#fridayflash: out of the frying pan


If you want to read the rest of the series, here are the links to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, Part 13, Part 14, and Part 15.

"So how does a field agent score an office?" said Cinnamon, flopping into one of the visitor's chairs opposite Geoffrey's desk.

"I haven't actually been a field agent for a long time," said Geoffrey. He tossed the whiteboard markers he'd taken from the supply room onto his desk. "They just wheel me out when they need a middle-aged soft-looking type to pose as a businessman or some other sort of mark." He glanced at Pepper. "You should sit down, Ellie."

Pepper shook her head. She undid the clasp on her locket and handed it to Geoffrey, who put it around his own neck.

"All right," said Geoffrey, picking up one of the markers with one hand as he tucked the locket under his shirt with the other. "Debrief. I have to say, the engagement hand-off between myself and Sheila was textbook..." His voice cracked.

Someone knocked on the office door. Geoffrey nodded at Cinnamon, who got up slowly and went to open it.

"Geoffrey." A short man pushed his way past Cinnamon into the office. His suit looked like he'd slept in it.

"Alex." Geoffrey waved the whiteboard marker. "I was just going through a debrief on the DeBussy op."

"Good, good," said Alex. "I was just going to borrow Ellie from you."

"We'll be done in an hour," said Geoffrey.

"I'll have her back to you by lunchtime." Alex took Pepper under the arm and steered her out of the office. To Cinnamon's surprise, Pepper just let him do it.

Geoffrey put his finger to his lips and shook his head at Cinnamon. Then he took her arm the same way Alex had taken Pepper's and pushed her out of the office.

"What are you..."

"Sh." Geoffrey pointed back along the corridor. Cinnamon let him take her to the elevators, through the underground food court, and along the PATH walkway to St. Andrews subway station. She only spoke again when Geoffrey produced two subway tokens and dropped the first one into the turnstile.

"We are not just going to leave her there. I'm not. You go do whatever skull-and-dagger crap you think you need to do, but..."

"We're coming back for her," Geoffrey said quietly. Cinnamon rolled her eyes and passed through the turnstile, then waited for Geoffrey to feed it the second token and enter the station.

"We're going to pretend to be going back to your apartment," Geoffrey said into Cinnamon's ear as they descended the stairs to the waiting area. "Then we're going to go to my house. They're not going to believe Ellie, they're not going to believe you either, and while I might be able to shake them a little bit because I'm one of them, they're not going to believe me without some physical evidence to back me up."

The train arrived, nearly empty now that morning rush hour was over. Cinnamon slouched onto the first available set of empty seats, Geoffrey perching beside her.

"There isn't any physical evidence," said Cinnamon as the doors chimed closed. "We know Ellie found that card in DeBussy's hotel room because we know she wouldn't make that shit up, but all Doug and Co. have to do is claim she had it on her all along, that she's the one who stole it, and..."

"We have a little physical evidence," said Geoffrey. "And if we can get to my place in time, we'll have a little more." He stared at the cement walls of the subway tunnel rushing by the windows. "I just hope they haven't thought of it already. Right now it's down to how long Ellie can stretch things out."

#fridayflash: simcoe street


If you want to read the rest of the series, here are the links to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, Part 13, and Part 14.

"So where are we?" said Cinnamon. Geoffrey had led them north through the bunker's second entrance tunnel, through a series of progressively older-looking underground passages, to a small room with red brick walls and a cobblestone floor.  The room was illuminated by a single incandescent bulb stuck in a rusty wire work lamp, showing the room was empty, but featured a newer-looking steel door opposite the rot-softened older one they'd just passed through.

Cinnamon noticed the orange electrical cord attached to the lamp ran into a hole drilled into one of the brick walls. The whole thing looked like it was meant to be temporary and then had been forgotten about.

The ceiling shuddered and rumbled as something large and heavy passed overhead. Cinnamon sprang back into the corridor, reaching for one of her guns. Pepper just clenched her fists and looked at Geoffrey.

"That was probably a dump truck," said Geoffrey. "Up until the mid-sixties, this was a debriefing room, and sometimes an isolation cell. We're underneath Simcoe Street, very near to where it intersects with King."

"What corner?" said Cinnamon.

"None of them," said Geoffrey. "We're on the south side, but we're underneath the actual street."

"And this is part of headquarters? It looks ancient."

"For around here it is. Rumour has it the Upper Canada Rebellion was partly planned in this very room." Geoffrey shrugged. "We — by 'we' I mean the company  — used to have a safe in here for documents, a table, a chair for the person asking the questions. This room got sealed up after the end of the Korean War — change in questioning policy. Couldn't use scary rooms anymore. Go figure."

"So they cleared out the furniture and..." said Cinnamon. "Just sealed it up?"

Geoffrey shook his head. "Someone must have screwed up with the paperwork. It got sealed up all right, but the furniture and the safe wasn't removed. When constructions workers building the Roy Thomson Hall accidentally found it in the late 70s, there were still two cups on the table."

"Was there anything in the safe?" said Pepper.

Geoffrey grinned without humour. "Not that anyone's been willing to admit to me." He pointed at the steel door. "We go through that, which leads to a tunnel that eventually goes under Wellington Street — the construction workers found a portion of that too, but they thought they sealed it up. Come on."

The walk was about fifteen minutes, although Cinnamon thought that between clambering over old rubble and jumping over small water pipe leaks, they couldn't have gone more than a couple of blocks. If she hadn't completely lost her bearings, they should have looped back south and to the west a little. That would put them underneath the underground shopping mall at Metro Hall — right at headquarters.

The tunnel turned to the right, and then ended abruptly at another steel door. To Cinnamon's surprise, Geoffrey simply grasped the door handle and turned it.

She checked Pepper's reaction, but Pepper had been silent and stone-faced since they'd left the underwater bunker. Cinnamon couldn't blame her. It was no fun being bait — you had to pretend to be more helpless than you really were.

The door was unlocked. Geoffrey quickly checked whatever was inside and closed the door again. "This is it," he said. "We go through this, we step into the admin office's stationery room. Anyone need sticky notes or highlighters while we're in here?"

"Ballpoint pens?" said Pepper.

"Sorry, Ellie, no weapons. They'd spot that."

"Just a well-sharpened pencil..." Pepper stopped talking when she saw the look on Geoffrey's face.

"Now as far as weapons go," said Geoffrey, turning to Cinnamon, "are you ready?"

Cinnamon shrugged. "Sure. It's a pain having all these guns holstered, but I'm okay. I'm just glad I do a lot of weight training. These things are heavy. And it's going to take me forever to get scanned and signed in by security."

"Don't worry about that. All right, here we go." Geoffrey turned the door knob again and pushed something behind it. Cinnamon heard the sound of metal scraping on cement for several seconds, and then Geoffrey's arm reappeared through the doorway, waving at them to follow him.

Cinnamon slipped through the doorway after Pepper. They now stood in a narrow room lit by fluorescent tubing, with metal utility shelves lining the entirety of every wall except the one opposite them. It had a frosted glass door in it that Cinnamon recognised as being the same design as all the rest of the interior doors in headquarters.

Pepper helped Geoffrey push the shelving unit back to in front of the door they'd just come through. Geoffrey checked the door behind it was closed completely.

"Ah! Here they are," he said, and grabbed a fistful of whiteboard markers from a small tub on the shelf they'd just moved. He strode up to the frosted glass door and opened it. "After you, ladies."

Pepper and Cinnamon walked into a bustling office area. A woman wearing a slightly better Chanel-style suit than the rest of the women in the area looked up from her laptop. "Field division out of stationery, Geoffrey?"

"The field division never has any stationery, Martha, you know that," said Geoffrey. "I need to do a debrief and task analysis with these two, and I had nothing at all to write with." He beamed a smile at Martha.

Cinnamon fought to hide her surprise as she noticed Martha blushing. "Oh you," she said. "You're just lucky we don't have to sign that stuff out."

Geoffrey thanked Martha with exaggerated gallantry, then led Cinnamon and Pepper to the elevator bays. A man in a maintenance engineer's uniform got on the elevator with them, but exited only one floor down.

"So in case anyone's wondering," said Geoffrey, "we really are going to my office for  a few minutes. At least long enough to make it look like a real meeting."

"Mostly I'm just wondering exactly how badly our security sucks," said Cinnamon.

To be continued...

#fridayflash: concentration


If you want to read the rest of the series, here are the links to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, and Part 13.

 Cinnamon ripped a fresh sheet of paper from the pad and set it on the cutting board she'd repurposed as a clipboard. At the top of the page, she wrote "DOUG" in giant letters. Underneath she jotted down a list:
  • recruited and graduated same year as me
  • always bombed every exercise and group activity
  • acts like he knows what's going on — not just a messenger boy
  • acts like he's in charge, not just of the goons for this job
  • I KICKED HIS BUTT IN JUDO AND I HAD THE FLU THAT DAY!!!!
  • rumour was he'd flunked his field procedures exams AND intelligence analysis
  • HOW DID THIS GUY GRADUATE????
The pencil broke as she carved the last question mark into the paper. She swore, slapped the paper on the mess hall table with the others, and grabbed the pencil sharpener.

She glanced over the other notes as she jammed the pencil into the sharpener and gave it a few twirls. The top row was for notes on people: DeBussy, herself, Geoffrey and Pepper. She'd also included Munroe and some other people in research she thought could be involved. The second row was a timeline of all the major events which had happened, started with the job being assigned. The third row was for items: the decoy USB key and the real data on the microSD card Pepper had found, the files themselves, and an inventory of the weapons they'd filched from Doug and his goons before canoeing out into the lake.

Cinnamon tapped the spare pencil shavings into a wastepaper basket she'd found and made herself re-read every note in detail. She shook her head. "I can't see it," she said under her breath.

"Can't read your own handwriting?" said a voice from the doorway to the dormitory. Cinnamon clutched at the gun in her shoulder holster, then relaxed when she saw it was Geoffrey.

"Just trying to figure this out," Cinnamon said, gesturing at the papers.

"But you've been checking both entrances and the cameras too, right?" said Geoffrey, walking up to the table.

"Every fifteen minutes," said Cinnamon. "Nothing to report."

"Good," said Geoffrey. He picked up the notes on the data files. "This isn't accurate, you know." He tapped one of the entries in the list. "The data's sensitive, and it shouldn't be found off its isolated network, but that doesn't mean it would fetch much of a market price."

