“This man is your assignment,” says Michael, dropping a glossy headshot onto the table. “His name is Bay Houghton, and he’s the CEO of Oceanic Air. He has contacts in the Air Force. We think he’s passing critical US defence information to US enemies – but we can’t prove it, and we can’t get the information we need from the outside. We were able to place you in his building – you’re consulting with the company for three months, during which time you should have multiple opportunities to obtain the information we need. You’ll finish out the contract to avoid suspicion, decline to renew it, and come home.”
Nikita swings back in her chair and picks up the briefing folder. It’s heavy. Long assignments always involve a lot of prep: boring in the extreme. If Nikita had wanted to work for an airline, she would be.
On the other hand, three months above ground are not to be sneered at. “Three months? Can’t we just hit him until he admits it?” she asks anyway. Better not to seem too eager around here.
“Ha ha,” Michael says, but Nikita sees his lip twitch up and gives him her best grin. “When you’ve read that, I want you to talk to Amanda about your strategy. Birkhoff will brief you on what you’ll be doing to any networked computer you can get your hands on.”
“Nikki doing what I tell her? This I can’t wait to see,” says Birkhoff, and Nikita rolls her eyes.
“Whatever, geek,” she says. “When do I go in, Michael?”
“Three days,” he says. “Is that enough time?”
Nikita scoffs, and Michael gives her a tiny smile. “Please, boss,” she says. “Can’t wait to get out there.”
Nikita’s heels click on the tile as she walks to her desk. It’s tough to kick someone in the head in shoes like these; they make her take smaller steps and look harmless. The effect is calculated – and Nikita likes the shoes; they’re beautiful, elegant. Expensive. Appearance is important: Division knows that, and so does Nicola Smith, airline consultant. The shoes match her blouse, the skirt she’s wearing matches the jacket. She looks professional, put-together, smart – and perfectly normal. Even a little dull.
She slides into her chair and switches on the computer, glancing at the clock on the desk. 8:03: perfect. Early, but not unusually so. She logs in and sits quietly while the computer logs her on, suppressing her irritation. Company computers: slow processors, minimum amounts of RAM, maximum amounts of security clogging up the system. It’s not how she would run a business.
She reviews her desk calendar while she waits, trying to figure out when she’s going to be able to get into Houghton’s office and plant some tech. She hasn’t even met him yet.
There’s a tap on her door. “Come in,” she says, and smiles as the door opens. It’s a nice smile: she knows because she spent days rehearsing it with Amanda. Small amounts of even top teeth showing, eyes slightly crinkled, mouth open a little. The smile says, I’m a pro, I’m efficient, I’m feminine and won’t challenge you. Hi! The man at her door smiles back – people usually do.
He comes further into the room and she recognises him – Bay Houghton himself, in an expensive suit that still doesn’t quite fit him. He gives her a broad smile, displaying his shiny white teeth. “Ms Smith? I’m Bay Houghton.”
Nikita rises and holds out her hand to shake his. “Please, call me Nicola,” she says. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“And you should call me Bay – I insist,” he says. Nikita observes his eyes flicking over her body, his slightly sweaty palm, and tilts her head slightly. He’s attracted; well, she wanted access.
“Thank you, Bay. I’m so delighted to be consulting with Oceanic Air. Your reputation precedes you.”
“We’re just thrilled to have you with us,” he says, pressing their hands together. “Now, I feel so bad I didn’t come by and meet you earlier. Why don’t you have lunch with me today?”
Nikita smiles. “That would be just lovely.”
“Alright then! I have a meeting, I’m afraid, Nicola, but I’ll come by at 12:30, if that’s okay.”
“That’s just fine,” she says, and keeps smiling until he leaves. She allows herself the tiniest crook of her lip, then turns back to her computer.
She fakes a bathroom trip during lunch and manages to plant the bugs in his office and computer – Houghton’s secretary, like most, takes his lunch at the same time as his boss does so he can be constantly on call when Houghton’s in the office. Back at her desk, Nikita logs in to her computer and tries to get her bugs to talk to her.
She frowns. Nothing doing. They won’t run. Birkhoff had assured her that they would get around the standard company security. She taps around a bit before figuring out the problem: as a contractor, she doesn’t have the access a long-term employee would, which is just ... great. She could fix the problem herself, but it might draw some attention. She taps her lip thoughtfully, then picks up the phone. “Hi, IT? Yeah, I have a problem.”
Ten minutes later, a guy puts his head around the door.
He's smiling in a way that strikes Nikita as unexpectedly sincere. He's young, his dark hair is a little tousled, and he's generally, Nikita thinks to herself, pretty cute in a completely harmless kind of way.
“Hello,” she says automatically in her Nicola voice. “Can I help you?”
