DISCLAIMER: V.I.P. is the property of J.F. Lawton, Morgan Gendel and Pamela Anderson, no infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Anyone who has watched VIP knows that it requires the suspension of disbelief. Same with this story.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
By Della Street
As any good Company man should be, Ned Irons was an excellent drinking companion. Tasha signaled Relic to bring them each another shot. "So there she is, hanging on to the side of the helicopter," she continued with her story. "Then her floppy hat gets sucked into the air intake. We went down in Yosemite."
"Did you have to abort the mission?"
"Nope." She took another swig. "I tracked Sanders down in the forest, but then, just as I'm taking aim" she acted out the alignment of a rifle "Val rushes down there to warn him. She's lucky I didn't shoot her."
"Right," he said.
Tasha supposed she owed Val a little credit. "They turned out to be rogue orders," she admitted. "Val was right." That time.
He tipped his glass at her. "You two make a good team."
It wouldn't be polite to say what she was thinking, Tasha decided.
"You know, Tasha, I never wanted my little girl to end up with someone in the business, but you're OK," Ned said. "Just don't call me Dad."
What? No, no, no. "It's not like that with us," Tasha said quickly. "We don't even get along, really."
"You don't, huh?" he said. "Who was that trailing after her all day to keep her safe?"
"That's my job," Tasha replied. Get up in the morning, work out, clean her gun, cover Vallery Irons' ass, guard some bodies, relax at Foam. Typical VIP day.
"I didn't see any of the others there."
That was different. Taking care of Val was her job, not theirs. "Protecting my investment." His skeptical expression drove her on. "No offense, Ned, but Val drives me crazy," she said. "Everything is stream of consciousness with her. Live for the moment. Don't follow any rules."
"Just like her mother."
"I'm a trained professional; she's short skirts and high heels," Tasha went on. "I'm dodging bullets while she's applying her lipstick."
"Yep," he said with a chuckle. "Carol drove me nuts, too."
Good; he understood.
"It's been 22 years, and I still miss her."
Tasha didn't know how to respond. This sensitive stuff was more Val's territory. Even as indifferent as Tasha was to the concept of house in the suburbs with white picket fence, she couldn't imagine having to abandon your wife and child in order to keep them safe.
Ned smiled sadly. "Do you know how we met?"
She waited for the story. She might not know what to say, but she could listen.
"I was unwinding in a bar like this up in Vancouver after a mission," he reminisced. "Carol was there with some friends from college. A fraternity boy was bothering her, so she ran over and"
Suddenly, a blonde figure hopped into Tasha's lap and draped her arms around the tall woman's neck.
"Val . . . ," Tasha complained.
"Mondo creepo at nine o'clock, andooh, there he is." Her eyes widened as the man in the mirror approached them. He wasn't a regular at Foam. "Do your jealous girlfriend thing."
"I don't have a 'jealous girlfriend' thing," Tasha said.
"Where'd you go, Cutie?" the drunkard slurred at Val. "We were just having some fun."
"You mean you were. He grabbed my butt!" she said indignantly to the woman whose lap she occupied.
Beside them, Ned set down his beer to watch.
Tasha glowered at the unwanted suitor. "Why don't you go ooze somewhere else, Slime?"
"Why don't you go back to the tribe, Xena?" he replied.
"Uh oh," Val said. "Now, Tash" she tried to hang on as the other woman eased off her seat ominously "We talked about this. Not every insult is an insult. Xena is a megahottie who beats up even more bad guys than you. So there's no reason to go"
"You got a problem with me?" Tasha growled at the stranger.
He puffed out his chest and leaned in toward her. "If you're tryin' to pick off some of the meat in here, then yeah, I do," he said.
"You callin' her 'meat'?" she asked, gesturing toward Val.
Val turned to her dad. "She knows I don't like meat," she said with a grimace.
Reaching out, Tasha grabbed the ruffian's shirt and dragged him toward the entrance. "Outside," she said.
"She need any help?" Ned asked.
"Nah." Val waved him off. "This is like sex for her. She'll toy with him for a while and then go for it. Tasha!" she yelled after her. "Just break a few bones and get back in here. Remember, we have a guest!"
"Must be nice to have a friend like that," Ned observed.
"Nice? Scary, more like it." Val thought about it. "But it does come in handy sometimes. We never have to wait in line. Did you know she can threaten people in seven languages?"
"She's been married four times, although two of them were the same guy."
He nodded. "I know." He didn't know much about the other members of the team, but he knew every detail about Val's first meeting with Tasha, and when Tasha tried to teach her to shoot (Tasha was an excellent shot), and the first time that Tasha rescued her, and how annoying Tasha was, and that Tasha didn't really date anyone, and Tasha this, Tasha that.
"Tasha has no sense of humor," Val said. "Or romance. One time" The sound of breaking glass reached them, and Val glanced at the doorway. "Hm," she said, slipping off the bar stool and heading for the door. "It sounds like Tasha might need me."
Ned took a sip of his beer. "I think she probably does," he mused.
"VALLERY IRONS MUST DIE!" read the handwritten note pinched between the receptionist's index finger and thumb.
"Wow, they spelled your name right," Kay exclaimed.
Val snatched the letter away. "They did?"
"Prints, Val," Nikki reminded her, reaching out a gloved hand for the note.
Val peered at the sheet of paper. "Is this Tasha's handwriting?" she asked. "Lookjagged peaks on the Ls, suggesting a sociopathic personality. And there! Pointy Munresolved latent aggression."
"Oh, Val," Kay said with an indulgent smile, "Tasha wouldn't send you a note like that."
"Yeah," Nikki agreed. "She would have signed it."
"Come on now, Tasha's not that mad," Kay said. As she thought about it a moment, the secretary's smile faded. Opening one of her desk drawers, Kay pulled out a requisition form that Tasha had filled out the week before. She and Nikki studied it, comparing it to the death threat. "Nah," Kay finally concluded. "Only three points of similarity."
"Well, you never know," Val said. "She totally overreacted to that whole picnic thing."
"Val, you took the client into an open field surrounded by trees without telling Tasha where you were going," Nikki pointed out. "There were a dozen places to set up a sniper rifle."
"A dozen places to set one up, but only one actual sniper rifle, thank you," Val countered. "Tasha knocked him off his perch when she finally showed up."
