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Betty Vaughn

Tiger's Code

Chapter 1

The man known only as Nemesis picked up the phone he used for business. The voice on the other end he had heard before. It was soft and muffled, disguised in some way. It didn’t matter to Nemesis who it was as long as he was paid for his work, work that he excelled in.
“I have a job for you. The usual fee. There can be no mistakes.”
“I understand. Have I made mistakes before?” The hand holding the phone tightened in anger.
“If you had, you would know it.” The man’s voice was cold when he said it. Nemesis didn’t need a translator to figure out that message.
He snarled, “The particulars only. I don’t need your threats.”
“I don’t threaten. I just don’t believe in loose ends and wasted money.” The man went on to provide the name and details of the target.
Nemesis hung up his phone and sat in contemplation. One day he would take out the son of a bitch that had just hired him. The arrogant fool should know better than to threaten him no matter how veiled he did so.
John Quinton Cord, whose father had cursed him with the nickname “Sissy Quincey,” flipped the pages of the Julia Child cookbook to continue the recipe for Coq au Vin. Turning back to the chicken that lay on a disposable sheet on his immaculate countertop, he continued the prep. Laying his knife to one side of the sheet, he carefully smoothed his right glove back in place. Quinton had an aversion to touching raw flesh. Under the counter were two new boxes of latex gloves as he had a horror of running out. He didn’t even want to think about the reasons. Too block the thought, he allowed the strains of Marcello’s Concerto per Oboe in D Minore to wash over him before he resumed cutting up the chicken.
His dog Code looked up at him from his station at the end of the counter. Quint laughed, “You hungry, too, boy?”
Code was his friend...had been the only one for a long time. He couldn’t afford friends in his business. Friendships require intimacy and he was in no position to offer it. As an expert at encryptions and an international spy, he kept to himself to avoid emotional entanglements that could cloud his judgment. Lapses in judgment were a quick method for finding oneself in a starring role in the cemetery. He liked his life too much for that. With Code as confidant, his music, and Julia Child for inspiration, he was content, even if at times he wondered if there might be something more for him. Quint whistled to the music to take his mind off his new assignment. He had tried to decline, as he did not like leaving Code for as long as would be required. In the end, he had been given no choice. He had known he wouldn’t be allowed to refuse when he objected.
He was 32 years old and at times he tired of living in the shadows of the night like some non-existent entity. He was wealthy enough that he never needed to work, thanks to very generous trusts established for him in infancy. He worked because it amused him. He had become enmeshed in government intrigue because of his reputation for cracking the toughest of codes and writing even tougher ones. He relished that reputation. He had earned it by cracking a code that led to the foiling of a Taliban attack on the U.S. Embassy in Amman, Jordan. The head of CIA was impressed enough to hire him on contract and had used him several times for code breaking. Soon he was sent on location to various European cities. His language skills and ability to blend in allowed him to get closer to the source of some of the codes that were of increasing concern to the CIA, especially after the rise of more militant factions in the Muslim brotherhood. On those assignments, he was essentially operating as a spy with very specific goals.
Catching his image reflected in the long window by the kitchen door, he studied himself. He wasn’t handsome. He wasn’t ugly. Not tall, nor short, not fat, nor skinny. He decided the best description was non-descript. He would have liked to have been a better-looking fellow, maybe chase women who would naturally fall at his debonair feet. But nature had not intended that. His looks were a blessing though for the role in which he now found himself. It was good that he was a loner, someone who lived in his head. Otherwise it would have been a miserable life. Squelching that line of thought, he reminded himself he was content with his lot. He took pride in his work, work that none other yet equaled. Raised as the son of a patriot, that part of his patrimony had taken. He was proud to be doing something to help his country in a perilous time.
While the chicken was cooking, he scoured the work surface with disinfectant, wiping down the faucet as well, before stripping off the gloves. That done he walked over to his wine rack and pulled out a nice Russian River pinot noir. Most of his table wines were from that area of California. His better California and European wines he kept in the wine cellar below the kitchen. Bottles of wine costing well into the hundreds were not something one would expect to see in a modest house with Rooms-to-Go furnishings.
