Part One, Chapters 1-6

      "—leaving one Mr. Frank Charpentier, age 42, dead at the scene," Simon finished with a faint flourish, voice pitched loud to be heard over the constant low-level commotion that was his team. He flicked the last page back down into the folder it had come from. "And that was three weeks ago, boys and girl."

      Mike whistled, tossing his pen up into the air and catching it again. "Damn, boss, one in the spine and one in the back of the head? We got ourselves a hitman with a hobby or something?"

      "Hell if I know," Simon said, settling comfortably in his chair and swinging his feet up onto the conference table. "All right, floor's open for stupid jokes, folks, let's get it out of our systems before we go on."

      "A multiclass fighter/thief?" Nate chirped, blinking rapidly and trying to look innocent. Rich groaned under his breath. Mike looked from Nate to Rich and back, then chucked his pen at Nate, bouncing it off his forehead.

      "Ow!" Nate said, wincing and rubbing the little blue mark above his eyebrow. "What was that for? You didn't even get the joke!"

      "Maybe not," Mike said, "but Specs Two got it, so it had to be one of those nerd jokes of yours. Gimme back my pen."

      Simon waited. Sure enough, after a couple of seconds Nate scooted his chair back and chased off after Mike's pen, scowling. "Anyone else?" Simon asked the room in general as Nate scurried back to his chair and lobbed Mike's pen back to him.

      "I'm good," Johnny said, cracking an eye open.

      "Are you ever not?" Mike asked. "I mean, you say that every fucking time, Texas. You oughta expand your repertoire a little, maybe pick up some new vocabulary words."

      "Picked up your momma last night, Honda," Johnny said laconically.

      "Well, yeah, duh, but the question is, did you tell her you were good after you shot your wad?"

      "Nah, figured she already knew."

      "Well, this is all just fascinating," Sandra broke in, scowling, "and by fascinating I mean stupid and generally disgusting, but my question is, what does this have to do with us? I didn't hear anything that put this under our jurisdiction, unless our thief crossed a state line in the process."

      "Good question!" Simon said, swinging his legs back down. "See, normally you'd be right, Springheel, but I left out this one little detail, just to make you look stupid and all."

      "He just can't stand it that you're smarter than him," Mike told Sandra.

      "'Smarter than he is'," Sandra said. Mike snickered.

      "Anyway!" Simon said brightly. "See, one of the local cops had a brainstorm and sent one of the bullets off to the NIBIN—"

      "A smart local cop? Are we still doing the stupid jokes section of the program?" Mike asked.

      "Hey now," Johnny said, kicking Mike's shin under the table. Mike squawked.

      "Anyway," Simon said, leaning on the word this time. Everyone fell silent, even though Mike was still grimacing and rubbing his leg. "Turns out the gun our boy was carrying has a bit of a history! See, here it is at Savi-Ten in Atlanta, where our thief stole himself this prototype low-pull trigger housing, and here it is again at Byways Security in Portland, where someone walked out with a brand-new bioelectric sensor system and took a potshot at a gate guard, and—wait for it—it turns up again in Indianapolis, at Philips Lock and Key, just after someone shot a lab tech and took off with the plans for a, get this, temperature-sensitive keypad mechanism."

      His team was silent. Simon clasped his hands on the table in front of him. "Once the local folk knew what to look for and stopped squabbling over jurisdiction, they started turning up industrial thefts left and right with this joker's method of operation all over them. Right now we're up to twelve separate thefts for certain, in ten different states, all with the same M.O., none of them ever closed. Also got—" Simon broke off there and shuffled through his papers "—about nine more that they can't be certain of. These thefts stretch back over a couple of years, one every month, almost like clockwork. Four people dead, two more wounded."

      He stopped there and waited. After a quiet moment, Johnny whistled, long and low.

      "All right, I consider myself answered," Sandra said. "The next question is, why'd you volunteer us for this?"

      "Because—no, wait, I want to make sure I'm not just seeing things here." Simon pushed the fat pile of case folders into the middle of the table. "You guys each take one and check it out. I want to see if any of you see what I was seeing."

      His team stared at the pile of blue folders, daunted by the sheer size of it (and possibly by the unwanted burden of having to work for a living), until Nate commandeered the stack and started handing the folders out. They were generally received with all the enthusiasm of flaming sacks of dog shit, but eventually everyone had had one forced upon them.

      "Hoo, listen to this," Mike said, setting his folder on the table and picking up one of the pages. "'Arrived on the scene at 8:23am. No sign of forced entry or exit. None of the building's alarm systems had been set off. The card readers had logged no attempts at access since 5:43pm the previous day, and nothing was visible on the security tapes.' Holy shit, guys, we're up against Casper The Unfriendly Ghost!"

      "I can beat that," Sandra said. "'The heavy door on the front of the security vault was untouched and the retinal scanner access system had not been used. The thief instead cut into the un-alarmed back of the safe from the unused storage room behind the laboratory and removed the prototype that way. Fingerprinting revealed blank marks characteristic of latex gloves around the hole, but the heavy layer of dust on the floor of the storage room had not been disturbed.'"

      "Oh, gross," Nate said, and read from his. "'Upon closer examination the drain leading from the boiler room into the city sewers had been pried up and replaced later. Small marks, as from a crowbar, were visible around the edges of the drain cover. Some unusual marks were also visible in the layers of muck on the drainpipe, but neither Officer Greggs nor I could be convinced to enter the pipe and look further.'"

      "Ewww," Mike said. "I knew this case stunk."

      "'Stank'," Sandra said, "but I take your point."

      "Huh," Nate mused under his breath, flicking rapidly back through the papers in his file. "You know, call me crazy, but it kind of looks like—"

      At the head of the table, Simon zeroed in on that sound and looked up expectantly. "Nate?"

      Nate, abruptly thrust into the spotlight, reddened and hedged. "Well, I mean, I'm not sure, but if you take everything together..."

      "Na-ate," Simon said again, drawing it out coaxingly.

      "ItkindoffitsJeremyArcher'sprofile," Nate said all at once, and turned bright red, and swallowed. "I mean, we spent a whole week with all his files back before the Morning Star thing, and they looked a lot like this..."

      Everyone fell abruptly silent. "Holy crap," Mike finally breathed, awestruck. "They did."

      "That fucker!" Rich said with enormous venom and satisfaction, loud enough to make everybody else at the table twitch and look at him. "Can we nail him for these? Tell me we can nail him for these. At least twelve counts of breaking and entering in ten states over two years and at least two murders committed during the crimes? We'll put his ass in the chair!"

      "Well, I hate to rain on your victory parade, Specs Two, but I'm pretty positive it's not Archer," Simon said. "See, first of all he's never been involved in industrial crime or been known to be violent—"

      "—as far as we know," Rich broke in, still hopeful.

      "As far as we know," Simon conceded. "But secondly, look here, this one in Texas happened just a week after Archer caught a bullet for m—us out in Tahoe, and while he was technically out of our hands and on the lam at that point, I don't think he's actually, you know, Superman."

      "It's still possible," Rich said, stubbornly. "Just barely, but Templar, he walked out of the hospital under his own power less than forty-eight hours after he got shot. I'm just saying that it's not outside the bounds of possibility."

      "Well, all right, that's true, I suppose he might at least be Superboy or something—"

      "Captain Britain," Nate muttered. Rich shot Nate a glare that was nothing short of malevolent.

      "—but if we go back a couple of years, this theft here? Out in Phoenix? Happened just three days before a certain someone is known to have strolled into one of the smaller museums attached to the Vatican and strolled back out with a nice handful of da Vinci cartoons, and considering how much time he likes to spend planning his escapades, I think I can say with some certainty that our thief isn't actually Archer."

      "All right, fine." Rich subsided grumpily and picked up his mug. "I admit it's extremely unlikely, but! Not outright impossible."

      "Granted. However," Simon said, pointing his finger at Nate and dropping his thumb like the hammer of a pistol, "I do agree with Specs there, as you might have noticed, given how I had all those facts right at my fingertips. It does look an awful lot like Archer's standard M.O. and you can bet I spent about half an hour trying to pin it on him before I gave up."

      "So..." Sandra said, trailing off inquiringly.

      "So even if it's not him, I'll bet you anything he can tell us who it is," Simon said. "A goddamned carbon copy of Archer? He's got to know who this guy is. Maybe they went to the same, same, uh, thief school or something."

      There was a moment of silence and then they all caught Simon's drift at once. "Aw, boss, no!" Mike moaned, clutching at his head. Rich, next to him, choked on a mouthful of coffee.

      "Oh yeah," Simon said with satisfaction. "I'm thinking we ought to call him in on this one. Play our trump card. He gives us the right kind of help and we'll have our thief in under a week."

      "Aw, boss, no!" Mike wailed again.

      "Aw, c'mon, Honda," Simon said, now thoroughly enjoying this. "You don't want to set some kind of land-speed record for catching this guy? Make at least twelve different police departments look like idiots? I mean, hell, I don't know about the rest of you, but I kind of like it like that."

      "... that does get me kinda hard," Mike admitted, peeking out from behind the screen of his hands.

      "You know I love it when you talk dirty," Simon said cheerfully. At the foot of the table, Nate turned a little pink. "Anyway," Simon said. "Anyone object to this idea? Speak up, now's the time."

      "I don't like it," Rich said.

      "Not surprised," Johnny said.

      "Well, I don't," Rich insisted, glaring at Johnny. "I don't trust him. I know the rest of you have trouble seeing past Nevada, but I don't, and he's still a criminal. A career criminal!"

      "We've worked with criminals before," Sandra pointed out.

      "But we always had leverage then," Rich shot back. "They did what we wanted or we'd put them in jail, that's how we knew we could trust them! We weren't paying them most of our remaining budget for this fiscal quarter to come in and be all, all..."

