So here it is, the final installment of this chapter of Romeo and Juliet But Without Teenagers Or Death...well, okay, some death. The greatest turning point of them all.
Thanks to my writing sprint buddies today that helped me get this finished!
Unfortunately, another patron needing the restroom drove Sarah out far too soon, so she washed her hands and tried not to wonder what sort of noxious chemicals and grime she’d breathed in during her stint in a dirty public bathroom in a dirty diner in Providence. She kept her head up and returned to the booth, sitting across the booth from Chuck with a regal air that she definitely didn’t feel. There was a cup of soup on the table, but Chuck was digging in. Her stomach rumbled. “I thought that was mine.”
“Smelled too good,” Chuck said after he’d swallowed. “But...”
Their waiter appeared at Sarah’s elbow and practically tossed a second cup on the table. Broth sloshed dangerously close to the brim. “Your order.”
“Thanks, man,” Chuck said. He then looked at Sarah, almost solemnly. “Got you some soup. This way it’s actually warm.”
“Thanks,” Sarah said. She pushed some of the soggy top layer around for a few seconds, but the way Chuck was inhaling soup only reminded her that stomach held nothing but acid and ginger ale. With a sigh, she took her first bite. “So your name’s really Chuck.”
“Got a last name?”
“Okay, that sounds stupid. Smith, then.”
“I have a feeling I’m not going to find you in any databases under the name ‘Chuck Smith.’”
“Give me five minutes with a computer, I can make it worth your while.”
“I’m sure you can, Mr. Smith.” Sarah returned to her soup. She wouldn’t call it haute cuisine, not by any range, but hunger did add extra flavor to the more undesirable meals, which was how she’d survived off of bugs for two days in South America a few years before. Carina had yet to forgive her for that mission, though Zondra had thought the bugs were funny as hell.
They’d all mutually agreed to blame Amy. After all, if somebody could be cheerful for six days straight in the Amazon rainforest, they deserved whatever came to them.
“Uh-oh,” Chuck said, and Sarah forgot all about the Cat Squad.
“What? What is it?”
Chuck turned his wrist to show the weird computer interface he had built onto his watch. “Your old partner’s name just popped up in a report. Apparently, the NSA wasn’t too far behind us in discovering the shed.”
Whatever Sarah had managed to keep down instantly turned to poison in her system, but she swallowed hard. “So they’ve found Bryce.”
“Did it...did it say who found him?”
Chuck tapped a couple of fingers to his watch display. “John Casey’s listed as the AIC. Anonymous call tipped them off to the location.”
“We didn’t clean up after ourselves,” Sarah said, dropping her spoon. “They’ll know we were there. They’ll—”
“I’ll take care of it.”
A small smile crossed Chuck’s face before fading back to the same sobriety that had hung over them since Boston. “No,” he said. “Even I’m not crazy enough to take on the DNI mainframe with T—this thing. But it’ll take them awhile to get any fingerprints we left behind fed into the database. We’ve got time.”
“If you say so.”
“Though you’ll probably be getting a call soon,” Chuck said, frowning. Conversation paused for a moment as Chuck’s cheeseburger, not by the sour-faced waiter, but by the diner’s sole waitress. At Chuck’s request, she brought back a bottle of ketchup and a bottle of hot sauce, both of which he dumped liberally over his burger and fries.
Sarah nearly stared. “Do you have a cast iron stomach?” she asked before she could stop herself.
“Food reaffirms life,” Chuck said. “Hot sauce doubly so.”
“I always thought it was sex that reaffirmed life,” Sarah said, puzzled, and Chuck apparently tried to breathe in a fry. His coughing fit lasted long enough to give her a minute to focus past the flash of Bryce’s face that crossed her closed eyelids. “You said I’d be getting a call?”
“They won’t read you in,” Chuck said, and it took Sarah a moment to put the pieces together, and finally see the thing she’d been avoiding realizing since the bus stop in Boston. There would be an investigation into Bryce’s death. She wouldn’t be in on that investigation. In fact, if she tried, she’d be stonewalled by the NSA and her own agency.
Something began to burn along the lining of her stomach.
