These are the lost months of the novel The Life and Deaths of Carter Falls, nominated for the American Library Stonewall Award in Fiction for 2004. See more of this series at: http://claire_daniels.tripod.com
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2320 hours, September 9th 2000
Home of General Oscar McFarland
Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff
The phone vibrated in his pocket. The very tall man, dressed formally in a black tuxedo and tie, put down his Chivas on the rocks, reached into his breast pocket, and placed the phone to his ear.
“Speak.” He had little use for cordiality. “Yes, yes, yes, immediately. I will be there in less than ten minutes.” Turning to his host he rose and picked up his coat from an adjacent divan. “I apologize sir, but there has been an emergency. I must leave.”
Without another word from the tall man he walked to the front door and then into the night air. The General never got out of his chair. In Washington there were more important things than defense secrets and military budgets, that is if you are one of the inner few that hold the security of the United States in your hands. Finishing his martini the old soldier rose and walked to the kitchen for something to eat. He was lucky. He knew who his enemies were. The tall man had to deal with everyone else’s.
College Park, Maryland
“This had better be good.” The phone call awakened Special District Chief Manuel Hernandez, Manny to his friends, from an exceptionally vivid dream about sword fishing of the coast of Baja. Even though Manny had never been to Baja, he always thought he would like to try fishing for the big ones if he could get over being seasick.
“Yes, yes, yes sir. I understand. Why her? Yes.” He hung up the phone and dialed a number from memory. When a woman answered he tried to be as friendly as possible but before he could say a word was cut off.
“You had better have a good reason for waking me, dad.” His daughter said. “I’m on vacation until Monday.”
“How did you know, oh, of course, caller ID.” He laughed a little to himself. “Is Rachel there?”
“She went back to her place yesterday.” His eldest girl said. “We shopped until we dropped. I talked to her tonight about seven, though. She said she was going jogging.” She could hear the sigh in her father’s voice. “Anything else?”
“No, baby. You have a good weekend.” He hung up.
The next number rang five times before Dr. Rachel Jackson answered. “Christ Manny, it’s almost midnight. Don’t you ever sleep?” She said, a little out of breath.
“I could say the same about you.” He replied. “You have a new assignment starting right now. Go to Bethesda. St. Claire and Daniels just got shot up at the Taiwanese Embassy.”
“So?” She asked. “I’m a psychiatrist.”
“This isn’t a request.” He broke in. “This comes from the top. You’ll be briefed when you get there. Look for the tall man. Good luck.”
“Shit.” She thought as she pocketed the cell in her butt pack. She was almost home, but every minute counted so she hailed a cab on 24th St, just minutes from her apartment across from George Washington University, and sat back to enjoy the twenty minute ride to the Naval Hospital.
The tall man, so named by his staff and those others at the NSA because of his exceptional height, met Dr. Jackson in the lobby. He was dressed in a tux, some mud on his shoes from the rain outside. When she walked into the Emergency Room entrance she realized how she must look. Quickly reaching into her pack she slipped her NSA badge over her head. At least now security would know she wasn’t a patient, or worse.
“Dr. Jackson.” She never knew his voice was flat and lifeless. This was the first time she had ever been this close to the legend of the NSA. Few knew his name, but they all knew his story. For twenty five years he was in every hot spot the agency could come up with. He had assisted the DIA, the CIA, the FBI, and the Secret Service. Two years ago a terrorist device exploded fifty feet from his stakeout and shattered his right eardrum. Since then he has directed operations from a string of offices on the top floor of the newly renovated main complex at Fort Meade.
“Sir.” She said, looking up.
“Come this way.” He turned and walked down the hallway, past offices and lounges. “I have a room cordoned off for our use.”
There at the end of the corridor were two Maryland State Police officers, guarding a single hardwood door marked STAFF. Once inside the tall man sat in one of the two straight backed chairs and motioned Rachel to take the other.
“From this moment onward you are on special assignment to me.” He looked directly at her. “You will receive your orders from me and report through my aide.” He handed her a business card with a phone number neatly written across the back. “She can reach me anytime of the day or night. Do you understand so far?”
“Yes sir.” She didn’t understand, but that didn’t matter at this point.
“You have been chosen because of your psychiatry background. Tonight Special Agents St. Claire and Daniels were shot at the Taiwanese Embassy. Special Agent Daniels was killed and Special Agent St. Claire was critically wounded. To that end we have decided to alter St. Claire’s appearance to that of his cousin until we can conclude this case. It will be your job to monitor the progress of St. Claire. Do you still understand?”
“Yes sir.” She was getting tired of being asked if she was following the briefing.
“From this moment on Agent St. Claire is dead. The papers have been told that Daniels survived, although critically injured. We shall bury Daniels in a grave marked St. Claire and re-train St. Claire to be his cousin. No expense will be spared, but in six months he must be ready to resume operations. I stress that from this moment on Special Agent Danny St. Claire is dead. The body in the operating room is Special Agent Claire Daniels. Do you have any questions at this time?” The tall man took a break and looked at the black women sitting across from him. He knew she had been jogging from the report he received from Hernandez, although he couldn’t understand why at midnight, in the rain. The woman was in her late thirties, thin, athletic, quick witted, with very black skin and smooth features. Other than the ludicrous orange socks she was dressed completely in black.
“Has Agent St. Claire been given any indication of this?” She asked.
“It’s Daniels.” The man corrected. “No. If Daniels survives she will get no say in the matter.”
“Then I must object.” Rachel shifted a little in her chair. “This is most irregular and dangerous. The psyche is not something to trifle with. There is going to be psychological scarring as well as physical healing. What you propose could drive him over the edge.”
“Then Special Agent Daniels will be reported killed in the line of duty and we will try something else.” The matter of fact way he stated killing the agent shocked the black woman. “This has been decided at the highest levels. If you cannot do the job we will find someone else to do it, and deal with you accordingly.”
There was no mistaking the meaning of the last remark either. Succeed or die. “Then we all must succeed.” She tried to smile.
“Here are the files.” He tossed a thick folder across the small room to her, held together by a rubber band. “Inside is a list of ten field agents cleared for this level of work. Pick four. Also you will see what needs to be done in the next six months. I’ve written a rather lengthy list of things I need to be briefed on by the end of the week. That’s on top. After we confirm that Daniels survived the emergency room I’ll leave you to your work. Be in my office tomorrow afternoon at three with your choices of agents. Are there any other questions?”
“Not at the moment sir.” She was stunned at the meticulous order of the dossier. The shooting was less than an hour ago but already there were two inches of files for her to read through.
Four hours later, when the tall man returned to the lounge to retrieve the dark women, the two walked through the hospital until they came to the security wing. There presidents, congressmen, and high ranking officials were treated with complete security and secrecy. The nurses were just wheeling in the bed. Covered by a thin sheet and a blanket was the body of Danny St. Claire, from now on referred to as Claire Daniels. ‘What was in store for this poor man?’ Rachel thought, ‘or me.’
