Nikita walked over to the briefing table and sat down next to Michael, Birkoff, and a young operative she had never seen before. The girl sat up straight, her back not touching the back of the chair. Her hair hung down to her mid-back and was dark brown in color with red-gold highlights. Although the girl stared straight ahead, Nikita caught a glimpse of her chocolate brown eyes that were flecked with green and gold.
Despite the icy Section demeanor the girl displayed, Nikita knew she could be not much more than fifteen. The gray pants and jade green top she wore presented an image of professionalism, but one thing gave her away. A bubblegum pink polish on the nails of her carefully folded hands betrayed her true age. Hoping for answers about the new operative, Nikita looked to Michael, but he just turned his gaze to the doorway through which Operations had just entered.
“The target is Anton Tannic.” Operations pulled up the vid-screen. “He’s an arms dealer who’s been rapidly building his power base. Unfortunately Tannic knows he’s a target and has been difficult to find. In four days, he will be at a club run by George Leitz in Prague. Nikita and Charlotte will be inside, Michael will lead, and Birkoff will handle Comm.,” he turned to the two women, “You two will get your profiles from Madeline.”
Operations turned off the screen and walked back towards the Perch. Charlotte was the first operative to rise from the briefing table and began walking toward Madeline’s office without looking at Nikita. Nikita followed, still curious about exactly who this girl was.
“Charlotte.” The girl didn’t slow her pace but she glanced over. “I look forward to working with you.”
“Same. I don’t think I’ve seen you around.”
“I don’t expect you would have. I spend most of my time on Level Six.”
“Of course,” Nikita said nonchalantly, even though she was not quite sure the kind of work was done on Six. Something with profiling. “You looking forward to getting out into the field?”
“As much as one looks forward to anything here.”
Nikita watched Charlotte tapped a code into the panel at Madeline’s door. It slid open after a moment and Charlotte walked in without looking back at Nikita.
“Leitz runs a talent agency out of Berlin,” Madeline began once they were seated.
Nikita raised an eyebrow and glanced at Charlotte. The girl did not acknowledge Nikita’s look, leaving her to wonder if she understood the euphemism Madeline had used.
“Charlotte will play the fourteen-year-old client and Nikita will be her representative. Once Charlotte is inside she will confirm Tannic’s location, and then Michael, who will be posing as a guest, will take care of the rest. Your clothes are waiting for you in Wardrobe and you leave in forty five minutes.”
With a curt nod, Charlotte stood up and walked out of the office without saying a word. Nikita watched her go and turned to Madeline with a look of disgust. The older woman looked back at her evenly. “Yes, Nikita?”
“When did Section start using children for operatives?”
“Charlotte is sixteen,” Madeline responded with her usual calm. “Charlotte’s involvement on this mission was entirely her choice.”
“A choice?” Nikita snorted. “Since when does Section allow choices?”
“The situation with Charlotte is unique.”
Sixteen was better than the profile’s age of fourteen, but with the two years of training, it meant the girl had been inside Section at least since her early teens. “How old was she when she was brought in?”
“That will be all, Nikita.”
Madeline gave her a look that dared her to continue the line of questioning, so Nikita forced smile and rose from her seat. She wasn’t surprised that Madeline wouldn’t answer. It merely meant she would need to go to the source. Charlotte may be curt and professional, but Nikita was persistent.
The mission was long, but successful. although it was not without difficulty. Tannic was a disgusting man, but the team came in before anything could escalate. And Charlotte—well, from everything Nikita could tell—handled it like an expert. They went their separate ways for the debriefing, but Nikita convinced Michael to give her the location of Charlotte’s quarters.
When she reached the door, she pressed the buzzer. After a moment the lights on the door blinked and it slid open. Nikita stepped in the modern-styled room to find Charlotte seated at a desk.
“How was your debrief?” Nikita sat down in the chair opposite of Charlotte. “It was your first, right?”
“Fourth actually.” She glanced up from the computer screen for a moment, but looked down quickly. “The debrief went fine.”
There was something different about her, but Nikita couldn’t place it. “That’s good,” she said haltingly.
“Your eyes,” she realized. “They’re green now.”
“Contacts,” Charlotte said with a shrug. “I like change.”
