Hot Iron: Part 4

7.

Kennedy was pulled from Mendez’s room by one of the police officers and directed back into the conference room. She found herself face to face with another suit so sharp it cut her retinas. The man gestured her to sit. Unlike before, half the room’s lights were on. She’d been unable to pin down many of the first group’s features, but this was different, more personal.

He looked a little older than her, a slight gray in his hair, but evidently premature given his youthful features. His posture and stance indicated a formal training. Military, she guessed, or something government. He was clearly a subordinate though, his tone said as much.

“Miss Hart,” he said around the table’s corner from her. He slid forward a tablet computer and something that looked like a cell phone. After thumbing it a few times, he straight to business. “Melissa Fannon is not allowed to know of the true nature of her brother’s injuries. Were it to leak, it might jeopardize ongoing operations by the NCPD, FBI, and NSA.”

Kennedy was flabbergasted, “Uhm, okay. But do you really expect to contain this? I mean, the net’s already flared up.”

He cleared his throat, “We know. But net outrage lasts the length of a news cycle. In two or three days, they’ll have something else to be up in arms about. They’ll focus on that, and this will be forgotten by the general public.”

“But people already know.”

He put up a dismissive hand, “They think they do. What they have are thin corroborations by other net users that could just as easily be a lie.”

“And the satellite photos? The seismographs? What about those? Isn’t that evidence?”

He sighed and rubbed his forehead, “Miss Hart, please, this isn’t why we’re here.”

“It’s why I’m here,” she countered coldly. “I have a patient whose family is now his legal proxy. She needs to be fully aware of his injuries and their cause to act as that proxy.”

He fingered the tablet to a text file, slid it over, “My superiors have anticipated as much. This is your cover story. It’s as close to the truth as can be allowed to better facilitate the ruse.”

She took the tablet with a hint of scorn, “So why is this necessary?”

He readjusted himself, lifted a briefcase form the floor, and fished out a few pieces of paper, “That is the other reason I am here. Apart from that information, which you should defer to when asked specific questions, there is this.”

He slid over an NDA sheet, similar to HIPAA form. Beneath it, an “X” was marked beside “Signature.” Half the document was legalese so foreign she couldn’t pronounce it. The other half was clear enough to say, “sign here, say nothing, or lose your job.”

She forced back actual anger, “I don’t know who you think you are Mister–”

“Barnet,” he said. “Garrett Barnet.”

“Mister Barnet,” she fumed. “And I don’t know who you work for, but I’m not about to compromise my ethics until I am told, in plain English, what the hell’s going on.”

“Sign the form, and I can tell you everything you want to know. Otherwise, my superiors may have to assign someone else to the job. Given what you already know, they may pursue legal action against you.”

She was dumbstruck, “But I don’t know anything.”

His professionalism fell away. “May I make a suggestion?” She was stunned by the shift, silent. “Sign the form. The US Government is an immovable brick wall of bureaucracy, but it also has the power here. If you don’t sign that sheet, it will drown you in legal trouble so thick and deep you may never get out.”

She stared at him. There was no malice in his words. Rather, it seemed as if he truly empathized with her. All the same, his eyes confirmed what he said as truth. If she chose not to sign, the legal headache would crush her brain until it oozed out her ears. She didn’t need it. She already had her patients, coworkers, and ex doing that well enough.

She finally gave in with a sigh, dug a pen from her pocket, “How is this not extortion?”

Barnet grimaced, “When it’s the government doing it, we call it patriotism.”

She scowled, scratched a signature, then shoved the page forward, “I want it noted I’m not doing this of my free-will but to keep my job.”

“Noted.” He slipped the page back into the folder, closed it, then looked to the tablet before her, “You’ll note the file before you contains “Eyes only” information. Things even I am not privy to. Understand that it means you will not be allowed to repeat anything not directly highlighted or notated. Is that clear enough?”

Again, she scowled, “I know how to read, Mr. Barnet.”

