You don’t retire from some careers until they blow taps. Being a CIA Spook is one of those jobs.
I’d retired from the spy business years ago and was now living in Florida, enjoying my grandchildren when they dropped by. I was doing well. My doctor said if I kept moving and caring for myself, I should be around for the grandkids’ weddings. Although truth be told, there were days I wasn’t so sure about that. Old age is a mean bitch.
At least, I thought I’d retired until I reached into the mailbox one morning and pulled out a large manilla envelope. My blood ran cold, and I forgot the junk mail in my hand. The envelope with my name and address: Bobby Tate, 2656 Lorana Drive, Surfside, Florida, written in small block letter print caught my attention. Only a child would print like this, and this certainly wasn’t from my grandson.
I quickly returned to the house and looked out the front window for any signs of a car I didn’t recognize parked on the block. That meant little because I knew from experience they could watch you, and you’d never see them—unless they wanted you to.
I shuffled through the rest of the mail and tossed most of it in the proper filing cabinet, the trash bin next to the hall table. That left the sizeable square envelope I held in my hand that reminded me that, like it or not, I was still a spook and would be until I died.
I tossed the square envelope onto the cabinet next to the turntable while I selected a record for my late-morning play. A habit I started some time ago where I play at least one record in the late morning or early afternoon every day. If this was what I thought it was, something from my past, I wanted some appropriate to listen to while I found out if my life was fucked again. While I didn’t believe they bugged the house, one couldn’t be too careful. I’d checked for devices not long ago, an old habit that I continued even after retirement.
I opted for the loudest in-you-face soundtrack I had. If they’re listening and want to hear my reaction to the envelope’s contents, they won’t hear anything but horns and a loud score. There is nothing subtle or laid-back about the Dr. Zhivago soundtrack.
I set the volume to the appropriate levels, I.e., you could hear it on the sidewalks out front, and settled into the worn leather chair I sat in when I listened to music. I had positioned the chair perfectly between the two main speakers, which gave me a well-balanced experience and let me hear everything my old ears still could.
Sighing heavily, I opened one end of the large envelope. Inside was a single eight-by-ten glossy picture of a sunflower. From the quality, it appeared it had been printed on a standard inkjet printer using cheap photo paper. No note included or anything written on the back—just the picture. Glancing at the envelope, I checked the postmark. It didn’t mean anything. I’ve driven two hours out of my way to post a letter in another city because I didn’t want the actual place I was at to be on the postmark. It was an old trick. There were no other telltale signs on the envelope or picture. Whoever sent it knew what they were doing.
But why now? Why send a single picture to me? Who was I kidding? I knew why. Operation Sunflower had almost been a disaster.
Somehow a nearly failed operation in another country more than forty years ago was relevant again, and the last thing I needed was old memories dragged up and awkward questions that I didn’t have answers for. Or worse yet, they wouldn’t like the few answers I did have.
Today anyone can find a generic picture of whatever they are looking for online, making the picture meaningless. It was the subject that was the focal point—a single sunflower. To remind me of an operation I had run that ended in the death of one of my operatives.
Officially, his death was attributed to traffic accidents, but I knew the truth. I had lived with it every day for the last four decades. I had pushed it to the back of my mind, but occasionally, I’d get a subtle reminder. This was anything but subtle. I didn’t need fingerprints to tell me who probably sent the picture and wanted to push my buttons. They would learn that was a dangerous thing to do.
The old files had long been archived in a secure facility, hidden behind a wall of secrecy that a court order from a federal court could only penetrate. The chances of that happening were slim, and none. But I didn’t need the old files to remember the details about Operation Sunflower. It was burned into my mind.
I got up, turned the music down to more reasonable levels, and returned to my chair to think about what was happening. My last full-sized operation, Operation Sunflower, had nearly gone wrong. It happened over forty years ago, but I remember it clearly. I was debriefed immediately, my reports handed to my section head, and everything was cleaned up neat and tidy.
