Chapter 16: Are the Stars Out Tonight?
15 years earlier:
Liana stared up at the ceiling of her room, gazing up at the stars projected by the galaxy projector. Her mother had loved astronomy or at least that was what she’d heard. She supposed she’d inherited her love for space and celestial objects from her. The stars always seemed to help whenever she was feeling sad and alone. Try her hardest to forget her father’s words from earlier, they had cut through her heart like a knife. Tears filled her eyes and a sob escaped her lips.
She bit her lip back, trying not to cry. “Venus…” she whispered to herself, “so bright and beautiful.” Her eyes flitted over the ceiling. “And Jupiter, so large and colorful. I wish I was up there…in the sky,” her voice cracked, “away from all this.”
Haunting images and scenes shook her. Her father lashing his hand across her face. His hand in a vice-like grip around her arm. Abusive words and insults spewing from his mouth. And her shrinking back from him in terror.
A pang shot through her heart. Why couldn’t her father love her…if only for a moment. From the time she was born he had hated her. Make-believe – it was what had sustained her through the years. In her mind, she saw her fictional family, whose fictional details she’d memorized. Mom, obviously, was an astronomer. One of the best in the world. At least that’s how she saw her in her eyes. Every Sunday she’d make her signature chocolate cake. She and her sister would dash to the kitchen to offer her their help when what they really wanted was to get a small taste of the batter. By the time the cake was ready they, their mom, and the whole kitchen would be covered in flour. The result of one of their “famous” flour fights. Mom at first had disapproved of the whole thing and tried to put a stop to it. However, after being covered head to toe with flour on one occasion, she’d joined in on the fun.
Dad was a botanist, and he preferred plants to people, except when it came to his family. Gumdrops and lollipops, he’d bring them home every Friday after work. Smiles would fill the living room as she and her sister would eagerly await their Dad’s arrival. He’d playfully pretend to be hurt that they only waited for the candy, not to greet him. They’d tell that wasn’t true and give him a huge hug. And he’d hug them back…both of them.
Her sister…was the only part of her “family” grounded in reality. Her sister was Lena and Lena was her. Her voice. Her laugh. Her smile. Their epic “battles” in Scrabble. Nearly every time Milena would win to Liana’s frustration. Their happy place was Terzian lake. They’d swim and splash each other senseless. Laughs and giggles would fill the air. All their problems and troubles would melt away in the warm afternoon sun and it’d just be them…together and happy.
Liana turned over on the bed, burying her head in the comforter. Most times it was easier to just try and shut everything out, ignore the real world she was in and the ache in her heart. Tic-tock, tic-tock, the clock that graced her nightstand marked the minutes she laid there motionless on the bed.
A soft hand gently touched her back. Rolling over Liana saw her sister glancing down at her, a worried look in her eyes. Safety, that’s what she felt whenever her sister was around. Despite his overwhelming hatred toward her, Norvan at least controlled his anger in his oldest daughter’s presence.
Milena sat beside her on the bed. “Are you okay?”
“I’ll be okay…just thinking.”
Milena tucked a curl behind her little sister’s ear. “Thinking about what?”
Liana looked down at her hands, her mind suddenly blank. What should she say? Tell her the truth. Shatter her view of their father. Reveal that beneath his masquerade as a supporting loving father he was a cruel monster, who she despised. Would she even believe her? For Milena, their dad was everything a girl would want in a father. He supported her and showered her with gifts and affection. He gave her the world. Worse what if Milena turned on her for saying such things. Lena was all that she had. Joy was a rarity in her life and, for her, Lena was its only source. No, she couldn’t risk losing the only light in her life.
“About…mom. I wish I knew what she was like. Do you remember her?”
Milena sighed “Not really. I mean I see her sometimes in my mind. But it’s not a memory. It’s more like…I don’t know.” She sniffed. “ Bits and pieces in time. Fragments. Like…a collection of moments and feelings. The warmth of her arms around me. The sound of her voice as she sang me lullabies. It was the only thing that could get me to sleep.”
Liana sat up. “She sounds…wonderful.”
