1. A Cooked Goose

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“Easy as pie,” the man at the pay phone murmured, a calling card in one hand. “Just swipe the card, dial the number, and talk.” His left hand trembled softly as he swiped the calling card. Gritting his teeth, he dialed the number very slowly, punching each button carefully, as if afraid his hand would betray him.

Mater Anatidae Chronographic,” the automated voice response system said pleasantly, “please speak the name of the individual you wish to be connected to.

“Huburt A. Fife,” the man said slowly, his voice pitched low, “go secure.”

One moment,” the phonebot replied. A faintly discerned series of clicks and beeps were heard on the phone line. Then it began to ring. The man forced himself to relax, or at least project the illusion of being relaxed, keeping his free hand from drifting down to his hip to press against the bandaged wound under his dark brown slacks.

Dickory,” the voice at the other end said without preamble. “What happened?

“We’ve been burned, Doc. Bad.”

A long pause. “How bad?

“Hickory’s gone. I’m marked.”

You’re on the move?

“Yeah, but it’s just running for now. I don’t know where I can go that I know is safe.”

There’s a bolthole in Denbury. You know the one.

Dickory shook his head. “It’s been compromised. Couple of babysitters were outside waiting to see who showed up. I also tried the one in Westchester. Same story.”

Contacts? Safe houses?

“Burned to the ground, Doc. The whole damned network.”

There was a very long pause. Dickory could almost hear Doc thinking as the magnitude of what Dickory had told him was absorbed. Months to build and only moments to ruin. Such was the nature of their work.

“Doc?”

I’m thinking, Dickory.

“Think faster. I don’t know how much head start I have left.”

More silence. Then, a soft sigh. “You want to know something really sickening? I half-expected this sort of thing to happen. I knew who we were going after, I knew it was going to provoke a response, and I knew deep down in my gut that you and I would be having this exact conversation. ‘Course, I suspected Hickory would be with you, waiting in the car, flashing the headlights all impatient like.” Another sigh. “You have a pen and paper on you?

“Yeah,” Dickory replied, grabbing a copy of the local tabloid.

I’m going to re-route you back to the phonebot. When it asks you for the name of the person you want to talk to, give it the name ‘Damocles.’ Write down the response. Don’t muff it, because it will not repeat.

“What about you?”

What happens to me is not your problem. If we’re burned as badly as you say, then right now, the only person you should be worrying about is you. Walk away, Dickory. Don’t look back. Remember your tradecraft and you will survive this.

Dickory gritted his teeth again. The professional in him knew that what Doc was telling him was correct. It was one of the cardinal rules of tradecraft. You didn’t survive on good intentions and stupid heroics. When you were burned, you became ash, and you scattered to the winds. And that would mean leaving friends, family, even comrades behind. He’d wanted so badly to get Hickory out. The adrenaline and the terror of the moment driving away his training for an instant. The frantic hope that he could get Hickory to a doctor who could remove the bullet from his friend’s gut and not get them both killed in the process. Dickory snarled softly through his teeth as he remembered that flat-eyed stare Hickory gave him, those cold dead tones in his friend’s voice asking for the thermite grenade. Now he was being asked to do it again. Twice in one night. Walk away from the two men who he considered not only the best in the business but his closest friends. It had never seemed real before. The slightest possibility that a fiasco of this scope could happen just never entered into his mind. And here it was, swallowing the project and his friends whole.

I know you don’t want to do it,” Doc told him gently, “but I imagine you want your ticket punched even less. I’m sorry about Hickory, for what that may be worth, but he died on the slim hope you’d get out alive. Don’t betray that hope fussing over me. I’m old, but I’m not helpless, and I can take care of myself.

Taking a deep breath, Dickory squared his shoulders. “All right, Doc. Do it. And watch your back.”

Tread softly, boy.” There was a small series of clicks, then the phonebot came back on.

Mater Anatidae Chronographic,” the automated voice response system said pleasantly, “please speak the name of the individual you wish to be connected to.

“Damocles.”

Another series of clicks and beeps. Then another recorded voice came on, a deeper gruffer voice, relaying a series of coordinates and the words “dead drop.” Then a short high pitched squeal, then a click and dead silence.

* * *

“Dimes, wake up, man.”

Daryll Tenner’s eyes snapped open at the gentle shake of his shoulder. He glanced over at his seatmate, Jacob Marchuk, seeing the shooter’s deceptively soft brown eyes lighten a little. “I’m awake,” Tenner replied quietly.

“Good. We’ll be landing at Narita in about fifteen minutes. Just wanted to make sure you didn’t need to take a leak or anything.”

“Nah. I’m good.”

Marchuk’s eyebrows dropped a little, a look of concern forming on his vulpine face. “You OK, Dimes? You didn’t look like you were sleeping all that good.”

“Just dreams is all, Trigger. I’m good. Really.”

“You remember what the dreams were about?” Questions like that made it easier to reconcile Marchuk’s lean hard looks with the masters in clinical psychology he held.

Tenner just shook his head. “Nope. Probably better that way.”