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“Agent Rankin.”

“Agent Stemmons.”

“…”

He played this over and over in his head all morning. He got the text from his superior just before breakfast. “Prince and LaFayette: Rankin debrief.” Stemmons cursed at the shower head. He knew Rankin. They had ..worked together many times.

“Agent Rankin.”

“Agent Shithead.”

“…”

They had been together for a time. Well, times. On and off. You know how it goes. Love is a many splendored, complicated thing. Especially when you work in intelligence. Over his bagel and cream cheese he mulled over the many permutations in his head. How to start the debrief. What questions to ask. Would small talk be a nice way to start? They had much to catch up on, but he really didn’t want to tell her anything and he already knew from her file what she’d been up to.. He read her file.. Occasionally. It often happened to coincide with whatever work he was doing. Thousands of miles away from wherever she was. Well, he often thought it would lead to something but that’d just be another dead end. Honest mistake. What if she figured out he’s been reading her file? She’s gonna figure it out. He didn’t finish the bagel. She used to like jokes, but that was a long time ago. Perhaps an olive branch of some sort to break the ice.

“Would you like some coffee, Agent Rankin?”

“Do I LOOK like I’d like some coffee, Agent Stemmons?”

He couldn’t find the right angle. Maybe just be no-nonsense and deliberate.

“Let’s cut to the chase, Agent Rankin.”

“Blow me, Agent Stemmons.”

They met when both Rankin and Stemmons were level three operatives. They were both fresh, brazen, and trying to prove themselves, just like every other level three operative in the agency. They thought they were invincible. There were laughs and there was pain. Mostly there were complications. Stemmons learned rapidly if he wanted to move up the ranks and make a career out of this, sleeping with coworkers, which was officially acceptable so long as it didn’t “disrupt the professional integrity of the agency” (while not unofficially frowned upon) was un-unofficially internal political suicide. He ended it. She didn’t take it well at the time.

“I’ve been instructed to debrief you, Agent Rankin.”

“Why don’t you grow a fucking spine, Agent Stemmons?”

“Look I’m just doing my job.”

“And that’s all that’s ever mattered to you, isn’t it?”

Stemmons went up the ranks. Rankin didn’t. While he was currently a level six operative, she was still a level three. Once, she had to answer to him in the field. Both of them handled the situation, but then immediately put in transfers. For awhile they both actively sought to be reassigned, being careful to invent convincing alternate explanations. Everyone knew. No one talked about it. They weren’t the only couple like this in the agency, and many other couples were worse at it than they were, so people usually gossiped about those other more ..shall we say, colorful items that often made inappropriate scenes. Stemmons and Rankin had avoided those pitfalls very successfully.. geographically.

Stemmons went west for awhile. Area Fifty-One And A Half, they called it jokingly. Multiple installations and secret offices dealing with a wide variety of issues. A lot of traveling. A lot of meetings. A lot of information that’s vitally important right now but rapidly becomes obsolete as new complications develop. He devoted himself to his career. Put out fires and dealt with new assignments. Stemmons kept his nose clean, and was commended as a good spy, good soldier, and dependable, capable leader. His file was clean. Many accomplishments. Few demerits. He was a team player.

Stemmons looked up and many years had gone by.

Meanwhile, Rankin went deep south. Drug war. Border security. Human trafficking. Rankin’s official job was not to prevent these things, but to monitor them for “unclassified” incidents. She had a tendency to not listen to the letter of her orders. Occasionally she’d go out of her way to prevent a death, or save a troubled soul, utilizing agency resources in provocative and unauthorized ways. If she weren’t so damn good at it she woulda been kicked out long ago. Rankin had great people skills when it came to dealing with lowlifes, and her ability to “improvise” in the field was both famous and infamous among her superiors. She got along better with fellow operatives that didn’t throw the book at her, and she could often size up the mettle of a man over a drink at a bar. Rankin’s skills were unparalleled and indispensable. However, she was unpredictable, which kept her from promotions, and kept her superiors nervous.

Rankin usually had too many balls in the air to look away, and she was still acting like she was invincible, like the level three cadet Stemmons once knew. At least that’s what it looked like in her file.

Stemmons had officially lost touch. He’d overhear other operatives talk about Rankin, or she’d be mentioned during meetings or debriefings. Stemmons read the documentation that crossed his desk or got filtered through his inbox. He’d sit quietly over a drink as a peer blew off steam about Rankin, then nod sympathetically as the peer would remind himself, “oh right you two.. sorry man i forgot.” Rankin was still alive. Still at level three. That’s all Stemmons officially knew. He didn’t like to kiss and tell, or talk bad about other operatives. He still respected her. Still lo.. Still supported her presence in the agency, so long as it was at a safe distance from him.

Enough reminiscing, he thought to himself as he exited the taxi cab and crossed Prince Street. Let’s get this over with.

As Stemmons entered the offices of Prince and Lafayette, he immediately felt a palpable air in the room. A bell dinged over his head as he had opened the front door. It was a florist shop; a front for the agency offices down below street level. The woman behind the counter looked young and wet behind the ears. He could tell she’d been expecting him. She recognized his face though they’d never met. He could tell that in her eyes; the recognition. What are they teaching these kids nowadays? Don’t they even play poker anymore?

