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The Burbank Situation (Chuck/Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Starfox5, Feb 16, 2019.

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  1. Threadmarks: Chapter 1: The Mission
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    The Burbank Situation

    Summary:
    Agent Sarah Walker was tasked with retrieving the stolen Intersect data from Charles “Chuck” Bartowski. She didn’t expect any trouble from a ‘Nerd Herd’ employee with some geek hobbies. Such as LARPing a vampire hunter.

    Disclaimer: I do not own Chuck or any of the characters in the series. I do not own Buffy the Vampire Slayer or any of the characters in the series.

    Author’s Notes: This story is set in an Alternate Universe. A number of canon events didn’t happen or happened differently in the series.

    Cover:
    [​IMG]

    Chapter 1: The Mission

    Virginia, Langley, George Bush Center for Intelligence, September 20th, 2007

    Agent Sarah Walker knew something very important had gone wrong before she entered the director’s office. She wouldn’t have been pulled off her current mission otherwise. “Director.”

    “Agent Walker.” Director Graham nodded at the seat in front of his desk.

    Sarah took a seat, crossing her legs and smoothing her skirt so the thigh-holster holding four throwing spikes didn’t show.

    “Did you hear about the break-in at Site Zero?”

    “Rumours only, sir.” Someone had broken into one of the most secure and most secret government computer centres in the Directorate of National Intelligence in Washington D.C. That had to be an inside job. She sat a little straighter.

    “It was Larkin.”

    She pressed her lips together as she felt a sudden pang of fear and guilt. Bryce. They had been lovers, in the past. Did the director suspect she was involved in the break-in because of that, and her past? She hadn’t done anything. She hadn’t spoken to Bryce in months. And she wasn’t Sam any more. Hadn’t been for many years. But who would believe her? “Was he caught?” she asked.

    “Shot by Agent Casey.”

    She turned her jerk into a nod. Bryce was dead, then. And if Major Casey had done it, then the NSA was involved.

    “But Larkin had already destroyed the database - Project Intersect.”

    Her eyes widened. She had heard the rumours about that project. Cutting edge search algorithms coupled with the complete database of the NSA and CIA. If any enemy agent managed to get their hands on it...

    “His computer was secured, but the memory had been wiped. We did find out, though, that he made a call to an associate of his right before he died.”

    She nodded. An accomplice. Who had a copy of the database - possibly the only copy left.

    The director handed her a file. Hardcopy. Thin. “Charles Bartowski. Larkin’s college roommate.”

    “He never mentioned him.” She narrowed her eyes as she started to skim the file.

    Born September 18th, 1981. Half a year older than herself. Grew up in Sunnydale, California, until he graduated from high school in 1999.

    She frowned. Sunnydale? The town that had disappeared into a sinkhole in 2003? Years after Bartowski had left, though.

    He went to college on a scholarship at Stanford University but was expelled for cheating in 2002. Moved to Los Angeles to live with his sister. Currently employed as a ‘Nerd Herder’ at the Buy More in Burbank. Parents...

    Her eyebrows rose, and she looked up. “Both parents missing?” That was very suspicious.

    The director nodded. “We’re still looking into that.”

    She returned to the file. Hobbies. Member of the Society for Creative Anachronism. Video games. No spouse or life partner. A nerd indeed.

    “Is he a spy?” she asked.

    “We cannot exclude that possibility. But since he received Larkin’s call, he would know that he was compromised. A spy would have already disappeared.”

    She nodded. The man could be trying to bluff it out, play the innocent victim of a mistake - but with something as important as the Intersect? It was more likely that Bryce had been desperate and tried to use an old acquaintance as a decoy or dead drop. Which meant time was of the essence.

    Sarah closed the file. It was rather bare-bones - but she couldn’t expect much more this early into the investigation.

    “Your mission is to recover a copy of the Intersect and to destroy any other copy. By any means necessary.”

    She knew what that meant. She had done it before. “Yes, sir.”

    *****

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, September 21st, 2007

    Sitting in her rented car, Sarah Walker watched Bartowski’s car - a white subcompact with the ‘Nerd Herd’ logo and colour scheme - exit his home’s drive. His sister and her boyfriend, both doctors, had left for their shift at the hospital already. The coast was clear.

    She stepped out of the car, using a large map to both hide her face as well as pose as a tourist, and made her way to the side alley closest to the Bartowski home. A few seconds later, she was over the fence and in the yard of the house, the map in her belt pocket and a mask on her face, hidden from witnesses by the hedge lining the fence.

    The backdoor had a sophisticated lock and security system - for a civilian. Bartowski must have used his employee discount, she thought. But neither would stop a trained spy - half a minute later, she was inside the house.

    The interior wasn’t exceptional in any way, but for the large and old-looking cross on the wall - the file hadn’t said anything about either of the Bartowksi siblings or the sister’s boyfriend being very religious. Perhaps an antique, or an inheritance. It wasn’t important either way.

    After a quick glance, she sneaked upstairs and entered his bedroom.

    “Definitely a nerd,” she muttered with a snort at the sight of the posters covering the walls. Call of Duty, Tron, North by Northwest… she blinked. There was another cross. Perhaps Bartowski was the religious type.

    It didn’t matter. Shaking her head, she approached his computer. No sign of any booby-trap, but there was a ‘I’m a professional nerd’ sticker on the screen. At least he was self-aware. She snorted again, then frowned. The smell… new electronics. A quick search of the desk netted her a receipt dated yesterday.

    Bartowski had replaced his computer hours after receiving Bryce’s call. Suspicious. But that meant that he would have disposed of the old machine - likely in a way that ensured it would not have any usable data left given his profession. But perhaps he had saved the hard drive...

    She searched his room but found nothing suspicious - apart from the chest under his bed. Old and weathered, it smelled like… metal and oil. Not powder, though. She picked the lock - far more modern than the chest itself - and flipped the lid open carefully. No trap went off.

    Her eyes widened at the contents. Crossbow. Sword. Axe. Knives. Multiple stakes. Home-made holsters for everything. Vials with ‘holy water’.

    Bartowski really liked live-action roleplaying. She snickered and closed the chest, then stood. It would have been nice to find a copy on his computer, but she hadn’t really counted on that.

    Well, that meant it was time for a more personal touch.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More Store, September 21st, 2007

    Sarah checked her appearance in the rental car’s mirror. Subtle makeup - refined, but not blatant or cheap. White blouse, one button left open to show some cleavage. Tight blue jeans. Short brown jacket to cover up the gun holster in the small of her back. She’d stand out of the crowd of the shoppers, but she wouldn’t look out of place. Perfect.

    She got out of the car and walked over to the Buy More’s entrance, scanning her surroundings and the crowd for possible threats. It looked clear, but that didn’t have to mean anything. If Bartowski was a spy, he would have prepared some surprises at his workplace.

    When she entered the climatised store, she sighed, like most around her - Southern California’s weather was a tad too warm for someone used to D.C. Now, according to her intel… there. Bartowski was manning the Nerd Herd station in the centre of Buy More’s consumer electronics store. She started to walk towards him, putting enough sway into her gait to draw attention, but not too much - just a pretty girl next door entering a store, not a vamp cruising for a mark.

    She didn’t react when he noticed her, nor when he suddenly straightened. “Hello,” she said, flashing her best innocent smile at him. “I need help with my cell phone,” she went one as she pulled it out of her purse. “The screen flickers.”

    “Ah, an Intellicell,” he nodded, his attention seemingly fixed on the device. “That’s usually…” He had the case open before she noticed, holding the cover in his mouth. A few of his fingers were bandaged. “Yes. There’s a screw loose in the back. Happens often with this model. Let’s give it a couple turns and adjust the screen a little… yes, that should do it.” He handed it back to her with a smile. “Try it.”

    It worked. “Thank you.” She beamed at him. “I wouldn’t have known what to do if I had lost my contact list - I’ve just moved here, you know, and the company hasn’t managed to straighten out the landline yet.”

    “Ah!” He smiled as well - and looked into her eyes. Mostly. “Where are you from? I mean…”

    “D.C.” she replied, cutting him off. If he was a spy, then he knew how to act the naive, nervous nerd. Of course, any spy working with Bryce would have been well-trained. “Sarah Walker,” she added.

    “Ah. What…”

    “Excuse me! Excuse me!!” A middle-aged man with a young girl in tow interrupted them. “I have an emergency! I shot her entire recital, but I cannot get the camera to play back! Can you help me?”

    And there went Bartowski’s attention. It was a little vexing - Sarah might not have pulled out all the stops, but to be suddenly ignored by a mark like that? That rarely happened. On the other hand, it allowed her to observe Bartowski up close. He quickly found the problem - the father had forgotten to put a tape into the camera. And then he organised another recital. In the store. In front of the wall of TVs, and with a professional tripod for the camera.

    If it was a cover, then Hollywood was missing out on a great actor. If it wasn’t… then Bartowski really didn’t deserve what was headed his way.

    But she was on a mission for national security. Sarah buried the slight guilt she felt and kept smiling as Bartowski returned to the Nerd Herd station. There was an opportunity - and she was a spy trained to use such opportunity.

    “That was great!” she gushed. “You really went all-out for the little girl and her father.”

    He looked embarrassed. “Uh. Well, it was nothing.”

    She shook her head. “Not many would have done that.” Certainly not the coworker bitching at him afterwards.

    He shrugged in a slightly awkward manner. “We try to help people if we can.”

    “You obviously are good at that.” She wasn’t lying.

    He responded to that with another awkward shrug and a sort of half-nod. “So…” He cleared his throat.

    Trying to find a reason to keep talking to her, without appearing to be doing so? That was familiar ground for her. She leaned forward a little - his eyes glanced down for a moment - and nodded. “As I said, I’ve just moved here. I don’t know anyone or anything. So… would you mind showing me around? If you’re free, I mean.”

    He blinked at her, then slowly opened his mouth. “Uh.”

    “He’s free!” Another coworker of his interrupted them. “He’s got nothing in his schedule - completely free and at your disposal!” Not a coworker - a friend. She had seen him in one of the few pictures in Bartowski’s home.

    “So… apparently, my schedule was just cleared,” Bartowski said after a glare at his friend, who scampered. “So, I am free, I guess.”

    She smiled and handed him a card with her number and the address of her safe house. “Seven pm good for you?”

    “Sure, sure.” He nodded rapidly.

    “Good.” She nodded slowly, then turned and walked away. She could feel his eyes on her - and felt a little guilty. More than a little, actually. But she suppressed those feelings. She was a spy on a mission.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Glendale, September 21st, 2007

    Her phone went off just when she was slipping her bullet-proof vest on. It was the director. “Yes?” she asked, jamming the phone between her shoulder and cheek as she adjusted the velcro straps of the vest.

    “Mission’s over. The NSA is taking over. You’ve been recalled.”

    “What?” she snapped.

    “Larkin was CIA. He burned us, and so the NSA is moving in. Major Casey is on the case.”

    Casey? That violent hardass? “Bartowski’s computer was replaced. I need to find out where he stashed the original - and if he had any backup storage,” she said. She was so close. And she didn’t want to NSA to deal with this. Bryce had been one of theirs; he was their mess to clean up.

    The director’s voice grew softer. “It’s not your fault. You couldn’t have prevented this.”

    She clenched her teeth for a moment. As much as she appreciated the vote of confidence - the NSA certainly would suspect her - she knew she couldn’t have prevented this. “I’m too close. I’ve got a date with him. Give me twelve hours.”

    The director didn’t answer, but that was an answer in itself. She could do this, but if it blew up in her face, he wouldn’t save her.

    She could live with that - she wouldn’t fail. Whether Bartowski was a spy or an innocent dragged into this, she would secure the Intersect.

    By any means necessary.

    *****​

    Sheath with throwing spikes strapped to her calf. Poisoned hairpins. Gun holster in the small of her back. Leather boots and pants cut to hide the spikes, but to let her draw them without delay. A sleeveless, high-cut blouse that hid her bullet-proof vest.

    Sarah eyed herself in the mirror in her bedroom, then nodded. She was dressed to kill - literally. She smiled - Bryce had loved that joke. Then she pressed her lips together. Bryce was dead and a traitor. And she was on a mission.

    Bartowski wouldn’t know what hit him. Unless he was a spy trying to trap her. She hadn’t yet ruled that out. Working as a ‘Nerd Herder’ would be a good cover for a spy - other spies could drop off information and messages with him during work, posing as normal customers. With the amount of traffic the store got, it would be nigh-impossible to track everyone. And working as tech support on-site would let him hack computer systems as well as plant bugs in offices and private homes. But if he were a spy, wouldn’t he have vanished already? Or did he have a network of spies he didn’t want to burn? But why take the risk…

    She scoffed. It all came down to what she had already realised: Either Bartowski was an innocent victim of Bryce or a top spy. She would find out tonight. And whether she had to kill him or not.

    Bartowski arrived a few minutes early, but waited in the hallway - she could watch him through the surveillance cameras she had planted. He looked nervous, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, and she was certain that he’d be fidgeting with both hands if he didn’t have to hold the flowers. Dressed a little too casually to match her, with jeans, sneakers, t-shirt and a light jacket worn open, but decent enough for a date - though he’d fit better into the Silicon Valley than L.A. scene. He’d do.

    And there he came, wriggling his fingers before ringing the doorbell.

    “Hi!” He smiled at her, looking so naive and hopeful that she felt a pang of guilt once more.

    “Hi.” She flashed him her best smile, then took the flowers he held out towards her. His fingers were still bandaged. “You didn’t get pricked picking the roses, did you?” Both pockets of his jacket slightly sagged - he was carrying something. No gun, though.

    He laughed, slightly nervously as far as she could tell. “No, no. Uh, it’s from Call of Duty. The controller chafes after a few hours.”

    “Ah.” The bandages might hide tell-tale callouses from shooting, of course.

    “A video game,” he added as if she wouldn’t know what it was.

    “I had a Nintendo growing up,” she replied as she stuffed the flowers into a vase.

    “There’s no such thing as a Nintendo,” he said.

    She looked at him. “What?”

    He coughed. “I mean, Nintendo even put out an ad about it - there’s the Super NES, the Famicom, and the Nintendo 64, but not a ‘Nintendo’. They didn’t want to see their brand used for all video games… and I’m boring you,” he finished.

    She laughed. “Not yet.”

    “Good, good.” He nodded two times. “It’s just a thing for Morgan and me, we’re, like, dedicated gamers, and so we tend to be… very precise with terms and definitions. A little obsessed - him, that is. Not me.”

    “You’re geeks.” Her smile took the sting out of her words.

    “I would say nerds,” he replied. “Who says geeks any more?”

    “Me, apparently.” She grinned at his expression.

    He raised his index finger. “Ah… point.” He cleared his throat. “Uh… shall we go now?”

    “Let’s.”

    She slipped her arm into the crook of his as they left her apartment, brushing over his jacket’s pocket. It felt like a bottle. PET bottle, not glass. Didn’t he trust the drinks? Or was he planning to drug her? No, no spy would use such a large bottle.

    “So, where did you make reservations?” she asked as the lift arrived.

    “Uh. I hope you like Mexican. It’s the best Mexican restaurant in the area. The food, that is. The live music is hit or miss.”

    It was ‘miss’ tonight, as Sarah found out fifteen minutes later - the Mariachi group was loud and not to her taste. Unlike Bartowski.

    “...so, my sadist parents saddled me with ‘Chuck’ as a nickname. It could have been worse, of course. But I don’t know how.”

    She snorted at that even as she filed the information about his parents. Just like she had done when he had told her about his sister and her boyfriend, ‘Captain Awesome’. He was funny. A little nervous, and definitely not in his element, but funny. Even charming, in a naive way.

    “So what about you?” He looked at her with an open expression. “I’ve been trying to figure out what’s wrong with you, you know.”

    She kept smiling, though she tensed a little. Wrong? Had he spotted her?

    “I mean… you’re not a cannibal, are you?” he laughed, but it felt a little forced.

    She shook her head. “No, not a cannibal. But I just got out of a longer relationship so I may have some baggage.”

    “Ah.” He nodded as if that were not a big deal. Definitely naive or inexperienced. Or a very good actor. “I could be your very own baggage handler.” He suddenly looked as if he were embarrassed by his own flirting. “Uh. So, your ex… Is he the reason you moved to L.A.?”

    “Yes.” She fed him a mix of half-truths and straight lies about her relationship with ‘Bruce’. Just as she had been trained to as a spy.

    And tried not to feel too guilty when he was sympathetic about her ex cheating on her.

    She liked him. And she might still have to kill him. As the Director had said - innocent people generally didn’t get sent state secrets.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, September 21st, 2007

    Bartowski was typing on his phone as they crossed a bridge on foot, Sarah noticed. It wasn’t the first time he had done it - though he was frowning this time. She stretched her neck a little, but couldn’t catch a glimpse of his screen.

    “Bad news?” she asked, in a light tone.

    “Uh, no. Just… my friends and family trying to give me advice in the middle of a date,” he said, with a rather forced-sounding chuckle.

    He sounded like he was lying, but Sarah nodded anyway. “Ah.”

    “So, yeah, I…” He trailed off, blinking, as he stared at the highway below them, where police vehicles were escorting a limousine.

    “Chuck?”

    He didn’t seem to react to her, but he was blinking rapidly.

    “Chuck?”

    “What?” He gasped and shook his head. “Sorry, sorry… I kind of zoned out there for a second.” He mumbled something under his breath she couldn’t hear, but reading his lips…

    “Did I just remind you of your ex?” she asked. “Cordelia?”

    “What? Uh, no.” He laughed, though he looked a little shaken. “Cordelia was my high school’s queen bee if you know what I mean. Rich, bitchy cheerleader. She died a few years ago. I just… the sirens reminded me of her.”

    “She must have had a voice to remember,” Sarah replied before she could control herself. “Sorry.”

    “It’s been years. And she put so many people down, she has no leg to stand on if others did it to her.”

    She nodded. “How did she die?”

    “Killer headaches,” he replied. “I mean, brain tumour.” He tapped his temple.

    A few seconds passed without either of them saying anything.

    “So, have you recovered from the shock that I don’t have a favourite band?” she said, just to break the silence.

    “I’m not sure.” He grinned. “Can you dance?”

    She grinned back.

    *****​

    “So what’s the verdict? Can I dance?” she asked fifteen minutes later, after dragging him on the dance floor of the club.

    “Uh. Yes. Yes.”

    His open-mouthed expression as she danced so close to him, their pants rubbed over each other, was very satisfying. For her mission, of course, she reminded herself. She had to find out if he had a backup of his old computer’s hard drive.

    Which shouldn’t be too hard. Bartowski couldn’t dance, though. He was more jerking around - she caught a silver cross on a chain around his neck sliding up and down as he moved. And he certainly wasn’t clubbing often. She’d convince him to take her home, and then she’d get him to show off his computer. Familiar ground for a nerd.

    She stepped past him and rolled her shoulders, pushing her back into his. She felt him tense at the contact and grinned. Putty in her hands. A little more… She turned around and stepped in front of him, glancing over her shoulder…

    ...and caught him staring at another dancer. A pale woman in a leather dress that went out of fashion with Xena reruns. Seriously? She forced herself to smile as she upped the ante and leaned back until she was pressed into his front. This would…

    She blinked. He was texting! She was all but literally hanging on him, and he was texting - and taking a picture of the leather skank! Perhaps she should skip straight to enhanced interrogation?

    The sight of several - five - hard-faced men in suits entering the club drove that fantasy out of her mind. NSA agents. That was Casey in the back. She had to leave with Chuck.

    Clenching her teeth, she quickly went over her options. Two including Casey at the stairs leading outside. Another at the emergency exit. Two weaving through the crowd towards her. No choice.

    She stretched her arms above her head, gyrating her hips - and drew her poisoned hairpins. Shaking her hair free she drew Bartowski’s attention towards her face and snapped her arms out, sending the pins flying.

    Both agents went down, coughing and choking as the poison started to paralyse them. That drew the attention of the crowd as well, and she grabbed his hand. “We need to go!”

    “What? We can’t! I mean… hey!” he protested as she dragged him towards the emergency exit. The agent there tried to intercept them, but with the club packed with people, his options were limited.

    Sarah’s weren’t. She crouched down, drew two throwing spikes out of her boot, then flung them at the man. He dodged one, but the other struck his right biceps. He reached over to pull it out, and she knocked him out with a kick to his head. “Come!” she snapped, and dragged Chuck forward, through the emergency exit.

    They emerged into a side alley, as expected. That meant… “Come!” she snapped again.

    “What’s going on?” he asked - but he was following her. And faster than expected. They reached the main street, where he had parked his company car.

    “Give me the keys!” She raced towards it.

    “It’s a company car - they don’t like anyone other than me driving it!”

    Behind them, Casey and the other agent burst from the club.

    Clenching her teeth, she used a tool to open the car door. “Keys, now! We’re being hunted!”

    He turned, saw the two men running towards them, gasped and jumped into the car. “What’s going on? Who are these people?”

    Instead of answering, she grabbed the keys from his hand and started the car. Unfortunately, they had barely left the parking spot when a black SUV appeared behind them, then stopped with squealing tires to pick up Casey and the other agent. That gained Sarah a few seconds, but the ‘Nerd Herd’ company car wasn’t exactly a sports car. Nor was it inconspicuous. And it most certainly wasn’t tough enough to play bumper cars with an NSA SUV.

    Still, she had a lead. She turned the corner and entered a side alley as soon as they had broken the line of sight to the SUV.

    “I hate to repeat myself, but: “What’s going on? Who are these people?”

    Sarah briefly debated lying. No. “They are NSA agents.”

    “What?” Bartowski’s voice rose an octave. “Why are they after you?” He also eyed the door handle on the passenger side, she noticed.

    “They are after you,” she told him as the car slid onto the main street on the other side, turning right before a braking truck.

    “Me? Why? I haven’t done anything! I’m not special!”

    She sped up again, heading towards the freeway. If she could gain enough distance, Casey would lose her. “Did Bryce send you an e-mail?”

    “What? Bryce? How do you know Bryce?”

    “You received his e-mail two days ago.” One more turn and they’d be on the freeway.

    But then, the SUV shot out of a side alley behind them and accelerated. Sarah swore and changed the lane right before the other car could ram them. “Did you read it?”

    “Whoa!” Bartowski grabbed the handle on his door. “Careful! There’s traffic!”

    “Did you read it?” She changed lanes again, putting a limousine between them and Casey.

    “It was just a game we played. Zork. I mean, a question...Whoa! Watch out! Watch out! Truck!”

    Sarah ignored the shrieking complaints as she avoided a frontal collision with the delivery truck - at this hour? Californians! - and changed lanes again. Sadly, Casey’s driver managed to avoid the truck as well.

    “Did you save the mail?”

    “It was just pictures! And it fried my rig! Some birthday present!”

    So the data, encoded in pictures, had arrived. “What, no backup? No network drive?” she snapped, swerving to avoid the SUV, which had caught up now.

    “It suffered an accident. Not my fault. I was planning to replace it, but… That’s the sidewalk! That’s the sidewalk! Not the road!”

    She knew it was the sidewalk. But between the lamp posts and flower buckets, it was too narrow for the SUV to follow her.

    “Stairs! Stairs!” His voice rose another octave as Sarah guided the car down the concrete stairs in front of them. The car’s front part didn’t survive the experience unscathed, but the car still ran, and she guided it on the street on the other side - after dodging a few pedestrians - and turned back. Casey would expect her to keep running, not doubling back. Unless he had bugged the car. Which he probably had. And Sarah didn’t think the trip down the stairs had shaken the tracker loose.

    “The car’s back!”

    So it was. She gritted her teeth and accelerated as much as the dinky car could manage - which wasn’t enough. The damned SUV caught up again, bumping into them from behind, trying to run them off the road.

    “Are they crazy? Are you crazy?”

    “No, I’m CIA,” she snapped. “As was Bryce.”

    “Bryce was CIA?”

    They shot over the next crossing, running a red light. Tires squealed, and horns sounded as half a dozen cars braked to avoid a collision. The SUV followed, smashing a convertible out of the way.

    “You’re CIA? Aren’t you forbidden from operating on US soil?”

    “This is a joint operation,” she replied. Technically, it was true - the Intersect was an NSA operation. Bartowski didn’t need to know that they recalled her, of course.

    She focused on the task at hand. “We can’t lose them in the car.” Driving with one hand, she pulled her cellphone - her burner phone - and dialled. “Walker. I need extraction by air.” She mentally calculated the distance to the closest building with a helipad or suitable roof. “Point Beta.”

    “Copy, Point Beta. ETA ten,” the other agent answered.

    Ten minutes. Doable. As long as the NSA didn’t catch up.

    “Extraction?” Bartowski asked.

    “If the NSA catches you, they’ll vanish you.” Casey would, without hesitation.

    “Vanish? But why?”

    “You know too much.”

    “I thought that was a movie line! I’m an American citizen!”

    The SUV bumped into them again. Snarling, she took another detour through the sidewalk, then a side alley, smashing through trash cans. Their pursuers had overshot, which would gain them a few seconds. And the target building was close.

    She braked, stopping with the back of the car still in the side alley. “Out!”

    To his credit, he was already out of the car when he complained. “What are we doing?”

    “Saving your life!” she replied, then grabbed his hand and dragged him towards the target building, ignoring his questions and protests.

    *****​

    They reached the helipad with five minutes to spare - which was a mistake on her part, but with NSA agents in pursuit, waiting inside the building would have risked getting cut off from the roof. But that meant Casey and the others would catch up.

    “Don’t freak out, Chuck,” she said, drawing her gun.

    He gaped at her. No, at the muzzle of her gun aimed at him. “I’m freaking out right now.”

    “It’s the only way to save you,” she said, taking a step back.

    “That’s what they said about Vietnam!” He took a step back as well, then apparently remembered that he was standing on a helipad and took two hasty steps forward. “Really, what is this about?”

    “Drop the weapon!”

    Casey. She clenched her teeth. “Come any closer and I shoot him.”

    “He belongs to the NSA.” He aimed his gun at her.

    She forced herself to ignore the threat and keep her pistol aimed at Chuck. “He belongs to the CIA!”

    “You shoot him, I shoot you, leave both of your bodies here and go for a late light snack. I’m thinking maybe pancakes.”

    Bloody Casey. He had to be bluffing. He couldn’t risk losing the Intersect. But if he knew that Chuck lost it already...

    “I’ll kill anyone who hurts him.”

    Sarah glanced to her side and blinked. A teenager - no, a young woman - stood at the other edge of the helipad, dressed in tacky leathers and aiming a crossbow at her and a crossbow pistol at Casey. How had she gotten there? And, crossbows? Seriously?

    “Caridad!”

    Bartowski knew her?

    “Step away from him!” the woman - Caridad, unless that was a cover name - snapped.

    “How did you find me?”

    “Morgan tracked your car.”

    Caridad was good, Sarah noticed. She didn’t take her eyes off them and was utterly unfazed by the guns. Or the prospect of killing.

    “Who the hell are you?” Casey wasn’t playing it cool any more - he must have noticed the same things.

    “She’s in my SCA group!” Bartowski yelled.

    “Yes,” the woman said a moment later, scowling.

    Sarah was certain that Caridad had been about to say something else. Or expected something else. And she was still aiming that crossbow at Sarah - with one hand, but despite the weight, the weapon wasn’t wavering. She had to do something.

    Then Bartowski started to pant and blink rapidly. Panic attack, she realised. And he was still too close to the edge of the pad!

    She started to walk towards him - and Casey mirrored her!

    “Stop!” Caridad snapped.

    “They’re gonna kill him!” Bartowski interrupted them.

    “Kill who?” Casey asked.

    “Stanfield! The general! The NATO guy!” Bartowski blurted out. “I’ve had a vision! The Serbian demolition expert planted a bomb in the room! Oh god - I had a vision. I’m gonna die!”

    Caridad cursed in Chinese, but Sarah didn’t really pay attention to her any more. The ‘vision’. The information compiled and combined. That was what Project Intersect had been about. But now...

    She didn’t know how it had happened. How it even was possible. But unless she was mistaken, Chuck now was the Intersect. “The pictures you saw!” Sarah exclaimed. “Do you remember them?”

    “He saw the pictures?” Casey butted in. “He was working with Bryce!”

    “Pictures?” Bartowski shook his head. “What about the pictures? I’ve got visions!”

    “They were encoded with secrets”, Sarah explained. “Government secrets. Your visions are the Intersect putting the encoded information together.”

    “What?” Casey snapped. “You’re telling me he’s got the Intersect in his head? And all our data?”

    “Yes,” Sarah replied. “Shoot him, and all our data is lost.”

    “Shoot him, and you two die,” Caridad cut in.

    “I vote against shooting anyone, especially not me!” Bartowski yelled. “And what is the Intersect?”

    “It’s a computer program,” Sarah said, glancing at Caridad, who had moved up a little. And kept the damned crossbows pointed rock-steady at them. Were they light-weight plastic imitations?

    “I’ve got a computer in my head?”

    He sounded far too relieved, in Sarah’s opinion, for someone with two guns aimed at him. But there were other things to worry about if she wanted to pull both him and herself out of this mess. “Tell us about the bomb! Where is it? Do we have time to stop it?”

    He blinked. “The bomb? Uh… It’s in the big room. In the hotel. Somewhere. It’s on a timer.”

    “Casey, call the general’s security and have them evacuate the hotel!” Sarah snapped.

    He glared at her but pulled out his phone. “If this is a trick…”

    “It’s not a trick! Why would I try something like that?” Bartowski said.

    “To escape, duh,” Casey retorted.

    “He doesn’t need to lie or do anything since no one will be taking him.” Caridad sounded dead certain. She was either delusional or an excellent actress, in Sarah’s opinion. Perhaps both, given that they were in L.A.

    “Who are you?” Sarah asked.

    “She’s a friend of mine from the SCA!” Bartowski cut in - again.

    Caridad didn’t say anything, but her smile made Sarah feel the sudden urge to hit her in the face. Or shoot her.

    Casey finished his call - his gun had never stopped pointing at Bartowski either - and scoffed. “They’re evacuating. The bomb didn’t go off, so, at most, we’ll lose the hotel. No big deal with modern architecture. Might even improve the city.” He bared his teeth in what he probably thought was a grin. “But that leaves him to sort out. Can’t let him walk around with our deepest, darkest secrets, can we?”

    Bloody Casey. Sarah clenched her teeth.

    “What? I didn’t do anything?” Bartowski held up his hands. “Call Bryce, he sent me the pictures!”

    “Bryce is dead,” Sarah replied. “He sent the data to you, then was killed.”

    “What?” He looked shocked. “Dead?”

    “Yes, yes, he’s dead, and if you don’t come with me, he’ll have a lot of company. The country needs the Intersect to prevent more bombings,” Casey said. “And, apparently, unless this was a fluke, you are the Intersect.”

    “That’s why you can’t take him,” Sarah retorted. “We don’t know how the Intersect is triggered - or if it works if you lock him up in some underground bunker.”

    “I don’t want to be locked up anywhere!”

    “No one will be locking you up, least of all those two.”

    “Girl that’s a matter of national security. You don’t get to decide anything,” Casey snarled. “You already heard too much.”

    She saw Bartowski stiffen at that. “Hold on!” He shook his head. “Leave my friends out of this!”

    “Not my paygrade,” Casey snapped, now focusing on Cardidad. He hadn’t moved his gun, though.

    “No, no.” Bartowski wasn’t buying it it seemed. “I don’t understand everything that happened, but I understand this much: All your secrets are in my head. You need me. You need my help for whatever you are doing.”

    “Saving lives and serving the country,” Casey spat. “Against terrorists and spies.”

    “Uh.” Bartowski cleared his throat but didn’t seem to back down. “Look, I’m not saying I won’t help you - I’m all for saving lives. We all are. But I’m saying that now, I’m gonna go home. With her.”

    “Yes!” Caridad almost bounced. Sarah once more felt the urge to shoot her.

    “Not like that!” Bartowski shook his head. “Just going home. Me to my home and you to yours.”

    But the girl wasn’t having that. “I’m not going to leave you unprotected with secret agents planning to kidnap you.”

    “We’re not planning to kidnap him!” Sarah protested at noticing the glance Chuck shot her.

    “It’s called protective custody and perfectly legal.” Casey bared his teeth again. “It’s for his own good.”

    Sarah sighed through clenched teeth as she saw that Bartowski made up his mind.

    “I don’t care. I’m going.”

    “We’re going,” Caridad stated.

    And they did. Chuck walked away from both her and Casey, with Caridad covering them with her damned crossbows - Chuck didn’t cross her line of fire, Sarah noted - until he had reached the stairs and she followed him.

    Damn.

    *****​
     
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2019
    Kyryst, darkshard, TramplePie and 9 others like this.
  2. Simonbob

    Simonbob Really? You don't say.

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    This is hilarious af hell.

    Gotta ask, how much Initiative info, in the Intersect?
     
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  3. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    That was scrubbed officially. Although Chuck might be able to find out things not meant to be known anyway thanks to his ability and knowledge about the supernatural.
     
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  4. RedX

    RedX Know what you're doing yet?

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    Very watched. Like Richard Castle, Watcher, this is an intersection of two series I'm not entirely up to speed on- but it looks like it's going to be interesting just the same.
     
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  5. Threadmarks: Chapter 2: The Family
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 2: The Family

    California, Los Angeles, Glendale, September 23rd, 2007

    “What?” Sarah Walker wasn’t certain that she had understood correctly. “We’re not going to take Bartowski into protective custody?” She stopped dressing and took the phone jammed between her cheek and shoulder into her hand.

    “No.” The director sounded… annoyed. Perhaps even angry. “It has been decided that we will start a joint covert mission with the NSA in Burbank to protect him while we investigate his… Intersect ability.”

    It has been decided… That meant, against the director’s wishes. She bit her lower lip for a moment. This was what she had wished for Chuck - to stay with his family and friends - but she hadn’t expected that her superiors would agree. “I am surprised that the NSA decided on this,” she said.

    “You suggested a similar course of action.”

    She had mentioned her suspicion that Chuck’s ‘visions’ might not be triggered outside his familiar environment. But that could have been tested in a secure facility - without risking whoever had been behind Bryce’s treason taking a shot at Chuck. “To deny the NSA control of the Intersect,” she lied.

    He snorted. “The NSA wanted to take him in protective custody.”

    She blinked. It hadn’t been the director’s wish either - she was certain of that. “Who decided this?”

    “The Secretary of Homeland Security.”

    “But neither the CIA nor the NSA fall under their authority,” she retorted. Further, she doubted that the secretary had been informed about the joint NSA/CIA project in the first place.

    “Correct.” The director practically spat the words.

    “I see.” She didn’t - not completely. But she understood that someone else, someone highly placed in the government, was involved. And unless the NSA had a worse leak than Bryce had been, that meant… “Caridad.”

    “We’ve been ordered to leave ‘Caridad’ alone,” the director confirmed her suspicions.

    She was a trained agent - she didn’t have to press her lips together to refrain from blurting out her reaction to this order. To leave the arrogant girl alone… “What are our mission’s parameter?” she asked instead.

    “This is a joint mission with the NSA. You will be the ranking CIA agent. The NSA will be represented by Major Casey.”

    Sarah managed not to groan - she had expected that. Still, working with that trigger-happy hardass wouldn’t be pleasant.

    “You’ll have support from various agents but, due to security, they cannot be used for tasks that directly involve or require knowledge of the Intersect.”

    That wasn’t good news either. Less chance of another leak, but it would make protecting - and working with - Bartowski harder than expected.

    “Both of you will be working undercover close to Bartowski. Major Casey will take the role of a coworker at the Buy More.” There was more than faint disapproval in the man’s voice when he mentioned Chuck’s workplace. “You will be provided with a cover job in the vicinity. Your main objective is to protect the Intersect until the data can be retrieved.”

    “Understood.” She understood the difference between protecting the Intersect and protecting Bartowski as the CIA defined it. “That will require investigating Bartowski’s environment.”

    “Of course. The security of the Intersect is paramount. Use your own judgement as agent on the spot.”

    “Yes, sir.” Caridad certainly qualified as a potential threat. And as long as Sarah wasn’t obvious about it, she’d be able to look into the girl’s background without violating orders.

    “As part of your cover, you will be posing as his girlfriend.”

    “Yes, sir.” She had… expected that. After using a date as her cover to contact him, it made only sense to keep the cover going. It would certainly facilitate protecting him outside working hours. And working closely with him. Although since he was aware of her real background, she wouldn’t have to go all the way, of course. “Has he been informed about this?”

    “Not yet.”

    Ah. “I will do it at the first opportunity.”

    “Good. Major Casey is already in place. Your cover is being prepared as we speak. Documents have been provided, and you can pick them up on location.”

    That was faster than usual - but then, the Intersect was crucial for national security. “I will proceed to the location,” she replied.

    “Good luck, Agent Walker.”

    “Thank you, sir.”

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious Store, September 23rd, 2007

    Her cover job was operating a glorified hot dog stand that tried to pose as a small restaurant. By herself. Sarah would hurt whoever came up with this. Then she saw the uniform she’d have to wear and corrected herself. No, she’d kill them. She picked it up and glared at it. If she’d turn the skirt into hot pants, she’d have no fabric left over and a lawsuit from Hooters on her hands. At least the base underneath the store was coming along nicely. And she had a good view of the Buy More from everywhere in the store - it was just across the parking lot.

    She put on the uniform - hiding anything under that would be a pain as well, she noticed - and went outside to check the few tables in front of the store proper when a commotion in the parking lot drew her attention. That was… Casey, chasing a young man. And there was Chuck, running after them.

    She almost went back to get the gun from the secret compartment under the counter when Casey pounced and took the man down. And judging by the way Chuck and his friend Grimes - who had been tracking Chuck’s car during their date, she reminded herself, something else to look into - behaved, it wasn’t a mission-critical event. At least she doubted that Casey would have broken cover.

    Casey dragged the man away, with Morgan following. And Chuck spotted her.

    She smiled at his reaction as he walked over to her, still looking slightly dazed. “Sarah?”

    She tilted her head and caught his eyes straying to her legs. “Yes?” It seemed that there was at least one good thing about the stupid uniform.

    “What are you doing here?”

    “I work here, Chuck,” she replied, then adjusted the menus on the table next to her to emphasise her statement. There was no one near them, but parabolic microphones had a long range. “Come inside,” she said and led the way. She glancing over her shoulder at him when she opened the door - and caught him staring at her legs.

    Once they were safe from eavesdroppers, she told him: “It’s just a cover.”

    “Oh. Like Casey.” He shook his head. “I should have known that.” After a moment, he added: “I mean, because it’s logical, not because of the you know what.” He pointed at his head.

    She chuckled. “Yes. I can monitor the entrance of the Buy More while you work.”

    “Ah.”

    “There’s more than that, of course.”

    “There’s more? I mean, of course, there’s more. I’ve got a ton of government secrets in my head, so you need to keep an eye on me for national security, right? Until this is sorted out, I mean.”

    “Right.”

    “I assume that that’s already being prepared, right? There has to be some plan to deal with this.”

    “Yes.”

    “So…” He looked at his watch. “Uh. I need to get back to work before Casey executes the next shoplifter.”

    She knew that Casey wouldn’t do that. Probably. But if he thought someone was a threat, all bets were off. “We’ll discuss this tonight then,” she told him. “Another ‘date’. Eight good for you?”

    “Ah… Yes.” He nodded. “Another date. As a cover, of course.”

    “Yes, of course. I’ll come fetch you.”

    He nodded again, then looked at her - her eyes - for a moment. “Yes. Until later, then.”

    She watched him go, then took her phone and informed headquarters.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, September 23rd, 2007

    She drove a sports car to Bartowski’s place. It wasn’t the kind of car a waitress at a hot dog stand could afford, not even an owner-operator, but, presumably, it was a rental for the date. Good enough as a cover since she needed a car able to outrun pursuit. For Chuck’s, for the Intersect’s, protection.

    He didn’t have flowers this time, but he was dressed almost like on their first ‘date’ - just with a different shirt. Still the same jacket with the sagging pockets, though, she noticed.

    “Uh, hi, Sarah,” he greeted her, with his now familiar, slightly uncertain smile of his.

    She beamed at him and opened the passenger door. “Hi, Chuck.”

    He opened his mouth, then blinked. “Sorry, almost made a stupid joke.”

    “About hijacking the car?”

    “Uh, yes.” He nodded. “That joke was the bane of my driving lessons. Well, sort of - in hindsight, I almost miss it.” His smile slipped a little.

    He would have taken his lessons in high school - in Sunnydale, Sarah remembered. The town that had disappeared into a sinkhole in 2003. “Nostalgia is a sign of growing old,” she said with a grin to lighten the mood.

    “A friend used to say that you have to grow old, but you don’t have to grow up. Sorry,” he added. “That was a little of a non-sequitur.” He cleared his throat. “So, what are our plans for the evening? I’m guessing it’s not exactly dinner and a movie, since, you know, this is just a cover. And, speaking of cover, my sister wants to meet my new ‘girlfriend’.” He made air quotes with his fingers. Nerd indeed. “You’re invited to the Bartowski family dinner tomorrow evening, so you might want to think of an excuse that won’t endanger your cover.”

    “Actually, I’m supposed to be your girlfriend.”

    “Uh.” He blinked at her.

    “As a cover.”

    “Ah, of course.” He nodded several times.

    “Is that alright?” she asked, tilting her head a little.

    “Of course,” he repeated himself. “It’s part of the plan to deal with…” He pointed at his head.

    “Yes. And it might make your friend stop harassing you if she thinks we’re a couple.” She refrained from frowning at mentioning ‘Caridad’.”

    “She? Ah.” He grimaced. “She won’t believe it, believe me. I mean, believe me that she won’t believe it. Which is actually a good thing. I don’t want to know what she’d do if she would believe it.”

    Now she frowned. “That sounds concerning, to be honest. She seems obsessive.” And she had access to weapons. Not a good combination. And the weird orders… she had to be working for an organisation, but which one? Not the FBI. They were far too straight-laced for crossbows.

    “Ah, she’s merely protective.” He laughed in a rather forced manner. “Story of my life - my sister’s the same, just not…”

    “Not pointing crossbows at your friends?”

    “Oh, she’d like to do that to Morgan, but he’d never let her forget it.” He chuckled. “So, what’s the plan?”

    Her plan was to take a closer look at ‘Caridad’ as soon as possible. She had to investigate all threats to the Intersect - and Chuck’s description of the girl certainly made her look like a threat. He didn’t have to know that, of course. “There’s a specialist who’ll examine your head, to see what we can do about it.”

    “Uh. That examination won’t involve needles or probing?”

    She started the engine without answering.

    “That’s where you’re supposed to tell me that it won’t, you know.”

    “It’s your best chance to get rid of the secrets in your head. That’s what you want, right?”

    “Yes, of course. It’s just…” She glanced at him. He was grimacing. “...it’s not a good sign if people suddenly are vague about probing.”

    “I’m reasonably sure it won’t involve ‘probing’,” she told him, not bothering to hide her smirk.

    “That doesn’t rule out needles, though.”

    “No, it doesn’t.”

    “Great.” He closed his eyes. “Just keep the blood samples to a minimum. You never know when you need every drop.”

    She glanced at him again as she took a corner. That was a really strange reason for worrying about blood samples. She was tempted to tell him that anyone trying to kill you would shoot for his vital organs instead of letting him bleed out, but that would probably make him even more nervous.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More Store, September 23rd, 2007

    “You know, I didn’t exactly expect to do this here,” Chuck said as they entered the Buy More. “Nor that you have a key for the back entrance. Although I probably should have expected that, on second thought, you being a spy and all. And Casey working undercover here.”

    Sarah suppressed her frown. Casey was a trigger-happy killer. “He’s NSA; I’m CIA,” she said. “We’re working together because we were ordered to.”

