"Susan!" Nancy hissed. "Susan."
"Nancy? What is it? Do you have a lead for me on this contact of Holtzer's? A visual would be great, you know, I'm kind of running blind here."
"No. Sorry. I haven't--Sharon, Rachmaninoff is trying to eat my Shift key, can you please--thank you--"
Susan nodded in thanks to the waiter as he deposited her drink beside her pool chair, and waited until he'd moved on before stretching and covering her mouth with a hand, as though yawning.
"Rachmaninoff's loose in the office again?"
"I don't know why Sharon thought it was a good idea to tame a pigeon, Susan, I really don't."
"What did you need, Nancy?"
"Oh! Yes. Can you tell me where the male G spot is?"
Susan blinked behind her sunglasses. She hit herself deliberately in the shin with the heel of her other foot, at the point most vulnerable and prone to bruising, and winced. She took a long, thoughtful sip of her margarita. It was icy and delicious, made just the way she'd requested it, with sugar instead of salt around the rim, because why would you ruin a perfectly good sugary alcohol drink by adding salt to it when you could add more sugar?
You never got to taste the food and the drinks, in a dream. So she was probably still awake.
"Um," she said. "Repeat that question, Nance? I think there's a problem with the transmission, maybe the wind is--"
"The G spot," Nancy said helpfully.
"Of the male persuasion. Anatomy. Whatsit."
"Nancy, have you been sexting with Fifty Cent again? You know the Cosmo Sex Tips page is not a good place to get ideas for that, right?"
"No! No, I--recently received some intelligence," Nancy said, retreating into operational handbook speak like she often did when she was flustered, "that you might have...that...intelligence?"
"What? Where did you--Nancy, where would you hear something like that? About me?"
"Ummmm," Nancy hazarded musically, followed by a pause. Susan had spent enough years on the less aerobic side of the earpiece to recognise that pause as the pause of someone gathering their nerve to tell their agent that actually, something has gone horribly wrong, and the suitcase with the money has fallen down an elevator shaft and there are seventeen colourful dots converging on the most important colourful dot on the screen and oh yeah, someone blew up the invisible car.
"Nowhere?" said Nancy finally.
"Yeah? That's nothing. Cooper's Kegel muscles are like a fucking vise. I came so hard I literally regressed to a previous life, and the next morning my dick had a fucking U-bend in it. Like a fucking kitchen drain."
"Oh, hi, Susan," said Sharon feebly, as Alan recovered his jaw from where it'd been descending towards the floor, and the new analyst--Mandy? no, Marla--gave Susan an impressed look that suggested she was ten seconds away from asking her to recommend a pilates instructor.
"Ford," Susan growled, "can I talk to you?" and grabbed him by the elbow before she could lose the element of surprise. She yanked him across the room and into the nearest empty cubicle, which was probably Nancy's, going by the number of motivational posters and tiny cacti in adorable pots.
"Oy, hands off the goods, sweetheart," said Ford. "I know it's hard, on account of me having such dangerously raw sexual magnetism--"
"What? No! No, you don't!" said Susan. "And that's--what was that, back there? What are you doing, going around telling stories like that about me? That never happened, the...U-bend thing."
"Yeah? How do you know?" Ford demanded. "You said you didn't remember what happened."
"Well, I don't, but--"
"So maybe it did fucking happen." Ford crossed his arms. "Who gives a rat's arse? Nobody else was there. If you can go around telling people that I'm a bloody sensational lover, whose godlike prowess had you writhing like a landed salmon and wetter than fucking monsoon season in the Philippines--"
"I never said that to anyone!" yelped Susan.
"Right," Ford said. "That was me as well. Well, anyway. We had a magical fucking night and my fucking dick has never been the same since, and that's final."
"Ford," yelled Director Crocker, striding across the room. "Swear jar."
Crocker's new swear jar was in fact a repurposed terrarium, and at the end of every month its contents were converted into a donation to the DC Youth Orchestra. During those months when Ford spent most of his time in the field, the donations were much smaller. Crocker called it Rick Ford's Cultural Tax. Ford called it a fucking disgraceful attempt at fucking victimisation, and insisted on tossing pound coins into it. Or Euros. Or rubles. Or dongs--the Vietnamese currency, apparently, much to Nancy's disappointment. Anything but actual American dollars, was the point.
"Cooper," added Crocker. "The van carrying your parcel's about to pull in, you should probably head downstairs."
