A/N: My apologies for the long wait; I wrote the entire chapter and then realized it wasn't even remotely funny, so I had to start over. Angst kept wanting to creep in, as well as long, boring discussions about how society could continue to function with the advent of identical doubles that are routinely created and controlled by terrorists. Yuck. (Seriously though, if anyone ever wants to get into it about the Assassins, PM me lol.)
Anyway, I'm still not sure how I feel about the final result... tell me what you think!
"This place brings back so many good memories." Nancy said with a contented sigh as she strolled hand-in-hand with Frank through a marketplace in Cairo.
"Like the time we were entombed alive?" Frank joked.
"Not specifically what I was referring to..." Nancy said. "But in a way, yes. Although that was in Luxor, and you know it."
They had visited Cairo on their previous trip to Egypt—on a case that had involved posing as a married couple—but both had agreed that it was worth a return trip. It was nice to be able to tour the country and see the sights as themselves, without having to worry about portraying false identities.
They had revisited the Great Sphinx and the Pyramids at Giza that morning, then returned to Cairo, where they were now preparing to rendezvous with a Network agent disguised as a produce vendor. The area was crowded with vendors selling food, clothing, jewelry, crafts, and other items from carts and booths along the street, shielded from the blazing sun by colorful umbrellas and awnings. There were so many vendors, with such similar setups, that Nancy had no idea how they were ever going to spot the right one.
"I think that's our guy." Frank said, nodding his head towards one of the carts.
At first glance, the only thing remarkable about the vendor was how entirely ordinary he looked. Nancy shook her head. When you were working with the Network, ordinary-looking was more suspicious than suspicious-looking, and that was a concept that could make you crazy. Now that she thought about it, it was really no wonder Frank was such a worrywart. "How do you know?" she asked. "He fits in with everyone else, but... so does everyone else."
Frank shrugged. "I can just tell. There's only a few selling produce, and that one's cart is tilted just a little off from the rest, so conversations with customers wouldn't be heard as clearly. Plus, it's right near that alley-"
"-In case he needs to make a quick escape." Nancy finished, catching on. She looked at him admiringly. "You know, you don't have to impress me anymore." she teased, "I already married you, remember?"
Frank squeezed her hand. "You don't have to be impressed unless he responds to the code phrase." he told her.
Together, they walked over to the produce cart, which was stacked high with fruits and vegetables both familiar and exotic. Behind it were several barrels filled with various kinds of nuts and legumes. The vendor was a short man with tanned skin and a dark mustache. Like many of the other merchants, he was clothed in traditional Egyptian garments. "Can I help you?" he said in heavily accented English, obviously perceiving them to be Americans.
Frank cleared his throat. "Do you sell many pistachios in the off-season?" he said in a serious voice.
The vendor was equally solemn in his response. "There is no off-season," he said, "for pistachios."
Frank nodded. "Then we'd like to buy some of your best fruit."
"The figs are very juicy." the vendor replied, withdrawing a brown paper bag from behind the cart. Nancy doubted there were figs in it. "They are quite expensive." But he handed the bag to Frank without waiting for money.
Though she knew they were speaking in code, Nancy bit her lip to prevent herself from giggling at the two grown men discussing fruit with such gravity. The pistachios bit had been a recognition code, to prove that they were indeed each others' contacts. By requesting the vendor's "best fruit," Frank had been asking for the package of information they were supposed to convey back to the States. Information which was, according to the undercover agent, apparently both valuable and juicy.
Frank thanked the vendor and handed the bag to Nancy to slip into her purse. As they turned to leave, however, the man called after them. "Be careful! The olives have pits in them!"
"What?" Frank turned back around slowly. "Pits?"
"Pits." the vendor repeated with wide eyes, as though he was trying to beam the message directly into Frank's brain. "And I regret to inform you that the two-for-one special is no longer available."
"No longer available." Frank repeated, a dark frown beginning to crease his face.
"Gone away." the vendor said, making a fluttering motion with his hand.
