9:49 AM EDT on November 1, 2023
He always got nauseous on planes. Never thought too much about why. Just one of those things. He was probably the only person in the world who still instinctively checked the seat-back pocket for one of those little sick bags the airlines stopped providing years ago. Did anyone ever use those? It didn't matter. They always provided him a level of comfort. It was good knowing one was there, just in case the worst came to pass. Things like that used to matter to him. Used to.
He'd spent the last 10 years running from the things that used to matter. He'd force out of his mind any thought that wasn't about what was right in front of his face. He got good at this. He became a man who only existed in the present. But what else was he supposed to do on a plane, on this plane in particular, other than think about everything that had come before? He hadn't flown since the incident. Were the seats smaller than they used to be, or had his gut just expanded with age?
He could still remember the feeling of the Vauxhall's steering wheel, and how it grew colder in his hands as the minutes ticked by. He remembered how quiet the street had been, and how the sun had reflected off the windows of the cafe. The whole time he waited, the transponder just sat there on the dashboard, inert as a paperweight. The kid had tested it before he went inside. Why was he taking so long? Why wasn't he calling for help? Was there some other signal he had missed?
He'd been in the game long enough to know the answers to those questions. After 20 minutes, he put the gun back in the glove box, turned the key in the ignition, and left. He still remembered the words that he spat at himself, over and over, as he drove around aimlessly for the next hour, making sure he hadn't picked up a tail.
Eventually, he worked up the nerve to go back to the flat where they had left the girl. He knew what he'd find there, but he felt compelled to see it, as if doing so would be some kind of penance. When he got to the door and saw the blood creeping out from under the frame, he turned around and left.
He went back to the States, where his career had had been remote detonated. That's what happens when you throw in with a cowboy from MI6 who breaks into your flat in the middle of the night with some petrified girl in tow, ranting about a super-spook named Connor Stalions, intel breaches from Whitehall to Ann Arbor, and a grand conspiracy that threatened to swallow everyone whole. Even now, he could still admit to himself that the kid had made a compelling case. But it wasn't the intel that had convinced him to go off-book with him. It was the conviction in the kid's eye, the belief that they were close to something big. He couldn't resist being a part of that.
That's how he ended up skidding off the fast track to station chief and spending the last 10 years chained to a desk in the basement at Langley. They were waiting for him as soon as he stepped off the plane. He spent four hours in a sweat box with two heavies he'd never seen before and would never see again. They explained to him that it was the official stance of the United States government and its allies abroad that Connor Stalions never existed. They told him that Stalions had been conjured up by the kid after he let go of the rope working a message board cell in Columbus. "Lost himself to fantasies," one of them said. "Just another bitter Buckeye fan," said the other. It was all bullshit, of course, but he was too much of a coward to say anything. Before they left, he was told where to report the following day. It wasn't a prison sentence, but it wasn't much better.
It was a year before the jocks upstairs stopped popping into his office to rub it in. "You see that latest intel from our agent inside mgoblog? I hear they caught Stalions cabling Harbaugh himself from Dearborn!" Shit like that. It took three years for the gin to get its hooks in him, but after that everything was mostly a blur. Day after day of sorting surveillance photos that were dumped on his desk by other analysts who were above that kind of busywork. Weeks spent building dossiers that were destined only for the bottom of someone else's filing cabinet.
And then he got his hands on yesterday's batch. The label didn't betray anything out of the ordinary: "CMU V. MSU (SEPT. 1 2023) CLEARANCE. NoForn." It had come from the Mount Pleasant station, which was running a low-level Harbaugh associate named Jim McElwain. He'd been an enthusiastic if mostly useless asset ever since the agency had helped him explain away some embarrassing photos.
He opened the package, and there he was, staring right through him.
Right away, he knew. Cold drops of sweat formed between his shoulder blades. The kid had shown him a picture of Stalions, apparently the only one that had ever been taken, all those years ago. He knew it was a face he'd never forget. And here it was again.
Panic set in, followed by something like elation. Stalions was still operational, which meant that he was still vulnerable. If he moved quickly, he could get to Stalions before the photos could end up in front of someone who knew where to bury them. He still had a clean passport that he'd managed to secret away. He'd fly to Grand Rapids—less chance of getting noticed—and then boost a car to get to Mount Pleasant. He'd find Stalions, and then he'd make things right. For the girl, and for the kid.
A burst of turbulence pulled him back. He reached into his jacket pocket to make sure the photos were still there.
"Makes you wish they still gave us those bags, eh?" asked the man seated next to him. There was something odd in his voice.
"The bags. The sick bags they used to have in the pockets. Nice to have in moments like these."
Christ, had he been talking about the sick bags out loud? His mind had been soup ever since he left the apartment that morning. Suddenly he was starting to regret the third g&t he had sucked down in the terminal. You could use another fucking drink, his mind barked at him. No. Had to stay sharp. He gave his seat mate an awkward nod and smile, and swung himself out into the aisle.
He made his way toward the rear of the plane. He did his best to shuffle around the flight attendant headed the opposite way, but they still ended up in a brief, awkward embrace. "Ope! Just gonna skooch past ya!" the attendant chirped. He just grunted back.
The nausea started to set in as soon as the bathroom door folded shut. There wasn't much to be done about it, but he did his best to coax some cold water out of the plastic faucet and splash what he could onto his face and neck.
He felt a sudden rush of embarrassment. He'd never been much of a field agent, but was this really all he was now? A middle-aged spook with a sensitive stomach, a drinking problem, and a half-cocked plan to track down the bogeyman of Ann Arbor?
His vision blurred for a moment. Get a fucking grip.
As the last meager splash of water reached his face, he thought suddenly of the way the man sitting next to him had spoken. Was he covering up an accent? And what was that ring on his finger? It was blue and ... what shade of yellow was that?
A lightning burst of cramps etched across the inside of his stomach. He flipped the toilet seat up and prepared himself for the worst. God, is this really happening?
The flight attendant. What was it about that flight attendant? Their eyes had met for just a moment, but there was a look of familiarity in them. And the attendant's hairline. There was something off about it.
You worry too much. And besides, he wasn't so far gone as an agent that he couldn't spot a fake accent and a bald man in a wig.
The ring. That was what he had missed. The attendant was wearing one, too, but it was turned the wrong way, with the jewel in his palm. There would have been a needle inside it, all but invisible to the naked eye, but sharp enough to painlessly pierce his skin.
He'd seen it once before, in Moscow. The poor bastard who got pricked never even made it off the train. He didn't bother to reach for the spot on his shoulder that was suddenly throbbing in pain, or to check and see if the photos were still in his jacket pocket. He knew they were gone. It was done.
He didn't fight the sudden weakness in his legs, or panic over the shortness of his breath. He let himself fall. Maybe someone will hear, he allowed himself to pray as his body struck the door and crumpled into what space the lavatory had to offer. Maybe someone will come.
But he was alone. He always had been. That's why he'd allowed his stupid ideas to bring him here, to this ridiculous end. He'd wanted revenge, but not as much as he'd wanted a way back into the world. He didn't know exactly how, but he was sure that Stalions could have given him that.
Two breaths from the end, he allowed himself the thought one last time. Maybe someone will come.