Two Sides of the Same Coin 1/?
Rating: M for language, sex and violence
Summary: When you're a spy, there's all kinds of occupational hazards when you work with another spy. For Sarah Walker, though, one mission becomes a life-changing experience. Because working with Charles Carmichael leads to protecting Chuck Bartowski.
Disclaimer: I don't own Chuck. No copyright infringement intended.
Author's Note: And now for something completely different . . . this is a dark, angsty fic with some different twists and turns on canon. You've been warned.
If Sarah Walker gripped the phone receiver any tighter, she just might crush it. And right now, she would have a hard time caring about that.
"I need you to slowly repeat what you just said," Sarah said, her voice cold and hard to hide her shock.
"Agent Larkin has taken a six-month deep cover solo assignment," said the woman on the other end, an assistant in the field agent scheduling office. "If you'd like to leave him a message, he will receive it at the end of his mission."
Sarah gritted her teeth. How dare he? How dare Bryce take a solo assignment without even telling her first? They were partners, damn it!
Admittedly, their partnership over the last six months had been a rocky one. More missions had failed or almost failed than had succeeded, and if there was one thing Bryce couldn't handle, it was failure. And speaking of failure, she couldn't remember the last time they had slept together, in fact. But Bryce knew her in ways that no one else did. They had spent so many days together, being the best at their jobs in the whole CIA. And when they weren't working, they . . .
What did they do? Try as she might, Sarah couldn't remember anything other than sex. Good sex, yes, but still . . . they had gone to fucking Mexico together on vacation, they had to have done something other than sex! But all she could remember was rolling around in a variety of beds and sitting in surveillance vans.
The assistant's voice prompted Sarah that she hadn't answered the question. "No, no message. Thank you."
Hanging up the phone, Sarah turned away from the bank of secure phones and looked around, taking in the lobby of CIA headquarters. It was bustling in the early morning hours, agents and analysts moving at a fast clip while security guards were stationed discreetly in various locations, watching all the action. She was standing across from the Memorial Wall, dedicated to those CIA personnel who had fallen in the line of duty. The ones that could be acknowledged, that is.
As always, Sarah felt her shoulders straightening when she took in the display. The example of the agents who came before her, the mindset of the men and women she worked with now, it all lead to one thing: country first. Protecting the United States was her highest priority, before furthering her career or dealing with her boyfriend issues-if she could call Bryce a boyfriend.
She was twenty-six years old, a member of the CIA for eight years and a fully-fledged field agent for the last four. In that time, she had traveled all over the world, defeating terrorist plots and destroying dangerous weapon factories and drug fields. Sarah Walker was widely considered one of the best within the Agency, and if Bryce Larkin wanted to work solo, let him. There were plenty of other agents who would want to work with her, and now that she was well-past the need for a handler, she could pick and choose her assignments. It was time to put her power to use and make her own path.
With that mental pep talk, Sarah turned on her heel and crossed the marble floors of the Original Headquarters lobby, heading for the elevator banks. It was time to talk to Langston Graham.
Sarah stepped into the Deputy Director's office on the fifth floor and nodded to the three assistants answering phones and typing on their computers. The one closest to the door, a sharply-featured older woman, gave Sarah a regal nod in return.
"Agent Walker, please be seated and I'll let the deputy director know that you're here."
"Thank you, Anne," Sarah said, taking a seat and crossing her legs. She wondered what assignments might be available right now. She would like to test herself with a solo assignment, something really meaty and independent. But given her mentor's nature, she was doubtful that she would be sent out alone. So she would just have to hope that she wasn't temporarily paired with some cocky James Bond type. She had gotten plenty of that with Bryce.
Within five minutes, Anne gestured for Sarah to step into the inner office. Sarah rose and smoothed down her blazer before walking into the office.
A wall of floor-to-ceiling windows gave a view of suburban Washington sprawl. The office was large enough for a conference table and eight chairs in addition to the large, imposing desk that was in the far corner of the room. It was there that Langston Graham was sitting, glasses perched on his nose as he reviewed a sheaf of folders in front of him. He glanced up and stood, removing his glasses. "Come in, Sarah. Have a seat."
Crossing the room, with its deep carpet and dark paneling, made her feel like she was stepping into a men's club. And after all, wasn't that what the CIA was, to this very day? An old boy's network. But she was determined to not fall into the trap of the young, beautiful agent, seen only as a seductress.
She took a seat in one of the leather chairs in front of Graham's desk, waiting to speak until after he had resumed his seat. "It's good to see you, Director."
"And you, Sarah. Although this visit is a surprise."
"I doubt that," she said, arching an eyebrow. "You would be among the first to know when Agent Larkin took a solo assignment."
He made a small, noncommittal gesture, leaning back in his chair. "I was aware. But up until eight hours ago, you were in Brazil."
Sarah shrugged. "I completed the assignment earlier in the expected completion window instead of later. I came back to Washington, expecting to meet Agent Larkin, only to find he was gone." It took more skill than it should to hide her emotions from coming out in her voice. Not that it really mattered; Graham had always read her better than anyone else. But that didn't mean she should act like some heartbroken girl.
