Preview Chapter: A Second is Forever
Operation Santa Claus and an Elf Named Murphy
They say it’s the most wonderful time of the year.
“They” weren’t outside the last open department store five minutes after the five o’clock closing on Christmas Eve.
Despite oversized swags and ornaments hanging from light posts and trees, the deadline for shopping had past. The speakers mocked me by blaring tunes celebrating snow and the existence of reindeer who fly, choking me as effectively as an overbaked gingerbread cookie.
Maneuvering a drone into an ISIS training camp thousands of miles away—that’s a mission I could handle. Navigating the mall during the holidays had proved to be my demise. Yet, my objective was inescapable: find the perfect gift for Jayce Jackson, secret agent with a license to kill and my boyfriend, all in time for my family's Christmas Eve party tonight.
The way things were going, it might as well be Mission: Impossible.
Not that difficult operations were outside of my playbook. As Grace Quincy, I played two distinct roles. At work I was Q, the Quartermaster for the CIA’s Clandestine Operations and Properties, or COP. My team and I worked closely with covert agents to make sure they had the tools, technology, and toys they needed to succeed on their clandestine missions. My team was as adept with hacking as hacksaws, developing everything from the tricked-out to dirty tricks.
X-Ray glasses? Cigar darts? Submarine car? Been there. Created that.
Gracie, to family and friends, embodied everything Q, minus the good stuff. I was a girl chock-full of potential without any of those pesky accomplishments, and my mom kept a box full of participation trophies to prove it. Socially, I was too average in the ways that mattered to my peers, but too exceptional in the ways that didn’t—a sunflower in a bouquet of long-stem roses—awkward yet symmetric, always searching for the sun.
Jackson appreciated the exceptional and the practical parts of me.
He’d been gone for two weeks, deep into a mission. Now, hours until Christmas, I still didn’t know where he was, what his orders were, and if he’d been successful. Our director, Mitchell Mansfield, had given me a vague promise that Special Agent Jackson would be home for the holidays, which I determined meant tonight.
That required buying him a gift—a task proving to be ludicrously difficult.
A harried manager stood behind the locked doors to the last no-longer-open department store, the gatekeeper allowing customers who had been lucky enough to make the shopping deadline to escape. He avoided eye-contact with me as I stared at him, then the time on my phone, and the last group of laughing shoppers emerged with bulging shopping bags. The manager flipped the bolt lock behind them and disappeared inside the store, leaving me hopelessly on the outside, looking into the last vestiges of Christmas commercialism.
What else could go wrong?
“Uh—excuse me.” One of the last-minute shoppers barrelled into me, the volume of the bags in her hands pushing me backwards off the curb.
“Gah…,” I moaned as my suede boots splashed down in the slush and the muck in the gutter. The wet and cold seeped into the leather, and I inhaled as chills shot up my leg. Jerking my foot out of the puddle, I slipped on the trough of icy tire tracks, my arms flailing helplessly. My phone, escaping my hold, skated across the frozen ground as the last herd of shoppers stomped by.
Before I could shout a warning, one of the shoppers sank her heavy boot into the very six inches of water my phone had disappeared into a moment before. Ignoring the audible sound of breaking glass beneath her foot, she trudged forward, barely breaking stride to catch up with the others.
“No, no, no!” I pleaded. Lunging toward the landing zone, I bit the finger of my glove to tug it off while muttering several choice words to the deities, the three Magi, and anyone else responsible for last-minute Christmas shopping. Then, I plunged my hand into the icy puddle. Retrieving the dripping case, I groaned as I assessed the damage. The spider-web-cracked screen was dark, the phone wouldn’t power on, and ice crystallized on the ports and buttons.
“Seriously?” I spat out to no one in particular. Today, of all days, I needed my phone. Jackson would have no way to get a hold of me when he returned. Everything was closing for the holiday, so replacing the phone would have to wait until after Christmas.
I trudged back to my car carrying the iCorpse, tapping on the screen and pressing buttons to encourage signs of life. Despite my valiant efforts, the screen stayed completely black. I was forced to call it.
Time of death, five-oh-eight p.m.