“Agent, actually,” he produced a badge that read “NSA.” “I’m with the NSA. I will act as liaison between you and the NSC, who is directing this operation.”

NSA? NSC? Operation?What the hell’s really going on here?

She didn’t exactly have a degree in acronym agencies, nor did she care to know much of them. She knew, however, that the NSA and NSC were the National Security Agency and Council respectively. Supposedly the NSC was the secret court always referred to by tabloids and net conspiracy theorists when blaming “them.” The NSA, on the other hand, was an agency responsible for protecting America– sort of like the CIA, but acting internally as opposed to externally.

At least, that was how she’d learned it. This made no sense though. In fact, the more she learned, the less sense it made. Why bring her in? Why involve her at all? Wasn’t she just another liability? Another possible leak in an otherwise frail pipeline of information? Moreover, if the NSA and NSC were involved, why not take her patients elsewhere? Rush may have been one of the top institutes in the nation, but there were others, with people who’d already been trained to deal with these things.

She saw he was waiting for her mind to finish working. She cleared her throat uncomfortably, “Uhm, okay… what operation?”

He checked his watch with the pointed gesture of an older man, “Have you eaten lunch, yet?”

“Huh?”

He rose, folder in hand, “Come on, my treat.”

Her eyes widened in confusion, her mouth once more agape in speechlessness.

8.

Before Kennedy knew what was happening, her body was propelling her mind toward an elevator. Barnet led the way with a sort of saunter, like a man with no place better to be and no cares in the world. That this was actually the opposite of truth neither showed nor stirred resentment in him. He was well-trained, personality crafted so that despite having a million other things on his mind and to be doing, he appeared content in taking the nurse to the cafe for lunch.

Presently they sat with trays of food, sequestered to a quiet corner of the cafe. The place was closing up after the dinner rush. Only a few people were left in it to clean, though at least one or two would be on duty through the night to ring up food for anyone wandering in.

Barnet sat with a tuna-salad sandwich in his hands, Kennedy across from him with a Reuben. He took careful bites to avoid losing any food on himself or elsewhere. Kennedy watched with fascination; he somehow managed to negotiate even the messiest of foods into complying with his particular brand of cleanliness. Meanwhile, she shoveled food in like a person who might have only moments to do so.

She finished first, sat digesting while Barnet made progress through his sandwich. He paused to suck soda through a straw, then spoke casually between bites, “You know, I never get what people say when they talk about hospital food tasting bad. This is probably one of the best sandwiches I’ve had.”

Kennedy threw back a gulp of water to wet her throat, “Maybe you need to get out more.”

He gave laugh, smiled charmingly, “Trust me, I’ve been out. It’s all the same. In or out.”

“Can we just get to the point? I don’t mean to be rude, but I have a lot of work to do.”

He finished the sandwich with a quick pair of bites, then washed it down. He tossed a crumple napkin into the center of his plastic plate. “I understand your frustration. You’re worried, being worked over by the government, and you’re afraid your job’s on the line.”

“Isn’t it?”

His head tilted sideways in affirmation, “That’s not really my point.”

She pinched at the corners of her eyes, “I just want to know what’s really going on here.”

He pulled the cell-phone like device from his pocket, thumbed it for a moment, “Alright, it’s safe to talk.” He set it aside and Kennedy saw something running; an oscilloscope with spiking waves and various numbers along its side.

Barnet pushed his tray aside, leaned in attentively, “In 2020 the CIA infiltrated a group of European revolutionaries. This group was run mostly by former IRA members–”

“IRA?”

He nodded, “Irish Republican Army. These weren’t soldiers though, more… militant extremists. They’d terrorized London and most of the UK through the 80s and 90s. Their children were raised to do the same. The CIA knew this. So it sent in agents to infiltrate a new IRA-like organization that had been formed. The idea was to turn possible leadership into lethal, freedom fighters. In other words, take those most feasible for it, and use them as external contractors directed by the CIA.”

