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  • vgbartal

Spies Like Us, Before It All Began

Updated: May 20, 2023



“Cherry blossoms.”

There was no response, and that was unacceptable, so she tried again.

“Cherry blossoms, Bear. Cherry blossoms!”

As usual, her enthusiasm finally outweighed his reserve. “Yes, Juniper, cherry blossoms.” The Colonel was not the sort of person who indulged in blatant displays of public affection, at least in theory. But in practice none of his rules applied to Juniper, so when she eased closer and nestled her head against his shoulder, he put his arms around her, gave her a squeeze, and kissed the top of her head.

“It’s almost worth living in the city,” Juniper mused. She inhaled deeply, and he wondered if she could actually smell cherry blossoms and not the putrid scent of decay from the overly full garbage bin in the nearby alley. Washington DC was a far cry from their former home in Africa, and yet Juniper had expressed very little in the way of culture shock since her arrival. But that was one of the many things that made Juniper unique and precious, her ability to go with the flow of their otherwise crazy life. How many women would willingly stay alone in Africa with three daughters when their husbands were recalled to DC because she wanted a free-range childhood for their girls? Only brave and independent Juniper. It was John who insisted she join him in DC. Unable to live without her a minute longer, he had finally convinced her that Poppy would be no worse the wear for a couple of years spent in the city while she finished high school. And Poppy was thriving, fully immersed in city life now as she spent her days visiting bakeries and cafes, in preparation for culinary school, post-high school. Jane, the most citified of their three girls, was happily nestled in New York for college and Bailey, finished with the Naval academy, was now fully immersed in her career as a marine. Except this week they were all miraculously home. And The Colonel, who never imagined himself with a family until Juniper fell back into his life, now felt melancholy as he stared as his girls, knowing this might be the last time they were all under one roof for years to come, if ever again. So if Juniper wanted to feel a little weepy and overwhelmed at DC’s unrivaled cherry blossom season, he was fully on board with her nostalgia.

“This line is forever,” Poppy whined, and even that brought an almost smile from John because it was so very Poppy to be impatient. He could almost script what would happen next.

“You’re about to have a very rude awakening in life, if you don’t learn to be patient now, Poppinfresh,” Bailey said, poking her little sister in the shoulder.

“Stop it,” Poppy replied, smacking her fingers, a dangerous proposition only she was brave enough to attempt. And when Bailey replied by quirking an eyebrow in her direction, Poppy wisely ducked behind her mother.

Jane, oblivious, ignored them both and continued reading the giant textbook she’d brought along. Books were her constant companion, and everyone within her family had become used to keeping an eye on her and redirecting her when she steered off course because she was too busy reading to watch where she was walking. Bailey had become especially adept at keeping her alive, and John was glad because it gave his eldest an outlet for her hyperactive protectiveness, one that was wasted on Poppy, who wanted no part of her big sister’s interference.

The Colonel studied his daughters in silence that bordered on anxiety. He lacked Juniper’s ability to intuit their inner workings, relying instead on signals that often misfired. Were they well? Were they happy? Were they safe? All signs pointed to yes, but it could change on a dime, especially if boys were involved. Of the three, only Jane had a steady boyfriend, which had come as something of a surprise to them all. How the shyest of his daughters was the first one to date was a mystery he still hadn’t solved, especially after observing the way boys had always eyed Bailey, as if she were some exotic treasure they’d like to own, and the way Poppy’s eyes followed every boy with the same expression and intent. Bailey made boys crazy and Poppy was boy crazy. He supposed he should be glad that Jane was off the market, even though the boy, Nick, left a lot to be desired, in John’s estimation. Then again, who could ever be good enough for his girls?

***

“You spelled Vietnam wrong.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Yes, you did,” Darren insisted. “Unless you think it has two m’s.”

“That’s not an M, that’s how I make my N,” Amelia argued, turning her back to her brother to block his view of her paper.

“Then how you make your N is wrong,” Darren replied, reaching around her to flick her paper.

“Mom, make him stop talking,” Amelia begged.

“Amelia,” her mother replied, pressing a thumb to the middle of her forehead. “You know that’s not possible.”

“Mom.” Darren’s exclamation was almost drowned out by Maggie and Sam’s laughter. Johnny, delighted by their amusement, also started to laugh, adding an impromptu hug for Amelia that made her smile.

“Classic Darren and Amelia,” Sam said, giving Maggie’s hand a squeeze.

Her answering smile was halfhearted, but he didn’t seem to notice as he scanned the horizon around them. She wondered if his distraction was a response to hers and decided to do something about it. “So, I wanted to talk to you about something,” she said, shaking out their joined hands to get his attention.

His gaze traveled to hers, brows aloft.

“You know how I’ve worked in the campus library the last three and a half years?” she began.

“Wait, was that you I’ve been sneaking in to make out with in the hidden stacks?” he said.

“Yes, that was me, and you passed the first test. Good job with the facial recognition. So, here’s the thing, though. I went to talk to my advisor about my career path and, as it turns out, my major is pretty useless.”

“What? Are you joking? Majoring in Middle East studies seemed like an amazing idea three years ago,” Sam replied.

“I know,” Maggie said, tossing her hands wide and letting go of his in the process. “But apparently picking a major based on the fact that you want to get to know your boyfriend’s culture better and learn his language is a bad idea or something.”

“That’s anti-feminist,” Sam agreed.

“Right?” Maggie said. “Anyway, I really like working at the library. I’ve sort of become the research paper whisperer, to the point where whenever the rugby team has something due, they come to me for help because they know I’ll take over and do all the work for them.”

He pointed at her. “There’s your career. There’s a lot of money to be made in selling jocks well-written papers.”

“Yes, but then you have to spend your life with jocks, and I don’t think I’m well-suited for that level of testosterone. I’m team nerd, all the way,” Maggie replied, and they high fived.

“Anyway, I’m thinking of continuing my education and getting my masters in library science,” Maggie continued, tucking her hair nervously behind her ears. It was hot and muggy in DC, a far cry from the cool springtime of home, and she would have preferred to wear it up, but Sam loved it down. She tugged it to the side now, offering some relief for her swampy neck.

“Great,” Sam said.

“No, you can’t agree before thinking it through.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s going to affect you, too. I won’t be able to get a job right away, school will cost money. And, statistically, librarians don’t make that much, hardly enough to justify such an expensive master’s degree.”

“Maggie, which one of us are you trying to talk out of this?” he asked. “Who cares if you defer a job and pay for more school, if it makes you happy?”

She groaned and pressed a hand to her forehead. “No, see, this is the problem. You’re too love-addled to be rational.”

“I am fairly love-addled,” he agreed, giving her shoulders a squeeze.

“That’s all well and good for our upcoming wedding, but I need a proper sounding board,” she lamented.

“Sounds like you need someone completely rational, filled with inflated opinions, and who has no regard for your feelings whatsoever,” Sam said.

Maggie nodded, and they turned around together. “Darren,” Maggie said.

Darren, who had secretly been trying to tie the ends of Amelia’s long hair together unnoticed, jumped guiltily and dropped his hands. “What?”

“What would you think if I went back to school after I graduate, to get my master’s in library science?”

He tipped his head, studying her. “Statistically a master’s in library science is a poor return on investment. It also involves a fair amount of actual statistics, and math has never been your strong suit. On the other hand, your degree is useless as it is, so obviously you have to do something else. And there’s more to life than a return on an investment. You’re amazing at research, and you enjoy helping people. Seems like being a librarian would be an awesome fit.”