I huffed, glancing around the parking lot. Like my phone, my time for creative gift ideas had expired. I still needed a gift for my amazing-super-spy boyfriend. At this point, the last-minute-gift rack at the convenience store looked promising.
Not that Jayce Jackson deserved anything less than perfection. The man was flawless from the soft curls in his sandy brown hair to the tips of his Lucchese cowboy boots. With one half-smile and the flash of a dimple, Jackson could make Betty Friedan swoon and orate on the mystique of masculinity. He was drop-your-panties-I-can’t-stop-panting sexy but had one-hundred percent of his southern courtesy and charm intact. And ever since our mission in New Orleans a few months ago, he was mine.
Mine. I’ll never get used to saying that.
It had been two months, thirteen days, four hours and forty-seven minutes since Jackson had taken me to my bedroom, and then taken me in my bedroom. I still got tingly every time I thought about it—and chances were good he’d be doing it all over again tonight after Mom’s Christmas Eve party.
If he got home in time for the party.
I told my mother I would be there between four-thirty and five to help. Now edging on five-fifteen, plus the drive across town, I would be at least an hour late. Worse, if she called my destroyed cell phone, who knew what message she would get. In Mom’s world, whatever could go wrong, would go wrong. I needed to call her before she imagined me mugged and murdered on the side of the road, having forgotten to put on clean underwear.
Out of all of Santa’s helpers, why did I get the elf named Murphy?
The parking lot had emptied and trudging through the slushy lot seemed much further than it had when I arrived twenty minutes before. I had parked closer to the outparcel stores than to the mall itself. Resigned, I headed to a strip of stores north of the mall. Maybe someone would still be here and would let me use their phone.
The incessant Christmas carols still echoed from the speakers outside as I walked along the shops. Nestled between an open twenty-four-seven copy shop, closed for Christmas, and the closed-so-I’m-guessing-not-kosher deli, was a mom-and-pop curio shop. Dark, despite a sign flipped to “open” in the window, the place looked deserted. The large picture window, hand-painted with flourish, presented “Carroll’s Antiques and Curiosities—Objects Lost and Found” and framed an eclectic display of antiques and knick-knacks interesting enough to lure customers inside.
I tested the door, and it swung open, greeting me with a chord of bells. I followed the floor’s wide walkway, situated to lead customers around glass display cases on the perimeter. A worn and faded patterned rug in the center of the shop delineated a space for furniture to be displayed. Other items hung randomly on the walls, white price tags dangling down. The soles of my boots squeaked on the tiles as I ventured into the room.
“Hello?” I called. “Is anyone here?”
Behind the display case in the very back of the shop, a set of curtains hanging across a doorway flew open. An elfish old man, wiping his mouth with a paper napkin, stuck his head out. “I’ll just be a second,” he responded, disappearing back behind the heavy drapes.
Intrigued by the unusual items on display, I took the opportunity to browse. I knelt by a particularly interesting nightstand when I heard the man push back the screen. I stood and turned to face him.
“Now, young lady, what can I help you find?” His eyes, magnified through thick eyeglasses, made him look owlish, and strands of white hair stood on end creating a halo around his head. His plaid shirt, tucked into a pair of khaki slacks, was secured with a belt that rode up to the bottom of his rib cage.
“Actually, I just need to use your phone.” I tilted my head toward the door. “Mine accidentally got dropped—and crushed…” My voice fell off. I realized I sounded pretty pathetic.
“Sounds like a difficult afternoon.” He walked beside the display case. “So, shopping for someone special, hmm?”
"No, not shopping," I said casually as I approached the display case. Had he missed the part about the phone? “Although you do have some really beautiful items.” Vintage chains and gemstone baubles were arranged artfully under the glass. I leaned over to get a better look.
“Many trinkets have beauty, but only a few keep their story.” He limped over to the next case and pulled a key from a ring attached to his belt with a silver chain. With shaking hands, he unlocked the sliding back of the cabinet and laid out a velvet tray where he arranged a pair of pocket watches, matching, but one smaller than the other.
I was drawn to the watches immediately, sensing an energy in them that seemed to reverberate around the room. I stepped closer, eager to see the source of my distraction.
“Now, this is a nice example,” the man said smoothing out the velvet display. “His and hers pocket watches from the early twentieth century. Still ticking, too.” He held the larger one to his ear and tapped its case proudly.
