They came for him at eight o'clock on Sunday morning, last night's rain still wet on the streets and steaming in the sun.
It had been a long, hard week of work, out in Cincinnati, and Nate still hadn't quite recovered from Thursday's disastrous all-nighter. The older he got, the longer it took to fix his sleep schedule; kvetching about that sounded so stupid, because here he was, not even thirty and already saying I'm getting too old for thisbut it was true, just the same.
So he was still deeply asleep when they came for him, tangled up in his blankets and snoring. He didn't hear the doorbell ring, and his mother had to knock on his open bedroom door twice before Nate woke with a snort and a yelp. He sat bolt upright in bed, clutching the blankets to his chest with both hands like a movie starlet (although most movie starlets didn't do it to hide the scars) and blinked at the fuzzy mother-shaped blob standing in the doorway.
"Some men are here to see you," she announced, matronly disapproval very clear in her voice. "From your work. They wouldn't say what they wanted."
Nate let go of the blankets with one hand and groped around on the bedside table for his glasses, fumbling them on. "Who is it?" he asked groggily, his voice thick with sleep. "Simon?"
"I'm sure I don't know," his mother sniffed, already retreating. She didn't approve of her son wasting the day away in bed, she'd made that very clear, and she certainly didn't approve of his job or his friends, but most of all she didn't approve of coming into her son's room when he was in there. When she'd moved in with him following his father's death she'd come pre-equipped with all sorts of internalized and unspoken rules for how she would and would not deal with her youngest son, with his house, and with the world, and it had taken him several months to figure them all out. Entering his room was fine when he wasn't in it, she'd decided, because how else would she change the sheets or put away his laundry or snoop through his bedtime reading material or check under his mattress for who knows what, but she'd also decided that a man's home was his castle and it certainly wasn't her place to distract him while he was enjoying it. If Nate tried to come into his bedroom while she was in there, she'd nearly knock him down trying to unobtrusively get out of his way. "They're waiting downstairs," she added, already clumping away.
Nate took his glasses back off and knuckled the sleep out of his eyes, letting his blankets fall to puddle around his waist again. Then he combed his hair with his fingers and put on yesterday's jeans and t-shirt (and slippers, because his mother also didn't approve of walking around the house barefoot) and went downstairs to see who it was.
A pair of field agents that he didn't know were sitting on the edge of the couch, their backs ramrod straight and their hands loose in their laps. They both wore white shirts and ties and identical Young-Republican haircuts (Mike, in his finite wisdom, had nicknamed this look the 'Mormonator') and they both nodded at Nate when he came in, but didn't smile.
Nate hesitated in the doorway, then crossed to the big chair and sat down. "What can I do for you?" he asked, knotting his fingers together into a little bunch in his lap.
And then, of course, they told him.
They put him in their car and drove him to headquarters, which was good, because he was a bad driver at the best of times and nearly catatonic now. He sat in the back of the car and stared unseeingly out at the roads, completely and utterly in shock.
It took Nate an unconscionably long time to figure out that Internal Affairs was seriously investigating the possibility that he'd been helping Rich do this terrible, terrible thing. When it finally dawned on him it took away his ability to breathe for a few seconds, but by that point they'd already pretty much dismissed the idea, so Nate didn't manage to sabotage his own defense by panicking and protesting too much.
He was askedor, at least, politely toldnot to attempt to get in touch with any of his teammates until the investigation was complete. "What about Rich's funeral?" he'd managed to ask, fidgeting with his coffee mug.
"I'm sorry," the agent said, with a little apologetic smile. "Mr. Story's remains will be transported back to Seattle for burial, and I'm afraid I'll have to ask you not to leave the city just now."
Nate had nodded, not knowing what else to do.
Eventually they'd wrung him dry and let him go, on paid suspension until further notice, with yet another warning about not contacting any of his teammates. A different pair of field agents drove him home. Nate sat in the back seat staring out the window and tried to come to grips with what he'd been told, about Rich, and about Simon.
