Leaning over the restroom sink to get closer to the mirror, Sarah deftly applied makeup to conceal the spreading bruise under her right eye. She had to hurry and get back to the prince before he sent someone to look for her. Glad that the long dress would cover her torn stockings, she dabbed a tissue at the slow trickle of blood coming out of her right nostril. The men who had confronted her looked much worse.
There had been two of them. They were now tied back-to-back and securely gagged, crammed into a utility closet in the basement where they probably wouldn't be found until at least tomorrow. Anyway, Sarah hoped so. She had worked too long and too hard building up this mission to see it collapse because of her stupid mistake.
Casey had warned her. He had warned her every chance he got. Finally, she told him to shut up and leave her alone, and saying one word – "Prague" – had done the trick. He didn't refer to it again after that, but occasionally he would stop and give her a look that spoke volumes. And now he had been proven right.
Well, damn Casey and damn them all, she thought as she twisted her neck around to check the back of her dress in the mirror. Wouldn't do to have a giant oil stain on her butt or something like that. Nope, the dress was clean, if a bit wrinkled, and she smoothed it out as best she could.
Her discolored hands wanted to form claws of pain as she forced the fingers and thumbs to spread apart and put pressure on the luxurious silk fabric. Couldn't do anything about the hands now. Maybe just keep a napkin handy to hide them under or rest them in her lap. It shouldn't be too hard now that dinner was over. She could put her elbow-length gloves back on soon. And once they were in the darkened theater, she could maybe massage them to life a bit.
Sarah picked up her evening purse from the counter beside the sink and quickly checked inside to make sure it was still there. Yes, there it was, right beside her cute little gun, and she snapped the clasp closed, stringing the chain strap over her shoulder as she left the washroom to return to the embassy's opulent dining room and the table where the prince was waiting for her to reappear.
"So, my darling, there you are. I was beginning to worry about you," he said as he stood to acknowledge her approach.
"Your Highness," replied Sarah in turn, inclining her head as the waiter pulled her chair out so she could sit again.
"More coffee, perhaps?" inquired the prince, nodding to the waiter, who picked up a silver carafe from a side table, holding the handle in one white gloved hand while supporting the bottom with the other and proffering it in Sarah's direction, waiting for her assent before pouring.
"Yes, please, that would be lovely," said Sarah. Casey approached, picked up Sarah's cup and saucer, and delicately poured the steaming hot beverage into the eggshell porcelain cup, being careful not to splash. He placed the cup and saucer in front of Sarah with a hint of a bow and, torso still bent, walked backwards until he was at the sideboard, where he stood upright again and busily arranged liqueurs and glasses in case they were called for.
Swiveling around to slide her legs out of the open door of the limo, Sarah wasn't surprised to see Casey's arm extended to help her stand. He had changed into an elaborate old-fashioned theater usher's coat with epaulettes and gold buttons with a red braid draped across his chest, a braid-trimmed pillbox hat looking incongruous on such a large man.
Sarah was grateful that she could place her throbbing hand on his elbow for balance instead of taking his hand, and she pulled herself up as gracefully as she could, smiling serenely at the prince, who was already waiting for her on the pavement.
It was a risk for Casey to appear in both locations in such a short space of time, but they were hoping they could rely on a type of server blindness. The prince had so many different assistants, bodyguards and hangers-on around him, he probably wouldn't notice a repeated face. And Casey knew how to appear nondescript when he chose to. And servile. The thought made Sarah grin to herself.
Casey handed Sarah over to the prince, who bowed and smiled charmingly at her as flashbulbs popped. The local press was out in full force and Sarah saw logos from a couple of international news agencies. She might even get her picture in the tabloids. As they made their way up to the door of the theater, among the jostling paparazzi and the bright flashes, Sarah thought for a brief second she had spotted a ghoul, but when she checked again there was no one, and she mentally shook it off, chalking it up to professional paranoia.
Once they had been shown to their private box and the prince had waved regally, accompanied by a loud round of applause from the audience, they settled down, Casey again hovering in the background. The lights dimmed as the last sounds of the orchestra's tuning notes faded to silence. The overture began – La Bohème, the program said – and Sarah, who had never been interested in or entertained by opera, removed her gloves, gingerly rubbed her hands, relaxed as well as she could, and retreated into her mind, going back over what had happened that had led her to this predicament.
Chapter 1: The Mission
Sarah blinked at the beam of bright sunlight that streamed into the room and over the bed through a gap in the curtains. Warm and snug under the duvet, she resisted the thought of getting up and starting her day.
Sarah knew that she was falling into a comfortable rut, and she was beginning to relax and enjoy it. There had been no missions for a few weeks now, and the rhythm of work at the Wienerlicious, hanging out with Chuck, regular meals and particularly her cozy bed had started to soften her up a bit and put her in a constant good mood.
I'll get up, go to the gym, have a good, hard workout and a cold shower, she thought, and then maybe the shooting range with Casey after work.
Snuggling deeper under the covers and letting the sunlight play on her face, she smiled, heaved a sigh of contentment and added to herself, In five minutes.
