I stayed late that evening, finishing up reports and clearing my desk. Some things I wasn’t able to do, so I just sent them back to my supervisor with a note that he needed to pass them off. I didn’t tell him anything about my assignment, for if he hadn’t been told by the brass, he didn’t have a need to know. Compartmentalization is the rule in this game.
When I went home, I packed. Since the sheet had said “light industrial”, I packed a pair of steel-toe flight deck boots from a job on an aircraft carrier. Short and long sleeved work shirts, all cut with some extra room. Jeans and work pants.
My personal gun selection was not huge. If I need something specialized, I normally can draw it from the armory at work or in the field. In a pocket under the laptop, I stowed a 4” .357 in a holster, along with 50 rounds of heavy magnum rounds, 50 rounds of 9mm hollowpoints, and 20 round of .38 wadcutters. The 9mm ammo was for a Smith & Wesson Ladysmith, the wadcutters for a Smith & Wesson Airweight. I dropped in two magazines for the 9mm, two speed loaders for the .357 and a couple of extra speed strips. Then I packed pens, two small notebooks and a digital camera.
Before I went to bed, I called the duty officer at work. I confirmed the airport ride for tomorrow and also asked to draw the standard ration of cash for a month’s trip. He said that he’d put in the requisition and have it ready in the car.
I sort of slept that night. It had been a number of years since I had last gone into the field and very rarely with this level of non-information. In the morning, I went through my kitchen and tossed out everything that was perishable or might go bad. That didn’t leave a lot. I got dressed for the trip: Black pants, black shoes, a light blouse over the body armor, the Airweight in an ankle holster and the Ladysmith behind my right hip. Not to mention two spare magazines for the Ladysmith and a speed strip for the Airweight into pockets. I then donned my blazer. I slung my purse over my shoulder, double-checked to ensure that I had my passport, pulled out the handle for the suitcase, put the laptop on top of the suitcase, and rolled everything out the door.
I was at work early. I put my gear in my office, then went down to the cafeteria for breakfast. I knew almost everyone, at least by sight. I noticed one woman, also in a black pantsuit, who wasn’t employed by THI. A witness or something. Not my business.
My cellphone pinged with a text to go pick up my travel package. I finished up my breakfast, got a go-cup of coffee and went to travel. There I signed for two thousand dollars in cash and a pre-paid debit card with five thousand on it. They set the card with a seven-digit pin, which I entered on a terminal that programmed it into the card. Back in the day, they’d have given me traveler’s checks. I hit the bathroom, went back to my office and grabbed my gear.
I rode the elevator down to the transport office in the first level of the garage. One of the personal protection operatives, Dennie Kinkead, drove me out to the airport in one of the company Crown Vics. We didn’t chat. He dropped me off at Signature Fight Service, which was a terminal for business jets and lesser private airplanes. I checked in at the front desk. The lady there said that I should take a seat. I had a thought and opened the texting app on my phone. I put both my supervisor’s and a person I trusted’s names in the to block, then I put the cursor on the message block and just held the phone. Every few minutes, I’d swipe the screen to keep the phone from locking.
Ten minutes later, a young man wearing a white shirt with three stripes on his epaulets came over. “Are you Ms Baker,” he asked.
“May I see a photo ID?”
I showed him my passport, but I didn’t let him take it.
He studied the picture, then nodded. “I’m one of the pilots, would you please follow me out to the airplane?”
“OK.” I stood up and moved to get my suitcase, but the young man reached for it and I let him take it. I had my purse and computer bag.
“Follow me,” he said, and we went out the door onto the tarmac. It was a little noisy, but not bad. He led me to a jet that appeared to have a narrow body and big engines. As we got closer, I took my phone, pushed the microphone button on the text page, and read off the registration number of the jet. While the phone made it look more like a date (since I read off the registration number phonetically and the first letter was a ‘N’), it was accurate and I sent the text. If this job seriously went sideways, the company would at least have a starting point.
When we got to the jet, the young man lifted my suitcase into the cabin, then he waved me to climb aboard. I did so, he followed me and pulled the door shut. He put my suitcase and laptop in a storage bin with a lid.
“Once we climb out, if you need anything from your bags, feel free to get them. You’ve flown before,” he asked.
