Ethan-Prologue

She slid into the car which looked like a typical black Escalade from the outside, but inside was arranged more like a limo with two benches of seats facing each other. The car pulled away from the curb smoothly and the man in the black suit stared in surprise. He had not been expecting someone so young.

The girl was used to that. “So what’s the mission?” she asked when it appeared that he was not going to volunteer the information on his own.

The man shook his head, cleared his mind, looked down at his phone. “You are going to retrieve some stolen information. Your profile said you specialize in impersonating people.” The girl nodded. “Well you’re going to need to look…older.”

She shrugged. “Not a problem.” When the man gave her a skeptical look, she said, “Usually they want me to look young. It’s sort of my specialty. Not many agents can look this young. But older is fine. Did you bring the supplies?”

In response, the man hefted a black case onto the seat next to him. She pulled it across onto her seat and popped it open. A brief look into the case and she nodded with satisfaction. “So what exactly is the persona?”

“You’re a newlywed.”

“Oh, so not a grandma then?” the girl quipped, but the man was thrown off by the joke.

“Your partner will be posing as your new husband, and as a Naval Officer. You are attending a military conference in Atlanta, where your husband is supposed to be receiving an award.”

“For what?” the girl asked as she sorted through the contents in the case.

“His award? For winning some sniper competition,” the man dismissed as if this wasn’t pertinent information.

The girl pulled a bottle of concealer out of the case and started smearing it in her hair. With a mirror propped on the case’s lid she darkened her hair with the makeup as she spoke. “Can he really do it?”

“Do what?”

“Win a sniper competition.”

“Uh, yes, I imagine he could,” the man stuttered. “You know there is hair dye in there.”

She smiled wryly. “And I have to be someone else in a week. I can’t have dark hair when I stop being a newlywed. Hair dye lasts longer than a week.”

“Oh. I thought it washed out or something.”

“Some kinds do, usually after twenty or thirty washes, so like a month. Altanta? Can you look up the weather report?” She asked.

Her hair was a streaky disaster, and the man was having some serious doubts as she pulled out a brush and some kind of spray, but he looked back at his phone and did a quick search for the weather report, like she’d asked. “60 to 75 degrees all week, and sunny.”

“Perfect,” she said. With the spray and the brush, she was transforming her dirty blond, straight hair into brown with highlighted curls. He had never seen anything like it. “You  what to know a good idea? Have your…people invent quality hair dye that washes out in a week. That would be really useful.”

“What people would that be?”

“Oh you know, the ones that sit around inventing new gadgets and stuff.”

“This isn’t James Bond, you know,” the man said peevishly.

The girl laughed. “Well I was kind of hoping my ‘husband’ would be along those lines.” She began pulling makeup out of the case at random.

“Your partner is no James Bond,” the man answered. The girl raised an eyebrow, not looking away from the mirror as she applied creams to her face. “He’s much better.” The girl laughed as if that was the funniest thing she’d heard in ages. Her upbeat attitude was so foreign to their business, the man was having a hard time processing it. “The conference is a cover for a…competition of sorts,” the man continued. “An independent backer put the word out that at this conference some valuable information would be available to interested parties. But that acquiring that information would not be an easy task. There would be a series of tests that must be passed.”

“How well do these contacts work?” the girl interrupted, scrutinizing a colored contact container.

“Well enough, I guess,” the man answered.

“Do they look realistic?” she asked. He couldn’t give her a definite answer, so she put them back.

“Whoever passes the tests gets the information. As you could probably surmise, you will not be the only ones trying to obtain the information. The conference will be a combination of undercover agents from all over the world, much like you, and some completely oblivious attendees that have no idea the rest of you are participation in a high stakes puzzle. You won’t know who is who. Trust no one.”

“Except my partner,” she added.

“Right. Of course you can trust him.” The man couldn’t really get a good look at the girl since she had a mirror held up in front of her face, but there were bottles and vials and brushes and who-knows-what else scattered across the seat. “Are you getting all of this?”

“Pretend to be oblivious but get the information before everyone else,” the girl summarized. “What kind of information is it?”

“The backer hinted at a number of things. It may be any number of lists of agents or analysts that have gone missing in the last year. Some are from our country, others are from various other intelligence organizations across the world. There is also the possibility that the information contains the whereabouts of a rather large sum of money that was…misplaced. The US government would greatly appreciate getting it back. And finally, a few months back, a large fire destroyed a private and very valuable art collection in Europe. But some people believe the fire was a cover for a heist. It is possible that the location of the missing art will be in the information at the conference. We don’t know which of these will be found. Maybe all of them. Maybe none of them.”

“Where are my clothes?” the girl asked.

“What?”

“My clothes. I assume you are providing some clothes. This isn’t a nudist convention is it?”

“They are in the back.”

The girl turned around and started riffling through the stuff in the trunk area. “Nothing back here is going to reach out and bite me is it?” She asked but the man didn’t realize it was a joke. She pulled out a blue soft-sided suitcase, guessing correctly that this was her bag. She unzipped it and began pulling things out.