"Ooh," said Nancy, returning from the break room with a mug of tea. The mug had a giant ladybird on it. "Parcel, what parcel, Susan? Is your special friend from MI-6 sending you classified gadgets again? Please can I watch you open it in front of Patrick this time, he always makes such hilarious faces."
"Aldo--Albert is not my special friend," said Susan. "And no, Nancy, this is the special delivery from the federal prison. Remember?"
"Riiiiiight," said Nancy, trying to wink.
"What the hell are you birds on about?"
"Sorry, Ford," said Susan. She was not even a bit sorry. "It's a very classified mission. Need to know only."
"Oh, Ford, I want you in this afternoon's meeting," was the Director's last shot. "I think there's going to be a role for you in this thing."
"Oh, good," Susan muttered. "This is gonna be just great."
"So," Susan said, spinning on her chair. "How's prison?"
She was starting to get dizzy doing it, but she kept it up, because the whole point was to show that she had a spinning chair. It was possibly the greatest chair ever invented. It was ergonomic, roomy, cushioned like a dream. It had been specially ordered for Susan after she bribed Patrick from R&D with two hours alone with the latest MI-6 prototypes that Albert-or-Aldo had, indeed, been sending her as a cross between a joke and a mating ritual.
Susan was starting to wonder if her natural musk had overtones of tea, soccer pitch, and vinegar-soggy fries. She seemed to attract British people.
"Prison is so completely tiresome." Rayna rolled her eyes. "It's just like boarding school, only the food is better and nobody is trying to make me calculate a hypotenuse."
"I wouldn't have thought doing favours for cigarettes would suit you, Rayna."
"Oh, please," said Rayna. "I'm gorgeous and I have a criminal empire and millions of dollars. I have a rotating roster of bitches." She inspected her nails, which were impressively shaped and polished, all things considered. Perhaps one of her bitches had some manicurist experience. "They will probably be a frightful mess of lax discipline by the time I get back to them."
"Hey, if we're keeping you from important bitch-herding, I'll drive you back to prison myself," said Susan. "You're the one who volunteered for this."
"I agreed to this in exchange for your idiotic country commuting my sentence," said Rayna. "And I can't believe I have to wear this tracking anklet. Look at it! It's like a bag of sand. At this rate," she sniffed, "one of my calves will be larger than the other. I will have asymmetrical fucking calves."
Normally, Susan thought of herself as an easy-going woman, who cared about other people and tried to be considerate of them unless they were doing something really dumb like committing terrorist acts or trying to get Susan's gun out of her hand. But there was something about Rayna Boyanov that brought out the Amber Valentine in Susan: the foul-mouthed, aggressive badass who didn't give a shit what anyone thought of her. It was refreshing, like stretching a muscle that didn't get used very often.
"Oh, boo fucking hoo," she said. "Matchstick one will be a teensy, weensy bit thicker than matchstick two. I could still probably snap both of them with one hand."
"That's because your hands are like hamburgers," Rayna said, but not as though she was paying attention. She was, in fact, adjusting her hair in her reflection in the oh-so-shiny table of the briefing room.
"Well, firstly, real original there, maybe if you ever ate a hamburger you'd know what a compliment that is. And secondly, I notice you didn't dispute the point."
Rayna heaved a sigh. "What point would that be?"
"That I could take you out at the knees without breaking a sweat, little girl."
Rayna darted a look at Susan, sideways, like a fish feinting at food. Her mouth was doing that thing it did when the natural human instinct to smile came up against years of boarding school trauma, Eastern European stoicism and Oxfordian repression, as well as Rayna's own special brand of reptilian disdain for other human beings.
"And that's why you're the dumb muscle on this mission," she said.
"Undercover as the dumb muscle," Susan said. "Which I am pretty good at, by the way. I seem to remember I fooled the hell out of you."
Nancy ducked into the briefing room as unobtrusively as a six foot woman can do anything, and sat down with a pile of folders on her lap. She was followed by Ford, who stormed into the room and jerked out a chair to sit down. Susan had never seen him do anything like enter a room or walk into a room like a normal person. Everything he did could only be described with the most melodramatic verbs in the English language: skulked, or stormed, or edged, or barrelled. Which was a funny way of describing an entrance, Susan thought. You imagined someone pushing a barrel through a door, puffing with the effort. Or an upright barrel wearing a cowboy hat, teetering its way into a saloon.
