D3: Grace’s Tale, Chapter 13

“Where to?”  The question was innocuous enough, as was the answer, “The airport, please.”  The real question might have been, “Where to after that?”  Grace had no idea where life was about to take her.

The ride wasn’t long, but it was long enough to start Grace thinking about plans for her future.  It occurred to her that, except for the clothing on her back and the contents of her bags, she no longer had any connection to her past.  In fact, she realized, if it were not for her .380 pistol, she would just “turn left” and keep going.  As it was, her best bet was to get a new identity and try to disappear.  She wondered how, and why, Reginald had taken on a new name.  Had he double-crossed someone?  And was that same someone now after her?

Grace had managed to stop Vasily and Anna, but she was under no delusion that her problems were over.  Who ever had sent them would surely send someone else once their failure was known.

She released her driver at one end of the departure area, then walked across the terminal to where her suitcase was located.  After producing all the paperwork which proved it was here, Grace was able to claim her bag.  From there she made her way out of the terminal, stopping first in a restroom where she made use of the handicapped stall to transfer the gold into her rolling suitcase, and her .380 into her coat pocket.  With the original contents of the briefcase back in place, both it and her tote were much lighter.

Outside once again, Grace took advantage of the airport shuttle service to get a ride into the nearest town.  She reasoned that her best bet was to buy a used car there.  She had already checked the bills in the envelope to be certain they were not in sequence, so she was hopeful she could spend them without arousing suspicion.  A personal sale would be best, she thought.

She got off the shuttle bus at its first stop.  In a nearby café, she picked up a newspaper from a machine outside, then went in for a sandwich and a glass of tea.  She sat at a table where she could see the door, then began to peruse the classifieds.  There were several cars in her price range, and Grace was just about to call the first number when she spied a familiar face through the window.  She quickly lifted the paper to her face.

Grace heard the door open, and then the newspaper was pulled away.  “I taught you that maneuver,” Jerome said, “Did you really think you could hide from me?”  Grace didn’t know how to react, or to respond.  “To answer your question,” he continued (had she asked one?), “I’ve been following Vasily since he left D.C.; I figured he’d lead me to you, and that you might need my help.”

“Thanks a lot,” she responded, “Where were you when he had a gun pointed at my head?”  Jerome dropped his head, a sheepish grin on his face.  “Vasily lost me for a minute,” he said.  “By the time I recovered his trail, you had it covered.  I’ve been trailing you since you left your house.”

“Why?” Grace questioned, “Unless you thought someone else was following me, too.”  Jerome didn’t respond.  “Is that person you?” she asked, “Were you sent to make sure the job was done?  Are you a …cleaner?”

Jerome held a finger to his lips, “Shhh,” he whispered.  “Some people think it was you who took that bullet to the brain, and those same people think I took care of Vasily; let’s let them think it.”

It was clear that Jerome had been inside her house.  Grace had one more question for him.  “Would you have saved me?” she asked.  There was only time for a breath before he answered, “I like you, Grace, but no.  You need to be able to save yourself.”  It was an awakening.

After a few minutes of silence, Jerome began, “I have an assignment tomorrow.  I’m going to need a partner, and I was hoping it would be you.”  Grace was surprised.  “Why me?” she asked, “I haven’t been trained for that sort of thing.”

” Your instincts are good,” Jerome said, “You think fast, and you’re not afraid to take action.  It’s what I need.”  Grace agreed to consider it.

Together, they bought a car using her money and his ID.  The name was different than the one with which Grace was familiar.  After they had driven away from the seller, she said, “I want one of those, or maybe more than one.”  Jerome agreed to help her create her new identity.  She wanted to trust him, but to do so without reservation would be foolish.  This would be a learning experience.  Just as she needed to change her name, it was also time to move her money.

“A penny for your thoughts,” Jerome said.  Realizing she had been silent, Grace answered, “I was wondering about this assignment of yours.  What exactly do you need me to do?  I’m a little worried I’ll mess it up for you.”

“Don’t worry about my assignment,” Jerome said, “Just do what I tell you and you’ll be fine.”  Grace waited for him to continue, but was met with silence.  She could only assume that he would tell her when she needed to know.  Suddenly noticing their surroundings, she asked, “Where are we going?”

“Back to D.C.,” he answered.  “We have plenty of time to get there before the party.”  Grace was confused, “Party?” she asked.  Jerome explained, “There’s a big party at the Russian embassy tomorrow night, and we are invited.  Do you own a formal gown? No? We’ll have to find you something; nice enough that you’ll fit in, not so flashy that you’ll stand out.  The last thing we want is for you to be noticed.  No weapons, so you’ll need something you can move in if it becomes necessary.”

Grace turned her head and looked at him sharply.  He continued without pause, “Don’t worry about that for now.  It’s your job to be a wallflower, to walk around listening to bits of conversation and taking pictures of everyone; without being seen, of course.  Don’t worry, I’ll supply the equipment.  It’s easy, you might even have a good time.  Try not to act too lost or abandoned, or some gallant soul is bound to try to rescue you.”

“And where will you be during all this?” Grace asked.  Jerome responded, “Doing my job, hopefully.  I will stay with you for a time to make sure you’re comfortable.  When the time comes, I will touch your back and make my excuses.  When I reappear at your side, it will be time to go.  If I’m gone for more than an hour, don’t come looking for me, just leave.  If you’ve done your job properly, no one will notice your departure.”

It seemed simple enough.  Grace was certain there was more to it than he was telling her; things she didn’t want or need to know.  She asked a few questions that seemed relevant to her part of the assignment, than spent the remainder of the drive in silence, thinking about what she would have to do.

Jerome left her at a hotel near the restaurant where they had met before.  He parked the car in the underground garage, then accompanied her to her room on the third floor.  It was clean and modern.  After making sure it was clear, he left her at the door.  “You get some rest,” he said, “and try not to worry.  I’ll see you bright and early tomorrow.”

“Wait,” she exclaimed, “You’re just going to leave me here?”  She blushed at the implication that she wanted him to stay, but he seemed to understand.  “You’ll be fine,” he said, “And I have work to do.”  He handed her the key card and made his exit.  Alone in her room, Grace realized how exhausting the day had been.  Without even pulling back the covers, she laid down on the bed and fell sound asleep.

An undetermined number of hours later, she was awakened by the sound of her phone ringing.  The number was unfamiliar, so she just let it ring.  Two minutes later, it rang again; this time she answered it.  “Si, Pronto!” she said.  There was the tiniest of hesitations before she heard, “Grace?  Is that you?”  She was relieved to hear Jerome’s voice.  “Are you ready to go?” he asked.  Go?  Grace looked at the clock on the bedside table.  It was nearly noon.  She jumped up quickly, “I’ll need a few minutes,” she said.  She couldn’t believe she had slept so long. “I’ll be waiting by the computers,” he said.

The hotel had a small bank of computers available for use by the guests, and it was there that Grace found Jerome.  He was shopping on line for formal wear.  Without looking up, he asked, “What size do you wear?  This is a local store, and they deliver.”  Between them, they chose a jumpsuit with a pretty bolero jacket.  It would be sent to the hotel and held at the desk until she needed it.  Shoes and a handbag completed the outfit.

The remainder of the afternoon was spent familiarizing Grace with the equipment she would be using that evening.  It was unlike anything she had seen before… outside of the Spy Museum, and certainly nothing she had ever imagined using.  The camera and voice recorder would fit nicely in her new handbag, and resembled items you would expect to find there.  Grace found herself becoming excited about what lie ahead.

The evening came soon enough.  Jerome had left her at the door to the hotel, promising to pick her up with time to spare.  Grace was pleased to see that her packages were waiting for her at the desk.  Gathering them, she stepped into the glass elevator to make the ride up to her room.  Looking out through the clear panels, she caught sight of someone she would never have expected to see so far from the city.  She quickly turned away from the glass, hoping he had not seen her.  What was Cedric doing here?

She made it safely to her room.  Any desire she had entertained to go into the city had vanished entirely.  She locked and secured the door, then searched the room thoroughly for any devices which might have been deposited there during her absence.  The room was clean.  Was Cedric looking for her, she wondered, or had he trailed Jerome to this location?  She couldn’t imagine either was good.

Locked safely in her room, Grace did her best to relax.  She wanted to call Jerome, but didn’t trust her search skills.  To avoid missing any sounds she might need to hear, her time was spent in silence.  She was relieved when the hour came to get ready for the party, and even more so when a text told her Jerome was waiting in the lobby.  “Come on up,” she sent.  When his knock came at the door, she opened it with a gun in her hand.  His eyes grew huge; “Just checking,” she said.

Jerome looked nice in his tuxedo.  “Shall we go?” he asked, offering his arm after she had locked her gun back in its case, and then locked the case in her suitcase,  She took it for a second, whispering in his ear as she pulled the door shut, “My ankle’s packing, just ’til we get there.”  Once they were away from the room, she told him about Cedric.

They arrived in style; Jerome had rented or borrowed an older model sports car for the occasion.  Just as they were arriving at the party, Grace locked her Springfield pistol in the glove compartment, along with its holster.

Jerome had an engraved invitation in his pocket, but once again the name on it was unfamiliar.  “Don’t ask,” he said.  “This is us for the evening.”  Grace made a point of learning their names.  No one looked up when they were announced at the door; everyone seemed engrossed in their own conversations.  True to his word, Jerome stayed by her side, pointing out the features of the room, and telling her which people were of interest.  “I have to go now,” he said after a while, “Don’t forget what I told  you.”  Grace was smiling as he walked away.

She lifted a champagne flute from a passing waiter’s tray; sipping on it slowly, she began to stroll around the room, moving from group to group, listening to conversations and taking photos when she was able.  Her voice recorder was always on.  Grace stayed in the background, moving on when anyone seemed to notice her.  She couldn’t be sure of the quality of her pictures, but she was fairly sure she’s snapped everyone there.

Not certain how much time had passed, she began to look around for Jerome.  Suddenly, a door opened near her and two men stepped into the room.  One was a stranger, the other was the man who had been talking with Cedric on the Mall.  Grace took a photo of them, then moved away.  Whatever their conversation, it had been shared in private.  Conscious of her voice recorder, she made note of their meeting.

“You ready to go?”  The voice, coming from behind her, caused Grace to jump.  Just then the door opened and Cedric walked out.  “Now!” Jerome said, taking her by the shoulders and turning her around.  Grace had just enough time to snap a photo of Cedric before being whisked away.

Safely back in the car, Grace made quick work of returning her Springfield to her ankle.  Jerome pulled away from the embassy, watching to see if they were being tailed.  As they headed for the highway which circled the city, he noticed a black sedan following closely behind them.  “Here we go,” he said, “hold on.”  Pulling into a clear lane, he began to accelerate.  The sedan kept pace with them as they continued to go faster, quickly closing the gap and beginning to pull alongside.  Suddenly, a shot rang out.  Grace pulled her gun from its holster as Jerome maneuvered the speeding car into position for her to fire.  For the next few minutes, she exchanged shots with the passenger in the back seat of the sedan.  She had caught a glimpse of the shooter, and his face was all too familiar.  Grace took careful aim and squeezed the trigger.  The front tire exploded, causing the driver to lose control and the car to roll.  It landed on its roof and burst into flames.

