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Chaos fic: God Complex 2/13

June 4th, 2012 (06:42 am)
pensive

feeling: pensive

A/N: Thanks to those who read and reviewed the first part! This one is shorter and hopefully a bit more action-oriented. Notes in part one .

PART TWO



-o-

For as distracted and unproductive as his team probably seemed in the halls of the CIA offices in Langley, they were unparalleled in the field. Billy and Casey had set up an ironclad routine, taking turns with group events to scout the town while the other stayed posted back at the hotel, charting criminal movement. It didn’t take long to identify some of the shady characters, and ID’ing Vaughan had been easy enough.

After a few days they had a ready rotation, with ample and ever-growing information on Vaughan’s daily habits and contacts.

Billy and Casey relayed this information each night during a meeting in a neutral motel room they had rented out to a dummy name with local credentials.

“He’s quite the busy man,” Billy mused.

“Being a criminal is a demanding job,” Casey deadpanned.

“So we’re sure Vaughan’s our guy?” Rick asked. Rick was more than somewhat restless, and Michael could sort of understand why. While Billy and Casey were doing the legwork, he and Rick had spent more of their time in the hotel room. They’d made a few appearances at some local criminal hotspots, but nothing more than cursory walk bys to establish presence.

Billy held the camera out. “Take a look for yourself.”

Michael took the camera and Rick crowded over his shoulder to see. The first shot was of a meat market. “Unless you think he’s trafficking illegal poached game, I’m not sure what—“

“Click back a few,” Casey said, glancing over at Billy coolly. “Someone has an itchy trigger finger.”

“Better with the camera than a gun,” Billy said. He shrugged. “Besides, I can’t help but be moved by the ever-flow of life in cities such as this. I mean, did you see the size of those steaks!”

“A coronary waiting to happen,” Casey snarked. “And that doesn’t justify all the sky shots.”

“But the clouds were a perfect representation of an eagle in flight!” Billy exclaimed in his defense.

“More like a falcon,” Rick said.

“Try a common raven,” Casey groused. “Hardly worth the battery power.”

“Says a man with no appreciation for art,” Billy said petulantly.

Michael rolled his eyes a little and tuned them out when he found the surveillance photos. Sure enough, Vaughan was meeting with all the well known names. There were even shots with him and Sunday, looking more than a little chummy.

“How do we know he’s not just hanging around with his brother-in-law?” Rick clarified.

“Keep scrolling,” Casey said.

Michael obliged, stopping when he came across the photos of Vaughan taking a briefcase from Sunday and holding it conspicuously to himself. A few pictures later, there was movement of plastic crates from a truck to a car. They were labeled fragile and most definitely being handled with care.

“Ah,” Michael said with satisfaction. “Jackpot.”

“Indeed,” Billy said. “Unless those boxes have breakable collectibles, I’m going to venture they’re housing military grade munitions.”

“Those aren’t military transport containers,” Rick noted.

“So they’re being repackaged, probably at their initial place of deployment,” Michael agreed.

“No small feat,” Casey said. “Especially considering how much there is.”

He was right about that; Michael had suspected that Vaughan was trafficking enough weapons to turn the tide for Sunday’s network, but this was more than that.

“Why would they need so many?” Rick asked.

“You know how much criminals love new toys,” Billy said. “American men are fond of their electronics; militants enjoy explosives.”

“And extra cash,” Casey said.

“You think they’re selling?” Rick asked as Michael continued to scroll through the photos.

“Likely,” Michael concluded, feeling his stomach twinge just slightly. It was a development he hadn’t counted on. Supplying Sunday was one level; selling to other parties was another thing entirely. This meant that the damage was far more widespread and the risks had just been upped.

So had the need to fix it. Taking Vaughan out of the game was essential before the munitions he was selling ended up doing more damage outside the militant’s war.

Still, the entanglements made the chance of something going wrong even more of a concern. It was a proverbial wrench in the works, and it was up to Michael to make sure things kept running smoothly.

“So what do we do?” Rick asked.

Michael put the camera down, mouth pressed thinly, resolved. “We stick to the plan,” he said. “The scale of the operation only chances how pressing the need is to take Vaughan down. It doesn’t change our approach.”

Casey took back the camera. “So does this mean we won’t be going on the safari outing?”

“We need to get a tab on the different buyers and see how wide this thing goes,” Michael said.

Billy made a face. “I suppose criminals are a type of predator all their own,” he said. “Though they’re not quite as impressive as lions.”

“In a head to head match, they wouldn’t even stand a chance,” Casey said.

“We don’t need a head to head, not with the network,” Michael reminded them. “If we can collect the intel we can roll them up after we take out Vaughan.”

“Which means we still need to establish contact,” Rick said.

“Right,” Michael said, looking back toward the youngest operative. “I’ll push our asset, tell him to start talking us up and then we can be available in the hotel bar throughout the week, hoping that Vaughan bites.”

“What if he doesn’t?” Rick asked.

It was a valid question, perhaps, but still somewhat annoying. Michael pinned the younger man with a look. “He will,” he replied flatly.

The protest was on Rick’s face but he didn’t question. Billy reached across, patting him on the arm. “There are many unpredictable elements of a mission,” he said. “But the bond of curious criminals with something in common is hard to miss.”

“Especially if there’s the opportunity to expand profits,” Casey said.

“And clearly Vaughan’s more ambitious than we gave him credit for,” Michael said. “Give it a day. He’ll make contact before sundown tomorrow. Everyone needs to be alert, vigilant. No screw-ups. Not on this mission. Not with the stakes going up like they are.”

Casey rolled his eyes.

Billy saluted.

Rick blinked.

Encouraging? Maybe not. But Michael had to believe it would be enough.

-o-

Their asset was a skinny man with a not-so-subtle drug habit. He was old school, which meant that his criminal ways mostly predated the modern push for organized terrorism after 9/11. His loyalties were easily bought and his contact were well entrenched.

This meant he was useful for the right price but never for any length of time. That was okay with Michael; he just needed one favor and Peter just needed a little bit of cash to score his next hit.

“I am a, how you say, informant?” Peter said, shuffling in the alley where Michael had arranged the meet. It was a bit more public than he might have liked, but they didn’t have a lot of options so it would have to do.

Especially since he doubted Peter would have been amenable to anything more remote; his brand of paranoia was different than Michael’s. Where Michael was afraid of giving himself away, Peter was simply weary of getting left in an alley to die, so a rarely used alley off a main street was the best happy medium possible.

Still, it did nothing to assuage Michael’s nerves. Peter’s twitchy behavior didn’t do much either. “We use the term asset,” Michael said plainly, pressing himself against the brick wall.

“I am not yours to use as you please,” Peter said, pacing back and forth. He ran a hand over his face. “I provide information for a cost.”

“That’s still what I’m asking you to do,” Michael said. “You’re just providing false information to someone else.”

