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They Call it Undercover Work for a Reason (But Not That Reason)

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1. (when you assume you make an 'ass' out of 'u' and 'me')

"Cooper," says Crocker. "We've had word of an agent trying to undermine the American bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics."

"Do we care about the Olympics?" asks Nancy.

"Yes," Crocker replies.

"Oh," says Nancy.

"The IOC is sending agents to tour the candidate cities, and we have evidence that Harold Boon and Phil Collins, the American representatives who've been arguing our case to the IOC, may be in danger."

Susan frowns. "Why is Phil Collins the American representative to the IOC?"

"Not that Phil Collins. Different Phil Collins." Crocker waves a hand. "It's a common name."

"So we're going to go in as a protection detail?" Susan asks, nodding. "We've done that before, we—"

"Not a protection detail, and not 'we'—you'll need Nancy to stay at HQ," Crocker says, like a broken record: she's kept Nancy grounded for the past three missions in a row, arguing a greater-than-usual need for quick access to digital intelligence, and sent Susan out with López, first, who at least knows how to handle himself in the field; but then twice with Ford, who blew up a motorcycle in Melbourne by accident and then got into a chili pepper eating contest in Chiang Mai with a guy who'd looked like Tom Hardy, so Susan had left him to die.

"Again?" Nancy sighs.

"You're not sending me out with Ford," Susan says, flat.

"No, he's not back on active duty yet." Crocker sighs. "It won't be a problem. You shouldn't need to stage any direct intervention—intelligence gathering only. This is a one-woman mission, Cooper. Are you up to it?"

Susan glances at Nancy, who rolls her eyes, shrugging one shoulder slightly before the other; and then says, "I guess I can work with that." She frowns. "What is the American bid for 2024? Boston?"

"No, Los Angeles," says Crocker. "Boston dropped out."

"Really, L.A.?" Susan sighs. "I hate L.A."

"She hates L.A.," Nancy agrees.

"It's unnatural," Susan explains. "It's sunny all the time. It's sunny on Christmas."

"Good thing you're going to Paris, then," Crocker says.

"Wait," Susan says. "What?"

 

2. (certain thoughts on ovine castration)

Ford's in the terminal at Dulles, waiting on the same flight to Charles de Gaulle.

Susan drops her bag on the floor. "Are you shitting me?" she asks, flat.

"I'm going on holiday," he says. "Fuck you."

"In your dreams." Susan crosses her arms. "If you get in my way I'll show you what happens to sheep when they put a rubber band around their balls."

"You want to handle my balls, huh?" Ford asks. "Roll 'em around? Give 'em a little jiggle?"

"Oh, yeah." Susan's smile widens. Her teeth feel sharp. "Roll 'em around on the toe of my boot, maybe, before I smash them like the eggs I had for breakfast."

"Should I ring off?" Nancy asks in Susan's ear; but before she can answer their flight calls boarding.

"Just stay out of my way, Ford," Susan snarls, instead, and picks up her bag. She stomps down the bridge to the plane, Ford just behind.

She takes her seat, glares at him while he tosses his bag into the overhead compartment.

All in all it's probably best that they're seated across the aisle from each other, Susan will reflect, later. Get it out of their systems.

 

3. (I get that a lot)

In Paris (alias: Hermione Mudd; cover: professional tug-of-war trainer) there's some kind of glossy diplomat party, but it's 27 degrees out (Fahrenheit) and the only dress they've packed for her is pink chiffon and the wrap is a beaded half-sleeve bolero—seriously, for Paris, in January—so instead Susan puts her hair up and wears a three-piece suit. Unintended consequence: three and a half straight hours of unremitting sexual harassment at the hands of one of the (ostensibly neutral) IOC representatives, a petite woman in scarlet lipstick, extremely French, called Simone.

"But 'ermione," Simone purrs, her mouth about four micrometers away from Susan's left ear, "tomorrow you must come with me to see ze beautiful stadium ze Parisians are building for ze field events," trailing her hand up Susan's arm. "I must show you ze state-of-the-art changing rooms."

"That sounds—hi, Hermione Mudd," Susan says, "—unnecessary. Pleased to meet you, Hermione Mudd, enchanted," shaking the hands of the Hungarian delegates, Ágnes Hegedûs and József Kárpáti, who are both extremely polite and cheerful and athletic and neither of whom seems very evil at all; and the much more promising French candidates, Margeaux Marchand, "Hermione Mudd, charmed," and Guillarme Camus, "lovely to meet you." Marchand is wearing Swarovski crystal teddy bear earrings, and Camus is very tall and handsome with a dignified profile and extremely expensive shoes; Susan doesn't trust either one. "What do we know about Marchand and Camus?" Susan asks, under her breath; then downs her champagne.

"Camus: absurdist philosopher," Nancy says in her earpiece, "or, in this case, solar power magnate and hobbyist vintner from Angers"; meanwhile Simone gives a low husky laugh in Susan's ear and sidles even closer, pressing her not unimpressive cleavage against Susan's arm, and Susan, shoving down a wave of annoyance, swipes another drink off a passing tray.

"This is really inappropriate," Susan tells Simone; while Nancy is explaining, "Marchand was a dancer of some importance in the eighties and nineties. Now, as far as I can tell, she trains gymnasts and crushes the souls of twenty-year-old socialites with her thighs."

"Should I stop?" murmurs Simone.

Susan hesitates. ". . .I didn't say that."

"Ooh, dancer and acrobat!" says Nancy. "She was in the circus!"

"Oh, well, she sounds fun," Susan breathes, as Marchand is leaning over Susan to exchange cheek kisses with Simone and then launching into a torrent of frothy French chit-chat, laughing like bells; as Nancy confides, "She does, doesn't she?" then adds, "Take a selfie with her for me!"

