Chuck put the gaming controller down and shut off the computer. Flicking off his Luxo Jr. desk lamp and plunging the room into darkness, he rubbed his dry, tired eyes and yawned while stretching back in the chair and raising his arms over his head. He was just about to close his eyes, relax and indulge himself in a big, drawn-out yawny sound when he noticed a movement in the window of the ground floor apartment opposite.
Must be the new tenant, he thought, closing his mouth and lowering his arms. I wonder what they're like?
Chuck knew he probably shouldn't be spying on his neighbors but the thought only made him chuckle to himself. Spying. Ha!
As he was about to turn away from the window and grope his way over to the bed, Chuck's eye caught a movement in the courtyard to his left. Casey's door opened silently and a tall figure dressed in dark clothes emerged, turning back to close the door and lock it. Moving so as not to be seen from the outside, Chuck repositioned himself for a better view.
The dark figure crept along the shadowy edges of the courtyard, purposely staying out of the light cast by the few ornamental lampposts scattered here and there. As he neared the door of the new neighbor's apartment, it swung open. Chuck could see there was a woman wearing some kind of silky, flowing robe and negligee standing in the doorway but, with the light behind her, he couldn't make out her features.
The man entered the apartment doorway and, as he did, the woman reached up, placed her right hand behind his neck and pulled his head down to hers as his hands slid under her robe and over her hips to find the small of her back. They moved into the apartment entrance fully under the light and, as the woman began to close the door with her left hand, Chuck gasped and raised his hand to his mouth to stifle the sound.
Each of the lover's faces was clearly outlined in the light as Casey kissed the woman deeply, sensuously, pulling her close to his chest in a firm but gentle embrace. They continued to kiss hungrily and, as the door closed, Chuck held his breath, finally letting it out after the light inside had been extinguished.
Chuck turned and leaped onto his bed, flipped over to his back and lay rigid in the dark, his eyes wide. His mind was racing as his heart beat double time. When he had calmed down a little, he began to speak aloud to himself.
"What am I so excited about?" he asked. "Oh, well, yeah, I guess..." he answered himself. "Besides that."
As his mind began to clear a bit more, Chuck realized the adrenaline rush had been a silly overreaction. Casey was entitled to a bit of fun, wasn't he? It didn't seem fair, though, under the circumstances. Chuck had a girlfriend he wasn't allowed to touch and there was Casey getting friendly in the neighborhood. A regular NSA Romeo.
Chuck abruptly turned over onto his side away from the window and pulled the covers up over his head.
"I'm just going to die an old maid or whatever the male equivalent is," he harumphed into his pillow.
As Chuck finally settled down and drifted off to sleep, his last thought surprised him. "For a giant government robot, Casey sure does have some smooth moves."
The next day at lunch, sitting across from Sarah at a table outside the Wienerlicious, Chuck debated whether to tell her what he had seen. Usually he wouldn't hesitate to spill any beans about Casey for a laugh, but the encounter had seemed private somehow. Chuck actually felt as if he were betraying a confidence when he finally blurted out, "Casey's having an affair."
"A what?" asked Sarah, suddenly completely alert.
"I saw him last night kissing the new tenant across the way. I think he stayed there overnight," continued Chuck, his guilty face turned towards the tabletop.
Sarah looked at the top of his head for a moment, thinking rapidly, and then made her own decision.
"It's not an affair, Chuck," she said quietly.
Chuck whipped his head up so fast he hurt his neck. As he raised one hand and rubbed the sore muscle, he asked, "What do you mean it's not an affair? I know what I saw, and it was plenty."
"That's not what I mean," returned Sarah, shifting to sit on the edge of her chair, hunching her torso over the tabletop to get closer to Chuck. Lowering her voice, she explained, "We weren't supposed to let you know. It's part of a mission."
An unbelieving look came to Chuck's face as he leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms in front of his chest. "And what kind of a mission would this be?" he asked, eyebrows raised in indignation. "Close personal interrogation of the neighbors? Liplock survey?"
"Chuck, calm down," said Sarah. "It's not funny."
"As you can see, I'm not laughing," came the retort.
"But you're not listening either and I need you to listen carefully to me now," pleaded Sarah, her brow creased with worry. She caught her lower lip in her teeth for a moment before continuing. "We got intel that that woman is an agent. We don't know who she works for yet. That's part of the mission."
"What the frak is she doing in our apartment complex if she's an agent?" cried Chuck, clearly panicked, as his arms fell to his sides, hands gripping the edges of his chair until his knuckles whitened. "Sarah, that's my home!" His head darted left and right as his eyes wildly searched the area for danger.
Sarah reached her hands out towards him entreatingly. "Chuck, Chuck, it's all right, trust me. Chuck, look at me," she said, gesturing to him to give her his hands.
He turned his head in her direction and focused on her concerned face, her pretty – no, beautiful face, hair blowing in the slight breeze. Letting go of the sides of his chair, he raised his arms up and over the table, grasping her small hands in his. She knows me so well, he marveled, as her steady gaze and steady hands helped him to stop the trembling in his body.
"We couldn't tell you about it because we didn't want you to worry about Ellie and Devon and, like I said, we need to find out who she works for before we know why she's there," said Sarah, continuing to look Chuck straight in the eye. "She may not even be there for you, Chuck. We don't know yet. In the meantime, you have to act as if everything is normal."
"You mean normal as if I didn't have the mother of all government databases in my head?" asked Chuck, his eyes twinkling as his mouth turned up in a smile.
"That's my guy," encouraged Sarah as she pulled her hands back and smiled brightly, showing her crooked teeth.
