The way Morgan Grimes saw it, it sucked to be Chuck Bartowski. Matrix-like kung fu, nunchucks, and underwater basket-weaving aside, life for Morgan’s favorite spy sucked. You don’t download the Intersect before ambiguously-named bad guys get it, you and your partners die. You download it and save everybody, and the love of your life won’t give you the time of day anymore.
And that sucked. That really, really sucked. If anybody deserved to find love, it was Charles Irving Bartowski. Any lady would be absolutely lucky to have him, but Morgan knew he’d made his choice, and that was that for Chuck.
But since Chuck had asked, Morgan would leave it alone. He’d be the drinking buddy, on-call psychiatrist, cover story, spy support, and Call of Duty combatant, whatever Chuck Bartowski needed, and he’d leave the situation with Sarah “Vicki Vale” Walker alone. Sorry—Agent Sarah “Vicki Vale” Walker.
Unfortunately—actually, make that fortunately—the rest of the Buy Morons didn’t know what Morgan did. So when the front doors admitted Tall, Dark, and Soulless, Lester let out a disgusted sigh. “He’s back,” he grumbled to Jeff.
Jeff, busy trying to figure out the intricate workings of a Chinese finger trap (a broken one, though nobody would tell him that; idle hands may be the devil’s playthings, but Jeff’s hands had been formed in a much more frightening place than hell), didn’t reply. Morgan glanced up from the clipboard he’d been browsing while leaning against the Nerd Herd desk. “Who do you—oh. Great.”
Agent Shaw stood just inside the doors, arms crossed over a shirt just as colorless as the rest of him. He scanned the store impassively, seeking his quarry. He couldn’t have said, “Look at me, I’m a stone-faced super secret agent!” any louder if he’d shouted it.
“What’s he doing here?” Lester demanded. “There should be a different store where people like him shop. Like, a Bland More! Up top!” He held up his hand for a high-five.
Jeff attempted it, trapped fingers and all. As some might claim, it was a study in fail.
Meanwhile, Shaw had spotted Morgan. He approached the desk now, taking his sweet time about it. Must not be an important spy mission, Morgan thought, years of dubious sales experience enabling him to read the other man’s (lack of) body language perfectly. Shaw nodded to all three of the nerds at the desk, just once, politely. He then turned to Morgan. “Seen Chuck anywhere?”
“Off-site install,” Lester chimed in. “But why do you need to know?”
That might have taken Shaw by surprise. Morgan couldn’t tell—the man’s face didn’t move from blankly affable. “Excuse me?”
“You don’t find it creepy at all?” Lester launched into full outrage mode, which Morgan thought made him look like a rooster with his wattles flapping. “You’re grinding on the guy’s girl, and yet you still come around every opportunity to rub it in poor Charles’s face. Don’t you think that’s a bit obsessive? And trust me, I know a thing or two about obsessive.”
“He does,” Jeff agreed solemnly.
Normally, knowing what he knew about the CIA agent (who on earth set people’s faces on fire and still claimed to be normal?), Morgan would have put a stop to it. It wouldn’t have been hard—Jeff was easily distracted by shiny things, and wherever Jeff wandered, Lester was doomed to follow. But since Chuck had asked Morgan to leave it be, he figured stopping Lester was going against his buddy’s wishes. And he completely agreed with Lester, so this was like squashing two mushrooms with one jump.
“My business with Chuck is just that: my business,” Shaw said. Was that a glimmer of anger in his words? No, Morgan thought. It was probably just indigestion. “He’s not answering his phone.”
“He’s doing an off-site install in a museum. Probably doesn’t want to disturb the patrons,” Morgan said, speaking up for the first time.
“Give me the address.”
Lester goggled. Even Jeff mid-booze stupor could see how strange this sounded. Inwardly, Morgan did a face-palm that would make Picard proud.
“So now you’re stalking the dude on his off-site installs?” Lester demanded. “Haven’t you hurt him enough? He’s one of the Buy More. He’s a member of our fold, a valued and respected member at that, and I have to say, all this creeping on him just isn’t going to fly, sir.” He glanced about him for support from the nerds who had gathered en masse around the desk, arms crossed over their green-shirted chests as they glared at the CIA agent together. “You stole a lady-friend from our leader, my vanilla friend. There are rules about this sort of thing. Well-established, need-to-be-followed rules.”
Morgan might not have the spider-sense that had kept his best friend alive in the spy game, but even he could see this was leading somewhere bad. Perhaps it might be time to ignore Chuck and step in.
Except, as luck would have it, that was precisely what Chuck did.
“Hey,” said a new voice, and everybody turned to see Chuck, clutching the off-site install backpack and looking confused. “What’s going on? What’re you doing here, Ag—um, Shaw?”
“Don’t answer that,” Lester told Shaw. “Until you adhere to the Buy More rules, you don’t even deserve to kiss the ground Chuck Bartowski walks on, much less address him directly.”
Chuck stepped forward, hurriedly. “Lester, Lester, it’s okay, it’s not a big deal. I don’t have any problems with Shaw.” He dumped the backpack behind the desk and hurried back to the front of the crowd, obviously anxious to get Shaw out of there before a riot could be started. He shot one wide-eyed glance at Morgan, obviously seeking assistance.
Morgan, always glad to jump to the rescue, set the clipboard on the desk. “All right, everybody,” he called. “Nothing to see here. Maybe we should get back to work, yeah?”
The single word came, unsurprisingly, from Lester. He’d dug his teeth into this metaphorical bone, it seemed. He glared at Shaw, who stared pleasantly back. Morgan recognized the look—head tilted slightly forward, fists clenched, jaw tight, eyes hooded…
“She may not work here, but she dated our leader, making the yogurt girl Buy More property,” Lester declared, and Chuck, Morgan, and Shaw stared at him with varying degrees of shock. “The laws of Buy Moria are clear. You want to come into this store without ridicule? You have to agree to the rules of the Duel.”
