Part Four, Chapter 14

      Jeremy was waiting out front when Simon pulled into the turnaround, leaning casually against one of the hotel's massive planters and smoking (or pretending to smoke) one of his stupid cigarettes. Simon scowled at him through the windshield; Jeremy just smiled and straightened up, stubbing the half-burnt cigarette out in the heavy cement ashtray next to him. Simon jockeyed the Jeep in between a parked limo and a waiting taxicab and made an impatient little come on, let's go already gesture.

      Before Jeremy even reached the Jeep the hotel's doorman darted forward and pulled the passenger side door open for him. Jeremy turned his smile on the man and said something that was drowned out by the roar of the Jeep's engine, a brief flicker of green passing swiftly from his hand to the other man's; then Jeremy swung into the passenger seat and belted himself in while the doorman shut the Jeep's door, stepped back, and touched the brim of his hat in salute.

      "Christ, I'm in the wrong business," Simon muttered as he pulled away.

      "Well, if you'd like a tip, Simon, I can think of any number of things you could do to earn one—"

      Simon broke in on that one quickly, before it could get out of hand. "Here's a tip, Archer: cigarettes can be hazardous to your health, particularly if you light one in my truck. Okay? Okay." Simon smacked on the turn signal, waited impatiently for an opening, and shot into traffic. "You need to hit an ATM or anything?"

      "No, no, I'm all set," Jeremy said, touching the breast of his jacket. "And judging by the bag that's occupying my floorboard, so are you."

      "Uh huh," Simon said, pulling up to a stoplight. "Actually, thanks for reminding me, here's the deal: I figure that you're probably not going to be drinking, since you're a giant pussy—"

      "—hadn't planned on it, and I am not—"

      "—so since you've already proven that you're capable of driving my truck, you thieving bastard, I'm going to relax with a few beers and you're going to drive me home afterwards."

      "Am I now?"


      "Well, then, it's kind of you to warn me in advance," Jeremy said, slithering comfortably down in his seat and flicking his sunglasses up.

      Simon waited expectantly, but Jeremy didn't make a grab for his thigh. After a moment Simon relaxed again. "Think of it as apologizing to me for stealing my truck on Thursday," he said.

      "Would it also be acceptable to think of it as a prime opportunity to take advantage of you while your inhibitions are low?"


      "I thought not."

      "Very nice," Jeremy said in general approval, tilting his sunglasses down and looking up at the building.

      "Yeah, we get together at Sandy's because she's got the best place," Simon said, switching the bag with his six-pack in it from one hand to the other. "I mean, Johnny lives in a hole, Mike doesn't have air conditioning, Nate still lives with his mother..."

      "And Rich's flat is wall-to-wall computer bits and power cords and bookshelves and very little actual furniture?"

      "Yeah," Simon said. "How'd you know?"

      "Educated guess," Jeremy said, flicking his smile on and off. "So why not your place?"

      "Because Sandy's got the best place," Simon repeated patiently. "Plus she likes that kind of entertaining shit, I guess 'cause she's a chick or something."

      "Ah," Jeremy said.

      He could hear them halfway down the hall, as usual. By the time he was actually at the door he could almost make out what they were saying—well, hollering—and Simon listened for a second before knocking, just on general principles. What little he could hear didn't sound too incriminating, so he knocked, triggering a chorus of whooping from inside. Dimly he could hear Sandra yelling for someone to go let whoever it was in, and the heavy-footed thud of running footsteps, and then Mike jerked the door open and beamed at them both. "Yo! C'mon in, we're just waitin' for Texas."

      "You mean I'm not the last one here? Damn, I'm good," Simon said, pushing the bag into Mike's hands. "Go put that in the fridge for me, will you?"

      "Sure thing," Mike said affably, and loped off towards the tiny kitchen, leaving the two of them to show themselves in. Jeremy shut the door behind himself and, Simon couldn't help but notice, spent a few seconds either studying or admiring the fairly complicated mess of locks and deadbolts that Sandra had on it.

      Sandra stuck her head out of the kitchen. "Hey, you two. Make yourselves comfortable, I'll be done here in a sec. Archer, if you feel the need to smoke, do it out on the balcony or I'll break all your fingers. Okay?"

      "I'll keep that in mind," Jeremy said, raising his hand in a brief wave. Simon snorted and shrugged out of his bomber jacket, abandoning it on the coat rack in the corner. 

      Everybody else was in the main room, and a little ripple of greeting ran through the room as Simon wandered in with Jeremy in tow. Simon threw himself into the big chair and sprawled out, sticking a hand up into the air and making vague little grabby motions; five seconds later someone came up behind him and slapped a cold can of beer into his hand. Simon sighed in contentment, bringing it down and popping it open. "Thanks, Mike, you're a pal."

      "Any time!" Mike said, dropping onto the floor. "Aw, crap, Archer, I forgot you were here. You want one?"

      "Perhaps later," Jeremy said, waving the idea away. He'd found a reasonably out-of-the-way spot to lurk in, leaning against the wall next to the little table thing that Sandra persisted in calling a 'buffet'. "I suspect I'll need all my wits about me this evening, in any case."

      "Careful, folks," Simon said, "he's a card shark."

      Jeremy sighed. "I am not a card sharp, Simon."

