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Rogue Agent: Chapter 2
TWO

[in which Baroness gets her own visitor from the past trying to influence her future.]

The most beautiful street in all of Cleveland was a tiny alleyway connecting Euclid Avenue with Prospect. Closed to motorized traffic, East 4th was a quarter mile of brick-paved road lined with chic cafes, shops, and venues of entertainment. It was a popular place for film shoots, with its fairy lights dangling above and street musicians peddling their notes on a summer evening. Its vibrant nightlife captured the imaginations of thousands every evening, not to mention attracting tons of business for those who could afford the rent.

The enormity of that rent was why Baroness had her feet kicked up on a desk in a suburb fifteen miles away, watching the rain patter down while debating whether or not to cancel her plans to drive into Cleveland for lunch. She chewed absentmindedly on the stem of her glasses as she looked over the alley between her building and that of the warehouse for South Rivington Food Place. Baroness had been chosen her office specifically because at the right angle, the view from the window had a strong similarity to East 4th Street, and she could pretend RivalCast had already reached the success she dreamed of.

She was in no mood to see Lucia today. Baroness detested having to sit passively to make small talk under normal circumstances, and it was doubly hard when knowing the person with whom she would be conversing happens to be involved in international espionage. In the spy game, there's no such thing as an innocent question, and Baroness had no illusions that Lucia's invitations to lunch were ever for social companionship. The more she thought on it, the more Baroness was convinced that Lucia's timing made it very clear that ulterior motives were at play. The past few months, Lucia did seem to make a concerted effort to renew their familial connections, so maybe she was hoping deep down somewhere that Lucia was turning over a new leaf. But those connections only seemed to take place in situations where Hax might be around, and Baroness resented the idea of her cousin or anyone else trying to exploit the friendships at RivalCast for any reason.

Baroness was daydreaming about Mysti telling Lucia that her badgering manner of doing things was not okay when a knock broke her reverie. Bio's head popped in.

"Just wanted to let you know I'm leaving some things in Hax's office while we work on that broadcast equipment upgrade project, rather than leave it all spread out in the common area."

"Makes sense," she agreed. "There's not a ton of extra room around here right now, and Hax won't be back for some time anyway."

Bio nodded and closed the door behind him. He wasn't gone a minute before Killer opened the side door which connected his office to that of the Baroness. He grinned at her.

"Look, I know you're trying to find ways to get out of lunch with your cousin, but eating your glasses seems a little extreme."

"Har, har," Baroness rolled her eyes. "What's up?"

"Nothin," Killer replied as he moseyed through the door. "Just checking in on you. Making sure you're okay, seeing if you have the show descriptions from Friday's episode..."

His friend groaned and turned back to her neglected laptop. "I'm sorry. The thumbnails are up, I started the written part and got sidetracked when Miggnor came in to talk about the new intern orientation, and then Varyar needed to go over numbers for the RivalStore inventory. Give me five minutes and it'll be in your inbox."

"No rush, I know you've had a lot on your plate." Killer leaned back on the doorjamb, arms crossed as he watched her furiously type. "That's actually the other thing I came to talk about. I know you're trying to keep busy and keep things rolling, but don't forget to take some time for you, too. You need to give yourself time to decompress. Maybe take a nap in your hammock or something. "

She arched an eyebrow, not taking her eyes from the screen as she typed furiously into her keyboard. "Sleep is for the weak and the dead."

"So you say. Fine, then. You could read a book, head over to the firing range, maybe see if the web ninja's online and wants to play Borderlands..."

He noticed the pounding on the keyboard got a little louder.

"I take it Baron put you up to this?"

Killer sighed. "Your husband loves you..."

"I'll take that as a yes."

"...and was a little concerned that when we got back from RivalCon you went straight from life-threatening venom attack into coordinating the move to the new studio, launching the store, and boosting the workload for the intern program, on top of your normal day-to-day. He's concerned you took no time off to recuperate. He'd concerned your energy has been sapped for a long time. He was also more than a little concerned when you dropped your battle buddy off at the airport and then came home acting as nonchalant as if you'd just returned a book to the library."

Baroness smacked the last few keys for the description and hit send. "Is that what this is about? That I'm not properly devastated that Hax left? Of course it's upsetting. He's my friend, and I miss having him here. But he wanted to go home, and I have a business to run. I don't have time to sit around moping about it."

"True," Killer started carefully, "but I know you, and we both know you use work as an excuse to not deal with things that bother you." He paused. "Have you talked to him since he went back?"

