Saturday, September 22, 2012
The Devils's Kitchen - Chapter 3
At eight-fifteen the following morning, COMMEX Headquarters, an inconspicuous, three-story brick building, located on Healy Road, just off US 15, twenty miles southwest of Rochester, was a hive of activity.
Lt. Marcus Kinnard strode past Mrs. Periwinkle's desk, his eyes riveted to the door leading into Colonel Prescott's office.
“Excuse me, Lieutenant.” Her voice was cool, patronizing. “The Colonel’s on the phone and cannot be disturbed.”
“Not to worry, Periwinkle,” he said, in his patented machine gun voice. “What I have to discuss with him won’t wait. You just keep answering phones, taking messages, and making coffee like a conscientious, little woman, okay? Let me and the Colonel worry about running the organization.”
“Up yours,” she whispered, casting him a homicidal grin.
Marcus Kinnard, second in command to Colonel Prescott, was a small, ratish-looking man, a badly preserved fifty-one, with a drinker's purple veined face, a nose the color and size of an overly ripe apple, and beady black eyes. Mrs. Periwinkle thought him a poisonous little man, secretly wondering how many times a year he shed his skin.
Kinnard opened the door, waltzed into Prescott's office.
The Colonel glanced up, face flushed, eyes filled with quiet fury and pointed to a plush leather chair.
Kinnard sat, struck up a Chesterfield and waited for Prescott to finish his conversation.
“Yes, sir,” Prescott said, his voice controlled and expressionless. “The wheels are in motion even as we speak, sir. Lt. Kinnard’s arrived and my niece should be here any moment.” He glanced at Kinnard and shook his head as if to say, 'I need this desk-jockey telling me how to run my business'.
Kinnard sucked on the cigarette, blew a large white smoke ring toward the ceiling and cast his boss a hackneyed grin.
“Of course, sir,” Prescott said. “I’ll keep you apprised of our every move. Good bye, sir.” He muttered as he hung up the phone, “Oh my, yes, sir. But of course, sir”
“I just heard about Williams,” Kinnard said. “How, Colonel? How in hell could anyone have known he was here?”
“I don’t know, Marcus. I thought we'd taken every conceivable precaution.”
“We’re certain it was Azrael?”
“Forensics confirms it was a Yak-Pak.” Prescott cradled his head in the palms of his hands, thick fingers toying with the thin, silver wisps sprouting from his balding pate.
“Well, then, there can be only one answer.” Kinnard spoke matter-of-factly. “Either Azrael or someone within his organization has happened upon the Key, accessed the computer.”
Prescott’s head snapped up. “I don't believe that for one minute. We've got a foolproof system here. The damn Key changes daily. Even if someone did manage to get hold of it, without the code they'd end up hiking a false trail.”
“Do you have a better explanation, Colonel?” Kinnard slumped back in his chair, his thin, colorless lips pulled back in a pompous, oily sneer.
“No, Marcus, I don't, and I’m not about to waste time looking for one. The President has 'strongly suggested' that I remedy the situation straight away. So, I'm going to put this to bed once and for all. I’ve asked Mrs. Periwinkle to find Erika and have her report to my office.”
“Somewhat drastic, Colonel.” Kinnard smiled, conjuring up blatantly sexual images of the Colonel's fair-haired niece.
“Drastic times and drastic measures, Lieutenant.” The intercom on the desk buzzed. “Yes?”
“Ms. Kingston to see you, sir. Appears we caught her in the middle of a workout at the health club. She hasn't yet changed.”
“That's fine, Mrs. Periwinkle. Send her in, please.”
“I'm afraid you caught me at an awkward time, Uncle Tyrone.” Erika walked into Prescott's office, running a towel through her mop of blond hair. “From the tone of Mrs. Periwinkle's message, I assumed 'immediately' meant skip the shower and the change of clothes.”
“Right, my dear.” He kissed her on the cheek, motioned to a chair. “Please, we’ve much to discuss.”
