My apartment was empty when I got home. I was disappointed when I remembered Pam would be out for the night. She was my little blonde ray of sunshine in many ways. With her gone I was left to my thoughts, and quickly became moody and homesick.
There were two people I could count on to provide a listening ear at this hour; one of them was family. I called Chicago, and a woman answered on the fifth ring.
‘Hi mom,’ I said, feigning a cheery tone. ‘Working late?’
‘I’m just finishing up for the night,’ she said. ‘We’re trialling a new batch of drugs. It looks promising.’
I could feel the fatigue in her voice. Mom had started the search for a cure to multiple sclerosis way before I was born. She’d dedicated herself completely; losing a loved aunt had sparked her desire to eradicate the dreaded disease.
We talked about her work and my studies. I skirted the sensitive issue of job applications. Mom had no idea of my time at the CIA, and I intended to keep it that way.
‘I’ll be home for Thanksgiving,’ I said finally. ‘I promise.’
My pulse quickened as I cut the call. Mom had eased my emotional turmoil somewhat, but my next call was to an agency contact who could give practical advice on getting Ryan acquitted. We hadn’t spoken in months and his last words rang fresh in my mind.
‘If you ever need me, you can reach me on this number.’
The last time I’d seen him I’d been in serious trouble. George had been my pillar of strength that night; risking pneumonia to comfort me in the downpour. I’d lost a colleague, and soaked my hands in the blood of his four murderers. George, arrived, surveying the scene with the air of an old man who’d seen it all before.
Quite how I survived that night, I had no idea.
I dialled his number and he answered immediately.
‘Jean, how are you?’
‘I’m alive, George,’ I sighed.
‘I need more than alive. How are you feeling? How’re you holding up?’
‘Good, on most days. So-so on the others.’
He hummed in understanding. I could almost feel him nodding on the other end of the line.
‘That is expected,’ he said. ‘You called to inform me of your decision?’
My stomach flipped in panic at the question. My throat suddenly felt very dry.
‘I need a little more time,’ I croaked.
George exhaled heavily.
‘I blame myself,’ he groaned. ‘I pushed you too hard and didn’t give you enough protection. Why have you called? How can I help?’
I recounted Ryan’s arrest saga, starting from my visit to the station and concluding with my decision to seek out answers at The Void.
George listened in silence. When he spoke, his voice trembled with admiration.
‘I always said you were strong,’ he said. ‘Stronger than the others gave you credit for. You were made for this, Jean. But do not forget we gather information in different ways to law enforcement. Discard what you think you know, and distance yourself emotionally.’
The line went silent as he paused and weighed his next words carefully.
‘I think…I think this would be good for you; to get your head back in the right place. Make it through this and you’ll know you’re ready. But be careful.’
I knew he was right. I’d strung the agency along for too long, my decision would have to be made soon.
‘I will, George’ I said. ‘You trained me well.’
‘Our girl thinks she’s a private eye,’ said Sciratio.
‘Replay the conversation while I take the transcript,’ replied Avery.
They’d recorded every word of Jean’s phone conversations. The recordings would be the first of many; however mundane their contents were. Avery made sure he missed nothing, occasionally pausing and replaying the track a few times to ensure he had the dialogue ad verbum.
He pondered George’s identity; the man had to be a handler of sorts. And Avery found a particular statement of his reticent, yet revealing:
‘I pushed you too hard and didn’t give you enough protection.’
‘Protection against what?’ Avery wondered.
‘You think she’ll go back?’ asked Sciratio, interrupting his train of thought.
Avery grunted at the question. The former SEAL was aware of his time in the CIA’s National Clandestine Service. Avery’s stint at the agency had marked the end of a life he’d left behind, and all but forgotten.
He’d grown up in Alpine, Brewster County, Texas. He was the youngest of four boys and never knew his father; Jude Ames had died in the tornado of ’82. His mother never remarried, choosing to rely on support from her brothers and sons in tending her newly inherited farm.
He’d always been polite but distant; a loner. He got good grades, and was on his’ high school swim team, but had few friends. A discerning uncle introduced him to a Winchester Carbine on his 15th birthday. Avery spent the next three years shooting apples and soda cans on the family farm while his peers chased girls. Within six months he could hit five for five from 50 yards.
