Enjoy! Sleep time for Frea!
The Morning After Chapter One:
Two hours after she was supposed to be boarding a plane out of Spain and back to D.C., ideally with her quarry in tow, Sarah locked the door of her hotel room after her and headed out into the autumn sunshine. She’d made her excuses to Graham when she had called in her report an hour before, and she effectively had the rest of the day as downtime.
Which left a lot of time, she thought, before she was supposed to meet up with Nick to go explore the monastery. What she was doing, fooling around with some European when she was supposed to be hot on the trail of the elusive Ghost, she had no idea. But for once, her spy-first-personal-life-later side had decided to take a backseat.
A few minutes of wandering down main street led her to a café. She hadn’t included it in her original scope-out of the village because it wasn’t an Internet café, but it did look like a pretty place to enjoy breakfast, so she strolled inside and indulged herself by ordering a chocolate croissant. She tried not to check her watch as she took the croissant, some coffee, and a newspaper to a table in the back. She would see Nick again soon enough.
She wasn’t quite nervous, but she could admit she was a little more excited than she had a right to be, considering Bryce had been dead only a month—even if it had been months since she had seen Bryce, before he had gone rogue.
Ten minutes into her second cup of coffee, the door opened. Sarah knew with only a glance that the visitor wasn’t local, and that he was there for her. She folded the paper and set it in front of her. She wondered if the government had gotten him a discount on the G-man suit.
Built like a brawler, she thought as G-man crossed the small café to her table, but he moved well, which meant rigorous PT, and he was likely armed to the teeth. Handsome enough, but a little old for her. And, she thought, his presence likely meant trouble. He didn’t even bother to hide that she was his goal.
“Agent Walker?” G-man checked the file in his hand, all business. “Sarah Walker?”
“That’s me.” Sarah picked up her coffee mug, pure nonchalance. “To what do I owe the pleasure of a visit from the…”
“NSA.” The man flashed his badge briefly out of the line of sight of the restaurant’s sole waiter. Sarah mentally congratulated herself on calling it, even while she berated herself. She should’ve gotten out of town at first light and dealt with the NSA back in Washington, on her turf. She imagined they weren’t going to be thrilled that the CIA had mucked about in “their” investigation. And she would have, if she and Nick had exchanged contact information.
She did a lot of business in Europe, and that had been some kiss.
“Make yourself at home,” Sarah said when the agent sat across from her without being invited.
He ignored her as the waiter came over. “Coffee, black. And a scone, if there are any fresh.”
Sarah raised an eyebrow.
The agent ignored that just as easily as he’d ignored her earlier. “Major John Casey,” he said, and obviously didn’t miss the way she’d stiffened. Her fingers twitched toward the butter knife, but Casey’s face never changed. “That going to be a problem for you?”
Sarah forced herself to breathe. “You were doing your job,” she said with a calmness she didn’t feel. Amazing how raw it could still hit her, sometimes, that Bryce was dead. And now, she was sitting in a little café in the south of Spain with the man who had pulled the trigger. Amazing, she thought again, how raw, and surreal life could be. “Can’t fault you for doing your job.”
“Your partner was trying to steal billions in government secrets,” Casey said.
It still hurt that she had no idea why Bryce had stormed the DNI, or why he had gone crazy and done the things he had. Frost coated her tone. “I know.”
“I did what I had to do to keep our country safe.”
“I’m sure you did what you thought was right. If you don’t mind me being blunt, why are you here? The committee already investigated me. I’m clean.”
“That’s not why I’m here, Walker.” Casey gave the waiter an absent nod when a coffee appeared at his elbow. He pulled a single sheet out of the folder he still carried, and slid that across the table. “I’m here about this.”
Sarah set her own coffee to the side and picked up the sheet. Her face didn’t change, but her heart began to gallop.
The sheet was a picture, surveillance likely taken with a telephoto lens if the compression of the detail had anything to say about it. But even though the picture was low-res and taken from a high angle, there was no mistaking that it was a picture of Nick Tucker, the same man she had danced with the night before. And the same man she’d kissed in the moonlight later. In the picture, his hair was a little longer, curling wildly, and he was leaning against a hotel reception desk, cause in jeans and a polo shirt that was open at the collar. The smile was exactly the same, though.
