This is a continuation of ‘Who Shall I Say is Calling?‘
“For the record,” Brian said, grabbing Michael by the arm, “I still don’t think that this is a good idea.”
Michael gently peeled Brian’s fingers off his arm. “Noted. Feel free to wait outside then.” He moved ahead and pushed open the door to Seventeen.
Focus, he encouraged himself as the petite hostess greeted him. But he couldn’t stop himself from replaying the savagely brutal sex he’d just had with Brian. The moment Brian’s lips touched his, he had surrendered. Everything they’d been together, everything they’d meant to each other stoked the embers of desire and set them on fire. Naked, they were instantly transported back to who they were before Brian’s disappearance. A return to them, to a love that had changed how they saw each other and themselves. A return to hope and possibility. Yet afterwards, when Brian wanted to cuddle, Michael pulled away—as if he’d woken up from a dream, remembering the way things really were. And he sensed that Brian understood the message—things will never be the same—as he took refuge on the other side of the bed.
“Bad idea,” Brian whispered into his ear.
Michael thrust his elbow backwards, making contact with Brian’s ribcage, and smirked at the muffled grunt of pain. They were led to a table in the middle of the restaurant—hardly discreet—and joined the woman who’d bumped into him hours earlier.
“You two make a cute couple,” she said, lifting her wineglass to her parted, cherry-painted lips.
Michael ignored the comment, his gaze locked on those mysterious blue eyes. “Forget the small talk. Tell us who you are, why we’re here, and what you want.”
“Please, have a drink.” She pointed to the server approaching the table.
When the leggy brown-haired guy reached past him, Michael placed his hand over his glass. “Nothing for me.”
“You can fill mine up,” Brian said, pointing to his glass.
Michael waited until the server left and, still glaring at the woman, barked, “I’d like an answer!”
“Frankly, Michael…” Her tone was harsher, and her eyes narrowed as she set her wineglass to the side. Then she leaned forward and rested her exposed, freckled arms on the table. “After what I did for you earlier, I’d like to be shown a little more respect.”
Michael leaned back in his chair and chuckled. “What exactly did you do?”
“I stopped you from getting yourself killed.” She eyed Brian, then Michael. “My name is Julia. I’ve been quietly investigating an operation called ‘Excelsior,’ and Adam Clarke’s involvement. You’ve been digging around, Agent Reid, and that is complicating my investigation.”
Brian sat up straight. “You’re investigating my father?”
“Hold on…” Michael looked at Brian but said to Julia,” What’s Excelsior?”
Julia’s perfectly manicured eyebrow arched. “You don’t know? Earlier you—”
“Something’s going on at the Agency and I’m trying to figure it out.” Michael trained his gaze back at Julia. “I started by looking at everyone who knew about Brian’s last op. Excelsior appeared in one of the files. In trying to get Director Clarke’s attention, I took a gamble and tossed it around to see what would happen.”
“Well, well…” Julia picked up her wineglass and took a sip. “Handsome and clever.”
“I still want to know why you’re investigating my father,” Brian said, curt.
“Or course. I’ll fill you in on everything I know if you’ll do the same.” Julia reached to her left, pulled a piece of paper from her purse and handed it to Brian. “Maybe we should clear one thing up first.”
Michael watched Brian, blinking rapidly, examine the paper. “Brian…”
“What the hell is this?” Brian barked.
“Your real birth certificate,” Julia said, matter-of-fact.
Michael took the paper from Brian, who didn’t put up any resistance. He looked at Brian, then at Julia. “Is this some kind of joke? How the hell did you get this anyway? And how do we know this is real?”
“It’s real,” Julia confirmed.
“And this is connected to Excelsior?” Michael asked.
“Yes. If you’ll let me explain—”
“Then start talking,” Michael interrupted. “And if you’re lying, I promise you that you’ll wish you never bumped into me.”
“Let me backtrack a bit.” Julia graciously swept a few straying strands of her long, chestnut hair out of her face. “Excelsior. At the moment, it appears to be the common thread.”
“Tell us what Excelsior is,” Brian said impatiently.
“It was an off-the-books operation,” Julia confirmed. “It took place in the late eighties, and was operated by a select group of individuals highly placed within the Canadian government, military, judiciary, and civil service.”
“For what purpose?” Michael asked.
“To remove ‘problems.’” Julia slid her chair closer to the table and spoke in a whisper. “CEOs. Heads of state. Drug cartel leaders. It was a precarious time during the Cold War.”
Michael reached for his glass of water. “How exactly is Adam Clarke involved?”
“Adam and James were part of the kill teams,” Julia said.
“The same James Coburg on my allegedly real birth certificate?” Brian asked flippantly.
“My understanding,” Julia continued dryly, “is that the two of you are trying to figure out who burned you.”
“And you can tell us?” Brian asked cheekily.
“We haven’t been burned.” Michael glanced at Brian before returning his focus to Julia. “No Red Notices have been issued. I’ve checked. But someone compromised us and our respective missions. We want to know who and why.”
“I still don’t believe that my father…” Brian twisted himself sideways. “He wouldn’t do that, wouldn’t put my life in jeopardy.”
“Are you so sure?” Julia sipped her wine. “Think back to your last mission, Brian. You came in contact with a woman named Angelique Romero. Correct?”
“Yes.” Brian furled his pointed eyebrows. “I still don’t—”
“Angelique is the daughter of Giorgio Romero,” Julia explained. “Her father was a powerful Italian drug cartel leader who also funded Sardinian separatists. James led the kill team that assassinated her father.”
“James Coburg runs the largest pharmaceutical company in the country,” Brian said flatly. “You really expect me to believe that he’s my father?”
“Believe it or not, it’s true.” Julia looked at Michael. “You understand the implications, don’t you?”
Michael crossed his arms. “Unfortunately, I do.”
“Then explain it to me,” Brian spat.
“Adam Clarke had every reason to protect you, Brian, until he learned that you weren’t his son. If Angelique Romero is out for revenge, and knows who your real father is, a good play would be to tell Adam.”
“This is insane,” Brian snapped.
“You wanted to know why we’re here.” Julia clasped her hands together on the table. “Because James wants to meet you, Brian. I believe Angelique is out for revenge, and that now she has Adam Clarke on her payroll. James killed her father, and what better payback than to kill his son. But James can help protect you.”
“I can’t…” Brian pushed back his chair, stood, and beelined for the exit.
Michael stared down Julia. “I’ll talk to Brian. As you can appreciate, this is a lot for him to take in. Set up a meeting with James and I’ll get him there.”
“You really do live up to your reputation, Agent Reid.” Julia nodded appreciatively. “Brian doesn’t know how lucking he is to have you.”
“He’s my husband,” Michael heard himself saying. “I’ll do anything to protect him. If we’re right about Angelique and Adam working together, they will pay.”
This is a continuation of ‘Face-Off‘
The moment Michael walked into Agency headquarters, a guard trained his weapon on him. Without knowing why, had he made the country’s—or just the Agency’s—‘Ten Most Wanted’ list? He complied, without saying a word, when another guard approached and frisked him. All that was found were his wallet, keys and cell phone. His sidearm had been taken away at the start of his suspension, and he knew better than to bring his own personal firearm onto Agency property…unless he wanted to get himself killed. But his appearance was only about getting Brian the necessary time to download the file onto the director’s computer and then, hopefully, find the people hunting them down.
“Director Clarke is on his way,” the man growled from the other side of the metal turnstiles. His name was Rob Dryden, and he was in charge of security at the Agency’s headquarters. Burly. Brutish. A stickler for protocol. “Don’t move.”
Michael didn’t move, just stared down Rob. There had been few interactions between the two men, but Michael respected him based on the stories he’d heard about Rob’s last military deployment. A major in the Canadian Armed Forces, Rob was serving in the Persian Gulf when his unit came under attack from Iraqi insurgents. Under heavy fire, Rob had left their protective position to take out the two rooftop snipers. It helped them hold off their attackers until backup arrived, but he was shot in the leg and ever since walked with a slight limp. It was more than a story. It was the truth that had been reported on in the media at the time, and confirmed in the highly redacted report Michael had requested through the Access to Information Act. Rob Dryden didn’t play favourites and wasn’t someone to mess with.
“What the…” Michael took a step to the left after someone had stumbled into him. Then he locked eyes briefly with a woman, wearing a grey pants suit, who pointed to her purse on the floor. He bent over to pick it up.
“You don’t want to do this,” she whispered as she accepted her purse. “Not here, not now.”
Michael glanced down when he saw her slip something into his jacket pocket.
“What a gentleman,” she said loudly, then opened her purse and rifled through it. “I’m having one of those days. I’ve forgotten my pass.” She brushed her hair out of her face, then added quickly, “I’m a friend. Call the number on the paper I gave you. And, Agent Reid, I’d advise you to get out of here now. You just woke up a sleeping giant.” Then she hurried towards the exit.
Michael slipped his hand in his pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. He unfolded it, studied the number written on it, then looked up. The woman was gone. You just woke up a sleeping giant. What did that mean? A ding. Michael, putting the paper back in his pocket, pivoted, and his gaze focused on the white light illuminated above an elevator door. He took a step backwards. Then another. And when the elevator doors opened, he spun around and bolted.
“Agent Reid!” Dryden shouted after him.