"And now you need a new assignment?" Graham pinned his eyes on her. "You've been in the field for ten weeks, Sarah."
What he wasn't saying was that typical CIA regulations held that every eight weeks of fieldwork required at least four days of leave. Not that most agents took advantage of their leave, and the CIA was not over-eager to compel their best agents to take time off.
"I've worked with Agent Larkin for over a year," Sarah said. "Taking this solo assignment leaves me at loose ends, and I don't want there to be any appearance that he dumped me."
"Personally or professionally?"
She knew that Graham was just voicing what other agents might be thinking, but that didn't mean she had to like it. Lifting her chin, she said firmly. "Professionally. I could give a damn what anyone thinks about the personal relationship I may or may not have had with Agent Larkin. But on a professional level, we were equals and any mistakes made were on both sides."
Graham let out a soft snort and leaned back in his chair. "If I had any doubts about your abilities to handle Agency politics, you've just put my mind at ease, Sarah."
"I've not just been looking pretty the last four years," Sarah said, knowing there was still some tartness in her voice.
"Quite," Graham said, picking up one of the folders on his desk. "Here. Something different: a group of female agents are being formed. Cross-agency: there's a DEA agent and a Secret Service trainee involved. It's temporary, but if the team works out, you could keep working with them in-between more prestigious missions."
Sarah took the folder and glanced over the contents, then looked up at Graham with an arched eyebrow. "More prestigious missions, you say?"
He nodded. "It's time. I will be in touch when the right opportunity presents itself. In the meanwhile, enjoy your time with the C.A.T. Squad."
"Seriously? The team's name is the C.A.T. Squad?"
"Clandestine Attack Team," Graham said, trying to sound stern.
"So it's the Clandestine Attack Team Squad?" Sarah asked, shaking her head. "Tell me again how the CIA isn't full of prepubescent boys masquerading as men?"
"I think that's enough," Graham said, standing and holding his hand out to her.
She grinned at him as she stood up, tucking the folder under her arm. "It's all out of my system now." She gave his hand a firm shake, her momentary teasing fading into seriousness. "Thank you for your confidence, Director."
"Of course, Sarah," he said, his voice deep. "Good luck."
With a nod, Sarah accepted this dismissal and left the office. There was a spring in her step as she headed towards the travel arrangements office. The C.A.T. Squad's other members were currently in Miami, so that was where she needed to be.
She hadn't often worked in teams, so that would be a new challenge for her. And she wasn't sure what to expect from working with three other women. It was rare to ever work with just one woman out in the field, let alone more than one. At least she wouldn't have to worry about being hit on constantly. She wasn't quite ready to deal with some pawing agent, someone who expected a post-mission debriefing that involved literal debriefing.
More than this new team assignment, though, she was excited by the prospect of Graham finally trusting her with real, important missions. Not that her previous assignments hadn't mattered, but this was different. Sarah found herself smiling as she imagined what she could do as lead agent, the person directing the field operations and leading the charge.
It was just a matter of time before she would get that.
The music in the nightclub throbbed so loudly, it was amazing her vodka tonic wasn't moving across the bar from the soundwaves. Since the walls of the club were open to the balmy Miami air, though, the sound traveled out, spreading towards the beach-and making the volume achieved even more impressive.
Sarah lifted her glass and took a sip, looking around. Dressed in a short, white, tight dress, her hair fluffed and curled and her makeup dark and sultry, she looked like any other woman in the club tonight. Although she liked to think she looked better than most of the women, she thought with a small smirk.
"Hell, Walker, it's too early for you to be already looking like the cat who got the canary," Carina Miller said, joining her from the other end of the bar. She turned and gave a tight-lipped smile to a man at the far end, running her eyes up and down him before saluting with her drink.
"That canary's not your usual type, Miller," Sarah said, sipping her drink again.
Carina snickered and hopped up on a bar stool, fully aware of all the eyes that locked onto her with her movements. "So? His money spends like anyone else's." She set her drink down, stirring it absentmindedly as she looked around. "See anyone you like?"
"Even if all I wanted was a one-night fuck, nope," Sarah said, turning to lean back against the bar. "Where's Zondra and Amy?"
"Over by the DJ booth. I swear, Amy's got ears of steel, being able to stand this noise." Carina eyed Sarah. "The problem with you is, you desperately need a one-night fuck. What's with the prissiness, Sarah? Waiting for Prince Charming to show up and sweep you off your feet?" Carina paused, her expression mostly taunting but with a small amount of sympathy in it. "Or should I say Agent Charming?"
More and more, Sarah was realizing that her relationship with Bryce was a mistake. It marked her as a woman who fooled around with the men she worked with. Even though it had only happened with Bryce, any male agent she had encountered in the four months with the C.A.T. Squad seemed to expect her to fall into bed with him. If Carina hadn't enjoyed sex as much as she did, Sarah was sure she would have been shoved into every seduction job that came their way.
"I'm not waiting for Bryce," Sarah said. "But I'm not gonna make the same mistake twice. When I'm working, I'm not thinking about men."