Nancy is running a facial recognition algorithm on Susan's video feed to try and spot Boon and Collins in the crowd but Susan can't see much of anything past the first row of people and their canapés around her, and Simone's seven or eight entwining limbs are keeping Susan from climbing up on a chair for a better look. It takes her another three drinks and a half-dozen pointers from Simone to finally identify the first of them: an enormously sweaty used car salesman with a bad fake tan and an even worse toupee, wearing a suit with—no joke—shoulderpads.

"Yes, zat is Boon," Simone murmurs, nuzzling under Susan's ear: Susan shivers. "You do not know him? But he is very famous, no?"

"Is he?" Susan asks.

"Twitter famous, maybe," Nancy snorts, while Simone burbles out laughter all over Susan again, apparently delighted.

"But you Americans, you are all so silly!" Simone is saying. "You come to Paris while we are here, 'Oh, but you are from ze IOC? Quelle surprise! We all just happen to work with ze American Olympic planning committee! It is so lovely to meet you!" Simone is trailing her fingertips up under Susan's waistcoat, the side slit on her dress rising dangerously as her warm thighs are more or less engulfing of Susan's thigh; but Susan still manages to maneuver them around to meet Boon, who tries experimentally to crush Susan's hand when he shakes it with one sweaty paw and then gives her clutch with Simone a leering once-over that makes Susan feel like she needs an industrial-strength shower. Collins turns out to be standing right behind him: a slight, unprepossessing middle-aged man in a tux. Susan's eyes widen.

"Hi," he says. "I'm Phil."

"Coulson?" Susan says blankly. Simone is nibbling on her neck.

"No, Collins," he says, and then shakes her hand. "But I get that a lot"; and elbowing him out of the way Boon booms, "So, Hermione! I hear you're angling for a coaching spot?"

"Yes," says Susan, observing his full eclipse of the Phil, "We have a really solid team shaping up, all of them—" but Boon isn't listening. "In New York, we play tug of war with live cobras," he bellows. "I'm organizing a team, too—I've just decided, I'm organizing a team, right now! They're great, all of them! You should come to New York! Try your team out against my team on our cobras!"

"Zat is not," says Simone, shocked, "in keeping with IOC regulation."

"I can get you in on coaching," Boon confides, leaning over her as his body appears to moisten encyclopedically, "if you come and pay for a couple sessions with our cobras. Just a few hu—tho—let's say nineteen grand, special deal, just for you! They're huge! Just the biggest, best cobras you can imagine, really wonderful! I could coach the tug-of-war team." Then he smacks another glass into Susan's palm and shouts, "Here's Mudd in your eye!" and laughs uproariously.

"Do you want to come with me to see ze bathroom?" Simone murmurs, low and hot; and Susan says, "God, yes."

The bathroom tiles are painted with very pretty abstract designs that turn out to be, upon closer examination, a series of extremely finely detailed depictions of the various stages of an amorous encounter between a buxom redhead—possibly modeled on Ariel from The Little Mermaid, the version with legs—and a largish octopus. "Wow," Susan gasps. Simone is yanking her trousers down.

"That is a total ripoff of traditional Japanese woodblock printing," Nancy says, insulted; and Simone shoves Susan down over the edge of bathtub. "Whitewashed, too! That's really offensive."

"There's a lot to be offended by," Susan pants, spreading her thighs. "The originals were way more tasteful," she gasps, as Simone drags her hips back and shoves her face into her, gives her a long shivering-wet lick straight up to her tailbone.

"They also demonstrated a much higher level of artistic rigor," Nancy agrees; and Susan presses her mouth to the crook of her elbow and moans.

Forty-two minutes of internet research later, Nancy discovers that the tiles come from a manufacturer in Cleveland and cost $75 per piece.

"That's highway robbery," Susan says, still panting. Simone is buttoning up Susan's waistcoat in an extremely leisurely fashion, her dress still sliding down her shoulder, lipstick smeared at the edges, eyes dark.

"We must meet again soon, 'ermione," she murmurs, petting her fingers down to Susan's thighs. "I have friends at ze American embassy. You would like zem very much."

"I don't know," Susan says, "I already know a lot of Americans," a little apologetically.

"You do not know zees Americans," says Simone, "their names are Kate and Jaclyn and Farrah," and startled, Susan stares at her. "We meet every Thursday, late at night," Simone is explaining, smiling. Thursday has never sounded dirtier. "For dancing."

"Those are—," Susan says; and Nancy says, "Yep, they are, those are—those are definitely fake names"; so Susan drops it.

"What about the American bid for the 2024 Olympics?" she asks instead, testing; and Simone waves an impatient hand.

"No, that I will not back," she says, "My boss at ze IOC, Adrian Barnet-Rees, he would never allow it, it is all too ridiculous, no one wants to go to Los Angeles in ze summer, it ees a pit," and Susan is about to argue with her mostly so she can feel like she's done her job when the bullets start to rip through the top three feet of the bathroom's expensive tiling.

"Susan!" Nancy gasps, and Susan shoves Simone's head down and shouts, "No hits! We're fine! Jesus! One-woman job my ass!"