Outside, Michael walked quickly but didn’t full out run, trying not to draw any attention to himself. He looked back once. Two guards had exited the building and were scanning the Plaza. One pointed in his direction, and that was when he broke out into a sprint. He ran to the first intersection, where he climbed into a cab stopped at a red light. As the vehicle rolled forward, he pulled out his phone and set a message to Brian: Get out of there now. Then he called his asset. “It’s done.”
“I know,” the gravelly voice said. “I’ll get back to you if and when I find anything.”
“This should be a cakewalk for you,” Michael shot back. “You were the last one to hack the Agency’s network. Didn’t you advise them on how to prevent future cyber attacks?”
“That’s why it might take time,” was the flippant reply. “I’m trying not to trigger any of the network security protocols.”
“We may not have a lot of time.”
“Then let me do my job.”
The line went dead.
Prick, Michael though. He took out the paper and dialled the number on it.
“A wise decision to call, Agent Reid,” the woman said.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“We need to talk in-person,” she insisted, the earlier gentleness in her voice replaced by a steady firmness. “Tonight. Eight o’clock. At Seventeen.” A pause. “And, Agent Reid, bring your husband with you.”
“Would you like to explain to me what just happened?” Director Clarke asked.
“I don’t know,” Brian said weakly.
“Then let’s try another tack.” His father crossed to Rob Dryden. “Send a team to bring in Agent Reid.”
“Wait!” Brian joined the two men. “Let me handle Michael.”
“How?” The director glared at him. “You told me not five minutes ago that he wants nothing to do with you.”
“Let my try,” Brian pleaded. “Besides, he hasn’t committed a crime. And I know him better than anyone.”
Brian moved with his father away from Dryden. When they were out of earshot, he said, “Dad, I can—”
Director Clarke raised a hand. “I don’t know what Michael’s up to, and I don’t care. And it doesn’t matter to me that he’s your husband. I will not let him compromise me or the Agency.”
“You’re talking like he’s a criminal. All we’re trying to do is find out who leaked our whereabouts in London, and whether or not they’re still coming after us. Doesn’t it concern you that someone might be trying to kill your son and his husband?”
“I told you that there’s no evidence—”
“They sent me photos,” Brian interrupted. “Of Michael jogging. When he was out having coffee. How did they make the link between us? How did they know where I was?”
His father scrunched his bushy eyebrows. “Where are those photos now?”
“I turned them over to the London office to secure in the evidence room.”
“Why am I just hearing about them now?”
“I was trying to deal with it, contain the situation.”
“Great job!” His father stared him down. “I want you and Michael back in my office tomorrow morning at ten. If you’re not there, we’ll do things my way. And you won’t like it. Understood?”
“Understood,” Brian agreed, then exited the building.
Brian wasn’t sure what to do or where to go. Go home? Where was that? He wanted to believe that home was still with Michael. If it wasn’t he accepted that it was his fault. He’d lied to the one person who mattered most to him when he’d been honest about everything else. This was the ‘worse’ of ‘for better or for worse,’ and he wasn’t convinced they could battle through it—or worse, if either of them really want to try.
Roaming the streets in a daze, Brian found himself at Burnt. He ordered a cortado and, waiting, scanned the faces of everyone in the coffee shop. Secretly, he’d hoped to see Michael there, waiting for him, even though they hadn’t talked about meeting up after his ‘mission’ in his father’s office. But Burnt had always been one of Michael’s favourite haunts, a place where he escaped to read or think, and a place to run away from him when they argued.
That made Brian grin. They’d never argued often, but when they did they mercilessly hurled scarring insults at each other. But everything was forgotten and forgiven with the wild, sweaty make-up sex that followed. Fuck, what have you done? Brian wondered, remembering the evenings Michael read on the sofa. He’d come into the living room and touch his hand to Michael’s shoulder. And when Michael’s gaze met his, their looks said everything. At once a prayer and a plea: “Love me, forever, I pray…”
His coffee in hand, Brian had just exited Burnt when his phone vibrated. He whipped it out and, after accepting the call, grunted, “What the hell happened back there?”
“I’ll explain when I see you,” Michael said. “Meet me at home.”
Brian smirked. “Meet you where?”
“I’ll see you when you get there.”
The call dropped and Brian put his phone away as his lips spread into a full smile. “He said, ‘home,’” he said abstractly into the air and picked up his pace. Fifteen minutes later, he walked into their condo, his excitement instantly decimated by the harrowing silence that welcomed him. He moved down the hall towards the bedrooms, the silence tightening around his throat and seemingly cutting off his breath. “Jesus!” he yelled when Michael suddenly stepped into the hallway from the primary bedroom. What the fuck is wrong with me? he wondered because Michael hadn’t even flinched, simply strode past him towards the living room. Brian spun around and jogged to catch up to him.
“My asset’s been pulling information from your father’s computer,” Michael said as he dropped onto the sofa. “He’ll let me know when he’s found something.”
“How long with that take?” Brian asked, lowering himself onto the other end of the sofa and enforcing the silent pact to keep as much distance between them as possible.
They stared each other down, their looks still asking, ‘Who are you?’
Brian looked away first. “Now do I get to know what happened back at Agency headquarters?” He listened, curbing his urge to interrupt, as Michael explained his exchange with the nameless woman. Someone was watching them. And for the first time in years, he was nervous. Because he’d never meant to put Michael in the crosshairs of his own messes. “And you think we should meet her? What if it’s a trap?”
“It’s a lead,” Michael said flatly. “We need to see where it leads. At least it’s in public.”
“Unless whoever she works for doesn’t care about shooting up a restaurant and who gets caught in the crossfire.”
“It’s one thing to be cautious,” Michael said askance. “But you’re being paranoid.”
“Now we know we’re being watched.”
“We already knew that.” Michael shifted on the sofa to face Brian. “It’s not just whoever outed us in London. I’ve had two Agency neophytes tailing me, or trying to, ever since your father suspended us.”
“It’s for our protection,” Brian shot back.
“And you believe that?” Michael stood. “I’m going to meet the woman. Come or not, that’s up to you. In the meantime, I’m going to take a power nap.” He left the living room, the soft thud of a door closing came seconds later.
Brian waited a moment, his mind in overdrive, then launched himself off the sofa. He marched to Michael’s bedroom, their bedroom, gripped the door handle and drew in a breath. Then he opened the door, a startled Michael bolting upwards in the bed.
“What are you doing?” Michael asked, almost shouting.
Brian didn’t speak, his gaze locked on Michael’s as he climbed onto the bed. He straddled Michael and pushed him backwards, their lips millimetres apart. “I love you, Michael.” He pressed his lips to Michael’s, held them there a moment, then pulled back. “If you tell me to stop, I will. But if you don’t…”
His eyes stayed open wide when Michael’s hand cupped the back of his head and pulled him forward until their lips met again. There was a roughness he hadn’t expected, an urgency that blocked out everything around him. There was no foreplay, no teasing. And busy planning their future, he let out a quiet gasp at Michael’s sudden, star-producing entry.
This is a continuation of ‘The Game Changer‘
“It’s simple what you have to do.” Michael held out the silver USB key and waited for Brian to take it.
“Simple.” Brian accepted the device, studied it briefly, then slipped it into his pocket. “I don’t know how you expect me to pull this off.”
“We need answers,” Michael said bluntly. “At this point, this is our only option. Or at least the fastest one.” Staring down Brian, something about the man he’d married—the man he remembered—had changed. The confident, take-charge guy he’d met and fallen in love with wasn’t there. He seemed almost broken, and wondered what had really happened during the six months he was gone. “What’s wrong, Brian?”
“Is this going to work?”
“I don’t know. But we won’t know until you insert the USB into your father’s computer and open the file.”
“And what?” Brian’s voice spiked slightly. “Install some malware on my dad’s computer? We hack the network of the nation’s security intelligence service and our suspension will be the least of our worries. I mean, it’s treason.”
“Only if you get caught,” Michael corrected. “And only if you’re found out before we get the corroborative evidence we need.”
“So, it’s just my ass on the line. Great!” Brian rubbed the back of his head. “Are you sure your asset knows what he’s doing?”
“He was a black hat before the Agency got their hands on him. He knows what he’s doing.”
“Can’t say I’m really convinced.”
“Then let me put it this way…” Michael leaned in and said into Brian’s ear, “If you want to live to see your thirty-fifth birthday, you’ll do it. Otherwise, I can walk away right now and leave you to fend for yourself.”
“I get the impression you’re going to do that anyway. Walk away.” Brian checked the time. “My dad’s probably just returning from lunch.”
“Then it’s show time,” Michael said, moved away from Brian and led the way towards the Agency. This better work, or we both might just end up dead.
They walked southward on Elgin Street, Agency headquarters coming into view, and neither one said a word and stared straight ahead. And, really, Michael wasn’t certain what, if anything, they’d find on the director’s computer. Although he’d never said anything to Brian, he’d always had a ‘feeling’ about his father-in-law. His initial assessment was that Adam Clarke was a conservative, old-fashioned stick-in-the-mud who said it didn’t matter that his son was gay, but in reality it did. Michael could have lived with that because other people’s opinions never held much sway with him. But what if Adam Clarke really was a traitor? And he commanded the nation’s security intelligence agency?
“What if this doesn’t work?” Brian asked when they’d neared the intersection across from the Agency Plaza. “Or if I get caught trying to—”
“This isn’t the most high stakes operation you’ve led.”