1450 hours, 10 September
Fort Meade, Maryland
It had been a long night for the dark skinned woman. By the time she got home it was six in the morning. After a shower and breakfast she caught a couple hours sleep before reviewing the rest of what had been given her by the tall man. The top page of the file was a list of twenty eight items, each with a small paragraph detailing what to do. There were questions about female hormones, diet, voice, personnel choices for training, clothes fittings, living arrangements, and storage facilities.
The next file, paper clipped together, was a list of ten field agents from different branches of the agency. Each had military experience, and some overseas time. A few were very young and one was close to retirement. They all seemed about equal in qualifications and in the end Rachel chose the first four in the list. The names were Nathan Dougherty, Brian Hogan, Robert Burns, and Christopher Dunbar. There were photos and background on each; however, at this point she chose to ignore that. They could get to know each other later.
“Miss Jackson, the director will see you now.” The aide was an older woman in her sixties. Her gray hair was cut very short and slightly spiked, more from an errant styling than deliberate thought. When Rachel walked into the office she was at first put off guard by the size. There were walls of glass that overlooked the entire Anne Arundel countryside for miles. The tall man had his desk set at a forty five degree angle in the corner of the glass. She thought it a waste not to be able to look at the view, but it wasn’t her office.
“Come in.” Again his voice was flat. “Have you had time to view the entire file?” It was a rhetorical question. He expected her to have answers to everything, and she knew it.
“Yes sir.” She said, standing in front of his desk. “Here are the names of the four agents.” She handed him a single sheet of paper with four names on it.
“They will report to you at Agent Daniel’s apartment Monday at eight o’clock.” He said, never looking up. “I’ll have Miss Phillips send over the sequence of events at that time. You can also get the keys for both apartments from her on your way out.” He scanned a document, signed it and dropped it in his out box. ‘He’s not even giving me his full attention.’ She thought. “Anything else?” He asked.
“No sir.” She heard a little more tinge to her voice and regretted it.
Looking up the tall man gave a wry smile. “I know you’re concerned about this and would like to know more but suffice it to say that for the moment the fewer who know all the details the better. Eight o’clock Monday.”
“Yes sir.” Rachel turned and walked out of the office. “I know as much as I did last night.” She said to Miss Phillips, sitting at her desk.
“No, you know quite a bit more.” The old woman returned. “You know who you are to work with for the next six months. You know where you will meet them.” Handing Rachel two sets of keys. “You know what you have to do, although, not exactly how. And you know when it all must be finished.”
“You’ve said more in three minutes than he said in two days.” Rachel put the keys in her purse.
“He doesn’t talk much.” The aide smiled.
“Miss Phillips.” It was the tall man over the intercom. “Send Dr. Jackson back again.”
“The master calls.” Rachel laughed. “Yes sir.” She said from the door.
“Are you armed?” It was an odd question from her superior.
“No sir. I’m a doctor.”
“You’re also an NSA Agent.” Was the reply. “You are qualified for a 9 mm?”
“Yes sir, a Glock.” She said.
“Carry it from now on. I don’t want to lose any more agents.” He never looked up. “That’s all.”
“Yes sir.” Damn. She said that a lot.
Sitting in the small two bedroom apartment of Claire Daniels, Rachel couldn’t believe that anyone could live like this. When she left the office on Sunday she drove over to Danny’s place on the west side of Washington. Passing under the Police tape she unlocked the two dead bolts and entered the young man’s living quarters. There were books everywhere, neatly shelved in large oak cases, and papers on his desk. The kitchen was sparse, but adequate. Obviously he ate out a lot from the empty fridge. Danny’s parents were dead, and Claire had been his only close relative. She wondered when this place would see its owner again.
That afternoon she went to the hospital to check on Agent St. Claire, Daniels, she corrected herself twice. The red head, a safer way to refer to the agent, was still critical, but it looked like he, she, would pull through. From medical school Rachel was able to read what was going on with the recovery. The surgeons had been forced to inflate one lung and carefully remove a bullet from less than an inch of the still beating heart. They had progesterone scheduled to begin on Friday, and from the looks of the dosage, a dangerous level at best.
The doctor on duty said Miss Daniels should be able to be awake in a day or two. At that time she would be able to field questions. Rachel knew that by tomorrow afternoon there would be two permanent sets of guards on him, her, twenty four hours a day until this was over. It looked like it was going to be a long six months.
Monday morning Rachel drove over to Claire’s apartment a little after seven. Now sitting in the living area, she couldn’t call it a room; she was amazed that two cousins that looked so much alike could be so different. Danny’s place was spotless. Everything was in its place, marked and identified. Claire, if she had a method to where things were, defied logic to explain. Clothes and books were everywhere. The dishes hadn’t been washed for a week and there were strange smells coming from the fridge. This was not the living space of a woman who thought ahead.
At precisely eight o’clock four men walked into the apartment. From the photos provided in the files she could identify each one. The first through the door was Nathan Dougherty. He was a large, wide, but not fat, man of middle age. She thought that at one time or another he must have played football. The second was Brian Hogan. From his file she knew he was from Austin and as soon as he opened his mouth to say howdy there was no doubt.
Next in was Robert Burns. Of the four this one was the most non-descript. He was tallish, heavyish, and fortyish. It would take her weeks to finally remember what he looked like once he was out of the room. Finally there was Christopher Dunbar. Chris, as he liked to be called, was five years from retirement. He had been a section chief at one time in Rome, but his wife wanted to come home to raise their five kids in America so he took a step down in pay to go back to the field. Even though he was ten years older than the others he moved as though he was the youngest. There was a lithe, limber action to him.
Once all were seated, Brian had to pull up an antique wooden sea chest that was covered with dirty clothes, they introduced themselves. Chris had been working a cryptology case for the DIA. Nathan had been recalled from Minnesota over the weekend from the field, Brian was on vacation in Lampasas, riding in a rodeo, and Bob, as Robert liked to be called, was at his desk, pulling weekend duty. None of them knew why they were there.
“Gentlemen.” Rachel began. “I know you’re all probably wondering what is going on.”
“It did cross my mind, ma’am.” Brian said with a deep Texas accent.
“Very funny.” At least some of them had a sense of humor. They’d need it. “Saturday night two of our Special Agents were shot at the Taiwanese Embassy.”
“We read about it on the daily bulletin.” Chris mentioned. “St. Claire was killed and Daniels is critical.”
“Well, yes and no.” Rachel continued as the four men gave her a strange look. “Hell, here’s the deal.” She said. “The fact is St. Claire is alive and Daniels is dead.” She held up her hand to stop questions. “In time, but let me finish this first.” She ran on. “The tall man called me that night to give me a new assignment that now includes you four. From now on St. Claire will be referred to as Daniels. He is to be physically altered with drugs, training, and surgery to be a dead ringer, no pun intended, for Daniels. HE,” referring to the tall man, “thinks that this will give us enough time to identify the shooter or shooters and make an arrest.” She picked up the folder. “For the next six months we are to baby sit Agent Daniels until she can resume her duties. I understand that once the shooter is apprehended St. Claire will be allowed to resume his life. Now, are there any questions?”
‘This is the craziest scheme I’ve ever heard.” Bob said. “Is this a joke?”
