Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
The Twilight Twenty-Five
Pen name: Legna989
"What are you doing up this early?" my roommate, Alice, asked as I stumbled to the kitchen for coffee. "I thought you didn't have anything until the afternoon on Mondays." Alice, of course, was her normal, perky self, despite it being the ungodly hour of 5:30 a.m.
"I usually don't." Alice waited expectantly while I yawned widely. "Mike's leaving this morning for New York, so I'm meeting him for breakfast before he has to catch the train, and then I'm meeting Eric at the lab at nine. The deadline for our grant proposal is tomorrow, and we need to verify our final numbers."
"Well, that's… nice. How long is Mike going to be gone?"
"Just for the week. We're supposed to have dinner on Friday after he gets back."
"So, things are going well with you guys, then?"
"Things are fine, Alice. You can quit fishing for information; there's not much to tell."
"You've been seeing each other since the end of August. That's almost two months! There has to be something to tell," Alice cajoled.
"There really isn't. You know how busy I've been with school, and despite being an economist, Mike doesn't exactly work banker's hours," I responded. "He's a nice guy, Alice, and things are fine. But that's it."
"'Fine' isn't exactly a gushing report, Bella," Alice said, somewhat snidely.
"I think you're more invested in this than I am," I muttered.
"Well, I am the one who introduced you. I need to know that my matchmaking skills are up to par."
"The jury's still out on that one, I'm afraid." Seeing Alice's mouth open to reply, I cut her off. "Things are fine, Alice. We're still just getting to know each other."
Alice's eyes narrowed, but she let it go. "What time are you meeting him?"
"Six fifteen, which means I have to go," I answered, grateful for the reprieve from the conversation despite the early hour.
"Have a fine time at breakfast, Bella," Alice teased as I grabbed my jacket and messenger bag from the row of hooks by our front door.
I rolled my eyes and laughed. "I will. Have a good day. See you tonight?"
"I'll be home late, but yeah, I'll see you tonight," Alice replied.
I thought about my conversation with Alice as I walked the three blocks from our apartment to the Dupont Circle Metro station. Things were fine with Mike, but only just fine. He was a reasonably attractive guy, as well as sweet and attentive. His work as an economist wasn't particularly interesting to me, but he was enthusiastic about it. Anyone would consider him a catch.
Alice clearly did. After she met him at one of her lobbyist functions, she practically fell over herself wanting to introduce me to him.
"He's cute, Bella," Alice had told me. "And he's smart, gainfully employed, and upwardly mobile. What more could you want in a guy?"
What more could I want? As I considered all of Mike's good points, I started to think maybe there was something wrong with me.
I contemplated that further as I rode the red line from Dupont Circle to Union Station. Generally, I liked my life.
I lived with Alice, whom I'd met when we were lab partners for Bio 100 at Arizona State University. I had an affinity for science, and as a Poli Sci/Communications double major, she did not. I helped her get through the class while she helped me come out of my shell a bit. We roomed together for the last three years of college, and when Alice lined up a job as a lobbyist in D.C., I decided to go to George Washington University for a Master Degree in biological sciences.
I was now on the opposite side of the country from both of my parents, but we spoke on the phone regularly and I had good relationships with them. I was no social butterfly, but I was no wallflower, either. I'd dated a few guys in undergrad and had been asked out by a few different people since living in D.C. I found my field of study interesting and challenging.
So why did I feel like everything in my life—not just Mike—was simply "fine"? As I glanced around the metro car, I felt a little guilty about my internal whining. Times were tough for a lot of people, and here I was, complaining because my life wasn't… what? Exciting enough?
I shook off those thoughts and vowed to greet Mike with a little more enthusiasm. Maybe if I put a little more effort into it, things would go from fine to great. Or at least good.
"It was really nice of you to meet me this morning, Bella," Mike told me as we rose from our tiny table at Starbucks.
"Well, you know, you're going to be gone for a week, so…" I trailed off, unsure of how to finish my statement. I couldn't say that I was going to miss him, but it felt like I should. Despite my resolve to be more enthusiastic about things with Mike, within five minutes of getting our coffee and pastries, I was back to feeling like there was just no real excitement.
"I know. And I'll be sitting in boring meetings and strategy sessions daydreaming of your pretty face every day," Mike said.
I blushed, not from the compliment, but from the guilt I felt that I had no reciprocating sweet comment to make to him. Instead, I simply thanked him.
"We're still on for dinner on Friday, right?" Mike asked.
"Absolutely," I confirmed. "Eight o'clock at that Ethiopian place in Adams Morgan."
Mike smiled. "It's a date."
He gave me a kiss on the cheek before heading toward the Amtrak platforms, dragging his suitcase behind him. I sat back down and glanced at my watch. Ten minutes to seven. I sighed, thinking about how to fill the two hours I had before I needed to be on campus. I had brought my laptop and course materials with me, so I didn't really need to go home, and I didn't want to deal with Alice any more this morning before she left for work.
With Amtrak, commuter rail lines, the Metro and various shops and restaurants, Union Station was always pretty busy, even early in the morning, so I settled on just walking around for a little while. Maybe aimless wandering would help me find the spark I seemed to have lost.
Apparently, I took the "aimless" idea a little too far, because I was so lost in thought that I didn't notice the moderate surge of people coming up from the Metro until I was in the middle of it. I swerved to dodge a very determined-looking woman in a skirted suit and tennis shoes, and was nearly knocked on my ass by a tall man in a somewhat rumpled suit. To my surprise, the man wrapped his arm around my shoulder as he turned me to walk with him.
"Excuse me!" I said as I tried to pull away.
His arm only tightened around me as he glanced over his shoulder. "Just walk with me," he said through a clenched jaw.
"I'm sorry, but I don't know you," I protested.
"I know, and I'm sorry to bother you, but I'm desperate here. I need your help."