Jerome slowed to a normal speed.  “Are you okay?” he asked.  When Grace assured him that she was fine, he added, “It’s a good thing we have insurance.”  Grace burst into uncontrollable laughter. “Now what?” she asked when her laughter had subsided.

“We turn in our evidence, write our reports, and wait for the next assignment,” he answered.  Grace turned to look at him, “That’s it?” she asked, “We don’t get to know what happened?”  Jerome smiled, “Not in this case,” he answered.

They locked the car up in the hotel parking garage, then took the escalator up to the lobby.  Instead of leaving her there, Jerome saw her to her door. He unlocked it and checked inside before turning to tell her good-night.  “I think you’ll be safe for now,” he said.  “I’ll be back to check on you in the morning.”  Pulling the door closed, Jerome said, “Don’t forget to lock up,” but before it could latch, he pushed it open again.

“Look, Grace,” he began, “I’m glad you were there tonight.  I didn’t know Cedric was going to be there, or I wouldn’t have put you in danger.”  He took a breath before continuing, “No one sent me after you; I overheard Cedric and Vasily plotting… I couldn’t let them kill you the way they killed Caroline.”  Grace dropped her head in sudden grief.

Jerome waited until she looked up to speak, “Grace, it looks like I may be in line for an assignment out of the country soon.  I can’t make promises or commitments, but I’d like you to come with me.”  “I’ll consider it,” she said, but she was smiling.

Alone in her room, Grace started thinking.  She was free.  She had decided to let Jerome’s agency deal with the contents of the briefcase, minus the cash; to just walk away from what she didn’t understand.  There was money enough to take care of her for the rest of her life.  She fell asleep dreaming of what that life might be.

The End?

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D3: Grace’s Tale, Chapter 12

Whatever mischief Reginald had chosen to pursue, Grace was now embroiled in it, too.  The smartest thing she could do was to get as far away from this place, and especially these people, as possible.  That was easier said than done; as both Reginald and Vasily had proven, they would just follow her.  She couldn’t allow that to happen.  Grace came to the disturbing conclusion that there was only one solution to this problem.

From this point forward, she would have to be very careful in her actions.  When she left this house, it had to be for the final time.  A phone call from the airlines told her that her luggage had finally arrived, and retrieving it would be a part of her alibi, should she need one.

Grace placed the contents of the briefcase into her tote bag.  The case would be heavy, but it should be large enough to hold all the gold; the contents of the files must be of great value if they had been secured in its stead.  She decided to question Vasily about them.  She was aware that he would not easily give up the information, and that she could not trust that what he said would be the truth, but it was a place to start.  She steadied her nerves and, carrying the case with her, walked back into the den.  There she found Vasily and Anna once again trying to loosen each other’s bonds.  “Here,” she said, “Let me help you with that.”

Moving them apart, she untied their electrical cords.  No point in ligature marks, she thought as she re-plugged the lamp and put the cord back in its place.  The duct tape and zip straps would hold well enough, especially as she had her gun to help keep them in place.  The last thing she did was to remove the duct tape from their mouths.  She stroked Anna’s cheek as she did so.  It was staged to seem a sign of comfort, but Grace was feeling for any residue which might have been left behind; it was minimal, and there were no marks.  “There,” she said in a soothing voice, “Isn’t that better?”

“Let me tell you, guys,” she said in a conversational tone, “I really can’t figure out what we are all doing here.  I mean, surely you could have emptied the safe without my help, so what did you need me for?  I’m going to ask nicely once, and if I don’t get the answers I need, I’m afraid I’ll have to do it another way.  Now, who wants to talk first?”

Vasily glared at Anna, but remained silent.  She gazed up at Grace; it looked as if she wanted to say something, but was too afraid.  Seeing this, Grace grabbed her hair and pulled back sharply.  “Spill it, sister,” she said, “He can’t help you, but I can.  I can also hurt you.”  To demonstrate in a small way, she viciously twisted Anna’s ears.  Anna yelped, more in surprise than pain.  Grace leaned down to whisper, “You can talk or you can scream.  I’m up for a little rough foreplay to begin with, but I think Vasily might enjoy watching that; we might have to go straight to the real thing.”  Grace twisted Anna’s nipples sharply, causing her to shriek; as predicted, Vasily smiled.  “You see,” Grace said, “He likes seeing you hurt.  Maybe you like it, too.  I guess I’ll have to get a little more… creative.  What do you think, Vasily?” she asked, looking at him, “Shall we have some fun?”  Vasily did not meet her gaze.  Instead, he looked at Anna and said something in Russian; Anna nodded her understanding.  Grace did not speak the language, but knew the tone of a command when she heard it.  “That’s right, Anna, do as you’re told.  He’ll get you out of this, and you can live happily ever after.” She shook her head, “Unfortunately, you’ll have to do it without the money; that’s mine now.”

Grace leaned down to pick up Vasily’s pistol from the floor.  A menacing black 10mm, it made a larger visual impact than her own small weapon, which she than re-holstered.  She pointed it at its owner briefly; then, slipping back into her coat, she dropped his pistol into her pocket.

Her next action was to retrieve the gold from the gun safe; she placed it into the briefcase and set it near the door.  Grace needed a moment to think.  Hurting people did not come easy for her, even though she recognized its necessity if she was to reach her goal.  There was no answer if this didn’t work.  Sighing, she turned back into the room.

Walking up behind Anna, she said, “Let’s try this again.”  She grabbed Anna’s little finger and twisted until she heard it pop; Anna shrieked in pain.  Grace’s stomach rolled over, but Vasily didn’t seem to respond at all.

“Stop, stop!” Anna begged, “I’ll tell you what you want to know.”  Vasily ordered her to be silent, but she was weeping in pain.  “You be silent,” she said, “It isn’t you who is being tortured.”  Vasily scoffed, “You call that torture?  I call it child’s play.”  Anna looked back at Grace and asked, “What is it you want to know?”

Relieved, Grace asked, “Why am I here?  It isn’t robbery, that’s too simple.  You needed me here, in this house; why?”  Anna was silent for a moment.  Just as Grace had begun to think she wasn’t going to answer, she said, “We were ordered to kill you,” she said, “but not just anywhere.  Our… employer wanted it to happen here.  We were also to bring him the briefcase from the gun safe, but he said nothing of the gold; I don’t think he knew it was there.”

“Anna, you say too much,” Vasily said.  Grace looked at him, “Then you tell me,” she said.  “Tell me why you two were in D.C.  Is your employer there?  If they want me dead so badly, why didn’t they do it themselves?”  Vasily was silent.

Grace turned back to Anna, “How about you?” she asked, “Any answers?”  Anna shook her head ‘no’.  Continued questioning brought no further answers.  Grace assumed from what information she had managed to gather that her murder was meant to look as if she had walked in on a burglary, but when Anna had seen her buy the stethoscope, they had decided to let her do the work of getting the gun safe open for them.  Their mistake, Grace thought.

She still didn’t know the significance of the contents of the briefcase; neither the file folders, nor the key that now rested in her pocket.  She also didn’t know who wanted her dead, or why.  After one final effort to get them to talk, Grace knew what she had to do.

When she had picked up Vasily’s gun off the floor, Grace had noticed the brass from her own shot into the ceiling.  She had policed her brass, but now the ceiling had to be “fixed” lest some zealous law officer noticed the hole her shot had left behind.  Anna and Vasily watched as she stood on a chair to dig out the lead, then drop it into her pocket with the spent brass.  They watched as Grace took careful aim with Vasily’s gun and fired into the ceiling.  It was, perhaps, not a perfect shot, but it would hide the old damage.

Anna seemed fearful as Grace methodically made it appear as if the room had been searched.  She didn’t worry about fingerprints (this was her home, after all); she doubted that anyone would even check for them.  Vasily watched without any visible reaction.  “You won’t do it,” he commented snidely, “You haven’t the taste for it.”

“Sorry, babe,” Grace said, “I don’t have any choice.  It’s you or me, and I intend to live.”  She walked behind Anna so she wouldn’t have to see it coming, then pulled Vasily’s gun and fired.  Anna died instantly; blood, brains, and bone fragments spraying onto the gun safe as she slumped forward.  “Damn,” Grace said as she tried to control her churning stomach, “That was messy.”

Vasily’s expression changed; in that instant, Grace thought he actually looked proud of her.  It made her sick; it made it easier to do what she had to do next.  Fighting to hold him still, Grace carefully placed the barrel of Vasily’s pistol against the soft flesh beneath his jaw and pulled the trigger.

Donning disposable cleaning gloves, Grace opened the gun safe and removed the stethoscope.  Wiping it down, she hung it from Anna’s neck before using a pair of scissors to cut her bonds.  She put Anna’s fingerprints on the scope before posing her, being careful that her new position was consistent with the blood splatter.

Vasily was easier; he would not need to be moved.  She cut his bonds, spreading his legs into a natural position, and placing his hands in his lap where they might have fallen when he fired the gun.

Grace stepped back to survey her work.  She was selling a story she needed the law to buy.  After a slight adjustment to Anna’s body, she wiped down the gun and placed it in Vasily’s hand.  With his finger on the trigger, she fired once more into the ceiling.

Using a disposable plastic bag, Grace gathered the used tape and zip straps.  She added to that the remaining duct tape, zip straps, scissors, gloves and the tissues she had used to remove her own fingerprints.  She carried this, along with Reginald’s tool box, out of the room.

Without even a look around, Grace picked up those things she needed to take with her and walked out the back door.  She could hear the sirens in the distance, and knew she had no time to waste.  She slipped through the back yards of empty houses and made her way, unseen, to the park.  On the far side, she hailed a taxi to take her to the airport.

Fingerprints would tell the authorities who they had found.  Vasily’s death would break no hearts, but she hoped Anna would be missed by someone.  Grace found herself with some difficult decisions to make.  She had changed, and there was no turning back from what she had become.  The biggest question was, could she learn to live with it?

D3: Grace’s Tale, Chapter 11

The look on Vasily’s face told Grace he was serious…deadly serious.  The Springfield pistol strapped to her ankle was suddenly heavy in its holster.  It had felt good in her hand, but she had taken no opportunity to fire it.  Would the safety release easily?  How much would it kick when fired?  The distance between them was point blank, and Grace realized that none of the rest mattered since he was certain to fire first.

That she knew the combination to the gun safe would not be much of a deterrent to his attack; it might take longer, but he was sure to be proficient in opening locks of every sort.  She had even provided the tool which would make it easier.