Logically, it made sense. She wasn’t a homicide detective, she didn’t investigate crime. Hell, more often than not, she caused it. She and Bryce and the Cat Squad and all of the other teams like theirs, their job was to plant evidence, not study it. As brutal as Bryce’s death had been, his killers had meant to send a message that the folks up the food chain couldn’t miss. And as a result, they were going to send the people best for the job, people more likely to find Bryce’s killers and deliver to them the justice they so richly deserved.
But dammit, he was her partner.
“Well, that makes two of us, then,” Sarah finally said. Her eyes cut to Chuck’s watch. “Not that it matters. You’ve cracked how many government databases on that thing?”
“The government should be a little less negligent about their firewall.”
“I should arrest you, just for that.”
“But then you’ll have to pick up the tab,” Chuck said.
“Fine. I won’t arrest you,” Sarah said, turning her thoughts away from the darkness of the shed, the brightness of Bryce’s dead stare. “On one condition. You read me in.”
“What?” Chuck asked through a mouthful of fries.
“You’ve got access to government reports on that watch of yours, you keep me up to date on what’s happening with Bryce’s case.”
Chuck chewed for a second, not looking at her. After he swallowed, he said, ”No.”
“Did you hear me? I said I’m going to arrest you—”
“I heard you. But I’m not going to help you tilt at windmills just for the chance to avenge your ex-partner.”
Sarah’s gun appeared in her hand. She nearly blinked at it, as she didn’t recall moving at all.
Chuck flinched. He kept his eyes trained on the gun—he wasn’t an idiot, ignoring a loaded gun was just stupid—but his expression changed only a little. After the initial flinch, he carefully picked his napkin up from his lap and wiped his fingers. “Put the gun away. Greasy Joe will be back any second.”
“Greasy J—the waiter?”
“His nametag said Joe, he’s greasy. It fit. Put the gun away.”
“No.” Though Sarah did lower it beneath the table. Her eyes were burning again, but this time there were no tears. Just a low, shaking pit of rage in her stomach that needed somewhere to go. “You know I can’t leave it alone. You saw what they did to him.”
“I did. And we’re lucky, you know.”
“How are we lucky?” That was her partner they’d chopped into pieces, and those were her dreams that were going to be full of that for the next few years. Luck didn’t seem to have anything to do with anything.
“That was a trap.” Chuck set the napkin next to his plate and carefully laid both hands on the table. Nonthreatening, Sarah categorized. It was a far cry from their tussle in Boston and their run-in in Spain. “And if they’d caught us, we would have ended up just like him. These men are dangerous.”
“I deal with dangerous every day of my life. I’m not afraid.”
“I know you aren’t.”
The gun in Sarah’s hand started shaking. Why didn’t he react? Where was the emotion? Why didn’t it seem to affect him at all, what they’d witnessed?
“However, what I’m less sure about is whether or not you’re going to shoot me, so I’d really appreciate it if you put the gun away now.”
“Not until we have a deal.”
Chuck leaned forward so suddenly that Sarah nearly shot him, but he didn’t make any move to attack. He simply rested both elbows on the table, on either edge of the plate, and stared at her, hard. She’d wondered time and again at his age—less than thirty, she figured, but he had a youthful look to him—but now he seemed years older than even Sarah’s mentors, who’d been called dinosaurs during her days at the Farm.
“Did you see what they did to him?” Chuck asked, quietly. “Did you somehow miss the eyeball?”
How could she have? An oily sickness rose up through her esophagus; Sarah swallowed it back. “That’s exactly why I have to—”
“That’s exactly why we’re both staying the hell away from this. They cut a guy to pieces. You know what they’re going to do if they find us and they think we’re involved?”
She didn’t, but she had a good imagination. But because the sickness was spreading to the back of her throat, coating her mouth, she just lifted her chin. “So you’re going to stay out of it, too, is that how it is?”
“Trust me, I’m fond of my eyes. Both of them.”
“How do I know?” she asked.
“That you won’t just turn around and start poking your nose where it doesn’t belong anyway?”
The tension eased out of Chuck’s shoulders. “Because I got kicked by a horse today and I don’t fancy going through that again, let me tell you. You can have my word that if you stay out of it, so will I.”
“Yeah, the word of a wanted man. That means a lot.”
“It’s the only thing I can give you. Put the gun away.”
