Episode 23

INVESTIGATIVE RECORDS: POST-EVENT ANALYSIS AND PSYCHOLOGICAL DEBRIEFING
FORTY-ONE DAYS AFTER DESTRUCTION OF AGENCY HEADQUARTERS
PURPOSE: IDENTIFICATION OF POSSIBLE RISK FACTORS/MENTAL INCURSION, STEPS FOR PREVENTATIVE MEASURES
CURRENT SUBJECT: AGENT MARY CHESTNUT
INTERVIEWER: DR ROBERT ABRAMS, PsyD, CRUD PSYCHOLOGIST
ROBERT: Subject Mary Chestnut, premier field agent for Counterinsurgency Reliant Upon Diversity, interviewed by myself, Dr Robert Abrams, PsyD and attaché CRUD psychologist. Time is [REDACTED]. How do you feel, Agent Chestnut?
MARY: Full of holes. But they’re getting better.
ROBERT: Ah, yes, the bullet wound. How is that –
MARY: Let’s cut the bull, shall we? Dac already told me how this works. Yes, I’m healing fine. No, I didn’t know about Jacob’s true allegiance. Yes, I would kill him if I had to. Is that all you need?
ROBERT: Erm, yes, quite, now if –
MARY: Does that mean I can leave now?
ROBERT: Not quite, I just have –
MARY: I’m in the middle of a sensitive operation, and me taking time to entertain this notion that our team needs psychological treatment is putting me behind schedule. Now, are we done?
ROBERT: [pause] Interesting.
MARY: What?
ROBERT: You’re far more evasive than Agent Rogers, and he was quite a stubborn interview subject. Is there a reason you don’t want to talk about Agent Aldente’s defection?
MARY: It’s painful.
ROBERT: Because you loved him?
MARY: That’s none of your damn business.
ROBERT: Why do you think the agency is conducting this investigation?
MARY: See if any of us’ll follow in his footsteps?
ROBERT: Your chief operations officer has determined a psychological analysis for all survivors of the Mancheerian incursion is necessary. It is possible there are more sleeper agent within your ranks, and it’s my job to root them out. Doing so would mean less casualties if a situation like this were to occur again. Casualties such as Agent Gardner, or Miss Cosmopolitan –
MARY: Who?
ROBERT: I’m sorry?
MARY: Who’s Miss Cosmopolitan?
ROBERT: The on-staff hairdresser and kitchenhand. Beryl Cosmopolitan.
MARY: Beryl’s last name was cosmopolitan? [chuckles] The more you know.
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA
“I feel like we should really get to know each other on this mission.”
            Dac looked up from checking the ammunition brace on his shotgun, raising an eyebrow at the man in front of him. “I’m sorry?”
            The man shrugged apologetically, laughing in that awkward way one does when telling someone their sanity is proper. He was of medium height and average build, with messy brown hair and mismatched eyes – one green, one brown. He couldn’t have been much older than Dac. “How rude of me, not even introducing myself.” He extended a hand. “Jack Dollarman. My friends call me –”
            Dac raised a hand. “Stop right there. I’ve seen Scrubs. I’m not about to call you –”
            “They have a character called Moneybags in Scrubs?” Jack’s brow furrowed. “Must’ve missed that episode. Mind you, if it was part of that postscript Season 9 rubbish then I didn’t watch it.” He grinned. “I’m a purist.”
            Dac stared, bemused, not really believing this was actually happening right now. “Um…your friends call you Moneybags? Not…you know…”
            Jack frowned in confusion. “What? Not what?”
            “Never mind.” Right now was not the time for playing silly-buggers. “I’m guessing Damian put you on my team?”
            Jack nodded, grinning proudly. “I hear we’re off to Australia! I’m from there – lovely beaches. The seagulls make a racket, though.”
            Dac made the assumption right then that if Jack were to die during this mission, he’d be the one pulling the trigger. Or, at the very least, smirking nastily. “How many missions you been on, son?”
            He started counting on his fingers. “Saigon, Vanuatu, the Smoky Mountains – that was a fun one – and Northern Siberia. Big ops, long-term insertion.”
            “How many people have you killed?”
            “Forty-seven.” His grin faded. “I remember every single one of them.”
            “You ever had to kill a teammate?”
            He obviously wasn’t expecting the question in the slightest; his eyes widened in shock. “Excuse me?”
            “You ever killed a teammate – a traitor? Or someone so injured they need to be euthanized? Or a captive, terminated to secure information away from the enemy?”
            Jack thought for a moment, but Dac already knew the answer. “No, I haven’t.”
            He didn’t know why he felt so dark right now, asking this enthusiastic annoyance whether he’d ever team-killed. Something about Dac’s shooting had jaded him a little, added to the world-weariness he hadn’t really felt prominently until now. It might’ve been confronting, but being upfront with the lad before this mission would be better overall.
            “I assume you’ve heard about Agent Aldente?” he asked after a moment.
            Jack’s face darkened. “Yeah, I know all about that sumbitch. Kill or capture. Scuttlebutt says Director Ashcroft’d prefer the former.”
            “Good man.” Dac slapped him on the shoulder, somewhat fondly. “I feel better knowing you’re on the team now, Dollarman.”
            The young man’s expression brightened, reverting back to his former appearance. “You can count on me, boss! Now, where should I pick up my gear?”
            The personality shift was almost too quick – it set off alarm bells in Dac’s head. He gave a narrow gaze to Jack as he pointed to the equipment rack. “Right over there. Get prepped quick, we’re skids up in fifteen.”
            As he wandered over to the rack to pick up a sleek-looking machine pistol Jack offhandedly added, “And before you ask, I ain’t a Mancheerian. Psych ok’d me this morning.”
