Chuck vs La Belle Dame sans Merci
A/N – Not quite a prequel, rather an alternate path for Chuck and the gang to meet. What if Chuck had met Sarah in more unpleasant circumstances? This story is A/U in that Chuck doesn't have the Intersect, at least not the version Bryce sent him.
Thanks to michaelfmx who has agreed to edit the story and for his valued input.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
Washington - September 24th, 2006
Hi, my name is Chuck and here are some things you may not know. I'm an analyst and low level IT nerd for the NSA. I work in a nondescript brown brick building inside the Navy Yard. I'm not important enough to work at Ft. Mead. I mean after all, I'm only a contract employee. This red and brown brick 'Orwellian' structure lacks only the smell of boiled cabbage wafting through the hallways to make it totally '1984'.
I've been doing this job for two years.
Two long years.
After getting kicked out of Stanford for cheating on an exam …. and by the way I didn't cheat! Bryce Larkin reported my alleged nefarious act to Professor Fleming and then to the Provost.
Stanford greased the wheels of justice so that I was out on my ass before you could say, 'Bryce, why don't you sleep with my ex-fiancé Jill'.
I admit that I went into a bit of a slump for two years, moved back in with my sister Ellie and went back to work at the Buy More. In hind sight I think I was a touch depressed. So, just when you think that things can't get any worse, guess what, they did.
I'll make a much longer story short.
My best friend Morgan worked with me at the Buy More. He is in so many ways the little brother I never had.
Anyway, Morgan got a piece of code from a so called friend (who he'd never met in the flesh). His new web friend (whose name was Vladimir Shadrin), told him this code would allow him to get past the security on many sites.
Morgan didn't like to pay for things and thought it fair game to get into web sites and download music and movies for free. His sole rationale for this sort of behaviour was that the big corporations were making lots of money already.
As it turned out, the code he was using wasn't bad, not up to my standards mind you, but not too shabby.
Morgan had two weeks where he was 'a kid in the candy shop'. He gorged himself on free downloads. He then went into one web site too many. The last website was a Federal site and the FBI came calling.
Morgan's face turned scarlet and he had enough sense to tell me what he'd been doing, literally as the FBI were at the front entrance to the Buy More, looking in. How did I know they were FBI? And how did they know to come to the Buy More?
The big, yellow 'FBI' on the back of one of the agent's windbreaker was a good clue about who they were.
Morgan's guilty face told me all I needed to know concerning the second question. He'd been using the ill-gotten computer code on computers I was fixing in the back security storage area. His own computer still wouldn't work because of the Irene Demova virus, that foxy Russian minx.
As the agents approached the Nerd Desk, I realized that my little buddy would never survive if he had to go to jail. I probably wouldn't survive either but what the hell … my life wasn't exactly going anywhere, and I'd always looked out for Morgan.
As the agents stood in front of both us. They flashed their badges and I blurted out, 'I did it'. To Morgan's credit he looked at me with his mouth hanging open. He then quickly turned to the FBI agents and said, "NO! I'm the one you want."
So they arrested both of us.
We were taken to the FBI office on Wilshire Blvd. They put us into separate rooms. I waited in a small room with a mirror at the other end for two long hours. I'd seen enough movies and read enough books to know that this was the way they messed with your mind.
Well guess what? It works, so by the time FBI Agent Laura Henderson (according to her ID badge) walked in, I was really nervous.
She put a file on her desk and then spent the next ten minutes reading it, sorting through documents. During this OCD process she'd mastered, she never looked up at me once. You'd think I'd committed a crime … wait, I had just confessed to committing a crime, shit.
Finally, she looked up at me and uttered her first words. "Breaking into a Federal website is a felony, under 18 USC 1030 (a)(2). You're looking at five to ten years of hard time. Here is the code you used to break into the sites".
Agent Henderson pushed the paper across the table. "Tell me how the code works to penetrate the firewall."
This was the first time I'd actually seen the code Morgan had been using to get into all the web sites, so I had to stall until I could actually look at it.
