ADD AN OVERLINE
As a thank you for being an active member of my newsletter, I’ve got a treat for you. Below is the original bookstore scene before my editor and I attacked it with a red pen. Please note, this selection has not been edited. Plus, there is foul language and sexual innuendos.
“Uh, Cappy, are you sure about this?” Ted pseudo-whispered, angling his mouth toward the small black dragon head pinned to his suit jacket’s lapel. The wire stringing down from the device into the transmitter/receiver prototype clipped to his belt wasn’t the most comfortable. He’d have to do something about that.
“Yes,” Cappy replied in a tinny voice, making Ted’s ear itch.
Ted fingered the earpiece resembling a small hearing aid. It constantly felt like it was about to fall out and every time someone spoke, it vibrated his inner ear. “Can’t I stick with running credit reports or deep diving into bank records?”
“You’ve done that already,” Cappy, the commanding officer of Delta Squad, retorted. “Nothing popped. So, that means it’s most likely blackmail with the currency being patient records. Only way to uncover the players is to cultivate a source of your own and pump her for information.”
Ted scratched his lobe. How did the operatives wear these things? He swallowed against Cappy’s words sinking in. Cultivate a source. Yikes. His gaze flickered to the two imposing men sitting at a small table in the coffeehouse-style café section to his right. Casper Grady, a retired Marine, owner of a local entertainment center, and newest member of Delta Squad, sat across from Cappy, a huge hulking man with a crew cut and no-nonsense attitude. Both ignored their specialty drinks to stare at Ted.
“You’ve graduated to the next stage of your training,” Cappy reiterated the point he’d declared earlier when Ted reported for his daily ass kicking. Ted came bearing the name of the only doctor’s office who had all the markings of The Institution’s involvement. His program had run through the night and spit out a log of all the viruses, adware, spyware, and anomalies on all the computers in all the offices he’d infiltrated last night. It only took one glance for him to find the source, then the operators of Delta Squad offered a horrifying solution. The one he currently wished he opted out of.
“You want to continue being point on your first op?” Cappy asked, his chainsaw voice just shy of growling. “You have to be flexible enough to adapt to where the information leads and do whatever it takes to accomplish the goal.”
Ted swallowed again and played with the button on his suit coat. Every word Cappy said made since in theory, but it became a whole new level of terror when he actually had to make them reality. Rubbing his hands together, he studied the overlarge bookstore bustling with consumers on a Thursday night. The store personnel had really gone all out in decorating for Halloween. Cobwebs and cutesy ghosts hung from the ceiling, and endless displays of books promoting the spooky were placed throughout the store. He’d bet in two weeks, probably the day after trick-or-treating, the store would flip to Christmas.
“Congrats,” Cappy yanked him out of procrastinating his next move. “You’re now advancing beyond the last few weeks of weight training and hand-to-hand combat lessons to developing a contact.”
Ted rubbed one of the many bruises riddling his thin, three-years-shy-of-thirty body. The new muscle tone he saw in the mirror came at a painful price.
“Stop fidgeting and remember,” Cappy continued, “keep the chatter to a minimum.”
Chatter. Did that mean the conversation he was supposed to strike up out of thin air or the talking over the comms?
Edging in front of the magazine section with its wall teaming with bays of glossy periodicals, he fingered the dragon head. “I get what you’re saying, but is asking for a date really a necessary step.” A thin layer of sweat coated his hairline. “You all aren’t hazing me, are you?”
“For christsake,” Talon bitched. “Grow a set of balls, will you?”
Ted’s gaze flew to Talon leaning against the far end of the magazine wall, pretending to leaf through a reference book about knives. Shocker he’d pick that. But even the book and surroundings did nothing to tame the stone-cold-killer vibe shining from his blond hair down his honed physique.
As if pulled by a magnet, Ted found Romeo with his god-like face and body lounging against the end of the Fiction section, fiddling with his phone, though he winked at Ted, showing he didn’t miss a thing.
The men of the highly acclaimed, Black Ops unit known as Delta Squad, all sported small black dragon head microphones pinned to their various T-shirts, V-necks, and sweaters, but that’s where the similarities to Ted ended. Their average height was over six-feet-tall and the typical shirt size was XL-XXL due to brawn. They left Ted’s own five-seven, size M/L physique in the dust, but he refused to give up.
Cappy lifted his grande cup. “What do you think we do when we’re on assignment?”
Kill the person. Ted figured he’d be better off not saying that out loud. Definitely not the way he wanted this mission to turn out.
Romeo cleared his throat and waited until Ted peered his way. “Cultivating a mark is all about choosing the right angle. Watch her for a few minutes. See what she’s doing, what she reacts to, who she talks to or turns away. That’ll help you figure out your approach.”
The cheeseburger from their stop earlier turned in Ted’s stomach. Extra cheese and bacon? Why had he thought them a good idea?
“You’re thinking like Ted,” Romeo continued patiently. “Slip on a new persona. Ted’s not asking her out, Theodore is. Theodore’s confident and has game. He’s screwed hundreds of women and has chosen her as the next lucky girl he’ll make scream his name.”
“Easy for you to say,” Ted muttered. Romeo never had to worry about enticing women. The guy epitomized his codename, landing women without any effort.
“You’re acting like you’ve never been laid before,” Talon snarked, flipping a page with emphasis.
