Covert Operation

JOE aka VICTOR called Hope at Juliana's. After exchanging sweet nothings, he asked, 'Can you arrange for me to meet Luke?'

She held her breath, 'I'm not entirely sure that's a good idea.'

He couldn't argue with her on that point. She knew Luke better than anyone, but he persisted.

'Yeah, I know, but I've got to. Would you, please? Or, if you like I'll just accost him on the street.' The mere suggestion horrified her.

Their phone conversation was interrupted when Gina signalled to her that a delivery had arrived. She acknowledged the waitress before returning to her call, 'okay, I'll speak to him. By the way, where and when?'

'My time is my own so let him dictate where and when. I'll be there.' He finished the call with, 'Ti amo.'

Her heart skipped with his declaration of love. She decided that this time Luke was wrong.

Joe loves me. Definitely. Not maybe. Definitely, absolutely.

She rushed to meet the truck driver who was unloading boxes and boxes of wine. Bewildered, she asked, 'Are you sure these are for me?'

The irritated driver replied, 'Miss, can't you read. It says Juliana's Bistro,' pointing at the invoice. 'I'm just the driver. If you're in doubt, call your owner. I'm late for my next delivery. Where'd you like these?' referring to the unexpected consignment, a trolley full of Italian wine.

She pointed him to the small storeroom behind the kitchen. He came back in a huff to retrieve his copy of the invoice and away he went to his next delivery.

Hope called the new owner to verify the order. She confirmed that the wine delivery was indeed for the bistro.

Okay, whatever.

She sent a text message to Luke: 'Call me.'

He was getting ready for work when the phone beeped. He called back immediately.

'That was quick,' she answered cheerily.

Big brother grunted an answer; although audible to her ears, it wasn't exactly clear what he said. 'What did you say?' she asked to clarify.

'Nothing,' he said, 'what's up?'

Here goes.

She took a deep breath and felt anxiety quicken her heart beats. She unconsciously twisted her hair around as a form of stress relief. 'Joe wants to meet with you. He said you can name the time and place, he'll be there.'

Luke decided the meeting might be his chance to pry Hope out of this damn CI business. 'Tell him tonight, nine, at my house.'

They chit-chatted some more, mostly humdrum stuff. And then Hope dropped the issue that been bugging her. 'Oh, guess what, I just took delivery of one hundred eighty bottles of wine. How weird is that?'

Luke's antenna went up, detecting something hinky. 'Do you have a new owner now?' he asked.

'Yeah, how'd you know?'

'Something you said,' he replied.

'Something I said?' her eyebrow went up, 'Never mind, your brain is always a puzzle to me. I don't know how it connects dots and how it jumps from one thing to another. Love you. Bye, I gotta go.'

Hope called Joe to pass on the message.

The rest of her day was uneventful. The bistro wasn't exactly rocking with customers.

Joe/Victor also couldn't have had a more tedious day if he tried. He had been following a courier go from one business establishment to the next, as part of a four-man tag team. All they had managed to do was confirm what they already knew: that the businesses the courier visited were all part of the same company.

Luke had completed his paperwork for the day, then pottered about at the Fire Station checking the various firefighting equipment, something he did as one of the most senior members of his Unit. Once he was satisfied every piece was in working order, he showered and changed into his civilian clothes. He checked the wall clock. Time to go.

He only got so far as hanging his coat on the rack and feeding the cats when the doorbell buzzed.

Bradley and Cooper both stopped chowing on dry, crunchy pellets, hoping it was Faith. She would give them wet cat food. Yum. But they resumed eating as soon as they realised it was another useless guy.

Joe stepped inside the house where he was received coldly. No surprises there. It would have been dodgy if Luke suddenly welcomed him warmly; that would be suspicious; whereas the icy reception was copacetic.

His first salvo was, 'Hey, thanks for meeting me. I'd have preferred a neutral location … like a restaurant.'

Luke smirked and thought, that's precisely the point, I'm on my home turf.