“This is no joke.” Rachel shook her head. “If this doesn’t succeed St. Claire will be killed, and there’s a good chance we will be also.”
“What!” This time it was Chris. “Even we don’t dispatch our own agents.”
“Trust me, if you’ve ever met HIM you’d understand. HE made it very clear. Succeed or die.” Rachel picked up the file. “This is what we have so far. Chris I want you and Brian to stay here and get this place cleaned up. Then I want devices in every room. We’ve rented the apartment across the hall for the four of you to work out of when, hell I don’t even know how to refer to him, her, Claire, yea, that’s it, when Claire gets back here. There will be two across the hall at all times, twelve on and twelve off as soon as she gets out of the hospital. Until then you will pull shifts at Bethesda starting the end of the week. I’ve got that much time before they pull the State Police from the detail. Bob, you and Nathan get a storage facility and move all of St. Claire’s stuff out of his apartment.”
“Why not just leave it until the assignment is completed and St. Claire moves back in?” Nathan asked.
“Because I have twenty eight things to do by number.” Rachel held up the list. “And number eleven, the first non medical task, is to clear out St. Claire’s apartment into storage. At this point I know just a little more than you.” She rubbed her eyes. “I’m going back to the hospital to talk to the staff. Somewhere back there,” she motioned to the back of the apartment, “is a second bedroom. After Claire gets back here I’ll be staying with her until this is over, so please,” she smiled, “clean it up extra well.”
“Do you want us to do the windows too?” Brian quipped.
“Would you?” Rachel laughed and finally the other four did also. “Look, we’re going to be together for the next six months. Let’s at least laugh from time to time.”
“Come on, Auntie Chris.” Brian drawled. “Let’s go buy cleaning stuff. I doubt there’s any here.”
It had been a busy week for Rachel. The boys, as she started calling them, cleaned up Danny’s apartment and stored everything with a years lease. Chris and Brian had done a great job cleaning Claire’s place. They even painted the room that Rachel was to stay in, the old wallpaper peeling in places.
Tuesday and Wednesday found the woman in front of her lap top scanning the data banks at the National Library of Medicine website for transgender hormone therapy articles in medical journals. By Thursday morning the interlibrary loan clerk at George Washington Medical Center knew her name, and had three new articles not requested waiting for her when she made her daily pickup.
The listening devices in the apartment were installed by Friday morning and a bank of computers assembled across the hall in the living room of the apartment. It turned out that Chris had a flair for computers and when he was on duty would create new and exciting things to do with the electronic marvels. Drawing the line at installing micro cameras in the bed and bathrooms, pointed in, he placed them at the front doors, and all the windows, pointing out, giving the guards across the hall a full view at all times of what those inside the apartment saw. Claire’s place was on the second floor of a three floor brownstone, but the ground sloped outside her apartment to make the drop over twenty feet to the grass below. At least attack from the windows was unlikely unless the shooters came in from the floors above. To that end motion detectors were installed above the windows to alert those across the hall to rappellers.
When Rachel entered the hospital room that afternoon Claire had been taken off the respirator and was breathing on her own. It took some imagination to look at the bearded man in the bed and think of him as a tall busty beauty that turned heads wherever she went. The patient’s bright blue eyes were open when Rachel sat by the bed but they appeared vacant. From her chart Rachel could tell the sedatives were still heavy and if she could hear anything at all it would be through a fog. With that in mind the doctor in Rachel decided no time like the present to start.
“I know you can’t talk, but at least listen.” She began. “Blink once if you can hear and understand me.” The patient blinked once slowly.
“You were shot three times last week at the Taiwanese Embassy. Do you remember that?” Again a single blink.
“Your cousin was killed in the shooting.” Rachel could see the thoughts process before the eyes blinked again, once.
“The directors have decided that you are to take your cousin’s place until the shooter is captured. In the next few months the Agency is going to make you look like your cousin. Do you understand?” This time there were two very slow blinks.
“I can imagine what you are thinking but the Agency is not giving you a choice.” She didn’t wait for a response. “My name is Dr. Rachel Jackson. I’m an Agency psychiatrist assigned to help you transition to taking over Claire’s identity.” Looking around to be certain there was nobody else within ear shot and hoping there were no listening devices she got very close to the patient’s ear. “Before you protest this assignment I have been told that if you do not agree you and I will both be killed. Do you understand the significance of this?”
Rachel watched the individual in the bed carefully. She had read the full file on Special Agent Danny St. Claire and knew that there was a keen intellect there. Finally there was a single blink followed by closing completely of the eyes. In a few moments the monitors showed that the body in front of her was asleep. ‘Now it begins.’ She thought.
The final thing she did before going back to her own place that night was call the tall man. Every Friday now she was to report in on her progress and what she was to do in the next week. This was to be her first call and she didn’t know what to expect. Dialing the number he gave her she was surprised to hear him answer the phone personally.
“How was your first week?” Was how he greeted her.
“As expected.” She said. “We have the apartments arranged. St. Claire’s has been vacated and stored in College Park as ordered. Daniel’s place has been cleaned up and readied for her return.” By now even she was using hers instead of his. “The four agents we have as security seem to work well together. I’ll know more in a couple weeks on them. I’ve made a recommendation on some of the drugs. Same effect but less toxic to the system and less chance to cause cardiac problems later on.” She knew she had to answer the question before he asked why. “Beginning tomorrow Daniels will get electrolysis three times a week for four hours each session. She will be sedated at the hospital during that time. I believe that starting now will facilitate the process and we have a captive audience so to speak.”
“Anything else?” Rachel was impressed he was letting her do all the talking.
“She will be house bound for the next month to six weeks. That’s when she will be the most vulnerable to depression. The hormones will help some, since they are anti-depressives to a degree, but she needs to stay active, mentally, to keep her mind off what happened. I will work a counseling schedule for her to monitor her state of mind, but at this point it’s too soon to predict. We’re on uncharted ground here.”
“Have her conscious on Monday at sixteen hundred.” HE said. “I will meet you there and give her her assignment. I want her to understand how important this is to the Agency. Have you spoken to her yet?”
“She cannot speak yet, at least she shouldn’t.” Rachel answered. “I had a one way conversation with her a few minutes ago. She blinked at answers.” Rachel hated this. “I think she understands what happened but I doubt she understands what is fully expected. She’s still heavily sedated.”
“Good work Agent Jackson.” ‘That was a surprise’ she thought. “I will see you on Monday. Good night.”
That night Rachel readied her apartment for her absence. She never had a flair for plants or pets so there was little to get ready, except empty the fridge. She seemed to spend a lot of time there, or in other peoples lately. It would have to stop, she thought. At seven she drove her beat up Monte Carlo to aikido practice. Early on in her career she realized that a nice car was a luxury, waiting to be stolen. Now she kept very little in her car, and if anyone stole it, there would be little to lose. Also in Washington the insurance for cars was killer, and she knew it. The Agency had paid off a lot of her medical school bills but not all, and money was still tight.
