Today, Fiction for Dessert is proud to showcase the work of author Maria E. Schneider.
Maria grew up in New Mexico where the desert environment required that she embellish the landscape with her imagination. After working in the computer industry for twelve years, she decided technology moved too slowly, and again put her imagination to work, creating messes and then inventing characters to handle all the clean up. She currently resides near Austin, Texas.
She is the author of Executive Lunch – the first in the Sedona O'Hala series. Sedona is given the opportunity of a lifetime: play an up-and-coming executive with all the trappings of wealth with someone else footing the bill. The catch: find out who is stealing company funds before the criminals find out that their program is being debugged. Sedona runs into danger, the corporate glass ceiling, and an occasional chance at romance in her quest. The second in the series, Executive Retention was released June 15, 2010.
In just two weeks, I will be posting an excerpt from Executive Lunch, so stay tuned! In the meantime, I’m pleased to present:
“Top Secret, Adventures of an Undercover Agent”
By the time we arrived in Nice after a mind-boggling fourteen-hour flight from Houston, I was exhausted. Perhaps that is why I was not paying attention to details when we checked into our hotel. How could such a small lapse lead to such trouble?
Let me assure you that being a secret agent is nothing like the portrayal of James Bond. The only thing I share in common with the man is his first name. My hair is boring brown; slightly too long. My eyes, which are surrounded by rim glasses that I don't actually need, are also brown. I purport to be a professor at a local college.
For this assignment, I was traveling to Europe with Don and Elaine, a stockbroker and his wife. They believed they were doing me a favor by allowing me to travel with them on vacation. At twenty-six, Elaine was too young to be matronly, but she was headed towards plump. Much as children gathered “homeless” pets, Elaine gathered friends; she had also invited her friend Becka along.
Hotel key in hand, I opened my room door, and then watched with astonishment as Becka and Elaine marched inside. Becka dragged her suitcases in and combed her short black hair in front of the mirror. My first thought was that she was a spy for the other side and intended to insinuate herself into my life to keep an eye on me.
It wasn’t until Becka noticed me bringing in my suitcases that she chirped, “What are you doing?”
“Unpacking.” Spy or not, I hoped it would dawn on her that this was my room, which was why I had the key and she did not.
“But you’re not staying here with me!” She looked at Elaine and asked, “Is he?”
Elaine, unable to decide whether to giggle or look horrified, gasped, “James, why aren’t you going to your own room?”
I held up the key. “This is my room.” I heartily wished that Elaine’s stockbroker husband would come and sort this mess. Being unmarried, I simply hadn’t the proper skills.
“Well.” Becka blinked. “Where’s my key?” She turned her baby-blues towards Elaine.
Elaine’s mouth dropped open. “Didn’t you get her key? She doesn’t speak French. What if the hotel clerk didn’t speak English?”
“I don’t speak French either—“ The rest of the logic was beyond me. Stiffly, I asked, “Do you need me to get your room key?”
“Oh, just let her have this room and go get your own!” Elaine suggested cheerfully.
When I passed my old room to get to the new one, the door was still propped open. Elaine giggled, and I distinctly heard her utter, “Maybe he likes you. He’s a professor type and they aren’t very good at expressing their feelings.”
I should have taken the first available plane back home.
The next morning, much to my dismay, Elaine rented a car. Due to her bargaining, we were “upgraded” to a van. Wonderful. The roads were little more than wide bicycle lanes with traffic lights. Don's driving was akin to him trying to maneuver a double-decker bus down an alleyway at sixty miles an hour.
Elaine didn’t notice; she spent the time reading from the guidebook about the Grand Canyon of Verdon.
“It would be best if you just dropped me at the hotel,” I informed Elaine and company. “I will soak up Nice while you drive to the canyon.” This would give me the privacy required to obtain my espionage package.
