Moscow Rules: Don’t harass the opposition
Washington, D.C., evening
It could be worse. Mia raised the tray of martinis above her head, maneuvering between two groups of young and upcoming lawyers. Lawyers, politicians, those who worked for both—all of them intense, watching the others in the bar, especially the more important people, those higher up on the food chain they could not so casually bump into and start a conversation with.
Even with her compression brace, the tendinitis in her wrist and elbow was killing her. Too many trays, too many drinks, too many damn nights in this loud D.C. bar.
“Thanks a lot, Ryker, you bastard,” she murmured under her breath. If it wasn't for him and that last shitty CIA mission, she'd be undercover in Paris right now seducing some high value target instead of fending off groping hands and serving drinks to competitive assholes intent on moving up the ladder.
Everyone is potentially under opposition control.
Her IQ, experience, and general commonsense were not necessarily better than anyone else in the bar and yet she didn’t belong here anymore than the tall blonde sitting in the corner booth who’d been scanning the bar but always circling back to Mia. Former spook. Has to be.
But not one she knew. Before or after my time?
She was almost to the table when she felt a sharp pinch on her ass. She’d been so focused on figuring out who the woman was, she lost her concentration on the crowd. The pinch hurt and made her jump, two of the martinis tipping and falling, sending their contents over a woman's head.
She screamed and bolted out of the way, knocking into the ass grabber, who started laughing. Someone shoved someone else and the next thing Mia knew, the rest of the martinis danced and fell, crashing to the floor and sending glass and olives everywhere.
Guess things can get worse.
She bent over to start cleaning and felt the ass-grabbing idiot go in for another cheap pinch.
Pick the time and place for action.
Before he could pull away this time, she grabbed his wrist, fast as lightning, bending his hand back until he dropped to his knees and cried out.
“What the fuck?” he screamed.
His buddies stopped laughing and so did everyone around them. All eyes were on Mia and she hissed into his face, “You seem to think you own this piece of ass, so let me set you straight. You don't, and you’re nothing but a pig. If you ever touch me again, I'll cut off your hand and maybe something else a little lower along with it. In fact, if you ever touch any of the waitresses in this bar, you'll be walking funny from then on out. Do I make myself clear?”
His eyes were wide with fear and pain, the spilled martinis soaking into the knees of his dress pants. “You…bitch,” he snarled. “Do you know who my father is?”
“I do,” she bluffed, not knowing precisely, but figuring Daddy had to be another of the bigwigs in D.C. What was there to know? She'd burned so many bridges in this town already, what was one more? “And frankly my dear, I don't give a damn. If you're going to play grab-ass with me, you better be worried about who I am and what kind of torture techniques I know.”
That shut him up, whether it was due to his inebriated brain needing to think the threat through, or some good sense finally kicking in. Either way, Mia gave his wrist one last little tweak before she shoved him away.
She pulled a bar rag from her apron to mop up the liquid, wondering if she’d have a job come closing. Moscow Rules said go with the flow, blend in. She’d certainly blown that tonight.
And wouldn't that suck if she lost this position too? She was already two months behind on rent, and tuition for the private schooling of her younger sister was due next week. Chloe suffered from borderline autism and didn't function well in public schools. With their parents dead, Mia was the sole provider.
Great job with that, Mia.
Not only had she lost a good paying job with the CIA, she'd burned her reputation with all the alphabet agencies in this town. No one would hire her now, and she could thank Ryker Baptiste for that.
“No need to worry about that,” a voice said from behind her. Mia looked up to see the woman from the corner booth standing over her. She motioned at the bartender. “Daniel will clean up the mess.”
Most everyone had moved off, once again caught up in their own lives. Mia wiped her hands, realizing it did no good since the towel was soaked. The ass-grabber shot her a damning look from under thick eyelashes a few feet away, where he conversed with friends. She gave him a cocky smile before answering the woman. “It's my mess, I'll clean it up.”
Daniel appeared at her side, handing her a dry bar rag. “No worries, Mia.” His eyes flicked to the woman, back to Mia. “It's time for your break anyway.”
Daniel had been nice to her at one time, and she'd enjoyed it. She hadn't had any real relationships since joining the CIA. Everything about her job had been top-secret, making them extremely difficult, even those with her parents, God rest their souls. But she soon realized Daniel only wanted to sleep with her, nothing else. She’d turned him down and now he made her shifts as difficult as possible.
To see him nervously bend down and finish cleaning made her reevaluate the person in front of her. Out of everyone in the bar, Mia had the feeling this woman actually had power.
Assume nothing. “Who are you?”
The blonde smiled, motioning to the corner booth. “Let's chat.”
Mia was torn. Her gut told her to just walk away. Don't go down the rabbit hole.
Moscow Rule number one: never go against your gut.
But her feet seemed to have a different agenda and she found herself sliding into the booth.
“What would you like?” Blondie asked.
“I don't drink with strangers, so let's start with your name and why you’ve been watching me all night. If this”—she motioned at Daniel, finishing the floor cleaning— “is some kind of come on, you should know I don't play for your team.”
Although it had been so long since she'd even had a nibble of sex, maybe she should reconsider her boundaries.
