November – Previous Year
As I walked through the foyer, my high heels clicked on the tile floor providing a rhythmic announcement of my arrival. I walked with my shoulders back and head up, my military training evident in my posture. It is something that never goes away, no matter how long it’s been since I was on active duty. I speak to no one as I make my way to the elevator bank. I don’t smile or even acknowledge the dozens of people who are milling around me. When I walk into the building, I’m all business. I carry no personal items, only my key card and my car keys. The key card will provide access to wherever I need to go in the building.
There are several people in the elevator lobby waiting for their car to arrive and whisk them to one of the upper floors. No doubt they will slave away at the pile of papers on their desk and dream of what they could be doing if they were outside of the building. I waited for my car as well, but I wasn’t heading to an upper floor. No, my chariot would whisk me to the sub-basement, the recesses of the building that most people didn’t even know existed. When the car arrives, I step in and use my key card to access a special control panel that allows me to select sub-basement three as my destination. The ride is short and as the doors open you forget you are below ground. The reception area and hallway are well lit, maybe a little too well lit. I think they try to overcompensate for the darkness that awaits in the other rooms.
I nod at the receptionist, she’s new, I don’t remember her name, but she knows who I am. She presses the button to release the double glass doors that lead into the bustling heart of the third-floor subspace. This room has low lighting because of the hundreds of computer screens that line the rows of desks. This is where analysts are hard at work reviewing the latest intel streaming in. The constant clicking of fingers on the keyboard sound like a symphony and is music to my ears. I step up on the catwalk that rings the area where the analysts sit. Senior personnel is housed on the catwalk – a series of offices lining the way. It provides the ability to watch what is happening below and take in everything that is happening. There is a series of large monitors on the opposite wall that displays and cycles through all of the information that is being processed.
My office is the third one down. I open the large sliding door and upon closing it, the clear glass changes to opaque glass for privacy. I place my keys down and slide into my chair, firing up my laptop as I get comfortable. I wasn’t in the best of moods, I hate starting my day when my mood is dark and foul. But this was my new normal, I didn’t anticipate it getting better any time soon. While I waited for my protocols to boot, there was a slight rap on the door. I offered for the person to enter and the door slowly slid open.
A tall man in his mid-fifties with salt and pepper hair was entering my office. He sat a cup of coffee on my desk before lowering himself into the chair opposite me. “I see you’re in early this morning, so I take it that you and Chris are still not speaking?”
I sat back in my chair, crossing my legs and turning to face my visitor. “No, Simon, we aren’t. And how is it that you can gauge the intimacy of my marriage based on what time I come into the office.”
“Well, it’s my superpower as your brother. I don’t think everyone else in the building gives a rat’s ass.” Simon took a sip from his coffee cup before continuing. “Is Chris still planning on taking the deployment? I’m guessing you’ve not had any luck in changing his mind?”
“No, he’s set on taking it. Claims it’s his honor and duty to serve. I just wish he felt the same honor and duty toward our marriage and family.” I reached for my cup of coffee and took a drink, letting the hot liquid slide down my throat. I was not a big coffee drinker, but I had to have at least one cup a day, preferably in the morning, to get my body moving. “Refresh my memory, Simon. He did say he would honor me in our vows, right? I mean, I realize we’ve been married for years, but I’m almost positive he said those words. Cherish and honor, I do remember I had them take out obey – I knew I wasn’t saying that shit back to him.”
Simon almost spits out his coffee, “Oh, Lauren, you’re definitely of a different generation. I had no problem saying those words to my wife, and she said them back to me. But I think you about gave Dad and Father Mike a heart attack when you said you wanted to remove them from your vows. They knew better than to argue with you, as did Chris. I think he was taking an early lesson in picking his battles wisely.”
“Well, I’m not sure he remembers that lesson.” I took another sip of my coffee and let my words linger. Simon knew this entire situation was difficult for me. Chris and I have not had a combative relationship at all. In fact, friends and family have always commented on how blissfully happy we seem. Maybe it was all a façade. Maybe these issues were always there and we just chose to ignore them until we couldn’t do that any longer.
Simon leaned forward in his chair. “Have you tried talking to him, Lauren? I mean talking to him rationally and not the screaming and yelling way you talked it out the other evening when you called the house.”
I was about to tell Simon the truth, and it wasn’t easy to admit. “I’m not sure I can speak to him rationally about this.”
“You’re rational with me right now, why can’t you do that with him?”
“I think it’s different because I sleep him, Simon. There’s another level of feelings and intimacy there that I don’t have with my brother, thank you very much.” I didn’t want to get testy with Simon. He was here to be supportive, I couldn’t push him away. I needed my family around me if I was going to survive this. “He’s mad because I don’t want him to go. I don’t think Chris understands that I’m on pins and needles when he’s gone. That I jump every time the phone rings. That whenever I see a Ford Crown Victoria in our neighborhood, I wonder if they’re going to pull into my driveway and delivery news I’m not ready to hear.”