I turned my head to look at him as best I could with him holding me so tightly against his side. He was incredibly handsome, with disheveled bronze hair and a jaw that could cut glass. But I had no idea who he was or what he wanted.
"I don't know if I have time-" I started.
He stopped walking and turned to face me. "Please," he begged.
The look on his face was both pleading and calculating, and I was more than a little unnerved. But I was also slightly dazzled by his vibrant green eyes, which is the only reason I can give for why I asked, "What do you need me to do?"
His stunning features lit with relief, and he pulled me against his left side once again as we resumed walking. "Go to Café Renée on the Mezzanine Level. You'll find a woman in a pink shirt. Give her this." He picked up my right hand with his and pressed a thumb drive into my palm, folding my fingers over it.
I looked at him skeptically. "That's it? Just give this to the woman in the pink shirt."
"That's it," he confirmed with a slight smile.
"If it's that simple, why can't you do it?"
His brow furrowed just a bit as he glanced yet again over his shoulder. "Let's just say that there are people who would rather I didn't."
"Hey, you're not asking me to do anything illegal, are you?"
He shook his head. "No, it's not illegal. Would you believe me if I told you it was a matter of life and death? Involving national security?"
"Well, then all I can tell you is that there are two men back there who would stop at nothing to prevent me from delivering this. I thought I'd shaken them when I changed trains at Metro Center, but obviously I was wrong."
"So, what? Are they going to come after me now?" Now that I wasn't looking at his eyes, the dazzle was starting to wear off and was being replaced by panic.
"No, they haven't seen you. They won't even know to look for you." He stopped to look at me again. "Trust me."
Just like that, I was captivated again, and all I could do was nod.
"Good. Café Renée."
"Woman in the pink shirt," I confirmed.
He flashed me a traffic-stopping smile. "Thank you."
Before I could even think to ask his name, he had disappeared into the crowd. I stood dumbly for a few moments, wondering what the hell had just happened, before the feeling of my hand curled around the thumb drive reminded me of what I'd agreed to do.
I climbed the stairs to the Mezzanine level and made my way to Café Renée, wondering with each step what I had gotten myself into. I knew nothing about this man. Despite his assurances, the favor to which I'd agreed could be illegal, or dangerous. I had absolutely no reason to trust him.
But I did.
Before I could really contemplate why that was, I spotted the sign for Café Renée and hurried inside.
"Oh, you have got to be kidding me," I muttered as I looked around.
There were at least a dozen people in pink shirts scattered around the restaurant. I tried to tell myself not to panic, and I studied each face to see if it looked like any of them were waiting for someone. No one even glanced toward the door where I stood, bewildered.
I took another look around the restaurant, hoping the woman I was supposed to find would somehow reveal herself to me, but then I remembered that she wouldn't know to look for me. She was expecting tall, bronze and handsome.
I looked at my watch and realized that I needed to get going. I considered calling Eric to reschedule, thinking I could wait to see if the restaurant cleared out. But I knew there wouldn't be another time for us to meet, and we had to get the data compiled or we'd miss out on the research grant for which we were applying. I couldn't let him down.
I made one final pass over the faces belonging to the pink shirts, willing one to somehow just click. When none did, I released a resigned sigh, tucked the thumb drive into my messenger bag, and made my way to the Metro.
"It's a good thing this was really just a final check of the numbers, or we might be in trouble." Eric's voice pulled my mind from its wanderings.
"You're so distracted, Bella. What's going on?"
Eric's face showed nothing but collegial concern. He'd taken it very well when I told him that I wasn't comfortable dating colleagues, and we had developed a very good working relationship since then.
"I'm sorry, Eric. I was just up early, and I've got a lot on my mind."
I had made it to the lab right on time to meet Eric, but all I'd been able to think about was the thumb drive in my messenger bag and the mystery man who had given it to me. A couple of hours later, no longer caught up in the urgency and excitement of the moment, I was starting to think more logically again, and I was worried.
The fact was that I didn't know anything about the man who'd handed me the drive and asked me to do him a favor. I'd determined that the feeling of trust that I'd had at the train station was nothing. I was taken in by his good looks and earnestness. I didn't know what was on the drive or to whom I was supposed to give it. For all I knew, the drive could contain stolen information, and I could be aiding and abetting a crime in passing it on. And if there were people after the man who'd given it to me, I had no way of knowing for sure that they wouldn't come after me, too.
I just didn't know what to do now. I managed to push my worries away until Eric and I were done with the grant paperwork, but I couldn't concentrate to save my life in my Ecology seminar that afternoon. By the time five o'clock rolled around, I was exhausted. I just wanted to go home, enjoy a nice glass of wine and go to bed. I would figure out what to do with the drive later.
I decided to leave the drive in the research lab, which was secured with key-card entrances, rather than take it home or carry it around in my messenger bag. I locked it in the filing cabinet with our research data as an extra precaution. I might not know what was on the drive, but the whole cloak-and-dagger routine at the train station had me convinced that it was important enough to safeguard.
It was strange getting back on the train after the morning's excitement has faded. The short ride home was uneventful; no one even gave me a second glance. I kept trying to convince myself that I was relieved by that, rather than disappointed.
After a quick and easy meal of grilled cheese and tomato soup, I took a hot bath and enjoyed a generous glass of wine. While I couldn't get the man from the train station out of my head, the wine and the hot water helped relax me enough that it stopped feeling so overwhelmingly confusing. I reminded myself that there wasn't really anything I could do about it right then, and decided to watch some TV to help divert my attention to something else.
I was on my second glass of wine when Alice came in, laughing to herself.
"What's so funny?" I asked as she removed her earbuds and put her iPod on its charger.
"Just this podcast. It's called 'Buzz Kill.' They do all these blind items, and I have fun trying to figure out who they're talking about," Alice explained.
