It was the boredom of office work that set me off, I swear. I was retired, working as a quiet, in the background computer software person for a corporation known as Rowan Industries which basically was a conglomerate corporate empire. I was pretty good at my job, too, getting just enough mistakes in my code to ensure that I didn't move up the ladder too quickly but not enough to get me any consternation from my boss. But by George was it boring. There was no risk involved. Get up, take shower, get dressed, walk seventeen blocks to work, sit at small desk in office, do job (safe, boring, uneventful job), walk back home, eat dinner, go to sleep. There was none of the risk that I thrived on, none of the thrill, no sense of adventure. I was just an office lackey.
I was a good little office lackey, though, until I got a letter with a lily attached sent up to my little cubicle. Now, as a girl, getting a flower with a letter sent up to my office, I was intrigued. But as a thief, my internal alarms went off immediately. I inspected the flower for any tricks, any listening devices, fake pieces, strange odours. I got nothing. Next, though, was the letter. Since I didn't have my normal equipment with me, I had to improvise. I held it up to the light and saw only a thin slip of something inside. It could have been paper, it could have been a coded piece of silicon. I tested for strange smells or sounds and came up with nothing. I even put a drop of water on the paper to test its resilience. Nothing.
Now, after all this, you would think that I would be fine and just open the letter, but since I didn't have any secret admirers and was pretty much out of contact with the rest of society, I wasn't just going to let a random letter slide by my suspicions. I went to the bathroom, pulled out a lighter that I kept on me, just in case (though I don't smoke), and set the thing on fire, dropping it into the trash can along with the flower.
Then, claiming a slight cold, I made my excuses and left early for the day, making sure I got home as quickly as possible without taking a route that seemed normal. I changed up my route to work pretty much every day, so I didn't think anyone would be waiting for me as I walked home. I was just to my apartment, a nice, third floor piece (actually, I owned the third floor and had it pretty much as a penthouse suite, just not at the top of a building... the money I got from one of the jobs I did) when my caution became more than just paranoia.
There were specks of dirt on my door. I cleaned my door meticulously, just to make sure I didn't leave any fingerprints behind and that if anyone ever did open my door that I could easily get their fingerprints. But these weren't fingerprints, these were specks of dirt. And it looked as if my lock had been picked. There were fine markings around the keyhole that weren't from me sticking my key in. The real evidence was the tiny piece of paper I usually left in the hinge of my door. It was sitting on the floor, near the corner, as plain as day.
Since I had been refused my gun permit (though I really didn't like using guns much. I'm more of a knife/hand-to-hand combat type of girl) and I wasn't carrying knives on me, stupid office job, I could do nothing but stick my key into the lock and open the door carefully, slowly, quietly. I was grateful that I left, out of habit, my blinds covered, and prowled forwards through the dark, keeping my ears more than my eyes open for whoever had broken into my apartment.
I heard him, her, whoever it was, stepping around in my living room and the shoes they wore sounded like leather, patent probably, dress shoes with laces. He was moving towards my light switch; he probably knew that I had opened the door. It was rather hard to mistake the light from the hallway in a dark apartment. Before he could turn on the lights, I jumped to the steel beams that made up the structure of my ceiling and reached for one of the knives I kept there. Just because I'm retired doesn't mean I don't keep in practise. Sheesh, what kind of a girl do you think I am?
The lights went on and I got a glimpse of my intruder. He was of average height and his suit made him look of average build, though when he moved, I could tell that he was hiding some serious power. His hair was dark and wavy and combed back from his temples in a stylish manner. He had on a purple tie, which, coupled with the dark suit, made him look intimidating. The matching purple pocket square made him look powerful. The really irksome part was the fact that he held a glass of wine, my wine, in his hand.
“My dear Ms deMarque,” he said, voice deep and thrumming and almost hypnotic. He glanced casually around the apartment but, just like most people, never looked up. I moved above him in the steel rafters. “Please come out,” he continued, taking a sip of my wine. “I know you're here and I know that you will be interested in what I have to say.”
“Who are you?” I asked, throwing my voice so it sounded as if I were near the coat closet. The man, to his credit, did not immediately start shooting but simply turned and tilted his head thoughtfully.
“I am looking to buy your services for my..employer,” the man continued and, despite his carefully hidden accent, I could tell he was Eastern European. Probably Russian or Czech or Serbian. I said nothing, waiting for him to give me his name. There was a pause, “You may call me Iosif Harding.”
“Well, Iosif Harding,” I said, throwing my voice in a different direction, making him turn again. “In case you were unawares, I'm retired from that line of business.” Harding gave a dry chuckle and took a long, languid sip of the wine, finishing the glass and setting it carefully on the counter.
