STRATAGEM Chapter 21

STRATAGEM by Joshua Graham







Vanderberg Air Force Base



THE FACETIME RINGTONE STARTLED HER. It wasn’t that Sabine thought no one would contact her, despite the quarantine rules to keep outside contact restricted to essential calls. It was that she had been dreading any calls, period.

She glanced over to her phone on the end table.

Connor’s name showed on the screen.

“Take nothing for granted,” Blake had said. “And don’t automatically trust anyone, not even me.”

Act normal.

Don’t let on that you suspect anything.

Sabine drew a deep breath, picked up the phone, and answered.

Connor’s face appeared, dark circles under his eyes, hair mussed, and face unshaven. “Hey, Sabine.”

“Are you all right, Connor?” Concern overtook apprehension and she forsook caution.

He forced a weak smile. “That bad, huh?”

“What’s wrong?”

“Feel like I got hit by a truck, skinned alive, and put in the spin cycle.”

She tried to make light of it. “Looks like you could use a bit of sun, Nosferatu—on second thought…”

“Very funny. How’re you holding up with this quarantine?”

“It’s not so bad,” she said, bringing the screen closer to see him better. “But seriously, you look awful. Are you sick? Does it have anything to do with this quarantine?”

“It’s probably just a cold. You know how we men become babies when we get the slightest symptoms.”

“Shouldn’t you see the doctor?” she said.

“I have an appointment in half an hour.”

“Do you need anything? Medicine, food?”

“I’m good. Everything I need is a just a click away on my phone.”

Sabine’s shoulders and breath relaxed. “Well, if you’re going to catch a cold, might as well do it during a quarantine.”

“Exactly.” He coughed, winced in pain, tried to speak again, but another fit of coughing interrupted him. Holding up a finger, he muttered, “Be right back.”  A moment later, sipping a bottle of water, Connor returned to the screen.

“Sounds worse than a cold.”

“Sorry, not a good look…but really, I’m fine.” He took another sip and smiled. “Hey, I’ve been thinking about our dinner plans.”

“Right. Looks like we’ll have to wait until the quarantine is over.”

“I just wish I could see you sooner because, well…” His gaze shifted away, lips pressed together tight. Something in his eyes…a shimmer of tears?

“Hey, hey…what’s wrong?” Sabine said.

He turned and looked directly into the camera. “Can I be completely honest with you?”

“Of course.”

“Don’t tell anyone, okay? Because this is going to sound stupid.”

Nothing would sound strange right now. In fact, normal would be about the only thing that sounded strange at this point. “My lips…and fingers are sealed.”

“I don’t know why…I just have this awful feeling.”

“What feeling?”


She considered it and measured her next words. “Look, Connor. We’ve all been through a lot of stress recently. And you’re probably feeling vulnerable since our last…personal conversation.”

“No, no, no…I mean, yes. I feel the stress, and yes I feel vulnerable about you—us, whatever. But this is different.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s like I know something awful is about to happen—but I don’t actually know what it is.”

“Something awful’s going to happen to who?”

“I don’t know, just something really bad. And there’s also this other sense that—” He bit down on his lower lip, looked away for a moment. “I feel like…I’m slowly dying.”

It shouldn’t have shocked her that he said that. To be perfectly honest, he did look like he was dying, she just didn’t want to articulate that, even in her mind. But now that he’d said so himself, she couldn’t help but acquiesce. “What? Connor, no. You can’t be dying. I was the one who went out there, I was the one whose glove got punctured, I was the one who had supposedly died.”

He tried to give her a comforting smile. “You don’t understand. It’s not these cold symptoms that are giving me this sense—though having a cold really, really sucks, I don’t recommend it.”

She laughed, but a tear fell from her eye.

“It’s more like a spiritual feeling.”

“You’re not religious.”

“But you are, aren’t you?”

“I haven’t been to church in weeks.”

“Semantics. You may not be religious, but you’re spiritual. I know you pray.”

True, she’d never hidden it. Everyone that knew her was aware of that. “Well, yeah. But—”

“Will you pray for me? I don’t know anything about God, or Jesus, or anything like that, so I need your help if I’m going to die soon.”

“Come on,” she said, laughing to make his words sound ridiculous.  But her own words lacked conviction. “You’re not going to die. It’s just a cold.”

“Not from the cold. Please, will you pray for me?”

Awkward. Praying in public, praying for people? That had always been Mom and Dad’s area of expertise. Though she’d never seen them push their faith on anyone, they never had trouble or even the slightest hint of discomfort praying for people or the laying on of hands. In fact, there had been at least two or three times that Sabine remembered when the people they prayed for recovered miraculously—one of them a terminal cancer patient.

