I don't think it's possible for a human being to look more surprised than Elizabeth did at that moment. Her perfectly formed face went absolutely rigid. Beautiful, yes. But motionless, exactly like one of the exquisite Greek statues of goddesses without clothes. Except in this case, she was wearing a bathrobe.
Elizabeth shook her head at me, as she so often did. I certainly knew why I had married her, but what she had seen in me was a mystery I had never solved. “Jack, what in the world are you talking about? There is no way squirrels can take over anything. They lack the mental capacity to find half the walnuts they bury. They run out in front of every car they see. So what do you mean, they're going to take over the world?”
Elizabeth had risen to the bait, like a fish in the stream. It was time to reel her in.
I laughed. “Not the squirrels themselves; the people behind the squirrels. The people in the Org have been blinded to what's really going on. It's a double-cover, Elizabeth. And if you are the head of the Org now, again, and you don''t know that, we've got bigger problems than squirrels with bombs.”
Elizabeth shook her head. “I'm calling Markus.”
“Markus? Markus Bloomfield? Why?”
“Because he'll know what Alton is really up to. I don't trust him, Jack. I never did, even when we were married, and that was the smartest thing I ever did, not trusting him. And now...he's not what he seems, and I don't know that he's really Alton at all. And even if he is, I can't trust him.”
I thought for a moment. Elizabeth and I had been married shortly after what we thought was the death of her first husband. Alton. And now Alton had never died. Unless he had died, and the fellow claiming to be him was someone else. My head started to hurt, and it was precisely situations like this which had driven me from the Org. Now, looking back, I wondered how much of our marriage had been real, and how much was part of a plan, a coordinated course of action. There was the chance that everything was just as I thought, but mistrust could quickly flower between myself and my beautiful wife. She had hidden things from me, not just for two days, but for over two years. She was working with a covert group whose schemes she may or may not understand fully, even though she was the nominal chief. She was in contact with people I had walked away from, like Markus; and now with atleast one person I had thought was dead.
The past went hurtling through my mind like a drunken giraffe on roller skates, at which I poked with a hockey stick, trying to look for gaps and holes in the story. I had met Elizabeth ten years before, when she was married to Alton. They were dining in a little coffee shop, high on the slopes of the Matterhorn, and I was a tourist trying to figure out a way to get the top. I had lost track of Alton after our graduation from Colgate; the university, not the toothpaste. He introduced me to Elizabeth, and I was immediately stunned, then smitten, and finally infatuated.
Alton turned out to be, among other things, a first-class alpine guide, and offered to show me up the mountain. A friendship was reborn, and as I spent more time with them, we began to share our thoughts and philosophies, and it was not long before they recruited me for the Org. In those days, I was more idealistic, and less concerned about how long I was going to live. A part of me knew I took the role only to stay close to Elizabeth. I was not an overly moral person, but it was clear they were happy together and nuts about one another. I had no desire to ruin that, so I worked and lived in far-flung places all over the world, always doing the bidding of those above me, but never seeing or speaking with them.
I guess I didn't realize how compromised I had become until years later. When the order came down that Alton had to be removed, I did not question it. Maybe, just maybe, a small part of me delighted in making Elizabeth available. It was not the worst assignment I had ever received, and although I didn't understand it, I could rationalize it. It was only as his car exploded into flames at the bottom of that quarry that I felt any regret. He had been a friend, a dear friend, and the regret was sudden, deep, and sincere. I remembered Elizabeth taking my hand and squeezing it, and my realization that I was through, finished, done. The work was not for me.
Elizabeth followed me, first down the mountain, then out the door, and finally into wedded bliss. I resigned the day after our honeymoon. My resignation was accepted without discussion, and I was relieved. I put a remote starter on my car, and covered my face when I pressed the button. For a few weeks, I watched the mail carefully. But nothing happened.
After our marriage, I had tried to fold myself back into an everyday work-world. It had been hard, but I had adapted, and then come to accept the smallness of my self-chosen exile.
Things had apparently been different for Elizabeth.
“Jack? Are you alright?”
I stirred. Losing myself in my own head was not something that I could afford to do.
“Yes. Yes, I'm fine. I'm just getting my thoughts in order. Call Markus, and see what he says.”
Markus Bloomfield was an old friend from the Org, who had retired from government service before we had. He lived a town or two away, and I ran into him once and a while on the golf course. He had put on weight, lost some hair, and married a wife about half his age. She looked as though he had met her on a call overseas somewhere, or maybe one of those mail-order brides websites, and she spoke English with an accent that even I couldn't place.
Elizabeth dialed the phone. I pushed the receiver button down.
“Wait a minute, Elizabeth. How do you know it's not tapped? If you're back in the game, you're fair game again, and have been for two years.”
Elizabeth pushed my hand away. “Don't worry, dear. I had the line cleaned and the anti-tap installed when I went back to the Org.” She dialed the number again.
“Oh. Well, then.”
I sat down to listen to her side of the conversation. Markus answered his phone quickly; Elizabeth hardly settled on the couch before she was speaking.
“Hello. Markus, this is Elizabeth Prey, from the Org. Yes, that Elizabeth.”
Markus must have made some small talk; Elizabeth listened without saying anything for a minute or two. I couldn't hear him, but Markus had always talked quietly, as though he had just pulled you aside into a corner to exchange secrets. I never liked him.
Elizabeth spoke again. “No, he knows. He's sitting right here.” She listened again.
She and Markus spoke for about five minutes. There was not a lot of information to glean from her half of the conversation, and most of the time, she simply listened. I was not surprised. Markus was one of the most overbearing people I knew, and it was largely because of people like him that I left the Org. Of course, I went into the crucible of hospital politics, which turned out to be just as nasty, and far more petty. Hindsight is truly twenty-twenty.
Elizabeth replaced the phone receiver with a quiet click. She didn't say anything, and neither did I. The coffeemaker shut itself off with another quiet click, and I eased myself up to my feet.
“Well, I'm tired of waiting. What did the old blowhard say? What pearls of wisdom did he dispense, anyway?”
Elizabeth shrugged. “Nothing, really. He said that if Alton had warned you of something, we should take it seriously. Seemed to think that Alton is alive, and not just that, that he's into some very top-level information that the Org hasn't seen. What exactly did he tell you, about the squirrels?”
I put more coffee on and searched the cabinet for some muffins. There weren't any, so I went to the pantry to check there. Life is full of little twists, little things that make a person think that a higher intelligence must be guiding our destinies. The little fact that the muffins were in the pantry instead of the cabinet saved my life. As I opened the pantry door, a bullet tore through the space I had just occupied and burned a path through the cabinet, right at the level of my eyes.