Happy holidays once again! Last week, I presented part 1 of Cynthia and Derek’s prequel story. If you missed it, you can read it right here. And after today’s entry, you might want to read the story that started it all, They Shoot Flamingos, Don’t They? A Christmas(ish) Tale.
As a reminder, to meet this year’s story challenge, my heroine received the unexpected Christmas Eve gift of an open bar tab in Vegas. Of the six random words I did not use last week, I used four this week: northern, knuckle, dove, and pure. Happy reading!
They Shoot Lounge Lizards, Don’t They? A Christmas(ish) Tale, Part 1
Shortly before 10 PM, after an excellent dinner and just a couple more shots of very fine whiskey, I walked two blocks to the fake volcano. It seemed absurdly early for the last show in Vegas, but it meant seeing tall, dark, and delectable that much sooner, so I hung on the edges of the crowd and waited for him. The volcano rumbled to life, spewing smoke and fake magma to the delighted oohs, aahs, and flash photography of the crowd. After a few unimpressive minutes—at least, if you’ve seen the real thing—the show was over.
And so was any hope I’d had of catching up with Mr. Right Now. Derek had stood me up. Second guy in one night. A girl could get a complex from less.
I refused to be daunted and chalked it up to the weird energy of the holidays in Vegas. Maybe I should have gone to one of those Hallmark-Christmas-movie towns, where the big-city girl with a bad attitude but a pure heart—yeah, I saw the flaw in that plan pretty quickly. Maybe a Utah ski resort or a normal, northern where at least I could have enjoyed some seasonal snow. Maybe there was still time, if I caught a red-eye flight.
I waited for the easily entertained crowd to thin so I could catch an Uber back to my hotel to grab my bags on the way out of town. Then I tall guy near me shifted and opened up my eyeline, and I found myself staring at bachelor number two. Images of fresh powder and snow angels melted into fantasies of a much hotter nature.
My heart kicked up a notch, but before I could even smile, I pegged a slight slide of Derek’s gaze to his left. It was the kind of thing you could easily miss after three months out of the game. God, I wish I had. Instead, I glanced to my right to see what was so interesting. Bachelor number one, aka Johnny Lounge Lizard Cisnero, was just feet away from me.
What were the odds that both of them being in the same place at the same time and bearing down on me was a coincidence? Yeah, I knew the answer to that. And I recognized the hustle Derek had lured me into. The Santa’s Toy Swap. I was the toy. Aka bait.
“Well, damn.” I muttered as Johnny reached my side.
He gripped my upper arm until it hurt.
I hadn’t seen Johnny’s arrival, but I could still pick out the four guys with ponytails and matching black suits along the edge of the crowd who shot surreptitious looks our way. The bad news: he’d brought muscle, the kind few second-rate Vegas acts could afford. The good news: so had Derek, and his colleagues not only formed a barrier between me and bad guys I was sure were packing heat, but they were forcing said bad guys to retreat inside to the safety of the crowded hotel lobby.
If Derek was worried about potential civilian casualties—and I knew he was, because that’s part of the gig—he covered it well. He strode toward Johnny and me, but Johnny had a good fifty pounds on me and my stiletto-heeled boots proved useless in digging into the cement sidewalk.
“And here I thought you were a nice girl looking to get laid,” Johnny said, pulling me along so fast, I nearly tripped over my own feet. “You were working with the good guys all along. Such a disappointment.”
“I am a nice girl. I’m not with them. And I was looking for a date.”
He laughed. “If that’s true, you’re just a pawn. Even more pathetic than I thought.”
We’d exited the crowd and stepped into the shadows. Civilians safe: check. Away from prying eyes: check. Mad as hell at his characterizations of me: double check.
I dropped to my haunches, lowering my center of gravity and pulling Johnny off-balance. Derek’s men were closer than I’d realized, and everything happened at once. One man dove for Cisnero’s arms and pinned them behind his back. Another pulled out a gun and shot a dart into his neck. A third raised his hand in a signal to someone. And I clenched my fist and pulled back my arm to land a well-deserved punch on the lounge singer’s smug mug.
I’d also shifted my weight, putting me right in line with a fourth man who’d also been tempted by Johnny’s punchable face. Before my punch could connect, pain crashed into my cheekbone and stars exploded behind my arms. Felled by friendly fire. Well, maybe not friendly as much as on the same side of the law.
My legs buckled and I would have smashed something else on the sidewalk if I hadn’t fallen straight into the waiting arms of my second date.
I sat on a folding metal chair in a small, back room of the casino where they secured poker chips and obscene amounts of cash, with an ice pack pressed to my face.
