I don’t do catsuits. The leather/plastic/spandex coatings female spies pour themselves into on TV are ridiculously impractical for actual spy tradecraft: no mobility, reflective in low light, loud colors. Nothing shouts “I’m a covert operative!” like a catsuit.
But I kinda wish I had one now. At least it wouldn’t snag on every half-screwed bolt I come across in this narrow ventilation shaft. My clothes are dark, close fitting and comfortable no matter how I have to contort myself, but I can’t move more than ten feet without getting caught on something — like now. If I yank my pants hem free, my knee will hit the metal flashing, inches from my targets’ neighbors making dinner on the other side of the wall. I suck in a silent breath thick with their garlic and ginger.
I’ve made it this far. I’m not about to let one more hitch stop me. I keep my weight evenly distributed and lower myself to the bottom of the narrow tunnel. This looks a lot cooler on TV. James Bond never had to deal with wardrobe malfunctions. He also never faced off with Lashkar-e-Omar, or any other terrorist armies bent on killing people just because they were American.
And I’m not going to get a chance to do it either unless I can get to this apartment. “C’mon, Talia,” I whisper, like self-pep talks are effective. I wriggle backward, bending my body into an awkward V against the cold metal to grope for my ankles in the dark.
“Talking to yourself, FOXHUNT?” comes Elliott’s voice in my earpiece. “T-plus eighteen.”
I have to stick to the targets’ routine. We should know it; we’ve timed them every night for more than a week. I have twenty minutes left until our window is narrower than this ventilation shaft. I need to move. At last my fingers find the bolt and I unhook my CIA-issue, top-secret-weave pants. (I’m kidding; they’re just pants.)
Finally free from the flashing, I unkink my body and lift into a low crawl for my targets’ vent a few feet away. After inching through this tunnel for so long, it feels like I’ll never get there. I swear, the movies seriously gloss over how long this entry takes.
I’ve never met anyone who’s done this for a break-in-and-bug, “black bag” op in real life, and the unexpectedness is part of the reason we chose this Hollywood-style clandestine entry. The only woman on our team, I was the only one agile enough, small enough, eager enough for the job.
Remind me not to do this again.
Within seconds, I’m there. The room below me is lit by the moon streaming through the windows. Nothing remarkable: desk cluttered with office supplies, stained mattresses shoved in every corner, rotting bookcase with a single half-empty shelf. Shabby chic it’s not, but I’ve bugged filthier.
I unwrap the twine from my wrist and thread it between the slats of the vent, pulling it back through the other side. Holding both ends, I can be sure not to drop the vent once it’s free. A special tool made for unscrewing bolts from the wrong end — sorry, I can’t say much more about it than that — makes for quick work and the built-in rare-earth magnet keeps them from clattering to the bare floor below.
Before I move the vent, I have to make sure I know where I’m going. If there’s no way out but the front door, I don’t want to get myself trapped. Like the catsuit, that’s a little less than covert.
I spot my way out of the apartment, a cold air return near the front closet. I’m going in. My pulse measures the seconds in double time, and I pull the vent cover into the shaft. It’s tough unless you know the trick to turn it on a diagonal. I lower myself within a couple feet of the clear area on the desk, not daring to breathe. Even super-secret “quiet shoes” make some noise if you jump hard enough.
Luckily, I don’t have far to go and I land between the precarious piles of Post-Its in near-silence. If someone were in the apartment, they’d probably come to check. Two quick heartbeats later, I let myself breathe again. No one’s home, and watching the door to make sure that doesn’t change is Elliott’s job. “Status?” I request.
“All clear. Yours?”
“I’m in.” Fourteen minutes until I need to leave. I can do that. I reverse my diagonal trick to replace the vent, pocket my twine, then hop to the floor.
Our meticulous preparations give me an odd sense of déjà vu, but I’ve only “been here” in the safety of our office. Over the last week, we’ve lived this case: taking telephoto pictures of the apartment, finding someone in these guys’ circles to get us closer to them, fabricating the bug. I’m here to place it so we can collect the intelligence to identify and target them. Until now, Lashkar-e-Omar has operated strictly within Pakistan, but if they’re expanding overseas, this cell has got to be the cream of their criminal crop.
“Hey,” Elliott launches a conversation. “How’s it going?”