"Cooper," said the Deputy Director. "Are we disturbing you?"
Susan blinked and realised that her spinning chair had spun her around to face the wall, which she was staring at while visions of barrels rolled through her head. She kicked her way back around in awkward little increments. On her way around she glared at Rayna, who was giving her the kind of schadenfreude-laden look that Susan remembered from the girls in high school: both the ones Susan had grown up with, and the ones she used to teach.
"No ma'am," she said. "I am all ears."
Crocker lifted her remote and a series of images and blueprints sprang into existence on the wall. Susan recognised Nancy's fondness for orderly dot points and threw her a smile.
"Very well. Let's get started."
"And finally, how are we feeling about this next mission?"
"About...what in particular?" Susan hedged. She was never sure about the extent of Dr. Marshall's security clearance.
"Oh, the usual. Putting yourself in harm's way...the possibility that you might have to harm someone else. And then vomit on them."
"Okay, that whole thing with the impaled guy was disgusting, and you would have vomited too," said Susan.
"I'm sure I would have," Dr. Marshall agreed. "But that's why I work in this nice office, instead of charging around after bad guys."
Charging was another Rick Ford kind of word, but Susan didn't mind hearing it applied to herself. She adjusted the angle of her head on the plush orange cushion, and crossed her hands comfortably over her stomach.
It was standard practice for active CIA agents to have this kind of therapy, to make sure they could be trusted not to blow their brains out or have a nervous breakdown in the field. Crocker had been extra insistent that Susan attend her sessions, as someone who had taken a ten-year break from field work. And Susan didn't mind Dr. Marshall, who wore colourful dresses and had frizzy blonde hair that always looked more frizzy and more frazzled when she'd had to do a session with Rick Ford before seeing Susan.
The last time Susan was here, she'd given some helpful suggestions as to how the whole therapy experience might be improved. She was pleased to see that this time the couch had been liberally strewn with a variety of comfortable cushions.
"Wait," she said. "Were the cushions some kind of test? Are you reading into this? The fact that I picked the orange one, does that mean I have...repressed rage, or something?"
She craned her neck so she could watch as Dr. Marshall tucked a piece of frizz behind her ear and reached for her coffee mug.
"Do you think you have repressed rage, Susan?"
"I don't think so," Susan said, seeing the video of herself during the training exercise at the Academy play out behind her eyes. "I mean, I think I'm getting better. At un-repressing it."
"That's encouraging," Dr. Marshall said. "I do have several reports from the combat instructors who took your refresher course last month. They were impressed at your...creativity while under the influence of rage."
"If that was Symonds, I did not dislocate his shoulder with my bare hands. That happened when he fell backwards. Because I kicked him."
Susan craned her neck again, but if there had been any helpful facial expressions to go along with that Hmm, she'd missed them. She settled back onto the possibly-significant cushion.
"I do have one final question," Dr. Marshall said. "This one's a bit personal, so I understand if you're reluctant..."
"Hey, shoot," Susan said. "Hah. Shoot." She made finger-guns and waggled them at Dr. Marshall, who gave a nervous smile.
"Are you really a tantric sex master?"
Now that she was an active field agent, Susan found she was enjoying baking even more, because she didn't have as much time to do it. There was nothing like relaxing by making a few dozen brownies after a stressful week chasing international drug dealers across four South Asian countries. Besides, it was commonly held in the office that you weren't a proper member of the CIA unless three things had happened: Susan had made you a birthday cake, a mouse had run right over your feet and you had done nothing more than kick at it irritably, and Denise had run some kind of office-wide bet involving your love life.
"That's one down, then," said Marla cheerfully, when this was explained to her. She scraped up the last crumbs of her blueberry swirl cake. "This is totally delicious, Cooper."
Susan could see Nancy about to say, two down, actually, so she stomped on her foot. It had taken all of three weeks for Denise to open a book on when exactly Marla and Anthony from R&D would clue in to the fact that they were eyeing one another from afar like pining, lovestruck puppies, and finally get with the boning.
The whole thing was ridiculous and juvenile behaviour for employees of a serious law enforcement agency to engage in, and Susan had twenty bucks on May 3rd.
"Cooper, Artingstall," said the Director, jerking her head towards the briefing room. "And bring me some of that, would you? I missed lunch."
Rayna, who had given the cake a look like it was about to leap off the plate and absorb itself into her body through the skin of her baby-giraffe thighs, was already ensconced in the briefing room, flicking through a dossier with a bored expression.
