“Rumor has it that there is an organization out there that can get anything done, for a fee. Some people think of it as a corporate version of the CIA, and others feel it’s more like some sort of commercial covert ops establishment, bouncing back and forth over the law as needed. I’m here to assure you it’s all an urban legend; our findings indicate that there is no such thing as the Candy Shop.”
--John Negroponte, Director of National Intelligence
bookstore at the end of
Sara Sidle paused from her vantage point across the street, lounging in the shade of the coffee shop and kept an eye on the Book Hive. So far it had been quiet to the point of being comatose: no customers in the last hour. She checked her watch again, and set her coffee down, debating with herself for a long moment. Nearly noon. Her movement caught the eye of the waitress behind the counter, and Sara knew she had to get moving now, or risk being remembered. Casually she fished in her purse for a reasonable tip and rose up, leaving the two dollars neatly wedged between the salt and pepper shakers. She put on her sunglasses and stepped out, glaring at the Book Hive with undisguised distaste.
Anyone looking at her would have seen a tall, rangy young woman with shoulder-length hair, dressed in a long cream sweater coat and forest-green linen slacks. The only item of true vanity was her handbag; a $12,000 Chloe Paddington in pewter. She hefted it up and strolled across the street all the while taking a quick, thorough look along the way. Light foot traffic into the bank, a few parked cars along Ojai, but none in front of the bookstore.
Reaching it, Sara paused and looked into the glass window, ignoring the black and gold painted hive with the little winged books buzzing around it. She fiddled with her sunglasses so that any passersby seeing her would assume she was toying with her own reflection. In truth, she was adjusting the infrared spectrum filter on the sunglasses, and peering into the depths of the bookstore. What she saw confirmed her contempt. “Sheesh, what an overstock of dust.”
Feeling a pang of regret for the unkindness of her words, Sara sighed and pulled open the door of the shop; above her head came the tinkle of a brass bell. The soft smell of leather, musty paper and wooden shelving hit her nose immediately. Sara parked her sunglasses on the top of her head and blinked, looking around. The cramped shop had tall bookcases with narrow aisles. No patrons were apparent, but behind the tall wooden counter by the right wall was a man perched on a stool, reading a book. Sara took him in for a long moment, committing his features to memory.
Wavy grey hair in need of a trim; a salt and pepper beard; long eyelashes and a pair of reading glasses sliding down his nose. He wore a black polo shirt and khaki pants and currently had a copy of Peterson’s First Guide to Insects of North America in his strong hands. He didn’t look up when she stepped closer, and Sara glanced at the counter. A crystal dish of candy sat at one end, and carefully, she selected a peppermint out of it.
Without glancing up, the man reached over and carefully plucked out a foil-wrapped Hershey’s Kiss. Sara waited a moment, and finally cleared her throat.
He looked up, and with grave courtesy handed her the chocolate. She in turn gave him the peppermint in the little formal ritual of identification and relaxed a little. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Peppermint.”
Miss Chocolate. I take it you brought your half of the file with
asked, and in his pleasant tenor she heard the flat intonations of
Grissom, AKA Mr. Peppermint, took a moment getting to his feet and fishing for a bookmark as he reluctantly closed the field guide. He’d known Miss Chocolate only by reputation up to this point and nothing had prepared him for this poised, elegantly dangerous woman on the other side of his counter. Despite the casual set of her shoulders he could see she was aware of every exit, every potential weapon or threat in the room. He set his book down.
She was pretty—that should have been a red flag right there, and he tried not to dwell on it. Miss Lollipop hadn’t mentioned anything about Miss Chocolate besides her gender and her formidable skills in surveillance and ops; he’d taken the assignment without bothering to give the enclosed photo more than a passing glance.
Nobody’s Candy Shop photo ever did them justice anyway; certainly not his own, now almost fifteen years old.
