STRATAGEM Chapter 27


HOW LONG HAD IT BEEN? Connor sat dazed on the edge of his cot. The cell in which he’d been detained felt antisceptic—no discernible scents, not a hint of dust or grim, just white wall, smooth surfaces and white LED lights above him. Nothing remarkable. So why did his head ache as though gripped in a vice, the hollow sound of his breathing bouncing inside his ears?

A painful mental fog.

Somewhere between a dream and a hangover.

Thoughts, memories…of speaking to people over Zoom—jetsam and flotsam floating about his torpedoed mind. He blinked, swallowed, nearly choked on the dry itch.

An empty glass stood on the small table. Felt like days since he’d had anything to drink.

At the edge of his cot…the laptop.

The one from the conference call dreams…or memories?

Memories, yes!

So many conference calls, faint images of which fought their way to the forefront.

Screens with increasing numbers of participants: ICOMM brass, the Secretary of Defense, President Mercer?

A sharp pain pierced Connor’s eyes directly into the center of his skull.

He winced.

Reached for the laptop.

Another agonizing internal blow to the head stopped him.

Gasping, he steadied himself and looked away from the laptop. Somewhere in the recesses of his brain, he understood what was happening. He just couldn’t articulate it.

More images burrowed through the razor wire of his mind. But each time they came close to materializing that same cranial assault forced them away.


The pain backed off, as though startled.

Made no difference, no one around to hear him shout. But it did feel good to get aggressive and fight whatever it was that didn’t want him to remember.

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STRATAGEM Chapter 26

DEREK’S BACK SLAMMED AGAINST THE SEAT. The Accord made a startling leap when Mom downshifted and the tachometer’s needle reached the red zone. Instantly, a flash of high beams flooded through the rear window.

He looked back.

Within the cabin of the car chasing the two people from back at the gas station sat, their features obscured by the dark of night except for the intermittent flicker of blue light from their eyes.

Who are these people? ‘What’ they were was the more appropriate question, but no answer would make sense.


“Hold on,” she kept her eyes on the road.

Paige sat up, rubbed her eyes with one hand while cradling Hulk with the other. “Huh?”

“It’s all right, sweetie,” Mom said. “Make sure you’ve got your seatbelt on.”


The engine of the car behind them roared as it raced right up to the Accord’s rear bumpers.

Mom swung the Accord abruptly to the left.

“Holy—!” Derek nearly choked on his breath.

The black car sped ahead.

Before Derek realized what had happened, Mom had already driven the Accord at full speed back into the lane behind the black car.

She kicked the gas pedal, thrusting the Accord on a diagonal collision course with the black car’s tail.

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STRATAGEM Chapter 25

LYNDA STORM NEVER THOUGHT THIS DAY WOULD ACTUALLY COME. But with everything Roger had prepared her for, what was happening with Derek must be the kind of situation her late husband had anticipated.

Roger had concealed his life and career as a covert operative from the children and the rest of the civilian and much of the intelligence world. Perhaps had Sabine suspected, but Derek? Well, he had always been trusting with his dad and most likely had no clue.

It had been more difficult for Lynda to conceal her knowledge and training from the kids, though. Maintaining the guise of a highly educated artist who’d given it all up for the domestic life, while secretly learning how to handle firearms, emergency protocols, and contingencies such as her husband’s death (sudden or otherwise) had been harder than anyone (including Roger) could appreciate.

The fuel pump gurgled as she walked toward the Quick Stop’s mini-mart, reminiscent of an old country store. Hopefully, she’d be able to buy some supplies there before going off the grid.

She opened the screen door and it protested with a rusty groan. Fighting the corroded hinges, she pulled it fully opened and glanced back at the car where Derek remained with Paige and Hulk, the entire setting evoking scenes from a late-night horror movie. The flickering fluorescent lights above did little to counteract that impression. Situated in the middle of nowhere on a tiny rural road to the same, it was a wonder this alleged gas station was even open for business.

“Hey!” a gruff voice inside the store said. “Come in or get out. You’re lettin’ the flies out.”

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STRATAGEM Chapter 24

HOLDING HER BREATH, Sabine struggled to hold completely still. With the guard below standing alert, the last thing she needed was for him to look up and find her sneaking out the bathroom window behind her apartment.
This is ridiculous!
But the guy wasn’t moving. Any moment now, he’d discern the direction of the noise.
A glance back to the open window revealed a Yankee candle sitting by the sill. She reached up and grabbed it with one hand. Then with all the stealth she could muster, Sabine threw it over to the courtyard’s far end.
It clattered onto the ground somewhere in the shadows.
The guard double-timed over.
Sabine slid down the sheet as quickly as she could, grabbing each knot on the way down to steady her descent. As soon as she got to the end, she leaped down, absorbed the impact by bending her knees before her feet hit, and sprung back up. As light-footed as she could, she ducked around the corner and rushed down to the laundry room.
The guard didn’t seem to notice.
Before she even opened the door, Blake showed up, a satchel slung over his shoulder. His eyes were sunken, his skin dry and pale. Before Sabine could say a word, he put a finger up against his lips and motioned for her to follow him away from the laundry room. He wanted to go elsewhere. But why? Was there a more secure location to meet?
Blake led her through the concrete hallway to a short flight of steps down to a basement storage room. He opened the door, reached in and flipped a light switch on, then went inside.
“Come on,” he whispered.
Sabine followed.
He shut the door and locked it. Then he sat at a dusty old dining room set that someone had put there in storage. From the satchel, he pulled out an iPad and set it down on the table.
“What happened to the laundry room?” Sabine said.

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STRATAGEM Chapter 23

HOW MUCH MORE OF THIS could she endure? It had been two days since she spoke with Blake, and one entire day of not speaking or texting with anyone at all. Sabine’s margin of sanity wore thinner with each passing moment.
Endless hours of Netflix binging, surfing the web and watching the news did absolutely nothing for the mounting tension and monotony. Mindlessly clicking to the next episode of “The Good Place”, she picked up her phone to send Blake a text.
Come on, it’s already been an entire day of radio silence.
But Blake had been clear. With all the suspicious things going on around them, she had to assume they were all being surveilled. They had to act “normal”, whatever that looked like under a post-return-from-the-dead quarantine.
And her one reasonable text to Mom and Derek would have to suffice for now. Orders from the ICOMM brass were not flexible. Breaching those protocols would only put her further under scrutiny.

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