I couldn’t sit any longer. I pushed myself out of my chair and walked around my desk. My office is small, but I tried to pace to release my nervous energy. “He seems to forget that where I work, I’m aware of the kind of missions he might be on. I know the danger he’s in…and,” I was starting to hyperventilate and couldn’t hold back the tears any longer. I was in the process of crumbling to the floor when Simon bolted out of his chair and caught me.
“Shh, I know. Go ahead, let it out.” My brother has always been good about consoling me, whether it was skinned knees or broken hearts. Maybe it was our age difference, but I could always count on Simon. He led me to the couch where we sat down, he pulled me to his side, wrapping his arm around my shoulder. Simon removed the handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to me without saying a word.
I blotted my eyes and wiped my tears before looking up at him, “Guess it helps that your old, because who the hell has handkerchiefs anymore?” I let out a faint laugh and tried to smile, hoping to lighten the mood and pull me back from sliding into darkness.
“Old? That’s the thanks I get for being more compassionate than your other brothers?” The snark was evident in Simon’s voice. “I’ll have you know I consider myself more refined, which is why I carry a handkerchief and not wadded up tissues in my pocket.” I couldn’t help but laugh at Simon’s comment. But what he said next brought us back to being serious. “For the record, I need to remind you that Chris worries about you as well. You’re not in the worrying game all alone.”
I sat up and pull away from Simon, glaring at him while I asked, “What are you talking about?”
“C’mon Lauren, did you forget that there are risks and dangers in your job as well? The roles have been reversed a time or two. You’ve been out in the field, and Chris has been left at home to worry where you are and if you’re okay. He had to worry about whether you’d come home alive or not. I just think you’re unfair claiming you’re the only one with those types of feelings.”
“Oh my God, you’re defending him?”
“I’m not, I’m simply pointing out that you each worry about the other. Lauren, it’s what married people who love each other deeply do. Get your head out of your ass and talk to him rationally. Tell him that you love him and you don’t want him to go. Have you even done that?”
I shook my head and wasn’t proud to admit that those words hadn’t come out of my mouth during our arguments. I kept everything about starting a family and leaving me behind, but I never actually said ‘don’t go.’
“Pick this as your battle and win your war, Lauren,” Simon announced. “Because if you don’t and he doesn’t come home, well, that’s a hell you’ll live in forever.”
“I appreciate what you’re saying, Simon, I do. But right now, I think I’m the only one concerned about the state of our marriage. Chris doesn’t want to talk, we spend more time avoiding one another. I think he’s been a Marine for so long that he doesn’t know how to be a husband, or he’s forgotten how to be mine. Maybe he doesn’t want to be married any longer.”
I could see that Simon was preparing to reply, but there was a knock on the door that interrupted us. My office door began to slowly slide open and a tall, slender African-American man with graying hair at his temples stepped into my office. The deep-set creases in his forehead where prominent as he closed the door and faced us. Simon and I immediately stood from our places on the couch.
“Please, sit back down. I’m sorry for coming in and interrupting.” He moved one of the chairs from my desk to face us and lowered himself into it, unbuttoning his blazer as he did so. “I’d like to talk to you about an assignment, Lauren. I’m glad Simon is here, I’d like him to be a witness to the conversation. You don’t mind, do you?”
I was suddenly nervous, but I shook my head, “No, Director Hobson, I don’t mind at all.”
Stanley Hobson was the Director of our division and had been for the last five years. He was an affable man and easy to work with. It is true, though, that he was not very happy when he learned that Simon and I were brother and sister. He feared that it would be a conflict having relatives working so close together. Especially since one was a field operative and the other was not. Director Hobson changed his mind when he realized that Simon and I did not generally work on the same cases and he was never involved in the missions where I was put into the field.
The Director was sitting ramrod straight in his chair and kept his eyes focused on me. “Lauren, you’ve done some work gathering intelligence on Adnan Mohammed Yusef, correct?”
I nodded politely, “Yes, sir, last year I put together a dossier on Yusef and the arms deals he’s been brokering. I was able to tie him to a few terror cells in Afghanistan and Syria. He’s been funding the smaller groups and providing arms. Although, I do have some concerns that he’s working with the larger terror programs and it’s a matter of time before he’s in the middle of one of their large-scale attacks. He’s a vengeful man, there are quite a few people who are fearful of him at the moment. It is best not to cross him.”
“There’s been an increase in chatter regarding him in the last few days. We’ve been given the go-ahead to put eyes on him and attempt to infiltrate his team. We have a few people in the theater right now who’ve been working to gain his trust. However, we need someone on the ground who has done the research on him. I’d like you to be that person. I’d need you to help with surveillance and obtaining intel to our contacts.”