She drew a deep breath. "Of course. But he's been busy on some project ever since he touched down in the UK. I mean, I get he's been away from home for a while, but..." Her voice trailed off as she tossed her glasses onto the desk, lost for a moment in what seemed to be an unpleasant thought.

"But?"

Now was Baroness's turn to sigh. "I don't know. I just... Something doesn't feel right. I can't place the feeling, and it won't go away. And whatever game Lucia's playing...I dunno. Ever since she showed up, things haven't been the same. She represents a life I didn't want. Now she's back, and it bothers me that she's here and Hax isn't. Things weren't the same after she showed up."

Killer looked concerned. "How so?"

Baroness closed her eyes, leaning back in her chair. The rest of RivalCast's staff hadn't been privy to the breakfast conversation after RivalCon, but Hax had. And once he knew the secret...

"I dunno," she said, half-truthfully. "She just...brings up a past I'd like to forget, and her showing up just feels like..."

"An omen?" Killer asked. "Foreshadowing? A foreboding sign of things to come? Do you sense evil things on the horizon, presaged in the guise of a blonde you showing up?"

Her eyes popped open with a flare of teal warning. "She does not look like me."

"Sounds to me like the precursor to a battle of some kind. An epic fight between the forces of good...and evil," he drew the last word out.

Baroness facepalmed. "Killer..."

"No no, I'm just sayin. Think of it like a game. If you want to be effective in battle, you've got to have your head in the right place. Top out your health, your ammo, your shields, because when you take on the big boss, you need to be topped up and ready to roll. Today is your top-up day. You take the afternoon off and go downtown. You won't be far from Coventry, which means you won't be far from that bookstore you like...bookstores make you happy...you see where this goes. Don't think of it as taking a break for yourself. Think of it as recharging to do epic battle in the name of RivalCastia." He raised his eyebrows. "See what I did there?"

Now was the Baroness's turn to sigh. "Yes."

"So are you gonna go?"

"Fiiiiiiiiiiiine."

"Thank you."

"But if I shoot you a mayday text over lunch, you'd better call me back."

"Roger. Wait, you may have to text Varyar for that." Killer's voice took on a suggestive tone. "Candi's stopping by at lunchtime, and with soundproof walls in the office..."

"NOPE!" Baroness interrupted, "do NOT need to hear about that. I'm glad that your relationship seems to be more normal now, and I appreciate needing to snatch alone time when Matthew's not around, but definitely do not need to hear specifics."

"Oh, you won't," Killer cooed. "Like I said, the walls are soundproof."

He ducked back through the doorway as she drew out her Nerf pistol from under her chair, the darts sticking to the glass sidelight as they just missed his ear.

*****

Lucia was already waiting at the cafe when Baroness strolled up to the terrace, her fitted cream raincoat buttoned against a cool late-spring breeze. To the casual observer, they might have been friends, or rivals: a cool platinum blonde with a tight updo and trendy black leather jacket, sipping at a black coffee, the sun at her back giving her sight advantage over the approaching bespectacled brunette. Baroness scrunched her nose a bit as she pulled up a chair, grabbing some tissues from her pocket to wipe off the remnants of the morning's downpour.

"I hope you don't mind," Lucia said, setting her cup on the table as Baroness finally sat down. "The forecast is calling for more showers this afternoon and clear through to the end of the week, so I figured we may as well enjoy the brief bit of sunshine. With this much rain, you'd think we were in England."

Lucia smiled pleasantly, but Baroness knew what she was hinting at and took a deep breath as the waiter came up for her order. She more than willing to walk out if this was the way the conversation was headed. Lucia seemed to sense this iciness and surprised Baroness by backing off the topic.

"So I understand you're getting ready to start your new summer writing group. Any hot prospects in this year's batch of college kids? Whatever happened to that one last year, the one who wrote the series about the vampire knight?"

"Lauren?" Baroness asked, momentarily taken aback. "She graduated after winter term, and has been working at her local newspaper until her MFA program starts in the fall. She re-worked some of the scenes in the original story, and is looking to self-publish this year as an ebook."

"Ah, recruiting more young minds to your independent way of doing things. Work twice as hard for half the pay," Lucia laughed. "How is business, anyhow? I saw your store seems to be going well, and your website said you were looking to expand to opening a publishing arm?"

"Um...well, yes. After Pat the Badger's impressively successful run at Christmas, we started talking about new possibilities..."