After another burst of gunfire Nancy asks, "Susan? Are you there, Susan?" and Susan gasps, "Yes, I'm fine, I need—," as she shoves herself up to her feet and Nancy says, "On it, I'm hacking the security feed," as Susan scrambles back out into the party, sidearm out. Everyone is screaming. "The Hungarians are gone," Nancy says. "It looks like they stepped out and then—I've got three attackers, gunmen in black." There's champagne and broken glass all over the floor and Camus is crouched on the ground looking dashing beside his prostrate partner, wiping a stream of blood from Marchand's eyebrow. "Where's Collins?" Susan asks, just as Nancy says, "Yes, they took Collins—and they were definitely after Collins, Susan, they barely paused for anyone else." Susan makes for the big French windows and the balcony, passing Boon, tipped backwards over a couch, upside down, shouting something about his shoe size and flailing his arms fruitlessly. A car with diplomatic plates and little Hungarian flags fluttering from the sides of its hood is peeling away from the front of the building with a banshee screech and an acrid stench of rubber; so Susan climbs up onto the balcony railing, preparing to jump.

Behind her Simone gasps, "'ermione!"

"Look after Boon," Susan tells her, "he can't get up," and then jumps down to the street below.

She lands on an elderly Peugeot and then clambers down and hotwires a Mercedes AMG GT, but even so by the time she gets to the airfield the plane, painted with giant horizontal stripes, red white and green, is already lumbering down the runway. "Nancy?" Susan shouts, running after it: "On it!" Nancy gasps, breathless. "Um—owned by a shell corporation that's owned by another shell corporation that looks like it's owned by. . . Kárpáti! Yes, it is the Hungarians!"

"Of course it's the Hungarians!" Susan shouts, "Did you not see the plane?"; and Nancy huffs, "Well, there's no need to yell at me"; as Susan only just manages to grab at the landing gear and pull herself up into the wheel well, which is still better than being at that fucking terrible party.

 

4. (memory may be subjective but you're still wrong)

Nancy spends the trip trying to track down Kárpáti's real estate holdings. Susan spends it trying not to freeze and die. Then the plane lands and Susan drops and rolls and she has about fourteen seconds to get feeling back into her hands so she can shoot before a thug with Nazi hair and a jaw so square it got kicked out of a disco body-slams her back down on the runway and Susan has to holster her gun and take him down barnyard style, breaking two of his fingers and then smashing his face into the face of his buddy, who cries a lot more than a girl. They're not particularly hard to incapacitate, but they're bulky and they block a lot of her view. That is why Susan misses the plane careening back off down the runway until it's already taken off.

Susan shouts, "Motherfucker!" and knees Thing One in the balls. He grunts and rolls around for a while. Thing Two is mostly done crying so Susan asks him, "Where am I?"

". . . Parlez-vous Français?" asks Thing Two; and in her ear Nancy says, "Lausanne. About 15 kilometers from IOC headquarters, actually."

"What kind of international supervillain wants to go after an American and hires minions that don't even speak English?" Susan sighs. Rubs at her temples. She needs a car. "Do you have a car?" she asks Thing Two.

"Avez-vous une voiture?" Nancy asks. Her accent's atrocious.

"Did you just get that off Google Translate?" Susan demands.

Nancy says, "Well."

Thing Two doesn't have a car. He has a moped.

"You're a fucking pathetic excuse for muscle," Susan tells him. "A fucking moped. For fuck's sake. Give me your keys."

He gives her the keys.

IOC Headquarters is closed when Susan gets there because it's still ass o'clock in the morning. They open at 9 but even then no one knows where Kárpáti might've flown a kidnapped American Olympic official, but they also don't seem too bothered about it. The boy at the desk cracks open a copy of Têtu and puts his feet up next to his keyboard, then unwraps a croissant.

"What about Simone?" Nancy asks. "Can they get ahold of Simone? Simone might care."

"Can you get me Simone, on the phone?" Susan asks. The boy shrugs. "Simone. I don't know her last name. She's in Paris. She works for. . . ."

"Adrian Barnet-Rees," Nancy murmurs.

"Adrian Barnet-Rees," Susan says. The boy shrugs again. "Okay—how about you just get me Adrian Barnet-Rees?"

"I cannot," the boy says. "'e ees on holiday."

"On holiday," says Susan, flat.

"Oui," says the boy. "He goes to Rome. Lausanne, it ees too cold in January."

Susan groans and heads back to her moped.

"Don't fret, Susan!" Nancy says, while Susan is busy thunking her head against the handlebars, over and over. "We'll find him! But first I think you'd better eat breakfast," which actually isn't a bad idea, so Susan follows Nancy's instructions to a rather promising-looking café, where she has rosti and fresh hot coffee and then splashes some water on her face in the bathroom and unbuttons and then rebuttons her waistcoat because Simone'd done it up wrong, while Nancy hunts down Adrian Barnet-Rees's hotel reservation in Rome. Then Susan comes out to get on her moped and notices for the first time the chocolate shop just across the way, big gold-lettered windows letting the cold sunlight stream in, and inside Ford in a fur coat and aviators, standing next to a chocolate animal display stretching nearly from ceiling to floor.

Susan pauses. "Did we know Ford was in Switzerland?"

"No, we didn't," Nancy says, grim. "He doesn't have any gear on. But. . . it looks like he rented a car in Paris, and asked for two weeks. Driving tour?"

"I'll give him a driving tour," Susan mutters, and stomps across the street.

The door has a little cluster of bells hanging from the handle. They tinkle fetchingly, and Ford looks up from his perusal of a pair of elaborately decorated chocolate ladybugs just in time for Susan to smack him on the shoulder. "Are you following me?" Susan demands.

"No," says Ford. "Are you following me?"

"No!" Susan shouts. "I'm following Phil Collins!"

". . . Why are you following Phil Collins?"

"Not that Phil Collins!"

"Why are you here? You were going to Paris."

"You were going to Paris!"

"I'm on a driving tour," Ford snarls; and Nancy says, "Ah, I thought so."

