Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A Parting of the Ways - Chapter Five

Are you both there?” Claire asked.

“Yes,” Alice said looking toward Tara concern coming to her face.

“Put me on speaker phone, you’ll never believe this,” Claire said.

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Alice clicked the button and took a moment to gather her thoughts while Tara got up and walked about, she to, deep in thought.

“I always knew there would be clones, I suspected only a few, and foolish me, I suspected they would try and clone themselves first, to ensure continuance of their legacy, both to themselves and their desired goals,” Tara stated as she paced.  “I must confess, this scenario never entered my mind,” she added.

“I simply don’t know what to say, a child, innocent, conceived and raised and designed purposefully to become an agent for their means,” Alice shuddered.

“Still from what Claire says Harrow, interesting name, seems to be remarkably well adjusted and extremely intelligent, even to the point of understanding she is a clone,” Tara said.

“That may be so, but as Claire said she has no idea what she was a clone for, her purpose, thank goodness those evil people never told her.  A child should be a child, allowed all the fun and adventure that the age entails and not be, as Claire said, learning things that come from evil minds,” Alice nearly spat out the words.

“Well we get to meet her tomorrow, I will be interested to see what she looks like and how Claire copes with her.  Harrow may be a copy of Claire, but she is still a child, looks are one thing, personality, well that is something else,” Tara smiled.

“What are you implying?” Alice said as she opened a drawer on her desk and pulled out a book.

“Claire has never struck me as the mother type, big sister, at times, good heart, always, but she seems more the spoiling fun aunt type,” Tara mused as Alice opened the book and turned it around.

“Claire at age 4 -5-6-7,” Alice instructed as her finger moved from picture to picture.

“Pretty as can be, I look forward to seeing Harrow tomorrow I just hope she’s not as stubborn as her old self can be,” Tara said and Alice smiled.

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Iona,” Lady Alice Hamilton said in a calm voice as Tara looked up from her book and then over her shoulder.

Both women rose up from their respective chairs and turned towards the door and their visitors.  Before them stood a perfect picture of displaced time, Claire now and Claire then.  Neither paid much attention to the older version except for a cursory glance, the younger version enthralled them totally.  A small little package dressed in loose blue jeans, runners and a pink jumper.  Her long hair had been wonderfully braided and tied in a single ponytail with several pink and white bobbles mixed into the weave with a small tiny ribbon at the bottom to finish the look. 

“These are my friends I told you about last night Harrow.  Lady Alice Hamilton and Lady Tara Ashton-White,” Claire said, knelling beside her little self.

Harrow unhitched her hand from Claire’s and gently pulled at the sides of her pockets as she dipped down in a curtsey then straightened. 

“It’s nice to me you,” she said in a pipey happy voice.  “Aunt Claire told me all about you last night, but she didn’t say you were both so pretty, just like the princess in my picture book.”

“Well thank you for that, but I don’t think we’re any where near as pretty as princesses, but you certainly are, in fact you remind me of a princess I once knew,” Alice smiled, delighted in the child.

“Are all your friends members of the peerage Aunt Claire?” Harrow said looking up while Tara gave a laughing smile and Alice a small cough.

“No, just these two and in fact just last week Lady Tara became Doctor Lady Tara Ashton-White when she received her Doctorate in History from Cambridge, so now I’m afraid she has a even longer title with which to address her,” Claire smiled at Harrow.

“Nonsense, you may call me Tara, you know that Lady thing is really only good for two things anyway, tickets to the theatre and a good seat in a restaurant,” she answered with a wide warm smile that Harrow answered back with one of her own. 

“All your friends are so pretty and, oh a doggy!” Harrow squealed as she spotted Iona beside the chair Alice had vacated, the dog having remained motionless.  Claire made a lunge for Harrow and missed, Alice tried as well and Tara was too far away to stop the girl from heading straight at the massive Irish Wolf Hound.  Alice tried to shout something but it was too late, arms enveloped the neck of the massive animal and Harrow buried her face in the soft grey fur of Iona’s chest, for in truth that was as far up the animal as she got.  Iona lowered her head over the top and back of her admirer and disappeared the little girls head into her warm fur before a long wet tongue made her giggle and she broke her loving stranglehold and calmly petted the animal running her small fingers through its soft fur and Iona responded with loud tail thumping approval of the touch.  Claire started to make her way over to Harrow, but Alice’s intervening hand stopped her.

“Let the child enjoy herself,” she softly spoke and then moved herself toward child and canine.

“Would you like to go outside and play with Iona Harrow?” Alice asked.

“Could I, I mean,” she looked over her shoulder at Claire who was already smiling and nodding.

“Just stay in the yard and please promise to stay clean,” Claire offered.

Alice walked them the two of them to the large French Doors that spilled morning sunlight into the room and opened them. 

“Iona has her toys in this bin, take as many as want and when your ready to come in just say to Iona ‘inside’ and she will bring her toys back to be put away.  Oh, a get as dirty as you want, clothes and little girls clean up at the end of the day,” Alice said and smiled.

“Thank you your ladyship,” Harrow said, then impulsively threw her arms about Alice’s neck and kissed her on the cheek before grabbing a toy and running off Iona hard on her heels, her tail wagging furiously.

That child is amazing; you see the way she looked about for approval from you for a simple scamper with a dog.  No four year old I’ve ever met does that, they act on the impulse of their desire, I want it and I want it now.  Not Harrow, that poor girl has had discipline rammed into her from day one and yet she is still impulsive and loving, something she shouldn’t have been given the cold calculated up bringing she was getting.  No matter how hard they tried they could not break the, whatever mystical, spiritual, call it what you will, but the bond between a child and mother like figure.  First it was you Claire and just then it was me, that hug and kiss, that child is starving for love and affection,” Alice finished.

“And if I can just add, Harrow is extremely bright.  She speaks years ahead of her age and I suspect is probably well advanced in other areas.  I don’t mean to sound impertinent Claire, but was that the case with you?” Tara asked.

“I was accelerated twice, but no, she is well ahead of me, given what I remember adults saying about me when I was younger. As I said on the phone, she knows she’s clone, knows its me she is copied from, she told me all this, understands it perfectly, but as she says I’m me, your you, but it’s nice to know I’ll be as pretty as you someday.  She’s so adult in so many ways and that’s so sad because she’s missed things as a child, she’s never had playmates, or a dog, knows what they are, but has never had them.  Her reaction to Iona was wonderful; the childlike wonder was a joy to see.  Oh my,” Claire said as she looked out the window and the others joined her to she the Wolf Hound trotting across the expansive lawn with the small child hugging it about the neck and laughing uncontrollably as she was dragged along.  “I told her to stay clean; look at those pants, those stains will never come out!”

“There speaks a mother and there goes a child,” Alice said pointing at Harrow now engaged and losing in a game of tug of war with Iona and the pull toy.

“First the fronts now the backs, oh those pants have had it and I just bought them yesterday, look at those grass stains,” Claire said shaking her head.

“Future play clothes,” Tara laughed as she watched the game outside.

“What am I going to do with her?” Claire said, her voice more serious now as she gazed out the window at the child and the dog, both a roiling sea of boundless energy.

“Love her,” would be my suggestion,” Alice said.  “I agree,” Tara added.

“Sure, sure, easy to say, a little hard to pull off.  Sorry mini me I can’t play with you tonight Mommy has to go out and seduce an agent and you know these kinds of things can take a while, here order a pizza and watch a few DVD’s I rented.  Shit! Why did I just say that it’s so cruel!  This whole plan was moving along great that then this has to happen,” Claire said slapping her hands to her sides.

“Life’s what happens to you while you’re making plans,” Tara said.

“Even the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” Alice added.

“Big help you two are!” Claire added in an annoyed voice.  “I suppose now it’s my turn to toss about a literary quote.”

“Listen Claire Baxter, I lost a child a long time ago, I have never forgotten that and then you came into my life, my child returned to me in a manner of sorts and now you have this gift given to you.  Yes it’s a clone of you, genetically it’s a copy of you, the looks and the physiology may be the same, but that wonderful marvellous child out there is Harrow, not Claire, she needs people to love her, teach her and help her be whomever she decides to be.  You started something that had consequences attached, this is a consequence you couldn’t see, but it’s a happy consequence and like it or not you are not going to walk away from it just because it is inconvenient for you and your master plan.  In fact sod your master plan, that child is more important,” Alice said her voice with a knife sharp edge to it.

Tara said nothing, she recognized a family battle and until she was invited in she stayed quiet and picked up the book she was reading.

