The microcamera homes in on a poster of a long-necked blonde with wide eyes, a straight nose, high cheekbones, and a rounded chinthe requisite parts of a face, all of which I am lacking. The model's smile blurs as Hightower whirls around.
Though I'm sitting over six hundred miles away, when the image on my monitor settles into focus I'm seeing exactly what our officer is seeing: a shiny-wet London street. A stationery shop. A passing taxicab. Nothing to quicken the pulse
"Spock, are you reading me?" Hightower asks.
"Copy that, you're five by five," I assure him.
Hightower pans the rendezvous point from left to right. The surveillance camera, hidden in the frame of his eyeglasses, performs remarkably well, given the overcast conditions. "No sign of 'im."
I notice something odd on the monitor and lean toward the microphone at my workstation. "Hold that position, Hightower."
Dr. Mewton leans over me, her hip bumping my shoulder. She points to a small box attached to a streetlamp. "What do you make of it, Sarah?"
I click on the object and magnify the image. "Looks like a traffic cam."
"Any way to be sure it's legit?"
At his workstation, Judson lifts his head. "The address?"
"New Bond Street," I tell him. "The closest intersection is with Conduit."
The text-to-speech engine of Judson's computer repeats the address as he types in the address. "Sorry," he says, slipping headphones onto his ears. A moment later he pulls the headset free. "That traffic cam is confirmed. One of many in the Mayfair district."
Mewton moves closer. "What about that man across the street?"
I'm about to check him out when Hightower sneezes and the image on my monitor bobbles.
"Bless you," a baritone voice says in my headset.
Mewton glances at me. "Is that part of the protocol?"
I shrug as Hightower turns. A short man in a raincoat stands behind him, his face round and wet beneath a thin moustache.
"Our contact doesn't look like much of a threat," Dr. Mewton says. "He looks about as dangerous as a bookkeeper."
"Refresh my memory" I glance over my shoulder "but wasn't it a bookkeeper who brought down Al Capone?"
"You've been watching The Untouchables" Judson says, grinning. "A Costner classic."
Dr. Mewton crosses her arms and focuses on the monitor, silently reminding us that we are in the middle of a surveillance op. I click my mouse and snap a photo of the man, then pull the image out of the frame and activate the facial recognition program. Hundreds of faces flash in the margin as the computer searches for a match.
My fingers freeze on the keyboard when the short man pulls a gun from his jacket and points it at our officer's face.
Behind me, Dr. Mewton groans as the muzzle looms large in the monitor. "What the?"
"Excuse me" the contact blinks rapidly beneath wire-rimmed glasses"b-but does the bus to St. Paul's stop here?"
"You want the number eleven," Hightower replies, giving his half of the verbal recognition exchange. His hand appears in the frame and firmly pushes the weapon to the side. "And have you lost your mind? Put that away."
I was nervous."
"I'mnot the one you should be worried about." Hightower waits until his contact puts the gun back in his pocket, then he gestures to the right. "Would you like to get out of the rain?"
"Cómo no, a good idea."
Dr. Mewton and I watch in silence as Hightower walks toward the stationery shop. The scene blurs as he surveils the street in a quick glance, then his hand appears in the frame. "There." He points to a door beneath an awning.
"What's happening?" Judson calls.
"Santiago is a bit jumpy," Dr. Mewton answers. "We might have to use a cutout in the future."
"I'm sure Hightower will agree," I say. "Let's find him someone nice and calm."
The facial recognition program beeps, presenting us with a name and photograph. Our contact, known to Hightower as Santiago, is Oscar Espinosa, a Spanish national. His driver's license lists a Valencia address.
"Nice work," Dr. Mewton says, her voice dry. "The Spanish department of motor vehicles?"
I shrug. "Seemed logical."
Dr. M reads the information to Judson, who enters it into his computer. A moment later he informs us that Oscar Espinosa is a clerk in the accounting department of Saluda Industries.
Dr. Mewton exhales in a rush. "What do you know
the man is a bookkeeper."
"Now all we need is Eliot Ness to put those thugs away." Judson lifts his head. "Are they entering a building?"
Dr. Mewton answers for me. "Looks like a passageway."
None of us speak as Hightower opens the unmarked door and steps inside. The area beyond is dark, so we see nothing until the camera adjusts.
