Title: Strangers Undercover
Summary: AU. Some days he doubted her disappearance and his days off were a coincidence, but others they were too busy fighting each other. He had forgiven her because she just handed him the best puzzles to entertain him during his vacation. Who expected him, a CIA agent, to sit still for a second anyway?
Word Count: 4,320
Disclaimer: I own nothing but my ideas. Besides that, I know little to nothing about the FBI, being a PI or anything really, so all this is fiction (in case you had forgotten)
AN: Thanks to the faithful readers and to tose who leave me their words in particular.
Next day they decided to take a short walk around town to see if they could find out anything about their investigation. Of course, the day before, Noah had managed to ask a few questions to tour guides and locals, but the details were vague and general; it was just a starting point that led him to the right places.
Hobbling Rachel tried to keep up, but a blister had made an appearance on her left foot and she was not feeling that well. Fortunately for them, her slow pace served them to pretend they were typical tourists, which explained the big professional camera Rachel was carrying and using to snap photos of every single thing in craft fairs and stands.
“Nat,” Noah called and Rachel ignored him.
She still happened to forget she was supposed to be Natalie, the dancer.
“Pussycat?” he teased and almost fell on his butt when she shot the most feral glare at him. He really tried not to grin, not to look amused, but her scowl made it impossible. It was a hobby for him to make fun of her; it was not only easy, but also different from his everyday activities with the agency.
A partner for a mission was seldom, mostly because it was riskier and the covers had to be more solid. Plus, extracting one agent was much quicker and simpler than two in case it was needed. Having a partner needed complicity and getting to know one another to the point where no secrets were left; you had to be able to read the other’s tells and speak in a special code language.
Noah had never been able to work with a partner. According to the profilers, he was too secretive and never let his guard down, explained by all the emotional abuse he suffered after (and even before) his father had left the family. He had been put under a lot of stress from early age, because of which he had resorted to let his anger loose outside his home. Deep inside him, the belief that if no one was too close, no one could hurt him had set roots. That also made him an excellent asset for solo missions: he never got attached and was great at pretending.
“What?” Rachel hissed the third time he dared to call her by the awful nickname he had just come up with.
“I found out something that might be of interest,” he said once his chuckling subsided, and right before pressing a kiss to her temple and grabbing her hand. “Let’s go back to the hotel.”
It turned out that talking to the owner of a little stand, the woman complained about how some people imported from China fake souvenirs that had been manufactured in large scale, which made them cheaper. She also mentioned how rare it was for people to export crafts in large scale because of the prices and how careful you had to be with each unique piece.
Real Tumi knives were not allowed to be sold to anyone. They belonged to museums or families who had inherited them through generations. The replicas made by true craftsmen from the country were moderately expensive depending on the size of the piece and the material.
If what Rachel’s client had described as an original Tumi was in fact that, then the sale had been illegal. But worse, if these pre-Columbian artifacts were fake ones imported from China, then why were they going through Peru before making it to the States?
“So you are saying I shouldn’t have gotten involved?” Rachel asked as she grabbed a mug of some herbal tea she had ordered and sipped from it, her big eyes trained on his face.
“Sorry to let you know, but you are already involved.”
She shot him a look that expressed how thankful she was for pointing out the obvious.
“What I’m saying is what I just said. I think there is something your client is not telling you which is why I already contacted a friend to find out about any shipments made from Peru to Erich Kordus in Manhattan. That should give us an idea of what is going on.”
Rachel’s eyebrows did a funny thing, curving down to show her concern.
“I—I never thought there was something… dangerous about taking that job.” She ducked her head and pushed her hair behind her ear, sighing and shaking her head slightly. Rachel was barefoot and sat on the couch with a leg folded under her, no makeup on and her hair loose around her shoulders. “If I had known, I wouldn’t… I wouldn’t have gotten involved, you know? I’m not about to get into something illegal. But perhaps I was biased by the amount of money I was offered.”
