Esmeralda Gonzales was more pregnant than any woman had a right to be. She carried a baby and a load of bad news and bore both with grace and good deal of pride. She was going to be a mother, and she was going to be happy, even if she had to do it alone.
She sat in the bright foyer of the hospital and watched John Regent approach from a bank of elevators. Angled glass stretched to the height of four floors overhead and cast the sunlight in all directions. It was like being inside a giant sculpture of a waterfall.
Esme waved as he passed the information desk. She had only met Captain John once before, but she felt she knew him well. Her husband hadn’t shut up about his new friend. She’d heard all Regent’s stories secondhand.
“Captain John.” She smiled. She struggled to rise from the waiting room chair.
“Don’t get up.” Regent raised his hand as he stopped and took Esme’s grasp in a firm but awkward finger-shake. “You look tired.”
Esme gave a look as if to say it’s expected. She wore the clothes of a woman who cleaned floors for a living. She had dark hair, a plump face, and broad shoulders that reminded John of a wide river, wise and strong. But she was worried.
“Thank you for coming down.” She spoke with the spice of a lifelong bilingual.
The TV on the wall switched from scrolling weather forecasts to footage of the Chinese nuclear disaster. Smoke rose from a city near the coast. When the plume reached the clouds, it bent like a broken limb as the prevailing winds carried radioactive dust out over the mainland. No one knew how bad it would be.
Esme saw John looking. “It’s horrible what happened. Those poor people.”
John nodded. “Gabe’s checked himself back in.”
Esmeralda turned from the disaster. “He called, said he was being admitted, but I didn’t believe him.”
“That’s understandable. After everything.”
“I want him to get help.” Esme felt her stomach.
“How’s the baby?”
The young mother smiled. “So good. I went for a checkup this morning. The doctor says another two weeks. I don’t think I will make it!”
“You’re gonna do great.”
Esme kept her smile but the rim of her eyes froze in a panic as she turned her gaze to the side. “I’m not ready yet. We’ve been so busy. Dealing. And work. I have to put the baby first now.”
John knew what that meant. He waited for the rest.
“Will you look after him?”
“I may not be around for very long, but I’ll do what I can.”
“He needs help, Captain John. I told him I can’t be with him anymore. Not until he’s better. Not now that the baby’s here.”
John nodded. Esmeralda Gonzales had been patient enough. Gabe was a lucky man.
Esme rubbed her belly. She gave Regent a weak smile. “I just wanted to thank you. In person.”
“It’s no problem. I didn’t do much.”
“Yes, you did. I don’t know how, but you brought him back.” Esme looked at Regent with her head tilted to the side. “Thank you. So, so much. Thank you.”
“Am I interrupting?”
The voice came from behind him, but John knew it. He’d seen her around. Ayn.
“No.” Esme looked up.
Ayn stood behind the captain with one hand on his chair.
“I have to go to work. I just wanted to say thank you. That was all. I think Gabe wishes he was more like you.”
John wanted to help her up, but she was on her feet before he could move his chair. “Take care of yourself. That’s precious cargo.”
“Thank you. Goodbye, Captain John.” Esme smiled again and walked to the sliding doors at the front of the hospital.
Regent looked at the TV. Some scientist was explaining the dust was likely to reach into central Asia. Everyone was worried about what would happen to the rice crop and whether it would be able to feed a few billion people. One disaster breeding another.
Ayn walked around to face the soldier. She was holding a thin file.
“I know who you are. What do you want?”
“I thought it was time we had a chat.”
John didn’t respond.
“I went to your room but you weren’t there.” Ayn waited for a moment, but John didn’t extend an invitation. “Fine. We can do it here. Mind if I sit down?” She sat in Esme’s chair without waiting for a response. “John Michael Regent. Army code name Nomad. That’s right, isn’t it?”
“You have family coming to get you.”
Regent watched through the windows as Esme waddled down the sidewalk toward the parking garage next to the main building.
“Dr. Zabora hasn’t discharged you yet.”
“Your dad’s retired, is that right? He could always come later.”
“What’s your point?”
