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Houseboat on the Nile [MultiFormat]
eBook by Tinnean

eBook Category: Gay Fiction/Romance
eBook Description: Spy vs. Spook Book 1 Mark Vincent is WBIS--Washington Bureau of Intelligence and Security. Quinton Mann is staunchly CIA. Mark thinks the CIA is full of dilettantes who leave him and the rest of the WBIS to clean up their messes. Quinn thinks most WBIS agents are sociopathic loose cannons. So they don't exactly get along. Of course, just because they don't like each other doesn't mean they can't play mind games on each other. Or sleep together. But when an explosion at Mark's apartment sends Quinn to the morgue to ID a body, he has to reevaluate his position on denial.

eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, Published: 2012, 2012
Fictionwise Release Date: April 2012


10 Reader Ratings:
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Chapter One

Just Another New Year's Eve

I

* * * *

I stared out of the window of the office I used on those rare times when I was in town, which was two, maybe three times a year at most. Although lately....

Mr. Wallace, the man who ran the Washington Bureau of Intelligence and Security, had requested I stay in contact. I'd worked for him for almost fifteen years, and while I wouldn't do it for anyone else, when he said jump, I was willing to ask how high.

Well, mine wasn't to question why, and I didn't know for certain, but I had my hopes.

Maybe he'd finally let me loose on that shit Robert Sperling, who was the Director of Interior Affairs.

Director of Asshole Affairs was more like it. He'd cost me a good team a number of years back, and I wanted him in my crosshairs. So far The Boss--and yeah, that was in caps--had said no, but he was a smart man, and I had no doubt he had a reason for keeping Sperling alive.

One day, though, The Boss would turn me loose on him. I pictured Sperling hung up by his thumbs while I slowly peeled the skin from his pathetic dick.

I smiled, then shook myself out of that pleasant reverie.

It was New Year's Eve, but as far as I was concerned, it was just another day. Looking up, I could just make out the gunmetal-gray sky over the roof of the building opposite. There was no threat of snow hovering over the District, but the temperature was below freezing.

Aside from that, it was Standard time; even though it was only four thirty, it looked later.

What the fuck was I even doing in DC at this time of year? Usually, The Boss had me in Melbourne or Seoul, maybe London or Prague.

Or Paris.

If I were there, I'd get in touch with my friend Pierre de Becque. Pete mostly did what I did, only in Europe. He worked for an antiterrorist organization that was so highly covert no one knew which of the arrondissements of Paris it was quartered in.

But I was here and from what I could gather, Pete was in Stockholm, and while I was going to be spending New Year's Eve alone, he'd probably have that skinny blonde with him. Not that he'd take her to bed. Pete was a dedicated bottom, and the sooner Kiska accepted it, the better it would be for both of them. If she kept getting distracted by his beaux yeux, she'd wind up getting them both killed.

Of course I didn't have to be alone if I didn't want to. The WBIS had a list of ladies who were available for the evening. I took the paper out of my wallet and looked over the names. Inga, Gus, Delilah. Blondes, brunettes, redheads. Slim, curvy, busty, whatever was my pleasure. I could take my pick.

Or I could spend it with a rent boy. Pretty Boy was a good kid--well, he really wasn't a kid anymore. He was twenty-seven now--and he was worth his fee, although the one time I'd had him had been gratis. That was back when I'd rented an attic apartment from the boys. I'd done them a favor by decking a client who was stoned out of his mind. I hadn't known if he was an asshole because he was stoned or if his being stoned just made him more of an asshole. He'd become violent, I'd clocked him and chucked him out, and they'd been anxious to pay me back ever since.

But I had no doubt Pretty Boy was booked up for the evening, if not for the entire day.

I went back to my computer and studied the image on the screen. Quinton Mann, Deputy Director of Operational Targeting of the CIA, whose family was considered royalty in the intelligence community. His father had been CIA, as had his maternal grandfather, although his cover had been working at State. Two uncles on his mother's side were also CIA, while another was NSA. The Spanish American War, the Civil War, the Revolution; Mann had ancestors involved in them all.

I knew of him--who didn't?--but I'd never met him until the summer before, although that might not be the best term for the manner in which we'd crossed paths. We'd both been in a deserted warehouse on the Patapsco River, Mann to buy the plans and prototype of a cyclotron, and me to retrieve it since the scientist who'd developed it had done so under the aegis of Huntingdon Corp., which was the front for the WBIS.

The last thing I'd expected was to be impressed by Mann. I thought he'd be the usual dilettante, relying on his family's reputation to carry him along, but he was the real deal, a class act, right down to his Edward Green oxfords. And in spite of the fact he'd been shot, he'd held on to that briefcase, willing to face me down.

Of course I was annoyed that he'd thought I'd shot him. Not that I wouldn't have if it had been necessary, but it would have been a kill shot, not a flesh wound to the thigh.

