When Chris left, I was a wreck. He didn’t know I’d been awake when he opened my bedroom door the night before. I’d heard him whisper, ‘I miss you, I love you, and I need you. Please come back to me, Lauren.’ I held my breath until I heard the door shut and then I let the tears fall. It broke me to hear him say that.
That next morning, I woke up and practically bolted out of the house. For once, I did my makeup in the bathroom at the office so I could make sure I was out of the house before Chris woke up. If I saw him, I’d break, and I wasn’t confident it would be a good thing. I didn’t trust myself with him any longer. I’d always been a strong, independent woman who had no problem letting her husband know what she could handle on her own and when she needed to lean on him. However, right now, I felt like all I wanted to do was lean, and that scared me. The fact that he wasn’t fighting, or at least not fighting in the way I envisioned he would, scared me even more.
Sitting in my office, I was unable to concentrate, and Simon’s words kept replaying in my head. He’d told me that I should just rationally talk to Chris and ask him to stay. Simon had this idealistic belief that maybe Chris needed to know I wanted him to be there to make him stay. But to this point, I’d been unable to speak those words. I think there was a part of me that knew if Chris stayed behind he’d be miserable. As much as I wanted him to be with me, I couldn’t forgive myself if his staying behind made him miserable. Because I think I knew he’d end up hating me.
The war between my brain and my heart was raging on, and I had no idea which side I wanted to come down on. What I did know was that I could not allow Chris to leave on deployment and not see him one last time. So, I left the office and went home. But once again, I froze when I stood on the front deck to enter the house. I stared out at the ocean hoping to gather my courage to enter the house and face him. I was deep in thought when he came out of the house but I couldn’t will myself to turn around. I was at my emotional breaking point. He stood behind me and said goodbye, and when he walked past me and down the stairs, my eyes followed him. I turned my gaze back to the ocean before he looked up one last time. I could see him out of the corner of my eye, but I didn’t glance over at him. When he pulled out of the driveway, I broke down and let the tears fall freely.
I’d given thought to going to the base. Even went as far as getting into my car and starting the engine. But my vision was so blurry from the tears I wasn’t sure I could drive or that I’d arrive safely. Instead, I chickened out and went into the house. I poured myself a glass of wine and spent the evening wrapped in a blanket on the couch. When it was time to go to bed, I elected to sleep in the master bedroom. The sheets still smelled like him; I clutched his pillow to my chest. It was the first night in nearly two weeks that I slept soundly.
~ * ~
Two weeks after deployment
In the time that Chris was gone, I’d immersed myself in all things related to Adnan Mohammed Yusef. My initial mission, the packet given to me in the conference room, was to research the principals within his organization and his primary dealers. I’d also worked on the backgrounds for the women with whom he’d had intimate relations. We needed details on all of these people because they would be the key to infiltrating the organization. If we could build legends for our team that tied back to these people, it could help create credibility.
At the time I’d been working on these dossiers, we’d also been dealing with a downed Russian airliner. On the surface, it just looked like a horrible accident – most likely mechanical in nature. However, it quickly unfolded into the airplane being brought down by a missile. It hit me that there was most likely a connection between Yusef and that airplane. I couldn’t put myself into the middle of the investigation, but I did plant a bug in the ear of a few key people, and it took no time at all for the link to be confirmed. This was just one more item to add to our file on what Yusef is capable of and that he is motivated by money and not ideology.
The word had come from Director Hobson that I was to head to Afghanistan at the beginning of next week. We were heading to a remote village where Yusef was known to have a compound. We’d had several assets on the ground there already, and they had been working to gain the trust of some of the men in his employ. While we weren’t close to thoroughly infiltrating his group, we at least had eyes on some of his men, which was closer than we’d ever been in the past.
My timeline for deploying was accelerated since our men in the area had noticed an increase in activity lately, and they were not as familiar with the supporting cast of players in this unfolding drama.
I’d learned that Simon, against my requests, would end up being my handler while I was in Afghanistan. While he didn’t regularly work terrorism cases, Hobson wanted someone here in the US that I trusted to be in charge of my movements. I’d not been in the field for a couple of years; I needed someone who knew both the job and the agent well enough to conduct the operations. Simon was the logical choice. He wasn’t about to argue because he didn’t like the idea of me being on this mission in the first place, so this just meant he could keep a close eye on me.
Simon had called my brothers and asked them to come to town. While we’d agreed we could not tell them the details of the mission I was about to embark on, we at least needed to share that I was going to be in the field. They’d wonder why they couldn’t reach me and I couldn’t leave them to worry, and I knew that Simon didn’t want to lie. I’d also decided to bite the bullet and tell them that Chris and I were having marital issues and that I couldn’t say where we stood at the moment. Once again, it was better to be honest with them.
