by E. J. Noyes
It’s an ordinary workday when intelligence analyst Lexie Martin learns about a horrific chemical weapon attack abroad. Just an ordinary day…until a stranger breaks into her house and warns her to forget what she saw and heard, setting off a chain of events Lexie thought only happened in movies. Falsely accused of stealing intelligence and unsure of who to trust, Lexie quickly realizes the significance of the intel, and that she must do everything she can to keep it safe. And as she runs—maybe for her life—Lexie knows she needs something, or someone, to help her.
There’s a place for truths and lies, and sometimes you need both to get what you want. Lexie convinces the woman she’s only just started dating to “go on vacation” with her, hoping a constant companion and witness will keep Them at a distance, and the intel safe. But when she develops feelings for the beautiful and sweet Sophia Flores, she wonders if a relationship built on a foundation of secrets can ever work. That might not even matter, because when Lexie uncovers the truth, the price of it could be her freedom.
Book One in the Halcyon Division Series.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"Integrity has been quite some time from writing to publication, possibly more than any of my other novels with the exception of my debut, possibly because it required more work to fit the pieces together, and maybe possibly because of the extra strong dose of no-yes-no-yes-no-yes-no-yes I experienced during its creation.
This isn’t the first time I’ve gone through massive phugoid cycles of “I love this book!” to “I hate this book!” (sometimes multiple times in the course of one day), and it definitely won’t be the last time. Fun fact! It’s happening right now as I finish up Leverage: Book 2 (thank you, support crew for yet again tolerating my Tortured Artiste woes). But there’s something comforting in the familiarity of this cycle of loving then hating then loving your work, especially because I ALWAYS land on love in the end.
Lexie Martin’s world might be a little twisty and yeah, maybe it’s still a little complex. But as an author, it’s a great world to be immersed in and I hope you enjoy experiencing it as much as I enjoyed creating it."
—E. J. Noyes
Read more about E. J.'s thoughts on Integrity at Book News.
The Lesbian Review
Noyes writes in first-person point of view like no other. This author made me see and feel everything through Lexie’s eyes. Noyes’ writing is beautiful and real, I loved getting lost in the main character’s head and re-read several paragraphs because they were so poignant.
Noyes always writes witty, funny heartfelt dialogue and this book has all of that in bucket loads.
Women Using Words
Noyes never fails to impress me with her talent. She is fearless in her storytelling, never hesitating to flesh it out and let the story take her where it will. Because she does, it feels organic to the reader. Scenes don’t feel forced. They work. Furthermore, they advance the plot. It all works to prove Noyes is a master at producing stories that are pure, indulgent escapism. Readers get so caught up in the narrative that it’s over before they know it and they’re a little disappointed that it has. However, a true Noyes fan always knows that the reread is going to be just as good, if not better than the first time through.... Book one of the Halcyon Division Series is a fantastic beginning; I have no doubt readers are going to enjoy this journey and sign up for more. This is heart-pumping, non-stop, page-flipping fun, and one heck of a ride! My recommendation: don’t miss out!
Victoria T. - …The book is an emotional rollercoaster, but just when I feel like I will explode with all the emotions, stress, and paranoia from Lexie. E. J. will casually feed you sweet treats from Lexie and Sophia; and slide humor banter here and there that I miss counting how much I want to laugh out loud…. I can't wait for Book 2 to be released!
Melina B. - This was such an excellent read - the action was fast paced and had me on the edge of my seat the whole time. Lexie was a very likeable character and had a sense of humour even in the toughest of situations, but still wasn’t afraid to be vulnerable and accept her growing feelings for Sophia. It was a good balance between a romance and a spy thriller.
Karen C. - Hoooooooo-weeeeeee! What a fun ride! A new book by E. J. Noyes is truly an event to be scheduled on a reader's calendar. But knowing it's the start of a new series? Priceless! I can't even imagine how the rest of the series will play out…will Lexie and Sophia continue to fight crime together? The use of first person past tense works so well here that it's impossible not to become immersed in the story from the first page.