That night at the dojo she taught the beginning class standing techniques. As the newest Shodan, or first degree black belt, it was her duty to instruct the starting class. For two hours she tossed men and women alike around the mats, as though they were rag dolls. When she returned home at ten she was tired, but clear headed. There was a lot to do this week, but it was getting easier to think about the planning process, now that the lower level needs had been attended to. She smiled when she remembered the Maslow chart from Medical School on his hierarchy of needs. Some things are used in the oddest places.
1600 hours, 18 September
The tall man was prompt. At exactly 1600 hours he walked into the small hospital room and over to the side of the bed. Rachel and the day crew, Chris and Brian, were there, the two men staying out of the way. Without acknowledging Rachel he looked directly at the patient in the bed and smiled.
“Are you in pain?” He asked.
“No.” The voice was hoarse but audible.
“Good.” He pulled up the only chair and sat down. “What I’m about to tell you is classified and very important. I understand that Dr. Jackson has informed you of your cousin’s death.” The red head in the bed nodded slightly. “It was a great loss to the agency and I cannot imagine what it meant to you, however, we have a plan to catch who did this. Did you get a look at the shooter?”
“Yes.” The red head said. “It was Steve Lavesque.”
“Are you certain.” Asked the tall man.
“Yes.” The patient said. “It was Steve.”
“Then that settles it.” HE said. “You will be going undercover, so to speak. Very deep undercover. We are making arrangements to make you into a double of your cousin. From now until this assignment is over you will respond to Claire Daniels. Your personal belongings have been stored for the time being and you have been moved into the Daniel’s apartment. Dr. Jackson will live there with you until you are ready to return to duty. We’ve been chasing Lavesque for a long time. This time we’re going to get him. I promise.” HE stood up. “Do you have anything else to say Agent Daniels?”
“It’s St. Claire.” The red head responded.
“Not anymore it isn’t.” HE said, but the person in the bed was again asleep. “Dr. Jackson, walk with me.”
As they walked out into the parking lot the tall man continued speaking. “She is stubborn.”
“Yes sir.” Rachel answered. “She’s been through a lot and it’s only sinking in what is to come. Give her some time to make the adjustment.”
“You have six months.” HE got into his agency Lexus. “No more.”
When Rachel returned to the room the not yet woman in the bed was again awake.
“Is HE gone?” She asked.
“Yes.” Rachel sat where HE had been a few moments ago.
“Good.” She said. “I don’t like HIM. I figured if I pissed him off he’d leave.” The red head smiled a little.
“You planned that?” Rachel was amazed at the audacity and nerve at this stage of recovery.
“Sure.” Claire said. “I may not have a choice at this moment, but HE’s not going to enjoy this.”
“Don’t push HIM.” Rachel warned. “I don’t think any of this is a bluff.”
The patient was really asleep this time. His signs were stable but he was still far from safe. It would be a long, painful recovery.
Turning to the two standing in the corner Rachel smiled. “What do you think?”
“You mean someone wants our opinion?” Chris asked.
“Don’t be like that.” Rachel remanded. “It’s us against the world at this stage.”
“I think this is crazy.” Chris said. “I can’t see where this is going. Have you ever seen the real Claire Daniels?”
“No, just photos.” Rachel turned the chair around a little.
“I saw her once in Paris when I was working out of Rome.” Chris said. “You knew when she walked into the room. There was something about her that commanded attention. I never met her, there were always a dozen men milling around her trying to get her attention.”
“Did she ever give it?” Brian questioned.
“Not that I saw.” Chris continued. “I never saw her even give them a second look. She was all agency business.”
“And your point is?” Rachel pressed.
“That there is no way he is going to look like her.” Chris pointed to the sleeping agent in the bed. “No way.”
“There had better be a way.” Rachel got up. “And we have six months to find it. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
The rest of the day Rachel spent on the phone. She called a number of wig makers; two drag performers that were friends of friends, and finally a male to female transgender who worked for the FBI. By six that night she was tired and had a headache. When she returned to her new apartment after nine from her run she took a long shower and sat on the small couch in the living room, looking from one wall to the others. This was to be home for six months. Oh boy.
“I need clothes.” Claire called out from her bedroom. “I can’t go to Thanksgiving dinner in this.” She walked out of her room holding a tattered dust rag that the boys had used for polishing the furniture, two months earlier.
“Where did you find that?” Rachel laughed at the sight.
“It was under my dresser. I dropped an earring back and found it when I bent down.” Claire tossed the rag into the trash. “Let’s go shopping.”
“Find something that doesn’t have polish on it and get dressed,” at the moment the red head was in a pair of pajama bottoms and a tee shirt that said Franconia Notch on the back and had a moose on the front. When Claire disappeared into her room Rachel sat on the couch and smiled. A lot had happened in eight weeks.
The electrolysis had gone well and quickly. Danny had never developed a full beard. After the ninth session there was only follow up left, which Claire did every other week. The hormones, switched from progesterone to premarin, did a better job that was expected on the healing body. The new figure was developing as well as could be anticipated. There was a shifting of stomach weight to the hips and the breasts were growing significantly.
Rachel had hired a professional wig maker to duplicate the original Claire’s hair style until Danny’s hair could grow out, and now it was seldom that she ever saw Claire without shoulder length red hair and bangs. The hardest part had been the psychological. Danny fought the transition the first month, refusing to listen to voice tapes of Claire, taken from the files, or consult specialists brought in to help coach him, her. It wasn’t until earlier this month that is sank in. Learn to be Claire or be buried with her. The tall man was giving no quarter.
To that end the transgender from the Feds had been irreplaceable. Federal Agent Darcelle Barrouque was a linguist with the Bureau, a specialist in numeric ciphers, however, it wasn’t her mathematical skills that interested the psychiatrist, it was her learned ones of being a woman. She, like Claire, had spent over thirty years as a man, the last seven with the Bureau. Now as the only transgender in the Washington branch she consulted on like cases throughout the world. It had not been a pleasant first meeting.
“Claire, we’re having a guest tonight for drinks.” She remembered the first time she told the red head about Darcy.
“Who?” Claire had asked.
“Darcelle Barrouque.” Rachel said. “She’s a “
“I know who she is.” Claire cut her off. “I’ve heard about her.” Claire went into her room and stayed there through most of the night.
After that gaining her acceptance had been inch by inch. Finally toward the end of the month they reached a common ground. Darcy would instruct Claire on how to act like a woman, but would refrain from using the term ‘be a woman’ which she first began with.
Now they were set to meet her at the DC Mall for shopping, drinks, and dinner. This was Claire’s first outing other than work, which she had only again started.
“Do you want to talk a little before we go?” Rachel was sitting on the couch, a micro tape recorder on the coffee table.
“No, but I don’t have a choice, do I?” The red head sat on the single wing chair across from the other woman.
“Why do you always take that attitude when we do this?” Rachel asked. “You know I only want the best for you.”
“Bullshit.” Claire said. “You treat me like a medical experiment. Let’s see how much of this or that she can take. Let me jot down her reaction to this situation or that. No one has ever asked me what I wanted.”
“I can’t argue.” Rachel tried to calm her patient. “I can only say again that if we work at this we can get through it. Can we at least try?”
