“Where’s Special Agent Mathews?”
The man turned his grey eyes on him. John shivered.
“Special Agent Mathews has been reassigned. I’ll be your new handler. Murdoch, Special Agent Murdoch.”
“Why didn’t Mathews mention anything about this to us today?” Mal asked the question that John had been wondering.
“He didn’t know himself, and it’s not my job to explain. It’s your job to follow orders.”
His tone silenced Mal, but surprisingly, Steve spoke up.
“She does have a point sir. This is highly irregular and well outside our established protocols. Do you have some kind of identification?”
Murdoch stared at the seventeen year old kid who’d dared to question his authority. Mal and John leaned away from Steve, worried that the agent’s stare would melt them as well. But Steve didn’t back down.
“You’re right to insist,” Murdoch said, pulling out a badge. “Keep a clear head like that all the time and you’ll do very well.”
Steve glanced at the badge for a moment and passed it to John. It was like every other CIA badge he’d ever seen. There was no evidence of forgery or tampering. Mal grabbed it from him and made no effort to hide her careful inspection. Finally, even she was satisfied.
“Okay,” Murdoch said. “Now we can finally get down to business.”
Touching a key on a nearby computer, Murdoch brought a picture up on the meeting room screens.
“This is Ana Taylor. Her father is a very well-connected man. Some of those connections may be to people who don’t have the best interests of the United States at heart. He stores all his contacts and communications on a private, secure server in his home. The network is totally protected from the outside. It can only be accessed from one of the secure terminals on site.
“Your mission is to gain Ana’s trust so you can get inside the Taylor residence and access the files. You need to do this without being detected. Think you’re up for it?”
John turned to his teammates and saw them looking back at him. Agent Mathews never asked them if they were up for a mission. And they’d screwed up the last one, or at least the following orders and regulations part of it. To be trusted with another real mission with real stakes felt rushed.
“I take your silence to be confusion rather than a lack of confidence in your abilities,” Murdoch said. “There were reservations about your performance in the last mission, but consider this a retest. Execute your objectives perfectly and the agency will forget about the NYC mission.”
“We won’t let you down, Agent Murdoch,” Steve said.
“I trust that you won’t, Greski. Your flight leaves in three hours. I expect preliminary plans on my desk in two. If you have any plans for the weekend, cancel them.”
The three of them sat down and skimmed the file on Ana and her father. Likes, dislikes, habits, routines. Steve assigned each of them a part of the mission to plan. They’d learned to trust his judgment, so everyone got right to work.
John would make the approach. He was the hands-on agent of the team, the best at hand-to-hand combat and manipulating people. The trick was to slip right into the role you were trying to play. If you managed to trick yourself a little, it was easy to convince other people. John would be posing as a new student at a nearby school who liked reading and was really shy. Other than the shy part, it wouldn’t be that far from the truth.
Steve would be handling contingency plans and the extraction. Mal would find a way for him to get into the computer system. After he pulled out all the props he’d need from one of their storage rooms, he went to the armory. A core tenant of Project Mentor was no guns allowed. Tranquilizer darts and stun guns were the tools of the trade. John liked going into a mission knowing he wasn’t going to be seriously hurting anyone.