It’s What I Do

Each of us, as we make our way through life, discovers a variety of interests which influence us to greater and lesser degrees. Sometimes it is the things we lose along the way that have the greatest influence of all. I’ve had a few successes in my life, but also my fair share of failures and disappointments.

An introvert since childhood, my severe lack of social skills (it has been suggested that I may have Asperger’s syndrome) has sometimes made it difficult to pursue the new experiences which bring me such joy. A life long pursuit of perfection (an impossible task), and fear of failure, has caused many a hesitation along the way; in fact, I once said I would rather be bored than embarrassed. Things have changed, I’ve changed, and I now realize that no one truly dies of embarrassment, and the only real failure is never to have tried.

None of us does everything we do with equal skill or enthusiasm. In fact, I would venture that I am not alone in being fully satisfied with only a few of the things I do. I don’t mean to imply that I am not satisfied with life in general, but that the list of accomplishments of which I might be proud is a short one.

I used to be a good (not great) cook, providing tasty and nutritious meals for my family and (sometimes) friends on a limited budget. I don’t know which part of that I’m most proud of, but somewhere along the way, the skill seems to have faded. Now, I mostly just collect recipes, and look for an excuse to use them. The skill faded from lack of use (as so many things do), but I’m hoping my new found time will allow me to bring it back.

Travelling is one of my greatest passions; I don’t get to do it nearly often enough. One of the best parts of seeing the world is trying all the regional foods on offer. Whether it’s a croissant in Paris, tiramisu in Rome, or barbecue in Memphis, the food we consume there is as much a part of the experience as the people, art, and architecture of the places we visit. Let’s face it, we can purchase those foods almost anywhere, but it just doesn’t taste the same. The last prosciutto I bought (a strong food memory from my time living in Italy) ended up as treats for my very spoiled dog.

While travelling is one of my favorite pastimes, I usually leave it to someone else to make the mundane decisions (hotels, transportation), leaving me free to seek out the things that interest me the most. Even when travelling with a tour group, I always carve out some time to explore alone. It often turns out to be the best part of the trip. When travelling in a foreign country, it helps to know a little bit about the culture, as well as a few words of the language. It’s amazing how much friendlier people will be when you put forth that small effort.

There was a time I entertained the idea of being a part of one of the finest of all travel experiences, an eight hundred kilometer (five hundred mile) walking pilgrimage across the width of Spain. A book had been written about it, and it sparked my interest like nothing ever had before. I saved my money, bought a backpack, and began to choose and gather the things which would go in it; but the closer it got, the more trouble it seemed to cause. My daughter was afraid I would be hurt, and neither she nor my husband understood my desire to have this experience. I let them bully me out of going, and have regretted it ever since. It’s true that you regret most the things that get away from you.

I forget sometimes that I am not the only one who has experienced loss and disappointment, and has been changed by it. There have been other missed opportunities, of course, but none that affected me so deeply as this one. Seventeen years later, I still wonder how that walk might have changed me.

One experience which changed me for the braver was karaoke. The name comes from the combination of two Japanese words which together mean “empty orchestra”, although some would tell you it means to make a public spectacle of yourself. Happening primarily in bars, the music to a song plays without vocals, while the words to that song appear on a screen; a color change indicating when the words should be sung. It is done with varied degrees of success by all sorts of people, some of which feel the need for inebriation before picking up the microphone. People usually sing songs with which they have at least a passing familiarity, but not always. There’s a party game called Karaoke Roulette in which songs are chosen at random. I can be terrifying, but it’s also fun.

My offspring discovered karaoke first; for ten years, I watched from the audience as they took the stage, without being brave enough to do so myself. It was only when some friends started their own “show” that I found the courage to sing in public. I get applause, compliments, and even the occasional request; people even try to join me on stage, or coax me to join them. What fun! I’ve become a diva! If there’s a point here, it would be to wonder whether it might have been just as much fun all those years before. If at all possible, try not to delay those experiences which might bring you happiness. If it happens to turn out poorly, at least you didn’t waste all that time wondering how it would be. Better “I did” than “what if?” anytime.

You don’t have to be good at things to enjoy doing them. I’ve tried a number of activities which had very limited success, but were fun to try. I’ve gone ice and roller skating, ridden horses a couple of times, and even tried to learn to ride a motorcycle -twice. I’m not particularly athletic, which explains a lot. I’m much better at most things cerebral. I love to read, and take every opportunity to learn. I have always liked to write, but it took a lot of encouragement for me to do so in a public venue. My words here are an exercise in sharing my thoughts with others. Whether or not they hold any value is up to the reader, but the pleasure in them has already been derived from the writing.

I have long believed that the “big” things in our lives, good and bad, happen for a reason. Whether they bring laughter or tears (or some combination of the two), they were meant to be. My conclusion is that mad, sad, or glad, we should be grateful for them. They have helped to make us who we are today. Take my advice (for what it’s worth), don’t waste even one moment of your life. Always do what makes you happy, and I promise I will do the same.

in Dreadful Anticipation

With Thanksgiving (and my son’s wedding) in the rearview mirror, Christmas is just four weeks away. The stores began to fill up weeks ago with this year’s assortment of ornaments (more than a few of which I have purchased) and holiday movies fill my television screen on late nights and early mornings. Most of them I’ve seen before; they are sappy and seemingly all written from the same script, but they help to jump start the proper mood to face the chaos to come. I love shopping, but hate crowds. I love cooking, but hate the sameness of the feast. I love giving gifts (not so much receiving), but the wrapping there-of is a task usually left until the end, and sometimes forgone altogether.

Snippets of Christmas songs ring through my mind at random moments. All of life is a song, and right now “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” tops the charts. I really can’t help joining in with the singers in my head, not to mention the carolers which frequent my holiday entertainment; even “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” have not escaped my sometimes less than dulcet attempts at holiday cheer. To be honest, all sorts of music are subject to my singing along. Everything is a song lyric waiting to happen, you just have to listen.

Thanksgiving was different this year, with my nuclear family splitting from the remainder of my siblings and their loved ones. The largest reason was a desire to be just us for the first time in three decades. I will admit to a bit of denial/avoidance; it was sad to face the first big holiday without Mom. Christmas will pose the same issue, but I believe we will all face that one together. We exchanged favorite food dishes at the feast just past, but it wasn’t the same; it never truly will be again.

This is the week when I make my first Christmas list. There are about twenty five names on it this year, with the potential for both additions and subtractions. It’s about half the size it was just a few years ago. People come and go from our lives, that’s normal, but it’s never more obvious than at gift giving time. I used to have a tier system for giving, with those on the upper levels being more vital to find just the right gift, and being less subject to price restrictions in accomplishing this. At this point in time, shopping priorities begin with my nuclear family, and end with everyone else. I have discovered that I don’t like doing things just because someone says I should; in fact, I avoid it. This includes exhausting myself buying gifts out of an outdated sense of obligation. I do not speak here of my family, but of others outside of it who seem to think I owe them something just because it is Christmas.

Today I was drafted into playing (free) taxi driver- twice! The first was early, but the second cut the center out of my day, and took me miles out of my way. It landed me near a big box store which I visit maybe twice a year; today became one of those times. I bought a few (totally unnecessary) ornaments, but it was otherwise a wasted trip. I won’t be going back again this year, so there’s that! I truly find the “big box store” frustrating, even at the best of times. It’s not that I’m humbug about Christmas, but it’s hard to maintain a holly jolly holiday while being jostled, hustled, and stuck in traffic.

The more organized I am, the easier it is to handle this time of year. I’ve always been a list maker (a habit I inherited from my father); the “who to buy for” is just the first of many. Others involve gift ideas, food shopping lists (missing an important ingredient is simply not acceptable), and the inevitable “to do” list, written early and updated regularly. To look at this place (the result of unavoidable neglect), you would never know I have any organizational skills at all. I promise you they exist, they’re just a little rusty.

It isn’t the financial part of the holiday that gets to me; I always manage to gift within my means. I dislike giving generic gifts, doing my best to find the perfect gift for each person on my list. Sometimes I succeed spectacularly, other times I am a spectacular failure. I don’t much like not knowing whether or not the gift was successful, becoming emotionally invested in pleasing others, which isn’t always a good thing. It’s hard to buy for people you should know well, but somehow just don’t. The same holds true for those who give me gifts; I’m not an easy person to know.

Last year was my mother’s final Christmas. My father always bought her chocolate covered cherries, a gift my brother continued for the remainder of her life. It was a sad moment when I realized he could stop now. I always bought her dish towels (an “inside” joke); another of “those moments” occurred yesterday when I found the perfect ones, and had to leave them behind. Organizing her linen closet (more than a year ago now) showed me how many of them had gone unused. I wasn’t upset; I’d been buying them for over thirty years, so there were bound to be a few. It’s what she finally did with them that came full circle. She wanted to give gifts, but an attempt at shopping with her had been less than fully successful. She came up with the idea of gifting her unused dish towels to all the females in the family. It was a perfect idea, especially as it was her own.

I’ve shed a lot of tears lately, but they were not all bad ones. Things are never going to be the same. They are changed by Mom’s passing, just as they were changed by the passing of my father and brother. It’s inevitable, I suppose, but it helps to think of it as an opportunity to make things, not just different, but potentially better. Mom loved her traditions, but this is our chance to rediscover a few of our own, or to create a few new ones! Oddly, perhaps, I love the things that make (let!) me cry. Mom used to say that crying is good for you, and she was right. Happy or sad, it is the purest expression of honest emotion. I am sad for what we have all lost, but excited to discover what comes next. I’m hoping for happiness.

Grieving/Not Grieving

What follows is a rant, a free-style stream of conscious discussion of what is going on in my mind right now. For a bit over two years, my life was predictable; this is no longer true. I could excuse myself for the things which went undone at home as being the result of the exhaustion which my routine responsibilities provided. That life is gone, and I am still looking for what comes next.

Until recently, I would have told you that I do two things well: singing and writing. I was once a decent cook, but lack of practice has taken that from me. There’s more than one kind of loss. Last week’s karaoke was less than successful, and I can only hope that this effort will be more so.

The mental and emotional source of this offering is the (fairly recent) death of my mother. It was not unexpected; we’d had years to get accustomed to the idea. Knowing that someone you love is soon to be gone is not easy, but watching them descend into a life which has little to no purpose or joy is harder. Mom still had isolated moments of clarity and flashes of happiness (nothing was better than seeing her sudden smile), but they had grown few and far apart. In the last few months (late May to early September) of her life, it became increasingly obvious that the end was near, or we were about to know what “worse” really meant. The end came too soon, bit the beginning of the end seemed eternal.

Mom had Parkinson’s for many years, but only required ’round -the-clock care for the last (maybe) two-and-a-half , largely coinciding with the Covid-19 pandemic. For that reason, our lives changed less than many others. Our over-lapping “shifts” allowed us to see each other every day. We had some help from hospice for a time after she broke her hip, but they eventually released her, saying she was too healthy to qualify for their program.

