I don’t do lace. Or ruffles. Or frills. In fact, I don’t do tulle, taffeta, satin, sequins, bows, beads, flowers or froof.
Then again, until a month ago, I didn’t do marriage, either.
So I was wrong on one count. But the other things? I’m less than excited to spend my lunch break twirling for my sort-of friends in any of the above and acting like I love every second. Of course, none of the girls from church know I’m a spy.
I have another hour before I face them and the long hard look in the mirror — and first, I kinda have to finish that spy gig. With a breath to cool my climbing heart rate, I adjust the headset of my classified listening device. No noises from the next apartment, even over the sound of my partner’s silenced drill (not loud) and the dress shopping anxieties still ringing through my brain (loud). If our “luck” holds, Justin and I will finish setting up surveillance on our new Russian friends in plenty of time for my stupid lunch date.
“You’re cute when you’re focused, Talia.” Justin pauses his drilling and waits until I meet his eyes before he winks.
“Wish I could say the same, but I’ve never seen you focused. Or cute.”
He grimaces and turns back to his silent drilling. “Is that acerbic wit how you finally landed a man?”
I scoff. “Yeah, you’re the expert on man-catching.” Justin’s an incurable flirt (and straight), but he’s not interested in me. He just thinks it’s hilarious to make me squirm since I got engaged five weeks ago.
Or maybe Justin’s about-face has more to do with the fact I always worked more closely with someone else who saw himself as a charmer. Elliott made a great buffer until he and Will transferred to the embassy a month ago. But I can handle Justin. With a pointed glance at my listening device, I remind him we’ve got work to do. Yeah, high tech gadgets really are part of a spy’s repertoire, though I can’t say much about this one unless I want to risk a gruesome fate at the hands of DS&T, our version of Bond’s Q. So let’s leave it at a twenty-first century glass against the wall.
The neighbors’ apartment is quiet. Maybe too quiet, since somebody’s supposed to be home. If not, our job’s easier: we can place this contact mic and get out of here that much faster.
Faster would be good, even if it means I’ll still make my dreaded dress shopping lunch date. I should’ve told them I had plans with my boyf — fiancé.
Something stirs in the next apartment. My lungs trap my breath. A chair scraping on the floor? I hold up a hand, and Justin backs off with the drill.
Footsteps. So one person’s at home, at least. Pity there aren’t more. If they discussed their intelligence connections, we could figure out if this bug is worth the time and risk.
No such luck. The footsteps fade. Guess we’ll have to stick to assessing and infiltrating this potential sleeper cell the hard way. I nod for Justin to go back to work.
“Big plans for the weekend?” he asks. I don’t need the distraction when my most important job is, you know, listening, but I’ll take the bait.
“I’m getting married in a month, and I’ve got exactly nothing done. I have big plans for every waking moment.” And most of them involve avoiding actual wedding planning.
“We’re through,” Justin announces. I almost tease that we were never a “we” to begin with until my brain catches up to his subject jump: the drill. We’re through the sheetrock.
Justin sets the drill on the table and digs into our toolkit again, this time coming up with a minivac. (DS&T does DustBusters.) He cleans up the drywall dust, a telltale sign your walls have some sort of bug.
The exterminator won’t go after these. I flip open the case for our contact mic, a flat disc the size of a dime. Applied to the neighbors’ sheetrock, the mic transmits sound waves from their apartment to our receivers. Better than a fly on the wall. (We have those, too.)
I give him the mic. Justin pulls out the right tool for placing it through the hole — okay, it’s basically a glorified stick — and I refocus on the sounds of silence.
A knock echoes through the apartment. I flinch and jerk to look at Justin. I could be wrong, but that sounded like it was —
The knock comes again. Justin turns wide eyes on me. Yep. Our door. My heart hits the dirt since the rest of me doesn’t dare move. “You order pizza?” I murmur.
“Yeah, I always have takeout delivered to places I officially never was.”
I’m guessing my expression matches his, like we’ve both been caught with our hands in the international cookie jar. In reality, mine is still frozen on the listening device; the contact mic and stick in Justin’s hands hang in mid-air. Like whoever’s at the door can hear us move.
“Vy tam,” calls the man in the hall. My stomach crawls down an inch. The language isn’t surprising, given we’re in the heart of Ottawa’s Russian enclave, but his inflection is odd. I can’t quite interpret his meaning.
“Translation?” Justin whispers.
Tricky. That pitch pattern is supposed to make the difference, and he didn’t use one I recognize. “It’s either ‘Are you there?’ or ‘You’re there.’”
Either way, he’s talking to us.
Of course, my last Russian mission might be why my blood pressure’s somewhere in the stratosphere. That op was an anomaly. There’s no way things can go that bad again. Right?
“Answer him.” Justin holds out a hand for my listening device.
“And say what? Zdes′ nikto krome nas kury? Nobody here but us chickens?” I translate before he can ask. “Don’t mind us, we’re just tapping the neighbors?”
“How about ‘we gave at the office’?”
Another knock. This dude isn’t giving up.