He was looking at her. Just looking with a safe distance separating them, but she looked so vulnerable and open.
Reaching for her hand, he brushed the top of her fingers, earning her attention.
“You might be obnoxious, but as far as I know that’s not illegal,” Noah quipped.
She nudged his thigh with her toes and laughed softly. “Jerk.”
Despite the laughs, and the humor he tried to put in the situation, he was serious when he told her, “But that’s what worries me. Why spend so much money trying to find a replica that cost much less than the entire investigation? And if it is not a replica, then why hire a newbie when he should have worked with shadier people?”
Rachel worried her bottom lip and shrugged one shoulder. “I wish I knew.”
Sensing she was feeling terribly, all thanks to his research, Noah decided to send her to bed.
“Come on.” He patted her thigh gently and helped her to stand up. “We’re going to Cusco tomorrow and hopefully home after that.”
“Okay,” she muttered sadly as she made her way to the bathroom.
“Hey,” Noah called as he worked on his makeshift bed. Rachel turned to see him. “You’re doing great. Your research was flawless, but you weren’t looking for the right things.”
“So I’m a good PI?” she asked with a little smile on her lips.
“Yeah. So don’t be sad, Pussycat.”
It was impressive how quickly she dashed towards the bed to grab a pillow and throw it at him.
She still missed, though.
Customs’ records showed a few shipments addressed to Erich Kordus, most of which were under the category of decoration products and crafts, paying the respective taxes that those entitled. What surprised them were the additional medicinal products, all of which claimed to be phytotherapeutic.
“He must sell them to someone,” Rachel commented as she studied how the amounts of these traditional medicine products increased over time. He must have been doing well with that, but it also made her wonder where he sold them, since Kordus was the owner of an antique shop.
“Maybe he has another business?” Noah offered as he highlighted some of these imports.
Shaking her head, Rachel furrowed her brow. “No. I always check my clients before accepting a job.” Looking up at Noah, and seeing his unnerving smirk, she snorted a little laugh. “It’s just taking some precautions about not helping the bad guys. Happened to me once, a man wanted to know if his partner was stealing money from their business, but he forgot to tell me they were selling stolen cars. The other guy was helping the police.”
“Yes. Big mess, but fortunately I got free from it before it was too late.”
They kept on checking the type of products that were being bought. Most of them were dried herbs to make infusions, which was something common considering the mystical powers shamans gave to some native plants and trees. Problem with this was the use of hallucinogenic plants that were technically legal to cultivate, but not to use them in some products.
After about four hours of continued research and reading of files and records, Noah grumbled and stood up. “I’m going to order some food.”
“Uh-huh, sure,” Rachel babbled as she frowned at one of the records, quickly jumping over the clutter around them and grabbing another file. “Do you know what antorcha peruana means?” she asked with her thick accent.
“Peruvian Torch. It’s a cactus,” Noah replied. “Why?”
“The records show that most of the products sold are some sort of cream or gel based on that plant.” She quickly opened her laptop to google said product. “It’s allegedly used as an antirheumatic.” Her gaze lifted to meet his for a few seconds, and she could tell he already knew there was something more.
“But?” he prompted and sat back down on the couch.
“But this cactus also has mescaline, which is a lot like LSD,” she sighed, sitting back on her haunches. “Except the purpose given to the cacti is legal as long as they don’t make direct use of it as a drug.”
“Yeah, and we have another problem, because this cream or whatever this is could be mixed with other things.” He rubbed his head with a hand and cursed under his breath. “I don’t have access to a lab to test this but maybe we could find where they sell this thing and check if it’s what it says it is.”
Rachel sighed. “Perhaps we’re just reading into this the wrong way. It could be nothing.”
“Or,” Noah said as he grabbed the phone to call for food. “We could have just found out the tip of the iceberg.” He punched the zero and asked, “What are you having?”
