Three years after the events in True Cynicism, Daria has to save the world from nuclear war again, and encounters some old friends along the way.
Note: This is a sequel to my previous Daria espionage story, True Cynicism. You don't have to read that one first since events in the two are several years apart, but it would probably help to do so.
Daria (and associated characters and locations) is copyright © 1997-2001 MTV Networks
This story is copyright © 2001 Mystik Slacker (firstname.lastname@example.org) and has been written for personal enjoyment. No infringement of the above rights is intended.
Written: April-September 2001
The temperature dropped as she swung onto the tree-lined path between the dorms, and the earthy smell of spring growth teased her. Perhaps the packing could wait. This would be a perfect afternoon to take the laptop out under the trees and write something. After a semester when writing had largely meant papers for class, the lure of writing for fun was strong.
She'd managed to publish several short stories over the last three years, as well as a regular column of film criticism for the school paper, but her writing had taken second-place to an increasingly busy school schedule for the last few months. The school had accepted her as an English major, but she'd chosen that course of study mainly because it left room in her schedule for other classes. So far she'd taken introductory courses in the sciences, business, and humanities, as well as a variety of European languages. Her faculty adviser, when he wasn't telling her how crazy she was, had taken to referring to her as his renaissance woman. This semester she'd outdone herself, adding an advanced anthropology class and fourth-semester Russian to her three required classes, none of which were easy. She'd always done well at academic subjects, but it was clear that next year she'd have to take it slightly easier if she wanted to maintain her honors standing. There was just so much to learn, and all of it potentially relevant to her chosen profession.
Returning to the agency for the summer would be a vacation compared to school. She'd be working mainly in the analysis section, but she was scheduled for a two-week trip to several European cities in late August. It was partly orientation--first-hand knowledge was the foundation of good analysis--but it was also a recruiting trip. The agency had identified several likely candidates in each city, and she was to make contact with them and determine if they had what it took to be useful and productive information sources. If so, she'd provide them with basic training and codes, and arrange for a local case officer to supervise them. Except for her near-accidental involvement in a terrorist plot in high school, this would be her first real field mission.
She exited the shaded path onto the sidewalk in front of the dorm. Her car, a deceptively decrepit dark green Honda del Sol two-seater, was parked just ahead. It was dusty from a week's inactivity, and leaves were blown into piles against the wheels. As she passed, she took note of the small stick she'd jammed in the hood when she'd parked the car last; it remained undisturbed. Not that she expected anyone to tamper with it, but good tradecraft came from making such precautions a habit, and not simply a skill used against a known threat.
Walking by another car, she caught a glimpse of her reflection in its window. Although she would never have her sister Quinn's slim elegance, a last minute growth spurt had added several inches to her height, and a few understated curves. With the muscle that came from regular martial arts practice her build was stocky, and at five-six in her boots she didn't exactly tower over others, but she walked with a poise born of self-confidence, and the end result was quite effective, if she did say so herself. There had been several brief romances that supported her opinion, but none had lasted.
She sighed, wondering if she'd see Tom this summer. They'd broken up after high school when they each went off to separate schools. His was on the west coast, but his father was back from the protective custody he'd been held in since the terrorist incident, so Tom was likely to spend the summer with his family. She and Tom had remained friends after their breakup, although distant ones. They swapped email every few months, when something worth writing about happened, but she hadn't talked to him since Christmas, when they'd bumped into each other at a party at Jodie's house. The knowledge that Daria was partly responsible for his father being in jail hadn't helped, but their relationship had deteriorated more from simple absence than anything else.
Entering the dorm, she waved to Kim, a Residential Assistant sitting at the security desk. Kim looked up from a stack of Chemistry texts, blankly at first. Then she realized who Daria was and beckoned her over. Daria altered course, wondering what she wanted. Kim wasn't someone she talked to often. Although pleasant, she was too busy with her own life for Daria to consider her a friend.
"Daria. I was wondering where you were."
"Anthro final," she replied. "My last one. I'm outta here."
Kim grimaced. "I wish I could say the same, but I've got Organic tomorrow morning. Anyway, you've got a visitor waiting in the lounge. A real hunk. Were you expecting him?"
Daria thought: whom did she know that Kim would consider a hunk? Kim tended to date jocks, a species that had never appealed to Daria. Silent alarms at the anomaly went off in the back of her head. Her training said to run, or to confront the person prepared for a fight. Common sense said her training was overreacting, and that no one would be foolish enough to try something in the common lounge of a dorm, especially after the security camera on the front door had caught them entering. Besides, she wasn't ready to leave yet. All of these thoughts chased through her head in an instant, and she replied to Kim with a barely perceptible pause for thought.
"I don't think so. What's he look like?"
"Blond. Looks sort of Scandinavian, but he's shorter than you, and muscles to die for."
Daria didn't know anyone on campus who fit that description, but there was someone... She wondered if it could be him, after all this time.
Taking her leave of Kim, Daria walked into the lounge. She adjusted her hand on the strap of the backpack over her left shoulder. Filled with notebooks, it was heavy enough to use as a weapon in a pinch. She could see a blond head above the back of a chair over by the window, where he could watch the path to the main campus. He'd already know she was approaching. In fact, he could probably see her reflection in the glass, although she couldn't make out his face. She walked directly up to him, stopping about five feet away. Yes, it was Alexei.
"Alex," she said. "What brings you out to the hinterlands?"
Alexei Ivanov, a Major in the Russian Army and at last report still a military attache at the Russian embassy in Washington, stood with a smooth grace. Although he wasn't in uniform, his haircut and posture screamed soldier to anyone with eyes. Daria knew he could play the role of student with conviction, so the omission was surprising. She hadn't seen him since the end of the terrorist incident, although she'd kept up with reports on his progress, including his recent promotion to major. It was always good to know the enemy agents working your area, although her opinion of Alexei went a ways beyond simple respect for an "honorable enemy".
Alexei smiled--she'd forgotten the effect of that grin--and held out his hands. "Daria," he said, "it's good to see you again."
She dropped her pack absently, and took his hands, but kept him at arms length through an effort of will. "Likewise, Alex. But I'm surprised to see you so far from home. What's up?"
His grin slipped slightly, and she could see tension behind it. "I need to look up an old friend of ours, and I thought you might have her number. Do you remember Melody, from the Model Congress party?"
Daria felt a chill at the mention of her cover name, and the incident that had brought them together, briefly on the same side of the war against terrorism.
"Yes, of course. I've got her number in my address book. Come on up to my room, and you can tell me what you've been up to for the last couple of years while I dig it out."
She let go of his hands and picked up her pack, leading the way to the stairs. Kim watched them go, silently abandoning her hopes of getting to know the mysterious Alex. From their body language, neither was going to look at anyone else while the other was around. She was surprised. Although she didn't know Daria that well, she would have expected her to mention a boyfriend.
Daria turned the radio on softly to mask their conversation. These days sophisticated digital processing could deal with such ruses, but not everyone had ready access to that kind of technology so the practice was still taught in basic training. She waved Alexei to a seat on the lower bunk; the closest the room came to a couch, and sat down at her desk.
"So, Alexei, it has been three years, what suddenly motivated you to come visit?" she asked in passable, if stilted, Russian.
"Ah, you speak it well," he replied in the same language, "but you have a noticeable accent, and your word choice is too academic."
"I know, but they do not teach native usage in college classes. I will need to take an advanced class, or visit some Russians. But you are avoiding the question."
"Yes, I am. The reason I'm here is that I need your help. One of our operations went badly wrong." He fidgeted on the edge of the bed, as if making the admission reluctantly.
"Alexei, in case you have forgotten, I work for the U.S. Government. Why should I help you with a failed mission, especially in my own country?"
He looked up at her, with an intent expression, and spoke in a more serious manner: "Well, actually, we'd like the help of your whole organization. I came to you because you're the only member of it I know by name. And there is a good reason you'll help us."
"I am listening."
He sighed, looking down at his feet. "I had an agent. A particularly greedy one, as it turns out. He was acting as a bagman, collecting a disk that contained information taken from one of your secret cyberwar research labs. He decided that he could sell it to the Chinese, and managed to get himself killed. Now they have your information, and I have a potential scandal that could result in my superiors exiling me to somewhere even less hospitable than Moscow in the winter, if they don't just shoot me for incompetence."
"Oh, God," said Daria, lapsing back into English. "That's certainly a mess, but why tell me? You'll only compromise your source, and we'll prevent you from making another try for the information. Your superiors won't like that."
"Because this goes beyond merely my mistake. We'd rather lose this opportunity than see the Chinese use your weapon against us. Tensions over our border have been high lately, and there have been a number of clashes we've covered up. A limited war is very possible, and if they had a way to paralyze our entire command and control system, it might not be so limited."
"Alexei, I'm no hacker, but even I know enough about computers to know that such weapons only work on systems people haven't bothered to secure. While that's unfortunately true of most business computers, it can hardly apply to your strategic command systems."
"You'd think so, wouldn't you? But we have it on good authority that your weapon was developed with inside information on our systems, and has a very high probability of paralyzing them for several hours. That's long enough to give an army the size of China's a strategic advantage they may be unwilling to pass up. While the Independent States are inclined to let Russia go to hell, they can't afford to have the Chinese take possession of our Siberian nuclear arsenal, which means that if it's war, the whole Federation will be in on it, and given the sorry state of our army after Chechnya, it will probably go nuclear in a matter of hours. Battlefield nukes at first, but that will likely escalate to strategic weapons. I suspect your government has an interest in preventing this, don't you?"
"I think that's likely, yeah," said a stunned Daria, pausing to consider the probable consequences of such a war. "So, where's the disk, and how do we get it back?" she asked, finally.
"I don't know. I have some leads, which I'll turn over to your people. In return, I want to be in on the hunt, and I want the man who killed my agent."
"You're in no position to negotiate."
"No, but neither are you. Do you really think any of us will survive a nuclear winter, regardless of where the bombs fall?"
"No," she said. "Not enough of us to mean anything, anyway. It will be the end of civilization, probably for centuries." She took a deep breath, and exhaled. "Okay, I need to clear it with my superiors, but I expect they'll agree. I was headed back to Lawndale tomorrow. I'll leave tonight instead. Take a hotel room there, and leave a message with my parents telling me where you are. I'll contact my people on the drive, and be in touch with you first thing in the morning. Okay?"
"Yes. More than okay, thank you. Here, take this, it contains the information I have." He handed her a solid-state memory card.
"My superiors haven't agreed to your terms yet," she said, refusing the card.