Each of Mom’s children (there remained three of us) cared for her in their own way. Being strong-willed and independent, she often became annoyed that we were there at all. My sister did her best to learn all she could in order to maximize the quality of our mother’s life. My brother and I were more “it is what it is”, doing what had to be done, and trying not to think too much about the more private or intrusive things we had to do. We each had our own areas of responsibilities, and we worked together to make it all happen. I give myself no credit, but greatly admire the efforts put forth by my siblings. My sister never stopped trying to make things better, and my brother (despite his occasional impatience) was so tender with her at the end. I wish I had been able to do more for her, but I did my best. I never stopped being willing to do what was necessary, but at the end I was very near being unable.

At this point in time, most of us are familiar with the work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross (and David Kessler) on the Five Stages of Grief. “DABDA”; they are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. They are listed in logical order, but they don’t always happen that way. It is possible to experience none, one, some, or all stages, and in any order. I tend toward immediate acceptance, but it’s complicated.

There have been three deaths in my immediate (birth) family; in order; my father, my younger brother, and now Mom. Each loss brought with it a different sort of grieving. Logic dictates that the degree of grief should echo the importance of the relationship which has been lost, but this doesn’t seem to be true in all cases. When my father died, my mother fell into a denial which never ended. The two years after his passing was our first round-the-clock vigil to keep Mom alive. I’d venture to say that depression was also a large part of her life during those years. Without us there, and especially the grandchildren which gave her a reason to go on living, I honestly think she might have mourned (starved) herself to death.

Perhaps having had a near death experience helps death to look different to me. I know the peace into which my father drifted when it was his time to go, and I had been privileged to be able to share my NDE with my brother when he was diagnosed with cancer; he told me it let him face death without fear. He and I had cried together while assembling the music for our father’s funeral, and I cried for him while composing his eulogy. I think of myself as generally cold-hearted, but there are times when my tears flow freely. A few leaked out while we were making Mom’s funeral arrangements (I was not alone in that), but I have yet to really cry over her passing.

My former daughter-in-law called me yesterday to ask how I am doing; it took me a moment to realize what she was asking. Her mother died several years ago, and she still actively misses her, speaking of her often. Her grief is a daily reminder of her loss. I know that there are no rules, that everyone grieves in their own time and their own way, but how do I tell her, or anyone else, that I don’t feel the same pain.

Mom’s been gone almost eight weeks now. I’ve been back to her house only once, leaving with my chosen task incomplete. Far from being together almost daily, the siblings have connected only once. Before Mom’s passing, I would say that my sister was trying hard to maintain her denial that the end was near (she might argue that point as just wanting more time). My brother had worked his way through anger, and now just seems to want as many things as possible to remain the same.

Now… me. There are moments when I have to remind myself that my mother is gone. I’m frustrated with myself for not being able to finish what needs done, both here and in her home. We promised our mother that we would not “fight over the broom” (a family metaphor), but we can’t spend the rest of our lives pretending things are the same. Taking care of Mom had caused us to become closer as a family, and it makes me sad to see how quickly we seem to be drifting apart. It is what it is, I guess, but I didn’t expect it to happen so fast.

My mother lived a good life. She passed away surrounded by a family who loved her. She was neither ill nor in pain. I was holding her hand when she drew her last breath. It doesn’t get any better than that. No guilt and no regrets. There are no tears as I write this, but perhaps they will come in time.

Grace: End Game

It was to be the Guidestones after all where the game would play itself out. The presence of security cameras made it far from ideal, but while it did draw the occasional visitor, the location (an isolated plot between forest and field) meant innocent bystanders were unlikely. They would first meet in the small town of Elberton, just nine miles away. There, Cedric and Imogene would be reunited. There, they would make their final plans for the destruction of the Commander.

It seemed unlikely that the Commander would be waiting for them in the town. While it was the largest municipality in Elbert County, and its county seat, its population was still only about five thousand. A large group arriving together might draw attention, but there had been plenty of time for the Commander’s most loyal men to drift in a few at a time. Unless he had let his ego override his good sense, they would certainly be outnumbered by his minions.

After ending her telephone conversation with the Tourist, Grace breathed a sigh of relief. She was cautiously optimistic that they would be successful, despite knowing that the odds would be against them. She was acquainted with the skill sets of both the Tourist and the Commander, and while they seemed to off-set one another well, the differences were important. The Commander’s experience in recent years had been primarily in shooting range practice. Even with the field tests designed to measure and hone judgement skills (pop-up targets, etc.) it’s still a one man shoot-out; targets don’t shoot back. The Tourist’s experience, on the other hand, had included several examples of real world conflict, and while he was now retired, he was not one to let his technical skills go lacking.

Imogene had not immediately insisted that the phone be put on speaker, a fact that was not missed by the Tourist. “Are you really okay?” he had asked Grace. With a chuckle, she responded, “Not bad for someone with a bullet hole in her arm. Don’t worry, it’s not my shooting hand, and Imogene took good care of me.” There was a hesitation before he responded, “I’ll be sure to thank her when we get there.”

Upon hearing her name, Imogene’s attention was immediately drawn to the conversation. “What is he saying?” she asked. “Put it on speaker.” The remainder of what was said strictly involved the upcoming rendezvous, as well as the anticipated conflict. The Tourist was very guarded in his speech, which lead Grace to follow suit. Imogene had surprisingly little to add, and Cedric didn’t speak at all. The conversation lasted only moments, with Imogene cutting it short. “I don’t want them to be able to trace us,” she said, but without defining who “they” were.

Grace was not particularly familiar with the area through which they were travelling, but her skills in orientation let her know that they were not heading in the right direction. They were, she realized upon consideration, still headed for Atlanta. Choosing not to tip her hand, she waited to find out if Imogene might reveal her own plans.

Later in the day, Grace mentioned that they might want to stop for food and fuel, naming a location which should have been on their route. It was then that Imogene said, “It’s just a few minutes to our next stop,” revealing that they would be meeting her contact in the alpine village of Helen. “He will be travelling with us from there,” she said, “We have some unfinished business to attend to,” but she refused to discuss what that business might be. “Don’t you worry,” she said, “It won’t interfere with the mission.”

An hour later, they pulled into the Bavarian style village of Helen, GA. Fully decked out for Christmas, it was filled with a surprisingly large number of travelers enjoying the holiday there. The half-timbered buildings looked much as Grace imagined they might in Germany. They parked the SUV and began to stroll through the town, gazing at the extravagant decorations. No one viewing them would have imagined the gun in Imogene’s pocket as they walked arm-in-arm, European style. The cold, as well as the constant pressure of Imogene’s grip, made her arm ache, but at least it kept her alert.

They had been in town about thirty minutes, and were standing near a large decorated tree, when a man dressed in lederhosen, knee stockings, and a Tyrolean hat appeared. Tipping his hat, he spoke to Imogene in German. She responded in kind, and even though Grace only understood a few phrases of what they said, it was obvious that they knew each other well. This, then, was her contact. He was introduced to her as Hans, but she doubted it was his real name. After a few more moments of conversation, still in German, he tipped his hat again and walked away.

They enjoyed a hot meal before returning to their vehicle. Grace insisted that it be searched before getting on their way. On the security system, there was a message from Hans, instructing them on where to go next, in German, of course; it made Imogene smile. Grace didn’t ask, but it worried her to see Imogene so happy. “I thought you said he was coming with us,” she said, but Imogene remained silent, climbing behind the wheel. Grace hurried to the other side . Later, she would wonder what made her stay. Back on the road, they were once again pointed in the right direction. Grace wanted to stay one more night on the road, preferring to arrive in Elberton during daylight hours; Imogene wanted to get there as soon as possible, and she was in the driver’s seat.

After a while, Grace began to unwrap the bandage from her arm, telling Imogene that the wound needed cleaned and re-bandaged. “We don’t want the packing to get stuck,” she said. Imogene insisted that it would wait, but when Grace persisted in her actions, she pulled to the side of the road. “Let me take care of it,” she said, “You’ll hurt yourself.” Grace sat back with a sigh, remembering how many times she had tended to her own wounds. With them stopped, Imogene could think of no logical reason to continue their journey before morning. The moment the sun had crested, however, she was ready to go. Grace made quick use of some nearby bushes, then cleaned herself using some baby wipes she had bought for that purpose. Back in the SUV, they shared breakfast pastries and lukewarm instant tea. It was all Grace could do to swallow any of it.

There was little traffic on the road that early in the morning. Imogene kept her eyes on the road and her thoughts to herself; Grace barely noticed. She was occupied mentally preparing herself for the day to come. It had been several years since she had seen the Tourist; in fact, she had still been a civilian the last time they met. She sincerely hoped this would not be their final meeting. Despite her best efforts, he had been drawn into her troubles. She reminded herself again that his skills were equal to the situation; she wished that she could be as sure of her own. As she wondered how this day would end, she absentmindedly rubbed the bandage on her wounded arm. “Don’t do that!” Imogene scolded, “It will never heal if you don’t leave it alone.” If things go wrong, Grace thought, it won’t get a chance to heal.

At the first sign for Elberton, her stomach began to churn. Was the Commander already there? Would the Tourist be waiting for her? They had agreed to meet in the north end of town; from there they would travel to the Guidestones together. If the Commander was in town, as she expected, he would receive notice of their arrival from his agents watching the security monitors. Of course, there was the possibility that he would already be waiting for them there.

Imogene’s rate of travel slowed as they approached the town. “Are you okay?” Grace asked when she noticed. Imogene answered, “I’m fine,” but her speed didn’t increase. When Imogene’s phone rang, it caused them both to jump. She answered it quickly, “Yes?” and “Soon”, hanging up before Grace could see the number. “It was Hans,” she said in anticipation of the question. The worried look on her face caused Grace to ask, “Is something bothering you?” Again, Imogene denied that anything was wrong.

It occurred to Grace that neither of them knew what vehicle the Tourist would be driving. She tried to calm herself by reasoning that Cedric probably knew her SUV by sight, but it wasn’t much comfort. If she couldn’t trust Imogene (and she couldn’t), how could she put her faith in Cedric. “It will work itself out,” she told herself, but the how still bothered her. God and the Devil are both in the details (assuming you believe in either), and being able to identify and locate both friend and foe were vital details.

Imogene had pulled into a parking spot in front of the local drug store. Grace felt vulnerable there, waiting for someone to find them. She had hoped that the Tourist might be there before her, but the parking lot was empty. Imogene suggested he might have gone to the Guidestones ahead of them, but his instructions had been very specific, and she doubted that he would waver from them… not without an excellent reason.

Her worry was that the Commander would find them first. He had expected them at the Guidestones days earlier, she reasoned, and might have lost patience and come looking for them. Cars came and went as shops opened for business. Imogene was visibly nervous, but refused to allow Grace her weapon. “That’s foolish,” Grace argued, “What if we’re attacked?” Imogene finally passed her weapon to her, but with the clip removed. “You can load it when the shooting starts,” she said. It was clear that the mistrust had become mutual.