“Are you kidding? The Canyon du Verdon is steep enough for rock climbers,” Elaine said. “We simply must see it. But we won’t try to squeeze it in today. We’ll get souvenirs instead. Did you know that France is known for lingerie?” A giggle.
Even without a mission awaiting me, I wouldn’t have been keen on shopping. I made my excuses. “I think I'll just go to the beach.”
Don grabbed at the glimmer of hope. “Good idea!”
Disapproving silence from the girls. Elaine actually sneered. “I suppose you expect us to come with you?”
Don, being experienced, hedged carefully. “You don’t have to, of course. We’d love for you to come with us.”
Elaine crossed her arms under her breasts and huffed, “And do you expect us to go topless?”
Ah, now we had a clue. “It’s not required,” I guessed.
Don was smarter. He smiled and teased, “Please? You know I’d love that!”
While he was getting himself out of marital trouble, Becka displayed shock, pleasure and a blush of embarrassment. I wondered how much an early plane ticket home would cost, and if “Matty,” my contact, could meet me at the airport as I was on my way out of Europe.
Elaine finally agreed to the beach.
Unfortunately, by the time we gathered swimsuits Don had been conned into reinserting the shopping trip. By any reasonable definition, this would mean stopping at a store if we saw one on the way to the beach. By Elaine’s definition, it meant checking side streets, the post office and any building with a door that wasn’t locked securely.
It got worse when she actually found a lingerie shop. “Come on,” she squealed, grabbing us both.
“Uh—“ I was yanked unceremoniously inside the hallway-sized shop.
Before my eyes could adjust to the dim light, a shadowy figure with Becka’s voice asked softly, “Would this look good on me?”
Elaine giggled again. “Try it on. Then he’ll tell you.”
The dangers of traveling as one half of an unattached party were increasingly evident. “I’m sure it will look fine,” I gasped and headed for the door.
Elaine crossed her arms and sniffed. “It won’t kill you to help us.”
I wasn’t certain of that. I stood there, first on one leg and then the other as my appendages tried to respond to the command, leave, yet could not because Elaine was standing in front of the door.
From behind me, “Do you like this one better?”
It would be impossible to answer without turning around.
A clerk urged Becka towards a partitioned closet. Another clerk grabbed my arm and began dragging me along.
In alarm, I protested, “No, no—uh, non!”
Becka looked startled, then pleased, then unsure. All the while she juggled two or three bits of lace. The curtain closed, and I turned to find Elaine happily purring behind me with her own lace.
Don valiantly tried to control his enthusiastic wife by tucking her under his arm, but all it did for me was make the blockage of the door two solid bodies rather than one. Before I could search for a back door, I was accosted by a clerk again. She set out several garments.
My eyes bulged. This was simply too much. I like lace as much as the next guy, but I did not have a girlfriend.
Just then, Elaine disappeared into the changing room, giving me a perfect escape opportunity. I prepared to dash into the street and throw myself under any available moving vehicle.
Becka popped out of the dressing room. “It fits!” She nodded at the clerk. “Por favor!”
I groaned. While I did not speak French, I was more than reasonably certain that “Por favor” was Spanish, not French. “I think you mean merci or s'il vous plait.”
The clerk zeroed in on me, nodding and exclaiming as she rang up the items.
“See, she understood me perfectly. Por favor!” Becka shouted in triumph.
The clerks waved several more garments. I backed away.
“Wait!” Becka cried. “How much does this cost?”
Fearing she might run after me while dangling the pair of scanty underwear, I froze. With a sigh, I used my little French phrase for, “How much?”
The problem was, of course, that I had no idea what the lady said in reply.
Eventually, the woman pulled out a calculator. She entered the numbers, and to my relief they flashed onto the display.
“Oh,” Becka said. “Is this in American dollars or French dollars?”
“You do have Euros?” I pleaded.
“Well, I was just wondering how much all of this was going to cost,” she whispered, even though the people in the shop understood perhaps one word of English, and we had already proven our ineptness at French.
