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Chapter XXI

Everything about the Thulewaite Ranch felt wrong to Frankie. It reminded him of things better left forgotten. The entire state of Texas, for example. Certainly he had history here, but passing rows of animal heads, paintings of endless bucolic ranches, and the occasional silver plated spittoon, Frankie had an epiphany. Texas deserved his contempt on its own merits. Texas was full of bullshit, both literally and figuratively.

Still, he had to play a part and there was that old, comfortably pleasure in doing his job well. So he spoke to people, listened to their grandiose tales of self-aggrandizement, and he refilled his wine glass.

Occasionally he would catch sight of Agent D and he would let his eyes linger on her. In person, his target was even smaller than she appeared in the photograph, a pale wraith as substantial as a curl of cigarette smoke. In some better universe he would be working to protect people like this. His face must have betrayed some of this.

“You’re looking at that girl like she broke your heart,” a young ingénue said. “Do you know her?”

Frankie smiled thinly and set down his wine glass on the mantle by the woman’s head. She was lovely, with a long neck and graceful, soft features. She wore her hair in the style of Jackie Kennedy, which always made him want to apologize.

“Passing acquaintance,” he said. “Old news. You were telling me about tomorrow.”

“Oh yes, it’s going to be ever so much fun,” the ingénue said. “Baseball will be on the large field, and there will be a BBQ on the main lawn around two. You’re planning on staying the weekend, right?”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

“Excellent, because you’re going to have to stay at least until the Show is over. That is a must.”

“The Show?” In some instinctive way, Frankie knew the word would be capitalized.

“No one has bothered to tell you about it, obviously,” the girl pulled at one of the ruffles of fabric hanging from her slender arms. “Honestly, some people have no positive value to creation at all.”

“No argument here.”

The ingénue took a sip from her pink martini. “So what’s your story, darling? How did you come to this dusty corner of Texas.”

“Military.”

“Ooh, military,” the girl’s eyes widened into perfect orbs of enthusiasm. “I simply love the military. Which branch?”

“Marines.”

“My uncle was a Marine. You really should talk with him, share some war stories.”

“My pleasure, although I’m not sure he’d recognize me.”

“You can meet him tonight, if you want,” the girl persisted. “He’s only the host of the party, silly. What do you think you are, cute, pretending not to know that?” She gave him a playful slap on the arm.

Frankie did his best to smile. “Of course I knew that, and I was meaning to meet Mr. Thulewaite as soon as the opportunity presented itself…”

‘The opportunity has,” she tittered and with a gentle, but insistent grip, lead him to the entrance to the Timbuktu room. Frankie allowed himself to follow her, all the while scanning the room for one of the Section Starfire Agents. He needed an out. Shield didn’t want him talking to the target; he was just there as muscle.

The girl pulled him through the sliding tides of party-goers until he was toe-to-toe with the host himself. Gunther offered a hand.

“Another member of the corps,” his smile was wide and the color of old driftwood. “When you serve, son?”

“’51 through ’54, but you never really leave.”

“So, enlisted man? Not an officer.”

“Couldn’t beat the test, sir.”

Gunther grinned. Maybe it was going to be OK, he didn’t recognize him. Why would he? Frankie had been one face among dozens in 1962 when this man had stopped by the San Paulo operations office. As for Frankie, he knew him all too well. Had a different name back then, but he’d gotten the gist of the visit quickly enough.

“You strike me as a man of action, Mr. Lain. I’m going to hazard you didn’t come all the way here for social hour. That right?”

Frankie allowed that it was.

“So, what’s it going to be? Buffalo hunting, elephant tracking? Something more dangerous?”

“I hadn’t really planned that far yet.”

“I like that,” Gunther said. “Let chance be your guide.”

“Never had much say in what I encountered in Korea, why start now?”

“’Why start now?’” Gunther grinned. His brown teeth made Frankie wish he wouldn’t. “How would you like to try your hand at something … unique?”

“Depends on how unique.”

The others surrounding Gunther glanced around as though remembering an old joke. “Let’s just say that you’re not going to get a thrill like this anywhere else in the world.”

The ingénue was genuinely alarmed. “Uncle Gunther, don’t tempt this nice young man with that horrid Show!”

“Tempting? You make it seem like something sordid and low. My offer would only tempt if a man such as Mr. Lain here felt it were enticing. And what would be enticing to Mr. Lain I won’t even risk guessing. It’s up to him.”

The girl gave him a glance suggesting he should want no part of the Show. There was certainly some part of Frankie that knew it would be an astonishingly bad idea to rise to Gunther’s bait. But another part didn’t care if this was a trick, trap or outright stupidity.

Frankie was an operational agent. He was employed by people who wanted him to act, to make the impossible expected. If Shield wanted him as part of this mission he had to know that.


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