"After crawling through poison ivy and climbing up to the highest branch, which then broke off, dropping her and the guy into a pile of cow pats," Nikki said.
"Whine, whine, whine. Sometimes the glass is half full, Miss Downer," Val said. "You know what Tasha needs? She needs to get" Suddenly, she seemed to sense a dark presence in the room.
"Needs to get what?" a deceptively calm voice asked from behind her.
"treated by the best poison ivy doctor in L.A," Val finished quickly. "At VIP's expense."
"It should have been at your expense," Tasha said.
Val pursed her lips. "Has anyone ever told you that frowning causes wrinkles?" she said.
"You have, Val," Kay said. At Tasha's glower, she slinked down behind her laptop.
"I'm heading down to the pier," Tasha said.
"Isn't that where all those men tried to, you know, molest you last month?" Kay asked. "It's not safe down there."
"Told you," Val announced to everyone in the room. "Latent aggression."
"It's not latent," Tasha said.
Val flicked the fingers of both hands toward the former KGB agent. "Go on," she said. "Go beat up bad guys. It just means that you have deep-seated hostility you need to get in touch with. I got an A in my UCLA extension course on Abnormal Psychology, in which, by the way, we spent the whole six weeks talking about personality disorders that you have. Oh, I know!" she said excitedly. "I can do regression therapy on you."
"I don't need regression therapy, Val," Tasha said. "I know where my deep-seated hostility comes from."
Val waited expectantly, but Tasha simply walked away without elaboration. "Does she mean one of her ex-husbands?" she asked.
Kay and Nikki exchanged glances. "Um, yeah, Val," Nikki said.
"Poor Tasha," Val said. "Traumatized by marrying the wrong person four times."
"Three," Kay said. "Remember, her first and third husbands were both . . . 'The Owl.'" She uttered the spy's name with reverence.
"And he was wrong for her both times," Val said. She looked around the work room, then plopped down on a table and began swinging her legs. "Are there any clients coming in?"
Kay shook her head.
"Did George Clooney call?"
"No, but Paris Hilton did."
"C list--block her number," Val ordered. "Hm . . . ." The agency's figurehead appeared bored. "Tasha's probably in trouble already. I think I'll go help her."
"Uh, Val . . .," Nikki said. "I don't think she'll be expecting that."
"Exactly!" Val headed for the door. "One of these days, Tasha Dexter will realize that there's no such thing as a pack of lone wolves. And then we'll see a kindler, gentler Tasha Dexter." She disappeared through the doorway.
"One of these days, Tasha will feed Val to a pack of lone wolves," Nikki said.
Reluctantly, Kay nodded.
The two men eyed each other, slowly circling as they waited for an opening.
"What's the delay?" Johnny taunted. "Waiting for me to fall asleep?"
"At your age, it shouldn't take long," Quick replied. Suddenly, he lunged forwardonly to back off at the ring of a cell phone coming from the pile of clothing tossed loosely beside the mat. "Guess I should get that," he said reluctantly.
"Yeah, buy yourself a few minutes," Johnny said.
With a warning glint, Quick reached for it. "Yeah," he answered.
"We have a Code Red in progress," Nikki shouted in his ear. "Repeat, Code Red in progress."
Quick tensed. "How long?" he asked.
"Six hours, maybe longer."
He shook his head in disbelief. "How did this happen?"
"No time," Nikki replied. "Just get your ass back to HQ PDQ!"
"We're on it." Hanging up, he said, "We've gotta get back to the office."
Johnny reached for his slacks. "What's up?" he asked.
"Tasha and Val have been alone together more than three hours."
"And not on assignment," Johnny finished. "How long?"
"At least six."
He hurried into his pants. "I just hope we're not too late."
Across town, one woman reclined on a couch while another sat at a nearby table.
"How about this one?" Val held the page against Tasha's skin, then cringed. "Nevermind. I forgot what pastels do to you."
"And you forgot what I'm going to do to you if you don't leave me alone," Tasha warned without looking up from her task.
Val continued leafing through her fashion magazine. "What about this one?" she asked.
There was no reply.
"What do you think, Tash?"
"Look, I'm not going to that stupid party, so I don't need a stupid dress from your stupid catalog," Tasha exploded.
"It won't be from the catalog," Val said. "Hello, the party is tomorrow. We just need to find a good style for you, and then go buy it."
"Why don't you go play with Kay?"
"Kay's not here," Val replied.
Tasha's head shot up. "What?"
"How can someone be in the CIA and the KGB and MI-5 and be so oblivious?" Val gasped. "Ohmigoshthat's why they kicked you out!"
"They did not kick me out!"
"Aha! So you were in all those places," Val said triumphantly.
Tasha frowned. "Maybe."
Val studied the fingernails on her left hand. "Kay was totally disgusting," she said. "All that sneezing and dripping andew." She waved both hands in front of her face. "I sent her home."
"So who's answering the phones?"
"I recorded a message," Val said.
"Wanna hear it?"
Tasha closed her eyes. "Why do I do this?" she muttered. "Why?" Finally, she said, "OK, Val, let's hear your message."
Three minutes of fiddling with buttons later, Val clapped her hands excitedly when her voice rang out. "I should call my mother and have her listen," she said. Her nosed crinkled. "But then she'd probably want to talk to you. I can't believe you're her favorite." A thought struck her. "Maybe her right brain was grazed by a stray bullet while she was here! She should have that checked."
Tasha ignored her, concentrating on the message instead.
"You have reached Vallery Irons Protection," it said. "We're out doing bodyguard things right now, so leave a message. But please don't rattle off your number like one of those auctioneers on speed because Kay doesn't know shorthand and that is so annoying anyway. For Vallery Irons (me!), press 1. For employees, press 2. Have a solids-not-stripes day."
"'Employees?'" Tasha repeated. "We have separate lines, you know."
"Clutter," Val declared. "Don't you hate longwinded messages? Sometimes it's like a talking book. 'This is so and so, I'll be at the café til noon and then the acupuncturist til one and then marriage counseling til two or three.' You practically expect them to blab on about what's wrong with their marriage, like sexual incompatibility, although I guess it's usually money, which is"
"Val!" Tasha took a deep breath. "Next time, just use the standard message that Kay recorded. OK?" She walked back over to the table where she was buffing the highly illegal ammunition that she used in her modified Glock.