I studied it for three minutes. It wasn't bad. I lifted my head up, looked into Agent Henderson's brown eyes and explained how it worked. When I finished I sat back in the incredibly uncomfortable chair. We looked at each other for a very long minute. She then pressed a button under the table, collected her papers, closed the file and left.
I waited for another four hours.
I was hungry, tired and a little bit north of nervous. I kept thinking of who my new cellmate would be at Fed Max … maybe Tony 'two fingers', from the Scalesi crime family'. Now both my legs were moving up and down under the table.
The door to this minimalist room opened again and two men in dark blue suits, white shirts and dark blue ties came in. I immediately labelled them nerd one and gorilla one. The nerd was easy to spot, built like a beanpole, thick framed glasses. He probably couldn't run to the washroom without getting winded. The guy built like a gorilla was an entirely different matter.
He was easily as tall as me, maybe fifteen years older and looked like he had packed on an extra thirty pounds of solid muscle over the years. Tony 'two fingers' was looking better to me as a future cellmate with each passing moment. Just get me away from gorilla one.
They sat down and flashed their badges and 'cred' packs at me. Nerd one called himself Michael Nawratil. Gorilla one called himself John Casey. I caught the NSA bit of their introduction. Inwardly I said to myself, 'Oh, oh, I'm in big trouble'.
I also wondered what Federal website Morgan had tried to hack. I regretted my impulse to help Morgan out of his jam. Too late.
Again, not to belabor the story, let me give you the CliffsNotes version of our discussion. Actually, it was a monologue from gorilla one, er … sorry don't want to be rude … from NSA Agent John Casey. I had two choices, go to prison or work for the NSA. Apparently they were always on the lookout for hackers who showed some promise.
If I agreed to work for them, they'd let Morgan go and there would be no record of his arrest.
I found out later that Agent Henderson had asked Moran the same question she'd asked me. "Tell me how the code works to penetrate the firewall." Fortunately for Morgan, he didn't have a clue how the code actually worked to bypass the firewall. He made a good effort to bullshit them but failed miserably.
That's when they became convinced that I was there man. Great.
You know that saying, that people judge a book by its cover … well the agents looked at Morgan, then at me, talked with Morgan then with me …..and tag, I was it.
Michael, the nerd, informed me that the code I had been using was average, not great. However, my answers to Agent Henderson indicated I showed some potential, plus I had gone to Stanford. They already knew I had been expelled, and mentioned it once or twice. John Casey told me he hated cheaters, great, I'm already on his good side.
Michael then told me that the NSA would make me a better hacker, all I had to do was sign a three year contract. I wouldn't be an employee, as such, therefore, no government benefit's, and no pension.
As I was signing the incredibly one-sided three year contract (terms like, if I quit or failed to measure up I would immediately go to jail), I smiled to myself. They had no idea that I was the 'Piranha' and that they, along with the CIA, had been looking for me for the last five or six years to put my ass in jail.
My goal during the next three years was to make sure they never found out how truly gifted a hacker I really was.
So, that's my story. I've now been at the NSA for two years. Each day I cross off another day spent at the face of the salt mine.
Oh yes, one more thing before I go. Once or twice I spotted different pieces of data and, against my better judgement, made some suggestions, you know connecting the dots. Big mistake! I was hauled in front of some Director, whose name I've long since forgotten, and told I would now do low level analysis from time to time.
So now I'm not only the lowest level IT guy. I'm now at the lowest level of a sea of analysts.
Wonderful, way to go Chuck. Now I get to be two small cogs in a massive wheel. When will I learn to keep my mouth shut?
Before I left for Washington Morgan promised me he would stay out of trouble and stay away from people named Vladimir, Yuri and Irena.
So, there you have it. I think I've brought you all up to date.
Washington - October 24th, 2006
It was another day of 'hacking' and reviewing files for Chuck. He had been tasked by his bosses to follow a Colombian cartel bad guy, named Emilio Fuertes. He'd followed dear sweet Emilio for almost a year.
Emilio was a lieutenant in the Jaconde crime family, a sad day for the good folk in Colombia because this gentleman was an up and comer. Smart and ruthless with boundless ambition.