Peter laughed, high pitched and borderline hysterical. “You Americans,” he said. “So clever with your words. People who tell lies for the CIA are people who die for the CIA.”

“You’re not going to die,” Michael said.

“Oh, so certain?” Peter asked. “You want me to tell lies to dangerous people. People who tell lies to dangerous people end up dead.”

“Normally I’d agree with you,” Michael said, keeping his voice low. “But we plan on getting these dangerous people off the streets and out of this city for good. By the time they know you lied to them they’ll be long gone.”

At least, that was the plan. Michael wasn’t an overly sympathetic person but he also didn’t have a heart of stone. Peter was a drug addict and a low level criminal. He probably had more skeletons than Michael cared to know about and the man would likely betray him if the price was right.

Yet, the fact was Michael was asking him to put his life on the line. For pay, yes, but the risk was still there. And Michael didn’t want the weight of another life on his shoulders.

Plus, he didn’t want to recruit another Nigerian asset if he could help it.

Peter looked at him with obvious doubt. “Americans: you all believe you’re God,” he said. “Like you have some right to control the destiny of the world. The little people who do not know how to achieve for themselves.”

“I can pay you and you know it,” Michael said.

“What is pay if I am dead?”

“What is life if you can’t get your next hit?” Michael asked, cutting to the point.

Peter barked a laugh. “I cannot deny it,” he said. “And I cannot refuse it.”

Michael smirked. “I thought so,” he said. “And I promise, I’ll make this extra worth your while.”

Peter waved a hand. “Yes, yes. Great sacrifice for great gain,” he muttered. “I just hope I can tell lies as well as you can.”

“If you have something to calm your nerves, I’m sure you can pull it off,” Michael returned, only half joking.

With another laugh, Peter shook his head. “Just know my life is in yours hands,” he said. “Your lies better be as good as your money.”

Michael felt his confidence waver before he bolstered it, nodding resolutely. “I promise,” he said, “it’s better.”

-o-

Trusting Peter was a weakness in the plan; the man hadn’t let him down before, but Michael had also never expected quite so much. They’d already seen Vaughan around their hotel, working up other criminals Michael recognized from his files, but he needed Peter to spread the word about his cover if Vaughan was ever going to bite.

Vaughan had to bite. If Vaughan didn’t bite, then Michael would have to force a meeting, and the entire thing would start out on entirely the wrong foot. His entire strategy hinged on the idea that Vaughan would think first contact was his idea, that Michael was doing him a favor. It was essential to garnering trust and getting him to step outside his comfort zone.

Peter had obviously told him something. Vaughan had started watching him the next day. Michael made a point to be in the public often, lounging with Rick as they ate and pretended to talk business. One day passed, then two. By the third day, Michael was worried he was going to have to call up Peter to see what was wrong when Vaughan sauntered up to the bar where Michael was nursing his beer.

Vaughan took the stool one down from Michael and ordered a drink of his own. Michael watched him without looking, glancing toward Billy and Casey who were talking to another member of their tour group. They glanced back but didn’t miss a beat in the conversation.

Michael took a drink, biding his time. Finally, Vaughan spoke. “So I hear you’re American,” he ventured.

Michael looked over at him, cool and collected. “I hear it’s not smart to talk to strangers in this place,” he said.

Vaughan tilted his head. “That’s good advice,” he said. “Unless you’re someone who knows how to look after himself.”

Michael took a drink and didn’t look at him. “What makes you think that I am?”

“I know the stance of a military man,” Vaughan said. “Let me guess, Air Force?”

Michael worked to suppress his grin. “Marines,” he said, looking toward Vaughan and thinking a word of thanks to Peter.

Vaughan’s face lit up. “The same,” he said. “I just got out last year.”

“I’ve been out for two years,” Michael said. Then he hesitated, extended his hand. “Thomas Vance.”

“Wendell Vaughan,” he replied, taking Michael’s hand readily. “I have to admit, seeing another American face is a sight for sore eyes. Don’t get me wrong; this place has its perks and the people are accommodating if you know how to work them, but a guy can get homesick.”

Michael laughed. “Home is a state of mind, especially for a Marine,” he said.

“This is true,” Vaughan agreed. “But I can’t tell you the last time I actually got to talk about football. Real football. Not the kind on the pitch.”

Michael chuckled again. “Spoken like a true American,” he said. “So what has you here?”

“Business,” Vaughan said, and then hesitated.

Over at the table, Billy was telling a raucous story. Casey even smiled. Rick meandered in the doorway, but Michael shook his head slightly, sending the younger man walking.

Purposefully, Michael kept his expression neutral. “And what business are you in?”

Vaughan hesitated again, a flicker of doubt evident in his eyes. This was the critical moment, the most important step yet. Vaughan had to trust him, had to open up. It was part of Michael’s plan.

Vaughan smiled. “You know, from what I’ve heard, we have very similar businesses,” he said, a bit cautious but the words heavy with meaning.

“Oh really?” Michael asked, vaguely bemused.

Nodding, Vaughan looked serious. “Maybe you’d like to talk about it,” he said. “Someplace more…private maybe.”

It was exactly what Michael wanted to hear, but he was playing tough to get. He narrowed his eyes. “I’m not sure—“

“Trust me,” Vaughan said. “Just a friendly discussion between two like-minded individuals.” The offer was plain and sincere. “I’ll even pay.”

Michael fiddled with his drink before finishing it. He pulled out his wallet and laid a few bills on the table. “Who am I to refuse a free drink?” he asked.

Vaughan smiled. “Great,” he said. “I think I know just the place.”

Michael only half listened as Vaughan finished his drink. Michael adjusted his shirt, where his mic was hidden in one of his buttons. He did a cursory sweep of the bar as he turned, noting Billy laughing and Casey drinking but nothing else out of place. Vaughan led him out and he passed Rick with a nod before stepping out into the street.

Vaughan was nervous, but eager.

It was all according to plan. Vaughan had approached him, already initiated trust. This was a critical step to the mission and it was all happening even better than Michael could have expected. It was playing out just as he planned, just as it needed to if Michael was going to retain control of this mission on the level he needed to.

That was the beauty of watching a plan come together. Of seeing his hard work pay off, of seeing it all work out just the way he’d set up. Down to every last detail.

-o-

When Michael finally got back, it was late. Later than he normally preferred, but he could only count that as a good thing. It meant that Vaughan trusted him, liked him even.

If the hour wasn’t enough to suggest that, the high bar tab was pretty convincing. Vaughan had taken him to a nearby eatery, where they had been ushered into a private back area. Just one look around told Michael that it was the criminal VIP section, which definitely meant that Michael was on the right track.

The drinks weren’t bad and the chitchat was a bit cumbersome but informative nonetheless. Michael wasn’t one for idle talk – that was Billy’s forte – but he took Vaughan’s war stories as individual pieces of intelligence. The entire night, in that way, was a reconnaissance success, even if Michael had to schmooze and tell a few dozen lies to make it work.