      "English?" Johnny put in.

      "English at us!" Richard immediately repeated, then shook his head violently. "I mean superior. I don't like him at all. And despite what some of you seem to think he's not part of this team, he'll never be part of this team, and for all we know he'd try to work against us. We've all seen his record! It's a mile long, and that's just from the burglaries that we know of! And you guys—" Rich snapped one hand out in a furious gesture that took in the entire table "—want to ask this asshole to come here and play around in all our confidential information? And probably sell it to the highest bidder when he's done? What the hell makes you think he's going to side with the FBI against a fellow criminal, anyway? What's to stop him from warning this other asshole off and costing us our entire case?" Rich slammed both hands onto the table in front of him, nearly spitting in his fury. "So yes, I object to this idea! I think it's idiotic!"

      Everyone else was silent, hypnotized and wide-eyed. "Whoo," Mike finally said, breaking the silence. "I been told."

      "I believe Specs Two has a couple of minor objections, Templar," Sandra added.

      "I'm getting that," Simon said.

      "You guys can make fun of me all you want," Rich spat, thudding back into his chair, "but you have to admit that I have a goddamn point."

      "Several of them, actually," Simon said, taking a deep breath.

      Before he could go on, Mike broke in. "His hat hides them nicely, though."

      "Mike," Simon said with tacked-on patience.

      "Sorry, boss."

      "So, let me see," Simon went on, as if nothing had been said. "Point the first. Yes, it's true that we don't have much immediate leverage, but believe me, if Archer thinks he can fuck around with us, I'm not above having him forcibly deported and telling Interpol where to pick him up. And I'll make sure he knows that. Good?"

      Rich grunted, hunched up in his chair like an angry gargoyle. After a moment his chin jerked up, then down. It was something like a nod.

      "Good. Point the next: nobody's asking him to be a member of this team. Hell, I wouldn't do that to you guys, and if you seriously think I would, I am hurt. He's being paid to come in and give us the benefit of his admittedly impressive professional skills, just like any overpaid private contractor. When he's done, we'll hand him his check and kick him out the door just like that." Simon snapped his fingers. "So don't go bonding with him or anything. He's not our new puppy. Good?"

      Rich was a little ball of sullen fury by this point, but he grunted and nodded again. Nate watched him, looking worried.

      "Good. Point the three: if you think I'm letting Archer go anywhere in this building without a chaperone and a, a leash, you're nuts. Just keep your computers passworded and exercise a little basic caution and I'll take responsibility for the rest. He'll see what we need him to see and that's it. Good?"

      Rich was silent. So was everyone else. Both of Johnny's eyes were open, a minor miracle for this time of day.

      "Good. And finally," Simon said without relenting a bit, "point the last: he's going to side with us because we are going to pay him a metric ton of money to do so. If there's anything Nevada did teach me—other than the fact that even the great Jeremy Archer can't sleaze his way past a bullet—it's that the man may have the morals of a US senator, but once paid, he likes to stay bought. It's his big ego thing. And I intend to buy him, or at least, uh, rent him. Good?"

      Rich sighed gustily and let his head fall forward, conceding defeat. Sandra studied Simon for a moment in silence, then said, "Well, I don't have any particular objections that haven't already been answered."

      "Me neither," said Mike. "Hell, I vote to bring Shadow in just to see if Specs Two actually bites him. I just loves me some geek fightin'." Rich's head jerked back up and he stabbed his middle finger in Mike's general direction. Mike grinned back, unabashed.

      "I'm good," said Johnny again, closing his eyes.

      "I'm fine with it, Templar," Nate said after an uncomfortable pause, glancing from Simon to Rich and back.

      "Guess we've got us a consensus, then! Socializing pants, folks." Simon said, clapping his hands. "Now, as for the next thing—"

      Mike groaned and flopped out in his chair. "There's more?"

      "And I guarantee it'll take your minds off the Archer problem," Simon said. "Actually, I was going to bring this up before the Archer thing, but Springheel had to get all smart with me, so them's the breaks."

      "Uppity little woman one, Templar zero," Sandra said, but she didn't quite smile.

      Simon immediately held up both hands in surrender. "Sorry, Spring. Anyway, here's the deal: those prototypes and plans and demo models that have been disappearing? Well, the thing is, they started turning up again."

      "Turning up where?" Sandra asked.

      "Oh, you guys are just going to love this one," Simon said, instead of answering.

      "... you waiting for a drumroll or something?" Mike asked, jabbing himself ostentatiously in the cheek with his pen. "C'mon, Templar, spit it out, I'm on pens and needles!"

      "Texas, kick him again for me, will you?" Simon asked. Johnny slid down in his chair and half a second later Mike jerked and yelped, his pen popping out of his grip to go flying through the air. Simon tried not to smile. "Hey, thanks, I owe you one. Anyway, as I was saying, and God forbid I should attempt to keep you guys in suspense, mass-produced knock-offs have been turning up all over good old Mother Russia with amazing regularity. They don't work so well, usually, but they sure as hell sell over there—and they've started turning up over here, too, in the hands of some really unpleasant folks."

      Simon stopped and waited expectantly. Two seconds later Nate's forehead hit the table with an audible thud. "Karpol," he moaned, folding his arms protectively over his head. "The thief's working for Karpol. Gotta be. And that means—"

      "—that means that we get to run this investigation in tandem with an assigned contact from the CIA," Simon finished for him, and then twitched back as the entire table erupted in babbled protest all at once.

      "Oh hell no!" Mike said, staring at Simon. "We have to run errands for the fucking spooks now? Thanks a lot, Templar!"

      "Shoot me now," Sandra said, spreading her hands wide and directing her martyred stare at the ceiling.

      "Hell no," Johnny told Sandra. "Who's gonna shoot me, then?"

      "Children," Simon said patiently.

      "They treat us like fucking helmet kids," Rich snapped, shoving his glasses back up.

      "Are we gonna start a pool on how many times we hear someone say 'need-to-know basis'?" Nate said, his head popping back up out of his arms. "I've got ten bucks on ten to fifteen times—"

      "Children!" Simon said, and smacked his palm flat on the table. The babbling cut off abruptly. "Thank you. Now, look, I don't like it any more than you do, but we're not actually working with the CIA here. We're just going to keep them posted on what we find out, all right? I'm just going to pop over there every couple of days and drop a fat file folder on someone's desk, and the rest of you aren't going to have to so much as look at an operative if you don't want to. So will you just chill?" Simon swept his gaze over the table and his somewhat sullen team, waiting. No one said anything. "Okay," he finally said, relaxing. "Okay. I know it means extra paperwork, which sucks, but it also means that we have access to their files on a—"

      "—need-to-know basis," said everyone else in chorus. Nate held up a finger and added, "That's one!"

      "Need-to-know basis," Simon finished dryly. "Ha very ha. Anyway, if Karpol's bankrolling our thief that could be important, and you all know that."

      "Fucking CIA," Mike muttered, but not loudly enough for Simon to bother paying attention to it.

      "Okay," Simon said again, and looked around. "Any more objections? Anything else before I call this meeting done?" No one said anything. "Okay, then, here's what we're going to do. Specs Two, I need to know how our thief is picking his targets when all these prototypes were supposedly top secret. See if you can find some sort of common source. Specs, I want crime-scene blueprints. Aaaaall of 'em. Get a list, go talk to the library division, flirt or whine as appropriate. Springheel, Texas, the two of you take that pile of folders and put 'em all together on paper. For the Agency, the more paper, the better, but for us, leave it lean and mean. Honda—"

      "Aw, crap, no, boss!"

      "Honda," Simon said mercilessly, "you've got yourself phone duty. Call the catching officers, brief 'em on what's going on, give 'em your number, see if they remember anything else about the burglary in question. You spot a hole somewhere, I want you to fill it in. Do what it takes short of actually flying out there yourself."

      "Fuck, I hate this part of the job," Mike wailed, slumping down in his chair. "Can't I just go get shot at?"

      "Later," Simon said. "As for me, I'm going to leave a message for Archer and then see if I can't get in touch with our new best buddy over at the Agency. I'll probably be out of the office this afternoon. Springheel's in charge while I'm out." Simon paused, checked his watch, and sat up, listening to his spine crackle. "Right. It's almost noon. Let's break for lunch before we get cracking."

      The commotion, always either present or waiting, exploded again as his team threw themselves out of their chairs, insulted each other, dumped the file folders back on the pile, closed up their computers, traded blows, and did all the other mundane things that were just background noise to Simon's ears by this point. Simon stood up and stretched, making his spine crack again, and then wandered into his office to wait.

      Mike and Sandra were the first to leave. Johnny followed shortly thereafter, then Nate, and a minute or two later Rich finished shutting down all three of his main computers and followed, letting the door slam behind him. Simon waited until Rich's footsteps had faded and then flicked open the top drawer of his desk, shuffling through the mess of old memos and dead pens and rubber stamps until he found an empty and crumpled envelope that had been stuffed haphazardly in the back corner. Once upon a time it had contained his electric bill; now the only thing of any import about it was the ten-digit number written neatly across the back flap. Whoever had written the number was in the habit of crossing his sevens. It still made Simon roll his eyes.

      Smoothing the crumpled envelope out on the top of his desk, Simon fetched out his cell phone and stabbed the number into it, hitting 'Call' and once again refusing to let the phone save the number in its memory. The phone clicked four times and rang twice before someone picked it up. "Answering service," said the by-now-familiar female voice.

      "Yeah," Simon said, leaning back in his chair and closing his eyes. "I'd like to leave a message for Jeremy Archer."

      The trail began with a black linen jacket left crumpled in a careless heap by the front door.