There was a mouse in the largest and curliest part of her hair.
"Do you think we should tell her?" Nancy hissed.
Susan watched the mouse.
"Nah," she said. "It looks so happy. Look at it, I think it's nesting."
"If we could get started," said Crocker. "Agent Brooks has submitted his final report, so we can move forward with updated information about our target. His name is Anton Zhivenkov; Russian national, fifty-six, based in Moscow but has bases all around Europe. Ex military, now running weapons and making a fortune doing it. Now, we and half a dozen other agencies have been trying to get at him for years, but the guy's famously paranoid. He won't deal with anyone new: only people he knows, or who have been vouched for personally by two people he knows. And if he decides he doesn't like or trust a new acquaintance, he expresses his strong displeasure with whomever recommended them."
Susan winced as the picture on the wall screen suddenly changed to two graphic portraits of very, very dead men. There wasn't a lot left of what had once been their heads.
"Smart," said Rayna, nodding along like this was a sales strategy meeting at a Walmart.
"He's like a one-man country club of arms smuggling," Crocker finished. "But if we can get him to make a deal with a trusted individual, and catch him in the act of delivering the goods, we can chop his entire organisation off at the head. Ford, for the love of God."
Susan jumped in her chair as Ford's grim face appeared from under the table. She took a small amount of satisfaction in the fact that Rayna's jump was even more obvious than hers.
"What the fuck were you doing down there?" Rayna demanded, crossing her legs with a snap like a scandalised nun. "I've had men thrown into my crocodile tank for less than that."
"Of course you have a crocodile tank," said Susan.
Ford sneered at Rayna as he stood up. "Don't flatter yourself, sweetcheeks. I don't go sniffing around criminal twats like yours. Unless it's necessary. For a job. I once fucked a married couple in Serbia, both of 'em at once, while I had a broken leg. It was fucking excruciating. I had my dick in one of 'em and my tongue in--"
"Ford," said Crocker, in long-suffering tones. "Finish that story, and I will have you chained to a desk in an Alaskan field office for six months. And I'll make sure it's the six months without sunshine. Plus that'll be five dollars for twat, which is three pounds thirty-six pence; yes, I looked up the exchange rate. Now sit in the damn chair."
"No, look, that's a fair question. What were you doing under the table?" asked Nancy.
"Sweeping," Ford said darkly. "For bugs."
"Anton Zhivenkov," said Crocker, "was a close associate of--"
"My father," said Rayna. She was lounging in her non-spinning chair. "How very convenient for you."
"Your arrest was well publicised, but we can work with that. We're staging a prison break. Cooper, as we discussed, you're going to use that...Amber Valentine identity," Crocker said, as though tasting slightly sour milk. "A bodyguard is the perfect cover for you to stick close to Boyanov. You'll take Nancy with you, she can coordinate the mission out of a local field office."
Nancy sat up straighter, looking thrilled. After a taste of helicopters and machine guns, Nancy had decided she didn't want to be stuck in the DC office for the rest of her working life, but most of what she really enjoyed about missions was the travel. If she could sit in an apartment in Seoul and do a spot of shopping in between monitoring video feeds, she was perfectly happy. Susan had been briefly worried that she was doing to her friend exactly what Fine had done to her--just because she liked having Nancy in her ear didn't mean she was going to deny another woman her shot at working towards being a field agent--but Nancy had laughed that off, halfway down a bottle of champagne, and told Susan not to be silly.
"I'm backup, then?" Ford said. "I'll tail them, blend into the background. I am a ghost. I am undefuckingtectable."
"No," Crocker said. "Zhivenkov doesn't trust anyone; he has agents shadowing his agents. He'll pick up on any attempts to be sneaky, and then you'll all be in the shit. Better to brazen it out, have everyone in the open. Ford: you'll be posing as Boyanov's lover."
"Fuck off," said Rayna.
"You cannot imagine how little I care about your opinion," Crocker told her. "You will toe the line exactly, or I'm having your sentence doubled."
Ford made a disgusted sound. "Why can't Fine do it?"
"Agent Fine is engaged on a vital mission in Argentina. Otherwise, you're right. He would have been my first choice." Crocker gave Ford a stern look. One day, Susan hoped to be half as poised as the Deputy Director. "You are still on my shit list after your little going-rogue tantrum, pal. You'll do what I tell you to do, or forget Alaska, I'm calling my contacts at the State Department and having your entire work visa revoked. Just try me," she added, as Ford's face gathered itself into a furious stormcloud of incipient obscenity.
