John straightened the bowtie that Harold had carefully tied around his neck. He always felt a bit stiff when he had to wear a tux, but it was a necessary evil, as was the way Zoe Morgan was hanging off of him, dressed in a short and glittery golden dress.
“Gordon James von Hamilton the Third,” Harold had said in the briefing, “the grandson of a wealthy oil baron and a third generation magnate of von Hamilton Oil and Gas.” The picture Harold had printed showed Gordon looking pleased as he shook the hand of a distinguished foreign delicate. “Mr. von Hamilton the Third is worth several million dollars alone, solitary of his company’s shares,” Harold added.
John studied the picture. Gordon looked every bit the millionaire, with a thousand dollar watch and an even pricier designer suit. He was flashing the cameraman a megawatt smile that John guessed he practiced in the mirror. “So what are you thinking?” John asked, “Someone’s after his fortune?”
“There’s no evidence to suggest otherwise,” Harold replied, “But anyone who wants a piece of his inheritance will have to deal with a rather intense gauntlet.” Harold taped a few more pictures of bulky men with earpieces and uniforms. “He’s attended by a handful of private bodyguards. All of his funds are evenly distributed in several highly encrypted accounts. It would be impossible for anyone to rob him without accessing him directly.”
“Even you?” John teased.
Harold raised an eyebrow. “It would take even me several hours, if I could avoid triggering one of five failsafes.” He studied the board. “He’s a smart man, and he knows it. He knows how much he’s worth and he’s taken every precaution.”
“Then what’s the problem?” John wondered aloud, “Even if someone is ballsy enough to go after him, they’d be hard pressed to get close. He seems safe enough to me.”
Harold shook his head. “The Machine doesn’t seem to think so, and I believe I know why.” He handed John a card embossed with gold lettering- a gala invitation.
“A fancy party?”
“A gala, honoring financial pillars of the community,” Harold corrected, “And Gordon is among the attendees. His private security detail had the night off since the event is under close surveillance. But the guards at the gala will be watching everyone, not just him. If someone wanted to get close to Gordon, this would be the opportune time to do it.”
“You want me inside the gala to keep an eye on him.”
Harold nodded. “I’ve requested Miss Morgan to be your plus one, lest you draw any suspicion while keeping close proximity to Gordon.”
John tilted his head. “You don’t want to be my date?”
Harold’s lips twitched. “As much as I would enjoy that, I’m needed here to keep an eye on the security feeds to alert you of anything the guards may miss.” He adjusted his glasses. “You can make it up to me later.”
John smirked. After a moment, a thought occurred to him. Just one more question.” Harold met John’s gaze, and John asked, “If this function is for the independently wealthy, why would anyone at the gala go after his fortune?”
Pursing his lips, Harold answered, “The threat may not be from someone already attending the gala. You know, with a little computer know-how and a fake invitation, anyone could get in.” Harold winked.
So there they were, John posing as estate manager John Warburton Ripley, and Zoe as his adoring wife. She fit right in with her designer gown and a diamond choker. John wasn’t sure he wanted to know where she’d gotten it.
“You know, I don’t know why I couldn’t have been the rich attendee,” Zoe whispered as they entered the venue where the gala was being held.
John chuckled. “The guest list is primarily composed of old, rich, white men,” he answered, kissing her on the cheek to cover his reply, “I think you would have been a bit too progressive for them.” He added, loud enough for others to hear, “Either way, you look ravishing.”
In John’s ear, Harold muttered something about “revealing” and “questionable hemline.”
“What was that, Harold?” John asked.
“Nothing,” Harold replied quickly, before saying, “Gordon is already inside. He’s chatting up one of the benefactors by the bar.”
John led Zoe over to sit a few stools away. He couldn’t hear very much over the live music and the general chatter of the guests, but he had a good view of the ballroom. It was full of men and women dressed in their flashiest, priciest clothes. The gala was an opportunity for the rich to show off the wealth they’d accrued and create opportunities to obtain more. John tried not to curl his lips at the withered old men with much younger women dangling from their arms, hoarding their money like misers.
“Maybe we shouldn’t just let someone rob Mr. von Hamilton,” John murmured, “He could afford to lose a few mil.”
“Greedy millionaire or not,” Harold began with a tone of admonishment, “You’re here to protect him, not cast judgement.”
Zoe interrupted John with a hand on his shoulder. “People are watching us,” she whispered, “Buy a girl a drink?”
John nodded, flagging down the bartender and ordering a cocktail for her and a whiskey for himself. When their drinks arrived, John returned his attention to the floor. “Anyone on the guest list send up a flag?” John asked Harold.
“Nothing yet,” Harold answered, “My biggest concern right now is that drink in your hand.”
John paused, the glass halfway to his lips. “Why?”
There was a moment of silence. “Well, alcohol is known to alter one’s mental state, and inhibit judgement and reaction times, not to mention… well, lowered inhibitions…”
“Are you saying that I can’t hold my liquor?”
“No, just… please stay on task, Mr. Reese.”
John raised an eyebrow at the use of “Mr. Reese” instead of his first name, but he didn’t have time to dwell on it. Zoe was fiddling with his bowtie. “Harold does good work,” she commented, “You clean up real nice, anyway.”
