The Hustle, Part I


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Scene Title The Hustle, Part I
Synopsis SESA rearranges the game table.
Date April 17, 2019

“When change is in the air… you can feel it.”

Daniel Linderman cuts a dignified silhouette where he stands in front of the glass wall of his Financial District penthouse office. The slate gray sky outside creates a crisp like of contrast against the dark of his suit, makes the white of his hair seem more snowy today. As he turns to look over his shoulder, Daniel tilts his chin up with an assessing stare.

“It's like an electricity,” he says, putting the windows at his back. “People act differently. Those who know the change is coming either overly show their concern, or they coach their actions so intensely that it's evident that their behavior is unusual.”

Stepping up to stand in front of his assistant, Linderman rests a hand on her shoulder and raises his bushy brows. “It takes a sharp mind to see the change coming, and pretend they never knew anything was amiss.” The burden of his hand feels impossible to shoulder.

“Do you have a sharp mind, Miss Nichols?”

Twelve Years Later

Fort Jay

Governor’s Island

NYC Safe Zone

April 17

8:03 am

Daniel Linderman has been dead now for more years than Nicole ever even knew him. She may be Nicole Varlane now, rather than Nichols, but the lessons he imparted to her remain as clear as the day he spoke them. There's been an electricity in the air at SESA for months now, and for once… it isn't Nicole.

It all started in December, when communications between the New York office and Kansas City started routing around Nicole’s desk. Too many closed-door meetings between the Directors and senior agents. Too many awkward glances in the halls. Too many all-hands emergencies with thinly-veiled explanations as to the nature of the emergency. First it was the auroras, then the electrical explosion in the Exclusion Zone at Charles Deveaux’s old building, then it was Secretary Zimmerman shouting at Director Kenner in his own office, then it was Kenner being sacked without so much as a heads-up.

Now, in April, it's become too obvious that whatever’s been going on it's finally trickled down to Nicole. The bulk of interfacing between Kansas City and Fort Jay has shifted directly through Director Choi’s office as of February, leaving Nicole to forward daily report updates and status inquiries on long-standing investigations. It's not the job she signed up for, and it isn't worth the high salary they're paying her.

That's why she's sitting outside of Director Choi’s office, watching a pair of shadows dance behind the frosted glass doors, waiting to be called in for a meeting that should have started three minutes ago. When change is in the air, you can feel it, Daniel said.

He was right.

For months now, Nicole has been watching the walls of the life she’s built up around herself begin to crack and crumble. Now, the writing is most definitely on those decrepit walls and she doesn’t need to be Eve Mas to foretell their collapse.

Too-blue eyes stare ahead at the closed door as she waits to be called in. If she’s lucky, she’ll be reassigned to be someone’s secretary - a fate she would absolutely not relish. If she’s unlucky, she’ll find herself in the unemployment line with Kenner. She wonders if that wouldn’t be something of a mercy. She’s heard rumor that Donovan over at the newly forming NYPD needs someone with her talents, after all.

What would Daniel have her do in this situation? A rueful smile tugs at one corner of her mouth. If he’d installed her in this position, he’d want her to do everything in her power to maintain that position. The ghost of a smirk fades quickly as she imagines having to grovel before her new boss.

But Daniel’s gone and no one’s pulling her strings any longer. Nicole makes her own choices. Lives her life for herself and for her family. Whatever change is about to come down from on high, she’ll ride the wave it creates. It’s what she does best.

The door opens with a soft click, frosted glass turning clear with a change in electrical current. Deputy-Director Voss stands in the doorway, all long angles and dour expression. He just nods to Nicole, leaving the door open as he walks to stand beside Choi’s desk.

All the crate and barrel comforts that were here when this was Kenner’s office are gone now. No bonsai tree, no old nautical-themed clock on the wall, no leather recliner in the corner. Madeline Choi has more streamlined aesthetics, more glass and bare metal. It doesn't always match the Etsy Shop meets a silicon valley startup aesthetic the rest of the building has.

Choi is seated at her desk when Nicole comes in, motions for the door to be closed, and sets aside her cell phone with nearly the same motion. “Nicole,” she says with a pointed look to the chair across from her at the desk, “you've probably noticed we've been undergoing some considerable restructuring over the last five months. Now that we’re moving into the second fiscal quarter, Deputy-Director Voss and I wanted to talk changes with you.”

Voss pulls a four-month-old candy cane out of a pencil holder on Choi’s desk and crinkles the wrapper, peeling it back enough to stuff one end in his mouth. He offers nothing else.

“Director,” Nicole greets Choi with a warmth to her tone that belies her trepidation. “Deputy-Director.” A nod is given to Voss as she claims the seat across the desk.

Her gaze shifts between her two superiors, expression neutral. “Of course.” A placid smile spreads across her lips. “I’m happy to facilitate however I can.” She bites back some platitudes about believing in SESA’s mission. They either know by now that she’s sincere or they don’t care. “How can I help?”

Christ, she misses Kenner.

“I'll be transparent with you,” Choi says, folding her hands in front of herself atop her desk. “We’re cutting your role in the department. Which, admittedly, shouldn't come as a huge surprise to you given the state of things in the last few months. This isn't an indictment of your work ethic, however. SESA is just operating under new data classification protocols and cutting down the number of links in the chain from Director to President.”

Voss switches the side of his mouth that the candy cane is hanging out of, and it clicks across every one of his teeth on the way over. “Good news,” Voss says with a slow spread of his hands, “is that we’re moving you into the field. I think your talents were being wasted behind a desk — I've heard your Albany testimony, I mean — instead of where you can directly interface with people.”