After only a few minutes, what had once been a very nice car entered the parking lot; its perfection flawed by a broken tail light and a long, deep scratch on the rear quarter panel on the driver’s side. Grace could barely see through the tinted side windows, but she would have known the Tourist anywhere. The car circled the lot, then pulled out again. Not long after, Imogene also pulled back into the road. She seemed preoccupied, but Grace put it off to the worry about the confrontation to come. For her own part, Grace wondered how she could be sure the Commander would be waiting for them there. Which of her “friends” had sent him the message to come.

It could only have been Imogene, of course; the Tourist would never have left Cedric alone with his phone. If Grace had realized from the beginning… but she hadn’t, and the only thing left to do was live with her mistakes, “or die from them,” she thought. While dreading the potential outcome of the battle, a part of her almost looked forward to it. However it ended, the chase would be over.

The road leading from Elberton to the Guidestones was narrow, sweeping, and lined with dense woods. As they grew more near, the tops of the granite monument could be seen intermittently through the trees. Carved into it, Grace knew, were rules for an “age of reason”, a post-apocalyptic world in which they seemed now to be living. She could see no reason to the world of this past four years, and even less to efforts that had been and were being made to assure a continuation of that madness.

Grace kept her eyes open for the Tourist’s vehicle. To confront the Commander without some sort of strategy seemed foolish, even as she reminded herself that she might even now be riding with the enemy. She had not yet seen him when she first glimpsed the narrow road which lead a short distance to the Guidestones’ parking lot. Without being coaxed, Imogene pulled to the side of the road. “What now?” she asked; Grace didn’t know. Instead, she asked, “What did you tell him about our plans?”

Imogene took a deep breath, then sighed. “I told him that Cedric and I were to be reunited here, and that we would be re-joining his forces. When he said he would be meeting us here to “take care of some pressing business”, I didn’t know what to say.”

“Bullshit!” Grace exclaimed. “You could have stopped this. One word and we might have changed the rendezvous location. Without your tracking devices, they might never have found us. Without Cedric sending me to your rescue, we wouldn’t be in this position at all. Tell me again why I shouldn’t kill you myself?” It was exhaustion speaking, but at that moment Grace meant every word.

The windows of the SUV were rolled up, and she had been speaking in subdued tones to minimize the spread of sound, so she was startled when a small stone bounced off her windshield. Grace had been playing with her gun, and quickly drove the clip home at the sound.

“You sound like a herd of buffalo.” Grace recognized the voice of the Tourist even before he stepped into view. She quickly glanced at Imogene, who had drawn her weapon. “I wouldn’t,” Grace said, “You can’t kill both of us, and the one who lives longest will kill you.” Imogene lowered her gun, but didn’t release it. The Tourist, who stood poised to fire, never changed his stance. “Roll down your window,” he said to Grace, “I’ve brought you a gift.” From behind his back, he pulled a weapon. It was a Smith & Wesson Governor; a hand gun fitted to fire .410 shotgun shells. “For short range use,” he said, “We wouldn’t want to damage the monument. It handles a lot like an agency issue weapon.”

Until this point, Imogene had been silent. “Where’s Cedric?” she suddenly interrupted, her voice angry and accusing. The Tourist looked at her as if noticing her for the first time. “Don’t worry about Cedric,” he said, “You’ll be joining him soon.” There was something about his chosen words which sent a chill down Grace’s spine. He turned his attention back to her and continued, “There’s only one car in the Guidestones’ parking lot. Since it’s the one which tried to drive me off the road yesterday, I’m going to assume the driver is no innocent bystander; a messenger, perhaps?” He turned his gaze toward Imogene, who averted her eyes.

Turning back to Grace, he said, “Come with me; bring all your firepower.” to Imogene he said, “You come, too. I’ll need you to draw the Commander out. On second thought, you will be driving us to the parking lot.”

“Us?” Imogene queried. The Tourist answered flatly, “Us, you and I. Grace, you will be approaching through the trees. Avoid his men if you can, end those you can’t; silently, if possible.” He held his weapon on Imogene as Grace got out of the vehicle and he took her place. “Drive,” he commanded as they watched Grace slip away into the woods.

Imogene drove silently, glancing over at the Tourist, who was still pointing his gun at her. Short minutes later, they were pulling down the narrow road which ended at the Guidestones’ small parking lot. “Not a sound,” he warned as they approached their position. He pulled out a set of binoculars and scanned the area. There were a couple of men casually wandering the monument, and another one reading the plaque a few feet away. The Commander was no where in sight. The Tourist did a slow sweep of the area, finally spotting him just inside the tree line. As he watched, the Commander gave a hand signal to his hidden troops. “Dammit!” he shouted, “They’ve spotted Grace.”

He ordered Imogene out of the vehicle, allowing her to take her gun. “Fight or die,” he said as he moved forward. The troops which had been moving so lazily just moments before were speeding toward the woods.

When he had reached the monument, he was surprised to see a large man step from behind one of the granite slabs, his gun raised and ready to fire. In that moment, they were both startled to hear Imogene call out, “Hans, watch out!” He turned toward the sound; she had begun running toward him. She stopped when she saw what was happening, but it was too late. The Tourist had taken advantage of the momentary distraction to fire his weapon. The shotgun pellets peppered his chest, causing him to stumble back, his gun firing into the air. Imogene ran to his side as the Tourist continued toward the wooded area. Her actions said it all. He turned back one last time to see Imogene pointing her gun in his direction; without hesitation, he fired again.

The sounds of shouting and gunfire erupted from just out of sight beyond the tree line. Both were sporadic, leading the Tourist to believe it was still a game of “cat and mouse”. Holding out hope that Grace remained alive, he continued toward the battle. Quite suddenly he heard, “I’ve got her.” The gunfire ceased, the silence marred by a thrashing sound from inside the trees. Having no place to hide, the Tourist moved away from what he judged by the sounds to be the direct line of sight of those exiting the woods. Almost immediately, he spotted the Commander, pistol in one hand, and his other arm across Grace’s throat. She was doing her best to impede his forward motion, but while there were two other soldiers with him, he refused to release her. Choosing instead to use her as a human shield, he kept her in front of his body. The Commander was searching the area ahead of him. He could see the bodies on the floor of the monument, and soon his gaze would fall upon the Tourist.

Grace saw him first.

She could tell that the Tourist had spotted them, so she went into action. Tipping her head back against the Commander’s chest, she went “dead weight”. Choking a bit from the effort, her action pulled him off balance just enough for her to reach her one remaining weapon, the Sig Sauer strapped to her ankle. Pulling it quickly, she fired at the nearest soldier. The pressure and weight of her drop caused the Commander to release her. The Tourist took his shot, hitting center mass with a projectile designed to do maximum damage.

The one remaining unwounded soldier ran away. By the time the Tourist had reached her side, Grace was getting to her feet. She wrapped her arms around him for a long moment, “Good to see you,” she said, stepping back to give him a good look. “You, too.” he replied, “Are you all right.”

Laughing, she said, “I’m alive.”

They walked together back toward the Guidestones. “You’re bleeding,” he said, noticing her arm. She glanced over, “Yeah, hurts, too. It’s an old wound, days old anyway. There’s a first aid kit in the SUV. Might want to bandage my thigh, too; I’m not so good at dodging bullets.” Grace wept a little to see Imogene lying on the ground, but knowing that there might soon be authorities there left no time to mourn. They drove together to retrieve the Tourist’s car, only then taking the time to deal with Grace’s wounds. The damage to her thigh was superficial. The through-and-through in her arm had begun bleeding again. After applying pressure to stop the flow, the Tourist cut away the bandaging around it. When he removed the packing, a tiny piece of man-made material came with it. “Should I put this back?” he joked before grinding it under his heel. He bound the wound, making sure it wouldn’t bleed again.

“Was that… ?” Grace asked as the chip was being destroyed. “They won’t be needing it any more,” he answered. Before they said their fare-wells, she asked about Cedric.

“I don’t think you’ll ever see him again,” the Tourist answered. “If his information is good, this country is about to have a real war on its hands. Can I count on you to join in the battle?”

Grace smiled. “You have my number,” she said.

Grace: Road Trip

Grace was furious; this was the worst betrayal she could ever have imagined. That Imogene had now told her the truth (had she?) did not mitigate the duplicity with which she had once again been treated. Knowing what she now knew, it seemed inevitable that the Commander would catch up with her, either at the Guidestones, or elsewhere. He was done sending minions, and he wouldn’t give up. If she hoped to survive, she would have to take the battle to him, preferably on her terms.

Without looking at Imogene, she asked, “You’ve had plenty of chances to kill me, I even heard him give the order, so why didn’t you?” She waited for an answer that was a long time coming. “Because that wasn’t the final order,” she finally replied. “You aren’t the only one he’s after. He knows you had help in Florida, and he’s determined to find out who that was, and to destroy him, too.” Realizing that Imogene was still in possession of her weapon, Grace knew the depths of despair. All plans to reunite Cedric and Imogene were gone. The only way to prevent placing the Tourist in danger was to avoid him at all costs, but without his help, she didn’t know how to proceed.

At first opportunity, she pulled off the road. Pointing her .380 at Imogene, she said, “It’s time you came clean.” Making her leave her weapon behind, Grace forced Imogene to get out of the SUV.

The place where she had stopped was a roadside picnic area, beautiful in the summer, but largely unused this time of year; it seemed unlikely that anyone would disturb them there. It held only a pair of concrete picnic tables and a large metal trash can. Grace gestured for Imogene to move, pausing near the rubbish bin. “Take your shoes off,” she demanded, “and your coat.” When Imogene had complied. she added, “Now, throw them away.” She marched her to a seat as far from the can as possible, Imogene wincing with each step. Remembering the old saw, “When you see one bug, a hundred are hiding”, Grace was determined to see them all gone.

“I think you’re still lying to me,” she began. “I think you know why the Commander wants me dead, but that’s not what concerns me now. It’s why I’m not dead that worries me. If I’m the target, why haven’t you killed me already? The conclusion is, I’m not, and I think we know who is. Did you tell him Cedric is alive? Did you make a deal in exchange for your lives? One that involved killing the man that thwarted his plans?

Imogene sat in silence, so Grace ordered her to “Strip! Take off your clothes, all of them!” With the gun in her face, she slowly began to undress. Grace examined each piece of clothing as it was dropped in front of her. When Imogene was bare, she ordered her to lift her breasts and turn slowly in a circle. Grace had found nothing; she shoved the clothing back and said, “Get dressed.” She walked back toward the SUV saying, “I’ll send someone from the next town to get you; I just can’t trust you any more.”

Imogene panicked, “No, please,” she begged, “He has connections everywhere. He’ll have me killed.” Grace sighed, “You’re already dead,” she said, “He can’t let you live, you know too much. I can leave you here to take your chances, or you can tell me where the “bugs” are. All of them this time, or I swear the next bullet that leaves this gun will go between your eyes.” Imogene admitted there had been one in her shoe, and another in the spare tire. She swore these were the last, but Grace didn’t believe her. After a “gentle reminder”, Imogene recalled one hidden inside her phone case. Before moving on, Grace removed the admitted devices. She searched Imogene’s day bag and, after some thought, her own. Imogene’s unsupervised access to her possessions was to risky to ignore. At long last, she was fairly sure her vehicle was “clean”, but she was determined to keep it that way. She decided to purchase a signal blocker in the next town.