"I know. I'll take that risk. It's better if your people have this as soon as possible. I think they'll still decide I'm more useful helping you than acting on my own. And again, thanks."
She took the card. "Don't thank me just yet. If we fumble this, and it ends in a nuclear war, I'll shoot you for incompetence myself."
"If this ends in war, that would be a mercy. I've seen death by starvation, and I don't even want to think about it on a global scale."
Her packing had gone quickly, once she decided that most of her possessions could remain in storage over the summer. The trunk held two boxes. Everything else had gone into the storeroom in the dorm basement, and thanks to an impromptu beer and pizza party she'd organized for several of the larger male residents of the dorm, she hadn't even had to carry it there.
The party was still going on, and even seemed to be growing judging by the noise coming from the open lounge windows. She'd always made it a point to avoid dorm parties, so there was some kind of justice in missing her own party. Nonetheless, she wished she could have stayed for this one. She'd been living with some of these people for three years now, and she realized with surprise that she was actually going to miss them. But duty called.
She unlocked the door of her two-seater, and climbed in, deciding to leave the removable hardtop on for now, despite the beautiful weather. The car started easily.
Although it looked from the outside like a typical student rust-bucket, her car was anything but. The agency's technical section had taken a slightly used vehicle and aged the exterior at the same time they worked their magic on its systems and structure. The engine, transmission, and suspension were a far cry from the original factory equipment, and the body and windows had been armored as well. The car could outrun most other street-legal vehicles, and absorb an amazing amount of damage while doing so. She felt secure and in control behind the wheel as she pulled away from the curb.
Before leaving, she'd passed Alexei's information to headquarters. She'd used a blind drop to an apparently innocuous web server, one of identical thousands in a commercial hosting center somewhere on the west coast. It had been encoded and buried in a copy of one of her stories; to the curious reader, it would appear to be unused font information appended to the file by an inefficient word processor. By the time she arrived it would have been collected, decoded, and fed to the analysis section.
As she pulled onto the street, she clipped on a headset for her cell phone and hit the auto-dial button. At the prompt, she spoke the keyword for the operations desk's 800 number. An operator picked up, she asked to speak to the Colonel, and was immediately patched through. There was some benefit to being a former Director, even if her tenure had been barely two months.
"Cynic. I didn't expect to hear from you until Monday. What's the matter, can't wait to get to work?" The crisp voice of Colonel Ryan, Angela's replacement, crackled in her ear. He always sounded as if he was standing on a parade ground, barking orders. But he was an experienced field man, not a parade-ground soldier, and he'd put the agency back together in the three years since Angela's arrest.
"Hello Colonel. I'm afraid we've got a little bit of a problem." She proceeded to fill him in on the details.
The Colonel agreed with her that working with Alexei was preferable to having him working on his own and possibly interfering with the recovery of the data. He did have some reservations, which Daria shared. There was nothing to say that Alexei wouldn't try to take the data and run with it, once it was recovered. But that was a problem they could deal with later. Recovering the data was their priority. They agreed to meet first thing in the morning. By then the analysis section should be able to provide an estimate of both the accuracy of the information, and potential areas of investigation based on that estimate.
After she and the Colonel were done, Daria turned her attention back to the drive. It really was a beautiful afternoon. She thought about taking the hardtop off the car now that her call was over, but decided to wait until she stopped for coffee on the interstate.
She downshifted as she turned onto the state highway, and accelerated smoothly into traffic. The next few miles were an unbroken sequence of strip malls and fast-food restaurants, punctuated by traffic lights every few hundred feet. She hated this part of the drive. It lacked both the interesting curves of a rural road, and the exhilaration of driving at speed on the open highway.
Suddenly, her side window starred with cracks, accompanied by a loud crash. She braked in reflex, and saw the shooter in the back seat of a beige sedan turning for a follow-up shot. He was only armed with a handgun, but several shots would eventually break the laminated glass and plastic forming the bulletproof window. She accelerated, swerving to the right to confuse his aim.
Traffic was stopped up ahead at an intersection. To avoid it, she turned abruptly into the entrance of a strip-mall parking lot. In the rear-view mirror she could see the sedan cutting across the road, heading for the next entrance and scattering cars in its wake. She accelerated towards the far end of the parking lot. If she could get back out on the road, she could outrun them. But she needed to avoid flattening any shoppers first.
She flew through the parking lot with a careful eye for pedestrians. Off to the side, she could see the other car approaching. They were driving with less caution, and slowly gaining on her, but they'd stopped shooting. Maybe they realized how likely they'd be to hit bystanders, or perhaps they'd just realized how futile a handgun was against armor.
She exited the parking lot onto a side street and turned right, away from the highway. There were other roads paralleling it behind the stores, and she was less likely to get caught at a traffic light back there. The roads were dotted with stop signs, which was why she normally avoided them, but traffic was light enough that she wouldn't have to pay attention to them today. As she accelerated, the tires shrieked: the asphalt here was dusted with sand from an adjacent construction site, preventing the tires from gripping as well as they should. Behind her, the pursuing car slid out onto the road, nearly climbing onto the opposite sidewalk before turning to follow. Watching it gave her an idea.
She kept her car at a reasonable speed--although the local police wouldn't have agreed with that assessment--allowing the beige sedan to overtake her car. She'd been trained in high-risk driving maneuvers for situations exactly like this, although, along with the diplomatic chauffeurs in her class, she'd never expected to put those skills to use in the real world. Still, with the poor traction, she thought she could maneuver the other car into hitting some solid obstacle, such as a telephone pole, that would end their pursuit.
Ahead, the road made a sharp left, and she slowed and hugged the left curb. As she'd hoped, the sedan pulled up on her right, the gunman trying to get a shot out the back window. With all that gunfire in an enclosed space, the driver must be deaf by now, but it didn't seem to affect his driving. Just before the curve she slammed her car into the front corner of the other vehicle, pushing it towards the sidewalk, then swung away and pulled the emergency brake, turning the wheel as she gunned the motor, swinging the tail of her car around and negotiating the corner with inches to spare.
Behind her, the sedan had less room to maneuver, and failed to recover from the shove she'd given it in time to turn. It slammed into the curb at speed. From her view of the sharply angled tire, it looked like they'd snapped the axel on the right front wheel. That would end any hopes they had of pursuit. This far from the mall it would take them too long to steal another car. Even if they knew where she was headed she'd leave them far behind.
She phoned the operations desk as she drove back to the highway, so they could call in an anonymous tip to the local police. Coming so soon after Alexei's visit, this couldn't be a coincidence, especially since, as far as she knew, no outsiders other than he were aware of her connection with the agency. Even Tom and her parents believed that she had an internship with the FBI during her summers.
But her pursuers hadn't been Asian. In fact, they'd looked remarkably like the kind of muscle the Russians tended to employ for embassy security. Tall, wide, and dense as rock, which seemed a fitting description, given their comical attempt at killing her. They hadn't even brought a decent weapon. Perhaps this was a spur of the moment attempt. If they'd been following Alexei, and had seen her as a target of opportunity, that could explain it. But why would his own people follow Alexei, a trusted senior intelligence agent? And why would they consider her a target just for talking to him? There was something here she was missing. But what?
Lawndale was a ghost town at this hour, especially this far from the center of town. The few traffic lights she encountered had been set to blinking yellow or red. She passed the mall, where even the parking lot lights had been turned off for the night, without ever seeing another vehicle.
The mall had expanded two years ago, adding new anchor stores and a six-level parking garage to handle the anticipated Christmas crowds. The garage, due to an odd height limit in a zoning ordinance, had four underground levels in addition to the two above ground. The mall owners had put up a token fight, as underground construction cost more than adding levels above ground, but to the surprise of most townspeople they had accepted the extra cost of the largely unused parking spaces in the end. Daria was one of the few people in town not surprised, as she'd been involved in the early planning of the expansion of the agency.
Turning down a deserted side street, she approached one of the many exits of the mall's new garage, which was closed with steel shutters. As her car approached, a transponder under the hood was recognized, and the shutters slid up on a well-oiled track. She drove down the ramp to the seldom-used bottom level, and around a corner into a cul-de-sac, where the solid cement wall also slid quietly aside to provide access to the agency's garage.
The old agency headquarters under Lawndale High was still in place. The exits had been relocated and were seldom used, and most of the old staff had been reassigned or retired. The changes should fool Moscow into believing that the facility had been shut down after Angela's status as a double agent became known. In truth, the expansion space under the parking garage had been built in anticipation of growth, as well as to provide a secure entrance. A small shuttle subway linked the two locations underground. Already the staff was larger than it had been when Daria was recruited, and more growth was expected in the next few years.
She parked her car, and went to an unmarked steel door that opened as she approached. Inside, she walked down a hallway lined with shuttered gun ports. Passing through another door, she paused at a security desk for an ID check. Security had been substantially improved since the days when she'd walked into the old headquarters by accident one day. She handed the guard her ID, which appeared to be a photo-id credit card issued in her cover name, and he slid it through a reader to verify it, consulting a computer screen.
The guard handed her ID back and smiled. "Go on in, agent Powers, room 216 is all yours. You have a meeting scheduled for 9 AM in the Colonel's office."
She nodded her thanks, too tired to even speak, and walked through yet another security door.
"Good morning, Cynic. The Colonel's on the phone with Washington, but he said for you to go on in and have a seat. There's a folder with the analysis report you were waiting for on the table."
"Thanks, Michael. How's the family?" Michael's wife had been expecting their first child the last time she'd seen him. Presumably he was a father now.
"Oh, that's right, you haven't seen the baby yet." He pulled out his wallet and extracted a photo. His wife, Trish, held a blanket-wrapped bundle that could have been a football for all Daria could see of it on the much-handled photo. "Little Todd, just look at him grin." Michael was grinning himself, so Daria made appropriate agreement noises until he put the photo back. She liked Michael. He was competent, cheerful, and one of the few people in the facility she could talk to freely; his clearance was at least as high as hers, probably higher now.
She reflected on the summer, three years ago, when she'd first met him. Angela had just been arrested, and as her assistant she'd been asked to run the agency until a successor could be found. Michael had been one of the first new people sent out to help clean house, as they tried to determine what agents Angela hadn't compromised. He'd shown skill with the records systems. Largely because of his work, they'd managed to preserve nearly ten percent of the field agents. When Colonel Ryan had arrived, Daria had recommended Michael as his administrative assistant. Michael had been surprised, and grateful.
She made it a point to chat with Michael whenever she visited the facility. Her cynical side said that this was because he was a useful friend. In her more honest moments, she admitted that he was a friend, and she had few enough friends who knew her as well, and only one who knew her better.