      "Shark," Simon emphasized, stressing the last letter so hard that it came out 'shar-kuh'. "Shark. And you're just saying that to put us all off guard before you cheat us out of all our hard-earned and, might I add, legitimately acquired money."

      "Ha," Rich said sourly from his end of the couch.

      Nate, curled up at the other end with his own can of beer nestled in his lap, blinked at him. "What part's the 'ha'? Not a card shark, not putting us off guard, not cheating us out of our money, or the idea that our money's hard-earned?"

      "Pick one," Rich said, shoving his glasses up.

      "Rich always wins," Mike informed Jeremy, kicking his legs out under the coffee table. "Well, okay, not always always, but he almost always goes home with more money than he came in with. He's got this big brain thing going. Counts cards or something."

      "That's blackjack, idiot," Rich said irritably. "I just have a system."

      "Probably involves spreadsheets," Mike said. "Equations. Math shit."

      "It probably helps that we all drink a lot and get stupid and excitable," Simon added, taking a deep pull off his beer as if to illustrate.

      "That doesn't hurt," said Rich in agreement.

      Someone knocked on the door. "Someone get that!" Sandra yelled from the kitchen.

      "I'm already up, I'll get it," Jeremy said, holding up a hand to forestall Mike scrambling up from the floor and disappearing into the entryway. Mike collapsed back onto the ground with a sigh. Simon shut his eyes and drank his beer, for the moment just listening; he could hear water running, Sandra clattering around behind him doing whatever it was she was doing, and under that the basso rumble of Johnny's voice from the entry hall, overlaid with Jeremy's smooth tenor and a faint rustling noise.

      Johnny appeared a moment later, beerless, to another chorus of greetings. "Yo," he said, claiming the spot Jeremy had been lurking in a moment before. "We all here?"

      "You're the last," Simon said. "Whose turn is it to order the pizza?"

      "Nate's," Rich said. The water in the kitchen shut off.

      "Right," Simon said. "Nate, go find Archer—"

      "I'm right here," Jeremy said from directly behind him. Startled, Simon jerked in his chair, although he managed to restrain himself to a controlled full-body twitch at the last moment. Mike snickered.

      "Sneaking up on me through the kitchen is cheating," Simon said, once his heart had settled back into its normal rhythm. "Anyway, as I was saying, there should be a menu around here somewhere, tell Nate what you want to eat so he can call out for it."

      "Here, menu," Sandra said, poking her head out again. There was a little rustle of paper from behind Simon.

      "Other than that, we good?" Simon asked.

      There was a general murmur of agreement. "I'm done," Sandra said. "First chance I've had to do the dishes all week. This place was starting to look like Mike lived here or something."

      "I wish," Mike said mournfully, flopping out on his back on the carpet. "Hey, Sandy baby, can I move in with you? You pay the rent and do all that cleaning shit for me and I'll be your sex slave, swear to God..."

      "Sounds like she's getting the short end of the stick there," Simon said.

      "Literally," Johnny added, flicking one of his everpresent toothpicks out of his shirt pocket and sticking it in his mouth.

      Mike kicked out in his general direction and missed by about a foot. "Shit," he wailed. "I don't wanna get up. Someone go hit Texas for me."

      Nate looked down at the can in his hand, drained off the last of it, and then threw the can awkwardly, overhand, at Johnny. Johnny tilted his head to the side. The empty can bounced harmlessly off the wall next to his ear. "Whoops," Nate said. "Missed."

      "Hey!" Sandra snapped, sharply enough to make Nate yelp. "It is too early in the evening for throwing things." Nate hunched his shoulders. Sandra glared at him.

      "You all suck," Mike said genially, and rolling up onto his knees he launched himself at Johnny, knocking him backwards into the short hallway leading to Sandra's bedroom with a room-shaking thud.

      "Hey!" Sandra yelled over the resulting din. "My neighbors already hate me, you two cut that out or I'm coming in there after you!"

      "Woo hoo!" Mike yelled from the other room with mighty good cheer. Sandra stormed in there after them. Half a second before the noise redoubled Simon heard Jeremy trying and failing not to laugh.

      "So what sort of poker do you usually play?" Jeremy asked, squeezing in between Mike and Nate at one end of the table. The dining room table was barely large enough for the six of them; with a seventh person at the table it was definitely getting low on elbow room. Simon resigned himself to an evening of playing his cards close to his chest, especially since it looked like he was getting stuck next to Sandra, who played poker with all the fair play and good sportsmanship of a great white shark.

      "Eh, we muck around with the fancy shit sometimes, but for the most part we just stick with five-card draw," Mike said. Sandra swept by and tossed a new pack of playing cards onto the table with a thud.

      "Mm," Jeremy said. "The basics, in other words."

      "That and it's about all most of us can remember how to play when we're trashed," Mike said cheerfully, picking up the box of cards and shaking the plastic-wrapped deck out from inside. "Boss?" he said, holding it up for Simon's ritual approval.

      Simon studied the shrinkwrapped lump for a moment. The plastic looked intact, and the cards had plain dark blue backs that didn't look easy to mark. "Looks fine to me," he finally said. "Long as the plastic's not broke, I'd say we're good."

      "Anyone want another beer before I come sit down?" Sandra asked, hovering in the doorway to the kitchen.

      Johnny picked up his bottle and eyed it. "Yeah, gimme another."