He comes all the way into the room. “No, I, uh - I think I'm looking for you, actually. Nicola?”
“Yes?” Nikita slides her hand under the desk to the knife she has concealed there. Sure, this guy looks harmless, but the most harmless-looking guy she ever met turned out to be Division's best cleaner, so she's not taking any chances.
“I'm Daniel - I'm from IT.”
“Oh, hi!” Wow: Nikita was expecting something a little more Birkhoff-y. She turns on the Nicola smile. “Right, I phoned - I've been having a little trouble with my permissions?”
“Right,” says Daniel. “Well, let me - uh -” he comes over to the desk and there's an awkward moment; Nikita pushes her chair back and stands as he moves in a little closer and their bodies are briefly pressed together from neck to knee. Daniel leaps back and actually goes a little pink, which Nikita thinks is kind of charming; she decides this is okay because he's not carrying a weapon in the three most common places, which means he's probably not here to kill her.
“Oh, I'm so sorry,” she says, injecting a little breathiness into her voice. “How clumsy of me!”
“No, no, I uh,” he's waving her off.
She steps back from the desk properly. “Here, please, sit down.” He does, bringing up the command line and starting typing. Nikita settles herself on a corner of the desk and amuses herself by letting her skirt ride up a little; she's had seminars with Amanda on exactly how convincing she can be when crossing her legs like that, and Daniel definitely notices. His ears turn pink. But he's turned resolutely towards the screen and he's typing away, logging into her system using admin overrides. Nikita flicks her eyes away from the screen; it's not like she needs to watch this. She focuses on Daniel instead. He really is pretty cute.
“So,” he says, frowning at the screen, “How come you need the employee level of access?”
“Oh – “ says Nikita. “Well, to be perfectly honest, I just wanted to be able to run my portable Firefox on these computers.”
That actually drags his attention away from the screen, up past her legs, to her face. “Really? You know that’s against company policy?”
Nikita gives him a smile – it’s half-way between the Nicola smile and the one she uses on Birkhoff. It’s actually pretty close to her own. “I know. Mr Houghton said it was alright, though – I’m consulting, I’m expensive, and I give the best value for money when I get to use my own tools.”
He laughs. “I hear that,” and he returns his attention to the screen.
On Friday, Nikita’s walking down a corridor when she sees Daniel in the distance. He waves, and she nods back; apparently he takes it as an invitation because he pivots to hurry after her, catching up as she rounds a corner. “Hi,” he says.
“Hi again,” she says back. She keeps walking; momentum is crucial in these shoes.
“So,” he says, “This is a little sudden, and I hope it’s not creepy or anything, but would you like to go see a play with me?”
“What?” says Nikita, so startled she actually stops for a second. She wobbles disastrously and rights herself, absolutely horrified; if Amanda could see her she’s spit tacks. She fights to recover her composure.
“You know, a date?” he says. “To this play that’s on at the theatre in town. They’re amateur, but they’re not too bad. Chekhov.”
“A date?” she repeats. “I don’t know, Daniel, I’m flattered, but...” But Division doesn’t really approve of us dating civilians we’re not trying to get information out of.
“So come!” he says promptly. “Next Friday.”
Nikita pauses. He works here ... I can probably sell it to Michael. “Okay,” she says.
He breaks out into that sincere smile again, and Nikita finds herself smiling back, just a little.
“Anything else to report?” Michael asks, as he always does, at the end of that weekend’s reporting session. He’s already flicking his briefcase shut; Nikita is the very best, after all, and she’s never answered that question in the affirmative.
Nikita doesn’t hesitate. “I’m seeing someone.”
Michael, half-way to standing, stops in his tracks, and she allows herself a tiny, sarcastic smile. “Sorry,” he says, “You’re what?”
Nikita draws the moment out for a little while, standing herself and stretching, before putting him out of his misery. “I determined that it was unusual for a woman of my age and appearance to be single,” she says precisely, and then adds, “plus he’s cute and he asked me out.”
Michael groans and sits back down. “You know, we don’t let you out of Division so you can make booty calls.”
“Don’t over-react, boss,” she says. “He works at Oceanic Air, has more access than I do, and it helps my cover ... and he’s got a great ass.” She laughs at the look on Michael’s face, leans on the table.
“You know I’m going to need a name.”
“Daniel Monroe,” Nikita says. “Mid-twenties. Parents in Mass. He works in IT. Wants to be a web designer – very Googleable, that should make it easy for you and Birkhoff.”
“Right, because Google is how all the best black ops government agencies get their information,” says Michael tolerantly. He writes the name down and stands. “You have my provisional OK for ... what, dinner and a movie?”
“The theatre, actually.”
“The theatre? Oh, right, because that’s where all the script kiddies hang out.”
She kicks at his head, telegraphing so he gets out of the way in time.