“See?” Sam beamed.

“I guess that settles it,” Maggie said.

“Wait…you’re actually taking my advice?” Darren said, puffing a little with importance.

Maggie jutted a finger at him. “Don’t get used to it. This is not precedent, freshman.”

“We’ll see,” Darren said.

Amelia, who had just realized that her hair was now mussed, whirled on him and began emitting a rapid stream of French.

“Mom, she’s doing it again,” Darren complained.

Their mother sighed wearily, facing Sam and Maggie. “I know I should stop it, but it sounds so pretty when they argue in another language.”

“Want me to join in with some Arabic?” Maggie offered.

“Er, nobody wants that, babe,” Sam said, darting a nervous look around them. “Break that out in DC and they’ll bust out the Patriot Act and stuff us in a cell somewhere until the war is over.”

“You worry too much,” Maggie said, easing her arm around him. “No one would ever believe you’re a terrorist; you’re too cute.”

You’re too cute,” Sam said, giving her a squeeze in return, closing his eyes as he inhaled her scent and tried to let it soothe him. Maybe, just maybe, everything would be okay.

***

“Look, LT, hot dogs.”

Ridge didn’t even slow his stride. Jones had, and now he jogged to catch up. “Did you hear me? There’s a hot dog stand right there.”

Now Ridge paused. “Jones, you have eaten hot dogs every day since we arrived back in the states.” He faced forward again and began striding with purpose.

“Hot dogs are nature’s miracle fruit,” Jones argued.

“Hot dogs are nature’s way of telling you to make certain your affairs are in order, sooner rather than later,” Ridge replied. “We are eating steak tonight, the best steak in the country.”

“How do you know it’s the best, LT?” Ethan asked. He eyed a group of girls beside them, tossing them a smile that made them giggle. “Man, I love DC in the springtime. So many college students, so little time.”

“I think they were in high school,” Ribs added, though he tossed the girls his own smile, causing them to giggle again.

“I know steak,” Ridge replied, answering the earlier question with a dodge. He was set apart from his men by rank, and that was fine. He didn’t want his family’s history to set him apart in a different, more disconcerting way. People tended to treat him differently when they found out his family had been ranching cattle in Texas for a few generations. And if they knew his family personally sold the beef to the restaurant in question, he would never live it down.

“Like, by name?” Ethan asked. He was a button pusher, but Ridge liked him anyway. Of all the men, he was the one who felt like a real friend, regardless of the rank that kept them separate, regardless of the fact that they were opposites in so many ways. Ethan never met a woman he didn’t want to woo. Ridge was more selective, more cautious about who he let into his life. It was a lesson he’d learned the hard way by observing his brother, Cal. His sister-in-law was admittedly stunning, but Ridge had learned through her not to be fooled by a pretty face. Besides, his career was the best it had ever been. The Colonel already had him on track to shift into the intelligence sector, as soon as his tour was up. From there, who knew where he might go? Better to get his life settled before he added a woman into the mix.

“Yes,” Ridge said, giving nothing else away. They probably thought he was joking. While there had been way too many cows to name back home, he had always picked out his favorites and given them a name.

“Hear me out,” Jones began, and Ridge worked to tamp down his impatience. The youngest of the group by a few years, he was emotionally immature, ready to argue to the death for whatever whim caught his fancy. He was also a good test of Ridge’s patience and leadership skills. Just because he was different from the rest of the men didn’t make him any less valuable, something to remember when Jones latched on to ridiculous opinions and tried to beat them into the ground. He had potential, a lot of potential, and he was a good soldier. He simply needed a little direction for his overheated emotions. At the moment he was stuck on hot dogs, for some unfathomable reason. “What if we got a hot dog and then a steak?”

Sensing Ridge had reached his limit, it was Ribs who plucked Jones back when he started to veer toward the hot dog cart again. “Jones, son, let me give you a life lesson: when you return stateside after an extended assignment in a hellhole country where you ate MREs on repeat, longer than anyone should, and your lieutenant tells you he’s buying you steak, you eat the steak and shut up.”

Jones, realizing he was on the verge of committing some sort of irredeemable faux pas, pressed his lips together and gave a little nod. “Right, steak. Yes, of course.”

Ribs ruffled his hair, dodging away when Jones tried to punch him.

Ridge tuned them out, as he was accustomed, and scanned the area for danger. It was an automatic response now, to try and anticipate any problem before it arrived. Right now his senses were keener, due to the aforementioned extended assignment. It would take a while to decompress and filter the stress, for all of them. This was their last night together before they went their separate ways for some R&R. He had to make it count, which was why he was taking them for steak. Shimmer was the only one who was married, but it had been hard on all of them this time, to be so long in a hostile war zone.

A man in the center of the vast courtyard pinged on his radar and he blinked at him, doing a rapid assessment of the threat. If he were being honest, he would admit that the only reason his eyes paused on the man was because he was Middle Eastern. And while Ridge hated the part of him that now had to assess a threat based on race, he had also just come from a country where everyone who looked like this man had tried to kill him. So he accepted the internal strife for what it was, realizing he would find no easy answers anytime soon between the part of him that wanted to judge a man on his character and the part of him that had been trained to do otherwise.

He didn’t slow his stride, but he put the pieces of the picture together. The man stood ensconced by the family with four children, two girls and two boys, one of them with Down syndrome. One of the daughters, a cute blond, had her arm around the man. They might have been a prop, but the sincerity on his face as he smiled down at her would have been hard to fake, and Ridge relaxed. Just a normal guy, on a date with his girl and her family. Would he ever get over his inherent suspicion? He hoped so. For now he pushed away the internal conflict and continued to lead his men toward their destination. And steak.

***

The Colonel’s phone rang. Juniper looked at him askance but didn’t comment. She always hoped for family time with no interruptions, but she’d also been with him long enough to realize that rarely happened. His job was more of a life commitment, one that didn’t allow for breaks or vacations. It was what it was, but he still reached out and gave her shoulder an apologetic squeeze as he answered the call.

“What.”

There was a pause on the other end of the line. “Sir, it’s Blue.”

The Colonel pulled the phone away from his ear and scowled at his phone. “How did you get this number?”

Another pause. “Um, it’s probably better if you don’t know the answer to that question.”

With effort, The Colonel pushed back his ire. The boy was good, a little too good, and that made him a gamble. He hoped prison had dimmed his cockiness a little, but what if it hadn’t? What if his instinct about the boy had been wrong? On the other hand, if he was up to no good, would he really be calling to report on himself? He took another breath. “What?” he repeated, this time in a tone that urged the boy to continue, and quickly. Whatever it was, he wanted him to spit it out. The good thing about being a little cocky was that Blue didn’t suffer the same sort of stuttering hesitancy of so many others around them. He might be intimidated by The Colonel, but he didn’t show it. John liked that about him, rather a lot. He was a weird kid, with the blue hair and tendency to prefer computers to humans. But he was intently focused on getting the job done, no matter what. That might prove to make him invaluable, if John could keep an eye on him and steer him right.

“There’s a threat, a big one that popped up today out of nowhere. So big I decided you should handle it personally.”

