January 13, 1:45 p.m.
Disguised as a hunchbacked old man using a cane, the Watcher followed her down the narrow street called Rue Nostradamus. The raven-haired sixteen-year-old with a scarred face and her middle-aged au pair moved with purpose, their soles clacking like bones on the ancient cobblestones. He’d been waiting for them at the café near the intersection, where a handful of metal patio tables still clutched last night’s frost.
Per his choice, only one young operative accompanied him on the potential kidnapping mission, a short, pit bull of a man named Raphael. Unhappily camouflaged as a woman, Raphael had followed the pair of females from the train station while updating the Watcher on their progress through a discreet high-tech bone-conducting microphone.
Moving further down the alley, he braced himself and the cane against the cold afternoon wind. As he hobbled past a battered blue barn door with rusty hinges, Avril, the girl, stopped and glanced back.
Does she know we’re following her? he wondered.
He kept shuffling toward her, eyes downcast so she wouldn’t notice his one glass eye. She turned her attention to the square plaque next to the entrance of Nostradamus’s former abode. From prior visits, the man knew the sign announced that the famous prophet had been the guest of royalty during his lifetime and had left behind an impressive legacy of prophecies that fervent believers pored over whenever dramatic world events occurred.
The girl’s hips swayed as she and the au pair entered the Musée Nostradamus. There were signs that the building was once beautiful—its tan brick walls held the remains of stucco, and the second-floor windows were laid out in an intriguing diagonal. But the modern touches, like the black metal and glass door, made it lovely no longer.
Taking shelter in a deep doorway next to the faded blue barn door, the Watcher leaned his cane against the wall and pulled out a pack of American cigarettes, the likes of which had added layers of gravel to his voice over the years. He spoke in French. “They are in the museum.”
“I am around the corner.” The operative’s voice was low and rough, the sound of death rustling dry leaves in the night.
The deep voice made for an interesting contrast to Raphael’s disguise, which had the man squirming the second he saw the navy skirt, flats, a fine wool coat, and flashy silver hoop earrings.
The Watcher took a single cigarette from the pack and, cupping his hand around the tip to ward off the wind, lit it with his gold lighter. “Good, wait there.”
“We should take her today and find out what she knows.”
He inhaled the smoke and considered the suggestion. His foreign patron had given him carte blanche. And it was tempting. But he’d been after this prize for most of his adult life and had learned to wait and observe. He’d earned his nickname.
“The time isn’t right,” he replied.
“But you believe she has the formula that Nostradamus used to see into the future.”
For a moment, staring at the glowing tip of his smoke, he saw far into the past, recalling one of the bearded man’s prophecies. On the first evening of July in 1566, Nostradamus, renowned physician, astrologer, and herbalist, had told his secretary, “You will not find me alive at sunrise.” The prophet died the next day.
Based on mountains of research, the Watcher was convinced that Nostradamus had not only predicted his own death, but also hid the formula he used for his trances in a sealed box bequeathed to his daughter. Although the world’s superpowers had been searching for decades to find the formula as a way to gain military supremacy, it remained hidden in the shadows of time.
“I have a hunch, only,” the Watcher said, pulling on his smoke. “We have no facts yet that the girl has the box. It hasn’t been seen in 450 years. And if she does have it, it’s unlikely she’d be here, looking at wax mannequins.”
“Why is she here then?”
Of late, the girl seemed fascinated with the seer. “I think she’s learning what she can of Nostradamus. Research.”
“If she does have it, though, it’s worth a bonus for us, right?”
That was exactly why Raphael was here. Money. A generous, retire-to-the-Greek-islands financial reward. But for the Watcher, the funds paled next to the influence he would wield by having the ability to tell the future. He’d been obsessed with all things Nostradamus since before he joined the army. The United States had shown interest in the prophet in the 1970s after a new biography hinted that the seer had documented his secrets in a formula, but had dropped their search after a lack of immediate success. He smiled to himself; he’d played no small part in dissuading them to move on by eliminating the operative who’d been hot on the trail.