“When you say–” she looked around, lowered her voice. “Contractors, you mean killers, right?”

He winced, “Think James Bond killers, not Jack the Ripper killers.” She didn’t see much of a distinction, but knew what he meant. “The idea was to use these assets for complete deniability. By doing so, the CIA could ensure two things: First, that the group disbanded; neutralized without a shot fired, and second; that they could continue counter-terrorist work in Europe without the threat of discovery.”

Kennedy wasn’t much for spy games, but she saw the logic Barnet was suggesting, “And since Extremists are well-known as such, they’d have been better cover than say, a CIA agent with a forged background.”

Barnet was impressed. It showed through in a small smile that fell away to speech. “Exactly. The problem was, as is usual, free-agents are generally just that… free. However carefully monitored, they’re also out of control by their very nature. What the CIA had done was taken rabid dogs and turned their sights onto meat they’d gain from in feeding to them. No one in the agency ever had delusions. They knew even in the beginning that no-one would hold the free-agents’ leashes. But that was the point. Turn a clandestine system inward, and let it tear itself apart.

“Did it work?” Kennedy asked out of curiosity.

Another tilt of his head, and a twinging grimace, “Yes and no. Eventually, all those free-agents did their jobs. Once finished with them, the CIA’s director of operations ordered hits on all of them. Bear in mind, this was twenty years ago, we were both just out of diapers.” She raised a brow at him, but he continued unimpeded, “Only one of those free-agents eluded the CIA, and continues to do so.”

Kennedy’s face went blank. Time seemed to pause. Her mind worked through everything she’d learned to separate fact from absurdity. It was all absurd, although that didn’t necessarily mean it was lies as well. When she was younger, the NSA had nearly imploded from information leaks. Whistle-blowers revealed massive amounts of intelligence to the world. Everything from agent dossiers to country-wide surveillance monitoring informed people just how much trust their governments had in them. It turned out “zero” was the answer.

Nonetheless she had difficulty seeing his story’s relevance, let alone its connection to her patients. Something of this confusion must have etched into her face, because Barnet watched her closely, then answered as if she’d asked him the question.

“How this relates to your patients,” he said pointedly. “Is simple. Officers Torres and Mendez were injured in Operation Hot Iron: a raid on a heroin manufacturing facility. That operation, as it turns out, was a sting set up by myself and several of my superiors in the hopes of finding the last, remaining free-agent.” The puzzle piece that fell into place homed Kennedy’s eyes on Barnet’s. “We believed, like the NCPD, that the free-agent would be found in the facility that was raided. Instead, several mercenaries from across Europe and America were arrested, or killed along with Mendez and Torres’ SWAT team.”

Kennedy re-wet her mouth with another drink. “I’m guessing the story doesn’t end there.”

He nodded in affirmation, “None of the arrests, as of yet, have given us anything useful on our target. However, we believe the SWAT team was deliberately targeted. Why and how are still a mystery, but we believe the only way anyone could have known the raid was coming was through a mole. In that case, they would have known both Mendez and Torres would be present. If, in fact, the free-agent hopes to exact revenge on the two officers, he will have to send someone here or come himself. The NSA and CIA both doubt the latter. Instead, we hope to intercept whoever comes on his behalf and follow them back to him.”

Kennedy was beginning to see how she fit in. “And the best way to draw them out is to make them think the officers are dead. Then they can send someone to confirm it.” Barnet nodded, impressed by her insight. She shook her head, “What I don’t understand, is why you think either of them would be worth targeting for retribution.”

He rose casually from his seat, motioned her along to clear their trays of trash, set them atop bins. “Torres was a solider, Army Ranger regiment. What most people don’t know about the last war in the Middle East is that it’s still being waged. Thirty years later, we’re still running ops in the region. Torres was involved in one after the formal end of the war.”

They turned for the cafeteria entrance, passed the table as Barnett retrieved his cell-phone, slid it in his pocket with the app still active.