Nutmeg - In Integrity, Noyes created a world blanketed in deceit and treachery and a dynamic plot that thickens and swells as the story goes. I read the acknowledgments and can only imagine the work required to tear a draft and start it all over again. So for all the rewriting, thank you Noyes, for giving us yet another book to devour and characters to fall in love with.
In a world where lies and truths collide and intertwine, Lexie is racing against time, to protect intel and uncover truths while playing lover to Sophia Flores. The suspense will keep you on your toes, I can’t go about saying how many times I was tempted to skip to the end just to see how it all ends. The side characters add yet another layer to the suspense and Sophia, what can I say other than I am inclined to believe she is the one to watch out for in the next book.
Michele R. - …Once again E. J. Noyes has written a book that is so different from any of her past offerings. Integrity has a balance of intrigue, spy games, potential political upheaval, and romance. I highly enjoyed both characters including Lexie's vulnerability and Sophia's strength, both character traits that are in sharp contrast to their day-to-day personas. The ending was the perfect setup and lead-in to Book Two, 4.5 stars
Betty H. - …The novel is filled with excitement, intrigue, thrills, and passion. Lexie and Sophia will grab your heartstrings and pull you into their tale, and even though Lexie will insist she isn’t a spy, this is really a wonderful spy story. This novel has my highest recommendation, and I can’t wait for the next book in the series. If I could give it more than five stars, I would. You must read this one.
Queer A. Reviews - …E. J. Noyes has written a brilliant first book in what promises to be an epic new series.
Jenna B. - Integrity is a thriller with a lovely dose of romance which captivated me from the first moment.
Bonnie K. - Overall, a fast-paced exciting engaging romance that leaves you wanting more. The characters were lovable and communicated well. I recommend.
Jo R. - A fantastic thriller that keeps you captivated from beginning to end!
Laura G. - …I keep waiting for a book from E.J. Noyes that I don't love, but I am starting to think there may never be a book from her that doesn't speak to me. She is unequivocally one of the best writers in sapphic literature and I wait anxiously for the second book in this captivating, intense series. Lexie Martin is a heroine who values her integrity above all things, even more so than her own safety. I only wish more real-life people shared her values.
The day I received the call that would change my life, and not in a good infomercial promise kind of way
When the VoIP phone on my desk rang, I had to excavate the infrequently used handset from under a pile of paper. An early-morning call from an asset. Exciting. I set aside the taskings I was reading and brought up a blank document ready for notes. As I typed the date, time, and incoming number from the digital screen, I started the recording function, double-checked the encryption, and answered the call not with my usual crisp “Lexie Martin” but with a bland “Hello?”
“Ellen, hello,” said a man in accented English.
Ellen… Nobody had called me that in months. One of the first things I’d had drilled into me during my initial training was never give my real name to an asset. I’d had a thing for Ellen Ripley from the Alien movies. It’d been a logical choice.
I smiled at the sound of the voice. “Hadim.” I had no idea if Hadim was his real name either, but it was way down the list of things important to our working relationship. “How are you? It’s been some time.”
Almost a year, but that was generally how our contact was. Sporadic. We’d first met in the Middle Eastern region almost ten years earlier, when I was an Ops Officer instead of an Analyst, and my job was more about collection rather than analysis. Back then I spent a lot of time moving around the world instead of just from my apartment to my cubicle and back again each day. I’d been talent-spotting and recruiting female assets—men often forgot their women overheard things—and Hadim had approached me after his wife mentioned I’d been speaking with her. After the usual period of suspicion and vetting, he’d quickly proven his usefulness and loyalty to me. Or perhaps more accurately, his loyalty to my country’s money. In all the years we’d been working together, he’d never once passed me bad intel—and he would only pass it to me, even though I’d left fieldwork behind five and a half years ago.
“I’m as well as I can expect, and you?” Behind his voice was the background drone of cars and people, which meant he was in his city apartment overlooking the marketplace. I could picture the hot, noisy space with its distinctive sights, scents, and sounds, and had a sudden urge to go back there and slowly browse through the almost-overwhelming amount of offerings, to find something for dinner, something to wear, something to give as a gift.
“About the same as the last time we spoke. Are you safe?” My question had a dual meaning: safe both physically, and with his communication channels.