"Oh, Michael," she said as she turned to enter the Colonel's office, "the car got a bit banged up on the drive last night, could you have technical fix it up?"
"I saw it when I came in this morning. What did you do, cut off a taxi?" he said, with a smile.
"No, just some Russian thugs, out joyriding."
"Yeah, I heard about them. They were gone before the police got to the accident scene. Anyway, the techies have your car already. They said it would be a couple of days, they have to custom-make a few parts."
"Faster than I expected. Thanks. And tell the techies thanks for me, too."
"Will do," he said, returning to the paperwork on his desk.
She walked into the Colonel's office, closing the door behind her softly. Colonel Ryan was on the phone, using a headset to keep his conversation private and both hands free for his computer. From the sound of the half of the conversation she could hear, he was explaining to someone how their cyberwar files had been lost, and why they had better ensure that it didn't happen again if they wanted to keep their job. Daria thought, not for the first time, that she didn't ever want to give the Colonel reason to be mad at her. His ability to make listeners feel they'd been yelled at, without ever raising his voice, was a skill she'd love to learn.
She sat down in a comfortable chair next to a coffee table. The table bore a bright red envelope covered with dire warnings about unauthorized reading and sealed with a strip of tamper-evident security tape across the flap. She sliced the tape with a blunt fingernail, and flipped the envelope open casually. After that summer doing cleanup, she was cleared for anything the agency did, although lack of need-to-know kept her ignorant of most projects started since then. But this was her project, and no amount of tape, red or otherwise, would keep her from reading this report.
The report was disappointingly brief. It summarized Alexei's information, which she'd already read in full, and concurred with his conclusions: if the Chinese received the information, the probability of an escalating war in Siberia was high. Alexei's agent, the late Nikolai Abramov, had met with Arthur Chang, a known Chinese agent, and shortly afterward taken a fifteen-story swan dive onto a parking lot. The report included some gruesome confirming photos taken from an FBI report on the death. Nikolai had diplomatic credentials, so his death had immediately drawn their attention. But that was where the trail ended. Arthur had been under surveillance, and his meeting with Nikolai photographed, but nothing had changed hands. Unfortunately the surveillance on Chang had not included a microphone. It wasn't clear if Nikolai had told the agent where to find the disk, or the information from it, but Arthur had not made any move to collect it if he had. Perhaps he was waiting for something, or perhaps the information had never been transferred, and was now lost. However it would be foolish to assume so, when the price for being wrong was so high.
Daria returned the report to the envelope, and sat back, staring at the painted concrete ceiling. What would she have done if she'd been a Russian traitor, trying to sell immensely valuable information to an enemy, and wanting to survive the reaction of her former employers when they discovered her treason? She'd have wanted a means of escape, and she'd have held onto the information until both that and her payment was certain. Nikolai must have met with the Chinese agent to set up the deal, or perhaps to provide some surety that he had the information. But he wouldn't have brought the information itself with him, which explained why it hadn't been found on his body. So, where was it?
While she was thinking, the Colonel had finished his call. Now he sat down in the chair opposite her, taking the report she'd set down and skimming it quickly. "So, where's the disk?" he asked.
She sat up straighter, meeting his eyes. "That's the question, all right. I wish I knew the answer."
"Well, we know from the information Alexei passed us where Nikolai started from, and when. There are only so many places he could have gone in the two hours before he met with Chang. I already have teams walking the possible routes. If he cached the disk somewhere, we have a chance of finding it that way."
"Hmph," Daria snorted, unimpressed. "A city's a big place, and Nikolai may have been a traitor, but he was also an experienced agent. In two hours he could go nearly anywhere on public transportation, without leaving a trace. He won't have left it in an obvious location."
"No, probably not," he agreed, with a wry grin. "What would you have done with it?"
"What would you have done with it? You've got years more field experience than me."
"Yes, but you have the most twisted imagination of any operative I ever met. If anyone can second-guess a Russian traitor, it's you. How about it?"
She smiled. "I'm going to assume that was a compliment. Hmm." She paused, briefly. "The obvious trick is the old 'mail-it-to-yourself' ploy, but he wouldn't do that. It would be far too easy for someone else to intercept it."
"We're checking all the mail collected in that part of the city, but I agree, it's too obvious for a pro if he thought someone was on his tail, and since he'd just betrayed his boss, he'd have to assume he would be followed shortly."
"He'd leave it somewhere neutral, where he could easily recover it," she said. "Taped to the bottom of a bench, behind some books on a library shelf, somewhere like that. And not on any route between where he started and the meeting, he'd go in another direction."
"Agreed, not that it helps us much. As you said, it's a big city and he could have taken public transportation nearly anywhere."
"Well, we can reduce it somewhat. He'd only use somewhere that he knows well enough to be sure that it would remain undisturbed. I presume we have reports of his normal movements before this?"
"Yes." The Colonel rose and walked to his desk, placing a call and giving terse directions to the ops supervisor to start another hunt.
Daria leaned back, continuing to mull over the facts. There was something bothering her, something that didn't add up. She sat up abruptly, drawing the Colonel's attention as she pulled the report from the envelope to check her suspicion.
"Something?" he asked, as she dropped the report back on the table.
"Maybe. Do you have the full surveillance report of the meeting?"
He pulled a folder from his desk drawer and handed it to her. She flipped quickly through the contents. "Okay, after he left, Arthur was observed to remain at the cafe drinking coffee until after Nikolai took his dive. So who killed him?"
"Presumably one of Arthur's henchmen, trying to get the disk for free."
"But who told them to do that? Arthur didn't talk to anyone after the meeting. They wouldn't shake Nikolai down without orders, and even if they had been told to do so in advance, they'd never kill him until they had it in their hands."
Colonel Ryan sat on the corner of his desk, a pensive look on his face. "Perhaps it was those two bully-boys who took a shot at you yesterday?"
"It certainly displays the same degree of finesse," she agreed, flashing a quick grin at the Colonel. "But who are they? If they're Russian security, Alexei should have mentioned them, and why try to kill me?"
"Maybe they're not Russian. Maybe they're someone else's muscle. Could Nikolai have been stupid enough to try selling the disk twice?"
"Well, if you're going to double-cross your friends, what's to stop you from double-crossing your enemies?" she observed. "It seems like a reasonable explanation."
"Yes," the Colonel nodded. "Okay, you meet with Alexei and try to find out who else he thinks might be involved. I'll talk to the analysts and have them make some guesses of our own."
"This still doesn't help us recover the disk. If they had it, they wouldn't be killing people looking for it."
"Probably not, but it's a lead. We'll chase it until we think of something better." The Colonel turned abruptly to face Daria. "By the way, draw a gun and a vest before you meet Alexei. I don't want you getting killed if those thugs make a second attempt."
"I thought you didn't approve of arming operatives?" Angela had preferred her people armed when she ran the agency. Colonel Ryan did not, and normally Daria agreed with him. This time she objected for form's sake, although privately she agreed with his advice; staying alive appealed to her.
"I don't, normally. A smart agent fears and avoids trouble, and a gun can dull your fear. But you may not have the option of running, and you've never showed any tendency to think with your gun. Besides, you're an officer, not a field agent. I trust you're smart enough to run if you can."
"Oh, yes. Running away is something I think I can manage even carrying two extra pounds of steel." She rose. "I'll contact Alexei immediately. My parents aren't expecting me until this afternoon."
"Good. Your sister's due in this afternoon also. Team up with her once she's back. Two operatives are safer than one, and she should have more reason than most to watch your back."
Daria started, surprised at the suggestion. Quinn had been recruited a year ago, and had spent most of that summer in training. Daria hadn't expected to see her this summer either, much less to team with her on a mission. She covered her surprise with a quip: "You never had any siblings, did you? You wouldn't say that if you did."
The Colonel chuckled. "Two older brothers, and I see your point, but team with her anyway. She's good."
That was interesting, Daria thought. The Colonel was sparing with praise. Quinn must have done something impressive to warrant such a statement after only one year. "Okay, I will."
"Good." The Colonel returned to his desk, and the large pile of paperwork on it.
Daria turned, and quickly left the room, eager to be doing something. She'd collect the equipment needed before she left, but she'd have to get rid of it for the visit home. A bulletproof vest would be rather obvious when her parent's hugged her, and very difficult to explain, even as part of her FBI internship.
She'd phoned her father before leaving the agency to find out where Alexei was staying, and at the same time planted the idea that her car was in a body shop because someone had dented it in the school parking lot. Jake had, predictably, started ranting about inconsiderate college drivers, forgetting that his daughter was still in college herself. She'd diverted him by asking about Quinn, and was able to hang up after letting him know to expect her in a couple of hours. Some things never changed, she thought, as a wistful smile played across her face. It would be good to see Jake, and even her mother, in person again. The last time they'd all been together was Christmas, although she'd seen her parents at spring break. Jake and Helen really were nice people, taken in small, well-spaced, doses.
She hadn't liked lying about the car, but she needed to explain the loaner somehow. It was even a true statement, in a way. Daria hated lying, especially to people who were important to her, so she'd kept as close to the truth as she could.
Daria smiled, as she drove towards the motel where Alexei was staying. She wished she could have Quinn along for backup, but her sister's plane wasn't due in until later. The thought of working with Quinn was strange, but also satisfying. It would be good to know she had someone at her back she could trust absolutely.
She pulled into the motel parking lot, parking the car on the far side of the building from Alexei's room. The motel, a generic two-story building, featured rooms on both sides backing up against each other, their doors facing outward. The second story doors led out onto a wooden walkway, with stairs at either end of the building. A short hallway led though the building in the center, with a laundry room and some vending machines adjoining it. By approaching from this side the car would be close by, but anyone watching his room wouldn't have seen her arrive.
She exited the car, and walked slowly towards the building. As she walked, she checked the gun riding in a shoulder holster under her left arm to be sure that she could reach it easily. She didn't need to check it; she'd practiced draws with a similar holster in training, and tried this one when she put it on, but carrying a gun made her nervous. She didn't like guns, and the thought of actually using it left a hollow sensation in her stomach, but that was preferable to dying. She thought she could bring herself to fire it if necessary. She hoped it wouldn't be necessary.
Just inside the glass door on the far side of the building she paused to look over the parking lot. There were several vehicles with tinted windows that could hide watchers, but none between her and Alexei's room, so if they were going to do more than watch she'd have some warning. She took a breath, and pushed through the doors onto the sidewalk.