From what I could gather, Vince Cararre, aka Johnny Cisnero, had been hustled into a waiting black van. Trust me, you do not ever want to be hustled into a waiting black van. The lounge singer must have been into some pretty shady shit to get that treatment.
While two of his associates watched security feeds of casino muscle rounding up Johnny’s—or Vince’s—bodyguards, Derek barked orders into his cell phone. At least, I wished he were barking. He was actually talking in that smooth, sultry way of his, making me not want to stay furious with him.
I’d been observing all three men for ten minutes, which was nine more than I needed to know they were private contractors who were discreet, proficient, and hired to take care of jobs that a government agency couldn’t do in-house.
Derek stepped in front of me and squatted down on his haunches. “Sorry you took that hit. I didn’t realize how rusty your reflexes are.”
“Rusty? That’s it.” I threw the icepack on the floor and immediately regretted it. The shiner his associate—Jensen, but that was probably a fake name, too—had given me still stung like a sonuvabitch. “You wouldn’t have pulled me into this without the Agency’s approval.”
“The Agency’s insistence, actually.”
“So why didn’t you inbrief me?
“There wasn’t time. For the record, your LoveStruck match is up to his ass in money laundering for a cartel.”
I knew what Derek—or whatever his name was—was doing. Drawing me in. Inviting me to ask questions. Trying to win back the trust he’d lost. That last bit wasn’t going to work, but it would be nice to know why his associate had nearly broken my face. “Which cartel? South American? Eastern European?”
“American,” Derek, aka what’s-his-name, answered. “Call me old-fashioned, but I think it’s nice to catch homegrown criminals once in a while. No oligarchs with delusions of world dominance causing international incidents. Just some guys with thick Jersey accents flouting our domestic laws.”
“That is nice,” I said, because it really was, as much as I hated to agree with him. I ventured a glance at the icepack, then crossed my arms over my chest. “Still, it would have taken all of five minutes to prepare me.”
“But then you would have been a willful participant, and for us to cover the liability, you would have had to be working for us.” He picked up the pack and held it out to me. “There wasn’t enough time to clear the paperwork.”
“Damn it.” I snatched he cold bag from his hand and pressed it to my aching cheek.
He grinned and I had to look away so I wouldn’t smile back. “Damn it because your face hurts, or damn it because you hate to admit I’m right?”
Well, if he was going to be such an ass, scowling instead of smiling was no problem. “Damn it because you’re a liar.”
He nodded. “Fair enough.”
Behind him, Jensen or whoever the hell he was, said, “Derek, casino security has all of Cararre’s men. Security took their guns and are walking them to the front door.”
“Make sure their van is waiting for them,” Derek said. Both of his colleagues left, and he turned to me. “I called in a favor with the pit boss so we wouldn’t have to get the casino management involved. That means we only have this room for five more minutes and X is going to want to talk to you, so if there’s anything you want to ask me, you should do it now.”
“Your ex? What does—”
“Any questions for me, Cynthia?”
Point taken. He knew my name, and knew it was real, not a cover. Did I want to know his? Would he tell me the truth? Did it matter? “And you are…?”
“Derek really is my name. Winston isn’t. I was an Army ranger for four years, until I took some shrapnel that made me too big a liability for the government to send out on special ops.”
“So they hooked you up with a private group.” The story wasn’t an unfamiliar one. And it hinted at something more. “You said you dragged me into this at the Agency’s insistence.”
“They don’t have a place for you in the field anymore, but your previous supervisors are worried you might get bored.”
I tried to scowl harder, but I only hurt myself and settled for rearranging my icepack in a pointedly annoyed way. “Then I suppose thanks are in order for entertaining me.”
He laughed, all honey and whiskey and seduction. I refused to be intrigued by it. Much. “The sportswear company is a good deep fake.”
“That’s because it’s real. The company makes a real product, turns a real profit. I even show up at a board meeting every now and then.”
More understanding dawned on me. So much had been right in front of my face, and I’d missed it. After just three months out in the cold, it was like I was a newbie recruit. “And your uncle who gave you the star-up money, that was Uncle Sam.”
“Yours and mine.”
There was a knock at the door and he cracked it open, exchanged some whispered words, then pulled it open wide. “X, this is Cynthia. She lives up to her file and then some. Cynthia, Ms. X. Our boss. I’ll leave you to it.”
Then he was gone, thick dark hair and long eyelashes and smooth laugh, gone forever for all I knew. Not that it mattered. Much.
I turned my full attention to X. She was small but commanding and wore a black dress that was a lot less slinky than mine. She had pale skin and wore bright red lipstick. Her black hair was pulled into a severe bun on top of her head. Her gaze was so piercing, I couldn’t look away from it. I’ve stared down trained assassins who are less scary than X. Although, I realized, there was nothing to say she wasn’t a trained assassin herself.