“Look I haven’t got the time for this argument right now, I have to go to Paris and then to Corfu and then I have to go instruct the new recruits at a remote base, I won’t be back for more than two months.  I told Harrow about it and she understands that she’s staying here, besides she likes the both of you and Iona certainly helps.  We can talk further about it then,” Claire said as she shook her head and made her way out the French doors to say goodbye to Harrow.

“Out of the frying pan and into the fire,” Alice said as she looked at Tara.  “She doesn’t know does she?”

“Mrs. Hawthorne will explain it perfectly, it makes total sense to me,” Tara said back as she turned a page.

“You didn’t try to kill her twice, that sort of thing can be hard to overcome,” Alice answered ruefully.

“No harder than we are doing right now, and really no different if the truth be told,” Tara said as she returned a glance and Alice nodded.

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“I won’t bother asking how many others you’ve asked or perhaps more importantly, how many are on side with this.  Splinter Cells always demand no one knows anyone outside of their contact keeps others from connecting the dots should one cell be discovered.  But having said all that I will ask you this, have you recruited sufficient numbers that we can make a difference?” Penelope Simpson Ward queried. 

“I need three more women to ensure that, but so far of the ones I’ve asked no woman has said no,” Claire answered.

“I trust you have more than three choices in mind then?”  Penelope probed.

“Yes, but with each new member I always ask if they think they know another agent who may be interested.  As you know I’m considered a bit of a loner inside COIL when it comes to my work,” Claire stated.

“Two peas in a pod,” Penelope said as she turned her head and smiled as the two women walked slowly about the Place de Concorde occasionally scattering pigeons into the cool fall air. 

“Shauna Philips,” Penelope said.  That woman could snap steel bars in two.  Body of granite and well if you think you and I are ruthless at times, she leaves us looking like cast offs from The Teddy Bears Picnic.  She also has the nasty habit of going her own way at times on missions, a talent that would naturally lend her to be asked,” Penelope offered. 

“Thanks, one final thing,” Claire said as she looked up at the clear blue sky and levelled her gaze in the eyes of Penelope. 

“You don’t need to say a thing, in for penny in for a pound.  I fully understand the consequences of my yes.  I know I’ll get the support, both on the intelligence front and the equipment front from you Claire and you have my word you’ll have my all, as a famous Jedi Master once said, there is no try or not, there is only do.  With you to the end, no mater what that end is,” Penelope said, as she gave Claire a firm look then turned and walked away in the direction of Louvre.

The spy watched her go off into the mingling crowd before she pulled her coat tight against her body to help ward off the chill the thought of Corfu and Mrs. Hawthorne warming her immensely.

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“Watch this!” Harrow squealed as she jumped from the third top step of the grand staircase that dominated the centre of Lady Alice Hamilton’s house.  The child launched herself into the air, sailed forward and down, landed on her toes and the immediately tucked into a forward somersault, then popped up like cork exploding on the surface of water and sprang into the arms of Lady Tara Ashton White who scooped her up and swung her about in a circle inside a fierce loving hug, the both of them laughing.

“Please don’t encourage her Tara,” Alice voiced, her tone more exasperated than harsh.

I did it up all by myself,” Harrow said, as Tara landed her.

“Then you should stop encouraging your aunt,” Alice smiled as she handed Harrow her jacket.
“We have a busy day of shopping planned for a certain young lady, do we not?” 

Harrow beamed at the words, Claire never more visible than when this happened.  Over the course of the very short time Harrow had been in her life it had become clear to Alice and more than clear to Tara, as it concerned her friend, that this little girl was a something for her beyond what she was.  Tara recognised it first; this was redemption for Alice, a gift of a second chance, the return of something that had been taken away from her more that 650 years ago.  Her mothering abilities, so long dormant, rushed back, she was at ease around Harrow, gentle and caring and protecting, Tara saw it and Harrow knew it, she knew Harrow was forming a love for her Aunt Tara, but she could see the girl already had a deep connection to Alice and Alice to her although she did her best to hide it.

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“You know I’ve heard it’s actually possible to get a car up on two wheels around one of these hairpin turns,” Claire as Sylvia Hawthorne up shifted out of the turn.

“Really, what about getting back on four again, right side up of course,” Mrs. Hawthorne smiled over as she pulled out and passed a slow moving truck then dove into another turn, Claire inhaled audibly.  “You want to drive Claire?” she asked.  “Since when did this bother you, getting a little slow of pace in your old age, perhaps you should consider retirement as well,” Sylvia said and laughed as she opened up the Lancia Spyder and accelerated.

“Perhaps I should, but I’d like the chance of getting there first,” she added, now noting rather thankfully that they had reached the bottom of the cliff and were now running along a smoothing twisting road.

“Just up ahead here on the right, you can see the jutty out part right there, out terrace and lovely sand beach below.

“Our?” Claire said, having picked up the operative word.

“Yes, our.  What you didn’t think I wanted to spend my golden years alone, a mean after one go through all the lovely local young men, things could get awfully dull,” she smiled wide. 

The car swung in, the gates already opening and passed through, a small white rock wall on either side defining the track for the car to follow along a beautiful terra cotta driveway inlayed with various decorated tiles placed randomly.  Large Cork and Cypress trees raced up and closed in the remaining drive up in beautiful dappled shade, until just quickly as they had appeared they vanished and the powder blue car swung round a turn, past a large fountain of Poseidon in the moment of full explosion, water streaming from places Claire didn’t realise water could stream from and came to a halt.

“Yes he’s rather a strange one, but the whole thing works on tidal power and dynamo’s so I suppose you’ve got the give it a passing mark just for the environmental aspect, this way Claire, time to meet ‘our’,” Mrs. Hawthorne said as she led Claire through a small gate and back to the terrace, then up a few steps, Sylvia skipping ahead making small talk as she did.  If there was going to be trouble and she was sure there was, she wanted to be the buffer.

“Well life imitates art, six degrees of separation or in this case me to you, you to Catherine, me to Sylvia, what Sylvia to you, Sylvia to you and finally me to you and Sylvia,” Claire said, her arms folded as she stood several feet away from the lounging Nancy Prud’homme.  “I seen you’ve been to the same Ashram as Mrs. Hawthorne, the results speak for themselves,” Claire said in her most non committal voice. 

“You see Sylvia, off to a civil start and you thought that impossible,” Nancy said getting up and giving Claire a look at the new body adorned inside a very small pink bikini.

“I had wondered what had happened to you, oh I heard rumours, several DOOM agents told me things like resources had been brought to bear, then nothing.  I assumed they had finished you off after an expensive campaign; after all you can only run for so long.  It appears however you ran into the right person,” Claire said nodding to Mrs. Hawthorne before resuming.  “Ironic but fitting, a woman who refused to become part of COIL joins with a woman who can no longer be part of DOOM.  I would imagine given the calibre of you two, the attempts on your life have, well to use a pun, died off,” Claire smiled as she took a seat.

“Its still an open contract, Silkworms, Poison Geisha and even The Strippers Guild have be assigned to eliminate us, if they so desire to try.  So far our previous successes have deterred any takers, even at five million per body,” Nancy said with praise.

“One thing I have come to recognize in this business is to not take things that happen to other people as personal to yourself, so relax Nancy, Catherine is off the table, you did your job as instructed, as we all have,” Claire said making reference to Nancy’s brother, even though Nancy was never very fond of him.

“I have need of good agents, I had originally hoped for Mrs. Hawthorne, but the added bonus of you Nancy makes this all the better,” Claire stated.

“You have need of agents, as I’ve said before I have no desire to work for COIL nor I think do we have any desire to be fulltime agents again,” Sylvia said as she looked at Nancy who agreed with a nod.

Claire said nothing she let her words sink wondering who would be the first to piece it together.

“I think, Sylvia, it is not COIL we would be working for, but Claire,” Nancy mused.

Claire smiled at Mrs. Hawthorne then at her partner.  “Not me exactly and not COIL exactly,” she said.

“Ah, what do they call it, you know it was a game, ah qui a splinter cell,” Nancy said with a knowing voice. 

“The sun must be stronger than I think or my driving really unhinged you.  Have you completely lost your mind my dear?  COIL will never stand for it, you do realise the danger you’re in as well as any agents that have been foolish enough to agree to this escapade,” stammered Mrs. Hawthorne.

