Cloak and Dagger
Like any decent private school, Holy Trinity had a good back story. It was built in the 1800s, where it had initially been constructed as a mission. The original chapel remained in the heart of the school and was used for assemblies and graduation. Many people admired the sprawling stucco buildings—carefully designed in imitation of the Spanish Colonial Revival style—and we were reminded on a daily basis how lucky we were to attend a school with such a pristine and historical campus.
I would have been happy to go to an ordinary public school, like the rest of my friends from Lewis and Clark Junior High, but my parents pushed me to go to Holy Trinity because—well, private school had status and prestige. Several female senators had gone to and graduated from Holy Trinity, as well as a number of female lawyers, doctors, and some moderately successful business women.
That's right, Holy Trinity is an All Girl's School. And yes, that is just as bad as it sounds.
I slipped through the door, trying to keep my messenger bag from hitting against the frame. Senor Alvarez glanced up from the roll sheet as I slunk into my seat. "Late again, Parker," he said.
"Sorry, professor," I mumbled, digging my Spanish workbook out of my backpack. A lot of girls, including my friend Renee, thought he was incredibly hot—he was from Spain, and had the whole 'brooding Spaniard' thing down pat—but I found him mean and obnoxious.
I suspected the feeling was mutual.
It was during times like this when I wished my father was somebody powerful, if only so that the professors wouldn't screw with me. The uniforms were supposed to hide financial status, but everyone knew. I mean, these are teenage girls we're talking about—they're attracted to money the way electrons are attracted to protons. Unfortunately, my dad was just a programmer.
I'd always been interested in computers, too, although I wasn't very good at using them. Holy Trinity offered an introductory programming course, which I'd taken as a junior. I'd gotten an A but had to work for it. My dad had once said that technology was a key with which one could open many doors. The problem, he went on, was that many of those doors shouldn't be opened, so you had to be careful.
We'd been in the kitchen, my parents between business trips, just one normal family. Mom had been preparing sandwiches but at my dad's words she had stilled. "Why do you have to be careful?" I asked.
My parents had exchanged a long look. "Just because you can do something doesn't mean you necessarily should do it," Dad said, drumming his fingers on the table as he took a sip of his coffee. "With great power comes great responsibility," he added.
I had rolled my eyes. "Dad, please. You work at a software firm. What harm could you possibly do?"
At which point he had gone curiously silent.
Three days later, and I was still replaying that moment in my head, trying to analyze those secretive looks and the unspoken exchange between my mom and dad. What had my dad been trying to say? That he had, in a burst of egotism, opened one of those doors that shouldn't have been opened—and regretted it? If so, what had happened to make him go all silent like that?
"Turn to página catorce," Alvarez said in his lisping accent, "And we will correct the homework."
I turned to the corresponding page, glancing out the window as I did so. The foreign language section was on the second floor of the humanities building, with a great view of the soccer field. Today, though, the skies were a dark gray that promised rain and the scheduled soccer match had been postponed until next week. Jesus, how long was this class again? An hour? I was going to die.
Behind me, Jen Yook and Sara Sung were prattling in rapid bursts of Korean. Alvarez turned to them and said, "Chicas. Please. This is a Spanish class, not a UN convention. I only want to hear Spanish."
The two girls nodded their assent and he called on a girl named Elizabeth to read the first answer.
As I corrected the multitude of mistakes on my paper, my dad's final warning from that morning echoed in my ears. Promise me, Christina, that you will never open Pandora's Box. It had been so strange that I'd chalked it up to work-related stress and hadn't said much more than, "Sure thing, dad." But now, I wondered if there had been something more to his words than I'd previously thought.
"Christina, por favor, lee numero cinco."
And, pushing such concerns from my head, I did.
+ II + II +
+ II + II +
Michael bought a one-way ticket to Barton, Oregon at the airport. In his expensive suit, he played the successful young entrepreneur just well enough that nobody would try and get in his way.
"May I see some ID?" the officer asked.
With a polite smile, he handed her his card. Edward Collins; 6'2", blond hair, green eyes.
She glanced at the picture, at his face, and waved him through.
On the airplane, he pulled out his laptop and accessed the file he had hastily constructed on Rubens Parker while he had been waiting in the airport's terminal. It was disguised as a company report. The words of the real plan were typed in boldface font.
Even though he could have recited it from memory, Michael skimmed through the information it contained. The man was a forty-six years old programmer, who held a fairly high-ranking position in the computer industry. His wife was thirty-nine; an ex-model from the Dominican Republic. She spent most of her free time designing clothes for her own fashion line. They had one child, an eighteen year-old daughter who was attending a reputable all-girl's school and on the fast track to Reed.
