xvi. catching corporate

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"Ian Lochland, better known as Thirteen, is highly skilled, intelligent, and powerful. He's got half the nation bending to his will."

The Director is debriefing us in the front of the room. He unfolds his hands that once formed a steeple and gestures for manila files to be distributed to us.

"How do we take out an empire?" Chase groans. "I've dealt with the Thorned Kings before. They control everything and everyone everywhere."

The Director pulls his lips into a thin line. "Thirteen is skilled in evading all law enforcement, so our best chance at crippling his empire is through his subordinates."

"We're the fucking CIA—can't we just arrest him?" I protest.

The Director rubs his temple. "We can't capture him until his armaments are gone. He's simply too powerful right now. I'm sorry, Octavia, but that's the reality."

The manila folder opens to a picture of myself labeled "Ava Jensen", my alias. It has all the information about my new persona, including my fake occupation and other personal details.

"What does my alias have to do with all of this?" I voice.

"Remember Ethan Tansin?" The Director starts.

"Six feet, blond, corporate lawyer. The man whose credit card I stole."

Ace narrows his eyes, clearly displeased. "He's also the man who tried to punch me."

"Precisely," the Director responds. "After Octavia retrieved the credit card information, the agency was able to confirm our suspicions about his company's black market employers, primarily the Thorned Kings."

Ace raises an eyebrow. "A fortune 500 company works for Thirteen's syndicate?"

The Director sighs, running a hand through his hair. His worn eyes crinkle slightly.

"I'm afraid so. We're going to steal information from the company. Hopefully, this will help us find someone who is willing to testify. Xavier and Chase, you two will pretend to be clientele to distract Ethan. Skye, keep look out on the roof. Octavia, you need to steal his ID."

"Why me?" I ask. "Don't you think Skye would be better fitted for this particular assignment? She's the professional thief."

The Director grimaces. "Ethan seems to have formed an attachment to you. Use it to your advantage."

From the corner of my eye, I can see Ace's fist visibly tighten.

The Director continues. "Use his ID to get into the mainframe then download everything. Ace, you need to get to the mainframe on the fortieth floor once Octavia gets the ID. Cover our tracks."

Ace's jaw clenches. "We're waging a war that we can't win."


The clicking of my heels echo against the smooth marbled floors of Kean and Partners, the prestigious accounting firm where Ethan worked. Only now, we knew it was not that prestigious, since over half their profits transpired from the black market.

I scan my badge past the first metal detectors only to meet two security guards who pat me down.

All the security measures seemed suspiciously strenuous for just an accounting firm.

"Name?" The secretary questions.

Her tone made the whole ordeal sound like an interrogation. With her perfect blond hair and golden tan, she could double as a drill sergeant for beauty pageants.

"Ava Jensen," I say.

"Why are you here?"

"I'm an actuary from a consulting firm. I have a meeting with Ethan Tansin recapping the fiscal year."

"Right this way Ms. Jensen," she smiles.

Her once scowling features now do a 180, as if I've passed her own screening test. She leads me up to the thirty-sixth floor to meet Ethan.

Two brass plated mahogany doors push open to reveal the immaculate office space. Expansive couldn't even begin to describe the size of the c-suite.

There were no walls either. Instead, all were replaced with crystal clear windows, to give the illusion that we were walking among clouds.

With this view, I should have been a finance major instead of an English one.

Directly in the middle of the view was the grinning Ethan Tansin. His lips tugged up in a pleased expression, and he leaned against his desk with confidence, as if he believed Ava Jensen orchestrated the meeting purely to meet him once again.

I bite my lip to prevent myself from saying anything that would give me away.

"Miss Jensen," he greets. "I never would have thought we'd meet again."

"Call it fate," I smoothly retort.

I flicker my eyes away from him to assess my course of action. His badge is on his suit jacket... if only I could get the jacket off.

Ace was not gonna like what I was about to do.

Wait. Since when did I care about what Ace thinks?

"Is the fiscal report the only reason why you came to my office? After all, you could go over that information with many other high level employees."

What he insinuated was as plain as day—and I was going to exploit the shit out of it.

"What are you implying, Ethan?" I bait.

He sauntered over to meet me, our breaths intertwining, and our lips even more so. While he's distracted, I take his blazer off to pocket his badge.

The secretary suddenly knocks on the door. Ethan breaks away from me with a undeniable frustration on his face.

"What is it?" He groans.

The secretary peeks her head through the door. "There's someone downstairs who wants you. It's very urgent, Mr. Tansin."

Ethan pinches the bridge of his nose. The person downstairs, of course, is no one but Chase and Xavier pretending to be important clientele.

Ethan then turns to me. "I'll be back soon enough, Ava. Then we can continue our discussion on... fiscal reports."

"Be back soon," I wink.

Once the coast is clear, quickly reach the fortieth floor. I find Ace disabling all the cameras along the hallway.

"Was it seriously necessary to kiss Ethan?" Ace grimaces.

I do a double take. "Seriously? Right now? I did it for the mission."

"His hands were all over you!"

"How did you even know?"

Ace sighs. "It's written all over your face, Cupcake."

"You're being impossible."

"We have ten minutes. All the cameras are on a loop, but it will be suspicious soon."

We both set our watches for ten minutes. I scan Ethan's badge to let us into the mainframe.

The doors open to a holy grail of computing systems, each adding another layer of complex software protections.

"First to finish their side wins," Ace challenges.

"What's the prize?" I say while raising an intrigued eyebrow.

"Winner gets to dare the loser to do anything, and it has to be done."

Finally, I was in my element. A smug smile tugs on my own lips. I was ready to finally win a bet against Ace.

Ten minutes is all I need.

Ace: "Vote if you want me to win the bet and dare Octavia ;)"

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