investigator with DHS. We work together sometimes, if there's a threat."
"Cool. Listen: good luck in the last round."
"Thanks. You too."
When Cartwright had gone to get ready for the slow-fire, twenty-five-meter round, Longstreet slipped back over and asked, "Barb trying to psych you?"
"She wished me luck."
Longstreet smiled. "What did you think about that?"
Letty was loading her Staccato, the one she'd use for the slow-fire round. "Fuck a bunch of luck."
Longstreet laughed and touched Letty on the shoulder, like a mom might; people turned to look.
The third round was five shots at twenty-five meters in less than ten seconds; time didn't count unless the shooter went longer than ten seconds. Nobody did. Letty took it easy with her big gun and put all five shots in a group the size of a ragged quarter.
Cartwright didn't. She put them in a group that might have been covered by the rim of a tea-cup. She came over to shake hands and asked, "Okay. You were the best shot in North Carolina. How did you get hooked up with Homeland?"
"I was working for Senator Colles as an aide. He spotted an opening that he thought I might be more interested in," Letty said.
Cartwright nodded. "You went to Stanford. Masters in economics."
"You ever think about moving, give me a call."
"What?" Letty was packing up the Staccato. "You mean, go outside and yell? People here aren't even sure your name is Barbara, so I don't know how I'd call you."
"You'll get a link, and my name really is Barbara," Cartwright said. "Anyway, nice shooting."
The day's honoree, Elaine Shelton, was a willowy redhead who gave an interesting account of using a .177-caliber air pistol to win a silver medal in the Olympics; she was both funny and crisp.
Cartwright, who'd taken a chair next to Letty, leaned over and muttered, "She's poked more holes in paper than a Swingline punch."
"Dissing another member?"
"She's not a member," Cartwright whispered.
When the lecture was over, Letty turned to Cartwright and said, "Listen, unless the Unspecified Agency keeps you penned up in a gopher hole somewhere, and you get the time, we ought to hit a range together. Piss off some goobers. Get a couple of margaritas after."
Cartwright peered at her for a moment, then nodded and said, "That could happen."
As Letty was leaving, Longstreet came over to say good-bye, and Letty asked, "Why isn't Elaine a member?"
Longstreet took Letty by her elbow to walk her to the steps and said, "Being a good shot is not enough. None of us are... what you'd conventionally call criminals, sugar, although, mmm..." She stopped to gather some words. Her eyes were black as coals. "We're all good with guns and we're all killers. Elaine is good with guns."
A week later, as Letty was getting ready for work, she was buzzed from the lobby of her apartment building by a red-shirted courier-service deliveryman. She buzzed him in, and at the door signed for a heavy, rectangular package wrapped in brown paper.
Inside, she found an envelope and a dark wooden box. The envelope contained an invitation for the November shoot, a key card for the entry gate, and a Yale key for the Quonsets. A note said she was invited to shoot anytime she wished, day or night. If at night, be sure to turn off the range lights when she left. Dues were one thousand dollars a year, payable when convenient.
Inside the wooden box was a new Colt Single-Action Army revolver, in caliber .45 Colt, as well as six cartridges, each in its own slot. She took the gun out and rolled the cylinder, feeling the weight in her hands, the smoothness of the action.
She was a Peace-Maker.
Of the .45-caliber kind.
Over the next four months, Letty went to the monthly shoots and began to learn about the other members; and she and Cartwright hooked up a half-dozen times in the evenings, to shoot at a local gun range, to talk circumspectly about their jobs and less circumspectly about men Cartwright, at thirty-two, was twice-divorced, Letty had no on-going relationship.
Her first marriage didn't count, Cartwright said, as she'd been a teenager and had moved out after three months to join the Army. The second marriage, to a man who also worked at the Unspecified Agency, had lasted a bit more than five years and had ended because of infidelity.
"Mine, not his," Cartwright said, wryly. "How come you're not hooked up with somebody? You're not gay..."
Letty tugged at an earlobe for a moment, then said, "I have a lot of first and second dates, but... I think I might be too harsh for most guys. My father..."
"I looked him up," Cartwright said. "I mean, Jesus Christ..."
"He and I are a lot alike. Uh... My mom says we both look at the world through untinted glasses. We don't think about what it might be, or should be, or used to be, only what it is. Most guys have a hard time with that. Being seen for exactly what they are."
"I'd say most people have a hard time with that," Cartwright amended.
On two occasions, they'd driven together to the clubhouse to work out with rifles. Cartwright was better with a rifle than Letty, especially at longer ranges, with the ability to judge, off-hand, bullet-drop and wind drift. Cartwright shot an accurized and scoped Remington Model 700 in .300 Winchester Magnum, and Letty a high-end AR10.
"Yours is a gun you'll never need," Cartwright said. "It's a rapid-fire combat-style weapon, too big and powerful for self-defense in an urban area, not accurate enough for sniping. Shoot that off in Arlington and it'd go through three apartment buildings and a beer truck."
"You shoot a heavier cartridge..."
"Only one at a time and very carefully. If you want to pick off Mr. American Asshole during the International Asshole Pageant, you need a sniper weapon, not something that kills all the innocent bystanders."
In February, on Valentine's night, with a cold, heavy rain falling outside, they were sitting in a dark political bar a few hundred yards from the Capitol. They'd hung their rain jackets on the back of their chairs; whisky and a whiff of illegal cigar smoke were in the air and middle-aged guys in expensive suits were ignoring them. For some people many in D.C. politics was better than sex.
Like Letty, Cartwright had an apartment in Arlington, across the Potomac from the District, and, like Letty, would be taking a train home and walking from the station. They'd traded life histories, which were roughly similar. Letty's father had abandoned her and her mother when she was a toddler. Her mother was a helpless alcoholic, and Letty had been the adult in the family from the time she was in grade school.
Cartwright's parents, she said, didn't want her. She had been an unplanned baby, the fifth borne by her mother, and was looked upon as one mouth too many.
"My old man was a tree-shade mechanic, had a few acres outside Sulphur Springs. I had an uncle with a shithole ranch and he and my aunt sort of adopted me when I was a year old or so, and I never went back to my real folks," Cartwright said. "My aunt died of cancer when I was twelve, and my uncle hanged himself a couple years later. After that, I was on my own."
"I never go back to my hometown," Letty told her. She'd been born in a particularly bleak stretch of the Red River Valley in Minnesota. "Too many bad memories. I like the people, though, most of them."
Cartwright nodded. "My cousins own the shithole ranch now," she said. "I go back, because I like my cousins."
Letty had gotten lucky and had been adopted by the Minnesota cop who'd investigated her mother's murder, during a particularly brutal winter in the Red River valley. The cop was rich, and she'd lived a privileged life as a teen-ager, before going to Stanford.
Cartwright had no such help. She'd managed to get a high school equivalency degree, enlisted in the Army, did well, used her Army benefits to enroll at the University of Texas, returned to the Army as an intelligence officer and from there migrated to the Unspecified Agency.
"I know of another woman, same kind of Texas background, became a domestic terrorist. I'll kill her sooner or later, if I can find her," Letty said.
"I know who you're talking about that Jael woman who led the attack on Pershing," Cartwright said. She held out her glass for Letty to clink: "Good hunting."
They were finishing their third margaritas when Letty's phone buzzed in her non-gun pocket. She pulled it out, looked at the screen.
"It's the boss," she told Cartwright. Senator Christopher Colles, (R-Fla) was chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. She answered: "Chris?"
"Letty? How early can you get to my office?"
"Early as you."
"I'll see you at eight o'clock," Colles said. "Jeans and sneakers are fine, no need to get dressed up. Actually, I don't want you dressed up. I want you to look... road weary. A beat-up traveler."
"I can do that," she said. "Am I going out of town?"
"That depends on the people we'll be talking with. They know all about Pershing and they know about your background and they think you might fit their program. Things could get a little rough."
"Did you invite Kaiser?"