“It’s the first time I’m betraying my father,” Brian snapped.
“The clock’s ticking, Brian. If you’ve got a better plan, let’s hear it.” Michael waited, then added, “That’s what I thought. When you’re alone with your father, remember to text me. I’ll make sure you have the chance you need to insert the USB key and download the file.”
Brian entered the stone building, and at the same time he touched his ID card to the reader sirens blared. He slowly lifted his hands in the air as two of the security officers drew their weapons and aimed them at him. “I need to speak with Director Clarke,” he said calmly, his gaze latched onto the third man reaching for the phone on the desk to the left of the turnstiles.
The conversation was quick, and after putting down the receiver the unsmiling brute pointed at him. “Escort him Director Clarke’s office. Under no circumstances are you to leave him alone.”
Once past the turnstiles, Brian realized how everything had changed. There had always been, even if he’d never asked for it, a certain reverence for him as the director’s son. Now the colleagues who walked past him—some he’d even considered friends—dropped their heads. Had he been blacklisted? Out of favour with his father, it was clear he could no longer help them advance their career. But what they never realized was he was only ever a hindrance, an impediment to any type of promotion.
When he arrived in the reception area of the director’s office suite, Ann, the gatekeeper, looked up from her computer. “You can return to your post,” she said authoritatively. “The director will be here shortly.”
The guards looked at each other, one offering a languid shrug, and then left. Ann Bell had been his father’s right hand ever since Brian had joined the Agency. There was a gentleness in her round, thin face that hid a fierceness that had, undoubtedly, saved lives. Was that why orders carried almost the same weight as his father’s? She always presented herself immaculately, which perhaps fuelled the rumours that she’d been a model in another life. And despite her long grey hair, which was pulled back in a ponytail, he didn’t know how old she was, not that that mattered. But to work along side his father, Ann had to have been an able field agent. The best. And Brian was no threat to her, and he knew it.
Brian sat in one of the uncomfortable wooden chairs that reminded him of the one in his childhood bedroom. He believed his father had purposely chosen the chairs in order to weaken the people waiting to see him. A master dominator who always sought control, who was no different with his children. Brian, tapping his foot, constantly shifted his gaze between the laptop on the desk that was visible through the open door of his father’s office and Ann. This is crazy. I’m crazy.
“You have some nerve!”
Brian looked up as his father strode past him. There had always been a distance between them, one that Brian never understood. And even in those four words spoken there was a derisiveness that cut threw him, a reminder of all the times he’d tried to prove himself to his father but never seemed to measure up. He quickly pulled out his phone and hit ‘Send,’ the pre-typed message immediately marked as ‘delivered.’ Shoving the device back into his pocket as he stood, he glanced at Ann, who seemed to ignore him, and then entered his father’s office.
“Close the door!” was the order barked from behind the desk.
Brian did as instructed, then slunk towards the desk. His father still wasn’t looking at him. “What happened in London wasn’t my fault.”
Director Clarke raised his head and removed his black-framed glasses in a violent jerking motion. “Then whose fault was it? You’re job wasn’t to risk your cover, or the operation, to save your husband.”
“I was supposed to let him get killed?” Brian countered.
“You had a job to do,” his father shot back. “I expected you to do it.”
“What would you have done if it had been Mom?”
His father shot out of his seat and raised a finger. “Don’t go there.” Then he dropped his head as he sank back down onto his chair. Studying his son, he asked, “What are you doing here? I suspended you and your husband. Shouldn’t you be getting reacquainted?”
“I lied to him, Dad. Michael doesn’t want to have anything to do with me at the moment.”
“I warned you about marrying another agent.”
“You did. But now that’s a moot point.” Brian took another step forward. “Let’s talk about the people trying to kill me and what we’re going to do about it.”
“Agents Whiting and Hastings have it covered. If anyone tries to make a move on you or Michael, we’ll take them down.”
“You’re tracking us?” Brian asked with disbelief.
“You, yes.” Director Clarke leaned back in his chair. “Your husband, on the other hand, is good at ditching his surveillance team.”
“It was your idea to recruit him.” Brian smirked. “Guess you got your money’s worth.”
Director Clarke brought himself forward. “Go home, Brian.”
Brian followed his father’s gaze to the door. He hadn’t heard a knock.
“What is it, Ann?” Director Clarke asked.
“Rob Dryden called from security,” Ann said quickly. “There’s an issue. Agent Reid is also here. Says he wants to talk to you about an operation called Excelsior.”
“That’s the guy you had to marry.” Director Clarke stood and, heading towards the door, threw out, “Yes, it was my idea to recruit him. And he’s been nothing but a pain in the ass.” He left the room.
As soon as his father was out of the room, Brian beelined behind the desk, inserted the USB key, and double-clicked on the file. It took seventeen seconds for ‘Download Complete’ to appear on the screen. His heart in his throat, he’d just made it back to the other side of the desk when his father’s voice boomed from the doorway. “I want you with me. I want you to see how I deal with rogue agents.”
This is a continuation of ‘Follow the Rules‘
Michael reached for his phone after the sixth chirp sounded. Scrolling through the series of messages, he pushed himself up in the bed. “Jesus,” he mumbled as his eyes darted across the screen.
“Yes,” Michael said quickly as he threw back the duvet and shot out of the bed. “Everything’s good. I just…” He scanned the room for his underwear, saw them poking out from under his jeans, and snatched them up. “I’ve got to go.”
“I can see that,” was the cheeky reply from the guy with crow-black hair still stretched out in the bed. “You could spend the night.”
“No, I couldn’t.” Michael yanked on his jeans, then bent over to pick up his shirt and pulled it on. “There’s a lot going on, and I probably shouldn’t have come here.”
“Then why did you? Never mind. I get it. I’m just a good, convenient fuck.”
“Who said good?” Michael, smirking, pointed to the bedroom door as he pivoted. “I really do have to go.”
Sam sat up, stared down Michael, then slowly got up and dressed quickly. “Thought you were leaving?”
Michael went to speak but censored himself. What could he say? There had never been any rules about what was and wasn’t happening between them. In the bluntest of terms, it was just a good, convenient fuck. A way to beat back loneliness, especially after Brian had died. But now? He strode out of the bedroom and into the foyer. Wedging his feet into his shoes, he looked up and met Sam’s gaze. “I probably won’t be able to come around for a while.”
“It’s just a booty call, right?” Sam shoved his hands in his pockets. “You don’t owe me an explanation. Let’s be honest, we don’t know much about each other. And you’ve never seemed interested to find out that much about me.”
Michael could have argued the point, but he didn’t. He knew more about Sam Carter than he ever let on. The day after he and Sam had spent their first night together—a month ago, and before Brian’s reappearance—he’d asked a favour from an Agency analyst to compile a file on Sam Carter, a journalist with the Ottawa Post. Even during his nine weeks in London, every three weeks he returned to Ottawa as part of his cover as a IT technical advisor. It was during his last trip that he and Sam had met, repeatedly, during his five-day stay. There had been a promise, however ambiguous, to keep in touch. But Sam’s career was a danger Michael had to navigate around carefully. That meant lying, which by now he was all too familiar, and comfortable, with. And Sam never challenged him, perhaps for reasons they both understood without verbally acknowledging.
“Call or don’t call,” Sam said coolly to break the silence. “It really is up to you.”
“Be well, Sam.” Michael waited a moment, then threw open the door and charged into the corridor.
It took about three minutes for the elevator to arrive, then it stopped at almost every floor before reaching the lobby. When Michael was finally outside, he leaned against the building and reviewed the messages his asset had sent. Quick work, like always. Detailed. And he understood why the Agency had labelled this person a threat to national security. But now he had a lead, just not the one he necessarily had hoped for. Not one that Brian was going to like, either.
Before moving, Michael replied to his asset’s last message reminding him of their deal. He offered a three-word answer: working on it. It was enough to stall. He planned to keep his word and help the man disappear, but it would take time. He had a plan, or at least the beginnings of one, which would take resources that he didn’t have. Not yet. But he’d figure that out, too.
Twenty minutes after saying goodbye to Sam Carter, Michael walked into his Murray Street condo. The welcoming silence was a relief. Was Brian there? He toured the unit, popping his head into each room. Empty. In the primary bedroom, he stripped and hopped into the shower. His first priority was washing Sam’s scent off him. He shouldn’t have felt guilty, but he did. Because he had said five years ago, “To have and to hold, until death do us part.” Then, he’d meant it. But Brian had died, and that freed him from that promise. Brian had broken the pledge, not him. Maybe other people would have been happy to see their loved one resurrected, but the betrayal, the deception, cut too deep. Had it made forgiveness impossible?
Out of the shower and dressed, he stood hunched over his desk, set up in the den off the living room, and printed out the files that had been sent to him. He collected the papers and made his way to the kitchen. He poured himself a small amount of scotch, then parked himself at the dining room table. One more time, he pored over the information before him. Yes, he had a lead, but he still didn’t know what was happening or why. Already he had too many questions and no answers.
He cranked his head in the direction of the door at the sound of a key in the lock. Then the door opened and Brian appeared. Their gazes locked, Brian looked away first as he took of his coat and hung it up in the closet. Michael returned his focus to the documents on the dining room.
“How’s your mom?” Brian asked.
