Monday, November 10, 2008

Chapter One


17:00. Office. Going black 21:00. Dress for city. Time for mist.


It’s really no wonder I’ve started talking entirely in shortcuts.

This is probably the longest text I’ve gotten on my Blackberry in months.

It’s written so the world at large doesn’t know what I do, where I’m going, or who I’m going to potentially take out when I do it.

But it makes perfect sense to me.

I have to report to “the office” at 5:00pm, to prepare for a mission that’s going to roll out for London at 9:00pm tonight.

And that mist?

That’s the deadly virus that we’re going to try and avoid being sold to the highest bidder – a North Korean with more money than sense and a REALLY bad attitude towards the West.

One drop in the water supply of a regular sized city could decimate the population. So that’s where I come in, because that’s not really something I want on my head.

So, I’ll pop on my most ass-kicking black outfit, pack a sidearm, and stop it.

Because that’s what we do, though few in the world know of our existence at all.

We’re ghosts.

These are pretty much the only types of text messages I get on my Blackberry these days – that’s what happens when you live your life in the shadows. Five years ago, I was Emmanuelle “Emme” Sutton – studious college student with no family to speak of, few friends, and an unsure path of where I wanted to go with my life. Studying art and art history at the Sorbonne was a dream come true, but I wasn’t sure how I was going to parlay it into a career, particularly as I wanted to return to England to live, where I had grown up in a small village on the southern coast.

Now, it’s five years later, and I’m a high level operative for Leukos.

Funny how quickly things change, isn’t it?

Leukos – or “light” in Greek – is the name of the nameless, faceless organization that recruited me one day while I was studying for a test on 15th century paintings in a Parisian café, my books slung about and a half cold cappuccino sitting nearby. Neither Britain’s MI-5 nor MI-6 acknowledge that we exist, as we operate on our own, taking out the criminals and terrorists that no one else can reach, but that threaten the safety and security of Her Majesty’s people, and those around the world.

Technically, I “work” as a buyer of art for galleries as part of Pruitt Industries, a London-based firm, but in reality, I carry weapons and serve in a variety of roles – diversion, attack, interception, and on occasion, have had to act as assassin to protect myself or those of my colleagues.

On those days, though, I must admit I don’t get much sleep by the time I get home and debrief from missions. The death of another, no matter how deserving, always weighs heavy on me and can make for many sleepless nights in my profession.

In any case, tonight’s mission should be textbook – catch the train to London and check in at Pruitt Industries, the office front for the entire Leukos operation, intercept the buy of the virus, return the virus to the lab at the office to be destroyed, check in at headquarters to be debriefed, and be home in time for the late news, as long as there are no complications or messes to clean up. We’re good at what we do, though – rarely are there messes when we’re involved.

In the meantime, though, I still have a façade of a normal life, which involves this run to Sainsbury’s grocery story for the essentials, as my cupboards are rather bare after being in Bosnia for the better part of a fortnight.

I begin thumbing a return message to “S” – Shane, my handler and closest colleague – to acknowledge receipt of the message, trying to avoid catching my shopping basket on displays of fruit and packets of crisps as I type.

Which reminds me, I really must find a packet of biscuits to take home to have with tea…

As I round the corner, I crash headlong into a very tall, very warm, and very solid object, and only with the resulting crash of groceries on the floor do I look up into the warm brown eyes of my obstacle.

“Oh god, I’m so sorry…” I stammer, my cheeks flushing in embarrassment as oranges go rolling from my basket and a packet of coffee slams into the lino. “I wasn’t paying attention…”

My assailant looks equally embarrassed, his own cheeks flushing pink. “Nor was I, I’m so sorry…”

We nearly bang heads as we both stoop to retrieve our groceries, and I flash a glance at his purchases – one packet of crisps, one orange, one prepackaged Cornish pasty.

“Preparing for quite the dinner party, are you?” I tease as we stand up, divvying our wares into the right baskets, our hands brushing, though we both snap them back reflexively and exchange embarrassed smiles.

“Well, you know, times are tight, so I must economize,” he says with a teasing grin. “A fifth of a pasty, a slice of orange, and two crisps. And if my guests are very, very good, perhaps a mug of tea to go with it. From my own stores, of course. I can be quite generous when I choose to be.”

“Splashing out on tea?” I say with a grin. “You are *quite* the host!”

“From the looks of it, I should invite you ‘round,” he says, nodding to my basket, which contains two oranges, a tube of biscuits, and two scotch eggs. A meager meal, even I have to admit.

“Oy,” I protest. “At least I went all out for *two* oranges,” I protest, and he laughs.

“True enough,” he agrees, and we lock eyes, smiling at each other, and I feel a frisson of excitement in my belly. For the last five years, I’ve been a pawn to so many men – playing the role of the escort, the badass, the whore, the virgin, the ninja, anything they want me to be – that it’s a nice change to see a normal bloke look at me as a normal girl.

What a shame it can’t last.

He is awfully tall, though, and those eyes are so warm and friendly and that crinkle in the corners when he smiles, and the rest of the package, I must say, is easy on the eyes as well. Wavy brown hair, a dimpled cheek, and the clean smell of soap and detergent lightly clings to his jumper.

And he has great hands, I note. Solid and well-cared for.

What can I say?

I like hands.

“Well, I should…” I trail off, gesturing slightly towards the checkout lanes, though with some reluctance.

“Right, yes,” he says quickly. “It was nice, almost meeting you.”

I smile, suddenly a bit shy. “And you – almost too.”

And with that, I disappear back to my shadowy life, but with a slightly heavier heart than I had a few minutes before.

I love my job, I do, don’t get me wrong. I love the danger, the rush, and the importance of it, but there are definitely days when I long for something a bit more staid…

Especially if it could be with someone as tall, dark and handsome as that…

With a shake of my head, I march to the counter, check out, load up my Saab and steer for home, a flat just round the corner from the seafront in Eastbourne.

I realize Eastbourne, on the southern coast of England, isn’t exactly a hotbed of terrorist activity, but that actually makes it ideal cover for someone like me. Who would look for a high level operative of Leukos in a sleepy seaside town made up almost entirely of senior citizens and sunbathers?

Not many.

Besides, Eastbourne is not far from the village where I grew up, and isn’t far from London by train, nor from Gatwick Airport, where I swear I should have my own parking space, as much as I fly in and out on mission after mission – or the occasional art buy in my cover career.

I would miss the sea, truly, if I lived anywhere else, though. I seem to find myself sitting on the beach more and more after jobs, particularly those that involve gunplay or near-death. Five years is a long time to live this life, and I’m not sure how many more I have in me, but anymore, I don’t know much else…

But enough dwelling on what we can’t have.

I have an operation to prepare for – time to strap on my knife holsters, gun holster and a kickass pair of sunglasses.

What more does a normal girl need to interrupt a few terrorists plotting the downfall of a city?


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