The wine cellar was Quint’s own design, accessed through the secret door in the back of the broom closet. The door was solid steel and only his left thumbprint followed by his right index finger print opened the high-tech locks that held it secure. Both the locks and the steel door were hidden behind a trip-sprung wooden panel that matched the sidewalls of the closet. An identical access point was cleverly hidden in his bedroom closet. He had installed that, too. Narrow stairways led from the two steel doors into the basement. From both sets of stairs a hidden door led into narrow corridors leading to a workroom, as well as directly into the wine cellar. Once there, it looked like nothing more than a wine cellar. But, there was far more than that. Cleverly concealed was his fire and bombproof office with backup generator, and an escape hatch should the need arise. The Office with the escape hatch access was hidden behind a wall paneled with the ends of wine boxes. A simple trigger hidden in the edge of one of the boxes caused a section of the panels to swing out allowing access to the secret room. Both of the entry doors into the wine cellar were cleverly concealed on the adjacent wall using the same decor. However, the triggers for opening those doors were hidden in the tile flooring. Only by stepping on a separate and correct sequence of tiles would each of them open to allow exit from the cellar. From the secret workshop area, a hidden cement lined tunnel ran to a large bush near the street where he could pop up like a gopher from his hole. Branching off from the main tunnel, another tunnel led to his garage where a car waited, full of gas, weapons, cash, untraceable spare phones that he kept fully charged, a wallet containing four alias passports with credit cards under each name, and two packed suitcases filled with clothing appropriate for either warm or cold weather. No one could tell by looking, but half of the back wall of the garage was rigged to slide up so if anyone were watching the front of the house, they would not see him leave. He had carefully planted concealing bushes on either side allowing him to drive off onto the back street undetected from the front. His escape car was registered under an alias; the other car in the garage was under his own name.
When he first started in his line of work, he blithely assumed he was safe and obscure enough no one would come for him. Narrowly escaping with his life when a foreign government sent an agent to take him out, he had made carefully thought out changes. Buying the house and then adapting it to his needs was the first. Next, he planted weapons and tripwires. Then he began a regimen of exercises to increase agility and sharpen his reflexes. Lessons in mixed marshal arts gave him a range of defensive and offensive maneuvers. A five-mile run every morning had given him stamina. Through practice and native acumen, he became an expert marksman. He might look harmless but he was far from it. Quint was taking no chances on another near miss.
The bell on his timer dinged reminding him to take the loaf of yeast bread from the oven. While it was cooling he quickly made a mesculan salad and dressed it with his special vinaigrette. With the coq au vin ready to serve, the wine breathing in a carafe... and the table covered with a crisp linen tablecloth and set with, china, crystal, silver and monogrammed napkins from his mother, and a lit candelabra...he was almost ready. All that remained was to switch the music to some Chopin and slice the bread. He carried everything into the dining room and seated himself. His mother, who refused to call him John or Jack and had always called him Quinton, would be proud that he maintained the style of dining that she had insisted on in her home. His father, who was usually away on a business trip to some site in his far-flung commercial empire, rarely noticed the table or what he was eating. Both long dead now, it was his mother that he missed most. Silently he raised his glass in a toast to the portrait of his mother that hung on the wall at the far end of his table.
At his right, he kept a note pad for jotting down ideas for codes he wanted to write, or for solving ones that he had been tasked with. As he ate, he reflected on the latest assignment, one that would take him to London and perhaps Paris or beyond. Working with Interpol and the CIA, he was to decode intercepted transmissions between terrorist cells in Washington, Paris and another operating out of London. While the investigating agencies managed to crack into the communication stream, it did them no good as they could not decipher the code in which the messages were written. They expected him to accomplish what others had failed to do. The Agency did not know it, but using the information they had given him he did not need to go through them to hack into future transmissions.
When he first began working on a code he just lived with it, trying to absorb the pattern, the rhythm of it. Some were simple letter-number substitutions and the pattern easy to discern. Others were far more complex with no apparent pattern. This was one of those. He continuously glanced at the code that he had scribbled on his pad. If he waited, it would soon begin to speak to him. It was almost mystical, he decided, to just open your mind and wait for inspiration.
Quint was nervous that night, and sleep elusive. He had learned to trust his gut, but at the moment he could not figure out what it was trying to tell him. He just knew that something seemed off. Going over the last few days in his mind, he tried to remember anything that might have caused the unease but nothing stood out as significant. He was glad when dawn came. Wasting no time, he made coffee and drank it while glancing at the headlines in the News and Observer. That done he cleaned up before putting on his running shoes. The early morning run helped him think and it usually settled his nerves.
Code was standing at the door waiting for him, his leash in his mouth. Snapping it into place, Quint patted the dog’s head. “You ready to go meet your girlfriends, boy?”
Code woofed, and wagged his tail as if in agreement causing Quint to chuckle at his dog’s eager expression.
Setting the trip wires and the alarm, he left his house and jogged down Park Street toward Pullen Park in a neighborhood that was rapidly gentrifying. He had chosen the area as it was close to the university and the sophisticated computer geeks there, and because the houses were lower middleclass and not ones to draw attention. While Raleigh might seem a bit remote from his bosses in Arlington, he liked it that way. With direct air connections to Washington and other major cities in the country and to London and Paris, as well, it was a convenient location. Not only that, but he had maintained his parents’ home on the coast for weekends away. The cottage was only a couple of hours drive from his house.