      "I'm good," Nate said. Sandra disappeared into the kitchen.

      "Shit," Mike muttered, clawing ineffectually at the plastic. After a moment he gave up and raised his voice. "Hey, Sandy, I'm gonna need to borrow your nails, I can't get this plastic shit open without gnawing on it."

      "I'll get it," Jeremy offered, holding out his hand for the deck.

      "Shit no," Mike said. "I'm not gonna be the one responsible for letting you switch the deck out for marked cards or something."

      Jeremy let his hand drop. "I'm really not a card shark, I promise you," he said patiently. "In fact, it'll be something of a miracle if I win anything at all."

      "Yeah, yeah, that's what you say," Mike said. "Course, I could totally say that I'm the queen of England and it doesn't make it true."

      Jeremy raised an eyebrow at him. Mike just beamed and then started ripping at a convenient corner of the shrinkwrap with his teeth, at least until Sandra caught him at it and smacked the back of his head, making him yelp. "Give me that," Sandra said frostily, leaning over Jeremy's shoulder to pass Johnny another bottle of beer. Jeremy ducked obligingly. "I don't want your germs all over the cards."

      "I've had my shots," Mike protested, but he held up the cards.

      Sandra took them and scraped her short nails along the back of the deck, raising the shrinkwrap in three laddered furrows before one of her nails caught and tore the plastic. "There," she said, peeling the rest away in a long spiralling strip and handing the unwrapped cards to Nate. "Shuffle those," she ordered him and disappeared into the kitchen with the shrinkwrap trailing behind her.

      Nate picked out the advertising cards and then looked at Simon. "Jokers in or out?"

      "In," Simon decided. "We get into better fights when there are wild cards involved."

      Jeremy studied his cards, rubbing one finger absently along his lower lip while he thought. He kept doing that. Simon was trying to ignore it. "I fold," Jeremy finally said, collapsing the fan of his cards and putting them down on the table in front of him.

      "I'll see you," Nate said, tossing a white chip into the pile, "and raise you a dollar." He tossed in another.

      Sandra wordlessly tossed in two white chips, matching Nate. Simon considered his cards, carefully keeping his face blank. Pair of tens... "Eh," Simon said, and tossed in two white chips of his own. He looked at Rich. "You still in?"

      Rich's face was completely expressionless. Simon could almost hear the whirring. "I fold," Rich finally said.

      "Okay, folks," Simon said. "Show 'em." He put down his cards. "Pair of tens."

      "Aw, man," Nate said. "Pair of sevens."

      "Three threes," Sandra said, tossing them onto the table one at a time like she was dealing them. "Sorry, boss."

      "Night's still young," Simon said, leaning back in his chair and watching Sandra rake in the pot. "Besides, what is that, eight bucks? Yeah, I couldn't do without that, it was gonna feed me all week..."

      "Big, big talk from a small, small man," Sandra said, making a neat new stack of her winnings. "Whose deal?"

      "Mine," said Jeremy. He already had about three-quarters of the deck in his hands. Johnny made a pass over the table and got most of the rest, stretching across Mike to hand them to Jeremy.

      "So deal," Simon said, not bothering to sit up. "But be warned, we're aaaall watching you."

      "I'm still not a card shark, Simon," Jeremy said, although he'd made the protest so many times by this point that it was starting to sound kind of perfunctory. He neatly split the pile of cards in two and fanned them back together, then bridged them and let them fall.

      Just to live up to his word Simon carefully watched him do it, although if he were being honest with himself he'd admit that he didn't really know exactly what to look for. It looked like ordinary shuffling to him. Still, just to keep things lively, he said, "I saw that."

      "Saw what?" Jeremy said, pausing with the deck split.

      "I don't know," Simon said, pointing, "but I saw it. It was right there. Whatever it was."

      Jeremy hesitated for a moment, then shrugged and riffled the cards back together. "Good on you," he said.

      Simon raised his beer can in wordless salute and then drained it off.

      "... so there I am, in sight of my goal," Jeremy was saying an hour later, rearranging his hand. Empty pizza boxes were stacked haphazardly in the corner of the room and the number of empty cans and bottles on the table had tripled; even Jeremy had one lurking at his elbow, although only one, which he'd drunk with dinner despite Simon's warning glance. It was one of Nate's. Simon wasn't sharing. "Everything's gone perfectly so far. The alarms are down, the high-tension wire I'm meant to use to escape is there, the people on the floors below me have no idea that I'm there, and I even have a lovely padded tube—" Jeremy put his cards down on the table, face down, and then held up his hands about three feet apart "—rigged up to hold the blasted thing, complete with a backpack harness to keep my hands free..."

      "Too good to be true," Johnny opined, frowning at his cards.

      "Isn't that always the way?" Jeremy asked wryly. "So of course when I get into the room where the African art is stored, I discover that the fertility idol in question is almost twice as large as I'd been led to believe—" his hands spread out further, describing an area almost five feet long and nearly putting his hand in Mike's face "—and as such far too large to fit in the carrying tube I'd made for it." Mike sniggered, batting at Jeremy's hand.

      "So what'd you do?" Nate asked, and then put down a red chip, adding, "I'll start with five."

      Sandra whistled through her teeth. "Too rich for me. I'm out."

      "I'll call," Simon said, throwing in five white chips.