Such fools the Americans were. He knew the value of patience. And the potential prize of prophecy.
His benefactor was also well aware of the value of knowing the future. According to his sponsor, scientists had made strides with getting test subjects into trance states using sound and light machines, but the prophetic results were inconsistent. They needed precision, bullets-produced-to-spec-level consistency. From reading between the lines on recent encrypted phone calls, the Watcher didn’t need a fortune-teller to tell him war was in the wind. The forthcoming military campaign would be won or lost based on how the US responded to his patron’s first move.
Inside the museum, the girl wandered past the glass door, hands behind her back as she studied a wall-sized arcane diagram, similar to those drawn by Leonardo da Vinci. The Watcher had examined those images for decades, looking for hidden meanings. He’d never found any.
He took a final drag on his cigarette, dropped the butt, and ground it into the stone cobbles with the heel of his boot until no spark remained.
“Yes,” he finally answered Raphael. “That’s why we have her under surveillance. We will snatch her when the time is right.”
Alpine Meadows Ski Resort, Lake Tahoe, California, USA
January 25, 11:30 a.m.
Maddy sped down the ski chute, kicking up clouds of chalky snow with every turn. Her twin brother, Will Argones, had wagered that he could beat her to the bottom of Alpine Meadows Ski Resort’s most dangerous run—a double black diamond.
She yelled back at him. “Catch me if you can!”
They’d grown up here in the Lake Tahoe region, and had made a day trip from Napa to celebrate the completion of her covert operations training. She’d been wanting to get AJ, her adopted son, on the slopes, too, and it was a good day for it.
The sky was the type of deep cerulean blue she’d only seen on crystal-clear days in the mountains, and it had snowed last night, a good six inches of fresh powder on a base that had been building since late November. The air smelled crisp and full of pine. The green limbs of the tall Jeffrey pines and fir trees were covered in brilliant white. It was a scene right out of a snow globe. She’d almost made the Olympic ski team once, and was in her element.
Loose snow ran up her body and across her face, blurring her vision. They called skiing on powder “snorkeling” for good reason. She whooshed around a tree and then dropped over a gnarly cliff tall enough that it sent her stomach lurching.
Problem was, Will and her boyfriend, Bear, were both good skiers, and she and Will had competed against each other on every mountain in the region. She ground her skis into the snow, digging for purchase. There was something about coming up here that always brought out a nasty sibling rivalry between the two of them. Maybe it was seeing the icy turn where her mom had been killed when they were six. Or perhaps it was driving by the house they lived in throughout high school, until Dad had moved down to the Napa Valley to pursue his winemaking dreams—before his untimely death.
Ghosts. There were ghosts here.
They’d even lost two good friends in the same deadly avalanche at Kirkwood. Tom and Sara. Both had been expert snowboarders. After the accident, Maddy had developed a keen fear of the rolling snow-based tidal waves, but the gang had convinced her conditions were not ripe for a rush of snow today.
She glanced over her shoulder. Will’s dark, wavy hair was dusted in white, and his bright snow jacket showed off his tan face. Dark sunglasses covered his eyes above a strong nose. He was gaining on her. She was tall, but his legs were longer. Bear, her sweet lover who kept hinting at having babies that she wasn’t ready to make, was a good twenty feet back.
Turning on imaginary afterburners, she got even more aggressive with her turns. Her long dark hair, somewhat restrained under a black cabbie hat, whipped as she jackknifed down the mountain. Her thighs began to burn. All that black ops training had gotten her in shape for shooting a semiautomatic while rolling under a moving car, but she was out of skiing shape. They were only about halfway down the Keyhole, the steepest slope Alpine Meadows had to offer.
A series of low moguls appeared and she crouched low, hitting the first one with enough velocity that she sailed over the next two bumps and landed smoothly. Over the years, she had learned to meditate with her eyes open, calling it listening because focusing on sounds helped her achieve that special mental state sought after by mystics, weekend yogis, and trained warriors. Wanting every advantage in this race, she tuned into the sounds around her. Her skis shooshed, a chunk of snow fell off a nearby tree with a thunk, and wind whistled in the pines. The clean scent of the fir trees became more pronounced and visual details around her sharpened.
