I don’t do romance. After all, when your job involves lying to almost everyone, you aren’t set up for success on that front — and emotional entanglements have never helped me do said job. On a personal level, it’s much, much safer to spy alone.
Fortunately, feelings have nothing to do with the allure (and lust) of Latin dance, or the fluttering in my stomach, or the guy escorting me onto the dance floor. Elliott’s tall, dark and handsome enough to make James Bond jealous — and he shoots a wink my way. I skip my normal eye-roll, because I need the luck. We’ve been working for weeks, and if we don’t look legit in these next make-or-break minutes, the whole thing will be a waste. My partner and I take our places, and the smirk passes unspoken between us.
Neither of us look at the couple to my left: Galina Isayeva and Vasily Loban, the Russian spymaster we’re tracking. I know, an amateur ballroom competition in Canada might be the last place you’d expect a Russian spy, but everyone needs a hobby — and his day job as a barber in Embassy Row gives him plenty of access to prime targets. For now, I need to focus on my cover and my partner.
Most of the time, the real jobs of people like Elliott Monteith and Talia Reynolds (that would be us) look very little like the exciting lives of Bond or Bauer or Bourne, especially in Canada. But once in a while, being a spy is a scene right out of a movie. Today that scene’s a ballroom dance sequence — but instead of blending into a sophisticated, glamorous reception, I’m on display to be criticized and scrutinized. I may be covered in sparkly flesh-toned spandex from ankle to wrist, and yet I feel completely naked.
I take a deep breath that smells of musty high school gym and anticipation. A couple semesters of Latin dance versus the top dancers in Canada? I’d be lucky to be naked (because nobody would be paying attention to my technique). We may not confront many direct threats in Canada, but today’s biggest danger is to my dignity — and I haven’t even started dancing.
“First,” the melodramatic Moviefone-wannabe announcer booms over the public address system, “the cha cha.”
The music starts. My heart stops. Show time.
Hyperattuned to the judges ringing the dance floor, I fasten my gaze to Elliott’s. He gives his favorite signal to begin the count, an eyebrow waggle. Not hard to find the beat when the music’s blasting through my bones. Two bars later, we start our steps in unison.
If I screw up, our covers are shot, and no way will we get in with the head of a spy ring. Elliott crosses the hardwood floor between us, hips swiveling in time and arms flailing in stylized flourishes. I try to forget my self-consciousness and slither and sway to the music. I’m here to protect my country, not my pride. (A lost cause in this costume.)
Grueling practice over the last few weeks has paid off. Elliott and I are usually in sync — we’ve worked together enough that half our conversations go without saying, and these days we’re harmonized down to our heartbeats, all set to the Latin rhythm of our routines. We follow the general counterclockwise motion around the floor, but we don’t have far to go. Ninety seconds in, the cha cha music fades, and Elliott spins me into a deep curtsy to finish. Next, the samba. The announcer’s voice echoes through the small gym, confirming the lineup, and the whole thing starts again.
Our samba routine has the sequence that’s hardest for me, promenade and counterpromenade runs, where Elliott and I take turns spinning across one another’s paths. A standard skill, so I need to make this look good. I have to keep my feet up to clear his steps between mine, and the performance smile slips from my lips. I overshoot the second to last crossing, and I swear time slows.
My glittery Latin shoe heads straight for Elliott’s toes like it’s being reeled in on a wire. At the last second, he slides his foot two inches to safety.
“Ha,” he whispers. My eyes snap to his again, and my winning grin is back.
Man, am I glad Elliott was on his college ballroom team. The dork.
Elliott spins me free and we dance, mirroring one another, ten feet apart. Another couple passes between us, also dancing separately. The woman moves behind me, and for a moment I’m dancing with a miniature cross between an athletic surfer and a Scandinavian god. Vasily.
The sheer intensity of his concentration and his effortless technique dazzle me for a minute, and I almost imagine I’m dancing with him instead. That throws me off a beat. But he wiggles out of the way, and the music winds down. Hope this doesn’t make things awkward later when we’re targeting him.
Samba might have the hardest step for me, but rumba’s my weakest dance, where my lack of experience shows. I avoid any major gaffes through our short rumba, paso doble and jive (ugh) routines. The Jerry Lee Lewis–inspired jive music fades out at the end of our catapult (a lot less impressive than it sounds: basically me walking and spinning around Elliott). He completes the move, spinning me clockwise, then counterclockwise, and we finish with a bow. The minutes of full-out effort catch up with me, and I’m both grinning and gasping to the thin audience’s applause. Amateur ballroom isn’t exactly drawing the Canadian ESPN.