From the minute he entered the house, Joe was at a disadvantage. On the back foot, so to speak. Everything had to be dictated by Luke. He couldn't even sit down until invited. So there they were in a living room full of couches but awkwardly standing around, eyeing each other like bulls in an arena.

Finally, after the longest minute ever, Luke invited him to sit and asked if he cared for coffee.

'I'll have what you're having,' Joe said.

Luke took his time in the kitchen. Meanwhile, the cats got inquisitive. Bradley padded softly on the wooden floor, sat on the armchair, squinting at Joe. Cooper, on the other hand, jumped onto the back of the three-seat couch and eyed the visitor with unconcealed malice, like he was Public Enemy Number One.

He sensed that the black and white cat was friendly. He knew one thing about cats; scent communication is important to them. He bided his time then offered his hand for Bradley to sniff. Soon, it was sitting on his lap.

But Cooper? He decided to leave the ninja cat alone.

Luke returned to the living room with two cups of coffee and was mildly surprised that Joe had managed to befriend Bradley. But then Bradley was always easy-going; this cat was not choosy in the first place. Now, had Joe managed to get close to Cooper, that would be another thing altogether.

'Okay, what's up?' Luke asked as he seriously studied Joe, which made the visitor feel weird. The last time he was dealt this kind of scrutiny was when the father of his first girlfriend subjected him to a grilling. He was sixteen at that time. He's twenty-five now, and not much had changed.

'Well, I want to clear the air between us. To be honest, it was my idea to pursue Hope. She was just going to be my CI, but believe it or not; I fell in love with her. You'll probably doubt that, and I don't blame you.'

Luke was tight-lipped, his position on Hope acting as CI was clear to one and all. He didn't need to reiterate it, least of all, to Joe.

The younger man felt the silence unbearable. He coughed to loosen the muscles surrounding his voice box, 'I know the danger, and if Hope wants out, it's okay. I don't want her thinking she outta help us crack this case. I know she's not cut out for it. But she's determined to do it, so all I can do is keep her safe.'

'Easier said than done.' Luke counted the reasons on his fingers, 'One, you can't be with her all the time. Two, you're not bullet-proof. Three, there are far too many unknown factors and unforeseen variables. Not to mention, she's in the lion's den. Need I go on?'

Then Luke added, 'I think the only decent thing to do is to talk her out of it.'

Joe turned defensive. 'Don't you think I've tried? After you booted me out of her place, I had a serious think about it. I weighed things up, and I'm sure as hell don't want her to risk life and limb for me or our operation. But she's determined.'

Luke repositioned himself. He rested his back against the couch and put his feet up on the coffee table. 'So what do you want me to do? I tried talking her out of it too; you know that.'

Joe shifted too, then said, 'I'm here to ask you to get involve.'

Luke's eyebrow went up, 'I'm listening,' he said. 'What do you want me to do?'

'The bistro has to be rigged with bugs and listening devices. You can help me with that. Then our IT guys will send a Trojan into the computer so we can sniff their sales and banking transactions. We need eyes on their dealings.'

Luke couldn't agree more and added, 'We need eyes on the wine deliveries.'

Joe was surprised, 'How'd you know about the wine delivery?'

'Hope mentioned it this morning. She made a comment about how weird it was that she took delivery of wine, just under two hundred bottles. Did the other establishments get deliveries, too? If they did, you need to find out where they ordered it, how much they're selling it per bottle. I'm willing to bet that's the key.'

Joe looked at Luke, unsure how the guy's brain processed information. It seemed to him as an unlikely a connection as there ever could be. He's off tangent on this one.

But to his credit, Joe made a mental note to follow up on the lead. I've seen stranger things happen.

It was getting late. They arranged a date to access the bistro one night to fit the spying devices, then said their goodbyes, but there was no handshake or backslap.

They simply nodded to each other in a friendly way at the door's threshold, but at least, Joe felt that the relationship metre between them had gone up a notch.

Cooper followed them to the door and meowed. Joe looked back and waved goodbye to the terror cat.