Pretty thing. Idly, he wondered what the parents might pay to get their precious daughter back. Taking hostages was messy but, if well-executed, the financial gain alone could make it worthwhile.
And if I were them, he thought, I'd pay a lot.
"Would you like anything to drink?" the flight attendant asked with an inviting smile.
"No, thank you," he said, without looking at her. "Perhaps later."
Her face fell in disappointment. She turned away without a word.
Since he was in first class, there were only a few other passengers; two men of Middle Eastern descent talking quietly while keeping a close eye on their stocks, a businessman, and an elderly gentlewoman that looked British though when she spoke to the attendant, her voice carried a flat, Southern twang.
None of these people particularly interested him, but he was always alert. The IMA had many enemies.
After a few minutes, when he was certain nobody was paying any attention to him, Michael picked up the phone provided in his seat and dialed the number he had committed to memory in the terminal. "Hello, my name is Edward Collins, I'm new at Debutech. Yes, I quite enjoy it."
The person on the other line was clearly eager to strike up a conversation on this slow Thursday afternoon. He listened for about a minute and then got down to brass tracks. "Listen, one of my coworkers dropped a piece of personal mail in my briefcase by mistake—a Rubens Parker—and it looks quite urgent."
"No, I'm afraid I can't bring it in. See, I'm on a flight as we speak. I'm visiting my kids in California. Yes, divorced. Tell you what, why don't you just give me his home address and I'll mail it to him myself."
He listened and nodded.
"I know, I figured this wasn't normal protocol, but the return address is smeared—must have been from last night's rain. Mailmen can be so careless. Otherwise, I would have taken the initiative myself. No, it's no trouble." He typed out an address in the open file. "No, thank you."
His smile, as he hung up the phone, was fiercely triumphant.
+ II + II +
+ II + II +
I turned around to see Renee galloping after me as fast as her school books would allow, which wasn't all that fast. She was pretty, blond, and poster child for the privileged upper-caste. That's what I thought, anyway, before I learned just how hard she worked to project that image of herself.
Really, she wasn't much more privileged than I was. Her father was a CEO, but a minor one, and she had told me some things about herself that shocked me so deeply, that I wouldn't even believe her at first—not from someone who seemed so strong. So flawless.
I guess it just goes to show that we've all got something to hide.
"Hi," I said, making room for her on the sidewalk. "I didn't see you in Spanish. Did you cut?"
Renee rolled her eyes. "All members of the student council got to leave so we could plan for the dance. We've already talked with St. John's"—an all-boy's school—"and they're co-hosting." She flashed a quick, tense smile. "Isn't that exciting? It feels like years since I've last laid eyes on a boy."
I loathed the St. John's boys. They hung out in front of Holy Trinity sometimes, hassling some of the younger girls as they walked home. "How's that going?" I asked.
"The dance? Like a train wreck. We had to postpone the dance a week because the stupid orchestra dorks have practice that night and they need the gym for rehearsal. And I still don't have a date."
She may be on the student council but I hold that she should have gone for drama, since she's got such a penchant for theatrics. "Oh, well," I said lightly, "It's not like the world's going to end."
"So are your elusive parents actually home?"
"Nope." I grimaced, twisting my unruly hair into a bun. "Hawaii, I think. I wasn't listening."
"On a show?" Renee is obsessed with my mother's clothes. It is her dream to own a de Silva purse.
"Just leisure. And no, before you ask, her dresses still cost upwards of a thousand dollars."
Renee sighed. "Your mom is so cool. I wish I had a fashion designer as a mom."
"No, you don't," I said. "It's a total pain. She's never home. And I'm too fat to wear any of her clothes."
She gave me a look I knew well. "You're not fat, Chris."
"Tell that to my mom. She's always saying to me, 'Size sixteen? How can you be a size sixteen? When I was your age I was size four.' As my self-esteem wasn't low enough already," I said flatly.
Renee rolled her eyes. "What time did they leave?"
"Early. Like five in the morning. Before I woke up."
"That's weird," Renee said. "My dad said he saw your dad this morning at Radio Shack."
"Really?" I frowned. That was odd. Come to think of it, my parents had been acting very odd lately.
Especially my dad.
But I still didn't see why they would lie to me.
"Maybe he needed a security device," Renee suggested, "Or a new cell phone. You know, for the trip."
