Chapter 20 – An Early Morning Set-Up (Part I)

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Zane and Elaine found themselves in the back room of her brother’s house, lording over a sleepy-eyed DarkNet team once again. Today she wouldn’t be lecturing on encryption, explaining operational protocol, or teaching them the ins-and-outs of traditional spy craft. Today would be an altogether different experience: they didn’t know it—but they were about to become actual spies.

“It’s too early on a Saturday to be thinking,” Benjamin Miller moaned. He scooted a chair out and sat heavily in it. His usual too-much-cologne had worn down to a subtle veneer of musk, making it not just tolerable but actually somewhat pleasant. From the rumpled mass of mismatched clothing he wore, he looked much like he’d rolled out of bed into whatever lay piled on the floor next to the sheets–a barely tucked in button-down shirt nestled into his slightly oversized stonewash jeans.

“I rather enjoy a brisk wakeup,” David Dalton said. With his slicked-back hair, smartly ironed collared-shirt, and red tie tucked into his pinstripe vest, he looked almost as if he were prepared to present in front of the Supreme Court—he even rested his hands on his briefcase as he stood it on edge atop the table.

“You’re a mutant,” Benjamin said.

After the ultra-secret-midnight-meeting (well, 11 PM meeting) Zane, following Elaine’s instructions, called for an all-hands-on-deck the next day at the earliest time he could possibly think of that happened to occur before noon. They had to catch most of them slightly sleepless, his sister explained, so that the plans would have them somewhat unprepared. In the meeting call, he included instructions that they bring their cryptophones and prepare themselves for the next stage of the DarkNet operation.

A bonus round sprung before the beginning of the next round.

The team would be providing support for Roger, who just happened to be at work for a few hours this afternoon to catch up on paperwork. It created a perfect opportunity for Elaine to scissor two plans together into one and get her much needed data. Having so many ASU students together in one place also meant that she could create a highly plausible confusion at the records office. Hopefully enough to get the job done—and better yet, only her, Frog, and Zane knew that the team happened to be part of an actual espionage operation, which gave the rest of the team plausible deniability.

“You said the drill would start soon?” Russell Murphy said—even compared to Miller, Zane’s right-hand-man looked like he’d been hit with a concrete pillow and forgot to wake up. His two-day unshaven appearance and a horrible case of bedhead revealed an all-nighter gamer hangover from staying up with Zane video games without sleep. Of course, knowing Russell, he could also have been slightly actually hung over.

“We’re still missing one,” Zane said.

Susan Pilgrim’s shoe popped into view as she cracked the back door open with an elbow and used her foot to hold it open. “Can someone help me with this?” she called.

“And there she is.”

Adam Roach, who a moment before looked as if he’d gone into zombie-mode listening to whatever spoke into his ear through his Bluetooth headset, sprang up and caught the door for her. She thanked him as she slipped beneath his lithe frame, and slid into the room bearing an armload of coffees and a pink box of donuts. The steam and odor from the mix filled the room with the scent of sugar and caffeine, bringing a twinkling, electric edge to the mood as every occupant prowled to the table with singular intent.

“They were out of crullers and bear claws,” she said as she dropped the box on the table—just in time to dodge back before the boys ruthlessly leapt for the quarry. “Erm. Sorry, David. Just glazed, powered, and a few jellies.”

“No problem,” David said around a powdered donut that he’d just stuffed into his mouth.

“Three of the coffees are mochas and the other two are black. You can add your own cream and sugar. I got enough to drown a cat.”

Zane tapped his fingers on the table to bring everyone to attention.

“As you all know,” he said. “We’ve got another mission. The DarkNet Metropolis team has contacted me with special instructions for another bonus round. Since we’ve already suffered one operational security leak, we’re going to be running this one in cells…”

David shook his head. “Why the sudden secrecy?”

“Sudden?” Benjamin said—he stretched out in his chair and looked up at David Dalton with an incredulous stare. “After we narrowly missed out on the last operation, I don’t think we’re being any less secure than we need to be.”

“According to the instructions we’re to meet a series of contacts in one of the ASU buildings and each of us will come away with a portion of the puzzle,” Zane said. “Other teams will be there as well. They may try to block your access to the contact or pretend to be a contact. As a result, we need to be on our guard.”

A smile perked the edges of Adam Roach’s mouth. “So some of us will be running interference?”

“Exactly,” Zane said. “I’m going to need everyone to be ready to follow carefully coordinated instructions delivered to you through your cryptophones. My sister,” he gestured to Elaine, “will be guiding all of you through text messages and you’ll need to be careful not to let anyone else see them. Even each other.”

“You’re taking this a bit more seriously than the previous ops, dude,” David Dalton said.

“Do you want to win?”

“Winning is the name of the game,” he said.

“Then you’ll follow my lead,” Zane said. Russell nodded along with him, as did Benjamin—as his lieutenants they tried their best to agree with him in front of the others.

“I’m definitely in,” Susan said. “I want to make sure that my brother doesn’t get a leg up on me again. After winning the last bonus round, he’s been insufferable.”

“Where’s Frog?” Benjamin asked.

“Frog has her own mission,” Elaine said, the lights in the room glinted momentarily across her spectacles as she shifted them on the bridge of her nose with a finger. “Now, returning everyone to back to our own tactical plans. You will be shortly in receipt of instructions on your cryptophones outlining the operation. Zane will be leading from here on out.”

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