He was a good-looking man, but it wasn't what I could see that intrigued me. What goes on behind those hazel eyes of yours, Mann?

There was a tap on my door and I toggled out of that screen. "Yes?"

Ms. Parker, my secretary whenever I was at WBIS headquarters, opened the door and stepped in tentatively. "If it's all right with you, sir, I'll go home now."

"Sure. Plans?" It was New Year's Eve, after all.

"Yes." She didn't look happy, though. Under orders of the WBIS, she was still seeing that asswipe CIA officer.

I leaned my elbow on my desk and propped up my chin on my palm. "Want me to talk to The Boss about it, get you someone else to date?" I had to offer--she was an excellent secretary and I valued her skills--but I hoped she wouldn't take me up on it. I only knew of one spook who was worth anything, and that was Mann. There was no way I'd suggest she start seeing him, especially since he was seeing a woman who worked in Justice.

"Thank you, but no." She looked like she wanted to say something else, but instead she put a bright smile on her face. "We're going to the Madison Arms. The CIA has taken over the Dolley Madison Room for the night, and it's going to be such fun!" For a moment her smile slipped, but then it became even more brilliant. "Happy New Year, sir!"

"Happy New Year, Ms. Parker."

She started to close the door, then stopped, obviously startled by someone behind her, and I reached for the Glock in my shoulder holster. But then she said, "Good afternoon, Mr. Wallace!"

What the fuck? I eased the gun back into its holster. What was The Boss doing here? He always sent for his agents or directors to come to him.

Ms. Parker stood aside to allow him to enter and then turned to me. "Mr. Vincent, did you want me to get anything? Coffee? Sandwiches?"

"Thank you, Ms. Parker." It was The Boss who answered. "But there's no need for you to be late on my account. Enjoy your evening."

"Yes, sir." But she still waited for my response. Trevor Wallace might be The Boss of the WBIS, but I was her boss. I gave a slight nod. "Thank you, sir. Happy New Year."

"Just one thing, Ms. Parker. If you'll step into your office? Excuse us a moment, Vincent."

"Sure." Like I was going to say no? But what did The Boss need to talk to her about?

In a matter of minutes, he was back.

"You're here late, Vincent."

"No later than usual." I eyed him cautiously. It wasn't like The Boss to state the obvious.

"It is New Year's Eve. Most of the other departments closed down at noon."

"I'm aware of that, sir."

"No plans for this evening?"

"No, sir. Mr. Wallace, was there something you needed me to do?"

"As a matter of fact, yes." He glanced casually at the screen of my monitor. I didn't bother checking it. All he'd see was a spreadsheet that kept track of Robert Sperling's latest comings and goings.

Mr. Wallace wasn't thrilled about it, but as long as I didn't do anything beyond shooting paperclips at Sperling, he wouldn't challenge me on it.

The screen I'd toggled out of, though.... He'd definitely challenge me on that. A WBIS agent might have every reason to keep a file on a CIA spook, but there was no reason to have wallpaper of Quinton Mann.

Mr. Wallace hitched up a pant leg and made himself comfortable on the corner of my desk. "The affair at the Madison Arms." He folded his arms across his chest.

"Yes, sir?" I started getting a bad feeling.

"I need you there."

I was a senior special agent, and I worked best in the field. Rubbing elbows with spooks who thought they were God's gift to the intelligence community was not what I did.

Of course I wasn't about to tell that to The Boss.

"My tux isn't back from the cleaners."

He knew I had a monkey suit; it was his... suggestion... that I purchase one. I'd countered that renting might be more cost effective, but there was a reason why he was The Boss. He'd simply cocked his eyebrow and smiled that crooked smile of his, and I'd gone out and bought a Fumagalli. Not because it was half the price of a Hugo Boss, but because I hadn't anticipated finding much use for it, and I'd been right: this would be the second time that I'd be wearing it.

Besides, I figured it suited me well enough.

"Then go and pick it up." I opened my mouth and he held up his hand. "And don't tell me they're closed. Have them open."

They got a lot of business from the WBIS, so yeah, they'd open for me.

He stared at me stonily. "It wouldn't have needed to go to the cleaners if you hadn't sneaked up on Bob."

"I don't sneak, sir." It wasn't my fault Sperling hadn't been paying attention. He'd turned around, seen me behind him, and spit his drink all over my tux.

"What the fuck are you doing here, Vincent?" he'd demanded.

I'd opened my eyes really wide. "I was invited." Although I'd had no clue why. This was the first time The Boss had told me to get into my tux and show up at the party he hosted for directors, and I was a little uneasy.

"You... I... how...." Sperling had ground his teeth, then stepped around me and stalked over to where the Director of Public Relations stood with his personal assistant. A nod from his director, and the personal assistant had left them.

Sperling'd glared at me over his shoulder before deliberately turning his back on me.

Not the smartest idea--I wouldn't have done it--but then he wasn't me.