Now Nancy was confused. Frank had explained the code to her briefly, but she didn't remember him saying anything about olives or specials. Whatever the agent was saying, though, was clearly upsetting him.
"You're telling me the two-for-one special is gone?" he repeated incredulously. "How did this happen? Is it going to be brought back?"
The other man held out his hands. "I don't set the specials. I just sell the fruit."
"Well can you tell me anything?" Frank pressed. He was beginning to look angry now. "Where-?"
"I just sell fruit!" the vendor said quickly, cutting him off. "But you should also keep an eye out for other specials. You can get very good deals here. Locally."
"Fine. Thanks." Frank said, scrubbing his face in frustration as he stalked away from the cart.
The vendor caught Nancy's arm as she made to follow him. "Be careful," he said again.
"Because the olives have pits. I know. I got it." Nancy assured him with a smile. "Thank you!" She took a few steps away from the cart. "I didn't get it." she confessed to herself. She had to jog a few steps to catch up with Frank, hooking her arm into his. "Hey, what's wrong?" she asked lightly. "Did the crow not fly at midnight, or something?"
Frank didn't appreciate her attempt at code humor. "'Specials' are bad guys." he explained tersely. "The 'two-for-one special' is-"
"The doubles!" Nancy gasped as she finally figured it out. "They escaped from custody?"
"I guess so." Frank said. "You know everything I know, at this point."
She squeezed his arm sympathetically. "I'm so sorry, Frank." She pressed a kiss to his shoulder and smiled. "We should have known no one could hold them for long. After all, they're just as smart and just as strong as you and Joe. Add that to the fact that they're completely ruthless, and it's really no surprise they're unstoppable."
"They're stoppable." Frank said darkly.
"Okay." Nancy said apologetically. She knew that, despite trying to compliment him, she'd said the wrong thing. "Then that's what we'll do. First thing when we get home, okay?"
She felt his muscles tense under her hands. "Not you."
"Not me what?" Then her eyes widened and she actually stopped walking in the middle of the crowded street. "Are you kidding me right now?" Frank tried to get her to keep moving with the flow of traffic, but she wouldn't budge. "We've been married for twelve days and you're already trying to kick me off of a case?"
"Nan, no." Frank protested. Her pulled her over to one side of the path, out of the way of the passing shoppers. "It's not like that. You know I wouldn't do that."
"Then what is it like?" Nancy asked, folding her arms across her chest.
"I just..." Frank sighed. "I just couldn't take it if something happened to you. Especially on this one."
"Please, Frank. I can take care of myself." she reminded him. "Besides, it's not like I want anything to happen to you either." Though she was still irritated, there was a twinkle in her eye as she added, "Some people might think you're replaceable, but you're not." She reached up to poke his nose with her finger, but he caught her hand and held it in his own.
"You don't get it, Nan." he said softly. "Try to see what happened in the church from my point of view. Seeing him standing at the altar with you, seeing him defend you, pick you up off the floor... He could have been me. And then standing in the brides' room, watching him hurt you, watching myself hurt you..."
Nancy drew in a deep breath as she realized that Frank had been much more affected by the wedding debacle than she'd realized. Evil doubles might be more common in Bayport than River Heights, but that didn't mean they were any less serious. "Frank..."
He huffed a bitter laugh. "That's my handprint on your neck, Nan."
"It might be your handprint, but you didn't put it there." Nancy reminded him, concern creasing her eyebrows. "Where is this coming from? That psychopath looked like you, but he wasn't you."
"He had my thoughts, my memories." Frank pointed out. "He knew the things I was going to say before I said them, knew the move I was going to make before I made it."
"So he knew you pretty well. So what?" Nancy said. "He told me himself about how the doubles are brainwashed to kill. That's programming, Frank. It's not something that's naturally inside you." She brought up a hand to caress his cheek. "I'm sure of it. One hundred percent, this time." she said with a small smile. "Don't forget, I know you fairly well myself."
Frank nodded, turning his face into her palm to kiss it. "Thanks, Nan. Sorry to get worked up, it's just that I thought I was going to lose you before I got a chance to marry you. And to know what my double wanted to do to you, what he almost got away with... And you would have thought he was me."
