Twenty-seven days Madrid had been on this mission. Twenty-seven days Julia had spent as his contact. Twenty-seven wonderful days.
The report printed. "Target acquired. Contact made. Exchange to take place at thirteen hundred hours Berlin time. Will report back at fourteen hundred hours and wait to receive exit instructions. Madrid."
Nearly a month on assignment and it would end today. A sad disappointment made her feet drag on the way to the coordinator's office. As much as she wanted him out of danger, she would miss their exchanges. He always asked her opinion and genuinely valued her advice. Nobody else did that.
An instant message with Madrid across the center blinked at her from the upper right corner of her monitor screen. Grinning, she held a breath and clicked it.
"Hello, beautiful. Got any advice for me today?"
Julia beamed. He called her beautiful and didn't know what she looked like. She had never seen him, either. She liked to imagine he resembled James Bond – the Sean Connery version.
"Where's the exchange?" she asked.
Checkpoint Charlie area. "Not a lot of carpet in those older buildings," she typed. "Wear shoes with soft rubber soles. If you have to run, you'll have extra traction on linoleum and tile, and they won't hear your footfalls."
"As always, you're a wealth of practical information. Can't say the same for my usual contact at the embassy. I'm glad he took a long vacation and gave me the chance to work with you. You've saved my hide more than once."
"That's why I'm here." She stared at her reply, fingers poised above the keyboard.
Sinking teeth into her bottom lip, she tapped her thumb below the spacebar. He'd called her beautiful. Definitely not professional. In fact, their IM exchanges had become anything but professional this past week.
Holding her breath, she quickly typed, "Please be careful," and hit Send.
When his response didn't come right away, her stomach fell. She shouldn't have done that. He probably thought her a softhead. But then, when it came to him, she sort of was.
His IM popped into the upper right corner. She slowly eased the cursor into place then cringed as she clicked. Here it came – a polite but distant goodbye.
"Sorry, beautiful. When you mentioned running, I remembered I haven't eaten. I put some noodles in the microwave. Got to get those carbs. I'll be careful, I promise. It's nice to have someone who cares. Everyone always seems so focused on the goal, sometimes I get degraded to a tool in the process. Even in my own mind."
She wilted with relief. "In your own mind, huh? That's far more dedication to the cause than anyone could expect."
"Maybe so, but I can't help it. I've been doing this so long, it's become who I am rather than what I do. You're a pro. You know what I'm talking about."
She was? She did? She wished the powers that be recognized her potential. She had aced every exam, passed every physical trial, and exceeded every standard set at training camp. Even now, she continued training in a dojo near her apartment, strength trained two days a week, and kept her skill with a gun at its sharpest every weekend at the practice range. Yet they'd stuck her at a desk, typing letters and filing folders because the camp psychiatrist reported she didn't fit the psychological profile of a field operative.
Releasing a heavy-hearted sigh, she typed, "This could be the last time we talk. Your goal will be achieved in a couple hours and you won't need me anymore."
"Don't scare me like that! Where are you going?"
Julia frowned. Going? He sounded angry. Didn't he realize she was a nobody? "I'm not going anywhere, Madrid."
"You better not. I need you."
She stared at those last three words until the world around them faded. If only they meant something more personal. I need you, too, she thought, swiveling from the monitor to address the mundane task of archiving the waiting file.