Will flew by on her left, flashing her a Cheshire-cat smile. Distracted, her ski caught an edge and she nearly wiped out. Years of training meant she didn’t fall, but her momentum took a hit. She was only human, but the mistake irritated her.
Will held the lead now.
Clenching her teeth, she barreled down the fifty-five-degree slope. Will had seemed especially bitter today when they’d driven by the corner where Mom’s car had lost control. Tensions between them had been running high since Aunt Carole had a stroke last week; even though the prognosis was good, it was clear their childless aunt could no longer live alone in Danville. Will thought Aunt Carole should live with him and his cat on his live-aboard boat, while Maddy figured she and Bear were the better option, as Will was not exactly a chef. Bella, their sister, who was still steaming mad that the twins couldn’t discuss their work with her, had told Will that Aunt Carole didn’t belong with either of them, and that she and her husband, with their “more stable life,” would be the best choice.
Maddy thought the rift between Will and her over their mother’s death had closed, but with the Aunt Carole situation, tensions had flared. The morning of their mom’s demise, Maddy had woken from a dream screaming that their mother was going to die. No one believed her. Now, Will was pressuring her to control her dreams to predict how to save their aunt from other health issues. With escalating annoyance, Maddy tried to tell him that type of intervention was impossible.
Since Mom’s car accident, Maddy had dreamed only a handful of other prophetic visions. None of them good.
It seemed like in many ways time had frayed that day. There was life with Mom, and life after. Hardly a day went by when Maddy didn’t long to see her mother’s face again. Where was her spirit now?
On the slopes, Maddy was closing fast on Will. Good, because the bottom of the run was rapidly approaching. She used the last strength in her thighs to propel herself forward.
They turned a corner in the run, neck and neck. Tall as skeletal giants, snow-covered pine trees flashed by on either side. A wide, four-foot-tall mogul caught her off guard, coming up fast. Will approached from the right, she from the left.
They both flew high into the air, and collided, like tangled, wingless birds.
Inside her bedroom, Avril put her leopard gecko, Fleck, into her pocket as she cleaned out his aquarium. Once a month, she took everything out and did a deep clean, and today was that day. The rest of the room needed cleaning too. Maybe tomorrow.
She worked swiftly, and as she scrubbed and threw out the old substrate made of aspen shavings, she thought about the men who had been pursuing her.
“I think someone has been following me,” she told Fleck.
Fleck didn’t answer, so she pulled him out of her pocket and looked at him. His eyelids blinked. She had only one good friend at her new school, and had found talking with her pet to be rather fun. Sometimes she made up his responses in what she imagined was a dry male lizard tone.
Now he said, “That’s kind of scary. Why would someone shadow you?”
“I don’t know,” she said, admiring his wide head and beautiful spotting. “That’s the problem.”
“Have you told Monique or your grandfather?”
She shook her head. “No. I’m not certain that’s what’s going on.”
“Tell me what you saw.”
“A few weeks ago, when Monique and I were at the Nostradamus Museum, there was this creepy guy following us. He had one glass eye and used a cane.”
“An old man with a cane? Sounds innocent to me.”
“I know. That’s the problem!”
“Any other evidence?”
“A few times I’ve thought a dark sedan was following me, or parked down the street.”
“I see. Hardly rock-solid proof.” He twitched his tail. “Have any of those special mealworms today?”
“I do. Let’s get you settled first.”
She put him back in her loose shirt pocket and went about getting his environment set up. First, she checked that the heat pad, just in half the enclosure, was warm to the touch. Then, she added new shavings, a fresh water dish—this one with little geckos painted on the sides—two partial logs, and a small cardboard box for climbing and hiding.
Once his home was arranged, she lovingly removed him from her pocket and set him inside. “There you go, buddy.”
He waddled onto a half log and twitched his plump tail expectantly.
