A/N: I've been writing this one on and off, little by little, for over a month, while taking breaks from working on the last story. Finally, the first chapter is finished and it's time to post it. As always, this is only for fun, there is no financial gain for me in this and the disclaimer applies to this and all subsequent chapters. Once again, no beta, but I do proofread.
"Let's play another hand," Bryce said. Morgan took the deck, shuffled and started dealing. Chuck watched him, taking a sip of his beer.
"Raise ten," he said.
"Call." Bryce threw a chip in the pot.
"I'm in," Morgan followed suit. "Fifty bucks."
"Wow, you're raising this early in the game?"
"Who dares wins, dude, that's my philosophy."
"If he's upping the ante, it means he probably has a lousy hand and wants to bluff us into folding. Call," Chuck said confidently.
"Fifty bucks it is." Bryce added his chips to the pile. From where she was, sprawled shoeless on a comfortable couch in the luxurious interior of the Dassault Falcon 7X executive jet reading a romance novel, of the kind the guys were apt to describe as feminist trash, Dr. Jill Roberts chuckled. "What?" Bryce, her boyfriend, asked.
"It's always fun watching you three gamble away your meager government salaries. Me, I'm just in for the traveling in style." She raised her champagne flute and toasted them.
"You won't be complaining when I get you something nice with my winnings, though."
"No, I won't."
In the end, Chuck walked away with the pot. He cashed in his chips and went to get another beer.
"Sorry Jill," he said.
"Hey, I may not get my gift, but we gotta find you a girl, Chuck. All that cash and no one to spend it on…"
"Yeah, thanks for reminding me."
"Seriously, bro, you haven't gotten laid for the fun of it in quite a while. I mean, wooing the ladies for Uncle Sugar is, well, productive, but nothing beats a good roll in the hay to escape from work and not for work."
"Hell, until Anna and I broke up, you were the only one of us without someone special to go home to," Morgan piped up.
"Right now both of us are in the same situation, little buddy."
"No, no, no, you are wrong. Right now, I'm back on the prowl. You, on the other hand, took yourself off the market, however unwittingly."
"He still had fun with the Crazy Cougar Lady – among others," Bryce pointed out.
"Ah, yes, Sylvia," Morgan laughed. "Dude, some of the things she did to you must have been illegal. Did you keep the fluffy handcuffs she used on you?"
"I got the information we needed out of her, didn't I?" He didn't answer the handcuffs question. For all he knew they were still attached to Sylvia's bedpost.
"Yes. I admit you did. But since Fulcrum's demise, we have not yet found a villain worthy of our combined talents."
'True… Fulcrum was a challenge, even if it was essentially a domestic cleanup. The missions we have been getting for the past few months were ridiculously easy."
"They were a challenge because their higher-ups were connected and the guys low on the food chain believed they were doing the right thing. Once they learned the truth about Fulcrum's aims, they usually told us everything we needed to know, but it always took some convincing."
"Even the mission we just completed wasn't so… fulfilling."
"At least we had a good time in South Africa."
"I also got a nice souvenir," Jill said.
"A diamond," the three men guessed.
"Correct! How did you know?"
"Jill, Bryce and I are the CIA's top agents, Graham's fair haired boys, and Morgan is one of the best analysts and logistics specialists around."
"Which one did you, um, appropriate?"
"One of the biggest we confiscated, of course," Jill deadpanned. Laughter filled the cabin.
"In all seriousness, guys, I'll be spending my well earned money to do something nice for all of us."
"Like what? You didn't win a fortune."
"Oh, I don't need a fortune to buy movie tickets."
"You're taking us to the movies?"
"Why not? There is bound to be a good film we can all enjoy together when we get home."
"In this case, I'm in."
"That's the spirit, Bryce."
They were laughing again when the communications screen on the forward bulkhead came on and their boss, Director of Central Intelligence Langston Graham, appeared.
"Hey, it's the Boss! Hi Boss," Chuck said.
"Chuck, one day you are going to go too far and cross the line over to insubordination," Graham said facetiously. "Congratulations on the South African job, by the way."
"Let me guess: you want to debrief us early?"
"No, the debriefings can wait."
"Go on, Boss."
"You will instruct the flight crew to divert to Henry E. Rohlsen airport on St. Croix."
"St. Croix? That's one of the US Virgin Islands!"
"Sir, are you sending us on compulsory vacation?" Bryce asked. "Because, if that's the case, I'm totally in for it."
"Me too," Jill agreed. "I could work on my tan, especially after spending two months in South Africa. It's winter down there you know, sir."
"You wish. We have bigger fish I want you to fry right now. Your aircraft will refuel there and file a new flight plan. Your final destination will be Casablanca instead of DC."
"You're sending us to Morocco?"
"Like I implied, something big came up. Our people in the Virgin Islands will supply you with the necessary documents."
"Who's the mark?"
"Rashad Ahmad," Graham replied. "One of his aliases popped up on the radar. He was recently identified as having been in the US on banking business, going by the alias of Harry Lime, and he is currently in Casablanca."
"The name sounds vaguely familiar."