Kinnard stared hard. A pair of silk running shorts adorned her long, lean, tanned legs, and sassily uptilted breasts strained against the thin fabric of a tank top. She had a seductive young body, a flawless complexion and a sexy, breathy voice, alluring and taunting but with a sweet edge.
Prescott knew that she’d long been the focus of Kinnard's warped fantasies, knew, too, that she ‘d made it a point to counter his perversity by goading him at every conceivable opportunity.
She bent over, stuck her round, firm buttocks in his face, and ran the towel over the chair seat. “Lieutenant.” She sat, the patented Kingston pout enhancing a sensuous underlip.
“Erika.” Black pupils set into rheumy, yellow orbs traveled the length of her body, then returned to her ice-blue eyes.
Neither her intent nor her actions were lost on Prescott, who couldn’t help but admire the way she handled Kinnard. True, he’d been forced, at times, to mask his pride so as not to offend his second in command. Regardless of his penchant for young women, preferably slim and trashy, as well as an insatiable appetite for what might be considered deviant sexual practices, Marcus Kinnard was a resolute, energetic employee, indispensable to the organization.
“All right.” Prescott interrupted the histrionics. “Down to business, shall we? Erika, I'm sure you’re aware that we’ve had a rash of 'accidents' lately.”
“If you mean the loss of our agents, then yes, I believe everyone’s aware of the problem.”
“Well, it appears we’ve lost another.”
“My God. Who? How?”
“You’ve heard about last night’s explosion at the Hilton?” Kinnard said.
“Yes. Has someone claimed responsibility?”
Prescott leaned forward, forearms on the desk. “No, but the work has a unique signature.”
Erika gazed into her Uncle's slate-gray eyes, waiting for him to get to the point.
“Lt. Kinnard and I have orders to put an end to the dilemma, and we need your help.”
“Sir?” Her forehead wrinkled.
Prescott had never before asked for Erika’s help, especially in a situation as delicate and dangerous as this. Throughout her formative years at Saint Cecilia’s, he’d kept her in the dark regarding COMMEX, of what he did for a living. Even now, though she actually worked for and received a monthly paycheck from the organization, Prescott continued to protect her, to keep her on the periphery, away from the big picture, offering only an occasional, cursory glimpse into the heart of COMMEX, and only at her insistence.
“We've reason to believe that a group called the Mezzhandi is responsible,” he said. “They are led by a calculating killer, one with an appropriate moniker: Azrael.”
“Mezzhandi?” she murmured, with a quizzical look
“The Mezzhandi are not unfamiliar to us,” Kinnard interjected. “Its members have been a stick in our craw since the mid-seventies, long before COMMEX became involved."
“Shadow Company,” she whispered. “Of course, the Mezzhandi were supposedly disbanded years ago by a team of agents known as 'Shadow Company'. But that’s conjecture, right? An urban legend? Scuttlebutt has it there are no files, either in the computer system or in the vault, that contain a single reference to 'Shadow Company'.”
Prescott nodded. “I purged the file on it years ago, though I still have hardcopy filed away. It was real, Erika, not just a figment of someone's overactive imagination. Best goddamn team of agents we ever put together. And the stories you’ve heard are closer to the truth than you'll ever care to know.”
“All right then, Uncle, what can I do to help?”
“We need you to locate someone for us,” Kinnard said. “Someone,” he added with a lip-split sneer. “Who has made it perfectly clear he wants never to hear from us again.”
“I don't understand?” She ignored Kinnard, continued to stare at her uncle.
“The gentleman the lieutenant refers to was once the leader of 'Shadow Company'. One of our 'wet' agents, one of the most lethal the intelligence community ever produced.”
“Do I know of him?”
“I think not.” Prescott leaned back in his chair, folded his hands in his lap, and stared down at the tips of his shoes. He had to be careful, this was dangerous ground. “His name’s Brady Thomas. Known also as Kenjisan. He left the organization eleven years ago. You see, there was a terrible accident...”
