Over the Top Secret - Chapter 15
AKA Not Your Grandma’s Panties
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Start at the beginning (Prologue - AKA Mission Report)
Read the previous chapter (Chapter 14 - AKA Total ReCALL)
Read the next chapter (Chapter 16 - AKA Tout le Monde)
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Who knew a pair of women’s jeans could be so comforting?
I step in front of the mirror in one of the less expensive shops at Le Bon Marche, essentially a giant multiplex of shops here in Paris’ most popular Left-Bank department store. Eric insists we shop here, despite the multitude of tourists and possible McGuffin triggers, because “quality is what counts.” That, and he has a golden credit card burning a hole in his pocket.
Nevertheless, my uptight, frugal mind just won’t let me take advantage of the situation. I keep things simple, ditching my sweat-soaked, dirt-covered, over-sized robe for a pair of slightly bell-bottomed jeans that just kiss the ground, some unfamiliar-to-me designer sneakers, and the least expensive-looking black t-shirt I can find amongst all the name brands.
The disheveled, malnourished look seems to work for me. My shoulder-length dark brown hair, which is usually tightly wound in a frizzy bun on top of my head, has fallen in unpredictable waves that accentuate my natural frizzy curls. My stomach is flat (which I’m attributing to the last few days of unintentional fasting and not the black shirt that apparently hugs me in all the right places). My lips are a dark shade of red (AKA chapped), giving me a, dare I say, sexy vibe that feels totally foreign.
Oh, and apparently, all the underwear in Paris is made for naughty purposes. I’m walking around sporting a secret pair of silky lingerie that tests my already poor poker face. If I put half as much effort into my appearance as I do my schoolwork, I might manage to look somewhat feminine for a change.
Another bout of cold, nervous sweat seeps into the shirt beneath my armpits, and I’m reminded just how unfeminine I really am. I roll my eyes at the fleeting moment of confidence. Welp, at least you’re wearing black, I tell myself.
“You ready?” Eric bangs on the changing room door.
“Just a second,” I say, slipping the little earpiece into place. Eric says we don’t need them yet, but it’s so small and I really don’t want to lose it in the streets of Paris. I can barely feel the thing inside me, and now I’m wondering if I’ll lose it in my ear canal instead.
I fasten the fanny pack around my waist. Surprisingly, it adds another layer of “cool” to my ensemble. Alright, I’ll take it.
“Hurry up, Julie. We need to analyze your vision,” he says, knocking again. I swing the door open mid-knock, and Eric’s knocking fist stops just short of punching me in the face. He looks almost apologetic for a moment until his mouth forms into an amused grin. He appraises my disheveled look from top to bottom. “My, my. You clean up well.”
“Thanks, you too,” I say, nodding at his own ensemble. He’s wearing almost the same thing as he was when we met on the plane— a white shirt, designer jeans meant to look distressed on purpose, and black boots. He’s switched out his leather jacket and opted for a light, slim-cut blazer. The thin layer of stubble growing on his face gives him a rugged look that reminds me I’m wearing lingerie. I duck past him, trying to hide my blush.
“Can we eat now? I’m starving,” I say, changing the subject.
I can feel his eyes on my hips as I lead us to the cashier. “Yeah, me too,” he murmurs.
He whips out his gold T.O.P.S.E.C.R.E.T. card like it’s a switchblade. I idly wonder why such a Top-Secret government agency even bothers trying to stay covert when they plaster their name all over their toys. The spy world doesn’t make any sense.
After Eric pays for our clothes, which come out to a whopping three-thousand-seventy-five dollars (what are these underwear made of--diamonds?), we head back to the ground level of the shopping center. He wants to eat at a fancy, expensive French restaurant that specializes in creme brulee (AKA actual poison for my lactose-intolerant stomach). I manage to convince him to head outside of this multiplex of chandeliers and fancy pants in exchange for an outdoor location where we can discuss the details of our mission out of ear range from all the tourists.
As soon as we step outside, the fresh air and beautiful scenery give me a rejuvenating wave of energy. I take a deep breath, trying to memorize what this place looks and feels like before we have to head right back into mission mode, but Eric immediately sets off down the street to our right. I quicken my pace to catch up.
“Do you know where you’re going?” I ask.
“This way.” He nods forward.
Is he always this helpful?
We’re heading down the sidewalk toward a busy intersection with more tourists and cars, which means more attention. The congestion ahead makes my stomach squeeze tight. I don’t want all of Paris’ eyes on me in the case of another convulsion session.