“Oh, hold on—”
Is he talking to me, or is he on the phone? “Keep the line clear, would you, Ellie?” The last word is out before I can stop it, and I mentally kick myself. Elliott isn’t a complete novice, and I’m not a complete idiot, using his name over comms. But Ellie’s not a play on “Elliott.” It’s short for “Elephant,” his you-wouldn’t-say-that-to-his-face nickname around the office after our last few missions, and some particularly inelegant missteps.
He doesn’t react to my gaffe. “Yeah, sorry, FOX.” A soft click tells me he’s switched off his mic. We’re in the middle of an op; if he’s making phone calls, there’s only one person he should dial right now. Our boss. And if he’s not calling Will, I’m waiting for the elephant’s other foot to fall.
But I don’t have time to sit around. I turn back to the desk. I’d love to put the bug in the smoke detector — we’ve got one you can wire into the nine-volt and even if they change the battery, they wouldn’t notice it — but that’s not for this time. The coolest equipment on the planet to back us up, and tonight we’re stuck with the good old cliché, the phone.
Yes, they have a landline, one of those gray numbers from the nineties. I lift the receiver just enough to disengage the hook switch. Dial tone. Nice.
I borrow a piece of tape from the dispenser on the desk — double sided? In some ways this is closer to an Office Depot than a dissident den — and place the tape over the hook switch. The dial tone would be a little distracting, but the off-the-hook signal is designed to get someone’s attention. Exactly what I don’t want.
My thin-bladed screwdriver is perfect to pry apart the receiver. If these guys were dumb enough to plan over the phone, we’d probably already have the intel we need to get to them, but this bug is designed to pick up the chatter whether the phone is being used or not.
I grab the bug and some pliers from my left belt pack. The plastic coating comes off the wires easily enough, and after half a dozen twists, the bug’s installed. This design looks like just another black wire in the phone. It’s my second favorite. I cover up the wire joins with electrical tape and tap the undetectable microphone.
Elliott’s supposed to tell me he’s getting the signal, but his end is so quiet I can hear the interference from my tapping. I snap the phone back together. “Still all clear?”
He doesn’t answer.
“HAM?” I try the short version of his code name, HAMMER.
“Just a sec.”
He should know the answer right off. I don’t like this. I put the phone back into place.
Elliott swears. “They’re in the building! Get out now!”
Adrenaline and training kick into overdrive, jolting my muscles into action before I think about what to do. How long do I have? I snag my screwdriver and take it to the screws on the cold air return. Each time my tool slips, the muscles in my back ratchet tighter.
My watch says fifteen seconds have passed since Elliott’s warning, but it feels like fifteen minutes — hours — days. We’ve timed our targets every night. Thirty-two seconds from front door to apartment. Half my timeline is gone.
Maybe they’ll chat with the neighbors. I pause for half a heartbeat, but I don’t hear any chatter in the hall. I wipe clammy fingers on my sleeve and attack the vent.
Finally, the last screw is loose. I yank the cover off. Just before I climb into the ventilation tube again, I remember the tape on the phone’s hook switch.
If they see that, they’ll know the phone’s bugged, and our work will disappear into the dark of the night and the bowels of Lashkar-e-Omar’s training camps. And if they catch me? I’m on my own.
I dash back to the desk. Keys ratchet into the doorknob.
Without time to even breathe, I rip the tape off the hook switch and slip the phone into place. The door swings open, and I barely stay ahead of the light shaft spreading across the floor.
I jump in the duct, sliding feet first. Hot pain slices into my calf. A shout seizes my lungs, but I clamp my mouth shut and turn back for the vent cover. A couple words of Urdu carry through the haze of hurt. Salām, kya haal hai? Oh, sure, now the neighbors want to talk.
The corner is swathed in shadow, but I have to move cautiously. Just because they’re distracted doesn’t mean I’m in the clear. The door is open, and I’m still visible.
I reach for the cover. The double-sided tape is still on my finger. I stick it on the top edge of the vent and pull it into position. Magnets from my right belt pack fasten the cover in place.
On the other side of the slats, our targets bid the neighbors goodbye and walk into view. With groceries. The light flips on.
My watch says twenty-seven seconds. Five seconds missing.
Suddenly I hear my own breathing, hard and fast and loud. They’ll hear me for sure. I force my lungs to fill slowly, completely. Silently.
The targets cross the room.
They don’t look at the desk. Releasing a soundless sigh, I ease my head into the dust bunnies and tuck the screws in my belt pack. No time to celebrate — now I have to get through this 18-inch tunnel without making noise. I can still screw this mission up.
I hope this building has decent walls.