In the Dark (by Gwynne)

Summary:  The first of two stories.  My sincere thanks go to wigginluvr for permission to use elements of her story “Yoda Killed ET.” And a tip of the old black Stetson to those diminishing few who may recognize a line from Bonanza.
Category:   Covert Affairs
Genre:  Spy Thriller
Rated:  PG  (Strong Language as used by real people and men who have soldiered together.
Word Count:  25,000


 

 

0 to 12 hours

The operation was blown to hell. It had all gone south a few minutes ago when they had found the asset they had been sent to retrieve dead in a nasty, congealing pool of his own blood. And now they had to run.

The asset, a Panamanian national, supposedly had information on a plot to blow up two of the most essential locks on the Panama Canal, but he had somehow gotten mixed up with one of the drug cartels. Now he was dead.

*****

Auggie had been easing along keeping watch on a simple package pick up by a reliable agent when a commotion broke out behind him. He swung his chair around. “What’s going on?” Things had been dull for a while. Strange, but he had actually gotten off shift on time all week.

“The Panama pick up just blew,” Barber told him. “They found the asset dead, and now our team’s on the run from some damned drug dealers. It’s a cluster fuck.”

“What team, and who’s running it from here?” And why was all of this news to him?

Silence hung in the air from a moment too long. “It Jai, Annie and that new kid, Frank somebody. Hough is runnin’ it.”

“Annie? Annie!” He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. How could Annie be on an op he didn’t know about? “And Hough is on it?”

“’Fraid so, Aug,” Barber said. Too easy to guess what was coming next. “Joan’s orders.”

“Hough,” Auggie called. “I’m taking over. Switch the frequencies. You can keep watch on my guy.”

“Sorry. I can’t do that.”

“Last I heard, I was still in charge of the Tech Division. Switch the damned frequencies!”

“Sorry, boss, you’ve been outranked.”

A soft hand touched his arm. “Auggie, it’s Joan. We need to talk.”

He sprang up to his full six feet and towered over her petite form. His eyes were directed exactly at her. Auggie had glowered at her a few times when he was still sighted, and that fire still burned within him.

“Damn straight we need to talk. You sent Annie, Jai and a newbie into the field and gave them to another tech? What’s the matter with you? I control Annie’s ops — nobody else! Me! Jesus, Hough is lucky he can run his own X-Box.”

“We can discuss this in private…”

“No. Tell him to switch the frequencies, then we’ll talk.”

“Auggie, I don’t want you on this; it’s too much right now.”

“What in hell are you talking about?”

“Listen to yourself. It’s too much stress, too much tension.”

“You mean we have something else besides stress around here? I don’t understand where you’re coming from? You know I always handle Annie’s ops. She’s new to the business. She needs an experienced backstop.”

“Auggie, Auggie …” Joan and lowered her voice in an effort to cut out the listening bullpen. “You’ve been in the field too much lately. You’ve been hammered both physically and emotionally. You have unresolved issues with both Annie and Jai. I suggested you take some leave, get away for a while. You refused.”

Joan hesitated and dropped her voice even lower before continuing.

“If this goes bad, you are begging for trouble. We both know what I mean. I don’t want you on this end of the wire. Let someone else handle it.” Joan was always calm, always clear and always in charge.

“It may surprise you, but I do actually understand your point of view, but I can’t do that. Please, I’m begging if you like, ask Hough to hand over.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t. I won’t.”

“Fine. Then I’ll go after her myself.” Auggie pulled off his headphones and turned to shut down his equipment. “Just understand that if I go, it will be my last official act for the CIA. You’ll never see or hear from me again.”

“Are you trying to force my hand?” Her voice was hard.

“Absolutely. Every minute you keep me off this case, things could be getting worse. You don’t have a better tech or an operative with more experience in dealing with trouble. The rest of it is on me. Don’t make me walk out of here.”

Joan hesitated, and Auggie began to unfold his cane.

“Mrs. Campbell,” Buzz Barber spoke up from the station nearest Auggie’s with a rare show of courage. “You know he’s right, and if he goes, he won’t go alone. I’ll be with him.”

“You don’t have to do that,” Auggie told him.

“Yes, I do. I know what’s right and what’s not. I may not be much as an agent, but at least, I’m a pair of eyes. If you go, I go.”

“Me too.” A tall, handsome African-American woman arose from her station in the rear of the room. Her name was Evangeline St. Denis. She did excellent work, Joan remembered, and rarely said an unnecessary word. “I owe Auggie, and what’s more, I trust him. You can make that three of us.”

Joan looked around the bullpen. People were slowly coming to their feet everywhere.

“Four,” said a deep voice off to her left.

She didn’t like it, but if she let Auggie walk, she would lose half her staff. The damned man had always been able to attract supporters.

“Well, I didn’t know this was a democracy,” Joan said. But it looks like I’m outvoted. Mr. Hough, will you please yield control of your operation to Mr. Anderson. You pick up on his.”

“Thank you, God,” Hough sighed. He’d had visions of Auggie cornering him the next time they were in the exercise room. “Switching, now.”

“On your own head, Auggie,” Joan said as she walked away, as erect and cool as ever.

Hough quickly read Auggie in. The asset, a Panamanian national, had contacted the CIA office in San Antonio while on vacation in the U.S. He claimed to have information on a terrorist plot to blow up two of the most essential locks on the Panama Canal. While the Canal Zone was no longer a U.S. possession, it was vital to world commerce, and the CIA took an interest. The informant wanted money and relocation in the States. He provided enough details to make his offer credible.

The Agency wanted to take him into protective custody immediately, but he insisted that he had to return to the Canal Zone for three weeks to close up his business and conclude his affairs there.

A meeting had been set for three weeks hence in Monterrey, Mexico, and Jai, along with Annie and a recently graduated trainee on his first field assignment, Frank Willoughby, had been sent out. They were tasked to evaluate the information offered and, if satisfied, to transport the asset back to Langley.

It has seemed to be a fairly routine assignment, with a nice trip to a lovely old city thrown in, until they found the prospective informant in his hotel room — dead in large pool of blood.

They thoroughly searched his room for any documentation he might have brought with him. They found nothing on the Canal, but they found something else. It seemed their informant was a man of many interests. He had agreed to transport a shipment of highly refined cocaine to a possible buyer in Mexico. It came from a small, but well equipped lab and was half again the normal potency.

They were about to leave and call in an anonymous tip to the local authorities when drug dealers burst into the suite. The team escaped by jumping from one hotel balcony to another, followed by a mad exit through the kitchens. The cartel men knew what they looked like, and Frank Willoughby had made the fatal mistake of swooping up the briefcase containing the drugs on their way out.

They made it to their pick up point in the Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains, south of the city, but the cartel’s thugs had trailed them. Auggie came in just as the firefight broke out at the remote landing strip.

What he needed most now was information: details and a way to contact Annie. If anything had happened to her…

He triggered the line to their pickup chopper …

The chopper’s radio squealed. The pilot, a young Lieutenant, touched his throat mike. “Flight six, niner, Bravo, out of Brownsville, Texas responding.”

“Six, niner, this is Captain Anderson in D.P.D.” It was command voice and no doubt about it.

“Where are you?” Auggie demanded.

“About 20 minutes out of Brownsville, sir.”

“What are you flying? Is it a gun ship?”

“No sir, she’s a slick.”

No help there. Auggie went on, “You were tasked to pick up three high security personnel in the mountains near Monterrey?”

“Yes, sir.”

“How many do you have on board, Lieutenant?”

“One, sir.”

“Do I understand that you abandoned two of our people?” Even eroded by distance and static, the voice in his headphones could freeze icicles in hell.

“Captain Anderson, sir, my orders were to take off at 1300 hours sharp, with or without the pickup. This is an unauthorized landing in a foreign country, sir.”

“I am fully aware of that. Describe what happened.”

“Only one man made it to the ship, sir. The other two were barely in sight. The man was hit hard; the woman was trying to haul him along. Bullets were flying everywhere. I saw her get hit and stagger. They weren’t going to make it, and I had been ordered not to wait.”

There was a long pause filled only by the hiss of static.

“I see.” The words were choked. “And the one man you did pick up, he didn’t suggest waiting?”

“He’s just coming around, sir. He got clipped as he dove into the bay. He’s yelling at me now – not making much sense. I think he wants to speak to you.”

“Put him on. And, Lieutenant, I don’t think you have much of a future as a combat pilot. You should look elsewhere.”

“Sir, it was orders.”

“Yeah. You might give some thought to judgment and initiative. Now I’ll speak with the other gentleman. Over.”

“Pulling rank again, Cap?” Buzz asked through a mouthful of potato chips.

“Hey, I still hold it as a reserve rank. They call me up right after the women and 12-year-old boys.”

Buzz grinned. “Smart play, I think you scared him out of re-upping.”

“I hope so.” Auggie’s tone was bitter.

The pilot unclipped a mike and held it out to Jai along with a spare pair of headphones. Jai snatched them.

“Auggie, man, God, I’m sorry; I’m so sorry! I’ve tried to get this idiot to go back. He won’t listen, and I dropped my weapon.”

“Jai, if you ran and left Annie and young Willoughby hung out to die, you are a dead man, dead.” There was no mistaking the clear and direct threat in Auggie’s voice. Blind or not, Jai didn’t doubt for a minute that Auggie could and would do it.

“Hey, Auggie, listen,” Jai said. “I was running to try and hold the chopper. He was already spinning up his rotors! I got my skull grazed just as I dived in. I’m still seeing double and Big Ben is chiming in my head. Set me up with a pilot who’s not a firkin’ robot, and as soon as we touchdown, I’ll throw this ass out the window, and we’ll go straight back.”

There was a deep sigh along the line. “Alright, Jai; sorry you got elected. Much as I hate the idea, we need a little time here to assess the situation and to try and make contact with what’s left of your team. When you land in Brownsville, get your head seen to, and then stand by. I’ll be back in touch soon.”

Jai shook his head and wished he hadn’t. Despite their undeclared rivalry, there wasn’t a better ops tech anywhere than Auggie Anderson. He was very glad Auggie had taken over from Hough. His voice held everything together — warm and calm and steady. Well, except when he was making death threats. Not that he blamed him; he would have done the same. Jai triggered the mike again.

“Auggie, for what it’s worth, the last glimpse I had of Annie, she was still very much alive.”

“Yeah, Jai.” There was a long hesitation. “Thanks. Catch you later. Over and out.” The connection went dead.

*****

Annie was running, running hard. If they could just make the edge of the forest, there might be a chance. She jerked aside as another bullet whizzed by her ear.

She had one arm around Frank’s waist and the other clamped his arm over her shoulders. He was flagging badly. Thankful he wasn’t a huge guy; she tightened her grip on him and forged ahead.

She was still trying to understand why Jai had flown off and left them. Instinct had made her swerve for the cover of the trees when she saw the rotors bite and the ship lift.

Just as she swerved, a bullet had bitten through her side right above her hip bone. It burned like hell, but didn’t knock her down. She was able to keep running.

Her stunned brain kept asking why? Another minute, three at the most, and they would have been at the ship. Why had they been left behind?

Hoarse voices screamed Spanish threats and orders behind her. A bullet screamed by almost at her feet.

Her side throbbed and she could feel blood soaking into her clothes — was it hers or Frank’s? Was this the way it ended – shot down by drug dealing thugs over a briefcase full of cocaine? Frank still had the damned thing slung across his shoulder.

She felt abandoned, but she wasn’t going to give them the pleasure of surrender. The trees were closer. She would make it.

Dodging, weaving, they entered the tree line. It felt like a cloak of shadow had fallen over them, but she couldn’t stop yet. She swung hard left and angled toward a small rise with a thick cover of old growth.

Frank was almost dead weight and was grunting in pain. She couldn’t carry him much farther. Maybe she could hide him and then lead their pursuers away.

She panted up the rise and then stumbled as she started down into the hollow below it. Suddenly the earth opened beneath them, and they tumbled in a mass of flailing limbs into darkness and silence.

Annie landed hard, and the wind was knocked out of her. She struggled to get a breath, and her head rang. Finally, she gasped, and air filled her aching lungs. It was cool and damp and smelled of age and slowly rotting vegetation.

She felt around her and found she had landed on a great heap of leaves and branches. Some distance above her, a faint ray of sunlight reached down into the green depths through an overhanging mass of ferns.

Overhead she could hear running feet and angry calls. She turned quickly to Frank, afraid that he might groan or cry out and reveal the secret of their sudden disappearance. The faint light made it hard to distinguish objects, but she found the path where he had rolled to the bottom of the heap of vegetation. When she reached him, he whispered very faintly. “Annie.”

She bent to bring her mouth close to his ear. “I’m here, Frank. We need to be very quiet until the search moves away.”

“I’ll try,” came the faint reply. “Gag me if you have to.”

She crouched there beside him as the light grew fainter and a thick white fog rolled slowly through the forest. Eventually, the sounds of the search faded.

“Frank,” she said softly. “I think we’re safe for the moment. They’ve moved on. How badly are you hurt; what can I do?”

“Not much, I’m afraid,” came his faint whisper. “I seem to be gut shot. There’s a lot of blood, and think I broke my back in the fall. I can’t feel my legs at all. Just wish it didn’t hurt so much.”

Annie scarcely knew what to say beyond trying to reassure him. “It’s going to be okay,” she told him with more conviction than she felt. “Let me make you more comfortable, at least.”

He groaned deeply when she straightened his legs.

“Sorry, sorry. Almost done.”

She patted her way softly up his body. He had both hands clamped tightly over his belly. His head was twisted to one side. She made a little mound of soft, dry leaves and gently raised his head to rest on them.

“Better,” he murmured.

“Now you just hold on for a while. I’m going to look around and see what we have to work with here.” She squeezed his hand before standing.

“The drugs,” he said distinctly.

He was referring to the briefcase packed with what looked like bags of cocaine. He had it on him when they were running she remembered. Maybe it had come down with them. She needed to find her bag as well.

It took some time searching in the faint light from above, but she found her purse after a hard scramble back up to the top of the rubbish pile. It had stayed closed and the contents seemed intact. She took a moment to look up. It was a good two story drop from the opening.

In the fall of the year, when they were kids, she used to jump from the second story balcony of their home into huge piles of leaves that Danielle had helped her to rake up. It was tremendous fun, but you couldn’t jump back up. It didn’t look possible here either. The cave walls were sheer. She’d need climbing gear to try it.

She could hear Frank moaning softly. She thought she spotted the briefcase against the cave wall near him. She slid back down, with her bag clamped tightly under one arm, and scurried to pick up the case as well. It was there.