      Rich whirred a moment in thought. "I'll see you and raise," he finally said, tossing in a red chip and a white one. Johnny wordlessly matched it.

      "Well," Jeremy said, now laughing a little. "There was no way I was going to leave without it, after all that trouble."

      "I fold," Mike broke in. He put his cards down and settled back in his chair.

      "But I needed my arms and hands free to climb out along the wire," Jeremy said, adding, "and I'll see you and raise you." He flicked two red chips into the pot. Nate blinked rapidly and then added another red chip.

      Simon spent a moment eyeing Jeremy, considering. He was pretty sure he knew Jeremy's mannerisms better than anyone currently at the table; the question was, was he bluffing? "... I fold," Simon said, putting his three jacks down.

      Whirrrr. "Call," Rich finally said, taking a white chip out of the pot and putting in a red one. Johnny scowled, scratching at his cheek, thinking.

      "So come on, spill," Nate said, now laughing a bit himself in anticipation. "How'd you get it out?"

      Jeremy put a hand over his face for a moment in mock embarrassment. "So I take this two-meter-long African fertility idol—"

      "Damn," Mike broke in. "Why don't I have stories that start that way? I been wasting my life!"

      "—and I wedge it between my thighs, as high up as it can go—" Jeremy snorted out a laugh before he could stop himself "—so I have this massive meter-long wooden thing jutting out in front of me—" his hands made an extremely descriptive gesture that Simon could really have lived without "—and another half a meter or so sticking out behind me—" Nate's cheeks were pink and Mike was already hooting "—and so I leave the building hanging from the wire, climbing hand over hand with my thighs clamped down as tightly as they'd go and my ankles locked together and what amounts to a gigantic wooden erection leading the way—" Mike lost it at this point, dropping his head to the table and whooping "—and by the time I reached the other building and relative safety I had learned a valuable new lesson: always double-check to be certain that your employer gave you the measurements in centimeters and not inches..."

      "Oh, God," Nate squeaked, his face a brilliant pink, and then he dissolved into helpless hiccuping laughter. Sandra cracked up, and a heartbeat later so did most everyone else, even Simon, who'd heard it before.

      Johnny, still snickering a little, threw four more white chips into the pot as the general hilarity died down. "Call," he said.

      Jeremy's shoulders were still shaking, the corners of his lips twitching upwards now and then, as he wordlessly spread out his hand: five hearts.

      "Aw, man, he's got a flush," Nate said, putting down aces and sevens. "Beats me and my two pair."

      Rich's lips thinned. "I had a straight," he muttered, putting down his cards.

      "Shit," Johnny said, turning his own over. "Same here."

      Jeremy beamed and leaned forward to rake the pot in. "Well! If telling on myself is going to bring me good luck, I suppose I'll have to continue!"

      "Shit, so that was you," Mike said. "I remember that one 'cause Johnny was dating some chick in Art Theft back then. Oh, uh, gimme two."

      Sandra dealt Mike two more cards. "Anyone else?"

      "In an attempt to preserve what's left of my dwindling funds, I fold," Jeremy said, putting his cards down in a neat stack on the table. "Yes, that was me, and by God I never want to do it again."

      "I'll take three," Nate told Sandra, leaning forward past the forest of beer cans to put his discards in the pile. His cheeks were flushed, and his hand wobbled.

      "Shit, what was it, somebody ratted you out to the cops like three days before, right?" Mike asked, absently plucking a card out of his hand and refiling it.

      "Exactly," Jeremy said. "One of the people I'd been working with got picked up for, er, passing counterfeit bills? I believe? And in an effort to weasel himself free he sold me out. Fortunately for me he didn't know much, but the panel was only going to be on exhibit for another week, so I couldn't exactly call it off."

      "Hey, are we playing cards here or what?" Simon asked, although he didn't really so much care. He'd had three of his own beers and one of Sandra's; everything was warm and fuzzy and pleasant. "I'm gonna open with two," he said, dropping two white chips into the pot.

      "I'll call," Rich said immediately, adding his own. Johnny glanced at Rich and silently folded.

      "Call and raaaaise," Mike said with immense tipsy smugness, flipping a red chip into the pot.

      "I'm in," said Nate, accidentally knocking over a stack of white chips as he reached for a red one. He squawked and scrabbled for them, nearly knocking over Jeremy's stacks in the process; Jeremy clapped his hand down over his chips in the nick of time. Nate flushed and threw in five white chips, then subsided into an embarrassed silence while he restacked the rest.

      "Hm," Sandra said, scowling at her cards.

      "So c'mon, spill," Mike said, elbowing Jeremy in the side. "How'd you do it?"

      "Well, it was definitely going to be close to impossible to sneak out with the blasted thing," Jeremy began.

      "Oh, what the hell, I'm in," Sandra said, putting in a red chip. Simon dutifully added three more white chips.

      Whirrr. "I'll see you and raise you two," Rich finally said, flicking out a red chip.

      "It was almost four feet tall and painted on wood. Not the sort of thing you can hide under your jacket," Jeremy went on. "And they'd tightened security to ludicrous levels, to boot. So I made a few changes in the plan, called in a few favors..."

      "Aw, what the hell," Mike said, tossing in two more white chips. Nate nodded violently and did the same.

      "They were going to be looking for someone trying to remove the panel from the grounds," said Jeremy. "So I didn't."