    “Oh.” Apparently, he understood what she meant. Given their meeting on the helipad, he shouldn’t have expected anything else anyway. He cleared his throat. “So… what are we doing here, exactly? It’s not exactly a hospital. In fact, I think some of my coworkers repurposed the first aid station into a drug lab a few years ago.”

    She chuckled. Since he laughed, she assumed that he had been joking. She still made a mental note to look into his coworkers. Drug addicts were a liability. “No. We’ve set something up so the doctor can examine you without seeing you so your identity will remain safe.”

    “Oh.” He blinked. “Wait. If he can’t even see me, then… You knew there wouldn’t be any probing or needles!”

    She smirked as she waved him into the store’s home theatre room they had repurposed for this. He looked kind of cute when pouting.

    *****​

    “...the plot to assassinate Carter was set up by…”

    “...the KGB director in 1978 was…”

    “...was shot down with a man-portable surface-to-air missile..”

    “That’s a picture of a turtle.”

    “And the test is done,” Dr Zarnow said after Chuck’s last answer.

    “Already? Did I pass?” Sarah heard Chuck’s voice through the speakers. Casey rolled his eyes and grit his teeth, but Zarnow nodded. “You did, sir.”

    “Great. And that means?”

    “That’s classified.” Casey cut the line with a grunt.

    “Patient X is phenomenal.” Zarnow looked impressed.

    “Phenomenal?” Casey snarled as if he had been insulted.

    “That one person could see all the Intersect images with their encoded secrets… and recall them when seeing the pictures again. I would have never imagined it.” The older man shook his head in a bemused manner.

    “Yeah, yeah. Can you remove the secrets from his head?” Casey growled.

    Zarnow nodded slowly. “Yes, I think I can. Of course, that won’t be possible without actually meeting the patient.”

    “That’s up to our superiors,” Casey snapped.

    “Of course.” It wasn’t the first time the doctor had been fishing for information. At least he wouldn’t expect ‘Patient X’ to be working at the Buy More - Casey’s rough manners had sold that particular double-bluff.

    Zarnow packed up his laptop and left the Buy More. Sarah looked at Casey. “I’ll drive Bartowski home.”

    He grunted, already packing up the equipment they had set up - which apparently had come from the store’s stock.

    Neither of them took their eyes off the other until Sarah had left the room as well.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, September 24th, 2007

    She parked her car in front of Chuck’s home, then waited until he finished eating the last of the fries they had bought on the way home - Chuck apparently hadn’t eaten dinner before their ‘date’.

    “So, what happens now? With my…” He drew a circle in the air near his temple with his index finger.

    “The doctor’s optimistic that he can retrieve the secret data from your head.”

    “Ah. That’s good.” He nodded, but he looked a little torn about it, or so she thought. “So, I guess once this is dealt with, we’ll be splitting up.”

    She nodded. “Yes.”

    “Uh.” He licked his lips. “Can we do that in a way so my sister and friends won’t think that I again got my heart broken by a girl ?” His smile looked more like a grimace. “After Jill, they were really… overbearing about this. Overprotective. I’d really rather not go through that again.”

    “Sure.” It was the least she could do. She also wouldn’t mind not being seen as the evil seductress or slut. Not that it mattered what his family thought of her since they wouldn’t see each other again after this mission.

    “And it’ll keep Caridad from killing you.”

    Her slight regret turned into annoyance as she frowned at him. “I’m a trained agent,” she reminded him. Why would he think the girl could kill her?

    “I know, I know. I saw your work.”

    “What?” She narrowed her eyes at him.

    He grimaced again and held up his hand. “I didn’t mean to - I, uh, ‘flashed’ earlier today when I saw you at the Wienerlicious.”

    “What did you see?” She hadn’t expected that - had that been the reason he had been so distracted, instead of her uniform?

    “Just you fighting those French guys.” A blind man could have told that his smile was forced.

    That had been an assassination mission. A top-secret one. “Don’t mention this to anyone. Least of all Casey,” she hissed.

    He nodded several times and ran his hand over his mouth. “My lips are zipped!”

    “Good.” She waited until he had climbed out of the car, then added: “Casey’s an expert in ‘silencing’ people. You don’t want him to get the wrong idea.”

    “What? What do you mean?”

    “Don’t trust him,” she whispered before she drove away.

    *****​

    California, North of Los Angeles, September 25th, 2007

    Zarnow’s car had burned out completely, but there was enough left to tell that it hadn’t been hit by an RPG or missile. Probably an incendiary charge placed inside the car after it had ended in the ditch, Sarah thought. She had used similar devices to erase any traces on certain missions.

    “Looks like on the Highway of Death,” Casey commented. He sniffed the air. “Lacks the smell of burned bodies, though. It just doesn’t feel right without that hint of barbecue.”

    Sarah ignored the disgusting remark but filed the information away. Casey could be blowing smoke, of course, but she thought he had been in the Gulf War - his age and background fit.

    “The body could have been completely incinerated,” she pointed out.

    He scoffed. “You don’t believe that.”

    She didn’t - it was technically possible, but very unlikely - but shrugged anyway. “The lab will sort the ashes out.”

    “Either way, it looks like we won’t be getting the secrets out of the idiot’s head.” He stared at her.

    “You think Zarnow was kidnapped.” Or turned by someone.

    He made a grunting noise and twisted his lips into a parody of a smile. “They didn’t tail him and ran him off the road.” He pointed at the rubber marks on the road. “He braked and tried to avoid something blocking the street, with trees on either side to stop him. They had to know his route to prepare that ambush. That’s not something you’d improvise.”

    She smiled mirthlessly at him. “Some people are good at improvising.” She could have done this - she would have used her car to block the street. And she was dead certain that Casey could have done this as well.

    “Like your colleagues?” He raised his eyebrows at her.

    She glared at him. They wouldn’t have had to arrange something like this. “They would have a done better job.”

    “Like Larkin.”

    Bryce. Her former lover. Former friend. Whose death had been covered up by staging a robbery, as today’s newspapers claimed. She kept her face from showing any reaction other than a slight sneer. “Or someone trying to frame us.” The NSA would love to cut off the CIA from the Intersect project.

    He scoffed, but before he could insinuate more treason on the part of her and the agency, an agent canvassing the area yelled: “We’ve found a smartphone! And blood.”

    Sarah kept pace with Casey as they walked over to the bushes where the agent was standing. The phone didn’t have to be connected to the incident, of course - but then, what were the odds a smartphone would be left here in the middle of nowhere? It was bound to hold some clue.
    And it was crushed, Sarah realised before she crouched near the bush. There were a few drops of blood as well on the ground and on a leaf.

    “How convenient,” Casey commented.

    “The lab should still be able to recover something,” she told him.

    Once more, Casey just snorted and bared his teeth. Of course, forensics could work small miracles, but not if someone who knew how they worked had taken precautions. Someone like an NSA agent who wanted to cut the CIA out of the loop.

    “Well, I’ve got hot dogs to grill,” she told him.

    “And I’ve got toasters to sell,” he replied.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious Store, September 25th, 2007

    “We won’t know if the blood or phone are Zarnow’s until forensics are done, sir,” she informed the Director,

    “And the NSA is cooperating?”

    “They are acting as if they are, at least,” she replied as she moved a bunch of hot dogs from the fridge with one hand.

    “You think they are planning to go behind our back.”

    “It’s possible.” She was certain - and he knew it.

    “If they kidnapped Zarnow, Bartowski is next. Keep an eye on him at all times.”

    “Yes, sir.”

    As soon as the director ended the call, she sent Chuck a message to meet her in the Wienerlicious.

    It took him twenty minutes to come over. If not for the group of men who had come to stare at her body - they sure as hell hadn’t come for her hot dogs - she would have closed the shop and gone over to check on Chuck. But she couldn’t risk her cover like that.

    And he was there. Nervous, as far as she could tell, and glancing towards the Buy More entrance every few seconds, but unhurt. Casey probably had tried something. Time to undo what damage the agent had wrought.

    “Are you alright?” she asked as soon as the other men had finally left.

    “Uh, yes. Fine, I’m fine,” he lied, confirming her suspicion.

    “The doctor we met last night was kidnapped shortly after he left the Buy More,” she told him. Or killed - but there was no need to tell him that.

    “Ah. The doctor who was supposed to fix me.”

    “Casey already told you.”

    He nodded and glanced at the Buy More again.

    “And he told you not to trust me.” You could always trust the NSA to doublecross the Agency.

    “Uh.” He flashed a weak smile at her.

    “Don’t trust him. Don’t be alone with him,” she told him. “If the NSA kidnapped Zarnow, they’ll kidnap you next.” That’s what she’d do, in their place. Not that she was planning to kidnap Chuck, unless as a last resort.

    “But…”

    “If he thinks it’s the best solution, he’ll kill you without a second thought.” He had to understand that.

    Chuck nodded, but she couldn’t tell if he believed her. She struggled not to wince when she realised that he knew she had killed in the line of duty if he had ‘flashed’ on her. Damn.

    He cleared his throat. “I have to go back, or he might think exactly that. That killing me is the best solution.”

    “He won’t,” she told him. “That would destroy the Intersect.” His smile froze. Apparently, that wasn’t as reassuring as she had hoped it would be. She sighed internally. They would have to work on that, or the dinner tonight would be a disaster.

    *****​

    Chuck would also have to work on his poker face, she realised five minutes later when she spotted Casey making a beeline for Wienerlicious. She hadn’t expected him to fool Casey, but she had hoped he’d hold out a little longer.

    She kept smiling as she handed another takeout order to a teenager who wouldn’t be able to say what colour her eyes were, but would be able to describe every wrinkle of her top. She was already placing her free hand near the handle of the throwing knives hidden under the counter.

    As soon as the customer had left the store, Casey spoke. “What did you tell Bartowski?”

    “That you’ll kill him if you think it’s needed,” she replied. Baring her own teeth, she added: “Am I wrong?”

    “No,” he spat.

    She caught him shifting his posture a little. His right hand rested on his hip - close to the concealed holster in the small of his back. She pulled a throwing spike under the counter. If he moved…

    “Only two people knew about the doctor’s visit,” he said. “You and me.”

    And she hadn’t sold the doctor out. That left Casey. He must be here to silence her and wanted her to know it, the smug bastard. She had to stop him. Take him out. Something moved outside the shop, but she couldn’t afford to take her eyes off the killer.

    When the door was pushed open, she almost threw her spike, but she managed to control herself. Customers. Half a dozen young men - one of them had been here at lunch. And all were beaming at her.

    She forced herself to smile back at them as Casey left the store and headed back to the Buy More.

    Damn.

    She clenched her teeth. She couldn’t take the killer out in the middle of the parking spot. Not with so many witnesses. But he wouldn’t be able to take Chuck. Not in the middle of the store. And she had warned Chuck - he might not fully trust her, but he wouldn’t trust Casey either.

    Or so she told herself as she started serving the leering teenagers. Besides, it was just half an hour until dinner.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, September 25th, 2007

    “Ah, you must be Sarah!” Chuck’s sister greeted her at the door with a wide smile.

    “Yes, I’m Sarah.”

    Ellie stepped to the side, nodding at her. “Chuck’s running late, some last call at work, according to Morgan. I’m Ellie.”

    Sarah had to struggle to keep smiling as she entered the house. Chuck hadn’t answered his phone. That could be work-related, of course.

    “Yeah, he’s the Nerd Herd PC guy. And Linux. And anything else Jeff and Lester can dump on him,” Grimes said, waving at her from the table.

    “I’m Devon!” Ellie’s boyfriend, slicing bread in the kitchen told her. “Welcome!” He looked very fit, as Chuck had described him. Fit enough for an agent.

    “Hi,” Sarah said, fishing her phone out of her pocket. She’d call Chuck again.

    “Hi.”

    Sarah almost dropped her phone as she whirled and came face to face with a widely-grinning ‘Caridad’. How had the girl managed to sneak up on her?

    “Caridad!” Ellie snapped with a glare before she turned to Sarah and smiled. “I’m sorry - she does that all the time.”

    “Keeps strangers on their toes,” Caridad replied.

    “She’s a ninja!” Morgan said, earning himself another glare from Ellie.

    Sarah could almost believe that if the girl were Japanese. “I wasn’t aware you were part of the family,” she said. “Chuck seemed a little wary of you when we met.” She smiled sweetly when she saw the girl’s expression darkening in response.

    “She’s practically family,” Grimes said.

    Ellie expression said otherwise, but Chuck’s sister didn’t say anything. She glared, though. Which was an opportunity, Sarah realised. “Chuck said you’re a doctor, Ellie.”

    “Yes. We both are,” Ellie replied, gesturing - and smiling - at Devon.

    “I’m working with Chuck at the Buy More,” Morgan said. “But you knew that already.”

    “And you’re working at a hot dog stand,” Caridad said with a toothy smile.

    “I’m the owner of the store,” Sarah corrected her, matching the girl’s expression. Caridad was standing too close to her - even a French person would have felt their personal space were invaded - but Sarah wouldn’t retreat. Not from the girl. She was a trained CIA agent on a mission. And Caridad was an obstacle she wished she could shoot on principle. “And what do you do?” she asked instead.

    There was the slightest sneer as the girl answered: “I’m a courier.”

    “She makes deliveries,” Ellie corrected her. It was quite obvious that Chuck’s sister didn’t approve of his friends.

    “Pizza?” Sarah asked as sweetly as she could.

    “All sorts of things,” Caridad replied with a frown.

    “I’ll keep that in mind should I start deliveries,” Sarah lied. She didn’t believe for a second that the girl was telling the truth. Delivery women didn’t sneak like her, nor did they carry crossbows - which, while not as silent as the movies made them appear, would work for assassinations, Sarah recalled. And a delivery was a useful cover in many locations. But the girl wasn’t NSA nor CIA. And certainly not military. Who else was involved here?

    Both of them were smiling at each other when Grimes cleared his throat. “So… how about them Lakers?”

    “Morgan, no one here cares about basketball,” Ellie said.

    “You can’t know that,” he protested. “You haven’t met Sarah before!”

    Both turned to look at her.

    “I’m not very interested in sports, sorry,” she said, which made Grimes pout and Ellie smile.

    “Well, you might want to change that,” Caridad cut in. “I know it’s hard, but at your age, exercise is important. You don’t want to end up as a blob, do you?”

    Sarah kept her temper in check. The girl was trying to provoke her. Probably wanted her to make a scene in front of Chuck’s family. “I do exercise,” she corrected the annoying girl. “I’m just not very interested in watching sports.”

    “I wouldn’t have been able to tell,” Caridad replied with a smug smile. “You don’t look like it.”

    Sarah really wanted to shoot her.

    *****​

    Fifteen minutes later, Chuck still hadn’t arrived nor had he answered his phone. Sarah was getting worried. And even more annoyed at Caridad.

    “Caridad, don’t touch the snacks!” Ellie snapped.

    “But I’m hungry. The invitation said dinner would start at seven. It’s a quarter past,” the girl whined.

    “There was no invitation for you,” Ellie snarled.

    “Now, now, we’re all a little tense since Chuck’s late, but that’s no reason to snap at each other.” Her boyfriend beamed at everyone. “Besides, there’s enough for everyone.”

    There certainly was enough food for twice their number, in Sarah’s estimate.

    “That doesn’t mean that we’ll start without Chuck!” Ellie spat. “I haven’t spent the whole day in the kitchen making pot roast so Caridad can pig out before we even start!”

    “I’ve got a protein bar,” Grimes said, waving said bar around.

    Sarah blinked. Was he trying to bait the girl? Then she blinked again - Caridad had ripped the bar out of his hands and was already chewing. The girl was very fast - and very hungry. Sarah recognised the brand; those bars had enough calories for a full meal - for a soldier in the field.

    “Thanks. At least someone is considerate of my special needs,” the girl mumbled with her mouth full.

    “Don’t speak and chew at the same time,” Ellie snapped.

    In response, Caridad bared her teeth. If Sarah hadn’t checked for hidden cameras already, she would suspect that she were on candid camera.

    “Now, now - let’s be nice, everyone!” Devon tried again to play peacemaker.

    “Are they always like that?” Sarah asked.

    “Oh… not always,” Devon replied.

    Ellie’s expression contradicted his statement. But then the woman smiled again. “So, how did you meet Chuck?”

    “Ah, I met him at the Buy More,” Sarah said. “My phone was defective, and he fixed it in a minute.”

    “Oh, yes, Chuck’s great with computers. And phones.” Grimes butted in, nodding several times. “He’s basically great. We’ve been best friends since kindergarten,” he said. “And we moved together to L.A. after high school. I know everything about him.”

    Ellie’s smile slipped a tiny bit as she nodded. “He’s great, but he should be changing his… environment.”

    It was perfectly clear what Ellie meant, but neither Grimes nor Caridad acknowledged it - both nodded, instead, as if they agreed.

    Sarah knew she was missing something. Something important. Something related to that annoying girl whose attitude could really do with some enhanced interrogation. Preferably conducted by Sarah herself.

    “Chuck told me that you moved here from D.C. after a long relationship ended,” Ellie interrupted Sarah’s thoughts.

    Apparently, Chuck had been interrogated himself. She nodded. “Yes. I needed a change of scenery - it wasn’t a nice breakup.”

    Ellie nodded in sympathy. “You’ve got something in common with Chuck, then - his last serious relationship ended in a similar way.”

    “It ended because the bitch cheated on him with his so-called best friend,” Caridad snarled.

    “Second-best friend,” Grimes corrected her. “As Larkin’s actions proved, I believe.” He nodded without waiting for agreement.

    “Traitor,” Caridad grumbled.

    “We shouldn’t talk like that about a dead man,” Devon cut in.

    “He’s dead?” Sarah feigned surprise.

    “Died a few days ago,” Devon replied. “It was in today’s news.”

    “Oh.”

    “Karma,” Caridad added with a sneer. “The Powers That Be occasionally do their job instead of messing up or lazing around.”

    “The Powers That Be?” Sarah raised her eyebrows.

    “She’s Wicca,” Ellie said.

    “I’m not!”

    “Close enough,” Ellie replied.

    The girl was wearing several crosses, Sarah noted. Which wasn’t too unusual among teenagers, as far as she knew. But given the prominent crosses in the house, the girl using crosses as fashion statements might explain Ellie’s hostility - together with the girl’s horrible and entitled attitude, of course.

    “I’m not Wicca. I’m a good Catholic girl,” Caridad insisted. “I visit the church several times each week!”

    “To steal holy water,” Ellie said.

    “It’s not stealing!” Caridad pouted. “That was only one time and an emergency.”

    What were they talking about? Was the girl vandalising churches?

    Grimes cleared his throat. “So… how about them Dodgers?”

    Sarah was about to tell him that she had no interest in baseball either, but, the door opened, and Chuck entered. “Hi!”

    He was much too chipper for their situation, Sarah noticed. And his shirt was dirty - earth, no, dust. She stood and was about to walk towards him to take a closer look, but Caridad had practically jumped out of her seat and all but pounced on him.

    “What happened?” she snarled while Chuck was literally cornered.

    Sarah frowned and stepped closer, then blinked. Was the girl sniffing Chuck? She was. And why wasn’t anyone commenting on that?

    “Oh, nothing… just, you know, a client that was still stuck in the eighties.” Chuck was lying; Sarah could easily tell. Not that it was hard to begin with. “Pale too - probably hasn’t been in the sun in ages. Turns out I couldn’t do what he wanted, so I left.”

    Caridad snarled. “Where?”

    “Lemme check the list,” Grimes said, phone in hand.

    “That’s not necessary,” Chuck went on. “Really not. I made it clear that we won’t be taking their calls in the future. Shouldn’t trouble us any more.”

    “You did?” Caridad practically growled.

    And Grimes was taking notes? Sarah forced herself to keep smiling.

    “Chuck! What did we agree about work and dinner talk?” Ellie said through rather clenched teeth. It made Caridad back off, at least.

    “Sorry, Ellie,” Chuck said. Then he turned to Sarah. “Oh, you look great!” he said. He wasn’t lying - but he hadn’t been paying attention to her at all until now, Sarah knew.

    “Thanks!” she replied.

    He rubbed his hands. “So, shall we eat before Caridad starts growling at us?”

    “Yes!” the annoying girl exclaimed. “I’ve got work later, and I need to eat!”

    “Yes,” Ellie agreed. “Let’s sit…”

    She was interrupted by the doorbell. Sarah wasn’t the only one who tensed up, she noticed. Caridad opened the door before anyone else moved, and Sarah almost drew her gun when she saw who had rang: Casey stood there, still wearing his Buy More t-shirt - and holding a plate with cookies.

    “Hi! I just moved in across the courtyard, and thought I bring something.” His smile was about as honest and friendly as a shark’s, in her opinion.

    “Ah, that’s Casey. He’s a new co-worker,” Chuck said, rather quickly. “I’ve invited him as well - sorry, I should have said something sooner, but it slipped my mind.”

    “That’s OK,” Devon said. “The more the merrier!”

    Sarah forced herself to smile again as she turned so she wouldn’t present her back to Casey - the killer might try to take her out despite witnesses being present.

    He did the same, which made for a very awkward walk to the table. Fortunately, everyone else was still staring or glaring at Chuck. Especially Caridad.

    Something didn’t add up here, but Sarah had no idea what was going on. Something she would remedy post-haste. As soon as she could corner Chuck without witnesses.

    Which, she had to admit with a glance at Casey and Caridad, might prove to be a little more difficult than she had anticipated. Even as his ‘girlfriend’.

    *****​
     
    Kyryst, TramplePie, gaouw and 9 others like this.
  6. Threadmarks: Chapter 3: The Cover
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 3: The Cover

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, September 25th, 2007

    “Sarah, could you pass me the bread?”

    “Of course.”

    Sara forced herself to smile as she leaned forward and passed the bread basket to Ellie without letting Casey out of her sight. She didn’t think he’d try anything at the table, not with both her and Caridad present, but her instincts weren’t so easy placated. The man wanted to kill her, after all.

    And he was hogging all the bread.

    Not that anyone would notice, seeing how Caridad was ‘pigging out’, as Ellie had called it. The girl was on her fourth serving - and that was after she had eaten a protein bar meant for a full meal and half the snacks. And two servings of the soup. “Is bulimia a big problem in California?” Sarah asked as innocently as she could.

    “No more than anywhere else, I think,” Devon answered - apparently, honestly. “If you trust the statistics in the first place, of course.” When he finally seemed to notice Caridad growling, he blinked and coughed.

    Sarah beamed at the girl. What went around came around, after all.

    “I’ve got a healthy appetite,” the girl spat.

    “A very healthy appetite,” Grimes added. Sarah still couldn’t tell if he was trying to annoy the girl or not. But he was certainly involved in whatever business she was involved. Tangentially, Sarah suspected - unless his nerd-like behaviour was an act.

    “An unnatural appetite,” Ellie added, which earned her a scowl from the girl in question, “but not a pathological case.”

    Chuck cleared his throat. “I think we shouldn’t talk about that while eating. I mean, it’s a little insensitive, isn’t it?”

    Caridad beamed at him, then sneered at Sarah when she thought no one else was watching.

    Sarah smiled politely. “Sorry, I was just so surprised by her appetite.”

    “Completely understandable,” Ellie was quick to add.

    “Thank you.”

    “So, how about them ducks?” Grimes asked over Caridad’s growl. He looked at the others at the table, then winced. “I guess no one’s interested in hockey either.”

    No one was. Not even in the video game version, as Chuck revealed before he caught himself.

    Which set the tone for the rest of the meal.

    “I’ve brought cookies for dessert,” Casey announced before the last plates with the remains of the pot roast had been carried off.

    “Those were meant for dessert?” Caridad asked in the smallest voice Sarah had yet heard from her. Which still wasn’t very small, of course.

    “Caridad…” Ellie apparently could growl as well.

    “I just wanted to avoid them going bad.”

    Chuck, meanwhile was staring at the empty plate. As was Casey. And Sarah was trying to remember when Caridad had had the time to sneak off and dispose of an entire plate of cookies. Without her or Casey noticing. She certainly hadn’t eaten the suspicious fare.

    Sarah mentally upped the girl’s threat level. Who was she working for?

    When the dinner finally ended, Sarah still hadn’t found an answer.

    *****​

    “So, this is my room,” Chuck said, spreading his arms wide, then suddenly letting them drop and hunched a little. “It’s not much, but it’s mine.”

    “It’s very you,” Sarah said before she caught herself. The stress from the dinner must have gotten to her, she assumed. At least she had managed to act as if this was the first time she entered his room.

    “Thanks, I think. If that was a compliment. It wasn’t, was it?” he asked.

    She chuckled at his expression. “It was just a comment.”

    “Ah.”

    She moved, so her back wasn’t to the door any more. “So, let’s talk about the…”

    He cut her off by raising his hands and waving them. “Before you say anything, uh, naughty, I have to tell you that the walls in this house are very thin! They can hear every word downstairs!”

    Sarah frowned. The walls were anything but thin. Was he trying to tell her that the room was bugged? Had Casey had the time to bug Chuck’s room? She couldn’t dismiss the possibility and nodded. It was good to see that Chuck didn’t trust the NSA agent.

    “So…” His smile looked more than a little forced. “What do we do now?” He pointed at his temple. “You know what I mean.”

    She did.

    “Hey! No sex while people are in the same house!”

    Apparently, Caridad didn’t. And apparently, the door wasn’t as thick as it should be if they could hear her from the living room. Or had Caridad bugged the room? She seemed rather obsessed with Chuck, but that could be an act.

    Sarah focused on her mission. “Don’t be alone with Casey,” she whispered.

    “That’s what he said. About you, I mean,” Chuck replied in a whisper.

    “Well, you have to trust someone,” she retorted.

    He didn’t reply anything to that, which was saying enough. His guilty expression confirmed it. Sarah pressed her lips together. “I see,” she said after a moment.

    He grimaced in return. “I see you tomorrow?”

    She huffed as she left his room.

    “That’s a new record for breaking up!” Caridad commented as Sarah descended the stairs.

    “They haven’t broken up,” Morgan disagreed.

    “We haven’t,” she told them, then turned her head to glare at Chuck, who had followed her.

    “Right, right.” Chuck nodded. “We haven’t. We’re just… having a headache. Two headaches. Separate, I mean.”

    Well, Sarah’s headache had a name: Caridad. And Casey. And Chuck.

    She blinked. There was something of a theme there - all started with ‘C’. Then she snorted at the silly thought.

    Which, surprisingly, seemed to relieve the tension a little. Between her and Chuck, at least - Caridad was glaring at her.

    Sarah gave her her best smug smile as she passed the girl on her way out of the house. She had a report to make.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Glendale, September 26th, 2007

    Drinking her coffee at the kitchen table, Sarah started up her laptop to check if there were new orders or information waiting for her. Since her sleep hadn’t been interrupted by the director, she already knew that there was nothing critical or urgent to be done in response to the report she had sent last night.

    Last night… She shook her head as she went over the evening again. Ellie and Devon were either top agents and superb at acting naive and harmless, or ordinary civilians. Ordinary overachieving civilians, to be precise - Chuck wouldn’t have an easy life with them.

    She frowned and pushed the stray thought away. She was on a mission. Chuck was a VIP, nothing more.

    The others of his ‘family’, though… Grimes was a nerd. And an annoying one, at that - he lacked Chuck’s naive charm. But he was involved in whatever Caridad was involved. Which would indicate that he was more than he appeared - no pro would work with a bumbling amateur. Though if Grimes was an agent, why wasn’t he hiding his involvement better?

    It came down to Caridad. The woman was professionally trained, Sarah was certain of that. The way she had managed to sneak up on Sarah twice, the way she handled the crossbows, her reflexes and her utter cool in the face of armed agents left no other option. Caridad had seen and overheard both her and Casey on the helipad. She knew they were agents of the NSA and CIA. And yet, she hadn’t shown any fear or concern when facing them. She had threatened them several times and kept provoking Sarah. That alone wouldn’t mean too much - the girl could merely be a fanatic or overestimating herself - but Sarah had been ordered not to investigate her. That meant whoever Caridad was working for had a lot of influence in the US government. Which pretty much ruled out foreign agencies. Not even the British had enough influence to top the NSA or the CIA, much less both of them together.

    But which other agency had that clout? It wasn’t the FBI. Not the DEA either, or the other, lesser agencies. Which left… the armed forces. Black Ops. But Caridad didn’t act like a soldier. Not at all. And she was too young to fit the SpecOps crowd. On the other hand… Caridad hadn’t been on Casey’s case as much as she had been on Sarah’s. She had foiled whatever the man had tried with his cookies, but that could have been a ploy.

    No. If Caridad knew Casey, Chuck would already be in the NSA’s hands. It was obvious that the two had known each other for a long time. His sister knew Caridad as well, after all. And, Sarah reminded herself, Ellie knew at least that Caridad was involved in something - her behaviour at the dinner had revealed that. Devon was likely informed as well. That also explained why Caridad and Grimes had been there despite Ellie’s clear disapproval - the woman must have been forced to let them come and go as they pleased.

    But if Caridad had had her hooks into Chuck for so long, did that mean Chuck was an agent as well? He and Grimes? Analyst and tech support for the field agent Caridad? No. Whoever was backing them would have contacted the CIA or the NSA already and solved the Intersect problem - they had, after all, put pressure on the agency to stay away from Caridad.

    She shook her head and finished her coffee. It made no sense. None at all.

    Her phone rang. The director.

    “Good morning, Agent Walker.”

    “Good morning, sir.” It was almost noon in Langley.

    “We’ve received the results from forensics. The blood is Zarnow’s.”

    She drew a slow breath. There had only been a few drops, but… it wasn’t a good sign. “The phone?”

    “Forensics didn’t manage to recover the memory. But there were fingerprints on it which didn’t belong to Zarnow.”

    Her laptop beeped. She opened the mail. Melvin Smith. Suspected gang member from L.A. - drug runner and enforcer. But... “Deceased in 2001?”

    “Someone faked his death. Including an autopsy and funeral. Good work - we found no irregularities.”

    “Exsanguination?” She frowned at the report. “Someone cut his throat, and he bled out.” Or, rather, a poor double had been killed to allow the criminal to disappear. The dead had had to resemble Smith - whoever had done this couldn’t have used just any John Doe.

    “Indeed. One wonders what made a drug runner so valuable as to spend so many resources on giving him a new ID.”

    She stiffened. She knew another case where a criminal had been given a new ID and become an agent. Herself. “I see,” she said.

    “It’s not the same,” he said.

    But it was close enough.

    “There’s something else,” he went on.

    She waited - the director hesitating wasn’t a good sign.

    “We’ve been ordered to ‘ease up on Bartowski’. Both the NSA and ourselves are not to undertake any forced recruitment.”

    Oh. “By the Secretary of Homeland Security,” she said.

    “Yes.”

    Which meant Caridad’s backers had exerted pressure again. Which meant Chuck was important for them.

    “They didn’t order us to abstain from other forms of recruitment,” he went on.

    She knew what he meant. She was to get close to Chuck. The cover of being his girlfriend would serve as a good cover for that as well. She knew that, but she didn’t like it.

    But she was an agent on a mission.

    “Yes, sir.”

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious Store, September 26th, 2007

    “Thank you and have a nice day!” Sarah said as the group of students stepped out of the door, leaving Wienerlicious empty for the first time in two hours. Any longer, and she would have been afraid her fake smile would stick on her face. The smell of hot dogs and fries was bad enough - she needed to look into having a shower installed in the building. Smelling like a hot dog stand would make her more noticeable, after all - that should justify the expense. And Chuck hadn’t struck her as the type of nerd who found the smell of grease and cheap condiments sexy.

    Which reminded her that she had to order more supplies - the analysts prepping this cover had underestimated the demand for this kind of food in Burbank. Or the appeal of a skimpy uniform and fast food. If this kept up, she’d have to get help to make it through lunch rush.

    The bell on the entrance rang, and she looked up, her fake smile vanishing as quickly as it had reappeared. Caridad was there. Sarah narrowed her eyes at the girl and tensed. She couldn’t see any obvious weapons, but that didn’t mean anything - the jeans shorts were too tight to hide anything, but there could be all sorts of blades and holdout pistols in the boots and top.

    “Shouldn’t you greet me with a smile?” the girl asked, stepping up to the counter.

    “You know this is just a cover,” Sarah replied. “What do you want?”

    “Hm… I think… half a dozen of the Jumbo Delicious. And a coke. Real coke, not the sugar-free stuff.”

    Sarah stared at her. Was the girl serious?

    “I can see that you haven’t run out of stock,” Caridad went on. “You aren’t refusing to serve me, are you? Discrimination is serious business in California. This isn’t Virginia.”

    Sarah blinked, then clenched her teeth at the not quite veiled reference to the CIA headquarters’ location. “What do you want?” she repeated herself.

    “Six hot dogs. You aren’t hard of hearing, are you? I already know you can’t take a hint.”

    The girl was pushing it. Pushing her. Sarah smiled back and started to fix the hot dogs. She was an experienced spy; it would take far more than some tough talk by a girl to make her lose her temper and break her cover. “Six unhealthy servings of sugar and fat with artificial flavour coming up.”

    “Mhhh.” The girl’s nostrils flared as she took in the smell of fried sausage.

    Sarah sneered once she turned her back to the girl to pull six sausages out of the little heater. Let’s see how she liked cheap fast food!

    Apparently, Caridad liked it very much. The girl’s tastebuds must have been brutalised by a diet of organic, unprocessed food from a young age on. Sarah felt slightly sick just watching her devour half a dozen large hot dogs liberally drenched in ketchup and spicy mustard.

    “Ah… that hit the spot.” Caridad held up her cup. “Refill? Please?”

    Sarah handed her another cup without a word.

    “You’re not very friendly. That’s bad for a hot dog stand employee. Skimpy clothes won’t attract customers forever, once the novelty wears off.”

    “This is a cover, as you know perfectly well,” Sarah replied, back behind the counter, her hand close to her hidden throwing spikes. After all, Caridad’s superiors had exerted pressure on the NSA and the CIA twice now.

    “Well, serving food is about the only thing you’re good for here,” Caridad shot back with a slight sneer. “So you should do it well, or you’d be totally useless.”

    Sarah glared back. “My superiors disagree.”

    “Well, they’re wrong.” Caridad stood. “I’ll protect Chuck. He doesn’t need you or the soldier-boy. You can go back to Virginia or D.C. and do your spying there until you figure out how to get the data out of Chuck’s head.”

    “He needs better protection than a girl with an eating disorder and delusions of grandeur,” Sarah shot back. Not that the CIA or the NSA would trust anyone else with protecting the Intersect.

    “He needs someone who knows what’s really going on,” Caridad said with a smirk Sarah wanted to wipe off the girl’s face with an open palm strike. Or a round kick.

    She controlled herself, though. Maybe the girl would let something slip if pushed a little. “We are very well informed,” she replied, smiling at her.

    “You have no idea. And that will get you killed.”

    “Are you threatening me?” Sarah replied before she could restrain herself. That was so damned cliche… Hollywood must be getting to her.

    The girl bared her teeth. “No, I’m warning you. You’re an idiot who can’t get a hint, but even you don’t deserve to die. Probably. Stay away from Chuck,” she hissed. “He doesn’t need you. He’s got me.”

    Sarah scoffed. “He might have you, but you don’t have him.” It was petty, but she didn’t care right now.

    Caridad glared at her in response, and Sarah drew a throwing spike under the counter. If the girl attacked, she’d use it to make her dodge, then jump over the counter and kick her before she could recover.

    But the girl snorted and turned to leave, deliberately showing her back to Sarah. Baiting her. At the door, she stopped and looked over her shoulder. “Your funeral, blondie.”

    As a trained spy, Sarah stayed professional and didn’t reply in kind. Even if she wanted to.

    *****​

    When she saw Chuck leaving the Buy More in the afternoon, she tensed until she realised that he was headed towards Wienerlicious and not towards the company car for a house call without anyone protecting him. Of course, he should be safe - no one should know that he had the Intersect in his head. But if Bryce had been a traitor, then there could be more around.

    “Hi!” He walked through the door with that slightly shy, slightly embarrassed smile of his.

    “Hi,” she replied. “Didn’t Casey tell you not to be alone with me?” She refrained from biting her lip right afterwards - that had been catty. And unprofessional.

    He winced. “Ah… he told me you’ve been ordered not to kidnap me.”

    She frowned at that. She would have preferred it if Chuck had come to visit without knowing that. At least he was honest.

    “So, uh, I thought I should, I mean, I could take my break here. If that’s OK and not endangering your mission or cover, I mean.”

    She smiled at his nervousness. “That’s OK. It’s actually easier to protect you if you’re so close.”

    “Ah!” He didn’t quite blush, but his expression told her he had caught her hint of flirting. Good. She couldn’t be too obvious there.

    “So, what can I serve you?”

    “Ah…” He glanced to the menu on the board at the wall behind her. “A coke?”

    “One coke coming up!” she announced as if she were a peppy waitress in a 50s diner.

    He chuckled at that, she noticed as she took a bottle out of the fridge, and one for herself. And he glanced at her legs, she noted as she walked to the small table where he had taken a seat.

    “Thanks.” He pulled out his wallet, then hesitated. “I still have to pay, right? If only to keep your cover?”

    “The CIA can reimburse you afterwards,” she told him with a grin.

    “Ah!” He smiled, then frowned. “Are you pulling my leg?”

    “Perhaps a little,” she replied and sat down herself. “But don’t worry about the tab - we’re supposed to be a couple, remember? And as the owner-operator, I’ll certainly give my boyfriend free drinks. And food.” If the hot dogs she made could be called food.

    “Ah. Perks of being… well, you know.” He nodded and took a sip.

    “Yes.” After a moment, she added: “Your friend was here during lunch.”

    “My friend? Morgan? No, he was with me… Caridad?”

    He looked concerned, she noticed, as she nodded. “Yes. She told me to stay away from you.”

    “Oh.” He winced and sighed, hunching a little. “Yes, she would.”

    “She seems a little… possessive,” Sarah pointed out.

    Another sigh was his response. “That’s… well, there are reasons for that. Good reasons. Well, good in the sense that they make sense, not that they are good in the good sense.” He blinked. “And I think I stopped making sense some time ago.”

    She had to laugh at that. “More seriously, she does seem fixated on you. And it’s obvious that you don’t return her feelings.”

    “She’s a good friend,” he said. “We owe her a lot.”

    He sounded a little protective, she noted. “Is that why your sister tolerates her?”

    He blinked. “You’ve noticed that? Of course you did; you’re a spy.” Yet another sigh. “Yes. Ellie… I told you before, she’s protective of me. Ellie, that is.”

    “And she thinks Caridad is a danger?” That was very interesting - and would explain the weird dynamic she had observed.

    “Sort of. It’s complicated. It’s Caridad.”

    “I see.” She didn’t. But she might be starting to see what was going on. “You don’t think she’s a danger, though.”

    “She isn’t!”

    Yes, definitely protective. That complicated matters. “But do you think she can protect you against the spies who are searching for you?”

    He slumped in his seat, which was answer enough.

    Sarah reached out and took his hand. “I’m protecting you. Trust me. But I can’t do that as well as I need to if Caridad keeps trying to scare me away because she thinks I’m stealing you.”

    “But weren’t you ordered… Oh. You mean in the other sense of the word.”

    “It’s our cover, after all.”

    “Of course.”

    Did he sound a little disappointed, or was she hearing what she wanted to hear? For the mission, of course. She couldn’t tell. “Did you tell her that it’s just a cover?”

    “Can I tell her that? I thought I couldn’t tell anyone. Casey said so.”

    Sarah didn’t frown at his naiveté. That would have been counterproductive. “She already knows that we’re spies since she overheard us on the helipad. And whoever is behind her pressured the NSA to abandon their plans to take you into ‘protective custody’.”

    He blinked, then nodded. “Ah.”

    She was certain that he knew who was behind the girl. But directly asking would be violating her orders. More importantly, it would be too obvious. She had to be subtle there. “So, yes, you can tell her that it’s just a cover. That should keep her from making another scene.”

    “Ah…” His expression showed that he disagreed with her. “I’ll tell her.”

    “Good.” And it was. If Caridad made another scene, then Chuck might let slip more information next time and Sarah might find out just who was trying to pull the CIA’s strings in this affair.

    But she had another task as well. She leaned forward with a smile and took his hand again. “So, let’s talk about something else. That way, once your friend asks what we did, we won’t contradict each other.”

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious Store, September 27th, 2007

    If there was one person Sarah didn’t want to see first thing in the morning - when Wienerlicious wasn’t even open yet - then it was Casey. Well, apart from Caridad, of course. Yet there he was, staring at her through the glass door and - presumably - grinding his teeth. And as amusing it would have been to leave him standing outside, citing the need to keep her cover, the need to know what drove him to visit was stronger.

    So she stuck a gun into the waistband of her skirt, in the small of her back - just in case he wanted to kill her still - and went to let him inside. “Good morning. Welcome to Wienerlicious. We’re not yet officially open.”

    He grunted in return and walked past her, pulling a memory stick out of his shirt pocket. “Watch this.”

    Sarah glanced at it, then at him.

    “It’s footage from the surveillance I set up around the store,” he explained.

    She slowly picked it up, keeping an eye on him.

    “We’ve been ordered to cooperate,” he spat.

    “And you’re always following orders,” she replied.

    “Yes.” His sneer added: ‘unlike you’, but she ignored that and went behind the counter, slotting the stick in the surveillance system there.

    “Check 00.42,” he barked.

    She frowned at his tone but did it. Then she frowned at the image on the small screen. The camera must have been mounted on a tree in the backyard, quite a distance from the Buy More. Image quality wasn’t very good, but she could see two people sneaking around near the back of the Buy More. They didn’t behave like spies - they were practically stumbling through the bushes. And they were dressed like some nineties rejects, not even wearing gloves. Utterly unprofessional.

    Yet they had the door in the chain-fence surrounding the loading zone open in seconds. She frowned - the lock looked busted, but she hadn’t seen any tools which could have done that so quickly. The two entered the loading area and ducked out of the area the camera was monitoring.

    She looked up and raised her eyebrows.

    “I didn’t have a camera covering that area.”

    Which meant now he did. She nodded and went back to watching the recording.

    Half a minute later, Caridad entered the loading area - from the direction the two had just left. She must have run into them, Sarah realised, remembering the layout. And the woman went and replaced the lock on the fence, then wandered off.

    “The two didn’t leave the Buy More,” Casey commented. “I checked all cameras.”

    She looked at him and waited while she removed the stick - she’d have it analysed further.

    “There wasn’t anyone in the Buy More when I arrived to check half an hour later,” he went on. “No trace of them - but I found ashes where they stepped out of the camera’s angle.”

    “Ashes.” She knew what he was thinking - the same thing she was thinking. “Zarnow’s car was burned out.”

    “Yes.”

    “But there’s no flickering light. No light at all visible in the recording.” And there should have been if someone had used an incinerator outside the field of view.

    “No there isn’t.”

    And, she realised belatedly, the two unknowns hadn’t been using flashlights nor night vision gear. Even with the full moon last night, that was odd.

    “It could be a distraction,” she said. “Have them disappear through underground tunnels, and use the ash as a distraction.” Or, if Caridad killed them, stuff the bodies into containers and have them shipped out. Or dissolve them in acid and pour it down the drain. But Caridad had left the Buy More seconds after the two suspects had disappeared. “She’s got help inside.”

    “Yes. I don’t know who, though. Both Bartowski and his idiot friend were playing video games at home.” Casey sneered. “Someone else is working with the girl.”

    She nodded. “What do the cellphone records say?”

    “Nothing.” He was grinding his teeth.

    She could empathise - even if she liked seeing the man squirm. Whoever Caridad was working with, they were good. She would have to upgrade her own surveillance.

    “What did Bartowski say about her?” Casey asked.

    “We’re not supposed to investigate her,” Sarah replied.

    “Yes. What did he say?”

    After a moment, she frowned. “Only that she was protective of him. And that he and his family owed her.”