There was a companionable silence between them as they continued to look into each other's eyes. Suddenly, Chuck felt uncomfortably warm and dropped his eyes to his plate. Picking up his fork, he stabbed it into his lunch.
"So if she's an agent, why didn't I flash when I saw her last night?" inquired Chuck through a mouthful of salad.
"Maybe," posited Sarah, "she's from an agency we didn't have any information on when you downloaded or uploaded or whatever it was that you did. I wasn't told how our side got wind of her initially, but they'd been watching her for a couple of months and found out about plans to move her into the apartment. Casey infiltrated around four weeks ago."
"The sly dog. That's why he kept disappearing!" exclaimed Chuck, dropping his fork. "I asked him about it a couple of times but then I gave up when he wouldn't tell me anything and threatened to get Big Mike to give me restroom cleanup duty."
"Yes, well," interjected Sarah, "we don't usually use the Mata Hari anymore. It's too obvious these days. But our guys said this agent was inexperienced and we didn't have much time to come up with a better plan."
"The Mata Hari? They actually call it that?" said Chuck, laughing. "They're going to have to change it to the 'Mata Hairy' now."
Chuck was gratified when Sarah spit her mouthful of soda halfway across the pavement.
"Ellie, can I ask you something?" inquired Chuck as he dried the dishes Ellie was stacking, dripping, into the dish drainer.
"Sure, little brother," she replied absently, scratching with her thumbnail at some food particles stuck on a platter.
"Please pretend I'm not your little brother for a couple of minutes. No, on second thought, that's not going to help at all," babbled Chuck nervously.
Ellie had finished wiping the platter and, after adding it to the rack, braced her hands on the edge of the sink, elbows locked. She half-turned, fixing Chuck with an expectant Well? look.
"I need your advice," Chuck confessed, "about sex."
"But Chuck," exclaimed Ellie, "what can I tell you about sex? You're not going to say you're a virgin, are you? I wouldn't believe you anyway. The walls in this apartment aren't that thick, and you and Sarah –"
Chuck blushed furiously but he somehow managed to continue, the words tumbling out in an unbroken stream. "Ellie, I can't really explain to you why, but I need some help and it has to do with Sarah, so I thought you might be a little more understanding about it seeing as how you like her so much and –"
Ellie, sensing Chuck's frustration, went into full mothering mode. "Come and sit down, Chuck. I'm listening. I don't know if I can help you, but I'll try," she said, compassionately. Taking the screwed-up dish towel from Chuck's clenched hands, she gently led him by the arm to the living room where they sat down side-by-side on the sofa.
Chuck quickly grabbed a pillow and hugged it to his middle just in case and plunged in. "How does a woman like to be seduced?"
"But, Chuck, you already know how," said Ellie, somewhat confused. "I've heard you and Sarah, I told you, and she seemed to like it very much, if I'm any judge."
Chuck made a mental note to tell Sarah to nix the overacting while trying to think of a clearer way to explain himself.
"I'm talking about lovemaking, not just sex," he said, waving his hand in the air dismissively. "You know, things that make a woman really want more. Or what I mean to say, in fact, really want me. For instance, what about you and Captain Awesome?"
"I take the fifth on me and Devon, is that clear?"
"Loud and clear and, yes, ew," said Chuck, thinking twice, as they both made an identical moué of distaste.
"Well," began Ellie, hitting on a place to begin, "you can do the flowers and candy and dinner and serenade thing." She wiggled her bottom more comfortably into the sofa cushions as she warmed to her topic. "Being a gentleman is good and kissing is always nice."
"No, I'm talking more about technique stuff, like how to kiss and where to put your hands and specific things to do. I'm usually so happy just to be there I never thought about what I could do beyond, you know, the man stuff," said Chuck, forgetting his previous embarrassment.
"Ew again," said Ellie. "Chuck, I don't think I'm the right person to talk to you about sex – Morgan, how long have you been listening?" shrieked Ellie as she propelled herself into the air and backwards about two feet.
"Morgan, so help me!" yelled Chuck, launching himself off the couch and straight towards his best friend, a murderous look in his eye. Morgan beat a hasty retreat down the hall and through Chuck's room with Chuck in close pursuit. The last Chuck saw of him was the bottoms of his sneakers as he dove head-first through the open window.
Early the next morning, the countertop in the Wienerlicious slid smoothly out of the way to reveal a pop-up screen under the light gray laminate. It flickered to life as Sarah, Chuck and Casey lined up shoulder-to-shoulder so they could all see the screen and be captured by the camera at the same time.
"Mr. Bartowski," said General Beckman, visibly startled. "I didn't expect to see you at this briefing."
Chuck leaned forwards, raised his right hand and wagged the index finger at the screen. Glaring intently, he began, "Well, you see, General –"
Casey shot his hand out swiftly and placed it firmly over Chuck's mouth, silencing him except for a muffled squeal of frustration.
"General Beckman, Director Graham," explained Sarah, "it became necessary to apprise Chuck of the current mission in the circumstances."
"And what circumstances would those be, Agent Walker?" asked Director Graham, standing behind the General's chair, an impatient look on his face.
"Well, sir," Sarah continued, "the asset discerned our operative in the course of a tactical deployment."
"Do you mean Chuck saw Major Casey sneaking into the woman's apartment?" said the general dryly, her eyebrows raised.
"Yes, General, I suppose you could put it that way," replied Sarah sheepishly, looking down at the floor.
General Beckman turned her head towards Casey, who was standing expressionless and ramrod straight, his hand still over Chuck's mouth. "Careless of you, Major," was her only comment.
Casey removed his hand from Chuck's face, surreptitiously wiping it on the side of his pants before resuming his at-attention posture with both arms at his sides.