"No. He won't be going. We've got a problem that I can't talk about on a radio, which these cell phones are. I'll see you tomorrow. Eight o'clock sharp."
Letty rang off and Cartwright asked, "Taking your gun with you?"
"I always take it. From the way he was talking, he thinks I might need it." She trailed a fingernail through a wet spot on the table. "The way he was talking... you guys don't do stuff inside the U.S., do you?"
Cartwright neither confirmed nor denied that she was with the CIA, and it had become a joke between them. "If I were in the agency you're talking about, no, we'd generally not be allowed to do that, not on our own. If we were officially working in a consulting capacity with another law enforcement agency, like you guys, or the FBI, then we're okay. If I were in that agency."
"Consulting capacity? After quickly checking my federal government guide to dodges, circumventions, and evasions, that means you can do anything you fuckin' well please," Letty said.
"That would be correct. You up for a fourth?"
"I'll be totally loaded, but what the heck," Letty said. "Let's go for it."
"Attagirl," Cartwright said, raising a finger to the waiter. "Nothing quite as exciting as getting drunk on your ass while angry and in possession of a dangerous weapon. Says so right in the Second Amendment, I think."
"I'm not that angry," Letty said.
"Yes, you are. You have been since birth. All us Ladies are angry."
When Letty's alarm went off at six the next morning, it rang in her head like the bells of Notre Dame: five margaritas, not four. She stumbled through the shower, brushed her teeth, and did nothing more to clean up. She forced herself to go for her morning run, splashing along the rain-soaked Arlington streets, before heading across the river to the District.
Senator Colles had an office suite in the old Senate Office Building, a stained lump of what Letty thought looked like an eroded limestone cliff, but with windows. She got to Colles' office five minutes early, a hangover lurking at the back of her skull, and found Colles' brutally efficient executive assistant, Claudia Welp, already at her desk outside the door of Colles' inner office.
Welp was not only a bulldog, she resembled the real thing, especially with her small, suspicious eyes and the slight outward set of her lower teeth. She and Letty didn't like each other, but under Colles' critical eye, they had worked out a relationship that they could both live with.
When Letty walked through the door, Welp said, "Senator Colles is inside with two persons from somewhere secret. I see you took the senator's advice on your appearance."
Letty was wearing black jeans, fuzzy white threads at the heels; a red-and-black plaid flannel shirt, much-washed and untucked; and scuffed black cross-training shoes. Her dark hair was ruffled, unkempt, her eyes hidden behind cheap sunglasses. No makeup. "He said, 'road weary,' and that's what I went for," Letty said. To say nothing of hung over.
"You got there," Welp said. "You're supposed to go in."
Letty pushed through the door into Colles' private office. He was rich, and looked it: tall, tanning-bed toned, wavy gray hair, bright white teeth, as though he'd been designed for television. He'd had the office professionally painted and decorated, in tints of artichoke green, and cream, at his own expense, though it still, somehow, looked exactly like a government office.
The senator was talking with two federal officials who looked almost identical to each other office pallor, upper-level navy suits, glasses with tortoise-shell frames, carefully coifed dark hair at eight o'clock in the morning. Well-buffed black shoes. They would have been hard to tell apart, Letty thought, if one hadn't been female and the other male, and if one pair of shoes hadn't had stacked heels.
Colles pointed at Letty and said, "Sit." She sat in a visitor's chair as the two suits looked her over. Colles said, "These folks are from the National Security Agency. Don't tell anybody."
Letty: "What's up?"
The woman said, distantly, as though Letty weren't sitting six feet from her, "She looks right." And she asked Colles not Letty "Does she have any tattoos?"
Colles said, "I haven't looked. If I tried, she might whack me. Whack, like in the Godfather."
"I don't have any tattoos," Letty said. "I'm not getting any."
The woman said, to the man, "Jeff Toski."
The man nodded. "Yes. She wouldn't be in long..." He looked back at Letty and said, "Fake Tattoo. Good for a week to fifteen days, depending on how often you shower and how hard you scrub it. My daughter had one for a while. It was convincing. For a while."
Letty nodded: "I'd go for a fake."
The woman: "You killed three people in Texas, and two more, years ago, in St. Paul. How do you feel about that?"
"If you're asking if I'm suffering from PTSD, the answer is, 'No.' If you're asking if I enjoyed it, the answer is 'No,'" Letty said. "I have no urge to kill anyone, but I'm willing to, if pushed into a corner."
Now the woman said, "Huh. Do you think that makes a difference in the world? KiIling people?"
"Of course it does. We'd be living in a lot different world if John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King hadn't been murdered. On the other side, if you could kill any one hundred people in the United States, right now, think about what the country could be like without them."
The other three stared at her for a moment, then the man said, "You could be a very dangerous woman."
"Fortunately, I'm neither crazy nor a murderer," Letty said. She turned to Colles: "What's going on? You'll have to tell me sooner or later. You might as well tell me now."
"If we tell you, and you talk about it, you'll go to prison," the woman said.
"Probably not," Letty said, looking back at her. "If it's that kind of deal and I talked about it, you'd all be running for cover."
For the first time, the man smiled: "You nailed that. We probably would be."
The woman said to Colles, "She'll do."
Colles, behind his desk, steepled his fingers, then said, "There's a company in Sunnyvale, California, called Pastek Cybernetics..."
"I'm familiar with it," Letty said. "Does machine control software. Not real big. Revenues of, what, a half-billion a year?"
The woman asked, "Why would you know about Pastek?"
"I went to Stanford, as I'm sure you know," Letty said. "The place is lousy with computer people. I don't know a lot about Pastek, but I'd heard the name."
The man nodded. "All right."
The woman said, "We're now going to talk about severely classified material. Senator Colles has assured us that you can keep your mouth shut when necessary."
"I can," Letty agreed.
"Three years ago, Pastek was the victim of a ransomware attack. You know about those."
"Of course. A hacker takes over your computer system and locks you out," Letty said. "You no longer have control of what your system does, or the files inside of it."
"You wouldn't think a software company would be vulnerable, but Pastek was, in one particular segment of their business," the woman said. "A Russian hacker group calling itself DarkVenture, one word, capital V, got into their machine control servers and locked Pastek out."
Pastek had become desperate, she said. The company not only provided software, but also maintained it, and upgraded it, and adapted the software to any changes in the machinery for which they provided controls.
The company could not allow the lockout to continue more than a few days. DarkVenture wanted twenty-five million dollars in a Bitcoin payment and unlike most ransomware attackers, they wouldn't negotiate. They wanted every penny.
"I assume Pastek paid," Letty said, "Since you're here."
"They did. Twenty-five million dollars. Paying it, by the way, was technically a crime," the man said.
DarkVenture, he said, was a well-known hacking combine and there was a widely held assumption that they worked with the tacit approval of the Russian government. But Vernon Pastek, who founded Pastek Cybernetics, was not a pushover. He gritted his teeth, paid the ransom and then went looking for revenge.
The man leaned forward. "The six principals of DarkVenture are well-known to most intelligence agencies and even some civilian hackers here and in Europe. Pastek isn't a hacker, but he knew how to get in touch with an American hacker group that calls itself Ordinary People. They started out doing political hacks Donald Trump's IRS files, Republican emails, harmless stuff. Pastek won't admit it, but he came up with a revenge scheme and paid Ordinary People one million dollars, personal money, to carry it out."
The two NSA operatives took turns explaining what happened next.
Russia, they said, has the second largest rail system in the world in terms of tons of freight moved per kilometer, after China. The U.S. is third. Ordinary People got into the Russian rail system and essentially owned it for several months. The Russians could move trains, but they didn't know what was on them. They'd get Mercedes Benzes in Nizhny Novgorod and tractors in Moscow. A trainload of Army rations in Vladivostok and commercial ocean-fishing gear in Belarus.