    “Pressure.” He bared his teeth.

    “Or an obligation,” she pointed out.

    “Find that out. He’s already panting after you - use that special touch.”

    She pressed her lips together. “We’ve been ordered not to investigate her.”

    He snorted and turned to leave. “Find out.”

    She refrained from telling him that she wasn’t taking orders from him. He knew that already and was just trying to rile her up.

    But as much as she disliked his attitude, Casey was correct.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious Store, September 29th, 2007

    Sarah was rather tired when she finally closed up Wienerlicious. Saturdays were hell - customers were constantly trickling in one after the other. On weekdays, she had the lunch crowd and then some people buying dinner when shopping after work, but little traffic otherwise. She had already prepared enough hot dogs for a lifetime and been ogled more than during that undercover mission in a strip club she still owed mission control some payback.

    But it was finally over - she was closing up the store. Chuck would finish work in half an hour; she could hang out with him until then. A quick check of the store’s visible security system, which was just for show, and of the real security, then she stepped into the back room to change.

    The cooler air outside - the sun was setting already - felt like heaven. The store had the best air conditioning - with special military grade filters - but the air still smelt stale. When it didn’t smell like grease and condiments, of course - the venting hoods were good, but they didn’t cover the tables and main room.

    Her good mood vanished as soon as she entered the electronics section of the Buy More, though. Not only were the resident creeps, Jeff and Lester, as Chuck called them, hanging near the Nerd Herd station - at the video game aisle - but Caridad was sitting on the desk.

    The girl who had thrown around human ashes. According to Casey, the NSA labs were still trying to identify the remains, but they weren’t hopeful - although, given the complete incineration, they were certain that the ashes had been stolen from a crematory. How sick did you have to be to disturb the dead for disgusting pranks?

    At least Chuck was there, which was why Sarah had come. And Casey was watching from the TV aisle.

    “Hi Chuck!” she said, beaming at him, then bent forward and kissed him on the cheek. For the cover, of course. And for Caridad.

    The girl sniffed theatrically. “Did anyone hide a hot dog nearby?”

    Before Sarah could tell the girl off, Caridad suddenly glared at Jeff and Lester, whose stopped whispering and laughing at once and turned away.

    “What did they say”? Grimes asked.

    That earned him another glare.

    Sarah made a note that the girl either had better hearing than expected from a member of the iPod generation or had bugged the store - Sarah hadn’t heard what they had whispered. She straightened Chuck’s tie and used the movement to glance at Casey. He was staring at Caridad, so he must have come to the same conclusion. Good.

    She patted Chuck’s tie - and his chest - and ignored the girl. “So, now you look perfect for a date.”

    “Date? Did I forget that we have a date?” Chuck looked as if he were panicking.

    “What?” She pouted at him. “It’s Saturday. I thought we could go eat out. Just the two of us. Unless you’ve got other plans already…”

    “Uh…”

    “He has no other plans!” Grimes piped up. “I would know.”

    Chuck glanced at his friend with a pronounced frown. “I didn’t know you were my social secretary, Morgan.”

    “Dude, it’s called ‘wingman’,” Grimes replied. “It’s my duty as your best friend.”

    Chuck sighed. “Why does everyone think I can’t handle my own life?” He quickly held up his index finger. “That was a rhetorical question, folks - I don’t actually need an answer.”

    Sarah noted both Caridad and Morgan closing their mouths while she giggled at Chuck.

    “So when are you off the clock?” she asked as if she didn’t know his schedule already.

    “We’re going on a date?” He didn’t wink at her, but he still telegraphed his real question. Fortunately, Caridad was the only one smart and attentive enough to notice, and she already knew about their cover.

    “Well… only if you want to.”

    “I want to, really.” He checked his watch. “And in about fifteen minutes. Unless we get an emergency.”

    “I’m sure any emergency can be handled by your colleagues.” She looked at the creepy duo. “Right?”

    Annoyingly, the two were looking at her, then at Caridad instead of caving in. Well, Chuck’s stories from his work had given her the impression that they lacked not just social graces, but also instincts of self-preservation.

    “We’re Apple specialists,” Lester said while his buddy nodded. “Chuck’s the PC guy.”

    “Then better hope any emergency is an Apple customer,” Sarah snapped and grabbed Chuck’s hand. “Because we’re leaving now.”

    “We are? I mean, of course. No, I mean… I’m still on the clock!” Chuck protested.

    “I’ll sign you out,” Grimes called after him as they left.

    Outside, Sarah took a deep breath.

    “They mean well. Most of the time,” Chuck said.

    It didn’t sound convincing, in her opinion. But his loyalty to his friends was remarkable. He wouldn’t backstab a friend or colleague. Or betray the agency. Unlike Bryce.

    She pushed the thought away. “Let’s take my car.”

    “Uh. Sure.”

    “So… is this… I mean, of course it is. I mean, what’s up? Work-wise, I mean,” he babbled as they walked towards the parking lot.

    “Can’t we just have a nice date?” she asked in return. He blinked, a mixture of emotions washing over his face. She went on before he could settle on one: “It’s maintaining our cover. Couples go on dates. If we didn’t, it would look suspicious.”

    “Ah.” He nodded. “Makes sense.”

    Of course it did.

    “So are we going to dance again?” he asked.

    Her smile at hearing that was genuine. “If you want to.”

    “Sure! I mean…”

    She cut him off with a gesture. There was someone hiding in the shadows at the back of the parking lot. She couldn’t make out much more - not with the sun having set by now. Her hand went towards the holster in the small of her back as she whispered: “Get in the car, Chuck.”

    “What? What’s wrong?” he asked, but he did as he was told.

    Suddenly, the Buy More’s floodlights lights came on, illuminating the parking lot - and the figure in the back.

    She gasped. It was Zarnow.

    The man lowered the hand he had raised to shield his eyes from the sudden light, and she saw him snarl for a moment before he schooled his features and started to walk towards them. Why was he here? If he had been kidnapped and escaped, he’d have called the agency at once and been taken to a safe house. He didn’t look like an escaped kidnapping victim either - he walked far too confidently. And he wasn’t wearing the same clothes he had on the night he had examined Chuck.

    Chuck! He must be here for Chuck!

    “Sarah! We need to go!” Chuck suddenly whispered. “Like, now! At once!” He pushed the door on her side open.

    He must have flashed on Zarnow, Sarah realised and drew her pistol. But Zarnow was already moving - charging straight at her. She double-tapped him in the chest, but he kept coming - bullet-proof vest.

    “Get in!” Chuck screamed and gunned the engine.

    She jumped into the car and Chuck accelerated right away. Zarnow sped up - and ran straight into the sports car. He bounced and rolled over the hood, then slid down the side and fell on to the ground. Chuck took a sharp turn with the car, towards the exit from the parking lot - and managed to stall the engine. Cursing, he tried to get the thing started again - and Sarah spotted Zarnow getting up behind them.

    The man must have been far better trained than she had thought to weather such an impact without breaking bones, she realised.

    “Come on! Come on! Comeoncomeoncomeon!”

    As if hearing Chuck’s plea, the engine roared to life again. A moment later, the car shot out of the parking lot and into traffic, almost crashing into a delivery van before Chuck managed to find the correct lane. And even after that he swerved and almost rammed an SUV.

    “Calm down and drive more slowly. He can’t reach us on foot,” she told him.

    “He can!” Chuck insisted. “In this traffic? He definitely can!”

    “What did your flash tell you?”

    “Huh?” He looked at her.

    “Eyes ahead!” she snapped.

    He gasped and whipped his head round to watch the street again.

    She texted Casey to warn him - she should have done that right away - and looked behind them. “He isn’t chasing us.”

    “You can’t know that. It’s dark. He could be cutting us off by taking the next street.”

    “What did you see, Chuck?”

    “Uh.” He glanced at her, then back at the street. “It’s, uh, classified. Yes. Need to know classified!”

    She clenched her teeth. “He’s chasing us. That means I need to know,” she told him. “And my security classification covers it.”

    “Not it doesn’t!”

    What? “Did you flash on me? Again?”

    “Ah…” His cell phone beeped. He reached for it, but she was faster and snatched it out of his shirt pocket.

    It was a text message: LURE IT TO PARK! From “Morgan”.

    “What does it say?”

    “Why does ‘Morgan’ tell you to ‘lure it to the park? Did you tell him about the Intersect?

    “No! I didn’t. This has nothing to do with the Intersect. I think,” he added as he took another turn - he was headed towards the park behind the Buy More. And he was slowing down.

    “What is going on?” she pressed out between clenched teeth.

    “It’s…”

    Once more he was interrupted - by shots being fired at them. Sarah looked back and saw that Zarnow had caught up was shooting at them.

    “They’re shooting at us? Who is shooting at us?” Chuck yelled as he started to swerve again.

    “Zarnow!” she spat. “And speed up!”

    “I’m driving evasively!”

    “This is no video game!” she told him, leaning out of the car and returning fire. She wasn’t likely to hit Zarnow, but it should make him… No. He ignored her. Didn’t even twitch as he kept chasing them. Nerves of steel - or drugged.

    “What did you see?” she asked again, right before they turned the next corner and broke through the low gate of the park’s south entrance, then drove on to the gravel path there.

    He didn’t answer but drove further into the park, gravel getting thrown on the lawn as he took a turn not meant for cars.

    More shots rang out - Zarnow had caught up. Sarah leaned out of the window again and shot at him, but either she missed, or his vest stopped her bullets. She needed a rifle, something that could punch through his kevlar.

    And the man was cutting over the lawn - cutting them off. “Stop and reverse!” she told Chuck.

    “What? He’s behind us!”

    “He’s cutting us off!”

    “What?”

    And there Zarnow came, from the side, gun blazing - he was aiming at the tires. And he hit.

    One tire blowing out was enough - Chuck lost control of the car and slammed into a bench. Sarah managed to brace herself, but the impact still shook her for a moment. Shaking her head, she kicked the door open. “Run!” she yelled at Chuck, already firing at Zarnow.

    The man was still running - fast. Very fast. Definitely on drugs, she realised. She fired her last two shots one-handed, pulling another magazine from her holster with her left hand, when the man suddenly jerked - something had hit him.

    Then he burst into flames and turned to ashes. Before he even hit the ground.

    Sarah gaped. What the…

    “Whoa!” Chuck exclaimed behind her - the idiot hadn’t even tried to run!

    And, Sarah realised, he wasn’t the least surprised by what had happened to Zarnow. He had expected it.

    She turned to face him.

    He winced at her glare. “Uh… Sorry about your car?”

    *****​
     
    Kyryst, TramplePie, qof and 12 others like this.
  7. SaintMichael95

    SaintMichael95 Not too sore, are you?

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    Wow. Now this is intriguing. Tentatively watched.
     
    Starfox5 likes this.
  8. Threadmarks: Chapter 4: The Auction
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 4: The Auction

    California, Burbank, September 29th, 2007

    “I don’t care about the car,” Sarah Walker spat. “What happened with Zarnow?” She took a step towards Chuck. “Who killed him? And how?”

    “Uh…”

    “It was Caridad, wasn’t it? Incendiary projectile - her crossbow.” That meant… the bolt had come from the direction of the trees there.

    “I can neither confirm nor deny?” Chuck’s weak laugh at his feeble joke died at her next glare.

    “This isn’t a press conference,” Sarah told him.

    “You’re loud enough for one, though,” she heard a voice behind her.

    Sarah whirled, gun rising - and froze when she found herself staring at a crossbow aimed at her from less than five yards away. How had the girl gotten the drop on her? She glanced to the side. The low bushes would provide cover but… the girl would have had to crawl, and that would have taken… There had to be another shooter!

    “Whoa whoa whoa… please take the weapons away.” Chuck, the idiot, stepped between them!

    “Chuck, get out of the way!” Sarah said.

    Caridad moved behind Chuck and Sarah raised her gun - just in time to stare down the crossbow again.

    “Caridad! I said put down the crossbow, not draw another!” Chuck complained.

    Why would she… “Casey?” Sarah tried to spot the agent without taking her eyes off Caridad..

    “I’ve got her in my sights. Say the word, and I drop her!” he said - must be in the bushes, Sarah realised.

    “I’ll drop you both first!” Caridad boasted.

    “She’s got some incendiary projectiles,” Sarah told him. “They vaporised a hostile.” That would also tell Casey that there were two.

    “What?”

    “Can we all stop threatening each other and talk like civilised people?” Chuck complained.

    “Once they lower their weapons and stop endangering you,” Caridad snarled.

    Sarah refrained from telling the girl: ‘You first.’

    “You first.” Casey, of course, didn’t.

    Someone came running towards them. Sarah clenched her teeth. If a civilian stumbled upon them… or an enemy...

    “Chuck? Caridad?”

    Or Grimes. If she hadn’t been in a Mexican stand-off, she would have squeezed her eyes shut.

    The man appeared on the gravel path and slowed down, panting, as he approached them - completely missing Casey. Or had he? Had he been the shooter who killed Zarnow?

    “Chuck! You’re alright!”

    “Of course he is!” Caridad snapped. “I protected him.”

    “You killed Zarnow,” Sarah corrected her, “and we needed to capture him alive to interrogate him.”

    “Alive?” The girl actually laughed. “Even if you were as good as I was, you couldn’t have dreamed of capturing him alive.”

    “Caridad!” Chuck hissed.

    “What? It’s the truth.”

    “Why...Oh, yes!” Grimes nodded. “From a certain point of view.” He grinned.

    Wasn’t anyone of them taking this seriously? Other than Chuck, who looked pretty desperate.

    “It’s not funny,” Chuck snapped.

    “Sorry,” Grimes said. “But… shouldn’t we leave now? Before the cops arrive?”

    So they didn’t have the police under their thumb. Or it was too much of a hassle to exert pressure on the LAPD - or the Burbank Police Department. Sarah made a mental note.

    “Once they lower their guns and leave, we can leave,” Caridad said. “Or I take them out, and we leave right now.”

    “Not helping, Caridad,” Chuck muttered. Out loud, he said: “Let’s everyone put their guns away now before the nice or not so nice cops arrive and ask why someone’s car is stuck in the park instead of the parking lot.”

    Dealing with the police would be a hassle for the mission as well, Sarah knew - cops tended to get antsy when weapons were involved. And Zarnow had shot up half the neighbourhood. And the car.

    She lowered her gun. “Torch the car before we leave.” They could talk about this elsewhere.

    “What?”

    “Too many bullet holes in it. Use whatever you used on Zarnow to remove all traces of us in and on it.” A call to the director would ensure that the car wouldn’t be tracked to her.

    “Uh…” Chuck grimaced again. “That might be a little difficult.”

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More Store, September 29th, 2007

    The home theatre room in the Buy More wasn’t the weirdest place Sarah had ever held a debriefing in, but it certainly was in the top three. The group doing the debriefing, if it could be called that, though...

    “Did you see that? That was so cool! I didn’t know you could set cars on fire like that. Everything went just ‘whoosh’, like in Battlefield!”

    Grimes was still gushing over Casey’s little display of arson. Which wouldn't have been necessary if they hadn't insisted that they couldn't torch the car with whatever had killed Zarnow - a transparent attempt to hide their weapon.

    “If you don’t shut up, I’ll show how I can set fire to annoying people.” And Casey didn’t like the adoration.

    Grimes looked at Caridad. “Don’t look at me,” she said, scoffing. “It wasn’t anything special.”

    “Shutting up now,” Grimes replied, pouting. “So, can we talk about what secret agents are doing in the Buy More?” he went on, despite his words, a moment later.

    “No!” Casey snapped.

    “No,” Sarah said.

    “Uh…” Chuck chimed in.

    “They’re trying to protect Chuck,” Caridad said.

    “Really? What did you do, Chuck?”

    “He saw something he wasn’t supposed to see,” Sarah said. “So, we’re protecting him until his knowledge has been rendered useless.” Which was true, technically.

    “Oh… you dated a spy, and were dragged into a black op? Did you get to fire an M4?” Grimes beamed at Chuck.

    “Uh…”

    “They aren’t dating,” Caridad spat. “It’s just a cover.” She bared her teeth at Sarah as if daring her to contradict her.

    “Oh.” Grimes blinked. “That must be awkward.”

    “Uh, yes,” Chuck said, nodding without looking at her.

    “Very awkward,” Sarah added, not looking at him, either.

    “So, what did you see?” Grimes was smiling again.

    “If anyone tells you, we’d have to kill you,” Casey said with a snarl.

    “Oh…” Grimes grimaced. “Wait! Shouldn’t you be killing whoever tells me, instead?”

    “I should tell you so I can kill you!” Casey retorted.

    That, at last, seemed to shut up Grimes if not for good, then for a few minutes at least.

    But that still left Caridad and the mystery of her backers. “You are interfering with a joint NSA/CIA mission crucial for national security,” Sarah said. Best to put up some pressure on them.

    “I’m just protecting Chuck. I don’t care about your ‘national security’,” Caridad replied, sneering.

    Sarah ignored her, staring at Chuck and Grimes.

    “I care!” Chuck piped up. Grimes glanced at Casey and cleared his throat, but didn’t say anything.

    Sarah focused on Chuck. “Then tell me what’s going on. We cannot do this mission if we lack crucial information,” she told him. “We could have captured Zarnow if we had known your friends were planning an ambush.”

    “Uh… technically, you did know - you read my cell phone,” Chuck replied. She narrowed her eyes at him. “Uh. It’s classified,” he added, after a glance at Caridad. “Need to know.”

    “We need to know,” Sarah stressed. “Or next time, your friends might kill one of our own agents.” Like her. Or Casey. Well, she wouldn’t miss Casey much.

    He shook his head. “That won’t happen!”

    “And if it happens, they had it coming,” Caridad cut in.

    “Not helping, Caridad,” Chuck muttered.

    “Like the two burglars you incinerated?” Sarah shot back.

    “Burglars?” Chuck stared at Caridad. “What did you do?”

    “The same thing I do every night: Keeping people safe,” she replied, then glared at Sarah.

    “You kill criminals every night?” Casey sounded a little too impressed, in Sarah’s opinion.

    “It’s classified,” Chuck said - but Sarah noticed that he seemed relieved. “Really, trust me. Very classified.”

    “But you know,” Sarah said. Was Chuck covering for a vigilante murderer? She didn’t think so. But what else made sense? “You’ve got enemies after you - not related to our mission.”

    Chuck cleared his throat. “I wouldn’t say that I’ve got enemies after me, specifically.”

    “What about the… you know, the black widow? You know what I mean. She was after you, wasn’t she?” Grimes chimed in.

    “She wasn’t after Chuck specifically. She was just after any attractive man,” Caridad protested.

    “She didn’t go after me,” Grimes said.

    “Exactly,” Caridad said.

    After a moment, Chuck cleared his throat again. “So, my point stands.”

    “Did you kill that woman as well?” Sarah asked.

    “Of course I did!” Caridad bared her teeth at Sarah. “I’ll kill anyone who hurts Chuck.”

    “Can we stop with all the killing talk? And, you know, coming from me, that means something,” Casey cut in. “You interfered with our mission. Our crucial mission. Effectively, you endangered the country. You don’t want to do this, trust me. You really don’t.”

    “And we’re back to talking about killing!” Grimes piped up, then cringed at Casey’s glare. “Zipping up again.”

    “You interfered with our mission when you dragged Chuck into yours!” Caridad retorted with a snarl.

    “And what is your mission?” Sarah crossed her arms and leaned against the ‘luxury armchair’ placed next to the overpriced leather couch in the room.

    “None of your business,” Caridad spat. With a toothy grin, she added: “That’s what your bosses told you, didn’t they?”

    “They didn’t know you would be interfering like this,” Sarah replied. Casey grunted in what she took as agreement.

    The girl snorted. “Doesn’t change anything.”

    “Look,” Chuck said, “we’re all on the same side, aren’t we?” Sarah looked at him, and he sighed. “Can we at least agree that we’re not on opposing sides?” he tried again.

    “We don’t have enough information to determine that,” Casey replied.

    “It doesn’t matter anyway,” Caridad boasted. “If you turn out to be enemies, I’ll take you down. And your bosses.”

    “You and what army, girl?” Casey’s temper was showing.

    “I and the…” Caridad started, but both Morgan and Chuck almost jumped to interrupt her.

    “Classified!”

    “Don’t!”

    Caridad glared at everyone in the room as if it hadn’t been her own fault for almost spilling her secrets.

    Unless this was an act. Or misinformation. Caridad behaved immature enough to fall for Casey’s challenge, but if she actually were that impulsive, she would be a liability for any covert mission. And in Sarah’s experience, the kind of people with the clout to tell the CIA and the NSA to back off weren’t the kind of people to tolerate liabilities.

    She had dealt with several such problems in the past, after all.

    “Well… the bad guy’s gone. Everything’s alright? Relatively, I mean,” Chuck said with a forced smile.

    “No, it isn’t,” Sarah corrected him. “We don’t know what Zarnow knew. Did he find out about you? Or was he just returning to the Buy More to check for clues? Until we know that, there’s no way to tell if you’re still in danger of getting kidnapped.”

    “Oh.”

    Chuck’s comment summed up this mess of a mission quite succinctly.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, September 29th, 2007

    Casey’s flat looked like Sarah had expected. Utilitarian, as spartan as it could be without endangering his cover, and lined with hidden weapons. The framed picture of Ronald Reagan… well, she had expected that. The bonsai… not so much.

    “Chuck’s safe at home,” she told Casey after he had let her enter through the backdoor.

    “I know.” He nodded at the screen on his desk, showing views of the various rooms in the house across the yard. Including Chuck’s bedroom, where he, Grimes and Caridad currently were.

    Of course he would have bugged Chuck’s home already. Sarah had expected that as well. “No sound?”

    He flipped a switch, and Sarah heard Grimes’s voice:

    “...so, what’s up with that, Chuck? Why was the bloodsucker chasing you?”

    “I can’t tell you, Morgan. It’s not our business. Well, not yours.”

    “They turned a spy,” Caridad said. “That makes it our business.”

    “Yes,” Grimes added. “Don’t worry, Chuck, we’ll deal with this.”

    “I’ll deal with this,” Caridad stated. “You stay safe.”

    “Of course!” Grimes replied.

    “I was talking to Chuck.”

    “Oh… I’ll still stay safe!”

    Sarah blinked. Caridad had just jumped out of the window. And she was out of the backyard and the area covered by the cameras in seconds.

    She looked at Casey. “They know who is behind Zarnow.”

    He nodded. “And Bartowski isn’t telling us.”

    Sarah pressed her lips together. She had thought Chuck would be smarter than that. And trusted her more.

    Although… “They have to assume that you’ve bugged the house,” she said.

    “They wouldn’t have found anything. It’s the latest generation of covert listening devices,” Casey retorted. “No one else has anything like it.”

    “I’ve heard that before.” She didn’t quite scoff. She didn’t have to.

    He glared at her and clenched his teeth, but didn’t contradict her. “You think they staged the conversation?” Casey shook his head, snorting. “What for? To tease us?”

    In her opinion, Caridad might just be immature enough to do that. She tilted her head a little.

    He grunted, which she took as an acknowledgement of her unstated point. “They have advanced technology as well,” she said. “Those incendiary projectiles.”

    “Second generation NSA incinerators. Smaller and impact-fused.” He shrugged. “It’s possible. There were rumours of experimental weapons a few years ago that disintegrated enemies.”

    “There were rumours of lightning guns a few years ago,” she countered. “And all that we actually received from Research & Development were slightly smaller tasers.”

    He grunted again.

    “I’m more interested in why they called Zarnow a ‘bloodsucker’,” she said. It was a term for extortionists. “Did he have ties to organised crime?” It wasn’t unheard of, of course. Many agents had contacts in the mob and other organisations. It facilitated certain missions. But Zarnow hadn’t been a field agent. He would have been vetted. Such things should have been in his files. How deep went this conspiracy?

    Casey snorted. “Your agency vetted him.”

    “So did yours,” she retorted. Zarnow wouldn’t have fit many of the local gangs. The mafia, though… Wait! She blinked as she remembered. “Chuck was concerned about losing blood.”

    “What?” Casey narrowed his eyes at her. Had he noticed her slip with Chuck’s name?

    “When I brought Bartowski to be examined by Zarnow, he was afraid he’d have to give too many blood samples,” she explained.

    “Huh.” Casey shook his head. “Idiot.”

    “Perhaps,” she said. She would look into crime related to blood donations.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Glendale, October 1st, 2007

    Looking at the data she had compiled from various sources, spread out over her dinner table, Sarah realised that there were more crimes related to blood than she had expected. The stupid jokes about robbing blood banks apparently had a base in reality, given the number of break-ins and robberies that happened in L.A. alone - although the number had been higher in the past. It had dropped off in the last ten years, the decline being more pronounced in the last five years.

    But it was still much higher than she would have thought. Blood banks and blood transports getting robbed, burglars stealing blood from hospitals… there were even a few cases of people impersonating the red cross to set up fake blood drives.

    Who needed blood so desperately? Was there a black market for blood? Underground clinics doing surgery? It made no sense. Blood plasma and platelets kept quite a while - Sarah would have expected such clinics being served by blood imported or smuggled in from Mexico and Central America if there was such a demand that people committed felonies to get it.

    Even worse was that almost none of those crimes had been solved. No convictions. No arrests, even. Well, that was the LAPD for you.

    Sighing, she sipped her coffee. And the investigation into Zarnow hadn’t found any links to anyone in L.A., either, so far. At least there was evidence of corruption, but no concrete leads, yet. Such a case was what the Intersect had been designed for - but they couldn’t trust Chuck with this. Not until they knew what he knew about Zarnow.

    She put the cup down, a little harder than needed. If only Chuck would trust her! And if Caridad were out of the picture!

    She still didn’t know what kind of leverage the girl had on Chuck and his family, but it had to be substantial to exert such pressure. And yet, his files showed nothing. The only suspicious event in his adult life had been his expulsion from Stanford. Which, as the agency analysts had concluded, had been arranged by Bryce. But she hadn’t found any evidence that someone else had manipulated the incident - certainly not in Chuck’s favour.

    But there was also Grimes, who clearly was working with Caridad. Despite the girl obviously disliking his company. Which was quite understandable, of course - Grimes was very annoying. But why would a girl like Caridad work with Grimes? She was a pro. She wouldn’t work with an amateur, and certainly not with a bumbling fool like Grimes appeared to be. Which meant it had to be an act.

    But then again, why would a professional operative work at the Buy More? Casey and Sarah were only working at the location as a cover. Because of Chuck…

    She drew a hissing breath. Chuck hadn’t done anything remarkable until he had received the Intersect data transmission. As far as they knew, at least…

    Her laptop beeped. A new message. She downed her coffee, grimacing - it had grown cold - and opened it.

    It contained orders for a new mission. And she was supposed to use Chuck - the Intersect - in it.

    Damn.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More Store, October 1st, 2007

    Chuck wasn’t at the station when Sarah entered the Buy More. None of the Nerd Herders was. Had she caught them at a break? It was early, after all - Wienerlicious wasn’t open yet. Casey was busy with some half-deaf old woman in the kitchen appliances section, she noticed with a grin. But Grimes was here, staring at her. Sarah smiled at him - showing teeth - and walked straight towards him. She could see him twitch, but he stood his ground, though judging by his wandering eyes, that might have been more due to her wearing the store uniform than to moral fortitude. Or it was all an act.

    “Hi, Morgan!” she said, full of fake cheer. “Is Chuck around?”

    “Oh…” He blinked, and his eyes darted to the staff only door behind him.

    “I need to talk to him,” she went on.

    “Ah… once more his eyes went back and forth between the door and her. His tells were so obvious, they had to be fake. But why would he try to fool her into thinking Chuck was in the back?

    She decided to call his bluff. “Can you go and tell him I’m here? For him?”

    “Uh, sure.” He nodded, a little jerky - and went through the door. Perhaps it had been a triple-bluff. He knew she knew he knew… She refrained from frowning. She couldn’t tell with Grimes.

    There was Chuck. She beamed at him. Even waved a little. The pretty girlfriend meeting her boyfriend during a break from work. Completely normal. Cute, even.

    It would have looked more convincing, of course, if Chuck hadn’t looked more spooked than happy when he approached her.

    “Uh, hi!” he said, not quite wringing his hands, but fiddling with his pen.

    She stepped forward, wrapping her arms around his neck and pulled him close into a kiss. She felt him tense up at the contact - even more when she slipped him her tongue - but when she pulled back, he was breathing more heavily.

    “Uh…”

    “We’ve gone on several dates,” she said, smirking. “There’s no need to be shy any more.”

    “Ah…” He blinked. “I’m not so good with the PDAs.”

    “That’s OK - I’m good enough for both of us,” she replied. “But perhaps we should seek a more private place?”

    “As long as it’s not in the Marvell sense?” he said with a fake laugh.

    Marvel? Oh, Marvell, ‘To His Coy Mistress’. So, Chuck wasn’t just a nerd. He knew poetry as well. “We’re not going into the grave, Chuck,” she told him as she took his hand and led him to the home theatre room.

    “Good, good.” He smiled.

    *****​

    A little later, Chuck wasn’t smiling any more. “Four dead people?” he said, looking at her. “I thought we weren’t going there.” He smiled, rather weakly

    Before she could reply, though, Casey barked: “They are all smugglers and thieves. All killed in the last two weeks. We need to know why they were killed - and by whom.”

    “Uh…” Chuck squinted at the pictures.

    “What? Can’t stomach the sight of blood?” Casey snapped.

    Sarah glared at the agent. That wasn’t how you treated civilians. American civilians, at least.

    “It’s the absence of blood here that worries me,” Chuck said, touching one of the pictures. “How did he die?”

    “That’s what we want to know from you,” Sarah explained.

    “But if you have pictures, didn’t you do an autopsy as well?” Chuck asked.

    “Those pictures weren’t taken by us,” Sarah said.

    “Oh. Spies.” Chuck nodded.

    “Give the man a cookie.” Casey scoffed. “So, who’s behind this?”

    “Sorry.” Chuck shook his head. “I got nothing. No flash. Sorry.”

    Casey sneered at him, and Chuck raised his hands. “Whoa! It’s not my fault that your computer in my head isn’t working as it should!” He blinked. “And that sounded really weird.”

    Casey growled something that sounded like ‘you’re really weird’, but Sarah ignored it. “Chuck, we really need this information.”

    “I’m trying. But I can’t just snap my fingers and conjure…” He trailed off with his mouth open. Then he shook his head and blinked.

    “Chuck?” Sarah asked.

    He pointed at the newspaper on the low table next to the couch. “The art auction. Tomorrow night. Water lily painting. And… La Ciudad?” Does that mean anything to you?”

    It did. Sarah exchanged a glance with Casey. La Ciudad. One of the most infamous arms dealers in the world. “Is he connected to the murders?”

    “I don’t know,” Chuck said. He touched his temple. “But according to the thing in here, he’ll be at the auction.”

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, October 1st, 2007

    Casey’s flat was one of the few locations which looked more homely when used as a briefing room. At least that was Sarah’s impression. All the pictures of past crimes attributed to La Ciudad plastered over the walls hid the fact that they had been bare before. Impersonal. And endangering his cover, in her opinion.

    “It’s time,” he said.

    She turned to face the screen. A moment later, the director and General Beckman appeared on the screen.

    “Major Casey, Agent Walker,” the general began. “I’ll be brief. Our analysts have gone over the data available, but we haven’t been able to narrow down the list of possible suspects. Despite numerous attempts to gather intelligence, we have no picture, not even a description, of La Ciudad. His security so far has been perfect. MI6 thought they had the drop on him, but that turned out to be a false trail.”

    “Which means,” the director cut in, “our only chance to identify him is the Intersect.”

    Sarah drew a short breath through her clenched teeth. She knew that that meant. “He isn’t trained for a field mission,” she protested.

    Casey snorted. “All he has to do is attend an art auction and watch people, then tell us who he flashed on. A child could do it. No danger at all.”

    “Correct.” Beckman nodded. “The Intersect will be deployed in the field. Inform Mr Bartowski. This will be a good field test to gauge his capabilities.”

    *****​

    “Getting a little too close to the mark?” Casey asked as soon as the general and director had signed off.

    Sarah raised her eyebrows at him. “I’m concerned about risking a crucial and irreplaceable asset without the necessary training as a field agent.” It wasn’t a lie. Just not the whole truth.

    Casey snorted. “Yeah, sure. So, you gonna tell Bartowski that he’ll be a spy tomorrow?” he asked, nodding in the direction of Chuck’s home.

    “Of course,” she replied with a toothy smile. “Per our cover, we’re dating, so I’ll simply invite him to an outing.”

    “Hot dog vendor attending an expensive art auction?” His grunt sounded somewhat like a chuckle. If you were near deaf.

    “Owner of a restaurant,” she corrected him.

    “Who dresses like a hooker for work.” He snorted. “Sorry, I meant ‘hooter’s’.”

    “I didn’t pick the cover, Mr sales-clerk.”

    “Well, whoever did could pick them, couldn’t they?”

    She wasn’t quite glaring at him. An agent should be more professional than taking such cheap shots at a co-worker. But what could you expect from an ex-soldier? The NSA probably still thought all female agents were only useful as honeypots. She smiled - the more he underestimated her, the better, should their cooperation suddenly end. “That’s why you’re not trusted with selling anything more complicated than a toaster, right?” Before he could answer, she pulled her cell phone and called Chuck.

    “Chuck Bartowski?”

    “Chuck? Sorry to call so late, but we’ve got a date tomorrow.”

    “A date?” She could see him blink. Even without checking the feed from the cameras Casey had had installed. “Ah, of course, a date.”

    “Yes. I’ve always wanted to attend an art auction. Just to see if it’s really like in the movies.”

    “Oh. Oh. Of course. Good.”

    “Good. Just wanted to let you know, so you don’t make any plans.”

    “Of course. Thanks.”

    “Love you,” she added.

    “Uh, me too. You, I mean.”

    She ended the call.

    “Wow. He’s smooth as sandpaper. Probably as experienced.”

    This time she rolled her eyes at him. “You seem fixated on that. Not getting any lately?”

    He glared at her, and she could see his jaw muscles move as he clenched his teeth. Score.

    “Well, I’ll better get…”

    She was interrupted by the bugs picking up a conversation.

    “You’ve got another date, Chuck? Oh, I’m so happy for you!” Sarah heard Chuck’s sister all but exclaim.

    “Uh, yeah, Sarah’s gonna take me to an art auction.”

    “Good for you. You should expand your horizons past video games.”

    “Hey! I’m interested in more than video games.”

    “Interested in art for art’s sake. Not for Caridad’s business.”

    Sarah looked at Casey. Caridad was involved in the art business?

    “You make it sound as if it’s a business. It’s a calling.” Grimes.

    “Her calling. Not yours, Chuck,” Ellie replied. “You shouldn’t get involved in this. And you shouldn’t try to drag him into it, Morgan.”

    “I’m not involved,” Chuck said.

    “And the riots?”

    “That was a special case. Everyone was involved in that. Even the Brits. Did you want me to do nothing?”

    “I want you to be safe, Chuck. Not risking your life as if you were… trained for this.”

    “We’re not risking our lives, Ellie,” Grimes said. “We’re just helping Caridad. Safely helping, I mean. You know, watching, reading, calling… helping.”

    Ellie huffed. “If you’re doing it, it’s on your own head. But I’m not going to let you or Caridad drag Chuck into this!”

    “Don’t I get a say in this?” Chuck complained.

    “Chuck… You’ve got a normal girlfriend now. You’ve got a future. Don’t throw it all away on this… crusade! Just think of yourself, for once.”

    “Ellie, you can’t keep Chuck locked up in a safe room. It’s in his blood. We grew up in Sunnydale. When Apocalypse Season comes around, it’s all hands on deck. Everyone fights, no one quits.”

    “It’s not a movie, Morgan. People die.”

    “I’m still alive,” Morgan said.

    “Ah, Chuck won’t be risking his life for the kick now that he has a girlfriend like Sarah,” Devon spoke up for the first time. “Don’t worry, Ellie. She’ll keep him too busy for that. Right, Chuck?”

    “Uh, right.” Chuck nodded.

    “Hey!” Caridad entered the room.

    “Caridad?”

    “We’ve got a doorbell,” Ellie said.

    “I’ve got a key. Why should I ring?” the girl replied.

    “Why do you have a key? Why does she have a key, Chuck?”

    “So I don’t have to break into his bedroom any more, of course!”

    “What?”

    Sarah almost said it out loud as well.

    “It’s not like that!” Chuck protested. “I just wanted to avoid someone calling the police if they saw her climbing the wall.”

    The girl scoffed. “No one would have seen me anyway. Unless I wanted to be seen.”

    Chuck cleared his throat. “Leaving such matters as break-ins and stalking aside, what brings you here, Caridad?”

    “Well, you of course!”

    “He’s got a girlfriend now, Caridad,” Ellie pointed out.

    “Yes,” Chuck added. “Not that it changed anything between us since there wasn’t anything to change, I mean.”

    Caridad scoffed. “Anyway, I need you tomorrow, Chuck.”

    “He’s got plans.”

    “I’ve got plans.”

    “He’s got a date.”

    “What?” Caridad seemed to glare at Chuck. “Well, cancel it. This is important. London’s called.”

    “He’s not working for ‘London’.”

    Caridad went on as if Ellie hadn’t said anything: “We need to check a suspicious object at an art auction, and Chuck’s the only one looking respectable enough to sneak in there.”

    “I can look respectable!” Morgan protested. Everyone ignored him.

    Sarah was only half-listening, though, as Ellie exploded at Caridad. ‘London’. MI6 had been hunting La Cuidad according to their information. She looked at Casey. “She’s MI6.”

    “Their hiring standards must have suffered a lot,” he replied. But he was baring his teeth in a grin.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Glendale, October 2nd, 2007

    “MI6 denied having any assets in Los Angeles when we contacted them to coordinate a mission aimed at a shared target.”

    “Can this information be trusted, sir?” Sarah asked.

    “We aren’t aware of any information that would disprove this,” the director replied. Not officially, he meant - what they had overheard last night certainly indicated a connection to the United Kingdom. “Incidentally,” he went on, “the Secretary of Homeland Security once again stressed that we shouldn’t violate the privacy of Miss Caridad. He was quite concerned about a possible misunderstanding.”

    “I see, sir.” Sarah didn’t, though. She had expected a reaction after the girl had found out about Chuck’s date from Ellie. But for Homeland Security to intervene so promptly… who was backing the girl? She couldn’t come up with a probable explanation. The US government wasn’t likely to bow to pressure from anyone. Certainly not from the British. Their ‘special relationship’ didn’t cover wanna-be James Bonds running ops on American soil. That made it a joint operation. But Sarah wasn’t aware of any organisation with the clout to lock out both the NSA and the CIA. Not since the War of Terror had been declared. If a government agency had so much influence, why wouldn’t they order NSA and her agency to cooperate? Or take over? SOCOM certainly would take control of the situation. Perhaps they couldn’t announce their presence since they weren’t supposed to run ops on American soil.

    And there was the elephant in the room, of course. She hated to ask, but she had to. “Is Bartowski considered to have been compromised?”

    “No. We’ve been assured that whatever ‘overlap’ is present is with a friendly organisation,” the director answered to her relief. “Proceed with your mission as planned, Agent Walker. But keep Homeland Security’s concerns in mind.”

    “Yes, sir.”

    Well, she had her orders. She just wished they included shooting Caridad should the girl interfere with the mission.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More Store, October 2nd, 2007

    “Uh, I don’t want to insinuate anything, but…” Chuck had a rather sheepish expression, Sarah noticed. “Did they cut your funding, or did you take over the Buy More? Because our home theatre room isn’t exactly what I think of when I’m thinking ‘spy briefing’, you know?”

    Casey sneered at him. “It’s a covert mission, Bartowski.”

    Sarah rolled her eyes. Typical. She smiled at Chuck. “This isn’t a briefing,” she told him. “We’re wondering if there are problems of which we’re not aware yet.”

    “Problems? Why would there be problems you’re not aware of? You’re the spies. Professional spies. Very professional, and very scary, I might add. Especially Casey. Really.” Chuck nodded several times.

    Sarah sighed. He really needed to learn how to lie convincingly. Well, right now it was a blessing.

    “Oh? So your little friend with the tank-sized ego won’t trouble us?” Casey snarled at Chuck.

    “What? Caridad? Why would you assume… did you bug us?” Chuck stared at them.

    “We received another reminder this morning that we shouldn’t investigate her,” Sarah said. It was the truth.

    “You did bug us! Holy… Did you bug the bathroom as well? Did you spy on Ellie? Did you spy on Caridad?”

    Sarah forced herself not to wince. Chuck had been to Stanford, and he had been working - intermittently, though - with a spy for years. They couldn’t underestimate him. “We don’t peep at your family, Chuck.”

    “Ah.” Chuck sighed, then froze. “What about me? Did you peep on me?”

    “I’d rather gouge out my eyes with a rusty spoon than watch you shower,” Casey growled.

    “We installed a few cameras for your own safety,” Sarah said. “We can’t really protect you without keeping an eye on you. But we do not watch you in the bathroom.”

    “So,” Casey added with a sneer, “check your toilet seat for bombs and your shower stall for assassins before you sit down to take a dump.”

    Chuck stared at him. “Are you serious?”

    “I’m always serious,” Casey growled again. “Dead serious.”

    “Uh.” Chuck’s grimace was quite expressive.

    Sarah took a deep breath. “This is an important mission, Chuck. We need to find La Ciudad. And we need you for that. Interference could not only endanger the mission but you as well. So, please tell us: will there be any trouble?”

    Chuck’s nervous laughter wasn’t reassuring in the least.

    “Chuck?” She tilted her head slightly.

    He sighed. “Look… there shouldn’t be any problem. No interference. Caridad’s just… checking some art. Not the thing I flashed on. Something else.”

    “Which is?” Casey leaned forward and bared his teeth.

    “Uh… classified? Need to know? None of your b-business?”

    The NSA agent growled once more.

    “You know, growling like this is really bad for your health. You could be mistaken for a, well, dangerous animal and shot by a concerned citizen…”

    “Did you just threaten me?” Casey spat. “Did you?”

    “Just saying…” Chuck hunched over. “Sorry.”

    Sarah closed her eyes. The mission was off to a great start indeed.

    *****​

    Downtown Los Angeles, October 2nd, 2007

    “Wow. We’re on time. Despite downtown traffic. Did you have some special spy gadget to avoid traffic jams?” Chuck asked as they neared the Wilshire Grand Center, where the auction would be held.

    “Yes.” Casey, masquerading as their chauffeur, replied. “It’s called foreplanning.”

    Sarah saw Chuck flinch and reached over to put her hand on his. He wasn’t trembling, but his hand was clammy. “We’ve got experience with such operations,” she said with a smile. “No need to be nervous - I won’t leave your side.”

    “I’m not nervous!”

    “You’re twitching”, Casey said. “Don’t mess this up, Bartowski.”

    “It’s Carmichael!” Chuck replied. “You said we need to stick to our cover identity on this mission,” he added, looking at her. “Charles Carmichael. Semi-retired owner of a successful software company. Considering to enter the America’s Cup.”

    “Don’t get lost in your fantasy,” Casey barked. “This is a serious mission. No one who has ever seen La Ciudad lived to tell the tale. Don’t mess this up.”

    “Uh. That’s very unlikely. Unless he’s invisible. He’s not, is he? I think you mean, ‘recognised him’, but even so, some people have to know his identity - arms traders can’t do everything by themselves.”

    Sarah squeezed his hand a little, and he stopped babbling. “Relax, Chuck,” she whispered. “We’re ready for this. You are ready,” she lied.

    He smiled in response. “I know, I even took tango lessons.”

    She blinked. “Tango lessons?”

    “Yes.” He nodded emphatically. “Casey told me that I had to know how to tango for the mission.”

    She would kill him. Casey. Even if it was funny.

    “Oh. That was some spy humour, right? Very funny. Ha ha.”