“Oh hell, why not.” The red head walked into the kitchen and pulled a can of Moxie from the fridge. Pouring it into a glass she returned to the small parlor. “Let’s do it.”
“It’s been two weeks since the last session.” Rachel started talking into the tape recorder. “Today is Tuesday, November 22nd, 2000. It’s one o’clock in the afternoon. Claire, in your own words what has happened in the last two weeks?”
“I hate this!” She said. “But I’ll play along. It’s been another two thrilling weeks of captivity broken up with two days of being the main attraction at work. I still can’t sleep well on my side, but it’s getting better. I’m starting to get used to who is looking back at me in the mirror. At night I almost can see Claire, like a photo, in the bathroom reflection. Darcy is not the demon I thought she would be. I know she only wants me to be the best I can be, but she’s a pain in the ass.” Claire took a sip of Moxie.
“Can you be specific?” Rachel asked.
“Can you be specific?” Claire imitated. “Yea. I can be specific. She throws sponge balls at me when I don’t act like a woman. I’ve been hit so many times I feel like a tennis backstop.”
“Is it working?”
Claire softened up a little. “Yes.” She admitted. “Some things become habit and you forget about them. I don’t need a bra but wear one anyway, because I will need one eventually. I can’t believe I just said that. And Hanes for Women no longer weird me out like they did last month.”
“What about work?” Rachel switched subjects.
“That’s the weirdest of all.” Claire finished her drink. “I went back to Claire’s desk and no one said anything other than it’s nice to have you back. It’s like they didn’t notice the differences, or were instructed to ignore them. I had to claim temporary memory loss with some of them since I didn’t have the slightest idea who they were. I’m just glad Monday I’m being given my old job back, tracking Lavesque. At least I can do something I know something about, even though I have to pretend I don’t know any of the people I’ve worked with for three years.”
“You do look enough like Claire to fool those that didn’t know her that well.” Rachel tried to sound convincing.
“Yea, I know.” Claire said. “But it’s all show. What do you think they’ll all say when after we get Steve I show back up and say ‘Just kidding. I wasn’t really dead’?”
“I have no idea what to say to that.” Rachel shook her head, her long black hair swinging slightly with the motion.
“Neither do I.” Claire closed her eyes.
“Why do you want to go shopping today?” Rachel continued. “You have a closet full of clothes.”
“They don’t fit.” Claire replied. “And they’re not mine. I mean they are, but they’re not. I can’t fit into them yet, at least not well, and you have me going to a Thanksgiving dinner Thursday with your family. I have to have something to wear that will fit over these bandages.”
Claire had been doing well in her recovery until she tripped last week in the kitchen and fell. The next morning her temperature spiked and there was tearing on one of her lung sutures. It wasn’t a difficult operation but they had to go in through one of the drain tubes she still had in to repair it. Now there was padding around the stitches.
“At least you’re thinking ahead to style.” Rachel tried to get the red head to smile.
“Oh yea, that’s another thing.” Claire said. “Style. Don’t even go there. I miss my jeans and tee shirts. This dress up crap is killing me. Who cares what earrings I wear with what blouse?”
“I do.” Rachel jumped back. “I care a lot.”
“Then you do it.” Claire got up and started pacing. “I want my life back.”
“Can’t do that yet, kid.” The black woman sounded patronizing. “You’re stuck with what Steve started.”
“I’ll kill that son of a bitch with my bare hands when I get hold of him.”
“Will you really?” Rachel was playing devil’s advocate.
“No. I’ll cuff him and send him to jail. We were best friends. What ever he did he had a reason and cold blooded killing was not my style. That was Claire.” The red headed woman paced more. “Let’s get going. I’m getting bored. Are we through?”
“Are we?” Rachel asked back.
“Christ, a shrink to the end. Can’t you ever just answer a question for once?”
“Should I?” Rachel smiled and caused the other woman to also.
The Agency had lent the women a black SUV for their work. Rachel driving with Claire at shotgun and Brian and Chris in a matching van behind, left the parking lot of the apartment building and drove into Washington. Claire had started calling the night shift Mac and Myer, a television series the cousins grew up with on WGBH Boston. The two were down on their luck partners always trying to make a score and never quite succeeding. For some reason Claire thought the two on nights matched their television counter parts.
Rachel, on the other hand, dubbed the day shift Frick and Frack because wherever they turned, there they were. At first it was disconcerting to bump into them when she would move quickly in the small hospital room or in the hallway, since they tried to stay out of sight when the girls where in their apartment, but in time they learned how to maneuver around the others. Now they were just there.
“I’m almost out of gas.” Rachel told Claire. “I’m going to get some at the Shell on the corner.”
The young boy of about twenty working the pumps almost fell over himself rushing to assist the dark woman. While Rachel was talking to the two men in the pursuit vehicle he chatted up Claire, now dressed in a pair of jeans and a sweater, her wig brushed but with no makeup. After they were on the road again Claire told her driver how the boy had tried to find out if Rachel was single, where they lived, etc. She had made a new conquest for the day. For the first time Rachel heard Claire really laugh, not just a humorless chuckle, but a real enjoyment laugh. Maybe things would be okay after all.
At the Mall the girls headed inside to meet Darcy and the men trailed behind at a safe distance. Chris looked easy during the outing. He had a wife and five girls. Brian, however, looked like a horse with a burr under its saddle, as Chris described it later. He kept looking from side to side, not sure if he should comment, sit, stand, what. Obviously he had never been married.
The final store was a Liberty Station. There a nice girl of about thirty helped the two look at skirts and matching tops. For almost an hour they shopped, Claire finally buying three skirts, two sweaters, a blouse, a belt, and a new coat. When they got to the counter she smiled at Rachel and said. “Pay the nice lady. It’s your dime.”
Rachel pulled out the Agency credit card and signed the receipt. She would have a hard time accounting for this expense.
November 24, 2000
Thanksgiving was without incident. Rachel’s parents lived in an upscale community in Maryland, far from the noises of the Hub. She, like Claire and Danny, was an only child, and obviously her parents doted on her, but at the same time were very proud of her accomplishments. To allow Chris time with his family Nathan switched shifts. He and Brian joined Rachel and Claire around the table for dinner. When they arrived her mother tried to understand the situation but finally gave up. Rachel introduced Claire as her friend and the boys as co-workers with no place to go for the holiday. It was the first time Claire had been called Rachel’s friend.
That afternoon, picking over turkey and dressing sent back by Mrs. Jackson, Claire broached the subject of friendship.
“Are we friends?” She asked.
“Is this a loaded question?” Rachel tried to figure out where the red head was going with this.
“No.” Claire returned. “This afternoon you introduced me as your friend. I was just wondering if you were being polite.”
“Yes, I think of you as my friend.” Rachel had to think of an answer. “We’ve been together twenty four seven since you were shot. I think I know you better than you know yourself at this point. Does that bother you?”
“No.” Claire got a far away look on her face. “I’ve only had two friends in my life. One tried to kill me. The other one died. It gets lonely sometimes with no one to talk to.” The baby blues started tearing up. “Oh damn.” She said, going to the bathroom for a tissue. “This suck.”