“They’ll never find out, I have seen to that through other means and even if they do what will be the likely outcome of it.  Nothing!  We’ll be lectured, quietly of course and then sent out into the field again, they can’t afford too lose one of us.  No were safe on that account and we aim to do what COIL can’t and won’t, namely take care of issues before they become so big that needless effort, energy and as always agents lives, mostly female are spent in the process.  COIL needs to be more aggressive, in all aspects, playing by the rules isn’t working, especially with enemies on all sides.  We’re out numbered and out cornered.  Poison Geisha, Silkworms and now a more resurgent Strippers Guild, not to mention DOOM have us on the run.  I aim to change that!” Claire offered.

“What of Sharon?” Mrs. Hawthorne queried.

“What of her?  We’ll still do the COIL work, but this group will do the real work, elimination of agents as well as people and organisations that help them.  Those that are established and ones one the way up, eliminate them before they become a threat.  This last point brings me back to you two and especially you Nancy.  Any intel on shell companies within the DOOM hierarchy, established and those you knew were being developed would be of great service, since you no longer have the desire to be active women,” Claire said putting more than enough emphasis on the last to words to drive her point home.

“Perhaps we should show her how active we can be Sylvia?” Nancy smiled.

“Don’t take the bait darling, she’s just being a shit like always,” Mrs. Hawthorne mocked back.

“Touché,” Claire said raising a glass.

Perhaps we can be of some assistance in other ways?” Nancy mused after a long silence.  She looked at Mrs. Hawthorne and then back to Claire once she knew her partner was on side.  “Both Sylvia and I as you can see from our bodies have undergone extensive training at the Ashram.  We are both now teachers at the temple part of the year, I think we would be willing to offer that training your cell on a select basis.  Also I can provide you with some of the intelligence you wish for, but I cannot include the agents, even though they are no longer my friends I still feel a strange bond to them, but as for the organisations, that I can do,” Nancy offered.

“We are also quite well connected into the shipping industry here about and we are both well known and much welcomed in the, well we call it the cocktail crowd, some of whom are extremely well connected into other areas of business, some legal others well, one doesn’t ask, we can,” Sylvia added. 

Claire smiled; she had gotten all she’d come for and now more.  These two would not be able to stay retired long, she knew it and soon they would as well.  “Now if you’ll excuse me I’m feeling a tad over dressed, I think I will change,” Claire said.

Excellent idea, join us on the beach, just shout for Maria when you go inside, she’ll show you to your room,” Sylvia said.

“Mon Dui!  Did I just hear correct, a faction breakaway within COIL led by Claire Baxter.  I can hardly believe it, DOOM dossier on her was always a loyal agent, bordering on the idealistic side,” Nancy said as soon as the door closed.  “You seem very calm about it all,” she added.

“I’m just as shocked as you in one way and not so in another.  Claire came after me to recruit me, pushed hard for me with the brass at COIL, but I refused, I like to play by my own rules.  Even then she was a bit of a maverick, but even cannot believe she has gone this far, but it appears so.  I will tell you this, that girl is even more dangerous now than she was before,” Mrs. Hawthorne mused.

How so?” Nancy quizzed.

“Free of the restrictions COIL places upon its agents, you capture him/her alive, just get in and get out we only need the intel and all the other barriers they place upon their girls, they will be a most deadly bunch, especially if I know my Claire.  She will only recruit agents who are just like her, instinctive, seductive, fearless, then there’s the other aspect,” Sylvia questioned.

“I’m waiting,” Nancy said singing out the words to exaggerate the point that she was waiting eagerly.

“Claire is nature leader, she has that ‘it factor’ that draws others to her, people want to be near her, trust her completely.  She perhaps realises this on some level, but I’ve always be inclined to feel she’s oblivious to it.  It makes for a powerful recruitment tool even more so with agent trainees who are hero worshippers of the best order.  Claire in such a position would able to influence and recruit the best of the talent for her cell,” Sylvia said approvingly.

“So she is training new recruits then, “Nancy said.

“Yes, I can see you are as sharp as never, she told me, just don’t mention it for now, wait until you build up a little trust with her, then she will let you in,” Mrs. Hawthorne answered.

“She we are back in business then,” Nancy smiled and raised her glass.

“It was getting boring,” Sylvia smiled as she clanked her glass against Nancy’s.

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 “No matter how hard she works them they never really complain,” Donna Hilliard, a retired agent and now one of the many trainers at COIL said.

“It’s all hero worship you know, you and I were the same, we just don’t remember,” Ivana Szenich, another trainer said.

“I remember sneaking, or rather breaking into certain offices, with a few other girls when I was a recruit to read the dossiers of agents, thrilling and erotic stuff, filled my head with excitement and anticipation and yes your right hero worship for those amazing women who you actually got to me and train with,” Donna recalled.

“Today I catch them trying to hack into the database to do the same thing.  Of course its impossible to do, but to encourage the creativity I let them hack into the phantom base and read certain things, so not much has changed I suppose, funny back them it was just a few recruits, a small cadre, but them always went on to be the best agents.  With this group it appears like it’s the entire class have you noticed that,” Ivana asked.

“Yes this group is different, something special in this bunch, they may be the best 20 recruits I’ve ever seen at once,” Donna stated.  “Where are they now?”

“Out on another run, before the next set of classes, as you said she works them hard and they seem to only want more,” Ivana noted.

“That’s good because when they become full fledged agents, more is what they’ll get all the time,” Donna added.

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Two columns of 10 ran along at a good pace, Claire moved up and down the sides, checking for posture and style and seeing who was labouring, no one was.  The island training facility was well tucked away from the shipping lanes and air routes, so it remained very secure to outsiders.  The group headed down a dusty path and onto the beach Claire leading the way as they ran into and along the crashing surf.

“Awfully quite today ladies, lets say we change that, let me start you off,” Claire smiled as she yelled the first line and waited for the response.

I could have been shopping or having some fun

Instead I’m on an endless run

Called some friends or gone on a date

Right about now, that sounds great

Sound off

One Two

Sound off

Three four

Cadence count

One two three four

One two…three four

There’s no such thing as too much pain

Builds your character, keeps you sane

Then when you think it’s gone away

Tomorrow brings another day

Sound off

Our bodies are firm our minds are strong

We can tell it won’t be long

Till then our worlds all trouble and toil

Welcome to the world of COIL

Sound off

Come on Victoria pick it up this isn’t Pilates with Muffy and Buffy and the juice bar after.  Claire yelled.

Victoria Billington was a true blue blood; she could trace her family back to one of the first 20 families on the Mayflower.  A striking natural blonde, she was everything you would think a debutant would be, rich, well educated and moved in the elite circles of America and for that matter the rest of the world thanks to her family’s money, power and position in international banking.  She was also many things you would not expect.

Claire summed it up best when the trainers discussed progress reports.  “She’s tough as nails, she has a cracked rib, got it running the obstacle course in the rain on her own time.  When I chastised her about being stupid, she said that if I could always guarantee the weather on a mission would be sunny and dry she would stop now.  Hasn’t missed a day yet and does everything asked.  This one has a real chance to be something super, all the tools and the desire and the intuition and they mesh perfectly.”

In spite of all that or because of it Victoria had become Claire’s wiping girl, not out of spite but because she wanted to she how far she could be pushed.  Claire knew Victoria had figured it out and she rose to each occasion, just as she did now.  Breaking out off the column and off to the side mid way she began her own Jodi Call.  

Instructor Baxter’s really mean

Says we’re lazy not so keen

Takes us out in the noon day sun

Come on ladies lets have some fun

Sound off

Early to bed and early to rise

And don’t forget to moisturise

Pick your poison, chose your fate

COIL woman are really great

Sound off

Perfect bodies are a deadly shape

Man o Man you’ve met your fate

Just a touch is all we need

To complete our deadly deed

Sound off

Till that time we train each day

Baxter says it’s long away

Not so far that we can’t see

We’re COIL agents soon to be

Sound off

The recruits double timed back into camp then fell out to catch their breath.  Claire walked over to Victoria who was coughing and holding her side and placed a light hand on her shoulder.  Victoria looked up and smiled and nodded then slowly moved off to her class.

“That’s one more when the time comes,” Claire said to herself.

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She’d been gone more than a month and a half when she got back to London and 4 Chelsea Square, Lady Alice’s home.  It was late; she let herself in and made her way to the room Alice had said was hers for as long as she wanted.  She took a shower and collapsed into bed, glad to be home.

The next day at breakfast after Harrow had asked to be excused and left to dress Alice stirred her tea and looked out the window, the room was silent.

“I need to be going I have an appointment and I didn’t realise the time.  Please excuse me,” Tara said and left the room drawing the pocket doors closed as she exited, the air much more breathable on the outside.