As Baroness chattered on, her mind was racing. Nothing in Lucia's question or Baroness's answer were outside of things that were already public knowledge, nor were they questions that any other person would consider threatening or even outside the realm of normal polite conversation. Baroness, on the other hand, knew the inquisitor to be a spy - a very skilled spy, at that - and spies never asked questions without some motive behind it. The innocent questions, in Baroness's experience, were always the most dangerous ones. If she backed off the Hax topic so easily, that meant Lucia had something else on her mind.

"I see," Lucia nodded, "and that does sound like a very creative way of running things. I'm actually surprised you haven't jumped feet-first into it already. By this point, you have to have at least a dozen full books archived on your site - make up some cover art and bulk order five hundred of each. You know you'll sell them, just hop in and get to it."

She smiled encouragingly.

"Erm, you see," Baroness squirmed uncomfortably, "we don't really have the space to store all that extra inventory just yet..."

"Oh? I thought you'd taken that place around the corner from here? Your sister said you fell in love with it the first time you saw it..."

Baroness cringed a little. Playing the family card already was a definite red flag. "We decided to go with something a little less...restrictive, for the price."

"I see. So where abouts did you end up?"

"South Rivington."

"Ah, a very respectable area. Much less expensive, too." Lucia took a sip of her coffee as the waiter returned with Baroness's tea. "I wish I'd have known. I wouldn't have made you schlep all the way out here in between rainstorms."

"It's alright. You know I enjoy short visits into the city."

"Indeed," Lucia agreed, "it's always so pretty here. So many wonderful specialty stores you'd drag me to when we were younger...ah, well. So South Rivington, near one of those professionals plazas?"

Something about the innocently mundane questions was putting Baroness ill at ease, especially because the address was listed on their site and easily searchable. The old spy training she'd buried years ago was trying to claw its way from the recesses of her brain, screaming `Don't tell her any more!', but she was curious to follow this thread of queries back to the real question. "No," she replied, "the Main Street section downtown. We rent the space above Craven Pastries on the corner of Chestnut."

"Ah! I know the place! So yeah, you have plenty of space to grow into around there. Man, I didn't think Dr. Benson would ever move out of that space."

"He...didn't." Baroness was starting to get a feeling where this conversation was headed, and she didn't like it. "One of the selling points was that when he retires, we're going to take both suites. He seemed nice enough at the beginning, but then...I don't know what happened, exactly. He's always complaining about the noise, which is why we sprung for soundproofing the suite."

Lucia smiled warmly. "Ah, yes. He's been like that for years. My friend and I used to toss pebbles up to try and hit his window - he'd always come to yell at us 'hooligan kids,' as he called it."

"At any rate, now he's saying he's staying til his original lease is up next year. Which is good, it lets us grow slowly."

"Always playing it safe. Ah, well. If you change your mind on that, I could see about...persuading him to retire early." Lucia took a final swig from her cup and let the words linger.

Suspicions confirmed.

Baroness set her mug down heavily on the table as a cold wind blew off the lake. "What is it you want, Lucia?"

Her cousin smiled. "Cutting right to the chase, as usual. I have a proposition for you, something I feel would be mutually beneficial to both our companies." She slid a nondescript folder across the table. "You still have clearance to view this, as do the majority of your friends at RivalCast, should you decide to accept our proposal. I was, however, asked to remind you that this is not information shared with our overseas friends, and you are expected to guard it as such."

Baroness drew a deep breath. "So that's why you were interested in Hax leaving..."

Lucia ignored the comment and continued as Baroness opened the folder. "The man in the photograph is Vincenzo Gallo, a New Jersey union organizer with known ties to the Salvatori crime family in New York." She motioned to the waiter for more coffee and tea while Baroness skimmed the rap sheet.

"Petty theft, assault, suspected though not convicted of money laundering, several charges of intimidation and menacing...this guy certainly has a well rounded criminal background, but I'm not seeing why the Agency is interested."

Lucia waited as the waiter approached with fresh beverages, making sure he had left earshot before replying. "We suspect he also has ties to the Lefevre group."

"Lefevre?" Baroness looked up sharply. "The ones behind the French riots some years back?"

"The same."

Baroness let out a low whistle. "So what does a two-bit thug from Weehawken have to do with a French domestic terror cell?"

