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Authors: Jordan McCollum

Tags: #Romance, #Spy, #Espionage

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BOOK: Mr. Nice Spy
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Talia’s mostly playing with her battered-and-fried sweet and sour chicken balls, while I’m halfway done with my General Tso’s. If that’s what this dish is supposed to be, anyway. I think it might actually be slathered in barbecue sauce. Tang of vinegar. Sweet ketchup. Close enough.

“All right,” I say.

“Right.” Talia sets down her plastic fork and pushes aside her tray. Finally she meets my gaze, and her eyes are all business.

I can do business. “We need to get in the embassy.”

“And I doubt an American passport alone gets us past the hardline.”

I nod. Getting your hardware past the security checkpoint where you have to surrender outside communication devices, etc., practically takes an act of Congress — and God. “Do we need more help?”

“Who are we supposed to ask? Will? Chief of Station?” Dixon, our man in Ottawa — head of CIA operations in Canada — is exactly who we
don’t
want to talk to. Talia sighs. “They can’t let this slide. They’ll go straight to Congress.”

Both of us joined the Agency after the advent of Congressional oversight, and the phrase “killed in committee” seems a little too appropriate.

I scarf down another bite of my lunch. Definitely barbeque sauce. “Dixon’s still our best bet to get in.” He works somewhere in the embassy, under “official cover,” pretending to be a high-up, dead-end manager. His precious little photo is even in their directory, all because it’s good for his cover.

Do I need to mention I don’t like the guy? And that the feeling’s kind of mutual? Talia is no big Dixon fan either, but on this short of notice, the two of us can’t sneak into our own embassy alone.

“Fine.” Talia stabs a chicken ball, but uses it to point at me. “Let’s say we get help from Dixon. Maybe he puts in a good word with the head of security. Then what do we do? Chill in the hallways until a dude with an Emirati girlfriend tries to pick me up?”

“You said you’d recognize him.”

“I would — I will. But unless you can think of a good way to get every ‘personal assistant’ in the place to parade past, this doesn’t count as a plan.” She finishes with a flourish, stuffing the chicken ball in her mouth, giving me silence to contemplate our course of action.

Yeah, I got nothing.

So I stall. “How much do we need to get the guy?”

Talia shifts the bite in her mouth to her cheek. Cute. “If we can’t convince him to turn himself in, we need something more concrete. All we’ve got is a shadowy picture, my word and a recording of a woman he’s probably never met relaying his info.”

Right. Because we have the ambassador’s wife on tape, and he’s been talking — or
not
talking — with someone else’s significant other. We can make the implication, but if the guy puts up a fight, I want to go in with a lot more than our word against his.

Talia swallows. “I hate to point this out, but we also need to think about legal ramifications. On the off-chance the US decides to bring charges.”

I put on my best you-can’t-be-serious look. We are
not
law enforcement. Nowhere in our job description. We don’t worry about evidentiary support, illegal searches and seizures, or our legal Latin from
amicus curiae
to
sui generis
.

But both of us have law degrees — well, Talia doesn’t quite, but she’s done with coursework — so we know the law. Too well.

“I’m not saying we’ll package an airtight case for them,” Talia clarifies between sips of soda. “I’m saying we need to think about it. If he could go to jail over this, I certainly don’t want it to be our fault he doesn’t.”

“And I don’t want to get dragged into a federal courtroom and have my cover job part of the public record.”

She nods. “Which is exactly why we have to have the hard evidence to wrap him up, in case he’s . . . disinclined to confess.”

“Great. We just have to sneak into a guarded US Embassy, trick half their employees and definitively pin one as a leak. Getting better all the time. Anything else?”

Talia pulls her straw away from her lips to purse them. “This wasn’t my idea.”

Spies are experts in codes. Deciphering girl-code isn’t always my strong point, but I understand her unsaid message:
this is your case, your mess. You fix it.

