The Alter

By jknox All Rights Reserved ©

Action / Thriller

Blurb

Ever since his father's death, James Hyde's dream has been to become a CIA field operative. Sadly though, he just doesn't have the nerves to make it in the stressful world of cloak and dagger. After years stuck behind a desk, James is given a chance to help the CIA flush out a mole leaking intel to the Russians – a dream come true! But things turn nightmarish when his team is betrayed on the streets of London, leaving him the sole survivor. Now on the run and assumed to be the mole, James must get to the bottom of his betrayal, while fighting against an anxiety deep within him that might not be his nerves...

Chapter 1

James Hyde sat with eyes closed, one hand resting on the pistol in his hip holster, the other covering his face. He rocked gently back and forth with the motion of the van as they drove to their destination. Nobody spoke, but he could feel the shoulder of the agent next to him, Elizabeth, and could feel the presence of the two opposite. They couldn’t be more than five minutes away now.

“James?” he heard a voice — Elizabeth’s voice — but didn’t open his eyes.

“Yeah?”

“Are you OK?”

How could he possibly answer that? He could just lie, he supposed. So he did. “I’m fine.”

“It’s not too late, you know. You can still get out.”

He appreciated that she was only trying to help him, but it wasn’t true. It was too late. As much as every instinct in his body was telling him to just give up, telling him that this whole thing had been a mistake from the beginning, he couldn’t just quit. Too much was riding on this.

“Really, Elizabeth. Thanks, but I’m fine.”

“Two minutes!” shouted a voice from the front of the van.

James squeezed his eyes shut more tightly and tried to calm himself down. For the hundredth — maybe thousandth — time he went over the plans in his head. He saw the layout of the two-story house, room by room. He pictured the room where the target was being held. He saw the pictures in his mind of the suspects who were likely waiting for them. This was what he was actually good at: analysis, memory, data. Not field work. Still… here he was, about to embark on by far the most difficult mission he’d ever undertaken.

The van began to slow. James reached the final stage of his efforts to calm himself. He pictured his father — the man he was doing all this for, the reason he’d signed up in the first place. He pictured him dressed in his spotless police uniform, medals on show. He had to make his father proud. He opened his eyes, a surge of confidence moving through him.

The van stopped. Someone in the front of the van banged on the partition, signaling that they’d arrived. Elizabeth opened the door, and the four of them climbed out of the van, drew their weapons, and swiftly moved toward the large, isolated house. All the lights were off except for one on the top floor, which was visible through the drawn curtains. James knew that was the main bedroom. That was where the target was.

They split into two teams. The other team went to a side door which had stairs leading directly to the top floor. James and Elizabeth moved toward the rear of the house. They reached the patio doors. Elizabeth checked her watch, counting down the seconds until everyone would be in position. Finally she nodded, and James tried the door. It was unlocked. He slid it open, and poked his head inside.

The living room was pitch black, and silent. His weapon pointed to the ground, James edged inside and waited for his eyes to adjust. There was no-one there, and he motioned to Elizabeth to join him. She moved past him to the door that led to the hallway, which she opened a little. She peered through the crack, then held up a single finger to him: there was one person there. She raised her silenced gun, opened the door a little more, took aim, and fired. James heard the muffled sound of a body falling to the floor.

They both moved out into the corridor, stepping over the still body as James checked the downstairs bathroom and Elizabeth looked into the closet under the stairs. Both were empty. Now they just had the kitchen and the adjoining garage left to clear. The team upstairs would be nearing the main bedroom now. They would wait outside for James and Elizabeth to join them.

As they approached the kitchen, James went over the schematics in his mind. He saw the deep counters which ran around the edge of the room. He saw the oven, the fridge, the sink. In the middle of the room was an island with six stools around it. There were windows which looked out to the rear garden and a fan on the ceiling.

James stood on one side of the door, with Elizabeth on the other. She put her hand on the handle and looked at him. He nodded. She silently counted down: three, two, one, turn. The kitchen was dark, but the layout was exactly as James had pictured it. In the far corner by the sink, apparently taken by surprise, was a man with his back to them. As James and Elizabeth entered the room, he heard them and started to turn with his weapon raised. James aimed and fired a shot, then another, and another. Each one hit the wall. James could see the man’s finger on the trigger, the gun pointed right at him. The next moment, the man had collapsed on the floor. James turned to see Elizabeth’s arms raised straight in front of her, gun pointing at the fallen man.

“You OK?” she whispered.

“Yeah. Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it. One more room.”

They both looked toward the door which led to the garage. Elizabeth crossed over to it and put her ear to the door. She held her closed hand up, indicating that she heard voices inside. She held two fingers up.

He joined her at the door, his hand on the handle this time. He looked at her, she nodded, he counted down, and then he turned it.