“Welcome to Mama Joe’s Florist,” she said with a little too much false bravado, “pleasant weather we’re having.”

Just a formality, but he observed it. “Yes, but I always carry an umbrella.”

She looked around to appear to care about formalities, though they were of course the only ones in the small shop, and then she attempted small talk with Stemmons as she escorted him to the back. Something about a recent book she had read. As they passed by other low level operatives she attempted to introduce them but Stemmons was making his way to the lower level, and had little patience for the penny tour.

The operatives were looking to him as if he had answers. He didn’t know any of the faces. The Agency had increased recruitment recently, in anticipation of looming troubles ahead. He’d helped write a paper that dealt with said troubles. As the young agent saddled up next to him in the lift, it occurred to him that “book” she had mentioned..

“You mean you read my paper?”

“Yes! That’s what I said! Great work.”

“Penny was it?”

“Agent Framingham.”

“Ah yes.”

“You really think The recent developments in Arizona are going to have repercussions worldwide?”

“I didn’t know my paper got circulated to the level twos.”

“Circulated? It became required reading for all agents as of 1800 hours yesterday.”

“Really?”

“I like to get a jump on the reading.”

And then she continued complimenting him as the lift slowly descended several hundred feet. He hadn’t been paying attention before. Still mulling over the thousands of permutations of this inevitable clash with himself and Rankin. He’d died a thousand little deaths just in the taxi cab. A thousand more before he exited the lift. No words. He could find no words, and here this little motormouth tinkerbell had nothing but words for the words of his she had read. Shame he couldn’t order her to debrief Rankin and he’d exit to the nearest pub. Read about it in tomorrow’s required reading.

From the lift they entered a T branch hallway with many doors on both sides. Agent Framingham led the way down the center hall past several identical doors and then she seemed to pick one at random. They both entered a small room with desks and two men solemnly monitoring cameras which all seemed to be directed at Agent Rankin, who was sitting in an interrogation room elsewhere, probably beyond the only other door in the room, adjacent to the one they used to enter. Both of the men were silent. Usually Stemmons noticed small talk among new recruits, but not these two. They were uncharacteristically quiet. One of the men handed a large red envelope to Framingham, who immediately placed it in Stemmons’ hands. As this happened, it slowly dawned on him what he was seeing in the monitors. Rankin had been crying. Tear streaks were down both cheeks. Rankin never cried. Ever. She broke her leg once and was cracking jokes with the doctors as they reset her bone. This woman had never cried the entire time Stemmons had known her, and in all the reports he never officially read, no one ever mentioned Rankin ever tearing up at anything, even Casablanca.

Stemmons swallowed. Hard.

“What happened?” Stemmons asked out loud more to the image on the screens than the others in the room, and in a voice he didn’t recognize at first as his own. It was tiny and raspy. He cleared his throat and repeated himself, this time with more of an air of authority, addressing the level twos. “What happened to Agent Rankin?”

“uh.. We don’t know sir.” Framingham managed to say after an awkward silence. “She’s been inconsolable. The file is for your eyes only.”

“Nobody tells us anything,” one of the men mumbled.

Framingham turned directly to Stemmons and moved herself so that she was now standing between him and the monitors, in a blatant attempt to actually get his attention. “She asked specifically for you, sir. She won’t speak to anyone else.. Sir?”

Stemmons looked at Framingham blankly.

“Don’t you think you should read the file? We can leave the room if–”

“No no that won’t be necessary. Standard procedure is you monitor us anyway so… Of course nothing leaves this room is that understood?”

The two men nodded quietly as Framingham added, “of course sir.” then she used her eyes to point at the red envelope and then back at him.

“Of course,” Stemmons broke the seal on the red envelope and pulled out the file. He glanced at it. Saw some names and locations. One of the photos was of an explosion.

“..omigod.”

Stemmons pushed past Framingham and swung open the inner door. Rankin looked up. He’d never seen her like this. Of course she looked as lovely as ever, but with an invisible weight of pain and sorrow that he irrationally wished he could take for her. Rankin’s face looked like it belonged to a seven year old that just learned there’s no Santa Claus.

“Kino..” she could barely hold herself together enough to get out the words. “..Kino’s dead!”

“..Charlie?”

She nodded, sobbing uncontrollably. He threw the red file down on the nearby table, papers flew everywhere, grabbed Rankin by the shoulders, and then they hugged each other for a long time.

“It shoulda been me.”

“Don’t talk crazy.”

“I tried to get Kino outta there. He wouldn’t go, the bastard.”

“We’ll figure this out.” He struggled to find just the right thing to say. This wasn’t one of the thousands of deaths he had imagined on the way here.

Rankin pulled away slowly from their embrace, and then attempted unsuccessfully to compose herself. She was trembling. “I formally wish to surrender myself for disciplinary action.”

No words. He had no words.

Next Time on Project Lotus

Rankin tells Stemmons what happened to Charles Kino, and we learn a little more about why Rankin never got promoted while Stemmons did.

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