So, whilst in the golden state of California, I started pounding away at a story, intensely Alternate Universe (I don't seem able to write any other kind, Wingman aside). In this story, instead of abandoning their children, the elder Bartowskis decided to grab Chuck and Ellie and run, which meant that Chuck and Ellie had quite the unorthodox upbringing. They're adults now, and the Bartowskis serve as a sort of A-Team group, running around the world and helping the little guy (maybe more like Leverage than A-Team), while trying to stay one step ahead of their greatest enemy, the man only known as Loki. Chuck has split off from the rest of his family to follow a crazy lead.
Sarah Walker, whose partner idiotically got himself killed trying to blow up the Intersect, is in trouble with the CIA. She has one chance to prove her worth to the company, and that chance is an impossible assignment: to track down the man only known as the Ghost. Tenacity, skill, and luck have led her to an estate party in the south of Spain...
Romeo and Juliet Without Teenagers or Death
Well, Okay, Some Death
It was the kind of night only realists would write about, being mildly overcast rather than starlit and diamond-clear, a touch on the cool side, and completely unremarkable otherwise. The breezes ruffling the fields came from the north rather than the south or the west, so they carried no hint of the sea. The air hinted at an unpleasant humidity to be faced the next day. Fields and trees and fences as they passed were murky and blurred, barely noticeable to even the eye trained to see beauty. Perhaps the night’s only saving grace was that the clouds overhead shifted, occasionally sidling aside to bless the world with patches of moonlight. With a full moon, a night like this might have been saved.
Chuck reflected on that thought as he watched the world race by, the fingers of one hand lacing through the side rails of the vegetable truck. It jostled, rattling the truck bed below and bouncing his tailbone painfully a few times, and he thought maybe he should just concentrate on not falling off the back of a truck in the middle of nowhere, instead of on what the night might look like with a little more ambience.
He had a good feeling about tonight. Even if his plan was, at best, three coconuts short of a cocktail hour on a Hawaiian beach, something about tonight’s upcoming events filled him with an odd sense of hope, even though he knew he looked downright absurd. He had to. He was sitting on the back of a farming truck a good twenty years his senior, dressed to the nines for a party at a country estate. He could have forged an invitation so that he could drive in like a normal person, but he didn’t like operating on half-hearted intelligence, so he’d risk it on two feet and his wits. That was, he thought as the truck jounced him around for the fifty-third time, assuming he didn’t end up face-first in the dirt road before they reached the rendezvous.
He tightened his grip on the wooden slats of the side railing, feeling splinters dig into his palm. On paper, his upcoming task was an idiotic expenditure, he knew. By all rights, he should abandon this fool’s errand, hop on the first flight out in the morning, and just go. Ellie had found work stateside, and she could use tech help or a grease-man, or so it seemed from her last message on the Everquest forums the week before.
She was just checking in. She missed him, or she was worried about him, or she needed him. It was probably a mixture of all three. He shouldn’t be here on a truck, not when Bartowskis were supposed to stick together. But even so, he still had that good feeling keeping him warm.
The truck hit some sort of ditch, nearly spilling vegetables and Chuck into the dust of the road. By some miracle of gravity, nothing landed in the dirt, but Chuck felt a little closer to losing his lunch. God, he hated travel, which made no sense in the grand scheme of things, given that he’d been traveling for…simply too long to count without wanting to just stop and break down.
As if aware of his thoughts, the truck’s breakneck pace began to ease to merely death-defying, and finally to the normal bounds of the law. The instant it had trundled to a stop, Chuck hopped down and moved to the driver’s side window. It squeaked as it rolled down to reveal the driver’s grin, black against the black night.
“My stop, yes?” Chuck asked, deliberately garbling French. They were in the south of Spain, well out of range of most American tourism, but it still served his purposes for his drivers to believe him to be a moronic American businessman, too stupid and rich for his own good. They were bilking him. They knew it, he knew it, they thought he didn’t know it, and the system worked well for all involved, especially since Chuck had planned to pay them a lot more. He held up the money they’d requested and gave them the stupid tourist smile. “Deniro, si?”
“Si!” The driver snatched the Euros from his hand, gave him a big smile, and stomped on the gas. Chuck heard him say something to his friend about the American jackass as the truck left nothing but a cloud of dust and a single turnip behind. He coughed and brushed at his sleeves, grateful he’d picked the suit that didn’t collect dust and stains. He’d paid through the nose for it, but in the end, it was a klutz’s godsend.
The instant the truck had vanished from sight, he flipped his left sleeve back and tapped two buttons on the device strapped to his wrist. The watch face disappeared, a screen sliding in to take its place. After a second’s lag—he really needed to work on that—words popped up: “Good evening, sir.”
