Enjoy Chapter Three of Rogue Agents, the newest spy thriller in the Justin Hall series, which came out on June 29. You can read the Prologue here, Chapter One here, and Chapter Two here. And if you like what you are reading, here are the links to buy Rogue Agents on Amazon, Kobo, Smashwords and GooglePlay.
April 25, 4:45 p.m.
Justin gazed out the kitchen window at a gathering of clouds moving menacingly over the tall maples and pines at the end of his father’s backyard. A large grove stretched beyond the property line and between the houses of the neighborhood. Justin remembered when he was seven or eight years old and he would sneak out of the house around midnight to watch the coyotes roaming the grove. When the winter got harsh and the animals grew hungry, they dared to venture right into the Halls’ backyard.
His father, Carter, caught Justin one of those times and gave him a severe scolding. Justin learned his lesson: always watch your back and vary your pattern. Then his mother discovered meat disappearing from the freezer on a regular basis, as Justin would occasionally toss small chunks of meat to one of the coyotes, a scraggly little fellow that was missing a part of his tail and dragged its left hind foot. Justin learned another important lesson: save your supplies. He began to put aside small portions from his lunches and suppers for the furry friend he named White Fang.
Justin heard the floorboards creak as someone stepped inside the spacious kitchen. The slight scent of bergamot filled the air, the unmistakable signature of his fiancée, Anna.
“Hi, how’s the party going?” Justin said and gestured to the right, beyond the window, toward the gazebo. He could not see it, but the sounds of hushed conversations of adults and joyful shouts of children came loud and clear.
Anna whispered, “They’re wondering what happened to you.” Then she leaned in for a kiss.
Justin kissed her back, then brushed one of Anna’s curls out of her face. Her blue eyes carried a soft glow as she looked at Justin from behind her square, rimless glasses. She had permed her raven-black hair that afternoon, and she was beautiful in her natural look with a peach-tone blush, a light brown eyeliner, and a nude lip balm. Anna wore a snug-fitting red woolen turtleneck and black dress pants. Justin had gone with a more casual look: light blue Levi’s jeans and a gray long-sleeved polo shirt.
His clothes were a small sign of rebellion and a slight hint of his passive-aggressive behavior. He did not really want to be here for his nephew’s seventh birthday party. This house where he was born and raised brought back many memories. Some were sweet, but most of them were bitter.
“I was waiting for the coffee maker to finish its job.” Justin glanced at the machine at the corner of the quartz countertop, then at his wristwatch. He had been gone for over ten minutes. “Would you like some?”
Anna shook her head. “No, too late for me. I don’t want a sleepless night.”
Justin shrugged, then fetched a cup from the cupboard.
“Let’s go.” Anna took hold of his hand. “It’s your family. You can do this.”
“I can, but I’d rather I didn’t have to.”
They walked out to the patio, then along the beige limestone pathway that snaked through the yard and led to the wooden gazebo. The left side of the yard was landscaped to perfection, with a couple of terraces full of different plants and shrubs. There were ornamental grasses, ferns, and barberries in the back and hydrangeas, peonies, and pulsatilas in the front. Carter must have had the gardener come and tidy up the yard yesterday or earlier today, Justin thought. His father disliked any landscaping or yard work involving manual labor or getting dirty, but did not think twice about hiring professionals to do the job. As the CEO of Hall & Brown Equity Investments Inc., one of the largest brokerages in Toronto, he could afford to hire gardeners and even renovate or redo the entire yard, which he did every couple of years or so.
A long stretch of carpet junipers and a heart-shaped patch of tulips and irises covered a section of the yard by the red brick wall of the house. Justin’s mother, Caterina, loved gardening, and irises were her favorite flowers. Justin frowned at the memory of his mother. He was only eleven years old when she had driven off a bridge in her car. The police investigation ruled it as an unfortunate accident caused by the dark night and icy roads. But Justin knew his mother was escaping from a life that had turned into a nightmare. He had witnessed the verbal abuse and the physical threats when his father was around and the neglect and the abandonment when he was gone on his long business trips. His mother’s death had not been an accident.
Justin grew up fast and strong, so he could stand up to his father and to everyone else who threatened the people he loved. He had been too young and powerless to be there for his mother, but was not going to let that happen again to anyone else in his life. As soon as he could, he joined the Service, which gave him a second family, or perhaps the only family he ever had.
Carter had been diagnosed with stage 3A non-small cell lung cancer about a year ago. He had undergone preoperative chemotherapy, a surgery in California, and adjuvant chemotherapy, and was taking a number of controversial new treatments, considering the cancer’s survival rate of less than fifteen percent. The cancer had disappeared but doctors were worried about its recurrence and kept Carter under constant observation.
The illness had brought Justin closer to his dad and his estranged older brother Seth, who had always been Carter’s favorite son, but the reconciliation process was slow and difficult. They could not make up for almost two decades of absence and bitterness through the occasional phone calls and rare visits. With Justin’s unpredictable schedule and Carter’s illness, it felt like they were not making much progress. So Seth’s wife, Tiffany, had organized this impromptu birthday party for their son, Theodore, who was turning seven in a couple of weeks. She had invited a couple of Theodore’s friends and had convinced Anna, who then had convinced Justin to take the hour-long flight from Ottawa.