The light inside the garage — which hadn’t been visible from outside — was dazzling after the darkness of the rest of the house. James was momentarily disorientated. He regained his focus just in time to see two men — both big, and wearing black jackets — turn toward them, raising their guns. Elizabeth let off three shots and one of them fell, just as James was aiming at his target. His finger was on the trigger, he had his shot lined up. Then, as if in slow motion, he saw the man squeezing the trigger. He felt something hit him, right near his heart. Elizabeth let off two more shots and James’ target hit the ground, but it was too late.

He looked down to where the shot had hit him.

Elizabeth put her finger there, then put it to her lips. “Tasty,” she said. “A little like barbecue sauce.”

“Really?”

“Not really. Tastes like paint. Hopefully it’s not toxic; that’d be an embarrassing way for me to go.”

James heard the piece wedged deep inside his eardrum crackle. “Hyde?” It was the voice of Dan Jarvis, the head of training. “You’re out, Hyde. Leave through the front door and wait until the mission is over. We’ll talk about this later.”

“I have to go,” he said to Elizabeth. He tried to keep the disappointment out of his voice, but from the look of sympathy on Elizabeth’s face he could tell he was unsuccessful. “I’m OK,” he said. “Go get ’em.”

She nodded and smiled, touched his cheek briefly, then turned and went back out into the kitchen. James waited for a minute until he was sure she’d gone to carry on with the mission before trudging out through the kitchen and down the hallway to the front door. On his way, he stepped over the person Elizabeth had ‘shot’. James thought he recognized the man from the training facility. He seemed to have actually fallen asleep.

He went back to the van where the driver was waiting for them, smoking a cigarette. “They got you, huh?” the driver said, looking at the red mark on his chest.

“Yeah,” he said. “Again.”


James arrived at the training facility at 7:30 the next morning, before any of the other recruits, at Dan Jarvis’s request. He knocked, and poked his head inside the door to Jarvis’s office. There was nobody there yet, so he sat and waited on one of the chairs outside.

Twenty minutes later, Jarvis arrived. He was dressed in a suit which looked to be at least twenty years old, with a number of files held in one hand and a coffee clutched in the other. “Morning, Hyde,” Jarvis said in his customary brisk but friendly voice. “Sorry I’m late. Meetings to attend, worlds to save. You know how it is. Come in.”

James followed Jarvis into his office, where the older man sat behind his desk and woke up his computer. He clicked a few times and typed out a couple of messages while James waited patiently. He wasn’t nervous, or scared; he knew what was almost certainly coming. Jarvis had given him plenty of chances, and he hadn’t rewarded his trust.

“OK,” Jarvis said. He hit the period key on his keyboard, clicked one more time, then turned to James. “Mr. Hyde. How do you feel about last night’s mission?”

“Not great, sir.”

“Not great? I’d say!” Jarvis chuckled and shook his head, then recovered himself. “Sorry. Well, we still need to go through the formalities. The evaluation team took a look at the video of the mission. I have your performance review here.” He pulled a piece of paper out from one of the files on his desk. “Hmm,” he said, as he looked down the page. “Holding your gun incorrectly on first entry into the building. Failing to respond properly to your fellow agent’s signals. Unsafe entry into the downstairs bathroom. Wayward shooting — to say the least — in the kitchen. And in the garage, you know… getting shot.”

“It wasn’t my best performance, sir.”

“No. Well, on further reflection, it might actually have been. It certainly wasn’t your worst. Which is saying something.”

James shifted uncomfortably in his chair. He already knew everything Jarvis was telling him, but it still wasn’t pleasant to hear.

“I don’t mean to wail on you,” Jarvis continued. “But the reason that they pay me the big bucks around here — proverbially, of course — is because I can evaluate talent, and I tell the truth about people. You seem to be a good man, Hyde.” He took another file and opened it, browsing the contents. “You performed well at a great college. Excellent family background. You keep yourself in shape. Although, looking at your medicals…” Jarvis scanned a piece of paper, his brow furrowed in confusion. “The doctors found some extremely unusual tendencies. Did they ever get to the bottom of those?”

“No, sir.”

“Huh.” Jarvis turned back to the previous page. “Anyway. You did incredibly well on the tests at the beginning of training. You’ve excelled in the more technological aspects of the training course.”

“Thank you, sir.”

But. But, but, but. I’ve told you before that I didn’t think you were suited for field work. Maybe I wasn’t forceful enough. Hyde, let me put it in plain English for you: you can’t be in the field. I’d be neglecting my duties if I put you out there, in the real world. You wouldn’t last more than a day.”