"Good plan," Carina conceded. She tossed back some of her drink and stood up, smoothing down her own white dress-the C.A.T.s usually wore the same color when they went out, and tonight it was white. "C'mon, let's dance. Make every man here want to get a piece of us."
It was on the tip of her tongue to say no, to remind Carina that they were here with a job to do. Gaez kept giving them the slip and staying one step ahead of them. Their mission tonight was to track Bilbao, Gaez's right hand man, and find out where Gaez was. Getting lost in the music and dancing her ass off, although bound to relieve some stress, wouldn't let her stay focused on the assignment. She was the one who had to keep her eye on the ball. Amy was a ditz, Carina was a wild-card, and Zondra . . . well, there was something about her, something closed-off even for a spy, that made Sarah have a hard time relying on her.
But if they drew some attention to themselves, they would more likely attract the roving eye of Bilbao. And although Carina thought this music was noise, it made Sarah want to move. To close her eyes and dance and forget all the crap missions she'd had since Bryce had left.
"Okay, Carina," Sarah said, draining her glass. "But let's keep it at least relatively clean, okay? We get thrown out of here, we're screwed."
"Oh, if only we would be," Carina said, shimmying a little and grinning.
Sarah couldn't help laughing. Even if Carina was much too ready to throw mission plans out the window and do her own thing, especially when it made her look better, she was definitely interesting to spend time with. And she was a great dancer-perhaps even better than Sarah. Between the two of them, they'd get the job done.
But before she could go any further, she felt a vibration against her hip. Opening her purse, she saw that her cell phone was ringing-and it was Graham.
With a sigh, she held the phone up so Carina could see it, then waved her towards the dance floor. "I'll be back in a minute!" she called out, waiting for Carina's nod before heading towards the open sliding doors that led onto the beach.
She moved far enough away from the club that the music wouldn't be too distracting before answering the phone. "Yes, sir."
"If you can be spared from your current assignment, I have an assignment that would use your talents much more effectively, Sarah."
"Give me the details," Sarah said, kicking off her heels and standing barefoot in the sand.
"It's in Budapest. How's your Hungarian?" Graham sounded cautious. Like he was choosing his words carefully.
"Passable," Sarah said. "Is it a solo op?"
"No, you'll be working with another agent. I know, I know," Graham said, cutting off her objections. "Every assignment, you've had to carry the other agent. You've done all the work and gotten none of the glory. But this one is different. Ryker's experienced. You'll learn a lot about how to run your own op from him."
"Director . . ." Sarah said, trying to gather her thoughts. Trying to find a way to tell her boss that the jobs he kept picking for her were duds and that she should do her own mission selection. But between the vodka tonic swirling in her guts, the noise from the nightclub, and the lack of face-to-face contact, she just didn't know how to proceed. With a sigh, Sarah nodded. "All right. I'll leave for Budapest tonight."
"Excellent," Graham said. "Your mission briefing has been sent to your electronic mail account. Good luck."
"Thank you," Sarah said tiredly before hanging up the phone. Reaching down, she picked up her heels and trudged back to the club, her mind automatically making plans, acting like a CIA agent. But for a moment, she wished she was just a woman out at a club for the night with her girlfriends.
And then she wondered just why she was wishing for a normal life, of all things.
Throughout her training, Sarah had found that slipping into a cover identity did not come easily to her. It involved a level of acting ability that was beyond her. When it was a short-term assignment, she could handle it. But she knew if and when she was placed in any sort of deep cover mission, she would have to work very hard to maintain her cover.
She found herself thinking about that as she moved through the halls of the CIA's Original Headquarters building, on her way to Graham's office. Because she doubted her face was as blank as she tried to make it, doubted that the anger and annoyance and frustration were completely absent from her eyes.
Because she was done with letting Graham pick her missions. Because he was doing a lousy job of it. And this most recent mission was the straw that broke the camel's back.
Kieran Ryker was an arrogant, misogynistic asshole. He hadn't hit on her, at least. But instead of teaching her more about being agent-in-charge, he had sent her on an off-book mission, made her assassinate a roomful of Hungarian mobsters, all to get his hands on some rich baby. If she hadn't done extra research while dealing with flight delays to Budapest, going beyond the mission briefing to find out more for herself, she would have walked right into the trap.
Sarah knew that it wasn't Graham's fault for how badly it had gone. But that didn't mean she wasn't going to put her foot down. She didn't need a handler and she didn't need a team. She could work solo missions, and if Graham wasn't willing to see it . . .
With a frown, Sarah stepped into the elevator and leaned back against the wall of the car. She blew out a breath. What could she do? Graham wasn't just her mentor-he was her boss. If anyone had the power in this, it was him.
But she was tired of never being the equal of anyone she worked with. Of being treated as an inferior due to being a woman or young or beautiful, when she knew she had the skills and the desire to be better than anyone she had worked with up until this point. Hell, the C.A.T. Squad was the best work partnership she had experienced up to this point, but team assignments weren't exactly a way to distinguish yourself.
