Saturday, February 9, 2008

Valentine's CYOA, Chapter 9

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Chapter Nine

I skidded to a halt. The black SUV blocked the way. The side door opened and out stepped yet another crazy-looking stripper. Her smile was pure evil as she sauntered toward me. I glanced behind me. Dead end.

I braced myself as blondie grabbed my arm in a vice-like grip and hauled me toward the vehicle.

“Get in,” she ordered.

I peered inside… and saw myself.

“Good evening, Ms. Heart.” I patted the seat beside me. I mean, she patted the seat beside her. “Please, sit down. You must be exhausted.”

I shook my head. And this time, I mean I shook my head. (Hey, if you think you’re confused, imagine how I felt!) “Hell, no. I know who you are, Ms. Branchos, and I wouldn’t cross the street with you, let alone get in a black SUV with tinted windows with you.”

How stupid did I look?

She reached inside the jacket of her sleek, black power suit and I flinched, expecting her to withdraw a gun. Instead, she grinned and pulled out a small, black wallet, which she flipped open to reveal a very realistic-looking badge. Or, it looked realistic in the faint glow of the SUV’s dome light, at any rate. “Allow me to formally introduce myself, Ms. Heart. Imelda Branchos, Anti-Terror Division, FBI.”

I snorted. “And if I believe that, you have a lakefront property in the Sahara you’d like to sell me.” Blondie still had a death-grip on my upper arm, her bright red fingernails digging painfully into my flesh. I struggled to wrench my arm free, to no avail. “Special Agent Brant told me who you really are.”

She tilted back her head and laughed. “Special Agent Brant, eh? That Brixton, he’s full of them.”


“Cade Brixton, Jayson Brant, James Grimm, Roger Ramjet…that man has as many names as he has con jobs.”

Special Agent Brant of the killer schnozz, hot lips, and impressive skill with his…gun was a con artist? No, it wasn’t possible.

I swayed dizzily, and my fishnet-clad captor took the opportunity my weakness afforded her to shove me down onto the leather seat beside Ms. Branchos.

“I don’t believe it,” I said firmly. He’d saved my life more than once today. No way was I buying this imposter’s line.

The woman of a thousand faces arched my eyebrow at me, further disorienting me. “Did he show you a badge?”

I had to shake my head in the negative. But then, there’d hardly been time what with the bullets and the kissing and the nipple-flashing.

“How about an ID?”

“No,” I admitted.

“Anything to prove he’s who he claims to be?”

I frowned. Damn, she had a point.

She rested a gentle hand on my shoulder. “Ms. Heart, you’re not the first woman to be taken in by Mr. Brant’s smooth talk and pretty nose. That woman who came to your door was one of his former marks. So is Ms. Rose here.” She pointed to the scantily-clad musclewoman in stilettos who’d roughed me up.

I didn’t answer. I’d been this close to buying Mel’s story, but something about these strippers being in cahoots with an FBI agent didn’t add up. Then there was the question of why the Anti-Terror Division would be after an Italian con man? And finally, why was Ms. Agent-of-a-Thousand-Faces impersonating me of all people?

I squinted to study her more closely in the dim light. It really was a remarkable likeness. And if it was done with plaster, I’d eat my little white nurse’s hat.

“Let me guess,” Ms. Branchos—if that was really her name—continued. “Mr. Bardini told you that I’m a rogue agent and that two million euros were delivered to you this afternoon in a heart-shaped box by a pink delivery van. Am I right?”

My shoulders slumped a little.

“It’s all part of the con, Ms. Heart. If we hadn’t intervened with our sting operation, he would have convinced you to withdraw a large sum of money from your bank account to pay for the delivery of the second half of the payment, claiming you’d be saving the world from me. Then he’d convince you to marry him in a quickie ceremony, withdraw the remainder of your money, and leave. Ask Ms. Rose. She’ll tell you.”

Ms. Bump-and-Grind nodded in vigorous agreement.

I was on the verge of believing her. I didn’t want to, but it made a crazy kind of sense. Still… “Why is the Anti-Terror Division interested in this?”

“Because Mr. Brant funnels his ill-gotten gains to a terrorist group called PETOP.”

“PETOP? Never heard of it.”

“People for the Ethical Treatment of Poodles. They’re violently opposed to the grooming of poodles. Say it violates the dog’s dignity.”

Thinking of Mrs. Peterson’s beribboned toy poodle, I had a certain amount of sympathy for that position.

Hey, wait a minute…

“Are you telling me I was targeted because I live next door to a poodle?”

Agent Branchos nodded. “Exactly. Brant would have ‘napped the dog before he skipped town, thereby saving one more pooch from the ignominy of a bad haircut. Our plan was to intercept you before he arrived and put you in a safe house, while I impersonated you and spoiled his scheme. Unfortunately, things didn’t go according to plan—”

Beside me, Ms. Tall, Blonde, and Barely Dressed eeped in alarm. I swung my head in her direction.

Jayson Brant, looking as yummy as ever, stood behind her, the barrel of his gun pressed to her temple. My stomach fluttered. With a nose like that, did it matter whether he was a special agent or a con artist with an unusual fondness for poodles?

“Hello, Mel,” he said casually, looking past me to…well…me. “Long time, no see.”

“Jayson,” she acknowledged stiffly.

“I’m here to cut a deal. Let Cara go, and I’ll let your trollop of a henchwoman go.”

“And the package?” Branchos asked.

“Cara doesn’t have it,” Brant said. “The delivery went astray. Leave her out of it.”


“Hey, wait a minute!” I wasn’t going to let them discuss me like I was some sort of package myself, to be bandied back and forth between them like a trophy. “Don’t I get a say in this?”

