Lara Järvinen was the first to arrive at The Lee Group's conference room. She almost always was. On those rare instances when she wasn’t, the firm’s founder and lead architect, Dalton Lee, was certain to be the one to have preceded her.
Being the second-in-command, she took a minute to glance around the room to make sure everything was as it should be. She was gratified to see that the new administrative assistant had placed the correct number of chairs around the table and set the requisite bottles of water at each place. She was dismayed, however, to see a couple of remnants of copy paper, or torn napkin, scattered here or there on the carpet. Frowning, she bent over to collect the scraps and then tossed them into the recycle bin near the front door.
She knew that after Lee, the others would invariably, randomly, straggle in, signs of procrastination that irked her to no end yet resisted every effort she made to eliminate them. Of everyone on the team, Bree was the one she could rely on most for punctuality, but the junior architect also had the frustrating tendency of jumping up at the last minute and dashing back to her office for something that she MUST HAVE WITH HER in the meeting—her acrylic clipboard decorated with daisies, or her oversized mug of herbal tea, or her favorite pen with that ridiculous ponytail made of real horsehair that dangled from the eraser end, a souvenir she had brought back after a visit to her family in Arizona. On one occasion, Bree had left the room and gone back to her office to retrieve something THREE DIFFERENT TIMES before the meeting could get started. But Lara remembered with more than a whiff of satisfaction that the icy glare she had given the young woman the last time she had stepped back into the conference area had seemed to squelch that shtick forevermore.
Warren, the other junior architect, would usually come barreling in and dive-bomb into a chair at least three or four minutes after Lee had gotten things underway. He would always be muttering a heartfelt apology, but would always come barreling in, always a few minutes late. Irene would arrive shortly before or after Warren. Being the youngest and (dare Lara indulge in stereotype?) Asian, her head would always be buried in either her phone, her tablet or her oversized laptop computer, often to the point of having to be asked a question two or three times just to get a response out of her.
Roberto was the least predictable of them all. Well, she took that back. The talented designer was actually the most predictable in that he was never one of the first to arrive. When he did eventually saunter in, padding quietly along the farthest wall so as not to disturb, he often did so with his arms wrapped tightly around his torso, his head tilted downward, a scowl on his grizzled face. Lara had to give him credit for being respectful whenever he arrived. Her concern wasn't really with how he showed up at a meeting but with whether he would show up at all. These days, he frequently didn't.
She missed Jayden. The young Tennessean had always been on time, freshly pressed, sunny in disposition, cracking some corny joke he had read online somewhere that morning. He was the true Southern-American gentleman, a demeanor that, even though she was Scandinavian, she found heartwarming. But with Jayden's brother having been released from captivity after their adventure in Manhattan a year earlier, there was no longer any reason for him to stay with the firm.
Lara felt her soul dip toward sunset for a moment, darkened by the realization that everyone soon assembling was eager for the day they would no longer have to attend a meeting at The Lee Group. Especially a meeting such as this one.
Her thoughts turned to the new associate. What was his name? Landon? Loren? Lee had tossed it out so quickly in conversation she hadn't had a chance to absorb it. It was rumored he might join them for the meeting, but he wasn't really expected to, given that his flight from Sydney had arrived only that morning. To Lara's way of thinking, his qualifications were far from exemplary, but she had to trust Lee's judgment that they were solid enough. As an undergraduate at the University of Queensland, he'd pursued a concentration in microbiology (which probably wouldn't be of much use to the firm, she assumed), but he then had gone on to earn a graduate degree in something called Adaptive Architecture and Computation from the University of London.
And then, of course, there was his most relevant qualification of all—an older sister who had double-crossed an agent associated with The Organization and was soon abducted at knifepoint from the tennis resort outside Brisbane where she had been the club pro.
He was being brought on to the team to help Irene with whatever computer research—or hacking—they might need. Apparently he was an expert both at executing hacks and repelling them. A genius at something Irene referred to as spear phishing? And logic bombs?
She shook her head, sighed, began to rub the bony middle knuckle of her left hand with the thumb of her right. I hope he isn't a dreadful bore, she thought.
The door nudged open. It was her superior.
"Am I … disturbing you?" Lee asked.
"No, no, come on in. I had just drifted off into one of my reveries."
The head of The Lee Group strode in, his chest puffed out even more than usual.
"Good news?" Lara asked.