The window rattled in the wind, putting her on edge.
She took a mealworm from the pouch and put it into a plastic bag with a powder calcium/vitamin D3 supplement. Shaking the bag fiercely, she worked out some of her angst, and then dropped the covered worm on top of the cardboard box. Fleck moved over and started maneuvering it into his mouth with his tongue.
Putting the lid atop his enclosure, she stared at her black desk and the computer there. It was time to make her next prediction.
Sitting down, she pulled up TikTok, her favorite social media video site, and checked her number of followers. They grew by the day. Soon, one of her forecasts was going to hit the bullseye, and then she’d be hugely popular. That would be nice, especially at school.
Maybe it would be today’s prophecy. She had a feeling about it.
Using a brush, she attempted to tame her long, dark-wavy hair, and then caught herself. It didn’t matter what she looked like. Due to the ugly scars that covered her face and neck, she videoed Fleck instead of herself,
She set up the video camera so that it would capture her handsome avatar in her arms, with his adorable eyes looking out at the world.
Fleck was done eating. She picked him up, began to record the video, and spoke the prophecy in her own voice.
Napa Valley, California, USA
After dinner at the vineyard, Will sat gingerly on the couch in front of the woodstove and put his feet up on the coffee table. His whole body felt bruised from the collision at Alpine Meadows.
His twin sister, Maddy, and her boyfriend, Bear, were cuddling on the oversized leather armchair. Bear wore his usual jeans and white T-shirt, but had taken his black boots off. Maddy wore gray sweatpants and a green long-sleeved V-neck sweatshirt. She glowered at Will around the ice pack on her new black eye. “Really? Feet on the furniture?”
Screw her. His tired legs wanted to relax.
He motioned her away. “It’s my house, too.”
Reaching for his silver, harp-shaped harmonica, he plucked it from its tooled-leather case, then put his lips to the gold-plated mouthpiece, and began to blow a mournful tune. After being struck by lightning, he’d developed a talent for playing the instrument and had treated himself to a high-end Suzuki SCT-128 professional 16-hole Tremolo Chromatic. The music soothed his jagged nerves.
After a time, he put the harmonica down. He stroked the scar on his chin, thinking about the accident that took his mother. Tahoe always made him feel morbid.
Maddy’s face had softened as he played. She turned to watch AJ roughhouse with the golden retriever he called Damien, his red hair bright against the dog’s yellow fur. The kid’s ears were almost as big as the dog’s.
She said, “I admit you did a wonderful job getting rid of Dad’s eighties décor. I’m more impressed by the new security, though.”
Bear jumped in, his southern drawl more pronounced after a long day of skiing. “I’m impressed, too, Argones. The security camera system alone must have set you back some serious cash.”
Will’s chest warmed with pride. “Maddy wanted the place safe for AJ. Sensors sound an alarm if a trespasser comes within even a quarter mile of the house.”
Bear crunched an ice cube from his glass. “Didn’t you tell me the infrared system puffs out fog screens and some sort of nasty-smelling gas?”
“Yepper,” Will replied. “That gas will disable an intruder.”
Bear, who had a better sense of smell than the rest of them, scrunched up his nose in distaste.
“And if that doesn’t stop them, the Burglar Blaster will shower them with pepper spray.”
Bear nodded his appreciation. “Did you name that?”
Will declined to answer.
Maddy tossed her dark ponytail over her shoulder. “I’m glad you finally listened to me and put in the self-contained panic room. Didn’t you tell me it has something like eighteen-inch-thick steel walls?”
He tucked the harmonica back in its case. “I did. And it does.”
Damien walked over and put his head on Maddy’s knee. She patted the pup on the head, and scratched under his chin. The dog’s tail thumped madly, nearly knocking Bear’s sweet tea off the coffee table. The interaction made Will miss his cat, Paolo, who was back in DC on his live-aboard boat.
“And no keys,” Maddy continued. “I misplaced the keys to my loft in the city once. The biometric recognition software is very handy.”
Of course she’d appreciate the software. At heart, his sister was a computer geek.