Plus, Vaughan liked him. Vaughan trusted him. They didn’t quite get to business but they hadn’t avoided it, either. It was the get-to-know-you stage of the relationship, and Michael had a feeling he passed with flying colors.

Which made it more than somewhat worthwhile to be out late, to be a little buzzed, and to still have to manage a nightly debrief with his team.

He jimmied the lock on the door – none of them had used the keycards for the safe room – and crept inside. The lights were on low, and even though he knew the room was secure and his team wouldn’t let it be compromised, he felt himself stiffen slightly, fingers twitching for the gun, still securely holstered.

Stepping in farther, his nerves were nothing but classic paranoia.

“You’re late,” Casey said flatly.

He was sitting on the bed, arms crossed behind his head, eyes closed.

“And I might note,” Billy added from the other bed, where he was sprawled, pillows askew and bunched up for no reason, “that tardiness was nowhere in the mission plan.”

Michael smiled at that. “You’re jealous,” he said. “How cute.”

“Just bored,” Casey said.

“And feeling a wee bit left out,” Billy added. “I mean, five rounds? You always peter out at three for us.”

“That’s because he didn’t have to pay tonight,” Casey reminded him.

Maybe it was the extra alcohol – though, probably not, Michael didn’t get drunk, not on duty, not ever – so maybe it was the euphoria of a mission going according to plan, but the usual repartee didn’t even elicit a typical glare from him.

Rick was at the table, sitting at his laptop, headphones still on, though with only one ear attuned. “Whatever it was,” he said, the only one on topic, as per usual, “it was productive. Sounds like he trusted you.”

Michael smirked, loosening his tie before pulling the knot apart and letting it hang loose. He didn’t like to think he was prone to ego, but after the night he’d had of unparalleled success, it was hard not to be a little smug. “The man was completely desperate for a friend,” he said.

“Well, I am always up for new friends,” Billy said, propping himself up a bit. “Especially if they mean we are that much closer to taking down a gun network.”

“We’re definitely moving in the right direction,” Michael said. “How’s everything behind the scenes?”

“Boring,” Casey relayed, not moving from his clearly comfortable perch.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Billy replied. “The Gundersons, from Germany, are really delightful people with wonderful stories about dentistry.”

Casey rolled his eyes. “Yes, their endless tales about flossing are quite invigorating,” he said. “But as for the criminal element, there’s been nothing new on our radar.”

“But we have taken the data we’ve accumulated and painted a pretty accurate picture of Vaughan’s schedule,” Rick said, nodding to his screen. “New shipments seem to be a weekly event – Thursdays, in fact.”

Michael leaned over, glancing at the screen. Rick’s analysis was good – no doubt – just as solid as Casey’s intel and Billy’s observations. He frowned. “This means his organization is already much more advanced than we’d anticipated.”

“He’s already playing with the big boys,” Casey confirmed dully.

“Which means he’s not new to the idea of expansion,” Rick said, fidgeting slightly. “What if he’s not interested in risking more expansion? What if he really just wants a friend?”

It was something somewhat unexpected – the intel had suggested that Vaughan was new at this, and new criminals were rarely so cavalier until they got acclimated to the way of life. He had suspected this transition to be even more difficult for Vaughan, who was a decorated soldier with apparently everything going for him. He wasn’t a stupid person – to the contrary, Michael found him bright, aware and moderately cautious – so the idea that he’d spread himself so thin was hard to believe.

That was when Michael realized the piece he’d been missing. “None of this is his idea,” he said the conclusion out loud before he’d even fully realized the thought.

Rick tilted his head. Casey looked thoughtful. Billy sat all the way up, nodding.

“The rapid expansion could be both supply and demand,” Casey said.

“With our poor Vaughan just stuck as the unlucky middleman,” Billy said.

Rick shook his head. “That screws the whole plan up.”

It was partially true. Michael had counted on Vaughan being a more integral part of the decision making process, but the man Michael had met tonight, while clearly corruptible, did not seem to be the type to forge ahead so recklessly in the black market of arms dealing.

He was also desperate for a friend. Some people were naturally friendly and were inclined to make friends out of habit. Some people were lonely and latched onto the first friendly face in order to stave off desolation. Vaughan was the latter. Add his isolation to being coerced into criminal dealings outside his comfort zone, and he wasn’t the mark Michael had hoped to leverage.

But he was still one that could be leveraged. Temptation for more money and power wasn’t going to do it, though. No, Michael needed to play on his fear and neediness.

And just like that, Michael had a new plan.

“The old plan, maybe,” Michael conceded. He picked up the camera off the table, turning it on and scrolling. “Can we get some shots printed out?”

“I guess so,” Rick said, shrugging. “There’s a drug store down the street. Why?”

“I want to make a little photo mosaic for my new friend,” Michael said.

Rick didn’t quite get it – not yet – but Casey and Billy were watching him with knowing suspicion. “You could spook him,” Casey said.

“That’s the idea,” Michael said.

“As if the poor man isn’t already desperate for a friendly face,” Billy said, shaking his head.

“That’s the idea,” Michael said. Rick was still watching him blankly, so he extrapolated. “So we reinforce his vulnerability and then offer him the security he’s been afraid to admit he needs.”

“You’re going to force him on a ledge so you can be the hand that pulls him back up,” Rick realized. He considered it. “Show him the pictures and then hope he sees you as his best way out.”

“It’s still a risk, though,” Casey pointed out. “If he’s as much in a corner as we seem to think he is, then he may just go to the top if you tip him off first.”

Billy made a face. “But the grass is always greener,” he said. “Our friend Vaughan wants a friend in Michael. They haven’t been explicit in their criminal bond, but it’s there, just as readily as everything else. A man like that – all men, really – wants someone to understand. You don’t buy five rounds unless you want to trust someone.”

“It’s a risk, but it’s the right one to take,” Michael concluded for all of them. “Martinez, get the pictures printed. I want a nice spread to show Vaughan that we know what he’s up to before we assure him that we’re here to be friends, not enemies.” He turned to Billy and Casey. “Keep up the surveillance. I want to know how heavily Vaughan’s being leaned on and from which side. Is Jenkins running this or Sunday?”

Casey sighed, getting to his feet. “As long as I don’t have to listen to the Gundersons, I’m on it.”

Billy stood with a melodramatic flair. “If you would just spend more time trying to fit in with the group it wouldn’t be so bad,” he complained. “You are supposed to be undercover as a tourist.”

“And I am,” Casey said. “I’m the antisocial person in the group who knows he’s too good to bother with the rest of them. It’s a tried and true stereotype; things would feel off if I didn’t play the role.”

Michael held back a smile but Rick stared.

