Alyson finished the third mile on the treadmill and let herself slide off of it. Her legs were rubbery as she headed to the shower. After the other night’s sprint across the lawn, she had been so afraid of catching her foot in a gopher hole or tripping over a hidden sprinkler system, she wanted to make sure she could run a good long four miles. She was pushing for a marathon sprinter, five miles total, or a hundred meter dash.
She went to the shower and stood under its hot spray, washing her hair. She was glad she had left most of the directorial stuff to Earl, who was much more able to take it than she was. She hated people, hated dealing with them, talking to them, working with them. But, being female, she was expected to be gregarious, open, loving, and trusting.
How they underestimated her.
She would do kickboxing tomorrow with Earl, depending on the plane going back. If Earl was going to take a plane. They said a week, which meant not a plane. A bus? Easily. Maybe they could rent an SUV.
Earl, of course, would take lead on this. As usual. She sighed and looked down at her mangled right knee. Discharged because of a stupid jump. She was going for her parachutist’s license when she landed wrong, and twisted not just her ankle, but her knee. She was on bed rest for two days before they decided to give her a medical discharge. She would have to go through operation after operation in order to be back up to par - maybe. And the Army was not going to take a chance on her over it.
She shut off the water. Stupid Army. Stupid knee. Stupid female.
They knew she was going for special ops. She would be the first female to have gotten there, too. If it hadn’t been for that damn drop…
She knew everything else there was about special ops. She’d passed the other tests up until that one. She was a sharpshooter with rifle and pistol. She was psychologically able to handle the possibility of being raped. She was going to fight hand-to-hand next, and she had practiced for that almost daily. Damned if she wasn’t going to do it.
She wondered if the DOD knew that she was the brains behind Cerebus, that Earl was the name, the face, the poster boy for it. She was the last arbiter of whether or not they took a job, and this one, if it was on the up and up, would put them in a government spotlight. They came to her, not the other way around.
Yet, they weren’t forthcoming with everything, which is why she got dressed in a casual business suit and went upstairs. They might have snuck up on Earl but they were not going to sneak up on her.
She had their pictures from the elevator. She was going to use them, and do a little snooping of her own. She’d gotten through to her contact who used a few bouncing websites to get into the government personnel site. She sipped coffee as she waited, while her contact stayed on Skype with her on a different computer.
She was in the middle of paying him for his time, when he typed, “Got a match on one,” and the screen fed to her was the dark haired man, but without a beard, with those unnatural brown eyes.
Field operator Kevin Gorgage, of Pakistani descent, a low-ranking member of the NSA, National Security Administration. Interesting, she thought. There was no match on the other man, not without him getting deeper and therefore charging more money.
This was good enough to start with, so she fired off the money to direct deposit into an offshore bank account, and the contact broke his connection with her. She printed out the man’s face and contact information - his office number and location. She may need that at some point.
She sat back, sipping coffee. Her laundry should be done by now, so she would pick it up on the way home tonight. She went outside to see Stephanie. “Anything you need me for?”
“No, miss. Mr. Packard signed everything that was necessary.”
“Figures, he left me with them. All right. I’ll stick around for them.”
The first appointment was at two, and was a woman who held her purse close to her chest as she talked. She wanted someone to follow her husband, as she believed he was cheating on her with someone from the office.
Those were difficult, as the company couldn’t get into the office without someone knowing. She quoted a price to the woman, who balked, but handed over her VISA card and took out the thousand dollar down payment.
The second appointment was with the accountant. Alyson was the one who enjoyed those meetings, preferring to work with number and objects other than people and their problems. She could tell Earl that they were still running in the black, considering that they had such a low overhead. The warehouse was mortgaged, they had only six employees. The accountant suggested they hire at least two more employees between now and the end of the year.
Alyson finished, and looked at the clock which said four. The flight was leaving at seven. She had enough time to get her laundry and get to the airport.
She packed her laundry back into the carry-on that she had in her car, and went through airport security without incident. She saw Earl, also with a carry-on and sat next to him. “You forgot your boarding pass,” she said.
“Got a new one.”
Earl was doing something with his phone while Alyson watched the planes outside. Both of them didn’t mind flying. They were able to get to points faster than driving, but there was also danger in the air. Earl and Alyson both did not like being too high up and when things would go hairy, they would be caught in the middle of it without being able to do anything about it. Neither of them were pilots.
Obviously using American Airlines, they boarded and were able to have space for their carry-ons. Earl slept, lightly snoring. Alyson had brought a Tom Clancy book and read most of it on the five-hour flight.
It was uneventful and they landed and deplaned without incident. Earl rented an SUV and the two of them rented a hotel room for the night. They slept overnight there, and early the next morning, they went to breakfast.