It did not take much time to find out that in the window of time given by Rachel’s client there were no records of archeological thefts that could indicate the Tumi being a stolen piece. But there was one suspicious package that had been sent from a small neighborhood pharmacy in Cusco to a property in Brooklyn, registered under the name of Erich Kordus’ late wife. The place to which it had been sent to was a warehouse in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
“My head hurts,” Rachel mumbled as she took another bite of her humitas, a dish she had quite liked even if Noah thought they looked like baby food wrapped in corn husks.
It was already getting dark and they had been doing research all afternoon. Honestly, he was tired too, but they couldn’t deny they had made a lot of progress by looking for the right information. They had planned to stay another day, so next morning they had bought tickets to return to Cusco and find that pharmacy.
“We could always go to sleep,” he offered, leaning back against the couch. He was sat on the floor surrounded by papers and with the computer in front of him. On the couch was Rachel sat cross legged in half-lotus posture.
“Really?” She teased in a tone that indicated his idea was something that had already occurred to her.
He glared at her.
She chuckled. “You can take the bed tonight.”
It surprised him a bit to hear this. Not that he thought she was petty or conceited (at least not much), but there were women who believed that just because their gender they had the right to comfort, and it was a fact that should have never been disputed.
“Don’t worry. I’ve slept on a concrete floor and comparing it to that, this couch is heaven.”
“It’s only fair,” she responded while moving around the room to take her clothes and go to the bathroom. “You’ve helped me with the case and are paying for the room… it’s the least I can do.”
“I’m not asking for it.” He frowned.
There was a stupid macho alpha instinct in him. Even if he was a womanizer, although he disliked the term, he had an innate need to protect the ones close to him. Whether he liked it or not, the three days spent with Rachel, plus the fact he knew her parents, made that instinct attack full force.
More than once, his sister had pointed out it was chauvinistic to treat her like she could break. She was a strong and independent woman, and it gave him the impression that Rachel thought the same.
“I don’t want the bed,” he added stubbornly and won the race to the bathroom. Something stupid since she just stood there watching him from her spot next to the couch.
Before he closed the door, he saw her shaking her head and snorting a laugh.
He had to admit she was pretty adorable when she wanted to.
“Is this called a stake-out?” Rachel whispered in a conspiratorial tone, looking at him from above her sunglasses. There was a tiny smile on her lips, like the one you could find in the face of a child who had stolen a cookie from the jar when mom was not looking.
He rolled his eyes. “Field work. We’re just getting familiar with the place. Think you can fake having menstrual cramps?”
Like a prudish woman, she paled at first. Noah, like most men, knew that there had to be a certain level of intimacy to speak about things like that, unless of course the woman was his mother, in which case she would talk about all the gory details. Let him tell you all about a boy growing up surrounded by female hygienic products and being a twelve-year-old finding some of the most private toys his mother had kept; the talk that followed ruined his life for about a week.
“Why?” she finally asked, taking off her sunglasses.
“Because this is a botica,” he said with a lilt of humor. “We need a reason to be here and ask questions.”
“Then why don’t we ask about products to help you perform?” Rachel teased, looking at him with that arched eyebrow that made her look a little evil and completely hot. “According to the research I did about natural medicine, there’s a vast amount of products that could help you with that problem.”
A slow smirk crept along his lips and he leaned a little closer.
“Baby, if you knew how I perform… you would be asking me for advice. That assuming you could want any other man after getting familiar with my skills.”
She laughed and shoved him away, but before she could keep on walking, Noah grabbed her hand and pulled her to him. It was clear he had caught her off guard, since her eyes opened wide when she looked up at him.
“We’re pretending we are a couple. We have to sell this lie.”
She crinkled her nose and shut her eyes tightly for a brief second when he kissed the tip of her nose. It was really adorable of her.
“Tickles,” she squeaked and let herself be pulled towards the small store near a department store. It was just a hole in the wall, with a hand-painted sign that advertised the many herbs they sold and what conditions they could heal.