Justin ducked as he walked underneath an arbor lush with clematis at the end of the pathway, then climbed up the three stairs leading to the large rectangular gazebo. Carter was half-sitting, half-lying in a comfortable armchair full of cream-colored pillows. He was dressed in a tweed jacket, black sweater, and brown slacks. Tiffany was sitting on another armchair next to Carter and was sipping from a large mug that Justin assumed contained hot chocolate, since Tiffany swore by her Ghirardelli Double Chocolate.
“Eh, there you are,” Carter said as Justin took a patio chair across from the steel-framed bistro table with a glass top, while Anna sat to his left. “What, no coffee for me?”
Justin found Carter’s voice gruff and his tone patronizing even though the old man was probably joking, since a Molson beer bottle stood half-full at the corner of the table in front of him. Justin was not sure if Carter was supposed to drink alcohol or coffee because of his condition, but then Carter was never known as a man who followed rules.
“I . . . I had no idea you wanted a drink,” Justin said, then lifted his cup to his lips. The gesture expressed much better than words his actual sentiment.
“I’ll go grab you some, Father.” Tiffany straightened her black-and-blue sweater dress with a cowl neckline and stood up. “Anything else?”
“No, just black coffee, dear.”
Tiffany smiled at Justin and left, long blonde braid swinging behind her with every step, the heels of her boots clicking on the floor panels of the gazebo.
“When’s the next time you see the doctors?” Justin asked with genuine interest. His father’s illness was one of the few things they could discuss freely without provoking bitter feelings or fits of anger. Carter was confident he would beat cancer and was treating the situation in the same way he had handled pretty much every crisis in his life for as long as Justin could remember: throw money at the problem.
“In two weeks,” Carter replied in a low voice. “Doctors at St. Mark have these new drugs they want me to try as part of my therapy. I have to pay an arm and a leg for those, of course, but they’ve given excellent results during clinical trials.”
“I told them money was no problem, as long as they work. I’m getting tired of being poked and probed, and nobody can give me clear answers.”
That’s because there are no clear answers, Justin thought, but said nothing. He nodded again and took a sip of his coffee.
“How long are you staying in Ottawa?” Carter asked.
“A few more days, maybe a week. Unless I’m ordered otherwise.”
Carter opened his mouth to talk but instead he let out a loud cough, then a wheezing sigh as he made an effort to draw in a deep breath. He coughed again.
“Dad, are you okay?” Seth’s voice came from the outdoor kitchen behind the gazebo along with the aroma of meat cooking on the barbeque grill.
“I’m all right, I’m all right,” Carter said as he held his chest. “Just . . . having trouble . . . breathing.”
Justin sat up straight in his chair. “Dad, do you need anything?”
“No, no, I’m all right.” Carter reached for a Kleenex from one of his pockets and wiped his lips. “It’s this damn cancer, that’s all. But I’m not dying.”
Justin looked at Seth through the gazebo’s trellis. Seth shook his head, then mouthed something indistinct. Justin returned his glance to his father before Carter could notice their exchange and become angry about whatever it was that his sons were plotting behind his back.
Carter sipped his Molson, then took a few shallow breaths.
A moment later, Theodore dashed through the grove and the backyard. He jumped on his grandfather’s lap and rested his head on Carter’s chest. A frown creased his small brow and his blue eyes looked like they were going to burst into tears.
“What’s the matter, Theo?” Carter ruffled the reddish hair framing Theo’s freckled face.
Justin smiled at the great resemblance between grandfather and grandson.
“I can’t find them, I just can’t.” Theo spoke in a low, desperate voice.
“Who are they?” Carter asked.
“My friends. We’re playing hide-and-seek and they always hide so well. I can never find them. Ever!” Theo let out a deep sigh. “That is, without cheating and taking a peek while I count the numbers.”
“No, no cheating and no pouting either. And we Halls, we’re not losers. Now go get them.” Carter gave Theo a gentle nudge and a pat on his back.
Justin put his coffee cup down. “Theo, come here for a second. Let me see if I can help.” He stood up and walked to the edge of the gazebo facing the grove.
Theo reluctantly left Carter’s side and dragged his feet toward Justin. “How do I find them?”
Justin pointed at the grove. “You can’t see them, but you can see their tracks, what they left behind when they scattered to find their hiding spots. Look and listen.”
“For what?” Theo’s voice rang with frustration.
Justin crouched down so his field of vision would be the same as Theo’s. “There are only so many thick trees. There, at four o’clock, I mean to your right, see that cluster there. I bet you one of your friends is there. Look carefully; one of the branches is moving, but there’s no gust of wind.”
“Jimmy is probably there,” Theo blurted out.
Justin nodded. “It could be. The trail is still muddy there, so look for footsteps, especially the ones going toward the big thick trees. And remember to also look and listen for what’s not obvious. What should there be at this time all over the forest?”
