I look like a housewife, standing in her kitchen.
This is ridiculous. I am a housewife, standing in her kitchen.
Turning back to the two agents she said, “Look. I don’t know this woman. That’s the God’s honest truth. We’ve never met. Clearly she knows who I am. But that doesn’t mean the reverse is true.”
Greg Walton leaned forward urgently. “Even if that’s true, Tracy. Even if it turns out you don’t know her, you can still help us.”
“I don’t see how.”
“You and Althea have a lot in common.”
Tracy frowned. “How do you figure that?”
“You’re both wealthy, independent women, with a background in computers, who’ve successfully evaded detection by the authorities in multiple countries. You both play by your own rules, conceal your identities, and rise to the top in what are traditionally all-male environments. You’re both risk takers.”
“Not anymore,” Tracy said firmly. “My reckless days are over. She’s a terrorist, Mr. Walton.”
“I’m a housewife.”
“She knows you,” Walton insisted. “And at a minimum, you can help us understand her strategy, her MO. If we can predict her next move and identify her weaknesses, we stand a chance of stopping her. How is she slipping through the net? Who’s helping her? What would you do if you were in her shoes?”
“I don’t know what I’d do.” Tracy’s frustration was mounting. “Group 99, Althea’s world, it’s a closed book to me.”
“So let us open it.” Greg Walton’s tone was becoming more insistent. “We’ll brief you on Group 99, everything we know and British intelligence knows. Trust me, Tracy, if I weren’t certain you can help, I wouldn’t be here. The president himself asked us to approach you.”
Tracy looked skeptical. “Really?”
“President Havers would be happy to call you himself to confirm it,” Walton said, leaping on her hesitation. “Finding Althea and cutting Group 99 off at the knees is the White House’s top national security objective right now. Bar none. A call from the White House can be arranged if you’d like that.”
Tracy ran her hands through her hair. “I’m sorry, Greg. I’m flattered, I really am. But if the president thinks I can help then I’m afraid he’s been seriously misinformed. I give you my word that if I think of any connection between myself and Althea, or any sort of lead you could use, I will pick up the phone. But I’m not coming to Langley. I have a son.”
“I know,” Greg Walton sighed. “Nicholas.”
“That’s right. The last time I left him, I almost didn’t make it back. I swore then, to him and to myself, that I would never put myself in harm’s way again.”
“Not even for your country?”
Tracy shook her head.
“I love my country. But I love my son more.” She looked at her watch again. “And now, gentlemen, you’ll have to excuse me. It’s time for me to go pick him up.”
Milton Buck got angrily to his feet. “You don’t get to call the shots here, Tracy. Do you think anybody cares about your soccer mom priorities, when Americans are out there being kidnapped and tortured and American companies are having billions of dollars wiped off their balance sheets? Who the hell do you think you are?”
“That’s enough.” Greg Walton didn’t raise his voice, but the look on his face made it plain that he was livid with his colleague. “I apologize, Miss Whitney. We’re grateful to you for giving us your time.” He handed Tracy a card. “If you change your mind, or have any information or questions, please call me. Day or night. We’ll see ourselves out.”
He walked to the door, with Milton Buck following like a sullen child.
As they left, Tracy said, “I’m sorry.”
Milton Buck waited till Greg Walton was out of earshot before hissing in Tracy’s ear. “You will be.”
FOR FIVE MINUTES THE two men drove down the mountain road in stony silence.
Then Greg Walton turned to Milton Buck.
“Fix this,” he said. The avuncular tone he’d used with Tracy was gone now. The two short words dripped with menace.
“How?” Buck asked.
“That’s your problem. I don’t care how you do it, but you get Tracy Whitney to Langley or your career is over. Is that clear?”
Milton Buck swallowed hard. “Crystal.”
NICK AND TRACY SAT at the dinner table, watching a video on Nick’s phone.
“That is awful,” Tracy said, tears of laughter streaming down her face.
“I know,” Nick grinned. “I’m putting it on Vine.”
“You are not,” Blake Carter said thunderously. “Give me that phone.”
“What? No!” said Nick. “Come on, Blake. It’s funny. I’ll bet it goes viral.”