      Someone had kicked off his sneakers nearby, too, and a pair of black shoes of no particular type stood neatly together against the very edge of the front door, as if their owner had been shoved up against the door when he stepped out of them and abandoned them there.

      Things took a touch for the unusual, if not the ominous, shortly thereafter: a heavy gray holstered pistol lay on the floor near the door, tangled up in a complicated snarl of black webbing and Velcro, the whole mess nearly hidden under a discarded black t-shirt. A blue-and-white shirt straggled down the back of the chair to fling one rolled-up sleeve out across the carpet, pointing towards the couch and the doorway beyond as if to leave a sign. This way, the sign said, but the trail petered out there—at least, until the bedroom door.

      In there it was a wreck. A pair of black linen pants (that would have, on further inspection, matched the jacket by the door) lay against the wall where they'd been thrown, the leg of a pair of discarded jeans flopped empty across them. As is usually the case in this situation, there was no sign of anyone's underwear, but a pile of blankets and pillows had fallen or been shoved off one side of the bed, and it was likely that said underwear was in, under, or on top of that pile, somewhere.

      The sheets had pulled free at one corner, revealing the bare mattress, which neither of them had roused themselves to care about yet. Instead Simon lay sprawled full-length and sideways across the bed, still breathing hard, a single pillow rescued from the pile of discarded bedding to give him somewhere to put his head. The somewhat-battered Jeremy was flopped out on Simon like a blanket, too drained to even slide off, not that there was anywhere for him to go. Simon was determinedly occupying as much of the bed's surface area as he could, arms and legs everywhere, just to prevent Jeremy's retreat—if he had been capable of rational thought, he would have been strenuously denying that he sort of liked having Jeremy up there.

      Simon, staring at the ceiling and not really seeing it, eventually said, "Knees."

      "Mm?" Jeremy said, not opening his eyes.

      "Knees," Simon said again. "I used to have some. Two, I think. I wonder where they went. Did you steal them?"

      "Mmmmmm," Jeremy said again, a long satisfied purring note. "Not guilty, although I might have had a hand in misplacing them. In point of fact, however, I'd have to say that they've run off with my spine."

      Simon absently reached up and squeezed the back of Jeremy's neck. "I hope they're very happy together."

      "Perhaps they'll send us postcards." Jeremy stretched, a long, thorough, rolling motion that made Simon just sort of naturally grab for his ass, and then dropped his head back onto Simon's chest. "Mm. Well. That was worth waiting for, I'm certain."

      Simon couldn't help it—he started laughing, hard enough to nearly dislodge Jeremy, who braced his knee against the bed to prevent himself from getting tumbled off. "Jesus Christ. Yeah."

      "So glad you agree." Jeremy smiled lazily, his eyes slitting half-open. "So tell me, is this scandalous for you, or is it just a poor career choice?"

      "Neither, if I can help it," Simon said, shutting his own eyes. "You think I'm ever going to tell anyone about this, you're nuts."

      "Mm. Probably for the best. I'd be ruined if it got about that I was, er, 'collaborating with the authorities', as it were." Jeremy lifted his head again, looked over at his pants crumpled against the far wall, and let his head fall with a sigh.

      "What?" Simon asked.

      "For some reason I find myself rather in the mood for a cigarette," Jeremy said, "but I'm not terribly enthused about going to fetch them."

      "I don't have an ashtray anyway. Smoking's a disgusting habit. And besides, then I'd have to bum one off you and I'd hate to owe you a favor."

      "Aren't we a little beyond tallying up favors by now, Simon?" Jeremy asked, but he trailed off there and found a place to roll off Simon, sprawling out on his back at Simon's side and stretching again. The scar on his lower belly shone pink in the fading afternoon light, a beacon of sorts. Simon let himself follow it, propping himself up on one elbow over the thief and slinging a leg over his, and spent a few moments admiring the trail of red marks that he'd left behind on Jeremy's throat and shoulders. Some of them were already discoloring and turning purple.

      "If news of this ever reaches my superiors or God forbid my team," Simon said, catching Jeremy's face in one hand and making him tilt his chin up, "I intend to claim that you have some sort of, I don't know, mind control serum or something. I'll be exonerated for, for... going above and beyond the call of duty, I suppose. Willingly exposing myself to an unknown hazard. That sort of thing."

      "Mind control serum!" Jeremy reached up and touched the bite mark on Simon's shoulder curiously, just as if he hadn't left it there himself. "What a fantastic idea. I'll have to get right on that."

      "Well, you haven't disappointed me yet, much as I hate to admit that out loud and all." Simon bit Jeremy's ear, making the thief twitch under him—it felt kind of nice—and added, his tone still light, "The team could use someone like you, you know."

      "Oh, yes, and I'm certain you'd have no trouble at all in getting me a position with the Bureau," Jeremy said, smiling that familiar little smile and spreading his hand out on Simon's chest.

      "Not really, no," Simon said, the bantering tone fading, watching Jeremy carefully out of the corner of his eye. "Not if we hired you freelance. You know, as an expert on, uh, things. Which I'm led to believe you are." Jeremy's hip was right there, so he put a hand on it, just to keep it where it was. The ball of his thumb ticked over Jeremy's scar again. "I'm speaking purely in a hypothetical sense, you realize."

      "Oh, hypothetically," Jeremy said, falling still under Simon, the last remnants of his smile vanishing. "I consider myself fluent in hypotheses. What is it that you are theoretically proposing, Simon?"

      "Hypothetically, I was wondering how you'd feel about working on the side of the good guys. On a purely contractual and highly erratic basis, mind you."

      "The good guys' side! How very reductionist of you." Jeremy paused, considering. "Well, just for the sake of argument, could the Bureau afford my going rates?"

      "The Bureau could afford to buy and sell you a couple million times over, Archer."


      "No, I'm pretty sure we could do that in real life, too."

      "I think you're drastically underestimating my resources, Simon." Jeremy opened his eyes and smiled faintly. "But in any case, assuming we were actually having this conversation—which I'm led to believe we aren't—I would have to tell you that I would, therefore, accept your hypothetical freelance offer under one condition."

      "And in this freakish bizarro world, what would that condition be?"

      "A trade, Simon. I would, in theory, trade you a phone number where you could reach me at any time in exchange for a few piddling little files in the FBI's computers going quietly missing."

      "Then, theoretically, I'd say that I'd have to clear it with Upstairs but I don't see a reason why that couldn't be arranged." Simon paused, tracing out the curve of Jeremy's hipbone with his thumb, and added, "And of course if you found yourself in the States in this fictional alternate universe, you might ought to come check in with me, just to make sure I didn't have any imaginary work for you."

      "Mm. Well. As I was actually about to say, I do get to the States every few months on, ah, shall we say 'business'? So that would be theoretically possible, of course." The spell of stillness on Jeremy broke, almost audibly, and he pressed up against Simon, the movement full of lazy promise. "We should have hypothetical discussions like this more often, Simon."

      Simon just shrugged and moved the hand on Jeremy's hip inwards, making Jeremy catch his breath and bite his lower lip. "Eh. I can think of better things we could be doing, Jeremiah—"

      "—don't nn call me that," Jeremy said, the corner of his eye twitching ever so slightly, and before Simon could respond to that (or indeed do much of anything) Jeremy wound both arms around his neck and pulled Simon down, putting one hell of an end to their transaction.

      When Simon woke the next morning, stiff, sticky, and very sore, he found himself alone in his completely disheveled bed with one of the sheets tossed negligently over him. Of Jeremy Archer there was no sign at all except for a few interesting dried spots on the sheets, a particular taste in Simon's mouth, and an empty envelope on the kitchen table, weighted down with a bowl from the sink.

      Written on the envelope was a ten-digit phone number with no name attached, its sevens neatly crossed. The area code put it somewhere in New York City. The bowl contained a tiny mound of ashes and a dead cigarette butt, and the kitchen still smelled slightly of both smoke and something sweet and harder to place.

      Simon fed the ashes to the garbage disposal, scowling, and scrubbed out the bowl thoroughly—then, refusing very firmly to think about what he was doing, he put it back on the kitchen table just where Jeremy had left it.

      "I can take that message for you, sir," the cheerful woman on the other end of the line said.

      "I'd appreciate it," Simon said, not opening his eyes. "Just tell him to call me as soon as possible. My name's Simon Drake, and he had better damned well have my number."

      The cheerfully professional voice on the other end of the line warmed a little, for no reason that Simon could discern. "Yes, sir, Mr. Drake. I'll pass that along. Is there any more to the message?"

      Simon thought about it long enough to kick his legs up and put his feet on his desk. "Nah, that's it. Thanks a bunch."

      "You're welcome, Mr. Drake," she said, and Simon could almost hear her smile as she hung up.

      Simon pulled the phone away from his ear and eyed it, bemused, before hitting the CALL CANCEL button and flipping his phone closed. "What was that about?" he muttered, snapping his phone back into its belt clip and settling back in his chair to wait.

      Ten minutes later he cracked one eye open to check the time and snorted. "Any day now," he said under his breath. He'd just closed that eye again when his phone buzzed, startling him; rolling his eyes, he pulled his phone back out and flicked it open. "About damned time, Archer—"

      Silence. Simon frowned, waited a second just in case, then looked at his phone. Its screen rather smugly informed him that he had one (1) new text message waiting. Simon snorted (mostly at himself) and negotiated with his phone until it coughed up the message on its little screen, with an absurdly cute little 'document attached!' paperclip icon in one corner.


      For a moment Simon was too taken aback to do anything but stare at the message. When it finally registered his eyebrows slammed down and he scowled blisteringly at the screen. "Jesus Christ," he hissed, smacking his phone closed with such vehemence that it nearly bounced back open. The phone immediately buzzed again, like it had just been waiting for him to close it. Simon jumped about two inches into the air, popped his phone open with an irritated snap of his wrist, and snapped, "What?"

