I don’t do glamour. The slinky evening dresses, the dramatic makeup, the seven-inch heels you see Bond girls traipsing around in? Yeah, they don’t come into play all that often in the real world of the spy.
Today is a perfect example. I ignore the vibrating hum of anticipation in my stomach and adjust the mirrors of the hotel courtesy van to see over my poofy wig, blond with bad roots. Unless backcombing and Aquanet (and blue eye shadow that could’ve been applied with a paint roller) qualify as glamorous, I’m a CIA operative, but definitely no Bond girl.
Another giveaway: the forty extra pounds from the padded bodysuit.
Any other day, I wouldn’t mind the disguise — Canada’s cold in March. But no, it had to be the first day the temperature climbs to jacket-weather range. Could be worse. At least I’m not sweating, with the standard driver’s uniform of a blue button-down shirt, thin navy pullover and khakis. Sitting here at the airport terminal with the door open, waiting for my target, I can almost pretend to enjoy the breeze.
“Ma’am?” calls the one passenger already on board. “Are we expecting someone?”
I turn around, plastering on a smile and a thick Ottawan twang. “Sorry, sir. I have to wait until I’m scheduled to head back. Thank you for being so patient.”
The balding man frowns, but settles in his seat and pulls out a copy of Packaging World. The poor guy isn’t part of the plan, but he does add a nice appearance of legitimacy to the cover.
A cover that’s going to appear a lot less legit if the dude I’m really waiting for doesn’t show soon. I scan the terminal. No sign of a certain Iranian “businessman” and his possible “entourage.”
I request a status report by tapping my name badge. (Today I’m Tanya instead of Talia.)
“Hey, SCOUT,” comes the voice of my boss, Will, over my earpiece. “Delay at baggage claim.”
I huff out a sigh, my copy signal, and check the doors again, as if I’d spot this Iranian on my own. I’ve never met him before. Part of the reason why I’m perfect for the job of covertly exchanging information with a double agent.
His “businessman” cover was provided by the Iranians’ Ministry of Intelligence and Security. After the Canadians declared Iranian embassy employees personae non grata a couple years ago, official cover got a little tougher for them. So when the MOIS wants to spy on Canada, their operatives have to pose as regular people.
Regular people being tailed by their own counterintelligence operatives.
You can imagine how careful they have to be about associating with anybody who looks the slightest bit like a spy.
I fluff my hair in the mirror again. Pretty sure I can’t be accused of looking spy-like between the cover job, the cover uniform, and the prosthetics covering my nose and wrinkling my forehead to make me appear twenty years older. Yet another advantage of the no-glamour rule.
“SARD on approach, SCOUT,” Will informs me. “I’ve got two bogeys at his five and seven o’clock.”
Two unidentified potential hostiles behind our guy? Heavy for a standard CI detail, even for the Iranians. That suspenseful hum becomes a buzz, like a nest of bees is moving into my gut.
Will describes the bogeys: “Student, Pink Floyd T-shirt. Beard in a red polo. We are not clear for the transfer, SCOUT. Do you copy?”
I blow an exasperated, bored breath through my lips. I’ve put a week of work into this op, and I’m not ready to give up that easily. (Courtesy vans aren’t as easy to drive as you’d think. This particular model has more in common with a full-sized bus.) But with Mr. Innocent Bystander in the back, I don’t dare respond aloud.
And then Will laughs. “Correction, SCOUT: you’ve got backup coming. Proceed with caution.”
I clear my throat and scan the doors again. The parade begins within seconds: an olive-complexioned businessman strides out, phone to his ear, carry-on dragging behind him. SARD.
Milling among the other passengers, the men Will described are still tailing our agent. Student with earbuds and a jacket open to reveal a Pink Floyd T-shirt. (That’s the one with the prism and the rainbow thing, right?) Guy who could pass for a young dad, the collar of his red polo peeking between his beard and the collar of his heavy coat.