None of this made any sense.  Why was she even here when Vasily could so easily have found and retrieved what he wanted without her help?  Could there be something else, something more?  If he needed her for that something more… Grace began to hope maybe he had a reason to keep her alive, at least for now.

“Search her,” Vasily commanded his companion, “She carries a gun in her coat pocket.”  The woman stripped Grace’s coat from her, running her hands down the sleeves and reaching into the pockets, but finding nothing.  Grace stood very still as she was patted down.  The smirk on the woman’s face as her hands lingered on the more “private” regions made it difficult for Grace to maintain her composure, but despite her discomfort, she remained outwardly calm.  As the woman’s hands slid slowly down her thighs, Vasily barked, “Enough, you’re enjoying that too much.”  The woman reluctantly stepped aside.

Vasily pointed his pistol at Grace and then at the gun safe; “Open it!” he ordered.  The stethoscope still rested against her chest; she lifted the earpieces into place with hands which had begun to tremble.  Running her left hand down the length of the tubing, she once again place the scope against the door of the safe.  She dried her right hand against the leg of her pants, judging the position of the holster, and her odds (slim to none, she thought grimly) of pulling the gun if she had the chance.  She placed her fingers on the dial and began to turn it slowly.

“You don’t really need that ‘scope, now do you?  We both know you’ve already figured out the combination.”  Grace jumped, the ‘scope dropping from her fingers.  The woman had slipped up behind her and whispered loudly in her ear.  She barely heard the words, but the woman’s breath had been hot and sudden on her cheek.  She shook her head slowly before placing the stethoscope back behind her ears.  First spinning the dial hard, she started over.  “That’s a good girl,” she heard clearly as the  woman backed away.

Without looking behind her, Grace carefully worked the combination on the gun safe lock.  She recalled how angry Reginald had been when it was knocked over during their home invasion, and she was curious to know what was inside.  Her nerves tingled as she slowly rotated the dial toward the last number.  Could this be the final moments of her life?  When the number had been reached, Grace gently pulled her fingers away from the dial.  The moment she had done so, the woman eagerly shoved her aside, knocking her to the floor.  She grabbed for the handle; nothing happened.  She looked back at Vasily, “It won’t open,” she said.

“What do you mean, it won’t open?” he shouted.  “You’re just not puling hard enough.  Keep an eye on her,” he commanded.  Vasily moved forward to grab the handle from his compatriot.  He pulled with all his might, but had no more success than she; the door remained solidly shut.  Screaming in anger, he turned to face Grace, “You stupid…” he began… and stopped.  Her pistol aimed at him with a steady hand, Grace commented, “I wonder which kind of ammunition is in this thing.  I’m told the new polymer bullets really do a bang up job at close range, if you don’t mind the pun.”  She smiled, “Now, toss your gun away and have a seat on the floor, both of you.  Make no mistake about it, I will not hesitate to shoot if you give me any trouble.”

Vasily tossed away his gun and slid down the corner of the gun safe and onto the floor; Grace signaled him to move aside.  “Now you,” she said, pointing her pistol at Vasily’s compatriot.  She had begun to sit when Grace commanded, “Your gun!”  When the woman hesitated, Grace said, “Don’t take me for a fool; I said your gun, slowly please, unless you are eager to die.”

One hand in the air as though in supplication, she gingerly brought a .32 double barrel Derringer from behind her back.  Grace’s gun never wavered as the woman took her place on the floor.  “What’s your name?” Grace suddenly asked, “your real one.”

“Anna,” was her reply.  Grace nodded, “Well, Anna, you’re going to do me a favor.  I want you to unplug that lamp and tie Vasily up with the cord.  Do a good job now; if he gets loose, I will shoot you first.”  Anna did as she was told.  When she had finished, Grace used another cord to secure Anna’s hands and feet.  Gun at the ready, she checked Anna’s knot work before stepping away.

What to do now?  Letting them go, ever, was out of the question; it would mean her own death.  For all her bravado, and despite what her life had become, Grace was repelled by the idea of killing in cold blood.

Her attention was drawn back to the gun safe; what could be inside?  Without taking her eyes off the others for more than a moment, Grace moved the dial by just one number, then pulled down on the handle.  The latch released smoothly, and she opened the door.

There were no guns inside.  Instead, she found several quart-sized fabric bags filled with gold coins and jewelry, and a locked briefcase.  Grace smiled; with a three number lock, the combination choices were few.  The first she chose, 357, was the right one.  At first glance, it held several file folders and a large white envelope, which  was filled with more bundles of cash similar to the one she had found in the desk.

Over all, it held a fair amount of monetary value, but it didn’t seem worth this kind of bother and expense to retrieve.  Once again, Grace theorized that there must be something more.  Even at the current high price of gold (and it looked like there must be twenty or thirty pounds of it in that safe), well, she’d just have to figure it out.  The contents of the file folders might prove interesting, but it seemed more likely that anything of importance would be found in an electronic format.  Grace found herself more confused than ever.

Vasily and Anna had been silent while she was examining the contents of the briefcase, but now he spoke, “Stupid woman, you have no idea what you hold in your hands.  Let me go and I will make us both rich.”  Grace looked at him, knowing he couldn’t be trusted.  “No,” she said, “No, I don’t think I will.  You see, ‘rich’ is such a relative term, and there’s more than enough here to last me for the remainder of my lifetime.  Thanks for confirming there’s more, though; you’ve been a great help.”

Beneath the file folders, Grace had found another, smaller envelope containing a set of identification papers (bearing Reginald’s image, but a different name) and a small key.  She slid the key into her pants pocket and the rest back into the case.  “Looks like I have some detective work to do,” she thought.  She re-locked the  briefcase; taking it with her, she picked up her coat and gathered the spilled money from the floor.  She placed it all on the desk, and then, first tossing the stethoscope inside, she closed the gun safe and spun the dial.  The gold would be safe there, and she could come back for it later.

Before leaving the room, Grace checked the bonds on her prisoners, making sure they were still tight.  “Stay here,” she said, “I’ll be right back.”  She left the room just long enough to find Reginald’s tool box and bring it back with her.  She returned to see Vasily and Anna attempting to untie the knots binding each others hands.  Grace fired once into the ceiling above their heads, then pointed the gun in their direction.  “Do I have to separate you two?” she asked.  She waved the pistol to indicate that they should move apart.  When they had done so sufficiently, she reinforced their confinement using both duck tape and zip straps.  “That should do it,” she said.  She stepped back to look at her handy work;  “Any last words?” she asked.  She finished by putting a piece of duck tape across their mouths.  “I don’t want you two plotting against me.”

Grace only went as far as the living room.  She still had no idea what to do, but the contents of the briefcase might give her a place to start.  She laid it out on the coffee table, being sure to remove everything and examine it closely.  The file folders contained papers which were gibberish to her uninformed mind.  She imagined they might be summaries of something larger, but that was currently beyond her understanding.  The key was a puzzle, and the money her first clue.  The paper which bound each bundle was stamped with the name of a local bank.  Could there be, she wondered, a safe deposit box there in Reginald’s ‘new’ name?  She intended to find out.  If it was there, and she could con her way into it, she might finally begin to understand.  “Oh, Reginald,” she thought, “What did you get yourself into?”

D3: Grace’s Tale, Chapter 10

As expected, the gun safe proved to be difficult.  Grace tried every combination she could think of; his birthday and hers, their anniversary, permutations of his social security number, and even the dates of Roald’s election and inauguration, all to no avail.

When the room in which she was working began to darken, she took a break to seek out one of their camping lanterns.   With the room light once again, she continued her quest to unlock the safe.  In the dead silence of the room, she imagined she might be able to hear the tumblers falling.  She first put her ear to the door, and then a water glass.  The latter provided the faintest of sounds, but it was not enough.  She continued to try until her eyes were blurry and her hands had begun to shake.

When at last she took a break from her efforts, Grace realized that she’d had little to eat that day.  She searched the cupboards for anything that could be consumed without benefit of cooking.  She found a partial jar of peanut butter and half a box of stale crackers; promising herself a hot breakfast, she choked it down, then returned to work.

After a while, frustration began to take its toll.  What if she couldn’t get it open?  What if the only thing inside was guns? Or nothing at all.

Some time well after midnight, exhaustion finally claimed her, and Grace fell into a deep sleep.  Nightmares plagued her slumber, jarring her awake just as the sun began to peek through her dirty windows. Panicked, she reached for her phone to check the time.   She was relieved to see that she had only slept a few hours, but even that meant that her time had nearly expired.  With no time left for random guesswork, she decided to try once more to search for clues in Reginald’s desk; experience had taught her that there was no limit to what he might do.

Although she had already looked through it once, this still seemed the logical place to begin.  She checked every inch of the desk top, lifting everything on the surface and looking underneath; she even pulled out the pages of his desk calendar to see if anything had been tucked between them.

The drawers were next.  Grace emptied them one by one, examining each item as it was removed.  She ran her hand to the back of the center drawer, running over the entire surface before shoving it closed.  It could have been her imagination, but the drawer seemed to catch as she pushed it back into place.  She pulled it open again, and this time she ran her hand over the underside.  Her groping fingers found what she had missed before; torn loose by the collision with an edge, a bit of packing tape was now loose.  She eagerly pulled it away from the bottom of the drawer; it brought with it a manila envelope.

Grace pulled the tape from the edges of the envelope and, and with hands that trembled, she tore it open.  A thin bundle of hundred dollar bills fell out; they were wrapped in a note which read, “You gave it your best shot.  Congratulations on getting this far, and thanks for playing.”  She let it fall to the floor and dropped her head into her now empty hands, weeping.  She was so very tired; tired, yes, and frustrated.  She was also angry; if Reginald hadn’t already been dead, she thought, she could have killed him on the spot.

“…your best shot,” she read again; well, she certainly had done that, hadn’t she.  She only wished her gun had been a larger caliber, a .45 maybe, or Reginald’s cherished .44 magnum.  He certainly had been obsessed with his guns.  Suddenly, Grace had an epiphany:  what if the gun safe combination was made up of caliber numbers?  Using her laptop, she soon had a list of numbers from which to choose.  The list was not short, but it was far from infinite.

Before beginning, Grace decided to make the job easier by obtaining a stethoscope with which to more readily hear the movement of the tumblers.  The drug store, she thought, would probably have one for sale.  She called for a  car to take her into town, where she could make her purchase, and also get something to eat.

Before leaving the house, she strapped the holster into place against her right ankle.  It felt strange, but she though she might as well get used to it.

The drive was a short one.  Grace asked the driver to wait, then went inside.  She had decided to forego her hot meal for the present, but she grabbed some snacks on her way to look for the stethoscope.  That quickly found, she headed to the checkout.  In line ahead of her was a familiar face.  “Well, hey Ms. Grace,” she heard.  “I didn’t expect to see you here this morning.”

Startled, Grace responded, “Hello, good morning.  I almost didn’t recognize you without your little boy.  Did you leave him with your parents?”  The woman laughed, “Not my parents; his.”  Grace didn’t understand, so she asked, “Why were you flying with someone else’s child?  Is he your nephew, or maybe…?”