His other love was pool. A rifle and cue stick had eerily similar requirements; a firm wrist; a keen sense of space, and the arctic nerve to keep the target true upon making the shot. The two disciplines merged in the young Avery’s mind, and each pastime fed the other in a symbiotic relationship. The sight of the projectile, bullet or ball, defying all conditions to hit its target intrigued him.
He applied for a gun licence on his 18th birthday. Word quickly spread of the left-handed enigma that could shoot as far as he could see. He’d become something of a pool hustler in his early teens, and the winnings from shooting contests became a welcome addition to boost his paltry income.
Gun ranges and pool parlours tend to attract the wrong crowds however, and Avery soon found himself turning down job offers from the local gangs. He quickly learned a skilled hitman was always in demand.
Love further complicated things; in the form of Martha. Pretty and demure, she had no business sneaking off to watch the gun shows. She rebuffed numerous admirers, and tolerated the violent bravado on display; all to watch the hawkeyed boy who remained oblivious to her in Algebra class. Dating the school recluse was social suicide but few girls could deny his dark appeal. Besides; he was ‘kinda cute’.
The Bull’s-eye 3-Gun Championship of ‘98 was memorable for several reasons. It was the first time Martha worked up the courage to wish Avery ‘good luck’. It was also the only competition Avery failed to win; a tie was as bad as a loss after a perfect winning streak. All other competitors had fallen away, leading to a protracted and inconclusive tiebreaker with a middle-aged cowboy in a white Stetson.
A perplexed Avery retreated to his favourite pool parlour and immersed himself in a solitary game.
‘You playing against yourself, boy?’ said a gravelly voice, intruding on his privacy.
Avery looked up and felt a twinge of resentment. It was the cowboy.
‘Yeah, no one challenges me anymore,’ replied the boy in an offhand tone.
The claim could be mistaken for arrogance, but it was true. The cowboy watched Avery calmly dispatch three straight frames in twenty minutes, without missing a single shot. All sequential, and without a flicker of hesitation, the way pool should be played.
‘You’re the best I’ve seen,’ said the cowboy. ‘A real natural.’
‘There’s no such thing,’ said Avery, thwacking another red ball into a pool pocket with surgical precision. It was his fourth frame.
‘Huh. Tough guy, eh? Ever considered becoming a cop?’
Avery looked up at his sole spectator, his demeanour guarded.
‘Jack Steed’s the name’ said the man. ‘Alpine PD, SWAT unit. Let’s just say I’ve been watching you for a while. You’re good, and you’ve got three choices. Join the gangs and get killed, or refuse their offer and get killed.’
‘That’s two choices,’ noted Avery.
‘Do yourself a favour, get an education then join the force. They’ll think twice about touching you or your family.’
Avery mulled it over.
‘I don’t have any money,’ he countered.
‘Sure you do,’ growled Steed. ‘Between your winnings and salary on patrol you’ll make enough to train yourself. Here, take this. You’ve earned it.’
Steed tossed a bundle of notes on the pool table. Five thousand dollars, his half of the winnings.
‘Yeah?’ replied Avery, his tone expectant.
‘You don’t waste good,’ said Steed, nodding at the bar. Avery followed his gaze, and locked eyes with a transfixed Martha.
The young sharpshooter joined the Alpine Police Department and the subsequent four years were instructive. He spent the mandatory three years on patrol duty while he studied. Martha Ames became a waitress to supplement his income for part-time schooling. They planned to have kids later; after she started her career in teaching and he made first grade. He remained a man of sparse words and emotion, and ignored her pleas to ditch cigarettes; his one vice.
In his fourth year he became a drug busting detective, and a thorn in the side of the very gangs who had failed to recruit him. His gun prowess grew ever sharper; and his steely instincts became the stuff of legends. His superior marksmanship and Steed’s recommendation made acceptance into Alpine SWAT a mere formality. With the move came exposure to hostage rescue; tactical ops; and counterterrorism.