"It's Level 9," said Cinnamon. "It's not supposed to leave the building. You can't even transmit it on a dedicated line."

Geoffrey nodded as he replaced the paper on the table. "Yes, but that's just because it's from NATO, and anything we get from NATO always gets classified as Level 9. But you saw the file names. It's not like it's launch codes or submarine routes, or even a duty roster. Even journalists wouldn't give a shit about that stuff." He stepped back from the table. "No. NATO bureaucracy needs it, but it's useless outside of that particular environment. Wouldn't help you break in. Can't even be used with other accessible data to find out something interesting."

Cinnamon bit her lip. "I just wanted to do something useful while I was on watch. Maybe once I catch some sleep I'll be able to come up with something..."

"This is useful," said Geoffrey. He chuckled and pointed to the note on Doug. "Did you really get him against the mat while you had the flu?"

"It was worse than that," said Cinnamon. "I kicked him in the head. He was unconscious for thirty-seven seconds."

"I wonder if he knows that as well as you do," said Pepper, entering the mess hall. "What is all that?"

"Sheila's been breaking things down," said Geoffrey. "I think she's found something."

"What?"

Geoffrey gave Pepper a look. "You're not going to like it."

Pepper leaned over the table and scanned the pages. "This is just recording what we know. Not a bad thing," she added quickly, glancing at Cinnamon. "Mercenary finds a mole willing to sell some data, arranges a buy, but a job for slightly different reasons thwarts him. Or it will once we can come in from the cold."

"But consider," said Geoffrey, picking up the note on DeBussy and holding it behind his back. "Now what's the story?"

"If you take him out of it, then..." Cinnamon's eyes widened, then narrowed. "But he is in it. Take him out and it distorts everything. It looks like it's all about Ellie."

"One way to find out," said Pepper. She locked eyes with Geoffrey. "You're going to have to bring me in."

"Yes," said Geoffrey. He shot a look at Cinnamon. "Get some sleep. The two of us will figure out how to stage this."

Cinnamon nodded and headed for the dormitory with a frown. She wasn't quite sure how she'd just been shut out of her own analysis.

She reached the bunk area and startled. Only one bunk was made up to sleep in.

That's against regulations! she thought. Then again, maybe Pepper and Geoffrey didn't care under the circumstances.

Pepper's voice floated into the dormitory from the mess hall. "This is Sarajevo all over again," she said.

"That's what worries me," said Geoffrey, and then he added something Cinnamon couldn't hear.

#fridayflash: stock-taking


If you want to read the rest of the series, here are the links to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, and Part 12.

"That sky's looking awfully pale," said Cinnamon. She was the only one facing east as Pepper and Geoffrey paddled the canoe to Lake Ontario's western shore.

"Can't do anything about it," said Geoffrey. He pointed at a spot slightly north of the canoe's course. "We need to head a little more that way. Damn condo developments have obliterated all the landmarks, not to mention half the shoreline shape."

"We could risk a quick geo check," said Pepper.

"It's okay," said Geoffrey. "I can see the Humber College campus from here, and that's all I really need to go by. At least they haven't moved that yet."

Any natural beach had been removed or covered with football-sized chunks of cement, which served the double purpose of both using up construction leftovers and making the shore too awkward to swim or dive from. Geoffrey instructed Pepper to navigate to a lonely dock that looked like it should have ripped up and carted off decades ago.

"We can tuck the canoe under this," he said, as Pepper helped Cinnamon disembark. "Just put the paddles inside and then push down and towards the dock, like so..." The canoe squeezed under the short end of the dock and disappeared underneath.

Cinnamon and Pepper followed Geoffrey off the dock and onto the adjoining parkland. Geoffrey walked into a close-cropped lawn surrounded by bicycle paths, checking the grass as he made a show of turning out his pockets, as if he'd just dropped his keys. Some joggers were making their way along the path from about a quarter-kilometre away.

"Here," said Geoffrey, stomping on what looked like a lawn sprinkler. The edge of a rusty utility tunnel cover popped up. Cinnamon and Pepper pretended to be helping him look for the imaginary keys as the joggers went past them.

All three of them did a visibility check. When they nodded to each other in agreement that they weren't being watched, Geoffrey prised up the tunnel cover and Pepper and Cinnamon slipped in. Geoffrey followed them, hitting a button on the tunnel wall that triggered the cover to fall back into place.

Geoffrey tapped both the women on the shoulder, and they leaned towards him. "This way," he whispered. Holding hands and walking in total darkness, they formed an awkward human chain as they made their way down the tunnel, Geoffrey in front with his free hand reaching before him. The tunnel was dry at least.

At the last they came to a door. Pepper listened to Geoffrey adjusting something in the dark. It reminded her of a job she'd been on once which had involved some safe-cracking. The sucking sound of water-tight seals giving way announced that Geoffrey had remembered how to unlock the door.

"It's like the door on a ship," he said quietly. "You'll have to step over."

Pepper waved her arm in front of her until she found Geoffrey's waiting hand, then let him guide her through the doorway. Cinnamon did the same, and they stood in the dark while Geoffrey sealed the door behind him.

"The good thing about that hatch is it's not just water-tight, but pretty soundproof," said Geoffrey in a more normal tone of voice. "Hang on..." Pepper and Cinnamon listened to him running his hands over the walls. There was the sharp sound of an industrial switch being thrown, and they stood blinking in the blue-white light of a series of fluorescent tubes.

The lighting showed that the tunnel they now stood in ran down a series of ramps, back out into the lake. Cinnamon wondered if the faint, intermittent sound she heard was a fluorescent tube on the blink or dripping lake water.

It was a long walk to the bunker itself. Geoffrey apologetically explained that there used to be some golf carts in the tunnel once it reached maximum depth and ran level, but they had been removed when the bunker was mothballed.

"It still gets a maintenance check on the last day of every month, so we don't have to worry too much about it being dangerous," he said. "But it's a bloody long walk. Sorry about that."

The bunker proper was sealed off from the end of the tunnel by a double set of sealed hatches. Geoffrey explained they were intended as an airlock in case the tunnel was breached but not the bunker.

Inside Geoffrey had to turn on another circuit's worth of fluorescent lights.

Cinnamon stared up at the interlocking triangles forming the inside of the domed main room. "This reminds me of something," she said.

"Ontario Place, the IMAX theatre," said Geoffrey. "The bunker's a series of Buckminster Fuller geodesic domes."

"Funny these don't get more notice from passing boats," said Pepper.

"Oh, we're well under the lake bed now," said Geoffrey. "Nothing to see but a couple of cameras, and even for 1980s tech they're pretty well camouflaged."

He led them to the sleeping quarters — several rows of military-style cots. "Bedding's in there," he said, pointing to some lockers. "I guess we ought to keep a watch. I can go first."

"I'll do it," said Cinnamon. "I didn't do any of the paddling, and I bet I woke up last out of the three of us."

Geoffrey hesitated, then nodded.

Cinnamon left Pepper and Geoffrey to sort out the cots and returned to the working/living space. She checked the camera feed, but it was still too dark to see anything outside, and she didn't want to risk the floodlights. She checked one of the steel desks near the camera station and found a pad of ruled paper and a fistful of pencils. Some more searching yielded a pencil sharpener.

Cinnamon thought for a moment, then headed for the mess area. She picked up a plastic cutting board. One side was scarred with knife-cuts, but the other side was unused and smooth. She brought it back to the camera area, tore a sheet of paper off the pad, put it against the smooth side of the cutting board, and began to write.

#fridayflash: all downhill


If you want to read the rest of the series, here are the links to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, and Part 10.

"Dumbass."

Doug quirked a crooked smile and adjusted his gun stance. "You're the one who's going to get shot, Ellie."

Pepper rolled her eyes. "Yeah, in front of at least six CCTV cameras, not counting the red-light camera at the intersection. You're going to have your close-up on every news outlet in the country, and half the US too."

Doug started to look for the cameras, then caught himself. "Just give me the data, Ellie."

"If it means you're not going to shoot me, or Sheila or Geoffrey — just to be clear — then sure. We can go pick it up."

"Pick it up?"

Pepper made a tutting sound. "You lost me outright for over an hour, Doug. Did you think I just rode the subway the whole time?"

Doug cocked his head at Cinnamon, who was looking down her nose at him. "She picked you up."

"Uh huh. And you followed the car the whole time, right? Got a tracker on it?"

"She's stalling," said the goon with his gun trained on Geoffrey's head.

"What the hell am I stalling for?" said Pepper. "What, I'm going to keep up this standoff until morning comes and the office drones show up and make this little meeting impossible to continue? I don't think so. Doug, your help is even stupider than you are."

"Where did you hide it?" Doug said. "The data."

"Queen's Quay Terminal," said Pepper.

"Bullshit," said Doug. "There's no way —"

Cinnamon sighed loudly. "Gardiner to Lakeshore, Lakeshore to Queen's Quay Boulevard, then Queen's Quay back to Lakeshore to go north on University Avenue. University to College, then south on Bay Street. Total detour time no more than fifteen minutes in light traffic, which we had." She glanced at Pepper. "We should have gone around back via Elizabeth Street like you said."

"Shit happens," said Pepper.

"So where is it then?" said Doug. His voice cracked.

"It's a microSD card," said Pepper. "You think I can just give you directions? I'll have to go there and get it."

The goon standing behind Cinnamon swung and arm around her neck and put his gun to her temple.

"Watch it, asshole!" said Cinnamon, grabbing at his forearm. "You're choking me!"

"We'll keep your friends here, with, ah, my friends, and then we'll come back once we get the data," said Doug.

"Not acceptable," said Pepper. "I leave, and while I'm getting you the data your goons kill them. No way. Either we all go, or you leave now empty-handed."

"We can't just march down Bay Street holding guns to your backs," said Doug.

"The rest of Canada would think it's an awesome metaphor for the national banking district," said Cinnamon. "Hey!" She fought to keep her balance as her guard almost pulled her down. "What, you got relatives who are stock brokers or something?"

"Let her go," said Doug. "All right," he said to Pepper, gesturing with his gun, "we'll do it."

"How do we know you won't just shoot us after you have the data?" said Geoffrey.

"We'll..." Doug stopped, flummoxed.