Promotion in most of the crime families was usually through attrition or assassination. Emilio would've fit in nicely in ancient Rome with Octavius and the boys.
Chuck faithfully read the materials, listened to the intercepts and translations and filed his reports.
He felt that filing reports was like taking your printouts and putting them in one of those plastic cylinders that get inserted into those old vacuum tube systems. You pop the tube in, there is this loud sucking sound and you never know where it goes, who reads it, or if anyone really cares. Maybe they went directly to the furnace room?
Chuck's cubicle was 8'x 8', 64 square feet. He had a desk, two computers, a filing cabinet, a small framed picture of Ellie, Devon and Morgan and his plant. It was his pride and joy, an English Ivy that he called 'Rosebud'.
Chuck's telephone rang. He was thoroughly shocked by the sound it made because he'd never heard it ring in the two years he'd been working at the Navy Yard. All his communication was done on his computer through email and text messages to his cell phone.
So, like a curious dog he cocked his head to one side. He looked and listened as it rang five times. Finally his right hand snaked out and picked it up and put the receiver to his ear.
The call was short and sweet. He was to go to Ft. Mead, a car was waiting for him downstairs. Chuck then heard two words. "Leave now!"
Ft. Mead, MD – One Hour Later
Chuck's game plan after he'd signed his three year contract with the NSA had been to keep a low profile. On the hacking front, he knew his rated performance was 'average'. Excellent.
As an analyst he tried to keep a low profile but from time to time he saw things that others seemed to miss, so he mentioned what he saw in his filed reports. Thus far his reports had disappeared into the ether, vanished like smoke on a windy day.
From Chuck's perspective, no news, no feedback from his bosses, was good news. It meant that he was keeping a low profile. Being taken to Ft. Mead in a black government SUV was not keeping a low profile, shit!
He was given a very intimate inspection with a wand by an intense looking older man, as he entered the building. Not intrusive at all. Then he was reluctantly given a visitor's badge and escorted by an NSA agent to the conference room.
As he walked into the room, he saw five people sitting at the table. There was one chair that was empty. As he walked to what he fervently hoped was his chair his blood pressure shot up.
Sitting across from him was gorilla one, er… John Casey.
When Casey saw him, he grunted. Chuck wasn't sure whether that meant, 'Hello, nice to see you again', or 'Not you again'.
The person at the head of the table cleared her throat once and called the meeting to order.
She introduced herself as Director Stephanie Kubiak, in charge of South American operations. Stephanie Kubiak had that emaciated lean body look that seemed to be fashionable in DC. A steady diet of salad, cottage cheese and tofu was probably her food regime.
She was wearing a blue power suit with a little American flag on her lapel. Ambition burned brightly in dear Stephanie's eyes.
She then introduced John Casey as a field agent. Chuck took a good look at Casey and concluded that he was military or ex-military. He noticed the body language around the table and decided that Stephanie might be chairing the meeting but she wasn't running the show.
James Fong was middle aged, with a hairline that was racing back from his forehead with the march of time. He was in charge of SIGNIT, signals intelligence. Chuck smiled at James, who smiled back at him. Chuck decided immediately that he liked James, a born nerd if there ever was one.
Jonathan Swinson was in charge of FININT, financial intelligence. Chuck generally liked finance guys, they were usually introverts who kept to themselves. He could relate to that. And finally there was Carina Miller, a DEA field agent.
For the last two years the analysts that Chuck worked with would talk about these mysterious, kick –ass, ninja type, amazons who did covert work. Chuck thought that a lot of this watercooler chatter was the analysts letting their fantasy world intersect with the real world. He'd never seen any such creatures except in Hollywood movies.
Carina might just be the wish fulfillment for all his fellow analysts back at the Navy Yard. Chuck smiled to himself. He wondered if, after the meeting, he might ask Carina for a selfie with him. On second thought, maybe not a good idea.
