[DOES THIS WHOLE SECTION START IN PARIS AND END IN MUNICH, OR IS IT ALL IN MUNICH?]
Today’s team meeting was long over. Foster, Marsh and Ellis had left hours before. Only Sato and Rayner remained, and they sat on the far side of the room, discussing details of a future gear shipment.
Denna had stayed because she was making progress untangling one section of Renault’s vast financial network. She’d spent the last few hours tracing transaction sources and destinations. Sooner or later, all the ones and zeroes had to lead to physical goods in the real world, and someone had to claim them. Denna wanted to know where and when that claiming would happen, and Foster would make sure they’d catch the terrorists in the act.
It was nitpicky work that required dedication, focus and a lot of time. Denna had a steady supply of all three.
Finally, she made the connection on the current data set. She forwarded the information to Foster’s message board, and sat back, pleased that she’d solved this tiny piece of the bigger whole. It was a small victory, but they all counted. Some day, soon she hoped, the collection of all these little pieces would be enough to put Renault out of business.
Yet as she put away her portable gear and prepared to head home for the night, she found the satisfaction waning. She was restless, and there was little appeal in another night crunching data alone in her tiny flat, even though she knew it would be smart to get started on the next set of transactions right away.
Rayner walked out with her. “Got time for a drink?”
This was a recent development. It had started a couple of weeks ago with a chat about local firing ranges which led to more business talk over coffee. Nothing about the current mission, nothing about their private lives – a simple conversation about staying sharp, learning new skills, expanding their arsenal of experience.
Denna had sensed nothing remiss in the interaction. Her instincts always insisted that she play it safe, so she’d read up on Rayner, but hadn’t turned up anything suspicious. A former Army captain, Rayner had come from a family of service members, and there wasn’t a single blotch on her service record. Rayner was what she seemed to be – a lifelong servant to Uncle Sam’s interests.
They’d gone out for a beer later that same week. The conversation had stayed professional, but was comfortable and Denna had enjoyed it. Rayner had a sharp, scathing wit that always came with an easy smile, and Denna liked her company.
Last week, they’d grabbed a casual dinner from one of the stands in a nearby park. It was the first time she’d heard Rayner laugh out loud – a deep joyful sound that resonated somewhere low inside Denna’s body.
Now, Rayner’s question seemed polite enough. She didn’t seem attached to Denna’s answer. Denna could leave on her own or accept the invitation, and either way, Rayner would most likely be satisfied with the answer.
“A drink sounds good,” Denna said.
Tonight the conversation leaned more into the personal. Places they’d traveled. Locations where they’d served. Ever the paranoid analyst, Denna only talked about those assignments that were part of her public record, but it was still a lively conversation.
They sat at a small table near the door of a bar that didn’t look like it got a lot of sunlight.
There was a little overlap in their work histories, which was understandable considering they both worked in similar circles, but not a lot since Rayner had spent so much time on military bases in the U.S. or overseas. Denna herself had spent a lot of time in government cubicles.
“You ever work with Foster before?” Denna asked.
This was new territory. Despite their proximity to everyone on the team, and the fact that the two of them had been working together for a few months now, they hadn’t talked about their associates at all. Perhaps it was because they could be overheard out in public spaces like this half empty bar, or perhaps it was because it felt like gossiping behind their coworkers’ backs, but Denna hadn’t broached the subject before now.
She wasn’t sure why she’d asked the question. Rayner looked at her for a long minute before she answered.
“No, but…” Rayner peeled a corner of her bottle’s label, the only other outward indication of any reluctance on her part to answer besides her tone. “I worked an operation with Marsh back in ’18.”
Denna was surprised to hear this. There was nothing in the records about Marsh and Rayner having worked together before. Now that she thought about it, Marsh’s service record was…boring. She realized that was as much of a red flag as an actual red flag.
Rayner was one step ahead of her. “Nothing confidential in the mission, just an assignment that wasn’t officially recorded. One of those all-hands-on-deck kind of ops where anyone in the vicinity was called in. Hostage extraction.”
Denna said nothing, hoping to get Rayner to say more. Rayner didn’t, but Denna got the impression there was a lot more to the story and that now wasn’t a good time to get into it.
