Gina laughed nervously, but she could tell he was deadly serious. Still she heard the words come out of her mouth, “you can’t be serious.”
“As a heart attack.”
“well no one’s gonna deport me now. It’s a little late for that.”
“That’s not the point. I’ve wanted to tell you this for years. So far as I know I was the only one alive who knows.”
“And how do you know?”
“Cuz the guy responsible for you being an American citizen died while we were protecting him.”
Gina’s eyes got wide, “Crewalter!??”
Stemmons nodded solemnly.
“Are you still chastising yourself over that?”
Stemmons shouted, “THIS IS NOT ABOUT ME! I’m talking about you, dammit!”
“I was on that team too! We all shared the blame that day.”
“Will you– JUST FOR ONCE in your life can you try not to be three steps ahead of me in a conversation? I stopped playing that blame game when he tripped the circuit!”
“No way! You were more upset than any of us! You were inconsolable for weeks! I tried to help you. We all did!”
“And nothing you said made a difference.”
“I let you guys think I was blaming myself. I let you guys imagine whatever you wanted. I couldn’t say what was really going on in my head.”
“What did Crewalter tell you?”
“Do you remember how he behaved after you introduced yourself during that first briefing with him? The day we were assigned to protect him?”
“Of course you didn’t. He looked like he saw a ghost. I asked him about it and he told me to mind my own business, but then he noticed how smitten I was with you, and as the days stretched on, he and I got kinda close.”
“Oh yeah I remember that. We used to kid you guys about your budding bromance.”
“Still not funny by the way.”
“Crewalter made The Sacrifice Play that day. That was his call. It was our job to protect him but ultimately his job was to stop that facility from blowing up. It coulda been any of us that tripped that circuit and saved the world.”
“It was gonna be you.”
“I was ready. I was heading to the room. We all were, we were running out of time. Crewalter just got there first.”
“He made sure of it.”
“What he PLANNED it?? No way. There wasn’t time.”
“He made time. He did that for you.”
“Okay. No. That’s crazy. You’re just rewriting history. You were right there with me! Well, me and the others we ran into the atrium and you had got your foot caught in that hole. I helped get you out, we ran to the room and he had already tripped the circuit.”
“Which dropped all the blast doors and locked us out.”
“He stopped the chain reaction.”
“And was dosed with so much radiation he died.”
“You blamed yourself for slowing us down.”
“How do you think my foot got in the trap?”
“It wasn’t a trap it was just a hole.”
Stemmons looked at her.
“He tricked me. He tricked all of us. Crewalter was that good. Better than all of us put together, as it turned out. He had already told me what he knew about you. His last words to me were.. well, he told me to take care of you. then he headed for the circuit. I couldn’t stop him, but he knew the rest of you would do the Leave No Man Behind thing. Bought him enough time to beat all of us to the circuit.”
“Or maybe we all woulda died.”
“We were pretty gung ho. He could sense that. A bunch of young idealistic idiots willing to die to save the world.”
“Hogging all the glory, eh Crewalter?” Rankin looked up at the heavens.
“He was in his sixties. Said he lived a good life.”
“Crewalter was no spring chicken but he kept pace with us pretty good.”
“I’m saying he made peace with what he had to do and you were a big part of that. He called you his raven.”
“Oh yah, I remember that. I kept correcting him.”
“Not Raven. Rankin.”
“Then he’d laugh.”
“yeah..” Gina emptied her soda with a final gulp.
“He said nobody coulda known. Not even The Director. You were his omen. Because you of all people were on the team to protect him, he felt it meant he alone had to stop the facility from melt down, like it was fate. I had tried to talk him out of it. He let me believe I’d talked him out of it.”
“To correct a self-perceived wrong he had made.”
“Oh come on, Stemmons. You’re killing me here. Spill it.”
“Look, this isn’t easy for me!”
“What could Crewalter have possibly known about me that is so big a deal?”
“I told you. You’re not an American citizen. He faked your paperwork.”
“Stemmons sat down in a huff. “Before Crewalter worked for The Agency as an asset, he worked for the ATF.”
“I know I read his file. Ages ago but–”
“Before that he worked on Border Patrol. In the 1970s.”
“In San Antonio?”
“So he helped my folks get across the border.”
“He lied about your birth date. You’re a few months older than you think. He never told me the exact birth date. He made it look on paper like your mom was still pregnant with you when they crossed the border, and gave birth to you in San Antonio. He changed your names cuz your dad had priors in the states. He gave your folks a second chance. Crewalter said things were different back in those days. He was with a group of idealistic young fools who acted like vigilantes, using the bureaucracy against itself to buck the system and mold society into something they felt would help the little guys at the expense of Big Brother. They’d look each case over as people arrived from Mexico. Most of them they just did what was expected but every now and then, when they felt justice wasn’t being served.. they determined ultimately who got through and who didn’t. I’ve researched this since Crewalter’s death, and it was more insidious than he described to me, but I think his involvement was just a scratch on the surface. In some ways, deeper and darker than he knew back in the day, it’s still going on. Men deciding with a signature or a delete key who gets a free pass through the system and who gets trapped within it. Back then there were protocols and quotas and this was back when red tape used actual red tape. It wasn’t computerized when we were babies.”