They pushed through double doors into a drab, off-white hall, “Torres’ squad was ordered to clear a compound. The Free-agent’s partner– in more ways than one– was killed during the fighting. We believe this to be one of the causes of the NCPD being targeted for infiltration.”

They reached the elevator and rode it upward. Just before it deposited them at the ICU, Barnet pulled the emergency stop, produced the cell-phone and checked it. Reassured the app was still running, he produced a folded photograph from his pocket.

He presented it to Kennedy with a grave look, “Kieran Walters. Burn this image into your mind.”

She stared at the man; in his late-fifties, with short-cut, graying hair and something definitively European about him. He almost sneered at the camera, but she suspected he had no reason to. It appeared to be an enlarged passport photo. Were she not commanded to study his features so intently, she’d have forgotten what he looked like almost immediately.

When Barnet felt certain the image had been imprinted, he pocketed it. “You are the only one to know what this man looks like. From here on out, you are to screen everyone that visits both officers.” He produced a second cell-phone, handed it over. “It’s not a phone. It’s a scanner designed to look like one. It will perform a 3-D Infrared scan of a room and its occupants, as well as hack any nearby devices– cell-phones, computers, etcetera. Keep it charged, and pull it out to check it, then press the side button to scan any visitors.”

She eyed the scanner, then Barnet. He was preoccupied returning the elevator to service. It started up again, let out a moment later onto the ICU. He let her step out, then held the door open with a hand. The other reached into his pocket for a business card with a series of dots and dashes on it,.

“If something happens, press and hold the phone’s button in this pattern. It’s Morse-code for SOS. The device will automatically connect you to me. I’ll already be on my way. Please use it only for emergencies.”

He stepped back. She called quickly, “What if it’s not an emergency?”

He grinned and the doors slid shut.

Short Story: The Secret Keeper

My hands are covered in blood, black and blue with bruises so I wipe them like an auto-mechanic with a shop towel. That metaphor feels the most apt, especially given I just worked the sunuvabitch over like a mechanic works a rust-bucket. He’s tied to a chair, jogging pants and wife-beater splattered with wide trails of blood. Between the sheen of sweat that covers his body like a greased hog, and the swollen-red bits of flesh beneath it, he has that same worn-out, beat-up look of a decades-old Ford that’s worked one too many days.

I don’t care why he’s tied to the chair. I never do. I just do my job.

As usual they brought me in after they’d nabbed the poor bastard in the night. They’d given him just about every other type of treatment known short of the MK Ultra-style drug and plug, and he’d still kept his mouth shut. That’s why I got the call. That’s always why I get the call. You know the one. It goes something like this: There’s a click as I thumb my burner-phone, half clothed in a towel and wet from a still-running shower or some other, mundane bullshit task of life. Then, there’s a deep, male voice– or maybe it’s high and feminine. Either way there’s a voice and it says; “we have a problem.”

That’s it. The phone clicks off. I finish my shower, lunch, or whatever, and leave. I toss the burner in a dumpster down the street during my walk to the pick-up point. It’s always the corner of eighth and Main. I picked it ’cause most days I can watch the petite book-shop owner across the street shuffle back and forth at the counter. She’s always leading with her left foot, but writing with her right hand.

It used to be I’d just stare at her ass, watch it buck left and right with those supple hips. Now though, I try to imagine what’s on her mind. Is it something good, bad? Maybe heartbreaking or even arousing? I’m never quite sure. Must be a sign of getting older and mellowing out. You think less about pussy and instead the person around it. There’s a lotta’ pussies in the world, half as many as there are bodies, but people are rarer. I’m not talking about a human creature. There’s more than enough of those to go around. No, I mean people– personalities and thoughts and dreams worth a god damn.

I always snuff my cigarette out with my left foot as the black sedan rolls up to the crosswalk. I never do it like that anywhere else, only when I’m watching her. The brakes on the sedan squeak as I give her frosted, platinum blonde hair a final look, then angle down into the car’s back-seat.

