Sarah sat in the Des Moines airport, waiting. She wasn't sure exactly which of several annoyances bothered her most. First off, she was tired. She used to be able to fly for 18 hours, do a job, fly another 18 hours, and be perfectly fine. But her body had aged in the five years she'd forgotten. Surely, she had exercised, but she had never been very good at eating healthy or getting regular sleep. She never thought that kind of stuff really mattered. Now she was beginning to think maybe she was wrong. Not that she wasn't fit for a mission. She definitely was. She just didn't think she should be this tired.
Her exhaustion level was nobody's business. She could hide it. Beckman certainly didn't know when she called the substation in Buenos Aires to tell Mary she was going to China but Sarah was told 'job well done, thanks, go home.'
"I'm sending Agent Bartowski, uh, the other Agent Bartowski, to Iowa," that sly old coot had said.
Then Mary cut in, "You're sending Chuck alone?" Sarah surmised by the mother's tone that this was not standard procedure.
"There are plenty of agents there already," Beckman said. "I would send Walker as his backup, but she's expressed a disinclination to work with Chuck since her... uh... accident. As long as she's still under psychiatric care, I am leery of ordering anything which may disrupt her mental balance and delay her recovery."
That manipulative old battle-ax. She might as well paint a target on Chuck's head and stand there pointing the gun. In front of his mother! What kind of a monster did they take her for? Even when she didn't trust Zondra, she didn't fail to watch her back. She did her job until the CATS were formally disbanded. And whether she remembered him or not, Chuck was her husband and a very sweet guy.
Mary just nodded amiably as if that 'plenty of agents' b.s. had placated her. Sarah knew what kind of agents Beckman was talking about. It was the rank and file, lower level grunts. The federal equivalent of traffic cops. She could command a hundred of them with one phone call.
"You can stop talking about me as if I'm not here," Sarah replied, rather testily if she remembered correctly. "I didn't want Chuck to go back in the field because of me, but if he's going anyway and needs backup, I'm willing to be his partner."
Beckman arched that evil eyebrow of hers. "Are you certain, Walker? Dr. Dreyfus can put us both on the sidelines if he thinks I'm taking advantage of your delicate mental state."
Yeah, that was a lie, but Sarah knew better than to argue with a general. She couldn't remember the last five years of working with Beckman, but she'd had enough experience with her since 'the accident', as she so indelicately put it, to know Beckman was not a woman to be crossed.
"Get him on the line right now then; I'll tell him to his face." She crossed her arms and glared. "Chuck is still my husband. I should think making me a widow in my 'delicate mental state' would be a helluva lot more destructive to my 'recovery' than being sent home because there are no babysitters available."
Sarah shot an apologetic glance at Mary. The older woman had treated her as an equal, but she could have accomplished the Argentina mission by herself with no trouble at all. Sarah was getting increasingly sick of being treated like some second-class spy just because she was missing five years' worth of memories. Those memories weren't relevant. She was still a capable and competent agent. They needed to back off and let her prove it.
"Very well, Walker. You'll head to Des Moines to rendezvous with Chuck. I hope to have more intelligence for both of you when you arrive at your respective destinations. Good luck."
"Thank you, ma'am."
The video conference screen went black. Sarah braced herself to take the backlash from Mary. She totally deserved it for calling her a babysitter in front of the general. She would let Mary get in one good ream before she attempted an explanation.
Mary turned to face her, took both her hands, squeezed them, and spoke in what sounded a sincere tone, "Thank you."
"For accepting the mission even though you knew damn well Beckman cornered you into it. Chuck needs you. He's a good spy on his own, but when the two of you are together, you're unbeatable. Beckman cares about your memory, but she didn't do this for Chuck or for you. This corn smut thing is no laughing matter. She is sending her absolute best team to protect one of our country's greatest resources."
"It's just corn. I think we can live without it for a while."
Mary shook her head. "It's not just a matter of no corn-on-the-cob at the next backyard barbecue. Sweet corn is a tiny fraction of the whole maize family. Popcorn. Corn flakes. Grits. Tortillas. Cornstarch. Corn syrup. Do you know how many animals eat some form of field corn? Can you imagine how much gasoline will skyrocket if we lose all the ethanol we're currently using to abate the cost? We even make plastic from it. The United States not only consumes vast quantities of corn, but we export too. If all our corn is destroyed, there is no telling how many people and animals could suffer. And that's not even counting the economic damage. Why do you think Beckman is sending me to China? They're not even our ally. Why not just let them fend for themselves?"
That was when Sarah finally grasped the severity of it all. "For the same reason we send humanitarian aid to our enemies after a natural disaster."
"Exactly. This would be bigger than any earthquake, tsunami, or hurricane. Millions of lives all over the world depend on corn."
"How do you know all this?"
Mary shrugged. "I lived in Russia for twenty years. I have a pretty good idea what they dream about. Having the right climate and soil to grow corn is almost as high on their list as military might and vodka." She winked and cracked a smile. "Almost."
"Is that why Rodriguez and Petrovich did it? So Russia can take over the world corn market?"
"If that's their reasoning, then they're phenomenally stupid. This fungus won't respect borders. If I fail in China, it will eventually take over all of Asia, including Russia. I don't think anyone could stop it before it hit Europe or Africa either. If you and Chuck fail, the continents of North and South America are both at risk. About the only place that's safe is Australia and other islands."
"Australia can't grow enough corn for the whole world."
"No, it can't."
And on that grim note, Miguel had called them out to the tour van for the trip to the airport.
How many hours ago had she and Mary had that conversation? Maybe Sarah hadn't slept well, not because of her slightly older body or poor diet, but because she finally understood how critical this mission was. It was on hers and Chuck's shoulders to save the entire Western Hemisphere from a truly terrible bio-weapon. If they failed, it could mean starvation, riots, and financial ruin for more people than she dared think about.
Yes, she was miffed that Beckman had manipulated her. Yes, she was less than pleased at the stupid restriction Dreyfus had saddled her with. And yes, she was damned tired. But the one person she couldn't fault for any of this was Chuck.
This was like being on the team sent to prevent the attack on 9/11. No, bigger than that. If she let herself think about it too much, it terrified her. She didn't even want to go this one solo with the staggering consequences should she fail. How in the world was Mary doing it? The fate of three continents rested in her hands and she was cool as a cucumber.
Because of his height, Chuck was easy to pick out in the crowd of people coming down the terminal. Sarah waved at him and he smiled back and headed toward her.
Still ten feet away, he stopped and looked at her with his sad-puppy eyes. "Sarah, I swear I didn't plan this." He sounded like he'd rehearsed it a dozen times and like he had a whole speech that came after it.
She closed the distance and threw her arms around him. They were undercover as a couple, not to mention, she was genuinely glad to see him. She whispered in his ear. "I know. It was Beckman. It's all right."
He pulled back enough to look in her eyes. "All right? Did you remember something?"
"Not really. But I know you're a good spy and everyone I trust says we're better as a team. This assignment is too important to waste time arguing over petty differences." She adopted her ditzy blonde persona and spoke in her Texas twang. "Honey bear, what did you say was the name of that charming couple who honeymooned on the train from France to Switzerland?"
He had a Texas accent of his own. "Charles. The Charleses. But this isn't Texas, darlin'." He was smiling despite his words.
"I know, Tiger, but I think the Charleses are in desperate need of another honeymoon and Dez Moinz is just about the most perfect place for it. How 'bout it, Mr. Charles?"
"Well, Mrs. Charles, if it's a honeymoon you're after, then Charlie Charles will deliver."