The dancing might be over, but my heart rate only climbs. For all the time we’ve put into these seven and a half minutes of ballroom, they’re just window dressing for our real mission. Get to Vasily, get his phone, get everything off it to analyze and find the rest of his spy ring.
We walk off the floor though the break in the bleachers at the corner, mingling with the other couples dancing in our heat. (Don’t ask me how the judges do it; no idea.) Elliott and I blend in, critiquing ourselves, as if we’re hoping we’ll make it into the next round. Our dancing was decent, but only good enough to pass for competing on this level. We wait until we’re within earshot of our targets by the bleachers, and then by a silent signal we begin the argument.
“Not saying it’s your fault.” Blame weighs down Elliott’s words. “Just saying, if you hadn’t done that, we’d be a shoo-in for the next round.”
“Excuse me? We agreed the rhythm was syncopated on those beats. You can’t call an audible in the middle of a heat.” We’re close enough now I can turn to our targets, hoping for sympathy from the female partner, Galina. “Tell him he’s insane to change the routine the day of a competition.”
She raises a disapproving, ornately shadowed, bejeweled eyebrow at Elliott. “Very unprofessional.”
“In an ‘amateur’ competition,” Elliott mutters. I silence him with a look. He pleads his case to her partner, Vasily — our target. “Don’t you think the rhythm looked off?”
I shake my head before Vasily answers. “They weren’t watching us. They’re way too professional, way too focused.” I stick out a hand. “I’m Joanne Hodges, and you’re amazing. I don’t know if you’re naturally talented or you’ve worked your tails off — probably both — but you’re seriously the best I’ve ever seen. Your lines, your technique, your connection — it’s a privilege watching you, let alone dancing next to you.”
Galina and Vasily break into matching smiles of false modesty while shaking my hand and introducing themselves. “Though I do have to admit,” Vasily confesses to Elliott, “the syncopation was awkward.”
“You noticed?” Elliott grimaces.
“It wouldn’t be hard to fix.” Vasily tries to make his tone encouraging, but the little rise of hope falls short.
I pounce on that not-so-much-an-invitation. “Are you guys around for dinner tonight? Not sure what our schedule’s like, but if we’re free, we’d love to pick your brain.”
Vasily wavers, his eyes flicking to Galina. Elliott and I instantly tune our features to matching please-please-please looks. Galina must sense the desperation/fangirling, because after a long second, she gives Vasily an at-least-it’ll-get-them-off-our-case nod.
“Why don’t I give you my number?” Elliott suggests. “So you’ll know to answer.”
Or, you know, not. But Vasily retrieves his cell from his locker and returns to us, and I find myself holding my breath.
“Here.” Elliott holds out a hand. “I’ll just put it in.”
This is it. Vasily hesitates, and my lungs shrink even more. Let it go, dude. Let it go.
Finally, Vasily gives up his phone. Elliott slides the icon to unlock it and types the number for his latest burner phone. He saves it under his cover, Gord Hopkins. Once he’s done, he flips the phone over, admiring the expensive case. “OtterBox?”
“Mind if I take a look?”
I try not to telegraph how badly I want him to say yes. Vasily waves his permission and Elliott pries the phone out of its case. He passes the case from one hand to the other — and then he fumbles the phone, which clatters to the floor. Perfect.
“I’m sorry!” Elliott exclaims immediately.
“Sorry,” I apologize, too, and move forward to grab the phone. Except before I can take it, I “accidentally” kick the cell, and it skids underneath the bleachers ten feet away.
I glance at Vasily. His lips pinch together until they start to turn white. Galina touches his elbow, but he subtly shifts away.
“Sorry!” I say again. (Playing the part of Canadians to a T.) “Don’t worry, I’ll get that for you.” I hurry to the bleachers before Vasily can decide he’d rather not trust his phone to people who’ve already abused it this badly. Elliott keeps apologizing as I drop to my knees to crawl under the half-vacant bleachers.
The flesh-toned fabric of my costume bodice hides more than my skin. I extract a tiny device from inside the elastic strap. Well, two devices — the first, a tiny flashlight. I shine the beam around the shadows. The phone’s half-hiding under a metal rod, part of the bleachers, and a wheel. I crawl over, ignoring the threads and sequins popping on a dress that was made for a totally different kind of wriggling.
Elliott’s apologies grow louder, and I click off my flashlight. They’re coming this way. I need another minute to get what I need.
“Found it yet?” Vasily calls.
“No, I need a flashlight.”
“I’ll come get it.”
Elliott jumps in. “You’ll never get the dust out of your pants in time for the next round.”