The family of the dead operative was given a sizable “Life Insurance” payout, and the story of his demise was plausible and creditable. Yet, it still nagged at me that we couldn’t tell them the truth, but I knew better. The truth would have been devastating to US foreign policy and more questions that no one wanted to answer, at least not publicly.
“Damm, I hated this job,” I swore to myself as I poured a third cup of coffee from the mocha master coffee machine. I laughed, thinking what a hypocrite I was. As much as I hated what I had to do over the years, I did enjoy the benefits of being able to afford the quality things the job provided. But it didn’t balance with the death of my friend, and he was my friend.
The coffee was perfect. It always is from that machine, but it didn’t settle well with me right now. I climbed into the bottle for a while after I retired. Fortunately, I mostly drank on the job as part of a cover, but after retiring, I drank way too much for too long. Climbing out of the bottle took a serious health scare that forced me to reckon with my past. It had been buried in the back of my memories so far that I’d almost forgotten their names. But one I remembered quickly.
Brent Lewis, a fellow spy, had died in a firefight trying to protect a state’s witness who was set to testify before Congress about a foreign government’s corruption. It had been called Operation Sunflower because our witness was like a tall stalk of sunflowers among the weeds of the government. Someone in the administration had thought it was funny or poetic. I don’t know which.
We had her secured in a safe house, ready to transport out of the country when all hell broke loose. Usually, such operations go down without a hitch as they’re well planned, and escape routes are thought out and ready. But this had been a last-minute project, thrown together on a shoestring of information and resources and executed within twenty-four hours of getting the boss’s go-ahead.
We’d arrived in a small backwoods country we’d never heard of on an early foggy morning. We made our way through the hills into an ancient town that looked like it had never seen anything past the early nineteen hundred. We located the witness where we were told she would be waiting.
She was a young woman, about 25, just a few years younger than me. Her long black hair came down to her middle back, and her skimpy top barely covered everything. Yet, the expression in her eyes made her appear much older as if she had seen too much. Lacy Popov had been a secretary for one of the government officials running roughshod over the country with an iron fist. He kept the country in line with the military and civilian police, turning the tiny nation into a private empire. Anyone who didn’t toe the line disappeared.
Lacy had secretly collected information, names, and dates, made copies of bank records, and recorded a few conversations. Being a pretty little secretary and putting up with many inappropriate comments and some groping by the bosses and his henchmen meant they didn’t pay much attention to her and talked in front of her.
Now things had come to a head. The populace was getting fed up with the status quo and formed a resistance that had asked for help. Lacy had volunteered to come forward and back the claims made by the rebels. We had been sent in at the last minute to get her out safely. The safe house belonged to a friend of Lacy’s, as we hadn’t had time to go in and recon to select a more secure site. The small stone building had been built a hundred years ago, so it wasn’t as secure, its location an issue being in the center of town with police and military nearby.
Brent and I were about to slip out the back door with Lacy and down the alley to the car we had waiting when we heard the sirens going outside. The local police had surrounded the house and were ready to storm it. I barely saw them before they crossed the small yard to the front door. I had maybe three seconds to get Lacy out of sight.
Shoving her into a back room, I slid my pistol from its shoulder hostler and fired at the front door. The heavy bullets plowed through the thick wood and buried themselves into a man on the other side. Meanwhile, Brent was trying to secure the back exit. Several bullets from his gun found their marks through a window. After my first volley, we could hear nothing, so we communicated by hand signals. More gunfire was exchanged as we hit the back ally.
The sounds of gunfire echoed over the small town as we climbed into the car, where I pushed Lacy along with the bag containing the documents she took to the rear floorboard. Brent was hit several times but managed to get into the car and return fire as I drove us through the crowd and out of town.
We dumped the car near, barely running and riddled with bullet holes, and stole an old truck. We barely stayed ahead of the police and their lone helicopter, which hadn’t taken off fast enough to see us switch vehicles. I drove like a madman to reach the grass airfield, where a small plane waited. We got to the plane only seconds before the bad guys did, but we boarded the plane and were airborne before they could stop us. Brent and Lacy, and I barely made it out of there alive.