The tails barely glance at our mutual target, but they do manage to stay behind him, moving his general direction at a respectable distance.
This is some serious competition. My target approaches the van. “Marriott?” he calls to me, moderate accent. “Downtown?”
The first interchange sounds completely innocuous, but using these specific memorized phrases initiates the whole exchange routine. “Yes, sir, running to Kent Street, Residence Inn by Marriott, and Courtyard Downtown locations. Courtyard East has a separate shuttle.”
Now we have to use our code phrases to identify ourselves — still disguised as normal conversation. “I need the one with the rotating restaurant in the penthouse. ‘Spin’?”
“Kent Street,” I confirm with a nod. “But they closed the rotating restaurant years ago. ‘Spin’ is on the ground floor.”
He smirks. “Ironic.”
That final response is a red flag: he knows he’s being followed. I ad lib a signal back as I help him with his bag. “Something so wrong about that, eh? I got to eat in the rotating restaurant two times. A bit fancy for me!”
The Iranian’s eyebrows twitch before he heads to the seat closest to my chair. Did he not know he had two tails?
“Backup on approach,” Will informs me. “Wait for him.”
I huff and puff as I help the two tails with their bags. (I know, chivalry is dead, but one of us is being paid to load luggage. You know, sort of.) By the time they’re all settled, the backup is still nowhere in sight.
Those bees in my belly are mad enough to start a territorial war for control of my lungs and heart. I can’t delay too much longer. We’re nearly full. I sit and buckle up, taking two extra seconds to refluff my hair and check my coral lipstick.
“Wait!” The shout echoes under the glass awning, and I look around. One last guy carrying a blue messenger bag is jogging toward the van.
I don’t recognize him. Could he be my backup? Subtle, dude.
Before he reaches the van, another dude ducks in, briefly blocking my view of my backup. Even this new guy’s timing can’t undercut the effect he creates with an entrance. Perfectly tousled black hair, winning blue eyes and a stare-worthy smile for the benefit of whoever he’s on the phone with. Whoever that is, they are totally missing out. He puts Hollywood’s definition of tall, dark and handsome to shame.
I barely manage to tear my gaze away in time to make contact with my backup: thinning, close-cropped hair of indiscriminate color peeking out from a black knit hat, tan coat that washes out his skin tone. I knew the new guy was getting in today, but I was figuring he’d work a little harder to make an impression.
Says the woman who’s trying not to be noticed.
I wait for the last two guys to take their seats. Though we have plenty of room for everyone, strategy counts in these not-quite-close quarters with SARD, the only name I know for my Iranian contact (apparently ‘SARD’ is some kind of rock?). The tails left enough space between them to pass for strangers. New Dude takes the last free space, forcing Mr. Gorgeous to either wedge himself between two strangers or stand.
Gorgeous grabs one of the bars on the luggage rack. I clear my throat, trying to make sure the guy’s paying attention before I pull out. He glances my direction barely long enough to simper and lift his chin to grant his permission to leave.
Uh, yeah. Sure, jerk. Is it bad that I’m not surprised to hear the guy’s brash American accent, practically shouting into the phone to plan a March Madness party? I ignore him and merge smoothly into traffic. Okay, maybe I lurch forward a little to throw Rude Dude off his balance, but only once. Or twice. Before we pull away from the terminal.
When we’re on Airport Parkway, however, I strive for a smooth ride — because now we have twenty minutes to make the pass, the purpose of this entire op. My stomach tightens, making those bees a little claustrophobic, but I work through the nerves and give the signal to begin the exchange: fluffing my already fluffed, overteased hair with one hand. The wig barely moves, but the real difference in my futzing isn’t my appearance. It’s the smell. I press my thumb against the scent capsule hidden between my fingers and give my hair one final primp. But this time my shellacked wig is more of a fan to spread eau de cigarette around this closed, hot car.
(Okay, even I think it’s funny to have a Mormon posing as a smoker with this cover.)