As she walked alongside the building, a woman came out of one of the rooms beyond Alexei's and started walking towards her. She was a tall blonde, in her mid-twenties, carrying an infant in a sling across her chest. Daria couldn't see the child, but she could hear it making happy noises as the woman tickled it with one of her fingers. Daria relaxed, and looked around. Still no motion from any of the parked cars. It wasn't likely Alexei had been spotted--he was too good an agent for that--but in this business, taking things for granted was a good way to get dead.
Daria smiled at the woman with the baby as she walked past, and only realized that the sling on the woman's chest did not hold a real baby as the blonde drew a handgun from it and pointed it at her face. Disconcertingly, happy gurgling sounds continued to come from the depths of the now-empty sling.
"Please do not move, agent Powers. I don't want to shoot you, but I will if you force me." The woman spoke with a faint upper class British accent. An anonymous accent, really, one encountered all over the world. Something about the way she spoke convinced Daria that English was not her native language.
A bluff was unlikely to work, but worth a try. She affected a frightened look. "Uh, look, I don't have much money, but it's all yours, just don't shoot me, okay?" she asked plaintively.
"Cut it, and get in there," the woman said, gesturing with the gun towards Alexei's door. "Now!"
Her finger tightened on the trigger, and Daria could see that the safety was already off. With the barrel pointed at her face, the bulletproof vest wasn't going to do her much good. Daria turned, and opened the door.
Stepping into the dark room, her attempt to dodge to one side was blocked when the blonde grabbed her shoulder with an iron grip. She was stronger than she appeared. The woman pushed her forward, and kicked the door closed after entering. Daria landed on an unmade bed, and rolled over to look up at the barrel of the gun once again.
"Okay, we're here, now what do you want?" Daria supposed that wasn't the best tack to take when someone was pointing a gun at you, but she'd always had a problem with arbitrary authority, and this was about as arbitrary as it came.
"How the hell should I know?"
"We know he was meeting you here. Where is he?"
"Look, I don't know where he is. Maybe he saw you coming and ran. Do you want to look in my pockets?" Daria sat up. "Who the hell are you, anyway?"
The woman looked at her, coldly. The gun never wavered. "I am Captain Anastasia Penkovskya, SVR. We know Major Ivanov is a mole, working for you, agent Powers. His usefulness to you is over, so you may as well tell me where to find him."
Daria couldn't help herself. Seeing the serious, self-righteous look in the woman's eyes, she burst out laughing. She fell back on the bed, laughing until tears came. Finally, she sat up, removing her glasses briefly to wipe away the moisture. Donning them, she looked at the Russian. The SVR, or Foreign Intelligence Service, formerly the First Directorate of the KGB, was Russia's equivalent of the CIA. It was also responsible for embassy security. This explained the gorillas she'd played tag with yesterday.
"What on earth makes you think Alexei works for me? Until yesterday I hadn't seen him in three years."
The captain seemed less sure of herself, but kept the gun pointed at Daria. "He left the embassy yesterday with another man, who was killed. Instead of reporting this, he fled to the countryside to meet with you, an FBI agent, and you arranged to rendezvous here. You have to admit, this is not the behavior of a typical bureaucrat."
"He's one of your own damn agents, why would you expect him to act like a bureaucrat?"
"Because," said a third voice from the darkened doorway of the bathroom, "she didn't know I was an agent. Put the gun down, Stasi, I have you covered." Alexei stepped into the room, pointing a gun at the captain. She looked blankly at him, and then dropped her weapon.
"Nice entrance, Alexei," Daria observed. "Are you folks always this disorganized?"
"Not usually, but the turf wars between the SVR and the GRU can get fairly interesting. I'm GRU, Military Intelligence, in case you didn't know."
"I'd assumed that, but hadn't been able to confirm it. So your girlfriend here didn't know you were an agent." Daria looked at the blonde. "Captain Penkovskya, were those your thugs who tried to kill me yesterday, or are even more people involved?"
The captain had the grace to look abashed. "They were only supposed to question you, not start a gun battle in the middle of a city." She glared at Alexei. "Well, Major Ivanov, if you are indeed GRU, why are you cooperating with the FBI?"
"Melody's not FBI, that's just her cover."
"Gee, thanks Alexei, remind me not to tell you any secrets."
"It's hardly a secret. If the captain had bothered to read the real background material on known agents in the Washington area, rather than what we give the embassy staff, she'd know who you work for. I reported your identity three years ago."
Daria knew that. She'd read the Russian's background material that Captain Penkovskya had obviously failed to read. She also knew it only mentioned her cover identity, and not her real one even though Alexei knew who she was. She owed him for that. But she couldn't let Alexei know their files had been compromised, so she scowled at him. Then she turned to the captain. "What kind of agent are you, anyway? Even a novice knows to familiarize themselves with the enemy."
The woman's mouth worked, her expression indignant, but no words came out. Alexei spoke into the silence: "A new one, she just joined the staff last week. Apparently she's so busy trying to make a name for herself by discovering a traitor, that she hasn't had time to deal with the orientation material."
"I haven't read it," she huffed, "because it's locked up in Colonel Barakov's safe, and he's in Moscow for three weeks. And you still haven't answered my question: whether she's FBI or something else, why are you consorting with an American agent?"
"Am I consorting with you, Melody? That sounds like fun."
"Put a sock in it, Alexei, and tell her what's going on. We don't have time for your petty internal politics."
"Oh, very well." He put his weapon away. "Pick up your gun, Stasi, we're all on the same side here. Let me explain what's going on..."
"Ivanov, you uncultured incompetent," the captain spat in Russian, "you've put the motherland at risk, and now you bring in an American instead of reporting to your superiors. I'll see you brought up on treason charges for this!"
He replied in the same language: "My dear Stasi, do whatever you please once this emergency is over, but for now Melody is our best hope to resolve the situation. If I wait for Moscow to react, the Chinese will have the disk back in Beijing before we start looking for it."
"This girl?" the captain asked. "She's barely an adult. What can she do?"
"Among other things," Daria said in English, "I can speak Russian. I can also tell you that the Chinese do not yet have the disk, although we're still working on exactly what happened to it. I don't believe you'd have figured that out on your own this quickly, would you?"
The captain, embarrassed, shook her head. "I didn't mean anything personally. But this is a Russian problem, we should not depend on an American to solve it for us."
"Fallout doesn't pay much attention to borders, and it's our disk anyway," Daria replied. "Besides, at this point you no longer have the option of working on this alone. You can cooperate, or I'll have you deported by this evening. You may as well accept it."
"I should mention," Alexei added, "that I met Melody three years ago when she was a high school student. At the time she was foiling an attempt by some Russian terrorists to blow up Washington with a nuclear device. Don't underestimate her because of her age."
"As I recall, it was a team effort," Daria said.
"True, but you only needed me for the mopping up. You found and disarmed the bomb on your own."
"Regardless," said the captain, interrupting the mutual admiration session, "I agree, we need to work together now. What can you tell us, and what can we do?"
"Well, I can't go into details, but we know Nikolai's contact never received the disk, and he's under very close observation, so if he attempts to collect it from somewhere we'll have it. Right now, we're looking for where Nikolai might have stashed it while he met his contact. If you can provide any information about his usual methods of work, his habits, where he liked to eat lunch, and so forth, maybe we can narrow our search area."
"If I go back to the city," Alexei said, "I can search his room at the embassy for any clues he might have left. It's a long shot, but it's worth trying. Beyond that, I expect your people know his habits better than I would." He turned to the captain. "Do you have your pair of goons in town?"
"They are not goons," she replied indignantly. "They are simply enthusiastic, and inexperienced."
"And not likely to get much more experienced," Daria said, "if they go around trying to kill every foreign agent they meet."
"I told you, we thought you were a controller for a mole in our embassy. Trying to kill you was excessive, but it would have been an effective way to limit our damage."
"I'll keep that in mind the next time I'm on the opposite end of the gun from a Russian agent," Daria said with some heat.
"Ladies, please," said Alexei. "Can we argue later? Right now, I think it would be best if Stasi sends her enthusiastic agents back with me, and if the two of you stay together. We need to make sure our two groups stay in close communication."
Daria scowled at Alexei, but his suggestions made sense. Once he left, she'd have trouble contacting him in a hurry, but she had no doubt his fellow agent could do so with ease.
"Works for me," she said. "But you'll need to take a short break, Captain Penkovskya. I have to deal with something else for a couple of hours, and meet up with my partner. Then we can get back together and compare notes. Shall we meet here at three PM?"
"That's fine by me, agent Powers, and please call me Stasi."
"Okay, as long as you don't start talking about color coordination."
"Never mind. And call me Melody."
Well Mom, Daria thought to herself, except for the Russian thugs who tried to kill me it was a pleasant ride. No, that wouldn't be a good conversational gambit. "It was a nice day for a drive," she said.
"And how was your flight, Quinn?" her mother continued, turning her attention to her sister.
Daria smiled inwardly, but was careful not to let it show. Helen was in top interested-parent form today, and apparently trying to ration her conversation evenly between her two daughters. It was amusing, and she could tell from the glint in Quinn's eye that her sister had picked up on it as well.
"Well, you know Mom, it was a plane. They took off late, served food I wouldn't feed to a stray dog, and then they landed and parked on the taxiway for a half-hour," Quinn replied. "The way I see it, as long as there aren't any psychos trying to prove to everyone how important they are by acting like spoiled five-year-olds, and the plane actually manages to land at the right airport and in one piece, it's a successful flight."
"So, was it a successful flight?" asked Daria, mischievously, as Helen tried to think of an upbeat response.
"Yeah, but I think I'll take the train next time. It can't be any worse."
"Don't count on it, Quinn," said their father. "When I was in college, I took the train home every holiday, and it always seemed to stop in the middle of nowhere for hours at a time." His voice had begun to rise, and his face was becoming red. "Then I'd arrive at the station, and my father would have given up and gone home, and I'd have to walk five miles to the house, the damn thoughtless bastard!"
"Jake!" Helen cut in. "For God's sake, leave your father out of this. We're supposed to be enjoying a happy afternoon together as a family."
"I never had a family! All I had was that evil old man..."
Ah, the sounds of home. Daria relaxed back into the couch, sharing an amused grin with Quinn, as their parents quarrel washed back and forth over the two of them. Some things never changed, and that was good. Jake wouldn't be the father she remembered if he ever stopped living in the shadow of his own father. And Helen wouldn't be the same if she ever realized that she was a better mother when she wasn't trying so hard. Daria waited for a lull before interrupting them: "Anyway, I was thinking that we could all go out for a late lunch. I haven't eaten yet, and I'm sure Quinn's starved even if she ate the airplane food."
"Oh, but I thought you were meeting your friend Alex for dinner tonight. You don't want to spoil your appetite, do you?" Helen replied.