“I am so not believing a word of this.”
“Now hear me out. He never told me this but I’ve since learned they went by many names. Liberty Painters. Inhabitants of America. He probably knew them as The Second Line. That group is no more but it is in the societal DNA of scores of other grass roots groups over the past several decades, some good and some bad. I doubt Crewalter still felt himself a part of the group when we knew him but there might even still be others out there today, or their descendants. They believed in bending rules and manipulating the system to accomplish whatever they compelled themselves to see as morally right and just.”
“Isn’t that what we do? Isn’t that The Agency’s M.O.?”
“That’s different and you know it. Crewalter and his buddies played god with people’s lives. He decided who got to make a fresh start in the States and who couldn’t cross the line of immigration.”
“He wasn’t playing god. Stemmons it was the 1960s. You’re describing Crewalter as a hippie! Helping the little guy to get back at The Man!”
“Pretty much yeah.”
“And that’s impossible! He scoffed at our idealism!”
“Not twenty-five years before we knew him! He was just as idealistic as we were when we met him. He’d just changed. He used to share our idealism but this he explained to me at length: you changed all that.”
“That’s what I don’t get! If Crewalter worked the San Antonio border with Mexico, he must have processed hundreds of immigrants.”
“Tens of thousands were processed during his employment there.”
“What makes me so special?”
“You were the last one he ever beat the rules for. There was always a risk in doing what he did. He almost got caught a few times before you came along and he was getting cold feet. He was also getting second thoughts. He might have seen just an inkling of what I’ve uncovered since. On the surface maybe these guys meant well but power corrupts. After you, he started following the rules. He distances himself from the other vigilantes, then he turned one of them in and got a promotion. That’s when his career took off.”
“Cuz he started following orders.”
“He told me I’m the only person since those days that he has ever confided in and if I ever told anyone he’d deny it. Of course, that was before he went all suicidal on us.”
“What do you mean suicidal?”
“I didn’t see it until after he tricked me into trapping my leg in that stupid hole.”
“you were kicking yourself..?” Gina started laughing.
“This isn’t funny.”
“Here all this time I felt sorry for you! You were just mad at yourself cuz he pulled one over on you!”
“It was a rookie mistake I shoulda seen it.”
“We were all rookies back then!”
“You wouldn’t have fallen for it.”
“No.. yeah you’re right I wouldn’t have fallen for it but I did fall for getting you out of the hole first before chasing after Crewalter into that chamber.”
“The only reason he befriended me is cuz I was the most gullible of all of us.”
“And after that you grew more distant and got all serious and shit.”
“No I didn’t.”
“Oh yes you did. We broke up soon after.”
“We were on again off again a lot back in those days. This event alone didn’t end our relationship.”
“You learned a secret about me you refused to tell me about–”
“I couldn’t! –”
“–And it drove a wedge between us.–”
“–Cuz he made me promise!”
“–Yes you so coulda told me a billion times! Crewalter was DEAD!”
Stemmons put his head in his hands. “It.. it was his dying wish.”
“Taking care of me was his last wish. You said so yourself.”
“He meant protect you from this secret!”
“I think he meant he wanted us to get married and have little spy babies.”
“Yeah well that wasn’t in the cards, was it?”
“Why tell me now? What changed you keeping a dead man’s wish?”
“Your file! It now cites an alias that wasn’t there before! Your birth name! Maria Santiago de la Rosa Gonzales White. The Agency knows!”
“…you been snooping in my file before this?”
“Without my knowledge?”
Rankin stared at Stemmons hard.
“STOP CHANGING THE SUBJECT!”
She put up her hand, and then turned and took a step away.
She put her hand down.
Stemmons went to say something and her hand went up with a single forefinger raised in the air. He didn’t utter a syllable. Without looking though she could tell he was bubbling over with a need to tell her what was in his head, like a dog that just noticed its master reached for the leash and might take him out for walkies.
She turned to shoot him her best ‘if looks could kill’ face, but that metaphor lingered in her head as she did so. For all his bravado and false sense of masculinity, deep down Stemmons is like an overenthusiastic puppy in need of relieving himself.
And she was right. Now that she had turned around, that frustrated look on his face, that she remembered seeing before but not ever quite this striking, it made Rankin’s anger subside into an explosion of emasculating laughter, which caught Stemmons by surprise.
“Dammit Gina this isn’t funny! This is dead serious.”
Rankin just let the laughter overtake her, like surfing on a wave. It felt good. It had been a rough day, after a long series of rough days. Stemmons remained steadfastly deadpan serious in the face of her laughter, trying to fight back the thought that the last time he recalled seeing her look this happy was the last time they had had sex. Felt like such a long time ago. He swallowed hard, and noticed a bead of sweat down his left temple. Stemmons had forgotten how frustrating this woman could be.