“They’re—beautiful.” Oddly captivated by them, I stretched out a finger and brushed the texture of the smaller one, resisting the urge to cradle it in my palm. The cases were an intricate filigree pattern in a burnished gold. On the lady’s watch, a long, lacy chain threaded through the fob so the piece could be worn as a necklace. The man’s watch had a traditional chain entwined with leather stretching from the fob to the pocket clasp.
“Made in the early twentieth century, watches still were made in the Victorian style, of course.” He straightened the chain attached to the larger watch as he set it on the velvet display. “These are some lovely examples of the last of the great age of pocket watches.”
“The last? What do you mean?” I didn’t know why, but I was troubled at his description.
“Wristwatches become popular in World War I. A soldier’s life required more convenience than digging a watch out of a pocket.” He tilted his head gazing down at the watches. “Still, finding a pair of his and hers watches in this condition is rare.”
“May I?” I asked. With his gesture of invitation, I reached for the larger watch. It was surprisingly solid, elaborately textured on the front and smooth, save an inscription, on the back. I clicked the latch, opening the cover to view the watch face. Black roman numerals boldly marked the time indicated by a pair of fancy scrolled hands. It was simple, yet elegant.
“It is said the pair was worn by a British couple who were separated during the Great War. The husband, an intelligence specialist fluent in German, was called away to France. He knew his work would take him to other places he could not talk about. His wife struggled with the separation, especially with so many unknowns.”
“He was a spy,” I whispered.
“Yes, most likely infiltrating the German army.” He frowned. “Dangerous work, that.”
I tried not to react. I knew more than anyone how dangerous espionage could be.
“So they each kept a watch?”
“Yes. They synchronized the watches before they parted. No matter the distance, they knew the watches ticked together, connecting their souls.” He turned over the larger watch, squinted at the inscription, and held it out to me. “Here. My eyes don’t work as well as they used to. Could you…?”
“Of course.” He set the watch in my palm, and I read the inscription aloud.
Holding our time together, when apart,
With face and hands, thee I love.
“Now read hers.” He traded watches with me.
Even a Second is Forever,
Until time binds us again.
I ran my finger across the letters, suddenly dreading the selection of bumper stickers and one-shot bottles of Jack Daniels I would face at the convenience store. Why couldn’t I be as thoughtful as this couple? These watches were evidence of a great love—a love that I wanted.
Since Jackson and I gave in to our attraction, I found myself believing that he and I could be in love. I mean, I had probably been in love with him since I started working Clandestine Operations and Properties—COP for short—but Jackson, well, he was a little more difficult. His charm made him an excellent agent, but it also made impossible to read his emotions at times.
Since our first night together, Jackson and I had been apart more than we’d been together. After our success bringing down Dr. Faust and stopping the U.S. intelligence satellites from falling into the hands of ECHO in New Orleans, Jackson shipped out to this assignment, details “need to know” which didn’t include me this time.
It shouldn’t have bothered me. After all, I created the Oceanmaster watch he wore, which had saved our lives in New Orleans, and I oversaw the tricking-out of the vehicles he drove. As Quartermaster of equipment, his phone even had my fingerprint programmed into it. I knew what his job was—hell, I’d surveilled it happening during countless operations—but my mind built scenarios of Jackson in danger, captured, with other women…
Maybe I obsessed a bit on the last possibility.
“One more thing," the old man said with a twinkle in his eye. "They know each other.”
“They know each other? What do you mean?”
“Look.” He carefully wound the smaller watch using the fob at the top. Then, placing the watch in his palm he brought it over the larger watch. As it approached its mate, it began to shake, first lightly, but the vibrations intensified as the distance closed between them.
“Let me see that.” The scientist in me was intrigued. I tested the range of the reaction a few times, but without tearing the watches apart, I wouldn’t be able to determine how it worked.
He nodded and sighed. “What a beautiful symbol of enduring love.” He set the watch back down on the velvet and began moving them back into the display case. “Now, you said something about a phone?”
“Wait,” I blurted out. “How much are you asking for the watches?”
The old man smiled knowingly. “I thought you weren’t shopping.”
“I guess I changed my mind.”