“Good, I’m glad to hear it.” Dispensing with further unnecessary formality, I asked, “What can I help you with?”
“Five nights ago there was an incident. A squad of Red Wolves attacked a small village in the Aqtash District in Kunduz Province, up near the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border. A village comprised mostly of civilians, not insurgents. There were no survivors among the three hundred and sixty-two inhabitants. Men, women, and children.”
I swallowed hard, and tried to sound casual. “Okay, and why should Red Wolves doing what they always do concern me?” Rhetorical question of course. The Red Wolves were a well-organized militia group, with rumored ties to Russia, that’d popped up almost eighteen months ago. No agency in any country had been able to determine their true nationality or loyalty, but everything they did seemed to be magically in Russia’s best interests. If the shoe fits…
“Because they didn’t go in with assault rifles blazing, Ellen. They used something that they should not have. Something I have never seen or heard of before, and something that I believe would be prohibited under the Chemical Weapons Convention.”
That immediately got my attention, and sent a simultaneous surge of excitement and worry through me. There were only a few countries who were non-signatory on the CWC, and if someone had broken the treaty… I had to bite back my fuck. “What exactly did they use? In what form?”
“I don’t know the specifics, but I believe it was airborne.”
I couldn’t bite this one back. “Fuck,” I muttered. A new chemical weapon capable of airborne dispersion. Brilliant.
Hadim cleared his throat before I heard the long drag on his cigarette. “There is more. I am hearing a lot of chatter and everyone says the Red Wolves didn’t plan this themselves, but instead were operating under a, what is it you would say? Quid…pro quo arrangement with another country.”
My attention was now at attention and the tingling down my spine out in full force. “Okay. What do you have that I can take to my boss?” Hearsay was as worthless as no information at all. And this information would need to be shared with another specialized counterterrorism department, namely those who worked in WMD—Weapons of Mass Destruction—so I needed solid, actionable intelligence.
“The three Vs.” Voice, video, visual. A jackpot.
“Perfect,” I breathed, typing furiously. “Thank you. Is the video from Airborne, or…?”
“A body camera.” He swallowed audibly. “And it is not pleasant viewing. In fact, I would say it is very unpleasant.” Coming from Hadim, who’d been in the middle of one war or another for most of his life and would have seen some truly horrendous things, that was saying something.
Side thought: Why would a militia group film their chemical weapon attack on a group of (probably) unarmed civilians? I didn’t want to sound ungrateful, but I had to ask, “You didn’t come across any Airborne footage at all? That seems strange.”
There was an uncomfortably long pause. “Perhaps it is. But I think the why of that fact is a question you will need to direct to those who operate your drones.”
My gut sank to my feet at his implication. What he wasn’t saying was as important as what he had said. I made a note about the pause and his careful tone. “Got it. I haven’t seen anything at all about this.” Even if it was being handled by another team or agency, I should have seen something. But there hadn’t been a single bit of chatter. Any chemical weapon attack, hell even just the planning of one, should have been picked up by someone in WMD. The thought that we’d missed something made me feel trembly inside. We had eyes everywhere. I forced cheer into my voice, unwilling to let him hear what I felt. “You’re a magician, you know that?” I would have loved to know how he managed to get body cam footage from a Russian…sorry, stateless, militia.
He chuckled. “Yes, you have told me that before. I have sent everything I could get to you via our usual method. Use password number fourteen to unlock the encryption on the email.”
“Thank you. Check your account tomorrow and there will be something in there for your trouble.”
“I appreciate that. Next time you’re in my country, come find me. You still owe me a chess game for the one you abandoned to catch your flight. Dinner will be on me.”
“A seven-year-delayed chess game?” I laughed, genuinely amused. “And you mean dinner is on me, considering I’m paying you.” What he’d been paid for his intelligence could fund thousands of dinners. But he was worth every dime.
“That is true,” he agreed teasingly. Hadim took another slow drag on his cigarette, and when he spoke again I could hear the hesitation. Nervousness… Unusual from him. “Ellen? I do not have a good feeling about this one. Be cautious.”
The fact he’d expressed the sentiment made me pay attention. “I will. Take care, talk to you when I do.”