Except Brent didn’t.
Brent bled out on the deck of the aircraft. I counted at least seven bullet holes in him, all hemorrhaging blood faster than I could even try to stop the flow.
I got Lacy to the safety of the United States, where she gave a complete account of the corruption she witnessed—backed by her testimony and the documents she’d smuggled out. The United States granted her asylum and took steps to help her country establish a proper government.
The Company told Brent’s family that he had died in a car accident and his body burned beyond recognition. It had been more than forty years, and not long after that, I had long ago lost track of what happened to Lacy—time to find her. With my fourth cup of coffee in hand, I headed to my study, intending to start hitting the search engines for information about a country I’d been in for less than twelve hours.
My hand was on the knob when the doorbell rang. I froze. For a second, I considered getting one of the guns I kept staged around the house. I decided against it. I opened the front door.
Lacy Popov stood on my front porch.
While her hair was shorter, streaked with gray, and lines etched on her face, I recognized those dark brown eyes, still full of determination and passion. I blinked once as I registered her presence and, without a word, motioned her inside and offered her a seat in the front room.
“Yes, please.” Her voice still held a slight lilt of her native tongue.
I hurried to the kitchen and poured another cup from the Mocha Master. When I returned, I handed her the cup and noticed she was looking at the sunflower photo on the table between the chairs. I settled into the other chair while I tried to form a response that wasn’t stupid.
“So, how have you been?” That sounded lame to me.
“Bobby...” She cut me off. “I, I just needed to tell you thank you for...”
I waved my hand in the air. “It was nothing.”
“No, it wasn’t. Your friend died. You saved my life and my country.”
I nodded as I sipped my coffee, at a loss for words and trying to form a response.
“They never told you what happened after the hearing?”
“No, they don’t tell us anything. It’s all ‘need to know.’ I didn’t need to know what happened to you.”
Lacy sat back in the chair, held her coffee, and stared at the darkness in the cup.
“It wasn’t easy, as I said. They didn’t tell anyone anything. I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t either. I was put in a safe house. I don’t think it was too far from DC because it didn’t take long for them to come to get me to take me to testify.” She sipped her coffee. “They transported me in a blackout van, but I couldn’t see where we were going. I was blindfolded to and from the van and led into the buildings. There was always at least one guard with me. I was never allowed near any phone television. If I wanted to watch something, they found it for me and played it. They briefed me on what I would say at the hearing and ensured my testimony was what they thought it would be. Made copies of my files and had me answer questions. After I testified, I was sent to a different safe house for several months. Eventually, they put me in witness protection and relocated me to California.”
She shrugged. “I got a new name and identity. They set me up in a small business with enough money to make sure I made it work. And I did. I sold the business for a small fortune a few years ago. I got married to a wonderful guy and had a great life. Marci Devereux has been very successful. “
“But?” I knew there was a “but” there somewhere. There always is.
“He has no idea who you are.” It was a statement more than a question.
She shook her head no.
“You can’t tell him.”
“I know. It would put him and our children and grandchildren in danger.”
“It could. Yes. But there’s something else bothering you?”
Lacy sat the half-empty cup on the small table next to her chair.
“Yes. Besides thanking you again for...”
“What’s going on?” I pushed.
“Someone knows who I am.”
“After forty years?”
“That picture, the one I sent you.? It was sent to me first. Someone knows I was in Operation Sunflower.”
I picked up the picture again and looked it over closer. Still, no immediate ideas came to mind. I retrieved the envelope from where it lay next to the turntable. This was not a good thing.
When did you get this?”
“A couple of weeks ago. There was nothing, just the picture. After that, I started looking for you. I knew the names of the agents who had handled me. And I looked them up. They’re all either dead or retired. By chance, I found your friend’s name in a list of deceased officers who were interned in Arlington, and I matched the dates with my mission and a few bits I could pull from a Freedom of Information Act request, which didn’t tell me much. Anyways, I found your name, and from there, I tracked you down. I was down the block when you got your mail this morning. I saw your response when you got the...” She pointed to the envelope in my hand. I glanced down at it.