He smiled at her. “Worried I’m out of your league?”
She chuckled, pushing a lock of John’s hair back from his forehead. “You wish,” she joked, “but if I have to pretend to be married to anyone, I honestly can’t complain that it’s you.”
Harold cleared his throat, but John thought nothing of it. “You know, we’ve pretended to be married before.”
Zoe shook her head. “You and I aren’t cut out for domestic life. But being married to you in high society is a bit more…”
“Palatable?” John suggested.
Zoe’s smile widened. “Exactly.”
Considering her previous statement, John shrugged. “To be honest, I’ve been thinking. About domestic life.” Zoe didn’t say anything, so he continued. “It was never really in the cards before, but-”
“Kiss me,” Zoe interrupted. She was looking at something over John’s shoulder.
Instead of waiting for John to catch on, Zoe wrapped her hand around the back of John’s neck and pulled him in for a kiss. John blinked before remembering where he was and who he was supposed to be. He closed his eyes and kissed back, cradling Zoe’s face and tangling his fingers in her hair.
Only a few seconds passed before Harold cleared his throat again, louder this time, causing John to break the kiss. Zoe was looking over John’s shoulder again. “Crisis averted,” she whispered, talking John’s hand and placing it on her waist. “We almost got made. Try to remember that you’re currently married to me.”
John ignored the jab. “Harold, did you see something?”
“I thought someone was moving in on our number,” Harold replied coldly, “Guess I was mistaken.”
John glanced towards the end of the bar where Gordon was still chatting jovially with the other guests. “He’s not going anywhere,” he commented, “If someone does come after him, I’ll see it.”
“It would probably be easier to see an incoming threat if you weren’t so captivated by Miss Morgan,” Harold hissed.
“We still have covers to maintain,” John argued.
“Speaking of which,” Zoe inserted, downing the the rest of her cocktail, “von Hamilton is on the move.” She pulled John away from the bar onto the dance floor, where many affluent couples were swaying to the live jazz. Gordon had paired up with a pretty young blonde and was sweeping her across the floor.
Satisfied with his view of their number, John struck up conversation again. “I thought you hated jazz.”
Zoe chuckled. “I still do,” she answered, “but sometimes one must overcome one’s personal tastes for the greater good.”
“Does that extend to your taste in men? Or women, should the need arise.”
The fixer smiled, eyes twinkling, “Wouldn't you like to know. But we’ve already established that you’re easy on the eyes.”
John smirked. “Glad some people seem to think so.”
All of a sudden, John’s earpiece screeched with feedback, and John flinched. When the ringing subsided, he asked, “Harold? What the hell was that?”
“So sorry, Mr. Reese,” Harold answered, “I’m experiencing some… technical difficulties.”
“If I didn’t know any better,” John said between his teeth, “I’d say you were trying to sabotage our marriage.” When Harold didn’t say anything, something occurred to John. “Harold…”
Harold sighed. “Yes, Mr. Reese?”
“Are you… jealous?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Harold snapped, sounding affronted, “This marriage isn’t real, it’s simply a charade, why on earth would I be envious of fabricated marriage with a… a… a grifter whose sole purpose is to… improvise.”
Jon’s smirk deepened. “I did ask if you wanted to be my date.”
“I’m not jealous!”
Before John could tease his partner anymore, Zoe drew his attention and pointed out a disgruntled looking man with a crooked tie inching his way towards Gordon. “Hold on,” John murmured, “I think we’ve found our guy.”
“Where?” Harold asked, the chilly edge disappearing from his voice.
“He’s by the northwest corridor, corner of the dance floor.”
Harold had jumped to look at the camera feeds. After a few moments, he informed John, “His name is Burnie Harding, he works for von Hamilton. He’s posing as film producer Grayson Deeks, who was marked as being in attendance after failing to RSVP, but is most definitely absent.”
John didn’t even have time to process the information before Burnie reached Gordon and grabbed him by the shoulder. The look on Gordon’s face told John that Burnie was armed and the weapon was digging into Gordon’s back. Burnie whispered something in Gordon’s ear, and Gordon shakily excused himself.
“Authorities, now,” John hissed as he abandoned Zoey and chased them towards the men’s room.
“I’m trying,” Harold replied, “but the security radios are on an encrypted line, you’re on your own if you don’t want to blow your cover.”
Shaking his head, John ducked into the restroom. Burnie had Gordon with his back against the wall and was holding what looked like a shiv to Gordon’s neck. Gordon had his phone in his hands. Burnie was demanding that Gordon log into his accounts and transfer the funds.
Burnie looked up with wide eyes when John entered the room. Brandishing the shiv in John’s direction, he cried, “D-don’t come any closer!”
John held out his hands. “I’m not here to fight you, Burnie.”
“H-how do you know my n-name?!”
“I know a lot about you. I know that you work for von Hamilton. I know that you make a fraction of what Gordon makes and work twice as hard.”
Gordon’s face flushed. “Hey! I put a lot of effort into maintaining my- !”