      Aside from a faint crackle and hiss, the line was silent. Simon was just about to pull the phone away from his ear and look for another one of those high-handed text messages when Jeremy's tinny voice said, "In my defense, Simon, I point out that you called me."

      "Archer," Simon said in something not unlike relief, pinching the bridge of his nose in an effort to get the remnants of his slight headache to lessen. "What can I say? It's been a day."

      "Mm. I didn't think I'd had the leisure to irritate you yet. Except inasmuch as my very existence seems to aggravate you, which can't be helped."

      "You are a pain in my ass and no mistake, Archer," Simon said before he really thought about it, and hurried on to fill the thoughtful silence that he'd created. "So! I understand that you've been building a collection of little bronze ballerinas recently! Ballerina statues. Jesus. You really are a fruit."

      Jeremy, graciously or not, seemed willing to let it go. "Well, yes, but currently a rich fruit," he said, the connection hissing and popping once. "A very rich fruit. I believe your Bureau could only buy and sell me about, oh, nine hundred thousand times over at this point. An accomplishment of sorts!"

      "You just keep on reaching for that dream, little toaster. As long as you don't do it in the States."

      "I wouldn't dream of it," Jeremy said, sounding so utterly innocent that it made Simon grit his teeth. "And in any case, I have much better things to do when I find myself in the US, haven't I?"

      "Pain in the ass," Simon repeated, shifting around in his chair a little and making the springs complain. "And enough with your ridiculous angelic act. It's making me want to throw up."

      "Oh, well, if you insist, Simon, you know I've never been able to say no to you." Jeremy laughed faintly before clearing his throat and getting down to business. "So, what's the occasion? I can't imagine you just missed the sound of my voice."

      "How much do you know about the political situation in Russia these days?" Simon asked, slightly nettled.

      After a startled pause, Jeremy said, "Not bloody much. I try not to get involved in politics. Bad for the complexion. What on earth—"

      "I'll buy you some moisturizer," Simon said, rolling right over him. "Some joker who thinks he's you has been burglarizing industrial sites all over the country and shipping the stolen tech overseas. Matches your S.O.P. right down the line, except for the bit where he shoots people dead, and, well, Upstairs has dumped him in my lap—don't even think about saying it, Archer."

      Jeremy was mercifully silent. After a moment, Simon went on. "Therefore I am officially requesting your freelance help, despite your exorbitant rates, you swindler. How soon can you be in the States?"

      Jeremy was still silent. Just before Simon was about to ask if he was still there or dead or what, Jeremy said, "Ten hours, at least. Damned shame about the Concorde."

      "That'll have to do, then," Simon said, letting out a breath he hadn't really been aware he was holding. "If I don't hear from you by midnight one way or the other, I'll assume your plane went down over the Atlantic and you were eaten by sharks."

      "Mm," said Jeremy, a teasing note buried in that noncommittal little noise. Business time was apparently over; Simon's nerves all prickled. "And would that break your ice-cold heart, Simon?" Jeremy said—nearly purred. "Or would you be glad to be rid of me?"

      "Hell, I'd just feel sorry for the shark," Simon growled, and slapped his phone shut to disconnect the call.

      "Shit," Simon said, slamming back into the still nearly deserted saferoom half an hour later, no longer hungry but still cranky.

      Rich's head snapped up and he regarded Simon warily over the monitor of his (second, smaller) computer. "What?" he said, shoving his glasses back up.

      "Shit," Simon said again, patiently. "What, didn't you hear me the first time?"

      Rich eyed Simon, his lips drawn into a tight and disapproving line. "You're going to make me drag it out of you, aren't you?"

      "Well, not if you're not going to be any fun about it," Simon said, kicking a chair over and dropping into it. "I've got a map of some sort that I need to get off my cellphone and into a usable format," he went on, waving his cellphone at Rich like it offended him, "and the company wants me to shell out for some kind of fancy-ass cable to do so—"

      Rich rolled his eyes and more or less snatched Simon's cellphone out of his hand. "Cell phones are such a scam," he said. "I'll do it."

      "That's what I like about you, Two," Simon said genially, sprawling out in his chair to watch Rich work. "It's so easy to irritate you into solving all my problems for me."

      Rich just snorted and kicked open one of his desk drawers, retrieving a huge and terrifying mass of heavy black cables held together with electrical tape, twist-ties, and something Simon was reasonably sure had once been one of Sandra's ponytail holders. Silver and gold plugs hung from the Gordian knot at seemingly random intervals; Simon counted close to twenty before he gave up. "Fancy," he said, leaning over to pick up one of the random plugs and stare at it. Rich scowled at him until he put it back down.

      Settling the mass of wires comfortably in his lap Rich flicked rapidly through the plugs and compared them one after another to the output jack on the side of Simon's phone. "Nate calls it my cable-tribble," he eventually grudgingly volunteered. "It's a misleading name. It's never reproduced, asexually or otherwise."

      "Christ, I'm glad of that," Simon said, watching this process with vaguely queasy fascination. "I'm terrified enough just knowing that one of those things was living in here."

      Rich grunted, presumably in agreement, and shoved one of the gold plugs into the side of Simon's phone. Dropping the newly violated phone on top of the writhing mass of black cables (Simon could not help but think of tentacle porn, even though such jokes were generally Mike's province) Rich stuck his hand into the knot and extracted a single large black plug, which he connected to a port in the front of his computer.

      The computer whirred and spat and thought and eventually kicked up a window, which Rich promptly ignored. A few seconds later the first window vanished, replaced by about ten others, one of which was a crude but serviceable replica of the screen and buttons of Simon's cell phone. Simon whistled in appreciation. "Nice. So, what's the, uh, cable-tribble usually used for?"

      "Extracting information from cellphones and most kind of PDA, generally by force and despite security measures," Rich said, selecting one of the windows and typing something into it. "This, in other words."

      "Legally, of course."

      "As far as you know, Templar."

      "My man, Specs Two," Simon said. "Let's keep me stupid. The map's attached to a text message."

      "Right," Rich said, and did something else that Simon couldn't quite follow. All the windows vanished, replaced by a single progress bar; Rich squinted at the screen like he didn't quite trust it, but eventually nodded and leaned back in his chair to wait.

      Simon gave him five seconds of silence before looking away and clearing his throat lightly. "Hey."

      Rich grunted, not looking at him.

      "About Archer," Simon said. He was rewarded by a faint sheen of light off Rich's glasses, like Rich had turned his head ever so slightly towards him. It was something. "You know I'm counting on you to play nice, even though you know and I know that you don't like this idea."

      Rich grunted again.

      "I'll put you on the record as disagreeing with this decision if you want me to," Simon pressed on. "All official-like. That way if it blows up in my face your ass will be covered. Okay?"

      Rich looked down, shrugged one shoulder, and looked back up at the computer screen. Simon waited, patiently. "Don't bother," Rich finally, unwillingly said. "I don't like it, but I guess I trust you, even if I don't trust him."

      "You sure?" Simon asked.

      "No," Rich said, just as the computer beeped and vomited up a long list of incomprehensible file names. With something like a sigh of relief Rich popped up a second window and typed 'map' into it, reducing the list of file names to seven; the third one was, simply, 'namap.GIF'. "There we go," Rich said, and dumped that file to his desktop. "What's this a map of?"

      "The National Arboretum," Simon said, unable to keep the scorn out of his voice. "Our oh-so-thoughtful Agency contact decreed that there would be a meeting there at two, without so much as bothering to ask me if that was a good time for me or anything. Of course not! That would be, I don't know, polite. And, you know, he could have at least told me where in the Arboretum, it's not huge or anything—"

      "—right here, by Beech Spring Pond," Rich broke in, tapping the screen to draw Simon's attention to the somewhat gigantic map that he'd opened up. He sounded a bit cocky. Simon stared at him, piqued. "I can zoom in some more," Rich went on, "it looks like he's actually marked a particular spot and a good parking lot nearby..."

      "Oh, shut up," Simon said. "And give me back my damn phone."

      "Hang on," Rich said smugly, shutting the program down and freeing Simon's phone from the morass of cords.

      Simon accepted it gingerly. "Christ, my poor phone. Orifices violated. Tentacle-raped by a tribble. What a horrible way to go."

      "Blame the CIA," Rich said, shoving his glasses back up. "I do."

      Simon checked the clock on the dashboard even as he threw the Jeep into park and shut off the engine. 2:15. "Right on time," he muttered, twitching out half a completely humorless smile.

      Even at two in the afternoon on a cloudy cool March weekday there were still a few die-hard nature lovers wandering around in the Arboretum, and Simon passed two or three of them as he ambled down the path towards the lake, taking his own sweet time about it. Everything around him was beginning to turn green again, and the pathways were damp and sparkling with the recent rain; Simon discovered that he was almost enjoying himself, which wasn't exactly the idea. Firming his jaw and reminding himself that he wasn't having any fun at all, Simon strode towards the lake, ducking under the dripping trees.

      The path he was on eventually turned into a wooden walkway, bridging one of the lake's little outcroppings. Simon stopped in the middle to rest his elbows on the handrail and look out over the lake and the heavy gray clouds reflected in it. A rain-heavy breeze blew damply in his face, ruffling his hair and blowing it away from his face. "Nice," he grudgingly admitted under his breath.

      "I do appreciate you joining me, Drake," someone said briskly behind him.

      Simon clamped his jaw shut and absolutely one hundred percent refused to whirl around to face the owner of the voice. "D. Langridge, I presume," he said after a tense moment, letting go of his sudden death grip on the wooden railing. "I'd apologize for being late, but you didn't exactly check with me to see if my schedule was open."