Nikita watched her shut down her computer. The actual room reminded her vaguely of Birkoff’s quarters, but Charlotte’s seemed much less techno and a little more severe. It was very linear and simple with a contrast between light and dark. The only color in the room was provided by an herb garden on one wall and a visualization screen on the other that projected a constant movement of calming colors along with soft music.
“Sorry,” she apologized as she turned away from the screen. “I was in the middle of a game.”
“What were you playing?”
“Chess.” Charlotte typed a quick command into the keypad and the computer screen slid into the table. “So what’s really up?”
“I’m here to offer you a girls’ night out of Section, are you interested?”
“And just what would this evening entail?”
“Movies and junk food in my apartment.”
“Sure, let me just tell…”
She was interrupted by the beeping panel on her desk. The word ‘Comm.’ appeared on the digital screen, and she tapped it lightly opening the channel.
“Hey Charlie.” Birkoff’s voice filtered into the room. “Madeline wants to see you in her office.”
“Yeah, okay.” Charlotte tapped the screen again, turning off the speaker.
Nikita raised an eyebrow. “Charlie?”
“Nickname.” She shrugged off the question and stepped over to the walk in closet at the corner of her room. “Madeline should only take a minute, so I’ll grab some clothes and we can leave from there.”
Leaving Nikita and her bag in the hallway, Charlotte walked into Madeline’s office and sat down across the desk from the other women. “You wanted to see me?”
“How was the mission?”
“Fine.” She folded her hands in her lap. “You saw my debrief.”
“The parameters put you in a difficult situation.”
Charlotte focused on keeping her tone as calm as Madeline’s. “And the profile had Michael intervene in time.”
“Nonetheless, it was a challenging mission for you.”
“I knew that going in.” Charlotte gave a half smile. “It was my choice—you and Operations made that abundantly clear.”
“Nonetheless, it affected you, did it not?”
“Yes.” She paused briefly. While her personal position had been distasteful, what bothered her was that they had done nothing to shut down Leitz’s club. She knew the mission parameters and understood that shutting down one club wouldn’t impact on sex trafficking on the macro level, but the faces of the other girls still stuck in her head. “It was nothing that I cannot put behind me.”
“All right.” Madeline accepted that as an answer—or at least seemed to accept it. Charlotte could never truly tell. “What are your plans for this evening?”
“Nikita invited me to her flat.”
Charlotte tried to gauge Madeline’s reaction, but not surprisingly failed. Her upgrade to active field status had brought with it more freedom to leave the Section, but she still wasn’t sure how the news would be met.
“You two became close on this mission.”
“Relatively.” She looked at Madeline whose eyes urged her to elaborate. “I’ve had minimal contact with any other operatives in Section, and Nikita and I got along. Will this be a problem?”
“She is curious about your past.”
She cut her off before the warning could be said. “I know.”
“Very well then.” She dismissed the young operative, who rose from her seat gracefully. “That will be all.”
“Goodnight Madeline,” Charlotte called over her shoulder as she joined Nikita
“Everything went well?” Nikita asked and Charlotte smiled in response. “You know, Charlotte, you are the only person I’ve met here who can come out of that office with a grin.”
“I’ve known Madeline for quite some time now.” She shrugged before continuing, “I suppose I’m not scared of her—scratch that, she’s terrifying—but I’m used to it.”
“Not really.” She changed the subject. Discussing Madeline was something she tried to avoid whenever possible. “Do you mind if we stop by Comm. first?”
“Of course not.”
“Mo!” Charlotte called as she walked up behind Birkoff. There were no active missions so he was the only one in Comm., so she felt she could be more casual. “I’m going out tonight.”
“Really?” he asked with a smirk. “I think that this is the first time you ever told me that.”
“No, I just think it’s about time.”
“Oh shut-up.” She rolled her eyes. “You barely leave yourself.”
“But I do. You’ve been on active status for a month and this is the first time you’ve left of your own volition.”
“Just get out of here,” he told her. “I’ll see you tomorrow, after your lessons?”
“Of course.” She smiled, returning to Nikita. “Let’s go.”
It took Paul longer than expected to find the time read the report on the Tannic mission, but when he did he was pleased with what he saw and left the Perch to discuss it with Madeline. Even though it was late, he wasn’t surprised to find her focused on her computer the door to her office slid open.
Madeline looked up from here screen. “Hello.”
“I read the report on the Tannic mission.”
“Our team performed well.”