As soon as they got in, Rachel behaved like the typical and obnoxious tourist who asked anything about everything and squealed about every little detail, talking about how cute things were and about some aunt named Rina who suffered of diabetes. It was crazy and hilarious of her.
“So you’re telling me this una de gato will help her with her condition?” she asked and of course Noah had to translate for the small old man who looked more than taken aback with Rachel’s attitude. She spoke non-stop despite not receiving answers from her counterpart.
The old wrinkled man behind the counter just nodded and pushed his glasses up his flat nose, his eyes widened a bit as Rachel shot questions and stupid stories about this so-called aunt Rina like a gun machine. Not even Noah could keep up.
“And what can you offer me about beauty products? Oh, wait, my father has rheumatic…”
God. Was it too late for him to gag her and drag her back to the hotel? At this point he was considering cutting one ear off or something. Even the young woman behind the register looked at him with pity.
It was about two sentences later that he leaned against the counter and engaged conversation with a chubby lady with a smiley face. She was just too nice and sweet, and so it was easy to get her to answer his questions.
Noah found out that although they sold dried herbs for infusions and other products with little processing, some of the products were made by the pharmacist they had, a woman who was not in the store at the time. Since he was a little curious about that, he asked if the supplies to make those medicines were all from Peru. The woman said no, that there were some products that needed some especial herbs that were brought from Europe, but that those were usually exported as high-end products for international markets, mostly Europe and United States.
“Boo-boo bear, are we ready to go now? I bought everything I needed,” Rachel told him in an insufferable childish voice, like those women who liked to do the baby-talking thing, which by the way was a complete turn-off for him.
“Oh, Pussycat, if you want to go shopping, just tell me,” he replied with a clearly fake and overly affectionate voice, pecking her cheek soundly at the end of the sentence.
Their faces were surely hurting as they stretched in those stupid smiles.
Holding hands they abandoned the place and quickly made it to a small café a few blocks away. By then, Rachel was glaring at him full force, meeting his icy gaze for a long moment, even as the waitress received their order. But just like that, they broke into a fit of laughter. Well, Rachel did.
Noah limited himself to snorting a laugh.
“You are the most annoying chick ever.”
The laughter had subsided a bit, but Rachel looked at him still smiling.
“I was in the zone. Acting like I do. Did. Whatever.” There was a tinge of sadness to her words. Perhaps it was because she had wanted to be a Broadway star so badly, her dreams still hurt after being broken.
He understood how she felt. Really.
Taking a sip from his coffee while Rachel opened three packets of sugar and poured them on her already sweet latte, Noah looked through the window and rested his elbow on its sill next to him.
For years he had asked himself if his father had left them because of him. He wondered if he had been good enough and a nice boy. Every time he remembered about getting in trouble and breaking one of his toy cars, Noah blamed himself. After some time he asked his mother if he had been sent away, daddy would have come back; he was seven and his mother had been to the neck in debts, playing with the calculator that always returned negative results. In an attempt to help him, she sent him to a therapist.
A month later they could not afford it and Noah had been sent to live with Nana Connie for what was left of the year, until his mom could stand in her two feet without worrying about him and his issues. She had enough with her own problems already.
Since then he learned to bury his problems deep inside him.
“I could never date a girl that… obnoxious,” Noah commented while looking at her in the eye. Her eyes shone with amusement.
“Well, for starters, I would like to think at your age you would date a woman.” She kinked an eyebrow at which he just nodded, accepting that his wording could have been a little more accurate. “Secondly, I assumed you do not date. You probably dislike long term relationships and, given your line of work, it would be hard to sustain a lie for that long.”
He smirked and gave her one simple reply. “Actually, I get bored.”
“The kind of woman I’d like at my side is an impossible.”
“Oh, really?” She leaned forward, placing her elbows on the table and her head on her hands. “Please, describe this mythic creature you wish to meet.”
He chuckled. After clearing his throat, Noah sat straighter on his chair and welcomed the challenge. “She would have to be funny, but sweet. Not the kind of girl who is one of the boys, but one that does not make faces or comments if one of my friends happens to burp while watching a football game.”