"Maybe I should just keep working with them," Sarah said softly under her breath. But she wouldn't give up on her ambition so easily, she knew. It was just her frustration talking.
Straightening up, Sarah smoothed down her clothes and stepped off the elevator. She did her best to tap down her anger and think logically. This meeting was very important and she didn't want to lose her temper.
Gratifyingly, when she stepped into the outer office, Anne immediately stood up. "Go right in, Agent Walker."
She acknowledged Anne with a nod and continued into Graham's inner office. To her surprise, Graham was ensconced in one of the leather armchairs by the floor-to-ceiling windows, gazing out at the glittering pinpoints of light in the dark landscape below. When the door closed behind Sarah, he turned his head and gestured for her to join him.
Slowly, Sarah crossed the carpet and dropped down into the chair, sitting on the edge of the seat.
"Your work was crucial in preventing Kieran Ryker from getting away with his plan," Graham said, launching right into business. "You will receive a commendation."
"What happens to Ryker?" Sarah asked, looking out at the view instead of at Graham. Needing a moment to collect her thoughts.
"Officially, he's on leave. Unofficially . . . well, it's hard to keep track of prisoners being moved around," Graham said, a dark note in his voice.
Against her will, Sarah felt herself shiver. Ryker deserved to rot in prison for what he had done-not just to her and to the men she had killed, but for killing that baby girl's parents himself. But if all he would get was being tortured to death in a red op . . . well, that was that.
"I know there was no evidence of Ryker's true nature," Sarah began slowly. "But I think this proves that perhaps you have my best interests too much at heart."
Graham nodded slowly, sipping from the glass in his hand. "I have mentored a few special agents through the years. Ones in which I saw something . . . unusual. Something unique. So far, only two of those agents are still alive. It's likely that I will not find another agent to mentor like that before I retire. Since you are the last, I have . . ."
His voice trailed off. Sarah wondered what he had intended to say. And she wondered what would come next.
The silence increased, pressing down on the room, until Sarah found herself biting her lower lip in a rare display of nerves. Fortunately, Graham spoke before Sarah blundered into a way to move the conversation along.
"You have heard of Agent Charles Carmichael?"
Out of all the subjects Graham could have picked, this was one that Sarah had not anticipated. "Yes, of course," she said, feeling a bit dumbstruck.
"He's the other agent I've mentored that's still alive," Graham said. "In fact, he seems blessed."
Blessed was putting it mildly, Sarah thought. Charles Carmichael was the same age as she, but in his years working for the Agency had quickly become one of the most highly-decorated, well-respected, envied agents ever. She had never met him, but everyone heard the stories about him. Brilliant with a mind made for tactics and strategy, he had never had a mission backfire on him. His success rate was 99.8% and he had gathered more actionable intelligence than dozens of agent teams.
Spies who had worked with Carmichael came away raving about his abilities. Claiming that seeing him in action was eye-opening, life-changing. Sarah had always thought such claims were a bit ridiculous, but perhaps-perhaps this was just what she needed. A chance to see a real spy in action, one that had a reputation for fair dealing and respecting his colleagues. And a man who treated women as equals. That is, if that was what Graham was hinting at . . .
"And he has a mission that you could be most useful on." He paused and turned to look at her. "After you complete this mission, which I will see as a favor to me, you can select your own assignments. Clearly, I've been holding you back."
Such an admission made any remaining anger drain out of Sarah. Grasping that all this time, Graham was attempting to look out for her and protect her, made her heart soften a little. Certainly there was almost no one who wanted to take care of her like that. And although it was misplaced, coming from her boss, she didn't want to deny how important he had been to her as a mentor.
"I've always been grateful for the opportunities you've given me, Director," Sarah said quietly. "And I will continue to see you as a mentor."
Graham's face, usually so hard and set, might have relaxed for a moment. Or it could be a trick of the darkened room.
Instead of saying anything else, he rose and walked over to his desk, coming back with a file folder. "You'll meet Agent Carmichael at H Street Country Club tomorrow night at eight."
Sarah blinked. "Excuse me?" Had Graham really just said she'd meet her new co-worker at someplace on H Street, which was practically the hinterlands of D.C.?
"Carmichael has his own routine for agents he's going to work with. As much as possible, he prefers to have drinks first, get to know them. So you'll meet him there around eight. I believe the restaurant serves Mexican." Graham looked at her, then handed her the file folder. "His methods seem to work, though. I would recommend having an open mind."
"All right," Sarah said, standing up. "Thank you, Director. Have a good evening."
He nodded to her. "Good luck, Agent Walker."
It didn't miss her notice that he called her Agent Walker and not Sarah. But she wasn't about to comment on it. So she gave him a small smile and left the office.
After all, she had a lot of research to do before meeting Charles Carmichael tomorrow night.
It was just after eight o'clock when Sarah stepped into the H Street Country Club. She hadn't anticipated having so much trouble finding a parking spot, or she would have been early as she would have preferred. Looking around, she took in the oddly quirky place. A long bar stretched along one side of the long, narrow room. A staircase opposite the bar led upstairs, probably to a dining room.