Quinn perked up. "Alex? Who's this Alex? Have you got a boyfriend now?"
"No, Quinn," Daria responded. "He's just a friend I met on that trip to DC at the end of senior year. He's in town on business, and we're getting together for dinner, that's all." She turned to her mother. "We'll probably go to a movie or something first, so dinner will be fairly late. I'm going to need to eat something to tide me over until then."
Quinn hadn't met Alexei last time, but Daria had eventually been able to fill her in on the trip, so she picked up on the word "business" and quickly changed the subject. "Oh, okay, but yeah, I am starved. Why don't we go to Chez Pierre? I haven't been there since I graduated."
The family squabbled good-naturedly over Quinn's choice of restaurant, but eventually agreed. They set out in two cars, so Daria could go straight from the restaurant to her date. This also gave Daria an opportunity to ride with Quinn and brief her on the situation. Quinn's annoyance at having her evening's plans disrupted was quickly banished by eagerness for the mission. They agreed to meet at headquarters before Daria returned to meet Stasi, as Quinn could convince her parents to drop her off at the mall for an evening's shopping after Daria left the restaurant.
"Daria," Quinn said. "I'm nervous. Are you sure she'll be there? How are we going to find this disk, anyway?"
"Relax, Quinn. We'll manage. And if she hasn't waited for us, we'll do it without her. And my name's Melody, remember? We need to live our covers. What is yours, anyway?"
"Anne Corday, codename Fashion."
"Anne Corday? Where'd that come from, some fashion designer?"
"It's from Marie-Anne Charlotte Corday d'Armont. She was a French patriot and assassin."
"Assassin? Quinn, is this something I should know about?"
"Nah. I just picked the name because I liked it. I'm only dressed to kill in a figurative sense."
"Okay. Remember what I said about living your cover?"
"Well, don't get carried away," Daria said, with a grin.
Quinn laughed as she parked in front of Alexei's room, then became serious as the two of them stepped from the car. Daria was glad to see Quinn checking out the other cars in the parking lot, as she herself had just done. Nothing was moving anywhere, and nobody else was in sight.
Daria knocked on the door of the motel room. After a brief wait, Captain Penkovskya opened the door. Daria entered, followed by Quinn, and the captain closed the door.
"Anne, allow me to introduce Captain Anastasia Penkovskya. Captain, this is my partner, Anne Corday."
"Pleased to meet you, Ms. Corday," the captain said with a smile, offering her hand. "And please call me Stasi."
"Only if you'll call me Anne," Quinn said, shaking her hand. "So, where do we go from here?"
"The city," said Daria. "I have a helicopter waiting at the airport." She turned to the Russian. "Have you heard anything from Major Ivanov?"
"Just that he'd arrived and was about to begin searching Nikolai's room. I expect he'll call back in an hour or so."
"Okay. If we hurry, we can be in the city by then.
Armed with photographs that Captain Penkovskya provided, the three women split the list of eateries, hoping that a waiter or waitress would remember that he had a favorite table. Or that someone would remember finding a computer disk when cleaning. Or something; they were grasping at straws, and she knew it. So far, Daria had looked under more tables and seat cushions than she could count, discovering enough about restaurant hygiene in the process to put her off eating out for life. And that was still better than the men's rooms she'd had to check (after having a waiter clear them of patrons). Why the board of health didn't close some of these places was beyond her, but she suspected bribery was involved.
Two hours of this, and all she had was a strong desire to wash her hands. Repeatedly. She sighed as she walked back to the sidewalk to await Quinn, who was driving the rental car they'd picked up at the airport. The car pulled up five minutes later and she climbed in the back. Stasi was already seated up front.
"Anything," she asked, not expecting results.
"No," and "Nothing," the two up front chorused.
"Well, there's a surprise. There's only two more on the list, let's search both of them as a team. Stasi and I can check under tables, and Anne can search the men's rooms."
"Why me?" asked Quinn.
"Because I'm your boss, remember?" and because I'd rather have Stasi where I can see her, Daria didn't add. For all she knew Stasi had found the disk an hour ago and was just playing along. She'd have to find some excuse to search her before they parted. She really should have thought of that before they split up to search. Damn hindsight.
"Damn Alexei", she said. "How long can it take to search a bedroom and an office?"
"Oh, sorry," said Stasi. "He called while I was at the last place. I have a list of stores plus a movie theatre that we can check, all at a mall on the other side of DC. Alexei found Nikolai's credit card bill."
"Well, that's a change from restaurants anyway. We'll go over there after we finish these last two, unless the Colonel has another team closer."
"I called ops, there isn't," said Quinn. "They're all tied up walking possible routes through the city while we still have daylight for outdoor searches."
"Great. They get clean sunshine and we get a grand tour of mold colonies. Wait 'till I get my hands on the ops supervisor..."
"But Melody," Quinn protested, "you don't like sunshine. You're always telling me I'm going to get skin cancer from working on my tan."
"I can buy sun block and a hat, but if I walked into a restaurant wearing a biohazard suit I'd attract too much attention," Daria replied, mock seriously.
"You Americans," Stasi said, getting into the spirit. "You think this is bad? Nobody is shooting at us."
"Not today," Daria interjected.
"Well, nobody's shot at me anyway," Stasi replied with a smile.
Daria grinned back, despite herself. Stasi had an infectious grin, and an upbeat spirit. It was difficult to remember that they were only allies by convenience.
"All right, I admit defeat. Let's finish these two off and then we can go to the mall."
"Yeah! I haven't gone shopping since I got back from school," Quinn said.
"I meant, we'll go check the stores where Nikolai shopped," Daria replied.
"Well, yeah, but we can do some shopping too, can't we?" her sister asked, with a look of longing.
"I swear, Anne, I know you like to shop, but we have this little impending nuclear war to deal with, remember?"
"I know, but can a half an hour looking at clothes really hurt?"
Stasi seemed to be suppressing a fit of giggles, and Daria found herself smiling. It was hard to be sure, but she thought Quinn was joking. She hoped Quinn was joking.
"No, but you've never spent just a half-hour looking at clothes in your life. The shopping trip will have to wait until after we save the world, okay?"
"Deal," Quinn said, with a quick grin at the rear-view mirror. She had been joking then. "I'm looking forward to going shopping with you."
"Huh?" said Daria, caught off guard. "I never agreed to go with you."
"Oh come on, you'll enjoy it. And I'm sure you need new clothes. You were wearing that outfit last summer."
"Yes, Melody, why don't the three of us go shopping after we save the world," Stasi said. "I've been waiting years to see the decadent West for myself. You can show me Capitalism in action." She grinned.
"Okay, okay. Save the world first, shop later. All in a day's work for the modern espionage superwoman. Mom would approve." Daria leaned forward and banged her forehead off the back of the seat. "Maybe if I'm lucky the bombs will fall here before I have to go through with this."
Laughter from the front seat was the only response.
Daria directed Quinn to the valet parking stand. It was a violation of normal procedure to let their vehicle out of their control, but she wanted ready access to the car if something came up elsewhere. Besides, walking from the far edge of the parking lot was not in keeping with their cover as three office-workers on a post-work shopping trip, and she was impatient to finish their search. Excuses, she reflected, were easily made.
Inside, the mall was a large two-story affair, decorated in neon, steel and frosted glass, and styled like a Victorian fancy interpreted by Hollywood, with steel beams arching overhead in graceful curves and interior lighting disguised as gaslight street lamps. Merchandise in racks stood outside the stores and signs advertised a mall-wide sidewalk sale. Scattered down the center of the hallway between the stores were roofed pushcart kiosks selling an amazing variety of things normally seen only on late-night television. Trees in planters reached their tops nearly to the glass skylights overhead, and crowds jostled in the limited space remaining. Above, the second-story balconies lacked the trees, but appeared even more crowded, with pushcarts and merchandise crowding the already narrow aisles.
Daria turned to her companions. "Well Captain Penkovskya, you wanted decadent Capitalism, and I think we've delivered. What do you think?"
"If it were any more decadent, I'd expect Caligula to ride through in a sedan chair," she replied.
"They probably do that every hour on the hour," Quinn chimed in.
Daria smiled. "Well, now that we've seen what we're fighting to save, let's be about our business."
They consulted a map of the mall, and headed for the nearest store on the list, a luggage store. Approaching it, Stasi abruptly pushed them behind a planter in the middle of the corridor, out of sight of the store.
"What the hell!" exclaimed Daria.
"Look at the man talking to the clerk in there," Stasi whispered.
Daria peered carefully around the planter, trying not to look like someone hiding behind a tree. She considered her attempt a miserable failure. Inside the store, a middle-aged executive in a suit was examining a briefcase and talking to the store clerk, a teenaged boy.
Turning back to Stasi, irritated by the apparently pointless melodrama, she said: "So, there's a guy looking at luggage in a luggage store. You break his neck, while I interrogate the clerk."
Stasi returned her glare calmly. "The 'guy', as you call him, is Nigel Thorpe, British SIS station chief for the Washington area. Weren't you the one telling me to keep up with local agents?"
Abashed, Daria looked back at the store, where the executive continued to talk to the clerk. "Damn, he is? He's new. Whatever happened to MI 6's old chief?"
"Rotated to Italy two months ago. I guess you need to catch up with recent events." Daria could hear the satisfaction in Stasi's voice.
"Dammit, I had finals, okay? Anyway, maybe he's just shopping. We only found out about this place two hours ago. How could he know?"
"Perhaps they've bugged the embassy. Alexei said he was calling from Nikolai's office."
Daria looked shocked. "Wait, he called you? On a cell phone? Hell, every agent in town must know by now."
"Relax, my phone has a scrambler. Unless they've broken the code, it should be secure."
"Well, either they broke the code, or there was a bug in Nikolai's office, because I don't believe this is a coincidence. Anyway, let's hit store number two. Anne, wait up ahead, and if he comes out, call and warn me. Stasi, come with me, I'll need you to check for other new agents." Daria set off at a brisk walk for the next store.
As the two agents walked through the mall, Daria noticed many of the female shoppers carrying small yellow bags. They were made of stiff, coated paper, and looked like ones given out by makeup counters and upscale shops, although she didn't recognize the brand. Up ahead she could hear the booming of a PA system, the words incoherent at this distance, just a bass rumble like distant surf on a shore. She turned to Stasi, who shrugged a shoulder in response. Before they reached the source of the sound, they arrived at the store, a chain outlet for video games and computer software.
"Well, this would be a good choice for a hiding place. I wonder if Nikolai ever read The Purloined Letter?" Daria said.