He debated putting the boy on blast. There was an entire chain of command between them, men and women whose job it was to assess the threat and deem it worthy of John’s personal attention. Who did this boy think he was, to skip that chain and address John directly? On the other hand, wasn’t it that same pluckiness that made him worth the hassle of commuting his prison sentence?

“What?” The Colonel said for the third time, in a different tone. This one said the boy had his attention but better make it worth his while. By the time he hung up the phone, he had done so.

“Juniper,” he began in a casual tone as he tucked his phone away. “If you’ve seen enough of the cherry blossoms, I would like you to take the girls home now, please.”

Juniper understood immediately, giving John a couple of blinks and a meek nod in reply. Jane remained oblivious, her nose still in a book. It was likely she had no idea she was outside, let alone that they were in public and cherry blossoms were in view. Poppy had procured an éclair from a street vendor and was in the midst of dissecting it to study its structure. Only Bailey was alert and attuned to her father’s subtle change in demeanor.

“Anything I can do, Dad?” she offered, standing like a marine at ease instead of a daughter on spring vacation.

Juniper was more than capable of herding the girls home, but Bailey was the sort of girl who needed a mission, so he gave her one. “Get everyone safely home,” he instructed, and she snapped into action, putting a hand on Poppy and one on Jane, already herding them toward the street where they’d parked.

Juniper noticed and rolled her eyes a little in shared amusement. “Call when you can,” she said, standing on her toes to kiss his cheek. “I love you.”

“I love you,” he returned, kissing the tip of her nose. He made no promise to call, but he was also certain she understood. It was what it was. He watched his girls walk away, Bailey on high alert and already scanning the perimeter for threats. He had no worries for their safety, and yet it was hard to watch them walk away, always a piece of himself roaming outside his skeleton. At last he gave himself a little shake and turned his back, reaching for his phone as he slid into work mode.

***

When his phone rang, Ridge faced a tiny second of temptation not to answer. The mission they had just finished left him and his team depleted. This was supposed to be their chance to recover before the next thing. It was that millisecond of temptation that caused him to push the button with extra force when he answered, because every time he sensed softness or hesitation in himself, he ended up leaning harder into whatever needed done.

“Sir,” he answered. Behind him one of the guys sighed, probably Jones but maybe not. They were all exhausted.

“Are you still in DC, Lieutenant?” The Colonel asked.

“Yes, sir,” Ridge answered. It would do no good to tell him they had plans and were currently on their way to the restaurant where Ridge had made advanced reservations. Not only would The Colonel not care, he would think less of Ridge for bringing it up, an obviously unimportant matter in light of whatever was about to happen.

“I got a call from one of my hackers, with time-sensitive information pertaining to an event about to go down in DC.”

Ridge stopped short and scanned the perimeter. Behind him, his team did the same, tensing into formation to create their own little kill circle, backs together, all sides covered. “Yes, sir. What do you need?”

“Where are you at this moment?” The Colonel asked. Ridge gave him their location, and he continued. “An equipment truck will meet you there in five. Anyone asks, you’re running a drill.”

They disconnected and Ridge pushed another button. “I’d like to cancel a reservation,” he began, hiding his chuckle when Jones gave a sad little whimper and pressed a hand to his gurgling belly.

***

“Whoa,” Amelia said, and everyone in her family turned to look.

“What?” Darren asked, expecting to see on osprey or something else equally amazing.

Them,” Amelia breathed, using her head to nod toward the group of men now hurrying by.

Darren looked at his sister and then the group of men, not understanding the fascination. “What?” he repeated, now glancing at his older sister as a translation for his little sister’s unfathomable brain.

“They’re exceptionally pretty,” Maggie explained, amused at the exchange. Her amusement deepened when one of the men who’d also heard the exchange tossed her a wink and a smile as they passed.

“So pretty,” Amelia echoed, sounding awed as she smoothed her already perfect hair.

“Amelia, don’t be one of those girls,” Darren commanded.

“What girls?” she asked, preemptively exasperated.

“The kind who only go for looks,” Darren explained. “It’s so shallow.”

“Amelia’s not shallow,” Maggie defended, slipping an arm around her sister.

“Exactly,” Amelia agreed, returning Maggie’s side hug. “Just because you don’t intend to raid the bakery doesn’t mean you can’t occasionally press your nose to the display. And those pastries are exceptional.”

“They’re military,” Sam said, pushing back a sneer.

“How can you tell?” Darren asked. If one of his sisters said it, he probably would have argued. But Sam tended to be right about things.

“The haircuts,” Maggie interjected unasked.

Sam shook his head. “Not the haircuts.” It was the way they’d looked at him, wary and watchful. It was the way military guys and police always looked at him, and he had learned to be extra affable in response, to show everyone he wasn’t a threat. Lately he’d grown weary of the game, and that weariness now bordered on bitterness, a fact he kept well hidden from his too innocent fiancée. She with the blond hair and girl-next-door features had no idea what it was like to be the object of suspicion, based on her skin tone. He had felt honor bound to try and explain to her what she was in for as his future wife, but she hadn’t understood, probably couldn’t understand until it affected her personally. He dreaded that day, when Maggie would finally be disillusioned by him. In a number of ways.

“I wonder what they’re doing here,” Darren mused, watching the men with new appreciation.

“It’s Washington DC. Security at the capital is always tight,” Sam said.

“It’s also a port and close to Bethesda,” Maggie added. “Lots of soldiers and sailors coming and going. I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about.”

“I’m not worried; I’m enthralled,” Amelia said, now squinting to try and see the men.

“Gross,” Darren muttered, and Maggie and Sam shared another amused smile.

***

The Colonel had another call to make. He wondered at the serendipity that had so many of his people in DC today. Maybe it wasn’t a coincidence; maybe their target had insider info about exactly who he’d be targeting.

“Sir,” Celeste answered, sounding bored. She always sounded bored, though, an affect she had practiced to perfection. Celeste was such a good actress he could barely see through the veneer to assess the true state of things. Occasionally he called her to the office so he could see her in person and peel back the façade. The last thing he needed on his watch was one of his recruits going off the deep end, especially one with her particular skills. So far, so good, but he was always watchful.

“One of my hackers is sending an objective to your phone.”

“Black op?” she asked.

“The blackest, it’s in the city.”

“Huh,” she replied. He could tell he’d surprised her because it was more reaction than she usually gave.

They disconnected without another word. If Celeste had questions, she’d call back. The thing about Celeste, though, was that she never had questions. She was the best sort of soldier, and it made him feel particularly proud to consider her his protégé, similar to the feeling he got when he looked at his girls. But unlike with Bailey, Jane, and Poppy, there wasn’t much chance for a happy ending for Celeste. Her life had been too hard, was too void of the sort of family connection that would make her turn out okay. Realistically the best she could hope for was a quick and painless ending, that someday some target would get the drop on her and finish it mercifully fast. If not for Juniper and his girls, his ending would have been the same. If not for his family, he and Celeste really would be identical. He had been a soldier far too long, had become far too pragmatic to hope for anything more for her hopeless life. Even if the fatherly part of him rooted for her to beat the odds, he’d seen the odds turn out badly far too often.

***

“I’m not going to lie, I really hoped to be out of fatigues a while longer,” Ethan said as he dropped his pants and kicked them away.

“But you look so good in green,” Ribs replied.

“Don’t be jelly,” Ethan returned.

“Jelly sounds so good right now,” Jones added, pulling his shirt over his head.