“The Duel?” Shaw asked, his brow wrinkling slightly. It may have been confusion.
“The Guitar Shredder Duel,” Jeff piped up, concentrating on maneuvering the finger trap under the stapler. “You grind on another man’s girl, you have to duel him. It’s the law.”
The quasi-confusion continued. “I’m not a member of, um, Buy Moria,” Shaw said.
“Doesn’t matter. Charles is, and yogurt girl belongs to us. Unless,” and Lester’s voice contained every drop of scorn to be found west of the Mississippi, “you can beat Charles at the Shred.”
Chuck practically leaped forward. “Guys, guys, that’s not necessary—really, really not necessary. Sarah and I’ve been over for a long time, it’s perfectly okay—”
“Actually,” Morgan interrupted, “I’m sorry, Chuck, but as assistant manager, I’m going to have to override you on this one. Mr. Barnes and Mr. Patel are right. Rules are rules, and they must be observed.”
Immediately, Chuck’s eyes went wide, and his jaw clenched. “Morgan!”
“I’m sorry, Chuck. I don’t write the rules. I just have to follow them, or else there will be chaos in all of Buy Moria. See?” Morgan gestured.
Indeed, the other green-shirts and assorted nerd herd extras had begun to chant, “Shredder! Shredder! Shredder!” as was only right and proper.
As luck would have it, that was precisely when John Casey returned from lunch. He glowered around at the chanting Buy Morons (the chanting died somewhat as people found it necessary to avoid meeting his eyes) until his gaze landed on the core five in the middle of the crowd. “What the hell is going on here?”
Shaw had been watching the proceedings with an almost-amused look on his face. “All right,” he said now. “I’m interested. Tell me the rules of this so-called Guitar Shredder Duel.”
Lester opened his mouth to launch into what would probably be a long and convoluted description of said rules. Chuck grabbed Morgan by the shoulders. “Castle, now!”
As Chuck frog-marched Morgan away, they heard Jeff’s squeak of pain. Stapler 1, Chinese Finger Trap 1, Jeff 0.
They used the break room entrance to Castle.
“Whoa, Chuck, easy with the hands, buddy. I just ironed this vest.” Affronted, Morgan straightened the offended article of clothing and gave his best friend a haughty look. He dropped into a chair at the conference table in Castle’s main bay, completely at home. He’d even sneaked in to stock some grape soda in the fridge earlier. “What’s with you?”
“Morgan, you have to get this Duel called off,” Chuck said. He paced back and forth, clearly agitated. But it wasn’t freaked out pacing, so Morgan wasn’t worried. “This is a bad, bad idea.”
“I don’t see why. It’s the rules. He took your girl. He wants to be let into any Buy More in the world ever again, he has to participate in the Shredder Duel. It’s written in the bylaws.”
“It’s written in Sharpie!”
“There’s a grape soda stain on the word ‘guitar!’“
“Doesn’t make it any less legal and binding. Just more delicious, if you ask me.”
“Why are you so insistent about this?” Chuck asked, squinting.
“Why are you?” Morgan countered.
“Because it’s humiliating and juvenile, and when you think about it, this guy is my boss, and he has better things to do than play video games in an antiquated Duel—”
“Bite your tongue!” Morgan surged forward in his chair. “This is a time-honored tradition, and let’s face it, whether or not you admit it, the dude poached. By the rules of karma, you have to show him up. What are you going to do, have a spy-off? No. Like you said, he’s technically your boss. And it’s not like you can justifiably duke it out because the Intersect’s going to insure you win, and in matters of the heart, dude, you need your heart, not your brain to win.”
“Wow,” Chuck observed sarcastically. “Deep.”
Morgan rolled his eyes. “The Guitar Shredder Duel is the perfect solution. You hold the highest score in the store, and with good reason since you—hey, you didn’t flash on Guitar Shredder, did you?”
Chuck shook his head. “Just Duck Hunt.”
“Which is both awesome and awful at the time, but we agreed to move on from beyond that, so we will.” Morgan rose to his feet, circling the table so that he could put a hand on Chuck’s shoulder. “So consider the Duel your karmic payback.”
“I’m not worried about karma,” Chuck said, and rolled his eyes. “I just don’t want to do the Duel because Sarah isn’t some prize to be won in a tournament, and I find this highly offensive. She’s a woman, for crying out loud, not bragging rights or—why are you shushing me?” Chuck looked around in confusion, trying to spot the source of Morgan’s panic.
Morgan grabbed an open notebook and scribbled a quick message. She can hear you!
“What?” Chuck gave him the “you’ve been getting into the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blasters again, haven’t you?” look.
Morgan flipped to a new page. Didn’t you say this place has surveillance? She could be listening!
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Chuck said. “She’s running a yogurt shop. She has better things to do than eavesdrop on Castle all day.”
There was a muffled thud from upstairs. Both men glanced at the ceiling. “What was that?” Morgan asked. “Are there—are there ninjas in the Orange Orange?”
“Not again,” Chuck groaned. “Stay here. I’ll go check.” He raced up the stairs.
Morgan only had to wait a moment for his friend to return. “Apparently she dropped a tub of yogurt,” Chuck said, shaking his head as he came downstairs.
Morgan raised his eyebrows. “Big tub.”
“Yeah, who knew yogurt wasn’t actually all that light? Anyway, back to what we were talking about—you have to get me out of this Duel, Morgan.”
“Honestly, Chuck, what makes you think they’ll listen to me when they won’t listen to you?”
“Because you can fire them?”
“An entire store, Chuck? Just so that you don’t have to beat your boss at something?” Morgan gave his best friend a skeptical look. “Aren’t you being just a little selfish?”
“I happen to think I’m being incredibly reasonable and—hi, Casey. Shaw.” Chuck shut up mid-sentence as the two men came in from the Buy More entrance. “Get everything worked out? Was there a reason you needed to see me?”