"At ease, Major. I suppose it couldn't be helped in such close quarters," continued the general as Casey snapped into the required stance, legs slightly apart and hands clasped behind his back.
"So where do we go from here? Any suggestions?" asked the director.
Casey finally spoke. "Sir, I suggest Agent Walker refrain from visiting the apartment complex. We may be able to use her later and it also decreases the chances of the hostile making a connection between Walker and the Intersect."
"Good thought, Major," returned the general.
"Yes, ma'am," said Sarah, "and there is something else to explore as well."
Pulling a business card from the pocket of her Wienerlicious uniform, Sarah displayed the printed side to the camera. The word "Beaglestar" could be seen in gold letters above an address.
"Major Casey found it in the agent's apartment," explained Sarah. "I went on the Internet, and it's from a company that programs computer games. We thought it might be helpful if Chuck had a look at it. It may not lead to anything since he didn't flash on the woman herself, but we thought it might be worth a try."
"Well, it's better than nothing at this stage," observed General Beckman. "Proceed."
Sarah handed the card to Chuck, who looked at the embossed text. He immediately began to flash on a series of images, most of them from computer games, some that he was familiar with, some not, with a few other pictures – a snail leaving a long, shimmering trail, a little girl skipping rope, blood cells under a microscope and, for good measure, a Fourth of July parade – scattered randomly throughout.
"Any luck, Mr. Bartowski?" inquired the director when Chuck's eyes had turned back down from inside his skull and his lids had stopped fluttering.
Chuck shook like a wet dog and finally re-focused on the monitor.
"Nothing much that I can make out," he said, placing the card on the counter surface. "Just computer gaming stuff. There were some I didn't know, though. They could be new games still in development."
"Probably images registered during patent filing," interjected Sarah. "Otherwise, I'm sure Chuck would have recognized them."
"You're probably right, Agent Walker," said the general pensively. "Well, you'll just have to go to the location on the card, then, and see what you can see. Take Chuck with you. Since he flashed on the card, maybe there's something that will help us at the site itself."
"Yes, ma'am," chorused Sarah and Casey as Chuck began to bounce excitedly in place.
As soon as the monitor had blackened and slipped back into its slot, Chuck bounded out from behind the counter followed by Sarah and Casey, who moved at a more sedate pace. Chuck turned to the two agents, a look of unbridled joy on his face.
"This is going to be great!" he exclaimed, grabbing Sarah's arms above the elbows and dancing her around and around in a joyous polka.
Sarah couldn't help smiling at his reaction while they spun and bobbed.
Casey's annoyed yelp as he jumped out of their way distracted Chuck enough so that he let Sarah go and stopped dancing.
"These are the guys that wrote High Range Ranger and Last Resort Ridge!" he said, shouting into Sarah's face. "And the other pictures looked stupendous! I can't wait to go there!"
He ran ahead of Sarah and Casey, giving a little leap into the air before running out the door.
Casey and Sarah stood and looked at the door silently for a moment. Turning to face each other, they began a tacit round of Rock, Paper, Scissors, punching their fists up and down three times. Sarah's hand formed a Scissors and Casey's remained in Rock shape.
"Your turn to tell him to stay in the van," said Casey. Smirking happily, he swiveled on his heel and walked out of the Wienerlicious, leaving Sarah standing in the middle of the floor, hands on hips, her face pulled into a frown.
That afternoon at the Buy More, Morgan was cruising the aisles busily intent on doing nothing. The curtains were closed in the Home Theater Room, but as he passed the open door, a glint of light in the darkness caught his eye. He went into the glassed-in room and found a cellophane-wrapped package propped up on the coffee table in the faux living room setup reflecting the light coming in through the door.
"Praise to the powers that be!" he exclaimed, picking up the package and hugging it to his chest, a look of rapture on his face. "Grand Theft Auto IV!"
"Aha! I knew that would get you!" yelled Chuck triumphantly as he jumped up from behind the couch and sprang over to shut the door and flick on the light. "Now we can have a little talk."
"Wait a minute, old pal," said Morgan, nervously looking around the room. "I didn't do it." He cringed fearfully under Chuck's menacing expression and added feebly, "Whatever it is."
"Just what did you overhear of my conversation with Ellie last night?" asked Chuck, staring intently into Morgan's face.
"Nothing, I swear," replied Morgan.
Chuck stared at his friend a moment longer. Grabbing a handful of the collar of Morgan's green Buy More polo shirt, Chuck dragged him over to the curtained window. Pulling the curtain aside abruptly, Chuck gestured to where Casey could be seen extolling the virtues of an expensive stereo system. Casey turned at the movement of the curtain and aimed a nasty glare in their direction before focusing his attention back towards the frightened-looking customer.
"If you don't tell me what you heard right now," spat Chuck from between clenched teeth, "I will go out there and tell Casey who it was that set up the spy camera in the locker room and then broadcast video of him changing his shirt to the HD wall."
"Hey, I sold three sets because of that – ow! Okay, okay, stop!" Morgan winced as Chuck raised his arm into the air for a moment, forcing the shorter man up onto his toes. "I really didn't hear anything. Just that you and Ellie were talking about S-E-X."
"That's more like it," said Chuck, finally releasing his friend. "And you're not going to say anything about it to anyone from here on out, right?" he continued sternly.
"Right, right," replied Morgan, massaging his neck, "nothing to anybody else from here on out," he echoed quietly, carefully avoiding Chuck's eyes. "Can I go now?"
"Yes, go," said Chuck dismissively, still a little miffed by the previous evening's encounter.