I straightened up in my chair and looked around. Holding my fingers to my lips, I told her not to say anything. She nodded yes. I motioned for her to follow me into my study. Something wasn’t right. Hell, a lot of things weren’t right. Shutting the door behind us, I pulled a pistol from a desk drawer and slid the hostler over my belt. She stood in front of the desk while I unlocked a filing cabinet hidden in the back corner of the room.
Inside the cabinet were my old files from my glory days. Technically wasn’t supposed to have copies of them. I wasn’t stupid. Stupid would have gotten me killed a long time ago. The last time I looked, I was still alive. Not being stupid meant I kept things. I still had the original negatives of the general in Vietnam. Along with the files on the agents, he’s put on me back then. Veronica’s original files were buried in there too. I ignored ancient history and found Marci Devereux’s files. Opening it on the desk in front of the large monitor, I motioned her around to look at it.
Quietly we carefully turned each page and looked at the pictures of the players from back then. She didn’t recognize any of them. I didn’t expect her to, but I had to make sure.
I found the biography of the head of state ousted at the time, which made for some interesting reading. Several of the key players had living relatives. I knew from experience that family revenge was a thing. I needed to make some calls and find out exactly where these people were. But that would take time, and I didn’t think we had that much time.
Whoever was behind the picture had inside information and knew not only who Lacy was but probably already knew about me. I wrote down the names of the most likely suspects and used my phone to snap photos of the pictures from the files. With everything back where it belonged and locked up, I fired up the computer, imported the images I’d just taken, and ran them through an aging app and facial reconstruction software.
As the pictures appeared in their now-aged form, Lacy studied each image. Within seconds, she uttered a soft gasp. “Him.”
We found one more person she recognized, a woman. I saved the pictures to my phone along with relevant data and shut down the computer. I grabbed my go-bags, secured the security alarm, and we left.
The sidewalks and streets in the middle of the day were quiet as we got into my car. I tossed the go-bags into the back seat. My training always kicked in. I could leave at a minute’s notice and have everything I needed in one bag. Only these days, it also contained my medications. Getting older in the spy world meant adaptation. Backing out of the driveway, I watched for anyone who didn’t belong or was trying to look like they should be there.
I was too old for this shit. I wasn’t in any shape to be running all over the country trying not to get killed. But here I was with the woman I’d rescued decades ago, rescuing her again—or at least trying to.
Most of the people I would have gone to for help were dead or, long ago, retired, and I had no idea where they were. Besides, active agents wouldn’t remember the operation. To them, it was a footnote in an archive. But to me, she was a living, breathing woman I’d saved once and determined that I’d do it again.
At the end of the block, I stopped for the stop sign, just like always. But this time, instead of turning left, like I usually do when I head into town, I turned right. Lacy sat quietly as I made our way out of the dense population of houses and yards. The sound of kids playing would drift by every so often. I had to assume that if he had found Lacy, he’d found me and, at the very least, had followed her to me. Either way, he probably knew about me and would be looking for me. I didn’t want any meeting with him and his sister in a populated place where innocent people could get hurt. If he was going to find me, it was on my terms if I could help it.
In the last few minutes, I’d made many assumptions, most of which I hoped were wrong. Lacy recognized the aged pictures of him and his sister, which told me I was probably right. They would be in their early sixties by now, having been in their late teens when Operation Sunflower had started. That’s a lot of time to build a lot of hate and resentment and to plan and find information that should have been buried decades ago.
We were out of town on a small two-lane back road when my phone rang. I glanced at the screen. It showed an unknown number. I pulled over in the nearest driveway and answered it.
“Tate. Lacy Popov, she is with you?” I recognized the voice. I hadn’t heard it since the operation. He had been one of the men attacking the cottage when we rescued Lacy. I’d heard him screaming at me as I piled into the car. Later I saw pictures and videos of him torturing people and killing them. What he had done to women was practically nasty. There was no way he would get to Lacy. I decided right then and there that I’d kill Lacy before I’d let him have her.