"Poe? I doubt it. From what I know of him, he wasn't likely to read anything in Russian that wasn't required. I can't see him reading English-language fiction."
In the store, one of the employees recognized Nikolai's photo. The clerk remembered him because he'd been looking for a game that would run on a computer several years behind the current models, and they had gone through a dozen titles before finding one that was compatible. Daria asked the clerk if anyone had found a computer disk, and after showing her FBI badge the clerks searched under the counter, finding nothing. As they finished, Quinn's voice cracked in her ear, carried by the bone-conduction receiver in the frame of her glasses.
"Melody, he's on the move in your direction."
"Roger that, Anne," she said, apparently to empty space, drawing a puzzled look from the clerks. "Follow him, but remember he's a professional. We're leaving now." She turned back to the clerks. "Okay, thanks for your help. And if anyone comes in asking similar questions, answer them, in fact take lots of time answering them very thoroughly, but don't let them know anyone else has been asking. It's a matter of national security."
The clerks, apparently impressed, nodded and assured her of their support. She turned and walked out, followed by Stasi. Once outside, carefully not looking back to see how close the British agent was, the two rode up an escalator to the second level. The next store was nearly above the one they'd just left, but out of sight.
As they approached, two men walked out of the store. Daria's breath caught in her throat: she knew them, French DGSE agents. She quickly turned to a kiosk selling southwestern pottery and fake Indian artifacts. The bored clerk, seeing a potential sale, bounced up, and launched into an elaborate, and in Daria's opinion incorrect, explanation of a ghost-catcher hanging from the kiosk's roof. Daria turned to her with forced enthusiasm. The two French agents walked past and went down the escalator, apparently without recognizing her or Stasi.
"I'll take it," she said to the clerk, to shut off the endless stream of misinformation. Turning to Stasi, she said for Quinn's benefit: "Anne, did you see those two Frenchmen, I'd swear I've seen them before."
"Oh God, weren't they dreamy!" the clerk enthused. "I just love foreigners. They're so, you know..."
"Foreign?" Daria asked, wondering if Brittany had had facial surgery since the last time they'd met.
"Yeah!" the clerk replied, without any of Brittany's trademark squeak, but otherwise sounding terribly familiar. Daria decided that all airheads must just sound alike, probably due to internal echoes.
"I see the French guys," Quinn's voice rang in her ears. "They're headed into the software store, and the other guy's still in there. Whoops, they must have seen him. They just bounced out and are hiding behind a rack of leather coats in front of the store across the way. For professionals, they're pretty obvious about it."
Daria took the bag with her purchase and turned to the captain. "C'mon Stasi, let's head for the next store."
Behind her she could hear a plaintive query from the clerk. "But isn't her name Anne?" She ignored it and kept on walking.
Quinn's voice murmured in her ear, she thought her sister must have been whispering. "Da... I mean Melody, the English guy is going further down the main level and one of the French guys is following him while the other goes in the computer store. I'm going to follow the English guy."
"Roger, Anne. And remember they're both pros, even if they aren't acting it. Stay well back and be inconspicuous."
"I'm on it."
Daria and the Stasi stopped outside the third store: a cutlery store with a display of knives in the window that had no place in a kitchen. The captain just stared.
"My God, you sell commando knives in shopping malls? What kind of a country is this?"
"One based on control by an armed and informed citizenry," Daria replied, with more than a touch of irony.
"Relax, most of the people who buy such things either use them to open boxes, or barely know which end is sharp, and only want one as a kind of macho pose."
"So much for an informed citizenry," Stasi replied with one of her grins.
"Yeah, well, every political system has its flaws, but I seem to recall encountering a couple of gorillas the other day who weren't any better. At least our idiots are civilians, or politicians."
"Touche. I won't make snide comments about your country, if you'll stop reminding me that my guys tried to kill you. I'm not likely to forget it, anyway. When Colonel Barakov gets back I'm going to be roasted for letting them make such a scene. Deal?"
"Yeah, okay, deal," said Daria. She'd been getting tired of tweaking Stasi on that subject anyway. It seemed obvious that the two goons are been trying to think for themselves, and failing. Stasi was no fool; if she had wanted Daria dead they'd have been carrying heavier weapons.
Daria walked into the store, and went through her routine. The store manager and his assistant didn't recall Nikolai, but a quick search of receipts turned up his name on a knife order. With that, the assistant remembered him. The knife he'd special ordered, a wicked ceramic-bladed thing that folded into a titanium handle, had arrived and he'd been trying to reach Nikolai by phone for two days. That was a fairly clear indication that he hadn't returned to this store yesterday.
Stasi paid the remaining balance on the knife and pocketed it, telling the manager that Nikolai worked for her, and that she'd see he received it. Daria shuddered, and hoped she didn't mean it. That would be just a little too macabre for her.
They were walking towards the next store, when Quinn called again. "Melody, the English guy just went into a bookstore, is that on our list? Oh, the French guy is following him."
Daria repeated the information to Stasi, who confirmed that the name of the store matched one on their list. Daria told Quinn to keep the store in sight, and let her know when anyone left. The two of them rode down an escalator, and aimed for Quinn's location.
"Melody," Quinn's voice said. "I just saw a Japanese woman I recognize go into the store. She's a clerk in their embassy, and a suspected covert MITI agent."
"Huh? MITI has covert agents? Since when? They're an economic policy agency."
"You really should keep up with the briefings. There was a heads-up about that last month. We're not sure they have them, but it's probable," Quinn replied.
"What's this about MITI?" Stasi asked.
"I hadn't heard of covert MITI agents," Stasi said, "but it's possible, and the Japanese would certainly have an interest in anything that could affect our strategic systems. We've been feuding over some of the Kuril Islands between Hokkaido and the Kamchatka peninsula since the Second World War. The disk would be a powerful negotiating tool."
"Well that's just wonderful. Does every agent in the city know about this? I wonder who else is running around this damn mall." Daria thought she was getting close to whining, but couldn't stop herself. This was just too ridiculous for words. How had all of these people learned about the missing disk?
"What do you want me to do, Melody?" asked Quinn.
Tell me something that makes sense of all this, she thought, but said "Go in the store and shop, see if you can find out what they are all after, and whether they're working together. Stasi and I will wait outside when we get there."
Their attempt to join Quinn was thwarted, at least temporarily, by a logjam of spectators around a large yellow-draped stage in the center courtyard of the mall. The PA wasn't much clearer up close, but from what Daria could make out, it appeared to be a cosmetics company touting their wares and giving away samples. That would explain the little yellow bags she'd seen.
As the two of them were trying to find a way through the crush, someone grabbed her left shoulder from behind. She spun, breaking her assailant's grip, and burying her right fist in his belly. Only then did she recognize him; it was that annoying DJ she'd encountered back in high school. She remembered he was named for some kitchen implement, but couldn't recall what. As he gasped and folded onto the ground, she remembered: it was the Spatula Man, and his sidekick Bing, or was it the other way around? Anyway, the thin one was on the ground, and the annoying fat one was standing in front of her with a microphone in his hand.
The remaining DJ, apparently oblivious to his friend's injury, shoved the microphone in her face. This must be the event they'd seen signs for outside the mall, the one a radio station was promoting.
"Welcome to the cosmetithon, little lady!" he yelled over the noise of the crowd. "Have you picked up your free samples yet?"
Daria cringed. Assaulting a radio personality was no way to remain inconspicuous, nor was appearing on-air. Well, it was too late to back out now.
"No," she bellowed back. "I'm just here to shop." It was the wrong response, and she knew it the moment she said the words. These guys liked nothing more than a challenge.
"You have to try these!" he yelled. "They're our sponsor's new fall line, and they're completely free of rainforest products and developed without animal testing of any sort."
Maybe she could scare him off. "Oh," she said, "so you mean they're formed completely of non-natural chemicals, and have never had their safety for human use validated by scientific testing?" She saw him wince. Below she could detect the other DJ trying to rise to his feet. Without looking down, she kicked him, hard, and he stopped, apparently deciding that the floor was a fine place to remain. She felt briefly sorry, but reflected that anyone who went around physically assaulting strangers didn't deserve much sympathy, and she had to keep the two DJ's separated. Together they could flank her, and might be able to delay her for ages, but one alone was easy game.
She smiled. It was a smile that had more in common with a hungry tiger than friendship. The fat DJ seemed to know that the predator-prey relationship had turned, and she could see him looking for a way to end the conversation without simply cutting to a commercial. She decided to encourage a rapid end to it.
"Do the cosmetics have a warranty that covers medical expenses due to allergic reactions, or does the company just put their money into a large team of lawyers to defend against wrongful injury suits?" she asked, innocently.
"They... They're perfectly safe," he protested. "Millions of dollars have been spent on computer models of their interaction with the human body. There's absolutely no risk."
"No risk if your body is as perfect as a computer model, but what about the rest of us?" she asked, this time without the innocent act. His face went white, no doubt realizing that a product that depended on undermining the self-image of its users couldn't stand up to that kind of doubt. Why anyone should think an animal's physiology was a better model for human skin than a computer model based on human skin was, of course, too deep an issue for a radio sound bite.
"Th... Thank you for your interest, but that's all the time we have now, back to you in the studio Mike." He fled into the crowd, abandoning his co-host on the ground.
The press of people had thinned during the conversation, as the crowd moved to the stage. Daria and Stasi stepped over the other DJ, who appeared to be trying to crawl for cover under a bench, and made their way past the stage. When they were far enough beyond the crowd that they could talk without shouting, Stasi turned to Daria.
"I know I promised no more snide comments, but whatever happened to freedom of the press? That poor fellow will be traumatized for life."
"Huh? I didn't hit him that hard, and he grabbed my arm first. That's assault any way you look at it, and not even freedom of the press allows that."
"I didn't mean the thin one, he got what he deserved. I meant the poor fellow who only wanted to ask you some questions. He's going to be afraid to hand the microphone to anyone now." Even though Stasi wasn't grinning, Daria could hear the amusement in her voice.
"Trust me, radio personalities have thick skins, and the attention span of a two-year-old, he'll be questioning housewives without a care in ten minutes."
"Hey, where are you guys?" queried Quinn in Daria's ear.
"Trying to get past the cosmetics show," replied Daria.
"Well, hurry it up. The British guy just picked up a disk from the clerk here, and both the French guy and the Japanese girl saw him do it. I'm outside, looking through the window, so they don't know I'm here."
"Oh Hell!" snarled Daria. "Watch where he puts it, and stay on him, we're coming." She turned to Stasi. "Nigel has the disk."