      "Wait, what?" Mike said.

      "Shit," Sandra said. "I fold."

      "Yeah, I'm out," Simon said, tossing his cards at the discard pile. "So what'd you do, hide it somewhere?"

      Jeremy shot him a pained look. "Well, yes, Simon, but I'd been wanting to build up to that point," he said. "At any rate! There were so many bloody guards on duty that I simply didn't have enough time to finesse the alarm system. So I gassed the two in the room after the roving guard had gone, took the panel off the wall, which set off all the alarms, of course, and then went to earth, so to speak."

      Rich irritably cleared his throat and slapped his cards to the table. "Four fives," he said.

      Mike groaned. "Shit, and I had a full house!"

      "Oh, man, I only had the three sevens," Nate said. Rich twitched out a little half-a-smirk and picked up his winnings.

      "Let's break for a second," Sandra said, pushing back her chair. "I need another beer."

      "Get me another while you're up," Simon said absently, gathering up the deck. "So you hid it somewhere in the museum."

      "Precisely. In my experience, museums are rabbit warrens, particularly the older ones," Jeremy said. "So I'd come in a few days before dressed as a university student on hols..."

      "Oh, Christ." Simon shook his head. "... no, I can't even picture that."

      "Flannel shirt, jeans, a pair of trainers, and a backpack—do stop snorting, Simon, one does what one must for one's career—at any rate, no one looks at students twice, especially not in the big museums, and it was child's play to get 'lost' on the way to the restrooms and 'accidentally' find myself on the wrong side of a few conveniently unlocked doors."

      Mike raised his voice. "Hey, Sandy! Grab me another too, will you?"

      "So I found a dusty and forgotten little niche full of perfectly terrible turn-of-the-century 'works in the style of' paintings and costumery," Jeremy said, "and I 'lost' my backpack there, hidden under a massive ladies' skirt. And, well, it's possible I forgot to relock the doors on my way out."

      Nate blinked fuzzily at him. "So what was in the backpack?"

      "Food, mostly," Jeremy said. "Granola, jerky, all that sort of camping food. Enough to keep me going for a few weeks assuming I wasn't picky. The police were going quite mad outside, tossing the entire city looking for me, so where better to hide than the one place they thought I'd already left?"

      "Slick," Johnny opined.

      "Somewhat nasty, actually," Jeremy said, shuddering a bit. "I stayed up there in that airless, dusty, hot alcove for the next two weeks, living on the dry food I'd smuggled in in the backpack and sneaking down to use the restrooms and water fountains during the night. God willing I'll never have to do it again. I was filthy and sweaty and if I hadn't brought a couple of books and one of those little dynamo-powered radios, I'd have gone mad from boredom."

      "Beer," Sandra announced, reappearing with a bottle and two cans. "So what'd you do with the panel?"

      "Oh, I put it in the cubby with all the tacky paintings," Jeremy said. "It fit right in."

      "Wasn't there some thing about them almost catching you, though?" Mike asked, taking his beer from Sandra and popping the can open. "I remember Johnny's lady friend—crap, Texas, what was her name?"

      "Hell if I remember," Johnny said.

      Mike paused long enough to give Johnny a high-five. "Anyway, she said you were spotted carrying the thing away but they lost you going, uh, into some French place the name of which I don't remember."

      Jeremy smiled. "Oh, you mean that little kerfuffle with a couple of my more trusted business associates running away through the night carrying a big hunk of plywood?"

      Mike whistled. "You're a real bastard, you know that?" he asked, more or less admiringly.

      "There were at least three teams running around Paris with identical hunks of wood," Jeremy said cheerfully. "There were a lot of people eager to reassure me that their associate's little, er, moral failing hadn't a thing to do with them. Plus the ensuing commotion ensured that no one stopped to think long enough to figure out that I might still be in the museum. Very handy."

      "And you got one of them to call in that fake ransom demand, right?" Simon asked.

      "Well, that was a different friend of mine, one who didn't mind accepting a free vacation to Switzerland for a couple of days," Jeremy said. "But, yes, something like that. By the time I actually picked up the panel and left the museum, everyone thought I was in Switzerland, the museum's security level was even worse than usual thanks to the guards constantly second-guessing themselves, and I was able to walk out more or less free and clear."

      "Man," Simon said, shaking his head and chugging off a good third of his beer. "I cannot wait to call Interpol on Monday and tell them this shit. They are gonna crap their pants."

      "I think you're far too drunk to be clearly remembering the things I'm telling you," Jeremy said serenely.

      "I'm not drunk," Simon said, and belched for emphasis.

      "That's bullshit," Rich said, interrupting Jeremy and slapping his cards to the table like he was personally offended by them. Two red spots burned high in his cheeks. "There's no way in hell you did that for fifteen minutes."

      "Oooooh," Mike warbled, "someone's a mean drunk."

      Rich's glare switched from Jeremy to Mike. "Just because you're drunk doesn't mean I am," he snapped.

      "Well, I probably couldn't go for fifteen just now," Jeremy said judiciously. "My right side is still a bit weak from when I was shot. But even now I could almost certainly hold that position for ten, and I hope to be back up to speed in another few months."

      "Bullshit," Rich said again, venomously. Even Simon, who was on his seventh beer and feeling no pain whatsoever, roused himself enough to give Rich a warning look, which Rich ignored.