"Alice Brandon," I chastised. "You should know better than to listen to a bunch of unconfirmed gossip."
"Hey," she protested. "I need to know this stuff for my job!" When I raised a skeptical eyebrow at her, she continued. "I do! I have to know all kinds of things about the people I lobby; it helps me target my pitch. Today's piece was about some high roller who is embezzling money from his company. That could be important to me, for example, if I need to lobby someone about financial reforms."
"Sure, sure, Alice. Whatever helps you sleep at night," I teased.
Alice rolled her eyes and flopped down next to me on the couch. "How was your day?"
Even though Alice didn't mean her question to be so loaded, I wasn't sure how to answer. I was used to sharing everything with Alice, but something told me that I needed to keep the events of my day a secret.
"It was fine."
"We're back to fine?" Alice took the wineglass from my hand and helped herself to a large sip. "I want more than fine for you, Bella. Don't you want that, too?"
I swiped the glass back and took a large sip of my own. "Of course, Alice. And there's plenty about my life that is more than fine."
Alice raised her eyebrows at me.
"There is! I love GW. The grant proposal Eric and I submitted is really good, and I'm excited about that. And I love living with you." It was true, but I also knew that the compliment would get Alice off my back, at least temporarily.
"I love you, too, Bella. I know I push sometimes. I just feel like there's more out there for you—for both of us."
"Maybe it's not something you can push, Al. Maybe it's just something that changes your life when you least expect it."
Alice mock-pouted. She hated not being in control of everything. "Maybe."
We watched TV for a little longer, sharing the same glass of wine and discussing mundane things. I was in bed by ten o'clock, but despite being exhausted from my early wake-up call and exciting but stressful day, I couldn't turn off my mind. I thought about everything that had happened since seeing Mike off at the train station only fifteen hours earlier. I thought about what I had told Alice. Maybe this was the thing that would change my life. But would it be for the better or for the worse?
I awoke with a new determination to see this thing through, whatever it was. As I showered and got ready for the day, I tried to approach the situation as analytically as I could. I didn't know whether the contents of the drive could get me into legal trouble or otherwise put me at risk, and I determined that the best way to deal with it would be to return it to the man who had given it to me.
Since I didn't know his name or where he worked or even where he lived, my plan was potentially problematic.
I had just gotten on the Metro when another idea struck me. I had quite literally run into this man at the train station. Maybe he was there every morning, commuting to work just like thousands of other people. I decided that I would retrieve the drive from the lab and take it with me to Union Station early the next morning. It was a long shot, but it was the only plan I had.
I changed trains at Metro Center feeling lighter and more resolved. I was thinking about the syllabus for Intro Bio lab I taught when I felt someone behind me and watched a hand grip the pole I was holding onto for balance. Before I could turn around to make a snarky comment about personal space, I heard a low voice in my ear.
"I really thought I could trust you."
I tensed. It was him. I started to turn, but he stopped me by moving his hand to cover mine on the stability pole.
"You promised to give the drive to my contact. I thought my instructions were pretty clear, but if you were confused, you should have asked questions."
"I understood that I was supposed to give it to a woman in a pink shirt."
"So what happened? You changed your mind?" The disdain in his voice was evident, despite the low volume at which he was speaking.
"It's Breast Cancer Awareness Month, genius," I seethed. "Do you know how many people are running around this city in pink shirts?"
I sensed his posture stiffen slightly. "What did you do with it, then?"
"I kept it."
I could almost feel his relief. "Great. You can just give it back to me; no harm, no foul."
"Believe me, there's nothing I would rather do. But I don't have it on me."
His hand tightened slightly over mine. "Where is it?"
"Somewhere safe. It didn't seem like the kind of thing I ought to be carrying around with me."
"That's fine. Let's go get it now, and I'll be out of your hair."
"I can't go with you now. I have a class to teach."
He scoffed. "Trust me when I say that this is more important than your bio lab."
I removed my hand from underneath his and turned to face him, finally. He was as physically attractive as I'd remembered, but the arrogant expression on his face made him less dazzling.
"To you, it might be. But it isn't to me. While I might not end up teaching forever, this is still my career we're talking about," I countered.
"And let's not forget that you asked me do you a favor," I continued. "I didn't have to agree. I didn't have to hang on to that drive when I wasn't able to deliver it. I could have taken it to the police." The last line was barely a whisper.
His eyes bored into mine for a moment, but I refused to look away.
"You're right," he agreed. "And I appreciate everything you've done so far. I just- That drive is very important. It really is a matter of life and death."
There was no guile in his expression. I was back to trusting him, although I still had no reason for it. Just then, the electronic voice announcing "Foggy Bottom-George Washington University" resonated from the train's speakers.
"This is me," I said.
For the second day in a row, I felt him pressing something into the palm of my hand.
"Call me," he said. "Please."
He stepped away from me just as the doors opened, and before I could even get my feet to move toward the exit, he was gone. I opened my hand to a business card.
Edward. At least I had a name to go with the handsome face, along with a million more questions. It wasn't until I was halfway through the Intro Bio lab that I thought of the most important one.
How did he know what I taught?
Hours later, I was finally on my way to the research lab. Even though I wanted nothing more than to get that stupid drive and call Edward Masen, I'd had to suffer through the rest of the lab I taught and my office hours first.
Eric was working at his desk when I walked in.
"Hey," I said in greeting.
He glanced at me, then looked quickly away. "Uh, hey, Bella," he replied.
"What's up, Eric?"
"Um, was that your thumb drive in the filing cabinet?"
I felt like someone had poured cold water down my back. "Yeah," I started hesitantly. "Why?"
He finally turned toward me, although he still didn't look me in the eye. "Well, um, I thought it might be data that we'd missed for the grant proposal, so I plugged it in to look at it."