Grabbing up the computer game package that he had dropped, Morgan skittered out through the door and into the main body of the store. As he was leaving, he could hear Chuck saying, "By the way, that's not a real game. It's a display mock-up. I put it through the cellophane re-wrapper."
Chuck smiled with satisfaction as Morgan's piteous wail sounded throughout the Buy More.
Anna idly watched out of the corner of her eye from her perch on the Nerd Herd counter as Chuck made adjustments to a digital camera. She barely paused in her nail filing when Lester and Jeff sidled up to the counter near Chuck.
"We heard you needed some advice," said Lester, brushing his hair out of his eyes.
"Yeah, some solid, foolproof advice," added Jeff, fixing Chuck with his usual watery gaze.
"Oh, no," Chuck groaned, "not you guys too. Does everybody know?"
"Yes," stated Anna calmly.
Both Jeff and Lester opened their mouths to continue but Chuck forestalled them by shooting his palms towards each of their faces and exclaiming, "No, no, nyet, no way, not now, not ever. Understood? The only person here I might take advice from about sex is Anna anyways."
The three men turned to Anna, all of them interested in what she had to say. Taking her time to put the emery board into her handbag and brush imaginary creases from her skirt, Anna finally raised her eyes to them.
"If you respect the other person and yourself, everything else falls into place," she said succinctly.
Sliding off of the edge of the counter, she left them gaping at her retreating back as she walked away to help a customer.
"She truly is a woman among women," said Lester, a look of wonderment on his face.
Chuck stood in his bedroom, his face turned to the ceiling. "Casey, if I can come over now, open your door," he said into the air.
Leaning out of his window, Chuck could see Casey's door swing open. Folding his lanky frame almost in half, Chuck climbed through the window and out into the courtyard. After a last quick check of the area to confirm that nobody was around, Chuck turned and walked towards the open door, entering the agent's apartment.
After Chuck had gotten well into the little foyer area, Casey appeared from behind the door, pushing it shut with one hand and shoving a handgun into his belt with the other.
"This had better be important, Intersect, I've got things to do," snarled Casey as he resumed packing a foam-lined case with various guns, knives and smoke bombs for the stakeout later that evening.
"Casey, the other night, when I saw you with that woman agent –"
"Yeah, I must say, Chuck, at least your spying skills are improving," broke in Casey. "I didn't even know you were looking."
"But that's the thing," explained Chuck, his arms gesturing in a wide sweep to both sides, "I didn't mean to be spying, but what I saw, well, it was pretty astounding."
Casey paused in his work and raised his head, a wary look on his face. "And just what does that mean?" he asked.
"It's just that, well, you were pretty much in control there, and if I could just find out what it is you do, you know, when you do what it is you do," finished Chuck weakly as Casey's expression changed to one of disbelief.
"Let me get this straight, Bartowski, are you asking me about sex?" asked Casey, shoving his face menacingly close to Chuck's.
"Er, yes," replied Chuck, drawing his hands up to protect his chest and falling back a pace.
"Even if I wanted to, Intersect – which I don't – I can't. It's classified," explained Casey, returning to his packing.
"What do you mean classified?" It was Chuck's turn to be incredulous. "How can it be classified?"
"Anything I learned in training is classified information," explained Casey calmly, pulling the lid of the silver case closed and snapping the locks into place.
"Anything you learned – you mean you took Seduction 101 at spy school?" asked Chuck, his voice rising as he jockeyed around Casey, who was turning away to go into the kitchen.
The man stopped and, putting his hands on his hips, replied sarcastically, "Got it in one, Einstein." He stepped around Chuck and continued into the other room.
Chuck turned and followed on his heels as Casey opened the fridge and pulled out bread, cheese, lettuce, cold meats and condiments, arranged them neatly on the island countertop, and began to prepare a stack of sandwiches.
"But let's just say, for the sake of argument, if a guy like me happens to find himself in the position of bringing a girl home who wants to, you know, in theory, get to know me better –" began Chuck.
"Then I'd say, in theory, she was pretty desperate," interrupted Casey, buttering the bread slices and ripping lettuce leaves to place on top of them.
"Don't put the lettuce next to the butter," directed Chuck as he leaned backwards and rested his elbows on the counter beside the sink.
"For instance," Chuck continued, "what's the best way to get a woman to relax and feel comfortable being there?"
"Sedatives are out, I gather?" inquired Casey, pausing and turning his head to look at Chuck over his shoulder.
"Lord have mercy, yes, sedatives are out!" exclaimed Chuck, horrified, as he stood straight up and frowned at Casey's back. "Who do you think I am, Bluebeard?"
"Just askin'," answered Casey congenially as he dipped a knife into the mustard jar.
"No, no, no!" exclaimed Chuck, grabbing the knife and jar from Casey's hands. "That's not right. Bread, butter, cheese, meat, mustard, lettuce, bread. I guess there's something you didn't learn at James Bond Academy after all."
Taking over the task, Chuck deftly built the sandwiches and popped them into plastic containers as Casey collected juice boxes and napkins to include in a food cooler. After tidying up the counter, Casey picked the cooler up and took it into the living room, placing it on the table beside the arms case.
Chuck, coming into the living room behind him, tried again, saying, "Just pretend you're a regular guy for a moment, Casey. I mean, you weren't always this muscular, attractive, globe-trotting man of action, were you?"
The flattery seemed to work as Casey turned to Chuck and waited patiently to hear what he had to say.
"So there's a woman, right," continued Chuck, "and I want to give her the kiss of a lifetime. What should I do? Should I hold her like this?"