She sat down close to Frank and patted his hand. “Found them both,” she told him. “Now, let’s just see what we have.”

*****

Auggie had opened every line of communication he had ever used to reach Annie. Her bug brought in nothing but faint outdoor sounds. Either she had dropped it while on the run, or she was lying unconscious or dead somewhere on a mountainside. His imagination kept bringing up horror scenes. He couldn’t sit. He paced and swore under his breath.

Evangeline stopped on her way back from lunch. She always smelled of lilacs and coconut shampoo. She put down a small package that crinkled.

“I brought you egg salad.” she said. “Very mild, on plain wheat bread, no mayonnaise. You should eat something.”

“I think you swung the tide for me this morning,” he told her. “I’m in your debt already.”

“Auggie, I know you don’t eat right when you’re worried. As for debt, consider it a small payment on what I owe you.”

He had once pulled her husband out of a very bad spot, and he’d been glad he could manage it, but she had never forgotten.

“Joan won’t thank you for it.”

“Who cares?” she said calmly and walked on to her station.

He was eating the last of her sandwich when a line he had opened only in desperation buzzed.

*****

Annie’s bag was commodious and had turned up more than she had expected. There was her billfold with both pesos and dollars along with her Smithsonian identity papers. Then there were the things she always carried because her father had insisted on it from the time she was a kid.

To her surprise, Auggie had agreed with him. She’d explained it one day when they were both on the floor picking up her dropped purse. There was a bottle of water and a folding cup and spoon as well as a watertight container of matches, a tiny compass in a plastic case and a handful of energy bars. Usually there was a Swiss Army knife and a compactly folded space blanket, but she’d left them at home because they flew commercial.

There was a checkbook and a notebook, pens and pencils. Her makeup bag, brush and comb, the emergency supply a woman always carried and tissues, also a little zipper purse with spare change. And, thank God, way down at the bottom she found her tough, black LED flashlight.

Auggie had simply put it into her hand one day soon after she had joined D.P.D. and told her to keep it. Not sure whether it was a gift or not, she had looked up its price on-line and been surprised at the cost.

There was one last thing. She had almost been afraid to look for it. In a zip pocket, wrapped in a spare handkerchief was the tiny, experimental, satellite phone Auggie had given her when she left for Sri Lanka. Somehow, she had never returned it.

She moved under the cave opening so she’d have a straight shot up and with trembling fingers, dialed the digits he had set up for her.

It was picked up on the second ring.

“Annie?”

It was Auggie’s voice. Almost instantly some of her fear eased.

“Auggie, it’s me. Can you hear me?

She’s alive! Take a breath. She’s alive! Get a grip. She’s alive! Answer her you idiot.

“I read you soft but clear. Are you hurt? Where are you?

“I’m whispering,” she explained. “There may still be men looking for us. Why did Jai leave us? I don’t understand it?”

“Jai was grazed by a slug and knocked out seconds after he got on the chopper. The pilot had a yellow streak wider than the road to Oz. Don’t worry; I’m going to get you out of there. Now, are you hurt?”

If she didn’t answer this soon, he would just pound his head on the computer casing.

“My left side was bleeding. I haven’t really looked yet. It hurts some, but I don’t think it’s too bad. Auggie, it’s Frank I’m worried about. He has an abdominal wound, and I’m pretty sure his back is broken. He’s in so much pain. I don’t know what to do.”

Auggie spun to face Barber. “Call down to the clinic. Get a doctor up here now!”

“It’s okay.” Unlike his stomach, that was seizing in cold fear, his voice remained calm and soothing. “I’ll have a doctor here to talk to you soon. While we wait, tell me where you are and what happened? I need as much information as you can give me.”

“I’m in a cave somewhere in the mountains outside Monterrey. We were running and fell in. No chance of getting out the way we got in without rope or climbing gear.”

She went on describing the action of the past few hours in the clear, clinical terms they taught on the Farm.

Auggie could hear the signal start to fade. He interrupted …

“Annie, the COMSAT covering you is passing out of range. There should be another one coming over the horizon soon. I’m going to check on them; I’ll call you back as soon as it comes up. Set your phone to vibrate and take a look at your wound. I want full details when you come back on. Now, hang in there, little missy,” it was his best John Wayne drawl, “the cavalry’s ah comin’.”

Depend on Auggie to leave you with a smile. She felt so much better as she told Frank what she’d found out. He grunted softly and gripped her hand. Presently she eased her hand away and lifted her blouse to have a look at her left side.

*****

It wasn’t long until her phone vibrated and Auggie’s voice was back in her ear.

“I’m working on the satellites,” he told her. Give me a couple of hours, and I should have us in constant contact. I have a surgeon here for you, now. Tell him about Frank’s injuries and your own.”

Auggie handed a set of headphones and a mike to the doctor, who had patiently waited for the connection to come up. He kept his own on as well.

“Sam Gingrich at your service,” the man said to Annie. “Please describe your own injury first.” He had the feeling that this Tech Op would soon be grinding his teeth if she didn’t.

“I don’t think it’s too bad,” Annie said. “There’s a hole straight through just above my left hipbone. I sponged off the blood with a little water on my handkerchief. Some blood is still dribbling out, but I think it will clot when I can be still for a while. There are no bowel smells.”

“That doesn’t sound too dangerous, young lady. Do you have anything clean you could pack it with?”

Annie thought for a minute. “Kleenex from a fresh pack?”

“Miss, I don’t mean to embarrass you,” Dr. Gingrich said, “but most young women I know carry a spare tampon or two. That would work so much better.”

There was a hesitation. A blush spread slowly up into Auggie’s hairline, and Barber took a sudden, intense interest in a tech manual he’d been leafing through.

“Yes, I have some,” Annie answer was quite clear and firm.

“Excellent, clean your wound the best you can, and pack it with the fibers from your tampon. It should clot nicely and do until we can get you to a doctor. Now, tell me about your companion?”

It took longer to describe Frank’s injuries and to perform the tests and checks the physician wanted done. Frank even managed to describe his own sensations in broken gasps. By the time they were finished the medic was shaking his head at Auggie.

He gave Annie some general instructions and reassurances, and suggested she rest so her side could clot. They were losing the connection by then, so Auggie told her he would be back soon and gestured for the doctor to stay.

“What’s your opinion, doc?” Auggie asked.

“You’ve seen combat?

Auggie waved a hand before his eyes. “Last thing I did see, as a matter of fact.” He shrugged it off in his usual detached way.

“Sorry, guess me shaking my head didn’t mean much then.”

“Nope, but no matter. How is she, and what about the man with her?”

“Unless an infection develops, my guess is she will be fine. Her side will probably heal on its own in a week or two. Could leave an ugly pucker scar though, unless she gets stitches and proper treatment.”

Auggie felt a weight lift off his heart. He didn’t give a damn about scars; he had his own. What mattered was that Annie was going to be all right.

“Her companion is another matter,” the doctor continued. “How soon can you get them out of there?

“It’s complicated, doc.”

“It always is. How long?”

“Way too many strings to pull first, and then those mountains are covered in ‘no fly’ fog – 24, 48 hours; there’s no way to know for sure.”

“Then he’s going to die. But you’re probably aware of that. Be best if he bled out and went quickly. Belly wounds are hell.”

“Yeah, pretty much what I thought. Thanks for coming up, sir.”

“Anytime, call if you need me again. And Anderson…”

“Um…?”

“Is your girl up for this? It could be tough seeing him out?

“Annie’s tough, doc. Tough and caring. It will be very hard, but I’ll be here to help, and she’ll make it.”

The doctor sighed. “Keep the faith, son, keep the faith.”

Auggie could hear the limp in his step as he left.

*****

When the COMSAT next hove into range, Annie was waiting for him.

“What did the doctor say?” she demanded.

He said you’re going to be fine, Annie.”

“Damn it, Auggie! You know that’s not what I mean. Don’t put me off.”

“I’m not; I won’t.” He drew a deep breath. “I think you are strong enough to hear the truth. Frank is going to die. In all probability that will happen before I can get you out. You’ll have to see him through it.”

There was a long silence. He could hear only her harsh breathing.

“Annie, after this satellite passes, there will be about an hour break, and then we should be in constant contact. I’ll be with you. I would change places with you this minute if there were any way in hell to do it, but there isn’t. You need to do this and get beyond it; you can’t be paralyzed by it. I’m doing everything I can, Annie, but essentially you are going to have to save yourself. Do you understand me?”

“I do. It helps to know you’ll be there for me. I can hear that this is hard for you, too Auggie. I can do it; we can do it.”

“That’s my Annie; that’s my brave, strong lady.” His voice was a warm caress.

Annie was struck by a sudden, frightening thought. “Auggie?”

“Right here, Annie.”

“This phone… What about the battery? How long can we talk?

“It’s an experimental model – something brand new. The manufacturer is claiming 100 hours. We should play it safe and try to keep it around 50 or 60, but we’ve only been on about an hour total so far. We’ll set up a schedule if we have to.”

“Oh, thank God!”

“Yeah, how ‘bout that. Little did we know when you set off for tropical beaches that my little goin’ away gift would come in so handy.”

She knew he was teasing her, trying to get her mind off what was to come, and she was grateful, but there was something else she needed to know before their connection went.

“Auggie, Frank is in terrible pain, agony. He does his best to hide it, but… Is there anything I can do? We have that damned briefcase full of what I’m pretty sure is cocaine. Would that work?”

He’d stayed away from the hard stuff in Iraq, but he’d known plenty of men who used. Maybe it was worth a try.

“You could give it a shot, Annie. Open only one package of drugs; wet one finger and dip it into the coke; reach inside his mouth and rub it into his gums. Can you do that?”

“I can,” she said with firm conviction.

“Okay. Start with a very small amount. If it helps, you can increase the dose by small steps until his pain is controlled. Do not get any of it into your own mouth, nose or eyes. Wash your hand, if you can, or wipe it good. Are you clear on this?”

“Clear, boss.”

“Good. Our connection is fading, tough lady. When we get back, I’ll want to know everything you have with you — clothes, purse, the works. And start looking around the cave. We need to explore it.”

A last word or two and she was lost to him for an endless hour to come. He hoped that giving her something to do would help make the wait easier for her. Meanwhile, he had a lot to do himself.

*****

It started with a visit to Joan’s office. She was probably going to tear him a new one, but they needed help at levels he couldn’t reach.

*****

Joan tapped twice, turned the handle and walked into her husband’s office. Startled, he looked up from the mass of papers before him.

“Joan?”

“Arthur, I need your help, and I need it immediately.”

“That the important part of my job. What do you need?”

“You’re aware of the threats to the Panama Canal?”

“Of course, I thought you sent out a team to pick up a possible informant.”

“I did. It went to hell. They found the asset dead and no information on him. You need to task a covert team to try and get the intelligence some other way.”

He made a quick note. “And …?”

“Meanwhile, the new man, Frank Willoughby, is dying. He and Annie are trapped in some sort of remote cave system, and Auggie is on the edge of coming unglued. I need someone, anyone, who can apply pressure, bribe, threaten, coerce or do whatever it takes to get a drug lord to be cooperative.”

“Where are they?”

“Near Monterrey, Mexico.”

“A number of American businesses have large offices there. Give me a little while. I should be able to turn up something.”

He hesitated and then glanced quickly at his wife.

“There’s something brewing between Anderson and Walker, isn’t there?”

“From what I can see, I’d say he is head over heels in love with her.” Joan pushed a stray strand of hair from her face. “I’m not sure about Annie’s feelings.”

“Jealous, dear?”

“Don’t be a fool, Arthur,” she said frostily. “That was only a fling, and it was long before I knew you, even before Auggie went to Iraq. It’s not Auggie’s fault he lost his sight, but it means he has special needs and a number of limitations. I am happy to deal with it here at work, because his skills and experience make him invaluable. But, in a long term relationship – way too high maintenance for my taste.”

“I see.” There was a trace of smug satisfaction in Arthur’s face. “So you think Cupid has finally made a direct hit on our resident ladies’ man?”

“It happens sometime.” She crossed to her husband and cupped his cheek in one hand.

“The thing is, I need Auggie, and he is headed straight for a total breakdown if anything truly bad happens to Annie. He’s making himself sick over her as we speak.”

“Then we need to get her out safely, don’t we?”

“That’s why I came to you. Besides, Annie has the potential to be a top operative. I don’t want to lose either of them.” Joan came as close to stamping her foot as she ever would. “God knows, Arthur, she would be better off with Auggie than with that cursed Ben Mercer. He’s a rogue, and we both know he is going to get himself killed –- probably sooner than later. I don’t want Annie with him when it happens.”

His smile was teasing. “You don’t care much for Mercer, do you?”

“No I don’t, and I wish you would disengage with him, as well.”

“In time, dear, in time.”

*****

Next on Auggie’s master list was hunting down an old friend.

Auggie had a buddy. Sometimes he thought that the network of friends, military buddies, and acquaintances old and new that the men and women of the CIA had was why anything worked at all. Right now he needed this particular buddy, and he needed him desperately.

It took some reaching out, some favors called in. but now he was at the other end of a ringing line.

“Hullo,” answered a deep voice in a slow Southern drawl.

“Cotton, is that you, Cotton?”

There was a long moment of hesitation. “Captain Anderson, is that you out yonder, Tige?”

‘Tige’. It had been a while since Auggie had heard his old call sign moniker.

“Yeah, it’s me, Cotton. It’s been too long.”

“Shore nuf, Cap’n. It’s great to hear yo’ voice.” That accent, along with a mop of white-blonde hair, made it clear why he’d always been called ‘Cotton’.

“Just Auggie, now. What have you been doing with yourself, buddy?”

“Oh, little of this, some more of that. I work part time with my Pa, restoring classic cars. I sneak off when I can to go cave climbing. What about you? I heard on the grapevine you tangled with an IED after I left. How you doin’?”

“I lost my sight, Cotton, but otherwise I’m in top shape, and who knew, the chicks dig blind guys.”

Cotton’s open, warm, country laugh came over the line. “You go, Tige. I knew the bastards couldn’t never get you down.”

“Listen, buddy, I would love to talk, but right now, I need a favor, and I need it bad.”

“Well now, I reckon I could give you a hand iffen you need it. What’s up?”

“You were saying you’re still into spelunking. I’ve got a friend who is in real trouble in a cave. I need some expert advice.”

“Tell me what happened.”

“She was in the Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains in a park area, La Estanzuela State Park, south of Monterrey …”

“She? Is this one of your ‘chicks’, Auggie? Is she a spelunker?”