I tried not to snarl as I guessed the exchange rate and entered it into the calculator.
“Oh,” Becka said, relieved. She whipped out a credit card, which started more babbling on the part of the clerks. Whatever the problem was, they worked it out without me. It was a good thing because I had no idea what they were saying and every time they glanced at Becka she smiled and shouted, “Por favor.”
By the time we left the shop, we barely had time to gallop to the beach before sunset. I was quite starved from my exertions, so I foolishly agreed to dinner--before I realized the French requirement for such a simple past-time.
There was an aperitif, a salad, a main course, some course after that, dessert, coffee and then drinks. The event was mind-bogglingly long. Like honking geese, Becka and Elaine were completely oblivious to the other’s conversation, but honked continuously.
By the time we returned to our hotel, I was frantic to meet with the other agent. I arranged a midnight meeting by phone, giving myself an hour to get to the agreed to destination.
To my dismay, Becka and Elaine were still awake, chatting in Becka’s room.
Good God, the women had discussed every topic under the sun at dinner. What could possibly be left???
Getting past Becka’s room without being spotted was impossible. Elaine latched onto me the moment I stepped into the hallway. “Oh, James, James!”
“I'm just going to the front desk for a moment.”
“Oh, good! We’ll come too!” She was as excited as if I had suggested a coveted trip to the beauty parlor.
“No, thank you.”
Elaine came out of the room and tripped along behind me.
I made it to the lobby, but couldn’t lose her.
I asked the front desk for ice. No one has ice in France. It is not one of their customs. Elaine wondered if we should go out and get some.
“No, no!” I made a mad dash for the elevator. Once upstairs, I managed to slam the door to my room before she could force her way in.
The window was my only hope. The electronic gadgets and high tech equipment that I carry were perhaps the closest I came to James Bond. The rappelling line was something I had only because it was a good source of strong, retractable wire. In this case, I was down to a half hour to get out of my room. I had no other options.
It didn’t take long to secure the device and launch myself out the window. I considered myself lucky to be on the side of the street with a dark, narrow alley.
France seemed like a fairly safe place. Who would have suspected that the hotel hired a guard to roam around the building? By the time I slid to the concrete, his flashlight blinded me. He waved what I took to be a weapon. I had no idea what he was yelling, but I was quite certain that at any moment Elaine would stick her head out the window.
Worse than Elaine, I got a trip to the local police office in something called a “smart” car.
The car was so small, it could be picked up and wedged into a parking spot the size of a shoe box. As for riding in the thing, it was like being crammed into a baby stroller.
At the police station, I withstood round upon round of questioning. I had proof that I was staying at the hotel, so the officers were having trouble figuring out why I had been repelling down the outside wall.
Seizing upon a moment of brilliance, I turned to the translator. “We’re headed to the Canyon du Verdon tomorrow. I was practicing for the cliffs.”
It took a couple of tries, but eventually, my excuse seemed to satisfy all concerned. The translator slumped into a chair with a grumbled, “The police will check to see if any guests have reported anything stolen.”
They were in no hurry. I remained chained to a pole until the wee hours of the morning.
By the time I stumbled into the hotel lobby, it was seven o’clock. I stank of cigarettes, sweat and alley-refuse. Elaine was in the lobby, but busy talking with great animation to her husband. In my current disguise as a disgusting, bleary-eyed bum, I was able to sneak back to my room.
Apparently I had been the topic of the frantic conversation downstairs. Don had only been able to buy me five minutes before Elaine came to find me.
Dripping from the shower, I yelled through the door, “I’m ill. I’m not going.” I had not met my contact. After a failed meet, there were procedures to be taken to ensure that neither agent had been compromised.
As soon as I was convinced that Elaine had departed, I called headquarters, but was immediately disturbed by pounding at the door. “James! James, are you all right?”
Luckily the ridiculous amount of noise she made allowed me to finish my business before opening the door. When I finally did, I said, “I’m not well. I should stay in for the day.”