Ted flinched, then prayed they hadn’t noticed. He wasn’t a virgin, but awkward computer geeks who had more brains then brawn weren’t exactly panty droppers. Then the insult hit him. “Laid?” He gulped at this going from pumping her for information to sleeping with her. “But I thought—”
“Romeo’s right,” Grady cut him off. “Getting close is nothing but a mindset, but you have nothing to worry about. We chose Doreen for a reason. She works in the effected doctor’s office and I know her—”
Talon snorted and Grady’s brows slammed down. “Not that way, asshole.” Grady glared across the way at Talon. They’ve hated each other since the second they met and it all had to do with a girl, codenamed Wraith. “I’ve already told my girlfriend about what you purposefully misconstrued that day on the farm. Give it a rest.”
“Both of you give it a rest,” Cappy snapped. “You’re distracting Ted and starting to attract attention.”
That was bound to happen anyway. Four hard-bodied, good-looking men in a bookstore did not blend in very well, not that they tried very hard. If they had to, they could become invisible.
Ted swallowed. “It’s just—”
“Ted,” Talon cut in flatly. “It’s not a marriage proposal, just the next phase of your mission. If you can’t score an in with the town tramp then we’ve got bigger issues.”
“She’s not the town tramp,” Grady snapped.
“Look at her,” Talon ordered.
Oh, Ted was, along with most the other men in the bookstore. She wasn’t Hollywood gorgeous but her striking face coupled with inner confidence drew men’s attention like a magnet.
“She’s got her rack displayed as if there’s a sale on breasts,” Talon continued rudely, the book forgotten in his lethal fingers. “And when she walked in, she had so much wiggle in her step, a chiropractor visit’s going to be in her near future.”
Grady cleared his throat. “Okay. So she likes to show off her curvy body, but the woman’s a widow trying to raise a genius son. Cut her some slack.”
“Awful defensive about your friend who pursued you like blade to a target.”
“Talon,” Cappy barked.
“Whatever,” Talon groused. “Can we move this along? This is so not my scene.”
“I’m quite happy here,” Romeo toed a small pile of books, their spines displaying happy, inviting colors. “I finally picked up the romantic suspense series about a team of operatives with secret powers.”
“Oh my God,” Talon muttered. “I can’t believe you’re the biggest tramp out of all of us. How the hell do you have a set of balls after reading that romance bullshit?”
“Can the chatter,” Cappy commanded. “This is about helping Ted with his first mission. If you all can’t remember basic field protocol then I’m sending you home to sit with the women.”
“Don’t let Wraith or Magician hear you talk about them like they’re knitting scarves,” Ted murmured, describing the other two operatives rounding out Delta Squad. He shuffled around a balding man thumbing through a travel magazine. “Wraith would have you in her sniper sights before you realized it while Magician came at you from a place you least expected it.”
Romeo smirked, proud. Magician was his best friend and partner. You usually didn’t find one without the other.
Ted straightened. Romeo was right. He had no game. Instead of obsessing, he needed to adopt a role and get this done.
Snatching a magazine that someone had crammed onto the shelf, he flipped it open and slid his gaze to the woman sitting nearby on a purple two-cushioned couch beside a ten-year-old boy. In the background checks Ted had performed on every employee in the doctor’s office, he learned Doreen was a single mom who didn’t have much money in savings, barely made enough to cover current expenses, moved in with her parents after her military husband died overseas, and did her best to raise a genius son. Ted could easily relate to Parker’s struggles growing up smarter than his classmates. He bet life in school was hard.
“For fuck’s sake, Ted,” Talon snapped in his earpiece. “Put the Penthouse back on the shelf. Do you want to blow this before you even start?”
Ted froze, his eyes dropping to the magazine someone had unwrapped from the plastic.
Romeo cracked up. “Did you really mean to say blow at the same time as Penthouse?”
To Ted’s horror, a picture of a buxom, naked woman splayed across a couch, took up both pages in colorful glory. He slammed the issue shut and hastily crammed it back into the rack. Beads of sweat rolled along his face and heat burned him from the inside out.
He couldn’t do this. No way in hell could he get his act together enough to approach Doreen McKenna. He pushed his glasses back up and shot a guilty peek at the mother and son reading a small book perched on Doreen’s lap.
She swiped a straight strand of straight, chocolate-brown hair over her shoulder and pointed to something on the page. Parker squinted at it, his eyebrows furrowing before he lifted his face and said something to Doreen. She smiled and it punched Ted in the gut. Holy Christ. Her exquisite jade eyes brightened as she patted Parker’s back.
A warmth unfurled deep inside Ted as if recognizing its other half, and a longing began to kindle. Watching her with Parker only solidified her beauty ran more than skin deep. He just needed her to see past his awkwardness and give him a chance like she had with Parker. God, this was just like high school all over again. His friends had dared him to ask Cindy Rae, captain of the cheerleaders, out to prom. They swore they heard a rumor she wished Ted would. Like a fool, he believed them. Not only did she stare at him in horror, her friends had made sure the whole school knew about the loser trying to climb beyond his station.
Not going through that again. Ted peered over his shoulder at the front doors. I can find another way to draw out the player or players working for The Institution.
“Focus, Ted,” Cappy ordered, his voice whipping through the earpiece. “She didn’t see you with the cat porn, so don’t sweat it.” Pause. “Take a deep breath, you look like you’re going to hurl.”I feel like I’m going to hurl. He fiddled with the button on his new charcoal suit jacket and itched to take the thing off. If it wasn’t for the fear of having visible sweat rings on his new blue oxford shirt, he’d do just that. Romeo had taken him shopping, assuring him a woman couldn’t resist a man in a well-cut suit. She hadn’t met Ted yet.