“It’s disrespectful is what it is,” said Blake. Ignoring the boy’s protests, he took the phone and deleted the footage of the principal of the middle school glancing around what he clearly believed to be an empty corridor before farting loudly.
“Mom!” Nick protested.
Tracy shrugged, wiping away the tears of mirth. “Sorry, honey. Blake’s right. You shouldn’t sneak up on people like that.”
“Not ‘people,’ ” Blake corrected her. “Adults. Teachers, for crying out loud. In my day you’d have had a whip taken to ya for something like that.”
“In your day they didn’t have phones,” said Nick, still angry. “Your idea of fun was hitting a ball on a string. You know what your problem is? You don’t know how to have fun.”
“Nick!” said Tracy. “Apologize.”
“Sorry.” The word dripped with sarcasm. “I’m going to my room.”
Seconds later Nick’s bedroom door slammed.
Blake looked at Tracy. “Why do you encourage him?”
“Oh come on. It was funny.”
“It was puerile.”
“That’s because he’s a kid,” said Tracy. “You don’t always have to come on quite so ‘Sam Eagle’ about everything.”
Blake looked hurt.
“I’m not his friend, Tracy. I’m his parent.” Realizing what he’d just said, Blake blushed. “Well, I mean . . . you know . . . I’m . . .”
“You’re his parent,” Tracy said seriously, laying a hand over Blake’s. “He’s lucky to have you. We both are.”
Tracy felt tremendous love for Blake Carter. Pushing seventy now, the old cowboy had been a wonderful father figure to Nicholas and the dearest friend Tracy ever could have wished for. She knew that Blake loved her. He’d even proposed once, years ago. And though she couldn’t love him back in the same way, she absolutely considered him family.
“Is something the matter, Tracy?” Blake asked her. “Besides Nick?”
That was the other thing about Blake Carter. He saw right through her. Trying to hide things from Blake was like trying to hide them from God—a wasted effort.
“I had a visit today,” Tracy told him. “From the FBI.”
Blake Carter stiffened, like a deer sensing danger.
“And the CIA,” Tracy added. “Together.”
“What did they want?”
Tracy told him. Not everything, but the bare bones of what had been said, as well as Greg Walton’s proposal that she fly to Langley.
“What did you say?” Blake asked.
“I said no, of course. I’ve never met this woman, I’m sure of it. And what I know about counterterrorism you could write on the back of a stamp.”
“But these guys thought you could help?” Blake said gently.
“Well, yes,” Tracy admitted. “They did. But they’re wrong. Don’t tell me you want me to go to Langley?”
“Of course I don’t want you to go,” Blake’s voice grew gruff with emotion. “But maybe it’s not about what I want. Or what you want. These 99 people . . . they’re out of control. Someone needs to stand up to them. They’re against everything this country stands for. Everything America was built on.”
“You see, there you go again,” Tracy said archly. “Sam Eagle.”
“All’s I’m saying is, they need to be stopped. Don’t you agree?”
“Of course I do,” snapped Tracy. “And they will be stopped. Just not by me. I’m not a spy, Blake. I have nothing to offer here. Heaven knows how this woman Althea knows about me, or why she mentioned my name. But now she’s got the FBI, the CIA and the White House convinced I have some sort of inside information, some magic power to find her and do their jobs for them. The whole thing’s ridiculous! I feel like Alice down the rabbit hole!”
“OK, Tracy. Calm down.”
“And even if it weren’t ridiculous, even if I could help, which I can’t—I’m not leaving Nick. Not ever.”
“I understand that.”
“Actually I don’t think you do.” There were tears in Tracy’s eyes now. She was angry and visibly upset, although whether it was with Blake Carter or herself she couldn’t have said. “I think you’d better go home, Blake.”
The old cowboy raised an eyebrow. “OK. If that’s what you want.”
Before Tracy could gather her thoughts, he’d picked up his hat and left. Tracy heard the sound of Blake’s truck pulling away, followed by a loud blaring of angry teenage music coming from Nick’s bedroom. Tired and miserable, she cleared away the plates and went to bed.