CSIS talked to her about this, too, and she told them no. She’s here because of me, and ultimately, this falls on me. I need to get a lot more creative if I want to fix this problem.

Meanwhile, Talia tosses her fork onto her unfinished food and folds her arms. No, she practically folds into herself, hunching her shoulders defensively, avoiding my eyes, going from business mode to near-shutdown. I can tell I won’t like what comes next.

Sure enough, her hushed voice drops another bomb. “So, are you telling her?”

That drop of dread crystallizes again. “I don’t know. It’s complicated.”

“Women aren’t as hard to understand as you make us out to be.”

I refrain from rolling my eyes. “I’m a guy, not brain-dead. ‘I need time’ is pretty clear.”

Talia meets my gaze, searching like she can find some hidden meaning in Shanna’s words and email and behavior via telepathy.

Yeah, no luck, sister. The answer isn’t anywhere in my brain.

“If that’s all Shanna’s told you she needs, maybe you should give it to her.”

“Thanks a lot, Confucius.” Of course that’s all she said she needs. I’m giving her exactly what she asked for. Other than a wedding date.

I smash my fortune cookie in its little cellophane package to cut off that thought train. I fish the paper out, then pour the cookie bits into my mouth.

“Charming.” Talia breaks hers open, takes out the fortune and nibbles on half of the cookie while she ponders.

“Aren’t you going to read it?” I ask.

She raises an eyebrow at mine, discarded on my tray. I pick it up — and immediately I’m sorry I did.
Meet your opponent halfway. You need the exercise.

Talia takes it from me and grimaces. “Not much help.” She hands me hers.
Be assertive when decisive action is needed.

“So much for our fortune cookies planning the op for us.” I pretend not to notice Talia tucking the slips of paper into her pocket as she stands. I grab her tray for her.

“I can handle my own trash.”

“I know.”

She holds out a hand. “Then let me.”

Something firm in that tone tells me not to argue. I’ve never been one to back down, even when only the stupid would charge forward, but . . . it’s Talia. And I messed up. I stupidly charge forward. “Listen, about last night.”

She snatches her tray away from me. “We don’t have to say anything else.”

“No, I do.”

“Don’t.” The tense whisper cuts between us like a knife. After two heartbeats, she brushes past me for the trash can and the exit. We drove separately, and I could let her escape.

But I need to say this. So I follow her all the way to her car.

At her door, I touch her arm, and Talia whirls on me. For the I-don’t-know-how-manyeth time this week, I catch her, but not like I have before. This time the pain, the confusion, the hurt hang in those hazel eyes. Wide, vulnerable, weak — because of me.

And I got nothing.

She takes a deep breath and looks at the sky, like she can’t look into my eyes as she says this. “Um, when I EODed—” Agency-talk for
started working for the CIA
— “I worked with this guy. And one day in his office, I got myself into a stupid situation, where the only thing that made sense was for us to kiss.”

I can’t imagine that scenario, but I’m not about to stop this story. There’s something in the hush of her voice, like every word sits on her back like a dead weight.

“It didn’t end well, and . . . it got so bad I almost had to quit.”

A thousand arguments vault into my mind — I’m not him; I’d never do anything like that, whatever it was, especially not to her; I shouldn’t be punished for this guy’s major mistake — but I know better than to let a word of that leak out. I give her the best I’ve got. “I’m sorry.”

She shrugs. Her gaze rolls from the sky to the ground without actually passing mine. “I don’t date people at work.”

“That’s not all of it.” I sense something behind her words, and she doesn’t deny it. She looks up. For half a second, it seems like she’s going to say more, and my breath freezes faster than it would in the dead of winter.

Then the moment slips away, and Business Talia resurfaces. “Get us in with the ambassador.”

Easier said than done, we both know. I salute anyway. Because I have to get us through this. Because I
will
. Because I made this mess.

 

I adjust my corny little chauffeur’s cap and study the country club sign across the street. Golf. Why did it have to be golf? Talia managed some creative elicitation — better known as phone flirting — to figure out where Transport Canada James and Ambassador Rhodes were meeting next. She fished up a Saturday mid-morning tee time.