~ * ~
Saturday night before departure
As I was preparing to leave the house to go to the restaurant, my phone rang. I looked at the caller ID and realized it was Chris calling, again. He’d tried calling every few days since he’d deployed and I’d evaded every call. This call would be no different. He never did leave a voicemail; I didn’t understand why. I wouldn’t mind hearing his voice, but I didn’t want to talk to him. I didn’t want to admit to him that I was going out into the field. It would dissolve into another argument, and I couldn’t handle that, not again.
I arrived at the restaurant, Simon had reserved a private dining room for us so we’d have privacy. My brothers were already there, I was always the last to arrive, no matter how early I tried to be.
“I take it something important is going on if you gathered us all together and there are no spouses,” Nick announced almost immediately after the door closed behind me.
“Yeah, especially if you made me fly in from Chicago,” Roger chimed in.
Simon motioned for everyone to take a seat and I think everyone realized at that point that it was, indeed, important. “It’s been awhile since we’ve all been together,” Simon began saying. “It was time for us to be in the same room and to talk a few things over.”
I cleared my throat, “I’m the reason we’re having this family meeting.” All eyes turned to face me; I could feel the intensity of their stares. “First, I need to announce to you that Chris has deployed for eighteen months and I’m not certain we’ll be married when he returns.” The room became deathly quiet almost immediately.
John sat up and leaned forward on the table, “I thought he was set to retire in six months or so?”
“Um, he was,” I offered in a whisper.
“Then what the hell changed, bug?” It was the first time any of my brothers had used my childhood nickname in years. When I was little, I was their little ladybug, it was all they would call me. For a long time, I didn’t even realize my name was Lauren because it was never used in the house. As I got older, it was shortened to ‘bug’ and was primarily used when the boys were overly protective.
“He told me he was going to spend the last six months overseas. I didn’t take it very well and in retaliation for our argument, he extended his contract. Now he’ll be overseas for eighteen months, and I’m not sure where he’ll spend his last six months, I never got a chance to ask.”
“What an ass, he gets pissed off at you and extends his stay? How fucking mature,” John spat out as he sat back in his chair.
Simon snickered, “I wouldn’t blame it all on Chris. You haven’t heard what your sister is doing, yet.” I shot Simon a look that would have struck him dead if looks could kill. I didn’t expect him to throw me to the wolves this way. But then again, he had tried to defend Chris a few weeks ago.
I blew out an exasperated breath. “Fine, look I’ll lay it all out on the table. You can’t completely blame Chris. I didn’t react well to his news and never gave him an opportunity to explain anything. In fact, I did nothing more than ignore him for the last two weeks he was at home. He figured I didn’t want him around, so he extended his deployment. I was angry over the situation, and I signed up to go back into the field as an operative.”
My brothers, except for Simon, in unison, said ‘What the fuck?’ It would have been quite hysterical if they weren’t all angry at me. The anger in Nick’s eyes was the most powerful, followed closely by John. Roger always had a calm and relaxed exterior, which is why his job in law enforcement was ideal for him. But right now, he was ready to pounce.
I slowly nodded my head. “Look, I’ve been involved in a highly classified operation for about six months. To date, it’s all been analysis and data mining, but the Director came to me and mentioned they needed someone in the field, they wanted me to do it. I figured it would be the ideal time to do it, no kids, and the husband has left me. Why not?”
“Why not? How about you have a family who’d like you stay alive and a husband who’d shit a brick if he found out you were doing this.” Roger shouted, not holding his emotions back in any way.
“I’ll be fine. I’m highly trained; I know what I’m doing.” I needed to sound confident because if any of them smelled fear, all bets would be off. They would all come after me with both barrels.
“Well, I guess we can be comfortable with what you’re doing,” Nick finally offered. “After all, you work with Simon, if it was too dangerous, he’s got the pull to keep you from doing anything stupid.”
I glanced over and could see the slightest tick in Simon’s expression. He couldn’t let them know that this mission was dangerous and that he knew it all too well. He also couldn’t admit that he’d tried to get me yanked from the mission and it didn’t work. Of course, he wasn’t aware that I knew that, either.
Simon had been with the Agency for many years, and while he was working in Clandestine Services, he still held an esteemed position within the Agency. He was well trusted and a proven asset. He didn’t pull rank very often, but when he did, it always worked in his favor. Until he tried to get me removed from this assignment.
I have a friend who works for the Chairman of the Agency, she told me that Simon had made an impassioned plea to get me yanked. Said to them that my judgment was clouded because of the personal drama I was suffering through at home, it could easily allow me to be distracted and compromised while in theatre.
The Chairman said he empathized with Simon and could understand the concern, but I was the best hope for helping to bring down Yusef. My knowledge of his arms dealings and his inner circle was valuable intel that the Agency needed. My being left behind could damage the operation, they couldn’t risk it. He promised Simon that every effort would be made to keep me safe, but I had a duty and honor to my country.
Honestly, it was somewhat prophetic that he used those words when those were the words that caused me to choke on why Chris was going back to on his own mission.