A ‘thump’ sounded; a scarred grey tabby appeared on the counter, cautiously eyeing Sara. She looked at him a moment, noting his ragged ears and long white whiskers. Behind the counter, Mr. Peppermint spoke again.
“This is Aramis. The other three are around, but they’re a bit shyer.”
Her grin flashed out, and gently she reached a hand to pat the cat, who arched happily up into her stroke. “Musketeers—nice.”
“They keep the mice and insects in line,” Mr. Peppermint agreed, and rose from his stool. Casually he stepped around the counter and moved to the door, closing it. After flipping the sign to read “Closed for lunch—back in an hour” he turned back to the woman. “Follow me, Miss Chocolate.”
He led the way down the center aisle of the narrow book shop, towards the rear of the store; Sara followed him, keeping her eyes on his broad back. It wasn’t difficult to appreciate the view ahead of her—not that she’d tell him. Rumor had it that Mr. Peppermint was a loner, both on the job and off; a rare specimen from academia who’d come to the Candy Shop through a very mysterious, roundabout route. She’d studied his file; watched him for two days already, and even now felt she knew less about him than when she’d started.
They reached the back, turned left out of view of the main browsing area, and reached a small fenced-off area that Sara recognized from her college days as a rare book cage. She watched him fish out a key and unlock it, then motion for her to enter. Sara paused, then stepped in, Mr. Peppermint right behind her. He closed the cage, and the minute he did so, it rattled faintly and began to descend. Sara reached out to curl a supporting hand around the mesh, amused. Mr. Peppermint caught her eye and shrugged a little. He had very blue eyes, she noted.
“A little cliché, but necessary.”
After a descent of roughly two stories, Sara felt the elevator stop. She watched as her companion opened the door again, onto a cavernous room hollowed out and reinforced by concrete.
A bunker of sorts, with a rounded feel to it; Sara thought of Hobbit holes. Long florescent lights illuminated the place, which was filled with worktables, computers, banks of filing cabinets and storage shelves. As she stepped out behind Mr. Peppermint, Sara realized that all of the furniture down here was wood—not a single piece in this cavern other than the computers was made of metal.
Grissom led the way to a conference table in the middle of the room and sat down, gesturing to a chair on the other side. He watched as Miss Chocolate seated herself gracefully, setting her bag on the table before fishing a file folder out of it.
He frowned. “The bag is a liability, you know.”
“The purse. Too expensive. Too . . . flashy,” he commented gently. “The sort of detail that gets noticed, and usually by the wrong person.” He watched her frown, and stroke the bag almost protectively.
“It could be a knock off.”
“It’s not,” He replied with a hint of impatience. “But it’s not important right now. Let’s get this laid out and see what we’re doing.”
Grissom pulled out his own file and opened it, flipping through the pages. He had the odd-numbered ones, and handed them to Miss Chocolate, watching her efficiently collate them in running order with her even ones. When it was completed, she laid the top page down.
Location: First President
Time Frame: Face of the Clock
Goodies: Help yourself
Grissom gave a thoughtful nod, and glanced over at Miss Chocolate, absently admiring her profile as she scanned the page.
looked up to catch his
eye. “So. We’re
“Almost too simple,” Grissom agreed, frowning a bit. “She could have handed this over to Jelly Bean if it was just a B and E.”
“He’s not as experienced with home versus office, especially for a second story job,” she murmured throatily. “Still a little too jumpy.”
“That’s why he’s a bean,” Grissom replied, trying not to let his faint annoyance show. It was true of course; the young cat burglar was still overeager and prone to rookie mistakes, but he was a quick study, and picked up suggestions with an open mind. Grissom wondered how many missions Miss Chocolate had already done with the Bean, and if they were on a real name basis yet.
He decided to ask, the next time he saw Greg.
Miss Chocolate turned the page, and a heavyset man scowled up at them from the page, his expression both annoyed and contemptuous. Grissom said nothing, watching Miss Chocolate out of the corner of his eye.
“Bruce Eiger. Yeah, well he looks like an ogre. Our client, apparently?”