“According to Michael’s debrief, Charlotte’s performance matched that of the older, more seasoned operatives,” he said casually as he sat down across from her—as if Charlotte was not his entire reason for visiting her office. “It’s difficult to believe that this was only her third mission.”
“Section trained her well.”
“You trained her well.” He watched her reaction carefully. She gave a smile that showed a bit more pride than her normal one. “You did good work with her.”
“Is she in her quarters?”
“No, she went out with Nikita.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Is that wise?”
“I believe it was.” She paused. “They became close during the mission. If we were to forbid outside contact, Charlotte would rebel against the Section. She is a teenager, after all.”
“That she is.”
“Besides their profiles complement each other in the field, so this will not be their last mission together.”
He nodded in agreement. “Nikita’s numbers are higher when she has a rapport with the team.”
“And Charlotte will benefit from exposure to different ways of thinking if she is to continue developing as a profiler. Not to mention the benefits of a female friendship on Charlotte’s general development.”
“As always, you assessment seems sound.”
“This is it.” Nikita opened the door to her apartment, allowing Charlotte to enter.
“It’s nice.” She surveyed her surroundings closely. The room was modern with clean lines and a distinct—somewhat funky—style. Charlotte could feel Nikita’s eyes on her. “Sorry,” she apologized quickly. “It’s just that you can tell a lot about someone from where they live.”
“And what does my place say about me?”
“Nothing I didn’t already know.” Charlotte leaned against the counter casually, but her ease was an act. She liked Nikita, but she was still little more than a stranger. Not to mention, this was her first time in another operative’s home. “So what’s your plan for tonight?”
“I figured take-out would be best, unless you want to cook?”
“Well, I do have had extensive training, but I’m not really not in the mood.” She glanced at Nikita’s kitchen set-up with disdain. “And the cook top leaves something to be desired.”
“Don’t want me to lie, do you?”
Nikita rolled her eyes. “Of course not. So do you want pizza? Chinese?”
“Sounds good to me.”
Nikita excused herself to make the call and Charlotte walked to the windows to admire the view. Most of the time she didn’t mind living in Section, but a view would be nice.
“Will be here in 20 minutes.” Nikita came back into the room and sat down in on one of the armchairs. “So, do you really cook?”
“Yeah,” Charlotte flopped down into the armchair opposite of hers. “It’s one of my passions.”
“And you’ve been trained?”
“That doesn’t seem like a standard training protocol.”
She cracked a smile. “You sure?”
“I’m sure you’re right,” Nikita deadpanned. “After self-defense and munitions, came the lessons on dicing tomatoes and mincing onions.”
“Don’t forget the proper methods of carving a turkey.”
“Now that actually sounds like Section.”
Charlotte couldn’t help but let out a giggle. She noticed the surprised look Nikita gave her and became self-conscious. “What?”
“I was beginning to think that you never laughed.”
She sat up straighter and gave Nikita a haughty look. “Well, I guess I just proved you wrong,” she res
“That you did.” She paused briefly. “Charlie.”
“Don’t call me Charlie.”
“Birkoff can, but I can’t?”
“I’ve known Birkoff longer than I’ve known you,” she answered simply, ignoring the fact that both Operations and Madeline disliked the use of nickname as well. “Besides, Charlotte is more professional. How would you like it if everyone called you Niki?”
“All right, Charlotte.” Nikita acquiesced and Charlotte smiled in victory. “Do you have a last name?”
“Everyone has a last name.”
“So you’re just Nikita?” Charlotte got a nod for a reply. “Then why can’t I just be Charlotte?”
“Because I think you have a last name.”
“Charlotte Sabler—très chic,” Nikita said with a heavy French accent. So, how long have you known Birkoff?”
“Well, you have the patented Section response down, so that means you’ve been there at least a few of years.” Nikita deduced getting her a glare in response. “And that steely glare of yours is freakishly like Madeline.”
Charlotte had wanted to avoid talking about her past but Nikita had been trying to find out how she ended up in Section since the moment they sat down at the briefing table before the mission, so the question wasn’t that much of a surprise. Might as well get it over with—and even better if it distracted Nikita from her observations of her similarities to Madeline.
“I’ve known Birkoff for as long as I can remember.”
“Did you know each other before…” Nikita trailed off with a gesture that seemed meant to indicate a life before Section.