I kept Elaine from barging in, but only by blocking the door. The woman was only four feet and a few inconsequential inches. She didn’t budge my almost six foot frame.
“You can't stay here alone.” Becka sounded as though the mere thought had brought her to tears. Then again, it might have been my appearance. My eyes were bloodshot and though I was clean, my room reeked from the clothes I had been wearing. No doubt I looked ill; my head throbbed as though Elaine were still pounding on the door.
It would take headquarters a minimum of twelve hours to clear the contact mess. Perhaps it would be more peaceful sleeping in the car than fighting with two hardy females for the next hour.
In the confusion of getting to the van, I went without breakfast, a sad fact that I realized the moment I was seated in the backseat next to Becka. I was starved. Worse, I had taken nothing for my headache. I put my poor head against the window and closed my eyes.
“Oh, you aren't feeling well,” worried Becka. “Maybe we should stay.”
Don was used to ignoring drivel. He kept driving. I made sure my eyes stayed closed and within minutes, exhaustion beat out hunger.
I was forced to wakefulness into a nightmare.
The car lurched wildly. Elaine screeched. There was a death-defying scream in my ear. Becka’s half-inch nails nearly took out my eye as she reached for me. Sadly, she lost her grip, and I lost strips off my face as her nails tried to regain ground.
Agents always carry weapons. Certain I was under attack, I went for my weapon, an ice-pick-like device tucked inside the frame of my glasses. Becka must be a secret agent from the other side sent to kill me.
She made a grab for my arm and left more gouges. The car lurched again. Horns honked madly around us.
Elaine shrieked, “There’s two lanes! Take that one, there’s our exit.” She shoved the map in front of Don’s bewildered gaze. Brakes screamed and suddenly Becka was in my lap.
She got a strangle-hold. With the one eye that wasn’t obscured, I glimpsed a traffic circle on which we were merrily cavorting.
Don shouted, “I thought it was a stop sign!”
Don had driven a traffic circle before. He was unable to exit and barely able to avoid the masses of cars coming on and off. In the meantime, Becka had decided she could safely kill me.
She clutched my neck and pressed my face into her breasts. While not a position I would normally complain about, I preferred to do it while still able to breathe.
Don turned the van sharply and exited. “Oh my God!” Elaine screeched in relief.
The van’s motion threw Becka sideways. “Mmgrgh!” I tried prying one of Becka’s hands free. My pick at the ready, I moved to slide it between her ribs.
Instead of fighting me, she collapsed against the far door. "Are we dead?" she whispered. There was no malice in her eyes, only tears and panic.
Frowning, I slid the pick under my hand. “Nearly.” Especially me. The cuts on my arm and face stung fiercely. My head pounded. My stomach growled. Perhaps I was better off dead. I righted my glasses and tried to sit up straight, keeping a close eye on Becka in case she decided to attack again.
“Oh, there’s a perfume factory,” Elaine exclaimed. “Can we stop?”
If a building went with the sign, we whizzed by too quickly for my eyes to see it. My empty stomach protested and threatened to launch itself.
We drove for many more hours, but never found the canyon. Don learned from the first traffic circle, but by the time we made it back to the hotel, he had a twitch in his right eye. I looked worse. My eyes were red and swollen from lack of sleep. Becka’s nails had left bloody scabs on my face and arms. A nasty bruise ran across my neck from her clutching hands.
Slamming the door of my room, I managed to shower faster than the competition. I snuck out on foot and found a pub.
By the time I got back to my room, the other three had left for one of the typical lengthy French dinners. I communicated with headquarters. They informed me of a new meet setup for the following afternoon.
Nearly incoherent from lack of sleep, I slept deep enough to have allowed someone as incompetent as Becka to slay me without effort.
At seven, during breakfast, I politely declined all invitations to drive into the “small alps.” Becka offered to stay with me again, but wasn’t quite as enthused as before. Perhaps she was getting the message or maybe the scars on my face embarrassed her into keeping some distance.