Lee raised both eyebrows and widened his eyes somewhat. "GREAT news, on the business front. It appears Harriman Tower is going to come in on time and a tad under budget. And I received an encouraging email from the development corporation in Hong Kong about the office tower project there that they contacted us about back in December." He removed the cap to the bottle of water in front of him and took from it a triumphant swig.
Lara nodded but said nothing. As the business manager for the firm, it was her role to ensure business flowed into the organization and projects got executed to a client's satisfaction. But in truth, those were the aspects of the job she cared least about. Design was her passion. She would much rather be working side by side with Lee, deciding how the lines of a building should reflect the function intended for it, engaging him in discussions about view corridors and rights of light…
"By the way, I think we may need to look for a new housekeeping firm," she suddenly announced. "I must have found three or four pieces of scrap paper on the carpet when I arrived here."
Lee wrinkled his nose. "Yes, I've been noticing more dust here and there as well. I know we've been dealing with Santa Ana winds recently, but that really shouldn't be an excuse."
Bree suddenly pushed through the glass door, and Lara noted with relief the younger architect was clutching to her breast the appliqued clipboard and numerous papers she usually went back for. "Sorry, I'm not late, am I?" she asked hesitantly.
"No, no, right on time," Lee replied.
Much to Lara's surprise, Warren stepped in immediately afterward, offering news rather than an apology. "Dalton, I just got a call from the facilities director with GlobeX Financial," he said in a rush. "They seem to be reconsidering some of the materials we recommended for their branches in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Do you want me to handle it, or do you want to discuss it with them?"
The lead architect sighed and one side of his mouth slid southward a bit. "Well, in light of their most recent earnings report, I can't say I'm really surprised. No, I'll handle it. I'd rather they not compromise on the look of the finishes, but I can think of some alternatives that might work for them. I'll call them before the end of the day."
Warren slid into a seat next to Bree. "Is the new guy going to be here?" he tossed out to the whole room.
Lara looked for an answer from Lee, who shook his head. "Doubtful," he answered. "He took the nonstop from Sydney to L.A. Fourteen hours. The jet lag from that trip is a real killer."
Everyone looked askance at their superior, who chuckled and winced at his ironic use of the word.
"Sorry," he offered, just as Irene skittered into the room and a chair all in one deft move. She was cradling her laptop and its power cord the way Bree had been embracing her clipboard and papers, and she spent the next couple of minutes with her head beneath the table in a labored effort to get the computer plugged into the floor outlet and Ethernet connection.
Lee looked around the table. "So, we are all here … except for Roberto?" He turned to look at Lara who shrugged her shoulders and gently shook her head. The architect nodded once, then said, "Well, then, let's go ahead and get this underway."
It was Bree, leaping up from her seat. Across the table, Lara slumped and issued a none-too-discreet frown.
"I'm sorry, I meant to bring my knitting. Go ahead and start without me. I'll just be a sec."
Once Bree had cleared the door, Lee began to update the team about new projects that had come their way or likely would be. An office tower in Buenos Aires. A casino in Macau. A mixed-use development outside Washington, D.C. and possibly the headquarters of a financial firm based in Milan. "It's all good," he said, a boyish grin spreading across his face. He then clapped his hands dramatically. "It's all very, VERY good."
Bree ducked quietly back into the room and retook her seat, a pair of knitting needles and a ball of yarn tucked beneath one arm. Once Bree had gotten herself situated and had begun to slowly knit, Lara turned back toward her boss and noted how she hadn't seen him this upbeat in at least a year. He certainly seemed to have shaken off the torpor and gloom he had lugged around with him like a heavy knapsack when they were dealing with the situation in Manhattan last year.
But sure as she said that, she noticed his expression dip somewhat. He cleared his throat and scratched behind one ear.
"Before I ask you to give your updates on our current assignments, there is something I need to tell you," he began, seeming to rise up a couple of inches in his chair. "I know that our experience in New York last fall turned out to be far more unsettling than we anticipated. It reminded this group in particular, that as much as we wanted to believe that The Organization had been permanently subdued, and that the safe return of our friends and loved ones was months or perhaps only weeks away, it reminded us that, instead, they have regrouped and are now…" He trailed off, shifting his gaze from a point somewhere over one of Irene's shoulders to a spot beyond the conference room's glass walls where the other employees were advancing the firm's agendas.