I'd looked down at my tux. Well, until The Boss let me off the leash, Sperling was safe for another day.

A waiter passed by, and I'd stopped him.

"Would you care for a glass of champagne, sir?"

"No thanks." I had a minor issue with champagne--it made me horny as hell, and if I had no interest in getting laid, I stayed away from it. "Napkin?"

"Of course, sir."

I'd taken the napkin and brushed at the drops of champagne that were splattered all over my dress shirt and my jacket.

"You might want some club soda for that."

"Good idea. Thanks." I'd need to head for the bar. Unless.... I'd started to grin. This would make a perfect excuse for me to leave.

I'd crossed the room to where The Boss stood with some of his senior directors and waited patiently until there was a break in the conversation.

"I'm sorry, sir. I'll need to leave. Champagne leaves an unpleasant stain."

He'd looked from me to Sperling, shook his head, and said, "Go."

"Thank you. Merry Christmas, sir."

"Merry Christmas."

Not that it had been. It was just another day for me, and a workday at that, although I did drop off presents to some people I knew--the rent boys who'd been my landlords, the genius who worked R&D for the WBIS and who'd come up with some nifty gadgets for me, and a medical examiner who'd done some autopsies on the odd occasion when a body needed to be officially dead.

Mr. Wallace cleared his throat pointedly, and I focused on him again.

"Sorry, sir."

"You were thinking of Sperling, weren't you?"

"Actually, I wasn't."

"You weren't? Hmmm. I must be losing my touch."

"Not you, sir." I wasn't touching that one with a ten-foot pole.

"You'll be on the clock." He handed me an envelope. Inside was a ticket granting admittance to the New Year's Eve event to K. Flint. That was a name I used if I was going undercover as a spook. Anyone looking into it would find I'd been recruited out of Cornell, and both the CIA and Cornell would have the records to back it up.

"What am I looking for?" Flint appeared to be stationed in Austria this time around.

"Director of Counter Intelligence Edward Holmes. It seems he's becoming very cozy with a certain senator from the Midwest."

"The same senator who's on the Appropriations Committee?" He'd been giving us a pain in the ass, and because it was happening within the country, it was Sperling's job to straighten it out.

"The very one."

"I'll keep an eye on Holmes."

"I knew I could count on you."

"Do I have time for prosthetics?" R&D down in the basement had the raw materials. I'd need to bake them and then let them cool, but if I had the time--

"If you're fast enough. I don't want you there later than eight."

I shook my head. "I have nothing made up in my apartment, although I can tack my ears back. It's amazing what a difference that can make." They were prominent, but no one called me Dumbo. Not more than once.

"I trust you. This is a last-minute assignment, and I'm sorry for that, but something came up, and the director I was going to send will be unable to attend."

Shit. I hoped this didn't mean he was planning on grooming me for a desk job. I'd been in the field longer than any other agent, and only part of that was due to the fact that the date of birth listed in my file shaved five years off my real age--I was just that fucking good.

I worried at my inner cheek. I wouldn't let the fact that the WBIS believed in mandatory retirement from the field at the age of thirty-five bother me now. "Ms. Parker is going to be there."

"Yes. That's why I asked to speak to her. I informed her of your attendance and that if she should see you, she's not to recognize you."

"Okay." She was good, and I could trust her not to blow my cover. "I'll shut down my computer and get going."

"Excellent. Report to me in the morning."

"Yes, sir."

"In the morning" would be New Year's Day, but I didn't have any plans, and if The Boss was going to be here at headquarters, then so would I.

* * * *

II

* * * *

It was after 9:00 p.m. when I walked into the Dolley Madison Room. It was crowded with spooks and the men and women who were married to or dated them.

In spite of what The Boss had said, I'd taken the time not only to tack back my ears, but to plump up my cheeks with gauze rolls so they appeared rounder and less angular, and to glue the ugliest mole I could find high on my cheekbone. That was guaranteed to draw attention, and everyone would be so fixated on it they wouldn't take much notice of anything else about me.

I'd also taken some time to bone up on the officers who worked out of the CIA's Vienna office.

"Champagne, sir?" A waiter stood at my elbow.

"Not right now, thanks." There was that reaction I had to champagne; I didn't see anyone at this party I'd fuck with a borrowed dick, even if The Boss pushed and Holmes got blamed for it. "Where's the open bar?"

"Just at the end of the room. And the buffet is next door."

"Thanks." He went off, and I made my way to the bar. It would look suspicious if I didn't have a drink in my hand, so I ordered a club soda with a twist, telling the bartender to open a new bottle. Anyone who was curious would assume I had a vodka and club.

I circled the room, listening in on random conversations while I looked for Holmes. The man was a fucking asshole, but that was about par for the quality of officers the C-fucking-I-fucking-A recruited.

He was also nowhere to be seen. I put my glass down on a tray with other used glasses and headed for the room that was set up for the buffet.