“She was.” Milena gently rubbed her sister’s hand.
“I wish she was here.”
“Me too” Milena lied back on the bed. “When I think of Mom I feel…it’s hard to explain. It’s more like there’s something missing, an emptiness, rather than a feeling of loss. It’s hard to miss someone you can’t even truly remember.” She turned to face Liana “But I’m lucky I have you.”
“And I’m lucky to have you.” Both girls smiled.
“Which reminds me. Yesterday I was going through the things in my jewelry box. And found this” she held up a bracelet.
“Mom’s old charm bracelet. I always loved the little stars on it.”
“I want you to have it.”
Liana shook her head. “No, no. Dad gave it to you on your tenth birthday.”
“And now I’m giving it to you.” She glanced up at the ceiling “I love stars but not as much as you do. I know Mom would have loved for you to have it. Also, think of it as a way to be closer to her.”
“I-I don’t know…”
“For me…please…I want you to have it.”
Liana relented and took the bracelet. “Okay…for you.” She silently placed it around her wrist and gave a small smile.
“It looks beautiful on you,” Milena commented.
“Thanks.” Liana softly replied, looking down at the bracelet.
“Hey,” Milena gently touched Liana’s shoulder causing her to look up at her older sister’s gaze. “I love you to Saturn and back.”
Liana gave a small laugh at her sister’s use of her favorite planet. “And I love you… to Venus and back.”
“No. No, don’t use Venus.” Milena protested.
“Why not? It’s your favorite planet.”
“It’s closer to the earth than Saturn. And there’s no way you love me more than I love you.”
“Okay.” Liana thought for a second. “Then how about, we both love each other to Neptune and back. Since Neptune was the Roman god of the sea and the ocean, and the water is our happy place.”
Milena smiled. “I love that. To Neptune and back.”
“To Neptune and back.”
“Forever.” Milena took her sister’s hand.
Liana squeezed Milena’s hand back. “Forever.”
Jason made his way up the bifurcated staircase to the ballroom. In the distance, he could hear Beethoven’s Für Elise resonating from the room. Some part of him felt a sense of relief that he had made it back to the confines of Dalmar’s home yet another was filled with dread. After the horrific scenes that had just unfolded before him, the last thing he wanted to do was to spend hours with the man behind it all. On the surface, he appeared exactly like any other gala attendee, animated and lively, yet inside a burning anger consumed his soul.
He looked upon the sea of people gathered in the ballroom. How could these people wine and dine without a care in the world? While not even five miles away an innocent man had been tortured and murdered without a second thought. What he wouldn’t give to be able to take Dalmar down, right there, at that moment. To make him pay for all that he had done.
He saw now how easily what agents saw and experienced out on the field could make them slip into the darkness. Make their whole mission about vengeance instead of justice. Jason had heard stories of agents going rogue and deciding to kill their targets, rather than allowing them to be brought in. He’d told himself that he could never be that easily swayed. That no situation would ever get the best of him. He wished he hadn’t spoken so soon as he now realized that it wasn’t as easy as he had thought. It was one thing to be behind a desk, sticking to your code on the field was another.
Jason scanned the vast room for Tasha. His eyes landed on her in the corner of the grand room. Dalmar was twirling her around, prompting a laugh from her. How could Tasha just casually giggle and dance with Dalmar like that?
It is what I’m supposed to be doing. It just feels so…like we should be doing more to help these people than playing a role at one of Dalmar’s galas.
He couldn’t help but feel affronted, he then saw Dalmar encircle both of his arms around Tasha, pulling her dangerously close to him.
Of course, he’s attracted to her. She looks even more beautiful and attractive in that dress. Who knows it might even work out to our advantage. If he likes her there’s probably less chance he’ll suspect us. Still, Jason couldn’t shake the disgust and repulsion he felt seeing her in his arms.
As Jason walked closer to her Tasha saw him come into view. Immediately a sense of relief washed over her, yet she was still angry at him for choosing to sneak off. She called out to him. “Edward.”
“Mr. Delucas. How kind of you to grace us once again with your presence. I was thinking you had perhaps gotten lost.” Dalmar added.
