Stemmons grabbed the sodas off the table along with the file. He handed the sodas to Rankin as he picked up a touchpad laptop. They then made their way around the floor to the elevator. Gina noted silently the buttons and lights indicated there were still floors beneath them even though she had felt this was the ground floor. Apparently there was an extensive underground Agency facility hidden beneath the island of Manhattan. Figures, she thought to herself. Rankin had worked for The Agency for many years, but had never ended up in New York City before now, curiously enough. She’d been all over the world, focusing mostly on Central and South America, but sometimes parts of Europe, even as far as Japan — wherever the mission took her. Never Manhattan.

As the lift doors opened, it occurred to her this may be the most alien environment she’d experienced yet. What struck her first was the odor. Flowers. Lotsa lotsa flowers. so many, she couldn’t distinguish one scent from another, though she had some rudimentary training in that area from her Academy days, and some informal training in that area regarding fieldwork in rural and jungle zones. Comes with the job. She had of course noticed the smells of flowers since arriving there, even before she had been told this installation had a florist shop as a front, she had deduced it. There was even a faint hint of lilacs in the debriefing room though no flowers were present. She dismissed it as probably Agent Framingham’s perfume when her nose acclimated. Fortunately Rankin had been blessed with no allergies. Kino woulda been a hay fever wreck here.. oh Kino.

Stemmons was curiously far less upset that Kino had just exploded and/or drowned mere hours ago. Gina was beginning to suspect that file was telling Stemmons far more than he was letting on. Again, it comes with the job. Could Kino have survived that? How? They were in the middle of the ocean! Maybe The Agency has an extensive underwater installation too? She could tell Stemmons was bothered by something, but it wasn’t Kino. He was acting like the file had opened an old wound, but then that could just be me, she thought. The light and warmth of the landing after the elevator doors opened also greeted her cordially, making her squint and almost take off her jacket. Stemmons seemed to anticipate her plan and with a hand to her shoulder she inferred he meant she’d want to keep her jacket on. “The greenhouse is back that way,” he thumbed to their left, then indicated by walking to their right, that’s not where they were going. As she stepped out of the elevator she discerned the elevator had opened up to a sort of atrium with a skylight in the ceiling above them. Ensconced track lighting for after sundown. The corners were cluttered with unplugged sunlamps, wheelbarrows and other gardening equipment. As they climbed the stairs, and Stemmons opned the door to the actual rooftop, it was unmistakable. The flower shop front was in full force. The roof was one half a closed-off greenhouse and one half a well-manicured urban garden with many varieties of hanging flora, climbing vines along wooden and metal partitions that surrounded the outer edges of the building, and flower beds filled with exotic plants that looked seasonal or year round. Gina had what she considered to be a functional understanding of plants. Enough to pass for a botanist to a layman if espionage required it.

“Some of these plants are poisonous,” she said.

“That’s what I love about you, Rankin. I bring you to one of the most beautiful, romantic, secluded cubby holes in all of New York City, and you criticize it.”

“You still love me?” Rankin said teasingly.

“Don’t ever doubt it,” Stemmons said flatly, with perhaps a hint too much certainty.

Changing the subject after an awkward silence, “This is no hidden spot though,” Gina motioned to a couple tables and chairs near the center of the roof’s space. Beyond that was as small stage with a podium which had been placed against a vine covered wall, “You entertain people here.”

“Not so much anymore. This is actually a carry over from the previous tenant. We keep it largely as it was when she passed the care taking over to us.”

“You mean The Agency didn’t just buy the previous owner out?”

“Then it wouldn’t be a front.”

“So The Agency has a landlady?”

“We actually have several. New York’s a complicated city. We need to keep up appearances so the locals don’t notice our presence, but this front allows us to accomplish a lot of daily routine supply chains as well as handle unforseen circumstances of manpower and resource transport. We just slap a sign on an SUV or use one of the premade flower vans with the store name on it, and no one knows we’re staking out a place or getting intel to somebody.”

Gina drank in the scene. It really was lovely here, “Just put a bow around the box and say flowers are in it.”

“Exactly, but we also fulfill standard orders that come in every day too, as well as decoys to throw off the bad guys. The business almost pays for itself, though the orders aren’t all fulfilled here. We got multiple flower suppliers. Some flowers grown in the greenhouse are sometimes used for orders but mostly they’re just here for looks.”

Gina headed over to the nearest table, sodas still in her hand, “tell me more about this mysterious landlady.”