There was an awkward silence.
"Cooper," said Rayna in a voice like the world's saltiest margarita. "Is there a rodent in my hair?"
"Do you think they'll give me a watch?" Nancy asked. "I mean, I know I'm just the support staff, but I really feel I could benefit from a Rolex with a night vision scope. Ooh, or a laser, Tanisha told me they were making one with a laser which could cut through anything."
"Tanisha's main joy in life is lying to agents, Nancy, so I wouldn't count on it."
The elevator doors opened onto the R&D basement and the first sound to come through, apart from the ever-present hum of machinery broken by the occasional explosion or deafening whine as something metal sliced through something else metal, was Rick Ford's voice.
"--tied me to the bedframe with my own garrotte, harnessed up, and fucked me until my prostate felt like it was holding its own personal Guy Fawkes night. Of arses."
"Oh, my," said Nancy.
Ford's audience was most of the R&D division staff. Anthony looked deeply alarmed. Tanisha appeared to be taking notes.
Patrick, who had brought his on-again off-again boyfriend to the Christmas party last year and also seemed to be involved in a deeply fucked-up, long distance relationship with his counterpart at MI-6 that was equal parts corporate espionage and flirtatious hatesex via Skype--Jesus, British men were so weird--was standing with his hands going alarmingly nerveless around something that looked like a miniature fire extinguisher. Susan kindly rescued it from his limp grasp and set it on a table, which had the effect of startling Patrick out of his daze.
"Careful with that!" Patrick said. "It's a prototype."
"Wow," Susan said to Ford. "It is really eating at you that I don't remember that night, isn't it?"
"Don't be fucking absurd," said Ford. "If you can't remember, it's your loss, Cooper. We are better at sex than two people have ever been since the history of the world began. We are the fucking Torvill and Dean of sex."
"Ice skating," said Nancy knowledgeably.
"I once ice skated down the frozen Danube, wearing only the top half of a fireman's uniform," said Ford. "And I only had one fucking skate. And I was being chased by a pack of rabid wolves, who only backed off after I defeated their leader in single combat and ripped out his--"
"Patrick," said Susan. "What have you got for us?"
Patrick visibly shook himself and beckoned her over to a workbench. "We've made some improvements to the lipstick flamethrower. Now, if you twist the base clockwise before opening the lid, it will emit a scentless gas which will paralyse any attacker for ten minutes; just hold your breath if you're going to use it, we already had to line Sravanthi's testing cage with cushions during the development phase."
"Don't breathe the gas, got it," said Susan. She reached for the lipstick, but Patrick pulled it out of range.
"Twist it counterclockwise, and it emits a current that will short-circuit any simple piece of electrical machinery. Just make sure you're holding it by the base, here--it's lined with rubber."
"Come on. You guys spend thousands of dollars on these things and you can't even fake the Chanel packaging? There are bootleggers in Singapore who could do a better job than you!"
"And here's your new watch."
Susan took it, already resigned to the worst, but it was actually a nice watch. It had an elegant leather strap, and a pinkish mother-of-pearl face with thin silver Roman numerals.
"Hey," she said. "Does this mean I'm actually oh, nope, there it is." The back of the watch was engraved with a message. "Wet kisses from everyone at Porn Palace," Susan read.
"We figure Amber Valentine was an adult film star before she became a bodyguard," Patrick said.
"Patrick, I thought we were friends," said Susan.
"We are colleagues," Patrick said without batting an eye. "Friends would bake friends red velvet cake for their birthday, like they did last year."
"I was in motherflipping Nepal on your birthday, Patrick, and you know that. What was I supposed to do, mail you cupcakes from Everest Base Camp?"
"I can still change the engraving to include a reference to pegging," said Patrick, darting a glance at Ford.
"Okay, Jesus. What's this thing on the side do?" Susan asked.
"Is that the button for the laser that can cut through everything?" asked Nancy, eagerly. "Tanisha said--"
"Tanisha is pulling your leg," said Patrick.
"I told you, Nancy--"
"It can't cut through everything. Just most things."
"You fucking idiot," Rayna screeched down the stairs. "I just snapped my fucking heel! Do you know how hard it is to get Louboutins in prison?"