The woman shook her head.  “No,” she explained, “I was standing in line to buy my ticket when I was approached by a man pushing the little boy in a stroller.  We struck up a conversation, and he offered to pay for my ticket if I would care for his child on the flight.  He said that the boy needed to be returned to his mother, and that work obligations made it difficult to leave D.C. right now.  He said he’d been looking for someone like me; now that I think of it, that’s kind of strange, but a lady met us at the airport and took him from me.  She had the right ID, just like the man said she would.  Did I do something wrong?  Is the little boy okay?”

Grace assured her that the child was probably fine, but she wasn’t so sure.  “Did he give you money to pay for the ticket, or actually buy it for you?”

“He bought it,” the woman answered, “both ways.  He even paid me a little for my trouble.”  Grace’s first thought was that she had certainly earned her money.  As the woman paid for her purchases, Grace asked her one last question;  “Can you describe him for me?”  The description sounded an awful lot like Vasily.

Why would he do that, Grace wondered.  If all this was true, he must have followed her to the airport and seen which flight she had taken.  Where had the child come from, and what purpose did he serve?  This was all too much.  Had Vasily also been on her flight?  With a fussy child seated beside her, she had certainly been too distracted to notice anything, or anyone, else.  Grace hurriedly paid for her things and quickly moved toward the waiting car.  “Take me home,” she said.  If Vasily was already in town, her time had expired.

When she arrived home, something didn’t feel right.  She had the driver circle the block, peering into as many yards as they could see from the street, but neither of them spied anything amiss.  “Just my nerves,” Grace thought; she paid the driver, tipping her generously, then let her go.  After checking carefully for traps or signs of entry, she opened her door and went inside.  It was dim with all the curtains pulled, but the task ahead would use her ears, not her eyes.  She walked into Reginald’s office and closed the door behind her.

Grace pulled the stethoscope from the bag and removed it from its packaging.  She put the ear pieces in place, wondering whether she would be able to hear anything over the beating of her heart.  She pressed the scope against the front of the safe, adjusting its position until she imagined she could hear the tumblers moving inside.  She spun the dial twice around to the right, then crawled around once more, easing up to each number that was a caliber designation.  Success!  On only her second try, she heard the solid sound of tumblers falling into place.

She stepped away from the gun safe to steady her nerves.  After just a minute or two, she turned the dial once fully to the left, then began the process again.  This time it would require several attempts before she achieved her goal.  Just one more, she thought.  Her fingers shook as she ever-so-slowly inched the dial back to the right.  Grace was rewarded on her first try by the thunk of the final tumbler falling.

She was just reaching for the handle to pull the door open when the tiniest of sounds alerted her that she was not alone.  Grace grabbed for the dial, spinning it hard and hoping that her action would re-lock the gun safe.  She turned around slowly to see Vasily standing there,  pointing his gun in her direction.

“Now, Grace,” he said, “That wasn’t very nice, now was it?”  From behind him came another familiar voice; “No, not very nice at all.”  Stepping into view, she said, “You see, Darling, I told you she would figure it out for us.”  It was her seat mate, and suddenly she didn’t seem so innocent after all.

D3: Grace’s Tale, Chapter 9

No sooner had Vasily gone than Grace sprang into action.  She waited only until she was certain he had left the house before she grabbed her bags and started packing.  Her tote held her laptop, plus those things she would find most difficult to replace.  She would eventually need a new identity, she thought, but for now she might have to prove the one she had.

Everything else would fit in her rolling suitcase, including the locking case she had purchased to hold her pistol.  She hated the idea of checking it with the airlines, but doubted even her carry permit would be sufficient to do otherwise.  It would need to be declared and examined at check-in, so it would make the ride to the airport in her coat pocket.

With no time to use public transportation, Grace called a car service to take her to Union Station; from there she could take the Metro out to the airport.  Vasily would probably follow her, but she felt relatively safe for the moment; he apparently needed her to locate the money.  Grace took one last look around the place that she had begun to think of as home, then walked out the door.  She wished she could tell Imogene good-by, but she would contact her later if it was safe to do so.  A quick stop at the bank and she was on her way.

The Metro ride was a long one.  As usual, Grace found a seat which put her back against a wall.  She kept an eye on her fellow passengers, but no one approached, or seemed to be watching her.  He’s probably already at the airport, she thought, hoping against hope that he had chosen the wrong one.  It didn’t really matter, though; both had flights going to the airport nearest her home.  If Reginald and Vasily were indeed partners, he would already know her destination; her only hope was to beat him to it.

Whatever money might be found there, she had no intention of sharing it with Vasily; nor did she believe he would settle for his stated amount if he had the opportunity to take more.  Was there more?  Grace wondered how Reginald had come into possession of what Vasily now demanded, but it did explain why his bank account had been larger than expected.  Given the possibilities, she wasn’t sure how she felt about it, but she was in no position to just let it go.  “Only the very rich can afford that kind of morals,” she told herself, “and I doubt many of them got rich without breaking a few rules.”  She knew she was just trying to justify what might come next, but it made accepting it easier.

The ticket agent had looked at her oddly when she paid for her last-minute passage with cash, but check-in went smoothly.  After declaring her pistol (“I need it for protection.”), she placed it and two empty clips in the hard case and locked it.  The case went into her rolling bag, which was also locked.  Her bag was placed on the conveyor belt behind the counter and was sent on its way.  The ammunition was placed in a locking money bag and it went into her carry-on tote.

Waiting in the terminal for her flight to board, Grace felt more vulnerable than she had in some time.  Any of her fellow passengers could be working for, or with, Vasily.  As she peered into each face, she wondered whether she would ever feel safe again.  After what felt like an eternity, her row number was called, and Grace was able to take her place in line.  Clutching her tote closely, she made her was onto the plane and down the aisle to her assigned seat.

She sat down next to the window and lowered the shade; the flight would be short, but she was hoping to get a little rest.  That hope was dispelled when a woman stopped next to her with a toddler in tow.  “My apologies in advance,” she said, “He needs his nap.”  Grace couldn’t help thinking he wasn’t the only one, but she smiled at the mother and said, “I’m sure it will be okay.”

She couldn’t have been more wrong.  The child was fussy, kicking the seat in front of him, and spilling his snacks everywhere.  Grace was thankful when he finally wore himself out, falling asleep with a juice box still clutched in his hand.  Slipping it carefully from his fingers, his mother leaned back and closed her eyes.  With her seat companions quiet, Grace was finally able to try to get some rest, but without the distractions provided by her seat mates, her mind kept her awake with thoughts of what was ahead.

The flight gently touched down at its destination; exhaustion had caused Grace to finally doze off, and she awoke feeling refreshed.  The child seated next to her was soundly asleep, but his mother was stirring.  “I hate to wake him,” she said, “he looks so peaceful.”

Grace offered to help with her bag so she could concentrate on carrying her sleeping child, an offer that was gratefully accepted.  One bag over each shoulder, Grace exited the plane.

Mother and child were met in the terminal by her parents.  Grace waited until they had exchanged greetings to relinquish the bag and move in the direction of the baggage claim.  Luggage was already moving along the carousel when she arrived, but her suitcase was nowhere in sight.  It was intentionally non-descript, but Grace had attached a fob which would identify it only to her.  The same few bags went around and around, but hers did not appear.  Distraught, she finally went to the baggage claim window.  There, she was informed that baggage with declared weapons inside are often delayed.  “Your bag will arrive on the next flight,” she was told, “You might check back in a few hours.”

Grace didn’t have those hours.  Vasily had not directly threatened harm to her or her friends, but he had implied that failure to follow his instructions would result in an “unpleasant situation”.  She had no clue how to prevent that.  “One step at a time,” she told herself. “First, get home.”  She hailed a taxi to take her to the place she never expected to see again.

The lights were off when she got there.  “Of course,” she thought, “The electricity bill would be long overdue.”  She paid the taxi driver, then used her key to get inside.  Even in the dim light, the place looked neglected.  Dust covered every surface, dirty dishes filled the sink, and the rubbish bin overflowed with fast-food wrappers.  The smell made her gag.

Reginald’s office was locked.  If there were any guns left in the house, that’s where they would be.  Would he also hide any “treasure” in there?  Grace thought she knew all of his normal hiding spots, and she would check them all, but this room could not be excluded from the search.

In order to accomplish her search, the room needed to be unlocked.  An old friend came to mind who once had a locksmith business; he might still have a set of master keys.  She called information, letting them connect her to his number.  To her relief, he could come within the hour.

While she waited, Grace threw out the trash, and the dirty dishes along with it.  She opened the windows to let in some fresh air, and found a can of disinfectant to help the process along. Reginald had ripped up the blood stained carpet, leaving behind a cold, concrete floor.  It made Grace very sad to see what her home had become.

A cursory search of Reginald’s usual hiding places had turned up empty; the office was her last place to find anything of value in the house.  The arrival of the locksmith gave her a little hope.  Despite her best efforts at cleaning, Grace couldn’t blame him for wrinkling his nose at the smell.  He went right to work, having no trouble unlocking the office door.  When it was open, he noticed the gun safe standing there.  “Nice,” he said, “If you ever decide to sell it…. ”  Grace chuckled, “You’ll be the first one I call,” she said, “but first I need to get it open.  The airlines lost my pistol, and I’m hoping to find a replacement inside.”

“I can’t help you with the safe,” he said.  “Without the combination, it would take forever to get it open; but I may be able to help you to replace your gun.”  When Grace expressed interest, he continued, “I have a little side job where I clear out abandoned houses for the bank.  They pay me some, and I get to keep whatever I find.  Last week, I found a little Springfield pistol.  I was going to keep it for myself, but if we can come to terms, I’ll sell it to you.  It’s in my truck if you want to see it.”

Grace did; while he went outside to get it, she used her laptop to find the going price.  She’d have to know the exact model, of course, but it gave her an idea of what it might be worth.  When he came back with it, she was ready for him.

She’d never seen anything quite like it.  Small and light, it came encased in an odd-looking contraption that she was told, when she asked, was an ankle holster.  She had to be shown how to use it, and wondered whether she could ever get used to the weight and feel of it.  She was pleased to see that it was her preferred caliber, which meant she already had ammunition for it.

He asked too much, she offered too little; in the end, they came together on a price that pleased them both.  The gun was already loaded, so Grace made sure the safety was engaged, then slipped it into her pocket.  “Be careful where you aim that,” he said, “Those bullets pack an extra punch.  You could fit a softball in the exit wound.”

“Good to know,” Grace said.  She hoped she would never have to use it.  Their conversation was abruptly interrupted by a sudden, sharp rapping on the door, causing her to jump.  “Police,” she heard from outside.  She hurried to open the door, “Can I help you, officer?” she asked.  Recognizing her, he quickly apologized for the intrusion.  “I didn’t know you were home,” he said.  “The place has been empty for a while; we thought it had been abandoned.”