“Well, the oxygen masks and the seatbelts work the same way. The emergency exits are the door and that window over there, they work the same way. Life jackets are under the seats, but we’re not going over water. Those phones on either side are intercoms to the flight deck, just pick them up and push the button on the handset.” He showed me where they had coffee, tea and water. They even had some sandwiches and chips. They had some paperback books and magazines. I could watch one of a number of movies, as the airplane had a TV set wired to a DVD player. There was even a little biffy in the back, although it make the ones on an airliner look spacious. “Any questions, he asked.”
“Nope.” I took a seat and turned to open the window shade. It didn’t budge.
The young pilot noticed. “Don’t bother, they’re all secured.”
Great. The mushroom treatment continues.
He went to go to the front, then turned and said: “And please either turn off your cellphone or put it into airplane mode.”
I nodded. I turned it off.
There were the usual engine starting noises and then the airplane began to move. The takeoff was pretty brisk and the initial climb was steep. Then they leveled out for a gentler climb and, with a ding, the seatbelt sign went off. I got up, though there wasn’t exactly a lot of room to move about. I’m not really tall, but I was bent over in the cabin of this thing. They had the morning Post, which I read. Then I took a nap, for this goddamn luxurious airplane was little more than a fast-moving sensory deprivation tank. The seats were comfy and they reclined far more than did the ones on the airlines.
I woke up when I heard a ding, as the seatbelt sign was back on. I needed to pee, so I used the biffy anyway. It wasn’t as though there was a surly flight attendant to chew me out. I returned to my seat, fished out my cellphone, and turned it on and in airplane mode. Once I felt the wheels touch down, I switched it to normal operation. During the time it took to roll out on the runway and taxi to wherever we were going, the phone tried to make a connection, but it showed up as ‘no service’. I didn’t know that there was any place left in the U.S. where there wasn’t cell service, not in a place that had an airport big enough to land this airplane.
The intercom phone began beeping. I picked it up and said: “Hello?”
“Ms. Baker, this is the Captain. It’ll be a few minutes before you can deplane, so please, sit back and relax.”
“Thanks,” I said, and hung up. The air conditioning went off and came back on. I could hear the engines winding down. Then I felt the airplane begin to move again. It (and me) was being towed somewhere. I resisted the urge to pull out my gun. The airplane came to a stop, the air conditioning blinked off-and-on again. After a few more minutes, the young pilot came out from the cockpit and opened the luggage bin. He opened the door and helped me out with the bags.
We were in a large airplane hangar that had doors at either end. The hangar was large enough to hold several airplanes, but the one I had been in was the only one there. The doors were shut. There was a row of windows along the top of each door, but they were translucent. I could feel some residual heat in the air and it was pretty dry. Given the feeling of the air and the time in flight, I’d guess that I was in the desert Southwest, but it was only a guess. I had no other clue within a few thousand miles where I was.
The woman who had called herself Amy was waiting. “Hi, Becca, glad you came. Can I help you with your bags,” she asked.
“Sure,” I said. I pulled out the handle for the suitcase, strapped my laptop to it and gave it to her. I had only my purse. She was younger, she could play Sherpa.
“If you’ll come this way,” she said. “How was your flight?”
“It was OK.”
“First time on a private jet?”
I heard a very loud jet take off as we walked to the side of the hangar. Amy opened a door, which opened onto a hallway that was painted industrial green, it had worn linoleum flooring and fluorescent light fixtures hanging from a ceiling. The hallway ended at an elevator door. Amy pushed the call button. The door opened, Amy went in, I followed. There were two buttons on the panel, ‘up’ and ‘down’, along with the standard door controls. She had an ID card on a lanyard; she held it up to a reader and then pushed the down button. The elevator car began to move.
I can’t say how far down it went, but I’d guess at least several stories. The door opened and we exited the elevator. We were in a foyer of some kind. There was a podium, a table and two armed guards, one male, one female, both wearing blue gloves. They looked like a cross between TSA inspectors and mall cops. There was a door behind the checkpoint, as well as one on either side of it.
Amy said: “This is a secure facility. I’ll need you to unlock your bags so they can check them, and the guard, here, will pat you down.”
“No,” I said.
“No. I’m done with this shit. Either start telling me what the hell is going on or take me back to Washington,” I said. I saw the male guard put his hand on his sidearm. I looked at him. “Don’t even think about it, son,” I said, as my hand went to my gun and I took a half-step back and turned slightly so that I could better keep an eye on Amy. The guard must have thought it over, for he slowly took his hand away from his gun. The other guard, without prompting, had her hands in plain sight.
