Great news, book nerds: The Athena Protocol is here to make all of your childhood spy dreams come true. Even greater news? We’re bringing you a sneak peek right now.
Jessie Archer is a member of the Athena Protocol, an organization of female spies who enact vigilante justice around the world. Founded by the world’s most badass older women (seriously, y’all—Peggy is GOALS), and run by young operatives like Jessie, the Athena Protocol finds justice where others, well, can’t.
After getting kicked out of Athena for going juuust a bit rogue, Jessie refuses to let go. She operates her own investigation into a human trafficker, mindless of the danger, and of the fact that her own team has been ordered to bring her down. We kind of love her for it, tbh.
The first in a new series, The Athena Protocol is a totally *epic* action-packed thriller. Scroll down to start reading the first few chapters!
SOMETIMES, I WONDER IF THE world might just look better through a riflescope. Crisper, clearer, narrowed down. Less messy.
In my crosshairs, a boy soldier, just a teenager, not much younger than me, is asleep. Mouth slightly open, hand flung over his eyes to block the glimmering dawn light that’s started to spread into the sky. I can even see the tired threads on the frayed collar of his stained camouflage jacket. I shift my rifle to the left, where, farther back, behind a stand of thorny trees, is a squat concrete building where this militia group’s leader, Ahmed, sleeps. Then I swing right, over to the caged area where the fifty or so girls they kidnapped three months ago are trapped. Everyone is asleep: the soldiers, their hostages, their leader. I wait and listen to the other two women beside me.
Lying so close to me that the lengths of our bodies are almost touching, is Hala. I feel her shift, and behind us Caitlin coughs, quietly, suppressing the sound, although we are way too high up and far back from the camp for anyone to hear us. I cough too. The air here is dry; scratchy dry—catching in your throat every time you breathe. The smell of scorched earth rises up to my nose again—the smell of West Africa. For a moment, I think about the tarnished metal smell of rainy streets in London, at home. But it doesn’t last long, and I cough again.
“Short delay on the incoming trucks,” Caitlin says softly. “Three, four minutes.”
Hala and I relax off our riflescopes, and I turn to look at Caitlin over my shoulder while I use my water bottle to knock away a dead cockroach that lies next to me. She’s listening to a feed in her ear.
“I’m hungry,” Hala says. Hala is always eating, or thinking about eating.
Caitlin reaches into her small backpack and tosses us each a protein bar. I’m not thrilled with it, but I doubt she has fresh croissants in there, so I keep quiet and take it. Hala eats hers fast, without comment. Fueling up. I swallow mine with less enthusiasm. The cold slide of sweetness in my mouth is disgusting. I try to remember that millions of children are starving in Africa and that I have no right to complain. Especially since we’ll be back home tomorrow.
“Let’s get set up again,” Caitlin orders kindly. Something about Caitlin’s American accent, which is a complete drawl, like something out of a cowboy movie, makes me feel even more British.
Hala and I obey, leaning into our riflescopes, eyes focused once more down on the militia camp below. We’re all in the same positions we took the first night we were here, when we were just watching, tweaking the plan. Christ, that was a rubbish night. When I finally got to sleep, I was thrilled to dream of something else.
We have these contact lenses that zoom in and out depending on how you blink, so even from up here we had a perfect view of the soldiers. I hadn’t expected them to be so young. You see videos about child soldiers in Africa, but these weren’t kids—and yet they weren’t men either. Probably recruited willingly by Ahmed and his terrorist militia. If you’re stuck in a village working the land all day to plant crops that may never actually grow, maybe Ahmed gives you something to believe in—and guns to play with. We watched them that night, laughing, teasing each other the way boys do, scrapping in little fights that rose up like boiling water and then evaporated as fast. The bloodied noses, shouts and shoves; I could handle that.
But what they did to the girls . . . These fifty girls they had captured from a distant village, in an attempt to blackmail the government into releasing prisoners . . . None of us could watch what they were doing, and none of us could look at each other. When I caught Caitlin’s eyes by mistake, they were welled up, which somehow made me even angrier, that she was suffering. I wanted to do something right then, go down there and end it all at gunpoint. I think I even scrambled up, because Caitlin put a hand on my arm to grab me and she held it there, calming me down for a minute. It had ended by itself, by two in the morning. The human urge for sleep overtaking all the other urges. And the camp fell quiet, just as it is now.
Lying on your stomach on hard, baked earth is no picnic. We’ve been stretched out there for nearly an hour because Caitlin likes to be early for everything, doesn’t like the stress of cutting things too fine. My legs are getting stiff. I wiggle them and wipe a smear of sweat off my nose. Sunlight has lifted the ink color of the sky behind the rough line of trees far ahead, and the heat is already there, weighing us down. I’m tense, nervous; because once this raid starts, we can’t make a mistake. I start to fidget and I feel Hala turn to look at me with irritation.
“What?” I demand.
But Hala turns back to her own rifle, looking through the viewfinder. Hala doesn’t talk much at the best of times, and on top of that, she doesn’t like speaking English. She speaks it fine—really well, considering she only learned it properly in the past couple of years. But she keeps to herself, and I’m pretty sure she never had much to say in Arabic either. Usually I appreciate that about her, not having to do a ton of small talk all the time, but now, her perfect calm feels annoying.
“Damn, this heat,” I say, just to break the tension.
Caitlin’s soft Southern tones are soothing, like oil on water. “This ain’t heat. Iraq in August, carrying fifty pounds of combat gear. That’s heat.”
“You’re not the only one who’s been military-trained,” I tell her.
“And I can’t compete with what you got up to, Jessie,” smiles Caitlin. “I was just a foot soldier. Nothing special.”
Acknowledging people’s feelings is Caitlin’s favorite response to everything. They must have taught it to her in officer training once, and it stuck. I learned it in a leadership course a couple of years ago in England, in this special training school I was in, but I was only sixteen then and I usually preferred head-on confrontation to worrying about what the other person felt all the time.
Still, this isn’t the army, or a government program, and, in our little team of three, Caitlin sets the tone and gives the orders. So I subside. I shift a bit because she always sees through me, knows my need to boast, but now her smile fades. Her eyes turn to where two trucks are coming over the horizon toward us. The camp below is still silent, scattered with the outlines of the sprawled, sleeping boys.
“Seven minutes.” In Caitlin’s eye, the lens gives her a reading on the trucks’ speed, their distance, and their ETA.
“Ready?” Caitlin asks.
I feel a pulse of adrenaline rising through me.
“I was born ready.”
I can hear the swagger in my own voice, can feel Hala rolling her eyes, but I can’t help it. Hala, of course, just nods.
“Line up your first shot.”
We both bend our heads to our riflescopes. Hala focuses on sleeping soldiers to the right, I take the left side. We wait for Caitlin to give the order. Time moves slowly now, and every whisper of movement has paused, even our breathing.
“Now,” Caitlin commands.
The first squeeze of the trigger is a surprise to my fingers, as if I always forget the exact pressure to use. Perhaps because that pressure has changed a bit with the modifications on these rifles, because they shoot drugged darts, not bullets. Still, it’s easy for me, hitting targets. One, two, three, four . . . I pick off unsuspecting soldiers in a steady rhythm. Because steady matters. Steady means not rushing, because rushing could mean a mistake that could swallow us all.
One eye is on the riflescope, and with the other I watch through my zoomed-in contact lens as the soldiers feel the sting of the darts. They rouse themselves for a couple of seconds before they crash into unconsciousness. One after another they are hit. Twenty, thirty . . . and my side is done. Hala is still finishing off hers. She’s slower, but she’s an excellent shot. Now everything is still. The trees rustle under a cough of wind, and in the cage, the women shift a little, but the expanse of dirt that forms the main part of the camp is silent.
Hala glances at me with a look that’s almost happy. We did a good job. But then, Caitlin’s voice interrupts.
Hala and I both swivel. A single soldier is up, running toward Ahmed’s room. Thin legs and a torn jacket that flaps against his skinny frame. He’s smart—darting from side to side, making it hard to take aim.
Except for me. Still caught in the momentum of his run, he drops forward onto his face, sprawled in the red dust. And everything is silent once again.
Caitlin sighs with relief and throws me a smile. Hala just shakes her head as if she can’t believe the shot.
“Let’s go,” says Caitlin. “The trucks are coming.”
I can just make out the low thrum of their engines as they head in, carefully timed, from the west. Those trucks are the only assistance the government of this place is giving us, once we’ve done the hard part. I scramble up, fold away my rifle, grab hold of our weapons, and follow the others down to the camp.