"Bo-ring!" Val cried. "Oh!" She held up another ad. "This might work. Do you have a padded bra?"
A twelfth shiny bullet joined the meticulous line on the table.
"Tasha," Val said, trying to get her attention for the necessary decision-making. When no reply came, she picked up one of the tiny metal objects.
"Put it back."
She swiped another bullet.
"Val," Tasha warned.
"Are you going to put those back?" Tasha asked.
"Are you going to pick out a dress?"
Unfolding her long legs, the brunette rose to her full height. "Val, I'm giving you one chance."
Defiantly, Val shoved the bullets deep into her cleavage.
In the parking garage nine floors below them, three bodyguards hurried toward the elevator. When the door finally opened, they raced down the corridor and burst through the VIP office doors.
"Val?" Nikki called out.
There was no answer.
"Do you think she killed her and went on the run?" Nikki asked worriedly.
"Nah," Quick said, "Tasha would never go on the run." He cocked an ear. "What was that?"
"It's coming from over there," Johnny said. The three of them began inching their way over. On a count of the three, they rushed around the couch.
"Freeze, scuz" Nikki halted, gun drawn, at the sight of Tasha Dexter lying on top of their so-called boss. One hand was clasping Val's wrists above her head, while the other was buried inside the blonde's skimpy wraparound blouse. Val's thighs squeezed against Tasha's waist. "Whoa."
Quick stepped closer. "Ditto."
"Give it up, Val," Tasha ground out through clenched teeth.
The wrestling continued until Nikki muttered, "Geez, get a room already."
"What?" both women said simultaneously. Realizing the picture they presented, Tasha sprang to her feet.
"Ga-ross!" Val exclaimed. "Like I would ever!"
"For once you've said something sensible," Tasha agreed. She shuddered. "I'm going to go reminisce about my six months in the Siberian gulag or something."
Tasha rolled her eyes. "Val, you've never been in a Siberian gulag."
"Well, I was at the Nordstrom's half-year sale once when they didn't have enough salespeople," Val countered.
Shaking her head, Tasha picked up her car keys and headed outside.
When the doorbell at her apartment rang the next evening, Tasha instinctively reached for her gun. Nobody ever came here.
She knelt to peer through a hidden peephole that gave her a clear view of her visitor. Rising again, she unlocked the door and jerked it open. "Val?" she said. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm glad to see you, too," the blonde replied. She held out a bottle of wine.
"I thought you were going to Shannon Doherty's party."
"I was, until I remembered some important information."
Tasha's eyes narrowed. "What?"
"Today is your birthday. Your real birthday."
The ex-spy was shocked. "How could you know that?" she asked.
"Ted," she announced triumphantly.
"Ted, my dentist ex-husband?"
"The same." Val nudged Tasha aside and strolled into the apartment, heading for the small kitchen off the living room. Rooting around in some cabinets yielded a couple of wine glasses. "I called him a while back," she said. "Since he was your only 'real' husband, I figured he was the only one you probably told your real birthday to. He still holds a candle for you, you know."
"I blew it out years ago."
"I think we both know he isn't the one for you," Val said, circling the rim of a glass with her finger while Tasha watched. "And why."
What was that supposed to mean? Fear of the answer kept Tasha from asking.
The wine was very good. Either Val's tastes had improved (doubtful), or she had sacrificed her usual choice of aperitif for one that she knew that Tasha would like. That didn't seem likely, either, but every once in a while Val surprised her.
"So, what does the great Tasha Dexter do to relax?" Val asked.
It must be the wine, Tasha decided; Val's tone sounded almost . . . seductive. She watched as the blonde trailed two fingers down the length of a decorative sword hanging on her wall. Damn.
"Nothing that you'd be interested in," she replied truthfully.
"It's your birthday, so we can do whatever you want."
"OK," Tasha challenged her. "I was going to watch a documentary on D-Day."
Val shrugged. "Fine by me."
"This is Tasha's Night," Val said. "A little wine, a little mass death . . . ."
Tasha was surprised. "I am not going to Bloomingdale's and aromatherapy on your birthday," she warned.
"Don't be so cynical," Val replied. "I just thought we could call a truce for one night."
A truce? "OK," Tasha finally said. Another thought occurred to her. "We don't tell anyone, though."
To her surprise, Val actually seemed to pay attention to the documentary. Instead, it was Tasha who was having trouble concentrating. This wine had really gone to her head. Sitting this close to Val why were they sitting this close? she found herself feeling . . . .
Nothis was ridiculous. Tasha had had her share of beautiful women, but this wasn't a beautiful woman, this was Val. The only feelings she had for Val were of restrained violent urges.
"You're so tense." The voice was soothing in her ear. "Come here."
She was helpless to resist. Following the direction of Val's hands, she lay on the floor. Val's hands gripped, then released, her shoulders . . . then her back . . . then slipped under her shirt. "Ohhh . . .," Tasha groaned.
"That feels good, doesn't it?"
"I can make you feel so good, Tasha."
"Yes." Tasha let herself be tugged gently off the floor and toward the bedroom. "This doesn't change anything," she thought to murmur as they slipped between the sheets.
"Oh, I think it does . . . ."
Tasha took a deep breath, then let it out slowly.
What a night.
What a mistake.
Val . . .
She started to roll over, but her left arm wouldn't move. What the hell? She was handcuffed to the headboard.
"What the fuck?" she exclaimed. She yanked hard at the cuffs. "Val!" Another realization hit her: Sunlight was streaming through the window. She reached for the clock with her free hand. 9 o'clock? Fuck! "Val!" she yelled again. Then she noticed the square sheet of paper on the pillow beside her. She snatched it up.
My dear Tasha,
I told you I had something special for you. Keep the wine, it's my own unique blend. Don't worry about sharing with your VIP palsthey'll all be dead soon.
P.S. Irons doesn't know what she's missing. Don't worry, thoughI'll be sure and let her know.
Joan ArcherVal's evil double!
Something special for her? Tasha reached back in her memory to a telephone call that she and Kay had assumed was from Val. "I've got something very special planned for you, Tasha Dexter."
Nausea flowed through her. She should have known that Val would never
Shaking her head to clear that thought, Tasha jerked angrily at the handcuffs, even though she knew it would do no good. She needed something to pick the lock. With one forceful motion, she smashed the alarm clock against the wall, sifting through the guts. Nothing. And nothing else within reach of the bed.
