Chapter 1: Never Give Them Ammunition
There was a bullet hole in the breakroom.
Technically, there were two bullet holes – the one traveling upward through the top part of the thin wall that divided the breakroom from the rest of the office, and another in the ceiling tile above it. Thea knew she could get maintenance to patch them up, since they’d already done the same thing to most of the bullet holes scattered around the office. But no one else seemed to mind its existence, and she liked looking at it while she drank her coffee.
Some people had photos on their phones to remember the people they cared about. She had a bullet hole in the breakroom.
Well, not only a bullet hole. Thea lightly touched the phone tucked into her left pocket, reminding herself it was perfectly normal that Max hadn’t called her in a few days. He was a spy, for pity’s sake, and was probably too busy chasing down some international arms dealer to remember to let her know he was safe. If fiction was to be believed, spies didn’t get a lot of practice at having non-spy people in their lives. There was—
“Is your boyfriend okay?”
Thea jerked her head up at the quiet question. Seeing the surprised look on her boss’s face, Sara Chou stopped pouring her own cup of coffee and gestured to Thea's left pocket. “That’s his phone, right? From your conversations, he sounds like he travels a lot for work. It makes sense that you got a separate carrier with a better international plan.” She stopped, wincing. “Or she travels. We shouldn’t assume.”
Thea was still frozen, appalled at herself for being that obvious. Sara smiled a little. “Your voice always goes so soft when you talk to whoever it is,” she explained gently. “And your work phone is always in your right pocket, but since you’re left-handed you can get to that pocket a second faster.” Her smile widened. “We know how much you care about work, so we decided anyone you care about more than that must be a pretty big deal to you.”
Thea was briefly, fiercely tempted to throw professionalism out the window and actually flee the room. “He’s not—” She stopped, forcing her voice to sound completely casual and normal. Thankfully, her dark brown skin made it so she didn’t have to worry about her cheeks betraying her. “He’s not my boyfriend. We’re just…” She tripped briefly over what to call someone you’d initially antagonized, helped take down a small part of a terrorist organization, and now had an extremely odd phone relationship with that you were maybe a little too invested in continuing. “…friends.”
“Oh.” Sara went wide-eyed with surprise. “But… we all thought….”
Thea tightened her hands around her coffee cup, trying not to think about just how many of her employees were included in that ‘we.’ “We worked together on a project, once,” she explained more calmly, hoping Sara wouldn’t connect ‘project’ back to ‘that time armed gunmen shot up the office last year.’ She’d been careful never to use Max’s name during the calls, even though that wasn’t his real one, on the off chance someone could connect them. Besides, everyone knew that spies didn’t keep in contact with people afterwards. “His job means he travels a lot, but we try to keep in touch. That’s all it is.”
Alarmingly, Sara’s expression softened again. “But that means you still could—”
Before she could finish the sentence, Thea heard someone call out from the elevators in the thickest Great Lakes accent she’d ever heard. “Delivery for a Ms. Spencer!”
Sara, thankfully distracted, lowered her brow. “Aren’t deliveries supposed to be left downstairs with Pete?”
Yes, they were. Setting down her coffee cup, Thea carefully moved to the edge of the breakroom entrance and peered around the wall. A big, heavyset man with a beard in what looked like a florist’s delivery outfit was carrying a vase filled with two-dozen red roses. He wasn’t wearing a jacket, which made it less likely he was carrying a gun or bomb of some kind, but as there were exactly zero people in her life who would send her—
Thea stopped, closing her eyes with a sigh. Correction – there was one person.
Next to her, Sara peered around the corner as well. “I don’t think he’s going to shoot anybody,” she said finally, patting Thea on the shoulder. “Your not-boyfriend probably just wanted to surprise you.”
Or send some kind of covert message in the most dramatic way possible. Still wishing she had her Taser on her, just in case, Thea squared her shoulders and headed over to the delivery person. “I’m Ms. Spencer,” she said, trying her best to ignore the eyes of all her employees following her across the shared office space. The gossip about her wasn’t going to quiet down any time soon. “I’ll take that.”
The delivery guy handed her the vase, then pulled out a clipboard he was holding and flipped through it. “You have to sign for it,” he said, his accent stretching the words in a familiar way. “Make sure the client knows it went to the right person.”
Thea nodded, searching through the roses. There wasn’t any card, surprisingly, or a flash drive or anything else Max might use to communicate with her. Maybe it was on the order form she had to sign….
Handing the flowers to Sara, who’d followed her over, Thea took the clipboard and scanned what looked like a perfectly normal order form. “Are you sure there was no card?” she asked, signing the form on the marked line.
“Yeah,” the delivery person said. “Guy said he wanted it to be a surprise.”
Something about the sentence, delivered just as casually as everything else he’d said so far, made Thea look up at him. His eyes were blue, rather than brown like Max’s, and his hair was dark brown rather than black. It had been a ridiculous thought to begin with – even if Max did need to contact her by something other than the special phone he’d set up, there were a dozen different, easier ways he could—
Then she realized that the delivery person had gone still, like he was letting her examine him, and Thea was suddenly certain she was right.