Quint and Code crossed the street and entered the park. He had just rounded the last stretch of his run when he felt a percussion of air at his ear followed by the thud of a bullet slamming into the tree to his right. Code barked and knocked him to the ground. Both he and the dog rolled under the thick shrubbery just off the path. Another bullet, followed by two more, kicked dirt at his feet. Whoever the asshole was, he was bent on murder and had come prepared. Quint could tell the weapon the man was using was a high-powered rifle with a silencer attached. His heart hammering, he reached for his pistol, cursing when he did not find it in his pocket. Of all the mornings to leave it at home, he would have picked this one. Crouching into a run, he and Code moved into thicker brush.
It was all he could do to restrain his dog from going after the shooter. Quint wasn’t about to let his dog go, just to have some SOB shoot him. Dashing from bush to bush, Quint kept a wary eye out for the shooter who had not fired again. Judging from the trajectory of the bullet and the possible range of the weapon, he couldn’t tell if he was close or some distance away. On the university campus the bell tower poked out above the trees. Was that movement in the tower? Or was the assassin on the roof of one of the nearby buildings. While he couldn’t be sure, it was no time to take chances no matter the location. He figured there was no choice except to stay down and out of sight until the shooter moved on.
“Sit, Code, and be quiet. Whoever that is wants us dead and I don’t care to oblige him.”
Code growled low in his throat as Quint pushed him further back.
“Calm down boy. We’re going to hunker down here twenty minutes or so. If nothing else happens, we’re going home as carefully as we can.” Quint brushed a spider off his sleeve and snuggled further into the large azalea bush, effectively hiding them both from view. As he sat there listening, he couldn’t help but question his sanity. Here he sat, the target in a turkey shoot, cramped and irritated by the branches that kept poking him every time he turned his head when he could be sunning on a beach along the Riviera, a drink in one hand and a woman in the either. The thought caused him to grin. His work was dangerous, but it for damned sure never bored him. He would think about retiring to the beach when he was older, if he made it that long.
It puzzled him that someone would be trying to take him out. The last time that happened the hired killer had been arrested and the source of the hire identified. Since then he had been involved in nothing that would warrant someone trying to kill him. The latest assignment was too new for someone to already be after him in connection with it, wasn’t it? The only ones that should know of the assignment were his contact at the CIA and whoever pulled his strings.
Pulling his phone out he dialed Uber. He was not going to risk being shot at again today. His phone pinged telling him the driver was two minutes away. Tired of the cramped position, he gladly arose and stretched his limbs. “Let’s get moving, Code. A car is on the way.”
Quint wasted no time settling Code with his basket of toys in the secure room in the basement. Logging onto his computer, he quickly typed in the access code that would take him directly to his contact in the CIA, a man he referred to by the designated alias ‘G’. He thought for a moment before he began to type. He had to let the Agency know that he had been attacked and his identity compromised. He hoped that they would take the assignment from him and give it to someone else. He could always continue on his own to solve the code. He was enjoying the challenge of it too much to quit. They didn’t need to know that though. He shut down his computer and secured the area before triggering the alarms. A special server would continue relaying photos of his property inside and out along with other info he had programmed into it. He had forty-five seconds to exit the basement and another forty-five to exit the garage. If someone triggered the alarm, the upstairs of his house would go up like carnival fireworks gone bad.
That done, he walked over to his dog and said, “Let’s go, Code. We’re getting the hell out of here until things cool down.
Quint triggered the access to the tunnel and wasted no time getting both of them into his car in the garage. Using the special remote, he raised the rear wall and drove off as it slid home on silent rollers. In two hours he would be at the cottage. After he began working for the CIA, he had sold the cottage to a Jefferson Quarls, a neat alias he thought. He did not want it to be tied to him if anyone went searching. He then made the same alterations for security there that he had in the house in Raleigh. Not even the Agency was aware of his bolthole. When he reached Interstate 440, he rolled down his window and tossed the latest cell phone from the window. If someone were tracking him on it, they would be out of luck.
The shooter sat in his car down the block from Quint’s house keeping watch. He had been there since the abortive mission that morning. When the target left the house he intended to assure he would not be returning. He swore to himself. If it had not been for the fucking pigeon landing beside him in the tower and throwing off his aim, he would not be sitting in a damned rental car with an overwhelming urge to piss. Sometimes he wished he had continued in the FBI. He shifted on his seat to relieve his bladder. There should have been lights or some kind of activity in the house even if his target were not going out. He would give it another hour and then he was going in.