Her disgust changed to panic. VIP was helping the LAPD with security at an outdoor concert that had received a number of threats that the Department considered very real. Her unsuspecting co-workers would be on site already, screening the crowd for assassins. They would pay no attention to their beautiful blonde figurehead walking casually up to them . . . .
Stifling a scream, Tasha grabbed her thumb and bent it until she felt a snap.
It sounded like World War III when she arrived at the park. Spying Nikki crouched behind some oversized trash cans that had been set up for the concert, Tasha raced over to her.
"Nice of you to show up," Nikki grumbled.
"Later," Tasha replied. She had tried to call her colleagues from a payphone (Archer having done who knew what with her phones, including her cell), but now she understood why they weren't answering.
Nikki stepped out from the protected area and pulled the pin on a small hand grenade. "Joan Archer's here," she said. She launched the grenade at a trio of masked men on the ground, who quickly scattered, dropping their guns. As the dust and debris settled, a squad of LAPD officers swarmed them.
Shots rang out, and the cops ducked back into an abandoned concession stand, dragging the men with them.
Tasha scanned the area, trying to figure out where the latest shots were coming from. "Where is she?" she asked. Blown to smithereens by one of Nikki's toys, she hoped.
No such luck. "Grispy's got her," Nikki said. "If Val hadn't fallen off the bleachers and landed on her, Johnny would have been history."
There they were. Positioning the Glock in her left hand, Tasha fired twice toward the top of the stage, once at a man taking aim at Johnny, and another at a second sniper beside him.
The park was suddenly quiet.
"Nice shooting," Nikki congratulated her. "Where the hell were you, anyway?"
How could she answer that? While Tasha struggled with a response, she saw Vallery Irons striding haughtily over to a police car, handcuffed to which was a woman who looked exactly like her. Archer listened blithely to Val's lecture, but when she noticed that they were being watched, she smiled at Tasha and leaned in to whisper something in the other blonde's ear.
Val's jaw dropped in disbelief, and she quickly looked around. "Tasha Dexter, how could you?" she yelled when at last she spied the co-worker in question.
Tasha spun around and walked off without a word. It was just as she feared. Her reputation would be shot. Even if they managed to keep her horrible blunder in house, her colleagues at VIP would never trust her again. Fooled not twice by Joan Archer, but three times, and in the most intimate of settings.
Her relationship friendship, whatever with Val was also down the tubes. Tasha had made love with another woman believing that it was Vallery Irons. She didn't have those feelings for Val. She really didn't. It was the spiked wine, nothing more. But would Val believe her?
She might pretend that she did, but Tasha was no idiot. Without saying anything, Val would simply choose not to cuddle up against her for protection the next time they slept outside on a job. She wouldn't hand suntan lotion to Tasha and unfasten her bikini top the next time they were at the beach. She wouldn't undress around Tasha during her hourly wardrobe changes any more. She wouldn't book them in the same room on their overnight stays to save money. She wouldn't lay her head on Tasha's lap just to annoy her while they watched surveillance film on the couch (or, more accurately, while Tasha watched surveillance film and Val leafed through Modern Shoe). Instead, Val would pity her, or feel awkward around her, or both.
Over by a white van with a giant TB stenciled in blue on the side, Tasha found the man she was looking for.
"Well, if it ain't Hot-sha Dexter," Ty Bolander said, soaking in her body as he always did. He liked the tall ones, he'd told her more than once. "Wanna go celebrate our job well done?"
"VIP's job well done," she corrected him. "I didn't see you anywhere near a bullet."
"I was working behind the scenes."
"So I noticed." Tasha hesitated, but remembering the shocked look on Val's face drove her on. "Listen, I'm heading east," she said. "You got any openings?"
Bolander lit up as though he'd just hit the lottery. "Are you kidding?" he said. "For you, there's always an opening." He undressed her again with his eyes.
"I'm only interested in the job," she made clear.
"Fine; we'll go from there," he said. "When can you start?"
His eyes widened. Three days from now?
"I don't have much to pack," Tasha said. She needed to get the hell out of Dodge before Val spread the word all over Foam and back that she'd slept with Joan Archer, and that she did so because she thought it was Val. Tasha didn't know which was more humiliating.
"Taaaa-sha!" It was Val, searching for her among the crowd.
As if she weren't miserable enough. Tasha quickly dipped beneath the tent flap of a portable Medivac unit.
"Can I help you?" the attending nurse asked.
Holding out her hand, Tasha said, "Yeah. I fucked up."
The soft-hearted receptionist tried to stop sniffling, but she couldn't. "I can't believe she would do this," she said for the fifth time.
"Believe it already," Nikki grumbled. "She bailed on us."
At that moment, Detective Grispy from the LAPD wandered into the office. "Is Tasha here?" he asked.
Kay ran from the room sobbing.
"What's with her?" the detective asked.
Nikki started to offer a tart reply, but Johnny cut her off. "Tasha's not here," he said sadly.
"Well, I guess I'm not surprised, with her hand like that."
Quick looked up from cleaning his gun. "Like what?"
"A Department nurse set three broken bones at the scene," Grispy said. "Must have hurt like hell."
"How'd that happen?" Quick asked.
No one seemed to know. "News to me," Nikki said.
Val's arrival a moment later was loud and determined. "OK, Tasha Dexter," she called out. "You have some explaining to do."
The bodyguards glanced at each other. Uh oh.
"I had very little notice, thank you very much," Val yelled again. She dropped a couple of shopping bags on Kay's desk. "Tasha's birthday was last week!" she announced indignantly to the others. "Can you believe she told Evil Me that and not Real Me? The nerve! Anyway, I owe Chuck Norris a favor now, but I managed to wangle her the perfect gift." She waved a flowered envelope in the air. "Three days at the Recluse Inn Spa!"
"I'll have to go with her to hide her guns, but she'll love it," she added.
"Val," Quick said. "You don't know?"
"Know what?" The blonde blew a stray strand of hair out of her eyes.
Nikki jumped to her feet. "I'll be shooting something," she said, ducking into the soundproofed test range and slamming the door behind her.
"Val," Quick began. "Tasha . . . ." The expectant look on her face was his undoing.
"Tasha what?" she said. "Tasha has a stick up her butt? I don't think CNN will be breaking in with that news."