Then Ordinary People, operating under another name, DarkVirus, a riff on the DarkVenture name, just to stick the fork in, made a ransomware offer to the Russians: publicly execute the six principals of DarkVenture or put fifty million into a Bitcoin account. The Russians had to think about it for a while, but eventually paid up... or DarkVenture did. The NSA wasn't exactly sure of the mechanism of that decision.
"Who got the money?" Letty asked. "Ordinary People, or..."
The woman: "Pastek got it. Or, he owned the Bitcoin wallet that held it, initially though a shell company registered in the British Virgin Islands, and from there to a half-dozen other off-shore accounts. Where it went from those accounts, we don't know and probably can't find out. That's also illegal, but we're not the IRS. Ordinary People got their million, up front, nothing more. And that's the problem we're getting to."
"I have to fight the Russians? Or Vernon Pastek?"
The man shook his head. "No. Ordinary People started out as idealists who... well, they really had their heads in the sand, money-wise. Eating tuna fish sandwiches for supper. Peanut butter for lunch. Fighting for the right to be Progressive. There are probably not more than twenty or thirty of them. They got a million dollars from Vernon Pastek, but after you split that twenty ways, you've earned about what you'd get as an elementary school teacher. We think they've become unhappy with their lifestyle and were impressed by how lucrative a ransomware attack can be. And how easy it is, if you pick the right target. And how anonymous. How safe."
Letty: "So they're going off the rails, so to speak?"
"Yes. We watch critical computer systems in the US thousands of them, which is neither here nor there, not something you have to worry about," the woman said. "We believe Ordinary People have been nosing around natural gas distribution systems. We have no definitive proof, but we suspect they plan to turn off the natural gas supply for a northern city, or even multiple cities."
"Like the Twin Cities," Letty said. "I used to live there. We had gas heat."
"Yes," the woman said. "So you know what we're talking about. If somebody takes out the natural gas system for a northern city in the next month, it'll be a huge disaster. When natural gas goes down, you can't just turn it back on. It takes days, or if the outage is big enough, weeks, even when you have full control of the system."
"You're the computer geniuses," Letty said. "Why not just grab the gas-system computers before Ordinary People do? Lock them out?"
"Because they may already be in there and they'd see us," the woman said. "If they see us, they might pull the plug and we don't even know exactly where they'd pull it. It's a cold winter in Minneapolis, Rochester, Bozeman. So cold the ski trips are down in Jackson and Big Sky. It was twelve below zero at the Butte airport last night."
"Okay. So why not figure out who Ordinary People are and sic the FBI on them?"
The man nodded. "The FBI is not known for its subtlety. They'd start an investigation, and about the time they interviewed their second subject, the word would get out, and OP might very well shut down a city."
NSA had been aware of the group for some time, but OP was not a small, well-organized cell. They were an amorphous group, with hackers coming and going. There were apparently different factions one wing purely political, another environmental, some were anti-gun, there was a pro-choice faction.
"We could figure out who they all are, separate the factions, if we had the time. Maybe... three or four months, or a year?" the woman said. "We might have a week or two... the current cold front is clearing out, but there's another one behind it."
"And I can fix that by..."
"By doing what you just suggested that we do figure out who they are. You'll do that by hooking up with one of our computer specialists," the man said. "You're his girlfriend. He drives an old, rehabbed Toyota Tundra, he has tattoos, he's got very strong computer skills, he talks the hacker talk. We put you where we think Ordinary People might be... dangle him like a trout fly... and hope that he gets a bite. Hope you two can identify them."
"We don't want you for your computer skills. We want you for your gun skills and your believability as a very young and somewhat cheesy girlfriend. Somebody who couldn't possibly be a federal officer," the man said. "We want you to take care of our guy while he figures out who the Ordinary People are. If Ordinary People is planning to take down a natural gas system, that means they're dangerous folks who are willing to kill for money. Or have become that way. Our boy is a little... not to say wimpy, but..."
"Wimpy. Despite the macho truck and tattoos, he's a wimp," the woman said. "He's agreed to do this, after some arm-twisting, but he's scared. We need somebody to take care of him."
"I'm not going to sleep with him," Letty said.
The woman winced. "We'd never suggest such a thing."
She said it in a way that made Letty think they actually had thought of such a thing. "That's good, because I won't."
Colles: "Understood. If he jumps you, some people will hang for it." His eyes scanned the two suits, who both nodded.
"One last question," Letty said. "If you're so hot to get to Ordinary People, why not go after Pastek? Grind him down. If he was upset by having to pay twenty-five million, how upset would he be if you threatened to put him away for five to ten? And take his company away from him?"
"There are other issues," the woman said. She glanced at Colles. "Having to do with campaign contributions. Pastek's campaign contributions."
Same old story, in certain quarters of America, like the one they were sitting in. Money bites. "Okay."
The man asked, "So. You'll do it?"
"If Senator Colles asks me to," Letty said.
"I'm asking," Colles said.
"Then I'm in," Letty said. She turned to Colles. "I assume I'll get a heavier briefing than this. Where and when do I get that?"
"At Homeland," Colles said, meaning the Department of Homeland Security. "Tomorrow. Time is short. You'll have homework to do when you're on the road. We don't have time to give you everything tomorrow."
The woman said, "I'll be at the briefing with Rod Baxter and some other folks."
"What's your name?" Letty asked.
The woman had to think a moment, then said, "Mary... Johnson."
"Who will I be reporting to?"
"Me," Johnson said.
Letty turned to Colles and said, "Great. I'm reporting to somebody who lies about her name."
Colles: "Yeah. That's true."
Letty held his eyes for a moment. "They're lying about something else, too. Are they going to tell me what it is?"
Colles shook his head: "I don't know about that. All I know is what you've heard."
Johnson said, "We're not lying about anything. Cross my heart. We'll be briefing you tomorrow. Today, you need to buy clothes and get ready to fly. Like Senator Colles said, we have no time. No time. We're posing your associate as a rogue programmer-for-hire, down on his luck, on the run from law enforcement after a ransomware attempt went worng. We haven't finished that cover yet, we're putting the final touches on it. It's not something we usually do. We're talking to some... mmm... other people about that. But you will be his college-dropout girlfriend and maybe something a little rough... like, mmm, a barmaid. Or a scullery maid."
"I don't think they're called that anymore," Letty said.
"Whatever. You need the clothes to fit that image, that background. Get some today, you'll be compensated later," Johnson said. "You'll be flying out of here tomorrow night, to Orlando, Florida."
The man, who'd not yet introduced himself with a fake name, said, "Ordinary People are based in Los Angeles. They might be planning to attack a northern city, but we don't know if they've even bothered to go to any of them. This is all computer stuff they don't need to go there."
"If they're in LA, why am I flying to Florida?"
"The Orlando stop is part of your developing cover," Johnson said. "We'll know more about that by tomorrow. Your partner, Rod Baxter, went to school at the University of Florida in Gainesville, which is just north of Orlando. He spent three years there, in grad school, he knows it well. You need to give it a look. You'll be driving his truck from Orlando to L.A. the truck should arrive in Orlando late tonight or early tomorrow morning, we're having it driven down there. We're hoping you can drive it on to Pasadena, to Cal Tech, in three days. The drive is part of your cover."
The man added, "We also have a lot of material for you to absorb your new identity, what information we have on the Ordinary People, investigative processes, your law enforcement contacts on the West Coast, emergency contacts with us... and so on. Your time in the truck will be busy."
"Excuse me for saying this, but it doesn't sound to me like you're even sure Ordinary People is going to attack anyone," Letty said. "It sounds like you're guessing."
The two spooks nodded, and Johnson said, "That's fair. Let me put it this way we know for sure that they're researching natural gas systems. We know that a couple of years ago, the natural gas system in Aspen was sabotaged and the gas companies had a heck of a time getting it back up. We know for sure that Ordinary people has done at least one spectacular ransomware attack. What do you think they might be doing?"