Chuck was whistling tunelessly through his teeth as he concentrated on loosening the screws from the back plate of Sarah's broken cell phone. She probably could have repaired it herself using the jeweler's tools in the flap under her CIA lock picking set, but this had given her an excuse to come into the Buy More and flirt shamelessly with Chuck, further solidifying their cover.
When Sarah had entered the store, a quick scan had given her the approximate number of customers and their locations relative to the exits and the distribution of green polo shirts throughout the sales floor. Estimating the probability density of people she couldn't see because of shelving or large displays, Sarah had been satisfied that everything was normal and she could quickly take Chuck out through either the main front sliding doors or the back door to the loading dock if it became necessary in an emergency.
Out of the corner of her eye, Sarah had seen Casey in the home electronics section looking her way. He had lifted his eyebrows, rolled his eyeballs towards the ceiling, and shaken his head slowly in cartoon-like exasperation as she had sashayed up to the Nerd Herd counter, her short Wienerlicious skirt twitching from side to side to reveal the maximum amount of long, slim leg. Having placed her cell phone on the counter, she had smiled brightly as Chuck looked up and noticed her there.
"Hey, fella, can you give a girl a hand?" she had asked, her eyes twinkling.
"Ma'am, I currently have two hands available," Chuck had replied, smiling sweetly and joining in her game, "and many other parts not advertised in our weekly Buy More sale flyer. What is your pleasure?"
Feeling suddenly warm and girly, Sarah had admitted to herself she had been out-flirted. Damn, Chuck was good at this. Those brown puppy dog eyes. They were his secret weapon and he wasn't afraid to use them.
Now Chuck, still working on the phone, stopped whistling and, without looking up, hissed to Sarah out of the side of his mouth, "Stop that."
"Stop what?" she asked innocently as she continued to lean farther and farther over the counter, exposing an almost indecent amount of flesh to the rest of the Buy More population behind her.
"I can see what you're doing and it's causing disruption among the staff," continued Chuck, glancing up briefly. Sarah knew he had gotten a good look down the front of her blouse when his cheeks flared pinkly and he quickly turned his attention back to his work, fumbling with the screw driver.
"Yeah, I know," Sarah whispered. "Jeff and Lester have walked around behind me at least three times each now," she reported. Smiling and giggling a bit, she straightened up into a more decorous but no less attractive posture. She turned and, raising her hand to eye level, waggled her fingers at the two men, who nervously busied themselves rearranging some small merchandise and tried to pretend they hadn't been staring at her.
A gruff voice sounded from Sarah's right. "Got a license for that, Walker?" Casey asked as he approached.
"Why, Mr. John Casey, whatever do you mean?" asked Sarah. Turning back to Chuck and batting her eyelids coquettishly, she continued, "Could you be so kind as to tell me what he means, sir? I declare, for the life of me, I do not know!"
Chuck had finished repairing the phone and putting it back together. As he handed it to Sarah, he said seriously, "He means, Scarlett, you'd better take your feminine wiles out of here before you get us both fired. You've had your fun, now scoot!"
Flapping the backs of both hands in her direction, Chuck was beginning to turn around to look after some paperwork when Sarah jumped nimbly into the air and twisted her supple spine to deposit her backside onto the Nerd Herd counter. Leaning towards him, she gave Chuck a quick peck on the cheek. He whipped his head around, startled. Sarah's face was so close to Chuck's they almost bashed noses as she pouted prettily and said, "You're no fun."
Sliding off of the counter and onto the floor once more, Sarah directed her highest-wattage smile in Chuck's direction before turning and walking towards the door, this time adding a springy little bounce to her step so her long blonde pigtails swished in synchronous rhythm with her skirt.
Chuck gulped and watched her leave, his jaw hanging open. After a moment, he collected himself, closed his mouth and turned to Casey, who had been observing the proceedings with an amused smirk on his face.
"Advanced training?" inquired Chuck when he could speak once more.
"Top of her class," replied Casey as he turned to go back to home electronics.
Pleased with herself and her performance, Sarah walked jauntily into the Wienerlicious to find Scooter standing in the middle of the floor glaring angrily at her.
"You're late," he said, arms akimbo as he gave her his most intimidating look.
Sarah, however, was not so easily cowed. Still in an impish and playful mood, she approached Scooter and put the tips of her fingers lightly on his forearm, drawing them slowly down towards his wrist and smiling at him from under lowered lashes. That one usually primed the pump.
"I'm really sorry, Scooter, it won't happen again," she purred, once more enjoying the subtleties involved in the manipulation that was flirting.
But Scooter wasn't buying it.
Sarah's face fell as he turned abruptly away from her, still in complete possession of himself, and stated firmly, "It better not, Missy. You think you can come and go as you please. Well, you can't."
Scooter collected his backpack and bicycle clips from behind the counter and came around to face her again. Sarah, changing tactics and appearing suitably chastened, stood quietly with her head down, concealing her amusement by biting her lower lip as he continued in an angry and superior tone.
"One of these days, Miss High-And-Mighty, it will catch up with you. I told them you weren't Wienerlicious material, but would they listen to me? No."