"You could trade your guns for the data card," said Geoffrey.

"These things weren't cheap," said Doug. "We... no, wait, if we do that, you can shoot us and get the data back."

"Trade two out of three," said Pepper. "That way you still get to have a gun, so attacking isn't risk-free for us, and you have leverage to get away."

"But then we won't have guns," said the thug holding on to Cinnamon.

"You can get more," said Doug. He flicked his gun towards the south. "Let's go. Don't do anything to make us use them while we all have them."

"Just make sure you keep up," said Pepper.

They trudged the five blocks to the lake, silent except for when Pepper turned west to walk the final block to the terminal and one of the thugs thought she was trying to escape.

"Watch what the hell you're doing," Doug shouted.

"Do you think," Pepper said in normal tone of voice, "that it's a good idea to shoot a gun when the only building that's not a condo tower around here is a hotel? The question isn't whether or not there'll be witnesses, but how many dozen. It's this way."

They walked up to a grey-painted wooden hut with a small dock behind it. "This way," said Pepper, leading them behind the hut and onto a strip of solid ground only a few metres wide.

Pepper stopped sooner than Doug was expecting, and he walked into her. She grabbed his gun hand with both of hers and twisted it. There was a cracking sound, and Doug screamed as the gun fell from his hands.

Cinnamon stomped on her guard's foot, then elbowed him in the stomach before he could react. She karate-chopped him in the neck and took his gun out of his hands, using it to knock him across the head. He fell unconscious to the pavement.

Geoffrey threw his guard against the side of the shed, forcing his gun hand into an odd, intricate position. Finger bones snapped, and Geoffrey gained control of the gun, which he used to knock out his opponent.

"Dumbass," said Pepper, giving Doug one last kick in the head.

"I haven't had to do that in ages," said Geoffrey.

"I haven't had to do that for six weeks," said Cinnamon. "So now what?"

"I don't know about either of you, but I need some time off the grid," said Pepper. "Let's get out on the lake." She flicked the padlock on the door of the grey hut. "You still remember how to paddle a canoe, Geoffrey?"

#fridayflash: links


If you want to read the rest of the series, here are the links to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, and Part 9.

"So where are we going?" said Geoffrey.

"They won't have got to the roof yet," said Pepper. "There's a way off from there."

"One that doesn't lead to a horrible death?" said Cinnamon.

"Not usually," said Pepper. "Follow me." She led them down the corridor to the women's washroom. The small foyer between the corridor and the washroom proper had a utility door in it, which served as the entrance to an electrical closet. Another utility door was at the opposite end of the closet. Behind it was a narrow stairway.

"This goes to the roof," said Pepper. "Bet you a mouse-free beer they haven't thought to cover these stairs. They only start on the twentieth floor."

"Great White implies a master hunter," said Geoffrey, but he entered the stairwell behind Pepper and Cinnamon.

"It's not a shark," said Pepper. "It's a TV show. Remember?" She reached the first landing and let out a long, ululating falsetto call.

"Oh, like those Canadian wilderness mini-documentaries they used to show on the CBC between cartoon shows?" said Cinnamon. "I love the parodies of those... Geoffrey? Oh man, you're not having a heart attack, are you?"

Geoffrey looked up at the two women. Even in the dim blue fluorescent lighting of the stairwell his face looked red, but he was grinning. "I remember," he said. "Hosers and 'take off, eh?' and all that. I loved that show when I was a kid."

Cinnamon glanced up and down the stairs, one of her colleagues to the other. "This is one of those things that would never survive on cable, but you're going to tell me back when you were kids and we only had two stations it was really great, right?"

"Once we get out of this mess, I'll show you on Youtube," said Pepper. "But that show reference alone means the guys with the guns are Canadian, and one of the episodes included instructions on how to raise a mouse in a beer bottle. Then you claimed you just found it there, so you could guilt-trip the brewery into giving you free beer."

Geoffrey ran a few steps to catch up. "Did you ever see the film?"

"Only when it first came out," said Pepper, already another flight ahead of him.

"I think I still have it on VHS somewhere," said Geoffrey. "And the first LP."

"Things you learn about co-workers," Cinnamon muttered under her breath.

"Doesn't really help us any further in figuring what this is about," said Geoffrey.

"Once we get a chance to hit the web, it might," said Pepper. "Let's get back to street level first."

"This plan doesn't have anything to do with parachutes or hang-gliders or anything else like that, does it?" said Cinnamon.

Pepper grinned back down at them and jumped to the next landing. "We are in the middle of the Bay Street wind tunnel."

"No way. Let's double back and shoot our way out instead."

"She's kidding," said Geoffrey, pushing Cinnamon ahead of him. "You are kidding, right?"

"Yeah," said Pepper. "But I gotta say, I'm kind of jealous of that outfit. Pulling your code names from cult TV shows is way cooler than what we do. Belonging to an entire division with names based on the co-ordinator's obsession with British girl bands sucks."

"Huh?" said Geoffrey.

"Pepper, Cinnamon, Ginger, Saffron... what, you've never noticed that?"

"Not everyone," said Geoffrey. "Susan goes by Meg."

"That's short for Nutmeg," said Cinnamon. "Wow. I thought everyone knew that."

They finished the rest of the stair-climb in silence. Before opening the door to the roof, Pepper warned them that Bay Street or no, they were forty-five stories up and the wind would be bad. They wouldn't really be able to talk on the roof, and they shouldn't really talk on the way down in case they were near patrolling goons.

Then they stepped out into a rooftop gale.

Geoffrey's tie flapped into his face and acted like it wanted to cling to his nose. He loosened it and tossed it away. The lights lining the top of the building illuminated the tie's flight over the edge.

Pepper led them to the west side of the roof, where a window-washer's rig was tied down. Through gestures she instructed Geoffrey to help her move the rig into position and hang it against the side of the building. It dropped an awkward metre past the edge of the roof and held steady.

"This is the worst part," Pepper yelled into Cinnamon's ear. "Sorry, but you're the lightest. Get in and hook yourself onto a safety strap while Geoffrey and I hold the ropes."

Cinnamon climbed over, clutching at the roof when the rig jerked under her weight. She found a safety strap, clipped it to her belt, and gave an "okay" signal.

Geoffrey and Pepper had a brief, gestured argument about which of them should climb in next. Eventually Pepper climbed in the opposite side of the rig from where Cinnamon stood. Geoffrey eased himself into the space between them.

"There's only two safety straps," Cinnamon yelled.

Geoffrey shrugged and crouched against the rig's frame.

Pepper waved to get Cinnamon's attention and mimed how to work the rope controls. They let themselves down gradually, pausing a few times when they spotted movement through an office window further below.

The ropes ended half a storey above the ground. They all helped each other half-jump, half-clamber out.

"Glad that's over," said Cinnamon.

Pepper ignored her. "Geoffrey, I was thinking on the way down — do you remember the names of those two characters on Great White North?"

"Oh," said Geoffrey. "Um. The Mackenzie brothers. One of them was Bob, and the other one was, um..."

"Doug," said Pepper.

"Doug?" said Cinnamon.

"Hello," said a voice behind them.

Cinnamon tried to grab for her ankle holster as she wheeled around, but Doug shot at the ground just in front of her. She jumped back.

"Don't bother," he said. "You're surrounded. I'm glad that I'm not the only one in the office who has a sense of humour, though. So Ellie, how about that data you were supposed to hand over this evening?"

To be continued...

Bonus links! If you want to chuckle like Pepper and Geoffrey (or be perplexed like Cinnamon), check out the infamous "beer mouse" clip from Great White North below. Wikipedia has an article on the Bob and Doug Mackenzie phenomenon.




#fridayflash: upwards

If you want to read the rest of the series, here are the links to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, and Part 8.

Pepper hit both the up and down buttons for the elevators. Two of the six sets of doors opened with accompanying chimes.

"Here," Pepper whispered as she ran into the elevator with the Up indicator lit. Geoffrey and Cinnamon followed her. Pepper pressed the door close button. Below them, in the lower mezzanine, they could hear men shouting and running.

"There's a security camera in the back right corner of the cab, but no sound," said Pepper, barely above a whisper. She pressed a floor button. The cab jerked but didn't ascend. "Geoffrey, you're the one in the suit and trench coat. Pat your pockets for a key card. Sheila, look disgusted that he forgot." She unlocked her phone and made a series of quick gestures on the screen.

"That door's going to re-open in a few seconds," said Geoffrey quietly, checking his pockets. Cinnamon leaned against the back wall of the cab and folded her arms.

"Got it," said Pepper, giving the phone one last tap. "Okay, now make it look like you're palming me a key card from the camera's point of view." Outside there were squawks from walkie talkies and the knocking sounds of heavy boots on granite floor tiles.

Geoffery pretended to surprise himself and find a key card. Cinnamon lifted her head and lazily watched Geoffrey hand the nonexistent key card to Pepper. She made a show of sliding something to the back of her phone and holding it up to the security sensor.

The sensor beeped and its LED turned green. Pepper jabbed the button for one of the upper floors and the elevator cab started to ascend.

"The nice thing about the elevator system here," said Pepper, "is that it'll only say it's going up, not which floor. My contact says it's incredibly irritating if you're trying to make it back for a meeting right after lunch."

"But they'll have a good guess from how long the indicator light is on," said Cinnamon.

"Not that good," said Pepper. "It's harder to tell with these high-speed systems, because you don't know when it started to decelerate."

"Where are we going, anyhow?" said Geoffrey.

"To my contact's office," said Pepper. "She's very good at cooking up a story on the spot if anyone tries to question her, and the RFID on my phone will unlock her door."

"That was a neat trick," said Geoffrey. "I didn't know they were issuing toys like that with our budget."

Pepper snorted. "They're not. I requisitioned one ages ago and they laughed me out of the quartermaster's office."

The elevator doors opened. "Then how come you have it?" said Geoffrey.

"A little Acme Surplus, a little Fry's," said Pepper. "I needed it."

"Yeah," said Geoffrey softly, "I can really appreciate that."

"Here," said Pepper, tapping the back of her phone against another card scanner. The door clicked and she pushed it open.

Pepper checked the office as Cinnamon and Geoffrey followed her inside. "Clear," she called. "The alarm won't go off unless we try to take something substantial out of the office. My contact is very big on RFID. Well, and computer security."