The next town of any size was a day and a half’s drive away. Grace first checked the town’s businesses for a place to buy a device which both scanned for and blocked electronic signals. If this was not possible, she would have to make a reservation in a hotel there, and then order one to be delivered there, both using an alias. It was a chance she was willing to take. Imogene’s phone (shut off) and weapon were locked away before they were ready to go.

“I’m really cold,” Imogene declared, shivering. Grace sighed, but relented, retrieving her coat and, after searching it thoroughly, returning it to her. “Merry Christmas,” she said, “You get to live… for now.” It was the last she would say to her for the rest of the day. All attempts by Imogene at conversation were ignored; after a time, she also grew silent.

At the first small community they came to, Grace stopped to fuel her vehicle, and to buy a few supplies for the road, including a case of water, easy road food, and a package of toilet paper. A pile of woolen blankets was displayed near the register; Grace bought two. She had insisted that Imogene come in with her. “Use the restroom while you can,” she said, doing the same. It was a tense few minutes, a nervous Grace wondering if Imogene might turn on her. Reality dictated that she had to ability to do so. “Don’t drop your guard,” she told herself, “She’s probably just biding her time until she gets what she needs.” Grace determined to keep that from her for as long as possible. “It would be so much easier,” she thought, “to just kill them both.” Conscience and memory would not allow that to happen; she held out hope that it could be avoided.

Grace realized that her end game had changed. From rescuing Imogene and reuniting her with Cedric, it had become a quest to destroy the Commander once and for all. She took the opportunity to message the Tourist, “New plan.”

Back on the road, Grace turned directly toward the town where she could purchase her scanner. She didn’t have a plan… yet, but she did have a thought. With the Guidestones off the table, she had no defined destination. She would pick up the scanner, but she was done running. Her plan, as ill formed as it was, was to find a place where she could take a stand.

She knew the Tourist would have secured Cedric someplace, and was waiting for her signal to move him. She wondered what information he might have “convinced” him to share. They had kept their communication to a minimum to avoid tracking or other possible interception. While she knew he could take care of himself, she needed to let him know to be extra vigilant, and why. She’d had her current phone far too long, and would pick up a new one in the next town.

That night they slept in the SUV, dining on sandwiches bought at the gas station. The “facilities” were hidden behind a cluster of young trees. Grace set her auto-alarm and security camera, making sure Imogene was asleep before allowing herself to relax. She couldn’t afford to sleep, but without rest, tomorrow would be miserable.

Tomorrow, she realized, was Christmas.

Stores would be closed, leaving no way to purchase the things she needed. Grace sighed, They would just stay here then; no point in rushing toward nothing. She eventually fell asleep, awakening when Imogene began to stir. Her hand went to her gun, which was still in its place on her lap. Imogene sighed, shifted, and went back to sleep, unaware of the disturbance she had caused.

Grace had been startled fully awake, and was unable to fall asleep again. After a few minutes of trying, she decided to compose a message to the Tourist, to be sent later. She wanted to update him, and to find out what (if any) information he may have gleaned from Cedric. For her own part, she couldn’t decide what to do about Imogene. She couldn’t trust her, that was certain. In her mind, there were only two options: Send her (them) into witness protection if they were useful, or kill them both if they were not. The next few days would tell the tale.

Deep in thought, she almost failed to see the sheriff’s car as he pulled in behind her. As he approached, gun at the ready, she quickly hid her own weapon. Rolling down her window, she heard him say, “I’m sorry, Ma’am. You can’t sleep here.” As he was asking for her papers, Imogene began to stir again. Grace glanced over at her for a second, then back at the officer. Suddenly, she recognized him from the hotel. He was grinning, and his weapon was pointed into the cab of the SUV. She moved quickly, firing her gun from beneath the blanket where it was hidden. The bullet hit the officer in the shoulder, driving him back. His gun went off, hitting the windshield and causing it to crack. Her second shot ended his life, but not before his second shot had pierced her upper arm with a through-and-through which threatened her consciousness.

Imogene reached for the first aid kit, and that was the last Grace knew until she awoke in the passenger seat, Imogene behind the wheel. “Where,” she managed to say, “Where are we going?”

“Atlanta,” Imogene answered, “I have a contact there. You don’t mind if I hold onto your gun for just a little while, do you?” Grace allowed as she had no real option, and thanked Imogene for binding her wound; “Makes us even,” she replied. “That was one of the Commander’s best men. He would have killed me for sure; you, too.” Grace didn’t have to ask how he had found them.

“At what point,” Grace asked quietly, “did you decide to let me live?”

“Who said I did?” Imogene chuckled. “Right now, all I want to do is find Cedric and get out of this business for good.” She sounded sincere enough, Grace thought, but it couldn’t be that simple. Her statement was certainly open to interpretation. Imogene didn’t seem like the “riding into the sunset” type, so was this one final assignment? If so, what was it? Again, her own death (which seemed certain) was not the end game, or it would have already happened.

Deep in her own thoughts, Grace was brought back to the present situation when Imogene said, “There are two numbers on your phone. The first hung up at the sound of my voice; both are now shut off. Who are they?

Her heart plummeted, she was completely alone. With no way to contact the Tourist, she would have to resolve this on her own. “You might as well shoot me now,” she said, “You’ve just broken contact with the one person who could lead us to Cedric.”

Before she could say anything more, her phone rang. Imogene snatched it up and answered it. “Let me talk to Grace,” she heard. “It’s for you,” Imogene said snidely, putting the phone on speaker and laying it on the console between them. “Are you okay?”, the voice was that of the Tourist. Grace answered, “For now, it’s complicated.”

“Let me talk to Cedric,” Imogene interrupted. There was silence on the line, and then they heard Cedric say, “I’m here. I’m fine.” “Now that it has been established that everyone is present,” the Tourist continued, “Let’s get down to business. First, am I speaking with Imogene?” She acknowledged that he was, but before she could ask his name, he said, “Excellent! Imogene, you and I each possess something, or should I say someone, who is… of value to the other. I suggest an exchange, or better still, a collaboration. It seems we also have a common enemy, and ending his… career, would be beneficial to us both, don’t you agree?”

At first, Imogene didn’t answer. After a thoughtful moment, she asked, “How do I know I can trust you?”

The Tourist chuckled, “You don’t, but trust this; if you betray me, Cedric dies. If Grace dies by your hand, you die. If we fail, we may all die, but if we succeed, you will have your freedom. Our best chance at success is together, but my question is whether I can trust you. Don’t bother answering; if I could trust your answer, I wouldn’t need to ask the question.” The connection was broken.

Both women looked straight ahead, not speaking. Finally, Grace ventured, “My friend is a man of his word. He’s made you no promises he can’t keep. I would trust him with my life.” After a moment with no response, she added, “There was a time when I could have said the same thing about you.” This time she waited for Imogene to reply. It came in the form of a question, “And now?” Grace responded, “I want to trust you, but so many things have happened which make that difficult. I expect I’ll live until I lead you to Cedric, assuming the Commander doesn’t catch up with us first. I will never understand why you faked his death, even to the point of taking his weapon. I won’t let you lead him to my friend. I would end my own life first.”

Imogene was staring straight ahead. Grace couldn’t tell if she was shut down, or was simply thinking. When the phone rang once again, she handed it to Grace. “Set up the meeting,” she said, “Tell him we’re in.”

Grace: Guidance

Something felt wrong about the whole situation. Grace was cautious about anything that was too easy, and their escape had gone off without a hitch. Imogene’s explanation was too simple. Even the guards who pursued them; surely one was a good enough shot to have hit at least one of them.

Now that she thought about it, the Commander had been only moments behind Imogene on the steps; could they have spoken while she was getting her bag? He was armed, and could have fired from across the room. That he did not do so begged the question of whether he needed to be sure of his target. Hours spent with him on the firing range was proof enough that this theory was incorrect. So what, then?

Imogene had shot him at close range, but not in the head. Had she really killed him? The blood spot was too clean. It had spread, but there had been no blood splatter. Had there been an exit wound? In their hurry to leave, Grace couldn’t remember checking for a pulse. If the Commander was still alive… she shuddered to think. She might be leading everyone into an ambush, and that she would not do! She would kill Imogene first.

They had been on the highway only a few hours when Grace pulled to the side of the road. “Let me see your bag,” she demanded of Imogene, who seemed startled by the request. “Why?” she asked, “You already know what’s in it.” Grace made a “gimme” hand motion, “Just a hunch,” she said. Imogene handed it over without further discussion.

While keeping an eye on Imogene, she pulled each item from the bag and examined it thoroughly. Finding nothing, she turned her attention to the bag itself. As expected, hidden deep within the seam of a side pocket, she found a tiny tracking device. Cursing herself for having misplaced her signal scanner on her rushed exit from the west coast, she closed it tightly in her clenched fist. Tossing the bag back, she showed the “bug” briefly to Imogene. “Did you know this was here?” she queried. Imogene said “no”, and even looked shocked, but the trust that had begun to build was gone.

A “light bulb moment” caused Grace to reach for the small leather pouch which held her own small Smithfield pistol. “You don’t mind if I search this, do you?” she asked. Imogene shook her head, “Of course not,” she replied. If she was worried, she had good control over her facial expressions. Grace searched her bag and weapon, but other than the pistol needing cleaned, she found nothing. Removing the small gun from the pouch, she dropped the tracking device into it and flung it over the railing into the ravine below. With the gun in her lap, she put her vehicle in gear and pulled back onto the road.

The silence was deafening. Grace paid attention to traffic while Imogene kept her eyes straight ahead. There didn’t seem to be anyone following her, but at the next fuel stop, Grace searched her SUV for other hidden devices. Considering herself fortunate to come up empty. Leaving there, she changed her direction of travel.

“I thought we were headed toward the Guidestones,” Imogene said. “Sure, in time,” Grace replied. “If your friends back at the house have been listening, they’ll be waiting for us there. We’re in no hurry to get there, right?” Imogene agreed that there was no hurry, adding only that she was anxious to see Cedric.

The Virginia countryside through which they now travelled was peaceful. Any conversation between the two travelers was without substance, the sort of “small talk” which might be shared between strangers. “That’s what we’ve become,” Grace thought once again, “Strangers.”

Sundown found them in a cheap motel on the outskirts of a small town. A bar across the way offered bright lights and loud country music; a flashing neon sign declared they had EATS. Too hungry to be picky, Grace insisted they go inside.

It was a typical “dive bar”, with lots of high-tops and a few booths along one wall. It was early enough that they were able to snag one of the booths, which was surprisingly comfortable. The menu was filled with bar food classics, as well as unusual choices. Grace wondered what peanut butter chicken might taste like, but ordered a vegetable fritto misto. Imogene had wings and fries. They both had a single glass of white wine, to be slipped slowly. It was relaxing after such a tense day. The blaring music made conversation difficult, but that made things oddly easier. With the music between them, the silence was somehow less silent, and they enjoyed their meal together. As they waited for their check, a loud argument erupted on the far side of the room.