Casey shrugged. “It’s true,” he said. “Check my pre-mission report. It’s all in there.”

“Right next to how to be a kill joy undercover and on a mission,” Billy griped.

“At least I don’t tell the same story to every person I meet,” Casey shot back.

Billy looked hurt. “That story is a classic,” he said defensively. He turned to Michael and Rick, gesturing. “An enlivening tale about my first trip to the magical streets of Paris. It’s a coming of age story with a hint of romance and a nice dollop of adventure.”

“You got mugged and then you had sex,” he said.

“There’s more to it than that!” Billy cried indignantly.

“Oh, and you saw the Eiffel Tower,” Casey said. “Does that cover it?”

“Your telling is completely devoid of nuance,” Billy complained. He looked back to Rick and Michael, winking. “It’s nothing short of an awe-inspiring story, I assure you.”

Michael allowed himself a smile. “I’m sure,” he said. “Just be sure to take enough of a break from storytelling so you can keep up the reconnaissance. We can’t afford to miss anything. Now more than ever.”

Billy nodded resolutely. “I am the picture of duty,” he promised.

Casey snorted, brushing past him. “If duty looks like that, then I may be in line for a career change,” he muttered before he left the room.

Billy scowled and followed.

Alone with Rick, Michael shrugged. “No one ever said our plans were perfect,” he said. “But they get the job done.”

Rick looked uncertain. “I know plans always change,” he said, slowly. “But how do you know for sure it’s all going to work out?”

Rick was a good operative, so much so that sometimes Michael forgot exactly how new he was at this. Sure, Rick was always the new guy doing new guy things and making new guy mistakes. But he was skilled and competent. He had a knack for the spy game, even if Michael would never admit to it.

But some of these things took years to learn; some of these skill took decades to master. Michael had always been paranoid, but it had only been after years on the job that he learned how to be a bastard and save lives.

“You just remember the big picture,” he said. “The details can change. We can rearrange all of the small things. But as long as we keep the big picture in order, keep our eyes on the end destination – then we can make it work.”

“And if we can’t?” Rick asked.

Michael had to smile. “We do,” he said. “Because there’s never any other option.”

-o-

Alone in his hotel room, Michael went over his notes again. He unlocked the files from the safe and made notations, filling in the changes and marking new areas of concern. He read and reread and filed them carefully back in the safe before brushing his teeth and going to bed.

He unmade the covers, and slid underneath. They were too starchy, a little uncomfortable, but Michael had slept in far worse places. Better places, too, but that wasn’t the point of the job.

The point of the job was to get the mission done. And that was his priority. Tomorrow would be a critical day. Once Martinez got the pictures, he would set up a meet with Vaughan. Throw the pictures at the man, let the fear build and then assure him that they weren’t enemies. That they could be friends.

He could only hope that Vaughan would take it from there. So far, Vaughan had been cooperative and predictable. It only made sense to Michael that he would be at first mortified that his operation had been blown wide open by potential competition and then totally relieved to have someone to confide in.

Confidence could build friendship. Friendship could become partnership. Partnership would give him access to Sunday, Jenkins, and the entire operation.

Then they could make their move. They could take out the key players, glean the intel and slowly spawn subsequent operations to take the rest out.

Then he could get his team home. Casey could go back to his training. Billy could go back to his flirting. Rick could go back to his translating. Michael could go back and sit in Fay’s office, smiling at her over another job well done. This was his team. He didn’t like to play rank or to issue orders, but someone had to be responsible. Casey could beat their way out of any situation. Billy could charm their way into any restricted area. Rick could do more than translate – hell, Michael wasn’t even sure of half the things that kid could do.

They were good at their individual roles, and that was why it worked. It was a complementary system. They needed each other. Casey needed Billy; Billy needed Rick; Rick needed Casey. They all needed him because Michael was the big picture guy. Michael was the one ultimately in control.

Michael knew control was a dangerous, tenuous thing. That was why he worked so hard to keep a hold on it. That was why he didn’t fail.

Couldn’t fail.

He let that be his mantra until the minutes drifted away and Michael fell asleep.

-o-

Michael threw the pictures on the table. They weren’t his team’s best work – Billy’s photography was a bit too cavalier and the quality of the printing place down the street left something to be desired – but the images were still clear.

Vaughan froze.

His eyes were wide, unblinking. His entire body went stiff and he stared. Then his eyes flicked up and met Michael’s, mouth open. He took a breath, clearly at a loss. The fear was evident.

It was only two days after their initial meeting. They had crossed paths again yesterday and set up a social get together for today, same place as before. Only this time, Michael showed up on his own and bought the man a beer before pulling out the pictures.

Vaughan swallowed, his lips moving. There was a small sound in his throat, choked and suppressed.

Michael let the fear linger, just for a moment longer. Then, he smiled. “I had figured you were in the business, but I had no idea just how much of the business you were in,” he said.

Vaughan trembled, but found his voice. “Who are you?”

Michael took a drink, shrugging. “Same guy I was yesterday,” he said.

“Then, what—“ Vaughan tried to say, his voice cracking. He swallowed with effort and gathered himself. “What is this?”

“This is me doing my homework,” Michael explained easily. “I like a lot of people; I don’t trust many, though.”

“I’m connected,” Vaughan said, trying to sound confident. “My operations – it’s connected—“

“Whoa,” Michael said as disarmingly as he could. “You’re nervous. There’s no reason to be nervous.”

“You followed me,” Vaughan said, his voice dropping as he leaned forward. “You’ve got incriminating photos of me on the table.”

Michael didn’t flinch. “To some people, they’re incriminating,” he said. “To me, it’s good news.”

Vaughan stared, finally blinking. “What?”

Michael nodded toward them. “You’re into guns,” he said. “Best damn news I’ve heard all week.”

Vaughan shook his head. “I don’t understand.”

“When you asked around, did they tell you what business I was in?”

“Not exactly,” Vaughan admitted.

“Drugs,” Michael said. “The good stuff, too. I’m looking to open up a new branch out this way and am in town scouting the competition to see what needs to be done.”

Vaughan kept staring.

Michael pointed at the photos. “This isn’t competition,” he said. “This means we can be friends, just like we want to be. Hell, we’re practically complementary businesses. Same clients and all.”

Vaughan’s posture relaxed slightly. He let himself laugh. “The entire thing has me on edge,” he admitted. “In my mind, it was only going to be running a few guns on the side.” He looked at the photos. “This…is a lot more than I intended.”

“No risk, no reward, right?” Michael cajoled.

Vaughan took a long, hard drink. “That’s what my partners say.”

“They’re right,” Michael said. “I mean, assuming you trust who you’re working with. A solid partnership is the critical way to ensure that nothing goes wrong.”

To that, Vaughan looked vaguely uncertain.

Michael was careful, but he did push. “I mean, you do trust them, right?”

“Yeah,” Vaughan said quickly. Too quickly. “Of course I do.”