“Not that I’m complaining, LT, but at what point are you going to fill us in?” Frog asked, fastening his buttons in record time. They were huddled in the supply trailer, tossing their clothes as they slid into fatigues and fastened their weapons. Shimmer was the only one missing, but he’d been let go a day early to go see his wife.

“The Colonel got some intel that an insurgent set up a series of sewer bombs, all over DC,” Ridge said as he fastened his holster and gave it a tug to make certain it was secure.

“Not that I’m complaining, because you know I love me a good sewer bomb, but why are we on this, and not the locals?” Frog asked.

“The insurgent is one of our regulars, and not enough time to go through all the channels. I’m certain they’ll be doing their part, whatever that turns out to be,” Ridge said. “The hacker was still gathering intel, and it was a bit sketchy.”

“Sketchy intel from a hacker? That can’t be right,” Ethan said. “They’re usually so reliable, what with all the secret, shady, underground creeping they do.”

“Spooks, man,” Jones said, shaking his head.

“Are the locals at least handling the evacuation?” Ethan asked.

“Impossible, there are too many places. They’d have to evacuate the whole city,” Ridge said.

That gave everyone pause. “Exactly how many bombs are we talking here?” Jones asked.

“The best our hacker can tell, there are six, strategically placed for max casualties,” Ridge replied.

“Six,” Frog said as the men came to a standstill and absorbed the number.

“We’ll split into three teams, with a forward and munitions guy,” Ridge explained.

Jones made a show of counting, pointing to each man as he said the numbers. “One, two, three, four five. And Frog and Ethan are our munitions guys. Who’s our sixth?”

“I am,” The Colonel said, stepping into the trailer.

“You could have led with that, LT,” Ethan choked, trying to unclench all the muscles that froze at The Colonel’s surprise appearance.

“I was building up to it,” Ridge replied. “Ribs and Frog, you’re together. Jones with Ethan. I’ll forward The Colonel.”

“Colonel, you’re a munitions guy?” Jones asked.

“I’m an everything guy, private,” The Colonel replied. To Ridge he added, “Lieutenant, this is your ball. Call it.”

If Ridge was nervous about leading an impromptu mission in front of his high-ranking boss, he didn’t show it. Then again that was sort of why he was a lieutenant, and none of the rest of them were. Calm and cool leadership skills were his forte, and something that ensured his continual climb up the intelligence ladder. He took a map of the city and divided it into thirds, highlighting the areas the hacker had specified as intended targets. “Two, two, and two,” he said, tapping the map.

“What about the insurgent, is he part of our op?” Jones asked.

“I have someone on the target,” The Colonel said. “If you need to engage, you have clearance. Otherwise focus on munitions.”

Everyone focused on Ridge, who made eye contact with each man and then said, “Let’s roll.”


***

Celeste had become adept at finding needles in haystacks. For a girl who never dreamed she’d leave the city where she was born, she now regularly traveled to the world’s largest cities, flipping over rocks to watch the scum of humanity scurry out. Tokyo, Jakarta, Cairo, Moscow. She’d been to them all, and she always found her target. So she wasn’t intimidated when The Colonel asked her to find a bull’s-eye in the city she now called home, Washington DC.

She began as she usually did, by physically putting the pieces of the puzzle together, writing bits and fragments of information on paper and arranging them into a pattern. Absolutely everyone had a pattern. The sooner she could figure it out, the sooner she could find her mark. And though she was technologically incompetent and didn’t own a computer, she had become adept at using hackers to her advantage, turning them upside down and shaking out the information she needed most. Hackers always had too much information, more than anyone could possibly need. The trick was to shake their pockets and find the morsels that were actually important. Today’s hacker was named Blue, a new kid recently sprung from prison. Even Celeste, as disconnected as she was from the gossip pipeline, had heard the grumbles and rumors about him. He was a wunderkind; he couldn’t be trusted; why was a prisoner given such high-level clearance? But all Celeste needed to know was that The Colonel trusted him. If she had that assurance, she couldn’t care less about the skeletons in his closet. Whatever they were, she undoubtedly had more.

“His favorite color is yellow,” Blue said now. He had the gritty voice of someone who’d been up all night working. Celeste knew the voice well; while on a job, she rarely found time for sleep.

“Can’t imagine why that would come in handy,” Celeste said, but she wrote it down regardless, adding it to the tidy pile of scribbles she’d already assembled.

“I can’t either, but I thought it was funny. Renowned terrorist loves the color of the sun. Maybe he’s secretly an optimist,” Blue submitted. “Here’s something: ten years ago he stayed at the Hotel Algonquin four times. He proposed to his girlfriend on the patio, she turned him down.”

Celeste wrote the location of the hotel. “Who’s the girlfriend and where is she now?”

“She and her, ouch for our guy, husband and two children, live in Colombia Heights.”

“Bet she made the baby’s nursery yellow,” Celeste said and Blue snickered.

“That’s cold. He went to three Wizards games at about the same time, none after the botched proposal. That’s all I see for now. I’m going to go back another five years, take a poke around. I’ll let you know if I come up with anything.”

“Thanks,” Celeste said. She disconnected distractedly and without a goodbye, her mind already laying out her scraps of paper. As soon as both hands were free, she pulled out her map and began assembling the pieces, using a dry erase marker to draw lines and make connections. She had almost finished her assembly when her phone rang. Thinking it must be Blue, she picked it up without checking the ID.

“Celeste, it’s Leo.”

She drew in a breath to preempt whatever he was about to say, but he interrupted her before she could begin.

“I’m not calling to ask you out again, I swear. I happen to be in DC a few days before I head back out and wanted to see if you could grab a coffee. As a friend, totally a friend this time, I mean it.”

He didn’t mean it, she was sure. But the blatant lie made her smile. Leo had been trying to find her soft spot for years. Too bad for him she didn’t actually have one. But he wasn’t a bad guy was, in fact, the closest thing to a friend she had these days. So she tried to gentle her delivery when she said, “Can’t. I’m working.”

“Here? At home?”

“Yup.” She paused, thinking. “If you’re not busy, I could use another pair of eyes. It’s time sensitive.”

“I am so in,” Leo said, as she knew he would. Leo was restless and hated to sit still almost as much as she did.

She paused again. “Are you sober?”

He paused, too. “Mostly. By the time we meet up, I will be.” The sound of a coffee machine flicked to life in the background.

“Are you making yourself an espresso?” she asked.

“Cappuccino, if you must know. I like the way the foam feels against my lips. I’ll bring you one, if you want.”

“No, thanks. That’s a little too girly for me,” Celeste replied.

“Just for that, I’ll drink yours, too,” Leo said and hung up.


***

The first bomb was where the hacker said it would be, but it was bigger than they’d been expecting.

“Geez,” Ethan breathed as he set out his pack and unrolled it.

“I don’t like this,” Jones said.

“Jonesie, you have to get more comfortable with bombs, man,” Ethan remarked.

“I really, really don’t,” Jones said.

“This would be the way to go,” Ethan continued undaunted. “You’d never see or feel it. Not like torture in some backwoods jungle camp. That would be my nightmare, trapped in a box.” He shuddered.

“I’d rather take my chances with the box,” Jones said.

“That’s because you don’t speak the bomb’s language.”

“Boom?” Jones guessed.