But it had been so natural for them, no fanfare, no fanatical ranting, no woo-woo, as Dad used to call it. Just sincere faith in the words of Jesus and the Bible, humble confidence that it was by God’s grace and power that any of that ever happened. So matter-of-fact that until now, Sabine had never thought of prayer as anything out of the ordinary.

“Okay,” she said. “I’ll do my best. But I’m not a pastor or a preacher or anything like that.”

“You’re a good person,” he said. “I’ll take the prayers of a good person over a famous one any day.”

“Well, thanks. But…”

“Would you quit stalling? I have a doctor’s appointment and I’d really appreciate that prayer now.”

“Okay, fine. But you have to believe too. I’m pretty sure it works better when we’re both believing.”

“I wouldn’t be asking if I didn’t plan on believing.”

She nodded. “Let’s pray, then.”

How to do this?

Just do it like Mom and Dad always did.

She began. “Heavenly Father, thank you that you are a good and all-powerful God. I lift Connor up to you right now that you comfort him and ease his anxiety. Of course, I pray you would heal whatever is causing his physical symptoms in the name of Jesus, but also for whatever is troubling his spirit. Especially in these uncertain times, I thank You that as Connor draws closer to you Lord, that you said you’d draw closer to him. Father, Connor’s heart is open to You right now. Let him encounter your love, power, healing, and salvation in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

She opened her eyes.

Connor’s were still closed.

“Here’s where you say ‘Amen’, Connor.”

“Oh yeah. Sorry, God. Amen!”

“Well?” Sabine said. “Anything?”

He blinked, stretched his arms, felt his throat. “I don’t know. Still feel pretty sick.”

“Hey, I never claimed to be Billy Graham.”

“But that sense of dread seems to have subsided,” he said.

“I guess there really aren’t any atheists in foxholes, are there?”

Connor gave her a perplexed grin. “What?”

“Never mind. If you have any questions or want to talk more about this, just let me know. I’m not any kind of expert, but we can always ask my mother.”

“Nah, I’m good. But thanks for the prayer. I feel less anxious.”

“Okay.” At least it helped him emotionally. It was good to see him less morbid.

“Hey, I’d love to talk more, but you know.”

“Yeah,” Sabine said. “Go get that cold or flu checked out. Make sure it’s not some alien zombie virus.”

“Don’t even joke that way, Sabine.” He was about to hang up, but it looked like he’d just remembered something. “Oh, hey. Are you having any trouble with your email?”

That alerted her. Blake’s warnings came to mind. “I don’t know. As per your quarantine instructions, I haven’t used the internet or email.”

“Well, mine’s not receiving or sending today. So in case you sent me anything, I didn’t see it.”

“No,” Sabine said. “I haven’t emailed you.”

“Ok, gotta run. Talk to you later.”


CONNOR WALKEN felt a weight lift from his chest. Talking with Sabine had always been good, she always had a word of encouragement whenever times got tough. Even though she’d recently been less upbeat—understandable in light of all she’d been through these past few days—when push came to shove, she was the best person to talk to whenever anyone on Team Athena felt down. Now that it was his turn to struggle with deep emotional or even spiritual issues, it was nice that he could finally connect with her this way.

Ok, maybe prayer was a bit much. The idea had sounded better in his head than when she actually prayed for him.

Admit it. You had some bad dreams, panicked, and thought you might die and go to Hell.

He never meant to mislead or be insincere, but the truth was, he wasn’t interested in God. Especially now that the fear was ebbing.

Guilt riddled his already troubled mind. The last thing he wanted was for Sabine to think he was mocking her faith. Thankfully, she wasn’t some kind of religious fanatic, and she’d understand if he didn’t knock on that door again.

Time to go. If he didn’t leave now, he’d be late for his doctor’s appointment. Damn sinuses were starting to give him a headache. Connor grabbed his ID badge and keys, stuffed them in his pocket, and opened the front door.

The morning sun hit him square in the eyes, blinding him. He reached for his shades and put them over his eyes. Blinking away the glare, he noticed two men walking toward him with purpose. They both wore black suits and sunglasses.

“Connor Walken?” One of them said as the other stayed back.

“Guilty as charged,” he said.

“You need to come with us.” The man in black held up something that looked like a wallet. It fell opened to show a badge and ID that read: Special Agent Michael Pierce, United States Secret Service.



Joshua Graham is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, winner of the International Book Award and Forward National Literature Award. His thrillers include DARKROOM, LATENT IMAGE and BEYOND JUSTICE, and TERMINUS. Graham's works have been characterized as thought-provoking page-turners.

Legal Notice: All information on this website and blog are from Mr. Graham's personal experience and insight and should not be viewed in any way, directly or inferred, as qualified professional advice.

All creative writing on this website or Mr. Graham's books: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. (novels, short stories)

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