Sunday, January 15, 2017

How to Win Over Your Arch-Nemesis (in Three Easy Steps), Ch. 1

Thanks to this delightful plot bunny, the muse has sent me in a slightly different direction than it usually does. Tell me what you think. 

000

Even a spy’s life can’t be exciting all the time. 

That universal truth was of little comfort as he stared across the crowded food court, completely indistinguishable from every other mall court in existence. His suit was less expensive than usual – he was playing an attorney here, not a jet-setting billionaire or dashing playboy – and the mission was almost painfully simple. Approach the target, charm them into letting their guard down, then talk his way into their home to get access to, in this case, computer files. 

Still, at least he didn’t have to feel guilty about this one. The agency had tracked a bit of code in several cell phones that was siphoning money from users and funneling it to terrorist organizations, and she was the company’s head programmer.  That meant one of two things –  either she was manipulating phone software for terrorists, in which case she deserved everything she got, or she was being used by someone who was manipulating phone software for terrorists. In which case, he was saving her.

She was just the type who could use a little saving, too. Eating lunch in a mall food court, hunched over a tablet while she ate sesame chicken one-handed without looking. Her hair was pulled back in the most practical hairstyle possible, her clothes professional but hardly fashionable, and her face was merely pleasant-looking. She spent most of her time working, and according to her file hadn’t had a long-term romantic partner in several years. Their interaction would likely be the most exciting part of her week. 

Shifting his grip on his briefcase, he sauntered over to her table. “Pardon me for being rude, but I saw you sitting over here and I—“

“No.”

He blinked. “Excuse me?”

“Whatever you’re about to try to sell me, I’m not interested.” She didn’t bother looking up. “Though if you need the empty chair, feel free to take it.”

He’d been shot down by an actual princess, once, though he’d won her over not more than 15 minutes later. Putting on his most flirtatiously charming look, he slid into the seat opposite hers. “Thank you.” He smiled. “I was hoping to be able to eat my lunch in such beautiful company.”

Her head shot up at that, but instead of pleased surprise she shot him a look that seriously questioned his intelligence. “Really?” She shifted her tablet onto her lap, leaning forward slightly. “That’s the approach you’re going to go with, here?”

For one wild second, he thought she was calling him out as a spy. He would accuse her of working with terrorists, his wording equally vague, and they would spend the next 10 minutes threatening each other in code because the other option was a gunfight in a food court full of idiot civilians. The last thing he wanted was for the local PD to show up, but maybe he should—

He stopped himself before he could finish the thought, pushing it aside. Even if she was the mastermind, there was no way she could know he was a spy – he’d covered his tracks too well. “What approach should I take?” He gave her his best smile. “I’m always willing to take instruction from such a magnificent woman.”

She just stared at him, and there was another second where he thought he was actually getting somewhere. Then her brow lowered, and she was glaring at him as if he’d just dented her Porsche or misidentified the designer she was wearing. “I don’t know if you’re an idiot, or so arrogant it basically amounts to the same thing.” She shoved her fork into her takeout container, shutting it almost violently before picking up her purse and putting her tablet inside it. “I don’t know what firm you’re with, or what information you think you can get out of me for whatever case you’re working on, but you’re just going to have to go back to your bosses and tell them they’ll have to get it legally.”

Now all he could do was stare at her. “What?” Training had him immediately downshifting, trying to save the situation. “I’m sorry if I offended you, miss, but I just—“

She made an exasperated noise. “Listen. I’m sure that face of yours helps you in the courtroom. But it’ll help even more if you acknowledge that other people have actual brains in their heads, even if you don’t.”

He reached for her hand, trying another smile. “When I said magnificent, I meant your mind as—“

She snatched her hand away, cutting him off with a shake of her head. “No, no, if you’d tried that I would have assumed you were from a rival tech firm out to steal company secrets.” She stood, collecting her things. “I’m sure all your undoubtedly gorgeous lady friends tell you how beautiful and amazing you are all the time, but when things like that happen to the rest of us it’s a scam.” Then she took a step back, narrowing her eyes again. “Now I’m going to go away so I can eat the rest of my lunch in peace, and if you come near me again rest assured I will taze you.”

He watched her walk away, more stunned than the last time he’d been caught in a concussive grenade blast. When he was sure she was out of earshot, he slowly let his head drop forward and hit the top of the table with a groan.

After a few seconds, he realized the muffled noise he could hear over his comm sounded suspiciously like laughter.  “Shut up,” he muttered, voice low enough that casual passers-by wouldn’t be able to overhear.

