Sarah couldn’t help but let the sarcasm flow. “Yes,” she said into the phone, glancing up at the brightly-lit sign above the double-doors, “I see what you mean, Jerry. Clearly this guy is sinister.”
“He is?” Incredulity sounded through the phone. “The directions say you’re at a Safeway.”
“I was being—never mind.” Sarah rolled her eyes and debated briefly on the merits of a shopping cart. She decided to go with the handheld basket, and figured she probably shouldn’t get any eggs just in case she needed to drop the basket quickly and give chase.
On the other end of the phone, Jerry Kleinfeld popped his gum. “You know, bad guys gotta eat, too.”
“Uh-huh. Do you have that profile for me yet?”
“Just pulling it up now. I’ll send it to your phone.”
“Good, thanks. Appreciate your help, Jerry.”
“Always glad to help a field rep.” And then there was nothing but dead air. Talking to the geeks in the home office was always a risky venture. Most field agents would rather not, Sarah knew, as the nerds and geeks and dorks, whatever they called themselves, should probably never be left alone in public. Sarah usually went to Jerry, despite his chronic gum-chewing and habit of forgetting things like salutations and good-byes. He didn’t leer at her over the phone. It was a start.
She cased the grocery store as she entered, an automatic habit. She preferred the small, intimate grocer’s near her apartment in Maryland, as she knew all of the egress points and the cashiers by name. This grocery store was about five times the size of hers, and the early evening hour meant it was bustling with people headed home from the office. She smiled politely at the greeter and checked her phone. Right on time, Jerry’s email came through.
Sarah’s eyebrow lifted. So that was her mark.
He had to be somewhere in Safeway, as Jerry had tracked the GPS on his car. She hadn’t snooped around it like she normally would have; she wanted to get a jump on this if she could. Who knew what her mark was into? Listed data put him right around her age, native to Southern California, graduate of UCLA. He ran his own software business and did moderately, it seemed. He didn’t look like the type of person that stole government secrets, but then, Sarah had learned early on that the “bad guys,” as Jerry had put it, looked just like the good guys.
Since she did need groceries—and something to eat for dinner, now that she was thinking about it—she killed two birds with one stone, collecting items as she walked the aisles. She wasn’t much of a chef, and the hotel room didn’t exactly have a very good kitchen setup, but she adamantly refused to eat Top Ramen. She’d had enough of that in college.
She would never admit to anybody that she found her mark by accident, or that she nearly ran him over. That was the sort of thing field operatives left out of reports.
But she rounded the corner at the end of the soda and chips aisle, and there he was, in living color. She immediately side-stepped to avoid a collision. Unfortunately, her mark wasn’t as quick on his feet as she was.
It was like something out of those romantic comedies Sarah would never admit she watched on long flights. She tried to step aside, he went exactly the same way to dodge, and they smacked right into each other. Her basket hit the ground, and she was, in that moment, grateful that she had stuck to her policy of “nothing breakable” in case she needed to drop it and run. Little had she known she would genuinely be dropping said basket.
“Oh, geez, I am so, so, sorry. Are you okay? God, I really need to look where I’m going, I didn’t break anything, did I? Are you okay?”
Sarah blinked. She’d never heard anybody babble quite that fast before. “I’m fine,” she said, holding her hands out. She nearly knelt to pick up the basket, but those secret romantic comedies came in handy. Her mark was already bending over to do just that, and surely they would have bumped skulls.
And my life is not a comedy, romantic or otherwise.
“Are you okay?” she asked as the man retrieved the basket for her.
“I’m fine,” he assured her, rising to his full height. She had to crane her neck a little to look up into his face. “I’m more worried about you. I don’t normally treat the grocery store like a linebacker, but I didn’t see you and are you sure you’re okay?”
This time, Sarah had to smile, despite herself. Inwardly, she was categorizing everything she could—button down shirt, khakis, canvas sneakers, height, build. The picture in the profile must have been a few years old, as there were lines in the man’s face that hadn’t been there before, especially when he gave her a sheepish grin.
This is not a man who looks capable of stealing anything, much less valuable government secrets.
“No damage done, I promise,” she said, storing away her first impressions to be evaluated later. “I’m pretty sturdy.”
“I’m glad. Well, not that you’re, ah, sturdy or anything or—” She saw him visibly stop and collect himself. “I’m glad you’re okay. Here’s your, ah, basket.”
“Thanks.” She couldn’t have engineered a better meet cute if she’d tried—she’d planned to get behind him in line and strike up a conversation—so Sarah took the basket and gave him a smile. “In a hurry?”
“Ha, no, just didn’t see you, I swear. You’re not, like, a personal injury lawyer or anything, are you?”
“Veterinary assistant,” Sarah said, making up a job off the top of her head. She pretended to stop. “Or, I was. Back in DC. Now I’m just another face. I’m Sarah. Sarah Walker.” She held out her free hand.
Her mark looked both shocked and happily surprised. “Chuck,” he said, shaking her hand. “Chuck Bartowski. Pleased to meet you, even if I had to bowl you over to do so. You said DC—are you new in town?”
“Just got out here this morning,” Sarah said. “I’m apartment hunting. You wouldn’t happen to know of any good places?”
Chuck, as he’d introduced himself, gave a small laugh. His hair was also longer than the profile picture, much curlier and unrulier. “I’m sorry, it’s been years since I’ve had to house-hunt. I wish I could help you, though.”
“Darn. Would have been too easy, right?” He didn’t seem nervous, which told Sarah this wasn’t his first barbecue with major thievery. Or, her brain chimed in, Bryce had been working alone. But the latter didn’t make sense. Her preservation instincts warned her that she should probably escape before the conversation got awkward and he got suspicious; she’d have to get in line behind him later on after all and pretend it was unplanned. “Er, perhaps you could help me with one thing, though.”
