Read Chapter Four of An Encounter in Atlanta, free online book, by Ed Howdershelt, on

The door to room 422 opened as Mandi neared it and a tall guy in jeans, cowboy boots, and a green Army field jacket stepped out. He pulled the door shut with a glance in her direction that turned into a rather long look, then he hefted his black backpack and followed her toward the elevators.
He had to be close to fifty; Mandi wondered which team he was with, and in what capacity. All the rooms from 420 to 430 had been reserved as a block to centralize personnel, so he had to be some kind of a cop or fed. Or a liaison?
Pressing the 'down' button, she heard no, she 'felt' the man come to stand quietly a few feet behind her. Very quietly, she added after a few moments. Almost unnaturally quietly.
There was no rubbing of fabric or scuffing of his boots on the carpet. No shifting of his backpack or even the soft creak of old boot leather as weight shifted from one leg to the other. The guy was an embodiment of silence.
Mandi had to actually focus her hearing a bit to be sure he was breathing, and she found it mildly unnerving that anyone could stand so silently for so long.
Another few moments passed before she turned and grinningly said with a raised eyebrow, "Just checking to see if you're really back there. You're very quiet."
He nodded slightly and returned her grin. When she'd turned, his eyes hadn't been on her butt or her legs, as she'd expected. They'd been on her hair or shoulders, because they'd met her eyes instantly. Mandi found that odd, too.
The guy seemed to study her face as he said, "Yeah, I guess I am kind of quiet sometimes. That's a nice outfit, milady. It doesn't scream 'look at me!', but it can't very easily be ignored, either."
'Milady'? Who calls a woman 'milady' these days? Mandi accepted his compliment as given and saw his eyes drop to her breasts. Correction; to her badge, which hung from one of her tiny demi-lapels. Her eyes fell to his badge in return.
"Mandi Steele," he read, extending his hand. "Hi, Mandi. I'm Ed Cade."
His eyes returned to hers as she shook his hand and said, "So I see. Nice to meet you. Why's the name block on your badge light blue?"
"I'm registered as a guest author. Artists get a different color light green, I think. Staff types get red or yellow."
She glanced at his badge again, then asked, "Are you staying on this floor? Was that your room you came out of?"
"I don't think anyone else on this floor is registered as a guest author. Why you?"
"Maybe it's because I'm really an author."
Uh, huh, thought Mandi. Or maybe he was a reporter who'd gotten wind of something? He'd come out of one of the rooms in the agency block, but...
Her expression made him add, "I'm with John's crew. They pulled me out of retirement for this op when they found out I'd be here anyway."
If anything, her puzzlement grew. "Retirement? From what? You don't look old enough to be retired."
Shrugging slightly, Cade said, "I am, though. Retired, that is. So I must be old enough, I guess. How about you? Which team are you with?"
"No team. John put me in as a standalone."
"Woo! A superspook, huh? Foreign or domestic? There seem to be some of each here today."
Shaking her head, Mandi said, "No, I'm not exactly with the NIA. I've been, uhm... coordinating things, you could say."
Something in Cade's expression seemed to change almost imperceptibly as he nodded without comment. Mandi instantly got the impression that he didn't believe her.
"What is it?" she asked with a small smile, "The fact that I'm a blonde? Don't you think I could coordinate anything?"
Raising a hand slightly in protest, Cade grinningly said, "Oh, no, milady, it's nothing like that. I'm sure you're very good at what you do. I have no doubt you could run an office if you had to. You'd look absolutely great while you did it, too."
Thinking that Cade meant that he thought she might be one of those 'secretaries' who can't really type, Mandi asked rather ominously, "What the hell are you getting at?"
She wasn't in the least prepared for his answer.
"Mandi," said Cade, "I saw you haul a car into the sky today. Admin types don't do stuff like that. They don't like to get their hands dirty."
A jolt shot through Mandi and her gaze at Cade narrowed peeringly as she quietly asked, "Are you nuts?! If you are, just tell me now so I can get the hell away from you, okay?"
The red 'down' light came on as the elevator chimed its arrival. Cade stepped around Mandi to clear the doorway.
Shifting his backpack slightly, he said, "Yeah, I was afraid you might react like that. The dealer's room can wait. Let's go back to my room for some show and tell."
The elevator doors opened as Mandi whisperingly blurted, "What?!"
Nobody got off the elevator and the people aboard it looked questioningly at Mandi and Cade until the doors closed again.
Once they were alone, Mandi stepped very close to Cade and was about to say something scathing when Cade said, "Okay, maybe that was a poor choice of words, but I guarantee you'll be glad I showed you the pictures."
Hovering between anger and startlement, Mandi peered at Cade sharply as she asked, "What pictures?!"
Shifting his backpack around front, Cade unzipped it and fished out the three printouts, which he handed to her.
"The pictures these blowups were made from," he said. "A kid with a digital camera took them. He sold them to WNN about an hour ago."
After staring at the pictures for all of two seconds, Mandi grabbed her cell phone out of her purse and dialed.
Cade heard the same woman he'd talked to perhaps six times in the last few days say, "Zero-eight-two-six."
"Angel here," said Mandi.
"Go, Angel."
"I need to talk to John. Right now."
"He'll call you back. Do you need local assistance?"
Loudly enough to be heard by the woman on the phone, Cade said, "Tell her Dragonfly said 'no'."
"Angel, do you confirm?" asked the woman.
Unrealizingly nodding as she studied Cade, Mandi said, "Yes. We aren't in any danger here. We're trying to prevent a blown cover. Mine."