“I want to apologise for my outburst the last time, not for the message, but for the tone and the sharpness of the manner,” Alice said looking up from her cup, her hand still pensively stirring away.

“Nonsense, you meant every word of what you said then and probably more was held back that I needed to hear.  You have nothing to apologise for Gran,” Claire answered.

  Gran had become for them Claire’s intimate name for Alice.  She only used it in private conversations, their family connection known to their circle of friends but the name only shared by them.  It never failed to bring both a smile and tear to Alice at the same time, the tear obvious from centuries of being alone, her only child lost to her at the time of her transformation and then finding it again in this ancestral woman centuries later in Los Angeles, only to loose her once more and then find it again in New York just a year ago.  That time in between Los Angeles and New York had been the hardest of her long existence, the saddest and the happiest.  These thoughts played in her mind as she hugged Claire, at times giving an extra squeeze.  Her connection to Claire that her former vampiric skills had first alerted her to their kinship had never truly left her, even with her transformation back to fully human.  As they hugged she sensed the hurt and conflict inside her distant grandchild, Claire did not know this and Alice kept it very carefully hidden, it was her only way inside the labyrinth that was Claire Baxter.

“Well this day is certainly off to a cracking start,” Alice said as she wiped a wet set of eyes when the two separated.   “What I need to say now will change everything, but I’ve had your absence to understand it and it feels so right,” she took a deep breath and spoke again.

  I want Harrow to live with me and I want to adopt her.”

Claire stepped back, reeling a little at this news and collected her thoughts, her mind raced through all the ramifications of what this meant to her now rapidly changing ideal master plan.  She had always assumed that Alice would be a part of the splinter cell, but now, this seemed not to be so.  “We can do without her, true enough, but we’ll be much weaker as a whole and it’s another body to recruit, but a lesser one.  How do I respond to this? I mean other agents are affected by this, not just me and Harrow.”  The last word hung on Claire, she knew the answer.

“She clearly loves you, I mean I saw that from the beginning day, just like I did when I met you for the first time and now, well she’s well and truly your child, the love between you two, how can I deny that to anyone?  If I were her,” Claire smiled at the joke.  “I would want you as my mother.”

Alice could barely contain her joy, she managed for the briefest of seconds before Claire broke the spell and hugged her, then the tears of delight came. 

“Well now, I just have to ask Harrow if she would like that to happen, her decision is the one that counts in the end.  I also know that I’m letting down the side as regards being an agent, I think we both assumed that was going to happen, and now of course it can’t, but I think something else can help make up for it,” Alice said as she took Claire by the hand and led her into her private office. 

Alice locked the door, walked over to her desk and tuned the finial on the top of her lamp opening a passage in the oak pillar between to columns of her private library behind her desk.

“This house,” Claire smiled and followed Alice in who switched on the lights and the women descended a spiral wrought iron staircase. The room that emerged was totally round and Claire guessed about 25 feet in diameter and with a ten foot ceiling.  Wrapped around the entire room was a continuous screen of a world map of the same height.  In the middle of the room surrounding the staircase was a circular control console fitted with 5 individual work stations, one for each continent. 

“As you can see complete map of the world, use this device,” Alice showed Claire her hand and you can zoom in for greater detail.  Observe, Japan, labelled by region, pick a region up come the cities and towns, the menu on the right side gives you descriptors you may want to chose, you can overlay them all, roads, rail, water, etc.  Chose what place you want and up comes a detailed map of it, all in 3D.  It also ties into all the surveillance cameras so you get actual time.  Uplink capable for live feeds, completely secured, as is this room, shielded from all types of prying eyes.  From here all the agents, can be tracked and monitored, of course the system allows for multiple device users so many agents can be handled at one time.  The computer system is tied into systems worldwide, both civilian, commercial, private and military to provide additional aid to an agent and so much more.  This is in short the command centre for your cell and I am the command centre operator.  I will handle mission and background prep for the agents as well as ongoing resources if needed.  If I can’t be an agent I can at least contribute in this way,” Alice said happily.

Alice saw the looks flashing across Claire’s face, she read them, prepared her answer and read the next, repeating the process until the looks had faded.

“Yes it cost a great deal, but one isn’t around for almost 700 years without accumulating some savings.  Yes I’m well aware of what you’re worth Miss Baxter, but even you have met your match in me, after all I had a 600 year head start on you.  I have a few trusted people who can help me run this so it won’t take any time away from Harrow, and no, she will never know about this, not until she is old enough to make an informed decision as to what she wants to do with her life, and maybe not even then depending on what she’s doing.  Everything is set Claire, if we are going to do this, it will be done right!  Does that about cover it for now?” Alice asked with a wry smile.

“Yes, I’d say so,” Claire answered not really knowing what else to say at the present time.

“Excellent, we can come back and go into greater detail once Harrow has had a bath, story and is in bed.  This I will say to you and all other, Harrow always comes first, no matter what. The people I have for this room are all top notch, they can make all the decisions without me, I have complete confidence in them and so will you.”

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          

“I think that a very definite yes,” Claire as she Tara and Mrs. Compton watched out the French doors as Alice was hugged fiercely by Harrow, the small girl forcing the woman to her knees as she swung about refusing to let go, tears streaming down Alice’s face.

“I will call Mr. Dowling at the Home Office to start the arrangements,” Tara said escaping before anyone noticed the tear forming in the corner of her eye.

The women watched the happy scene unfold, the experienced a part of the joy when the two came inside and hugs were exchanged all over.  Tara returned and announced that Mr. Dowling would see to all the matters required and would be here in three days with all the papers for Alice to sign.  Alice gave Tara a quizzical look at the expedience that matter was playing out at.

“He is one of the few friends I have left in those circles, since things went awry a while ago.  He is a true friend, stuck by me and my mom and dad when everything went a cropper, anything he can do to help me and by extension my friends and family,” she said looking about.  “He is always willing.”

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          

Mrs. Compton showed Mr. Robert Dowling, OBE into Lady Alice’s office.

Harrow is with me your Ladyship in the kitchen,” she said and closed the door.

“Wonderful to see you again Lady Ashton-White and a very great pleasure to meet you Lady Hamilton,” he said.

“Always a pleasure Mr. Dowling and thank you again for your urgent attentiveness to my request.  Mr. Dowling is a very trusted inner member of the Home Office Alice and as such is privy to many secrets others know nothing of.  He has been a great friend of my family for more years than I can remember, there are no secrets here I think I’m right in saying,” Tara said as she looked between Alice and Robert.

The distinguished man in his middle 50’s allowed himself a slight smile that provided the answer.  Trim, well dressed and polished in demeanour he was the stereotypical picture of a British Civil Servant.  Underneath that outer layer a keen mind and a moral compass not always found in his profession.  Relationships and friends were not tossed aside due to circumstances that remained unproven in fact but proven in the popular press and chattering classes.  He had remained loyal to Tara and her family, even though it had proved costly to his own career advancement. 

“So then I am to take it you know something of me,” Alice posed.

“Yes, I have in fact read your entire dossier; although I must admit some it I had to translate as Middle English is not a strong suit of mine.  If you will allow me to say you are a most extraordinary woman and it’s my privilege and inestimable pleasure to meet you, I am indeed honoured,” he said genuinely with a tilt of his head.

Alice liked him already, she tell he was true and sincere and a gentleman in the real sense of the word.

He opened his soft covered attaché case and pulled out several files, opened one and began.  “All has been arranged, here are your copies of the adoption certificate and national health registration.    We have back dated all data, created files in all pertinent databases to establish a paper trail for Harrow from birth through to the present.  I just need the formality of signatures on the places I have designated and all will be legal and finished with respect to this matter.

Alice dutifully signed away, her happiness overflowing as she handed back his copies.

“Congratulations Lady Hamilton,” he said with a smile.

“Yes indeed,” Tara echoed.

“Now that just leaves this,’ he said pulling out two pieces of paper and standing.  “Would you both stand please your Ladyships.  I shall first address you Lady Tara.”

“Be it known throughout Great Britain, Ireland and all the Commonwealth, that her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second does hereby designate, confer and appoint all the rights, duties and privileges to Lady Tara Ashton White for her services to our realm the title Vicountess Ashton-White.”

Tara felt her knees go a little limp, but she regained herself, wiped her eyes quickly and composed herself.

“I will add there is also this,” he said.  “A personal note from Her Majesty expressing her congratulations and her regrets on the rather long and unwarranted ostracization you have been subjected to.  I am instructed to make firm, as does the letter, that means have been taken to correct this immediately, one of which you will note in this form is the public instalment of your title to take place next week.  May I also add my personal respects and best wishes,’ Robert said.