“Only in conversation with a lovely blonde,” Jason responded, which was partly true.
Dalmar chuckled. “I must confess I cannot understand how Ms. Tylerson has escaped your attention.”
“Actually, we tried before. It didn’t work out.”
Tasha smirked. “It’s true what they say about mixing business with pleasure, don’t. Eventually, we had to decide whether to be partners in business or life. And well that was an easy choice.”
Jason crossed his arms. “Yeah, for the sake of my sanity.”
“I was thinking of the money” she fired back.
Dalmar was somewhat taken aback by the exchange between the supposed exes. “So…Mr. Delucas, what do you think of this evening so far?” he asked, attempting to make conversation.
“It’s fine. Though with all due respect I’ve attended better events” Jason tersely replied.
Dalmar found himself surprised by Jason’s blunt response. Upon meeting him he’d struck him as someone who kept their inner feelings closed off from others. “And what about the works by Sargayan?”
“They’re fine I suppose. I prefer Surrealism” he responded curtly. Frankly, he was sick of humoring Dalmar. Talking with him as if it were as natural as breathing. As if he wasn’t responsible for the deaths of countless individuals.
Tasha found herself getting a little unnerved and even annoyed by Jason’s aggressive demeanor. He didn’t seem himself, or at least the self she had become accustomed to for the past several days. Outwardly, he appeared very much the same but in his eyes, there was a passion, a fire. Images of Jason flooded through her mind from earlier that day confirming what she was nearly sure of, that look in his eyes, it hadn’t been there before he abruptly left the gala. She felt deep in her soul that something was different now. A shift of sorts had taken place which she only now realized had occurred. Things were different now; she didn’t know what to expect. One thing she knew for sure: she didn’t like it. Nor did she appreciate Jason’s behavior during the evening. It seemed almost to her that he was determined to blow his, not to mention her cover every chance he got. First by sneaking off into the woods and now starting a near verbal confrontation with their target. Completion of their assignment was the only thing that mattered in the end. Especially now when all that was left was to make it through the rest of the evening without being caught. This was no time to mess things up.
Tasha interjected. “I found the pieces to be quite lovely…as well as this evening. I also told Davit that we have to return to South Africa to attend to some business, but that we’ll be back on Wednesday when the weapons are delivered.”
Paying no attention to Tasha’s words, Dalmar directed his reply to Jason. “I had planned to save the highlight of this evening for later. But since you seem to be so bored with tonight’s festivities I’d say it’s time to liven things up a little. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Jason shrugged. “It’s your party. Besides why even ask me in the first place. You do whatever you want.” A touch of anger shone through his voice. One could feel the temperature in the room begin to rise. Beethoven’s Für Elise and the dancing about the ballroom came to a standstill. Whispers from the crowd filled the tense silence as they witnessed the unfolding scene. Everyone knew Dalmar wasn’t accustomed to being addressed in such a forward manner. The glowering expression on his face confirmed that much.
Dalmar walked closer to Jason. The two of them were standing nearly eye to eye. Anger burned in Dalmar’s eyes; his jaw was visibly clenched. He turned his head to Jason’s ear and sharply whispered. “I suggest you remember who is the guest and who is the host.” Dalmar stepped back from Jason and began making his way to the center of the room.
Tasha stood, her heart pounding, recognizing how close things had been to taking a downward spiral. She laid her hand on Jason’s wrist; his pulse raced against her fingers. She looked earnestly at him, hoping he’d let it go. Jason sighed and unclenched his jaw. Patience had never been his strong suit. He never could just wait and sit back. Let things fall into place. He always wanted to take action and make things the way he wanted them to be. The way they should be. It didn’t help how easy it was for him to get angry. His parents were always telling him to learn how to control his anger, yet it seemed a part of him.
Dalmar’s voice echoed throughout the room. “Ladies and Gentlemen, I want to thank you all for attending tonight’s event. I hope you’ve enjoyed yourselves.” The audience spoke and nodded in agreement. “This evening I have something to share with you all. Now I’m sure you all are probably acquainted with the person I’m about to introduce. She’s an extraordinary entertainer. Her voice and songs have captured us all. May I present Krudia’s own Ms. Jemma Kazarian.”