"Well I'm trying to deal with a kidnapping, so you just." Susan hits his shoulder again, glaring at him. "Just keep out of my way!"

"Out of your way?" Ford echoes, glaring back.

"Yes, out of my way," Susan repeats. They're standing very close to each other. Both of them breathing hard.

"You're going to fuck him again, aren't you," Nancy says, resigned. The bells on the door tinkle fetchingly on the way out, too.

Trying to get her hair corralled again after, Susan says, "So, driving tour, huh."

"Yeah, a fuckin' driving tour." Ford is grimacing, trying to wipe dirty gravelly-brown alley puddle off his trouser knees. "I'm fuckin' going to fuckin' see fuckin' Europe. I'm going to find a fuckin' bear in the Alps and fuckin' wrestle it. Then I'm going to fuckin' snowboard down to sea level on my fuckin' abs. What's it to you?"

"There aren't any bears in Switzerland anymore," Susan says. "Also, I need to commandeer your car."

"What? No! Fuck you!"

"It's fine, it'll be fine," Susan says, patting his arm consolingly, "you can have my moped."

"He's not going to go for that," says Nancy.

He doesn't. Instead he insists on accompanying her—and his car—to Rome; then ends up taking eleven fucking minutes to repack his suitcases and check out from his charming B&B, which at least gives Susan a chance to pee; steal his coat, sunglasses, and keys; and adjust the mirrors on his red Ferrari 458 Italia. He's lucky she doesn't just leave him.

"You could just leave him," Nancy muses. Susan can hear rustling.

"What're you eating?" Susan asks. "What time is it, even?"

"Leftover shrimp lo mein," Nancy says. "It's five in the morning. I sent Chad the Intern down to the Starbucks to get me a coffee while Ford was eating you out but I think he's got lost."

"Which one's Chad?" asks Susan.

"The one that looks like he's called Chad," Nancy says.

"Oh, right, that one," says Susan; and Ford slams out of the B&B shouting, "You don't get to drive my fuckin' car!"

"Gun says I do, asshole! You're lucky I didn't just leave you." Susan slides on his aviators. "And: it's a rental," she adds, and pops the trunk.

He bangs his suitcases in back and climbs into the passenger seat, silently fuming, and Susan shifts into gear.

"Where's the lo mein from?" she asks Nancy. "Is it from new place, the—"

"No, the one by the hookah shop," Nancy explains with some difficulty, mouth full.

"With the purple flyers?" Susan asks. Ford sighs huffily, arms crossed over his chest. "Didn't that one have really terrible Yelp reviews?"

"No, that one's the one by the Safeway," Nancy corrects. "Oh! Thanks Chad!"

Three hours later Susan is going cross-eyed from lack of sleep and the music on Ford's iPhone, which appears to be 16 solid GB of prog rock. "Listen," she says, pulling over. "I hate to give you anything that might make you feel less inadequate, but could you drive for a while? I didn't get any sleep. I was in the wheel well of a plane."

"You should know how to sleep in the wheel well of a plane by now," Ford tells her. "The last time I was in Delhi I was tied up with my own fuckin' shoelaces and trapped in the fuckin' wheel well of a plane for sixteen hours! Then when we landed I had to fuckin' cut myself free with nothing but the peaks of my own fuckin' nipples before Basque separatists could plant explosives in the fuel tank!"

"I have a question," Nancy says. "Why were there Basque separatists in Delhi?"

"I have a couple questions, personally," says Susan, "but none of them are worth asking. Come on, Ford, handle your own giant throbbing penis extension for a while, I need to sleep," and hands him the keys.

Two hours down the road Susan blinks back into consciousness, screaming a little.

"This reminds me of that time I saved you in Budapest," says Ford.

"Um excuse me," says Nancy.

"You did not fucking save me in Budapest," says Susan. "Nancy saved me in Budapest."

"I saved you and Artingstall in Budapest," counters Ford.

"Arguably," Susan says. "50 Cent saved me and Nancy in Budapest."

"You and Artingstall were losing control of your fuckin' helicopters!" Ford shouts. "I positioned my fuckin' boat right under your fuckin' flight path so that when you had to bail out I could rescue you from that fuckin' lake!"

Susan turns to stare at him. His chin is jutting out, mulish, brows pulled low as they whip down the highway.

"Is it some kind of personality disorder, do you think?" Nancy asks. "Where he can't remember what actually happened?" She sounds fascinated. "Or is he just a cock?"

"I genuinely have no idea," says Susan. "You should see if you can pull up his psych evals."

"Are you talking to yourself?" demands Ford.

"Those are confidential, Susan," Nancy tells her.

"So, you tried already, and couldn't get in."

"Cooper," Ford hisses. "Did you fuckin' bring Artingstall on holiday?"

"I'm really worried that you're stuck with him for backup," Nancy says. "It seems like if anything goes wrong rescuing Phil Collins in Rome. . . ."

"I'm not on vacation, Ford," Susan says. She's getting really annoyed. She did bring Nancy on vacation, back in July. They'd gone to Vancouver. They'd made friends with a trio of tech hipsters who'd liked vintage shoes and anal sex. One of them, Alyssa, had tried to convince Susan to get a tattoo of a pirate. Then Nancy had seduced a mountie. "I'm trying to rescue a kidnapped American Olympic official," Susan says. "If we were on vacation we would've just left you in Lausanne and stolen your car."

"I wish you'd left him in Lausanne and stolen his car," Nancy says sadly.

Ford whips his palm off the steering wheel and hits the power button on the stereo. His terrible prog rock blares back on.

"Well that's just unnecessary," Susan mutters.

Two hours later the car breaks down. The mechanic estimates it will take three and a half hours to get there.