"Maybe." My voice was doubtful. They had told me that the plane was leaving early that morning. Had they postponed the trip? If so, why? Last week, they had seemed quite anxious to leave. Or was I just being paranoid? This was the airport, after all. Flights got canceled and delayed all the time.
I couldn't squash the anxiety that gnawed at my gut. Something about the whole situation seemed incredibly wrong. I just couldn't pinpoint where.
"Well, that's my ride." Renee waved goodbye as her aunt pulled up to the curb in a shadowy Mercedes. "See you tomorrow!"
I waved goodbye and continued down the street to my house; a large, two story mock-Tudor building. Our garden was carefully maintained by a man named Jose, and had been featured on the cover of a small, local magazine—much to my mother's delight. I entered through the side door, passing straight through the kitchen. Surprise, surprise, my parents weren't home.
My kitten, Dollface, was, though, and ran up to greet me. "Hi, Doll," I cooed, scratching him under the chin. He was a yellow tabby with a white tummy and white paws and had the privilege of being the most important boy in my life. Something that did not bode well for my future.
He purred obligingly and then trotted off to his cat dish, which was still full from this morning.
I went to the fridge, surprised to see that there was a note waiting for me, held in place by a single magnet. Christina—when you get home, call this number as soon as possible:
Ten digits were listed below my mother's feminine script. Odd.
I dumped my backpack on the linoleum and helped myself to a sandwich from the fridge. I wasn't concerned. My mother tended to overreact. Whereas my father was the stolid, logical one, my mother was the dramatic one who liked to pretend life was one, giant soap opera where she had center stage.
I told myself that if the problem was really bad, she would have called my cell phone or left a message with the school. No, I thought, pouring a few potato chips on my plate. Mom probably just wanted to remind me to take my vitamin D, or something. Besides, I had more pressing concerns. Like studying for my Spanish test tomorrow. And finding a date.
Eating as I walked, I relocated to the living room and switched on the TV. My dad had left the news on from this morning. A blond woman with too much hairspray was saying, "—secret terrorist organization was discovered due to an unlucky hacker's computer exploits—"
Terrorist organization? Yikes. Guess dad was right. I paused for a few moments, with my finger hovering over the channel button, curious, but no further details were given. I surfed several more channels, but none of them yielded anything more promising. I settled for reruns of an old cartoon show from the 90's.
During the next commercial break, I took my plate to the kitchen. My eyes went to my mother's note again. What time was it? Six o' clock? I should probably call her so she wouldn't jump the gun and do something drastic, like phoning the police. I punched in the number, twirling the cord around my finger as it rang. Hopefully, she wouldn't be too worried. For somebody who used to be a professional model, my mother was incredibly disorganized and neurotic.
There was a faint click and then I was put through, but the connection was terrible. The voice sounded familiar but I couldn't place it. "Christina, this is ... I have received ... warning from a powerful ... must get out ... house ... possible ... dangerous."
The voice went dead and I heard a beep.
With a frown, I redialed the number. Maybe if I heard it a second time ...
"The number you have dialed is no longer in service. Please hang up and try again."
Perhaps I'd pressed a wrong number or omitted one. I dialed again, this time with exaggerated slowness.
"The number you have dialed is no longer in service. Please hang up and try again."
The hand holding the phone fell limply to my side. What the hell was going on here?
I had always been told not to believe everything I heard. I'd also been told that the mind plays tricks on you when you are afraid. Those two things in combination should have been enough to quell my fears but they weren't; not even close. Even if the call meant nothing, even if it was a hoax, I was terrified. I was home alone, getting strange calls from someone who did not sound like my parents, and the only thing I wanted at that moment was reassurance from an adult that everything was going to be all right.
But my parents weren't here. They were halfway around the world by now and there was nobody else I could turn to ... Wait. That wasn't quite true. Renee. I could call Renee at home and ask if I could spend the night at her house. Her parents were well-versed in my mom and dad's erratic behavior.
I could still hear that disembodied voice in my head, chilling me to the had sounded like the person on the other end was saying that I must get out of the house as soon as possible because it was dangerous. That didn't make any sense to me—wouldn't it be safer to be in the house?
Unless, a small voice whispered, Somebody was already inside.
But that was too horrible to think about and I quickly brushed it aside, where it retreated to my unconscious and darkened my mood like a thundercloud.
Dollface trotted up to me and rubbed his face on my ankle. "Not right now, Doll," I said, scooping him up, ignoring the indignant mew he uttered in protest. "I'm going away for a little while. Out you go."