“Yeah?” she asked, and set the picture down. “Cute, if you’re into that sort of thing, I guess.”
“Which you clearly are,” Casey said, pulling out a second photo. The grainy, nightvision photo made Sarah’s stomach drop, but thankfully it only seemed to be her dancing with Nick, surrounded by partygoers. If Casey had had them followed on their walk through town, he would have led with that rather incriminating evidence. Casey’s eyes bored into her now. “You wouldn’t happen to know anything about the fact that three of my agents were drugged and have no memory of the experience at the same party a CIA agent attended, dancing with our target?”
“Not a thing,” Sarah lied, even while her brain sped, trying to put it all together. “Perhaps you should tell your men to lay off the liquor.”
Casey made a noise that sounded absurdly like…a growl. Perhaps it was time to change the subject. “Why are you gunning for this guy? What’s he done to draw the interest of the NSA?”
Wait just a damn second, she thought. Could he…was Nick…
No. It wasn’t possible.
Nick couldn’t be her target. That was—well, if it were true, then it could only be the universe laughing at her, really. You meet one guy and it turns out he’s some kind of smuggler or drug runner or…the guy you’re assigned to track down and subdue, with lethal force if necessary.
“He’s a small fish,” Casey said, and Sarah’s head nearly snapped up at that. Wait, so Nick wasn’t the Ghost? “We think he’s connected to an old CIA spook, one that went off-grid years ago, and one we’re very interested in.”
“Above your paygrade, Walker.”
“Is this guy dangerous?”
“Don’t know. Honestly, what we know about this character doesn’t even fill half a report.” Casey took the pictures back. “But if he’s connected to Orion, then he’s valuable. Which makes you valuable.”
“Sorry, Casey, you’re really not my type.”
Casey snorted. “You got another meet set with Tucker?”
“All because I shared one dance with him?”
Casey wordlessly tugged out a third picture and tossed it in front of her. Nick, laughing as he climbed into the passenger seat of her car. He’d made some joke about having to fold himself in half to fit in the car at the time.
“Want to revise that story?” Casey asked. “I don’t care what sort of sheets mambo you two got up to last night. I don’t judge.”
“But Tucker’s my target, and if you get in my way again, I can make life hell for you. So, do you have another meet set with Tucker or not?”
Sarah stayed silent for a moment, though she didn’t blink at Casey’s stare-down. The chances that her target would be at the same tiny party in Spain at the same time as a target important enough to net an entire NSA team after him were very, very slim. Which meant Nick Tucker was her Ghost.
Not only had he completely fooled her, but he’d also gotten her to let her guard down for the first time since she’d heard the news about Bryce.
She was almost tempted to let the NSA catch him, on that principle alone. Anger began to lick at the edges of her stomach, a burning sensation she didn’t care for. As an agent, strong emotions should be avoided as much as possible.
But she was pissed.
She’d been played for a fool.
“Yes,” she said, her voice almost reluctant to give away the information. “I’m meeting him this afternoon. We were going to hike to a nearby monastery. The architecture’s supposed to be—”
“Don’t care. I need every detail you can give me.”
Sarah listed off all of the plans she’d made with Nick. Once she’d finished, Casey nodded, satisfied. “I’ll expect you to rendezvous with my team half an hour before that so that we can get you micced up and ready to go. You’re doing your country a service, Agent Walker.”
“Thank you, Major,” Sarah said. She didn’t let her tone or expression give away one key detail: Nick Tucker was never going to make it to that meet. By the time she was due to rendezvous with Casey and his men, Nick Tucker would already be in federal custody: hers.
They left the café separately, but then, they’d come in separately, Ava Werner from one direction, and Agent NSA from the opposite half an hour later. Chuck knew he was staying at the Best Western in the next town over, so that made sense. Ava Werner—Sarah Walker, CIA agent for nearly ten years now, according to the smash-and-grab background check he’d done after his mother had left—apparently preferred the local style a little more, as she’d chosen a B&B for her own stay.
Good for her.