"Literally everything about this is your fault," Susan pants, trying to get her knee up higher on the hood.

"Oh, fuck me," Ford groans, unnecessarily.

 

5. (ducks)

By the time they make it to Rome it's nearly four in the morning. Nancy'd cried off hours ago, handing Susan over to Priya Johar temporarily while she went to talk to Crocker and then never came back. "There was a lot of shouting," Johar'd confided, noisily scraping the bottom of her yogurt cup with her spoon. "And then neither of them was heard from ever again." Susan had been torn between wanting to laugh with her like always and a field agent's ridiculously faux-fended irritation; that's still new, mostly. Johar's a good agent—she was the one who got Kettering out of that mess in Seoul—but she's still not Nancy. Up side: so far that's more or less kept Ford in line. Susan parks outside of Barnet-Rees's pensione and hits Ford on the shoulder until he wakes up, then says, "You're on watch," puts her seat back, and drapes her elbow up over her eyes. Ford wakes her up when the sun is up properly, leaning over her door with his bag on his shoulder, pocketing his cell phone, and says, "I rang up Chen. He found me a Tesla and an hotel room, so. You can keep the Ferrari."

"Oh," Susan replies, torn between annoyance and relief. "Well—"

"He says Artingstall got Crocker to sign off on her plane tickets," Ford says, "so I got him to put Johar on a room and a re-equip for you, too."

"Yeah?" says Susan warily.

"Yeah, here," Ford says, "Room 5," and hands her an old-fashioned key on an unwieldy wooden tag. "So you don't have to leave off looking for fuckin' Phil Collins, or whatever."

"Oh," says Susan, oddly touched. "Thanks."

He nods and pats her cheek, then pulls back from the car. Susan watches him halfway down the block, then shouts, "Hey! Thanks for the ride!" and he tosses two fingers back at her over his shoulder.

"I hate that guy," Johar sighs.

"Yeah," says Susan, grinning. "Me too."

Room 5 has a suitcase containing new papers (alias: Ramona Riesling; cover: industrial caterer), three changes of clothes (finally), and a frumpy oversized fringed-leather handbag stuffed with a cheap pair of sunglasses, a handful of crumpled tourist maps, two tubes of lipstick in a really atrocious hot pink, a tin of breath mints, a paperback copy of On the Steamy Side (Recipe for Love #2), more ammo, and a backup gun. Susan asks Johar to keep an eye on the CCTV for Barnet-Rees, then takes a nine-minute shower, puts on a clean bra and underwear, and then sacks on top of the fully-made bed and sleeps for another four hours. She wakes up to Johar saying, "Cooper, Cooper," urgently in her ear.

"What?" Susan wipes off the drool. "What, what is it?"

"Barnet-Rees is on the move," Johar says, "he's walking his, er, evening companion down to the ground floor," and Susan says, "Shit!" and staggers to her feet, dragging on pants and a sweater and then shoving her feet into her shoes as she scrambles out into the hall, shouldering the frumpy handbag, just in time to watch a balding middle-aged man, obviously British, kiss the knuckles of a gorgeous eight foot tall Amazon in a gold lamé miniskirt, beside the open door of a taxi. "That's him," Johar says, unnecessarily. He's wearing a sweatervest. The Amazon looks bored.

"Oh, Mr. Barnet-Rees!" Susan calls, waving her fingertips. "Mr. Barnet-Rees, is that you?"

Barnet-Rees whips his head towards her. The Amazon takes advantage of his distraction to get in the taxi; it careens down the narrow alley, horn deployed apparently at random, leaving Barnet-Rees behind to watch Susan approach, looking vaguely alarmed.

"I need a hook," Susan mutters, then plasters an oceans-wide idiot grin across her face, hopefully to match the handbag. "Oh, Mr. Barnet-Rees! That is you!"

"He was at a conference in Munich last month," Johar says. "Um—I'm trying to pull up the schedule, hold on."

"I'm sorry," says Barnet-Rees. "I don't. . . ."

Susan beams. "We met at that conference in Munich," she says, just as Johar says, "Oh, crap, no, don't use the conference, Cooper, it's—" as Barnet-Rees is frowning, then saying hesitantly, "In Munich? I—" and Johar finishes, "—the International Mr. Teddy Bear Semifinals," and with some difficulty Susan widens her grin.

"Oh, you remember, Mr. Barnet-Rees," she says. "Back, oh, it must've been. . . . 2010? 2011? I was part of the team that was putting together the catering plan for the Olympic Village in London!" and his face clears.

"Oh, well, yes," he says, and gives a little cough, and then shakes her hand. "Er. What brings you to Rome, Mrs. . . ."

"Oh, it's still Miss, Mr. Barnet-Rees," she says, tittering, "but you can call me Ramona," and then tucks her arm into his elbow and steers him slowly towards her Ferrari. "I was just so delighted when I saw you, you know how lonely it is, traveling solo—" which is when the alley erupts in gunfire.

"Duck!" Susan shouts, "Johar?"; as she shoves Barnet-Rees down behind the car.

"Um—yes, I think—yeah, I've got three shooters," Johar says, strained. "Three o'clock, second story window; one on the roof of the building just to the right; and the third is coming towards you on a motorcycle—"

"Got it," Susan says, and jerks up; shoots: once, twice, three times; and then the motorcycle squeals wildly and then crashes into a potted lemon tree, but the gunman inside pulls back behind the window frame, dodging her fire. Susan ducks back down behind the car, next to Barnet-Rees, who is cowering beneath the fluffy mess of his thinning hair. "Mr. Barnet-Rees," Susan says, as shots ping off the far side of the Ferrari. "I need your help. Phil Collins has been kidnapped."

