Hothouse Orchid
An Excerpt From
Hothouse Orchid

I

Holly Barker arrived at CIA headquarters, in Langley, Virginia, at her usual seven thirty a.m., parked the car in her reserved spot and took the elevator to her floor. She set her briefcase on the desk, hung her coat on the back of the door and sat down, ready to do the work she always did before her boss, Deputy Director for Operations, or DDO, Lance Cabot, arrived. To her surprise, the door between their adjoining offices opened, and he stood there, looking at her in his wry way.
“Good morning,” he said, “and no cracks about how early I’m in.”
Holly smiled. “Good morning,” she replied.
“Come in.” He stood aside and let her pass into his office, which was much larger and more luxuriously furnished than hers. Rumor was that Lance had furnished the office out of his own pocket, but Holly knew him better than that. He was much more likely to have found a way for the Agency to pay the tab. He waved her to a seat.
“Coffee?” he asked, picking up a pot from the paneled cupboard that contained a small kitchenette and a fully stocked bar.
“Yes, thank you.”
Lance poured them both a cup and sat down at his desk. “Have I ever told you how good you are at your job?” he asked.
Holly blinked. “Not in so many words.”
“We’ve both been working on this floor for three years,” he said, “and, quite frankly, I think you could do my job as well as I do.”
Holly blinked in astonishment. Lance had always been miserly with praise, apparently believing that a “well done” sufficed.
“Except for the politics,” Lance said.
He was right about that, she knew. “Well . . .”
“You’re hopeless at the politics.”
“I’m working on that,” she said.
“Yes, but you’re still hopeless.”
“Not without hope of improvement,” she said, contradicting him.
Lance smiled a little. “Well, you can hope.”
“Lance,” she said, “I hope this is all a prelude to a big promotion, a larger office, a huge increase in salary and a Company Cadillac.” This was said less than half in jest.
“As I said, Holly, you can hope.” Lance pushed back from his desk, crossed his legs and sipped his coffee. “Actually, you have to leave us.”
Holly clamped her teeth together to keep her jaw from dropping. “I don’t know how to respond to that,” she managed to say.
Lance’s eyebrows went up. “Oh, it’s only for a time, say a month.”
Holly stared at him, uncomprehending.
“I’m not firing you,” he clarified.
“Good, then I won’t have to kill you,” she replied. “Now what the hell are you talking about?”
“I’m not doing the talking; other people are.”
“Talking? Not about you and me, surely.”
“Well, maybe that, too. What they’re talking about is Teddy Fay.”
Teddy Fay was a name never mentioned at Langley, a great embarrassment to everyone in the building, except to those who secretly rooted for him. Teddy was the former deputy chief of Technical Services, the division that supplied operational officers with everything they needed to accomplish their missions: a weapon, a wardrobe, an identity or a cyanide capsule. Whatever, Tech Services obliged. But Teddy Fay, after retiring, had gone off the reservation, had started killing right-wing political figures, Middle Eastern diplomats—anyone who Teddy felt did not have the best interests of his country at heart—and no combination of the Agency’s and the FBI’s resources had been able to stop him or even find him. Holly was the only CIA employee who had ever even seen him since his retirement and then only when he was disguised.
“Am I getting blamed for Teddy Fay?” she asked.
“Not exactly,” Lance replied. “It’s just felt that you’ve had a number of opportunities to kill him and you haven’t done so.”
“Lance, I’ve seen the man only once when I knew who he was, and, on that occasion, I managed to put a bullet in him.”
“Yes, but not in the head or the heart,” Lance pointed out. “And given that, during your schooling at the Farm, you ran up the highest scores with a handgun of any trainee ever, some wonder why you didn’t do just a little better. In fact, I myself have wondered.”
Holly had wondered about that, too. “I won’t dignify that with a response,” she said, by way of saying nothing. She almost said that she was not an assassin but thought better of it.
“Be that as it may, you are just a little too hot around here at the moment, so take some leave. The director has had a word with the higher-ups, complaining about the unused leave time that some officers have allowed to pile up, and you’re high on the list. You’ve got nine weeks coming, and it’s time you took some time.”
“Lance, I’ve got an awful lot on my plate right now.”
“You need a change of diet,” he said. “And, you might recall, we’ve made a few modifications in that house of yours in Florida.”
Holly had nearly forgotten about that, and she had not visited the house since. “That wasn’t my idea.”
“Go there. E-mail or call, if you can’t stand being out of touch, but go.”
Holly sighed. “Well, I guess I could clean up my desk in a few days,” she said.
“You’ve got two hours to write me a memo on what’s pending, so I can reassign the work, then you’re out of here.” He paused for a reaction and got none. “Are you hearing me?”
“I’m doing that job for the director,” she said. She had grown fairly close to Katharine Rule Lee, the director of Central Intelligence, and she wanted to further that relationship.
“This request comes from the director; I’m only passing it on. Give me the file; I’ll handle it.”
Holly threw up her hands.
“Why are you still sitting there?” Lance asked.
“All right, all right,” Holly said, then slouched out of the big office and to her desk. Her work was neatly filed, and she made a stack of folders as she wrote her memo. She was done in exactly two hours. She knocked on Lance’s door.
“Come in.”
She walked into the room to find the director sitting where she, herself, had sat earlier that morning.
“Good morning, Holly,” Kate Lee said.
“Good morning, Director,” Holly replied. She set the bundle of file folders on Lance’s conference table, then handed him the memo and watched while he read it through.
“I thought I’d stop in and reassure you before you leave,” the director said. “It’s not that we’re trying to get rid of you; it’s just that we’re . . . well, trying to get rid of you for a little while. We needn’t go into why.”
“I understand,” Holly said. “At least I think I do.”
“This will pass,” the director said. “After all, Lance has assured me that Teddy Fay is still dead.”
Holly nodded as if she agreed.
“Oh, by the way, Lance probably hasn’t told you this, if I know him, but we’re bumping you up to executive grade, and, in addition to the salary increase and a few perks, you now have a new title: Assistant Deputy Director of Operations—ADDO—effective immediately.”
“Thank you, Director,” Holly said with real appreciation, “and no, Lance didn’t tell me.” She shot him a glance.
Lance tossed her memo on his desk. “Oh, get out of here,” he said. “Let us know your whereabouts.” He tossed her an envelope. “You’ll need this.”
The director stood up and offered her hand. “Congratulations, Holly. Now go and buy yourself a very nice present.”
Holly flew.

