1. The Gray Man

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When Mason spotted the buzz-cut man in khaki uniform from across the campus mall-walk, he knew it spelled trouble. Had his court date gotten moved up? It wasn't supposed to be until next week. Before he could turn down a side path, their eyes locked and the man made a beeline toward him, cutting across the light flow of pedestrians.

"You're Mason Donnelly." It was not a question. "Come with me please."

Mason only briefly considered disobeying. Although Mowerhead couldn't have been much older than himself, he was athletically lean and carried himself with an air of command. Was that an empty holster on his belt? He led Mason to a beige sedan and directed him into the back seat. Instead of going to the courthouse, the sedan pulled onto the highway and drove for over an hour north and then west, the final stretch on a shoulder-less side street. The last sign Mason saw was a turn off for Nothing, an actual place apparently.

The sedan entered an area marked restricted and sealed off by a tall fence. The compound must have been large because Mason couldn't see the fencing on the far side. They shortly arrived at the gatehouse of a wall where a guard scanned Mowerhead's ID and waved them through.

Mowerhead parked the sedan and led Mason into a large building the color of desert sand. After some formalities at a check-in station, they went down a hall and into a small office. Mowerhead dropped a satchel onto a desk, saluted to the man seated there typing on his laptop, and left.

"Have a seat," said the man without looking up. "I'll be with you in a minute. I just need to fire off this email."

Mason did as instructed. He still had no idea why he'd been brought here, or even where the hell here was. He reached into his pocket for his phone, but it had been confiscated at check-in and placed into the satchel, which was now lying on the desk just a couple feet away. Until he had a better grasp of the situation, he figured it would be a bad idea to ask for it.

The man kept at his typing for a while, maintaining a brisk pace despite using only his forefingers. A fine stubble crawled from his cheeks partway down his neck, taking on a gray pallor in the overhead tube-lights. His dark blazer was open and a limp tie hung from the chafed collars of his shirt. The furniture had seen better days. The high backed chair was faux leather and not remotely new, its puffy arm rests like deflated tires. The desk was walnut laminate over beige composite, chipped at the corners. Mason picked at it with a fingernail while he waited.

Finally, the gray man took his fingers from the keyboard. "Sorry about the wait. I hate to stop in the middle of a train of thought. So what is it you're here for?"

"I don't know," Mason said, confused. "Mow—that guy that just left—told me to come with him. He didn't say anything else."

"I doubt he would have known," said the Gray Man. "He was probably just taking orders. Did someone contact you directly?"

Mason shook his head. "What is this place? A prison?"

"Ha. It can feel like that sometimes. It's a research facility run by the government."

"Government—you mean like the military?"

"More or less," said the Gray Man, "Speaking of which, have you done any work for the military or intelligence services before?"

Mason stole a nervous glance at the door. "Uh, no."

"Do you work for one of our contractors?"

"I'm sort of between jobs at the moment."

"Hmm." The Gray Man gnawed his lower lip. "I must have sent for you myself then. I'm sure I had a good reason. Maybe this will jog my memory." He dumped out the contents of the satchel onto the desk: a loose sheaf of papers, Mason's phone and keys, and what looked like a small memory chip that had sprouted a head and legs. A tag with a number dangled from one end; that had been added when it was introduced as material evidence. It was hard to believe the tiny gadget had cost him a year's tuition in legal fees and gotten him registered as a sex offender.

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