“How’s your face?” she asked.
“Getting better.” I laid the icepack on the floor as if to prove my almost-true statement.
“You never should have taken that punch. Your skills are rusty. Nothing we can’t fix.”
“So this was a test?” My tone sounded testy, but that’s just because I was back to being furious. If I was right, that and not the timing was the reason they’d kept me in the dark, which meant Derek had lied again.
“No,” Ms. X answered. “It was a short-turn op and we needed to get someone with the right skill sets on the ground fast. You’ve been trained, you were close, and your affinity for dating apps was icing on the Yule log.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Did you tweak Johnny’s—Vince’s—profile to attract my attention?”
“Just a bit. Lucky for us, he’s not very observant and your tastes are rather…adaptable.”
She glanced at the closed door and I could almost hear her wondering what common trait Vince and Derek shared that had me lusting over both of them in the space of a few hours. It was the eyes. I’m a sucker for a man with beautiful, intense eyes. Not that I would tell her or Derek or anyone else that. They knew too much about me already.
“But you are interested in hiring me?”
She crossed her arms over her chest and frowned. Maybe I shouldn’t have asked. “After tonight, we’re interested enough to bring you on for a trial period. Similar benefits as your last job, twice the pay.”
I opened my mouth to speak, to see what else I could get out of her.
She held up a hand. “No negotiation.”
“I was going to say, I’m pleased to accept your offer,” I lied.
“Good. I’ll have the paperwork ready by 2 PM tomorrow. I’ll send a car. You can sign on the way to the airport.” She turned and knocked on the door. It swung open and Derek stepped inside.
“Are congratulations in order?” he asked me.
“They are,” Ms. X answered. She frowned as she glanced between us. I would have put my money on that look being pity, but my people reading skills, like everything else, apparently, were going to hell in a handbasket. “Derek, bring your new colleague up to speed on company policy.” She turned to me. “Until tomorrow,” she said, and then she left, closing the door behind her.
“What policy?” I asked, but given the way she’d said it, I was pretty sure I didn’t want an answer.
“There are lots of policies, but if I had to pick one,” he shrugged a shoulder, “I’d guess the one about no fraternizing.”
“No fraternizing? As in…”
He nodded, but reached out his hand to me. I took it and he pulled me to my feet, where I stood way too close to someone who was off limits for fraternizing. He brushed his thumb across my knuckles. “You know,” he said, “you’re not officially an employee for another fifteen hours.”
“That sounds like a technicality.”
He grinned. The man should never be allowed to grin around defenseless women. Or poorly skilled ones. “People get off on technicalities all the time.”
That was it, the last pick-up line he needed to make me his for the night. “Did I hear you mention something about having a room here?”
“It’s a suite. It even has a small Christmas tree in it.”
I stepped close enough to feel his body heat. “Anything or anyone you’d like to put under that tree to unwrap?”
He reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a tiny microphone. He switched it off and dropped it into his hip pocket. “Come to think of it, there is.”
“Damn it, Derek, you could have warned me. Who was listening? I’m going to be working with these people.”
“Don’t worry,” he said, pulling me with him out of the room and down the narrow hallway to an elevator. “Everyone knows how rusty you are. They don’t expect much.”
“You’ll pay for that.” Maybe I would tie him to the bed, tease him, then go sleep on the sofa for the night. Then again, I wasn’t that stupid.
“While you’re scheming about how to get back at me, let’s talk about the rest of our evening.”
As we stepped into the elevator that only went to one floor, the highest one, he pressed his hand into the small of my back. All my bits had already been a-tingle, and now his touch made every inch of me merry and bright.
“Fifteen hours,” he repeated. “You’ll want to shower and be all pretty for your meeting with X, so that’ll take an hour.” He closed one eye and squinted the other at me, like he was making an assessment. “And while I peg you as a woman who prefers a good eight hours of sleep, I’ll bet you can do just fine on four. That leaves ten hours for us to kill.”
“Nine.” I did my best to look more interested in the gilded elevator walls than our conversation, even though we both knew it wasn’t true. “We’ll need an hour for breakfast. And thank you for dinner, by the way.”
“Fed you dinner, did I? Lucky for you, I’m not the kind of man who thinks a woman owes me anything for buying her dinner.”
“Lucky for you, I’m the kind of woman who wants to do very naughty and nice things for you anyway.”
He slid his hand up my spine, and I closed my eyes and forgot where we were in our conversation. “So, about those nine hours,” he whispered in my ear.
“Hmm. Yes, how will we pass the time?”
“Working on your skills.” He pressed an achingly soft kiss to my lips. The elevator bell dinged and the doors slid open. He led me by the hand into his penthouse suite. “We’ll start with endurance.”