“Same.” Michael didn’t look up. He couldn’t because if he did, Brian would know he was lying. “Busy with all her church activities, and now she’s leading a prison fellowship team. They make monthly prayer visits to the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre.” Damn, I’m good.
“You said all the church stuff kept her sane after your father died.” Brian slowly approached the dining room table. “That’s a good thing, no?”
“Maybe I should have become a monk after you died,” Michael shot back, then immediately dropped his head. “I’m sorry. No more cheap shots. Or I’ll try.”
Brian pointed to the papers spread over the table. “What’s all this?”
“Sit down, Brian.” Michael waited for Brian to drop onto the chair next to his. “This is the information my asset sent me. It’s a deep dive into the people on the list. Each pile represents the names on the list.”
“Six piles.” Brian rested his elbow on the table and massaged his forehead above his right eye. “You included me and my dad on the list you gave your asset.”
“Just covering all bases.”
“You really believe me or my father could be involved? I already had to stage my death, so why would I then send someone to kill me?”
“After everything that has happened,” Michael said pointedly, “I don’t know what’s true and what’s not. But given what happened in London, and how we were both compromised, it only makes sense that whoever’s coming after us has inside help.”
“Does any of this information prove your theory?”
“You decide.” Michael picked up the stack of papers to his left and held them out. Then he watched as Brian reviewed them, his face blank and expressionless.
Brian set the papers on the table and glared at Michael. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Unfortunately, no.” Michael gestured to the other piles of papers on the table. “You’re welcome to go through them all, but you won’t find anything. Nothing that suggests any wrongdoing.”
“Your asset wants to disappear, and he wants your help to do that.” Brian pointed to the papers he’d just set down. “Is it possible he concocted that to guarantee your help?”
“He wouldn’t do that,” Michael countered. “He’s a lot of things, but his reputation means everything to him. People went to him because they trusted the information he provided. That’s why the Agency coerced his cooperation.”
Brian leaned back in his chair. “I don’t believe it.”
“Then your assistance is no longer required.” Michael stood, collected the papers and made his way to his desk. He slipped them into a manilla envelope, sealed it, and then shoved it into his satchel. Given the information, and that everything was still nothing more than speculation, he understood Brian’s apprehension. But so far, it was the only lead he had, and he had to follow it—no matter where, or to whom, it led.
“You trust him?” was the question that came from behind.
Michael spun his chair around and found Brian’s gaze. “If you’re talking about my asset, yes. I trust him. And he knows how I deal. If he feeds me false information, there’s no way I help him disappear. I’m his ticket out of here.”
“My father is the director of National Intelligence.”
“The evidence before me suggests your father’s a traitor.”
“I don’t…” Brian shoved his hands in his pockets. “How did this guy get his hands on my father’s financial statements?”
“He’s that good.”
Brian, standing in the middle of the living room, yanked his hands out of his pockets and eased onto the ottoman. “I take it you have a plan.”
“Yes. Well, part of one.” Michael slid to the edge of his desk chair. “Want to hear it?”
“Honestly, I’m not sure.”
“That’s fair.” Michael flicked his eyebrows. “You’re probably not going to like it anyway…”
This is a continuation of ‘This is How it Began‘
Michael studied the two sheets of paper that were laid out side by side on the island counter. One was a printout of the names of the Agency personnel who knew about Brian’s off-the-books assignment. The other was filled with his handwritten uncial-style notes—what he knew about those people, other information he’d been able to discreetly gather about Brian’s mission, and possible scenarios that could play out. It didn’t make sense, at least not yet, why anyone would have targeted Brian, and by extension, him. Sure, Brian was the director’s son, but that seemed to hinder his career more than help it. They were nothing more than mid-level agents with no influence.
He stifled a yawn as he glanced at the microwave clock. It was eight minutes to nine, and the morning after his confrontation with Brian in Confederation Park. That had him considering the possibility of a mole inside the Agency, and that meant Brian needed protection. They both did. But they were suspended, and he didn’t know who he could trust. Until he did they’d be, despite what he wanted to believe, safer together. Because the world Brian had invited him into—the world he had unexpectedly embraced and in which he’d found himself—wasn’t black or white. It had lots of mercurial greys that changed how they saw each other and themselves.
At the chirping sound, Michael’s gaze shifted to his phone on the counter next to the papers. Thirty minutes left before the scheduled meeting that he hoped would, sooner rather than later, shed light on what had happened in London. The faint sound of running water filtered through the silence, and that made him smirk. It reminded him of all the times he and Brian readied for a dinner date, or even a run. Brian was always the last one ready, making sure every hair was in place, every piece of clothing perfectly pressed. No wrinkles. No tears. No fraying at the seams. It was, after all, part of his charm. But he always looked good. And still did. But there was no time to waste thinking about what was or had been. And if Brian was going with him, they had to leave. Now.
He folded each sheet of paper in half, then into thirds, and shoved them into his back pocket as he stood. Then he snatched his phone off the counter, his grip tightening around it, as he marched towards the guest bedroom. The door was open, but the room was empty. He spun around as the door behind him opened, and there was Brian tucking his shirt into his pants as he stepped into the hall.
“Sorry,” Brian said, sailing past Michael and into the guest bedroom. “I slept through my alarm.”
“I can do this on my own.” Michael watched as Brian, awkwardly leaning forward with one hand on the footboard, pulled on his shoes. “Maybe it’s better that way.”
“I’m coming with you.”
Michael raised his phone, the time appearing on the screen, and pointed to it. “Then we’ve got to go. Now!” He headed to the foyer, swept up his keys off the occasional table and left the condo. By the time he made it to the elevator, he heard the scratching of the key he’d given to Brian in the lock and the thud of the deadbolt turning over.
“What happened to your watch?” Brian asked as he approached Michael.
The elevator doors opened and Michael shot inside. Holding his gaze to the dark walnut flooring, he said, “Nothing happened to it. I just don’t wear it.” For their first-year wedding anniversary, Brian had given him a Bulova Wilton GMT. The last time it had been on his wrist was the day of Brian’s funeral.
“Why? You said you loved—”
“Stop it, Brian,” Michael interrupted and looked up. “You don’t get to ask those types of questions anymore. Maybe we need to review the rules again. The only thing we’re doing together is trying to figure out who leaked our whereabouts in London and why. Everything else is off limits. My bedroom, my life, everything that’s happened since…” His voice trailed off when the elevator slowed and the doors opened on the seventh floor. A grey-haired man he hadn’t seen before stepped in, and a stony silence reigned until they were outside. Michael stopped just outside the entrance to his building and stared down Brian. “We’re not a married couple, not as far as I’m concerned. We’re two agents working a case together. That’s it. If you don’t like the rules, you’re welcome to slum it again back at the Days Inn.”
“And when we’ve figured this out, whatever this is, then you’ll have to find your own place to live.”
“Got it,” Brian snapped. He waited until they had started walking again, then asked, “Can you at least tell me where we’re going?”
“I told you yesterday,” Michael said with an edge, “that someone owes me a favour. We’re going to meet them. Actually, they’re more of an asset with a useful skillset. If someone inside the Agency set you up and are willing to take both of us out, my asset will get us the information we need to track them down.”
“I never pegged you as a conspiracy theorist,” Brian said with a chuckle.
“I’m not,” Michael spat. “You got a better idea? Maybe you’re not concerned about someone coming after you again since you know how to play dead. I’m interested in staying alive.” He slowed his pace as he massaged his forehead just about his right eye. “I didn’t mean that…about you knowing how to play dead. But I do want to stay alive. Just so you know, I hope my hunch is wrong and no one inside the Agency is involved. I am, however, worried that whoever came after you will try again. And that, maybe, they’re already here in Ottawa.”
“I never wanted this to be your life,” Brian said ruefully. “But you’ve stepped fully into your role, and you’re good at it. So, whatever you need me to do, I’ll do it. No questions asked. Well, maybe one or two now and then.”
Michael turned his head to hide his smirk. Always a goddamn charmer. But perhaps his ruthlessness had sent a message: we’re doing this my way and I’m in charge. It was another moment when he’d stopped himself from saying, “In six months a lot has changed.” He pulled out his phone, and when he saw the time picked up his pace. His asset wasn’t one to hang around long if you were late. He’d learned that lesson the hard way. And during the nine weeks he was in London, he’d hardly trained. One or two runs at most, and that seemed like a generous count. By the time he stopped a few metres from the entrance to Burnt on Elgin Street, his laboured breathing was a sign of just how quickly he’d fallen out of shape.
Brian’s eyes narrowed. “We’re meeting your asset here?”
“He’s kind of skittish and he chose the location for the meet,” Michael said, business-like.
“You’ve gone for using ‘they’ and ‘them’ to ‘he.’ Does your asset have a name?”
“Let me do the talking,” Michael unintentionally snapped, ignoring the question. “I don’t want you to scare him off.” He took a step towards the entrance just as Brian’s hand landed on his arm. “What?”
“I need you to know…” Brian let his hand drop to his side. “No matter what you think of me, of us, I have your back. Because we’re in this together.”
“We’re in this together because of the stupid stunt you and your father pulled. Just remember we’re only ‘in this together’ temporarily.”
Brian blocked Michael from moving past him. “You need to know, and understand, that I’m not giving up on us.”