Michael laughs. “Touchy. One date, Nikita, until we’ve done a background check. We can revisit this next week. But you know Division policy on agents and relationships.”
“It’s just a date, Michael. Part of my cover. A nice part, but still my cover.”
Three weeks later Nikita’s having lunch and making another date with Daniel, Michael’s words at their last check-in ringing in her ears. The background check came back clear, Nikita, but don’t get attached to this guy. Division doesn’t want you getting close to a civilian. Nikita’s not too worried. She knows Michael has a soft spot for her and won’t turn her in; anyway, it’s not that she’s attached to Daniel. It’s that she’s only got so long above ground and she may as well enjoy every second of it. When she’s not bugging Bay Houghton’s office, anyway.
“Hello? Nicky? Hi?”
She zones back in and smacks Daniel gently. “Don’t call me Nikki,” she says. “Anywhere’s fine for me, Daniel, honestly. You know I don’t know town very well.”
“Yeah, but you never pick,” he says, twirling terrible cafeteria spaghetti awkwardly around his fork. “We’ve been dating for nearly a month and I don’t know your favourite kind of takeaway. What do you want to do?”
I don’t know, she thinks. I have no idea.
“Okay,” she says, sitting down in front of Daniel and enjoying his expression as he looks at her. They’re out at a restaurant; it’s not very expensive, but it’s nice, and she dressed to impress. “I know what I want.”
“You do,” he says, sceptically. “After, what, six weeks, you would like to express a preference related to food? Activities? Sex? Anything, in fact, other than your favourite pair of shoes?”
“Yep,” says Nikita, triumphantly. “What I want is to tell you a secret. And then I want to go bowling.”
“You want to tell me a secret and then, in that dress you’re wearing, go bowling?”
“And eat a hotdog.” Actually Nikita doesn’t really care about bowling, although she does like hotdogs. What she really wants is to get out of this restaurant that is being watched by Division before they notice her and Daniel. Also, she wants ...
“Okay, the secret?” she says. The restaurant is noisy: this should be safe. “The secret is my name isn’t really Nicola. I changed it professionally.”
“Seriously?” He looks a little shocked. “So, what, you’re a Mary? Jane? No, no, wait, Shania?”
“Daniel!” She rolls her eyes. “My name’s Nikita,” and she takes advantage of his surprise to grab his arm and drag him from the table. “Now? Bowling,” and she smiles at the hostess, “So sorry, he’s not feeling well, men, you know,” and they’re outside the restaurant and getting a cab and then Daniel’s wrapping his arm around her and laughing.
“Like that old French spy film?”
“Yes, okay? It’s not funny, Daniel!”
“It’s a little bit funny.”
“Okay,” she says, “I want something else, I want you to stop laughing!” but she’s laughing herself, so it probably doesn’t have the sting she meant it to.
“Nikita, you need to listen to me,” and Michael’s being firm, which is a little dull. “You need to stop seeing Daniel.”
“Division is overreacting about this,” says Nikita flatly. “I’m just having fun, he doesn’t know my real name. He calls me Nikki. Like Birkhoff,” and she lets enough of her scorn for the latter come through and hopes it reflects on the former.
“You can’t just do what you want, Nikita. If Division thinks you’re compromised, they’ll take steps, do you understand?”
She laughs. “Come on! He’s just a normal guy. He’s no danger to anyone – last weekend he picked up a spider in a glass and took it outside, for god’s sake. He’s a geek.”
“Birkhoff’s a geek.”
“Daniel thinks I’m an airline consultant! And besides, Michael, we’ve only got two weeks to go here. Our surveillance is done, we have enough to take Houghton down, we’re just waiting it out now. No-one and nothing is going to be compromised and in two weeks, I’ll be gone.”
A week later she’s lying in bed with Daniel. It’s late, they’ve messed around, and they’re kissing and for a second she can’t stand the thought of losing this. Horrified, she pulls away and rolls over, away from him.
“What’s wrong?” he says, worriedly.
“Oh, you know,” she manages. “Work. Stress. The usual.”
“Well, hey, it’s okay,” he says, rubbing his hand between her shoulderblades soothingly. “Long weekend coming up. We should go up to my parents’ cabin, take a break, just not think about anything else for awhile.”
Next weekend she might not be here anymore. “Yeah, that sounds nice,” she says, still looking away. “I’d like that.”
“If that job’s too stressful, you should let it go,” he says, rolling over and snuggling up behind her.
“You know I can’t, Daniel,” she says with a sigh.
“The airline would find another consultant.” She knows what he thinks of her supposed job, of both their jobs: just killing time before they find something better, more challenging. Hah.
She shakes her head. There’s no point thinking about it: Division doesn’t let its agents go. “Too much would have to change.”