Head held high, Scooter stalked towards the door. Pausing briefly to turn back and look at Sarah, he added in a very threatening tone, "And just remember, sexual harassment goes both ways, so don't be trying any of that stuff on me again."
Nose in the air once more, he left the restaurant as Sarah clutched her stomach and doubled up in a fit of giggles, supporting herself on a nearby table and wiping tears of laughter from her face. After a moment, she composed herself and went about the business of running the hot dog emporium for the remainder of her shift.
She had barely finished cleaning and wiping the tables and sweeping the floor when she noticed a small red light flashing on the cash register. As she hurried to get behind the counter, Sarah activated the communications portion of her wristwatch and raised it to her mouth.
"Casey, you'd better come over to the Wienerlicious right away. We've got a triple red," she said, a note of anxiety in her voice.
"Roger that," came the reply. "In five."
Just then, a group of six teenaged boys entered, carrying their skateboards and jostling each other to claim the best position from which to gape at Sarah.
"We're closed," she said abruptly as they pressed close to the counter, milling around and bouncing off of each other like puppies in a basket.
"Hey, man, you're not closed," whined one with particularly greasy hair.
"Yeah, Miss," added another, leering at her. "We're hungry. We want something hot."
He waggled his eyebrows suggestively to indicate he wasn't necessarily talking about deep fried corn dogs. This sent the rest of the group into loud cackles and responses of "Yeah, man!" and "You got it, bro," and they high-fived each other at the witticism.
"The lady said," came a low and menacing growl from the doorway, "that she's closed."
Casey, hands on hips, stood and glared at the group of frightened boys, whose bravado had quickly evaporated at the sight of the imposing figure. They quietly sidled around him to escape through the door, turning to stick their tongues out and flip him the finger when they were a safe distance away and on the run.
"Thanks, Casey," said Sarah as she punched the keys that activated the communications monitor hidden under the counter.
Casey joined her, grunting softly before observing, "You could have taken care of those walking hormones with your eyes closed, Walker, but since we're in a hurry, I thought I'd give them a little push. Let's hop to it. I only have a few minutes before I have to get back to the Buy More."
Chuck watched from the sofa as Casey pulled the photo from the color laser printer in his apartment. Sarah stood on the far side of the room nervously biting at the edge of her thumbnail. She hadn't remembered feeling like this for a long time. Something like stage fright mixed with anticipation mixed with dread.
The briefing she and Casey had gotten at the Wienerlicious hadn't revealed too many facts, but General Beckman and Director Graham had indicated in carefully couched language that they were dealing with a very dangerous splinter group whose influence was beginning to be felt far outside of their modest beginnings in Eastern Europe. This could be the big one: the mission that would solidify Sarah's career.
As Chuck reached out to take the photo from the NSA agent, she hurried over to his side, sitting down and placing a hand on his shoulder. Chuck jumped as if from an electric shock and moved away from her about a foot. He had picked up her elevated mood, as he always did, and began to mimic Sarah's symptoms of heightened emotions, his eyes widening and hands twitching.
Casey, the cold water expert, said impatiently, "Will you two cut it out. Walker, let him get on with it."
Sarah's eyes darted upwards and Casey's held them in a warning look. After a moment, she realized he was right and, dropping her gaze and quickly standing, she went around behind the sofa and into the kitchen to await the verdict.
She peeked around the door jamb and jumped back a little, suppressing a cry as she watched Chuck's head slam into the back of the sofa. Trying to ignore the almost overwhelming urge to go to his aid, she was relieved when Casey reached down to steady the trembling man, a look of concern on his face.
"Walker," Casey called out, "come here."
Sarah ran quickly back into the room and around to the front of the sofa. She was shocked to see the change in Chuck. He looked as though he was having a seizure as his head jerked on his neck and his eyes jumped erratically below closed lids.
Sitting beside him again and putting an arm around his shoulders, Sarah held him tightly, her brow furrowed as she willed him to be himself again. After about three long minutes, the paroxysm was over, and Chuck stopped shaking as his eyes opened and his dull, confused gaze took in the room.
Sarah wished that Casey would leave as Chuck, openly weeping now, doubled over sideways, wrapped his arms around her middle and buried his face in the front of her waist, shoulders heaving as he gulped for air. She held him tighter, one hand stroking his dark, unruly curls, and made soft shushing noises, rocking him like a child.
After repeated head indications from Sarah, Casey finally had the good grace to turn away and go upstairs to his bedroom. When he had left, Sarah gently pushed Chuck up into a sitting position, saying softly, "It's okay, Chuck, it's going to be all right. It's over now."
Chuck, his shoulders slumped and his head hanging, wiped at his tear-stained face and mumbled, "No, it's not over. This one is not over."
He picked up the picture, which had fallen face-down onto the floor, and slowly turned it over. Sarah gasped as she finally made sense of the image.
It was a photograph of three men and two women who had been horribly mutilated and strung up in a warehouse. Their faces had been cut but were recognizable. Each still had some shreds of clothing hanging on what was left of the rest of them, and Sarah gasped as she recognized high-ranking insignia from the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard, respectively.