“Evening, Tanya,” he said, figuring that if he couldn’t talk in the middle of an abandoned field, he really did deserve to leave the spy game. “Distance to Destination Bravo.”
“Point nine kilometers, southwest.” The screen faded as the watch face reappeared, a red light blinking along one edge. Chuck began to follow the red circle. He’d modeled Cortanya 3.0, the third in the ’Tanya line, off of the objective circle in the corner of most modern video games, though he still had to work at making the watch face just a little smaller. He could ask for help, and he knew it would come without pause, but the Tanya line was his idea, and he wanted to stand on his own two feet on this one.
First, though, he had to walk on those own two feet all the way to a party he still wasn’t sure he should attend, while wearing dress shoes. It was going to be a long walk.
If she never had to attend a party like this ever again, Sarah Walker was positive it would be far too soon. She didn’t mind the setting for the party so much: Senor Champignon’s estate was pleasant, the caterers quiet and competent, evenly spaced torches burning just brightly enough to provide context without details, which was both a blessing and a curse for a sole operative working alone in the field. It meant that she could identify all of those pesky agents the NSA had sent along, but that she couldn’t precisely get a good enough read to assess which weapons they carried. She would have to improvise.
Normally, that would have been fine by her. One circumstance or another had honed her ability to adlib through any situation, as long as there was danger present. Thrust into those sticky real life situations that other agents seemed to love, she’d always floundered. In the middle of a country estate party, surrounded by the rich and the bored among the jet-set in southern Spain, she should have thrived. She was, however, simply a little too leery about her assignment tonight. She needed nothing to go wrong. The slightest thing out of place, and she would lose every lead she had on her latest assignment, and it would be back to square one.
Sarah Walker did not deal well with square one.
She also did not deal well with the NSA. Usually, that was a problem for another day, but since they were here, and at her party, she had little choice. So she took canapés from passing caterers, and she nibbled carefully, and she assessed every mark she could. The informant, she had picked from almost the minute she’d set high heel on the estate. Even now, she could see him out of the corner of one eye. He was standing in the corner, hunched really, sweating through what otherwise would have been a very nice Armani suit, and constantly popping antacids. She imagined she could almost hear him chewing, though she was nowhere near him. There were three NSA agents between her and the informant, after all.
The NSA planned to lure her target into a trap. They must have thought he was an idiot.
If it had been a good plan, she might have been tempted to let the NSA do her dirty work for her, and simply attack or maybe kill the extraction team. But they were being rather oafishly obvious, all but wearing dark sunglasses at night. They could have picked a team with less…copface.
She didn’t have much time, or maybe she’d already run out of time. Her target had probably arrived, and had seen the NSA agents littering the party with their stiff demeanors and stone faces. She hadn’t seen anybody leave in a hurry, but, given the fact that it was now suicide to approach Giovanni Petrisi, her target may just be biding his time until he could leave without alerting anybody.
He hadn’t earned and upheld the nickname Ghost by being sloppy.
The situation could still be salvaged. With the torchlight flickering, illuminating and yet shadowing most of the partygoers, if she planned her advance right, she could pick off the NSA agents one by one, leaving an open corridor for Ghost to walk down. She would then grab him, drag him off to CIA custody, and get her career back on track.
A target like Ghost might net her a few commendations on her record, maybe a fast-track out of the slush pile of field assignments. Of course, Sarah knew better than to anticipate. Her father had always said something about a bird in hand, but he’d had so many aphorisms, some real, some made up, that she had honestly forgotten most of them. She’d stuck with that one because it had seemed smart, and it helped her avoid disappointment, even if she couldn’t fully remember the entire thing.
Maybe the thought made her a little cranky as she slipped toward the first NSA agent, the one she had handpicked as the rookie of the group. She set her discarded napkin on a table as she walked, her movements silky and slinky and sultry, all of those adjectives that had netted her top marks in her Inducement of the Enemy Personnel. The NSA wasn’t quite the enemy in this case, but the rookie’s eyes followed her anyway. She looked around, pretended to notice him, and gave him the bedroom eyes. And just like clockwork, he glanced at his partners and broke off.
She almost felt bad when she knocked him unconscious. Starting with the rookie felt unfair. Like…she wished she knew more sports metaphors because those would have really come in handy right now. Instead, Sarah watched for any signs of her mark—none so far—and waited for one of the other three NSA agents to notice that their young partner was missing.
She stuffed the young agent under a table. He would wake with a headache and a new reprimand on his record, and probably some gruff words about being lucky to be alive. She hoped that he learned something from the experience. If not, well, it was out of her hands now.
One down, three to go, Sarah thought, narrowing her eyes as she tried to guess which agent would be her next target.