      "Dorothy Langridge, actually. Just 'Langridge' is fine," the voice's owner said, answering a question he hadn't asked as she joined him at the railing, one hand rummaging about in her jacket. "And I assumed that if you had an actual schedule conflict, you'd have texted me back to say so. I haven't got time to waste, Drake, especially not on inane 'when's good for you?' 'whenever's fine!' IM conversations." She dropped her sturdy steel-sided briefcase on the boards at her feet with a dull thud, as if for emphasis.

      "Yeah," Simon said, blowing out an irritated breath, "I can tell ours is going to be a beautiful friendship, Ms. Langridge."

      "Just Langridge," she said again, pulling out her ID folder and flicking it open. "And that's fine. I don't particularly care for you either."

      Simon automatically dug out his own ID folder in response. "Well, as long as we're sharing, Langridge, I hate being called 'Drake'. I'm not your goddamned dog. Mr. Drake, or Simon, or Templar—hell, I wouldn't object to 'sir', except it seems kind of wrong to make a lady of your mature years call me that."

      Langridge snorted. It didn't exactly sound amused. "Do you have any idea who I am?" she asked without preamble, stuffing her ID folder back into her jacket. When her hand slid back out there was a battered hard pack of cigarettes in it, and she wasted no time shaking out a cigarette and a cheap plastic lighter.

      Simon blinked, snappy comeback lost in his general surprise. "You know," he said, "I really don't think you're technically allowed to smoke in the Arboretum—"

      "If a flower wrangler comes by and tells me to put it out, I will," she said, shielding the lighter's flame with a cupped hand and sucking in the smoke like she was hungry for it. "Are you ignoring my question or just taking your time coming up with a suitably insulting response?"

      Simon bit his tongue and counted to ten, slowly, reminding himself that at least one of them should try and remain professional about this. "I've got an idea," he said, exhaling hard. "Why don't we start over and pretend neither one of us has done anything incredibly irritating yet?"

      "I've got a better idea," Langridge said, flicking the filter of her cigarette with her thumb and knocking ash into the lake. "Why don't we just let it go, do our business, and get the hell out of each other's lives?"

      "Fine," Simon said, rolling his eyes. To hell with professional. "Fine with me. All right, then, Langridge. Who are you?"

      "Thought you'd never ask," she said, and almost smiled, a hard and humorless expression. "I am the CIA's foremost State-side expert on Viktor Karpol." The unpleasant smile vanished as quickly as it had appeared. "Would you like to know how I got this plum job?"

      "Not really," Simon said, "but tell me anyway."

      "You're learning, Mr. Drake," Langridge said, narrowing her eyes at him—now she looked amused, despite the lack of a smile. "Six months before I graduated with my BA in Russian literature, I attended a job fair on campus. The CIA was hiring people who spoke Russian. Now, this was likely before you were born—"

      "Oh, Jesus, here we go," Simon broke in, throwing both hands up in the air. "Look, Langridge, I'm obligated to eat a lot of shit from you because of my orders—"

      "Simmer down, Mr. Drake," Langridge snapped, grinding the butt of her cigarette out on the sole of her sensible brown low-heeled shoe and dropping the dead filter back into the pack. "I really don't care if you're nine or ninety, as long as you're competent, and everything I've read about you suggests that you are. All right? I am stating a fact. As of two months from now I'll have spent twenty-three years sitting in a damp basement room in Langley learning everything there was to know about Viktor Karpol."

      "I'm twenty-nine," Simon gritted out.

      "I don't care."

      "Christ, of course you don't care—are you trying to irritate me?"

      "Yes," she said, narrowing her eyes in amusement again. "I hate wasting time, Mr. Drake. I could have bent over backwards trying to be polite and accommodating to you and you still would have come to this meeting predisposed to dislike me, because I'm CIA. So to hell with it. I don't need you to like me. Once you stop snarling at every little tiny irritating thing I say and just accept that I'm going to be irritating no matter what, we can both stand down and get on with this."

      Simon eyed her narrowly. "So you're purposely trying to irritate me so that I'll build up a tolerance for it?"

      "That's more or less the size of it," Langridge said. "Anyway, as I was saying, for twenty-three years I've sat in a dank little basement room with a red pen and a Russian dictionary. It used to be that they'd bring me piles of paper in Russian, I'd translate it, they'd take it away again. Fifteen years ago suddenly it was all on the computer. Five years after that someone managed to tap into the lines leading out of one of his larger offices and suddenly I was being fed copies of every single email flowing in and out of his disgusting little empire. These days I have four bright young things on their computers doing the actual translating for me, and I sit in my little basement room and collate everything I've ever read, heard, seen, or translated into a single three-dimensional portrait of Viktor Karpol. I've never met the man. Hell, I've never been to Russia, and after the things I've learned in the last twenty-three years, I don't particularly want to go. But if you want someone who can tell you anything you need to know about Karpol's organization, and you don't want to go all the way to Russia to find him, I'm your agent, Mr. Drake."

      "You know," Simon said after a pause, "for someone who hates to waste time, you sure do run off at the mouth a lot."

      "Occupational hazard," Langridge said. "I am CIA, Mr. Drake, no matter what kind of desk jockey I may be. You don't think we're in a goddamned national park because I like trees, do you?"

      "You know, I'd been planning to say something rude to that effect," Simon said, looking out over the lake.

      "Sorry to spoil your punchline," Langridge said. "I'm about eighty-five percent sure that my office is bugged, and almost a hundred percent sure that my computers are. You can make snippy jokes about my paranoia all you want, but twice in my life I've been woken by agents in the middle of the night because they thought there was a bomb in my apartment, and at least once they were right."

      "Huh," Simon said, not really wanting to dignify that with any sort of answer but feeling that something was called for.

      "Every morning they sweep my office for transmitters," Langridge went on inexorably. "Once a week I check my car and my apartment with one of the handheld sweepers. Even if you weren't paranoid to begin with, Mr. Drake, in that sort of environment you learn to be. Or you die. Even if the most dangerous thing you're trained to wield is a cigarette lighter."

      "Okay, okay, I get your point," Simon said in exasperation. "You live a dangerous life despite the disappointing lack of, of Hollywood-style glamor and I'm just a snotnosed kid who's only good for chasing mini-thugs across state lines. Fine and dandy. I give in. I surrender. I acknowledge my place in the pecking order. You win. Can we stop having the dick-size contest now and actually talk about the reason we're here?"

      After a pregnant pause, Dorothy Langridge burst out laughing. Simon, already irritated, hunched his shoulders slightly and gritted his teeth until the laughter tapered off. "I take it back, Mr. Drake," she said, coughing and wiping her eyes with the back of one hand. "I think I may like you after all. 'Dick-size contest'. My goodness."

      "I'm so glad you're amused, really, I just live for your smile," Simon said. "The thefts?"

      "Yes, yes, the thefts," Langridge said, picking up her briefcase and resting it on the handrail. "I've brought you everything that I could find about the knockoff items in question, although I'm afraid it's not much just yet. I'll be able to provide you a lot more once you have places, names and dates for me to look at—on a need-to-know basis, of course."

      "That's two," Simon muttered, looking away politely while she worked the briefcase's combination locks. There was a small flock of ducks just now landing at the far end of the lake. He watched them instead.


      "I said, 'of course,'" Simon informed the ducks.

      "Of course you did," Langridge said, dropping a fat file folder on Simon's knuckles and closing her briefcase again. "Shred anything that you don't need and anything you're done with. There's also a list of ten email addresses in there. They'll all reach me. Don't use any of them more than once. If you need more, I'll generate another ten."

      "Christ," Simon muttered, flicking open the folder and giving the contents a cursory looking over.

      "Welcome to my world," Langridge said dryly, pulling her cigarettes back out and lighting another. "We should meet once a week, at least, to keep each other apprised." She paused, breathing a cloud of smoke out over the lake, and then put on that hard and humorless smile again. "Tell me, Mr. Drake, would Fridays at two be convenient for you?"

      "So nice of you to ask," Simon said, equally dry. "I believe that will be acceptable. Obviously you have my cellphone number—"

      "And your work email address, and your personal email address, and your home address, and your landline number," Langridge said, still smiling.

      "Yes, fine, thank you, I surrendered already, remember? I bow before your obviously superior information-gathering skills. Jesus. As I was saying, the cellphone's probably your best bet. It's always with me."

      "Understood. We'll meet here," Langridge decreed briskly. "Unless you have an objection, of course."

      "I'd love to have an objection, but the sad fact of the matter is that it's really no more of a hassle than anywhere else. This is fine. If I come and it's raining, I'll wait in my truck. It's a—"

      "—black Jeep Wrangler," Langridge said.

      "Black Jeep Wrangler," Simon finished, irked. "Obviously you don't need the plate number."

      "No, I've got that."

      "Of course you do. Anything else, or can I leave now?"

      "I think that's it," Langridge said, taking another deep drag off her cigarette. "I'll stay here for a bit. It's always pretty this time of year."

      Simon paused in the act of turning around. "I thought you said you didn't like trees."

      "No, I asked if you thought we were meeting here because I liked trees. The answer is, actually, yes, we are, because I do like trees." Dorothy Langridge tapped another length of ash into the lake, prompting a swarm of minnows to investigate. "But you never bothered to pursue that line of questioning, did you? Good afternoon, Mr. Drake."

      "A beautiful friendship," Simon muttered under his breath, stalking back up the path towards his Jeep.

      Simon let the door to the saferoom slam shut behind him, waited patiently until every eye in the room was on him, and then spread his arms wide and calmly, rationally said, "Argh."

      "That bad?" Johnny said.

      "... Jesus H. fucking Christ in a sidecar."

      "That bad," Johnny concluded, and shut his eyes again.