Letty pushed out her lower lip, thought about it, and nodded: "I guess you have to look at it. If that's not the part you're lying about."
The man said, "About the tattoos...
Jeff Toski was a burly tattoo artist with a full russet neck beard, peering blue eyes, and a nose that might have sniffed too much ale. He lived just east of the Anacostia River in Northwest D.C., with a tattoo parlor in the front porch of his house. He put Letty in his chair and said, "I don't fool around, I'm good at this. You're one of the Specials, so you've got some choices."
He had three ranges of inks, he said: standard tattoo, which was permanent ("Don't believe that Dr. Tattoff bullshit") an ink for fake tattoos which essentially sat on the surface of the skin, and Derma-Oil, a new ink made of a natural plant-based pigment that literally got eaten by the wearer's body.
"The fake will look good for up to two weeks, with a daily shower. After that, it doesn't look so good, and with a daily shower, it'll be gone in three weeks. Derma-Oil will look good for six to eight months, depending on your body chemistry, and not so good for another two, and then it's gone. Not a trace. When it's there, it's a real tattoo: you can get in a shower with... whoever... and they can scrub your tattoo as much as they want, and it will not come off. 'Cause it's real."
"I don't want to go permanent," Letty said.
"Then I'd go with the Derma-Oil. I've done a few of these Specials and have an idea of what you guys are up to," Toski said. "Undercover, the fakes would be kinda... scary. 'Cause they're not real."
"Then let's do that, the Derma-Oil," Letty said. "Is it going to hurt?"
"A little. Not too bad."
With further consultation, Letty got a pair of raven wings in black ink that covered the entire top of her back; a miniature yellow-and-black tiger swallowtail butterfly inside the point of her hipbone, which might peek out of a pair of lowrise jeans; and a Buddhist saying on the inside of her right forearm: All Wrong-Doing Arises Because of Mind. That tattoo was in what Toski said was Sanskrit, and as far as Letty knew or Toski it could actually say, Death to all white-eyed devils. But then, maybe it really did evoke the Buddha.
The tattooing did hurt; it didn't feel like millions of needle pricks, but more as though somebody was scraping her skin with a piece of glass. When each of the tattoos was done, Toski washed them first with a disinfectant and then with an antibiotic. When she told him she'd be doing some flying and driving, he also gave her a package of peel-off plastic sheets that combined a light adhesive with a topical anesthetic.
"The tats will be raw for two or three days, they'll weep some, but the sheets will keep that from soaking into your clothes and keep you from itching too bad," Toski said. "They should be fine after that. They're shallower than standard tattoos, so they're not raw as long."
When she was dressed, Toski said, "A little advice. Come back when you're done with the job, and I'll make the butterfly permanent. That is awesomely hot."
On most of her work for Homeland Security, Letty had been briefed by Billy Greet, a DHS executive, now a friend of hers. Greet and Letty's frequent investigative partner, John Kaiser, had developed an on-again, off-again relationship which would have been deeply frowned upon in the halls of Homeland Security, had anyone other than the three of them known about it.
When Letty left Toski's shop, she found Greet on the street, waiting, hands stuffed in her jeans pockets. She was wearing a fashionable High Plains Drifter pre-dirtied jacket against the February chill, and her Aviator sunglasses. Her hair was pulled back in her usual tight bun, with a few strands floating loose; she looked like a harried third grade teacher after a bad day. "I don't like any of this, what I know about it," Greet said. "But if you're doing it, I need to take you shopping for your cover."
"Then you need to take me shopping," Letty said. "'Cause I'm doing it."
Greet drove them to an Arlington Goodwill store, where they spent an hour picking through, discussing and choosing her new old clothes. They didn't need a lot, but it had to be right. An old jean jacket, tee-shirts, much-washed bras, skinny jeans worn and holed, boots and socks, a fleece-lined trucker jacket for cool weather. A faded blue trucker hat with "USA" on the front panel.
She bought six pairs of faded different-colored Ralph Lauren men's briefs. The briefs rode a half-inch higher than the jeans in the back; and the jeans rode low enough in the front to allow the butterfly some freedom. They added a pair of silver loop earrings, a ring with a cracked glass emerald and a fake-gold brass setting, which fit nicely on Letty's right index finger, and a battered REI Co-Op duffle in dog-shit yellow to carry the clothes.
"Okay, you're sleazy," Greet said, taking her in. "Let's buy it and get over to your place and sort it out."
At her apartment, Letty changed into the Goodwill clothes and jewelry Greet insisted on soaking the earrings in a dish of alcohol before Letty snapped them into her ears. "That raven on your back is terrific, but a little goop is bleeding through the dressings," Greet said. Letty was walking around in a pair of red Ralph Lauren shorts and a pinkish bra, that may have become pinkish when it was washed with something like the red Ralph Lauren shorts.
Greet helped peel off the plastic anesthetic sheets and apply new ones. "When your back heals, get yourself one of those off-the-shoulder peasant tops. It'll be warm out in California and it'll look cheap. That's you. Let the raven fly."
That night, Letty told John Kaiser as much as he needed to know to provide cogent advice.
"My advice is this. Undercover guys look like everything from movie executives to street people. And housewives," Kaiser said. He was an ex-Delta operator who'd gone undercover in several different Middle Eastern countries, as well as Sweden and Canada. "It's not like on TV where everybody has permanent three-day beards and dark glasses and foreign noses."
"Always. On TV. Foreign noses," Kaiser said. "Anyway, what undercover people never are in my experience is gimps."
"There's a choice, socially sensitive word," Letty said. "Gimps."
"Okay. They're never differently-abled. If you really want to sell yourself, you could be differently-abled."
"How would I do that in a non-fake way?" Letty asked.
"I was hoping you'd ask. I'll be right back." Kaiser disappeared into his bedroom and came back with an elastic knee brace and a roll of surgical tape. "Pull your pant leg up."
Letty had learned not to question him on such things, so she pulled her pant leg up. With her leg straight, Kaiser put a marble-sized knot of tape behind her knee, took three wraps of the soft tape around her knee to hold it in place, then had her pull the brace over her foot, and up to, and over, her knee.
"You were hiking, tried to jump across a creek and tore your MCL," Kaiser said. "Pull down your pant leg and walk around."
Letty did; and she limped. Couldn't help herself. "That's really annoying."
"I imagine being a gimp is annoying," Kaiser said. "But it gets you something you need."
"That would be?"
"A cane," Kaiser said. "A non-obvious weapon... and non-lethal, if you need it to be non-lethal."
"I'm not that good with a stick yet..."
"You're good enough. Way good enough. You won't be stick fighting somebody like me," Kaiser said. He'd been giving her lessons. "You'll be beating some IT nerd over the head."
"I'll think about it," she said.
"I'll be really disappointed if you don't do it," Kaiser said, settling back on his heels. "Undercover... you might not be able to keep your gun. But who's going to take a cane away from a gimp? A girl-gimp?"
"I suppose you've got the perfect stick," Letty said. Then, "Wait: you were hoping I'd ask."
"Exactly." He went back to his bedroom, and Letty could hear him rummaging around. A moment later he came back with a dark brown wooden cane with knobs along its length and a right-angled steel grip that looked like an ice-climbing pick.
"Black thorn," he said, running his finger down its bumpy length. "Bought it in London. Hit somebody with the stick hard enough, you'll break his arm or kneecap, crack his skull. Hit him with the grip, either the blunt end or the point, you'll kill him. Heavy as a hammer, with a three-foot handle."
"Killing is easier with a gun," Letty said.
"Sure. If you don't have to drive back to your hotel to get it."
When Letty limped into the Homeland Security briefing room the morning after the interview at Colles' office, she found Mary Johnson talking with a fiftyish man. He was thin as a pencil, wearing rimless glasses over a dry, narrow face, and a forest-green suit that Robin Hood might have envied; a bystander might have thought him an Ivy League professor of some archaic and useless subject near the top of an ivory tower.