“Good,” Michael said, smiling. “Now let’s have another drink and we can share business stories this time. My treat.”

-o-

Sometimes, changes worked in their favor.

Sometimes, they didn’t.

When his phone rang on the third round with Vaughan, he suspected there might be a problem. It wasn’t a number he had given out to many people. In fact, it wasn’t a number he’d given out at all.

Then he recognized the incoming number.

Smiling politely at Vaughan, he said, “I need to take this.”

Vaughan nodded and Michael stepped away, pulling into the hallway, and presses a hand over his other ear to hear. “Hello?”

“Michael,” Casey’s voice came. “I think we have a problem.”

Glancing back toward Vaughan, still nursing his drinks, Michael pursed his lips. “Of course we do.”

-o-

A plan wasn’t an ODS plan unless something went wrong.

Michael knew this. He always tried to account for it, but the harder he tried, the more fate seemed to rear its ugly and ever-unpredictable head.

Still, this wasn’t high on Michael’s list of acceptable complications.

“Where is he?” Michael demanded, moving through the streets, eyes wide as he tracked the traffic, looking for anything amiss.

“Doing his morning rounds,” Casey said.

“And he’s sure he’s being followed?” Michael demanded, ducking through an alley and feeling far too conspicuous.

“That was my first question,” Casey replied, “but when he made contact with us, Billy had been observing from a distance and confirmed it.”

Michael took a sharp turn and backtracked down a street, checking the path behind him out of habit. “Do we know who?”

“No positive ID as of yet,” Casey reported. “But Billy says the guy looks local.”

“What’s Rick doing?” Michael prompted.

“Running a few extra errands,” Casey said. “So if there’s anything you want at the drug store…”

Michael nodded, gathering himself and processing the information. A tail meant that someone was on to them. Under normal situations, he’d probably attribute that to the mark. Michael’s affiliation with Rick was purposefully known though never explicit. But that didn’t fit the profile he’d worked up with Vaughan, which meant it was someone else.

Either Sunday or Jenkins – neither of whom would be too keen on Vaughan getting cozy with a newcomer in town.

“What if we ride it out?” Michael asked, putting the first solution out there. “If this is a tail from one of Vaughan’s partners, we’ve got nothing to hide through Rick.”

“Maybe,” Casey said. “But he’s packing. Billy says it looks like a would-be hit.”

Michael swore, even as he kept with the flow of foot traffic.

“Do you want us to take him out?” Casey asked, the words carefully chosen but the intent clear.

“No,” Michael said. He sighed. “We don’t want the body count. It’ll make things more complicated than they are already.”

“So what’s your plan then?” Casey prompted.

Michael stopped, pausing for a moment to think. They couldn’t kill the guy, but they couldn’t let him get close enough to kill Rick either. This upped the ante – no doubt – so Michael needed to act. They needed to get this guy under wraps, one way or another.

One way.

Or another.

Michael inclined his head. Then he nodded and started walking. “I think I have an idea.”

-o-

Michael, in general, was a slow and methodical planner. He liked to view and review, plot and re-plot. He liked to go over the details, solidify the finer points and come up with a perfectly crafted plan to call his own.

Unfortunately, when it came to the ODS, such things were not always possible. As much as Michael plotted and planned, he usually wound up in the field, scraping something together and flying by the proverbial seat of his pants and just hoping for the best.

Like today.

Rick was being followed by a likely would-be assassin. This meant their cover could be compromised and their inlet with the mark could be compromised and Rick could be killed.

All in all, things weren’t quite going to hell just yet, but they were hanging out in some kind of purgatory and Michael really hoped that this last minute plan of his worked.

He was breathless by the time he got there, not just from running five blocks but from climbing six stories. In ten minutes.

On the roof, the sun was scorching. Michael checked and found he was the first one there. Confident that he was alone, he pulled to the side, pressing himself against the wall and pulling his gun. When the door swung open a few minutes later he aimed but let it slide when he recognized Casey.

Casey’s forehead glistened but he was barely out of breath as he cocked his head. “You couldn’t pick a building with more shade?” he asked, squinting toward Michael.

Michael shrugged. “I didn’t have a lot of time.”

“Still,” Casey said. “You’re slipping.”

The barb was cut short when a clatter came from inside the stairwell. Casey’s face went blank, eyes fiery, and he fanned out, taking the opposite side of the door.

Michael controlled his breathing, narrowing his eyesight to see through the sun. When the door opened again, Rick came through. He hesitated, glancing back first at the door before seeing Michael.

Michael nodded.

Rick swallowed, nodding back. Then he moved, walking straight across the roof while keeping himself in plain sight of the doorway.

Silence fell. This time, there was no clatter in the stairwell, but Michael was still ready when the door opened. The man who followed was unfamiliar, clearly a local. The sun radiated off his clean-shaven head, and he had a gun.

Rick stopped, putting his hands up.

The man approached him, gun still raised.

Michael’s finger itched on the trigger.

“You’re making a mistake,” Rick told him.

The man shook his head. “It is not my job to make mistakes,” he said, words heavily accented.

“You should put the gun down,” Rick said.

“Says the man without a gun,” the man continued.

Michael stepped away from the wall, keeping his aim steady. He released the safety, letting the telltale click resound on the rooftop.

The man stiffened. Slowly – very slowly – he turned his head. He saw Michael but he didn’t flinch, gun still steady. “It is a game of chance, then,” he said. “And I wager that I can still kill him before you can stop me.”

Another safety released and Casey stepped into clear view. “The odds are getting worse for you,” Casey said.

The man’s jaw tightened. He looked at Michael, back at Rick.

Just then, the door opened again and Billy was there, just as planned, gun up and ready.

In Michael’s mind the sheer number of armed men enough to subdue the other man. He would be brave but not suicidal. He’d see the odds and give in. Most people bargained for their lives when they understood that success was not possible.

Most people, but not all people, and Michael could account for a lot of things, but it was impossible to perfectly deduce the reactions of enemy agents under pressure in the field.

“You’re out of options,” Michael said.

The man hesitated. His aim wavered. The plan was working.

Then the man dropped the gun.

And ran to the edge and jumped.

-o-

The good news was that the man had jumped in a deserted alley, so there wasn’t much chance of foot traffic. That was one of the reasons Michael had chosen this building – its location was out of the way enough to complete this portion of the operation without too much outside interference.

Of course, in Michael’s head, they were going to capture the man and either turn him or have him arrested in some fashion. Collecting his body was certainly not Michael’s first choice, but it was the only choice they had now.

“We could just call in a tip,” Casey said, getting to his feet. It was fairly obvious that the man was beyond help, but Michael preferred his team to be thorough in this and Casey was the closest thing to a field medic they had, Michael’s years in pre-med aside. “With the violence in this area, I’m pretty sure no one will think twice.”