As she rubbed the dog’s chest, the matching ruby-red lorandite rings on her hands gleamed in the firelight. After years of aikido martial arts practice that had begun when they were in high school, he understood that she’d learned to perceive the life force of opponents, as well as her own energy. Leveraging that black-belt talent, she could now channel ball lightning through the rare, highly superconductive material she wore on her fingers. At one time, they’d had large shards of lorandite. Now, all that remained were two dime-sized chunks, which she wore as rings on the middle fingers of both hands.
He would have never believed her skills if he hadn’t seen them firsthand, and if she hadn’t saved his life on more than one gut-wrenching occasion. He’d researched the hell out of the lightning phenomenon, trying to figure out exactly how it worked, and had a solid physics theory based on zero-point energy.
With such small pieces to work with, he’d wondered how much energy she could channel. Yesterday afternoon, after she’d flown in from Washington DC, she’d taken a walk in the vineyard, and he’d gone with her to find out.
Amidst the leafless vines of the vineyard, he’d set up an uncarved orange pumpkin, leftover from Halloween, as a target between rows.
“Move it a little to the left,” she’d ordered.
He complied, and got out of the way, returning to her side.
She turned her rings so the lorandite touched her skin, took a few deep breaths and pointed her index and middle finger as if her hands were guns. A blue flash left her hands and the carroty ball went flying backward through the plants.
“Not bad,” he said. “What’s your range?”
“About the length of a house on a damp day like today. Set it up again for me and let’s test it.”
He trudged down the row of grapes, centered the squash, and walked back about a hundred feet until he stood behind her.
She’d told him her process was to quiet her mind, and move energy out through her heart and into her hands, through the mineral, which focused the energy. He was dying to learn more about exactly how she did it, but every time he asked, they argued. Instead, he figured he should shut up and watch.
Again, she focused. A blue ray carved sightless new eyes on the face of the squash.
“Nice work. Let’s go back fifty feet,” he suggested.
This time, though, the ray went no more than three quarters of the way to the pumpkin before it just petered out. He decided that although she was throwing less lightning than when she’d had larger chunks of lorandite, she had more accuracy, at least at her range.
For kicks, he’d thrown one of his knives at the squash. He couldn’t hit it either. At that distance, they’d both need a cold and heavy semiautomatic to blow the pumpkin to smithereens.
Not wanting to disturb the silence of a winter afternoon with gunfire, they’d returned to the newly renovated house.
“It was a fun remodel,” Will said, returning his attention to the conversation. “I’m glad Director Bowman let me work remotely for a few months so I could oversee it.”
“You were able to visit Aunt Carole, too, while I was learning to jump out of planes.”
“Hey, that reminds me. I found something strange that I want to show you.”
As he jumped up and headed down the hall to his bedroom, their VanOps teammate Jags and her girlfriend, Deana, walked into the living room bearing aromatic dessert plates. The helpful pair had kept an eye on AJ at the ski lodge while the experts skied the challenging runs, and now had made pie. Will nabbed the postcard from the top of his dresser and brought it back, wanting some of the delicious-smelling cinnamon-infused apple delight.
He interrupted a kiss between Maddy and Bear.
“Break it up you two.”
Bear glared at him. “You need a girlfriend. What do you want to show us?”
“I found a postcard in Aunt Carole’s house. I think it’s from Mom. But when was she in Italy?”
The whole situation with Aunt Carole was tearing him up inside. She reminded him so much of Mom and had been his primary source of memories about their mother as they’d grown up. It was hard to see her in a hospital gown. She looked so frail. He knew that it would be difficult for him to keep Aunt Carole with his globe-trotting lifestyle, but it didn’t stop Will from wanting to take care of her. She was the last link he had to Mom.
He handed the postcard to Maddy, who stopped eating her steaming pie to look at the grim image of a reclining skeleton above two Greek words: gnōthi sauton.
“That’s not just strange, it’s downright disturbing.” Maddy handed the image to Bear. “What do you and your history fascination make of it?”