“I was checking in, why didn’t you answer?”
“Must be my battery. It might have died—I didn’t charge it last night.”
Morgan blinked at his best friend, confused. Never before had Chuck ever forgotten to charge his battery. Ever.
“You need to make sure your phone battery is charged at all times, so that you can be reachable, Chuck.” Shaw looked grim—or maybe it was affable—as he said this.
Morgan caught the way his best friend’s eyes sidled to the right, and suddenly understood. Ah, so Chuck had been avoiding Shaw’s calls. Well, good for him. “Noted,” was all Chuck said. “But you didn’t actually need anything, did you? We have a mission or something?” His eyes moved over the silent, scowling John Casey.
“Yes, as a matter of fact.” Shaw picked up the remote that controlled Castle—probably the coolest device Morgan had ever seen, but so far Chuck and John had yet to let him touch it—and tapped in a sequence. Screens all around the table whirred to life.
“Should I go?” Morgan wondered, though he wanted more than anything to sit in on an actual spy briefing, just once.
“Actually, Mr. Grimes, you should stay, as this concerns you, too.”
Curiosity made Morgan sit up. He steepled his fingers together, resting his arms on the tabletop, the very picture of polite attention. His first government briefing. He wished he’d thought to bring snacks.
“The mission will take place this Saturday night,” Shaw said.
“Ah, not to interrupt or anything, but shouldn’t Sarah be here?” Chuck asked, glancing at the ceiling.
“Agent Walker has other things to do at the moment, but just in case, I’ve blocked her access to Castle surveillance feeds for the time being, as this mission concerns her.”
Morgan watched Chuck’s face take on a mutinous set. “No way,” he said right away.
“The geek’s right,” John said, speaking for the first time. Morgan couldn’t help but marvel at the way he infused fresh anger into every new syllable. “If we’re pulling a fast one on Walker, I’m out, too.”
“Relax, guys.” Shaw held his hands up, a plea for peace. “It’s nothing serious. The mission is at the Buy More.”
The suspicious part inside of Morgan made a beeping noise. He glanced at all of the monitors and groaned. “Oh my God,” he declared, jumping to his feet. “You’re turning the Shredder Duel into a mission? No, no, no, man, that’s not the point. The point of the Shredder Duel is a two-man contest in front of a jury of your peers. You can’t pervert it by making it a spy mission. That throws the whole spirit out of the window, and frankly, I’m a little disappointed. Don’t you work for the CIA? Where is your sense of honor?”
“Morgan, I need to be able to go in and out of the Buy More without antagonizing the entire staff and drawing attention to myself.” Shaw gave him what was probably supposed to be a severe look. It wasn’t even in the same neighborhood as formidable. “Winning the Duel will ensure that.”
“Winning that way is cheating, and I find it highly offensive.” Morgan glared. “Even worse, it’s demoralizing to Chuck, who is supposed to be a valued and respected member of your team. He’s famous at the Buy More for being unbeatable at the Shredder Duel.”
The last thing he expected was for John to laugh, but he earned a chuckle nonetheless. Only John’s face was pointed toward Chuck. “Winning the hearts of the ladies through toy guitars?”
Chuck shot him an annoyed look. “I helped a friend out a time or two. I think it’s been fairly established that I’m a nice guy, and all.”
“And they’re not toys,” Morgan said. “They’re finely-tuned pieces of specialized equipment that are absolutely necessary—nay, vital—to the rules of the Duel.”
“Morgan, this is not up for debate. I need to be able to wander freely around the Buy More, and if that means winning the Duel, then I need to win the Duel. It’s that simple.”
Morgan glared. “Then win the Duel.”
“That’s what I’m—”
“But beat Chuck fairly.”
“What?” all three of the government agents asked.
Morgan crossed his arms over his chest. “Since the US government is unwilling to give Chuck a cover that makes more sense than clocking in regular hours with two different bosses, they need to at least respect the rules of his workplace. And the Guitar Shredder Duel is an unbreakable rule. It’s the bedrock of our foundation, it’s what makes the Buy More not only a workplace, but an enriching haven for the everyday nerd who can’t get a better paying job. By cheating at the Duel, you are cheating the very principles that make Chuck’s cover work so well. And frankly, if you fail at this mission and my very perceptive cabal of nerds picks up that Chuck is throwing the game, not only will you not be allowed into the Buy More again, but people will be disappointed in Chuck. Which means they will pay more attention to Chuck, and somebody might notice his disappearances.”
Shaw’s jawline firmed. With anybody else, it might have rage, or anger, or even mild annoyance. “Morgan, losing this Duel would be bad for the entire mission in Burbank—”
“Then beat me,” Chuck said, speaking up finally. “Fair and square.”
Shaw and Morgan turned to him, one of them looking shocked. Inwardly, Morgan gave a fist-pump of happiness. His buddy was back, and he’d found his spine.
Indeed, Chuck rose to his feet now, and crossed his arms. “Morgan’s right. Messing with the rules of the Duel is too risky for my workplace cover. So you’ll just have to beat me on your own.”
“Chuck, I’m an operative of the government. I have better things to do with my time.”
“Look at it as a mission,” Chuck said.
“I am your superior—”
“That’s debatable,” Morgan muttered.
But Shaw miraculously didn’t hear him. “And when I give you an order, I expect it to be obeyed.”
“Except this isn’t an order to Chuck the Spy,” Chuck said. “This is an order to Chuck the Buy More Employee. And Chuck the Buy More Employee has to follow the rules. And the rules state you need a wingman when you battle me, Shaw. Who’s your wingman going to be?”
For a long moment, Shaw stared at Chuck. With anybody else, it might have been a tense, dread-filled encounter with two strong wills battling. Here, it just resembled Chuck stubbornly staring down a wooden mask.
Shaw broke first. “I don’t need a wingman.”