“Yes.” I kept it as natural as I could.
“I’m coming for you and her.”
“Nikola, let it go. It’s been over for decades. There’s nothing to be gained by this.”
“No. You and that bitch ruined my father’s country.” I knew there was no point in arguing with him. It would only fuel his anger.
Among the assumptions I’d made, I figured he was tracking me somehow, which was fine with me. I wasn’t up to traipsing all over the place looking for him.
I remembered an old, abandoned farmhouse I’d seen a few years ago. It sat far off the road, and the open field surrounding it offered no cover to approach it. It took me longer than I remembered to find the place. The driveway was little more than a set of gravel ruts leading from the road. The grass had taken over the lawn and fields around the house long ago. We parked the car facing the down the driveway for a quick exit if needed, But I didn’t think it would be an option.
In the trunk lay two shotguns and several boxes of shells for each. I loaded them and showed Lacy how to run the action on both. She hadn’t fired a shotgun in years, so we took some practice shots in the side field.
I was right. The twelve-gauge was too much for me. I couldn’t handle the weight or the recoil, so I opted for the small four-ten shotgun. It needed a closer range, but I doubted that range would be a problem. The pistols and revolvers I’d had in the go bags were loaded and ready.
The front door was gone, and we entered the dusty front room. There was a picture window, its glass long gone, that gave us a vantage point overlooking the road and driveway. Then we waited. I knew he’d find us eventually. We didn’t have to wait long.
An old pickup appeared on the horizon shortly. It slowed as it approached and turned, creeping up the driveway long l at a snail’s pace. The old Ford stopped about fifty yards from the front of the house, and both doors opened. Two figures got out, both carrying guns.
Lacy made a mewing sound. “That’s them. That’s the people I saw lurking around my house in California before the photo arrived.”
Staying behind what little cover the old wood plank wall offered, I called out to them. “Nikola, Irina, it’s over… done. Let it go.”
They stopped about twenty feet in front of the porch. The sun was behind the house by now, so the front porch and the areas in front of the house were in the shadow.
“No. You killed my father, and ….”
“Your father was a tyrannical dictator running the country into the ground. In a few years, your country would have had nothing of value. What you and your family were doing to the people was horrible. I saw the remains of what you had personally done to people who spoke out against you and tried to stand up to you.”
He shuffled his feet, trying to think. I continued. “You coming here after all those years makes no difference. Killing me and Lacy won’t bring anything back or change anything.”
“It’ll square the books—you killed my father….”
“Your father was arrested and tried in a court of law, convicted of war crimes, and sentenced to death by an international court, as would the two of you if you’d been arrested at the time. Instead, you fled and hid in the mountains like the cowards you are. You let your father stand for his crimes alone.”
I stepped out from the shadows and cover of the front wall, aiming the shotgun at them. “Dying here now won’t change anything except to give Lacy maybe some peace of mind.”
Irina raised her rifle. I fired. My shotgun echoed across the fields as she fell beside her brother.. Nikola looked back and forth between his sister and me.
By now, I’d recocked the shotgun, chambering another round. “Don’t do it...” I warned him, but his rifle was already rising to his shoulder. My shotgun bucked in my arms again. The shot found its mark in the short distance from the porch.
It was over. Operation Sunflower was now well and truly over.
Lacy came out from the house and stood on the porch with me. Putting my free arm around her, I held her close to me, and we said nothing for a long time. The bodies of Nikola and his sister Irina lay in the weeds and gravel at the foot of the porch steps.
All at once, the shotgun felt heavy, and I leaned against the dilapidated porch rail; I slowly let my old bones find the porch as I sat down. I was tired. Lacy slid down next to me.
Laying her head on my shoulder, she whispered. “Thank You.” and reached up and kissed me on the cheek. Putting my free arm around her again, I pulled her close.
We sat like that for a while, looking at the two bodies lying on the gravel in front of us. The Image of Brent lying in the back of an airplane, bleeding out, came back to me. There was no room in a spy’s world for revenge, but I had justice for my friend and Lacy on this day.