"That's a really sad story, now keep moving," Susan said, yanking Rayna away from the door and across the roof of the building. Rayna tried to hop along on her remaining shoe for a few yards, then gave up and kicked the thing off. It flew across the roof and narrowly missed impaling a startled group of pigeons.
"Susan," said Nancy in Susan's earpiece. "I don't want to alarm you, um, but there is that small matter of the building being wired with explosives."
"Working on it," Susan said, looking frantically around. "I did have my grappling-hook purse, but I threw it at that guy's head when he was coming at me with a knife. I could try the fire hose but I don't think it's gonna be long enough. No chance you could get a helicopter over here?"
"I am not made of helicopters," Nancy said primly. "Wait. Yes! That building's having its windows cleaned. Let me bring up the satellite, and--right. There's a platform at the level of the fifteenth floor, east wall. That'll get you the rest of the way to the ground, and I'll come by with the car."
"Got it," said Susan. "Rayna! Bring your useless spaghetti arms over here and help me with this. Unless you'd rather be blown up."
"Ugh," said Rayna venomously, but she could move quickly when she wasn't hobbled by heels the size and shape of artist's pencils.
"How's Ford doing?" Susan panted, as she and Rayna were unrolling the length of fire hose.
"He's still got Zhivenkov in custody. Well. Zhivenkov is still unconscious, and Ford is charging down the fire stairs with Zhivenkov over his shoulder and a gun in his other hand. Maybe two guns? It's hard to understand what he's saying. He's got a knife between his teeth."
"Charging, huh," said Susan. To her horror, her voice sounded kind of fond.
"You know, Susan, I thought that story of Ford's about the nineteen Sicilians and the chainsaw juggling wasn't quite believable, but I might change my mind after this."
"Will you two stop chattering like demented peasants and get us off this rooftop!" snapped Rayna.
The hose was unravelled all the way now. Susan dashed to the side of the building furthest from the setting sun and quickly considered logistics.
"I'll tie this around my waist, you grab hold of me, and we jump," she said, already starting on the knot.
Rayna looked at the hose. "And what if it snaps under your badly-dressed bulk?"
"Alright, you can stay here and explode."
"Ladies, you've got less than two minutes," said Nancy.
"I'm jumping on three," Susan said. "One--"
"Shit," muttered Rayna, and locked her arms around Susan's neck .
"If you throttle me, I'm gonna laser you right in the eyelash extensions," said Susan, giving the knot around her waist another firm tug and praying she'd remembered the right place to tie it without damaging any vital organs. There was something useful about a good layer of bodily padding, anyway. "Two. Three."
She launched them from the top of the building--or rather, tipped them, because she wasn't exactly getting much of a springboard motion with Rayna hanging off her neck like an angular millstone.
"OhJesusshittingChrist," Rayna said, and locked her legs behind Susan's knees and buried her face in what Albert-as-Aldo would have referred to as Susan's bosoms. It was probably a strategic move. Susan felt unflatteringly like the door from Titanic, which had hardly been in any state to appreciate a bedraggled and bodice-y Kate Winslet being plastered bodily against it.
They came to a groaning, precarious halt two feet above the very edge of the window-cleaner's platform; "Ow, God," said Susan, as the hose dug itself into painful parts of her anatomy. "That's gonna bruise. Oof." She kicked out with one foot and managed to hook it around the railing of the platform. The hose gave a very unsafe-feeling shiver.
"Rayna. Platform. And work out how to get us down to the ground."
Rayna disentangled herself, looking murderous and crumpled, but managed it nimbly enough.
"You know, you'd be pretty good at this if you didn't insist on wearing those stupid shoes. And oh, great, now I have your lipstick on my cleavage," Susan said, sliding with great care down the last few feet of hose. "I look like I've been mauled by someone from Sex and the City. Oh man. I don't think--oops--" She tumbled onto the platform with a loud crash and no grace at all, then lifted her head and flapped a hand at Rayna. "Down."
Rayna had the controls in her hand; she pressed a button and the platform began to sink towards the ground.
"One minute," said Nancy. "Ford's almost at the foyer, I think he's going to make it, but can that thing accelerate at all?"
"Oh, I'm sorry, let me put it in fifth," Rayna hissed, one hand over her ear. "It's a fucking window cleaning mechanism, Arbuckle--"
Susan's heart was hammering and everything seemed brighter and more urgent by the time they were nearly at the ground. She and Rayna stepped over the railing and jumped--Rayna once again displaying a cat-like lightness on her feet that made Susan want to give her the finger.