“Rules state you have to have a wingman,” Morgan pointed out. “It’s completely necessary.”
Shaw sighed. “Casey?” he asked, turning slightly to face the Colonel.
Morgan was proud that he’d been paying attention to Chuck’s “Casey Grunt Classification Lessons.” He believed that the beauty John uttered now was an intriguing and compelling mix of number thirteen, number thirty-two, with just a soupçon of the classic number seven flavoring the edges.
Simply put, it all added up to “Oh, HELL no.”
“It’s okay,” Morgan said because Shaw almost looked disappointed at that. “The rules state that a wingman can be assigned to you. Even though it’s really recommended you bring your own wingman to the event.”
Shaw tried to look dubious. “I can ask Sarah—”
“No!” all three Buy More employees said as one. Chuck and John gave each other uneasy looks, so it fell upon Morgan to explain. He had no idea why John would be against the idea since to his knowledge the NSA agent hadn’t actually read the rules, but that didn’t matter. “Since Sarah is the point of contention for the Duel,” Morgan said, infusing his voice with as much official pomp as he could, “she is disqualified from participating.”
“And I’d really rather Sarah not know anything about this,” Chuck added.
John grunted. Number fifteen. “The geek’s right. Walker knows how to hide a body if she needs to.”
Shaw sighed. Morgan raised his eyebrows. “Fine,” Shaw said. “I’ll meet the terms of your Duel. Inform Mr. Patel and Mr. Barnes that they need to furnish me with a so-called wingman. Casey, Morgan, you should return to work. And Chuck, I have a few things I need from you. If you could cover for him at the Buy More, Morgan?” It was almost a request.
“Sure.” Morgan straightened his tie and smoothed his vest. “Saturday night,” he told Shaw. “Don’t be late. We’ll have a wingman waiting.”
“Can’t wait,” Shaw said. As Morgan and Casey left, he could have sworn he heard his best friend mutter, under his breath, “Sarah is going to kill me.”
Chuck flicked on his bedroom light and immediately jumped about three feet into the air, nearly knocking his head on the doorjamb. He was already glaring when he landed. “We’ve discussed this!”
Morgan didn’t move from the chair where he’d been waiting for the past half hour. “You know,” he said, “I’m amazed you haven’t gotten into more trouble than you have. Always check to make sure a room’s clear of bogies before you enter, Chuck. I thought I taught you better than that.”
Chuck glared and unslung his messenger bag. “This isn’t a compound level on Call of Duty, Morgan, this is my bedroom.”
“Which means you have to be extra careful. What if it had been somebody other than me waiting for you in here? Like a certain hot blonde? Trust me, Chuck, jumping out of your skin in terror—not the easiest way to impress a girl.”
Chuck’s glare deepened. “One, that would never happen because Sarah and I are long over. Two, if Sarah feels she absolutely must wait for me in my bedroom, she leaves the light on. Three, what are you doing in here, Morgan?”
“Waiting for you, duh.” Morgan patted the large, flat box he’d left on the foot of the bed. “We need to start training. Where have you been, anyway? I’ve barely seen you these past couple of days.”
“Shaw has me busy.” Chuck rolled his eyes. “Lots of intel to review, and he’s after me to de-emotion-ify my reports to Beckman.” Curiosity propelled him forward; he lifted the lid and fell silent.
Morgan, on the other hand, had hard time sitting still, suddenly. “You like it? Pretty sweet, right? Right?”
With gentle, reverent fingers, Chuck lifted the Guitar Shredder controller from the box, a dazed look on his face. “Is this…”
“It is. It is indeed, my friend. I know a guy, did him a favor awhile back, and he was more than willing to help a guy out.”
“But this is…” Chuck swallowed hard, and Morgan was inordinately proud when his friend’s eyes misted just a little bit. His own misted in response. “This is amazing, Morgan. This is maybe the best present I’ve ever gotten.”
“Better than the entire collection of ‘The Muppet Show’ I gave you for Christmas two years ago?” Morgan waved off the gratitude, though he couldn’t deny feeling extremely pleased with either gift. “It’s nothing, man. A good wingman can’t let his buddy go into a Duel unarmed, or worse, pathetically armed.”
Reverently, Chuck turned the guitar over and swallowed all over again. “I can’t believe you found somebody willing to pimp out a Shredder with the Tron uniform. This is….this is so amazingly detailed. Morgan. Thank you.”
Morgan pretended to sneeze so that he could brush away a tear without Chuck noticing. They grew up so fast, was all he could think. “Like I said, it’s no big deal. I know a guy, that’s all. Now, are you ready to train?”
Chuck looked down at the guitar in his hands and a beautiful smile broke out over his face. It was a smile that Morgan hadn’t seen very much since Ellie’s wedding. “Hell yeah. Although I do have to say that I highly object to this Duel taking place at all, as it’s not fair to Sarah.”
“Noted,” Morgan said. “Now that our butts are covered, let’s go shred it up.”
“I really can’t tonight, Morgan.” Chuck looked weary as he locked the front door behind him. “Shaw made me rewrite every single report from the past two years. I’m just going to go and sleep, okay? I promise, we’ll play more tomorrow.”
Morgan held the Trontroller and tried not to feel disappointed. He’d been waiting for three hours for his friend to come home. “Yeah, that’s okay,” he said, trying to hide his dejection.
It must not have worked. Chuck gave him a sad, if bolstering smile. “I promise, buddy. I’m just really, really tired.”
At that moment, though he’d never have believed it possible, Morgan Grimes hated Daniel Shaw even more than he already had. This was just underhanded, and it had to stop.
It had to be a miracle, Morgan thought as he looked over at his best friend, who was steadfastly focused on the screen in front of them. For the first time in days, Chuck had escaped the Castle before midnight, which meant that they could just be two friends, hanging out together on a Friday night, and prepping for a Duel to win the heart of a woman who would have neither of them, not even Chuck. Okay, Morgan thought as he turned his focus back to the screen with its bright colors and reproduction of guitar frets flying at the gamer, maybe it was a little surreal.