We step carefully among the soldiers. Mouths slack in forced sleep, defenseless. Hala sweeps over them with her weapon to be sure none of them has escaped our darts. Then she heads to the cage where the women stand staring, openmouthed, silent. We are all dressed in dust-colored, fitted combat clothes, with holsters, weapons, and boots. Our heads are now swathed in keffiyeh scarves that we’ve pulled up over our faces. Only our eyes are visible. Cell phones are everywhere, even out here, and we can’t let anyone know who we are.
While Hala smashes open the cage door to free the women, Caitlin and I hurry past, toward Ahmed’s hut. But the women are hesitant. Hala tries to reassure them that she is there to help. “Try smiling,” I mutter, and I know she’s heard me in her earpiece because she shoots me a dirty look. Smiling is never her strong suit, but she gives it a try and it works. Now the women start to sidle out of the cage, toward the incoming rescue trucks.
At the hut, the two soldiers who were standing guard for Ahmed are down, asleep from our darts, and with any luck, Ahmed is snoring inside, so we can drug him too. We each have a dart gun—and a handgun, just in case. Our orders are to capture Ahmed alive and hand him over to the government forces, who’ll take credit for finding him. That’s the price we agreed to for securing the kidnapped women.
But as we are preparing to burst in on Ahmed, one of the trucks honks, again and again, as it approaches the camp. I look over, stressed. The escaped women have been running up to it, almost under its wheels, so the driver probably hit the horn on instinct—but the sheer volume of the sound is something else. There’s no way Ahmed won’t have heard it.
Anxious, Caitlin nods, and we move in—quickly, for every second we wait gives Ahmed time to turn the odds against us. The door is unlocked, and Caitlin opens it so I can enter, my handgun out in front of me. I feel Caitlin step in right behind me, solid, covering the other side of the room.
I stand there, gun out, feeling like an idiot. Because we planned, we plotted, we laid on the ground for an hour to make sure we weren’t seen coming in, and we didn’t count on this. That Ahmed might have girls in his room. The very people we’ve been sent here to save.
There are two of them, and they can’t be more than fifteen. Had Ahmed still been asleep, it might not even have mattered. But the commotion outside has clearly roused him. And those extra three seconds have lost us the element of surprise. We’re just not fast enough to get the girls out of the way before Ahmed has them in front of him, using them as handy human shields. Now my pistol is aimed at the girls instead of him while Ahmed’s own gun grazes their heads from behind.
“Stay on him,” Caitlin murmurs.
We keep our guns up and pointed at him. A standoff. But I can tell that he feels better, more in control, now that he has chips to bargain with. He is good-looking beneath the straggly beard. Somehow, I hadn’t expected that, as if the vileness of his deeds should be reflected in his face. Sweat coats his forehead as his close-set eyes watch me back. The girls are sweating too, a sheen of moisture over the bruises on their faces, and one of them starts to cry.
“Quiet!” Ahmed commands her. But she’s terrified, almost hysterical. The other girl whispers to her to stop, but the sobbing continues. It’s making Ahmed edgy. He pushes her away, and with relief, the girl runs to a corner of the room and continues crying there.
“Let us take her,” Caitlin says, trying to get at least one of them out of there.
But Ahmed’s gun sweeps away from one hostage and toward the other. Before I can move, a shot blasts out, echoing off the walls like thunder. I jump, startled. The girl in the corner hits the floor. I stare at the wall behind where she stood. It’s sprayed with blood. There is a moment of stillness. Then Caitlin makes a sort of gasping noise from her throat, and I feel my blood rise, the crimson bleeding of it blocking the rest of my sight.
Only Caitlin’s voice brings me back, just. I can feel her arm brushing my own as she talks to Ahmed, and it feels right—Caitlin’s arm and her voice—as if something good still exists in this brutal room.
“Take it easy. We’re not here to kill you,” Caitlin is saying.
My eyes glance at the dead girl on the floor. The remaining hostage pants with fear, her eyes screwed up tight, her head shaking beneath his pistol. Ahmed looks out the window, where more trucks holding government soldiers are arriving. From above, I hear something, just a faint rustle, and into my ear and Caitlin’s comes the sound of Hala’s voice.
“I’m on the roof,” she says.
I start to breathe again. A tiny shred of hope. She must have heard the shot and our exchange and done what she does best—climb. The building is topped with a poorly thatched roof, the wall beneath brown and smooth. It seems impossible that anyone could scale that wall, but Hala has. Her nickname back home had been il bisseh—“the cat.” That was one of the first things she’d told me when she first started talking to me, in that depressing room in the detention center.
I know Hala must be struggling to get a shot on Ahmed, but I also know that her bullet is our best way out of this. I don’t want to get caught in her line of fire, so I take two steps back, nice and easy,
my eyes fixed on the girl’s. If there is a God, I seriously doubt he’d let Ahmed exist. So now I’m just praying for Hala to sort this out.
“Bring him forward,” Hala’s tense voice whispers in my ear. I watch Ahmed, his finger itching on that trigger while the girl gives a slight whimper. With my left hand I take a small grenade out of my pocket. Ahmed is wily, eyes like a fox. He sees something in my hand.
“Live grenade,” I say, and toss it gently toward him. On instinct he lets go of the hostage and moves forward to catch it. When he does, he realizes the pin is still in it—and the pistol is blasted out of his hand. Hala’s bullet takes a finger or two with it and he screams, a high whine that pierces the throbbing in my head and makes me feel better somehow. I move forward and take hold of the girl, while Caitlin knocks Ahmed to the ground with the butt of her pistol, retrieves the grenade, and handcuffs his hands and feet.
I start to become conscious of sounds again. It happens like this sometimes, when I focus hard—one sense drains away, leaving me oversensitive to another. But now the room is flooded with sound—with the whirr of helicopter blades, which must be our own chopper, sent to collect us; and the diesel throb of more trucks arriving outside. Ahmed, too, is aware, for his head turns toward the single window. Through it, I can see government troops jumping out of the trucks, dragging the drugged soldiers into the cage where the hostages had been held.
Beneath my hands, the girl’s shoulders are thin and shaking. Her eyes fearful and distrustful. I hold her gaze for a moment and put an arm around her, trying to let her know that she’ll be safe. Gently, I guide her toward the doorway and hand her over to Hala, who has appeared from the roof. Hala’s glance goes to the corpse of the other girl. She flinches, then gives me an anguished look. I get it. Another life wasted. Another image to haunt us. I reach out to grasp Hala’s shoulder. She accepts the touch, then turns away.
While Hala walks the remaining girl outside, I pull a limp, stained sheet off the bed and cover the body of the other girl. Her face is a mess, and I feel my stomach turn. But I don’t want to throw up—it feels disrespectful—so I look away and take a couple of breaths, and then I kneel down, touching my hand to her forehead. It’s still warm, still real, and I check her neck for a pulse, but I know there isn’t one. Her eyes are wide open in frozen fear, and I slip my fingers down to close them. Blood, her blood, gets onto my fingers. I look at the smears of red on my hand and gently wipe them away on my jacket.
Meanwhile, Caitlin is talking to Ahmed.
“You’ll be arrested and given a fair trial—”
Ahmed interrupts her with a snort.
“They had to send women to get me.” He smiles. “I’ll be back in a year. And, little by little, I will take over this land.”
As I listen, I feel an actual pain in my chest, but it’s not physical—it’s like what they call a heavy heart. When you know someone is right but you don’t want to believe it. For the first time since we arrived here, I can see things clearly. Because we care about these kidnapped girls, we have come to help a government that is too weak to deal with terrorist factions themselves, in a country too divided. Long term, they can’t fight a man like Ahmed; persistent, ruthless, arrogant. And maybe we can’t either. If we play by rules that criminals like him just ignore.
I feel it bleeding back behind my eyes, the crimson, and it brings with it a sharp pain in my head. My skull feels like it’s bursting. Slowly, I stand up, away from the dead girl, and I pull my gun out of its holster. I turn it on Ahmed. I’m not rushing, but every movement is deliberate, impelled by something a little bit outside of me. Caitlin stares at me, her head shaking slightly.
“No, that’s not the order.”
But the sounds around me become grainy, disconnected. Ahmed’s eyes are smirking, and in my ears there is the white noise of pulsing blood. I look at Ahmed—handcuffed, defenseless—and I hesitate to pull the trigger. And that hesitation makes him smile, because he feels safe. An arrogant smile that splits open his mouth and shows pearly teeth. Then, I don’t think of anything except how easy it is to squeeze my index finger around the trigger, how smoothly the gun kicks back, and how quickly Ahmed slumps down, his chin on his chest.