“More of a colleague, Cotton,” Auggie lied calmly, “and no, she has no caving experience.”

“Then what was she doing messin’ round down there?”

“Something pretty important, Cotton, but I can’t tell you anything about it.”

“Still in the spooking business, huh? Thought you had better sense.”

“Enough said. But this is important; can you help me?”

It took all Auggie’s restraint to keep his tone light. He wanted to scream, ‘She’s the woman who’s driving me crazy; help me save her!’

“Sure, I was down in that area just last summer; you got her coordinates.”

One hand gliding along the Braille strip, Auggie carefully read off Annie’s coordinates while Cotton jotted them down.

“That system is pretty well known,” Cotton told him. “I got some good maps with my own notes scribbled in iffen you want ‘em?”

“Great!” Relief flooded Auggie’s system. “Do you know somebody with a good optical scanner?”

“Yeah, my ol’ high school pal is a real geek. I can run ‘em over to his place quick like.”

“Perfect, have him scan them at highest quality and email them to me. I’ll give you an address.”

“Sure, Auggie, but – maps? Can you… you know?

Auggie chuckled. “Don’t worry. They let me play with some real neat gear. It’ll translate the maps into something I can use.”

The line was quiet for a minute, and when Cotton came back, his voice was deeper, more serious.

“You know, Auggie, I could pack some stuff and hop on a plane tonight. Should get there by noon tomorrow. I’m pretty sure I could find her for you.”

A warm feeling of friendship and gratitude swept over Auggie. There were more good people left in the world than he sometimes thought.

“Cotton, someday I hope I can tell you how much I appreciate that offer, but I can’t let you do it. You’d be walkin’ into the middle of a major pissin’ match.”

“Wouldn’t be my first rodeo, Tige. And I got some pretty cool tools, myself. I could even take along a couple of buddies.”

Cotton was a fierce soldier — a crack shot, cool and steady under fire. There was nobody Auggie would rather have beside him in a real dust up, but he couldn’t get more Americans mixed up in this.

“I can’t let you do that, amigo.”

A cold thought suddenly slipped into Auggie’s head. “Cotton, for God’s sake, please tell me you’re not playing the mercenary game? That’s nothing but bad news.”

“Iffen you don’t ask me none of them hard questions,” the accent was back, “I won’t ask you none. Deal?”

Auggie sighed. “If that’s the way you want it. But I owe you big time. Should you ever want a change of career, let me know. I can set you up with something a lot better.”

“I’ll shore keep it in mind. Now I better get on the road with them maps. You take care now, Tige.”

“You too, Cotton; you too.” There was a moment of silence and then a soft click on the line.

*****

It was five minutes beyond the promised hour when Annie’s phone vibrated.

Annie breathed a sigh of relief at the sound of Auggie’s familiar, easy voice.

“The stars have aligned in our favor, and the communications wonks ate the magic mushrooms. We are good to go, fair lady. You can’t get rid of me now.”

“Mr. Anderson,” she said in a teasing tone, “you really must stop stalking me.”

“But, I just can’t quit you, baby.”

Annie laughed while her heart said, ‘If that were only true’. She loved his banter, but there were far more serious issues before them.

“Auggie,” she said, “I’m glad you are back on. I gave Frank some of the coke. It seemed to help with the pain, but it’s starting to wear off already. Is it safe to give him more?

So many memories swamped Auggie’s mind: scenes of battle, blood and death, men mutilated and screaming. Was the coup de grâce mercy or murder? He’d never been sure.

Brutal as the thought was, if the man didn’t die soon, Annie would be trapped there with him and far more likely to be found. He needed to get her moving through the cave system soon, and he knew he would never convince her to leave while Frank was alive.

“Auggie, you still there?”

“Right here, Annie. Right here. Go ahead; give him as much as he needs to keep him comfortable.”

“Be right back.”

She put down the phone, and he could hear faint sounds as she cared for her dying companion. Dear God, he would do anything to make this easier for her.

When she came back on, he ran her through the inventory of everything she had with her. There was one item he fervently hoped she had that she hadn’t mentioned yet.

“Annie, what about that LED flashlight I gave you? Don’t you have it?

“Sorry, Auggie, I forgot. It was way down at the bottom of my bag.”

“Have you used it since I put in the new batteries?”

She remembered vividly Auggie stopping her in the middle of the hall to demand she dig the light out of her purse and give it to him. She was intrigued by the intensity on his face and the skill of his hands as he opened the compartment, removed the old batteries and put in new ones.

He had handed her the old batteries and said pleasantly, “Put these in the hazardous waste can if you come across it. They keep moving the damn thing.”

It occurred to her now to ask why. The old batteries hadn’t been burnt out.

“Always keep fresh batteries in your light. Never know when you’ll need it…like, oh say – now. The old batteries were good for about 4 hours. These new ones are supposed to do 6.

“I have a way out for you, Annie, but it’s through the cave system, and it will probably take you longer than 6 hours. You’ll have to use the light carefully.”

“But, I can’t leave …”

“We’ll talk more about that in the morning. Right now tell me about the area where you are?”

“It’s getting really dark, but I tried to make a circuit while you were away. This cave is roughly circular and about the size of a tennis court. The opening we fell through is on the eastern edge. There are two tunnels leading out on the north by northwest wall. That’s about all I can tell you.”

“Is it dark now?” Auggie asked.

“Almost completely black. I think the fog is still pretty thick outside.”

“Okay, Annie, I want you to sit as comfortable as you can, close your eyes and just listen. Don’t strain, relax, breathe slowly and let the sounds come to you. I’ll keep quiet for a while.”

She followed his instructions, and slowly individual sounds emerged from the background. First was Frank’s rough breathing, then the insects that chirped and rustled and fluttered. Presently, way in the back of the cave, there was a faint trickling sound, just the softest shish of water dripping over stone. Suddenly she realized how thirsty she was.

“Auggie,” she had picked up the phone. “I think there may be water in here. I can hear a faint sound of fluid running over stone. Oh, and the place is full of bugs.” He could almost see her nose curl up.

“Water is good. I want you to make your way over to it. Take your water bottle with you. Don’t use your light. You’ll need it later, and it might be visible if someone is still looking for you. Move slowly — there’s no rush — slide your feet, keep a hand out before you. It might be easier to close your eyes.”

It drove nails in her heart to hear him calmly using all the hard lessons he had learned about being blind to guide her.

She slid and felt her way across the rough cave floor until she reached the source of the trickling sound. She felt along the cold stone wall until she found a line of moisture and followed it down to a tiny pool.

“One taste first,” Auggie told her. “Just enough to wet your tongue. Taste evolved to keep us from eating things that are bad for us.”

“Yeah, what about snails?”

Auggie laughed. “That’s the idea, not the taste. Think how hungry the first man to eat a lobster must have been?”

It tasted fine; then came two swallows and a wait. When it seemed unlikely she would die on the spot, Auggie told her to drink all the water in her bottle and refill it from the pool. She sneaked enough to wet her handkerchief and wipe down her face and hands, and then made her slow way back to the brush pile and Frank.

“Can I give him some water?”

“With a belly wound? No, Annie, you can’t. A sip to wet his mouth, that’s all. And you should turn in soon and get some sleep. You’re going to be busy tomorrow.”

“It’s cold here, Mr. Anderson, and I don’t exactly have a sleeping bag or even a space blanket. I took that out because it sets off the airport scanners.”

“If I understood you right, you have lots and lot of dry leaves. Pile some over Frank and burrow into them yourself. They’ll keep you warm – maybe not clean – but warm.”

Once again she followed his steady, useful instructions. It wasn’t that she couldn’t have thought of a lot of it by herself, but it felt so good to have him at her back.

She crawled into her leaf pile beside Frank and took his cold hand. She had given him more cocaine, and he was quiet. She saw a fog shrouded gleam of moonlight through the cave opening. She said a brief but deeply felt prayer and closed her eyes. In her ear, Auggie whispered goodnight.

*****

12 to 24 Hours

Annie had fallen quiet for a time. He hoped she had drifted off to sleep. Auggie folded his arms on his desk and rested his head in them. If he could sleep for even 20 minutes, it would help.

There was the sound of solid footsteps made by a heavy male, and a deep voice said, “Sleeping on the job, Mr. Anderson?”

Auggie lifted his head and stood up. “Just resting my eyes, Director,” he said with a grin.

Arthur chuckled.

There was a soft click as Auggie opened his watch cover and ran a finger over the raised numerals. It was close to midnight. “You’re in late, sir. Can I help you with something?”

Arthur Campbell looked at the man who stood before him with that quietly elegant tilt of his head that always suggested he was listening intently. He had come to read him the Riot Act, but somehow, in the late night quiet of the bullpen, he didn’t want to do that. And, despite what Joan had said, Auggie gave no evidence of coming ‘unglued’.

“How long have you been on, Auggie?” he asked.

It took Auggie a minute. It was getting hard to do math in his head. “About 16 hours, sir.”

“And how is our Annie?”

“Resting at the moment. As always, her courage amazes me.”

“And the new man?”

Auggie’s shoulders sank. “Going pretty hard, sir. I doubt he’ll make it through the night. I hate to say it, but it might be better if he didn’t.”

“Damn! I knew his father well.”

“I’m truly sorry, sir,” Auggie said softly. “It’s difficult for us all.”

“It’s Annie’s first time, isn’t it?”

“To watch someone die slowly in front of you and be helpless to prevent it? Yes, it is.”

“But you’ve been there?”

“Unfortunately, I have. I doubt if it’s unknown to you either, sir?”

“It’s not. You’ll see Annie through it?”

“I’m trying to pick up some of the load, cushion her against the inevitable, but it’s hard.” Auggie pushed at the hair that was curling into his face.

“It certainly is.”

He heard the sounds of a chair being pulled out and turned around as the Director settled heavily into it.

“Sit down, Auggie. It’s the middle of the night. You must be tired. I know I am.”

Auggie slid back into his seat, and there was a minute of quiet between them.

“Would you like someone to relieve you for a few hours?” Arthur asked.

“No, sir.” The answer came quickly. “It’s not my first long shift. I’d like to see this thing through until we can get her to safety.” Auggie hesitated before going on. “She knows me, trusts me, and she’s going to be alone, without light, as she makes her way through a series of caves. Who better to help her?”

Odd, Arthur thought, how there wasn’t a trace of irony in Auggie’s voice, only honesty. The man was a warrior – wounded perhaps, but far from defeated. More dangerous now, he suspected, than when his principal weapons had been guns. You had to admire the understated but highly effective style with which he made his way through two murky worlds. He was fascinating to observe.

“You know,” Arthur said with humor in his tone, “I came down here to give you hell about somehow re-tasking a string of low orbit COMSTATS to keep us in constant contact with Monterrey. But I understand exactly why you did it, and I’m going to okay it.”

Auggie had been braced for trouble over this and had prepared his arguments. He was momentarily caught off base. “Sir, I … Thank you!”

“Don’t tell me how you did it, but I am curious about what it’s going to cost the Agency.”

“Not a cent.” Auggie grinned his delightful, rascal smile. “It’s costing me a case of champagne from France and one of single malt from Scotland.”

Arthur roared with laughter. When he caught his breath, he told Auggie, “Your country appreciates your contributions, Mr. Anderson. Would it help if they traveled over in the diplomatic pouches?”

“Absolutely; I’d be very grateful.”

“Consider it done, and, Auggie …”

“Sir?”

“My wife wants to pull you out of this operation. As long as you can still make sense, I’m not going to let her. Just be careful when it comes to the stimulants.”

“Always, sir.”

“Keep the night watch, soldier.”

Arthur was up and out before Auggie could find the right reply; there probably wasn’t one, anyway. The Director had a way of surprising you. The man was no fool.

There was a soft sound on Annie’s line and Auggie turned back to her, all else forgotten.

*****

She was up and down through the hours of darkness, rarely sleeping more than 30 or 40 minutes at a time. Auggie stayed on, drank coffee, ate half of an apple and worried about the ordeal Annie had coming.

At a little after 3:00 a.m. her frantic voice roused Auggie from a haze of waking sleep.

“Auggie! It’s Frank. He’s thrashing, sobbing; I can’t keep him quiet.”

Auggie could hear him in the background.

He took a deep, steadying breath and said the thing he had dreaded most. Would Annie despise him …?

“Annie, I’ve been honest with you. You know how this is going down. If you choose, with the cocaine you have the means to help him slip away quickly, quietly, without pain, with no more fear.”

The wait was so long he thought she had simply put the phone down, but eventually she spoke very softly.

“There’s a name for what you’re asking me to do, Auggie.”

“The most common one is a mercy killing, but be clear; it’s not something I’m asking you to do. It’s a possibility that I’m offering. No one can make this decision other than you. I can promise you that whatever you choose to do, or not do, it doesn’t have to ever come up again unless you want it to. No one, including me, will ever question you about it. I wish with all my strength, Annie, that we hadn’t reached this point, but we have. What more can I do to help you?”

Annie was strong, but this plunged into the very foundations of all she believed in. She felt torn into small, lonely pieces.

“Auggie, just stay with me. I don’t know… It’s so hard… He’s suffering so much. I know you saw terrible things when you were in the field. Have you…? Did you…? Oh God, I can’t ask you that!

Auggie’s response was slow and painful. “I’ll answer you, if you think it will really help, but it’s not somewhere I go often. I’ll be honest, it hurts.” He could feel pressure building behind his eyes.

“I’m going to close down for a little while and try to think. Wait for me?

“Always, Annie, always.” Strange how blind eyes could still form tears.

*****

Just before dawn, the satellite phone’s line buzzed. Auggie stopped pacing, slid into his chair, hit a single switch without the slightest fumble and pulled his headphones up from their resting place around his throat. “I’m here, Annie.”

Her voice, when he heard it, was faint and flat. “He’s gone.”

Auggie felt the relief he had been expecting, but he hadn’t anticipated the flood of genuine grief that accompanied it.

“I’m so sorry, Annie. Sorry you had to go through this alone; sorry he died for one mistake; sorry he couldn’t tell his loved ones goodbye, but he had you, Annie. Having someone beside you who cares makes all the difference in the world.”

“I held his hand. Told him the pain would go away, that he’d be safe and warm. He asked if I’d tell his family, asked me to remember him. I told him I would, that’d I’d always remember him.”

“You always will, Auggie said. The sorrow and warmth in his voice wrapped around her like a soft fur robe.

“We’ll see that his remains are recovered and brought home to his family. There is absolutely nothing more you can do for him now, Annie.”