What was even more surreal was the fact that they weren’t playing Guitar Shredder: Planet Tour or Guitar Shredder: AC/DC. No, Shaw had delivered a disk to the apartment by messenger twenty minutes before with a note claiming that it was a gift from the CIA and that, per the rules, the Challenged could select any chapter from the Guitar Shredder oeuvre.
So they were playing Guitar Shredder: Super Spy Edition, as Morgan had coined it.
It had a good mix of songs, less of the grunge and classic rock that the other Shredder versions vastly preferred, though they had a fair amount of those, too. Morgan had to approve because they’d skipped Nirvana’s more obvious “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for “About A Girl” instead. It was a nice grooving song and maybe it showed a little bit of a sense of humor on the CIA’s part. Or maybe they just missed all of the implications. They’d also dodged the “Freebird” conundrum, going with a different Lynyrd Skynyrd: “The Ballad of Curtis Lowe.” Again, Morgan had to approve.
Of course, there was also a song by He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named on there, but Chuck and Morgan had agreed, silently and mutually, not to talk about that.
“So how is it, you think?” he asked Chuck now as the other man worked through a tricky fingering in No More Kings’ “Sweep the Leg.”
Chuck shrugged. “Seems to be a good game.”
“Picked your songs yet?”
“Still thinking. I hope the CIA lets us keep this copy.”
“You think they had this made special?”
“It’s really detailed. They probably had it made already and Shaw tapped some heretofore unheard of source to get his hands on a couple of copies. Otherwise we’d have to worry about him rigging it, right?” He laughed a little at his joke…and his laughter died abruptly when he realized that it really could be true.
“Probably. I mean, he’s supposed to be a stand-up guy and all.” Still, Chuck looked so dubious that he flubbed a key change.
Morgan sighed to himself. Something else to worry about. There went any chances of getting sleep tonight.
The day of the Duel dawned bright, clear, and even a little cold, which was odd for Southern California in March. Morgan pondered it over as he pedaled to the Buy More, taking pains to avoid the Burns the Bread Bakery since Saturdays meant they used the special glaze, and he just didn’t have the willpower to resist that glaze. Good spy support had to keep in shape. He should start eating more carrots.
He locked his bike against the rack, pocketed his keys, and whistled as he entered his kingdom. Well, his assistant kingdom.
Immediately, Lester and Jeff pounced, like the adoring paparazzi waiting for their celebrity. “You iced your hand last night, correct?” Lester asked, holding up the silk robe that Duel competitors were required to wear around the store on Judgment Day. Even the wingmen got a robe—gold as opposed to the champion’s bright red. Morgan liked that. Chuck looked better in red than he did, and the gold matched his tie.
“Yes, yes, I iced my hand, I got a good night’s sleep, and I ate breakfast this morning. Now, excuse me, I have to find Chuck.”
“Ooh, no such luck, friend,” Jeff said, vainly trying to free his fingers. “Off-site install.”
“This early?” Morgan wondered. Then: “How on earth do you dress yourself in the morning if your fingers are—”
“Don’t ask,” Lester interrupted, looking a little wild-eyed. “Please, please don’t ask.”
Morgan grimaced and left it at that, leaving the desperate housewives to their own version of mayhem. He checked his cell phone and nodded to himself to see a text from Chuck: “Emergency mission. Cover for me? Thanks, buddy.”
Chuck Bartowski, he thought as he set up his office for the day, was cool enough to use proper grammar in text messages. He just hoped the team made it back in time for the Duel, or there would be a riot of nerds on their hands. Never in the history of the Buy More had there ever been a Duel where both participants didn’t show.
Honestly, what sort of secret mission could this be? Didn’t they understand the importance of the Duel? Morgan wanted to go over Chuck’s set list with him before the big show.
Those had to be some pretty gung-ho bad guys to keep the team away for this long. Morgan ate another rice cake and watched the front door.
Okay, this was getting ridiculous. Why didn’t evil take a vacation on Saturdays like the rest of the world? Was that too much to ask? Morgan sat on the curb in front of the Buy More and watched the entrance to the parking lot. He’d already sweated through the robe.
“Morgan, I hate to break it to you, but the store’s closing in half an hour and your buddy’s a no-show so far,” Lester said, plopping onto the curve with his signature Subway sandwich clenched in a fist. Jeff, trying to eat and maneuver the sandwich with his fingers still caught in the Chinese finger trap, only succeeded in dumping tuna and pepperoni all over the sidewalk.
“He’ll show,” Morgan said, continuing to stare at the parking lot entrance.
“If you say so. We came up with a name for Shaw, by the way.”
Morgan glanced over, interested.
“Ready for it?” Lester puffed his chest up to its most important setting and waved his hand in front of him like a marquee sign. “Shawn.”
“That’s it? Pretty sure his name’s Daniel, actually.”
“No, not like the name. Like a combination of ‘Shaw’ and ‘yawn.’ Genius, right?”
Morgan stared at him. “You know, most of the time I don’t get why you two didn’t get fired years ago, but right now, you’re probably the coolest person on the planet.”
“Cooler than Snake Plesskin?”
“Dude. Don’t go there. Nobody’s cooler than that.”
“Chuck, Chuck, Chuck, Chuck, you’re giving me heart palpitations here. Actual heart palpitations, which is very bad for me. You know this, Chuck. You were there for the Sno-Cone incident of ‘96, so why are you doing this? Where the hell are you? The Duel is supposed to start in one minute—thirty seconds now! I know I’m supposed to cover for you and all, but I can’t go into a room full of angry nerds and tell them the competitors aren’t going to show for the Duel, and they’re stuck with the wingmen. Okay, you cannot, I repeat, cannot make me do that. That would be way worse than missing the fourth annual Dixie Trek Convention, and I can’t even use the same excuse as our buddy Wil because everybody knows I visit my nana every two weeks like clockwork! C’mon, Chuck! Where the hell are you?”