“Miss Lollipop’s client,” Grissom corrected softly. “I know him by reputation—he owns three casinos in Vegas and is carries a lot of clout in politics here, most of it behind the scenes. Does he specify what the item to be recovered is?”
Sara looked through the typed page, skimming it quickly, aware that Mr. Peppermint was scoping her out a bit as she did so. It was habitual, she was sure; an agent at his level didn’t stay in the game without keeping a sharp eye on things. Spotting the bag—that had piqued her for a moment, especially since he was right, but what the hell—she wasn’t on the job.
She made a tiny sound of surprise. “This is weird—we’re going to be looking for an eight millimeter movie camera and film?”
Mr. Peppermint’s eyes narrowed and Sara realized how blue they truly were now that he had them focused on the pages on the table. He ran a finger down the lines of print and blinked a little, startled himself.
him for a moment, and noted the brightness of his expression; she felt
of attraction and covered it by smirking. “And
THAT’S the sort of thing only
a . . .”
“ . . . Geek would know? Possibly,” Mr. Peppermint admitted while rubbing his bristly chin. “All the same, it’s curious, Miss Chocolate. The camera itself isn’t that valuable. A man as rich as Bruce Eiger could buy and sell dozens of them without a second thought. That implies that the recovery is really all about--?”
“The film,” she finished, nodding. “Which makes sense, and yet doesn’t at the same time. Whatever is on the film could have been transferred to disc or computer by now.”
But he was shaking his head now. “Not without specialized equipment and people to do it. If Bruce Eiger has contracted the Candy Shop to retrieve his film, then you can bet that whatever’s on it is probably highly scandalous. Whoever has it won’t risk a leak by transferring it just yet.”
“You don’t KNOW that,” Sara argued gently. Mr. Peppermint cocked his head, his expression slightly stubborn.
“I don’t—but after enough time on blackmail, you get a sense for these things. Let’s see what else Miss Lollipop’s put in the file for us to consider. Coffee?”
“Yes please,” Sara murmured. She waited as he prepared and brought two fragrantly steaming mugs back to the wooden table, not touching any of the file pages in the interim. There was too much to look at in the cavern anyway: antique maps and prints on the walls; stands of walking sticks and umbrellas; glass cases with rare books in them; a stock market ticker tape machine, humming steadily and spewing strands of paper into a woven basket.
Definitely a Hobbit hole, she decided.
Echoing softly in the cavern came music; Sara caught the soft sounds of Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Bach. Yeah, that fit Mr. Peppermint pretty well. A classic.
She sipped her coffee, savoring the richness of the brew, and seeing her enjoy it, he did the same with his own mug. For a moment they relaxed in each other’s company, simply riding on the pleasure of coffee and breathing space. Sara nodded. “Thanks. It’s a good blend, but I don’t recognize it.”
Blue Devils—out of
“There you go—there’s YOUR vanity, Mr. Peppermint.”
“My vanity?” Grissom asked, catching the hint of amusement in Miss Chocolate’s tone, and not understanding. She pointed to his mug of coffee as she arched an eyebrow, and for a moment it dawned on him how expressively cute she looked.
“I have a fondness for expensive handbags, and you—have a weakness for expensive coffee. Our tells; in point of fact.” He scowled a little, annoyed at her quick insight, and she chuckled triumphantly, laying a thin hand on the file. “Shall we?”
“Certainly. Let me move my mug so I don’t spill my coffee on your purse,” came his dry reply.
She dimpled at his tone, taking it in stride, and pushed the papers closer, hitching her chair as well, her elbows resting on the scarred wooden surface. Grissom turned the photo of Bruce Eiger over, and the second photo under left him slightly stunned. Next to him, Miss Chocolate gave a low gasp of mingled disgust and amusement. Grissom nodded.
“At least OUR little sins are socially acceptable . . . “ he observed while looking down at the grainy photo of Bruce Eiger in a diaper and booties, lying on a bearskin rug.