He didn't know how he felt about it. Instinctively, deep down, he knew that Rich was capable of having done just what they said he'd done, and so he believed in the story, as crazy at it sounded. Rich had been his closest friend but Simon was Simon and so, just as instinctively, he believed that Simon had done the best he could. In the days to come Nate would question a great many things but he never questioned Simon's version of events. Nate understood having faith in someone. Nate understood it very well.
His mother met him at the door, her face slack and lined with worry. "What is it?" she cried, wringing her hands. "What's happened?"
Nate knew that he'd get no peace until he explained, just as he knew that explaining wouldn't buy him much peace either. So: "Rich is dead," he said dully, stepping past his mother in order to shut the door. "He was shot. There's an investigation going on."
"Shot," she whispered, both hands flying to her mouth. "Oh, Nathan."
"I know, Mom," Nate said. Sooner or later she was going to give him one of her Well-I'm-Certain-I-Don't-Know-I'm-Just-Your-Mother-But speeches about how his job was horrible and dangerous and he really ought to think about finding a less risky line of work, but Nate didn't think he could deal with it right now, so he took the quickest and cheapest out he could. "I need to go change," he said, and made a beeline for the peace and quiet of his bedroom. She didn't follow him in.
Time slowed to a crawl after that.
Without his job to anchor it Nate's schedule slowly and gently started rotating around the clock, reverting to the night-owl tendencies that he'd always fallen afoul of in college. (Back then he'd called it 'getting unstuck in time' and thought he was very clever.) He stayed up later and later, waiting until he was completely exhausted to go to bed, and then slept in later and later each successive day to make up for it. He didn't mind. He liked staying up late and having the illusion of having the house to himself.
His mother certainly disapproved but for the time being she seemed willing to hold her peace. It was a small favor, but Nate was still grateful for it.
It wasn't until a week later that the email showed up.
It was just after midnight, and the house was dark and silent. He was messing around on his computer, enjoying the peace and quiet of his computer room, the one room of the house that his mother absolutely refused to set foot in, whether he was in it or not (she was terrified of computers, absolutely certain that they gave people cancer and ruined their eyesight, just you wait, Nathan, doctors will discover that some day). The taskbar had flashed, indicating that he had new mail, and Nate had tabbed over to his email program, expecting nothing but something from one of his mailing lists, or maybe a new and enterprising bit of spam that he hadn't managed to block with his filters yet.
Instead he got an email titled, cryptically, Goodbye Nate, with the sender listed simply as Rich Story.
A wave of numbness swept through him. Automatically he clicked on the message and brought it up in the main window, but he managed to read no further than Nate: If you're reading this, then I'm long gone before he stumbled up out of his computer chair on legs that felt like they bent the wrong way and fumbled his way out of the room and down the stairs, to the dark and deserted kitchen.
Without bothering with the lights Nate wobbled over to the fridge on rubbery legs and fetched out a can of Coke, wincing at the brief flash of refrigerator light. He popped it open and drank it standing above the sink, no matter what his mother might think about people who ate over the kitchen sink, or drank right out of cans, or drank soda at all (rots your teeth, Nathan).
By the time he was done he'd managed to come to terms with what was waiting for him upstairs, so he rinsed out the can and left it on the sideboard to dry (his mother would cluck and shepherd it into the recycling bin tomorrow) and went back upstairs, sliding back into his chair to read the email from a dead man.
For a good minute or so after he finished reading the email Nate stared at the screen, his lips trembling. "Oh, you egotistical little" he finally whispered, unable even now to finish that sentence. "How couldyou're not even sorry, are you? You're not sorry for any of it! You're proud of yourself! You... you asshole!" Nate's cheeks flared pink, and then went red when he abruptly stabbed his upraised middle finger at his computer monitor. His eyes were watering and his throat was thick and closed, but he didn't quite cry.
Then he grabbed his phone and called headquarters, dialing the number with trembling fingers.
