Excerpt: The Cardinal Rule

Book One of the Strongbox Chronicles

The problem with being a spy was that when it was as breathlessly exciting as Jennifer Garner made it look, something had gone horribly wrong.

Alisha planted a hand on a hip-height stone wall and vaulted it, coming down hard on a round stone on its far side. Her foot-bare; she’d kicked off the three-inch leather heels the instant she knew she’d been made-slipped. Her ankle twisted and she fell, so fast she had no time to think through the tuck and roll. A bullet sang over her head, slicing the air with a supersonic whine. Even in the midst of flight syndrome, one part of her mind focused on that unique sound, and she shot a wordless thanks toward the stone that had saved her life.

She was back on her feet before the thought was finished, running low to the ground. Her ankle throbbed with protest, not broken but displeased with the weight of speed. Alisha ignored the thrums of pain, focusing instead on the sounds around her. From behind were voices, angry men who wielded the guns whose bullets whinged over her head. The wind shrieked as loudly as the bullets for a few seconds, battering her in her crouched run. She put her fingers to the ground when she needed the balance, letting the wind buffet her a few feet one way or the other. It lent her the randomness she needed to break any patterns that the gunmen might pick out of the pre-dawn morning.

One other sound, even more critical than shouting men and bullets, thudded at bones behind her ears: the sound of the surf, smashing against cliff faces only sixty yards away. Sixty yards; fifty; forty. She might make it, if flinging herself off a hundred-foot cliff was considered making it.

Damn! Another bullet shrieked over her head and Alisha stumbled in her forward motion, forcing herself to make the clumsy action into another roll. Her ankle protested again as she pushed through to her feet, coming up at an angle from her previous trajectory. Her jacket and skirt were dark, warm brown that normally set off her skin tones, but in the pre-dawn grayness, all that was important was that she didn’t stand out against the dark like a beacon. A voice lifted in frustration behind her and she huffed a breath of relief. Thirty yards to go, and they’d lost her. More bullets whined, but they were off to the right, following the path she’d been on, rather than her new one.

The countryside was not meant to be raced over in darkness. Unkempt knots of earth seemed to leap up, lumps that felt as hard as tree roots against bare toes. Rough-edged stones scraped her feet, though those, at least, offered surprisingly little pain. Calluses built from years of yoga, practiced bare-foot, provided remarkable protection for the soles of her feet. Panicked, early-morning get-aways weren’t why she practiced the ancient art, but for the moment, Alisha was grateful for any tiny advantage she was granted.

The ground fell away into divots that sent her tripping and scrambling forward. Bull in a china shop, she thought, but it didn’t matter, so long as she stayed relatively quiet. The wind would hinder her pursuers as much as it knocked her about, throwing the sounds of her passage in directions she’d never taken.

Ten yards. The next thirty feet were the critical ones. To make the jump she needed all the momentum she could get: she couldn’t afford to remain crouched, not with the thunderous waves below, ready to grab her and dash her against the cliffs. Alisha straightened up into a full-out run, long legs flashing with speed and urgency. Pain sizzled up the big nerve along the outside of her right ankle, the damage from the twist more profound now that she demanded everything from her injured body.

“There!” Triumph in the voice behind her. Alisha didn’t dare take the time to look over her shoulder, not with twenty-fifteen-feet to go. Eyes lifted, hands straight with sprinter’s concentration, she kicked on a burst of speed, trusting adrenaline to get her through the sharpness in her ankle that meant the sprain was worsening with every step. More shots rang out, the deadly chime of air itself protesting the way it was being torn asunder.

Ten feet. Five feet. She gathered herself, thighs bunched, gaze focused on a far point, dozens of feet past the body-shattering stones at the foot of the cliffs. Now, she thought, and gave her whole being over to the leap from the cliff’s edge.

Alisha flew.

* * *

For a few seconds it was freedom, pure and glorious. Nothing in the world but herself and the cool early morning air. The wind screamed and cut away any sounds of pursuit, swallowing the howl of bullets chasing after her. It was as honest a moment as Alisha could remember: no one and nothing, not even gravity, held sway over her. A single thought intruded: perfect. It was the thesis of yoga: a state of acceptance so complete that not even the next breath seemed important. Absolute purity for a few glorious seconds, before sheer adrenalized glee set in.

She hit reality in a dive, fingers laced together over her head, arms bent just slightly, enough that her elbows couldn’t lock and shatter with the impact. The water was cold, breath-taking; for the first seconds it took all Alisha’s effort to not inhale with the shock of it. But that would be her doom, and the data she carried would never make it back to her handler. She struck out blindly, kicking forward and deeper into the water. It would confound her hunters if she never surfaced, and, down deeper, she might slip between the currents that smashed water against the cliffs.