Auggie was suddenly all business. “I want you to move away where you can’t see him. Drink some water. Eat one of your energy bars, and rest for ten minutes. Then you have one more hard thing to do. I want you out of there before the fog burns off.”

He knew she was hanging on by her fingernails, but he couldn’t give her time to start thinking. Food and action was the best remedy for the moment. If it meant he had to be tough and drive her, then he would push hard.

The last hard thing required that she go over Frank’s body and remove anything that might identify him as an agent of the U.S. Government. Auggie also instructed her to take anything that might be useful in making her way out of the caves. That turned out to be his leather jacket – there would be no warm pile of leaves deeper in the caves – and the case of drugs. She fought him on that. Told him she hated drugs, hated this batch in particular because it had gotten Frank killed.

Auggie had a hunch it might, in the long run, prove the key to unlock this whole mess. He insisted, argued, pled, demanded and finally made it a question of her trust in him. She surrendered and piled the hated case with her bag and the other items that would go along when she left.

*****

24 to 36 Hours

Joan pulled Barber aside when he came on shift Thursday morning. “I have one assignment and one assignment only for you until this Mexican operation is over.”

His look was puzzled.

“I want you to follow Auggie. Listen in on the same frequencies and lines. Keep up with what he is doing and saying. Be prepared to take over for him … should that become necessary.”

“Ma’am, he’s not going to like that.” Buzz shook his head.

“I don’t care what Auggie likes. This is an order, not a suggestion. And, if you feel, at any point that his judgment has become compromised, come to me immediately.” She crossed her arms over her chest and stared at him. “Have I made myself perfectly clear?”

“Perfectly clear, Mrs. Campbell.” His voice was flat and expressionless.

“Good. Be sure you convey it to your relief on the next shift.” She spun and re-entered her office.

Barber said good morning to Auggie, who gave him only a quick nod and a thumbs up in acknowledgement. Buzz logged in at his station and began, with all the skill he could muster, to slip onto the lines and wave lengths Auggie was monitoring. Annie’s line was quiet at the moment, and Auggie seemed to be talking to someone with a heavy Scot’s accent about a case of whiskey.

After a quiet fifteen minutes, Auggie turned that disconcerting, slightly off-center, sightless gaze on him and drawled…

“Shadowing me are you, Mr. Barber?”

“Sorry,” Buzz muttered. He had known Auggie would notice it. “Boss said I had to.” He shoved a huge hunk of his breakfast burrito into his mouth.

Auggie’s almost empty stomach rolled over at the smell of fried onions and strong spices. “Even better than the smell of napalm in the morning. Don’t eat that here.”

Barber grinned. “Robin Williams. Good Morning, Vietnam!,” he said as he stuffed the remains of his burrito into a drawer.

“Got it in one. Now, are you allowed to lend a hand, or are you just waiting for me to fall on my face?”

“Come on, you know none of this is my idea. Course I’ll help. I like Annie. Just tell me what you need?”

“You can start by getting me regular weather updates – every hour. It’s socked in solid down there. Nothing’s flying.”

“Comin’ right up.”

*****

Sometimes nature called so loudly, you just had to respond. Auggie told Annie he’d be right back and took off for the men’s locker room. Once there and nature served, he opened his locker and reached way in the back to what he thought of as his emergency box.

It contained various useful odds and ends such as a glass embedded wire with looped grips that would take a man’s head off in two quick strokes. Bypassing this and other seldom used tools, his hands quickly found four variously shaped bottles. Working within his locker, he took up the largest round one and opened it. It contained his small supply of amphetamines, not that they weren’t easy enough to get in this city of long hours and high stress.

With his head obscured by the locker door, he dry swallowed it. He returned everything to its place and secured his locker. He took a large bottle of water from the communal fridge and walked back to the elevators.

Among the many things he had learned in Iraq, one was the importance of staying well hydrated and another was how to stay awake and alert when sleep was short and the mission was long. He’d been awake for more than twenty-four hours now, and his body needed some help on the alert part.

As empty as his stomach was, it didn’t take long for a flood of fresh energy to hit his system.

*****

A new and ruinously expensive machine had worked most of the night to create a relief representation of Cotton’s cave maps. Auggie was struggling with the result. He could read Braille and technical diagrams in 3-D, but this was something completely different. The dozens upon dozens of varied elevations within the torturous twists and turns of the cave labyrinth confused even his talented fingers, and time was growing short.

Auggie stood and raised his voice to carry a rare request across the bullpen. “Guys, I need eyes. Anybody here who’s into spelunking?”

A somewhat older man with grizzled hair clipped close in a military cut responded. “Did a bit of that back in the day, Auggie. What’s up?”

Hank McCoy was a good tech op with a knack for repairing electronics. A former field agent, he was raising two pre-teen sons largely on his own. Auggie had helped out a few times when his regular caregiver couldn’t make it. Somehow ‘Uncle Auggie’ managed to make fun out of chores, and the boys constantly asked for him.

“Come on over, Hank,” Auggie said. “I could use some help with these.”

When Hank stood beside him, Auggie brushed a hand over the relief maps and said, “I’ve never tried to read a relief map of an underground cave system before. Time is short, and I suspect my learning curve’s gonna be too long. I’ve got print maps, too.” He picked up a folder that held printouts of the scans Cotton’s buddy had emailed to him and held it out in Hank’s general direction.

“Annie’s here.” He had managed to identify the roughly circular cave with an above ground opening where she was located. “I need a route that a strong and agile woman with no caving experience and no equipment can follow to an exit she can get out of.”

“Give me a minute to study this?” Hank said. “There seem to be two passages leading out from her present location. Now let’s see.” He hummed softly under his breath for a minute. “One route looks easier, but it goes pretty deep underground before it heads back up. You’d probably lose radio contact with her.”

“Not a good idea unless there’s no other way. The agent with her just died. She’s strung pretty tight.”

“Bloody hell, Auggie, that’s rough. Let me look some more and see what I can figure out.”

After another brief wait, Hank said, “Okay, I think I’ve got a way, but she’ll have to squeeze through a couple of pretty tight spots. Think she can manage it?”

“She’ll manage. She has to.”

Hank looked at his supervisor and his boys’ friend. Shadows were gathering under his unfocused eyes, and his beard was heavy.

“Aug, you’re heading into your fourth shift here. It’s startin’ to show. Why don’t you crawl into one of the crew bunks downstairs and get a few hours sleep? Let me get her started out. My agent’s asleep in a safe location. I got the time.”

Auggie slowly shook his head. “That’s generous, and I appreciate it, but I promised Annie I’d stick with her. Just show me the route, okay?”

“Ah … Auggie, how do you want me to mark it so you can use it?”

“Oops, sorry,” he grinned. “Here, use these.” He pulled open a drawer and took out a handsome wooden bowl filled with roughly shaped and lightly polished semi-precious stones. There was rose quartz, moonstone, jadeite and tiger eye among others. “Put one every couple of inches and wherever the passage branches or where she might have a problem. Use your best judgment. Sort of like dropping breadcrumbs along the forest trail. I can ‘read’ these real fine.”

“Sure.”

Auggie heard a series of faint clicks as Hank placed them along the cave relief map.

“Handsome stones, Auggie. Where’d you get ‘em?”

“Picked them up at a bazaar in Bangkok a long time ago. I thought they were pretty then. Now, it’s fun to play with them when I’m stuck at my desk with time to kill … try to see if I can sense what they are. And they come in handy, too.” With a smile, he gestured to the map Hank had marked.

It was a direct answer to his question, offered without a trace of self-pity. Sometimes Auggie simply amazed him.

“You can really do that?” Hank asked, half unbelieving.

“What? Identify them? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Things like the irregular pearls and petrified wood are easy, but other can throw me. Let’s try.” Auggie’s hand went without hesitation to the spot when he had placed the bowl of stones. He picked one off the top at random. It was a lovely piece with mixed shades of pink and dark red in its interior.

Auggie rolled it in his palm while his fingertips brushed over it repeatedly. At last he raised it, and touched it with the tip of his tongue.

“It’s a tossup between the bloodstone and rubellite tourmaline, but I’ll go with the rubellite.”

“If the ruby part of that name means red, then you got it right. Call me if you need me again.”

Hank walked away shaking his head. What the heck did rubellite taste like anyhow?

*****

“Okay, Annie,” Auggie said, “You have a choice. You saw the passages leading out last night. They’ll both bring you to the surface about five miles north of where you are now. The right hand one is the easiest passage for a beginner, but it goes deep. We would probably be out of contact for at least a third of the way. The other one stays closer to the surface, but it has a couple of tight spots you would have to squeeze through. It’s your decision as to which way you would rather try?”

It took Annie only a moment to decide. “I’ll take the narrow one. With the single energy bar you’ve allowed me and cold water filling in for the last three meals, I must have dropped a pound or two. I’ll get through. I’d miss your boyish chatter.”

Good girl, Auggie thought. Let her have a bash at him after all the hard work and travail he’d led her through.

“Auggie?” her voice was serious now. Shouldn’t I try to lay a false trail? Go down the easy passage for a little ways and leave some muddy footprints, scuff something up, maybe drop a tissue?”

Damn, she was right. It bothered him that he was beginning to forget things that any sighted person would think of immediately. If it got worse, it could make him a danger to the very people he was trying to keep safe.

“Excellent idea, Miss Walker, but you don’t have a lot of time to waste. Lay the false trail, then sneak back and get going the right way. If the cave floor shows tracks, take along a branch from the entrance pile and brush ‘em out.”

“Got it. I’m off through the Mines of Moira.”

“Just don’t wake up any Balrogs.”

Auggie pushed his hands through his hair. How much more could he love this woman? Not only was she brave and smart and funny, she read The Rings as well.

Annie used her flashlight and a long, still fresh, fern frond from the top of the pile to eliminate her tracks as she made her way into the passage they had agreed she would take. Dust and dirt that had blown into the cave was scattered along the first 50 yards or so. After that the cave walls drew in and began to slope down.

“It’s just bare rock, now,” she told Auggie. “I was careful about eliminating my tracks through the dirt. If they find the cave, it should throw them off, at least for a while – provided they don’t have a devious thinker among them.”

“If they find the cave at all, it’s likely to be some grunt sent out to search. Probably not the brains of the outfit.” She could almost see the corner of Auggie’s mouth curl up.

“It’s a good bet that if anyone finds it, he’ll fall in like you did. Maybe we’ll get lucky and he’ll break a leg. If there’d been time, I’d have had you clear the rubbish pile.”

“Not in this life, Mr. Anderson. I don’t do yard work.”

Auggie’s chuckle was warm and intimate in her ear, but he was serious when he said, “Annie, are you using your light?”

“Yes, why?”

“How is the cave floor? Is it rough or smooth? Can you safely walk close to one of the walls?

“The floor’s a little uneven, but, so far, no loose stones. I can walk next to the right hand wall with no trouble.”

“This will be difficult for you, Annie, but take a good look ahead as far as you can see. Check for holes in the floor, lowering of the ceiling, anything you might bump into. Then turn off your flashlight and secure it well somewhere you can reach it quickly. Like last night, walk with one hand on the wall and the other out before you. Go slowly and slide your feet. Where the going’s fairly easy, we need to save your light. There are some rough spots ahead.”

The quiet stretched out until Auggie got worried. “What are you doing, Annie?”

“I was wearing a scarf to contrast with my suit. I just tied it around my head and neck, so I can tuck the phone into it. I’ll need both hands free to follow your instructions. I only have two of them, you know.”

“Oh, I could have sworn you had three or four when you’re hammering on me in our combat sessions, but if you say so.”

Annie laughed. “Now, you’re really being funny. How is it I always seem to be the one getting tossed on the mat? Besides, you’re bigger than I am. If I had an extra hand, I’d use it.”

“Is your light off, Annie?” he asked gently.

“Yes, I’m moving along the wall as per instructions. It’s black as ink in here.” There was just the faintest hint of a quaver in her voice.

“Honestly, it will be so much easier if you close your eyes.”

“You don’t do that,” Annie said. How did you learn to keep your eyes open and directed with your attention?’

Auggie still found it very hard to answer this sort of question, but for Annie, he had to try.

“The same way you learn any new physical skill, with lots and lots of practice. I still tend to close them when I have to concentrate intently on my other senses. You’re not going to have to worry about that. Just close your eyes and take your time.”

With the amphetamine speeding his system, Auggie’s hands were fast learning to read the contours of the 3-D cave representation. The satellite gave him constant coordinate updates, and he was able to track Annie closely.

“You’ve got a while before you come to any problem spots far as I can tell. Would some music help?”

“Not your version of jazz; it’s too strange. Give me Dixieland any day. Honestly, Auggie, I’d rather you talked to me. Say anything; you could even sing.”

“Trust me, Miss Walker, you truly don’t want that. How about we plan what you’re going to do once you get home?”

“Do you have something in mind?” Having a good bath, a huge meal and crawling into bed with Auggie sounded great, but he had girlfriends already.

“Well, the weather here is good. We could head down to Virginia Beach and find a nice cottage for the weekend. Get some sun, take long walks….”

Chills were running up and down her spine. She was afraid to ask where he was going with this. She had to change the subject before she ended up making a fool of herself. She said the first thing that came to mind.

“Do you swim, Auggie?”

“I do — pretty good at it, too. I was on the swim team in college. Haven’t you notice the long arms and wide shoulders? Not quite a Michael Phelps’ wingspan, but not bad. No problems if I’m in a pool. In open water, unless I can get direction from the waves, I need somebody to keep me headed straight. Otherwise, because I’m stronger on the right, I tend to swim in large clockwise circles. Do you like the water?

She’d been quick enough to change the subject. He’d hoped she was over Ben Mercer, ready to explore a new relationship. If he ever got his hands on that damned rogue… Well, he’d keep it casual from now on.

He talked lightly of his family. He had a clutch of older brothers who had made his young life pretty lively. Some of his stories were hilarious.

They chatted, and she walked, with frequent stops to turn on her flashlight and look ahead. The pace was slow, but not too difficult except for one spot when she had to sit and slide down a steep, damp slope. A wet backside didn’t add to her comfort. But, they both found it interesting to go on exploring the other’s early exploits.

Annie had been a cheer leader in high school, and Auggie had played on his school’s conference winning team. Both had continued an interest in football.

“What position?” Annie asked.

“Wide receiver.”

“Speed or possession?” She did know something about football. A speed receiver snagged the pass if he could and ran for the opposition’s goal line. He was usually the fastest player on the team. A possession man had good hands and was expected to consistently pull down the ball and make short yardage gains that accumulated to first downs.