    She nodded with a half-amused, half-comforting smile. “Don’t worry,” she said. “All you have to do is to flash on him and inform us - then you get out of the way.”

    “No problem. I always run from a fight. If I can.” He nodded, firmly. “Ellie and Caridad would kill me, otherwise.”

    She wanted to pursue that topic, but they were pulling up in front of the skyscraper now. So she handed him the special wristwatch the agency had provided. “Put this on. It has a GPS tracker so I won’t lose you.”

    “Ah!” He put it on. “Do me a favour?”

    “Yes?”

    “Don’t let Ellie ever get one of those.” He grinned. “She’d track me around the clock.”

    She giggled. It wasn’t that funny, but it was good to see him relax - a little, at least.

    He helped her out of the limousine, and they stepped into the lobby.

    “Lots of people here,” Chuck said without moving his lips. “How will we find anyone… Oh shit!”

    “What?” Did he flash on La Ciudad? Already? They weren’t even on the stairs yet. Who was he looking at… Oh. Sarah refrained from frowning when she saw a blonde with too much makeup and not enough dress headed straight towards them. “Friend of yours?” she whispered.

    “Definitely not. Old classmate,” Chuck answered with a grimace.

    “Chuck! What are you doing here?” the blonde announced five yards and two couples away. “Morgan told me I needed to come here because no one else fashionable enough was available! But you’re here! Do you know what I’m missing out?”

    “Hello, Harmony. How nice to see you,” Chuck said with the fakest smile Sarah had ever seen on his face.

    “No, it’s not nice! I shouldn’t be here if you’re here. I had tickets for the opening of ‘Lars and the Real Girl’! Like, exclusive ones!”

    “Why would you want to watch that movie?” Chuck asked.

    “I’m not interested in the movie, dork! I’m interested in the stars attending the opening! I’m looking for a job.” ‘Harmony’ had an impressive pout. “And now it’s all ruined! Because of you!”

    “I didn’t do anything,” Chuck protested.

    “Exactly!” Harmony nodded. “You should have told Morgan that you’d be here, instead of on a date.” She blinked, then looked at Sarah as if she hadn’t noticed her until now. “Oh. This is your date?”

    “Sarah - Harmony, a classmate from high school. Harmony - Sarah. My date.” Chuck said. “And my girlfriend.”

    “Hello.”

    “Hello.” Harmony’s smile was as polite and as fake as Sarah’s. Her nostrils flared. “Is that, like, a gun in your purse?”

    What? Sarah glanced down. No, her gun wasn’t showing.

    “Harmony!” Chuck spat through clenched teeth. “Isn’t there something you should be doing?”

    “But I don’t want to! I’m only here because Morgan said Caridad needed help. Really, if you’re here for the auction you could look for the stupid statue, and I could look for stupid stars!”

    “We’re here on a date, not for a statue or whatever,” Chuck said without unclenching his jaw. “So, how about you do your job, and we do… our date?”

    “But that’s not fair!”

    “Life’s not fair,” Chuck said.

    “That shouldn’t affect me! I’ll complain to Morgan! This is press-ganging! Caridad is abusing her power! That never happened while I was working for Angel, and they had, like, the worst employee contracts ever!”

    “Bye, Harmony.” Chuck almost dragged Sarah up the stairs.

    “Former classmate, hm?” she said once they were out of earshot and entered the room where the antiques were displayed.

    “Yes.”

    Sarah was tempted to ask how often the woman had been held back in school. But that would have been petty. “Working for Caridad,” she said instead. She hadn’t investigated - the woman had blurted it out. Without prompting.

    “I don’t know what Morgan was thinking when he called her. She’s, like, the last person on Earth you want to have working on something important.” Chuck shook his head. “And now I’m talking like her.”

    “Is this related to our mission?” Sarah watched him as she asked.

    He blinked. “What? No, no. Nothing to do with La Ciu…”

    And he kept blinking. While staring at a painting.

    A familiar painting.

    *****​
     
    Kyryst, TramplePie, Simonbob and 10 others like this.
  9. Threadmarks: Chapter 5: The Suspicion
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 5: The Suspicion

    Downtown Los Angeles, Wilshire Grand Center, October 2nd, 2007

    Chuck was staring at the painting he had flashed on already. Blinking.

    “Chuck?” Sarah asked in a whisper after a few seconds had passed, straining to keep smiling as if nothing were wrong. Fortunately, no one seemed to be watching them.

    He drew a deep breath. “Shit.”

    “Chuck?”

    “There’s plutonium inside the frame.”

    Her smile slipped. “How much?”

    “Not enough for a chain reaction,” he replied. “And it’s shielded by lead. But there’s enough to poison the entire building. And more.”

    “Stay calm,” she whispered as she guided him to the next lot on display - some very blue, very abstract painting. “Oh!” she cooed. “That would go so well in our home! I’ll text our interior decorator!”

    “What?” Chuck blinked. “Uh, of course.”

    She kept smiling as she texted Casey, who was by now posing as a bartender.

    “So… we continue?”

    “We need to secure this,” she replied. “This takes priority.”

    “Ah. Good.” He nodded. “I think.” Then he blinked and winced.

    “Did you flash again?”

    “No.” But he was still wincing. And looking at some Aztec-looking figurine. Mayan, according to the description.

    “Chuck?”

    “That’s the thing Caridad’s supposed to check out. Well, Harmony now, I suppose.”

    And it was next to their objective. Perfect. “Call Harmony and tell her to do whatever she’s supposed to be doing now!” They couldn’t risk any interference when securing the plutonium. Especially not from a trigger-happy Wilhelmina Tell.

    “Uh… I don’t have her number.”

    “What?”

    “Uh, she’s really not my favourite person. Not even at school.”

    “This isn’t the time to hold schoolyard grudges,” she told him through clenched teeth. “Get her number!”

    “I’m calling Morgan!” He pulled out his phone and tapped the screen. And waited. And waited. “He’s not answering his phone. That’s not a good thing,” he added after a moment. “Really not. I’m calling Caridad.” Another tap. Sarah heard the ringtone this time - she had stepped close enough to Chuck. And just the ringtone. “She’s not answering either,” Chuck said, unnecessarily. “Must be fighting.”

    “Here?”

    “Uh… I don’t know. Probably?” His smile had seen many better days.

    “And you can’t reach them. So we can’t help them.”

    “Yes.” He looked around. “I don’t hear anything breaking, though.”

    “That doesn’t have to mean anything,” she told him. She had killed three enemy spies once right next to a party, and no one had noticed anything.

    “Right,” he said, still distressed.

    Sarah made a decision. “Chuck, go find Harmony and get her here. I’ll keep an eye on the painting and coordinate with Casey.”

    “Uh, are you sure? Harmony isn’t the kind of person you want near anything complicated or discreet.”

    “I didn’t pick her, your friends did. Go!” she hissed.

    And he went.

    She almost shook her head. It couldn’t be that hard to find the blonde - he probably just had to follow the complaining. Or the squealing.

    She studied the crowd. Who among them might be La Ciudad? A number of the men were armed, but those could be bodyguards. Though there were a few who didn’t move and stood like guards. Like the one moving away from the bar. He wasn’t watching out for someone - he was hurrying while trying not to look hurried.

    Sarah clenched her teeth. She shouldn’t even think of abandoning her position. But… She pulled out her makeup kit which hid her GPS locator. The man was headed towards Chuck’s position.

    She texted Casey while she was already moving. CHECKING CHUCK POSSIBLE DANGER. If only she had settled for real comms like a headset - but that might have endangered her cover.

    The possible threat was moving towards the hall with the buffet. No - he ducked into a service staircase halfway hidden behind a potted plant. Sarah followed him, cursing her dress choice. She should have gone with a cocktail dress, not a gown - that would have allowed her more mobility.

    But she would manage. As soon as she was on the stairs, hidden from view, she pulled her gun out her purse and listened. Steps above her. A quick glance at her locator confirmed it. Chuck was upstairs.

    She quickly made her way up, leading with her gun. A floor later, she heard voices.

    “Who are you working for?”

    “We’re not working for anyone.” Chuck!

    “He’s on a date. I’m here for work.”

    “Harmony!”

    “What? It’s true! You’re on a date, but it’s work for me.”

    “Harmony! You made it sound as if you’re an escort.”

    “What? No, I didn’t! Did I?

    “Yes, you did.”

    “Uh… so, I’m not here as an escort. And I’m not an escort. I was just told to check some stupid art here.”

    “As we suspected.” Another man. “Who are you working for? Speak, or your death will be painful.”

    “Sorry, but you’re too late for that.”

    “Harmony!”

    “What? Hey! Don’t touch me! That dress is expensive to clean!”

    Sarah had reached their floor now. She peered through the gap left by the door. Three men. All armed. Not ideal odds - but she had no choice.

    She kicked the door open, catching the closest man in the back and fired at the one pointing his gun at Chuck, then at the second. Both went down. Two shots went through the door, above her head - she was crouching - and she rolled forward, coming up with her gun. And froze.

    “Drop your weapon, or I blow the bitch’s brains out!”

    The third man was holding Harmony hostage. And she didn’t have a clear shot.

    Damn.

    “Hey! Let go!”

    “That’s not much of a threat, actually. It’s not as if she needs her brain,” Chuck said from behind the pillar he had chosen as cover.

    Sarah blinked. What had he said?

    “Hey! I so do need a brain! All my boyfriends said that!”

    “I bet they did,” Chuck replied.

    Sarah blinked again. What was going on?

    “I said drop the gun, or the bitch gets it!” the man yelled again.

    “She never gets it, no matter how much you try. Trust me, I tried to tutor her in math in junior high,” Chuck commented again.

    “Hey! It’s not my fault you were, like, a lousy tutor!”

    Sarah wondered if she were on drugs, or Chuck and Harmony were.

    “Are you fucking stupid?” The man tried to pull Harmony back a step but only succeeded in ripping her dress.

    “Hey! You know how much that dress cost?”

    And the blonde whirled around, effortlessly breaking the man’s grip and dislodging his gun at the same time.

    Sarah fired and took him down, then rushed forward to check on the downed men. All were dead - headshots. “What happened?” she asked as she crouched to frisk them.

    “I don’t know! Chuck here, like, comes and tells me where the stupid statue is I’m supposed to check, and suddenly, those meatbags come and drag us away. I mean, those thugs, not meatbags. That’s a bad word I don’t like to use. Really. Even if it’s a waste that they’re all dead.”

    “I was asking Chuck,” Sarah clarified.

    “Oh. Why didn’t you say so?”

    Chuck shook his head as he looked away from the corpses and focused on her. “I think those men mistook our interest in the Mayan figurine for interest in the plutonium,” he said, then swallowed a few times.

    “Plutonium? Isn’t that, like, a nuke? Big flashy fire?” Harmony gasped and, for the first time Sarah had seen her, showed signs of being afraid.

    “There’s not enough of it to blow up,” Chuck replied.

    “Why didn’t you say that right away? I was, like, terribly scared! Worse than before our high school exams.”

    Sarah couldn’t resist. “Plutonium is also highly poisonous. If the container is breached, it could kill everyone inside this hotel.”

    All men had been armed - with backup weapons as well. Both knives and pistols. And kevlar vests.

    “Oh, that’s OK.” Harmony made a dismissive gesture with her hand. “Unless it’s blessed poison. Does that exist?”

    Sarah started to understand Chuck’s attitude towards the woman.

    “So, can we now go and check the stupid statue, or are there more mooks to be killed? If we hurry, I still can make the opening’s after-party!”

    “You’ve got your priorities straight, I see,” Sarah said.

    “See? She gets me!” The blonde beamed at her.

    Sarah obviously had to work on her sarcasm.

    “Why are you dating a loser like Chuck, though? You could do so much better!” Harmony went on while Sarah texted Casey that Chuck was safe, but compromised.

    Yes, Sarah completely understood Chuck’s lack of concern for the blonde’s welfare now.

    “Let’s just get to the figurine and get this over with so the cover girl for Brain Drain Magazine can go to her party,” Chuck said.

    “Hey!” Harmony frowned, then perked up. “If you’re going there, you can take the crystal, and I can leave right now!”

    “He’s not going there,” Sarah said.

    “He just said…”

    “He meant you.”

    “That’s so unfair.”

    “Life’s not fair, Harmony,” Chuck cut in.

    “What does that have to do with me?”

    Casey’s text message on her cell phone distracted Sarah from the asinine behaviour of the walking blonde stereotype. PEOPLE MOVING PIECES.

    “We need to go,” she snapped. “They’re moving the lots.”

    “Already?” Chuck asked as they rushed to the stairs. “They’re supposed to be on display for... another twenty-five minutes.”

    “Yes,” she said as they descended. “It’s probably a ploy to steal the lots.” That had been one of their backup plans, after all.

    “Oh great. I’m usually the one being chased. This will be a nice change.”

    “Caridad doesn’t count,” Harmony replied.

    “I’ll tell her you said that,” Chuck shot back as they reached the display room’s floor.

    “No! Please not!”

    Sarah ignored the byplay and took stock of the situation. A dozen employees were carrying the lots off. Casey couldn’t do anything in full view of the audience. And they couldn’t follow the workers into the backstage area. But… She looked at Casey and nodded at the staircase behind her. He nodded back at her and went towards the other staff stairs.

    “What are we doing?” Chuck asked as she went back the way they had come from.

    “Hey! They’re carrying away the statue! I’ll never get this stupid mission done if they keep moving the thingie! Hey! Where are you going?”

    “Just stay there and wait, Harmony!” Chuck snapped.

    Sarah was tempted to tell him the same but… La Ciudad was somewhere in the building, and Chuck had been made - by mistake, but that didn’t matter. He was safer with her.

    “No, I won’t! Caridad will slay me if I don’t do this.”

    Strange wording. But then, Harmony seemed to mangle the English language with every sentence.

    Sarah rushed downstairs - she could reach the storage rooms the firm doing the auction had rented through the underground garage. If they were quick enough, they could cut off the workers, who had to be careful with the lots. It would be messy - she hoped she didn’t have to shoot someone who just thought she was a robber - but with plutonium present, the agency would back her up.

    She pushed the doors to the first floor of the parking garage open and froze for a moment.

    Twenty yards away, half a dozen armed men were walking towards the storage area, escorting a woman. Bodyguards? They didn’t look like robbers.

    Behind her, Chuck gasped. “It’s her. It’s La Ciudad!” he whispered.

    “Who’s La Ciudad?” Harmony didn’t whisper.

    Sarah saw the woman - the arms dealer - turn her head, spot them and snap an order. She grabbed Chuck and dragged him to the floor a moment before the men opened fire. A moment later, she rolled off Chuck and behind a support pillar while bullets peppered the door to the stairs. Then she rose, firing two shots at an exposed enemy, who went down, before ducking behind cover again as bullets blew pieces of concrete off the pillar.

    “Oh my God oh my God oh my God!” she heard Chuck mumble - but he was curled up behind another pillar. And he didn’t look hurt.

    “Hey! That was an expensive dress!”

    And it seems Harmony hadn’t been hurt either - though, given the blonde’s priorities, Sarah wasn’t entirely certain that she’d worry more about herself than her dress.

    Not that she had the time to spare to care about Harmony. Not with half a dozen - five now - enemies shooting at her and a sample of plutonium about to be stolen. “Stay there!” she hissed to Chuck, then kicked off her heels and crawled to the next pillar.

    “Stop shooting! It’s pointless!”

    Sarah heard wood splintering behind here.

    “What did I just say? Are you hard of hearing?”

    Well, at least Harmony was serving as a distraction.

    Sarah reached the pillar and stood up, then leaned around it to peer at the enemies. Three had taken up positions covering the stairs and the approaches to their location. And two, as well as the woman, were at the door to the storage area. Damn.

    She fired three shots at the group at the door but didn’t hit anyone before she had to drop into cover again. And now they were shooting at her again.

    She ducked, then moved in a crouch towards the next pillar. But someone must have spotted her - the car next to her was riddled with bullets, and she was forced to jump back.

    “Why are they shooting at us?”

    “Because we want to stop them from stealing the plutonium, Harmony.”

    “We are?”

    “Yes.”

    “Why didn’t you say so? No one tells me anything, ever!”

    More shots sounded - but no bullets hit anything nearby. And those shots… That had been a pistol, not a rifle. Casey!

    Sarah leaned out of cover again, leading with her gun. Yes, he was flanking the enemy. Sarah shot one of them in the back while the man was aiming at Casey. The agent dropped one more. Which left one shooter trying to make a break towards a better spot. He didn’t make it - he fell, slid two yards and came to a stop in a growing pool of blood in the middle of a lane.

    But two of them and the possible leader were...

    Sarah started to run towards the open door to the storage area. “Three of them broke through!” she yelled to Casey. He bared his teeth and started to run as well. If they were quick enough, they could prevent...

    Just before she reached the door, she heard a roar. Then screams and shots. And more screams.

    “What the hell was that?” Casey snapped, taking up a position next to the door.

    “Some kind of animal,” she answered, mirroring him. “On three?”

    “I go high, you low.”

    She nodded. “One. Two. Three!”

    She crouched and slide around the corner, pistol in front.

    And almost shot the woman running towards her. The woman who had been with the robbers. La Ciudad. “Stop!” Sarah yelled.

    But the woman didn’t stop. She kept running towards her and Casey, screaming “Jaguar! Jaguar!”.

    Until Sarah hit her in the head with a roundhouse kick. The woman dropped like a stone.

    And someone gasped behind her. Chuck!

    “Get back into cover!” Saran spat.

    “But… we got La Ciudad! It’s her”

    Casey was already handcuffing the woman. “Good work.”

    “There are two of her men unaccounted for,” Sarah said. And a frame with plutonium.

    “Guard her,” Casey snarled at Chuck, then nodded at Sarah.

    They moved down the hallway, around the corner, covering each other. Until they reached the storage area.

    Where they found the missing two men - both dead. One was on the ground, with his clothes torn off him and a stabbing wound in his back. The other was lying nearby, looking as if he had been mauled by a bear. Or a big cat - like a jaguar.

    And the figurine Chuck had wanted to be checked was on the ground behind them, broken. As were a few more pieces for the auction.

    “What the hell?” Casey said. “Is there a jaguar in the building?”

    “It looks like it,” Sarah replied.

    And since there were only two ways out of this room, the animal had to have taken the other one - back to the auction hall.

    But the painting they needed to secure was there. And plutonium was more dangerous than a single animal. Far more dangerous. And she only had a pistol - not the best weapon to face a large predator.

    “Grab the painting. I’ll inform building security about the animal,” Sarah said.

    For a change, Casey didn’t argue. He nodded. “Let’s get out of here.”

    A minute later, they were loading the painting and the prisoner into Casey’s prepared van. Chuck looked very relieved when he took a seat on the back bench, closing his eyes.

    “Where’s Harmony?” Sarah asked. She felt guilty about disturbing him, but they had to move quickly.

    He looked up. “Uh? Oh. She went to the party she mentioned.”

    “What?” Sarah didn’t quite yell but came close.

    “I wasn’t about to stop her,” Chuck said.

    “And we’re leaving as well,” Casey snapped as he started the engine.

    Five minutes later, they were on the highway, passing an animal control van and several police cars headed towards the hotel.

    They had accomplished the mission and secured both La Ciudad and the plutonium. But Sarah wasn’t looking forward to the debriefing.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More Store, October 3rd, 2007

    “...and the prisoner was handed over to the NSA agents for interrogation after we returned to base.”

    Sarah fought the urge to grin at Casey’s wording - it wasn’t as if the home theatre room in the Buy More could be called a base by anyone sane. They really needed a proper base in the area.

    But both General Beckman and the director nodded. “What about the animal attack?” the general asked.

    “No big cat or similar animal has been found in the hotel,” Sarah replied. “Despite an extensive search by security and animal control personnel.”

    Beckman nodded. “I see. And you are certain that the animal didn’t get past you into the underground parking garage?” From which it would have been able to escape into the city.

    “Yes, ma’am,” Casey cut in. “If it escaped the hotel, it wasn’t through the garage. We secured the door before we left.”

    “But since it has not been found, one must conclude that it did escape,” the director said. With a glance at Chuck, he added: “Or what would you say, Mr Bartowski?”

    “Uh… I didn’t flash on that, sir.” Chuck shook his head.

    Both the general and the director narrowed their eyes, and Sarah suppressed a wince; Chuck’s answer had ‘evasive’ written all over it. It was the first time they talked directly to him, and only on screen, not in person, but they wouldn’t miss that - nor would they let it go. In their place, Sarah wouldn’t have let it go either.

    “I didn’t ask if you ‘flashed’ on the animal, Mr Bartowski. I wanted to know your thoughts about a dangerous animal running wild in downtown Los Angeles - after it had already killed one man,” the director said.

    Chuck did wince. “Uh… I don’t think we or anyone else have to worry about the animal, sir.” He shook his head.

    “You don’t think?” The general raised her eyebrows. “That’s not much of a reassurance. On what exactly do you base this assumption of yours?”

    “Uh…” Sarah saw Chuck gulp. “It’s… It’s classified, ma’am. Sir. Need to know.”

    “Both of us have the highest security clearances, Mr Bartowski. As you have been told earlier, I command the NSA, and he is the director of the CIA.”

    “Uh…” Chuck licked his lips. “If you were, uh, cleared to know this, you would know, ma’am, sir.”

    “Really?” General Beckman looked as if she had bitten into a lemon. “Your security clearance is lower than ours.”

    “Yes, it is,” Chuck replied, then cleared his throat. “It’s really need to know, sorry. You could ask whoever told you not to, ah, look into my friend’s business?” Sarah saw Chuck’s semi-hopeful smile wither and die in response to the general’s glare. But neither the general nor the director pursued this subject any further.

    “Can you talk about your other friend, instead?” the director tilted his head. “Miss ‘Harmony’.”

    “She’s not my friend,” Chuck spat, then blinked. “Uh, sir, I mean.”

    “But she’s working with your friends, isn’t she? And therefore we’re not allowed to investigate her?”

    “Uh… yes, I think. No, yes. I mean, yes.” Chuck nodded.

    “How convenient.”

    Chuck shrugged, though he looked decidedly uncomfortable. “It’s, how do you say, it’s above my paygrade? Not that I’m actually being paid for any of this, you know. Just saying.”

    “You will be reimbursed for your participation,” General Beckman said with a frown.

    “Thank you, ma’am.”

    “That’s all I think, from you. You’re not cleared for the rest of the debriefing,” the general added with, in Sarah’s opinion, more than a little pettiness.

    “Yes, ma’am.”

    “But don’t stray,” Casey snarled. “You’re still in danger. Go and play some games in the store. Without hurting yourself.”

    Chuck almost gasped at Casey, then pouted at Sarah.

    She shook her head - Casey hadn’t heard that from her.

    As soon as Chuck was out of earshot, the director addressed Sarah. “Good work despite the interference, Agent Walker. Agent Casey,” he added a moment later.

    Casey grunted, but Sarah nodded. “Thank you, sir.”

    “It’s unfortunate that someone else is mixed up in this, and almost caused the mission to fail,” the director went on, “but it proved that the Intersect can be used to great effect in the field.”

    “But it has also proved that the Intersect is compromised,” the general said. “Withholding information on behalf of unknown, possibly foreign, parties.”

    “MI6?” Casey asked.

    “The British government denied any involvement in this affair beyond a failed attempt to apprehend La Ciudad in Madrid,” the director replied.

    Which didn’t mean that it was true, of course - Sarah knew that very well from experience. But she had to say something about Chuck being compromised. “But the orders not to investigate came from our own government.”

    Once more, General Beckman grimaced, though, this time, her glare was aimed at Sarah. But she was a trained agent, not a civilian like Chuck - she met the general’s eyes with a polite, neutral expression.

    “Indeed,” the director interjected. “If the Intersect were compromised, then so would be our own government. It is more likely that there is a secret operation being run by another agency.” Beckman pressed her lips together but didn’t contradict him when he looked at her. Neither did she agree, though. He went on: “For the time being, continue with your mission. We’ll construct a proper base nearby.”

    “Yes, sir,” Sarah said, nodding.

    Casey grunted, and the screen went dark. “Not compromised, huh?”

    Sarah looked at him. “Do you disagree with the director’s assessment?”

    He grunted again. “Something’s not right here. Too much doesn’t add up.”

    “We’ve been ordered not to investigate,” she pointed out.

    He nodded.

    But both of them knew they would do it anyway. Good agents knew when to follow orders to the letter and when not.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, October 3rd, 2007

    “Bartowski wasn’t happy today,” Casey told her in lieu of a greeting when she entered his apartment in the evening.

    “I know,” she said - although she had only guessed; Chuck hadn’t visited her during his breaks today.

    “All the killing must have been a little much for him.”

    “Or the general’s debriefing,” Sarah replied. Chuck hadn’t seemed as shocked as she had expected at the killing he had seen.

    Casey grunted at her dig at his superior. “Grimes had a shiner and moved as if his leg was hurting as well. And he was dumber than usual.”

    “So he was in a fight,” Sarah said. “That explains why Chuck couldn’t reach him.” And Caridad had been there since she hadn’t answered her phone either,

    “They found and disabled the bugs.” Casey pointed at his tv screen, which showed several angles of the Bartowski home. “They didn’t find the external cameras, though.”

    “Or they left them because they know they need additional security,” Sarah replied. Privately, she wondered if the discovery of the bugs in his home were the reason Chuck had been ‘unhappy’ today. It probably was, she concluded.

    Casey scoffed. “The girl is convinced we’re useless.”

    “Chuck knows better,” Sara retorted.

    His snort conveyed his disagreement. “That doesn’t matter. She’s calling the shots. Or her superiors.”

    “Do you really think any agency would let Caridad make such calls?” Sarah shook her head. “She’s too undisciplined.”

    “Could be an act.” He bared his teeth in a grin. “She might be trying to provoke us.”

    “That would be unprofessional,” Sarah pointed out. “And her superiors have enough influence to order the NSA and the CIA around.”

    “But not enough to get us to abandon the Intersect,” Casey retorted.

    That was true. The data in Chuck’s head was crucial for national security. “You think they want him.”

    “He’s a bloody tech support nerd. The only reason we or anyone else care about him is the Intersect in his head. If we’re out of the picture, they are the only ones with access to him.”

    “That won’t happen.” The agency wouldn’t let Chuck go.

    “Not unless we let the girl provoke us.” He grinned at her.

    Was he insinuating she would let Caridad push her into losing her temper? “There’s no chance of that happening,” she said. She was a trained agent. Not a girl with a crush. An unrequited crush, even.

    Judging by his answering grunt, he disagreed. Pointing out that she wasn’t too close to Chuck would only make him believe he was correct, so Sarah didn’t.

    He looked at her for a moment, then pointed at his table “There are the police reports about last night’s mission.”

    Preliminary ones, of course - the final reports would take weeks to be written. She skimmed them. “The staff carrying the lots to the storage room were knocked out? Half a dozen people, in a narrow corridor, and none of them saw who attacked them?” She looked at him.

    “That’s what the report claims. They haven’t been questioned yet.”

    “Scared into keeping silent?” she speculated.

    “Or taken out with drugs. Forensics are still working.” He chuckled. “Someone leaked the rumour about a jaguar running wild, and people have been reporting sightings of it ever since. Animal Control caught half a dozen large house cats already.”

    It wasn’t funny in her opinion. Some animal had killed a man and was loose. Chuck claimed it had been handled, but he hadn’t told them how. Or by whom.

    “And the press’s talking about the ‘Wilshire Massacre’ in the garage.” He grinned.

    That wasn’t funny, either. “Will it pose a threat to our mission?”

    “No. It’s a robbery gone wrong. Gang-related.”

    That was the LAPD for you. Or, Sarah thought as she pulled out a file of her own from her bag, California. “I’ve looked into Chuck’s background. Purely to find possible threats, of course.”

    “Of course.” He bared his teeth.

    “I’ve identified ‘Harmony’ as ‘Harmony Kendall’. Former classmate of Chuck’s in Sunnydale High.” She handed him the copy of the file.

    “That her school portrait?”

    She nodded.

    “Hasn’t changed much.” He read further, then stared at her. “She’s dead?”

    “According to the official records, she died in a gas explosion at Chuck’s high school graduation ceremony in 1999. Together with half a dozen officials including the town’s mayor.”

    He blinked. “They faked her death?”

    “Obviously.” She frowned. “I checked the invitation to the auction - she went by ‘Harmony Kendall’.”

    “Why would anyone fake their death and keep using their old name?” He shook his head.

    Indeed. Sarah knew that better than anyone else. Sam was dead. There was only Sarah. And why would anyone fake her death? Why would anyone need a sociopathic bimbo? “It makes no sense,” she said.

    “Unless it’s part of a bigger cover-up. Or someone screwed up.” That happened, even in their own agencies.

    She nodded. “Perhaps they thought all records were lost when the town disappeared in a sinkhole, and she went back to using her real name?”

    He grinned. “They screwed up.”

    She matched his grin. They didn’t know yet who ‘they’ were. But they’d find out.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious, October 4th, 2007

    When she saw Chuck leaving the Buy More, Sarah tensed. Another house call? Casey needed to find a way to follow Chuck on those trips. It shouldn’t be too hard to get a promotion to ‘Nerd Herder’ as a spy - he certainly had the skills for it. And he could force a vacancy open anytime he wanted. Jeff and Lester leaving for greener pastures or the hospital would only improve the staff, in Sarah’s opinion. And it would lessen the pressure on Chuck if he didn’t have to deal with their antics.

    Then she realised Chuck wasn’t headed towards the parking lot, but towards Wienerlicious. Towards her. And she tensed even more. What would he say? What should she say?

    “Welcome to Wienerlicious!” She realised that it was the wrong choice as soon as she said it.

    “Uh, hi.” He had that forced smile again. Nervous, too - he looked around in the small restaurant.

    “Hi, Chuck,” she said, nodding slightly.

    “Ah.” He nodded as well. “Just checking for… witnesses?”

    “It’s clear.”

    “Ah, good, I guess? Or does that mean you’ll lose money for the mission?”

    “What?”

    “I mean if there aren’t any customers?”

    She snorted. “The agency doesn’t really depend on selling hot dogs for their budget.” Which he should have known.

    “Of course not. That would have been weird.” He nodded.

    “Cola?”

    “Uh, thanks, yes, please.”

    She pulled a cola and a diet coke out of the fridge and joined him at the best table in the restaurant.

    After a moment of silence, she raised her glass. “Cheers!”

    “Uh, cheers!”

    Taking a swallow covered two more seconds. “So…” she prompted him after another second.

    He cleared his throat. “Well…” He cleared his throat again. “We found the surveillance devices.”

    “We noticed.”

    “I, uh, notice a distinct lack of apology here, for violating my and my family’s privacy.” He glared at her. Well, it was a decent attempt at glaring.

    She met his eyes. “Our mission is to protect you. We do what we must for that.”

    “You protect you-know-what.” He pointed at his temple.

    “That’s you,” she pointed out.

    He frowned. “In any case, does that justify bugging my home? Spying on my family?”

    “Yes.” Of course it did.

    He opened his mouth, then closed it again.

    “How can we save you if we don’t notice a threat?” Sarah pointed out.

    “You could give me a panic button or some other spy gadget.”

    “And you’d notice a threat in time?” She raised her eyebrows at him.

    He pointed at his temple again. “Isn’t that why you are protecting me?”

    “It doesn’t exactly work on command, does it?” she replied.

    “It’s still no reason to spy on me.” He pouted.

    She frowned in response. “We need to do our job even though you’re keeping secrets from us.”

    “You’re not exactly Miss Transparency either,” he retorted. “I don’t even know your middle name. Or your real name.”

    “But you know that Sarah isn’t my real name.” Which meant he had flashed on her again.

    He blinked. “Well, you’re undercover here, aren’t you? You wouldn’t use your real name but a secret identity.”

    He was wrong, yet correct at the same time. She suppressed another frown. “I’m not the one in danger, Chuck. You are.”

    “If you’re protecting me, you’re in danger as well.”

    “That’s part of my job as a spy,” she told him. “With which, I believe, you are more familiar than you let on. You did tell off the general, after all,” she added to make it clear she wasn’t talking about his flashes.

    “Oh.” He looked taken aback.

    “It’s your life that’s in danger because you’re keeping a secret.” She leaned forward but didn’t take his hand. “Chuck, this is serious. Dr Zarnow was a traitor. Someone suspects your existence.”

    He looked guilty, at least. “Look… it’s not my secret to share. My… they don’t trust the military or spies.”

    “We’re working for the government, Chuck. For the country.”

    “They don’t trust the government, either.” He shrugged.

    Weren’t ‘they’ part of the government? They had to be; no one outside the government would have the clout to push the agency around. “Are they forcing you to keep their secrets?”

    “What? No. I mean… not force-force. But we, I mean, I, owe them. Not money. It’s just… you don’t betray people like that.”

    “We can protect you, Chuck. From them as well.”

    “It’s not like that, really. They’re friends.”

    She didn’t believe that for a second. “Friends for whom you’ll endanger yourself. Friends like Harmony.”

    “She isn’t my friend! Just an acquaintance.”

    “A school mate.”

    “Yes.”

    “Who was reported dead eight years ago.” Sarah watched his reaction.

    He flinched. “She got better?”

    “I guess that means I wouldn’t have wanted to meet her when she was worse, hm?”

    He nodded. “Yes. You really wouldn’t have wanted to meet her when she was… worse.”

    She was missing something. He was still evasive. And she couldn’t push too much. But she knew it was related to Sunnydale. And Chuck’s past.

    “Alright,” she said, smiling. “Just be careful. And remember: We, I can protect you.”

    He nodded, but it didn’t look like he believed her. Though he didn’t tense or jerk when she put her hand on his.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, October 7th, 2007

    “We really need a proper base,” Sarah said as she entered Casey’s flat.

    “The NSA would have finished construction already, if not for your agency’s interference,” Casey replied.

    “Perfectly understandable security concerns,” she retorted. “Not everyone thinks claymore mines are adequate for undercover missions in the middle of a mall.”

    He grunted. Sarah counted that as a point for her and the agency. It didn’t matter anyway. “I did some digging,” she said.

    “Kendall?”

    “Whoever faked her death was sloppy,” she said. “They had all the pieces - police report. Coroner’s report. Death certificate. Even a funeral notice and a grave. But they messed up the details.”

    “Oh?”

    “The police report claims she died in a gas explosion - together with a dozen others. Very rudimentary. The coroner’s report claims she died of exsanguination following an animal attack. The death certificate says it was an accidental death.”

    “Coroner could’ve made a mistake,” Casey said. “Happens. There were lots of deaths in the explosion, after all, for such a small town. Killed the mayor and most of the council, didn’t it?”

    “Yes. But I would have expected the Coroner to be extra-careful because of the publicity.” She shrugged. “On the other hand, Sunnydale had more deaths in general than other towns. Many of them violent deaths with scarce documentation, which never appeared in the official statistics. I’ve had to compile them myself from obituaries and similar sources.”

    “It’s a cover-up.”

    “For years. Until the whole town - and all the records - disappeared in a sinkhole.” She scoffed.

    “Convenient.”

    “Very.”

    “And Bartowski knows what happened there.”

    “Yes.” She didn’t like to admit it, but Chuck’s evasive answers pretty much confirmed it.

    “He was a kid at the time he left.”

    “As was Kendall.” She stared at him. “And the official files in our database were heavily edited.” In a very familiar style. “Someone ran an op there. For years.”

    He grunted again. “I’ve heard rumours about a black op in California that was scrubbed after a disaster.”

    “Who ran it?”

    “I don’t know.”

    She narrowed her eyes at him.

    “All I know is that they mainly recruited young soldiers. Almost fresh out of boot camp or the academy. Talented people, but inexperienced.”

    “Soldiers who wouldn’t have spotted a setup?” Unlike special forces with experience in the field. And contacts.

    He nodded, and she saw he was clenching his teeth. “A lot of them died in ‘accidents’ around 2000,” he said. “Supposedly.”

    “Someone killed the witnesses. Or faked their deaths.” Sarah didn’t like where this was going. Not at all.

    “Yes.”

    “The gas explosion at the school was never really investigated properly,” she pointed out. “Dead young soldiers and teenagers. Suspicious deaths.” And town officials and school staff. Had they known too much? Threatened to go public?

    Casey nodded. “They were recruiting.”

    “But for what were they recruiting?”

    He hesitated. “Back around 2000, there were rumours about new drugs. Combat drugs that turned soldiers into supermen. Never heard anything about it again.”

    “Do you think they used the teenagers for experiments?” Sarah couldn’t really believe it. In California? If it had happened in some camp in South or Central America, maybe. But on US soil? Although... what had Chuck said about Kendall being worse in the past?

    He tilted his head. “We have no solid information. Just rumours. And Bartowski and Grimes are still alive. If they had known anything, they’d have been dealt with.”

    She frowned, but Casey was correct. “Unless they only found out from a survivor after the operation was scrubbed.”

    “And they were left alive?” Casey sounded doubtful. “Sloppy.”

    “Chuck said he and his family owed Caridad,” Sara said. “Saving them from a clean-up squad would explain that.”

    “How would a little girl be able to save anyone from the government?” Casey scoffed.

    “Unless she’s backed by another government,” Sarah said.

    “MI6?” Casey was frowning again. “They wouldn’t be able to push us around.”

    “Joint ops?” It was unlikely. Not on US soil.

    He grunted again.

    She had another thought. “Caridad and Kendall would fit the profile of teenagers recruited young and subjected to training and an experimental drug regimen. What if the op was never stopped? They scrubbed the Sunnydale base after the Sinkhole incident but moved elsewhere. Perhaps outside the US, cooperating with the British.”

    “Or they scrubbed the Sunnydale base with the sinkhole incident,” Casey said. “A base goes up in flames, people will investigate. Whole town disappears into a giant hole? Not much left to investigate, and what’s left is literally buried and covered by the sea now.”

    Shit. She drew a hissing breath. “How would they have been able to do that?”

    He shrugged. “Tons of conspiracy theories. Pick one.” He grinned.

    She frowned at him in response, but his grin merely widened. She shook her head. “If an agency used a US town as a test site to create super-soldiers by experimenting on teenagers, then covered it up by destroying the entire town, then they’ll go to great lengths to cover this up.”

    Like killing two agents who were investigating it.

    “Larkin must have known about it. That’s why he sabotaged Bartowski in Stanford - he wanted to keep him under the radar,” Casey said.

    “Or he found out later, after he had turned traitor,” Sarah said. Bryce couldn’t have been a traitor from the start.

    Casey grunted again. “Bartowski is the key to unravel this whole thing. Find out what he knows.”

    Sarah pressed her lips together. She didn’t want to go that far. But she might not have a choice if she wanted to live. Not if their suspicion was true.

    *****​
     
  10. Threadmarks: Chapter 6: The Heist
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 6: The Heist

    California, Los Angeles, Elysian Valley, October 8th, 2007

    Sarah Walker turned a corner and smiled. As clichée as it was, a patrol car was parked in front of a doughnut stand even though it was close to midnight. Well, that was the LAPD for you. She had expected that, of course - and planned on it. She pulled her cap further down to hide her face, checked that her hair was completely covered, then sent Casey a text: TARGET ACQUIRED. ENGAGING.

    Then she accelerated, swerving wildly, before she slammed her car’s side into the patrol car’s, wrecking both doors and bumping the other car onto the sidewalk. She didn’t stop, of course, despite the yelling from the two cops who stormed out of the shop, but sped away, running a red light to the sound of honking and screeching brakes before she turned the corner and made her getaway.

    A few minutes later, she parked the car - half on the sidewalk, half on two parking spots, with the remains of several bushes and potted plants still clinging to the front. She dropped an empty bottle on the passenger seat and left the car, running into the apartment building in front of her and out the backdoor again.

    Casey was waiting there, dressed all in black. “Everything went as planned?” he snapped.

    She nodded. “You?”

    “Of course.”

    “Cameras disabled?”

    “Do I look like an amateur?” He huffed.

    She grinned in response.

    “Let’s return to base then,” he growled with a huff.

    They disappeared in the backyard of the building.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious, October 9th, 2007

    “Did you hear that Harry Tang was arrested?” Chuck asked as they sat at their usual table in the Wienerlicious. “DUI, I mean, driving under the influence - apparently, he rammed a cop car while drunk, then fled the scene. Big Mike told me that the cops found Harry in his apartment, stone drunk, with the car’s engine still running outside!” He shook his head. “Morgan and the others are celebrating.”

    “Celebrating?” Sarah asked, cocking her head.

    “Well, Harry’s out of the running for the assistant manager job now. Which means it falls to me.” He sighed.

    “Aren’t you happy?” Sarah asked, frowning. He should be happy.

    “Well… it’s stupid, but…”

    She leaned forward, putting her hand on his. “Yes?” He was opening up again.

    “Well, I wanted to beat him fairly, you know? Prove that I’m the better choice.” He sighed again and took a swallow from, his coke, then looked at the bottle. “Well, in a manner of speaking, I guess I am the better choice since the only drug I am addicted to is caffeine.” With a shake of his head, he added: “I wouldn’t have expected Harry to be an alcoholic. He never drank at the team building events. Of course, he never did any team building either…”

    Should she tell him? It could backfire. On the other hand, if he found out at a later date, it would be worse. Sarah bit her lips and took a deep breath. “Well… it wasn’t as if he chose to drink and drive.”

    Chuck scoffed. “I’ve heard that before. It’s not true. It’s always your decision to drink if you’re driving. It’s not as if someone forced him to drink - you can’t force that guy to do anything.” He chuckled, then blinked. And stared at her. “You didn’t!”

    Sarah forced herself to smile.

    He closed his eyes. “You did. Why did you do this?”

    He looked more shocked than when he told her that he knew about her fight with the French group. And he had withdrawn his hand.

    She sighed. “Chuck, you’re now working undercover for a team of spies. As assistant manager, you’ve got more flexible working hours. That means less trouble for you and less work for us.”

    “And that justifies destroying Harry’s life?”

    “It saved his life.”

    “What?”

    “Casey wanted to kill him. He said the man was such a jerk, sooner or later someone working with him would kill him anyway, and he wanted the pleasure himself.”

    Chuck gaped at her.

    “I’m kidding,” she told him with a grin. “But if Casey tells me that the man is completely unsuitable for a position of authority, then that’s enough for me to help getting rid of him.”

    “Ah.” He slowly nodded. “You know, if you could tell this to my co-workers, they would worship you. Morgan, especially.” He blinked. “On second thought, that would be a really bad idea.”

    She grimaced. The thought of Grimes becoming infatuated with her wasn’t a pleasant one.

    “But wouldn’t there have been alternatives to framing him for a crime he didn’t commit?”

    “Casey wanted to break his legs.”

    “Uh… You’re kidding again, right?”

    She looked at him. “You’ve been working with the man, haven’t you?”

    “Casey or Harry?”

    She kept staring at him until he sighed in defeat. “Chuck, what we’re doing here is important. Very important. Countless lives depend on us - on you. Imagine if La Ciudad had managed to get her hands on that plutonium.”

    He winced.

    “We cannot afford to let jerks like Mr Tang hinder our efforts.”

    He lowered his head and mumbled: “Buffy never thought like that about Snyder.”

    “What?” Buffy?

    “Nothing. Just a classmate of mine.”

    “Ah.” She reached out and held his hand again. He didn’t pull it back.

    And she made a mental note of the names. More leads to investigate Chuck’s mysterious past.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Glendale, October 9th, 2007

    “I’m still not sure what we’re actually doing,” Chuck said as they approached the door to Sarah’s apartment - or, as it seemed to become with each passing week, her new home.

    “We’re maintaining our cover,” she explained. “I’m supposed to be your girlfriend, so we have to go on dates or people will wonder if we’re on the outs, as you say in California.” And Sarah could do without Caridad passive-aggressively - or plain aggressively - sniping at her during meals at Chuck’s home.