Bear put his fork down. He examined the image and turned the postcard over. “It’s a picture of the ‘Memento Mori’ mosaic from excavations in the convent of San Gregorio. Now in the National Museum’s Baths of Diocletian in Rome.”
She elbowed Bear in the side. “I can see that.” She turned to Will. “Can you read the Greek?”
“It’s a Greek motto for ‘know thyself.’” He’d had to look up the rest, but wasn’t going to admit that. “Combined with the image, it’s supposed to convey the famous warning: Respice post te; hominem te esse memento; memento mori.”
“‘Memento’ sounds like ‘memory’ or ‘remember.’ Or a keepsake. Translate for us ignorant Neanderthals, please,” Bear said.
Will smiled, glad to make Bear squirm a little with his gift for languages, since Bear outgunned him in most other categories. “Look behind; remember that you are mortal; remember death.”
“I guess that’s supposed to make us appreciate being alive, but . . .” Maddy trailed off, turning the card over. “You really think it’s from Mom?”
“Look at the handwriting. And the signature.”
He watched Maddy’s wheels spin the same way his had when he’d grabbed Aunt Carole’s glasses from her dresser and had seen the writing side of the postcard tucked into a corner of the mirror.
Will turned to Jags and Deana. “Tasty pie.”
While most of them wore baggy après-ski sweatpants and sweatshirts, Jags, as always, looked like the LA model she’d been before joining the NSA and then VanOps. Her sleek loungewear fell in smooth lines and her short black hair managed to look stylish even after wearing a hat all day.
“Thanks,” Jags replied with a smirk. She tilted her head to her partner. “Deana made it.”
“Mary Louise Marshall,” Maddy interrupted. “And it looks like her handwriting all right.”
AJ walked over. “Can I see it?”
“Sure.” Maddy handed the faded postcard to AJ and ruffled his carrot top with affection. She glanced up at Will. “Why was Mom in Italy?”
“I have no idea. No date on it either.”
The existence of the card bothered Will. He’d been trained by VanOps to take advantage of his natural tendency to spot anomalies, as they often signaled potential danger. When he wasn’t on a mission, he was part of the Red Team, poking holes in the plans of other operations. This postcard shouldn’t exist. But what did they really know of their mother’s life before she had birthed them?
Maddy wiped her mouth with a napkin. “We should ask Aunt Carole when she’s feeling better.”
A lump formed in his throat. If their aunt died, all ties to his mother would be lost. “Or maybe you could have a dream about it.”
Maddy shot him the evil eye.
“Hate to interrupt the family reunion,” Jags said, finishing a last bite of crust while she looked at her phone. “But here’s an interesting news alert.”
Bear ran a hand over the stubble of his blond buzz cut. Once a marine, always a marine. “Oh?”
“China just invaded one of Taiwan’s outlying islands. And a sixteen-year-old female civilian in France predicted it.
Maddy was glad for the subject change that halted the nascent argument with her brother. “What do you mean a sixteen-year-old girl predicted a Chinese invasion?”
“That’s all I know. The world is shocked and there will be a news conference in a half hour,” Jags replied, with her usual perfect smile. “It’s still early morning in France.”
Jags’s name was understandably short for Jarmilla Agiashvili. Of Georgian descent, she was a thin, black-haired woman with blue eyes, and a personality that emanated a mix of strength and femininity. She and Deana had joined them in Napa to help celebrate the completion of Maddy’s covert ops training.
“Huh. Think she really predicted it? Maybe she got intel from a boyfriend, or . . .” Maddy paused, collecting her thoughts, and twirled a lorandite ring around her finger. “Or somehow hacked the People’s Liberation Army?”
It felt strange for her to be doubting the girl, after experiencing her own premonitory dreams. She glared at Will again. His snide comment about calling up a dream to find out why Mom was in Italy was a perfect example of how he never listened to her. Sibling tensions aside, could the sixteen-year-old have a similar talent?
“Doubtful,” Jags replied. “We have trouble hacking them. Plus, this island was not on our radar as being threatened.”
