From the Ashes - Part 1

This story is both an entry into the April 2023 “take your daughter to work day” challenge and a personal homage to a classic shared world from the archives of BCTS.

All the stories set in this world can be found at https://bigclosetr.us/topshelf/tg-universes-series/men-black... and the guidance for writing stories in this world is at https://bigclosetr.us/topshelf/blog/576/rules-constructing-m...

The guidance for the MIBD background asks “Just do me a favor and e-mail me a copy before you post it”. However, according to https://bigclosetr.us/topshelf/forum/43251/contact-details-t..., it seems that, sadly, I will be unlikely to get a reply from Tina Michelle Smith herself.

I hope I’m not treading on anyone’s toes and that readers will appreciate my little story alongside the MIBD canon.


Chapter One - The Fire

I could see the plume of smoke rising over the cornfields from several miles away. Not the thick, rolling smoke of a hungry blaze, but the puffs and wisps of a fire nearly burned out. Despite it being over a decade since I last fought a major fire, I still felt the same pulse of adrenaline and the bitter taste of fear and anticipation. As I approached the site along the narrow country road, I pulled over to let the coroner and a police cruiser pass in the other direction. If anything, that made the anticipation worse.

I found a parking spot beside one of the barns, away from the action. I took a moment to breathe and calm myself down, then swapped from my driving flats to the heels which had become part of my uniform, checked my hair and make-up, and selected an appropriate ID from my collection before switching off the engine and stepping out of the car.

Away from the vehicle’s air conditioning, the air was filled with the smells of ash and smoke, backed by the acrid aroma of incinerated plastic and metal. Beyond the gathered fire trucks and engines, the last few charred bones of the farmhouse stood out against steam rising from smoldering remains. I could hear shouts between the fire crew as they tackled the last of the fire. By this point they had run pump lines to a nearby pond and had a ladder up to direct a cooling spray while they used red lines to mop up any small outbreaks. It all seemed so familiar but, without my old crew to watch my back, I felt exposed and alone.

Spit gathered in my mouth and the edges of my eyes had started to itch. I fought the urge to wipe them and risk smudging my mascara.

It took several minutes before anyone approached me. Someone should have a word with their Battalion Chief about that. Two bugles marked him as a Captain. There was no Fire Chief vehicle around, so he was probably the senior officer at the scene.

“You can’t be here, lady.”

I showed my badge.

“Special Agent Kellie Alexander. I’m from the Justice Department. I’m working with the BATF and we have an ongoing investigation on this property.”

“I don’t care who you are. I’m still not letting you into an active fireground.”

That sounded better. He may have been slow to notice me, but at least he was taking his job seriously. I took a closer look. Between his helmet, bulky suit, and soot-stained face, it was hard to make out much more than his eyes and a guess at his age. Probably early thirties. Old enough to have seen his share of action, but to me, he still seemed young and naive. His eyes did not yet have the haunted look that I’d seen in so many veteran firefighters. He was checking me out, too, but I doubted he would be interested in a stone-faced federal agent at least fifteen years his senior, however well I filled out my black skirt suit.

It is a skill we have to learn. To present ourselves in a way that manages how others see us. Respect but underestimate. That is the aim, and it’s always a delicate balance.

I held my hands up in mock surrender.

“I don’t want to get any closer right now, believe me.”

I waited a beat to see if he would say anything else. Some people love to fill a silence, and it’s a great way to get information without being pushy. This time he just seemed tired, so I continued.

“I’ll need a look at the main house. When it’s safe, of course. Meanwhile, I should check the barns and other buildings.”

It was his turn to pause for a moment, considering the state of the fire and the wind, weighting estimated risk against my authority. In the end, respect won.

“Go ahead. But if you find anything hot, you get the hell away and call me. Okay?”

I nodded.

I didn’t really need to check out the other buildings. I had been here many times before and I knew exactly where I was going. That knowledge did nothing to ease my heartache, though.

It’s something every firefighter learns. Eventually.

You can’t save everyone.

Our division of the Justice Department has an impressive success rate, but we are not perfect. Part of my job was to protect the people who lived on this farm, and I’d heard on the journey here that charred human remains had been found in the collapsed main building.

What made it a hundred times worse was that we had been friends. Good friends.

But that was also why it had to be me to keep a lid on the top secret work going on here.

