Date #23

May 30, 2018:

Rami goes on her twenty-third blind date. Her loyalties are tested.

Club Violet

A two-story dance club in Manhattan. Very loud, very neon.

Characters

NPCs: Unnamed MI-6.5, Dev Kaler, unnamed SHIELD operative

Mentions: Rule Britannia

Plot:

Mood Music: It Won't Kill You


Fade In…

Warning: Explicit language everywhere.

This was her twenty-third blind date since her arrival in the States. Her mother had proven to be relentless even across the pond; the old crone linked up with cousins, twice and thrice removed, to find suitable suitors for Parambir Ghai. Desperation had set it as the dreaded thirty-sixth birthday approached; her mother had started to use phrases like ‘withering ovaries’ and ‘wasted eggs’ in their daily conversations.

So much so was her mother’s anxiety over Rami’s lack of protege, that she had started to resort to such suggestions as ‘mature oocyte cryopreservation.’ Each word was pronounced so precisely in Oya Ghai’s native Punjabi accent — lightly blended into their Southall dialect after decades in London — that Rami immediately accused her father of allowing her mother to research ‘egg freezing’ on the internet.

”If you would just take your mother’s attempts at finding you a suitable match seriously, Paru,” he had said, using her childhood diminutive with such love and care that it made Rami wilt. He had been right of course. Her father had to endure the same ritualized mate-matching as a young man, and at far younger an age than his peers.

For, like Rami, Chiran Ghai was a Bearer and it was only through his children would the ancestral memories be passed down. If Rami never had a child, the line would die with her. Generations of memories would be lost. She understood the gravity of it.

And so, this was her twenty-third blind date since her arrival in the States, and she was taking it seriously and earnestly. Worst yet, she was enjoying herself. Her cousin recent find was quite unimpressive, and she found his plainness endearing — that, and his suggestion of a first date was to take her to the dance club Violet instead of an awkward restaurant with all the awkward conversations that kind of setting necessitated.

Here, she could order a cocktail, they could talk over the music in shouting excitement, and she could smile every time he misheard her. It was a pleasant change from her usual date routine. She was almost on the verge of asking him to dance, glancing down from their tiny mezzanine table to the knot of bodies on the neon-glowing floor below.

Almost.

Bzzt-bzzt-bzzt.

Her phone buzzed against the table in those tight, quick pulses. Her brain was a half-tick behind her instincts, and her palm slapped over the sleek black device as it vibed again, sending shaking jolts through the intricate bones of her hand.

“Rami?”

Her fingers closed around it, sliding it off the table. She flashed the screen toward her. All it showed was a single notification blocking out the impersonal swirls of colors she had chosen for her lockscreen background.

bathroom. third stall. immd.

Her throat tightened, expression becoming a hard mask of smooth tawny. She read the message twice more, as if making sure she wasn’t hallucinating its presence or its meaning. How did they know she would be here? How did they know anyone was going to be here?

It took her date repeating her name a third time for her to look up, brown eyes widening in alarm as if she had forgotten him. Forgotten where she was.

“Dev, I…” Her words came rough, and low, and totally inaudible in the throb of the club. She cleared her throat, mind grasping for an excuse. She licked at her scarlet lips, pressing them into a weak smile. She leaned in close, waving her phone meaningfully as she repeated, “Dev, I’m sorry. My cousin. I need to give her a call. Family.”

He understood. She knew he would. Family was everything.

Family, and The Tower.

She slipped off the stool, alighting on her red velvet stilettos with an inaudible tick against the acid-wash concrete. He lifted his unfinished scotch to her in a gentle nod of acceptance, and she waved her fingers to him with an unspoken promise that she would be right back. Because she was going to tell Tower Actual to fuck off in no uncertain terms.

Clutching her phone, she scaled down the stairs to the ground floor, and followed the neon arrows painted on the floor to the ladies bathroom. When she entered, the noise ticked down several degrees into a dull throb. She tucked a bit of brown curl behind her ear as she critiqued the stall doors.

Fuck.

