It was Friday, the day before my high school graduation, and I was on a ladder in the gym, hanging a banner that read 'Good Luck, Graduates' when my cell phone rang. The banner was a sincere message, but with the area economy idling and the job market sparse, I kept reading it as sarcasm.
I was the one up the ladder because I had lost a round of rock-paper-scissors to Neeka, who now stood on the polished floor with one foot on the bottom rung, holding it steady. I only had a tiny bit of suspicion that she had cheated and read my mind so she wouldn't be the one teetering 40 feet up with her head in the steel rafters. I was sure she wouldn't have done that because if she fell off it could have meant weeks in the hospital, but if I went splat it would just have been several minutes of cussing and not much more.
I finished tying the banner off on the metal braces before I snatched the phone from its clip in the waistband of my shorts.
"Hello," I said, not bothering to look at the small screen to read the caller-ID information. Neeka had programmed it to use different ring-tones for calls from my friends than it did for calls from numbers that were related to my profession. The short bit of Wagner's Die Walküremeant that this was such a call.
"Good afternoon, Miss Kramer," the voice on the phone said. "I'd like to talk to you if you have a few minutes."
David Solomon didn't bother to identify himself, which was fine. I recognized his voice from his flat Northern accent and the way he casually dropped a name that he wasn't supposed to know, just to shake me up. Conversations with him weren't give and take exchanges so much as they were competitions to see who could wring the most information from the other person while giving up as little as possible in return.
"Sure. When and where?" I asked.
"Right now, if you don't mind. The telephone company van by the curb".
I leaned over and looked out the high window that overlooked the school parking lot. Sure enough, there was a phone company truck there with orange cones all around and a guy behind it fiddling in the green box by the curb.
"Be right there," I said, and closed my phone.
"How did he find out?" Neeka asked.
She'd been listening in by tapping my grey cells. I can't even call that snooping, since it seems that she lives in there most of the time and it gives me a wonderful outlet for my tendency to be a smart-ass without running the risk of offending anyone. Mainly it gives me a reassuring, security-blanket-feeling to know that there is someone who is zero distance from me at all times.
David Solomon's business card said he was the Second Assistant Deputy Director of the Homeland Security Department of the United States of America, which sounded to me like someone who was buried so deeply in the bureaucracy that he could fake it by just taking lunch meetings with the other Second Assistants and plotting how to move up to First Assistant and cut out of the office even earlier in the day. His real job was something else. Mr. Solomon was the chief liaison between all the diverse and acronymic Intelligence agencies — CIA, DIA, INR, DISA, NSA, ETC. — and the covert — I could tell you, but I'd have to kill you — Operations groups that had been roughly consolidated in the wake of 9/11.
"Duh!" I said. "The man has connections. If there were something he thought he needed to know and he couldn't find it out, I'd be worried."
Solomon had scored points with me for brilliantly orchestrating the rescue of a couple of VIPs who had been kidnapped by 'foreign nationals', a euphemism I had learned was used inside the Intelligence Community when they meant 'Bad Guys not from around here'. I had an equal amount of juice with him because I had been instrumental in freeing the hostages without calling attention to him or his operatives.
Solomon didn't visit socially. If he was here, there was a problem. If Solomon had a problem, it was probably something terribly important that couldn't be solved by conventional means, up to and including bombing it or invading it.
Neeka stayed behind to cover for me while I ducked out the back door and around the corner of the gym, where I scooted between the rows of parked school busses and then crossed to the other side of the road. When I came up to the back of the truck, the man squatting beside the junction box looked up at me and touched the brim of his cap. It was Max, one of the Operators and a former special operations soldier who had been on the rescue team. I supposed he was there so I would know this meeting was legit and not a trap laid by someone. Knowing that people like Solomon existed was making me paranoid. I wasn't sure that wasn't entirely a bad thing, which shows how messed-up your head can get when you start playing with the pros.
I smiled sweetly at Max. Just as I was about to knock, the back door of the truck opened and I quickly stepped inside, and into a different world.
Solomon has a thing about being comfortable in the field. It may be that upholstering the backs of bogus utility vans and faux commercial trucks with comfy chairs, coolers, task-lights and all manner of communications gear was a waste of the tax-payers money, but the government wasted billions on so much stuff that barely qualified as 'holes in the ground' that I wasn't about to say anything at all about him turning the odd plumber's van into a rolling executive office.
A man I hadn't met before shut the door behind me and sat down on the jumpseat next to it with an arm across his lap, poised just inside his open suit-coat. I ignored him and slid into a leather chair on a sliding track in the floor before reaching out to shake hands with the hawk-nosed, hatchet-faced Mr. Solomon.
"Good to see you again, Sam," he said with a friendly tone. He took my hand without hesitation.
"I wish I could say the same," I said. "But I have a feeling that meetings with you are not conducive to my continued good health."
He snorted, a much more convincing sound than a laugh would have been. He wasn't used to dealing with people who spoke the truth quite as bluntly as I had put it. No doubt that was from talking to Senators and other politicians, who, it seemed to me, had standing restraining orders against the Truth.
"I might say the same about most of those you have had occasion to meet in your — ah — other persona."
He was right about that. More right than I liked. Until I met Mr. Solomon I had never actually killed anyone. Since then, my body count was greater than zero — the only number I would acknowledge in my head. I was still very unhappy about that change in my record, but there wasn't a damn thing I could do about it. Feeling perpetually guilty was something I had decided was unproductive, even though in unguarded moments the feeling did manage to return and even to bring its friends, depression and grief.
My change of mood must have shown on my face. Solomon decided to cut to the chase.
"You've probably seen the media coverage of the young women who have gone missing while on vacation in the Caribbean?"
I nodded. "I remember a couple of them disappeared from different places. I assumed they had been killed by local criminals who decided to prey on the more defenseless tourists. If you're interested, then I guess there is more to it than that."
"Quite. The specifics of each case make them appear to be random events, but the similarities are inarguable. Eight young women..."
"Eight? I only heard of two!"
"Eight. All girls between the ages of 18 and 20, although mostly on the younger end of that range. All similarly attractive-looking, in the same wholesome, schoolgirl way. All unmarried, although most had boyfriends and two were engaged to be married. All of these girls have disappeared without a trace in the past few months. All were tourists. Five Americans, one Canadian, one from Ireland, and one girl from the Ukraine. Some of the abductions were not reported because their families assumed it was a kidnapping and a ransom demand would be forthcoming. No demands were ever received. Some of the crimes were kept from the media by the local authorities because it was feared that it would impact the tourist trade on which these places depend."
"How were they abducted? Do you know?"
"Not yet. But there is one rather curious feature to the crimes that everyone finds interesting, but seems to shed no light on them. Nothing but the girls has been taken."
"We are fairly certain that some of them were taken from their hotel rooms in the middle of the night. And yet nothing else was stolen or even disturbed. Money, credit cards, jewelry, clothes, cameras; nothing of value that the girls had with them and which we might have traced if any of it had been fenced or sold on the street."
"I remember one girl was at a club. How about her?"
"Everything she had with her apparently vanished, too, but none of it has turned up."
"So, the kidnappers are only interested in the girls? That's creepy."
"And that is why I was asked to become involved. Whatever is going on has the potential for creating a very nasty scandal if it becomes public under the wrong circumstances. This administration already has enough on its plate as it is."
"You have a theory?"
"I have a suspicion. I do not yet have enough information to know if it is justified and I am not prepared to discuss it until I do."
"What do you want me to do?"
.... There is more of this story ...