“I understand,” Grace replied.  “After what happened, we just couldn’t live here any more, I doubt anyone else could either.  I’ve come back to clean out the things we wanted to keep, then I expect the city will claim it and tear it down.”

“Where’s your husband?” the officer asked, “He didn’t come with you?”  Grace calmly answered, “He’s in the woods somewhere, I expect. We’ve been visiting some friends up north while we figure out where to go next.  They love to hunt, and you know how Reginald feels about his guns.”  They both nodded.

Once they had gone, Grace, searched the office.  It would be dark in a few hours; with no heat or lights, the night would be miserable.  When all other possibilities had been exhausted, Grace faced the gun safe with dread.  There were thousands of combinations; this was going to be a long night.

D3: Grace’s Tale, Chapter 8

Grace had learned to admire Imogene; if she was bothered by Cedric’s recent activities, you could not tell it in her behavior.  Of course, she reminded herself, they could be in it together.  If so, her own knowledge put her in danger.

For her own part, Grace kept her laundry done, and her weapon close at hand.  She had located a fairly local gun range, and even invited Imogene along when she went to practice her target shooting. She had also returned to regular martial arts lessons when Cedric was available, and practice when he was not.  The last thing she could afford was to become complacent.

She had finally spent some of her money replacing her computer with a light weight laptop.  She set up an e-mail account, but the computer was used primarily as a quick source of news and information.  She did worry that it might give someone a way to find her, but so far no one had a reason to look.  It fit nicely into her tote bag.  It was password protected, and she was careful to sign out of any activities before closing it.  It was cold comfort, in a house full of hackers, that this stopped only casual curiosity.  It was a trade-off with which she could live, she hoped.

People came and went in the days and weeks that passed.  Grace became anxious to go, but there had been no word from Jerome.  “At least I haven’t heard from him,” she thought.  He had contacted Imogene at least once before without her knowledge.  It was not her business unless it directly concerned her, but did it?  She had not been sent on any more tasks (she hesitated to call them missions) since the first, and wondered if she had messed it up somehow.

If Cedric knew he had been seen, it was not evident in his interactions with her.  Grace wondered whether being seen had been intentional on his part.  If so, was she being tested, or perhaps even trained?  The question didn’t bring back her trust, but it did spark her curiosity.

Imogene had been spending more time than usual away from home.  This also made Grace curious.  She took up the slack at home, but knew better than to ask questions.  Imogene remained silent about her activities; if she shared them with Cedric, it was behind the locked door of their bedroom.

When both Cedric and Imogene were out of the house, Grace was free to do as she pleased.  She took stock of the house (some of the doors were locked), but soon grew bored with it.  She often took a bus into the city and just wandered the streets, finding some of the lesser known monuments.  Senate bean soup in the Capitol building cafeteria became her favorite lunch, and she never tired of people watching and trying to tell the locals from the tourists.  “It’s not so hard,” she thought, and realized that she felt like neither one or the other.  The thought occurred that maybe it was time to find a place of her own.  Excited by the idea, Grace hurried back to the house to check out the local real estate listings on line.

Upon arrival, she found that Imogene’s brown sedan was parked in its usual spot behind the house.  Curious but unworried, she approached the door.  As she grew near, Grace could see through the curtains that shielded the back door window; Imogene was not alone.  A strange man seemed to have made himself at home in her kitchen.  As Imogene started to turn away from him, he tried to slip his arms around her.  She laughed and pushed him away.  Grace hesitated to interrupt, but that laughter had sounded forced.

As she began to reach for the door knob, Grace felt a strong arm around her waist and a hand across her mouth.  she twisted around to find herself looking at Jerome.  He released her mouth to quickly put a finger to his own lips.  “Shhh,” he whispered.  His arm still around her waist, he guided her away from the door.  “Who is that?” Grace asked when they were far enough away, “Is Imogene in danger?  Shouldn’t we be helping her?”

“She’s can handle him,” Jerome responded, “Come with me; I’ll tell you all about it.”  They walked together to a nearby coffee shop where he chose a table in the corner with a good view of the door.  Once their order had been delivered, Grace faced Jerome and asked, “So, who was that man with Imogene?”  He took a sip of his drink before answering, as though deciding how much to tell her.  Finally he said, “He’s known as Vasily.  He and Imogene… worked closely together in her old days, and they’ve managed to maintain a… cordial relationship.”

“Can he be trusted?” Grace asked; Jerome almost choked.  “About as much as any of them,” he answered when he could breathe again.  Instantly regaining his composure, he continued, “He helps us out sometimes, sometimes not.  If we’re fortunate, he verifies what we already know.”

Grace set down her empty glass, “I think we should go back,” she said; Jerome agreed.  They paid the ticket, then strolled back toward the house.  They hung back when they saw the back door open and Vasily step outside.  Imogene followed him out, still talking.  Suddenly, he grabbed her shoulders and roughly kissed her; letting her go, he walked away laughing.

As soon as he was out of sight, Grace rushed to Imogene’s side; she was shaking with anger.  Seeing Grace approaching, she said, “That man is an ASS!  I swear, if he was any less reliable…”  Jerome had initially followed Vasily around the corner, but he returned to say, “I can take care of him if you want.”  Imogene released a wry chuckle, “No need,” she said, “but thanks.  He didn’t hurt me, he just has the ability to make me so angry.  No one ever said this life came without a price.”  Grace nodded her agreement, and Jerome pulled Imogene to him for a welcome hug.  The three of them went inside where they spent the afternoon together.  No word was spoken about Grace’s plan to move, but she would think of it again when she was alone.

None of them mentioned Vasily, his visit, or the reason for it, so Grace was surprised the next morning when Cedric brought up his name.  “He came to see me last night, just as my shift was ending.  Thank goodness he waited until all the buses had pulled away.  I’m not sure what he wanted; he seemed to need some information from me, but he bolted when one of the guards came around the corner of the building.”  That behavior didn’t gibe with the cocky man Grace had seen the day before.  She wondered if she was observing a ploy, what it might involve, and who was at the root of it.

Grace spent the morning in her room checking real estate listings on her computer.  More than ever, she felt that her time in this house was coming to an end.  Local prices were high, but she was willing to expand her search.  Her concentration was such that she didn’t hear the back door opening.  She didn’t hear the quiet footsteps as they crossed the kitchen and continued down the hall.  The click of the latch as the doorknob was being carefully turned was her first indication that she was not alone.  She had been sitting cross-legged on the bed with her computer on her lap, but she quickly came to her feet, retrieving her .380 from the top drawer of the nightstand.  She turned back around to see Vasily standing in her doorway.

“I had heard Imogene had a new protégé,” he said.  “It’s good to meet you, Grace.”

“Come now. my dear,” he said upon seeing the gun in her hand, “don’t do anything rash; I only wanted to speak with you.”  Grace tightened her grip on the pistol in her hand.  Vasily was also holding a gun, and he could easily kill her where she stood.  “I’m listening,” she said.

“Your husband and I are old acquaintances,” he said.  “I was hoping you would help me to get back in touch with him.  You see, he and I have some unfinished business to which we must attend.”  Grace held up her free hand, “Please don’t say anything else,” she said.  “I don’t know anything about your business, and I don’t want to know.  My husband is out of my life; I have no idea where he is right now, nor do I care.”  This was the truth, and she looked him in the eye when she told it.  “Well, that’s a real shame,” Vasily said, “because I am afraid my business must now be with you.”

Grace drew in her breath and released it slowly, relaxing her mind and body as she had been taught.  “What is it that you need from me?” she asked; she was inwardly shaking but outwardly calm.  Vasily’s answering smile sent chills down her spine; “A quarter of a million should do it,” he replied.  Grace didn’t know what to say; she didn’t have that kind of money, nor had Reginald to her knowledge.  “I’ll give you twenty-four hours to retrieve it,” he continued, “but remember, I’ll be watching your every move.”

After he had gone, Grace collapsed onto her bed. “Retrieve?”  Had she heard him right?  Maybe the time had come for her to return home.

D3: Grace’s Tale, Chapter 7

Grace was in a state of panic; she didn’t know what to do or who she could trust.  She realized belatedly that Jerome had given her no instructions regarding the disposition of the message hidden within the pages of her book.  She had no way to contact him, and no idea when (or if) he might contact her.

She no longer felt safe in this house, but she didn’t dare leave while the note remained in her possession.  She knew that any change in her behavior might trigger suspicion, so the first thing she needed to do was gain control of her nerves.  By the time Imogene arrived home, she had managed to calm down, and was even beginning to formulate a plan.

Emerging from her room, she found Imogene working at her desk.  Hearing her enter the room, Imogene turned to face her.  “How was your morning,” she asked.  Grace feigned a yawn, “Tiring,” she answered, “I came home early to take a nap.”  Imogene nodded, then went back to work.  “Anything I can do to help?”  Grace asked, but Imogene just shook her head ‘no’.

With nothing better to do, Grace settled in front of the television.  The screen was filled with Roald Drumpf’s latest stunt.  In a rambling speech made from the White House rose garden, he had declared a national emergency to fund building his wall.  “Idiot!”, Grace mumbled under her breath.

When Cedric arrived home (at his normal time), he was wearing his uniform and was in a cheerful mood.  He kissed Imogene and gave Grace a hug, which made her mildly uncomfortable. It was a quiet evening with just the three of them in attendance.  Grace had hoped Jerome might visit, but she had already learned that this was a waiting game.  Conversation touched briefly on Drumpf’s speech, but it was evident that none of them were in the mood for “shop talk”.

It’s just as well, Grace thought later; she wasn’t sure she could have kept a straight face.  She had secured the note on her body throughout the evening.  The book had been left in her room, but place in a very specific position.  She couldn’t tell whether it had been moved, but that only made her more paranoid.  “It’s an old gambit,” she thought, “and not likely to fool anyone here.”

Grace did not sleep well that night.  Every small noise caused her to awaken with a start.  Each time, she held her breath until the sound had been identified.  After several restless hours, the house quieted and she was finally able to get some rest.

She woke up to the sound of laughter coming from the dining room.  Imogene and Cedric were enjoying breakfast and each other’s company.  They invited Grace to join them, but she opted for a cup of coffee, which she took back to her room.  They made no attempt to stop her.  She spent the rest of the morning making sure her few possessions were ready for a rapid exodus.

Jerome made no contact that day, or the next.  Grace was beginning to worry; what if something had happened to him, something… final?  She hadn’t opened the note, but she kept it on her at all times.  The resulting behavior was that she was more quiet than usual.  Imogene noticed her reticence and asked, “Are you okay?  Have I done something wrong?”  Grace shook her head, “No,” she said, “I’m just trying not to wear out my welcome.”  Imogene assured her that she had not.  She suggested that Grace join her the next time she went into the city.  There was no way to tactfully refuse, so plans were made for an excursion the following morning.