In all our test runs, the smoke smell permeated the van quickly. But none of our test runs included seven passengers stirring up the air.
I resist the urge to consult the mirror. SARD’s right behind me. If he got the signal, if he thinks his tails will buy it, if he’s ready, he’ll take the next step. Constantly flicking my gaze up and down will only draw attention to me.
The odometer ticks higher. My pulse rate rises. And no reaction behind me.
“Didn’t I see you in a movie?” New Dude asks Mr. Gorgeous.
Gorgeous ignores him, still yammering on about what brand of chips to serve for the Final Four.
“Yeah, yeah, Star Trek, wasn’t it?”
Gorgeous eyeballs him (and actually, I doubt even Chris Pine could compare to this guy). He pointedly debates the merits of Tostitos flavors, the silence between him and New Dude quickly growing awkward. Finally New Dude turns to SARD, seated across the center aisle from him. I try to shake my head as subtly as possible, but New Dude doesn’t see. “So, where are you from?”
“Lebanon,” he answers.
New Dude leans forward, taking an interest in an answer most people couldn’t place on a map. “Oh yeah? I love shawarma.”
“Thank you.” SARD nods with a smile. “I was instrumental in developing the dish.”
I press my lips together to bite back a grin of my own. But New Dude doesn’t get the joke. “Oh? Are you a chef?”
Seriously, Langley? Is this the best we can do?
“No, I work in packaging,” SARD says.
A vague answer like that is the perfect cover for a spy. Not a whole lot to say in reply unless —
“Really?” The balding businessman at the back pipes up. “I’m in packaging. Monoblock. What are you in?”
Tension ties a tether around my chest. Does SARD know his cover well? I keep my eyes on the road, like that’ll help me stay calm.
“Minipinch,” SARD says easily.
We reach our right turn. Less than two kilometers to the hotel. My stomach drifts down an inch. That’s it. SARD missed his opportunity, or decided it’s too dangerous. We’re out of luck this time. With this level of countermeasures, we’ll never be able to get his intel, and the Iranian missile defense program will move forward totally unopposed, totally clandestine, totally without our knowledge.
And then that mildly-accented voice comes through for us. “Excuse me, ma’am?”
SARD. My heart clenches. It’s time. I meet his gaze in the mirror. “Yes?”
“You wouldn’t happen to have a cigarette, would you?”
“I’m sorry, there’s no smoking in the van.” But I don’t look away from the mirror, willing him to make the last request that will get this exchange rolling.
“Oh, yes, yes. But could I smoke after?”
I pull up to the red light, waiting for the left arrow. “Of course, hon.” I shift in my seat to tug the half-empty package of cigarettes from my khakis’ pocket, then turn around to pass them off. “Take two. Traveling’s rough.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” He shakes the package into his hand. Three cigarettes lay in his palm — but only two of those came from our package. SARD carefully plucks up one of the cigarettes and slides it back into my carton.
Right before I can reach back to get the carton and the intel, a honk comes from behind me. I check the light: green. I hurry to take the corner so I can free up my hands to receive the pass.
Not fast enough. “Would you mind? Just one?” Red Polo Shirt asks.
My stomach slowly sinks. Can I say no without looking suspicious? “Uh yeah, sure,” I say. “Trying to quit anyway.” I alternate between watching traffic and watching SARD’s fingers rub at the carton’s green geometric pattern.
Gorgeous But Rude swoops in. Still planning his menu, he snags the carton from SARD’s grasp, fishes out a cigarette without asking and hands the package over to Red Polo.
Now I really don’t like this guy.
I track the pack of cigarettes as it makes the rounds with Red Polo, Balding Businessman, Pink Floyd Fan, and ending up with New Dude. Pink Floyd Fan’s the only one who doesn’t steal a cancer stick. New Dude crumples the empty carton and tucks it in his pocket.
This could be bad. And if whoever has the missile defense plans doesn’t smoke them? Even worse.