“Croutons.” Sarah held up a bag of pre-tossed salad. “I cannot for the life of me find them anywhere.”
“Oh, that’s easy.” The smile returned in full force, and she couldn’t help but smile back. “They’re on the next aisle over, right near the front. My sister’s a crouton fiend—you can’t come back to the house without them on a shopping trip.”
“Ah.” Sarah filed that away: he apparently lived with his sister. That was an unexpected development. “Well, thank you very much for your help, Chuck.”
“Not a problem. Welcome to LA.”
“Thanks.” She raised the basket slightly in salute and slipped past him before he could apologize for the collision again, hurrying past the end-cap of Little Debbie’s snacks. She rounded the corner, much more careful this time. The aisle was pretty busy, but she could slip away rather easily and bide her time until Chuck was ready to check out.
Or she could have, if the child sitting in the half-full shopping cart by the end-cap hadn’t taken one look at her and said, loudly, “Mommy!”
Sarah had escaped narrowly from death too many times to count. She’d had guns held at her head, been trapped in rooms with live explosives, jumped out of planes, karate chopped assassins and dictators alike. But none of that terror held a candle to the all-succumbing, instinctive fear that flooded her when the little girl with the curly brown hair and the blue eyes said “Mommy!” and smiled at her. Sarah froze.
Immediately, Chuck Bartowski appeared around the end of the aisle, a box of Twinkies clutched in his hand and a look of panic on his face as he looked around. His gaze stopped on her and his eyes widened.
“Oh, no,” he said.
Sarah’s instincts screamed that she needed to escape, to just keep going and flee all danger. But the rest of her was too busy being puzzled. The profile Jerry had sent her had said nothing about a kid or a marriage or anything, yet there was no mistaking that the girl in the shopping cart could belong to nobody but Chuck Bartowski, not with those curls and that smile. Sarah’s eyes automatically cut down to Chuck’s hand: no ring on his finger, nor any indent or tan-line that would indicate he’d recently twisted it off.
Chuck put her shock and silence to good use—and began babbling. “Sorry about that—she’s going through a phase where she thinks every blonde woman is her mother, and you can imagine what kind of problems that causes, what with this being L.A. and all.”
“I see.” But Sarah caught the look on Chuck’s daughter’s face. The little girl was beaming up at her father, clearly pleased with herself. It cleared away most of her initial panic. “And you’re sure this isn’t just you using your daughter to pick up women, Mr. Bartowski?”
“Chuck,” he said. “And no, not that I…” He trailed off and looked down at his daughter.
She beamed back up at him. “Hi, Daddy.”
Chuck put his hand on his forehead and closed his eyes. “I’ve got a four-year-old wingman,” he groaned.
“Wouldn’t that be wing-woman?” Sarah hid a smile behind her hand.
She saw Chuck visibly collect himself for a second time, and it was just as endearing as the first time. “This is my daughter, Violet. And she was operating on her own, I swear. Violet, this is Sarah. Who is not your mother. As I suspect you knew.” He ruffled her hair.
In a move that was sheer vanity, Violet straightened her hair before she smiled at Sarah. “Hi! Are you a chick?”
“That’s good, cos Uncle Awesome always says Daddy has to go to the store cos it’s a good place to pick up chicks.” Violet continued to look pleased with herself. She opened her mouth to continue—which wouldn’t have been hard, as Sarah was too busy fighting giggles at the look on Chuck’s face to reply—but Chuck hurriedly covered her mouth with his hand.
“Here,” he said, digging into his pocket with his other hand. “Play with this.”
“Ooh,” said the four-year-old, grabbing the cell phone away from him.
“Well, that was…mortifying beyond belief,” Chuck said, once Violet was happily absorbed in whatever what was on the cell phone screen. He glanced down at his daughter. “She’s going to reprogram everything and I’ll never figure out how to work it, but that’s okay. I’m very sorry, by the way. Not only do I assault you, but then my daughter tries to pick you up. I wouldn’t blame you in the slightest if you were to, oh, say, run for the hills right now.”
She was still reeling from the news that Chuck wasn’t the single, dependent-less man his profile claimed him to be. And the fact that he had a kid made everything seem much messier, but Sarah wasn’t the type to let opportunity go to waste. She tilted her head and gave him an inquisitive look. “Does it work?”
“Does what work?”
“Letting your daughter pick up chicks for you?”
“I…” This time, it was Chuck’s turn to trail off. He looked vaguely seasick. “I wouldn’t know, I’ve never tried it before, I swear.”
This time, Sarah couldn’t stop the grin. “Well,” she said, “there’s a first time for everything, isn’t there?”
“Like I said, I’m new to the area. I could really use somebody to show me around.”
Chuck actually checked over his shoulder, as if he wasn’t sure she was talking to him. “M-me?” he asked, pointing at himself. He cleared his throat, hurriedly. “What I meant to say is, sure, I’d love to serve as your guide to all things L.A. It would be my pleasure.”
“Great! It’s a date.”
Later, Sarah slipped away from the shell-shocked Chuck and his daughter, having exchanged numbers and a promise to go out to dinner at a favorite place of Chuck’s a couple of nights later. She had research to do, she knew. The man had given no hint that he was involved in the Intersect project in any way, but then, she hadn’t steered the conversation that way at all. Now she had just had to find out why a man who seemed to love his daughter would be willing to put her in danger by stealing government secrets. Had Bryce acted alone? Was Chuck in on it? Her instincts told her it was the former, and if it was, then things were going to get even more complicated. But she’d been fooled before, and she wasn’t going to let it happen again.
Still, when she heard Chuck turn to Violet and say, “Wow, Megabyte, your Uncle Awesome is right, you’re pretty handy after all,” she couldn’t help but smile.