As Michael stared into those grey-green eyes, he staggered backwards when Brian’s minty breathed invaded his nostrils. He hadn’t forgotten about the happy times they’d had together. The five days during their honeymoon in Copenhagen where they didn’t leave their hotel room. Their nightly chats, when they were home together, where nothing was off limits as they snuggled on the sofa and sipped wine. Brian pleading with him to slow down during their runs. Happy, they were, before…
Michael stepped past Brian and entered Burnt. He quickly scanned the coffee shop and found his target. He waited for Brian to join him, then led the way to the guy wearing a black baseball cap and sunglasses seated at the table in the far corner. He pointed to the vacant chair across from his asset, which Brian dropped onto, and slid another chair across the floor from a nearby table. Seated, he said, “Thanks for coming.”
“Did I have a choice?” the guy asked brutishly. He pointed at Brian while addressing Michael. “Who’s this guy? Thought you were coming alone.”
“At the moment, my h-husband,” Michael confirmed.
The guy slid his sunglasses down his convex nose half an inch, then pushed them back to their original position. “I thought he was dead.”
“I did, too.” Michael took the two sheets of paper from his pocket, unfolded the first one containing the names of the Agency personnel aware of Brian’s assignment and whereabouts, and held it out. “I need everything you can find on the people on that list.”
The man leaned back in his chair, an air of defeat rolling over him. “You said you’d never ask me to do anything like that again.”
“You’re the only one I know who can do this,” Michael said with emphasis. “And I trust you to do it without raising any flags. Someone, or some group, wants the two of us dead. My gut feeling is that one or more people on that list are involved. I…we need to know who it is.”
In the silence that implanted itself, Michael stared directly at the black lenses of the guy’s sunglasses. It was a warning: there was no way out of this because it had to be done. And he’d do it because the consequences of not doing it would be brutal. Unbearably so. It was clear, even if never spoken, that Michael had the leverage.
“We both know I don’t have a choice in this,” the man said, curt, and slipped the paper into his pocket. “So, I’ll do it. But you need to do something for me.”
“Really?” Michael sat back in his chair and folded his arms. “What’s that?”
“You make me disappear. I’ve paid my dues tenfold. I don’t owe you, or the Agency, anything else.”
“I can make you disappear.” Michael slid his chair closer to the table, leaned forward, and said forcefully, “But if you go back to your old line of work, I’ll track you down and bury you. Alive. Literally.”
The guy stood and held out his hand. “Deal.”
“Deal,” Michael agreed as they shook hands, then watched as his asset hustled to the exit and disappeared.
“Deal?” Brian squeaked. “You don’t have the authority to make that kind of promise.”
“Are you so sure?” Michael pushed back his chair. “You haven’t been around for six months. Things have changed.”
“My father will never approve it.”
Michael censored himself because he hadn’t shown Brian the list of names he’d handed off to his asset. Adam Clarke’s name was at the top of the list. Just because he was the Agency’s director, and Brian’s father, didn’t give him a free pass. The number of people who knew about Brian’s undercover mission, and his whereabouts, was small. Each one of them had to be fully vetted. His asset could find things the best CIA and FBI analysts could not. That was what made him valuable, and also why Brian was right. Adam Clarke would not let this asset disappear. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t possible, or that Michael didn’t have a plan.
“Now what?” Brian asked.
“We wait for my asset to get back to me.”
Brian reached for Michael’s hand. “So, we can talk.”
“No.” Michael jerked his hand free and stood. “I’m going to see my mother.”
“I’ll go, too.” Brian shot off his chair. “I’d love to see Lydia.”
“And what? Give her a heart attack?” Michael shook his head. “I haven’t told her you’re alive. Besides, you should work your contacts and find out what they know.”
“I’ve been trying. Haven’t found out much.”
“Keep trying. I’ll see you back at the condo later.” Michael, like his asset a few minutes earlier, hustled to the exit and left the coffee shop. He looked back over his shoulder to make sure Brian wasn’t following him. He wasn’t going to his mother’s because she was still on the East Coast visiting family. He just didn’t want to be near Brian or talk about them. Because every time he looked at Brian all he thought about was the day Brian had ‘died.’ The jam-packed funeral. The gold maple leaf with his name engraved on it on the Agency’s Wall of Honour for fallen agents. The empty bed he crawled into at night.
Michael abruptly stepped into the road, dodging passing cars as he sprinted to the other side. He tried to tell himself that he was aimlessly roaming the streets, but everything he did was deliberate and calculated. Twenty minutes after leaving Brian at Burnt, and even if he knew better, Michael entered the familiar building on Laurier Avenue West and dialled the memorized ring code.
“Yes?” was the greeting through the intercom.
“It’s me. Michael.”
“Come on up.”
At the buzzing sound, Michael reached for the door handle and pulled hard. Waiting for the elevator, This is wrong and you know it, repeated in his mind. But he didn’t care.
At that moment, it was exactly what he needed, exactly where he had to be.
This is a continuation of ‘Is It Too Late for Us?’
The call came two days after Michael had landed back in Ottawa. Two days after telling his ‘husband’ that he couldn’t come home. Two days after his life had imploded. A call, long anticipated, from his boss and reluctant—or so it had always seemed—father-in-law. Judgment Day. And now it was only a matter of time, minutes, before he learned if he’d be spared, censured, or sent to Riverdale.
But he had another plan. If Director Clarke would even give him the opportunity to speak.
And, of course, there was more waiting. To prove a point. That he wasn’t in charge. He’d never been in charge. Simply part of the rank and file. Another way of showing him his place, and that he better not step out of it…if he knew what was good for him.
Michael glanced at his watch. Twenty-six minutes past two. He’d been told the meeting was at one thirty and had shown up ten minutes before that. No way he’d do something else to annoy an always-irritated, always-belligerent, director. That he was, in the loosest of ways, family didn’t mean a thing. Not on Agency territory. Not outside of it, either.
And seated in the reception area of the director’s office, Michael did everything not to make eye contact with Brian. At least Brian hadn’t tried to converse with him, and occupied a seat as far away as possible. Although it wasn’t far enough. Ho Chi Minh City wouldn’t have been far enough away. Because Michael had spent the past two days holed up in his condo dissecting their past. The relief each night of the condo door closing, and Brian making it home safely. The family dinners—sometimes at the Clarke family home, less frequently at his mother’s house—where he perfected the art of the wallflower. The moments of love. The laughter. The times when silence and being together were all they needed. All wiped out by the rage slowly consuming him, and he wasn’t sure how much longer he could contain it. Or if he wanted to.
A phone rang. The silver-haired woman seated at the desk answered it, didn’t speak into the receiver and returned it to its base seconds later. Then she swivelled in her chair to look first at Brian and then at him. “Director Clarke will see you both now.”
Michael was slow to rise, waiting for Brian to move ahead of him. And Brian did advance to the director’s office door, opened it, and then waited for him. For the first time since they last saw each other, Michael looked at Brian. Briefly. The way he looked at a stranger. Dismissively. A look that asked, “Am I supposed to know you? Know who you are?”
“Come in already and shut the door!” was the order barked from across the room.
Michael stepped past Brian and approached the large mahogany desk. He let his gaze rove the space, first studying the photos, plaques and awards on the wall. A quick count showed the director had served under six prime ministers, two of which had lasted less than two years. Then he examined the other furniture in the room. The bookshelves, also made of mahogany, were crammed with books, photos and trinkets. Well, maybe the trinkets were artwork or artefacts collected when the director had been a field agent. There were two brown leather armchairs in front of the desk, two matching sofas in the middle of the room, and a conference table at the other end that seated up to ten people comfortably. It was spacious and bright with the wall of windows behind the desk. A room that had an air of sophistication yet lacking something quintessential. A cohesive style. Humanity. Was it supposed to impress or intimidate? It was only Michael’s fifth time in the office, and it, again, did neither.
Director Clarke pointed to a brown folder on his desk. “That’s the report from the debacle in London. Is there anything either of you want to add?” A silence. “Two operations gone bust. Not to mention that you probably set back Canada-UK relations a good decade.”
“Not like the Brits were really cooperating,” Brian volunteered.
“Tread carefully,” Agent Clarke.” Director Clarke pushed his silver-framed glasses up the bridge of his Roman nose and glared at Brian. “The Brits aren’t that fond of you at the moment. Patrick Blake is in the wind. No leads. No idea where he may be heading.”
“Blake wouldn’t go far,” Brian shot back. “He has too much to lose.”
The director leaned back in his chair and looked at Michael. “Anything you’d like to say, Agent Reid?”
“I spoke with Jay Leeds at MI5 yesterday,” Michael said quickly. “They picked up Sir Matthew Bayles. He’s cooperating. It’s not a total bust. There’s still a possibility—”
“You opened fire on British soil,” Director Clarke broke in. “I should hand you over to the British and let them deal with you.”
“Maybe this will make it easier for you, sir.” Michael reached into his inside jacket pocket, pulled out an envelope and held it out.
Director Clarke took the envelope but set it down on his desk without opening it. “And what is it that will make this easier?”
“My transfer request,” Michael said soberly. “To the domestic terrorism unit. I don’t think I’m a good it with counterterrorism anymore.”
“You’re a good agent, Michael.” The director’s tone shifted from that of a boss to a father figure, or almost. “And you have a promising career ahead of you. But sometimes operational decisions are made that you won’t always be privy to, or get a say in. You can’t take it personal—”
“Can’t take it personal?” Michael’s voice spiked with disbelief. “You told me my husband was dead. And I believed you.”
