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Thursday, October 2, 5:25p.m.
David Martin had the training pool to himself. The fading sunlight filtered through the windows near the ceiling, casting long pale slashes across the deck. While other people finished paperwork or made dinner plans, he soaked up the peace and quiet of the water. It was his sanctuary, the one place he could always get away from any worries. The only thing better would be time out on the oceanor under it. He hadn't had a real dive in months, and since his boat was stored closer to his family in Georgia, the pool would have to suffice for today.
He pushed his body through a freestyle sprint the length of the pool, filled his lungs on the turn and then dove deep, dolphin-kicking the return lap on that single breath. He repeated the process until the timer on his watch went off. Switching to backstroke, he let his body cool down. As his lungs recovered, his mind drifted over the implications of his upcoming meeting with his boss, Director Thomas Casey.
The brief email had bordered on cryptic, which wasn't unusual considering the unique covert operations team he'd joined two years ago. One specific phrase in the email had brought David down to swim and think: lifetime assignment.
He understood commitment as it pertained to career, family and country, having completed his education and given six years to the Coast Guard. Unfortunately, the phrase reminded him too much of the matchmaking his three oldest sisters kept attempting on his behalf. They used words like stability, comfort, nieces and nephews. As if their own kids didn't keep everyone busy enough. Curse of being the youngest and the only boy in a big Southern family, he thought. He loved them all and appreciated the buffer of distance his skills and career choices had given him. The Coast Guard had been a smart fit, and not even his sisters had ever worked up the nerve to argue about his professional dedication. Now, believing he worked a normal day job in DC, they manipulated blind dates and chance meetings every time he was home, hoping to reel him back in and settle him down near the family home.
They seemed impervious to his personal timetable. At thirty, he wasn't ready to do the wife and kids thing. He liked the excitement and the challenge of being a Specialist on Thomas Casey's elite team. While he understood that going out and making a difference in the world didn't rule out relationshipsplenty of Specialists had personal livesit sure put a damper on permanence. He wasn't ready for that. Not yet. There was plenty of time to find the right woman.
Lifetime assignment. The two words echoed through his head as his strokes sliced through the water. What kind of threat had Director Casey taking that kind of measure? He bounced around the pros and cons, despite the lack of specific information. It couldn't be anything anonymous like witness protection. Casey knew David maintained close ties to family, despite his near-obsessive meddling sisters. Whatever prompted this type of precaution, David knew he couldn't accept a permanent assignment in a landlocked area. Being raised on the Georgia coast, he needed the ocean as much as fresh air and sunshine.
His watch flashed and sounded another alarm, and David finished his lap. Pulling himself out of the pool, he sat at the edge, feet dangling in the water. It was silly to keep wondering. There was only one way to find out if Casey's lifetime assignment would suit him. Hearing the slap of flip-flops, he looked up and smiled. "Hey, Noah," he said, raising a hand. He and Noah Drake had discovered their mutual appreciation of the coast when they were tasked together on a water rescue mission. The fellow Specialist and artist maintained a house on one of Georgia's barrier islands and allowed David to use it when he wanted to dive in the area.
"Am I interrupting?" Noah inquired, tossing the towel in his hands onto a nearby chair.
"No. Just finished up and got lost in thought."
"It happens," Noah said with a commiserating smile. "I know this is early, but Blue is already planning the annual New Year's bash on the island. You're welcome to join us again."
"That could be good." Depending on his upcoming meeting. "I had a great time last year." It had been the ideal excuse to dodge the romantic trap his sisters had set in motion. "Thanks for the heads-up."
"Sure." Noah stepped back as David stood. "There's been some noise about a new shipwreck discovered nearby. I thought you'd like to take a look."
"Definitely." Any time he could get underwater was a good thing. His parents often joked he should have flippers and gills instead of feet and lungs. He rubbed a towel over his hair again and looped it around his neck. "Thanks, man."
"You got it," Noah said. "Just remember your friends if you find some unclaimed treasure."
David laughed to himself as Noah walked away. He rarely stopped to think about how much he appreciated the friends he'd made here. A lifetime assignment could mean the end of those connections. His mother's wisdom came to mind. Much as she'd done when he joined the Coast Guard, she'd remind him that moving on was part of life and that true friends and good family weren't limited by geography.
Pushing the questions to the back of his mind, he showered and dressed for the meeting. Director Casey didn't waste resources, human or otherwise, and David needed to go in prepared to listen and make a swift decision. Casey would expect nothing less.