Johnny rose and walked over to her. "Tasha quit," he said gently. "She works for Ty Bolander now in Connecticut."
"Ha ha," Val said dismissively. "You'll have to do better than that to save her sorry butt for blowing off my calls all weekend. How did she know it wasn't a big, important job, huh? Like guarding the president well, the last president, anyway or the Mona Lisa. You know what the difference is between the Mona Lisa and Tasha Dexter? At least the Mona Lisa tried to smile." She enjoyed her own joke, but then pondered her subject more. "I wonder if the Mona Lisa had horrible teeth or something," she said. "Unless you think it was really a self portrait of Leonardo da Vinci like they say, which would be just a liiittle freaky"
"Val," Johnny interrupted. He handed her the e-mail that Kay had printed out earlier that morning.
"Is this about the Mona Lisa?" Val looked down at the text. "'To VIP," she read. "Subject: Resigna." She dropped down to the couch and read the rest of it. "So. Typical." She rolled her eyes. "Tasha's jokes are never funny."
None of the men said anything.
"It is a joke," Val insisted. "There is no way Tasha would go to work for Ty Bolander."
"During the last bodyguard competition, you said they were flirting with each other," Quick pointed out.
"Oh, please. I only said that to annoy Tasha. She's so easy."
"Kay called Bolander's agency this morning," Johnny said. "They confirmed that Tasha works there. She was out doing a security check for one of their clients."
The room was suddenly too quiet. "She left us?" Val finally said.
The others nodded.
"How could she do that?"
There was no answer.
Tasha crossed her legs on the arm of the loveseat. "What's with the weekend call?" she asked.
"Like you were doing anything anyway," Bolander retorted. "We have ourselves a business opportunity here, people. I just heard through the grapevine that Vallery Irons took a bullet this morning."
"What?" Tasha exclaimed.
Bolander seemed a little too pleased with the news. "This presents a golden opportunity to pick off some of her clients," he said.
"Is she all right?"
"I think you're missing the point here, Tasha," Bolander said. "With your ex-boss out of the picture, VIP is going to be MIA. In fact, this would be a good time for you to reconsider coughing up VIP's client list."
The movement was so quick that none of their coworkers saw it coming. One moment the brunette appeared to be listening calmly to Bolander, and the next she had her hand clamped around his throat as he struggled to breathe. "Is. She. All. Right?" she said two inches from his face.
"I don't know," he gurgled.
She released her grip and sent him tumbling into the reception desk with a mindless shove, then reached for her cell phone.
"That was over the line, Dexter," he said, rubbing his throat.
He wouldn't. In just three months, Tasha had built up Bolander's clientele by nearly twenty percent. She could bolt and start a competing agency in a heartbeat. Hesitating for an instant, she took the plunge and pressed the code for Nikki's cell phone.
On the fourth ring, a female voice answered. "Yo."
"Nikki? It's Tasha."
"I don't know any Tashas."
Guess she didn't need to wonder if her colleagues were still angry. "How's Val?" she asked.
"What do you care?"
"Can the attitude, Nik. How is she?"
"Why don't you ask her yourself?" Nikki asked. "Oh, waitthat would require talking to her, instead of sneaking out in the middle of the night."
"It wasn't the middle of the night," she couldn't stop herself from saying.
Tasha turned away so that Bolander wouldn't hear what she said next. "Nikki, please."
A sigh reached her ears as the other woman relented. "It was just a flesh wound," she said. "We're taking her home in a few minutes."
"What the hell happened?"
"That's VIP business," Nikki said. "You lost the right to ask that question three months ago."
Another voice came on the line. "Tash?"
The hopeful tone of her oldest friend tweaked at her. "Quick," she said, happy to hear his voice.
"You callin' about Val?"
"I was just curious," she said. "What happened?"
"We were pinned down in the garment district," he told her. "Val was with the client behind a row of cars in the parking lot, but then she spotted a purse in a store window that she's been looking for"
"'Forever,'" Tasha predicted.
"Yeah," he laughed. "She sees a customer eying it, so she runs out from behind the car into the store."
"And?" So far, nothing out of the usual. The bad guys would be confused by Val's infuriating recklessness, and VIP would take them out while they were still gawking.
"And your replacement wasn't expecting it," he said.
"Wasn't expecting it?" Tasha repeated. "Val always does that."
"We told him to be ready for anything, but he couldn't believe Val would sacrifice herself to draw fire away from a client like that."
'Sacrifice herself?' Tasha took another few steps away and lowered her voice. "He doesn't know?"
"We've been through three replacements since you left," he said. "We wouldn't keep it under wraps for long if we told them up front."
"Oohis that Relic?" a familiar voice called out in the background. "Tell him to add another case of beer for the 'Val Plugged' party. Kenny Rogers is coming."
For the first time since she was 14 years old, Tasha Dexter panicked. She flipped the phone shut.
She would have just enough time to stop by her apartment before heading for the private air strip, Tasha calculated. Yet another cushy assignment awaited her, this time serving as the personal bodyguard to a millionaire couple on their pleasure cruise in Alaska.
These outings were ridiculously lucrative. People were willing to pay even bigger bucks to feel secure on vacation than in their homes. And it was easy duty. So far, the only excitement she'd had in Cozumel, or Park City, or Miami was an attempted purse-snatching of Mrs. Crenshaw, foiled easily by the tall woman in sunglasses strolling beside her. Tasha hadn't shot anyone for months.
Unlike her prior job, she was no longer operating under someone else's shadow. In only six months, she had established a reputation among New England's elite, many of whom now called her directly. With a relatively unknown (and distinctly uncharismatic) boss, it was easier to make a name for herself. Not like Vallery Irons Protection. Airheaded, unqualified Vallery Irons, who had over the past five years become nearly as big a celebrity as those her agency protected.
Against her better judgment, she could not help pausing when random channel surfing brought her Val's face on CNN or E! Disgusted with herself, a few weeks ago Tasha had traded assignments with a newbie eager to get in her good graces just so that she could be home to watch Val's second appearance on the Tonight Show. Val was, as always, charming, in that ditzy way of hers.
Until the interview took an unexpected turn. "I understand you're still looking to replace Tasha Dexter, your lead associate," Leno said. He pointed at his long-suffering musical director. "Kevin here is thinking about applying. What do you thinkhas he got what it takes?" The audience cheered.