    “That explains the clubbing,” he admitted. “And, perhaps the kissing on the dance floor, even though I didn’t notice anyone observing us in the crowd.”

    “It’s best to always keep your cover in public,” Sarah told him. With a faint smirk, she added: “You didn’t mind, did you?”

    He cleared his throat, blushing slightly. “It also doesn’t explain why we’re going to your apartment.”

    “Keeping up appearances, of course,” she told him.

    “Ah… but… the apartment isn’t public, is it?” He not-quite-stammered.

    She giggled. “We’re not going to sleep with each other, don’t worry.”

    “Ah.” He did sound a little too relieved, she noticed, and not enough disappointed. But then, he was probably nervous about doing it with a trained spy. Probably.

    “But this is a good occasion to show you some of our gear, so you are familiar with it should you have to use it on a mission,” she went on as she opened her door.

    “The gadgets?”

    He sounded far more enthusiastic about that than she had expected. Far more than about sleeping with her. Well, he was a geek - or nerd, as he’d say. “Yes, the gadgets,” she said with a smile - and froze. The faucet in the bath was running.

    “What’s…”

    She cut off Chuck by raising her hand and drawing her gun. “Someone’s been here - and may still be here,” she whispered.

    “Shouldn’t we call Casey?”

    Sarah ignored Chuck and scanned the room as she slowly advanced. The Living room was clear. She waved to Chuck to make him wait at the door and moved to the bedroom.

    Clear. She aimed at the door to the bathroom - and had to wave Chuck back again. The idiot had followed her to the living room!

    The door to the bathroom was ajar. Someone was moving inside - she could see the shadows moving. She crouched down behind the bed - it wouldn’t stop most bullets, but it provided some concealment.

    Then the door was pulled open, and a woman appeared in a loosely-tied bathrobe - Sarah’s bathrobe. “Hi, Sarah!”

    “You.” Sarah glared at her and slowly rose. She didn’t lower her gun. “What are you doing here?”

    She ignored Sarah’s pistol and smiled at her. “I was waiting for you to come home and decided to take a bath. I was travelling today, you know? Oh, who are you?”

    Sarah frowned. “Chuck, what did I tell you about waiting at the door?”

    “Uh…”

    She glanced over her shoulder. He was staring at her chest, of which the far too loose robe was showing far too much.

    “Hi! I’m Carina, Sarah’s best friend. Are you her partner?” So that was her cover this time. Carina.

    “Uh…” Very eloquent… no, he was flashing on her. “I’m Chuck,” he told her.

    “Chuck?” Carina sauntered past her without a glance, right into Chuck’s face. “Are you looking for a new partner?”

    Sarah holstered her gun. “We’re working together,” she told Carina’s back as she glared at Chuck.

    “Uh, yes.” Chuck nodded.

    Close together?” Carina asked with that smirk of hers Sarah couldn’t stand. “Or is that just a cover? Or are you mixing business and pleasure again?”

    That question was headed into a direction Sarah really wanted to avoid. “What are you doing here?” She refrained from adding: ‘And why don’t you dress?’ - that would only encourage Carina’s antics.

    “I’m on a mission, of course.” That smirk again. “For which I think I need some help. A competent partner.”

    “A mission for the DEA?” Chuck asked.

    Carina looked surprised for the first time since she had appeared, staring first at Chuck, then at Sarah. But then her smirk reappeared. “Interesting.”

    Sarah glared at Chuck. Didn’t he understand the need for secrecy? Carina wouldn’t let this rest.

    “So… if Sarah’s - if that’s her cover this week - isn’t using you right now, want to work with me for a week? Closely, I mean…” Carina breathed while all but pressing her chest into Chuck’s.

    Who took a quick step back, which almost unbalanced the woman. “Uh…” he licked his lips. “I am, uh, assigned to Sarah. Exclusively. Sorry.”

    Carina turned to frown at Sarah. “You shouldn’t be so possessive, Sarah.” Behind her back, Chuck mouthed what looked like ‘help me’ at Sarah.

    “It’s a cover,” Sarah explained to the other spy. “And it’s classified.”

    “Very classified,” Chuck added, very unhelpfully.

    “Oh, I see.” Carina nodded. “Well, it was nice to meet you, Chuck.” She beamed at Chuck, who took another step back, then nodded at Sarah and turned to walk back into the bathroom. And dropped her robe before she closed the door behind her with her foot.

    Sarah wanted to shoot her.

    “So, uh…”

    Sarah cut Chuck off by grabbing his hand and dragging him into the living room.

    “Is she a friend of yours? I mean, she looked friendly, uh…”

    “She probably has the place bugged, so no more talking until she’s gone and I’ve scanned the apartment,” Sarah hissed at him.

    “So… not a friend, then. Got it.”

    “Oh, we’re old friends,” Carina said from the bedroom. Sarah could only see her bare legs as she slipped her jeans on. “I just like to keep her on her toes.”

    “Oh.” Chuck kept staring until she elbowed him in the side. “Oof.”

    “Don’t be so possessive, Sarah!”

    Sarah couldn’t wait until Carina would finally leave her apartment.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Glendale, October 10th, 2007

    “Is this our new base? Because it looks like your apartment,” Chuck said as he looked around in her flat. He reached out to the flatscreen installed on her dinner table, but let his arm drop before touching it. “So, did you get evicted overnight, or is this some sort of sub-lease?”

    Chuck had made better jokes, in Sarah’s opinion. “We’re getting briefed in my apartment because the other locations aren’t secure enough.”

    “They aren’t?” Chuck stared at her,

    “The person joining us for this mission isn’t to be trusted with your home or work location,” Casey growled.

    “Ah, good,” Chuck looked relieved instead of intimidated by the other man. “I was worried about my family and friends.”

    “Ah.”

    “I would be worried if I had your friends,” Casey snapped as he finished scanning the apartment for surveillance devices - even though Sarah had done that already after Carina had left last night.

    Chuck flinched, then frowned at Casey, before turning to Sarah. “Does he have any friends?” he whispered - just loud enough, so Casey heard it as well.

    But whatever the NSA agent would have replied was cut off when the screen lit up, and General Beckman and the director appeared.

    “Agent Casey. Agent Walker. Mr Bartowski.” The woman nodded. “This is your next mission.”

    A picture of a Malibu Beach villa appeared. Northern part of the beach, Sarah noticd. Then it was replaced by the face of a handsome man.

    “This is the villa of Sheik Amir al-Farsi,” the director said. “A citizen of Oman and resident of Los Angeles. He came to study at UCLA in his twenties and stayed to become a movie producer, investing his personal fortune. According to our files, he uses this as a cover to launder drug money for a cartel.”

    “Quite the connected person,” Chuck mumbled.

    “Apparently, he has started to diversify into fencing - such as this blood diamond.” An impressively sized stone appeared next to the man’s picture. “Found in Côte d’Ivoire in 2006, it was cut by a rogue trader in Amsterdam and received a falsified certificate of origin as well as a fake paper trail. Al-Farsi is supposed to deliver the stone to a contact within the next seventy-two hours, which is not enough to get proof for a search warrant without compromising our sources. Which is why the DEA is launching an operation to secure the stone, with our cooperation,” the director explained.

    “We’re going to steal it?”

    Under the combined glares from Sarah, Casey and the general, Chuck flinched. “Sorry. Just… nothing.”

    “You will be assisting Agent Carina. Mr Bartowski will operate undercover and use the Intersect to acquire data on the security of the villa to prepare the retrieval mission.”

    Sarah refrained from frowning. “Sir,” she spoke up. “This is a very dangerous mission. Chuck isn’t trained for this.”

    “And Agent Carina cannot be trusted,” Casey added, to her surprise.

    “She loves and seeks trouble and never sticks to a plan,” Sarah added.

    “Uh…” Chuck held up a finger.

    But the general spoke over his attempt to interrupt her. “The undercover part is a simple mission. Al-Farsi’s guards will not risk an incident with so many witnesses.”

    “Uh… not to doubt your assessment, Ma’am, but what if they do not agree with it? The guards, I mean.” Chuck asked with a forced smile.

    “Then the LAPD SWAT team will have grounds to enter his villa and rescue you, Mr Bartowski, as well as secure the diamond,” the general snapped.

    “But I agree that this is unlikely. You will be infiltrating a party with several prominent members of the movie industry,” the director said with an encouraging smile. “Al-Farsi will not risk his reputation and business by kidnapping a guest.”

    “He doesn’t know the movie business here,” Sarah heard Chuck mumble.

    “We are aware of Agent Carina’s idiosyncrasies, Agent Casey,” the general continued. “And of your encounter in Prague with her. This is why she won’t be trusted with the diamond at any moment during the mission.”

    “That doesn’t sound like she’s a team player,” Chuck said. “Just an observation, sir, ma’am,” he added, ducking his head a little.

    Casey grunted. “In this business, you often have to work with people who tried to kill you in the past. And may try again in the future.”

    Sarah met the agent’s toothy smile with a thin smile of her own.

    “I can just feel the trust and cooperation here,” Chuck mumbled.

    “Agent Carina will now go over the details of the infiltration,” the general said.

    A moment later, the screen went dark, and the doorbell rang.

    “What happened in Prague?” Chuck asked as Sarah walked towards the door.

    Casey didn’t answer. Not verbally, at least. So it had to be something embarrassing. Sarah would have to ask Carina later.

    “Hi, Sarah.”

    “Hi, Carina. Come in.” Sarah’s smile was a little forced. If not for Carina, she would have been able to start investigating this ‘Buffy’ instead of preparing this briefing.

    “Uh… you shouldn’t say that,” Chuck said.

    “What?”

    “Never say ‘come in’. That’s so… yesterday. Uncalifornian. Just step to the side and let them enter,” Chuck said. “Trust me, it’ll save your life one day.”

    Sarah looked at Casey, for once in agreement with the man. Sometimes Chuck was too much of a nerd.

    “Hi, Chuck!” Carina beamed at Chuck. At least she wasn’t wearing a too-loose and too short bathrobe this time.

    “Hi, Carina. Nice to see you again so soon.”

    “Agent Casey. How nice to see you with your pants on,” Carina looked like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth as she greeted the man.

    “Agent Carina.” Casey’s nod was barely perceptible.

    “So, you’re the electronics specialist of the team, hm?” Carina cocked her head at Chuck.

    “Uh, yeah? Yeah.” Chuck nodded.

    “He’s an analyst with some experience in electronics,” Sarah said, stepping closer to Chuck so she could step on his foot if he threatened to let something classified slip.

    “Mh.” Of course, Carina would misinterpret that.

    After a moment of silence, Chuck spoke up again. “So, uh, you have the infiltration planned.”

    Carina nodded. Sarah knew what kind of plan it would be before the woman said anything - after all, she knew Carina very well.

    *****​

    California, Malibu, Malibu Beach, October 11th, 2007

    “So… I’m Charles Carmichael. I run a successful software company, I’m semi-retired, and I’m thinking of entering the movie business after my dream of entering the Admiral’s Cup turned out to be too much work.” Sarah heard Chuck repeat his cover story - again - as their limousine approached al-Farsi’s villa.

    “I thought you nerds were living in a fantasy world most of the time. You should have internalised this fantasy already,” Casey, disguised as their driver, snapped.

    “I’m just making sure nothing changed,” Chuck replied with a pout and what might have been a glare on another man.

    Carina giggled. “Don’t forget your girlfriends.”

    “Girlfriend,” Sarah corrected her. “You want to be free to seduce him. Al-Farsi,” she added when she saw her friend’s eyes light up.

    “He strikes me as the kind of man who’d like to seduce another man’s girlfriend,” Carina replied.

    “You would know,” Sarah retorted.

    In response, Carina winked at Chuck.

    Chuck cleared his throat. “Uh… wouldn’t that kind of ruin the financing deal al-Farsi is hoping to make with me?”

    “Oh, not at all. He might assume we’re there to sweeten the deal,” Carina said. “That kind of stuff happens a lot.”

    Chuck blinked - not long enough to flash, Sarah noticed. “Uh… and do you think that will happen? I mean, you did the, ah, prep work for this mission.” He looked at Sarah, then back at Carina.

    “Oh, I would say there’s a significant chance.” Carina’s smile twisted slightly as she showed her teeth. “He prefers blondes to redheads, though.”

    Sarah pressed her lips together. Striking Carina right before the guards at the gate waved them through would be very unprofessional.

    “Showtime,” Casey commented as he parked the limousine.

    “Alright,” Chuck said, straightening as he stepped out of the car, then helped Sarah and Carina getting out.

    “I’m Charles Carmichael, semi-retired…”

    Sarah slipped her arm into his and leaned into his side to cut him off. “You’ll do fine.”

    Of course, Carina had to grab Chuck’s other arm and drape herself over him.

    Sarah forced herself to smile as they met another guard whose muscles seemed to be one wrong move away from ripping his shirt.

    “Mr Carmichael?”

    “Yes, that’s me!” Chuck replied.

    “Mr al-Farsi is at the pool. If you’ll follow me?” The man gestured towards a small stone path leading around the villa. Sarah hoped they would get to see the interior of the villa right away - preferably on a tour of the man’s artwork instead of his bedroom, of course. Carina would have to answer for that after the mission.

    The circled the house and reached the pool area overlooking Malibu Beach. The sun was just setting in the Pacific, casting a warm light on the scene. About a dozen people were there - more than half of them pretty girls in bikinis.

    “Actresses hoping for the casting couch,” Carina whispered.

    “Ah.”

    “Or professionals,” Sarah added.

    “Uh.”

    “Mr Carmichael!” Al-Farsi, wearing an expensive tailor-made suit but not tie, walked towards them, flanked by two of the girls. “Welcome in my humble home!” He snipped his fingers, and another girl brought a tray with drinks over.

    “Thank you for the invitation,” Chuck replied, grabbing a drink. “These are my friends, Carina and Sarah.”

    Al-Farsi’s smile looked like a leer as he greeted them. Sarah would bet that the man couldn’t tell the colour of her eyes. But then, that was why she and Carina were wearing such skimpy black dresses.

    “Come, sit down! Enjoy the party! Oh, have you met Darren Stone? Darren? This is Mr Carmichael. He’s thinking of entering the movie business.”

    An up and coming actor, according to their briefing. He had moved from the C- to the B-list in a few months. Not yet A-list material, as Carna had described him.

    “No, I haven’t had the pleasure, yet,” Chuck said. “Though I loved your part in ‘House of Blood’. How your character killed those vampires was inspirational. All my acquaintances loved it as well.”

    Sarah squeezed his arm a little before he went full-nerd. His cover as the owner of a software form would only go so far.

    “It’s always great to meet a fan,” Stone replied. “Even more so if it’s an investor!”

    “That remains to be seen,” Chuck said. “I’m still testing the waters, so to speak.” His laugh sounded a little forced to Sarah, but she didn’t think the others would notice.

    “Feel free to use the pool!” Al-Farsi said.

    “Don’t mind if we do!” Carina piped up and grabbed Sarah’s arm.

    “That wasn’t the plan,” Sarah hissed through clenched teeth as she fought to keep smiling.

    “Improvise!” Carina shot back. “Where can we change?” she asked, cocking her head at the host.

    “Ah...just step inside there. No one will bother you,” al-Farsi added with a glance at one of the guards.

    And Carina was off towards the entrance. Sarah cursed internally. They needed Chuck inside to flash on the security system, not the distraction. “I don’t want to leave Chuck alone with them,” she whispered as they entered the living room. The windows which went from the floor to the ceiling were bullet-proof glass, she noticed.

    “They won’t seduce him in the five minutes we’re taking here so calm down.” Carina grinned at her, dropping her dress before she pulled her bikini out of her handbag as if there weren’t two cameras trained on them.

    “I’m not concerned about that,” Sarah said. “But he’s an analyst, not a field agent,” she added in a whisper as she followed Carina’s example.

    “He’s a member of your team. They wouldn’t send him into the field if he couldn’t handle it, would they?” Carina whispered in reply. Sarah pressed her lips together - her friend was fishing for information again.

    Her friend straightened and adjusted the straps of her top. “Perfect,” she announced.

    “You wish,” Sarah said, rolling her shoulders and striking a pose in front of the reflective glass.

    Carina huffed, and they stepped out onto the pool area again.

    Though, seeing how Chuck’s eyes widened when he saw her in the string bikini, Sarah had to admit that Carina’s plan had its advantages as well.

    “What a sight! You’re a lucky man, Mr Carmichael!” al-Farsi exclaimed.

    “Uh, yes, so I tell myself every morning.”

    “And twice in the evening, I’d say, hm?” Stone added. The actor didn’t even bother to hide his leer. He probably thought they were fans of him.

    Carina sauntered over, forcing Sarah to follow her. Chuck was watching her more than her friend, though, Sarah noticed. But al-Farsi was watching her almost exclusively. The man did seem to prefer blondes.

    Sarah couldn’t fault him for that, but a sudden preference for redheads would come in very handy right now.

    Especially since Carina had taken the seat on Chuck’s other side, forcing Sarah to sit between Chuck and their host.

    “Cheers!” al-Farsi said, lifting his glass, then suddenly blinked.

    Sarah followed his gaze and saw there was a blonde woman standing at the edge of the pool. Beautiful - good surgeon, Sarah thought - and judging by her pale skin, she must be using sun blocker from morning to evening, given L.A.’s climate. Well, the sun had set by now anyway. Her black cocktail dress didn’t leave much to the imagination - similar to Sarah’s own.

    Stone stood at once. “Mary! Where have you been? You didn’t answer any calls for three days! We feared the worst!”

    Mary smiled, flashing pearly white teeth. “I was very sick, felt like I was dying, but I got better.”

    “Great!” Stone beamed at her. “Charles, this is Mary Winters! A good friend of mine! She’s been acting in the Mexican Ninja series.”

    “Charmed,” Chuck said with a very fake smile.

    And he was texting.

    Sarah leaned over to Chuck as Mary approached the group as if the woman were striding down a catwalk. “What are you doing?” she whispered into his ear.

    “Uh…”

    Time to take a page out of Carina’s book and improvise. “Oh, Charles… let’s go swimming a little!” she cooed at him and pulled on his arm. “He can borrow trunks, can’t he, Mr al-Farsi?”

    Chuck blinked, Carina frowned, but al-Farsi, staring at Mary, nodded. “Of course.” He waved with his hand without taking his eyes off the blonde’s curves. “Carlo can fetch him some.”

    Sarah had Chuck halfway to the door before Carina caught up. “What are you doing?” she hissed.

    “Getting on with the plan,” Sarah whispered back. “Which means getting Chuck inside so he can check the security system.” And she needed to ask him who he had texted. If he was endangering their mission by calling Caridad...

    “So I don’t really have to strip?” Chuck sounded almost hopeful.

    “You’ll have to maintain your cover, Chuck,” Sarah told him as she guided him into the living room. Turnabout was fair play.

    “But taking my clothes off seems more like uncovering…” But he was looking around. “Two SVB-54 explosion protected cameras?” Had he flashed? Had she missed it? “They sell them at Buy More.”

    “We already know that,” Carina interjected, impatient as usual. “What about the rest of the security system?”

    “Uh…” This time he blinked. Flashed. “Special safe in his bedroom. Iris and fingerprint scanner. Taser trap if someone else tries to open it. Three cameras - ceiling mirror, corner window, bed headrest.”

    Carlo’s arrival interrupted their talk. “Here, sir,” the man said, handing a speedo over.

    “Uh, I’m more a shorts guy, you know… loose shorts,” Chuck said. “Sorry!”

    “Alright, sir.” The man grinned and went away again.

    “Loose shorts?” Carina’s grin almost reached her ears.

    Chuck cleared his throat. “I’m just buying time to, err, analyse the situation.” But he was glancing at the pool area. At Mary.

    And Sarah didn’t think it was because the woman attracted him - she knew how he looked when he was ogling her and trying not to be obvious about it. “Who’s Mary?” she whispered.

    “Uh…” He licked his lips. “She’s dangerous. A killer. Utter sociopath. Stay away from her.”

    “What?” Carina turned to stare at the woman.

    “Did you recognise her?” Sarah asked. He hadn’t flashed on her, had he? Was he getting more subtle?

    “Let’s just say I have a strong suspicion?”

    So, not the Intersect, but MI6. She narrowed her eyes at Chuck as she took a step closer and wrapped her arms around him as if she were kissing him to mask their talk from the people at the pool. “Did you text Caridad?” she mouthed so Carina wouldn’t hear.

    “Uh…”

    Of course he did! “We’re on a mission!” she hissed.

    “Uh…”

    She didn’t let him interrupt. “Miss Crossbow will ruin this! What were you thinking? You’re worse than Carina!”

    “Uh… she left.”

    “What?” Sarah turned around. Carina was back at the pool. And sitting in al-Farsi’s lap. “Oh no!” she whispered. “She’s going to seduce him to get him to the bedroom.” Typical.

    “Oh no!” Chuck mumbled. “Mary’s going to kill her!”

    “What?”

    Once more, Carlo’s arrival interrupted them. “Here, sir.”

    “Thank you, Mister,” Chuck said, taking the trunks. Once the man was gone again, he added: “I guess I have to change now?”

    “Yes.”

    “Could you, I mean…”

    “You’ve got nothing I haven’t seen before, Chuck. And it’s our cover. Carina’s probably playing up the jealousy angle - seducing al-Farsi as payback for us fooling around,” Sarah said. As annoying as Carina’s antics were, they probably had to run with it. If Sarah’s friend was as quick as usual, they might finish the mission before Miss Attitude arrived to crash the party. Probably literally.

    “Uh… Wait a minute. You said you didn’t peep at me!”

    “I was speaking in general, Chuck.”

    “Oh.”

    “Change now,” she said through clenched teeth.

    “Yes, ma’am!” He did. He wasn’t as fit as a trained agent, but far from being a couch potato. Closer to a runner’s build.

    “I don’t think you need to take your water bottle with you,” she told him when he finished. “They’re not poisoning us here.”

    “You never know when it can save your life,” he replied.

    She didn’t have the time to sort this out. Al-Farsi would hopefully think it was just an eccentricity. “So, let’s go swimming.”

    “That’s the plan? We swim?”

    “We’ll be swimming, flirting, kissing, and then when Carina gets al-Farsi into his bedroom, we’ll go to a guest room. So we can support her,” she added upon seeing his expression.

    “Ah, of course.”

    She nodded. “And you better hope we’re done before your friend arrives.”

    His expression didn’t fill her with much hope. Damn. But there was no time to berate him any longer - Carina apparently had lost all subtlety or patience. Well, it wasn’t as if she usually had much of either.

    “Usually, that’s the point people tell you to get a room,” Chuck commented as they stepped out into the pool area again.

    “Speaking from experience?”

    “Does television count?”

    She laughed at that. “Let’s swim.”

    “I’m already floundering. Does that count?”

    She resisted the sudden urge to push him into the pool. Instead, she stepped to the edge of the water, then took a shallow dive into it. Once she resurfaced, she turned and waved at him - and used the opportunity to check on Carina. It looked like the blonde had set her sights on al-Farsi as well and was trying to push Carina out of the way. Literally.

    Chuck jumped in as well, though with less grace than her. More than she had expected, though. And he surfaced next to her. “Whoa…” He shook his head and slicked his hair back, then glanced at Carina and al-Farsi as well. “Uh.”

    “Relax,” Sarah told him as she wrapped her arms around his neck again. “Carina’s a professional spy. She knows what she’s doing.”

    “I’m concerned about the blonde, actually,” Chuck said.

    Carina had said al-Farsi preferred blondes, Sarah knew. But it seemed al-Farsi preferred two girls to a single blonde - the man had wrapped his arms around both women and was smiling so widely, Sarah almost expected his chin to fall off. “She’s got it under control,” Sarah told him. “But we need to do our part now.”

    “Uh, do you mean…”

    She cut him off with a kiss. A very French and showy one. They had to sell it to the guards, after all.

    When she pulled her head back, both of them were panting.

    “Wow…”

    She pushed him towards the shallower part of the pool and kissed him again. They were on a timetable, after all.

    “You know…”

    It took her two more kisses before he stopped trying to talk, but by the time al-Farsi got up from his seat and walked towards the house, arms still wrapped around the waists of Carina and Mary, Chuck and her needing a room as well looked quite convincing.

    “Good thing I got shorts instead of speedos,” she heard Chuck mumble as they climbed out of the pool and walked towards a guard - Carlo.

    “Hey!” She smiled with a touch of embarrassment at the man. “Are there guest rooms available? I think we need to lie down for a bit. Swimming got a little exhausting.”

    “Yes,” Chuck said, nodding. He did manage to wrap his own arm around her waist, though.

    Carlo didn’t even try to hide his grin, but he gestured towards the house. “I’ll show you to the guest rooms.”

    The guest rooms were on the other side of the house and one floor up - still with a view of the ocean, but not quite as lovely as the bedroom’s.

    As soon as the door had closed behind them, Chuck looked around. “That was easy.”

    “He probably was relieved a potential business partner wouldn’t mind the host’s absence. Or Carina’s,” Sarah replied. She spotted a second smoke detector in the ceiling. A hidden camera. How cliché. Well, what could one expect from people who shopped for their security system at Buy More?

    “So, uh… shouldn’t we be going?” Chuck asked. “We can’t leave Carina alone with Mary!”

    Of course they could - Sarah knew that very well. But they couldn’t let Carina get her hands on the diamond. The director and the general had been clear about that. She drew a small throwing spike out of her purse and took the ‘smoke detector’ out. “Now we can go.” She sent a message to Casey to inform him as well.

    “Won’t that alarm them?” Chuck asked.

    “Yes,” Sarah answered, taking out the camera in the hallway. “But they would be alarmed by us leaving anyway - and so they won’t be able to see what we’re doing.”

    Footsteps below them. She stepped to the railing of the stairs. One man. Headed their way. Almost… now!

    Sarah jumped over the railing and dropped on the running guard, slamming him on to the floor. An elbow to the back of his head knocked him out before he could recover his breath and sound an alarm. She grabbed his gun - a Glock 17 - as Chuck scrambled down the stair, and they were running towards al-Farsi’s bedroom.

    But before they reached it, a body smashed the bedroom’s door open - from the inside. Sarah spotted blonde hair and pale skin, and not much more. Mary.

    The blonde rolled on her feet, jumping up - but someone rushed out of the room and tackled her into the living room, over the leather couch there. Was that…

    “Caridad!” Chuck confirmed Sarah’s suspicion as the low table broke under the weight of the two battling girls.

    Sarah checked the bedroom, gun drawn. Carina was dragging an unconscious al-Farsi towards the safe, apparently ignoring both her state of undress and the fight that was wrecking the living room outside. And the approaching guards.

    “Get the diamond,” Sarah hissed at Chuck as she took stock of their situation, “I’ll handle the guards.”

    Outside, the other guests were fleeing and two men were rushing towards the living room from the garden, SMGs - Ingram Mac-10s - drawn. Because of the bullet-proof glass, Sarah couldn’t shoot them on the approach, so she took cover behind a supporting pillar in the living room and waited. They charged through the door, weapons aimed at where Mary and Caridad were fighting, and Sarah slid around the pillar, dropping the first man with a double-tap to the head.

    The other, though, jumped behind a leather seat before she could hit him. She crouched down, keeping her stolen gun trained on the seat. Fifteen rounds left in her pistol, she reminded herself. She should have taken a spare magazine, but there had been no time.

    “Give me the diamond, Chuck!”

    “Shouldn’t you get dressed?”

    “Give me the diamond, Chuck.”

    And Carina was only focused on the objective and wouldn’t be any help. Sarah hoped Chuck was also focused on the diamond, and not on her assets. Where was Casey? He should be moving in already.

    Suddenly, a body - Caridad - flew into the seat, pushing it over and dumping her on the floor beneath - and exposing the guard who turned to aim at the woman on the floor. Sarah fired three shots, two hitting the man, before he could shoot Caridad. The woman didn’t even seem to notice - she backflipped on her feet, then charged through Sarah’s line of fire, launching herself at Mary again.

    What was wrong with those people? Sarah shook her head and sprinted across the room to grab the SMG on the ground. Two more guards outside the villa - and one above her. She threw herself forward, rolling over a shoulder, and came to a stop next to the dead guard and his SMG. She grabbed it and rolled behind the tossed seat a moment before the man on the first floor started firing at her and sent bullets ricocheting around the room.

    As soon as the shooting stopped, Sarah rolled out of cover, sending a burst into the shooter before he could finish reloading his gun. Amateur. But the other two guards were coming, and… Movement inside the villa!

    How many guards did al-Farsi have? A dozen? More? Stone and the girls at the pool had fled, but there could be more guests around. And where was Casey? She fired a burst through the open door, keeping the two guards from rushing in.

    “Chuck! Carina! What are you doing?” she yelled. “We need to…” She had to scramble out of the way when Mary was smashed into the remains of the low table, rolling over broken glass. When she came up, another guard was shooting at her. And at everyone inside the living room - the man was spraying bullets all over the place. Sarah ended up behind what was left of the couch, followed by Caridad.

    She glanced around. The shooter was back towards the kitchen. The two outside were behind cover, engaging Casey. But where was Mary?

    Screaming told her. She whirled around and saw Mary stumble out of the bedroom, clawing at her face, which seemed to be melting. And Chuck was standing there, his bottle - his empty bottle - in hand.

    Then a bolt hit Mary in the chest, and she disintegrated. Turned to ashes without fire. Where had Caridad… Sarah glanced at her but saw no crossbow. Had she thrown an incinerator? But… no…

    Another burst of autofire from the remaining guard inside the villa made Sarah focus on the fight at hand. Questions could wait. She crouched, then rose behind the couch and fired two shots. One hit the man in the shoulder, and he spun around, losing both his gun and his balance. She plugged him with a double tap to the head as soon as he hit the ground.

    The two outside… Casey had gotten them.

    “We need to leave now!” Sarah snarled. “The police will arrive in minutes!” And getting arrested for grand theft wasn’t part of the mission. She glared at Chuck. “Do you have the diamond?”

    “Uh, yes.”

    “Let’s go!”

    They reached the limousine without any more encounters with guards, and Casey, who had beaten them to the car, gunned the engine before they managed to close the doors.

    “Looks like I arrived just in time,” Caridad commented with a scowl after everyone had found a seat. “What were you doing?”

    Judging by the way she was frowning at their lack of clothes, especially Carina’s, Sarah was certain the girl didn’t mean the fight.

    She flashed her a smile. “That’s classified.”

    “Who are you, anyway?” Carina asked. “Is she a member of your team, Sarah?”

    “No!” “No!” Sarah snapped, together with Caridad. And Casey as well, if Sarah interpreted his grunt correctly.

    “Then what are you doing here?” Sarah’s friend asked.

    “Classified,” Caridad copied Sarah.

    Sarah’s friend sniffed and turned to her. “You know her.”

    “Unfortunately,” Sarah replied, which caused Caridad to snort.

    “If she’s not a member of your team, she shouldn’t know about this mission.”

    “I don’t,” Caridad said. “I just came to protect Chuck.”

    “And everyone else,” Chuck said.

    His forced smile died a quick death when everyone glared at him.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Glendale, October 11th, 2007

    “With the diamond secured and en route to a secret location, the cartel’s plans have been disrupted. Despite the various… complications, this was a successful mission, Congratulations, everyone.” General Beckman nodded on the screen in Sarah’s living room.

    “Thank you, Ma’am. Agent Carina said she’ll lodge a complaint about our lack of secrecy, though,” Casey said.

    “I don’t think the DEA will have any more success filing a complaint against Mr Bartowski’s friends than we had,” the director said with a faint grin.

    “And, in light of her own actions, I don’t think Agent Carina’s complaints will garner much sympathy outside her own agency anyway,” the general added. “Anything else?”

    Sarah shook her head, ignoring Casey’s glance. And Chuck’s. This wasn’t the time to report to the director.

    “Good day, then.”

    The screen went dark.

    “So… yay us?” Chuck said.

    “This isn’t a sports event, nerd,” Casey snarled. “Your friend almost got us killed.”

    “Sorry.” He shrugged. “I just… I mean, we won, didn’t we? No one got hurt, either. Isn’t that a good thing?”

    Sarah glared at him. “Let’s talk about the bottle of acid you were carrying around.” And then about whatever device Caridad was using.

    Chuck winced. “Uh… It’s classified?”

    She glared at him. She was really sick of hearing that line.

    *****​
     
    Kyryst, Xantari, TramplePie and 9 others like this.
  11. SaintMichael95

    SaintMichael95 Not too sore, are you?

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    I like the story but I'd really like it if it could get moving. Having them dance around it at first was interesting but it's getting to be tiresome now. It should also be clear to Chuck that they are going to keep running into vampires. It would be safer for everyone if Sarah and Casey were simply told the truth.
     
    doug89, spaceman89 and Starfox5 like this.
  12. Threadmarks: Chapter 7: The Investigation
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 7: The Investigation

    California, Los Angeles, Glendale, October 11th, 2007

    “‘Classified’?” Sarah frowned at Chuck. “What if the bottle had broken in your pocket? Or spilt on me?”

    “Uh…”

    “Acid burns are some of the worst things that can happen to a man,” Casey cut in. “Worse than fire. Have you ever seen pictures?”

    Chuck grimaced

    He probably had, Sarah thought. But why would he have been using acid anyway? It was not just a horrible weapon, it was also very, very inefficient in a fight. To splash acid on someone, you had to be very close, and very lucky.

    “Look, guys,” Chuck said, “it’s not like that. It’s very safe, trust me.”

    “The woman’s face was melting,” Casey said.

    “Well, her face, yes, but… Uh.” Chuck sighed. “It won’t do anything to you, or me. See?” He pulled out the bottle and upended it over his palm.

    Sarah gasped and almost kicked it out of his hand, but a drop already fell on his palm.

    “See? Perfectly safe.” He held his hand up to her. No skin was smoking or turning red.

    “What is this?” she asked. Some sort of binary poison that attacked human tissue? And how would he have gotten the second component on the woman? Unless… “Did Mary wear a mask?”

    “Uh, yes.” Chuck didn’t sound too convincing. And the face hadn’t seemed artificial. Although the woman had been wearing a lot of makeup. Maybe the substance reacted with the makeup.

    “Or you swapped the bottle. Or rinsed it,” Casey said.

    “When would I have had time?” Chuck protested. “We came straight here. And I didn’t go to the bathroom!”

    “You were practically sitting on each other in the back. Easy to swap out things with Caridad,” Casey retorted. “She was the only one wearing any clothes, anyway,” he added with a grin.

    “Bathing clothes are clothes!” Chuck replied.

    “I’ve seen strippers wearing more.” Casey’s grin widened.

    Sarah felt a sudden urge to hit the agent. It hadn’t been her plan to seduce al-Farsi.

    “Hey! I didn’t want to strip!” Chuck said. “They made me.”

    “I wasn’t talking about male strippers,” Casey growled.

    “Oh.” Chuck cleared his throat. “I thought, since you were talking to me…” Casey growled. “Not that anything is wrong with that,” Chuck quickly added, though Sarah could see a hint of a grin on his face.

    She suppressed a grin of her own. Chuck could be sneaky, it seemed, even in the face of an angry Casey. But she couldn’t let him off the hook. “Leaving aside Casey’s sexual preferences, you can’t take a bottle of acid on a mission without telling us. We need to know how to react if something goes wrong.”

    “I told you, it’s perfectly safe for me and you,” Chuck said.

    “So safe it melted a face off. I heard her screams in the garden, Bartowski,” Casey growled.

    “You haven’t such masks, you’d be fine. Really!”

    “And what kind of masks are these?” Sarah asked. “It looked perfectly natural.”

    “It’s unnatural,” Chuck mumbled. “It’s classified,” he added in a louder voice. “Sorry.”

    Sarah was getting more than a little tired of hearing that - especially from a supposed civilian with a security clearance lower than hers. That was supposed to be her line, after all. She hadn’t even bothered bringing up the woman who had been burned to ashes in front of her. He'd claim it was Caridad's secret anyway. And, officially, they weren’t supposed to be investigating the girl.

    Judging by Casey’s growling, he was fed up as well.

    Chuck must have come to the same conclusion, since he smiled awkwardly and said: “So… what happens now? Do we go home? I mean, Sarah’s home already, but Casey and I don’t live here.”

    “We’re supposed to be on a date,” Sarah reminded him. “So, unless you want to break our cover, you have to stay a little longer.”

    “Or stay the night,” Casey added. “To maintain your cover, of course.” He snorted and ignored her glare. “I’m off to get a drink and some food. Perhaps a Philly Cheese Steak. All that melting goodness.” He bared his teeth at them.

    “Philly’s Best has the best in the area,” Chuck said as if he hadn’t understood the barb, “though Big Mike prefers Subway, I don’t think they’re as good.” Perhaps he really hadn’t.

    In any case, Casey clenched his teeth and left Sarah’s apartment.

    “I’m really sorry,” Chuck said once the door was closed. “It’s just… it’s not my secret to tell.”

    “The acid?” Who would give Chuck such a thing, instead of a gun? Or taser built into a pen? Acid was more a torture instrument than a weapon.

    “Everything,” he said, sitting down on a chair with a sweeping gesture. “I can’t tell my family what I’m really doing with you. I can’t tell you what my friends are doing. And my sister’s planning my wedding.”

    “What?” She gaped at him.

    “Well, not really. But, for a while, she’s been joking about wedding locations and catering when the opportunity presented itself, you know.”

    “Ah.” Subtle pressure. Sarah nodded and sat down next to him.

    “Heh, even if I told her the truth - that we’ve spent the evening at a pool party, then went home to you - she’d have a completely different idea of what actually happened.” He shook his head. “Of course, we almost... well…” He cleared his throat and didn’t look at her. She saw him blushing a little, though. “I know it’s just a cover, we wouldn’t really...”

    “Yes.” Just a cover. Purely professional. Unlike Carina.

    He took a deep breath and nodded, still looking at the window instead of at her.

    “My middle name is Lisa,” she said after a moment.

    She wasn’t looking at him, but she caught him turning towards her in the corner of her eyes.

    “Ah.”

    “It’s not in my file,” she added.

    “I, uh, know. I mean, I know it wasn’t in your file.”

    She turned to look at him upon confirmation that he had read her file. “You know, I’m supposed to be the mysterious spy who knows everything about you and can’t tell you my secrets,” she said.

    “Uh… sorry?”

    She snorted, then laughed, shaking her head, as he did the same.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Glendale, October 12th, 2007

    The alert’s beeping had Sarah jump out of bed and grab her pistol from the holster under her bed before she was fully awake. That wasn’t her alarm clock - that was her security system. Someone had triggered the sensors. Chuck! She rushed to the door to the living room, pushing it open with her gun aimed already - he was still asleep in the couch. A few seconds later, she had checked both her bathroom and kitchen. Clear.

    That meant… She hit the switch on the small tv, bringing up the feed from the security cameras. It was barely bright enough outside to skip the low-light vision. She cycled through the feeds, then stopped. And swore under her breath. Caridad was hanging from the roof, upside down, above her bedroom’s window - and smiling at the camera. Well, baring her teeth.

    Pressing her lips together, Sarah threw a robe on and went to the window. Before she could open it, Caridad had lowered herself down and was balancing on the windowsill. Shooting her through the glass would ruin the agency’s deposit and Sarah’s cover. And Chuck would probably not believe a claim that she had mistaken the girl for an assassin. Despite the fact that she was dressed in black jeans and a tight sweater and wore a backpack. And leaving her outside would likely lead to a broken window. Or an early-rising neighbour calling the cops.

    So Sarah opened the window and hoped the girl would slip. “What are you doing here?”

    Caridad jumped into the room with far too much grace. “Checking up on Chuck,” she said.

    “He’s on the couch in the living room,” Sarah replied.

    “I know.” Caridad smirked as if that meant anything. “And if you know what’s good for you, that’s where he’ll stay.”

    She should tell her that it was just a cover. But Sarah wasn’t about to let the annoying girl push her or Chuck around. “That’s his choice, isn’t it?” she replied. “He’s not yours.”

    “He’s my friend,” Caridad hissed.

    “Exactly,” Sarah said with a faint smirk.

    In response, Caridad bared her teeth and actually growled. It should have been ridiculous, but it wasn’t - Sarah almost raised her gun. “I know what you’re doing!” the girl spat.

    “What am I doing?” Sarah asked.

    “You’re trying to seduce him.” She leaned forward. “But you can throw yourself at him all you want, he’s too good for you.”

    “I’m not throwing myself at him,” Sarah replied through clenched teeth.

    “Liar! I smelt you on him!”

    “What?”

    “In the car. You must have rubbed yourself all over him for that! I could even smell the grease from your work!”

    The girl was crazy. Even if she was correct. Not about the grease, of course. But Sarah had been swimming with Chuck - could a scent linger after that? After all the chloride? “We play a couple as our cover,” she replied with a glare.

    “And you’d like it to be real.” Caridad sneered. “But it won’t!”

    “That’s Chuck’s decision,” Sarah spat, then suppressed a wince. This was just a cover, not real. She wasn’t backing down from the annoying girl, though. Chuck wasn’t an object to be controlled.

    Caridad snarled and growled again. “I’m watching you, hussy!”

    “Hussy?” Sarah blinked. Californian slang must have regressed. Who would use ‘hussy’ these days?

    Scoffing, Caridad turned and walked - stalked - into the living room. “Chuck! Wakey-wakey!”

    “What? Caridad? What are you doing here? Sarah?”

    She smiled when she stepped into the living room. “Yes, Chuck?” And she smiled even more at Caridad’s expression behind Chuck’s back.

    “Ah, OK.”

    Had he been worried about her? Was he staring at her legs? He was, Sarah realised. Well, the robe was a little short. And loose. Not that she minded if she was wearing it, instead of Carina.

    “I brought you clothes,” Caridad said, a little too loudly to hide her annoyance, in Sarah’s opinion, as she handed her backpack to Chuck. “Since you didn’t have spare clothes with you.”

    “Thanks!” Chuck grabbed the backpack, then looked around. “Uh… did you use the bathroom already?”

    “You can go first,” Sarah said.

    “Are you sure? It’s your apartment. I wouldn’t want to...”

    “You’re not. Go ahead.” She smiled at him.

    “Alright.”

    Chuck disappeared headed into her bedroom to get to the bathroom. Neither Sarah nor Caridad said anything until they heard the shower running.

    “It won’t work,” Caridad hissed.

    Sarah smiled at her - showing her teeth.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, October 12th, 2007

    “I heard you’re going to great lengths to keep your cover,” Casey said as soon as she entered his apartment.

    She rolled her eyes at him. “He slept on the couch.” And she didn’t think Chuck would have bragged anyway - even if that would have helped their cover.

    He snorted in response. “Trouble in paradise already?”

    “Very funny,” she shot back. She almost added a barb about his apparent lack of a love life, but that would have been cheap. And she didn’t want to talk about her own. Bryce. Instead, she put a file - hard-copy - down on his table. “The results from forensics. The auction staff members weren’t taken out with tranquilisers - they were knocked out.”

    “All of them? Without anyone seeing anything?” He narrowed his eyes.

    “Apparently. Did you get a response from headquarters?”

    He frowned. “They still haven’t managed to intercept Bartowski’s messages. They don’t show up in the system.”

    “We’ve seen him type. And receive answers,” she pointed out.

    “Yes. Nothing in the system,” he spat. “No records.”

    “How is that possible?”

    “IT says a private network is the most plausible explanation,” he said.

    Of course. She nodded. “They must have hacked the local providers. Using their hardware to send their own signals - without any reports or records. That’s… complete penetration of the service. Practically a take-over.”

    “Yes.” He bared his teeth. “Like operating on Cuba.”

    She didn’t know if he had ever been doing missions on Cuba - but it would fit his profile. “If this is MI6, then that’s an unfriendly act,” she pointed out.

    “Not if they’ve got permission.”