"So, we've got what, about twenty minutes before we have to move again?" said Cinnamon.

"Sounds right," said Geoffrey.

"Okay," said Pepper, leading them into a boardroom and sitting down. "What do we know about the goons downstairs?"

"They're most likely but not definitely associated with DeBussy," said Cinnamon.

"Who left the USB key out as a decoy," said Geoffrey. "And who, at last report, is freaking out because Pepper found what he was really hiding. Now she's the one hiding it."

Pepper hesitated, then tapped at her phone a few times. "See for yourself." She held her phone in front of Geoffrey.

Geoffrey squinted and leaned back to read the screen. His eyes widened and he stared at Pepper. "How the hell did he get hold of that?"

"Had to be someone on the inside," said Pepper.

"Now I understand why you were so quick to point your gun at me earlier," said Geoffrey. He pressed his lips together. "And then our briefs for the op were different..."

"Any way to narrow down who it might be?" said Cinnamon. "Research is an awfully big division, and those briefs get assembled from a lot of different sources. It's hard to say at which point those security details were suppressed."

Pepper shook her head.

"There is one thing," Geoffrey said slowly. "I found out about the cordon around Sheila's apartment building when I scanned for radio. There were two people communicating. Base was filtered; could have been anyone. The field was unfiltered. Probably the guy on the grate who spotted us."

"Any referentials?" said Pepper.

"Code names," said Geoffrey. "The base was Great White, which I guess is a shark reference. The field was just a nonsense phrase. Beer Mouth or... no, wait. It was Mouse. Beer Mouse."

"Great White and Beer Mouse. Sounds like they just threw darts at a dictionary," said Cinnamon. She glanced at the wall clock. "Shouldn't we start moving?"

"Beer Mouse..." Pepper giggled. The giggling grew more acute, until it cracked open into a full-on laugh.

"This is a bad time to lose it, Ellie," said Geoffrey.

After an effort, Pepper stopped laughing. She sighed, still grinning, and stood up. "I know a way out that they won't have covered yet. Well, most likely." She giggled again. "And I think I know where those code names came from."

To be continued...

#fridayflash: alignment

I'm trying to make these episodes stand alone, but if you want to read them as a series, here are the links to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, and Part 7.

Geoffrey sat down on the floor cross-legged and placed his hands on his knees, palms up. "I can't say I blame you," he said, glancing up at Pepper's face before focusing on her gun again. "Just so you know, at some point in the story you're going to want to look at evidence on my phone."

"Sheila, watch the entrance and listen for activity on the lower court," said Pepper. She waited until she heard Cinnamon walk a few steps and then stop. "Geoffrey, tell us about that brief."

"My task was to fake being a buyer, in order to confirm DeBussy had the data on him," said Geoffrey. "So I made up some business cards, opened some fake contact accounts to match — just phone and e-mail, a web site, nothing too much — and took appropriate security precautions for the meet. I noticed Sheila didn't have a gun on her when she came on shift. That surprised me, since my brief definitely said DeBussy would have a security force and his own weapon."

"I was issued a cocktail-length dress," whispered Cinnamon from the edge of the elevator lobby.

"But a thigh holster —"

"Bar stool," Pepper and Cinnamon hissed together.

Geoffrey frowned, confused.

"You can't hide a thigh holster when you're sitting on a bar stool, and the brief said for her to sit at the bar," said Pepper.

Geoffrey shrugged. "All right. So I texted you the green light from the cab," nodding at Pepper, "and I went home. I was taking a break before I wrote up my report and went to bed... and that's when Doug called from the communications post."

"Because I never showed up," said Pepper.

"Because Doug is an idiot," said Geoffrey. "He found out we were all working from the hotel and decided to meet you there."

Cinnamon's gasp of disbelief was audible all the way over from the upper court safety rail.

"And look," Geoffrey continued, "he already admitted he hadn't met you before, hadn't communicated the, uh, change of plans. So if you diverted because you had a tail, Ellie, that was Doug."

"I wondered why he was so easy to lose," said Pepper.

"I would have too. Anyways, after that fun phone call I knew you weren't coming in that night. I tried to trace your phone, but I guess you remembered to turn it off when you were somewhere in Mississauga? One moment you were on the map, the next you weren't."

Pepper gave a crooked smile.

"So I did some other checks, wrote up my report, sent a memo that Doug had, well, you know, and when I checked again you still weren't back on the map, so I checked Sheila and she was pretty clearly heading back to her place. That's when I decided to go out and meet you."

"And on your phone?" said Pepper.

Geoffrey held one hand up, and used the other to slowly reach into the breast pocket of suit jacket. "The brief," he said. "Let me unlock the phone and you can read it yourself." 

Pepper waited while he did the necessaries, then took the phone from him and read the document he'd loaded. When she was done thumbing through it, she holstered her gun and did some extra actions on the phone which required two hands. She nodded and handed Geoffrey back the phone. "You understand why I did this."

"Completely," said Geoffrey, taking back the phone and easing himself off the floor. "I would have done the same. It certainly doesn't make research and communications look very good, being inconsistent like that."

"Looks worse than you think," said Pepper.

Cinnamon slid away from the railing and pressed up to them. "Looks worse than both of you think," she whispered. "People are coming, and they've already covered all the exits."

To be continued...

#fridayflash: discrepancies

I'm trying to make these episodes stand alone, but if you want to read them as a series, here are the links to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.

Geoffrey grabbed the handrail for the next flight of steps down and leapt the last three steps and the landing for the flight he was on, because Pepper and Cinnamon were almost a full flight ahead of him.

"I'm taking it both of you are armed?" he said, hoping they wouldn't notice he was slightly short of breath.

"Of course," said Pepper.

"Not yet," said Cinnamon. "I've got a cache behind the electrical box two floors up from the emergency doors. Almost there."

"You don't keep any in your apartment?" said Geoffrey, too shocked to care about whether the others noticed he was more out of shape than they were.

"Well, yeah," said Cinnamon, "but we were in a hurry to leave. I've got to keep them locked up and everything to meet regulations."

Sure enough, they encountered a large electrical panel a few flights of stairs further down. Cinnamon reached underneath, typed a code into an unseen number pad, and a lid flopped down. She placed one flat palm against the underside, and reached around the edges for catches Geoffrey couldn't see from his vantage point half a flight up. A metal box dropped out of the larger one. Cinnamon opened it to reveal two different types of handguns and two boxes of bullets. She shoved the boxes of bullets into the side pockets of her cargo pants after giving the guns to Pepper to hold. Geoffrey watched her lift out an inner tray and remove an ankle and a shoulder holster.

"Where are we going, anyhow?" said Pepper as Cinnamon loaded and holstered the guns.

Geoffrey closed his eyes to concentrate. "The PATH," he said. "It's open all hours and there's lots of security cameras. They'll be less likely to want to make a fuss with an audience."

"Unless they just plan on killing us first and frisking us later," said Pepper.

"Too messy," said Geoffrey.

"That assumes they care about messy."

"Ready," said Cinnamon, with pointed brightness. "There's a door that leads to the service tunnels just past here. From there it's not too hard to get on the PATH, if you don't mind getting a little dirty."

Geoffrey started following Pepper as she moved behind Cinnamon, but he frowned. "It might be better to switch to official channels once we get past the cordon," he said. "Get on those security cameras."

"We're armed," said Pepper.

"With concealed weapons," said Geoffrey.

"I'm leading the way by rank," Cinnamon sang out. "So Geoffrey wins by a nose. Now everybody shut up, because we have to be quiet for this next part."

Cinnamon led them through a short series of tunnels, all lit by electric utility lamps anchored to the tops of the walls and exposed to the outside via grates laid over the tops. As they passed through the last one, they heard a man's voice bark "Shit!", quickly followed by an "Ow!"

Cinnamon paused to look up, but Pepper and Geoffrey pushed her into the next tunnel before she could get a good view.

The tunnels led to a stairwell in a different highrise tower. Cinnamon unlocked the door with her skeleton key and guided them to the underground parking. Just as Geoffrey was pulling the door to the PATH behind them, a bullet ricocheted off the cement doorframe.

"Damn," said Geoffrey. "We better move faster." He noted that Pepper and Cinnamon had already started running, and he rushed to keep up with them.

Once they were in the PATH proper Pepper took the lead, taking them through the underground shopping mall as it passed through the basements of different downtown office towers. At this time of night, nothing was open but the subterranean pathways themselves, and they crossed through corridors linking to food courts linking to storefronts, over and over again.

At last Pepper pulled them down a short side corridor, which led to a set of escalators and street level. Instead of going outside, she led them up a second set of escalators to the main bank of elevators to the office levels.

"This area doesn't echo much," she said, "and it's dark. And I happen to know this building's security sucks."

"Are we still being tailed?" Cinnamon breathed.

"No. We lost them when we took that turn back at First Canadian Place," said Pepper. "But there's losing a tail and then there's losing a tail and gaining some ground."

"They know we got past the cordon," Geoffrey panted. "That guy on the grate..."

"Yeah, but they don't know where we went after that," said Pepper. "If we were just crossing the street underground, we should be well east of there by now. Instead we're several blocks south and west."

Geoffrey shrugged.

"What an incredibly shitty night," said Cinnamon. "I hate getting shot at when I haven't done any shooting first."

"Technically, that could have been anyone," said Geoffrey.

"No way," said Cinnamon. "This is Canada. Not enough people are allowed guns. If they're shooting at us, chances are way high it's the ones who are after us."

"True, but —"

"Sheila's right," said Pepper. "The part about tonight being a disaster, anyhow. I mean yeah, technically mission accomplished, but the fallout is way out of proportion for a simple substitution job, and the research for the hotel was completely off."

"How do you mean?" said Geoffrey.

"Just for starters, it would have been nice to know about the target's security detail. The brief said he hadn't hired anyone."

"Yes it did," said Geoffrey.

"No it didn't," said Cinnamon.

"Yes it did," Geoffrey insisted. "It said he has his own private security force he always brings with him. I was surprised he didn't bring anyone to the hotel restaurant with him. But never mind that. What did you find in the hotel room besides the USB key? It must have been something important, or else the target wouldn't have sent out all this heat."

"The brief didn't say anything about extra security," said Pepper. "Do me a favour, Geoffrey?"

Geoffrey turned to look at Pepper, and found himself staring down the barrel of her gun.

