Excerpt: Baby One Last Time – 2


When I’d made a date to go holiday shopping with my temporary partner, I hadn’t considered she was one of those weirdos who got up at the crack of dawn, even on days off. Waking up at 7 was made worse by the fact that I hadn’t crawled into my own bed until 4 a.m., and was in the middle of a vivid dream replaying last night’s highlights when my alarm buzzed. Next time Derek and I had mind-blowing sex, which I hoped would be tonight, we’d start earlier.

At 7:30, I met Mai in front of the building, just in time to catch the cab she’d ordered. She texted our itinerary to me while we sat in the back of the car, which moved at a snail’s pace through morning traffic. At 8 a.m., our first appointment was a trip on an open-air Hollywood tourist van.

“No,” I said when I saw it.

“Yes,” she said.

If it meant that much to her, I’d concede. Besides, Derek’s outstanding performance and attention to detail into the wee hours of the morning had left me in an extremely generous mood.

I googled the tour company website to get up to speed. “Hey, this says the first tour doesn’t start until 10.”

She shrugged. “I called in a favor.”

I didn’t ask, because another of the unwritten rules of HEAT is no snooping around your colleagues’ personal bank of favors, owed or up for collection. There were a few exceptions, of course, like double-dealing with targets, but as far as I knew, none of our rigorously vetted agents had crossed over to the dark side.

By a few minutes after eight, we’d met Jack, our private tour guide, and settled into an attention-hogging vehicle that opened halfway up the sides and had no roof, thus no protection from prying eyes or the gusting Santa Anas. I huddled under an itchy blanket that smelled like alpaca ass. At least, that’s how I imagined an alpaca’s ass would smell. The winds were frigid, although the temperatures would never drop low enough for snow. In my book, that made them a waste of cold air.

I switched my iced coffee back and forth between my hands because I’d stupidly thought a sunny day in LA called for starting my day with freezing caffeine. “So, is this like a lifelong dream, to see how Hollywood royalty lives?” I asked Mai.

“Yes,” she said. It was a testament to how little I knew her that I had no idea whether she was serious. “My father saw Bob Hope in a USO show while he was stationed in the Persian Gulf. Hope made lots of jokes about the ridiculous lifestyles of himself and other celebrities, and my father always wanted to see for himself. My mother refuses to come here with him, and he won’t take a vacation without her, so when I told him I’d be stationed in LA for a few weeks, he sent me a bucket list.” She held up her phone, which I hadn’t realized had been recording our entire tour.

“You’re doing this for your father’s bucket list?” I gave a low whistle. “That’s dedication.” I leaned close to the phone. “She loves you, Dad!” I leaned back and looked at Mai. “Is it everything you imagined?”

“Eh.” She shrugged. “I thought the yards would be bigger.”

“Some of them are,” I said, remembering the well-manicured expanse of green grass and imposing shade trees surrounding Leary’s mansion, and the two days I’d spent working with the team on her landscape decorations. And those damn flamingos. Even after another shower this morning, I was still sporting parts of that stupid pink bird on my hip.

Mai watched the passing streets and houses outside the open-air window as Jack rattled off names of and details about stars I hadn’t known existed. Mai lifted her phone to catch the angle of one of those distant specks owned by yet another unknown-to-me person.

Armed with the news that our ridiculous tour was for Mr. Lee, I tried to be appreciative of the opportunity to learn meaningless facts about flavor-of-the-month stars. I did go off-topic for a few minutes with attempts to pump the driver/tour guide for information about whether his business model could really generate enough income to sustain an entire company, which earned me a swift elbow in the gut from Mai. I stood by the validity of the question. I thought it was important we know whether we were aiding and abetting a money-laundering front. I mean, how many people can possibly be clamoring to sit through LA traffic jams and ride through narrow, winding streets, looking like gawping idiots, for glimpses of backs of houses, or worse, distant specks across canyons, just to say they saw some rando celebrity’s home?

“We actually do a great business,” our tour guide, Jack—at least he claimed that was his name—said. “We drive hundreds of tourists a day during peak season.”

“Well fuck me,” I said, which got me a shot in the ribs from Mai and a broad grin in the rearview mirror from Jack.

“I like your girlfriend,” he told Mai. “She’s spunky.”

“She is that,” Mai said.

“We’d make a cute couple,” I said.

“You’re too short to be my type,” she answered.

“Sizeist.” I grinned. “You should take me to lunch to make it up to me. Hey Jack, can you recommend someplace where we can watch real live celebrities chew salad greens?”

This time, Mai shifted her legs and managed a kick to my shin. “Oops. Sorry sweetums.”