“Only if you get it wrong,” Ethan said. He snipped wires with the ease of a barber cutting hair. Jones turned his back and kept watch, not because he expected a sneak attack, but because it was better than the anxiety of watching Ethan work with the knowledge that, considering the size of the bomb and the size of the apartment building above them, a large swath of humanity now rested in their hands.

***

“Why is it always a sewer?” Ribs asked, his fingers unconsciously finding the grooves in his puckered scar. It was eighteen months old now, but still caused him some discomfort whenever it pulled. And, despite how much he’d healed, he still felt a moment’s worry over the threat of bacteria. Could wounds get infected after they were already healed? Not that it mattered; he’d still go in the sewer.

“Keep an eye out for rogue alligators,” Frog said.

“What about pizza-loving turtles?” Ribs asked.

“Pizza-loving turtles get a pass. Pizza-loving rats, not so much.”

“What if the rats also fight crime?”

Frog pretended to think about it. “Man, that’s a question for the ages. You should have studied philosophy.” He shined his flashlight beam in an arc. They were close to where the hacker said they’d find the explosives, but so far nothing. “How come Shimmer always misses the good stuff?”

“Because he’s married,” Ribs replied.

“I’ve got to get me a wife,” Frog mused.

“Good luck, all the good ones are already taken,” Ribs said. “There.” His light landed on the largest bomb they’d ever seen, which was saying something because they’d seen a lot of bombs.

“I changed my mind about the rats,” Frog said, unfurling his pack. “Go find some and train them to gnaw these wires because this is going to take a minute.”

“What about the turtles?” Ribs asked.

“Turtles are no good for gnawing wires. Use them to find our perp, I thought that was the next obvious step.”

“Look at you, calling plays in the field. Someone’s gunning for LT’s job,” Ribs said.

“Not today,” Frog said. “Working one on one with The Colonel. Can you imagine?”

“I think I’d prefer the turtles,” Ribs agreed.

“Or even the rats,” Frog added.

Between deranged sewer rodents and their boss, the sewer rodents were far less terrifying.

***

“It’s been a minute, since I was in the field,” The Colonel said, the only words he’d spoken since they left the trailer.

It was only the third time Ridge had met the man who had already laid claim to his future, but somehow he knew silence was his natural state.

“I can’t imagine ever not being in the field,” Ridge said.

The Colonel went silent again, his blank expression giving nothing away. There was a part of Ridge that wanted to ask him how it felt to transition away from a life of action. Seeing the older man was like seeing his future play out in front of him, and he knew he could learn a lot. But he also knew he was a man of few words who didn’t enjoy extraneous prattle, so he wisely remained silent. But he watched and he wondered. How old was The Colonel? He was one of those people who looked both ancient and timeless, as if he’d been transported from some other time, a wizened warrior from a bronzed age. Did he have people who cared about him? It was hard to imagine him in any other form than hard at work. Ridge had met other men with The Colonel’s seniority. Without fail they had all been politicians at heart, comfortable with all the schmoozing that became an integral part of their jobs. The Colonel always existed in his own little aura, so separate and intense that people automatically gave him a respectful buffer. One time in Africa he came across a rogue lion that had broken away from its pack. Battle scarred and singular, it had stalked at the perimeter of the prideland, pacing stealthily back and forth, still keeping watch, even though it had been ousted. The Colonel reminded him of that lion, no less dangerous because he was alone. Maybe more so, because he had nothing to lose.

They reached the entry point for the sewer. The Colonel popped the opening like it was a soda can tab, proving again that life an office had not made him soft. It wasn’t often that Ridge followed, but he did so now, trying not to trot to keep up with The Colonel’s determined strides. It was like being a kid again on the ranch, following his dad’s too-big footsteps. He was supposed to be the forward man on this mission, but The Colonel seemed to have forgotten as he reached their target first, a massive display of explosives. He surveyed it with hands on hips and spoke to Ridge.

“Lieutenant, take my phone and make a call.”

“Yes, sir,” Ridge said. He reached for the phone as The Colonel handed it to him.

“You’re going to contact a hacker at the Defense Department, name’s Blue. Tell him to contact Celeste and let her know we have a second bomber on the loose, codename Mongoose. He’ll find him from a black op mission of mine in ’93 from Somalia.”

Ridge dialed the number and relayed the message, pausing to transmit the reply as The Colonel began dismantling the bomb. “Begging your pardon, sir, but the hacker says Mongoose died in ’97.”

“Tell the hacker he’s wrong. If he died in 97, there’s no way he could have left me a message today.”

Ridge disconnected and gave The Colonel his phone. “The hacker says that puts a new spin on things and he’ll get back with you after he pokes around. Sir, please tell me Blue is his handle and not his real name.”

“Real name, and he has blue hair and sleeve tats to go along with it. Thinks he’s pretty edgy for a kid who only got his braces off three years ago,” The Colonel said.

Ridge wasn’t sure if he was supposed to laugh at that, but he did.

The Colonel worked in silence a while longer before he spoke again. “Lesson one for you, Lieutenant. Once you leave the homogenized world of the navy and enter the underbelly of intelligence, you cease to judge on appearances. Some of the most dangerous people you meet will be the smallest and most unassuming of women, and some of the most talented people you encounter will look like they belong in the prison you just sprung them from. Once you enter my world, you leave your skin-deep judgment at the door.”

“Yes, sir,” Ridge replied, wondering if The Colonel somehow sensed his earlier suspicion of the Middle Eastern guy with the girlfriend. Someday he’d be the one making calls about who got to live or die; he hoped he was worthy of the task. Maybe someday he’d be ready to make a phone call and handle those sorts of decisions. For now he was glad the navy was still in charge.

***

“There’s a second bomber,” was how Celeste greeted Leo, the first time they saw each other in person in two years after an assignment that threw them together and created a tentative friendship, if Celeste was willing to overlook the way Leo hit on her. (And she was.)

Leo whistled appreciatively. “Glad I had the second cappuccino.”

She quirked a brow at him.

He gave her a helpless shrug. “I developed a taste for them in Italy. What’s our plan? What do you need me to do?”

“These are our targets,” Celeste said. She hadn’t been able to send him any intel, because there were no safe channels between them. Now she showed him the pictures on her phone, the ones Blue had sent her not more than ten minutes ago.

Leo took the phone and studied the pictures intently, squinting as he tried to discern any identifying marks. “I guess it makes sense they’re working together. This one doesn’t look capable of anything on his own. What’s our objective?”

“Elimination, by any means necessary,” Celeste said.

“You get to have all the fun,” Leo lamented, handing the phone back to her. He’d been involved in a lot of black ops, more than he could count. But rarely did they come with the sort of carte blanche reserved for Celeste and those of her ilk. Usually the people Leo targeted were wanted alive, at all costs.

“My line of work doesn’t usually end with care and compassion for the target’s transport, if you know what I’m saying.” She unfurled a map between them. “I used the info the hacker gave me to develop a pattern map. Our guys are underground, but these are the intersects. The older guy has some beef with The Colonel, my guess is he’s keeping watch to see where The Colonel turns up today. I say we focus on the younger guy. Instinct tells me he’s going to hover near Colombia Heights, his old stomping ground and home of his former girlfriend.”

“Must have been some epic scorned love, if it led to bombing an entire city,” Leo mused.

