Hannah had barely made it through dinner. Her parents were in town, and she’d wanted to show off her new man. Who wasn’t a man at all, just another guy, doing guy things. No, worse than a guy. She wouldn’t have fallen for his act if that’s all he’d been. He was more, could be more. She’d worked with him, broken bread with his family. Opened herself up to him.
It just made his ‘Chuck’ act so much more painful.
If he expected her to break down in front of Mom and dad he would have been disappointed. She was better than that. She told a fib, changed the subject, and that was all her parents would ever hear of Charles Bartowski. That bastard.
The door to her room received the first sign of her rage, as doors often do. The lightswitch got the second, and her coat the third. She was halfway across the room before she realized that the light hadn’t gone on.
She stopped, just as a single light went on, right in front of her, making her squint. She could barely see the man sitting in the chair by the table. Something moved, and she automatically looked at it. A hand, with a gun in it. She froze, not even breathing.
“Put those on,” said the man in a very calm voice. She could imagine that voice saying ‘Prepare to die’ but not ‘I love you’. “Now.”
‘Those’ were a pair of cuffs lying on her ottoman. She could think of nothing good coming from them. “Why?”
If the man was amused or annoyed his voice didn’t show it. “Because this gun is heavy, Miss. If I continue to hold it, my hand may get tired and accidentally pull the trigger. I would much rather put it away but I can’t do that until whatever threat you may pose has been neutralized.”
The rest is left as an exercise for the reader, thought Hannah. Irritation at the man’s tone got her mind working again. If he wanted her dead she’d be dead. If he wanted something else from a girl in a flimsy dress his body language and voice didn’t show it. And what did he mean by ‘neutralized’? Did he think she would attack him?
She picked up the cuffs and put them on. He put the gun away.
“What do you want?” Rage at Chuck carried her, but she refused to acknowledge the irony of that. She wasn’t about to show this man any fear. She was better than that.
He ignored her question. “What is your name, Miss?”
Ignoring his question in turn was not an option. “Hannah.”
“Excellent, Hannah. Please sit.” His hand indicated the ottoman, and she sat. “What I want, Hannah, is to determine the nature of your relationship with Special Agent Charles Carmichael.”
“Special Agent Charles Carmichael,” he repeated, as if to a small and not very intelligent child.
The ottoman was low and backless, and she was already uncomfortable. “I don’t know any ‘Agent Carmichael’.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” she snapped.
He threw something into her lap, a bead, or a marble, maybe. It puffed into vapor before she could get a good look. “What was that?” she asked, feeling a little light-headed.
“Truth agent. The antidote is right here.” A finger indicated a little blue vial on the table under the light.
“I already told you the truth.”
“I need to know that, Hannah. And I need to know that your truth is the truth.”
Maybe it was the drug. “Huh?”
“Special Agent Carmichael, Hannah.” His hand picked up her TV remote, pressed a button. Her screen came on, with a man’s face smiling out at her.
What the hell? “Chuck?”
“How do you know this man, Hannah?”
Special Agent Chuck? That was crazy! “He works at a Buy More.”
“So do you, Hannah.”
And boy, was she overqualified. She got it.
“It may interest you to know, Hannah, that the truth agent I administered is eventually toxic, so I would suggest you start being a little more forthcoming.”
So she told him her entire life story, from the time she met Special Agent Chuck—that got a giggle—on a plane right up to about three hours ago. “He’s a creep and a nerd, but he’s no spy.”
“I didn’t say ‘spy’, Hannah. Would it surprise you to learn that ‘Chuck’ has performed no less than four different clandestine operations in the time that you have known him, for a variety of government organizations?"
The man was insane! “Chuck?”
The hand moved, clicked another button on her remote. Chuck’s voice, sounding appallingly confident. “My name is Charles Carmichael, gentlemen, and this is my trap.” The men surrounding him didn’t look very impressed by the claim.
They looked dangerous, and he looked so alone. She almost felt sorry for him, but that voice—! “Who are those men?”
“Mercenaries, at the time. Now they are guests of the State.”
In prison. Hopefully a very high-security prison. “Chuck?” He was more, could be more. She was beginning to believe him.
“I am beginning to believe you,” said the man.
“You gave me poison truth serum, dumbass!”
Somewhere in the darkness, he shrugged. “Some agents can resist it, for a time.”
“I’m not an agent!”
“I can see that.” He was silent for a time, then she could hear him take a deep breath. “Miss Hannah, I apologize. Harm has been done to you, by me, but mostly by Chuck himself.”
“Noble, but not my point.” Was his voice less stone? She couldn’t tell. He should never have gotten involved with you in the first place. You should know, Hannah, that Chuck’s involvement with us is not entirely voluntary.”
“He was drafted?”
“Not exactly. He became an agent out of necessity, and is growing into the role. His time with you posed something of a dilemma for him, and he impaled himself on it.”
It wasn’t all Chuck’s idea, she remembered, blushing. “I threw myself at him.”
Another shrug. “Understandable. He’s a fine man, and had you met him in another life, you and he…well, maybe not. But it was his dilemma, Hannah, not yours, and leaving you to bear the burden of it is both unfair and cruel. So I will not erase your memory of our conversation.”
“You can do that?”
He moved slightly, there in the dark, a relaxation that revealed how tense he had been. “Sort of. It’s tricky and unreliable, though. And I’d have to shoot you, which I’ve already promised not to do.” His voice became suddenly sharp. “You will keep this to yourself.”
The tone went right up her nose and into the back of her brain, where the words found a home. “Of course I will.”
“Good.” He moved a little, there in the shadows, set something onto the table. “This is the key to those cuffs. It’s frozen into a block of dry ice.”
“Figure it out. And don’t forget to take the antidote.” He clicked the light off, and she was blind in the dark. He moved past her to the door. “Thank you, by the way.”
“An agent’s life is sometimes dark and lonely, Miss Hannah. He had to learn that, and you made him. I won’t say it was painless, but it could have been worse.”
Painless? Worse for who? “Yes, well, he’s welcome.”
“He’ll never know. That would undo the lesson. Stay here tomorrow, a courier will bring you something. Whether you accept it or not is up to you. Do not stay here or anywhere in LA after that.”
Then the man was gone. The lock clicked and the lights came on together. She went over and stared at the evaporating block with her freedom inside it. Figure it out. Keep her from interfering with him as he made his escape, that was obvious. Her relationship with Chuck, disappearing into thin air.
She was good at this.
He walked down the hall, wiping away the face he’d used, just in case she saw any of it. He pulled a secure cell phone out of his pocket. “Jamie. Just finished. She knows, but she won’t betray him or us, she said so under penta. Yes. Send a courier tomorrow, a job somewhere on the East Coast, nice high salary. She’ll be overqualified, whatever it is. Not with the Agency. No, no surveillance.”
She’s better than that.