Previously on Project Lotus: Agent Gina Rankin was brought in to be debriefed on her latest assignment, which from her perspective, did not exactly go according to plan. It was supposed to be a simple acquisition of as Asset who had just returned from the orbiting International Space Station, or so she and her partner Charlie Kino had been told. When they arrived on the scene they found not a space capsule at the coordinates but a tanker the size of a football field that was already on fire as they approached and exploded soon after Kino entered to retrieve the Asset. Rankin was forced to flee the scene due to approaching enemies. She felt disgraced as she told Agent Stemmons her story, and fully expected this to be the last straw for less than stellar career as an agent for The Agency.

Having been pacing the room through her description of the events of the past day or so, she moseyed back towards the table again as she’d mostly felt out of things to say. Gina reached for the empty soda can she had left on the table and tried drinking from it, knowing it was empty. She then motioned to the security camera in the corner of the ceiling for a refill, and looked back at Stemmons, who had collected the papers from the floor and put the file back in its original organized state (having carelessly dropped it upon entering the room and seeing his old friend crying). Now sitting at the desk, he pored over the pages of files. Gina hadn’t bothered reading upside down or trying to glean what was in them. She felt she knew damn well what they said already.

Gina had no idea how much time had passed in the small dingy debriefing room, but it felt like a couple hours at least. She had asked for something stronger, but orange drinks and root beer in cans seemed to be all they had readily available for her. I guess they save the good stuff for the level sevens, she thought.

Stemmons had just let her talk. She’d run out of tears in the first five minutes. Mostly she was just angry. Gina was angry at herself for not doing something that would have saved her friend Charlie, and she was angry at The Agency for keeping her so much in the dark about the entire mission that she wasn’t prepared for anything that happened. When Stemmons entered the room, before she told her story, she was fully willing to accept being terminated for this most recent failure on her part, but now she was fully willing to quit. Was Two Weeks Notice customary? She’d never actually quit a job before. Hell. Technically, working for The Agency had been her first and only job since the Air Force Academy. Gina couldn’t keep working under these conditions. Maybe she was never really any good at this job, but she was never gonna get better if her superiors refused to trust her anymore.

Stemmons was hunkered over the file on the table, reading intently. Rankin crumpled up the soda can with one fist and threw it at his head. Stemmons looked up with an emotional distance she had come to loathe back when they were together.

He blinked at her. She blinked back.

“Were you even listening to anything I just said?”

He looked back down at the file, “Yes.”

“I tell you of the DEATH of one of my best friends. A guy who has stuck by me when YOU didn’t!”

He looked back up, as if to say something. She raised her hand from across the room, palm toward his face. Stemmons almost uttered a syllable but it got stuck in his throat. He efforted his poker face again with more than adequate success.

After an uncomfortable silence, Gina added. “Charlie was also one of YOUR oldest friends.”

“I’m not just his friend, Gina.” Stemmons looked back down at the file, nonplussed by her diva attitude. “I’m his god father.”

Buddy Kino was really Stemmons’ oldest friend. They’d met a couple years before Stemmons joined The Agency, and when Charlie was born, Stemmons was right there among their circle of friends. He got to be the eighth or ninth person to hold Charlie in his arms. Stemmons was mildly surprised when Kino asked him to be Charlie’s godfather. Buddy called it something else, but Stemmons didn’t understand until Buddy used the word “godfather.” Stemmons liked the sound of that, and held up his end of the bargain with respect, duty, and in his own way, love. When Charlie showed an interest in mechanical engineering, Stemmons made sure Charlie stayed challenged and interested, and when it looked like he was good enough to help The Agency, Stemmons pulled a few strings. However, he had admittedly let things slide a bit in more recent years. He’d gotten so busy with his own missions, he didn’t really check in enough as the boy’s supervising officer. Charlie was mostly a self-starter anyway. Low maintenance; one of the many things Stemmons had always liked about Charlie.

Unlike Gina Rankin. She had been high maintenance, from their early days in Agency training to field ops. She often went of on her own based on instincts and whims that didn’t always pay off, leaving other agents in jeopardy, including himself on multiple occasions. When she did good, one could never compliment her enough. She never seemed to feel like she’d gotten enough respect and appreciation for all her hard work. When she did bad, she was terrible at taking constructive criticism, and she rarely improved her behavior unless one were to make her think it was her idea in the first place. For a time, Stemmons thought of her as a challenge, but in the end she became a burden. A liability. He abhorred being assigned to her towards the end of their missions together, and even conversations with her, in person or on the phone, became a minefield. He used to enjoy her company, and he missed the days when he did enjoy her.

In fact, he found himself enjoying her company now. So far the debriefing was going on much better than he had originally anticipated. She hadn’t tried to bed him, and she hadn’t tried to kill him. Things were going great from his perspective.

“How’s Buddy, by the way?” she asked.

“Retired from the cooking business. He sends his love.”

“He made the best beef stroganoff. A couple weeks ago Charlie and I..”

Rankin’s voice trailed off. Stemmons looked up again. “He was a good kid.”

The door opened and young Agent Framingham entered with two sodas. Rankin took the soda from Framingham, who placed the other soda on the table next to the first one which Stemmons never opened. Framingham looked puzzled at that. Not sure if she was supposed to pick up the first soda or leave it there.