“This was too much, Lady Tara felt the tears welling up inside her and then spilling out.  Alice quickly moved to her and enfolded her as she cried a gentle soothing stroke of her back helping.

“Let it out and be rid of it Tara, I am filled with joy for you as are all your friends who knew all along the truth, now others will know as well,” Alice softly said, as Tara found herself again and apologised for her outburst.

Robert offered Tara his handkerchief and she gratefully accepted, then when she was ready he turned to Alice.

“Be it known throughout Great Britain, Ireland and all the Commonwealth, that her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second does hereby designate, confer and appoint all the rights, duties and privileges to Lady Hamilton for her many years of service to sovereigns of this realm and its Commonwealth the title of  Lady Alice Hamilton, First Countess Hamilton.  Said title shall be heraldic and free of primogenitor.”

“I will add your Ladyship that due to your rather lengthy service and the questions an appointment of this rank would create due to your rather young age the ceremony must be private in nature.”

“Of course I completely understand,” Alice said maintaining her composure but just barely as she had to do as it would do no good to have two crying women, fortunately she knew just the trick to return both of them to an even keel.  “Well Tara I suppose that means no more Whatleys Red Barrel for us then.”

That was just the trick as Tara smiled then laughed and as is such with most people instantly felt better.

“I think tea and some of the cookies Harrow and Mrs. Compton are making would go a treat now,” Alice said as she picked up the house phone.

*    *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *         

“And the beautiful young princess thanked the dragon for all his help and waved goodbye as he flew back to this home in the purple mountains, but only after he’d promised to come and visit once a month for tea and ginger cookies, his favourite snack.  Then the princess went inside the castle and fell fast asleep in her bed, this day’s adventure complete, she could hardly wait for tomorrow.  The End,” Alice said as she kissed the cheek of the sleepy child. “Good night love, pleasant dreams.”

“Good Night Mommy,”\

Alice went across the hall to her room, left the door open a bit, slipped into bed, pulled out her laptop and began arranging mission assignments. 

A Parting of the Ways - Chapter Four

‘Three pound fifty for that one governor?’ he said with a smile and a tip of his hat.

The man paid no attention, he was far to engrossed to take notice.

‘The lending library is in the next street but one squire, should your lordship choose so otherwise at the risk of repeating myself, its 3 and fifty for that magazine and welcome to it you are, blimey never thought I’d be rid of that one, had it pegged as a dust collector,’ he said and smiled as the man handed over four pounds.

‘I’d have paid 3 times that, this is almost as good as opening night of a Bond Film in Leicester Square.  I’ve looked everywhere for this edition and I’d almost given up hope of ever finding one and it even has the Billy Bremner insert edition, my favourite player as a lad he was,’ the man said with a smile and an adjustment of his glasses.

‘Well my lucky day isn’t then and here on a Sunday morn, who says the Lord doesn’t work in mysterious ways, he plunks down, what could it be, maybe the one and only Leeds Utd. supporter in all of London right at my news stall, and one with money was well.’

‘I’m a Yorkshireman, born and bred and just here on business, came a day earlier to prepare and lucky for you I did otherwise you’d not have my 3 and 50 in your pocket, besides,’ he said looking up at the neatly clipped row of football magazines.  ‘We’ll both be long retired before you sell either of those two, so no need to disparage my team when you have that hanging about, Sheffield Wednesday and Shrewsbury Town, my god Utd. are pound sterling compared to that lot,’ he smiled a victorious grin and turned to walk away when his hand suddenly caught the edge of the stand.

‘Tube Station?’ the man said as his feet vibrated on the cement for a fraction of a second and only just that before the newsstand man had come out the back of the stall grabbed his hand and began running up the street toward the corner.

‘Just run sir, trust me, fast as you can, up and around the corner we go.’

Still clutching his magazine the man knew something was happening behind him and just like Lot’s wife he had to have a look.  With breaking stride with his new mate he managed a quick turn of his head and was sorry he did, instantly he increased his pace.

What had been a six storied building diagonally across the street from the newsstand was in the process of collapsing straight down upon itself in a silent cave in save the shaking ground he had first felt.  That was frightening enough but advancing on them faster than they were moving was a tsunami of white churning dust rising higher and higher, billowing ever over itself and rushing out the base as it lapped up the ground, then the noise exploded around them.  Glass popped out of adjacent building windows showering the streets in droplets if crystal rainfall.  Then the mad straining cacophony of blasted crumbling concrete mixed with twisted metal rebar, a mixing of nails of blackboard and the wail of a Banshee mixed with car alarms from streets away.  Instinctively hands went up to cover faces, the two men never breaking stride and all the while the advancing storm wave barrelled up behind them.  Their lungs heated and then burned as they both desperately gulped down air.

‘A few more breaths then hold it sir,’ the stall owner said as he looked down at his feet then up at his partner who glanced downward.

The initial wave of smoke and fettered air licked about their feet then closed about the ankles, knees, thighs, torso then neck as they both took a final quaff of air before being swallowed up inside the monstrous wave just as they found the corner and safety.  Both ran down the street several shops before clearing the air enough to take in air, collapsing against a post box in exhaustion.  After a bit of time each straightened up looked at the other and reached out a hand to the others shoulder, an acknowledgement of the help they had been to each other and that both were safe, no words seemed to be needed except.

‘Guess your search for that magazine begins anew, eh?’ the man said.

‘Some things are precious than life itself and worth protecting at all costs,’ the other said as he pulled the periodical from under his sweater a beaming smile on his face.

      *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *              

‘Building has well planned terrorist attack one day, building is evacuated and sealed for search by government officials who have to wait until engineers give ok that structure is safe to enter no explanation given as to why that procedure was not carried out right away, then said building is imploded two days later on Sunday morning and here we are on Monday with a pile of rubble, no explanation and thankfully no dead bodies to pull from the wreckage, which by early accounts is going to find nothing bigger than a peanut in one piece.  Anyone, feel free to jump in at this point,’ Sharon Sharpe said.

‘Serious government installation, no doubt or quasi government with direct ties inside the Home Office or Defence Services.  I’m thinking rather than risk a leak, what with all the people who would have been involved in a search, they decided to Red Card the entire operation,’ Rod Steel the Head of Men’s Ops at COIL said looking at his counterpart.

‘I concur, but that opens more questions that it answers,’ Vera de la Fuente, Director of Intelligence for COIL said.

‘Such as,’ Sharon asked already having a series of questions herself but wanting other input.  Options came at her from around the table.

‘DOOM front we didn’t know about, another government spy organisation and why didn’t we know or were told about it,’ she said quickly.

‘Those thoughts rolled through my mind as well,’ Rod and Sharon said in unison, both not meaning to do it, a smile crossing both their mouths before Rod picked up the conversation.

I will work on my contacts to find out who and what was going on inside the building, would it be worth our while to insert a few agents into the civilian investigation teams, either power, roads or police to gather further data,’ he asked?

‘A wise move Rod, Vera will see to it,’ Sharon said with a nod to Vera who made a note.  I don’t like not knowing things and I’m not going to let this become the pebble in the shoe scenario for COIL,’ she added.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *              

‘Its remarkable how tour new boardroom looks exactly like the old one we used to occupy,’ the beautiful woman who was always well tailored said from her spot at the table, he tome biting in its sarcasm as she intended it to be.

‘Yes, even my chair feels the same as my old one,’ the small round man added his dripping tone as well.

The stern looking tall thin man who sat at the head of table ignored the comments as was his want most of the time.  He did however allow himself the annoyance of knowing that they represented interests that the organisation recognized were needed as a whole, even if he didn’t agree.  They were a nuisance and to his mind not even a necessary one, but that was a debate for another time, more pressing matters engaged his mind right now and he brought that top of mind.

‘I already anticipate the answer to this but for the record I’m compelled to ask.  I know nothing of a tangible nature was saved from the building, but what of the intangibles, namely computer records and data backup files, I trust that was saved,’ she said looking straight at the head of the table.

‘All the hard assets were lost, the data back up was initiated but we encounter an error in the receiving of the data,’ the thin man said the words having a distasteful note as he said them.

‘Miss Baxter does get around, you’d think one woman would not be so hard to keep in check, after all you hard head of security are you not,’ the older woman asked the thin man.

‘Let me be pointed about this,’ the beautiful woman said.  ‘What exactly of the entire project do we have left that is recoverable so we can start again?’