Naturally, D did exactly the opposite and stopped muffling the laughter entirely, letting it boom over the comm loud enough to make him wince. “You know I’m saving the audio forever, right?” D managed, laughing so hard she was wheezing. “I’m going to insist we start an agency Christmas party, just so I can play it for everyone and we can all laugh at you together.”

“Rhys—“ Catching himself with a muttered curse – it was so much easier to have these conversations in a quiet corner of a mansion or security compound – he pulled out his cell phone and pretended to answer a call. “Rhys would never agree to it.”

“He would if I played it for him,” D shot back. “There’s nothing confidential on it. He’d call it a morale booster.”

Damn it, he would. “You couldn’t have done any better.”

“Maybe not.” He could practically see her grin, sharp as the edge of the knives she always carried. There were rumors she was a retired assassin, but she would never talk about her previous line of work sober and there was no one in the agency who could outdrink her. She was also old enough to be his mother, and overall his favorite person in the entire world. “But I don’t have to do any better, because I’m here to keep an eye out for any rival agents who may want to kill you. You’re the one who’s supposed to be 007.”

“Normally I am,” he shot back, realizing belatedly that he really should be tracking wherever the hell she was going. He stood, weaving through the lunch crowds as he started scanning the area for his target. “I’ve seduced—“ No, that was definitely not a sentence he could finish out in public like this. Damn it, he would give anything to be working with arms dealers right now. “—successfully closed with any number of people before this, and always gotten everything I needed out of them. But she just—“

“Slapped you down like a two-bit con man,” D finished, sounding delighted. “Didn’t even play with you a little first. Poor kid.”

That was one of the things that was throwing him. He was used to targets of both genders turning the conversational tables on him, drawing him into a verbal fencing match. Even enemies tried to draw him out, finding out what he knew while trying to keep everything they knew hidden.  He was prepared for those kind of duels – loved them, in fact – but this woman had shut him down with the blunt effectiveness of a verbal brick to the face.

He was, he could admit privately, in unfamiliar territory. “Are you absolutely sure—“

“—you can’t just break into her condo?” D finished. “As T explained in the same report I know we both read, it won’t do you any good. Her computer’s security system requires access codes from both her tablet and her phone, and both can only be activated within the perimeters of the condo after the security system has been de-activated using the security code. Slip up even once, and the whole thing shuts down tighter than a nun’s undergarments.”

His jaw set. He was excellent at breaking and entering, but technology... was not his area of expertise. Damn it, why had Rhys assigned him this case? “Just testing you. I’m still committed to our original plan of action.”

“Of course you are, darling.” D sounded indulgent. “The question is, can you pull it off?” 

He’d better be able to. He’d talked his way out of a room full of armed terrorists before – there was no way he was going to let one little programmer beat him. “Absolutely.”

#

He made it to the front doors without finding her, and he was forced to confront the unfortunate possibility that he'd allowed his target to get away completely. If that happened, he'd lose any chance of talking to her until tomorrow - she went straight back to the office after lunch, then straight home after work. And if he tried to stop her on the way to her car, he had a sneaking suspicion she really would taze him.

If he had to admit to Rhys that he'd delayed the mission an entire day because he'd blown his approach, though, he'd taze himself.

Luckily, when he went outside he caught sight of her sitting on the edge of one of the planters lining the perimeter of the mall, back on her tablet and finishing the rest of her chicken. He adjusted his suit, preparing his approach, when to his horror he found himself hesitating. He’d been thrown before, yes, but that was his fault. He’d underestimated her, and paid the price for it.

He needed to go in a bit more carefully this time.

“Is this caution I’m seeing?” D said in his ear, the surprise in her voice genuine and only faintly annoying. “Well, will wonders never cease.” 

“Shut up,” he muttered, dropping his shoulders and adopting a more penitent pose. If he was going to have any kind of chance getting the information he needed, she couldn’t see him as any kind of threat. Deciding that hanging his head would be too obvious, he walked up to her and silently stood a full two feet away from where she was sitting.

After a full 30 seconds – diffusing enough bombs gave a person an excellent sense of timing – she set the fork back down in the nearly empty container. “I was serious about tazing you,” she said mildly, still not looking up.

With a normal mark, he would shoot back something about always liking things exciting in bed. Now, however, he lifted a shoulder. “I’m not worth the trouble. A security guard would run over, someone might even call 911... such a waste of time.”