Charlotte shook her head slightly and shrugged. On the ride over to Nikita’s place, Charlotte had considered fabricating a non-existent life outside Section until that ended with her recruitment and friendship with Birkoff, but it didn’t seem worth the effort since she’d need to maintain it with all of Section.
Nikita looked stunned. “You’ve been inside your entire life?”
“That’s insane.” Nikita looked almost as if she wanted to fight someone, which surprised Charlotte. She had expected Nikita to be troubled or even a bit disturbed, but the anger was unexpected. “Birkoff is bad enough, but at least he’s in Comm. But taking a child and forcing her to become a field operative, that’s barbaric.”
“It wasn’t like that. I wasn’t forced by Section.”
“You’re sixteen and an operative. That doesn’t happen naturally.”
“It does when your parents were operatives.”
“Both of them?”
“I thought personal relationships among operatives were frowned upon.”
“They are. They were.” Charlotte paused as if she were collecting her thoughts, even though she knew exactly what she planned to say. “But my parents were very good at hiding their relationship—until my mother was seven months pregnant with me.”
“And that wasn’t grounds for cancellation? I mean—I’m sorry, I…”
“It’s all right,” she responded with a detached maturity.
Taking on the disconnected tone was easy. After all, the story she was about to tell was a mix of truths and lies. Her entry into Section was extremely classified—only a handful of people knew the full story and even she didn’t know all of it. Charlotte had been telling half truths about her past for as long as she could remember. The versions changed depending on the audience but the theme was always the same.
“My parents were high level operatives, so when my mother fell pregnant exceptions were made. She died during childbirth but my father was allowed to have me live with him on the outside. We had a flat and everything, but I never really belonged there. I don’t even have a registered birth certificate.”
“So you never existed?”
“Technically no—outside of the Section I’m invisible.” Nikita responded with a thinly veiled look of disgust, but didn’t say anything so Charlotte continued, “I was at a Section controlled daycare of sorts until I was old enough to be given tutors. When I was eight my father died during a mission, that’s when Section became my home.”
“How did you meet Birkoff?”
“I don’t know exactly, I just remember him being there. My father would take me to the park and such so I interacted with other children, but I wasn’t allowed to have real friends—the risk of exposure was too high. Someone at Section must have decided it would be good for the two of us to spend time together,” Charlotte explained with a shrug. “He’s nearly four years older than me, but apparently I was gifted enough that it didn’t matter.”
Charlotte rolled her eyes in response but was relieved that Nikita was now teasing her instead of openly expressing her outrage. “If it makes you feel better, I may have been able to speak multiple languages by the age of four but I had a terrible lisp as a toddler. I struggled to pronounce Seymour, so I called him ‘Mo’—I still do.”
She gave Nikita her best serious look. “Which is one of the key qualities of a good operative, right?”
“Because if we are not adorable, we cannot defend the unprotected public.” She grinned but kept her tone professional. “It’s why Michael is effective.”
“Oh definitely.” Nikita tried to remain serious but could not hide her laugh completely.
When Nikita laughed, Charlotte did too. There was a knock at the door and both of their laughter stopped abruptly and tensed as if expecting an attack. When they realized what they had done they started laughing.
“And that is why we both needed a girls night,” Nikita said as she grabbed her wallet and headed to the door and greet the delivery guy.
“Smells good,” Charlotte said as she joined Nikita in the kitchen to help unpacking the food. “Thai is one of the things I’d like to learn to cook. I’ve tried some recipes but nothing extensive.”
“I am barely competent in the kitchen.”
“It’s not that hard.”
“But it still feels like a chore,” Nikita said as she passed Charlotte a plate. “And the dishes afterwards.”
“The dishes are a small price today. I think cooking is a way of creative expression.” After scooping food onto her plate, she used the chopstick to gesture at Nikita’s decorative touches around her kitchen. “Not everyone has a traditional artistic flair.”
“So there were no art classes in the lessons you had with Birkoff.”
“So what did you learn during those lessons?”
Charlotte sat down on one of the stools and studied the other woman. Nikita was trying to be casual but she was too curious to mask the interrogation. “You ask a lot of questions.”
“Because I like answers.”
Charlotte deflected by taking a bite with her chopsticks. “Oh.”
“Will you give me some?”
“What do you want to know?” she challenged as she sat down next to her. “You want to hear how I got into Section?”
“I already know.”