Imogene attempted to move toward the fray, but Grace pulled her back into her seat. “Are you crazy?” she said just loud enough to be heard, “Stay out of it.” Having learned her lesson in Savannah, Grace knew that the last thing they needed was to end up on the news, or even a police report. It would leave a trail, but maybe that’s what Imogene wanted. They slipped out the back door before the authorities could arrive.

Back in the motel room, Imogene turned on Grace. “How dare you treat me that way?” she said in hushed but angry tones, “Pulling me around, treating me like a miscreant child. What did I do to deserve that?” Grace looked at her in amazement. “What?!” she sputtered, “I was just trying to keep us out of trouble. They’ll kill you, too, you know, those people you’ve been trying to lead to us. They have their orders; with or without the Commander, they will kill us both.”

Imogene didn’t respond, but grabbed her bag and headed toward the bathroom. “I need a shower,” she said, “I feel dirty.” Grace waited until the door was closed to slip out of her shoes and into bed, choosing the side nearest the door and placing her .380 under her pillow. There was only one bed, but it was wide enough for the two of them. Grace clung to her side, and Imogene did the same.

At some point during the night, the alarm on the SUV began to wail. Both women were awakened by the sound. Within seconds, Grace’s shoes were on her feet, and her gun was in her hand. She was at and out the door before Imogene had begun to fully respond. A few other doors opened as Grace began to move toward her vehicle, parked just outside her door. A moment later, she watched in amusement as a fat racoon, looking back over his shoulder in annoyance, ambled across the parking lot. She started laughing in relief as doors began closing; one door, she noticed, styed open a little longer than the others. There were paw prints on the dusty doors and hood of her vehicle. Grace returned to her room and relocked the door. Imogene was still in bed, and was asleep, or pretending to be. Grace went back to bed. Sleep was slow in coming, and fitful. She was tired the next day, but determined to make progress.

The motel breakfast consisted of coffee, juice in sealed cups, and packaged pastries. Grace looked for the man who had lingered in his doorway earlier, but he was nowhere in sight. They ate their sparse repast, then readied themselves to go.

“Will we get to the Georgia Guidestones today?” Imogene asked once they were back on the road. Grace had thoroughly searched her vehicle for anything amiss, and so felt free to speak openly. “I’m not sure we’re going there at all,” she said.

“But…” Imogene began, but went silent when Grace gave her a quick, angry look. They rode in silence until Grace finally said, “There’s a couple of issues I need to work out, and I have to do it alone.” After a few minutes, she added, “It has recently been brought to my attention that the Guidestones are protected by security cameras. If that little spy-cam in your bag told them where we were going, you can be certain that someone will be monitoring those cameras, or may even have sent someone there. I won’t put us in that danger.”

Imogene quietly repeated, “I swear to you, Grace; I didn’t know that “bug” was in the bag.” Grace shrugged, “Les Jeux Sont Faits” she said. Imogene tilted her head, causing Grace to smile. “Just a bit of wisdom from an old friend,” she said. She didn’t mention the Tourist; either that he had Cedric, or the help and advice he had given her. Without him, they would be at the Guidestones by now.

That night they ate drive-thru fast food in another no-name motel. The next morning, they changed directions of travel again.

There didn’t seem to be anyone following them, but Imogene’s nerves were on edge. After some time, Grace asked, “Do we have a problem?” The immediate response was NO, but Grace asked, “Then what has you so jumpy?” Imogene stared straight ahead , saying nothing. She looked as though she was about to cry. “Look,” Grace began, “I’m not sure I can trust you, but… “; her words were interrupted by hearing Imogene way, “You can’t.”

Through tears, she made her confession.

“I lied to you,” she began. “I knew about the “bug” in my bag, but it wasn’t the only one. There was also one in your Dopp kit, hidden in the lining beneath your weapon. I was afraid you would find it, and then I was relieved when you threw it away. I’m sorry, Grace, but he made me do it.” Imogene grew quiet, staring at the hands which lay folded in her lap.

Grace kept her eyes straight ahead, only glancing at Imogene for a split second before asking, “He, Who?” Imogene’s answer nearly brought her world to a standstill. “The Commander,” she said, and after a pause she continued, “Grace, he’s still alive.”

Grace: Just Asking

They got on the Metro at one stop, and got off at the next. Their tattered and filthy appearance caused most of their fellow passengers to avert their eyes, but it would not have the same effect on someone watching a security camera.

They entered the nearest restroom together, where they proceeded to take steps to alter their appearance. There was a change of clothing in Grace’s day bag, likewise in the bag carried by Imogene. Cleaned up and ready, they left the room one at a time. Separately, they entered an agreed-upon Metro car. Sitting near, but not next to each other, they rode in silence to the next stop, where they once again met in the restroom. “Follow my lead,” Grace said as she tucked her hair under a hat, “We’ll try to keep them off our trail.” Several Metro cars and appearance changes later, Grace finally said, “This is it.” Side by side, they entered the hotel room Grace had exited only hours before.

While Imogene was in the shower, Grace sent another message. “Between a rock and a hard spot,” it read, “In need of guidance.” The words had a double meaning. She and the Tourist had spoken of the Georgia Guidestones on several occasions, and she truly needed his advice. The Guidestones were in a remote location, and as such provided an ideal meeting place. She hoped he understood, and would agree to meet there.

Grace also took this opportunity to look through Imogene’s day bag. It held the “usual suspects”, (including cash and easily pawned jewelry), as well as ammunition and various forms of identification. She had just closed the bag when she heard, “Did you find what you were looking for?”

Imogene was standing there, wrapped in a towel, and holding her gun. Grace took it all in, “Pretty much what I expected,” she said, “Not much to show for a lifetime.” Imogene lowered her gun, “I can’t go back,” she said, then laughed. “Kind of hard to explain the mess we left in the basement.” Grace smiled, “Thanks for saving my life back there,” she said. “Ditto,” Imogene replied.

Her own shower was quick. They ordered in pizza, to be picked up in the lobby; Grace, remembering her days in food delivery, tipped generously. They spent the evening catching up and making plans for the near future. While hopeful, Grace was not yet ready to share details of what was to come. Once she was sure Imogene was asleep, she checked her phone for an answering text from the Tourist.

The next morning involved a Metro ride back into the city, followed by an Amtrak ride into Baltimore. After collecting Grace’s SUV from the parking garage, they got on their way. Their supply of ammunition was adequate, but not for long. Imogene needed to replenish her wardrobe. Both would have to wait for a more opportune time.

The ride out of town was made in semi-comfortable silence. Each had questions they would have liked to ask the other, but the words were elusive. How do you ask a personal question of a friend who has become a stranger? Finally, Grace asked, “Were you really being held hostage?” Imogene shifted in her seat to ask, “Why do you ask that?” That was no answer. Grace persisted, “Were you a prisoner, or a participant? You seemed to have a lot of freedom to move around the house.”

After a moment, Imogene said, “It’s complicated.” Grace waited in silence for her to continue. Finally, she said, “Cedric didn’t tell me when he went under cover. After a while, he began to change. He was meeting with people from the “other side”, but he wouldn’t tell me about it. There was another woman; I thought they were having an affair. To fight back, I told him I wanted to join him. On the night he brought me your gun, he made me promise not to kill you, but also to hang on to your weapon. That’s when I kind of figured it out. He had shown your gun to the Commander as proof you were gone, but I don’t think he ever believed it. We always intended to return it to you, but you vanished. It took two years to find you, and by that time he was hot on our trail. He forced me to go back with him, telling Cedric to choose between us.” Here she took a breath, “It wasn’t all his fault, Grace; that monster who rode with him…”

Grace held up her hand; “the in-house freedom?” she asked. An angry look flashed across Imogene’s face. “You do what you have to do,” she said. A tear threatened to fall, but she jerked it away, “but, he’ll never do that again.”

“I’m sorry,” Grace whispered, “I wish…”, but she couldn’t finish. Again, they rode in silence for a time, each deep in their own thoughts. “Why?” she finally asked, “Why did the Commander want me dead?”

Imogene looked over at her, “I asked him that once,” she said, “but he didn’t answer. I guess we’ll never know.”

Grace: to the Rescue

Grace continued to stare across the basement, the past washing over her as she contemplated her next move. The stairwell on the far side of the room lead to a hidden alcove at the back of the small pantry. From there, she would be able to hear much of what was happening in the kitchen and beyond. Her heart raced as she imagined what she might discover there. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, she was still not convinced that things were what they seemed to be. Grace had learned to trust her intuition, and it was telling her to be cautious. “Don’t believe anything you hear,” as the old saying goes, “and only half of what you see.”

She moved carefully across the room, staying close to the perimeter to avoid being seen from the stairwell; someone descending now would have put an end to her plans. Despite her caution, she was nearly caught. When she was only inches from the opening, it suddenly erupted with the sounds of shouting voices and boots pounding down the steps. Grace pressed herself against the wall, her weapons at the ready, but just as suddenly as it had begun, it ended. In apparent response to a shouted order, the bootsteps paused, then began a stomping ascent. Grace released her breath, but then she smiled; this episode felt like dissent in the ranks, a lack of discipline which could work in her favor.

Still, so much activity in the house could create a problem. Hidden at the base of the stairs, she waited a while before deciding to take action. As quietly as possible, and alert for any sound or action from above, she ascended the steps. At the landing, she put her ear to the door, which was concealed on the other side. She could hear angry voices coming from the kitchen. The smell of cooking food seeped past the door jamb, reminding her that she had not eaten in hours, and causing her to be concerned that a growling stomach would give her away; she needn’t have worried.

“Where is she?” one angry voice asked, “Cameras all over the city and you can’t find her.” A second voice answered, “We’ll find her. Our agent thought he saw her on the metro this morning, but she slipped away. If our intel is correct, she’ll come looking for us.” The angry man replied, in a tone gone cold, “She always did think in a straight line.”

Grace suddenly knew the voice; the last time she had heard it, he had been handing her an unmarked dossier. In the years since she had left the Farm, she had never forgotten his duplicity. Because of him, she had ended the life of a good agent, and for that she had never forgiven him, or herself. Some deaths are unavoidable, and some people deserve to die, but that had been murder. Completing his mission had helped to assuage her guilt, but hearing the Commander’s voice again had renewed her anger. “Calm down,” she told herself, “Rash action will get you killed.”

Listening for a few minutes more, she came to the conclusion that there were three, maybe four, guards inside the house, plus the Commander. What to do? They had to sleep sometime, but would others come to take their place? Her question was answered when one anonymous voice said, “I’m going for some sleep, wake me up for my shift.” The comment was met with a grunt, as the sound of chairs scraping across the floor suddenly set her teeth on edge. The room went quiet as the occupants returned to their various duty stations.

Grace leaned her head against the door with a sigh, there had been no mention of Imogene. The view of her silhouette in last night’s window had been cause for worry, and especially so since there was now a prime suspect for the other shadow. The Commander was not one who easily took “no” for an answer.