The captain nodded, and started elbowing her way through the crowd, drawing protests, but moving at a faster pace than Daria could have maintained. She followed, pulling out her cell phone and calling the ops desk.
"It's Cynic," she said when they answered. "Put me through to the Colonel, priority."
The phone line clicked and within a few seconds the Colonels voice came through. "What have you got Cynic?"
"Nigel Thorpe of SIS just picked up something that looks like our disk. We're moving to engage, but we've got competition from two known DGSE agents and a probable MITI agent. We could use some backup here."
"Our nearest people are at least ten minutes away, but we'll get them moving in your direction. We'll also brief the local police that you're there on official business, just in case something goes public. Good hunting, Cynic. Colonel Out." The line went dead, and Daria put the phone away.
Daria reached into her pocket and pulled out a clip-on combination microphone and earpiece, looking like the kind worn by many cell phone users, except that it had no cord. She tapped Stasi on the shoulder, handing it to her when she turned.
"Here, put this on, it's on the scrambled frequency Anne and I are using. It's voice activated, just talk when you need to. As soon as we're out of this crowd, you take the left side of the hallway and I'll take the right, with Anne we can box Nigel in and watch out for the others. Are you armed?"
"Thanks," the captain said, clipping the microphone on. "No, I'm not armed, except for that knife I bought earlier. I sent the gun back with my agents. For some reason I thought this was going to be a simple investigation, not a free-for-all."
"Hey Stasi, good to hear your voice," Quinn said. "He's headed back your way, with the French guy following, and the girl following him. I'm behind the three of them."
"Got it. Where's the disk?" Daria asked.
"Left outside jacket pocket. Looks like the French guy is making a move.... Yep, picked his pocket clean, Frenchie has the disk, and the Brit never noticed. Smooth."
"I told you they were professionals. Any sign of the second Frenchman?"
"No, he's probably somewhere behind you, because I can see you up ahead."
Daria looked up, realizing that she was almost on top of the British agent. The Frenchman was lagging behind, looking in a store window. Thorpe saw her, and reacted. Damn, he must be up to date on his briefings. Unconsciously he checked his pocket: poor tradecraft, as it would have told her he had something if she hadn't already known. Finding nothing he stopped in shock, and looked back, just as the Frenchman looked up and their eyes locked. The French agent turned and ran, and Thorpe took off after him.
"Goddamn amateurs!" Daria yelled, drawing the attention of mall patrons for some distance. "Anne," she said in a lower voice, "stop the French guy, and watch out for Nigel. Stasi, stay on your side and watch my back in case the other one shows up." She took off after Thorpe, any pretense at cover abandoned.
Up ahead the Frenchman ran towards Quinn, glancing back over his shoulder frequently. Quinn ran to meet him, dropping to one side and kicking his feet out from under him with a beautiful leg sweep from the side. Quinn was atop the French agent and pinning him before he could recover. But the disk had skittered away when he fell, and the MITI agent picked it up and ran. Various curiosity-seekers started to crowd around Quinn as she was binding the agent's arms with a nylon cable-tie restraint she pulled from her handbag.
Daria pulled her badge and yelled: "FBI, gangway!" as she ran past Quinn, scattering the bystanders. Off to her left she could see Stasi pacing her, and looking backwards.
Stasi's voice crackled in her ear: "Melody, no sign of the other French guy, but Thorpe's following you."
"Right. Anne, finish securing your man, then follow Thorpe and keep him off my back."
"Roger, Melody, I'm on it."
Up ahead the supposed MITI agent ran up a down escalator, dodging around irate shoppers. Daria followed, gaining slowly and waving her badge. She didn't have the breath for yelling, but the badge seemed to work its magic, with people scattering and diving to the floor when they saw her. She supposed a regular diet of television cop shows had them expecting her to open fire indiscriminately. Not that she would have in an environment this tightly packed with civilians, even if she had been armed; any shot would be likely to hit a bystander.
At the top of the escalator the MITI agent turned, heading back towards the center of the mall. Daria paused for one "FBI, you're under arrest, stop where you are!" which had no effect other than to draw attention, before setting out in pursuit. Stasi, now on her right, had gained the top of her escalator slightly earlier, and was already running down the far balcony, trying to get ahead of the girl. Daria saw a mall security guard up ahead, and gathered her breath for one last shout.
"FBI! Stop that girl! She's wanted on felony charges!"
The rent-a-cop seemed to be confused, and just blinked as the girl ran past him. As Daria approached, waving her badge, he stepped in front of her, yelling: "Hold it! No running in the mall, miss!"
There wasn't room to dodge, so Daria braced herself and body-slammed him into a display of scented candles, which scattered everywhere, tripping passing shoppers. Daria recovered her feet and jumped over the mess, yelling, "What part of 'FBI' didn't you understand?" as she passed the moaning guard. The MITI agent had gained a substantial lead, so Daria stopped yelling and concentrated on running.
"Melody," she heard Stasi say, "I see the other DGSE agent up ahead moving to intercept the girl. I can't get there in time, there's no cross-bridge near them."
"Roger," she gasped, "get beyond them and cut off his escape. Anne, where the hell are you and Thorpe?"
"I'm about fifty feet behind you, and he's kissing a light post a ways back. I didn't stop to tie him up, though; I figured you'd want backup."
"Right. I'll take the DGSE agent. Make sure the girl doesn't get past you. I've lost track of who has the disk," Daria said.
Ahead, the crowd parted to reveal the Japanese girl lying on the floor, the second Frenchman bending over her. He looked up and saw Daria, looked back and saw Stasi, and bolted into the store next to him.
She charged in behind, in time to see him duck through a door marked "Employees" at the back of what turned out to be a shoe store. She croaked out a feeble "FBI, everyone down!" as she followed him, clerks and patrons staring at her in surprise. She wished she'd kept the gun, as she ran to the door and kicked it open. But there was only an empty stockroom, with an open door onto a service hallway at the back. She ran through the door, seeing him off to the right.
They ran down the hall for a short distance, before he turned down a stairwell. She followed, gaining on him as he stopped to open a door leading back toward the main part of the mall. Going through it, she could see that they were behind the yellow cosmetics pavilion. Ahead, he stopped for some reason, and she tackled him. The two of them flew though a black curtain, bringing it down on top of themselves like a collapsing tent.
She made sure she had him pinned before pulling the curtain off, and looked up to see a large crowd seated in chairs in front of her. To her left the two DJ's looked at her in shock, to the right a model stood, a makeup brush of some kind forgotten in her hand. Daria pulled out her badge. "FBI." She turned to the Frenchman under her: "You're under arrest." The audience burst into applause.
Standing in the security command post, Daria wasn't sure which was more unreal: a man at least five years older than her calling her "ma'am", or the concept that someone could be honored to meet her. But mere unreality wouldn't stop her from using it to her advantage.
"Thank you Mr. Wilkins. If you'd be so kind as to secure these four," she said, waving to the foreign agents Quinn had trussed up like Thanksgiving turkeys, all in a row against the wall, "we'll have someone come by and collect them shortly."
"We'd be glad to, Ma'am, and it's Commander. Security Commander James Wilkins."
"Of course, Commander Wilkins." She wasn't quite sure how she kept a straight face at such an overblown title for a shift supervisor. However, she reflected, one of the things she'd finally learned about dealing with people was that they often took pride in seemingly little things, and undercutting that was no way to win cooperation.
"My colleagues and I need to report to our own supervisor now that our sting is concluded."
"Ma'am, are these folks really secret agents? They don't much look like 'em."
If only you knew. "We prefer the term 'foreign intelligence operatives', but yes. Most governments operate dozens of agents like these in the guise of economic development departments or similar covers. They look for equipment available on the open market that could have military uses back home, such as advanced video game machines that can be used as guidance computers." Much more of this bull and she was going to have to buy a pair of hip waders, but the look of outrage on Thorpe's face was worth it. Besides, if they thought it had been intentional, rather than the complete screw-up that it was, so much the better. She smiled sweetly at Thorpe. "Of course, they don't use real agents for such work, and that's why it's so easy for a sting like ours to catch them. Just one little hint of something new at a video-game store, and they're on it like flies on, well you know..." If Thorpe turned any darker a shade of red, she was going to have to call an ambulance.
"I can see what you mean about amateurs, Ma'am. No real secret agent would start a chase through a crowded mall. Think of all the shoppers who could get hurt."
Ouch. That observation hit too close to home. Time to wrap this up and get out of here with the disk.
"Precisely. Anyway, as long as you leave them tied up, they shouldn't cause any trouble. Our backup team will be here in less than a half-hour to collect them."
"You can count on us ma'am."
"I'm sure I can Commander, and thank you. I'll be sure to mention your cooperation in my report."
From the smile on Wilkins' face, she could see he was dreaming of better things than being a mall guard. She felt slightly guilty at using him like this, even if she was just asking him to watch some harmless prisoners. She still had problems lying to people, which was a definite disadvantage in a field agent.
She shook his hand, and he escorted her out of the command post. Quinn and Stasi were waiting outside. The three of them walked down the service hallway, not talking until he was out of sight.
"Now what?" asked Stasi.
"Now I need to get this," Daria said, tapping the inside pocket of her jacket where the disk resided, "back to someplace secure. After that, I think I'll be writing the report on this operation for a few days. But if you and Anne still want to go shopping, I guess I'll be free for a few hours after I turn the disk over."
"Yeah!" enthused Quinn.
Stasi smiled. "I have a similar report to write, only mine's going to have more things to explain. My lack of control over the behavior of my own field agents, how news of this disk leaked from our own embassy, none of these are going to be pleasant to describe. But I think I could be free tonight. How about if you two pick me up at the embassy around eight?"
"Eight it is."
"Should I invite Alexei?"
"No, let's make it a girls' night out. But speaking of Alexei, where is he? Even with the traffic he should have been here by now."
"I am here," came a voice from behind them.
Daria turned, but the smile on her face was wiped away when she saw he was holding a gun on her. Beside her, Quinn and Stasi also turned. Surprisingly, Stasi seemed as shocked as she was.
"What the Hell, Alexei?" Daria exclaimed.
"Yes, Major Ivanov," said Stasi. "What do you think you are doing?"
"Recovering the disk. As long as you Americans have something like this, the Motherland isn't safe. If we have it, we can figure out how to protect ourselves. Giving me the disk will be far more effective at preventing future nuclear wars than merely disassembling some missiles. Please hand it over quietly, I'd hate to have to shoot a friend."
"But you would, wouldn't you?" said Daria, softly.
Alexei frowned. "Of course, this is more important than friendship."