2

Holly packed her Cayenne Turbo as lightly as she could and spoke to Daisy, her Doberman pinscher. “All right, Daisy, you can get in now.” Daisy, who had been sitting by the car, waiting for instructions, leapt lightly into the front passenger seat of the SUV.
Daisy had been beautifully trained by an old army buddy of her father’s who had met an untimely end. Holly had bought her from the man’s daughter, and she and Daisy had bonded at once.
Holly got onto I-95 south, set the speed control at eighty and switched on the radar detector. The device was illegal in Virginia, but what the hell, it was cleverly concealed, and it looked for cops both ahead and behind while jamming their lasers long enough for her to slow down.


They spent the first night in a motel near Charleston and got moving early the next morning. She called her father, Hamilton Barker, from there and told him she was on the way. By late afternoon she was at the bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway, then she turned onto the side road that led to her father’s house, on a little island, where he lived with his longtime girlfriend and recent wife, Virginia.
She pulled into the yard and let Daisy out of the car. Daisy ran through the open door and came back with Ham and Ginny, and hugs and kisses were exchanged, not least by Daisy.
“You want a drink?” Ham asked.
“No, I want to get to the house and settle in,” Holly said. “I just wanted to say hello on the way. How about dinner tomorrow night?”
“Sure,” Ginny said. “Come here, and I’ll cook.”
“You’re on,” Holly replied.
“I went to take a look at your place a few weeks ago,” Ham said, “but I was met by some grim-faced guy packing a handgun and told to go away. I figured he was one of yours.”
“Yeah, he was,” Holly said. “The Agency did some work on the house.”
Ham made a grunting noise. “I never knew they were building contractors,” he said.
“You’d be surprised at some of the things the Agency does,” Holly replied. “Come on, Daisy, let’s go home.” Daisy jumped back into the car. “See you tomorrow night,” Holly said, and drove away.
She crossed the bridge and turned south on A-1A, the road that ran the length of the state’s barrier islands. She drove through the little community of Orchid Beach and a couple of miles south turned into her driveway. She was immediately brought up short by a heavy wrought-iron gate hanging on reinforced concrete posts. “What the hell?” she muttered.
She opened her briefcase and took out the envelope Lance Cabot had given her. There were some papers, some keys and a remote control. She pressed the remote’s button, and the gate swung open, closing behind her automatically as she drove through.
Holly stopped at the front door and got out of the car with Daisy, who was obviously glad to be home. She fumbled with the new keys, noticing that they had none of the usual teeth, just what seemed to be a row of magnets. The door, of painted steel, was new. She got a key into the lock, and it took two complete turns to open the door. She checked the door’s edge, and when she turned the key again, not one but three six-inch steel bolts emerged that would slide into the steel door frame. Impressive. She heard the security system beeping and found a new keypad next to the door. The papers in the envelope Lance had given her revealed her new entry code, and she used it to disarm the system. She noted in the instructions that any breach of security would be sent electronically, not to a local security company but directly to Langley.
She unloaded her things while Daisy ran around sniffing at everything in the house. Holly walked into the living room and looked around. Everything seemed exactly the same, even the old magazines on the coffee table. Then she noticed that her view of the beach and ocean through the picture windows and sliding doors had a slightly greenish cast. She inspected them and found that the glass in the windows and doors was now an inch and a half thick. Good for hurricanes, she reckoned.


Hothouse Orchid

Hothouse Orchid