Resting there for a moment, Grace suddenly heard sounds coming from the dining area, just off the kitchen. “It’s not my fault,” she heard, “What do you expect me to do about it?” The voice belonged to Imogene, but before she had a chance to process that, she heard, “You should have killed her when you had the chance.” The voice was not that of the Commander, as she had expected, but from the man she had come to think of as the Protege.

“My orders,” Imogene replied, “were to let her live.”

The room grew quiet as the sound of steps came near. “I should have killed you both,” she heard the Commander say. “First Cedric fails, and now you can’t find one foolish, half-trained female.” Addressing Imogene, he said, “Cedric is dead; get over it. You had better figure out real quick where your loyalties lie or you’ll be joining him.”

The voices in the room went silent. Grace could hear someone (she assumed Imogene) running water and placing dishes into the sink. She could imagine her friend’s ramrod stiff back, a sure sign she was upset. Finally, Imogene said, “I’ve always followed orders; don’t ask me to like it.”

“I don’t much care what you like,” the Commander replied, “as long as you do as you’re told.” The sounds of walking away were interrupted by his saying, “And to make it quite clear, this time your orders are to shoot to kill.”

Grace didn’t know what to think. Imogene had once said she would kill Cedric if she had orders to do so; how could she expect anything different?

The sound of a scraping chair told her that the Protege had stood up. “This place is a pig sty,” she heard him say. “Make yourself useful, woman; clean it up.” Imogene had always prided herself on keeping a tidy home. The sounds of dishes being washed grew louder, but she made no verbal retort. Imogene’s silence said it all; she had given up. She was grieving, she was angry, and maybe (just maybe) she was afraid.

It wasn’t like Imogene to give in to fear. If Grace was right, and if she could convince Imogene that Cedric was still alive, maybe she could also convince her to turn against her captors. The question now was how to approach her. Imogene was alone in the kitchen, but that might not last for long. Anyone currently in the dining or living rooms would hear should Imogene call out a warning. If only there was a way to get her into the pantry.

There was no time to lose, she had to take a chance. Grace slowly slid open the hidden door, careful to make as little noise as possible. Easing out, she peered into the kitchen to ascertain whether she and Imogene were alone; they were. Still out of sight, she began to softly hum “Du Liegst Mir Im Hertzen”, the song from her dream.

At first Imogene didn’t seem to hear, but then she turned her head a bit in the direction of the pantry. Putting her finger to her lips, Grace let herself be seen. It was a moment of truth; would Imogene scream, shoot, or cooperate? There was an even chance that any of these might happen. Imogene showed an immediate response. Grace was encouraged, but didn’t release her weapons. She stepped back into the shadows and waited.

Without glancing in her direction again, Imogene continued cleaning her kitchen. Grace had just come to the conclusion that they were not alone after all when the Protege called out, “Aren’t you done yet? I have better things to do with my time than babysit some hausfrau.”

“Almost done,” she called out, “I just have to put these things away.” She picked up a few random items and headed toward the pantry. Grace met her with a hug, then shoo-ed her out before slipping back behind the hidden door. Imogene was no mere housewife, and now she knew she was not alone. Moments later, Grace heard her proclaim, “I swear I heard a noise coming from the basement. Could you check it out for me?” Grace hurried to the bottom of the steps, hopeful that she understood her friend’s intent.

Imogene was right behind him. As he reached the final step, she gave him just enough of a push to send him into Grace’s waiting, knife wielding, embrace. They both stumbled back, each grappling for the weapon. The Protege was strong and quick, but Grace was quicker. She slipped under his grabbing arm to plunge her long bladed knife into his armpit. The momentum of his move helped her to push it in almost to the hilt, plunging it deeply into his thoracic cavity and piercing his heart. Pulling it out, she stepped back to watch him die. She looked over at a silent Imogene, wondering for a split second which of them had been meant to be the victim. Grace was covered with blood, and Imogene had a gun in her hand and a smile on her face. “Just in case you failed, ” she said as she pocketed her weapon. Together they hid the body. “He won’t be missed for a few hours,” she said. “Now, how did you get in, and how do we get out?”

They had started by stripping the body of anything of value, including his communications device. Grace worried that the sounds of battle might have penetrated the ground floor, but Imogene assured her that it was well sound-proofed. Still, they listened for a while to determine whether an alarm had been sounded. Once it had been ascertained that they were in the clear, they made their plans for escape.

As soon as she heard Cedric was alive, Imogene demanded that Grace tell her where he was hidden. Still not sure of her friend’s loyalties, Grace refused, saying only that the fewer people who knew , the safer they would all be. It was a point Imogene could not argue, but she seemed to be disgruntled by it all the same. “I’ll take you to him,” Grace promised, but both of them heard the silent “if” that followed. If they survived, if they escaped, if Imogene wasn’t a traitor.

Grace found it suspicious when Imogene said that she needed to go back into the house, but she had insisted that there were things she simply could not leave without. “I’ll by right back,” she said, “and I promise to be careful.” she climbed the stairs and slipped through the door, leaving Grace wondering if she was about to be betrayed.

She hid herself, choosing a position which allowed her a clear view of the stairwell. Time dragged by as she waited, but finally she heard the door whisper back and feet make their careful way down the steps. Imogene was carrying a small go-bag and a Dopp kit. “This is yours,” she said as she casually tossed it to Grace. Inside the small leather pouch was the .380 Springfield ankle gun Cedric had taken from her. “We can go now,” Imogene said.

They had only made it to the storage area when the door at the top of the stairs banged open and the sound of angry voices could be heard across the room. Grace shoved Imogene toward the opening into the tunnel, then turned to fire. There were three men in the basement, including the Commander. She fired at him first. He fired back, his bullet lodging in the drywall behind her. The other two men had taken shelter among the exercise equipment, and were now also firing at her. Grace dodged as she got off another shot.

Round after round was fired as all of them scrambled for cover. A whining buzz was accompanied by a sudden sharp pain as a cartridge clipped her ear. Grace fired the last shot from her .380, then dropped down to retrieve her Sig Sauer from its ankle holster. Getting off two quick shots, she rose to her feet. Lifting her head, she found she was staring into the eyes of the Commander, his gun aimed mere feet away from her head. Before there was time to react, there was a loud report from directly behind her. A round hole appeared center mass of his chest, a slowly spreading redness punctuating the surprised look on his face. “He told me to shoot to kill,” Imogene said. Grace stepped aside as the Commander fell to the ground.

They hardly noticed as the other agents ran for the stairs. Over the communications device, they heard, “The prisoner has escaped, repeat, the prisoner has escaped. She is armed and dangerous. She got the Commander, men, don’t let her get away.”

Grace pulled her face down into an exaggerated frown, “I’m hurt,” she said, “They didn’t even mention me.” Blood was oozing down her ear as she gathered the Commander’s weapon and ammunition, and reloaded her own guns. “Nice .45,” she said, double checking the safety before dropping it into her pocket along with the Dopp kit. It was good to have her Springfield back, but she would check it out thoroughly before using it again.

Sending Imogene into the tunnel ahead of her, Grace pulled the drywall as closed possible behind her. Engulfed in complete darkness, they crawled along the tunnel toward the exit. New clumps of dirt had fallen, making it necessary to occasionally dig themselves through to the other side. Several minutes into the dig, they began to hear sounds behind them. “You go on ahead,” Grace told Imogene, “I’ll catch up.”

Balancing Imogene’s escape with the sounds of the approaching guard, Grace waited for the right moment to fire. When it came, she used the Commander’s .45 to put three bullets into the ceiling of the tunnel behind her. It collapsed, leaving her in a cloud of falling dirt. Unexpectedly, the ceiling directly above her also began to fall. She backed out quickly, shaking clumps of still-falling dirt from her shoulders as she went.

At long last, she felt the relief of Imogene’s hand on her ankle, and was able to turn around. A pale illumination from above them showed the opening into the tobacco barn. The broken ladder lay on its side at their feet. “Let’s see if we can fix this thing up,” Grace said. She laid the poles side by side, leaning them against the wall. Cutting strips of fabric from their clothing, she began to lash the wood together into a sturdy, if narrow, ladder. As they put it in place, Grace asked herself, “Who goes up first?” Imogene could shoot her from below, or close the trap door from above. Ultimately, she just had to have a little faith. “After you,” she said.

Grace held the ladder while Imogene carefully climbed to the top. She, in turn, steadied it while Grace made her ascent. Together they closed the trap door and moved the drying rack back into place. They were trapped together in the tobacco barn; getting out and away safely was the next goal.

Peeking through a wall whose boards had separated from centuries of age and weather, they could see the guards searching around the house; only one was near the barn. The broken lock was missing from the door, and Grace wondered if he might notice. Chatter on the communication device let them know that the inside guards had escaped the tunnel and sounded the alarm. They were truly being hunted.

“If we can get off the property,” Imogene said, “We stand a chance.” The property line was mere yards away, but with that guard nearby, it might as well have been miles. They waited patiently, knowing that any minute he could decide to search the tobacco barn in which they were hiding. Radio silence told them something was up. A glimpse of motion told them they were surrounded.

They turned to each other, “Now!” Imogene said. They burst out of the barn, making a mad dash for the surrounding hedges, and firing as they went. Bullets flew in both directions as they made their broken-field run for freedom. Breaking through the hedge, they could still hear gunfire behind them. Police sirens began to wail as they made their way into the nearest Metro station.

“Now, will you tell me where Cedric is?” Imogene asked as, covered with blood and dirt, they settled into their seats. “I’ll do better than that,” Grace replied. Pulling her phone from her pocket., she selected the number with which she had last made contact. The message she sent read “mission accomplished”.

Grace: Going Forward

Tomorrow is not always what you imagine it will be.

Grace had driven north along the coast until it began to get dark, then stopped at a hotel which had a restaurant attached. Almost too tired even to eat, she chose an isolated booth with a good view of the door, then ordered a simple meal. She had nearly fallen asleep while waiting for it to arrive, but with the first bite found that she was ravenous. She finished her meal quickly, then made her way to her room. After locking herself in, she fell spread-eagled onto the bed. It had been a long day, and her body ached. After a few minutes, she struggled to her feet and headed for the bathroom and a hot shower. Standing under the falling water until it began to grow cold, she washed her hair and scrubbed every part of her body, feeling more relaxed than she had in days. Her gun was on the bedside table next to her as she climbed between the sheets for a much needed sleep.

The morning found her rested, but somewhat disoriented. Grace had no idea which town she was in, and no solid plans for the day beyond contacting the Tourist. She was hopeful he had wrestled the information she needed from Cedric; without it, she was lost.

With some free time before check-out, Grace decided to catch up on the news; she immediately regretted her decision. The television was tuned to a local station; the on-air report about yesterday’s attempted robbery on River Street. “A witness to the event recorded this video of a bystander thwarting the would-be thief.” Behind her on the screen was a clip of herself in action. Her mask obscured most of her face, but anyone familiar with her appearance, and especially her skill set, might suspect it was her. Anyone looking for her might try facial recognition technology to confirm their suspicions. Grace moaned to think that any headway she might have achieved was now probably gone.