Maddy’s left index finger twitched as she adjusted the ice pack on her bruised eye. She was lucky an errant ski hitting her face was the only casualty from crashing into Will atop that mogul. She’d rolled twice before slamming into a pine.
Will’s eyes narrowed, accentuating his long eyelashes. “Doesn’t Doyle have family in Taiwan?”
Maddy swallowed, remembering Doyle’s brother Quinn, who had died on a mission with them about a year ago. Both siblings were members of a hidden group that she also belonged to—an ancient sect of royal spies that had been established by her father’s forbears.
“I think you’re right.” She looked up and away. “I think his grandparents live there.”
Before they could turn on the news, Jags’s phone buzzed the special signal that meant Director Bowman wanted them on a secure video feed ASAP. Maddy’s skin prickled with excitement.
Jags turned to Deana. “Can you watch AJ for a minute while we head downstairs?”
Deana’s red hair had more blonde tones than AJ’s firebrick-red mop. She nodded, her blue eyes conveying understanding. She repeatedly told them she liked watching the boy, and had done so on the slopes earlier after he’d gotten worn out on the bunny hill. AJ gave them all a quick glance and went back to playing with the dog.
Maddy’s heart bloomed. Although her life with VanOps was not suburban soccer-mom style, he’d adapted to it like a champ. She sure loved that kid.
Jags stood and led the way to the secret staircase that had been installed behind the wall of the guest bathroom shower. Maddy followed Bear, noticing that his limp from Afghanistan was more obvious after skiing all day. She reached out and gave his hand a quick squeeze, wondering if he would ever tell her what had happened that day.
Five minutes later, the VanOps team was downstairs in what Will had dubbed Command Room West. The director had allowed them to work part-time from Napa Valley if they footed the bill for installation of the encryption technology that allowed secure communications. Not wanting to raise AJ in Washington DC, Maddy had agreed to the expense, grateful she’d been able to afford it after the software company that she used to work for had gone public.
“Sorry to interrupt your celebration, gang, but we have a developing situation,” Director Alfred Bowman said.
Maddy focused on the bank of oversized computer monitors that seamlessly rendered the director’s image. He was a sharp-eyed, gray-haired African American man who currently wore a white shirt with rolled-up sleeves and a striped purple tie. He’d recently grown a beard, now neatly trimmed, and she thought it looked good on him. His tone was deep, but his words were machine-gun fast.
“Related to Taiwan?” Maddy asked.
“Indirectly, yes. Other members of our intelligence services and armed forces are meeting right now to discuss how to counter China’s surprising takeover of the primary Pratas Island, also known as Dongsha Island. But our mission lies in France.”
Bear’s wide shoulders tensed. “First, could you tell us how close are they to Taiwan, sir?”
Maddy liked that Bear always got formal with the director.
“Pratas Island is in the north section of the South China Sea, Bear, roughly halfway between Hong Kong and Taiwan. About 275 miles southeast of Taiwan, but still too close for comfort. The island, airport, and nearby wildlife atoll have been disputed for years.”
“Sir, were there casualties?”
“Our satellite feeds showed heavy fighting. The island held about five hundred Taiwanese marines. They were hunkered down in bunkers, but . . .” He trailed off, his voice somber and slower than usual. “The People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, came with a swarm of tanks.”
A muscle in Bear’s jaw began to twitch.
This didn’t look good for Taiwan. And was worrying for Doyle’s family.
Jags asked, “How can we help?”
“Have you seen the news that a young girl in France predicted this attack when Pratas wasn’t even on our bloody radar?”
“We did, yes.”
“We have some signals intelligence that indicates her life may be in danger from a foreign power interested in her prediction capabilities.”
Maddy brushed a lock of hair behind her ears. “She’s the real deal then?”
The director turned his dark eyes her way. “That’s part of what I need you to find out.”
Will crossed his arms. “Why are we interested in a fortune-teller?”