      Jeremy considered this for a moment. "Would you like me to prove it?"

      "Here we go," Simon said tiredly.

      "We are playing cards here," Sandra broke in. "Save the macho shit for later. I'm down almost forty bucks and I want to win some back."

      "There's no reason we'd have to stop playing," Jeremy said, his eyes unfocusing as he thought. "In fact, it would rather prove my point if we kept on."

      "Yeah, I think I want him to prove it too," Mike said, slumping back in his chair. "Mostly 'cause it'd be funny."

      Jeremy turned in his chair, looking consideringly at Mike. "In that case, would you be willing to help me?"

      "Help you what?" Mike said, immediately suspicious.

      "Help me prove it," Jeremy said patiently.

      "... yeah, okay, fine," Mike said. "Whaddaya you need me to do?"

      Jeremy slid his chair back and stood up, stretching his arms up over his head and sucking in his stomach muscles. "Stand up."

      Mike kicked out of his chair and stood up. "Okay. What now? We gonna do the Hokey Pokey?"

      "No, all I need you to do is stand there and be a big strong fellow for ten minutes or so—" and Jeremy's hands hit the ground at Mike's feet. Mike barely had a chance to yowp in startlement before Jeremy's legs snapped closed around his neck. "Brace yourself," Jeremy said, his cheerful voice somewhat muffled by his head being under the table. Mike flailed about and bitched for a second before leaning back against Jeremy's weight; after a moment Jeremy's reaching hands appeared, followed by the rest of him, as he did the world's most ridiculous stomach crunch. "Whoof," he said, a little out of breath. "There we are. Parallel to the floor using only my stomach muscles."

      "Aw man, get off me, contrary to popular opinion I don't swing this way," Mike wailed.

      "Time me?" Jeremy said to Rich, who was scowling at the whole spectacle. "If I fall or grab my legs before ten minutes are up, I'll gladly admit that you were right."

      "... fine," Rich said, rolling his eyes, and poked at his watch for a moment before subsiding into a muttering sulk that prominently featured the phrase 'really unnecessary'.

      "This is so not cool!" Mike said in a panicky voice, leaning back against the burden of Jeremy's weight and flailing his arms. "I mean, I am not liking this at all, someone get him off me!"

      "Eh, you knew what a drama queen Archer is, you got yourself into this one," Simon said absently, restacking his white chips. "You can just suffer."

      "Men," Sandra said, rolling her eyes. "Let's play already."

      "Then could someone please pass me the cards?" Jeremy said. "I believe it's my deal."

      After a moment a pink-cheeked Nate scrabbled at the table, collecting the cards and passing them up to Jeremy, who shot him an upside-down smile. "I believe I'll need you to handle my chips, too," he told Nate.

      "Okay," Nate said, blinking rapidly.

      Jeremy lifted his head and surveyed the flat plane of his stomach, a convenient surface, before setting the deck of cards on it. "My deal," he said again, and split the deck in half, shuffling the cards on his stomach while Mike held his hands up and watched.

      "One for me," Jeremy said, putting it flat on his chest before letting his head fall back to survey the rest of the table, upside down. "Hm," he said, and skimmed a card along the table to land in front of Nate. Sandra's followed, then Simon's, which fell a bit short—Simon snorted and leaned forward, picking it up—then Rich's and Johnny's. Jeremy looked back up at Mike. "Catch?"

      "Eh?" Mike said.

      "Catch," Jeremy said again, flicking a card off the top of the deck and popping it into the air.

      Mike yelped and snapped it out of the air before it could fall. "You could just hand it to me," he said peevishly, now more or less hugging Jeremy's legs in order to hold onto his card. "I'm right here, not that I want to be or anything."

      "I'll keep that in mind," Jeremy said, and dealt himself a second card before letting his head fall back and repeating the process.

      "I gotta tell you," Simon said after close to a minute of watching this, "that is awfully cute, you two."

      "Shut up," Mike wailed. "If I'da known what he was gonna do..."

      "You'd still have done it but made it into a big gay joke," Sandra said, plucking her last card off the table.

      "Well, yeah," Mike said, startled out of his bitching. "I mean, I got a rep to uphold here."

      "Not all you got to uphold right now," Johnny pointed out. "Start the draw round."

      "Oh!" Nate said. "I, uh, I'll take one."

      "One," Jeremy said, skimming the card over to land in front of Nate. "Ms. Leone?"

      "I'm going to fold," Sandra said, stacking her cards on the table. "You deal shit hands when you're upside down."

      "My apologies."

      "Three," Simon said, more to watch Jeremy maneuver than anything else. Jeremy's face was definitely getting a touch pink, although he was also finding his range; Simon's three cards landed neatly in front of him in something approximating a stack.

      Rich's irritated glare was moving from the face of his watch to Jeremy and back. Simon had to nudge him before Rich blinked and snapped, "Fold," dropping his cards precipitately on the table and going back to eyeing his watch.

      Johnny shifted his toothpick to the other side of his mouth. "Two."

      "Two," Jeremy echoed, flicking out two cards to spin to a stop in front of Johnny. "And for you?"

      "I'm gonna fold just so you don't throw any more cards at me," Mike said.

      Johnny snorted. Jeremy just shrugged—an interesting motion at that angle—and dealt two more cards onto his chest.