Carina looked right at him. Chuck was very happy that his mouth didn't hang open. She was gorgeous, with long dark brown hair that spilled down softly onto her shoulders. It was the eyes that transfixed him. Piercing blue eyes set in a lovely face with a hint of freckles on her nose and cheeks.
She gave him a ghost of a smile and then slowly looked away. Chuck hoped no one heard him gulp.
Stephanie then introduced Chuck as an analyst who was a leading expert on Emilio Fuertes. Chuck was stunned. 'Me, an expert … what the …?' How the hell had he become an expert? He didn't even speak Spanish. Apparently someone in the ether was actually reading his reports.
Keeping his head down didn't appear to be working.
Carina gave him a quick look. Then the briefing commenced.
Chuck had one of those out of body experiences as if he was sitting up high in a corner, detached from what was transpiring, but able to observe all the players, including himself. Weird.
The gist of the briefing was that terrorists were slowly making alliances with some cartels to use their existing pipelines for drugs into the US. They wanted to smuggle in weapons and explosives.
Emilio had been spotted in Europe by the FIS, the Swiss intelligence group, meeting with a suspected arms dealer in Geneva.
Stephanie offered up a really juicy bit of intelligence, there was an informer close to Emilio. The informer said Emilio was going to attend a meeting in Charleston, SC, tomorrow. The informer had given them a location, a time and that number twenty-two on the most wanted terrorist list, an Ahmad El….something or other, would also be there. He was the primary target with Emilio being the secondary.
James Fong, the signals guy, said that they had identified Emilio's SAT phone at the location given to them by the informer. They hadn't broken the encryption he was using, that would take their NSA computers another two weeks. But it was definitely one of the phones Emilio used.
Jonathan, the finance guy, then mentioned that the Second Palmetto Savings Bank had been flagged as possibly having a connection with the Jaconde crime family.
John Casey then spoke. Chuck leaned forward to hear him better.
Casey thanked James and Jonathan for their input and, with a nod of his head towards the door, clearly suggested they were free to go. They seemed relieved and scurried out of the room. Chuck also got up to go, eliciting a loud grunt from Casey. "Numb nuts, you can sit back down, you're still needed."
Chuck looked longingly at the door and wished he was on the other side of it.
Casey continued. "Carina and I will be leading a four man team into the warehouse area near Drum Island in Charleston".
Stephanie pressed a button on her laptop, photos and maps of the warehouse district flashed up on a screen that had appeared quietly. Carina leaned forward and no longer seemed bored by the proceedings.
Chuck looked at the photos and maps as Casey discussed the route the assault team would take and the backup teams that would be standing nearby. Casey then turned to Chuck. "So, mister expert on Emilio Fuertes, what is the latest information you've seen?"
Chuck cleared his throat. "Well, obviously I didn't know about the informer, who is it?"
The silence in the room was colossal. Carina, Casey and Stephanie glanced at each other as if Chuck was an idiot. Then Chuck got it, they weren't going to tell him who the informer was. That was way, way above his pay grade.
Chuck started again. "Okay, my bad. Emilio does have links with Hezbollah, ISIS and a Yemeni group we still don't have a name for." Chuck stopped talking, he needed to ask them a question. "So I don't waste your time, what's the last report I filed that you've read?"
Carina bent down and pulled out a file from her black Prada shoulder bag. "We've read everything up to last week. Is there anything you've seen in the last week? You do know that's why you're here, right Chuckles?"
Chuck was glad the lights in the room had dimmed for the AV presentation, he felt his face start to burn as a blush crept up his cheeks. It's always great to be appreciated. He answered softly, "There's nothing for this week that I've seen."
Casey grunted and was about to dismiss Chuck. He wasn't needed anymore.
Chuck glanced at the photos and maps again. He closed his eyes and quickly sifted through what he knew about Emilio. Something was bothering him. His mouth started to speak before his brain caught up.
"I don't think Emilio is in Charleston and, looking at the route you're planning to take, he might even be laying out an ambush for you."
All eyes around the table turned towards him. Casey's tone was now no nonsense. "Explain."