“I did a little research on our man,” he said.
“Is that what you were doing on your phone?”
“That, and playing Bejeweled.”
She rolled her eyes. “I swear you have ADD.”
“If I had ADD, I wouldn’t be able to focus on pistols. Speaking of which, we really should get some here. Do you have any contacts?”
“None,” she said. “At least not anymore. He moved to Missouri.”
“We don’t have time for the ten-day waiting period. I wish they let us take guns aboard.”
“We don’t live in Texas,” she said. “And LA has the most over-protective gun laws in the land.”
“Good luck with that too.”
“Did you pack anything?”
She shook her head. “Just my skills.”
“Fair enough,” Earl said, though he preferred to always have a gun in his pocket when these things happened. He didn’t like relying on his environment to give him the items he needed to fight against something. However, he could do it, he just didn’t like it.
They used the GPS and pulled into the driveway of a house on West 178th street in Torrence. Earl noted the cameras at the front door and the cameras that pointed along the perfectly manicured front lawn.
They went to the front door and rang the bell. Both looked warily out, glancing over the hedges to see two windows, and a person looking out from one window. A big man with glasses answered the door. “Yes?”
Said Earl, “We’re looking for James Woods.”
“No, you’re not, you’re the bodyguard. Why would you answer the door with a gun in a holster?”
The man gave him a small smile. “You must be the escort service. Come inside.”
The two of them went inside, and the man shut and locked the door. He took off the glasses, setting them on a table beside the door. “Mr. Woods, your ride is here.”
The real James Woods was much smaller than the bodyguard. He also wore glasses, had dark hair and blue eyes, but he looked more like a bird. He was tall, thin, and angular, his nose even angular, made of straight lines and tight angles. Earl was two of him broadways, but by his size he looked like he could take Alyson. However, Alyson, Earl knew, could easily take this guy down, since it didn’t look like he had done any sort of work out.
“Mr. Woods,” said Earl. “I’m Earl Packard and this is my partner Alyson Packard.”
“Hello,” he said. “Call me Jim, since we’re going to be together for a little while.”
“Jim,” said Earl.
“Are you two related?” He looked from one to the other.
“I’m his sister,” said Alyson.
“Oh, you two look alike.”
The two looked at each other. It wasn’t that they didn’t look alike - they both had the same facial features, the same dark hair and blue eyes. Packard was built more like a truck with a broad torso and strong extremities; while Alyson was built like a Porsche - curves where necessary, lines that were aerodynamically designed. Neither had hardly any fat on them, both being conditioned by the Department of Defense and later by gyms.
They looked back at Jim, who had flushed. “Okay, maybe you don’t.”
“Are you ready?”
“Yes. Who’s driving?”
“I am,” they both said, and Alyson looked at Earl. “Fine,” Earl said, “You can drive.”
“Where are we going?”
Earl said, “East.”
“But the airport’s west.”
“We’re not taking a plane,” said Earl.
Alyson knew that was coming. “Where are your bags?”
“I’ll get them,” he said, and went to the other end of the hallway. “My wife and daughters are waiting for me in Washington.” He took a picture from a bureau, the only thing on it, and put it in his backpack. Alyson took the two suitcases.
“I’ve got that,” he said.
Alyson gave him a look. “I’m stronger than I look.” She easily hefted the bags and brought them to the front room. Earl didn’t make a move to help her, but did hold the door open for her.
After saying his goodbyes and signing a release paper, Jim got into the passenger side of the the car, while Earl climbed into the back.
They picked up the 480, and started heading east. The GPS chirped at them to “make a U-turn where possible” but Alyson shut it off.
“We’re going to drive there?”
“That’s the plan,” said Earl.
“Easier to control variables that way.”
Said Alyson, “Would you like to be in a plane if someone decides to jump you there?”
“Uh, no, I guess not.”
“Any particular reason why you’re so important to the government?”
“We can handle weird,” Earl said.
He pointed. “There’s a Shell station five miles down the road in the rest area. Right now there’s a blue Expedition in it and a white four-door something.”
“You can see the future?”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “I can see what’s on the other side of the hill.”
Alyson looked at Earl through the rear view. If it were true, she could see why the government would want him.
“What did you do before you found out you could do this?”
“I was a project manager at DG.”
“How did you know you could do this?”
“I would tell people inside who was waiting out in the lobby. Or in the hallway. Or I knew who was outside my cubicle.”
“Spooky,” said Earl.
“Told you it was weird. I don’t know why the government wants me, though.”
“I do,” said Alyson.
“So do I,” said Earl right after. “It’s pretty simple. If you can tell them what’s going on on the other side of the hill, they won’t need to send recons.”