"But when I pulled it up, it was just a bunch of audio files," he continued.
Audio files? Not wanting my confusion and curiosity to show, I simply said, "Yeah."
Eric took a deep breath and looked at me. "So I listened to a couple of them—I didn't know if maybe they were dictated notes or something—and then everything went all wonky."
Eric looked like he was afraid he was going to get in trouble. "I think the drive might have gotten corrupted somehow."
Shit! I thought. Edward had said that the information on the drive was a matter of life and death. How was I going to tell him it was possibly destroyed? Then I remembered what else Eric had said.
"You said you listened to a couple?" I asked. Eric nodded. "So… what were they?"
Eric gave me a confused look. "I thought you said it was your drive."
Crap, I did say that. Think fast, Bella. "Well, my roommate gave it to me. I just hadn't had a chance to listen to it yet."
Eric seemed appeased. "Oh. Well, if it makes you feel any better, it didn't sound like it was anything important."
It was my turn to look confused. "Really? Because she made it sound really important."
Eric put his hands up. "Hey, no judgment from me. Maybe it was important to her."
"So what was it?" I pressed.
"Oh! Yeah, just some podcast. Buzzer or Buzzed, or something."
"Buzz Kill?" I asked.
"That's it," Eric confirmed.
"Hmm." How could a gossip podcast be worth all of the cloak and dagger bullshit?
"I'm sorry if it was important." Eric's voice brought me out of my musings.
I tried to sound reassuring, rather than confused and annoyed. "Alice listens to that podcast all the time. She probably was just trying to get me hooked on it, too. No big."
Eric scrunched up his nose. "I still feel bad."
"Don't worry about it. I still need the drive, though," I told him.
"Oh, sure. Here you go." He handed me the thumb drive, which was now more mysterious to me than ever.
I put the drive in my messenger bag and turned to leave. "I've got some stuff to do this afternoon, so I'll see you tomorrow, okay?"
"Sure thing, Bella."
"I cannot believe I let you talk me into this getup," I groused to Alice as we clicked our way down the sidewalk.
"Bella," Alice admonished, "you would have embarrassed yourself walking into 18th Street Lounge in what you were wearing."
"Embarrassed you, you mean," I grumbled.
I was not in a good mood. After Eric's revelation of the drive's contents, all I had wanted to do was get some straight answers out of Edward Masen. But when I called him to arrange a time to meet and press him for those answers, he had shut me down, telling me it wasn't something he could discuss over the phone.
On top of that, he wanted to meet at ESL, a trendy bar not far from where Alice and I lived. It wasn't that I was opposed to going out—I'd even been to ESL before—but this wasn't a social call.
I had hoped to meet up with Edward, get the answers I needed, and return home before Alice even realized I'd been out. Continuing with the trend of the day, however, that didn't go as planned. I had agreed to meet Edward at six thirty, and Alice arrived home just before six.
I knew I couldn't get out of there without telling her something, so I invited her along, telling her I was in the mood for happy hour. I hoped I would be able to excuse myself long enough to talk to Edward without cluing Alice in to what I was doing.
So there we were, both in mini-dresses and heels, because the jeans-and-blazer combination I'd been wearing "screamed 'soccer mom,'" according to Alice, heading to ESL under the auspices of having a couple of drinks and unwinding.
"Bella, you never know who you might run into when you're out and about. Everything has the potential to be a networking opportunity, even just happy hour." Even when she wasn't at work, Alice was always working.
"Not all of us see everything as a chance to make a new contact or gain valuable information, Alice. All I wanted to do was have a drink or two."
Alice grabbed my hand as we climbed the stairs. "Well, there's no reason you can't look good while doing it."
I rolled my eyes, but let Alice lead me to one of the red velvet couches along the wall in the main area of the Lounge. It was six twenty and only moderately busy. When I scanned the room, I didn't see Edward anywhere. There were a lot of rooms on different levels, but I figured if he could find me on the Metro, he could find me here.
I was halfway through a glass of pinot noir when Alice excused herself.
"Ooooh, there's one of Henry Waxman's aides. I've been trying to get an appointment with him for a month. You don't mind, do you, Bella?" She was up and out of her seat before I could even respond.
I finished my wine and was enjoying the warmth of the blazing fireplace when another glass of pinot appeared in my eye line.
"Can I buy you a drink?"
"It looks like you already did."
Edward took Alice's abandoned spot next to me on the couch. "Well, I could already see the vultures circling. A beautiful woman without a drink is like carrion around here."
"Condescension this morning, but flattery tonight? Your mood swings sure do keep a girl on her toes," I replied as I took the proffered glass and raised it slightly toward him. "Thank you."
"My pleasure," he said before taking a drink of the amber liquid in his own highball glass. "I apologize for my rudeness in our previous interactions. As you can imagine, this has been a bit of a stressful situation."
I nodded slowly while I savored my wine. "It certainly has seemed that way."
"Well, after we enjoy our drinks, I can get the drive and won't have to bother you again." He gave me a smile that was dangerously charming.
"Hmm, yes. But while we're enjoying our drinks, you gotta give me some answers," I implored.
The smile slid from his face. "What did you want to know?" he asked.
I looked at him incredulously. "Um, everything?"
"Bella, there's a limit to how much I can tell you."
"You could start with how it is you know what train I take and what I do," I said.
He didn't even try to look chagrined. "Getting information on anyone is embarrassingly easy."
"That's not an answer."
"Okay. Then tell me why it's so important for someone who exports airplane parts to have audio files of a gossip podcast," I demanded.
Edward's head snapped in my direction. "You looked at the information on the drive?"
"Actually, I didn't. And you still haven't answered my question."
He set his drink on the table in front of us and leaned in close to me. "I don't export airplane parts," he seethed. "I need to know what you saw on that drive."
"I told you; I didn't see anything," I insisted.