"Okay, Angel. Hang up and stand by."
"Thank you."
For a long few moments, Mandi continued to study Cade in silence, then she said, "We seem to know some of the same people, Dragonfly. I'll accept that as a positive reference."
Grinning, Cade said, "Well, that's damned decent of you, ma'am. You're 'Angel', huh? I'd say that fits well enough. What now? I'm pretty sure someone thought of this possibility."
Nodding, Mandi said, "They did. We did. Where did you get these printouts?"
"I printed them for reference. I thought you might still be in town and I wanted to be able to make a positive ID if I saw you again. Guess I don't really need them now, huh?"
Folding the pictures and putting them in her purse, Mandi said, "No, you don't. Do you have any other pictures of me?"
"Why even ask? You know they'll toss my room and check my laptop on general principles."
Grabbing his jacket and yanking him close, Mandi growled, "Don't be difficult. I'm not in the mood."
Almost nose-to-nose with her again, Cade quietly said, "You shouldn't get tough with people who are trying to help you. All the pictures are on my laptop."
Mandi's cell phone chirped and she quickly answered it with her free hand, not releasing Cade as she did so. Cade had no problem at all with being an inch from her face. It allowed him to listen easily to both sides of the conversation, which was rather short.
"I'll meet you in 422," said John. "Five minutes. Here's Alan. Tell him what you know to get the ball rolling."
"Hi, Angel," said Alan. "What have you got for me?"
"Nothing," said Cade. "I'm the one with the info."
He reached for the phone and Mandi let him take it as she finally released his jacket, then he gave Alan particulars about the kid who'd taken the pictures and the names of those who'd bought the pictures at WNN.
"Is that everything you've got on them?" asked Alan.
"That's it," said Cade. "If I think of anything else, I've got your number."
"Okay, thanks. Put Angel back on."
Cade handed the phone back to Mandi and heard Alan say in a rather intense tone, "Angel, we don't know this guy from Adam. He's just a part-time reserve asset that John called in to fill the ranks for this op. I think you should stick to him until we know that we know all he knows."
With a laugh, Cade said, "The 'part time reserve asset' isn't exactly unhappy with that idea."
"Aw, shit!" said Alan. "He can hear me?"
Somewhat acidly, Mandi asked, "Alan, do you have any other shining pearls of wisdom and advice?"
"Uh... No. Sorry."
"Later, then. Bye."
Hefting his backpack as Mandi tapped her phone off and put it away, Cade grinningly offered her his arm and asked, "Shall we go, milady?"
Mandi shot him a glare and said, "Yes," as she started walking. Cade followed at a slight distance, the better to eyeball her backside and legs as she marched ahead. Mandi abruptly stopped and waited for him to catch up, her slight glare unabated.
"Great legs, ma'am," said Cade. "Great everything, really."
She made no reply as she walked beside him. At 422, he let them in and left the door slightly ajar for John, then took his coffee mug to the sink and began making a fresh cup.
"Want to try some of my instant coffee?" he asked.
"No." As an afterthought, she added, "Thanks, anyway, but we came here to see some pictures."
Cade glanced in the mirror. Mandi was standing in the middle of the room. Oh, well. She knew she didn't need an invitation to sit down. Come to think of it, she probably didn't feel any need to sit down as often as regular people did.
A sharp double tap at the door announced John's arrival and entrance. The two men with him began methodically searching Cade's room as John approached Mandi and Cade and shook hands with both of them.
"Sorry," John said as he gestured at the two guys rooting through Cade's suitcases. "Her people insisted."
"Figured they might," said Cade. "Alan seemed the cautious type. If I need one, can I get a loaner laptop while you root through mine?"
Nodding, John said, "No problem." He turned to one of the guys searching the room and said, "Chuck, he may be dropping by later to borrow one of the pool laptops."
"Yes, sir," said Chuck, resuming his efforts.
"Ed," said John, "Alan played back your report on my way here. Can you add anything to it?"
"Can't think of a thing, John. All I really had were some names and a room number here at the hotel."
After another few moments, Chuck came to look through Cade's backpack and check his pockets, then said, "That's it, sir. Nothing left but the computer." Turning to Cade, he asked, "What's your boot-up password?"
"Don't need one," said Cade. "Just hit 'enter'."
The guy raised an eyebrow at that, as did John.
Laughing, Cade said, "Boot to DOS and you can wipe the password file and reboot without one. I won't keep anything on a computer that I couldn't show my mother."
Chuck looked at John and shruggingly nodded agreement.
John looked at Cade and said, "Well, okay, then. Sorry for the inconvenience."
"Oh, I guess I'll survive," said Cade. "What now? Think you can put a lid on this thing?"
"Yeah, we think so. It depends on whether WNN has already sent copies to affiliates."
At that, Mandi groaned softly.
Cade turned to Mandi and asked, "Mandi, why you don't wear a mask or a hood? Or something?"
She replied rather testily, "Do you really think you're the first to suggest that?"
"Not likely, and you didn't answer the question."
Sighing exasperatedly, she said, "I've tried dozens of the damned things. At high speeds they come apart, blow off, or burn off, and everything I've tried that'll survive and stay put looks like shit. Does that answer your question well enough?"
Chuckling, Cade said, "Well, yeah. I guess so."
With another quick round of handshakes, John led his search team out of the room, leaving Mandi and Cade to themselves. Mandi called Alan with an update, then sighed and sat down at the room's small desk.