“It was necessary,” Director Clarke said unapologetically. “To protect Brian’s cover, and to protect you.”
“Bullshit,” Michael snapped.
“Under any other circumstance, I’d consider that insubordination.” The director brought himself forward in his chair. “Given what you’ve been though, I’ll let that slide. This time. Because you’re my son’s husband. Don’t believe for a minute, under any other circumstance, that would grant you any favours.”
Michael took a step back. “Then there’s nothing else—”
“Oh, we’re not finished,” Director Clarke interrupted and pointed to a chair. Sit. Both of you.”
Once they were both seated, Director Clarke removed his glasses long enough to run his hand over his face. “If it were up to me, I’d send you both to Riverdale for a three-month stint. See how you like pushing paper and twiddling your thumbs. But your actions in London have political implications, and the ministers of public safety and foreign affairs are screaming for someone’s head. And it won’t be mine. You both went off script and disobeyed direct orders.” He paused. “You’re both suspended for a month.”
Brian shot out of his chair. “You’ve go to be kidding me!”
“One more word, Agent Clarke,” the director warned, “and I’ll use my discretion and make it without pay.” He waited a moment, eyeing the two men, then pointed to the door. “Dismissed.”
Michael stood. “And about my transfer request?”
“I’ll think about it!” Director Clarke barked as he opened a folder on his desk. “After your suspension.”
“Yes, sir.” Michael beelined for the door, which he threw open and hustled through the reception area and into the corridor. By the time he made it to the elevator and had hit the call button, Brian was at his side. They exchanged a brief look, but let the silence carry into the elevator.
“Are you ever going to talk to me again?” Brian asked after the doors closed.
“I need space right now.” Michael spoke slowly, emphasizing each word. “And I need you to respect that.”
“You’re trying to shut me out. And transferring out of counterintelligence? That’s not the best move for your career.”
Michael glared at Brian. “I never really got to choose this career path, did I? I was recruited. You recruited me.”
The elevator doors slid open and Michael led-footed it across the expansive lobby, swiped his ID card in front of the scanner and waited for the green light. It flashed two seconds later, and he passed through the turnstile and left the building. He was halfway across the concourse when a hand landed on his shoulder and held him in place.
Brian cut in front of him. “Please, Michael. Five minutes. That’s all I ask. And if, after that, you still want nothing to do with me, fine. I’ll get out of your life. Permanently.”
Another stare-down, and in those grey-green eyes Michael searched for some semblance of recognition—the man he’d loved, the friend he’d trusted, the colleague who’d had his back. Yet, in that moment, every version of him was unrecognizable. An illusion. A ghost. And no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t tap into that deep recess where the memory card had been stored. Unretrievable. Wiped clean.
Again with a silence enveloping them, the street noises and voices around them barely audible, they made their way towards Confederation Park. Brian was in the lead, Michael a few steps behind. There was a moment, at the Elgin and Laurier intersection where about fifteen people waited to cross the street, that Michael thought about sneaking away. It wouldn’t have been hard with all the people milling about, especially with a sizeable Japanese tour group streaming towards them. But he didn’t steal away because that would have meant that he was no better than Brian. And maybe this was what frustrated him. Deep down, he knew they were the same. In a similar situation—to obey an order and disappear, even if it meant hurting the ones you love—he’d make the same choice. Because it was what life at the Agency did to you. It erased his moral core, the one that was reflected in many segments of the population. The Agency turned him into a walking AI. No emotion. A warped sense of right and wrong. A playing field where grey was the only colour on the grid.
After Brian parked himself on a bench across from the Colonel By fountain, Michael eased onto the opposite end and nearly fell off the edge. He wondered what it looked like to the people passing by and glancing in their direction. An attempt at an inconspicuous meeting? A drug deal?
“Don’t,” Michael warned through gritted teeth when Brian moved to close the gap between them. “I can hear you from where you are.”
“Can you please look at me?” Brian asked.
Michael shifted his focus from the fountain to Brian’s left shoulder, unwilling to make eye contact.
“They said they’d kill you,” Brian said, matter-of-fact, “and I believed them. I don’t know how they found out who you were, or how you were linked to me. But they did. They sent me photos of —”
“Photos?” Michael found Brian’s gaze and held it. “Of me?”
“Yes.” Brian slid his body closer to Michael’s. “You running along the canal. Standing on the balcony. Grabbing a coffee at Burnt.”
“First off, who’s ‘they?’”
“I can’t tell you that.” Brian raised a hand. “Not because I don’t want to. I’ve been ordered not to.”
“Your father.” Michael sucked his teeth. “He’s never liked me.”
“He doesn’t exactly like me, either.” Brian clasped his hands together and rested them on his lap. “I hurt you. I know that, and I’m sorry. But everything I did—”
“Wait…” Michael shot off the bench and spun around as he shoved his hands in his pockets. “You don’t know how they found out about me?”
“No.” Brian stood and closed the distance between them. “I was careful.”
“Then how did they know to send the photos to you? If you were deep undercover—”
“Jesus, Michael. You think someone inside the Agency tipped them off. But that’s impossible. Besides me and my father, only four other people had knowledge of my operation.”
“Then that’s where we start,” Michael said bluntly. “Because they didn’t just tip them off, they’re working for whoever forced you to blow your cover. And you said something else was going to happen, and that no one else understood that.”
“That’s true. I just started putting the pieces together when…when I saw you.”
“I need the names of the other four people who knew about your operation.”
“You’re not cleared—”
Michael waved him off. “You need to start trusting me. Now.”
“What can you do?” Brian asked. “You’re suspended, too. Remember?”
“Six months is a long time,” Michael said smugly. “There’s a few things I’ve learned. But to answer your question, there’s someone who owes me a favour…”
This is a continuation of ‘Past Present Future‘
The Gulfstream G200 banked to the right, and Michael stared out the window at the floor of white fluffy clouds below. He couldn’t see the ocean, and that was a good thing. The seat belt sign had gone off two hours ago, but the black strap was still secured tightly at his waist. And he’d wait until his bladder was set to burst before even thinking about getting up. At least he’d managed to keep his coffee down as the plane pitched and rolled during the climb to their cruising altitude. Turbulence wasn’t just like ‘riding down a bumpy dirt road,’ like his grandmother had told him. Not when there was thirty-seven thousand feet between him and the surface of the Atlantic Ocean.
Michael flinched when the hand pressed down on his shoulder. He looked up to see those owlish grey-green eyes fixed on him. After being ordered back to Ottawa, Michael left the Agency’s satellite office on Macaulay Road and returned to his rented flat. It was where he was headed when he spotted the black Audi A4. If Brian knew he was in London, then he also expected him to show up at his door. Someone had obviously given away his location for Brian to have been able to trace him to St. John’s Wood. But the knock on the door of his Ordonnance Hill flat never came. At least not the one he’d anticipated, and not until six thirty the next morning. And then it was another Agency asset sent to pick him up and deliver him to Heathrow.
During the ninety-minute crawl to the airport, Michael finally fell asleep. Seeing Brian alive—being so close to him, his touch, the scent of his citrusy cologne that still lingered in the pillowcases he’d never washed—sent his mind into overdrive. Marriage had never been something that Michael had thought about because the men who came in and out of his life had been like drifters. There for a good time, if he were lucky, but never a long time. No desire to put down roots, to build something enduring. And he wasn’t ready, or looking, for anything like that, either. He loved his solitude, answering to no one, remaining somewhat anonymous. Until that day at Burnt when that handsome stranger boldly asked to share his table.
He’d walked straight past Brian on the tarmac and onto the plane. There was, from Michael’s perspective, nothing to talk about. Not now. Not until the shock had worn off. Was that even possible? He rolled his shoulders, forcing Brian to remove his hand, and then stared out the window. Just leave me alone, he thought as their knees briefly touched as Brian settled into the chair across from him.
“This might be a good time to talk,” Brian said hesitantly.
“Not really,” Michael said, barely moving his lips, and shifted his focus from the blue expanse to the ghost seated across from him. “I’m not a great flyer. And talking shakes the plane.”
“You know that’s not true.” Brian smirked, but then his expression abruptly changed as he sat back and rested his hands on the table that separated them. “Yesterday, you said things had changed. I need to know what that means, Michael.”
Michael glanced over his shoulder. They weren’t alone on the plane. There were two other agents travelling with them. One looked like they were conked out in their seat, their head pressed against the cabin wall and their mouth open. The other, wearing noise-cancelling headphones, stared determinedly at his laptop. Michael doubted that the sleeping agent was actually asleep, and suspected that the noise-cancelling headphones were a decoy or a new listening device. After what had happened in London, he had no doubt that everything he and Brian said and did was being monitored.
“This is neither the time nor the place,” Michael said, training his gaze at Brian.
“I can’t not know. I know I was gone six months, and that what I did probably hurt you.”
“Probably?” Michael’s voice spiked and his fingers, now hidden under the table, curled into fists. Calm. Stay calm. “You staged your death and didn’t tell me, your husband. But I wasn’t just your husband. I was an agent—”
“You didn’t have clearance,” Brian interrupted.
“‘You didn’t have clearance.’” His fists tightening, his fingernails pressed into his palms and threatened to break the skin. “That’s the best you’ve got?”