“And that is why I don’t date, Leo. Can you imagine the fallout if I ever had my heart broken?” Celeste said. “I could take out a nation.”

“Yes, but any guy dumb enough to lose you deserves to have his country ground into powder,” Leo said.

Celeste laughed. “Do these lines ever actually work?”

“For as long as I need them to,” Leo said. He slid his sunglasses back into place. Though he had sobered up the last few hours, his bloodshot eyes hadn’t gotten the memo yet. “Are we splitting up or handling this thing together?”

“I work best solo,” Celeste said.

“A pity for every man on the planet,” Leo said. He used his phone to give her a little salute. “I’ll let you know when I find your boy.”

“It’s cute how you think you’ll find him first,” Celeste said.

“How cute?” Leo asked.

“Not cute enough.”

“Care to make a little wager?” he asked.

“Like what?” she said.

“If I find him first, you have that coffee with me.”

“And what do I win when I find him first?” she asked.

“You have that coffee with me,” he said.

She laughed, undaunted. Her world was populated by cocky men. She’d learned not to take offense, and at least Leo had some good sense and a big heart, beneath the bluster.

“Do we have a deal?” he pressed.

“I guess you’ll have to win to find out,” Celeste replied, sliding her own sunglasses into place. The best part about being surrounded by men who knew their worth was that they were never threatened when she knew hers, too.

***

“Hey, it’s them again, the pretty people. This time they’re dressed like soldiers,” Amelia said as Jones and Ethan jogged past at what could best be described as a sprint. This time the entire Eldridge clan paused and watched them breeze past.

“Must be some kind of drill,” Darren surmised.

“You don’t know,” Amelia said. “It could be an actual thing.”

“Right, Amelia, like they’re going to let us continue to stand here, in the middle of a live event,” Darren said, tone scathing.

“Let’s eat,” their mother said, clapping her hands to get their attention. To Sam and Maggie she added, “Maybe if I shove food at them, they’ll stop arguing.”

“Dare to dream, Mom,” Maggie said.

“I never stop believing, never for a minute,” her mother replied, herding her brood in the direction of the restaurant.

***

“Second one done,” Frog declared, setting aside his tools. “Did I beat The Colonel?”

“No, he finished twenty minutes ago,” Ribs said. “I waited to tell you so you wouldn’t be discouraged. We’re all hands on deck now, looking for our perps. Guess who The Colonel put on it?”

“Who?” Frog asked, frozen in suspense as he waited for the answer.

“Celeste,” Ribs breathed.

Frog sucked a breath. “Think we’ll actually get a glance at her this time?”

“Doubtful. Apparently Leo’s already been sniffing around and assigned himself as her assistant.”

Frog winced. “That won’t make Ridge happy.”

“That doesn’t make any of us happy. How does a sloppy screwup like Leo keep scoring assignments with the Scarlet Ghost?” Ribs groused. Celeste had become mythic for her list of confirmed kills and ability to remain unseen. As far as any of them knew, they’d never even met her, though stories abounded that she’d been imbedded with them multiple times, without their notice. That was how it was with ghosts, though. You never knew they were there.

Above them, Celeste stood on the street and scanned the scenery, trying to determine the perp’s next move.

***

While he worked, The Colonel tried to put himself in the Mongoose’s mindset, not an enviable task at the best of times. There hadn’t been many of his recruits over the years who went rogue. Usually they met their end before they could cause much trouble. The Mongoose had been one such recruit. The first warning sign was that he gave himself the name The Mongoose, a ridiculous, self-aggrandizing title. The Colonel had tried to put a stop to immediately. Being in the military meant people got handles and nicknames, it went with the territory. But assigning one to yourself and trying to make it stick was never a good idea. He thought The Mongoose, AKA Charlie Kunselman, accidentally blew himself up in Somalia, and he hadn’t grieved the loss. Had, in fact, been relieved to see him go. The kid thought he was the hottest thing to come out of the marines since Montezuma. In reality he had a middling amount of talent mixed with too much cockiness and a need to prove himself that made him combustible, literally.

The ease with which he’d set and detonated explosives had put him on The Colonel’s radar while he was a young jarhead. The difficulty with which he’d handled himself and others had taken him back off the short list of candidates for advancement. In their world talent wasn’t enough; you had to have the brains to temper the ability, otherwise you could easily become a vigilante or psychopath. The Mongoose had set his sights on becoming the latter, and now he was back. If The Colonel had to guess, it had taken him all this time to make his way back to the states. In the meantime, he’d likely been planning this day for a while. That meant it was personal, as did the fact that so many of The Colonel’s hand-picked recruits had skin in the game.

Where will he try to strike, to hurt me most? John asked himself. Of course his family would be the logical answer, but there was no way Charlie had any idea about Juniper or the girls. John had been in the intelligence game too long to take chances with his family. Few people even realized he had one, a myth he was all too happy to encourage if it meant keeping his girls safe. His home was buried in miles of paperwork he doubted even Blue could crack and, if someone did, they would find themselves attempting to enter a literal bulletproof fortress. At this point all that was missing was a moat, and if Juniper would let him, he’d probably add one of those, along with some well-placed alligators. Even if someone did make it through the layers, the girls knew how to take care of themselves. They’d run the drills and had all been taught to handle weapons. The safe room he’d installed was well-armed, with plenty of ammo. Juniper, Jane, and Poppy were all decent shots, and he was proud to say Bailey was like him and didn’t need a gun.

The girls are safe, he reassured himself. Juniper had told him, too. We’re home and safe, everything is quiet, the dog is sleeping peacefully. The yappy little frou-frou dog had been his concession to her, though she had rightfully asserted that the mutt would make them all deaf, if an intruder attempted to breach the perimeter. She’d turned out to be a good, albeit annoying, little asset, and the fact that she was asleep and probably snoring did more to assure him than he wanted it to. Why was Juniper always right? The woman was uncanny.

So where would “The Mongoose” strike to make it personal? His work was a possibility, but good luck to the crazy loner who tried to break into the Pentagon to get to him. That left one other possibility, and the more he thought of it, the more likely it seemed. Charlie would want to go somewhere symbolic, somewhere that would try to strike at the heart of John, at everything he believed and espoused.

“Lieutenant,” he said after an unknown length of silence. He wasn’t great at keeping track of his silences when he didn’t have to be. One of the reasons he’d selected Cameron Ridge for advancement was because he was the sort of old-school military guy who put duty above personality. Therefore he felt no need to fill the silences between them by explaining his thought processes.

“Sir,” Ridge replied.

“Contact your team and tell them to meet us at Arlington Cemetery.”

If Charlie wanted to play games and be symbolic, so be it. They’d trap the mouse in the maze.

***

Most people probably wouldn’t notice the increased police and military presence in DC. Leo did, of course, because he was attuned to it. The locals and National Guard had been quietly dispatched to sweep the city, on the lookout for more bombs, in case The Colonel’s hacker had missed any, minus the ones that had already been diffused. Leo was glad he’d come back to DC instead of going to Amsterdam on leave with his buddies. This was turning out to be the best break he’d had in a while, not least of which because Celeste was involved. She was hot, yes, but in addition to that he liked her. Despite her reputation, she lacked the ego of most people in her position. If he were being honest, there was something a little broken and vulnerable about her, too, but he tried to push those thoughts away. It made his interest in her feel too predatory, and that wasn’t what it was. She was a pal, and he just wanted to have a little fun. Who better to play with than someone who knew the score, the Scarlet Ghost? Chasing her was a distracting game, and he knew if he ever caught her, her heart would remain intact. No messy involvements for either of them to regret, a win-win as far as Leo was concerned. But first he had to catch her.