“Everyone can be bought back in for a price. How does... two million, maybe more, sound. US Dollars, of course,” he said, walking over to my blinds and standing before them as if he peered hard enough, he could see through (which, of course, he couldn't, considering they were black-out curtains).
“US Currency is worth very little these days. I would have to deal in something more concrete, like gold, or more liquid, like stocks and bonds,” I said, pitching my voice from a new direction. “But you would also have to get around the law enforcement that is keeping tabs on me. I hear the FBI has gotten a new security system. Very difficult to crack. Though, I'm not sure I want to even bother. I made quite the deal with them. I don't renege on my deals.”
“Ms deMarque,” Harding said, turning to face the room. “I would expect you to do no such thing. After all, I do work for the Bureau.” I blinked as he pulled out a badge in a well worn leather case. While badges weren't particularly hard to come by, few conmen bothered to wear out the case in which the badge was held, expecting the shiny metal to do the job for them.
“I don't trust you. And why all the stepping around the issue?” I said, feeling uneasy about the whole situation. I hadn't had contact with the Bureau for two years now and had been clean for as long (minus one very small detail about a certain wine that my intruder had just partaken of. I paid the liquor store, but only a week after I had taken the drink). Harding put his hands in his pockets and gave a slight shrug.
“I was told to make sure your loyalties were still in line. And Gard figured you wouldn't trust me, so he said to tell you that you should just 'steal the moon' I believe it was,” Harding replied. I blinked. Gard had been the agent who finally caught up to me after a very elaborate con involving some drunk politicians, a very nice sapphire and a fish. When Gard had been reviewing my thefts, he had told me, half in annoyance and half in awe, that I should just steal the moon while I was at it. It had never been recorded and never written down just for precisely a purpose as Gard sending someone to contact me.
“Steal the moon, steal the stars, steal that which lies behind bars,” I said, no longer bothering to throw my voice. Harding snapped his gaze up to me and I jumped lightly down from the steel beams, appraising him head on. He had determined features and a trickster's grin. Coupled with dead eyes, he set me on edge and I immediately knew why Gard had sent him. Grant wanted me on edge, wanted me to question everything this guy said, just so that I would verify it.
“Great,” Harding said, “you rhyme.”
“Rhyme, dance, steal, con, you know. Usual hobbies for a twenty-four year old,” I said with a shrug. “So, what can I do for the Bureau today? I've been good, I promise,” I said and went over to my kitchen where I poured myself a glass of water. See, despite the fact that I stole the wine, I don't actually drink. It messes with your head. But every good thief needs a good cover and, well, what self-respecting woman doesn't drink every now and again.
“It's not you we're after,” Harding replied. “I don't actually know what you're needed for. Gard just told me to come here and get you. I'm to take you back to headquarters and you'll get a full briefing.”
I grinned, “I've always wanted to break into the FBI main-frame... Not that I would act on such a thing. Just a thought.” Harding did not smile but gave me an appraising look and curled his lip in disgust. I smiled at him and followed him out the door, making sure to reset my 'intruder alarm' on the way out and clean the door knob thoroughly. Harding watched all of this with interest and even frowned at the little piece of paper I stuck in my door.
“That's a bit old fashioned, don't you think?” he said, walking towards the elevator.
“Sometimes old fashioned works better. In this day and age of computer security systems, wouldn't you expect me to have an electrical alarm system? That's why you missed it,” I replied, moving towards the stairs. “Oh, and the elevator only goes up to level three. Doesn't go down.”
“What? Is that some sort of extra security measure so your intruder's can get up but are trapped when they do?” Harding grumbled, tramping down the stairs like a real trooper. I followed, making sure my footsteps were silent and light.
“No,” I said. “The elevator just doesn't work.” Harding shot me an annoyed look and we finally made it to the parking garage. Normally, there were between three and five cars in the garage, but with Harding's fancy, government issued sedan and the unfamiliar car of the guy I'm assuming tailed him, there were six. I ignored Harding's fervent gestures indicating his car and walked over to the tail, mussing my hair slightly and putting on a pout before knocking on the driver's side window.
The man inside jerked from his position of watching the rear-view and stared at me in confusion. I gestured to my wrist and did a sort of urgent dance, making sure to stay in half-shadows so he couldn't see my face clearly. After a few more moments of this, he rolled down the window, “Lady, I'm busy.”
“I just want the time. I left my watch in my boyfriend's apartment and if I don't hurry, I'm going to be late for my husband's dinner-party,” I said, raising my voice half an octave. The guy stared at me in complete shock before turning to the watch on the dashboard. He turned the key in its slot to show the time and I reached into the car while he was distracted, grabbing the back of his neck and slamming it into the steering wheel a few times.