Miss Chocolate shuddered delicately. “Ew. I have a disturbing idea of what’s on the film now—“
“Yes, I think it would be a safe bet that it’s probably something to do with his . . . hobby,” Grissom agreed, quickly flipping the photo. A notation in familiar handwriting was scrawled on the back, and Miss Chocolate read it out loud.
“Client requests a meeting with the both of you at his home this evening at nine. RSVP, your discretion,” she murmured. “Ummmm—“
“We ought to go,” Grissom murmured softly as he studied her face. “Incognito of course.”
Miss Chocolate lifted her chin, and her lips twisted a bit as she nodded. “If only to be thorough,” she agreed, with a hint of distaste.
They finished reading the rest of the file, which included floor plans, contacts, contingency options, travel and accommodation information, and when done, Grissom carefully set the papers in a Pyrex dish and ignited them; Miss Chocolate watching as he did so.
She smiled up at him. “You know, with all the technology that’s available nowadays I can’t quite catch why Miss Lollipop is so . . . old-fashioned about files.”
“For precisely that reason,” Grissom mused. “Reconstruction of ashes is still much more difficult than cracking a hard drive and the residue is more easily dispersed. I know it’s a throwback to earlier tradition, but against the hacking and tracking prevalent now, Miss L prefers to err on the side of safety.”
“A classicist,” Miss Chocolate murmured in a low voice, rising up.
Grissom escorted her back up to the bookstore and rang up a selection for her, tucking it into a plastic bag with The Book Hive logo printed on it. Surprised, Miss Chocolate took the purchase and winked at him, tickled at his choice: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Grissom nodded, handing her a bookmark as well.
the place and time he’d written on it and nodded back, then
sauntered out of
the store after petting a curious Porthos lounging in the front window.
watched her sail off, wondering idly if he should shave before
after arriving in
*** *** ***
Miss Lollipop looked over the expanse of her office desk at the man on the other side, feeling a flare of fondness for him. Sugar Daddy had always been one of her favorites, despite the fact that she knew she shouldn’t become attached to her agents. He sat in the chair, a mild expression on his snub-nosed face, his hands folded in his lap.
Miss Lollipop leaned over the desk and laid a hand on the file in front of her. “You truly think she’s ready?”
Sugar Daddy gave a shrug, but his modest grin spoke volumes. “What can I say? She’d my kid; she’s ready.”
“Oh absolutely. It’ll be like her driving test all over again, which God knows was probably harder than this will be. I’m telling you, Ellie’s ready.”
“Sugar Baby,” Lollipop corrected him, but gently. He was such a doting father, and the girl was a genuine sweetheart; after all, nothing brought a family together like assassination. Sugar Daddy gave a little nod at the reprimand and cleared his throat.
“Sugar Baby,” he amended. “Since we were planning on a vacation, we can schedule this on the way and still get the time off.”
smiled a little more warmly, and nodded. She pushed the file across the
“I’ll bring you a souvenir—you like rugs?” he leaned forward and took the file, smiling. “A nice Navaho one to go with your waiting room.”
That made her laugh; she walked him to the door and hugged him lightly, glad to see him looking upbeat. He squeezed her back, and cleared his throat. “Thanks, Lolly. I’ll be back in two weeks.”
She patted his shoulder. “Go, have a good time, Jim. Two weeks.”
As he stepped out, Lollipop looked over at her receptionist’s desk. Judy glanced over and shook her head. “Nobody else has an appointment today, Doctor Marazek. Your agenda’s clear.”
“Thank you, Judy. I’m going down to the therapy rooms for a while. Page me if a patient calls.”
Ma’am,” Judy squeaked. Even after six years she was
still in awe; still
thrilled to be working for the most prestigious psychiatrist in
Lollipop smiled, striding out of the Southwest-themed waiting room and to the bank of elevators beyond it. She took the far right one, and once inside, fished out a small silver key from a chain around her neck. It fit into a tiny keyhole cunningly hidden behind part of the paneling over the buttons. She turned it and a chime rang out, followed by a recorded male voice, low and almost seductive. “Confirm?”