With a shaking hand, Morgan hung up the phone and resumed the crazy pacing that had been eating at the pavement in front of the Buy More for over ten minutes now. He wished that he’d taken up smoking at some point. Now seemed like a really good time for a cigarette. Heck, now seemed like a good time for a two-pack-a-day habit.
It occurred to him that he could run away. Nobody was guarding him, after all. He could just grab his bike and just take off. It would be the cowardly way, yes, but at least he’d have his skin in the morning. Morgan started for his bike.
“Going somewhere, Grimes?”
Too slow. As nonchalantly as possible, Morgan turned. He hoped the smile he gave Fernando was at least passably genuine. “What?”
“The Duel is supposed to start now. You’re not trying to run away, are you?”
“What? Me?” His voice came out as a squeak, so he quickly cleared his throat and tried again. “No, not at all. I was just pacing. Chuck said he’s running a little late, and I don’t know where Shawn—Shaw is.”
Fernando squinted at him. “You’re not trying to break the rules of the Duel, are you?”
“Me? The assistant manager? Wouldn’t dream of it.”
“Okay. I’ll let the others know.”
Morgan kept up the frantic grin until Fernando had gone back inside. The instant the automatic doors whispered closed behind the nerd, Morgan took off running toward the Orange Orange. Maybe they were inside, and they’d just lost track of time. Maybe Shaw was doing his best to humiliate Chuck by locking him in one of the holding cells in Castle. Maybe Sarah was holding them all hostage and threatening to bury the bodies like Chuck had mentioned she might, were she to find out about Duel.
It occurred to him that Sarah’s scariness really only made her hotter. Way to go, Chuck.
He reached the Orange Orange and tried to tug open the door. It didn’t budge. And the key he’d swiped from Chuck proved useless. Dang, they’d already changed the locks on him. That was quick.
What to do, what to do? Did he face angry nerds and battle Skip for a woman neither of them would ever have a snowball’s chance on Tatooine with? It would be the most anticlimactic Duel ever, but a Duel was a Duel, and there were rules.
Happiness and relief went through him like buckshot. “Chuck!” Morgan spun around and there was his best friend, wearing all black and looking exhausted and puzzled. He had his hands in his pockets. “You made it! Where the hell have you been, buddy? I’ve been worried sick!”
“It’s a long story. What’re you doing here? I thought your shift ended hours ago.”
Before Morgan could answer, Shaw and Sarah showed up. Sarah looked just as exhausted as Chuck. She just nodded politely at Morgan and sidestepped to let herself into the Orange Orange.
The instant the door closed behind her, Morgan gave both spies his best disapproving glare. “Do you two realize I’ve got a posse of angry nerds that want to see bloodshed and rock and roll? Hurry up, get changed and get over there. I’ll stall as long as I can, but remember. Angry. Nerds. You won’t like them when they’re angry, get me?” His glare held an extra dose of disapproval for the impassive Shaw as he started to head across the parking lot.
“Morgan,” Chuck called, and Morgan half-turned. “About the Duel…”
“Five minutes,” Morgan told him. “Any more than that, and I won’t be able to hold off the riot. And there’s no way in Hoth that they’ll ever forgive you if the Duel ends up being me and Skip battling it out for the heart of Sarah Walker, because really, who wants that?” He shook his head and walked away. “Amateurs.”
It took them double the allotted time, actually. By then, Morgan had not only sweated through his shirt, but his vest, tie, and the gold robe as well. And he could tell it really was a tough room when nobody laughed at his Veronica Mars impression.
Jeff, who’d finally maneuvered a straw into the beer that he’d paid Bunny five bucks to open for him, spotted the competitors first. He sprang to the center of the home entertainment room, stumbling because it was Jeff and even rough motor control could still allude him on days ending with booze. Morgan and Skip, their gold robes trailing, dodged out of the way.
“Ladies and Gentlemen!” Jeff announced, doing a passable if drunk impression of Don King. “Your Challenger, Chuck Bartowski!”
Chuck managed a half-hearted wave with his left hand as he came in, his right hand still in his pocket. Every geek in the room went nuts. Appropriate cries of “Sweep the Leg!” were heard.
“And the Challenged, Daniel Shawn!”
“Shaw,” Shaw corrected.
“Tough room,” Shaw said, echoing Morgan’s earlier sentiments.
“Shall we get on with it?” Lester, taking over for Jeff on the emcee duties, stepped forward. Red robes were produced by the geeks for the duelers. Shaw looked halfway to confused, but he donned the robe that Fernando held out. “Gentlemen, your weapons, please?”
Shaw opened up a small guitar case and pulled out a classic Fender Strat in colorless gray and white. Morgan produced the Trontroller to various oohs and aahs of geek approval. Once the Committee had tested both controllers, making sure there weren’t any hidden mechanisms or cheats buried, the controllers were set down while the duelers prepped for battle. Shaw popped every single knuckle, stretched out his shoulders.
Chuck continued to stand there, his hands in his pockets.
“What are you doing, man?” Morgan asked him in an undertone.
To his surprise, a look of genuine apology crossed Chuck’s face. “Hey, everybody,” he said, raising his voice so that it could be heard over the mutters. “I know you were really looking forward to seeing Shaw and me battle it out tonight, and I wanted to say, I really appreciate everybody accepting Sarah into the group like this…”
“Who’s Sarah?” Morgan heard somebody mutter.
Somebody else muttered, “Yogurt girl.”
“Ohhh. Why does he think we wouldn’t let her in? She’s hot!”
Morgan really hoped Chuck hadn’t heard that.
“But I’m really not going to be able to duel tonight. See, I was fixing a computer off-site today and, well…” Chuck finally drew his right hand from his pocket. Half of the room gasped in horror.