"Take out your weapon," said Pepper, "nice and slow and all those other cliches, and give it to Cinnamon. Then once you're done that, sit down on the floor. You've got some explaining to do."

To be continued...

#fridayflash: in plain sight

I'm trying to make these episodes stand alone, but if you want to read them as a series, here are the links to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

Cinnamon made a big show of stashing the jug of windshield wiper fluid in the back seat area of her car. "Don't think I don't remember you said we weren't going to rendez-vous after this job, Ellie."

"You'll thank me later," said Pepper, tucking her feet under the blanket Cinnamon had spread over the back seat. "There's a twenty-four hour Tim Horton's drive-through a couple of blocks from here. Go through it and get a coffee or something."

"There's twenty-four hour drive-throughs in Toronto, too," grumbled Cinnamon as she got behind the wheel and started the car. "If there is a satellite scanning us, they're going to know I went out to the sticks for something, especially this time of night."

"Yeah, but any security camera cross-references are going to show you're the only person in the car, and fingers crossed the overhang means we weren't caught on satellite."

"Fingers crossed." Cinnamon pulled onto the road and headed south to the highway.

"Sheila."

"Mm?"

"Put the radio on."

Cinnamon tapped the control on the dashboard and turned the volume down. "I don't think this even works anymore with the filters they have now."

"It doesn't. I just felt like hearing some music."

Cinnamon drove into the night, focusing on the red sets of brake lights, all grouped around her and her car like giant pairs of eyes.

*          *          *

"Great White, target has returned. Ow! Shit."

"Beer Mouse, you're supposed to be pretending to be asleep. So shut up."

"But she's back. I just saw her car drive into the parking garage."

"How did you confirm?"

"Licence plate number."

"Transmit."

"I already am. Ow!"

"What the hell is wrong with you, Beer Mouse?"

"The grate's digging into me. I don't know how real homeless people sleep on these things."

"I don't think they have much of a choice. Who came back with her?"

"No-one on the camera... and the trunk's not riding any lower than on the way out."

"Okay. Stay put. We'll give her some time to get settled and then move in."

"Can't I just sneak into the van?"

"What if she notices the 'homeless person' up and left their nice warm grate in the middle of the night?"

"Shit."

*          *          * 


"I still can't believe it. That data is on an isolated network. How would you even walk it out?" Cinnamon turned off the engine and got out of the car.

Pepper groaned and sat up in the back seat. "Same way I found it — physical media. Which means..."

"It's probably someone on the inside," Cinnamon finished for her. "Are you okay?" She slammed the driver's door shut and opened up one of the rear doors for Pepper.

"Yeah." Pepper rubbed her temples and eased out of the car. "Riding like that always gives me a headache."

They kept to procedure and chatted lightly about nothing in the elevator and the corridor. Pepper noted that Cinnamon avoided getting clearly photographed by the building's security cameras.

Cinnamon opened her  apartment door and entered. Pepper followed her and walked into her back, because she'd stopped dead two steps into the foyer.

Cinnamon took Pepper's hand in the dark and used it to gesture towards the front of the apartment.

"Sorry I dropped in unannounced, Sheila," came a male voice from the living room. "Is Ellie with you?"

Pepper shut the door behind her. "Evening, Geoffrey," she said. "What's wrong this time?"

The darkness of the doorway between the foyer and the living room became more darkened as Geoffrey's body blocked the light from the street. "For starters, either we leave now via a side entrance and hopefully sneak past the cordon that's been waiting for Sheila to come home, or else my presence helps even up the numbers. I strongly suggest option number one."

"This night is really starting to suck," Cinnamon groaned as she followed Pepper out the door.

To be continued...

#fridayflash: dead zone

I'm trying to make these episodes stand alone, but if you want to read them as a series, here are the links to Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Secret agents have to be as rational as chess masters, but all the same it's surprising how many of them have little superstitions and self-belief in minor superpowers. Pepper's favourite delusion was that the public transit systems of the world were controlled by a benign, unseen intelligence, and it liked her. It liked her so much that hopping on a train or tram ahead of a pursuer was her favourite way to get out of a tight spot. She couldn't be stupid about it, of course — the dodging into crowds and doubling-back still had to be done — but she seemed to always have something to board whenever she needed to vacate an area quickly.

Like now. The subway train pulled into the station just as she reached the platform, and she ducked into the second-last car as soon as the doors opened. She surrounded herself with other passengers, but at this time of night it wasn't busy, and she was definitely the only person who entered the car. The Bloor-Danforth east-west line still had the old-style trains, the kind that passengers couldn't move between cars while on the train.

She hadn't been able to see if anyone else had followed her onto the platform and boarded another car. If they had, she'd be exposed when it was time to disembark.

The problem suggested its own solution when Pepper checked the name of the next station and realised the train was heading west. She leaned back into the seat and spent the rest of the trip people-watching, trying to observe and deduce as much about each passenger as possible. It being a Saturday night, and the train headed out to the suburbs, most of the passengers were returning from a big night out downtown.

When the train reached its terminus, Pepper took her time disembarking. If she still had a tail, they'd want to get onto the platform first and start looking for her. She'd have her choice of open train doors to duck out of, and be able to hide behind train cars and pillars as she made her way to the bus platform.

She was almost disappointed that the station was practically deserted. There was no-one left to leave the train but her, and the three people waiting for buses had very obviously been there a lot longer than she had.

It had been a long time since she'd been to the west end. It took her a while to find the right bus stop, and a much larger while for a bus to actually show up. "Last trip of the night," the driver announced as she pulled away from the station. Pepper was one of only two passengers, the other one being a man the driver seemed to recognise.

Even though the bus was part of Mississauga Transit, it was a good twenty-five minutes before the bus reached that particular suburb. The driver slowed down before every major stop, but no-one seemed to want to get on. Both Pepper and the other passenger left at the end of the route — the gigantic shopping mall called Square One, even though it hadn't been square-shaped in decades. Pepper hailed one of the cabs that was always loitering around the bus terminal and told the cabbie to take her to Cawthra and Burnhamthorpe, an intersection about three kilometres east of the mall. She gave instructions for the cabbie to pull into the parking lot of a strip plaza, paid, and got out.

The plaza had a twenty-four hour pharmacy, a pizza parlour, and a dentist's office in it. Pepper went to the pizza parlour and ordered one slice each of the three remaining pizzas in the display case, plus a can of pop to wash down the food and get some caffeine in her system. She sat down at a table away from the windows and took a couple of bites out of one slice to make it look like she was eating.

Pepper pulled her phone from her coat pocket and checked the signal. She grinned. She didn't know why this particular intersection was so bad for radio and cellular signals — it was on flat ground, at the same elevation as the surrounding area, and didn't have any tall buildings nearby to cause interference — but it was. Half a kilometre in any direction and the signal was perfectly strong, but here she may as well be in the middle of the Badlands. Maybe, she smiled to herself, the UFO rumoured to be buried at Church and Gerrard downtown was really under here.

She powered down her phone, prised off the back of the case, and removed the microSD card from its slot. Then she powered up the phone without replacing the back cover. Once it was fully booted, she put it in flight mode.

She paused to take a few more bites of pizza and a drink of cola, then slipped the microSD card she'd stolen from Anton DeBussy's hotel room into the phone. To her slight surprise, the phone appeared to have no problem reading the card. She opened up a terminal window and used the "ls" command to list the files.

Now she was truly surprised, so much so that she almost dropped the phone onto a slice of pizza. She hadn't been expecting to recognise the file names. Pepper gingerly ran a virus check on the card, and when it came back clean she used the vi editor to open one of the files.

She gasped in spite of herself.

A few contemplative sips of cola later, she hooked the gold chain she wore around her neck from under her shirt, and opened the cameo locket strung on it. She put her personal microSD card in it and replaced the back on her phone.

"Hey," she said, walking up the counter and waving her cell phone in front of her, "I can't get a signal here. Could I used your phone to call a friend to pick me up? Local call, no long distance."

The pizza clerk rolled his eyes, used to such requests. "The boss says I gotta ask for a quarter," he said.

"Here's a loonie," said Pepper, setting a gold-coloured dollar coin on the counter. "Just one call, promise."

To be continued...

#fridayflash: details

I'm trying to make these episodes stand alone, but if you want to read them as a series, here are the links to Part 1 and Part 2.

In the moments before executing a job, someone in Pepper's line of work was supposed to mentally review the end-goal, procedures, fallbacks. Instead, she was standing in a frustratingly slow service elevator, remembering what her handler had told her just before she went out on her first solo mission:

The career path for women is different than for men. You're going to get honey pot after honey pot until you hit forty. Then you're going to get cleanup after cleanup until you either get blown or retire. Before forty, all men — the kind of men you're going to target
— are going to notice are your legs and your tits. After forty, you'll be an asset because you'll be an experienced operative... who's also invisible.

Pepper thought of Cinnamon, somewhere below in the hotel's restaurant, distracting the target... well, with the techniques Pepper had trained her on, but basically with her legs and her tits. Pepper made a crooked smile as the elevator doors opened. Her parts of the jobs weren't as glamourous anymore, but at least the clothes and shoes were more comfortable. She pushed the cleaning cart into the corridor, making herself take her time. Hotel cleaning ladies never, ever walked with purpose, not even the ones Pepper knew for a fact were ex-military.

She scanned the corridor as she walked. The target, Anton DeBussy, wasn't supposed to have any security staff, but there was a man standing in front of one of the doors about halfway down. Pepper used the key card she'd scammed along with the outfit and props to let herself into the nearest room. Turning down the bed and leaving a chocolate on the pillow gave her a chance to figure out how to get past the goon (and to seethe at the research department for not picking up on his presence in their report), but she only had half an hour, tops, before Cinnamon was due to sashay out of the hotel, and DeBussy might decide to head back once his distraction left.

The default method was to just act like she was doing a turndown like a real hotel staff member, and hope the goon wasn't too good at keeping track of the time.

"Hey," said the goon when she returned to the corridor. "Got a spare candy you can give me?"

Pepper frowned. "They count," she said. "My manager, he keeps inventory."

The goon rolled his eyes. "Tell him one was broken. Tell him the wrapper was ripped and you were worried you'd stain the pillowcase if it melted."