Suddenly, Caitlin is shouting, Hala is at the door, taking in the mess, and the gun is snatched from my hand. I am pushed against the wall.
“Disarm her,” Caitlin commands.
I don’t try to argue. I can’t think at all, so I obey. I place my hands up high on each side of my head and lean against the wall, while Hala uses her boot to push my feet wider apart. I feel Hala’s methodical hands moving along my sides, my back and my legs. My breathing is quick and ragged. Part of me can’t believe what I just did. I glance over my shoulder to look at Ahmed. It was a clean shot, of course, straight through his forehead. I stare at him. He was alive, and now he’s dead. How easy it was—how fast—for me to snuff out a life. It’s the first time I’ve ever done it, and, without warning, I feel sick. Bile rises in my throat, but I swallow it down with a dry heave. Taking a deep breath, I turn back to the wall and stand up tall. He raped these girls, and I just watched him kill one of them. So why should I care? And yet, somehow, I do.
“Disarm complete,” says Hala, showing Caitlin an armful of weapons. My weapons.
Hala’s eyes meet mine disapprovingly, and I pull a tiny jackknife out of my boot lining and pass it to her to prove she missed something. The petty, silent exchange with Hala gives me something else to think about for a second. But then the tiny piece of foil in my ear canal comes to life and a disembodied voice speaks sternly from thousands of miles away:
“What just happened?”
I bite my lower lip so hard that I taste blood. Caitlin touches the lapel camera on her clothes.
“Peggy, it’s hard to explain—”
“We’re hooked up to your cameras,” Peggy interrupts, echoing in my ear. “We can see he’s dead. Why?”
Caitlin hesitates. She doesn’t want to be the one to state the obvious. To drop me in a pile of shit.
“I took him out, Peggy,” I say, to save Caitlin the decision about how to reply.
“Was he a threat?” asks another voice that I recognize as Kit’s. Despite the fact that she’s my mother—or maybe because she’s my mother—I immediately feel the impulse to annoy her.
“Yeah, to humanity.”
The voices in London go quiet, and I know that I’m in serious trouble.
“Clean it up,” Peggy says into our ears, and Caitlin nods to Hala, who swings a backpack off her shoulders. Reaching in, she extracts a pack of white gel blocks that look like those detergent tablets you put into dishwashers. Moving fast, but without seeming to rush, Hala covers the room, placing the blocks in all the corners and beneath Ahmed’s body. Then she takes a tube from her bag and traces a line of gel between each tablet.
“Be careful,” Caitlin tells her.
With a slight push to my shoulder, Caitlin guides me toward the door. I move quickly. Outside, our chopper waits, unmarked, blades turning, the body of it small and black against the red baked earth.
Caitlin follows me outside, and we both break into a jog, heading for the open door of the chopper. We climb inside and wait, tensely, for Hala to emerge. When she does, she’s running so fast she seems to blur in the glare of the sun.
“Go, go, go!” Caitlin calls to the pilot.
As she reaches the chopper, Hala ignores my outstretched hand but reaches for Caitlin’s; she pulls her inside as the helicopter lifts smoothly away and, below us, Ahmed’s building erupts in a roar of pure, cleansing flames.
AFTER THE CHOPPER, WE BOARD a private plane at a small airfield somewhere on the outskirts of the capital city. It’s a long flight, but I don’t sleep much. I’m dull-headed with exhaustion, but every time I fall asleep, I dream about Ahmed, so it’s better to stay awake after a while. Hala is out like a light, but Caitlin’s restless, at least until she goes for her pills. I feel her glance at me, but my eyes are mostly closed. I’m pretending to be asleep so she doesn’t feel like she has to talk to me about killing Ahmed and analyze me to death; but even so, she pops the foil on the pills while they are still inside her backpack, and then she goes to the bathroom to take them. She saw a lot of stuff on her tours in Iraq, not just the usual horrors of war, but abuse handed out to Iraqi prisoners by the US soldiers. She tried to blow the whistle, but they threatened her with a dishonorable discharge and she backed down. Personally, I think that’s why she takes the pills. Not that she can’t stand what happened, but that she can’t stand that she couldn’t change it. On top of that, her early life in Kentucky was like a bad country-and-western song. If she needs some help dealing with it all, so what? But she won’t admit to it. It’s funny when people need to pretend to themselves that they have their shit together. Caitlin reminds me of the Athena leaders that way. She’s older than Hala and me—late twenties—and sometimes she feels more like one of them than one of us.
That gets me thinking about them, the women who are our bosses, the women who started Athena. The ones who recruited us, trained us, and who pay us to execute orders. You won’t find a more accomplished group of high achievers anywhere, and I’m pretty sure a couple of them have been in similar situations to the one we’re in now, though they never talk about it and it’s not on their résumés or Wikipedia pages. They’re all successful, driven, and disciplined in their own ways (even Kit). They didn’t get where they are by tolerating people who don’t listen, and I know that, one
way or another, I’m in for it big-time when we land.
Which is why I creep into the house at 2:00 a.m. even more quietly than usual. I really don’t want Kit to hear me. Most of the time it doesn’t bug me to live with my mother, but at moments like this I wish I had my own place. The house is big though—one of those old, white stucco homes in Notting Hill. Kit bought it fifteen years ago, when she was still a pretty well-known music star, and it’s probably the best investment she ever made. I avoid the front door entirely, because it always creaks and you can’t shut it without making the whole house shudder. Instead, I use a drainpipe and a wisteria branch to climb up to the window of my room. You can edge a little knife blade under the frame and lever it open. I drop my bag onto the wooden floor and slip inside.
It smells like home. Like furniture polish and that expensive lemon room spray Kit likes, and like pasta sauce or something with tomatoes. My stomach grumbles with hunger, but going downstairs
might wake up my mother, and that would mean a postmortem about Ahmed. I decide to risk a shower because I can’t stand the smell of dust and sweat any longer. And just in time, I’m in bed. About five minutes after I’m lying down in the dark, my bedroom door opens. Luckily, I’m turned on my side, away from it. I keep my eyes closed and breathe softly and deeply. Kit stands there for ages, and I just wait, wondering if she ever bothered to check on me like this when I was younger. I don’t remember it, and maybe I would have been asleep anyway. But the truth is, Kit wasn’t home much when I was a kid. Her career took priority, and that meant a lot of touring.
Finally, the door shuts. Pretending to sleep has made me drowsy. I drop off within minutes and wake up at seven the next morning—finding, with relief, that I’ve dreamed of nothing at all.
I roll onto my back and look at the ceiling where a strip of sunlight ripples across the white paint. There is a pit of tension in the base of my stomach because there’s a meeting at Athena headquarters this morning, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to be court-martialed. Or whatever you do to operatives who work for a private agency that nobody else knows exists. I think over where everyone is now. Hala and Caitlin will be home in their respective apartments, getting dressed, drinking coffee. Or mint tea, in Hala’s case. Li, one of the three cofounders—along with Kit and Peggy—is doubtless meditating in her spotless white living room, or on a conference call with her technology company in Shanghai.
I hear footsteps outside my door. Kit knocks softly and puts her head in.
“I didn’t hear you come in,” she says.
“I tried not to wake you.”
She nods. She doesn’t mention that she checked on me. She steps into the room, and I sort of sit up in the bed. She is fully dressed—skinny black jeans and cowboy boots—and in one hand she has a cup of green tea. There’s always an air of glamour about Kit, which is in no way diminished by her working-class accent. She makes everything look easy, and always moves with grace. If she wasn’t
famous or you’d never heard of her, you’d still turn to look when she walks into a room. I can’t work out if it’s something that you pick up when you become a star or if it’s why you become a star to begin with. She sits down on the edge of my bed and just sort of examines me for a few seconds. Is she looking at me, her daughter, and seeing a killer? I look down and swallow. Which spurs her into speech.
“I know you probably want to talk,” she starts.
“But I think it’s better if we wait till I meet with Peggy and Li.”
“I’m going to get a coffee,” Kit says. “Want to come?”
I shake my head, feeling miserable. So we can sit and make small talk about the weather while I wait for the Athena ax to fall? I think not.
“Well, there’s bread downstairs. Have an egg. For protein.”