He was certain he’d found their target, parked on a side street three blocks from the ex-girlfriend’s new apartment. As Celeste had predicted, he had returned to the scene of his heartbreak to lament his lost love. What a loser, Leo thought. This was what happened to guys who let their hearts become involved, they lost their heads, too. That would never be Leo’s problem, he was positive.

The guy didn’t stir as he made his approach to the vehicle. Gun out and concealed at his side, he sneaked up to the door, yanked it open, and jumped back when the body fell out.

For a few seconds he remained staring at it, his brain attempting to catch up to the shock. Only when another car parked behind the perp’s did he begin to understand. He started to explain, because he knew how bad it had to look, that he was out of any sort of uniform, standing over a dead body with a gun. But the guy who approached him smiled.

“You must be Leo,” he called.

“How do you know?” Leo asked.

That was when he saw the drink in the guy’s hand. “Celeste ordered a clean up, said we’d probably find you here. She sent you this.” He handed Leo a Styrofoam cappuccino.

“She has you doing her bidding?” Leo scoffed.

The guy snorted. “Man, I’d lick her boot straps, if she’d let me.”

Leo grinned because the guy’s reaction to Celeste was a fairly common one. There was something mesmerizing about her strange combination of innocent looks and killer capabilities. And the fact that she was so self-contained and unreachable made her a tantalizing mystery. “Yeah, okay. Any idea where she’s headed now?” They still had one more perp to catch, maybe he could get to that one first.

“She said to tell you the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and make it snappy.”

“She thinks she can order me around and I’ll jump?” Leo said.

The guy raised his brows at him.

“Yeah, okay,” Leo grinned, and they shared a fist bump.

***

“What kind of guy hides out in a cemetery?” Jones demanded. “It’s creepy, gives me the willies.”

“That’s right, purge all the mindless chatter out of your system before we meet up with The Colonel,” Ethan encouraged him.

“I can’t help it, I blather when I’m hungry,” Jones whined, rubbing a little circle on his stomach.

“You must be hungry all the time,” Ethan returned and Jones gave him a withering look, or tried. It ended up being like a golden retriever trying to look fierce. How the kid made it through training was a much-debated mystery. But he had, and he was good, if a bit too chatty and emotional for everyone’s comfort.

“Look, there’s a hot dog stand,” Jones said, pointing.

“Jones, I swear to you, if you stop for a hot dog LT will literally pull your lip over your head and use it to make you a new wet suit,” Ethan threatened.

“That’s a weird analogy, man,” Jones told him.

“But no less true. You know how he is when there’s a job, and it’s going to be times ten with The Colonel on standby,” Ethan said.

“Do you think he’d consider it a compliment or insult if I told him he’s The Colonel’s mini me?” Jones mused.

“Do you think you want to find out?” Ethan returned.

Jones shuddered and ran his hands up his arms, fighting away the goosebumps. “I hate the cemetery.”

“No one likes the cemetery,” Ethan agreed.

“Except The Mongoose,” Jones said.

Ethan snorted. “What kind of stupid handle is that? You can pick anything in the world, and that’s what you choose for yourself? A weasel that eats snakes?”

Jones had just been thinking it was a pretty awesome nickname, had just enviously imagined it stitched on his uniform. Instead he gave a halfhearted chuckle. “Yeah, stupid,” he agreed. He darted a glance at Ethan, to make certain he hadn’t caught the lie.

Ethan shook his head but didn’t call him on it. “I think I saw a flash of something in the northwest quadrant. Let’s pick it up to a sprint.”

“Be a lot easier to sprint if I’d eaten a few hot dogs,” Jones said. “Just saying,” he added, picking his pace up to a begrudging sprint to keep time with Ethan, who excelled at running and was always faster than anyone wanted him to be.

***

They had him cornered. No one had eyes on him yet, but they could tell he was here, in the universal way soldiers had of sensing danger before it became apparent. They were herding him, working as a team like a well-honed wolf pack, shifting back and forth as they got closer to flushing him out. When he finally made himself known, he did so with a triumphant gleam, the reason for which soon became apparent: he wore a bomb pack and had his finger on the trigger.

When The Colonel realized, he gave a little grunt that might have been annoyance.

“Nobody reach for your weapons,” Charlie said, trigger held aloft, thumb hovering threateningly over the detonator.

“You don’t need these men, Charlie. This is about me,” The Colonel said, taking a step forward. “Let them go.”

“No way, Colonel. Let’s make sure all of your pets go out together. Isn’t that what you want? For all of us to go down in a blaze of glory? It’s what good soldiers do, right? Except you’re ten days older than dirt and still standing, so what went wrong there?”

“Not my time yet,” The Colonel replied, shrugging.

“So stoic,” Charlie said, “right to the end. Do you think you’ll be remembered? You won’t. You’ll be like every one of these anonymous men here.” He used the trigger to motion to the endless rows of graves around him. “You never get notorious by doing the right thing, you know that? The ones they talk about in the news, they’re always the bad guys.”

The Colonel’s lack of reply agitated him. It was clear he thought he held the upper hand that would score some kind of reaction, but The Colonel merely stared at him, face as blank and stony as ever. Based on his annoyed expression, it was only a matter of time before he pressed the button that would take them all out, but before his thumb could twitch, a shot went off, a neat hole now in his forehead. He pitched backwards, but The Colonel caught him before he could fall and trigger the explosives precariously perched on his chest. He held the man upright by his vest while Frog and Ethan flanked him, disarming the bomb with a few well-placed snips. Only then did he set the man down and check his useless pulse.

A couple hundred feet away, Leo holstered his gun and spun in a circle, shading his eyes to try and see the source of the shot, to see Celeste. He couldn’t see a thing, beyond the endless rows of soldiers’ graves. His phone buzzed with a text and he withdrew his phone.

Better luck next time, tiger. Thanks for the help today.

He tucked his phone back in his pocket with a sigh. He should probably do a debrief, based on his involvement today, lackluster as it turned out to be. But if he went forward now, it would include an inevitable confrontation with teacher’s pet, Cameron Ridge. And that was the very last way Leo wanted to spend his day off. With that thought in mind, he slipped away as silently as he’d arrived.

***

By the time the team was done with their debrief, it was almost ten at night. Ridge tried to call the restaurant, to see if he could get a last minute late night reservation, but no luck.

“Bad news, guys. I’m sorry to say steak is off the table,” he announced.

Regardless of their hunger and exhaustion, they did a good job of smothering their disappointment. Toward the back, Jones raised his hand.

“LT, what if I told you I might know of a steak alternative?”

Ridge pinched the bridge of his nose, but when he dropped his hand, he was smiling. “All right, Jonesie. Lead the way to your hot dog cart.”

***

The Colonel let himself into the house so quietly that the frou-frou dog gave a disgruntled snort of surprise. “Some guard dog,” he muttered.

“She knew it was you. Obviously if a stranger was sneaking in she would have torn his hands and feet off,” Juniper said. She was already in her silky pajamas, feet curled beneath her, book in hand. John picked her up and set her in his lap, pressing his face to her neck on a deep inhale.

