Today's Reading

"Hey, old man," she said, grabbing a menu. "What are we having?"

Marcus tensed, though he didn't take the woman for a threat. "And you would be?"

"Your new partner," she said without looking up.

"I beg your pardon?"

"Wow, Ryker, you really are old—lost your hearing, have you?" she quipped, now looking up as the waitress approached the booth. "Coffee—black; scrambled eggs—dry; and...do you have asparagus?"

"'Course," said the waitress.

"Good—then a side of asparagus instead of the hash browns, if that's all right."

"You got it." The waitress smiled and turned to Marcus. "And you?"

"Give us a minute, okay?" he said, and she shrugged and headed to the kitchen.

Marcus turned back to the mystery woman across from him. Younger than him by nearly a decade, she looked to be about thirty or thirty- one, with light-brown skin, chocolate-brown eyes, and jet-black hair tied back in a ponytail. She had an athletic build and struck Marcus as a runner. She wore no rings—no jewelry of any kind, actually—and her hands were calloused and strong. Her nails were unpainted and carefully trimmed. She wore a jean jacket over a black turtleneck, and he had no doubt that under the jacket was an automatic pistol.

Before he could speak, she slid a leather case across the table. Marcus recognized it immediately, as he'd recently been given one of his own. Sure enough, when he opened it, he found the woman's badge and ID. Her full name was Kailea Theresa Curtis, and she was a DSS special agent.

"Your buddy Pete won't be coming. He's in a meeting," she said.

"With whom?"

"The director."

"Why?"

"I'm afraid he's getting some bad news—he's not cleared for field duty."

"Why not?"

"His arm isn't healing properly. He needs another surgery. It's scheduled for Wednesday. So I've been assigned to you. We've got three days to prep for the NSA's trip to the Middle East, and we fly out Tuesday night."

She was referring to the president's national security advisor, General Barry Evans. This was the first Marcus was hearing about any trip. Neither the director of DSS nor his real boss, CIA director Richard Stephens, had said a word. But for some reason he believed her.

Suddenly his phone buzzed. He was getting a text.

"That's me," Kailea said. "Now you've got my number."

His phone rang. This time it was Pete.

"Where are you?" Marcus asked. "I thought we were supposed to—"

But Pete cut him off, and Marcus just listened as Pete relayed the same information Kailea had. A minute later, Marcus set his phone down on the table.

"You see, old man? I really was telling the truth." The woman smiled. "Now try to stay with me. We've got a briefing at Langley at eleven with the rest of the general's detail. So get yourself some breakfast and let's hit the road. Got it?" Then, raising her voice as if she were talking to someone in a retirement home, she said, "GOT THAT? BREAKFAST NOW. BRIEFING LATER."

Marcus held his tongue and sipped his coffee. "So, Agent Curtis, what's your story?"

Before she could answer, though, an explosion pierced the morning calm.

"Just a car backfiring," the waitress said as she arrived with a mug and pot of coffee. "Happens all the time."

But Marcus knew better. It wasn't a car backfiring. It was a Glock semi-automatic pistol firing a 9mm round. It was a sound he had heard a million times before, and it was close.

"Check the back door," Marcus said as he quickly slid out of the booth. "And make sure the manager locks it."

Kailea nodded and walked immediately to the kitchen. As she did, Marcus noticed her right hand move almost imperceptibly toward the bulge under the back of her jacket where she kept her weapon.
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