At least her jeans and somewhat low-cut blue top would fit in here. Her boot heels thumped softly against the floor as she stepped further into the room. They were meeting for drinks, so Sarah looked along the bar. About halfway down, sitting on a high-backed bar stool, was a man who matched the photo clipped to the papers in the folder Graham had given her.
In the picture, Charles Carmichael had a set to his jaw, a determination in his gaze. Everything about him screamed no-nonsense, all-business spy. His hair was dark and apparently curly, although the curls seemed tamed by product. His eyes were deep and brown, and it might be her imagination, but she sensed a spark of humor in them. His stats listed him as six foot four and 190 pounds, which implied a tall, lean man.
The Carmichael who was sitting at the bar was dressed in happy hour casual. His blue dress shirt sleeves were rolled up and his top button was undone; one foot, in a black dress oxford, was propped up on the foot rail of the bar. A black jacket, which matched his trousers, was hung over the back of his stool.
As she approached, she got a better look at him. It looked like he hadn't shaved for a day or so, stubble darkening his jaw. His long fingers were tapping against his bottle of Dos Equis in time with the music playing. And his hair looked rumpled, like he had been running his hands through it.
Before she could say anything, he turned his head and looked straight at her. For just a moment, his eyes widened, then he grinned a little. "Walker, I presume?"
Something about that grin made her feel a bit off-kilter. Like her expectations were getting thrown out the window and she was flying blind.
Sarah did her best to hide her reaction, taking the seat next to him. "That's me. And you're Carmichael."
"It's what it says on my badge. What's your poison?"
Picking up the bar menu, Sarah ran her eyes over the list of drinks, then looked at the waiting bartender. "Skinny margarita, please."
Carmichael leaned over her shoulder a little to read the menu. "Tequila and lime juice. Nothing like keeping it simple."
Was invading her space part of his out-of-the-box techniques? Sarah carefully set down the menu, trying not to let her discomfort show. Fortunately, he moved back before she had to shift away.
"So . . . I don't think I've ever had drinks with someone before I've worked with them. Afterwards? It's happened." She hoped that making a bit of a joke about her supposed reputation would dispel any awkwardness-and any ideas he might have.
"It's something I came up with a few years ago. I don't tend to work more than one mission with anyone, so developing a rapport is tricky. Getting drinks or a meal together gives us both a chance to get to know each other. Makes working together go a bit smoother." Carmichael sipped his beer and looked at her. "It's nice to finally meet you. Graham's talked about you occasionally."
The bartender set down her margarita, then placed a basket of chips and salsa between them. Sarah tasted her drink before replying. "And everyone knows you."
"Yeah," Carmichael said, dipping a chip into the salsa and popping it into his mouth. "They think so."
That was a bit of an odd response. She eyed him as he ate some more chips. He was the golden boy of the CIA. He should be an arrogant asshole. But instead, he seemed . . . diffident. Like he didn't care what people said about him.
Rather than keep drinking on an empty stomach, Sarah took a chip and tried the salsa. "Mmm. That's good."
"It's got a good kick," Carmichael agreed. "Reminds me of the salsas I've gotten in Mexico."
"Me, too," Sarah replied, trying not to think about that vacation in Cabo with Bryce. "Is that why you made us trek out here to H Street? For good salsa?"
Carmichael laughed softly. "Yeah, yeah, I know H Street is still off the beaten path. Crazy, isn't it? You can live someplace for years and not know it, but I know places like Ankara as well as the back of my hand."
She thought about that for a moment, then nodded. "I spend more time outside of Washington than in it. And when I'm here, I'm not exactly sightseeing."
"See, that was the first thing I did when I moved here. Got familiar with the whole city." He shrugged. "You never know when something might happen. And it'd be pretty lame to not know your own city."
Of course he had. Sarah took a sip of her margarita, hoping it hid her sour expression. So maybe he wasn't an arrogant asshole. But there seemed to be a strongly defined know-it-all streak in Charles Carmichael.
"You often think about being attacked on American soil?" Sarah asked, looking straight at him. "Sounds like you've let your imagination run away with you."
His rich brown eyes locked with hers. "Just being prepared. If it's good enough for the Boy Scouts, it's good enough for me."
Perhaps it was time to change the subject. Move to the topic of the mission. Because this was feeling strange. This whole conversation might be about building rapport for the mission, but it was a little too close to feeling like a first date.
She crossed her legs and ate a salsa-loaded chip. "So we're off to the Dominican Republic tomorrow?"
Lifting his bottle, Carmichael finished off his beer before nodding. "Yeah. Your experience with the Secret Service will come in handy."
"President Fernandez suspects radical Trujillo-era terrorists of wanting to overthrow his government?" Sarah asked, referring to the information that Graham had given her yesterday.
"So we're going in to protect him for a few days. See what we can find out. It appears these terrorists are being funded by Dominicans who are here in the United States." Carmichael's voice was low, causing her to lean in a little towards him. When she did, she got a whiff of a fresh, clean scent. Some kind of cologne, she guessed. It was a good smell.