Galina’s voice echoes to me, too. “He’s right,” she murmurs.
“I’ve got my phone,” I claim. “I’ll use my flashlight app.” I turn back on the (real) flashlight and shine it around like I haven’t located his phone yet. My pulse accelerates in my throat.
“What’s taking so long?” Vasily again.
I still every muscle, focused on the phone lodged under the wheel. If removing it makes noise, my cover’s shot. Tension tries to draw my shoulders up, but I fight it. I make up something to say over the noise, pray and pull. “There are dust bunnies the size of Dobermans in here,” I reply over the slight penk of the phone tugging free.
I swear I can hear Galina and Vasily recoil in horror at the prospect of dust. (I’d better come out covered in the stuff to sell this lie.)
Okay, a few more seconds. A new surge of music covers the clicking as I pry the back of the phone’s slick plastic cover off. The SD card mount is aluminum or some other silver metal, hard to miss against the backdrop of black plastic. I push the card in to make it spring free.
The size of my fingernail, the tiny memory card fits perfectly inside the second device I brought: a card cloner. A little blue LED on the side lights up, and I count the seconds. Six, seven, eight . . .
“Do you need help?” Galina’s voice echoes into the dark.
“No, I think I’ve got it.” I hope I do. Twelve, thirteen — the LED goes out. Done. I slide the micro SD card out and remount it in the phone. The music will stop any second, and adrenaline makes my fingers fly too fast. I drop the back cover. It rattles across the floor.
I clutch the phone, hoping, hoping, hoping they didn’t hear.
Continued in Spy by Night! Read on for another excerpt!
I came to Canada for the chance to start over, but some habits can’t be broken — like Sunday afternoon naps. Even if it conflicts with church.
Dozing off in meetings is practically a time-honored tradition, so I don’t appreciate the sharp elbow in my ribs when I nod off. Twice. Everyone else here thinks “Sassy” Beth and I are meant to be — especially Beth — but something about her is a little too far on the psycho side of the spectrum for my taste.
I’ve had enough psycho for four lifetimes. I’m getting out. A walk around the halls would help me stay awake . . . and give me an excuse to sit somewhere else. Maybe. Not really that harsh.
Three meters into the foyer, I stop short. I’m not into feet, but some shoes can drive any guy to distraction. A pair of major offenders are staring me in the face. Crisscross straps wrapped around her ankles, high heels, toes that aren’t fighter-jet-pointy-scary.
More than that, I know who they belong to, because this isn’t the first time I’ve noticed those ankle straps accentuating those crossed calves.
Yep, totally awake.
And totally gawking at her legs. I flash my gaze to hers, fast, but she’s focused on the glass doors, tapping her fingers on the armchair. At least if she catches me staring at her face, I won’t look like a jerk. Not like looking at a pretty girl can hurt you.
No, but it’s a start.
Stop it, brain. Stop. Those defenses are a delayed reaction not to the woman in front of me, or Sassy Beth in the chapel. My master plan for starting over didn’t include dating quite yet, but when the prime opportunity to pursue the perfect puzzle presents itself, who am I to say no?
I know who she is, though I’ve never spoken to her. That’s mostly because she seems to avoid speaking to anyone at church. Nobody knows why, and public opinion seems split along the “shy”/“stuck up” divide. In fact, nobody knows anything about her, and that’s one reason I’m interested. I’d love to be the first to figure her out.
If she’s just shy, and if it’s just us in the foyer, and if she didn’t just see me checking her out, then it should be okay, right?
She looks up, one eyebrow asking a silent question. As much of an invitation as I could hope for, and I’ll definitely take it. I lean against the wall by her chair. “You know,” I say with a nod toward the double wood grain chapel doors, “you can see better in there.”
That one eyebrow arches higher, and she points at the speakers in the ceiling. “What, does Coop have puppets and posters?”
Okay, I have to laugh. She’s witty. I like witty.
“I’m not here to see,” Talia says with a smirk. “Or be seen.”
“Wish I were that smart,” I mutter.
“What, the pressures of the ‘meet market’ suddenly too much for you?”
“That and the fact I catch an elbow every time I fall asleep.”
She blinks and tilts her head a millimeter, like she’s recalculating her estimation of me. “And you’re Danny.”
“That’s me.” Dude, she knows my name. That’s better than ankle straps.
Inside the chapel, Coop pauses in his droning, and we both glance at the speakers in the ceiling, waiting for the next words. “We need to get married. Like, now.”
My gaze has already fallen back to Talia, and I’m still grinning because she knows my name, so that makes Coop’s pronouncement doubly awkward.