She needed the Tourist’s guidance more than ever before, but to contact him now would compromise his safety. That she would not do, but it made her anxious to replace her phone as soon as possible. Before that could happen, she received a message from an unfamiliar number. Her first thought was to ignore it, but while the number was unknown, the area code was not; Grace took a chance and opened it.

“Go home, Cricket,” it read, “Your mother needs you.” Grace was confused, surely this message had been sent to the wrong number; after all, her mother had died many years before. She started to respond to that effect, but a sudden inspired thought caused her to hesitate. When they were training, Cedric had called her Cricket, joking that she was too small to be called “Grasshopper”. Was it possible that this message was from him? No one else, not even Imogene, knew about his pet name for her. She wracked her brain for a way to test the theory. Finally, she wrote, “Why can’t one of you handle it?” The reply was immediate, “I’m tied up at work, and your brother is off on one of his business trips. Was sagst du, Liebchen, can I count on you?” That cinched it for her; she sent back a thumbs-up emoji, then closed her eyes with a sigh. When she had left DC, it was with the expectation of never going back, but fate apparently had a different plan.

Washington DC was less than a day’s drive away. After the usual precautions and preparations, Grace got on the road. It would be a long day with plenty of time to think. The city had once been her home, and she had been happy there. Cedric and Imogene had been family before circumstance had caused it to all “go south”. Years of following orders from her (late) husband had conditioned her to automatically do as she was told. That was, in large part, what had put her on the path to her current situation. The question was, how to get out of it.

She didn’t know what to expect when she arrived “home”, but she knew she had to be prepared for anything. She had her weapons, and as much ammunition as she could reasonably expect to use. The city had cameras everywhere, so she would need to be able to change her appearance easily and often. Public transportation seemed to be the best way to get around, so she decided to lodge in a hotel with nearby Metro access; there were several in and near the city. A familiar small community at the end of one Metro line would allow her to purchase any other items she might need.

Grace kept her eyes on traffic and the rear view mirror as she drove from one state to another, but she seemed to be in the clear. She had taken the most direct route, reasoning that just getting there was a vital part of the battle, and the faster, the better. If “they” knew she was coming for them, she wanted to give them as little time to prepare as was possible. She had decided to secure her SUV in a garage in nearby Baltimore, then take a fast train into Union Station; from there, the Metro would do. She knew the streets of the city well enough to get around, and to stay fairly safe.

The nearer she came to Baltimore, the more she worried about the situation in which she found herself. It had been weeks since the failed assassination attempt, and since Cedric had theoretically been out of contact, what reason would “they” have had to keep Imogene alive? Was there another assignment he wasn’t talking about? Did her life depend on his success in some future mission, or was it all a lie? Was this a trap? Was Imogene already dead? With nothing to do but drive and think, Grace ran every scenario through her head. The bottom line was, she didn’t trust Cedric, but she also didn’t want to take a chance with Imogene’s life. She made good time, pulling into Baltimore just a little before sunset. That she had seen no one following her was not encouraging, as that could easily have meant that they already knew where she was going, and were waiting for her there.

Thirty minutes later saw her vehicle secured in a long-term parking facility; thirty more found her on an Amtrak, headed for Washington DC. She would drop her things off in her reserved hotel room (changing rooms, if possible), then take the next Metro train back into the city, changing cars as necessary to reach her destination. She was headed to the Georgetown area, and the house she had once called home.

A couple of times during her journey across the city, Grace had thought she was being followed, but in both instances it had turned out to be a commuter anxious to avoid waiting for the next train. Near the end of her ride, when multiple stops had caused the car to be nearly empty, a young man in a long trench coat had stood nearer Grace than was absolutely necessary. It made her nervous, causing her to slip her hands into her pockets, one of which held her .380, and the other a long-bladed knife. He watched her furtively, but made no effort to engage in small talk. With only one stop to go, the subway car held only the two of them. Grace moved away from him, stepping nearer the door, and gripping her weapons tightly. “Relax,” she told herself, “You can handle this.” The young man was watching her, but made no movement to close the space between them. He seemed to be nervous, which set Grace on edge. A few short minutes into the ride, he suddenly turned toward her. Without taking a single step, he fixed his gaze on hers and slowly opened his coat. Beneath his obviously expensive garment, he was “commando”, wearing only “jump boots” and a smile. The expression on his face froze as Grace pulled her hands, and her weapons, out of her pockets. “Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” he exclaimed as he quickly closed his coat. His face went pale as he stumbled back into a seat. Grace started laughing in relief as he stuttered, “It was a joke, I swear it was a joke; please don’t kill me.” She managed to bring her face back into a solemn expression and said, “Funny? Not funny.”

The train came to a stop, and the young man bolted out the door before it was fully open. Grace pocketed her weapons before stepping out onto the platform. One of the few people coming into the city at that hour, she lowered her head and hurried along, as if on her way to some menial night job. Even before she was out of Union Station, Grace was aware of being watched. It was not an individual on her trail, but the city’s electronic surveillance system which followed her every step. Moving along a long familiar route, she soon found herself on the edge of the affluent suburb which had come to define her life, and her future.

Cedric and Imogene’s house looked much the same; perhaps faded a bit from time and weather. A casual glance would tell you that it was life as usual behind those brownstone walls, but Grace’s “glance” was far from casual. A pale light filtered through closed curtains on what she remembered was the master bedroom. She used her field glasses to get a better, light enhanced, view. The shadow shapes became defined s armed guards, their silhouettes suggesting the uniformed garb of a paramilitary unit. Grace had seen these uniforms before; she began to search the grounds for the guards she knew would be there. Sure enough, each entry was being watched, and there was a perimeter guard.

So, four guards that she could see outside, and an unknown number inside. Grace didn’t like her odds, but it was more than that. Imogene was a trained officer, more than competent to take care of herself, and then there was the time issue. Black and white turned grey again as she tried to separate the good guys from the bad.

As it became fully dark, Grace was able to stay hidden as she watched the perimeter guard establish their routine. It quickly became predictable; they could easily be taken out one at a time. The door guards never moved far from their positions. Each of them seemed to be wearing a communications device. As she continued to watch, the bedroom window once again drew her attention. Like something out of a bad movie, she watched as the male put his hand to the back of the female’s neck and pull her to him for a rough kiss. After some struggle, the female was able to push him away; taking a step back, she slapped him. In response, he returned the blow, knocking her to the floor.

Grace couldn’t watch any more. She wished there was something she could do to stop what was happening, but it was beyond her control. To go charging in would only have gotten her killed, and that would have helped no one. It was time to go; she slipped silently into the darkness, then made her way back to her hotel room.

At least one question had been answered, Imogene was not part of the plot. Grace would not get much rest this night, but at least she now understood a part of what she would be up against. One step at a time, one breath at a time, the battle was begun; tomorrow would tell the tale.

Grace was up before sunrise the next morning, and on the earliest Metro train headed into the city. The best disguise is one that makes you invisible, and so she looked like just one more commuter on her way to the city for a day of toil. Her hands were free; everything she would need was in the pockets of her jacket. She held onto a pole near the end of the car, and braced herself.

As always, she was struck by the beauty of Union Station, and of the city beyond. How, she wondered, could so much evil co-exist with such splendor?

The air was crisp, the sunshine bright. The total dissonance of her mission here versus the holiday decorations was astounding, and a bit disorienting. Christmas music filled the air as she moved through the city; shoppers made their way toward the holiday market in hopes of finding that one unique gift for someone special. Christmas, Grace realized, was only days away. With no one to buy for it hardly seemed to matter.

She boarded a city bus, which deposited her near her goal. Suddenly, she realized that, despite all her work of the evening before, she had no solid plans. The guards around the house were less obvious in the daylight, but they were still present. There had to be some way to get past them; to get inside.

Grace remembered the “old days”, when a group of underground dissidents would gather here to plot… what? They had worked against the system to affect change, but had any of them actually taken action? Would they, could they, help her? Thinking of them reminded her of Jerome, who had encouraged her to become part of the agency. Where was he, she wondered. She had neither seen nor heard from him in years. Though their mutual plans to work together had never come to fruition, they had spent a great deal of time in conversation. He had lead her to believe that the “spy game” was one of adventure. He had neglected to mention the danger and isolation which came along with it.

While many of their conversations were long since forgotten, one in particular came to mind as she searched the house for an unguarded entrance. She had never taken the time to explore the property, but Jerome had once told her that there was an old tobacco barn to the rear of the house. In its early days, Washington DC had been the epicenter of an active slave trade. An establishment known as the “Yellow House” had jailed enslaved people on their way to be sold in the old south slave markets. It was not unusual for these persons to attempt escape, and while most were captured and returned to the jail, a few were successful in their efforts. There were many pro-slavery people within the city, but the anti-slavery faction was also strong; some went so far as to help the escaping slaves. The original owners of this property had been two such people.

That small building on the back side of the property had housed a secret way into the house. The drying racks obscured a hidden trap door opening onto a tunnel which lead to a “safe room” beneath the house. Cedric’s work-out room now filled that basement. The tunnel was walled up, but it had been done with easily removable drywall. If the two centuries old tunnel had not collapsed, she had her way in, but first she had to make her way past the perimeter guard. The day guard had a less predictable patrol, but they were armed; their “radios” clipped to their belts. Grace noted that their equipment echoed agency issue: coincidence?

What she needed was a distraction, something to draw the guards’ attention while she made her way past them. If she could just contact some of the old crowd. The small cafe where Grace had shared tea and conversation with Jerome was open. She took her usual seat, then used her “phone skills” to gain contact numbers for a few past acquaintances. They seemed surprised to hear she was alive, but were willing to help when they heard it was for Imogene. She hadn’t given them many details, just enough to secure their aid. Grace finished her tea, then walked back toward the house to wait.

True to their word, within the hour a group of noisy women showed up at Imogene’s door, insisting that they were expected, and demanding to be let in. It was their bi-monthly pot luck and poker game, they insisted, and it was Imogene’s turn to play host. The covered casseroles and salad bowls they carried seemed to lend weight to their story. While they harassed, coaxed, and cajoled the guards, Grace slipped around the side of the house. Evading the perimeter guard there, she made her way successfully to the tobacco barn. She had told the ladies to “give up” and leave after a few minutes, and could only hope they would follow instructions.

There was a rusty lock on the door, but it was easily disabled using her lock-picks. She pulled the door open with as little noise as possible, then slipped inside and closed it behind her. Sunlight filtered through the walls, revealing an interior thick with dust and rotting with age; no one had been inside in decades. Orienting herself, Grace began her search for the trap door which opened onto the tunnel. As rumored, it was obscured by the drying racks, long stripped of the valuable commodity for which they had been created.

Grace gingerly descended a fragile wooden ladder into complete darkness; grateful to find solid footing at the bottom. There was no hiding the evidence of her presence in the barn, but removing the now-broken ladder would slow the progress of anyone trying to follow her down the tunnel. She realized that if the tunnel was blocked, she could be trapped there indefinitely.