"A bit paradoxical, since so many people left the country because of Trujillo," Sarah said, propping her chin up on her hand. To outsiders, they might look like a couple getting closer. Finding an unexpected connection. And that was a good impression, because it made any onlookers less likely to interrupt or intrude on them.
Giving her head a small shake, she focused on what Carmichael had to say.
"Paradoxical is an understatement. I have my doubts on the whole story," Carmichael said. "I think we're gonna find something very different when we arrive."
"I guess we'll see," Sarah said, finishing her margarita. She leaned back, reaching for her purse.
"Leaving, huh?" Carmichael said. "No interest in dinner?"
Sarah hesitated for a moment, then shook her head and gave him an apologetic smile. "I still have a few things to wrap up before we leave. Another time, maybe."
"Your loss," Carmichael said lightly. "There's an indoor mini golf course upstairs, and I'm lousy at it. You could have won easily."
"Tempting," Sarah said, pulling out her wallet.
Carmichael's hand suddenly covered hers. "I've got this." His fingers were warm and soft-not at all what she had expected. He pulled his hand away and stood up, gesturing to the bartender as he pulled out some cash. "I'll see you tomorrow, Walker."
When she stood up, she made sure to steady herself for a moment. "Have a good night, Carmichael. Enjoy the mini golf."
A soft chuckle escaped him and he gave her a small salute. She found herself giving him a quick smile before she turned and walked out.
If meeting Charles Carmichael was supposed to make working together easier, Sarah wasn't sure about that. Because the half hour with him had given her enough questions to keep her up tonight. Not that she'd let that happen. She needed sleep before the mission started, and staying up all night thinking about a guy was behavior better suited for a teenage girl. Not an accomplished woman who was also an agent for the CIA.
But she definitely had high hopes for this mission now.
As bullets whizzed past her head, Sarah peeked over the half-wall that was her cover, then slumped back down and checked her gun. "Tell me again how this was supposed to go?"
Carmichael grimaced as he checked his tranq gun-and seriously, a tranq gun? What agent didn't have a real gun as his sidearm? Sarah grimaced. Charles Carmichael really was too smart for his own good. Strolling into this kind of mission without even bringing a gun? Who did that?
Blowing a strand of hair out of her eyes, Sarah tried to stay focused. If they were going to get out of this, spending valuable time blaming Carmichael for what was happening wouldn't help.
Things had started well. When they had landed in Santo Domingo, CIA contacts had gotten them into the Presidential residence: Sarah as a security officer and Carmichael in the kitchens. Over the first few days, they had met in hidden corners to update each other. All that she had heard about Carmichael seemed to be accurate: he was definitely brilliant, definitely on the pacifist side, and definitely saw her as an equal. If nothing else, the fact that he had arranged their positions, and put himself in the kitchen, spoke to that.
Feeling like they were on the same side, that he wasn't trying to cut her off at the knees, let her work better. It hadn't taken long for them to gather clear evidence that there was no terrorist plot. The rumors about a new Trujillo taking over the government were to distract everyone from a massive web of corruption, one that included President Fernandez.
It should have been simple. Find a few people implicated in the corruption, lean on them until they gave up the ringleaders, then take out the head of the pyramid. Best of all, most of that could be handled by the local government, not them. Because this was an internal Dominican matter, something that certainly didn't require the CIA and its best agents.
But that was much too simple for Carmichael. And now, here they were, getting shot at.
"We've got to get out from under fire!" Carmichael yelled over the bullets. "Follow me." He scooted over the ground like a crab, heading towards one wing of the Presidential mansion.
Sarah tucked her gun into the waistband of her pants and followed him, ducking when a bullet that hit a palm tree sent splinters flying past her. Carmichael glanced back, his eyes asking if she was all right. She nodded and continued crawling, catching up with him as they reached a set of double doors.
He grabbed the doorknob and turned it, then groaned. Sarah yanked out her gun and started providing cover as Carmichael picked the lock. Within twenty seconds, he had the door open and they were both inside. Safe, for the moment.
"Tell me again why uncovering a giant internal scandal isn't enough for you?" Sarah said, running her hands through her hair and removing debris.
"Because it's not just about the corruption," Carmichael said, breathing hard. "Fernandez is trying to get in good with Alejandro Goya, so he's letting supplies for Costa Gravas get shipped through the DR, to avoid the UN blockade."
Was he just making this stuff up, Sarah wondered. Because finding a connection between the Dominican Republic, a country with a long democratic history, albeit full of bribery and blackmail, and the isolated Communist country of Costa Gravas was a real stretch.
"That makes no sense-why would Fernandez care about Goya or Costa Gravas?" she said, digging in her pocket for a full mag.
"Because with Costa Gravas to help, Fernandez can lay the groundwork for Haiti to be swallowed up by the Dominican Republic."
All right, that kind of made sense. Two countries sharing one island, one incredibly poor and one enjoying the fruits of a booming tourist economy . . .
Sarah looked at him. "You're sure about this?" For some reason, she found herself searching his face, seeking some kind of reassurance that what he said was true.
He nodded and opened his mouth to speak, only for a loud thud and splintering wood making them realize that they weren't safe here any longer.