I still can’t get my head around the way Kit has turned into the mother of the year, but only since I left to join the Program, which was when I was fifteen. And it’s continued since she brought me
back, to join Athena. She’s always after me to eat eggs, finish my vegetables, and wear warm clothes. Where was she when I was six years old and actually needed that stuff?
It’s as if she can read my stubborn defiance, even though I haven’t said a word. She gets up and leaves, and as soon as the door clicks shut, I reach for the TV remote and flick on the news. I lie
back in my bed and watch the end of a report on a gun attack in Los Angeles. The next item is a reporter outside the Houses of Parliament bringing us all up to speed on some boring piece of legislation. My eyes start to close again, lulled by that peculiar pattern of speech that all news people seem to have. And then I hear the word Cameroon. The African country we’ve just returned from. I scramble to the end of the bed and turn up the volume. The studio newsreader hands over to Jake Graham, who is reporting from outside the Cameroon High Commission in London. He’s well-known, Jake. Lean and rumpled, with hair that always looks a bit overdue for a cut. A good journalist, one of the earnest ones, a real crusader type out there in the trenches. I’m not thrilled he’s been given this story.
“It’s a happy ending for the young women who were kidnapped by religious militants three months ago,” Jake explains on air. “The daring rescue ended with the assassination of militia leader Ahmed Dawood.”
I watch, dry-mouthed, as Jake squints into the camera and the sun.
“The United States and major European governments say they were not involved in what looks like a lean, almost vigilante-style operation. And so the question remains—how did this happen?”
Jake looks out from the screen directly into my eyes.
I’m tense. I didn’t expect this—and I can imagine that Li, who’s all over everything that gets onto every news channel, will be freaking out, especially about that “vigilante” comment. My only hope is
that somehow it will all blow over. Nobody here had ever heard of Cameroon before the kidnappings, and they’d forgotten all about those captured girls till this morning. Don’t tell me they’re going to give a toss by tomorrow.
Irritable, I head to the bathroom to get ready. But I avoid looking at myself in the mirror. I just can’t. It’s like I’m not the same person today as I was yesterday. Before Ahmed. Which is just the kind of revealing psychological detail the Athena therapist would love. Maybe I’ll save it to tell her, and make her day, since those sessions bore me to tears most of the time. Quickly, I get dressed. In the
light of day, away from the chaos of the mission, I feel guilty about taking a life when I wasn’t being threatened. But then I remind myself whose life it was. Ahmed kidnapped and abused those girls, so didn’t he have it coming? The thought is not as reassuring as I’d like it to be. I grab my backpack and head out.
- • •
The tube is crowded. It’s hard to believe that it was only yesterday morning when I was faced with miles of land and nobody in sight. I shift slightly, turning my head away from the smell of shampoo mixed with early-morning perspiration that always fills the underground train in summer. My stop marks the very beginning of the City, as in the City of London—the part where most of the major financial corporations and some of the tech companies are based.
I push my way out with the tide of commuters and stick to the left-hand side on the endless escalator, taking it two steps at a time, leaving behind the underworld of crowded tunnels and warm rushes of fetid wind. With a swipe of my travel card over the automated machines, I am out and breathing the morning air within seconds. The breeze from the river carries a faint tinge of exhaust fumes. As I walk to the office, I turn to look at the gray water, sparkling in the unfamiliar sun, and the bridges and the buildings that rise, gleaming, above them. Never in a million years would I have imagined coming to an office here. These buildings, the people rushing to work, have always felt so corporate. But here I am—though hardly a nine-to-fiver, I suppose.
I walk past my place of work, keeping to the other side of the street. The building is a sleek, rising tower with chrome letters six feet high: CHEN TECHNOLOGIES. CT is a real company—or group of companies—and a powerhouse in the technology world, started by Li Chen in Shanghai, and now spreading globally. Turns out it’s also the perfect, legitimate company to hide our much smaller, unsanctioned organization. As I pass the massive front doors of the building, Li herself arrives in a black Tesla. Which is cool enough that passing traffic slows down a bit to look. Her driver stops precisely by the entrance, and the car doors rise up vertically. Li doesn’t like to waste those minutes between arrival and reaching her desk, so her assistant, Thomas, always meets her as she pulls up, and briefs her on the day to come. Thomas is also one of the few people she trusts to know about Athena. Meanwhile, legitimate technology employees flow past her and into the building, a wide stream of faded jeans, backpacks, and paper coffee cups. As if Li is Moses or something, the stream parts to let her walk through in her tailored suit and designer shoes. I continue on, past the office, then cross the road, turn left into a small back street, and then left again into an alleyway that winds back to the rear of the building.
We joke that this is the tradesman’s entrance. Li can come in through the main door—the building has her name on the front and houses eight hundred of her employees. Kit and Peggy get driven in through the underground garage, to a private entrance and a secure lift that takes them directly up to the Athena floor. But the rest of us come in this way. A quiet back alley that leads to a plain metal garage door, operated using a hidden fingerprint pad down low near the ground where no one would think to look. When I touch my index finger to the pad, the door stays resolutely closed, and for a moment I hesitate. Have they actually locked me out for what I did? I wipe my hand on my jeans because it’s sweaty, try it again—and the door slides up.
Inside is a garage and another door at the back, which leads nowhere, and then a door to the right, which is the one we use. A tap on an unmarked metal plate with an innocuous-looking credit card gets me through that, and into our elevator. There are no buttons in here, only a screen. I step up to it, hold still, and wait for my iris to be scanned. The pale-blue light slips over my eye and confirms
it belongs to me. The screen then displays a menu of bland choices, none of which would make sense to anyone—things like Option 1 (which goes to the main Athena floor, where the operations room is, and where Kit, Li, and Peggy have their offices) and Option 2—the tech cave. I can’t remember why we call it the tech cave, because it’s not underground. Maybe because Amber, who’s in charge of it, guards it like a bear. . . . It has a great view over the city, but the windows are one-way only—we can see out, but from the outside it looks like mirrored glass. It’s where all our weapons, passports, spare clothes, and body armor are kept under lock and key by Amber—and her beloved new technology is also tested out on this floor, somewhere.
I use my eye like a mouse—moving the screen cursor over to Option 1 and then blinking twice to choose it. Apparently, it’s unbreakable security. Finally, the elevator starts to move up. And as it does, I feel my stomach drop to the bottom of my shoes.
By shooting Ahmed, I compromised the secrecy of Athena, and I know that secrecy is the one thing we cannot survive without. To the outside world, Athena does not exist. We’re not some black-ops division of British Intelligence or a CIA experiment. What Peggy, Kit, and Li have done is start something that nobody sanctions. The upside is, they don’t report to anyone, and they don’t get tied up in red tape. The downside is obvious. We’d all end up in jail if anyone figured out what we’re up to. So I know I’ve really messed up.
It’s funny but, of all of them, it’s Peggy I feel worst about letting down. Maybe because she’s the one who would be the most understanding. She’s just one of those kind, really decent people, who never judge without hearing you out. Peggy is American. East Coast, Ivy League, smart as a whip. I doubt there were many other African American women knocking around Harvard doing law degrees thirty years ago, but it’s not something she brags about. Always super well-turned-out, she looks like she spends half her life going to the opera and ballet, and the other half at high-end charity luncheons. She was the US ambassador in London for a few years—and she was also CIA in her time. One way or another, she seems to have contacts in every country. She met Li when they were both UN Goodwill ambassadors.
Li grew up during the Cultural Revolution in China. She never mentions it, but she was taken from her family as a girl and forced to work for the government. Which is where I imagine the story gets interesting—the rumor is that Li became something big in Chinese Intelligence. More than that is a mystery. I know how to trawl online for obscure details as well as anybody, but you can’t find any information on Li anywhere, beyond the bland Fortune and Forbes magazine profiles.
As for Kit—well, what do music stars do when they stop selling records and start panicking about getting older? In my mother’s case, she came out as a campaigner for women’s rights. To be fair, Kit was an activist and feminist from her teens, and, boy, did she like to tell me all about it when I wouldn’t come with her to a rally or sign yet another petition. She used to lecture me about being part of a lost generation of self-absorbed kids who didn’t care the world was going to hell. Most of those talks were held late in the evening when she was halfway through a bottle of vodka, which sort of reduced the impact. Then she spent a year traveling around Eastern Europe, Africa, and India, taking publicity shots for the UN with women and girls who were living in poverty or overcoming the odds. It definitely gave both Kit and the UN some good coverage in the press.
