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The Loyalty of Pawns: Chapter 4

WILSON: Everyone knew the US would get involved sooner or later. But this Treaty of the Atlantic? No one saw this coming. It’s unclear what the European public’s reaction will be, but they’ve had years to get their economic house in order and now their dysfunction threatens our renewed prosperity.
HAYES: Hang on; I want to get the whole panel’s response, so let’s take a look at that treaty and see what it can accomplish. It commits huge financial aid to the Eurozone and several former members. It creates a complicated series of incentives for American corporations that set up offices and conduct business in these countries. It allows the Euro to remain intact in the countries still using it. And it requires comprehensive—and what will be in the case of some signatories—drastic changes in how these countries conduct their national finances. There’s more, but that’s the economic crux. So, will it work?
WILSON: I think so, Jim. It’s a very serious solution to a very serious problem. Naysayers will be screaming about economic imperialism in no time. But the truth is that the Europeans have been falling further into the red for years, and weren’t willing to spend less to fix it. Any more delay or half measures on our part would have destabilized more than just their continent’s economy. They needed help, and this treaty floats them a hell of a loan for just that reason.
                                                —partial transcript from Jim Hayes’s Special Report

Patience. As far as Nathan Beck was concerned, he required patience above all other virtues to successfully navigate his life. And now, as a days-long operation came to its close ninety minutes or so past dawn, Nathan counted on his patience—even amidst a need for expediency—to pay off.
                “Agent Beck.”
                The salutation brought Nathan away from his private ruminations and back to the situation at hand. He sat in what had been solely a surveillance post until about an hour ago—when the operation changed from passive observation to active engagement. Approaching Nathan from an open doorway was the agent permanently assigned to the federalized Chicago Police Department, Karin Donovan.
                “You’ve secured the area and the suspect?”
                “The area, yes. The suspect…”
                “He’s escaped?”
                Agent Karin Donovan was pointedly silent. Nathan found himself regretting his developed tendency to oversee tactical operations rather than participate in them before reminding himself that he could best control the details of an operation—to say nothing of himself—from a distance. So, a few minutes and a quick walk across the street later, Nathan ducked under police tape and started down an alley intent on getting his own answers. His fellow agent pressed her conviction that everything important was inside; she tried to hurry as though it all might disappear. Nathan proceeded in less of a rush.
                “Surveillance,” Nathan said as he pointed his finger to three discreet spots on the exterior walls. “There, there, and there. All of your information insisted there was none.”
                “We couldn’t get close enough to examine the exterior for fear of tipping him off.”
                “Which may have happened anyway.”
                Nathan kept his eyes on the practically invisible fiber optic cameras for a moment longer before turning to the propped-open door at the end of the alley. Deliberate steps carried him to the threshold; Agent Donovan followed. Entering, Nathan knew at once he was inside a waiting room—one designed more to unnerve than anything else. Straight across from the first door, a second door had—apparently—separated the waiting room from the inner hallway. The police assault team had blown the door down; shattered glass crunched beneath Nathan’s shoes.
                The destruction came to a halt not far past the waiting room. The hallway beyond seemed to provide free reign within the searcher’s area of operation. A few seconds’ walk brought Nathan to a rather spartan office; the most prominent items within it were the desk and its three flat screens.
                “Where does that go?”
                Nathan pointed toward an open doorway behind the desk. As he rounded the office toward the doorway, Nathan realized that under normal circumstances this opening’s “door” would have been indistinguishable from any other part of the wall paneling in which it was set.
                “There is a small basement that wasn’t on any of the blueprints.”
                Nathan stepped through the doorway and started down the stairs. It was dark—barely lit until he reached the small room at the bottom. The brighter light at the bottom showed off shelves of nothing but netgear. No servers. No drives. No crystals. No data storage of any kind.
                “Smoke and mirrors,” Nathan muttered, at once understanding.
                “I’m sorry?”
                Nathan cocked an eyebrow as he turned to Donovan.
                “There’s nowhere to store information here. All the gear suggests he accessed it remotely.”
                “But he did leave something behind.” For the first time, Donovan spoke with enthusiasm; she rushed back up the stairs before finishing the thought. Intrigued, Nathan followed, his steps slower and more methodical. In the office, on the desk, the screens that Nathan had initially ignored sat active. Agent Donovan pointed at one.
                “The searcher’s contact. Or boss, maybe, from the look of it.”
                Nathan heard the certainty behind Agent Donovan’s words. She’d been working the fast-developing case with the CPD for several days and had not taken Nathan’s eleventh-hour arrival well.
                “Before we entertain unexpected theories—how did Aaron Collins escape?”
                “He was working on something. Something related to this man’s file. He catches sight of us on the surveillance. The searcher escapes through the basement and out to street level but not with enough time to purge the active memory of whatever he was doing. Hence this open file.”
                Nathan listened to Donovan’s extrapolation; while he didn’t dismiss it outright, her ideas were not occupying a prominent place in the agent’s thoughts. Rather than saying anything in response, Nathan pulled out the desk chair and sat down. For several moments, he tried to understand the environment in which Aaron Collins operated. Notions, even, of how he might live his thoroughly illegal life.
                “He had your team on camera long before you got inside.” Nathan spoke carefully. “And blowing both doors took a few moments. Plenty of time to cut through a basement that no one knew existed and escape onto a busy Chicago street. A keystroke closes the file on this computer and clears its cache. He could have done it midstride. No, this searcher is not so clumsy.”
                Nathan stood back up, careful to push the chair back into the desk as he had found it.
                “Copy as much of this file as you can. And get me everything we have on this”—Nathan looked back to the screen—“this Blake Johnson. Meanwhile, I want to know where the netgear was pulling data from.”
                Donovan offered a response to Nathan’s instructions, but the agent was already on his way out of the office and down the hall. The fear that this operation might be mishandled—the fear that had led to Nathan’s reassignment—was well-founded; so believed Nathan. But every mess could be cleaned up; all Nathan had to do was step back and direct those around him.