    They didn’t know if that was the case. And they weren’t supposed to investigate this - which made inquiring about such matters a little embarrassing. Well, that would be the director’s problem, once they unofficially informed him. She nodded, then sat down. It was time to address the elephant in the room. “I looked into the assassin’s background. Mary de Soto.” The one who had been turned to ash in front of Sarah.

    Casey grunted.

    “She was an actress, playing in direct to video action movies and a few B movies. Bit parts, mostly - but she had belts in a few martial arts.”

    “Good cover for an assassin. Easy to get close to a target, everyone underestimates you, no need to hide weapons… And she was good. Gave Caridad quite the trouble,” he commented.

    “And Caridad killed her with a weapon that turned her to ashes,” Sarah said. “In a second.”

    He stared at her, and she saw his cheek muscles twitch. He had seen it as well, but not from as close as she had.

    “It wasn’t an NSA incinerator,” she went on. “Nothing else was even singed.” Like herself - she had been so close, she would have been burned as well. “I saw no flame, anyway.”

    He grunted again.

    She frowned - if he wanted to play dumb. “I wasn’t aware that MI6 procured their gear from Star Fleet.”

    “The Limeys have had good kit for decades.”

    “Disintegrators are more than ‘good kit’,” she retorted. “And why would they give such a piece of gear to a field agent like Caridad? To kill an actress?” A gun would have been more than enough - Mary been unarmed and practically nude, after all.

    His next grunt sounded even more forced. “If they trust her to become an agent for them, they might as well trust her with such weapons - if our suspicion is true.”

    Which meant: If Caridad had been experimented upon. “She claimed to have smelt me on Bartowski,” she said.

    “Might have to change your perfume.”

    She rolled her eyes again at his pathetic joke. “You saw them fighting. They were quicker, stronger and tougher than most people I know.” She stared at him to show she included him in that list.

    He ignored it. “You think Mary was a test subject as well?”

    She nodded. “Chuck recognised her.” She shouldn’t have used his first name.

    He snorted - he hadn’t missed her slip. “Bartowski knows too much about this.”

    She knew what he meant - that Chuck was more involved than he had admitted in whatever was going on. “He could have been more involved in the past.” It was a weak theory, and she knew it.

    Casey snorted. “Find out. You’re close enough already - hell, you two were all but doing it in the pool.”

    She didn’t deign to answer that - she merely looked at his perfectly-made but very much single bed visible through the door to his bedroom until he clenched his teeth. “I’ll have to teach him how to handle our equipment anyway. We were interrupted.”

    “Check if he plays dumb but already knows how to use it. He knew his way around al-Farsi’s security without the Intersect, didn’t he?”

    “Only because al-Farsi had bought civilian-grade electronics,” she pointed out.

    His grunt showed Casey didn’t share her opinion.

    “Look into ‘Buffy’ from Sunnydale,” she told him - mostly to order him around as well - as she stood and stretched.

    It was time for her next ‘date’.

    *****​

    “Sarah!” Standing in the doorway, Ellie beamed at her, then stepped to the side. “Chuck! Sarah’s here!” she yelled as she walked towards the living room.

    She hadn’t told her to come in, but Sarah followed her anyway - by now, she was used to the Bartowskis’ quirks and knew she was welcome to step inside even without an invitation.

    “He’ll be down in a second,” Ellie told her, then turned to face the stairs and yelled again: “Chuck! Don’t let your date wait!”

    “I’m coming!” Sarah heard Chuck reply. A moment later, he appeared on the stairs, dressed in shirt, jacket and slacks. He kept his jacket in his room, not in the entrance hall with the others. Probably so he could hide the acid bottle more easily, Sarah realised.

    “Hi, Sarah.”

    “Hi, Chuck.” She gave him a peck on the cheek.

    “What are you up to?” Ellie asked.

    “Ah… we’re not sure yet,” Chuck said. “Probably checking out a club or two.” That got Ellie to frown at him, Sarah noticed. “Just dancing,” Chuck said.

    His sister nodded with a stern expression before smiling. “Have fun!”

    “We’ll do our best,” Sarah lied.

    Once outside and part-way to her car - a new sports car, if a little less pricey than the one which hadn’t survived Zarnow’s attack - she glanced at him. “Ellie cares a lot about you.”

    He sighed. “She’s been acting like my mom ever since, well, our mom went away.”

    Sarah opened her mouth, then reconsidered. Chuck looked… he was pressing his lips together and staring at nothing. “So, which club should we hit first?” she asked instead as they reached the car.

    “Uh…” He blinked. “To maintain our cover?”

    “The more real a cover is, the easier it is to keep,” she replied as she started the engine.

    “Uh… but if it’s too close to the truth, wouldn’t that defeat the purpose of a c-cover?” he said, slipping up just a little when Sarah accelerated. “We’re not being chased, are we?”

    “No,” she told him with a grin as she slowed down. “I just felt like speeding a little.”

    “Ah.”

    She drove a few blocks without either of them saying anything before parking near the same club they had visited during their first ‘date’.

    “Uh…”

    “Yes?” She grinned as she cocked her head at him. He had raised his hand chest-high, with his index finger extended.

    “Nothing,” he said, lowering his hand again. But he was smiling.

    “It’s close, and we know the music’s good,” she told him.

    “Right!” Was he blushing? It didn’t look like, but he seemed a little flustered at least.

    This would be fun. Sarah got out of the car, hooked her arm into Chuck’s as soon as he joined her, and started walking towards the club’s entrance - until she felt something bump into her side. “You’re not carrying a bottle of acid, are you?” she said with a frozen smile on her face.

    “I’m not. It’s just a water bottle,” he said quickly. Too quickly.

    She frowned at him. “Really?”

    “Really!” He pulled a PET bottle out and unscrewed the top. She managed not to take a step back. Then he took a swallow. And gargled before swallowing. “See? Just water.”

    “Good.”

    But she couldn’t help feeling that there was more to this habit of his. Was he carrying a water bottle around so he could switch it for acid without raising suspicion? Chuck didn’t strike her like a man who’d think of such a plan. Or plan to throw acid on someone.

    Yet he had done so on the al-Farsi mission.

    “Let’s go dancing,” she said.

    He nodded eagerly. She hoped it was because he liked to dance with her. And not because she had dropped the subject.

    *****​

    They had no trouble getting into the club. Either the security hadn’t tied her to the fight inside when she had been running with Chuck from Casey, or things had been smoothed over. Or, she added when she saw the biker serving as a bouncer look at her chest instead of her face and concealed holsters, security was laughable. Well, they hadn’t stopped the NSA agents with Casey.

    But they were inside, the music was catchy, and the drinks didn’t cost more than her expense account could afford - provided she didn’t overindulge, of course.

    She didn’t mind - she planned to indulge in other ways. She glanced at Chuck, then frowned. He was scanning the crowd. Looking for threats? He was too obvious about it, but good instincts. She leaned into his side, placing her mouth near his ear. “Is it safe?” she asked over the loud music.

    “Uh… I mean… I didn’t spot anything,” he half-said, half-yelled. “That doesn’t mean there isn’t anything, of course.”

    “I’ll trust you,” she replied. “You took tango lessons?”

    “Yes?” He looked confused. “This isn’t exactly, you know…”

    “Time to broaden your horizons,” she breathed into his ear as the music dimmed for a moment, before dragging him on the dance floor.

    She could give him dance lessons as well. Dazzling ones.

    *****

    “Shouldn’t spies be more, uh… spy-like? Less attention-drawing-like?” Chuck asked an hour later as he put down their drinks on the table Sarah had managed to snag during a break from dancing.

    “A spy does whatever is needed,” she told him, taking a sip from her margarita. “That can include being the centre of attention, if you want to snare a mark, for example.”

    “Ah. But we’re not on a mission. At least I don’t think so - you would have told me, wouldn’t you?” He looked around, scanning the crowd again.

    “I wouldn’t drag you into a mission without telling you. I wouldn’t drag you into a mission at all if I had my way,” she said. He wasn’t trained as a spy. And whatever training she could give him wouldn’t be enough. Not in the kind of missions she expected.

    He smiled at her. “Thanks. I hope you’ll have your way then, with me.” He blinked. “I mean, in the way you meant, not the way of having your way with me, like… you know what I mean.”

    She couldn’t resist. “And what if I want to have my way with you in the other way?” she asked, waited until he gaped at her, then giggled. “Relax,” she added, putting her hand on his. “I’m just teasing.”

    “I’m relaxed,” he claimed. “It’s just our cover.” He gestured at the club. “This… everything.”

    “That doesn’t mean you can’t have fun,” she said.

    “Ah.” He nodded, opened his mouth, then closed it again and frowned at her. “You wanted me to say something about the different kinds of fun you can have, didn’t you?”

    She laughed and didn’t deny it.

    He sighed. “Don’t get me wrong, I understand why we’re doing this. And it’s kinda fun - when we’re not getting shot at. But I feel bad about lying to Ellie. And to Captain Awesome. Well, only a little in his case. How do you handle it? Not telling your family, I mean.”

    She was a trained spy. Her face didn’t betray her. “I don’t have a family.”

    “Oh. I’m sorry. I didn’t…” He frowned. “I should have known. I read your file. I just thought family wasn’t included.”

    “Not everything’s in the file,” she told him, reminding herself that he wasn’t just a civilian out of his depth - he had the Intersect in his mid, and he potentially knew much more about her work than she told him. And about herself.

    “Ah. So much for the myth that the CIA knows everything about everyone.” He nodded slowly.

    She couldn’t restrain herself. “If we did, I wouldn’t have to wonder what you’re hiding from me.”

    “Uh…” He grimaced. “I can’t tell you.”

    “Twice a mission almost failed because we didn’t know about your ‘friends’. You were endangered as well. As was Carina. And Harmony.” This wasn’t investigating Caridad or her friends. It was merely a justified concern about his safety.

    He scoffed. “Harmony wasn’t really in danger.”

    He must really loathe the girl to dismiss getting shot at and taken hostage so easily. “But we were, weren’t we? That was why you called Caridad.”

    “Uh…” He clenched his jaw. “She handled it.”

    “And if she hadn’t arrived in time? What if next time, there’s no time to call her?”

    “We shouldn’t be running into… the kind of situations she deals with.”

    “We did twice.” She stared at him.

    “Uh…” Didn’t have an answer for that, did he? “It’s not my decision to tell you. There are far more people involved and affected. And they, uh, don’t want you to know. Sorry.”

    She frowned. “Caridad doesn’t even want me near you.”

    “Well, she’s… special. Kinda. You get used to it.” He shrugged. “She’s really a good friend, apart from the, well…”

    “The stalker-like jealousy?” she prompted him.

    “Uh, yeah, that.”

    “You need to tell her that this can’t go on. What if she reacts like that if it’s not a cover?” She leaned forward a little.

    “Uh…”

    She narrowed her eyes. “Did that happen already?” Did the little psycho go after a girl interested in Chuck?

    “Not like you think. Caridad just… It wasn’t an innocent girl interested in me.”

    Did Caridad kill her? Sarah felt a cold shiver run down her spine. What if the girl was serious about her inane threats? “She threatened me as well.”

    “Oh, she wouldn’t kill you. Or do anything serious to you,” he added a moment later - which didn’t quite reassure Sarah.

    “She sounded quite earnest. And very jealous when she was hanging in front of my window.”

    “Oh. She did, did she?” Another grimace.

    “Yes.”

    “I’ll talk to her.” His smile didn’t look very reassuring either.

    “Do you think that will help?”

    He merely winced. Sarah had expected that. “You need to settle this, Chuck. She needs to learn that you’re not interested in her.”

    “Well, as long as we’re, uh, maintain this cover, nothing will happen anyway, right? She knows it’s just a cover.”

    Sarah forced herself to agree.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Glendale, October 12th, 2007

    “Well, no one who saw us would have thought that we weren’t on a date,” Chuck said as they entered Sarah’s apartment. “Other than those who know the truth, I mean.”

    “And none of them was present,” Sarah replied, locking the door. She hadn’t seen anyone suspicious, at least - although she had been a little distracted at times, especially when dancing. Chuck wasn’t a bad student. Not at all. Although his awkwardness had a certain kind of appeal as well.

    “So…” Chuck looked around in the living room. “You mentioned spy tech?”

    “Yes,” she said, walking past him to her bedroom. He was staring at her back, she noticed with a glance over her shoulder. “I’ll just slip into something more comfortable.”

    “Uh…”

    “I’m not going to return in a negligée,” she told him, chuckling, as she closed the door behind her.

    “I, uh, didn’t expect that!” she heard him through the door. “It just sounded, like, well… like in some movies.”

    Sarah was tempted to change into nothing but her bathrobe, but that would have been unprofessional. She picked a tank top and loose yoga pants instead.

    He still stared when she rejoined him in the living room, she noticed with some satisfaction, before he cleared his throat. “Uh, so… what are we going to study first?” he asked.

    She picked up the suitcase next to the table and opened it. “A bug scanner. Although you might already be familiar with that.”

    “Not with that…” He blinked rapidly for one, two seconds. “That’s a CIA standard bug scanner, third generation, wireless update option, but it’s preferable to use a secure line instead.” He shook his head, then smiled a little embarrassedly. “I guess I am familiar with it.”

    She nodded after a moment. If he did that to every piece of gear she had prepared, then this would be a quick lesson. “Very well. There’s also this.” She held up a taser.

    He flashed again. And then on the air pistol with tranquiliser darts. And the multifunctional wristwatch. And the homing beacon.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, October 13th, 2007

    “He flashed on half the gear. Identified it with all details,” Sarah told Casey, refraining from letting herself fall on his couch after another day spent grilling hot dogs and getting leered at by customers.

    “That’s useful.”

    “Doesn’t mean he can use it like a trained spy,” she went on. “He knew what to do, intellectually, but that didn’t translate into muscle memory.”

    Casey grunted in response.

    “It will still make it easier for him to assist us on missions.” Missions on which their superiors seemed to send them without considering that Chuck wasn’t trained for them.

    Another grunt. Sarah wondered privately, not for the first time, if Casey’s gruff manners were a cultivated act, or if he really was like that. As with every good spy, it was hard to tell.

    “Did you make any progress with the investigation?” she asked.

    He frowned at her, probably annoyed that she hadn’t used an euphemism. “You mean while you were flirting with Bartowski?”

    She narrowed her eyes at him. That was so pueril!

    “I looked into ‘Buffy’ and ‘Snyder’,” he said after a moment, showing her a picture of a blonde teenager smiling at the camera. “Buffy Summers. Born in Los Angeles on January 19th, 1981. Moved to Sunnydale in 1997, after her parents’ divorce. One sister, Dawn. Mother deceased, father lives in Spain. Graduated high school, got her driving permit, started at the Sunnydale University, but didn’t finish. Moved to the United Kingdom after the Sunnydale disaster.” After a moment’s pause, he added: “That’s her official record.”

    “Someone purged it.” Theoretically, a completely unremarkable person could have such an empty record. But not if they had lived in Sunnydale - there had been a lot of scrutiny of every resident after the town and all of its official records had disappeared down the sinkhole. “Or it’s a fake identity.”

    Casey grunted in agreement. “I must have raised a flag when I made inquiries in our system. The general told me that I was ordered to stop such inquiries.”

    Sarah nodded. That wording told her nothing had changed - their superiors still wanted the information they had been told not to seek. “They have sources in your system.”

    “I doubt yours are better protected,” he shot back.

    She didn’t think so either, but she wouldn’t admit that to an NSA agent.

    After a moment, he went on: “I don’t think it’s a fake identity. There was information about her in other files, which whoever sanitised her file must have missed. I got the Sunnydale school files. They reconstructed a lot of those from various sources after the disaster, like university archives where students applied.” He put a few files on the table, and Sarah had to stand up and join him there. “Her school record is clear, but it’s mentioned in another file that she received detention together with Sheila Martini - who has several entries for assault and other crimes.”

    “If they were together, then that would fit our theory.” Test subjects. Drugged, trained, pushed until they lashed out.

    He nodded. “Sheila Martini was reported missing before attending the detention, though.”

    Sarah drew a hissing breath. “Disappeared?”

    Another grunt. But he showed his teeth. So he assumed the same she did: Martini had been too aggressive for whatever experiment had been run, and someone had vanished her.

    “No trace of her afterwards,” Casey went on. “Summers was mentioned in several other files as a delinquent or suspect. It might have just been the principal riding her. Roger Snyder.”

    Chuck had mentioned him. “He was the principal who died at the graduation in 1999?”

    “Yes. His predecessor had been killed in an accident in the school two years before that,” Casey confirmed.

    “He might have not been cooperative,” Sarah said.

    “And Snyder knew too much after two years.”

    “It’s a miracle Bartowski and Grimes got away alive.” Bartowski, Sarah reminded herself. Not Chuck. “And no wonder that their friends distrust the government.”

    That earned her a glare from Casey. “They have too much pull in the government for that.”

    “Then it’s just our organisations that they don’t trust.” Well, Sarah knew best that there were many reasons not to trust the agency. Even if she trusted the director. “What else did you find?”

    “Damned little,” he growled. “The computer files are purged or restricted. I’ll have to track down more hard copies, and that takes time.” Time which was in short supply given their mission. “I got lucky Los Angeles handled so many Sunnydale refugees, and was too lazy to properly archive their files.”

    Casey put a few more pictures down. “I did find other students which had purged files but were mentioned in other files. Willow Rosenberg. Xander Harris. Daniel Osbourne. All clean and very empty files. All mentioned multiple times in other files - sometimes without any reasonable ties to whatever incident caused an entry. The principal was quite through in his record-keeping.”

    “He might have thought that would protect him,” Sarah said. “A way to ensure he couldn’t be easily silenced.”

    “Or he planned to blackmail them,” Casey replied.

    “That would have a dumb plan.” Even for a man who went along with experiments on teenagers.

    “Whatever he planned, it didn’t work.” Casey shook his head.

    Sarah agreed. Not when someone was willing to wipe out an entire town to cover their traces.

    “There were lots of violent incidents in the other files. And missing students,” Casey said.

    Sarah checked up on some. “Not simple truancy cases.” Not when the files stopped after the first missed class - no detention, nothing about the student having returned to school.

    “No.”

    She muttered a curse under her breath. “They must have had the whole town under their thumb - from the mayor on down.” That was the only reason this had been possible.

    “And once anyone involved became inconvenient, they got disposed of,” Casey said. “I’m almost jealous - if some of my missions had had that much support...”

    She glared at him. “I hope you weren’t involved with experiments on teenagers to produce super-soldiers”

    “Not since Parris Island, and the drill sergeants didn’t need any drugs.” He chuckled.

    Sarah shook her head. Marines. “Keep digging. I’ll work on Chuck.” They had to get to the ground of this. The agency had to know who had been able to run an operation with such a high body count on US ground without anyone else being informed. Too bad the military files were purged as well.

    Casey scoffed. “Just fuck him until he talks.”

    She frowned at him. “That won’t work. He’d suspect something.” And it wouldn’t be… fair.

    He grunted once more as she left.

    *****​

    “That’s our third date in a row,” Chuck said ten minutes later. “If my co-workers were so dedicated to their work, our competitors would have filed for bankruptcy.”

    “It’s Saturday night,” she said, then blinked at his frown. “What?”

    “You can’t just stop there!”

    “Stop where?” What was he talking about? They were in the drive of his home. Did he mean her flirting? She stifled a gasp.

    “Live from new York, it’s Saturday Night!” He looked at her with a wide smile that slowly slipped as she stared back.

    “Shouldn’t you have said I shouldn’t have started there?” she replied, raising her eyebrows.

    “Uh…” He blinked, then sighed.

    Smiling, she shook her head as she hooked her arm into his - and froze as something touched her elbow. “What’s that in your pocket?” It wasn’t a bottle.

    “Uh… My lucky giant pencil?” His smile looked too forced for that to be the truth - but he pulled an actual giant-sized pencil out of his jacket. Almost ten inches long.

    “You’re not planning to stab someone with this, are you?”

    His smile grew even more forced-looking.

    She sighed. “We really need to get you decent weapons,” she said.

    But as he nodded, she suddenly blinked. Chuck was keeping wooden stakes in that chest of his full of medieval weapons. And vials labelled ‘holy water’. “You’re not hunting vampires, are you?” If he was playing some vampire hunter game on a date...

    He gaped at her.

    “Chuck! If some roleplayer attacks us, I might shoot him by mistake!”

    “No, no. No roleplayer will attack us! Trust me!”

    He looked far too relieved. And far too certain of this. Sarah blinked. The stakes. The holy water. Next to perfectly functional crossbows. With perfectly functional bolts. Not nerf weapons. Crossbows like Caridad used. Crossbows with bolts that disintegrated their targets. And throwing spikes with the same power. Or throwing stakes. Targets that turned to ashes without fire. And Chuck’s reaction when she mentioned vampires. And his reaction when she implied it was some roleplaying game…

    “Oh my God! You are hunting vampires! You and Caridad and Grimes!”

    “Uh…” His grimace was pretty much an admission of guilt.

    *****​
     
    Last edited: Mar 30, 2019
    Xantari, Prince Charon, RedX and 4 others like this.
  13. SaintMichael95

    SaintMichael95 Not too sore, are you?

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    I couldn't help but picture a demonic clown in some cubical wear a headset and talking with a bad Indian accent.
    FINALLY! It's about damn time lol.
     
    Prince Charon and Starfox5 like this.
  14. Threadmarks: Chapter 8: The Revelation
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 8: The Revelation

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, October 13th, 2007

    Sarah stared at Chuck. This couldn’t be true. Vampires didn’t exist! She had to be delusional. No, Chuck had to be delusional. The Intersect was in the head of a man who believed in vampires!

    “Uh, look, I can explain… we couldn’t tell you. The last time the government meddled with vampires, things turned out really, really bad.” Chuck said, looking over his shoulder. “Ellie’s gonna kill me.”

    Sarah blinked. “Ellie?” What was he talking about? This was impossible.

    “She was so happy I had a girlfriend who wasn’t involved in demon hunting.”

    Demons? Vampires and demons? What was next, dragons?

    “No, dragons don’t exist… well, there was one, I think, from another dimension, but I never saw it… uh, sorry.”

    She had said that out loud? Demons and dragons… that sounded like a game. But she was getting distracted. It was impossible. It was delusional. But she would get to the bottom of this and find out what was behind it. She glared at him. “Explain!”

    “Uh… we shouldn’t be doing that here in the open.”

    She nodded. Curtly. “Casey’s apartment.” It wasn’t a question.

    “Uh…” He winced. “He won’t like to hear this. He’ll flip out and kill someone. Like me.”

    “No, he won’t. But he might institutionalise you.” An insane Intersect couldn’t be allowed to walk around.

    “Then Caridad will kill him. That’s not a good idea!”

    Caridad. Sarah paused. Chuck being delusional was possible. Being Grimes’s best friend certainly wasn’t conducive to mental stability. And the arrogant girl wasn’t exactly the picture example of perfect mental health. But whoever was backing them had enough clout to order the NSA and the CIA around. And such people wouldn’t protect delusional teenagers. Unless this was another experiment. Perhaps the drugs used on the kids made them delusional, and to control them, they were made to believe that they were fighting vampires and demons while executing assassination missions. The CIA had experimented with psychic powers in the 70s. Unsuccessfully, of course.

    Or so the files claimed. What if it hadn’t been a failure? But then, why didn’t the director know about this?

    “Sarah?”

    She jerked. Chuck was staring at her. “Let’s go to my apartment,” she said. If the agency was involved in this, then it was better to keep the NSA out. For now.

    “Good! I don’t wanna be institutionalised. And Caridad killing Casey would be bad too.”

    She almost snorted at that, despite the seriousness of the situation.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Glendale, October 13th, 2007

    As soon as the door closed behind her, Sarah turned to face Chuck. “Talk!”

    “Uh…” He looked around. “Can we scan for bugs first? This is a very sensitive subject. Need to know, and all.”

    He was stalling, but he had a point. She should have scanned for bugs already. Pressing her lips together, she grabbed a scanner and went to work. No listening devices in her apartment. And no crazy girls balancing on windowsills or hanging from the roof, either.

    “We’re clea…” She clenched her teeth as she saw him with his phone in his hand. “Did you just text your friends?”

    “Uh…”

    “What were you thinking?” Were they planning to silence her? Had Chuck been fooling her all these weeks?

    “No one ever believes the truth without a demonstration!” He shook his head. “I really don’t want to be sent to an institution because you think I’m crazy. Ellie would be devastated. And Caridad would never let me out of her sight again! I don’t want to shower with her spying on me! Or anyone!”

    Well, those were good reasons, she had to admit that. Provided they were true. But if they weren’t… well, what were her chances to escape? The agency was probably compromised - at the very least, subverted by orders from above. She couldn’t trust anyone. She had a plan for this, of course. Every good spy planned for the day they might get burned. But she didn’t think it would be enough. Not with the Intersect helping to hunt her down. Of course, if she took out the Intersect before running…

    “Sarah?”

    She shook her head. She was a trained spy. Chuck wasn’t the kind of man to play with her for weeks before murdering her in cold blood. Or letting her be murdered. She nodded. “Alright.”

    “Alright?” He blinked. “I mean, of course!”

    She snorted at that, then gestured at the couch. “Now sit down and talk!”

    “Should I sit on a chair, with a spotlight in my face?” His weak grin died quickly faced with her scowling. “Sitting down now!”

    She shook her head again and took a seat herself - not on the couch. “Let’s talk before the demonstration arrives.”

    “Uh… Well, usually it’s someone else who does this. But I should be able to manage. I helped Morgan memorise this.” He cleared his throat. “The world is older than you know…”

    *****​

    “...and in every generation, there is a chosen one. She alone will stand against the vampires the demons and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer.”

    “Caridad is a mythical chosen demon hunter?” Sarah interrupted him. “And she’s all that stands between us and hordes of demons?” She shook her head, scoffing. “Even in Hollywood, no one would buy that story!”

    “Uh, I was getting to the part covering that,” he said.

    She pressed her lips together. When someone was talking, it was best to let them talk in an interrogation - they tended to reveal information. But this sounded ludicrous!

    “Uh, so… There were also the Watchers. The people who trained and supported and guided the Slayer. In theory. In practice, things weren’t always working out. Anyway, things changed in Sunnydale.”

    Ah. Now they were getting somewhere. She nodded. “Your hometown.”

    “Yes. It was a Hellmouth. I mean, a literal Hellmouth - a sort of maw leading to hell. Or one of the hells. It doesn’t matter that much unless you’re writing a treatise. Just a link to a hell dimension, flooding the area around with evil energy.” He nodded.

    “‘Evil Energy’.” They had left Hollywood and were now in Saturday morning cartoon. For kids. Sarah didn’t know if that was better or worse than religious fanatics who thought hell was a real place.

    “That’s what the Scoobies call it. And they’re the experts,” he said, nodding.

    “‘The Scoobies’?” Literally cartoonish.

    “Yes. Xander named them, and it stuck, despite Giles’s protests. Or because of them. I don’t know, it’s just a tradition by now, or so they say.” He shook his head. “I’m not a member of the Council, and we don’t really talk that much. I mean - how many of your old school friends do you still talk to regularly? Plus, most of them are living in London now.”

    London. The Scoobies. “You were talking about Sunnydale.”

    “Yes. Or Sunnyhell. Our high school was literally built on top of the Hellmouth. The library was at the centre - Xander always said that was a sign.” He blinked at her glare. “Anyway, Sunnydale. Buffy was the only Slayer back then, and she was sent there to keep a lid on the Hellmouth.”

    “Who sent her?” Sarah interrupted him.

    “The Watchers Council. The old Watchers Council, to be exact. They also sent Giles there, to pose as our librarian. Well, he was a trained librarian, among other things.”

    Sarah made a mental note of the names. She could track down this council later.

    “So, Buffy arrives and starts killing vampires and demons. We didn’t notice at first, not that we had any idea about vampires or demons to begin with, but over time, fewer people died and vanished. Our class had the highest survival rate of the school, ever. Most of our year survived school.”

    Sarah hoped Chuck wasn’t serious. He couldn’t be serious. “Are you telling me that this wasn’t normal?”

    “Not in Sunnydale. There was this big conspiracy by the mayor. He was this sorcerer, trying to turn himself into a demon by sacrificing the students. Had a spell on the whole town. The Scoobies told us before graduation, about vampires, demons and everything, which suddenly made a lot more sense, and we prepared a trap for him and his demon helpers. Had to blow up the entire school, but we got him and only lost half a dozen students. Morgan and I made flame-throwers for the battle.”

    “You blew up the school.” The gas explosion.

    “Well, not me personally.” He coughed. “Other people did that.”

    “And it was covered up.”

    “Yeah. We moved to Los Angeles right afterwards, Morgan and I with our families - well, Ellie and his mom - but I heard later that the army moved in to run some experiments with demons and covered the whole thing up.”

    “The army ran experiments on demons?” That could be a smokescreen for experiments on humans.

    “Yes. And some human experiments. Really nasty stuff, and it went out of control, and the Scoobies had to save the army. Well, the guys who were left. I wasn’t there, I just heard later about it.”

    “Human experiments.” Jackpot.

    “Yes. That’s why the Council’s really wary of telling you guys - I mean, the government - anything. We don’t want another Terminator Apocalypse. The demon ones are bad enough.”

    “Apocalypses?” Sarah really needed to stop sound like a broken record.

    “Attempts to end the world, or the city you’re in. That stuff.”

    End the world? That was delusional. Although… “The Sunnydale disaster was an apocalypse?”

    “An averted one. Sealed the Hellmouth up. There was this big evil entity - the First Evil - and the Scoobies empowered all the potential Slayers and fought it until the Hellmouth collapsed and water filled the crater.”

    He was being evasive. Sarah could tell. “So, Caridad is one of how many Slayers?”

    He clammed up. “I don’t know. I’m not working for the Council. Ellie would kill me. I’m just… I keep an eye out for vampires, and when they need help, like when there’s an apocalypse, I help. I mean - who wouldn’t if your life’s on the line anyway and your family in danger?”

    She gave him a flat stare. “So, a secret council has been fighting vampires and demons in secret for millennia using superpowered girls. Without anyone being aware of it. Without the public being told that there are monsters killing them.”

    “Well, we can’t tell everyone. Didn’t you listen to my story? If too many people believe in demons, the Old Ones will wake up and then everyone dies. Or wishes they’d died. Humans, demons, everyone. There are too many humans around to tell them compared to ancient times.”

    “How convenient,” she said. She knew a cover story when she heard one.

    “You don’t sound like you believe me.” He frowned.

    “That’s because I don’t,” she snapped. “Demons? Vampires? Apocalypses? All without the government stepping in?” She shook her head. “That’s not possible!”

    Instead of growing angry or cowering, he nodded. “See? I was right. You won’t believe without seeing it for yourself with your own eyes. As soon as Caridad arrives, we can go and show you some demons.”

    “We’re going to hunt demons? In the sewers?” Like in a cheap horror movie?

    “Maybe later. I think we’re going to visit a demon bar first.”

    Sarah blinked. Demons had bars?

    *****​

    “I can’t believe you spilt everything! She’s a government spy!” Caridad was pacing in Sarah’s living room, apparently livid.

    “I didn’t spill anything - she deduced the existence of vampires herself!” Chuck defended himself. “You were the one who told me to never leave home without a stake and holy water.”

    “And a cross! Don’t forget the cross!” Caridad replied. “But why did you only start listening to me after a spy started to seduce you?”

    Watching the two having a row, Sarah refrained from pointing out that she hadn’t seduced Chuck. She had been maintaining her cover, that was all. Perhaps some flirting. Method acting.

    “What? I only forgot that a couple of times!”

    “You always forget, Chuck! Like at that orgy in Malibu!” Caridad spat.

    “What? That wasn’t an orgy! And I had holy water with me. And a cross!”

    “But no stake!”

    “Charles Carmichael, potential investor, doesn’t carry stakes or oversized pencils with him, Caridad. Al-Farsi would have grown suspicious, and you saw his guards were armed and dangerous.”

    “When I arrived, they were shooting at you anyway! And you were about to attack a vampire!”

    “I couldn’t very well let her eat people, could I?” Chuck glared at the girl, Sarah noted with satisfaction.

    “A drug smuggler and a thief.”

    “She was a spy,” Chuck said, spilling secrets in turn. Well, Caridad should have known that anyway, since she was in the same car when they left.

    But her expression showed that she didn’t see much of a difference. “Her smell was all over you.” Or the girl’s jealousy reared its well-known head again.

    “We were undercover.”

    “I bet you were.”

    Definitely jealous, Sarah noted with a little satisfaction. “Not literally,” she said. Caridad whirled and glared at her. Sarah carefully didn’t smirk. “Can we talk about vampires now, instead of your unrequited feelings?” She almost said ‘obsession’, but Caridad seemed angry already, and prone to outbursts. Violent ones,

    “Yes, let’s talk about vampires!” Chuck chimed in. “Caridad here is the resident Vampire Slayer in Los Angeles.” He frowned. “And where’s Phil?”

    “Still on the way I guess.” Caridad shrugged with faked nonchalance, in Sarah’s opinion. “You know how he drives.”

    “Who’s Phil?” Sarah asked.

    “Her Watcher,” Chuck replied. “Her, well… analyst and support person.”

    “Boring British busy-body.” Caridad sniffed. Chuck rolled his eyes.

    “They don’t get along?” Sarah asked him.

    “He’s cramping my style. Why couldn’t I have gotten a cool watcher?”

    Sarah privately adjusted the girl’s age downwards.

    “They have different views of how a Watcher and Slayer should work together,” Chuck said.

    “He should stick to telling me what to slay, and how,” Caridad said. “He’s not my mom or my teacher.”

    “Well, once Morgan passes the exam, Phil will probably return to England,” Chuck said.

    Grimes was trying to become a Watcher? Sarah made sure she looked puzzled. “Exam?”

    “Watcher exam,” Chuck said. “You need to know a lot to work as a Watcher.”

    Well, Grimes didn’t strike Sarah as agent material. An informant, perhaps even an expert consultant if you needed to know everything about video games, but an analyst or even a field agent?

    “Great, he’s here,” Caridad muttered. “That’s his shitty car. I’ve heard Giles had an even worse car. Can’t the limeys drive real cars? If you crash that one in a vampire, it’d get wrecked.”

    “I don’t think he wants you to use his car as a weapon,” Chuck said - in a rather dry voice.

    Sarah checked the security system. She saw no car parking. Wait… there was one. “A Smart? I didn’t think they were on sale yet in the US.”

    “He imported it,” Caridad said as Sarah watched an older man leave the car. “He’s so old, he should be driving a sports car to compensate for his mid-life crisis.”

    “He would hardly be able to drive it since you’d be borrowing it all the time,” Chuck said.

    Sarah wondered what kind of pay Caridad received if she couldn’t afford a car of her own. Or how many cars she had wrecked. Something to look into, perhaps. “Is that Phil?” she asked as the man - using a cane - started to walk towards the entrance to the building.

    Caridad huffed. “Of course he is. I told you already.”

    Chuck peered at the screen anyway, then nodded. “It’s him.”

    A few minutes later, the man entered Sarah’s apartment. “Miss Walker, I presume?”

    “Yes. You’re ‘Phil’?” Sarah saw the man wince briefly. He had to be over sixty, closer to seventy, she guessed. Almost bald, and what hair was left was white, but he was thin and carried himself well. And he was wearing a tweed suit. Could you be any more stereotypical British?

    “Phillip Brown-Smythe,” he replied. “I’ve been told you stumbled upon a most unsettling fact of life.” He didn’t ask if he could take a seat. He didn’t even glance at the couch. Sarah wondered if he truly needed a cane - there were all sorts of weapons you could hide in one.

    “‘Phil’,” Caridad muttered under her breath behind her.

    “If you mean the fact that Chuck and his friends are hunting vampires, then yes, you are correct,” Sarah replied.

    He cocked his head. “So, you’re not quite convinced they’re not delusional. But you’ll investigate the matter thoroughly anyway.”

    Sarah inclined her head and ignored Caridad’s muttered ‘damn spy’.

    He nodded. “Yes, I think there would be no point to trying to deny the fiends’ existence - you would only end up dead if you entered the supernatural world unprepared.”

    Sarah pressed her lips together. She was a trained spy - she had faced the worst kind of terrorists and enemy spies and accomplished her missions.

    “Well, I think it would be best if we visited a certain venue frequented by the more peaceful demons, to show Miss Walker the supernatural world in a safe and controlled setting.”

    “Yes,” Chuck agreed.

    “Have to check if Lorne’s toeing the line anyway,” Caridad said, nodding.

    “I thought you paid him a visit last week,” Brown-Smythe said.

    “I did,” Caridad replied with a scowl. “But you can’t be too careful, can you?”

    “Indeed.” Brown-Smythe nodded. “Shall we go then?”

    “Go where?” Sarah asked.

    “Caritas.”

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, October 13th, 2007

    “I wasn’t aware that demons had bars,” Sarah commented after they had left her apartment and were on the highway.

    “Take the next exit,” Chuck replied.

    She checked if the Smart was still following them, then changed the lane. “Bars.”

    “Uh, yes.” Chuck cleared his throat. “They have bars. Well, had them, in most cases.”

    “Had them?” Sarah kept her attention on the road as their exit came up.

    “Yes. You see, while not every demon is evil or dangerous, or both, most are. And most of them eat humans. And so in demon bars, they catered to their clients’ tastes.”

    “They served humans?” Sarah felt sick. This couldn’t be true. This had to be a hoax.

    “Well, parts of them. Like the liver, or blood, or hearts. That stuff. Vampires used to toast each other with human blood.”

    She glanced at him for a moment; he didn’t look as queasy as she felt. Then she gasped. “The attacks on blood banks and fake blood donation drives!” That made sense. In a crazy world full of monsters.

    “You know about those?”

    She raised her eyebrows at him.

    “Right, spy, sorry, sorry.” He smiled weakly. “Anyway, some blood came from those. But others…” He shrugged. “So, once there were more Slayers available, not just a single one who had to keep stopping apocalypses and dealing with the major threats, they started to clean up the demon bars.”

    Chuck was talking about apocalypses like… like Casey talked about war, Sarah realised. “Clean up?” she prompted.

    “Uh, kill everyone in them, burn down the building, sometimes salt the earth.”

    “Salt the earth? Really? That sounds biblical.” She blinked. Was the Bible real?

    “Well, salt hurts a few demons, and it has cleansing properties in magic. Some demons really like it, though. But I think the only case where the earth was salted was in a demon biker bar. They had a Mohra Demon as a bouncer, and their kind love salt, so they had bags of the stuff at hand. Now, Vi claims she salted the earth to keep other demons away, but Caridad maintains that it must have been an accident.”

    Sarah made a mental note of the new name Chuck had dropped, even though it was likely a nickname.”So, you closed the demon bars down.”

    “Yes.” Chuck nodded.

    “That means the bar to which we’re headed isn’t catering to dangerous and evil demons.”

    “Caritas. The bar’s named Caritas,” Chuck said. “Third incarnation, actually. The first two were destroyed before things changed.”

    Before Sunnydale ended in a sinkhole. If Chuck’s story was true. Not for the first time, Sarah pondered calling Casey. Backup would be nice. On the other hand, if this whole story was true, Casey’s presence wouldn’t help matters. Not at all. She’d have to trust he’d find the message she’d left in her apartment if she didn’t return.

    “What kind of demons does the bar cater to?”

    “Oh, the more harmless ones. The kind that doesn’t need to eat humans. Like Loose-Skinned Demons. Or Brachen Demons.”

    She waited a moment, then glanced at him before taking a turn. “That’s two species.”

    He cleared his throat. “Well, as I said, most of the demons are evil and dangerous.” He chuckled, once. “And even the non-evil like to kill kittens.”

    “Kittens?” First, cartoons, now memes.

    “Yes.” He held up his hands. “Seriously, many demons consider them a delicacy. Kitten poker is very popular. That, uh, is normal poker, just with kittens as chips.”

    “Kittens.” Yes, if Casey were here, he’d have kittens indeed.

    “Yes. Uh, and take the next right, then start looking for a parking spot.”

    Sarah took five minutes to find a spot. Brown-Smythe’s car found one at once. Perhaps there was something to driving a Smart. Unless you were a spy who needed a car that didn’t roll over as soon as someone glanced at it, of course.

    She got out and checked her appearance. Leather jacket, sturdy jeans, boots. None of her weapons were showing.

    “Did Mr Bartowski tell you what to expect?” Brown-Smythe asked.

    “Demons that aren’t evil or dangerous, probably Loose-Skinned Demons or Brachen Demons,” Sarah replied.

    The British man tsked. “That’s a little rudimentary.” Sarah saw Chuck flinch a little. “The bar is run by a Deathwok demon named Lorne. Unlike most Deathwok demons, he isn’t a habitual cannibal and anthropophage.” He didn’t eat humans and his own kind, Sarah translated.

    “So he claims,” Caridad cut in.

    “Quite.” The older man nodded at the girl. Caridad smiled, briefly, in response, Sarah noted, before resuming her bored expression. “However, several mostly trusted individuals have vouched for him, and, so far, we haven’t found cause to doubt the claims.” Judging by his thin smile, it seemed as if the consequences, should such doubt ever appear, would be quite fatal for the demon. He cleared his throat. “The bar is relatively safe, though, unlike past versions of the venue, no spells prohibit violence on the premises.”

    Right. Magic was supposedly real as well, Sarah reminded herself as she nodded. And conveniently hard to demonstrate outside the neighbourhood of a Hellmouth for anyone but the most talented witches.

    Caridad scoffed and bared her teeth. “As if we’d let him protect the demons.”

    Sarah looked at Chuck.

    “Uh, I forgot to mention this. The first two Caritas… Caritases? Anyway, the first two bars Lorne ran had a spell on them to prohibit violence. He wanted a neutral ground for demons and humans to be safe in.”

    “A foolish and dangerous - and even traitorous - idea,” Brown-Smythe added. “In the war against evil, there is no neutrality. If you shelter demons who prey on humans, you aid them.”

    The man was a zealot, Sarah realised. The kind of zealot that were useful tools but dangerous allies for a spy - often at the same time.

    “Oh, and don’t sing,” Chuck added. “Lorne can see your aura - it’s a bit like mind-reading - if you sing for him.”

    Reading her mind? That would be… She’d kill the demon. She’d have to. “Why would I sing?” Sarah asked.

    “It’s a karaoke bar,” Chuck explained.

    Sarah blinked, then snorted. “Well, of course, a demon bar would offer karaoke.”

    She didn’t think it was that funny, but everyone laughed.

    “Now, Miss Walker - or do you prefer Agent Walker?” Brown-Smythe looked at her.

    “I’m undercover,” she replied. Which far too many people knew for her taste. “Call me Sarah.”

    He nodded, if a little reluctantly in her opinion. Probably too informal for an old British gentleman. “Sarah then.” He cleared his throat. “As I was saying, the bar should be safe. However, due to the past reputation of the host, sometimes demons of a less than peaceful disposition visit. Should a fight break out, please retreat at once.”

    “And drag Chuck with you,” Caridad added with a scowl.

    “Indeed, that would be advisable.” Brown-Smythe nodded.

    “Hey! I’m not that bad,” Chuck protested.

    “You’re sometimes a little too enthusiastic for your talents,” Brown-Smythe said with a rather indulgent-looking smile. “In any case, the area behind the bar usually provides sufficient cover, as long as Caridad can refrain from throwing demons at the wall behind it.”

    That made Caridad scowl even harder. She didn’t protest, though.

    “Please do not try to engage demons yourself. Many are impervious to bullets, and some can only be killed in specific ways.”

    “Cutting their heads off usually works,” Caridad cut in. “If you can cut it,” she added with a smirk.

    Sarah ignored her. “I’ll keep that in mind,” she told Brown-Smythe.

    “Please,” he said with a nod. “Also, don’t, as you say, ‘freak out’ at the appearance of the host,” he added as he turned towards the bar’s entrance.

