Diana R. Chambers Diana R. Chambers
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The Company She Keeps

Books

The Company She Keeps


Excerpt: Chapter 3

They set off down M Street. Another thing Nick liked: the way E devoured her hot dog. The women he knew were always on diets, but this one had a healthy appetite. He felt good around her.

Finishing, she turned to him, smiled and handed him a napkin. "You have a little mustard moustache, just like my brother used to get."

He watched as she licked her lips and mouth area to clean off, completely unselfconscious. She was erotic, yet innocent at the same time, her complexion fresh, almost dewy from the garden. Sugar and spice...and everything nice. He looked away.

"Boy, that was good! Haven't had one in ages. Mike is more of a gourmet," she said, tossing some trash in a bin. "Where did you say you know him from?"

"We met down in Norfolk near the naval base...some mutual friends."

"My daddy was stationed there. He was a hero, decorated in Vietnam."

"You must be proud of him."

"Yes." Her eyes darkened. "Sorry. It's just—I haven't seen him in awhile."

"Oh." Nick cleared his throat, studying his Coke can. "It was a different kind of war." That, he knew. "Hard to figure out."

"My Pop always told me we have a duty to serve our country, even sometimes when we don't understand why."

"Yeah. We have a duty to serve. Even sometimes when we don't understand why." He repeated her words slowly, feeling like a real shit the way he was playing out his line, waiting to reel her in. "Those Nam vets never got the credit they deserved—no parades to welcome them home."

"Down south they did. Least in Louisburg, our county seat. Mama was proud that day. He was a hero to her...for a while." As he gazed off, she added, "That's okay, I don't mind. She told me before she left, tried to explain." E frowned. "But now that I'm here—in the big world—I understand how our old one seemed kinda small."

"Ever see her again?" he asked with sympathy.

E made a wistful shrug. "Can't blame her. Pop wouldn't let her call. Maybe someday." She forced a brief smile. "You're a good guy, Nick. Down to earth."

They continued on in silence. After a while, they reached the southern edge of Rock Creek Park, which accompanied the creek as it wound through the city. Soft light filtered through the oaks and maples. Everything a pale shimmering green. A gentle breeze picked up.

E lifted her face into the air. "Like the flutter of a sparrow's wing."

"Yeah." Nick stared straight ahead, feeling slightly ill—and it wasn't the chili dog. "I didn't run into you by accident."

E nodded, not surprised.

Feeling her warm look, Nick turned to her gravely. "It's not what you think, E. Believe me, I wish to God it were." She was so simple, so trusting. Why did he have to take that away from her? Why hadn't she just picked some other guy? "I'll give it to you straight. I work for the government—and my job is to make sure our flag keeps flying long after I'm gone."

"Well... sure." E watched him, confused.

"That flag means something to me—as I know it does to you. You said your father was a hero, how proud you are of him. Now is your chance to serve your country."

"Nick," E said weakly. "I don't understand. Any of this."

"How could you understand, a nice patriotic girl like you? The truth is, E—you're living with a spy."

"What?"

The least he could do was give it to her straight. "We've learned from a high-level Moscow source that a SeaTech employee is passing top-secret data about the USDS—our new Undersea Sonar Defense System. He doesn't know the spy's name, just that he's a naturalized American. There is only one such employee at SeaTech—Mike Wilson."

She shook her head in disbelief, then abruptly laughed. "Get out of here!"

Nick just stood there, admiring her spirit—her loyalty—then looked off at some kids kicking a soccer ball in an open patch of green.

"Who are you—really?"

"Like I said. I work for the government. This is a matter of national security."

"National security? I thought the Cold War's over—Gorbachev and all..." Her voice trailed off in bewilderment.

"So they say. But if any of the old boys are hanging on? Put it this way. You can be sure their fingers are very near that atomic pistol. And it's still pointed at us—over land and sea." His face hardened. "The world changes, all right. Technology, too—and suddenly we were vulnerable. We've been upgrading our underwater security, thought we were on the right track—until Wilson penetrated our systems."

E glared, hands on her hips. "You're wrong!" Then she dropped her arms and the angry light became cloudy. "So what if he is naturalized? Mike's just like anyone else. Doesn't even have an accent." She shook her head. "I have to go now."

But she didn't move.

"Would you like to see my ID?" Nick asked quietly, still watching the kids. And the black and white ball spinning through the air...looking suddenly very goddamn gray.

"No, I believe you are who you say you are—Mr. Daley. I just don't believe what you say." She stared at the children, her shoulders drooping. "I suppose I should thank you for the hot dog."

Nick reached to touch her, then backed off. His conscience was troubled and he felt uneasy. He had no right. But he did. It was his job. Just doing his duty—and it sucked. "Listen, E. Evelyn. I really wish it had been a coincidence and a casual hot dog, but we're desperate for hard evidence. I need your help! Your country needs your help."

E was still looking away, but maybe she heard something in his voice. Her body softened slightly.

Nick pressed his advantage. "You have no reason at all to trust me, but I feel your instincts are good." He paused. "All I ask is that you keep your ears and eyes open, and if anything—any little thing—strikes you as being unusual in any way...Please, give me a call." He was a pro and had recruited many agents, so he'd saved his best for last. "Your father would want you to help." He handed her his business card.

E gazed at the card, then up at his face, then back down. Her fingers tightened around it.

He took out another one. "In case you don't have an iron."

A ghost of a smile touched her lips as she opened her fist and seemed to be studying the crumpled card. But her eyes showed how distressed she was at this first real moral dilemma in her life. "I am mad. But throwing away your card is not going to change that. Mr. Nicholas Daley." A pensive look crossed her face. E sighed. "I guess there's no such thing as a free lunch."

Nick shook his head sadly. "No such thing." He extended his hand.

Small and vulnerable, E stared at it, the golden aura gone. She met his eyes with the faintest of nods. But she sure didn't have to shake hands with him.

"Can't say as I blame you." He lowered his hand. "Well... See you. Evelyn."

© Diana R. Chambers


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