Daria sighed. He was right; a weapon like this was a threat to world peace. But that was the same argument turncoats had used in the fifties to justify handing over the secrets of nuclear weapons to the Russians, and who was to say that hadn't been even more destabilizing. In any case, it was her duty to stop him, although she wasn't sure how to do so. She reached into her pocket for the disk.
"Careful," said Alexei, his attention focused on her hand. "I wouldn't want you to draw your gun by mistake."
Obviously, he didn't know she was unarmed. Daria smiled grimly. Even if she'd been armed, there was no way she could outdraw someone who already had a pistol aimed at her. But she still wished she'd kept the gun. It might have given her more options. Next time, she wouldn't let her scruples prevent her from having a tool she might need.
She grasped the disk, and slowly pulled it out. Holding it out to him, she looked for an opening. But Alexei was too well trained, and the gun never wavered from her heart. She wished she had kept the bulletproof vest too, although it would have been rather obvious under her shopping clothes.
As he took the disk, and she cursed silently to herself in impotent fury, Captain Penkovskya's foot flashed upwards, knocking the gun from Alexi's hand. It went off with a deafening crash as his finger jerked from the trigger, and Daria could swear she felt the wind from the passing bullet. She ducked reflexively, pulling back the disk, as Quinn launched herself at Alexei. He went down, and Quinn pinned him, seemingly without effort. Daria thought she understood now why the Colonel was so impressed with her sister, she'd never seen such a natural at unarmed combat.
Stasi recovered Alexei's gun, and Daria motioned Quinn to let him up.
"Thanks, Stasi, but why?" she asked.
"Regardless of the truth of what Major Ivanov says about possession of this disk, we gave our word to work together. Perhaps it's naive of an agent to think of honor, but I was an officer before I was an agent."
"Honor is a luxury we can't afford," snarled Alexei.
"Perhaps to you," replied Stasi disdainfully, "but for me it's a necessity I can't live without."
"You two can discuss philosophy later, we need to get out of here before those rent-a-cops come looking for the source of that gunshot," Daria observed.
"What about him?" Quinn asked.
"Let him go. Unarmed, against three of us, he's no threat."
"But he tried to shoot you!" Quinn's outrage was plain.
"Occupational hazard. Besides, I'd probably have done the same in his place. He's right, there's nothing honorable about our profession. 'Gentlemen don't read each other's mail.'"
She turned to Stasi. "But that doesn't mean I don't appreciate honor when I see it. Thank you."
Stasi shrugged, and pocketed Alexei's gun. The four rapidly exited the service hallway into the mall, and were out of sight before a dozen trembling mall guards, armed only with hand-radios, converged on the corridor. To their relief, they found nothing except a spent pistol cartridge bearing Russian lettering across the base. Commander Wilkins turned to the others.
"Well boys, she wasn't kidding. Imagine: Russkie agents are after our video games. We're going to have to put a continuous guard on that store." A couple of the younger agents grinned; that sounded like fun.
"We're here to see Captain Penkovskya," Daria announced in Russian.
The senior of the two guards, a Lieutenant, nodded. "You're expected, Ma'am. Go right in to the receptionist, and he'll page her."
Daria returned his nod, and walked in, followed by her sister. As she waited for the captain, she noticed a familiar figure in the shadows of a far corner of the foyer. Leaving Quinn practicing her Russian on the receptionist, she walked over.
"Hello, Alexei. Any more tricks up your sleeve?"
He smiled, somewhat ruefully, and replied: "No. I'm sorry for nearly shooting you. I only meant it as a threat. I hadn't counted on Stasi's idealism."
"Yes, well you know what they say. Only point a gun if you mean to use it."
"That's why you never draw yours, isn't it?"
"I seem to recall pointing mine at you once upon a time," she smiled at the memory of the two of them ambushing each other at the Lincoln Center. "But you're right, I'm very careful not to use a weapon without need. You rely too much on violence, and look where it gets you."
"Well, I didn't get the disk, but it's safely back in your hands, so it's something of a draw."
"I wasn't talking about the disk. I was talking about your murdering Nikolai," she said, in a flat tone that carried no emotion.
He looked at her without speaking for a long time, then nodded. "You always were too damn sharp. So, is Stasi coming to arrest me?"
"No, I haven't told anyone." She looked sharply at him. "And before you get any ideas, I'm not about to."
"Why not?" he asked, with genuine puzzlement.
"Because, regardless of what I said to Stasi, I do believe in honor. If one of my people betrayed me like that, I don't think I'd kill them. But I understand the temptation. And that idiot did nearly start a war, so I'm not going to waste any sympathy on him. Besides, I know that you never reported my real name to your superiors. I owed you for that." She paused. "But we're even now."
"Thank you," Alexei said. "If it helps any, it was an accident. I had cornered him on the roof of a nearby building, after he met the Chinese agent. He tripped over the cornice at the edge of the roof trying to dodge me. I would much rather have had him alive for questioning."
"Yes, that helps. I didn't want to think of you as a murderer."
She turned to rejoin Quinn, and then turned back. "It was you who leaked the disk's location to the other agents, wasn't it?"
He nodded. "Yes, although I only suspected it was in the mall, I wasn't sure. I was actually watching you the whole time, hoping you'd find it. I planted a bug on Stasi back at the motel in Lawndale. I'd hoped to recover the disk in the confusion, but the crowds prevented me from getting close enough. You're not too upset with me, are you? It was rather amusing from where I was standing, but it couldn't have been pleasant for you."
"Oh, I don't know. It has enough amusement value as a story to tell other agents that I don't think I'll hold it against you. Just don't do it again." She smiled. Looking back, the afternoon's exploits had been rather exciting, and definitely had potential as a tale to tell around the water cooler at work.
"Deal," he said, also smiling. That smile. This time Daria gave in to temptation, and leaned forward to kiss him. After a long moment, she stepped back.
"Ah Alexei, you really are my favorite enemy."
"Never your enemy, Daria. I'm merely a rival in the greatest sport of all. That doesn't mean we can't be friends 'off the court', so to speak."
"No, it doesn't. Call me when you aren't trying to avert Armageddon, and we'll have lunch or something," she said, her face lit by a warm smile.
"It's a date," he said, drifting back into the shadows.
She rejoined her sister, who looked up from where she leaned on the receptionist's counter.
"What are you so happy about?" Quinn asked.
"Oh, I'm just looking forward to going to a mall without anyone shooting at me," she replied.
"Right. You're happy about going shopping. That'll be the day."
They were still bickering good-naturedly when Stasi joined them.
This story is a classic example of how not to write fiction. I usually outline a story first, but following the advice of a textbook, this time I tried a less structured approach. I started it immediately after finishing the final chapter of True Cynicism, in part because I didn't want to abandon the characters, and I had some ideas about where they were going to be in three years. I didn't have a plot, or even a full cast in mind, and just started brainstorming as I went. While this produced some nice touches (the climactic mall chase, in particular), it also led to me abandoning the story for weeks at a time when ideas dried up, and the story as a whole feels uneven to me, even after a couple of revision passes to tighten it up. I didn't know how it ended until the weekend I wrote the mall chase (nearly a third of the story in three evenings, once I knew what I wanted), four months after starting the damn thing. Moral: have some idea of what the story is, and how to end it, before starting. Making up the details as you go is fine, but you need something as a guide. At least, I do. Your mileage may vary.
The Car - James Bond has his Aston-Martin (or Lotus, or BMW, or even a SAAB in a couple of John Gardner's stories), so I wanted to give Daria a high-performance sports car. But I wanted something in keeping with her cover as a college student. The del Sol seemed to fit the bill. They only made them for a few years (at least in the U.S.) and you can still find them used, but they were never very expensive, and a heavily-used one is easily within the budget of a college student, even one with only a part-time job. Oddly, while I hadn't seen one in years, a few weeks after I included it, I saw five different del Sols in a week (all different colors, including a dark green amazingly like Daria's jacket). Since then I've seen at least two a month, although I suspect I'm seeing the same ones over and over. They're actually fairly decent sports cars, with the right engine and some tweaks, according to some magazines I found.
The Mall - This isn't based on any particular mall in the DC area, but rather is a composite of several I've been in over the years around the country. Many of these seem to have been designed by the same architect, so if it seems familiar, that's probably why.
The Sequel - Will there be one? Almost certainly. I've got more ideas, and I like these characters. But this time I'll wait until I have a plot before starting, and right now one eludes me. Besides, I have other Daria stories to write.
"She'd managed to publish several short stories over the last three years, as well as a regular column of film criticism for the school paper..." - The late Graham Green, who served as a British Intelligence agent during World War II, and later wrote several novels with an espionage background, as well as the screenplay for The Third Man, wrote a regular column of film criticism for many years. I thought it made a nice parallel given our Heroine's predilection for writing.
"She'd passed Alexei's information along before packing her laptop, through a blind drop to an apparently innocuous web server" - After writing this, I read a news article about terrorists hiding communications in images on web servers, because the number of downloads made tracking them very difficult. Truth is always stranger than fiction.
"Colonel Ryan, Angela's replacement" - Angela Li, former Director of the Agency, was arrested at the end of True Cynicism. The Colonel's name is a tip of the hat to the hero of several Tom Clancy novels, but no other tie is intended (Clancy's Ryan is an analyst, not a soldier; Daria's character owes more to him than does the Colonel's).
"... advanced video game machines that can be used as guidance computers" - Sony's Playstation 2 briefly fell afoul of a Japanese law prohibiting its export because of the advanced graphics processor chip. This is similar to the problems Apple initially had exporting computers using Motorola's G4 processor. Both are examples of how the computer industry advances faster than laws can change, but also of how things formerly considered weapons-grade can become commercially prevalent. That doesn't stop them from being militarily useful, but when such as system can be bought in any department store and smuggled out in a tourist's luggage, it does make trying to control the technology rather pointless. I rather doubt spies haunt mall videogame stores looking for exploitable technology, but who knows?
"Gentlemen don't read each other's mail" is a famous quote from an American Secretary of State, Henry Stimson, who essentially disbanded all U.S. codebreaking activities in 1929. These later resumed, apparently without the knowledge of the Executive branch at first. See Body of Secrets, by James Bamford (Doubleday, 2001) for a post-WWII history of U.S. efforts in this area.
The Kuril Islands are a chain north of the northernmost Japanese island of Hokkaido. Several were originally Japanese territory, but have been occupied by Russian (and before them, Soviet) forces since the Second World War.
"The black Mercedes Guard S500 sedan" - is their factory-armored model. Check out the specs at www.mercedes.com, it's quite the car. I based some of the description of Daria's del Sol on it.