The corner of the blonde’s mouth tweaked, as if she were fighting a grin. “I'm here to offer you a job.”
“I'm not looking for one.”
Her blue eyes jumped over to the disaster scene. “You should be.”
Mia bit the inside of her bottom lip, refusing to take the bait.
Blondie's gaze came back to her. “You want to take this, trust me. It will solve a lot of problems for you.”
“How do you know what problems I have?”
The woman only stared at her, confident.
Under the table, Mia gripped the booth hard. This is total bullshit. But something told her the woman wasn’t lying.
She glanced toward the bar and saw Daniel quickly look away.
“I suppose anyone who can get that asshole off my back deserves a few minutes of my time. Let's start over, shall we? What's your name and who do you work for?”
“I work for a legend in this business. She's tough but fair, and believes you deserve a second chance.”
Everything inside Mia went very still. Knew it! “You’re CIA?”
A tiny shrug. “The job offer doesn’t come from them.”
Not the Agency. That still left plenty others—NSA, FBI, DIS, the list went on and on. “In case you haven't heard, I'm persona non grata in that world.”
“What world would that be?”
“Can we quit playing games? Just tell me what you want, I'll turn you down, and then I can get back to work.”
“Do you want to return to the Agency?”
Mia swallowed the sudden lump in her throat. Becoming a spy had meant everything to her at one point. “No.”
The corner of the woman's mouth twitched, another suppressed smile. “How many lie detector tests did you fool during your time inside?”
Seven, but who's counting?
Mia rose. “Look, this has been fun—not—but tell your legend no thanks, I don't need the job.”
“Aren’t you even going to ask who she is? Who I work for?”
“Nope.” She caught Daniel staring again, his eyes on the blonde. “Let me guess, you're going to tell me anyway.”
The woman slid an envelope across the table. “She thought you might require convincing.”
Mia bit the inside of her lip, her fingers itching to see what was inside, her gut telling her to not even go there.
Keep your options open.
She’d never played it safe, why start now?
Snatching it up, she held her breath. There were two items inside, one a check made out to her for more money than she’d made in a year at the Agency as a handler.
The second, however, was the one that sealed the deal.
It was a note. A note from the legend Blondie claimed to work for.
She lifted her gaze and sat down hard. “Are you kidding me?”
Blondie stared back, unfazed. Spy face.
“What did you say your name was again?”
“I didn’t.” She pointed at the envelope. “My employer goes by Beatrice. Had to change her name because the CIA sent an assassin after her a few years back. She runs a covert Agency called Shadow Force, and I'm in charge of her new spy group, Nemesis. You don't have to join permanently; the choice is yours. But we have a mission that calls for your expertise, and if you perform to our standards and it is successful, Beatrice will get your job back for you at the CIA, if that’s what you truly want. You really have nothing to lose and everything to gain. You can pay off your parent’s funeral costs, keep your sister in her school, and get your backside out of debt. All we need is your complete cooperation for seventy-two hours, give or take.”
There were five zeros on that check. Enough money, even in D.C., to keep her afloat for the rest of the year. She’d promised her parents over and over again if anything happened to them she’d take care of Chloe.
The Universe was making her keep that promise.
Something had happened, and she’d screwed up with Chloe, putting her in danger, and then again with Ryker. While she blamed him for what had happened in Berlin, she knew deep down it was partially her fault too.
Maybe all my fault.
Just like Chloe.
She’d been responsible for both of them, and she’d failed with both.
Failed her parents.
Failed her little sister.
Failed the biggest mission of her life.
Don’t harass the opposition. The check seemed to burn her fingers. With that kind of money, she could at least keep her promise.
This is insane. Good insane, but still…
“Why would Bianca—Beatrice—trust me?”
“She doesn't, but that big analytical brain of hers believes you're the best option she has.”
“Well, there's a vote of confidence. What exactly is the mission?”
“You can handle it, and let me add, we’re the good guys. Beatrice saved my sister and I not long ago, and that's why I work for her.”
Spy face, round two. “Beatrice is not the touchy-feely sort, but she does believe in family. I assume by the fact you're still sitting here listening you want to be part of that family.”
“You didn't answer my question. What exactly is the mission?”
The woman held out her hand. “My name is Parker and I'll be your handler. Your codename in Nemesis is Artemis.”
Mia left Parker’s hand hanging in the air. “Like the goddess?”
“The huntress, yes.”
“Dare I ask what I'm hunting?”
“Not what,” Parker said, pulling up a picture on her phone. She tipped the screen so Mia could see it. “Who.”
Fuck a duck. The handsome face staring back at her haunted her dreams. The gray eyes, the square jaw. The absolute danger that radiated from every pore. “You can't be serious.”
“Have I misled you about anything tonight?”
Mia leaned forward, pushing the phone away. “He's dead.”
That earned her a full-blown smile. “Are you sure about that?”
God, she was so cocky, so self-confident. “His star is on the wall at headquarters.”
“Well, if that's true,” Parker said, sliding out of the booth and motioning for Mia to follow, “then you're going to make a hell of a lot of money finding a dead man.”