I was willing to give the CIA one thing: whoever had hired this caterer had done a bang-up job. There were hot and cold hors d'oeuvres, including escargots, platters of vegetables and fruits, baskets of rolls, baguettes, and sliced bread--whole wheat, rye, multi-grain. A white-jacketed chef was busy slicing a standing rib roast at one station while another at a second station carved thick slices of turkey breast. A third offered up Cornish game hens.

I helped myself to a little of everything. Well, except the snails. I'd had to survive on them once, and I'd developed such an aversion that just the sight of those suckers in their shells turned my stomach.

The rib roast was so tender and tasty that I went back a couple of times, and I'd have helped myself to even more, but I didn't want to get logy from eating too much.

I finished the last of my veggies, not because this was something my old lady had insisted on--she wouldn't have cared if I came down with rickets or scurvy--but one of the men she'd brought home had been big on healthy eating, and for him I did my best.

A waiter passed by with a tray, collecting dirty dishes, and I added mine to them, then returned to the ballroom, got another club soda, and began circulating again. Holmes still wasn't around.

A drop-dead gorgeous brunette sauntered up to me. The red silk gown she wore could have been spray-painted on, hugging her curves lovingly. It left her shoulders bare and was slit to midthigh, and each step she took revealed about a mile of toned leg. A gold mesh choker studded with diamonds encircled her throat. The ensemble was completed by a pair of long red gloves with a pointed hem that reached her shoulder. She was tall, and the fuck-me heels she wore brought her to a couple of inches taller than my six foot three.

"My date seems to have abandoned me," she said in a husky voice that hinted of champagne, candlelight, silk sheets, and sin. "Would you mind welcoming in the New Year with a lonely lady?"

That was right. In about twenty minutes, it would be the New Year.

"It would be my pleasure." I raised her gloved hand to my lips and kissed the back of it.

"You're so gallant!"

"You're so beautiful!"

"Don't overdo it," she murmured between lips parted in a faint smile. She tucked her hand in the crook of my elbow, and we began to stroll around the room.

She was actually a he, but referring to him in the feminine made it easy for both of us to keep his cover. Gabe Granger made one of the most beautiful women I'd ever seen. And if she didn't work for the WBIS, and if I didn't have a policy against fucking people I worked with, I'd have tried to jump her bones. Tried, because if she'd said no, I'd have respected her wishes.

"Would you care for a drink?"

She smiled into my eyes. "Club soda?"

I grinned back at her. Of course. I got it, and we resumed our stroll.

"Do you think any of these asshats suspect either of us?" I couldn't resist thinking smugly that they never did know when the fox was in the henhouse.

"Mann might."

"He's here?" And damn, I'd just kept myself from craning my head around like a teen searching the gym for the prettiest girl on the dance floor.

Granger laughed softly. "Did you doubt it? He's waiting by the restrooms for his date."

"Well, I'm not here for him."

She sobered. "I know." The orchestra began to play an old pop standard. "Let's dance, shall we?"

I gave our glasses to a passing waiter and led Granger out onto the dance floor. She didn't snuggle up against me, but she was close enough that no one would overhear our quiet words.

"Holmes isn't here."

"I'm aware of that. I've been trying to find him for the past two hours." Knowing he liked to make an appearance, I hadn't worried that I'd missed him. "A couple of officers said something about being surprised he hadn't shown up."

"He won't be showing up, either."

Well, fuck.

"My date let slip that Holmes was at another affair being hosted by a certain senator who is known and unloved by all of us."

"That's interesting."

"Yes. Apparently it was a last minute thing too. Holmes had been angling for an invitation for months and had been routinely snubbed."

"And then all of a sudden he was invited?" That was even more interesting.

"And let me tell you Richard Custiss wasn't happy about it. He had plans for me to impress Holmes."

"Why would someone in Financial Management want to get involved with Counterterrorism?"

She raised an eyebrow.

"What?"

"How did you know Richard worked in Financial Management?" She stared into my eyes, then squeezed my shoulder. "Never mind, I know: You're the best."

Well, I am.

"Anyway, to answer your question, I don't know at this moment, but I'm looking into it." Something caught her attention, and while I regretted I hadn't been able to bring my Glock, I knew between the two of us, we could handle whatever the CIA threw our way.

"What is it?"

"I see your secretary is here."

Was that all? "Yes." I reversed our positions.

Ms. Parker looked good, and anyone would swear she was having the time of her life. She met my eyes but didn't give the slightest indication that she recognized me.

"How long will she have to date that asshole?"

"Why? Interested?"

"And if I were?"

I shrugged. "Not my business. I just ask her to file my reports. I'll tell you one thing, though. That's not my favorite aspect of the WBIS."

"You're a good man."

"Don't let it get around, okay?" The music came to an end, and everyone clapped politely.