Not long after Cedric had said goodbye and turned toward the cemetery, they gathered their things and headed out.  Away from the house, their conversation was once again free and easy.  Grace asked Imogene how well she had known her friend, Caroline, and whether she had any idea where she might be now.  To her surprise, Imogene opened up about the time they shared.  “She really was something,” she said with a wistfulness in her voice.  Grace caught her breath, “Was?” she asked.

Imogene shook her head, clearing her mind.  “Is,” she said, “At least she was the last time I saw her.  Her next guide was headed points west, I think.  We aren’t allowed to know too much.”  Grace nodded, satisfied with her answer.

Their morning was productive, and they enjoyed each other’s company.  After completing their short list of errands, Imogene suggested they might enjoy some lunch before returning to the house.  “I know a place,” she said, “Good food and not too expensive.  We can park the car and take the Metro; the restaurant is just across from a stop, about twenty minutes ride from Union Station.”  Being in no rush to return to the house, Grace agreed.

After securing their purchases in the trunk of the car, they left it, locked and alarmed, in a secure parking garage not far from their destination.  Once inside Union Station, they moved quickly toward the platforms.  Their Metro train arrived almost immediately; they boarded the car and took a seat at the far end, backs to the wall.  Riding in comfortable silence, they watched as passengers moved on and off the train.  At one point, Grace was startled to see someone familiar.  To keep from being recognized, she picked up a small newspaper and covered her face.  Left behind by a someone during their morning commute, it reported activities of interest throughout the city, as well as local news stories.  Imogene pulled the paper away from her, staring at an article on the back page.

Near the bottom of the page were two small photographs.  The article below them read, “… the bodies were discovered among the rubble of a newly reopened construction site near the Potomac River.  The couple were the apparent victims of a murder-suicide.  They were both employed by the Internal Revenue Service, where it had been rumored they were attempting to hack into the President’s tax return files.  Whether they had discovered anything has yet to be determined.”  Neither Imogene or Grace had any doubt of the couple’s identities.  “At least they tried,” Imogene said.  Grace carefully tore the article out of the paper, folded it, and placed it in her pocket; the remainder she would discard at their stop.  She wasn’t sure why, but she didn’t want to forget them.

“I hope you like escalators,” Imogene remarked when they were nearing their stop.  When the subway came to a halt, Grace understood why.  Ahead of them was one of the highest and steepest escalators she had ever seen.  “Up we go,” Imogene said, “Lunch awaits.”  Her mood seemed to have lifted during the remainder of their ride.

The moment they stepped onto the moving stairway, her mood shifted again.  “I really hat these things,” she said.  “I feel so exposed, and there’s no place to go if the shooting starts.”  Grace wondered what sort of life Imogene had lead that this would even be a consideration.

A set of stairs and a short walk separated them from their destination, a quaint German pub.  They took their seats at a rustic picnic-type table and had soon ordered a meal which promised to be authentic.  Once she had ordered, Imogene excused herself.

She was away from the table when Grace heard the door open behind her.  She turned quickly to see Jerome standing there.  She didn’t know whether to be excited or scared.  “Hello, Grace,” he said, “Do you mind if I join you?”  She pointed to the bench, “Help yourself,” she said.

“Did you miss me?” he asked, sitting down beside her.  He grinned, which made her grimace.  “I wondered where you were,” she answered, “if that counts.”

“I’ve been… away,” he replied.  “It’s best if I stay out of the city for now, which is why I asked Imogene to bring you here.”

The arrival of their good coincided with Imogene’s return to the table.  Jerome ordered a beverage and an extra plate; there was plenty of food for the three of them to share.  Imogene did not ask about his recent activities, and so Grace followed suit.  She had her own news to impart, but wasn’t sure whether that might best be shared in private.

Although it seemed much longer, it had only been a few days since they had seen each other.  Each day seemed important now, Grace thought, when it could be the last.  The talk had been casual during the meal, but that thought had her reaching into her pocket for the newspaper clipping.  “Did you know about this?” she asked.  When Jerome answered in the affirmative, she asked, “How could this have happened?”

Jerome answered, “We’re not sure; it wasn’t me, if that’s what you’re asking.”  Grace blushed before responding, “I… I didn’t think it was. You know, that could have been any of us in that site.”  A look passed between Jerome and Imogene, but they said nothing.

When the bill had been paid, the three stood up to leave, the business of the day still unattended.  “I’ll give you two some time alone,” Imogene said as they exited the restaurant.  “No, stay,” Jerome responded.  “I think this might concern you, too.”

The three of them walked down the street together; to a casual observer, they were just out for a stroll.  Grace didn’t know where to begin, but Jerome helped her by asking, “How was your day in the city?”  By this question, she knew it was okay to share.

“I love D.C.,” she said, “so any time I can be there is a good time.”  Looking at Jerome, she continued, “My picnic on the Mall was fruitful.  I saw some… interesting people there.”  He smiled, “We thought you might,” he said, “Did they see you?”

“It’s hard to be sure,” Grace answered, “but I don’t think so.”  She had already slipped the note she had been carrying into his pocket, relieved to see it delivered.  “Was the rest just a ruse to get me there?” she asked.  There was a firmness to his voice when he answered, “No, what you saw was just a bonus.”

“A bonus that’s messed with my head,” Grace thought as he continued, “If we have what we were promised, we can now implicate Drumpf as a Russian “asset”; maybe even start the process of removing him from office.”  Grace wanted to know what they would do with the information, but Jerome said, “You’ll know when it happens.”

Imogene had moved a few steps away during this part of the conversation, but she returned to say, “So, tell me about these interesting people you saw.  Was it anyone I might know?”

Jerome nodded, and Grace told her tale.  “Let’s not jump to any conclusions just yet,” she said when she had finished.  “We don’t know what’s going on here.  Cedric might have flipped, or he might be working both sides, or he could even be “in deep”; that’s the phrase, right?  There are so many possibilities.”  Imogene’s look was grim, but she agreed to see how it played out before taking action.  In the meantime, she would take caution in what she shared with him.  “Whatever else you do,” Grace pleaded, “Don’t take matters into your own hands.  I can promise you will regret it.”

They parted ways at the top of the escalator.  Jerome gave them his promise that he would contact them again soon.

D3: Grace’s Tale, Chapter 6

Washington D.C. was back to normal; tourists were visiting the museums and monuments as they had before the shutdown.  Congress went back to working out a federal budget that would satisfy everyone.  Roald Drumpf renewed his war against the media after they printed a report from an inside source that he didn’t start his work day until eleven a.m..  He was quick to inform the news that he was the hardest working President ever in American history.

Cedric went back to his post handing out “buddy poppies” to the tourists. He had been coming home tired and worried, although he offered no explanation.  After the evening meal, he and Imogene had begun retiring behind the locked door of their bedroom.

Grace and Imogene’s friendship continued to develop, but she refused to discuss what was going on.  Grace tried not to pry, but she was worried.  She also spent much of her time behind closed doors.  “My life has no meaning, no purpose,” she thought.  She tried to fight off the depression that threatened to take away her reason for living.

Cedric continued to instruct her in martial arts during his free time, and she continued to practice on her own.  Grace had already come to the conclusion that she would never achieve his skill level, but she was improving, and she enjoyed their time together.

Jerome came to visit sometimes; always unannounced.  He never failed to be friendly, but Grace thought he asked a lot of questions.  Some of the things he asked were, she decided, none of his business.  He was a handsome man, and she hadn’t had that kind of attention in some time, but there was something about it that made her uncomfortable.  “Maybe I’ve just forgotten how to trust,” she thought.

About a week after Drumpf’s State of the Union address, Bill and Janine had left for work at the usual time, and simply never returned.  The following day, Imogene had swept the house for “bugs”, and seemed to resign herself to their absence.  Grace watched the news for any indication of where they might be, but to no avail.  After a few days, she gave up her “search”.

One afternoon, as she was practicing the punch-and-kick that was her exercise routing, Jerome walked into the room.  “Whoa, careful there,” he said, “You could hurt someone.”  Grace laughed, “That’s the goal,” she said.

She took a break from her work-out to pour each of them a glass of iced tea.  They wee the only ones in the house (Where had Imogene gone, Grace wondered.) and Jerome seemed to have something on his mind.  “Can we talk?” he asked.  When she had handed him his glass, Grace took a seat a few steps away from him and nodded, “What’s on your mind?” she asked.  Jerome took a sip of his tea and cleared his throat before beginning.

“The organization has had its eye on you for a long time, Grace.  Imogene says you can be trusted, and Cedric thinks both your skills and confidence are growing.  I think you would make a fine addition to our little group of patriots.”

Grace winced at that last word.  She knew that both sides of this conflict considered their actions to be patriotic.  “I’ve grown fond of the people I’ve met since coming here,” she said, “including you. but I’m not sure who or what I can trust.”  Jerome looked her squarely in the eyes, “That’s good,” he said, “Trusting too much will get you killed.  It’s a commodity none of us can afford in bulk.”  Suddenly, Grace knew who had rummaged through her bag when she first arrived, and who had “bugged” her bedroom.

“I need you to do us a favor,” Jerome said, interrupting her thoughts.  Grace took a long drink of her tea; she needed time to figure out how to answer him.  In the end, she decided he knew too much  to refuse.  “Is this how it works,” she wondered, “Do we blackmail each other into compliance?”  Aloud, she said, “If I can.”

“Good enough,” Jerome said, “We’ll be in touch.”  He handed her his half-empty glass and headed toward the back door.  She watched him walk away with the sinking feeling that her life was about to change again, and not for the better.  As if on cue, Imogene walked in the back door, her arms laden with supplies they didn’t really need.

Grace poured the remaining tea down the sink, then rinsed their glasses and placed them in the drainer before helping Imogene put the groceries away.  Neither of them said a word beyond greeting until the task was done.  “Did I see Jerome leaving?” Imogene asked as she closed the last cupboard.

“Yes,” Grace answered; indicating the glasses in the drained, she said, “He dropped by for a little tea and conversation.”  There was an awkward silence, then Grace said, “I could really use a shower.”  She walked away, leaving Imogene standing in the kitchen alone.

When she finally came out of her room, it was to join Cedric and Imogene for the evening meal.  It was just the three of them, and for the first time she felt like an intruder. “Whatever Jerome wants,” she thought, “the timing couldn’t be better.  I really need to get away from here.”

It would be a full week before Jerome returned; time enough for Grace to consider her options (Did she really have any?), to change her mind, and to change it back again.  This was bound to be risky, but she wanted very much to believe they wouldn’t send her into danger on her first assignment.  Finally, she had time to become excited by the prospect.

Jerome seemed happy to see that she was still there.  After greeting Cedric and Imogene, he crossed the room to give her a quick hug.  “How goes the training,” he asked.  Grace shrugged, “It goes,” she said; she had felt him slip something into her pocket and was anxious to know what it was.