A younger man, thirty-something and bulky, with dark loops under his eyes, and thick black hair so heavily gelled that it glittered under the overhead lights, was slumped in a plastic chair behind the thin man.
The younger man Letty hoped he wasn't her new partner but suspected that he was looked at her with a near-sighted squint. He was in shirtsleeves, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, showing tattoos on both arms. As she walked by him to an empty chair, she picked up the musky scent of a men's cologne.
Greet sat in a corner with her arms crossed and when she looked at Letty, her eyes drifted upward in an unspoken "might be bullshit" signal.
Letty nodded at Greet and said "Hello" to Johnson, who was wearing either the same, or a duplicate of the blue suit she'd been wearing the day before.
Johnson took in the cane and asked, "Letty... Oh, God, you didn't hurt yourself?"
"I'm a temporary gimp for undercover purposes," Letty said, and the thin man smiled. Johnson nodded and waved a finger at the two men. "Richard Taylor in the suit, and Rod Baxter, who you'll be working with."
From her corner, Greet said, "If we decide to go ahead with it."
Johnson said, "That's already been decided, Ms. Greet. We have no time to argue about it. No time."
"Letty's never had undercover training," Greet said. "Yet you expect her to spend several days and maybe weeks in close contact with..."
"Yes, we do," Johnson snapped. "She has a number of desirable characteristics that are nearly impossible to find in a government employee. For one thing, she looks far too young to be a threat to Ordinary People. And we know she's smart and actually did spend some time undercover at Pershing."
"Yeah, about fifteen minutes," Greet said.
Baxter spoke up. "I'd hoped I'd have a little more cover than a girl with a limp. Like somebody said, Ordinary People could be dangerous."
From the back of the room, Billie Greet muttered, "Makes my face hurt."
Baxter turned his head to look back at Greet. "I'm not being sexist, if that's what you think. She's pretty but not particularly..." He paused, looked at Letty, and continued, "prepossessing. If somebody gave us serious trouble..."
Letty slipped her hand in her pocket and brought out her Sig, a chunk of black metal that hit the tabletop with a clunk. "Prepossess this," she said.
"Ah, man," Baxter said. "I don't like..."
"For your protection," Greet said. "The woman can shoot the balls off a gnat, you fuckin' turnip."
Baxter got pissed: "These people we're going against are nuts! You got that! Capiche? They're wacko!"
Greet: "That's why you need Letty."
After a period of awkward silence, Greet asked, "What if somebody runs a facial recognition app against her, and Letty Davenport, heroine of the Pershing Bridge, turns up?"
"They won't find Letty Davenport, heroine of the Pershing Bridge, no matter how deep they go," Taylor, the older man said. "They'll find a young woman named Charlotte Snow, nicknamed Charlie."
Johnson laid it out:
Letty, as Charlie Snow, had dropped out of the University of Florida after two years, where she and Baxter had met.
The two of them would fly to Orlando that night, then drive to Gainesville in his pickup, which would be delivered to the Orlando airport that afternoon. Baxter would spend a morning showing Letty around the campus, and his old haunts, before they left for Los Angeles. Ordinary People were believed to have gone to college in the LA Basin UCLA, USC and Cal Tech, so they should not be intimately familiar with Gainesville, if any had been there at all.
Letty: "If any of them were at Stanford... I was there for six years."
"We don't see that," Johnson said.
"Better not," Greet said. "What kind of cover have you built for her?"
Taylor spoke up. "Ordinary People are undoubtedly adept at all kinds of computer searches, of course. But not as good as we are. We have made changes in several Florida databases to include ID photos for Ms. Davenport, a couple more photos of her participating in the University of Florida Ayn Rand Club..."
"Give me a break," Letty said.
Taylor chuckled and said, "Small tolerance for charlatans, eh? Good for you. In any case, we inserted a number of documents in a variety of databases, including grades for freshman and sophomore classes you did quite well, Letty, though you faltered in Introduction to Computer Science. We also have a brief story about your arrest for vandalism in the student newspaper, the Alligator. It seems that you got caught spray-painting the personal parts of Albert and Alberta, bronze alligator mascots to make them more... interesting. The story says you'd probably done it more than once."
Letty: "Okay. My name's Charlie..."
"Charlotte Snow," Taylor said. "Charlie. By the way... do you play a musical instrument of any kind? I couldn't find it in your resume."
"I took six years of drum lessons," Letty said. "Sub Focus, 10 Years, bands like that. I played in a jam band in college. I can hold my own. Both play it and talk it."
"Excellent," Taylor said. "We were looking for another possible article for the Alligator database. "We can slip in a picture of you and your drums."
"I don't have a picture like that," Letty said.
"Don't worry about it, we'll make one," Johnson said. "We'll locate a used electronic drum set, put it in Rod's truck."
"Great stuff," Letty said. "Now, how are we going to find Ordinary People?"
Johnson sighed: "That, we don't know. We believe they hang around Cal Tech and UCLA. We believe they are politically involved, although they may have curtailed that activity when they started looking at the Russian trains and then the natural gas systems. We know the OP are, or were, basically anti-Trump lefties, so you'll have to do some reading. We'll give you a flash drive with a collection of political articles for you to digest; they'll make you a believable advocate of the left, should anyone question your politics."
"Rod got involved in the research after he volunteered for this project," Taylor said. "He may have more to say about finding the OP."
Everybody turned to Baxter, who heaved himself more upright in his chair.
"When I was poking around after the Ordinary People attack on the Russian rail system, I got a guy at the agency to look at phone and email records from the time Pastek was commissioning the train hack. We found a burner phone that we believe belongs to Vernon Pastek, although we think it's now at the bottom of a Sunnyvale sewer. There were calls from the phone that link with calls received by a Cal Tech professor named Eugene Harp. He's a computer science professor there and also a political lefty."
"You think he's a member of the group?" Letty asked.
"Don't know," Baxter said. "He's older, mid-forties, so I kinda don't think so. But, he's very likely Pastek's initial connection to Ordinary People. He got divorced two years ago, no children. One of our researchers took a look at the divorce settlement. He and his wife married in California for eleven years, so under California laws, they split everything fifty-fifty. He bought out her share of the house, paid her one-point-three million for her half, got a mortgage from Wells Fargo to cover it. He might need money. If Ordinary People pull off an attack on, say, the Minneapolis natural gas system, there'll be a very large payday."
"What does he teach?" Letty asked.
"Specializes in machine-control software," Baxter said.
"So... you really got him. He's got to be the connection," Letty said.
"I'd be willing to bet on it," Johnson said.
"Willing to bet on it. So now we're rolling the dice," Greet said from the back of the room.
When Johnson pulled Greet out of the room for a private come-to-Jesus chat, Baxter grumbled to Taylor, "Volunteered for the job my fat white ass. If I didn't, I'd be working in the back of the NSA furnace room for the next thirty years."
Taylor smiled at him and said, "Yes. I believe that is correct. On the other hand, since you did volunteer, promotion is a distinct possibility. We never do this kind of thing. You're sort of the canary in the coal mine."
Baxter to Letty: "These guys could kill us."
"You, maybe," Letty said. "Not me."
Baxter: "I'm putting in for a lot of overtime."
Letty: "You go, girl."
Baxter: "Fuck you."
"No chance of that."
Taylor smiled again in his dry, pencil-thin, rimless-glasses way.
The briefing continued when Johnson and Greet came back to the room. Most of it involved possible places they might look for politically involved hackers: bars and diners and hipster hangouts in Pasadena, where Cal Tech was located. They were given thumb drives containing lists of computer academics who might know members of Ordinary People, even if they didn't know what the OPs Johnson' nickname for Ordinary People were up to.
Letty took notes, Greet mostly kept her mouth shut.
Johnson said, "When you find them, we need names and emails and physical locations, phone numbers if you can get them, the kinds of equipment being used, where they hook into the net. We need to isolate the leadership, if there is a leadership. From what we've been able to gather, the group's organization may be communal rather than hierarchical. There may be no single leader..."