Sarah opened her mouth to tell him that he could stay out of it all he liked, but she wasn’t going to abandon her partner—but her phone rang. Keeping one eye on Chuck, she holstered the gun and reached for the phone.
“Want me to scramble it so they can’t track you?” Chuck asked, digging into his fries again. “I can, you know.” He waggled his wrist at her.
“I can take care of myself,” Sarah told him, ice in her voice.
Chuck shrugged: your loss.
Her stomach jumped when she checked the screen and saw Graham’s number. They’d certainly contacted her more quickly than she had anticipated. Honestly, she’d hoped to be long-gone from Providence, but it couldn’t be helped. And she wasn’t going to give Chuck access to her phone. He might have been being kind to her, but she wasn’t going to trust a virtual stranger with that sort of intel.
“Walker,” she said by way of greeting.
“Are you secure?”
“It likely doesn’t matter. There’s no way to put this kindly, so I’ll tell you straight. We found Bryce Larkin today. It’s bad, Sarah.”
As much as she wanted to turn away and hide her expression from Chuck, to give herself that much more privacy, Sarah knew better. She had just pointed a gun at him; if he were smart, the first thing he would do would be to try and disarm her. So she laced a healthy amount of confusion into her voice and, staring at Chuck, said, “What? I don’t understand. Bryce Larkin has been dead for...”
“It appears our intel was...erroneous. Larkin wasn’t killed, as we thought, the night he attacked the DNI headquarters.”
Sarah’s phone beeped: a warning to let her know she was actively being tracked. She wanted to close her eyes and sigh, but didn’t dare.
Bryce was dead.
“An anonymous tip just led us to Larkin’s corpse. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you.”
“To Lark—Bryce is dead?” Her voice sounded oddly high-pitched; she could only hope that Graham wasn’t as astute at reading verbal cues over the phone as he was in person. So many times, she had tried to sneak things past her mentor, only to have Graham catch on within seconds.
Today, she apparently was lucky.
“I’m sorry to say that he is. We’ll be launching an investigation into his death immediately. Major John Casey of the NSA will be leading it up.”
“I see. Do they know what happened? Where Bryce has been all these months?”
“It’s too early to determine. Has Larkin tried to contact you?”
Sarah hesitated for a split-second. Should she mention the satellite feed, the one that had alerted her to Bryce’s whereabouts? It was possible they could track it back to her. However, even if they did, she’d had no way of knowing the feed was from Bryce until she investigated. If she offered up the information now, Graham and Casey would be suspicious.
“No, I’ve heard nothing. I thought he was dead this whole time.” It hurt, knowing what she knew, but she had to ask. An innocent person would ask. “Director, if you don’t mind me asking...”
Chuck’s head shot up at the word “Director.” Sarah cursed inwardly even as she continued, “How did he die?”
“That’s classified. What are you doing in Providence, Agent Walker?”
A hundred different excuses came to mind, two of them even work-related. As an agent, she prized the ability to think on her feet above all. Unfortunately, the excuses were all incredibly flimsy, save one. And she didn’t want to use that one, not with her Ghost sitting across the table. He already knew far too much about her as it was.
Unfortunately, it was the only excuse that would keep Graham off the trail. Chuck had a point: whatever Bryce Larkin had been mixed up with, those people had killed and maimed one of the finest, sharpest agents the Agency had ever produced.
She was good, but she wasn’t that good.
“Sorry, sir,” she said. “Personal business. He’s at it again. No victims this time. I stopped him before he could take their money.”
“That’s odd, usually he sticks to the warmer states,” Graham said, sounding puzzled. “Do I need to send a team to clean anything up?”
“Negative, I can handle it.” It hurt to use her father as a scapegoat, but she had a feeling Jack Burton wouldn’t mind. In fact, he’d probably get a kick out of the fact that the CIA regarded him as mostly harmless. More opportunity, he’d say, to steal their wallet and sell it back to them. “Do you need me in the office?”
“Stay in touch—Major Casey may have some questions.”
“And if you could have a word with your father, make sure he understands that there is actually a law in this country?”
“I’ll do my best.”
“I am very sorry to hear about Bryce, Sarah. I know he meant a lot to you.”
