I'm trying to make these episodes stand alone, but if you want to read them as a series, here are the links to Part 1 and Part 2.
In the moments before executing a job, someone in Pepper's line of work was supposed to mentally review the end-goal, procedures, fallbacks. Instead, she was standing in a frustratingly slow service elevator, remembering what her handler had told her just before she went out on her first solo mission:
The career path for women is different than for men. You're going to get honey pot after honey pot until you hit forty. Then you're going to get cleanup after cleanup until you either get blown or retire. Before forty, all men — the kind of men you're going to target
— are going to notice are your legs and your tits. After forty, you'll be an asset because you'll be an experienced operative... who's also invisible.
Pepper thought of Cinnamon, somewhere below in the hotel's restaurant, distracting the target... well, with the techniques Pepper had trained her on, but basically with her legs and her tits. Pepper made a crooked smile as the elevator doors opened. Her parts of the jobs weren't as glamourous anymore, but at least the clothes and shoes were more comfortable. She pushed the cleaning cart into the corridor, making herself take her time. Hotel cleaning ladies never, ever walked with purpose, not even the ones Pepper knew for a fact were ex-military.
She scanned the corridor as she walked. The target, Anton DeBussy, wasn't supposed to have any security staff, but there was a man standing in front of one of the doors about halfway down. Pepper used the key card she'd scammed along with the outfit and props to let herself into the nearest room. Turning down the bed and leaving a chocolate on the pillow gave her a chance to figure out how to get past the goon (and to seethe at the research department for not picking up on his presence in their report), but she only had half an hour, tops, before Cinnamon was due to sashay out of the hotel, and DeBussy might decide to head back once his distraction left.
The default method was to just act like she was doing a turndown like a real hotel staff member, and hope the goon wasn't too good at keeping track of the time.
"Hey," said the goon when she returned to the corridor. "Got a spare candy you can give me?"
Pepper frowned. "They count," she said. "My manager, he keeps inventory."
The goon rolled his eyes. "Tell him one was broken. Tell him the wrapper was ripped and you were worried you'd stain the pillowcase if it melted."
Pepper made a big show of hesitating, then timidly gave the goon a chocolate. He produced his own key card and opened the door he was guarding. "This is where my boss is sleeping," he said. "Make sure you get the fold even all the way along the width of the bed. Crooked bedsheets give him hives. No really," he said, catching the puzzled look Pepper decided to display, "he's a very precise man."
"I'll try," said Pepper.
"Don't just try, do it. No wonder you have a crappy job."
Pepper shuffled into the room, pulling the cleaning cart after her so it blocked the door. At first she was worried she'd have to make up a story about needing to close the door, but the goon was content to let it close on her.
All right. She'd taken her time with the previous room's turndown, so the goon would give her as much time as possible. At best she had five minutes; realistically, half that.
There was a green USB key sitting on the night-stand in plain sight. Pepper shook her head. Even DeBussy wouldn't make it that easy, surely? She pulled the substitute one out of her pocket and compared them. They were identical. According to the research department, she was nearly done for the night.
She heard the goon walk past the door and recalled that the research department had already let her down once tonight.
Pepper dropped the USB key into her pocket and left the decoy on the night-stand in the same position she'd found the original in. She turned down the sheets and left a chocolate on the pillow, checking the rest of the room as she did so. Something didn't smell right.
"Hey, how's it going?" the goon called through the door.
"I folded the sheets crooked," Pepper said. "I'm going to try again, okay?"
"Just hurry up."
Too easy. Even with the goon this was way too easy. Something had to be odd, something had to be out of place. If she just paid attention, the room would tell her where the data really was. Her eyes lit on the suitcase resting on its stand, and her heart sank. There was no way she'd have time to search it properly, never mind make it look like it hadn't been searched.
"You turning down the sheets or washing them?"
"One more try, and then I'll give up."
Pepper stuck her head in the washroom. There were used towels everywhere. For a detail-oriented man, DeBussy didn't seem very inclined to clean up after himself.
Then she saw it. DeBussy's shaving kit was sitting on the vanity, completely zipped up and pushed under the soap dish installed in the wall. She grinned and pulled the kit to the edge of the sink.
The kit had an inside pocket, and Pepper fished a microSD card from it. She dropped it in her pocket and quickly replaced the kit where she'd found it.
Pepper finished the rest of the rooms on the floor, the goon checking her every time she appeared in the corridor. She took the service elevator down to the storage room and left the hotel from one of the staff entrances. She wished she could check on Cinnamon, but there was no safe way to do that. She pulled her coat around her and started to walk to the safe house.
After two blocks it was obvious she was being followed. Pepper clenched her jaw and headed for the subway, vowing to rip the research department a new one once she got out of the mess they'd put her in.
To be continued...