Anyone looking through the window that night would have seen two couples sharing each other’s company.  They ate a good meal, played a some cards, and talked well into the night.  If they were talking “business”, it was in a language Grace didn’t understand.  To her surprise, she had enjoyed the evening.

As soon as Jerome was gone, she made her excuses and retired to her room.  Once the door was locked, she pulled his note out of her pocket.  Grace stifled a nervous chuckle; the note read like something out of a bad spy novel.  It began, “Destroy after Reading”, and she wondered that anything which required that amount of secrecy would be written down at all.  “Your mission, should you decide to accept it,” she thought, and again stifled a giggle.

Her instructions were simple.  She was to choose one of the benches that edged the National Mall, where she would sit with a copy of Doctor Zhivago (thoughtfully provided at some point in the evening) on her lap.  Her contact would slip some information between the pages of her book, which she would deliver without reading.  It seemed easy enough; “Probably just a test,” Grace thought.  Still, she would take it seriously, and do her best to complete the mission as instructed.  She started by destroying the note.

The next morning, she packed her smaller tote with a sandwich lunch and the book.  She told Imogene that she was going into town to play tourist for the day, then caught a bus into Union Station.  There, she rode the Metro to a stop near the Mall.  She tried to remain aware of her surroundings, and was fairly sure no one had been following her.

After taking a few photos with her phone (in case anyone was watching), she settled onto a bench in front of a building known as “the castle”.  It was cold, and she shivered inside her new coat, the weight of her small gun comforting in its pocket.  She held the book as if reading it, lifting her eyes to watch the people as they walked by.  To maintain the illusion that she was reading, Grace turned the occasional page.  Whenever someone approached, she closed the book over her hand to display the title.

For more than an hour, Grace sat with the book in her lap; she was beginning to wonder whether her contact had been delayed, or worse.  She would wait just a little longer, she decided, and reached into her bag for the sandwich.

“Russian literature is so tragic, don’t you think?”  Grace looked up to see a woman in a long wool coat, the deep cowl obscuring her face.  “But aren’t all love stories tragic in the end?” Grace replied.  The woman took the book from Grace’s hand, turning a few pages. “You have not yet come to the best part,” she said, “or the worst.”  She handed the book back to Grace and walked away.

Grace put the book away and started eating her sandwich; to do otherwise might have made the encounter conspicuous.  Between bites, she continued to watch the crowds.  As she reached for the second half of her sandwich, Grace saw a familiar figure striding in her direction.  His head was bowed and turned away from her, but there was no doubting his identity, or that of his companion.

Grace pulled her hood tightly around her face and hurried inside “the castle”.  She made her way through the narrow building and out the back door into a small garden which faced the street.  From there she located the Metro station and made her escape.

Once safely aboard the Metro, Grace began to calm down and to question what she had seen.  “Might it have been someone else?” she thought, “After all, what would Cedric be doing in this part of town?”  More troubling was the individual with whom he had been in conversation.  Unless she was mistaken, and she really hoped she was, he had been speaking with someone who was rumored to be the eyes and ears of Roald Drumpf.

Grace took the most direct route back to the house which seemed to offer safety.  She was relieved to find it empty when she arrived.  Unlocking the door with the key she had been provided, then she went directly to her bedroom and locked herself inside.

D3: Grace’s Tale, Chapter 5

Imogene had helped Grace into the back seat of the brown sedan, then drove home via a different route than that which they had taken to get to the cemetery; tanks were in evidence everywhere.  Once at the house, they had gone immediately into Grace’s bedroom.  There, Imogene helped her out of her torn and bloody clothing.  “I guess I’m lucky,” Grace said, “Reginald is usually a much better shot.”  When Cedric returned several hours later, he indicated that the “problem” had been dealt with; there were no questions asked, and no explanations given.

For the next three days, all Grace did was lie in her bed and cry.  Imogene brought her food, but otherwise left her to her own devices.  She wanted to help, but Grace wasn’t yet ready to talk about it.

Grace spent most of her alone time trying to figure out how she felt; how she was supposed to feel.  This wasn’t her first kill (who imagined she’d ever say that?), but it was the first one done with intent.  Two guns had roared at the same time, so she couldn’t be sure hers had been the kill shot.  What she could be sure of was that final bullet; putting a physical hole in his heart in much the same way he had put an emotional hole in hers.  It had not been fear which caused her to pull the trigger, but anger and (yes, she admitted to herself) hurt.  How could he hate her so much?  Who had she become that she could so callously take his life?  Had there been some alternative method of dealing with the situation?  She couldn’t honestly say she wanted him back, and perhaps that was the worst part of all.

Cedric stuck his head through the door a couple of times each day to make sure Grace was recovering her spirit; those moments became the brightest of her day.  On the third day she asked him,”Can you teach me to make that spinning move?”  Cedric immediately responded, “Just as soon as you feel well enough to be up and about.”  The next morning, she joined the others at the breakfast table.

Bill and Janine were just finishing a hearty meal; they had been ordered back to work to begin processing tax returns.  “I don’t think even Drumpf is crazy enough to deny people their tax refunds,” he opined, “It just might remind them that he still hasn’t released any of his own tax returns.”  Imogene mumbled, “It’s a shame someone doesn’t hack into the system and make them public.”  Janine gulped hard at the suggestion, but said nothing.  The couple soon grabbed their coats and headed out the door to go to work.

As they walked out the door, Jerome entered.  “Mornin’, Grace,” he said, “Good to see you up and about.”  He sat down next to her, reaching for a plate of biscuits while Imogene poured him a cup of coffee.  “What’s new in the world,” she asked as she placed it in front of him.  “The House closed its doors,” he laughed.  “The Speaker won’t let Drumpf give his State of the Union address.  If anything will get him to reopen the government, it will be to deny him his applause without it.”  They all nodded in agreement; certainly all parties were at an impasse when it came to the funding for Drumpf’s wall; he should have accepted their first offer.

Later that day, Cedric began to train Grace in martial arts.  She still wasn’t ready to leave the house, but it was reassuring to believe she might someday be able to defend herself without a weapon.  The events of the past few months had taken away much of her self-confidence, and this promised to bring it back.  This was one Reginald wouldn’t win.  Grace knew that, even with him gone, she was still not safe.  She couldn’t stay here forever; her being in this house put the others in danger.  As soon as the city opened up again, she promised herself, she would be on her way.

A few days later, Grace and Imogene once again had the house to themselves.  “Tell me,” Grace requested, “How did you get mixed up in al this?”  Imogene looked at her oddly, but said nothing.  “What I really want to know,” she began again, “is how anyone gets involved with groups which spread hatred and dissention.  No offense intended, Imogene, I just can’t imagine you being a part of that.”

Imogene nodded, “The two organizations aren’t as different as you might think,” she said.  “Their goals and methods are different, but the rank and file membership think that they are doing what’s right.  They believe that they are protecting their way of life; the life that the manipulators at the top have convinced them the “others” are threatening to destroy.  I was fresh out of college when I was first approached; young, impressionable, and idealistic.  They ‘sold’ me the idea that our government was keeping secrets that the public deserved to know, and that I was the one to ‘liberate’ that information.  I’m not proud of what I did, but when I realized where that information was going, I started passing along what Drumpf is so fond of calling ‘fake news’.  He thinks of himself as a master manipulator, but he is the one being manipulated.  Those in the know on both sides can see, not only the strings being pulled, but whose hands are doing the pulling.

Grace thought about it for a moment; “I still don’t know how you tell the heroes from the villains,” she said.  Imogene chuckled, “Neither do I,” she said, “except the heroes do their best to protect the innocents, and the villains don’t care who they hurt, so long as they have a positive bottom line when it’s done.  The current regime are a black hearted lot; the worse bunch of ‘good-old-boys’ politicians that has ever come to power.”

At that moment, they heard the front door open, and their conversation changed course.  Grace had received less than complete answers, but it had been more than she expected to hear.  Even in this house of like minded souls, trust was hard to come by.

Cedric came through the door with a big smile on his face.  “Drumpf blinked,” he said, “They’re going to reopen the government.”  The blue party had held firm, not only against funding for Drumpf’s wall, but also in refusing to allow his speech in the House until the government was open.  He was told, “We can’t afford to fund civilian security measures,” an argument for which he had no answer.  “It’s a temporary opening,” Cedric said.  “Once his speech has been made, there’s no telling what sort of demands he will make to keep it that way.”

Despite that concern, the mood remained joyous the rest of the day.  Grace helped Imogene prepare a celebratory meal.  The snow had stopped, and soon things would be back to normal.  Bill and Janine were pleased to be getting paid again, but seemed a bit subdued.  Imogene’s questions brought from them the dread of being asked to leave the house before they were ready to be on their won.  They were assured that they would not soon be expected to go.  “You can all stay as long as you feel the need,” Cedric told them, making a point of making eye contact with Grace when it was said; he was rewarded with a smile.

Later that evening as she was preparing for bed, Grace realized that the end of the government shutdown marked the beginning of the next part of her life.  Reginald’s demise had most likely meant she would no longer be pursued, but she couldn’t imagine what she could add to the efforts being made here.  In the final analysis, Reginald had not taken her life, but he had made certain that it was of no real value to herself, or anyone else.  “Tomorrow,” she thought, “I’ll ask Imogene to take me shopping for a new coat.  The sooner I’m gone, the better for everyone.”

Imogene was happy to take her shopping, but sad to see her go.  “I haven’t had many friends,” she said; Grace echoed the sentiment.  Her own coat being destroyed, she slipped into Cedric’s old fatigue jacket which she had found hanging in the closet.  Imogene raised her eyebrows, but said nothing; they headed out the door together.  “I’d like to find a warm coat, a parka maybe, with big pockets and a deep hood.  Not to expensive, though; I have to watch my money until I find a way to make more.”

“Are you worried about money?” Imogene asked.  “No more than most,” Grace answered, “I have enough if I’m careful.  Reginald was pretty tight with his money, but I managed to get some of it away from him.”  Imogene winced at the ‘his’, she quietly suggested “It was your money, too, Grace.  He won’t be needing it any more. Shall we see what we can do to put a little more of it in your pocket?”  Grace agreed.  Imogene opened her laptop, and between Grace’s memory and her skills as a hacker, they were soon looking at Reginald’s bank statement.

Grace was astounded; there was far more money in his accounts than she would have imagined, including a savings account she didn’t know he possessed.  What was equally surprising were the withdrawals from their joint account.  Reginald had become a regular contributor to several far-right organizations, including the John Birch Society.  “I wonder which part of their manifesto he believed in?” Grace mused.  Shaking her head in a hopeful denial, she set about creating a new bank account and transferring the funds into it.  “Are you sure they won’t be able to trace this?” she asked.  Imogene winked at her, “Not from my computer,” she was assured, “it’s untraceable.   Besides, the money is legally yours, and who’s going to come looking for it?”