                Katharine Johnson scrolled through one of four news sites she read every day. In the background, Net Nine News streamed on a flat screen. Katharine’s second cup of coffee, still steaming, sat on the table in front of her. At this point in the morning, Blake was almost forty-five minutes gone. Katharine’s routine proceeded apace; she didn’t—and seldom ever did—have reason to rush. An hour or so later, the morning news examined to her satisfaction, Katharine took a last sip from what was by then her third cup of coffee and stood up from the table; she would begin her day in earnest even though it would be filled with nothing of special interest.
                The doorbell rang. The unexpected sound caught Katharine as she set her foot down on the first of the stairs leading to the house’s second story. Half curious and half annoyed, Katharine cinched her robe a little tighter and stepped toward the front door. It was this mix of curiosity and annoyance that led her to look through the door’s peephole before opening it. Her recognition of those standing on the other side just barely preceded an announcement: “Chicago PD. Open the door please.”
                Jurisdictional lines meant very little when all law enforcement was federal; Katharine swallowed any angry retort about not living in Chicago, and her jaw tightened as she opened the front door. A trio of individuals stood on Katharine’s porch. In front stood a man wearing an overcoat and a suit, the impeccable crispness of which made up for its lack of designer tailoring. The woman beside him wore a less impressive pantsuit. A uniformed officer stood behind them both.
                “Can I help you?” Katharine’s question came out deliberately less cordial than it could have. Every second she faced the visitors soured her disposition, irritation replacing boredom.
                “Good morning.” Katharine’s eyes drifted to the crisply dressed man as he spoke; at a glance Katharine knew from his appearance that he was obsessed with details and with their perfection, and she knew how dogged and dangerous that combination could be. “I’m Agent Nathan Beck.”
                “Any particular agency?” Katharine wasn’t sure why she asked the question, but it was out of her mouth before she realized it. Given half a moment to consider the wisdom of antagonizing her visitors, Katharine realized she would have asked it again just the same way.
                “Katharine Johnson?” Nathan Beck’s tone hadn’t changed; it was almost as if Katharine hadn’t said a word.
                Katharine folded her arms over chest. “That’s right.”
                “Your husband, Blake—is he here?”
                Katharine shook her head, a gesture that only necessitated her brushing an errant wisp of silvering hair out of her eyes afterward. “He works in the city. He’s probably there by now.”
                “I’m afraid not. You don’t know where else we might find him, do you?”
                Katharine shrugged; she watched the agent nod to himself, seemingly processing pieces of information. When he brought himself back into the moment, Nathan offered Katharine an almost apologetic smile.
                “We’re going to need you to come with us to answer some questions. We’ll also need to search this house for your husband.”
                Katharine took a step forward, stopping just on the outer edge of the door’s threshold.
                “You have a warrant I’m sure.”
                “I know that you know how this works, Mrs. Johnson. I can get one with a phone call. But it would be better and faster if I didn’t have to.”
                As much as she hated it, Katharine knew there was no point in arguing. In a different world, she might have been the one delivering that very same line. At least this agent showed no malice with his honesty.
                “Can I change my clothes?”
                “Agent Donovan,” said Nathan without pause, “please go with Mrs. Johnson while she changes.”
                Katharine watched as the woman next to Nathan looked at him, her irritated glare eliciting no response.
                “You’re kidding, right?” the woman asked.
                “Mrs. Johnson is not a suspect at the moment. I see no reason to take her away in a robe.”
                Katharine, sensing a certain victory, turned away from the front door and resumed her course toward the upstairs bedroom. Her mind set about working harder than she’d expected it to that day; only at the edge of her awareness did she realize the exhilaration that provoked.