      "I'll open with a dollar," Nate said, tossing out a white chip.

      Simon studied his cards. Nothing but a pair of sixes. "I'll see you and raise you four," he said, flipping a red chip into the pot.

      Johnny grunted, considered this, and tossed in a red chip. "Raise you," he said, and threw in another.

      "Woooooo, man, it's gonna be one of those rounds," Mike said.

      "Those rounds?" Jeremy asked, rolling his head back around to look up at Mike. "Never mind. Nate, if you don't mind, I'll call."

      Nate fumbled a blue chip out of Jeremy's (rather pathetic) holdings and tossed it in, then took a white chip out and threw in a blue chip of his own. He glanced from side to side in a parody of furtiveness, then tossed in another red chip.

      "You're bluffing," Simon said genially. Nate immediately flushed pink, proving it. Simon smiled down at his cards. "Shit," he said, "let's see, I put in five..."

      "Another ten," Sandra said.

      "Right," Simon said, and tossed in a blue chip. And another. Nate squeaked.

      "Shit," Johnny said. "I'm out."

      "I'll call," Jeremy said. "Please."

      Nate moved the chips from Jeremy's stacks to the pot, then swallowed. "I-I gotta fold."

      "You and me," Simon said, eyeing the horizontal Jeremy over the top of his cards. "Show me what you got."

      "Alas," Jeremy said, as serenely as he could while red in the face, "all I have is a pair of sevens." He held his cards up, or down, or something, upside-down in front of his face.

      Simon eyed them for a moment, then tsked. "Well, shit, all I got is a pair of sixes," he said, spreading out his cards. "Why do we all always try to bluff at once?"

      "'Cause we all figured everybody else would be distracted by the floor show," Sandra said.

      "Oh, right," said Simon. "Nate, pick up the man's winnings." He glanced at Rich. "How long's it been, Rich?"

      Rich muttered something.

      Simon leaned in. "Sorry, didn't catch that."

      "Little over five minutes," Rich muttered.

      Everyone else turned a speculative eye on Jeremy. "He's awfully pink," Sandra noted dispassionately.

      "Not wobbling, though," Johnny said.

      "Hey, Mike, pull up his shirt," Sandra said. "Let's see if his muscles are spasming yet."

      "Oh hell no!" Mike said, flinging up his hands in horror. "I'm not gonna touch him any more than I gotta."

      Jeremy dropped his cards in front of Nate, then reached down and pulled the hem of his shirt free of his pants, exposing his stomach to a general explosion of groaning. "Christ, I don't wanna see that," Simon said, staring at it. "Put your shirt down, Archer."

      "He's not spasming," Johnny reported after clinically studying Jeremy's stomach. "Think he's gonna make it."

      "Of course he's going to make it," Sandra said. "He wouldn't have offered to prove it if he didn't know he could do it."

      "Because he's a show-off and we all know it by now," Simon said, rubbing his forehead. "Christ. Your deal, Nate."

      "Oh!" Nate said, twitching a little. "Right!" He looked up at Jeremy. "Should I just hand you yours, or what?"

      "Just deal them onto the table in front of my chair," Jeremy said, a bit breathless again. "I'll take them from there."

      Nate dealing was much quicker than Jeremy dealing, since Nate was upright and sitting in a chair like a normal person. Jeremy waited until all five of his cards were sitting on the table before reaching down and picking them up, flicking rapidly through them; then he made a little 'hk!' sound and his eyes went wide.

      "Oh oh," Johnny said.

      "He's bluffing," Sandra said, staring at her own cards. "Don't fall for that again. I'll stand with these."

      "I'll take three," Simon said, and nudged Rich, just to be safe.

      "Two," Rich muttered, darting a glare at Simon.

      "Three," Johnny said.

      "One," said Mike.

      Jeremy folded up his cards and put them back down on the table. "I'll fold," he said in that same breathless voice.

      "If you're gonna fold, what was that about, then?" Simon said, gesturing vaguely at Jeremy with his new cards.

      "Tell you later," Jeremy said, folding his hands on his chest, demonstrably far away from his legs.

      Simon scrutinized him for a moment. "No," he finally said. "I think I want to know now."

      "I'm not sure that would be fair, Simon—"

      "Now, Archer. I'm the boss. I get to cheat once per Saturday. It's the rules."

      Jeremy sighed a little. "It would seem that Mike here was dealt quite a good hand."

      "Aw, fuck," Mike cried. "Did you peek at my cards while you were down there? That's just fucking rude, that's the kind of thing Sandy does..."

      "Er, no no," Jeremy said, chewing on his lower lip. "It's just that, er, you picked up your cards and had a somewhat physical reaction."

      Mike went red all the way up to his hairline. Half a second later the room exploded in whooping, and Simon dropped his head to the table and proceeded to laugh himself sick. "I fold," he wheezed, when he could.

      Simon slithered comfortably down in the passenger seat and rolled the window down about halfway, letting in the damp breeze to cool himself off and maybe chase some of the fog out of his beer-blurred brain. "You drive like my grandma," he said, shutting his eyes and smiling at nothing. "Wuss."

      "I'm terribly sorry," Jeremy said, not speeding up. "How awful of me, to insist on driving the speed limit."

      "Wuss," Simon said again. "You'd think you didn't want to get pulled over or something."