"Phil Collins?" Barnet-Rees boggles at her. "I don't, I can't, I don't know anything about music!"

"Not that Phil Collins!" Susan pushes up and fires; the man in the window yelps, and she drops back down to reload. "Phil Collins is an American representative supporting the Los Angeles bid, and he was kidnapped two days ago in Paris, possibly by the Hungarians. What do you know about József Kárpáti?"

" József?" he gasps. "You can't be serious, József wouldn't hurt a fly!"

"His shell company owned the company that owned the plane that kidnapped Phil Collins," Susan tells him. She stands up and fires twice through the wall just under the window frame, and in the pained moaning and lack of returning fire that follows, stands up and opens the Ferrari door. "Come on," she says, "we'd better get out of here."

She climbs over the gearbox and into the driver's seat and gets the car into gear just in time for the guy at the window to drag himself back up and fire off a torrent of abuse in Italian, but thankfully no more bullets, as they peel off down the alley and out into the apocalyptic crush of Roman traffic. "Johar," Susan manages, eternally grateful for the six weeks she'd spent taking Italian defensive driving lessons from Aldo last fall, "anyone on our tail?"

"Not yet," Johar says grimly, "but your rooftop shooter made a call before she died. I've got Ken and Mariska pulling everything they can from the Italian cell networks but I wouldn't be surprised if her friends are on their way."

"I need a safe place to drop Mr. Barnet-Rees," Susan says, just in time for a lime-green Fiat to zoom up alongside her, passenger window rolling down. "Duck!" Susan shouts, and then shoves Barnet-Rees down into the footwell, sliding low in her seat while she floors it, veering off to the right.

"The airport," Johar says.

"Fiumicino?" Susan says, incredulous. The Fiat is still firing. "You're kidding me! That's half an hour away at least!"

"But it's also crawling with police," says Johar. "And for once, that's a good thing. I'm trying to locate another agent for assistance, but for now—"

"Yes, fine! Jesus! Fiumicino!" Susan swerves to avoid, in rapid succession, a florist's delivery van, a cab going 90 miles per hour, and a messenger on a Vespa, then floors it, careening around a series of picturesque Renaissance blocks, past a burbling fountain, down a set of pedestrian steps, and then drives flat-out for the Tiber, hoping she still remembers which streets dump out onto a bridge. The Fiat follows, firing wildly. "Do you know how to fire a gun?" Susan asks Barnet-Rees.

". . . Well, I've hunted," says Barnet-Rees.

"Great!" Susan hands him her gun. "That won't help you at all!"

Barnet-Rees looks at it in some astonishment, then visibly collects himself and levers himself up just enough to aim (badly) and fire. The Fiat swerves in the rearview; tires squealing, Susan swings hard left, heading straight for Ponte Cavour, only to see, just this side of the bridge, a double row of ten or twelve preschool children carefully crossing the street, all holding onto a string to keep them together and wearing matching backpacks, printed with yellow cartoon ducks.

"Oh, fucking Christ," says Susan, swerving, resigned; and the Ferrari sails clear into the Tiber.

 

6. (matt-e-o, matt-ah-o)

The Fiat follows, but it still isn't a convertible. In the water Susan grabs Barnet-Rees, flailing and sputtering, under his arms and swims for the shore, a tour yacht bearing down upon them at roughly the same speed as the average Roman automobile.

"Susan!" Susan hears. "Susan!"

"Kind of busy, Johar," Susan gasps, kicking hard, as a condom floats by; "Wasn't me," says Johar; and Susan tries to turn and look and not let Barnet-Rees drown; and a life buoy smacks into the water just ahead of her.

"Susan!" Nancy shouts again, "Susan!" waving from the side of the yacht; and with a surge of gratitude and dirty water Susan grabs onto the buoy, which is promptly hauled aboard by a pair of strapping young men in Speedos, with her and Barnet-Rees and Susan's dripping wet fringe leather handbag not needing to do much but hang on.

"'Allo," beams the first strapping young man, as he hands Susan up to her feet. He seems to be entirely unaware that it's January. "I am Giuseppe."

"And this is Matteo," says Nancy, indicating the other. "Oh, Susan, I'm so glad to see you," and then hugs her tight, wet bag and clothes and all. There appear to be two more strapping young men in Speedos manning the rudder, or whatever it's called on a yacht. Susan's not much of a yachter: they have a two-week professional development module on yachting every summer, but she hasn't had time to take it yet.

"This is Adrian Barnet-Rees, and we've got to get him out of here," Susan says, "that won't be the last of them"; and Nancy says, "Let the boys worry about that, we've got to get you changed," and then ushers Susan into a very well-appointed cabin and helps her dry out her ammo.

One of the other two yachters is also called Matteo. The fourth is called Domenico but mostly seems to go by a series of nicknames that Susan doesn't fully understand, all of which appear to be lewd. All four of them are on the Italian Olympic rowing team, and won a bronze in something called "the men's coxless four" in Rio, which sounds more like a niche porno than a sporting event. Barnet-Rees is deeply interested. Susan is mostly interested in him not getting shot. Nancy decides to keep them on the yacht for the time being, mostly because Johar thinks that no one's following them on the river but she's identified nine separate cars looking for them on the highways. Meanwhile Susan shivers in a Matteo's oversized sweater and Nancy's yoga pants, rolled up five times at the ankle; Barnet-Rees is wearing another Matteo's fleece dressing gown and a pair of Nancy's wool socks. His clothes, soup to nuts—or, well, socks to nuts, really—are up on deck, pinned to the rigging: dangling hopefully out to dry in the weakish sunshine and a chilly 18 mph breeze.