I could hear his paws scrabbling against the glass as I raced up the stairs, stumbling a little in my haste. My messenger bag was lying on the floor near my bed. I picked up the bag and dumped all my school crap onto my comforter, making room for a nightshirt and an extra set of clothes for tomorrow. After a moment's hesitation, I packed my Spanish book as well. No point in tempting fate.
A sudden creak made me jump. I told myself it was just the house settling but my heart was going about a mile a minute. "Oh my god," I muttered to myself, "Would you get a grip, Christina?" I picked up my cell phone from the nightstand and started to dial, shaking my head a little as I did so.
The sooner I got this over with, the better I'd feel.
The Spill Canvas's "Low Fidelity" came on. Then, over the music, I heard, "Hello, this is Renee. I'm not here right now but if you leave a message, I'll get back to you as soon as I can."
"Hi, Ren, this is—" I don't know why I chose that moment to look up, but I did. And I immediately wished I hadn't.
The only warning I got was a flash of black in the mirror over my dresser and a glimpse of a tall, shadowy man who didn't appear to have a face. In the time that it took me to blink, he grabbed me and my cell phone, which had been in my hand at the time, clattered to the floor. Slowly, disbelief gave way to utter terror and I inhaled reflexively for a scream that never got released.
A gloved hand had closed over my mouth before I could make a sound. The sour taste of leather filled my mouth. I shook my head wildly. "No," I screamed against his hand, "No, no, no — " before my words just dissolved into incomprehensible shrieking that not even the leather could fully mask.
Something hard and cylindrical pressed against my temple. I couldn't see it, but I knew what it was.
"Be quiet." My legs went weak. "It's not in my interests to hurt you," my assailant said, breath hot against my ear, "But I will." The voice was sexless, emotionless, and completely lacking in any discernible human characteristics. My voice shriveled up in my throat. There is nothing — I repeat, nothing — scarier than having to stare down the barrel of a gun, knowing that someone else can end your life just by twitching his or her finger.
"Is your name Christina Parker? Nod yes or no."
"Are you alone?"
Yes, I was utterly and inescapably alone but should this man know that? He'd already made it quite clear that laws meant nothing to him. He'd broken into my house and now he had a gun up to my head. What if he was going to rape me as well? What if he was going to kill me?
I shook my head frantically thinking, Please, oh God, let me get out of this situation and I swear, I'll start going to church again. Just don't let him hurt me. Please, please don't let him hurt me.
There was a long silence broken by a sound like a cannon shot. I jumped, unable to hold in the cry that escaped my lips as my phone exploded into dozens of twisted, metal shards that pelted against my legs, creating a stinging sensation I seemed to experience through a rubber skin.
"I don't miss twice." The small fragments crunched beneath his shoes as he shifted his weight. "I'll ask you once more. Are you alone?"
I nodded my head, feeling as if I had signed my own death warrant. Perhaps I had.
"Good," he said shortly. There was a hot, stinging pain, a flash of light, and then I blacked out.
+ II + II +
+ II + II +
Michael caught her as she slumped against him, noting that she was heavier than he'd initially thought.
Setting the gun on the floor, he pulled his silk, paisley tie out of his trouser pockets and bound her wrists behind her back. He pulled out an eye mask he'd gotten free from the airline and carefully adjusted it over her face. Then, after doing a thorough search of her school bag, he tossed in a few extra clothes, slung that over his shoulder, and dragged her down the stairs.
Rubens Parker had a nice house—low-key on the outside with tasteful furnishings. According to the information from the file, he had done away with several thousand dollars, stealing from various companies by a special virus that deducted small increments of money from the payroll. The increments were incredibly small, mere fractions of a penny, but the totals quickly added up over time. Fortunately, the IMA did all their transactions with cash, so this was not a problem for them. But still, a lesson needed to be learned.
Once they reached the living room, Michael opened his briefcase to reveal a small metal box with a black display panel. When he pressed a small button, a series of digits appeared in red. He pressed the button again and the numbers began to count down from fifteen. Someone would hear the explosion. One of the neighbors probably had the number for the hotel. When their daughter failed to show up to school the next day, the Parkers would wonder if the girl had been in the blast.
When they found out she was alive, there was no doubt that the IMA would have their full cooperation.
Michael hoisted the girl into the backseat of his black sedan, which he had prepared specially for the occasion: he had jammed the locking mechanisms on each of the passenger doors and replaced all of the windows with bulletproof glass. Not that he expected gunfire, but one could never be too careful.