      "Yeah, I really needed to spend the next couple of weeks having my ass ridden by some superior old battleaxe with a bad attitude and a higher security clearance than mine," Simon said, pacing back and forth in front of the door to burn off some of his irritation—just recalling his conversation with Langridge was making it all come welling back up again. "And she thinks she's funny, for a bonus. Yeah, this is just what I needed. Archer call?"

      Sandra and Mike glanced at each other, Mike mouthing 'she?'. "No," Sandra said cautiously, looking back at Simon. "Was he supposed to?"

      "Nah, not really," Simon said. "However, since he didn't call here and he didn't call me, I'm going to assume he managed to catch a plane. So guess what, boys and girl!"

      "Overtime?" Mike squealed in an ear-grating falsetto, clapping his hands together in mock glee.

      "Overtime!" Simon announced, pretending to ignore Mike. "Unless Archer's plane goes down in the Atlantic, and don't think I'm not subconsciously rooting for that, he'll be here and ready to get to work tomorrow morning. So we're going to hunker down in here until we've got all our ducks in the proverbial row, because I'll be damned if we're going to look like less than the perfectly organized and synchronized team that we are in front of Jeremy Archer."

      "Shit," Rich muttered. "He's not even here yet and he's already pissing me off."

      Simon promptly swung on him. "Two. Got something else for you to do."

      "Me and my big mouth," Rich grumpily told his monitor before glancing over at Simon. "Can it wait? I'm kind of busy, as you might remember."

      "It's not so important that you have to stop doing what you're doing. I think your working deadline is Friday morning."

      "Right," Rich said, heaving a deeply irritated breath. "What's up?"

      "Think you can tiptoe around the edges of the CIA without causing us any interdepartmental strife?" Simon asked, instead of answering.

      Rich blinked twice and then yanked off his glasses, scrubbing the lenses on his sleeve. "I think so," he said cautiously, blinking near-sightedly at Simon, "but that's a hell of a tall order, Templar. Depends what you need."

      "I just need some basic information, anything, on one Dorothy Langridge. I mean, I'm looking for things like her home phone number, her home address, what she drives, where she went to college, anything."

      "Oh, profile and background crap? I can get that without too much hassle. Why?"

      "Because," Simon said, gritting his teeth slightly, "I never want to be caught so off-guard by that woman again."

      After a significant pause, Rich said, "Got it, Templar."

      "Knew I could count on you, Specs Two," Simon said, and wheeled to face the conference table. "Specs still off fighting the librarians?"

      "Yep," Johnny said.

      "Great. He'd better come back with his blueprints or on them. Anyone need me for anything? If not, I have a folder full of crap that is probably useless to study." Simon paused and looked around. "Right, then. I'll be in my office. Scream if you need me."

      "Jesus Christ."

      "You said all of them," Nate said defensively, hunching his shoulders and vaguely trying to shield the stolen library cart behind his legs.

      "No, no, good work, Specs," Simon said absently, still staring at the hundred-some-odd pounds of blueprints draped heavily over the top of the cart. "It's just—Jesus Christ."

      "Yeah," Nate said. "That's why I stole the cart."

      Simon clapped him on the shoulder. "That's my boy. Okay! Your next job? Mailing tubes. Go hit up an office supply store and get enough big-ass mailing tubes to hold all this stuff. Bring me the receipt so that I can get you reimbursed. Try not to run over any pedestrians on your way, it looks really bad if you do that on the clock."

      "Right, Templar," Nate said, blushing a little.

      "Once you get back, organize the prints, roll 'em up, label the tubes. Place, date, number of theft, the works. Springheel and Texas should have a master list you can refer to by the time you get back. Think you can fit all those in the supply closet once you're done?"

      Nate turned around to look helplessly at the door to his supply closet. "Maybe," he said dubiously.

      "Right," Simon said. "Try. If you can't, put everything in the mat room. Let's keep the cart. If Documents comes for it, we'll pretend it got blown up or something. They'll buy that. It's us."

      "Got it, Templar," Nate said, obviously relieved.

      "Takemura," Mike said into the phone, sprawling out in his chair and crossing his eyes at Johnny, seated across from him. "Mike Takemura. I'm with the FBI. Yes'm. FBI. You heard me. Oh, you can get me that information? Isn't that sweet? Yes, I'll hold."

      "Enjoying yourself?" Simon asked, pouring the last of the coffee into his mug.

      "Oh yeah," said Mike, pumping his hips once and making his chair screech backwards an inch or so. "Abusing my position and terrifying civilians totally gets me hot—what? Yes'm, go ahead, I'm ready."

      Simon snorted, put the empty pot on top of the coffeemaker (one of the privileges of leadership) and headed for his office.

      "Now isn't that interesting," Mike drawled half an hour later, letting the phone fall back into its cradle with a loud clatter.

      Rich scowled at Mike over the top of his monitor. "Spill it, goddammit, it's after seven."

      "Well, now," Mike said, a lazy grin crawling across his face, "seems that at least one of our stolen top-secret prototypes was so very top secret that they put a little non-specific PR blurb about it in their quarterly report."

      Rich stared at Mike. Mike beamed at Rich. Everyone else in the room fell silent. "That's it," Rich breathed, even as Simon stuck his head out of his office to see what the lack of fuss was about. "That's it!"

      "What's it?" Simon demanded. "It's what? What's what?"

      "Karpol's a stockholder," Rich said, whipping back to his keyboard. "Bet you anything he's got some kind of dummy corporation set up—mutual funds or something—with stock in every tech company that looks interesting, and he scours their quarterly reports for hints of things he might want to steal... Honda!"

      "Right, right," Mike said, filching the handset back off the base again. "Confirming, sir!"

      "I love you guys," Simon said, shaking his head.

      "Templar?" Sandra said, appearing in the doorway to his office.

      Simon rubbed his eyes and looked up from the pile of completely useless emails that Langridge had so thoughtfully provided. "Yeah."

      "We're all set. Specs Two is still arguing with the shareholders' reports but I think the rest of us have done all we can do for the day."

      "Shit," Simon said tiredly, stretching. "What time is it?"

      "Almost ten."

      "That late? Christ. Okay, those of you who are done can probably take off." Simon raised his voice. "Specs Two!"

      "Yeah?" floated back in from the outer office.

      "How long you going to be?"

      "Another couple of hours! If I'm not done by midnight I'll break for the night, come in early!"

      "Right!" Simon shoved his chair back and stood up, wincing as the muscles in his thighs complained. Crossing to the door he squeezed Sandra's shoulder and addressed the room. "You guys are great and I don't say that enough. Go home and get some sleep. I don't know when Archer's due in—some time in the next two hours, I hope—and he's likely to be jetlagged all to hell, so I'm declaring tomorrow a partial fuck-off day. Don't bother coming in until ten unless, like Specs Two, you have a concrete reason. Okay?"

      "Sweet," Mike said, chugging off the last of his coffee. "My throat feels like sandpaper had sex in it. Fucking phone duty."

      "How does sandpaper have sex?" Sandra asked, wrinkling her nose.

      "Roughly," said Johnny.

      After a startled pause, Mike whooped out a groan and slid under the table, sprawling out on the floor. "I hate you and everything you stand for, Texas," he wailed.

      "I have to admit, that was pretty fucking terrible," Simon said. "And when Texas breaks out the puns, that's how I know I've kept you guys too long. Go on, piss off, all of you. You too, Specs Two. Come in early if you have to, but for now? Go home."

      "But... !"

      "No buts. Jesus, look what you made me do, I sound like your mother."

      Rich shot a glare at Simon, but started shutting down his computers. Simon watched him for a moment, just to make sure he wasn't faking it, then wandered back into his office to gather up his own things.

      What with one thing and another—it was always one thing or another—it was close to eleven at night before Simon actually slung the file folder of stolen emails into the passenger seat of his Jeep and crawled in to go home. His was almost the last car in the lot, aside from a little huddle of cars off in one corner that belonged to the sad souls that kept the place running overnight.

      Simon slammed the door and then let his head fall back against the headrest, staring up at the Jeep's roof. "What a fucking day," he said aloud, listening to the words echo oddly in the empty interior, and shut his eyes for just a moment.

      Fifteen minutes later he was jerked out of his impromptu nap by the insistent buzz of his cellphone at his waist. He scrabbled at his jacket with sleep-clumsy hands and eventually pawed out the phone, thumbing it open. "Yeah. Drake."

      "Well, well, here I am." Jeremy, sounding much closer and clearer than he had eleven hours ago. "America the beautiful, land of the free and all that ultra-patriotic rot. Where's my baseball and my apple pie?"

      "You didn't get it when you went through Customs? I were you, I'd call and make a fuss," Simon said, rubbing at his eyes.

      "Ah, well, that would explain it," Jeremy said. In the background Simon heard a faint click and a couple of thumps. "I didn't precisely come in through Customs. I tend to find it an unnecessary hassle."

      Simon snorted and started the Jeep. "Why am I not surprised? I'm not surprised."

      "At any rate, I'm in town and all checked in, ready to start earning an honest dollar," Jeremy said over a chorus of muted chunking sounds.

      "For a change," Simon said, wheeling the Jeep around towards the exit. "What's that sound?"

      "Having a bit of trouble opening this door one-handed," Jeremy said. The chunking sounds abruptly stopped, followed by the soft scree of a door opening. "Ah, that's got it, then."

      "Ha. Jeremy Archer having trouble with an ordinary door lock. I never thought I'd hear the day," Simon said.

      "Well, I suppose now you have," Jeremy said. "So! What is the plan, precisely?"

      "The plan? Well, I'm going to go home and drop off some things, and then I'm going to come to your hotel and make sure that you're actually in the US and not trying to pull some kind of fast one. Not that I don't trust you, but... I don't trust you. Also I have a temporary ID badge for you, and don't think getting that out of Security wasn't loads of fun."