“Stand down! Stand down, dammit!” A man’s voice, from a couple of speakers in the ceiling. The guards must have known who he was, for they went back to their normal postures. I didn’t know who he was. I kept my hand where it was. Now, what?
That question was answered when a door to the left of the checkpoint opened. A man held it open against the automatic closing gizmo. He was wearing a moderately expensive suit, he was graying and appeared to be in good shape. The guards didn’t snap to attention, but they straightened up.
“Ms. Baker, I’m Jerry Smith. I apologize for the secret-squirrel routine. If you and Amy would come with me, maybe we can get back on the right foot.”
“Sure,” I said. Amy picked up my stuff and I followed her through the door. And yes, I did quickly peek around it to make sure that I wasn’t going to run into six guys with M-4s. The corridor was done up in Generic Government. We followed Smith to an office, one that was occupied by somebody of significance, because there was a secretary at a desk outside of it. In DC, you usually have to be into the Executive Service ranks before you rate that set-up.
The office was nicely furnished, almost as nicely as Mr. Hawkins’s digs. But, since we were some distance underground, the view wasn’t as nice. Smith gestured to Amy, who put my stuff along a wall.
“Please, take a load off,” he said, pointing towards a couch and chairs in one corner. I sat in a chair. He glanced at Amy and waved his hand towards the corner, she was to join us. She sat on the couch. He went to a credenza and came back with three glasses and a bottle. “I hope you don’t mind joining me in a drink,” he said.
“Thank you,” I said. I’m not much of a drinker, but I recognized the bottle as a brand of high-end bourbon. He poured a jolt into each glass and handed them out. I noticed that Amy wasn’t given a choice of whether or not she would be drinking with us.
“Pretty gutsy move back there. The one guard, Irving, is a frequent winner of matches hereabouts,” Smith said.
I didn’t say anything. But so he was good against targets. I sipped some of the drink, it was pretty good.
“So, what’s the job,” I asked.
“We’ve had an accident at one of our remote facilities. I have my doubts about it being an accident. I’d like you to look into it for me,” he said.
“Local cops no good,” I asked. “Or are they suspected of being in on the accident?”
“Something like that. This isn’t the place, though. We’re more like a terminal, here. You’ll need to go to one of our main bases for a briefing and then, if you agree to do the job, you’ll be sent on to the site.” He pulled an envelope out of his suit pocked and passed it over.
I opened it and found two cards. One was an ID card with my photo, name and signature. The other was a rectangular piece of plastic, again with my name and picture. There was also a clip that could be attached to the ID so I could clip it to my jacket, if I wanted.
“The ID is an all-access pass with firearms authorization. Basically, you can go wherever you want in any of our facilities or on any of our transports and carry whatever weapons you feel like carrying. The other card is a script card, we don’t use cash in our facilities.”
I held up the script card. “What’s the limit on this?”
Smith shrugged. “For practical purposes, it’s limitless. If you could find someone to sell you a F-22, you could buy one with that card. I trust you’ll be a little more frugal than that.”
I put the cards in my jacket pocket for now. “What’s the next step?”
“First, you’ll need to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Then Amy will show you to temporary quarters and arrange for some lunch. You may want to get some sleep, for your transport leaves at 0400,” Smith said.
Smith went to his desk, picked up a sheet of paper and brought it back to me. The NDA was between myself and ETGT&E Enterprises, where I promised to never blab about anything in exchange for working as an independent contractor and getting paid. If I talked, they could take whatever action they wanted, including but not limited to suing my eyes out. The agreement bound my successors and assigns and was good for 250 standard years.
“250 years,” I asked, with an undertone of sarcasm in my voice.
Smith shrugged. “Medical science might find the cure for getting old,” he said. “Our lawyers like to be thorough.”
I snorted and signed it. I had to sign one for the boys at Fort Fumble’s Yachting Club three years ago, that one went for 75 years. I wasn’t planning on making it to 130, let alone 300.
“Welcome to the company,” he said. He finished up his drink, I finished mine. Then he said: “I’ll let Amy take it from here,” he said as we all stood up. “Nice to meet you,” he added.
“Likewise,” I said. We shook hands, Amy got my stuff, and we left Mr. Smith’s office.