"C'mon," Carmichael said, grabbing her hand and pulling her along. "I've got proof. We just have to get out of here, so the documents can go to the UN."
"That's the last thing Fernandez is going to want to happen," Sarah pointed out, shaking loose of his grip and holding her gun at the ready.
"So we'll have to be sneaky like spies," Carmichael said, giving her a tight smile.
"Funny," Sarah said, peeking around a corner. "If we go down this hall, we'll be close to the President's parking garage. Get a car and get to the airport. Simple."
"All your plans are simple," Carmichael said, finally drawing his tranq gun. "Did you sell your soul to Occam?"
"When you're thinking on the fly, simple is best. With a healthy dose of brute force on the side," Sarah said, glancing at him. She took one step forward, only to be suddenly yanked back and into a dark room. And then she had six feet, four inches of warm male pressed up against her.
"What the fuck!" Sarah hissed, pushing against him.
"You were about to get your head blown off!" Carmichael said, his voice low and hard. "That's why simple brute force doesn't work. The rooms in this wing are all interconnected-which gives us cover. So let the sweep pass and then we can just walk through the rooms to the garage."
Sarah did her best to glare at him, even as she felt a rush of embarrassment. She knew that-she knew that this side of the mansion, built in the colonial period, had retained the French architectural style with rooms connected to each other. She should have thought of that. Even now, she could hear the sound of heavy boots treading along the corridor she had been about to turn down.
Damn the man. She would have to admit she was wrong later. If they both survived this. And she really hated having to eat crow.
Wait a minute. Just why was he pressed up against her still? Not that she was necessarily complaining, but-oh, hell, neither was he. Not with what she was feeling.
Her eyes had adjusted enough so that she could make out his face. Rather than say anything, she slowly rolled her hips.
He let out a little gasp, his eyes almost crossing, and then he stepped away from her, turning so that he faced away from her.
Taking advantage of his focus being on fixing his little problem, Sarah closed her eyes for a moment. It was a good thing that tall, lean, muscled men with enormous brains weren't her type at all. Nope. Not in the slightest.
"I think we can start moving," Sarah said, keeping her voice barely above a whisper.
Carmichael nodded and headed over to a set of French doors. She noticed that he was very carefully not looking at her. Like he was embarrassed. Seeing the great Charles Carmichael brought down to a human level was . . . odd. Odd and strangely compelling.
Sarah shook her head and followed him, leading with her gun as they moved through the rooms. Carmichael set a pace that balanced silence with speed, just like she would in this situation. Fortunately, this side of the mansion was rarely used, so the rooms were mostly empty of furniture, preventing any unfortunate noisy collisions.
Within ten minutes, they were in the garage. Sarah made a beeline for one of the heavily-armored Mercedes that President Fernandez favored. Carmichael stopped her. "No, too conspicuous. Let's take the convertible."
He had a point, but Sarah's hackles were raised by his peremptory nature. Because he wasn't asking her if they should take the convertible-he was telling her. "You think a convertible is less conspicuous? Especially when there are orders to shoot us?"
"Yeah," Carmichael said, going over to a door by the one they had come through into the garage. "Because in this closet, I've got a bag of disguises for us, so we'll just look like some rich tourist couple once we're off the mansion's grounds." He looked over at her as he picked the lock, then shrugged. "I plan for contingencies. Also, I apologize in advance."
"Shouldn't you be apologizing for what happened back in that room?" Sarah said, moving over to the convertible to hotwire it, feeling yet again that mixture of annoyance and awe at being out-thought by him.
"That was just biology," Carmichael said, his voice a bit distracted as he worked on the lock. "This? This could be seen as malice aforethought."
Sarah yanked open the convertible door and bent underneath the wheel, feeling around for the ignition wires. It took her a few minutes to get the car started-she really wished she had paid more attention, those times her father had tried to teach her how to hotwire a car. By the time the little Italian sports car's engines were purring, Carmichael was back, wearing white linen trousers and an unbuttoned blue-and-white tropical print shirt. He ruffled his hair, the natural curl coming out in the humid conditions. With his ever-present stubble, he certainly fit the part of a tourist.
"Clothes and wig are in the closet," he said, sliding behind the wheel.
Without any delay, she dashed over and took care of the wig first, a short black bob. Then she looked at the clothes and groaned. Now she knew what he meant, because all that there was for her to wear was a skimpy blue bikini, a denim miniskirt, and a pair of flip-flops.
She quickly wiggled into the clothes, purposely not thinking about Carmichael's fashion choices and what they might mean in the context of that dark room. Grabbing her gun, she hurried back to the car and got in the passenger seat.
As soon as her ass hit the seat, Carmichael gunned the car and drove out of the garage. Sarah slid down in the seat, her gun held in her hands and sweeping her eyes for any gunmen. "You think we can get away?" she asked, glancing over at him.
"Ask me when we get to the airport," he said, his jaw tight. His tranq gun was in his lap. He seemed more anxious now than at any point before, which Sarah understood.