That made her lift her head, a penetrating expression on her face like she was trying to figure out what was going on. Not quite the response he was hoping for, no, but better than last time. “Pepper spray’s less dramatic,” she said after a moment, still watching him. “You’ll be shouting and clawing at your eyes, but everyone will just assume you’re an asshole who deserved what he got.”

Unfortunately, that was entirely true. He took an instinctive step back, and for a second her mouth flickered upward in a faint smirk. Not sure whether to be annoyed or impressed, he decided that distraction was the only option to diffuse the situation. “How did you know I was a lawyer, out of curiosity? I’m sure I didn’t mention it.”

She raised an eyebrow at him, saying “seriously?” more clearly than words ever could, but there was less anger behind the expression than there had been earlier. “There’s not that many people who’d want something out of me. If you were handing out fliers for something, you wouldn’t bother with the suit. If you were with a tech company, you wouldn’t bother with a suitcase.” She pointed to the one he was still carrying, and he fought off the sudden, ridiculous urge to toss it in the bushes. “Also, you would have flashed me your phone or tablet at least once, because technology is a dominance game and even though you wanted information out of me you couldn’t resist the urge to prove that you’re more advanced than I am. If you were trying to hire me away from my current firm, you wouldn’t have bothered with the awful fake flirting before piling on the incentives.” She gestured to the entirety of him. “So, lawyer.” 

He blinked, surprised and more impressed by the assessment than he was at all prepared to admit. “I still don’t understand why you didn’t think I was just flirting with you.”

She made an exasperated sound, a sudden shift in her expression making it clear she’d just lost whatever shred of patience she’d managed to scrape together for him. “Look, despite what daytime television might try to convince you, most women are fully aware that life isn’t a romance novel. When you look like me,” she gestured down her body, “no brooding male model with a convenient fortune is going to sweep into your life and beg you to save him from his traumatic childhood and inability to emotionally connect.” The faint smirk returned. “And if they did, they’d probably be as annoying about it as you are.”

“I don’t know if I’d go quite so far as to say ‘annoying,’” D murmured in his ear, sounding impressed. “And you’d never make it as a male model. But you do have trouble emotionally connecting to people. And I seem to remember you mentioning something about your father the last time we shared that bottle of—”

Faking like he was scratching an itch, he pulled the comm out of his ear and slipped it into his pocket. “I need to know if there’s a way to tell if someone is trying to clone your phone,” he asked, as if she’d finally gotten him to admit the “truth” of why he’d approached her.

She blinked, confused – he felt a strange sense of satisfaction at putting that expression on her face, for once – then her eyes narrowed. “I can, and block it, but it’s a program I wrote myself. Are you looking for a commercial option?”

No, he was looking for a way to figure out who had implanted the code into the cell phones, because unless she was the greatest actress in the world he was growing increasingly certain that it wasn’t her. Which meant someone was using her, someone smart enough to get around what T insisted was some damned fine coding. Given his experiences of the last 10 minutes, odds were it was someone that she worked with. Which meant he had to get into her office. 

He smiled at her again, an automatic gesture that he quickly wiped away when her eyes narrowed. “Is there any chance I could stop by your office this afternoon to speak about the matter in more detail?”
Her expression was still wary, but her shoulders had relaxed. “Fine.” She picked up her chicken again. “Now will you go away and let me finish my lunch?”

Sketching a dramatic bow – and feeling just the faintest tickle of amusement when she scowled at him – he turned and did as she commanded. Once he rounded the corner, he slipped the comm back into his ear to hear D muttering. “...jump out of the bushes. Then he’d be dead, and what good would that....”

He pulled out his cell phone, faking another call. “D, we’ve got a complication.” 

000

Want more? Check out chapter 2 here

6 comments:

  1. this is brilliant

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  2. I dont think i have ever fallen for a female character as hard and fast as i have for this one. Shes amazing and your writing is amazing please continue

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  3. Oh my god this is actually hilarious. Please write more

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  4. I want to say that your writing is a gift. You main character is amazing. I love her and I've only read the first chapter. I don't even have a name. Thank you.

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  5. This is shaping up to be exactly what I was hoping would come of that Tumblr reblog chain! I have been grinning and snort/chortling the whole way, here! YES! Zooming to the next chapter and, srsly, THANK YOU! ^5

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  6. I stumbled across the first bit over on Tumblr and fell in love. Squeeeed out loud and everything!
    I can't wait to see what happens next!

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