We hung up, I saved the recording to my computer and backed it up, then put on headphones and transcribed the call, fleshing out the notes I’d made during my conversation with Hadim. Once I had a solid bare-bones document, I logged in to my assets-only account on one of the agency’s private email account servers, input the Hadim Password #14 from memory (no, it’s not Hadimpassword14), and started malware scans that would stop even the sneakiest thing a hacker might try to slip through. Not that Hadim was a hacker, but inadvertently introducing a virus or worm into one of the most secure government areas would earn me a black mark on my performance evaluation.
I rolled my chair back, hitting the filing cabinet behind me, as usual. Nine thirty a.m. Tea and processed snack food time. Samuel, one of my teammates, was in our fourth floor’s communal kitchen, hovering over the coffee maker like he was afraid someone would steal it from him. He glanced over his shoulder and offered a smile, then leaned over to flip the electric kettle on for me.
I returned the smile, though it took some effort given what I’d just learned. “Thanks. How’s Muffin?” I pulled down the container of Oolong tea labeled “Lexie’s—please don’t steal!” from the cabinet. My colleagues were tea heathens, and the thought of one of the Earl Grey in a Tea Bag group butchering my Oolong made me want to cry.
“Still hates her cone of shame but seems to be healing up okay.” His cat, a.k.a. Sam’s most favorite thing in the world, had had an altercation with the neighborhood cat-bully. I’d been hearing about it, including comforting him when he’d thought Muffin wouldn’t make it, for the past week.
“Just tell her it’s the latest in cat fashion and I’m sure she’ll change her mind.” I peered around the tiny, dated kitchen. “Have you seen my tea infuser?”
“Dish drainer,” Sam said instantly. “I emptied and rinsed it before I left work yesterday afternoon.”
“Thank you, kitchen angel. You wanna get married? I’ll cook, you do all the dishes.”
“Mmm, tempting,” he drawled, then quickly added, “but, pass. Even if we set aside the insurmountable issue of neither of us being attracted to the opposite gender, I can’t stand the way you make cauliflower rice in the microwave. It’s bad enough having it at work a few times a month. Not in my own home, thank you.”
“Someone has to be the office microwave jerk. And it could be worse, I could be microwaving fish. You’re being dramatic.”
“True. But still a pass.” He took his eyes off the coffee machine for a moment. “Speaking of marriage, how’d that second date go last week?”
Chemical weapons fell out of my head, warm fuzzies jumped in. “Really well. She’s cute and funny and smart and she still hasn’t run screaming, so I’m taking that as a good sign. I’m also taking a lot of flirty messages and calls around us trying to schedule dates as a good sign. Oh, and I should also count our third-date late-breakfast tomorrow as a good sign, right?” The sparky chemistry I felt every time I looked at, texted and talked to, or touched her, was also a very good sign.
He applauded me. “Way to go, you! Putting yourself out there. It’s been…how long since you last dated?”
“Mumble-mumble-mumble years.” Five years and six months, to be exact, and not even in this country. Stepping back into the dating pond was beyond weird. After filling my infuser with loose tea and dropping it into my octopus mug, I leaned against the mottled gray Formica counter. “Hey, have you seen anything coming out of Kunduz Province, or anything involving Red Wolves anywhere?”
Sam’s eyebrows bounced up. “Timeframe?”
“Within the last week or so.”
He stared absently into space, and after about thirty seconds, said, “Just the usual low-level chatter from Kunduz, nothing that stands out, and I don’t recall any mention of Red Wolves operating at all recently. Why?”
The kettle clicked off and I carefully poured water into my mug. “I heard something this morning from a friend, something I don’t like, something we should have heard about sooner. I was wondering if I’d fallen out of the loop somehow.” And more than that—wondering why nobody seemed to know about this.
Samuel laugh-snorted. “As if. You’re like Derek’s prizewinning pet. You’re the center of the loop.” He nabbed a packet of Cheddar Cheese Pretzel Combos from the basket of snacks in the corner and tossed it at me.
I caught it one-handed.