For the next two hours, Prescott and Kinnard recounted the history of the Mezzhandi, of 'Shadow Company's' involvement in its demise, and finally of the unfortunate incident that caused Brady Thomas to leave COMMEX.
“So,” Erika said. “Our agents are being systematically killed off by the Mezzhandi, a group thought disbanded years ago by Brady Thomas, and you believe the only way to stop the bleeding is to bring him back into the fold.”
“Exactly,” Kinnard said.
“But, you’ve already told me he wants nothing to do with us. Understandable, as he blames us for his fiancé’s death. What makes you think we can change his mind?”
“The Mezzhandi, Erika." Prescott said it deliberately. "The Mezzhandi and Azrael, the Druid’s son, were responsible for Elizabeth’s death.”
Prescott was renowned for his ability to coolly and assuredly intertwine threads of truth and fiction into the fabric of a story. And make the whole damn thing seem plausible. Erika was a living example of his ability to manipulate facts. After all these years, she still suspected nothing. It was said that, given enough time, he could talk a fish onto a hook.
“I see,” Erika said. “Sounds like a simple case of revenge. Why not try to contact him yourself and explain the situation? I don't understand why you need me?”
“Oh, but that it were that simple, Erika.” Prescott shook his head, retaining the ever-present smile. "Unfortunately, we face two very real problems. First, although we know Brady lives in Arizona, somewhere in the Verde Valley, most likely the Sedona area, we’re not sure of his exact whereabouts. Second, Mr. Thomas, as Lt. Kinnard has alluded to, is not likely to be what you would call approachable.”
“What the Colonel is saying,” Kinnard interjected. “Is that Mr. Thomas is not likely to welcome us back with open arms, regardless of the reason. If he gets an inkling that we’re involved, he'll burrow in so quickly, so deeply, that we'll never find him.”
“Right,” Prescott added. “But, he doesn't know about you, Erika, has no idea you’re affiliated with our organization. You are my ace in the hole.”
“All right, Uncle, shoot, what do you want me to do?” She smiled. “Don’t want to talk myself out of my first real assignment, now, do I?”
Prescott turned and logged onto his computer terminal. “I want you to go home and pack. You're going on an all expense paid vacation to Arizona.”
Her bright blue eyes sparkled as she watched him bang out a memo. “Alone?”
Prescott had taken her to the beach for a few days here and there, and once on a three-day long conference to the Catskills, but never for an extended period of time. And never by herself.
“Now.” Prescott spun on the chair, stared at her. “Listen carefully, my dear. The success of this mission is entirely dependent upon you following everything Lt. Kinnard and I have to say to the letter, understand?”
“Yes, sir.” Prescott's intimidating demeanor reared its head, demanding attention.
He handed her the memo. “On your way out, stop by petty cash and pick up some cash.”
“You’ll need to pick up a few items before you leave. I want you to stop by Carlton's Photo Emporium and buy the best equipment on the shelf, strictly first-class stuff: cameras, lenses, tripods, light meters, everything a professional would take on assignment. You know what's required. Given the number of classes you've taken at the University, you're the finest photographer on staff.”
“Thanks, Uncle T, but why buy new? Why not take what we already own?”
“He'd know, Ms. Kingston,” Kinnard said. “He knows that every piece of COMMEX equipment has an asset code etched onto it. He doesn't miss a trick.”
She looked at Prescott. “I…”
“Stay with us, it will fall into place. Now, after you purchase the appropriate equipment, run out to the airport and buy a first-class ticket to Phoenix, and for God's sake, pay cash, we don’t want him tracing you back to us through a credit card. Leave your return flight open, no telling how long this assignment will last. With me so far?”