"And now, ladies and gentlemen, the moment we've been waiting all year for!" the MC announced. There was a little halfhearted laughter. "In ten seconds it will be 2002!" He began the countdown and went crazy when he got to "One!" He blew a horn, tossed confetti, batted at the balloons that drifted down from the ceiling, and generally made a fool of himself.

"Happy New Year, Mark."

"Happy New Year, Gabe."

Everyone around us was kissing. The corner of her mouth curled up. "I'm game if you are."

"Sure." As far as anyone in the intelligence community knew, I was straight. What I was, was none of their business.

"If anyone finds out, you can say you didn't want to blow my cover."

"What part of 'sure' didn't you understand?" I slid my arm around her waist, pulled her close, and kissed her. No tongue; I was a gentleman, after all--hadn't the MC said so just a minute or so ago?

But Granger licked at my lips. I drew back and laughed. "You sure you want to start something?"

"Gabriella, there you are!"

Granger turned to the bean counter who came bustling up. A little on the pudgy side, it was easy to tell he'd been riding a desk for his entire career. "Here I am, Richard."

"What are you doing kissing this man?" His eyes zeroed in on the mole on my cheek, and he couldn't seem to look away from it.

"Welcoming in the New Year, since you saw fit to absent yourself."

If that tone had been directed toward me I'd have gone for my overcoat. Cold!

And nicely done.

He jerked his gaze away from my face and stared at her in dismay. "But I told you I'd be right back!" he whined.

"But you weren't." Her expression was as icy as her words. "I'm not one of your empty-headed sycophants who are so flattered you can spare them a minute of your oh-so-valuable time."

"Gabriella, please...." He flushed and took out a handkerchief, dabbing at his forehead.

She gave a delicate sniff and turned away from him and toward me.

"Thank you for the dance." I raised her hand to my lips again, then grinned at her date. "You're a lucky man," I told him. "If I were you, I wouldn't abandon such a lovely lady. She might not be where you left her." As I stepped back, I bumped into someone. "Sorry...."

"No, that's quite all right. The ballroom is very crowded, isn't it?" His eyes were light with amusement, and he chuckled. It was Mann.

"Yes." My heart began to pound. What the fuck? I scowled and took a few deep, surreptitious breaths, getting it under control. "Nice turnout tonight."

"Do I know you?" His eyes lost their amusement and became intent. The only thing I hadn't changed about my appearance was my eye color. Why bother? Lots of men had hazel eyes.

Mann did.

"I don't think so." I smiled easily. "I just flew in from Vienna."

"Beautiful city." He looked nostalgic. "My parents took me there to see the Lipizzaner stallions when I was ten." He smiled and held out his hand. "I'm Quinton Mann." He had a firm grip, but he didn't pull any of that macho bullshit of trying to prove he was top dog by breaking my fingers. Which was just as well because he wouldn't have succeeded, and I would have.

"I'm Flint."

"No first name?"

"Kane." It wasn't, but then Flint wasn't my last name, either.

The woman with him cleared her throat pointedly.

"And this is my friend, Susan Burkhart."

"Ms. Burkhart."

She frowned at Mann. "Really, Quinton, aren't I more than a friend?" She gave me her hand. It was so limp I almost expected to smell fish.

"Mr. Mann, it's a pleasure to see you, sir!" Granger's date provided a welcome diversion. He was falling all over himself to get Mann to notice him. He grabbed Mann's hand and pumped it, and I couldn't help grinning.

Mann saw, and he raised his eyebrow. Damn, I was making him too curious.

I made the grin broader and swayed a bit. "Oops. 'Scuse me, gen'lemen. Ladies." I nodded to Granger and the Burkhart woman, who held on to Mann's arm with a death grip. Mann deserved better than her. "Gonna get a drink. Hap--" I hiccupped. "Happy New Year."

"Happy New Year, Kane." Granger kept a bland expression on her face, but her eyes revealed she was on to me.

Her date, on the other hand, ignored me completely in favor of Mann. "I'm Richard Custiss," he told Mann, still holding on to his hand.

"How nice to meet you."

I'd have been tempted to slug the guy, but that was Mann, class all the way.

And then I realized he'd been talking to me. He freed his hand and held it out to me, and I had no choice but to take it.

"Happy New Year," I said again, and I turned on my heel and got out of there.

* * * *

III

* * * *

I could feel Mann's eyes on me as I headed for the bar, walking as if I were making every effort to keep my gait steady.

They were about three deep all the way around. I could have gotten the bartender's attention and been served immediately, but there was no rush, and it would have brought me to everyone's attention. Instead, I waited to get closer to the bar, and while I waited, I let a portion of my mind wander.

That tux Mann was wearing suited him well. Could I get a picture of him in it to put on my computer? I licked my lips.

What did he look like under it? That age-old question: shorts or briefs? Or commando? What would it be like to get him naked, to get him into bed and have his wrists manacled by my left hand while I ran my fingertips over his nipples, tugging lightly at his treasure trail, finally closing around his cock and jacking him off while I buried myself deep in his ass?