“More on the possession side, but I made some pretty good runs in my time.”

“So you’ve always had good hands?” Annie teased.

He wasn’t going there. “More like big ones and a fair eye for where the quarterback was looking.” And he didn’t want to go there either. As the hours slid by, the amphetamine was working out of his system, and fatigue was beginning to lead his tongue astray. He checked Annie’s location on the map.

“I hate to be indelicate, Miss Walker,” he told her, but I’ve got to hit the head. Use your light and pick out a spot where you can sit down. Eat another of your energy bars, and have a few swallows of water. We can’t be sure when you’ll find more. Rest for a bit until I get back. Okay, Annie?”

“Sure, Aug. I could use a sit down. You go ahead.”

He pulled off his headphones and told Barber to watch her. Using his laser cane, he plowed through the halls and downstairs. After a quick pit stop, he collected a bottle of water and another upper. On his way back, he stopped at the cafeteria and sweet talked one of the line ladies into handing him a mug of thick vegetable beef soup that he could take with him. He wasn’t at all sure how much of it he could get down, but he needed something in his stomach.

When he got back, Barber was about to go off shift. Was it 4:00 p.m. already? Buzz was reading his swing shift replacement in on the order to follow Auggie. Hamilton Washington was a real computer nerd and a quiet, but likeable, guy. He wasn’t at all happy with the assignment.

“Jeeze, Auggie, I don’t want to do this. You’re the head of this section; it’s just wrong. Let’s not and say we did.”

“No, Joan’s the boss, and you need your job, Ham.” Auggie knew he had an ailing mother and two younger sisters to support. “If I really have to have a few minutes privacy, I’ll let you know.”

“Okay, just give me a sign.” Hamilton Washington slid silently into his seat, slung the headphones loosely around his neck and looked the other way.

Auggie plugged back into Annie’s line and said cheerfully, “And I’m back. How you doing, princess? Ready to go on? You’ve got some rough travel over the next stretch.”

In times when Annie was quiet, Auggie had been frantically searching caving sites. Among the many unhelpful things he’d learned was that you should never cave alone, that caving required significant amounts of equipment that Annie didn’t have, and that she should be dressed in warm, wooly undergarments covered by tough, waterproof overalls and should have gloves and sturdy boots. She wasn’t and she didn’t.

He did pick up a few slim hints about getting through tight spots, or pinches, as he learned they were called. One thing in Annie’s favor was that she was slender and flexible with better upper body strength than most women. Calm and confidence were safety essentials.

Annie’s last look had shown her that the cave squeezed down to a narrow, mouth-like pinch. Auggie told her to keep the light on, squat down and look inside. “Check the floor,” he instructed. “Is it sandy or pebbled?” He devoutly hoped it wasn’t wet or muddy. “Check the overhead; look for any projections that might hinder you. This should be about a twenty yard crawl. You need to be sure it’s wide enough to pass your shoulders the whole way. And it would be a big plus if you could see the exit at the far end.”

Annie took her time to examine the passage while Auggie sweated. Buzzed with his recent shot of chemical energy, he was afraid of his own ability to get her safely through this ordeal. He knew less about caving than he did about astrophysics. After an eternity or two she came back on the line to report.

“The tunnel is very low, Aug, but if I do that under the barbed wire sort of crawl they taught us at the Farm, I think I can make it. The floor is dry and mostly sandy. There are a few pebbles scattered around, but the ceiling looks pretty smooth.”

“Good. You’ll want to push the light and everything else ahead of you. Take time to brush any pebbles off to the side and don’t try to hurry.”

A sudden thought occurred to Auggie. “Annie! What are you wearing on your feet?” Much as he loved the sound of her kitten heels, combat boots would be better in this situation.

“Low pants boots with a medium heel. Why? They are already totally ruined,” she grumbled.

“Because, fair lady, you are going to have to push yourself along by your toe tips and elbows. The pants boots should work. If you had on those usual stilettos, you’d have to go barefoot. You should be wearing Frank’s leather jacket. That’ll help protect your elbows.”

“I have it on; it’s cold down here.”

And she didn’t have the fat rich, protein and high carb foods recommended for cavers either. He had to get her out of there soon.

“I’m going to go for it, Auggie,” she said. “Can’t I leave that blasted brief case behind? Nobody’s going to find it down here.”

She had resisted lugging the drug case the whole way, but more and more Auggie thought it might be an important part of the solution.

“Annie, please, just take it. Put it flat side down and pile your bag and the light on top of it. Scoot it along ahead of you. It’ll push the little rocks out of your way. And be sure the phone is secure in your scarf.”

“Yes, master,” Annie said in a good imitation of Barbara Eden as Jeannie.

Annie passed her gear into the mouth of the pinch and wiggled in after it. It was slow going, and she felt the pressure of the rock above her like a vast weight, but Auggie was there – soft and gentle in her ear – encouraging, explaining, scolding – a steady stream of intermingled sense and nonsense. After what seemed like forever, she came to the exit. She had to twist up through a narrow, vertical slit, but at least she was standing.

The next hour’s travel was much harder. The floor was rough and the ways barely wide enough to pass her shoulders and hips. She could hear the trickle of water, and stalactites hung down from the ceiling. It was necessary to use her light the whole way. In time, she came to a curtain wall. Auggie thought there was a larger cavern on the other side that might contain water.

She ached in every muscle as she edged around the final barrier and looked carefully. Auggie was full of cautions against stepping into a possible lake, and it was all suddenly too much.

“Oh, give it a rest, Auggie!” she snapped. “You’re right again, damn it. I’m in a fracking cavern; there’s a pool of water. I’m not going to jump into it. I’m tired, I’m hungry, and I need to pee. I’m going to take a break whether you like it or not!”

There was a long, long silence. Finally, she enquired softly, “Auggie?”

She could hear him breathe, slow and deep. Finally, he said, “I’m here. My apologies, Annie. Of course you’re tired. You have every right to a rest. You’ve been working like a dock hand, while all I do is jabber. You must be ready to heave the phone. Why don’t you make yourself as comfortable as you can? We’ll sign off for a while. You can eat and get yourself some sleep. At the risk of offending, one last suggestion: turn off the flashlight before you go to sleep. I’ll be here if you need me.”

And between one moment and the next, Auggie was gone. Their connection broken.

*****

36 to 44 Hours

Auggie bent his head and pushed both hands through the tangled mess of his dark hair. His throat was raw from endlessly use in the cold, dry air of the bullpen. His sinuses ached and there was a dull throb across the back of his skull. He twisted his head slowly from side to side in an effort to unkink some of the knots in his neck.

It must be close to twelve o’clock, because, beside him, Ham was struggling to explain the situation to Mac McPherson, who covered the late shift from midnight to eight. Auggie took pity on the kid.

“Mac, it’s like this. By Joan’s orders, you are to follow and keep watch on anything and everything I’m doing. If you think I’ve lost it, you’re to take over and let her know. Got it?”

“Shit!” Mac said succinctly. “That’s the pits. You’ll lose it about the same time I grow wings and a halo.

“Yeah, well…ours not to reason why. I’m going to take a break. Ham can fill you in on the current status of things. I think Annie’s sleeping, but she could come back. Stay on the line.”

Auggie pushed up from his desk. He was stiff, and his back ached from long hours hunched over his equipment. One ear had a sore spot where the headphones rubbed. Too tired to interpret the signals the laser cane sent to his implant, he unfolded his stick and made his way downstairs.

Once in the locker room, he sat down on a bunk, let his eyelids close and sighed. He’s been some 40 or so hours without sleep, and every cell in his body wanted nothing more than to lie down and sleep the clock around. The promise of a migraine stirred inside both his skull and his belly. If he suddenly bent over and vomited in his waste basket, Joan would have him removed, and he knew it.

Annie was a good two-thirds of the way toward the cave exit. What would happen when she got there was still up in the air. He had promised – given his word – to stick with her. How long had he been in love with Annie Walker? Was it from the first day he heard her heels click along the floor and caught her wonderful grapefruit fragrance? Or had it grown gradually as they worked and played together? He no longer knew, nor did it matter. She was his. He could no more hand this operation over to another controller than he could yank the need he felt for her out of his chest.

Annie had sent him away, but it wasn’t final. He had done it himself when he was first lost in the dark. Struck out, commanded them to leave him alone. But he had learned that was the one thing that wouldn’t work. Only when he had been compelled to follow where they led, learn what they had to teach, had he regained his own independence. Annie would need him again before the night was over. He had to be alert and pain free to help her.

He washed his face and hands, combed his hair and went once more to his locker. This time he took a prescription pain pill from the square bottle and an upper from the round one. He swallowed them along with half a bottle of water and carried the remainder of the fluid back to his desk.

It was the wee hours of the morning in Washington, D.C., but other parts of the world were up and busy. Auggie finagled another 24 hours when the COMSATs would keep to their slightly skewed orbit and made final arrangement for getting the champagne to the Paris embassy. He talked with a caver in Australia, and he found a Border Patrol agent in Brownsville, Texas, who told him more about east coast drug smuggling.

He was digesting what he had learned when the light on Annie’s line began to flash. He plugged in and said with a slight hesitation, “Hello?”

“Auggie!” Annie sounded terrified and frantic. “There’s…there’s something wrong with me.” Her voice shook, and her breathing was short and fast. “I think… could be… heart attack… it’s just racing! I woke up. There’s something here… here in the dark… see it, corner of my eye. I woke up… can’t find my light!” She was panting hard. Lost … lost!”

Auggie knew exactly what was happening.

“Agent Annie Walker!” It was the same command voice he had used with the pilot. “Listen to me, focus on my voice! Focus, now! You need to breathe. Follow me. Breathe in – one, two, three, and hold it one. Breathe out – one, two, three and hold it one. Your breathing is a circle: in, one, two three, hold; out, one, two, three, hold.” His tone changed gradually into a caress: warm, hypnotic. You are going around and around and around that circle of breath. Nothing else matters.”

He breathed with her until she could move on to a four count cycle. When she was safely locked into four in and hold, four out and hold, he began to speak softly, in rhythm with her breath. “You’re not having a heart attack; it’s a panic attack. There’s nothing in the cave. It’s totally dark. It’s impossible to see. Your eyes are playing tricks. Keep breathing, love. The light’s not lost. In a little while, we’ll find it. For now you only want to breathe.”

Time slid by as she breathed and calmed. Eventually she found her center and remembered exactly where she had put the flashlight. She reached out and touched it on the small ledge where she had so carefully placed it before she drifted off to sleep.

“Auggie,” she broke the thread of a low, rhythmic humming that seemed to come from deep in his chest. It had helped to quiet her terrors. “I’m better now. I found the flashlight. I’m so grateful I didn’t drive you away. I was awful to you; I’m sorry.”

“I’m the one to say sorry, Annie. I should have realized how long you’d been on your feet and how tired you get when something is scary new. You were more than entitled to rest.”

“So it’s all good.” Annie sounded more like herself. “Now that we have the apologies out of the way, what the hell happened to me? I thought I was dying.”

“You had a big time panic attack, Sugar Plum. You’ve never had one before?”

“Auggie!” That stupid name from the night at the Farm. “I still don’t know how you stripped in about 20 seconds flat and came up with that crazy ploy?”

“And you never will, Pooh Bear.”

She laughed aloud. It was the sound he wanted to hear.

McPherson, who had reluctantly followed his orders to shadow Auggie, was more and more uncomfortable with the need to eavesdrop on the intensely personal talk between the two. He leaned over, lifted one of Auggie’s earphones and whispered, “Nothin’ going on here, and I need to hit the head. Might be a while. Okay with you, boss?”

“Sure, Mac, take your time. Get some coffee.” Auggie’s smile was bright with gratitude.

“You know, I’ve heard people talk about panic attacks,” Annie was back in his ear, “but I never thought they were something real. Just… you know, things that happened when weak-minded people let their anxieties run away with them. I’ll sure never feel that way again, but I don’t understand why I had one?”

“You were asleep,” Auggie told her. “You woke up into pitch blackness, and you weren’t home. You were in a cold, dank cavern, and your eyes saw thing that weren’t there. Bet you heard the rocks creak around you, too?”

“Oh God, yes; I did.”

“I talked with some cavers while you were asleep. They tell me it’s not at all unusual with beginners. Even experience spelunkers claim the earth has its own voice. So, in a very human way, you got scared and panicked. If it ever happens again, you’ll know how to fight it.”

They were quiet for a while. Presently Annie queried him.

“Auggie, I want to ask you a question.”

“Is it a hard one?”

“I don’t know. It might be.”

“Well, shucks; shoot?”

She could almost see him clasp his hands on the head of his cane and lean on it lightly with his head cocked at that angle she loved so much.

“How do you know so much about panic attacks, anyhow? You’re one of the coolest dudes I know.”

Auggie’s laugh was dry and short. “Wait until the last thing you remember is running like hell in the middle of an ambush, and you wake up in a hospital bed in God knows where and discover you’re blind as a bat. That’s when the panic really sets in. It took two corpsmen to sit on me while a nurse shot me full of sleepy juice.”

Annie’s voice was very low. “Auggie, I am so sorry! I don’t know why I keep asking you these awful questions, or why you bother to answer me?”

“Don’t sweat it, Sugar Plum. You ask because you’re stuck in a place that makes you really uncomfortable, and you need to hear a friendly voice. If I didn’t want you to know the truth, I’d spin you some far-flung lie just to entertain you. Tonight seems to be a time for truth telling. How about I ask you one in return?”

“Is it a hard one?”

“It might be.”

“Sure. Turn about is only fair. Ask away?”

Auggie’s tone was suddenly serious. “When you get home, Miss Walker, may I have your permission to ‘look’ at you?”

“My, how very formal, Aug, but I’m not sure I know what you mean?”

“I’ve known you for two years and some now, Annie. I have no doubt that you are beautiful. I hear it when you walk into a room, sense it in the reactions of the men around me. Call it a guy thing, but I still want to see you for myself. The only way I can do that is with my hands. It’s intimate; you might feel it’s intrusive. I don’t want that. When, and only when, it’s okay with you, I’d like to gently touch your face. I want to feel the shape of each feature, trace the arch of your lips, learn the symmetry of your beauty. Meld it all to create a forever picture in my mind.”

There were tears in the voice that answered. “I think that is the most beautiful compliment I’ve ever been paid. I’d be honored. Of course, you may look at me Auggie – any time you want, for as long as you want.”

The racing of Auggie’s heart wasn’t caused by the amphetamines in his system.