“Can’t we go someplace less crowded?”
He gives me a side glance. “Do you want food or not?”
“Yes, but we also need to figure out what we’re doing next and…” A large group of tourists waddles past us with their cameras out, threatening to push us off the sidewalk. We shove our way through, ducking under their flashing onslaught of photographs. Once they’re out of earshot, I continue in a hushed voice, “I don’t think everyone here needs to know all the details of our plan.”
“What plan?” Eric walks right across the street without even looking both ways. I double-check there’s no oncoming cars and dart after him.
“Exactly. We need a plan,” I say.
“We’ll make a plan. After I get a Monte Cristo.” He continues marching forward. Something glittering catches my eye between two buildings on our left. I backtrack and realize it’s a body of water, reflecting the sunlight.
“Oh, snap! The Seine!” I practically jump. Eric turns around.
“What about it?” he says.
“I’ve never seen it before. It looks so pretty,” I say, squinting my eyes to get a better view of it from in between the buildings.
“You can’t see it very well from here,” Eric says, taking a few steps nearer to look over my shoulder. I’m acutely aware of his presence as he leans closer, almost touching my back.
“Yeah, but it’s still pretty,” I say, eyes almost entirely shut from squinting. “We should keep going.” I blink and get back on track. No time to waste. As I step past him, Eric grabs my arm. I turn to him with narrowed eyes. “What?”
“Let’s go this way,” he says, heading back to the intersection.
“I don’t understand, I thought the food was that way?” I gesture behind us.
Eric leads us around the corner until we’re on the opposite side of the buildings, facing the Seine straight on. The constantly moving water reflects the blueness of the sky on its glittering surface. It’s just as beautiful as I always imagined.
“Wow.” It escapes my lips as a whisper.
“Come on, let’s go eat,” he says with a smile as bright as the Seine.
“Do you know a place by the water?” I ask.
“No, but we’ll find one,” he says as he continues down the sidewalk. I realize he has no idea where he’s going, but it doesn’t seem that way. He marches on like he owns the place, his shoulders square and his head held high.
If I were a spy, I’m not sure I could handle the uncertainty. The fact that we’re still aimlessly wandering around without a plan only adds to the growing stress ball in my stomach. How does Eric do it?
I follow silently, but a few steps farther and something tugs at my stomach. Intuition, if you will. I stop walking and Eric eyes me suspiciously.
“Actually, I think we should go this way.” I point over my shoulder.
He puts his hands in the air like, “I give up,” and gestures for me to lead the way. So I do. I’ve no idea where this sense of direction is coming from, but pretty soon we’re walking up a set of stairs onto a new street, just along the bank of the river. It’s way more low-key, populated with small flower shops and a few tiny cafes. Much better. A sense of calm washes over me.
“Hey, look.” Eric points to a small cafe across the street with a pink awning. It says, “Tout le Monde.” I gasp.
“That’s the cafe from my vision!” I stare open mouthed. Holy snap. “The McGuffin must have led us here.” A creepy thought, but slightly comforting nonetheless.
“Let’s check it out.” Eric strides forward once more, not even hesitating.
“Wait!” I tug on his sleeve like a child. My shoulders nervously creep up to my ears. He looks back at me expectantly.
“What if the creepy man from my vision is there?” My thoughts return to the eerie silhouetted figure laughing maniacally.
“Then it means we’re getting closer to The Backup. Come on.” Eric hurries across the street without waiting for me. My breath hitches. The familiar pang of worry and stress tightens all my insides into a knot. I focus on my breathing once more, trying to stay calm in case The McGuffin has something else to tell me.
What if I get another vision, but this time I don’t wake up? What if the bad guy is in there and he kills us? What if I forget how to say, “no cheese, please,” in French, and the waiter accidentally kills me anyway?
So many things could go wrong.
But people are counting on you, I remind myself. The world is counting on you, and you’re the only one who can do this.
I try to convince myself it’s just like any school project. And with any school project, I always give it my all. Have I ever actually wanted to write essays on Queen Elizabeth or do calculus homework for hours on end? Hell no. But I get it done because that’s what I’m good at. Getting shit done. So, get in there and get it done!
I nod vigorously, silently encouraging myself with this inner dialog.
An old man sitting on the curb with a baguette and a stick of salami stares at me, the epitome of my stereotypical mental image of France. I give him a sheepish smile, and he rips another bite of meat off the stick.
I take it as a sign that I’m ready. Let’s do this.