My cock began to stir, jerking me out of that fantasy.

No. Fuck, no! What was I thinking? He was CIA, I was WBIS. There was no way he'd ever accept me as a lover.

And there was no fucking way I'd accept him!

Of course I wouldn't.

But... it was good to be two jumps ahead of the opposition, and the CIA didn't have the relaxed attitude of the WBIS regarding an employee's sexual orientation. I'd need to gather more information about Mann.

Someone tapped me on the shoulder.

"What?" I demanded, irritated. The only reason why I didn't react automatically and take this clown apart then and there was because only one part of my mind had been enjoying the idea of screwing--screwing over--Quinton Mann.

"The bartender's already asked you twice what you want." Jesus. Mann?

"Sorry. Club soda," I told the bartender, who'd been almost ready to move on. "Open a new bottle, please."

"Of course, sir. And would you like a lemon or lime with that?"

"Both." I grinned at Mann. "I like to live dangerously."

"Of course. I recall only too well how exciting a desk job can be." His words were dry, his gaze sober. "I'm glad to see you're not having another drink, Kane."

"A man should know his limitations," I said easily. I was coming across exactly as I'd intended: bland, someone who spent his life shuffling papers. So why was I offended that he saw me that way? "But how would you know about riding a desk?"

"I had a minor leg wound last summer, and as a result, I was out of the field for quite some time."

Yeah, when Buonfiglio had shot him at the warehouse. "I've never taken a bullet for the Company."

"You're not missing anything. Trust me." He studied my eyes. "I don't believe you're as drunk as you let on."

"I was trying to make a dignified exit."

"You abandoned me! Although I must admit I can't blame you, but by acting drunk? I think you could have found a better excuse."

I shrugged.

"Your club soda, sir." The bartender handed me the glass, smiled broadly at the tip I stuffed in the tip cup, then turned that smile at Mann. "What can I get for you, sir?"

"A cosmopolitan, please."

The bartender turned away and began gathering the ingredients.

"I wouldn't think that was your style, Mann." I squeezed the lemon and dropped it into the soda.

"Call me Quinton. And you're right, it's not. It's for my... it's for Susan." He looked concerned. "We've been seeing each other for some time, but it's quite plain it's not going anywhere."

"She doesn't seem to think so."

"No, she doesn't, does she?" He sighed. "I'm leaving the country for a few weeks. Is it too ungentlemanly to break it off with her on New Year's Day?"

He was asking me? "It's better than Valentine's Day."

"Have you done that?"

I hadn't, but that wasn't because I only did one-night stands--I'd never be fool enough to get so involved with someone that they'd expect me to spend holidays with them.

There was that thing I'd had with my partner, whatever that was, but then he'd gone and gotten himself kidnapped, tortured, and killed. I'd taken care of the bastards who'd gutted him and strangled him with his intestines, but after that, I'd refused to have another partner, ever.

"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked. That's a personal question."

Shit, I'd been quiet too long. "Not a problem."

"Your cosmo, sir." The bartender offered Mann the martini glass.

Mann took it, slipped a bill into the tip cup, and stared down into the pink drink.

"I can't imagine why I'm telling you this."

I grinned at him. "I've got that kind of face."

"Yes, you do." He glanced over at the dance floor. "Susan seems to be enjoying that samba."

She was twirling across the floor with Richard Custiss. Granger was dancing with someone else, and I was willing to bet Custiss was too intent on currying favor with Mann's... friend... to care too much about that.

Mann touched my arm, and I turned my head, raising an eyebrow. "Shall we find a less crowded place to chat?"

"What did you have in mind?"

"I believe the buffet has been set up with desserts."

"Dessert works for me. But what about Ms. Burkhart's cosmo?"

He looked around, then signaled to a spook who sauntered over to us. "DB, would you mind seeing Susan gets this?"

"Not a problem, Quinn." He didn't move, though, just stood there staring at me.

Mann sighed. "This is Kane Flint, from our Vienna office."

"Flint."

"Cooper."

Cooper narrowed his eyes at me. "Quinn didn't mention my last name."

"No, but wouldn't I be foolish not to take note of who was at this affair?"

"Jesus, you sound as paranoid as Mark Vincent."

Shit. I'd let myself get too distracted by Mann. I gave a relaxed smile and shrugged. "Vincent's still alive."

"Unfortunately." Ah. Another fan.

"DB, I need to talk to Kane about something that's come up in Austria."

"What's going on?"

Nosy son of a bitch. I wondered how Mann would deal with that flat-out lie.

"The Scarlet Chamber seems to be on the verge of reactivation. Members have been spotted in Carinthia," Mann said smoothly.

I nearly choked on my club soda.

"Are you all right, Kane?"

I nodded, took a handkerchief from my breast pocket, and blotted my lips. "Seed from the lemon wedge." How the fuck had he found out about the Scarlet Chamber? The Archbishop's number two was always turning up, and as a matter of fact, I'd been in the Tyrol just after Thanksgiving to see if I could... persuade... him to retire permanently. But had Mann heard it was being reactivated, or was it just a lucky guess on his part?