After being waylaid by colleagues wanting my opinion or wanting to ask about my weekend plans—which was really just a way to segue into telling me about their weekend plans—I finally got back to my cubicle. The files Hadim sent were all clean—not that I’d expected anything dirty. I downloaded everything which, as usual, he’d thoughtfully labeled for me, then I filled in a payment request and emailed it to Accounts who’d wire him some money. Job done. Except for the job still to be done.
There was an audio file, a video file, and a folder full of photographs. I put on my noise-canceling headset to block out the chatter filtering over the annoyingly low “let’s encourage collaboration” cube walls and cued up the audio. This first pass, I’d take no notes, just listen.
Two men. One obviously American, well-educated Boston-ish accent, authoritative. The second was Russian, his English good, accent smooth and cultured, so he wasn’t a Russian roughneck. The tone between the two was casual, almost congenial, as if they were two pals talking about a sportsball match. The content of the conversation was not casual. I scrubbed back to the start and this time, as I listened, transcribed frantically.
American: The product will be delivered to the warehouse at nineteen hundred tonight, operation begins at twenty-one hundred. Do you have appropriate safety equipment?
Russian: Yes, Colonel, and my team have been instructed in how to safely handle the product.
A: Good. [Long pause – smoking?] Once we’ve confirmed the efficiency and efficacy, the funds will be wired to your government and the other items delivered to the drop points you requested.
R: What if it does not work? What happens to our payment?
A: It’ll damned well work, if your team uses it as instructed. Any inefficiency will be on your head, and it’ll be your fault the funding and equipment don’t come through.
R: *Russian expletive* Red Wolves do not fail.
A: Good [Slap sound – handshake or back slap?] Then it works out for everyone, doesn’t it? I’ll see you at twenty-one hundred. [Laughter, like a chuckle or snicker – sounds condescending] Don’t forget to bring your gas mask.
Notes: Background noise busy, mechanical/cars, no other voices detected on recording, no animal sounds detected, no echo indicating that it’s indoors. Colonel – legitimate military, or backyard militia? Russian – no title or rank, feels inferior to the American?
As I listened for the third time, I read through the transcription to ensure I had it all down correctly and to confirm what I’d heard was actually what I was hearing. Yep, it seemed like it. Unfortunately. Time to flesh this out a little with the photos and video. The moment I opened the photos I really wished I didn’t have to flesh it out. A tiny part of me, the part that always reacted this way when I saw how awful some humans could be, wanted to turn off my screen and pretend I’d never received Hadim’s call.
Thankfully my rational brain took over. If I didn’t investigate, there would be future victims of this new chemical weapon. People in another city, another province, another country. I owed it to them to get as much information as I could, so nobody else would suffer the way these civilians had. And they had suffered.
After an hour of poring over photographs and the body cam video of the…incident, I wanted to barf. To say what I was watching was disgusting, horrifying, and heartbreaking would barely scratch the surface of my emotion. Whatever they’d used to murder three hundred and sixty-two people, with no regard as to whether they were men, women, or children, acted like someone had mixed sarin and sulfur mustard and phosgene gases into one nightmare chemical agent. It was like it was designed to cause a horrible, painful, prolonged death, and nothing else.
My mouth was dry, my stomach burning with an unpleasant mix of heartburn and nausea—the horror of what I’d witnessed was taking physical form. Adding to my discomfort was the fact I’d spotted a very familiar flash of fabric in a few frames of the video. I’d need video enhancement techs to confirm, but I’d bet my last cup of Oolong that it was a US Army uniform. So the American, “Colonel,” really was military, rather than a backyard militia guy? Active duty, someone retired or discharged, or worst-case for the investigation—someone who’d grabbed a uniform from a surplus store.
Time to take a break, clear my head a little, and see what my boss thought. I copied the files to a shared internal server, password-protected each one, then wandered through the hallways to his office. Derek said nothing when I knocked, simply indicated I should come in. So I did. Midfifties, fit, and with his silver-gray hair cut into a neat buzz, Derek looked exactly like what he was—an ex-military intelligence officer, as hardass as he was compassionate. We’d met when he was still in the military, and I was still wet behind the ears and trying to figure out how to exist while doing my job in a hostile area. We had become close despite our age, background, and job differences, and not long after I’d changed roles five years ago, he’d retired from military intelligence and taken up a job at the agency as my boss.