"Darling, I may never have heard of the Lazarus Clinic, but if you ever behaved like that towards me even I would know that something was horribly wrong. Although... the kissing? That I could live with."
Frank raised a rakish eyebrow, catching her around the waist and pulling her tight against his body while he kissed her.
When he finally released her, she was flushed and breathless. "That's more like it." she murmured. She wound her arms around his waist and squeezed. "We'll track those guys down. Together. And someday very soon we're going to have a long conversation where you tell me all about all the strange cases you and Joe have worked. I never want to be caught that off-guard again."
"Sorry, Nan. Most of those cases are need-to-know." Frank said with a grin, using a phrase that he knew would get her riled.
Nancy was pleased that his melancholy mood seemed to have passed. She poked one finger into his chest. "We're married now, Hardy. If you need to know, I need to know."
"I don't remember that being in the vows."
Nancy laughed. "It should have been."
Frank shook his head. "Nosy..."
"Guilty." Nancy confessed with a smile. "And speaking of me being nosy, I peeked into the package. It's a hard drive." The strap of her purse was stretched across her torso to deter thieves, but she patted it anyway to reassure herself that the vital cargo was still present. "What do you think are the chances you'll be able to access whatever's on it so that we can have a look?"
"Slim-to-none." Frank answered, taking her hand and leading her back into the street. They began heading back toward their hotel. "If it's as important as everyone says—and judging from the lengths our wedding crashers went to to get it, that's pretty important—it'll be so encrypted it would take ten years to hack it."
"You could still try." Nancy suggested. "You've always been good at that sort of thing."
"I hate to disappoint you, Nan, but I think you're overestimating my talents." Frank said. "Besides, I can think of plenty of things I'd rather do with the last day of our honeymoon than sit in front of a computer."
"Oh?" Nancy cocked her head innocently. "Do any of them include me?"
"They all include you." Frank returned with a wink.
Nancy laughed, dropping his hand and instead sliding her arm around his waist. "Okay." she said. "You talked me out of it. Whatever is on that drive can remain a mystery forever."
Frank draped his own arm over her shoulders. "Thank god." he said. She knew he was thinking that he definitely couldn't have hacked the drive anyway, and maybe he was right.
She snuggled against him as they walked, content for the moment... until she caught sight of a man's reflection in a copper pot hanging from one of the merchants' booths. If she wasn't mistaken, she had seen the man before—several streets back. It could be a coincidence... or, he could be following them. And neither Nancy nor Frank believed in coincidence. "Frank...?"
"Remember what the vendor said, about there being other 'specials'? Locally?"
His body tensed ever-so-slightly. "Yes..."
"Because I think we're about to get a good deal." she said. Suddenly, they were both all business. "We're being followed. Tall guy, behind us, black shirt."
"I don't think he's the only one." Frank said quietly. "Check out dark beard, ten o'clock."
Nancy glanced casually to their left and saw that he was right; a second man was closing in on them, a menacing expression on his face. "Split up?"
Frank nodded. "You want me to take the drive?"
"I'll do you one better: you can take the bag." Nancy answered. Inside her purse, she dumped the drive out of the bag, then handed the empty paper bag to Frank. "Now they won't know who's got it."
"Meet you back at the hotel?" Frank said, his eyes still scanning the crowd for any additional threats.
"You bet." Nancy was already planning the escape route she would take through the alley adjacent.
Frank's arm loosened around her shoulders and she knew that when he let go, it would be the signal. "Don't get caught, Drew." he said. "I love you."
"It's Hardy." she reminded him with a grin before he let her go and they both disappeared into the crowd.
A/N: That is one important MacGuffin they've got there.
Before you ask, yes, I released Frank II and Joe II from prison, but no, I have no plans for a sequel to this story. Although honestly, I believe that every story could benefit from the inclusion of evil doubles, so I may come back to them eventually... who knows?
As I've said before, I know this story was a strange one, so thanks for sticking with me until the end! As always, I would love to know what you thought... comments or criticisms, anyone?