She changed the subject, but wondered if she’d ever get the whole story. Judging by Rayner’s tone, probably not.
After the second beer, Denna knew that she needed to stop drinking. She wanted to take a roundabout path on her trip back to her flat. It had become second nature, these new rules to her life, and though she took them seriously, she hoped that her life wouldn’t actually depend on them.
Denna tossed a few bills on their table.
“This round’s on me. I’m gonna head out, get started on the new data set.” Denna leaned back with a sigh.
“You seem excited by the prospect of another night staring at data feeds,” Rayner said, and took a sip from her bottle of beer.
Denna tried not to blush, and then felt irritated with herself for giving anything away.
“It’s been a long day,” she said. And it had been, but she felt wired. Maybe she needed to take an even longer route home to walk off some of this excess energy.
Rayner tapped a finger against the neck of her bottle. “You don’t look tired.”
Denna looked up. Rayner’s dark eyes glittered despite the gloom of the bar, and it seemed to Denna that they were now having a completely different conversation.
“I guess I’m not.”
Rayner finished her beer without taking her eyes off Denna, then set the bottle down with finality. She stood and donned her jacket.
“There are other ways to pass the time.”
Denna thought about it for a moment, and then decided that was probably true.
They walked to a nearby hotel. Rayner paid cash for the room, and a little extra to keep their names off the registry.
What they lacked in affection or passion, they made up for in enthusiasm. Denna couldn’t recall the last time she’d taken a lover to bed. Washington, two years ago? New York, maybe? She gave up trying to remember since Rayner required her singular focus, and Denna was more than willing to pay attention.
The contrast of Rayner’s dark, unblemished skin against the threadbare white sheets, the rough friction of Rayner’s callused hands against Denna’s most sensitive places as Denna straddled her, the taste of Rayner’s gasps and kisses and the sound of her low moans – Rayner primed all of Denna’s senses. She flipped Denna easily with surprising strength, then pinned her gently to the bed.
The stress of constant vigilance, the frustration of endless arduous [work], the long unreleased tension in her own body all spiraled and then disappeared into nothing, into release, into seconds of blinding light and the ringing metallic sound in her ears and the taste of copper on her tongue.
It was an easy arrangement, with no strings attached. Rayner wasn’t interested in anything serious, and Denna wasn’t interested in anything that would distract from her work. Still, Foster didn’t like it.
“You sure you can keep this separate?” he asked.
They stood in the small kitchen area out of earshot of the rest of the team. Denna had taken him aside before one of their meetings and told him the truth. She didn’t want it to be discovered, though she wasn’t ashamed. She wanted to make it clear to Foster that she didn’t think it was his business, but that she wasn’t hiding anything.
It wasn’t as if it was against regulations, and even if it had been, they made their own rules in the field, and everyone knew it.
“It is separate from work, and it isn’t a relationship,” Denna said.
His eyebrows twitched at that.
Denna thought maybe he did.
“I don’t anticipate any issues. Rayner and I have an understanding.”
He stared at her, but Denna didn’t shy away from his scrutiny. Finally, he sighed.
“One hint of drama -“
“Won’t happen.” Denna didn’t have time for drama. She had a job to do, but months on this assignment had grown monotonous. A minor distraction from time to time to take the pressure off might actually help her work better – not that it was diminished in any way.
Foster finally decided that he didn’t really give a damn as long as everyone was a professional, and they were both exactly that. Rayner kept to her work while Denna performed hers. They’d never talked much while working anyway.
Now, though, every couple of weeks, one of them would make an overture for a little extracurricular activity, and without preamble or ceremony, they’d find some motel and spend a few hours in bed before parting company.
They never paid cash, they never stayed in the same place twice, and they never stayed over night. Denna thought they were careful, and had covered their tracks. She didn’t think they drew that much attention to themselves – most times, only one of them fetched a room key while the other waited outside.
She had no reason to suspect that anyone had taken notice or followed them, or that anything at all was amiss.
Right up until the night that Renault’s people snatched them off a side street in Munich outside a cheap hotel.
All rights reserved. If you’re not me, these aren’t your words. ~VB