“But sir, please. I need to get out into the field. It’s not just about me, it’s about—”

“Your father, I know.” Jarvis turned to another piece of paper. James got the feeling that he was just doing it for show; that really he remembered everything he’d ever learned about James, and probably every agent who’d ever trained under him. Jarvis was fair with his trainee agents, and firm when he needed to be. Beneath his surface of benevolence and balance, however, James could tell that Jarvis was an incredibly intelligent man who had seen it all.

“Your father was a great policeman, Hyde. Fifteen years on SWAT. All those missions, many of them as squad leader, and never a single fatality. He was really something. Your dedication to his memory, making him proud even after he’s passed, is admirable. Really, I mean it. I hate to say this, but I have to. You’re not your father. You’ve tried hard, and I can’t fault your effort, but you’re not cut out for the field.”

“But, sir. Mr. Jarvis—”

“But nothing. Hyde… James, listen to me. It’s not going to happen. You have to move on.”


That night James sat on his bed and looked for a long time at the photo of his father, in his uniform, which sat on his bedside table. Elizabeth kept calling him, but he didn’t pick up. Eventually he rang his mother to tell her the news. Afterwards he turned off the lights and lay there, in the darkness, for what seemed like hours.


James Hyde sat at his desk, twirling a pen with his fingers, eyes narrowed in concentration as he focused on his computer screen. Without moving his eyes, he put the pen down on his desk and slowly reached for his coffee cup, lifting it to his mouth and taking a sip without seeming to realize he was doing it. He scanned line after line of code then, finally, his eyes opened in triumph and he smiled as he found what he’d been looking for. He scribbled a couple of notes on a pad of paper next to him, then started typing away furiously.

He was so utterly engrossed in his work that he didn’t notice a person approaching behind him. “James?” He didn’t even turn at the sound of his own name. The person came closer and tapped him on the shoulder James jumped. He turned and saw that it was one of his co-workers. “Sorry, James. I tried talking to you but you were miles away.”

James smiled. “Sorry, you know how I get.” Even in a place like the CIA, full of talented and intelligent, hard-working people, James had a reputation as being obsessive about his work. “Can I help you?”

“Not me, but you’re being summoned. Dan Jarvis requested you personally for a meeting, and I heard there were some even bigger players there who want to talk to you.”

“Really?” James hadn’t seen Jarvis for a long time. His former trainer had been moving up the ranks incredibly quickly in the past few years. His office was on one of the top floors in the building, and he moved in the most powerful circles in the agency now.

“Really, really. This could mean big things for you, buddy. You’d better hurry up. They said to meet them in conference room A on the top floor.”

James wrote down two quick notes so he’d remember where to pick up again when he resumed his work. He stood up, adjusted his tie, and put on his suit jacket.

When he reached the top floor, he had to ask someone for directions to the conference room in question. He’d never been this high in the building before. When he reached the room, he found that it was surrounded by floor-to-ceiling glass on all sides so that everybody could see in from the outside. He saw Jarvis sitting at one side of the table. His hair had receded and grayed, and his face was more lined. He looked tired, and more serious than James remembered.

There were five other people sitting around the table, all older than Jarvis. Four of them were new faces to James, but the man at the head of the table seemed to resemble a photo James had seen of the Associate Deputy Director, Roger Jones. If James was right, he was about to attend a meeting with the third most powerful man in the entire agency.

Jarvis saw him approaching. His stressed face broke into a smile of recognition, and he stood up and came to the door. He stepped out into the corridor and shook James’ hand. “Great to see you, Hyde, it’s been a while. Thanks for coming. Just give us a couple more minutes in here, then we’ll call you in.”

“Sure. Good to see you too,” James said, and he meant it. His time in training wasn’t exactly full of happy memories, but Jarvis had always been fair to him, and he was a great teacher.

Jarvis went back in, leaving James to stand awkwardly in the corridor. He glanced over into the conference room every now and again, and saw everybody looking at files on the table in front of them. They seemed to be deep in conversation — maybe even arguing with each other — and all of them kept looking over at James. All of them, that was, except for Roger Jones, who kept his eyes fixed on the files in front of him, and didn’t seem to be taking part in the debate, choosing simply to listen instead.

James felt nerves slowly starting to build in his stomach. He’d lived a happy existence in the cyber security department, dedicating his life to his work and enjoying the daily challenges immensely. Unlike some of his colleagues, he had no real desire to drive himself up the company ladder, to join the most powerful men and women of the agency; exactly the kinds of people who were sitting twenty feet away from him, seemingly talking about him.

Finally James saw Roger Jones starting to talk. His statement was brief, and finished with a nod. Nobody challenged his ruling. He gathered his files, stood up, and made his way out of the room. As he passed by, he looked James directly in the eye, only for a moment, and gave the slightest of nods. James nodded back, and the man strode off down the corridor.