“You know how it works. I couldn’t—”
“No,” Michael broke in. “That’s not good enough. I grieved for you, Brian. I loved you and I had opened myself up to you in a way I hadn’t done with anyone else. And for months I could smell the citrusy scent of your cologne in every room of the condo. I heard your throaty laugh. I cried myself to sleep for weeks. And the kicker was that I didn’t get to say goodbye because your father convinced me not to view your body, that he would identify it because you were, supposedly, unrecognizable. He didn’t want me to see that. Now I know that was just part of the plan.”
“It had to be convincing.”
“I can’t have this conversation with you right now,” Michael said, matter-of-fact. “Please don’t say anything else. Just…leave me alone.” He again looked out the window, waiting for Brian to get up and take any other open seat. There were four others to choose from. When that happened, he rubbed his face to catch the tear rolling down his cheek. Could he really tell Brian how everything had changed and what that meant for them? Was there even a them? Did he want there to be?
For the remainder of the flight, the only sound in the cabin was the hum of the engine until the captain announced that they’d begun their descent into Ottawa. As the aircraft taxied to the private jet centre, Michael couldn’t shake the unsettled feeling jabbing him. He was coming home, but it didn’t seem like that anymore. The agency he worked for and the man he had loved had, together, brought a sledgehammer down on his home. Smashed it to bits and destroyed its foundation. They cleared customs on board before disembarking. When they exited the terminal, there were two black Chevrolet Tahoes parked outside the entrance. The two agents who’d travelled with them from London climbed into the lead vehicle, which promptly pulled away from the curb.
Michael moved to the back of the remaining Tahoe and, before the tailgate had opened completely, tossed in his suitcase and satchel. He stomped to the rear passenger door on the driver’s side and got in. He secured his seat belt, dodging the gaze of the thin-faced driver in the rear-view mirror. And then when Brian settled into the opposite seat, he cringed. He needed to put time and distance between them. Because the shock of Brian’s resurrection, he realized, had worn off and had already transformed into anger bordering on rage. The rage of a killer taking pleasure in his victim’s pain and suffering. In his line of work, Michael had killed to protect the innocent, but he wasn’t—yet—a hedonistic serial killer.
The silence that immured them on the plane continued as the Tahoe headed towards the downtown core. The driver never asked for, or confirmed, a destination. It was nearly noon, and it became clear that they weren’t going to the Agency’s Elgin Street headquarters. There’d been no word of a meeting with Director Clarke, and that was both a relief and dangerous. He’d seen how other agents, summoned at the director’s whim after a failed op, had lost everything. Suspended, or worse, assigned to Riverdale, also known as the ‘Cesspool.’ It was another satellite office in Gatineau where disgraced agents were sent, for an indeterminate amount of time, to repent for their sins. And after nine weeks in London, he was looking forward to crawling into his own bed, and hiding from the world and the chaos swirling about him.
Twenty minutes after leaving the airport, the Tahoe came to a stop in front of Michael’s Murray Street condo. At one point, it had been their home—his and Brian’s. But now? He hustled out of the vehicle and collected his bags from the cargo space. When he turned to move, Brian was there reaching for his own luggage. “What are you doing?”
“What do you think I’m doing?” was Brian’s terse response.
Michael’s eyes went wide. “You can’t possibly expect to stay here, not after…”
“I don’t have any place else to go.”
“Well, where have you been holed up for the past six months?”
The two men, gazes locked, stepped back as the liftgate started to close. Then, with no word from their driver, the vehicle rolled forward and disappeared around the first corner. Michael stepped out of the road and onto the sidewalk, then looked up at the pewter skies and drew in a breath. Was another storm brewing in his life? Maybe. But, really, the storm had hovered ever since Brian’s fabricated death. Only now the winds were gathering speed, on the verge of inflicting more damage. He wasn’t sure he, or his heart, could withstand another assault. His heart especially, which had already been stripped threadbare.
Brian joined Michael on the sidewalk and pleaded, “I want to come home.”
“I’m not sure that’s possible,” Michael said unapologetically. “I mean, you don’t live here anymore. Besides, you’re dead, remember?”
“I’m very much alive.” Brian grabbed Michael’s hand and squeezed it. “Feel that? And guess what else? I’m still your husband.”
Michael yanked his hand free. “I have a death certificate that says otherwise, a deed that now only has my name on it and —”
“My father will fix that,” Brian interrupted. “It was all part of my cover.”
“You can’t expect us to just pick up where we left off. Jesus, Brian, you lied to me. You duped me, the man you claimed to love.”
“I do love you, Michael.”
“Things have changed.”
“You said that,” Brian growled. “But you haven’t told me what that…” There was a blank look on his face, a deadness gleaming in his eyes. “You met someone.”
“It’s complicated. Ever since you died, my whole fucking life has been complicated. For the past six months, I’ve been trying to put it back together. And now with you resurrected from the dead, it’s been blown up again.” Michael’s grip tightened on the handle of his suitcase. “But in your case, the angels should have never rolled the stone away.” He started up the walk towards the grey-stone building.
“Michael, please. We need to talk. Give me a chance to explain.”
Michael spun around and said, “Not now. Not today. Maybe not ever. All I know is that, right now, I can’t be near you.” He pivoted, strode to the building’s entrance and pulled open the door. Normally, he acknowledged Elliott, the day concierge—sometimes even stopped to chat. Not this time. He ignored him and cut straight to the elevator, repeatedly and violently pushing the call button. When he entered his unit a few minutes later, he collapsed onto the chocolate-brown leather sofa and stared absentmindedly at the ceiling. Almost instantly, tears banked in his eyes and streamed down his face. He had cried for Brian, cried for their love and the life that had been taken away from him without warning.
Yes, Brian was alive. Yes, they had loved each other—and maybe they still did. Genuinely. Yet Michael couldn’t see a way forward for them. Not because he had ‘met’ someone, but because something essential was missing, taken away and couldn’t necessarily be reinstated again.
Trust. How could Michael trust Brian again?
He wasn’t sure he could.
“Don’t give your uncle any trouble,” his father had said and, in an unusual display of affection, hugged him. “I’m doing this for you…because I love you.”
Because I love you.
That was what Michael Reid remembered about the day his father dropped him off at the airport. The first time in his life his father had said those words to him. The kids in the neighbourhood teased that his parents were trying to get rid of him. They were at that age when they knew about sex and condoms, and joked that Michael’s parents had forgotten to use one. Then he came along. Unexpected. Unwanted. A mistake.
They weren’t entirely wrong.
His parents had put off having children because of his mother’s mental health issues. They were teenagers when they met, his mother diagnosed at seventeen with bipolar disorder. His father always talked about how madly in love they were, in an almost obsessive way that made everyone around them uncomfortable. And there was never a question of his father abandoning his mother, navigating the highs of mania and the lows of depression and everything in between. And on the way to the airport, his father talked about the four ‘fantastic years,’ starting when they were twenty-one, when his mother was stable and taking her meds. That was when they married, his mother became a paralegal, and they decided to start a family. The beginning, finally, of a good life.
But everything had changed just days after Michael’s birth, his mother’s ‘baby blues’ leading to postpartum depression and, almost instantly, pushing her to the fringes of mania and beyond. Maybe that was why it always seemed like she was looking through him and never at him. Like he didn’t exist. That mistake. The thing that had ruined a perfect love, took away her world. Why they had never bonded as mother and son, and why he never remembered being alone with her, at least not often.
And even as his father lifted his suitcases out of the trunk, part of him knew—or he was desperate to believe—that his father wasn’t trying to get rid of him per se, just protect him. It was the only way for him to escape a home that was burning down around him. His mother’s mania was the worst it had been in years. She had hit him before, and the bruises had always healed. And Michael had become adept at using his mother’s makeup to conceal them, or at least explain them away to his teachers. But the day his father came home and saw him holding a cold press to his cheek was the beginning of the end of family as he knew it. For his father, who had doted over his mother and loved her unconditionally, seeing the flesh missing from his son’s cheek due to a lit cigarette had been, ultimately, the final straw.
That was why he was sent to live with his Uncle Clive in London. Clive Darling wasn’t his blood uncle, because neither of his parents had siblings. But both sets of his grandparents, who looked after him and protected him from his mother when his dad was deployed overseas, were dead. And it was overseas, during his father’s second deployment to the Persian Gulf, where the two men met. Clive was the closest thing his father had to a brother.
Michael adapted quickly to life in the area known as St. John’s Wood. But, at fifteen, his biggest challenge was crossing the road safely. The signs painted on the street, to ‘Look Right’ or ‘Look Left’ had saved his life. Repeatedly. His school mates teased him about his accent, but he didn’t mind. Anything was better than locking himself in his room to escape his parents’ Olympic shouting matches.
And while he was only supposed to be gone a year—to not have to watch his mother being involuntarily committed for psychiatric treatment—he stayed long enough to complete his sixth form studies at Harris Academy. He did so well in school that his Uncle Clive convinced his father that he should remain to attend university, too. But the summer before Michael was set to begin at King’s College London, his mother committed suicide. He returned to Halifax for her funeral and, to his surprise, stayed.