Val lost her smile for a moment, but quickly recovered. "Well, he's certainly rugged enough," she said saucily. "See me after the show, Kevin."
As the studio audience hooted, Leno looked shocked. "Get the defibrillator! No woman has ever said that to him before."
The camera flashed over to the guitarist, who chuckled at his boss's teasing.
"Seriously, though," Leno went on. "What's the process for replacing a member of an elite team of bodyguards? No offense, Val, but it's been almost six months; shouldn't that be on your To Do list?"
Val shifted in her seat. "Yes, well, Tasha was sort of irreplaceable," she said.
"What's she up to these days?" Leno asked. "She was really . . . mmm" he made a gesture of curves with his hands "qualified." The audience laughed. "Do you ever see her?"
"Hmm." The talk show host turned to the camera. "Do I detect a little Paris Hilton--Nicole Ritchie thing here?"
"No," Val said. "Tasha is an excellent bodyguard, and I wish her the best. If you live east of the Mississippi, I highly recommend her." In spite of the words, she was clearly uncomfortable with the line of questioning.
Leno caught the hint, and moved on to her upcoming PETA fundraiser. She smiled through her answers, but to someone who knew Vallery Irons's face as well as Tasha did, her normal exuberance did not return.
That publicity hadn't hurt business any, and now Tasha could hand off to her co-workers clients whose annual income was less than seven digits. She also had several standing offers to back her own agency. Yeah, life was good for Tasha Dexter these days. On paper. The fact that she was bored out of her skull was just the price of success. Just life. Better that than having Vallery Irons driving her insane, or worse, pitying her.
Grabbing at her keys, she strode toward the door. "Tasha," the receptionist called after her. "There's a Mr. Ferris for you."
She was about to wave it off when the name hit her. Ferrousiron. "Transfer it to my cell," she directed.
"Hello, Tasha," the man's voice said.
"Hello, Ned," she said. "I'd ask how you're doing, but then you'd have to kill me."
He didn't laugh. "This isn't exactly an official use of this scrambled line, so I've gotta make it fast," he said. "Val's in trouble."
Tasha's heart fluttered. "What kind of trouble?"
"We've been monitoring communications from an arms dealer stationed off the coast," he said.
He was telling her more than a trained CIA agent normally would, Tasha recognized, underscoring the gravity of his concern.
"We intercepted some unrelated transmissions last night that were coded as immaterial."
Probably because they didn't involve the specified target or enough guns in the order, Tasha deduced. Which meant the Agency would not be investigating them, and, in most instances, wouldn't inform the subject, either. Irons was taking a big risk with this call.
"Last year, you broke up a plot by the Red Cell," he said.
She remembered. "They wanted to make a name for themselves." VIP had prevented the bombing and Tasha had killed the ringleader and his top man in a shootout, but most of their underlings had scattered.
"They still do," Irons said. "And they want revenge. They think going after Vallery will accomplish both. They bought a crate of semi-automatics."
"Why Val? She didn't" The words were no sooner out than Tasha remembered the front-page headline: 'Vallery Irons saves City from terrorist plot,' complete with photograph of the beautiful blonde standing beside the dead men with Tasha's Glock dangling from her fingers. (The photographer hadn't been there five minutes earlier when Tasha thrust the gun at a reluctant Val, insisting that she hold it while Tasha checked a transmitter.) "Damn."
"Yeah," he said. "They're on their way to Vancouver. Val's up there visiting her mother."
"Did you call VIP?" she asked. "They can get to her faster than I can."
"They're in Central America."
"My guess? It's not coincidental."
That was a sobering thought. An operation sufficiently well planned to get Val's backup out of the country was serious.
"She needs you, Tasha."
For four years of her life, Tasha's job had been to be there when Val needed her. She could not imagine doing anything else. "I'm on it," she said.
"Thank you." Irons hung up.
Tasha hurried over to Lee Herrington's office. "Want to go to Alaska?"
The other agent looked up at her. "The Musselmans?"
"I don't know if they'll like that," Herrington said. "They asked for you."
"Make them like it. I've gotta be somewhere."
With the bag she had packed that morning for the Musselman assignment, Tasha drove straight to the airport, and within three hours, she was westbound in the sky above the Great Lakes.
She would have to talk to Val, to explain the threat and to get her to safety until VIP could take over. That plan went up in smoke, though, the moment Tasha stepped off the plane to see a group of travelers crowded around two televisions near the baggage claim. On both screens was live coverage of a downtown office building surrounded by police at that very moment, the announcers said.
Slipping the taxi coordinator a hundred to move her up the line, she tossed her bags into the first cab that pulled up to the curb. Emerging fifteen minutes later just outside a ring of police, she hurried over to the first person with the demeanor of someone in charge. "Tasha Dexter," she introduced herself, noting the 'Capt. Howard' below his badge, "lead associate at Vallery Irons Protection. What have you got, Captain?"
"Couple dozen hostages, including your boss and her mother," he replied. "We assume Vallery Irons is the target."
"We've got the place surrounded," the captain said. "We're just waiting for a signal from your boss."
"With anyone else, I would have sent my men in already, but I don't want to get in the middle of whatever Miss Irons is planning."
Whatever Val was planning? Oh, God.
"If they haven't moved, Irons is on 12. Heat sensors indicate four or five terrorists; hardly worth the effort for the world's greatest bodyguard, huh?" he said.
Great; he would be asking for Val's autograph next.
The police captain held up a piece of paper. "Do you think she'd sign this?"
Tasha eyed the document. A building schematic . . . . "Sure," she said, yanking it from his grasp. "I'll see to it myself."
It took the ex-KGB agent only a few minutes to find a way into the building unobserved and then tiptoe up an internal stairwell until she reached the twelfth floor. Pressing an ear against the door, she waited until she was reasonably sure that no one was on the other side. According to the diagram, this door opened up into a hallway between the break room and the women's restroom.
Tasha crept along the carpeted floor, peeking carefully into each open space she encountered until she finally reached a large conference room full of office workers seated on the floor along the walls. From the far corner, Tasha met the startled gaze of Vallery's mother. She gave Carol a reassuring wave, but then continued her reconnaissance.
Two men were patrolling the room with semi-automatics in hand. Unfortunately, at least one of them was in the midst of innocent hostages at all times. This would require a little coordination.