"Then how do you know what's on the- Dammit." Edward took my wineglass, placed it next to his, and gripped my upper arm tightly. "We've gotta go."
"What? I can't just-"
Edward stood, lifting me with him. "Grab your coat and purse. We have to go. Now."
I followed his line of sight and saw an olive-skinned man in an expensive suit surveying the room. He might have looked like any of the other young professionals in the room, except for the tight set of his jaw and hard edge in his eyes.
"I need to find Alice," I said.
"You can call her later," Edward told me as he guided me toward an exit.
"I can't just leave her here," I insisted.
"Bella, we don't have time. I don't think he's spotted you yet, and trust me when I say that you don't want him to. But he will if we don't leave now."
Like he had in the train station, Edward pulled me tightly against him as we strode out onto the sidewalk. Despite the obvious tension radiating from Edward, we were walking at an almost-leisurely pace, like a couple enjoying an evening out might do.
"If you were in such a hurry to get out of there, shouldn't we be moving a little faster?" I inquired.
"Running draws a lot more attention than walking," Edward explained. "The goal is not always to get away quickly, but covertly."
It was then I noticed that we were moving in the opposite direction of my apartment.
"Where are you taking me?"
"To my car. I need that drive, and I need to know what you know."
We arrived at a parking garage about a block from ESL and took the elevator to the sixth level. When we arrived at a non-descript SUV, I laughed a little to myself.
"What?" Edward asked.
"Nothing. I just expected you to have some kind of fancy sports car or something, I guess," I explained.
Edward opened the passenger side door for me and helped me into my seat. Edward was situating himself behind the wheel as I turned to grab the seatbelt. I noticed a red dot moving along the dashboard.
"What's that?" I asked.
It all happened very quickly then.
Edward forcefully pushed me down so that I was basically sitting on the floorboard in front of the passenger seat. Glass rained down on both of us as it shattered out of his window and mine. Edward shoved the keys in the ignition and threw the SUV into reverse. My head hit the dashboard to the sound of crumpling metal as we collided with something behind us. A sound I finally identified as gunfire was our constant accompaniment.
My phone started ringing as Edward shifted into drive and began tearing through the parking garage. I could hear rubber squealing as we rounded corners, followed by the fainter echo of a vehicle in pursuit.
"Hello?" I answered with a whisper, as if lowering the volume of my voice would somehow prevent Alice from hearing anything else.
"Bella? I can barely hear you. Where are you?"
"I know. I'm sorry, Alice. Eric called and there was an emergency at the lab. I had to go," I lied.
The tires squealed loudly as we made another turn.
"What is that noise?" Alice asked.
"I'm in the Metro." I was stunned by how easily the lies were dripping off my tongue. "I'm sorry I left without telling you. I couldn't find you."
Alice sighed. "It's fine. I ran into some people anyway. I was just worried about you."
"I was going to call you when I got to the lab." I was thrown against the dashboard once again as we were hit from behind. "Listen, Alice. I don't know how late I'll be, but I'll talk to you later, okay?"
"Okay, Bella. Be safe."
"You too, Alice."
Edward suddenly turned, stopped, and started driving in reverse. I watched in horror and awe as he pulled a gun from under his suit jacket and began firing out the driver's side window. I started to climb into the passenger seat to get a better idea of what was going on.
"Stay down!" Edward ordered.
I heard more shattering glass, followed by a loud crash and the continuous wail of a car horn. Edward stopped the vehicle and got out, gun still in hand.
"Stay here," he told me.
The car horn ceased and the silence that followed was eerie. Edward returned mere seconds later.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
I watched as Edward took out his phone and put it to his ear. For a moment, I thought I was in shock, because the words he was saying didn't make any sense to me.
"This is officer 2300847 calling for connection and confirmation." He paused. "Vineyard. Noble. Medallion." Another pause. "Go secure."
Edward came around to my side of the SUV and opened the door. "I need a cleanup crew at Colonial Parking on 18th." Pause. "Two neutralized, one in the wind."
Edward gently lifted me out of the vehicle and proceeded to brush broken glass off of my clothes while I stared at him, bewildered.
"The package is secure." Pause. "I've got a passenger." Longer pause. "Orders confirmed."
Edward hung up the phone and turned to me. "Let's go."
I nodded and took his hand.
He led me out of the garage and to the corner of 18th and M, where he flagged down a cab. He gave the driver an address in Georgetown, and we settled in for the drive.
A few blocks into our trip, I snapped out of my apparent shock.
"What the hell was that?" I asked too loudly.
Edward took me in his arms and put his lips against my ear as he murmured, "Not here."
I shivered and nodded my understanding.
When we arrived at our destination, Edward paid the driver and helped me out of the cab. We walked around the corner and another two blocks in silence before stopping at a gated brownstone. Edward entered a code into a panel embedded into the brick wall, and I heard the gate unlatch.
The interior of the brownstone was brightly lit and tastefully decorated, like an Ethan Allen showroom.
Edward took my coat and led me to a beige upholstered couch in what appeared to be the living room.
"Is this where you live?" I asked.
"No. This is a safehouse," Edward answered.
I looked at him a moment. "I think you need to start answering some of my questions."
He tilted his head and nodded. "Coffee first."
As I waited on the couch for Edward to return, I started to shake. Whether it was from the slight chill in the house or from the events of the evening, or a combination of both, I wasn't sure. I spotted a throw draped across the back of an armchair and stood to grab it.
As I was wrapping myself up in the blanket and getting resituated on the couch, Edward came back in with two cups of coffee in one hand and some packets of creamer and sugar in the other.
He offered me a cup and the packets. "I wasn't sure how you took your coffee."
"Amazing," I snarked. "Something you don't know about me." I added a packet of creamer to my coffee and stirred it with the stick Edward had placed in the cup.