Of all the stalls, the third was occupied. She glanced at her reflection in the mirror, glaring at herself. Scenarios rolled through her head in rapid succession, the most prominent of them being messaging Tower Actual back with a curt and explicit reply.

Then the stall opened, and out sauntered a lovely American blond who blinked at Rami in confusion as the woman advanced immediately for the opened stall. The woman followed the Indian woman’s every step, and Rami just smiled as she hooked a hand around the door, backing into the stall.

“Sorry, poppet… three is my lucky number.” Then she shut the door on the harried-looking stare the woman was giving her, and slid the lock into place. She listened as the woman washed her hands, and then the sound of her departure — first the boom of noise from the club as the door opened, followed by the soft reprieve as the door swung back into its jam.

Only after ten slow seconds did Rami pivot to face the toilet, and reach down in a small cranny between the base of the fixture and the vinyl-covered walls. Her fingers closed around the small, rectangular case. She was uniquely familiar with its design — the smooth corners, the almost invisible closure, and the single, sleek earbud surrounded by perfectly molded foam inside. Her mouth tightened at the sight of it, but she knew there was no turning back now.

She popped out the earbud and tucked it into her ear, combing her hair back in place. She closed her eyes, counted to three, and then murmured a soft, “Courtier, here.”

“Ah. Courtier. I am most apologetic to interrupt your date.”

Her entire spine stiffened. His voice chilled her down into the very pit of her stomach. She didn’t know who she expected to be on the other end — another handler, or perhaps another agent like Brit. Someone who needed a quick use of her expertise. But his voice was unexpected.

“No apologies necessary, sir.” Nothing could loosen the anxiety from her words. She breathed slowly through her nose, closing her eyes before speaking next. “What do you require?” And how the fuck did you know I was going to be here?

“An emergency interception, Courtier. In five minutes, a young man will be entering the gentlemen’s washroom adjacent to your current location. He is in possession of illegally obtained information, and is selling it to a rogue agency.” The man’s smooth, crisp voice held almost zero concern, speaking as casually as one having an afternoon tea. “You are to obtain the data before the exchange.”

Courtier gaped, words failing her for a good heartbeat before she managed. “You’re fucking joking, sir. I’m not — ”

He cut her off. “Of course I am. Why else would I have you absconded in the ladies room, using government issued communication hardware, if not to blithely joke around with you about a threat to national security.” The actual lack of inflection in the words made Rami’s heart tick up a meter. She tucked her chin slightly, setting her jaw.

“Of course, sir. I understand. Do you have a description of the carrier?” He gave it.

“Three minutes,” he reminded her.

She tucked the earbud case back where she found it. She was on the clock now, still sworn to the Agency. She hadn’t gone rogue yet, despite Michael’s warnings. And his voice in her ear only made her anxiety around her suspicions grow. Paranoia could be deadly in the spy game, particularly when overdosed.

She slid back the lock, exitted the stall, and pushed out into the loud proper of the club. Her gaze cut up immediately to where she had left Dev, but the man was not looking her way. He was in his phone, occupying himself while she was away. She couldn’t be spotted. The crowd became her cover, as she ducked into the throng by the bar to put into motion the plan that was already building in her mind.

She had already noticed that a particular server was absolute shit when it came to fetching her drinks in a timely manner. A slowly melting glass of tequila and ice sat on her tray, waiting to be collected and delivered. Rules of propriety were all that kept others from plucking the drink off the bar as if they was the rightful owner; spies didn’t believe in propriety.

All she really needed was the tray; the drink was just a bonus. Taking the tumbler between her slender, brown fingers, she slipped the tray behind her back as she wove back toward the washrooms. This time, she didn’t look back up toward her date. She had been gone just long enough to be too long.

“One minute, Courtier,” the voice in her ear reminded her in his absolute calm.

She paused at the men’s bathroom door, tray tucked under her arm and hand braced against the wall beside the door frame. She scanned the crowd, her instincts tracking the movement of servers, the laughter of the bartenders, the change of the tempo. Her eyes closed; she drew everything inward as the bedlam of music faded into an imperceptible throb. Her heartbeat became a rhythm that blended with the steadying of her breath.