"Oh, you are shitting me," said Nancy. "Sorry, sorry--Susan, I've just picked up Ford and Zhivenkov. Apparently Ford disabled the bomb, but his earpiece was knocked out so he couldn't tell us. What? Really? He wants me to tell you that he disabled it with his toes. And a paperclip."
"No explosion?" Susan said, leaning her hands on her knees. "Well, I wasn't looking forward to trying to evacuate the street in fifteen seconds, I can tell you that."
"No explosion," Rayna said flatly.
"Yes, lovely, no explosion, but if the building doesn't blow up, Zhivenkov's second in command is going to try and get back in to retrieve those files. I can ask one of our people to fry the servers remotely but I need you to block the sidewalk for a minute--just a small crowd will do. Diversion, please and thank you," said Nancy urgently.
"Diversion," Susan said, "right," while she glanced around wildly and her mind raced--all she had in her pocket was her lipstick and a stash of poison pills, and being able to electrocute small appliances wasn't going to be any good at the moment--was there some way she could--
"Oh, for God's sake," said Rayna, and dragged Susan close by a painful pinching grip on both arms, and kissed her.
Susan could hear a muffled, high-pitched sound in her ears; she wasn't sure if it was Nancy making it or herself. When it settled down, she could hear exclamations and laughter and some shouted sentences that Susan didn't need to be able to speak Russian in order to translate as bordering on pornographic. It had been a while since Susan had done this (that she could remember; waking up next to Rick Ford with an aggressive hangover did not count) but an indignant sense of competition kicked in pretty fast, and then they were off to the fucking races.
Rayna was still a loud kisser. But, Susan had to admit, that seemed a lot less offputting when you were on the other side of it. Loud translated into both forceful and tender, despite Rayna's bony little fingers digging into Susan's flesh through her jacket, and Rayne tasted like coffee and smelled like magnolia flowers.
"--fine now, okay, yes, ahem," Nancy was saying.
Rayna pulled away with a final sound that was both efficient and wet, and gave her most unimpressed, I'll-have-you-thrown-in-my-crocodile-pit look to the assembled crowd. Who were, indeed, effectively blocking the sidewalk. She snapped something haughty in Russian that was clearly equivalent to what the fuck are you all looking at.
"Er, good work," said Nancy. "Sit tight, Kiran's worked her magic on the servers, and I'm almost there. These Russians are very rude drivers, I must say."
"Was that really necessary? I was just going to slap you!" Susan said to Rayna. "In fact, I'm still giving serious thought to slapping you."
"Don't be so fucking homophobic," said Rayna, gingerly patting down her own hair with the morose air of one inspecting the rubble of their house after an earthquake. "Hm. That was not as good as Ford said it would be."
"Oh, Jesus Christ. Rayna, nobody on the planet is as good at this stuff as Ford says I am. And this--" waving a hand between them "--has less to do with homophobia and more to do with the fact that you are a terrible person."
"Please," Rayna scoffed, "I am stunning, as if that matters," and Susan revisited the slap idea with real enthusiasm, but before she could act on it, the car screeched to a halt beside them.
"Get in!" Nancy called through the open window.
Susan climbed into the passenger seat, and left Rayna to squeeze herself into the backseat with Ford and the unconscious arms dealer.
"Go!" Rayna said, before she'd even pulled the door closed.
"Back!" Ford barked, pointing a gun at Rayna's face.
"Ford, what the hell?" Susan yelled.
Ford fired over Rayna's shoulder--Rayna made a squeaking sound and ducked--and Susan finally noticed what Ford had noticed, which was that Anton Zhivenkov's furious lieutenant, now bleeding from a shoulder wound but still standing, was keeping pace with the car.
"Traitorous bitch," he growled, and grabbed at Rayna. The car, jerkily, began to pull away from the kerb.
"Ow, motherfucker," screamed Rayna, grabbing for the passenger seat as her neck arched backwards. "Get your claws out of my fucking hair!"
"Boyanov, hold still," Ford said. "I'll shoot him. Through you."
Rayna's voice climbed another octave. "You fucking will not, you psycho!"
Susan pulled the lipstick from her pocket, leaned out of the window, and twisted the base clockwise. "Rayna, hold your breath!" she shouted, and opened the lid.