A tall young woman, with shining brown eyes and a beaming smile, came into view. In her hand, she held a microphone which she brought to her lips. The music started and Jemma’s melodious voice filled the room. Neither Jason nor Tasha paid attention to the song. The words seemed to blur in the background; their thoughts elsewhere.
Outside, the sky was as dark as pitch, the sun long since set below the horizon. Tasha and Jason bid their goodbyes to Dalmar and then headed back to their hotel. They were silent on the way back to The Chardell. Tasha glanced out the tinted window of the BMW, burning to tell Jason what she thought of his actions at the gala. They had gathered all the information they needed, their mission was officially complete, yet she knew she couldn’t just ignore Jason’s rash actions and behavior. They’d been lucky this time, or at least so it appeared, but what about the next time. True the odds were she probably wouldn’t be Jason’s partner on his next assignment. But what about his next partner, their security. The security of the mission. If Jason’s reckless streak continued on his assignments it was only a matter of time before something happened. Not if, when. Lives could be lost. National, even international security could be put at risk. Jason needed to be reined in before that happened and it was up to her to do that.
He had to understand that this incident could have resulted in deeper consequences. His passion for helping others, for bringing down the bad guys, for trying to defend the free world, that was undeniable. But along with a desire to make the world a better place agents had to be able to exercise restraint, to know when to hold back. Jason’s relentless drive to catch the bad guys would do them no good if it got them killed. And if they were killed, or worse, successfully interrogated, it could spell disaster for the NSA. At the very least, it most certainly would prevent them from stopping Dalmar, something they couldn’t afford at any cost.
Crisp cool air hit them as they exited the car. How things had changed since they were last at their hotel. Jason had noticed Tasha was unusually quiet on the ride to The Chardell but assumed she was tired from the long evening.
Once in his hotel room, Jason carefully pulled the pen out of his pocket and placed it next to the stationary on his nightstand. When it came to ensuring its security his best bet was putting it in a setting where it didn’t appear out of place. If it was seen in a safe or hidden somewhere it would be easy to determine that it wasn’t just a pen.
A knock came from the door. Jason opened it and found Tasha standing in front of him, a serious expression on her face.
“I guess we need to talk,” Jason spoke.
“Yes. We do” Tasha crossed her arms.
“I was just about to take a shower. So perfect timing.”
Tasha inwardly sighed. I could really use a shower. A long and very cold one to cool me off.
Jason turned on the shower to its highest setting. “Since it’s late and we’re both tired, I’ll cut to the chase.” Jason took a breath, eager to tell Tasha of his success. “I got it. The intel we need. I took some shots of a file on Dalmar’s laptop. His plans, where the weapons are stored, it’s all there. It’s all on my pen in the other room. Not only do we have intel on his plans we also have photographic evidence. That should make it an airtight case.”
“That’s…good,” Tasha replied in an even tone. “Dalmar pretty much told me the same. Took me to a bunker, showed me the weapons.”
Jason didn’t say anything for a moment. He was surprised by Tasha’s reaction. After how she’d stressed the importance of learning this info hours earlier, he had expected her to show more emotion now that they’d acquired the necessary intel. He could tell from the look on her face that something was wrong.
“You know I’d figured you’d be… I don’t know…more excited that we have the intel we need. What’s wrong?”
Tasha glanced to the side and shook her head in disbelief. Anger trembled through her; she knew she couldn’t hold back any longer. “What were you thinking? Speaking to Dalmar that way. Sneaking off like that. You jeopardized this entire operation. You could have easily blown our cover.”
“But I didn’t.” he firmly responded. “I don’t see any reason to get all bent out of shape.”
“Bent out of shape?” Tasha repeated his words, stunned he’d even say such a thing. Why Jason couldn’t see the seriousness of the situation and even regarded it as trivial, she couldn’t fathom.
