10PM EST: NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE DC HQ - 7TH FLOOR
Most guys lie to their wives about working late, but that wasn’t going to work for Jay Phillips. He wasn’t even married, and besides, he’d be lying to himself and that would look bad in the yearly psych review.
The half-lie he was telling himself was that he had a lot of work to catch up on.
The truth was that he was hiding in his office on the seventh floor of the NIA building in Arlington, Virginia. The truth was that he hadn’t left the building and its bulletproof windows with blast-resistant curtains for five days. He didn’t mind all that much; he was fine sleeping on his office couch and using the gym for showers, the local dry cleaners as a closet, and the NIA coffee shop as a kitchen.
Why did he even need his overpriced, cookie-cutter condominium in Tysons Corner, anyway?
This quasi-fugitive way of life started when an unattributed tip pinged his phone, saying that he was being hunted. Then the tipster said who the hunter was, and Jay Phillips fet a part of his spine tingle that he hadn't felt in a very long time.
855...what kind of guy goes by a number and no name? A scary, psycho hitman who seemed to enjoy his work too much. The NIA had used 855 in the past, but they took him off their list when it became apparent that even they didn’t know his real identity.
And, of course, his name--or number, rather--had cropped up again when that pain-in-the-ass rogue A.I., ADA, hacked into his brain, after a botched attempt on Loeb and some puzzle genius who went by the name of Klue. Come to think of it, Phillips didn’t have a real ID on Klue, either.
Ironically, among the piles of paper on his desk that were part of the work he was pretending to be catching up on was an article titled “Identity: What is it and does it matter?” It was some brainiac crap out of IQTech. The writer, Robert Ferris, was a typical fledgling analyst who’d been introduced to Phillips as “Bobby” and seemed like he was about 19 years old, Ivy League but with something shady lurking under the surface. There was a game Phillips played with himself when meeting somebody--”What is this person hiding?”--but he hadn’t been able to figure out what kind of skeletons were in Bobby’s closet.
With the exception of this skeleton-excavation exercise (which was really more of a defense mechanism than anything else), Phillips didn’t play a lot of mind games. He prided himself on being a bare-knuckle, blue-collar guy, which also meant that papers like Bobby’s just gave him a headache. He never was a good reader.
Predation, however, was a totally different story. Five years ago, he would have relished the idea of counter-hunting 855. He knew exactly how he’d do it, too. He’d assume that 855 had all the info on him and was maybe even getting updates from ADA, who might or might not still be living in his brain. The reports said she wasn’t, but Phillips learned long ago to assume that your worst fears are right.
Hunting 855. Laying traps and setting blinds. Using his intel against him. It was an appealing option, and Phillips had entertained the notion for a few hours after he got the tip, but that was also a young man’s game. Much as he hated to admit it, a glimpse of himself in the steamed-up mirror at the gym reminded Phillips that he definitely wasn’t a young man. He wasn’t old and he hadn’t gone to flab, but he didn’t have the edge anymore.
Phillips had spent too many of his days sitting in a chair, dealing with a very different kind of animal in the form of Ken Owen--as cunning as anything he’d run into out in the field. He’d actually considered arranging an accident for Owens, one of his “designer jobs,” but he couldn’t shake a bad feeling he had about the whole ordeal...as though somehow, even if he were successful, the trail would lead right back to him.
So he didn’t have a plan for how to deal with Owens, and he didn’t have a plan for what to do about 855. For five days, he’d tried to force his brain to concentrate on something...anything other than being afraid. He hadn’t had much luck. Tonight wasn’t any better.
He heard footsteps in the hallway. Cleaning didn’t usually come in this early.
Something was wrong.
The muzzle of the Desert Eagle looked like one of those old-fashioned keyholes, with a big circle up top and a triangular opening down below. Fitting, really: If its owner pulled the trigger, it would open the doorway to eternity. Phillips was mesmerized by the gun, or at least how it looked when pointed directly between his eyes. That wasn’t like him. It didn’t even look that much like a keyhole, but for some reason, in the face of near-certain death, he was thinking poetically. Happened to him in combat, too.
The man behind the
yenavedlsfdprnvsfgujdkmspobvgun was 855. He wasn’t saying much, so Phillips started the conversation. “Let me guess: You’re pissed off because we haven’t been using you lately.”
“I thought you were going to ask me how I got in here.”
“Bowles, you can come in out of the hallway,” Phillips said.
He expected to see Henry Bowles emerge like a child coming out from behind his mother’s skirt, but he didn’t. He was actually taller than 855 and surprisingly formidable for a tech nerd. He looked like a video game character rendered into real life. His hair was close cut in what they used to call a scalping when Phillips was a kid. Now it’d become hipster chic.
“Hey Jay. How’s it going?”
Was this kid for real? Phillips thought. How’s it look like it’s going? I’ve got a half-whacked spree killer pointing a gun at me. What he decided to say was only slightly less sarcastic. “Never been better, Henry. What brings you fine gents into my office today? Anybody need some water, coffee?” There was actually some sincerity buried beneath the sarcasm; Phillips had the distinct feeling that they weren’t really there to kill him. They had another agenda, and he was beginning to suspect what it was. He still wasn’t sure of one thing, though: who was the ventriloquist and who was the dummy.
855 spoke. “I’m not here to kill you. Insulting as it might sound, you’re not on anybody’s hit list.”
Bowles chimed in. “We actually need your help. Truth is, you’ll benefit too.”
“Glad to be of assistance,” Phillips responded as 855 came around to where he was half-cowering behind his desk, stood him up, patted him down, seated him in his chair--an old Aeron that he never could get to work right--and rolled the chair opposite the couch.
As 855 put his gun away, Bowles pulled a note out of his pocket and handed it to Phillips. “Read this in a way that’ll keep it from getting picked up on any cameras.”
Phillips unfolded the message.
He looked at the three letters, A, D and A again. Then, he nodded, crumpled the paper and swallowed it.
"Alright guys, lets play."