Beside me, Dr. Mewton shifts her weight. "Sarah?"
"I noticed that." I jot a note. "The aperture adjustment is too slow."
"Look," our bookkeeper says, more talkative now that he's off the street. "Nobody at Saluda takes me seriously, but I know what is happening in that place. I can get you names, dates, shipping manifests, whatever you want, but you must make it worth my while. I am not risking my life for nothing."
Hightower holds up a reassuring hand. "Haven't I promised we'd take care of you?"
The smaller man snorts. "I would rather take care of myself. And that is what I will do, as soon as payment is made."
"And you provide the information we need."
"Claw, of course."
The image on the monitor rises and falls as Hightower nods. "You'll contact me in the usual way?"
"Yes, but next time we meet in España. Give me a week or two."
"Next time, leave the gun at home."
"You do not know these people. I will carry my gun until I know my family and I have nothing to worry about."
"Fine. But pull a weapon on me again and I won't be so understanding."
Espinosa takes a deep breath and fastens the top button of his raincoat. "Will you leave first?"
"You go. I'll wait and exit through the stationery shop."
The small man bobs his head again, then opens the door and steps into a rectangle of light. Hightower turns, revealing a shadowed hallway, a glass entry to the right, and another doorway in the distance. He steps forward and focuses on a plastered wall. "Sister Luke, did you get that?"
Dr. Mewton taps the microphone near her chin. "We did. Your contact is Oscar Espinosa, a clerk in the Saluda accounting office. He ought to be able to get whatever we need for the DEA."
"His record's clean?"
"As far as we can tell."
"Good. Don't want to be wasting time with a trigger-happy janitor." The scene on the monitor tumbles and goes dark as Hightower removes his glasses. Our connection isn't broken, however, because his voice continues to buzz in my headset. "Hey, Spock."
I stiffen when he calls my code name. "Yes?"
"The Candyman working this gig with you?"
I glance at Judson, whose sightless eyes are fixed on some vacant point between my desk and the wall. "He's sitting about five feet away."
"Tell him the Yankees stink. Better yet, I'll tell him myself if I find myself at your place for a tummy tuck."
"I heard that," Judson growls into his mic. "And you'd better hope I'm not the angel on your shoulder the next time you have a hot date."
Hightower laughs. "Later, kids. It's been fun."
When he powers down his transmitter, I pull off my headset. As an employee of the CIA, I ought to be used to this sort of operation, but I always shiver in the unsettling silence of a broken connection.
Like a determined taxpayer charging city hall, I grip the offensive letter and stride into the rental office. A middle-aged man sits on a stool behind a counter, a potbellied specimen of American male pride in an I'm with Stupid T-shirt, frayed blue jeans, and rubber flip-flops.
"Excuse me, are you Mr. Myers?" I point to the signature on the letter. "If so, you can stop sending these annoying eviction notices."
The man tears his gaze away from the small television in the corner and gapes at me. "I'm Todd, the assistant manager."
"Hello, Todd. I hope you can help me. I'm Renee Carey and I'm here to clean out my mother's unit. I would have come sooner, but I can't get away from my office during the week."
The man's gaze returns to the wrestling match on the TV before he grunts and reluctantly pushes himself off the stool. "Your mother's name?"
"Vivian Sims. Unit 1402."
"You got a key?"
"I thought you kept"
"You lock it, you keep the key. But that's okay. If you've got a letter from Myers, we can get in."
Todd reaches for a pair of long-handled bolt cutters on the wall, then pushes his way through the swinging gate at the side of the counter. Without so much as a sidelong glance at my letter, he heads toward the entrance. "Come on."
"Wait." I unfold the page and point to the date. "According to this, my mother's contract expired three months ago. I think I owe you some money."
Todd halts, an uncertain look on his face. "You owe me?" "Your company. I didn't know my mother's contract expired, and I couldn't get here until today. So I'm overdue. Or my mother is."
He gives me a lopsided smile. "Then let her pay it." "I would, but she died eighteen months ago." "Oh." Todd squinches his face into a question mark. "Um
our bookkeeper doesn't come in on Saturdays."