From there, each call’s a little different. Some days its a car-ride across town to an abandoned warehouse, or maybe a dry-docked tanker in for repairs at the harbor. Hell, we even used a hotel room once; rented out the whole damn floor so no-one would here the guy’s screams. What a waste of cash. He cracked like a damn egg and I’d barely touched him!

Sometimes though, when the situation calls for it, I get to really enjoy myself. Not in the torture, though in my line of work you find ways to enjoy what you do. Why live and work– and do your job well at that– if you can’t enjoy yourself? I mean I get to enjoy the life that accompanies the really swanky places they put me up in. We’re talking billionaire, yacht-club, coke from a G-an-hour stripper’s tit-crack level of swank. It’s the kind of shit you think only exists in movies ’til your numb face is between her plastic tits and shes pumpin’ you on the suite couch.

I’ve seen all of those types of places too. Not the places themselves. I’m not needed that often. But I’ve seen all their types; the tit-job, coked-out party places, the tea and crumpets, dusty-muff-stink places. Hell, even the ones where people address you as sir– because they know slavery’s still alive and well, and black, white, brown or flaming red, they’re whipped into sucking you off and thanking you for the privilege.

It’s the life to live when you’re young. You’ll never see anything like it unless you’re working for the black-box government-types like me, or get in deep with the hardcore mafioso like my bloody friend there. Let me tell you, take the former; the latter, always, always gets busted eventually. Even if they don’t– even if they’re one of the infinitesimally small numbers that slip through our fingers ’cause they’re greasier than a whore in tub of petroleum jelly– they still die younger than us. They spend half their lives looking over their shoulders for guys like me, hoping their time doesn’t come sooner than its planned to.

As for the poor fuck tied to the chair? Like I said, I don’t care why he’s here. Sure, I am too, but I just do the rough stuff. They ask the questions. Who are they? Pray you never find out, ’cause you’re either gonna’ be the one being asked, pissing yourself– oh yeah, a lot of ’em do that too, trust me– or you’re gonna’ be the one asking. There’s no two ways about it unless you hear about “them” and never more than that.

There’s a lot of people, mostly those bleeding-hearts who like to pretend their shit don’t stink. They “object” to my methods and line of work. Funny, they’re usually the ones begging us most to do this shit when their asses are on the line. I digress.

I do what I do because I’m good at it, and I’m good at it ’cause I like to push a person’s limits. It’s freeing. Something you can only understand after unleashing hell on a guy– or a chick, hey I don’t discriminate blood’s blood– and finding out his face is harder than you thought, and ending up with lacerated knuckles or torn tendons.

But it’s freeing for the mark, too. You have any idea what it’s like to keep secrets that’ll have you murdered if you tell them? No. How could you? Having that shit hanging over your head isn’t healthy. Eventually you reach a point where you’re helping ’em more than you’re hurting ’em. Which, even I know is a lot, but think how much better they’ll feel once they heal up in Witness Relocation and their conscience is clear. Not all of them make it there, but the doesn’t change facts. If they choose to give up what they’ve got, I get to free them of that burden.

I’m a secret-keeper; a sort of new-age sin-eater that swallows up all of these fuckers’ pain, bleeds it out the knuckles while I’m hammerin’ on ’em. In a way, I’m the one that suffers most for knowing what I do. Thank fuck for worker’s-comp and mandatory psych-evals. Maybe one day they’ll straighten me out enough to cover up my recurring wounds, then I can ask that cute minx out at the bookstore. I thought about saying I was a boxer once, but then realized I’d have to keep that cover by actually boxing. What fun is it when the other guy hits back?

There I go, digressing again. Anyway, that’s what I do. I beat the piss out of people for ol’ Uncle Sam, free them from their burdens, even help make the world a little safer in the process. I guess whatever my real title is, I’ll always just be the secret-keeper. Who knows, maybe even the minx has some secrets to tell.