Jack answered as if it were a serious question. In his line of business, it probably was. He listed multiple restaurants that were likely to have at least a B-lister or two show up most afternoons. His enthusiasm made me feel guilty, so I slid farther under my blanket and resolved to behave for the next fifteen minutes, the time he estimated it would take to reach Rodeo Drive, where Mai had arranged to have us deposited at the end of our tour.

When we arrived at our destination, Jack double-parked on one of the most famous shopping streets in the world, let down the side steps, and helped Mai and me out of the van. Yeah, not conspicuous at all as locals beeped their horns and yelled obscenities at us, which Jack took in stride with a smile and wave to each of them. We gave him a generous tip for all his troubles, then watched him angle in front of a Mercedes whose driver did not appear to want him there, weave into the far-left lane, and disappear into the flow of traffic.

“If the bottom ever drops out of the Hollywood tour bus business, I think X could find a spot for someone with his driving skills,” Mai said.

“And his lack of fucks to give about what other drivers on the road think of him,” I agreed.

We spent an hour window shopping and snapping pics of Mai in front of various overpriced stores and over-the-top Christmas displays up and down the block.

“Are these for your dad, too?” I asked.

She shook her head. “For my brothers. They’ll never believe I came here.”

I considered her black tee shirt, black jeans, and the same pair of black combat boots she’d worn every day since I’d met her. “You don’t strike me as much of a shopper.”

She looked up and down, inspecting my outfit of a button-down black shirt and faded jeans tucked into high-heeled boots, the last of which I’d only worn to bring my height a bit closer to hers. “Right back atcha.”

“I’m no fashionista, but I’m a holiday shopping enthusiast with a nose for bargains.” I held up my phone, which displayed a list of store names and addresses. “And while, back in the day, I rose up the ranks of government based on my research skills, I’ve got nothing on my Aunt Anita. She’s mapped out the best stores in the city.”

Mai did the honors of summoning an Uber driver with her phone app, and a short LA ride of an hour later, we started making our way through Aunt Anita’s list in earnest. Mai found a set of coffee mugs hand painted with the LA skyline for her mom, a treasure trove of old movie posters for her dad, and a pair of stylin’ black combat boots for Aaron, the wannabe-investment-banker brother.

“I haven’t given up hope on him yet,” she said.

I found a gorgeous green cashmere sweater with a coordinating blue- and green-silk scarf for my mom and signed copies of three classic, first-edition romance novels for my aunt. Both stores packaged and shipped them for me, so I didn’t have to scramble to figure out the logistics.

“It’s really not that hard to understand how UPS works,” Mai told me as we walked toward a pizza place we found by following the aroma of garlic and tomato in the air. She schlepped her shopping bags with ease. “In a couple of hours, these will be on their way to Maryland. Like magic.”

“What about your other brother, the one in the military? Are you sending something to him?”

“He’s in the sandbox,” Mai said, referring to Southwest Asia or SWA, the area civilians knew as the sites of our Middle East military deployments. “I sent his care package over a month ago.”

Fifteen minutes later, we dug into an amazing, deep-dish pepperoni pizza. “I lived an hour outside New York City for a year during high school.” I folded the pizza lengthwise like any self-respecting New Yorker would. “This is good enough to be passable there.”

We chatted about the different places I’d lived, including DC, where I’d been for the last six years. It was the longest I’d ever stayed in one place, although I’d spent the better part of that traveling, first for the FBI, then for HEAT.

“I still have an apartment there, although I’ve sublet it,” I said.

“Do you think DC will be your forever home?”

“I’ve moved around too much to think of any place in terms of forever,” I said. “But if I were going to put down roots, I’d do it somewhere that’s cold and snow-covered for at least four months of the year.”

“Not me,” she said. “The Mid-Atlantic’s cold enough. I finished high school right up the road from DC, in Annapolis.”

She’d given up on handling the greasy pizza and had resorted to cutting it with a plastic knife and fork. Like a good temporary partner, I pretended not to notice, although it was horrifying.

“My folks still live there.”

“I remember you saying your dad teaches at the Academy.” I smiled. “Maybe he can convince them to send him to LA on a recruiting trip.”

She laughed. “You’ll be shocked to learn the Navy doesn’t spend a ton of money recruiting in LA.”

She told me a bit about her own time in the military, turning circumspect around certain topics and time periods. I was smart enough to know not to ask any questions.

After lunch, we hailed another Uber and headed back to our temporary home. Mai hopped out a block before the building.

“This is where the UPS store is,” she spoke slowly.

“Got it, smartass. I’ll see you in a bit.” I waved as the car pulled away.