A few minutes later she returned with dry eyes. “I get teary at the strangest things.” She said.
“It’s the shift in hormone levels.” Rachel got up to put the food away. “It will pass in time. You’re still getting acclimated to the levels.” With her back to the sitting red head she said. “Do you consider me your friend?”
“You’re still a pain.” Claire said. “But yes I think of you as a friend. It’s like I’ve known you for such a long time even though we just met.”
“I’ll accept that.” Rachel grinned. “And while we’re doling out compliments I wanted to say you looked very good today. My mother said it was a shock to see how well you’ve recovered after the shooting. They’ve been following the investigation in the papers.”
“Do they know the full story?” Claire asked, walking back into the living room.
“No. They only know what everyone else does. They treated you exactly as they would if you were any other friend of mine.” It was getting late. “I’m going to bed.” She said.
“I’m going to stay up for a while. I think I’ll go across the hall and talk to the boys.” Claire walked out into the hall.
1 January, 2001
The Christmas holiday was unusually cold. Washington had a freeze early and the ice, since there was little snow, tied traffic up more than once. Claire and Rachel spent the time working and shopping. The Agency gave the red head a company card to help her beef up her wardrobe and she used it almost daily. After Thanksgiving Claire went back to her old job when she was Danny. There she headed up a task force to interpret data of what Steve had been doing and how it was that he was able to enter the Embassy that September night.
On her off time she kept to herself. Much to her disgust she started eating salads to lose weight. Claire had had a small waist, which was not shared by Danny. She also had better posture and wore heels as a matter of course. More than once the new Claire would topple over in the apartment while trying to navigate in four or five inch stilettos. The counseling sessions were still tense. After each one, which were now scheduled for mornings at the apartment, Claire would spend the afternoon at the indoor gun range shooting out the center of targets. After each session, by the time dinner rolled around she was back to even keel, less stressed, and smelling slightly of cordite.
The day after Christmas, with the small tree still up, and presents scattered everywhere Claire received an invitation for a formal New Year’s Eve party at the Agency. There was also one for Rachel, and their escorts. The red head said she remembered getting these every year but never went. Rachel informed her this year would be the exception.
That night the four, Claire, Rachel, Bob and Nathan, drove in one vehicle to Washington’s premier hotel the Marriott Wardman Park. There within the 100,000 square feet of convention and room space, the directors and administrators of the National Security Agency met for the night. Rachel let Claire lead the way.
With the boys in the background, talking shop to friends and co-workers from around the world, they watched with scattered amusement as Claire worked the room. It was the first time she had been out in public, other than Rachel’s family and work, and she did it like a pro. Darcy had come over early to set the wig and apply her make-up, which for one night she allowed. In a high neck, full sleeve, Dolce and Gabbana black sequenced dress, matching purse, and a pair of Rachel’s earrings, unerringly moving in five inch heels, she sparkled as she went from group to group, giving each just enough attention to placate them, but not enough to get read as a fake. By eleven Rachel had joined the boys at the periphery, enjoying the show, as they would call it later.
It was around one that a tired, wan looking red head in a black dress found her new friends and called it a night. She refused to talk about it on the way home and went straight to the shower and bed. Rachel was too exhausted to care at that moment and did the same. Once the lights were out in all the cameras the two men across the hall began playing cribbage. It was another night as usual.
New Years Day was clear and crisp. Around ten the two women got up, cleaned up, dressed up a little, and had a light breakfast slash lunch. There, in the tiny breakfast nook the two sat and talked about the night before.
“You made quite an impression last night.” Rachel began. “This is not an interview, but I have to ask what you felt.”
“Well,” Claire smiled, “since it’s not an interview, I’ll answer the question.” In the past few months the tension had subsided slightly over the sessions as well as the situation they were all in. “I was scared to death when I got there. I know it was only another party but it was my party. Not my party by name but I felt that everyone was there to see how Claire was doing. Does that make sense?”
“Perfect.” Rachel had to smile at the logic and realization that this new woman was showing.
“I knew, at least I hoped I knew, that I looked good. I didn’t think Darcy would let me leave here unless I could at least pass as Claire. I also knew that few there would have really known Claire, since we had dinner every Sunday night, all the years we lived here in Washington, and talked about what we did each week, so that wasn’t an issue. It was just getting the nerve to walk in the doors.” She shifted a little in her chair. “Then as I entered the ball room it just hit me.”
“What?” Rachel asked.
“That this was where I could prove it was working. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not staying like this when this is over. I’m not now, nor ever will be Claire. She was a totally different person, and not one I want to emulate.”
“We’ll get into that later.” Rachel broke in.
“What ever.” Claire brushed off the comment. “Anyway I hoped that Steve would be there. I was going to take him down right at the reception. Did you know I had a .25 in a leg holster?”
“You what?” Rachel said. “You knew guns were not allowed. Were you out of your mind?”
“Sure, that’s what I could have said.” Claire smiled coyly. “It was the drugs, the surgery, the psychological stress, pick one. Anyway when I got there it just clicked. I remembered what someone had said about Claire working a room and never committing to anyone at any time. I knew how she did it because I used to watch her with admiration. I could never pull it off. I was usually the clumsy one, competent but not too socially adept.”
Rachel knew that the other woman was rambling but it was good for her. It was the first time she had opened up since they had been together. “Go one.” She said.
“By midnight I was tired, really tired, but I couldn’t stop. There was still a group in the corner I hadn’t talked to and another group by the bar. It was as though I was drawn to talk to everyone. The more I talked the easier it got. By the time we left I think I talked to everyone, even the tall man, who’s really spooky.” Claire wrinkled her nose, which she had started doing lately.
It was noon by the time they stopped talking. Rachel dressed to go run and Claire dragged on a cargo skirt and a cardigan sweater in teal blue. In thick socks she went across the hall to the other apartment. By the time she reached the door Brian was already there, holding it open.
“Yes ma’am.” He said.
“You know how I hate that.” She said looking at the long neck in his hand. “You supposed to be drinking that?” She asked.
With a busted look on his face he quickly shut the door behind her. “You’re not going to say anything are you?” He drawled. “We were getting ready to watch the game and it didn’t look like you were going out.”
“I’m not, I’m not, and do you have another one?” Claire asked. For the rest of the afternoon they watched the Rose Bowl, ate chips, threw pretzels at the television set, and laughed. Claire lost five dollars to Chris on Purdue when Washington beat then 34-24 but won it back from Brian by betting on Washington. By dinnertime, with Rachel sitting on the floor, they ordered Chinese and with Bob and Nathan watched a replay of the ESPN Outback Bowl from that afternoon. Claire and Rachel both won on that game backing South Carolina against the favored Ohio, whom the boys swore would clean house. With a score of 24-7 the only cleaning was Bob and Nathan’s wallets. At nine they went back to their apartment smelling of beer and Moo Shoo Pork.
“I think that was the first time I’ve had fun since I died.” Claire said, plopping down on the couch.
“That’s the first time you’ve said fun since I’ve known you.” Rachel went to the fridge to get a can of diet Coke.
“Grab me a Moxie, would you please.” The dark girl looked into the living room to see her friend bat her eyelashes.