He eyed her to make sure there wasn't any damage. There was a nasty bump forming where he'd pistol-whipped her but she was in otherwise perfect condition. He'd forgotten how delicate people, especially women, could be—he wasn't used to keeping them alive.
But Richardson wouldn't have his ass over one measly bruise. He'd gotten his quarry.
Before starting the car, he pulled out his own phone. Subject acquired, proceeding to step 2. The IMA had a safe house in the Cascade Mountains; a small cabin surrounded by forest, with the nearest town ten miles away. It was the perfect hideaway. When he was sure the message had been sent, he ran the phone over with his car.
Twelve minutes later, he heard the scream of sirens in the distance. But try as they might, the only evidence the police would find was rubble and the crushed remains of a black cell phone.
+ II + II +
+ II + II +
I woke up and, to my horror, I couldn't move. I couldn't see. And then it all came flooding back—the strange man—the gun—my phone being blown apart. I shuddered. Over the sound of my own racing heart I could make out the faint but unmistakable purr of a car engine and someone else's breathing.
A strange sound left my mouth, almost like a backwards scream, as I twisted around, desperately trying to free myself. "Who's there?" I cried. "Where am I? What did you do to me?"
"There's no need for you to see where we're going."
The sound of that unpleasantly familiar voice made me jerk in place: it was the voice of the man who had held me at gunpoint in my bedroom and then knocked me unconscious. I was so startled that it took a moment for the implication of his words to sink in. "What do you mean?" I stammered, "Where are you taking me?"
His silence allowed me to jump to my own terrifying conclusions. Why was I being kidnapped? My family wasn't powerful, or even particularly interesting. My father spent all day in front of computers, deciphering, writing, and rearranging code. And sure, we had our flaws like everyone else but we were good people, for the most part. There were no skeletons in our cedar closets. I couldn't figure out what I had done to draw this dark man into my life.
I'm not sure how long we drove before we stopped — it could have been hours or minutes. I heard the car door slam and then my door opened. Something hard and plastic pressed against my lips. I jerked my head back, causing liquid to soak the front of my blouse. "What is that?"
"Water. Drink it." His voice was hard and brooked no argument. I thought he might have a faint accent but if he did, he hid it well. I filed that information away, in case it could be useful.
"I'm not thirsty."
He pinched my nose until I was forced to open my mouth to breathe and poured the water in. Choking, I gagged it down, spitting water everywhere in the process. It certainly tasted like water but what if it was poisoned? Would he go through the process of kidnapping me just to kill me? It didn't make sense.
As if reading my mind, he said, briskly, "It isn't poisoned. One more sip."
I spat out the water and he squeezed my jaw. His fingers were gloveless and the contact made me wince. "Listen to me. Don't talk. Just listen. One of my men is stationed right your parents' hotel." I gasped and twisted my head but his grip only tightened. "He's waiting in a black sedan, wearing a Hawaiian shirt, sharpening a knife. All I have to do is give the word, and you'll be an orphan."
"No! Don't hurt them!" My voice was hoarse. "I'll—I'll drink it."
The water was warm, as if he'd kept it in the car all day. I swallowed it with a grimace and then my car door slammed again. I felt the car shift as he got back behind the wheel. This was man was in charge of my fate. I couldn't remember ever feeling this scared and helpless in my entire life.
The steady rumble of the car's engine made me want to go back to sleep. I closed my eyes, feeling darkness slip over me. I was so tired ... like I might float away. Wait a minute, that wasn't right! How could I possibly sleep at a time like this, with so much adrenaline in my system? Unless ...
My eyes snapped open, still covered by the blindfold, and I questioned, "What was in the water?"
He didn't respond. He didn't seem bothered by how upset I was. A tight feeling formed in my stomach. He was inhuman. He had to be. Nobody could possibly be this cold.
"What was in the water?" I screamed. "Tell me! Was it poison? Am I going to die?"
He switched on the radio. Loud music came on.
I am the bullet in the gun
I am the truth from which you run
"If I intended to kill you, you'd already be dead, sweetheart."
That bastard. I hated condescending names. Hated them.
I fought to stay awake but whatever he put in the water must have been strong, because I could feel the need for rest overwhelming me, as if my whole body was fatigued. The raging sound of the music grew fainter and fainter, until, at last, it disappeared and sleep swallowed me up like a black hole.
(I am the silencing machine)
+ II + II +
+ II + II +
Author's note: Song lyrics in italics are property of Nine Inch Nails.
Reznor, Trent. "Self Destruction, Part Two." Lyrics. Further Down the Spiral. Nothing, 1995.