“Good. Now, when you get to Phoenix, rent one of those fancy RVs, a large one, bedrooms, baths, all the accessories. Then, head north, toward Sedona. We’ve reserved a secluded campsite for you outside of town.” He rifled through a file. “Let’s see, yes, here we are, the Manzanita Campground. Here are your papers.” He handed her a manila envelope. “You've already been cleared through appropriate state and federal agencies.”
Erika glanced through the packet. “This is my cover? I'm on assignment from National Geographic? In the Verde Valley to photograph rock formations for an upcoming feature on northern Arizona?”
Prescott nodded. “Once you’ve settled in, it’s business as usual. Act as if you actually are on assignment.”
“That’s it, my dear. Enjoy yourself, good food, lots of sun, and, from what I understand, spectacular photo opportunities. Oh, and yes, snoop around a bit, name drop, that sort of thing. You know the drill.”
“All right, then what?”
“You wait. Tt will be only a matter of time before Brady finds you.”
“And, when he does?”
“Well,” Kinnard said, pulling at his lower lip. “That’s the tricky part. You must do your damnedest to convince him that you truly are there on behalf of National Geographic, but we also need you to slip up on occasion.”
“Listen, Erika,” Prescott said. “We've already told you what's likely to happen should Brady find out we’re searching for him. At the same time, as strange as this sounds, we want him to finally realize just that. But, it’s absolutely vital that he figure it out on his own. And, slowly, we can ill afford to be overly zealous or the least bit conspicuous.”
“So I drop subtle hints here and there, is that it?”
“Exactly, but keep them very subtle, and very infrequent. We need you to impart, over time, only enough information to make him suspicious, to make a move and contact us directly.”
“And believe me, Ms. Kingston,” Kinnard added. “If we pull off this little charade, Mr. Thomas be all over this place when he figures it out.”
“All right,” she said. “Any suggestions as to how and when to drop these pearls of suspicion?”
“Can't help you there, sweetheart,” Prescott said. “You're going to have to rely on your own tenacity and discretion. You’ve been fully trained, so use that knowledge to your advantage. But take your time and be very careful. You need to leave a trail, but do not, and I repeat, do not, make it appear as such. Brady can sniff a setup like a hound on a hunt, understand?”
“Yes, Uncle.” She smiled with her mouth and her eyes. “Mr. Thomas sounds like an interesting man.”
"A thoroughly dangerous one and a man of enormous conviction. Regardless your extensive training, I want you out of there on a plane home at the first sign of trouble.”
“Well, that's about it, my dear. Any questions?”
“None I can think of at the moment.”
“All right, then. Stay in touch with me daily.”
“Yes, sir.” She stood. “If I'm going to catch our man, I'd best get my fanny in motion.”
She leaned over the desk, kissed him on the cheek.
“Please, be careful.” He was genuinely concerned.
“I promise, Uncle T. Hey, I've been trained by the best, right?”
“What would you have me say?” He smiled and put his arms around her neck.
“Is the pervert staring at me again?” she whispered.
“Of course, my dear. You're going to be the death of the man, but you already know that, don't you?”
“Oh, I hope so.” She smiled impishly, turned and sashayed out of the office.
Prescott smiled after her, Kinnard's face riveted to her backside.
“I'll check in when I get to Sedona.” She blew him a kiss and closed the door.
“Well?” Kinnard turned back to his boss.
“Do you think she can pull it off?”
“I believe so.” His smile broadened, as it did whenever he was nervous or agitated. “Then again, it doesn't really matter, does it? One way or another, Brady will come back here. It’s only a matter of time. Hell, that’s why I initiated this strategy all those years ago, isn’t it? In anticipation of a moment, a situation, precisely like this? I knew the day would come when we would once again require Mr. Thomas’s considerable talents in order to save COMMEX.”
“Oh, I understand, Colonel,” Kinnard said, his voice a notch above a whisper. “But I'd certainly not want to be in your shoes should he have to be told the truth about Ms. Kingston.”
“Well, Lieutenant,” Prescott sat back in his chair and cleared his throat. “Let’s just hope it doesn't come to that.”