After the tail was knocked out, I walked back to where Harding waited, watching me warily in case I decided to try the same thing. “What?” I said, checking the car for any unwanted devices, not sure that I trusted Harding not to try and kill me. “I figure that if Gard is calling me in, then I am out of retirement? That means I get to bust the heads of people who are tailing you. Not very good on your part, by the way, not losing him before-hand.”
“I didn't want him lost. I wanted him to follow me, all the way to the restaurant where we're meeting Gard so that he would report back to his bosses that I was taking a girl out to dinner on company time. That way, I can be bought off easier. Now, I have to figure something else out,” Harding snapped at me, ducking into the car. I did the same and grinned at him.
“Cool,” I said. “This is looking to be my kind of game. Alright, here's what we do. He'll wake up in a couple of minutes and we'll walk out of the stairwell again, except, of course, I'll be talking normally and will be hanging on your arm instead of trying to figure out if you're trying to kill me. The guy will think he either lost track of time, due to a massive head-ache, or that something else happened. You'll be all set to be corrupt and stuff.”
Harding looked at me and I just got out of the car, skipping back to the stairwell, holding the door open long enough for him to get in. “You are either extremely smart or insane.”
“Personally, I like the insanity theory. It makes breaking into the psych ward so much easier,” I said, untucking my shirt and fixing my hair so that it shielded my face. Harding shook his head and watched for our tail to wake up.
“What was in a psych ward?” he asked, preparing to open the door. I hooked my arm through his and we sauntered out into the parking garage, completely ignoring the tail and, acting the perfect gentleman, Harding held open the door for me (although he wasn't too careful about closing it. He nearly caught my foot in the door. I glared at him as he got in the driver's side. He ignored me.
“Some documents in a patient's file that detailed the whereabouts of a box that I wanted. Oh, and a doctor's pharmaceutical pad. Just in case,” I said. “You know, it would have been nice to know of the plan regarding the tail before we walked out of my apartment and into the car park. Then I wouldn't have knocked the guy out. Who is he, anyways?”
“I didn't tell you because I figured you wouldn't catch on until we were already on the streets. And he belongs to a private security firm. Maven Security,” Harding said, pulling out into the city streets and keeping a close eye on the half-delirious security man following us. I know about the delirious part because he kept shaking his head and wove about a bit in his lane. Oops. Guess I hit harder than I thought. Oh, well.
“You underestimate me,” I said, flicking through the documents in the glove compartment to check the registration and car history. “Good.” Harding muttered something under his breath but didn't say anything further until we reached the restaurant. It was a nice little Italian place and had just enough twists and turns to the place that no one watching from the outside could get any good surveillance.
Harding parked and, to keep in act for our tail, helped me out of the car. We walked inside and I saw where the hostess pointed us before making a bee-line for the bathroom. “Where are you going?” Harding hissed at me, catching my arm in his hand. I met his eye with a hard look of my own and carefully, he removed his hand.
“To the bathroom. I was going to go when I got to my apartment, but turns out there was someone there. And I have to go,” I said, turning and walking towards the restrooms again. Harding followed. I turned to glare at him, “I can very well manage to go to the bathroom on my own. And I promise, thief's honour, that I will be back. I will see you at Gard's table in exactly five minutes from now, alright?” With that, I stalked off to go to the bathroom.
I washed my hands and, with two minutes to spare, stared at my reflection in the mirror. Ever since I gave up thieving, it was something I tried very hard to avoid. If I had to use a mirror at all, I never met my eyes and, more often than not, I just avoided the thing all together. But now, on the cusp of going back to what I once was, I stared at myself in the mirror.
I saw nothing more than a skinny woman with prominent collar bones and a pointed chin, light brown hair dusting my shoulders. I saw blue eyes so light as to almost be ice, framed by heavy, dark lashes and eyebrows which pulled up in the middle in a look of pain and sadness. I saw all of this and, remembering my former glory, wondered if it were possible to do such things again. If it were possible to be greater.
“First date?” a woman asked as she joined me at the mirror. Dressed as she was in a waitress' uniform, I did not doubt her judgement on people's looks. But I just gave her a vague smile, glanced at my watch and walked out of the bathroom. I wove my way through the restaurant, ignoring the pressing temptation to pick people's pockets or purses on my way and made it to the table where Harding was fidgeting nervously, sitting across from Gard and a woman with short hair and a look of annoyance.
“Well, well. Dearest Georgiana, you have not changed at all,” Gard said, rising from the table. I shot him a look and he chuckled. “Very well. Ana.” Then, and only then, did I reach out to clasp his hand, surprised at how much he had aged in the two years since I had seen him. Harris Gard, when he first caught me, had not been young. He was probably about fifty and I was surprised he managed to catch up with me. But now, he looked as if he had aged ten years and I knew he would never chase me again. He had gained some weight though his face looked slightly gaunt. His hair was white and thinning and his eyes, once a dazzling, cunning green, looked tired.