Chuck reached out with both arms and moved towards Casey who, without changing expression, grabbed onto the extended left wrist and spun it around at a dizzying speed, whirling Chuck like a top and forcing the arm up behind his back. Hustling a startled Chuck quickly towards the door, Casey opened it with his free hand, pushed hard, and propelled the younger man through it, slamming the door shut as Chuck stumbled into the courtyard.
Casey, re-tucking his shirt and adjusting his belt, turned back into the living room, where he was busy checking his bullet-proof vest and making sure his favorite stakeout hat and shoulder holster were at the ready when a red activation light on his surveillance system started to flash rapidly. Picking up the headphones and sliding them over his ears, Casey could hear Chuck's voice clearly.
"Don't forget the pickles," it said.
Sarah turned the steering wheel and expertly maneuvered the van into a spot across the street from the low beige brick office complex. As she put the vehicle into park, turned off the engine and unfastened her seatbelt, Casey, who was sitting in the front passenger seat, reached into a canvas bag at his feet and pulled out binoculars, raising them to his eyes and training them on the entrance to the building.
"Yep, that's it, Beaglestar," he stated, reading the name painted on the glass door. "Now we'll just wait a bit and see if there's any action."
"Are you flashing on anything, Chuck?" asked Sarah, turning around to look into the back of the van.
Chuck raised his head from behind the open lid of the food cooler and mumbled through a mouthful of sandwich, "Huh? Oh, no, not so far, but then I haven't actually seen the place yet."
"Bartowski, the food is for later," said Casey as he stood up, hunched over to avoid hitting the roof of the van, and moved into the back area with its array of video and audio surveillance equipment.
"Okay, okay, don't get excited, Komandant Klink," Chuck responded sarcastically. "I guess I forgot to read the stakeout procedures manual about nutritional distribution."
"Section 4, paragraph 3(c)(vi)," announced Casey so seriously that Chuck couldn't tell whether he was kidding or not.
At that moment, Sarah made out some movement down the street on the sidewalk opposite. A man wearing a Lakers jacket and baseball cap approached the building and turned onto the pathway to the glass entrance of the Beaglestar building.
"Here we go," said Casey, putting on a pair of headphones and activating the powerful video cameras and audio pickups that were concealed at different points on the outside of the van. Four small television screens displayed video from the front, rear and sides of the vehicle as the red needles of four audio tracks jumped to life.
Chuck and Sarah moved to standing positions behind Casey as he zoomed one of the cameras in on the face of the man, who was now searching for keys in his messenger bag.
Seeing the face, Chuck exclaimed, "Hey, I know that guy!"
Without pausing to ask permission, Chuck slid the van's side door open and jumped out onto the sidewalk. He flung the door closed again and sprinted around the back of the van and across the street, waving and shouting, "Steve, Steve!"
Casey and Sarah watched the monitor screen in horror as Chuck reached the other man, who spun around in surprise. Recognizing Chuck, the man gave a loud whoop, and they wrapped each other in a big bear hug, large smiles wreathing their faces.
Sarah quickly donned a pair of headphones and heard the other man exclaim, "Chuck Bartowski, it's great to see you again! Man, it's been years!"
"More than six years, Steve-a-roo!" said Chuck. I can't believe it's you. What have you been up to?"
Steve gestured proudly towards the building. "This is mine, Beaglestar," he replied. "I started it in my parents' basement and finally grew it enough to get my own building."
"That is so cool," said Chuck without a trace of envy. "Hey, show me around, will you? Ten cent tour?"
"You got it, Chuck-a-luck," Steve said, turning to the door to fit the key into the lock.
Chuck followed the man into the building and they were soon out of sight and out of audio range around a corner.
Casey and Sarah removed their headphones slowly and turned their faces to look at each other.
"Stay in the van, Chuck?" Sarah whispered forlornly.
Sarah sat in the front passenger seat reading a magazine by pencil flashlight while Casey remained in the back monitoring the video and audio equipment.
"Are you getting hungry?" asked Casey as he left his chair and went over to the cooler.
"I'm fine, thanks. Help yourself," replied Sarah, turning over another page.
Suddenly, the van's side door whipped open to reveal Chuck, one arm loaded with plastic computer disk cases. He jumped up in the air and almost dropped them all when he looked into the van to see two agents with guns trained on him.
"Hey, guys, it's just me!" announced Chuck.
Casey grunted and Sarah sighed as they holstered their guns and helped Chuck into the van.
"So what happened in there?" inquired Sarah. "We lost surveillance when you went into the building."
"Yeah, sorry about that," replied Chuck. "I was just so excited to see Steve. I didn't know he owned that company. I flashed a bit as we were looking around but there was nothing new. He gave me these cool games to beta test. And you'll be glad to know I found out why that lady agent is hanging around."
"Why?" asked Sarah eagerly.
"Not so fast," said Chuck, raising his hands in front of himself dramatically. "This spying stuff is hungry business. I want a sandwich first before I tell you."
"Bartowski, you're a piece of work," growled Casey. He did, however, get the sandwiches and drinks out and passed them around, wolfing his first one down and grabbing a second.
After Chuck had wiped some crumbs from his mouth with a paper napkin and taken the last sip of his apple juice, he began to tell his story.
"Steve and I were at Stanford together. He was a programming major and he was always at the computer. Anyways, he came up with some ideas for video games, programmed them, and now he owns this company," finished Chuck with a smile.
"Yes, but how does that connect him with the agent at your place?" asked Sarah.
"Ah, that's the interesting thing. He doesn't know there's any connection to me," replied Chuck.
"You didn't ask him directly, did you, Bartowski?" asked Casey, raising himself off of his chair slightly in alarm.