The NSA also had what Johnson called a "valuable resource" should it be necessary to follow someone in the LA area and a few other cities. Johnson explained that the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department had an Automatic License Plate Reading (APLR) system and could track license plates through the city, in real time, from cameras on patrol cars, traffic signals and light poles throughout the LA basin.
"The original idea was to pick up on stolen vehicles and to track fleeing vehicles. That was years ago and things have come a long way since," Johnson said. "We, mmm, mmm, have access to the system."
"How long does it take to get hooked up to it, if we need it?" Letty asked.
"It's real time," Johnson said. "We'll give you a number to call, and an identification code and you can track anyone you want, any time you want, night or day."
Halfway through the briefing, a busy-looking man showed up, carrying a battered leather briefcase stuffed with manuals. He had too-long hair for the government and glasses with steel frames.
When Johnson called on him, he said, "Okay... Rod. I've got some stuff for you. The software used by most gas companies. Most of it is standard PLC stuff, from Schneider and OMRON and LySergicAD Labs, if you know those guys. We've got some malware code that goes after Codesys that underlies the software... We dug this out of an APT actor, and tell you what, it's now a level above Stuxnet or Industroyer..." Baxter understood it all, but Letty didn't. One minute into the tech talk, she was lost. As Baxter and the new man went back and forth, Johnson waved Letty toward the door.
Greet joined them in the hallway and Johnson said, "As you can see, Rod's a little reluctant, Letty, so you'll have to push him. We need him out there. He'll understand what Ordinary People are up to, if we can get him in place. I can't emphasize enough how fast you've got to make your connections."
"Nobody's said anything about backup," Greet said.
"We're talking with the Los Angeles office of the FBI. They've been read into the problem and we have a contact for Letty," Johnson said. "If she gets in trouble, she can call up anything from a single undercover agent to a SWAT team with automatic weapons."
She put her briefcase on an upraised knee, fished around, and produced a foot-square Ziploc bag that appeared to be full of trash, and a cell phone.
"A cheap-looking burner phone, which wasn't cheap, believe me. It has a secret cache with phone numbers and IDs and other information you might need. Instructions are in the bag. There are two credit cards for you, a Visa from a Wells Fargo Bank in Gainesville, and a Target, also from Gainesville, as well as a perfectly good Florida driver's license and some other wallet trash. All well-used. And some grade reports from the university... photos of your 'mother.' You were a single-parent family. You're Charlotte Snow. Charlie."
"She needs to take her federal carry permit and senate ID," Greet said. "If she's carrying a gun and gets tangled up with a California cop..."
"Yes. Talk to Baxter. I understand he has some hiding places in the truck. He says they're secure against anything but a complete disassembly."
"When are we leaving?" Letty asked.
Johnson glanced at her watch. "A little before seven o'clock tonight. You fly into Orlando. Rod's truck will be in a parking garage there. We'll text you the parking-lot space. On your new-old phone..."
"Why are we driving, anyway? We could fly all the way..."
"We need you to be on the road, we need you to have legitimate gasoline and motel receipts scattered around the truck, we need you to go through Gainesville, to look at it, we need you to see the highway, I-10, we need you to drive into Pasadena. We want you to push it: it'll be something like thirty-six hours on the road, you should be able to make it in three days. You'll be pretty far south, so you shouldn't run into any snow in the mountains... if there are mountains. Every time you stop at a McDonald's or wherever, grab the receipts and throw them in the back of the truck. "
"Will Rod try to wrestle me into bed?"
"No. But here's a warning for you: don't keep yourself too separate," Johnson said. "Rent one motel room, get two beds. Get to know what his underwear looks like. You need to have some degree of intimacy. Not sex, but you need to know him. You need to create a persona that might be sleeping with him."
Letty nodded: "Got it."
"By the way, I love that cane," Johnson said. "You really look helpless."
"That's not the entire point," Greet said.
"What's the entire point?" Johnson asked.
"She's been stick fighting with a former Delta operator," Greet said. "She could kill you with it."
"As the Delta guy told me, I might not be able to pack a gun," Letty said to Johnson, "But who's gonna take a cane away from a gimp?"
Johnson smiled: "I like that."
When Johnson had run out of things to talk about, Letty took Greet aside and asked, quietly, "What do you think of Baxter?"
"He's gonna be a load," Greet said. "I feel for you. But he's nothing you can't handle. I can't promise the same about these hackers. They'll be smart and wary. And probably horny, so keep your knees together. Going deep doesn't mean you have to screw anybody."
Letty nodded: "I'd already figured that out. Screwing: Optional."
"Something else," Greet said. "I don't trust the fuckers from the NSA and I don't trust the fuckers from the FBI. You feel like you're getting in a jam, if you even get a hint of that, I'll put Kaiser on a plane and you can have him in six hours, armed to the teeth and off the books. Don't mention it to Johnson."
"Got both guns?"
"Is a frog's ass watertight?" Letty asked, adding, "Sorry. I hang around cops. I might need help getting the guns on the plane. I don't want to check them."
"Got you covered on that," Greet said. She looked at her watch. "I'll walk you through the back door."
Letty spent the tag-end of the afternoon cleaning out her refrigerator and purse, packing, talking to the apartment manager, paying rent in advance.
Greet picked her up after dark, drove her to the airport, then literally walked Letty through a back door at Reagan National, door reserved for security personnel, obviating any problems with the two pistols, the ammo or the five-inch switchblade in Letty's duffle bag.
Nobody asked about the black camera bag slung over her shoulder. The bag contained a diminutive Panasonic GX8, equipped with a single zoom lens equivalent to a 24mm-120mm lens on a full frame camera, and a pair of Leica Ultravid 8x20 binoculars. Letty had learned that decent optics came in handy when sneaking around.
She carried the cane but wasn't yet hobbling.
"I gotta get Kaiser to train me on the stick-fighting stuff," Greet said.
"Ooo, sexy. Discipline me with the stick and then take me to bed," Letty said, pitching her voice into a plea.
"The shit that comes out of your mouth sometimes..." Greet shook her head.
Greet watched them from the gate as Letty and Baxter boarded an American Airlines flight to Orlando, called "Be careful," and raised a hand as Letty disappeared down the skyway. Letty and Baxter sat in separate rows, ignoring each other until they touched down in Orlando two hours later.
They found Baxter's truck in a parking structure, exactly where the NSA spooks said it would be. As they walked out to the truck, Letty made an effort and said, "Warm and damp."
Baxter nodded and said, "That's the main thing about Florida. The heat and humidity. I was born and raised in Belle Glade, and in the summer, it gets so hot and humid you can't breathe. We didn't have air conditioning until I was twelve, and mom started getting sick from the heat and the air when they burned the sugar cane fields. My dad didn't believe in it. Air conditioning. Said it made you weak."
It was the single longest thing he'd ever said to her.
The Toyota Tundra looked rough gray, ten years old, door dings and when Letty asked about it, Baxter grunted, "I like old Tundras. I'm a fanboy."
"Will you like old Tundras if we break down in the middle of the Sonoran desert?"
"Not gonna happen," he said. "The truck is perfect. I maintain it myself. Get in."
The truck had a crew cab with a short bed, and they threw their bags in the back seat. The interior, Letty admitted to herself, was flawless and comfortable, with after-market leather bucket seats. A green deodorizer tree hung from the rearview mirror, and a black carbon-fiber clamp-like mechanism extended from the dashboard between the driver's and the passenger's positions.
Baxter took an iPad out of his bag and clipped it into the clamp and said, "It doesn't look new, but it is. Nothing on it but bullshit. It's on a swivel, so either one of us can use it. Hooked into Verizon. Password is 3890@7703. If you forget it, and I'm not around, you can look it up on your phone by searching for the geographic coordinates for Washington, DC. Remember to put the 'at' sign halfway through."