Coop’s not done. “I know we all know this,” he says, “and we’re probably tired of hearing it, but it really is true: it’s not good for man to be alone.”
Footnote: sometimes, it is better for man to be alone.
“Oh. Marriage.” Talia smirks. “Must be the fourth Sunday.”
Witty again. I really like that.
“Obviously, I’m preaching to the choir,” Coop continues. “But seriously, everyone I’ve talked to says marriage is awesome. If you get the chance, do it! If you’re dating someone and it’s going well, it’s time to talk marriage.”
Footnote 2: be extremely careful who you date. I shouldn’t resent a twenty-two-year-old preaching to me like this, but apparently I’m not as mature as I thought.
Before either of us salvage that one with a clever retort, Coop launches into what has to be the conclusion of his talk. Talia gets up.
Yep, the effect of the heels is even better when she’s standing. And walking. That was the first time I really noticed her, three weeks ago, walking in the back doors of the church with the sun hitting her back, lighting up her hair and dress with a coronal halo. I kind of interrupted a conversation with Sassy Beth to watch Talia walk by. At the last second, Talia looked back at me, but before either of us could react, she stopped short, narrowly missing a guy I don’t know. She apologized and disappeared.
Just like she seems to be ready to do now.
“Where you going?” I call.
She looks back. “Getting a drink.”
I eye the water fountain that’s two meters away, 135° off her trajectory.
“Yeah, people will come out here and get a drink there during the rest hymn. And I will be —” She motions down the hall and around the corner, where another water fountain waits — “over there.”
“You’re taking the ‘not being seen’ thing to the Olympic level.”
Talia smiles, and that’s either subtle flirting or secretly funny. “You have no idea.” She reroutes for her destination, but wheels back again before she disappears down the hall. “You know, water might help you stay awake.”
A definite invitation, and a definite yes. The opening chords of the rest hymn ring out, and I have to hurry, without looking like I’m hurrying, to reach her before the inevitable string of parched people parades out the doors like she said.
The back of the building is noisy and crowded with families from our building’s other congregation, which is always weird when yours is composed entirely of single twentysomethings in an attempt to get us married off. We have to wait in line for the fountain. “How’s this better?” I murmur to her.
“They’re not obligated to talk to us,” she responds. She peeks over her shoulder to make eye contact, and I know she doesn’t mean she’s obligated to talk to me or vice versa. Once we’ve gotten water, Talia pauses to kill more time perusing a bulletin board of photos from this summer’s girls camp. Or pictures of a bunch of teenagers we don’t know.
In silence. I’m not obligated to talk to her, but I want to. I mean, I should. So . . . speak, self.
Talia glances at me again. Say something. Something.
I have nothing remotely interesting to say. Reciting tensile strengths for the top six alloys we’re considering always gets the girls.
Aaand Talia turns away.
Apparently satisfied her chances of being spotted are zero, she leads the way back to the foyer. Even an idiot can see it makes more sense to follow her than to stare at strangers’ photos. Aside from a couple with two toddlers on the couch closest to the gym, when we reach the foyer, it’s quiet and abandoned.
“Brothers and sisters — guys,” implores the second speaker’s unfamiliar, piped-in voice, “I want to testify of the doctrine of marriage.”
“Wow.” I give a low whistle. “Batting zero for two today. More water?” I jerk a thumb over my shoulder.
Talia laughs with only her eyes, still hinting at those shields. “We better hunker down and take cover.” But she keeps standing there, watching me.
Waiting for me to do something?
Okay. I take a seat at the end of the free flowery couch. Her move. Sitting across the foyer in an armchair will make it tough to carry on a quiet conversation.
She settles onto the opposite end of the couch. Yes.
I don’t let the mental celebration show. “So, what’s your story?”
“Hm?” That eyebrow-question mark is back.
“Why’d you move to Canada?” In the two debates I accidentally provoked with the What’s with Talia? question, a couple guys from the ward weren’t even sure whether she was Canadian. She’s not — I figured that much out from the first word I heard her say: sorry.
She does the little blink-tilt-recalculating thing again. I’m beginning to like that. Or maybe I just like surprising her. “Free healthcare. Got tired of waiting for them to get it right in the US, so I came here to wait for a doctor instead.”
“Oh, are you sick?” Wait, that’s rude.
“No, waiting on that too.”
I’d almost forgotten what it’s like to talk to someone like this, joking around, not quite flirting. The brief lull allows the speaker, someone whose voice I still don’t know, to butt in again. “Marriage is ordained of God, and He wants that for all of us, but we’ve got to give Him something to work with.”