      "Oh, it couldn't be that. I positively adore the close attentions of the law, Simon."

      "Heh," Simon said. "I saw what you did there."


      "See," Simon explained, making idle little grabby motions at the air in front of himself, "I'm part of the law, right? So you were. Uh. Word. Thing. Insinuating at me. Again."

      Jeremy didn't say anything for a long moment, and Simon, his eyes closed, eventually became aware that Jeremy was laughing under his breath. "Oh, you must be quite tiddly," Jeremy eventually said, apparently vastly amused.

      "Is that some British faggot word for drunk?" Simon asked, cracking one eye open.

      "Essentially, yes," Jeremy said, glancing at him. "It's so nice to see that you've maintained a grip on your ability to insult me."

      "It'll be the last thing to go," Simon promised. "Shit, you need someone to knock you down a few rungs ever so often."

      "Well, if someone's got to take the piss out of me, I suppose it might as well be you."

      "That's disgusting," Simon grandly informed him. "I don't know what you've heard but I'm not that kind of girl, Mr. Archer."

      Jeremy raised an eyebrow at the windshield. "As far as I can tell, you're not any sort of girl at all, Mr. Drake."

      "And I guess you'd know," Simon said.

      "... admitting that out loud? You are tiddly."

      "I only had eight beers," Simon said. "And I walked out of there at least twenty dollars up, thanks to your little stunt."

      "I'm so happy for you," Jeremy said. "It's a pity I didn't benefit from it. Your team fleeced me like a sheep."

      "Still, don't think I appreciate you getting all cozy with Mike like that," Simon said.

      Jeremy laughed faintly, flicking on the turn signal and heading up the freeway onramp. "Why?" he said. "You aren't jealous, are you, Simon?"

      "No! No no no," Simon protested, waving his hands. "Well, maybe a little bit. But I'm not jealous over you. I'm jealous over him. ...shit, that came out really wrong."

      Jeremy hunched his shoulders in a transparent attempt not to burst out laughing.

      "No, no, see," Simon said, making emphatic pointing gestures to ensure that he was believed, "he's on my team. He belongs to me, see, not to you, and I don't like you taking liberties."

      "Apparently he didn't like it either," Jeremy murmured, still smiling.

      "Exactly!" Simon said. "Exactly. See, me and him and the rest of them, we're a team, this almighty motherfucking unit, and you're... you're just this guy."

      "Just this guy," Jeremy repeated.

      "Yeah," said Simon. "And when this is done and you go away again, me and him and the rest of them are still gonna be a team."

      "I wasn't arguing that with you, Simon."

      Simon let his head loll to the side, squinting up at Jeremy. "Shit, did I hurt your feelings?" he asked with a bit of relish.

      "Don't be silly, Simon," Jeremy said, looking away for as long as it took him to shift over a lane. "I concede that you have a point."

      "You and your fancy language," Simon said, shutting his eyes again. "You always sound fancier when you're upset, you know that?"

      Jeremy paused. "I'm not upset, Simon."

      "Psh. Sure. Whatever." Simon waved that away. "I'm just saying that you can try and. Uh. Word. Um."

      "Protest?" Jeremy prompted after a moment.

      "Insinuate," Simon said again, grabbing the word out of the air. "Insinuate yourself into the team all you want, but it's not gonna work. They like you okay and all, but you're not one of us. That's all I'm saying."

      "... I'm aware of that, Simon," Jeremy finally said. "Believe me, I'm aware."

      "Aw, hell, don't be like that," Simon said. The wind was starting to annoy him, so he jabbed at the window button until the window rolled up, abruptly plunging the Jeep into something like silence. "I mean, hell, I like you too, even though you're kind of an attention whore."

      Jeremy was silent.

      "What?" Simon asked. "What'd I say?"

      "I suppose I never thought of myself like that," Jeremy finally said.

      "Huh. Well. Okay, maybe you're not usually, but with all of us hanging on you, you keep showing off, you know?" Simon raised his voice into a wobbly falsetto. "Oh, look at me, I'm sooooo good at stealing things, I'm soooo athletic and crap..." He dropped the falsetto as fast as he'd picked it up, reaching up to rub the front of his throat. "I mean, we get it. You're awesome. We're all just impressed as hell, so you can stop now."

      "Mm," Jeremy said, his voice cool.

      Simon grunted when Jeremy didn't say anything else. "What? Shit. Don't pay any attention to me, I'm drunk. Or tiddlywinks or whatever."

      "Are you?" Jeremy said distantly.

      "Shit, yeah," Simon said, vaguely groping for a way out of this minefield he'd inadvertently stumbled into. "I mean, if I wasn't drunk off my ass, you know I wouldn't do this," he said, and reached over to put his hand on Jeremy's thigh.

      Jeremy didn't drive off the road, for which Simon was generally grateful. In fact, the car didn't lurch at all, leaving Simon to wonder if Jeremy had even noticed, but after a moment Jeremy slid down a little in his seat, giving Simon's fingers more room. "Mm," Jeremy said with a good deal more warmth. "You are drunk."

      "That's my excuse," Simon said, sliding his hand up, "and I'm sticking to it, and if you wreck my truck I'm gonna kill you."

      "Mixed messages," Jeremy said, and he laughed under his breath. The Jeep slowed, slightly. "It's always mixed messages with you."