Trying to pretend the emotion swelling in her chest was frustration instead of relief, she handed him back the clipboard. “Let me follow you out,” she said, looking him in the eye. “Maybe have a talk with Pete about letting delivery guys upstairs without at least calling upstairs and giving me a heads up.”
The man grinned, suddenly looking so familiar despite the fake beard and facial prosthetics that a part of her was amazed no one else recognized him. They’d all met Max, the same way she had. “Might be a good idea,” he said, the accent thick as ever. “Easy to get lost in big, tall buildings like this.”
She scowled at his retreating back she followed him into the elevator, watching him push the button for the main floor as if he really was just a delivery man. Then, almost immediately, he pulled a lock pick out of his pocket and stuck it in the keyhole the fire department was supposed to use. A few quick flicks, and the elevator stopped neatly halfway between two floors.
“We won’t have to worry about the fire department, since we didn’t bother with the button, but I’d say we have about 15 minutes before someone gets annoyed enough to call maintenance,” Max said in his regular voice. “Of course, we’ll have at least 10 more minutes after that before they figure out what I did.”
“I’m more interested in what you did before you got here,” she said exasperatedly. “Tell me you didn’t hijack someone else’s flower delivery. And roses? Really? They already think I have a secret boyfriend I’m hiding from them.”
“Seriously?” Max said delightedly. When she scowled at him, he held his hands up in a ‘don’t shoot’ gesture. “I swear that wasn’t my intention, though. There’s just only so many bouquets you can justify taking all the way up to a person’s floor. And I’m offended you thought I’d steal some poor person’s flowers, no matter how unimaginative they are. These were the only thing the shop had in stock that I could reasonably pass off as coming from a secret admirer.”
“Oh, because that causes so much less gossip than a secret boyfriend.” Still, she couldn’t stop her voice from softening, unfortunate proof that she must sound as embarrassing on the phone with him as Sara claimed. Clearly, she’d have to figure out a way to stop that or start taking his calls privately. “Why go to all the trouble? There’s a reason your boss gave me a phone you can safely call me on.”
“Oh, it was no trouble,” he said easily, patting the padding he was wearing to give him the false stomach. “Besides, this way I made sure I got to see you even if you say no.”
“You need help with a case?” she asked, ignoring the way her chest warmed at the thought of him wanting to see her. “Because Rhys said I might get called in, but since you guys have your own tech department I assumed that was out of politeness more than anything.”
And if she’d maybe had a fantasy or two about going on an adventure with him someplace, she was smart enough to know that’s all it was. Besides, adventures with spies meant you got shot at, and her one previous experience with real-life bullets made it clear she didn’t possess the adrenaline addiction required to enjoy a life in espionage.
He hesitated. “It’s… not exactly a case,” he admitted, perking up as he immediately rolled into the sales pitch. “Technically, I’m on vacation right now, but I already talked to Rhys and he said he would absolutely pay you for your time. And it’s more like a favor than a case, which means I’ll owe you one and you can get as creative as you want with the payback.”
Thea went still, listening to his voice since she couldn’t see the subtle shifts in his face. “You really do need help,” she said quietly, chest tightening at the thought that he’d come to her with this. “Can you not ask anyone at the Company because it’s not an approved assignment?”
That was the name of the independent spy agency Max worked for, the sort of thing Thea had assumed was entirely fictional before meeting him. As it turned out, though, spies also watched television shows about spies. Occasionally, they got ideas.
Max sighed. “I can’t… I don’t want to bring in any of the Company techs. It might turn out to be nothing, and then how ridiculous would I feel?” His voice brightened suspiciously, dangerously close to his fake bravado. “You’ve already seen me at my most ridiculous. There’s no mystery left.”
As far as explanations went, it brought up more questions than it did answers. You only had to know Max a few minutes to know that he didn’t care about looking ridiculous, and he never hesitated when it came to trusting his hunches.
And, truthfully, it was a terrible time for her to leave the office. The deadline on the apps all three of her teams were working on had been moved up, and one of the clients had suddenly had a “vision” halfway through the process and wanted an almost total re-design. The sensible decision would be to tell him she was sorry, but unless it was something she could do from here she wouldn’t be able to help.
Instead, she moved a little closer. “Tell me some more about this ‘not exactly a case.’”
It might have been just her imagination, but it looked like he relaxed a little. “An old professor of mine now works at this little agricultural university in Lochland, Ohio, and he just developed some strain of bacteria he swears will ‘revolutionize’ farming.” He actually made the air quotes as he said the word. “He called me a few days ago panicked that some big agro company would try to steal it, so I sweet-talked Rhys into letting me go out for a little while and see if he’s really at risk. I talked to him, got the lay of the land, and…” He hesitated. “Maybe it’s nothing.”
Which meant there was something making him uneasy about the whole thing, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. A part of her was flattered that he seemed to think she might have better luck with that, but most of her was focused on a much more significant thought. This was personal for Max, a man so protective of his past that he wouldn’t even tell anyone his real name.