Until what happened in Pakistan. Nobody saw that coming, and it changed all three of them. It was the start of Athena, which was something so unique, so off the charts, that I didn’t even hesitate to jump ship from the Program and be part of it. If you’d told me I would ever work for my mother, I’d have laughed in your face. But here I am.
Thomas meets me as the lift door opens. He knows to expect me because Amber put an app on his phone that pings, or barks, or something, every time one of us scans in through the alley door.
We turn left, toward the situation room and the founders’ offices. Those all sit behind another sealed door. To the right is a corridor leading to the operations room. Ops is a big space, filled with screens: those clear, floating screens that are kind of projected into a space. At various times, they hold headshots, heat maps, research, analysis patterns. A lot of boring online search stuff too. Caitlin, Hala, and I do a fair amount of background work ourselves on the missions that Athena is considering pursuing. Other than us, we have only a few analysts, and I’ve never met them. I guess they’re a small core of employees that Li feels she can trust—or maybe people she has something on. Who knows for sure? Li is really careful to silo people. If you’re in tech development, that’s all you work on. And when I need something from the tech team, there’s only one person I deal with—Amber. So I suppose that none of us really know the true extent of Athena.
“You’re late,” says Thomas. “Did you oversleep?”
He walks alongside me. In fact, just ahead of me, giving me the feeling that he’s escorting me on purpose.
“I never oversleep,” I tell him.
“You just chose to be late today of all days?”
When I’m in trouble, he means.
Thomas is about thirty and has worked with Li as some kind of über-assistant since he graduated from university. He shares Li’s obsession with perfect grooming. There are no unruly eyebrows or loosened neckties anywhere near Thomas, and no one ever shortens his name to Tom. He consults his smart watch compulsively. It seems to display a constant stream of instant messages from Li—except, I suppose, when she is busy meditating or doing yoga, both of which she swears by and tries to get all of us to do.
We’re almost at the situation room, where a meeting is just underway. Inside the glass panels I can see that Li has just arrived. Hala is munching on an apple, and she and Caitlin are listening to Peggy, who is sitting opposite them, alongside Kit. With a flick of his security card, Thomas activates the door of the situation room, which slides open for me to enter. The click of the door makes everyone look up, and I swallow, but not so that anyone would notice. I turn to glance back at Thomas, but his eyes have moved to Hala, with whom he exchanges a quick smile. Not for the first time, I wonder if he carries a torch for Hala—and yet, the two of them together just seems so unlikely. Behind me, the door slides shut, and Thomas walks away, leaving the room in silence. Caitlin and Peggy nod at me, Hala avoids any eye contact, and Li and Kit exchange looks. I sit off to one side, pour some coffee, and look up at the expansive, floating screen. On it is a headshot of a handsome man with flecks of gray at his temples.
Moving past the interruption of my entrance, Peggy directs everyone’s eyes back to the screen, where, by all accounts, they are briefing the next assignment. We’ve all done some background prep on it before we went to Africa—especially me—so it’s familiar, but now that it’s time for the mission to be run, Peggy will be looking to do a recap and give everyone the concrete steps and timeline to execute it. I don’t want to get too comfortable, but I’m relieved. At least we’re moving on and not picking over the carcass of the old mission. And they let me in here. Maybe they’re not that fussed that Ahmed took a bullet after all.
“You’re all familiar with Gregory Pavlic by now,” Peggy is saying. “He owns casinos and restaurants, but he makes his real money trafficking women out of Eastern Europe.”
“Him and a hundred others,” says Hala through a mouthful of apple. She wipes her mouth on her sleeve. Discreetly, kindly, Peggy hands Hala a tissue. Hala looks surprised. She puts it in her pocket, then uses her sleeve again, and I try not to smile. Really, I can’t imagine Thomas could actually go for Hala. I mean, she’s a nice person under that scowl, but her table manners are terrible, while he looks ready to take tea with the queen every day.
“Yes. But if we get Gregory, a lot of the others go down with him,” Kit says, looking at everyone in turn—except for me.
“Gregory plans long term,” Li says. “He’s spent years building relationships with scores of Eastern European politicians, showing them the high life. Between gambling, sex, and drugs, he has incriminating digital files on almost all of them.”
I watch Li as she talks. She’s in a neat navy suit, and she’s wearing her digital glove. Li adores that glove, uses it to do things that she could easily manage with the click of a mouse. It does look good though, encasing her hand in a delicate mesh of fabric, shot through with copper-colored wires. With a flick of her index finger, Li switches the photograph of Gregory Pavlic on the screen with another. An elegant man with a wry smile, a little older than Pavlic. I notice Peggy’s eyes soften as she looks at the picture.
“Aleks Yuchic, Serbia’s justice minister,” Peggy says. “One of the few politicians who’s stayed clean.”
“How do we know?” Caitlin asks. She hasn’t seen the research on Aleks—she focused on studying Gregory.
“Well—on a personal level, he and I were great friends when I was ambassador,” Peggy explains. “He knows all about Gregory’s business but has no way to close it down because so many high-ranking judges and officials are implicated in Gregory’s files. We’ll get him those files to prove Gregory’s blackmail tactics, along with hard evidence of what Gregory’s doing, and then he’ll find a long-term solution.”
Once Peggy’s given us the cuddly, friendly version of why she trusts Aleks, it’s Li’s turn to chime in and confirm that every possible background check has been run on Aleks and there isn’t a bank account to be found in any offshore haven that could possibly connect to him.
“Jessie did most of the work on him,” Peggy adds. “I thought it would be useful for her to brief us all on that.”
A few eyes turn to look at me. It’s true, I’ve been working on Aleks, long before we left for Cameroon. We usually research one mission ahead. Peggy nods at me to elaborate. Typical of her to be kind, to try to include me. I clear my throat and explain.
“I sent a virus to his computer and—”
“How?” interrupts Hala. I shift in my seat. It’s not the kind of question that matters in a high-level briefing like this, but Hala’s clearly making a point to hit out at me.
“I embedded it in a take-away menu from his favorite restaurant. When he opened the email, I had access to his entire hard drive. Then I used Li’s celltrax software to get into his phone, and, since you’re so concerned—”
“We’ve been watching everything he emails, texts, and receives ever since,” says Peggy, lightly, stepping in to calm my rising indignation at Hala. “He’s clean.”
A wave of Li’s glove brings up a 3D plan of Gregory’s home that zooms in and around the room where they have found the digital files are being kept in a safe. I lean forward. How we get into Gregory’s home and his safe is the part that Athena has been working on round the clock—and the part we agents haven’t heard about yet.
“I guess we can’t just walk in the front door,” Caitlin says.
“Actually, we can,” says Kit. “Turns out Gregory’s a fan of mine, and I told my managers I want some cash from a private gig. So they got the word out, and now Gregory thinks it was his idea to pay me a fortune to come out of retirement and play his fiftieth birthday party next week. That’s why we moved the date of this mission forward.”
I sputter into my coffee. Not entirely by accident. Finally, everyone looks at me—except Hala.
“How is that a safe plan?” I ask. Seriously, I can’t believe what I’m hearing. My mother, who hasn’t played a gig in ages, is planning to stroll into the home of one of the worst human traffickers on the
planet and sing for him while we steal data from his safe? I stare at Kit in disbelief. Her eyes move down, and that tiny muscle in her jaw flickers—a sure sign that she’s angry. I wait for her to say something, to defend this daft plan, but Caitlin steps in.
“We’re trained to do this job, Kit.” Even she thinks it’s a mad idea. But she’s more polite about it than me.
“Yeah, but you can’t sing my greatest hits,” Kit returns. “You need me to get into Gregory’s estate.” My mother is looking mainly at me, exerting a bit of authority. I sniff and look away.
“It’s unusual,” Peggy says, “but overall, our analysis is that it’s far safer to have Kit there with Caitlin as her bodyguard—as Gregory’s guests—than to risk trying to break in. His security is impressive.”
With an elegant wave of the glove, Li turns off the screen and instructs Caitlin and Hala to go down to the tech cave to see Amber for further preparation. They get up and move to the door, and so do the others. I shift.
“What am I doing?”
I hadn’t meant to ask that. It sounds childish and indignant. But actually being ignored by my team terrifies me. To my surprise, out of all the women in the room, it is Hala who responds.
“Good question,” she says. “What are you doing? Except disobeying orders?”
I liked it better when she was ignoring me. But I let her have it. “I’m thinking about what we do here. What did you think Ahmed’s soldiers were going to do when they woke up? Start a feminist group?”
Hala throws me a superior look.