“It’s a long drive from Fort Washington. Wouldn’t want him to come all that way for nothing. Or are you counting on your stepmother?”
“What about her?”
“According to Dr. Zabora’s notes, there was some conflict between you and her. When you were a teenager. The doc seems to think that’s why you joined the army instead of accepting that athletic scholarship—so you didn’t have to go home for the summer or on holidays.”
“We don’t get along so well.”
“And yet, here you’re ready to pick up and go live with her again. Why is that?”
“That’s where Pops lives.”
A group of people, including two doctors, laughed on the far side of the bright room. Must be good news. John watched them smiling.
“You have a younger sister in Delaware. Thirty-seven, divorced, two kids. Works at Walmart and rents a two-bedroom apartment. No room, I take it? Did you even ask?”
John didn’t answer.
“Your little brother is out West. But you cut ties with him years ago. He got involved with a gang, is that right?”
Regent was stoic. He stared at the smiling faces.
“According to Dr. Zabora’s notes, you gave him an ultimatum. Get out of the gang or leave the family. How’d that work out?”
John looked back. “My stepmom isn’t a healthy person. He’s the youngest, so she took things out on him longer. When he grew up, he acted out. For a long time, I thought I was responsible for him, for what happened. But I’m not. He’s responsible for himself.”
“Meaning it worked out as best as it ever could.”
“We both know why I’m here, Captain. I’ve spent the last few days becoming an expert on you. You’ll be happy to know the staff here has nothing but good things to say. Seems you’re one helluva guy. Every single one mentioned you like to tell stories. I got to hear a couple. I liked the one about the dead cat.”
“I’m so happy.”
“What happened to that guy?”
John squinted at the light coming in through the high glass. He was getting a headache. “Just say what you gotta say.”
“I don’t have many stories, not that I can share anyway, but I think my new favorite has to be good ol’ Private Millard. Do you know him?”
John shook his head.
“He’s a patient here. I’m not surprised you haven’t met him. He doesn’t get out much. He’s in a coma.”
“Yeah. There was an accident at a base down South. Something broke. Something fell. Lots of yelling and shouting. Poor Alvin was just in the wrong place, I guess.”
“This story sucks.”
“Oh, I’m not to the good part yet.” Ayn leaned over the arm-rest. “Private Millard gets hit in the head and he goes into a coma. He gets shipped here to the military’s fancy new trauma center. Nothing happens for a week or so. But then, last Saturday afternoon, Alvin—who never scored above average on any of the army’s aptitude tests—woke up from his coma, disabled his monitors so that the nurses wouldn’t be aware of his absence, locked his door from the inside, snuck past the hospital security cameras—not a single one so much as caught a glimpse of him, and you know how hard that is—procured street clothes and a disguise, infiltrated a crack house across town, and took down three armed men after being shot in the leg. Isn’t that amazing?”
“You need to work on your delivery. The story takes way too long to develop and the punchline is predictable.”
“Maybe you could give me your version.”
“Never met the man.”
“What’s this symbol?” Ayn pulled a color printout from her file. Three circles connected in the center by three lines. “You Googled it from the fourth-floor nurse’s station shortly after you were admitted.”
John didn’t answer.
“After that, you either figured out we had the whole network on watch or you learned to cover your tracks better.”
Regent looked Ayn up and down. She was a blank. She was dressed nicely in a white shirt and gray slacks, but there was nothing to identify her as a human being, nothing personal. That wasn’t an accident. He knew the type.
Ayn put the sheet back in her file. “What were you looking for, Captain?”
“Funny thing about you people.” John shook his head in disgust.
Ayn raised her eyebrows. “Us people?”
“Bureaucrat spooks. You act all noble, but you don’t actually care if the country’s secrets are being stolen.”
“Not as long as you know they’re being stolen. Known security breaches take months to fix, years sometimes. I’ve seen it. And why would you care? That’s a score for the other team. They already got it. Fixing it quick doesn’t change anything. They already got one over on you.
“But when something new pops up . . . Well, then you’ll move mountains. It’s a chance to score, to get one over on someone else. It’s all about reputation, appearances, being seen as the best, the smartest, the most ruthless. Ain’t got a damn thing to do with national security.” John said it with acid.