A) “No!” Brant and Branchos shouted in unison. Well, at least they agreed on something.

“Mel, I’m dead serious, here. If you don’t hand Cara over, I’ll blow this woman’s head off.” His gaze drifted back to me and his expression softened. “I won’t let you down, Cara mia.”

My insides softened like caramel at that look on his face, and I was ready to beg him to let me down—on a nice, soft bed—when Branchos laughed evilly behind me.

“Go right ahead. It’s no loss, she’s already dead anyway.”

Suddenly, it all made sense: zombie.

B) “Of course!” they said in unison. Well, at least they agreed on something.

I looked from Brant to Branchos and back again. I did my best to ignore the fact looking at one of them caused butterflies to take up mass migration in my stomach, while looking at the other made me feel like I was looking in the mirror.

One thing was clear. I had to take matters into my own hands. I had to find out the truth for myself.

I pretended to consider my options while snaking my hand closer and closer to Imelda’s lap, where the wallet that held her badge lay, forgotten, between her legs. When I was within an inch of it, I struck like a cobra. I grabbed the wallet and launched myself from my seat, sending Gypsy Rose Lee and Agent McStudMuffin sprawling to the pavement.

I took off at a dead run, headed for Mrs. Peterson’s. It was time for me to do a little impersonating of my own.

C) “Of course, Cara.” Branchos spoke in soothing tones behind me. “Why don’t you ask Mr. Brant to show you his badge and prove he’s who he says he is?”

Jayson’s eyes narrowed, their glint steely even in near-darkness. “That’s not fair, Mel. You know I can’t do that.”

Well, that was certainly suspicious.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because secret CIA operatives don’t have badges or ID. It would spoil the whole effect.”

Hmmm, he had a point. On the other hand, it didn’t prove anything, did it?

I looked from him to my doppelganger and back again. Go with my heart or my head? Okay, not exactly my heart. The place I was going with was a little lower.

Either way, I made my decision.

I turned to Ms. Branchos and gave her a syrupy smile. “If it’s all the same to you, Mel, I believe I’ll go with him.”

D) Before either of them could respond, a strange sniffling, scuffling noise issued from the backseat of the SUV. I turned to look over my headrest to find the source of the sound.

Mrs. Peterson’s toy poodle stared back at me with sad brown eyes. A gag was tied around its muzzle. What kind of monster gags a defenseless canine?

Okay, I admit, I’d thought about it more than once, but still. Wasn't that what muzzles were for?

I turned back to Branchos. “Lucy, I think you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do.”

YOUR TURN: You decide what happens next! Leave your vote in the comments by 7pm EST (4pm Pacific) every day between now and Valentine's Day--Tomorrow's story continued by Julia Buckley with the twist YOU choose!

Today's installment brought to you by Maven Jackie. Vote to win a great prize!

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Maggie Robinson said...

OMG, Jackie, not only do you pay meticulous attention to detail (every pseudonym, even Roger Ramjet), but the zombification was the puff on the poodle's tail. Must go with zombies.

Erica Ridley said...

B or C, I can't decide... be back later!

Amanda said...

I vote C. Nice twist.

B.E. Sanderson said...

ROFL ... PETOP!! Too funny.

In the spirit of PETOP, I choose D. I can totally see Mel as the PETOP wacko. (But I'll be happy if C wins, too.)

Vicki said...

That was great!! I'm going with B, I loved A and the whole zombie thing, but it's B, yep, B for me.

Did I say I liked B?? (VBG)

Bill Clark said...

I think it's time the poodle had a say in the action. I vote for D!

*Bill goes off to fill out his PETOP membership form*

Writer & Cat said...

B -- I want to know how Mrs. Peterson is involved! Maybe she's the zombie.

Jody W.

tetewa said...

I'm going with D today!

Isabel said...


Another priceless line! LOL!

I gotta go with "D". Protect the poor Poodle, I say.

My vote's for "D".

You rock, Jackie, so many twist and turns, it was hard for me to decide. In the end, it's all about the Poodle's best interest and safety *G*.

Stephanie H. said...

I'm having trouble deciding between B and C too...but I think I'll go with B. Great chapter!

Kelly R. said...


lacey kaye said...

Hmm...I'm stumped, too. I think I'll go with B. I love an angry/betrayed-hero-chasing-heroine-for-answers plot twist.

Great, great job, Jackie!

Jackie Barbosa said...

This was a hoot to write, so I'm glad everyone seems to be enjoying it. The hardest part, however, was coming up with four viable options.

I have to admit to being somewhat surprised by the love the poodle is getting. Not because I think it's a bad option, but because it was the one I came up with in the greatest spurt of panic.

I have to go with B, though, because I like Cara kicking butt and, as Lacey says, the betrayed hero going after her. It's all just too yummy. Not to mention, Agent McStudMuffin still makes me laugh.

Jill James said...

They are all so good, I can't decide. I guess I'll let majority rule and tune in tomorrow to follow along.

KimW said...

I'm going with B

Deanna Lee said...

I'll go with B.

Mary said...

Since I can't decide between B and D, I'll go with the majority. B. :-)

Christine said...

Great chapter!

I like C and D but I really like the poodle twist so I'm going to vote for D.

byrdloves2read said...

Ack! B, D, B, D? Decisions, decisions. *sigh*


Amie Stuart said...

OMG I'm late but I hope B got it. Now to go read

Ericka Scott said...

(although I know I'm too late to vote. Sigh)

Patricia W. said...

Zombies? The ghost of Lucy Ricardo?

Alas, even though my vote doesn't count because I missed the cutoff time, I'm going with C. Can't wait to see which way this story heads next.

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