Sam was right. I was Derek’s pet. But it was about more than me being very good at my job and working hard. Derek and I never talked about that day. But every now and then he would ask me, almost absently, and without context, “You okay?” I knew exactly what he meant. And I always said “Yes,” because I was okay. Mostly.
“I had a call-in a few hours ago,” I said, “and I want to know what you think. The files are on our shared drive, folder named LM-2022-10-14.”
“What’s the password?”
I told him.
Derek started a virus scan, and I gave him my best withering look, even though I knew it was just a habit, and a good one at that. He shrugged. “I don’t know what you get up to on that computer of yours.”
“Apparently, watching virus-laden porn all day every day,” I deadpanned.
“I’m not sure when you fit that in around all the cat videos and memes.”
“I’m surprised you know what a meme is. Have you been researching how to sound like a millennial?”
I ignored the obviousness of his statement to tell him, “Listen to the audio first.”
Derek slipped his clunky, eighties-esque headset over his ears. “I’ll have you know I’m very hip,” he said, too loudly, and too late. He navigated through files then turned slightly away and closed his eyes.
I dropped into one of the old, badly upholstered chairs on the other side of his desk and waited, turning the intel over in my head. After over a decade in this field of work, I’d found if I relaxed and let my brain wander about as it pleased, I usually had more luck than if I tried to force connections. I kept coming back to one uneasy conclusion, though I’d never say it with any certainty until I was certain—a Russian militia group had been bribed by a member of the American military, who likely had orders from higher up the command chain, to test a new, illegal, chemical weapon on civilians. That was the top of the umbrella, and all the reasons why this was really really bad fell from it like raindrops.
After a few minutes Derek tugged one side of the headset from his ear and confirmed my thoughts. “I think that sounds an awful lot like an American, possibly military, coercing a militia group who we suspect are Russian to do something dirty for us or they will withhold financial packages and-or weapons or something else they would want or need.” He played it again, and after finishing his second forehead-furrowed listen he looked up at me. “What else do you have?”
“Body cam footage and photos, of the test and its aftermath. Neither are very nice.” I gestured. “They’re on the drive. I hope you haven’t eaten.”
His eyebrows went up. “You know that stuff doesn’t bother me.”
“Don’t say I didn’t tell you…” I said as he started clicking through files.
“That’s not nice,” he said calmly once he’d finished, though his face made it clear he was bothered.
“Mmm,” I agreed, thinking I’d just told him it wasn’t nice and he should really listen to me. I would have said more, but his expression had made my brain drag those images from the secret hiding place I’d put them in so I didn’t have to think about it. And now I was thinking about it. “Scroll to two minutes fifty-one in the video and tell me if you see anything.”
Derek did as I’d told him, but said nothing. Either he hadn’t seen the brief glimpse of US Army camo, or he was keeping his cards close. Probably the latter. Intelligence analysts were notoriously allergic to commitment in the workplace. I’d seen satellite images of locations of interest showing something a five-year-old would recognize as a tank, labeled “probable tank.” Derek tapped his pen against the side of his neck, a thinking habit he’d had for as long as I’d known him.
“What do you think?” I asked, leaning forward expectantly.
He shook his head, pulled the headset off and dropped it on his desk among a stack of papers, two dirty coffee mugs, and so many broken pencils I’d consider him a sociopath if I didn’t know him so well. “Nothing I’d commit to without further information.”
Exactly the response I’d expected. “Okay, but, I mean, this is kind of a big deal, right? You’d have to imagine the White House knows that we’ve basically bribed a foreign entity, and not a friendly one at that, to do our dirty work in exchange for giving them aid.” I smiled sweetly, and amended my statement. “Or…that’s the probable explanation.”
“Yes. So it looks like.”
“Also concerning is why Russia would risk its relationship with Afghanistan in such a huge way, because this is something that’d immediately sever their already fragile diplomacy if the Afghans had the intel we do. Unless something massive is happening that nobody knows about, and the Afghan government is also involved in this.” In which case, I was doubly confused. And alarmed. America plus Russia plus Afghanistan equaled…something really fucking scary. I shook the thought off. There was no way. Was there? Because if we’d missed this, what else had we missed?