“Except his employer,” Michael reminded him.

“Indeed,” Billy said. “Poor sod probably should have looked into what funeral benefits organized crime offers before taking the plunge.”

Casey looked at his hands and made a face, wiping a bit of grime on his pants. “Or he could have just avoided such a dangerous line of work to begin with,” he said. “I hear farming is a little less prone to death by falling.”

Rick looked paler than the rest of them. His jaw was tight as he tried not to look at the man smashed against the pavement. “I just don’t get how we were made,” he said. “We’ve been careful.”

“And so have they,” Michael said. “We ran recon on them, they were naturally going to do the same.”

“But I thought Vaughan trusted you,” Rick countered.

“He does,” Michael said. “But he’s still not stupid. Besides, I’m betting this guy isn’t working for Vaughan.”

“You think Jenkins is worried that Vaughan’s slipping?” Casey prompted.

“Or our local criminal Sunday is trying to make sure his supply lines aren’t threatened,” Billy added.

“That’s my guess,” Michael said.

Rick nodded. “He has the make of it,” he said. “The right age and build.”

“Do we have an ID?” Michael asked.

Casey leaned over, making a face as he reached into the man’s pocket, producing a wallet. Flipping through it, he settled on an ID. “Looks fake,” he said, pulling it out and giving it to Michael.

Michael took it, giving it a look. He wasn’t finely attuned to these things, but the workmanship was poor enough to be a giveaway. “Jenkins wouldn’t be this sloppy,” he said. “Neither would Vaughan.”

“So Sunday knows,” Rick concluded.

“Or, at the very least, Sunday has his doubts,” Billy said.

“We can still call the tip in,” Casey said.

Michael considered that. It might have blowback but nothing they couldn’t handle. It would require a bit more finesse where Vaughan was concerned, especially if Sunday confronted him. That sort of confrontation could tip Vaughan either way and Michael needed to ensure that Vaughan moved ever closer to him if this was going to work.

Which meant letting the dead body be found was not in their best interest. At least, not if the police did the finding.

And not if Sunday had a chance to link the man to them.

No, the key was to link the man to Sunday first.

“No,” Michael said, the plan solidifying.

Billy quirked an eyebrow. “So we’re not planning to detach ourselves from a scene of questionable death,” he mused. “I always love such potential legal conundrums.”

Michael didn’t let his worries bother him. “No, we need Vaughan to make this decision.”

“But this guy was after us,” Rick said.

“But Vaughan doesn’t know that,” Michael said, eyes glinting as the details fall into place. “When I left, we were together.”

“So Vaughan could think the guy was tailing him,” Casey figured.

“And decided to hedge his bets to see what Vaughan’s cohorts were up to,” Billy concluded. “Use all the self doubt against them. It’s a bit sinister but rather effective.”

“And then we don’t have to worry about the body,” Michael said. “And Vaughan will start to trust us over his partners.”

“And we have our ever growing sway over Vaughan,” Billy concluded.

It was a solid renovation of the plan and Michael couldn’t help but nod, feeling vaguely smug.

“Don’t,” Casey warned.

Michael frowned, finding his team watching him. “What?”

“You’re getting that look,” Casey said. “That look of satisfaction when you think things are going our way.”

“Things are going our way,” Michael countered.

“We’re standing over a dead man,” Casey said.

“Who tried to kill me,” Rick reminded them.

“But if this is as bad as it gets—“

Billy flinched.

Casey shook his head. “Don’t.”

Michael blinked. “Don’t what?”

“Tempt fate,” Casey said.

“For once, I’m going to have to agree with Casey,” Billy said. “It seems silly to pit ourselves against the always obstinate unknown. Especially after we just defied death once today.”

Michael rolled his eyes. “After all these years, I would think you’d trust me.”

Casey snorted. “After all these years, I’d think you’d remember that things can and will always get worse.”

“It’s not that bad,” Michael tried to say.

Billy looked at him earnestly. “I think of you as a brother and I would follow you to the very depth of hell and back, but it really is often just that bad.”

Rick shrugged, a little apologetic. “I’ve only been here six months, but I think I’d have to agree.”

Michael shook his head. “We’ll be fine,” he said, flat and determined. “The plan is still good. This will work.”

They had their doubts but Michael had his certainty. He had his control.

And for now, that was all he needed.

-o-

Time was of the essence.

True, a good operative understood patience. But a better one knew when it was time to act.

Michael was one of the best damn operatives there was. That wasn’t conceit; that was survival.

So the fact was, there wasn’t time to arrange things nicely. Deserted alley or not, there was only so much time before someone discovered the body and with the scorching sun, decomposition was imminent.

Fortunately, Michael had a few things in his favor. First, his team was good. Damn good. Casey and Billy were due back at the hotel, one to maintain cover, the other to maintain a vigilant eye on any activity. This was more important than ever because with the first tail, Michael knew it wouldn’t be long before they had a second.

For his part, Rick was on his way back to his usual errands, to look as if nothing had changed. If Sunday was tracking them, Michael didn’t want to give any indication of weakness. Keeping up appearances was critical.

The best surprise, however, was Vaughan. When Michael called to insist on a meeting, the man bent over backwards and showed up in a half hour flat.

Michael met him at the entryway to the alley. Vaughan shrugged. “What’s this about? You said there was a problem?” he asked.

Michael inclined his head. “You tell me.”

“I don’t understand,” Vaughan said, but he was already following Michael back. “I don’t—“

Vaughan’s voice cut off, a bit strangled and he pulled back as he swore. “What the hell – I’m not into this stuff—“

“Not into, what?” Michael asked, unwavering as he looked at Vaughan dispassionately.

“This,” Vaughan hissed, gesturing at the body. “Your business is your business. I want to be your friend, but I don’t want this.

“I totally agree,” Michael said. “Which is why I brought you here to explain.”

“Explain?” Vaughan said, incredulous. “If you killed a guy—“

“It was self defense,” Michael said, which was actually somewhat true.

“But he was after you—“

“No,” Michael said steadily. “He was after you.”

Vaughan made a face. “Yeah, right—“

Michael didn’t waver.

Vaughan flickered, swallowing and he shook his head. “No—“

“Yes,” Michael said. “When I got called away, I left the bar and picked up this guy immediately. He rode my ass the whole way here. When we got to the roof of that building, he tried to kill me but I wasn’t exactly keen on letting that happen.”

“You don’t know he was following me,” Vaughan said.

“He was at that bar,” Michael said.

“Where we both were,” Vaughan insisted.

“Look at him,” Michael said, nodding toward the man and hedging his bets. “Look familiar?”

Vaughan looked uncertain but eyed the dead man cautiously. Then he paled further.

“I thought so,” Michael concluded. “So either you asked them to follow me or they were following you. And here I thought you were a friend.”