"Keep your shirt on, Major," replied Chuck cockily. "I've learned a thing or two since I've been hanging around you guys, you know. I asked him about new developments and what they have in the works, and he told me that his R&D department was up to something but they weren't giving him too many details about it. That way, he can deny knowledge if anything goes wrong."
"Go on," prompted an absorbed Sarah, leaning closer in anticipation.
"Well," Chuck continued, "he told me the only thing he knew was they had mentioned something in a meeting recently about the possibility of using a corporate spy because of some exciting new database development they had heard a rumor on. Steve okayed the budget but then forgot about it. He only remembered yesterday when he got a report across his desk that said the spy hadn't found anything yet."
"So I still don't see why a computer game company would be interested in your head, Intersect," said Casey, frowning.
"Steve was in a few of Professor Fleming's lectures with me before he dropped out of the course. He said he remembered the professor talking about vast data storage capabilities. I guess he thought it might be some new technology Beaglestar could exploit," mused Chuck. "And I'm pretty sure they don't know anything about my head. Steve said he thought a database that big would be housed in a giant computer in a commercial complex or something."
"He didn't seem to be too interested, anyway," added Chuck. "In college, he only cared about programming, so I guess he just hires people to do the other stuff now."
"Well, that's it, then," said Casey, standing up as far as he could in the van and turning off the surveillance equipment. "Time to go into phase three."
"What's phase three?" asked Chuck, nonplussed.
"Cleanup," informed Sarah as she got into the driver's seat, clicked her seatbelt into place and started the van for the trip home.
Casey and Sarah were alone in the Laundromat as Casey reached into the clothes dryer and pulled out a heap of hot garments, placing them into the laundry basket at his feet. He closed the dryer door, picked up the basket, turned and deposited it on top of the large table in the middle of the room beside Sarah, who was sitting on the tabletop, idly dangling her jeans-clad legs over the edge.
"Are those new shoes, Walker? They're nice," observed Casey as he began to sort and fold his clothes.
"See, that's why the women fall for your charms," said Sarah, smiling at her sarcastic jab.
"Well, that's part of it," began Casey. "But I don't think you're mature enough to hear about the rest."
Casey grinned in Sarah's direction as she stuck her tongue out at him in an admission of defeat.
"So do you really think..." began Sarah, trailing off and lowering her eyes.
"Do I really think what?" queried Casey, smoothing the wrinkles from a blue denim shirt and carefully flipping the sleeves towards the center with one hand while using his other palm as a guide at the shoulder seam.
"Do you really think that it's a good plan?" Sarah looked up with a furrowed brow as Casey continued to concentrate on his folding.
"Of course it's a good plan, Walker. Why wouldn't it be a good plan?" he shot back, finally diverting his attention from his task to look at Sarah fully.
"It's just that Chuck is – well, you know, Chuck is a good guy," she explained, "and I'm not sure he understands that sometimes in our jobs –"
"Oh, boo-hoo," snarked Casey. "Are we afwaid Chucky's widdow feewings will get hurt?"
"Be serious, Casey," Sarah snapped back, incensed. "Chuck's the kind of person we're supposed to be protecting. And not just because he has the Intersect in his head but because he's a good, decent person with a good family who deserves the kind of life where he doesn't have to deal with dishonesty and deceit every time he turns around."
"We're in it up to our necks all the time. It's no wonder we're so cynical," she added, jumping off of the table and turning her back on Casey.
"Hey, Walker, no need to get all huffy. And, yes, I think it's a good plan because (a) it's the only one we've got and (b) we've got to get it done fast before this agent discovers anything," replied Casey, ticking the reasons off on his fingers as Sarah turned back around to face him.
"And (c)..." he began.
"What's (c)?" asked Sarah, her curiosity piqued.
"And (c) it should be fun," answered Casey with a diabolical look on his face.
"You truly are evil, you know that?" commented Sarah, pulling some clothes out of the basket to help with the folding.
"Hey, not those!" exclaimed Casey, snatching at the boxers covered in baseballs and bats that Sarah was holding up in the air with both hands.
She giggled as he grabbed them from her hands, folded them quickly and stuffed them into the bottom of the basket.
"Have some respect. Those are my favorites," he added, a slight grin turning up the corners of his mouth as he resumed his folding.
Casey leaned over Chuck's shoulder from behind the chair, reaching out to flip a toggle switch on a machine covered in various meters and small lights. Chuck, sitting in front of the computer that regulated Casey's surveillance equipment from the apartment, listened intently as Casey explained how everything worked.
"Got it, genius?" inquired Casey after rapidly going over the various menus in the software.
"Yes, sir!" replied Chuck, raising his right hand to his forehead in a mock salute. "Easy-peasy."
Casey straightened and, folding his arms in front of his chest, a skeptical look on his face, said tersely, "Show me."
Chuck proceeded to recite almost verbatim the instructions Casey had given him, clicking menus open and closed with the mouse so fast they almost blended one into the other.
"How's that?" inquired Chuck, his eyes glued intently to the computer screen.
"Hmmmph," grunted Casey. "Good enough, I suppose," he continued gruffly to mask the expression of admiration on his face. "Well, let's make sure Walker is in place and then we're good to go."
Chuck started to get out of the chair to let Casey take over when he felt a firm hand on his shoulder push him back down. Chuck turned and looked quizzically at the agent, who gestured to Chuck to put on the mic-and-headphone set and stated, matter-of-factly, "Go ahead, sport, this is your operation."
Turning back to the equipment and putting on the headphones, Chuck was excited and nervous at the same time. He felt like he had just gotten a field promotion or something and began to let his mind wander to visions of directing vast government operations when Casey's voice brought him back to the present by barking out, "Focus, Bartowski! I'm only letting you do this because we don't have time to bring in a real agent without risking tipping off the target!"