On their way down to the coast, Johar scrapes up every scrap of info she can on the Fiat and its unfortunate owners. "No Hungarian ties that I can find," she explains. "They were hired through an import-export business in Lyon."

"A frame job?" Barnet-Rees suggests, when Susan asks. "The French hate the idea that the Hungarians might beat them out for 2024. I'd believe they might engage in some rather unscrupulous behavior to prevent that."

"Me, too," says Susan, thinking of Camus and Marchand and that dreadful Parisian party while Barnet-Rees returns to making a series of overtures to the Speedo-clad young men, who all politely, but firmly, ignore him; apparently because the ten hours since Susan last spoke to her are enough for Nancy to finish a cross-Atlantic plane flight and still have time to lure the four of them into willing sexual slavery.

"So if they're trying to pin it on the Hungarians. . . ." Nancy says.

"Yep," Susan says.

"You know what that means, right?" Nancy asks.

"Yep," Susan says. "Johar, we're going to need two tickets to Budapest."

"Weren't you two just in Budapest?"

"We seem to spend a lot of time ending up in Budapest," says Susan. "That's all right, though. I kind of like Budapest."

At Fiumicino they hand Barnet-Rees over to two enormous agents borrowed from the Italians and posing as transit cops who have instructions to wait with him for the next flight to Geneva.

"You'll alert Simone?" Susan says. "If she's still in Paris?"

"Of course, of course," he says, "Switzerland will be much safer," and then he gives her a hug.

Then Susan and Nancy go into the terminal, where they sit back-to-back in chairs in a crowded departures lounge, silently waiting for Johar to come up with something useful on the street-level trace in Hungary and pretending not to know each other. Nancy's phone keeps buzzing in her pocket, rattling the whole line of plastic chairs.

Susan's paperback is still very damp: not ideal for reading. "Who are you texting?" she asks, under her breath.

"Matteo," Nancy says; and Susan asks, "Which one?"; and Nancy says, "Why pick?"

 

7. (grunt work)

In Budapest they're assigned separate rooms in the same hotel, and Susan collects her gear (alias: Desiree Splash; cover: synchronized swimmer—ooh, ankle gun) and then, sidling around the obstacle course made up of the gaze of the security cameras, makes her way up to Nancy's room on the third floor. There they set up both laptops and Nancy gets out a packet of Swedish Fish and four cans of Red Bull and they put Johar on speakerphone. If one agent working data is good, three is definitely better; so at three in the morning Johar finds a solar power industry connection of Camus's who owns a private security company that contracted with another in Italy two days ago, and then Johar and Susan and Nancy run all of his transactions from the four-hour period surrounding and find—in among the online electronics purchases and a transaction, inexplicably, for two value-size packets of cotton athletic socks—a charge for a cab from Ferihegy to a downtown café, and then another from Drechsler Palace back to the airport.

"Didn't Drechsler Palace used to be the home of the ballet?" Susan asks.

"Yeah," says Johar.

"What do you think?" Susan asks. "That's the Marchand connection?"

"It seems likely," says Nancy, though she doesn't sound entirely convinced.

"You guys are good sports for working through these with me," says Johar. "Martinique never helps out with the grunt work."

"Well, fortunately for all of us, Priya," says Nancy. "I'm officially a grunt."

"And I spent ten years officially as a grunt," Susan says. "And honestly, I still usually feel like one."

"Well, then," Priya says, sounding pleased, "Grunt power!"; and Nancy produces a not-very-accurate collection of barnyard noises; and Susan laughs so hard Red Bull comes out her nose.

 

8. (angels)

They approach Drechsler Palace just before dawn, Priya back at the hotel and wired to both of them, though she complains that the split screen gives her a headache. She guides them around to the back and in through a boarded-up ground floor window, and then they unlock the back door for a quick exit, get out their flashlights, and begin their sweep.

"I've got a car on standby," Priya says. "Just a few blocks away so it won't draw attention."

On the second floor Susan holds up a hand, and Nancy pauses, head tilted. Susan is barely breathing. She heard—she thought she heard—and there it is again, a muffled scuffling sort of sound, just across the hall: Susan sidles through the half-open door into what looks like an abandoned dressing room: racks of satin and tulle and a tri-fold mirror in the corner.

"Phil?" Susan says, as quietly as she can, and the scuffling starts up again, frantic: there, behind a door with a lock that neither of them can pick, so Susan kicks it open, nearly smashing it into Phil Collins, who is sitting on the floor as far back as he can get in the closet, bound and gagged with ballet tights, squinting and flinching away from their light.

"Bloody hell." Nancy gets down on her hands and knees and drags down his gag, while, gun out, Susan turns back on the closet to run her flashlight up and down the room, heart pounding.

"He's gone back to his hotel to shave," says Phil thickly. "But he'll be back soon, he always comes back, he—"

"Camus?" Nancy asks.

"What?" says Phil. "No, it's—"

"Boon!" yells Boon, in the doorway. "I framed the French! I framed the Hungarians and then I changed my mind and framed the French! No—I didn't change my mind, I never change my mind! I didn't frame the Hungarians! I framed the French!"

"Wow," says Nancy.

"Mwahaha!" says Boon. "You have been utterly deceived by my cunning plan!"

Susan shines her flashlight in Boon's eyes. He screams and crumples to the floor.

"Get Phil out, Nancy," Susan says, aiming steadily. "Priya? We need that car."

"Already on its way," says Priya.

"Susan?" asks Nancy. "I need your help. He can barely stand."

Susan keeps her gun steady on Boon and slides her left arm under Phil's shoulders, the three of them staggering crab-style closer to Boon, inconveniently moaning in a heap in the only door.