And he’d come to her for help.
Before she could say anything, though, Max abruptly pulled the lockpick back out of his pocket. “You know what? It probably is nothing.” The fake bravado was back, even stronger than before, as he moved toward the fire department key. “So we’ll just say I came by to bring you wildly uninteresting flowers and add to the myth of your secret boyfriend, which for the record is definitely something I’m not going to be able to just ignore. I’ll keep looking for a real spy assignment I can get you involved in, someplace in a city actually worth visiting, and we’ll just—”
“Max.” Thea finally cut him off, an edge of exasperation to her voice that was already becoming dangerously fond. “I may not know much about spycraft, but I’m certain it’s a bad idea to sabotage your sales pitch as thoroughly as you’re trying to do right now.”
Slowly, Max stopped looking like he was trying to flee the elevator. “I try not to do spycraft with you,” he admitted, then stopped and gestured to the disguise he was wearing. “Well, I do things like this, of course.” His voice was easier now, though she wasn’t sure if it was because he was sure she would say yes or because he was simply relieved to talk about literally anything else. “I have to keep you on your toes.”
He was an absurd human being. “What were you going to do if I didn’t realize it was you?” she said, not bothering to hide the amusement in her voice. “Did you have a series of clues planned, more and more obvious as I kept missing them?”
“If it took you too long, I was fully prepared to suddenly announce a singing telegram and start in on ‘Secret Agent Man,’” he said with a grin. “But you barely needed any clue at all. Most people wouldn’t even have noticed that I emphasized one word a little bit more than the others.”
So that was what she’d noticed. “And you put all of that on yourself?”
“You like it?” He gave her the full 360 spin. “We’ve got people back at HQ who can help newer agents or the really high-stakes cases, but I like doing my own. I have a bunch of makeup and prosthetics tucked away in various hidey-holes.”
“You’re not planning on dressing me up like that, are you?” she asked lightly. “Because I can handle a wig if I absolutely have to, but colored contacts aren’t going to work out well with the real ones I’m wearing.”
He went utterly still. “You’ll come with me?”
The hope in his voice made her chest tighten. “As soon as I figure out an excuse I can give my bosses.”
“Oh, I’ve already taken care of that.” Unbuttoning the delivery shirt, he reached underneath the stomach padding to pull out a file and hand it to her. “Once I press a button, your immediate supervisor will discover a backdated e-mail from a wealthy philanthropist they’ve vaguely heard of in his inbox begging for your help, as well as a thank you for him agreeing to lend your services. All you have to do is send him an e-mail as if you and he had discussed the matter last week, and that should take care of the problem.”
Thea opened the folder, finding a brief dossier about the wealthy philanthropist along with a first class plane ticket from Chicago to Columbus under her own name. In addition, there was identification for a woman named Elise Thurgood, a computer security expert at Sterling Enterprises. Since it was her picture on the I.D., Thea assumed this was the woman she’d become once they were on the ground at Lochland.
She raised an eyebrow at him. “You had all this ready,” she asked, holding up the folder, “and you were still going to walk away without giving me the chance to say yes?”
“Like I said, you’ve already seen me at my most ridiculous.” He leaned down, pressing a quick kiss against her cheek. “I wish I could stay long enough to take the flight with you, but it’s best for your long-term health if you’re not seen on too many airport security cameras with me. Feel bad for me – I’m going to be stuck with an overpriced airport dinner instead of letting you teach me the wonders of Chicago deep dish.”
Despite the scratch of the fake beard, the place where his lips had pressed still tingled. Thea flatly refused to give into cliché enough to reach up and touch the affected skin. “I’m sure they have good food in Lochland. It’s a college town.”
“That’s true.” He brightened. “I’ll make you help me try some of them out, in between worrying about possibly fictional agro company thugs.” He jiggled the fire department key again, re-starting the elevator and sending it downward rapidly. Given the annoyed bang she could hear on one floor, she guessed he’d activated some sort of re-set function. “Don’t worry about a taxi or anything like that. I’ll pick you up just outside the airport.” He paused. “I assume you’ll just be bringing a carryon?”
She shook her head. “You have to check Tasers.”
He grinned. “Valid point. But if you want, I can have one waiting for you so you don’t have to worry about bringing yours.”
She felt her lips curve upward again. There was no reason whatsoever that she should be looking forward to this. “I would appreciate it.”
“Anything I can do to save you from the tortures of baggage carousels.” Then his voice sobered. “Seriously, though, thank you.”
She waved off the comment before she could risk getting emotional about it. “Figure out how to get me to Rome, and we’ll call it even.”
He grinned again. “Oh, that’s easy.” Then the door opened on the first floor, revealing a crowd of people looking incredulously at them both. “You might want to get that elevator looked at,” he told them all, Great Lakes accent firmly back in place. Then he turned back to Thea with a grin and a wave. “Hope you enjoy the roses from your secret boyfriend!”
As he walked away whistling, Thea sighed and fought the urge to smile.