Donald Tillman jumped behind the counter of the closed Burger Grab fast food restaurant as bullets shattered the countertop’s wood and laminate. The portly recruiter for the Bernardino Collective was hunted by his greatest achievement, Jennifer Taft.
“Jen, let’s talk!” Tillman gasped, unused to the physical exertion and stress. From the shadows, Jennifer answered with another gunshot that blasted wooden splinters onto Don’s bald head.
“You lied to me, Don,” said Jen. “You lied to all of us!”
Donald tried to fish his cell phone from his jacket pocket but couldn’t find it. Don realized he had left it on the restaurant table he was sitting at when Jennifer jumped through the glass window, aiming her firearm. He was in the middle of texting headquarters with an update on the operation when Jennifer arrived. The promises Don made in the text regarding Jennifer’s mission now seemed over- optimistic.
Jennifer made no sound as she moved in the dark. Don was scared. Jen would kill him, and the sad thing was Don knew he deserved it.
Don had recruited Jennifer and her classmate Diane a few years back at Harvard. They had taken tests and done interviews for job opportunities with the Bernardino Collective; both passed a rigorous background check. The two college seniors tested well, with multiple language skills and an aptitude for problem solving, exactly what the Collective wanted.
The Collective advertised as a human resources marketing firm, but in the final interviews, Don told his two prospects a secret: the Collective was an ultra-covert, off-the-books American spy organization. With a smile, Don had asked them to serve their county.
“Please, Jen. Let’s talk.”
“You sent me to kill Diane. But she told me everything. She told me the truth, Don!”
Jen and Diane were roommates at The Facility in Upstate New York. The two shared the remote 400-acre campus with about thirty other recruits also right out of America’s top colleges. The two-month curriculum included the expected training in spycraft, firearms, and hand-to-hand combat, but mostly focused on communications and psychological manipulation.
Don was at their graduation. He personally gave Jen her first assignment.
Jennifer had expected an exciting overseas adventure, and was surprised and disappointed when Don told her she was heading to the small town of Saline, Kansas, where she would be deep cover as a Burger Grab restaurant manager. But Don was encouraging.
“There’s some bad shit going down in Saline. Domestic terrorism. I’ll brief you later, but this is an important mission, Jen. We need our best on this one.”
Jen hated the work and the rural locale, but she kept her cover, often receiving coded instructions from Don asking her to investigate possible local terrorist bases that always turned out to be empty warehouses. And the restaurant was running well, even though Jen found her low salary and shitty benefits burdensome. To maintain cover, she couldn’t receive her Collective wages until after her mission was complete, but Jen was proud to sacrifice for America.
Jen didn’t know where Diane or the other Facility trainees had been assigned; she hoped somewhere glamorous. But then Don had shown up yesterday and told her that Diane was stationed in Cambria, six hours away. Like Jen, Diane was investigating domestic terrorism in a small town, with a similar cover at another Burger Grab.
And then Bob told her that Diane had turned, that she was working with the terrorists. Bob asked his stunned protégé to terminate Diane. He held her trembling hands in his, told her it was necessary, that she would be saving lives. Bob left coded instructions and a gun in an unmarked car outside Jen’s restaurant, and promised her a better assignment after the awful business was finished. He would wait for her at the restaurant.
And now Jen was back. “Diane figured it out. The Collective isn’t a spy organization. It really is a consulting firm. And its biggest client is Burger Grab.”
Risking everything, Don stood up from behind the counter to face Jen, his hands up in surrender.
“You know how hard it is for fast food chains to hire quality managers on the wages they pay?” Don was caught; the best strategy was to come clean. “It was my bold idea. Recruit the best and brightest by appealing to their idealism and fantasies, plus the whole expense is a tax write-off.”
“And when they get wise, you have them kill each other when an agent ‘goes rogue’!”
Don could see the tears in Jen’s eyes. “Please don’t kill me.” “I won’t.”
Don sighed in relief until he heard the footsteps behind him.
“But I will,” said Diane. Burger grease was the last thing Don smelled.