            Mental conditioning or no, Dac would keep his eye on the lad. Last thing he needed was another turncoat.
            Or an incompetent.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?”
            Nick glanced sideways at him. “Of course not, but the Director’s word is gospel. Got no choice.”
            Trent grumbled incoherently. “Knew I shoulda stayed in bed this morning.”
            “I can arrange that.”
            “Har friggin’ har.”
            As they made their way to the interrogation cell, a thought occurred to Nick. “Before, in the conference room, you said you saw Mary after Jacob was kidnapped last year. Was that true?”
            “Yep.” That was unexpected. Nick had expected he was either lying or, if he wasn’t, that he’d try to cover his tracks. In vino veritas. “At a lodge in Switzerland. She was trying to get to Jacob’s last known position, and I was a local informant.”
            “For who?”
            Trent tapped his nose conspiratorially. “Ignorance is bliss, mate. Anyway, we met up about two days after Jacob went missing and –”
            He was cut off as they approached the door to the cell, where both of Beth’s guards stood sentinel. Nick made a mental note to continue the conversation later and stepped up to the door, peering inside. Beth was still restrained in the chair, looking as bloodied and beaten as she had once Dac had finished with her. Nick didn’t envy her; Dac’s bad mood could make even the haughtiest man lean low.
            He nodded at the guards and opened the door, stepping inside with Trent at his heels. Beth looked up, her face covered in blood and horrid gashes from where the crowbar had struck her repeatedly. She grinned mirthlessly and spat blood at them as they got closer.
            “Ah, the other alpha dogs,” she said through bruised and swollen lips. “At least, the alpha dog and his pet boozehound.”
            Trent snorted. He was more sober than Nick had seen in the last few days. “I think the loss of your teleporting has also removed your pun delivery skills, sweetheart.”
            She laughed dryly. “What the hell do you pricks want? I’m busy bleeding over here.”
            There was no room for preamble. Nick unholstered his pistol and aimed it squarely between her eyes, safety off. He watched her eyes as they focussed on the barrel, widening slightly in surprise.
            “Well,” she said, keeping her sight on the gun, “you don’t screw around, do you?”
War was not a climate Belinda was used to.
            She’d had her fair share of battle – and it did always seem that Damian regularly ordered the most violent dinner fish she’d ever wrestled with – but she’d never really been at the forefront of a conflict the way she was in this war with Doctor Dream. It’d meant she’d had to step up to the plate and re-learn all her field agent skills, and having Michael as a training buddy had been…interesting.
            The concept of “fire-forged friends” as a method of becoming companions through wartime was something she’d never really thought possible, but the training course she’d taken for the last few weeks had helped to dispel that notion. She was fast becoming friends with the others in her group as the next batch of CRUD field agents, to the point that having most of them be split off into other teams made her a little sad. It made her wonder whether she’d really see any of them again.
            War, as they said, really was hell.
            She and Michael were sitting in the motorpool, idly watching as the larger, bulky transport helicopters CRUD had been haphazardly developing for the last month were readied for their respective journeys. The one she’d be piloting was nearby, a black chopper she’d affectionately nicknamed the Harridan.
            “Tell me why I’m here, again?” Michael asked for what seemed like the infinitieth time that week.
            “Well,” Belinda explained with the patience of a nurse instructing a brain damage victim, “you owed me a favour, I brought you out of mercenary retirement, we fought some dudes in a building, the building blew up, you needed a job, and I got you drafted. Then, we did some training, made a helicopter and joined a war against a terrorist mastermind with a master plan we can’t begin to guess at.” She smiled sweetly at him. “All caught up?”
            Michael grumbled. “Remind me never to owe you anything again, ever.”
            Belinda laughed jovially. “Oh come on, grumblebum! Be happier! You’ve got a lovely smile, least you could do is pretend to use it!”
            He gave an awkward, strained expression that Skeletor might’ve called a smile. Belinda nodded apprehensively, looking back at the choppers. “Yeah. Needs work.”
            He glared for a moment before continuing. “How many are we taking to Montenegro?”
            “Five or six.” She shrugged nonchalantly. “Not sure. Plan might change.”
            “You seem awfully flighty about all this, dear,” Michael chided her. “We’re off to attack a terrorist base, with the potential for us not being alive afterwards. Aren’t you scared at all?”
            She shook her head without hesitation. She’d been thinking about this for a while. “Nope. Not even a little bit.”
            “Care to explain?”
            Belinda hadn’t said this to anyone else, and wasn’t sure she would after she told Michael. The last few days, it seemed, had been steering her in this direction. “As the building collapsed into the Grave, when we left CRUD HQ…I saw Coconut.”
            “You mean that horse you guys had for no discernible reason?”
            “That’s the one.” She took a breath before continuing. “I saw him galloping away into the night, like his life depended on escaping to fight another day. I’d never seen him that animated without Mary around. It…it made me think…” She took another breath. “It made me think Glen was in there somewhere, spurring him away from the danger zone.”
            She could feel Michael’s quirked eyebrows without having to see them. “Excuse me?”
            She turned to face him. “It’s not impossible, is it? That we can become something more after death?”
            “It was a horse, Belinda,” Michael rationalized in the same voice one would dispel the notion of ghosts or Santa Claus. “They get spooked easily by default. Explosions would be like that, times fifty. It was probably just running scared.”
            Belinda turned her gaze out at the Harridan, watching as the techies fired up the rotors for one last mechanical test. “Maybe. Or maybe it was something more…”
            As she trailed off she heard Michael groan. “I knew subscribing you to Animal Planet was a bad idea.”
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