“And they’ll know if there’s an ambush on the other side.”
“Can I put the radio on?”
“Sure,” said Earl, “as long as it’s number 35.”
“Classic rock station.”
“Oh,” said Jim, and turned on the radio. Alyson frowned, but kept on driving.
And sure enough, five miles down the road, there was a Shell station, but no blue Ford Expedition or white sedan. As he had said, it was what he saw at that moment in time, not in the future.
Alyson asked, “Do you have a range?”
“About five miles if it’s clear.”
“What about seeing into buildings?”
He shook his head. “Probably two, three layers? I get a headache if I try to see more than that.”
“Hopefully we won’t need that from you.”
“Let’s hope so.”
Alyson disliked classic rock, but it was Earl’s rental. She preferred to listen to nothing while driving, so she could hear everything that was going on.
They stopped at a rest stop McDonald’s in Nevada. Jim didn’t like the choices, preferring more healthy choices. He went for the chicken, while both Alyson and Earl went for the soy beef.
Jim was texting on his phone, while Earl and Alyson kept an eye on patrons. Earl noticed them first, a pair of dark men watching them more than watching their food or the large-screen TV’s. Earl signed, “Eight.” Alyson used the reflection off the TV to see the two men he was talking about. Alyson got up and threw out her trash, then came back. She signed with her fist, “Yes.”
When Jim was finished with his lunch, they headed back out to the SUV. “Following,” said Earl.
“I see,” said Alyson.
“We have a tail. Get in the car.”
Jim looked around, but Earl grabbed his head and led him toward the car. “Don’t act like you know they’re on your tail. Just get in the car.”
Jim ducked his head in the car. “What do you mean a tail?”
“Ever watch cop shows?”
“We got someone following us.”
Alyson said, backing out, “Pretend nothing’s happening. Don’t look so panicked.”
“Who’s following us?”
“We don’t know. Earl?”
“Not our guys.”
“I know that.”
“Where’s your family from, Jim?”
“My father’s from Pakistan, and my mother’s from--.”
“Oh. Great. Just great.”
Earl said to Alyson, “Do you want to bet?”
“I don’t bet against something I might lose.”
“You’re no fun.”
“I’m a realist.”
“What’s going on?” demanded Jim.
Earl sighed, “We have a tail, and they’re dark like you.”
“That’s the bet. Want to take me up on it?”
“You’re betting our tail is Pakistani.” Jim glanced back at Earl. “You two are like what mercs are on TV.”
“Not really,” said Alyson. “We’re not in trouble yet, so we can have this snappy banter.”
“They’re in a blue Nissan Altima, third lane, keeping speed with us, with three cars between.”
“Defenses engaged,” said Alyson, putting the pedal to the metal and jumping forward.
“Oh, my God!”
“That’s what they’re made for.” Earl undid his and looked around the SUV. “Shit, they’re catching up.”
Alyson wove in and out of traffic, making Earl sway and Jim hold onto the dashboard and the sissy bar of the SUV. Earl cursed that he didn’t have a gun.
“They’re coming up fast on the left.”
“I see them,” said Alyson, making room. She took the next exit, nanoseconds before it ended, and luckily no one came with them. The car next to them swerved into the lane but didn’t make the exit, and instead parked, waiting to see what direction they would go.
“Left here,” said Earl.
They took a left.
“Get back onto the highway.”
The other car was backing up to try and get off the exit. Alyson ducked under the bridge and then went around another car going through a red light to get back onto the highway just as they were getting off.
“Take two exits and get off again.”
Alyson nodded, and did as he directed, also keeping a semi behind them. At the second exit she got off at the last minute.
Earl said to Jim, “If we go straight, is it parallel to the highway?”
“As far as I can see,” said Jim.
“Go for five miles, then shut the car off.”
Alyson watched the speedometer gauge for five miles, then pulled over and shut the car off.
Twilight came. They sat in the car. Jim whispered, “What’re we doing?”
“Playing dead. If we go back on the highway, they might have seen us. If we play dead here, we can ambush them.”
“But they’d be in a car. And they’d have guns.”
“We’re in an SUV which takes a lot more punishment than any old car.”
Said Alyson, “Ever been in a car accident?”
“Ever been in an SUV accident? Or seen an SUV in an accident?”
“They get damaged too.”
“Not as damaged as a car,” said Earl.
They stayed that way for an hour. “Okay, let’s turn around, and go back on the highway going East.”
“Did we, uh, shake the tail?” asked Jim.
“Probably for the moment, but they’ll be caseing out hotels. We should stay in a big city hotel.”
“Did you bring a map?” asked Alyson.
“I’m a man,” Earl said, a grin on his face.
“Jesus Christ. Find one on the GPS.”