After a few moments, though, she slowly uncoiled herself and sat up straight, settling her gun by her side and somewhat out of sight. They were entering the heart of Santo Domingo's historical district, and although traffic was heavy, Carmichael kept them moving. When he turned the car onto a eastbound highway, she looked at him curiously.
"We're not flying back out through La Isabela?" she asked, referring to the charter airport through which they had entered the Dominican Republic.
Carmichael shook his head. "I thought we'd have better luck if we took a commercial flight from Las Américas."
"Makes sense," Sarah admitted.
He glanced over at her. "I think that's the first time you've just accepted a decision I've made, Walker."
It was on the tip of her tongue to point out that she had accepted the clothes she was currently wearing, but something made her hold back. Had she been that argumentative? She searched her memory as they covered the fifteen kilometers to the airport.
There was just something about watching him work, seeing his mind make these huge leaps and connect the dots that made her feel . . . small. Inadequate. Sarah knew she was a good agent and perhaps could be a great one. But Carmichael was the full package, his reliance on tranq guns notwithstanding. And he had made her better. Made her open her mind more than she ever had on a mission. She already knew that her next job, she'd reconsider her "simple" mantra, take more care in setting up the operation so it didn't devolve into a fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants affair.
Graham had been right. Carmichael wasn't by the book, but he certainly got the job done flawlessly. This mission had been on the verge of going very wrong and he had made it go right.
Turning in her seat, she looked at Carmichael. Really looked at him. He flicked his eyes towards her, sensing her gaze, but then faced forward again, letting her look.
"I know I'm not attractive enough to merit this much staring," he said after a few moments, his voice studiously casual. Like he wanted to make his words a joke, yet didn't at the same time.
"I can see why you don't work more than once with most agents," Sarah said. "It's humbling, working with someone so much better than you are."
He glanced at her for a long moment before looking back at the road. "You're not the first person to point that out to me. But if the other option is to not do my job to the best of my abilities . . ." He shrugged. "Not gonna happen."
Sarah nodded. "Still, it must suck."
Letting out a soft, bitter laugh, Carmichael turned the wheel, exiting the highway at the airport. "You have no idea."
The life of a spy was not one of glamorous jet-setting, staying in luxury hotels and eating and drinking the finest food and drink.
Tonight proved that.
Sarah looked around the small room, her nose wrinkling slightly. The lashing rain, the reason they were in this airport hotel instead of on a plane, drummed loudly against the single-paned window. The air conditioning unit clanked and wheezed, putting out a lukewarm breeze. The small double bed was covered in a dingy floral spread and the carpet looked like it needed just one more stain to be a Jackson Pollock painting.
Carmichael, standing next to her, sighed. "Nice to see the government dollar gets us so much," he said, giving her a lopsided smile.
"Some things never change," Sarah said, walking into the room and setting down the plastic bag she was carrying and taking off the black wig. She had bought two t-shirts at the airport, since she wasn't about to fly home wearing just a bikini and a miniskirt. Along with the toiletries she had picked up, she'd be decent for tomorrow's flight.
"We're on the first flight to D.C. tomorrow," Carmichael said, taking a seat on the bed and leaning back on his hands. "Should be back there by noon."
She nodded, rummaging in her bag. "Good. I suppose we'll go right to headquarters to debrief?"
"Yeah . . . hey, feel free to take the first shower. In this place, I think we'll be lucky if one of us gets a hot shower, and you deserve it."
There was something about his voice that made Sarah stop and look at him, narrowing her eyes. "Do I?"
"You made it through a mission with Charles Carmichael without wounding him. So your reward is a hot shower," he said glibly.
Turning to face him, one of the t-shirts in her hand, she folded her arms over her chest. "You know, just because I said it was humbling working with you didn't mean it was like getting tortured by Al-Qaeda."
Carmichael looked at her, then arched an eyebrow. "Really."
"Yeah, really," she said, straightening her back to reach her full height. "I can think of worse things than having to work with you again."
For a split second, so fast that she thought she might have imagined it, a pure, happy grin flashed across his face. But then it was gone and his blasé mask was back in place. "Working with you again wouldn't be so bad, either."
"Don't gush so much, Carmichael. You're making me blush," she said with a grin. She made a small gesture with her t-shirt. "I'm going to shower now."
She didn't wait for a reply, just turned and stepped into the small bathroom. Once the door was closed behind her, Sarah felt the tension seep out of her, letting her lean back against the door.
What was it about him that made her feel like she had to be on her toes all the time? Like they were squaring off for a fight, one that could change everything. She could understand feeling this way during the mission, but the job was done now-yet the coiled spring of anticipation and challenge and pleasure was still there. There was no way to anticipate him, but when she lobbed a response back to his latest verbal ploy, one that hit the mark or made him off-balance, she got the sense that he liked her.
And clearly, she was going a little bit crazy.
Running a hand through her hair, Sarah pushed off from the door and got undressed. She started the shower and hopped underneath the weak spray, which at least was in the same neighborhood as hot. Closing her eyes, she leaned into the water and tried to not think about Charles Carmichael.
End, Chapter 1