Choi glances over at Voss, then looks to Nicole. “What the Deputy-Director is saying is that we’re offering you the position of field agent. What we wanted to discuss with you was whether you wanted to be a part of our consulting agents’ assignment.”

Do you want to work with Benjamin Ryans, is what neither of them are willing to say aloud.

Nicole has the grace not to look stunned when the pronouncement is passed down. She’s being offered a position. “You’re demoting me,” she says evenly, without bitterness. There’s even a hint of a wry smile there. It wasn’t the demotion she was expecting. She fully believed she’d be kept behind a desk, where she wouldn’t be at risk of — of feeling like a soldier again. Surely there’s some psych eval somewhere that suggests she’s better off in an office.

Then again, maybe there isn’t.

She leans forward, resting her forearms on her knees. There’s a light in her eyes that always appears when she’s about to negotiate something. “Yes, I want that assignment.” If she’s going to be moved back to the field, she’s going to take the high priority cases if she can help it. No more being asked to handle rats. No babysitting interns. “Ryans and I were a team during the war and that hasn’t changed.”

“Consider it a lateral move,” Voss opines, plucking the candy cane from his mouth and waving it around like it was his wand and he was Nicole’s fairy godmother. Choi, however, affords Voss a sidelong look and then turns her attention to Nicole, leaning forward in her seat.

“Allow me to be frank for a moment, Nicole. Your talents were wasted behind a desk.” Choi spreads her hands, as if depositing that opinion on Nicole’s lap. “Yes, you were a functionary for Daniel Linderman for many years, but I think you and I both know he didn’t have the purest intentions when it came to what window dressing he kept in his office. Suffice to say, it was your history of time with the late Mr. Rickham and your association with the Ferrymen and wartime activities that made us realize what your assets really are.”

Choi leans back against the cushions of her seat. “That said, I’m not going to be sending you out into an active combat zone. But you have a savvy that many of our younger agent’s don’t, and SESA is short-staffed in that regard. The team I want to assign you to is a part of a task force assembled personally by Secretary Lazzaro, but oversight is still beneath our umbrella. Though if it goes the way we’re expecting, you may be interfacing with the CIA.”

Choi looks to Voss, who crunches a piece off of his candy cane and comes to sit on the corner of Choi’s desk. “The task force is assigned to information gathering on a suspected SLC-Expressive terrorist and the only surviving founding member of the Company — though few even knew his role. A man by the name of Adam Monroe.”

Nicole’s gaze narrows faintly, almost amused. Lateral move. She’s decided to take that to mean she’ll be maintaining her current salary, which suits her just fine. What doesn’t necessarily suit her is the notion that she was window dressing for Linderman, but she manages to keep from bristling outwardly. In spite of everything that’s come to pass, she’s still proud of the work she did. Even if she knows she perhaps shouldn’t be.

Her head tips to one side as she listens and considers what she’s being offered. Glossy brown hair spills over one shoulder as she glances briefly to Voss when he comes to sit on Choi’s desk. Finally, she leans back in her own seat, pressing her lips together thoughtfully. She knows the name, if only through whispered reputation along the grapevine. That grapevine means she can find out more. “I’m in.”

Voss just raises his eyebrows in recognition of her agreement, and it’s Choi who digs more into the details as she pulls open a drawer on her desk. “You’ll be working alongside Benjamin Ryans and a former Company agent named Noah Bennet. He’s offered his services on this investigation in exchange for certain immunities regarding his tenure with that group. We’ve already processed the request in KC, I don’t want you or him thinking we’re dangling this over his head.”

From the drawer, Choi produces a new identification badge on a lanyard and slides it across the desk to Nicole. FIELD AGENT is printed across the top in red. “Your old badge is already deactivated, you can turn it into Dirk whenever’s convenient for you.” That aside handled, Choi looks up and over to Voss to continue the debriefing, such as it is.

Finished with all but a nub of his stale candy cane, Voss pinches the glistening piece between two fingers and slides off the corner of the desk, pacing the room by the window. “Obviously, what we discuss here doesn’t leave this room. We believe Monroe is connected to activities within the Mazdak political organization in the Middle East, and — while we can’t prove it — we have multiple trustworthy sources who have linked him to the upper echelons of Praxis Heavy Industries. Which, if true, could be disastrous for the nation’s reconstruction effort.”

“In January we received a shipment of fugitives from your sister’s people in Wolfhound. They hit a secure facility in the ruins of Los Angeles, netted us nearly all of the surviving Institute membership. When they filed their report, there was mention that Praxis Heavy Industries had a presence on-site and were participating in a wholesale slaughter of Institute elements using never-before-seen robotic drone hardware. Now, we’re fortunate enough to have the leader of that surviving Institute cell cooling his heels at Liberty Island…”

Voss pops the last of the candy cane in his mouth, chomping it to bits as he lets that notion hang in the air. “Pete Varlane,” Voss finally says with a look to Nicole. “Which, you can imagine, sounds awkward when I say it out loud. Ryans and Bennet have already been forwarded instructions to interrogate him when they’re ready, and I’d like you to join in on that.”

Awkward doesn’t quite begin to cover it. “Even war heroes have shitty parents sometimes.” Nicole knows that better than anybody. It’s why she wears a different surname in the first place. Voss’ movements are tracked across the room, taking in the information as she slides the badge across the desk and swaps it for the one at her blazer’s lapel. Maybe there’ll be some new prestige or respect to be earned with this new title.

Or maybe she’ll just end up butting heads with her ex. Time will tell.

“When do we start?”

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