“Okay.” She wrinkled her nose but breathed out a laugh as she spoke.
“She would need to keep me on my toes. I don’t want a routine.” He was getting into it, despite never actually making a list about his dream woman. It just happened that he searched for very specific qualities. “I want a woman who could be my equal and gets if one day I just want to be left alone.”
“That sounds normal-“
“And I want a woman who can blind me with her wits and is not afraid to call me on my shit.”
She grinned at him. “A witch, other man would say.”
He smirked. “I’m not scared that she knows she is amazing. I don’t want to have to praise her so she knows how great she is. I want to say it just because I feel the need to say it.”
Rachel’s features softened, but decided to take a bite of the puff pastry dessert she was having.
“So, in your opinion, is this a myth?”
She smiled after dabbing delicately at the corners of her lips with a napkin. “No. I think this woman you’re looking for is one of those who have left their romantic lives aside because no man is able to handle them, and perhaps they have suffered.”
He tilted his head to the side. “Think she’d like to cuddle?”
It was childish and stupid. He knew it, but it was worthy for the laughter the poured out of her mouth.
“Probably. Would you like it?”
“It would be a challenge, but she could teach me.”
“I’m all for the reward system, baby.”
She chucked a crumpled napkin at his face and this time she hit him right on the nose. His eyes widened and she soon was laughing loud enough so other patrons in the coffee shop turned to look at them.
They looked for the name of the pharmacy’s owner and the respective purchases he made for supplies, but quickly discovered that all of these were done in Peruvian territory, working with farmers and local producers. Everything was legal.
It was completely different when they searched for the pharmacist. She was a young woman married to a customs officer, low enough in the organization so he would not call unwanted attention. But he also happened to do on-site paperwork of everything that arrived at Cusco’s International Airport.
Most of the shipments made to her, Daniela Sanchez, the pharmacist, had as a return address a company based in Luxemburg, and one of its major shareholders was a guy with a bit of a shady record regarding his business and origin of his fortune.
“He is currently living in France. Paris to be exact,” Rachel said as she kept on typing on her computer while Noah surfed the web on his phone, probably sending emails and whatnot.
He reported daily to his friends (he called them co-workers, but if the friendly banter was a sign, they were more than that).
“Yeah, most baddies like romance and French.”
“No.” He snorted a rude noise, probably believing she was gullible. “But I thought you’d like that better than the truth which is a younger age of consent, sodomy being legal for more than two hundred years and the prostitution that although illegal at the moment is historical. Well, and it’s a good geographical point between the UK, Spain, Germany, Italy, Monaco, and more.”
“Oh, and let’s not forget the fashion industry that translates into a high concentration of beautiful women in the city.”
Rachel rolled her eyes. “Of course, how could you forget?”
He chuckled, which did not amuse her at all. Still, it did not seem like he was doing anything but naming the various reasons why a man like Anatoli Peeters, the man with the shady past and allegedly clean record, thanks to his expensive lawyers and right contacts, would choose Paris as a city where to live.
“So what does this mean for my case? I’ve already spent most of the down payment and I seriously need to make some profit because I need to pay rent. And it is clear that this case is too much for me as just a PI. This is not just about some lost Tumi and- Noah!” She slapped one of his ridiculously strong arms, one so lovely that seemed two seconds away from burst out of the sleeve of his tee shirt as it flexed while he kept typing on his phone. “Are you listening to me?”
“I got cleared to follow the case. Of course that means I will be forced to take now three weeks of vacations when I return, but everything is being coordinated by Mike. Sylvester is not happy but she likes initiative.” He was babbling, which was odd.
“This has now become a case for the CIA. My case, actually, and since you are too involved, well, that means you have to work with me unless you refuse which means you could spend time in jail-“
“Noah!” she screeched.
“On the bright side,” he added cheerfully. “We are going to Paris!”