Gard held out a chair for me and I took the seat, flicking my eyes to the woman. She watched me with interest and I met her gaze evenly. “Ana, this is Jen Newman. She'll be working with me on this.”
Newman gave me a nod and I just watched her. She was obviously pretty intelligent and I got the distinct impression that she didn't like me. Oh, darn. Whatever will I do? I turned to the menu and ordered the first thing I saw as the waiter wrote it down (apparently the first thing I saw was a spicy black bean soup. Ugh).
“So.. what exactly is this?” I said after the waiter had gone. “I mean, really, Gard. Sending your lackey to come fetch me after two years of no contact? I would have expected better of you. And I would have expected a commendation for being so good.”
“Good. Sure. You haven't done anything strictly illegal, but I read some of your financial reports, kid. They're not exactly spotless,” Gard replied good-naturedly. I shrugged and said nothing further. “And I had to send Iosif because I'm not technically a field-agent anymore. I got moved to overseer.”
Moved, not promoted. I noticed his words and the weight he had gained and figured that was the cause. Desk duty. “But things would have been so much easier if you had just come yourself. Then I wouldn't have had to go through all the stress and such.”
“You can handle it. The reason I called you, though, is because I need your help. Your professional help,” Gard said softly. I blinked. He wanted me to be a thief for him? Hmm. See, Gard was the type to follow the rule-book to the letter and the spirit. He never bent a rule and had stood by that ever since I had known of him. For him to be asking for my help meant that he was in a corner and could see no other way out. Newman shot him a look of anger but Gard ignored her; he was going to bring me into this.
The food was deposited at our table and I poked distastefully at the soup. “So, are you going to tell me the specifics? Or am I just going to have to guess and rely on my own intuition to sort this thing out?”
“Once we get back to headquarters. I don't trust not to be overheard here,” Newman said, intervening before Gard could say anything further. I looked at Harding to gauge his reaction but got nothing. Either he was used to Newman or he was a pretty good actor. I figured on the former.
“Suit yourself. But offices can be bugged. And with the old couple in the corner bickering with the waiter, the single mother and her two kids, the wait staff standing in the corner by the kitchen, bored, I would figure we have a pretty good chance of not being overheard, here,” I said, waving my spoon at each example. Newman ground her teeth but said nothing and dug into her salad with fervour. Point for me.
“Ana's right,” Gard said softly, messing with his own food. “And I don't want to risk any of the others at the office seeing her. There are plenty of agents who are loyal, but it just takes one who is corrupt.”
I nodded in agreement while both Harding and Newman looked at each other, obviously uncomfortable with the idea. From that, I got the impression that neither were as seasoned or as cynical as Gard and I wondered why he had brought in two unseasoned people for something of importance. “So, with all the attack dogs at your disposal, why did you come to me, the only cat here?” I said, sniffing at my soup and deciding against it.
“Because us dogs have been specifically ordered not to investigate. Our target, Joseph Waare, is a well connected man. He owns Inversivity Incorporated, which I believe you know,” Gard said. I stiffened. Inversivity Inc was the direct rival of Rowan Industries and while I was only working for Rowan as a low-down employee, I rather liked the company. Not to mention I had spent a lot of time very quietly strengthening their security system. “Among other things, I.I does a lot of work for the government. They also have a large quantity of stock in Maven Security who gets most of the government contracts for international and military affairs.”
“Okay,” I said. I didn't like mercenaries and I didn't particularly like Inversivity, but I didn't know exactly what I was supposed to do about it. “That's fine and dandy, but you still haven't told me what you need me for.”
“We have our suspicions that Waare is participating in, if not initiating, cons for people's money in one of his larger hedge-fund corporations as well as watering his stock. But the most problematic thing that we can see is that he might be laundering money for the Russians and therefore funding the arms trade between them and some of our more... inhospitable friends. Mexican drug lords, for instance. War lords in the Middle East, etcetera. That's just the tip of the ice-berg, but without hard evidence, we can't do anything. And it has been suggested that we... drop this investigation,” Gard said, stabbing viciously into his dinner.
“So, what, you want me to break into his office and steal his files?” I said. “Easy.”
Harding widened his eyes and exchanged a look with Newman who just clenched her jaw. Gard sighed and took a large drink of his water before shaking his head, “None of the evidence we could get that way is admissible in court. If we want this to stick and for the government to turn away from him completely, we have to get Waare to hand over the evidence within the law.”
“You want me to run a con on him?” I breathed, not believing my ears. Gard did not move for a minute then met my eyes and nodded. I leaned back in my chair in shock. Gard, who loved and trusted his government, who followed their rules to the letter, wanted me, a known (and quite successful, if I may say so myself) thief and con-artist, to do a job on someone that the government endorsed. Goody.