Eventually, the group set off without me.
At three o’clock, I threw on my swimsuit with a few special provisions.
The beaches in Nice, as Elaine had mentioned, were topless. Ignoring the sometimes enticing scenery, I laid out on a towel for a half hour before making my way to a jet ski booth. Since it was late in the afternoon, I wanted to appear interested, but not have to actually rent the things.
The woman already there was in deep conversation with the attendants. She was slim, tanned—and topless. When I made my request for a price list in hopeful English, the attendant ignored me. I tried my broken French phrases. “Combien?”
It was then that the female I was certain must be “Matty” turned and exclaimed, “Oh, you don’t speak French, do you?”
I opened my mouth to answer, but found myself too stunned to do so. The woman had the most beautiful breasts I had ever seen. They were perfect globes, as much as any man had a right to wish for, tanned and smooth as glass. My name, the real one and the code one, was lost.
She did her best to cover for me. “Or maybe you don’t speak English either?” The biting tone, if not the words, made it through to my brain.
For the first time in my life, I was meeting with a real James Bond movie candidate. I wanted to savor the moment, but alas, it could not have happened at a worse time. There were the scratches, which were bad enough. Since I had fallen asleep against the window in the van, my skin was a mottled sunburn all the way down my neck. Just as that bright color ended, there was the nice bruise from Becka. “I speak English,” I pronounced slowly, sadly. I managed to raise my eyes to her face, which was not at all disappointing. “It’s been an unbelievable vacation, is all.” This was code for, “put me out of my misery,” but it was guy code-speak, not agent-speak.
While I could have easily spent the rest of the night just staring at her, I didn’t think my ego could handle the rejection.
“Let me help you with the prices,” she said. I noticed her eyes were hazel, but then she began pointing to the various skis as the attendant rattled off numbers. Inevitably, my attention riveted to the supple movement below her neck.
I had to face the attendant to keep my sanity.
“How long are you staying?” she asked, pretending interest.
“A week. I think I’ll try the skis when I’m not quite so sunburned.” At last I was participating and moving the conversation forward.
She asked where I was from and oh, it turned out she had a sister visiting Texas! Could I tell her what it was really like there?
I babbled helpfully and asked if she knew where we could get a drink.
She knew the perfect place.
As we walked across the beach, she stopped at a towel and put on a bikini top and t-shirt.
Every part of me was disappointed.
We went to the restaurant and ordered drinks and appetizers. The jet ski attendants would remember a bumbling American getting lucky. The wait staff would remember a comfortable couple.
After an appropriate lull, she pulled various shopping purchases from her beach bag. Like any normal male, I pretended cursory interest. There was a music CD along with a souvenir shot glass, and of course, some perfume. It would be silly to wish for French lingerie when I had already been treated to a better eyeful at the beach.
After taking all this out, she looked at her watch. “Oh! I told them we’d meet them at six! We’ll be late!”
Quickly, I called for the bill and gave the waitress a credit card. “Matty” shoved things into her bag. Helpfully I grabbed up the CD and stuffed it in my case before asking for the bathroom. The innocuous looking music CD contained secret information accessible only by codes.
By the time I returned from the bathroom, Matty had signed the credit slip and pocketed the card. The card contained enough credit for the payment of services and was hers to keep.
We walked quickly towards Old Nice where the crowds swelled. With a few steps into the throng, we were separated.
I wandered aimlessly before accidentally spotting my friends. With a sigh, I slipped into my proper persona.
I managed one more day before I booked a flight home. I wasn’t certain if leaving early would be suspicious, but there is only so much a man can take.
As my plane lifted, I watched the sparkling Mediterranean below. I felt a sharp pang of regret when I saw jet skis in the bay. As I said, the life of a secret agent is nothing like James Bond, nothing at all.
Visit Maria at her blog: Bear Mountain Books