Pepper made a big show of hesitating, then timidly gave the goon a chocolate. He produced his own key card and opened the door he was guarding. "This is where my boss is sleeping," he said. "Make sure you get the fold even all the way along the width of the bed. Crooked bedsheets give him hives. No really," he said, catching the puzzled look Pepper decided to display, "he's a very precise man."

"I'll try," said Pepper.

"Don't just try, do it. No wonder you have a crappy job."

Pepper shuffled into the room, pulling the cleaning cart after her so it blocked the door. At first she was worried she'd have to make up a story about needing to close the door, but the goon was content to let it close on her.

All right. She'd taken her time with the previous room's turndown, so the goon would give her as much time as possible. At best she had five minutes; realistically, half that.

There was a green USB key sitting on the night-stand in plain sight. Pepper shook her head. Even DeBussy wouldn't make it that easy, surely? She pulled the substitute one out of her pocket and compared them. They were identical. According to the research department, she was nearly done for the night.

She heard the goon walk past the door and recalled that the research department had already let her down once tonight.

Pepper dropped the USB key into her pocket and left the decoy on the night-stand in the same position she'd found the original in. She turned down the sheets and left a chocolate on the pillow, checking the rest of the room as she did so. Something didn't smell right.

"Hey, how's it going?" the goon called through the door.

"I folded the sheets crooked," Pepper said. "I'm going to try again, okay?"

"Just hurry up."

Too easy. Even with the goon this was way too easy. Something had to be odd, something had to be out of place. If she just paid attention, the room would tell her where the data really was. Her eyes lit on the suitcase resting on its stand, and her heart sank. There was no way she'd have time to search it properly, never mind make it look like it hadn't been searched.

"You turning down the sheets or washing them?"

"One more try, and then I'll give up."

Pepper stuck her head in the washroom. There were used towels everywhere. For a detail-oriented man, DeBussy didn't seem very inclined to clean up after himself.

Then she saw it. DeBussy's shaving kit was sitting on the vanity, completely zipped up and pushed under the soap dish installed in the wall. She grinned and pulled the kit to the edge of the sink.

The kit had an inside pocket, and Pepper fished a microSD card from it. She dropped it in her pocket and quickly replaced the kit where she'd found it.

Pepper finished the rest of the rooms on the floor, the goon checking her every time she appeared in the corridor. She took the service elevator down to the storage room and left the hotel from one of the staff entrances. She wished she could check on Cinnamon, but there was no safe way to do that. She pulled her coat around her and started to walk to the safe house.

After two blocks it was obvious she was being followed. Pepper clenched her jaw and headed for the subway, vowing to rip the research department a new one once she got out of the mess they'd put her in.

To be continued...

#fridayflash: choices

I'm trying to make these entries free-standing, but for those who have not yet read it, Part One is here.

Anton blotted his mouth with his serviette and dropped it on his plate just before the server cleared it away. "Choices," he said. "I'm talking about choices. You make your decision and follow your bliss."

"You have to understand," said Geoffery. "It's just such an odd way of being approached with an offer like this. I'm much more used to a business-to-business approach —"

"I'm a businessman," Anton interrupted smoothly.

"Of course," said Geoffery. The server distracted him as she set two glasses of brandy on the table.

Anton kept his eyes on Geoffrey and didn't say anything — he just picked up his brandy glass and swirled the liquid inside it. Geoffery did the same after a moment's hesitation, then raised his eyebrows at Anton.

Anton held his glass up in a silent toast and took a sip. Geoffery followed him, taking a smaller sip. "It's nice," he said.

"They have a good bartender here," said Anton. "He remembered to warm it up a little. They don't always around here. Drives me crazy."

Geoffery set his glass on the table with exaggerated care. "For the figure you're asking, I'll have to call head office for authorisation," he said. "They'll want to know when we can receive the data."

Anton spread out his hands. "Immediately, once the payment is confirmed," he said. "I already have the data."

Geoffery nodded several times, bit his lip, and nodded again. He picked up his brandy glass abruptly and downed the rest of his drink in one gulp, then stood up. He extended his hand. "I'll call them first thing tomorrow. We have an exclusive offer?"

Anton rose and shook Geoffery's hand. "Until five PM tomorrow."

"Thank you." Geoffery smiled. "What will you choose to do with the rest of your evening? Watch the playoffs?"

Anton glanced at the large TV set hung behind the bar. "I never got into ice hockey. However, I think some physical activity will be in order." He nodded at the tall redhead sitting by herself at the bar.

Geoffery's eyebrows raised again. "I didn't realise you had arranged another appointment. I'm keeping you."

"Oh, no appointment," said Anton. "I'm just choosing to make the most of the opportunity, my friend."

"What if she says no?"

Anton grinned. "Then something novel would have happened," he said. "Have a good night. I look forward to closing the deal tomorrow morning."

"I'll try not to call too early." Geoffery smirked and left.

Anton finished his brandy and paid for the meal, then sauntered over to the bar. The redhead was studying the hockey game on the TV with the focus of a scientist observing a rat in a maze.

This country is insane, thought Anton. Even the beautiful women are sucked into this stupid game.

The redhead's focus on the hockey let him take his time studying her. Flawless skin, and definitely natural breasts. The red of her hair was a little too bright to be natural, but her pale complexion and wide grey eyes indicated her real hair colour was close to it. Anton liked the classic simplicity of her outfit — little black dress, pearl necklace, pearl-and-jet bracelet. No earrings, he noticed. Nothing ostentatious.

And she was watching a goddamn hockey game.

"Who's ahead?" he said, signalling to the bartender at the same time.

"The Leafs," she said, as if by reflex. "But it won't last."

"Maybe this is their year," said Anton.

The woman gave a short, soft chuckle. "They haven't won the Stanley Cup since 1967."

The bartender came over. "Buy you a drink?" said Anton.

The woman finally stopped staring at the TV set. "Oh," she said, as if suddenly awake. "Thank you. Rye and ginger, please."

"Make it two," said Anton. The bartender nodded and left.

The redhead's eyes drifted up to the TV set again, but it was showing commercials. She gave Anton a gentle smile. "You don't follow hockey, do you?"

Anton shook his head. "I never had time for pro sports. I'd rather play a game myself than just watch someone else do it."

"You don't like to appreciate other people's talents?" said the redhead.

Anton shrugged. "The way I see it, life is made up of a set of choices," he said. "Opportunities arise, and you either choose to make the most of them, or you let them drift past. My general preference is to not let them get away."

The redhead was watching the game again. Anton watched her breasts rise and fall as the away team moved the puck towards the net. She groaned as they scored a goal.

"You see?" she said, gesturing towards Anton with one hand while she pointed at the replay with the other. "I wish the Leafs would choose to defend the goal a little better."

"Yeah, but that guy who just scored, the, uh, running back..."

"Captain."

"You gotta admit, he made the most of that opportunity."

The redhead glanced at him over her shoulder and batted her eyelashes. "So it's the actions that are admirable, not the cause?"

"Well, uh..." Anton wasn't sure if she'd changed the subject or not. "They go together, don't they?"

The redhead checked the clock counting down the period on the TV screen. "Let's see." She patted Anton on the arm. "Twenty-six minutes left."

The Leafs lost by three goals. In the twenty-six minutes it took them to lose, Anton and the redhead had flirted steadily, and, at least Anton thought, with increasing chances that he would get laid that night. Anton offered the redhead a condolences drink once the game was finally over, but she checked the time on the clock behind the bar and announced she had to leave.

"What, you come in here all dolled up like that, watch a bad hockey team lose, and now you have to go?" demanded Anton.

The redhead showed her teeth as she smiled. "Choices are made in context and have consequences. It's almost ten — I was supposed to go at nine-thirty, but you know, overtime... Thanks again for the drink." She had her coat picked up and was heading out the doors before Anton could think of a comeback.

"What the hell?" he finally said to the almost-empty restaurant.

"It's the playoffs," said the bartender, taking up the empty glass and pushing the redhead's untouched rye and ginger towards Anton. "All sorts of weird shit happens. You have no idea."

To be continued...

#fridayflash: getting ready for work

Cinnamon ducked into the back lane without glancing behind her or changing speed. Pepper always told her that you attracted more attention if you acted like you didn't want to be seen. She also always said that the safe house they were rendezvousing at hadn't been discovered yet. Cinnamon clenched her jaw as she pushed through the apartment building's service entrance door and hoped that particular piece of intelligence was correct. She had had to shoot her way out of a tenement block in Chicago two months ago. It wasn't an experience she wanted to repeat any time soon.

She fished her skeleton key out of her coat pocket as she approached the stairwell door. There was a security camera trained on the door, and Cinnamon had tucked her hair up under a black baseball cap to avoid getting any identifiable part of her on a recording. She shifted the key from her palm to her fingers in one motion, using her hand to shield the key from the camera. It only took a little bit of wiggling to get the door open — no more than someone with a real key would if the door and the lock were slightly misaligned. She closed and locked the door behind her, checked the stairwell for any new cameras, and jogged up the stairs. Pepper called that a mini-workout.

Cinnamon hated the stairwell, hated the pale green paint and the way it always smelled of dog's piss, but she had to admit getting to the fifteenth floor didn't feel nearly as awful as it had when they had first started using this location. She listened for a moment before opening the stairwell door and slipping through to the corridor, pretending to make sure the door latched as an excuse to keep her head down. There were more security cameras, one at each end of the corridor.

Cinnamon studied her nails as she walked down the corridor. She found the right door and rapped on it, calling out the all clear signal. "Ellie, it's me."

"Hang on, I'm coming," she heard Pepper reply, the response indicating it was safe to enter. If something had been wrong, she would have said, "just a second."

Cinnamon walked into the apartment when Pepper opened the door for her. She took three big steps into the living room and froze, waiting for Pepper to close the door behind her. "So how are things?" she said, as a way to fill the space if anyone had bugged the corridor.

"Same old, same old," said Pepper, scanning Cinnamon for unauthorised tech or weapons. "Want to see what I'm working on in the sewing room?"

"Sure." Cinnamon followed Pepper down the corridor to the spare bedroom.

The spare bedroom, like all the rooms in the apartment except for the living room, was soundproofed and had anti-scanning devices running. Pepper tossed a sealed plastic bag at Cinnamon. "Here's your kit for tonight."