The night passed in long silences broken by spates of talk. These weren’t the only hard questions asked. Some found answers, others didn’t. McPherson didn’t wander back from his break until almost dawn.

*****

44 to 52 hours

Friday morning, Buzz Barber came in early to find his boss and his friend still at his station. The night shift guy, Mac McPherson, pointed at Auggie and shook his head. Buzz jerked his thumb to signal Mac that he could go and plugged in. Once settled, he looked around the still half-empty room and leaned over so he could speak quietly.

“Auggie, Buzz here, I’m back. Now, what in hell are you still doing here? You look like the south end of a north bound goat; you are fried, man.”

“You know it, and I know it, just don’t tell Joan, huh?” His voice was hoarse and fraying, his lips cracked.

“You talked her through the night, didn’t you?

“She was in an underground cavern. There are strange sounds deep under the earth. It’s cold …”

“Yeah, man I get it. When’s her next contact due?”

“I told her 30 minutes. I got some things I need to do.” Auggie was shivering with chill and fatigue.

Buzz knew you felt the cold more when you were exhausted, and they kept the temperature turned way down in here for the sake of the equipment. No matter if the staff died of pneumonia. They were cheaper to replace.

“Listen, I’m right here. I’ll stay on her line the whole time. You go down to your locker — wash your face; drink some hot water; put on that big old sweater you keep in there. You’ll feel warmer, and Joan won’t be able to see how bad you’re shaking.”

Auggie was doing it to himself, Buzz thought. He knew he should sleep. But a fool could see how deeply he felt about Annie. He’d promised to stick by her, and he had to keep sharp or Joan would yank him. Like most of them, he probably kept something stronger than a candy bar in his locker. He just hoped Annie appreciated it.

“You could even put your feet up for ten minutes,” Barber continued. “If Annie comes back on early, I’ll send somebody for you.”

Buzz was right; Auggie knew it. He had to pull himself together. Joan was watching him more closely every hour. “’Kay. Thanks. Back soon.”

When Auggie reached his locker, he found it hard to steady his hands enough to work the key pad. Fried? God, he was totally spent, but he had to have a few more hours to see her to safety.

He went directly to his emergency box. Without removing it from his locker, he groped inside until he found the quartet of shaped bottles. This time he took a horse-sized capsule from the smaller round one and a plain looking white pill from the square container. He shoved both in his mouth, got water and drank until he got them down.

He knew mixing speed and pain meds was not the smartest move in the world, but it would get him through a few more hours. A steady beat was growing behind his temples. He couldn’t surrender to the inevitable migraine; not yet.

He followed Buzz’s orders to wash his face, first with hot water and then with cold. He choked down an energy bar filled with peanut butter and chocolate and drank more water. He couldn’t lie down. If he ever closed his eyes he would be lost for days.

Still cold, he pulled on the soft knit, bulky wool sweater he kept for the days they turned the air conditioning down to subarctic levels. Its sleeves had stretched until they covered all but his fingertips. It would help disguise the tremors. He moved slowly back to the elevators and on to his station.

Just as he sank back into his chair, the tall black woman who had spoken up to Joan on his behalf stopped at his desk and set down a steaming cup. “Tea,” she said, “at your three o’clock. Irish Black, very hot with lemon and honey. Drink it. It’ll warm you and help your voice.”

“Evangeline…”

She walked away as he was trying to get his tongue around a proper thank you.

*****

Director Campbell buzzed his wife’s office at shortly after 9:00 a.m. and asked her to step in.

“I have some good news for you on the Panama Canal Operation,” he said when she had shut the door. “I was able to locate a high level executive with one of the major soft drink company’s Latin American division that’s headquartered in Monterrey. He’s cooperated with us a time or two before. It’s one of those he knows a guy, who knows a guy things, but a contact with the head of the Monterrey cartel has been established.”

Joan smiled at the complicated, difficult man she had married.

“They keep operations quieter down there than they do on the West Coast. Nobody wants this thing to go public. They are willing to make a swap for the cocaine.”

“Arthur, that’s the best news I’ve had in several days. Thank you.”

“It’s about the only part of this job that I do enjoy. And there is an even better angle, my dear.”

“Oh. Yes?”

“Yes. Our contact is in possession of a briefcase stuffed full of, as he describes it, ‘a bunch of trash about the Panama Canal’. His men snatched it by mistake when they shot our asset. He’s quite irritated with his own organization as a result. By the time he sent them back to look for the right briefcase, our team was going out the window with it. He’s willing to swap straight across – the Canal papers for the coke. He’ll throw in Annie to say ‘perdón’ for pissing off the CIA.”

“Excellent. Annie won’t want to give him the drugs. She hates the drug trade, but Auggie will persuade her.”

“For everyone’s sake, he’d better.”

“Until tonight, then,” Joan said. She turned to leave the office.

“Joan, one minute, please.”

His wife stopped, turned back, one eyebrow raised in question.

“Anderson is intelligent, capable and a genuinely decent man. There aren’t too many of his kind around anymore. Life’s handed him a hell of a raw deal. Cut him some slack.”

“Pity?” Joan asked. “Auggie wouldn’t want it.”

“No. Not pity, respect. Back off a notch. I expect you’ll profit by it.”

“Very well.” Joan’s tone was as cool and controlled as always. “As you say.”

*****

Auggie, lifted by the strong amphetamine dose and warmed by Evangeline’s hot, sweet tea, sat straighter and had stopped shivering. An hour earlier he had awakened Annie from a few hours of restless sleep. As before, she tested the water in the cavern’s pool on herself, and with Auggie’s agreement, emptied her water bottle and refilled it. She pulled her damp and soiled clothes into the best shape she could manage and set off to make her way out of the cave system.

“My light’s dimming,” she told Auggie with some concern.

“We’re lucky it’s held so far, Annie. What’s your footing like? Can you do without it and follow the wall again?”

“This section seems drier and it’s trending up a little. There are some loose rocks on the floor, but if I slide my feet, I should be okay. I might have to switch from one wall to another as it twists, but I think I’d better turn off my light and try it.”

“That’s my girl.” Auggie’s voice offered strength and encouragement, as it had for so many hours. “If my fingers aren’t lying, you’ve made it through the worst part of the trip. Another couple of hours should see you to the exit.”

“What happens when I get there? You haven’t said much on that subject.”

“We’re working on it, believe me, Annie. It’s gonna get sorted out.”

“Sorry, but I have a personal interest in the subject. Are those gun totin’ thugs still after me?

“We don’t have any eyes on the area. About all the access I have is from the bug that fell off while you were on the run. They were all over the place yesterday, but I haven’t heard much activity today.”

“How can you talk to me and listen in on that as well?”

“Hey, you have the multitasking master here.” Auggie stopped suddenly.

“Hold on, hold on, I think Joan’s comin’ my way. Yep, it’s the lady, in person. Maybe she has news. And, good morning, my leader. What’s afoot?” Annie realized Auggie had turned to speak to Joan, so she shut up and listened.

“We’ve had some news. I think it’s good. Come on into my office. I want to go over it with you in more detail.”

Joan thought Auggie sounded quite chipper for a man who had been up for two days and night straight, but he looked tired, despite some effort to clean up.

“Right there,” Auggie said and quickly turned back to Annie.

“There’s something happening. I think it’s what we’ve been waiting for. Rest where you are, if you like. If you keep moving, be very careful. I shouldn’t be long.”

It was followed by that isolating click of a disconnect.

*****

Joan made Auggie sit before she would tell him any news. Urged on by her husband’s words, she was determined to make one more effort to get him to take some thought for himself. At least it would be more private and less harsh than their first battle.

“It’s very good news, Auggie. We have a way that sounds solid to get Annie out safely. I want you to tell her, go over all the details with her. Once she’s ready to go, let me have you driven home? You’ve gone too long. You know what’s coming. I’d like to know that you’re secure in your own place, behind the new locks, where you have a decent bed and the medication you need. Do this much for yourself, for me. You can pick anyone you like to take over for you. Mrs. St. Denis… Evangeline?

Auggie closed his eyes and sat for a minute before replying. “Joan,” he opened his eyes and directed that soft, unseeing look toward the sound of her voice. “Your offer is more than kind, and I hope you know I regret that it came to open conflict that first day. Still, I’d do it again if I had too.”

He lifted his open hand, then closed it into a loose fist. “I’ve been through bad spells before; I can deal with it. I promised Annie I’d be there until she was safe. Let’s get her on a plane, and then I’m out of here. A few more hours are all I want?”

Joan Campbell shook her head. “Love’s a bitch, ain’t it? Okay, we’ll do it your way. Here’s what Arthur has arranged…”

*****

Auggie hadn’t failed to get a good sense of how Annie felt about the drug trade. It was going to take some time once he had her back on the line. Before reconnecting with her, he rang through to Jai.

Jai had been pretty much sitting on his hands for the past two days and was more than ready for action. “Jai, you need to believe me here,” Auggie was reassuring him for the third time. “Annie is fine: tired and hungry, but fine. She should be out of the cave system by noon. Now, can you arrange for the chopper to lift her out, or do I need to do it?”

“I’ve got it, Aug. I’ve had one on standby since dawn, and the pilot and I are going to have a nice long chat before he takes off. Trust me on that.”

“I am. I know it wasn’t your fault, but no more screw-ups. It needs to be smooth and fast. We’ll want as much input as you can arrange – camera, sound, the whole works.”

“Right, right, right. I’m on it. I’ll get her this time, Auggie. I’ll bring her home!”

“Do that and we’re good. Adios, compadre, via con Dios.”

*****

When the tiny phone vibrated against her cheek, Annie was quick to respond. “I’m here, Auggie. What news do you have for me? I heard Joan say it was good.”

Step by step Auggie carefully explained the plan. Annie was to exit the cave system at 2:00 p.m. Monterrey time and walk about the length of a football field straight ahead. The cartel jefe and his segundo would meet her there. She was to open the briefcase to show him the drugs. The one open packet had already been explained. He would then hand her the other case. She was to check that the Canal documents were still inside it.

By then, the helicopter should be hovering nearby. She would hear it and should walk steadily, but without haste, to it. Jai would be there to collect her. The chopper would lift, and it would be over. A simple swap.

“Excuse me! You are telling me that I should just hand this drug lord a case full of some sort of super coke. Are you crazy?”

“Not at all, Annie. It’s nothing new. Perhaps you’ve read about Vietnam, Air America, the opium trade?”

“The bad old days. I thought all that was over?”

“Nothing’s ever over, Annie, if it works to our advantage. We need that Canal intel. This is the way we get it.”

“So we’re buying it with the lives those drugs will ruin?”

“Annie, thousands and thousands of tons of food, clothing, medicine, oil, countless things flow through the Panama Canal every day. Think of the suffering and loss if locks are blown and trade can’t get through. Some of the roughest seas in the world are found at the tip of South America where the Atlantic meets the Pacific. They’re dangerous even for today’s ships. The Canal is vital.”

“You should make commercials for the CIA,” Annie said. Her tone was rough and bitter.

“Annie.” Auggie signed, and suddenly he sounded weary to the bone. “What can I say to persuade you? Do you want to help your country? Do you want to do the job the Agency pays you for? What do you think will happen if you don’t make the exchange? Do you want to live? I’m begging here, Annie. Please make the exchange! Make it because I ask you to. It’s on my shoulders. Do it for me.”

Auggie was telling her he would assume responsibility — take on the guilt, to free her to make the exchange. What in hell did she think a field agent for the CIA did? Hadn’t she once made a very similar argument to Auggie?

“I’m grateful, but that’s not necessary. I knew what I was getting into when I took the oath. I’ll make the exchange.” Her voice was strong and sure.

Auggie felt almost dizzy with relief. He found he had been standing and sank back into his chair.

“That’s good, Annie. You’re my tough lady. Now let’s go over the details once more.”

*****

It was close to 1:00 p.m. when Annie made her way through one last vertical pinch and stepped into the dim light of a shallow cave. It opened to the outside world through a half-door sized exit with a thigh-high threshold.

It was hard to tell who was more relieved when Annie caught her first glimpse of daylight. She gave a shout of delight; Auggie grinned like a kid on Christmas morning and raised his fist in a victory salute. Barber, still tasked with shadowing Auggie, stood up, knocked over his soda, and with his usual tact, told the whole bullpen. “Annie’s found an exit! She’s out of the cave!”

Once the excitement died down, Annie laid out her plans for the last hour before the exchange of briefcases.

“I’ll do what I can,” she told Auggie, “but this pants suit is beyond help. One knee is torn, the lower back and seat are wet and the whole thing is filthy. About all I can do is straighten things up a little. I did save enough water to sponge off my face and hands, and I have my make-up kit.”

“Of course you do. No lady should ever be found crawling through a Mexican cave system without one.” Annie was fun to tease, and she usually had a good comeback.

“Sir, let me tell you, a well applied tube of red lipstick has distracted more men from their objectives than all the guns going.”

Auggie laughed. “Depends on the objective, honey. Depends on the objective.”

In a change of subject, Auggie said, “If I may offer a suggestion, before you put on your battle dress it might be a good idea to eat your last energy bar, finish off your water and rest for a few minutes. You need to go through the exchange in your mind. I expect your Spanish is excellent?”

“A little rusty, but not bad. I think he’ll understand me.”

“It might be best to say as little as possible, Annie. Try to keep any disrespect out of your voice. Men of this type are often hypersensitive to any hint of criticism.”

“Auggie, as my grandmother used to say, ‘I didn’t just fall off the cabbage truck’. I know about men whose power is based on evil and violence. I’ll watch my tongue and my step.”

“Sorry, Annie. I know that you know what I think you should know –- or something like that.” Auggie spread one hand to grip his temples and bury his face in the warmth of his palm. It wouldn’t banish the pain building behind his eyes, but it helped for a minute. “We’re so close to having you out and safe … can’t seem to help but worry.”

“You’re the world’s best worrier, Auggie, my man. And the finest control anywhere. I honestly don’t think I would have made it without your help.”

“All gratuities gratefully accepted, my lady. A six pack of my favorite brew would be nice.”

“You got it!”

“Annie, you know you can’t carry this phone openly to the swap.”

“Yeah, I thought of that. I’ll tuck it in my pocket and leave the line open so you can hear.”

“You read my mind. I should let you go, now, so you can eat and rest until 2:00. The chopper will have eyes and ears. I’ll be here until Jai has you on the plane.”

Almost the whole office waited as the hands of the clock crept around to noon in Washington – it was 2:00 in Monterrey.