Things moved very quickly after that.
Barely four days later he was back at work, picking idly at his own computer and trying not to look at the three hooded computers in the corner, all turned off and silent. IT had dumped the contents of all three computers onto virtual disksdespite the precautions that Rich had been so proud of, none of the three computers were, in fact, totally wiped, and knowing this gave Nate a mean little burn of pleasure deep insideand then left them there. "Upstairs says for you to poke at them when you've got a moment," the IT guy said. "You knew him better than anybody, so maybe you'll be able to break his encryption shit where we won't. Who knows? Good luck."
Nate planned to try. He knew he wasn't half the software engineer that Rich had been but he wanted to at least give it a shot, see how well he measured up. But right now he was just poking at his own computer because he was scared to turn around and talk to the other members of the team.
Apparently they all felt more or less the same way. It was quiet in the saferoom. Even Mike had given up on trying to lighten the tension and was now fiddling with his pen, poking it into his cast to scratch the phantom itch on his palm that he'd been complaining about earlier.
They were all there, except Simon. They were all waiting on Simon. And Nate was terrified. He wasn't sure they were going to be able to go on after this, after Rich's betrayal and subsequent death at Simon's hands. He wasn't sure he was ever going to be able to look at Simon and not think of Rich. Maybe the team was dead. Maybe Rich had killed it. Maybe Simon had.
The door to the saferoom swung open and even the faint strained conversation in the room fell dead, all four of them turning around to stare at Simon. For a minute Simon didn't move, just stood there looking hesitant, and Nate's heart plummeted... but then Simon smiled, or tried to, and said "Hey," and came in, letting the saferoom door slam heavily shut behind him.
Everyone in the room automatically looked towards the wall they shared with Team Hall, just waiting. Team Hall, showing an uncharacteristic amount of restraint and good taste, didn't make any of their usual protests, and a second or two later they all caught each other waiting for it and shared a laugh, although it was a small one and quickly over.
"C'mon over, Nate," Simon said, taking his usual seat at the head of the table. Nate put his computer to sleep and went over, joining the rest of the team for the first time. "So," Simon said, once Nate was at the table. "We're not going to get anywhere if we tiptoe around this subject, so I'm just going to say it and get it over with. If any of you want outif you can't work with me any more after thisjust say so, and I'll let you go. No hard feelings. Swear." And then he fell silent like he was actually expecting any of them to take him up on it.
Nate held his breath. Mike and Sandra glanced at each other. Johnny opened one eye a crack. The silence went on, strained and unpleasant, and then Johnny heaved a rattling sigh. "Nah," he said, shutting his eyes again. "I'm good."
It broke the skin of tension on the room like a rock thrown into a pond. Mike yelped out a laugh. "As if, Templar!" he said, and maybe his voice was a little nervous, but he was making an effort. "Shit, I can't leave, who the hell else would put up with my shit?"
"That's a very good question," Sandra said, "and one I don't have an answer for. I'll stay. I think we can get past this, if we try."
Nate was so overwhelmed with relief that no one else was deserting that he forgot to say anything. One by one they turned to look at him expectantly, with varying degrees of pity and worry in their eyes, and finally he noticed the lull in the conversation and the eyes on him. Nate yelped and went pink. "No!" he said. "I mean, yes, I'm staying, I'm not going anywhere"
"You sure, Specs?" Simon asked. "I mean, you don't sound sure"
"I'm sure!" Nate squeaked in horror, and then he caught the smile that Simon had been trying to hide, and he made a little embarrassed noise and shut up, his cheeks burning. Mike snickered. For a brief, shining moment, it was all almost normal again.
Simon bowed his head and looked down at his hands, clasped together so tightly that his knuckles were white. Then he heaved out a deep breath and unknotted his fingers and looked back up. "Well, you all had your chance," he said. "So, moving on. How are my injured?" Simon asked, knocking his knuckles on the table. "You guys surviving?"