“I am,” Vaughan said, looking back up at Michael with determination. “I mean, I had no idea—“

Vaughan was a bad liar; he’d be a bad criminal. Good connections, ample opportunity – this man wasn’t long for this job by sheer lack of fortitude. In some ways, it counted in the man’s favor. It might get him a commuted sentence if he cooperated when this went down.

Until then, Michael needed that weakness. Needed it to make his plan work.

Bucking himself up, he eyed Vaughan with something resembling tough love. “I was hoping that was the case,” he said. “Because I had a good feeling about the two of us. I wanted to like you.”

“And you can,” Vaughan said, more passionately now.

“But if you’ve got a tail, then I’m not sure I can trust you,” Michael said. “I keep my business clean. This—“ he motioned to the body, “—makes things messy. I can’t afford messes. You need to get your house in order or you’ll lose more than a friend.”

It was an ominous warning, and Vaughan’s wide eyes told Michael that it was being carefully considered.

Clapping the man on the shoulder, Michael paused. “Just watch your back,” he said. “Because I can’t watch both of ours.”

With that, Michael left. The perfect flourish to a perfect execution.

If it wasn’t planned, it was still perfect and that was what mattered.

-o-

The thing with being undercover was that it was more than a full time job. It was a life. There couldn’t be any down time. Any lapse risked ruining everything.

Which was why Michael was at the hotel bar that night, according to his cover. He was a criminal scoping out new ground. His job was to sit and mingle and drink and look ominous if vaguely sociable.

He made small talk with other criminals, noting their names, faces, and businesses when possible as part of a larger intelligence file on the area. They weren’t relevant to this mission, but they might be relevant later. Michael was nothing if not pragmatic and efficient.

So when Billy sauntered over and sat down next to him, ordering a glass of scotch, Michael was surprised.

He didn’t show it, of course. He was a seasoned criminal. He cast the overly friendly tourist a look of mild disdain and kept drinking his whiskey.

“The nights are so pleasant here,” Billy said, taking a drink. He turned and smiled at Michael. “That surprised me.”

“I don’t visit this country for the weather,” Michael said coolly.

Billy’s grin widened. “Yes, I suppose that one doesn’t visit an arid African nation for the sweat,” he said. “But it does have its charms, doesn’t it?”

Billy was hinting at something. His conversational habits often seemed inane but they always had purpose. Undercover, more so than usual. Michael’s eyes narrowed and he stayed where he was. “I suppose,” he agreed.

Billy nodded. “My decision to come here was quite sudden,” he said.

Michael picked up the hint. Something had changed. Something had changed suddenly.

Billy shrugged, taking another drink before continuing. “But I find the best trips are often the ones that you come upon unexpectedly,” he said, looking at Michael. Their eyes locked and Billy inclined his head. “Though truth be told, I’m here to escape my boss. Hard task master, that one.”

Michael could be insulted, but Billy wasn’t talking about him. He was talking about Jenkins.

Jenkins was coming, much sooner than expected. This was unexpected but maybe for the best. Vaughan could have turned to Jenkins, or Jenkins could have picked up on the same uncertainty that Sunday had discovered.

This could mean that Vaughan was increasingly the odd man out; or it could mean that Vaughan trusted Jenkins more than Michael suspected. It could be bad news or good news; Michael needed more information.

“Anyway,” Billy said, pausing to down the rest of his drink. He slammed it on the bar. “See you later, mate?”

“Maybe sooner than you think,” Michael replied.

Billy nodded and made his way out of the bar.

Five minutes later, Michael asked for his bill and followed.

-o-

When Michael got to the safe room he was the last one there.

“Jenkins is coming?” Michael prompted.

Rick frowned. “How did you know that?”

“A sudden trip. Talk about the boss,” Michael said, shrugging.

“Plus, after six years together, we have an inherent bond,” Billy explained. “We hardly need words.”

“And you owe me twenty bucks,” Casey said.

Michael gave him a look.

Casey shrugged. “What? The kid was dumb enough to take the bet.”

Michael shook his head. “Do we know why?”

“No,” Rick said. “But we got the call from Fay; they picked up some chatter and Jenkins put in for a furlough and booked a ticket here.”

“Subtle, he is not,” Billy said.

“He probably has no idea that he’s been compromised,” Casey said. “He’s been careful.”

“Not careful enough, though,” Billy returned.

“That still doesn’t tell us why,” Michael interjected, his brow furrowing thoughtfully.

“Vaughan could have called him,” Rick said.

“If Sunday’s got a tail on Vaughan, then he could have called Jenkins, too,” Casey said.

“Which means Jenkins could be coming as a favor to Vaughan or as a favor to Sunday,” Michael said.

“Two very different scenarios with far reaching and disparate implications,” Billy said.

Michael nodded, chewing his lip. “It’s be nice if we had some way to determine which was which,” he said.

“Well, you are awfully buddy-buddy with Vaughan,” Casey suggested.

“You could just feel it out,” Rick added.

Just then, Michael’s phone rang. He pulled it out, eyebrows going up. Putting to his ear, he said, “Vaughan. Didn’t expect to hear from you so soon.”

“I need to talk to you,” Vaughan said. “Now.”

His voice was emphatic and a touch desperate. “Sure thing,” he said. “See you in fifteen.”

Hanging up, he looked at his teammates. “I couldn’t plan this stuff better if I tried.”

“You did try,” Rick said.

Michael had to grin, shrugging one shoulder before walking out.

-o-

Vaughan got them a private room. He had a bottle of whiskey and he was drinking nervously when Michael walked in.

“Miss me already?” Michael asked, keeping his tone light.

Vaughan didn’t crack a smile. “I have a problem.”

Michael shrugged, settling in the seat across from him. “I have an ex-wife who won’t talk to me and I can’t stop thinking about,” he said. “We all have problems.”

Vaughan met his eyes. “My partner is coming,” he said flatly.

“The guy who tried to kill you?” Michael asked, playing purposefully dumb.

Vaughan shook his head. “My other one,” he clarified. “My supplier.”

“Ah,” Michael said. “And that’s a problem why?”

“Because I didn’t call him,” Vaughan said. “And there’s no reason to come.”

“Unless someone gave him a reason,” Michael surmised.

“I think they’re trying to squeeze me out,” Vaughan said.

“Cutting out the middle man,” Michael said. “It’s been known to happen.”

“Why else would they send someone after me?” Vaughan pressed. “Why else would the supplier be coming here? So soon? And risk so much?”

“It could be coincidence—“

“It’s not,” Vaughan said sharply. His eyes were bright, disposition jittery. He clenched his jaw and took an unsteady breath. “And I don’t want to be cut out.”

“Understandably,” Michael said. “I’m still not getting why I’m here, though.”

Vaughan sat forward anxiously. “I need more leverage,” he said. “I need to bring something new to the partnership.”

Michael kept himself cautious.