“How can you drink this stuff?” Rachel handed Claire the can and a glass.
“How can you not?” Claire returned the question with another one.
“Oh, very good.” Rachel laughed. “Avoid the answer by asking a question.”
“You do it. Why can’t I?” She poured the drink into her glass. “It’s how you are raised.” She said. “This was the drink of choice growing up. We both loved it. I remember every fall picking crab apples and drinking Moxie just before school started every year. It became a tradition. One year I was overseas with the Army and Claire sent me an overnight package of a dozen apples and a six pack of Moxie.” Her eyes started to tear up but made no motion to wipe them away. “I really miss her.” The red head said. “I really miss her a lot.” Rachel let her cry. It was the first time she had recognized the shooting. Later in her diary the dark skinned woman would print in neat letters – Recovery Began Today.
March 23, 2001
It was spring before they knew it. Rachel was on the phone with the tall man, as usual, for her weekly Friday update. “Everything is going very well.” She said. “Yes, I know I said there would be more breast tissue, but there isn’t. Yes, that is an option. I’ll discuss it with her and get back to you. Yes I understand there is no choice. Yes sir.” She hung up the phone.
“Another check in with HIM?” Claire came out of the bedroom. “What great guidance did he give this time?”
“Your breasts aren’t big enough.” Rachel looked at the red head. Claire had gotten rid of the wigs, opting for a short hairstyle, similar to Miss Phillips, but with no spikes. At the Agency no one gave her a second look anymore. She was just another attractive, middle aged, red headed agent working the desk. The only incident was when Claire had to go so badly after three cups of tea and a long staff meeting that she used the ladies room standing up. As luck would have it another woman came in at that time and seeing what she imagined was a man in the closed stall, peeing, screamed, and called for security. Claire was out of the bathroom by the time the other woman returned and they never discovered the errant man in the ladies room, however, it did teach her one thing: always sit.
“Forget it.” Claire shouted. “No. In fact not a chance.” She was going to use the F word but thought best. Another lesson learned. Female agents don’t swear, at least not in the company of others.
“There’s no choice.” Rachel started to say but only got the choi of choice out.
“I know.” Claire quipped. “There’s no choice. Do it or die. I’m getting damned tired of this.” She began pacing again. “What’s wrong with my breasts?” She looked down at her chest. “They’re perky.”
“Claire was a D cup.” Rachel sighed. “The best you can muster is a B cup by using pads.”
“Shit.” She said. “Go take a run or something and let me think.” Claire went into her room and slammed the door.
Rachel knew when it was time to leave. She put on her sneakers and orange socks and, after telling the boys where she was going, went out to run.
As soon as Claire heard the door close she was back out of her room and on the phone. After three calls she grabbed a coat from the closet, slipped on her calf high boots, and went across the hall. Knocking on the door she waited for someone to answer.
“I’m going out.” She said matter of factly. “You can drive me or I’ll take my truck.”
“This is most irregular.” Chris said. “I don’t know if we can.”
“Then I’ll take my truck, unless you’re going to shoot me to keep me here.” Claire started walking down the hall to the stairs.
“Wait for us.” Chris yelled, one arm in his jacket. Behind him Brian was closing the door.
When they reached the parking lot Claire got into the SUV that the agency was using for a surveillance vehicle. “I’m driving.” She said. “Give me the keys.”
Without argument Chris handed the red head the ignition key and got in the passengers seat. Brian was stuck in the back. “Where are we going?” The Texan asked.
“It’s best you don’t know.” Claire said. For the next hour the vehicle maneuvered through city traffic until they came to a high rise apartment complex on the north side of the Capital. Finding a parking slot she got out and entered the lobby with the two men right behind her.
“Do you know someone here?” Brian asked.
“I used to.” Claire responded. “It seems so long ago.”
On the fifth floor they stopped in front of an apartment door. Claire just stared at it. A few minutes later a young couple with a small girl in tow came out of the elevator and approached the three.
“The apartment is for let.” The man said. “The owner died last year. No one’s wanted to rent it since then.”
“I knew the owner.” Claire said, keeping her eyes dry this time. “Are you new here?”
“Just moved in last month.” The woman said. “It’s a lovely building.”
“Yes it is.” Claire said and walked back to the elevator.
Once inside Brian said. “That was your old place, wasn’t it?”
“Yes.” Was all they got in response.
Back in the van she pulled her cell phone from her purse and called Nathan. “What’s the address of the storage place in College Park?” She said. “Look Frack” She shouted. “I don’t want any shit, what’s the address?” She wrote something on a note pad on the dash. “Meet us there in thirty minutes, and if you call anyone about this I’ll personally lock you in there forever.” She got a strange look on her face, not anger but joy. “That would be very nice.” She cooed. “Thank you.”
“Without getting beat up, what did he say at the end?” Chris asked.
“He asked if I wanted a Moxie.” She started laughing and continued for three more miles.
At the storage facility Nathan and Bob met the other vehicle. They led Claire to the large, humidity controlled room that held all her belongings when she was Danny. Without a word Frack, unlocked the door and stayed outside with the others. For the next hour Claire sat in her favorite chair, drank her Moxie, and looked through boxes. Things he might never see again.
When she walked back outside it was dark. Tossing the keys to Chris she got into the back of Bob’s SUV. “We can go home, now.” She said, closing her eyes. Without another word the day shift left and the night shift drove back to Claire’s apartment.
“Where the Hell have you been?” Rachel screamed when the red head walked through the door.
“No shit.” She said. “Where?”
“I went back to my old place and then to the storage building.” Claire had a headache. “Here’s the name of a surgeon to do the implants. We went to high school with his sister. This is the only doctor that I’ll let touch me.” She dropped the slip of paper on the coffee table and went into her room. For the rest of the night, from time to time, Rachel could hear her cry, but left her alone.
April 26, 2001
Claire started hitting the gym again the end of March. The doctors gave her a clean bill of health, and with renewed energy she worked out at the bag and the weights every lunch. There was still no news of the shooting and the six could still not understand why Danny was becoming Claire, but understanding was not something they were paid to do at their level.
More and more the red head felt at home in the cramped apartment. Growing up in a large house, as an only child, and with a cousin two doors down, also in a large house, and also as an only child, she had gotten used to having space. When she lived in her apartment on the north side there was the house in Carter Falls to return to when space was felt. Although it was the real Claire that kept up the contacts with the residents, Danny always made it back once or twice a year to visit, at least until the past few. There were always meetings, or flights, or something that came up when a visit was planned, and in the end it had been quite a while since Danny had seen the town.
Earlier that day Rachel walked into her new friends bedroom and found her crying on the bed.
“Are you okay?” Rachel sat next to the woman. “Another bout of hormone rage?”
“I was looking for something in my closet and found a picture of the three of us when we were kids.” Claire passed a framed picture to Rachel. It was a photo of three young kids, two boys and a girl. Evidently by the color of their hair it was Claire, Danny, and the other boy must have been Steve.
