Amazing Maize Maze
Chuck's cell phone woke him. Encrypted: Castle. Morgan would call from his regular cell if it was personal, which meant this was work. Chuck took only a second to check his surroundings and notice Sarah was missing from her bed. A split-second of panic morphed into hope she was just in the bathroom. She wouldn't leave her partner while on a mission. At least he didn't have to whisper to spare her sleep. "Mornin' Morgan."
"Hey, buddy." Did his bff have any idea how much his cheerful, upbeat voice meant? It had to be pretty early back in California, yet he was already at Castle. More likely, he never went to bed. "Did it go well with Sarah last night?"
Chuck didn't want to talk negatively if she was in the bathroom. He wasn't even sure how to answer that question if he was alone. They had slept in the same room, which was better than when she slept in his living room. Their teamwork had been decent, even if not the same fine-tuned perfection they'd once had. They'd talked without fighting and Sarah had been cordial and even considerate. Beside the fact her consideration had left him feeling sad and lonely, at least she was being honest. She was a lot like the woman he first met five years ago, minus the uncomfortable asset-handler dynamic. If only Chuck could stop comparing her to his beloved wife before the Intersect, he'd probably be happy right now.
"Yeah, it's cold here too," he finally said. Please don't ask more. The more he thought about it, the worse it got. He needed to put it out of his mind. "But at least it's not raining."
"And she's right there listening." His tone implied he also got the message that the night had not gone the greatest. "Say no more." He switched over to cool professionalism. "Tracer on Rodriguez's phone says he just called a cab."
"I thought he rented a truck."
"He must know that the truck is being followed. Hopefully he won't figure out we hijacked the cab and replaced the driver. I thought you'd want some time to get dressed. I'll call back when I get word of the destination."
"Ten-four, Morgan. Thanks." He ended the call and bounded out of bed. "Sarah?" he called loudly enough to be heard through the bathroom door.
"Out here," came her voice from the opposite wall, muffled behind a curtain.
Chuck followed her voice and found a sliding glass door, left open about an inch. Already dressed, Sarah stood, looking out from a tiny balcony. He slid the door further and stuck his head out.
"Rodriguez called a cab. We've got an agent taking over as driver. They'll let us know where he's headed as soon as they know."
She snapped out of her reverie almost instantly. "Great." She turned and headed inside. It was indeed cold, but it was a crisp autumnal cold, not a biting winter freeze. It would be a great day for a hoedown, if indeed that was where they ended up.
"What were you thinking about out there?" Chuck set about getting dressed so she wouldn't scold him about taking time to talk.
He battled with himself over whether to press her further. Obviously, no one could actually think about nothing. He donned blue jeans and a plaid flannel shirt and slipped his tranq gun in the back waistband, under the shirt. Cowboy boots would have been great, but he hadn't packed any and taking time to find some wouldn't be worth it. His Chucks would have to do. He sat on the bed to put them on.
Sarah broke the silence, evidently deciding she would elaborate without being pressed. "I just went out there so I wouldn't wake you up. I forgot you were lead on this one."
Lead. He'd always deferred to Sarah and Casey as the senior agents and never thought a thing of it when Beckman or Shaw called them with whatever instructions were needed in the field. She'd been expecting Morgan to call her. Morgan probably just called him because they were best friends. His Sarah wouldn't have been bothered by that.
"Oh," he said, hiding the delay in answering behind an unnatural attention to tying his shoelaces. "I don't really think of it that way. Sure, when I was a civilian, you and Casey were in charge. But we're partners now, and have been for a long time. Equal partners."
She nodded but didn't look like she fully believed it. How hard was it for her to accept that he was lead agent? He'd really only ever been 'in charge' of missions when she wasn't around. His Red Test was a big exception, but he tried not to think about that. Ever. Oh, and that one time when they'd been looking for a new Intersect candidate and they all got locked in Castle with a murderer. She had been supportive then. Of course, she'd also been his fiancée then.
Sarah loaded up her knife sheaths and gun holsters, at least the ones not completely hidden by her clothes. He knew how much hardware she normally wore, and he would bet most of the arsenal was already concealed. She also wore blue jeans, though hers were definitely more form-fitting than his. A cute red and white checkered blouse with ruffled sleeves and a eyelet lace yoke completed her look. She'd also French braided her hair in a single braid that ended just below her collar, a red satin ribbon making a pretty bow on her back. Chuck tried hard not to stare.
Where was I? "I mean it, Sarah. I've always listened to you. You've been a spy longer than I have. I know that." Had it been his call, he would have just given her the lead, but they both knew it wasn't his to give.
"I'm under psychiatric care," she said, with particular contempt granted the last two words.
Forget this lead crap. "I don't care. We look out for each other. That's what partners do."
They arrived together at the bathroom sink, toothbrushes in hand, and conversation halted while they had their mouths full of toothpaste.
He let her spit and rinse first, so she was first to speak. "You ready?"
Chuck finished his dental hygiene and nodded. "Yep." They stowed their toothbrushes and phone chargers and zipped up their suitcases.