“You’re not paid to think,” she says. “Just do your job. For a change.”
What? I fly at Hala before I realize what I’m doing. She’s surprised but dodges and lashes back. We’re in it now, hand-to-hand, fast and hard, hits, kicks, blocks . . . but then my legs give from under me and I’m on the floor. Caitlin stares down at me, appalled, and I realize she’s swept at my legs with her feet and brought me down. Now, she grabs Hala’s shoulder and steers her toward the door.
“I vouched for you when you needed asylum and everyone thought you were a terrorist,” I call after Hala.
She doesn’t answer, but Caitlin gives me a look to shut up, and I do. I dust myself off as the Athena leaders exchange glances, glances that feel long and meaningful and which Kit answers with a nod. None of that silent interaction thrills me. But I’m upset with Hala. I know she’s a stickler and she’s upset I broke the rules, but when she was locked up in a UK detention center, it was me who helped get her asylum application through. Not to mention brought her on board with Athena. A little gratitude would be nice.
I take a breath as Peggy walks out, and then Li. Only Kit stays back, and I wait for her to leave, but she doesn’t. Instead, she indicates the chair next to her own.
Reluctantly, I sit, and the chair is very close—too close. For a long moment, Kit says nothing; she just shuffles papers. Probably giving me a minute to settle down after the drama with Hala. I sit quietly, and—without wanting to—I catch that smell that is only Kit’s: a combination of skin, hair, and perfume that slams me back into the past. For a moment, I’m seven years old again and being carried upstairs to bed after falling asleep on the couch while my mother and her friends talked and played the guitar until late. The same scent that touches me now, I had known then, my face buried in Kit’s hair, my legs wrapped tight around her waist.
“I know you managed to follow orders in the Program,” Kit says.
With a blink, I snap back to this room, and it’s as if the short distance between us on the chairs has suddenly become a gulf that I don’t know how to cross. I edge my chair away a little, as if I’m trying to get more comfortable, but, really, I want to put some space between me and that scent, and those memories.
“You followed orders in the Program,” repeats Kit. She stresses the word Program with something like sarcasm.
I finished school early, when I was fifteen. And I mean finished, like, ready to go to university. I was always good with math and physics and stuff. I like the order and logic of those subjects.
But I was too young to start college. And another private school got in touch, saying they focused on gifted kids. When I started there, it turned out that it wasn’t just academics but also physical stuff, like target practice and three-hour runs—which should have given us a clue they were up to something more. That school turned out to be a feeder for the Program—this elite training regime, meant to create a modern “army” to fight cybercrime and all that by contracting out their employees to the government and big corporations.
Part of me liked it. Being in a place where there were rules and boundaries and a place you always had to be. There were no rules in our house growing up. I could stay up late, eat what I felt like. Kit didn’t want to stifle my creativity, but I didn’t notice that hers got any better when she was blind drunk and awake half the night. On the surface, my childhood sounds like what every teenager would want, but when you’ve had it all your life, you just want someone to care enough to tell you to go to bed, or eat an apple, or whatever. By the time I was fifteen, I felt as if I was floating the whole time. In limbo. And the Program felt like the opposite. Plus, after basic training, I got to specialize in electronics and bomb defusing, and all the things that I came to love.
“Athena isn’t the government,” I say. “I quit the Program because I hated having my hands tied.”
“You’re right about Athena,” Kit says. “We’re not elected, and we’re not legal. If we’re exposed, we all go to jail. We were on the morning news, Jessie.”
I nod, because I know that’s true, and I feel terrible about it. Kit looks down.
I just stare at her for a moment. I actually feel my mouth open and close, like a fish.
“You—you mean suspended?” I stammer, at last.
But Kit shakes her head. “We’ve talked about it, and your work with Athena is over. You’ll need to brief the others on what you know about Aleks and this mission before we all leave for Belgrade. But that’s it.”
Then she stands up and stretches out her hand. I look at the palm blankly, at the familiar silver rings on Kit’s middle fingers. What is she doing?
“I need your pass,” says Kit.
She doesn’t meet my gaze, which is good, because the lack of trust hurts more than I want to let her see. I reach into the back pocket of my jeans and pull out the small electronic card that gives me access to these offices. I place it into Kit’s palm, and as her fingers close over it, I feel my frustration forcing its way out, bursting through cracks.
“You never wanted me in the field,” I say, and to my annoyance, Kit nods in agreement.
“That’s true. You’re my child, Jess. But I thought at least at Athena, I could keep an eye on you.”
“So you want me tied to some desk job somewhere? Why? You never gave a toss about me when you were on tour my whole life.”
Kit glares at me. “This is about what you did to Ahmed.”
I just want my job back. And I also just want Ahmed’s face not to be there every time I close my eyes. I wish I hadn’t done what I did. Deep down, I know this is how it should be, that it’s even fair—but I can’t make myself admit it to my mother. Kit clears her throat. I look up, hoping for reprieve.
“A team is only as strong as each person on it,” she says seriously.
Oh my days. If there is anything I can’t stand, it’s when my mother sounds like a quote from an inspirational calendar. Kit picks up her designer bag and prepares to leave. Without waiting for an answer. Infuriated, I follow her to the door.
“I’m your best agent,” I say.
“Others are being recruited,” Kit returns.
Well, that’s a shock to me. As far as I know, it’s only the three of us agents here. Caitlin was brought in because she worked for Peggy at the embassy after leaving the army. I recruited Hala myself. And it’s because I’m Kit’s daughter that I’m trusted here. Was trusted.
“How do you know you can trust them—these new agents?”
“We don’t. Not yet. But if they ever make it onto this floor, they won’t disregard orders. Or get into physical fights with their teammates. I’m embarrassed that you—”
That knocks me, and maybe Kit sees it, because she bites off her anger and stops talking. Both of us are silent for a minute, then I glance at her again, looking for a chink, a way back in, a way to convince her. But there isn’t one; I can see that. Once, when I was much younger, I saw Kit slam the front door after a fight with a boyfriend, then pick up a guitar and smash it onto the floor. At the time it had scared me, but, looking back, I had despised the behavior of my mother, the tantrum of a rock star trading in clichés. Kit turns, and I can see the same flinty spark in her eyes; I can see the effort she is making not to raise her voice again.
“You’re special, Jess,” she says at last. “But you’re so immature. And nobody’s indispensable.”
And my mother opens the door and walks out without giving me another glance.
THAT PHRASE “DRAGGING YOUR FEET” has never meant much to me, because I’ve always loved what I do. Until now. Now, I listen to my own steps shuffling along the gleaming wooden floor, and it’s the sound of misery.
I always knew Athena was important to me, but now that I have to leave it, it suddenly feels like it means everything.
It all began, in a way, in Pakistan. Kit was supporting a school for girls, in a northern province where Taliban influences still lingered and girls were hardly ever educated. She contacted Peggy for help pushing it through the UN’s slow approval process. She knew Peggy pretty well. They had met first at a White House lunch, I think, because they were both into women’s and children’s causes. But they ended up becoming real friends, especially once Peggy moved to London to be the American ambassador. Anyway, Peggy got on board with the school and got Li to sponsor it. That was Li’s first shot at major charity work apparently. What a start. No wonder she’s less than thrilled with government agencies now.
Anyway, they all met up in Lahore and drove for hours to open this school formally. It was a big deal, from what Kit said. UN officials, the whole village out in force, TV cameras. So they open the schoolhouse and attend the first lesson—more than twenty girls, all as excited as anything. Then they eat with the villagers who’ve laid out this huge feast for the three of them. And then they drive back to their hotel to get a good night’s sleep and wait for the flight home the next day. Except Peggy switches on the news in her room while she and Kit are having a congratulatory drink—and they see that there’s been a fire in a northern village. Kit said she didn’t even connect
it with their village till she recognized a guy on the TV screen, hauling buckets. A villager who didn’t want his twin girls to attend because the local tribal leader was taking money from the Taliban and he feared for their safety. Kit had spent ages persuading him to send the girls to school. And he did. And now she’s watching him on the TV news, trying to douse ten-feet-high flames with a bucket.
They hustled a car and driver to take them back up there immediately, and by the time they made it, there was nothing much left of the school. Or the girls. Kit has never spoken about the rest of that night to me—about what she saw or how they faced the villagers—and neither has Peggy or Li. But I saw news pictures online, later. The one I’ll always remember is rows of white sheets, each of them covering a small body. It makes me sick just to remember the photo. I can’t even imagine how Kit felt. So when she came back from Pakistan and hit the bottle harder than ever, I cut back on the sarcasm and stopped the fights. I didn’t have a better solution at the time, but I suppose she did.