Jarvis reappeared at the door and beckoned him inside. All of the files had been closed now, James noticed. He looked around at the men and women at the table, but he still didn’t recognize any of them. They all seemed to be silently evaluating him, as if he were a specimen in some experiment. Jarvis indicated that he should take one of the spare chairs, and he sat down.

“Mr. Hyde.” One of the women addressed him. She wore a black suit and a black shirt, and her eyes looked keenly into his. “What we are going to discuss today is extremely classified. We want to stress to you that you mustn’t breathe a word of what is said today to anyone who isn’t directly involved. Is that understood?”

James gulped and nodded. Everything he worked on was highly confidential, so the way in which she stressed the secrecy around this particular meeting surprised him.

“OK then. We’ve called you here today to discuss an extremely serious issue regarding our agents working in Europe. Much of our effort in recent years, across the continent, has been designed to compete with Russia’s growing influence. Our agents out there have performed extremely well, and it was a battle we were winning, fairly comfortably.”

“That all changed recently.” One of the men spoke. He must have been at least seventy years old, with thin white hair and large glasses which seemed to enlarge his eyes as they stared at James. “The tide has turned. Russian agents started severely disrupting our operations around six months ago, leading to several aborted missions. Over time these interruptions grew more frequent, and now they always seem to be one step ahead of us. We can hardly do anything out there.”

“The reason we’re meeting here today,” continued the lady, “is because things recently came to a head. One of our agents was shot in the field, while on a mission in Paris, and later died in hospital. As you can imagine, this accelerated the need to put a stop to what’s been going on.”

“There’s a mole,” said the old man. “It’s clear to everybody at this table. The Russians must have been receiving information, leaked from our side, from one of our own people. They could be based in Europe themselves, or they could be sharing the information directly from Langley. Either way, they need to be apprehended, or even eliminated. So we’ve set up a trap which we’re hoping will flush the mole out. We’re sending you there to help out our team.”

“Me?” said James, unable to keep the surprise out of his voice. “Why me? I can’t go on a field operation. Or, I could, I’d love to, but…” His voice trailed off, and he couldn’t help but look at Jarvis, the man who’d shut down his dreams of a career in the field.

“You can because of me, Hyde,” Jarvis said. “I personally recommended you to the ladies and gentlemen at this table, who are in charge of the operation. You’ll be an integral part of the trap, but you won’t actually be physically involved. You’ll be working in a security overwatch role. You’ll be in charge of surveillance at the site, working the cameras, monitoring cyber communications, scanning for radio comms. That kind of thing.”

James couldn’t help but be flattered that Jarvis had chosen him, specifically, for the task. He hadn’t done anything like this before. He couldn’t deny, however, that thoughts of a role like this had crossed his mind. He’d be working in the field, kind of, but in a role where he could work effectively and aid the team.

“I know you’ve always wanted to work in the field, Hyde,” Jarvis continued. It wasn’t the first time James felt as if the other man could read his mind. “This is your chance. I know we haven’t spoken in the past five years — since you moved into the cyber security department. Believe me, though: I hadn’t forgotten about you. You are one of the smartest guys I’ve ever seen come through the academy. I’ve followed your progress closely, and discussed your performance with your superiors. You’ve excelled in your position, and now I — and your superiors — think you’re ready to move on to something new. What do you say?”

James didn’t need any time to think about it. “I’d love to. I won’t let you down, sir,” he said to Jarvis, then remembered there were other people in the room. “I won’t let any of you down. Where is the trap being set up?”

“We’re utilizing our London team for this operation,” said the woman. The mention of London triggered something in James’s mind, but he didn’t have time to think about it at that moment. “We’ll put you on a flight from Dulles Airport tonight, and you’ll link up with them tomorrow. The operation is set to take place tomorrow evening, BST. The plane ticket will be waiting for you on your desk downstairs. Get your bags packed and catch that flight. The London team will fill you in on the specifics of the operation.” The woman picked up her file and tapped it on the table a couple of times, as if she were a news reporter. “Anything else you need to know?”

James’s head was buzzing with question, but he knew this was a rhetorical question. “No, ma’am.”

“Excellent. Best of luck out there, Hyde. Make us proud.”

James stood up and nodded at Jarvis, who gave him a small smile, then left the conference room. As he walked away, he turned and saw that they were all watching him.

As if in a dream, he took the elevator back down to his floor, his undrunk coffee still clutched in his hand. He walked back to his section of the office and found a plane ticket sitting in an envelope on his keyboard at his desk, just as the woman had said he would. He sat in his chair staring at the ticket, but not really seeing it.

He’d remembered why the mention of London had triggered something in his mind. He already knew someone on the London team, someone who he hadn’t seen for five years: Elizabeth.

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