They checked out of the hotel, stored their luggage in a locker, and found a Starbucks across the street. Chuck's phone got a text while they were on their way: You and Sarah are brilliant! Rodriguez on way to Hoedown. Has a conspicuous tail. Will let himself be lost when you are in position. Good luck. Cobra.
Chuck winked at Sarah. "We were right. You want to get coffee to go or eat there?" He texted a quick Thnx buddy to Morgan before putting his phone away.
"Let's just go. Bringing anything in would look weird."
And possibly pretentious. Chuck hoped this Hoedown had the same predilection for deep-fried everything as the fairs he'd grown up with. He could even eat corn dogs without shame, since Sarah had forgotten the Wienerlicious cover and all the poor innocent corn dogs she'd charred into corn dog purgatory. Of course, the mission had to come first. But if, by saving the corn crop from supersmut nanobots, he therefore saved corn dogs from extinction, one would think downing a few in celebration should be in order. Afterwards, of course.
They hailed a cab and went straight to the Hoedown. Discreetly, they inserted their earbuds and turned on their transmitters. "Morgan, you copy?" Chuck said softly.
"Loud and clear. Sarah?"
"I'm good." She and Chuck exchanged a covert nod to communicate they also heard each other. That would be important if they got separated.
Morgan came on again. "Let me patch you in to the field agent already there. Baines, you with us?"
A new voice crackled over the connection. "Baines here. Target is talking to someone by the corn fritter and funnel cake vendor. He's 5-9, about 160, wearing navy t-shirt and jungle camo fatigues. I'm 5-11, in MIB Obvious." Which meant black suit, black tie, dark sunglasses, and his earpiece had a visible coil that ran down the back of his neck. He was lucky it was October. He'd still stick out, but at least he wouldn't be close to heatstroke.
"Copy that, Baines," Chuck said. "We'll have you back at the office in no time."
"Forget the office. I wanna go home and change clothes, get my son, and come back. Soon as it's safe, of course."
Agent Baines has a son. See, someone could work for the agency and still have a family. Chuck would have to talk to Baines sometime about that. Now was not that time. He and Sarah held hands and strolled along in the direction of the Fritter Fryer.
Sarah was the one to announce, "Target in sight, Baines. You're free to make your move." Chuck saw the target a second later.
The general idea was to make the target think he had outrun or outmaneuvered his Obvious Tail so he would think he was clear and let down his guard. But Rodriguez was just talking, not trying to ditch Baines at all.
"He's seen me, but he's smart," Baines said. "If I approach him now, he'll know it's a handoff. He knows we wouldn't try to capture him until we see the package."
The package. Chuck pulled out his Geiger counter and did a quick check while hiding behind Sarah who was playing flirtatiously with his hair. No radioactivity. From what he understood, he'd need to be within 50 feet of the nanobots, closer if the lead casing was as thick as it should be. "No reading on the package from where we are," Chuck reported.
"Negative here too," Baines said.
So it was going to be one of those staring standoffs, waiting for Rodriguez to make a break for it. Baines moved in closer, probably just to be obnoxious. Sarah took Chuck's hand and led him off to the square dancing stage. Square dancing?
Dancing was always a great trick in surveillance because it gave the perfect excuse to get a 360 degree view. People standing around a dance floor would look very odd to be looking at anything but the dancers. Dancers got to look everywhere.
He and Sarah had done just about every ballroom dance imaginable, but they never had an occasion to square dance before. An Intersect flash gave him everything he needed to know from promenade to do-si-do. Sarah must have had experience or she wouldn't have dragged him into it. Indeed, she seemed to know just fine what to do. As long as the music and caller kept going, they could keep a constant watch on Rodriguez and he would have no clue they were watching him.
"Where are you guys anyway?" Baines asked after some silence.
"Square dancing," Chuck said, without mentioning how they were dressed or what they looked like. He didn't want Baines to try to find them.
"Square dancing, really?" Morgan mused. "You guys are so awesome."
"Sarah's the awesome one. I'm just following her lead." He couldn't mention the Intersect in front of Baines.
Baines scanned everything peripheral to Rodriguez in both directions, which included the square dance stage, but he didn't let his black-lensed gaze linger on anyone or anything. Good agent. He sighed after his scan and muttered something about special agents having all the fun.
Morgan countered with, "You have no idea."
It was hard enough to concentrate on dance steps while keeping his eyes directed away from his feet, watching the target, but not look like he was watching the target. Chuck really didn't have enough leftover concentration to shoot the breeze over comms at the same time. He left that to Morgan and Baines.
His dancing partner sure looked pretty. Sarah's blouse was casual, yet exquisitely feminine. And those jeans were divine. He wondered how much of her smile was faked because the cover required it, or if she might really be as happy as she looked. He hoped so.
He couldn't really talk to her now even if he could muster the concentration. Sarah had always been too private to talk about her feelings on a mission, and that would go doubly with Morgan and some other agent they'd never met listening in. Chuck didn't really want to explain anything personal to Baines either.