The walls were damp, the floors rough hewn dirt, the low ceilings festooned with roots which made forward progress slow; it had been the final hope of people fleeing for their freedom, and their lives. As she crawled along, Grace wondered how many had gone before her. By her calculations, a straight line between the tobacco barn and the house should be about thirty yards; a long way in absolute darkness. It was difficult to keep moving through the narrow passage, with only stale air to breath, and the threat of panic rising with each noise or small cave-in which blocked the way. After what seemed an eternity, she came upon what appeared to be a massive avalanche. Dirt was piled high in front of her; there was no going forward, and little possibility of going back. For a moment, Grace remained still, her every effort given to controlling her breathing, and her nerves. When at last she could move again, she began to try to dig herself out. Scooping as much of the loose soil as she was able, she pushed it behind her down the tunnel, not realizing that she had begun to cry. At long last, her hands began to scrape along a solid surface. In her state of emotional turmoil, she failed to immediately realize that this was the wall which she had been seeking.

When the realization came, the relief was immeasurable. She began to feel for any small crevice which might indicate where two pieces of drywall had been joined. Suddenly, the possibility that it had been bricked in on the other side nearly restarted her panic. She slid her hands frantically across the flat surface, at last finding what she needed. Without moving her right hand from the crack, she used her left to lift her knife from her pocket; plunging it into the fissure, she twisted it sharply.

The resulting air was refreshingly cool and clean; only a thin sheet of drywall stood between her and the interior of the house. There was no room to leverage a break-through, but with some effort it could be cut through with the blade. She had just begun her efforts when the sound of voices came quietly through the thin slit in the wall. Grace withdrew the blade and pressed her ear to the incision she had made. She couldn’t tell what they were saying, but she could hear the anger in their voices. When, at last, it became silent again, Grace went to work cutting through the wall. She found herself in a storage area connected to the room in which Cedric had shared so much of his martial arts fighting skills with her. Grace stood there for a moment, staring out at that room. On the opposite side, there were steps leading up to the main floor of the house. What answers might she discover there? Grace was about to find out.

Grace: Moving On

“Running away is no solution,” Grace told herself, “but I need to stay a step ahead if I’m to be any help to anyone.” She was still not fully convinced that Cedric was working for the right people, but it was obvious that the wrong ones were after her. She was enjoying a late sandwich lunch while walking along the rocky shore of St. Augustine Beach. Following an hours long drive, it was a peaceful reprieve from the stress of the day. Other than a couple of fishermen, she was alone on the beach. A long gaze through her field binoculars had convinced her they were “civilians”, allowing her to relax, at least a little.

Grace had apparently been successful in her escape attempt. She had taken back roads to put miles between herself and her pursuers without cameras to track her progress, and so she felt reasonably safe for now. Safe, but not alone. She needed to contact the Tourist to apprise him of the situation, and to find out whether Cedric had been forthcoming with any pertinent information. If there was any chance of rescuing Imogene, he would need to cooperate fully. (If, Grace reminded herself, he was telling the truth. She was willing to risk her life for a friend, but not for a lie.) Perhaps he could even explain why she had become involved at all. Had she somehow become a threat to power? If she suddenly had enemies, who were they and what had she done, or potentially could do, to them?

Watching the ocean waves roll in was peaceful; a cool breeze blowing from across the water gave her a chill, but was soothing to her mind. She wished she could stay there, at least in part because she didn’t know where else to go. As much as she wanted to confront Cedric right now, as much as she needed the Tourist’s advice in handling the situation, she wasn’t free to contact them. The protege had made it clear that her phone was compromised; she would have to deal with it on her own for now.

Grace eventually made her way back to her SUV. Her security system had been left behind in her hurried exit, so she used her phone to access its recording of the past few hours. Being motion activated, it had little to show beyond the normal. She was about to turn it off when a familiar figure entered the scene. The lower part of his face was obscured by his mask, but she was sure she was seeing a sharp line where that mask was partially covering a fresh bandage. Bullet graze or broken glass, it was hard to tell. She’d had only a glimpse before he turned his back to the camera. He wasted no time in unlocking the door, then quickly slipped inside.

She didn’t need a camera to tell her what he would find there. Her lap tray with its list of facts, questions, and conclusions had been left setting on the bed. What he might make of it was unknown, but now he knew how close she was to the answers; she wished that she knew what pieces were still missing from the puzzle. The camera came back on to show him leaving her room. If he had taken anything, it was not visible to the camera lens. His movements had been stealthy, but he’d made no attempt to remove or disable the security system. Did he not realize it was there? Did he not realize she was gone?

A second possibility came to mind; maybe he didn’t care. Maybe he didn’t take something, but left something behind. Maybe it was a listening device. It was disturbing to know that “they” had found her, but reassuring to think she had made her escape relatively unscathed. There were a few days remaining before her rent was due. She would use those days to “see” if anyone else had come to her door. She regretted the loss of her surveillance equipment, but it could, and would, be replaced.

Nightfall found her ensconced in a cheap motel outside of Savannah, GA. “So much for the glamorous life of a spy,” she laughed. The room was sparse, the linens old and worn, but it was clean and the door had a good lock.

She had set her vehicle’s alarm before locking herself in, along with its security camera, the only one she had left. There was little chance anyone had followed her here, but she preferred to err on the side of caution. Both of her pistols, fully loaded, were on the stand next to her bed; within reach, “just in case”. The door was locked and bolted.

Grace did her best to sleep, but her busy mind wouldn’t let it happen. Her primary goal was now to find and rescue Imogene, who had never been anything but good to her (their last encounter not withstanding). Cedric was safe with (but not necessarily from) the Tourist; did he know where she was being held, and by whom? Would he share that information with her? The where, if not the who.

She imagined she knew the “who” at the center of it all. Grace had only seen the men at that meeting for an instant, but she had seen their faces many times on the news. Some were former members of Drumpf’s inner circle, some had hung on until the end. She used her phone to make a list of all the names she could remember. There were others there, too, and she added their names to the list. She considered sending the list to the Tourist for Cedric’s confirmation, but quickly changed her mind for three reasons.

  1. Her phone line might be traced; in fact, that might be how they had found her.
  2. Providing Cedric with a list of names might also be providing him with an easy out. While she was sure he wanted her to succeed in her rescue mission, she was less certain how much danger he was willing to put himself in to see it happen.
  3. “They” knew she had called Cedric, except she hadn’t. She had called the Tourist, and he had called her. She had attempted to call the number from the phone that had been in the box, but it had been disconnected. Could that number, and that phone, have belonged to Cedric? It began to add up, if not yet to make sense. If Cedric’s protege (who was less a protege than a handler) had delivered the phone as he claimed… but that didn’t seem likely. That he knew about it was obvious, but if it was from Cedric, as he now seemed to imply, why didn’t he say so back in those woods? Answer: he didn’t want her to know. The next question was, what else was he hiding?

The situation kept trying to go back to her time in the nation’s capitol. Her only assignment (done under cover and without credentials) had been to “sanction” a courier whose package had contained information detrimental to power. Her actions during that time frame had probably bought her enemies on both sides of the political fence, but it still begged the question, why now? It had always been dangerous to speak truth to power, but particularly so during Drumpf’s administration. That time was nearly past, so why did she feel that the danger would not pass with it?

As a way to reset her mind, and perhaps to “test the water”, Grace had decided to spend the following day wandering the streets of Savannah. After a few hours of hard-fought sleep, she set out to do just that. It was a good city for walking, and she imagined it would be easier to think while strolling its gardens than while fighting traffic going nowhere. After finding a spot in one of the many public parking lots, she set her alarm and security system, then secured all the locks on her SUV. It was cooler here than it had been in Florida, giving her an excuse to wear her favorite jacket… with her .380 in the pocket, and her Sig Sauer strapped to her ankle. Her phone rode in the pocket opposite her gun.

There were less flowers now than in the summer, but the city was still beautiful. Grace headed for the historic district, with its cobblestone streets and antebellum houses. She saw graveyards, solid and stately churches, and even the house where Sherman had stayed for a time while on his “march to the sea”. Even as she recognized the city’s contribution to the nation’s imperfect past, she also learned of the good which had happened here. The First African Baptist Church had been a “safe house” for runaway slaves, and Juliette Gordon Low had started the Girl Scouts here. After seeing her house, Grace had visited “Daisy’s” grave site. “What a remarkable woman,” she thought as she looked down at the simple grave. “Her life changed the lives of so many girls, including mine.” Was it her imagination, or did a gentle energy still linger here?

A chill breeze set her moving again, this time toward River Street. Bordering the Savannah River, it offered food, shopping, and entertainment. The inclined road that lead down to it had been constructed from the ballast stones of trading ships which had once plied the river. “Still do,” Grace thought, “although I doubt their cargo is the same.” She headed for the candy shop to buy the requisite freshly-made praline, and she was about to step up through the doorway when a shout her attention. The “Stop him!” hadn’t been aimed at her, but her training and well learned behaviors kicked into action. The man running toward her was nearly twice her size; he had a gun in one hand and a paper bag in the other. A quick move put her in his path, and an even quicker one put him on the ground, money from the bag drifting on the wind. While others retrieved the errant bills, Grace struggled with the angry man, who had regained his feet, and apparently had no qualms about fighting with a female.

She was punched, kicked, and cursed while people gathered around to watch. She gave as good as she got, resisting the urge to use her guns. His had been lost in the scuffle, and much of her effort had been expended in keeping him away from it. Finally, the authorities arrived and put an end to the fight. For the second time in as many days, she gave a report to the police. Once they were gone, so was the crowd. She assumed the cash had either been taken as evidence, or returned to its rightful owners. She had lost her taste for candy, but on the assumption it would return, she bought a single praline and some salt water taffy.

Thinking fast, she had given an alias to the police officer for his report. Her real name would have triggered the most casual of researchers. Grace wondered for a moment if she would forever be on the run from her own identity.

Ready for the day to be over, she made her way back to her SUV. It had not been touched; even a check of the security system showed that the day had been unremarkable. Grace unlocked the door and climbed inside. On the long walk back to her vehicle, all she had been able to think about was what had just happened. What sort of desperation had caused the man to attempt robbery in full daylight? What had made her involve herself in the incident? Was there no situation in which she could not just walk away? Without thinking, she had stepped into a problem which could have gotten her hurt, or worse. Now that it was over, she was a little shaken; “adrenaline,” she supposed. No one was following her as she made her exit from the city.

She felt that she had once again gotten ahead of her pursuers, albeit temporarily. She would have to work quickly if she was to get to Imogene before they found her again; assuming it wasn’t already too late. It was time for Cedric to provide whatever information he possessed. It had been weeks since his mission had failed, how long could it be before his cover was blown? There was no more time to waste.

Tomorrow, she would buy a new phone. Tomorrow, she would use it to try to contact the Tourist (and Cedric). Tomorrow, she would stop looking back (figuratively speaking) and begin to move forward.