"Got it," she said. And, "We need to talk, since we didn't on the plane or back in Washington. Before we get to the motel."
Baxter put on a pair of black-rimmed glasses and wheeled the truck out of its parking spot, then stopped as a metallic rattling noise came from the truck-bed. "What the fuck is that? It can't be the truck, unless some asshole ran it into something."
He pulled over, popped the truck-bed cover, looked inside, relocked it, got back in the truck and said, "Drum set. Gotta stop in the morning and get some padding or bubblewrap. I'm not gonna to listen to that thing rattle all the way to the Pacific Ocean."
They drove out to the freeway in silence, then Baxter said, "I know I'm not supposed to try to hustle you into bed and I won't."
"Good. We need to be clear about that," Letty said.
"I'm clear about it," he said. "I'm too scared to think about sex. Besides, you're not my type. I like robust blondes. You're not one. And I'm clear about the fact that I don't want to die out there. Did you even listen to what Delores was saying about these guys?"
"Mary Johnson. Her real name is Delores Nowak. I'm not supposed to tell you that, but fuck 'em, I'm the one whose ass is on the line. If you read even a little between the lines, the Ordinary People are willing to kill off a few hundred people, or maybe more, because that's sure as shit is what's gonna happen if they pull the plug on the heat in the Twin Cities in December."
"You think so?"
"I know so. Remember when the power grid crashed in Texas a few years ago? More than two hundred people died and that only went on for a few days. And it wasn't really that cold. Not like a northern city. The Ordinary People gotta know what they'll be doing. Killing us? We wouldn't even be a pimple on the ass of what they're planning to do."
Letty shrugged: "We can handle it. We don't have to make lifelong friends with these people we just have to identify them and call the FBI."
"Bullshit. I'm gonna have to talk to them. You will too. I don't want to die for Delores's little Hail Mary pass," Baxter said. "What they really need to do is send some guys like me up to the possible targets, shut down the gas hardware long enough to clean out the corrupt software, if it really is corrupt, and install new stuff, with better security. This sneaking around in L.A. is crazy."
"They may be doing that," Letty said.
"What?" Baxter frowned as he glanced over at her.
"I talk to security people all the time, at Homeland. They believe in compartmentalization like the Pope believes in Jesus," Letty said. "I wouldn't be surprised if NSA is working on a backup that you don't know about. They didn't tell you because they want you focused on Ordinary People. They want to identify them because they want to stick guns in their ears. Let them know if the Twin Cities or Bozeman or Rochester goes down, they're all getting the needle. No money, just the needle."
"That's harsh, but you could be right," Baxter said.
"One more thing. They're lying about something; You're lying about something, since you're NSA, too. You want to tell me what it is?"
Baxter steered around a slow-moving Prius and said, "I don't know what they're lying about. I know they're lying about something. Interesting that you picked up on it, though."
"You're telling me the truth now?"
"I am," Baxter said. He nodded, and she believed him.
Letty knew her cover but hadn't gotten the details on Baxter's. She asked about it.
"I got it on a flash drive, I gotta memorize it on the way to L.A.," Baxter said. "You'll have to take the wheel for a while. We need to be on the road at least twelve hours a day. I'll drive eight, if you can take four in the middle."
He'd read through the material once, he said, on the plane. According to the legend created by the NSA, perhaps with input from the CIA, Baxter, whose new name would be Paul Jims, had run a ransomware attack on the Confederate Memorial Medical Center in Willow Branch, Georgia.
There had been an actual, real-world attack on the hospital, but the perpetrators hadn't been identified. The attack had taken the ICU offline just long enough for an elderly patient to die, although some news stories about it suggested the patient was about to die, or already had died, when the attack took place. In any case, the hospital's insurance company had paid the attackers five hundred thousand dollars to turn the hospital back on.
One of the now-online news stories, from an actual newspaper, said that a confidential source told the paper that the attack had come out of Florida. The original story hadn't said that, but the original story was now long forgotten in the stream of daily media crap. The new story, as placed by the NSA, was now the ongoing truth.
"That's great, as long as Ordinary People didn't do the hospital," Letty said quietly.
Baxter shook his head. "They didn't. I looked at the Russian attack and the hospital attack. Totally different software writing styles."
"So we're good," Letty said.
"No, we're not," Baxter said. "We're trapped in a bad movie. That's what we're in. A really bad fuckin' movie, poorly written. Especially my part."
They got to Gainesville and checked into a Hampton Inn near the university campus, a few minutes after midnight. They agreed they'd get up at seven o'clock, grab a quick sandwich and hit the campus, do a tour of student bars, try to get out of town before noon.
In the room, with two beds, Letty took her pistols out of her duffel bag, checked them, though they were in perfect condition, to make a point about guns and her familiarity with them. Baxter was curious, said he'd gone to a gun range with friends from Houston, where he grew up, and fired rifles, but had never felt the need to own a gun.
Letty let him handle the two weapons, explained the mechanisms, which he picked up on. After dry-firing them a few times, he said, "When this is over, maybe I'll get one. Though I'm more software than hardware. Of course, that's assuming that I'm still alive, which seems unlikely."
Letty put the guns away, and said, "Let's get down to our underwear. I need to know if you've got a hairy back."
They undressed to their underwear, checked each other out: Baxter was pale, hairy and overweight, with full sleeve tattoos heavy on astrological signs and numbers, like fifty digits of pi and breasts larger than Letty's. He was unembarrassed. To Letty, he said, "You're got four small moles on your back, under the wings, that look like the handle of the Big Dipper."
She hadn't known. "Remember that. You might be able to use it."
"Yes. I'm not going to push on you because Delores said if I did, she'd ship me to Diego Garcia. But I gotta say, you're not totally unattractive."
"Thanks for the thought," Letty said. "I'm going to need you to pull the dressings off my back and put new ones on."
He did that and was gentle about it. He said, "Wings like a dark angel. No blood. Healing good. Day after tomorrow, it'll look like it's two years old."
"A raven, not an angel," she said. And, "What's Diego Garcia?"
"Island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Listening post. The closest thing on earth to nowhere."
When the pads were covering the tattoo, Letty fished a tee-shirt out of her bag and pulled it over her head, to sleep in. "I'm setting the phone to get up early."
Baxter slept soundly and silently; Letty didn't, half-conscious part of the time, wondering if the bear-sized man was about to drop on her.
At five minutes before six o'clock, five minutes before the alarm was set to go off, and feeling foggy, she rolled out of bed, turned off the alarm, moved quietly to the bathroom, shut the door, showered, brushed her teeth and hair, and dressed. When she left the bathroom, she found Baxter sitting on the edge of the bed, elbows on his knees, looking at the floor between his feet.
"Yeah, I guess," he said. He was the living definition of 'morose.' "Give me thirteen minutes."
Made her smile, a little, because it sounded so nerd-like. "Exactly thirteen minutes."
He looked up and said, seriously, "Yeah. Thirteen. I'll be out in thirteen minutes."
He took his clothes with him and thirteen minutes later, emerged from the bathroom, showered, shaved, dressed and reeking of Drakkar Noir. "Let's get breakfast and walk the campus. The buildings will be open pretty soon, if they're not already. I'm not sure when I was here, I never got up this early."
They left the truck in a parking structure by the student union, walked through the bookstore which had more orange and blue Gator shirts than books, and into the union, where Letty hit the Wells Fargo ATM for the receipt, and they got bagels and coffee at a Starbucks. With the food and drink in hand, Baxter led the way outside and across a broad lawn to an uncomfortable concrete picnic table under an enormous live oak.
As they ate, he pointed out a variety of classroom buildings: "What we're sitting on is called the Reitz Union lawn, and that..." He pointed across the law at an undistinguished red-brick building, "... is the computer science building. Right next to it is the Marston Science Library. I spent ninety percent of my time here in those two buildings, along with the union. I lived close enough to campus that I could ride my bike in and... that was about it."
"You don't strike me as a cyclist," Letty said.