“Where are the girls?” he asked, ending the question with a kiss.

“Bailey is finishing her laundry and packing her suitcase. Poppy is reading a cookbook in the bathtub, and Jane is watching a documentary on starfish reproduction,” Juniper said, closing her eyes as she snuggled into his embrace. “How was your thing?”

“All’s well that ends well,” he said, his code for “it’s better if you don’t know.”

“Did you eat?”

“No, ma’am, I did not.”

“Good thing I saved you a plate and a piece of pie.” She started to stand, but he tugged her back.

“I’d rather have you than pie.”

“I could live with that,” she said, nestling closer. “Bear.”

“What?”

“What if this is the last time the girls are all home?” she asked.

“I knew you were thinking that today,” he said.

“Cause you know me so well?” she guessed.

“No, because I was thinking it, too.” He sighed. “Here’s what I know, Juni, after working with untold numbers of men and women from homes where no one cares, where the kids emerge alone, untrained, and broken: our girls know they are loved. We’ve done the best we could possibly do to raise them in the best way we know how. From here we have to have faith that it was enough. Someday they will launch into the world as whole and well women, fully competent to handle every challenge, like their mama.”

“But what if something goes wrong? What if they get hurt?” Juniper worried, biting her lip as she stared up at him with big eyes that were always his undoing.

“Then we tag team neutralizing the threat,” he said.

“Okay,” she agreed. “But I’ll feel better, if I know you’ve eaten.”

He released her. “Fine. Go warm up my food, but hurry back.”

She stood, but on second thought came back and kissed him, his face cupped between her hands. “Remind me where we paused so we can pick it up later.”

“It’s probably okay if we start at the beginning again, maybe a few times,” he said.

“This is why they made you a colonel, because you’re so good at planning,” Juniper mused.

“Wait ‘til you see what I do when I’m a general,” he said, smiling when she burst into laughter and walked away.

***

Sam and Maggie walked hand in hand through the darkened DC streets, letting the peace of the city wash over them. Peace being a relative term when there was still a background cacophony of sirens, horns, and traffic noise.

“Maybe we should live here,” Sam suddenly blurted, causing Maggie to turn her head sharply in his direction.

“I thought we agreed we don’t want to live in the city,” she said.

“You love the city,” he said, his tone almost an accusation.

“I love to visit the city. I can’t imagine living here. I would miss nature too much. Plus I want a dog. Dogs need space to stretch their legs.”

“I suppose,” he agreed, tone slipping to melancholy.

She squeezed his hand. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. I guess I’m feeling a bit antsy, with school winding down. This trip has been restorative, though. It was so nice of your parents to include me.”

“Of course they would include you; they love you. And in four months you’re officially ours.”

He smiled. “My mother still might try to lay claim to me occasionally.”

“Sorry, no. She has these four months, and then we take permanent possession.”

“I’ll let you tell her,” Sam said.

Maggie laughed, and he smiled. They continued in silence for a while until he spoke again.

“I thought of something you could do.”

“To battle for possession of you with your mom?” she guessed.

“No, with your useless degree. You could be a spy.”

Maggie burst into a fit of amused giggles that made him smile again.

“I’m serious,” he said, not serious at all because Maggie was the antithesis of everything he knew about secret agents. “You could be a killer.”

“A killer librarian.”

He whistled softly. “Lethal.”

His phone rang and he paused. “Sorry, I have to take this.”

“Mysterious, but okay. I’ll go amuse myself by staking out that hot dog cart for any redeemable treats.” She blew him a kiss and wandered away.

***

A woman stood by the cart. Ridge was glad the guys had stopped off to get drinks, sending him ahead to get the hot dogs. They were always a little too into trying to game some susceptible female after a victory. This one looked especially susceptible, blond and cute and vaguely familiar. It took him a moment to remember why, and then it came to him; she was the woman who had been with the Middle Eastern guy. Now she looked pensive and serious and he wondered if he’d misjudged the earlier situation and she was actually in danger. He glanced around for the missing boyfriend and saw him a couple dozen feet away, pacing a tight circle as he talked on the phone.

“Everything okay?” Ridge asked the woman.

She jumped and faced him with a chagrined smile. “Yes, sorry if I’m in your way. I want a cookie, but I have to fit into a wedding dress in sixteen weeks.” She held up her left hand for his inspection, showing him a fat diamond.

He took a plastic wrapped cookie from the cart and handed it to her. “My treat, and you can’t refuse a gift. It’s rude.”

“Thank you so much,” she said, unduly excited over the tiny treat. “This is the nicest thing that’s happened to me in…maybe ever.”

He laughed and pointed to her ring. “I hope not.”

She laughed and glanced at her ring. “Okay, yes, that was better. But this was still nice.” She clutched the cookie to her chest and gave him a sweet smile. “Did you save the world today?”

His lashes fluttered. “What?”

“My fiancé guessed you’re a cop or soldier. I wondered if you did anything that will make the paper tomorrow.”

It would most certainly not make the paper, but The Colonel thought it might earn them a trip to the White House, and maybe a medal. “Nah, it was a day in the life, you know?”

“Well, maybe tomorrow,” she said.

“I sincerely hope not,” he said.

She laughed, a warm and genuine sound that made him smile in response. “Thanks again for the cookie.”

“My pleasure. Eat it in good health,” he said.

“That’s the opposite advice from what my doctor gave me. I like yours better.” She held up the cookie in a little salute and turned away, toward her fiancé.

“LT, were you talking to a woman?” Ethan asked, coming up on his flank.

“Making conversation,” Ridge said. When Ethan continued to stare at him in speculation, he added, “She has a fiancé.”

“Huh. Too bad. She looked like your type.”

Their hot dogs were ready and they reached for them in tandem. “What’s my type?” Ridge asked.

“Wholesome,” Ethan said, licking a dollop of mustard from his thumb.

Ridge didn’t think any of the women he’d ever dated had been “wholesome.” Then again, none of them had ever stuck. But it wasn’t as if he could take dating advice from Ethan, the avowed bachelor who had not one but three little black books.

He turned to go and then, as an afterthought, turned back and bought all the cookies.

“We get cookies, too?” Ethan said, his amusement making Ridge regret the impulse.

“Only if you finish all of your hot dog,” Ridge declared.

Ethan laughed and they returned to their team, doling hot dogs. They sat on a half wall with the rest of the team, downing hot dogs and cookies, listening to the sirens and horns and night sounds of the city they’d recently and anonymously saved. Just a day in the life, with many more to come…



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Lacy High School Christmas Short

Lacy Steele was lacking Christmas spirit. Did being sixteen make a person cynical? Perhaps. Her sister, Riley, had loads of spirit, if her pages-long Christmas list was any indication. Maybe fourteen

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coffeejunkie72
Jun 07, 2023

[SPOILER ALERT] What a fun little nugget with a bundle of cameos! Maggie before the library. Amelia before the salon. Ridge before the spy life. John before the sons in law. Bailey before the ranch, Poppy before the bakery and Jane before Blue. Jones before fitness and Ethan before monogamy. Shimmer just - before. I might go ahead and re-read the whole Spies Like Us series to refresh my memory since my spidey sense is making me think there might be another tale fixin' to be told. Thanks VGB for sharing your amazing gift for story telling with the world, and especially your fans like me. This was a sweet treat, just like a plate of Maggie's cookies. ;)

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