“Thank you.” The elevator began to descend smoothly, dropping down all the floors and beyond the basement level, finally coming to a stop deep underground a few minutes later.
The door slid open, and Miss Lollipop stepped out into a carpeted elegant hallway. The air here was clean, the filters humming gently keeping everything comfortably cool. Miss Lollipop stepped out and turned left, moving down towards a series of double doors at the far end. They were gleaming brass art deco doors with frosted windows. She reached out and pressed her palm against the security scanner; it flashed for a moment, and a soft man’s voice echoed out: “Identity reconfirmed. Welcome to the range, Miss Lollipop.”
She pulled the door open, and the sound of gunfire rang out, echoing in the wide chamber. Ahead of her she saw the long lean back of Licorice, and next to him the shorter, muscular frame of Jaw Breaker as they stood in one of the booths, both firing round after round into a distant target.
the pair of them, she stood, arms crossed and waited; they’d
sense her presence
in a moment. It came a few seconds later, Licorice turning first, his
green eyes widening, and his little nod respectful. Jaw Breaker caught
partner’s move and looked over his shoulder, peeling off his
ear guards as he
smiled. “Oh! Didn’t see you there,
ma’am,” came his
Both of them holstered their weapons in the slots along the firing booth walls, then turned fully to face her.
“Miss Lollipop,” Licorice murmured, his voice low and warm. She nodded back to them and stepped forward.
“Gentlemen. I’m delighted to see you keeping up your skills—it’s gratifying to see your dedication.”
“Dedication nothing—Mr. Cinnamon’s upped the gun locker requirements,” came Jaw Breaker’s annoyed amusement. “He says if we can’t bulls eye ninety percent in three different targets we don’t get anything from the Toy Box.”
“Ah,” Miss Lollipop commiserated with a smile. “Well I did give him the prerogative to set the standards.”
Licorice nodded, his dreads slithering almost to his shoulders, looking elegant against his green ribbed sweater. “The problem is, he wants it for every make in stock—qualifying for all of them is going to take us at least a week.”
Jaw Breaker nodded. “Yeah. Right now we’re set on most of the handguns and non-projectiles, but it’s going to take a while to get qualified with the rifles and higher caliber stuff.” He pointed with his jaw towards a door at the far end of the firing range. “And most of that can’t be done down here, that’s for sure.”
“We’ll make arrangements. At the moment I have an assignment for you, if you’re both available.”
Licorice looked at Jaw Breaker, who gave a smile and a shrug. “I’m open.”
“Same here. Any general hint as to the nature?” Licorice asked Lollipop.
“I need you to run interference tonight. Mr. Peppermint is meeting with a client who’s a bit of a control freak. He may have his own muscle try to intimidate our associate.”
Jaw Breaker made a scoffing noise. “The dude thinks he’s going to intimidate Mr. Peppermint? Not gonna happen; not in a million years.”
Lollipop smiled, cocking her head slightly. “I agree, but it won’t stop our client from trying to look big. The problem is that his money allows him to hire help above the average street punk, and I don’t want anything to distract Mr. Peppermint from the job at hand.”
“Gotcha,” Licorice nodded, “You want us in the shadows.”
“I want you to BE the shadows,” Lollipop agreed. “It shouldn’t take long. Seven Hills, around nine, so plan accordingly. And you’ll both get a bonus if Mr. Peppermint fails to spot you.”
She strode off, leaving the two men chuckling softly behind her; they watched her go, both of them gazing after her for a long moment. Jaw Breaker sighed gustily. “Damn.”
Licorice laughed again. “Don’t even think it, Nick. The lady’s waaaaay out of your league, and your boss to boot.”
“I know, I know, but still—it’s gotta be a crime to be that smart and look that good.”