“Didja git all that?” Rankin asked Framingham.

“All what?” Framingham turned to face Rankin, then her eyes noticed the discarded empty soda can crumpled up on the floor. She went to pick it up.

“I just debriefed myself, since Stemmons here is so bad at this and just let me talk. Didja record it all? Didja git my good side? Will The Director watch me with porn music playing in the background?”

Framingham had stooped down to pick up the crumpled soda can. She stood back up and faced Rankin once again, “Standard protocol is to record your report for Stemmons and also forward to The Director.”

“That won’t be necessary, Agent Farmington,” Stemmons said with a smirk.

The young lady spinned on her heel to face her superior with one eyebrow an inch higher than the other, “It’s Framingham, sir.”

“He does that. Makes up names for people.” Rankin slumped back down into her chair as she popped open the orange soda.

Framingham blinked at Stemmons who was still looking at her with a smirk on his face, “Sir. I am required to CC this to The Director. That’s standard policy.”

“Yeah well this isn’t standard. You’re gonna make one copy, give it to me, then I brief The Director personally. In your report, this never happened. You never heard of Charlie Kino. Or his suit. All other digital copies of Agent Rankin’s report must be destroyed. Nothing can stay in The Cloud.”

Framingham stood at attention the entire time, using all of her capacity to remain business like and proper in the face of such improper direction from a direct superior. “Sir, I must protest.”

“Have I not made myself clear, Agent?”

Rankin slowly stood back up “..Stemmons?”

“What?”

“I appreciate the sentiment, but you don’t owe me anything. Don’t put your job in jeopardy over me.”

“I’m not.”

“What we had was a long time ago and it meant a lot to me too but I’ll be damned if I let you throw your job away for me!”

“I’m not! You know me.” He looked from Framingham to Rankin. Then back to Framingham. Then he sighed. “Oh for Pete’s sake!” Stemmons took one sheet of paper from the file and showed it to Framingham first, but knowing she had a near photographic memory when it came to “the reading” he then quickly slid the paper across the table to Rankin, who decidedly doesn’t have anything near photographic memory. The piece of paper was on The Director’s stationery, written in his own hand. The paper had a special watermark all cadets learn to scan for as well as other markings not unlike a dollar bill to ensure authenticity, tho you don’t have to go so far as to hold it up to the light. Though there are a couple extra assurances one can find if you do, to verify its the real McCoy.

A lightbulb went off solemnly over Framingham’s head, “You’re following directions.”

“Exactly. And I shouldn’t have had to show this to you to confirm that.”

“This was a test and I failed it.”

“uh. no! What are you, a level two?”

Framingham swallowed hard, “Yes, sir.”

“Yeah well. Tests for the most part stop around two. And by that I mean the hazing tests. Life tests us all the time. Every mission is a test. You didn’t fail some planned test. You just failed at life. Out in the field that can mean lives sometimes. In here it just means swallowing your pride, but other agents superior to you won’t take your insubordination as kindly as I do.”

“I’m sorry sir. I’ll do as ordered. Of course.”

“See that you do.”

While they talked, Rankin had angrily crumpled up the Director’s stationery after slowly reading it, and now threw it at Stemmons’ forehead. “I shoulda known!” She squawked.

“It’s not personal, Gina. This can’t get back to The Consultant.”

“What the hell difference does it make now?”

“I can’t tell you.”

“Can’t tell me what?”

Stemmons stood up. He grabbed the two sodas he hadn’t touched from the table and handed them to, “Agent Framingham. I thank you and the other agents monitoring this debrief for your due diligence. You are to be commended. I will personally see to it you get a bonus. In fact, you look famished, Agent Framingham..”

“What the hell are you doing, Stemmons?” Rankin demanded.

Framingham tried to smile and play along, “I am to cease any further recording after we get your statement..” Framingham made a hand gesture to the surveillance camera in the corner that indicated killing the recording equipment in the other room, “..and all personnel involved are to vacate the premises.”

“I saw a shawarma place as I rode in. You know which one I mean?”

“Yes sir.”

“I’ll meet you there in a bit and pay your tab. It’s on me.”

“Thank you sir,” she motioned again to the camera and through the ‘sound proof’ wall Rankin and Stemmons heard a couple celebratory hoots and hollers from the gentlemen who had been assisting in monitoring duties, as Framingham made a B-line for the door.

“I should be going with them,” Rankin said jokingly as she slumped back into her chair, “to celebrate getting fired.”

Stemmons looked back at her after the door closed behind Framingham. He had the smile of a cat that ate a chicken coop. He then looked down at the table and pulled another page from the file and looked at it.

“I would show this to you, but you’d just crumple it up and throw it at my head.” he then returned it to the file and began packaging it up to fold under his arm.

Rankin looked hard at Stemmons. “I’m not getting fired? Aww, hell. Even I’d fire me.”

“Not everything is ever at it appears. I know you know that.”

“Why are you being so cryptic?”

Stemmons stood up and sauntered around the table to Rankin, “Cuz I don’t know who is still listening,” a distant door slammed, but neither of them believed that meant they were now alone.

“Maybe we shouldn’t stay in the one room that’s most intentionally bugged.”

“You may be right.” He offered her an arm, as if inviting her to dance. “How about the roof?”

[part five of Project Lotus coming soon]

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