Or, rather, Peggy did. Because somewhere in the ashes of that brutal fire, the idea for Athena was born. Li had the money to bankroll a private agency that would fight for women and children. And
after growing up under Chinese communism, she’d probably had enough of waiting for governments to solve the world’s problems. Like Peggy, she was completely disillusioned in Pakistan. And like Peggy, she probably had some skills and experience with intelligence work. Kit was the last on board, and I’m pretty sure that was because Peggy wanted to help her out of the darkness that she was stuck in after Pakistan. And soon after that, Kit asked me to help her—and I was happy that she asked. Not that I wanted her to be as crushed as she was—just that I wanted us to be there for each other, like a real family. So I agreed. Everything I was learning in the Program—
weapons, coding—could only be useful to Athena, and this would be something where, as Peggy told me, I wouldn’t be just a hired operative with no idea of whose wars I’d be fighting and why.
Except now. Now, the fight will go on, but I won’t have anything to do with it.
At the elevator, Thomas is waiting. His glance slips away from mine as I approach.
“I’ve arranged a ride home for you,” he says.
I’m about to snap at him that he can keep his ride, that I’ll take the tube back, when Peggy’s voice interrupts.
“Got a minute?”
Peggy bustles toward us. She wears a gray tweed suit flecked with pink. Her hair is immaculate, her accessories perfect. She must have had lessons on how to dress, growing up in New York on the Upper East Side. Which is fine if you want to look like Jackie Kennedy or Michelle Obama, I suppose, but sometimes all that perfection is just annoying. I’m also sure Peggy went to etiquette school, or something, somewhere along the way. But she’s not snooty about any of it. It’s just who she is; kind, decent, correct.
As Peggy reaches me, she gives Thomas a nod to get lost, and he glides off. Then there’s an awkward pause, and I try to keep my eyes on the floor, but Peggy takes advantage of a moment of slippery eye contact.
“Your mother’s worried about you,” she says.
“First time in history.”
Peggy’s gaze holds enough disappointment to make me feel ashamed of myself briefly. My sarcasm’s become a habit, I realize. I remember Kit’s regular admonishments that good habits lead to success and bad habits lead to failure. Another maxim my mother appears to have picked up in the past couple of years, no doubt from a support-group meeting.
“If you won’t talk to her,” Peggy says, “talk to me.”
“How you’re feeling.”
Peggy’s tone is so kind that I actually want to cry. Maybe she sees that, because she takes my arm and guides me aside, into a smaller office where we are really alone, away from all the glass.
But I refuse to cry here, in front of Peggy. I’m not unhinged or traumatized, even though the others think I am. I turn to Peggy, newly energized by anger.
“You really want to know how I feel?” I say. “I’m happy. Happy Ahmed is dead. Happy he’ll never abuse or kill another girl.”
“You don’t look happy,” Peggy says. She hesitates. Then she speaks again, her voice lower.
“Your first kill is never easy, and it always gives you nightmares.” Right, then. So maybe the CIA job was more than just desk work and surveillance. I shift a bit under her gaze. It’s like she knows everything about what’s really going on inside me.
“That’s why we have a protocol, Jessie,” Peggy continues. “To protect, not to kill. Unless absolutely necessary.”
“Yeah, I read the manual,” I tell her. “It sucks on the ground though.”
I feel Peggy inhale and hold back a reply, and I take the chance to ask a question—something that’s been bugging me since this whole Ahmed thing began.
“Peggy, what if you can’t finish people like Ahmed by putting them on trial? What if you have to fight fire with fire?”
“An eye for an eye?” The soft brown of Peggy’s eyes turns to steel, but I shrug.
“That’s what Ahmed understands.”
“Perhaps, but this isn’t about him; it’s about Athena.”
“I get it,” I tell her. “We have orders, and I broke them.”
But Peggy shakes her head.
“No, I mean Athena, the Greek goddess of war. Also, of justice. And wisdom.”
I’m not imagining the emphasis Peggy puts on that last quality. Clearly implying that I lack it. We all know this classical reference because it forms the backbone of the work we do here, but I’m not in the mood for the Athena pep talk.
“Take me to Belgrade,” I say desperately.
Peggy studies me. “I’m as unhappy about this as you are,” she says. “We’ve prepared for this mission for months, and it was planned with three operatives. We didn’t expect to be down to two.”
“Then take me with you. I’ve learned my lesson.”
“You just told me you were happy Ahmed was dead.”
Me and my big mouth.
“You know, we were on the fence with you,” Peggy continues. “Whether to fire you or just try desk duty for a spell. It’s not great for us to lose your skills. But, Jessie—fighting with Hala in the situation room? In a meeting?” She shakes her head, reproachful. “Self-control is nonnegotiable in what we do.”
“You don’t know what it’s like,” I say. My voice comes out as a whisper, my eyes are on the floor.
“What do you mean?” Peggy says.
I stare at my shoes, looking for words. But I can’t explain it. Peggy and Li and Kit can’t get what it’s like to constantly fight physically against people who’d kill you in a heartbeat. Something savage, kind of raw, flips a switch in my mind and I can’t just turn it off and think clearly the moment I’m done. None of us can. Caitlin and Hala are just better at hiding it than me.
Peggy’s still waiting for me to speak. But I can only shake my head. She reaches out a hand and pulls me toward her. Before I know it, she has me in a hug. I relax into it after a moment.
“Come with me,” Peggy’s voice says by my ear. She pulls back to look at me.
“To the Cameroon High Commission. I need an assistant to take notes, and you can see how you’ve changed the lives of those girls you saved.”
Ten minutes ago, taking notes like someone’s PA in a stuffy embassy would have been my idea of boredom. But right now, I don’t want to go home and stare at the walls and think about the rest of my life. I nod, and Peggy walks me back out to the elevator and down to the basement garage, where her car and driver are waiting.
While the rest of us finish a job and then go straight on to the next one, Peggy usually ends up still working on the previous mission for some time. Her idea coming into Athena was that it’s fine to rescue women and girls, but then what? Most of them don’t have the education or training to move forward, so they end up vulnerable to the same people we’ve tried to get them away from. So Peggy uses her political contacts and her charity connections to arrange long-term solutions in each case. Sustainable is one of her favorite words, and everyone thinks that Peggy is nothing more than a do-gooder; a well-meaning retired ambassador with too much time and money on her hands.
Peggy starts explaining how she’s raised funding to provide counseling for the girls Ahmed kidnapped. It’s pretty amazing to hear—and yet, I stop listening after a bit because my mind is replaying that moment I pulled the trigger on Ahmed, trying to remember what I felt.
I blink, watching a different London pass by outside the car window, more spacious and genteel than the heart of the City, with its clustered, modern buildings. Now we’re cruising through leafy streets lined with trees, past redbrick homes similar to Peggy’s own Chelsea apartment building.
One minute, I wish I hadn’t killed Ahmed; the next, I can remember only that poor dead girl on the floor—he took her life, and so many others, so brutally—can it really be a bad thing that he’s dead? My mind is racing all over the place; I’m relieved when the car pulls up. But, if you can believe it, who’s standing there but Jake Graham, the TV news guy. Talk about bad luck. We get out of the car, and there he is, in this iron-railed London square, right outside the Cameroon High Commission. He reported from here two hours ago, so what on earth is he hanging around for? Behind him, a cameraman winds up cables. If we’d arrived ten minutes later, he would probably have been gone.
Peggy hands me some files, and I follow her to the steps of the building. We are already partway up when Jake strides over and steps up next to Peggy. His eyes flit across me briefly and I turn away, moving ahead as if we’re late. Peggy giving me the files was a smart move, and I’m grateful I bothered to put on my blue jacket. It dresses up the jeans and shirt enough that I might be some meaningless assistant.
“Mrs. Delaney,” he says. “What are you doing here?” His tone is pleasant, but he’s on her like a ton of bricks.
“Lovely to see you, Jake,” Peggy responds. “Good report this morning.”
“Thanks. I’ve been waiting around to get a comment about who killed Ahmed and saved those girls.”
Peggy’s poker face gives nothing away.
“And? Who did?” she asks. Really, I love the way she looks at him, like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.
“Nobody’s talking,” says Jake. “Which usually means somebody’s lying.”
“Is it an occupational hazard to be so cynical?”
Jake grins. But he doesn’t let up. “What are you doing here?” he asks again.