‘Nothing, all the records, data, schematics, hard and software gone, all that is left are the two clones that we completed some time ago,’ he said.

‘I will contact one of our subsidiaries right away to see if we can come up with something to re-establish contact with our partners,’ said the small man with the glasses with obvious relish as he liked to be busy and important.

‘Well that is an excellent idea and I do encourage you to proceed with such an endeavour I have already started to do that albeit along a different but I feel more direct path,’ the tall man at the head of the table said allowing a small crease to curl his lip, a look that gave more a picture of predatorily distain with the group than pleasure.

‘I’ve seen that look before, it was not pleasant then and it certainly has not changed is demeanour since then,’ the older woman said.  ‘I can almost surmise what you have done, I hope you haven’t, but knowing you,’ she finished while around the boardroom table eyes flashed in realisation.

‘You need board approval for that!’ the small man shouter in a much larger voice than he’d ever used before.
‘That would be the polite way of saying it and I certainly have no intention of being that nice.  Not only has our operation base been destroyed and all data lost now you have put in jeopardy one of the only assets we have left from this very expensive operation, an asset I will remind you of we had already decided was going to be used in a meticulously laid out plan that took over a year to develop and refine,’ the beautiful woman said her voice icy enough to chill the room.

One by one they all chimed in with vitriol while the tall thin man simply crossed his legs interlaced his fingers and ignored them while keeping an annoying smile on his face as he looked at each of them in turn during their verbal barrage.

‘All your concerns are duly noted, but since I am the chair of this group and given that my past actions and instincts have always proven to be correct in spite of what some around this table consider a more learnered opinion, namely their own, I have enacted this plan which will succeed and which I will now explain to you so that you’ll understand as well.’

‘As we have discussed before COIL always appears to be in our way, either inadvertently or by design, my guess has always been the former, based simply on the fact they have never followed up on any of our activities that they have come across.  I put that down to good camouflage on our part and incompetence on their part in the beginning.  However, starting with the ouster of Richard De Roy from COIL, thanks to the persistence of Miss Baxter and the two department heads for Women’s Ops, the late Catherine Wycliffe and the present Sharon Sharpe.  You will remember if it hadn’t been for our intervention Lady Tara Ashton-White would have discovered our secret a long time ago.  Our action coupled with our then inside connects at the Home Office we would have been discovered a long time ago.  Unfortunately all good things come to an end and Miss Ashton-White escaped and through a very cleaver ruse managed to make everyone thing she’d gone rogue and started her own agency, small and largely inconsequential.  We all know that turned out to be a just a front for her a few loyal friends to work things out,’ he said.

‘Yes, Yes, we are all aware of this but how does this tie into Miss Baxter,’ the older woman said.

‘Miss Baxter was mentored by two people.  Her formal training took place under Sharon Sharpe, but she was an avid student of the missions of Lady Tara, sort of a hero worship.  While it may be said the Sharon gave Claire all the tenacity and skill sets she’d need to be a successful agent Lady Tara, without ever meeting Claire during that time gave her all the other nuanced skills that made her COIL’s best agent.  She however still has the closest bond with Sharon and woman she loves as a mother figure and really the only person we know of she trusts totally and without question.  I don’t think I need to go any farther in the explanation at this point we’re all bright enough to see the path outlined so far I trust?’ he asked looking about the faces.

‘Perhaps that so but I would like a few things qualified or at least explained. What is the intention here with regard to Miss Baxter and how can you be so sure regarding Miss Baxter given that her mission dossier is spotty at best with regard to mission entries,’ the beautiful woman asked.

‘The intention is two fold, to start with the first question.  The first is a capture Miss Baxter, we started this project with the intent of using the best of the best, she is the best and quality always seemed to attract quality.  In essence, once we get started again, Miss Baxter will serve as the cornerstone of the project, beauty brains, drive and determination.  Her inclusion into our circle will expand it exponentially and if I may use another metaphor it will also act as a moth to a flame, she being the flame and other agents being the moths, we can pick and choose the talent we want rather than trying to create it and shape it, that part will be done for us.  Think of it we could have someone with Miss Baxter’s talents influencing and training others from the start, the result, a better creation, with all the knowledge of the first and all the knowledge they acquire along the way, then the process repeats itself with another creation.  I estimate with this plan we can speed up our operational clock by half again as much.’  

‘What makes you think Miss Baxter will go along with this,’ the older woman asked.

‘I’m not really interested in that, she will have no choice and there are ways to ensure that, everyone can be broken and reformed, even her,’ he answered flatly.  ‘As to the second part of your question regarding her mission dossier, it is thin due to several events that occurred while on assignment.  She went missing in the Philippines, was not seen again for a long time, so was consequently out of action for that period and as a result of COIL policy was placed on restrictive duty to ensure she had not been compromised and turned into a double agent, that is were she remains today.  In fact I have reliable intelligence that in fact she has been given the rather demeaning roll of being house mother to COIL’s latest batch of recruits,’ he smiled.

‘That’s excellent but it doesn’t explain the rather sketchy dossier before that.  Given that the rate of agent assignments had to increase during COIL’s shortage of viable female agents before her accident in the Philippines,’ the older woman stated.

‘Actually it does,’ he stated and picked up a piece of paper.  ‘An internal COIL memo, recently obtained from a friendly source.  I will pass it around so you can all verify as to its authenticity, as I’m sure you’ll want to, but for brevity sake I will summarize.  ‘It seems a decision was made during their agent shortage to transition agents in training into active service ahead of schedule, in some cases more than a year ahead.  As you can most likely imagine this resulted in a rather shocking high mortality rate, but was deemed necessary to save the organisation as a whole.  If COIL had used its more experienced agents and over worked them the likelihood was that many of them would have ended up dead, so they made a decision to survive as an entity they had to sacrifice a generation of agents, but time then build again.  That kind of cold blooded thinking is almost worthy of a place at this table, so that is the answer as to why Miss Baxter et el were held in reserve,’ he explained.

‘When can we expect acquisition of Miss Baxter,’ the small man said.

None of the others said anything, the tall thin man smiled.

‘By Wednesday afternoon,’ he answered the smile growing wider.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *               

 Claire closed the last door and walked down the hall toward the reception station and as always an alert Wendy Schiller.

‘That was fast, don’t tell me their all exceptional students and require nothing of imparted wisdom from you Claire or are they like all new recruits and by now think they know it all, present company excepted on that last part,’ Wendy smirked.

Claire took the ribbing as it was intended and enjoyed the joke which was true to some extent, the part about the know it recruits at least.

They are all really good listeners and the questions they do have are mercifully short and to the point, I think that’s because their so tired, I remember those days, so I can empathise with them.  I think all they wanted to do was go to bed or get me out of there, I don’t think I’m the wonderful mentor they thought I was going to be,’ Claire smiled.

‘Extra assignments not found in the training manuals or daily teachings, oh I remember those from my training days.  I hated them then, but I was sure thankful I had them when I became an agent, they saved my life more than a few times,’ Wendy said.

‘I’m going to get something to eat why don’t you come along and tell me a few of those stories, your shift hasn’t quite ended but I’m won’t tell if you won’t,’ Claire smiled.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          

‘Don’t you two ever get tired of studying?’ Lana Duke said to her two roommates Sita Ruperjee and Maria Sanchez.

‘No, its how you learn and besides sometimes you can discover things about something you never set out to,’ Maria answered coolly.

It was no secret among the various trainee’s that tension existed between Lana and her roommates, while others formed bonds, encouraged each other and helped each other along, Lana did none of that with Sita and Maria to the point where some in the class were beginning to give the three a wide birth.  Lana didn’t seem to mind it, in fact she kind of enjoyed it, but Maria and Sita did not.

‘Then I’ll leave you two Petunia Protons to your excitement, I have other things to do,’ Lana said dismissively.

‘Ah before you go we have a conundrum that we can’t figure out, perhaps you can shed some light on the matter,’ Sita said standing up and turning toward Lana who turned around at the question.  ‘Perhaps you can explain why you would have these two rather nasty items, I believe this is a rather lethal Stripstick and this canister contains Glitter Powder.  Maria and I were just wondering how Strippers Guild weapons could end up with a trainee,’ Sita said as she put down the items and smiled.

‘Well I can see my ruse is up and the cat’s out of the bag, unfortunately for you two, this cat has claws and is not afraid to use them.  Pity I shall have to waste my talents on you two, our plan was for several instructors to meet their ends, now I will just have to settle for a light workout and two modesty trainees before I make my escape,’ Lana said as she moved instantly to the attack.