“As you can imagine, our employers want this information urgently. Not only are lives and large sums of money at stake, but the reputation of the agency is also on the line,” the man said as the girl held up a baby blue sweater.

“You and your partner have been chosen because they believe you will have the best opportunity to beat out the competition,” the man added with a voice that sounded more than a little doubtful. He had not been the one to choose her for the mission.

“Why does this guy want to test all the agencies anyway?” she asked as she pulled her black shirt off over her head. The man averted his eyes before he realized she had a tank top on underneath.

“We aren’t sure. He may be looking to recruit, and this is a job interview. He may be ranking them, looking for weaknesses and strengths. He may be assessing them to see where his services would be most needed. He is a mercenary in the intelligence world and many agencies including ours, have used his services in the past. We normally would not demean ourselves by getting involved in a competition like this, but—“

“But you really want that information,” the girl said. “The backer obviously knew he would need valuable information to bring everyone to the table.” She had pulled the blue sweater on, taken one more look in the mirror and put everything away. When she looked up at the man his mouth dropped open. A completely different woman sat in front of him. Sure, if he focused on any one feature, her nose for example, he could see that it was the same, but taken as a whole he couldn’t have picked her out of a police line up. She had looked like she was 15—at best. A skinny teenager on her way to the mall. Now she was a twenty something conservatively dressed young woman.

She pulled a diamond ring from the case and slipped it on her finger. “Military families tend to be more conservative and not just politically,” she said. “And many marry young, so I didn’t go for the older more worldly look. Unless he’s an old admiral or something. That changes everything.”

“Uh, no. He’s young. Relatively young. You look…about the right age,” the man said.

She nodded. “Good. Where am I from.”

“Um…”

“Backstory?”

“There isn’t much. Your from Kansas I guess. That’s where your driver’s license is from. I need to get a picture for that by the way,” he said picking up his phone and pointing it her way. She smiled awkwardly while he took the picture.

“Kansas, huh? I don’t know anything about Kansas.”

“Neither does anyone else. That’s why we pick it.”

“So you always pick Kansas as a cover story?”

“Not always, sometimes it’s Nebraska or another state no one ever goes to,” he responded. “We can’t choose California or Texas or something. You’d be sure to meet other people from there and they’d expect you to know all their favorite places. Tourist states are not good either. No one goes to Kansas on vacation.”

“So what you are saying is, I should be suspicious of anyone who says they are from Kansas,” she said with half a smile.

“Some people do live there,” the man shot back defensively and she just laughed again. He pulled out a small card printer and hooked up to his phone with a USB. A crisp new driver’s license printed and he handed it to her.

“Kathleen James? Cute.” She bent it back and forth a bit. “What’s my husband’s name?”

“Ethan James. Now let me print your name tag for the conference…”

“You can’t use the same picture!” Kathleen James (newly named) protested.

“Why not?” he asked impatiently.

“Because I gave you a driver’s license smile for that. It’s terrible. No one would use their driver’s license photo for something else.”

“Fine,” he said, and she quickly took off the blue sweater and put on a pink blouse. This time she smiled very prettily while he snapped the photo. They were nearing the airport when he added the new photo to the name tag that had already been created. When it was done he handed it to her, along with a plane ticket. “Your partner will meet you at the airport. Assume you are being watched the minute you step out of the car.”

“Do I get to see what my husband looks like?”

He pulled up an image on his phone and turned it so she could see. “He may—“

“Look different. Hair color and style, glasses that kind of thing. Got it,” she said and began to re-pack the blue bag, adding what make-up items she needed from the case. “Does he know what I look like?”

“Uh, no. I would say there is no chance of that. Since you can’t have any weapons on the plane, they will be provided. You should find them in your hotel room. Oh, and he usually works alone, so…”

“Great.” She answered drily. “What else did my profile say?”

“What? What are you talking about?”

“My profile. You said my profile listed me as a great impersonator. What else does it say?”

The man looked uncomfortable with this line of questioning, but she just stared at him until he brought it back up on his phone. “It says you did not go through standard training because you tested out of it, and that your combat skills are above average.” Kathleen smiled and the car pulled up to the curb in front of the airport terminal. “But you were not selected for this assignment because of you combat skills. Is that clear?” he asked with more than a hint of alarm in his voice. “Your only job is to make sure no one suspects you or your partner to be players in this game.”

“I’m not just—“

“This is dangerous! You must understand that. These tests are not going to be easy and they are going to take experience. If you are discovered, bad things can happen. The only reason you should need those combat skills is if you don’t do the job you’ve been assigned to do. Your partner will take care of the rest.”

She looked at him insolently, grabbing her bag with one hand and putting the other on the door handle. “When this is over I’ll expect you to add a few things to that profile.” She opened the door without another word and left the man hoping fearfully for the best.

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