“Tick tock,” the voice in her ear interrupted.

“God, I hope I am not that fucking annoying,” she said against the rim of the glass as she knocked back one bold swallow. She shook her head, coughing just slightly. She hated tequila. She dipped her fingers in what remained in the glass, smearing a bit of booze against the hotspots just beneath her jawline. As she did, she conjured up every painful memory of university parties — including the horrible end-of-term bash that had her head in the toilet for the entire following day.

Her body loosened. She felt a liquid warmth settle in her joints, softening her hips. She settled into her feet, finding that stagger that drunk girls all thought was sexy, but instead just spelled too-much-drink. She pushed the door open boldly, committing herself, and she burst into giggles once she stumbled in.

The black-haired man was startled by the sight of her, almost jumping out of his skin with a staggered step. He had been waiting for someone, but a brunette woman with vibrant red lips and dressed for a night on a dance floor was not who was expecting. He looked like he was second-guessing himself. Was she the contact? She could see the question flash across his mind, and then immediately dismiss it. He knew he was waiting for, and she was not it.

“Um, miss… I think you’re in the wrong restroom. Ladies room is just another door over.”

Rami pushed off the door, glancing around with a doe-eyed look of surprise. Then she giggled again. “Oh. Um. Nope, this is just where I want to be.” Her Southall accent had dropped, her best American accent sliding into place. She slurred around the imperfections.

“Then, uh… are you waiting for someone?”

The question made Rami’s shoulders shrug beneath the slender straps of her dress. “My girlfriends and I totally spotted you… you see, bridal shower.” She smiled a warming smile as she sauntered closer. The man’s expression was turning toward bemusement to amusement as she neared.

“Bet is that each of us need to score ten kisses tonight, one for each year of happy bliss for our friend Jess. There’s six of us… so, we need sixty years of bliss.” She smiled a coy smile. “Five seconds of bliss for a year of bliss? What you say?”

It was such a fucking cliche — sexiness and spies. The voice in her ear chuckled his unspoken agreement, and she did all she could to ignore him — to keep up her routine. But, there was something else nagging at her as she neared, able to wiggle into her perception with the interrupting chuckle in her ear. She recognized the man, but she couldn’t yet to connect him to a memory. Maybe she had seen him already in the club, but that felt too recent. She had seen him in the last week. But where?

He must have detected how her mind drifted out of her cover, because he took a step back and his amusement dissolved behind a mask of suspicion. He was here for a data drop, and in comes mysterious woman moments before his contact was supposed to arrive? Even Courtier would have been raising alarm bells if she had been on the opposite side of this shoddy performance.

You always were a shit field agent, Michael’s words echoed in her head.

“You know,” she sighed. “A good agent would have gotten the kiss in first.”

The man fumbled behind his back for what Rami assumed to be a concealed holster. It triggered two immediate reactions from Courtier: she kicked out of her heels, bare feet advancing her on the cool vinyl floors rapidly; within three strides of the man, she tossed what little was left in her glass, ice and watered-down tequila remnants splashing into his face. It gave her all she needed to grab his arm on either side of his elbow, wrenching him from gaining a solid grip on the pistol at his lower back. It clattered to the ground along with the tray.

In close quarters now, Courtier felt a rush of ancestral instincts and adrenaline mix with all her training. She was a shit field agent, but she made all the big boys cry. She maintained her grip on his arm just long enough to wrench him far from the fallen gun, slamming him bodily into the handicap stall door with a sound thud. She kicked the gun away, instead grabbing up the tray. It was flung up in front of her just in time to block an incoming punch like a makeshift shield.

He advanced several times, causing her to retreat until he staggered. She was ducked low to take the impact against her shield, and it gave her a perfect vantage point to kick out to hook his knee with her foot, dropping him to a kneel. She spun, slamming the tray into the side of his head, dropping him to the vinyl.