Thankfully, Graham seemed to regard that as a salutation; he hung up before Sarah had to reply. She closed her phone. Across the table, Chuck polished off his fries and finally looked up.
“Director, huh?” he asked.
Sarah winced. “I was hoping you’d gone temporarily deaf.”
“Annoying how I can’t do that on a whim, isn’t it?” Chuck asked as he wiped his fingers on his napkin.
Instead of smiling back—even if his smile was tired and almost worn at the edges now—Sarah just regarded him. “So we’re both just going to keep out of it, huh?” she asked, picking up her soup spoon and pushing the soggy remains of French onion around the soup cup. “Just forget we witnessed this horrific...thing and move on like we know nothing. That’s what’s going to happen?”
“Not going to happen,” Sarah said immediately.
“I figured. But remember this: whoever was after this Bryce character, they’re going to be watching everybody in his life, hard. But more specifically, they’re going to be watching you.”
“Because everyone talks, even if they don’t want to,” Sarah said. It was a truth all agents had to learn, but knowing what her ex-partner had been through, seeing the remains...she abruptly stopped playing with her soup.
“Also because of this.” Chuck turned his wrist and showed her the screen on it; Sarah went still as it revealed an old mission photo, from Barcelona, taken two years previous. “Took me five minutes to find that while you were in the bathroom, just based on Bryce’s photo alone. They’re going to know about you, even if he didn’t talk. And they’re going to be watching you.”
Something cold trickled down the back of Sarah’s neck. “So I need to stay out of it.”
“Yes. And I do, too. I’ve come close enough to getting discovered today.” A sour look crossed Chuck’s face and his hand drifted toward his chest before he apparently remembered himself. He grimaced. “Twice. I’m going off-grid myself, and getting as far away from this as I can. I’ve got things in my life I don’t want to lose. I’m sure you’re the same.”
She wasn’t entirely sure of that herself, as most nights without a mission meant coming home to an empty apartment and reality TV, but Sarah nodded. “What is this?” she asked.
“What is what?”
“This....thing.” Sarah made a hand gesture at the air between them, over the booth. “You didn’t answer me earlier. Are we friends? Are we enemies? What is going on here?”
“Sarah Walker,” Chuck said, looking at her plainly, “you kicked me in the chest with a stiletto boot. The last thing we are is friends.”
“Oh. Right. Um, sorry about that.”
“No you’re not.”
“You’re right, I’m not.” Though she was, a little bit. Now that something akin to equilibrium had been achieved, probably because of the ginger ale and the soup, she couldn’t help but think she’d maybe judged her Ghost a little too harshly.
“But we’re not enemies either.”
“Well, yeah, it was a stiletto boot, not an actual stiletto.”
“You’re a strange man, Chuck.”
Chuck finished off his coffee. “I’m going to take that as a compliment. C’mon, the car’s here. I’ll give you a lift to the airport.” He dropped a few bills on the table and rose to his feet, sliding awkwardly out of the booth.
It took Sarah a few seconds to process what he’d said. By then, he was halfway to the door. “Wait, what? What car? We came here in a taxi, how the hell do you have a car?”
“I’m just awesome that way.” Spotting their waiter, Chuck called, “Gonna take a rain check on that pie, Joe. C’mon, I’ll give you a ride to the airport and you can go back to hating me in peace when I’m off the grid and out of your life.”
“So I’m not going to arrest you, then? You seem awful sure of that.”
“Maybe next time. And if that’s the case, you get to pick up the tab then.”
Somehow, Sarah couldn’t help but think as she followed the strangest man she knew out of a little rickety diner on the seamier side of Providence, that didn’t sound as appealing as it really ought to, not anymore. Even with the fear and the doubt and the overwhelming anger that she knew would show up eventually, it felt...better to have some kind of companionship, even if it was barbed with confusion and doubt. So when Chuck dropped her off at the airport, she broke protocol, officially, for the first time ever...and just let him drive away.
There was only one Chuck Smith listed in the CIA database that matched Chuck’s description when she checked a few days later. Even though she hadn’t even so much as smiled since that awful experience in the shed and seeing Bryce’s dead body, Sarah laughed when the only thing on his profile was that he liked cherry pie and dangerous blondes.
A strange man, indeed.