Cooper stared at me for a minute, and I gave him a perky smile. He shook his head and turned back to Mann. "There's proof positive about the Scarlet Chamber?"

"At this point, no," Mann was saying, "but you know we can't leave any stone unturned."

"And look what comes out when we turn those stones over." Cooper scowled. What the fuck was he pissed about? I was the one who dealt with the renegade organization.

"Yes. With the Archbishop gone, I thought we'd seen the last of the Scarlet Chamber." Mann's brow furrowed.

You'd think terrorists would come up with something more inventive to call themselves, but what could you expect from a bunch of psychos? Especially when their leader decided to give himself a stupid fucking name like "the Archbishop." Jesus. And they said WBIS agents were out of control.

"That was one good thing Vincent did," Cooper conceded.

I didn't dust my knuckles on my shoulder, but I was tempted to. It was nice to have my work appreciated.

Cooper looked me over. "What do you have to say about it, Flint?"

"Me? Oh, I'm a desk man. I just do the analyzing."

Cooper curled his lip, then gazed at Mann. "Well, it doesn't sound as if this affects my department."

"No." Mann's smile was so charming I nearly swallowed my tongue. What would it be like if that smile was aimed at--

I cut off that thought. It wasn't, and it didn't matter a hill of beans to me who Mann smiled at.

"Well, give a shout if you need any help from my techs," Cooper said.

"Will do, DB. Thanks."

"Don't mention it." The music stopped. "Let me get this drink to Susan; I'll leave you two to discuss business."

"I appreciate it. Oh, and Happy New Year."

"Same to you, Quinn. Flint." He nodded curtly. What bug crawled up his ass and died? Oh, wait! Did he have a thing for Mann?

"Happy New Year." This time I gave him a saccharine smile and batted my eyes. I'd have kicked his ass, but Kane Flint wouldn't.

Cooper stalked off, and Mann smiled at me. "Shall we?"

I handed off my drink to a passing waiter, and we left the ballroom.

* * * *

IV

* * * *

All the tables had been cleared off and replaced with fountains of white, milk, and dark chocolate surrounded by strawberries, pineapple chunks, banana slices, and marshmallows. Vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry ice cream was offered, as well as yogurt for the diet conscious. There was a make-your-own-sundae station with mounds of whipped cream, nuts, cookie crumbles, M&Ms, chocolate and rainbow sprinkles, more pineapple, and hot fudge, mango, and caramel toppings, as well as all manner of cakes, cookies, and pastries.

And of course there was coffee.

"Might I tempt you with something?" Mann's voice sounded sultry.

Was it my imagination? Or, Jesus, was he coming on to me? And if he was....

How much had he had to drink? I didn't like my partners incapacitated; I wanted them sober enough to appreciate what I was doing to them.

This could be an ideal opportunity to get him in bed and then in the morning have him face the fact that he'd spent the night with the most notorious agent the WBIS had ever produced. It would destroy his standing in the CIA, in DC. In his own mind.

I remembered the look on his face while he'd gripped the briefcase in that warehouse, willing to keep it even if it cost him his life.

He brushed back a lock of hair that had fallen over his forehead and regarded me with a question in his eyes.

No, I wasn't going to do that.

"The tiramisu looks good."

"Yes, it does, doesn't it?" Plates were set up with slices already on them, and he selected one and held it out to me, along with a dessert fork.

"You don't have to--"

"It's not a problem, Kane. There's plenty. Now take it, please."

"All right. Thanks. What are you going to have?"

"The tiramisu." He smiled again and helped himself to a plate and a dessert fork, then nodded toward the coffee.

"Sure. This is on me, though."

He laughed, and the sound curled around my cock.

I cleared my throat. "How do you take it?"

"Regular."

"Regular?"

"You know. Cream and sugar."

"Okay." I wasn't going to tell him taking coffee that way was for wusses; I took mine black.

We got our coffees and strolled to the far end of the room, where there was a free table, and sat down.

I grinned at him. "So. Are we going to talk about the Scarlet Chamber?"

"Hardly. Although I understand they discovered the body of the Abbot at the base of the Grossglockner."

"The Archbishop's second in command? Yes, I'd heard that also."

"Perhaps that will give the remainder of the insurgents pause."

I swallowed a smile. That was a classy way of saying the CIA hoped the shitheads would wake up and smell the coffee.

"And I think we've given them enough of our attention," Mann murmured. "Tell me more about yourself."

I went on alert. "What did you want to know?"

"Oh, for instance, how long have you been in the Vienna office?"

"For the past five years." Was he trying to snare me on this?

"Really? I'm interested in hearing what you think of the Figlmuller Wollzeile."