Her lungs burned as she kicked, panic setting in to the hind part of her brain, the order to breathe! almost irresistible. Alisha kept one hand extended in front of her, still kicking as hard as she could, and fumbled in her skirt’s waistband with the other. There were two discrete pouches there. One held what memory told her looked embarrassingly like a wrapped condom. Alisha curled her fingers around that one and brought it to her face, shoving it firmly into her mouth. She kept her mouth closed tightly over it until she’d fit it between her lips and her teeth, like a kid with an orange peel stuck in her mouth. It felt as ungainly and awkward, but it would save her life.

It took an act of pure faith to exhale the last air in her lungs out in a salt-tainted burst of saliva. This time, like every time, there was one frozen moment of sheer animal terror as she dragged air in through the cleared pores of the filter, a moment when she expected the technology to fail and for water to flood her lungs.

This time, as it had every time, the breather worked. Damp, salt-flavored oxygen rasped into her lungs. Alisha swallowed a silent gasp of relief and kicked forward into the cold water, panic fading into confidence of survival.

With the diminishing of fear came memory. Alisha managed a very faint smile around the awkwardness of the breather. It was the breather-or one like it-that had gotten her into the spy business in the first place. The breather, and Marsa Alam, on the Red Sea.

She’d noticed a slight man with an American accent wandering the beach almost daily. He looked dapper, but was far too old-at least in his forties!-for the nineteen-year-old Alisha to be interested in. They’d nodded politely at one another, and to her relief he hadn’t seemed to be interested in conversation beyond exchanged hellos. She was there for the SCUBA diving, not making friends with expatriate Americans.

It was her last day in Marsa Alam when he approached her, diffidently, carrying two of the breathers. “They work like this,” he’d said, and showed her how the ungainly little package blossomed into a piece of Bond-like technology. “Try it,” he’d offered, and even a decade later, Alisha had to fight off a grin that always threatened laughter when she remembered that moment. He might as well have added, “The first hit is free.”

When she surfaced two hours later, a little dizzy-the breather, he told her, only provided enough oxygen for about sixty percent lung capacity-she’d wanted to know where on earth she could get one of her own.

“Langley,” he said, very mildly, watching Alisha with careful, honest consideration.

And that was it, Alisha thought ruefully, not for the first time. They’d had her at hello.

* * *

Alisha broke surface when she was no longer struggling for every inch of distance against the current. The water was cold, too cold to stay in much longer, and her suit-the jacket long since abandoned, the silk shirt so plastered to her body it might as well have been skin-had had no thermal capabilities. She owned clothes in the past which did have such capabilities, but they were hanging safely in her closet at home. She’d used them to stay warm in Russia and in the Andes, but hadn’t considered the practicality of deep-water diving in them. Even bringing the breather along had been a last-moment decision. She hadn’t expected anything to go wrong.

Which was a thought she didn’t want to pursue. She spat the breather out and lay on her back in the ocean, gasping for deeper breaths. The water was startlingly calm, dawn stretching across it in a brilliant white-gold shaft. It was midsummer; any other time of year, and the ocean-diving stint would’ve killed her through hypothermia. She’d been lucky. Stupid, she chided herself, and lucky.

She lifted her wrist out of the water, sunlight glinting off her watch and picking out the individual silver links that made up the bracelet-like band. It looked delicate and expensive in the morning light, which was half true: Alisha’d seen its like crushed by a bulldozer and come out barely scratched. She pressed a fingernail into a subtle indentation on its outer edge, sinking six inches back into the water before she was able to drop her hand and restabilize herself.

“Cardinal requires extraction.” Frustrating words, implying failure. She shook her head, pushing the thought away. There would be time for it later. “Coordinates as follows.” She read off the GPS coordinates at the bottom of the watch face and closed her eyes with a tired sigh, waiting for the men in black to swoop down and scoop her up.

* * *

The helicopter that dragged her out of the water was a SH-60B Seahawk, the same kind that had brought a vomiting Jack Ryan out to the U.S.S. Dallas. Alisha lay in a puddle of seawater on the metal floor, eyes half shut against the morning sun, and wondered just how many moments of her life mapped to the spy movies she’d watched growing up. “Not this one, at least.” She sat up with a groan, putting the heel of her hand over one eye.

“Not this one at least, what?”

“I don’t get sick like Ryan does.”

Brief silence-as much silence as could be had in a helicopter-held reign, before she heard Greg chuckle. “The Hunt for Red October. I’m occasionally astounded that we’re able to communicate at all.”