I smooth the letter on the counter and try to be patient. "It wouldn't be hard to figure out how much I owe you. We take the total amount due per year and divide by twelve, then multiply by three. I'd be happy to write you a"
"Tell you what, lady" Todd winks at me "consider it on the house. So let's head out"
"I'd rather not," I answer, returning his smile in full measure. "And I think your boss would rather I paid the extra rent, don't you?"
"But the guy who does the billing's not" "Have him call me on Monday." I pull a business card from my wallet and snap it to the counter. "Now let's get that unit unlocked."
I blink as we step into a bright spring day, then I follow Todd to a rectangular building that seems to be composed of little more than beige cinder blocks and tangerine garage doors. He walks at a surprisingly quick pace, probably trying to hurry back to his wrestling match, and pauses outside a roll-up door spray-painted with a stenciled 1402.
He turns to squint at me. "You sure you don't got a key?" I shake my head. "I didn't even know Momrented this place." Todd swings the bolt cutters into position. "Musta signed a two-year contract. Take what you want. Anything left behind will be hauled to the dump by the close of business today. And here
" He pauses to pull a card from his pocket and hands it to me. "Call them if you find anything worth salvaging."
I glance at the crinkled card: Joseph's Coat Thrift Shop. Quality Donations Cheerfully Accepted.
I drop the card into my purse as he applies his considerable heft to the bolt cutters. I don't know what my mother stored in this unit; until I began to receive eviction notices, I didn't know this place existed behind the National Memorial Park.
With a loud snap, the bolt cutters bite through the steel hasp. Myers knocks the dangling lock with a knuckle, sending the broken mechanism rattling across the concrete floor. "Here ya go," he says, bending to lift the roll-up door.
He walks away, whistling, as I stand in the opening and stare at the shadowed remains of my mother's life. The space beyond is not large, nor is the unit crowded. Mom must have intended to use this place to store Christmas decorations or seasonal clothing. After she got sick, she might have forgotten about it. Heaven knows she had more important things to think about.
I spy a light switch on the cinder block wall and flip it. The fluorescent lights flicker and cast a greenish glow over a space that smells of mildew and dead rat. Two cardboard boxes sit next to a black-spotted silk ficus that has seen better days. A sofa rests against the opposite wall, covered by a stained bedsheet, and a maple headboard and footboard lean against the back of the unit. The curve of the headboard is familiar
. No wonder, it's part of my old bed.
I rake my hand through my hair and wonder if any of this stuff is worth a wasted Saturday and the possibility of a broken nail. Not much here, and certainly nothing of value. So why didn't Mom toss this junk out?
I step toward the first box and gingerly lift the lid. I expect to find pots and pans, or other useful objects Mother's frugal nature wouldn't allow her to throw away, but instead several manila file folders peek out at me.
I run my finger over the file tabs, reading Mother's neatly printed labels: Old Checks. Past Bank Statements. Utility Bills. Insurance Payments. Kevin.
I blink at the sight of my brother's name. Kevin has been gone more than twenty years, and the trunk containing his kindergarten art, catcher's mitt, and college diploma is mol-dering in my attic. So what has Mother saved here?
I pull the file from the box and flip it open. Inside I find Kevin's passport, riddled with red and green stamps, his Social Security card, and his birth certificate. His death certificate, signed by a doctor in Spain. The bulletin from the memorial service where we honored him, his wife, and their stillborn child. Two photographs of the matching urns at the columbarium. A faded Washington Post article reporting that a couple from Falls Church had died in Spain. And letters, many of them on official letterhead from the Crescent Chemical Company, the firm where my brother worked. All of them dated July 1986, the month Kevin died.
I walk to the sofa and toss back the sheet. Dust motes pirouette in the light, but the upholstered surface is clean. I settle into the corner of the couch and open the file on my lap. After holding my finger under my nose to resist a sneeze, I flip through the papers again, and this time a distinctive letterhead catches my eye. One letter, dated two days after my brother's death, is from a doctor working for the Central Intelligence Agency.
Why would someone from the CIA write Mom about my brother?
"Hey, Judson says. "We pulled off a flawless operation. High five."
He rolls over to me and holds up his large brown hand, which I slap only because I know he likes this little ritual. Dr. Mewton has headed off to her office, leaving us alone in the operations room.