Horizon’s Shadow

by Gary Clifton

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

conclusion


St. Croix hated the assignment as much this day as he had eight years earlier, but he’d do what he had to do. And this deal sounded soft and manageable. “Where do I meet the messenger, Chadsey?”

“Dammit, my name.”

“Where?”

“No messenger this time. She arrives on Mexicali Flight 287 at 9:14 a.m. this morning. Detain her. We’ll be down by noon to haul her back.”

“Do I club her ass in the terminal? Or maybe chain her to a chair? You got some kinda plan?”

“This is not a correction, Boxcar. Detain and hold only. You have plenty of credentials. Convince the airport cops you’re the Supreme Federal Police Commander from somewhere up here. They’ll give you a holding room. We’re on the way, for God’s sake. She’s traveling on a counterfeit American passport under the name Angela Madsen.”

No virgin in the world of barely perceptible clues, he should have heard a trace of extra personal urgency in the otherwise deadpan voice of his strange master from afar. But his splitting headache and a touch of complacency greased the skid enough to guarantee evaporating any second thought he might have.

St. Croix knew the local cops and the value of the Yankee dollar. By 8:00 a.m., his health was partly in control. He had provided the necessary local police honchos with fistfuls of cash and photos of the fugitive. They had obligingly secured a small interview room to detain her.

At 9:44 a.m., two fat, uniformed cops brought in Madeline Gilmore/Angela Madsen handcuffed. She was pissed big time but showed a glimmer of fear. Maybe Chadsey had longer teeth than his voice on the com system indicated.

Chadsey had described her as attractive, which was short by at least three levels. Chesty, with soft blue eyes that penetrated men’s intentions like Superman’s ability to determine underwear color, she slumped on the hard chair across from St. Croix with a deep sigh. Her pose showed an enticing length of upper leg that was impossible to ignore beneath her short skirt.

“I’m Nathan St. Croix, Investigator for the U.S. Department of Defense, Ms. Madsen. I’m afraid Washington has some concern about the validity of your passport. Nothing we can’t clear up in a few minutes.”

Her presence flooded the room with the odor of lilacs and vivacious young woman. “Defense, huh. You got a key to remove these damned cuffs, dude? Do I look that dangerous to a big lug like you?”

She did not, and he snapped off the cuffs.

“Got a smoke?”

He slid his package of Marlboros across the metal table, then leaned over and lit her up. Close up, she exuded sexuality beyond his expectation, if that was possible.

“What is this crap really about, Mr. St....?”

“St. Croix. Uh, you know the government, Ms. Madsen, you must be a person of great importance. Perhaps they’re worried that someone else is traveling on your passport. Truthfully, I don’t know.” The lie sounded palatable enough to him. Truth was, he had no idea who or what she might be.

She opened a small purse and repaired her lipstick.

“Where are you headed, Ms. Madsen?”

“Are? Or were?” She exhaled a cloud of smoke toward the ceiling. “As if that’s any of your business?”

“Look, miss, I’m only the messenger, trying to make small talk until they straighten out whatever is twisting their panties in a wad. I have no handle on your itinerary or your business in general. I don’t even know what your job is.”

She fiddled with the purse. The edge of a smart phone appeared briefly inside. “You’re a poor liar, Mr. St., uh...?”

“St. Croix.”

“I’m a linguist, also with the Department of Defense. Headed down to Columbia. Part of the war effort, you know.”

He knew, all right. The U.S. and Mexico had been at war with the Eastern Federation throughout his entire life, although they’d learned long ago not to lob nuclear weapons back and forth. Hiring personnel like St. Croix to kill a few select opponents from time to time was far more civilized and cost-effective.

St. Croix noted that she, as had he, used the standard in-house designation common in the CIA as first-line identification: a generic reference to the Department of Defense. In his eyes, they had covertly clarified that both were associated with Langley.

But he knew that from that connection, assignments, importance, and hierarchy differed sharply. He had no way to gauge her importance, but if Langley was willing to detain her with the threat of returning her to the States, he knew to tread lightly. What he did not want, under any circumstances, was that, in some fool way, they return him to the States.

She snuffed out her Marlboro in a tabletop ashtray.

He held up the pack. She shook her head.

He said, “Hard to find a place where they allow smoking these days. Good thing we’re in Mexico.”

“You’re a very attractive man,” she studied his face. “Would we have time for a few minutes alone? Like, does that door lock?” She pointed her slender chin.

St. Croix, always the womanizer, was making some progress. “Well... uh, let’s visit a minute first. I’m really very sorry to interrupt your travel this way.”

The blue eyes held his. “Can I see those credentials again, please?”

He slid the leather case across the table.

She studied his photograph, then asked a question universally forbidden in Langley nomenclature. “How long have you worked for Langley, Nathan?” The inquiry was one never to be answered or even acknowledged.

“I’m with the Department of Defense, Ms. Madsen. Not sure what you mean by ‘Langley’.” Such was the mania for security, he had never uttered the words “Langley” or “CIA” aloud before. He studied her pampered face carefully.

“Look, St. Croix, I know what you are: a Langley clean-up man. Not qualified to become a real agent. Only a contractor they caught in a bind. To avoid life in a bubble on another planet, you do what they tell you. Can we lock the door now for a half hour of R&R before I have to move on?”