Some distance upwind of the fire, shielded from casual view by a small stand of trees and some overgrown farm machinery, sat a rusted-out water tank. The surrounding briars had spread since I was last here, and I sacrificed a good pair of nylons scraping through them. The water tank pivoted out of the way with only a bit of force when I pushed. Beneath it, embedded into moss-studded concrete, was the original entrance to a cold war missile silo.

A new, easier, way in had been cut from the farmhouse basement, but that was currently buried beneath a deadly heap of smoldering house timbers and fallen kitchen appliances. It might be days before I could gain access that way.

This entrance had a padlock on the outside, but I had the key in my purse. In less than a minute I had unlocked it, swung open the heavy metal door, and was staring down a flight of concrete steps into darkness. I had also brought a flashlight, of course, and carefully made my way to the second door at the bottom.

I had no idea what I might find inside. If the house entrance had been open when the fire started, I could be about to open a door to an inferno. Or, worse, a backdraft which would shoot a cloud of flame right back up the stairway. Tentatively, I touched the lower door with the back of my hand. Stone cold. Even a little damp. A good sign, but not conclusive. These doors were built to withstand atomic bombs. Without a lot of equipment and time, there was no way I could be sure.

I cranked the wheel on the door to open the bolts, took a deep breath, closed my eyes, crouched low, and pushed the door inwards.

I wasn’t engulfed In a fireball.

I smelled cool, clean air and heard the continuous hum of the pumps.

When I opened my eyes, it was as if nothing had changed since my last visit. The same weak lights in the same uninteresting passage. Two more flights of steel stairs downwards and I was in the brightly-lit main lab area, which used to be part of the missile control room. Filtered air leaves no dust, so it was impossible to tell when anyone was last down here. It could be weeks or it could be seconds.

The computer equipment was still running. I could see a notebook open on a desk. It was as if Mac or Millie could be round the corner, just out of sight. I wished either of them were.

I don’t often cry, but at least this time I could blame it on the irritation from the smoke.

The good news was that there was no hint of the fire inside. The basement entrance must have been fully closed. I continued down the next flight of steps to the living area below the lab. Here there were more signs of life. On the table in the kitchenette, I spotted an empty drinking glass and half a pack of cookies. I was checking the kitchen storage when I heard a noise. A footstep, from the direction of the washroom.

I spun to face the sound, only to be crashed into by a whirlwind of knees and elbows in a yellow dress. Thin arms grabbed my waist and a grinning but tear-streaked face looked up at me.

“Auntie Kellie! I knew you would come!”

A wave of mixed emotion slammed into my gut, and now my own tears were back again.

“Joseph! You won’t believe how happy I am to see you!”

There was a hint of a frown.

“You know I am Joanie when I am dressed like this.”

I hugged her even tighter.

“I’m sorry darling. I’ve had a difficult day.”

When we had finished hugging, it was time to get serious. I motioned Joanie to one of the clumsy steel tube chairs, and dragged another one across the faded green linoleum to sit facing her.

“This is important. Can you tell me what happened?”

I saw sadness settle onto the young girl’s face.

“I think our house has burned down.”

I must have looked puzzled, because she explained further.

“I watched it on the door camera. Then it broke.”

She looked at me with wide eyes.

“It wasn’t me, honest. I didn’t break it.”

I smiled, but said nothing, in the hope that she would continue.

“Daddy saw some people coming. Bad people. Daddy told me to hide in here, seal the door, and wait for you to come get me.”

It was my turn to frown. I had never wanted any of this to happen, but if it had, I really wanted it to be an accident. Now it looked like it might be deliberate. That made things a lot more complicated.

“Do you have any idea who these people were?”

“No. I just saw some cars then Daddy sent me in here.”

A shadow flickered across her eyes.

“It will all be recorded. We keep years of data from all the cameras on a server in the lab.”

There was something about the way she said that which left me feeling uneasy. But I couldn’t put my finger on it. Strange, but also familiar.

Joanie suddenly looked around as if something was missing.

“Can we go see Daddy now?”

My heart broke again.

Since joining the most secret part of the Justice Department I have been in more tough situations than I can count. I have negotiated with gunmen and people who think they have nothing left to lose. I have faced riots and lynch mobs. I have escaped from captivity and jumped from a burning airplane. But nothing had prepared me for this.

How could I tell a child who trusted me that her father was gone?