Ayn didn’t deny it. “And leaving Special Forces for a team that doesn’t exist had nothing to do with ego? With ‘being seen as the best?’”
“You like stories, huh? Okay, here’s one for you. Once upon a time, something falls out of the sky. Something big. Lands in Siberia near the Kazakh border. Only it doesn’t burn up, not totally. Leaves a big scar in the ground. Suddenly everyone’s worried that the Russians or the Chinese had a satellite—or worse, some kind of orbital platform—that no one knew about. My God, that could affect the score.”
“My team gets mobilized. And we’re the best, so we get there first. Only for us, being the best means we don’t ever get seen. Radar absorbent wingsuits out of the back of a modified commercial aircraft, dropped with oxygen masks from thirty-five thousand feet. We each covered almost a hundred miles in the fall, crossed the border in the night sky. We met at the rendezvous and made it the rest of the way on foot. When we got—”
“Don’t tell me.” Ayn was flat.
Regent stopped. “I thought you’d have seen the files, big important person like you.”
“They’re gone.” Ayn sat back and crossed her legs. She was unapologetic.
“Huh.” The soldier frowned. She must have looked into the symbol during her investigation. “You tellin’ me you aren’t curious?”
John smiled. “Yes, you are. You hate not knowing. What happened? You ask and get an earful of ‘don’t ever ask again’?”
Ayn leaned forward again and pulled more pictures from her file. She tossed them onto a little side table covered in old magazines. “The police documented six incidents, but I’m guessing there were more.”
Regent ignored her. “This thing, this smoking wreck, whatever, was over eighty meters long.”
“Very few witnesses. But like you said, you guys are trained not to be seen.”
“Burnt to a crisp. But it was clutching something. It had curled around it, protected it with its life. Looked like an egg.”
“The eyewitnesses described some pretty bad ass hand-to-hand techniques.”
“But it’s still hot, and before we can get it open, another team shows up. We heard them coming, thought they’d be Russian.”
“Do you know what poor Alvin Millard did before the accident that put him in a coma?”
“But they were private security. Contractors. Only not like any I’d ever seen.”
“He was a helicopter technician. Guidance systems, mostly. Gyroscopes or something.”
“They had some crazy tech. And signed, authenticated orders for us to hand over everything to them.”
“According to his records, the last combat training he received was in basic.”
“They knew about us, knew we’d be there. And the Russians never showed.”
“You and I both know about the only thing they teach in basic these days is how to follow orders and piss in a pot.”
“That smoking hulk was something, but those orders are by far the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen.”
“Since he’s in a coma and can’t do physical therapy, he may never walk right.”
Regent stopped and the pair stared into each other in the eyes.
John went on. “Their uniforms, their tech, it all had that symbol on it. Looks like there’s a new team in the spy league, and it looks like they’re winning.”
“Ha! That why they sent you? They think you my sista?”
“No, they sent me because I’m damned good at what I do.”
“But here you is leanin’ on it.”
“Come off it—”
“I ain’t your brutha.” Regent leaned into it. “My granddad taught me what it means to be black. It’s about a helluva lot more than the color of your skin. You stopped being black a long time ago.”
Ayn did her best, but John was serious, and it stung.
Ethan walked over and looked down at John. He was worried. “John.” Very worried. “It’s Gabe.”
“Shit.” Esme must have said something.
Ethan was pale. “He’s upstairs.”
Ayn shot Ethan a look. “The Captain and I are—”
“We’re done.” Regent spun his electric chair and rolled toward the elevator.
Ayn stood and held up the folder. “This was suspicious enough to get some serious people interested.”
John stopped but didn’t look back.
“You know the people I mean.”
Ethan looked between the captain and the spy.
Ayn took a step forward. “They’ll be here any minute now.”
Regent looked at the clock on the wall. “But they ain’t here yet.” He did his best work under pressure. And his mission wasn’t over. He turned to Ethan. “What floor?”
Excerpt from Episode One of THE MINUS FACTION, free to download on Amazon.