“Look, there was a good chance Dalmar wasn’t going to tell us anything. I know what I did was a bit of a risk but not as great a chance we were taking relying on him to give us the intel we needed. You’ve seen his supporters. You’ve seen what he’s capable of. An innocent man was literally tortured and murdered not twenty feet from where I was standing.” The horrific scene replayed before him. “All I could think about was how much I wanted to bring Dalmar in, right then and there. To just forget the mission and…take him down on the spot. I was sick of humoring him. Pretending to enjoy his company when I’ve seen all the suffering and pain he’s responsible for.”
“I know it’s difficult to keep up your cover when all around you see the terrible things these people are doing. But when you take this job it’s what you sign up for. We play these roles so we can catch the bad guys.”
“Exactly! We go undercover so we can bring people like Dalmar to justice. But what good is playing a “role” if we have no evidence to do that. I had to ensure we had all the evidence we needed to convict Dalmar.”
“What about our lives? Our security? You put them deliberately at risk.” Tasha stretched out her arm, emphasizing her point.
“C’mon Tasha, no need to be overly dramatic about this. It’s not like our lives weren’t in any danger to begin with. Besides, what about the security of the free world? We can’t just sit around and wait for Dalmar to get the upper hand. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to stop these guys. Are you?”
Tasha’s voice rose. “So now you’re questioning my ability? This isn’t even about me.”
“Who said I was questioning your ability? Frankly, I don’t get why you’re so upset. We got all the information we needed and nothing serious happened.”
“Right now I don’t care that nothing serious happened. You took an unnecessary risk!”
Jason shook his head, his frustration growing by the second. It was obvious he and Tasha weren’t going to see eye to eye on this issue. “Look, doing good involves risk, that’s how it works. I thought about it and decided that finding out the truth about Dalmar’s scheme was worth the increased danger of getting caught. I wasn’t just about to sit back and let my first field mission be a failure!”
Donovan’s words came flooding back to her mind. In my experience I have found that oftentimes new agents are so anxious to prove their skills as analysts that they recklessly take action without thinking. And I…I worry that the same thing will happen with Jason.“Oh, I see. Everything Headman said about you was right. You wanted to prove yourself as a field agent and decided the best way to do that was by not following my plan.”
“Why can’t I try to prove myself? If I can do that, help others, and bring the bad guys to justice…what’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing. As long as you stay within certain guidelines.”
“Well, I’m sorry. I don’t go by the book.”
Neither of them said anything for a moment. The steam from the shower was almost stifling, fogging up the mirror beside them. Tasha finally broke the uneasy silence between them.“Make sure you pack your things. I’m booking us a flight back to D.C. for tomorrow morning.”
Tasha left Jason behind in the bathroom and made her way to her room. She sat in the chair by the window and buried her head in her hands, exhaustion overcoming her. She was emotionally, physically, and mentally drained. Leaves scattered across the ground outside as the wind picked up. Tree branches slammed against windows on the city street, the noise threatening to interrupt her thoughts. She had hoped that Jason would see her point of view. If not recognize how his actions could have jeopardized their mission, at least understand why she was upset.
At least we’re going back to D.C. tomorrow. The worst thing would have been if our assignment wasn’t done since we obviously don’t see eye to eye. We probably can’t stand each other right now. Hmm, tomorrow’s flight is bound to be awkward. Tasha ran her hand through her hair and sighed. What am I even going to tell Donovan or put in my report? Jason was doing so well…and then this. Headman was right he has all the makings of a great event analyst. It would be a shame if he threw it all away because of his…recklessness and impulsiveness.
She stood up from the chair and went to the closet. After grabbing some pajamas she made her way into the bathroom. The warm, hot water felt especially relaxing after a long day. It seemed in a way to make her forget her problems and worries. For better or for worse she and Jason knew how the other felt about this issue. All they could do now was try to get along as best they could.
The older man’s eyes felt heavy and sleep called to him. He and his associates had been watching The Chardell for hours. He had to admit this was one of his most boring assignments but at least it paid well. He stifled back a yawn and reached for the car microphone. “White Falcon here. The targets have entered The Chardell.”
Red Sparrow’s reply came through the speaker. “Affirmative. Stay in your current position. In two hours bring them in. Understood.”