      "Ah, that's the good old-fashioned Simon Drake take-charge mentality that I remember so fondly. Do you know, I find it oddly arousing?"

      Simon's fingers spasmed on the steering wheel and he shifted slightly in his seat. "Christ, Archer, you are such a pain in the ass. Where are you staying?"

      "The Old Line."

      Simon whistled in appreciation, most of his attention centered around changing lanes. "Fancy!"

      "A bit larger and more public than I usually like, actually, but since I'm not planning to get up to any sort of... what would you say? Hijinks? Shenanigans?" Jeremy let the sentence trail off there, questioningly.

      "We Americans tend to call them 'felony crimes'," Simon said.

      "Ah, of course, how silly of me." Jeremy laughed softly, just a faint exhalation in Simon's ear.

      "Wouldn't expect a stuffy Brit like you to understand our simple colonial ways, of course," Simon said. "All right, I'll meet you there. What's your room number?"

      "Why don't I just meet you in the lobby?" Jeremy countered. "Much easier, all 'round."

      "What? Don't you trust me?"

      "Might I assure you, Simon, that I trust you entirely as much as you trust me."

      "... I suppose I deserved that. Fine, be that way. I'll be about twenty minutes, maybe half an hour."

      The momentary silence was all the warning Simon needed to brace himself. "I'll be waiting," Jeremy said after his pause, his voice suddenly low and amused, shifting gears at speed just before he broke the connection.

      Simon scowled at his phone before tossing it onto the folder in the passenger seat.

      By the time Simon pulled into his allotted space in front of his apartment it was close to eleven-thirty, and despite his little impromptu nap he was still fading fast. "Coffee," he muttered, grabbing the folder and his phone and sliding out of his Jeep. "Secure the files, splash some cold water on my face, have some coffee, meet the bastard..."

      He trudged up the stairs, yawning once despite himself, and spent entirely too long fumbling with his keys in front of the door before he managed to get one into the lock. Finally he managed to unlock the door and swing it open—and froze.

      The light in the living room was off. It was never off when he wasn't at home. And even if both bulbs had burned out by some malevolent trick of fate, there was light spilling into the hallway from the bedroom, and he never left that light on—twice in my life I've been woken by agents in the middle of the night because they thought there was a bomb in my apartment, and at least once they were right, he heard Dorothy Langridge say again in his mind, and suddenly he was wide awake.

      Tossing the file folder into his left hand he drew his gun with his right and flipped off the safety, scanning the darkened main room over its barrel as best he could. Nothing. Simon took one careful step into his apartment, then another, nudging the front door shut behind him until it closed with barely a click. Everything was silent, and still—dropping lightly to one knee Simon put the folder down on the carpet and slid it under the couch. It'd be safe there for the time being. He stood again, slowly, listening hard.

      First things first. Steadying the gun, left hand over right, Simon flattened himself against the wall and counted to three before spinning into the doorway to the kitchen and snapping his gun out. Nothing; as far as he could tell the kitchen was just as he'd left it that morning, dishes in the sink and all.

      Simon whipped the gun back to its ready position and eased across the main room, heading for the tiny hallway that led into his bedroom and its suspicious light. All he could hear was his own tightly controlled breathing and the faint creak of his footsteps. They sounded phenomenally loud to his ears, but he knew better.

      Putting his back to the wall Simon sucked in a deep breath through his open mouth, counted to two, and whipped around into the hall to half-fill the doorway to his bedroom, gun whipping left before jerking to bear straight down on the target sitting cross-legged on the foot of his bed—

      Jeremy raised one eyebrow and didn't say anything, his hands already raised, open and empty.

      Simon seized up for half a second, gun still trained directly on Jeremy's face. The roar of nervous energy crested and ebbed away, leaving him twitchy and spent; after a long and breathless moment he thumbed the safety on and let his gun drop to point at the floor. "Jesus fucking Christ, why do you keep pulling crap like this on me, it's like you want me to shoot you or something, not that I'd mind too much right now in any case," he said all in an adrenalin-fired rush.

      "Well, no," Jeremy said, letting his hands drop back into his lap. "In all honesty I could quite do with never being shot again, but I have learned to have some faith in your reflexes."

      Simon rolled his eyes and ignored that, slamming his gun back into its holster and flexing his hands to rid himself of some of the residual twitchiness. "Christ. And while I realize it's an easy mistake to make, Archer, this isn't the lobby of the Old Line."

      "Mm? My bad." Jeremy slid bonelessly off the end of the bed and stood up, brushing imaginary lint off his shirt. He was still fully dressed, down to his shoes and jacket—black leather again, in deference to the season. "I suppose the presence of the bed should have been my first clue?"

      Simon shook his head, and as an afterthought, shrugged out of his own jacket. "Your inability to follow such simple orders doesn't bode well for your future with the Bureau," he told Jeremy, half-closing the bedroom door so that he could hang his jacket on the robe hook and abandon it there.

      "Mm." Jeremy didn't move. "What a pity. Apparently I'm absolutely terrible at doing what I'm told."

      "No sense of discipline," Simon said sadly, pulling his holstered pistol from the waistband of his jeans and putting it on the dresser. "We prize obedience at the Bureau." He added his keys and wallet to make a little stack.

      "Well! It's a good thing I'm merely a contractor, then, isn't it?" Jeremy looked away, directing that infuriating little smile at the far wall. "Or do you intend to try and teach me obedience?"

      "I'm not patient enough and I'm sure not crazy enough," Simon said, kicking off his sneakers. "But I think you'll get a crash course or two along the way."

      "Will I now," Jeremy said, and brought his little smile back to bear on Simon.

      "It's always possible." Abandoning his casual act Simon crossed most of the distance between them in a single stride and grabbed Jeremy by the back of the neck, giving him a (mostly) friendly little shake. "You're not totally stupid. You'll pick it up as we go along."

      Jeremy craned his neck back into Simon's grip and put his hand on Simon's chest. "Well, then, shall we? Er, 'go along'?"

      "Let's do that," Simon said, and leaned down to bite the front of Jeremy's exposed throat. "Take off your jacket," he growled, in a tone that brooked no resistance.

      Jeremy closed his eyes and made a single deeply satisfied sound low in his throat. A moment later the jacket hit the floor.

      "What time is it? I can't see the clock with you up there."

      "Mm... a bit before two."

      "Christ, no wonder I'm so tired."

      "I do hope you don't expect me to apologize," Jeremy said, leaning over Simon to flick the ash from his cigarette into the bowl on the bedside table. It was dark, or at least as dark as it ever got in here—Simon was long inured to sleeping despite the faint bars of orange-and-blue light from the parking lot lights shining through his miniblinds—and the glowing coal of Jeremy's cigarette was a beacon in the dark.

      Simon reached up and caught Jeremy's wrist as it passed back over him, pulling it up. Jeremy obligingly flipped the cigarette up and out before it reached Simon, presenting him with the filter end instead of the fire; Simon shut his eyes and took a deep drag, Jeremy's fingertips against his lips, before letting go of Jeremy's wrist. "I never expect you to apologize," he said, and then breathed the smoke back out. "Is there any tobacco in those things at all?"

      Jeremy studied the glowing tip of the cigarette, wreathing it in exhaled smoke. "I expect there's some," he said eventually.

      "And the rest is what, dried fruits and exotic spices or something? 'Cause I don't care what you've heard, banana peels won't get you high and neither will oregano."

      "I haven't the foggiest," Jeremy said, then paused to take another mouthful of smoke. His chest failed to noticeably rise against Simon's, even though the tip of the cigarette glowed brightly enough to illuminate his face and the tousled mess of his hair. "I must admit, I don't particularly care what's in them. I'm just fond of them. I enjoy having something to do with my hands."

      "You even smoke like a pansy," Simon said, shutting his eyes. "Be a man, Archer. Inhale."

      "Whatever for?"

      "So you don't look like a goddamned faggot?"

      "Now that's just tacky, Simon," Jeremy said reprovingly, stretching back over Simon to stub out the cigarette.

      "Suppose so," Simon said, idly running a hand up and down along Jeremy's side, since it was there and all. "Why aren't you tired? Aren't you supposed to be jet-lagged or something?"

      "I slept on the plane," Jeremy said, and he shifted subtly, pressing his hip into Simon's hand. "It's just one of my rules, you understand. You should never do anything on a plane except sleep, if you can help it."

      "So while I spent the afternoon running around and being a productive member of society, you were having yourself a nice little nap. No wonder I don't like you," Simon said, squeezing his handful of Jeremy appreciatively.

      "Oh, is that why? I'd wondered." Jeremy heaved a deep and contented sigh, half-closing his eyes. "Well, if you dislike me so much, I suppose I can get dressed and go."

      "Nah," said Simon. "Still want to go over some things with you before tomorrow. We'll get up. Here in a sec."

      "Mm," Jeremy said. "Yes. Here in a second."

      "Shut up, I mean it, in a second."

      "No one is doubting you, Simon."

      "Bullshit. I can hear it in your voice: doubt."

      "Well, then, prove me wrong. Get up."

      Simon reached up (with the hand that was not currently playing with Jeremy's thigh) and pawed vaguely at the air for a moment before letting his hand drop again. "I can't. There's somebody on me."

      "True," Jeremy said, his leg rising lazily under Simon's trailing fingers. Obligingly Simon let his fingers follow the line of Jeremy's thigh, not really paying attention to them—until suddenly they came to rest in the crook of Jeremy's knee and got caught there, the inside of Jeremy's thigh pressed most distractingly down across Simon's hips. "So," Jeremy said, "are you intimating that I have you trapped, Simon?"

      "... course not," Simon said after a slightly breathless pause. "I'm saying that I'm just too nice a guy to disturb you, since you seem to, to like it up there so much and all."