Alisha managed a half smile, without opening her eyes. “You know me too well.” Sometimes she thought it was true. The man sitting across from her was the same one who’d brought her in to the CIA ten years earlier, Gregory Parker. Slight, beginning to bald through his brown curls, with bright eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses, he hadn’t changed significantly since he’d first approached her on the beach. Alisha slid her hand away from her eyes a little, studying him. A little more gray in the hair, perhaps, and deeper lines around his mouth, but by and large, he was unchanged.

“I know you well enough to know you don’t get sick,” he agreed. Polite banter; they had a whole helicopter ride to discuss what had gone wrong with the mission. Alisha was grateful for the respite, however brief, while she warmed up and dried off.
“I get sick.” Her argument lacked conviction even to her own ears. “Every time I visit my sister’s kids. No mere mortal could stand up to the array of germs those three carry.” She shivered, twisting her hands back to wring her hair out. Greg leaned forward with a blanket and she wrapped it around her shoulders, lowering her head to her knees. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome. Are you all right?”

She nodded, as small a movement as she could make. Despite the noise of the chopper, she could all but hear his eyebrows lifting in disbelief.

“Stoicism doesn’t become you, Ali,” he said.

“Sure it does. Spies are supposed to be stoic.” She lifted her head again, tugging the blanket around her shoulders as the ocean fell further away beneath the helicopter. Greg sat back again, putting his fingertips on a folder beside him on the seat. Alisha followed the gesture with her gaze, then tilted her head back to thunk it against the wall separating her from the pilots. “All right. I’m ready.” She wasn’t certain it was true; she was still cold and numb, but there was an aura of impatience to Greg’s actions, and she couldn’t avoid the conversation in the long term.

“What went wrong?”

“Everything. Almost everything.” She loosened her grip on the blanket and squirmed her fingers into her waistband again, digging into the second pouch sewn there. A moment later she fished a mini-CD out, holding it up between her fingertips. “I did get the data. I hope a little salt water won’t hurt the disc.”

“Even if it did, Erika should be able to clear it up.”

“I wish you’d call her Q.”

“Ali,” Greg said, exasperated. She breathed laughter and started squirming out of the remains of her wet clothes, safely wrapped in the blanket. Sitting naked beneath the dry wool would be warmer than staying in the wet scraps of silk, but she wouldn’t have to: as she wriggled the skirt off Greg leaned across the cabin and popped open a compartment, pulling out black jeans and a black turtle-neck sweater. He put them on the seat by Alisha’s shoulder and sat back, tapping a finger against the folder by his thigh. “What,” he repeated, “went wrong?”

Alisha stood up and pulled the jeans on, swallowing a sigh of relief. They were warm and snug against her legs, which were colder than she’d realized until that moment. The warmth gave her the fortitude she needed to say, “Reichart was there.”

Greg’s eyelashes fluttered. Alisha hid a wince; for him, the faint change of expression was the equivalent of saying, “Oh, Christ.”

Frank Reichart. An Agency problem child, or he would have been, Alisha amended silently, if he’d worked for the Company. He was a freelancer, a mercenary, and he came through with often brilliant intel, well worth the prices he was paid. But he would work for anyone, as long as they met his price. Dark-haired, dark-eyed, dangerous-Alisha shivered, hoping Greg would pass it off to the cold water and wet blouse she still wore.

She was fooling herself, of course. Because Greg knew her, and knew that despite everything, Alisha found a man like Reichart to be attractive.

Attractive enough that she’d almost married him, once upon a time.

Alisha set her jaw, then lifted her chin in a show of defiance as much against herself as her handler. The relationship with Reichart was long over, and there was no danger of her going back. “He recognized me. I was on my way out, or I wouldn’t have gotten anything at all.” She sat down across from Greg, moving her feet away from the cold puddle she’d left on the floor. There was no reason for false modesty; the ruins of her blouse, plastered against her chest, didn’t hide anything, so she pulled the buttons open and tugged the sticking silk off, drying her shoulders before she reached for the sweater Greg had provided. She used brisk, efficient movements, as if doing so would prevent Greg from saying anything else.

It didn’t, of course. Greg exhaled, then pursed his lips. “He ratted you out.”

“That suggests we’re on the same side.” Alisha pulled the sweater over her head, stifling another groan as the warmth enveloped her. She pulled her hair out of the sweater’s neck, then made a face and shucked her wet bra from beneath the sweater. Bouncing a little had to be better than wet underwires soaking through the wool. “Reichart’s not on anybody’s side but his own.”

“And how do you feel about that?” Greg asked neutrally. Alisha didn’t bother to stifle the groan that time, leaning forward with her elbows on her knees so she could twist her hair dry. Water fell in a steady dribble, then petered out into drops against the metal floor of the helicopter.