David checked his reflection, satisfied with the pressed khakis and black cable-knit sweater. He pushed his thick, dark hair back from his face, missing the military regulation cut he'd maintained during his Coast Guard service. Specialists had to be less obvious and able to blend in with civilians, so he'd let it grow a bit longer since moving to Casey's team.
With an open mind and no small amount of curiosity, David rode the elevator to the offices upstairs. His shoes squeaked as he crossed the polished marble floor, and he grinned at the receptionist waiting for him when he swiped his key card and walked through the glass doors.
"Hey, Elizabeth. Is Director Casey ready for me?"
She nodded. "I'll let him know you're headed his way."
David gave a little double tap on the countertop surrounding her like a bunker. "Thanks."
With each step he coached himself to keep an open mind, to hear it all before he leaped in with both feet. Casey's door was open, but David knocked on the door anyway. His boss made eye contact over his computer monitor and waved him on in. David entered and closed the door behind him. He paused at the guest chairs, feeling an unexpected bout of nerves.
"Have a seat," Casey said. "You read the email?"
David nodded. "A few times."
"Good. I was just going over your employment and service records. Before we go any further, remember you can always turn down an assignment."
David had yet to meet a Specialist who'd done that. "I'm hoping for more information before I make a commitment."
"Of course," Casey acknowledged.
He leaned back into what David termed a leadership pose, his hands resting lightly on the padded armrests of his executive chair. The body language appeared open, but David knew better. The director had forgotten more secrets than any of his Specialists had racked up.
"How do you feel about hospitals?" the boss asked.
David bit back the immediate questions, knowing Casey would provide information in good time. "As a lifetime assignment? I'm probably only qualified to be a janitor." He definitely didn't want to make a lasting career of mopping floors.
"We can do better than that," Casey promised. "If you agree to accept this post, you'll go in as yourself, with your service record intact through the Coast Guard years. We'll smooth over what you've done since."
So far so good, David thought. He could be himself, maintain the ties to friends and family and still be part of a bigger purpose.
"You'll be posted in Charleston, South Carolina, and we have plans to insert you as part of the staff at MUSC."
Having grown up in Georgia, David was familiar with the shorthand reference for the Medical University of South Carolina facility. "My accent should fit right in there."
Casey exhibited a rare smile. "Agreed." He leaned forward, pushing a manila folder across the desk. "Aside from a decent-paying nine-to-five job, you could be a part of local dive communities and coastal action."
The director knew which buttons to push. "You sound like a recruiter promising me hobbies and a social life beyond the job," David said, wary of the inevitable catch. "I'm sure you didn't design this position for me."
Casey seemed to sigh without making a sound. "I want some long-range plans in place before I retire. Every day we hear more chatter about strikes aimed our way. Placing dedicated assets in key areas is the best way to safeguard our interests and prevent the loss of innocent lives.
"This is a lifetime placement. You'll still be a Specialist and expected to report as you would on any other mission," Casey went on. "If and when we encounter problems in Charleston or the general region, you'll be called to help."
Sounded too good to be true, and still David was interested. "Count me in."
"All right." Casey's nod showed more grit than approval or enthusiasm. "Charleston has a few choice targets from the ports to the nuclear school, to the prison at the Naval Weapons Station."
David's background and skills would be a more natural fit in any one of those places. He waited, stifling his rising curiosity, to hear the reason he was headed for a desk job inside the hospital instead.
"Intel has confirmed an immediate threat potential at MUSC. A research scientist has been working on implanted devices that could change the way we track criminals and people involved with terrorist actions. Despite precautions, word is out that he's nearly perfected the biotech. Naturally, as a matter of national security, we keep a close eye on things like this. The most recent reports indicate a terrorist cell mightI emphasize that for a reasonhave a way to get close to him. We're working to clarify who knows what."
At the director's urging, David opened the manila folder and skimmed through the doctor's background. The official head shot for Dr. Franklin Palmer was accompanied by an extensive list of degrees, publications and apparent accomplishments.
"If you take this placement," Casey explained, "we'll get you inserted at the hospital and find a house for you near a nurse who works at MUSC. The nurse has a close personal connection to Dr. Palmer."
David glanced up from the page outlining Palmer's early project. "These results are amazing."
"Yes," Casey agreed. "Unless the technology falls into the hands of our enemies."
"That's where I come in?"