"He's suspected of being a financier for various terrorist organizations, including Al Qaeda. He's also reported to have ties to Hassan Khalid, one of the most vicious AQ commanders and one of Zawahri's possible successors, now that Bin Laden is out of the picture."
"Let's go get him, then. And after that we want the vacation you promised us, Boss."
"I promised you nothing of the sort and don't be so cocky, Chuck. One of our best agents went missing while after Ahmad and his network and is presumed dead."
The mood immediately turned somber. Graham gave praise sparingly and to admit losing one of his best to Ahmad and his people meant that it was serious, deadly serious.
"Payback has just been added to the mission objectives, sir," Bryce said.
"We want Ahmad alive," Graham cautioned.
"Would you settle for his files?"
"I'd really prefer to have both. Don't be selfish, Bryce. Let others have some fun, too."
"No promises, sir. We'll see how it all plays out."
When Graham signed off and while waiting for the briefing file to arrive, the team was deep in contemplation. Going after terrorists and their supporters was always something not to be taken lightly, as hundreds, sometimes thousands of lives were at stake.
"Those guys really have their thumbs in many pies," Bryce remarked while reading the briefing file. "Terrorism, narcotics, people trafficking, arms smuggling, counterfeiting, money laundering, stolen art and antiquities, you name it, they're in it."
"That's our opening!" Morgan exclaimed.
"Just think about it. The CIA originally went after them just because of their connections to terrorists. Has Graham given us a cover story yet?"
"No," Chuck replied. "But I see where you're going. We'll try to approach Ahmad pretending to be serious criminals in need of his financial services."
"It will certainly be more convincing than trying to pass ourselves off as terrorists of one sort or another."
"Morgan, call Graham. Tell him to change our cover backgrounds accordingly."
"On it," Morgan said enthusiastically and moved to the communications console.
As expected, Graham agreed and instructed his people to implement the necessary changes. According to Chuck, the new covers had the added advantage of facilitating any emergency extraction by virtue of their very nature.
They were waiting for the ground crew to refuel their aircraft and going over the documents Graham had sent them. He was going to be Charlie Charles, on the surface a successful entrepreneur, but secretly a smuggler. Bryce would reuse his Tom Anderson identity and would pose as one of Mr. Charles' closest associates if required.
"We neglected to address one issue," Chuck said. "What are we going to be smuggling?"
"Take your pick, Chuck," Bryce shrugged.
"We still have the diamonds," Jill reminded them and pointed to a briefcase resting on a desk.
"Ha-ha, Jill, babe, you're a genius!"
"You two are not going to get all lovey-dovey now, are you?" Morgan asked.
"Maybe," Jill replied cheekily.
The pilot came into the cabin and reported the refueling process complete. Chuck thanked him and instructed him to file a new flight plan to Casablanca. The Captain replied that it had already been taken care of.
Not long after takeoff from St. Croix, Chuck and Morgan made themselves comfortable on the couches and took a nap. Bryce and Jill did not let the opportunity go to waste, so they went inside the small private bedroom and locked the door behind them. The captain woke them all up when he used the intercom to report that they were entering Moroccan airspace.
"OK, gather around," Chuck said. "We are going to use different aliases for getting into the country and contacting Ahmad. As always, we'll have to spend a few days in town first and solidify our cover. When we make first contact, it has to be convincing. Jill, Morgan, we're keeping you both out of this, as I need you unseen and unheard to provide me with information and the like. Bryce, your involvement has also to be kept to a minimum, as you're the one to head an emergency extraction should the need arise. We are going up against some very dangerous people, so stay alert. There is going to be no face to face contact between the action and support teams unless absolutely necessary."
"I have an idea for an extraction scenario," Morgan said. "We could try the good old kidnapping. Make the other side think Chuck's, or rather our Mr. Charles', disreputable competitors had a hand in it."
"It's certainly workable," Bryce agreed. "If we get wind that something is off, we cut and run."
"What about our covers?" Morgan asked, referring to Jill and himself.
"You always wanted to go undercover, little buddy and your wish will finally come true. Today you become Mr. Martin Grissom, a rich businessman on vacation, and Jill becomes Ms. Jillian Sands, your secretary and executive assistant."
"I like it. And since I'm such a generous employer, Ms. Sands, I'll be booking a suite for you too. It's the least I can do for my most valuable employee."
"Why, thank you, Mr. Grissom."
"Just go easy on the room service. Sometimes, explaining things on our Agency expense accounts is not as easy as you might think."
The North African sun and heat were almost welcome after two months of shivering in the cold of wintertime Cape Town. Fortunately, they also had lightweight clothing, as they'd originally expected to return to the US, where it was summer. As planned, they checked into different hotels and prepared for selling their cover and finding a way to contact Ahmad's network.
"Any messages for me?" Chuck asked the hotel receptionist.
"Oui, Monsieur Charles," he replied. "You have one message. It was delivered by courier about an hour ago."