It was swaddled with a huge, white bandage. There was no way their leader was going to rock anything more than a cowbell tonight.
Morgan felt his heart constrict horribly in his chest. What had happened on that mission? Chuck never got hurt! He was like a duck that way. Injuries were supposed to just roll off of Chuck Bartowski like water off a duck’s feathers.
Morgan gave Shaw a dirty look. Something was rotten in the state of Buy More.
“It was a screwdriver, and I wasn’t paying close attention. I’m really sorry,” Chuck finished.
“What kind of screwdriver?” Lester wanted to know. “Phillips or flathead?”
“Does it matter?”
“Fine, it was a Philips head.” Immediately, half of the room winced. “But I gashed my hand up pretty bad, either way, so…” He turned that inquisitive gaze to Morgan, who felt his heart constrict one more time. Panic sweat began to slid greasily inside of his wrists and down his back. “Morgan? I believe the rules call for a wingman in situations like this. You up for it, buddy?”
He picked up the Trontroller with his good hand and held it out.
Morgan heard his heartbeat rush in his ears. “A-are you sure? I mean, this is, this is your baby. She should have a proper initiation—”
Chuck’s eyes warmed. “Morgan, there is no bigger honor for the Trontroller than for you to play her and beat the pants off of my ex’s current boyfriend.”
“I don’t know about that…” Morgan thumped his chest with the side of his fist to slow his heart down. “I’ve never dueled, man. There was never a reason to, not until Anna left me for…”
“Morgan, it’s okay. You can do this. That’s why you’re the wingman.”
“I still feel like we should maybe do something more formal for the Trontroller’s sake. Like bust open a bottle of champagne on her or something?”
“Morgan.” Chuck put his good hand on Morgan’s shoulder, and gave him the smile, the real one. “You know what you have to do. Take the Trontroller…and rock and roll.”
Put that way, how could Morgan Grimes do anything but?
First came the all-important selection of the avatar. Morgan was of the opinion that a person’s avatar said everything about him or her, so he chose a classic rocker—no point in messing with the classics, after all—with a stylish outfit and even better shoes. He picked his guitars, bass, regular, and acoustic, with care, deliberating over each one. After all, he was representing Chuck Bartowski here.
Shaw picked a straight-laced man in a white shirt and what looked like Clark Kent glasses, and the standard guitars. Again, Morgan thought, he couldn’t have said “I’m a secret agent!” any louder if he’d shouted it. Even his avatar looked like a spy.
After the avatars came the level selection. Morgan, of course, chose Emperor of Rock.
Shaw did, too. Quite a few eyebrows went up.
At this point, Chuck leaned forward. “Just to warn you, I think he’s been practicing all week, which is why I’ve been filling out all of those dumb reports.”
Uh-oh. Well, even a secret agent was no match for Morgan Grimes when he had the Trontroller in his hands.
Finally, last but not least, came the selection of the set-list. Morgan had prepped one for Chuck, but for himself, it needed to be altered somewhat. He left the Huey Lewis and the News song on there in Chuck’s honor, but chose for himself a soothing blend of Chuck Berry, Queen, and Journey. Shaw also submitted his list, but since those were kept secret until the songs began, Morgan had no idea what was in store for him.
As the representative for the wronged, it was his turn first. Morgan put the strap of the Trontroller around his shoulders, stepped into the spotlight, and nodded once at Jeff and Lester to lower the lights. Then and only then did Morgan turn to Shaw and deliberately wink. “Watch me,” he said, “for the changes.”
The music started. Even Morgan, who was normally a modest, effacing sort of individual, had to admit that he rocked that song. He danced, he played, he jumped off of speakers in a way that would make Marty McFly shed a very proud tear. And his audience ate it up, cheering and clapping and shouting random Back to the Future quotes out in perfect moments of nerd solidarity.
There wasn’t an un-aching throat in the room when Morgan finished his first selection, landing on his knees, the Trontroller held in front of him like a gun.
96% on Emperor of Rock, with a note streak that was, thank you very much, something to write home about.
“Nice, Morgan!” Chuck said, clapping him on the shoulder as Morgan took his seat in the Dueler’s waiting chair. Together, they waited to see Shaw’s first selection. When the agent stepped up, his Fender at the ready, everybody leaned forward slightly, waiting, waiting…
“Wait a second,” Morgan said when Shaw continued to thumb through the list. “He’s not going for—oh he is.”
“He is,” Chuck confirmed, his voice grim.
“Don’t get me wrong, she’s a lovely woman and I’m all for blondes, but what is Carrie Underwood doing on this game?” Morgan groaned.
“It seems to contain songs from pretty much every ‘American Idol’ winner since the beginning…”
“Worst. Game. Ever,” Morgan said.
Shaw started to play. And it was nothing like Morgan’s spirited battle of cool. Even though the agent’s fingers flew, his thumb strummed, and his foot tapped, that was all. No showboating, no grandstanding. Not even a head-nod.
“What are you?” Somebody in the back shouted. “Are you a man or a piece of wood?”
Morgan couldn’t help it. He snickered—until he saw that Shaw was playing almost perfectly. Sure, the agent missed a note every once awhile, but his execution was almost flawless. Indeed, when he finished, the screen announced that he’d hit 97% of the notes, and his note streak was three notes longer than Morgan’s to boot.
The room booed.
“That’s it,” Morgan said under his breath. “No more Mr. Nice Guy.”
He did 97% on his next song, his Huey Lewis selection. Shaw did 96% on a Kelly Clarkson number. There, they were even again.
Morgan’s third pick was his Queen song, a personal favorite as he sang it every time he rode his bike anywhere. It showed—the room cheered louder than usual, and Morgan walked away with a 98%.
