Authors: Jordan McCollum
Tags: #Romance, #Spy, #Espionage
I don’t want to draw attention to myself. I stroll back to the side doors, like I’m slipping out because all these free drinks have caught up with me.
The hall is quiet and dark — and empty. No sign of the Emirati’s wife or Talia in trouble.
I double check her text. What kind of problem? Wardrobe malfunction? Security scuffle? I finally text again.
Not sure I want to know what problem has her stuck in a bathroom, but I text back for details anyway.
Burqa and American in greenroom
, she replies.
Uh, yeah, that might qualify as a “problem” of sorts.
Hm, big mystery. Probably a little more than free intelligence samples like they're at the Real Canadian Superstore.
I reach the greenroom door, but don’t dare waltz in. Talia texts again:
American chatted me up offstage. Been in here so long that it’ll get weird real quick if I walk out now. IF he doesn’t recognize me.
And if he does recognize her? Yeah, magic color-changing hair isn’t a typical diplomatic accessory. At least not for those in the official corps.
I’m still trying to come up with an idea when Talia sends one more message.
It feels like somebody’s standing on my chest. This is too big a risk. She could probably stay put in that bathroom until . . . whenever —
But an American guy and an Emirati woman alone together? Exactly what we want.
, I demand.
she wants to flirt. But she’s got to know exactly what I mean and why, so I let it slide, pacing outside that door. One minute. One minute to snap the photo and sneak out. That’s all it should take.
Three minutes pass, and my pacing is spiraling into a tight little tornado of terror. What is taking her so long? The room’s not that big. She’s in trouble. She’s in danger.
She needs me.
I crack the door as quietly and quickly as I can. On the other side, one can light shines down in the little hallway leading into the room, and beyond that, dark.
I don’t see Talia. Or anybody else.
The door jerks out of my grasp, and the handle slips and clatters. Talia appears from behind the door, glaring up at me in the weird lighting and silence.
Then I see the movement behind her in the shadows. We’re interrupting someone — someone who was definitely expecting me a lot less than Talia was.
We need a cover. Quick.
I look back to Talia and somehow that soft smile from this week and the one moment both our covers slipped last Friday are all I can see. I know exactly what to do.
I cross the last step between us, slide my arm around her waist and hesitate only a fraction of a second before I kiss her.
Her lips are soft and cool against mine. My heartbeat slows in my ears, time drawing out until another voice interrupts. “Who’s there?”
It takes me half a second to remember what I should be doing. This is our guy, but I can’t see him in the dark.
“Oh,” I say, shooting for surprise and somewhere north of the world’s longest undefended border. “Sorry. Didn’t realize this room was . . .” I scan the room beyond the guy, but I don’t see the woman. “Taken.”
He’s too far in the shadows for me to make out his face, but I can hear the hard set to his jaw in his voice. “It is.”
“We’ll be going, then.” I tow Talia outside. She obeys without a glance back in the room. Smart.
A lot smarter than my cover. Aside from the James Bond–style cliché, there’s something else wrong with this picture.
Talia didn’t kiss me back. She didn’t move.
In fact, if I’m totally honest, the second I leaned in, her spine went rigid.
We’ve made some major miscalculations here. Or I have.
The silence between us is turning more sour by the second. I have to say something. “Got what we need?”
I don’t have to say the “let’s go” part out loud. We head to the garage.
Major, major miscalculations.
The smothering silence sucks the air out of the car, but I think we manage to look like a couple out for a good time through our surveillance detection run. Unsurprisingly, nobody’s following the entertainment home from a human rights summit reception. We park at our drop-off and get out. And don’t walk away.
Because I guess we have to talk about this. I lean against the rear quarter of the car. At least the street’s quiet, and we can do this without an audience.
Talia joins me and hands over her operational phone. Shadowy pictures of tonight’s greenroom show on the screen.
“Not enough,” she murmurs. I want to reassure her — reassure both of us — but she’s right. You can barely make out that there
people in these pictures, let alone their faces. I’m sure she’s sent the picture in to our facial recognition program anyway. And I’m sure the results are as dismal as they seem.
“Did you know him?”
“No. I’d recognize him if I saw him, though.”
With a full-time sketch artist — one we could afford to let in on this whole secret, that is — we might be able to start a trace. But until then, our American mole will be a mystery.
“Did you see the woman?” Talia asks.
“I saw a woman leave the ballroom headed that way, but I can’t be sure. Wife of an Emirati deputy.”
Talia’s lips twist into a little knot of thought, and I can almost feel those lips again, but this time responding, countering, moving against mine.
I’m in a lot of trouble.
But Talia doesn’t mention it. “We need pictures of the rest of the staff. Dig up everybody. Figure out what other Americans were at this summit. We’ve got to find this guy.”
“He didn’t tell you his name?” Hello, Flirting 101: exchange names as fast as possible.
Talia focuses on the plate glass storefront across the street. Her voice barely qualifies as a whisper. “Some guys can tell when a woman’s not interested.”
I let her walk away, watching her, waiting that split second between the blade slicing through the flesh and the raw nerves going haywire.
Major, major, major miscalculation.