The third dance number had started when Rodriguez gave an obvious nod to someone. "Did you see that?" Baines asked.
"Saw the nod," Sarah replied. "Not sure who he was signaling. Everyone watch ou—"
A horse-drawn cart dashed right in front of Baines and inexplicably overturned. "I'm all right," Baines called from the ground. "Please tell me he's bolting."
"Target on the move," Chuck confirmed.
Sarah sprang into action. "Oh Charlie, honey, I twisted my ankle. Ow, ow, ow." She grimaced and hopped on one leg most convincingly.
He used that as his cue to pick her up, feigning lack of strength so he had a good excuse to be quick. "Never fear, darlin', I'll get you to a first aid station." He ran off the stage with her easily riding in his arms.
They passed the horsecart and visually verified Baines was all right, but didn't stop until they'd made it to the other side of the cart and were blocked from view of the man who'd been driving. He was most likely in communication with Rodriguez and Chuck didn't want to tip him off.
When he was reasonably sure no one of importance would see, he let Sarah down and they both took off sprinting. "He ducked inside the corn maze," Sarah said.
The entrance was deserted of both visitors and employees. It had been cordoned off with a sign that said 'Closed for Repairs' but Rodriguez zipped under the sign and kept running.
When Chuck got close enough to see the scale and construction details of this corn maze, he had to gasp. It wasn't green stalks, set every few feet like in a growing field. This was straw-colored stalks that had been bundled with twine into nearly solid walls which had then been installed upright in a heavy clay foundation. He couldn't see around, through, or over its walls.
"Morgan," Chuck said with a bit of tremor in his voice, "please tell me you have a map of this corn maze because this is 'Goblet of Fire' and 'Labyrinth' all rolled into one here."
"Oh boy. Really?" Morgan sounded like he was caught off guard this time.
"You take the right. I'll take the left," Sarah said as they came to a choice of directions. What would they do the next time? They separated.
In seconds, he could tell Sarah had been ambushed by the sounds she made when she fought hand-to-hand.
"You need help, honey?" he called.
"No," grunt, "it's not Rodriguez." Oof, ugh. "He may be getting away. You've got to keep going." She didn't even sound like she was breaking a sweat, so he took her word for it she didn't need help and kept going on his own path, but he drew his tranq gun.
Two guys jumped him at the next turn. He could have flashed and done the kung fu thing with them, but he didn't have time. If Rodriguez connected with the nanobots and then made it to the corn field, mere yards away, this was all for nothing. And what better place to hide a lead suitcase than in a big corn maze conveniently closed to the public? Chuck tranq'd his attackers and told Sarah, "Two down here," as he continued to run.
The maze was baffling, and Chuck met a dead end and had to retrace his steps and start over. "Sarah, I keep getting lost in here. How you doing?"
"Getting lost too, but no more guards to deal with."
Morgan interrupted, "Guys, I got a satellite image taken last night. I know what the maze looks like from above."
"Great, Morgan, but how can you tell where we are to guide us?" Chuck asked, trying not to blame the bearded one for their present pickle.
"I can't, but maybe this will help."
Huh? Chuck's cell chimed an incoming file. He transferred his tranq gun to his left hand so he could fish out his phone. Morgan had sent the photo to him. Damn, but this was one freakishly huge maze. Hundreds of people could get lost in this thing for hours. Maybe that's what Iowans called fun.
But once he got over the enormous scale of the maze, he saw that some damage had already been there when the pic was taken. "Sarah, do you see that anomaly in the northeast quadrant?"
"I see it, Chuck. I think I'm almost there. Where are you?"
"Uh..." He took a few more steps, glanced in three directions and then back at the phone. The Intersect put together all the clues and showed him where he was with relation to the diagram. After that, it was just like a video game. "Got my bearings, coming your way." He ran, making no more bad turns, straight toward the place where the maze was damaged.
It was worse than the satellite photo when they arrived from two separate directions. Several walls had large holes, including the outside wall of the maze. Out the broken wall they saw Rodriguez running, a large tubular canister strapped to his back, and a crop-dusting airplane in front of him. The lead suitcase with "Project Locust" stenciled on it lay open and abandoned. Chuck's Geiger counter crackled from the residual radioactivity left after the contents had been removed, no doubt to the canister Rodriguez now carried.
"Rodriguez has the package," Sarah reported between gulps of air as they both ran after him.
"He's boarding a crop duster," Chuck added. "Backup choppers might be nice." He still thought they could get to him, but they might not be able to stop the plane from taking off.
"A crop duster?" Morgan exclaimed. "How did we miss that?" He didn't expect an answer because the next second he'd turned his mic to standby. Chuck could still hear him, but it was indirect and faint. Morgan called General Beckman and gave her the most succinct update he'd ever heard Morgan give anyone, ending with an urgent request for air support. He couldn't hear the general's response, but Chuck had the sinking feeling it wouldn't matter if she sent an entire squadron of Air Force jets. It would only take minutes to spread nanobotic supersmut terror with a crop-dusting airplane. They just had to get to that plane before it took off.