Just as quickly Sita hand the scarf from her Lehenga off her neck and with the most delicate snap the end revolved around Lana’s wrist and cemented in place.  Sita gathered up the slack, tucked and rolled her body forward and under the swinging arm of Lana popping up behind her where she tossed the free end of the scarf back to Maria who promptly joined her end to Lana’s other wrist as Sita gathered in the slack and pulled the trainees arms straight back where she wrapped a few loops of the loose material around the wrists and bond them together.

‘Cha-sah!’ Maria said as she drove a raised knee into Lana’s mound.

The Stripper wincing in pain from the first blow felt her ankles being tied in the silk scarf.

Miss Baxter had you pegged from the start, she asked us to keep a close eye on you,’ Maria said with a smile.

‘She can have the satisfaction of that all she wants and you two can take whatever you want from this, but you waited to long for your glorious moment,’ Lana said in triumph.

‘Oh yes all those reports you were sending out in coded email,’ Sita said.  ‘Funny thing about that, but Maria is quite a math and computer whiz.  You know you really should choose a better password.  All that knowledge ended up going nowhere except of course you’re carelessness actually provide us with a storehouse of intel on your organisation.’

‘And I never thought a nice Indian girl could correspond as a stripper,’ Maria smiled.

‘I did enjoy our conversations Lana and all those IP address, I’m sure we’ll make good use of them,’ Sita added.

Lana shook with fury and grunted in frustration.  ‘COIL will never get me to talk,’ she spat.

‘I’m sure that’s true, but we never mentioned COIL only you have and I think we’ve both heard more than enough from you,’ Sita said with a nod to Maria who drove her knee into Lana’s mound once more while Sita kicked out the back the Strippers legs crashing Lana to the floor prostrate on her stomach.

Maria hooked the back of her heel into Lana’s bounds at her ankles while Sita took care of her wrist.

 They cartwheel toward each other on opposite sides of the Strippers body pulling her up in a U shape to a loud snap before disengaging their heels.

Maria picked up her phone and sent a text message.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          

‘Anything the matter Claire?’ Wendy Schiller asked as Claire looked at her cell.

‘No, everything is fine,’ she smiled and closed the phone.  ‘Now you where saying, The Fiji Assignment and don’t leave out a detail.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          

I thought this was the day Miss Baxter was to be delivered into our hands?’ the beautiful woman asked sharply.

Before he could answer in his usual dismissive tone several knocks landed on the boardroom door.  All staff knew never to interrupt their meetings.  He glanced about the room his face registering the resignation that as chairman he was not getting up to answer the door for any underlings knocks.  Finally the small man scurried out of his chair and over to the door where whispered voices exchanged a few words and a box that he hurriedly brought to the tall thin man at the head of the table.

 ‘It’s addressed to you, I thought we agreed this location would be kept strictly within this room!’ he said his voice angry and his face red, both very uncharacteristic.

 The tall thin man ignored the comment as he pulled a letter opener from the small drawer attached underneath the table.  He did however let his eyes boring into the small round man for just long enough to watch him turn tail and scurry back to his proper place.

‘What is it?’ the beautiful woman said, she not afraid to speak up.

‘If you will be a little more patient we can all find out together, but I suspect it is our answer from Miss Baxter,’ he said with a note of confidence in his voice and hint of satisfied victory in his voice.

‘It would seem Miss Baxter wants to meet with me,’ he said as he read the note that he kept concealed from the others.

‘What does the note say exactly and why did she send it in a box, what else are you concealing from us,’ the older woman asked in an icy tone.

‘A telephone number and a request for the two of us to meet,’ he said showing them for the first time the hidden message

‘Why is it printed on the back of a playing card?’ the small round man asked.

He tossed the card on the down the middle of the table so they could all see it.

‘The Queen of Hearts?’ several mentioned at once as they looked up at him quizzically.

He pushed the box into the centre of table for all to see the severed head of Sharon Sharpe.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *        

‘Pants Miss Baxter?’ he said in a questioning voice as a woman stood before him, appearing as if out of nowhere.  ‘That is somewhat out of character for you?’

‘You don’t deserve my legs,’ she answered and sat down next to him.

‘I learned a long time ago that deserve has nothing to do with anything.  One gets what one wants by will and force of nature, a nature one imposes on oneself and others wouldn’t you agree?’

‘I prefer the Newtonian principle, for every action there is an equal or opposite reaction.  In other words I see the world as a balanced scale you see it perpetually tipped in your favour, or perhaps that view is changing given recent current events,’ Claire stated as she watched little children play on the swings and other apparatus across the park lawn.

‘No, yet here we are and the proof of my belief is that you came when I called, you reacted to my action, hence I control you in some small way.  You Miss Baxter, you’re a reactor to situations; you get sent to fix things once they break rather than before they do.  How much more harm are you put in as a result of that and how much easier would it have been to do a little preventative maintenance before hand.  No, you are told what to do and you do it and you do it again and again until you’re one, dead or two, used up to the point of being no more use, then you are discarded and the next young woman takes your place.  And what have you accomplished for all that work and danger, nothing really; the replacement agent merely confirms my hypothesis.  We offer a much more how should I say holistic approach, one that eliminates the need for constant intervention, although not all together nullifies it,’ he said with a toothy smile.

‘Ah we come to the raison d’etere of this meeting, a job offer.  I’ve had them before from many other people and organisations and the answer has always remained a constant no,’ Claire answered.

‘I will admit that is the underlying reason for my being here, but I don’t think a job offer, as you commonly put it, does what I am about to offer you full voice,’ he answered, then continued.  ‘This is merely a pay and positional advancement; this is an opportunity to become a genuine person who shapes what this planet will become.  Governments do what they do and will continue to do so, benignly following the path set by a select few citizens who actually control the levers of power not just in one country or a region of the planet but the entire earth.  No more one against the other, a single cohesive order moving things along and what I am offering you today a place within that group.  Think of it Miss Baxter, you get the make the changes you only can hope to make at COIL, they allow you to get close the prize before pulling it away, we offer you the chance to catch, hold and distribute the prize,’ he explained clinically.

‘I am reminded of the saying regarding absolute power,’ Claire mused.  ‘However, I will not lie and say that thoughts and sometimes wishes likening such a situation have not crossed my mind during my stay at COIL.  Tell me Mr. Finch, have you ever been to the Sahara for any period of time?’ Claire asked looking sideways at his face and seeing in his eyes that he hadn’t been.

‘I spent some time there on a mission travel with a several Bedouin family groups, traders moving from place to place.  One day a fierce sandstorm came up and we had to stop.  Do you know that if you don’t take cover quickly, the winds drive the small granules of sand so fast that they will actually strip the skin from any exposed body part and reduce whatever covering you may be wearing to rags within minutes?  We spent 4 days inside before the storm ended; when we emerged the sand had completely shifted and changed the landscape from what I remembered.  I asked one of the men how we would ever find our way now that the route we had been following was gone?  He answered by telling me the route was still there it just goes in a different direction now, but our destination remains the same, it has not moved.  What you want to do is move the destination, rather than change the way to get there, tell me which is easier?’ Claire said again looking at the children.

‘Both have there challenges, but neither is impossible with the right people,’ he answered.

‘It appears I’m one of those right people, but tell me how long before I cease being one of those people and you’re opening a box containing my head.  Sorry I almost forgot to ask, how did you like my present?’ Claire smiled and looked into his grey eyes with ice cold blue sapphires of her own.  ‘Clone or not she was a wealth of information once persuaded to talk, names, addresses other bits of relevant information.’

‘It received the requisite shock value it intended,’ he answered looking back at her but letting his eyes linger just a little too long giving Claire the opportunity to discern what he didn’t ask.

‘She may have looked and sounded like Sharon, but that’s simply nature over nurture and that’s where the entire enterprise collapsed.  She may have been able to fool people who didn’t know her that well, but I trained with her, as I’m sure you know from reading my dossier, and oh, just a note on that, that is the abridged version of my dossier, in fact more is missing than is actually there and that was always by design, not my design, but a friend of mine who changed the files without anyone knowing, COIL and I suspect even you, would I be correct in that assumption?  Come on do tell, we are sharing secrets here on this lovely day, don’t spoil such a pleasant meeting with protocol,’ Claire’s smooth voice teased as only she could do.

‘You are correct, we had a different theory as to why it was, well I suppose spotty is as good a word as any,’ he answered.