Michael Lawrence exhaled a sigh of relief as he stepped back into the confines of his office. As essential as they were to his chosen line of work, Michael hated meetings. He’d always hated meetings. And whatever had passed for patience in Michael’s youth had long since abandoned him, leaving the man to conclude that he would go right on hating meetings for the rest of his life. The relief at the meeting’s end was compounded by a slight uptick in comfort as Michael settled into the chair behind his desk. His leg throbbed. Granted, it throbbed every day—but the chronic pain felt more obvious today. Leaning his cane against his desk, though, only served to bring Michael’s dark brown eyes to two folders. Concerning Jameson Masters’s prototypes, the first folder originally detailed the timetable for the military’s gaining possession of the hardware—which would have culminated with Michael taking a tour of the project facility in a matter of days—but now obsessed over Masters’s unthinkable breach of security; that folder gave Michael a headache seemingly every time he looked at it. The second folder, tangentially relating to the first, was new and hopefully detailed the arrest of a searcher in Chicago.
                “Margaret!” Lingering irritation from the meeting added volume to Michael’s bellow.
                “The information from Chicago just came in.” Michael’s assistant had begun speaking even before entering the office; by the word “Chicago” she was standing in the doorway. “It’s preliminary, and we haven’t received any word from the agent in charge yet.”
                “Get him for me,” Michael instructed, his finger pointing first at Margaret and then moving to indicate his phone.
                As Margaret retreated back to her own desk, Michael reached for the Chicago folder. Feeling the weight as he picked it up, Michael realized the information it contained would likely be sparse. He began to worry. As he opened the folder and glanced through the scant few pages it held, Michael felt as though the throbbing in his leg had intensified exponentially.
                “Nathan Beck,” Margaret said as she returned just long enough to grab the knob to Michael’s office door and pull it closed. In response, Michael reached to the phone on his desk—an antiquated landline with a cord—and lifted the receiver; he pressed the button next to the only blinking light.
                “Agent Beck.” The answer from the other end of the line came immediately.
                “The file I have in front of me detailing your operation is woefully incomplete, Agent Beck.” Margaret would have already identified the source of the call when Nathan answered; Michael saw no reason to do so again. “I expected more complete information. I also expected to learn that the searcher had been apprehended.”
                “I wasn’t aware you had any information as yet, Mr. Lawrence. I haven’t produced even a cursory report.”
                Michael felt his jaw tighten; something about Nathan’s perpetually even temperament grated at Michael. But then Michael was aware of his own tendencies as an active emotional volcano so he tried—if nothing else— to ignore the agitation he felt from interacting with his polar opposite.
                “You’re not my only source of information.” Michael allowed a moment to pass and continued when Nathan chose not to respond. “The searcher escaped capture, but I see reference to another man by the name of Blake Johnson and a potential travel connection to Dallas. Is this your best lead?”
                “I’m pursuing multiple possible leads including the veracity of this link to Bake Johnson. The Aaron Collins identity has been flagged. And we are mining all computer data available to us. With all due respect, Mr. Lawrence, I am exploring every avenue afforded me by the limited information provided both now and when I was placed in charge of this operation.”
                Michael held off shouting into the phone despite the temper seething beneath his surface.
                “You have what we have. I expect a detailed report on my desk by the end of the day.”
                Michael didn’t know if Nathan had proffered a closing salutation of some kind; the receiver was away from Michael’s ear and back in its cradle as soon as he’d spoken his final words. The searcher, Aaron Collins, would be found—of that Michael was certain. In the meantime, there was more than enough evidence to link the searcher to Jameson’s security breach. Not all of Michael’s problems needed to be solved at the same time.

Continue reading! Go on to chapter five.

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The Loyalty of Pawns
copyright 2013 Theron Couch

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