Cinnamon tore open the bag. "Nice." The bag contained a classic little black dress, black pumps that were more practical to walk or run in than they looked, and an evening bag.

"Jewelry and makeup are in the bag," said Pepper. "The emergency signal is on the bottom of the lipstick."

"What's the brief?"

"I'll get there at 2030 hours. You'll show up at 2100. You want to chat up the guy in the brief I'm pulling up now  —" Pepper pulled open a drawer in what looked like it actually was a sewing table and retrieved a laptop " — until at least 2130 hours. That should give me enough time to get into his hotel room and get the USB key."

"USB key? You're kidding me."

"Hey, he has information. No-one said anything about him being smart."

"Sounds straightforward." Cinnamon pulled off the baseball cap, revealing the tumble of shoulder-length red hair that had given her her code name. "My ID's in the purse too?"

"Just enough to make you seem legitimate." Pepper picked up the evening bag and checked its contents. "Don't use that perfume spritzer — it's sulphuric acid. You shouldn't need it, but you know — just in case."

"Lovely." Cinnamon continued to get changed while Pepper fiddled with the laptop. As usual, she hadn't been issued any earrings; they were against policy ever since an agent had had her earlobes torn during a scuffle. The choker-length pearl necklace broke apart easily if someone yanked on it, and the beaded jet bracelet had a magnetic clasp.

"We won't be seeing each other again tonight," said Pepper. "No interaction this time. You finish, and then you go home. Got it?"

Cinnamon laughed.

"What?"

"I'll never get over how boring this job is compared to what people think it's like."

Pepper rolled her eyes. "Read the brief. I need to get changed."

To be continued...

#fridayflash: gaming

"Again."

Ralph put his hands on the edge of the kitchen table, and eased himself up from his chair. "Dec, I've got to get up early for work tomorrow. It's past midnight. I'm going to bed." He rose slowly, trying to make his motion as invisible as possible, resenting that he'd had to state the screaming obvious. Just like all the other times.

Dec froze, the chess piece in his hand hovering over the square it belonged to. "You selfish asshole."

"What? Because I want to not be a zombie at work tomorrow? Fuck off, Dec." Ralph was straightening his knees now, slowly. A few more seconds and he'd be ready to walk to his bedroom.

"You know I need to win the tournament on Saturday. I need to practise."

"So practise. Study those strategy books, or something. Just let me get some sleep."

"Oh right, rubbing it in. Ralph MacPherson has a job, and that makes him king of the goddamned world. Let's see how smug you feel at the end of the month if I can't make my half of the rent. I need to win this tournament."

Ralph bit his lip. He sat back down. "One more game. Promise?"

Dec shot him a look and replaced the white queen. "Of course. I'm not being unreasonable."

Ralph reset the chess clock.

Dec had given Ralph white, so he opened the game using classic moves he'd memorised as a child, playing with his father. That was the worst part — he remembered liking chess. It was one of the things that had brought he and Dec together.

It was one of the things that had made him decide it would be all right having Dec as a room-mate.

He moved a knight and hit the button on his side of the chess clock. They were mid-game now. He was going to have to actually pay attention soon. He needed to think.

If he'd just buggered off and gone to bed, Dec would have berated him for hours, even through the closed bedroom door. They had a "no going in your room-mate's room" rule, and Dec obeyed it, except for with his voice. The last time Ralph had skipped a game, Dec had lectured and harangued him right through to when his alarm clock had gone off.

Ralph had nearly lost fingers at work twice that day, trying to operate machinery on no sleep in over twenty-four hours.

He could have made up an excuse and crashed on the couch at Dave's, but midnight was too late at night to try shit like that. Dave's wife already resented him for the amount of time he spent over there.

He could have gone to his sister's. She'd let him in any time of day or night, no questions, no judgements — Fran was great that way — but the last time he'd gone there, Dec had smashed up Ralph's hi-fi. Said he'd been trying to vacuum behind it and it had toppled over. Because Ralph hadn't set it up right, he said.

Fran only had a bedsit. She was breaking the rules to even let him stay one night, although her landlady was willing to let it slide every once in a while since they were brother and sister. He had to sleep on the floor in her spare blankets.

The sudden, sharp sound of chrome and particleboard being struck by a grown man brought him out of his head. Dec was glaring at him across the chess board, the left edge of his mouth curling up in contempt.

"I'm not competing against fucking sleepwalkers," he said. He snapped his fingers in front of Ralph's face, three times in rapid succession. "Wake up. Honest to God, I'd be better off practising against a trained monkey."

Ralph glanced at the board, recognised the pattern as one his uncle had taught him when he was twelve, and chose a response favoured by some of the Russian masters. He tapped the chess clock.

Dec snorted. "If you don't play in earnest, we'll have to keep going until we get a game where you do."

"They allow smack talk at chess tournies now, do they?" said Ralph. Tired as he was, he was pretty sure Dec didn't know the master he was copying his moves from.

Dec snorted again, but continued to study the board.

Ralph didn't dare look at the clock on the stove, but he guessed it was still before one AM. So if he got up at five as normal, worked from six-thirty to four (he crossed his fingers under the table against any overtime tomorrow)... he might be able to make it to the rental agent's before closing time. He just needed to get his name on the lists. He'd even take a bedsit like Fran's if it got him out of living with this nut.

Dec made a move — the one predicted as most likely in the series Ralph's uncle had taught him. Ralph made the prescribed response and tapped the chess clock.

Shit. The agent always called you at home when they had a lead on new digs. Dec spent nearly all his hours at home. They weren't supposed to get personal calls at work, but Brenda the receptionist seemed like a good sort. He wondered if he could ask her for a favour.

"Fuck you," Dec breathed. He threw up his hands. "You've fucking won."

"That was from a book, by the way," said Ralph. "Now seriously, I'm going to bed."

"You can't even be bothered to be pleased about winning," said Dec. He had his arms folded, and was glowering at Ralph. He startled and slammed the kitchen table again, making the chess pieces jump. "Which book?"

"One my uncle had."

Dec pushed away from the table and marched to his desk in the living room. "Don't you dare fucking move," he said.

"Dec, for fuck's sakes, you said one more game..."

Dec thrust a pad of graph paper and a pencil at him. "Write down the sequence."

"Dec, I'll do it tomorrow, I swear, just let me get to bed..."

"Write down the goddamn sequence, and this time I'll play it and you goddamned play against it."

Ralph pushed the pencil and paper away. "What the hell will that prove? I won't be strategising against it like I don't know it. You won't learn anything."

"Write it down."

Ralph sighed and scratched down the first line of the sequence.

"And when you're done," said Dec, sitting down and resetting the pieces, "we'll go. Again."

#fridayflash: environmental variables

Planet Zorg had a lot of things, but one thing it didn't have a lot of was sodium chloride. Its ecosystem had evolved without it, and its species — sentient and non-sentient alike — couldn't tolerate a lot of it. They were far more comfortable with the beautiful yellow sulphur clouds that swirled through the atmosphere, and ammonia-rich but otherwise "fresh" water of the planet's lakes and oceans.

Therefore, when a planet came up on their scanners that featured not just one, but five large fresh-water lakes in a single watershed, the Zorgians were ecstatic. Here was a planet which they could not just invade, but perhaps even settle. The resource harvesting teams might get to take their helmets off now and then. Low morale in other off-world invasion forces had been a chronic problem. This planet was two-thirds water with high levels of sodium chloride, to be sure, but if the fresh-water inland lakes were used as a home base for the first attack wave, the lowered risk had an excellent chance of returning a more lucrative reward.

A Zorgian mother ship was dispatched, and it sent down scouts the night after the lake area's winter solstice, the better to utilise the cover of darkness.

Scouts are partly bioengineered, and emit their own natural light. To avoid attention, they were directed to head for the indigenous civilisation's major habitations, since those areas already had so much natural light pollution a few more lumens wouldn't be noticed.

The first reports back from the scouts to the mother ship were enthusiastic. The atmosphere and solid surface of the planet were cold, but well within the Zorgian tolerance range. Likewise, the atmosphere was mostly nitrogen, not sulphur, but nitrogen was an easily-tolerated element, and not a concern.

Most amazing of all, there was frozen fresh water carpeting the carbon-based ground, with more falling from the sky! The atmospheric water fell in very-cold droplets, landed on various land features, and froze solid.

The scouts sent back data on their findings: chemical analyses, photographs, further observational reports. When their vibration sensors detected something large moving nearby, they hid under some plant life, beautifully coated in the alien planet's low-ammonia atmospheric fresh water.



One scout was able to successfully send back moving photographs before it was destroyed like all the others. The data showed a large moving object — possibly sentient if alive, or controlled by a sentient if a machine — working its way slowly down a clear area coated with a thick layer of frozen water.

And that's when the Zorgians realised that the sentient life on this alien planet was more than ready for them, and was already mounting a counter-attack. What the large moving object was spewing out from its sides were large crystals of near-pure sodium chloride.

Only one crystal needed to make contact with a scout to destroy it. Most scouts encountered several. The sodium chloride reacted with the ammonia and sulphur in their systems and ruptured their outer carapaces, exposing their innards to the alien atmosphere and killing them.

The Zorgian mother ship commander quickly calculated the loss of scouts against the viability of the Plan B site — a single large lake located in a much less hospitable area — and aborted the mission. It immediately ordered the crew to initiate a hyperjump back to the home planet, and settled in to write an indignant report shaming the military researchers and their poor viability analysis.

"Spread pattern okay?" said Frank.

"Looks like it," said Bill. He glanced in the passenger-side mirror. "What the hell is that?"

Frank shrugged. "Temperature must have climbed up to just over freezing. Sounds like the ice popping off." He navigated the salt truck past several large fallen tree branches. "I don't envy the Hydro people. They'll be working around the clock past Christmas on this mess."

"Yeah, but that green glowing thing we went by..."

"I didn't see it, but I'm guessing it's a lawn light. This neighbourhood seems to still have electricity overall."

"You're right," said Bill. "It just looks weird under the snow like that."

Frank grunted and navigated the next corner.

#fridayflash: long night, still night

"What does it say?"

"Dunno. Turn the headlights on." Darryl heard Gina clomp through the snow to the car. So dark, so quiet — they hadn't seen another car for the last half-hour of driving before they stopped outside the Christmas Tree farm. The few houses, like the one Darryl figured must be at the end of the driveway they were parked beside now, were so far back you couldn't see them from the road.