Chuck stood outside the café that Walker and her NSA contact had abandoned and just shook. It wasn’t fear: he was furious, angry in a way he hadn’t really allowed himself to be since he was seventeen. Red spread like an ugly rash at the base of his neck.
Years, years of being careful, of being dogged and patient and covering his tracks, and he managed to get himself tangled up with the one person who’d managed to track him at all. And in the process, had been made to look the biggest fool on the planet.
Walker must have been something of a Black Widow, sent after dupes and mopes like him. One “come hither” look and he’d all but rolled over to get his belly rubbed like a lovesick puppy. The worst part wasn’t even that, either. No, it was that his mother had been right. He’d been looking after himself for nearly ten years now, and his mother could still come in and show him up.
To think he’d actually dared to believe he was getting good at this stuff.
Chuck kicked a rock and wished it were something harder.
He needed to skip town. He should have been gone hours ago, like his mother. Mary Bartowski had left before first light, probably trusting that he wouldn’t be too far behind her, on his way to help Ellie with whatever work she’d found stateside. Instead, here he was in broad daylight, still in town where the NSA and the CIA were actively gunning for him. Even worse, the NSA had somehow managed to connect him to his father.
He’d known investigating the destroyed Intersect project had been a bad idea, but that had been his father’s life work—well, life before the Bartowskis had hit the road nearly twenty years before for the longest family roadtrip on the planet—and it should mean something to him. After all, it was half the reason they’d all had to run.
The other reason was much darker, and much uglier.
Chuck absently fingered the scar that ran up the underside of his jaw, a mere ghost now thanks to the plastic surgery, and let another wave of fury wash over him. The day had started out so well, and now he was pretty sure it couldn’t get worse.
As if trying to prove him wrong, Tanya beeped.
He ducked into an alley to check. “Match found, sir,” Tanya chirped, and a miniature picture of Agent NSA flashed across her screen. “Casey, John, Major. Affiliations: U.S. Marine Corps, National Security Agency. Commendations earned—”
“Skip that,” Chuck said.
There was a brief whirring noise.
“Current assignment,” he said, rolling his eyes. He’d have to add to Tanya’s programming later.
“Head of Security, Project Marionette.”
Marionette, Chuck thought. The code name for the Intersect project—the same one that had gone up in flames when a CIA agent had blown it up. Literally. So his suspicions about Major Casey were correct: something he’d done in the past month to dig up information on the Intersect had put him on their radar, and had connected them to Orion.
Well, that was just freaking fantastic.
Tanya beeped again. “Alert,” she said. “Nick Tucker is being actively pinged.”
“Source?” Chuck asked, though he was fairly sure he knew.
“Cellular phone, triangulated to within three miles of current location. Code Blackstone.”
Chuck cursed. Blackstone, one of the codes he had programmed into Tanya early, meant they had discovered his hotel room. Well, at least he had kept all of the important things on him this time. But damn, Sarah Walker moved quickly when she wanted to.
“Thanks, Tanya. Alert me in the event of Code Vogon, but go to silent mode, otherwise.”
Words flashed across the screen: SILENT MODE ACTIVATED.
Chuck took a moment and scooped his hands through his hair. Time to go to ground, he thought. Walker and Casey were far too close for comfort. He’d dump everything to do with his Nick Tucker identity, start from scratch, and go meet up with Ellie.
Some devil inside him, the one that had whispered at his heels since he was seventeen and bleeding on the floor of a Russian warehouse in the middle of nowhere, made him turn and slink from the alley. If Sarah Walker was close enough to ping his hotel room, then her first step, logically, would be to check it out. And as a matter of habit, he always scoped his hotel rooms for the best vantage points around them, the most likely spot spies and his enemies might watch from.
That sort of knowledge served to his advantage now. He made good time hoofing it back to his hotel, skirting a few blocks around so that he wouldn’t run into Agent Walker on the open street, and crossed through a side alley. Above his head, laundry was strung on clothes lines between the two buildings, giving the alley a picturesque feeling that clashed with the espionage he was about to pull off. But wasn’t that his life, when it all came down to it? A picture of contrasts?
He glanced around once and seeing nobody in the nearby area, began to scale the drainpipe to the spot he’d picked for just an emergency such as this. On his wrist, Tanya remained mercifully silent.