As he hit the final, dwindling note, he glanced over to see if Shaw had shown any emotion yet. Nothing showed on his face but the usual blank look. But beyond him, through the windows out into the main bay of the store, he saw something unexpected standing by the Nerd Herd desk. Morgan sat down to applause.
“Dude,” he whispered to Chuck. “Your lady’s here, and she doesn’t look too happy.”
Chuck immediately straightened and brushed Cheetos crumbs off of his shirt. “What? And she’s not my lady.”
“If you say so.” Morgan rolled his eyes.
Chuck, however, looked worried as Shaw began to play a Taylor Hicks hit. Several nerds in the back groaned and immediately began to shout and sing “The Hero of Canton” to drown out the awful noise. Morgan would have joined in, but right now, he had other priorities. He was the wingman, after all.
“Do you think she found out about the Duel?”
“It’s Sarah. Of course she found out about the Duel.” Chuck eyed the door. “Cover for me? I’d better go deal with it.”
“Sure, man, anything you need. Don’t worry, I’ll win this for you.”
“Thanks, Morgan. You continue to be the best.”
“Rock on,” Morgan agreed, and turned back to watch his quarry as his best friend slipped out of the room.
He sneaked occasional glances over his shoulder as Shaw continued to play a technically brilliant but realistically boring game of Guitar Shredder. Unfortunately, the other man walked away with a 99% on that song, which put him ahead of Morgan.
Knowing this was the final song before the head-to-head battle, Morgan took a deep breath and wiped his sweating palms on his khakis. He’d picked Journey for his final song since Journey, being both nostalgic and epic at the same time, was right in his wheelhouse. And he played. He played hard. Eyes narrowed, body taut and rocking, fingers flying, thumb strumming, whammy bar whammying. He played the best damn game of Guitar Shredder he possibly could.
It still only earned him a 99%.
If Shaw managed to match that, Morgan would have to slaughter him in the head-to-head battle to win.
Of course, Shaw matched it. Morgan wondered exactly what sort of training programs the CIA had that made them so good at Guitar Shredder in just a few days. Because he’d really like a course like that in something like Hibachi. It’d be nice to see at least one dream come true. “And here it comes!” Lester, once again taking over the emcee role as Jeff paid Bunny another fiver to open his beer, stepped to the front of the room, the dueling coin held in his grip. “Morgan, as the Challenger, you call.”
“Heads,” Morgan said immediately.
It was tails. Morgan felt something deep inside of him sink. This could not be good.
In fact, every nerd present seemed to agree, given by the number of stricken looks exchanged among the green-shirts and nerd herders. They’d already reached their saturation limit with reality TV programming for the evening—and being forced to play an American Idol song in the Shredder was something they weren’t sure they’d even wish on their worst enemies, let alone a member of their fold.
Morgan stepped forward. This was his last chance to win the crowd, to be the best, to get the girl…for his best friend.
For Chuck Bartowski to get the girl, he would do anything.
So he sneered at CIA Agent Daniel Shaw. “This here,” he said, patting the Trontroller on its beloved neck, “is not just any Guitar Shredder guitar. This is a one-of-a-kind Tron special edition Les Paul Gibson. You’ve got to ask yourself one question: do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”
Shaw smiled. An actual, real smile with some genuine form of emotion behind it. Every geek in the room almost fled for the hills. “Bring it, Morgan.”
And turning to the screen, he thumbed in the selection for the head-to-head battle.
Lester, Jeff, and Morgan stared as the opening screen rolled, horror rendering them speechless. Morgan felt it roll through him in one giant, nasty, nauseating wave. “I can’t do this,” he told Lester, hissing desperately. “This is a violation of my eighth amendment rights! You can’t make me, you can’t make me play a song by He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named!”
“You can do it, Morgan.” Lester clapped a solemn hand on his shoulder. “Do it for Chuck.”
“But—but—but it’s Clay Aiken! And not only that, it’s ‘Invisible!’ Please, guys, there’s gotta be a clause somewhere in the Duel—”
“There is none,” Jeff said solemnly, looking far too coherent for somebody who was drinking beer through a straw. “The Duel must be dueled, Morgan Grimes.”
“It’s starting!” Lester yanked on his arm so that Morgan was facing forward.
And the battle began.
Simply put: Morgan Grimes got his ass kicked. Those who said friendship knew no bounds had obviously never come up against Clay Aiken. Horror made his fingers so numb that he achieved a 50-streak only through sheer dumb luck, while Shaw, of course, played perfectly. He even nodded along at a couple of points.
“There’s rules in the Geneva convention against this,” Morgan wailed when the chorus began anew.
By the end, he was openly sobbing. “Make it stop,” he whimpered to Jeff and Lester. “Please, just make it stop.”
“For Chuck, Morgan. For Chuck,” Lester said, but Morgan could see him eyeing the exit.
Apparently, the CIA had programmed a function into the battle that even when a character so obviously slaughtered the other, the song played to the very, very bitter end. Once the final note had stopped torturing them all, Morgan collapsed in a boneless pile of jelly on the floor.
Final score: Shaw—99% Morgan—22%
“Hmm,” Shaw said, observing the final screen and sweeping his gaze over a room full of shell-shocked nerds.”I guess that means I have won?”
“By a landslide,” Lester said.
Shaw smiled again. “I told you,” he said to Morgan, “that I didn’t need a wingman.”
Morgan, about to send back a biting retort, stopped midsentence. Over Shaw’s shoulder, through the windows, he had a clear view of the Nerd Herd desk. Or rather, more specifically, of the two people sitting on said desk. As he watched, Sarah Walker rolled her eyes, clearly exasperated about something. And Chuck Bartowski, sitting next to her, smiled the real Bartowski smile and waggled his injured hand, self-deprecatingly.
When Sarah smiled back at him, Morgan gave a little smile of his own.
“You’re wrong,” he said to Shaw. “Everybody needs a wingman.”
And he was damn proud to be Chuck Bartowski’s wingman.