Justin throws me the toolkit with my disguise. I twist up my long hair and tuck my dark bangs under a long blond wig. Thick glasses with ’80s plastic frames complete the light disguise. Wouldn’t hold up under close scrutiny, but I’m hoping to keep this guy at a distance.
I call through the door. “Kto tam?”
Great. Landlord. I mouth that to Justin. He stuffs our tools back into our kit, a little rougher than I’d like with that sensitive contact mic, and kicks the bag under the kitchen table.
We rented the furnished apartment earlier this week, though obviously no moving trucks have been by. The landlord has to have noticed. I crack the door and peer out. The dude on the other side is short, stout and very Russian.
Cold lightning lances through me, and I grip the doorknob tighter. For a split second, I’m back in the locks of the Rideau Canal, a prisoner facing her captor.
Logic takes over. That captor’s in custody. His intel led us here, but he’s not the man in front of me. For one thing, the landlord’s walking free. For another, he’s walking at all. One deep breath and my pulse is under control. “Da?”
The landlord launches into a long speech about some obscure document he wants filled out, and shoves a packet of bright orange paper at me. I scan the Russian. An apartment inspection. Now. The cover sheet’s bold text leaves no room to argue. Obyazatel′noi. Mandatory.
If I fight, he’ll remember the whole emotionally charged episode. If I comply, we can get through this and he’ll forget me tomorrow. I hope.
“Vhodite.” I step back from the door to let him in. He grabs the papers from me and marches past. What little I gathered from the pages had to do with assessing the condition of the apartment because we’re new renters. The apartment we just christened with a 1.5″ hole. Yeah.
I dare to look. Now in light disguise, too, with a new mole and a dark wig covering his fashionably mussed brown hair, Justin’s leaning against the wall maybe a shade too nonchalant, blocking the view of the hole. The landlord scrutinizes him, and the blood slows in my veins.
The repair fee can’t be that much, but getting caught? Alerting the neighbors? Disaster.
The landlord cuts his eyes my direction. “Pochemu on ne na rabote?”
Why isn’t he at work? Good question. Careful to keep from betraying the lie, I shrug. “Leniv.” He’s lazy.
“Trud cheloveka kormit, a len’ — portit.”
I never want to play Russian proverb roulette again, but at least this one fits: work feeds the man, and laziness spoils him. Justin’s certainly spoiled. I grin; the landlord doesn’t. Justin starts to smile. Once the landlord’s gaze leaves me, I make a cutting motion across my throat.
Justin’s eyebrows twitch in the subtlest acknowledgment possible, and the grin melts into a glower. Good recovery. Now we need to get rid of this landlord before he gets too nosy.
Isn’t that kind of what “inspection” means?
Without a nod to either of us, the landlord marches back to the main bedroom. We — meaning the Agency — have only been in the apartment a couple days. No one’s living here, so we haven’t dressed the place with toothpaste smears and dirty laundry. Like ours, the apartment’s disguise is thin, a veneer that anybody being thorough would see through.
So I follow him down the short hall to the room. He’s already there, examining the cheap, pressed wood desk that comes with the apartment, as if it’s worth anything. He doesn’t seem to care the desktop is bowed or the door to its storage compartment always drifts open. We’re not complaining, either, but we don’t have to put up with it.
The landlord rounds the double bed to check out the night table. He stops short to inspect the hospital corners on the bed. Worry tugs at my gut again. Too neat. We should’ve gone for more disheveled. We should’ve raided a thrift store for clothes to spread around.
The landlord barely glances at me. A hand lands on my shoulder and I jump before I realize it’s Justin. I shoot him a glare to try to send him out. Too weird if he goes back to leaning against that random spot on the living room wall. We can’t afford suspicion.
“I see he’s lazy in other ways, too,” the landlord mutters in Russian, like Justin’s not there. Or like the landlord knows Justin can’t understand him. I’m not sure I understand him either, until he adds a dirty joke to the jab. I scowl and shake off Justin’s hand.
I’ve got to get this guy out before he figures out we’re not living here. What’s the best excuse? I size up the landlord. Is he a hard smoker or drinker?
He’s Russian, so probably both, though he doesn’t show many outward signs. Wedding ring? Yep. I take a shot in the dark and in Russian: “Dmitri upset my mother.”
The landlord’s grunt speaks volumes. Who doesn’t sympathize with mother-in-law problems? I’m not married yet and I do.
He turns for the door leading off this room. Trouble. We’ve gone far enough to toss two toothbrushes in a glass, but if he looks for something as deep as, say, the toothpaste? Big trouble.
Justin wasn’t there when we set up. It was me and Robby, who’d come in handy now, since he does speak Russian. Justin has no idea what he’s getting into when he starts for the door. Is he stopping the landlord? What’s he going to say, when the guy can barely get out a Russian hi? I have to stop him from going into that bathroom.
Oblivious, Justin grips the knob. The landlord steps up to the plate. But it’s my pulse rounding the bases.
We can’t afford this attention. The neighbors hearing us is one thing; them knowing we don’t really live here is a different ball game. The landlord just became the bigger threat.
It’s time for a sacrifice play.