“You already said it, our businesses are complementary,” he said. “Drugs and guns. It makes perfect sense. You can use my network to get oriented here and I can use your product to make more money for both of us. Win-win.”

“Unless your partners disagree,” Michael said.

“This much potential, they’d be crazy to,” Vaughan said with enthusiasm now. Then he hesitated. “And if not, there’s power in numbers.”

Michael smirked. “You want me around to do your dirty work,” he said.

Vaughan shook his head “I want a partner I can trust,” he said.

He was earnest; he meant every word.

It was a surreal thing, to gain that much trust. It was one thing to work for it with his teammates, to spend years building and solidifying trust. It was another to forge a bond in the field, to make it seem authentic and have it be entirely a lie.

He was lying to Vaughan. All of it was a lie. A trick. Vaughan wanted someone he could trust and Michael was leading him slowly to destruction.

Not that he didn’t necessarily deserve it; the man was a criminal.

Still, it gave him pause. Vaughan could be a bad person, but so was Michael. The fact that Vaughan was worse didn’t really make Michael much better. It was a hard thing, putting himself out there. Lying and deceiving and carefully plotting the downfall of others, even in the name of the greater good. It wasn’t just his plans that kept him alive in the field; it was his ability to be a bastard, no matter what.

Michael smiled. “I think maybe we can work something out.”

Because he was okay with being a bastard, especially when plans this good just made themselves.

-o-

It was early morning when Michael finally left. There had been plotting and planning to do, and Vaughan had needed the moral support more than anything. They finished one bottle of whiskey before Michael extricated himself with the promise of more details when the sun was up.

Despite the alcohol, Michael was almost painfully sober. He had long since mastered the art of holding his liquor and he was even better at drinking in a way that made someone think he was holding his own while letting them do all the heavy lifting. Needless to say, Michael would just need a few hours of rest but Vaughan wouldn’t be up and ready in the morning, even if he wanted to be.

Walking back to the hotel he kept his pace brisk, his eyes alert. The streets were quiet, given the hour, and every person seemed to pique his attention more than normal. There were many suspicious characters and he was fairly certain he observed at least three crimes, but nothing that affected him.

At the hotel, the bar was being closed for the night. Rick was loitering outside, falling in step with Michael as they headed up.

“That went well,” Rick said as they waited for the elevator.

Michael nodded. “Better than expected even,” he said. He hesitated, looking around the empty lobby. “The others?”

“In the safe room, compiling what we learned tonight from your meeting and getting fresh intel regarding Jenkins’ travel plans,” Rick reported. “I wanted to see where you wanted me in the morning.”

Michael nodded. The elevator doors opened and they went in. When they closed, Michael looked at Rick. “It’s time for you to meet Vaughan,” he said. “We’re talking partnership and I asked to see his operation and he asked to see mine.”

“I have the cover information in the room,” Rick said.

“And the product?” Michael asked.

“Enough to pass,” he said.

Michael nodded. “That’ll do,” he said. “Vaughan’s trusting us as a last resort. He’ll believe it because he wants to.”

Rick nodded. Then hesitated. “That’s the plan anyway,” he said, shrugging one shoulder as the elevator ascended.

Michael looked at the younger man, assessing him. “That’s the plan,” he agreed.

Martinez hesitated again.

Michael sighed. “Something you want to share, Martinez?” he prompted.

“It’s just,” he tried to say. He stopped, took a breath and tried again. “Vaughan’s not a bad guy. I mean, I thought he’d be a bad guy.”

Michael had to smirk. “He’s a criminal,” he said. “He’s armed men who have killed people with stolen property. Stolen property from the American military, no less.”

“I know,” Rick said. “He’s made mistakes.”

“No, he’s made his choice,” Michael said. The elevator dinged and the doors opened. “And it was a bad one.”

Michael didn’t wait for an answer before stepping into the hall. Rick followed, just a step behind, face still thoughtful. “I know,” he said. “It’s just…harder than I thought it would be – deciding who’s good and who’s bad in this job.”

It was almost hard to remember being that young, that uncertain. The years had honed Michael’s skills. Rick was still inclined to see the best in people; Michael had spent his career assuming the worst.

That was the way it had to be; that didn’t mean that he always liked it.

With a rueful smile, he shook his head. “There’s no room for sentimentality in this job,” he said. “When you make plans, you make them based on the facts, not what seems right or wrong in the moment.”

Michael pulled to a stop, reaching in his pocket to pull out his card key. Rick stopped next to him nodding. “I try to tell myself that,” he said. “Because I know Vaughan’s file.”

Michael slid his key in the lock. “That’s what matters then,” he said. “The best laid plans have no room for second guesses.”

The key stuck funny and Michael jiggled. The light stayed red for a long moment and Michael frowned. Something was off. Something was different. He’d missed something. He’s overlooked something.

Something--

Rick swore. “Michael—“

Michael inclined his head, looked at the key. Looked at the light. Heard the slightest click, felt the shift in the air—

He was aware of the explosion the second before it happened, a second before Rick pulled him hard to the floor and the entire door flew back and flames burst into the hallway.

NEXT

Comments

Posted by: kristen_mara (kristen_mara)
Posted at: June 4th, 2012 12:15 pm (UTC)
Grand


That is an evil cliffhanger! One that didn't even need a cliff!

Love the insights into Michael's mind and the twists and turns of the mission, and the 'not quite so bad as they thought' criminal. Plenty of intrigue to burn...

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: June 6th, 2012 12:03 pm (UTC)
chaos team meeting

Cliffhangers! I never intend to write them but I admit, it's sort of fun making readers flail. Or am I not supposed to admit that?

What's funny is that I didn't even have this explosion plotted. I just realized that I had very little going on and decided to throw in some action to spice things up.

I should be able to get the next part up tomorrow :)

Thanks!

Posted by: blackdog_lz (blackdog_lz)
Posted at: June 4th, 2012 04:05 pm (UTC)
Inconspicuous

Evil cliffhanger :)
I really like the shades of gray you show here and that Rick still has some problems seeing them.

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: June 6th, 2012 12:04 pm (UTC)
billy bruised

I really decided to take my time with the plot and characters in this one, so it was fun to really devote time to their thoughts and responses throughout all stages of the mission.

I hope to have more up tomorrow! Thanks!

Posted by: Lena7142 (lena7142)
Posted at: June 4th, 2012 10:53 pm (UTC)
chaos

asdfghjkl!!! NO! Need to find out what happens!

Poor Vaughan. I get the feeling none of this ends well for him.

Another brilliant chapter, with a multitude of perfect character moments. It's like having the show back, but in written form. :)

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: June 6th, 2012 12:06 pm (UTC)
billy casey trouble

Cliffhangers!

I had a lot of trouble deciding to do with poor Vaughan. Hopefully the choice I made goes over okay :)

The next installment should be up tomorrow. I just have to remind myself.

Thanks!

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