      "Mm. Well. It is nice up here, I'll admit it. Lovely view. All the amenities."

      "Buuuut," Simon said, squeezing Jeremy's thigh once more before reluctantly wriggling his trapped fingers free, "I need coffee. And a shower, but that's going to wait until tomorrow morning. You hungry?"

      "Starving, actually," Jeremy admitted, moving his leg away and sitting up.

      "Great! Me too. I'll make us scrambled eggs. Or, if you'd prefer, scrambled eggs. Oh, hell, you came all the way from Europe, I guess you could even convince me to make scrambled eggs."

      "Well!" Jeremy ran both hands through his hair, putting it more or less back to rights. "In that case, I suppose scrambled eggs would be lovely."

      "Cozy," Jeremy said lazily, picking one of the two kitchen chairs and sprawling out in it, barefoot and shirtless. Rather than put his ridiculous leather pants back on he'd brazenly appropriated a second pair of Simon's pajama pants, cuffing them deeply to make them fit. That was all he was wearing, save for a scattering of bitemarks. He put the bowl back in its usual place on the kitchen table and dropped his pack of cigarettes next to it.

      "Little too cozy, if you ask me," Simon said, ignoring the rumpled and contented Jeremy as best he could, which was not all that well. He could feel Jeremy's eyes on his back and it was making his skin prickle. He was starting to wish he'd put on a t-shirt. "Don't get used to it."

      "I wouldn't dream of it," Jeremy said, smiling like a contented cat.

      Simon just snorted and very firmly turned his attention to poking at the melting butter with a spatula. It popped merrily, leaving a pinpoint burn on Simon's bare stomach; Simon winced and turned the heat down a little. "Make yourself useful for once," he said over his shoulder. "Go put on some coffee."

      "Mm? Well, if you insist, although you must understand coffee isn't precisely my strong suit." Jeremy slid back out of his chair and padded over to the coffeemaker, poking through the cabinets above it.

      "Hell, I used to eat instant coffee crystals straight out of the jar during stakeouts. As long as it's blackish and caffeinated, it's coffee, period, end of story. Other cabinet."

      "Ah!" Jeremy fetched down the can and pried off the lid. "Also, that's positively disgusting."

      "It's effective, though," Simon said, staring straight down at the butter sizzling in the frying pan and cracking the first egg into it. "That was all I cared about at the time."

      Jeremy slid the filter tray in, put the pot back underneath, and poked disdainfully at the coffee maker until the red light came on. "There, that's got it, I think," he said, then leaned against the counter and dipped his head, trying to meet Simon's eyes. "Anything else I can help with, Simon? I so seldom get to be domestic, you understand. It's so charmingly rustic."

      Simon took one sideways glance at that pleased little smirk and snorted. "Sit down and get out of my way. No, wait, get me the bread first, then sit down and get out of my way."

      "Demanding!" Jeremy breathed in mock awe, but he turned around and fetched the bread off the top of the fridge, putting it on the counter next to Simon before completely failing to go reclaim his chair. "If it's a matter of toast, Simon, I'm eminently capable of working a toaster."

      "Fine," Simon said, bristling a bit. Jeremy was lurking nearly at his elbow; it was very distracting. "Toaster's over there. I like mine half-burnt. If you don't, cope."

      "You certainly do know how to make a man feel welcome, Simon," Jeremy said, and then he was crossing behind Simon with the bread in one hand, running his fingers lightly across Simon's bare shoulders in passing. Simon nearly lurched forward into the burner to get away from them. Jeremy, pretending not to notice, simply added, "I do so enjoy being a guest in your lovely home."

      "You're not a guest," Simon said, scowling at the scrambling eggs and poking them with the spatula. "Guests are invited. You broke into my apartment. By all rights I should be dragging you down to the police station in handcuffs. Or possibly shooting you."

      "Can it wait until after breakfast?" Jeremy asked, dropping two slices of bread into the toaster. "Actually, can it wait until after we've eaten, showered, and dressed? I'm only thinking of our respective reputations, you understand..."

      "Do you ever shut up?"

      "Only when there's something in my mouth," Jeremy said innocently.

      Simon hunched his shoulders slightly. "In that case, why don't you go have one of your stupid froofy cigarettes."


      "You are ruining my appetite."

      "Here, salt, pepper, butter. Knock yourself out," Simon said, plunking a plate full of toast and scrambled eggs in front of Jeremy.

      "All that and I get breakfast too. You could spoil a man," Jeremy said in mock wonder, grinding out his cigarette. "So tell me. Or brief me or whatever it is you do."

      "So, have you ever heard the name Karpol?" Simon asked, ignoring the first bit.

      "Can't say that I have," Jeremy said, picking up his fork and raising an eyebrow. "Sounds Russian."

      "It is. Viktor Karpol's been one of the prime movers of Russian organized crime for, uh, close to forty years now, I think. And when I say 'organized crime', I mean it. He has his fingers in everything over there, and a bunch of things over here to boot." Simon slung himself into the chair opposite Jeremy and dug into his own breakfast; he was ravenous. "He's filthy rich, impossibly well-connected, completely without morals, and very dangerous, kind of like if you crossed a Fortune 500 CEO with the dictator of a large and wealthy country and then bred the result to a shark."

      "Mm," Jeremy said thoughtfully, tapping the tines of his fork against his lower lip. "How rich are we talking? Does he collect art? Rare gemstones? Is he hiring?"

      "You are vastly overestimating this man's class. He's not an art fan. Not enough explosions and casual sadism for him."

      "Oh, one of those. I don't get on well with philistines. Never mind. Very well, go on."

      "Thank you, I think I will," Simon said, swallowing a huge bite of toast and eggs. "Anyway, what Karpol does in his own country isn't any of my business, and thank God for that, because I'm allergic to getting blown up. But what he does in my country, that's a different story. I can't prove it or anything but I'm pretty positive that Karpol had about two and a half fingers in Conrad Rupp's satellite-based pie, for example. And that? That was my business."

      "Mm," Jeremy said noncommittally.

      "Anyway, these industrial crimes that I was telling you about, he's definitely the driving force behind them. He picks the targets, he hires the thief, he manufactures the bootleg goods, he distributes them. This is the first time he's actually managed to get a decent foothold in black market arms here in America, and that? That is emphatically my business."

      "But not mine," Jeremy said, pulling a corner off his toast and eating it.

      "Nope, not yours. Karpol's none of your concern and I'll thank you to keep your nose out of that end of it. All I want from you is this thief."

      "Who... reminds you of me, you said?"

      "Well, personally speaking, I find him a lot less infuriating."

      "Mm. Quite. But professionally, Simon?"

      "Yeah, professionally he's almost exactly like you, only he shoots people with real live bullets instead of with stupid little toys like yours. Matches your M.O. straight down the line, otherwise. Like someone stuck you in a copy machine."

      "I see," Jeremy said, sitting back in his chair and becoming very interested in his plate.

      Simon leaned forward. "Yeah? Anything you want to share with the class there, Archer?"

      Jeremy was silent. Simon considered poking him with his fork to make him talk, and had come within a hair's breadth of putting this plan into action when Jeremy looked up. "Quite possibly," he said, smiling—it almost looked natural. "But I refuse to make an official guess until I know more, you understand."

      "We'll brief you in excruciating detail tomorrow," Simon promised, mopping up the last of the butter from his plate with his toast. "So! I assume you don't mind lending a hand?"

      "I am getting paid, I trust...?"

      "Ah," Simon said. "One-fourth now, the rest upon completion of services. Funny thing, my superiors don't trust you all that much—can't imagine why—and they're afraid that if they pay you up front you might grab the money and bail."

      Jeremy sighed. "I don't do that sort of thing, Simon," he said with weary patience.

      "Hey, I know that, you know that, we all know that," Simon said. "But they don't know that. If that's going to be a problem I can try to renegotiate, but I'm not that big a fan of bashing my head into brick walls."

      "It's not my preferred method of doing business, but I suppose I can grant you some leeway since it's some sort of legitimate business transaction," Jeremy said, faking a sigh that faded into a little knowing smile. "So! I assume you're the one who decides when my services are... complete?"

      "Mm-hmm," Simon said, watching Jeremy, and that smile.

      "Well!" said Jeremy, slithering down in his chair. "I suppose I'd best try to stay on your good side, then, hadn't I?"

      Simon sighed, reached down, and grabbed Jeremy's ankle, halting the lazy progression of Jeremy's foot up his calf. "Okay, now, just to get things straight: this? This is not one of the services you're being paid for."

      Jeremy's other foot slipped neatly past Simon's blocking arm and pressed lightly against the inside of his thigh. "And I've told you, Simon, I don't charge for this any more. I consider it a... shall we say, 'a pleasant bonus'."

      Simon watched him for a moment, then nodded slightly and scooted his chair forward a little. "In that case, I'm glad we've come to an understanding."

      "Mm." Jeremy's smile was a brilliant little thing, even as the ball of his foot came to rest pressed hard against the front of Simon's pajama pants. Simon's eyes fought to close. "So, it's two-thirty now..."

      "We need to, to leave here no later than nine-thirty tomorrow morning," Simon said, a bit breathless again.

      "Are you asking me to stay the night?" Jeremy asked, arching an eyebrow and running his foot down and back up again.

      Simon's chair went spinning back abruptly to bang against the oven door, and Simon lunged around the kitchen table to grab Jeremy by the back of his neck and drag him up into a fast, hard kiss. "I'm suggesting that you may be too sore to leave in the near future," he said when he was done, heading for the main room and dragging Jeremy behind him. "Bed."

      Jeremy slid bonelessly out of his chair and allowed Simon to drag him off. "Yes," he said, pleased and purring, "I'm certain your kitchen table couldn't take the punishment..."