“You are,” Grace thought.  She determined to move the money again at first opportunity, preferable into cash-in-hand.  Aloud, she offered to donate a portion to “the cause”, which Imogene accepted.

Their shopping trip was successful.  Years of being frugal would not allow Grace to be extravagant, but she did purchase a good quality coat which met her needs.  She also bought a small-ish rolling suitcase.  Never again would someone else control her luggage; she had learned her lesson.

In the end, it had been a day filled with easy conversation such as Grace had not experienced in a long time.  She hadn’t realized how much she had missed having a friend, and here she was about to walk away from it again.  They were laughing together when they walked through the door, but the laughter died when they saw Janine rifling through Imogene’s desk.  “Did you find what you’re looking for?” she asked.

To her credit, Janine had the good grace to look embarrassed.  “I was looking for a pen and paper,” she stuttered, “to leave you a note.”  Imogene pulled the drawer open, exposing a notepad and several pens.  “So write,” she commanded.

Janine picked up pad and pen and began to write.  When she handed the note to Imogene, it read, “I was ordered to bug your house.  Failure or refusal will cost me my job.  Bill doesn’t know, he must never know, please, I beg you.  I was always going to let you know, but I didn’t know what else to do.”  the note went on to list the location of half a dozen “bugs” throughout the house.

After reading the note, Imogene added a few words to the bottom of the page, then handed it to Grace, who quickly read it.  Imogene’s addition was “follow my lead”.

“Grace,” Imogene began, “Weren’t we just talking about this very subject?”  Grace responded, “I seem to recall something similar, yes.”

“I think we can take care of this list, but I have a couple of things that need done first.  Assuming I have your help, we can get them done quickly; are you both with me?”  Both women agreed; “Sure, what ever you need,” Janine said.  (Imogene swiftly wrote “don’t seem to eager” on the notepad; Janine nodded).  “I’ve decided to have a party,” Imogene said.  “The President’s speech is happening in a couple of days.  Let’s all gather here and watch it together.  We can make fun of him and throw sponge “bricks” at the television; what do you say?”  Grace agreed that she could used a party, and both women agreed to help with the work.  “Let’s start by making a list of what we’ll need,” Imogene said.

While the ladies discussed what to buy for the party, including heavy sponges for use as bricks, Imogene was writing out her actual plan.  They would leave the “bugs” in place, making sure everyone (including Bill) knew where they were, but not how they got there.  The enemy’s own equipment would be used to pass on false information.  Imogene actually seemed to be enjoying creating her plan, perhaps a little too much.

After several days of planting false information, and conscious of the possibilities of what may have been overheard before they knew about the “bugs”, Imogene ” found” them and put them out of commission.  To be certain she had them all, she used a device capable of locating active electronic surveillance equipment.  Grace found it fascinating, and was only a little surprised to discover that her room had been “bugged”.  She laughed, “There’s been no action in my bedroom for a long time now,” she said.  After a complete sweep of the house, they found only one other device not on the list.  “I really need to exterminate more often,” Imogene said.  The two unlisted devices could have been planted at any time.

There was a party of sorts on the evening of Drumpf’s State of the Union address, but it was attended only by those who lived in the house, and a select few who had been in on the ruse.  They had fun openly making fun of Drumpf, and throwing foam bricks at every known or suspected brag or misstatement.  There had been nothing unexpected about his speech; he had always been a good performer so long as he followed the script.  Several times, he called for the parties to work together for the good of the nation.  “You mean for his good,” Cedric had said as he tossed a ‘brick”.  By the end of the night, the floor in front of the television was covered.

The rumors they had spread (with a little help from the opposition) had accomplished their purpose.  The tanks which had recently been posted around the national monuments were seen moving into position to protect the Capitol building, and the President, from their fictional threat.  Drumpf News Network reported that threats against the President had been thwarted by the presence of those tanks, but it was noted that their exit had both mocked and mimicked the military parade Drumpf had been demanding for so long.  As quickly as the tanks had appeared, they were gone.

 

D3: Grace’s Tale, Chapter 4

Imogene’s words had been ominous, but the expression on her face was what drew Grace’s attention; she looked as though she’d been struck.  “What’s wrong?” she asked, “Are you okay?”

“I have a gun in my pocket,” Imogene responded, “Please don’t make the mistake of thinking I won’t use it.”  Her face was still pale, but there was a hard look in her eyes which defied denial.  “They want you alive, but dead’s okay, too.”  Her tone was flat, and as cold as ice.

Grace took a step back, her own gun pressed against her back.  She could ease it from her waistband, but was sure to be out-drawn in any test of speed.  The cold copper taste of fear was in her mouth; she would have to exercise caution if she wanted to stay alive.  Despite her words, Grace found it hard to believe Imogene really wanted to kill her.  “You have my attention,” she said, “What do you want me to do?”

“First,” Imogene said, “you will carefully take your pistol out of your belt and slide it over to me.”  Moving slowly, Grace did as she was told.  As soon as the gun was within reach, Imogene pulled her empty hand out of her pocket and picked it up.  “Thank you.”

“Now,” Imogene continued, “you and I are going to take a little drive.”  Gesturing with the .380, she said, “Get your coat; wouldn’t want you freezing to death.”  Keeping a close eye on Grace as she went for their jackets, Imogene moved to the drawer and retrieved her own gun.  Holding it in first one hand and then the other, she donned her coat, dropping Grace’s pistol into the off-hand pocket.

Grace pulled on her own coat, feeling the weight of her extra clip in the pocket.  If she got her gun back… but that didn’t seem likely.  Imogene tossed her the keys, “You drive,” she said.  They made their way out the back door to a waiting brown sedan.  Imogene opened the passenger door and gestured for Grace to do the same on the driver’s side.  They slipped into the car at the same time, the pistol always at the ready.  “Carefully now,” Imogene said, “We wouldn’t want to have an accident.”  Grace nodded; she put the car into gear and rolled slowly across the ice and snow.  “Where to?” she asked.

“Arlington,” was her answer.  Grace turned the car in the direction of the cemetery.  Concentrating on her driving helped to keep her calm, it also gave her time to think.  If Imogene had been ordered to kill her, or if she had wanted her dead, it would already have happened.  There was hope she would get out of this alive.  They drove in silence for a while, then Grace softly asked, “Can you tell me why?”

“We’re going to make a trade,” Imogene said, “You for Cedric.”

“I don’t understand,” Grace responded. “Who has Cedric? and why would they want me?  I’m about as close to nobody as you will ever meet.”  Imogene laughed, “You really don’t know, do you?”  When Grace shook her head, Imogene became silent again.

“The people who have Cedric,” she said at last, “are very dangerous; they’ll stop at nothing to accomplish their mission.”  She took a deep breath and sighed before continuing.  “I used to work for them,” she said, “They think I still do.”

“Are you sure,” Grace asked.  “I mean, if they think you work for them, why did they need to take Cedric?  Something doesn’t feel right here, and not just because you have that gun pointed at me.”  Thinking of her recent experience with Reginald, she asked, “Could Cedric be in on this?”

“No!” Imogene answered emphatically.  “He would never do this to me.”  As if to make her point, she lifted the gun menacingly.  Grace nodded, “Good,” she said, “so what are we going to do about it?”

Grace had kept her eyes on the road, but now she glanced over at Imogene.  A tiny seed of doubt seemed to have taken root; her grip had lessened on the gun on her lap.  They were nearly to Arlington National Cemetery, and Grace needed to convince Imogene to trust her.  She liked Cedric, but she wasn’t willing to give up her life for him.  If she was right, even her sacrifice would not be enough to save him.

As they grew near their destination, Grace said, “I know you don’t have much reason to trust me, but from my point of view, you can’t trust them either.  Professional courtesy aside, if taking Cedric works once, and they let the two of you live, what’s to stop them from doing it again?  No, it has to end today.”

“Don’t tell me what it ‘has to’,” Imogene said angrily, “you have no idea what you’re talking about.”  Grace caught her breath; was she about to be killed, or could that anger mean Imogene was having second thoughts?  Maybe she didn’t want to just turn her over after all.  “So tell me,” she pleaded.  “I’m about to die anyway, so what’s the harm in my knowing why?”

“Pull over,” Imogene suddenly ordered.  Grace did as she was told, carefully pulling to the side of the road without shutting off the engine.  Once the car was in park, Grace turned to face Imogene.  What she saw surprised her; Imogene looked sad.  “Cedric has never known about this part of my life,” she said.  “I thought not knowing would keep him safe, but that’s what put him in danger.  I’d do anything to bring him home, including turning you over to the Killer Klowns who have him now.”  Imogene paused; Grace held her breath until she began again.  “Cedric would never forgive me,” she said at last.

“We’ll get him back,” Grace said.  “Drive,” Imogene commanded, “They’ll have someone watching us; it may already be too late.  They drove through the remaining streets in silence, each deep in their own thoughts. Not knowing what they would be facing, it seemed impossible to formulate any sort of plan.

No one was in sight when they pulled into the area where they had been instructed to park.  Imogene got out first; walking behind the car, she opened the driver’s door and pulled Grace to her feet.  “Okay,” she called out, “We’re here; let’s do this.”

“Hello, Grace”; the women turned to see Cedric standing only thirty feet away.  Behind him, holding a gun to his back, was Reginald.  “It’s good to see you again,” he said with a smirk on his face.  “Aww, did you think you were the only one with contacts?  It’s a shame, really; we work so well together.”

Grace stepped away from Imogene, holding the gun that had been dropped into her pocket as she had exited the car.  “Let him go, Reginald,” she said.  “This is between the two of us.  Whatever I did to make you hate me, it has nothing to do with these people.”

Reginald’s face bore no expression, “What a shame, then, that they will die for no reason.”  His eyes were focused on Grace, no doubt hoping for some sign of fear.  He would see none, but in that moment of concentration, there was a sudden blue action as Cedric turned and began to wrestle him for his gun.  They struggled, the gun hidden between them, while the women watched and waited for an opportunity to end the battle.  Then, as quickly as it had begun, it was over.  Cedric managed to shove Reginald away, causing him to stumble back and the gun to discharge.  Before he could regain his footing, a second gunshot rang out and he fell to the ground, bleeding.

After assuring each other that they were unhurt, Cedric and Imogene turned their attention to Grace.  She was leaning against the car, her face ghostly pale.  A bright red line of blood was running down her arm and dripping on the hood.  Imogene started to move toward her, but Grace waved her away.  “It’s just a flesh wound,” she said, “a deep, throbbing flesh wound.”  Imogene caught her as she fainted.

When she came to moments later, her wound had been crudely bandaged.  “You have to get out of here,” Cedric told her.  “The law will be here soon; I’ll take care of this mess.”

“Not yet,” Grace said as she struggled to her feet; “This isn’t over.”  She slowly walked over to where Reginald was lying on the ground.  “Hand me my gun,” she ordered Imogene.  Pistol in hand, she took careful aim and put a bullet into his already still heart.  “Now we know,” she said.  “You can take me home now.”