“This was taken one summer at camp. We went to this day camp called Melody Pines. It was on a small lake in Manchester, run by a nice family. I hated it because they made you swim in really cold water whether you wanted to or not, but the horseshoes were fun. This was the campout we did the week before the camp closed. It was the last time we took a group picture until college.” She started crying again. “How could he?” The question was rhetorical.
“People change.” Rachel held her friend.
“Not him.” Claire said. “I saw him do it and still can’t believe it. We were like family.”
“I know.” Rachel said. “I know.”
Her implant surgery was scheduled for the seventh of May in Nashua, New Hampshire, where her friend’s brother worked. She would go in that morning and be out that afternoon. It would be almost eight months of intensive training to get to that point but the tall man seemed pleased. Each week the reports were getting shorter and the demands fewer. This morning they received word that recovery would be at a safe house in Manchester, not more than five miles from where Claire and Danny had grown up, and down the street from where Danny had once worked. After a few days the six would move to Claire’s farmhouse in Carter Falls, New Hampshire that had been co-owned by the two families, the Daniels and the St. Claire’s. From there the Agency would plan the final assault on Steve, although no one still knew what that was to be.
“Are you ready yet?” Rachel knocked on Claire’s door. “We have to leave in ten minutes.”
“I’ll be there.” She heard through the wood. “I think this is the nuttiest thing we’ve done yet.” Claire came out in a tan two piece Lauren skirt set with white blouse. She had heavy set inserts in her bra to approximate what the real Claire had been built like, and towered over her friend in five inch heels.
“If you can convince four of Claire’s oldest friends that you are her, then we’re home free.” Rachel passed on a coat. The weather was still warm from the afternoon.
“And if I can’t?” Claire did the same.
“Then we start again from the beginning.” Rachel smiled.
“Yea, like that’s going to happen.” Claire walked out into the hall.
“The Agency gave you a Lexus for the night.” Bob handed Claire the keys. “We’ll stay out of the way.”
“Thank you.” Claire smiled demurely. Turning to Rachel she asked. “I know we’ve been through this once but why these four?”
“Because they were Claire’s closest friends. Randy, the blonde, is the woman that worked out with you at the Academy, and then at the gym from time to time. You’ve known her for years. Susan, who goes by Pokey, worked with Claire on the Hong Kong desk until she got promoted to Cryptographic Interpretation. You haven’t seen her for over a year, because she’s been out of the country. Carol is your ex-neighbor from across the hall. She got married just before you were shot and moved to Belle Haven. Her husband’s name is Jim. You were at their wedding. Finally.”
“I’ve got to remember all this?” Claire interrupted when they got to the car.
“Yes, now listen.” Rachel got in after the red head unlocked the doors. “Diane will be your hardest critic. She’s known Claire since they were at Keene together. She’s the one who will be trouble.”
As she drove Claire went over in her mind everything the files had on the four women. Pokey was tall and brunette. Diane laughed at anything. Carol hated green beans but loved corn. Randy broke Claire’s big toe by using her head as a block the first year of the Academy. So much to remember.
When they got to the restaurant Claire introduced Rachel as her roommate and friend. The boys were already in a corner booth, out of the way, with a clear line of fire if necessary. Until now they had avoided large public gatherings. After everyone hugged they ordered and Rachel almost died when Claire ordered green beans for Carol.
“You know I hate green beans.” Carol looked shocked.
“Yea, but I’m eating salads now.” Claire returned. “If I can do green so can you.” She laughed and Diane laughed with her. “I’ll order corn too, that way you can wash one down with the other.”
“At least you haven’t lost your sense of humor.” Carol said.
“I lost a lot, though.” Claire said. “This is the most laid up I’ve been since someone broke my toe at the Academy and I had to use crutches for six weeks.” She looked at Randy and winked.
For the rest of the night the six talked about old times, and brought Rachel into most of the conversations. From the files and what she had gathered from co-workers who she had interviewed under different pre-texts, she felt like she knew them as well as they knew each other. At the end of the night everyone hugged again and promised to stay in touch.
“I’m going home for a while next month.” Claire said.
“To Manchester?” Diane asked.
“No, to the Falls.” Claire picked up her purse.
“It must be a beautiful place.” Pokey said with a far off look in her eyes. “All those trees and native people talking with a different accent. I envy you.”
“The Falls aren’t a place to long for.” The red head offered. “If you’re not from the Falls you’re an outsider. There’s no becoming one of them. I grew up there and still feel like a tourist. Also,” she leaned closer to the group, “I hear stories about monsters there.” Carol took a deep breath. “Gotcha.” Claire laughed.
“You are such the kidder.” Randy said.
Once back in the car Claire smiled widely. “Those are good people.” She said. “I can see why they were Claire’s friends.”
“They’re your friends now.” Rachel commented.
“At least for a while.” Claire returned, driving home.
May 7, 2001
St. Anthony’s Hospital
Nashua, New Hampshire
Claire and Rachel walked into the hospital before the sun came up. They drove all night, stopping once at an IHOP on the 495 for breakfast, which Claire didn’t get to eat. After registration they were escorted to a changing room and then Claire was helped onto a gurney. When the doctor came in he had an air of authority, but not pompousness.
“How have you been?” He asked.
“Other than getting shot, not too bad.” Claire kept her humor up. “How’s Sharon?”
“She’s doing well. I told her I was doing you today and she thought you already had enough.” The doctor started an IV drip.
“Tell her that was Linda Blackman. She was the one with the.” Claire held her hands out to register large breasts and they both laughed.
“I’ll let you get settled.” He said. “The nurse will come get you in about ten minutes. Once we start the morphine drip you’ll sleep like the dead. Oh, sorry, I forgot about Danny.”
“That’s okay.” Claire said. “I’m finally accepting what happened.”
“I’ll see you after you wake up.” He walked out the door.
“I can see why you insisted on him.” Rachel said. “He’s cute.”
“PLEASE!” Claire rolled her eyes. “I’m NOT that kind of girl.”
“What kind of girl are you Agent Daniels?” The tall man walked into the conversation.
“A very tired one sir.” Claire looked up, almost to the ceiling, at his face. “I didn’t expect you to be here.”
“I wanted to compliment you on your progress these last eight months.” HE said. “It’s taken a lot of strength to get to this point and the Agency appreciates what you’ve done.”
“Everyone out.” The nurse and an orderly swept into the room. “It’s time for this young lady to get some sleep.”
“I’m Dr. Jackson.” Rachel said. “I’d like to be there during the procedure for security purposes.”
“Yes ma’am.” The nurse said. “I was told you would be in the operating room. We have scrubs set out for you in the prep room. After Miss Daniels is under you can get a nurse to help dress you.”
“Thank you.” Rachel walked next to the gurney as it was wheeled into pre-op.
“Miss Daniels I’m Dr. Blythe. I’m your anesthesiologist.” He gave a toothy smile. “We’re going to dispense with the traditional counting backwards. You’ll be fine.”
“I’ll be right there with you through all of this.” Rachel took Claire’s hand.
“I do like being your friend at times.” Claire said, slurring a little.
“Only at times?” Rachel asked.
“At times you can be a real pain in the….” The blue eyes closed and the red head was out.