“Whoa. Back up a step. Back up ten steps. No leaps.”
“Okay, okay.” I mumbled a phrase my father had often repeated at me, even before I’d started this job. “Think before you act. I got it.”
“Exactly.” Derek eyed me over the top of his reading glasses. “But I think you’re right. This doesn’t sound or look like some small-time guy acting on his own to impress his terrorist friends.”
I popped double gun fingers at him. “Bingo. I’d put money on the fact someone in the White House authorized this, or at the very least, knows about it. And if that’s the case then why haven’t any of us been briefed about it?” It was no secret that the member organizations of the United States Intelligence Community sometimes forgot how to share amongst themselves, but still… “Or have you been briefed? Is there something I don’t know about? Also, another thing I really want to know is why didn’t Airborne catch anything?”
“Don’t.” The word was flat, completely without anger, but his meaning was clear. Accusing our government of such things was a good way to lose my security clearance and even end my career. “Dig some more, figure it out, show me some solid and workable intel on this.”
“Solid? Are you shitting me, Derek? I’d say what I have now is rock.” Well, maybe not rock solid but it was definitely gravel solid. You could build on gravel. “Something stinks, and even if it’s not what it looks like, then we’ve still got a group of Russian militia illegally testing a new chemical weapon on another country’s citizens. I know Russia-Afghanistan relations aren’t that healthy, but still…Can I prioritize this?”
“Well, it’s obviously worthy of investigation,” he said dryly. “So, give me a report I can disseminate through the IC by next Thursday at the latest. And let me know if you need a team.” He paused. “I have a briefing on the top floor next Friday and if this is what we think it might be then we’ll need to interface with another agency or office, WMD at the very least. Always fun,” he added under his breath.
I made cheerleading motions. “Yay, collaboration.”
Derek hmphed. “I have to get ready for our team meeting. Don’t be late today.” I knew his expression—we’re done for now, do your job and come back to me.
I left Derek’s office, mulling over my boss’s unusual apathy. No, not apathy, but almost…disinterest. His reaction was odd. Here I was with something that was one-hundred percent actionable and he was acting like I’d just told him my brother’s girlfriend’s hairstylist’s second cousin had seen a rumor on Facebook. Maybe he had Fridayitis like the rest of us.
The one thing I did have was a gut feeling that got stronger and stronger the more I thought about what I’d seen and heard. Since I’d started this job, my gut was the one thing I never questioned. Something stank, and I needed to find the source of it even if Derek apparently had a clothespin on his nose.
It was after six by the time I’d finished the bare-bones draft of my report, and my eyes felt like I’d been pouring sand into them all afternoon. Let’s see you try to shut this down now, Derek. Okay, so I was still running with nothing more than a bunch of dots that needed connecting but I could see that they would connect with a little more work. I’d have a relaxing weekend and be ready to continue the investigation on Monday morning when I came back into the office. I snorted to myself, because even I knew that was a lie. I’d be thinking about this until I came back after the weekend.
“This is why you don’t have a social life, Lexie,” I mumbled to myself. “Sorry, can’t go to the movies or spend a weekend at some romantic location because my every waking hour is spent trying to stop terrorism and keep diplomatic relations stable.” Yawning, I pulled off my glasses, saved everything in three locations then shut down my computer, gathered my things and left the office.
“Burning the midnight oil again?” Kevin, one of the many personnel who kept the premises secure, asked as I approached the door.
“Six p.m. oil. Not so bad.” I pushed my handbag and gym bag through the portal into the scanning machine, then held up my credentials, despite him knowing exactly who I was and the fact I was exiting not entering the building.
He peered at the hand I had outstretched. “Bad enough.”
I shrugged. No point in going over something we both knew—I had no life outside of work. “I missed you this morning.” We’d been bantering daily since he’d started two years ago, most of which was me imparting a random fact of the day upon him. All because he’d made an offhanded comment about me being Dr. Martin, which led to me correcting that it wasn’t medical, but actually a PhD in Political Science-slash-International Relations, to which he’d responded that I must be clever. So of course I had to flex my random-fact muscles. Google while eating dinner helped prepare me for our next-day fact interaction.