I learned a long time ago life doesn’t come with an “undo” button. However, a lucky few of us are equipped with a fully functional play-it-off switch, and I am deep in that mode when Talia gets to the office Friday afternoon. She jumps into her work with barely a nod in my direction.
I’m not planning to get all hostile, but I’m not going to complain about a little breathing room in this suddenly stuffy office. The awkward silence — and the stack of papers on my desk for Talia — still hammer at my concentration. It doesn’t help that everyone else is out doing actual spy stuff this afternoon, while I’m doing paperwork and biding my time until my Lebanese friend can chat.
After half an hour, I can’t pretend to work anymore — I have to give this to her. I wheel my chair over to Talia’s desk, tail between my legs and the equivalent of the embassy’s yearbook under my arm. “Ready for this?”
Normally she’d counter with an “always,” and the whole exchange would sound a whole lot more like flirting. Instead, it sounds like somebody died.
Not quite that serious yet. I slap the stack of paper on Talia’s desk and take a seat next to her. Fortunately, she knows what I’m trying to say —
I totally screwed up
— and gets right to work without any more discussion.
When she turns the third or fourth page, it hits me — there’s no reason for me to stay by her. I never saw the guy well enough. Talia doesn’t need me. But somehow I still need to be here. Because I need to make sure we’re okay.
Talia sucks her cheeks in, totally focused on the page of photos in front of her. I expect her to make fun of the “natural” smiles and the stuffed-shirt, kid-glove executive versions of foreign relations.
Okay, yes, “overt ops” are important, too, and you never know if these guys applied to the Agency first and this job is their fallback plan. Still, it doesn’t feel great to stare at their smug little I’m-almost-famous grins in this tiny form of recognition, when we’re the ones risking our lives.
But we knew when we signed up that we’d be safer living and working anonymously. And nobody goes into the Clandestine Service for the fame.
I break the silence to distract myself from that line of thought. “Nothing so far?”
Talia shakes her head. She’s not talking to me, not looking at me, not even thinking about me.
Nobody focuses this hard on staring at photos. “Listen, about last night—”
She holds up a hand, still clutching one of the pages, to cut me off. “We’ve said everything we need to say.”
“I know. I’m not—”
“Are you going to tell Shanna?”
Dread freezes in my throat, drops into my stomach, sends ice spiraling through my gut, just like the minute I stepped into our apartment last night until I remembered she wasn’t home. I have no idea what to say, to Talia or to Shanna.
Talia’s gaze travels the room. The two other people in the office are totally absorbed in their work, pointedly ignoring us. But we all know they’re listening. We’re always listening, always watching, always looking for information, even with people we should trust.
Which means that Talia probably knows exactly what’s going on with Shanna. Probably better than I do, her being a girl.
“I’ll figure that out.” I have to change the subject. And then I remember how to turn the tables. “What about your little boy toy? Are you telling him?”
“Don’t see why I would.” She’s back to work on the embassy directory. “We’ve had all of one conversation.”
It isn’t me. It isn’t me. I knew it — should have known it. How did I miss that? How did I ever think it was me? Idiot, idiot, idiot — work. Work. I have to focus on something besides my own scathing stupidity.
I look around, but before I can find some excuse to leave her desk, Talia thumbs through the rest of the directory and shoves it away. “He isn’t here.”
“You skipped through, like, half.”
“I looked and he wasn’t there.” There’s some subtle challenge in her eyes, like she’s
me to contradict her again, to make this into an argument.
I’ve lived with Shanna too long. I don’t think Talia does head games, at least not with fellow officers. She’s trying to get rid of me.
Not going to work this time. We have a case to handle, and I, for one, need to stay focused on that. “Then how do
want to find him?”
She points to the directory pages’ footer. With the date of the directory. Printed six months ago. Been a long time since I used an embassy as my cover, but I do remember the almost daily turnover.
“Do they have an updated version?” Talia asks.
“This is supposed to be the most recent print copy.”
“Please tell me this doesn’t mean what I think it means.”
Either hacking or eavesdropping or both, targeting Americans. More spying on our own. “Welcome to counterintel, babe.”
She closes her eyes and sighs. “What are we doing this time?”
We need to get in the embassy. We need access to the people who have access to the ambassador. We need to keep this very, very quiet.
This mission’s a lot riskier than rabbit hunting. This could turn into a freaking rabbit hole.
“Okay,” I say, mostly thinking aloud. “We can still do this. But . . .” I glance around. “Not here.”
Talia sets her jaw, and I instinctively brace for the argument. Conditioning from the situation with Shanna, I guess, because Talia doesn’t snap at me. “Have to eat sometime.”
I take the hint to go back to my desk, not risking a look at César and Justin. We’re trying so hard to keep this away from the bureaucracy, not even Will knows what we’re doing. We don’t have much longer before he checks in with us — and maybe not much longer before we have to prove this guy is worth following. Landing rights? Not really a matter of international concern. An embassy employee hocking the ambassador’s private communication and setting his agenda to suit another country? Big deal.
We need to end this.
Hong Den Good Food might be the cheapest Chinese place this side of Shanghai, but I’m not complaining. The décor is definitely the cheesiest: dragons, gongs, glaring red and gold, the whole shebang. Enough greasy smoke hangs in the air to style your hair, and the food isn’t good enough to compensate.