“The ambassador is a dear friend. I want to see if my charity can help get those poor girls some counseling and back into school.”
“Apparently, they’ve been well taken care of already,” Jake informs her. “They’ve had first-class medical treatment, new clothes . . .”
Peggy looks mildly interested but starts up the wide stone steps toward me. I’m standing by the door, looking at my watch, like I’m trying to keep her on schedule. But Jake follows her up. Like a dog with a bone.
“This wasn’t the Cameroon government,” Jake is saying.
“They’re taking credit, but I heard reports that women soldiers were involved. They don’t have female soldiers in Cameroon.”
“Well, perhaps they should.” Peggy’s voice holds slight irritation now, as she turns to face Jake. She stares him down, just a bit. As if daring him to keep going. I’ve been on the receiving end of that look before, and it’s one you remember. Jake backs off.
“Sorry,” he says. “This has nothing to do with you, but I felt there was more to it.”
“You’re a good reporter, Jake,” Peggy tells him. “You got there by following your instincts. Don’t feel bad about it.”
A brave double bluff. He shakes Peggy’s hand and walks back down the stairs. I’ve already stepped into the shadows of the interior door, keeping my head buried in those files but, in any event, Jake doesn’t look at me. By the time Peggy joins me, I can see she’s worried. But she gives me a smile.
“He’s got nothing,” Peggy says.
I nod, grateful for her words, but I’ve never felt worse. I’ve jeopardized my team so badly that I’m not going to complain ever again about being kicked out of Athena.
Home is a weird word. I know the house that it refers to. Large and light, with white-framed platinum albums on the wall and signed pieces of art from Kit’s contemporaries. At times, home has meant a place full of guests, music, and Kit’s effusive affection.
But mostly, it means a quiet, echoing place—just me and the housekeeper, and stretches of silent loneliness. I was always encouraged to have friends over. But I was two years ahead at school, so I never had that many friends my age. I guess I’ve never been social in the way Kit was. To me, books and coding were easier to deal with than people—something Kit never understood. But now, in the
past few years, Kit no longer tours, or records very much. She’s also quit drinking, and at least three evenings a week she sticks around indoors, reading or watching a TV show. It’s like I always imagined home should be.
But now, after just half a day of hanging around the house, my resolve not to feel sorry for myself has evaporated and I’m about ready to spit. I’ve flicked through a hundred TV channels, watched
some YouTube videos about coding, taken a nap, and made myself a sandwich. A blanket of boredom settles over me like a misty rain, and the feeling soaks through me. All I can think about is that the others are busy preparing to take down Gregory Pavlic’s trafficking empire while I’m cooling my heels here.
I head upstairs, flip open my laptop, and turn on some music. I don’t use headphones because I want to be able to hear Kit when she gets home, which could be anytime. The Athena founders come and go, combining their work for the underground agency with their regular day jobs. For Li, that’s running her tech empire. Peggy is still one of London’s go-to people for charity and diplomacy. And Kit continues to support different women’s causes.
Out of habit, not to mention boredom, I try first to log into the Athena communications system. It’s a closed I2P-style network that is really almost impossible for anyone outside the Athena team to trace or monitor because it doesn’t use any external server or software. I go to the correct URL and enter my credentials—but a red skull comes up in the center of my screen to tell me that the computer I’m on is no longer authorized.
Annoyed, I do some surfing online, but I use a VPN to mask my IP address and a browser that is hidden. Just in case Amber or one of her tech heads have taken it on themselves to try to watch what I do on my own private computer. I start looking up Gregory Pavlic but, really, the level of information out there is too basic. What I really want is to get into the Athena files on him—all the research that I was a part of.
I run some software that might be able to talk to the Athena servers. I’ve left enough innocent-looking code on them that might not have been scrubbed away in the weekly tech cleanup that Li insists they run on all systems throughout her companies. Sure enough, after about ten minutes, I get a hit. A program on the key server has gotten root access so it can hide itself in the operating system and intercept keystrokes that pass through the kernel. Put more simply, I just have to wait for someone with authorization to log on at the Athena office, and then I can see what the latest passwords are—and use them.
It’s Thomas who logs in first. I feel a pulse of excitement as I trace his online movements. And, within another few minutes, I’m in, with access to all the research on Gregory, his money trails, known associates, and all the rest of it.
Two hours later, and there’s still no sign of Kit as I pad downstairs to grab a bowl of cereal, which is something I haven’t eaten in months. As part of our ongoing training, we each get a diet plan every week, prescribed by Li and her nutritionist. It varies a little for each of us, to take into account our body types and metabolic rates and all that stuff, but the gist of it is, lots of lean protein, plenty of vegetables, and some complex carbohydrates to give us high-quality fuel for burning. My breakfasts are mostly some variation on eggs with avocado, or smoked fish, or things that are supposed to give you some protein and also omega oils for your brain function. So that we can think our way out of trouble as well as fight our way out, I suppose.
Two hours after that, and I’ve spent ages with the aching boredom of tracing Gregory’s web of offshore bank accounts. Let me just say, it’s not as sexy as they make it look in the movies—when you tap a few keys and thirty seconds later you zoom in on a hidden address that no one else noticed before. No. What I’m doing is raking over the grunt work that another analyst has already done, and they seem to have done it well. The accounts link together, one to another, in a pattern like a daisy chain, and tracing the pattern takes forever, and then adds nothing to what we already know. After a bit, I see in my mind that there’s a way to make the work go faster. I start coding—a short program to run the links faster. We have a program already, of course, but this new one takes the data and looks at it from a different angle. Sounds fancy, but it’s not that hard, and it works faster than I can manually. I’ve had it running for a while, but nothing’s come up yet. And, now, there’s the sound of a key in the front-door lock. I turn down the brightness on my screen so it’s completely blank and head downstairs.
Kit is in the hallway, swapping her high-end cowboy boots for a pair of acupuncture slippers that are supposed to cure everything while you shuffle around the house.
She looks up at me as I trudge downstairs.
“Hey,” she says. “You okay?”
Lost my job. Made my first kill and I wasn’t even provoked. Having the time of my life.
I follow Kit as she heads into the kitchen, where she pours herself a glass of water from the filter tap.
“I’m starving,” she says. “Jeanette left a casserole in the fridge. Did you find it?”
Jeanette, our housekeeper since I was eight, so loyal to Kit, and with whom I’ve spent more time over my life than I have with my mother.
“What did you eat all day?”
“A sandwich. Cereal.”
Kit makes a disapproving sound and takes the foil-covered dish out of the fridge. Then she peers at the oven, as if it’s this big mystery she has to solve. I go over and switch it on.
“I’m not hungry,” I say, edging toward the door. I see rejection in Kit’s face, so I give her a quick, apologetic smile, but she’s not having it.
“You just don’t want to talk,” she starts.
Perceptive as always.
“I’m leaving for Belgrade tomorrow morning, with Caitlin,” Kit says.
“Why so early?” I ask. “The concert’s only at the weekend.”
“Rehearsal,” Kit says. “I haven’t played a gig in a while. Most of the band is new, so we need a couple of days. Plus, a day for a tech recce—checking the sound, speakers, equipment.”
I listen, but the truth is, it has nothing to do with me anymore. The fight has drained out of me for the moment, or perhaps I’m just tired. I continue on, toward the stairs.
“Well, I’ll see you in a few days,” Kit says, and her voice changes. “Can I get a hug?”
I step across the living room and present myself, and she gives me a quick embrace.
“You take care of yourself, Jess.”
“You’re the one walking into the lion’s den,” I say. “Playing a concert for Gregory Pavlic.”
I’m worried about her, and she can feel it. She looks at me for a long moment till I shift, uncomfortable.
“I’m not sorry you’re out of this whole thing,” Kit says. “I think I was mad to ever ask you to join Athena.”
“Why did you, then?”
That throws her. But, now I think about it, it’s a good question. What kind of mother would send her child out to do God-knows-what for a secret spy force? Probably one with deficient maternal instincts.
Kit hesitates. “I thought I had a responsibility to develop your gifts” is her lame reply. “And I thought it was something we both believed in.”
Well, she’s right about that. We were both excited to be part of something where we could really make a difference. But I can see that Kit’s mind is somewhere else already. Perhaps she’s finally imagining a future where I have a proper job, commuting home to eat pasta and watch a bit of TV with her before starting again the next day. The idea of it stifles me to the point where I almost have to gasp for breath. I tell her I’m tired, and I get upstairs and into my room before she can say anything else.