He looked surprised, and a little relieved, by my teasing.
"There's plenty I don't know about you. I really just got the basics so I could track you down," he said as he took a seat in the armchair.
"That's still more than I know about you," I countered. "That card you gave me. The job is obviously a lie. Is Edward even really your name?"
"The name's real, and so is the job, technically. It's just not my only job."
I blew on the surface of my coffee and took a sip. "Clearly. What do-" I shook my head. "What happened tonight?"
Edward sighed and took a sip of his own coffee before answering. "Do you remember at the train station, when I told you that there were two men who didn't want me to deliver the drive?"
"The man at ESL tonight and the two people in the parking garage are colleagues of theirs."
"They really didn't want you to deliver that drive," I understated.
Edward smiled slightly.
"Why did they think you still had it?"
His smile fell. "They didn't see me hand it off to you, and they found my contact, so they knew I hadn't given it to her."
My eyes widened in understanding. "They killed her?"
Edward nodded. "Bella, I really need to get that drive from you. You understand now how important it is, don't you?"
I pulled the drive from the tiny purse I had carried with me to ESL and handed it to him.
"Edward, I'm scared. Your contact—the woman I was supposed to meet—is dead. We were almost killed tonight."
Edward moved to sit next to me on the couch. "Bella, please know that we will do whatever it takes to keep you safe."
"Whatever it takes? But what if it takes something drastic, like putting me in witness protection or something? I don't want to do that."
"I don't think it will come to that. I'm positive that the man looking for me at the bar didn't see you, and the two from the parking garage are dead. We just need to lie low for a little bit to be sure they haven't IDed you."
I sat up straight. "Oh my God, what if they have? Alice won't be safe."
"We put a man on your apartment. Alice will be fine."
"This is just- Stuff like this just doesn't happen to me."
Edward took my hand in his and squeezed it. "I know. I'm so sorry I got you involved, Bella. If I'd known… I made plenty of mistakes, but I promise you that I will fix this."
"I trust you," I said as I squeezed his hand back.
"Well, doesn't this look cozy." A stunning blonde woman strode into the living room, looking disdainfully at Edward's hand clasped with mine.
I started to pull my hand away, but Edward squeezed it more tightly. "Rosalie," he addressed the new addition. "This is Bella Swan."
"I'm perfectly aware of who she is, Edward," Rosalie spat. "As if you didn't screw up badly enough by giving her the drive in the first place, you had to create a giant clusterfuck with that display at the parking garage."
"Rosalie, that's enough," a firm voice admonished. Rosalie's violet eyes flashed as another blond, this one a man, came to stand beside her.
He held his hand out to me in greeting and said, "Carlisle Cullen," as I shook it.
"Bella Swan," I replied in kind.
His blue eyes lit with amusement. "Yes, I know. You've met Edward, obviously, and this is Rosalie Hale. We appreciate the assistance you've provided thus far, and have to beg your indulgence for just a little longer."
"Rosalie, why don't you get the computer set up so we can see what's on this drive that's caused so much trouble," Carlisle instructed.
Edward turned to me. "We need to know what you saw on the drive."
Carlisle looked over at us. "You looked at it?"
I shook my head. "I didn't see anything, Mr. Cullen."
"Please call me Carlisle. Why is Edward under the impression that you looked at the drive?"
"Because I didn't have a chance to explain before everything happened tonight." I told them about leaving the drive at school and how Eric ended up finding it.
"So, he heard two gossip podcasts and then he thinks the drive was corrupted?" Carlisle asked.
"That's what he said. I didn't hear any of it personally, but Alice listens to that podcast all the time."
Carlisle and Edward exchanged a look.
"Bella, let me show you upstairs. There's a bedroom where you can get some rest," Edward said.
"Oh no. I think I have been more than patient and more than understanding about everything that's happened. But I am not going anywhere until I get some answers."
Rosalie came back into the room then. "Who do you think you are? You are nobody. You are in no position to be demanding answers."
I was taken aback by Rosalie's hostility, but before I could respond, Edward spoke. "She has some security clearance, Carlisle, for her work in the lab."
Carlisle looked at me intently for a moment, then turned back to Edward and nodded.
"That's great," Rosalie huffed. "Put us all at risk just so Edward's new plaything can satisfy her curiosity."
"Not one more word, Rosalie," Carlisle said, his voice hard. "I will not tolerate insubordination."
Rosalie clenched her jaw and narrowed her eyes at Edward, nostrils flaring. Then she held out her hand for the thumb drive, which Edward gave her, and she turned and left the room.
Edward squeezed my shoulder and said, "I'm sorry about that."
"It's not your fault," I replied. "It's a tense situation."
"That it is."
"Need to know, Edward," Carlisle said before departing.
Edward looked at me. "Bella, earlier I told you that my job at Jennings isn't my only job. I'm a non-official cover operative for the CIA. Carlisle and Rosalie are official operatives, and they are my primary contacts within the agency."
"What's the difference?" I asked.
"NOCs are placed undercover in jobs at real companies. Actually, my job at Jennings is my cover job. We are deeply covert, and not recognized as agents by our government. If something happens, and we are caught by a foreign government, we're disavowed by the CIA. We aren't entitled to any of the protections that official agents get."
"Our identities, and our covers, are sacrosanct. We are able to do things that official agents can't because we are so deep undercover. If our true identities were to get out, our lives and the lives of our contacts would be at risk."
"Okay," I said again.
"NOCs have been disappearing and turning up dead. One of my contacts told me that he had information about how our agents were being identified, and who was killing them. That information was supposed to be on the drive I gave you."
"But Eric said that the drive only contained those audio files."
"He only listened to two of them, though, right? So maybe the gossip podcasts were only on there as decoys, and the rest of the information was encrypted or something."
I tilted my head. "Maybe. I hope so. I hope you're able to get what you need."