Gina opened the car door, fumbled the keys into the ignition, and sat in the driver's seat to turn on the headlights. She yelped and jumped out again.

"What's wrong?"

"The car shifted when I sat down, shit... Darryl, it's gonna be stuck now."

"What about the front wheel on the passenger side?"

"Um..." Gina edged around the front of the car. "It's in the snowdrift too."

"Shit." Darryl stepped through the knee-deep powder, reached through the still-open door, and got the headlights on.

He stepped back into the frozen ditch and sighed. "This was your idea," he said.

"It was not. I wanted to go downtown to that pop-up shop..." said Gina. The car was pointing the wrong way to illuminate the signs on the fence directly with the headlights, but there was enough ambient light to read them. "Darryl, this isn't gonna work."

"Huh?" He turned and read the sign.

ELECTRIFIED FENCE. DO NOT TOUCH. CONTACT WILL CAUSE INJURY OR DEATH.

Darryl laughed.

"See? Tomorrow. Downtown."

"Screw the pop-up shop," he said, reaching into in his coat pocket. "Watch this." He put an old lighter into the top of an empty pack of cigarettes, and wrapped it up with the foil liner from the pack.  "This should toss okay." He lobbed it at the fence.

The wad of garbage connected with two wires on the fence links. Orange sparks splattered into the night, and the paper backing the foil ignited briefly as the package fell into the snow.

"I'm glad you tested it first." She said it sincerely.

"Let's get the damn car out of the ditch and go home." Darryl turned to get into the car and spotted something moving towards them. Finally, another pair of headlights on the road.

The lights were attached to a well-used pickup truck, which turned in to the driveway to the Christmas Tree farm and stopped a couple of metres from the gate.

A man got out of the truck, black watch cap pulled almost all the way down to his bushy grey eyebrows. "Engine trouble?"

"Huh?" said Darryl. "Ah, no, no, but we might be stuck."

"Funny place to pull over," said the man, shielding his eyes from the glare of the car's headlights and walking to the passenger side. "I'd say you're stuck. Did you not check our web site for the business hours first?"

Gina stepped into the light. "The thing is, we didn't want a full tree. Just some boughs. There was an article in Seasonal Decor and, you know, I wanted to try it." She gave the smile that had melted the hearts of nightclub bouncers and TSA agents.

The man grunted. "Right, we've heard a lot about Seasonal Decor this year. We didn't sell any boughs off the farm, though. Shipped a bunch wholesale to one of those pop-up shops or whatever you call them, in the city. Right downtown."

"Oh, but we came out all this way," said Gina, not ready to give up yet. "Couldn't we just buy some deadfall, something that wouldn't be too much trouble..."

The man held up a leather-gloved hand. "You two have already been too much trouble," he said. "No offence. I'll pull your car out, and then you should get going. There's a freezing rain storm due in a couple of hours. You want to be home by then."

Darryl started to protest, but one glance from the man reminded him that if this farmer didn't help them with their car, they might not get home at all that night.

"I'm Gord Arden, by the way," said the man as he walked back to his truck. "Why don't you introduce yourselves while I get the chains hooked up?"

Thirty minutes later the car was back on the road and the chains were put away. Gina apologised so profusely that Gord gently told her to stop.

"Come back next year, when we're open for the season," he said. "Today was our last day." He wagged a finger. "Check the web site first. And get home before you have to worry about that freezing rain."

"We were lucky," Gina said as they drove away. "He could have been a real asshole about that."

"You really want to go back there next year?" said Darryl.

"Sure, why not?"

Gord knocked the snow off his boots and let himself in.

"You're late," Marilyn called from the living room. "Anything wrong?"

"Just two lost surburbanites in a snowbank."

"Want a coffee to warm up?"

"Nah, we got to get to sleep. Big day tomorrow. You didn't have to wait up."

"I just kept reading my book." She appeared at the doorway between the living room and the entrance hall, hugging her soft grey cardigan around her. "You're right, though. Big day. Let's get to bed."

"The kids all still plan on coming?"

"By lunchtime, yeah."

It was still dark when Marilyn nudged Gord awake. He groaned and stretched, then got dressed and met her in the kitchen. They each had a cup of coffee before bundling up and setting off into the heart of the spruce grove.

Past the well-ordered stands of commercial trees, past the edge of what looked like the "farm" to outsiders, there was an empty, snow-covered circle where trees never grew. Gord and Marilyn stood at the western edge, holding mittened hands, watching the eastern sky. There was nothing to be heard but their own breath and the crunch of the snow beneath their boots when they shifted their weight.

At first light they began to sing. When the sun crested the horizon, they blew it a kiss and went back to the house to make breakfast.

Thanks to Eric J. Krause for the prompt, and to Larry Kollar for tweeting it!

#fridayflash: drone

I don't like to be handed things. It's so diminishing. It is! It puts you below the person who's doing the handing, if even for a moment. I can't afford that.

I know people think it's pretentious to say things like this, but I really am a busy, important person. I've had my staff trained to leave what I've asked for, where I've asked for it. I have designated locations in each of the rooms I use regularly. The guest apartments? Well if they're guest apartments, I wouldn't be using them, would I?

Every second counts. We each only get one life. The ability to focus, for there to be a purpose to every moment I spend — and that includes leisure time, because resting mindfully is vitally important if one wants to be a fully functioning human being — that's where I put all my energy. Everything else is superfluous.

Before we go on — is the video link working? The light's good, we don't need to adjust the angles or anything? All right. Because going by the satellite map, it's only half a kilometre away... there. Can you hear it? That burring sound... 250 metres... there! It should be on the camera now...

And there you have it, the first-ever drone delivery pizza. Not touched by human hands since it left the oven, arrived twenty minutes after order, and of course all prepaid. One just pushes this red button, here, and removes the box, so.

They must have put extra toppings on for the demonstration. That's a heavy box! Sorry? Oh, yes, I suppose I could open it and take a bite. To be honest, these days I tend to only eat clean, dairy and gluten don't really agree with my system, but of course visibility is important. We'll have to cut all this last part out, so.... Here, I'm just going to angle the box so the logo shows better — how's that? All right, now I need to angle myself, just let me shift the chair a little and...

That's odd. Are you picking that up, the sound? No?

Maybe this one had a defective keep-warm widget.

Pardon? Oh, the box. It's the pizza box that's making a sound.

It's a sort of ticking noise.

All right, I'm going to count to five, and then I'll silently count to three, and then we'll take the scene from there.

One, two, three, four...

#fridayflash: meat rain

I haven't written in second person for a while (never for a Friday Flash that I can remember). This situation seemed to suit it.

You forgot to bring along an umbrella. You did check the weather forecast, and it said "rain overnight". It's only eight PM now — surely that doesn't count as "overnight" yet? You curse the weather reporters, and you curse yourself for not knowing better. You can feel a big rain coming on, every time. Especially here, where there are rains every three or four days. Your sinuses always tell you. It's like living on a very big, very slow roller coaster.

Something in the vicinity of the bus stop smells of boiled hot dogs and the accumulated grease of a hundred orders of street-meat sausages on a bun. Someone, maybe even a few someones, must have thrown up their hangover cure at the stop. You hope you didn't step in it — the rain is distracting. At least it'll wash away the vomit.

You need to get home, and between here and your apartment is about a twenty-minute walk. You're already at the closest bus stop, which of course is nowhere near close enough. If you even did manage to hail a cab — and good luck finding one around here before the bars downtown close — it would also take about twenty minutes, because it will have to go by the roads, and although you can see your apartment building from here when it's not dark and raining, the route for cars is far longer.

A cab ride lasting twenty minutes is a lot of money around here. You don't have a lot of money.

The streetlamps glow their orangey sulphur gold, and the cars' headlights glow yellow-white, and you notice as you huddle under the bus stop shelter that the wet gleam on the sidewalk and the road looks wrong. Even in the reluctant yellow lighting, it has an iridescent sheen to it, more like a puddle of oil at a garage than the glint of rainwater.

There's no more delaying it. You're going to have to walk home in this. You try to pull your coat over as much of yourself as you can, remember there's a nice hot drink to be made when you get home, and plunge into the deluge.

The force and angle of the wind means the rain blows into your face as you head home, no matter how much you bow your head. The water is warmer than you expected, warmer than the air. Even for all the strange weather this city gets that's unusual.

It doesn't take very long for the rain to drip away from your nose and into the corners of your mouth. You instinctively let it in and swallow it — it's just rainwater, after all — but the taste leaves you spitting and spluttering. You realise the boiled-sausage smell isn't coming from anything deposited on the ground, but from the rain itself. You pick up the pace and jam your hands into your coat pockets. Your fingers slide against each other as you ball them into fists, as if you just dunked them in salad dressing.

You reach the long flight of cement stairs as the wind increases, pressing your soaked, greasy hair against your forehead. The stairs are slippery in a regular rainfall, and treacherous when coated with whatever is falling from the sky now. You have a white-knuckled grip on the rusty steel railing, trying to counteract the slipperiness. Two-thirds of the way down your foot slips off the step and clumps awkwardly down to the next one, making you shout aloud and clench the railing. Bits of grease-soaked rust burrow into your palms.

You finally reach the bottom of the stairs and run along the walkway to your apartment building. Sections of the walkway are tilted and crooked from last winter's frost. During rains they form puddles, framed by the muddy lawn on one side. Normally you would leap over them, but after the near-wipeout on the stairs you instead perform two shorter side-to-side jumps, your left foot landing on the higher part of the slab, your right just beyond the puddle.

You finally reach the front lobby of your building, where the air feels chillier and drier, even though you know there's no air conditioning, and it wouldn't be on this time of year anyhow. You dig your keys out of your pocket, open the security door, and take the elevator to your floor.

Inside the shelter of your own apartment, you can't smell the grease anymore, but you can definitely feel it. At first you just wash off your hands and face (you'll have to assess the state of your coat and shoes later), but that does nothing for your hair and just the general sense of being slimed. So you take a shower, and because that doesn't quite do it, you brush your teeth, rinsing your mouth more than usual.

Later, in your pajamas, you'll part the curtains and watch the rain, which is still pelting down and thoroughly coating everything outside. You start to understand why when you first came here and said rain showers were refreshing, people laughed.

And you start to understand that you can't stay.