"Boon," says Susan. "I've got a gun pointed at your head. If you try to stop us, I will fire."

On the floor, Boon whimpers, so Susan steps over him, followed by Phil, followed by Nancy, and then they shuffle off down the hall.

They make it all the way down to the back door, throwing it open to find Priya's promised car idling outside; and the driver springs out to help them ease Phil inside so Susan can get her gun back up in time for Boon to fling himself out the door and strike what Susan suspects is intended to be a macho pose.

"You're never going to make it out of here alive!" shouts Boon, over the—is that a— "Men?" Boon yells, and a half-dozen mercenaries in black drop down from the circling helicopter.

"Get Collins out of here!" shouts Susan; and Priya gasps, "What? No—Susan, you can't—"; but Nancy always trusts her, so at her back the car peels away and floors it.

"Take her alive," sneers Boon; which is how Susan ends up disarmed and dragged into their helicopter.

"You know what I don't understand," Susan says, in between bursts of Boon's maniacal laughter and incoherent ranting. They hit her head kind of hard. It's bleeding, which is annoying. "You're American. You're supposed to be on the American team. Why would you go to all this trouble to undermine the American bid for the Olympics?"

"Los Angeles doesn't deserve the Olympics!" Boon shouts. "Los Angeles is a hellhole! New York is great, just fantastic! New York should have the Olympics!"

". . . Did New York even submit a bid?" Susan asks, mopping the back of her hand across her sticky temple. She's pretty sure the ballet tights he tied around her wrists—and seriously, that is an extremely weird obsession—are coming loose. "Does New York even want the Olympics!"

"New York could host the Olympics!" he shouts. They're circling, sinking lower: airfield, Susan thinks. "New York will host the Olympics! New York 2024! And New York 2020! And New York 2017!"

"Okay, there's no Olympics in 2017," Susan says. "And you obviously don't understand how the Olympics works, which—"

"I understand everything!" shouts Boon. "I'm a very intelligent person!" The helicopter bumps to the ground.

"Not ankle guns," says Susan, and whips her hands free and then shoots all the black-clad mercenaries in the knees. Then she hops across their moaning and writhing bodies, shoves the door open, and runs for it: hunched over, keeping low. Grunting and squealing behind her, Boon seems to have picked up someone's gun, because a series of shots rings out nowhere near her person even before she ducks and weaves. Then a dark car zooms onto the airfield and the doors open all at once and a shadowy figure puts a dark lump on the roof and Nancy shouts, "Susan, duck!" so Susan drops to the ground as something whistles over her, behind her, and then explodes.

"My helicopter!" Boon squeals; and two shadows peel away from the car and run over to Susan, helping her up.

"Simone?" Susan gasps, while the other, a very tall, very beautiful woman with very bouncy blond hair is dusting off Susan's arms and her knees and her chest with admirable attention to detail.

"Oh, 'ermione!" Simone crushes Susan to her bosom. "I was so worried! Zees are my friends from the American embassy!"

"Run, Farrah!" shouts another voice from beside the car, "Hurry!"; and they drag Susan up to her feet and half-carry her to the car.

"Susan!" Inside on the seat Nancy hugs Susan so hard her spine creaks, and the doors slam shut. "God, I was so worried!"

"Second left," says the very tall, very beautiful brunette in the passenger seat. "Then a right at that café with the little—"

"Oh, I remember that place," says the very tall, very beautiful brunette driving the car. "Those were delicious."

"Where's Phil Collins?" Susan asks, crushed in between Simone and Nancy.

"He doesn't have any concerts that I know about until June," says Farrah, crushed against the door, "but I think he lives in Miami."

"Not that Phil Collins!"

"Shh, shh," says Nancy, tenderly mopping the blood from Susan's hair. "You have a head wound."

 

9. (time and place)

Phil turns out to be recovering in Nancy's hotel room, wearing a towel on his hair and Nancy's silky pink dressing gown.

"We need somewhere to go to lay low for a while," Susan says, once she's had a shower and put on her pajamas and Nancy has stitched up her head.

"Well, Kate said the Hungarian police have arrested Boon, but he'll probably be extradited," says Nancy. "Too many people want to see him in prison in the U.S. Given the connection with diplomatic circles, he'll probably be tried in New York or D.C."

"Ugh," says Susan. "I don't want to be there for any of that."

"I have a condo in Venice," suggests Phil. "You could come stay with me."

"Italy??" Nancy beams. "I liked Italy! Matteo's in Italy!"

Susan is watching Phil's face. "I think he means the other Venice, Nancy."

"Head wound!" says Nancy, indignantly. "You still have a head wound!"; and Phil says, "But I did mean the one in California," rather apologetically.

 

10. (little umbrellas)

Phil gets twenty-four hours off. Then he has to go into the office to spend, as far as Susan can tell, three straight days on the phone with the IOC, trying to convince them that Boon in no way represents the behavior of average Americans or the American Olympic Committee and will in no way be further involved with the 2024 Olympics because he will be too busy going to federal prison.

Nancy and Susan take three weeks.

"Well," says Susan, stirring her drink with its little paper umbrella. "I guess this isn't so bad."

"Not," says Nancy, "at all." She's got her head tilted in a way that means she's watching the people on the beach, and not, in fact, the ocean.

"Still, though," says Susan. "Eighty-five degrees in January?"

"Five o'clock," says Nancy. "Eight twenty-year-old blonds with six-packs playing volleyball."

Susan looks.

She looks for quite some time.

"Well," she says, conceding; and Nancy snuggles closer to her on the deck chair and clinks their glasses together; and Susan says, "God bless L.A."