I guess as a guy I’m supposed to think golf is the most civilized sport ever. Sorry. The words that leap to mind are more along the lines of “boring” and “pointless.” I’d rather watch curling than tromp around a green.

Not just any green. Had to be one of the exclusive private country clubs, this time The Royal Ottawa Golf Club. Ironically, it’s situated in Quebec, across the river from Ottawa, but whatever. Hardly easier to get into than the embassy.

Fortunately, we’re not planning to get
in
at all. At least, not quite. A little recon and costuming early this morning, and we’re ready for the show, borrowing the place as a backdrop for our op.

I glance in the rearview at Talia’s huge round sunglasses and sophisticated white dress. I have to laugh. “I like how you always get to be the glamorous decoy, and I always have to be the chauffeur.”

“Me too.” She looks my direction long enough to smirk, then returns to scanning the cars passing us where we’ve parked on the side of the road.

“I thought it was supposed to be a little
black
dress.”

“Fresh out of black at the office. White makes more sense anyway — country club, summertime.”
Sure. We’re costumed and ready. Showtime starts any minute.

The final prep step for our plan this morning: calling half a dozen members of the club — thank you, Internet — to “remind” them of their “scheduled” tee time, and the “new policy” of having to arrive five minutes early, or forfeit your priority.

If this were on the CIA’s books, we could always use other operatives, but it’s not, so we’re getting a little more creative with our resources. Civilians can always do in a pinch.

A fourth car makes the left into the club. Talia taps the back of my headrest. “Let’s go.”

With a tip of my cheesy little hat, I whip the car through the first break in traffic and into the clubhouse drive. Just as we’d hoped, the valets are busy with all the cars in front of us. Even their supervisor dude is accepting keys and parking cars.

I pull out of line to the side of the driveway, shift into park and jump into action. I open the door for Talia, and let her and her Company-issue Little White Dress take over. I would’ve picked a shorter skirt for her, but those legs are still a good enough distraction to give me time to ditch my hat and jacket and make a beeline for the valet booth. I snag a nametag from under the counter as I pass, then hold open the clubhouse doors for Talia.

“Keep an eye out,” I murmur.

She sheds her sunglasses and gives me a disapproving eyebrow on her way in. Cute.

I duck in after her, watching through the glass for our target — two cars back, Ambassador Rhodes and his Lexus. Once two valets have taken the cars waiting first, I swoop through the doors and hope Talia’s watching for her cue to do the same thing.

The Lexus pulls up and parks. I open his door, then back up to a slightly-more-than-respectful distance and start the requisite pleasantries with the ambassador. Ten seconds pass. Twenty. Tension twists my gut. If Talia doesn’t come through —

She strolls in front of the ambassador’s idling car, bound for the parking lot. In case he’s missing her, I exaggeratedly turn to watch her pass between us. A few feet past the ambassador, she looks back to him, tilting down her sunglasses.

Perfect. I move in to take his temporarily forgotten keys — and “trip.” My weight hits Rhodes and he stumbles back a couple steps, but I’m not trying to take him down. No, I’m trying to pick his pocket.

I steady the guy with my left and extract my prize with my right. Once he’s stable, I take his keys with one hand, covering my other as I slide his smartphone into my pocket. By the time I’m done, Talia’s out of sight, I’ve got what we need, and Ambassador Rhodes is none the wiser, happily toddling off to whack a ball around the lawns with his Transport Canada friend.

Have fun with that, dude. We’ve got work to do.

I pull Rhodes’s car around and pick up Talia. I pass the phone back to her, and she gets to work cloning the phone onto one of ours. We don’t have long until our charade starts to seem suspicious.

I find the right spot to park. My fingers convert the wheel to a personal drum kit while I wait. And wait. “What have you got?”

BOOK: Mr. Nice Spy
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