Annie was back in Auggie’s ear. “I’m leaving the cave now, Aug. I have the briefcase and my bag with all my stuff and Frank’s I.D. I remember, we don’t say ‘Goodbye.’

She climbed over the low cave wall and ducked into the outside shade of ferns and trees. Very faintly, she heard in the hoarse rasp that all that remained of his beloved voice…

“Stay safe, my heart. Come home to me.”

*****

Annie was already keyed up for the exchange, and anxiety gnawed at the raw edges of her nerves. For a moment after Auggie’s last words, it felt as if a giant hand had squeezed her heart, and her breath just wouldn’t come.

She stood stock still and recalled last night’s training. She drew in air and held it, breathed through several cycles and came to understand that she couldn’t stop to think about all the things his words might mean until the mission was complete. All her hopes and dreams and fears were locked into one corner of her mind – treasures to be examined at a later time.

Annie gathered the briefcase and her bag and stepped forward with a strong and confident stride. Halfway across the section of rough brush land the cave had opened upon, she saw the cartel leader and his second advancing toward her. He was not at all what she expected. Tall and dark with classic Latin good looks, he could be a South American soap opera star.

“Ah, Senorita Annie Walker, I presume,” he said as they met.

“Buenas tardes, Señor. Tengo el maletin.” I have your briefcase she had told him. She intended to say as little as possible.

“Please, señorita,” he flashed a brilliant smile. “Your accent is excellent, but let us speak English? Such a useful language in the world today, no?”

She bent her head in what she hoped would appear as a respectful nod and clicked the latches of the case. The lid sprang open to reveal the many small packages of a white powder neatly stacked inside.

“Bueno, only one has been opened just as your Director said. Luis?” He turned to the man beside him. “Por favor.”

Luis was of a different cut. Short and stocky with a deep chest, he looked as if his ancestors had worked the earth back to Aztec times. He stepped forward quickly, wet one finger in his mouth and dipped it into the open package. He brought it to his mouth and let a few grains fall onto his tongue. With closed eyes, he savored it almost like a wine taster. After a minute, he opened his eyes and nodded yes to his jefe. His lips lifted in a gap-toothed grin.

“And the other briefcase, por favor?” Annie said. Apparently the boss wasn’t a user of his own wares.

Off to her right, Annie heard the sound of an approaching helicopter.

“Of course, Señorita.” From beside himself, he picked up an identical briefcase and opened it.

Annie stepped forward to examine the documents without removing the case from his hands. A rapid scan of random pages convinced her that they would be very helpful in identifying the terrorists and their targets.

“As agreed, Señor.” Annie managed to force a smile as she offered her case and held out a hand for his.

“As agreed.” The exchange was made with surprising dignity.

“Gracias encuesta mucho más.” Thank you very much, Annie said and turned toward the sound of the chopper.

“One moment, Señorita, you have perhaps forgotten something?”

Luis whistled sharply, and two men came from behind a clump of trees. They carried a body bag between them. They placed it at Annie’s feet, and their handsome leader bent to open the head and reveal the face of Frank Willoughby.

Annie couldn’t hide her look of surprise.

“A decent man always shows respect for the dead,” she was told. “Even the remains of an enemy. How else may one hope for the same courtesy when one’s own time arrives, no?”

Annie’s tired mind reeled. A gentleman drug dealer who scrupulously kept his bargains and engaged in philosophy?

“Again, our most sincere gratitude. It will mean a great deal to his parents.” This time her thanks were honest. “And if your men will assist?”

“Certainly. Go with God, beautiful one.”

Annie, accompanied by the two men carrying Frank’s body, made her way without undue haste toward the ship. She could see that Jai was out and on his way to meet them.

Five minutes later saw the figures in the clearing diminished to mere dots. Jai handed Annie a cold drink laced with a sedative and urged her into a seat to have her wound examined.

*****

The tiny satellite phone had transmitted the jist of the early exchange to those gathered in the Washington Headquarters, and the cameras and listening gear on the chopper had covered the rest.

Auggie lifted his hands from the keyboard, pushed the headphones down to lay useless around his neck. There was nothing more to do now …nothing but wait, and wait, and wait… He sensed Evangeline close beside him.

She lightly stilled his hands that wandered from mike, to Braille strip, to the silent radio. “Soon, Auggie. You’ve done all you can. We’ll know very soon now.”

Joan joined the group around him. The others quieted, and she said, “So, it’s finally over.”

Despite her reservations, she had been there often through the whole thing – checking up on him, yes. But she’d been helpful, too. Had been his liaison with the diplomatic side of the operation. She’d had more than a few words of caution, but there’d been some of encouragement – especially this morning. And she had sent food that he’d never quite been able to eat.

Something was coming through; the speakers buzzed. He yanked his earphones up, heard Jai say, “We’ve got her. We’re on the chopper. Hector is giving her first aid. Home soon.”

His knees went weak, and he lurched against his console. Evangeline caught one arm and Buzz the other. Messy, annoying, solid, dependable Barber. Totally exhausted and crashing fast, Auggie giggled. Those close around him looked at one another in surprise.

“Sleep deprivation,” someone said, and the others nodded.

“It’s all right, now,” Joan told him in tones she would use with a slow child. “Annie’s safe. We have her. She’s not hurt badly. You saved her.”

In a breath, all the fear, torment and anxiety fell away from his heart, and the pain that he had held at bay for so long crashed down like tropical thunder. He pressed both hands to his temples, covered the unseeing eyes, as lightning crashed through his brain. Try as he would, he couldn’t hold back a gasp.

They eased him into a chair. .

“Take him home,” he heard Joan say. “See that he gets into bed. He has pain meds; give them to him.” Of course Joan knew about the savage migraines. Joan knew everything, and, of course, she had been so damn right.

*****

The Rest of the Story

Somehow he was in Buzz’s car. He fought off nausea as the smells of old pizza and stale potato chips assaulted him. The roar and squeals and honks of traffic lanced through his ears to stab hot jolts of flame into his brain. In some unknown century the ride eventually ended.

He leaned exhausted against his apartment door as Buzz patted at his pockets, found his keys, let them in. The cool quiet of his quarters was like thick, numbing lotion over an awful sunburn.

He blundered through the front and ran for the bathroom. Crouched over the toilet, he threw up, and threw up, and threw up again. Everything came: the little he had managed to eat, all the coffee and power drinks he had consumed and lots and lots of vile tasting bile. Buzz stood by and gave him cold wet towels to wipe his face, baking soda water to rinse his mouth, and said nothing beyond ‘take this’ or ‘give me that’.

When he had gone for a few minutes without another spasm, strong hands eased him to his feet. Could he find the strength to say ‘Thank you?’ He must have mumbled something because Buzz said, “It’s okay, buddy. Let’s get you to bed.”

When his knees hit his bed, he fell onto it, gripping his head with all his strength. He had to clamp his teeth to keep from screaming. He was vaguely aware of Buzz tugging at him. The filthy clothes he had worn for days were gone. The sheets were smooth and cool, the blanket warm, and the pillows, the blessed pillows…

“Auggie, where are your meds? Come on, man, I need to find those pills. Help me out here.” Apparently Buzz had been asking for some time.

“Bathroom, under the sink, way in the back, a square bottle.”

Buzz was back again. “How many, Aug? I got to know how many.” The narcotic was strong, could be deadly. Could he even trust Auggie in this shape to know how many?

“Two, two, please God, two.”

The words were slurred, barely audible, but the need seemed so great.

Two pills were pressed into one hand, a glass of cold water into the other. He swallowed greedily, convulsively and collapsed onto the pillows.

In time he became aware of an ice pack wrapped in clean, soft cloth beside his head; he leaned into it. Sleep eased up from behind: slowed the frantically darting of his thoughts, relaxed the quivering limbs. A warm euphoria began to lighten the pain. She was safe.

Buzz was careful to clean up behind himself. He knew too well how Auggie felt about messy. He had caught the rough side of his tongue often enough over it.

He washed everything he had used and returned it meticulously to its place. Soiled clothes and towels were picked up from the floor and deposited in the laundry hamper. He set fresh ice water and, after some debate, the vial of pills on the bedside table, then added Auggie’s watch and laser cane.

He closed the blinds and turned off the lights, and he carefully set the new locks so that Auggie’s door would be secure when he closed it behind himself. He doubled checked once he was outside. His friend was as comfortable and as safe as he could make him. He wasn’t the person who could heal the other wounds.

*****

She’d had a shower; her side had been treated, and they had found her clean clothes. She had even slept for a few hours on the plane home, but Annie was still wired when she strode into the office early Saturday morning. She lifted a hand to barely acknowledge the warm calls of welcome back as she headed straight for Auggie’s station. It was deserted – clean and neatly arranged with all the equipment turned off and cold. She stopped, stunned. He had to be there!

Alerted by the sudden buzz from the bullpen, Joan stepped out of her office. As one, her staff pointed toward Auggie’s area.

“Annie,” Joan said, “it’s good to have you back.”

She swung on her boss, honey hair flying around her shoulders. “Where’s Auggie?”

“Annie, listen to me for a minute.”

“Where’s Auggie, Joan? Tell me about him.” It was a clear and urgent demand.

“Auggie is at home; he’s very ill.” Joan’s voice was soft, calm.

Annie spun on her heels and started for the door. Joan caught her arm and held it hard. “Come into my office. There are some things about Auggie you need to know.”

Annie frowned but followed. Joan led her into the office and closed the door. “Sit down.”

“I have to go. If Auggie’s sick, he needs help. He saved my life.”

“Sit!” Joan pointed at a chair. “He’s saved mine a time or two as well.” She let that sink in. “Auggie is sleeping under heavy sedation. He’ll hold for a few more minutes. Obviously, you and Auggie have become more to one another than just colleagues. Unlike most businesses, we don’t necessarily object to that, but there are some things you need to know before it goes any further.”

Annie sank into the chair. “Tell me.”

“First, you should know that Auggie called in favors and made deals that he will be months, if not years, paying off. He even spent a sizeable chunk of his own money. It was all done in order to get you safely out of Mexico.”

“I didn’t know.” Annie turned wide, innocent eyes filled with anxiety on her supervisor. She felt Joan had more to say, “And?”

“Auggie was a field agent before Iraq and a damn good one. He still has those skills as well as a whole different set today. That’s how he was able to rescue you. But his circumstances are drastically different now.”

“I know. He was hurt. He’s blind.”

“Far more than that, Annie. The blast that blinded him threw him some fifteen feet through the air and slammed him down on iron hard, stony ground. His shoulder was broken, muscles in his back damaged, and he had a major concussion.”

Joan closed her eyes for a moment and drew a deep breath. “They pieced and pinned his shoulder back together. He told me once that he had a non-stop, ‘blinding’ headache for two months after the explosion.

“When the worst of the pain had passed, they started him on intense physical therapy. He worked hard at it. In time, his shoulder recovered strength and flexibility, and his back got better.” She hesitated. “Although, I suspect it still bothers him now and then…but… I don’t know.”

“He still works out every other day,” Annie said. “It’s a long and tough routine. He’s very fit.”

“Yes, I know, but some things don’t yield so readily to treatment.”

There was something unusual in Joan’s eyes. Was it pity, or pain, or perhaps … deep and honest sympathy?

“He’ll never tell you this, but he still gets fierce migraines when he goes for 24 or 36 hours on some high stress op without sleep or even a decent meal.

“All his missions are vital to him; it’s one of the reasons I value him so highly, but I have never seen him like he was over these last three days with you in danger. He was on that line constantly. He refused to let anyone relieve him, even for an hour.” Joan shook her head and frowned in disapproval.

“I finally had food brought to him. He couldn’t eat it. At one point, when you were drowsing, I ordered him to staff quarters to take a shower and sleep for an hour. He went, but he was back in 20 minutes with his hair still wet. He pulled the headphones out of his relief’s hands.”

Annie was deeply shocked and moved. He had been her rock and her hope, but she hadn’t known he was destroying himself in order to be there for her. She buried her face in her hands. How had she been so stupid? He was always the voice at the end of her lifeline: hour after hour, day after day.

Somehow, thoughtlessly, selfishly, she had slipped into thinking of Auggie as indestructible. He was the slightly older guy, with a world of field experience and an encyclopedic knowledge of the Agency, who had tucked her so gently under his wing when she first arrived. He had taught her everything: from how to fight dirty to how to avoid filling out the endless forms supposedly required. He had put himself and even his career on the line for her more times than she cared to count.

Now Joan was ripping away her blinders to show her exactly how vulnerable Auggie really was. She’d been afraid to let him know how much she cared – sure he would turn her away with a gentle joke – that classic cliché – the student who fell in love with her teacher.

Now, she understood that he had shown her in every way he could that he did care for her. He was blind. How hard must it be to tell someone you loved them when you couldn’t even see the reaction on their face? Most men had trouble with that word, anyway. So, she was going to say it first and often. If he could do what he had just done for her, in the full knowledge of how it would affect him, she could show some courage and go first.

Joan went on relentlessly. “Once he was finally convinced you were safe and in our hands, he almost passed out with a headache so severe he literally could not form a coherent sentence. Barber all but carried him out, drove him home, dosed him with the medication he always keeps on hand and got him into bed.

“It takes him a while to recover, Annie. Go if you must, but he won’t want you to see him when he’s so wrecked. Don’t expect to be welcomed. And, if either of you show up back here before a full week has passed, you’re both fired.”

“I understand,” Annie said in a very small voice.

“I hope you do. By the way, you are the only person I have ever told about this. Auggie wouldn’t appreciate having it spread around.

Annie drew a hand across her lips and nodded. “Thank you, Joan. I appreciate it more than you can know. I have to go now. We’ll see you Monday week.”

Joan had known Auggie for a very long time, Annie thought. Maybe someday he would trust her enough to tell her more about it.

On her way out, Annie stopped at Buzz Barber’s desk. He looked up with both warmth and hesitation in his face. She bent and kissed him gently on the cheek. “Thank you,” she said. “You are truly a friend in deed.”

“Annie, be careful. Auggie’s got a lot of pride. Sometimes he’ll savage you to save it.”
“Thanks, I’ll take my whip and chair, just in case.” She grinned that wide-eyed, wonderful smile and left the office.

Buzz turned back to his computer, crunched a chip and sighed. He had a hunch Auggie would be feeling a lot better very soon.

*****

Annie had been knocking on Auggie’s door for some time with no response. She decided to try the recently installed intercom. “Auggie,” she called. “Auggie, it’s Annie Walker. Let me in. Please, let me in.”