Lara leaned forward slightly, placed one palm on his nearest forearm.
"Has something happened?" Warren asked. "What's going on? You would have called some of the other associates in here if there wasn't something going on with…"
Lee dipped his head to one side. "We're not sure," he replied slowly. "There's been chatter. About sleeper cells being activated. Of some sort of … initiative getting underway. Of their … relocating some of the hostages."
With that, everyone leaned forward and waited, to learn more about the circumstance of a sibling, a friend, a spouse—or in Lee's case—a mother and father.
The architect drew his lips into a tight thin line and rapidly shook his head several times as if clearing a shallow fog.
"We just don't know," he finally said. "But something, somewhere is poised to happen." He drew his lips together as if to whistle, but gently blew air out between them instead. "We don't want to acknowledge it, but these terrorists will likely be dogging us in some form or fashion for quite some time. They detest everything our society stands for and, as we've seen before, will stop at nothing to wrest control of our freedoms as well as our family members. They are angry, they are cagey, they are committed, and they know how to strike when we least expect them to." He was quiet for several seconds, mulling over the words with which to end his monologue.
Finally he nodded and simply said, "We must be vigilant."
His words floated there above them all for many seconds as they mused upon the possibilities and the frustration they felt at being confined to wondering … and waiting.
Over time, Lee allowed a smile to replace the concern on his face. "But I insist we focus on the positive side of things and rejoice in the fact we were able to locate the person responsible for the murders of Caitlyn and Cullen Drysdale in Manhattan and bring someone home from captivity as a result."
His employees echoed his comments, but the enthusiasm was muted.
Just then, the conference room door pushed open and a tall, broad-shouldered male in his early thirties stepped in. He was wearing a poncho-style shirt, jeans, flip-flops and a wide, movie-star smile. A necklace made of puka shells stood out against his dark tan. He reached up, ran a hand through a thick shock of wavy dark hair, then thrust both hands onto his hips, elbows jutting out to either side.
"Well, hello everybody. I was told this was where the meeting was taking place?"
Everyone sat silent, taking in and assessing the stranger. After a couple of seconds, his bright expression faded into a look of puzzlement as the room remained motionless. Suddenly, he brightened once more.
"Aw, I get it. You were probably expecting me to say, ‘G'day mates,' weren't you?"
"Liam! Liam Wilding!" Lee exclaimed, rising from his chair and striding over to shake the young man's hand. "This is our new associate everyone. So you decided to join us, after all?"
The new employee nodded toward the team and turned back to Lee. "Yeah, well, I got a lot of sleep on the flight for a change. And I knew this was the most important meeting for the week, so I decided to shake off the old jet lag and haul myself up here to meet everybody."
Lee motioned Wilding closer to the table. "Let me introduce you," he said, but before he could begin, Liam extended a tanned forearm out across Lee's chest to stop his new boss from going any further.
"If you don't mind, Dalton. I'd like to test how well I did my homework on the flight over," he said, winking. Lee stepped back and made a sweeping gesture indicating his new employee should have at it. "Let's see, since she is face-deep into her laptop, I am assuming that the young lady back there is Irene, who I very much look forward to working with…"
The young girl did not react until Warren leaned over and nudged her in the arm. At that, she turned, nodded, and flashed a quick grin before returning to her computer screen.
Liam scanned the room and landed on Lara. "You, of course, would be our trusted navigator and pilot, Ms. Järvinen," he said, nodding in her direction. She smiled and returned the nod emphatically. He wheeled around, pointed at Warren and squinted.
"You … don't look like a Roberto to me," he said, flashing another broad grin. "Which means you are probably … Warren."
"I am," the designer replied, smiling.
"When are we going to our first hockey game?" Liam countered quickly.
Warren looked around, bemused. "Tonight, I guess!" he said, chuckling.
"Excellent!" The Australian placed his hands back on his hips, widened his stance some, scanned the room again, then turned to Lee.
"Roberto isn't here," he said more as a statement than a question.
"No … not yet," Lee replied. Liam waited for more but, not getting it, nodded and then slowly began to circumnavigate the front end of the table. He walked over to Bree, took her free hand in his, cocked his head slightly and said, "So then this has to be the Bree I have heard so much about."
Bree looked up at the new recruit and blinked several times but said nothing.
From underneath the tabletop, however, she felt the ball of yarn roll off her lap and drop onto the carpet below.