"I wasn't trying out for the Tour de France. I was trying to get my ass from my room to Computer Science without paying for parking. Physics and other engineering shit is over there on the other side of the Union..." He waved in the general direction of the student union. "... and really what you need to remember is 'red brick.' You remember that, and you mostly can't go wrong."
As they walked around, they passed a pond with a sign that said, "Danger Alligators and Snakes in Area."
"Yeah. We're in Florida," Baxter said.
When they'd covered most of the campus, they went back to the truck, and Letty threw the ATM receipt on the floor of the back seat. Then they took a trip down Congress Avenue where Baxter pointed out his two favorite bars and a pizza joint where he said he lived much of his campus life; Letty took photos.
Next, he drove them past his old living quarters, which were in the rear of a house owned by an old lady who, he said, "was a pretty nice old lady. I was there for three years."
"It's like every state university, but with palm trees and Spanish Moss in the Live Oaks," Letty said. "I've seen enough. I couldn't remember much more. What we need to do is talk about your time here. We can do that on the way to California."
"Thirty-six fuckin' hours," Baxter said. "You ready?"
"Yes. After a couple of stops."
They stopped at an Office Depot and bought bubble wrap and wrapped the drum set, and from there, went to a Guitar Center, where Letty bought six drumsticks, two sets of brushes and a practice pad. Before she got back in the truck, she rolled the tips of the drumsticks over a rough concrete curb, to give them a worn look. They made a final stop at a Whole Foods market where they bought sandwiches and crackers for the trip, along with off-brand cola and ice that they put in the Yeti cooler that sat on the truck's back seat.
"I liked this place all right," Baxter said as they headed for the I-75 on-ramp. He thought about it for a minute, then said, "Actually, I didn't like it that much. I can't really say that I ever had a good time here. Not one that lasted, anyway."
They left Gainesville behind at ten o'clock in the morning, give or take, ground through the I-75 traffic jam going north, made it to I-10 and took a geographical left. Except for a brief loop around New Orleans, they'd stay on I-10 all the way to Los Angeles.
"Tell me stories about Gainesville," Letty said, as they rolled out of town. "Your main girlfriend there. The time you got drunkest. Getting high on weed and where you bought it. The fight you saw in a bar... what music you listened to."
Baxter talked, getting into it, reminiscing, sometimes amusing, and it seemed to Letty that he kept coming back to one particular girlfriend who might have dumped him. Was she his only serious girlfriend? Letty didn't ask.
"I liked weed and I liked micro-dosing on acid. But you know what? I almost never did it, because I couldn't afford it. I mean, I had about two extra dollars a week to live on. I actually worked parttime in a men's clothing store, selling accessories, which was stuff like ties and underwear and socks, minimum wage with a two-percent commission. I only got to work in the suit department for a day, where the big commission money was. The buyer over there thought I was..."
He hesitated, and Letty filled in: "Unsuitable?"
"I was gonna say that," Baxter said.
"Bull. You never thought of it," Letty replied.
Baxter's amusement didn't extend to Letty's suggestion that they skip a few of the McDonald's restaurants that they passed on the highway.
"You're probably seventy or eighty pounds overweight and you're not using any calories sitting in the truck," she said. "You must have eaten three thousand calories already today and..."
"Shut the fuck up."
"You could at least drink Diet Coke. Every one of those..."
"Shut the fuck up."
"... is like a hundred and forty empty calories per can..."
"Shut the fuck up..."
"Maybe you would have had more girlfriends if you lost weight," Letty said.
"I don't have much trouble that way," Baxter said. "Women are basically simple creatures. Taking them to bed isn't a problem."
"Shut the fuck up."
Baxter laughed as Letty fumed and looked out the passenger window, but finally she couldn't stand it any longer, and said, "Women are not simple. Not as simple as men."
"Then how come they're so easy to manipulate?" Baxter asked. "You tell the pretty ones that they're smart, and the smart ones that they're pretty, and badda-bing, you got them in bed."
"That's the most cynical thing I ever heard."
"And you work in the Senate? I don't believe you," Baxter said.
"Okay. It's one of the most cynical things I've heard."
"Not even in the top hundred."
Letty had to think about that for a while, finally admitted, "Okay, not in the top hundred. But still cynical."
Baxter laughed again.
Baxter turned out to be a car freak. They were still in north Florida and they were passed by a car doing perhaps a hundred miles an hour and he said, "Whoa! See that?"
"BMW 8-series convertible. Rare car, at least around here."
"Jesus. I thought you'd run over a snake or something," Letty said. "Or a sharecropper."
Later: "Got a Range Rover coming up behind us."
"Nice car. Clumsy, unreliable, expensive to service, but nice-looking."
"If you like cars like that, why do you drive this piece of shit?"
"This is NOT a piece of shit," Baxter said. "This is a highly tuned, expensively upgraded, Q-ship. Fast and agile, for a pickup truck. It can go places that would cause a Range Rover's fenders to fall off. Where not even a cop would follow."
"If you say so."
After a moment, Baxter asked, "What do you drive, anyway. Wait: let me guess. A Mini. Countryman."
"A Highlander hybrid." When Baxter didn't respond, she asked, "What? It's a piece of shit?"
"No, actually, it's a pretty good machine. Makes sense, especially in California. Mountains and high prices for gas."
In the evening, pushing into the night, Letty got out the practice pad and a pair of drumsticks, pushed the seat back as far as it would go, put the pad on her knees and began drumming, with side trips to the dashboard and the windowsill. Baxter found a classic rock station and she played along and he didn't seem to mind.
The trip across country, Letty would latter tell someone, was like a survey of American foliage: going from lush, semi-tropical palms, into piney woods, into desert, and back into lush, semi-tropical California.
They spent the first road night at a Days Inn in Houston, Texas. Though it was late, they hauled the electronic drum set into the motel and Letty set it up, to make sure it was working. She'd used electronic drums when she was taking lessons. After working with the drums and the console for a few minutes, she said, "Welp. I suck."
Baxter said, "We should have time for you to practice when we get to L.A. I mean, how hard could it be?"
"Hard," she said. "I sound like I'm in junior high band class."
The last half of the second day and most of the third was done through desert of various degrees of hardness, with long intervals between stops; Baxter began getting three Quarter-Pounders at the infrequent McDonald's they passed, but turned up his nose at Burger Kings.
They spent the second night In Deming, New Mexico, and the third day threaded their way through the traffic in Tucson and Phoenix and from there across the California line. Letty had driven I-10 from L.A. to Phoenix and was somewhat familiar with it. Baxter was not.
"Doesn't look like the Sahara, just looks kinda shitty," Baxter said of the desert miles, as they approached Palm Springs. "Except for the car that passed us a minute ago. A fuckin' Bentley convertible, can you believe that? Driver looked like he's about nineteen."
Along the way, they'd collected receipts from fast-food places, bought a chunk of petrified wood at Quartzsite and a bag of elk jerky which Letty emptied out the window when Baxter told her it would give him cataclysmic gas. She threw the bag in the back seat, where it infused the truck with jerky molecules, a little nasal music for the possibly curious.
When they passed the wind turbine field on the west edge of Palm Springs, Letty said, "This is where the West Coast starts. Those windmills. That's what I always thought, anyway."
Baxter took the truck to the edge of L.A., jogged north to the 210, and then into Pasadena where they found a long-term motel called the La Rouchefort where the spooks had made reservations for them.
"We made good time," Baxter said, as they pulled into the parking lot. The motel was a dump; if there was anything on the front façade that wasn't peeling, Letty couldn't see it. "Not quite dark."
Letty: "Yeah. Let's get a key. You can take thirteen minutes to clean up while I haul the drums inside. Then you can call Delores while I'm cleaning up, and we'll go scout out Cal Tech and this professor Harp guy."
"We're in a hurry, remember?"
"Yeah." He was suddenly glum again. "Shit just got real, huh?"