Auggie was mired in sleep. He was dreaming of Annie. She was calling him; she needed him. A distant hammering jarred his head. He struggled to surface; swam up through a haze of drugs and the shadows of pain that lingered at the edges of his mind.

It took more effort than he had to spend, but eventually, he lay perfectly still between the clammy sheets. He’d been down so deep, he felt like some disgusting life form you’d find at the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

With infinite care, he brought his finger tips to his temples. They felt raw and bruised. A jolt of pain crossed behind his eyes. Wasn’t the damn thing through with him yet?

He reached for water and more pills, then slowly withdrew his hand. The devil’s cocktail he’s been riding was a bitch comin’ down, but he had to quit it and quit now. He’d seen friends go down that torturous path to hell way too often.

He was sinking back to sleep, when the voice from his dreams came out of the intercom. “Auggie, it’s Annie. Please, just let me in. You can go right back to sleep. Auggie!”

Ah, God. Not this! He pressed his hands tight to his temples. He could hear the tears in her voice.

He fought his way out of the tangled, sweat-soaked sheets. He vaguely remembered rousing at some point with a fierce thirst and an aching bladder. He’d made it the few steps to his bathroom and returned to gulp down a quart of water straight from the pitcher he found on his bedside table along with more pain pills. He had fallen immediately back to sleep, and he was still drugged.

The pounding at his door resumed. “Auggie, Auggie, let me in!” She just kept calling. He realized he was naked, and his body stunk. His groping hands found a robe draped over the end of his bed. He really would own Buzz a big one. He pulled it on and belted it closed. Barefoot he padded to the door and leaned his head against the jamb. He had to send her away. He switched on the intercom. “I’m here, Annie. Are you all right?” He knew he was slurring.

“I’m fine, but I want to see you. Please, I won’t take long.”

He groaned. The woman he wanted most in the world was outside his door begging to come in, and he was a ruin – mentally and physically. He triggered the intercom. “Annie, I’m not in any shape for company. Go home. Rest. I’ll come to you as soon as I can.”

A steel reinforced stiletto slammed hard against his door. “August Anderson, you let me in right this minute, or I’ll wake up all your neighbors!” She crossed her fingers and hoped that Auggie was still too fuzzed to realize that most of his neighbors were up and out by now.

Damn! She meant it. He slowly worked the still unfamiliar locks and slid the door open. He spread both arms and braced himself in the doorway. “Annie, I’m a mess. Take a good look at the wreckage and then go home. You don’t want to be with me right now or probably ever.”

He broke her heart. He could barely stand. He had a three-day growth of beard. His hair was plastered to his skull. His eyes were sunk in shadows and caked with sleep. His voice was shot, and he had lost weight.

He had always been tall and lean, but if he pulled down much more, muscle would start to go. To her eye, he needed at least a bit of sustaining fat over all that hard muscle and elegant bone structure. Maybe, with time, she could do something about that.

She threw her arms around his waist and pulled herself close. His chest was bare and damp with sweat, and his strong male scent sent shivers of desire through her belly.

“I don’t give a damn if you’re a mess,” she told him. “You’re my mess, and I’m not going away. Get out of the door!” She pushed him hard.

Caught completely unaware, he staggered back. Momentarily lost, he swung an arm out to orient and balance himself.

Instantly contrite, she caught it and steadied him. “Oh, God, Auggie, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. This is my fault, and after all you did. Joan explained everything.”

She wasn’t really making much sense, but he understood. Damn Joan! She had no right to tell his secrets. The last thing he wanted was Annie’s pity. He took a deep breath, collected his thoughts and straightened his spine.

“I did my job, Annie, that’s all. I’m glad you are safe, but you don’t owe me anything. I’m good; I just need some sleep. You can go. I don’t need help.” Her scent filled his nostrils, and his head throbbed. It would kill him if she turned and left.

“We’re not doing this, Auggie,” she said firmly. I’m here because it is the one and only place on this earth where I want to be. You need sleep; so do I. Let’s do it together. But first, I brought food!”

She darted back outside and hauled in two huge shopping bags bulging with groceries. A six pack of his favorite brew was included. She shut the door and set the locks.

His frazzled mind reeled. Jesus, had she really just said what he thought? He was still half fried with pain-killers and rank with dirt and sweat. He’d be no good to her in his present state. He needed time.

“Annie,” he told her, “my home is your home, now and forever, and food sounds good. I do need to shower first.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “Go and do that while I get organized here in the kitchen.

He went.

Her mind was elsewhere as she unpacked groceries and started on a simple meal that she hoped he could keep down. She had come here boiling over with so much they needed to talk about. The hours of his voice over the tiny phone – always there, always steady, giving her of his strength and courage.

She found a bowl and broke eggs into it.

She wanted to explore all the things they had said and those they had left unsaid: the unanswered questions, the unspoken emotions. One look at Auggie, and her heart knew it had to wait. Wait until he had slept, and eaten. Wait until he had gained strength and distance and peace. She could wait. She could do anything for Auggie.

The hot, pulsing water of the shower felt wonderful as it pounded some of the soreness out of his back and bad shoulder. He scrubbed hard with pine scented soap and rinsed thoroughly. Then he just stood there.

He breathed in deeply of the hot steam and caught sips of water from the downpour. His mouth was dry and his talked-out throat raw. Gradually the ragged remainder of his headache eased.

Annie was in his apartment, in his kitchen, making food for the both of them? Had he dreamed that she intended to stay here, stay with him, be with him?

He snapped awake when the water ran cold. He had a death grip on the safety bar and had apparently gone to sleep on his feet. Hadn’t done that since Iraq.

He pulled a towel from the rack and wrapped it around his waist. He took another and rubbed his hair until it was almost dry. He could feel the stubble on his face. Better shave. His teeth felt like they were growing fur of their own. After a long session with toothbrush and rinse, he moved on to shaving.

He found his electric razor where it belonged. It was one that gave the closest shave possible for its ilk, but he would always regret the fine, close shaves he used to get with his old, well-honed straight razor. Still, it was probably preferable to cutting his own throat. There were some aspects of being blind that there was just no way around.

He ran a comb through his hair. Not that he expected it to do much good. Maybe Annie would sort it out for him later. He pulled on clean sweat pants, an old, soft tee shirt, and then headed back to the kitchen.

“There you are,” Annie told him as he let his hand guide him around the refrigerator.

“Everybody got to be somewhere, as the saying goes.”

“Come and sit down; everything’s ready.”

“No coffee?” He would know if she had brewed it.

“No, we’re supposed to sleep, remember?” There’s milk or orange juice?”

“Juice, please.” He found his chair, pulled it out and sat. She placed two items before him. “First course: juice at your two o’clock high, yogurt at six. There’s a spoon in it already, and there’s a napkin at three.”

His hand shook badly when he tried to scoop up the first spoonful of yogurt. She reached over his shoulder and slid a supporting hand under his trembling one.

A hot blaze of embarrassment flushed his face. “Christ, Annie. I can feed myself!”

“I know you can, babe,” she said pleasantly. “Just a little help to get started.”

A soft kiss brushed his tender temple. He could feel her breasts against his back. “Was that a term of endearment I just heard?”

“You bet … babe.”

Together they lifted the first spoonful to his mouth. It tasted good – thick and rich with just a hint of vanilla. She released him and returned to the stove.

He had his hands under control by the third spoonful. The soothing yogurt coated his unsteady stomach and allowed his hunger to re-emerge.

He was just about to lick the bowl when she took it away and put a fragrant plate down before him. “Scrambled eggs on the left, buttered toast fingers on the right. Your fork is here.” She tapped it twice on the table top.

He discovered there was a mound of soft scrambled eggs filled with chopped, fresh herbs and just the right amount of salt. The toast was a thick, country wheat bread dripping in butter. She had cut it into finger-width strips that made it easy to eat. Annie sat down opposite him with her plate. He could hear her crunch hungrily into her own toast.

“There’s jam if you want it,” she told him.

“Yes, please. I’ll have the orange marmalade. I know you prefer the raspberry jam.”

“Damn, you’re good.” He had sorted the rich scents that flooded his small kitchen and correctly spotted both varieties. To her the marmalade had very little odor.

“Something still works well,” he offered with the first real smile she’d seen since she got here.

She drank in the sight of him as she refilled his juice glass and watched him empty his plate. He looked better. The clean, sharp planes of his face; the generous mouth that could kiss so sweetly; the long, hard muscle under smooth, firm skin. And his hands – he used them with such precise and controlled grace to feed himself, with never a spilt drop. They were beautiful – large and strong with corded tendons and fine, blue veins – very male. She ached to feel them caress her body.

He sighed with contentment. “You can cook… babe. I think I’ll keep you.”

“Don’t give me that, Auggie. You can cook, too. I’ve seen you do it.”

When on earth had he been such a fool as to let her see his fumbling attempts to cook? Ah, a sudden memory floated up. “I do make a killer grilled cheese.”

“Nothing finer than a good grilled cheese on a rainy day.”

It had been that dismal day in mid-winter when they had played laser tag here in his place. Something with Yoda and ET masks he thought. About all he could remember was the feel of Annie in his lap.

“It’s just bread and cheese and way too much butter.”

“Listen, that grilled cheese you made was a work of art, and I should know. I’m an expert on art. I work at the Smithsonian.”

Giddy with fatigue, they both cackled.

“I brought steaks, Auggie. I could grill one if you’re still hungry.”

It sounded good, but he knew better than to push it this soon after one of his damned ‘incidents’.”

“Later,” he said. “Right now we both need more sleep. I heard that yawn.”

“You’re right; as always, sir.”

He gave the traditional enlisted man’s answer. “Don’t ‘sir’ me; I work for a living.”

“Not for a week you don’t. Joan gave us a few days off.” She laughed at his surprised as she opened the dish washer and piled in their breakfast dishes.

Good Lord, his breath caught in his throat. Was he going to be able to bathe in the sweet honey of her company for a whole week? Just Annie, just him. The thought was dazzling.

“I need to wash up,” she was saying. “Can you wait a few minutes before you come in?”

“Sure, kid,” he growled.

“Well,” Annie’s voice dropped an octave into a sultry murmur. “If you want me, just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you? Just put your lips together and blow.”

He laughed aloud, and he could almost see the Bacall roll of her hips as she sauntered from the room.

It wasn’t long until the first few notes of “How Little We Know” lured him into the bedroom. God, he loved a girl who knew how to whistle.

When he reached his bed, he found that the sweat-soaked sheets he had rolled out of had been replaced with fresh ones. That shower had lasted a lot longer than he thought.

He could feel her close beside him, waiting. She smelled of his own pine soap and fresh clothes. Her body radiated a subtle warmth that drew him. A warmth that, if he could claim and hold it, would warm all the empty spaces inside him forever. But, above all, he needed to know it was what she wanted, too.

“Annie, are you sure about this? You’ve been through a very bad experience. It can affect your judgment. You could need time to decompress, think?”

“I heard what you said at the last, ‘Come home to me’.” Did you want me to hear it; did you mean it?”

“In my whole life, I never meant anything more.”

“Then I’m where I belong.”

Their kiss was long and sweet, but in time the aching need for sleep pulled them apart.

“Wall or outside?” he asked as he lifted the covers.

“Wall.” She had seen his impression on the outside when she changed the linens. He wouldn’t want to feel penned in.

“In you go.” She had picked the side that he always thought of as ‘hers’. ‘Hers’, even when some other woman filled it for a casual moment. He stood there mesmerized by the impossible thought of Annie in his bed. A memory came to him.

“Annie, do you recall giving me permission to really look at you? I hope so, because I want so much to do that now.

“Cum ‘ere,” Annie mumbled.

“What?”

“I said, Come Here,” she enunciated very clearly.

Hesitation gone, he glided into the bed and took her in his arms. He explored and found that she wore nothing except a silky gown that came barely below her hips. She smelled wonderful, so … so Annie. Not just her perfume, but her own, highly individual woman scent.

Intoxicated, he slid his hands up to encircle her face and felt the classic rounded square that had been described to him. Her chin was firm and her jaw line straight and smooth. He was familiar with her strength and determination, and he could read it in her features.

Her mouth was wide and her lips full and firm. Her nose was straight and beautifully formed, neither long nor short. Her brows arched high, perfectly matched below her wide forehead. It hurt that he would never see the rich brown of the rounded, seeking eyes that so impressed everyone who knew her. Yet it was enough. She was here in his arms. He breathed her essence in contentment.

Wait! He drew in a deep breath. Yes, it was there –- just a hint. His hand flew to the bandage on her side. She winced when he touched it. There was a sticky spot on the fresh gauze. He brought the tip of his finger to his tongue. It was blood alright.

“Annie, you’re bleeding.” His voice was calm, but his heart raced.

“Just a few drops. I think maybe I popped a stitch getting that last grocery bag out of the car. I’m fine. They said it would heal up naturally within a few days. I am supposed to keep it clean. Seems reasonable.”

How could he be such an ass? What she needed this hour, this day, was not sex but real love — affection, rest and care. She’d been hurt, alone and lost in the dark. He could certainly qualify as the live-in expert on that subject. And she’d come here fixed on taking care of him. He needed to be gentle with her. He could be gentle. For Annie he could be anything.

She turned on her side so that she faced him and scooted closer. He folded her into his arms.

“My turn now,” she told him. She stroked his face, pushed back the dark hair that had grown down almost into his eyes. Her fingertips were soft and warm as they gently massaged his temples, tiptoed across his closed eyelids and stopped to cup his cheekbones and warm them. How could she know that they ached in the aftermath of his migraine?

Her hand drifted across his left shoulder to lightly finger the thin scars left from the surgeries that had repaired it.

She rested her cheek against his chest, and he could feel warm, wet tears slowly dribbling down between them.

“Don’t cry, sweetheart,” he whispered. “It’s over. You’re safe and home with me. I’ll always watch over you. I’ll never let them leave you out in the cold again.”

She laughed through her tears. “Auggie, you big boob, don’t you know ‘cry for happy’ when you hear it?

“Happy?” Could she really mean happy with him? This caring, clever, courageous woman? And he had just learned for himself that she was as stunningly beautiful as they said.

“Yes! Happy! I love you, Auggie Anderson. I have for months. You’re my heart, my home, my hero. I adore you, you idiot! You’re the strongest, bravest, smartest, kindest man I ever met. You couldn’t get rid of me with C4 and an Uzi.” She nuzzled close against him.

“Now, kiss me and let’s go to sleep.” She lifted her wet face to his.

Sometime later, sleep claimed them. They were clasped closely in one another’s arms. Neither would ever be alone in the dark again.

***The End***

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