"Where have you taken my daughter?" Carol Irons suddenly exclaimed.
That confirmed what Tasha had already noticed; Val wasn't with the others.
The reply came quickly. "Shut up."
"I will not shut up until you tell me what you've done with her."
"Wait a few minutes and you'll see for yourself," the second gunman replied.
"See for myself?" Carol asked. "What does that mean?"
What did that mean?
With an unattractive smirk, the terrorist gestured toward the window.
The roof! Oh, my God.
Tasha signaled to Carol to keep talking.
"Now that you've got her, why don't you let the rest of us go?" the elder Irons said. "Do you think it's easy sitting here with your hands tied? The wrinkles will never come out of this skirt."
"Shut up," one of the men ordered her again.
"It took all of you with guns just to handle one small blonde," she continued. "Aren't you worried about your two friends all alone up there with the beautiful and lethal Vallery Irons?"
From behind him, a voice said, "You should be."
A series of muffled shots followed, and both men slumped to the ground. A young woman nearby began to scream, but Carol clamped a hand across her mouth. "Not now, dear," she said.
Tasha shoved her weapon back into her belt. Time to find Val.
"Tasha Dexter," Carol said, struggling to get up without the use of her hands, "you have some explaining to do."
"It's an offshoot of the Red Cell," Tasha replied. "We took out their leaders last year, but some of them are still around."
"Red cell, white cell, whatever. I'm talking about running off to Rhode Island"
"or wherever, leaving my daughter in a state."
"Uh . . . ." Tasha really did not want to talk about this. "I need to get up there."
"Fine. Let's let them do their bodyguard things," Carol directed her co-workers. To Tasha, she said, "We will talk about this, Missy. You broke my little girl's heart."
There was no time to correct the woman's assumptions. Tasha could only think of a few reasons why the kidnappers would take Val up to the roof, and none of them were good.
The entrance from the twelfth floor to the east stairwell was locked, a good secure bolt that was beyond the limited equipment that Tasha had with her. She glanced toward the elevator. It probably stopped one floor below roof level. If it didn't, she'd have a dozen bullets in her the moment the door opened. Se la vie. She didn't have a choice.
When she pushed the elevator button, though, nothing happened. She jabbed at it again. Disabled.
Val is on the roof. They were going to kill Val, and they wanted the entire world to see it. She had to get up there.
Tasha walked over to the window and pressed her hand against it, then reached for her bag.
In Los Angeles, a distressed receptionist watched in horror as her boss her friend was dragged across the roof of an office tower by two men. Kay activated the lip-reading program on her computer to 'hear' what was happening.
"Get going," one of the ruffians said. "Or we send word down to pop your mother."
Kay gasped. That was so rude.
"What if your mother's watching this?" Val replied. "Huh?" She reached out and yanked the ski mask from his head, then yelled into the air, "Hey, Evil Terrorist's Momlook what your son's doing!"
"Give me that!" he shouted, grabbing the mask from her.
The man's partner pointed a handgun at Val's head. "Enough!" he said. "Time to make an impact." He gestured impatiently toward the edge of the roof.
Val sighed. "Fine," she said. "Hmm." She chewed on her lip, as if she were mulling something over.
"Get over there!" Thug No. 2 ordered.
"I'm just thinking of my last words," she said. "You know, like 'Rosebud,' or 'Tis a far, far better thing that I do now than I did last Sunday.' Oohcan I have a sundae as my last meal?"
"Get your ass over there!" he repeated.
Indignantly, she pressed her fists into her waist. "OK, Mr. Foul Mouth, I will, if you guys want to go down in history as the guys who wouldn't let Vallery Irons give a goodbye speech."
The two men glanced at each other. "Well, hurry it up," one finally said.
"Okay . . . ," Val mused. "How about . . . um . . . ."
"Quit stalling!" he grumbled.
"It's not that easy," she replied. "You try it!"
Five stories below, a woman in a black tank top stepped through a square of cut glass and, after one last test of her safety line, began a slow climb up the side of the building. As news cameras zoomed in on the unexpected development, Kay clapped her hands. Tasha!
Back on the roof, one of the terrorists turned to his partner. "Hey," he said, "why don't we make it up?"
"What?" Val asked.
"No one'll know what she said. We can just make it up."
Val was appalled. "That. Is. So. Tacky!"
"But efficient," Thug 2 decided. "Your last words just became 'I knew I could never defeat the Red Cell.'"
As Val struggled, they each grabbed an arm and dragged her to the edge.
"Wait, wait, wait!" she urged them. "We haven't talked about movie rights!"
"Tell you what," Thug 1 said. "We'll talk; you scream."
With a final shove, they propelled her up and over.
At Val's yelp of surprise, Tasha's head jerked up. No! Doing some fast calculations, she planted both feet against the side of the building, bent her knees, and launched herself into the air. Just as she reached the end of the tether, she reached out desperately and grabbed hold of Val as she fell past. The impact jerked Tasha's shoulder out of its socket, but she held on even as Val instinctively began struggling.
"Keep still," Tasha grunted. She turned them so that her body was behind Val's and tightened her grip. They were about to "Ow!" She slammed, back first, through the glass pane of an office window, then dropped onto the glass-covered floor. From the pain shooting up her back, one rib, maybe two, were broken. Not bad.
As she stood to begin unhooking the rope from her waist, Val threw her arms around her. "Tasha!" she exclaimed.
With her own arms down at her sides, Tasha waited for Val to pull back, but the hug continued. Finally, Val rested her head against the taller woman's shoulder.
"I knew you'd come back some day."
Distant noises caught Tasha's ear. "We've got to get out of here," she said, but Val still clung to her. "Val, let's go," she tried again.
"Why'd you leave?"
Typical Valignoring imminent danger to ask irrelevant questions.
"I've missed you," Val said. She slid her arms around Tasha's neck and pressed her face against her throat.
The door burst open, and Val's two captors ran into the room with guns drawn. Shoving Val behind her, Tasha aimed and pulled the trigger twice. The men crumpled to the floor.
"Goodnow we can talk," Val said.
"Your mother will be worried," Tasha said, fumbling for an excuse to get out of there.
"Oh, no, you don't, Tasha Dexter." Val stepped over the ex-terrorists and planted herself in the doorway.
Tasha was not having this conversation. She walked toward the doorway until the two women were only inches apart, but Val did not move.