She flipped the tray between her palms, walking around him as he groaned. He pressed his hands solidly against the ground, heaving himself upwards to his knees. He held up a hand, as if marking his surrender. Her instincts were just a tick too slow, as — the moment he was on his feet — he bull-rushed her into the counter. She barely got her legs up, hooking around his midsection to hitch her body up high enough to avoid her spine slamming into the counter. Instead, inertia drove her between two sinks and into the mirror with a shatter of glass.

With him pinning her against the shattered mirror, her only move was her elbow driving solidly down into the soft spot where shoulder and neck met. He grunted a hard noise, but he let her go and staggered back. Rami slid to her feet, feeling the dribbles of blood from the cuts along her spine and perhaps even her scalp. She narrowed her eyes at him, plucking back up her tray.

There were several breaths between them before she took the upperhand, frisbeeing the tray at him while also advancing behind it. She barrelled her shoulder right into his gut, heaving him off the floor with all the strength behind her newtonian force. She slammed him solid into the wall between two urinals, his skull cracking back into the wall; even she saw stars explode behind her eyelids at the impact.

He hit the ground, and she sank hard to her knees. He didn’t get back up; she almost preferred not to, either. But then a voice kept cutting in through the thrum of her pulse and the singing blur of adrenaline in her veins. She shook her head twice before she could hear his voice again.

“Courtier,” he said roughly in the tiny speaker in her ear. “Courtier. You’re wasting time roughhousing.” She looked bewildered to her left as if she expected the man to be there beside her so he could see all the outrage in her expression. She ended up just scowling at a urinal cake instead.

“Is the data intact?”

She blinked hard several times, not daring to shake her already dizzying head. She crawled forward, starting to pat around the man’s pockets as he lay unconscious against the wall. She pulled out a cellphone, a wallet — both things she kept close to her shin — and then she found a tiny square, no bigger than a U.S. quarter, in the tiny secondary pocket in the front of his jeans.

It was the data. She pinched it between forefinger and thumb, staring at it. She blinked a bit of blood from her eye, wiping it away with her other hand and wincing as she brushed across her split brow. She looked from the data to the slumped agent. It was in that moment — coming down from her adrenaline high — that her memory clicked into place.

She had seen him in the Triskelion, four days ago.

He was SHIELD.

“Oh… fuck…”

“Courtier? Is the data intact?”

The words had been building on her tongue the moment she had verified she had it. Its perfect black casing was untouched, withstanding the impact of being pitched around the washroom in the agent’s pocket. She slipped the square down into her palm, closing her fist around it tightly.

The data is intact, was all she had to say. She licked at her coppery-flavored lips, tasting her own blood. The data is intact.

“Negative,” she breathed, staring at the wall in front of her. “The data has been compromised. Casing is broken.” She didn’t look at the square clenched in her fists, fear that the sight of it would unravel her untruths. “Repeat, the data has been compromised.”

She heard the start of a profanity, muffled by what she could assume was the man pushing back from the communication station. She waited for his voice to return, and when it did, the anger was barely maintained. “Courtier, you are to get that data to the nearest drop point. We will determine what can be salvaged.”

“Sir,” she started to protest. “I’m more than capable in extrac — ”

“That’s an order, Courtier.”

Her jaw set. “Yes, sir.”

She heard the low whine of a dropped connection, and she yanked the earbud out of her ear. She tucked it into the small pocket of her dress; the data was tucked into her opposite pocket. She grabbed the man’s wallet and cellphone, taking those with her. She’d dump the phone in the nearest trash can, along with a wallet stripped of its cash. It was a lousy setup for a mugging, particularly with the state of the washroom.

If the Latinates were worth their salt, a clean-up team was already being dispatched. She grabbed up her heels, leaving tray and gun on the naked floor. Back out in the throb of the club, she glanced just one last time toward Dev who was now on his phone, speaking worriedly into the handset. Maybe to a friend, looking for support. It was dark and noisy and distracting, and no one noticed the bloodied woman limping for the emergency exit. It had one of those warnings painted across the red door: Alarm Will Sound If Opened.

“God Save the Queen,” she said bitterly, shoving through the door.

Inside the club, the alarms wailed.

Continued in Pickup #23

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