"Primarily. You'll need to befriend the nurse, Terri Barnhart." He signaled for David to flip to a marker in the file. "We can't afford to let anyone use her as leverage against Palmer. Her brother went missing in early September, a month after he started college at Northern Arizona University. She reported him missing to local authorities when she became aware of the situation, but the investigation never really went anywhere."
David studied the candid picture of the nurse and her brother at what must have been move-in day. He noticed that Trey Barnhart at twenty-two was older than the average freshman. The stat made him curious. "For an adult, with no sign of foul play, why bother?"
"That would be why the investigation stalled out," Casey replied. "It seems the brother just gave up and walked away from school one day. Left all his personal belongings behind in his dorm room."
"Your sources say there's more to it?"
"Possibly," Casey allowed. "We don't have solid proof, but we think he's been picked up by a group called Rediscover near Sedona."
"Lots of New Age stuff out that way," David said.
Casey nodded. "This group can't seem to figure out if they're a peace-preaching cult or a terrorist cell. The public rhetoric centers on self-discovery, independence and less government. According to the few people who've parted ways with the group, the deeper you go in the process, the more you learn about the conspiracy theories and ugly intentions at the core. The financials are suspicious. A few questionable deals, some protests, along with a list of shady associates, has put them on the watch list."
"History of violence?"
"Yes. They are violent and very thorough. If Redis-cover's leaders know about Dr. Palmer's research, they would've done their homework. Recruiting Trey Barn-hart could give them the access or leverage they need to interfere with the project."
"Pretty convenient having someone connected to the doctor show up for school in Flagstaff."
"Exactly. My team has been playing catch-up on this, trying to pinpoint if the group targeted Trey from the beginning. It's all in the file."
David closed the folder and drummed his fingertips on it, weighing the options. "Sounds like I tell my family I've changed jobs. They'll be thrilled I'm relocating to Charleston. Close enough to visit on every holiday."
"Will that be a problem?"
"Not a bit." David shrugged. "I've had three decades of practice dealing with my sisters. I'm less sure about becoming a home owner." When Casey arched an eyebrow, he quickly added, "Just kidding. If you want me in Charleston, that's where I'll be. Any rules on communications?"
"The typical mission parameters will be in place," Casey explained. "You can always call in if there's a problem. We'll provide new intel as it comes in. You'll be on the front lines, but the Specialists will always have your back."
"And after you retire?"
"You won't be forgotten. My replacement will be fully briefed on your ongoing mission."
"Guess I'd better pack and tell my landlord I'm out."
"Take another minute," Casey cautioned. "This is a serious, permanent commitment that will last far beyond Dr. Palmer's project. I won't think any less of you if you turn it down."
David wanted to accept the post immediately. Instead, he took the director's advice and stood and crossed the well-appointed office to the window. He shoved his hands into his pockets and just soaked up the view. Several stories below, beyond a heavy tree line, the cityscape sparkled on the horizon. "I won't be mopping floors?" he asked without turning.
Casey chuckled. "No. We're working you into the human resources department."
David absorbed that detail, though he'd made his decision when the director mentioned Charleston. He hadn't been there in years, but he had fond memories. His biggest concern was whether or not he could handle the routine of a nine-to-five job. He'd started working at the age of eleven mowing yards and washing cars. When he'd learned to scuba dive he'd worked his way through high school and college leading dive tours and helping with rescues. The closest he'd come to a normal job had been his time with the Coast Guard. There had been daily routines and drills, but the work had never been static or boring.
It was Charleston, he thought, shifting his focus. The day job wasn't the point; it was the cover. Between the real mission and the area in general, if the day job dragged there would always be something to keep him busy after hours. He turned around, walked back to Casey's desk and eyed the closed folder. "I'm in."
Casey stood and reached across the desk to shake David's hand. "Thank you for your service," he said, his tone grave.
The director's demeanor was a bit unnerving. Thomas Casey always maintained a serious calm during a briefing. Either the job or this particular assignment rested heavier than most across his shoulders.
"Head down to the equipment room and they'll get you set for an immediate transition."
David said goodbye and walked out, wondering when he'd see the director or the team offices again. He didn't know much about human resources, though he could learn. Getting up to speed on a desk job would be much faster than posing as a medical tech or expert. His boss wanted him in Charleston sooner rather than later to protect the project. Looking at the surface details on this doctor, the nurse and the missing brother, David knew some sort of serious adventure was guaranteed. And that was just the type of work he thrived on.