One down, two to go, Chuck thought, automatically shifting his stance so that when the unconscious agent’s weight hit him, it didn’t make noise that would alert other partygoers. Senor Champion, or whatever his name was that was throwing this little shindig, must have something against proper lighting, for the outdoor lawn party was lit only with garden torches mounted on poles. It left for a lot of dark patches among the expansive grounds, growing progressively darker the further one walked from the flattened dance floor. Toward the edge of the estate, now wreathed completely in shadow, the grass grew about knee-high, perfect for dumping a government agent where he wouldn’t be found for a little while. Using the twilight dart mixed with some heavier tranquilizers meant that the agent in question would have a nice nap, and he wouldn’t remember Chuck’s face on waking.
It was, Chuck felt, a win-win situation for both of them.
He brushed off his jacket, straightened his cuffs and tie as he scanned the party, using the shadowed penumbra around the event to his advantage.
The man who had called this meet with him had been distressingly easy to spot, but that wasn’t the problem. He hadn’t met with Giovanni Petrisi face to face, but he knew from firsthand accounts that any information traded was good intel, assuming you got to him first. The anomaly in the night’s equation was that Giovanni Petrisi hated the government. He wasn’t rumored to be particularly picky about which government, though Chuck figured he probably hated the US government most of all, and Chuck certainly knew the feeling.
So very little explained why Giovanni would be surrounded by a multitude of less-than-undercover agents in G-men suits.
There had been three of them when he had arrived, two standing near Giovanni and the third moving through the crowd, looking for somebody. Probably him, Chuck had thought, which meant they’d been tipped off about him, and he had decided to deal with that little problem with a twilight dart.
Now there were two of them. They would notice soon that their buddy was gone, so he had to move quickly.
But first, he thought, an aperitif. Because who believed danger could come from a man holding canapés? Chuck pushed the voice out of his head, the one that always narrated exactly what a proper spy should do in each situation, and sidled through the crowd, making eye contact only when it was absolutely necessary. He smiled here, pretended to see an old acquaintance there, stopped for a sip of champagne. Those revelers who didn’t lose their memories of the party to the siren song of alcohol would recall only a pleasant-faced young man, perhaps an expatriate, wearing a nice if otherwise unobtrusive suit.
He had spent hours learning to tailor his appearance to nothing more than “pleasant.”
He kept his eyes on the more observant of the two government goons as he slipped through the party. It was the stalk of a predator, this wide circle he made, though the prey had no idea of its own part in this game. Neither would the goon’s partner, Chuck determined, his thoughts grim beneath the affable expression.
A line appeared between his eyebrows, breaking his carefully manufactured appearance. Where the hell, he thought, scanning the party, had the second guard gone? It was as though the man had vanished into the night’s thin air, which shouldn’t have been possible. The party was open, the lighting moody and ideal for a covert spy, but he had been specifically trained to be observant and…Chuck’s inner voice trailed off into a swear as he noticed that he had drawn the attention of the evidently lone agent.
Instinct made him want to freeze, but he casually grabbed an appetizer from a passing tray—hiding a wince as he bit into a stuffed mushroom—and kept his gaze roaming slowly, deliberately slackening his shoulders to project a sense of disaffected boredom.
It didn’t work. The agent was frowning, and Chuck wasn’t sure if he had finally noticed his missing partners, or if the government had finally gotten that picture of Chuck Bartowski that would spell his own doom. He felt a sense of desperation slide up his spine, so for the first time in a year, he broke protocol.
He turned to the nearest person and gave her the full Bartowski grin. Since it was a woman, he upped the charm to dangerous levels. “Dance with me?”
Where the hell had her fourth agent gone? And for that matter, where had the third gone? Did they know something she didn’t know? Had they pulled out to arrest her target before he could even arrive?
Sarah craned her neck to peer over her shoulder, all at once cursing the fact that the party was in the middle of nowhere, and lit by nothing but torches. The darkness had helped her take out two of the agents, but now it looked as though it had also helped her lose two agents. She could see Giovanni Petrisi, but nobody had approached him, and there was still one NSA guard loitering near the dance floor that had started to fill up a few minutes prior.
Until she figured out what happened to his buddies, it would be impossible to get the drop on him. It could very well be a trap. She would have to bide her time. The thought made her sigh. Biding her time meant blending in, which meant a night of inane conversation that she would have to maintain, juggling both her cover and keeping an eye out for those guards, for her target, or for a trap.
The worst part of it would be the small talk.
The gentleman who had moved up next to her turned almost a hair too quickly. Inwardly, Sarah tensed, but the stranger just smiled at her. It wasn’t a conventional smile. There was something just a little too…smiley about it. Too open, she decided.
“Dance with me?” he asked her without preamble.
She jolted inwardly to hear the American accent at the edges of his voice. She hadn’t expected many Americans at this sort of soiree, even if the man’s voice held quite a bit of continental living in it.