In that instance, Chuck longed for the days he worked at the Buy More. "Well, Emilio's daughter, Camila, apparently is due to give birth this week or next. In spite of the fact he's a monster, this monster loves and dotes on his daughter. If he's going to meet the terrorist, the meet will be somewhere in Colombia, close to home. This is a ruse."
Chuck at that point knew that he should now .. just .. shut…up.
But when he was nervous … his mouth ran away from him. "Also, if this is just a ruse or decoy, then all you've done is waste some time. And Emilio has made us look foolish. However, the layout of the warehouse and the route to get there is a perfect place for an ambush. You and Carina could be walking into a trap."
Stephanie started the cross examination. "We have a valued source, an informer who has given us credible information. SIGNIT and FININT back up what the informer has told us. And .. and your only refutation of the informer's information is that Emilio's daughter is going to have a baby. My God, who hired you!"
The contempt in Stephanie's voice for Chuck felt like a slap in his face.
Carina's tone was frosty, "How many years have you spent in the field …. Chuckles?"
Chuck shook his head and mumbled, "None, uhh, zero." Carina shifted her gaze to Casey. It was obvious in that second or so that they'd exchanged an unspoken thought.
Casey was next, and his tone was the harshest, "So, Bartowski, what branch did you serve in? How many ambushes have you set up? How many ambushes have you fought your way out of?"
Chuck was now looking at his hands. "I didn't serve, I've never been in a real ambush or set one up. But I've done a lot of online gaming and …." Chuck stopped talking because Casey gave a grunt that sounded like he was laughing. Casey shook his head and looked at Carina. Stephanie glared daggers at Chuck.
Casey nodded his head towards the door and Chuck realized he'd just been dismissed. Chuck left the room with three pairs of eyes boring holes into his back.
The NSA agent drove Chuck to the front gate and then dropped him off. Chuck shook his head, no ride back to the Navy Yard. He walked for forty minutes in order to get the route 175 bus, then onto the Odenton MARC station.
Two hours later, he arrived back at the Navy Yard after two more bus transfers.
Chuck kept playing the tape in his mind about the disastrous meeting he'd come from. They thought him a fool. Well, he still thought they were wrong and that he was right.
He really hoped he was wrong about the potential ambush.
The Next Day
When he arrived at his desk, he watered his plant, got a coffee and reviewed his emails. One of his bosses, who he'd never met in the flesh, informed him he was no longer an analyst, starting immediately he would focus solely on IT.
He was also informed that there would be no change in his pay. Hmmm, they only ever paid him his hourly contract rate of $19.55, whether he was an analyst or not.
Chuck leaned back in his chair and smiled, the silver lining in the dark cloud of yesterday was he was back to being a small invisible cog. One year to go and he would be back in Burbank. Freedom.
Chuck's Apartment – Wednesday, November 1, 2006 - One Week Later
Two years ago, when Chuck told Ellie and Devon he was going to work as an IT expert for the government (that's all he was allowed to tell her) in Washington, she was actually happy for him. "Chuck, this is great news, you'll love Washington, well maybe not the winter and maybe not the really hot humid summers …but you'll love it."
Devon reached out to a fraternity brother, Tom, who had a small studio apartment in Silver Spring, MD. Tom had been transferred to New York and was happy for a friend of Devon's to rent the apartment and cover some if his mortgage costs.
Chuck lived simply. After taxes, food, commuter fares and saving up to go back to Burbank twice a year, there wasn't a lot left. Thursday nights, he went out with some of the IT guys for a beer or two.
Oh yeah, he'd had two dates in the two years. Nice women who worked at the Navy Yard in the IT area. Both times he'd blown it by talking about what had happened at Stanford and with Jill. He obviously was still not over what had happened, and this job with the NSA hadn't exactly built his self-confidence up.
The knock at the door startled him. No one had knocked at the door since he'd moved here two years ago. And the security downstairs in the building was pretty good. Hmmm, he wondered if he should pretend he wasn't here.
Curiosity got the better of him.