“I’m a Level 2 operative,” Charlotte explained in a matter of fact tone. “I had access to your basic profile before our mission.”
“Level 2?” Nikita looked surprised. “You’re 8 years younger than me and you outrank me.”
“Birkoff outranks both of us,” Charlotte smiled. “He’s Level 4.”
“Still.” She shook her head in disbelief. “What did those lessons teach you?”
“General academic knowledge and skills we would need. His were technical—they gave him codes, he cracked them—that kind of thing. Pretty soon he was making them himself.”
“What about you?” Nikita took a bite of food. "What were you taught?”
“Combat, marksmanship, and standard operative skills. Plus there were languages, logic, profiling—the mental aspect of the job.”
“And they started all of this when you were young?”
“The languages and logic puzzles started immediately, but everything else was gradual—martial arts and gymnastics became combat and defensive skills as I progressed.”
“Now can we please stop discussing Section?” Charlotte begged with a dramatic emphasis. “I thought the point of tonight was to have a girl’s night out?”
“Yes, sorry.” She laughed. “Nice weather we’re having, isn’t it?”
“Weather?” Charlotte shook her head. “That’s the best you could come up with? My best friend may be Birkoff, but even I could have found a better topic.”
“Sorry. You pick a topic.”
“Did you know that more people are killed annually by donkeys than in air crashes?”
“No, I didn’t,” she answered seriously, and then laughed. “That was terrible! I can’t believe you mocked my weather comment.”
“Okay, I have another one.” She smiled. “If you could eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?”
“What would you choose?”
“Yes, and not the fresh popped kind—I mean the microwave kind.” She bit her lip a bit sheepishly. “It’s awful really, especially with how well I cook, but I just love it.”
“For me it’s French Fries. When I was a kid, I would scrounge up whatever money I could find and sneak off to get them from McDonald’s.”
“Can you believe that the first time I ever went to McDonald’s wasn’t until I was ten years old?”
“Really?” She asked; grateful for the distraction from thinking about her past.
“It was my birthday, and I told Birkoff that I wanted a ‘normal’ birthday.” She remembered with a smile. “We were never supposed to leave the Section, but I must have whined enough to convince him to make a daring escape with me.”
“How old was Birkoff?”
“How did you leave without anyone noticing?”
“We had the day off from lessons in honor of my birthday, and he put in a temporary feed of us watching a movie into the Section surveillance system.”
“Did you two do that kind of thing often?”
“Only occasionally.” She shrugged. “I would have liked to do it more, but he was always the voice of reason. Or he was just less willing to risk punishment in the name of mischief.” She shook her head. “Anyway, we left Section and he took me to this old theatre where they were playing La Belle et la Bête.”
“Beauty and the Beast?” Nikita translated.
“Yes, but not the cartoon version—the French one based on the folklore,” she continued. “Afterwards he offered to take me to any restaurant I wanted and I chose McDonald’s.”
“Did you return to Section after that?” She was completely amused by the image of a young Birkoff and Charlotte watching a movie in an old French cinema followed by fast food.
“Yes, but we had an escort.”
“Escort? You were caught?”
“Madeline must have come by the room to check on us or somehow figured it out. Either way, the minute she walked into the restaurant we knew we were busted.”
“What did she do?”
“Well, I’m sure she was pissed as hell, but being Madeline she didn’t show it.” She rolled her eyes with the pent up frustration she remembered from that day as she continued, “She ordered food and sat down at a table across the restaurant. Never once did she make eye contact with either of us. When she finished her food, we followed her out of the restaurant, and she opened the backdoor of her car and we got in. That ride back to Section was the longest of my life.”
“What happened when you got back to Section?”
“Nothing.” She shook her head. “Madeline told us to go to our quarters, so we did. She never spoke of it again.”
“You got lucky.”
“Well, yeah, I guess.” Charlotte chuckled. “But do you have any idea how terrified we were that she was just waiting for the best time to use it against us.”
“Did she ever?”
“No, but who knows? I could walk into Section tomorrow, see a Happy Meal and then I’ll know my cancellation is imminent.” She groaned at herself. “Sorry, that was a terrible comment. I really should learn to censor that kind of thing.”
“Maybe just a little,” Nikita said with a laugh. “So what kind of movie to you want to watch?”
“Spy thriller?” she deadpanned.
“You really are terrible.”
Charlotte shrugged. “You invited me over.”