Gina sighed as she caught her breath, “You have no idea how close to hospitalization you just were, honey.”
Stemmons shrugged helplessly, “wouldn’t be the first time you did that to me.”
“You gonna bring Hamburg into this now?”
“No no no I cry uncle. the point I’ve been trying to make is The Agency knows everything about you. About me. About us. About everyone who works here. More perhaps than we know about ourselves.”
“All hail Big Brother. Does this place have a wet bar?”
“Not on the premises. It’s a flower shop. Not a bar, but there’s a couple nice bars down the street.”
“And a shawarma place.”
“This roof would make for a great little bar.”
“That’s entirely up to you now.”
Gina blinked at him.
“Well, there’s paperwork involved. Some footwork. We’d have to get the legitimate permits, but you can get your underlings to do all that for you. You’d have to figure out how to allow normal people with no clearance get in and out of here without seeing that its a cover for The Agency. If you failed that, our superiors would probably really fire you for sure.”
“Don’t break it,” she said, echoing The Director’s orders for her.
They looked at each other a long time.
“God I’ve missed you,” he said flatly.
“We are not getting back together.”
“Hey. Don’t flatter yourself.”
“Why are you doing this for me?”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you, Gina. I didn’t. I had nothing to do with any of this. I’m just as surprised as you. I didn’t know about this before this morning. I didn’t know the details until I read your file while you told me what happened to Charlie. You are now the new Chief of Operations for Project Lotus. It’s actually a small part of a much bigger operation here in Manhattan. It mostly polices itself. Your job will be to maintain the plausible deniability of the illusion of a flower shop hiding what’s really going on, and inevitably put out fires when they develop. And they will. They always do, in ways you won’t see coming. You’ll have another full briefing tomorrow by your predecessor. I think they just brought me in here to soften the blow.”
“It’s a desk job.”
“Pretty much. But a cushy one.”
“I’m being put out to pasture.” She tried to say it matter of factly, but a sob got caught in her throat and it came out a little self-deprecatingly, “They’re taking me out of the field entirely.”
“Hey I been in a supervisory position for years. Now and then it’s still dangerous.”
“Months of boredom followed by seconds of sheer terror.”
“In my experience it’s been more like weeks or days of boredom followed by moments of sheer terror, but yeah. Pretty much.”
“I don’t get any say in this do I?”
“Nope, but between you and me, were you really enjoying it out there?”
“I found a nice ride this morning. Unfortunately I had to ditch it fifty yards from shore. Ran out of gas.”
“Oh. That. Funny you should mention that.” Stemmons reached over to the laptop he had brought with them to the roof, opened it up and pushed a few buttons. “An old friend who also recently got herself a cushy job in administration wanted to say hello.”
The video popped up on the screen as Stemmons turned it to face Rankin, and a beautiful asian woman’s face was beaming back at her. The video was prerecorded. She wasn’t there, but Rankin’s eyes lit up and in Stemmons eyes, she looked twenty years younger in the glow from the screen, and Stemmons felt twenty years younger as his heart swelled at Rankin beaming back at their old friend.
“Hey Gina! It’s me! Long time no see! You’ve heard on the grapevine by now I went into retirement from being a specialist out on the field. I hear they’re forcing it on you. Don’t take it hard. We both know the Agency would be history by now if it weren’t for us holding it together with duct tape and spit, but it’s time to let the kiddies take a crack at it. We can sit back now with our lattes and our stories of the good old days and let them get the crap beat out of em for a change! When Marina Marcus called me up and told me he was worried for you, I took a ride down here to see how I could help. I don’t do field work anymore, but for you I thought I’d make an exception. Take a look!”
Rankin’s old friend turned the camera off herself and over to the marina. About thirty feet away was Marcus pulling seaweed off Gina’s new favorite old helicopter. Somehow Marcus and her fellow Agent had pulled the copter out of its watery grave. Marcus waved sheepishly at the camera and returned to work, as the camera pulled back to her friend’s bright dark eyes and beaming smile.
“Marcus says she’ll never fly again, but I’m gonna look her over and see what can be done. She’ll be good as new and if you’re ever back this way, Marcus.. will probably never let you fly her again but he might let you sit in it. I can remember back when we were young and stupid, we used to take joy rides in a buggy just like this one. Remember that, Gina? Those were great times. Don’t be a stranger, kiddo! Come see me in administration some time! We can do lunch! Love you! Bye!”
Stemmons handed her a kerchief.
“You been crying again.”
“You been too.”
“So what you say? Hungry for some shawarma yet?”
“In a minute. Come over here and hold me you stupid bastard.”
Stemmons did as requested quietly. He sat down. She nuzzled up to his chest. He wrapped his arms around her. They looked at the flowers and the vine covered walls and above that they watched the New York skyline as the sun began to set. They sat there quietly for a long time.
“This does not mean we’re getting back together,” he said flatly.
“Hey. Don’t flatter yourself,” she punched him in the arm.
[part seven coming soon]