“Good,” she said to the puddle. “I feel good about it. It helps me sleep at night.” She looked up, eyebrows lifted challengingly. “You’re my handler, Greg, not my shrink. Don’t worry, all right? I can handle Reichart.”

“Does he know why you were there?”

Alisha gave him a flat look. “Yes. We had a nice cup of tea and some lovely raspberry scones and I told him all about the mission before he called the guards and they chased me over a cliff. But don’t worry. I don’t think I gave away any really important matters of national security.”

Greg lifted his hands in apology. Alisha held him with her frown a few seconds longer, then shook her head, picking up the blanket again to rub it over her hair. “I downloaded a lot of data, Greg. They’ll know what server I hit, but there’s a lot of information on that server, and I wasn’t picky about what I collected. I may have been compromised, but I don’t think the mission data was. I haven’t spoken to him in years. Nor do I intend to.”

Greg nodded a distracted apology, examining the mini-disc Alisha’d handed him. He shrugged after a moment, then pulled a laptop out of a compartment above his head, turning it on. Alisha fumbled for the seatbelt as she let her head fall against the back of the seat. “What’s next? Home for debriefing?”

“Mm.” Greg shook his head slightly, dropping the CD into the computer’s drive. “Only if the disc is corrupted.”

“All right.” Alisha closed her eyes, letting herself drift. The endless racket of helicopter blades was oddly soothing to her, as if the noise somehow signified safety she couldn’t find in other places. You’ve spent too much time in choppers, girlfriend, she told herself, but the admonishment didn’t stop her from settling into a half-aware state of sleep. Flashes of Reichart’s startled expression when he’d spotted her darted through her memory, too-clear imprints in her mind. The man had magnificent cheekbones and a mouth full enough to be feminine. Eminently kissable, that mouth. And his hair was longer. Just a little, but it looked good on him.

Even half asleep, Alisha made herself cut off the line of thought. She severed it as efficiently as a surgeon might cut through muscle, removing its emotional content and reminding herself that Frank Reichart was, at the most, nothing more than a job to her. Once that had been different, but not now. And if she needed a reminder of why, a Reichart-inspired compromise followed by a cliff dive should do the trick. Alisha shook her head very slightly and let the memory go.

Compartmentalization: the CIA taught it as the way to get through the job. Emotions in one tidy package, locked away where they couldn’t interfere; the job and what needed to be done in another neat analytical package, far away from sentiment and passion. Alisha disliked it. Slicing up emotion and cupboarding it away felt like denying her own humanity.

Not that she would ever admit to that to Greg, or any of the Agency psychoanalysts. Maintaining emotional distance from her job and the people she encountered was critical, in their eyes.

And so she’d found a way around it.

She called them the Strongbox Chronicles, the illegal journals that she wrote out in longhand on handmade paper, using fountain pens that blotched and stained her fingers. Penned onto those pages were her fears and her frustrations, the things that had gone wrong and right with each mission, full of the passion that drove her to do the job she did. They were a dangerous luxury; any one of them, found by the wrong person, could compromise not just Alisha, but sometimes dozens of other agents and assets.

So she never wrote them until the mission was over, usually taking one long night to scrawl out all the emotion that an official report couldn’t afford to have. In the morning, when the notes were finished, she would find a bank and open a safety deposit box under her current alias. Leave the journal there, and never come back for it. It felt like leaving traces of the truth behind, a promise to herself that her clandestine life had left at least one mark that someday might be discovered and understood.

Counter to the point of being a spy, perhaps, but she did it anyway.

Greg drew in a sharp breath, audible beneath the sound of the chopper blades. Alisha roused herself from introspective thoughts, coming fully awake with concern. “Greg?”

“You won’t be going back to Langley.”

Which meant the new mission was important, and immediate. Alisha sat back, shoulders relaxing. The opportunity for action, the chance to not have to think, was always better than hours spent cooped up on a plane considering the last mission. Alisha doubted everyone found the prospect of imminent danger to be relaxing, but for her a new mission was always a chance to shed the skin of daily life. It was as freeing as the jump off the cliff, in its own way. “What’s the job?”

“You’re going in to a Kazakhstany base to cozy up to an American scientist.”

Alisha felt a little core of excitement build in her stomach, spreading out through her body to warm her in a way the dry clothes couldn’t. “What’s my cover?”

“You’re a potential buyer for the project he’s working on. Your name is Elisa Moon. The details are in the mission brief.” He handed her the folder he’d kept at his side. Alisha nodded, flipping it open, then glanced up at him.

“What’s his name?”

“Brandon.” Greg fell silent a moment before inhaling deeply. “Brandon Parker.”

Alisha’s chin came up, sharp action that she knew betrayed her surprise. “Your son?”


The Cardinal Rule

Cate Dermody