I reached out to hold her small hand in mine while I thought about how best to approach this.

Mac and Millie were undeniably brilliant, and I had seen for myself just how smart both Joanie and Joseph could be. Smarter than me, sometimes. But then I’m just an old fireman who took an unusual career choice.

I made my decision. Respect, and don’t underestimate. I would have to tell her the truth.

“I’m really sorry, Joanie. That’s not possible. I think your daddy is dead.”

I was expecting tears, or maybe denial. What I got was a piercing stare and a question.

“How do you know?”

I thought for a moment. I had started down this route, so I would have to follow it. I swallowed.

“They found a body in the fire.”

Joanie nodded, thinking it through, and then leaned forward.

“But are they sure who it is?”

I shook my head.

“Not yet.”

Joanie leaned back again.

“So we need to find out.”

Joanie showed me how to access the camera files, and I made a copy of the last few days just in case. That took a while to transfer, so I considered what to do next while Joanie gathered up the few possessions she had kept in here. When we were ready to go, I had a carryall with the backups and most of Joanie and Joseph’s stuff and she followed behind clutching Goldie, her favorite plush toy.

I was slightly worried about leaving the lab and its contents. The top entrance would withstand casual attempts to enter, but relied mostly on secrecy. A pneumatic Hurst tool from a fire truck would not have a problem with the padlock. I just had to make sure there was no reason to look for it. The main entrance in the basement would be much more obvious, especially now its camouflage had been burned away, but it would take a lot more than a local fire department to get in by that route.

The camera on the entrance showed nothing suspicious, so we trotted up the steps and I made sure to carefully lock the door and replace the cover. As soon as that was done we hurried over to the large barn. Cinder block walls and a tin roof made it largely proof against floating embers and therefore a good place for me to “discover” Joanie hiding. I needed to get her away from here to safety as quickly as possible.

We crouched together at the back of the barn for a few moments and I took the time to go through the plan again. When we were both ready, Joanie held my hand and we walked out. I really did not want any more complications, so I hoped nobody would look beyond a scared young girl in a pretty dress. I had considered trying to sneak away without being observed, but that would raise suspicions or even risk the firefighters or police searching the farm.

Instead, I shouted.

“Captain?”

He was over by one of the engines, discussing something with a pump man, and turned when he heard my voice. I shouted again.

“I need to speak to you right now.”

His face was a show of frustration as he approached, but I got in before he could speak.

“I have evidence that the fire was arson. Given the sensitive nature of our investigation, this whole site is now a federal crime scene. Continue to do your job until the fire is safe, then leave. Agents will be here soon to secure the site. Are you clear?”

His voice was bitter.

“Yes. Ma’am.”

I had been where he was now. I should be getting away immediately, but didn’t want him to feel bad. I placed my manicured hand gently on his arm.

“I was on the job for twenty years, Captain. I’ve seen plenty of fires. You have done good work today. I’d stay but I have to get my witness out of here.”

He nodded.

I didn’t know if it had helped him, but it had made me feel better.

I turned and walked Joanie back to the car. I could feel him looking at me the whole way.

Once we were safely inside the soundproofed vehicle, I reached into my purse for my compact. I needed to pass this information back to The Store but did not want anyone, even the local firefighters, overhearing.

While the SEVN network device in the compact was initializing, I took off my shoes. The normally stylish pumps were caked with soot and dirt from the fire and the barnyard. Uniform be damned. I resolved to pack some boots next time. I was just slipping into my driving shoes when a soft ping informed me the secure channel was open.

“This is Phoenix. I need to speak to Mother. We have a big problem.”

“Mother here. Talk to me, Phoenix.”

“I’m on site at the home of protectee Big Rat. There’s been a fire. Big Rat is unaccounted for.”

I glanced at Joanie beside me.

“But a badly burned body has been found at the scene. The good news is that Little Rat is safe and with me and the laboratory does not appear to have been compromised. There are indications that the fire was deliberate, so I want to bring Little Rat in for debriefing.”

The device was silent for a few seconds.

“I agree. Bring Little Rat to The Store.”

There was only the shortest of pauses this time, but I noticed it, and I wondered if Joanie did too.

“The usual rules will apply, of course.”

I reached out to clasp Joanie’s hand.

“Thanks, Mother. We’ll be there as soon as possible.”

Joanie’s eyes were big.

“Are we going to see your mommy?”



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