Now, fifteen years later, he was back in London. His old St. John’s Wood neighbourhood had changed and yet, in many ways, stayed the same. There was a Starbucks where the halal butcher used to be. Low-rise condo buildings replaced the dilapidated terraced houses. Mrs. Elsmore, who lived next to his uncle and sat on her porched knitting when it wasn’t raining, was still alive and knitting. She had to be one hundred years old, or close to it. Michael thought of her as old when he was younger. But everyone was older to him then.
Veering left onto St. John’s Wood Terrace, Michael discreetly turned back to see the black Audi A4 slow down. He’d noticed it as he crossed Oxford Street on his way to Marble Arch Station. But there it was again as soon as he exited St. John’s Wood Station. There were few things in life he considered coincidence, and this wasn’t one of them. He picked up his pace and darted into Panzer’s Delicatessen. He roamed up and down the aisles with his head bowed, but often glanced at the front windows. The Audi A4 was parked across the street, its hazard lights flashing.
Michael bought a bottle of water and, leaving the food shop, offered it to the man asking for spare change. Then he pulled his Glock 19 from its holster and aimed it at the Audi. “Get out of the car!”
Pedestrians screamed and fled for cover.
No movement from inside the vehicle. Michael pivoted, shot out the back tire, then took out the front.
The passenger door opened slowly, an angry-looking blond emerged with his hands up. “Michael…”
Michael blinked magnificently. “No…” His finger was still on the trigger. “It’s not possible. I buried you.” He couldn’t take his eyes off the blond inching towards him. “I buried you…”
“We’ll talk about that later.” The guy slowly peeled the gun from Michael’s grasp and then, with his other hand, whipped out his phone. “We’re in a bit of a jam.” A pause. “Right. See you there in ten.” He shoved his phone back into his pocket and handed the weapon back to Michael. “We’ve got to move.” He started to move away.
“No.” Michael didn’t budge. “I’m not going anywhere with you.”
“Do you hear that?” The blond pointed indiscriminately into the sky as sirens grew closer. “If you’re here when the police arrive, they’ll take you into custody and there won’t be a bloody thing I can do to help you, Michael.” He closed the distance between them. “You probably have a lot of questions right now, and I promise to explain everything. But right now, we need to move.”
Joined by the two other men who had exited the black Audi A4, Michael reluctantly fled the scene with them. Walking determinedly along Cochrane Street, they were all scanning the area to make sure no one was following them. They cut through St. John’s Wood Church Gardens. When they reached the front of the church, they piled into the silver Range Rover that had flashed its headlights.
A few minutes later, as the vehicle careened left onto Edgeware Road, Michael said, “Now’s a good time to tell me what’s going on. Or, for the moment, I’ll settle for why you were following me.”
The blond twisted himself around in the front passenger seat and stared at Michael. “You’re in danger. Because of me.”
“How’s that?” Michael asked with an edge. “Brian Clarke is dead. Or he’s supposed to be.”
Brian swiped his blond bangs out of his face. “I staged my death to protect you. But somehow, the group I’d been investigating knows that I’m alive. They’ve made a few unsuccessful attempts to get to me. And somehow they’ve also linked me to you, and going after you is the best way to draw me out.”
Michael turned his head and stared blankly out the window, everything a blur just like his life. He remembered the first time he saw those grey-green eyes, and the way they seemed to bore into him. That deep, suave voice that had said, “It’s busy here today. Would you mind if I shared your table?” The unexpected conversation that followed, which lasted two hours, and ended with them exchanging phone numbers. A day he’d never forget because of how it had changed him and his life. Until…
The Range Rover pulled up in front of a brown-brick building on Macaulay Road. It was an area of South London that Michael wasn’t that familiar with, and he didn’t understand, either, why Brian had brought him there. The four men exited the vehicle, and he lagged behind the others as they entered the building.
From the outside, it looked like an ordinary apartment complex that housed maybe six or eight flats. Inside, men and women rushed up and down the narrow corridors, moving from room to room. There were high tech computers, equipment he didn’t recognize, and wall-mounted monitors that displayed major London intersections and landmarks under surveillance. Despite his four years with the Agency, Michael had no idea there was a satellite office in London. Until now.
“Come with me,” Brian ordered, and led him down a short corridor and into a cozy office.
Michael stood in the middle of the room and watched Brian close the door. Then, as Brian came towards him, he backed up. They were locked again in a stared-down, like they were twenty-five minutes ago in the middle of St. John’s Wood Terrace. It gave him another chance to study the man who had, unexpectedly and perhaps even against his will, swept him off his feet. Brian, at six-two, was two inches taller than him. He had the lean build of an endurance runner, but with his clothes peeled away you saw his defined arms and legs. Michael had seen for himself how Brian’s right hook could daze the strongest of men. There was a roughness and gentleness to Brian that both endeared and, in a way, terrified. This was the man in whom he’d confided his darkest secrets. But who was he now?
“Michael, let me begin by—”
“I was your husband,” Michael interrupted, his voice already on the rise. “You said…you loved me. Was that a lie?”
“No, it wasn’t.” Brian made an unsuccessful play for Michael’s hand. “I loved you completely. I still do.”
“Then how could you…” Michael, as his voice trailed off, blinked rapidly to check his urge to cry. “Do you know what it did to me when they told me you were dead?”
“I was blindsided, Michael, when we first met,” Brian said emphatically. “I was kept in the dark about the Agency’s intention. When I was finally given a full briefing, and realized they’d planned to recruit you, I never…” He ran his hand through his hair. “It wouldn’t have made a difference because—”
Michael raised a hand. “No, Brian. You don’t get to blame this on the Agency. Every assignment you’ve ever accepted, every decision you’ve ever made, you always anticipated the outcome. And you knew there’d be consequences.”
“I didn’t know I was going to fall in love with you,” Brian shot back. “You’re right, though. I had a job to do. And I accepted that. But—”
“You were the first person to make me laugh in years.” Brian took a step forward. “Keeping you in the dark crushed me. And I never thought that I’d have to play dead this long. Because I’ve missed you. Every. Day.”
“You could have told me, confided in me,” Michael snapped. “Because I wasn’t just your husband. I was a goddamn, fucking agent, too.”
Brian dropped his head. “That wasn’t my call.”
“Bullshit!” Michael took another step backwards as Brian came forward. Now his back was against the wall, and there was less than six inches between them. Brian’s peppermint breath invaded his nostrils and made him gasp. He slipped his hand between them, placing it to Brian’s chest, to stop him from coming any closer. “Brian, please, don’t…”
But Brian ignored his plea, and leaned in and kissed him. He thought his legs would give out when Brian’s tongue touched his, and he didn’t resist when Brian’s arms wrapped around him. He’d missed those nights when they fell asleep in each other’s arms, Brian’s guttural laugh, and the moments of quiet when words weren’t needed. The deep, soul-touching stares during the orgasms that nearly shattered them. The look, whenever and wherever they were together, that said, “I’m yours and you’re mine. Forever.” They’d met, and married, before either of them had known of the Agency’s intention to recruit him. And that backed the director into a corner, and forced him to rewrite the off-the-book rules on married agents. Unofficially, anyways.
Michael abruptly broke the kiss and burled past Brian. He ran his hand across his mouth, as if wiping away the kiss and their past. How many times had he cried himself to sleep after the funeral? Brian was alive, back from the dead, but did that mean that they could just pick up where they’d left off? He spun around and said, “I’m happy you’re alive, Brian. But you need to understand that in six months a lot has changed. I’ve changed.”
“What’s changed?” Brian asked hesitantly.
The door flew open and a tall brunette stood in the doorway. “Agent Clarke, the Director wants to speak to you and Michael. Now!”
Michael’s eyes widened. “Your father’s here?”
Brian sighed. “Not exactly…”
Michael and Brian followed the agent out of the room and through a maze of corridors. They ended up in a windowless room on the third floor. On the screen of the large monitor hanging on the wall was an angry-looking man with hawkish features. Director Clarke. Brian didn’t resemble him that much, not like his siblings. And Michael had had few professional interactions with the director, which he was told was smart for his career. A man with the power to propel his career forward at warp speed could also easily end it. Not someone to cross.
“Give us the room,” Director Clarke ordered. Then, when the other agent who’d escorted them to the room left, there was a brief silence. “Do the two of you know the mess you’ve created? What the hell were you thinking opening fire in the middle of the street? In fucking London of all places!”
“Director Clarke,” Brian said and raised his hand. “If I may—”
“No, you may not!” Clarke barked. “Agent Reid, explain to me what you were thinking.”
Michael swallowed hard at the rare use of his last name. He was in trouble. “I was being followed and thought I’d been made. I didn’t want to blow nine weeks of undercover work.”
“And you thought you’d just have a good ole shoot out in the street?” the director asked.
“It’s my fault, sir,” Brian volunteered. “I should have—”
“You should have stayed dead,” their boss spat. “The both of you have severely compromised two investigations. And for what?” He bit his lip. “I want the two of you back in Ottawa ASAP. Then we’ll figure out what to do with you.”
“Come on, Dad,” Brian pleaded. “It’s not like—”
The TV test pattern came on the screen.
“I don’t think being the director’s son is going to get you out of this one,” Michael said and smothered a chuckle. “But maybe he’s right…that you should have stayed dead.”
“He doesn’t understand what’s coming,” Brian snapped, his gaze trained at Michael. “And neither do you.”
Title images ©Canva
The original version appeared 6 April 2021