    “What does he mean?” Sarah whispered to Chuck as they followed the man.

    “He’s, uh, green with horns. Red horns.”

    Sarah didn’t think she would be freaking out at the sight of what could be done with makeup. They were in Los Angeles, after all - Hollywood was just a short drive away.

    The bouncers at the entrance - two of them, Sarah noted, both looking like they had been fed steroids since right after being born - frowned at them as the group approached.

    “Hi, Grunt! Hi, Gnarl!” Caridad chirped with a wave of her hand.

    “Dear, please don’t taunt the staff,” Brown-Smythe said, though he didn’t sound as if he disapproved at all.

    The frowns on the bouncers grew more pronounced, but neither made any move to stop them as they walked past them and entered the bar.

    And Sarah had to struggle not to gasp. The bar looked just like any other karaoke bar - perhaps a little old-fashioned, as far as such venues went. But the guests… half of them looked like extras from Star Wars or Star Trek. Or Horror movies. Makeup and costumes, she told herself. Nothing she was seeing couldn’t be explained by movie magic.

    Then she spotted the mass of tentacles behind the bar. Juggling glasses and bottles. And she froze. That wasn’t possible with special effects.

    “That’s an Octas demon,” Chuck whispered next to her. “They’re harmless scavengers. Not the, uh, other kinds of tentacle demons you probably are thinking about.”

    She glanced at him. “What?” What tentacle demons did he mean? He hadn’t mentioned any such, had he?

    “Uh, nothing.” He cleared his throat. “Let’s, uh, stick with the others, right?”

    Caridad was chuckling, Sarah noticed, as they joined the girl and Brown-Smythe at a table. Belatedly - so much for her training - she also noticed that everyone was staring at them. The demons weren’t meeting their eyes, but they didn’t like their group being here.

    Before she could ask about it, though, Brown-Smythe spoke up: “Ah, here comes the host.”

    And, indeed, a green-skinned, red-horned figure in an expensive suit with light brown, short hair was approaching their table. He didn’t look happy to see them either, Sarah noticed.

    “Watcher. Slayer.” The man - demon - nodded at Brown-Smythe and Caridad.

    “Host.” Brown-Smythe’s nod was barely more than a twitch. Caridad didn’t even pretend to nod; she merely sneered.

    “This bar isn’t meant for the likes of you. This is a refuge for those who wish to peacefully live their lives.”

    “As long as they stick to that, they won’t have any trouble from us,” the Watcher replied.

    “Your mere presence disturbs them,” Lorne said.

    “Makes them afraid, you mean.” Caridad bared her teeth.

    “Who wouldn’t be afraid of a creature created to hunt and kill them? Who’s just looking for an excuse? I can feel your desire to attack them. I can sense your beast struggling against its leash.”

    Caridad’s angry growling didn’t much to dissuade Sarah from thinking that Lorne was correct.

    “And yet you wish we’d let you cater to vampires - soulless beasts who will kill on a whim. I cannot help but feel this is more than a little hypocritical,” Brown-Smythe replied. “How can you stand them?”

    “Even a demon can decide not to follow their nature. I did it. Harmony did it. How many of your victims would have chosen a different path, had you given them a chance?”

    “Harmony is following her nature,” Chuck said. “It’s just that her nature’s too stupid to work with even for a demon.

    Lorne glared at Chuck. “Cheap jokes?” He scoffed. “I wouldn’t expect anything else from you or your friend.”

    “He means Morgan,” Chuck said before Sarah could ask.

    “The boy who wishes to become a Watcher rather than to grow up into a man,” Lorne said.

    “Morgan sang before we knew better,” Chuck said.

    “At least he faced his fate,” Lorne shot back with another glare. “Keep your Slayer in check,” he hissed to Brown-Smythe, then turned and left.

    “He’s never forgiven the new Council that they continued the - entirely sound - policy of handling demons set by the old Council,” the Watcher explained.

    “‘If in doubt, slay’,” Caridad elaborated with a toothy grin.

    “Ah.” Sarah nodded even though she wasn’t entirely certain what had happened between the Slayer and this demon.

    “So, believe us now? That demons are real?” Caridad leaned forward. “That there are monsters you can’t touch with all your spy toys?”

    Sarah looked around, deliberately taking her time. Except for the bartender, the guests present could be disguised men and woman. But the bartender… whatever it was, it wasn’t done by special effects.

    “I believe Sarah requires more solid proof,” Brown-Smythe said. “We might have to hunt down a vampire as a demonstration.”

    Caridad perked up at that. “Shouldn’t be too hard,” she said. “Morgan will probably find one soon enough.”

    Grimes was hunting vampires? Sarah hid her surprise. “I wasn’t aware that there are so many vampires that they can be hunted on command.”

    “The vampire population in Los Angeles has been reduced significantly since the Sunnydale Hellmouth was closed and Wolfram & Hart were finally dealt with, but vampires still thrive in the city thanks to its sheer size and active nightlife,” Brown-Smythe replied. “Every day, roughly ten people go missing in Los Angeles. Most of them are found within a few days, but…” He shrugged with a grim expression.

    “The LAPD isn’t exactly known for their competence,” Sarah said. It was a bit unfair, but reputations lingered. “And I assume the vampires prey on people who won’t be missed at all?”

    “Only the desperate and the fledgelings go after homeless people,” Brown-Smythe said. “Most vampires prefer more sanitary victims.”

    “Decent vampires have standards for food, Spike said,” Caridad added.

    “Quite.” The older man’s expression radiated disgust for a moment, and Caridad hunched slightly in response. Interesting.

    “Spike?” Sarah asked, tilting her head slightly.

    “A vampire who managed to acquire a soul,” Chuck said, “and stopped harming humans.”

    “For a given definition of ‘harming’,” Brown-Smythe added with a scoff. “And that was a rather recent development. The vampire was part of the whirlwind, the scourge of Europe, for over a hundred years.”

    Caridad looked like she wanted to say something, but managed to restrain herself.

    “He invaded our school on parent-teacher night,” Chuck said. “Killed a number of people. Before he got a soul.”

    “Ah.” Sarah would have to check if that incident made it into the files she had managed to acquire.

    “It would be best to avoid him. He’s a very unpleasant fellow,” Brown-Smythe said.

    “He was a British poet,” Chuck added. “Then he went punk.”

    Caridad bit down on some crackers and peanuts. “Looks like they have forgotten to serve us. Again.” Not the smoothest way to change the subject, Sarah noted.

    “A petty gesture,” Brown-Smythe said with a sniff. “But it seems that the bar is kept clean of unsavoury elements tonight. Welcome news, of course, albeit slightly inconvenient right now.”

    “Vampires. Never around when you need one,” Chuck said with a grin that rapidly vanished when Brown-Smythe and Caridad glared at him. Sarah reached over and squeezed his hand.

    “I don’t think that remaining here will net us a suitable subject for the demonstration,” Brown-Smythe went on. “The staff will warn the less peaceful patrons not to enter if only to protect their own livelihood.”

    “Are all the patrons here demons?” Sarah asked, glancing around. Half the crowd - which had thinned significantly, she noted - looked perfectly normal.

    “Most, I think,” the older man replied, glancing at Caridad.

    The girl nodded. “Not too many humans here.” Could she smell them?

    “She can sense demons,” Chuck said as if he had read her thoughts. “Most demons can take human forms.”

    “Especially the half-breeds,” the Watcher added.

    Demons bred with humans? Chuck had mentioned that in his tale, but Sarah hadn’t thought such mixing was still going on. Well, she had thought about other things. Like why Chuck was trying to tell her fairy tales. “How common is that?” she asked, after reminding herself that she still hadn’t seen real proof. Apart from the bartender here.

    Chuck shrugged. “A number of people have some demon ancestry.”

    “Like that creep Jeff!” Caridad said.

    “According to myths and legends, demon blood grants you an affinity for magic,” Brown-Smythe said. “Something of a sore point in certain circles, so I would counsel you not to mention it when talking to witches.”

    Witches. Well, if there were demons, and magic, then why wouldn’t there be witches? Sarah refrained from shaking her head. She was a trained spy, after all.

    Caridad’s phone vibrated before Sarah could follow up. “It’s from Morgan,” she announced in a very eager-sounded voice. “He’s found a probable vampire!”

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Silver Lake, October 13th, 2007

    “That’s the club!” Chuck said. “Los Globos. We can park in the paid lot right next to it.”

    Even paying cash, there would be records of that, Sarah knew. Cameras covered the lot. But there wasn’t a free parking spot nearby, not that she had seen one on the drive, at least, and a vampire wasn’t a threat one wanted to leave along. If vampires existed.

    “So, how do you handle this?” she asked as they left the car and waited for the Smart to park as well.

    “Uh, well… Caridad usually waits until the vampire leaves with a victim, and intervenes before the feeding,” Chuck said.

    “Ah.”

    “Exactly,” Caridad said half a minute later, as the girl and the Watcher joined them, “I let the vampire do the sneaking before I slay them.”

    Sarah adjusted the girl’s hearing range upwards.

    “Discretion is a good trait for a Slayer,” Brown-Smythe said.

    Caridad beamed, then blinked and scowled.

    Sarah refrained from calling the girl ‘slow to catch up’; that would have been childish. But she certainly thought it.

    “Let’s see if young Morgan truly found a vampire,” the older man said, then led the way towards the club’s entrance.

    “He’s near the bar,” Caridad said after a glance at her cell phone.

    Here, too, the bouncers didn’t stop or frisk their group, despite the very solid-looking cane Brown-Smythe carried. But then, old people rarely made trouble of the violent kind. And Caridad looked far too harmless for the danger she represented.

    Sarah spotted Grimes at once upon entering - the nerd stuck out at the bar with his gaming t-shirt. And he was staring at… A pale woman wearing a leather dress that had been fashionable more than ten years ago, not that any one of the men surrounding her seemed to mind that. Not with so much cleavage exposed. “That’s the suspect I presume,” she whispered.

    “Indeed,” Brown-Smythe answered. “And it seems Morgan was correct.”

    Caridad was growling and clenching her bared teeth, Sarah noticed.

    “Patience, my dear.”

    The girl nodded curtly, her eyes stuck on the pale woman - the vampire, Sarah reminded herself.

    The girl wasn’t much for subtlety, Sarah thought, then grinned. “Well, since we have to wait anyway… care to dance, Chuck?”

    “Uh, ah…”

    “Think of it as maintaining our cover.” She grabbed his arm and started to lead him to the dance floor. “Besides, if too many of us stare at her, it might tip her off,” Sarah added. Not that it was likely; the vampire seemed to thrive on the attention.

    “Good thought,” Chuck said, nodding.

    So naive, Sarah thought, Not that she was complaining.

    *****​

    Half an hour of mostly slow dances later, the suspect finally led a very pleased and very drunk-looking man to the exit. “Showtime,” Sarah whispered into Chuck’s ear and felt him tense up.

    “Uh…”

    She waited until the vampire had left, followed by Caridad, before she stopped dancing. A couple leaving the dance floor in the middle of a song to follow her might have looked suspicious to their target. Sarah certainly would have noticed such a move.

    On the street outside, there was no sign of either Caridad and Brown-Smythe, or the - possible - vampire and her victim. But to one side was the parking lot, which meant… Sarah turned and headed to the closest side alley.

    “Careful!” she heard Chuck mutter as he caught up. Then the sounds of fighting caught her attention, and she rushed ahead to the alley’s entrance.

    In the shadows, two people were fighting. And, apparently unconcerned about that, Brown-Smythe was treating a head wound of the vampire victim on the ground. “Ah, would you please stop that thing from rolling on the street lest it endangers traffic?” the old man said, pointing at a crumpled trash container slowly rolling out of the side alley.

    Chuck stepped into its path and kicked the brake on the front wheel. Sarah was staring at the fight as her eyes adjusted to the shadows. Caridad was… superhuman was the only fitting term. Sarah was a veteran spy, trained in several martial arts, and she had killed with her bare hands more than once. She knew what was possible, and whatever Caridad was doing wasn’t. But that was possible with drugs. Special drugs no one had ever made, but still…

    But the suspect? An inhuman face with long fangs and ugly ridges on the forehead, glowing yellow eyes… It might be possible doing this with a mask. But getting slammed into walls and the ground with enough force for Sarah to hear the bones breaking, see the splintered remains break the skin, and yet heal up as she got up again, the bones sticking out suddenly withdrawing… No drug outside comic books could do this.

    “Damn it, hold still!” Caridad spat, slamming the vampire into a wall again before breaking both her legs with quick kicks to the knees.

    “The demons are remarkably uncooperative,” Brown-Smythe remarked as Caridad wrestled the vampire to the ground. “But I think you can see they are clearly not human. However, observe this.” He pulled a vial out of his jacket and flipped the lid off, then poured some over his hand. “Harmless water - for a human. For a vampire, though…” He splashed the struggling vampire with it.

    Sarah winced at the screaming that caused. And at the burning, melting flesh. Someone would call the cops now if they hadn’t already. And yet… “Allergies. Or some catalyst on her skin.”

    “A sceptic, I see.” The man sounded almost amused and pulled out a cross. A simple wooden cross. Which burned the woman’s skin as if it were glowing red hot.

    Sarah breathed through her mouth to avoid smelling the stench, and Chuck made retching noises. Grimes too - and when had he arrived?

    “And now we take it apart.” Brown-Smythe snapped the cross in two, then pressed the pieces onto the vampire’s skin again. Nothing happened. He handed her the piece of wood he had used. “Please check it.”

    She couldn’t find any sign of a hidden compartment or mechanism.

    He took it back and smiled. “And yet, if pushed into the vampire’s heart…” He stabbed down. And the woman turned to ashes before Sarah’s eyes. There was no fire. Nothing. Just a body turning to dust in a second. After being stabbed with a simple piece of wood.

    She couldn’t deny it any longer. Nothing else made any sense. Vampires were real.

    Sarah wished they had done this inside the club - she really needed a drink right bloody now.

    *****​
     
  15. SaintMichael95

    SaintMichael95 Not too sore, are you?

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    *insert mad cackling* It's only just beginning dear Sarah!

    Yeah I'm enjoying the story quite a bit. Surprised there aren't many people reading it, though that might be because the SFW section of QQ doesn't get all that much traffic. I'd suggest crossposting this on SB or SV, if you aren't already, for more feedback.
     
    RedX and Starfox5 like this.
  16. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Indeed. The Council's not the best at spying, so to speak, so there might be the odd task or two for people trained in gathering intel...

    I'm posting it on FFNet, SB and Twisting the Hellmouth. I'm a tad iffy about SV.
     
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  17. Threadmarks: Chapter 9: The Marine
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 9: The Marine

    California, Los Angeles, Silver Lake, October 13th, 2007

    Sarah muttered a few choice curses under her breath and ignored how Caridad smirked at her. “I’m convinced now,” she said.

    “Capital,” Brown-Smythe replied. “Then I think we should vacate the premises - after the ruckus we made, even the local constabulary should arrive soon.”

    “I couldn’t quickly slay the vampire since we had to get her for a demonstration,” Caridad said with a pout - and a frown aimed at Sarah. “It’s not my fault.”

    “I didn’t say it was, dear.” The older man smiled at her. “The fault, if there is one, lies entirely with me for orchestrating this demonstration. But we really should be on our way.”

    They quickly made their way out the other side of the alley, then turned the corner and went to their cars. Five minutes later, they were on the way back to Sarah’s apartment. And she was pondering what she had seen. Vampires. One, at least. And demons. And a vampire being brutally tortured as a demonstration for her - without anyone being upset about it. Chuck had looked a little ill at ease, but that seemed to have been the smell, unless she was mistaken. He had a darker side, then. Although she should have expected that, after what she had found out about Sunnydale.

    “I was surprised to see you worry about the LAPD,” she said once they were back on the highway.

    “Uh…” Chuck stopped staring out of the window and turned his head towards her. “Why?”

    “You’ve got the NSA and the CIA under your thumb.”

    “That’s the Council. And they don’t like intervening. Well, most of them don’t.”

    “Ah.” She nodded. Limited influence or favours, probably.

    “They expect a Slayer and their Watcher to avoid trouble with the local cops,” he went on. “And with the local military. And with the federal authorities.”

    “Speaking from experience?”

    “I’m not a Watcher. Technically, I never worked for the Council,” he replied.

    She knew evasive answers when she heard them and simply raised her eyebrows.

    He caved. “Alright. A couple of times, the Council wasn’t happy with Morgan and me. But that’s in the past. These days, it’s usually Caridad’s fault if they’re unhappy. Or yours.”

    “Mine?”

    “A few times, they had to make a call to get someone to rein you in.”

    “Ah.” Of course.

    “And Casey’s still at it, isn’t he?”

    She didn’t answer that. She didn’t have to.

    “We’ll have to tell him as well, then.”

    Chuck was probably correct. Sarah didn’t like to inform the NSA agent, but they were working on the same mission. And while it would be amusing to have this Council get mad at the NSA, it would also be unprofessional. And hurt the mission - which was to protect Chuck. So she nodded. “He won’t believe it without proof either.”

    Chuck sighed. “Morgan and I weren’t that sceptical when we were told.”

    “You were teenagers and not trained spies.”

    “Point.” He leaned back and closed his eyes. “I’ll let Caridad and Phil handled that, I think. It’s official business, after all. And I think I’m biased since I’ve got the, you know.” He gestured towards his head.

    “The Intersect. Which doesn’t contain any information about the supernatural,” Sarah said. Which made it rather less useful than advertised.

    “Well, you know about ‘garbage in, garbage out’?”

    “The information in your head was gathered by spies, often risking or losing their lives.”

    He cringed under her glare. “Sorry! I didn’t mean it like that, really! I just… Someone sanitised the information. Someone in your organisation. Organisations.”

    “On your Council’s order.”

    “I don’t think so. It was probably part of the cover-up of the DRI. The Demon Research Initiative,” he added after a glance from her.

    “The program that went out of control and required the Slayer’s intervention?” Sarah reminded herself that she was hearing but one side of the story.

    “Yes. I don’t know the details, but the army was involved. I think. And they experimented with demons and humans, creating a monster which killed most of the soldiers. Something like that.”

    “You mentioned that before.” Although with even fewer details.

    “Sorry.”

    She frowned - she shouldn’t stop him when he was sharing information. She needed this. Now more than ever. Even though she couldn’t tell anyone. Not even the director - he’d think that she had suffered a breakdown or had gone insane. She muttered a curse under her breath. “They’ll think I’ve become compromised!”

    “They?”

    “My superiors,” she explained. He looked confused, so she added: “Once your friends stop complaining and we don’t deliver any information they’ll think I’ll have been turned.”

    “Oh.” He frowned as well. “The Council could set them straight.”

    She snorted. Her career was dead. No one trusted a compromised spy. She might even be sent on a suicide mission. “That would only confirm their suspicions.”

    “I’m sorry.” He blinked. “You might get reassigned to the DRI, or what they call themselves now. They hunt demons for the government.”

    “The government has a demon-hunting agency?” And yet, they listened to a British organisation?

    “Well, it’s a small one. Mostly the survivors from Sunnydale. They hunt the weaker demons and scout areas. Like the Amazon rainforest. If they find something big, they call the Council, and a Slayer team is deployed.”

    That sounded more like ranger missions. “I’m a spy, not a soldier,” she told him.

    “Oh.”

    “Well, it hasn’t happened yet,” she said. She still had some time left. “But we need to get Casey on board. Before he tells the general that I’ve been compromised.” That would buy her a little more time. It would also ruin Casey’s career, but that was probably inevitable anyway - Casey wouldn’t stop investigating.

    “Yes.”

    Neither of them said anything else until they reached Sarah’s apartment.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Glendale, October 13th, 2007

    “Casey needs to be told,” Sarah said once everyone was back in her apartment and she had once more scanned for bugs.

    “Can he be trusted?” Brown-Smythe asked while Caridad seemed to be struggling not to blurt out something.

    “He will notice if I stop investigating you and he won’t let it go,” Sarah said. “But between the orders from the government and the truth about the… vampires, I think he can be trusted not to betray you.” Talking about vampires as real creatures still was odd, she realised. “If he’s not told, he’ll be prone to both endangering our mission since he will consider me compromised and Chuck a threat and meddling in your hunting.”

    “Not to mention that without proof, he’ll risk getting institutionalised,” Chuck added.

    “That has been known to happen,” Brown-Smythe said. “Even to Slayers left on their own.”

    Caridad nodded.

    Sarah expected Brown-Smythe to mention alternative ways of ‘handling’ Casey - the older man seemed to be the type to consider anyone deemed a possible problem expendable - but the Watcher nodded after a few seconds. “This seems an acceptable course of action. We will arrange a demonstration and inform you once it’s ready.”

    “What if he doesn’t... play ball?” Caridad said.

    “Then we will have to reassess the situation,” Brown-Smythe replied - in the same tone the director handed out assassination missions.

    “Can I watch when you show him demons?” Grimes said with a smile. “I bet he’ll scream like a little girl!”

    “If he gets humiliated, he won’t forgive you,” Sarah pointed out. “He’ll take revenge.”

    “Oh. You’ll protect me, right?” Grimes said to Caridad.

    “Not if it’s your own fault,” Caridad said, then glanced at Brown-Smythe.

    “Indeed.” The older man nodded. “Taunting men such as Major Casey is a remarkably bad idea.”

    Grimes pouted. “You don’t work with him. Back me up here, Chuck!”

    Chuck held his hands up. “Whoa, I’m not going to taunt Mr Murderhappy. Did you forget how we met him? On the helipad?”

    “Uh.” Grimes winced. “Forget I said anything.”

    “That’s settled, then.” Brown-Smythe nodded. “Is there anything else that has to be addressed immediately?” He cocked his head, then nodded again. “Then I think we shall take our leave. There’s still a patrol to be done, after all.”

    Sarah saw Caridad look at her, then at Chuck, then back at her. She refrained from making shooing noises, but she smiled when the girl, scowling behind her Watcher’s back, left Sarah’s apartment after Grimes and Brown-Smythe.

    “So…” Chuck started.

    Sarah glanced at him, then checked the security camera feed. She wasn’t about to discuss anything until the walking parabolic microphone had left the area.

    “Ah. Sorry, I didn’t think,” Chuck said.

    She nodded and waited until she saw the Smart drive off, then sighed and sat on the couch, closing her eyes. Vampires were real. Demons were real. Magic was real. And the agency had no idea.

    “It’s a shock, isn’t it?” Chuck said, and she felt the couch shift a little as he sat down next to her.

    What did he think? She looked at him, raising her eyebrows, and he ducked his head a little. “Sorry… I just remembered when I was told about vampires.”

    “At your graduation.” He had mentioned that.

    “A few days beforehand, but yes. Suddenly, everything in the town made sense.” He shook his head. “That was the day I realised that our parents wouldn’t be coming back. That they were gone.” He sighed. “It was a sort of relief, you know? They hadn’t left us, first one, then the other. They had been killed. It wasn’t our fault.”

    She hadn’t expected their talk to take that turn. She didn’t want to talk about parents. His or hers. Not at all. And she didn’t. But she wrapped her arm around his waist and leaned into him.

    After a while, he cleared his throat. She tensed a moment, but slowly pulled away again. “So, they had prepared a demonstration, for those who didn’t believe. Buffy had dragged a vampire to the school, wrapped in chains and blankets.”

    “Blankets?”

    “Sunlight sets them on fire. They burn to ashes in a few seconds.”

    She made a mental note of that.

    “Sorry, in this day and age of sparkly movie vampires, I should have mentioned that real vampires burn in the sun. They generally burn well - fire is a great weapon against them,” he said.

    “You mentioned a flamethrower.”

    “Yes. Xander organised them. I don’t know where he got them, but he trained us on them. And we - Morgan, I and a few others - used them against the mayor’s vampire hordes. Kept them at bay long enough for the solar eclipse to end. The school blew up with the mayor in it, though at the time, he was this huge snake demon. A number of people still died, but most lived.” He sighed. “We left the town the next day. Both our families. Or what was left of them. Never looked back. Well, I called Xander a few times.”

    “That’s when you started hunting vampires?”

    He shook his head. “I’m not. Hunting vampires, that is. I call Caridad if I spot a suspect. But unless it’s an apocalypse and it’s all hands on deck, as Xander says, I’m not getting involved. It was pure chance I was in town when we took down Wolfram and Hart.”

    “They weren’t working for terrorists, then.” Sarah remembered the news about the law firm - one of the biggest in the US, perhaps the world - being revealed as financing and working for terrorists. Their offices had been stormed and there had been a lot of collateral damage. Entire buildings destroyed. “And it wasn’t the Seals who took them down.” The agency had wondered about that - a number of things hadn’t added up.

    “They wanted to destroy the world for their demonic overlords. That’s pretty much terrorism, isn’t it?”

    So, he wasn’t about to spill the beans about his past ‘missions’. That was a good stance for a spy. Even though she really wanted to hear more about this operation. But she wouldn’t push. Not now. She nodded instead. “Yes.”

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Glendale, October 14th, 2007

    “I’m getting used to sleeping on the couch,” Chuck said as he sat down at the kitchen table for breakfast. “It’s like being married.”

    She raised her eyebrows at him. “A marriage where the husband is always sleeping on the couch doesn’t seem like it’d last long.”

    He chuckled. “Ellie used to joke about that when she complained about Morgan and I gaming all night. Before…” He sighed. “Well, before Stanford.”

    She nodded. Before Bryce had, well… betrayed Chuck. Framed him for cheating and hooked up with Chuck’s girlfriend. She didn’t know what had happened there. Bryce hadn’t seemed to be the type to do this to a friend. He hadn’t seemed to be a traitor to the agency, either, of course. Falling for your best friend’s girlfriend she could see. Such things happened. Love didn’t follow orders or common sense. But why frame Chuck as a cheater? That seemed needlessly cruel. Designed to break their friendship. She frowned. Had that been the goal? If Chuck was telling the truth, of course. But she didn’t doubt him. On the other hand, she hadn’t doubted Bryce either…

    “Earth to Sarah. Earth to Sarah. Please respond.”

    She blinked. Chuck was staring at her with a wry smile. “Sorry,” she said. “I got lost in thoughts.”

    “About marriage?”

    She let her smile slip. “About my ex.”

    “Oh. Sorry.”

    She shook her head. “Not your fault.” It was Bryce’s, no one else’s. “It’s over.”

    He nodded. “So… Casey? What do we do with him?”

    She sighed. “We can’t just tell him he’ll be briefed by your friends - he’ll suspect a trap or inform our superiors.” Likely both. And he didn’t trust her or the agency. “We’ll probably have to either drag a vampire to his home or lure him to a ‘demonstration’ under false pretences.”

    “Uh.”

    She nodded. “Exactly.”

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious, October 14th, 2007

    Knowing about the supernatural wouldn’t just ruin her career and alienate the agency. There was another unfortunate consequence of yesterday’s revelations Sarah discovered during Chuck’s break this morning: Grimes had tagged along. And the man didn’t seem to know how to shut up.

    “...so, I’ve been thinking, we need a cage to capture a vampire for Casey. I think a shark cage would be strong enough for a fledgeling. Outside a Hellmouth, at least. And Caridad should be able to carry it.”

    “She doesn’t have a pickup truck. She doesn’t have a car, period. And I don’t think it’ll fit on her bike.” And Chuck was enabling him.

    “True. We could rent one, though. Or we could borrow one of our delivery vans! I know the combination of the key safe.”

    Sarah wondered if Grimes had used such vans in the past, or if this was a first.

    “That could be tracked. People might think we’re kidnapping someone,” Chuck pointed out, “and our vans are a little distinctive.”

    “True.” Grimes wrinkled his forehead. “Uh… we could repaint it!”

    “Then the delivery men will grow suspicious in the morning,” Chuck replied.

    “We need some easily removable panels to mask the van. Magnetic, I think. Matching tape for the edges. That way, we could quickly change its colour.”

    "If you’re planning to regularly kidnap vampires, you should buy your own car instead of ‘borrowing’ a delivery van,” Sarah cut in as she put three drinks down - the one for Grimes she almost slammed on the table, but he didn’t seem to notice.

    “But that would lead directly to us!” Grimes complained.

    “Not if you take a few precautions,” she retorted. Really, this was spying 101.

    “Oh? What do I need to do?” Grimes pulled out a battered notebook and a pen.

    “You want to add spy techniques to your book?” Chuck asked.

    “You’re writing a book?” Sarah asked a moment later.

    Grimes blushed a little. “Well, not really a book… more like a handbook. For demon hunting.”

    “I would assume that the ‘Council’ already has such instruction manuals,” Sarah pointed out before she saw Chuck wince behind Grimes’s back.

    “They have a lot of books, and a number of handbooks,” Grimes said. “Xander and Willow have been going over them, too.” She looked at him. He squirmed a little. “It’s just… this is a guide for me. Sort of. Tailored, you might say. Something for the average guy, not a Slayer. Or a witch. Or a soldier.”

    “I thought that none of the ‘Scoobies’ served in the military,” Sarah commented. Getting used to calling a group able to have the agency ordered around by such a silly name wasn’t easy.

    “They didn’t,” Chuck said. “But the Council employs a number of former soldiers.”

    Grimes nodded in a way that told Sarah they weren’t telling her everything. “So, this is the Morgan edition of the demon hunter’s handbook. The little guy edition. The everyman’s edition. How to survive if you haven’t the skills of a Green Beret or mystical power.”

    Sarah nodded. So, Harris, Rosenberg and Giles were witches. That was good to know.

    Chuck cleared his throat. “So… have you thought of the best way to bring in Casey without him shooting anyone or getting institutionalised?”

    “The latter is totally acceptable if you can’t think of a better solution, by the way,” Grimes added. “Safety first. Like, our safety.” Sarah glared at him, and he winced. “I mean… as a last resort?”

    “Not funny, Morgan,” Chuck added.

    Grimes pouted “That is a good description of Casey. Man’s got no sense of humour at all.”

    He was wrong, Sarah new. Casey had a sense of humour - just a very dark one. Not that she’d say that. She sighed instead. “I’ve been thinking about a possible solution.”

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, October 14th, 2007

    Sitting in Casey’s apartment, reading the latest files he had acquired, Sarah resisted the urge to check her cell phone. Brown-Smythe had said they were looking for a vampire to capture. He’d call once they had achieved their mission. Until then, she had to play her role.

    That the files were quite interesting helped, of course. Especially now that she knew the truth - or at least a core part of it. The mayor and his death, the Initiative… a lot made more sense now. Which said a lot about the entire issue.

    “Have you gone native, Walker?”

    Casey’s comment made her look up. The man was staring at her across the table. She could see both of his hands, so he hadn’t drawn a weapon, but he always had one on him, or at hand. Had he noticed something amiss with her due to yesterday's revelation? Probably. Casey was a veteran spy, after all.

    “I’m investigating Chuck’s friends,” she replied.

    “You’ve been doing that for weeks, without anything solid to show for. Have you lost your touch? Or have you changed sides?” He bared his teeth at her.

    She glared at him in return. “A contact of mine has provided me with more information, but I need to confirm the intel through independent sources before I can share it.”

    “That’s what we’re doing here,” he said, narrowing his eyes. “Cross-checking and confirming intel. Intel I acquired.”

    “You heard about the psychic experiments in the seventies?” she said.

    He frowned. “That was a stupid movie.”

    “Based on a true story,” she retorted. “The information I received claims something similar was done in Sunnydale. Just without goats - and it worked.”

    He scoffed. “You claim they found real psychics?”

    “That’s what I was told, and why I didn’t want to say anything until I had it confirmed or disproven,” she said. “My contact said he could provide proof.”

    “Of psychic powers.” He sneered.

    She shrugged. “No matter how it goes, it’ll produce results.”

    “Or it’s a trap.”

    “There would be a more plausible bait if it were a trap,” Sarah replied.

    “Double bluff,” he retorted. “They assume you’ll assume that.”

    “If it’s a trap, we’ll turn it on them.”

    He grunted, which she took as agreement.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, October 14th, 2007

    The ‘Hotel Hyperion’ had seen better days, Sarah thought as she approached it. On the other hand, for a building that hadn’t been used in years, it looked remarkably well-kept. ‘Angel Investigations’ must have done some work before they closed down.

    “Smells like a trap,” Casey growled next to her. “Building could be rigged to blow.”

    “I’ll go in alone, then, to check,” she said.

    “Splitting up is a bad idea,” he spat.

    It wasn’t. Not in this situation. If she were ambushed, Casey would know about it at once. But he wouldn’t let her walk into the building, taking all the risks - and earning all the results. Not with him being a male NSA agent and soldier, and her being a female CIA agent with a shady past.

    The main entrance wasn’t locked, as she had been told. The lobby inside showed signs of damage.

    “Someone took a sledgehammer to the interior,” Casey whispered as he looked around in the dimly-lit lobby.

    Sarah nodded. “Stairs,” she replied gesturing at the door in the back. Both had their pistols drawn as they descended into the basement.

    “Is that you? Let me out, you bastard! Let me go!”

    Even though she had expected this, or something like it, Sarah jerked when she heard the yelling. “Ahead of us,” she whispered, then led the way.

    Grimes - or, more likely, Brown-Smythe - had managed to get a cage, Sarah thought upon entering the room. A cage solid enough to resist a vampire’s strength. Like the female one stuck in it.

    “What the hell!” Casey snapped. “A cage?”

    “Are you the police? Please, let me out! Some man dragged me into a van, and when I woke up, I was in this cage!”

    Sarah had to hand it to the vampire - she could act. Of course, they were in Hollywood, so she might be a former actress. It wouldn’t help her, though.

    Sarah aimed and fired twice. The vampire went down with a double-tap to the head.

    “What the!” Casey gasped next to her. “Walker!”

    She didn’t have to look at him to know he had trained his gun on her. “Watch her,” she said, not taking her eyes off the vampire. “Don’t get close.”

    “Are you crazy?” he spat, but he didn’t approach the cage.

    And he saw like she did as the vampire, lying in a pool of blood mixed with parts of her brains and skull, twitched and got up. “You asshole! That hurt!” she snarled.

    Sarah shot her again, right in the forehead.

    “Walker!”

    “She’s a vampire, Casey. Bullets won’t hurt her. Go ahead, try it.”

    As if on cue, the vampire got up again. Her face changed, and she threw herself at the bars, arms reaching for them.

    Casey shot her. Repeatedly. “What the hell!” he yelled. “What is this?”

    “She’s a vampire,” Sarah said.

    “Vampires don’t exist!”

    “That’s what I thought,” she said.

    He turned to face her. “This is a setup.”

    She nodded. “You wouldn’t believe this without first-hand proof. I didn’t.”

    He blinked. She could almost see how he started to add up things in his mind. “They’re hunting vampires?”

    “Indeed, we do, Mr Casey.” Brown-Smythe stepped into the room through a door Sarah hadn’t noticed before. The man seemed to ignore Casey aiming his pistol at him. “That’s a vampire. If not for the cage, she would have killed you both and drank your blood. And like all vampires, she has no reflection in a mirror.” He pointed at the dusty mirror leaning against the wall behind the cage. Which, Sarah realised, only showed the three of them and an empty cage.

    Casey didn’t say anything. But he pulled out a small mirror himself. And stared at it.

    *****​

    Casey was a hard man. Stubborn too. And thorough. He used pretty much everything at hand on her. Guns, knives, blunt objects, garottes, poison… Even as an experienced spy, both trained for and to resist interrogations, Sarah felt slightly ill by the time the vampire was finally killed - by staking.

    Neither Caridad nor Brown-Smythe had flinched, though. Sarah was glad that Chuck wasn’t present - she didn’t think she wanted to know how he would have reacted to the spectacle. Or how he wouldn’t have.

    “I take it you are now convinced of the veracity of our claims,” Brown-Smythe said.

    Casey narrowed his eyes at the older man. “Vampires exist. And are damn hard to kill until you know the trick.”

    “A trick everyone knows who’s watched vampire movies,” Caridad said.

    “They have several weaknesses,” Brown-Smythe added. “But they are just one of many demon species. One of the weakest, if the most common, actually.”

    “And we’re hunting them all!” Caridad bared her teeth. If not for Brown-Smythe’s presence, she probably would have struck a pose, Sarah thought.

    “We?”

    “The Watchers Council and the Slayers,” Brown-Smythe replied. “An organisation that goes back to a time before writing was invented.” He cleared his throat - Chuck had done the same, Sarah remembered. “The world is older than you know…”

    *****​

    “...and in every generation, there is a chosen one. She alone will stand against the vampires the demons and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer.”

    Sarah pressed her lips together. For all his claims of not being a Watcher, Chuck certainly knew their backstory almost word for word.

    “A fancy story,” Casey said. He didn’t look convinced. “So, the nerd’s part of your group?”

    “Young Mr Bartowski isn’t a member of the Watchers,” Brown-Smythe said. Caridad’s expression left no doubt that she didn’t like that fact. “But due to growing up in Sunnydale, he was party to some rather close battles against the forces of darkness, and like every upstanding young man ought to, he has done his part to save the world when he was called to help.”

    Casey scoffed. “And the girl’s some superwoman fighting vampires?” His voice was dripping with scorn, in Sarah’s impression.

    The older man narrowed his eyes, then gave Caridad a curt nod.

    A moment later, Caridad had Casey on the ground in an arm lock, and the Watcher calmly said: “Indeed. Slayers are supernaturally empowered girls fighting the forces of darkness. Caridad is far stronger, faster and tougher than you, Mr Casey. She has supernatural senses and can detect demons. She is, in short, the natural predator of vampires and their ilk.”

    He hadn’t said that Caridad was smarter than anyone, though, Sarah nodded.

    Casey growled and tried pretty much everything possible to get out of the girl’s hold. Without success. “Let me up,” he finally spat.

    After another nod from the Watcher, Caridad did. Casey stood, rubbing his neck. He would want a rematch, to get even, Sarah realised. And wondered if she should warn Caridad. “So… a bunch of supergirls and limeys fight demons on American soil. And you expect us to stay out of this.”

    “You’re wondering who among your government’s forces are involved.” The Watcher smiled. “The US government has a force fighting demons.”

    “More like finding demons. They call us in for anything serious.” Caridad sniffed.

    “The Initiative is a rather small unit,” Brown-Smythe went on. “As I understand, its main purpose is to keep those among your soldiers who are aware of the supernatural contained and isolated, so to speak.”

    “We wouldn’t place our safety in the hands of foreigners!” Casey spat.

    “The council’s been waging this war long before Columbus set sails for India,” Brown-Smythe replied, tapping the ground with the tip of his cane. “We don’t meddle in politics. We fight demons and protect humanity.”

    “We’re the supernatural United Nations!” Caridad grinned. “Just, we’re good at it!”

    Her Watcher cleared his throat, and Caridad ducked her head a little. “A not entirely incorrect way to phrase this. We are a neutral organisation. We operate in every country, for the good of humanity as a whole.”

    Casey snorted and sneered.

    Brown-Smythe inclined his head. “Sometimes, such a stance can be taxing. However, if we would let us be dragged into mundane conflicts, we would soon be forced to take sides - and that would make it far too easy for demons to find human allies on a state level. Neutrality is a necessity for us, Mr Casey.”

    “Is this a recruitment pitch?” Casey asked, glancing at Sarah.

    “No. This is merely a, shall we say, lively briefing so you won’t continue to waste your time trying to meddle in things outside your jurisdiction.”

    “Yeah, stop snooping around! The Scoobies are getting tired of having to call the President to stop you!”

    Casey ignored her. He stared at Sarah instead. “What is your role in this?”

    “The same as yours,” Brown-Smythe said. “She found out the truth yesterday, so it was decided to bring you in as well, to avoid unnecessary tension which might endanger Mr Bartowski.”

    Casey frowned at that - though he should have expected Caridad’s handler to know about Chuck’s special circumstances, in Sarah’s opinion.

    “And with that, I think we shall take our leave. We still have a patrol to finish, and you, I suppose, have a few things to discuss,” Brown-Smythe said with a curt nod.

    And it wouldn’t be a fun discussion, Sarah knew.

    *****​

    "What the hell…" Casey started as soon as the Watcher and the Slayer had left.

    Sarah raised her finger and cut him off. "Wait a little longer. Caridad can hear a car from more than a block away."

    He mouthed ‘what?’ with an incredulous expression that would have been funny in other circumstances.

    Sarah nodded. “I observed it myself. Let’s leave.”

    He clenched his teeth and glared but followed her out of the old hotel to her car. Five minutes later, on the highway, he spoke again. “Are we safe?”

    “From Caridad’s ears? Yes. From magic spells?” She shrugged. “I didn’t know magic was real until a day ago.”

    He muttered a curse. “Demons hunting American citizens! Foreign organisations pushing the government around! A giant conspiracy to hide the truth!”

    Sarah was tempted to ask what he thought was the worst. She made a noncommittal noise instead.

    “This is a serious threat to national security. The government might be compromised.”

    “Our own demon hunter agency should prevent that.” Sarah didn’t think the US government would waste their own experts on sweeps through foreign jungles.

    “I haven’t heard about such an organisation.” Casey was grinding his teeth.

    “We haven’t heard about vampires either,” she pointed out.

    “We should have.”

    “Not if those demons are rare,” she replied. “And if they stick to people no one cares about…” She pressed her lips together. A vampire hunting illegal immigrants or homeless people could stay under the radar forever as long as they ensured no bodies would be found. Even if there were bodies left, in some areas, no one would care as long as it looked like a gang was responsible. And that was in the United States; in other countries it would be worse.

    Casey grunted. “You’ve been talking to Bartowski.”

    She didn’t deny it. “He said that Sunnydale was a Hellmouth - a place were demons gathered because they were stronger there. And the government black op in Sunnydale was experimenting with demons.”

    “How can we inform our superiors?” he said, ignoring her comment. “They’ll think we’ve gone crazy if we tell them.”

    “We can’t,” she said. “Without a demonstration, they won’t believe us.”

    He cursed again. “They’ll expect us to dig up intel. They’ll think we’ll be compromised.”

    She made another agreeing noise - it was quite obvious, after all.

    “We can’t just keep this quiet!”

    She focused on the road instead of answering.

    “That’s what you want, huh? Stick with Bartowski. Use this to jump ship.”

    “I don’t see a way to inform our superiors without either getting institutionalised or reassigned to the demon hunter unit.” Or retired with prejudice - the agency might decide that they knew too much. Especially if their sanity was questioned.

    He scoffed. “I’m not giving up.”

    “We need to gather more information,” she said, not letting her anger show. What a bloody marine!

    “You mean you want to jump Bartowski’s bones.”

    This was getting tiresome. “Stop letting your wounded ego do the talking just because you got schooled,” she shot back. “Caridad’s got superpowers anyway.”

    “As if you’d let her walk all over you.”

    She pressed her lips together. As much as she hated to admit it, he was right - she didn’t intend to let Caridad push her around either. “We’ll keep protecting Bartowski and do our job, and see what else we can find out. An opportunity might present itself.”

    The noise he made through clenched teeth sounded as if he agreed.

    “Oh,” she added, suppressing a smirk, “There’s another thing.”

    “What?” he snarled.

    “Now that you know, they’re likely to talk shop to you.”

    He grunted.

    “Which means Grimes will be telling you all about demons.”

    She could almost hear his teeth grind against each other.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious, October 15th, 2007

    “Ellie’s been wondering if there’s trouble between us,” Chuck said as he took what had become his usual seat in Wienerlicious for his mid-morning break.

    Sarah frowned. She didn’t think she had done anything to raise suspicion. That left… Chuck. “What did you do?” she asked.

    “Uh…” He winced as she narrowed her eyes at him. “I might have been a little nervous while you were ‘reading in’ Commander Carnage. And maybe a little too forceful in denying it.”

    She sighed. Chuck, for all his knowledge he had thanks to the Intersect, wasn’t a trained spy. Lying, especially to his family, didn’t come easily to him as she knew. Which was an admirable quality in a romantic partner, but not a good quality in their line of work. “I’ll come by this evening, then.”