“We’ll get to her..” Stemmons walked past the tables, still holding Rankin’s red colored file under his arm. As she sat down, still watching him walk away, she noticed the chill in the air. He had been right about the jacket. “I didn’t bring you up here to tell you about our landlady.” Stemmons dropped the file into what looked like a wastepaper basket, but a puff of smoke and a distant woosh sound indicated it was more of an incinerator.

“Already committed everything in there to memory?”

“To be fair,” Stemmons admitted sheepishly, “beyond what happened to you in the past 72 hours or so, there wasn’t much in there I didn’t already know. However, there was something in there that was kind of new.” Gina raised an eyebrow at that, but Stemmons kept going on nonplussed. “We’ve known each other a long time. There wasn’t anything in your file that surprised me.” Stemmons then put a finger to his lips as he removed his earpiece and put it where the file had gone. The second woosh had a kinda crunch with it. He chuckled at that. “I’m trying to remember the first time you met Charlie. I’d known him pretty much all his life but..”

“I’d rather not talk about Charlie right now,” Rankin feigned being upset as she pulled out her cellphone and bluetooth, offering it to him for for incinerator. Stemmons silently dismissed her sacrifice with a motion of his hand as he pulled out a device from his coat pocket and scanned the area. Gina heard some chirping sounds from various places in the room.

“That was insensitive of me. I’m sorry. I know what might cheer you up and get your mind off things. I wanna show you some You Tube videos I saw yesterday,” he said sardonically.

“Sure I’d like that,” Gina lied, playing along.

Stemmons pushed another button. She heard some less pleasant chirping about the room. He put the device back in his pocket but didn’t seem to relax.

Rankin made a hand gesture where she pointed at him and then her mouth and shrugged. He nodded. They could now talk with relative safety.

“Their bugs or ours?” she asked.

“Both.” He walked back over to the table and then fell short of sitting down next to her.

“They listening to YouTube videos now?”

“A collection of fifty or so I got playing in a loop. It may not fool them, but either way they can’t hear us now.”

“Cute.”

“Sorry I’m being even more cryptic than usual,” he looked down at his feet.

“No dear, you’re being about as you as you always have been to me.” She put a reassuring hand on his forearm.

“You know,” he said after another awkward silence, “I’ve missed this. I really missed you.”

His eyes met hers. They sort of inhaled together. “We are not getting back together,” she said, keeping her hand on his arm.

“Hey, don’t flatter yourself,” he said quietly with efforted humor. “When we’re done here, you may never speak to me again.” He looked away, back down to his shoes. “Heck, I may never speak to me again.”

“In that case,” she said as she stood up, “I should steal a kiss from you now while I still can.”

“You can’t,” he pulled away. “If I let you now, then you’d really hate me later.” Stemmons looked really sad. Sincerely sad. She remembered he only looked like this once before, long ago. It was her fault that time too.

“Then don’t tell me.” She pulled on his forearm and directed him to sit with her.

“What?” he asked reluctantly as they sat down together.

“Whatever it is, don’t tell me. I’m in the dark most of the time on this job anyway. I don’t care anymore.”

“I gotta tell ya. I owe you that much.”

“You never owe me anything.”

“We both know better.”

“Far as I’m concerned our scales are balanced.”

“Far as I’m concerned..” his voice trailed off and then he mumbled, “you won’t understand.”

“Try me,” she whispered back.

Stemmons cleared his throat. he took a breath.

“You made me feel like a man, once, back when i didn’t deserve feeling like a man cuz I wasn’t one. Far as I’m concerned, those scales are always tipped in your favor. Don’t you dare take that from me.”

She whispered, “you got it.” Then she stood up, “you melodramatic little prick!”

“Where you going?”

“That shawarma place down the street to report to whatserface Framingham for duty.”

“What??”

Gina headed for the elevator, “I can tell when you’re buttering me up for a demotion!”

“It’s not a demotion!” Stemmons called off after her.

She stopped and turned around to face him.

“Don’t toy with me!” She demanded.

He stood up and took a couple steps towards her, “And it’s not me. I don’t know why they’re promoting you after what happened with Kino–”

“WAS THIS A TEST??” Rankin stormed back at Stemmons with a sudden alarming fury that caused him to instinctively walk backward a step or two and almost fall back on the table where they had been sitting. He took a defensive posture, “is Kino still alive?” she almost shouted at him, “God damn all of you for fucking with me like that!”

“No! I — I don’t know.” Stemmons fully expected Rankin to punch him. Wouldn’t be the first time, he thought. Things has been going far too well thus far. If distance made the heart grow fonder, he appreciated the distance.