Awkward again. Talia and I stare at one another, frozen. There’s a limit to how much embarrassment two people can endure. When did it get so hot in here?
I can play this off — I need to. So I shrug. “I got nothing.”
She cracks up almost in spite of herself. Yep, I like that, too.
“What’s your story?” She reflects my question back.
Oh, we’re not getting into the reasons I needed this chance to start over. Not now, not ever. I give her the surface version. “Got a great job. Kind of a new lease on life.”
“Life’s one of those things you should definitely buy. Congrats on the job, though. What do you do?”
“I’m an aerospace engineer at National Research Council Canada.”
“So you’re a rocket scientist?”
We can skip the terminology lecture. Lame that I hate that phrase, but I hate it — from anyone else. From her, it doesn’t sound like a joke or an insult. It sounds like a compliment. “I mostly work on planes.”
“Cool. Big transition, moving here?”
“Nah, I served my mission here.”
“Right here?” She points at the blue speckled carpet, teasing me.
“Mostly Québec, but actually, yeah. The Champlain Ward was my first area.” That’s the congregation milling around the back of the building. In fact, I probably did know those teenagers we were looking at. As children. Not that they’d recognize me
“Ah, so the hair?” She gestures at my hair, which isn’t that long, but a lot longer than missionary standards. “Traveling incognito?”
“Hey, I like my hair.”
“No, I didn’t — it looks good — I mean —” She licks her lips then presses them together, like she’s clamping down to cut off anything else embarrassing she might say.
She likes my hair? I lean back on the couch, getting comfortable. She can talk all day.
Unfortunately, Talia’s not the one doing the talking now. The speaker’s voice interrupts again. “Do online dating if you have to, but remember, there are great people right here.”
I make a point not to stare at Talia after that, but you don’t have to tell me twice.
“How long has it been?” Talia asks.
Since what? My last date? Oh, my mission. “Nine years since I was here.”
I think Talia’s in the same demographic as me, the “graduated or even finished grad school and working and STILL not married” segment, but I’m not sure. If she’s younger, admitting that I’m twenty-eight might scare her off. I wait for the blink-tilt-recalculating-his-age expression.
It doesn’t come. “Cool to see your mission again. Wish I could.”
“Where’d you serve?”
“Mostly small towns on the border of Georgia.”
“That’s not the other side of the world. You know, they have these things, they’re called airplanes — I think I mentioned them?”
She squints at me, like she loves and hates my logic. “What I need is a time machine. Pause my life here, then think about a vacation.”
“You sound busy. What do you do?”
“I’m an articling student.” She grips the edge of the couch cushion like she’s bracing for a blow.
Not clicking for me. I know I should know it. “Sounds familiar . . . ?”
“In Canada, you have to do an internship for almost a year after you finish law classes.”
“So law school’s longer here?”
“Usually. If you work really hard and play your cards right, you can finish in three and a half years.”
Talia seems like the kind of girl who works harder than anyone else and can play some mean poker. I don’t think whatever blow she was anticipating came, and her posture relaxes, settling into the couch again. Was she expecting a lawyer crack? Do I look stupid?
“Has the free healthcare been worth it?” I ask.
“Oh no. Didn’t they have winter when you lived here? It’s like Rexburg only with humidity.”
The tiny Idaho town reference pegs her as a BYU–I alum. “No,” I answer her question. “We skipped it. Global warming.”
She smiles at my joke. Somehow, that smile’s better than watching her walk in three weeks ago, lit up and golden. Because this smile isn’t the impenetrable heat shielding façade she uses at church, and maybe all the time.
This is a real person. And she’s beautiful.
“So get out there,” the speaker starts winding down his rah-rah-go-date-marry pep talk. “Ask people out! Say yes to dates! Be open to every opportunity for the Lord to help you find someone to share your life with.”
Was I just complaining how hot it was in here? Because now I’ve got goose bumps, and I don’t think the A/C kicked on. Not sure whether it’s God or the speaker who wants me to ask Talia out, but I’m ready to go for it. “Hey,” I say, drawing her attention away from the speakers overhead.
She isn’t looking at me expectantly, like she thinks I’m going along with what the speaker said. I’m not. I want to take her out, take this chance to start over.
But — that wasn’t my plan. I’m waiting on dating for a reason. I’ve had one conversation with her. There’s open to opportunities, and there’s stupid. Talia has no reason to say yes to me after one conversation. For all she knows I’m a serial killer or a stalker or a psycho.
For all I know, she might be, too. A “yes” today could be worse than a no. It could be the first step back into my nightmares.
Continued in Spy by Night!