"Edward, you were right about some of the files being encrypted," Carlisle called out from the dining room where he and Rosalie were working. "Rosalie's in. But the rest of the files are podcasts from that same gossip site."
Edward rose from the couch, pulling me with him. "What do they say?" he asked as we entered the dining room.
Carlisle turned up the external speakers attached to the laptop on the table.
"Okay, listeners. Today's dish will be of special interest to those accountants and other money-types out there. A well-respected and connected financial exec has been sniffing around a pot of gold, but he's no leprechaun. I'll give you a second to think. Almost fifty partners. Smart edge, too. By all means, try to find assets hidden in iffy high end partners and accounts with value slashed."
Carlisle turned to Edward. "Does that mean anything to you?"
Edward shook his head. "What's the next one?"
Rosalie cued up the next file.
"We've got juicy gossip for you today, Killers. The señora in question is smart and muy caliente, as all four of her ex-husbands can attest. Epic gala for charity. The glum emcee was phony and horrible. Around the lobby, our gal was pacing solo, gauging the tall hero, but it was a bimbo who apparently would catch the polo god and end up in a glamorous room."
"These make no sense," Edward said. He turned to me. "You said your roommate listens to these?"
"Um, yeah. She said she likes trying to figure out who they're talking about."
"Has she ever figured one out?"
"I don't know," I said. "She's never said anything. And I mean, how would you ever know? These could be about any number of people."
"That's why they don't make sense," Edward agreed. "At first, I thought maybe the agents were the subjects of the blind items, but the clues are pretty broad, and the details given don't really fit any of our agents."
"Maybe cryptology can figure something out," Carlisle said. "Rosalie, can you get the drive over to them tonight?"
Rosalie nodded and began packing everything up while Carlisle made a phone call.
After he hung up, Carlisle turned to Edward. "Bella's apartment is clear. They haven't made her."
Edward put his hand on my lower back and guided me out of the room. "Let's get you home."
"You're up pretty early again," Alice chirped as she slid into the dining chair across from mine.
"Yeah, just couldn't sleep," I replied.
"It was probably all that excitement at the lab last night," Alice said.
I nodded. "You're probably right."
"Is everything okay? I tried to wait up, but I was pretty tired."
"Um, things are mostly fine. There are a couple of things I can't quite figure out, but I'm going to work on it some more today."
"I'm sure you'll get it. You're my smart little science nerd." Alice affectionately patted my hand before she rose from the table. "I'm off to convince people to do things my way."
"Ah, your true calling in life," I teased.
"That it is," she called before she sailed out the door.
As soon as I knew she was gone, I pulled up the Buzz Kill website. I knew it was foolish for me to be thinking about this—the CIA had whole teams of people who specialized in breaking codes—but I couldn't stop thinking about what information the podcasts might be trying to convey.
I thought about it the whole time Edward was driving me home. I thought about it while I was getting ready for bed. I even dreamed about it.
I tried to convince myself that I just didn't want any more agents to be killed, but if I was honest, I had to admit that I also craved the excitement that would come with figuring it out. Last night had been terrifying, but also exhilarating. I couldn't remember the last time I'd felt so alive.
I found the two podcasts we'd listened to at the safehouse. After listening to them again, I couldn't shake the idea that there was some kind of pattern, but for the life of me, I couldn't figure out what it was. I kept listening, willing something to jump out at me, until I absolutely had to leave for class.
A familiar face greeted me as I stepped onto the train.
"We have to stop meeting like this," I teased.
Edward laughed. "I just wanted to see how you were doing today."
"And you couldn't just stop by my place? It's not like you don't know where I live."
"Yeah, but the train… it's like our 'thing' now," Edward replied.
I smiled broadly. "Our thing? I think I kinda like that."
Edward smiled in response, but then his face turned serious. "I also wanted to make sure you got to school okay."
"Should I be worried?" I asked.
Edward shook his head and leaned in closer to me. "No. There's no sign that they know anything about you. But the body of another agent was found this morning in Madrid. I'm just being extra cautious."
"I'm sorry, Edward."
"Thanks, Bella. This one was a friend, too."
"What was his name?"
Edward gave me a rueful smile at my assumption. "Her name was Carmen Rubio. Good woman. Really good agent. That's two this week."
"Who was the other one?"
"Liam Doyle. They haven't found his body yet, but he disappeared yesterday somewhere between his office at Roisin Financial and his home."
"This is really serious, isn't it?" I asked.
"Yeah. And Bella, I can't thank you enough for your help," Edward said earnestly.
"I just wish I could have done more," I said. "Any luck with the drive?"
"Not yet," Edward replied, "but they're working on it."
I considered telling Edward that I'd been working on it, too, but I still felt silly for even trying. Instead, we made small talk until we parted ways at the doors to Bell Hall.
I was in the middle of listening to one of my undergrad students make lame excuses for why she had missed lab when an idea struck me.
"Señora Carmen Rubio," I whispered, cutting my student off mid-sentence.
"What?" she asked.
I blinked up at her. "Lauren, I'm sorry, but the expectations for this class are very clear. Dr. Donaldson and I have both stressed repeatedly that attendance in lab is mandatory."
"I can't help it if I'm sick," she protested.
"There are two more sections of the lab that have yet to meet this week. If you can convince one of the TAs to let you sit in, I will allow you make up the lab that way. Otherwise, I'll have to give you a zero for this lab."
"Fine," she huffed.
"That's settled, then. Now if you'll excuse me, something's come up."
As Lauren left my office, I hurriedly dug my iPod out of my messenger bag. I wrote down the names "Liam Doyle" and "Carmen Rubio" in a notebook and cued up the podcasts. After listening to them again, I wrote "pot of gold," "leprechaun," "señora" and "caliente." This couldn't be a coincidence, but it still wasn't enough to prove anything.