"I know you love me."
Oh, shit. "Joan Archer told you."
"Joan Archer?" The confused blonde thought back to her last conversation with EvilHer. "She didn't tell me anything. Well, except the usual: 'I'm gonna kill you,' 'You're gonna die slowly,' blah blah blah. Oh, and that I should ask you about the birthday present she gave you. I can't believe you told her your real birthday but not me, Miss Never Tell Anyone Anything."
That was it?
Val gasped at a sudden realization. "Did you tell EvilMe that you love me? I knew it!"
"Why would I do that?" Tasha dodged the question.
"Because you do," Val replied. "Because even though you pretend that we don't get along, and, OK, actually we don't always get along, but deep down you know we were meant to be together. If it weren't for me, you'd be" She searched for words. "Like you are. Only more so."
The scary thing, Tasha realized, is that she knew exactly what Val meantand that it was true. She had opened up a little since meeting Val. She had friends now. She had . . . fun.
"And if it weren't for you, I'd be . . .," Val tossed up her hands. "Dead! See how it works?"
Yes, she did. But that didn't change who Tasha Dexter was, who she had spent her life being. As she thought through how to respond, dozens of rifle-toting military men charged down the hall, surrounding the women.
"Eek!" Val exclaimed. She threw her hands straight into the air.
Standing beside them, Captain Howard raised his helmet. "Funny, Miss Irons," he chuckled. "You get 'em all?"
Vallery blinked. "Uh . . . ."
"She did," Tasha confirmed.
"Nice move out there with the rope," the captain complimented her.
"Yeah, well, I learned from the best."
As admiring commandos gathered around the world's greatest bodyguard, Tasha merged into the crowd, wandering down the stairs and outside the building.
From behind her, Tasha heard a familiar shout. "Tasha!"
With pretty good speed for someone wearing four-inch heels, Val ran past the fountain in front of the building and launched herself into Tasha's arms.
"I thought you left again!" She leaned into her. "Don't leave us again." She looked up at Tasha. "Don't leave me again."
The two women stared at each other.
"Haven't you missed me at all?" Val asked sadly.
Watching on VIP's wide screen television, the receptionist dropped her tissue in shock as her former co-worker leaned down and kissed her boss. "Oh, my!" Kay's eyes widened as the contact deepened. "Oh, my . . . ."
"Where is Val?"
The ex-spy's question, uttered unexpectedly from just over her shoulder, startled Kay. "I wish you wouldn't do that," she said for the hundredth time.
"Has she called in yet?"
"She's probably still gathering secret intel on the Senator's known enemies." Kay glanced down at her computer screen. "Or . . . maybe at the fur protest," she finished meekly.
Tasha peered down at newscast footage in which a beautiful blonde in a form-fitting "Meat is Dead" shirt spoke passionately into a megaphone. Tasha knew that t-shirt well. It strained against and barely covered her breasts as she incited her fellow vegetarians.
She was still wearing it when she hurried into the office an hour later. "What a great crowd!" she said. "Did you see it?"
Aggravated, Tasha replied, "Val, I'm glad you convinced some people to quit wearing leather shoes, but what about that little matter of death threats to our client?"
"Oh, those?" Val said. "They're from Ken Waddell, or Weddle, or whatever. The senator's ex-aide. Here; she wrote it down."
"Tara, Ken's ex-girlfriend," Val said. "You told me to interview her, so we went down to the 'I'd Rather Go Naked' protest together."
As Tasha stared at her, Kay spoke up. "Is this going to be one of those yelling times?" she asked. "Or one of those . . . . other . . . . times . . . ." Tasha was taking a rather long time to read the words "Meat" and "Dead," she noticed.
"So now we can go out tonight," Val said. She ran a hand down Tasha's blouse. "Or not . . . ."
Tasha reached out and pulled the blonde to her.
Kay cringed. "Um, guys? Remember, you agreed not to do . . . that . . . around the rest of us. You know . . . ick?"
Tasha turned toward the desk. "Congratulations," she said, slamming shut the lid on Kay's laptop. "You're employee of the month. You get the afternoon off."
"We don't have employees of the month."
"We do now."
"But I'm right in the middle of month-end reports," Kay protested. "I can't just
Tasha lifted Val up into her arms and carried her over to the couch.
"Oh." Grabbing her purse, Kay scurried toward the door, locking it behind her.
Lying on top of Val, Tasha eased the t-shirt up and lowered her mouth hungrily to her lover's breasts. "You really need to tell me when you change your plans," she murmured. "I need to know where you are."
Val whimpered. "I didn't intend to go to the rally," she said. "She already had her fake blood out when I got there."
"Why the shirt, then?"
"Because you like me in it."
"You" Val gasped as Tasha nipped her. "stare at my breasts."
Lately it was hard not to. Tasha cupped Val's warmth through tight lavender shorts, then unzipped them. "You know what I want to see now," she said.
Val reached down and drew off her shorts, watching as brown eyes moved down her body. Tasha licked her lips, but Val reached for her hand and slid it between her thighs. "I want your mouth here," she said, leaning up for a heated kiss.
The motions of Tasha's tongue matched those of her fingers, and soon the blonde was arching into her, her scream caught in Tasha's throat.
When she had her breath back, Val moved off the couch and knelt on the floor, tugging Tasha's stretch pants down and lowering her face to dark curls. Within moments, Tasha grunted in pleasure, her hands clasping blonde hair as she thrust against Val's mouth. She fell back against the couch, panting.
Val placed a gentle kiss against her stomach. "I'm so glad you're back."
After a few minutes, Tasha got up and wandered over to the reception desk, where she pressed a few buttons on a panel. A DVD ejected and she removed it from its holder and brought it back to the couch. "Security video," she said. "Do we magnetize it, or--"
"No way." Val reached for the recording. "I think I'll start a collection."
Tasha bent over to pick up Val's shorts and handed them to her, taking time to enjoy the view before it was hidden behind cloth again. "You'll need a bigger video cabinet."
"Ooh, there's a new Pier 1 knockoff place on Mulhollandshopping day!" At Tasha's wince, she added quickly, "And then the gun show."
"You're on," Tasha agreed. "Just don't touch anything this time, OK?"
"Well, those weren't supposed to be loaded."
"I know." Tasha dipped her head for a kiss. "You really are beautiful and lethal . . . ."
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