Astonished, he stammered, “Uh... I don’t think you’re going anywhere. They told me to detain you. Something about a file you absconded with.”

“Then why don’t we relax? I like your style.”

Transfixed, he could only sit stupefied as she unsnapped the top two buttons on her blouse, revealing a wealth of soft skin. Again she glanced at the door. St. Croix stood, wedged his chair back under the doorknob and turned back to her.

A man who lives years in the shadow of death tends to lose the raw edge of fear of nearly anything. He was not totally panicked when she pulled the small white box from her bra, but he recognized it instantly.

She had managed to penetrate airline security with one of the latest-model composite pistols built as an exact clone of a standard cigarette lighter. Operating by firing a burst of heat, no metallic cartridge was necessary. Hence, the best of screening equipment couldn’t find it.

“You’re not the only soul trapped in Langley’s web, Mr. St. Croix,” she managed a thin smile as she held the tiny weapon in his direction.

Nathan St. Croix had not survived in his turbulent world by ignorance or failure to take action when necessary. In a move he’d practiced many times, he flipped the table upward toward her, his hand carrying through to grasp at the weapon in his rear waist band.

His reaction was picture-book perfect. In a half second he’d take care of this cheeky chick and then deal with that total ass Chadsey. He could handle this.

Then the silent, pencil size burst of blue flame zipped across the table and blew his heart into shreds.

Stepping around the partially overturned table, she reached down and put another burst in his forehead.

Nathan St. Croix, man-killer, survivor, ladies’ man, sprawled on the cement floor in a widening pool of crimson, his sightless eyes fixed on a point in eternity far above the ceiling.

She slid the weapon back in her bra, dug in the purse, selected two passports, then straightened herself.

She stepped over St. Croix’s body. “Sorry, buddy, you gotta know it was only business. It’s gonna take more than some busted-ass contractor to finish me.”

No one gave her a second look as she strolled down the airport concourse, found the Mexicali Airline desk and booked a flight to Columbia. She moved to an isolated area and dialed her cellular.

“Trapdoor,” Chadsey rasped into the phone.

“Trapdoor, this is Nighthawk. This jerkoff you sent to take me out missed. Yeah, he’s deader than hell. Where the hell do you get off making a move on me? I don’t give a damn if they’re listening and don’t give me that honey/lovey talk. I thought you might really have cared for me, but now, baby, sleep tight. I know where to find you.”

Snapping off the phone, she glanced at her watch. She should be in Bogata in less than three hours. With any luck she’d have cocktails and dinner at La Tartine that evening, perhaps take in the opera later.

* * *

At Langley, five floors below ground, Chadsey, a furtive little man with a sparse comb-over, sat hunched above a small cubicle indistinguishable in a long row of identical desks occupied by many others similarly bent over their small empires. A flashing signal on his console read: Ultra Scan locked on.

He smiled. Good, gooood. They’ll never penetrate that stupid woman’s call. He reached for his console. As he dialed, he leaned up sufficiently to shield his desk from the overhead security camera.

He spoke into his headset. “Is it raining in Bogata, Gearbox?”

“Hello, Trapdoor. Actually it rained yesterday.”

“Gearbox, we have a situation which requires an expedite correction, code seven red.”

“Okay. Send me a photo and location and it’s done.”

“Blonde female, attractive, arriving this afternoon on Mexicali flight 242. Repeat, expedite. Sending her picture as we speak. Wait until she claims her luggage. She’ll have a brown folder marked Top Secret, JX-7. Seize it after you’ve corrected her, do not read it, and our agent will pick it up tomorrow. Repeat, do not read the file.”

He slouched back over the desk. A few key entries and any record of Boxcar and Nighthawk was gone, not that they had ever existed to begin with in Langley-speak. He studied the computer photo of Gearbox in Bogata, held his fingers over the keyboard, then shrugged and flicked off the machine. Once he’d recovered the folder, he could, at his leisure, remove Gearbox from the equation any time he felt it necessary.

And to think: that dopey chick, Madeline, had actually thought she could get one over on him. He leaned back in his squeaky chair, hand clasped behind his skinny neck. Damn, nothing makes a man feel more like a man than raw power.

* * *

One story above Chadsey, two non-descript men who looked like file clerks were sitting in a closed office, staring at a computer screen with Chadsey’s face framed in the center.

“He’s a desk officer in section Blue 24 Alpha. Know him?” one man asked.

“No, but Signals reported he let the backup file on Project JX-7 get stolen by one of his clerks, one he was apparently sleeping with. He’s actually programmed an unauthorized scrambler into his system. Of course, it didn’t work. From files and the telephone call we just monitored, he’s overdue for reassessment.”

The first man punched numbers into a desktop console. “Hey Thumbnail, this is Sweeper-Delta. Is it raining over there in D.C.?” Without waiting for an answer, he said, “Sending you a photograph and file of a rotten egg. Needs correction by midnight, this date. Name is Chadsey.”

He clicked off the transmitter and winked at the other man. “We gotta find a replacement for that ham-handed halfwit. I’ll handle the files purge.”


Copyright © 2015 by Gary Clifton

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