"Thank you," Chuck said, taking the sealed envelope and heading upstairs to his luxurious suite. There, once comfortably ensconced in an armchair, he swept the envelope for bugs, ripped open the flap and extracted the letter. He smiled when he finished reading it. Almost a week in Casablanca and finally their efforts had borne fruit. Ahmad had agreed to meet Mr. Charles and offer his financial services. Chuck opened his laptop and initiated a videoconference with Bryce, Jill, Morgan and Director Graham.
"Report, Chuck," Graham said in his usual brusque manner.
"We did it, Boss. Ahmad took the bait and he sent me a message. He wants to meet me tomorrow night."
"Well done, team. You still have the diamonds, right?"
"Yes and no, sir," Bryce replied. "We needed to sell the cover, so a couple of the smaller ones had to be disposed of on the black market."
"It's an acceptable loss."
"Hardly a loss, Director. We got paid handsomely for them," Morgan pointed out.
"It covered some of the operational expenses," Jill agreed. "And we got the diamonds for free in the first place."
"Exercise extreme caution when meeting Ahmad, Chuck."
"I'll be going in alone. Bryce will be standing by to help with an emergency extraction, if required."
"Where is the meeting going to take place?"
"In Ahmad's villa, Boss, and it is a veritable fortress. We pulled up some pics from Google Earth when I learned the location, but can you beam us some high resolution satellite photos? We may need them to plan the extraction strategy. I'll send you the coordinates. Be sure to include the surrounding area, too."
"I'll see what I can do. Good luck and keep me posted on any new developments."
"You got it, Boss." Graham signed off and Chuck turned to his team. "Guys, do we have a tux for me in our luggage? Ahmad mentioned in his note that it's going to be a black tie event."
Morgan, as the logistics specialist, was the one who had to answer. "I think we do. If not, we can just rent one for you. Just look in your suitcases and call me if you don't find it."
"I'll get back to you in the morning on the tux issue. If it's not here, get Jill to rent one and send it to my suite. You know my size."
"Why me?" Jill complained.
"I'm the boss and you're my assistant. Do the math," Morgan said smugly.
"He's right, babe. Going out and doing something his assistant would normally take care of could blow your cover," Bryce agreed.
"Since we seem to have everything covered, I suggest we all catch some Z's. Tomorrow's gonna be a long, very long day, with more to follow. Goodnight."
"Goodnight Chuck," he heard the others say before he disconnected. He sat there, contemplatively looking at the laptop. Noting the time, he decided to call home and check up on his sister. Hopefully, she would be at home and not at work. He wanted to be able to see her, but he could settle for a simple phone call.
"Chuckster!" A man's voice boomed from the laptop speakers.
"Hey Captain, how are things at home?"
"Same old, same old," Devon Woodcomb replied. Devon was Ellie Bartowski's boyfriend. The two had been together since medical school. "We miss you, Bro."
"I miss you guys too. I like my job and the traveling that comes with it, but there is a downside to it: I'm away from home all too much… Is Ellie there?"
"Let me go get her."
Sure enough, Ellie came running to the living room as soon as her boyfriend told her that Chuck was calling. "Hello, little brother! Where are you calling from this time?"
"That's the part you ain't going to believe, sis."
"Well, try me."
"Casablanca," he said simply. There was no harm in telling her the truth, even though she was unaware of the true nature of his job.
Ellie gaped. For a few seconds she just stared at her brother, unable to form words, looking very much like a fish out of water. Then she scowled. "Oh, I hate you, little brother. I really do."
"I knew the look on your face would be priceless, Ellie."
"Shut up. All I want to hear from you now is a promise to get me some nice souvenirs."
"You know your favorite movie was filmed back in California and not over here, right?" Chuck said snidely.
"Nevertheless, the real Casablanca is one of the places I've always wanted to visit. Until I do, souvenirs will be an acceptable substitute. And you'll get them for me."
"I promise, your Imperial Majesty."
"How are Mom and Dad doing?"
"They are in Bishop, staying at the cabin."
"With their anniversary due in a couple of days, I guess they could use a vacation." Chuck smiled. His parents knew all about his agent status. Stephen Bartowski even provided him with a job, which was intended to be a cover, but Chuck did real work for the family business whenever he could spare the time.
"Indeed," Ellie agreed. "Take care of yourself, little brother."
"See you when I get back home, sis." He broke the connection and lay back on the super-comfortable bed, but did not immediately relax. Five years in the CIA had sharpened his sixth sense. Right now it told him that he had been followed to his hotel. It stood to reason. Ahmad would want to check him out first and make sure he was who he claimed to be. Fortunately, the Company had planted hints here and there to solidify his cover and make him look legit, both as an entrepreneur and as a smuggler. Remembering something, he bounded out of bed and rummaged through his luggage, smiling with relief when he found his tux. Quickly sending off a text to Morgan telling him not to bother with renting him one, he called room service and asked them to have it dry cleaned and ironed. It would be ready the following day, which suited him just fine.
A bellhop picked up the tux, promising to deliver it as soon as it was ready after being generously tipped and then Chuck went for a quick shower. Tomorrow was going to be a long day and an agent had to get all the rest he could. It was something the instructors at the Farm had drummed into their trainees from day one. He made sure his gun and a knife were well hidden, but within easy reach, changed into his pajamas and promptly fell asleep.