Chuck's imagination plunged back to reality, and he typed the correct key sequence to hail Sarah, who was scheduled to be waiting in her car parked on the street outside.
"Dr. Watson, this is Baker Street. Come in, Dr. Watson," said Chuck in a fair imitation of the flat-voiced patter he had heard pilots use in radio communication on television.
"Dr. Watson, Baker Street?" came the response over the headphones and through a speaker to the open air. "What's Casey's code name, then?" Sarah's amused voice inquired.
"Why, Sherlock, of course," said Chuck.
"What about yours?"
Casey picked up a table mic, activating it with his thumb. "Mrs. Hudson," he got in quickly before Chuck could respond.
Chuck frowned momentarily as Sarah's peal of laughter sounded in his ears.
"And my activation?" she inquired, the sound of a lingering grin evident in her tone of voice.
Chuck smiled slowly and replied, "The game's afoot."
"Speaking of code words, when I've got the information I need and I want you to radio Sarah to do her thing," said Casey, "I'll say 'That's an interesting story.' If I get in trouble – which I don't anticipate – you'll hear 'I think it's time I got going.' If I say that, and only if I say that, you should contact General Beckman. Got it?"
"Yes, I've got it," said Chuck, making a note of the phrases on a pad of paper on top of the desk.
Casey turned towards the apartment door to begin the final leg of the mission when Chuck's question made him stop and turn.
"I'm finally getting in on the real action with all this surveillance and code words and everything," he began, looking up at Casey, puzzled, "but why can't you just take a radio with you and call Sarah yourself?"
"You really want me to spell it out, Bartowski?"
Chuck raised his eyebrows and spread his hands in the air in front of himself in a gesture of assent.
"Because, Mrs. Hudson, when the moment comes, I may not have any convenient spot to hide a radio," came the explanation.
Comprehension dawned on Chuck's reddening face as Casey turned to resume his interrupted departure.
"Now, pay attention to your job and don't screw up," added Casey over his shoulder as he went out and closed the door behind him.
Chuck watched the three video images of Casey taken from three different directions walk across the courtyard to the neighbor's apartment. A soft rap sounded in Chuck's ears as Casey knocked on the door. It opened almost immediately, which meant the woman must have been waiting for the big man's arrival. After the door closed, there was no more movement on the video monitors, but Chuck could hear two voices becoming louder as the pair moved into the apartment.
"You've been away so long," the woman purred, a sultry smile in her voice.
"Not so long," replied Casey, sounding as if he must have been smiling too.
Chuck wished he had video from the inside of the apartment so he could see if Casey's face would crack from smiling for more than a couple of seconds, but then he quickly took the wish back as more intimate sounds started coming over the machinery.
"He sure doesn't waste any time," said Chuck to Sarah, absently.
"Radio silence, Mrs. Hudson," returned Sarah in a hard professional tone. "And, yeah, no sense wasting time," she continued in her regular Sarah voice.
How does anyone do this without going crazy? thought Chuck as footsteps and giggles ran through his head, fading out and then growing louder again as they neared the pickup in the bedroom.
Chuck was beginning to squirm as the things he was hearing became more heated and excited. Jumping out of his chair and walking away from the computer as far as the headphone cord would allow, then pacing back and forth like a dog tied to a post, Chuck tried to shut out what he was hearing while at the same time listening for Casey to utter one of the code phrases. He pushed the microphone out of the way of his mouth, wiping one hand over his eyes and down his nose, holding it tightly over his mouth as the sounds of passion reached a crescendo.
Finally, there was silence except for heavy breathing that gradually lessened. Then the click of a door closing. Then water running. Then a toilet flushing – oh, not water, then. Now the water, a click again, and the woman's voice.
"Oh, John, I'm so glad we met. I know it hasn't been very long since that night in the bar, but I feel really good about us."
"What do you mean, pumpkin?" came Casey's voice.
Chuck made a face and repeated, "Pumpkin?"
"What's that, Mrs. Hudson?" asked Sarah.
Chuck quickly replied, "Nothing, nothing, just thinking about Hallowe'en," and he winced, hoping that Sarah would buy it.
"Chuck, shhh," was all she said.
"Well," the female agent continued, "when I first moved in here after we had only just met I wasn't sure how things would work out. Now they seem to be going just fine."
Chuck judged by the sounds he was now hearing that some snuggling must be going on and he hoped it didn't mean an instant replay.
He was in luck, however, when Casey stated, "Yeah, that was a real coincidence, you moving into my apartment building when you didn't even know where I lived."
"Well," exclaimed the woman, becoming excited, "I actually only moved in here to do a job. When it's done, I'll have to leave again."
"A job? What kind of a job?" Casey's voice sounded so innocent and so unlike his usual cynical snarl that Chuck wasn't sure for a moment that he was listening to the same person.
"You'll never believe it," the woman said eagerly. "I've been hired by a computer game programming firm to find out some information for them. I'm a corporate spy!"
"I'll only be here until I find out what they need to know," she continued. "Then I can go home again. But maybe I'll just stay now that we're together."
More kissing and nuzzling sounds floated through the wires.
"That's an interesting story," came Casey's voice.
Chuck had become so absorbed in the little audio drama playing out, it didn't register right away that Casey had said one of the code phrases. Starting as if he had been stuck by a pin, Chuck flipped the microphone back into place in front of his mouth and said, "Dr. Watson, time for a house call."
Sarah's flat voice came back with, "Do you by any chance mean the game's afoot, Mrs. Hudson?"
"Yeah, right, the feet – the game – oh, just get in there Sarah!" Chuck babbled.