Rankin ran out of steam as she approached, because the look on Stemmons’ face had none of the telltale signs he was lying. Granted, he may have gotten better at lying in her absence. he is an Agent, after all. What her training was telling her was his face read sincere fear at her approach, and in that she was reminded why she stopped trying to make it work between them. She wanted a man who wasn’t afraid of her temper. Tall order. So by the time she made it to his arms, she just gave a playful kitten punch at his chest.

“No you don’t, do you?”

Stemmons relaxed his stance and gave her a hug, her upper arms and clenched fists still against his chest. She let him hug her, but didn’t exactly return it. The result was awkward and he quickly let her go and regained his composure.

“You’ve been promoted to level four. You are now chief of operations here at Project Lotus. Your orders are ‘to not break it;’ those are his exact words.”

“The Director’s?”

” ‘Tell her I said her orders are to not break it’.” Stemmons attempted his weak impersonation of their big boss, causing Rankin to blurt out and then chock off some laughter.

Stemmons pulled a handkerchief from his lapel and handed it to her. She blinked at it.

“You been crying again,” he said pointing at the tear streaks down her face.

“You been too,” she pointed at his face.

Stemmons hugged her again. This time she reciprocated. “We gotta hold out hope,” he said after another awkward silence, “cuz it’s something you said earlier. Kino’s last words.”

“He couldn’t hear the explosions.”

“Exactly. He didn’t know what you were talking about.”

“And there was static, like he was further away then right below me.”

“I don’t know what it means, Gina, but we gotta hope.”

“He wasn’t picking up a fallen astronaut, was he?”

“I’m ..not at liberty to confirm or deny that.”

She pulled out of their hug and slapped him so fast he didn’t have time to defend himself. “don’t pull that shit on me dammit! We’re talking about Charlie!”

“We gotta hold out hope,” said flatly, practically standing at attention before her. She studied him intently for a moment. The expression on his face was painful. She’d hit him a little too hard but he was gonna be damned if he’d let her know it.

“My orders were to be his ride. Nothing else. I wasn’t supposed to save him. Everything went exactly as our superiors planned it cuz I didn’t do what I normally would do.”

Stemmons looked down at his feet.

“You can’t confirm or deny that either.”

Stemmons shrugged.

“I shoulda saved him..” she walked back to the table and took a drink from a can she had left there, “I shoulda done something.”

Remaining where he was, and trying too hard to sound authoritative, “you did as ordered. Kino is a good agent. We gotta trust he knew what he was doing.”

Gina sat down, “That was all a display for our enemies.” She was talking more to herself now, since he wasn’t helping her, “whoever Charlie was supposed to pick up, the Agency wanted our enemies to believe he died, and along with the guy who went in to get him. Kino went after a rogue asset that the enemy was after. Whether I tried to save him and hurt myself in the process or did what I did, either way it was clear we didn’t get the guy, and they would just find a sinking ship on fire. The only way to get them off his tail was to fake his death. Fake Charlie’s too. Not telling me anything made it look all the more believable.”

“You’re grasping at straws, Gina.”

“Am I? This is textbook! Frankly, I’m surprised it still works on the bad guys.”

“That’s not what it said in the file.”

“Well, you conveniently burned the file so I can’t see that for myself now can I?”

“You callin’ me a liar?”

“Yes!”

“..I am not at liberty to confirm or deny that.”

“And a bad one at that! I thought you checked this area for bugs before we started. Why you still being catty?”

“Cuz there’s something I shoulda told you years ago but it was never the right time. Still isn’t. Never will be the right time. It’s what I think will make you never speak to me again and if that’s the case I totally understand I just.. I’m sorry Gina.”

“What is it?”

“You’re gonna hate me.”

“I’ve hated you and I’ve loved you and all kindsa emotions between there. What difference does it make?”

“After reading that file, I can’t put this off any longer but it’s ..this ain’t easy for me. There’s something the Agency knows now. Something I thought nobody knew about you that even you don’t know.”

“I rather imagine there’s plenty about both of us that the Agency knows. We’re in the intelligence business.”

Stemmons shook his head, “This is something they coulda only got from me. I’m not aware of anyone living that knows this and there should be no written record, but it was in your file so either they caught me talking in my sleep, or maybe they talked to the dead or something.”

“What are you babbling about?”

“Where were you born?”

“San Antonio.”

Stemmons shook his head, “Mexico City.”


[part six coming soon]

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