Theo took a moment to do some thinking. Then he said, “Birds, crows, blue jays, woodpeckers.”
“Right. If you can’t hear them, it means something or someone spooked them. And that someone could be . . .”
“Emilie, it could be Emilie.”
“I think I found them,” Theo said, and turned on his heels and darted through the gazebo, almost knocking over Carter’s bottle. As he climbed down the stairs he seemed to remember something as he stopped and turned his head. “Thank you, Uncle,” he said, then resumed his sprint.
Justin returned to the table as the shouts of the three children filled the grove and the backyard.
“What got them so excited?” Tiffany asked as she handed Carter a large porcelain mug.
“Justin was teaching Theo some tricks of his trade,” Carter said with a wry grin on his face.
Tiffany frowned. “You didn’t give him any ideas, did you? We don’t want him to grow up wanting to be a spy.”
Justin burned on the inside at the way Tiffany pronounced “spy” as if it were a dirty word. No, you want him to become a banker like his daddy, so he can please Grandpa and get his inheritance, he thought. But he decided to keep his cool. “Just giving him a few tips about hide-and-seek.” He returned to his chair and hid behind his cup.
“Oh, well, he needs to get better at that. He always complains he can’t find his friends. I don’t understand why they keep playing that silly game,” Tiffany said with a shrug.
Justin glanced at Anna. What are we doing here? his eyes said.
“Tiffany, where did you get that dress? It’s absolutely gorgeous,” Anna said, eager to change the subject.
“Oh, there’s this store that just opened by our place. They have all sorts of dresses—maxi, mini—and the selection is simply incredible,” Tiffany replied with great excitement. “You should come with me one day and we’ll have some girly time together.”
Justin rolled his eyes discreetly as he looked at the smoke curling up from Seth’s barbeque. Seth was elbows-deep in the grill, meticulously using a pair of tongs to gently flip over each T-bone steak. He took great pride in his culinary skills, aiming for a golden-brown crust covering both sides of the steak.
Seth turned his head and caught Justin’s look. “Five more minutes or so and we’ll be ready to have supper.”
Justin nodded. Yes, we’ll eat and get out of here.
His BlackBerry vibrated inside the right front pocket of his jeans. Justin leaned back in his seat and pulled out the smartphone. The caller ID showed his boss’s last name: McClain.
Justin stood up. “I have to take this,” he said to Carter and took a few quick steps. When he was out of earshot, he answered the call. “Yes, sir.”
“Justin, how are you?” McClain’s voice was low and edgy, with a clear hint of impatience.
“Good. What’s the problem, sir?”
“I need to see you right away.”
“I’m in Toronto, but I’ll catch the next flight.”
“Great. Meet me at the Langevin Block.”
Prime Minister’s Office? Must be a serious crisis if the PM wants to talk to intel officers. If it were one of the prime minister’s aides, McClain would have made them come to the CIS headquarters, which was just a short drive away from the Langevin Block.
“Talk to you soon.” McClain hung up without another word.
Justin looked at the phone in his hand, then lifted his eyes up to the gazebo. He had mixed feelings about cutting short his visit. He was relieved but he also felt a tinge of guilt, as he did not know when or if he would be able to come down to see his father again.
“Is everything okay?” Anna asked when Justin returned to the gazebo.
“You have to leave, right?” Carter asked.
Justin recognized the cold disappointed tone, the same one that had so often expressed disapproval of Justin’s choices over the years. Carter’s narrowed eyes conveyed the same emotion.
“Something important came up. I have to get back to Ottawa.”
“Oh, but we’re almost ready,” Tiffany said in a high-pitched tone full of regret. “Can’t this wait until after supper?”
Justin was tempted to tell Tiffany that the Prime Minister of Canada and the national security emergency could not wait until he had enjoyed his steak. Instead, he shook his head. “I’m very sorry. We’ll have to take a rain check.”
Tiffany puckered her lips for a moment, then looked at Anna. “But you don’t have to go, right?”
Anna looked at Justin and gave him a smile and a nod. I’ll stay, her look told him.
“My boss didn’t say anything about her,” Justin said.
“Great, maybe we’ll go shopping in the evening.”
Justin walked over to his dad and leaned in for a hug. “Sorry,” he said. “I’ll see you again soon.”
Carter nodded but the frown remained stamped on his face.
Seth came around to shake hands.
Justin said, “I hope Theo likes his present.”
“What is it?” Seth asked.
“A surprise,” Justin said with a small smile.
“It’s not an airsoft AK is it?” Seth furrowed his brow.
“Well, he’s not old enough for the real thing yet,” Justin replied with a straight face, then smiled again. “No, it’s not a rifle. But you’ll see the surprise when you open the present.”
Seth grinned but did not say anything.
Justin gave Anna a kiss. Tiffany stood up, gave him a big hug, and kissed him on both cheeks. An Italian thing, Justin thought, and once again was reminded of his mom, who used to cover him in wet kisses every morning before he left for school.
“Have fun,” Justin said as he cast a final glance at his family and stepped down from the gazebo. He picked up his black felt coat from the house, then got into the Nissan rental on the driveway.