He pulled a face. “Had to see my cardiologist.”
I paused. “Oh? Everything okay?”
“Clean bill of health.”
“Good for you, glad to hear it.” I passed through the human scanner arch and was halted instantly by its blaring. Should have known.
Kevin didn’t blink as he asked, “Anything unusual on your person, Dr. Martin?”
I backed out and unbuckled my belt. “Sorry. New belt.” I yanked it through the loops on my skirt in one smooth motion and passed it to him. “It did the same thing this morning. Looks like it’s relegated to non-work wear.”
I walked through again without any alarm and collected my scanned and cleared handbag, gym bag, and belt from him. “Marie Curie’s laboratory notebooks are still radioactive from all her work and research into radium and stuff, even after a hundred years. They’ll have to be kept in lead containers for another fifteen-hundred years. So, stay away.”
“Damn, there goes my vacation plan of visiting her books…wherever the books are.” It was delivered perfectly deadpan.
I laughed as I scanned my badge to activate the turnstile. “Paris. I recommend it if you ever get the chance, radioactive notebooks and all.” As I pushed through the turnstile, the door ten yards ahead buzzed and clicked open, permitting my exit. “Night, Kevin.”
“Have a good evening, Dr. Martin.”
Doing a one-eighty to face him, I said, “You too, and enjoy your weekend. See you Monday.”
I slipped outside and veered around a concrete bollard disguised as a planter, and onto the sidewalk. I’d never felt any discomfort walking around outside work at night—the entire site was well-lit, securely fenced, gated, and patrolled. Which was good, because I’d missed the shuttle that would take me to the very far corner of “Parkistan,” the auxiliary parking lot farthest from my building and the only place I could find a spot that morning after arriving late thanks to a traffic accident.
After a twelve-minute powerwalk-slash-jog, I stowed my bags in the trunk of my VW EV and extracted my personal phone from its daytime resting place inside a thermal-protection lockbox secured to a bolt on the chassis. The moment I’d powered it on again, a handful of personal email alerts landed. Bill, bill, you’re-due-for-a-dental-checkup email, bill, shipping notification. Boring. I couldn’t even recall the last time I’d had an email from a friend. Maybe around the time Myspace was popular.
Friendships and relationships were great, but also…not. It was one thing to maintain those things when you already had them, but when you worked the hours and sometimes the locations I did—or rather, the locations I used to—it was infinitely harder. Creating new relationships was a nightmare, as I’d discovered during my sporadic attempts in the last few years to make friends and find someone to date. Or even just someone for some no-strings sex would be great. But…thanks to an epiphany a few months ago on the first anniversary of my parents’ death, I’d decided to do something about my lack of personal life and signed up for a dating app. Then I’d ignored it for a month. Baby steps.
I opened up my messages, rereading the brief exchange from yesterday.
I’m really looking forward to seeing you again on Saturday.
Me too. I promise I won’t forget to kiss you this time.
I smiled at the thought, and scrolled back through the flirty messages, enjoying the anticipation as I let the words sink in anew. I’d think about that promised kiss when I got home.
The drive was its usual metro hell-commute, and after a shower I drank a small glass of pinot while cooking dinner, ate dinner, then settled on the couch to read until it was an acceptable time to go to bed. I was tired but my brain was still humming with what I’d seen and heard in Hadim’s files, and I lay there thinking instead of sleeping. New strategy needed. I stripped my bed and remade it with crisp clean sheets, then lit candles in my meditation room and lay on the plush carpet until my mind had shed everything unwanted. I was asleep within minutes of climbing naked under the sheets.
Asleep, until the instinctive awareness that I wasn’t alone woke me from my usual dream-filled sleep. Groggy and disoriented, I lay still with my eyes closed, taking a moment to figure out where in my room the person who should not be in my room was. Near the door. Near my only exit.
I tensed, and a deep male voice said, “Oh, good, that saves me waking you.”