‘Lady Tara is very good with computers, a hidden talent, among many others, but then again she is an excellent spy, so one would suspect hidden talents, uncovering them, now that’s the difficultly, even for me as she had apparently being doing it all along to my dossier.  I’m not even going to ask what hypothesis you were working under it doesn’t matter now,’ she countered and watched a small curl form on the left side of his mouth.  ‘Meantime, Sharon, yes, well, where to begin, bad technique, poor fighting skills, whoever trained her did a piss poor job, please excuse the vulgar vernacular but above all she had no knowledge of us.  I trained with the woman, she’s like my mother, I love her as such and I could tell from the first hug, she wasn’t my Sharon.  After that a few simply causal questions, then I put her on the spot, called her for what she was and took care of her, then returned to sender.  If you have more like her they better be Sharon 2.0 because the Beta version crashed and burned

‘She was our only adult model and as you say since we are sharing secrets, the latest version, fully formed clones that emerge as adults,’ he answered.

‘Progress is slow and costly on the road to building a better mousetrap.  Back to the drawing board literally I suppose after that unfortunate gas explosion levered the building and you not able to get out any of the machines and suffering the doubly frustrating fate of not being able to transmit the data files.  I guess its back to the Petrie dish,’ Claire mused.

‘On the contrary, we, with the help of a certain party by-passed that time consuming baby the child to adolescent to adult time constraint with Sharon, she was the 2.0 version as you mockingly said.  Mr. Finch raised and hand and then continued.  ‘That took time and effort to get there, but like all experiments there was prototype along the way,’ he answered.

Claire looked up to she a little girl, perhaps 5 or 6 running across the grass toward them, she was wearing a pink overalls, blue runners and a white shirt with a Hello Kitty logo on it.  Her hair as slightly past her shoulder and clipped with a beret to hang down the back of her neck.  With every step she took toward them Claire took a step back in time toward her until the two meet face to face at the park bench.

Harrow Finch please say hello to Claire Baxter,’ he said with a bright smile.

‘Hello Miss Baxter, nice to meet you, could you come a push me on the swing, I’m afraid I’m not very good at it by myself,’ she asked in a small cheerful pipey voice.

‘I would love to dear, but can you give me several minutes more with Mr. Finch and then I’ll be right over.  In the meantime, site beside me for a second and I’ll show you a trick for the swings,’ Claire said as the girl sat beside her.  ‘First thing you do is run back a few steps as you sit on the swing, then raise your legs and fly forward keeping your legs straight out as you go,’ Claire explained as she demonstrated by raising her legs and getting Harrow to so the same.  ‘The just as you’re about to go backward you tuck your legs underneath like this and pull back on the chains just a little, then your repeat the whole thing again as you go forward.  Now you show me, forward,’ Claire said.  ‘Now backward, now forward, back, forward, wonderful, you know I bet by the time I get there you’ll be going so well, you fly right over the top in a big circle.  And remember when you want to stop and get off, just hold your legs straight out and you’ll slow down.  Are you ready to go try?’

The girl gave a nod and a familiar smile and was off running toward the swings with all the sped and delight that only a child can convey.

‘It must be a strange feeling sitting beside oneself with only the mirage of time separating you from yourself,’ he smiled evilly.  ‘She is Claire 1.0, we thought so much of you we used your DNA, that is before your destroyed the lab, to create, to use your words our first prototype.  Technically is just turned 5, in reality she is only 2,’ he offered in a voice akin to describing the age of a car.

Claire said nothing is was still trying to come to grips with seeing the little girl, the little girl that was her in every genetic respect.  She didn’t know how to react, so she didn’t, she placed that aside, it served no purpose at the moment except to sidetrack her, she needed to stay on point.

 ‘Do you want to practice the Socratic Method here or do you just want to explain,’ Claire said shaking her head.

‘Extraordinary, isn’t it.  When we first started out this was the best we could do, a toddler, then with better equipment and more intensified effort we were able to produce adults.  That was the breakthrough we had always strove for, no however, given the circumstances of your encounter with our efforts I’m beginning to think, she may be best course of action, playing the long hand, as the Chinese call it,’ he surmised.  ‘You represent the best of COIL operatives Miss Baxter, that’s why we used your DNA first, you should be honoured, but think of the even greater honour you can have if you take all that you’ve learned and impart that knowledge in her.  Tell Miss Baxter, how much better an agent would you be today if you had started at say 8 or 9 to train.  All the advanced one on one education, the best the world could offer, could be that child’s and you could be the one imparting it, to her and to others.  In the strictest sense of the word you would achieve immortality while helping us to achieve our goals,’ he offered.

‘She only looks like me, she is not me, nor should she ever be me, she should be Harrow, not the child, toddler or her, use her name, she is a person,’ Claire said.

‘A mother’s protective voice and instincts,’ he mused with an even more menacing smile.

‘Let’s not quibbled over semantics, the bigger picture is the important thing, I know you see it and something tells me deep inside that you agree with what we do and would like to be a part of it.  All you have to do is say yes,’ Finch said extending his boney hand for her to shake.

‘You seem like an intelligent man, well that goes without saying Mr. Finch.  I think I can say I understand you, your organisation, your offer and what would be my place within it and you wouldn’t be here today and I wouldn’t have accepted your invitation if you weren’t already confident of my answer, even with some of the revelations I’ve told you about with regard to errors on your organisations behalf.  Bringing along Harrow did nothing to sway me, except it did reinforce your organisations resources, something COIL can’t offer me and never will be able to do or have the willingness to do,’ Claire explained.

‘We do see eye to eye after all,’ Finch triumphed a smile creasing his face in victor

‘Let every eye negotiate for itself and trust no agent,’ Claire smiled back, she let that sink in just to the point that the smile disappeared from his face before she continued.  ‘The empty vessel makes the loudest sound that is why you wanted to meet me; I’m your last best hope Mr. Finch.  Organisations like yours begat evil deeds from evil thoughts and you count on us to play by rules that you don’t acknowledge, every step forward for you equates to two back for us, that’s how you play the game and now that’s how I played the game, until I decided to play by your rules  You don’t know me at all sir and in your lack of understanding you have doomed not only yourself but the others of your like who foolishly gave you license to pursue your ego towards me,’ Claire glanced at her watch and smiled as a small low rumbling, like a thunder clap far off in the distance filled the air.

 ‘Your office, the second one, as of now just another pile of rubble, those gas leaks, London is full of old pipes just waiting to break, at least that’s going to be official explanation, a construction crew, just started this afternoon, seems they hit a buried pipe not shown on any map.  Luckily they all escaped and well the building was levelled the fatalities were remarkably small, I think in the order of four well five, you being the fifth.  Oh not to worry Mr. Finch I’m not going to kill you, if I had wanted that I’d have killed you already, but that would deprive me of taking Harrow by the hand and walking away while you sit here and watch us go knowing your time is marked simply by how long it takes others within your organisation to find and kill you.  How do I know that will happen, easy sir, it’s the nature of the beast you work for.  Harrow was a bonus, I had no idea about her, but your arrogance could not let you keep any cards hidden, you had to show me and for that I’m grateful, because I get to steal her away and give her a life you would deny her.  Its true what the Bard said, There are no devils in hell, their here on earth, well in short order another devil will be sent home,’ Claire toned.

‘Are you quite finished Miss Baxter?’ he said with just a fraction of a note of worry in his voice.

‘That’s the first time during our conversation that you’ve not sounded like yourself.  Yes I am, I could tell you all about your dealings with the aliens that you duped the technology out of for the clones, they are a trusting race, always have been, even back in 1947 in Roswell.  I don’t think I have time to explain that adventure of mine to you, but just so you understand, they will not be speaking with you again.  Now I think we’re done, I leave with more than I came and you leave with nothing and in short order even that will be taken away from you.  Goodbye Mr. Finch the pleasure was all mine,’ Claire said as she got up and walked toward the swings.

‘Where is Mr. Finch?’ Harrow asked as Claire knelt beside her.

‘He asked me if I could look after you for a while as he has a business meeting to go to.  I hope you don’t mind?’ Claire smiled.

Harrow smiled back and Claire took the cue.

‘You look very hungry, you’ve be playing very hard, I know a really fun place nearby if you’d like?’ the spy asked.

‘How did you know I was hungry?’ Harrow asked rubbing her tummy.

When I was your age I was always hungry,’ Claire smiled at her younger self as she offered her hand and the girl took it.

Would you like to play a game?’ Harrow said as they walked out of the park.

‘What game do you want to play?’ Claire asked her voice happy.

‘Do you know how to play I Spy?’ Harrow enthused.