Sarah stood in the courtyard pounding on the hostile agent's door.
"John, I know you're in there! Come out this instant!" she screamed furiously, scaring Chuck a bit with the intensity of her staged anger as he watched and listened over the monitors.
Casey opened the door wearing only his pants and gave Sarah and Chuck a thumbs up that couldn't be seen from behind him. The woman, wearing the flowing silk robe that Chuck had seen her in that first evening, appeared from behind Casey at his elbow and asked, "Who is this, John?"
"This," replied Sarah pointedly, "is his girlfriend, that's who this is!"
Chuck smiled at the sight of Sarah, who resembled nothing so much as a small, angry terrier that has scented a rat, grabbing towards the woman's hair as Casey struggled to hold her back.
"Pumpkin, pumpkin," he pled with Sarah as the neighbor's expression changed from fear to indignation.
"Pumpkin! You can't call her that! You call me that!" shrieked the woman, turning around and going back into the apartment.
Chuck could hear footsteps through his headphones as the woman returned to the bedroom. Moments later, the footfalls were coming back down the stairs and she reappeared in the doorway, her arms full of the rest of Casey's clothes.
"I don't want you to touch me ever again!" she yelled as she shoved the bundle into his arms. "In fact, I don't ever want to see you again! In fact, I'm leaving!"
Once again going into the apartment, she slammed the door with so much force that it caused Chuck to jump from the reverberation in his ears.
Sarah and Casey made their way across the courtyard to Casey's apartment, Casey shrugging into his shirt as he walked. By the time they had come into the apartment and shut the door, Chuck had removed the headphones and placed them on the desk, shoving them as far away from himself as possible.
Casey appeared completely unruffled by the experience and Sarah was actually smiling as she went into the kitchen and plugged in the kettle. Chuck's nerves were shattered as he sat on the ottoman, his head in his hands, trying to process what had just happened.
When he raised his head it was to see Sarah standing in front of him offering a steaming cup of coffee, just the way he liked it, milk and one sugar. Casey had finished dressing and was sitting in front of the console checking to make sure the equipment was in order.
"I think I just aged ten years," observed Chuck, sipping his coffee as Sarah sat on the couch watching him over the rim of her cup.
A half hour later, there was a rapping on Casey's door. Chuck, Sarah and Casey froze in place and looked towards the sound for a moment.
"I know you're still in there, John," came the female agent's voice through the door.
Casey put his finger to his lips and turned on the recording equipment, making sure the room speaker was off first. A red flashing light and thin dancing needle indicated it was working.
I'm leaving now," the voice on the other side of the door continued, sobbing slightly. "Not that you'll care. I was just a bit of fun, I see that now. But I was falling in love with you, John Casey."
The video monitor showed the woman with bent head and shaking shoulders standing in the doorway for a minute more. Then, stooping to pick up her luggage, she turned away and walked down the passage to the street.
Sarah watched for Chuck's reaction out of the corner of her eye. It wasn't good. A single tear rolled down his cheek, and he wiped it away with the heel of his hand, looking down at the floor to try to conceal the motion.
Casey, meanwhile, was checking over the equipment again, a neutral expression on his face, much like a person tidying their desk at the office as a matter of routine.
"Come on, Chuck, let's go," said Sarah, gently disentangling the handle of the coffee cup from Chuck's tight fingers. "Let's get you home."
She pulled him to his feet and led him to the door. They went out into the courtyard and Casey closed and locked the door behind them as they continued slowly to Chuck's apartment and went inside.
Once Sarah and Chuck had left, Casey, after clicking the final lock into place, paused in the foyer and leaned forwards to place his forehead on the inside of the door. He closed his eyes and sighed and, hands still on the lock and door handle, let his shoulders sag and allowed the sadness to fill him up. After about a minute he stood upright again, straightened his shoulders and arranged his face into its usual neutral expression, turned back into the apartment and poured himself a cup of coffee from the carafe that Sarah had prepared.
Sarah stood in Chuck's room, her back towards him, trying to think of something to say that would help Chuck put his world back in order. Suddenly, she felt Chuck's warm hands on her shoulders as he pulled her back to his chest. She relaxed against him, giving in to the rare sensation of warmth and security and comfort. He lowered his head and rubbed his cheek under her right ear as she closed her eyes, a happy smile blossoming on her face.
When she felt Chuck's breath on her earlobe as he opened his mouth a little to begin kissing her, she summoned her resolve and pulled away, turning around to face Chuck, a petulant, rebellious look on his face.
"No, Chuck," she said as tenderly as she could.
"Why not? Why not?" he demanded loudly, balling up his fist and punching the outside of his thigh in frustration. "You'd do it for a mission, wouldn't you?" he demanded, crazed by his confused emotions.
"Chuck, that's not fair," returned Sarah, her eyes flashing angrily. "This is different, and you know it!"
"I know it's different!" cried Chuck, now completely out of control. "I do what you want so you don't have to trick me into it! Do this, Chuck, flash on that, Chuck, don't get in the way, Chuck, that's a good boy, Chuck! Well, I can't handle it anymore, Sarah!"
"I'm sorry, Chuck, I can't deal with you when you're like this," replied Sarah as she ran from the room, tears that Chuck couldn't see welling up in her eyes.
Chuck stood in the middle of the floor, emotionally spent as he looked out his window and watched Sarah running across the courtyard towards the pathway leading out of the complex.
After a couple of minutes, he once again directed his face towards the ceiling as though he were addressing the heavens.
"Did you hear that, Casey? I was asking you what you know about seduction. I should have been asking you what you know about self-preservation," said Chuck sadly, flopping down on his bed and covering his face with a pillow.