His meteoric rise did not go unnoticed. The CIA lacks the constitutional authority to operate on US soil, but it damned sure knows what’s going on in its own backyard. Avery was approached again; this time by a silver haired gentleman. Bearded, with thick reading glasses, the head-hunter might have passed for a history professor.
Jim Cable was a senior Officer in National Clandestine Service Staff Operations. He’d served the CIA for five decades and watched the agency mutate into an intelligence juggernaut. The outsourcing of its black ops to the highly specialised Special Activities Division left most agents with only passable shooting skills and a distaste for combat. It was obvious a different kind of spy was needed; one who abhorred internal politics and got the job done. Cable was convinced Avery was his man.
Steed gave his blessing and the Ames moved to Virginia. In some ways, it seemed like fate. Avery was not the first Ames to work for the Agency; that dubious honour belonged to his great-uncle Carleton Cecil. Carleton’s son Aldrich had also worked for the Company; going on to become one of the most infamous and hated moles in US history. Selling information to the USSR at the height of the Cold War was unforgivable, and the surname Ames has since been looked upon with suspicion and contempt by most in the American intelligence circle.
Avery’s intelligence career had been in peril before it even had a chance to begin. The NCS top dogs balked at Cable’s recommendation; ignoring his rigorous background checks on Avery’s stellar career.
Cable pushed, and a routine polygraph was arranged. Avery was probed on his kinship to Aldrich Ames. He remained unflappable, and told them he’d never met the man nor sympathised with him. The test results had proved inconclusive; Avery was either telling the truth or was a stone cold sociopath. NCS, with its history of hiring the very kind of agents that kept anxious executives awake at night, hired him.
He was posted to the US Embassy in Kabul under the guise of a weapons training expert. His mission was simple; to identify a dangerous mole selling information to the Taliban. Avery’s fresh perspective halved the suspect list to five names.
Nothing could have prepared him for the news of Martha’s kidnap, and no one knew how she ended up in Afghanistan. The rescue attempt got too personal, and she died in the crossfire. In a moment he lost everything, his wife, his life, the promise of a family.
He returned home; to pool and guns, then quit the CIA altogether. Grief stricken and contemplative; his shooting reached unprecedented levels of accuracy, almost godlike. But who would ever know, and what was the point? A bullet couldn’t raise the dead.
Painstakingly he worked on his diction, eliminating the telltale Texan twang. The less he sounded like her, her less he’d be reminded of her. A change in career was also needed, and the intense, punishing hours of the financial sector would ease the pain somewhat. He returned to school, assuming the name Logan Ross, and a new identity.
Fate had other ideas. He was approached a final time. The Director simply introduced himself as Tom. Avery had been in the intelligence game long enough to spot a pseudonym. He reflected on the Director’s offer and accepted. His one condition was he would not be required to kill.
And now, three years later, the Director wanted Jean Wellings dead. Avery couldn’t shake the feeling they didn’t know the whole story. Jean’s conversation with her handler revealed she wasn’t the cold blooded killer they’d initially thought. She remained a threat of course; the memory of the gun loomed fresh in Avery’s mind.
Code Viper, indeed.
She was also a common factor in all the murders. Her ex-boyfriend, Ryan Chow, was Chinese American; the same profile as the four murdered CIA agents. Avery did not believe in coincidences.
‘I think she plays a greater role in the Garretts’ case than we initially thought,’ he said finally. ‘It could be in our best interest to find out who the true killer is.’
‘Sweet, I’ll run it by Creed,’ said Sciratio. ‘You should get some sleep though, you look like death.’
‘You always say that.’
‘I always mean it’
Avery rubbed his temple absently and fought the sudden craving for a cigarette. It’d been five years since he’d quit five years since Martha’s death.
‘Make preparations for accommodation in Chicago too,’ he said. ‘It looks like I’ll be heading there soon.’
He had calls of his own to make. Cable might be able to shed more light on the identity of George. Jean’s conversation with him had confirmed a nagging suspicion which had been growing at the back of Avery’s mind.
It was glaringly obvious when you knew what to look for, and had experienced it yourself. Jean Wellings was succumbing to post traumatic stress disorder.