Rayna's attacker made a spluttering sound, and the next thing Susan knew they were driving away, leaving him motionless by the side of the road. Rayna dragged the car door closed with a slam. They sped across two lanes and into a clear patch of road, racing towards the airfield.
"Paralysis gas," Nancy said. "Nice! I think that went well, Susan, don't you?"
Susan collapsed back into her seat. "Red light. Nancy, red light!"
Nancy slammed the brakes.
"Fuck!" came from the backseat, in angry unison.
"What is that?"
"Vanilla sponge with salted caramel buttercream," Susan said. "I always make it to celebrate the end of a successful mission."
Rayna eyed the piece of cake as though it were a disappointing henchman or a dried-up tube of mascara.
"The only thing that's paleo around here is going to be me, princess," said Ford through a mouth full of cake. "By which I mean I'm going to go Paleolithic on your arse: hit you on the head with a tree branch, pillage your village and poison your fucking waterhole if you don't shut the fuck up and eat the fucking cake."
Nancy snickered. "Pillage your village. That's a good one."
"You and your pathetic excuse for an inferiority complex can both go fuck yourselves, Ford," said Rayna, but she said it with what was, for Rayna, a kind of amiability. Oh, God. If the two of them became friends, no amount of professionally mandated therapy was going to prevent Susan from going prematurely grey like her Aunt Moira. Also, Director Crocker's swear jar was going to earn itself Platinum Sponsor status and probably its own seat in the dress circle.
"I have fucked myself, sister. With half a fucking vegetable stand, and only my own saliva for--"
"Rayna," Susan said hastily. "The cake goes in your mouth or it goes in your hair. Pick one."
Rayna rolled her eyes and took the plate. The slices of cake were a bit soft and melty at the edges because Nancy had insisted on cutting them using Susan's laser watch, but it didn't seem to affect the taste.
"You're the one who should be feeling inferior," Ford was saying. "Call yourself a fucking asset. Kissing to avoid suspicion, that's the oldest trick in the book."
"You're just jealous," said Rayna. She tasted the tiniest amount of buttercream from a single tine of her fork. "If you'd done it, it wouldn't have distracted anyone."
"That is a fucking lie," said Ford, pointing his own fork at her face. "If it'd've been me, Cooper would have been screaming like a fucking steam kettle. I would have eaten her out right then and there on the street, undies around her ankles, the works. That is how committed I am to the job."
Susan opened her mouth. Susan closed her mouth. Beside her, Nancy was making a constant, tiny sound, like someone had pricked a hole in a balloon and was stretching it.
"I went to boarding school, and now I am in prison," Rayna shot back, after tasting an infinitesimally larger amount of buttercream. Some time next century, Susan figured, she might actually get down to the cake. "I am a grandmaster of cunnilingus. And fellatio, too, but men are such bloody children about sex."
"Yeah?" Ford growled. "I gave Cooper four orgasms in five minutes. That is probably a world fucking record. I'd like to see you do better."
"I just bet you would," Rayna sniffed, at peak hauteur.
Susan looked down at her own piece of cake and tried to convince herself that she wasn't uncomfortably turned on by this entire conversation.
Nancy leaned her entire torso sideways without shifting her gaze, like the Tower of Pisa. "Susan."
Susan groaned. "God, Nancy, do not say you are throwing your hat in the ring here, because--you know Ford made most of that shit up, about me, and I've always thought of you like a sister--"
"Oh, goodness." Nancy made a lemon-swallowing face. "No. Never fear. You know my loins belong to my dear Fifty Cent. I was just thinking, if you could give me a hint as to which way you're leaning, I'll split my proceeds from Denise's book with you. Rayna's getting 5:1 to Ford's 3:1 but that's only because you've already slept with him, not just made out with him front of some Russian teenagers."
"How does everyone know about that?" Susan said.
"It was on YouTube," Nancy said apologetically. "One of the teenagers had their phone out. It's alright, Kiran's taken it down now. And, well. Downloaded it. To the CIA servers. Actually," she added, brightening as she watched Rayna and Ford, "I bet I could get decent odds on a threesome, what do you think?"
"You deluded fucking Cockney clown," Rayna was saying, pausing only to draw another forkful of frosting through her dark red lips. "I could fuck both of you with my eyes closed and not even break a sweat, and you wouldn't be able to move the next day."
"You know what," Susan said. "Put me down for fifty."