“If she’s consistently accurate, her skills would not be in that ballpark, Will. A little history here might help.” Bowman sat back in his chair and steepled his fingers. “Before VanOps existed, our country had a team in the seventies that was formed to keep pace with the Russians. The STARGATE project studied out-of-body experiences, remote viewing, killing from a distance, and experimenting with drugs like LSD. Trying to weaponize parapsychology.”
Maddy and Bear exchanged a glance. She’d had no idea.
The director continued. “When STARGATE was exposed in the press, and shown to be a failure, the public demanded its head. However, obscure threats remained. VanOps was formed when STARGATE was disbanded; the program just became a deeper shade of black. Funding had to go through more backdoor channels.”
“How does this history relate, sir?” Bear asked.
“One of the STARGATE projects was a mission codenamed ‘Hourglass’ that took place in the town where the French girl lives with her grandfather. It’s the only connection I could find. I’ll send you the file. Read it on the plane.”
Maddy nodded, her mind abuzz with questions.
Jags asked, “Our mission is to protect the girl?”
“You’re going to provide support for the team from here in DC, Jags. Or you can work from the vineyard. Your leg hasn’t been cleared for combat and there will be a lot of research required to get to the bottom of this.”
Did her lower lip just tremble? Maddy thought. No, Jags never got emotional.
Jags executed a stiff, mock salute. “Happy to help, sir.”
“I knew you’d be thrilled. But yes, our mission is to protect the girl. See who wants her and why. I doubt she can predict the future, but find out, and if she can, we need to keep any secrets in her pretty little head out of the hands of our enemies. Our intel indicates someone thinks she’s for real. Reporters are outside her house right now going mad.”
“Do we have support from the locals?” Will asked.
“French police will assign two men. I fear it won’t be enough. That’s where you come in. Spying is in your blood, after all.”
The comment caught Maddy off guard. What does he mean? She thought, He must be referring to the crazy Spanish side of our family and my membership in the sect, officially named the Order of the Invisible Flame.
That gave Maddy an idea. “Will we have any support from the Order?”
Bowman smiled. “Actually, yes. I’ve been in touch with the master and Doyle has volunteered, given his family in Taiwan.”
Good. The master had an ancient library and a global team trained in espionage at his disposal. Those resources might come in handy. Will often called the Order a secret sect of stately spies because it was comprised of members descended from old Spanish royalty. Maddy had a scar on her shoulder, more like a trophy, to prove her membership. Will, though, had been unable to pass the esoteric tests required for membership, and had soured on the group.
“I’m glad Doyle will be able to help,” Maddy said, even as Will frowned.
“Me too,” the director said. “If we can find out what the People’s Liberation Army is planning next, it would save a lot of bloodshed.”
Maddy felt excited and nervous to be assigned to a mission so soon. She’d thought she might have to wade through a sea of boring cyber desk work first. She’d joined VanOps to make a difference. To help make the world a better place. Keep it safe.
AJ would also need to be kept safe. Deana was able to telework in her role as a VanOps analyst, and earlier they’d discussed her interest in keeping an eye on the boy and getting him to school when Maddy was on a mission.
Then Maddy realized they’d need to leave Aunt Carole under Bella’s care while they were gone, which would prove Bella’s point that she and Will left town too often to care for their aunt. Maddy’s heart sank, yet her fingers itched to get her hands on the reports from, what had he called it, Codename Hourglass?
“We understand, sir,” Bear said.
“Good. Now, Jags, can you start doing some digging while the others catch the next flight to France?”
“Thank you. The rest of you, get moving. I’ll be in touch.”
International multi-award–winning author who blends intrigue, history, science, and mystery into nonstop action thrillers
Avanti Centrae is honored to have won eight literary awards. She finds inspiration from her father, who served as a US marine corporal in Okinawa, gathering military intelligence. Avanti graduated from Purdue University and has spent time in a spectrum of professions, from raft guide to Silicon Valley IT executive. When not traveling the world or hiking in the Sierra mountains, she’s writing her next thriller in Northern California, helped by her family and distracted by her German shepherds.