He was silenced by Burnie pointing the shiv at his neck again. “Son of a bitch doesn’t do shit!” Burnie swore, “And he has everything!”
John took another step forward. “I get it. If you got your hands on even one of his accounts, you could build a whole new life, right?”
Shaking, Burnie waved his shiv around some more. “You don’t know anything about my life!”
Seeing his opening, Gordon wrenched the shiv from Burnie’s grasp. He slashed wildly as John lunged forward to stop him. Gordon turned on John, catching the sleeve of his tux. John barely glanced at the tear before grabbing Gordon’s arm and twisting it. Gordon cried out and dropped the shiv, and John slammed Gordon’s head into the sink. Gordon slid to the floor unconscious.
Burnie was cowering in the corner, sniffling.”I never wanted to hurt him, “ he whimpered, “I just want to provide for my family.”
John knelt on the floor in front of him. “You got a wife and kids at home?” Burnie nodded. “And guys like Gordon spend all their money on themselves.”
Burnie nodded again. “It’s all backwards,” he sobbed.
John patted him on the shoulder. “Stay put,” he said softly, “I think I can turn the tables a bit.”
Sauntering out of the bathroom, John straightened his tux and approached one of the security guards. “A few of the guests were fighting in the men’s room,” he whispered, “I think Mr. von Hamilton attacked Mr. Deeks.” The guard rushed from his post to check on the altercation, and John scanned the room for his date.
Zoe was talking to another man back at the bar, nursing another cocktail. John joined her, slipping an arm around her waist. “Making new friends?” he murmured.
Smiling, Zoe leaned into John’s shoulder. “I was just telling Mr. Welling about your latest acquisition.” Her smile faltered when her eyes landed on his sleeve. “What happened?”
He glanced at his ruined tux. “Just a guest who had a few too many drinks,” he replied, “I think I’ve had enough excitement for one evening.” He smiled apologetically at Mr. Welling and led Zoe out of the party.
As they wove through the crowd, John leaned in an murmured, “I’ve got another job for you.”
“Burnie Harding versus Gordon James von Hamilton the Third. I need you to make it go away, and make sure that Mr. Harding is properly compensated for damages.”
Zoe looked up at him. “I thought you were here to protect von Hamilton?”
John shrugged. “Turns out that Burnie needed me more.” He opened the door for Zoe and they ducked outside. “It’s going to be messy. Burnie’s facing identity theft on top of assault and battery. Think you can handle it?”
Zoe’s eyes lit up. “Consider it done.”
Once they were on the sidewalk, Zoe stopped John with a hand in the middle of his chest and examined the tattered fabric of his sleeve. “You’re not hurt, are you?” she asked.
John shook his head. “Lucky this wasn’t a rental,” he joked with a hint of a smile.
Zoe chuckled, her hand still on his arm. “We made a pretty good team back there.”
Glancing skyward, he said, “I’m pretty sure I did most of the work,” he teased.
“I’m serious. We were quite the power couple. We could solve a lot of problems. Take care of a lot of powerful people.”
John smiled at her warmly and took her hand off his shoulder. “Too bad I’m spoken for.”
Zoe scoffed. “As if Harold is the kind of man I’d want to piss off.” Still smiling, she hailed a cab. John opened the door for her. Before she got in, she kissed John on the cheek and whispered, “Give Harold my best.”
John watched as her cab drove away. Over his earpiece, Harold had fallen oddly silent.
Neither man spoke again until John arrived back home. John discarded of his jacket at the entrance and undid his tie.
“Another job well done, Mr. Reese,” Harold said from his chair in the living room, his voice sounding anything but congratulatory. He was holding an empty glass and staring at the vase on the coffee table.
There it was again, the ominous “Mr. Reese.” Tilting his head, John asked, “Am I in trouble?”
“I don’t see why you would be,” Harold replied, standing up and hobbling towards the kitchen, “You neutralized the threat, did you not?”
John nodded. “Burnie Harding and von Hamilton are both in custody now. Zoe and Fusco will take care of the rest.”
Harold set his glass in the the kitchen sink. “Then you should have nothing to worry about.”
John came up behind Harold and placed a hand on Harold’s shoulder. “If you weren’t comfortable with me going undercover with Zoe-"
John felt Harold tense. “Why would I have been uncomfortable?” Harold asked, too fast to be a casual question.
Circling around, John turned Harold so they were facing each other. He looked Harold in the eye and replied, “You tell me.” He studied Harold’s clenched jaw and darkened eyes. “It was just a job, Harold,” he whispered, “You said it yourself.”
“You could have easily passed without all the teasing and flirting, and… and touching.” Harold looked down at the floor. “Undercover charade or not, I thought Miss Morgan would have been more conservative about how far she went with you.”
John’s brow furrowed. “I hadn’t really pegged you as the possessive type, Harold.”
Clenching his fists, Harold growled, “I am only possessive of what is rightfully mine.”
John’s heart skipped a beat before starting to race, and his breathing turned ragged. “That includes me?” he asked, his throat suddenly dry.
“Yes. Yes it does.” Harold grabbed John by the wrist. “And I intend to show the world that you belong to me.”