I recognized the name of the small, classy restaurant on Wollzeile in Vienna, and as a matter of fact I'd had dinner there once with Pete. "Their boiled beef with chive sauce, horseradish sauce, and roasted potatoes is as delicious as ever."

"It's been some time since I've been there. As I mentioned, I'll be in Europe for the next few weeks. If... if I should manage to visit Vienna when my mission is completed, would you consider joining me for dinner there?" He cut off a piece of the tiramisu with the edge of his fork, and my mouth went dry as his lips closed over the tidy bite and he began to chew.

His lips.... Jesus, I--

I raised my cup to my mouth and took a gulp, burning my tongue and throat. Shit. I put the cup down and made a show of studying my watch. "Damn. I'm afraid I have to leave."

"Must you?"

"Yes. Actually, I should have left twenty minutes ago. I've got an early flight out of National."

"I'm sorry I delayed you."

"Don't be. It was a pleasure talking to you." Meeting you, when you had no idea who I was.

"I enjoyed it myself. Kane, you never answered. May we have dinner when I'm in Austria?"

"Of course. I'll look forward to it." What else could I say?

"I'll call you then." He waited expectantly.

"I'm sorry, I don't have a business card with me." I did, but the phone number was one that would be routed straight to a service that answered for the WBIS. He'd recognize it as a local number.

And even if he didn't, it wouldn't look good if he called wanting to set up a... Jesus, a date!

"In that case, take mine."

"Thanks." The card was gray, with subtle swirls of black and white in the background making it look like marble.

"It was nice meeting you, Kane."

"Same here, Quinn." I signaled a waiter and handed him my plate, fork, and cup. There was no way I'd leave anything with my DNA lying around in CIA territory.

It might come across as paranoid, but as I'd told Cooper, I was still alive.

"Let me walk out with you."

"Is that a good idea?"

He studied my eyes for a long minute, then gave a lopsided smile. "No, I imagine not, but let's anyway."

We left the room and took the elevator down to the lobby.

"I enjoyed talking with you," Mann said, but I knew it was Kane Flint he meant. He'd probably have headed for the hills if he'd known I was Mark Vincent.

We shook hands, and I walked toward the revolving doors. I could have sworn I felt his eyes on me every step of the way, which was flat-out stupid. First off, why would he? He had friends and his date waiting for him upstairs. And second off--

In spite of my best intentions, I turned around. He was watching me. He grinned and gave a small salute.

I smiled back at him, hoping it didn't look like the grimace it felt like, and returned the salute, then got the fuck out of Dodge.

* * * *

V

* * * *

The evening was over.

I headed down the street to where I'd parked my car, taking time to get the gauze rolls out of my cheeks and storing them in my pockets until I got home.

There was a bite in the air, and I cursed myself for not bringing an overcoat. The Dodge was a good car, but it would take about ten minutes for the heater to kick in.

What the fuck was the matter with me? I'd had the perfect opportunity to fuck with Mann's mind, and I'd let it pass me by.

And was Mann actually attracted to me, or had he penetrated my cover? Was he playing mind games with me?

I pressed the remote on my key ring and unlocked the door.

Okay, obviously I needed to get more information about him. I had plenty about his professional life--that was there for the taking--but I'd been too busy to get more than superficial details about his family.

I'd start looking into his private life.

He said he was going out of town for a few weeks. I had an operation too, but I'd be back by the seventh. That left me plenty of time to come up with a plan and put it into effect before he got home.

His old lady lived in Great Falls; I'd figure out a reason to see her and get the skinny on Mann.

I put the key in the ignition and listened as the engine turned over, humming smoothly. A sudden thought hit me, and I began to swear.

Stupid, Vincent. Fucking, fucking stupid! A perfectly good persona shot to shit. I'd have to do something about Kane Flint. If--when--Mann showed up at the Vienna office, Flint couldn't be there.

I chewed on my inner cheek. Maybe I'd have him fall down the same mountain where the Abbot had been found. A long fall would do serious damage to a body, to a face.

Now where to come up with a suitable body? Femme, the woman who ran the interrogation sector of Pete's organization, had some bodies on ice. She was the one woman I trusted, and I knew she'd be willing to do me a favor.

And if she didn't have one that was six three and a buck eighty-five, she'd find one for me.

Yeah, that would work.

My cell phone vibrated in my pocket, and I took it out and flipped it open. It was a text message from The Boss. My operation had been pushed up. I was to fly out to South Korea first thing in the morning. I checked my watch. That meant I'd have to catch a flight that was leaving in about three hours. Park Jung-su, a supposedly low-ranking member of The Third Building, North Korea's secret service, had been invited to Moscow. The Boss didn't want him to get there, and it would be my job to make sure he didn't.

I put the car into drive and headed home. It was going to be a busy week.

I'd e-mail Femme and dispose of Kane Flint. Then I'd deal with Park, and when I returned, I'd find out all I could about Mann's personal life. And then....

Well, then we'd just see.


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