"An excellent question. Two months ago, intelligence started noticing a series of small but frequent monetary transactions flowing between a known Lefevre agent and Gallo. The sums themselves weren't large enough to flag anything from our internal bureaus, and they were spaced just far enough outside of the normal timeframes that the Agency would normally flag for suspicious behavior. It was dumb luck that made one of the analysts even notice - they were following up on a DOJ search request for something else, and whoever was on the task thankfully had their coffee that morning. When they checked past transactions, the cash transferred amounted to over three million dollars spread out over several banks in New York, New Jersey, and eastern Pennsylvania. But Gallo never seemed to touch any of it. The only withdrawals from any of the accounts, always in cash, were exactly the amounts he used to open the next account."

Baroness took a sip of her tea, trying to think of a logical motive for why so much money would be transferred but not touched, while Lucia pushed another folder across the table.

"Then two weeks ago, Gallo took a circuitous road trip to each bank and either closed the account or had the balance wired directly to a bank in Rio de Janeiro. Gallo then booked a one way flight to Rio for the next morning, checked into a hotel near JFK, had an argument over the phone with someone while in the lobby of that hotel, and the next morning never showed for the flight. The wired money was sent to the account of this man," Lucia tapped another photograph in the folder, "Enrique Rocha. Brazilian businessman, made his first fortune in pharmaceuticals before diversifying to electric commodities and industrial chemicals. No rap sheet, no known affiliations with any crime or terror groups, no reason - on paper, anyway - as to why he just inherited a large sum from a French incendiary group routed through an American crime syndicate."

"None of this makes sense," Baroness agreed. "So what are the theories?"

Lucia smiled. "That's what we were hoping you could figure out."

Things were starting to make a little more sense now. Baroness took a deep breath, then slid the folder back across the table. "Not interested."

The smile faded.

"Really, Penny-"

"Don't call me that. I got out of the game, and you know that."

"Do I?" Lucia's natural haughtiness returned. "Because the last I checked, you were very close friends not only with a British national whose work is embedded into the very fabric of MI6, but also an entire team who are primarily ex-military or worked on classified projects for the DOD. That many people with those kinds of backgrounds just coincidentally coming together? Christ, Penny, you dealt in statistics. You know how it looks. And that's not even counting the business with Da Bark Lurd and the Black Widows. From the Agency's vantage point, you seem to be very much in the game. The question is, whose side are you on?"

The dark clouds returning overhead matched the mood as Baroness fumed, her knuckles white from gripping the tea mug so hard. "That you would even ask that, after what I did for you...after what I gave up for you..."

"Then throw me a damned bone. Go to Rio, spend a few days on the beach, find out what you can on Rocha, come home. You can take Baron or a couple of your buddies along with you for backup. Let me be frank, Baroness; The Agency is willing to pay the RivalCrew to take on little side jobs of a more...sensitive nature than we can readily send our own agents into. It's easy money for work your team is already trained to do. Think about it."

"Leave them out of this," Baroness snapped. "The only reason the Agency would try to set up a mercenary team is if the op is dirty."

"It's not dirty. It's just...sensitive. Sensitive beyond your classification level."

"Yeah, you keep saying that, and I've heard it before," Baroness spat. "And I will keep saying this: RivalCast is not for sale. If the Agency wants to deal in dirty ops, they should at least grow the balls to do it themselves."

Lucia took a deep breath, trying to keep her own ire in check. "The Agency wants RivalCast because you have proven yourself in the field time and again in situations even our best operatives would struggle with, and your loyalty to each other and your country is unsurpassed. Your team's successes are the stuff of legend at HQ. Think of how much further you could go if properly outfitted, how much of an impact your work could have. Once upon a time, you believed in making a difference for your country. What happened to that?"

Baroness said nothing as she looked off into the distance, trying to keep the memories at bay.

"Think about it," Lucia said again quietly. "Talk it over with Varyar if you need to, and let me know. I need someone on a plane to Rio in 48 hours, and I'd prefer it to be the best one. Let me know in the morning." She swept the folders up into her bag and dropped a twenty on the table to cover the check as she stood up to leave.

"Oh, and Penny," she said over her shoulder as she started to disappear into the crowd, "remember, not a word of this to Haxor."

Baroness barely noticed as Lucia disappeared into the crowd. She felt sick, remembering the things she'd left behind years ago in the hopes of having a better life. She'd thought she could lead a normal existence when she gave all that up, but it seemed life had other plans.

The first tear escaped from the corner of Baroness's eye just as the rain began to fall.

*****

Jen McCafferty started writing the adventures of RCM as a joke in 2014 - a joke which snowballed into an entire story universe and some real-life RCM innovations. Rogue Agent is the third book in the series.

All the way to the beginning
Crap, what happened last time?
ON WITH THE STORY!
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