I pulled up the Buzz Kill website to see if there was anything new, and was rewarded with another cryptic message.
"This is one we've been hunting for a while, so we're especially excited to share the deets with you, dear listeners. A very eligible bachelor just happens to have a little gambling problem. And even with a bank account as large as his, if he keeps trying to shoot the moon, he just may be the first to fold. Eager, driven, wealthy, and really dashing. Men are so envious, naturally. January event nicked notches in nice guys' savings. An eventful round of strip poker almost caught everyone."
There were no obvious cultural clichés in this one. But on my second listening, my ears perked up at the word "first." It reminded me of something, but I couldn't place what. I pulled up the first podcast again, and there it was. "Second." I listened to the next podcast, waiting for a number. "Four."
I noticed that the words following the mention of a number followed a different pattern than those preceding it. The sentences were incomplete and more cryptic. I wrote down the words from the first podcast, underlining every second letter as I went.
"Almost fifty partners. Smart edge, too. By all means, try to find assets hidden in iffy high end partners and accounts with value slashed."
"Liam Doyle, Roisin Financial" was spelled out, plain as day, in the letters I'd underlined.
I repeated the process with the second podcast, underlining the fourth letter of each word, already confident of what I'd find.
"Epic gala for charity. The glum emcee was phony and horrible. Around the lobby, our gal was pacing solo, gauging the tall hero, but it was a bimbo who apparently would catch the polo god and end up in a glamorous room."
"Carmen Rubio, Global Comm," I breathed.
My heart was racing as I started on the third podcast. By the third word, I knew was I was going to find, but I needed to confirm it.
"Eager, driven, wealthy, and really dashing. Men are so envious, naturally. January event nicked notches in nice guys' savings. An eventful round of strip poker almost caught everyone."
I didn't even take the time to shut down my computer properly as I slammed my laptop shut and started frantically packing everything up. I pulled out my cell phone and called the number on the card Edward had given me.
"You've reached Edward Masen. I'm not available to take your call right now, but if you leave a message at the tone, I'll get back to you as soon as I can."
I huffed in annoyance. "Edward, it's Bella. Please call me back right away. It's an emergency."
I tore out of the building and toward the Metro stop. I tried calling Edward twice more, reaching his voice mail both times and letting out a little scream of frustration that I didn't have any other way to get a hold of him. In desperation, I called directory assistance to get the main number and address for Jennings Aerospace, thinking I could maybe go to Edward's office in person.
The operator gave me an address in Crystal City, so I stayed on course to my usual Metro stop while she connected me to Jennings. I was heading down to get on the blue line toward Franconia when the receptionist informed me that Mr. Masen was out of the office for the afternoon. After I thanked her, I tried calling Edward again, but reception in the Metro was spotty at best, and today just wasn't my day.
I was impatiently awaiting the train when I happened to look up and see Edward on the opposite platform. Without even thinking, I called out to him.
He looked up and gave me that heart-stopping smile and a wave. I could see him mouth, "What are you doing over there?" and shake his head at me. I pointed at him and responded, "Looking for you."
A train pulled into the station, interrupting our pantomimed conversation. When the train pulled away, Edward was gone. I hurried up and down the platform, desperately looking for him. I was starting to panic when I felt a familiar hand grab mine.
"Where you going?"
"Edward," I breathed as I threw my arms around him.
He didn't even seem taken aback as he enveloped me in his arms in response. "Not that I'm complaining, but what's this for?"
I started to explain what I'd figured out, but he stopped me partway through my explanation.
"Yeah, we know. Cryptology cracked it early this afternoon."
"Oh." I tried not to feel too deflated. That was a good thing. "I'm glad. It means you're safe."
"I am, and so are you. And Bella, I'm… impressed. You figured this out all on your own, and you were trying to track me down?"
I blushed a little at that. "Well, yeah. What were you doing here?"
"I was looking for you. I wanted to tell you the good news, and reassure you that you're safe."
Edward chuckled. "You, too."
There was a slightly awkward pause before Edward offered to escort me to the opposite platform so I could catch a train home. He rode with me the whole way, even through a change of train.
When we exited at the Dupont Circle station, I turned to him.
"I guess this is it, then?" I asked, trying to mask the disappointment I felt.
Edward reached out to stroke my cheek with the back of his hand. "Bella," he began, "I've really enjoyed getting to know you these last couple of days."
I smiled at him as a spark of hope lit in my heart.
"But my life… it's dangerous. It's too dangerous. If the enemy ever identified me, it would be bad. But if they were able to use my feelings for someone against me, that would be worse."
I tried to blink back the irrational tears welling in my eyes. I'd only met Edward two days ago.
"Don't cry, Bella. You never know. We might just run into each other again someday."
I closed my eyes as I felt him press a gentle kiss to the corner of my mouth. When I opened them, he was gone.
I walked slowly home, thinking about Edward and how he had inspired feelings in me in two days that Mike hadn't managed in two months. I knew I would never be able to settle again. I was able to master my tears before I got to the apartment. It was a good thing I had, because Alice had beaten me home.
I left my coat, bag and shoes by the front door, poured myself a glass of wine, and flopped down next to Alice on the couch.
"How was your day?" she asked.
I took a deep breath and put my head on her shoulder. "It was fine."
Thank you once again to ElleCC. The fact that she is such an amazing author benefits me in ways many and varied. She is a new VIP author at ADF, joining many other outstanding writers, including four of my favorites: LaViePastiche, hmonster4, profmom72 and Lillybellis, who was kind enough to check my D.C. details for posterity. A link to ADF is on my profile.
I drew inspiration for this one-shot from every espionage book, movie and TV show I've ever seen, but two influenced this more than the others: a program from my youth, "Scarecrow & Mrs. King," and "Alias," which I still miss.