He’d also saved her from having to stand around with canapés all night. Dancing would at least keep her blood moving. “Sure,” Sarah said, matching the openness in his smile with a quiet reserve that most men mistook for mystery. She did nothing to discourage the error.
In an odd show of old-fashioned chivalry, he offered his arm to her. She accepted, though it made her give the man a second look through the corner of her eye. Her general impression of him had been: tall, nothing too special to look at, bored son of a politician, possibly. But a closer look showed her other things. His hair had a slight curl at the end, his nose had far more character than she had first suspected, he moved easily despite his height and long limbs.
When they started dancing, she nearly raised an eyebrow in surprise. He must have caught it because he grinned. “Lessons,” he told her. “Older sister insisted. She swore that they would be useful.”
“And was she right?”
“She hasn’t steered me wrong yet.” A movement of his shoulders under the unobtrusively expensive suit coat could have meant a micro-shrug, or it could have just been the way the torchlight flickered. “And I’m here with you right now, so I can’t say she’s wrong here either.”
“Mm,” Sarah said. It was a smooth line, though the silkiness was marred somewhat by the fact that he hadn’t stopped giving her that cheerful smile.
“And the you I’m here with is…?” her dance partner pressed.
“Ava,” Sarah said, giving her cover name for the party. “Ava Werner.”
Her stranger’s smile changed into a speculative look, his eyes narrowing just the slightest bit. “That’s odd,” he said, and Sarah automatically tensed for danger. Belatedly, she remembered that she was supposed to be keeping an eye out on the guards, but she couldn’t look away quite yet, not with him studying her. “You don’t look much like an Ava, for some reason.”
The flirtatious part of Sarah’s cover would have purred at him and asked what sort of name she did look like. The core underneath the cover was too busy parsing his words for any catches.
She decided for the oldest trick in the book. “And what name don’t you look much like, if I may ask?”
The smile returned. “Well, my name is Nick Tucker, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Odd, Sarah thought. She wouldn’t have placed him as a Nick, either.
Behind her, the five-piece band switched to a livelier tempo, and her dance partner merely changed up his steps rather than letting her go. She didn’t mind. The way they were rotating on the dance floor gave her a three-hundred and sixty-degree view of the entire party, so that she could search for her missing NSA agents. It looked, though, as if she were going to have to make idle chitchat after all, to keep her dancing partner—Nick—from noticing that she was doing basic surveillance. “What brings you to Senor Champignon’s tonight, Nick?” she asked, making sure to keep eye contact for the question.
“Can I be honest? I really just felt like hanging out in a field in the middle of nowhere and drinking free alcohol.”
Sarah laughed. “Amazing. You got your wish.”
“I know, it’s a little crazy.” Nick’s grin swept over the entire party for just a second. “And what about you? Crazy yearning for a field, some torches, and a band playing, actually, I don’t know what song this is.”
She didn’t know either. She didn’t really have the time to devote to music.
“No, I’m a friend of Senora Champignon,” she said.
Nick’s eyes tracked over to where the host, who had to be at least an octogenarian, held onto his young wife, no doubt for support. “Close friends?” he asked, a bit dubiously.
“Old school friends,” Sarah lied. “But we were never close, no. She heard I was going to be in the area, traveling through for work, and she insisted. I got lost three times coming out here.” She hadn’t, since she had run three simulations for the event just that afternoon alone, but she put just a bit of helplessness into her smile. “By the time I found the place, I was so frazzled it took me forever to calm down.”
“A friend of mine dropped me here, declared the champagne not cold enough, and promptly abandoned me,” Nick told her. “But at least he spared me from having to drive that winding road out here by myself. I salute you for your bravery.”
The fact that he actually gave her a cheesy salute made her laugh. “Why, thank you, Mr. Tucker.”
“No problem, Miss Werner.”
Two things happened at once, and Sarah saw both happen with a cold, analytical eye that had served her well in the field for years. Senor Champignon himself crumpled forward on his wife’s arm, causing a general gasp of alarm to go up around that group across the dance floor.
But more importantly, Giovanni Petrisi wiped his forehead with a handkerchief one last time, glanced around the party, and scampered away like the rat he was.
Damn it, Sarah thought. Well, the situation could be salvaged. She might be able to sneak around and get the drop on Petrisi, since it looked like the one remaining NSA agent was actually searching frantically for his partners. She had to suppress a very small smirk at that. Until he started looking under the tablecloths, he would have a long search.
There is a whole plot attached to this that I would be willing to hand off to anybody. I just...don't have the time or the inclination to finish this, what with it looking like Mama Bartowski is shaping up to be the Big Bad for Season Four, and Fates being longer than most Russian masterpieces. If you want it, it's yours. Just leave me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll email you over a plot outline. All I ask is that the person writing it has some sense of grammar, so that I can read the finished product. :)
Anyway, that's all she wrote for the day, folks!