Chuck opened up the door and his eyes widened. John Casey was on the other side wearing a brown Marine Service Uniform, gold oak leaf clusters were pinned to his collar and epaulets. Chuck had been correct, Casey was in the military.
They stood looking at each other. Casey was a fraction taller than Chuck so they were almost eyeball to eyeball. Casey had a brown bag in his right hand.
Casey grunted. "I have to meet with a Marine Major-General an hour from now?" He brushed past Chuck into the apartment and grunted. "Close the door Bartowski. We need to talk."
Same Day - November 1, 2006 –Antwerp- 96 Tulpstraat
Chief Inspector Peeters looked at the scene laid out before him with a seasoned eye. He'd been investigating murders for fifteen years. Murders of passion, murders that sprang from greed, and occasionally he'd come across the work of a professional. Cold, methodical and lacking any passion.
Yes, he could see Jens Maes lying on the bed with no shirt and a neat single knife wound on his chest above his heart. But his pants and shoes were still on, if there had been any passion here, it hadn't gone very far.
Outside the bedroom lay the body of Hugo Maes, Jen's brother. He had a single knife wound in his throat. In his right hand was a nine millimeter Beretta. He'd bled out on the carpet.
The room had three forensic technicians scouring the room for clues. Fibres, fingerprints and DNA.
Inspector Peeters recreated the sequence of events in his mind. He suspected the assassin had been a woman. She'd taken out Jens with a single thrust of the knife into the heart. He looked closely at the wound. The woman, the assassin was not afraid of close work.
Hugo may have heard the sound, maybe not, it didn't matter. She took out Hugo as he advanced towards the bedroom. The knife was thrown with considerable accuracy.
The lead technician walked over to the Chief Inspector. "Everything in the bathroom and the bedroom has been wiped down with bleach. Oh, one other thing, the person who did this scraped under Jen's nails and wiped his fingers and mouth with bleach. I'm not hopeful we'll find any DNA."
The Chief Inspector shook his head. The Maes brother's had controlled the drugs going in and out of Antwerp for the last ten years, this would leave a very big power vacuum and the inevitable chaos this sort of thing caused. Next would come the power struggle as wannabe Caesar or Napoleon tried to become the new boss.
The brothers had crossed some invisible line, they'd upset some very powerful people. Perhaps they'd even upset certain governments, the Brits, the French, the Russians or the United States. Each of these countries had specialists who could do this kind of work.
The Chief Inspector would go through the motions, gather up the usual suspects, but knew that this file would never be closed.
Le Bourget Airport, Four Hours Later
Colleen Gains, a young redhead travelling on a Canadian passport returned the rental car to Charles DeGaulle airport and disappeared into the ladies room. The red wig and the green contact lenses were quickly discarded into the garbage bin.
Ten minutes later Sharon Gibson, travelling on a British passport emerged from the ladies room. Her raven colored hair was pulled back in a ponytail and she was wearing a wide brimmed floppy hat that covered her face.
A battered black colored Peugeot, driven by a CIA operative picked Sharon Gibson up at the departure area and took her to Le Bourget Airport, only fifteen minutes away.
Sharon waited in the exclusive private lounge area. She was informed ten minutes later that her private charter, a C5, was ready. She was escorted out to the waiting plane.
Once the plane was in the air, Sarah Walker finally allowed herself to relax. She pulled off the black wig and put it on the seat beside her. She was the only passenger, there would be no interaction with the flight crew. Sarah reflected on her afternoon's work.
She reviewed what had happened. She asked herself the usual questions. What went right? What went wrong? What would I do differently, next time? She pulled out her phone and made some notes. She looked at the pictures of the Maes brothers, Director Graham would want the pictures for the file.
She felt no sympathy for the Maes brothers. They had started talking with the Iranian intelligence group called the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Intelligence (IRCGI)Jens and Hugo had crossed the line from dealing drugs into smuggling arms. The mission had been sanctioned at the highest level.
Graham's final words to her before she set out for the mission had been, "Leave no trace that it was us, we don't want to upset our NATO allies."
A/N- Depending on the interest level out there, I hope this will be about twelve chapters