    “You will? I mean, good. I think.” He nodded emphatically.

    She chuckled. “We will have to make a little effort to show her that everything’s going well between us.”

    “Ah…” He blinked and closed his mouth. “You mean public displays of affection?”

    It was cute how he tried to downplay things. “Yes. Maintaining your cover is important for a spy.”

    “Of course.”

    Movement outside caught her attention. She had drawn two throwing knives from her thigh-holster before she realised it was Grimes making a run towards them. And he looked scared. What the… “Chuck! Take cover behind the counter!” she snapped. If only the base below were ready already!

    But Chuck was moving towards the door instead. “Morgan?”

    She couldn’t see anyone suspicious outside. But what would have spooked the man so much?

    “Chuck! Hide me!” Grimes gasped as soon as he was through the door.

    “What happened?” Sarah asked. “Who’s after you?” Spies? Vampires? No, it was morning. Other demons then.

    “Casey’s gone mad!”

    Oh. Sarah relaxed. A little.

    Chuck didn’t. “Oh my God! We need to hide you!”

    “That’s what I’m saying!” Grimes looked around frantically, then dashed towards the counter.

    And Sarah saw Casey marching towards the store as well. Perfect. There went her break with Chuck.

    “Where is the damn idiot?” Casey growled.

    “What did he do?” Sarah asked.

    “Why do you ask?” Chuck tried a little too hard to avoid looking at the counter, Sarah noticed. Not that there were many hiding spots in the store anyway.

    Casey noticed it as well and jumped over the counter. A moment later, he stood, holding Grimes up by his throat. “Let’s talk about firearms safety!”

    Sarah noticed that there was a rather large red stain on Casey’s back.

    “Oh my god! Did you shoot Casey?” Chuck exclaimed.

    “It was an accident! I was product testing! The launcher was obviously defective!”

    Product… Ah, paintball guns.

    “I think you’re defective,” the agent growled. “Perhaps I should shoot you in return.”

    “Whoa! Hold on! I don’t think anyone should be shooting anyone!” Chuck interjected.

    “It was an accident! And it was a toy!”

    “You ever point a toy at me again, I’ll shoot you. For real. Understood?”

    Grimes nodded rapidly several times - almost impressive, given the hold Casey had on his neck.

    “Unless you are possessed or an evil twin,” Chuck said. “Or someone switches your body with someone else. Or traps your mind in an illusion.”

    “What?” Casey glared at him without releasing Grimes.

    “Standard disclaimer,” Grimes added. “You turn evil - or more evil - all bets are off.”

    As she saw Chuck nod in agreement, Sarah suddenly realised with a sinking feeling that these weren’t made-up, hypothetical examples.

    Casey blinked and released Grimes, who dropped to the floor and started to rub his throat. “I hate magic,” the agent growled.

    Sarah fully agreed with the sentiment.

    *****​
     
    Last edited: Apr 14, 2019
    Gong, Xantari, Prince Charon and 9 others like this.
  18. Threadmarks: Chapter 10: The Chinese Ghost Story
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Chapter 10: The Chinese Ghost Story

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, October 15th, 2007

    “Sarah! So nice to see you!”

    “Hi, Ellie!”

    Was Ellie behaving a little differently? Sarah couldn’t tell as the woman stepped to the side to let her enter. Without inviting her in, of course. A lot of the quirks in the Bartowski family made sense now.

    “Chuck! Your date is here!” Ellie yelled.

    “We’re not going on a date,” Sarah told her. “We’re just going to hang out at my apartment. Eat dinner. Watch a movie. Have a good time.”

    “That sounds like a date to me,” Devon, who seemed to have just come in from a run, commented.

    “We’re not going out,” Sarah said.

    “Still should count as a date,” he insisted.

    Ellie smiled at her fiancé. “It doesn’t count as a date if you’re living together.”

    “Mhh.” Devon stepped closer to Ellie. “Not romantic enough?”

    “It’s not a date if you’re staying at home,” Ellie retorted.

    “But that can be very romantic,” Devon replied. “Candlelight dinner… soft music… Chuck gone from home for the night so we won’t be disturbed…”

    “Oh…”

    “I feel so welcome,” Chuck said. But, as Sarah noticed when she saw him standing on the stairs, he was smiling.

    She met him at the foot of the stairs and embraced him while giving him a peck on the lips.

    “Don’t be like that, Chuck. Enjoy your evening,” Ellie said.

    “Yes. And if you return home before the night’s over, anything you see is on your head!” Devon added.

    “Devon!” Ellie scolded him, but she was smiling.

    That woman wasn’t merely maintaining a cover, and it showed.

    Sarah was very glad she could quickly leave with Chuck.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Glendale, October 15th, 2007

    “You know, it’s kind of funny…” Chuck said as they entered Sarah’s apartment.

    “What is?”

    “You were as quick to leave as I usually am when Ellie and Captain Awesome get frisky. PDAs are only acceptable if they serve to maintain the cover, hm?” He smiled at her.

    She forced herself to smile. It wasn’t quite like that. “I didn’t want the PDAs to turn into TMI,” she lied.

    “Ah!” His smile widened. “No danger of that, although it probably depends on your definition of TMI.”

    “Better safe than sorry,” she said as she took out a diet coke and a cola from the fridge.

    “Ah…thanks!” He was already on the couch when she returned to the living room. “My favourite.”

    “I know,” she said as she sat down next to him. Without touching him.

    “Oh, how… my file has my favourite drink in it?”

    She laughed. “You’ve been drinking the same in Wienerlicious for weeks.” Even a bad spy would have noticed. And his file did have his favourite drinks in it. Now.

    “Ah. Silly me!” He took a swallow, taking his time, she noticed. “This is a really comfortable couch,” he said. “Not just for sitting, but for sleeping as well. I’m no couch expert, more like a couch potato, but it has to be said. Did you pick it out, or did the CIA provide you with the best couch for a spy...” He blinked. A flash? Sarah was about to get her gun when he suddenly chuckled. “They actually have a list of the best couches for safe houses!”

    Sarah hadn’t known that, but she wasn’t surprised. “You’ll find that the agency - like every governmental organisation - runs on a lot of paperwork.”

    “But files on the most suitable couches?” He shook his head.

    “It’s always better if, should a fellow agent have to sleep over, they will be rested in the morning, and didn’t spend hours on an uncomfortable couch,” she pointed out.

    “Wouldn’t you share the bed instead in such a case?” He coughed. “I mean, in a purely platonic way. Two fellow spies sharing limited resources.”

    She eyed the couch with a sudden distaste. If the couch were less comfortable, she’d have an excuse for sharing a bed with Chuck. That would be… She stomped on that thought, hard. It was unprofessional. “I think it’s more likely that someone had a relative involved in making couches, and wanted to send some business their way without being obvious about it,” she said.

    “Oh.” He actually pouted. “Now you’ve destroyed my illusions about the CIA being a bastion of perfection.”

    “By pointing out possible corruption?” She raised her eyebrows.

    “That. And I was quite enamoured with the idea that even the couches were part of a well-oiled spy machine.” He leaned back and rested his arm on the back of it. On the wrong side, though - opposite of where she was sitting. “It made me feel safer, too.”

    She suppressed the sudden impulse to lean over and wrap her arms around him. “I’ll protect you,” she said. “As will Casey.”

    “He didn’t seem to be happy today.”

    “He wasn’t,” she replied. “But that won’t matter. He’ll do his job anyway.” Any job, as far as she knew.

    “And his job is protecting the Intersect,” Chuck said. He wasn’t smiling any more.

    “Yes.”

    “As is yours.”

    Ah. That was why. She nodded.

    “Until you find a way to get it out of my head.”

    “Yes.” She sighed. “But as I told you, I might not be able to stay a spy after that.”

    “Oh.” He blinked, and she thought she saw his lips starting to twist into a smile before he frowned. “I’m sorry about that.”

    “It wasn’t your fault,” she told him.

    “Yes,” he said, though it didn’t sound as if he believed it. “It was Bryce’s fault.”
    Sarah winced and withdrew the hand she had been about to put on his thigh. While Chuck was correct, Bryce wasn’t a topic she wanted to explore. Or think about. Even though he was a good example of the reasons it was a cardinal sin for a spy to fall in love with another spy. Or was that ‘especially’ instead? Not that Chuck was a spy, not really. “He’s dead,” she told him.

    “I know. And I feel guilty about being glad about that.” He sighed, tilting his head back until he was staring at the ceiling.

    “That’s normal.” She had gone through the same when she heard Bryce had been killed while betraying the agency.

    “Normal for a spy?” he turned his head to look at her.

    “Normal for a human being,” she replied.

    “Ah.”

    “Spies are human as well,” she told him. All too human, all too often. But that wasn’t a subject she wanted to talk about either.

    Lately, there had been a lot of subjects, she realised, that she didn’t want to touch. Surprisingly, vampires wasn’t one of them.

    Which said a lot about her life, of course. But that was another such subject.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious, October 17th, 2007

    “A real underground spy base! In the middle of Burbank!”

    Sarah had to smile at the enthusiasm Chuck displayed when she showed him the - finally - completed base under the Wienerlicious. It was impressive indeed - sleek, new and furnished with the latest technology. Both agencies had splurged here - but then, their mission was crucial for national security.

    “Yeah, yeah… Great, overwhelming, impressive… are we done gaping now and can we start working? This isn’t a tourist tour.”

    Leave it to Casey to ruin the mood, she thought as Chuck winced.

    “Sorry,” he said. “It’s just… it’s like out of a movie! Or a game!”

    “This isn’t a game, Bartowski!” Casey growled. “There are no level-ups or second lives here!”

    Chuck flinched a moment, then seemed puzzled. “You know, you sound like you know about…”

    Casey growled.

    “Shutting up now!”

    Sarah sighed and rolled her eyes. “This is, as I was saying, our new base. The main entrance is through Wienerlicious - the door is disguised in the storage room and will only open if you pass a retinal scan. You have the key to the back door of the store?”

    “Ah, yes!” Chuck held the key up with a grin.

    “Don’t lose it,” Casey snapped from where he was checking the armoury.

    As soon as the agent’s attention returned to the weapons, Chuck leaned towards her and whispered: “He’s in a bad mood today, isn’t he?”

    Casey hadn’t taken the revelations about the supernatural well. Not that Sarah could blame him. She hadn’t had nightmares, precisely, but she hadn’t slept well either. And not because she could hear Chuck in the living room. But Casey was her partner, so she merely said: “He’s rarely in a good mood unless he got to kill an enemy.”

    Chuck let slip a forced-sounding laugh. “I hope that was a joke.”

    “Mostly,” she admitted with a wry grin. It wasn’t as if she knew anything about Casey’s private life - if the man had one. Not that he knew anything about hers, other than her past relationship with Bryce. They were both spies, after all.

    “So… this is where we do our prep work?” Chuck looked around in the command centre.

    “No, this is where we prepare our missions while you try not to get into our way and occasionally provide us with useful information,” Casey snapped.

    Sarah glared at him, but the man ignored her, and she wasn’t about to push him. Certainly not right before they were to be briefed on a new mission - the first time they would talk to their superiors since Chuck’s revelation. Well, the first time as far as she knew - Casey might have spilt already. She looked at him. He didn’t seem at ease, but that was normal given the circumstances. And the same reasons that kept her from informing the director applied to him as well. Well, she added with a glance at Chuck, most of them, at least.

    For now, things should be alright. As alright as things could be when you knew you were surrounded by supernatural predators straight out of horror movies.

    *****​

    “Good evening, Major Casey, Agent Walker, Mr Bartowski.”

    The general and the director didn’t look like they suspected anything, Sarah noted. But they wouldn’t show anything, of course, if they did - they were veteran spies. Her own face wouldn’t betray anything either. And Chuck being nervous would seem normal. So she hoped.

    The screen next to the one with the video conference feed lit up, and floor plans and pictures appeared. “This is…” the general started to say

    “Martin Leslie Browning!” Chuck blurted out. “Core member of the F-35 development team.”

    The director cleared his throat. “That is correct. Mr Browning’s girlfriend has gone missing during their trip to Los Angeles.” Another picture appeared next to the man, showing a young woman. “Janice Wang. She disappeared after leaving their hotel yesterday evening.”

    “We suspect that she has been kidnapped in order to put pressure on Browning and is being held in Los Angeles. Your mission is to track her down and either rescue her, should she have been kidnapped, or capture her, should she turn out to be a spy. If she can’t be captured, neutralise her. Whatever she gained from Browning cannot be allowed to fall into foreign hands.”

    “Understood, ma’am,” Casey said.

    “Very well. Good luck, gentlemen, agent.” Beckman nodded, and the screen went dark.

    “Uh…” Chuck said.

    “Don’t worry, you don’t have to get your hands dirty,” Casey said with a sneer. “We’ll handle the wetwork.”

    That didn’t seem to reassure Chuck. “I wasn’t worried about that until you mentioned it, actually. No, the hotel they were staying at...”

    “What about it?” Casey snapped.

    “It’s, uh, haunted. As far as I know, at least.” Chuck flashed that weak, forced smile Sarah knew so well by now.

    And Casey cursed up a storm.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Westwood, October 17th, 2007

    “Our cover story is going to have Ellie plan the wedding for real,” Chuck said as they parked near the ‘Harrington’s Hotel’.

    “I thought she was already doing that,” Sarah said as she looked around to scan for threats. The sun had set, after all, which would bring out the criminals. And, she reminded herself, the supernatural predators.

    “She was mostly joking. But a spontaneous trip to Vegas?” Chuck shook his head. “She actually told me that if we got married without inviting her, she’d stop speaking to me.”

    It wasn’t the best cover story Sarah had ever used, but it had several advantages. “It’s close enough so we can say we took my car and don’t need to fake plane records, and it’s a big tourist destination - if someone you know is there, it won’t look suspicious if they missed us. And,” she added with a grin, “it wouldn’t look suspicious either if we spent the whole trip in the hotel room.”

    He coughed, and she thought that, if not for the dim lighting in the parking lot, she would have seen him blush.

    “Can you save your flirting for the witnesses?” Casey’s voice coming from their earphones interrupted what reply Chuck might have made. “We’re on a mission, not on your honeymoon.”

    “Status?” Sarah asked. The agent already had set up a sniper’s nest in a hotel across the street.

    “Nothing on the scope,” Casey growled. “No suspect, no ghost. I’m thinking of shooting the idiot smoking pot in bed on the fourth floor, though.”

    Chuck looked concerned, so Sarah shook her head and mouthed ‘joking’ to him. Casey wouldn’t really shoot a civilian. Well, not for such a minor thing. “We’re going in,” she said out loud.

    “‘Going in’. That sounds like Call of Duty,” Chuck said as he took their luggage out of the trunk.

    “This isn’t a game, Bartowski! This is a mission. And you better hope your damn ghost won’t mess it up!” Casey hissed.

    She saw Chuck tug at his collar, where the microphone for their radios was concealed as a button. “Can one turn this off?” he asked.

    “Don’t even think about it,” Casey snapped. “If you go dark on us or want to sneak away, I’ll shoot you in the knee and leave you for your ghost!”

    “Casey!” Sarah said through clenched teeth while Chuck apparently checked if he was in the agent’s line of fire.

    “It’s not my ghost,” he said. “There are just rumours about a haunting, anyway. Could be just some faulty wiring making noise in the night.”

    “Spooky shit’s your business,” Casey replied.

    “It’s Caridad’s, actually. And Phil’s.”

    “Why haven’t they eliminated the ghost then?” Casey shot back.

    “You can’t just kill - slay - a ghost. You need to, sort of, exorcise them. Usually by doing something left unfinished or so. That’s not the kind of mission Slayers excel at,” Chuck explained. “They’re more the ‘hit it, stab it, kill it with fire’ type.”

    “Sounds like Casey,” Sarah said.

    The agent growled a curse in reply, but Chuck gave her a thumbs up.

    “I saw that, Bartowski!”

    “Uh…”

    Sarah sighed. “Let’s go.”

    *****​

    Sarah didn’t notice anything suspicious during the check-in. The bored clerk, fresh from a smoke break according to the whiff of cigarette smoke she caught, pretty much waved them through. No bellboy - but then, the place wasn’t exactly a five-star hotel. Not any more - it had started as one, in the 1920s, but the owner must not have kept up with the times - just enough to miss out on the ‘vintage’ claim. However, it was clean, and the elevator ran smoothly.

    Thick, old walls, too, she noted when they entered their room. Those would stop most sounds as well as most small-calibre weapons. And the bathroom right to the left after the door was clean and stocked, she noted

    “Uh, Sarah?”

    “What?” she asked, following Chuck into the room. He was pointing at the bed. The single, king-sized bed. Ah! She grinned a little. “We’re supposed to be a couple on vacation, not in counselling. That means a single bed.”

    “Ah. I don’t see a couch,” he said, looking around.

    “The bed’s large enough that we can sleep comfortably,” she told him. “Unless you’re moving in your sleep.”

    He shook his head. “No, no. I sleep like a log.”

    “Well, we won’t do much actual sleeping tonight,” she told him.

    “We won’t?” His expression was a study of mixed emotions.

    “We’ve got a mission,” she went on. “We’ll have to investigate the hotel.”

    “Ah. Of course. Of course.” He nodded several times.

    “If you’ve finished flustering Bartowski, can we focus on the mission now?” Casey butted in again. “We’ve got a spy to catch!”

    “Or a kidnapping victim to rescue,” Sarah reminded him.

    And a ghost to avoid, she added to herself.

    *****​

    Almost midnight. The witching hour. Not the most auspicious time to start a mission which might involve a ghost, Sarah thought as she checked her watch. “How dangerous are ghosts?” she asked as she checked her gear. Which now included a cross, a stake and a few vials of holy water.

    “Uh… That depends. Usually, they can’t do much. They can’t touch living beings, for example.”

    Well, that sounded good to Sarah.

    “However, some ghosts can use telekinesis on objects. Which they can throw at you.”

    That didn’t sound good.

    “Then there are some ghosts that can possess you.”

    That sounded bad.

    “There was this couple of ghosts - a couple, I mean. A student and a teacher died in a murder-suicide, and on the anniversary of their deaths, they possessed two people and reenacted their deaths. Buffy managed to stop them and break the cycle.”

    That was even worse. “How long did that go on?”

    “Uh… they died in 1955, and Buffy stopped them in 1997… so… about forty-one years or forty-two, depending on how you count it and whether you like Douglas Adams or not.”

    “They killed eighty-two people?” She stared at him. Eighty-two dead people and no one noticed?

    He flinched a little. “It was a Hellmouth?”

    She wouldn’t ask about Douglas Adams. “Well, there wasn’t anything in the news about a string of suicide-murders in this hotel,” she said.

    “Well, some ghosts can sort of drain people. Like batteries.” Chuck winced when she looked at him - she would have to control her expression better. “And when they have drained the human completely, they die. The human, that is.”

    Well, Sarah didn’t recall a string of unexplained deaths either.

    “And then there are vengeance spirits,” Chuck went on. “They can manifest a body of their own and touch and kill people. Usually do, I think - the one in Sunnydale did, or so I heard, until he was killed with his own weapon.”

    “His own weapon?”

    “Uh, I don’t remember the details - I was just helping Morgan study those things, and it’s been a while.”

    She managed to refrain from making a sarcastic comment. Chuck looked apologetic already. Even if it wasn’t his fault at all.

    She checked her watch again. It was now past midnight. “Time to go,” she said.

    “So, we’re going to break into the Hotel’s security room and check their records?” Chuck asked.

    “We already have them - the police got them right after Browning filed a missing person report.”

    “Oh.”

    “We’re checking for discrepancies and signs of tampering,” she explained.

    “Right.” He nodded and pulled on the hem of his black turtleneck. He wasn’t a spy, but he looked the part. Mostly, she added to herself when he frowned while fiddling with his new watch with an integrated GPS locator and a communicator.

    “And afterwards, we’ll be checking Browning’s room. In case someone bugged it.”

    “Ah… while he’s there?”

    “He’ll be sound asleep by then,” she said. Or they would help him along with a sleeping dart.

    *****​

    The hotel’s security was atrocious, in Sarah’s opinion. The security cameras had blind spots big enough to drive a car through. The lock on the security room wouldn’t have stopped a stoned junkie with a bent sewing needle. There was no security guard at all, and the night clerk was asleep in his office. At least the records were digital and not analogue tapes. And the room was clean of bugs - the electronic kind, at least. She thought she had seen something small skitter in the shadows when they had switched the computer on.

    She shook her head as Chuck clicked through the various folders in the recycle bin on the ageing computer’s hard drive. “Porn… more porn… even more porn… pirated nature documentaries…” He looked up at her and grimaced. “I hope that’s not considered porn by whoever downloaded it here.”

    Sarah nodded in agreement.

    “Really, it’s a wonder that there are any records - it seems everyone used the security server to store their private data! Didn’t they think at all about the possibility of the police claiming the records?”

    “I don’t think they thought at all, period,” Sarah replied.

    He nodded. “And they didn’t know anything about computer security! As if deleting a folder would actually erase it!” Sighing, he added: “Amateurs!”

    She smiled at that. It seemed Chuck had his professional pride as well.

    “Looks who’s talking, nerd,” Casey’s voice sounded in their earbuds. “No one’s interested in dirty pictures unless they were taken in the hotel.”

    “Uh… does that mean I have to actually go through all the porn?” Chuck asked.

    “Flash on it, ghostbuster.”

    “Copy all of it,” Sarah said. “We can go over it later.” At Chuck’s expression, she added: “You probably have a lot of such pictures in your head already.”

    “Hey, everyone does… Oh, you mean…” he pointed at his temple with a sheepish expression.

    She smirked in return and patted his shoulder. “Let’s finish this so we can move on to Browning’s room.”

    “Joy,” Chuck muttered. “First a porn session, then sneaking into someone’s bedroom to spy on them - I feel like a stalker.”

    “And I feel like piercing my eardrums listening to you babbling! Step on it, nerd, we haven’t got all night!”

    “Well, technically we do have all night…” Chuck broke off when Casey growled.

    Sarah sighed. At least they hadn’t seen any sign of a ghost.

    “Done!” Chuck said a few minutes later. “That system needs some serious upgrading, too - that shouldn’t have taken this long.”

    “Leave a note for hotel employees - or a bad review,” Casey said.

    Chuck blinked. “Spy humour, right?”

    “An attempt at it,” Sarah said.

    “Haha. Get moving, lovebirds, before a big bad ghost gets you!” Casey snapped.

    “Is he listening in to all our conversations?” Chuck asked.

    “Yes,” Casey replied before Sarah could.

    “I didn’t know that ‘overwatch’ meant big brother is watching you,” Chuck commented.

    “It’s necessary for the mission,” Sarah explained.

    “It’s not as if I want to listen to your clumsy flirting.”

    “Let’s go,” Sarah said, nodding towards the door.

    They left and sneaked down the hallway, past the sleeping night clerk and went up the stairs again. They were almost at Browning’s room on the fourth floor when Sarah suddenly heard eerie voices in the hallway. Sounds that were growing louder - coming closer. The ghost!

    She froze for a moment, then glanced at Chuck. “What do we do?”

    “Either we retreat, or we wait and see what ghost it is,” Chuck replied. He looked nervous, licking his lips, but he wasn’t panicking.

    “Retreat!” Casey snapped. “Retreat now!”

    They didn’t. The voices grew louder - they were almost around the corner. Sarah couldn’t understand anything - there were words, but incomprehensible ones. A cacophony of voices groaning and whispering. Then they were in the hallway. Right next to them. Sarah tensed, looking around - the voice came from her right, but there was only the wall there. And then the voices and sounds faded.

    “I didn’t feel cold at all. Did you feel cold?”

    Sarah shook her head.

    “Ghosts are supposed to make you feel cold,” Chuck said. “What kind of ghost doesn’t drain heat?”

    Sarah studied the wall. The voices had faded a little too abruptly. And there was something… She drew her knife and wedged the blade behind the wooden strip running at eye level on the wall and pried it away. Ah!

    “What kind of ghost uses concealed speakers?” she asked, pointing at the small device hidden behind the strip.

    “The kind that isn’t a ghost at all,” Chuck said, frowning at the speaker.

    Before they could investigate further, Sarah heard a door open around the corner, and a man complain about the ‘unholy racket’.

    “Retreat,” she hissed as she put the strip back - they couldn’t sneak past anyone in the hallway.

    *****​

    “So… if they have several of those speakers planted in the walls, spread out, they could simulate a ghost’s wail passing through. There weren’t obvious jumps in the sound’s volume, so they must have a sophisticated computer handling that. Certainly better than the computer handling hotel security. Whoever they are, that is.” Chuck wasn’t quite pacing in front of the bed in their room, but he looked like he wanted to, Sarah noticed. And he seemed quite focused - no sign of being nervous at all. “So… I think we can safely assume that this isn’t a ghost.”

    “No shit, Sherlock,” Casey commented.

    “Thank you, Mr ‘Retreat Now’,” Chuck snapped back, then winced.

    “Next time, I’ll watch you die,” Casey growled. “If I give you an order, I expect you to execute it.”

    “I was the agent on site, and I made the call to stay,” Sarah cut in - though with a glare at Chuck. He should know better than calling Casey a coward, even indirectly.

    “Whatever,” the agent grumbled. “I’m out for tonight. Try not to get killed in my absence.”

    Chuck removed his earplug and the microphone as Sarah did the same. “Does he ever have good days?” he asked, stashing them in a case concealed in the bottom of a can of shaving cream.

    “I don’t know,” Sarah said. “We haven’t worked together before.”

    “You haven’t?”

    “The NSA and the CIA usually cover different areas.” And were more rivals than allies, but that Sarah didn’t mention.

    “Ah.” Chuck nodded. “Anyway, I don’t think this is a real ghost.”

    Sarah nodded. “I agree.”

    “So… do we wait until everyone who was woken up by the wailing has gone back to sleep?”

    “No.” Sarah sat down on the bed. “It’s too late now. We’ll sneak in tomorrow when Browning isn’t in his room.”

    “Ah, OK.” Chuck took a step towards the bed, then stopped. “Uh… so… how do we handle this?” And now he looked nervous again.

    She chuckled. “We go to bed like usual. Just with less distance between us.” It was simple, after all.

    “Uh, right.”

    *****​

    It wasn’t that simple, Sarah realised half an hour later. Chuck was right next to her, not in another room. If she moved her left arm just a little, she’d touch him. She could hear him breathe - and she could tell he wasn’t asleep either. Her sleepwear - t-shirt and shorts - felt both too little and too much at the same time.

    Having a fellow agent sleeping in the same bed shouldn’t mean anything to her. Hell, she thought with clenched teeth, sleeping with someone while undercover shouldn’t mean anything.

    But it did. Damn it, it did.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Westwood, October 18th, 2007

    When Sarah woke up in the morning, she realised two things at once: First, she had managed to fall asleep, but rather late - it was well past eight in the morning already. And she had, somehow, moved in her sleep towards Chuck and had draped half her body over his - her head was resting in the crook of his shoulder, her arm stretched over his chest, and her leg had slid over his. So, it had been all hers, not his fault. As far as you could fault anyone for moving in their sleep.

    At least, she hadn’t drooled on him. She extricated herself quickly and returned to her side of the bed. Had he noticed? She studied him. He was breathing steadily and snoring slightly. No tension in his body or face. No, he hadn’t noticed.

    Good. The last time this had happened had been with Bryce. Well, they had fallen asleep cuddling; she hadn’t moved in her sleep… She shook her head, slipped out of bed and headed to the bathroom.

    When she returned, wrapped in a hotel bathrobe, Chuck was awake, but still in bed. “Uh, morning.”

    “Morning.” She briefly smiled. “Bathroom’s free.”

    “Uh, I noticed.”

    Of course, he did. She nodded. “Go take a shower and shave while I get dressed. Unless you want to watch...” she added with a smirk she didn’t quite feel right now.

    “Ah, of course, sorry!” He got out of bed and scrambled for the bathroom. And he was blushing a little, or so she thought.

    *****​

    There were two guests loudly complaining to the clerk at the reception desk when Chuck and Sarah left the hotel for a late breakfast and a meeting with Casey. Judging by the suitcases with them and the parts Sarah overheard as she walked past, they were leaving and wanted their money back, but the clerk was having none of it. Well, the hotel wasn’t exactly overbooked.

    Casey was waiting for them in the diner he had picked. And judging by the remains on his plate, he had eaten already - Sarah hoped that it had improved the man’s mood.

    “There you are. Spent too long making out last night, so you overslept? Or were you too scared of the ghost to sleep?”

    Obviously, it hadn’t improved his mood. She clenched her teeth for a moment, refraining from making a cheap remark in return.

    “There’s no ghost,” Chuck said as he took a seat across Casey. “It’s a hoax.”

    Sarah took a seat that, unlike Chuck’s, didn’t put her back to most of the diner.

    “You flashed?” Casey asked.

    “No. But it’s obvious, isn’t it? A haunting drives the price for a house way down. A friend of mine had a ghost in her apartment; rent was dirt cheap for the location. Someone’s trying to drive the hotel out of business!” Chuck declared. “Well, it’s a theory,” he added after a moment.

    Casey grunted. “Or it’s a decoy for an op. Something for us to chase while the enemy is making their move.”

    “We’ll have to investigate it anyway,” Sarah pointed out.

    “Browning first,” Casey replied.

    “Of course.”

    The waitress’s arrival interrupted their talk, but as soon as she had left with their orders - and a refill for Casey - they resumed their discussion.

    “We’re sticking to the plan,” Casey insisted. “If there’s no need to call the Ghostbusters, then we can proceed without interference.”

    “Slayers very rarely deal with ghosts,” Chuck pointed out. “That’s more the domain of watchers and witches.”

    “Do I look like I care about supernatural jurisdictions?” Casey snarled. “Do your job and flash on something so we can do ours.”

    As abrasive as the former marine was, he had a point: They needed to continue with their mission.

    After breakfast, though.

    *****​

    “The target has left the building.”

    “Copy.” Sarah nodded at Chuck, who was on their bed. “Casey saw Browning leave. We’re up.”

    “Alright.” He got up. “So… we just walk up to his room and break in?”

    “Pretty much, yes. Provided there are no witnesses in the hallway,” Sarah replied.

    There weren’t - the hotel didn’t have too many occupied rooms in the first place - and they reached Browning’s room without trouble. Picking the old lock took about as much time as opening it with the proper key would have taken, and Sarah drew her silenced gun as she entered. “Stay back and guard the door,” she whispered.

    Bathroom clear. Bedroom clear. Walk-in closet, clear. “Clear,” she announced, holstering her gun.

    Chuck had, for once, stayed at the door, ‘guarding’ it. She made a note of that, as she pulled out her bug scanner. And cursed under her breath. “The room’s under surveillance,” she told Chuck and Casey. “Multiple bugs.” Which meant they had been noticed as well.

    “Those could be from the fake ghost guys,” Chuck said. She put her finger on her lip and glared at him, causing him to wince and mouth ‘sorry’ back.

    There was no need to be too subtle any more; she picked up the closest bug. That wasn’t a civilian model. Chinese or Russian, she thought. Which meant it could be anyone trying to frame either country.

    But Chuck was staring at it. And blinking rapidly. He opened his mouth, but Sarah cut him off. “Not here!”

    “Sorry.”

    She quickly searched the room, but she didn’t find anything suspicious. She looked at Chuck, then pointed at the door. “Hallway clear?”

    Casey confirmed it before Chuck could open the door. A few minutes later, they were back in their room. Which Sarah scanned for bugs again, just in case.

    “Alright,” she finally told Chuck, “What did you see?”

    “The bugs were planted by Chinese agents.”

    The Chinese? Sarah frowned. “Did you recognise anyone?”

    “Only their Leader. Li Hao. Major. 36 years old. Works at the Consulate General here. He was with two others.”

    She hadn’t heard of that spy. Which meant he either wasn’t that good or too good to make waves. She’d have to assume the later. “Casey?”

    “I heard,” came the reply over the radio. “We’ll have to check our surveillance on the Consulate. In case they are running the mission from there.”

    “If they are, then this is likely a rushed mission,” she said. “Otherwise, a safe house would have been prepared in advance and without involving the Consulate. Wang could have planted the bugs herself if she was involved.”

    “Unless there are two factions,” Casey pointed out.

    Sarah nodded. With the Chinese, there was always the political angle, Internal politics could be murder. And it wasn’t as if the USA were the only country with spy agencies competing with each other. “But she wouldn’t involve the Consulate in that case,” Sarah said. “Check with the agents monitoring the Consulate. We need their data.” That was the NSA’s turf. Well, the FBI’s, but the NSA could work better with them than the CIA.

    She took Casey’s grunt as agreement and signed off.

    Chuck looked confused. Sarah smiled with a slight sigh. Explaining Chinese spy politics could take a while. Although... “China is more complex than you know. Contrary to the tales you’ve heard, it’s not a monolithic block…”

    She grinned at his expression.

    *****​

    “...so we don’t know yet what Wang’s role in all of this was.”

    “How can they do any work if they don’t work together?” Chuck asked, shaking his head. “This sounds as if they sabotage each other as often as not!”

    Like the US spy agencies. Sarah carefully didn’t voice that thought. “That should tell you how dangerous they are,” she said instead.

    “It sounds like the Buy More staff,” he grumbled.

    “Spies are employees,” she told him, “with all their flaws. I hope I didn’t destroy any of your illusions.”

    “Hollywood lied to me,” he complained - but he was smiling.

    “Hollywood lies about a lot of things.”

    Casey’s voice interrupted them. “I’ve got the data from our surveillance of the consulate. Wang visited the consulate the day after they arrived in Los Angeles. Two days before her disappearance. They haven’t anything on Hao. He must have given them the slip. I’ll send you the files of the consulate staff.”

    A moment later, her computer indicated new mail. Chuck took only a glance to identify the other two spies.

    *****​

    “Impersonating a police officer is supposed to be a crime, isn’t it? And since we’re posing as FBI agents, this would be a federal crime…” Chuck commented as they approached the restaurant where they would be meeting Browning.

    “Yes,” Casey, clad in a cheaper suit than those he usually wore, replied.

    “Yes?” Chuck, also wearing a cheap suit, said after a moment. “Aren’t you supposed to tell me that this is legal and we will be fine?”

    Casey snorted. “Welcome to the world of a spy, Bartowski. We do technically illegal things all the time. Hell, Walker’s not supposed to do missions on US soil at all, being a CIA spook.”

    “Uh…”

    “He’s technically correct,” Sarah agreed, “but things are a little more complicated than that. We’re working for national security, and our orders cover a lot. We’ll be fine.”

    “Unless someone needs a scapegoat. In that case we get burned,” Casey added, and Chuck’s relieved smile vanished at once.

    “Would they burn me? I mean, with…” He pointed at his temple.

    “They’ll probably lock you up in a bunker somewhere and throw the key away, then feed you pizza and porn together with pictures to flash at through a slit in the door,” Casey said.

    “Uh… my friends wouldn’t like that. Just saying.”

    Casey scoffed, but Sarah nodded. “I am certain that this will be on our superiors’ minds.” The odds of getting burned were rather low considering the amount of influence the Council had. At least for Chuck and whoever he considered a friend. Something Casey might not have considered. Or might not have wanted to consider.

    They reached the restaurant, and Sarah checked her own appearance. Cheap deux-piece, matching shoes. She looked like an FBI agent, alright. Then she entered. Browning was waiting at the small bar.

    He stood as soon as he spotted them. “Ah… Agent Smith?”

    Chuck coughed behind her as she nodded. “Yes. We spoke on the phone. This is my partner, Agent Brown, and he’s Agent Baker, an analyst. We have a few questions about the disappearance of your girlfriend.”

    “You’re from the FBI… That means this is a kidnapping case,” he said.

    “We cannot comment on the exact details, but it’s a possible kidnapping case,” Sarah said, switching her recorder on. “Was Miss Wang acting differently compared to her normal behaviour before her disappearance?”

    “And tell us everything. Her life could depend on it,” Casey added with bared teeth. He was the perfect pick for ‘bad cop’.

    Browning shook his head, struggling to keep his composure, or so it seemed. “She was fine until…” He frowned. “No, she was a little off after her visit to the consulate. The Chinese consulate. We’re about to marry, you know, and she wanted to invite her extended family from China, her grandparents had lost contact after the civil war there. But the consulate couldn’t help her find them, which was a real downer.”

    A visit to the consulate, and Chinese agents bugging their room afterwards? Then she disappeared? That sounded like a hasty, botched op. “When was that exactly?” she asked, to confirm the timeline.

    “Well, a day after we arrived here…”

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown, October 18th, 2007

    “She was spooked by the Chinese,” Casey said as they walked away from the restaurant. “They must have realised she’s engaged to an engineer involved in the development of the F-35 and put pressure on her.”

    “But kidnapping her?” Sarah shook her head. “That’s counter-productive. Kidnapping her ensures that we’ll take notice.” And they had - which was why Browning was now under police protection. Just in case the Chinese spies wanted to kidnap him.

    “They might have silenced her, to protect themselves.” Casey smirked. “Wouldn’t want their superiors to realise the blunder they made.”

    Sarah nodded. That would fit.

    “So… you think she’s dead?” Chuck asked in a rather small voice as they reached Casey’s car - a black armoured SUV.

    “What’s the matter, nerd? Vampires kill people every night, but spies killing one girl is a shock?” Casey scoffed. “Shit happens all the time.”

    “It’s not like that!” Chuck snapped. “I just… are we giving up?”

    “‘We’?” Casey glanced over his shoulder before starting the engine.

    “Yes,” Chuck replied with a frown. “This is a mission for all of us, isn’t it? And we haven’t finished it.”

    He was right. “We’re not done yet,” Sarah said. “But it doesn’t look good.”

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Westwood, October 18th, 2007

    “I just hate being helpless,” Chuck said.

    Sarah glanced at him from where she was cleaning her gun. He was lying on the bed in the hotel room and staring at the ceiling. She didn’t think he was interested in the shadows cast at the ceiling by the street lights below.

    “It’s just… it feels like Sunnydale again. A little.” He sighed.

    “How so?” Sarah asked after a moment.

    “People dying and I’m not doing anything to prevent it.”

    Ah. “You’re doing what you can.”

    “And I can’t do anything. Exactly like Sunnydale.” She noticed him closing his eyes.

    “You’re doing good. We might have saved Browning’s life,” she pointed out.

    “Might have.” He turned to his side and looked at her. “It’s just…” He trailed off. And blinked. He was flashing.

    On what? Sarah turned her head. The TV. Chuck was flashing on the report about a… shooting in a real estate firm? Three dead?

    “It was Hao. The real estate firm is behind the hauntings. Wanted to force the hotel’s owner to sell it to them for their development project. Hao and his men killed them. And they got the address of the other building the form bought for the project - the house next to us. They are on the way to search it.” He shook his head.

    “They’re searching for Wang,” Sarah deduced. “She must be there.” Or something else important, for which the Chinese were willing to kill. Which meant it couldn’t be allowed to fall into their hands.

    She called Casey while she reassembled her pistol.

    *****​

    “Are they in the house already?” Casey asked as he met them on the way to the neighbouring house.

    “We don’t know. No one heard any shots being fired in the firm,” Sarah replied.

    “So they would be in the building already?” Chuck asked.

    “Could have left already,” Casey said as he approached the back door. “The lock’s been recently oiled.”

    “Uh…”

    “Stay behind us,” she told Chuck, drawing her pistol and following Casey into the building - after placing a small wire connected to a bug on the doorframe.

    The building was supposed to be empty, waiting to be torn down and replaced. Someone had torn out a lot of the appliances already. Since she couldn’t see signs of squatters moving in, it had probably been the new owners. It had left a coat of dust on the floor - which showed fresh footprints leading to the stairs.

    “Cellar,” Casey whispered.

    Sarah nodded - after placing another wire on the front door.

    They checked the rooms on the way - all were empty - and made their way downstairs. Another door. And a faded sign: ‘Sound Studio’.

    “Perfect place for torturing someone,” Casey said as he picked the lock. “No sound will be heard outside.”

    But there wasn’t a torture scene inside. Just a studio. And a woman handcuffed to a pipe in one of the recording rooms. Janice Wang. She was staring at them through the large window.

    Sarah reached for the handle - this door wasn’t locked. “We’re here to save you, Miss Wang,” she said as soon as she entered. “Who kidnapped you?”

    “Some men… I don’t know them,” Wang stammered as Sarah started to work on the handcuff. “They claimed I was a spy.”

    “What?” Casey snapped.

    “They had microphones in the walls! I discovered them! But they kidnapped me!”

    “The Chinese?”

    “They didn’t speak Chinese,” Wang said. “They said I was a spy for the police.”

    “The real estate guys?” Chuck blurted out.

    Sarah refrained from frowning at him. You didn’t give someone you were interrogating such information. But Wang looked confused, so her story probably checked out. Now they only had to…

    She felt the receiver in her pocket vibrate. The bug she had left at the door. “Someone entered the building upstairs,” she whispered.

    And it didn’t look like the studio had another exit.

    Casey sprinted towards the door to the stairs, then stopped. He signed with his hand - someone was coming down. A moment later, he locked the door again.

    Sarah unlocked the handcuffs, then pushed Wang towards Chuck. “Stay in here!”

    “But…”

    She moved past Chuck. “Stay in here,” she whispered. “They won’t expect us.”

    At least she hoped that would be the case as she moved into position in the room closest to the studio entrance, facing Casey on the other side. Three versus two - not too bad odds. Especially with surprise on their side.

    Seconds passed. With the padded door closed, she couldn’t hear the Chinese spies arrive. She clenched her teeth. What if they simply set fire to the building? No, they would want to confirm that Wang was here.

    And the door was pushed open towards her. Almost… As soon as her line of sight cleared, she moved, slipping out of the room. The first agent in the door was bringing his pistol to bear on her, but Casey shot him, then grabbed the body and used it as a shield to charge the second. Both went down on the ground, and Sarah nailed the third man with a double-tap to the head.

    She aimed at the second, Hao, but he was fighting Casey hand-to-hand, and Sarah couldn’t get a shot off without endangering the NSA agent. She had to duck and retreat when several shots were fired by Hao blindly - Casey’s hand was on the man’s wrist - and ricocheted in the hallway.

    She heard a scream behind her - Wang. “Are you hurt?” she yelled.

    “No, we’re fine!” Chuck answered. “Just scared. She is, I mean.”

    She moved forward again, just in time to see Casey slam Hao’s head against the wall before following up with vicious blows to the stomach. A knee to the chin knocked the enemy agent out.

    Casey stood with a toothy grin despite a cut on his forehead and a ruined suit. “That felt good! Let’s get him cuffed and into the car before the cops arrive.”

    “Before the cops… who are you?”

    Sarah turned to face Wang, who looked even more scared than when they had discovered her. Before she could answer, though, Chuck beat her to it.

    “We’re spies, Miss. Good spies.”

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious, October 18th, 2007

    “...Browning and Wang are now in protective custody. Li Hao is on the way to being interrogated. We expect the Chinese government to disavow any knowledge of his actions, of course, but it should still gain us valuable intel about their activities. Good work, team,” the director said with a smile.

    “Indeed, good work,” the general echoed him.

    “Thank you.”

    As soon as the connection was cut, Chuck leaned back in his seat, craning his neck, and sighed. “So, mission accomplished.”

    “Yes,” Sarah confirmed.

    “What do we tell Ellie? She’ll be wondering why we had to cut our vacation short.”

    Sarah ignored Casey rolling his eyes. She smiled. “We’re not cutting our vacation short. We’re going to maintain our cover.”

    He blinked. “Oh? Do you mean…?”

    She nodded. “We’re going to Las Vegas for the weekend.”

    And they would be having fun.

    *****​
     
    KO-Animus, Xantari, Sceptic and 6 others like this.
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