"I'm good," Johnny said again. "Just a bruise anyway."
"Four more weeks in this cast," Mike said mournfully. "I'm gonna go crazy. I'm just gonna snap and start beating it against the table and someone's gonna have to tranq me."
"I'll do it," Sandra said immediately. "I have been waiting years for that opportunity."
"Gonna take advantage of me while I'm unconscious?" Mike said, waggling his eyebrows. "I hope so!"
Sandra snorted and punched Mike in the shoulder. Mike yelped. Johnny shook his head. And Simon got up and fetched himself a cup of coffee. Nate's chest threatened to burst with relief. For a horrifying moment he thought he might cry.
"So what's up?" Mike asked as soon as Simon sat back down. "We still got a thief to catch, right?"
"Actually," Simon said, and he paused to take a sip of coffee, leaving them all hanging like he liked to do. "Seems one Bran Lindsey, a fellow of Irish extraction and some unusual IRA affiliations, got himself taken in by the NYPD a couple of days ago while carrying a very interesting gun on his person."
After a startled moment Mike wailed, "Whaaaaat? He got caught by local cops? Aw, fuck, that's lame, Templar! Why's it got to be our ass they find the one time they can find an ass with both hands?"
"Tell me about it," Simon said, shrugging. "Anyway, I let the NYPD know that I had a definite interest in Mr. Lindsey, and after lunch I think we need to call some PDs and get the ball rolling. What do you say?"
"Least we can do that much," Mike muttered, subsiding. "Shit. I was hoping for some glory. Or at least bragging rights."
"So he's definitely our guy?" Sandra asked.
"Far as I can tell," Simon said. "He fits the description that Archer gave us, he's got the accent, he had the gun, and he had a few other extremely interesting tools on his person when he was arrested. If he's not our guy, he's doing a damned fine imitation."
"Ah," Sandra said. "And Archer?"
Simon shrugged. "Lindsey's in detention and he looks good for it, so he's caught, which is what we'd wanted Archer's help for. I authorized Accounting to pay Archer the rest of what we owed him."
"Seems fair," Sandra said. "Did you ever hear from Archer? He called me to find out what was going on, said he couldn't get hold of you."
Simon took another, longer sip of coffee before answering. "I talked to him just long enough to confirm that he'd gotten the rest of his money and that we were square. He's fucked off somewhere, as usual. Guess we could go pester Art Theft to find out where."
"And Karpol?" Sandra asked.
Simon heaved a deep breath. "Not a ripple. Lindsey's arrest didn't generate any sort of Russian-language backlash, Langridge is fine, although she's still laying low, and if Langridge is fine, I think Archer's going to be okay. I don't think Karpol is our problem any longer, and neither is Lindsey, and therefore neither is the CIA. Aren't those just beautiful words, boys and girl?"
"Like a song," Mike crowed, bouncing his pen off the table and catching it again. "Man, I just love it when a case comes together."
"You and me both," Simon said. "The only thing I still don't know is who Edward Plunkett is."
"What?" said Mike. "Who? Huh?"
"Lord Dunsany," Nate said automatically. Everyone turned to stare at him and he turned pink.
"Who?" Simon asked.
"Um," said Nate, getting redder all the time. "Edward Plunkett, the eighteenth Lord Dunsany. He was a British nobleman and a fantasy writer from the turn of the century? One of Lovecraft's big influences?"
There was a pause while the others at the table digested this, and then Simon put a hand over his face and started to laugh, for some reason.
"Nerd," Mike said happily. "You learn that on Wikipedia?"
Johnny cracked open an eye. "You know what Wikipedia is? You some kind of nerd yourself?"
Mike blinked rapidly. "Uh, no," he said. "Never heard of it."
"Well, why don't you go look it up on Wikipedia, then?" Simon suggested, still laughing, and after a minute Mike started to snicker, and then they were all laughing, the pink flush fading from Nate's cheeks.
To be continued in Book Three, WITH A BULLET